Witch Break A Vow
God loves to make a good man break a vow.
Astoria had read this when she was fourteen years old. She had taken Muggle Studies to resolve a timetabling conflict, but it never occurred to her to approach the subject with anything less than her most sincere efforts.
They were the words of a Muggle American, armchair philosophy in the pages of a pulp novel devoured by the masses. Astoria did not believe in gods (singular or plural), although she called on them in her speech as much as anyone else, and she had no clue what sort of vow a god would want to break, or why.
But she sensed, somehow, that they were important words. Important in a way that transcended the Muggle-Magical divide. Which was, of course, exactly what Professor Burbage had intended.
So she had put the words carefully away in her mind, ready for when they were required. It was the thoughtful act of a conscientious student. Astoria had been a respectful girl. Diligent. The kind of girl that was spoken well of by adults behind closed doors.
She was a good girl.
Astoria gave a soft, rather bitter laugh at the thought, and drank her martini dry.
Muggle cocktails were an acquired taste, but she had acquired it more easily than she'd expected. That was true of quite a few things in her world of late.
She liked her drinks sweet and strong, mostly. Mojitos, schnapps, that sort of thing. She savoured them as she savoured her memories and the tremors that lingered in her body. Savoured the anonymity of sitting in a piano bar in a world that did not know her. Savoured moments lived in present tense.
But at last, she must return to her own world, one where there was a time before and after. The one where she must put one foot after another on the long road ahead, paved with the debts of the past.
That was where the martini came in. Like so many parts of that life, it was bitter and dry.
Well, that was a little unfair. There was a lot of good in it, too. That was, in fact, a big part of the problem, for without the good, the conflicts that ripped at her would fall away.
But it was also a life that hurt her, and it hurt her to return. And it was a life to which she owed a debt that grew daily, whether anyone knew it or not. The martini was her penance, her purification. It washed the sweetness from her mouth, sweetness of cocktails, sweetness of him, before they could touch her other life.
She toyed with her glass for a final moment, running her fingertip around the edge, and set it down on the bar. Left her last couple of two-pound coins with it. She tried not to change Muggle money too often. The fewer traces of her excursions, the better.
Merlin knew, they left enough traces on her soul to tell her story entire, to anyone who cared to look.
Of course, if anyone cared to look, there would be no story at all.
God loves to make a good man break a vow.
The recipient of this warning was not a man, but a little girl with great powers, induced by medical experiments. The idea that Muggles could manufacture something akin to magic had left Astoria appalled and enthralled in turns. She had read the book in one sitting.
She hadn't understood, but she had learned, of course. Good girls always did, because they had the furthest to fall. They became too sure of themselves, too sure that they knew what was right. And God, or the universe, or whatever it was, made a point of putting them back in their place.
She'd done all the right things, she reflected, watching Draco fondly. He was flying on his broom, Scorpius sitting astride it in front of him, clapping his chubby little hands with glee. She'd gone into her marriage with equal parts love and commonsense. It should have been all right.
"Mummy!" Scorpius cried. "Look at me!"
The smile that formed on her face was false, and frankly cliché. She could almost hear it narrated with some melodramatic puffery about a smile that didn't reach her eyes, and chastised herself for it.
She had no right, no right to feel this way. To feel this tightening around her chest. Cutting off her air, day after day after day. She had a beautiful son, and a husband who adored her. And she loved him too. He would never believe it, if he knew where she went and what she did, but she did. If there was any way - any way at all - that she could have what she needed from Draco, she would take it in a heartbeat. He was her only love, as much now as a lifetime of certainty ago.
She'd screened her suitors carefully. She'd looked for social acceptability and wealth, of course - that was necessary for her parents' approval - but also for compatibility, for self-awareness, for goodwill. For commitment and shared values. In Draco, she had found them all, and great love and regard as well.
On paper, she thought, she and Draco should have had the will and the power to solve any problem that crossed their path. But that was on paper. And what was paper? Nothing but pulp put through a press.
Rather like her.
She'd been right, for the most part. They faced their problems and usually overcame them. They negotiated, they compromised, they worked together day by day. It was a good marriage, she knew. Better than most. Despite everything.
But the thing she never factored into her careful future-proofing of her marriage was that Draco just might not be able. That had been, in retrospect, a rather glaring oversight. About anyone, actually, but especially a Malfoy.
By association of ideas, her gaze drifted across to where Lucius and Narcissa were walking in the rose garden. They were meandering on no set course. Narcissa would wander in the direction of a rose to look at it, and Lucius would stretch out his arm between them rather than release her hand. Presently, he would tug her close again, and kiss her, deep and slow.
It had turned out that their anaemic veneer of society marriage was only a mask, adopted from fear that Narcissa would be used as leverage by the Dark Lord if it was known that Lucius loved her. Since the war had ended, their longing for one another seemed boundless.
