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Detox by CambAngst

Format: Novel
Chapters: 16
Word Count: 97,021
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong Language, Strong Violence, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Substance Use or Abuse, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme, Contains Spoilers

Genres: Drama, Romance, Angst
Characters: Draco, OtherCanon
Pairings: Draco/OC

First Published: 10/05/2012
Last Chapter: 11/12/2013
Last Updated: 02/13/2015

Summary:
War is poison. For Draco Malfoy, love is the antidote.

Written for ToujoursPadfoot’s Gift-It Challenge and dedicated to the wonderful JChrissy!


Banner by the amazing autumn.shades @ TDA


Chapter 1: Sobering Up
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

This story was written for Toujours Padfoot's Gift-It Challenge, and is dedicated to the wonderful JChrissy.
 

As always, that which you recognize belongs to the inimitable JK Rowling.





 

The world was spinning. All of the colors of the Ragged Fang were swirling through his whiskey-sodden brain, from the dull umber of the worn-out old bar to the smoke-stained beige of the ceiling to the ashy charcoal of Goyle’s cloak to the sepia tones of Zabini’s face. The colors blended together into a drab kaleidoscope of confusion and nausea. He felt himself slide off of his stool and he struggled to locate a door. The door to the toilets would be ideal. The door that led to the dingy alley behind the bar, the door to the stockroom, hell, even the front door would do. He spied something in the distance that seemed to be the correct shape, then he tried to get his clumsy, leaden feet to cooperate.


“Lookit Malfoy! Pissed as a fart!”


Jeremy Gamp’s slurred words assaulted his ears, confirming what he already knew. In his present condition, he had no business operating something as complicated and delicate as his own body. The door-shaped vision grew closer for a moment, then it seemed to shrink again. The dim, grimy oil lamps swam through the periphery of his vision like piss-yellow streamers. Howls of laughter erupted from behind him, hardening his determination. Malfoys did not embarrass themselves in public. His father would be mortified.


“Gotta go piss!”


His voice sounded thick and wet, like he was shouting the words through a mouthful of cooked spinach. Spinach. Wrong thought. His stomach was suddenly alive, straining against his diminished self-control to expel the vile mix of beer, wine and whiskey he’d been pouring into it since the bar opened that morning. It dawned on him that he had no idea what time it actually was. The last time he’d gone to the gents, he was pretty sure that the clock on the wall read one thirty. Did the clock in this place even work? Maybe it was bewitched so that the filthy, old watering hole’s shabby clientele never knew how late it actually was. Draco marveled at the proprietor’s cleverness as the first spray of vomit erupted from his mouth and splattered all over the bare, uneven wooden floor.


“What the bloody hell? Take yer drunk arse somewhere else!” The barkeep’s angry shouts mixed with the hoots and guffaws coming from his mates as Draco made a desperate lunge toward the blurry, rectangular shape in front of him. As he stumbled forward, he could feel his boots slipping on the newly befouled floor. His arms windmilled around as he struggled and ultimately failed to keep his balance. The grimy, peeling paint that covered the inside of the bar’s front door briefly came into focus before Draco’s head and shoulder slammed into it. He closed his eyes an instant before the impact and he felt the door give way as his vision exploded into a multi-colored shower of sparks. A second later, he was rolling down a set of stone steps. When the world stopped spinning, he felt the hard, lumpy cobblestones of Knockturn Alley pressed against the side of his face.


Draco took a long moment to gather himself before he did anything. He cautiously moved each limb, searching for the telltale signs of injury. Finding none, he slowly rolled onto his back. Even through his eyelids, a horrible brightness assaulted his vision. He must have landed underneath a street light. Or maybe the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol was shining a wandlight in his face, preparing to haul him in for public drunkenness. No matter the cause, he needed to collect himself. It was beneath him to be seen lying in the gutter like a common drunkard. He forced his eyes open.


It was the middle of the afternoon. Although the sun never penetrated the shadowy realm of Knockturn Alley, he could make out a swath of blue sky between the rooftops looming overhead. Pulling himself to a sitting position, he stared at the dial of his watch and waited for the tiny roman numerals to come into focus. Three thirty. Somehow, he had managed to get completely pissed at three thirty in the afternoon. He snorted mirthlessly to himself and began to climb unsteadily to his feet. A new record.


This had been Draco’s daily routine since the battle at Hogwarts ended the darkest chapter of his young life. Wake up whenever his mother’s nagging finally became unbearable. Listen to both of his parents drone on about doing something with his life while he choked down a cold, tasteless breakfast. Have a shouting match with his father on the way to the door about who was the bigger embarrassment to the family. Then plant himself on a barstool with Goyle, Zabini, Flint, Montague, Nott, Gamp and the others and listen to them wax poetic about how wonderful life would have been if only the other side hadn’t won the war. They were a bunch of bloody fools, but still the closest thing to friends he had left in the world.


The Second Wizarding War. That’s what all the papers were starting to call it. A terrible, tragic conflict resulting in scores of deaths and countless ruined lives. More widows and orphans than you could shake your wand at. The Dark Lord and his evil army of Death Eaters roaming the countryside, raping and pillaging as they went. That is, until Saint Potter and his hopelessly outnumbered band of brave and heroic followers prevailed against all odds and defeated the Dark Lord and his loathsome minions in a battle that would surely be the topic of history books and drinking songs for centuries to come.


Draco leaned over and retched into the gutter. The filthy cobblestones spun dangerously in front of his eyes as the last dregs from his stomach splattered onto his shoes and trousers. He had to get out of Knockturn Alley. Not only was it a dangerous place to be drunk to the point of being defenseless, but he couldn’t stomach any more of Flint’s relentless posturing. Yes! Flint was the reason he had decided to take that final shot of firewhiskey, the one that pushed his stomach over the edge. Flint had asked whether Draco would show his Dark Mark to some old hag who did enchanted tattoos out of her house in Leeds. Nearly three months after the Dark Lord’s death, the thing was little more than an ugly, black scar on his forearm. But he really didn’t feel like sharing that fact with the whole bar, so he ordered another shot and hoped that his mates would take the hint.


The corner that led into Diagon Alley beckoned in the distance and Draco began to stumble toward it. The uneven cobblestones frustrated his attempts to maintain his balance, and he was forced to lean against the fronts of buildings for support. Throwing up had done a world of good for his stomach, but he was still extremely light-headed. Food! Yes, if he could find something to eat, he might just be able to sober up enough to apparate home without losing any limbs. Diagon Alley was closer now. The noise of the afternoon crowd reached his ears. He began to be able to make out the forms of the witches and wizards passing the entrance to Knockturn Alley. The whole scene was entirely too bright and noisy, but if there was food there, he would deal with it somehow.


He stepped into the blinding sun and took in the crowds milling around among the shops and street carts. Voices came at him from every direction, assaulting his brain with fragments of dozens of conversations. Bodies hurried to and fro in a dizzying blur of color and motion. Draco closed his eyes and swallowed repeatedly to keep from throwing up again. He had already done more than enough damage to his family’s reputation for one day. If he threw up in front of everyone in Diagon Alley, he would simply go home and pack.


He opened his eyes just a sliver and scanned the alley, searching for a fixed target to lock onto. Finally he settled upon the door to the Leaky Cauldron and made a wandering beeline toward it. He ran into a number of passersby as he barrelled forward, upsetting a fat wizard’s armload of parcels and nearly toppling a middle-aged witch when he grabbed onto her arm for support. By the time he made his way into the bar, there was a trail of angry pedestrians in his wake.


The inside of the bar was dark and smelled strongly of old beer and fried food. Draco immediately felt more at ease. Without the bright light of the sun and the constant movement of bodies, his whiskey-sodden brain could almost process the scene in front of him. There were several spots open at the bar, which looked well-worn but clean and tidy. He ambled over with as much poise as his greatly diminished capacity would allow and motioned for the bartender’s attention. He looked around, taking in the decor and stealing glances at his fellow patrons. As drunk as he was, an uneasy tension still registered in the depths of his brain. People seemed to be avoiding his gaze, staring in his general direction without staring at him.


"We don't serve your kind here!"


The bartender’s loud declaration startled Draco, and he quickly scanned the bar again to see whether a werewolf or perhaps a hag had wandered in. He felt a shove against the arm that rested on the bar to help maintain his balance. Turning to express his annoyance, he found the bartender pointing a rough-hewn mahogany wand at his face. The old, bald wizard wore a greasy apron and looked much the worse for wear.


“I said, we don’t serve your kind here! Are you deaf?”


Draco stared back at the man with a complete lack of comprehension.


"Drunks? This is a bar, right?"


The barkeep's eyes hardened. The tip of the wand was inches from the bridge of Draco’s nose.


"Death Eaters. I know who you are. You’re Malfoy’s son. And if you ask me, both of you belong in Azkaban. Now go slither back into whatever hole you crawled out of."


Draco stared over top of the wand into the man’s eyes. The sensible part of him was screaming at the top of its lungs to turn and walk quietly away. But the whiskey coursing through his veins overruled his better judgment. He effected the best replica of his father’s dismissive sneer that he could manage.


“Well it’s fortunate that nobody asks you for anything more than a drink.”


Then he turned and immediately fell on his face as a Leg-Locker Curse struck him from behind. Furious anger gripped him as he rolled onto his side, searching for his assailant. He reached clumsily toward his trouser pocket, but half a dozen wands were aimed in his direction before he could even locate the handle of his own.


Expelliarmus!


His wand was torn from its pocket and flew into an unseen hand somewhere inside the bar. Hoots of cruel laughter seemed to come from every direction at once.


“I said GET OUT! Set foot in here again and you’ll be leavin’ with a lot worse than your legs bound together.”


The incantations of a dozen dark curses popped into Draco’s mind, but the majority of them were spoken in his aunt’s mad, piercing shrieks. He shuddered inwardly in spite of his alcohol-fueled bravado and began the difficult task of pulling himself toward the door with his elbows. Several glasses struck the floor around him as he crawled, forcing him to pause and shield his eyes from flying shards of glass. Insults and taunts continued to rain down on him as he pulled his body over the threshold and rolled onto the worn cobblestones outside.


Just as Draco was climbing to his knees, he saw his wand go flying over his head and across the alley. The door to the Leaky Cauldron slammed shut behind him, drawing the attention of the small minority of the crowd that hadn’t already seen him tumble out of the bar. He tried to pull himself to his feet with the vague intention of hopping over to where his wand lay, but he simply didn’t have the coordination. A chorus of cruel whispers and muffled laughter filled his ears as he started to pull his magically bound legs underneath his body. The cobblestones bruised his shins and knees and the filth of the street clung to his trouser legs as he reached out with his arms and pulled himself forward. A foot at a time, he began to close the distance.


Finite.


The crisply enunciated counter-curse rang out and Draco felt his calves separate. He rolled onto his backside and made out a familiar-looking person emerging from the crowd. Several groans of disapproval were audible, but the witch making her way to where he sat paid them no mind. Draco squinted his eyes and forced his brain to try to identify the blurry face staring down at him.


“Daphne?”


She snorted with mild disappointment and placed her hands on her hips for a moment before offering her slender hand to him.


“Draco, it’s me, Astoria. I know you weren’t in school much last year, but you can’t have forgotten me already.”


Astoria! Yes, he could easily make out the difference now. She was shorter than her older sister and less shapely, although people used to say that Daphne’s curves were greatly enhanced with various beauty spells. Astoria had always seemed shy and quiet. In the common room, she mostly kept to herself. To be honest, Draco had hardly noticed her. In an instant, that all changed.


“Th- thanks.”


Draco rose unsteadily to his feet with her help. She allowed his hand to linger in hers for a few extra moments, making sure that he wasn’t going to fall right back down. He could feel the soft warmth of her skin, and found that he missed it as soon as she let go. She summoned his wand from the gutter and handed it back to him.


“Are you feeling alright? You look...”


The concern in her eyes snapped him out of it. This was not the way that a Malfoy presented himself to another member of proper society.


“Oh, yes. Just had a little mishun... I mean mishunder... uh, argument with some people in there. I’m fine. I’m just... fine.”


A small smile danced in her brown eyes and quickly migrated to her lips. She wasn’t buying a word of it.


“I, um, yeah. I had a bit too much to drink today. I’m, uh... Do you know where I could get something to eat?”


She shook her head slightly and giggled at him. Ordinarily, Draco would have found it humiliating. Instead, he chuckled and smiled back at her.


“Come with me, Draco.”


She took his hand again and led him away from the Leaky Cauldron. Draco’s brain was oddly empty. There were a thousand things that he felt he should be saying to her. Polite inquiries about her family, compliments on her appearance, questions about her future plans, gratitude for her help. He couldn’t summon any of the hollow pleasantries he usually relied on to make conversation. His mind remained stubbornly fixated on the feeling of her fingers against his palm.


“Are you going to come back to school next year? The owl I received from Professor McGonagall said that any student who missed any part of their seventh year because of the war would be allowed to sit their lessons again.”


The question hit Draco like a slap in the face, jolting him out of his pleasant contemplation of her dark hair. The last time he had been inside Hogwarts was after the Dark Lord fell. He remembered sitting with his parents in a corner of the Great Hall, unsure of what to say or whether they should speak at all. They had done their best not to make eye contact with anyone, to simply blend into the ancient grey stone of the walls. But then the Aurors came.


“I’m, um... I’m not sure I’d be welcome.”


She turned to look at him as they walked. He couldn’t quite read the look in her eyes. Interest? Confusion? Pity?


“Why not? Your family was cleared of any wrongdoing, weren’t they?”


Draco sighed, not even bothering to hide it. It only things were that simple.


“We were, but that won’t matter to most people.”


She looked like she wanted to ask him something else, but instead she smiled and pulled him toward a street cart covered with baskets containing loaves of bread and steaming copper kettles.


“Give me some money.”


Draco fumbled through his money bag until his fingers identified a Galleon in the jumble of Knuts and Sickles. He held it out with his free hand and she turned to take it from him. For a brief moment, they were face to face. One of her small hands was holding his while the fingers of her other hand wrapped around the golden coin in his open palm. He stared at the faint freckles on her alabaster cheeks. She nibbled slightly at her lower lip.


The moment ended as suddenly as it happened. She turned away from him, and studied the contents of the cart. Draco couldn’t be sure, but he thought he saw just a hint of a blush. He studied her long, dark hair from behind as she spoke with the street vendor. Her fingers still clutched his hand, and he felt a strong reluctance to move his arm. It was all very strange. Since the end of the war, Draco couldn’t remember feeling much aside from anger and bitterness. His daily diet of alcohol took the edge off, but the feelings were always lurking right below the surface, ready to flare as soon as some tosser like Flint brought all the awful memories crashing back.


Standing unsteadily behind Astoria Greengrass, feeling her fingertips pressed into his palm, a new feeling had slipped into his mind. It filled the irregular, empty spaces between the pain and resentment that defined his daily life. The feeling was only vaguely familiar at first, and he racked his brain, trying to name it. It seemed to associate itself to long-forgotten memories, times in his life when he didn’t know anything about war and dark curses and death.


“Here, Draco, take this.”


Her voice brought his mind back to the present, and he gratefully accepted a large sandwich of some sort, wrapped in white butcher’s paper and making his mouth water. He watched in fascination as she accepted a large cup of coffee from the street vendor, followed by a handful of Sickles and Knuts that fell from her hand into the bag under her arm with a muffled, metallic tinkle.


“What about my change?”


He honestly didn’t give a toss about the coins, but his mouth moved faster than his brain could restrain it. They were his father’s words, and he hated the taste they left behind.


“Finder’s fee.”


Her devious grin wiped the anxiety from his brain, and he stumbled along behind her, clutching the sandwich in one hand and relishing the feel of her skin against the other. She came to a stop in front of an empty storefront, still boarded up from the war, and helped him ease into a sitting position on the front steps. Without thinking about it, he took a large bite of the sandwich and chewed contentedly as he enjoyed the way that she smiled at him. Later, after he sobered up, it would dawn on him that it was the first time food had actually tasted good since before his father was arrested in the Department of Mysteries.


“What really happened to you last year, Draco?”


Swallowing suddenly became painful as the muscles of his throat tightened up. His brain began to race in spite of the alcohol that still dulled his senses. A hundred horrible memories flashed through his mind. He felt trapped between the past that he desperately wanted to forget and the concern that clouded her sparkling brown eyes. Part of him wanted to simply disappear on the spot, to flee into the dark recesses of another pub and drive away the pain with more alcohol. Destination, determination, deliberation. Yet a small but insistent voice inside him disagreed. As if to drive home the point, the voice gave a name to the feeling that once again welled in his chest when she reached out and laid her hand on his wrist. Hope.


Astoria!


The voice boomed across Diagon Alley. Both teenagers gave a startled look toward the front steps of Gringott’s, where a portly, well-dressed wizard stood with his arms crossed over his chest. Draco could feel the weight of the man’s disapproving glare on his shoulders. Horatio Greengrass’s beady, dark eyes were filled with suspicion and naked contempt.


“You should go.”


The hope seemed to drain from Draco’s chest as the words fell softly from his lips. It was the right thing to say, but he felt empty. He wanted her to stay. He wanted to explain everything to her. He needed to tell her about the horrifying things that he’d seen and done since the night when the Dark Lord had made Draco his servant and whipping boy. For reasons that Draco couldn’t begin to comprehend, he needed her to understand. Because maybe if she can understand then so can I.


Astoria rose to her feet and nodded somberly toward her father. The man turned away, as though he could no longer tolerate the sight of his daughter associating with such a loathsome individual. Draco stared at his shoes. The sandwich in his hand had lost its appeal. Perhaps Zabini and the others had moved on to a different bar by now, one where he would be allowed in. The touch of her fingertips against his cheek surprised him.


“Draco? Here, take this. And be sure you finish it. There’s a fourth ‘D’, you know.”


Draco looked up at her with his mouth hanging slightly open, holding the sandwich in one hand and the large coffee in the other. Her dark locks sparkled in the evening sun and the twinkle in her eyes seemed to brighten the world. She waited for a second, then giggled when he couldn’t manage to say anything.


“It stands for ‘Detoxification’.”


Astoria leaned forward and kissed him on the top of the head, then hurried across Diagon Alley to her father’s side.






Many hours later, Draco lay in bed, unable to sleep. The moonlight reflecting off of the fountains below danced on his bedroom ceiling, and he stared at the intricate patterns as he turned the day’s events over again and again in his mind.


He never went searching for his mates after Astoria left. He finished the coffee and the sandwich -- which ended up tasting better than anything he could remember -- and then Draco had simply wandered the side streets of Diagon Alley for several hours. For the first time since he was a young boy, he took notice of the way that other people looked at him. He watched their eyes and tried to read their body language. Some stared at him with open contempt. A few even hurled insults in his direction. Others simply looked unsettled. A couple of the shopkeepers his father had done business with smiled nervously and waved at him when they thought nobody else would notice.


As he walked, it gradually dawned on Draco that he wasn’t so much a person in their eyes as a reminder. A living, breathing embodiment of the terror and bloodshed and death that had gripped their world for the past two years. It didn’t matter to any of them that his life had been little different, that his family had also lived under constant threat of torture and death. They didn’t know and they would never care. To them, he was Draco Malfoy, son of the Death Eater who got away. In their minds, there would always be a cell in Azkaban with his name on it, waiting for the day when justice finally prevailed.


In and of itself, that revelation didn’t bother him so much. Draco had been hated for so long by so many people that he honestly couldn’t remember life any other way. Just as he was finally feeling sober enough to apparate home, something completely different struck him, a sticky truth that his fourteen-year-old self would have laughed off with a casual toss of his head. The fact that he was loathed was no longer the rest of the world’s problem. Suddenly, there were things that Draco wanted. Things that he could never have as long as wizards like Horatio Greengrass stared at him with disdain. The fact that people hated him was now his problem, and that realization hit him harder than he ever imagined possible.


Draco suddenly sat bolt upright in bed. In an instant, everything clicked. There were things he needed to do before this moment of clarity escaped him.


“Kriffin!”


Draco continued to collect his thoughts, forming ideas and sentences in his head. Several seconds later, the elf appeared with a pop, looking sleepy and confused. He turned to Draco and bowed deeply. Draco didn’t wait for any of his fawning pleasantries.


“Kriffin, I need parchment and a quill. Hurry.”


The elf disappeared and Draco lowered his feet over the side of the bed. He pulled on his robe as he walked to the sitting area between the doors leading to his bathroom and closet. The elf reappeared a few moments later and Draco snatched the items he was carrying. Settling into one end of an overstuffed settee, he pondered the best way to put his thoughts into action. He finally settled on a letter to the one person who had never deserted him throughout his long ordeal.


Mother,

I’m sorry that it’s taken so long, but I’ve finally decided that I need to change. I’m tired of being drunk all the time. I’m tired of pretending that the nightmare we lived through didn’t happen. I’m tired of ignoring the fact that people hate me and blame me for what the Dark Lord did. Some of this I can change easily, and some of it I have no idea where to begin. I want to do something with my life. I want people to respect me, not hate me because of the mark on my arm. I need your help. I need you to help me make the right choices. I need you to help me convince Father to change his ways. I need you to support me if I start to lose my nerve.

I also need you to understand why I’m doing this. I could tell you that it's just because I want to make you proud of me, but that isn't the whole truth. I met somebody today when I was drunk and alone in Diagon Alley. She's beautiful and kind and she comes from a good family. She picked me up off of the ground and helped me start to sort myself out. But her father stared at me like I was poison. And he's right. I am poisonous. That's why I have to change. I can't go through life alone or surrounded by people who tolerate me in spite of who I am. I don't want to live that way.

I'm going to sleep now, but I needed to tell you this while it was all clear in my mind, before I lost the courage to put it down on paper. Please don't tell Father about this until we have a chance to talk. I need to figure out how to approach him without making things worse.

Love,
Your Son



Draco cast a quick drying charm on the ink and then folded the parchment. He thought for a moment about his parents’ morning routine and then handed the letter to the elf.


“Put this on my mother’s dressing table, under her hairbrush.”


The elf bowed obediently and disappeared with a pop. Draco shed his robe and crawled back into bed, closing his eyes resolutely. Tomorrow was going to be an important day. Every day would be important from now on. The magnitude of what lay ahead weighed on his mind and for a moment he felt his determination waver. But he recalled those sparkling brown eyes and the feeling of slender fingers wrapped around his hand. Whatever it took, it was going to be worth it.

 



 
Draco has begun the long journey toward reclaiming his life after the war. It won't be easy, but Astoria has given him a reason to try.

I hope you enjoyed this chapter. I always appreciate it if you can take a moment to let me know what you think in the box below!



Chapter 2: Getting Clean
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

As always, that which you recognize belongs to the great JK Rowling.





 
The lamps flickered with an unnatural, bluish glow as Draco walked slowly down the endless hallway. The pale light failed to penetrate the suffocating darkness and it allowed shadows to consume everything except the path that lay before him. Overwhelming dread pressed on his shoulders and he felt his bare feet sinking deeper into the plush carpet. He had walked this corridor before. Whether it was real or in a nightmare, he could not recall, but something terrible waited in the distance. His legs carried him unrelentingly forward, marching to the irregular cadence of fate.


Dampness touched his cheek, causing him to pause. Again, a soft, wet tap against the pale skin of his face. His fingertips traced the taut curve under his cheekbone. When he looked at them, they were stained crimson. Draco lifted his gaze upward just as another drop struck his forehead. A body hung upside down in the air, slowly revolving beneath a ceiling hidden in the depths of blackness. The young woman was clothed in bloody rags that hung in shreds, interwoven with the streaks of red that ran through her long, flaxen hair. The horror of her death was frozen on her face. It was the Lovegood girl. Draco remembered her imperturbable calm as she faced the harsh treatment meted out in the cellar of the manor. The terror etched in her unseeing eyes chilled him to the bone.


More bodies came into view as he walked, hanging upside down like broken marionettes. Weasley’s eyes were squeezed tightly shut. His open mouth reverberated with the silent echo of his final scream. The tattered remains of a hand-knitted jumper clung loosely to his body, slashed to ribbons by the same curses that streaked his undershirt with blood. Granger was suspended nearby. Her eyes were broken, vacant. Torn, bloody fingernails matched the long scratches that marred her face. Somebody had finished the work his mad aunt had begun.


More bodies. Longbottom. Finnegan. Weasley’s little sister. Empty stares pierced Draco, laying bare the wounds he’d long concealed. Fear, doubt and misery gripped his chest. He could hardly breathe. More bodies. McGonagall. Slughorn. Flitwick. A grotesque chandelier of death and suffering. Each dangling pendalogue was a life consumed by the Dark Lord’s insatiable ambition. Every glassy eye a reminder of his final solution to every problem.


Draco’s breath caught in his throat. The centerpiece of the macabre display hung in the air like a ghastly trophy. Harry Potter. The boy who lived. Ordinary in death, unremarkable as he wished to be in life. The oppressive weight of hopelessness grew. If Potter was dead, then the Dark Lord had won. Nobody would stop him. Nobody could. When Draco’s usefulness came to an end, he would die. His limbs struggled against the waves of despair. Nothing could save him from his fate; still he lumbered on.


More bodies. Friend and foe alike regarded him through masks of mortal terror. Blood ran down the sides of Pansy’s face from the gaping wound in her chest. Goyle’s fat face was twisted into uncomprehending shock as his head hung by a few bloody sinews from his severed neck. His feet continued to carry him over the blood-soaked carpet. More bodies. Dolohov. Rookwood. Avery. His father’s old cronies, now as lifeless and pallid as waxwork. Their fanatical devotion to the Dark Lord had bought them nothing in the end, just a few extra steps on the straight and narrow path toward death.


