Pairings: Draco/Astoria, Lucius/Narcissa, assorted Greengrasses
Summary: Through hardship to the stars. The months and years post-Aftermath.
The last flu patient having received his Pepperup Potion, Astoria’s rounds were done. She could have started over in room 101 of course, there were so many people sitting in A&E complaining of that nasty cough, but she’d been accumulating too much overtime already.
“I’m off, Ethel,” she called to the head nurse, stopping by the nurses’ station to exchange her white downstairs robes for the lime green ones she wore upstairs. “Applebee sent me home an hour ago.”
“Can you come back down tomorrow, Astoria?” The nurse looked up from her clipboard to give her a beseeching look. “We’re getting desperate down here. You’d think no one had ever had the sniffles before, or knew where to get Pepperup Potion.”
Astoria sighed. She loved working in A&E, it was always busy and nowhere else did she get to see and treat such a variety of complaints. Still, her patients were waiting upstairs, and she had a mountain of paperwork to file in Bugs And Diseases. “I’ll see what I can do. See you later, Ethel.”
Upstairs on her ward, she went to check on the little girl with the Dragon Pox who had come in that morning. The angry red lesions looked better already. Pleased, she sneaked out so as not to wake little Mary and ran into her supervising healer, Annabelle Applebee.
“Healer, what are you still doing here? You know what it does to our statistics if you work too much overtime.” Applebee’s complexion clashed magnificently with the lime green of her robes whenever she thought of the ward statistics.
Smiling, Astoria patted her arm. “Shh, I’m not even here. You didn’t see me. Cheers, Bell.”
Her stomach rumbled almost as much as the Floo as she stepped into the ward grate to floo to Diagon Alley. She hadn’t had a chance to eat since that bowl of porridge in the morning, and now her hunger mingled with nerves to make her stomach growl. She’d set up the date for tea with Narcissa Malfoy in the hopes that spending some time together would give them a chance to grow friendlier, but it was a little like walking into the lair of a mother dragon. Astoria wasn’t easily intimidated, but Mrs Malfoy had a way of making anyone feel unsure of themselves. More, though, Astoria knew that Draco was close to his mother, and that the tension between her and Astoria was a cause of some grief for him. Astoria would do just about anything to put that to rest, but Mrs Malfoy had to play along; it wasn’t at all certain that she would, though.
Still, don’t let it be said that Astoria didn’t try. She’d put on a nice skirt that morning and even tried some cosmetic charms, to uncertain effect; Draco had teased her for her efforts, but he’d also snogged her quite thoroughly as they said goodbye, so there were some mixed messages to decipher. Stepping out of the Floo in the Leaky Cauldron, Astoria caught her reflection in a large golden pan that hung on the wall and felt pleased. Her elaborate updo hadn’t quite survived the busy morning, but she looked nice enough for the café where she was to meet Narcissa.
“Oh dear,” was the first thing Mrs Malfoy said. She flicked her wand and Astoria felt her head being yanked backwards as her hair gathered itself into a bun that was so tight she felt like she could barely move her face.
“Good afternoon,” she said, wincing. “What a nice place; thank you for suggesting it.”
Narcissa nodded as if to say that Astoria had better be thankful. “I mustn’t stay long, I left Alcyone at home with her father.”
“Oh, but they are so sweet together. I’m sure they’ll have a good time,” Astoria smiled.
Mrs Malfoy wrinkled her nose at this description of her husband. “Sweet. Well. Speaking of, the scones aren’t too bad. I took the liberty of ordering for us,” she said when Astoria reached for the menu.
Astoria wondered if the woman didn’t feel exhausted; it had to be stressful to find fault with everything and everyone around her. “How has Ally been? I haven’t seen her in so long.”
“Yes, you work too much. You should make more time for your personal life. Ally is well, thank you.”
“I enjoy my job.” Astoria smiled to think of it, the bustle at the hospital, the puzzle of figuring out odd new symptoms and the satisfaction of sending patients home cured.
“More than other…pursuits?” Mrs Malfoy shrugged. “Draco agrees with me. He’s said the same thing.”
Draco pouted about them having to part and go to work every morning, but then he went to the office and to the broom workshop and usually didn’t make it home any earlier than Astoria. Complaining was what he did, it was a way for him to feel in control of his life, and it didn’t faze Astoria at this point, but she still had to brace herself against the blatant manipulation.
“We both keep busy,” she told his mother. “We like it that way.”
