Absolution

The storm outside is pounding at the windows of the Malfoy Manor, and within its walls, Draco waits anxiously for another storm to pass. In the next room, his wife of six months is giving birth. She's been at it since early morning, attended by her women, but as each hour passes, drawing closer to midnight, the screams and moans escaping from the room grow worse and worse. By now, Draco has paced the floor at least a thousand times, wearing tracks in the carpet. He has bitten his fingernails down to the quick. He would do anything to end her agony, to put a stop to the awful, wrenching sounds of her suffering. Especially since it is his fault.

Witches typically aren't in labor this long, he thinks, uneasily. Nor is it usually so painful, what with the wonders of magical medicine technology that wizards have at their disposal. But there has been a complication with Astoria's pregnancy, and they can't afford to take any risks. She should be alright, they tell him soothingly, a worried husband. Witches almost never die in childbirth.

And yet what if her magic isn't enough to save her? For months Draco has watched her belly grow bigger and bigger until he thinks she might fall over from it—Astoria, small, fine-boned, delicate, really wasn't made for this. Really shouldn't have to go through it. What if magic isn't enough?

Draco sits down, holds his head in his hands. Makes promises to himself, agreements, to make himself feel better. If she gets through it, he tells himself, he'll finally let her replace those curtains in the drawing room, the green ones that she's always hated. If she gets through it, he'll go with her to more parties, take her out more. If she gets through it, he'll try to be more solicitous, less distracted.

If she only gets through this, he'll never put her through such agony again.

The woman in the next room screams again. The storm will not abate.

Don't look at me that way, she says coolly, to disguise her hurt. It's not like I did it to myself.

I thought you were being careful, he replies through clenched teeth. Taking precautionary methods.

She laughs. Oh, so it's up to me to take care of all that? Just like it's my fault that I'm pregnant?

You seemed to like it well enough, he begins, all those times when your parents were away—

Stop it, she says quickly, her cheeks flushed. I never said I didn't. But—I'm keeping the baby. You might as well know that.

He exhales deeply, trying to imagine his parents' displeasure. Well, then. Guess we'll have to get married, Greengrass.

Looks that way, she retorts.

The whole year following the Dark Lord's defeat, Draco spends locked in his bedroom. Every day, without failing, he sleeps till the afternoon. Every day, he barely speaks a word to his parents and stays in his room, sleeping or doing the crossword in the Daily Prophet. He doesn't eat enough, and Narcissa worries endlessly.

"Leave me alone," he tells her, too tired to muster any irritation.

But she won't. Narcissa can't bear to see her young, handsome, promising son wither and shrink until his dignity and his grace are ghosts of the past. Like what has happened to her husband. So she sends him to their flat in London and tells him not to come back until the month is over. She won't watch this war ruin two of her family.

What does she expect me to do? he wonders at first. It's not like he has friends to see—the few he once had have vanished along with the Malfoys' reputation. It's not like he wants to make any friends. And it's not like he's a war hero. No one's plastering his face on posters, newspaper headlines. No one walks over to say hello to him on the street, if they recognize him.

But he learns to appreciate his obscurity – it was never something he wanted before. He is so used to showiness, importance, to people's attention that being left alone makes a nice change. A month, three months, a year passes in this fashion, and he doesn't want to go back home yet. He doesn't want to be nagged by his mother, indulged by his father. He doesn't want anyone to talk to him, ask after him, he likes it better when they leave him alone.

Only once is his peace disturbed. Sitting in the Leaky Cauldron one evening – a place his mother had once forbidden him from frequenting – he lifts his gaze from the newspaper and, across the room, meets a familiar pair of bright, extraordinarily green eyes. Draco pales instantly. He doesn't even have to raise his eyes an extra few centimeters to check for a scar; he would know those eyes anywhere. For a moment, Potter returns his gaze with equal surprise in his expression, and Draco briefly ponders Disapparating right then and there. But Potter breaks gaze, stands up. He pays for his drink and leaves the pub, careful not to meet Draco's eyes again.

Everyone who sees Draco Malfoy leaves him alone. Except for her.

She notices him first, and approaches him right away. Doesn't introduce herself or offer her hand – she just sits down next to him and orders herself a drink. She doesn't even ask if he wants her company, and despite how he's enjoyed his solitude, he likes her boldness.

She isn't as he remembers her. Her hair, as dark as his is pale, is shorn, barely brushing her chin, and there is a streak of blonde that swoops into her face until she pushes it away. He likes it right away, just as he likes the tattoo of a dragon twining along her upper arm, and the smudged makeup under her eyes.