The next bodies made Draco desperately wish that he could turn away. His mother and father hung back to back. The burgundy residue of mortal wounds stained his father’s cheeks and seeped down into his long, white hair. A single tendril of acrid smoke arose from a blackened hole in his mother’s side. He couldn’t tear his tear-filled eyes away. They had done everything possible to help him find his way among the Dark Lord’s murderous followers, to keep him safe. Now they were gone. He was truly alone.


Draco. His name fell like a whisper from his mother’s bluish lips. He couldn’t see any hint of motion in her ashen face, but then he heard it again. Draco. His heart leapt. She had managed to survive somehow. His hands frantically swiped at the front of his robes, searching for his wand. Draco. If he could get her down, if he could get her to a healer... Draco. He fell to his knees and desperately felt around in the darkness. If he could only find it.


A terrible, shrill laugh echoed through the corridor. “Avada Kedavra!” The blast of emerald light struck his mother’s unmoving body and she lit up from within.


“NO!” Draco’s scream filled the air. He felt the long, cold fingers on the back of his neck...


In one motion, Draco whipped his wand out from underneath his pillow and pointed it at the figure sitting on the bed next to him. His mother pulled her hand away, looking deeply worried as Draco gasped for air. He was covered with goosebumps and cold sweat and his muscles felt painfully tense, as though he hadn’t slept at all.


“Draco, what’s wrong?”


Draco forced his breathing to slow, calming his racing mind. He let out a long, deep breath and collapsed back onto his pillow.


“I’m sorry, mother. It was just a dream.”


“How often are you having these dreams?”


He cherished the concern in her voice. It soothed his frayed nerves. But now was not the time. He needed much more than her sympathy, so he chose to lie.


“Not often.”


She stared at him for a moment. Draco got the distinct impression that she didn’t believe him, but she chose to let it go. Instead, she held up a folded sheet of parchment that he instantly recognized.


“You’re serious about this?”


He nodded earnestly. She continued to stare into his grey eyes for a moment longer, then looked away.


“It would make your father and I very happy. We would do anything in our power to help you. But Draco, I need you to understand how difficult it’s been for the two of us to watch you struggle these past few months. If our hopes are misplaced, if you revert back to your old ways...”


“I won’t.”


Draco knew right away that he had spoken too quickly. The answer would have done his father proud, delivered with perfect certainty and lacking the moment of hesitation that implied actual consideration of the question. His mother gave him a knowing look. He took a deep breath and gathered his thoughts.


“Mother, I know this is going to be hard. I... I can’t do it by myself. I need your help. And I need father to change, as well. Nothing I do will make any difference if he gets himself thrown back into Azkaban.”


His mother stared at him, studying, evaluating. The seconds ticked by and he calmed himself by concentrating on the hazy memories of Astoria’s eyes and the feel of her fingertips against the palm of his hand.


“Let’s begin by addressing your own behavior. Your father is a bigger project.”
 





Astoria looked up from her reading when the small elf appeared in her bedroom with a pop. Madam Malkin’s had sent an owl earlier in the day letting her know that the alterations to her new school robes were complete, and Astoria admired the neatly pressed garments. She nodded to the elf, who began to fold them and pack them away in her school trunk. Astoria turned back to the Charms text sitting in her lap. Everyone told her that N.E.W.T.-level lessons were grueling, so as long as she had some time to spare, she decided to get a head start.


She felt the weight of her father’s stare before she heard him enter the room. Continuing to read, she waited for him to speak.


“Are you sure you don’t want to go back and be a First Year again? I’m not ready for my little princess to be in her sixth year.”


She smiled warmly at her father after rolling her eyes at his gentle teasing.


“You’d have to relive my fourth year all over again.”


He gave her a wry smile in return.


“This time you’d know enough to stay away from that Ravenclaw boy with the long hair, right?”


Astoria closed the text on her lap and gave him an affronted look.


“Father! He was really sweet and it wasn’t like I was planning to marry him. Besides, you never would have had to worry if Daphne hasn't grassed me up.”


Her father chuckled softly to himself as he sat down on the edge of the bed beside her.


“Now, now, princess. Your sister has always been very protective of you. She wants you to make the right choices for yourself.”


Father and daughter shared an unspoken moment of contemplation about some of Daphne’s past romantic choices. Astoria tried to keep her voice neutral.


“How are things between Daphne and Jeremy? I’ve barely seen him since the end of the war.”


It sounded as though her father was also measuring his words carefully.


“Going very well, apparently. His mother approached your mother last week at the Blishwicks’ dinner party. It seems that he’s thinking about seeking my permission to ask for her hand in marriage.”


Astoria’s hands immediately flew to her mouth, more out of surprise than delight. Her father appeared to have no difficulty reading the look in her eyes.


“Well, his mother is considering it, anyway. He has been courting her since their sixth year. I should think he’d want to get on with things. Besides, this would be good for your sister. The Gamps are a solid family with strong roots and they didn’t throw it all away during the war like many of the others.”


Astoria nibbled at the inside of her lower lip. A question had been bothering her since the day he took her shopping in Diagon Alley, but the time never seemed right. It still didn’t, but perhaps it never would.


“Daddy, can I ask you something? And you promise not to get upset?”


“What is it, princess?”


“Why were you so angry at Draco Malfoy?”


Her father stiffened visibly. He drew a deep breath and seemed to be trying to compose his thoughts.


“Astoria, you’ll hear some people say that Draco Malfoy is lucky that he’s not in Azkaban. And they’re right, but that’s not the half of it.”


The expression on her father’s face darkened. His voice gradually rose as he spoke.


“Truth is, he’s lucky to still be alive. We’re all lucky to be alive. And for what? Why did we have to suffer through not one, but two devastating wars in twenty years time? So old Lucius and his cronies could try to play kingmaker, that’s why. So they could try to put some homicidal lunatic in the Minister’s office. Do you really think this... this You Know Who would have been able to gather so many followers without the Malfoys and the Blacks championing his cause? Preposterous! The Aurors would have made short work of the whole sordid affair.”


He rose to his feet, pacing and emphasizing his words with exaggerated hand gestures.


“Why did they do it? I’ll tell you why, Astoria. It isn’t enough that they have more gold in their vaults than they know what to do with. It’s not enough that there are entire wings of their family homes that they never even visit. It isn’t even enough that they’re convinced that they’re better than the rest of us. Oh, no. They had to try and prove it. ‘Look at me, the Great Lucius Malfoy! My power knows no limits! I can pluck a raving madman off of his street corner and make him ruler of the magical world!’ Can you believe the audacity of that man?”


Her father’s face was turning red and he sounded short of breath. He had built up such a head of steam that Astoria worried he might have a fit or perhaps a heart attack.


“And look at what this war has done to the rest of us! It used to mean something to come from an old magical family. People respected you. They knew you stood for certain things. Now the words ‘pure blood’ are spoken like an insult. Ironic, isn’t it? The Death Eaters went around preaching blood purity and magical superiority and all they succeeded in doing was making heroes out of muggle-lovers and mudbloods. Our whole world is turned upside down!”


Astoria grabbed her father’s hand and managed to get him to stop pacing. He stared at her for a second and then lowered himself back onto the edge of her bed, trying to catch his breath. She really didn’t want to upset him further, but she couldn’t square the things he was saying with the haunted look she remembered seeing in those grey eyes.


“Daddy, I understand that Draco’s family did terrible things during the war. But did you really look at him? He didn’t seem arrogant or dangerous, just... lost. Maybe he isn’t really like his father?”


Horatio Greengrass took a deep breath and laid his hands on his youngest daughter’s shoulders.


“You always try to find the good in people, princess. It’s part of what makes you such a sweet, wonderful girl. But please, trust me this one time. That boy is a Black and a Malfoy. Arrogance and dark magic are in his blood. If he seems like he’s changed, it just means that you haven’t figured out what he wants from you.”
 





Draco sat alone at a table in a small restaurant in London. It catered to magical folk, but it was quiet and away from the major wizarding areas like Diagon Alley. He tried to avoid making eye contact with anyone as he slowly stirred the cup of tea sitting in front of him. He caught sight of the waitress and realized that she was carrying a pair of mixed drinks to the table by the front window. He mentally kicked himself for not studying the menu. If he had known that they served alcohol, he certainly would have chosen someplace else.


He watched the two wizards at the table lift their glasses in a polite toast and he could feel the conflict brewing inside himself. Draco had tried, mostly successfully, to avoid alcohol since the day he met Astoria Greengrass in Diagon Alley. It was more of a struggle than he liked to admit. Crowds still made him anxious. Loud noises left him clutching his wand in a white-knuckled grip inside his pocket. Alcohol eased the symptoms, although it did nothing for the underlying problem. Still, there were times when he craved the warm fuzziness in his veins that allowed him to recall parts of the war without his chest tightening up.


Draco was still lost in thought when Blaise Zabini suddenly dropped into the chair in front of him. He reached out to shake Zabini’s hand, but his old housemate was too busy flagging down the waitress.


“McCormack’s, neat.”


“Straight firewhiskey? Zabini, it’s not even one in the afternoon.”


“So? The last time I saw you, you were well on your way by now. Where have you been, anyway? It’s been, what, three months? I’m sure you’d be welcome back at the Fang if you bought a round or two for the house.”


Draco took another sip of his tea to buy a bit of time to think. Zabini’s hair and clothes were impeccable as ever, but there were subtle signs of deterioration all around the edges. Dark circles were visible under his eyes and his hands shook slightly when he wasn’t rubbing them together. There was a ragged edge to his silky smooth voice. In the depths of Draco’s mind, he could hear his mother saying I told you so.


“To be honest, I haven’t felt much like going out. I made a right arse of myself that day in Knockturn Alley and it really got me thinking. I want to get my head straight and rebuild my reputation. I’m even thinking about petitioning to return to Hogwarts after the New Year and trying to pass some N.E.W.T.s.”


Zabini’s drink arrived and he shook his head slowly before downing it in two big gulps and ordering another.


“Did you take a curse to the head or something, Malfoy? McGonagall hated you before the war. You think she’s gonna let you come back to her precious school full of blood traitors and mudblood scum?”


A couple of the restaurant’s other customers turned to look at their table, but Zabini paid them no mind. He coughed into his clenched fist and gave Draco an exasperated look.


“Why would you do that, anyway? Do you fancy ending up in some dead-end career in the bloody Ministry? What about all of our big plans for the future?”


Draco stared blankly ahead, sifting through the hazy memories he’d accumulated in the aftermath of the war.


“Blaise, we were drunk for months. We came up with a lot of really stupid ideas. None of them are worth ending up in Azkaban over. The war is over. It’s time to move on.”


Zabini’s expression turned sour. The waitress arrived with his second drink and Draco caught the scornful look in her eyes and the less than gentle way she set the glass down on their table. It was all lost on his former housemate, who took a big sip before clearing his throat harshly.


“So this is how it’s going to be? I suppose your old friends aren’t good enough for you any more. Now you’re gonna go crawling to the mudbloods and muggle lovers, groveling for forgiveness? I guess it’s true what they say about your family changing sides at the end of the war.”


Draco couldn’t quite describe the feeling in his chest. Surprise? Anger? A touch of shame? It passed quickly, replaced by simmering rage. He lowered his voice to a dark and forbidding growl.


“I don’t grovel for anyone. And if you mention my family again, I’ll show you just how much I learned during the bloody war.”


The two wizards glared at one another intently. In the periphery of his vision, Draco began to pick up on the menacing stares that were being directed at them from all around the restaurant. A hint of uncertainty appeared in Zabini’s eyes. If he hadn’t been raised better, Draco would have smiled when his old schoolmate broke eye contact and looked away.


“You’ve changed, Malfoy.”


“Yeah. I guess I have.”


A flicker of movement over Zabini’s shoulder caught Draco’s eye. A wand slipping out of a man’s pocket and behind his back. It wasn’t much, but it set his war-weary nerves on edge. The air in the restaurant was suddenly alive with tension. Everywhere, flinty stares were directed at the two of them. Draco reached into his pocket and tossed ten sickles onto the table. The clatter of the coins provided all the misdirection he needed to surreptitiously draw his wand. Zabini was oblivious to it all.


“I didn’t mean that in a good way, Malfoy! You used to stand for something. People respected you. They were even afraid of you.”


Two wizards were moving toward their table. Their posture was aggressive and their eyes were filled with anger. Even as he tracked their approach, Draco remained impassive. So long as they thought he wasn’t paying attention, he held the advantage. He raised his voice slightly, pressing his point with Zabini.


“I don’t care whether people are afraid of me and I don’t need their respect. The only person I’m living for now is myself. You understand that, Blaise?”


The closer of the two wizards pointed his wand at the side of Zabini’s head while the other took aim at Draco. His lips were stretched tightly over his crooked teeth and his voice was barely more than a snarl.


“You two have a lot of nerve, talking like that in public. People like you belong in Azkaban.”


“How dare you, you filthy-”


Draco cut Zabini off in mid-sentence, before things got really out of hand.


“We aren’t Death Eaters and we don’t want any trouble. My friend and I were just leaving.”


Draco started to ease forward in his chair, but the closer wizard swiped his wand in Draco’s direction. The waitress hovered near their table, bristling with nerves.


“Put those away and let them leave. They’re not worth the trouble.”


Zabini’s eyes were flicking nervously between the waitress, Draco and the two wizards holding them at wand point. Draco remained focused on the greatest threat. He forced his fingers to loosen their death grip on his own wand under the table, recalling the dueling form his aunt had taught him. Then he waited. The next move was theirs.


“I can’t do that, Emma. I spent two years looking away while their lot walked around like they owned the whole bloody world. You know who is gone now. It’s time somebody taught them how to behave.”


The closer wizard’s lips begin to move and Draco flicked his wand upward, sending the table flying toward their attackers. It crashed into the closer wizard, knocking him off of his feet. The wizard standing behind him had to turn aside to avoid being bowled over, and that was all the opportunity Draco needed. Stupefy. He cast the stunner wordlessly and the man sprawled limply to the floor. The first wizard shoved the overturned table aside, trying to line up a clear shot. Draco wheeled around and struck him in the center of his chest with a curse that slammed his body into the floor. The fight was over in seconds.


Zabini’s mouth was hanging open, but Draco hardly paid him any mind. His brain was racing as his eyes flicked around the room, studying faces, reading body language, looking for the next threat. The waitress stared at them with a mixture of fear and disgust. The posture of her wand hand was somewhere between neutral and threatening. Draco gave her one forbidding look and she lowered her hand to her side and fixed him with a pleading look.


“Just go, please.”


Draco eased his wand back into his pocket and caught Zabini’s eyes before tilting his head toward the door.


“Sorry about the mess.”


By the time his Galleon rolled to a stop next to the broken teacup on the floor, Draco was already halfway to the door. Zabini followed him quietly, exchanging menacing looks with the restaurant’s other patrons. As soon as they stepped around the corner, Draco grabbed Zabini’s arm and disapparated with a crack.


When the two wizards reappeared on a quiet side street near the Zabinis’ family home in Wiltshire, Zabini shook his arm free of Draco’s grasp, clearly upset about being side-along apparated. He turned his back on Draco and took a couple of steps, but then stopped. Slowly, grudgingly, he spoke.


“I appreciate what you did back there, Malfoy. How did you know they were going to attack us?”


“Their body language, mostly. Their eyes. The way they were positioning themselves.”


Zabini turned back to face him, looking very serious.


“Gamp’s right when he says we need you on our side, Malfoy. This stuff isn’t just talk to you. You actually lived it. You know what you’re doing.”


Draco shook his head slowly. He stared into his old housemate’s eyes. For reasons completely beyond his comprehension, he hoped that Zabini would understand.


“You just don’t get it, Blaise. I’m not what you think. I learned the things I had to know to survive. My aunt, my uncle... I don’t know how to fight like they did. Any of them could have killed me if they really wanted to. They just left me alone because they knew the Dark Lord had a personal interest in me.”


Zabini wasn’t ready to give up.


“If the Dark Lord took such an interest in you, he must have shared some of his secrets. Don’t keep us in the dark, Malfoy. We’re all on the same side here.”


Draco bit back the retort forming in his throat with the last shreds of his self-control. We are most definitely not on the same side.


“Go inside, Zabini, before the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol comes looking for us. I’ll see you around.”


Draco took a deep breath to slow his racing heart, then turned and disapparated.





 
First of all, thank you to everyone who read the first chapter and especially those who reviewed it. Thanks are always due to my amazing beta reader, sophie_hatter. And last but not least, thank you to Jami for the inspiration to write this story.


Chapter 3: Regrets
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As always, that which you recognize from the books belongs to JK Rowling.





 
An inch of fresh snow adorned the streets of Hogsmeade Village when Draco apparated in front of the Three Broomsticks and began to trudge toward Hogwarts. He pulled the hood of his cloak tightly around his head, but it had little to do with the biting chill in the air. He hadn’t set foot in Scotland since the morning after the war ended. The residents and shopkeepers of the village were bustling around, preparing for the New Years Eve festivities that would begin later in the day. Draco knew what sort of reaction he could expect if anybody recognized him, so he hurried up the path that led to the front gates of the school.


The reception that awaited him there probably wasn’t any warmer. The Board of Governors had been deeply divided over whether to allow Draco to complete his studies. Twisting arms was out of the question; his family’s influence with the Ministry’s new leadership was non-existent. In the end, a large donation to a charity which provided for the education of war orphans persuaded a slim majority of the governors to side with him.


Draco relaxed slightly after he rounded the first bend in the path without any hexes hitting him in the back. The momentary reprieve came to an abrupt end as the castle came into view. The snow did little to conceal the lingering damage from the battle. Large sections of new, lighter-colored stone stood out like scars on the ancient walls. The covered bridge hung awkwardly in the air, held up by enchantments until the wooden framework beneath it could be rebuilt. Many of the large trees that once adorned the grounds were gone, replaced by deep divots in the snowy ground. Large holes in the North Tower and the Astronomy Tower were still being repaired, leaving the insides exposed to the elements. It was all too real, too fresh, too familiar.


His heart started to pound inside his chest. He closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to force the disturbing images from his mind. They were replaced by visions of giants thundering toward the castle walls while clouds of Dementors circled overhead. Draco felt himself being pulled back into that awful night he had tried so hard to erase from his memory in the dingy wizarding pubs of London. His breath came in short gasps as the fire and curses and screams of agony rushed back to him. The battle was raging all around. His mad aunt cackled somewhere nearby while she hurled curses at an unseen opponent. The din of the fighting was deafening.


Moment by horrible moment, he relived the battle inside his mind. A hail of curses flew over his head, pummeling the school’s defenses. Deafening explosions tore through the fabric of the night and chunks of the castle were blown away. The ground undulated and churned as thousands of giant spiders were driven from the Forbidden Forest toward the defenders of Hogwarts. Just as it felt as though his heart couldn’t beat any faster, he heard the Dark Lord’s serpentine hiss, ordering him into the ruins to find Harry Potter.


Draco wasn’t aware that he had fallen to his knees and he had no memory of drawing his wand. Feelings of panic and helplessness threatened to consume him and the urge to flee was overwhelming. He could hear strangled moans escaping from his constricted throat. Slowly, and with tremendous effort, he managed to force his eyes open and unclench his balled-up fists. His wand fell from his fingers, sinking a short way into the powdery snow. Little by little, his breathing slowed as he focused on the empty whiteness of the ground in front of him.


Mustering every bit of his determination, Draco snatched his wand and pulled himself to his feet. This weakness was unacceptable. His parents had sacrificed too much to make this opportunity possible. He wouldn’t let them down by succumbing to his demons. That wasn’t the Malfoy way. Draco forced himself to trudge the rest of the way to the school gates. His feet felt like lead and each step was an exercise in controlling his anxiety and fear. Slowly, deliberately, he covered the remaining distance.


A figure wearing a wide-brimmed, pointed hat and a tartan overcoat was waiting for him. Draco fought back a renewed urge to flee and lifted his face to meet the fearsome, piercing stare of Minerva McGonagall. He took two more steps forward, already dreading the sight of the Great Hall. A new avalanche of horrible memories lay ahead, moments that all of the alcohol and wishful thinking in London hadn’t been able to erase from his mind. As it turned out, that particular moment of reckoning would have to wait for another day. He paused in front of the castle gates, surprised to find that they did not part.


“That’s far enough, Mr. Malfoy.”


The Headmistress’s words charged the frosty air with tension. Draco studied her eyes and noticed the simmering rage lurking just beneath her icy glare. He wasn’t sure what to say, so he didn’t bother with any sort of pleasantries.


“I’m here to discuss my timetable for lessons. May I come in?”


Even beneath her thick, winter clothes, her slender form seemed to vibrate with barely contained fury. It took her a long moment to respond.


“You most certainly may not. Let us get one thing perfectly straight. The Governors have decided to allow you to attend Hogwarts over my explicit objection. You are a Death Eater and a coward, Mr. Malfoy. Your hands are stained with the blood of loved ones who are still being mourned by our students and staff. Your presence is not wanted here. But the Governors have made their decision and I must abide by it.”


McGonagall came as close to spitting out the final words as her rigidly proper enunciation would allow. But the weight of her glare did not waver.


“You will only be permitted on the grounds of Hogwarts during the school day. A teacher will meet you at these gates each morning and escort you to your first class. You will surrender your wand and it will be returned to you only when required for the practical portions of your lessons. You will not be permitted to socialize with the other students outside of your lessons and you will take your meals in Professor Slughorn’s office. Should you have a free period between lessons, it will be spent in the library, quietly revising for your upcoming exams. Any disciplinary infraction, no matter how small, will result in your immediate expulsion. These conditions are not negotiable. Do you understand?”


Draco nodded his head slowly. He hadn’t expected a friendly greeting, but the outrage and contempt in her eyes made him question all over again whether he was making the right decision. It wasn’t as though he needed a job. As soon as he told his father about the shabby way he was being treated, the old man would have no qualms about his change of heart. His mother was a different story, however. She might try to hide it, but she would definitely be disappointed in him. And Draco simply couldn’t handle that.


McGonagall turned and started to walk back toward the castle doors without another word. Feeling a need to salvage some measure of dignity, Draco called out after her.


“That will be acceptable. See that I’m not kept waiting. The forecast is for snow on Monday morning!”


The Headmistress didn’t even slow down in acknowledgment. Draco turned and began to walk back toward Hogsmeade. In the back of his mind, it dawned on him that he was virtually guaranteed to spend a long time waiting in the snow.






Astoria lifted the stack of thick cashmere sweaters out of her school trunk for the fourth time, turned them ninety degrees clockwise and tried to wedge them into a small space between her cauldron and her Arithmancy text. The thick, luxurious fabric continued to resist her attempts to make it conform to the available space, mushrooming upward after each time she smashed it down. She furrowed her brow in frustration. When she was younger, she thought the way that Daphne complained about not being able to do magic outside of school was ridiculous. Now that she had more clothes, books and other possessions that needed to be packed for each trip, the temptation to shrink them with her wand was hard to resist. She twirled the thin piece of wood between her fingers for a moment and then sighed.


“Linny.”


The small elf appeared with a pop and made a deep bow toward her. Astoria smiled sweetly, trying to reassure the nervous little creature. She knew that other families didn’t treat their elves as well as her mother insisted that they treat Linny, and it bothered her that the elf always seemed to regard her with a touch of fear in those large eyes.


“Please shrink the contents of my trunk so that they fit properly. I’ll be able to put them right again once I’m back at school and I’m allowed to do magic.”


The elf bowed again and snapped her fingers. The great mass of books and clothing contracted and the lid of the trunk flipped closed and latched itself.


“May I be taking your trunk to the foyer, Miss Astoria? Master wished to leave within the hour.”


“Of course. Thank you, Linny.”


The elf and the trunk both disappeared with a pop. Astoria took a last look around her room as she rounded up the few small items that she would be carrying onto the train. It was always bittersweet leaving home after the holidays. As much as she was looking forward to seeing her friends, she would miss her parents and her sister. It also occurred to her that her time at Hogwarts was beginning to run short. In one year, she would be starting her final term of school and the future loomed uncertainly before her.


“Astoria, are you all ready to go?”


She banished the worrisome thoughts from her mind and turned to greet the pretty blonde girl in her doorway with a smile.


“Yes. Linny just took my trunk to the foyer. Let’s start walking that way so we don’t keep Father waiting.”


Astoria’s friend Isadore Nott had gratefully accepted her invitation to spend the final week of the holidays with her family. Mrs. Nott had passed away shortly after Isadore was born and now her father was locked away in Azkaban. Her only remaining family were her brother Theo, who was rarely seen outside of a pub during the daytime, and her elderly, spinster aunt who insisted that Isadore spend most of her waking hours helping to groom the herd of cats that she shared her home with. Astoria was happy to have somebody to enjoy the holiday with, since her mother and sister were deep in the throes of wedding planning; Daphne had finally caught Jeremy Gamp in a moment of weakness and wheedled a proposal out of him.


The two girls strolled down the long corridor that led from Astoria’s chambers to the front entrance of the Greengrass family home. The portraits of her ancestors regarded Astoria fondly as they passed, and Isadore was humming softly to herself. She stared at the ceiling, trying -- and failing -- to sound very casual.


“So... I heard from Pansy Parkinson that she talked to Lucien Bole who heard from Blaise Zabini that Blaise had lunch with him and he has decided to return to Hogwarts for the spring term.”


