Rain slid down the window in rivulets, obscuring Astoria's view of the scenery beyond. It had been a cold, wet October, and it didn't look like the weather would be letting up any time soon. For someone who loved sunshine and open spaces as much as Astoria, being cooped up inside was a struggle.
But while the world outside might be grey and dreary, inside the pub wasn't much better. True, the Three Broomsticks was as warm as ever, filled with hearty chatter and the heady smell of steak and chips — but dejection had a knack for turning even masterpiece paintings into childish doodles.
Astoria had finished her pasta half an hour ago. She had always been a slow eater, but in the time since then, she'd found herself wishing she'd found a way to drag it out even longer. At least it would have given her something to do.
Draco leaned forward, talking to Blaise and Tracey with more animation than he had shown for weeks now. His eyes were bright and shining as they discussed a trip the three of them had gone on together years prior. At first, Astoria had tried to follow along, but the conversation was littered with inside jokes and references that they never stopped to explain. It was like she wasn't even there.
Glancing down at her hand, she adjusted her engagement ring, letting it glint in the dim light.
When Draco had proposed at the beginning of the year, she had been thrilled. He was nothing like the man she'd dreamed about marrying when she was a child, but every day spent with him just affirmed to her how much he was what she needed. While she was introverted, content to spend days at a time hiking with nothing but a camera to keep her company, he was a social being at his core, finding ways to bring her out of her shell.
But a few weeks ago, everything had changed. Draco had started acting morose and distant, spending most of his time at his parents' house. Whenever she tried to talk to him about it, he gave her some half-hearted excuse about being busy. It was like she was walking around on eggshells, worried that everything might fall apart at the drop of a hat.
Draco threw back his head and laughed, and a bolt of pain pierced her at the sound.
It was good to see him happy again. Really, it was.
She just would have preferred it if it wasn't in a way that made it clear that she was the problem.
She had never particularly liked Draco's friends, hating how they hadn't done more to keep him from joining the Death Eaters during the war. Nevertheless, she was trying, going out of her comfort zone to meet up with them even when she would have preferred to just stay home. For a while, it had seemed to be working.
Lately, however, it felt like she was always on the outside, even with the person who was supposed to be there for her more than anyone.
Gently, she pressed her fingernails into her palm. She considered excusing herself and hurrying home to talk to Rachel, her friend and flatmate, but she decided against it. Rachel had never liked Draco, convinced that he would only end up hurting Astoria in the end. She wasn't exactly an unbiased observer.
'Well,' Tracey said, glancing down at her watch, 'we'd best be off. We're visiting Blaise's mother for dinner tonight, and we have some errands to run before then.'
The group paid for their meal and said their goodbyes before separating. Left alone with Draco, Astoria didn't know what to say.
'That was nice,' Draco said.
Astoria nodded noncommittally, plucking up the courage for her next words. 'Draco, have you got a moment to talk?'
'I promised Theo I'd help him prep for a case. Can it wait?'
Not really, she thought, but she doubted that he would stay even if she asked.
'Of course,' she said, deflated.
Astoria watched as her owl flew off, a letter tied to one of its claws. The moment he left her sight, she wanted to call him back, but it was too late. Turning from the window, she raised her hands to her mouth, trying to calm her racing nerves.
Had she done the right thing?
After lunch the day before, she'd come straight home, curling up in bed with a book and a cup of tea. But she hadn't been able to control her thoughts long enough to get into the story, and the chamomile had tasted like bile. Eventually, she had tired herself out and drifted off into a shallow, uneasy sleep. The next morning, she had woken to a sore neck and ice-cold tea.
Immediately, she had known what she had to do. Jumping up, she'd hastily written a letter to Narcissa and Lucius, detailing everything that she had observed over the past few weeks. For the most part, her relationship with her future in-laws was still awkward and reserved, but her tiredness and desperation had loosened her quill, allowing her to lay everything out in blunt words.
Then, before she could change her mind, she had sent it.
Now, all she could do was wait.
She started to get ready for the day, knowing that if she didn't make herself, she never would. But even as she bustled around the house, she couldn't keep her mind from drifting back to her fiancé.
She had spent so long fancying him, assuming that he'd never notice her because she was just his friend's little sister. Her feelings had died down during the war, his decisions making her ask herself what she'd ever seen in him. But then they'd run into each other one day at the little café across the road from the lawyer's office where she worked. As they'd talked, everything had just clicked. Her crush had come back even stronger, this time guided by truth rather than the fantasy she had built up around him.