Astoria, he thinks suddenly, though this young woman is certainly different than the vague memories he recollects at her name. A small, quiet girl with long dark hair in braids. A girl with piercing eyes who shyly looked away when you stared back at her. But she's a woman now, eighteen or nineteen. She doesn't look away. He tries to remember her last name.

The Greengrass family is pureblood, though not very high in social standing. Astoria's sister Daphne, who had been in Draco's year, was always made very conscious of her background by the rest of her House, and to make up for it, she'd gone along with the Slytherins' accepted views without question. He doesn't remember Astoria's position on things.

He tries to remember Astoria from his school days, and finds he can't.

"Did we know each other back then?" he asks once.

Her lips twist derisively, an expression only she can make beautiful. "You don't remember."

He shrugs, unapologetic. "Can I see you again?"

There is a boy in the abandoned girls' lavatory, sitting with his back to the wall and his knees drawn up to his chest, his shoulders shaking. She stops short and backs away toward the door, knowing she ought to leave before he sees her, but still she's curious. What's he doing in the girls' lavatory, she wants to know. And especially one that the girls don't even use, because of the stupid, horrid ghost.

She almost turns and walks away, but she easily recognizes the head of pale hair, paler than she's ever seen and the sight of him roots her to the ground, unmoving.

He looks up suddenly, his face ashen, eyes red-rimmed and wet. Their eyes meet, and then his flash dangerously.

Get out! he snaps, his voice harsh and angry despite his tears.

She freezes. He scrambles to his feet, points his wand at her. His eyes, that mesmerize and terrify her, are fiercely angry though wet with tears, and for a moment she almost thinks he will jinx her. But he lowers his wand, wipes his eyes roughly with his sleeve. He is ashamed, she knows, though all she wants to do is put her arms around him, hold his hand, touch that beautiful pale hair. She is fourteen and a little in love with Draco Malfoy, who has been looking thin and wan all year long. This is the first, and only, time he speaks to her in all their years together at Hogwarts.

Get out, he repeats, softly but still threatening. After a last fleeting look at him, she turns and runs. He lets her.

Her eyes are blue, like the sea, dark and turbulent, and unafraid. She doesn't look away from him, unlike everyone else. Sometimes her gaze makes him uncomfortable; it is too honest, too devastatingly clear and piercing. She sees through him, she knows his weakness. But all the same, at least she doesn't look away.

He ought to be grateful. She shouldn't even want to touch him. But she does want to, and she tries to, only he flinches away every time. She doesn't understand his indifference, his reticence, but he doesn't expect her to.

He doesn't tell her when he leaves the city; he lets her discover for herself his abandoned flat, empty of his presence, he lets her discover why he never owled her back all those times, instead of telling her himself. The only reason he does this to her is because he doesn't expect to ever see her again.

Five years pass, and he realizes he was wrong.

The second time they meet, he knows better than to pretend she never meant anything to him. When she touches him this time, in a darkened room where their features are drowned in shadows, he doesn't flinch away. Something in him is different now, not a trace of hesitation or uncertainty, and if there is, he pushes it to the back of his mind.

"Where did you go?" she asks him when it's over, tracing the unfamiliar scars on his arms.

"Africa."

"Why?"

He can't lie to those blue eyes.

"To get away."

She strokes his forearm, the pale hair and tense muscles there. "From me?"

His eyes are fastened on the ceiling, but his breathing quickens when she moves her hand elsewhere. "From myself."

They don't talk much, those next few weeks. There isn't much to talk about, but there are plenty of other things to do, and they lapse into a strange but pleasant friendship – no, that isn't the right word – companionship, at least. Hers is the only company Draco has been able to stand for years now, the only reason he stays this time. Everything is fine, until she tells him she's pregnant.

"We have to go see my parents," he tells her, once they've decided what to do.

She smirks a little, unfazed. "I'm sure I'll be welcomed into the Malfoy family, won't I." Sarcasm.

He shakes his head. "Don't get your hopes up."

His parents have never been the same since the Dark Lord came back, but now that he's gone for good, it is neither fear nor relief that rules their lives. They don't seem to know what to do with themselves. They float through the manor like ghosts, imprints of their former selves. He hates going back there. He hates every sign of their past wealth, their faded glory.

The peacocks are ridiculous, she tells him under her breath as they approach the manor where he spent his childhood.

He smiles. Wait till you meet my parents.

And so they plan a wedding.

