There were days when he wished she was one of those girls that assumed things. Like the way Pansy had known that she would be his date to the Yule Ball, even before he had asked her. Or the way Pansy had expected that they would fuck afterwards, so that when the time came for him to lead her from the Great Hall to that deserted classroom that he had Goyle guard for him, she practically dragged him there. Because truly, if Astoria merely confronted him with an assumption, it would have made his life so much easier.
However this was Astoria.
The person whom he first met at a party in the Greengrass Estate, lurking in the balcony, wedged between the white marble handrail and the potted trees.
“Hiding, if you must know," she said at the time, answering his unspoken question. “If you could keep it down, you’re more than welcome to stay.”
If anything, he could appreciate the irony. Various single girls flirted, maximizing the opportunity this event afforded them and she, the cause for the celebration, was hiding at her own coming out party.
He could also appreciate the company. Because he was hiding too, hiding from the whispers and the censure and the pointed stares that inevitably would rest on his forearm. He didn’t even know why he was invited to the party; he was thinking it was due to how Potter seemed to have pardoned the charges against his mother.
He recognized her because her mother had announced her when she stepped down the grand staircase into the glittering crowd in the ballroom. He remembered taking one look at her, with the blank expression, plastic smile and fluffy, virginal white dress and just as quickly dismissed her as all right but not quite as attractive as her sister Daphne.
What he didn’t know was if she recognized him. Perhaps she didn’t or she wouldn’t have been so willing when she gave him permission to share her hiding space.
“I’m Draco Malfoy.” He felt it was only fair to introduce himself, a sort of warning regarding the poor company that she was keeping.
“I gathered.” She whispered at the same time motioned with her hands to silence him. “Daphne pointed you out once in school. You were shorter then.”
He felt like laughing at that. He was many things while in Hogwarts. Arrogant. Idiotic. Former Death Eater. Shorter, although true, was the least of the list.
She peered around his shoulder as if looking for something, or someone in the ballroom. He felt heat rise in his cheeks and he recognized the feeling. He had spent the better part of his post-war life listening to half-baked excuses as to why people needed to leave his company when they could not in polite company really say the truth- that they did not like to be seen with him. And she was looking around his shoulder, as if taking notes on who was keeping watch, like she was ashamed to be seen talking to him.
“I better leave you alone, Greengrass.” The words were out quickly. Better he saying them than she.
But before he could continue, she raised a finger to her lips and placed her other hand on his mouth to silence him.
“…oh, Ravenclaw has taught my daughter well. I assure you she can manage household finances, throw magnificent parties. This party, in fact, was partly organized by…” The voice wafted to them then faded from the ballroom despite the closed the French doors.
“And there’s that.” The finality in her impertinent voice caused a side of his mouth to turn upward.
Her hand covering his mouth felt soft against his lips and the clean scent of oranges wafted to his nose. He resisted the urge to inhale deeply or to move his lips again in hopes of resolving their strange tingling.
Draco gently removed her hand from his mouth. It was an act of self preservation.
“Was she supposed to be describing you?” He turned to her, amusement genuine.
“Out by 18, married by 20, an heir by 21. Oh, as if you don’t know the drill.” The warmth of her lopsided grin stopped him. Her hand was still in his and he knew, was certain that when he will let go, she would not wipe it against the waste of cloth that her mother called a ball gown.
When he met her green eyes, half amused and half wary, he realized that there was something missing. Something that made him drop her hand and pull up short.
“You’re a fool, Greengrass.” He meant it too. “Not that many acceptable purebloods out there.”
He watched as she shrugged a dramatic, Gallic shrug. “Purebloods don’t seem all that fashionable these days, with Harry being named Witch Weekly’s Bachelor of the Year, two years counting.” Her voice was heavy with sarcasm. And he realized, she meant it too.
On very rare days, Draco would brave The Leaky Cauldron. These usually occurred when he needed to do business in Gringotts and the thirty minute line of the public floo system to his home was too long of a wait to get sloshed.
This was one of those days and he chose, like he always did, a table in the back, under the shadow of a stone archway and nursed a glass of Firewhiskey.
She entered an hour later, when he was well into his fourth glass. She didn’t seem to notice him. She didn’t seem to notice anything. She merely took the table next to his, propped open a book- Potions for Health- and signaled to a waitstaff. She distractedly ordered a meal and quickly went back to reading, only looking up to thank the guy for her order before promptly falling back into her text.
He observed her over the rim of his glass and found himself shaking his head at the image she presented. Her hair was in a messy bun, glasses were perched on her nose and her eyes had the squint lines of someone who read too much.
Ravenclaw, her mother had said. And Astoria Greengrass definitely filled the stereotype. Draco felt she should have listened to her mother and dated the guy she was being introduced to during her coming out ball, because that night she had been made up nicely and unlike now, didn’t look like she would bore people to sleep.
He opened his mouth to tease her about dating her book when a gruff voice called out.
“What’s scum like you doing here, Malfoy.”
