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Chapter 1 : A Choice to Stay
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A Choice to Stay
If you think about it long enough, you know he wasn’t always like this: stoic and removed. There was a time when he was young, and you were younger still, that his exuberance, his loud and obnoxious aura, could fill a room. It would call all attention to him. His comments, his derisive remarks at the expense of others, had seemed somehow important then: back when nothing was important.
He had an ego then too, and all the trappings that come with it. He doesn’t now. Now he has only pride and he clings steadfastly to it. You have pride also, despite what he believes, and it has wrought a constant battle in you.
It is the reason you sit here, in this lonely and vast room, thinking these thoughts. You are torn in inaction. Do you stay or do you go, and to where? And how can you exist in a world where he is not, despite it all?
He doesn’t know that; he doesn’t pay attention. But you know. You know why you stay, and why you suffer in silence with him. You don’t want to be silent anymore. You want to make big noise, inescapable noise: gnashing, crashing, ripping noise. You want to make it with him.
The winter chill is in the air. You can see it pressing up against the windows like little white fists, curling against the glass. It’s dark beyond the panes, but for the drape of moonlight that falls in shafts across the room. The amber glow of firelight flickers against the pockets of darkness that linger in the corners of the vast space. Some would call it comfortable, the warmth of candlelight and protection from the fierce elements beyond.
The silence is a coldness of another kind, all pervasive so that it seeps into your skin despite the drape of your robes. This silence is a stillness, an emptiness that lingers heavy in the air like black smoke; it steals breath and optimism. Noise does exist in the ornate room. The crackle of flame and the occasional clang of silver cutlery on fine china.
These aren’t the sounds you care for, the ones that signify life other than yourself. You want to hear the creaking of another chair, another set of cutlery. You want to hear the low sound of his voice languidly discussing the weather, a book, the day.
He’s not here though; he’s rarely here, and if he were, he would never broach a topic as mundane and comfortable as that. He talks only when he must, and you treasure each uttered syllable, in spite of everything.
When you cast your eyes away from the high backed chair, vacant and taunting, you begin to wish again that you didn’t have to sit here in the empty room. You crave the comfort of your own home, your old home. You can’t have that though. Tradition dictates all in this house, as you have come to learn.
You resent this room in many ways. You resent the watchful stare of the portraits that line the walls, with their knowing glances that whisper of your failures. You resent the pretty gleam of the crystal that drips like thawing ice from the ceiling, and the beautiful gloss of the long table that reigns supreme in the room.
It is here that you feel most alone. Your spirit rattles around like Echo calling to her beloved. The cry has faded to a whisper now. You have faded also. You never thought you were that girl. The one who flickers to life like flame upon wood when he walks in the room. But you’re a moth to his burning light.
Marriage isn’t what they tell you when you’re little and think wistfully of pretty dresses and handsome husbands with blank faces. At least, it’s not for you, because you sit here alone most nights, gazing at the seat across the table.
You used to be bright and glittering in your way. You caught his eye. And he resents that. Just as he resents you. He thinks you trapped him in this pretty cage of gilt and loneliness. You’re trapped too though. You didn’t see it at first, because all you saw was him. Grey and white and piercing.
You take a slow sip of your wine. Though your gaze is vacant, your senses are piqued. Just in case this is the night, the one when he will appear to relieve the stifling blanket of quiet that settles like a second skin on your bones.
He sweeps into the room and you can feel the shifting of atoms in the air. They make room; they flitter about to accommodate him. The temperature adjusts too, and the room is thrown into darkness, in sharp relief against the pale column of his throat and the white light of his eyes.
The house-elves are trotting after him, seeing to whims he doesn’t voice. He doesn’t look at you at first when he takes his seat. You think, perhaps, he’s gotten so good at ignoring your presence in his grand house that he isn’t even aware of you anymore.
‘Astoria,’ he says in a voice that is gruff from lack of use. The sound rubs your senses.
‘Welcome home, Draco,’ you say in automatic response.
The curling of his lip doesn’t escape you. This isn’t home to you, not in the strictest sense. You may be Mistress of the hallowed halls by title, but in reality you are little more than a stranger.