Tea and two cake stands laden with pastries arrived as well as two flutes of champagne. The food brought a welcome pause to the conversation. Astoria took a sandwich, resisting the urge to take the big hearty bites that her rumbling stomach demanded. Mrs Malfoy didn’t touch the food, but tossed back her champagne in one long drink, then held the glass out for the server to refill.
“Leave the bottle,” she said, then waved him away. “When I was Draco’s age, I was running my own apothecary’s, so I suppose I can understand his entrepreneurial spirit; and he is his father’s son. But tending to the sick and injured all day can’t be pleasant. I just don’t see why you enjoy it so much.”
“I like helping people.” Astoria knew that wouldn’t suffice at all, so she tried, “I enjoy the healing arts, the magic. It’s very intricate, you’re responsible for peoples’ lives, after all. I like the precision of the craft.”
Mrs Malfoy could do nothing except nod. “I suppose I hadn’t considered that aspect of it. It’s not so unlike potion making, as witchcraft goes.”
That was a big concession on Mrs Malfoy’s part. Heartened, Astoria said, “No, it isn’t. As a matter of fact, I’ve been experimenting with potionmaking a bit. It’ll be part of my training, spending a few weeks down in the hospital potions laboratory next year.”
Narcissa seemed to slowly warm to the subject, or perhaps the champagne was helping in thawing her frosty demeanour. “And how have you been getting on? Your mother is a decent potioneer, I should think you’d inherited some of her talent.”
“Not as much as I would like,” Astoria said ruefully. “I’m better at practical magic, healing spells and curse reversal and all of that.” She nibbled at a cucumber sandwich, unwilling to let the conversation taper off and die when they’d just discovered some common interest. If only Mrs Malfoy would talk for a bit so she could have some of the scones.
“Curse reversal? You’d have to be able to cast a decent curse to then cast its countercurse,” Mrs Malfoy remarked, raising an elegant eyebrow.
Astoria smiled. “True.”
“See, now that is interesting.” Narcissa finally set her glass down and began to cut up a sandwich into tiny bites.
“Magic is magic,” Astoria said when the older witch looked at her expectantly. “None of it is inherently destructive. I have to be able to cast curses so I can help people. And so I’ve learned to.”
“Hm.” Narcissa seemed to mull this over, which gave Astoria some time to make a grab for the scones and slather on clotted cream and jam. She let out a blissful sigh on the first bite, which shifted Mrs Malfoy’s attention back to her.
“Slowly, child. You’ll get a stomach ache.”
“Sorry,” Astoria said through a mouthful of crumbs. “I haven’t really eaten today.”
“Does that house elf not prepare adequate meals? I’ll whip him raw myself if he lets Draco go hungry.”
“No, no, Dipsy is a fine cook. It’s just, we were running very late this morning, we…” Astoria’s mind flashed back to the impromptu snog in the shower, and she felt her cheeks heat. “We need to set more alarms.”
Mrs Malfoy actually looked amused. “You should both see to it that you get your proper breakfast. Running off to work on an empty stomach like you can’t afford to eat! Ridiculous. Trust me, I should know. When I was growing up--”
“Look here,” said a male voice, and then a shadow suddenly fell over the table. The two women looked up to find a man standing uncomfortably close, bracing his hands on the table so the delicate cups rattled in their saucers. He was as wide as he was tall, with no visible neck under a massive head that was flushed dark red. “Narcissa Black, innit? I know that face. Oh, do I know that bloody face.”
Mrs Malfoy stiffened her back. “And who are you?”
“You don’t even know, do you. I reckon you wouldn’t remember everyone you lot ruined; there were too many of us.” The man mopped his sweaty brow with a handkerchief, but didn’t back off from the table.
Astoria’s heart began to beat fast against her breastbone. She chanced a look at Mrs Malfoy, who sat up straight and beautiful and unmoved, not blinking an eye. Around them, the chatter of the patrons had died down to a nervous murmur. “What can I do for you, Sir?”
“You’ve done enough! Rot in hell, like that rabid sister of yours! Death Eater whores!” The man literally spat at Narcissa, but suddenly she had her wand up and whatever else he might hurl at her glanced off her shielding spell as his words did off her cool composure.
Astoria didn’t dare move a muscle, but she’d begun to shiver softly, cold racing up her spine and making the hairs at the back of her neck stand on end, and she couldn’t stop herself trembling.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Mrs Malfoy said contemptuously, never taking her eyes off the man. Astoria wondered how he didn’t turn to ash under her glare. “Are you proud of yourself, upsetting a child?”