There were three of them, all stocky with muscled arms curled around three thickly made up witches. They seemed to be headed upstairs to the rooms above the Leaky Cauldron. Of the three, he recognized one of them.
He concentrated, trying to attach a name to his face.
Draco steadied himself, biting back the words that he wanted to say. He thought three years ago, before the war, he would have said something. Two years ago, immediately after the war, although he made up his mind to stay away from public scrutiny, he might not have been able to control himself. Today, he’d like to believe that he knew better. He’d like to believe that two years of a confiscated wand and banned Apparition, two years of veiled threats to his mother when he made small moves out of line, and two years of public shunning was a long enough time to sober him.
But he couldn’t bring himself to reply nicely. So he chose to ignore them.
“Maybe you should give yourself up to the Aurors. I heard they’re looking for live target practice. Nothing like real screams to sharpen skills.”
“Potter may be soft, letting you off like that, but we think you should join your buddies in Azkaban.”
Draco stared determinedly at the bottom of his glass.
“Well, he wouldn’t have any buddies there,” McLaggen interrupted his friend. “Because if the story’s correct, one of his baby Death Eater bodyguards burned to death in Hogwarts.
The blood rushing to Draco’s face made the room feel warm.
His name was Vincent.
Crabbe’s actions may not have been accepted in this new magical world, but he was still a friend. He shared a room with the guy for six years. It felt wrong that he would be relegated to the term baby Death Eater bodyguard.
But before he could speak, a dry, calm voice chimed in from the side.
“Boys.” Astoria’s voice sounded bored. Although still sitting with her book floating in front of her, she already had her wand out. “Perhaps you should take your ladies upstairs and stop paying Malfoy attention. Before the girls start wondering if you are actually interested in girls.”
The three wizards stared at her incredulously. Draco sympathized with them. He could hardly believe it himself that she had just insulted three men, each twice her size, without even a note of nervousness.
One of the men must have realized that she was just a distraction because he refocused on Draco.
“Without big bad Voldemort around, you’re just a pussy aren’t you, Malfoy, needing a girl to defend you,” he sneered. “Especially one so….” The look he threw Astoria was something that Draco was familiar with. It was the same expression that had resided on his face whenever he came across Ron Weasley.
And before he could stop himself, his fist had connected with the closest of the three. The guy stumbled backwards, taking with him the girl he had his arm around and careened into McLaggen. The ensuing chaos was one Draco was prepared for. He vaulted over the table, taking advantage of their surprise to slip past them. He held out his hand towards Astoria, who looked at it, surprised.
“You started it,” Draco said. “I can’t leave you here.”
She got over her surprise quickly enough to stuff her book into her bag.
Then they ran.
They were eight blocks away before they stopped.
“For the record-” she sounded breathless- “Malfoy, you started it.”
If it were possible to laugh in one’s thoughts, then that was what he was doing at the moment.
“I wasn’t the one who called them homosexual. Not that there is anything wrong with that. It just seemed that they aren't.” He was winded as well. He forced himself up from his stooped forward position.
“Implied. Not called. And you threw the first punch.” She laughed which quickly turned into a coughing fit. She was red in the face when she stopped but she forced her next words through. “I wish you let them finish what they thought of me, though. I wanted to have reasonable cause when I cursed them. And I wish you actually let me curse them.”
“Why bother?” The question was something he didn't mean to ask. Not that he thought they weren’t worth cursing, but rather why had she gone out of her way to defend him.
He leaned against the wall opposite her, waiting for his breathing to normalize.
She gave him a shrug, again that very Gallic shrug. “You weren’t doing anything. If you did something wrong, I would have sided with them.”
She was just beginning to catch her breath. Her breasts were still heaving beneath her robes, her cheeks were in high color and her hair had slipped from her bun and had fallen around her shoulders, disheveled. His mind made connections the way all male minds made connections. He forced himself to look away.
“You know,” she said, “your punch works as well, but I thought using a wand would have been better.” Her cold rationality so far fazed Draco. He thought he was over his reaction to public opinion but his face burned again. He mumbled his reply.
“Sorry. Didn’t catch that.”
“No wand.” His answer was forced through gritted teeth.
“Oh, so you really are just happy to see me.”
His head snapped towards hers, surprised at her comment. Her face showed amusement and he realized that she was teasing him. If he’d been the one who was ran out of a pub and dragged across Diagon Alley by a criminal who had just admitted his sentence, he’d be furious. She, on the other hand, just took everything in stride and could see enough humor in the situation to make a joke. A sexually charged, extremely embarrassing, highly inappropriate one, but a joke still.
“It was confiscated. I was tried by the Wizengamot. The details weren’t made public.”
“Because you were a minor.”
He was impressed that she knew that piece of Wizarding law. Then he remembered, Ravenclaw.
He nodded then continued. “There were extenuating circumstances but what those wizards in the Leaky thought weren’t true. I wasn’t exactly found innocent and they did punish me. They were just more…”
“Creative with punishment?” She finished. “How long?”
“Two years. Can’t Apparate. Can’t travel abroad. It’s nearly over now.”