He turns away then, his attention focused solely on the elegant spread before him. You watch him through the veil of your lowered lashes. His posture is straight backed and rigid, and his face impassive. You can’t guess at where he’s been and what he’s done. You’d rather not attempt to anyway. His life and yours are separate most days.
He eats his food. You sip your wine and compare the silence. It’s a different quality when he’s in the room. The emptiness is gone and yet it’s there all the same, denser than before because of the distance it reveals.
He was never yours.
If you think about long enough, you know it’s partially your fault that you’re in this situation. You didn’t plan for this. It was your naivety that did you in. It was your youth.
It was all these things that caused you to be so open with your thoughts and your wants when you saw him that time at the Montague estate. You were seventeen then and full of all sorts of ideas about who you were, and who you were becoming. Your ideas changed when you saw him, over two years since the last time you’d seen his face passing by in the corridors of Hogwarts. You still walked those corridors then. He didn’t.
You never would have thought two years could change a person so much. They changed him.
He was beautiful that night, a vision of white in the surrounding darkness. And you felt his presence like a physical blow to your body. When you looked at him across the crowded hall, you wanted nothing more than the right to reach across and press questing fingers to the milk-white sheen of his skin, to have the unending depth of his gaze upon you.
When you finally spoke with him, there was something different in the cadence of his voice, but you remembered its rousing tones well. The lingering residue of a dream not quite forgotten.
You were standing in the rose garden, the heady smell curling around your senses. He didn’t say much when he stumbled across you, and you still don’t know why it is he came. Except that he did, and it started it all for you. There was something in the quality of his gaze upon you, the realisation that you were something more than the kid sister of his school friend. It lit a candle in the pit of you, that dreaded thing called hope.
And when you blushed, he was intrigued. That look haunts you now, because it’s long forgotten. His expressions when they fall on you, incidental and fleeting, now hold little but contempt. It makes you think that, perhaps if things had turned out a little differently, had your mother not interfered, as she was wont to do, something organic might have happened. Another sort of magic.
The elegant slip of parchment that ties your name to his might have been more than just ink upon a page. It might have been a partnership. It might have been the truth.
The scent of freesias rises in the air like a plume of white smoke wrapping you up and dancing in your hair. Your sister always did love freesias. The scent reminds you of when you were little and you looked up to her. She was pretty then, like a princess to your mind and you craved nothing more than to be like her. You’re pretty too, but you think it’s now a curse. There’s more to you and her.
She’s lucky, though; she’s found someone who sees it.
You envy her this day and the smile that curves upon her crimson mouth. She’s a vision in white and you can see it reflected in the gaze of the man that stands across from her, whispering vows of forever. It makes you think of your own wedding, grander than this but without the warmth and the love your sister has.
You cast your gaze to the side and look at the man you married. He is striking against the fine cut of his black robes. He is watching the couple intently so you have a moment, unhindered, to soak him in. You don’t usually have that luxury because he hates it when you stare at him. He’s never told you as much, but the leaping of a nerve at his temple and the clenching of his jaw tells you all.
You know his face better than your own, could reconstruct its likeness in your sleep. The line of his patrician nose, the sharp cut of his cheekbones and the hollow valley underneath. His lips are firm. You’ve felt their pressure against the white skin of your cheek when in public. He doesn’t kiss you in private though. He hasn’t touched you in even the most innocuous way since the night of your wedding. You were a trembling mass of nerves then, and he was quiet and removed.
You revelled in the chance to touch him, to run your hands across the line of his shoulders. The look on his face, parted lips and lashes fanning cheeks, haunts you still.
You used to wonder when he would come for you again. He never has.
Clapping hands call your attention to the present, as the congregation moves to congratulate the couple. When you reach the front, your sister smiles and it’s radiant. You bathe in the glow, warmed for now. And you smile back because you must. Because today isn’t the day for her to worry as she is wont to do.
Today is the day for her, and her happiness is infectious. It rises up with the force of nature and pulls you in its grasp. It’s in this place that you smile with sincerity; the light texture of air is easy to draw in. As you watch your sister’s hand brush that of the softly spoken man she’s married, you realise that this is what you want. This easiness. This comfort.
