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.