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Mothering Sunday

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After Astoria ends the firecall, she gets up off her knees and walks out of the room feeling numb and small. With every step, she feels tears burning closer and closer behind her eyes, and by the time she enters the sitting room they're brimming up under her eyelids.

Narcissa is at the table, and when she gets a look at Astoria in the doorway, her eyebrows jump in alarm and her teacup pauses halfway to her lips. "My goodness, whatever's the matter?" she asks.

"Nothing," Astoria lies. Her fists are balled up tightly at her sides. "I was just talking to my mother. She— she said—" And Astoria finds that she can't explain exactly what her mother said, what it was in her icy words that made Astoria feel so wretched and insignificant, or why a sob now threatens in her throat.

Without a word, Narcissa sets down her cup and swiftly crosses the room to gather Astoria up into a strong, protective hug.

Astoria has been hugged by her mother-in-law before—dainty, public hugs, like at her wedding to Draco, with only shoulders touching so as not to rumple formal gowns. But now, here in their home where nobody sees, Narcissa presses Astoria tightly against her, and Astoria clings back hard. Though she squeezes her eyes shut, tears nonetheless fall and are absorbed into the soft fabric covering Narcissa's shoulder.

"I don't know why it bothers me," Astoria sniffles as Narcissa guides her firmly to sit down in one of the chairs. "It's not as though she hasn't said worse a hundred times over."

Narcissa deftly pours another cup of tea, heats it with her wand, and stirs in two sugars—the way Astoria likes it. "It's perfectly all right, darling," she says, setting the cup down before her. She pulls up the seat beside her and offers her own lacy handkerchief from her pocket.

Astoria shakes her head, waving it off and taking a sip of tea instead. "Thank you," she says. She holds the steaming cup hard in both hands to stop them trembling.

She doesn't mean to say anything more, but... Narcissa is leaning in slightly towards her. Something about that incline of her body, poised and attentive, seems to draw the words out from Astoria's lips, as though they know it's safe at last for them to be spoken aloud.

"It's— it's nothing, really. She just has a way of finding fault with everything. It was the same when Daphne and I were small. Nothing we could do was ever good enough." Astoria sits stiffly, trying to hold at bay memories of cold, cutting words, and a colder frown.

Narcissa shakes her head, her mouth a tight line. "Well, in my view, any mother with an ounce of sense would be proud to have a daughter like you. I know I would."

Excuses crowd frantically into Astoria's mind—Mother meant well, surely, and if only her life had been easier, if Father had stayed, if she and Daphne had been better...

She has made such excuses many times. But now, looking into Narcissa's fierce blue eyes that flash like lightning—not angry at her but angry on her behalf—the eyes of a woman who, Astoria knows, would do anything for her family... those excuses seem to wither on her tongue.

*

That winter, the first after Astoria's marriage, Draco and Lucius are often out during the day, and sometimes for days or weeks at a time, overseeing the renovations of the various properties the Malfoys own around the country. Draco has always been frank with Astoria about how much of their income had been of questionable provenance, and now that circumstances are quite different, they must conduct all business entirely above-board. Their days of dealing in Dark artefacts are behind them (particularly as the Ministry has confiscated the lot of it anyway) so the Malfoys are having to transfigure themselves into a family of respectable rentiers. Minister Shacklebolt would tolerate nothing less.

This leaves Astoria and Narcissa at home together much of the time. It is Narcissa's project to redecorate every single room of the manor, including furnishings that must be both brand new and arranged entirely differently from the old. Draco's told her it's because his mother can't bear reminders of the way things once were, though Astoria isn't sure whether that means she can't bear knowing that the Malfoy name will never again command the respect it once did, or whether it simply rends her heart that their home was once used for an evil purpose.

In either case, Astoria is there at Narcissa's side, loyally following as her mother-in-law walks each bedroom and corridor, dictating to a self-writing quill that floats along after them.

"Yellow for this room," she declares, with the confidence of a creator deity calling forth the first light. She holds her hands up, framing the picture, and her pale fingers trace out the image she must see in her mind's eye as she describes it. "An armchair by the window. It'll be a reading room. And potted plants—there's a southern exposure. Ivy, don't you think, dear?"

Astoria nods, her hands clasped behind her back. "It might be pretty trailing along the shelves."

"Exactly so," Narcissa says—(Astoria feels a flush of pleasure at her approval)—and draws a thoughtful fingertip along the edge of the wooden bookcase. They're almost all children's books in this half-forgotten side room, which has little else in it but the musty sense of long disuse. Narcissa's hand lingers affectionately for a moment over a worn, Victorian-looking copy of Beedle the Bard.

