My name is Astoria Malfoy.
I repeat the words to myself like a mantra now, though it's been long enough that they don't make any sense anymore. They're simply a series of of nine syllables, twenty-five letters, a few throwaway words and two names with several different origins depending on which language you choose to research. But within them lies an entire world of deception and desperation and coincidence which I must not, at any cost, forget. I repeat the words to myself because in them I see the story of how they came to be true, on Valentine's Day, 2004.
I was shivering. This is always where the story starts. I'm not sure why, because I was often shivering. But for some reason in my memory this is the trembling that marks the change between everything that came before and everything that came after. It is a physical disturbance, a shift, a quake. But at the time, all I knew was that I was cold.
It was winter and the drafts came through the gaps in the boards like hunting beasts, searching out windows to rattle and skin to chill. I was sitting on a chair, curled beneath a blanket, and I had been sitting there for an hour now. My muscles were stiff and cold. I had hardly moved since I took up my vigil, except when my gaze darted from the window to the clock on the wall. He said he would be back at two and and it was four minutes past three. It would be getting dark soon. The thought of being there, alone in the dark, was unbearable. Perhaps Tracey would visit, as she sometimes did, and wait with me. But Jeremy would want her to stay close with the storm coming.
I thought of the rain that would soon be pounding on the roof and had to beat back a rising ride of fear. Every drop would be a running footstep and every flash of lightning the telltale glow of a curse and there would be no sleeping. I thought of my mother, when I was a child, rocking me during the storm, telling me there was nothing to be afraid of. For a long time, she was right. I had nothing to fear.
The Crack! of his Apparition was so loud it should have sent me into paralyzed terror but it's the sound I was waiting for and instead I felt the dizzying surge of anticipation fulfilled. I undertook the complex task of slowly untangling myself, stretching my cold limbs to the floor. He came striding around the door frame with a bag in his hand, looking harassed.
"I'm sorry," he said immediately, setting the bag down on the floor. "They had checkpoints again."
I felt a resurgence of anxiety. "Were you alright?"
'"If I wasn't, do you think I'd be here?" he asked sarcastically, but he gave me a wry half a smirk. "Merlin, it's fucking freezing in here. I brought some wood, here."
He tossed me his wand and I caught it with one hand reluctantly withdrawn from the blanket. I moved to the fireplace and waited while he set the log down before I cast the spell with his wand. I was getting used to it, it worked well for me, but using it still felt a little hollow. I missed my wand, hidden away beneath a mattress, useless.
I sat in front of the fire and felt the warmth beginning to lick the hollows of my cheeks. Outside, the sun was growing dimmer and the clouds were drifting over it, occasionally bringing darkness to the room for a second before revealing the brighter gloom again. I could hear him drifting around the room behind me but after a few minutes he sat down on the floor two feet away. He had a tin plate of food in one hand and he handed me a similar one with the other absently, his eyes on the newspaper which he spread out on the ground between us so that I could read it as well in the light of the fire.
It wasn't the Prophet. The paper had stopped operating a few months ago. This paper was worn slightly, a little damp, and the layout was haphazard and lacked pictures. I wondered where he had gotten this one. It was the paper operated by what were now called "Rebel Activist Groups", and the articles were brief, unembellished, and sometimes vague. He must have picked it up after the checkpoint; he never would have gotten through with it.
I noticed the date in the top right hand corner. February 14th, 2004. Valentine's Day. I pointed it out to him.
"I had the flowers and heart confetti somewhere, I swear," Draco joked absently, his eyes still on the paper. It was bright in the circle of space we occupied but beyond that the room had grown dark.
"Flowers? I want diamonds and nothing less, thank you," I teased quietly.
"Next year, I promise you," he said, taking his gaze off of the parchment between us and smirking at me, though the amusement did not quite touch his eyes. He was sitting with his legs outstretched and his arms behind him, the fire reflected as sparks of molten steel in his grey eyes. "There is, of course, a condition," he qualified with his gaze on the flames, and I raised an eyebrow, knowing what was coming. He put his hand on the outside of my knees and pulled me around to face him, obligingly, I placed my feet on the other side of his legs and tilted my head toward him, resting it on my knees.