He wonders if she did it on purpose. He wonders what, exactly, she wants from him. Try as he might, he can't bring himself to resent her for it, because even if means getting married, getting stuck in this life he doesn't want. It means having a family of his own, something he's barely thought about till now. Family. It means never again having the freedom he's had for the last eight years.

But it can't be that bad. Potter's done it, married the Weasley girl years ago. Ron Weasley and Granger have done it, too, or so he hears. (He finds, lately, when he thinks about them and all their years at school, that he can't summon up even a tiny feeling of hatred for them. But neither does he want to make up with them. He wants nothing from them, nothing to do with them anymore.) And Astoria couldn't have done it on purpose. (To keep him. To make him hers. To be sure he won't leave again.) Because he could leave her, child or no. And once, he almost does.

The night before their wedding, they flout tradition and he goes to see her, at her small, cramped flat. Right in the middle of it, he thinks to himself, I could leave her. He doesn't really want this – marriage – and he doesn't think she does, either. It would be easy, to do it now. Without telling her. Just like he did it before. He doesn't want to tie her down to him any more than he wants to be bound to her.

When they're finished and he's pulling on his clothes, she lies back on the bed and stretches her small, delicate limbs. When he notices again the dragon tattoo on her arm, he asks her about it (he's never been curious before).

For a moment, she doesn't answer. He waits.

Then she lifts her head and smiles, faintly at him. Meets his eyes with her own fierce blue ones. "Draco, draconis," she says softly, the Latin pronunciation, and then he realizes.

The next day, she stands there waiting in her white dress and pearls, and he is there. Sweating, apprehensive, uncomfortably warm in his expensive robes, but he is there. And she smiles.

After they're married, she notices he has nightmares almost every night. Even though she's pregnant, her sleep is less fitful than his. At times she wakes up during the night for a reason she can't explain and finds him awake at three, four in the morning, leaning out the window, sweating, sometimes still shaking, the muscles in his back tense and rigid. Sometimes he is gripping his left forearm tightly, or rubbing a certain spot furiously. As if something remains, marring his pale skin, reminding him of his guilt, and not just the memory of it.

"You need to forget," she tells him one morning after he's rubbed the skin raw, red and angry where the Dark Mark used to be, its presence no longer visible but still felt.

His jaw set, he won't look at her.

"I can see how it's torturing you. Just let it go. It was another lifetime." She looks at him with impatience; she doesn't want to put up with his self-hatred, his silent suffering. "What are you trying to forget?"

He could tell her; he almost does. Lies. Fear. Having your mind carelessly broken into, your worst thoughts and fears exposed and used against you. Eyes so red and so evil they won't leave your nightmares. A girl who nearly died. And so many who did. Your friends dying because you couldn't save them, because you'd gotten them into this mess in the first place. Green light. And then silence.

He turns away, ignores her question. Absently rubs the skin on his left forearm again. She sighs and gives up.

"Did you ever kill anyone?" she asks once, not so much interested as simply curious if he will tell her or not.

Draco shakes his head. Katie Bell, nearly and on accident. Dumbledore, he failed that task and apparently the old man had planned it all out anyway. No, the only blood on his hands belongs to Vincent Crabbe, whom he always half-hated anyway, and then hates himself for it, but it wasn't really his fault.

She is staring at him inquisitively and he wishes, impatiently, that she would blink once in awhile. "Then why do you feel so guilty?"

"Obviously you wouldn't understand," he snaps, returning to the old, familiar tones of contempt. He used to be so good at it; he rarely has the energy anymore.

Astoria raises a delicate eyebrow at him. "Maybe. Or maybe you don't."

God, the woman. On nights when she locks the bedroom door and he's forced to sleep somewhere else – on nights when she drives him to the utter edge of insanity – he thinks to himself that he couldn't have picked a less infuriating, less impossible wife. She just can't understand, but she thinks she does. She's turning into his mother, nagging, persistent. And then there are other times when he is grateful for her. He could never have married her if she was weak, or trite, or giggly and dense like Pansy Parkinson. Astoria is not a woman he can manipulate or shape to his own ends, she is not someone he can walk over. But neither is she his enemy. She doesn't ask for much, she doesn't ask for romance or kindness or even love. But the one thing she does ask of him – forgive yourself, Draco, forget – he can't do.

If only – if it were only that he had been a mean-mouthed, spoiled pureblood brat in his school years! If only his worst crimes had been bullying other students, pushing people around, talking snidely and rubbing Potter and his crowd the wrong way. If only that was all he had to forgive himself for. He sometimes surprised himself by being so cruel, but then later he realized what truly cruel people do.