"Were these Draco's?" Astoria asks, though she begins to doubt it as her eye is drawn along the shelf towards an entire set of Alethea & Verity mysteries in a neat row of feminine powder-blue.

"Some," Narcissa answers, plucking up a porcelain doll from the end of the shelf and brushing the dust from its old-fashioned dress. "The rest were my own, when I was a girl. I suppose I always fancied someone might want them again." Her fingertips caress the doll's frazzled blonde hair for a moment, delicately tracing the curl at the end. She glances up at the sound of scratching on parchment, and scolds the self-writing quill: "Oh, don't write all that. Silly thing. Come along, then."

Narcissa sets down the doll, and as she turns to leave the room, beckoning them on, Astoria thinks she catches a sheen of wetness in her mother-in-law's eye.

*

On a cold morning in December, after a leisurely breakfast in the conservatory—(they often eat there, as Narcissa seems to dislike the dining room)—Narcissa braids Astoria's hair.

It happens quite casually, as if she does it all the time, and it takes a moment for Astoria to realise that this is the first time. Narcissa is standing behind her chair as they both gaze out the frosty window at the silvery-blue snowfall dusting over the front gardens. Then she takes Astoria's hair in her hands, gently lays it out over the chair's back, and begins to braid it. Her touch is perfect: neither too light and ticklish, nor rough enough to pull.

Astoria sits very still for it. It's as if she's caught sight of a wild deer, in awe of its delicate beauty, and fearing that any sudden movement will startle it away into the forest.

"My sisters and I used to plait each others' hair when we were girls," Narcissa muses, with both nostalgia and a certain sobriety in her voice. (Astoria knows that one sister is now dead, and the other estranged.) "It's been ages since I've done it. Funny how the fingers always remember."

"No-one's ever done it for me," Astoria admits. "I've done it myself, with charms..."

"Charmwork always makes the braids too tight," Narcissa states with easy authority. "It's much better done by hand. And your hair's so pretty, darling, I don't know how anyone could have kept their hands off it."

Nobody's ever said Astoria's hair was pretty before, and to hear Narcissa say it makes her heart ache with a kind of tremulous joy.

When Narcissa reaches the end, she undoes the braid again, combing her fingers lovingly through Astoria's hair from scalp to tip and sending ripples of shivery pleasure all the way down to Astoria's toes.

"You're sweet to indulge me," Narcissa says. As she arranges Astoria's hair, Astoria can just see her smiling softly in their reflection in the conservatory window. "I always was a tad envious of my friends who had daughters whose hair they could play with. Draco wouldn't put up with it for very long."

"I really don't mind it," Astoria finds herself saying. "I was always envious of my friends who had the sort of mothers that liked to play with their hair."

Their eyes meet in the shadowed window reflection, both surprised, both caught in the vulnerability of confession.

*

In the new year, after the hordes of solstice Stonehenge tourists have passed, Astoria and Narcissa can once again walk the pretty paths around Salisbury (or "the Muggle town", as Narcissa invariably calls it, with a certain stiff and practised tolerance). In their long pea coats, they pass hardy winter robins in the bare trees, and smiling, pink-faced strangers who nod to them as they go by.

Astoria can't help thinking that when people see them walking hand in hand, a younger woman and an elder, they must fancy them mother and daughter. It surprises her to realise how savagely she wants them to think so—as if the more people hold that thought in their imaginations, the more real it becomes.

As they cross the bridge over the River Avon, Astoria spots a swan with a pack of gangly, nearly full-grown cygnets paddling behind.

"Oh, look!" she cries out in delight, breaking away from Narcissa's hand and rushing to peer over the side of the bridge, pointing to the birds.

Narcissa catches up at a leisurely pace and slides her arm round Astoria's waist, following her gaze attentively. "I see them, darling," she says, her voice warm and indulgent, and kisses the top of Astoria's head. It warms Astoria from the inside, right down to her fingertips grasping the frosty handrail.

*

Once all the furniture has been removed from the dining room and the wallpaper replaced, Narcissa's step grows lighter. Astoria has never seen her in such a good mood, humming merrily as she rolls up the old rug by the tip of her wand and levitates it off to the rubbish bin.

The combination of Narcissa's pleasure and the January sun angling down through the windows onto the shiny new flooring fill Astoria with a playful spirit, making her want to skip and jump. The empty, pristine dining room is like a big dance studio, and Astoria gives in to the temptation to break into a run and then slide on her stocking feet halfway to the far wall.

Narcissa laughs to see it—not a mocking laugh, but a merry one. "I haven't seen anyone do that in years," she says, her voice echoing in the grand, clean space.