They were not intentionally indecent before onlookers, of course. The rose garden was sheltered, and Astoria happened to have the only, narrow vantage point from where she was standing. But the passion between them was a tangible thing, a low thrumming that seemed to vibrate on the air whenever they were together.
It made her ache to watch, and she knew that she should not. For their privacy, and for her own soul. (Astoria still did not believe in a god, but she now thought in terms of soul. Heart just didn't seem deep enough for the things she felt, the depths of her chasms and the depths of her relief). But sometimes, sometimes she simply could not look away.
Not that Draco was undemonstrative. He held her hand, all the time. Kissed her with great fondness, on the cheek, on the temple, in her hair. She was the envy of everyone she knew. How lucky she was to have a husband who loved her so, after all these years. What they didn't know was that those were the only kinds of kisses he would give. That even his kisses to her mouth were given with tightly-pursed lips. Now, she turned her cheek to those, rather than let them fall on her lips, unmistakably closed to her.
In the distance, Lucius' hand had drifted to the base of Narcissa's throat. Fingers and thumb forming a V on her collarbone. Possessive. Astoria gasped out a sound that surged, throbbing, deep into her pelvis. Sank back her head. Unmistakable, unstoppable gesture of longing. Gratefully, she registered that Draco and Scorpius were still flying overhead, out of earshot.
She got command of herself again. Drew deep, shaking breaths. Lucius had sunk his hand deep into Narcissa's hair. She was clutching at his cloak. Her mouth was wide and deep beneath his. Again, Astoria felt that surge of need. She swallowed hard and turned away.
She wanted what they had. Wanted it so badly that sometimes she felt like she was screaming inside, screaming through a tiny pinhole so no one could hear. Other times it was like holding her breath, holding it and holding it and holding it, only letting go when she was alone, lest her pain and her sins tumble out of her right along with it.
She didn't blame Draco. He had never seen the love between his parents growing up. It had been a closely-guarded secret, even from him. That might have been all right, except that he saw other things instead, hellish things, and had nothing good to balance it out.
He saw the love later, as she did, but by then, Astoria believed, the damage was done.
He said he had never participated, that he had told the Dark Lord he simply could not perform with a filthy Mudblood. Astoria believed him. It was something about the genuine surprise in his features when she'd asked. The asking puzzled him, she thought, because he genuinely believed there was nothing wrong at all.
And that was the heart of it, really, wasn't it? With Draco, she had sex. Had only ever had sex. Making love was a language he did not speak. And because he did not speak it, did not understand it, he was mystified that she thought it was missing.
Not that he was a callous lover. He was...fond, she supposed was the best word for it. He wasn't attentive beforehand, and her climaxes were optional at best, but he wasn't unkind or unpleasant either. It was the sort of nondescript sex that would be perfectly acceptable if it weren't all the time (not that anything from monthly to yearly could really be described as all the time in the first place).
But what he did not do - could not do, she now believed - was lose himself in her, and let her lose herself in him. He resisted all efforts to draw out their time together. Refused to luxuriate in it with her. Refused to luxuriate in her.
She understood compartmentalisation, understood choosing to detach emotion from sex. But what left her so desolate and bereft was the realisation that Draco didn't choose. That he was genuinely unable to fathom that it could be anything else at all. That he was simply unable to meet her there.
Draco was dismounting from the broom. "Darling," he called, striding towards her, Scorpius carried on one hip.
She forced that smile again, but it didn't stay forced for long. Draco was beaming his most fatherly smile at Scorpius, and she felt hers melt into something kinder and real. "Hi there," she said. Took his hand when he reached out to her.
He leaned in and kissed her cheek. "Love you," he said with casual warmth.
She closed her eyes for a long moment, leaning in too. There were two translations of those words in her brain, continually fighting for dominance.
The first was, I love what I can stand to see of you.
The second was, I love you as much as I can.
Today, she felt kindness for him, and pity too, and she chose to believe the second.
All of this took place in the split-second it took her to draw back to look at him. "I love you too," she said gently, and she meant it.
He held out his hand to her, and they went inside together.
God loves to make a good man break a vow.
She remembered those words the day she really accepted the permanence of Draco's walls. Her pleas had become a source of unconcealed anxiety to him, and she knew she was at the outermost limit of how hard she could push. Any harder and she would be an aggressor, as surely as any disgruntled husband in the same situation.
(In the far recesses of her mind, she feared she might have passed that point already, but she pushed that thought far away).
He loved her, but whether by choice or by emotional scarring - it no longer mattered which, for any practical purpose - whichever it was, he did not want the closeness with her that she craved with him. He loved her companionship, loved sharing space and time and home and years with her, but he could not love her soul. Could not bear to even look upon it at all.
That was the day she knew the marriage could not be repaired.