Astoria could hear the eagerness in her friend’s voice. At times she regretted sharing the story of her chance encounter with Draco Malfoy. Isadore was entirely too eager to see Astoria in a relationship. She spent far too much time reading trashy romance novels, and she tended to go overboard with enthusiasm whenever one of her friends mentioned any new romantic interest. Still, Astoria hoped that the rumor was true. And it was nice to have at least one person who didn’t cringe at the notion of her speaking to a former Death Eater.


“That’s good to hear. It would be a shame if he missed out on the chance to earn his N.E.W.T.s.”


Isadore rolled her eyes and then fixed Astoria with a knowing look. Astoria put on her best innocent look, but after a few seconds her facade began to crack. Isadore grinned at her and within a few seconds both girls erupted into a fit of giggles.


“Alright, alright, I might fancy him just a bit.”


Isadore practically squealed with delight and seized Astoria’s shoulders, shaking her gently.


“Oh, Astoria! I just know that you two are going to be perfect together. He’s so handsome and mysterious and he has those beautiful grey eyes...”


Astoria sighed and gave her friend a beseeching look. Isadore was definitely letting her imagination run wild. Also, for reasons that Astoria didn’t quite understand, the dreamy look in Isadore’s eyes bothered her. More than she cared to admit, if she was being honest with herself.


“Isadore, please don’t get too worked up over this. I told you how father took it when I brought up his name. He seemed really sweet, but it would be so... complicated.”


Astoria heard her parents instructing the elves at the far end of the corridor. She wished with all her might that Isadore would simply allow the subject to drop, but her body language made it clear that she was only warming up.


“Astoria, your father is being ridiculous! If he’s going to reject anyone who’s related to a Death Eater, there’s hardly a boy in our house that you’d be allowed to date.”


The conversation was getting far too personal to continue in front of a bunch of chatty portraits. Astoria lowered her voice to a whisper, hoping that Isadore would have the good sense to follow suit.


“If Draco just had an uncle or a cousin who was sent to Azkaban, that would be different. I think father could get past it. But his father was arrested in the Department of Mysteries, Isadore. The Dark Lord was a guest in their house. I heard... I heard he even has that mark on his arm.”


The two girls stood silently for a moment. Isadore suddenly turned and started to walk again. Astoria hurried to catch up and she was surprised to see that her friend's eyes were slightly damp. She caught Isadore’s elbow and gave her a pleading look. Isadore paused and spoke slowly, her voice barely a whisper.


“It was a war, Astoria. Lots of people made really awful choices. My father will spend the rest of his life in Azkaban and my brother... he’s like a stranger now. We barely speak any more. Do you think that makes me a bad person?”


Astoria couldn’t resist the urge to pat her friend gently on the back as she slowly but emphatically shook her head in response. Isadore took a steadying breath and continued to speak softly.


“I think it’s great that your family didn’t get caught up in all of that awful business, Astoria. Really, I do. Please just don’t judge the rest of us too harshly, alright?”


Astoria stared straight ahead as they resumed their walk. She did want to see Draco again, but her father’s warning still rang in her ears. The boy she met in Diagon Alley -- young man, she corrected herself -- didn’t seem like he was dangerous or evil. Was it possible for someone to spend so much time surrounded by darkness and death and still turn out alright? There was only one thing she could do. She had to find out for herself.
 





On the fourth of January, Professor Slughorn met Draco at the gates of Hogwarts. Apparently he hadn’t paid any attention to the weather forecast, as he was attired in a lightweight set of robes that did little to shield him from the wind-driven snow. It pained Draco to hand his wand to the doddering old fool, but at least the Professor had the grace to be apologetic about it.


“Headmistress’s orders, you know. Wouldn’t want to put her in a tizzy on your first day back.”


The two of them walked in silence toward the great wooden doors. Slughorn produced Draco’s timetable from the pockets of his damp, snow-crusted robes upon reaching the Entrance Hall and then led the way to the Potions classroom in the dungeons. Draco stared intently at the small sheet of parchment, trying to avoid seeing anything that would stir the terrible memories that still haunted his dreams. It indicated that he would start the day with double Potions on Mondays and Wednesdays, followed by Charms after lunch. Tuesday and Thursday mornings were devoted to Transfiguration, with additional Charms lessons on Tuesday afternoons and...


“Professor, there must be some mistake. I don’t recall ever choosing Muggle Studies as an elective, let alone pursuing it at a N.E.W.T. level. And where are my Defense lessons?”


Slughorn gave him a practised smile as he tried to brush the snow off of his right side.


“Ah, yes. According to Professor McGonagall, the Governors decided that due to your relative inexperience with the muggles, it would benefit you to continue your studies of their customs. As far as Defense, well, I think we can all agree that putting you in a classroom where students are hurling spells at one another could lead to, shall we say, misunderstandings.”


Draco was fuming as he followed his former Head of House down the long staircase. The only misunderstanding he could see was the one made by the person who assumed that he was going to take this insult lying down. The very notion of spending two hours each week listening to some self-important half-wit drone on about the filthy muggles and their rubbish made him itch. And he had no concerns about his ability to hold his own in Defense lessons. Even without the dark spells he learned during the war, he felt sure that he was more than a match for the other students. As the walked down the dungeon corridor, Draco pondered what sort of donation could be made to put things right.


The Potions classroom was empty when they arrived. Slughorn gestured absently toward the stone-topped workbenches as he walked toward his office door.


“Take any seat you like. I’m going to fetch some dry robes.”


Draco surveyed the classroom and selected a bench in the back, where nobody would be able to sit behind him. He dropped his books onto the bench and draped his heavy winter cloak over one of the stools before plopping listlessly onto the other. Somehow, he didn’t think that anyone was going to want to sit next to him. He pulled his crisp, new copy of Advanced Potion-Making out of his bag and started to reread the section that described the Draught of Living Death. Maybe Slughorn would repeat his little brewing competition. If there was one thing that his life had been missing, Draco reasoned, it was a dose of good luck.


Voices sounded in the hallway outside of the classroom. Draco looked at his watch and realized that lessons were about to begin. He flipped back to the table of contents and studied the list of potions that the book contained. Most of the names were familiar to him, but in a hazy, somewhat distant way. He felt a twinge of regret. He had once been good at Potions, even without Professor Snape’s constant prompting and tutelage. Draco had barely paid any attention to his studies the prior year. On the rare occasion when one of his teachers dared to admonish him, he either ignored them or threatened them with the mark on his left forearm. Pleasing the Dark Lord had been his only priority, the thing that kept him alive.


Draco was shaken from his reverie by approaching footsteps. He looked up from his text to find the points of two wands aimed at his face. Behind them were the shocked, angry expressions of two boys that he recognized as Gryffindors. The nearest of the two had frizzy, brown hair twisted into dreadlocks. His head made Draco think of a nest full of Flobberworm larvae. The second boy was shorter, with pale skin and curly brown hair. Draco managed to stop himself from reaching for his empty pocket. He would have felt foolish if he’d taken a curse to the head for nothing.


“Bloody hell. It’s really him.”


“Looks like the rumors were right for once.”


Draco shifted uncomfortably on his stool and both wands twitched dangerously. He slowly raised his palms and looked the closer of the two boys in the eye.


“Look, I don’t want-”


“Shut the hell up, Malfoy.”


Worm-head closed the gap separating them with two short steps and pressed his wand against Draco’s neck. It was a foolish posture for an unqualified wizard to assume. Draco could have easily swatted the wand away and taken the boy down in less time than it took to utter an incantation. But that left the unfortunate problem of the second boy, who was maintaining a calculated separation and kept his wand pointed squarely at Draco’s face. A quick scan of the immediate vicinity revealed nothing that Draco could possibly use to defend himself. For the moment, shutting the hell up seemed like the safest choice.


“You’ve got a lot of nerve, showing your face here. Everyone in this castle lost somebody because of you and the rest of Voldemort’s scum. You see this scar on my neck? She’s a real beauty, isn’t she? Alecto gave it to me. The bitch caught me slipping notes from Potterwatch to the Hufflepuffs. Do you know what curse she used to do it? Well do you?”


Draco stared blankly ahead, trying not to let his facial expression betray the pounding of his heart against his ribcage. He shook his head slowly from side to side, wondering how even a fat, old fossil like Slughorn could take this long to change his robes. A cruel sneer spread across Worm-head’s face.


“Whaddya know, Nigel? I guess he doesn’t know every dark curse in the book. Let’s give him a little demonstration.”


“Put your wand away, Ritchie.”


Draco couldn’t immediately see his savior, focused as he was on the angry eyes glaring at him from several inches away. The voice was familiar, however. It had an airy quality to it, but also the casual certainty of a person who expected to be listened to.


“Shut up, Luna! You know whose side he was on. The things his family did. We won the war, not them. Now he thinks he’s gonna waltz back in here and walk around this castle like he owns it? Over my dead body.”


An angry shout and a loud snap echoed through the dungeon classroom, closely followed by a cry of alarm from Professor Slughorn. Draco’s hands flew to his face, which he discovered was completely intact and free of boils and lesions. He opened his eyes just enough to see the pale, blond girl holding the Gryffindor boy’s wand in one hand and her own in the other. Slughorn waddled across the room, waving his arms in consternation.


“This is a Potions classroom, not a dueling range! The shelves and cupboards are filled with ingredients that are flammable, explosive and above all else, quite difficult to obtain. I had to call in valuable favors to obtain the Lethe River Water we’ll be using in today’s lesson. Ten points from Gryffindor, Mr. Coote! Miss Lovegood, while your non-verbal disarming charm was quite impressive, Ravenclaw will also surrender ten points.”


The Gryffindor boy hung his head for a moment, then spoke slowly and quietly.


“It wasn’t her fault, Professor. I saw this festering heap of Hippogriff dung and I lost my cool.”


Slughorn seemed to deflate a bit. He slid his hands into his robe pockets and his green eyes flicked from Luna to Draco before finally settling back on the Gryffindor boy.


“Cursing an unarmed opponent is a base and cowardly act no matter who they are, Mr. Coote. Consider yourself fortunate that Miss Lovegood intervened. Oh, and twenty points to Ravenclaw for allowing cooler heads to prevail.”


With one final glare in Draco’s direction, the Gryffindor boy snatched his wand from the Lovegood girl’s hand and made his way to a bench near the back of the classroom. The remaining students gradually arrived and settled into their seats. Granger and Weasley’s little sister wandered in and Draco mentally prepared for another confrontation, but the bushy-haired girl simply looked away and pulled the angry red-head toward a bench on the far side of the room. He felt very annoyed with himself when he realized that he’d been holding his breath.


Draco stared straight ahead as Slughorn welcomed the class and began to lecture about the preparation and properties of the Forgetfulness Potion. He tried to listen, but his mind was hundreds of miles away. Why had the Lovegood girl come to his defense? It made no sense whatsoever. She had suffered horribly in the basement of Malfoy Manor; starved, brutalized and constantly threatened with death. Had she taken a curse to the head and forgotten?


When the Professor instructed the students to pair off and begin brewing, Draco simply retrieved his own ingredients and set to work by himself. Nobody made eye contact, which didn’t bother him in the slightest. In a strange sort of way, the isolation was liberating. He had always been preoccupied with impressing his housemates in the past, directing snide comments and insults toward Potter and the rest of the Gryffindors. Now he simply focused on his work and even though his skills were rusty and he made a few simple mistakes, Draco still managed to finish before most of his classmates.


Slughorn wandered over and studied Draco’s potion, stirring it gently and ladling a small portion into a glass vial to check the color. He nodded approvingly and then lowered his voice to a whisper.


“Mr. Malfoy, considering the animosity that some of your fellow students seem to be feeling toward you, I think it would be wise if you remained here in this classroom when the hour is up. I’ll send an elf to retrieve any books you might need from the library. If you eat a bit early, you can make your way to Professor Flitwick’s classroom while the other students are taking their lunch.”


Draco nodded slowly, but he couldn’t bring himself to feel any gratitude. Slughorn was probably more concerned about having to break up fights than anything else. As he packed away his potions text and pulled out The Standard Book of Spells, Grade Seven, Draco bitterly contemplated his new lot in life. When McGonagall was dictating her terms to him, it didn’t seem real. He knew that people were going to be angry with him, but somehow he hadn’t expected things to be this bad. Whatever state of denial he’d been living in, the truth was now staring him right in the face. McGonagall wasn’t alone in blaming him for the Dark Lord’s reign of terror.


When the bell rang, the professor made a point of standing near his bench as the other students filed out of the classroom. Most of them simply refused to look in his direction. A couple of the Gryffindors glared at him. Luna Lovegood was one of the last to exit and Draco managed to catch her attention as she passed.


“You didn’t have to do that. It was kind of you.”


The blonde girl paused at his bench, allowing the remaining students to leave. Slughorn stared at the two of them curiously for a moment, but apparently decided that there wasn’t any sort of confrontation brewing. He quietly excused himself to his office.


“It was nothing. This school has seen enough fighting, don’t you think?”


Draco could only nod in response. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say on that topic. Fortunately, she was unfazed by the awkward silence and continued to speak.


“Also, I owe you a favor. You gave me some food when I was being held in the basement of your house last summer.”


Draco stared at her with his mouth slightly open. His mind was completely blank. She appeared to notice his confusion, and leaned closer, lowering her voice.


“It was beef stew of some sort. You were visiting the cellar while Voldemort was asking Mr. Ollivander questions upstairs.”


The memory erupted inside Draco’s head and he closed his eyes tightly as he rested his forehead in his hand. The Dark Lord’s menacing, airy voice filled his thoughts, followed by the old man’s screams of agony. His mother had been trying to make him eat, to keep his strength up. He fled to the cellar, but even there, he couldn’t escape the sound of the wandmaker crying out in pain. The rich, savory stew tasted like poison in his mouth. He saw the blond girl standing on the other side of the metal bars, battered and filthy but still seeming as though the horrors that surrounded them were unable to touch her. He couldn’t bear the sight of her, so calm.


“I threw it at you. I... I couldn’t stand to look at you any more. I’m sorry.”


The last two words slipped from between his lips before he realized what had happened. Predictably, Luna Lovegood didn’t seem to notice. Draco felt grateful for the same obliviousness that drove him mad when she had been a prisoner in his home.


“Oh, I know. It was the first food I’d had in a week, even if I did have to suck most of it out of my hair. Your elf used to bring me leftover scraps from dinner to eat, but then your aunt almost caught him at it.”


Draco stared at her from between his thumb and forefinger. What she was telling him didn’t add up.


“Kriffin wouldn’t have done that unless somebody told him to.”


The blond girl looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook her head.


“I’m quite sure you’re right. He is your family’s elf, after all. But I couldn’t ask him to risk his life, even though I was very hungry. When I told him that he needed to stop bringing me food, he said that he’d have to ask for his mistress’s permission.”


Draco was dumbfounded. His mother had risked the Dark Lord’s wrath to keep the girl from starving. She stared at him for a moment, then nodded over his shoulder toward the classroom door.


“I should be going now. Somebody else wants to talk to you.”


He looked away from her grey eyes toward the door of the classroom just in time to catch a flash of dark hair and the swirl of green-trimmed school robes.


“Thank you.”


Draco leapt from his stool and rushed out of the room. He skidded through the doorway and looked up the corridor that led back to the upper floors of the castle. Astoria Greengrass looked over her shoulder and smiled shyly before disappearing around the corner. A flicker of orange caught his eye and he looked at the wall next to the classroom door. The rapidly dwindling enchanted flames spelled out a single word, barely visible against the ancient stone.


Hogsmeade.
 




 
Hello, there! It's been ages since the last time I updated this and I apologize for the delay. The slow chapters are always the hardest to write. Thanks as always to my wonderful beta reader sophie_hatter. If you like the way that this chapter flows, most of the credit belongs to her. Thanks for reading and please take a moment to review!


Chapter 4: Making Choices
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As always, that which you recognize belongs to the great JK Rowling.





 
Astoria tightened her scarf around her neck and cast one last warming charm on her feet before stepping across the invisible line where her right to do magic came to an end. She huffed quietly to herself, frustrated by how arbitrary it felt. Hogsmeade was a wizarding village, protected by the same types of enchantments that made it impossible for the muggles to see Hogwarts. Where was the harm in being able to keep herself warm? The sixth of June couldn’t come soon enough as far as she was concerned.


As she settled into the shivering procession of students trudging down the snowy path, a red-headed blur flew past her, kicking up snow in its wake. She rolled her eyes as the Weasley girl slipped and slid around a bend and then resumed her suicidal pace toward the village. Astoria could only imagine the things her father would say if he ever saw her abandon her dignity in such a reckless fashion. Scanning the edge of the village, she was able to pick out a lone figure standing at the end of the path. She saw a flash of dark crimson Auror robes when the wind caught the hem of the figure’s cloak, and a brief glint of sunlight reflecting off of a pair of spectacles settled any lingering doubts as to the wizard’s identity.


Astoria watched the gap between the two lovers close as the red-headed girl continued to barrel along the path. Potter spread his arms at the last moment and the Weasley girl launched herself into them, wrapping all four limbs around him as she slammed into his chest. He stumbled backward for a couple of steps before his feet flew out from under him and he landed on his backside in a pile of snow. Instead of rushing to recover from their humiliating position, they simply laid there, snogging as though nobody could see them. Even though her mother’s cries of mortification echoed through her mind, Astoria had to admit that she was a tiny bit jealous.


Her thoughts drifted to the man waiting for her in the village as she tried to avoid staring at the gaudy public display of affection going on in front of her. She felt a tingle in the bottom of her stomach as she pictured the slightly dreamy smile on his face when they stood toe to toe in Diagon Alley. The tingle spread when she thought about the feeling of his hand pressed against hers and her chest and neck started to feel warm as she dwelled on those hauntingly beautiful grey eyes. She stole another glance at the passionate couple lying in the snow and pondered what it would be like to lose herself so completely that the rest of the world ceased to exist.


Eventually, Potter and the Weasley girl scrambled to their feet and made their way into the Three Broomsticks, staring at one another with huge, dopey grins on their faces. It occurred to Astoria that she had been walking very slowly so as not to find herself standing next to them while they snogged on the ground. She glanced quickly at her watch and realized that she was running behind. In his owl, Draco had requested that she meet him in front of Scrivenshaft's at ten o’clock. While she was sure that he would understand if she was a few minutes delayed, Astoria really wanted to make the most of their time away from the castle. She hoped to be able to determine whether he was really the boy she thought she met in Diagon Alley or the nefarious man that her father believed him to be.


As she made her way down High Street, Astoria took care to pay attention to the cobblestones in front of her. The light dusting of snow concealed occasional icy patches, and the last thing she needed was to wind up lying on the ground, embarrassed and wet. She tried to think of something to say to Draco when she found him. Their meeting wasn’t a proper date, but he had invited her to join him and she decided that her greeting should reflect that. At the same time, she wasn’t sure where this relationship was heading -- or whether they even had a relationship, for that matter -- so she didn’t want to greet him too eagerly. She was weighing whether or not to offer her hand when a disturbance in front of the Post Office caught her attention.
 





“I asked you a question, you slimy little git. What are you doing sneaking around Hogsmeade?”


Draco sighed and rolled his eyes. He didn’t have time for this if he was going to make it to Scrivenshaft's by ten o’clock. For once in his life, he had gone out of his way to avoid a confrontation with Ron Weasley. Staring straight ahead and minding his own business, he was taken by surprise when the cocky Auror trainee stepped into his path and demanded to know where he was going and what he was doing. The audacity of the great, red-headed buffoon could barely be believed. No, Draco Malfoy hadn’t started this argument, but he bloody well intended to finish it. He tilted his head and let out a patronizing sigh.


“Listen, Weasley, I’m meeting somebody for tea. I’ve done nothing wrong and I’m running a little behind. So why don’t you take your shiny little Ministry badge and go bother somebody else?”


Draco stepped to the side, hoping that Weasley would simply insult his back and let him go on about his business. Instead, the taller man stepped right back into his path and jabbed a freckled finger into his face.


“I’m not finished with you yet, Malfoy. And this ‘shiny little badge’ means I can bother you as much as I want if I think you’re up to no good. You expect me to believe that you just happened to be meeting somebody in Hogsmeade on the same day the students were visiting the village? What are you really up to?”


Draco felt his blood pressure rising. The man’s arrogance was incredible. He struggled to reign in his temper, recalling McGonagall’s warnings about the consequences of any sort of incident. Even though Draco wasn’t visiting Hogsmeade as a student, he was sure that the old bat could come up with some tortured interpretation of the rules that allowed her to expel him. He took one more deep breath and spoke as calmly and evenly as he could.


“As I’ve already told you, I’m here to meet somebody for tea. Nothing more. Follow me and see for yourself if you like. But if you’d be so kind as to excuse me, I need to be on my way.”


Weasley just stared at him.


“Bollocks. You, being polite? No bloody way. Spill it, you little snake! Why are you here?”


Draco felt the last of his patience slipping away. He’d tried minding his own business. He’d tried being civil. It was getting him nowhere, and slowly at that. He decided to make one last attempt, but he couldn’t keep the sarcasm from slipping into his voice.


“Weasley, if I truly had some nefarious reason for visiting Hogsmeade, why on earth would I choose to carry out my fiendish plan on a day when there are twice as many people in the village as normal? What was Shacklebolt thinking when he dressed you up in Auror robes? If common sense were galleons, you couldn’t pay somebody a compliment!”


For a moment, Draco was exceedingly pleased with himself. He had made his point and done it without crossing any lines that he could think of. He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. The smile quickly faded when he noticed the rage filling Weasley’s eyes.


“Was that some sort of crack about my family being poor?”


“What? No. I was talking about-”


A second later, Draco found himself lying on the snowy pavement with a splitting pain in the side of his head, wondering what had just happened. He opened his eyes a fraction and saw Weasley’s shins in front of him. It took several seconds for him to process the fact that he’d been struck by a fist, not a spell.


“Hex his arse, Ron!”


Draco groggily looked for the source of the angry shout and realized that a crowd had started to gather around them. He’d been so caught up in trying to reason with Weasley that he hadn’t noticed. There were probably two dozen people in the mob, including students and residents of the village. Some of them merely looked intrigued while others stared at him with blood in their eyes.


“Get up, Malfoy! If you’re any kind of man, get up and fight!”


Closing his eyes, Draco didn’t even bother to try to clear the fog from his head. The time it took to shrug off the confusion was rarely worth it if you were in danger. He had learned that lesson in spades after months of suffering through the great sport that Avery and Mulciber made out of hurling curses at his back when he wasn’t looking. Once again, he was put in a position where he had no choice but to fight his way out. Draco pulled himself to his knees and made a show of letting his left hand slide out from under him on the icy ground while he drew his wand with his right.


Flipendo. It was a weak jinx, one he had learned in his first year of school. But it was quick and easy to cast and Weasley never saw it coming. He stumbled back a couple of steps and Draco took the opportunity to pull his feet underneath him. Stupefy. Everte Statum. Impedimenta. Draco pelted his opponent with spells in rapid succession. Weasley was able to block them all, but they bought Draco valuable seconds to pull himself together and prepare to cast something stronger.


A jet of red light struck the front of the Post Office behind Draco’s left shoulder and he realized that the red-headed Auror wasn’t the only person in Hogsmeade intent on causing him harm. He whipped his wand downward and fired a Reductor Curse at the ground in front of him. Snow, dirt and pulverized stone erupted into the air, showering his attackers with debris. Most of the students and villagers in the crowd backed off, covering their heads with their arms, but Weasley only looked annoyed. He turned away the bits of shattered pavement with a sweep of his wand and began stalking toward Draco with blood in his eyes. Draco flung a Cutting Hex as he scrambled backward but Weasley easily parried it.


“Back off, Weaselbee! I’m warning you! Incendio!


A jet of flame shot out from the tip of Draco’s wand and erupted against Weasley’s shield charm, making an awful sound and bathing both of them in suffocating waves of heat. Draco twisted and probed with his wand, searching for a weakness. Weasley’s face was screwed up in a mask of furious concentration. Neither wizard was willing to cede an inch as the battle of wills played out in front of the mesmerized crowd.


Draco knew that he wouldn’t be able to hold the spell for much longer. He was already feeling dizzy from the blow to his head and the heat from the flames made it nearly impossible to breathe. He pointed his wand at the center of his opponent’s chest and lunged forward, pouring the last of his energy into the spell. At the same instant, Weasley dropped to one knee and angled his shield upward. Draco’s arm flailed over his head as the flames were turned skyward and he lost his grip on his wand. Weasley caught him square in the chest with a Knockback Jinx and he stumbled backward into the wall of the Post Office, gasping for air. Weasley was on him in a second, and he felt the tip of a wand pressed against his throat.


“I could arrest you right now for a stunt like that, Malfoy. But I think I’d rather teach you a lesson about showing some respect.”


Weasley’s angry blue eyes were inches away from his own. Draco stared straight into them, unwilling to allow his old enemy the satisfaction of seeing him flinch. They both started as a shout broke the tense silence.


“What is going on here?”


In his wildest dreams, Draco never imagined that he would be happy to see Hermione Granger. He still wasn’t, although the timing of her arrival was fortunate. She stormed into the middle of the crowd, shooting reproachful glares at all of the Hogwarts students. Most of them developed a sudden interest in their shoes and started to amble away. Even the Hogsmeade villagers seemed hesitant to provoke her ire.


“I shouldn’t have to remind you all that Hogsmeade visits are a privilege. If you’ve nothing better to do than watch two grown men act like children, you can return to the castle. Now move along.”


Draco noticed the Head Girl badge pinned to the outside of her robes as she approached Weasley and fixed him with a withering stare.