"You ought to try it sometime!" Astoria calls back, and runs back the other way, sliding almost to the door this time.

Narcissa shakes her head with a chuckle, seemingly content for the moment to watch Astoria at play. "Look how very far you can go!" she observes.

Her admiration stirs a joyous energy within Astoria that demands release; she adds twirls to her stocking-slides, pirouetting off in random directions like an ice-skater, delighting in showing off under her mother-in-law's mirthful eyes.

It's that randomness that she doesn't take into account when she takes off a little too close to the cold fireplace, and manages to careen straight into it, not hurting herself but knocking it hard enough that a glass candle-holder falls from its mantle and shatters on the floor.

"Oh my God, I'm sorry!" Astoria gasps, her pleasure instantly drained and replaced with cold panic, like falling into icy water. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to, it was an accident!"

Narcissa is coming towards her, and she's going to be angry, surely, Astoria's going to be punished, told how stupid she is, how clumsy and idiotic and useless. She shuts her eyes, pulls her shoulders up tight, braced for a box on the ears or a slap in the face—

But it never comes. Instead Narcissa takes her gently by the shoulders and asks, "Are you all right, dear? You're not hurt, are you?"

Astoria opens her eyes, daring to look into Narcissa's face of puzzled concern. "No," she says, "I'm not hurt," and she is bewildered that she isn't. She feels dizzy with confusion, unsure of what is happening to her. "But... I broke..."

"It's perfectly all right," Narcissa assures her. "I haven't even the faintest idea what that old thing was. And in any case, it's nothing a simple charm can't fix."

Astoria wants so, so desperately for that to be true, and to her own surprise, she bursts into helpless tears.

But her embarrassment hasn't even a chance to take hold before she finds herself enfolded in Narcissa's arms, drawn into a comforting embrace. Narcissa doesn't scold her for crying or even order her to stop. She just holds Astoria's head protectively to her chest.

"It's all right," Narcissa says again. "Nothing to worry about, my sweet girl." She murmurs softly into Astoria's hair, rocking her slowly back and forth: "My sweet, sweet baby girl..."

*

In February, the snowdrops begin to poke out of the still half-frozen ground, and seemingly overnight they are everywhere, growing in thick carpets of green and white all over the countryside.

Narcissa takes her out to look at them, and it feels so natural to be led by her hand into the frosty fields, their shoes getting wet and the winter flowers brushing against their stockings. On the other side of the hill where nobody comes walking, where even the tall spire of the cathedral can't be seen, they crouch down among the flowers and breathe in their enticing, honeylike scent.

"It's unlucky to pick them," Narcissa cautions her gently when Astoria reaches out for the lush, tempting stems. Obediently, Astoria doesn't grab, but instead caresses, drawing her fingertips respectfully along the greenery and up to the blossom. Galanthus is its Latin name, Astoria has somewhere read, and she can see why the Romans called it 'milk flower'—its white petals hang down like drops of sweet milk from a mother's breast.

When they stand upright again, a coldish wind blows across the hillside, making the snowdrops ripple like the surface of a pond. Astoria shivers, and Narcissa opens her coat, inviting her into it.

Eagerly Astoria snuggles in and lets herself be enveloped in the warm, woolen hug. She giggles happily into Narcissa's collarbone, wishing that she were somehow shorter and could be entirely hidden, entirely protected, enshrouded in the clean, soft scent of Narcissa's body.

The wind picks up again, and Astoria isn't sure whether Narcissa will be able to hear her when she whispers the word Mummy. But then, after a breath's hesitation, she feels those slender but strong arms tighten around her body in fierce, overwhelming delight, and she knows that Narcissa heard.

*

Astoria is too big to sit in Narcissa's lap when she reads to her at night. Instead, she sits right beside her, both of them resting comfortably against the pillows propped up on Narcissa's headboard, Astoria's legs draped over hers. She cuddles up close beside her, reading along with Alethea & Verity Solve the Mystery of the Hidden Harbour.

Astoria never actually read these when she was little; her mother always got snippy at Daphne for liking them. Childish nonsense, she called them—as though it were preposterous for children to like childish things. Astoria pushes those memories aside, finding it's grown much easier to do so—like tossing unwanted pebbles into a stream, rather than pushing a great Sisyphean stone.

Narcissa's elegant fingers turn the worn pages with pleasure and reverence; this was her own book when she was a girl, after all. Astoria rests her head on Narcissa's shoulder, feeling such a weight lifted from her own. Allowed, at last, to enjoy things.

Once twelve-year-old Alethea and her best friend Verity have put together all the clues and worked out the mystery, and Narcissa has intoned the utterly satisfying words the end, Astoria sighs in pleasure and asks to be read another.

