In the corner of the Slytherin common room, the boy sits at a rickety table, surrounded by a precarious tower of books. His head ducks behind the books every so often, as if he knows that he's being watched. Just out of shot, a candle flickers on the table, its flame partly obscuring the camera's lens and at first glance, it looks as if he's seconds away from being burnt alive.
It's snowing when Astoria leaves the castle after breakfast, a slice of toast in her hand as she sits down upon the steps to the front door, tugging her cloak tightly around her. Winter has come late this year, and the February air is bitter, turning the exposed skin on her face icy cold.
She should go inside. That would be the sensible option. Instead, she takes another bite of the hot, buttery bread, grateful for the warmth. Her dormitory is filled with excited girls regaling stories of how simply wonderful their Hogsmeade trip was yesterday, or preparing for a date somewhere on the school grounds to mark the ‘official' Valentine's Day, or both, and there's a part of her that isn't quite ready to listen to that kind of conversation.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spots a couple holding hands by the greenhouses and laughing at the snowflakes that are falling, fresh footprints left behind in the snow. They look a year or two younger than Astoria, and she can't help smiling at the display of innocent love. It doesn't feel like that long ago when she and Colin were stood behind the greenhouses, shielded from view by the frost-covered panels of glass; she can still remember the taste of melted snowflakes on his lips, the racing beat of his heart, the way his tongue darted into her mouth.
Tears begin to sting at her eyes, and she turns away quickly, determined not to let herself cry. Colin is dead, and there will be no more kisses and no more sneaking around the castle -- though if he was alive, there would be no need for the latter. Her family know now, after the Battle exposed their relationship, and Astoria can't deny the bittersweet irony of how they spent months hiding their relationship and now, when they can be open about their love, he isn't here.
Colin is dead, and Astoria misses him.
Afraid that watching the canoodling couple will prompt fresh tears, she looks in the opposite direction as she rises to her feet, and that's when she sees the splotches of red that mark the fresh snow. The path that leads to the lake is stained with crimson, and though her mind keeps repeating that it's been nine months since the Battle of Hogwarts -- nine months -- her first thought is of blood and death and Colin.
Tendrils of blonde hair work their way loose from the girl's hairstyle, fluttering helplessly in the wind. She looks to the left, and to the right, huffing quietly at the realisation that she is being photographed before she looks up at the castle towards Gryffindor Tower. After staring for a few seconds, she looks around yet again, repeating her actions over and over as she waits for a lover who will never come.
Astoria doesn't realise that she's screaming until she feels Blaise's arms around her, tugging her up the steps. She's transfixed by the snow, and how Blaise seems to be unfazed at the sight of the scarlet blood. A tall Ravenclaw boy runs up to them, his Prefect badge glinting in the winter sun, and snatches up some of the snow.
"Roses, Greengrass, they're roses! It's a trail of roses!"
His voice sounds panicked, and he proffers the handful of snow and a single rose stem with the thorns pruned. Astoria's breath becomes ragged as she fights to calm herself, and when Blaise releases his grip, she reaches out to touch the silky petals of the rose, half-convinced that her mind is playing tricks on her. It didn't look like a trail of roses when she first saw it, but now she can see the tell-tale hints of green stems on the path, intermingled with the red petals.
It looked like blood. Astoria doesn't like blood. The last time she saw Colin, the colour of his shirt was obscured by scarlet and when she knelt over him, clutching the fabric as she shook at his listless body, she could smell the metallic tang of blood.
"She'll be fine," Blaise tells the Ravenclaw, putting an arm around Astoria. "I'll make sure she gets back to the common room."
She lets him lead her away towards the dungeons, the rose stem still in her hand.
Daphne and Blaise's photograph is posed. Inevitable, considering Daphne's propensity for attention, but though her smile is dazzling, the print version of her maintains the beaming expression in an unnatural fashion, betraying how she has forced herself to pretend. While Blaise appears to be like any loving boyfriend with his arm around her, nothing can hide the fact that his eyes are decades older than his youthful face. Their smiles are not of happiness, but hope, papering over the cracks.