"Marry me," he said casually, and though I'd heard him say it before, it still caused my heart to miss a beat in it's endless numbered drumming.
"Alright," I said back, equally indifferent, and he looked around at me sharply. "I didn't realize you had a judge in the bag. Let me go put on some dress robes." I smiled at the exasperated expression he offered me.
"If you won't agree on Valentine's Day, what date would you recommend?" he asked, sounding dryly amused. I would never be able to offend him with my evasiveness but I knew I frustrated him. I was sorry for it. But I wouldn't give him what he wanted. It would be too much to want if it were snatched away, too easy to count on it.
"I didn't realize you were such a romantic," I pointed out, shaking my head in mock disappointment.
"I was merely taking advantage of the opportunity," he admitted, shrugging. "But I can see you're unmoved by tradition."
It was true, the day had never meant much to me. It was never relevant. I had no interest in nor patience for the silly traditions and meaningless fumbling that made up romantic gestures. Even before I was here, the holiday slipped past me without my notice much of the time. I was already gloriously, achingly, reluctantly cracking into pieces with love, and no paper decoration or wilting flower was needed to explain this to me. But I found myself thinking about St. Valentine and the murky legend that had been all but lost in the centuries between and in the countless pages of A History of Magic, Grade Four.
They say he was a wizard of great power, but young, and reckless. He was known for producing a love potion of such strength that even the smell of it could make a man weak in the knees with longing for the maiden it was made for. But the King was tired of his soldiers running off to be married instead of serving in his army, and he forbade the wizard from brewing his potion again.
But Valentine was foolish. He fell in love with the only maiden who wouldn't have him, too haughty, too proud, and too aware of her own beauty: the King's daughter. He was driven mad with longing and in the dead of night he set to brewing the potion that would make her his. He was discovered and the King's fury was formidable. Valentine was thrown in the dungeons to rot, and await execution. There the daughter found him, in the damp and cold, kept warm by the thought of her. She was moved by his devotion, and as she came to visit him and bring him scraps of food in secrecy, she found herself falling in love with him. But she could not stay her father's hand, and Valentine was executed, leaving her nothing for comfort but a letter reminding her of his love, signed, "Your Valentine".
I could only dimly recall the story. I could not remember if I had ever learned the daughter's name. Perhaps I couldn't recall it because in my own mind, I saw myself. But this version of the story was different: I, the daughter of the powerful man, was locked away, left to weaken and freeze, and spend my time awaiting the moment when I was not alone. This was a more dangerous story, a darker tale, because it was not the king who hunted me, but his pack of wild and starving dogs who wore the faces of men on public streets. And if Draco was found with me there would be no mercy for him, either.
It began with, perhaps not innocence, but ignorance. The kind of simple mistakes and allowances that begin to pile atop one another to form a more sinister picture. No one wanted to believe that the events were connected and those who saw were more comforted by blindness until it was far too late to stop the events that had been set into motion. The Dark Lord's defeat should have healed us, it should have halted the spread of hysteria. But it only left questions. Who were we supposed to blame for the death and destruction? If the innocent were imprisoned and the violent running free, how were we to tell the difference? What proof was there other than the confused and terrified accounts of the survivors? And it was there that it really began. No one knew anything. We needed leadership, someone to tell us what we were to believe, and it was delivered in the form of one sweet looking old woman who stepped forward and demanded answers.
Dolores Umbridge was a woman many people had never heard of. But she was decisive and in the days after the end of the war, her voice gradually became the loudest. She had been a teacher, she had worked in the Ministry, she knew what she was doing. We wanted to believe that there was someone who knew what was going on. She didn't need to be convincing- people were desperate to trust someone, anyone who could look like an authority. And in her first few weeks she was considered successful. She took swift and merciless action against the Death Eaters who had escaped, she employed new and tougher Aurors, gave them unprecedented power. She was hailed as a hero by much of the Wizarding community and it seemed like those who disagreed could not speak without being shunned in the streets.
