Draco Malfoy was annoyed. The Yule Ball was not turning out to be as marvelous an evening as he had hoped. His best friend had gotten to help open the entire dance without him, Pansy kept squeezing his arm so tightly that it rumpled the fabric of his sleeves, and in the middle of the last dance someone had stepped on his toes. Now he couldn’t even find Harry to complain to. What was the point of being best friends with one of the school champions if he was going to disappear, preventing Draco from showing-off how close the two of them were by spending the ball together?
Maybe he should have gone as Harry’s partner instead of taking Pansy—but no, champion or not, Harry was only a half-blood. No Malfoy would ever be caught dead escorting anyone who couldn’t trace their magical lineage back at least ten generations—to say nothing of how mother’s side of the family would view such a thing!
Still, Draco had been planning on basking in the reflected glory of his friend’s status all night, and now Harry was nowhere to be found. That was simply unsupportable. Probably Harry was just being shy and trying to avoid people staring at him (and Draco couldn’t blame him for that, not given who he’d shown up to the ball with!) but that was too bad: Draco was going to find wherever Harry had hidden himself and drag him back to the ball if he had to get Crabbe or Goyle to come do it by brute force.
He wandered sulkily through the rose garden, its fluttering fairy lights glinting on the ornamental paths that twisted between the verdant bushes. Delicate benches occupied by the occasional student or couple spotted the gardens here and there but aside from glancing to make sure that none of the occupants were Harry, Draco ignored them and kept walking deeper into the maze of roses.
Pansy had gushed about how much the décor reminded her of Draco’s family’s gardens when they had first looked out at it, but she didn’t know what she was talking about and Draco had coolly said as much, leading to Pansy flouncing off in another snit that would last until the Weird Sisters started playing something she was particularly fond of and wanted to dance to. Draco had taken the opportunity to slip away and look for Harry without having to manufacture an excuse; Pansy could find someone else to spin her through the next song, he had more important things to do.
Now he pushed his way through the roses and scowled at them. It wasn’t that the gardens weren’t pretty—they were. They were just so ordinary, and Draco was used to gardens whose arrangement had been exactingly designed down to the smallest detail rather than tossed-up arbitrarily to satisfy the basic societal expectations of ball hosting. His father was devoted to the aesthetic and maintenance of the manor’s gardens and was constantly tinkering and improving the design and layout, and so looking at these bland rosebushes and ordinary fairy lights was not making Draco feel homesick for the manor’s sprawling expanses of foliage at all. Never mind that he’d never been away from home over Christmas before; he was fourteen-years-old and perfectly grown-up and he didn’t miss his parents at all.
The sound of sniffling caught his ears and Draco paused, listening hard. It sounded like one person, most likely alone. It sounded like they had been crying for a while now and had no intention of stopping anytime soon. Draco wondered if it might be Weasley, sobbing over his terrible robes and that embarrassing squabble with Hermione Granger—or better yet, Granger herself! Draco smiled. He hadn’t managed to track down Harry yet, which meant that if it was Granger, there wouldn’t be anyone there to force Draco to be polite to the obnoxious Mudblood.
Grinning in anticipation, Draco left the path and pushed forward through the bushes gently, trying to make as little noise as possible without getting scratched. He hoped to catch the unseen crier by surprise. Based on the way the girl jumped and squeaked when he stepped out from the leaves, he succeeded—but it was hard to say which of them was truly more startled.
Rather than being Granger or Weasley—or any other Gryffindor—the source of the sniffles was revealed to be a Slytherin like Draco, little Astoria Greengrass. Draco hadn’t realized that Astoria had come to the ball. Being only a second year, she must have been brought by someone else, and it couldn’t have been Daphne; she had come with Morag MacDougal, and the only friend of Daphne’s whom Draco could think of who would be willing to do her a favor like giving up a chance to ask someone of their own to the dance in order to take Astoria was Pansy—and she definitely had a partner, as the wrinkles on Draco’s sleeves attested.
“You all right?” Draco asked, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say that wouldn’t have been dreadfully rude—and being outright rude to Daphne’s little sister would mean more trouble than it was worth. He swallowed a grimace and tried to school his features into an expression of concern.
“Fine!” Astoria said, then immediately burst from sniffles into full-blown sobs.
Draco took an involuntary step backwards, intending to bolt—but the rustle of leaves across his shoulders stopped him long enough that common sense could prevail. Leaving Astoria sobbing alone in the roses would be almost as bad as saying something rude about it.
Not bothering to hide his grimace this time—Astoria’s face was buried in her hands, and it was unlikely that she could see anything through her gush of tears anyway—Draco stepped forward out of the bushes and into the little clearing with its marble bench and crying second year. He fished a silky handkerchief out of the pocket of his robe and held it out in front of him, pinched between two fingers as though he were offering food to one of Hagrid’s Blast-Ended Skrewts.