“Ronald Weasley! You’re a Ministry official now! You can’t go around brawling in the streets like some bloody yob at a football match.”


Weasley looked momentarily uncertain, but he didn’t lower his wand.


“He attacked me, Hermione! Everybody saw it.”


Granger rolled her eyes and sighed.


“So then I assume you followed proper procedure and placed him under arrest for disorderly conduct?”


The wand point eased away from Draco’s neck as the angry glare gradually disappeared from Weasley’s face. The sadistic grin that replaced it was as frightening as it was infuriating.


“Not much use in hauling him to the patrol station just so they can serve him lunch and wait for Daddy to come bail him out. The little ferret wouldn’t learn a thing from that. Besides, it’s no fun. Levicorpus!


Draco felt his feet torn from underneath his body and the world spun violently around him. He caught a brief glimpse of the disapproving frown on Granger’s face before his heavy winter cloak fell over his head and the world went dark. Anger filled his chest, fierce and uncontrollable. Through the thick, muffling layers of fabric, he could hear Weasley laughing while Granger berated him for his lack of maturity and tarnishing the dignity of the Ministry of Magic. The humiliation was more than he could handle. Something inside his head snapped and he could feel the cold, black hatred coursing through his veins.


He heard Granger crisply enunciate the counter-curse and threw his arms over his head, expecting to be unceremoniously dumped onto the pavement. Instead, he felt his body turn gracefully to an upright position. His cloak fell back into place and his feet settled onto the ground. Granger stood in front of him, offering the handle of his wand. He desperately tried to contain the explosive rage boiling inside of him as he reached for it. His subconscious was screaming at him not to attack her. She wasn’t the enemy. She had even tried to help. But he could barely hear it over the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears. The expression on her face was apologetic and almost pitying. That was the final straw. The venom rose in the back of his throat as he snatched the wand out of her hand.


“Well? Don’t you and the Weasel King need to run off and find Potter so you can celebrate?”


Her brow furrowed and her nose scrunched up in confusion as she stared at him.


“There’s nothing to celebrate here, Draco. Ron was acting like an idiot. I would’ve done the same thing for any student!”


I DON’T NEED YOUR HELP, MUDBLOOD!


The words exploded out of Draco’s mouth with barely any conscious thought on his part. Even he was surprised at how bitter and spiteful they sounded. The furious anger that had burned inside of him was extinguished in an instant, replaced by a hollow feeling somewhere between shock and horror. It dawned on him that he had probably just thrown it all away -- everything he had done to try to reclaim his life destroyed in a single burst of rage. For a fraction of a second, it seemed as though the entire world had gone silent. The shock in her brown eyes rapidly twisted into fury, and he felt a reflexive apology forming in the back of his throat. But the words never made it to his lips.


The curse went off like a cannon blast, and the noise echoed off of the windows of the shops on High Street as Draco flew backward through the air. He was vaguely aware of the pain in his chest as his arms and legs flailed about and then the hard cobblestones of the street knocked the air out of his lungs. Sparks swam in front of his eyes. He tried to take a breath and felt the fiery pain in his ribs. The sound of footsteps joined the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears and he tried to roll onto his side, but moving hurt too much. Granger’s great mop of brown curls appeared above his face, looking blurry and distant.


“I should have had you expelled for that, Draco. Professor McGonagall probably would have just handed Gryffindor the House Cup for getting rid of you. But you do need to learn a lesson. And I have to admit, that was fun.”






Astoria watched the Head Girl storm off and tried to decide what to do. Draco deserved what had happened to him; there was no doubt about that. If you were going to hurl an epithet like that at somebody like Hermione Granger, there were going to be consequences. But it was the look in his eyes in that fraction of a second before he went flying through the air that kept her from walking away. He looked horrified, as though he couldn’t believe what he’d said. Astoria added one more piece to the puzzle she was trying to work out in her head.


She chewed on her lower lip, trying to make sense of the enigmatic young man lying in the ground in front of her. For the past two weeks, she’d been quietly studying him as he walked through the hallways of the castle. It felt a bit like she was stalking him, but he was nothing like any of her past crushes. The haughty, boisterous Draco Malfoy from before the war seemed like a distant memory. He’d become sullen and withdrawn, rarely speaking to anybody. Watching him made her sad at times. The Slytherins avoided him and most of the other students stared at him with thinly veiled contempt. If there was anyone who could use a friend, it was Draco.


He groaned loudly as he rolled onto his stomach and then struggled onto his hands and knees. Part of her wanted to walk over and help him, but she remembered the way he had rebuffed the Granger girl and decided to wait. Draco seemed to be clinging to what pride he had left, and she didn’t want to cause him any further embarrassment. If he had a chance to sort himself out and straighten his appearance then perhaps he wouldn’t feel so humiliated. Maybe she could still get him to talk to her and figure out once and for all whether she was mad for thinking that she might fancy him.


After a few abortive attempts, Draco managed to pull himself to his feet and started to walk unevenly toward Scrivenshaft's. Astoria slipped from her hiding place and followed, hoping that he wouldn’t notice her and become upset. She needed to pick the right time to approach him. Too soon and he’d probably snap when she asked why he’d gotten so angry. She decided to wait until they arrived at the stationery shop. It was located on the end of High Street, where the village was far less crowded. The only students who journeyed that far were the couples sneaking off to Madam Puddifoot’s.


Draco seemed determined not to look over his shoulder as he walked, as though whatever modicum of dignity that small act of defiance afforded him was worth risking his safety. Astoria was surprised by how frustrating she found his stubbornness. It seemed like such a poor strategy, although it did allow her to continue following him without being seen. She occupied herself by keeping an eye out for anyone who seemed intent on hurling a curse at his back. When they were nearly to Scrivenshaft's, she began to pick up her pace, aiming to overtake him just before he arrived in front of the stationer’s shop. She was starting to feel optimistic about Draco’s state of mind since nobody else had tried to assault him. Just as she was about to call his name, a shout rang out from the other direction.


“There the bastard is!”


Astoria’s attention was ripped away from the battered boy in front of her and toward a pair of surly looking wizards walking toward them from the edge of the village. The men wore tattered, threadbare overcoats that looked like they came from a muggle second-hand store. One of them was easily six feet tall with legs like tree trunks while the other clinched a cigar between his crooked, yellow teeth. They were followed by an older witch with scraggly, grey hair that framed the pock-marked skin of her face. Astoria could feel the tension in the air. The old witch screwed up her face in a twisted sort of admiration.


“We heard ya was here, Malfoy. I dunna where ya foun’ the nerve to show yer face in Hogsmeade, but we’re sure glad ya done it. We got unfinished business, you and us. Yer pet werewolf aren’t here to protect ya any more, is he?”


Draco stared uncertainly at the rough-looking trio as they approached, clutching his wand in a hand that hung limply by his side. Astoria thought that he still looked very shaky on his feet. In between shallow, gasping breaths, he forced out a few words.


“Dunno... what you’re... talking about.”


The wizard with the yellow teeth chuckled cruelly as he shifted the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other.


“What’s a matter, boy? Ya look plumb knackered. Don’ tell me someun’ else done beat us to ya?”


Astoria stared anxiously at Draco, willing him to find the energy to flee. Instead, he stumbled and almost fell as he moved toward the middle of the street. She turned toward Hogwarts and scanned the village for any sign of Hermione Granger or her Auror boyfriend, but they were nowhere to be seen. The only villagers who were close enough to have an idea what was going on seemed rather amused by Draco’s plight.


When the old witch spoke again, she sounded almost disappointed.


“Well, just ‘cause somebody else softened ‘im up don’ mean we can’t finish ‘im off. Yer scum, Malfoy. Ya act like that mark on yer arm gave ya the right to do whatever ya please. Well yer Dark Lord’s dead and all yer Death Eater buddies are either dead or in Azkaban. And it’s high time ya answered for the things ya done. Let ‘im have it, boys!”


The two wizards pointed their wands directly at Draco’s head. Astoria took one more desperate look toward the Three Broomsticks before drawing her wand and taking two steps closer to Draco’s side.


“Leave him alone!”


Once again, Draco nearly fell down as his head swiveled toward her. He looked alarmed to see her standing there. The two ragged wizards looked similarly surprised, but their expressions quickly gave way to amused leers. Astoria stood as tall as she could and leveled her wand at the old witch standing behind them. Her father had always taught her to negotiate only with the person in charge. The old woman shrank behind the larger wizard, who addressed her with mock formality.


“Well what have we here? Looks like little Malfoy done foun’ ‘isself a wee patch o’ sunshine to plant the family seed in. What’s yer name, sugar?”


“She’s nobody! I’ve never met her before. If you have a problem with me then let’s settle it.”


Astoria was amazed at the sudden strength in his voice. He still looked like he might collapse at any moment, but he managed to raise his wand arm toward the three aggressors. The two wizards snapped their attention back to him, clearly viewing him as the larger threat even in his weakened state. The old witch, however, fixed Astoria with a thoughtful stare. A malicious smile spread across her thin lips.


“Yer not much of a liar, Malfoy. Ya expect us to think that a girl ya just met would be pullin’ a wand on the likes o’ us? Codswallop.”


Astoria could barely believe her eyes as Draco took a shaky step closer to the two wizards whose wands were pointed at his chest. He seemed to be trying to draw their attention away from her. If not for the cold and the fact that she was terrified, she would have blushed.


“I told you, I don’t know her. She’s just some girl from the school, trying to earn brownie points toward a Prefect badge. You came here to curse me? Give it your best try. I’m getting bored of you.”


Astoria watched in horror as the wizard with the cigar whipped his wand toward Draco, who barely managed to block the jet of red light. The impact of the spell knocked him onto his heels and he stumbled backward as two more curses pummeled his rapidly weakening defenses. The loud cracks jarred her out of the daze she’d been in, and the vicious sneers on the faces of their adversaries left little doubt about their true intentions. She acted almost without thinking about it.


Stupefy!


The tall wizard stumbled backward and fell, but she could still see him stirring. Defense had never been Astoria’s strongest subject and her Stunner wasn’t strong enough to incapacitate such a large opponent. She fired another spell at the old witch, who easily turned it aside. The edges of the old woman’s mouth twisted into a cruel smile.


“I knew it weren’t true! Drop yer wand, Malfoy, or I’m gonna blast yer little lovely ‘ere t’ London an’ back!”


Astoria didn’t know what else to do. She ran to Draco and stood behind him, seeking shelter behind his superior defenses and lending her support to keep him from falling down. His next words were so cold and furious that she nearly reconsidered.


“Leave her out of this. If you hurt her, you’ll beg me to end your life. I swear it.”


Astoria hardly dared to breathe. The only sound that was audible over the bitter January breeze was the tall wizard moaning as he tried to shake off the effects of her Stunning Spell.


“Bollocks! Kill ‘em both!”


The short wizard spat out his cigar as he shouted and Draco barely managed to shield them from two more lethal curses. Astoria could feel his labored breathing through the hand she had placed in the middle of his back. Time was running out. She desperately looked around and her eyes settled on a large stone troll that stood in front of Dervish and Banges. Taking a deep breath, Astoria recalled the non-verbal spell casting that Flitwick had been drilling the Sixth Years on and flicked her wand. The troll rose gracefully into the air. She turned toward their attackers and whipped her wand, sending the statue flying toward them. The short wizard and the old witch both cried out in alarm as they dived out of the way.


Just as the statue crashed into the ground, a shout caught Astoria’s attention. The tall wizard had managed to regain his footing and he was staring at them with murder in his eyes as he whipped his wand over his head. Instinct took over, and Astoria buried her face in Draco’s back as her arm wrapped around his shoulder.


AVADA-


An instant later, she felt the world collapse around her as Hogsmeade Village spun away.





 
So what do you think of the choices that Draco and Astoria made in this chapter? The review box eagerly awaits your thoughts and reactions.

A heart-felt thank you to my amazing beta reader, sophie_hatter, whose sage counsel always makes my writing better. And deepest gratitude to Jami, whose support, encouragement and thinly-veiled threats to hunt me down if I don't finish this story give me the inspiration to get through the difficult parts. :-P


Chapter 5: Confessions
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As always, that which you recognize belongs to the amazing JK Rowling.





 
The crushing sensation of apparition was like torture to Draco’s battered body. Every bruised rib screamed in protest as he hurtled through the winding, twisting tunnel of darkness. The streaks of light that swirled in front of his eyes had taken on more of a surreal quality than normal. He struggled to fight through the pain, blocking it all out as he desperately focused on his destination. Getting them there in one piece -- keeping her safe -- was the only thing that mattered.


It was over as quickly as it began. The world spun back into existence and they appeared in a hidden space nestled between a painted cinderblock wall and an overgrown hedge. Draco spun on his heel, trying to take in the sight of her. He had to know whether she was alright. If he’d splinched her or if a curse had managed to slip past his defenses... But the world didn’t stop spinning even when he came to a halt. A second later he felt her small hands grabbing at his head and neck as he crumbled to the ground.


“Draco! Draco, are you alright?”


He took a shaky, agonizing breath and tried to get control of himself. The burning ache in his back and neck fought to commandeer his attention, but the nauseating sense of vertigo was clearly his highest priority. Unable to stand meant unable to defend himself. Unable to keep the two of them safe if his attackers managed to track them down. He forced his eyes open and nearly retched as the world tilted and spun in front of him.


“Draco, say something.”


Draco forced another breath into his lungs and answered softly.


“I’m fine. Just give me a moment.”


“You don’t look fine! Are you sure you don’t-”


I said I’m fine.


The words came out with a much sharper edge than he’d intended. Even with his eyes tightly shut, he could sense the way she recoiled. The small, sudden intake of her breath was tainted with fear and hurt. He caught her hand just as she was pulling it away from his shoulder.


“I’m... I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that.”


He heard her huff softly.


“No, you most certainly shouldn’t have. At least you’re not completely thick.”


Draco probably would have laughed if he hadn’t been struggling so hard not to throw up. After a few moments, he opened one eye experimentally and found that the world seemed far more stationary.


“You put yourself in far too much danger back in the village, and-”


“They would have killed you, Draco! You were in no condition-”


And... even though I could have handled them, I really appreciate what you did.”


He watched in two slightly blurry dimensions as her argumentative frown slowly melted into an incredulous smile.


“You’re unbelievable! You could barely stand, how were you supposed to fight?”


“I would have managed.”


She rolled her eyes at him and took a quick look at their surroundings. A cloud passed over her features and as quickly as it had appeared, her grin melted away. She looked stricken and for reasons he couldn’t quite explain, Draco felt on the verge of panic.


“Oh, no. I’m in so much trouble. I did magic outside of school, I left the village, I-”


“Just blame it all on me.”


It seemed like a perfectly sensible solution, and the very least he could do for her after the risks she’d taken to help him. So it surprised him when she shook her head vigorously.


“Out of the question! You were barely allowed to return to school in the first place. If anyone finds out that you were involved in this, McGonagall will-”


“McGonagall was going to find a reason to drum me out sooner or later, anyway. I’m certain that our illustrious Head Girl has already found some way to inform the Headmistress about the row I had with her idiot boyfriend that completely glosses over the fact that he started the whole thing. There’s no reason for you to get into trouble as well.”


She chewed on her lower lip for a moment. It seemed that the Slytherin in her was giving some serious thought to taking him up on his offer. Considering her options. Weighing the different outcomes. Draco found it strangely alluring. But then she shook her head again.


“I don’t believe Miss Granger will do that. Whatever she meant about teaching you a lesson, she seemed quite sincere.”


Draco opened his mouth to argue. He had known Granger for so much longer than she had. Constantly quarrelled with the girl. Watched her nearly die at the hands of his mad aunt. But Astoria cut him off before he could utter a word.


“It’s a girl thing, Draco. Subconsciously, she needs to fix you. Just trust me, alright? Now, our other problem is the fact that you apparated us away from the village. You do have a license, right?”


“Yes. Of course.”


She fixed him with a withering stare, and he raised his palms slightly in spite of the pain that shot through his shoulders into his upper back.


“They gave me one during the war, when Thicknesse was Minister. I think they just forgot to take it away.”


Astoria arched her eyebrow at his revelation.


“Did you actually take the test?”


“No. My aunt gave me a book to read and told me that if I splinched myself it was my own fault for not trying hard enough. Then we flooed to the Ministry and she put her wand to Mr. Twycross’s head and told him that his signature was either going to be on my license or his own death certificate, his choice.”


She stared at him for a moment as though she was trying to decide whether or not to believe him. He nodded slightly in response to the question in her eyes.


“Your aunt sounds like a charming lady.”


Draco looked at her for a moment, enjoying the biting sarcasm in her eyes. He broke into a grin. As much as she tried to stay cross, Astoria seemed to find it infectious. A small smile slipped onto her own lips. Draco chuckled softly at her, and she broke down into a fit of giggles. He clutched at his aching ribs, trying to soothe the pain as he struggled to control his own laughter. She punched him on the arm, trying to look serious as she dabbed her eyes with the sleeve of her robes.


“Draco, what is so funny?”


It took him a moment to catch his breath, and he finally had to look away from her to avoid losing his composure again.


“You talk about her as though she was a human being. It isn’t a widely held opinion.”


His comment prompted another burst of uncontrolled laughter from both of them. When the moment passed, she looked at him seriously once again.


“Draco, why were those people trying to hurt you?”


His mirth quickly faded away. The moment he had been both looking forward to and dreading had come. He needed to tell her something. His heart wanted to simply open up and tell her everything about the war. Reveal every horrible moment of anguish and mortal terror. But he was terrified that she wouldn’t understand. Besides, telling her everything might take days. The story of the Ratcliffe clan seemed like a small, safe place to start.


“We should go inside first. Your cheeks are red and my fingers are aching from the cold.”


“Inside? Wait, where are we?”


Draco grinned at her and started to climb to his feet. He made it as far as his knees before his head began to swim dangerously again. He closed his eyes and focused on his balance, but the world refused to settle into a simple pattern of up and down. Then he felt her hand close around his.


“Draco, I understand that you don’t like accepting help from others, but really now. You’re being a prat. Here, all together now.”


Draco huffed and grasped her hand a bit more tightly.


“I am not being a prat. And I would have made it to my feet eventually.”


“If you say so. Prat.”


Slowly, and with more than a little of the help that he certainly didn’t need, Draco made it to his feet. The muscles in his back and shoulders had ceased their screams of agony, settling into a constant, throbbing ache. One halting step at a time, he led her along the length of the wall. Pushing aside the untidy end of the hedge row, Draco allowed her to step out onto the pavement in front of a small coffee shop. She turned to him and raised an eyebrow.


“We’re in Derbyshire. It’s a muggle establishment, so mind what you say.”


“A muggle establishment? You never cease to surprise me, Draco.”


“I happened upon it during the war. The muggles here are... quiet. They just sit and read their books and don’t talk much. On several occasions, I came there to think about... well, just to think.”


Draco held the door open for her, wincing due to the strain that it put on his arm and shoulder. For a moment, she started to take the burden of the door from him, but then she seemed to think better of it and simply whispered her thanks. He selected a small table near the back and pulled out her chair, then seated himself across from her. A young muggle woman with orange streaks dyed into her hair and a multitude of silver rings piercing her ears stopped by and took their order. Astoria waited until the waitress left and then spoke quietly.


“A sickle for those thoughts of yours.”


“Do you mean my current thoughts or from when I used to come here during the war?”


“The latter sound more interesting.”


Draco took a deep breath and stared at the chalkboard listing the shop’s abbreviated menu through unfocused eyes. His first instinct was to weigh his words carefully. To apply the correct polish to his answer. Then his eyes met hers. The intensity of her concern startled him. Thoughts of subterfuge faded away. He simply began to speak.


“I came here to think about leaving. The war, Britain, my family... I was thinking of leaving it all behind. I couldn’t stand it any longer. Every day, I woke up wondering whether it would finally happen.”


Astoria’s voice was barely a whisper.


“Whether what would finally happen, Draco?”


“Whether I’d finally die. If I made a mistake, or if I couldn’t complete some task that I was assigned or if the Dark Lord simply grew tired of looking at me, I knew it would be the end. It was the first thing I thought about each morning and the last thing before I went to sleep at night. Just once, I wanted to wake up without wondering whether I’d live to see another day.”


“So why did you stay?”


Draco looked away toward the chalkboard again. He could feel the uncomfortable stinging on the back of his eyes.


“He would have killed them. If I’d run away, my mother and father would have died for my cowardice. Mother might have chosen to leave with me if she’d had the chance, but not Father. A Malfoy doesn’t run from danger. That’s what he would have said. And even though he was the one who brought the Dark Lord’s anger down on us in the first place, I couldn’t bring myself to do that to him. No matter how much we’ve fought and argued, he’s still my father.”


Astoria was staring at him as though he was something very fragile, and she feared that saying the wrong thing might shatter him into a million pieces. In his mind, his father’s voice shouted with furious indignation. Draco simply ignored it. The pride of the Noble House of Malfoy could be upheld another day. For the first time in as long as he could remember, Draco allowed himself to take a tiny bit of pleasure in the sympathy of someone who wasn’t his mother.


“You said that you’d tell me why those people in Hogsmeade were so angry with you. I understand if you’d rather not-”


“No, it’s alright. The old crone was Madam Ratcliffe and the fine specimens of wizarding kind accompanying her were her sons. During the war, they contacted one of the Dark Lord’s followers who was patrolling the village and told him that they’d seen Harry Potter sneaking into the home of a nearby wizarding family. I found out later that her younger son, the taller one, had quarrelled with them.


“We were almost certain that they were either mistaken or outright lying to us. The Death Eaters who’d been watching the old Black family home in London had caught glimpses of Potter and his friends whenever they stepped outside of the protective wards to disapparate. We told the Dark Lord as much. But he was unwilling to ignore the slim chance that Potter was actually there, and he made it clear that if the Ratcliffes were lying, we were to demonstrate the consequences of attempting to mislead him.”


Draco lowered his eyes to the table as memories of darkness and fire and screams of terror filled his mind.


“Six of us traveled to Hogsmeade and we located the house where the Ratcliffes claimed to have seen Potter. Dolohov and Rookwood warded the house so that the only way in or out was through the front door.”


The screams inside his mind grew louder. Draco could hear his pulse racing inside his ears. He was snapped back to the present when the waitress set two mugs of tea on the table in front of him. He dismissed her with a nod, not even bothering to look up. Taking a deep breath, he continued in a shaky voice.


“Then they set the house on fire. I heard screaming. Shouts of panic. The wife came running out the front door, pulling one little girl by the hand and holding a toddler to her chest. Dolohov hit them with some sort of spell. The next thing I knew, the mother was lying on the ground and the children were wailing at the top of their lungs.”


Draco didn’t realize how badly he was shaking until Astoria placed her small hand on top of his, steadying him. He looked up and met her gaze, not even bothering to try to hide the anguish he felt.


“Next the father emerged. He had burns all over his hands and face and his dressing gown was on fire. He was screaming that his son was still inside the house, begging for us to help him. He barely made it off of the front porch before Travers took him down.”


There was a long pause before Draco was able to continue.


“We watched the house burn to the ground. Rookwood, Travers, Dolohov... all of them were joking. Laughing as though they’d never seen anything so funny while this man, this man whose name I never even knew, begged them to save his son.”


Astoria’s brown eyes were wet with tears as she clutched his hand.


“Draco, you don’t have to-”


“No, I need to finish. Please.”


She nodded slowly.


“When it was over, when there was nothing left of the house but a smoldering ruin, Rookwood and the others decided that they were going to have a drink. They ordered me to take Greyback and deal with the Ratcliffes. To punish them for daring to lie to the Dark Lord. I can barely remember the short walk to their home. I was in shock. And then I was angry. Furious at the needless, casual, brutal stupidity of it all. As soon as we arrived, I blew the door off the hinges with a Reductor Curse. Madam Radcliffe and her three sons came bustling out the door, waving their wands and making threats and talking rubbish.


“The middle son tried to rush us but Greyback made short work of him. I tried to stay angry. To tell myself that they deserved to be punished for what they’d done. But when I saw that man lying on the ground with Greyback on top of him, all I could think of was the poor man in the burning gown who was never going to see his son again. I told Greyback to deal with them and I disapparated home.”


Astoria looked confused for a moment, then a terrible realization settled onto her face.


“So the man Greyback attacked was the third son?”


Draco nodded slowly without looking up.


“It’s strange, isn’t it? How things seem to even out in the end.”


They sipped their tea in silence for a few minutes. Draco felt his heartbeat return to normal as the burning sensation around his eyes gradually receded. Given another few hours and some pain potions, he was beginning to hope that the day might actually turn out alright. He looked at Astoria, who was staring into her mug. She looked sad and a bit frustrated, as though she was trying to square two thoughts that refused to coexist no matter how she twisted and turned them in her mind.


“I’ll give you that sickle back if you share what’s troubling you.”


She looked up at him without a hint of amusement in her brown eyes.


“Did you take the Dark Mark?”


The question cut right through his nascent feelings of hope, laying bare all of his anxiety and fear. Again he thought of his father, and the jealous way the old man guarded the truth about his left forearm. Over and over, he had tried to tell the Aurors that the blackened remnants were merely a curse burn. In spite of the powerful urge to lie to her, he simply nodded his head and waited for her to storm away in horror.


“Did you want to?”


The question took him by surprise. He stared back at her and couldn’t stop the snort of mirthless laughter that escaped from his lips. She seemed startled at first by his reaction, but then raised her eyebrows slightly, urging him to answer. Draco took a second to compose his thoughts. Where to even begin?


