Chapter 4 : four.
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“One person to another,” was all that she could say.
He was raw, his voice pebbly, something about the line of his shoulders hunched in a way that did not only say stay back, cold wind, but stay inside, what is inside. Astoria thought that maybe she could relate to that, somebody who lived entirely inside of herself, perhaps besides what she gave up reading, or what she left behind her walking little place to little place.
She wanted to open up to him in the way that new friends did, not only because she thought that their ascent to something greater could be something wonderful, but because she thought that probably somebody needed to know more about him than what everybody was always saying. There was something like a proud apology about him that Astoria could only understand too well.
She wanted to say we’re running from something and that running is making us like what we’re leaving behind because we’re not leaving anything--but the moment passed and there was comfort again in thinking that she could know him without any effort.
It was not enough at times when she was happy to say to herself that things could continue into any discernible future without speaking; she saw them as friends but not the silent kind. She would come to her senses, in the way that she was able, to understand that sooner or later somebody was going to have to make that breach between unsaid and whatever else was out there parading as a fixed reality.
It was a day when there were clear skies that before she reached the Leaky she had been caught in the current of Muggles outside on the pavement that she saw through the small glass window on the tavern door a room too crowded to venture in--Astoria liked the anonymity of existing in a crowd, but not the kind of crowd that made being anonymous impossible. Unfortunately Wizarding Britain was the kind of place in which one couldn’t help but be seen--if you were Harry Potter, you might not have cared--there were much more people who wanted to wring your hand than turn up their noses at you, then--but if you had been a Slytherin before the war, these eyes were not the ones you wanted watching you.
She was about to turn around when somebody cupped her elbow in his palm and led her towards the door to the bar anyways, even though he could see, too, that it was full of people who knew their names and knew only too well their stories.
“It’s funny,” he said, sounding lighter than usual, “that when you’re running away from something it’s with you all the while.”
“Actually,” Astoria protested without any show of fervor, “we could have walked away and they would have been stuck in there. We--I could have been other places.”
“And if you never finally went in? You would always be changing your plans because they were where you wanted to be,” he countered, opening the door and waiting for Astoria to enter. She hesitated at the doorway, but none was looking their way; she rocked back and forth once on her feet and propelled herself towards the bar, sitting at the end, where there were two stools empty and waiting.
Hannah looked at Astoria and the man sitting beside her as if she had something on them--there was no malice in her eyes but she understood something beyond Astoria’s comprehension, and it was clear there on her face when she brought them their regular drinks. She had a feeling that pushed up the question in her throat: what is that face for? What do you know about me? because she thought Hannah’s answer might be different than other people knew how to say, and after all this time alone with herself and another unknown island--shaped like a Malfoy--she didn’t know if she could answer any better herself.
“It’s only natural that we tell ourselves we’re getting away,” Draco said in a quiet voice after he’d poked a little at his drink with a plastic flamingo. Astoria didn’t know where it had come from.
“It feels a lot like leaving things behind,” Astoria said, and even when her words left her body to mingle with what was around her--air, vacuum, blank space--she realized something that had not been so clear to her before; it made what Draco had said earlier make sense somehow, a fleeting feeling, a heartbeat’s length, that said we carry with us what we want to leave.
She knew she had never really changed, but things were becoming real now, things were having consequences outside of herself, and sitting next to her at the bar was a man she’d spent months with but of whom she knew nothing--nothing more than what she knew of herself. She was a construct of her flawed understanding, he was a construct of her projections, and it seemed once again like the world was falling, crumbling, poking in on her from the corners of this dark, warm bar, where the Wizarding world’s congregation gathered on this day and despite all her former confidence had not noticed her, and had not noticed Draco, and had not sent anything their way.
Astoria felt for a half moment, a sort of twinkling space or divot in time, that things could have been better had she remained alone, severed all ties, sunk to the bottom of a great sea and surrendered herself to what currents may have gathered about her there. People were so difficult to understand.
“I imagine that you looked for other things to learn,” Draco said after a long time. Astoria nodded, hesitantly drawing her sketchbook out of her handbag, flipping to a harmless page, a page full of bones and a cross section of a human heart.
“I see,” he said after a moment, trying to bite back a smile. Astoria felt her heart give a strange little leap and her cheeks felt stinging, felt much too warm. She resisted shrugging off her coat, unwinding her scarf from her neck. His teeth were very straight, his lips were cracked from the dry wind and frigid air. He hadn’t shaved in a while, and the last time he did Astoria was sure he’d used an old razor. His hair wasn’t so much a platinum blond as a lively silver, struck through with a little bit of gold.
“I see you’ve struck at the heart of the matter,” he said and this time couldn’t help himself--he smiled widely, cracking his upper lip with the strength of the gesture, and Astoria felt a throbbing and pervasive warmth. She allowed herself a small smile watching Draco here, someone so distant, someone she’d made her friend with defunct information, become someone very real, human, someone she could see a beating heart inhabiting.
“When I found out that what my parents believed in wasn’t working,” he said, his smile fading but still floating about his face, a light in his eyes. The lines of his face were not exactly kind, but there were slopes to his angles that Astoria hadn’t been able to see before that were fully lit now in the green, watery light. “I thought that maybe everything I’d scorned had the right answers. I don’t know why anatomy is the most obvious place to begin but I started there, too.”
Astoria thought to herself that she had never imagined they would talk this much, that he could say this much to someone he didn’t know. But she guessed that there was a freedom in allowing oneself to realize that one really didn’t have any idea about another person, no matter the kind of past one had, or whose parents had failed or who had been kept away from fighting at the pinnacle of their childhoods, whose world had collapsed and revealed itself to have been nothing but a mild, warm, comfortable wind.
Astoria couldn’t help but feel in that moment that it was so easy to begin with studying the body because no matter what a person had, they had a functioning anatomy; they each had a brain and bones and skin and they each, above all, had a beating, functioning heart, powered by something magical communities had ignored for centuries, had probably never cared to learn: electricity was the life breath of the human spirit, pumping what blood one had for this world, what allocation belonged to their earthly shells, through their human bodies.
If nothing else, Astoria and Draco were alike in that very basic way, and in this arching beat of space, their histories fell short of uniting them in any way near to that that their basic heartbeats allowed: as the sounds of their bodies mingled, echoes reverberating at close quarters, it was easy to imagine that they too were only a heartbeat apart in space.
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