Astoria didn’t notice, so he took another step forward and bumped her shoulder with the outstretched handkerchief. She flinched, took her hands away, looked up at him, and grabbed the handkerchief like it was a goblin-made treasure before burying her face once more.
Deciding that this discharged his duties well enough, Draco started to sidle away back toward the bushes, but was stopped when Astoria spoke:
“I d-didn’t think I’d be coming,” she mumbled through her tears and his handkerchief. “To the b-ball. I’m only a—a second year, so who would ask m-me?”
Draco couldn’t refute that logic; he nodded agreement even though she couldn’t see him.
“B-but I g-guess St-stephen Cornfoot couldn’t find anyone acceptable to g-go with, and we’re s-second cousins so he said I could come with him and—” She had to stop and gulp down a fresh sob before she could continue. She scrubbed at her face as though that would help control her tears. Draco shuddered with disgust at the blubbering but couldn’t retreat further, not when she was speaking to him. “I s-said yes, of course, b-because I couldn’t go otherwise…”
“Sensible,” Draco offered, when it seemed like she was waiting for him to say something.
From the earnestness of her nod in response, it seemed she had been. “Only he only asked me two d-days ago after dinner,” Astoria explained wetly, “so I spent all yesterday taking care of my robes—nobody t-told second years we should have dress robes—and I got so caught-up in everything that I for-forgot to see Professor Snape for my weekly potions dose, and it’s starting to wear off now.”
She scrubbed her face enough to look up at him, although tears were still spilling out of her damp brown eyes and leaving salty tracks across her rounded cheeks. She wasn’t sure why she was saying all of this to Draco Malfoy, whom she’d hardly even spoken to before, but she needed to say it to someone and he was here. “And that’s not—not very c-comfortable, and…and it…” Her voice trailed off into sniffles and hiccups, leaving her to finish the sentence with a wobbly little wave of one hand.
Draco nodded with surprising sympathy and filled in the words she’d run out of: “Utterly destroys your center of balance, yeah, it does. Made it hard to dance, did it?”
Astoria scrubbed her face a third time and frowned up at him, confused. “How do you know that?” she asked. “I mean, Daphne says you’re a total potions-swot” –Draco blushed furiously, but said nothing to argue her sister’s observation— “but you haven’t even taken your O.W.L.s yet and Attisgalli Corrective Draughts are N.E.W.T.s-level, you can’t have read ahead that far…”
“I haven’t,” Draco admitted grudgingly. He squirmed a bit before finally adding, “But I guess I might have forgotten a dose myself once or twice. So I can substitute personal experience,” he wrinkled his nose, “for academic research, in this case.”
Astoria’s frown deepened. “Personal experience?” she repeated. She had stopped crying, but hadn’t realized it yet. “You’re making that up. There’s no way you’re on the same potion as me.”
Draco nodded, not looking abashed at all. “Of course I am,” he said. “Well—the opposite potion to you, I suppose,” he amended with a smirk. “But close enough.”
Astoria stared at him. She must have looked as bamboozled as she felt, because he shrugged and said, “Don’t you remember the Birth Announcement Correction in the Daily—oh,” he interrupted himself. “Right, you’d have been what…three years old when that was printed? Two?” Draco nodded. “I guess you wouldn’t be likely to remember reading that, then,” he chuckled.
“Can’t say that I do,” Astoria replied numbly. She was starting to feel a little better—starting to believe that he wasn’t just making fun of her by pretending to play along, but was telling her the truth. Of course, it would have been easier for him; his parents hadn’t lost an heir-to-the-name when he had told them who he really was, had they? Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy had probably been delighted to trade a daughter for a son, whereas while her own parents hadn’t objected to the degree of refusing to allow her to trade her boy’s robes for Daphne’s hand-me-downs, they hadn’t been delighted either.
Astoria bit her lip, struggling to keep quiet—but she couldn’t help herself. She was far from the only student in the school taking regular doses of Attisgalli Corrective Draughts; there were enough of them that Professor Snape provided doses to the girls and boys on different nights to reduce the number of students coming to his office at one time (and to avoid any chance of mixing-up the two similar but definitely not identical potions) so there was no reason why Astoria would have seen Draco waiting in line for his weekly dose—but this was, somehow, different. This wasn’t just any other student; this was Draco Malfoy. And the Malfoys were such an important family…
“How did you parents react?” she blurted, unable to stop herself. “Mine were—mine didn’t want to believe it.” Astoria ducked her head, looking at her lap rather than meeting his eyes. She twisted the soggy handkerchief he had given her nervously between her fingers. “They kept hoping I would change my mind, grow out of it, think better of…” She swallowed. “I didn’t start taking the potion until my first year here at Hogwarts.” She glanced up, anxious, and caught sight of Draco gaping at her.