Astoria tried to hold her ground, she did, but she was powerless against the sudden fright when the man turned to look at her. She shrank back in her chair as he stabbed a finger in her direction, but then suddenly smoke uncurled from his hand and he snatched it back, having burned himself on the invisible shield that, Astoria realised, Narcissa had cast to extend around them both.
The man cried out in anger, cradling his smoking hand to his chest.
Astoria swallowed hard. “If you’ll let me look at that, I can heal you--”
“Heal me!” He let out a hard bark of a laugh. “You take care, girl. Get yourself away from this filth, or you’ll start to stink with it, too!” And then he retreated, slamming the door on his way out.
The café came alive again with tittering and whispers. Narcissa glanced around, then reached for her purse and threw a handful of gold on the table. “We’d better go. What a disgusting mess; is that the sort of riffraff you allow in your establishment? I’ll think twice about coming here again,” she snapped at the server, who hastily waved his wand to clean the table and snatch the gold.
Mrs Malfoy grabbed Astoria’s wrist and apparated them both away. Half a moment later, Astoria found that they were at the town house, standing too close on the steps outside the front door. “I thought I’d better take you home,” Mrs Malfoy said. “May I come in?”
Astoria took out her wand to unlock the door. Her hands were shaking. Narcissa sighed impatiently, but then they were safe inside with the lock sliding into place behind them, and with a great shudder, Astoria sat down hard on the bottom stair and began to cry. She didn’t want to, but she couldn’t help herself, for fear of the hostile stranger, for anger at him, and for grief, too, at the pain in his eyes.
“Oh, would you stop!” Narcissa scoffed. “I wouldn’t have let him hurt you. Honestly!” She stood over Astoria, tapping her foot, but when Astoria looked up at her, she saw that the woman was frowning too.
“I wasn’t scared. Not like that.” Astoria wiped her sleeve over her face to huff from Mrs Malfoy. A pristine white handkerchief fluttered down in front of her, conjured out of thin air. Astoria took it and noisily blew her nose. “Did you see his face?”
“Couldn’t miss it, there was so much of it,” Narcissa said dryly.
Astoria hung her head. “How much do you have to be hurting to spit at someone? Call them a…” She bit her lip. “It’s just so crass.”
“Oh, you silly little girl. It’s a lesson, I suppose. This is how the world is.”
“No. I don’t believe that.” People didn’t just go around spitting at each other for no reason. Whatever that man had suffered had made him into who he was, and she felt for him, but lashing out in anguish was still repaying hurt with hurt. It wasn’t right. “It won’t always be like this. It can’t. Otherwise the war will never really be over.”
Sighing, Mrs Malfoy gathered up her skirts and sat down on the stairs next to Astoria. “It’s true, time will go on, people will forget.”
“People will heal,” Astoria said fiercely. She could only hope it was true. “How do you stand it? Always living with the shadow over you?”
“How do I stand it?” Narcissa was silent for a while. Then she said, “I met Lucius when I was just a girl and he was just a boy. A motherless child whose father beat his life’s lessons into him. He always had to become who he is, it was inevitable. But what’s left of that boy is mine, and I will not give anyone – anyone! – the satisfaction of forsaking him.” She tilted her chin haughtily. “That would mean admitting to a mistake, and I never make mistakes.”
Astoria had to smile. “I was wondering where Draco got it from. The amazing ability to not make mistakes.”
Mrs Malfoy chuckled a little. “I will say this. It isn’t always easy. ‘For better, for worse’, that’s how the vows go. This is ‘worse’. Do you think you can handle it?” She pinned Astoria with her sharp, cool eyes. “Because you shouldn’t try to fool Draco or yourself if you can’t. It’d only lead to heartache for you both.”
“I’m not trying to fool him.”
“I believe that you think so. But I’m not sure you two know what you’re doing.”
“You’ll have to let us figure it out for ourselves, regardless.”
“Yes. What a grand thing, to be so young and stupid.”
Astoria didn’t feel grand just then. She swiped a hand over her brow as if she could physically push away the headache. “Draco will be so upset.”
“Don’t tell him,” Mrs Malfoy said immediately. “He’ll work himself into one of his fits, and what good will that do.”
“I can’t lie to him. I won’t.”
Narcissa rolled her eyes. “Then don’t lie, just keep quiet.”
“He’ll know I’m upset. He’s not obtuse.”
After a moment, the older witch nodded. “Yes. You see him.”