Nightmares, scars. He cannot forgive himself, can't sleep, can't forget. Isn't his penance enough?

And now here he is, listening to her suffering, wondering if she will be taken away from him, if that is a fitting punishment for what he has done.

"Well? How is she?"

The girl lowers her eyes to the floor, well aware of who this man is, and what he once was. Her hands tremble, just slightly.

He wants to reach out and shake her. "What's wrong? Tell me!"

The roughness of his voice makes her flinch, but she looks up at him defiantly, in spite of herself. "It's a hard birthing, sir. She may need to be transferred—"

"No. She stays here." Draco turns his back, paces. Winces as another scream splits the air. "Why—what is making it so hard?"

After brief hesitation, the girl replies, "She doesn't have the—the right shape for it, sir. It's very difficult on her. We're trying our best."

"Well, it's not good enough!" he snaps. "Try harder."

The girl tightens the set of her mouth, and nods.

His back to her, Draco shuts his eyes and inhales deeply, willing his anxiety to dissipate, his tensed muscles to loosen.

"Will she live?"

The girl shrugs, sadly, and goes back into the room.

I am not weak, Draco Malfoy, she spits with anger. Don't make the mistake of thinking I'm going to let you get away with this.

He says without fire, Shut up. He staggers over to the giant candelabra in their bedroom and begins to blow out the flames, but she grabs his arm with surprising strength and stops him.

If you think, she says evenly, that you can just waltz in here at four-thirty in the morning, drunk as a pig, not even able to walk straight, and jump into bed with me like nothing's wrong – then you are mistaken.

He thinks he ought to slap her, but doesn't. Maybe he's too drunk to aim properly.

I'm tired, she goes on, of this. I'm tired of you doing this to me. I'm tired of your drinking, your selfishness. Your self-pity. Get over yourself, Malfoy. Learn to be a man. God knows I need one right now. She clasps her hands tightly over her belly, swollen in her sixth month of pregnancy.

Just because your foolish mother let your father get away with absolutely anything, she continues, doesn't mean you can expect the same of me. If this goes on—this drinking, stumbling home at awful hours of the morning, not caring properly for me—then I'm not afraid to leave you.

That's all she says, and she says it calmly, as a statement and not a threat. But he stares at her and sees that she means it. And realizes, as a jolt runs through him, that he wants her to stay. Needs her to.

The next night, he stays home and doesn't once touch the liquor cabinet. She lets him into her bed and allows him to feel the baby kick.

Draco wonders if he deserves to be this happy.

The grandfather clock across the room strikes the hour. Two o'clock in the morning. Draco collapses into an armchair and runs his fingers anxiously over the plush armrests. After a few minutes, a girl rushes out of the room, her arms full of blood-soaked cloths. He breaks into a cold sweat and rises to his feet again, pacing.

The next room has gone strangely quiet, no more of Astoria's screaming and moaning, but no squalling infant cries either. What has he done to her? Draco shuts his eyes and allows guilt to creep like bile into his throat, guilt he deserves, guilt he's earned, unlike the happiness that she gives him. She's never understood, the things he's done, the way things changed and won't go back. The day he crossed the line and gone from being a silly, spoiled little brat with a mouth full of scorn and eyes of elegant contempt, to a pale, cowardly, weak-willed follower, as good as a murderer. Whose eyes looked away, ashamed, terrified, when he witnessed the nightmarish world he'd willingly stepped into.

You don't understand… he says he'll kill me...

He should have known, of course, but he was too young, too stupid to know. He'd thought he wanted it all—the glory, the respect, the importance. But it would be too easy—far too easy—to blame it on ambition, or naiveté. You stepped into it with your eyes wide open. And of course there would be consequences. Not if we'd won. But he hadn't enjoyed it, not any of it, even when they were winning. Though it hadn't been his battle to fight, either.

And what he wouldn't give for a clean conscience, for lighter worries and untroubled sleep at night! To never again feel the tingling on his left arm, the heaviness that settles on him for days at a time. What he wouldn't give for absolution, but how the hell is he supposed to give that to himself?

It's you and you alone holding yourself so accountable. He can hear her cool, level voice reprimanding him, impatient but caring at once. It's you that needs to forgive yourself.

He wishes more than anything that he could hear her calm, ironic voice now, infuriating as it can be sometimes, chiding him, ringing with impatience yet softened by tenderness. But all he hears are more screams coming from the birthing room, screams that rend the air with their hair-raising anguish, and he chokes on the guilt that is rising in his throat, pressing against his lungs at the same time. Please not her.