I was eighteen. I had no interest in politics, no desire to know anything but my own comfortable life. My friends had survived, protected by their own preservation instincts. But even I knew that all was not as it seemed in the Ministry. No one had come calling to arrest my parents, nor those of my friends. But what did I care? Hadn't their wealth always protected them? Besides, I knew my parents had not been deeply involved in the war- my father worked at the Ministry, he had merely been a politician, with no hand in the messier side of the Dark Lord's business.
She was elected Minister of Magic after six months. Her campaign was hotly contested but it was done by a minority. She was a symbol, untouchable. And she repeated again and again that she would stop at nothing to ensure the safety of the Magical Community. So when a law was passed that required Wizards to register their wands, surely that was for the protection of the public. When she began firing Ministry workers, seemingly at random, everyone assumed she knew something we did not. When people like my father began to rise in the ranks it meant nothing to me except that at parties he was graciously congratulated and my mother smiled with pride.
And when, after a year or so, the old process of weeding out Mudbloods and Squibs began again, it lead only to confusion. But hadn't the Ministry done this once already? No one had protested then. Were they supposed to protest now? But wait, they couldn't: public demonstrations had been deemed a danger to society in the period after the war and made illegal. And to me and those in my position, it was background noise. The same old story. I wasn't involved. I was still going to parties and studying. My friends were not imprisoned. Draco seemed worried but I could silence his fears with one searing kiss, smooth the lines of his furrowed brow and the tension in his jaw with a soft word.
But some in the Ministry were tiring of the charade. They had jobs to do besides processing Mudbloods for detainment and searching out the rumored camps where they hid from the law. They were tired of the press demanding answers to questions about things they had no hand and little interest in. My father was a part of this group. He grew frustrated with having to clear all of his work in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement with Umbridge before it was completed. He was not a child. He became one of the workers who began to half-heartedly object to her methods. And when the most outspoken of the group was imprisoned, along with his wife, for suspected assistance to fugitive Mudbloods, the objections became outraged protests. And this is when Umbridge's political war began to creep silently into my life. My father was tense and paced the house at night, listening to the wireless. My mother began to carry her wand in her pocket. These were small changes that I noticed but thought nothing of. Until the day I left the house to go shopping and never went back.
Draco was the one who found me, bags in hand, as the evening began to slip into night. He had been to my house looking for me and I had to leave, I had to come with him right now, this instant. I was confused and stubborn and I didn't understand but I trusted him.
I turned on the wireless he brought a month ago, quietly. The rain that I had been thinking of never came; soft flakes of snow were drifting past the window, illuminated by the glow of the fire. I was thinking of Valentine's Day again. This time last year I was living in an elegant manor home, with no worries. I don't think I even noticed that it was a holiday. I was too busy, too immersed in living my fabulous and painless life. I didn't know what I'd have thought if I did notice it. Would I expect a gift, some over-the-top gesture? No, I didn't think so. I knew Draco too well for that. He was never one for well-planned, dramatic action. He loved me as lightning loves dark spring rain: unpredictably, spontaneously, in brief and brilliant flashes that one might miss if they weren't watching. He gave no warning and he gave no allowances, he was demanding. That night he proposed to me on Valentine's Day as he had at least once a month for six months: without extravagance, without embellishment, and without pretense. I had exhausted his good humor in countless ways before but my worthless answers never seemed to; in this, as in many things, Draco was resolute.
Was that night the night I ought to have said yes? Was there some magical protection, granted by this binding promise on this most appropriate of evenings, which I had denied us? If I were to be captured in a raid, thrown into Azkaban and waste away, would I want him to have the comfort of my last commitment? Or would it be a chain for him, dragging forever around his neck, the promise that he made to a dead girl in a creaky shack in the woods?
I was, by nature, indecisive. I rested my chin in the palm of my hand and my elbow on my knee. I was made up of many angles, some of them contradictory. It was Valentine's Day and I had not said either no or yes.
When the first scream caught my ears it was muffled by the snow and the trees around us. Draco's eyes snapped to the window but mine remained on the fire. I had not said yes. Why didn't I say yes? It was Valentine's Day and terror was beginning to widen my eyes and I had not said yes.