“There was a time in my life when I wanted to be a Death Eater with all my heart. When I was a little boy, I had no idea what the ugly, black scar on my father’s arm meant. But I knew he guarded it fiercely. It was important to him. By and by, I overheard enough of his whispered conversations with his old friends to realize what it was, what it signified. My father was the only role model I had ever known. The only man who seemed important enough to really look up to. I wanted to be just like him. Desperately.


“Then he was arrested in the Department of Mysteries. Everything changed. The Dark Lord was furious when my father didn’t obtain this prophesy that supposedly foretold Potter’s victory. He was determined to make an example of us, to show the others the price of failing him. The thing I’d always dreamed of became my worst nightmare. In the end, it didn’t matter whether I wanted to take the mark. I wasn’t given any choice.”


Draco suddenly sat straight up and forced the cuff of his shirt up his left arm. Out of all the things he’d told her, all of the truths that he had shared, this was the one thing he most needed her to understand. The one that might make a difference.


“People think that this mark made me powerful. That it was some sort of gift and I was chosen to receive it because of my family’s loyalty to him. It isn’t true, Astoria. None of it. I was a slave, bound to obey his every whim and meant to die as a warning to the others. This mark is nothing more than an elaborate chain. Anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or they’re mad.”


Astoria nodded slowly without taking the eyes off of the dull, blackened mark on his arm. Draco kept still, waiting for her to stop staring at it. He didn’t really know what else to do. Both of them were startled when the waitress suddenly appeared beside their table.


“Your tat don’t look so good. I’d ask about my money back if I were you.”


Draco abruptly pushed his sleeve back down and fumbled out a response.


“I wish I could, but I’m afraid the artist has gone out of business. Could you bring us some scones and biscuits? Something with chocolate, perhaps?”


He watched as the waitress walked away and turned to find Astoria covering her mouth with her hand. The laughter in her eyes was a welcome relief. For the next two hours, they simply talked. Draco told her about growing up in the cavernous halls of Malfoy Manor, and in turn she shared stories of her family’s frequent trips to their ski lodge in the Swiss Alps. She seemed genuinely interested in his enthusiastic descriptions of the Quidditch World Cup qualifier he and his father had attended in Lisbon, and he did his best to refrain from making sarcastic comments about the preparations underway for Daphne’s wedding. She passed along the latest gossip from the Slytherin common room and Draco couldn’t deny that he missed the company of his old housemates.


By mid-afternoon, Draco felt well enough that he was certain he could apparate the two of them back to the village with minimal danger of an incident. He watched Astoria’s back as she excused herself to the ladies room, then quickly transfigured a couple of napkins into ten pound notes to cover the tab. Against all odds, it seemed he had learned one useful thing from Wormtail.


When she returned, he reached out and took her hand without even thinking about it. He led her outside and then around the corner to the secluded spot behind the hedge. Taking a deep breath and fixing the image of the alley behind Honeydukes in his mind, Draco turned and disapparated them away. A second later, they appeared behind the sweets shop, startling a fat, grey rat that had been digging through the rubbish bin.


Draco looked down at her slender hand, still wrapped in his own. He felt very strange. Over the past few hours, he had bared more of his tarnished soul than he ever imagined possible, yet there was still so much that he wanted to tell her. It wasn’t that she could grant him peace or take away his feelings of remorse. Nobody could. But somehow, when he shared his awful memories of the war with her, remembering didn’t hurt quite as bad.


“I’d walk you back to the castle, but...”


“I understand, Draco. Besides, if I have to defend your honor for a second time today, people are going to start to talk.”


She smiled at him, and Draco’s world became a little brighter even as their surroundings seemed to fade away.


“I know that our day didn’t get off to the best of starts, but I had a wonderful time. Not many people have been willing to look past my family name and give me a chance. You’re very special, Astoria. I realize that my situation makes this very difficult for you, but I really want to see you again. Please say that you’ll consider it?”


Astoria’s smile seemed to brighten, but he could also see a hint of reservation behind it. A tinge of sadness.


“I would like that very much, Draco. People aren’t giving you much of a chance, and I think it’s their loss. But as you say, the situation is difficult. When my father finds out what happened today, he isn’t going to be pleased. In time, I think I can convince him to see past your reputation, but first we need to keep you from being expelled.”


She took half a step closer and placed her free hand on his cheek. He followed the gentle motion of her fingers as she drew him near and placed a soft kiss on the cheek opposite her hand.


“Write to me, Draco. As long as I’m in school, we can exchange owls freely. If you can avoid any more run-ins with the Aurors, perhaps I can change my father’s mind.”


With one final smile, she turned and hurried around the corner toward High Street.


Draco stood behind Honeydukes for several minutes, trying to take it all in. The angry confrontation with Weasley and the attack by the Ratcliffe family felt like they’d happened weeks ago. He shook his head, trying to clear the fog. It dawned on him that he had a huge smile on his face. Remembering that he had a long Transfiguration essay due on Monday, Draco turned on his heel and disapparated. In the unlikely event that he was allowed to turn it in, he was determined to make it a good one.

 




The shadows cast by Hogwarts castle were starting to stretch long over the Scottish countryside as Astoria trudged back up the path that led to the front gates. She tried to replay her conversation with Draco in her mind, but she kept getting distracted by the memory of his eyes. Sometimes they sparkled with joy and other times she felt haunted by the sadness she found in them, but they never failed to derail her entire thought process and leave her feeling warm and tingly on the inside.


Shaking her head, she forced the enchanting grey eyes out of her thoughts. She had a great deal of planning to do if she was to have any chance of convincing her father to accept Draco as a worthy suitor, and it all began with keeping him at Hogwarts. She began constructing an explanation in her mind, gradually fine-tuning the words as she rehearsed them over and over. By the time she reached the castle gates, it was all prepared. There was certain to be a personal cost, but she had spent nearly six years building her reputation as a diligent student and a respectable young lady. The time had come to spend some of that credibility on a worthwhile cause.


She considered a quick stop at her dorm room to shed her heavy winter clothes and freshen her makeup, but decided against it. If it appeared that she had come directly to see the Headmistress, her contrition would seem more sincere. Astoria went over her explanation of the circumstances one more time in her head as she made her way through the corridors. She tried very hard to resist the urge to gloss over the less flattering parts. Any attempt at deception was likely to make things worse.


When she reached the final corridor in the long and winding journey to the Headmistress’s office, she was surprised to see a lone figure walking toward her. Hermione Granger appeared to be deep in thought, and when she saw Astoria approaching, she looked startled.


“Miss Greengrass.”


The Head Girl continued on her way without pause, barely meeting Astoria’s gaze. Astoria felt her stomach clench. Granger had gone directly to the Headmistress, just as Draco said that she would. A chill ran down Astoria’s spine and she desperately tried to process all of the ramifications. If the Headmistress believed that the confrontation between Draco and Ron Weasley was entirely Draco’s fault, there wasn’t much chance that Astoria would be able to make her see reason. Perhaps she should simply turn around and head to the dungeons. Wait and see what happened. She stood frozen in place for a moment, unsure of what to do.


“Is there something I can help you with, Miss Greengrass.”


Astoria turned with a start to see the Headmistress staring at her. The elderly Scot stepped away from the gargoyle statue, which slowly turned into its closed position. McGonagall fixed her with a probing stare, and Astoria realized that her indecision must be written plainly across her face. She silently cursed herself for being so transparent, took a deep breath, and did the only thing she felt that she could. She stuck to the plan.


“Professor, I’ve come to submit myself for disciplinary action. During today’s Hogsmeade outing, I broke two school rules.”


The Headmistress’s face was unreadable, aside from a slight nod of interest.


“Go on.”


“I witnessed a fellow student who was being attacked by a witch and two wizards from the village. When I attempted to help him, they threatened me, as well. I used magic outside of school to help defend the two of us. It proved insufficient, however. One of the wizards attempted to cast the Killing Curse at us. At that point, the other student and I left the village.”


Astoria was surprised when McGonagall’s expression didn’t change. The Headmistress stared calmly at her, as though she conversed with students who’d been attacked with unforgivable curses on a daily basis.


“The student in question wouldn’t happen to be Draco Malfoy by any chance, would he, Miss Greengrass?”


So she knew! Granger had turned them in. Astoria lowered her eyes and nodded. Why on earth hadn’t she listened to Draco and taken the time to come up with a better plan?


“Today has been most curious, Miss Greengrass. You are now the second student who has come forward to confess to a transgression against the rules involving Mr. Malfoy. The other student was also adamant that he was not directly at fault. I must admit that I’m at rather a loss for what to think about this.”


Astoria’s chin snapped back up and her eyes locked onto the Headmistress’s weathered, unreadable face. She replayed the statement in her mind, searching for caveats and hidden meanings. So Granger hadn’t simply blamed everything on Draco. This put a whole different meaning on the guilty look the Head Girl had been wearing when they met in the corridor. Perhaps she was even embarrassed by her own behavior? Astoria realized that she would need to seriously reconsider her opinion of Hermione Granger.


“Professor, I realize that it isn’t my place, but would you like to know what I think?”


McGonagall raised an eyebrow and fixed her with an appraising look.


“By all means.”


“I think that people were too quick to judge Draco after the war.”


The Headmistress’s gaze hardened somewhat, but she didn’t appear angry. Only skeptical.


“Miss Greengrass, I don’t wish to sound dismissive, but your involvement in the war and the involvement of your family was minimal. On what basis have you arrived at this opinion?”


“We had tea, after we fled Hogsmeade. And we talked.”


McGonagall lowered her chin slightly and stared at Astoria over the rims of her spectacles.


“And in the course of this talk, did the topic of his conduct before and during the war happen to come up?”


Astoria was starting to feel very small under the weight of the Headmistress’s gaze. But then she thought about Draco, and the anguished look in his eyes as he told her about the night of the attack. She found renewed determination to speak the truth, whether or not anyone wanted to hear it.


“Professor, Draco did some terrible things during the war. He freely admitted as much. But he paid a higher price than anyone realizes. I wish you could have seen the pain in his eyes when he talked about the war. Draco isn’t the monster that everybody thinks he is. He isn’t his father. He went through a horrible, traumatic experience and I think that he wants very much to change.”


For a long moment, the two witches stood in silence. Astoria wasn’t entirely certain whether the Headmistress’s stern gaze softened just a bit or the heady feeling she got from sharing her insights about Draco was affecting her perception. Before she was able to decide, McGonagall changed the topic.


“Setting aside the issue of Mr. Malfoy, my sources in the village have already corroborated your version of the events immediately preceding your departure. I am pleased to inform you that the Aurors arrived to take Mrs. Ratcliffe and her sons into custody moments after Mr. Malfoy disapparated the two of you out of danger. As I’m certain you are aware, the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery makes an exception for situations where a young witch or wizard is forced to defend themselves. While your father will most assuredly receive an owl from the Improper Use of Magic Office, I consider the matter settled.”


Astoria broke into a wide smile. The Headmistress was quick to quash her feelings of vindication, however.


“Moving along to your other violation of school rules, you are well aware that students are restricted to High Street and the immediate vicinity during Hogsmeade visits. While I understand that the imminent danger posed by the Ratcliffe family required Mr. Malfoy to take extreme measures to save both of your lives, I cannot overlook the fact that you remained outside of the village for nearly four hours. You should have returned as soon as it was safe to do so.”


Astoria fought back the urge to argue. Being very careful to maintain a respectful tone of voice, she did her best to explain.


“Professor, for at least a couple of hours Draco was in no condition to safely return us to the village. It’s a miracle we didn’t get splinched as we fled. But I admit that we could have returned sooner.”


McGonagall nodded slowly in response.


“I was told that in the course of defending yourself, you performed some excellent non-verbal charms work. In light of that accomplishment and the injuries suffered by Mr. Malfoy during an unrelated confrontation with another student, I will forego the deduction of any house points, provided that you refrain from making a habit of this behavior. Your disciplinary record at Hogwarts has been exemplary up to this point, Miss Greengrass. Let us keep it that way.”


Astoria nodded enthusiastically. She could hardly believe her good fortune, and she started to back away, hoping that the Professor’s last admonition was also the signal that she was being dismissed. McGonagall seemed to have one more thought on her mind, however.


“Miss Greengrass, do you believe that he’s actually changed?”


Astoria came to a halt and tried to force the smile from her face. The words had been part of her carefully scripted speech that she never needed to use, and she wanted to deliver them as seriously as possible. Draco deserved at least that much.


“I believe that he’s trying very hard, Professor. But the way that everyone treats him is making it very difficult. I wish I could say that I know he’ll succeed, but I can’t. All I know for certain is that if nobody is willing to give him a chance, he will fail.”


The Headmistress looked at her thoughtfully for a moment before nodding in response. Then she turned back toward her office and Astoria retreated to the Slytherin common room as fast as her dignity and damp boots would allow.





 
Draco and Astoria have had their first Big Conversation. I'd love to know what you thought of it. All reviews cheerfully accepted!


Chapter 6: Relapse
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As always, that which you recognize belongs to JK Rowling




 
“I don’t believe it.”


Astoria grinned demurely as Isadore Nott fixed her with the latest in a string of incredulous stares. Four days after the visit to Hogsmeade, Astoria had finally decided that the time was right to tell the entire story to Isadore. She’d been resisting her best friend’s probing questions, revealing only that she’d met somebody in the village for tea and very much enjoyed herself. Isadore had immediately decided that Astoria was referring to Draco Malfoy. The rumors swirling around the school about the Head Girl cursing Draco within an inch of his life didn’t leave much room for doubt. Still, when Astoria broke down and told Isadore about the adventure they’d shared, her best friend was dumbstruck by the time the story was over.


Even after thinking on it for a few days, Astoria hadn’t quite decided what to make of the whole thing. On one hand, she didn’t feel as though she’d done anything particularly brave. Faced with a difficult situation, she tried to do what she felt was right. In the course of doing so, however, she’d fought a family of vengeful killers and stood up for a former Death Eater in front the Headmistress of Hogwarts. She probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Isadore had a hard time wrapping her head around it all. Astoria put on her best earnest smile and gave it another try.


“That’s how it happened, except for a few details that would bore you anyway.”


The details she’d left out were the ones about Draco’s experiences during the war. Astoria knew that she would be betraying a very important trust if she revealed his agonizing confessions to anyone else, even her best friend. In time, she hoped that he would learn to open up to others, as well. If people were going to stop thinking of him as one of the Dark Lord’s thugs who managed to buy his way out of a prison sentence, Draco was going to have to go on a major charm offensive. He needed to convince them that he had been an unwilling participant. That he had been acting under the threat of death for both himself and his family. And he couldn’t do that unless he was willing to talk about it.


Isadore took Astoria’s elbow and pulled her toward an empty section of the Slytherin house table. Astoria sighed under her breath and allowed herself to be led along. For somebody who acted as though she didn’t believe a word of what she was hearing, Isadore certainly asked a lot of questions.


“But, Astoria, how? You are so hopeless in Defense lessons -- don’t look at me like that, we both know it’s the truth -- but you managed to stun a fully qualified adult and fling a statue at somebody? And then your boyfriend apparated you both to Derbyshire after taking a blasting curse from Granger? And you both made it in one piece?”


It took every ounce of Astoria’s self-control not to drop her books and cover Isadore’s mouth with her hands. She pulled her elbow behind her back, drawing her friend closer, and hissed out her response.


“He isn’t my boyfriend, alright? Good heavens, Isadore, this is how rumors start! And levitating a statue isn’t Defense, it’s Charms!”


The two girls set their books down and took seats on the long wooden bench. Isadore took a quick look around before continuing in an excited whisper.


“Stop trying to change the subject, Astoria! He took you to some romantic spot and the two of you had lunch together all by yourselves. I know you wouldn’t do that with just anyone. It isn’t at all proper. This sounds pretty serious to me.”


“No, you don’t understand! We left the village together so we wouldn’t get killed! He picked that little cafe because he knew it was safe. And we were only gone so long because he needed to rest so we could apparate back safely.”


Isadore rolled her eyes knowingly and leaned closer.


“You don’t have to make up all these stories, you know. You’re my best friend, I won’t think any less of you. It isn’t like you went to some seedy muggle inn and- Ow!”


Astoria elbowed her friend in the side. It wasn’t proper. It wasn’t dignified or ladylike. It wasn’t even nice. But Isadore did stop talking, and for that Astoria was grateful. The wounded look in her friend’s eyes made Astoria feel a bit bad, and she tried to soften her scowl before she whispered into the other girl’s ear.


“Isadore, please! I’m telling you the truth. Now will you please stop asking me about it before the whole school thinks that I slept with him?”


Isadore stared at her for a second, then shrugged and began to fill her plate.


“Have it your way. All I’m saying is that when you’re ready to tell the real story, I won’t judge.”


Astoria sighed and reached for a jug of pumpkin juice. Just as she was about to pour, a large post owl swooped down and landed next to her plate. There was a letter affixed to its leg, sealed with a blob of red wax. Astoria recognized the seal and instantly felt her chest tighten up. The letter was from her father. It was short and to the point.


Astoria Persephone Greengrass,

I will be arriving at Hogwarts via the floo in the Headmistress’s office at precisely nine o’clock this morning. Meet me there. I wish to discuss a letter I received from the Ministry.

Love,
Your Father


She folded the parchment between her fingers and checked her watch. It was half eight. That left thirty minutes to figure out a way to convince her father not to kill her, or worse still, remove her from Hogwarts. She stood up from her seat and grabbed Isadore by the elbow as she scooped up her books.


“Come on. There isn’t much time.”


Isadore made a muffled noise of protest through her full mouth. Astoria began to walk away, holding tightly to her best friend’s arm. Isadore made a desperate grab for a muffin and her Potions text before stumbling along in Astoria’s wake. Astoria rapidly led them out of the Great Hall and into a nearby vacant classroom, closing the door behind them. Isadore finally managed to swallow and fixed Astoria with an annoyed glare.


“Do you mind telling me what the emergency is?”


Astoria slapped the letter down on the desk in front of them and smoothed out the wrinkled parchment.


“It’s from my father! He got a letter from the Ministry. It must be from the Improper Use of Magic Office. When I stunned that man in Hogsmeade, it set off the Trace!”


Isadore’s eyes widened as she processed what Astoria was telling her.


“So you really weren’t pulling my leg? This attack on you and Draco Malfoy really happened?”


Of course it really happened! Isadore, what am I going to do? He’ll find out everything!”


Isadore looked thoughtful for a second, then shook her head.


“You were in the middle of a fight. Other people were casting spells, right? There’s no way the Ministry can prove that you were the one casting them. The Trace doesn’t work that way.”


Astoria took a deep breath, trying to sort things out in her head. Isadore was right. The Trace could only show that magic had been performed in the vicinity of an underage witch or wizard. But her problems went beyond warning letters from the Ministry.


“You’re right. The Ministry can’t prove anything. But by the time I made it back to the castle, McGonagall already knew that Draco was there. I’m sure that Father knows by now, too. I’m not ready for him to find out about Draco yet. I was hoping he could finish school first and start to make a new reputation for himself.”


“So you two are an item?”


Isadore was smiling triumphantly. As annoyed as she felt, Astoria couldn’t spare the time to argue the point.


“Alright, already! So I fancy him and I’m pretty sure he fancies me, too. It won’t matter if Father takes me out of Hogwarts and sends me off to Beauxbatons. Now help me figure out what to say to him!”


Astoria tried to resist the urge to wring her hands together while Isadore scrunched up her nose and stared at the snow-covered grounds through the classroom’s tall windows. Not for the first time, she wondered whether she was getting far too worked up over the situation. Even after their strange lunch date, there was a lot that she didn’t know about Draco Malfoy. Was she risking a major confrontation with her father for a romance that was doomed from the start? What price would she pay to find out whether Draco was her one, true love or merely another passing fancy?


Isadore interrupted her silent contemplation, lowering the tone of her voice and sounding very serious.


“You have to lie to him. I just don’t see any other option. Tell him you were minding your own business, heading to Scrivenshaft's for some new quill tips, and the next thing you knew there were people casting curses all around you and you grabbed Draco’s arm just as he was about to disapparate so you wouldn’t get killed. Then the two of you had a pleasant conversation over tea until it was safe to come back.”


It was the same lie that Astoria had been turning over and over in her head since she and Draco arrived in Derbyshire. For some reason, hearing Isadore tell it made it sound even less palatable to her.


“Isadore, I can’t.”


“You can’t? Astoria, we’re Slytherins and we’re girls. Sometimes we tell lies when we don’t even need to, just to keep people guessing.”


Astoria found that talking things through with her best friend was really helping, but not at all in the way that Isadore intended. That was part of what she loved about the girl, she supposed. Bad ideas were so much easier to spot when they came from somebody else’s lips. Shrugging her shoulders, Astoria tried to explain.


“He’s my father. I haven’t told him a lie since I was seven years old. If I start now, what happens when I really need him to believe me? Besides, that wouldn’t be fair to Draco. He didn’t try to just pop out of Hogsmeade and leave me standing there. He lied to those people to protect me and then he fought them to try to keep them from attacking me. I owe it to him to be honest about that.”


Isadore was once again staring at her with a sly grin.


“You really do care about him, don’t you? I hope you at least got to snog him a bit, because you’re taking a big risk for him.”


Astoria rolled her eyes and shook her head, then she lowered her gaze to the letter lying on the desk in front of her. It was partly for effect, but also so that Isadore wouldn’t see how close to the mark she really was. Astoria was about to take a huge risk. And she was doing it because she really did care what her father thought about Draco Malfoy.
 





Astoria arrived at the entrance to the Headmistress’s office three minutes before nine o’clock. Punctuality wasn’t going to save the day, but it was a step in the right direction. The stone gargoyle regarded her with a disinterested expression and spoke before moving aside.


“The Headmistress is expecting you, Miss Greengrass.”


She rode the moving stairs to the top and stopped outside of the heavy wooden door. She could hear voices coming from inside and against her better judgment, she stopped to listen.


“Of course I’m upset, Professor. My daughter was attacked with unforgivable curses and taken from the village by a young man who belongs in Azkaban. Not being a parent, perhaps you can’t understand how upsetting that is to her mother and me. I’d heard that the standards have slipped at this school since Dumbledore let his obsession with that psychopath Voldemort get the best of him, but I had no idea how bad things had gotten.”


Astoria cringed involuntarily, imagining the Headmistress stiffening in response to her father’s insinuations. A tense moment passed before McGonagall’s clipped Scottish brogue filled the silence.


“Mr. Greengrass, I assure you that your daughter is quite safe on the grounds of Hogwarts. If it is your wish that she no longer participate in our visits to Hogsmeade, that is your prerogative. As to the late Professor Dumbledore, I believe you will find that most people familiar with the particulars of the war are in agreement that what you’ve termed his obsession is the principal reason that we are once again governed by the rule of law and not the murderous whims of a madman.”


Astoria held her breath. Part of her wanted to applaud the professor’s candor and the other part was terrified that it was only making her father angrier. She heard him snort in response before continuing.


“Rule of law, indeed! This new philosophy of governance that’s become fashionable at the Ministry is a mixed bag if you ask me. I don’t see a need to go changing the law every time a muggle-born or a house elf feels put out about something.”


The conversation was probably only going to get worse from there, so Astoria knocked softly on the door. It swung open and she stepped quickly inside, avoiding eye contact with either adult. Her father acknowledged her arrival with a stiff nod and turned back to the Headmistress.


“Professor, I would appreciate a few minutes alone with my daughter. Would it be possible to use your office?”


“Very well. Please afford our guest the courtesy of not interrupting his conversation.”


Astoria looked up, trying to figure out whether there was another person sharing the room with them. It dawned on her that Professor McGonagall was addressing the portraits lining the walls. The small number of former headmasters who were not already asleep quickly closed their eyes to feign slumber. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that one portrait remained awake. Professor Snape’s coal-black eyes peered out from beneath their heavy lids, studying her. As soon as the door closed behind the Headmistress, her father fixed her with a glare and spoke in a low, angry voice.


“Your mother and I are very disappointed in you, Astoria. I made it quite clear to you how I felt about that Malfoy boy. So what do you do? The first Hogsmeade weekend of the term, you’re sneaking off to see him. As if that wasn’t bad enough, you make the situation even worse by performing magic outside of school, leaving the village and apparating away with him to who knows where. Your mother and I have always believed in allowing you and your sister a certain amount of freedom to make your own choices in life. Your lack of judgment suggests that we’ve allowed you far too much.”


Her father’s words stung. Astoria wanted to snap back at him. She wanted to argue that she had made good choices and he was completely wrong about Draco Malfoy. But she knew that he had more to say, so she continued to stare at the professor’s desk, waiting for his leave to speak. This was one of those times where it was essential to be a good pure blood daughter.


Her father pulled a tarnished candle snuffer out of his pocket and held it up in front of her.


“You know what this is, I assume?”


She felt her breath catch in her throat. Her worst fears hung in the air, inches in front of her face. She choked out a response, barely more than a whisper.


“It’s a portkey.”


Her father nodded slowly. Astoria felt like she was wilting under the weight of his stare. It seemed to her that hours passed before he spoke again.


“Can you give any reason why I shouldn’t send you home as soon as your things are packed?”


Astoria took a deep breath. The lie she’d been considering for days, the one that Isadore insisted was necessary, sat on the tip of her tongue. Summoning all of her courage, she swallowed it. If her father was going to ship her off to France, he would at least know the truth before she left.


“I’m not going to lie to you, Father. I did use magic outside of school and I left the village. At the time, I didn’t think I had any choice. Those people were trying to kill us.”


He nodded in response, but her father didn’t look at all appeased by her confession.