It could end, but that would hurt everyone, and it wasn't as though anyone would be better off for it. Not Draco, whose marriage would always flounder no matter who he married. Not their son. Not her either. She could imagine a life where he was not her husband, but she couldn't imagine a life where he was not her family.
If she could not repair it, and would not end it, that only left living with it. But she could not live with it as it was now. It was eating her alive.
The answer was unpalatable but obvious. She must take responsibility for meeting the needs that he could not. Find an outlet. Accept the secrecy and the guilt and the conflict and the hurt it would entail. Spare Draco the anxiety, the pressure, the disappointment of seeking from him what he could never provide. And never, ever let him find out.
She had made her vows in good faith, and even now, she believed in them. She did. If she really thought Draco could have a successful marriage to someone else, she liked to believe that she would set him free. It was not exactly true that she had no choices, but there were no right choices that she could see. The best she could do was try to contain the damage.
But then, perhaps all of that was just rationalisation. Perhaps she was just another horrid, faithless, selfish spouse, no better than any other. She would have condemned herself, not so long ago. If you want to cheat, then do the decent thing and leave. So easy to say. So easy to assume that when the dust had settled, it would be for the best for all concerned. So different when it was her Draco, beloved and tragic all at once.
And a little part of her wondered whether there was anything to be sexually faithful to, when there was no meaningful sexual relationship at all.
God really does love to make a man break a vow, she thought. And apparently witches, too.
It dawned on her that the terrible, wrenching conflict that she would bear, to spare him, and as her penance, had already begun.
She chose Severus because she knew she could never love him.
It wasn't his looks or his personality or his blood or his means, though all of them were poor. Merlin knew, plenty of young witches (and witches old enough to know better) surrendered their hearts to unsuitable men.
But Severus was...closed. In his way, he was as much a victim of war trauma as Draco, but where she grieved the detachment in her husband, she sought it from her lover.
He lived a quiet life writing his books and inventing new remedies, and he had mellowed a little down the years. He was capable of an impersonal sort of companionable warmth, but his essential reserve was undiminished. He would never show enough of himself for her to love. He would never look hard enough at her to love her, either.
She needed someone - needed it before her desperation buried her alive - but it would not be someone who would threaten her family. Of that Astoria was resolved. She was compromised, but not that compromised. Not now, not ever, she would have said, but she didn't make vows anymore, so she left it unspoken where the gods could not hear.
She had put it to him quite matter-of-factly, she remembered. He had agreed to meet her in the sitting room that would become her haven, sun streaming in on a Transfigured bed, draping them with warmth and light.
"My husband came out of the war rather poorly equipped for family life," she had said when he'd asked why she had come. "Of course, many did."
"Indeed," Severus had said, pressing his fingertips together. Regarding her thoughtfully. He knew, of course, the things that Draco had seen, and was likely already putting the pieces together.
"To put not too fine a point on it, Severus, I'm in need of...of companionship. There are some needs that Draco finds difficult to provide." She went on quickly, "He's a good man. It isn't his fault."
"No," he agreed. "But no easier to live with for that, I imagine."
"Indeed." She took a long draw on her drink, and looked at him steadily over her glass. "I wondered whether you would consider a...a discreet friendship."
Severus cocked an eyebrow at her. Said sardonically, "Why ask me? I'm sure it isn't for my dashing good looks."
That might have worked on her when she was twelve, but that was a long time ago. "Don't be insufferable," she said without rancour. "Accept or decline, as you like, but don't ask stupid questions."
He allowed a small smile, gesture of concession. "There are, I imagine, very few men a woman of social standing could ask this of, and be absolutely certain of discretion. I am a man with few friends, and without a great need for them. You might have calculated a small risk that I would inform your father-in-law, but otherwise, your secret would be safe whether I agreed or not."
Astoria inclined her head. "I trust you not to hurt my family." She said it gravely, so the significance of her words could not be mistaken.
He nodded, just as gravely. "And I won't."
She finished her drink and set it down on the table beside her. "I shan't put you in the awkward position of answering now," she said, all brisk efficiency. "Owl me yes or no in your own time." She gathered her purse and coat and rose with studied casualness.
Slowly, languidly, he rose too. Walked her to the door. As she reached for the doorknob, he grasped her elbow.
"Yes," he said in a low voice.
She'd thought it would be a precipice, a shattering of herself, but it was as easy as turning and stepping into his arms. As easy as breathing, for the first time in forever.
She'd told herself she wouldn't kiss him, but when he pressed his mouth urgently to hers, wanting her that way, it suddenly seemed so clear. Draco didn't want her kisses, so there was little point in keeping them for him.
So she fell open for him, sinking back against the door. Gulped down fresh, clean air between heady kisses, already working at his clothes.