"Come on," he said quickly, and pulled me to my feet. They were bare, I didn't know where my shoes were. There was no time. He pointed his wand at the fire and it was extinguished, leaving behind only the remaining warmth which would quickly evaporate into the night. We dashed to the door and he pulled it open agonizingly slowly, knowing that it creaks. Outside the only movement visible was the soft swirl of falling snow. It was nearly pitch black. He held onto my hand and lead the way out into the wintry air and I sucked in a pained gasp as my bare feet made contact with the snow. I could see nothing at all but the vague shapes of trees and the occasional glow of the moon through the branches.
My teeth were chattering and I clenched my jaw hard to silence the noise. My head ached with the effort. Our footsteps were too loud in the snow, echoing against the trees in the silence, but I couldn't quiet them. We crept forward by inches, ears straining, but every sound was drowned out by the beat of my pulse in my ears. It played a rising crescendo against the peaceful background of the night. My eyes adjusted, I could see forward into a clearing that Draco was leading me toward. We paused on the edge, looking out into the space where moonlight illuminated the virgin snow on the ground. He let go of my hand to rummage in his pocket.
The silence was shattered.
The woods around us filled with screams as a blast of light and sound shook the trees to the right. I pressed hard against the trunk and resisted the urge to shut my eyes and pretend that it wasn't happening. The noises were constant, now- deep yells, shrieks, blasts from wands. A woman ran by, sobbing hysterically, her hands held blindly out in front of her as she felt for trees in her path. My hands were pressed behind me to the rough, cold bark of the tree and I glanced quickly to my left, to Draco, and with a throb of fear I saw that he was not beside me. I couldn't stay here, the sounds of conflict were getting nearer and more people were running by me now, glancing back over their shoulders, some carrying small children.
"Draco!" I screamed his name until my throat was raw but in the darkness I couldn't see him, couldn't distinguish anyone from the figures around me. I turned and ran, my bare feet growing numb, into the clearing. It was bright in the open space, and moon-pale faces sped past, white and wide-eyed like ghosts swooping down to enact their vengeance on the night. Adrenaline kept me from freezing as my breath billowed out in frantic clouds. He was nowhere.
Someone grabbed my arm as they ran past and pulled me along. "Come on!" a voice said, and I was pulled forward, into the trees once more on the other side of the clearing. It was a stranger, some kind and helpful soul pulling me into darkness and safety, but I tugged away, trying to free myself. They shoved me roughly to the ground and then I realized I was being directed into a hollow beneath the roots of an ancient tree where three other people crouched, shaking. As I hugged my knees to keep them still I felt a hand touch mine.
"Are you alright?"
The whispers were nearly inaudible, just a disturbance in the air, really. I turned my head a fraction of an inch to see her, and Jeremy beside her. Her eyes were impossibly wide, and her lips blue and trembling.
"Are you alone?" she asked. I could feel her shaking where her legs were pressed against the side of mine in the tight space. I nodded.
"I don't know where Draco went, he was right beside me," I said, and my voice grew too loud and too high and I clamped my lips together before more could spill out.
"He'll be fine," Jeremy assured me, in his calm, quiet tone. His gaze was sweeping across the ground in front of us, looking alert and steady. I did not believe him. I drifted back to the thoughts that now seemed prophetic. Had I caused this? Had fate given up on trying to bless me when I refused to be blessed? Perhaps I had used the last portion of Destiny's goodwill by not accepting what she offered me so generously. I had not said yes.
There were footsteps now in the snow and we fell silent, breathing shallowly. A group approaching, but not running. A deep, grating voice rang out in the quiet.
"Check behind those trees. Keep your wands out. This whole thing has been botched from the start."
"How in the bleeding hell do you think they found out?" someone else asked, this voice rhaspy and thin.
"Who the fuck knows? Fucking mess, this is. She'll kill us if we don't at least bring some back for her. Rebels, indeed," grunted the first voice.