When Astoria returns to the sixth-year girls' dormitory, she's relieved to find it empty. She can't bring herself to fake her happiness, not today -- not when everywhere she turns, there are reminders of Colin and all the plans they'd made for "after the war", foolish enough to think that death was only a slight possibility.
There is life after death, Astoria knows, but it feels like she's caught in the wake of the living; following the motions because she must, and dragged to social events by her sister, instead of functioning how she wants.
She falls backwards onto her bed, allowing the tears to roll down her cheeks. This isn't the first special occasion she's had to live through without Colin; his birthday, the return to school, her birthday, and Christmas have all passed, but for some reason it is Valentine's Day that she's struggling with the most. Unlike Christmas, when everyone else misses the people they love, or birthdays, when Daphne has no distractions and is willing to stay up half the night comforting Astoria, today is a day when people are too wrapped up in their own love lives to remember those who are mourning.
Out of the corner of her eye, Astoria notices her school trunk at the foot of her bed. It's barely used these days; she didn't unpack it last summer, and her new clothes were shoved in for the journey to Hogwarts and then put into the wardrobe. She's been meaning to reorganise her trunk, but every time she had the opportunity, it was easy to make excuses, knowing that the contents include mementoes of her relationship with Colin; gifts that he'd given to her; a few of the photographs he took of her, usually while she was studying in the library.
Astoria has no more excuses left.
Professor Slughorn has left his office door open, and the picture is dim; he's extinguished the wall lights and left candles burning on his desk. As his hand shakes, so does the photo frame in his grip, and his shoulders start shuddering as he breaks out in sobs, his lips soundlessly forming a name he hasn't spoken for a long time.
Slowly, she gets to her feet and walks around to the trunk, kneeling down to caress the brass lock with her fingertips. After a moment, she takes a deep breath and releases the catch to open the trunk completely. At first, nothing appears to be amiss. It isn't until Astoria's hand brushes against an odd-shaped object that her curiosity is piqued, and when she realises what is, it feels like the world has stopped.
The memory of his funeral resurfaces unbidden, and Astoria's tears are renewed as she remembers how his sobbing mother pressed the camera into her hands, a crack in her voice as she insisted that it was what Colin would have wanted. Astoria had expected it to be buried with Colin, as his most precious possession, but the dark, surly look on Dennis' face had deterred her from making more than a few weak protestations. At first, it sat on the shelf in her bedroom, but it quickly became a painful reminder of what she'd lost, so it was moved to her school trunk.
She'd forgotten that it was there -- perhaps she had remembered, subconsciously, and that was the reason for her avoidance -- but looking at it now, it seems dull and dusty after almost two years of lack of use. Carefully, she picks up the camera and blows the dust off gently, before examining it. Colin had taught her how to use it, including how to change the film and where to buy the potion that developed moving pictures instead of the Muggles' still default.
In barely a whisper, he'd explained that when he was first given the camera, he'd photographed all the things he had wanted but couldn't have: one of the spacious, luxurious homes in the town's poshest neighbourhood; a beautiful train set in the toy shop that cost more than his father's monthly earnings; the Muggle school that he'd planned to attend, with his laughing friends stood outside the gates. For Colin, photographs were a reminder that no matter how ugly the world became, there was still beauty to be found.
Astoria can't help wishing that she could find the same solace; around her, people are overwhelmingly happy and amorous on Valentine's Day. It seems that everyone has a Valentine, including her sister, and though Astoria's sensible enough to know that most people are placing greater emphasis on today after last year's lack of celebration, that doesn't stop her heart from aching with loneliness.
She knows that she isn't the only person feeling adrift today -- the boy in the common room that she'd walked past earlier was lost in his books instead of preparing to spend the day with a love interest -- but sometimes, it's hard to remember that.
Suddenly, her grip on the camera tightens as the idea pops into her head and she wonders what's stopping her from following in Colin's footsteps, but with a clear difference. While he searched for the beauty in the world, Astoria can photograph the unhappiness in it, keeping the snapshots as reminders that she isn't alone. The more she thinks about that idea, the harder it becomes to find reasons why it isn't a good plan.
It's been a long time since Astoria did something just because she could.