You feel the fine hairs on the back of your neck begin to tingle in awareness, and turn briefly from your company to seek the watchful eyes. You spot him immediately. He’s standing with his friend, drink held with a careless sort of elegance between his nimble fingers.
His eyes are on you with a look you can’t quite place.
You don’t look away though, and neither does he. In reality, you know it lasts for just a second, but the way your heart hammers a different rhythm and the breath stops in your lungs, makes it an eternity.
Something lingers then, once he’s looked away. Possibility, says the wistful voice that whispers in your ear. A different kind, one too fragile to voice.
If you think about it long enough, you know he’s not immune. Not completely. There are times when he looks at you and thinks you’re unaware. The slow burn of his gaze upon your back yields fire in your blood. It wars with the accusation that seems to hover on his tongue, never uttered, yet loud and roaring so you both know that it’s there. It festers.
He blames you for the fact that you are tied together, that he is tied to anyone. And he’s right in some ways, wrong in others. You did want him; it showed in the glow across your cheeks and the feverish glint in your eyes when your mother questioned you about him. A perfect choice, she thought. A Greengrass to a Malfoy. You still don’t know quite how it happened, but can only suppose it was like all pureblood marriages. Plotting and scheming as mothers often do.
You’re not like them though, with your silly notions of a love that’s unconditional. But time and loneliness is rubbing at your wounds. No matter how he looks at you, the occasional longing in his gaze, his disdain and determination balances the urge.
He never touches you. You both just walk the large and empty house separate and together. Two lost souls and a burden that’s relentless.
The tinkling of glasses is a familiar sound; it’s a part of the melody of these social engagements you always seem to attend. It joins the tempo of talking voices, false laughter and the strains of clever fingers on piano keys. You sway only slightly to the rhythm, your attention more fully focused on the tall, dark man before you. He’s a friend of your husband, and you remember him from school, though he’s never taken the time to pay you much attention. A quality both men seem to share.
You’re not quite sure why it is he’s singled you out tonight, but the interested light in his vibrant gaze causes a strange sensation you can’t help but revel in.
His friendship with your husband is one founded on competition; you know enough to recognise that. And you can only assume that this is why he’s here, standing a breath too close to be considered impersonal, but not quite enough to draw attention. Except perhaps your husband’s, and he’s nowhere in sight.
You don’t intend to be a pawn in a game between the two, but at the same time, you’re sick of playing the insipid role you’ve been cast in. You have fire, despite what he may think. And though you play the part of the perfectly demure wife, because of expectation, you’re so much more than that. And as you stand here gazing up at your companion, a smile curving on your lips, you know the time has come to show it.
What you crave is a reaction, to see the clench of his pale jaw, the fierce light in his mercurial gaze as it directs itself at you. Anger is better than indifference, you know. Everything is better than indifference.
Your companion is quick to notice the change in your demeanour, the renewal of your focus on the conversation. There’s something rather predatory about his gaze as it holds your own. You keep your shoulders back though, your smile wide and frothy. You were never the butterfly unfurling its wings in quite the way that your sister was. But you’ve realised that nothing comes from being meek, and you’re restless beyond belief.
When a young man you don’t recognise joins in the conversation, you’re thankful for the reprieve. Regardless of the streak of rebellion running through your veins, you’d never lower yourself to break your vows in any way. And despite the vapid creature Draco clearly believes you to be, you still care for him with a depth that’s inexplicable.
You move through the crowd of elegantly dressed witches and wizards, smiling graciously as you pass. Being who you are—his wife—means something in this circle. And when you’re at parties such as this, draped in beautiful fabric and sipping elf-made wine, you could almost believe in the myth. After all, you have them quite convinced.
You know better though, as does he, despite the clever charade.
You walk through the high stone arch into the corridor that leads to a sitting room. More than anything in that moment you want to sit down, escape the polite and stifling people that swell and swarm like an infestation.