I felt a spark of understanding. The raid had not gone as planned. I had heard of rebels interrupting raids, giving the hunted a chance to escape, distracting Umbridge's men. There was a chance of escape. But my wand, useless in most situations now, as Umbridge had it registered, was back in the shack. Draco knew that. He wouldn't leave without me and I couldn't leave without him if I wanted to.
The voices passed. It was quiet again. I sat there with the others for what might have been an hour but was probably just minutes. The snowfall had stopped, all was still.
"Let's go," Jeremy's voice was startling, quiet as it was. He carefully, slowly withdrew from the small space, then waved a hand at his fiance and I to follow. I did so with some difficulty, my muscles were frozen and my feet entirely numb now. We slipped through the woods. I could hear the occasional blast coming from somewhere ahead. Then a twig snapped, much closer to us. We froze in unison as a shape emerged from behind a tree.
"Shh," the figure said to us, holding up their hands. "It's alright. I'm here to help. Come with me."
It was a man. He beckoned us forward and we followed as he lead us silently in a straight line to the east, glancing continuously over his shoulder as though he had a twitch. Eventually he gave a low whistle, and it was answered by a figure some fifty meters away. The man leading us picked up his pace until he reached the other, a woman.
"One at a time," he said, and Jeremy pushed Tracey forward. She looked back to him, shaking her head.
"It's alright, dear. We're taking you somewhere safe," the woman said, nodding encouragingly. Tracey grasped her arm. With a last nod, they vanished.
The sound of their Apparition was shockingly loud. I flinched. "Alright, hurry up now, they'll have heard that," the man said. "Get ready."
He looked at me. I shook my head. "I can't," I said, as he pulled at my arm. "Let go."
"Come on now love, you've got to trust me," he said with a frustrated sigh, shaking my arm.
"No," I said firmly, too loud, and he paused, surprised. "I'm waiting for someone."
"Pansy, he'll be alright," Jeremy said soothingly. "They'll take him too."
I shook my head. They both looked at me, waiting. The distant sound of voices reached us.
"We don't have time for this," the stranger said, and grabbed hold of my arm, tightly. I was still opening my mouth to protest when we vanished.
I stumbled away from the man's grasp, gasping as the sensation of Apparition passed. Compared to the soft stillness of the woods, the mysterious location we had arrived in was bustling with activity. It was crowded with crying children and adults speaking over one another, and in the corner, several people lay on beds, moaning, as wizards standing over them inspected bloody wounds and burns.
Tracey was there, waiting. She rushed forward. "Jeremy's coming," I told her. "Have you seen Draco? Is he here?"
"I don't know," she admitted, shaking her head. I pushed past her and began scanning the room, but saw no sign of a a platinum blonde head, nor his familiar black robes. Another Apparition sounded behind me and I turned around. Jeremy and the stranger, who was tall and bearded, had appeared. Jeremy and Tracey immediately backed away, their heads close together, while I confronted the other man.
"Take me back," I demanded, grabbing his arm. "I have to go back."
"Listen, they were nearly on us when we left," the man said, shaking my grip off as easily as if it were a troublesome fly. "I'm sorry. I can't do that."
"I'll go on my own. Is there a wand I can borrow?" I looked around as though thinking someone would stand up and offer one, but the man was shaking his head again.
"Not going to happen," he said briskly. I opened my mouth furiously, but he interrupted. "Look, if your boyfriend doesn't show up in the next few batches I'll go look for him myself. I give you my word."
It was the best I could do. I backed away from him and sat down. After a few minutes, a kind looking woman offered me a pair of clean, warm socks, which I took silently. The blood returning to my feet was sharp and painful and I bit my lip hard, watching the corners where every few minutes, a pair of people would appear, and quickly be melted into the crowd.
It was from behind me that I heard his voice. I whipped my head around so quickly that the room was a blur of brown curls for a moment before I saw him striding toward me, his wand in his hand. I stood up and his hands were cold when he placed them on either side of my neck.
"Alright?" he asked me, and I nodded. He pulled my wrist toward a quiet section of the room and I followed, drifting behind him, dizzy with relief.
"I tripped," he said as we sat down near a fire, "Over a bloody root, trying to follow you."
"I'm sorry, I didn't know where you were," I said quietly. He had been right behind me and I had no idea.