The picture was taken by accident when the camera was picked up, and most of the image is blurred from the glare of the lens reflecting against the mirror. She can still be seen in the far right, her dark eyes filled with sorrow. Unlike the rest of the photos, this one wasn't developed in a potion. Her image is frozen, and though her grief is obvious, the worst of it has escaped this single moment; for the first time, Astoria looks tranquil.
She doesn't remember the name of the boy in the common room; he's not in her year, nor one of Daphne's friends, though she recognises him as one of the popular crowd. Yet he's sitting at the rickety old table that Theo used to study at, his assortment of friends conspicuously absent. Astoria notices that his eyes are red and there are wet droplets on the parchment in front of him, but when he looks up at her, she quickly sits down in the nearest chair and pretends to read someone's abandoned book, placing the camera on the table next to a candle that's almost burned out.
After several minutes of pretending that her attention is otherwise occupied, Astoria notices the boy starting to let his guard down again. He doesn't appear to be using more than the two textbooks open in front of him, and when she reads the titles of the books stacked at the side of his desk, the subjects are varied and the books ranging from first-year textbooks to N.E.W.T. study material.
It takes her a moment to realise that the books are his shield against the world.
Careful not to attract attention, Astoria picks up the camera and pretends to be examining it carefully, while slipping the lens cover off and disabling the flash. Belatedly, she realises that her position isn't good: the boy keeps disappearing from sight whenever he bends over to write something on his parchment, and the candle is in the way of her shot, but any movement might attract his attention and expose her actions. The boy seems to have forgotten that she's there; something in the textbook seems to have upset him and he traces the margin of the page with his thumb, exactly where someone might have written something.
Astoria watches as a lone tear runs down his cheek -- and then, taking a deep breath, she presses her finger down on the shutter button.
A ghost of a girl sits at the end of a far corridor. If you weren't looking for her, she'd be easy to miss in the shadows. Her grey outfit camouflages her with the stone behind her. The picture is blurred slightly, a shaky hand to blame for the quality.
Success makes Astoria bold and she slips from the common room soundlessly, searching out another person who feels as miserable as she does. The corridors are bursting with cuddling couples, but somehow it seems to bother her less now that she's seen she isn't alone.
At the end of the corridor, she sees Parvati Patil. Her once sleek black hair hangs limp and instead of the vibrantly colored saris she used to wear, she's dressed in the colors of death and grief. Her eyes stare, unseeing at the blank tiles a few feet in front of her.
Astoria wonders if Parvati can still see Lavender's blood painting the hall.
Quietly, she removes the camera from her bag and snaps a picture.
Dennis beams at Colin. His eyes are burning with joy as he runs toward the sorting hat. He plops it on his head and seconds later, smiles as the hat shouts out Gryffindor. In his excitement, he lunges from the stool, forgetting to remove it from his head.
The appearance of Dennis Creevey across the dining room makes Astoria feel that no matter how large the castle is, it will always be too small. In an instant, she ducks behind a pillar, praying to every God she knows that he hasn't seen her. Today she has no desire for stilted conversation and the forced politeness that comes with it.
She watches from the shadows, noting the untouched plate of food that litters the table in front of him and the way the bones in his face jut out at sharp angles. She wants to tell him not to throw his life away. She wants to remind him that Colin would've wanted him to be happy. She wants him to know that he doesn't have to grieve forever.
Instead she says nothing. How can she when she's haunted by the same ghost that he is?
The camera is half way out of her bag when she decides not to snap a picture. There is something too familiar about Dennis' grief and suddenly she finds herself feeling mortified for intruding.
Seconds later, Astoria flees to the snow covered grounds.
Hagrid stands in front of his hut, his eyes distant and stormy as he stares at the place where Dumbledore's body has been laid to rest. Suddenly, he turns, realizing that someone is taking a picture. He waves enthusiastically, grinning at the person behind the lense, but the warmth of his smile never quite reaches his eyes.
Astoria shivers as a blast of icy air hits her. She pulls her woolen scarf tight around her neck.
"They're only roses," she whispers to herself over and over again as she makes her way toward the lake.
