Chapter 2 : Cheese On Toast
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“What the hell happened, Astoria?” said Daphne quietly, “Why are you here?”
The younger woman shrugged. “I couldn’t stay there,” she said. Her voice was low, but iron. “I couldn’t do it. Not another day of it. I just can’t.”
Daphne was shocked. Her little sister was never like this. Her little sister was loud and melodramatic, passionate and occasionally obnoxious. She had never known her so understated, so dogged.
“Another day of what?” Daphne pressed. “You and Adrian were... you seemed... fine, I suppose. I never would have thought...”
Astoria shrugged again.
“Nobody thought anything because I made sure they had nothing to think about.” For a moment, tension stretched between the sisters, but after a heartbeat Astoria seemed to think better of it, and relaxed.
“I was nineteen when I married him,” she said simply. “It’s easy to believe yourself in love at nineteen. And things change.”
Daphne bit her lip.
“Does he know you’re gone yet?”
Astoria shook her head.
“He won’t be back from work until six. I’ve left him a letter, explaining that I’m gone, and why...” she paused uncertainly, “I hope he understands.”
Daphne thought about Astoria’s soon-to-be-ex husband. She had never paid him much attention until he and Astoria had began their relationship. He was a year or two older than Daphne; a dark, serious man, devoted to his job, with old-fashioned principles and ministerial ambitions. Daphne had always found him utterly forgettable.
“Do you think he’ll be alright with it?”
“I highly doubt that he’ll be alright with it,” she said derisively, “But I hope he understands. I hope he will.”
“He wasn’t happy either,” she said lightly, but Daphne thought she recognised a pleading note in her voice, “even if he had a different way of showing it.”
Daphne shook her head, trying to process everything she’d been flooded with since Astoria’s impromptu entrance.
“And you came here because...”
For the first time, anxiety appeared to crease Astoria’s face.
“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said finally. “All our friends are really just his friends- I’m hardly going to be welcome with any of them after I’ve just left him. And the rest of the family’s going to have kittens when they find out,” in spite of her worry, Astoria suppressed a giggle, “There’s really only you.”
Daphne rolled her eyes. “I suppose I’m meant to be flattered by that?”
“I mean it, Daph! I’ll only need to stay for a little while. Just until I find my own place. I’ll even get a job or something, if it helps. Please.”
Daphne pretended to consider it.
“You’re going to drive me round the bend.”
“I know. But I’ll do my best. I’ll sleep on the sofa and help with the washing up. And I’ll help in the café- I’ll weigh out ingredients, or make tea or something. Please.”
Daphne smiled at the thought.
“Of course you can stay, you silly thing,” she said, touching her sister’s hand. “Always. As long as you need.”
Relief flooded Astoria’s face.
“Thanks,” she said quietly.
A grin began to make its way across Daphne’s face with a sudden realisation.
“Mum’s going to go crazy!”
Both sisters laughed gently as Daphne checked her watch.
“I’ve got an hour and half ‘til the café closes, and I really can’t leave before that. Will you be okay until then?”
Astoria waved a hand dismissively. “You don’t have to babysit me, Daph, I’ll be fine.”
And, leaving the kitchen, Daphne almost missed her sister’s determined whisper to herself:
“I will be fine now.”
Daphne walked back into the café a mix of emotions. Her concern for her sister was high among them –how could she not have realised that Astoria was so unhappy? She hoped her mother wouldn’t give Astoria too hard a time. She had never been unkind to her daughters, but she was ambitious, and her sense of respectability had been a burden Daphne had often found difficult to bear.
And then there was the complication of her sister’s unannounced arrival- she would have to find a way to make room for her in the already limited space of her flat. And as to what Theo would say...
Theo. Daphne felt a swooping sensation somewhere in the pit of her stomach. Their dinner. How could it go ahead now, now that Astoria had turned up out of the blue with a full trunk and a broken marriage? Daphne tried not to let herself feel resentful towards her sister. Astoria wasn’t to know what tonight was supposed to have been. Astoria didn’t have any idea of the dizzying feelings surrounding Theo. It was not her fault that she had picked this day, of all days, to arrive.
It didn’t make Daphne feel much better. She thought miserably of the dress robes she had spent an hour selecting laid out across the end of her bed, the matching shoes in a box on top of her wardrobe, the trouble she’d had deciding between her silver locket and her blue pendant.
Thoughtfully, she glanced over at Astoria, who she’d installed at a table in the corner and was sipping a mug of coffee with a dreamy expression on her face. Softening, Daphne cut a slice of carrot cake and slipped between the tables to give it to her.
“On the house,” she promised, smiling.
“Thanks, Daph,” returned Astoria. She took a long draught of her coffee. “God that tastes good.”