“I think I do.”
“He was such a precious child. Demanding, yes, irritable, but so affectionate. He wouldn’t let anyone else hold him, not even his father, he’d cry whenever he wasn’t in my arms. For a while we were inseparable. I do miss those years sometimes. Ally always was more independent, right from the start.” Narcissa sighed. “You care for him, I know it. But you’re in a unique position to hurt him, too. And I don’t want to see that happen. Almost everyone I ever loved has disappointed me bitterly. I will not see that happen to Draco. Do you understand me?”
Astoria didn’t think they’d ever agreed on anything more. “You worry about the wrong things, you know.”
“Oh, do I?” Narcissa arched a fine eyebrow. She was so perfectly graceful and attractive, Astoria thought, so wealthy, so skilful, so loved by her family, and yet she was utterly unsure of all the good things in her life. Astoria felt for her.
“I’m not going to abandon him.” Perhaps they’d understand each other in this. If her relationship with Draco ended, it would be because he left her; there was no other possibility, and happily, Astoria didn’t think that he wanted to leave her any more than she did him. They were properly stupid for each other, she thought, and had to smile. “And I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it. I’ve made my own choice.”
After a moment, Mrs Malfoy nodded. “Good. Now, all you have to do is tell Draco that I upset you. It’ll be easy. How about this: you have terrible bags under your eyes. You need to sleep more, or that job will age you rapidly. And eat, for goodness’ sake, child; you’ve lost almost all of your bust. There. Will that suffice?” She looked expectantly at Astoria, and suddenly, in spite of everything, Astoria had to laugh. She knew this particular brand of being comforted, and she’d come to enjoy it in all its terribleness.
“Will you take tea here? I’m starving.”
They sat together in peaceful silence, eating scones and cream, when Draco flooed home from the office. He stepped into the sitting room, brushing soot off his robes, and stopped short on the threshold.
“Hey.” Astoria’s stomach still tingled whenever she saw him, but now the butterflies came on a warm breeze of relief that swept through her and thawed the last frost of sadness. And if people sneered at her in the street, she thought, it would be worth it; she knew him better than they did, knew not just what he’d done in his life but what he would be capable of doing, and giving up on that would be like giving up hope for all the world. She wouldn’t do it; she loved him and he loved her, and the world needed more love, not less. She held out a hand, and he came. “You’re early, how nice.”
“All right?” he said, looking closely at Astoria as if he suspected his mother had murdered and stuffed her as a prop in his absence. “You cried.”
She just nodded. “I’m fine now. We’ll talk about it later, okay?”
Draco looked like he wanted to protest, but she mustered a smile for him and he acquiesced. Still, he stayed close, shuffling her deeper into the armchair in which she was curled up to wedge himself in beside her. “Mother,” he said in the sharp, clear tones of a trumpet calling troops to war, “Keeping well? You’ve spent a nice afternoon together, haven’t you? Don’t let me hear otherwise.”
Narcissa huffed softly. “We had an interesting conversation about Astoria’s work. But now I must be off; Astoria, I will send you those books we talked about. You might find them helpful for your potions practice.”
“Thank you,” Astoria said. In some ways, the afternoon hadn’t been so awful. “I’m glad we got to spend some time together.”
“So am I,” Narcissa said, and then she departed amidst befuddled looks from her son.
“What happened?” Once they were alone, he dragged Astoria into his lap and began to touch her all over as if to reassure himself that she was still in one piece. “What did she do?”
Astoria enjoyed the large, warm hands stroking up and down her back, the nimble fingers slipping under the hem of her jumper. She curled up under his touch like a kitten. “Nothing. It was fine. She isn’t wrong about my boobs, anyway.”
His brow furrowed. “Your…?”
She shook her head. Suddenly she didn’t want to talk; she only wanted to sit there and soak up his affection. The world outside could wait for a while.
“Well. You know I’d never allow her to make you cry, don’t you. Her or anyone else,” he said, low.
He was fiercely protective of her, but he couldn’t shield her from life, such as it was, and Astoria didn’t want him to. The hurts that might glance off her would lodge like arrows inside him, and he had too many scars already. Perhaps his mother was right and she shouldn’t tell him anything at all, but she wouldn’t lie to him, and though she would protect him, too, where she could, she knew he was strong enough to take the blows that the world would deal them. They would find their way, and they would walk it hand in hand, unafraid.
“I know, love,” she said. “Here, have a sandwich. Then we’ll talk.”