“But that’s—that’s ridiculous!” he snapped. He looked like someone had just told him that Slytherin would be having all of their housepoints switched with Gryffindor’s in order to promote school unity, or like the school Quidditch teams would henceforth be flying on antique Cleansweeps. “Only complete idiots would think—!” he began, and fell abruptly silent. Astoria closed her eyes, worrying her lip further between her teeth while she waited for him to speak again. When he did, she not only opened her eyes in shock, she nearly fell off the bench she was sitting on.
“Actually,” Draco said slowly, as though reluctant to admit to anything that would negate his initial outrage, “I remember mother telling me that her parents weren’t very pleased about her announcing she wasn’t going to be their heir anymore, either, now that I think about it…”
“What?” Astoria squeaked. “Are you—are you telling me that Narcissa Malfoy is taking the same potion I am?”
Draco’s pointed face crinkled in a frown. “Well of course she’s not,” he said. “Mother is well over seventeen, isn’t she? So she’s taking the permanent one, not the weak little weekly version they’ve got us on. I think she’s down to one dose every five or seven years for maintenance now, but I’m not really sure. I don’t really pay attention to her potions regimen.” He shrugged, as though it hardly mattered, but Astoria was reeling at the revelation that Narcissa Malfoy, of all people, took Attisgalli Corrective Draughts.
One of the things her parents had warned her of, over and over when they had been trying to talk her out of being herself, was that she would never be as pretty a witch as Daphne due to relying on a paltry potion rather than on natural advantages—but that clearly wasn’t true, because Draco’s mother was one of the prettiest witches that Astoria had ever seen. Even people who disliked the Malfoys had to admit that Narcissa was beautiful. And if Draco wasn’t lying—and he didn’t seem like he was; what would have been the point in making up a story like that? Astoria wasn’t an important enough person that he’d feel inspired to lie just to cozy up to her—then that meant everything Astoria’s parents had warned her about was wrong.
Had they been confused and ignorant, or had they been lying to her on purpose in hopes of scaring her away from committing to her identity?
The thought settled like a solid bolder of ice in Astoria’s stomach and she started to cry again. The handkerchief Draco had given her was soaked, but Astoria didn’t have another; in the rush of getting a set of dress robes mailed and fitted, she hadn’t thought to stock the pockets with any of the supplies of daily life and her sleeves were too gauzy to be useful for crying into.
Draco stared at the sobbing girl, feeling useless and confused. He had very little experience with tears; Malfoys did not cry often (what reason would they have for tears, anyway?) and his friends were more the kind to hit people in order to make themselves feel better than to wallow in weeping. Harry could get a bit sulky, but he wasn’t much given to crying either—thankfully, because Draco hated tears. They were messy, sloppy, wet, and he never knew how to deal with them. Under ordinary circumstances, his general reaction was simply to keep his distance—but there was no one else here he could pass Astoria off to.
Grimacing unhappily, he crept toward her slowly until he stood within arm’s reach again. She didn’t seem to know he was there. Wrinkling his nose, Draco patted her gingerly on the top of her springy curls. That didn’t seem to help, so he cast about desperately for something he could say that would make her stop crying.
“I could dance with you, if you want,” he offered. “When we go back inside, I mean.”
For a while she said nothing, although he thought it sounded like her sobs were growing slightly quieter—but maybe that was just wishful thinking. Eventually she swallowed and mumbled, “I c-can’t balance, remember?”
Draco shrugged. “I expect I can compensate for that,” he said. “Shouldn’t be too hard. I’m a lot taller than you, for starters, and an excellent dancer with impeccable balance.”
“At least when you don’t forget to take your potion, that is,” Astoria pointed out. Her words were still muffled by the hands and handkerchief over her face, but her sobs had dwindled to sniffles and the tone of her voice made it sound like she was almost smiling.
Draco could feel his cheeks heating. That’s what he got for trying to be nice. “When I remember my potion, yes,” he said waspishly. “Look, do you want to dance with me or not?”
Astoria raised her face out of the mess of handkerchief and tears and smiled damply at him. “Okay,” she said. “Just let me clean up first.”
Balling the handkerchief out of the way in one hand she drew her wand with the other. Closing her eyes in concentration she held her wand lightly against first one cheek and then the other, whispering a soft incantation. As Draco watched, the blotchy pink spots on her cheeks faded, the salty tear-tracks evaporated, and the puffy redness around her eyes paled and shrank until it hardly looked like she had been crying at all.
Draco raised his eyebrows, impressed; that looked like a useful little spell. Maybe he’d get her to teach it to him later—not that he expected to ever need it himself, since he wasn’t much given to bouts of weepiness, but it was always good to be prepared, wasn’t it?
When she offered him the soggy handkerchief back he recoiled, barking, “Keep it!” in a shrill voice that made her giggle and him blush.
“Thank you,” Astoria said, and let him take her hand and pull her to her feet. They walked back to the ball together hand-in-hand and it wasn’t until three dances later that Draco realized that he had never managed to track down Harry Potter.
Oh well, he decided after a moment’s debate, fame can wait a little longer.