“The Aurors I spoke to seemed to agree. The Ministry has decided not to take any action against you. That’s not the point, Astoria. The simple fact of the matter is that you never would have been in any danger if you hadn’t gone to see that boy. What on earth were you thinking?”


Astoria tried not to let her lower lip tremble as she looked into her father’s stormy eyes. She spoke as calmly as her nerves would allow.


“I wanted to talk to him. I told you before that he didn’t seem like the horrible person you described to me. Ever since I was old enough to understand, you’ve told me that I can’t just take other people’s opinions at face value. You said that I need to get all the facts and figure things out for myself.”


Her father started to interrupt, but Astoria gave him a pleading look and pressed on.


“What would have happened to us during the war if you’d listened to everybody else, Father? What if you’d just fallen into line with the other old families and supported the Dark Lord instead of making your own decision? We wouldn’t be standing here. You’d be in Azkaban and I’d be-”


“Astoria, that’s enough.”


Her father clearly wasn’t pleased, but the edge of anger was gone from his voice. He lowered his head and closed his eyes before pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers. When he looked back up at her, she found his expression difficult to read.


“I always knew you’d hoist me by my own petard one day. Yes, Astoria, I want you to think for yourself. Yes, I want you to make well-reasoned decisions. But when I share my wisdom and experience with you, I expect that you will listen. Am I understood?”


Astoria nodded obediently. He slowly returned the portkey to his pocket.


“I came here with every intention of sending you home. But I would feel rather hypocritical about doing that, knowing that your mistakes are at least partly due to my own failure to make my expectations clear. Your mother won’t be pleased about this, but I’ll offer you the following bargain. You will not spend any more time with Draco Malfoy. There will be no more Hogsmeade visits, either. You will obey every rule of this school to the letter. I don’t want to receive any more letters from either the school or the Ministry. In return, you may remain here at Hogwarts. Do you agree?”


Astoria didn’t need long to consider his offer. With the prospect of being pulled out of school at least temporarily held at bay, there was little else she could do.


“I agree. I won’t see him again and I’ll follow every rule to the letter. But I still don’t think that he’s evil.”


Her father looked surprised, then annoyed. His hand moved toward his pocket and for a horrible moment Astoria knew that she’d messed up everything with her stubborn pride. But his hand stopped just short and he merely shook his head.


“Someday, when you have a bit more perspective, you’ll see that I was right. I’m late for an appointment. Please convey my appreciation to the Headmistress for the use of her office.”


Astoria watched as he tossed a pinch of floo powder into the fire and disappeared into the emerald flames. When the fire died back down, Astoria let out a breath that she felt like she’d been holding for days. It was over. She was still at Hogwarts. And he hadn’t forbidden her to use post owls...


She started toward the office door when a voice startled her.


“Naturally you must obey your father, Miss Greengrass, but if it’s any consolation to you, you are correct about Mr. Malfoy.”


Astoria spun around to find Professor Snape still fixing her with his piercing stare. She was surprised by his comment. Outside of her lessons, she was pretty sure that the man had never spoken a single word to her.


“Begging your pardon, Professor?”


Snape rolled his eyes at her and proceeded to speak very slowly.


“Mr. Malfoy is not, as you have correctly surmised, evil. To truly be evil requires a courage in one’s convictions that neither Draco nor his father will ever possess.”


Astoria stared back and tried to parse his words in her mind. She’d always found that the line that separated Snape’s compliments from his insults was exceedingly fine and quite fluid.


“So you don’t think that Draco is brave?”


“On the contrary, Miss Greengrass, I have seen Draco exhibit considerable courage in situations that would have left his father seeking a dry pair of trousers. However, that is neither here nor there. You stated that Draco is not evil and you are absolutely correct.”


Astoria took a cautious step closer to Snape’s portrait. She’d always heard that Draco was among his favorite students. Rumors had even circulated that Mrs. Malfoy extracted a promise from Snape to keep Draco safe during the war. Perhaps he wouldn’t be above offering her a bit of advice.


“Professor, how do you think I should go about convincing my father to see the truth about Draco?”


Snape closed his eyes for a long moment. Astoria began to worry that he’d decided to go back to sleep instead of answering. When he finally replied, it wasn’t what she’d been hoping to hear.


“What you’re asking, Miss Greengrass, is how does one prove the negative of a highly subjective and open-ended statement. As you should well know, to do so is very nearly impossible. A lifetime of good deeds will not acquit a man beyond all doubt while a single bad deed offers ample rope from which he may hang. The question, Miss Greengrass, is what do you believe? And if you believe that Draco is not evil then what do other people’s opinions truly matter?”
 





Draco finished reading Astoria’s latest letter and held the parchment up in front of his face. After listening carefully to make sure that nobody was lurking in the corridor outside of his private chambers, he pressed it gently against his face, inhaling deeply. Even after her letters survived the long trip from Scotland attached to the leg of an owl, he always thought that he could detect just a hint of her lotion on them. Perhaps he was only imagining it, but it pleased him, so he chose to continue to believe.


Since she owled him with the story of her difficult conversation with her father, Draco had come to cherish every bit of communication they were able to share. They both knew that they had to be exceedingly careful. Daphne still had friends among the Seventh Year Slytherins and Draco had an abundance of enemies who would enjoy nothing more than ruining the happiness he’d found in courting Astoria. It pained him to realize just how close he’d come to losing her over the incident in Hogsmeade. He promised himself that he would never be so careless again.


An elf popped into existence beside his chair and Draco reluctantly folded Astoria’s letter and slipped it into his pocket before acknowledging the creature’s presence.


“Begging your pardon, Master, but Master Lucius requests your presence in his study.”


Draco suppressed a flash of annoyance. He didn’t like being summoned, especially by his father. It reminded him too much of the way that the Dark Lord expected everyone to jump at his beck and call. Aside from that, Draco had started to feel more and more uncomfortable around his father. During the war, it had been easy to ignore the changes in the old man’s behavior; Draco had more than enough of his own problems to focus on. Since Draco had stopped drinking, the deterioration in his father’s health was impossible not to notice. It angered Draco in a way that he found hard to explain. After everything they’d been through, watching the old man succumb to his demons felt like such a waste.


Shooing the elf away with a curt wave of his hand, Draco stood up from his writing desk and slipped on his shoes. He tucked his shirt tails into his trousers as he made his way toward the entrance to his private chambers and quickly checked his appearance in the mirror before stepping out into the corridor. Even though his father hadn’t received any visitors in weeks, it was prudent to be presentable, just in case.


Making his way through the manor, Draco’s thoughts drifted back to Astoria. Her seventeenth birthday would occur shortly after the end of the spring term. He was almost thankful that she planned to return to Hogwarts for her seventh year. It allowed him more time to find a way to convince her father that he was a worthy suitor. That said, if the old man was completely unwilling to see reason, he could simply ask her to marry him once she was of age. He knew that it was a remote possibility, barely worthy of his consideration at this stage of the chase. Astoria came from a good family and her father’s blessing would be important to her. He tucked it away in the back of his mind, content in the knowledge that they did have a choice if all else failed.


Draco descended the sweeping marble staircase and crossed the polished floor of the great room. He stopped outside of the study and peered inside. His father was hunched over the Daily Prophet, slowly rocking forward and back as he read. Even after all of their quarrels, it pained Draco to look at his father sometimes. The old man’s white hair had grown so thin that the pinkness of his pate was clearly visible when he bent forward. The dull, grey pupils of his eyes were now seated deeply behind the bony ridges that crowned his gaunt cheeks. Not even the generous cut of his robes could conceal the wasting of his once muscular frame.


“What do you want, Father?”


Draco tried to conceal his irritation, which, if he was being honest, was as much a reaction to his father’s appearance as it was to the old man’s audacity. Lucius’s head jerked up from the newspaper, seemingly startled by Draco’s arrival at his door. He began to twist the signet ring that hung loosely around the third finger of his right hand with the fingers of his left. It was now at least two sizes too large, and since it was goblin craft, Draco supposed that it couldn’t be easily resized with magic. After a moment, it appeared to dawn on his father why Draco was there, and he waved his hands eagerly, motioning Draco into the room. When he spoke, his voice sounded raspy and hollow.


“Come, Draco. Sit. You’re looking well today. Very, very well. Please, have a seat.”


Draco slowly entered the room, taking a high-backed leather chair in front of his father’s polished wooden desk. He continued to study the old man, which seemed to make Lucius even more nervous. His fingers returned to the signet ring, spinning it faster and faster around his bony finger until Draco finally settled into his seat. Lucius laced his fingers together and forced a smile onto his face before speaking.


“So tell me, son, how are things at Hogwarts? Your lessons are going well, I trust?”


Draco stared back at his father for a long moment before answering. Surely the old man had wanted to discuss more than just his marks.


“Fine, father. Just fine. They’re going quite well, actually.”


Lucius’s face lit up in response and his posture straightened a bit.


“Splendid! That’s wonderful news, Draco. Your mother will be very pleased. Very pleased indeed.”


Draco continued to stare meaningfully at his father while the old man chuckled softly to himself. After a few seconds, his father’s expression grew serious again. Draco waited for the old man to speak, but the awkward silence persisted.


“Is there something else, Father?”


Lucius perked up in response to Draco’s question, looking as though an important memory had suddenly come back to him. He drew his wand and closed the door with a small flick of his wrist before lowering his voice.


“Something else. Yes. Very interesting, indeed. I have news, Draco. Very interesting news. Exciting things. I thought you would want to know straight away.”


“Know about what, Father?”


The conspiratorial tone in the old man’s voice set Draco’s nerves on edge. It was the voice that he used when he didn’t want to be overheard. When he was worried that Draco’s mother would disapprove of what he was saying. That voice was nothing but trouble. And Draco cringed inwardly when his father’s voice fell to barely a whisper.


“A new movement is rising from the ashes of the Death Eaters, Draco. Proud sons of the old, pure blood families are quietly joining together to undo these disastrous reforms that Shacklebolt and the rest of the muggle lovers have brought to the Ministry. They’re going to set things right and restore the old ways. I’ve been making... enquiries, so that we don’t miss out on our opportunity to be a part of the new ruling faction.”


Draco slowly counted to five, forcing down the boiling rage that filled his chest and threatened to consume him. He took a shaky breath and managed to spit out three words before he had to bite his tongue to keep from screaming.


Are you mad?


Lucius abruptly straightened in his chair, pulling back from Draco with a confused look on his face. His fingers rapidly slid the signet ring up and down his first knuckle and the corners of his mouth twitched.


“Draco, did you understand what I said? No longer will we be be forced to endure the petty torments of blood traitors and mudbloods. Our family will be powerful and respected once again.”


Draco could feel his fingers threatening to cramp as he gripped the arms of the chair so tightly that the old leather groaned in protest. There had to be a misunderstanding. Not even his father was this thick. He stared back at the beseeching smile on the old man’s face and it gradually dawned on him that the only misunderstanding was his own. He had allowed himself to believe that his father had learned his lesson after nearly losing everything. He was plainly mistaken.


“That’s what you said before the war, father! Before they sent you to Azkaban. Before the Dark Lord took up residence in our home. Before we nearly lost our lives. How can you even humor such rubbish?”


It seemed as though Draco had pressed some long-dormant button in his father’s psyche. The old man’s chin rose as his thin lips twisted into a dismissive sneer.


“Now you see here, Draco. This is nothing like that. The Dark Lord became unstable after his first defeat. He was obsessed with power and his own mortality. These are good men from old families who only care about upholding our cherished traditions.”


“Who, Father? Who are these men you keep referring to?”


Lucius looked momentarily confused before he once again found his direction.


“I haven’t spoken to them directly, but the names that my sources have mentioned are all familiar. Surely you remember my old friends Goyle and Nott? The Gamps! Yes, the Gamp family is involved as well.”


Draco slowly exhaled while his father sat back in his chair, looking very pleased with himself. The old man was delusional. Draco knew that Nott’s father was locked away in Azkaban and Goyle’s father had been killed during the battle at Hogwarts. Gamp’s family had avoided the Dark Lord’s call to arms. His elder male relatives had left the country to pursue “business opportunities” with distant relatives in the Balkans. That was why their fortune remained intact and Jeremy was free to court Daphne with her father’s blessing. Draco steeled himself and tried to keep his voice below a shout.


“Father, you know as well as I do that we can’t afford to be implicated in such things. We were this close to spending the rest of our lives in prison. The Great and Noble Saint Potter himself testified on our behalf and a third of the Wizengamot still voted to convict us. Not even Mother was spared their accusations. You’re being irresponsible and you need to stop putting her in danger.”


The confusion in his father’s grey eyes slowly twisted into anger. The focused outrage was something Draco hadn’t seen in a long time. If the circumstances had been different, he would have found it encouraging.


“How dare you? I am the head of this family. So long as I wear this ring, I will decide what is best for us. And that will not change until you remove it from my cold, dead hand. Do you understand that, Draco?”


Draco abruptly stood and turned on his heel. He couldn’t stand to look at his father any longer. He tore the door open and stopped in the doorway, struggling to contain his anger. He turned to find his father still glaring at him and snarled out a response.


“Yes, Father, I understand. I understand that you don’t give a damn about Mother and I. I understand that you’re willing to destroy our family name so you can feel important again for a few moments. Even Aunt Bella understood what a fool you are. Go ahead. Play your games. Get yourself sent back to Azkaban. Just leave me out of it!”


Draco stormed back to his private quarters and warded the doors behind himself. He kicked his shoes off with such force that they left indentations in the plaster on the far wall and tore his shirt tails out of his pants. His hands shook as he tried to contain the burning rage that he felt toward the arrogant old man who threatened to derail everything he wanted to do with his life.


Of all the emotions that Draco had struggled with since the Dark Lord’s fall, anger had proven to be the most difficult. He was angry so often during the war that he eventually stopped paying it any mind. It felt natural, comfortable, like a well-worn pair of boots. If his anger got to be too much to bear, there were always opportunities to vent it on the Dark Lord’s enemies. Dark curses had a way of consuming strong emotions, leaving him feeling pleasantly numb.


Back and forth he paced, driving his fist into his palm. His breath came in angry snorts. He tried to think of Astoria, to find solace in his memories of her bright smile and the touch of her soft lips on the side of his face. The sound of her laughter rang in his ears, but his violent rage twisted the notes into mockery and disdain. He couldn’t control his father, he couldn’t control his life, he couldn’t even control himself. What could she possibly want with a pathetic man like him?


Draco let out a shout of impotent rage and turned toward his closet. From the deep pockets of an old traveling cloak, he retrieved the only source of comfort he could lay his shaking hands on. He uncorked the bottle and stared at it for a long moment, trying to find the strength to say no. Then he took a long, slow drink of the amber liquid within. A fit of coughing ripped through his chest as the burning sensation stretched all the way down his throat, but it quickly passed. Soon, the anger would be gone. Soon he would be at peace.


After another long draw on the bottle, he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror on the back of his closet door. The sour expression on his face and the bitter curl of his thin lips repulsed him. This was what he’d been reduced to. She could never love this. Draco took one more stomach-churning gulp and hurled the bottle at the silvery glass, shattering the mocking image into a thousand glistening shards. Then he crossed his room and fell into his bed, waiting for the alcohol to claim him.






Hello, again. This chapter had a lot of ups and down for our favorite star-crossed pure blood couple, but I was really pleased with how it turned out. I hope you enjoyed it, as well. Please leave me a review and let me know what you thought!


Chapter 7: Old Habits
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As always, that which you recognize belongs to JK Rowling.






Astoria kept a smile rigidly fixed on her face as Daphne broke into a fit of ear-splitting squeals for what must have been the fiftieth time since breakfast. In this case, they were squeals of delight, but cries of woe had been an equally common occurrence. The dress fitting for Daphne’s bridesmaids had been dragging on for nearly two hours. Astoria was becoming concerned about the way that her sister seemed to careen back and forth between the heights of elation and the depths of despair, fueled by frilly dreams of perfection, too much champagne and some sort of wedding-related hormones. Astoria dearly hoped that those hormones did not run in the family. It was enough to make her seriously consider the merits of eloping.

 
Daphne elbowed Madame Pinking, the matronly old witch who was fitting Astoria’s dress, out of the way, spilling champagne on the floor from the flute cradled precariously in her hand. She fluffed the bustle that weighed uncomfortably on Astoria’s bottom with her free hand and trembled with excitement before gushing with a detectable slur.

 
“Isn’t her dress just gorgeous! Pansy, Ingrid, look. You are all going to look so elegant. Can you see, Astoria?”

 
Astoria twisted her head and shoulders as much as she dared, feeling the patchwork of pins and clips that held the dress tightly around her body strain as she moved. In the mirror to her left, she could just make out the absurdly enlarged shape of her backside with Daphne’s hand resting on top of it. The muscles in her face were starting to hurt from the effort of maintaining her fake cheer. Astoria was certain that she looked like a hippogriff wrapped in a peach chiffon tent. She racked her brain, trying to think of something -- anything -- nice to say to Daphne about the fit of the dress, but her sister was already flouncing across their mother’s dressing room toward the latest in a series of champagne bottles that rested half-empty in a silver bucket of ice.

 
Astoria sighed and let her mask fall off for a moment. The corseted, Victorian-style dress squeezed her in all the wrong places and for the first time in her life she felt like she could relate to the long-dead witches in the old family portraits that lined the halls of the manor. No wonder they never seemed to have the energy to do anything more than fan themselves and gossip. A short stroll in the monstrosity she was wearing would leave her winded.

 
“I have everything I need for the alterations, dear. If you like, I can help you to get out of this now.”

 
Astoria broke into her first genuine smile of the day as the elderly witch helped her to step down from the stool she’d been standing on. She headed for the door and caught a jealous glare out of the corner of her eye. Pansy Parkinson was being practically groped by a stout, blond witch who was attempting to fit her dress in such a way as to maximize her cleavage. As soon as the blond witch pulled her hands away, Daphne let out another jubilant shriek and Astoria decided that quickening her pace was well worth the risk of passing out from lack of oxygen.

 
Once they reached the safety of Astoria’s bedroom, Madame Pinking started the laborious process of extracting her from the cumbersome dress. Astoria was more than a little frightened to move. She felt sure that if a single pin or clip fell out of place, they’d have to repeat the entire fitting exercise. Running away to live with Isadore’s spinster aunt and her horde of cats didn’t seem like such a bad choice compared to that.

 
“The dress isn’t too tight, is it dear? You’re hardly breathing.”

 
Astoria gave the old witch a tired smile and shook her head mutely. Madame Pinking studied her for a moment and then smiled as she went back to her work.

 
“Weddings make you think, don’t they? I remember when I was your age. I always used to imagine that I was the one walking down the aisle. It’s only natural to feel a bit envious.”

 
Astoria could only nod in response, not trusting herself to open her mouth. Truthfully, she had been thinking quite a bit about her clandestine relationship with Draco, even though she didn’t dare breathe a word of it to anyone. She’d been careful to avoid any mention of him since stepping off of the Hogwarts Express to meet her father. Thankfully, her father hadn’t brought him up either. The whole family seemed content to leave the subject alone, and that was just fine with her. If they chose to believe that Draco Malfoy was simply a bad choice that she’d since thought better of, Astoria wasn’t about to give them any reason to think otherwise.

 
Maybe after Daphne’s wedding she’d be able to broach the topic again. Her sister was getting married on the thirtieth of May and Astoria’s seventeenth birthday was one week later. And then it won’t matter what anyone else thinks.

 
Astoria felt a blush creep across her cheeks. Of course it mattered what her mother and father thought! They were her parents. When the time was right, she would make sure that they realized what a good person Draco was on the inside. But until then, she didn’t want to do anything that might ruin Daphne’s wedding. It wouldn’t be fair of her. Daphne made a point of explaining how unfair it would be to anyone who disagreed with her about anything, no matter how small. So Astoria filed away her mutinous thoughts just as she felt the fabric of her dress slip away from her body.

 
With a slight yelp, she covered her bare chest with her arms and hurried into her closet, pulling the door closed behind her. She selected a warm sweater and a comfortable skirt and made herself presentable before stepping back out into her room. Madame Pinking had gathered up the long folds of the dress over her arm while she was waiting.

 
“It was a pleasure fitting your dress, Miss Greengrass. Young ladies these days are rarely so cooperative. I’m going to make my way back to the dressing room and see whether the other ladies can use any help.”

 
Astoria smiled brightly and offered her thanks. As soon as the door closed behind the old witch, she collapsed onto her bed and closed her eyes. After the long trip home from Scotland, she’d stayed up far too late writing a letter to Draco. Although the two of them had agreed not to exchange any owls while she was home for the Easter holiday, she still enjoyed writing down her thoughts and recollections of the day’s events to share with him. A week felt like such a long time to go without any contact. She resolved that as soon as the Hogwarts Express was safely out of London and steaming northward, she would gather up all the letters she’d written over the break and send her owl to deliver them. A smile spread across her face as she imagined him reading through her letters one by one, and it grew even larger at the thought that there might be a similar bundle waiting for her when she arrived back at Hogwarts.

 
A knock at her bedroom door roused Astoria from her thoughts and she reluctantly pulled herself to a sitting position before inviting her visitor to enter. Her mother stepped inside and quietly closed the door. It was obvious to Astoria that she wasn’t the only one who’d been losing sleep. The fine lines of her mother’s face stood out more than normal and a slight droop of her shoulders spoiled her perfect posture. Astoria smiled warmly at her mother and patted the bed next to her.

 
“I’ll try to be a little less demanding when it’s my turn, Mother.”

 
Her mother smiled in spite of herself and crossed the room to sit next to Astoria on the bed.

 
“You’ve always been easier to please, sweetheart, but your sister deserves to have her perfect day. You only get married once. If anything, I’ll probably be more nervous when it’s your turn. It will be the last wedding I’ll ever get to plan.”

 
Astoria laid her hand on top of her mother’s and gave it a gentle squeeze.

 
“You’ll be so good at this by then that you’ll barely have to try.”

 
The two women sat quietly for a few seconds, letting the warmth of the moment linger. Astoria had always enjoyed her mother’s company, but in the depths of her bones, she could feel her bed calling out to her. If she could sleep for an hour or so, she’d feel like a new person. Realizing that her mother was lost in reverie, Astoria finally broke the silence.

 
“Was there anything else you wanted to talk about, Mother?”

 
The older woman blinked a couple of times, as though she was trying to recapture her train of thought. Then she sat up a bit straighter and turned to face Astoria.

 
“Yes, Astoria. As a matter of fact, there was. Your father and I saw Blackburn Montague and his wife at the Gamps’ dinner party last week. They inquired as to whether their son Emery might have the honor of escorting you to Daphne’s wedding. Since Jeremy’s Best Man is already married and you don’t have any other prospects at the moment, we were only too pleased to agree.”

 
Astoria couldn’t help it. Her eyebrows shot up, her mouth fell open and she probably would have stormed off to her room and slammed the door behind her if not for the fact that they were already there. A dozen angry rebuttals flashed through her mind, ranging from highly articulate to shamefully juvenile. When she finally opened her mouth, Astoria was less than thrilled with what came out.

 
“What do you mean, I don’t have any prospects?”

 
Her mother placed her hands gently on Astoria’s shoulders.

 
“Darling, you’re sixteen years old. You need to begin seriously thinking about finding a husband. You don’t want to end up like your friend Isadore’s aunt, do you?”

 
Astoria could feel the anger and resentment buzzing in her chest as she fought back the urge to lash out at her mother. She was not going to wind up like Isadore’s aunt. Her mother was mental if that’s what she thought. But it was a pointless argument to have because Astoria couldn’t tell her mother just how good her prospects were looking at the moment. Even though she knew that it sounded petulant, she indulged herself in a much less dignified rebuttal.

 
“So you think I should settle for Emery Montague? Mother, he’s barely able to hold a conversation that doesn’t involve Quidditch, and he isn’t even any good at the sport! He gets terrible marks at school, his brows are far too thick and quite frankly he smells.”

 
Her mother tilted her head slightly and sighed in response.

 
“I thought that your father and I taught you better than to engage in such childish insults.”

 
“It isn’t an insult, mother. Ask anyone who knows him. He doesn’t bathe regularly!”

 
Astoria turned her eyes toward the window in a huff. Out of every boy at Hogwarts, her parents had to go and set her up with Emery Montague. She wondered whether this had anything to do with the adventure that she and Draco had shared in Hogsmeade. Had her father decided to ruin her life as a punishment? Astoria felt like she was drowning in the inequity of it all when her mother cleared her throat and continued.

 
“What would you have us do, Astoria? Go back on the arrangement we’ve made with the Montagues? What’s done is done. Young Mr. Montague will be escorting you to Daphne’s wedding and that is final. That doesn’t mean that the two of you are betrothed, but I do expect that you will be polite and give him fair consideration. As far as his hygiene... well, I’m certain his mother will see to that.”

 
The older woman stood up to leave, plainly considering the conversation over. Astoria tried to slow her pounding heartbeat as she struggled for a response. Her mother had a weakness for romance. Astoria knew this from the trashy novels that she’d found hidden among her things when they traveled. Perhaps she could exploit it.

 
“Mother, is this really what you want for me? To marry me off to some boy that I barely know just because he comes from a wealthy, old family?”

 
Astoria suppressed a triumphant smile when she saw the slightly stricken look on the older woman’s face. But her mother recovered quickly, and a wistful smile settled onto her lips, replacing the pained expression.

 
“Your father and I barely knew one another before we were betrothed, Astoria. Sometimes you have to trust your family to do what’s right for you.”