Daphne grinned, “Anything tastes good when you’re soaked to the bone and have just Apparated from Somerset to Norfolk,” she observed drily.
Astoria paused, setting her cup down. “It’s a nice place you’ve got here- I mean it, Daphne,” she said. “I mean, I knew you were doing well and everything, but I didn’t expect it to be so...” she hesitated, “...warm.”
Daphne face gave nothing away. “You need a bit of warm,” she observed, “You look like the Bloody Baron.”
Astoria laughed, and after a heartbeat Daphne did too.
“I’ll come and talk if I get break,” Daphne promised her sister, “But for now I’d better get back to the café!”
She bustled off, leaving the smaller woman alone. Eleanor was waiting at the counter, pouring hot chocolate into a chipped mug.
“Who’s that?” she asked, staring at Astoria without bothering to disguise her curiosity, “Is it your sister?”
“It is,” said Daphne briskly, “Careful, you’re about to spill that hot chocolate.”
Eleanor set down the jug ungraciously.
“Why’s she here?”
“She’s staying with me for a while,” Daphne told her, “Everything’s fine, I just wasn’t expecting her.”
Eleanor looked mollified but somewhat disappointed by the gossip Daphne had failed to provide. Daphne left her to it. She had more pressing matters on her hands.
The remainder of the Pink Hippogriff’s opening hours passed in a blur. To Daphne, it seemed as if only minutes had passed before it was time for her to flip over the open sign on the door and clear up the mess.
Usually Daphne enjoyed this part of the day. The systematic wiping and sweeping allowed her some time for her mind to wander, for her to daydream and imagine sparkling futures, but today such fancies were out of the question. Between Eleanor’s unconcealed nosiness and Astoria’s brave but substantial anxiety, she had barely a moment to herself.
Astoria sat on the corner of a table as Daphne and Eleanor cleared up, chatting comfortably and making half-hearted offers of help. Daphne kept her entertained with stories of strange customers they’d had, and whilst Eleanor had her in stitches over her impression of herself dropping trays, she did not succeed in drawing out any further explanations.
Evening saw the café’s door locked, the lights extinguished and the three occupants gone- Eleanor to her boyfriend’s flat and the sisters to Daphne’s.
Daphne couldn’t stand her flat. She hated the way it stood, precariously wedged into the side of a tall, dingy building. She hated how tiny all the rooms were, and the stupid Muggle electric lights that never seemed bright enough. She hated the poky corridors and low ceilings- they made her feel claustrophobic and she’d woken up more than once in the night beset by a terrible feeling of being trapped.
Unfortunately, the profit from the Pink Hippogriff was – whilst being quite enough to live on- not enough to secure a house in one of the nicer parts of the city, and Daphne was damned if she was going to move out to the suburbs and commute into work every day. She managed it by getting to work as early as possible in the mornings and leaving as late as possible at night, meaning that the flat was only really used for eating and sleeping- and quite often she ate at Theo’s.
Daphne and Astoria stumbled inside, blinking in the dim light.
“I hate Apparition,” complained Astoria, “I’ve done it twice today for you- you ought to be grateful.”
“Grateful for having my crazy little sister drop out of nowhere halfway through opening hours. Yes, I’m very grateful!” teased Daphne.
She unlocked the door and switched on the lights, leaving the two of them standing in the doorway of Daphne’s very untidy sitting room.
“Right,” said Daphne, taking charge, “You are to go and warm up. Have a bath maybe, you’re already so wet it won’t make much difference. I’ll find a place for your trunk and make you up a bed.” She paused, looking slightly abashedly round the room, “And maybe tidy up a bit.”
Astoria grinned and nodded. “Yes, Mum,” she said good-naturedly. “Where’s your bathroom?”
Daphne rolled her eyes. “Through the back. Funnily enough it’s in exactly the same place as it was last time you came to stay...”
“Shut up!” protested Astoria, “That was ages ago!”
“I’ll find you a towel,” said Daphne.
Astoria busy with the bathroom, Daphne’s first move was to kneel down by the fireplace, into which she tossed a fistful of Floo Powder.
“The Ministry of Magic. Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Parole Office. Theodore Nott,” she whispered.
The flames glowed green, whipping her hair about her face and all of a sudden, a woman’s head appeared in the midst of the flames.
“You have reached the Ministry of Magic Internal Floo Network,” said the head in a cool, slightly bored voice. “Please state your purpose and your intended recipient.”
“I want to talk to Theodore Nott,” said Daphne, trying to hide her irritation, “In the Parole Office. He should be on his break by now, surely.”
“Contacting Theodore Nott,” said the head serenely. There was a rushing sound and finally the head of a young, scruffy haired man with a large nose and glasses appeared amongst the flames. Theo’s head. Daphne thought he looked slightly hassled but pleased to see her nonetheless.