Now, it felt like they were back to square one; Draco and his friends existing as an impenetrable group, with Astoria hovering on the outside, desperate just to be noticed.
By the time the reply arrived, she was almost as anxious as she had been the night before. Hurrying forward, she ripped open the letter, scanning its contents quickly.
Thank you for your message. Lucius and I are indeed aware of Draco's situation. It is a delicate matter, but it is nothing to concern yourself with. We have it under control.
Lucius and I are both looking forward to seeing you for dinner next week.
Astoria's stomach dropped. Narcissa's message was perfectly cordial, but Astoria was a smart girl; she could read between the lines. The Malfoys might be willing to accept her into their home, but they would never let her into their tight-knit bond. She was family, but she wasn't family, and for the first time, she wondered whether she ever would be.
Did Draco even want to marry her anymore?
When they had first started dating, there had been rumours that he was only seeing her to improve his family's reputation. After all, while the Malfoys had sided with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Greengrasses had taken a more measured approach, remaining neutral in public while secretly donating gold to help fund Dumbledore's resistance efforts.
Astoria had never believed the rumours; she knew Draco too well for that. But now she couldn't help but doubt herself. What if Narcissa and Lucius had convinced Draco to date her for political reasons and, now that the wedding was drawing nearer, he had decided that he couldn't do it anymore? Did "having it under control" mean trying to talk Draco out of leaving her?
Maybe she should just beat him to it. All her life, she had been an outsider — in her family, in her cohort, in her house.
She refused to marry into a family where that was also the norm.
Astoria dug her fingernails into her palms. She was being stupid; she knew she was. Still, her thoughts spiralled out of control, dragging her behind them like a rider who had been all but thrown from the saddle.
If only it were summer. She loved to take walks in the warm weather, the fresh air and physical exertion helping to settle her mind. But with the rain still pouring, she was stuck inside, leaving her with nothing to use as a distraction.
Angry tears slipped from her eyes. This wasn't who she wanted to be; it wasn't what love was supposed to be. But what if it was all she could have?
What if her choices were being alone forever or being an outsider in her own marriage?
'Astoria?' Rachel's voice called out. 'Are you home? Tobias is wondering if he can come over for lunch tomorrow. Ugh, please don't tell me you're out with — Astoria, are you alright? What happened?'
Sitting on the floor with her arms between her knees and head resting on them, Astoria shook her head. 'Yes, no, and nothing.'
'This doesn't look like nothing.' The floorboards creaked, and Astoria felt a warm body settle down on the floor beside her. 'You can tell me anything. You know that, right? Did someone hurt you?'
Astoria raised her head from her arms. Her face felt sticky with tears, and her eyes felt raw and scratchy. From the carefully controlled expression on Rachel's face, it was clear that she looked as horrible as she felt. 'Why do I always ruin everything?'
Recognition sparking in her eyes, Rachel reached out, pulling one of Astoria's hands away from her legs and opening it up to reveal the marks from her fingernails. 'Oh, sweetie. Whatever it is, it isn't your fault. Talk to me.'
Slowly, haltingly, Astoria did.
'I'm going to have to leave him,' she said as she finished the story. 'I… I can't keep doing this. I tried, but this whole dating thing… it isn't me. It's too much.'
'Have you spoken to Draco about this?' Rachel asked, her voice gentle.
'He doesn't want to talk. Honestly, I doubt he'll even care if I leave. He'd probably just go back to dating Pansy, and his parents will be happier for it. Lucius has never liked me, you know.'
'I daresay that's a good thing,' Rachel said wryly. 'Anyone who Lucius Malfoy likes probably isn't the sort of person you'd want to be around. But, seriously, Tori… you have to speak to Draco. If he doesn't want to, make him.'
Astoria shook her head. 'I can't.'
Rachel rested her hand on hers. 'Can I say something? Please, please don't take it the wrong way.'
The slight shrug of Astoria's shoulder was all the permission Rachel needed.
'There are two issues here, as far as I can tell. The main one is Draco, yes. He's shutting you out, and that's not fair of him. But the second one…' Rachel faltered, and when she continued speaking, her words came out in a rush. It was almost as if she hoped that, that way, they would fly off on their own and she could disown all ownership of them. 'Astoria, I love you, but you have a habit of seeing the worst in people. If you try to reach out to someone and they brush you off, you assume that it means they mustn't care, and you stop trying. And I get it; I know you've got your guard up because you're used to people not seeing you and it's easier to protect yourself if you force yourself not to care.'