And then he is on his knees, squeezing his hands into fists so tightly that his knuckles turn white. Please. And again, that same word, repeating over and over in his mind until he is muttering it, half-consciously, Please please please. What else is there for him to say? How can he beg for mercy; what excuse can he give?

Another agonizing, prolonged scream, and his veins seem to shiver with terror. Draco's skin grows suddenly hot as his fear washes over him, and then instantly cold, and he breaks into a sweat. He can't take much more of this. Please. Not her. Not now. Please, not the baby.

He can see their child perfectly now—white-blonde hair, dark blue eyes that stare accusingly into Draco's and tell him, It is your fault, your fault I will never have life. Your crimes, and I pay for them.

No, he thinks desperately, anything, anything. Anything but that.

Astoria's keen blue eyes, regarding him calmly from where she stands, leaning on the balcony, wrapped in a robe. Did you need something?

It is just past two in the morning, and they've been married for a month and a half. Draco shifts his position, and doesn't meet her eyes. No, he says coldly. I was just wondering where you'd gone. What are you doing out here?

I couldn't sleep. The baby's making me uncomfortable. She leans out into the night air again, inhaling deeply. I'm sorry I disturbed you by getting up.

You didn't, he lies. When really he's just been shaken awake from a dream in which he was calling her name, searching for her, and finally found her lying lifeless on the floor, and heard a chillingly familiar, shrill laughter boring into his senses—there was one person alone from whom he couldn't hide anything, not himself, not his secrets and fears, not the things he loved most. Draco had woken in a cold sweat ten minutes earlier, and cried out her name, and felt panic numbing his thoughts when he found her side of the bed was empty and cold.

As usual, she sees straight through him, though she tries to pretend not to. Another nightmare? she asks.

He stiffens and withdraws just a little from her clear-eyed focus, forgetting the deep, wild urge he'd felt just moments ago to find her and hold her and keep her close, where nothing would take her away. Don't leave again like that, he tells her shortly before turning around and going back inside. He feels her eyes on his back as he goes, and somehow, he thinks she knows.

"Please. Please."

His voice is broken and weak, stumbling over the one-syllable word, wavering like a candle flame in the wind. Astoria's screams are too much to bear, but he can't block them out, he hears them even when he covers his ears. She can't possibly know how much she means to him, and in these excruciating moments, he wishes she does. He wishes that he would've told her, at least once, that he cares for her. That she really is more than he deserves, that he needs her in such a way that scares him and also comforts him. That she makes him feel human like nothing else can, almost normal sometimes. He wishes that he would've told her before how afraid he is of losing her.

I was so wrong. He shuts his eyes, the fearful pounding of his heartbeat and the thunderstorm outside drowning out Astoria's screams for a brief instant. I can't go back. But I'm sorry. Don't take her away.

Why do you never let yourself be happy? she asks him once. You've no idea how easy it would be if you just allow yourself. To feel it.

Once upon a time, he might have sneered at her words, scoffed at the care she shows in her tone. But now he's grown up, and all it makes him feel is tired, and a little impatient.

You don't understand, he begins, but she cuts him off and presses her lips to his in an open-mouthed kiss, deep and intense and tender, a display that startles him.

You hide it all, she tells him fiercely, her forehead pressed to his, blue eyes blazing. But I know. I know how much you hate yourself, how you can't bring yourself to put behind you everything that happened. I know that you blame yourself more than you should. You never talk about it, never mention it but it's there. That's why you can't let yourself enjoy me, enjoy your life and open your eyes to the good things that have happened to you. You're too afraid that you don't deserve it all.

"Don't take her away."

Lightning flickers outside, followed a moment later by a huge clap of thunder. The storm is reaching its climax, pounding and thrashing directly over the roof, threatening, angry.

"Please."

One last, shattering, drawn-out scream.

"Let her live."

The storm breaks. There are flashes of lightning and thunder, but they grow more faded and distant, moving steadily farther away.

Draco is still on his knees when the girl bursts into the room, and he hears the piercing cries of an infant coming from the next room. The girl hesitates, flushed and excited to give him the news, but something in his expression makes her wait, halted in her steps.

He ignores her footsteps, ignores her breathless anticipation, pushing even the new infant's cries to the back of his consciousness so that he focuses, listening for it, and then sighs in relief. Astoria's voice, weary and hoarse but wonderfully familiar, giving orders, asking to hold her baby. The best sound he's ever heard. He opens his eyes finally just as the weak rumbling of thunder sounds from far away, and looks at the girl.

"You have a son, sir."