It was an impersonal sort of lovemaking, she supposed, but making love nonetheless. Severus was as diligent with her as he was in everything else, pacing himself, holding back enough to give her the time she needed to wind down and let go (and go, and go, and go and go and go). Coaxing her, drawing her into abandon, into the rawness she needed. He'd viewed it as a tantalising challenge, to get her there and keep her there for as long as he could.
He'd let go just as much. It was something she realised only later, as she dwelt lovingly over her memories. Perhaps, she thought, he trusted her too - trusted her precisely because she could never allow herself to love him. He could give himself over to her, without surrendering the things that he needed to keep as his own.
In the weeks and months that followed, Astoria had good days and bad days and days in-between. On the bad days, she was so torn, so guilt-ridden, so heartsick and sad and furious that she thought she would simply explode. Those days, she would hole herself up in a Muggle hotel room and weep and weep, crying in great, braying sobs that left her sore and breathless for days. She would wonder if she could really do it, could really stay, and do this year after year.
The good days were the days with Severus, and the days afterward. She was kinder. Less tense, less wrung out. Less irritable. She had more gentleness for Draco those days, and it wasn't out of guilt. It was because she had let her hurts go, because Severus had coaxed them out of her. Just for a little while, she had something left to give again.
She wondered, sometimes, about Severus. Mostly in the piano bar after their trysts. Wondered what he thought about her, or whether he thought anything at all. Wondered whether he pitied her, or saw her as another complicated survivor like him. She hoped it was the latter.
There were things she wanted to tell him sometimes, in the smalltalk before and after. Family holidays. A book she'd read. She never did. They tiptoed around each other, with words like I hope you don't mind me asking and I don't mean to pry about the most innocuous of topics. They were walking a precarious balance, both of them, but an essential one. For his sake, and hers.
She did not know him, and did not love him. But she felt a swelling in her heart when she thought of him. Gratitude, more profound than any she had felt in her life.
He had restored her deepest self.
Sometimes, there beneath him, his weight on her back as she surrendered to the slow, rolling, decadent fullness of him inside her, she thought, there is only this.
She thought that this cryptic, half-understood string of words from her subconscious was really her best and only explanation for why she was there.
It wasn't the sex, though the sex was the best she'd had in her life. It was that when she was with him, she was a rawer, purer version of herself, one without baggage from the past and without dreams for the future. She existed only in the moment, her whole being centered on the abandon, the self-forgetting of where their bodies met. It was free and stunning and beautiful and she wished Draco could meet her there. Could meet this part of her at all.
Even now, it hurt her that he couldn't or wouldn't, that she had tried and tried to share this part of herself and he could only look at her askance.
She had accepted that he was not so much rejecting as uncomprehending, but acceptance didn't help. She no longer blamed herself or him, but blame had given way to grief and desolation.
But all of that was for the before and the after. In this room, there was only this.
It was a relief.
She imagined, sometimes, what might unfold if Draco ever knew.
She understood now the reckless urge among adulterers - particularly men, it seemed - to ensure their philandering was exposed. Understood it now for the cry for help that it really was.
She herself did not imagine fury, though she understood that would probably be the reality. Rather, she imagined him confronting her with great gentleness, great sadness. I know there's someone else, he might say. I know it's my fault. I just need to know if you're going to leave. Imagined it as a watershed moment between them, one where she could finally make him understand - that it wasn't just the sex, that it was who she was with everything stripped away. Imagined it as a moment of healing, a moment where he could finally meet her there.
But she knew, deep down, that it could never happen that way. It was not a language he spoke, and she no longer believed he ever would.
So the most merciful thing she could do was keep it all far, far away. Her pure self that he could not fathom was not a gift for him, but a burden, so she would lift the burden from his shoulders.
She learned to compartmentalise. She had found that was the key to co-existence with her two lives, her two selves. Burying the divide had not worked, had yielded months of torment. But once she had accepted the conflict - accepted that it was part of her situation, and not an inner thing she could resolve - she had begun to find ways to live with it.
Ironically, it was Severus who had taught her how. The same things that freed her with him, she realised, could also free her in her other life. She had always sought understanding by widening her focus, but Severus taught her to narrow it to the here and now. More and more, now, she was learning to do this with her family. It was a way of shutting out her chasms and hurts lest they drive her mad - but more, it was because she owed them that much. Owed it in spades, though they would never know it.
She would take the secrets that hurt her so, and hold them deep. Guard them, and guard her own wretched mind. Her sanity was a silent suffering, under continual assault, but it was an assault she had earned. Not for her compromises - those were the best she could manage in the situation in which she had found herself - but for her long-ago certainty, her sin of pride.
Because God loves to make a good man break a vow.
1. The Muggle novel referenced here is Firestarter by Stephen King.
2. Written for the Psuedo-Advent Calendar Festlet 2012 on hp_unfaithful at LiveJournal. The prompt was an artwork of an elegant dark-haired woman in an upstairs bar.