Your thoughts scramble when a firm grip around your upper arm calls you to the present, and you’re pulled toward a darkened corner of the hallway. The space is empty but for the man before you. Your breath catches in your throat at his unexpected proximity. The warm and slightly spicy scent of his skin makes your nostrils flare.
‘What,’ he grinds out in a voice that is unfamiliar, ‘exactly are you doing?’
The grip of his pale fingers on your arm tightens. Your eyes narrow in response, your head thrown back with the sort of hauteur one seemed to expect from a Malfoy.
‘You’re hurting me.’
His face moves closer to yours and you can see the darker flecks of Prussian in his fair-lashed gaze. He’s beautiful to you, the sort of beauty that causes a throbbing, pulsing ache deep within.
‘Astoria,’ his voice is a hiss as his patience abates. You know what he’s referring to: your conversation with his friend. The prospect of embarrassment for him, the slightest whiff of scandal. He needn’t worry, but you’re beyond caring.
You’re more than a shiny trinket.
‘I was having a conversation—’
‘Looking for an upgrade?’ he bites out.
It’s like a punch to the gut, stealing breath and warping your vision. ‘No,’ you say and your voice is soft. ‘Though you’ve made it perfectly clear you’d like one yourself.’
He stares at you and his expression in unfathomable. You push back your shoulders and continue down the path you’ve ventured, uncertain of the consequences and finally unable to hold it in.
‘Whatever you might think of me, I’m a person and I’m sick of being quiet and walking around like a ghost. I didn’t want this … but I’ve made my peace with it.’
It’s a shock, no doubt, as your conversations with your husband barely extend beyond a few syllables. You’ve never stood tall before him and told him what you think. But you’re learning now, despite your relative youth. Nothing comes from staying quiet, and your silence has been endless.
His eyes narrow and they burn into your own. The intensity is too much and you want nothing more than to flee his presence. His grip loosens on your arm and so you pull away and spin on your heel.
If you think about it long enough, you know that it’s not really about you. The stoicism, the icy reserve that chills you to your bone when you look at him, comes from somewhere else. Experience.
You’ve heard the screams at night that rise up over the silence. His room connects to yours via an ornate mahogany door. Neither of you have ever had any use for it, and it would be something of an intrusion to turn that brass knob and enter his domain.
And yet when the pitch of his voice increases, and the cries of no and please fall repeatedly from his tongue, you stand with your heart in your throat and your hand pressed against the door, teetering on the edge. You haven’t yet crossed that line the way you want to. Have never rushed to his aid and brushed soothing kisses to his brow.
He’d never accept the gesture for what it is: a warm hand against his own in the dark.
People talk of those days, not so long ago, in hushed whispers that never climb above the din. And you’ve heard enough from those who know, just what it was he saw and did. You can only assume that those are the images that sear across his eyelids in the night.
It’s the sort of thing that breaks a man in parts, and no matter what way he tries to put himself together, the lines have changed. The pieces don’t quite fit. But there are times when you want to shake him, because you know that if the lines changed once then they can change again. A new way of fitting the pieces together.
You want to be the one to help. And, in your most fevered imaginings, you like to think he’d let you.
The warm smell of aged books and the burning crackle of the hearth always made this room, the family library, your favourite place on the entire estate. You revel in the chance to wander through the towering shelves, and run questing fingers down the leather bound spines. You want to soak in the knowledge like a greedy kid craving sweets.
Although the deep annals of the library make it quite extensive, there are many nooks and beautiful chaise reading chairs in which you can settle. The vast space seems small and comforting in a way that the rest of the grand house is not.
You know that he comes here too, because you have heard the soft press of his footsteps, and felt the catch of your breath on occasion, which seems to signify his presence. He always leaves you in peace though, and you can never quite decide if that’s something to be appreciated.
The interactions between the two of you have been different of late. You can’t quite define the shift in his behaviour, except that he seems to acknowledge your presence in a way he never did before: when you were meek and quiet. He watches you now, piercing eyes tracking your every movement. It makes your skin leap to a dance it doesn’t know. It makes you uncertain.