Astoria couldn't meet Rachel's eyes. She wanted to deny it, but she couldn't. After years of being compared to Daphne and found wanting, of being brushed aside because she wasn't as bubbly or outgoing as her older sister, she had reached the point where she stopped trying.
'But you agreed to marry this man. That means you want to be his partner, right? No matter what the world throws at you, you're supposed to be able to weather it — together. As much as I would love for you to leave him for someone whose presence I can actually stand for more than one hour at a time, you owe it to the both of you to give it one last try. Don't just leave at the drop of a hat at the first sign of trouble. Talk to him. If he doesn't want to listen, make him understand how important it is to you. Then at least, if you leave, you'll know you gave it the best shot you could.'
'I'll talk to him.' Astoria hesitated. Ever since she was little, she had carried her burdens on her own. It was a relief to know that she had Rachel now, and hopefully, she had Draco as well. But that wasn't enough. She couldn't risk letting it get this bad again. 'You said you went to a counsellor after the war. I think… I think it might be time that I talk to one too.'
When Lucius opened the door to the manor, it was clear that Astoria was the last person he had expected to see. For a split second, a concerned expression crossed his face, but then it hardened into his usual blank look. 'Astoria, what are you doing here? Dinner isn't until next week.'
Astoria brushed her bedraggled hair out of her face. Malfoy Manor didn't have an Apparition point anywhere near the house, so she'd had to walk fifteen minutes through the heavy rain. She'd considered casting a diversion charm to keep herself dry, but there had been something refreshing about it, as if the deluge was washing her clean. 'I need to speak to Draco.'
'He doesn't live here anymore,' Lucius said.
'No, but he is here, isn't he? Look, either you can let me in, or I can stand outside on your doorstep all day.'
As far as threats went, it wasn't a particularly good one; even Astoria didn't believe that she'd go through with it. Nevertheless, Lucius stepped back to let her in; whether it was out of concern for her health, curiosity at what she would do, or an acceptance that she and Draco needed to have this conversation, she might never know.
Still, with a swipe of his wand, he dried her clothes. 'It would be unseemly to walk around looking like a half-drowned cat,' he said with a sniff.
'I assume he's in his room,' she said, not bothering to respond. At his nod, she set off, walking as quickly as she could while still technically being able to claim that she was only walking.
When she reached Draco's old bedroom, she was surprised to find the door open. He was laying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling morosely.
'I'm worried about you.'
Draco flinched and pulled himself into a sitting position. 'Astoria, what are you doing here? This isn't really a good time.'
'Is it ever?' she asked. 'Draco, we can't keep doing this. We've both been doing each other a disservice for weeks now. Something's going on with you, and if I'm going to be your wife, I need to know what it is.'
For a moment, he stared at her silently. 'You're not going to leave unless I tell you, are you?'
'No,' Astoria said. 'I'm going to leave if you don't.'
He sighed. 'Tomorrow is the five-year anniversary of when I took the Dark Mark. I didn't want to tell you because I didn't want you to feel like you had to comfort me over something that I know you despise.'
Her heart seemed to jump to her throat. Before she was even aware she was moving, she was at the bed, climbing on to sit beside him. It was only when she was next to him that she realised that it was the first time they'd ever been on a bed together, her decision to wait until marriage making them decide that it was better to avoid the temptation.
Trying to force that from her mind, she said, 'You're right; I don't support any part of you that wants to go out and hurt people. But I do support the part of you that regrets the fact that you used to. Draco, if you're going through something, I want to know about it. It's the only way this is going to work. After all, when we get married, I'm going to be your partner. That means in all things, not just in the simple things.'
His gaze flicked up at her words. '"Partner". I like the sound of that.'
'Me too,' she admitted.
'I'm sorry,' Draco added after a moment, just a hint of strain in his voice. Since the start of their relationship, he had been working on apologising, slowly becoming more comfortable with the vulnerability it brought. Astoria could tell that it still didn't come easily to him. 'I should have talked to you earlier rather than shutting you out like a prat. Can we… can we talk about it now?'
He held out his arm in invitation; nodding, she curled up under it, resting her head against his chest. His body was warm, and his heart beat steadily beneath her ear.
They talked non-stop for the rest of the afternoon, starting off with his history with the Death Eaters before branching out to their respective families, her anxiety, and what they wanted from their marriage.
By the time the sun started to set, Astoria felt closer to Draco than she had imagined possible.
For the first time in a long time, it felt like they could see one another.