"It's getting late to start another Alethea," Narcissa muses, brushing her hand over the stack of children's books that has gradually accumulated in her bed. "Perhaps something shorter," she suggests, and wavers for a moment before picking up a big, square picture-book that Astoria hasn't seen before. It's old and has clearly been well-loved—battered, drawn upon, and even chewed. The bright, inviting title announces that it's called The Littlest Manticore's First Day at School.

Astoria's eyes widen, and for a moment she is unsure, self-conscious. She loves to be Narcissa's little girl, but can she truly be as little as all that?

"Well, we don't have to read that one," says Narcissa, and begins to set it aside, perhaps slightly embarrassed herself.

But Astoria reaches out to stay her hand, finding she doesn't want the book to be taken away from her. "No, I didn't mean..." Their eyes meet, so very close as they sit nestled beside one another. Astoria searches Narcissa's face, and feels her cheeks grow warm as she says softly, "I want you to read it. Please?"

A smile spreads across Narcissa's face, her loving blue eyes glistening. She presses a gentle kiss just at the corner of Astoria's mouth, and opens the book.

At first Astoria follows along with the big, bold text, meant for children who are just catching on to reading. But the slow, sing-songing cadence of Narcissa's voice as she reads aloud is making Astoria feel so warm, and so sleepy, and so very small. She never knew it was possible to feel small in a good way. The words begin to look blurry and mysterious to her, and the soft pastel pictures become more and more compelling, drawing her eyes to them, drawing her into a world that is gentle, simple, and utterly safe.

"Is my baby girl sleepy?"

Astoria startles out of half-slumber at the sound of Narcissa's gentle voice. She shakes her head slowly. "Nuh-uh," she says, and it comes out all soft and whispery. "Not sleepy. Read it again, Mummy."

"Of course," Narcissa says, because she is Mummy, and Mummy will always be there to give her little girl exactly what she needs.

*

As the days grow less chilly without, Astoria feels a growing chill of dread within. Each time she walks past the calendar in the sitting room, she sees its glowing highlight creep closer and closer to Mothering Sunday—the day she'll have to visit home. The tension of thinking about it strains her arms and legs, making her feel sore and stiff all over as though she's been at hard labour all day long.

Narcissa notices, and insists on giving her a Calming Draught and a massage, which Astoria keeps claiming she doesn't need until she feels Narcissa's strong thumbs rubbing up and down on either side of her spine, sending waves of warm pleasure radiating into her hands and feet like a starburst.

On Wednesday, she talks to Daphne over the Floo. Her sister speaks in an airy tone of put-on resignation, but her face in the fireplace looks as though she's being stalked by a lion. Daphne never was much of an actress. "I'll bring the cakes," she's saying, chewing the inside of her cheek nervously. "I know she'll only take the ones from the bakery near home."

"She'll say something about them either way," Astoria points out.

Daphne sighs heavily. "Yeah, I suppose you're right. Thank God this only comes once a year. What're you bringing?"

Astoria hasn't planned to say what she says next, and is surprised at her own words: "I wasn't really planning on going."

Daphne's eyes go wide amidst the lapping purple flames. "What do you mean, not going?"

"Just what I said."

"But you've got to!"

"No, I don't."

"But... but she'll be furious!" Daphne splutters incredulously.

"That'll be her business, then," Astoria answers, finding it comes out with a certain neatness, rather like Narcissa's words do sometimes.

"What's got into you?" Daphne asks, looking at her like she's grown a second head. "You can't just..."

"I can do whatever I like," Astoria says, believing it. "I'm not a little girl anymore," she adds, and the irony of it curves her lips into a smile that she can't stop even if she wanted to.

*

Early in the morning on Mothering Sunday, Astoria wakes up feeling light enough that she might simply float off into the air at any second. She manages to keep her feet on the ground, though, walking into town and paying a visit to the Muggle bakery just as it opens.

"Good morning, Miss," says the baker cheerily as Astoria breathes deeply of the sweet scent of fresh bread. "Simnel cakes are just there, if you're looking for one for Mum."

"Thank you," Astoria answers, and picks one out which (she informs herself with delight) does not have to be perfect.

Walking back home, she picks a few dewy daffodils from the side of the path, making sure to avoid the unlucky snowdrops.

She finds Narcissa having coffee at the brand new dining room table, caressing its surface of warm red mahogany with satisfaction. Her eyebrows quirk upward at the sight of Astoria in the doorway, cake box in one hand and damp flowers in the other, a bright grin painted across her face.

And for the first time in her life, Astoria says these words without fear of critique or retribution—with pure pleasure and steady sureness:

"I got these for you, Mum."