In the distance, she can see the memorial wall. The names of all the people killed in the war are listed on it, a silent reminder of the cost of hatred. She's stared at it so many times, she could recite the names backwards and forwards.
Colin's name is eighteenth on the list, in between Fred Weasley and Remus Lupin.
Tears begin to well in the corner of Astoria's eyes as she remembers the way Dennis' hands shook as he carved his older brother's name into it. She doesn't need a photograph to remember it. She sees it every night in her dreams.
A small boy stands at the edge of the lake. The image is grainy due to the photographer's inexperienced hand. The sun is high in the sky giving the image an over contrasted quality, but the joy is clear on the boy's face as a long tentacle breaks the glassy surface of the lake. Colin turns and waves at Astoria.
The snow becomes deeper the farther away Astoria gets from the school. It's clear that few have ventured out into the frigid ice. As she tromps through the slush, she slips her hands into her pockets hoping the warmth will chase away some of the cold. She isn't optimistic. Since Colin's death, she's felt a perpetual chill that she can't seem to shake.
As the lake comes into view, Astoria recalls the time she and Colin spent on its distant shore watching the Giant Squid splash around. She thinks of how fascinated he was with the Giant Squid and the way his face would split into a great smile when it reached a tentacle or two up into the air.
Astoria realizes that she hasn't seen the Squid splashing in the shallows for months. Even in the coldest of winters, she can remember it poking a tentacle or two up, surprising unsuspecting students. She wonders if the tang of blood has tarnished the shallows and chased it into the deepest depths of the lake.
At first, the image looks to be a still of the lake, but down in the very corner a shock of pale blonde hair can be seen sitting in front of the memorial. His stillness makes it easy to mistake him for a statue. A gentle breeze blows, ruffling his hair. It's the only sign of life in his pale exterior.
She is a few feet from the memorial when she sees him. He sits motionless in front of the massive stone wall focusing intently on a spot near the very bottom of it. The sight of his brilliant blonde hair pulls her up short. Draco Malfoy is the last person Astoria would expect to be mourning the victims of war. She knows he lost a great deal, that his family was torn apart by the fall out, but there are no names of people he loved on this wall.
Her curiosity is piqued and she slips behind a nearby tree to watch. Lifting the camera up, Astoria takes a picture of him.
She is just about to leave when she hears a strangled cry escape Draco's mouth.
All day, Astoria has witnessed people mourning, but something about this seems different. Before she can give it much thought, her feet are carrying her to the spot beside him. Without speaking, she kneels in the snow.
Draco's appearance surprises Astoria. His eyes are swollen and red. Purple splotches decorate the tender skin under his eyes. His hair is wild and his clothes are wrinkled as if they've been slept in for several days. His usual pressed perfection has faded into a manic sense of grief. He seems oblivious to her presence.
Astoria is just about to ask him what he's doing here when she sees what he's looking at. At the base of the memorial, there is a freshly planted rose bush. One look at the dirt all over Draco's hands confirms that he's only recently planted it. She wants to question him about it. Instead she pulls the camera from her bag and takes a picture.
A small rose bush sits, shivering in the arctic wind. Suddenly, a gust blows up, shaking it's branches and for a moment, a name appears on the stone wall behind it. The writing is messy as if carved by hand, but the words are clear.
The click of the camera snaps Draco out of his daze and he quickly fixes the branches of the rose bush to cover the name, but it's too late. Astoria can never unsee them. Vincent Crabbe's name is etched at the bottom of the stone, where the memorial makes contact with the dirt. She might never have noticed it had she not been here at this precise moment and she doubts anyone else ever will, particularly when the flowers start to bloom.
For a moment, Astoria wonders why Draco has done this, but then she remembers how he never went anywhere without Crabbe, how the two of them were like two parts of one person. She remembers coming into the common room late at night once, to find the two of them huddled together on one of the couches. At the time she'd brushed it off, but now the memory takes on a whole new context.
Without a word, she slips her hand into one of Draco's and gives it a gentle squeeze. She hopes the gesture allows him a tiny bit of comfort. She hopes that it says, I understand how miserable it is to spend Valentine's Day grieving for the person you love. She hopes that it says, you are not alone.