You hear the faint sound of parchment scratching, the turning of pages. Your curiosity is piqued, and so you move swiftly and quietly from the safe knell of your corner. Robes sweep against the polished floor as you move between the high shelves, closer to the sound. You know where he’s sitting, at the far left of the room, in his favourite umbra-hued reading chair.
The light will be brightest there, flickering away on a slow burning wick. You stand behind the high shelf that protects his nook from the rest of the room. Your heart thuds a new pattern as you stand there, breathless, a mere metre away from him. There’s a wall between the two of you here, a tangible one so very different to the mental ones he’s constructed over time. And yet, strangely, you feel close to him in that unshielded moment in a way you never have.
He shifts again and the sound goes straight to your core. Careless fingers move from your sides to dance across the spines, and you draw in the clever scent of must in the air. Your gaze follows the bevelled gilt words lining the spines, until they fall on a favourite.
Your fingers run along the elegant line of the book and you make to pull it from its home. Another hand joins yours, and you jump back startled. He’s there in the faintly intimate glow of light afforded in the narrow space. Your heart stops. His gaze is impassive as he looks at you, and you cannot fathom what it is he’s thinking. Except that it’s somehow important. Somehow new.
A pale brow arches when his gaze falls across the title. Shock, you think. He’s probably surprised you even read.
‘A good choice,’ he murmurs.
You stare at him for a moment, watching the plains of his angled face for signs of disdain.
‘Yes … a favourite, actually,’ you say in response, and your voice is strangely low.
It’s an odd conversation, a brief one, and yet somehow the moment feels laden with expectation or something, which you can’t clearly define. The air is thick with it. Too thick to draw swiftly to your lungs. But it’s a heady sensation, like rich chocolate on your tongue. And you intend to savour it.
His hand reaches up, seemingly of its own volition, to brush the barest streak along your jaw. And suddenly the air that was so thick is now suspended. His lashes are lowered and his brightly lit gaze is dark, turbulent. You want nothing more than to dive inside of him and know his every thought.
And the spell is broken. He pulls away quickly, as though emerging from a rush of water and breaking to reality, the swift breath of clarity. He doesn’t look at you as he walks away.
If you think about it long enough, you know you’ve reached the end, that unthinkable point at which the cracks in the façade are jagged and deep and obvious. Naivety is pretty for only so long, and then the time comes to open to the truth, even when it’s ugly.
This is the ugly truth, you know. The one you’ve been denying.
There have been times, small moments in the fabric of your life together, when light fills the room and it seems as though he could come to care for you. As though he wants to make the strides, to reach across the great divide. And then he never does.
It only makes it worse for you though. It’s like the briefest taste of possibility that lingers on your tongue. It’s what you’ll never have. And that cuts like a knife through skin and tissue. A person can only hope for change for so long before they give in.
You know you’re strong and relentless in many ways, soft and malleable in others. And perhaps if you had never experienced those briefly glorious moments when he shone as a beacon and looked at you and saw you, it might have been okay. But the taste received can only burn to a poison, and you don’t want that anymore.
You want all or nothing.
His words echo like thunder splitting trees; they reverberate through your brain in a way that cuts. Little slices here and there, the smallest ones to maximise the pain. And you’re a throbbing, bloody mess from it all.
You’ve never fought with him the way you did just now, words strung out and hurtful, hurled in each direction. From him to you and back again. When you think back, you’re not quite sure how it started, except that it did. And with the words laid out like weapons on the bare floor, the truth revealed, it can longer be ignored.
He told you what he thought of you, and you told him he was wrong. He doesn’t know you, doesn’t see you for what you are. You have a heart and he reaches in to crush it, bare fisted, at every possible chance.
And you can’t stay with him a moment longer. That’s why you stand here, in front of the daunting wooden door that separates your room from his. Now’s the time to breach it, to take the step beyond and tell him to his face. You won’t though. You’ll leave without a word because it’s easier.
Perhaps he’s right about some things after all.
If you think about it long enough, you know you made the right choice. You threw down the gauntlet with no real belief he’d pick up the mantle. But you had to, because if there’s something that you’ve learnt, it’s that he values pride. And so do you.