 
It wasn’t the response Astoria had expected. Completely wrong-footed, the best she could do was stammer out an honest response.

 
“But that was different. You and father are perfect for one another. You love each other.”

 
Her mother’s smile deepened and she beamed at Astoria’s words.

 
“You’re right. I love your father with all my heart. But it wasn’t always that way, sweetheart. We had to learn to love one another. It was a long, gradual process.”

 
Her mother swept back across the room and gently cradled Astoria’s face between her hands.

 
“But it was worth it.”

 
Astoria was racked by conflicting emotions. There was no mistaking the fact that her parents loved one another deeply, and for as long as she could remember, Astoria had wanted nothing less for herself. When she looked at her husband, she wanted to see the same passion burning in his eyes. She wanted to exude the same glow that her mother did whenever her father walked into the room. The thought of being trapped in a loveless formality of a marriage was repugnant. It terrified her. And the longer she thought about it, the more that fear and revulsion twisted into anger.

 
Her mother’s loving gaze had never seemed so fake, and part of her wanted to lash out and release all of the balled-up frustration that tore at her insides. This was her life they were discussing. What was so horribly improper about letting her follow her heart? She fixed her mother with a burning glare and her voice fell to a strangled hiss.

 
“What if it hadn’t worked out that way? What if father hadn’t turned out to be the man that you love? What would you have done then?”

 
Her mother’s fingers stiffened, and Astoria waited as she took a long, deep breath. When she spoke, a tremor in her voice betrayed her attempt to be firm.

 
“You have to trust us, Astoria. Your father and I love you more than anything, and we only want what’s best for you. It may not always be obvious why we make certain choices for you, but when you’re older and have children of your own, you’ll understand.”

 
She lingered for a moment, caressing Astoria’s cheeks with her fingers. When Astoria refused to speak, she quietly left the room. As soon as the door closed behind her, Astoria threw herself back onto the bed and allowed her pillows to absorb the howl of frustration that tore from her lips. As her breathing slowly returned to normal, she tried to tell herself that she was overreacting. That she should just go along with her parents and as soon as they got a whiff of Emery Montague, the matter would be resolved. It didn’t work. This wasn’t about Emery Montague. It was about whether she was ever going to be able to make her own decisions. It was about control.

 
Astoria rolled off of her bed and tore open the drawer of her writing desk. All thoughts of a nap were gone. She had to let Draco know about her parents’ plans for the wedding. She wasn’t sure how he would respond. Perhaps there wasn’t anything that he could do. But she wanted him to know, to realize that none of this was because of her.

 
Astoria tapped the point of her quill against the polished wood surface, trying to calm down enough to compose proper sentences. She found that her mind was flooded with angry, mutinous thoughts. One week after Daphne’s wedding, she would be an adult. At that point, if she chose to run away with Draco, there was nothing that her parents could do to stop her. The idea lingered in the forefront of her mind and in that moment she rather enjoyed the way it made her feel. Her parents would certainly disown her, and she’d be shunned by “polite” pure blood society. To hell with them all. If Draco wasn’t good enough for them, their opinions didn’t matter anyway.

 
She focused on the empty sheet of parchment. She wanted to tell him so many things, but there wasn’t time to compose a lengthy, detailed letter. Her family was caught up in the chaos of Daphne’s dress fitting, so she reasoned that it wouldn’t be too difficult to slip a letter to a departing post owl as long as she hurried. She took a deep breath and started to write. When she was finished, there were five sentences on the page.

 
Dear Draco,

 My mother has just informed me that she and my father have arranged with the Montague family to have their son Emery escort me to Daphne’s wedding. I wanted to make sure that you found out directly from me, and that you know that none of this was my idea. I’ve only been home for a day and already I miss receiving your owls. I hate the fact that my parents can’t put the past behind them and give you a chance. If they refuse to change their minds, maybe we should consider a less traditional courtship.

 With My Love,
Astoria

 
Astoria stared at the last sentence for a long time. She couldn’t even imagine how her parents would react if they saw her letter. But the longer she thought about it, the more she realized that she meant every word of it. She had never considered the possibility that her parents’ strong, loving marriage could be merely a happy accident, one of those improbable events that was bound to happen once or twice in each generation. Astoria wanted a husband that she could love and admire with the same passion that her parents felt for one another. There was no way she was going to leave that to chance.






“Don’t forget, Zabini, you owe me a favor.”

 
Draco took a sip of firewhiskey and fixed his former schoolmate with a meaningful look. Blaise Zabini seemed nonplussed, casually swirling the liquid in his own glass. He studied the deep, amber color before downing the drink in a single gulp. Draco’s stomach clenched at the thought of pounding down liquor so casually. It felt like ages had passed since the days when he spent most of his time drinking away his misery with Zabini and the others. Lately, he had been trying to reintroduce alcohol into his life. It was nearly unavoidable at pure blood social functions, so he tried -- mostly successfully -- to drink in moderation. Spending time with his old friends from Hogwarts, however, was a challenge to his self-control.

 
Draco sighed and refilled Zabini’s glass from the bottle he had brought along. It was one of the pricier ones he’d found in the cellar of Malfoy Manor, aged thirty years and bottled in leaded crystal. His father would be infuriated when he found out that Draco had taken it. But at the moment, Draco couldn’t bring himself to care what the old man thought about much of anything.

 
Zabini contemplated his drink for a moment longer before meeting Draco’s stare.

 
“Why are you coming to me? He’s my mother’s second husband’s grandson. I don’t know what that makes us. You’re the one who knows his family history forward and back. Are we even related?”

 
“I wouldn’t know. My family tree has fewer grafts.”

 
Zabini glared at him for a moment before hoisting his drink to his lips. Draco silently cursed his sharp tongue. Ever since the row with his father, he’d found his temper more difficult to control. After a long, slow sip, Zabini gave him a hard stare.

 
“You’re asking a lot, Draco. I can’t even stand to be around Montague. He’s thick as a Mountain Troll and he smells like the inside of Hagrid’s boot. What do I care if he goes to some bloody wedding? Maybe he’ll find some pathetic, single cow who’s desperate enough to take a fancy to him. Someone who’ll bathe him occasionally and teach him to chew with his mouth closed.”

 
Draco sighed and lowered his voice. Zabini’s mother was somewhere inside their sprawling home, no doubt plotting the death of her current husband. He sincerely doubted that she cared about her deceased ex-husband’s grandchildren now that she had emptied his vault, but she was known to be an inveterate gossip. Draco was already taking enough of a risk by seeking Zabini’s help.

 
“Come off it, Zabini, we both know that Emery Montague is playing Chaser for the other squad.”

 
Zabini tried to keep a straight face, but Draco didn’t miss the hint of mirth in his eyes

 
“That’s better than playing Beater, yeah?”

 
“I don’t care what position he plays! I am offering to spare him from an entire day that he’s sure to find impossibly tedious and awkward. You know how things are at weddings. He’ll be surrounded by hormonal, single witches full of champagne and fairytale endings. He won’t be able to get them off of him with a severing charm.”

 
Zabini raised his eyebrows as a thin smile crossed his lips.

 
“Maybe I should volunteer to take his place, instead.”

 
A dark cloud swept over Draco’s grey eyes. Zabini seemed to sense the change in Draco’s mood and he raised his open hands slightly.

 
“Lighten up, Malfoy, I was only joking. You act like your life depends on crashing this bloody wedding. What’s so important about it, anyway.“

 
A wide assortment of lies flashed through Draco’s mind, each carrying its own benefits and risks. Tell Zabini too much and it was possible, however unlikely, that somebody might uncover the truth. Tell him too little and his interest might be piqued to the point that he would keep tabs on how “Emery Montague” spent his evening. Draco went for something plausible, yet foreboding enough that he hoped that Zabini would see the advantages of not asking too many questions.

 
“I have unfinished business with someone I expect to be in attendance. The wedding should give me an opportunity to discuss that business in a neutral setting, where the conversation won’t look out of place. Perhaps I’ll even be able to resolve the matter in a more... permanent fashion. I assume that you wouldn’t want to know anything about that.”

 
Zabini fixed him with a probing stare, then nodded knowingly. A grin slowly spread across his handsome face.

 
“I told the others that you hadn’t gone soft, Malfoy. Gamp, Flint... even Nott swore that you’d turned your back on the old ways for good. I knew it wasn’t true. All this nonsense about going back to Hogwarts and cozying up to the blood traitors and mudbloods, it had to be an act.”

 
Draco allowed a thin smile to cross his lips. As long as he managed to take Emery Montague’s place at Gamp’s wedding, the others could believe what they liked. Zabini downed the rest of his glass with a flourish before continuing.

 
“Alright, I’ll help you, Draco. On one condition.”

 
The smile abruptly faded from Draco’s face. The eager look in Zabini’s eyes didn’t bode well. Draco nodded stiffly, encouraging his former schoolmate to go on.

 
“You have to agree to sit down over a drink with Gamp, Flint and myself and hear us out. Really listen to what we have to say and give it fair consideration. Things are getting worse, you know. Somebody has to stand up and put a stop to all of these so-called reforms, before there’s nothing left of wizarding society that’s worth saving!”

 
Draco fought back the urge to roll his eyes as he finished the rest of his drink. Zabini reached for the bottle, seeming eager to pour another round, but Draco caught his hand.

 
“You know very well that I don’t approve of Shacklebolt’s reforms any more than you do. But what are you going to do about it? You remember what happened at that bloody coffee shop. People haven’t forgotten who supported which side, even those of you who weren’t involved in the fighting. If you set one toe out of line, there’s a cell waiting in Azkaban with your name on it, Zabini. Don’t be a fool.”

 
Zabini shook his head dismissively before pulling his hand free of Draco’s grasp and hoisting the bottle over his glass.

 
“Shacklebolt and the rest of the traitors will never know what hit them. We’ve been gathering allies for months, Draco. Quietly making inroads with the few remaining families that still value the old ways. But we need people with first-hand experience. People who know how to avoid the mistakes that cost us the war. We need you on our side, Draco. Your family’s name may be tarnished, but it still carries weight with witches and wizards who want to go back to the way things used to be, even if they won’t admit it in polite company.”

 
Draco felt his shoulders sag. He was trapped and he knew it. The wedding was still two months away and there was no possibility that he could avoid Zabini, Gamp and the others for that long. He lowered his voice to a whisper and leaned closer to his former schoolmate.

 
“I’ll hear you out, but we have to gather here. And this is solely between the four of us, you understand? My act, as you put it, needs to continue at least until the wedding. I’m involved in a number of very delicate situations and suffice it to say that if certain people were to learn that I was talking to you, I would be in no position to help anybody.”

 
Zabini smiled broadly and took another big sip of firewhiskey. He coughed raggedly into the sleeve of his robes before continuing.

 
“You won’t regret it, Malfoy. This is bigger than just the four of us. There are powerful wizards quietly backing our cause. Men of influence who have the gold to back it up. We’re at the forefront of a revolution.”

 
It was all Draco could do to contain the bitter laughter that he felt. The men at the “forefront” were the ones who caught the most curses. And on the slim chance that they did succeed in toppling the Ministry, the powerful wizards with the gold would use their influence to fill the vacuum left behind. No matter what, Blaise Zabini and his friends were cannon fodder. It was a position Draco had been quite familiar with, and he silently promised himself that he would never be there again.






Hello! This chapter took ages to finish, so I apologize for the long delay. I knew what I wanted to happen, but getting that to manifest itself in words seemed more difficult than normal. At any rate, I hope you like it. Please leave a review and let me know if you do!


Chapter 8: Reconnecting
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As always, that which you recognize belongs to JK Rowling.





 
Draco suppressed a shiver as he swallowed a harsh sip of firewhiskey. Kallerman’s. With all of the gold that Zabini’s mother had accumulated over the years, they bought Kallerman’s. It was barely better than the wretched, watered-down shots of McCormack’s that the barkeep at the Ragged Fang used to serve once he thought that the customers were too drunk to tell the difference. Why not Lantrop’s or Saint Æthelwold’s? They were both reasonably priced, at least by the standards of most pure blood families. Draco forced the stray thoughts from his mind and tried to focus on the matter at hand. He wasn’t sitting in a room with Zabini, Jeremy Gamp and Marcus Flint for the hospitality.

 
“So you’re telling me that you’ve found somebody to underwrite this little endeavor of yours?”

 
Flint bristled at Draco’s question, and leaned farther forward in his high-backed, leather chair. The dark-haired wizard had added a few pounds since his Hogwarts days but time had not softened the nasty sneer that often adorned his angular face. Flint’s deep, beady eyes flashed with annoyance as he spoke.

 
“Is that all this is about to you, Malfoy? Where the gold is coming from? Well your family’s vault can rest easy. What’s left of it, at any rate.”

 
Draco stiffened at the thinly veiled insult to his family’s finances and bit back several choice insults. True, his parents had spent a great deal on barristers, fines, charitable contributions and outright bribes in order to be sure that none of the various investigations aimed at them would snowball into something that landed them in Azkaban. They were far from destitute, however. Gold from the family’s business interests continued to flow into their vault, albeit at a slower pace than before the war. The Malfoys were hardly unique in that regard; the economy of wizarding Britain was still in shambles. The annoyance gnawed at Draco’s gut, adding to the frustration he was already feeling as he watched his old friends liberally partake of the bottles of firewhiskey Zabini’s elf had brought in. With effort, he managed to bite his tongue. Trading barbs with Flint would only prolong the conversation, and it had already gone on too long for Draco’s tastes.

 
Zabini poured himself another drink and settled back into his own chair. He seemed to sense Draco’s irritation and stepped in to try to smooth things over.

 
“Gold was never the problem, Malfoy. What we were lacking was influence. Connections with the heads of the old families, so that they’ll rally around us once we show how flawed and weak this new Minister of the Mudbloods really is. Gold isn’t the key to restoring the old ways; we needed credibility. And with the alliance that Gamp here has been able to build, that final piece is falling into place.”

 
Draco swirled the contents of his glass, pretending to consider Zabini’s words. In truth, he wanted nothing more than to stand up and leave. When he agreed to Zabini’s request to have “a drink” with Gamp and Flint, Draco had a very different evening in mind. He assumed that they would spend a bit of time railing about the terrible injustices being perpetrated by the new leadership at the Ministry and how somebody should overthrow Shacklebolt and the rest of the muggle lovers. Then the conversation would gradually fade into reminiscing about the old times. At some point Draco could make his excuses and by then Zabini would be too drunk to remember why he’d invited Draco in the first place.

 
While ample time had been devoted to decrying the current state of affairs in Britain’s magical community, the conversation had quickly become more personal and a lot less pleasant. Gamp and Zabini kept alluding to some plan that they were involved with. They were playing things close to the vest with the details, but Zabini was adamant that Draco’s past experience would be invaluable to their success. The longer the conversation dragged on, the more uncomfortable it became for Draco. He felt suffocated, trapped, and more than anything he wanted to leave. The only question was how to extricate himself without promising them anything or offending Zabini. Gamp’s wedding was coming up and he still needed Zabini’s help to persuade Emery Montague that he should attend in Montague’s place.

 
“So who are these credible wizards that you’ve allied yourselves with?”

 
Draco noticed the nervous look that passed between Flint and Zabini. They obviously didn’t trust him enough to reveal many details of their plan. Gamp merely chuckled. The heavyset wizard had a knack for putting people on edge. Setting aside the Dark Lord’s blazing crimson orbs, Draco could only recall one pair of eyes more unnerving than Gamp’s, and they belonged to his Aunt Bellatrix. Gamp had the laugh of a loner, the sort of dry, introverted laugh that gave the impression that he didn’t expect anyone else to understand what was funny. It always left Draco wondering just how deranged their former housemate really was.

 
“What’s the problem, Malfoy? Worried they’re not gonna be pretty enough for you?”

 
Gamp slapped his knee and laughed out loud to himself before downing the rest of his drink. Draco allowed his eyes to wander across the elegantly appointed room to Zabini and Flint’s faces. It was clear that he wasn’t the only one who felt nervous when Gamp started to act like this. Gamp coughed loudly without covering his mouth and continued.

 
“This isn’t a game anymore, Malfoy. We didn’t just meet some bloke in a bar, get three sheets to the wind and decide to overthrow the Ministry. Our new partner was in the Dark Lord’s inner circle. Marked and all that. He managed to avoid Azkaban and he’s been laying low since the end of the war. But he’s seen enough of this progress at the Ministry. Says that it’s time that we turn back the clock and stamp out all the blood traitors and their mudblood friends.”

 
Draco tried as hard as he could to suppress the sick feeling in his stomach. ...part of the Dark Lord’s inner circle. Marked and all that. He managed to avoid Azkaban... Taking a deep breath, Draco reminded himself that several high-ranking Death Eaters remained unaccounted for. The Prophet published a list of names every time one of them was captured or killed. But those men were fugitives. Scattered around Britain and abroad, constantly on the move as they tried to remain one step ahead of the Aurors and Hit Wizards. If the Ministry couldn’t find them, how likely was it that a miscreant like Gamp had managed to track one down? No matter the odds, Draco’s thoughts dwelled on the one Death Eater who evaded Azkaban and didn’t make himself especially hard to find.

 
“So you’re saying that you’ve met this man face to face?”

 
Gamp’s expression darkened. He seemed to perceive Draco’s question as a challenge and he plainly didn’t like it. The tips of Gamp’s thick fingers paled as they dug into the soft leather arm of his chair. His head and shoulders twitched as though he was fighting off a chill before he answered.

 
“The man who’s been carrying messages between us goes back many years with my father. I don’t question that he’s trustworthy.”

 
And you won’t, either, if you know what’s good for you. The veiled threat embedded in Gamp’s response wasn’t difficult to understand and Draco knew that there was nothing to be gained by pressing the point. Once Gamp had settled into his alpha male mentality, no good could come from arguing with him. Gamp seemed to sense Draco’s capitulation and settled into a more relaxed posture.

 
“Our new partner believes that we have to strike soon, while the Ministry is still weak and disorganized. He has a plan for gathering the wands we’ll need to topple Shacklebolt and doing it before he can weed out the rest of the Dark Lord’s sympathizers inside the Ministry bureaucracy. Having people inside the Ministry that we can count on will be key to getting our arms around things once the blood traitors and muggle lovers have been eliminated.”

 
Draco was barely listening. He took another sip of his drink and stared at the flame that danced inside one of the room’s silver lamps. Gamp’s words played over and over in his mind. Part of the Dark Lord’s inner circle. Marked. Avoided Azkaban. The sick feeling in his stomach was getting worse and worse. He couldn’t believe that his father would dabble with this lot. Even in his diminished mental state, old Lucius should have had enough sense to realize that Gamp and the others were nothing but trouble. A group of cocky, drunken fools who had no idea what they were playing at and a vanishingly tiny chance of accomplishing anything aside from getting themselves thrown into Azkaban. Draco’s first thought was to go to his mother, but he didn’t want to upset her without concrete evidence that tied his father to Gamp’s plans. If he could keep them drinking and talking, sooner or later one of his old friends would let something slip. Draco did his best to temper the smoldering anger rising in his chest and keep the contempt out of his voice.

 
“No offense, lads, but you’re not really the type to strike fear into the hearts of Shacklebolt and his lackeys. None of you fought in the war. Out of all the wizards in Britain who are fed up with the Ministry’s so-called reforms, why would a former Death Eater decide to recruit you?”

 
Flint took the bait rather easily, exploding out of his chair.

 
“Of all the nerve! First of all, we’re not being recruited by anyone, Malfoy. We’re in charge here. This is our revolution, understand? We’ll choose the allies that give us the best chance of winning, but make no mistake: when the dust settles, we’ll be the ones in control. What does it matter what we did during the war? We still believe in the old ways and we’re willing to take up arms to put things right, unlike the cowards and blood traitors who chose to become lap dogs for the Ministry!”

 
Draco’s glass had barely settled into the thick carpet covering the floor before the tip of his wand was pressed against Flint’s throat. All of the anger and frustration that had been building for the past hour felt like a fire consuming him from the inside. It was all he could do to hold back the curse that rested on the tip of his tongue. The startled look in the dark-haired wizard’s beady eyes turned to fear as Draco’s voice fell to a strangled hiss.

 
How dare you? Who are you to question my family’s belief in the old ways? Did the Dark Lord summon you on the night he regained his powers? Did your father go to prison after carrying out his orders in the Department of Mysteries? I nearly died during the final battle at Hogwarts, trying to capture Potter and bring him before the Dark Lord. Where were you?”

 
Flint shook his head slowly in response. Draco could feel his heart pounding in his ears as the rage burned inside his chest. He forced himself to take slow, deep breaths, never breaking eye contact with Flint. If he couldn’t calm down, the situation was going to spiral out of control. Just as it seemed that Flint might say something, Gamp’s cold, maniacal laughter rang out from behind Draco, sending a shiver down his spine.

 
“Looks like you were right, Zabini. He hasn’t gone completely soft.”

 
Draco felt the all-consuming fury slowly give way to the bitter ache of disappointment. He had turned his back on Gamp, a stupid and very dangerous mistake. He slowly pulled his wand away from Flint’s neck and turned to face his former housemate. Gamp’s wand was in his hand, pointed just close enough to Draco’s general vicinity to make it clear that he meant business. He gestured downward with the first two fingers of his free hand, and Draco eased back into his chair. Once Flint had done the same, Gamp turned his attention back to Draco.

 
“To be honest, Malfoy, your question is bollocks and I’ve got a good mind to curse you for it. But the truth is, we could still use you. You’ve got guts. You made it out of the war in one piece. So here’s your answer. Our new friend wants to work with us because he knows our families. Goyle. Nott. Flint. Those names go a long way with him. He knows that he doesn’t have to sell us on how important this is. If we don’t put a stop to what’s happening inside the Ministry, life as we know it is over. That’s all I’m gonna tell you.”

 
In an instant, Draco’s thoughts snapped back to the angry confrontation with his father. Surely you remember my old friends Goyle and Nott? The Gamps! Yes, the Gamp family is involved as well. Suddenly, Draco found himself wishing that he hadn’t been so hasty in discarding his glass before he nearly cursed Flint. There was the evidence. Perhaps his father was so confused that he really did think that he was dealing with the elder Goyle and Nott. Perhaps he realized that he was dealing with Draco’s contemporaries. Either way, the old man was clearly losing it. If Draco couldn’t stop him from getting involved with people like Gamp and Flint, it was only a matter of time until they all wound up in prison.

 
Draco turned his gaze back to Gamp and gestured with his eyes and a slight tilt of his head. Gamp followed Draco’s line of sight to the discarded glass and summoned it with his wand, sending it back into Draco’s hand. After refilling it and taking a fortifying sip, Draco spoke.

 
“You’ve given me a lot to consider, Gamp. You’ve made far more progress than I expected. Obviously I’ll need to discuss this with my father before I can commit our family to anything.”

 
All three wizards seemed to consider his response. Draco was pretty sure that Flint didn’t want him involved anyway, so the beady-eyed wizard didn’t seem overly put out by his casual deflection. Gamp looked like he was taking a while to process what Draco had said, possibly due to the sizeable amount of firewhiskey that he’d consumed. But Zabini fixed him with a knowing stare and shook his head subtly before speaking.

 
“Sorry, Malfoy, but we need something better than that. We've shared a lot with you tonight. Too much, if you ask me. We can’t just let you walk out of here without some sort of commitment. When you speak with your father, what are you going to recommend?”

 
Inwardly, Draco sighed. Zabini wasn’t going to let him off of the hook easily.

 
It made sense, Draco supposed. Zabini wasn’t cut from the same cloth as Gamp and Flint. The two older Slytherins had a harder edge to them, quick to anger and more brutish in their approach. Zabini wouldn’t fare well in their company without allies. The dark-skinned boy was too well-bred and refined to lower himself to the sort of tactics that Gamp and Flint would engage in without a second thought. Zabini was a lover, not a fighter. He needed Draco to help him deal with the challenging times that were sure to come when the friction between the various members of the group started to tear it apart. They were Slytherins, after all. With the exception of Goyle, Draco was certain that each of them believed in his heart that he was the one destined to rule the wizarding world.

 
Steeling himself for what he knew was coming, Draco met Zabini’s stare and replied.

 
“I can’t give you what you want, Zabini. Not right now. You lot aren’t the only ones with plans for the future. This image I’ve been cultivating by returning to Hogwarts must continue for the time being. If word of this meeting reaches the wrong ears, everything will be for naught and I’ll be of no use to anyone, not even you.”

 
Zabini opened his mouth to speak, but Flint cut him off.

 
“Bloody convenient for you, wouldn’t you say, Malfoy? If something goes wrong with our plans, you deny all knowledge and continue to be everybody’s favorite reformed Death Eater. If we succeed in overthrowing the Ministry, you’ll claim you were with us all along. Heads you win, tails we lose.”

 
Nothing is going to go wrong with our plans.”

 
Gamp’s voice sounded more like a snarl. Flint tried to match the simmering glare of his former schoolmate, but his eyes betrayed him and he fell silent in his seat. Zabini watched the two older Slytherins for a moment before pressing Draco again.

 
“Why don’t you just tell us what you’re playing at, Malfoy? Like I said, we’ve shared a lot of information with you. A show of good faith might help to put our minds at ease. Consider it a personal favor.”

 
Zabini emphasized the last word just enough to make it plain to Draco what he was referring to. This would be Zabini’s price for helping Draco convince Emery Montague. Draco had already spun so many lies since sitting down with his former schoolmates that the next one fell effortlessly from his tongue.