His expression was tight and brooding and we sat still for the next several hours, eating when someone brought hot food but otherwise simply waiting to see what was going on. There was no clue as to where we were or who these people were. Eventually, someone came around to speak to us.
"Muggleborns?" the woman asked in a businesslike but not unkind voice. I cleared my throat, shaking my head.
"No," I said shortly. "My father was taken."
She nodded her understanding and turned to Draco. "And you?"
He actually let out a tiny breath of dry laughter, raising his eyebrow arrogantly. "Draco Malfoy," he said, and her eyes widened in recognition.
"No one saw your face in the woods?" she asked sharply, and he shook his head. "Well, you ought to be fine then. As for you..."
She looked at me with a sharp eye and down at the parchment in her hands, scanning it with her eyes. She made a few notes. I felt a little insulted and was about to ask what exactly she wanted from me when she looked up again, nodding absently. "How old are you?" she asked.
"Twenty four," I responded briefly, utterly puzzled.
"Well it's not ideal, but it ought to work," she said, almost to herself, looking down at the parchment again. Without another word she strode off, her expression determined.
I looked at Draco and he shrugged. "Whatever it is, I'm sure it's good news," he drawled. "Perhaps its a Valentine's greeting card."
I couldn't help but smile at that and went back to staring idly around the room. It was Valentine's Day. I needed no card, flower, or gift. I was alive and so was he, untouched, unimprisoned. Was that not enough of a sign that somewhere, someone meant for us to be alive and together? Once a month, he asked me to marry him. Once a month I gave him no answer. What was I waiting for? Permission from some higher entity? Was this meant to be their sign?
An hour later I was fighting the instinct to close my eyes. It sounded so blissful to sleep in the light of the lamps. But I would not allow it. I could not sleep until I had untangled the twisted snarl in my head. It was Valentine's Day and I loved him like ocean waves loved the shore: uncontrollably, inevitably, beating with a pulse that lulled and crashed alternately. On Valentine's Day he asked me to marry him and I gave him no answer.
The woman with the parchment returned. There was a satisfied expression on her face. She motioned for me to stand and I did. She held up a piece of paper- no, a photograph- and her eyes shifted from it to my face.
"Not much of a resemblance but it should hardly matter," she said with a decisive nod. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a wand, medium length, of shining dark wood, and handed it to me. I took it with mounting confusion.
"This isn't mine," I told her, though I suspected she knew that.
"It is now," she said briskly, handing me a small stack of parchment papers. "Your new name and some background information just in case. She was a little younger than you, you'll have to memorize your new birthday," she warns me. I looked down at the parchment.
"You knew her?" she eyed me sharply.
"Her sister," I clarified. "She told me a year ago her sister was killed in an accident."
"Tragic," the woman said, nodding gravely. "But- well, not fortunate, but perhaps a little silver lining. They've donated her identity. I think they'll be pleased to know it's gone to a friend, at least."
She left me there then, my eyes on the paper in front of me, reading at an increasingly frantic pace. New identity. They had given me someone else's name, someone who was not wanted or hunted. A girl who I might have known. I looked at the photograph- her eyes were brown, her hair a little lighter, her features different. But close enough, just barely.
"Pansy? What is it?" Draco asked from behind me, standing up.
"I turned to him and handed him the paper. He read it mutely, his forehead furrowed.
"They want you to use her name?"
"Yes," I said softly. "Astoria."
"You can come back. To the city. In public," he stated, looking to me for clarification. I nodded. His expression cleared.
"Gods, Pansy, this is incredible," he said, and he kissed me then, long and hard and burning, and when I pulled away I shook my head.
"No," I corrected him. "Astoria. And I don't think I can exactly go home."
"You'll stay with me," he said, shrugging, as though there was no question whatsoever. "Of course, perhaps there's a condition."
His face was smooth but determined as he read over the paper again and then turned his eyes to me. I could see no amusement in his expression now. He was not playing this game any longer, he was stern.
"Marry me," he demanded, raising an eyebrow in challenge.
It was Valentine's Day and he was not asking.
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