Chapter 3 : three.
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“I’m sorry if it’s strange,” Astoria said, attempting to appear as though she meant it, too.
“I don’t think you are,” he said. “I don’t know if I care. I just thought--well.” He sat down next to her and they sat in silence for far longer than the allotted amount of time. Things became stiff between them; they sat without moving for a longer time than their joints said was safe, or healthy, and their breathing was a single strand in space, matching at the peaks. The air thick between them, cracking, their hearts nothing more than an amalgamation of beats.
“I never remember having seen a person with more hair than you,” he said and Astoria could have sworn she probably imagined it. After such a long silence it seemed too human and vulnerable to be something Draco Malfoy would have said--but looking at him here, out of the corner of her eye, his shoulders hunched, his facial hair unpleasantly patchy, he was more human than anybody Astoria’d known growing up or been able to see once everybody had said she’d become an adult. Thinking about what he had said, she didn’t think it sounded very adult-like, but she knew that in a way people are younger for a lot longer than they’d like to think.
To some people, it’s a comfort. It was to Astoria, especially then. It was nice to know that while the world was moving and threatening and sloshing along through space there were some people who didn’t know what they were either; how they fit into things, how to stop the world from gobbling them up as they moved through it. She didn’t know if people could choose to stay children or if it happened because something hadn’t been right back then and they had to make up for it by being kids now.
It wasn’t even that she was a child, or felt innocent, but there was that rising of a wonder in her that made her hungry for life and understanding, being able to recognise, now, quite safely distant from her younger years. Even in the six years that had passed since that battle in Hogwarts, Astoria had only shifted. There was quite a difference between that movement and any sort of gain on life; she had no secrets. Things were bare.
Sitting at the bar with another person in the same situation was a little bit like remembering that she was alive.
It was jarring, realizing that she was always building her hopes in the wrong direction--like building a wall right into the ground or planting a seed in arid soil. Not even sketching granted this basking in humanity. She did not know Malfoy and she did not understand why he had approached her, or if she could talk to him now after letting so much time pass between them in silence, but she knew that a simple steeping in a shared human element…in a weakness, a cluelessness, a past that mingled…was more accessible here, staring at the worn elbow of the coat of a man she hardly knew than in any of her other worldly pursuits.
It was awkward for a period after that first contact. Both Astoria and Draco Malfoy came to the bar at the same time; Hannah grew to know them well enough to slide them their drinks without asking what they wanted. They sat side by side at times, like strangers staring together into a trepidatious future. Astoria was tempted sometimes to pull out her sketchbook and relay the sharpness of his jawbone onto paper, or the way that his mouth twisted downwards, or the way that she knew he had lost his job but had never had the courage to ask him why or what it was.
She was unsure if it was good to wait for him to touch down again, to descend to the kind of reality that was the best for talking in. It suddenly became irksome that they spent so much time in silence; her compass was shifting its northward direction towards something much more real, and much more human. Somebody warm and quiet who took to a daily fire whisky with no real means to pay his bill.
She verged on speaking several times, but things were weak about her just then; she was having a bad hair day, she was catching a cold, she had a weird feeling that something was probably stuck between her teeth. More than anything, though, was the feeling in her that being alone was not worth being lost all of the time; she thought about telling him about she really didn’t have any sense of direction, that the only way she made her way about the city was that she only visited about three places regularly and they were within a walking distance from the bus stop. But she didn’t know how to talk to him. She didn’t know if there was enough of their past in them to suggest that it was the man who pursued what he found worthy…and she didn’t know why she had the feeling that their mutual humanity was enough to be worthy at all.
But she did.
There really wasn’t any getting around that.
It wasn’t that he was handsome, although--he was--but that wasn’t exactly why she knew he was attractive. She hadn’t known him well at school although his name had gone around…and looking at him here slouched over the bar, not talking, no hints of pretension clouding about his person, he was entirely different than the person that her mind had gotten to know all those years ago. The difference was the only thing that was sure to her since they had not talked and she had no idea what he was thinking.
She was tempted to say that a lot of the time they were probably both wallowing in the same regrets, but she was just as soon sick of herself for assuming in the way that all those others had assumed; because you were a Slytherin you must also have had a horrid childhood, you must also have looked to your parents for all of your answers, you must also have been raised on a doctrine of blood purity and then found out at a single, exploding moment in space that everything had been wrong and you where not anywhere you thought you had been.
You probably also became estranged from your family once you decided it was time to stand up to them and tell them they didn’t understand life as well as they thought they did and that there were other things, like not knowing what you wanted to do but liking some things. They had probably also said to you, Draco, what’s the point of having ambition if you can’t channel it to something? You can’t want everything; you can’t want to become everything. And yet you did. And you probably told your parents like I told mine.
Although she hated herself for thinking that way, for embodying something she had sworn never to become, by living largely inside of a fixed dream, it was comforting to imagine, if just for the moment, that these two could understand each other in some vital way that the rest of the world could not, and that perhaps someday, together, they could fend off the world’s hungry mouth.
It had been about a week since Astoria had realized that she was now just as helpless to her imagination than she had been growing up--that she was pointing everything about her towards acquiring something that, in all respects, was a contrived and singular goal. There was a bit of tranquility in the fact that it had been her own decision to begin the futile hunt for some restrictive future, and she had resigned herself to thinking that the hat had been right after all--she was ambitious by nature, grasping at things, and that chase was more exhilarating than everything.
That week had not passed in a tortured monotony of telling herself that she was falling into the same trap as she had set out to escape, but a ferocious probing at the things that she thought could lead her to a union of souls. With the barkeep’s words in mind it was hard to make this pursuit seem more innocent than it actually was, but there was some gratification in the idea that she had inherited more than money from her parents, and that part of that legacy was the talented ability to turn one’s eyes from what one did not wish to see. There had been times that Astoria had sought to see everything because she had needed to get away from that restricted opportunity of her childhood; from her parents; from the cornerstone of a pure-blood faith. But another person was not so much like a goal, the way she was able to look at it. Another person was a means to an end that would never end--that she could find and lose and find a thousand times.
She was at the bar again and Draco was at her elbow and she was so consumed by the reality of her own imagining that she could have sworn he was in a perpetual state of almost speaking. Just speak, Astoria, she repeated to herself, but it was no use. She was utterly convinced that he was going to break what ice there was between them by a simple show of interest in another human being for the fact that she shared in his failed composition of spirit and flesh--and was bound by that belief to silence.
It did not happen that day, but a few days later, and there had already been established between them that rare type of friendship that one can find if silent enough in simple existence with another person. They were learning about each other all in the wrong order, but nobody had ever said that love was a well-timed mechanism, ticking faithfully as a bomb towards detonation. They were vulnerable in their silence before the regular time, but it was all building towards the same result, the same ending place.
“I saw you, that first day,” Draco said on a particularly windy day, when it was easy to imagine that you could be swept up into the air and turn maybe into a giant snowflake. Astoria’s heart skipped a beat and she waited, on edge, for what he had to offer. “You were bringing a whisky towards my table. I don’t know what you were expecting me to do but--I--well, I would have thanked you.”
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