There. He admitted that he was found guilty. Everybody else had merely speculated, but since trials of minors were closed to the public, he never really talked about the details of his punishment to anyone except his mother.
He expected derision, but her eyes were clear and mostly curious.
“Two years. Living without Apparition, perhaps, but I don’t think I’d last that long without a wand.”
His last encounter with her came back to his mind, how he had seen something missing in her eyes that had made him step back. And he finally realized what it was.
Astoria made absolutely no assumptions regarding him.
“Look, I don’t know if you actually know how to go home from here. I can take you. Side along apparation.”
It was so tempting. Draco pursed his lips. “I can’t.”
“Think of it as my thank you for saving my ego back there.” Noting his expression, she gave a sigh. “I won’t tell the Aurors.”
“I know you won’t.” And Draco found that he really believed her. “But I’ll floo home.”
She nodded, a ghost of a smile on her lips. “Good choice.” Then with a turn and a pop, she was gone.
A week later found him sitting at one of the guest lounges at St. Mungo’s waiting for her shift to end.
It was so far off from the ‘girl who can manage household finances and throw magnificent parties’ and all the other pureblood wife skills her mother had mentioned she had. It was so….
He shifted around in the rough wooden chair. It was an hour and a half ago when he informed one of the nurses, a middle aged, stern looking witch that he was there to see Trainee Healer Greengrass and Astoria still wasn’t in sight. He didn’t know if the nurse even gave her his message. The nurse’s sneer when he said his name was punctuated with an impolite stare at his forearm. He pursed his lips to keep them from falling into a sneer of his own, thinking that any outward sign of displeasure would mean his message might end up undelivered.
At two hours past his first arrival at St. Mungo’s, Draco stood up for the nth time, purposely avoiding the middle aged witch and approached one of the younger nurses, a blonde, with unusually red cheeks and shiny lipstick.
“I’ve been waiting for Trainee Healer Greengrass? They told me she was off at five. It’s seven. Has there been something keeping her?” Malfoy flashed a charming smile. The young witch batted her eyelashes at him and smiled back. “I’ll send her a no-“
“You’ll do nothing of the kind Zenia,” a voice interrupted. The stern looking witch, who a moment ago was on the other side of the counter, faced Draco. “Mr. Malfoy,” a sneer, “your message has been delivered to Healer Greengrass. We’ve tolerated your presence here. But if your kind isn’t used to waiting, you may feel free to use our exits.”
Draco clutched his forearm unconsciously. He was surprised how fast his face had fallen into a sneer. “And what is my kind exactly madam?”
She gave a pointed look at his forearm before meeting his eyes. “We’ve delivered your message.”
Draco resisted the urge to shout. But what would he say anyway? That his father would hear about this?
All around, it felt like other visitors were looking at him. He hoped that his face, pale as it was, wasn’t red from anger or shame or any combination of the two. He tried to ignore the whispers as he walked calmly towards the front doors.
He was a block away when he realized that somebody was calling his name. It took a firm grasp on his forearm to stop him.
“What!” The snarl was out before he could stop himself. He tried to snatch his arm back and spun around to confront his assailant.
Then he realized it was her. She must have run all the way from St. Mungo’s to catch him.
She teetered backwards in surprise and it took her hand still grasping his forearm and his other arm encircling her waist to prevent her fall.
“They told me you just left.” She sounded breathless. “They said you were there, waiting, then you just left.”
“They told me you were off at five. It’s,” he took his antique pocket watch from his robes and snapped it open as if to emphasize his point, “seven.”
“I always get off at seven.” Her voice was nonchalant. “I’m training to be a Healer. We’re overworked and underpaid. You should have sent an owl yesterday or this morning saying that you were planning on visiting. I would have asked for one of the other healers to cover for me so I can take off early.”
“I told one of the nurses that I would see you after work.”
“That’s what they told me. But I still couldn’t get off earlier. Not without prior notice.”
“Work should have ended at five. You should have gone down to the lounge at five. You do know that Malfoys do not wait?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Yeah, and Greengrass girls do not get jobs. But things have changed since the war. Money gets depleted. So there’s a first time for everything.”
He huffed at her comment but her wry smile drained the ire out of him.
He wanted to tell her that it wasn’t the waiting that got to him, that although Malfoys don’t wait, after two years of waiting for food to cook without the aid of magic, two years of waiting at Floo lines, two years of waiting for his sentence to end, he had gotten used to waiting. But he couldn’t really bring himself to tell her about the stares. He could just imagine how she would scoff at his indignation.
So he steered clear of the topic instead. “You know,” he began, “I don’t really recall Daphne even considering working.”
“She didn’t and she isn’t.” Her grin widened. “Let me change my reason. I felt it a waste of my N.E.W.T.s to just plan parties.”
Her eyes were crinkled at the corners at her own cockiness. Draco couldn’t look away.
Her hand was still resting on his forearm and his arm was still around her waist supporting her and before reason and doubt reentered his mind, he had asked her out.He wondered if he imagined her yes.