“Daphne!” he said, smiling. “I’m sorry but I’m going to be a few minutes late this evening. We’ve just been passed a whole stack of cases that are going to take a while to file.”
Daphne felt a large, scratchy lump in her throat.
“Don’t worry,” she said, feeling miserable, “It doesn’t matter. We can’t go out tonight anyway.”
She watched his brow crease into a frown and felt that familiar feeling tug at her chest. The feeling that combined gratitude, and affection, and humour, and kindness and what Daphne was beginning to think was love. It made her feel sick.
“Why not, Daph? What’s happened? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine!” she reassured him. You liar, said her mind.
Briefly, she explained her sister’s departure from her husband’s house and sudden arrival at the Pink Hippogriff.
“She’s in the bath right now,” Daphne told him. “I’ve said to her that she can stay here for... as long as she needs.”
She scrutinised Theo’s face, searching for his reaction almost before it came.
“That’s a shame,” he said quietly and for a moment, Daphne could have believed that he was as crushed as she was. But the moment passed, and when she looked at him properly, she could see that he was just the same Theo as ever, if a little disappointed.
“How’s your sister?” he asked.
Daphne sat back- her knees were aching. “I don’t know,” she said truthfully. “She seems very... confident about her decision. I don’t think there’s much chance of her going back to him...”
“But I’ve seen her lots better too. She looked like a ghost when she arrived in the café. And she’s not quite as... full on... as she can be.”
Theo laughed. “Full on’s the word!” he agreed, “I always did wonder how Adrian Pucey wound up married to her!”
“You’re not alone!” remarked Daphne. “I suppose I’ll just have to talk to her and see how it goes.”
He nodded again. “Good plan. And shame about tonight. I know it wouldn’t be the same, but could I come over for dinner tomorrow night maybe? Unless you want the time with your sister?”
Daphne laughed. “By tomorrow I’ll need time off my sister,” she assured him, “Dinner sounds perfect. Say eight?”
“I’ll see you then!”
The head withdrew from the fire. Daphne sat back on her heels and breathed out a long sigh, watching the orange flames flicker about the place where his head had sat only moments before.
“How long have you been in love with him?”
Daphne started; turned to see her younger sister standing in the doorway wrapped in a towel, her pale hair- made dark by the water- dripping over her shoulder.
Daphne acted stupid: “What?”
“How long have you been in love with him?”
Astoria walked calmly over to the sofa, cleared a space amongst the clutter to sit on and looked expectantly at Daphne.
“Were you listening to that whole conversation?”
“From: We’ve just been passed a whole stack of cases that are going to take a while to file,” she said serenely, “I’m sorry about your evening. I didn’t know you were meant to be going out.”
Daphne started dumbly at her. “It’s okay,” she said finally, “You weren’t to know.”
Astoria gathered herself more comfortably on the sofa. The still flickering firelight cast her face in equal parts light and shadow.
“You’ve loved him for a while haven’t you? I can tell, you know,” she said.
That word: love. It seemed wrong somehow- too blunt, too simple, too crude to sum up the delicate intricacies of emotion that Theo excited in her.
“Yes,” she said in the end, because it was easier that way, “For a long, long time.”
“You should tell him,” said Astoria, and Daphne envied her because in Astoria’s world it would have been as simple as that. To stay or leave. To love or not love. To be wrong or to be right.
For few moments the sisters stood there in an uneasy silence, finally broken by Astoria’s tentative subject change.
“So what else is new with you?” she asked carefully.
The atmosphere relaxed.
“Not much really,” admitted Daphne. “The café’s doing really well. And I’m finally making some money out of it which I can’t pretend isn’t nice!”
Astoria laughed. “You dyed your hair,” she observed.
“Yeah...” Daphne touched her dark tresses self-consciously.
“I liked you better blonde,” said Astoria, a little reproachfully.
Daphne shrugged. “I needed some things to change,” she said. “I think it makes me look older.”
“It does,” agreed Astoria. “And healthier.”
Daphne snorted, throwing an ironic glance at her sister.
“You mean fat! I’ve put on so much since I started running this bloody café!” she complained.
“I didn’t mean fat!” protested Astoria. “Anyway, you needed it!”
For a moment their eyes met and energy passed between them: they both knew what Astoria was referring too and it was something Daphne didn’t like to think about all too much.
“Are you hungry?” Daphne asked. “If you go and put some clothes on I could do cheese on toast. If you like. Cheese on toast and hot chocolate maybe. And I’m sure I’ve got a carrot cake somewhere...”
Astoria let it go. “Sounds perfect,” she said. And in that moment, it was.
Hello again- I'm honoured that you made it to chapter two! Thoughts on Daphne? Astoria? Theo? I'd love to hear any feedback!
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