Your body thrums and throbs when you think of him, not quite an agony, but something more peculiar. A wistfulness that could never live in the oppressive halls of his home. Your relationship there wasn’t real, it wasn’t what you’ve always known and hoped it could be. And that’s okay, because you’ve taken the steps and walked away, thrown the black mantle from about your shoulders. And with the burden gone, you know you’ll strive forward. Toward the light and the sweet scent of freesias.
Deep within the pit of you, you’re hoping he will come. Hoping that he saw something along the way that made him see the truth. You.
And if he didn’t, if the broken parts of him can never fit together, then you’ll accept it, because you don’t want to be broken with him. You don’t want to live in a house to hear his cries, and never take his hand. You don’t want to watch for the light of him in darkened corridors, and wonder where he goes. You want to stand at his side, with his flashing gaze burning up your blood.
Or you want something else altogether.
Summer in France has brought a glow to your skin, rosy hued and happy. You feel different, like you’re sitting in a skin that’s unfamiliar, and yet somehow a better fit. It’s your skin though, that’s why. You’re not living according to someone else’s rulebook. And though the hollow part that lingers deep within festers just a little, the light has healing powers.
And you revel in the freedom.
You’re standing in the rose garden at your sister’s new estate, and soaking in the soft scent that curls around your hair. Fingertips brush along the velvet-like petals, ivory white against their vibrant hue.
You’ve been here for two weeks, and spent almost every day wandering the lush green grounds and soaking up the sun. But this is where you always return. It reminds you of that time when he was young, and you were younger still. Pretty words fell from his tongue when he looked at you, and pressed firm lips to your cheek in greeting. Back when it all began. Back when possibility and something channelled between you two, before the thunder clouds of resentment rolled in.
‘I should have known I’d find you here.’ You jump slightly at the gravely sound, achingly familiar.
You steel yourself and turn to look at him, a strange vision in the summer sun. He’s pale, more so than usual, and the faint grey that lingers in drapes beneath his eyes tells of sleepless nights.
‘Why are you here?’ You watch him as he absorbs the question, and you wonder whether he knows the answer himself.
‘You always did like roses,’ he says softly and reaches a hand out to brush a petal. His evasiveness has always frustrated you, making it impossible to know where you stand.
‘I’m surprised you noticed,’ you say and there is a hint of bite in your words. You’re impressed with your resolve. You know why you want him to be here, and the words you yearn to hear from him. But you won’t make it easy, if that’s the case. You have earned the right to see him struggle.
A tick quivers along his jaw and your eyes are fixed on its movement. The air seems to rush from his lungs at your words.
‘You’re my wife.’
You look at him, eyes tracking his expression. ‘You noticed that too?’
He’s silent then and you turn away from him to stare pointedly at the full blooms tickling your fingertips. It means something that he’s come all this way. That much you know. But seeing your sister and the way she lives, the way light runs rampant in her house swallowing up all the quiet and the darkness, you know you want to live like that.
Firm fingers grip your chin and turn you toward him once more. Your skin prickles under his errant touch, and your eyes are wide and on him.
‘Despite what you think, I notice … everything about you. I want you to come home.’
His words are clear but there’s a murkiness in his gaze, which sings of uncertainty. Of what, you don’t know. You’re uncertain too.
‘It’s not my home,’ you say, and your voice barely carries over the gentle rush of air through foliage in the surrounding trees. He hears it though. He finally hears you, and that means something as well.
He steps closer and his hand spans to cup your jaw. Your heart hammers a strange rhythm in your throat, and your skin leaps erratically at the closeness of him. His warm scent competes with the sweet plume that rises from the roses, and you know which one you like better.
‘It can be,’ he says. His eyes are a contradiction, clear grey with dark flecks that hold your full attention. ‘It’s empty without you. Quiet.’
You know what he means. It was always empty and quiet without him too.
You hover on the edge, a decision in the making. An important one. And as his head moves closer, his cool breath tickling your cheek, a new scent joins the sweetness hovering in the air. It wraps around you like the breeze and pushes you closer to him.
It’s musty and learned, like old books, candle wax and possibility.
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