 
“Very well. There is a wizard who has stolen something of mine. An ancient and irreplaceable artifact placed in my care by the Dark Lord, himself. Don’t ask what it is, because I’m not going to tell you. I have it on good information that the artifact has been hidden in the bowels of the Ministry, but I don’t know precisely where. Once I’ve sat my N.E.W.T.s, I intend to take a job at the Ministry and retrieve what is rightfully mine.”

 
Draco met the eyes of his former friends with a steely, defiant glare. At the moment, he was feeling quite proud of himself. The story was plausible, completely unverifiable and Flint quickly made it apparent that he had piqued their interest.

 
“Is this artifact some sort of weapon?”

 
Draco decided to answer the question with one of his own.

 
“Put yourself in my shoes, Flint. Every day, I subject myself to the petty torments of the mudbloods and blood traitors who rule Hogwarts Castle. Every evening, I return home contaminated by their filth and I feel like scrubbing my skin until it’s raw. Would I do these things if the artifact wasn’t powerful?”

 
Flint eased back into his chair, looking more thoughtful than Draco could ever remember seeing him. Zabini nodded appreciatively before finishing his drink. Gamp was scratching his chin stubble, staring at Draco in a way that made him feel very uneasy. After a long moment, Gamp narrowed his eyes and spoke.

 
“How fucking dumb do you think we are, Malfoy? If the Dark Lord had some sort of magic weapon, why didn’t he use it on Potter? Why not flatten Hogwarts Castle and be done with it? You’re telling me that he just gave it to some seventeen-year-old ponce to look after and then went off to fight the biggest battle of his life? Bollocks.”

 
Draco swallowed hard and tried to maintain a neutral expression. He hadn’t quite worked out what he was going to say when he opened his mouth, but staying silent wasn’t an option.

 
“He gave it to me to safeguard months before the final battle. He never told me why he chose me, only that I would suffer a fate worse than death if anything happened to it. As far as the battle, let’s be honest, that wasn’t the first time that the Dark Lord underestimated Potter and his little band of blood traitors and mudbloods. Potter survived some sort of brush with the Dark Lord every bloody year we were at Hogwarts. It was as much a sign of spring as the bloody robins and crocuses.”

 
Gamp’s unnerving stare continued to bore into Draco. It was one of those rare occasions when Draco was glad to have survived so many audiences with the Dark Lord. Gamp was terrifying to most people: ill-tempered, violent and not all there mentally. Compared to Voldemort, however, he was nothing.

 
A snort escaped from Gamp’s lips, followed by a dry chuckle and finally deep, reverberating laughter. He threw his head back and slapped his knee, and the sound of the impact made Flint and Zabini both jump. When the chuckles finally subsided, Gamp wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve and struggled to catch his breath as he spoke.

 
“Do you know how long I’ve waited to hear one of you Death Eater types admit that, Malfoy? Honestly, what sort of all-powerful dark wizard loses a duel with a mudblood housewife and a baby? Then when he finally does get Potter one-on-one at Hogwarts with Dumbledore cold in his grave, he winds up dead because of some bollocks with his wand. Doesn’t seem like much of a dark lord to me. Can you believe that some people are still afraid to say his name, like he’s gonna jump out of the shadows and curse them just for saying it? Bunch of wankers, all of them. Alright, Malfoy, let’s say for a moment I believe you. How much time do you need?”

 
Draco’s brain kicked into overdrive, trying to fill in the remaining details of his lie in a way that fit with the timeline for his true plans. Once the wedding was over, he honestly didn’t give a damn what happened to this sorry lot. That also left him ample time to talk to his mother and try to sort out his father. Reasoning that Gamp would cut into whatever he offered, Draco settled on a date.

 
“Assuming that my N.E.W.T.s go well, I should be able to retrieve the artifact by the middle of July.”

 
Gamp stared at the ceiling for a moment, as though he was working out the dates. Then he nodded to himself and his eyes settled back on Draco.

 
“You’re in luck, Malfoy. We won’t be needing any extra wands before the middle of June anyway. I’ll be in Switzerland, enjoying my new wife until the fourteenth. Once we get back and I’ve got her properly settled, things are gonna start to happen quickly. I want your answer as soon as I’m back, Malfoy, whether you’ve found this artifact or not. You’ll have your little Ministry job lined up by then.”

 
The timing was actually better than Draco was hoping for. Still, he feigned irritation. No reason to let them believe that he was happy with the arrangement.

 
“Once I have a good idea where the artifact is hidden, I’ll be in touch. Understand, however, that I will not jeopardize what I’m doing for your convenience. The artifact is too important to allow it to fall into the wrong hands.”

 
Draco found Gamp difficult to read, but the subtle nod of his head indicated that at least he was no longer inclined to argue the point. Gamp leaned forward in his chair and gestured with his wand as he spoke, making the hair on the back of Draco’s neck stand on end.

 
“Just make sure you don’t forget where your loyalties lie this time, Malfoy. If I see you trying to play both sides, I’ll count your family among the blood traitors and let the sickles fall where they will. Understand?”

 
Draco regarded Gamp somberly and nodded his head. He suddenly felt completely drained. Tipping the rest of his drink into his mouth, he silently wondered when he would be able to make his excuses and go home.






Astoria sighed as she watched her mother and sister follow one of the goblins into the depths of Gringotts. She wished that she’d been more careful about concealing her Transfiguration text before meeting them at the gates of Hogwarts. Daphne nearly had a fit when she saw it. Astoria, what are you doing with THAT? This is a very important day and I would appreciate it very much if you didn’t spend the entire time with your nose buried in some old book! Apparently every day was very important now that her older sister’s wedding was only six weeks away.

 
She looked around the cavernous lobby of the wizarding bank, trying to find something that she could read or at least stare at to pass the time. Their family’s vault was located deep beneath the streets of London. The trip took several minutes, even with the goblins piloting their little carts at suicidal speeds. Astoria’s stomach clenched involuntarily at the thought. Goblins were nothing but a bunch of pointy-toothed little maniacs. She would never forget the horrified look on her mother’s face as they watched a very irate goblin clean the sick from the inside of the cart after Astoria’s first and only ill-fated trip to visit the family vault. Never again!

 
Astoria settled down onto a hard marble bench to stew. Not a scrap of parchment could be found sullying the lobby’s shining gold and marble surfaces. It was rather like a museum, only without the little placards containing interesting facts about the various objets d'art adorning the walls. Somewhere in the caverns below, her mother and sister were on their way to retrieve an object that easily outshone them all.

 
Daphne had been engaged for around half an hour when she started begging to wear their mother’s tiara at her wedding. It was a priceless heirloom, passed down through countless generations. According to family legend, the famous goblin silversmith Tornack crafted it in the fiery caverns beneath Laacher See. The tiara made its way to the British Isles, where it was plundered during a goblin rebellion by the great Celtic wizarding warlord Cadeyrn. He wanted to present his wife with an incomparable gift, so he journeyed to the far reaches of Scandinavia and enchanted the tiara beneath the Northern Lights, imbuing it with their ethereal glow.

 
That’s what the legend said, anyway. Astoria was fairly certain that Daphne didn’t care. Her older sister was probably just trying to establish a sentimental connection to the tiara by wearing it at her wedding, hoping that their mother would remember when she decided who to pass it down to. Astoria grinned wickedly to herself. The tiara wasn’t really that important to her, but she didn’t plan on letting her sister win the battle easily. Social maneuvering was a skill like any other. If you wanted to maintain a level of excellence, you needed to practice constantly. A little sibling rivalry was healthy in that regard.

 
Astoria shifted uncomfortably, feeling the boredom slowly drain her energy. At least her day could only get more interesting. The tiara would serve as something old, but they still needed to obtain items that were new, borrowed and blue, along with many other things. Their mother had made arrangements for private showings at several of the most expensive clothing and jewelry stores in Diagon Alley. They would all need an array of new outfits for the events Daphne had planned in the days leading up to her wedding, and Astoria was looking forward to shopping with her sister. Bridesmaid’s dresses notwithstanding, Daphne really did have excellent taste in clothes. With her sister’s help, Astoria would also be able to choose outfits that were more... daring than her mother would ordinarily allow. She blushed slightly at the thought of letting Draco have a small glimpse of the type of flimsy underthings that her sister favored. Her mind seemed to wander to the oddest places when he snuck into her thoughts.

 
A hooded figure entered the bank, interrupting Astoria’s wandering thoughts. Even beneath a traveling cloak, it was obvious that the new arrival was a woman, and Astoria caught a glimpse of long, blonde hair feathering around the hem of her hood. The woman turned her back to Astoria and joined a queue of customers waiting for a teller’s attention. Having nothing better to do, Astoria stood up and slowly moved toward the bank entrance, where she might be able to steal a glance at the woman’s face.

 
Just as Astoria was waving off the goblin who offered to open the door, the woman turned toward her for a moment. With her pale skin, high cheekbones and platinum blonde hair, it wasn’t difficult to recognize Narcissa Malfoy. But there was something odd about the way that the older witch carried herself. She had a decidedly strong presence, starting with her striking blue eyes and reinforced by the aristocratic air she projected with her perfect posture and graceful movements. In spite of her beauty, she seemed to be doing her best to avoid the attention that was invariably drawn to her. She was not the same woman that Astoria remembered seeing at social functions in years past. The old Narcissa Malfoy was cold, haughty, even arrogant. All that remained of that proud woman was a quiet sort of dignity that managed to sustain her, even though it was apparent that she had no desire to be recognized by anyone.

 
Astoria made her way back to the marble bench and sat down, once again lost in thought. She had spent a lot of time pondering the emotional scars that the war had inflicted on Draco. He shared some of his worst memories and deepest regrets in his letters, so she felt like she had an understanding of the horrors that people had suffered. During the months that she and Draco had been exchanging owls, she never once thought about how the war might have affected his mother. Now that the woman was standing in the same room with her, it seemed like a glaring oversight.

 
Draco mentioned his mother fairly often in his letters. It seemed pretty obvious to Astoria that he was very close to her, and based on the stories he told it seemed that she cared for him deeply. Draco’s mother had lied to the Dark Lord’s face to try to ensure his safety. Astoria still wasn’t quite sure that she fully understood what that meant, but if the Dark Lord was as vengeful as Draco made him out to be then his mother had taken an enormous risk. Astoria couldn’t help feeling slightly indebted to Mrs. Malfoy.

 
“Hello, Astoria.”

 
The voice was quiet but clear and it surprised Astoria enough that she gasped out loud. Her head snapped to the side and she found Narcissa Malfoy standing next to her bench. The older woman wasn’t looking at her, however. She stared straight ahead, across the bank lobby toward the counter where the tellers greeted customers. After a moment, she continued.

 
“I’m sorry if I startled you. You seemed to be lost in thought. I hope it doesn’t seem rude for me to address you like this, but I assume that your mother wouldn’t be pleased to find the two of us talking. If she happens to return from the vaults, feel free to tell her that you didn’t even realize I was standing here.”

 
Astoria was shocked by the effortless way the older witch seemed to grasp the particulars of her situation. It made her plans for the struggle over her mother’s tiara seem childish by comparison. With a newfound sense of admiration, she fixed her eyes on the far side of the room and responded quietly.

 
“I really appreciate the consideration. And I’m sorry that my parents have been so judgmental toward you and Draco.”

 
“That’s kind of you to say. My son has always spoken very highly of your kindness.”

 
Astoria felt a warm smile spread across her face. Even though their relationship was meant to be a secret, the fact that Draco had told his mother about her made Astoria irrationally happy. Forcing back the urge to turn and smile at Mrs. Malfoy, she tried to keep her voice low.

 
“He speaks very fondly of you, as well. Draco told me about how you lied to You Know Who during the battle. He says that he owes you his life. That we all do.”

 
For a moment, Astoria swore that she could feel strong emotions radiating off of the older woman standing next to her. Whether it was real or imagined, she was never sure, but when Mrs. Malfoy spoke again, Astoria could hear her struggling to keep her voice even.

 
“I’m his mother, Astoria. I would have done anything to keep him safe. And Draco was a great deal braver than he realizes. Has he told you about his Aunt Bellatrix?”

 
Astoria felt a slight shiver as she recalled the awful things Draco had told her about his aunt. She nodded slightly. She wasn’t sure whether Mrs. Malfoy could see her, but the older woman seemed to sense her affirmation.

 
“When snatchers brought Harry Potter and his friends to Malfoy Manor, my sister demanded that Draco identify them before she summoned the Dark Lord. She was desperate to regain his favor after what happened in the Department of Mysteries. If she had summoned him in that moment, the war would have been over. The Dark Lord would have won.”

 
Mrs. Malfoy paused for a moment. When she continued, there was a fierce pride in her soft words.

 
“Draco lied to her. And because he did, because of that moment of doubt that he created, we’re all still alive.”

 
The silence between the two witches lasted for several long moments while Astoria struggled to understand what she’d heard. He tried to put a brave face on, but Astoria knew that Draco had been terrified of his aunt. Any sane person would have been. To know that he had looked into her eyes and lied to her about something so important... it gave Astoria a new appreciation for his courage.

 
“I should be going. Your mother will return soon.”

 
The soft swish of Mrs. Malfoy’s robes suggested that she was starting to walk away and Astoria quickly blurted out a response. She didn’t really want the conversation to end.

 
“We should have a while longer. She might have to stun my sister to get her out of our vault, with all the shiny things we keep in there.”

 
Astoria heard a soft chuckle emanate from Mrs. Malfoy’s throat, but it died away quickly. When she replied, there wasn’t a trace of humor in her voice.

 
“I had two sisters once. Cherish your relationship with your sister, Astoria. It’s a priceless gift and you can never replace it.”

 
Again, Mrs. Malfoy made to depart, but Astoria called after her.

 
“I had heard that one of your sisters survived the war. If I heard wrong, I’m so sorry.”


The older woman froze where she was standing. Astoria thought that she could see Mrs. Malfoy’s shoulders tremble slightly through her cloak. She turned her head, and her eyes glistened as she spoke.

 
“My sister made choices that I disagreed with very strongly at the time. I still don’t agree with them, but after everything we’ve both lost, they really don’t seem so important. I miss her, and I would love to be able to speak to her again. That isn’t going to happen, though. She’ll never forgive me for the things that I’ve done. In all honestly, I can’t say that I blame her.”

 
Mrs. Malfoy paused for a moment, then she turned and faced Astoria directly.

 
“Don’t think too badly about your parents for judging my husband and me, Astoria. I’m sure that there’s a lot of truth to what they believe about us. You are right about Draco, however, and nothing would please me more than for the two of you to be happy together.”

 
Before Astoria could respond, there was a commotion from the direction of the vaults. Astoria turned to see her mother and Daphne emerge, followed by a pair of white-gloved goblins carrying several ornate wooden boxes. Daphne was going on about how unimaginably fabulous something was and her mother looked weary. Astoria turned to at least nod her goodbye to Mrs. Malfoy, but all she saw was the back of the older woman’s cloak as the goblin at the entrance showed her out.
 




 
For everyone who read Conspiracy of Blood, I apologize but the site doesn't have a "Jeremy Gamp" warning to add to this story. He's back, though, along with Flint. And you'll soon discover some of the reasons why Draco wanted nothing to do with them.

Thanks as always to my beta reader, sophie_hatter! Check out her story Evolution if you want a great Harry/Ginny novel!



Chapter 9: Turning the Corner
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As always, the characters, places and events that you recognize belong to JK Rowling.






Draco set down his quill on the table in front of him and flexed the stiff fingers of his right hand. He noticed that the bright sun pouring through the high windows of the Hogwarts Library hadn’t quite reached the spot where the back of his chair rested against the polished wooden floor. The days were growing longer as the end of the term rapidly approached, but it made little difference to Draco. N.E.W.T.s. were a scant three weeks away and not even the majestic beauty of a spring day in the Scottish highlands could lure him away from his revision.

 
As he stretched his wrists, it dawned on Draco that he’d become very single-minded about his studies. Thinking about it for a moment, he couldn’t pinpoint any single moment that sparked the change in his approach. It was the end product of a series of events, each of which had played a role. He thought back to the day it all started, his drunken encounter with Astoria in Diagon Alley, and a smile crept across his thin lips. She had given him something to hope for, a reason to push himself once again.

 
Truthfully, Mr. Greengrass’s hostile reaction had also been an important factor in Draco’s transformation. The simmering resentment in the man’s dark eyes had driven home the truth in a way that no lecture from his parents ever could. Nobody who mattered cared about Draco’s money or the Malfoy name any longer. He had no choice but to build a new family legacy out of the ashes of the Second Wizarding War. And apart from whatever help his mother could offer, he was going to have to do it on his own. The days of relying on his father’s influence were a distant memory.

 
His father. There was the final piece of the puzzle. A major factor contributing to Draco’s relentless hours of revision was the fact that he could no longer stand the sight of the old man. After his deeply unsettling conversation with Zabini, Gamp and Flint, Draco had tried to speak with his father. He had really and truly tried to keep calm and explain the danger to old Lucius without raising his voice or unleashing the venomous barbs that always seemed to be on the tip of his tongue whenever they found themselves in the same room. For a few minutes, it felt as though he might even succeed.

 
Then the old man became angry. He accused Draco of patronizing him, insulting his intelligence and trying to undermine his authority over the family. It didn’t take very much of his father’s abuse before Draco snapped back at Lucius, hard. He made it clear exactly what he thought of his father’s intelligence and authority, as well as his decision-making abilities, his mental health and the poorly-cast charm that the old man tried to use to conceal his receding hairline. By the end of the night, Lucius was storming around the manor, terrorizing the elves and having shouting matches with the portraits on the walls while Draco warded his private chambers and drank himself into a stupor.

 
Since that day, Draco had made a point of avoiding his father entirely. He rose with the sun each morning and had the elves bring his breakfast to his chambers. Once he was dressed, he used the servant’s staircase to exit the manor and apparated directly to Hogsmeade. On days when his lessons ended early, he would sit in the Library and quietly revise until the bell rang ending the final class period. He had become a suppertime regular at the little cafe in Derbyshire, to the point where his sense of honor had compelled him to finally send an elf to Gringotts and acquire actual muggle currency. As it turned out, the chatty waitress with the piercings and alarming hair was named Adeline -- Ada for short. She eventually asked his name, and though he was initially reluctant to tell her, he was surprised to find that he enjoyed hearing somebody say it without any trace of malice or disgust in their voice.

 
Draco shook off his moment of contemplation and turned his attention back to the Charms text lying in front of him. Even with his tireless revision schedule, it had become apparent that a certain amount of academic triage was in order. Half a school year simply wasn’t enough time to adequately prepare for all of the N.E.W.T.s he’d be sitting. Instead of earning mediocre marks across the board, he focused his revision intensely on Potions, Charms and Transfiguration. Draco had an actual talent for Potions, and with a bit of extra help from old Flitwick, he had managed to pull his Charms work back up to the standards of a normal Seventh Year student. His mother had been able to help him somewhat with the practical aspects of Transfiguration, although he didn’t expect to do well on the written exam. He’d given up on Herbology weeks ago and he planned fail the Muggle Studies exam spectacularly as a matter of general principle.

 
Just as he was completing a page of notes on charming furniture to rearrange itself, the final bell rang. Reluctantly, he began to gather up his things and stuff them into his bag. Draco recalled Ada telling him that the cafe would be serving elderberry pie on this particular day, and he allowed himself a small smile. There were one or two things in the muggle world that weren’t filthy or inferior, although Draco planned to keep that knowledge to himself.

 
Madam Pince was waiting for him by the double doors leading to the corridor, looking as though she’d swallowed something unpleasant. It was the same look she always wore when it fell to her to escort him out of the castle. Any number of insults popped into Draco’s mind, but he squelched them all. There was no point risking an incident, not when he was so close to saying farewell to this godforsaken place forever. She nodded stiffly in his direction without making eye contact and pushed one of the doors open. Draco returned the frosty gesture of acknowledgment as he slung his bag over his shoulder and stepped out of the library.

 
Just as he was starting to make his way down the fourth floor corridor, the sound of his name brought him to a halt.

 
“Mr. Malfoy, a word with you if I may.”

 
The Headmistress’s clear voice rang out from behind him, and he heard the echo of footsteps against the polished stone floor. Draco sighed and turned to face her, reminding himself that he hadn’t done anything wrong. If word of his meeting with Gamp and the others had somehow gotten back to her, he’d deny that it was anything more than a social call. Gamp was about to be married, after all. There was nothing unusual about Draco wishing an old schoolmate well, even if he wasn’t invited to the bloody wedding.

 
Madam Pince shifted uncomfortably, her eyes flitting back and forth between Draco and Professor McGonagall. The elderly Scot quickly released her from her predicament.

 
“Please feel free to return to whatever you were doing, Irma. I’ll take responsibility for Mr. Malfoy.”

 
She didn’t need to tell the Librarian twice. After one last sour look in Draco’s direction, Madam Pince hastily retreated to her books.

 
Draco waited for the Headmistress to speak, resisting the urge to break the uncomfortable silence that fell over them once the echoes from the library door closing died away. After all of the hostility and mistrust she’d shown him, he was not going to give her the satisfaction of asking what she wanted with him. For her part, McGonagall seemed to be searching for the correct words to begin their conversation. After a moment’s hesitation, she offered him a tense smile and started with what must have seemed like a safe question.

 
“Are the preparations for your exams coming along well?”

 
“As well as can be expected, given the limited time and resources I’ve had to prepare.”

 
Draco was able to keep the irritation out of his voice, but only just. It wasn’t the most polite answer he he could have given her, but it was better than a number of things that crossed his mind. In any case, he wasn’t eager to prolong the conversation, so being a bit terse wasn’t likely to cost him anything.

 
McGonagall fixed him with one of her probing stares. Her eyes were sharply focused, but not unkind. Finally she responded, not quite looking into his eyes.

 
“As it happens, your time and resources are precisely what I wished to discuss. I will be frank with you, Mr. Malfoy. When you returned to Hogwarts, my expectations for you were minimal. I doubted that you were serious about completing your studies and I fully expected that you would give up and withdraw once you discovered that I was serious about the limitations I was imposing on you.”

 
She waited a moment for her words to sink in. Even though it wasn’t anything that Draco hadn’t already guessed, it was still jarring to hear her say it out loud. She didn’t think that he was strong enough to face the hardships life had imposed on him after the war. She had expected him to fail. The irritation he was feeling started to twist into anger. What did she know about hardship? Had she ever stared into the Dark Lord’s eyes, knowing that he would kill everyone she cared about if she failed to please him? Just as Draco’s anger neared the boiling point, McGonagall continued.

 
“My assumptions proved to be incorrect, however. I may never agree with your actions before and during the war, but your behavior since you returned to Hogwarts has been exemplary. I know from my own class that you have been extremely diligent with your studies and I hear the same from Professor Flitwick. Professor Slughorn often struggles to find enough superlatives to describe your Potions work. It appears that I owe you at least a partial apology.”

 
Draco was dumbstruck. His anger drained away along with seemingly every other thought in his head. He was vaguely aware that his mouth was hanging open, but his brain seemed unable to initiate the proper corrective action. In spite of every lesson in decorum his parents had drilled into him, a smile tugged at the edges of his lips. It wasn’t lost on McGonagall, who quickly stiffened in response.

 
“That does not mean that we’re completely finished here, Mr. Malfoy. Professor Sprout tells me that your efforts in Herbology have dwindled sharply since the Easter break and according to Professor Bainbridge you have accepted a zero on, if memory serves me correctly, nineteen consecutive homework assignments in Muggle Studies. Do either of those revelations come as a surprise to you?”

 
Draco caught himself looking away and stubbing the toe of his boot against the floor. It was humiliating, how a tiny bit of praise from the elderly Headmistress could reduce him to behaving like a wide-eyed First Year. He looked her directly in the eye and answered as honestly as he could.

 
“I’ve been trying to make the best use of the limited time I have to revise for my N.E.W.T.s, Professor. At this point, I’m focusing all of my efforts on Potions, Charms and Transfiguration because those are the subjects I believe I can excel in. No disrespect to Professor Sprout, but Herbology isn’t as important to me. As far as Muggle Studies, I’m afraid I just don’t have a knack for the subject.”

 
McGonagall seemed to consider his answer, fixing him with a pensive stare. Then she sighed and responded.

 
“I suppose it was asking for a great deal to hope that you would open your mind on the subject of muggle culture. I’ll offer you the following bargain. I will release you from your obligation to attend Muggle Studies and inform the Ministry that you won’t be sitting that particular N.E.W.T. exam, provided, however, that you agree to devote that time to your studies of Herbology.”

 
She leaned a bit closer to him and her face softened ever so slightly.

 
“Professor Sprout takes considerable pride in the fact that none of her N.E.W.T. students have ever received a T on the exam.”

 
Draco had no idea how he was going to hold up his end of McGonagall’s bargain. Three weeks to absorb seven years worth of Herbology that he’d barely looked at in the past six months while not allowing his other subjects to slip. It probably wasn’t even possible. Avoiding the misery of listening to that fool Bainbridge yammer about the filthy muggles and their nonsense for two hours each week seemed nearly worth it, however, even if he was setting himself up for certain failure. The Headmistress seemed to sense his reservations and the tone of her voice became more conversational.

 
“Mr. Malfoy, have you decided what you’re planning to do after you finish your studies?”

 
Draco started to give her a noncommittal answer, then paused. As long as he was maintaining the ruse of seeking a job inside the Ministry, McGonagall was certainly well-connected with Shacklebolt and the rest of the new leadership. Moreover, he was feeling less certain about what he actually planned to do with his life. Perhaps getting away from his father for a while and living on his own would help to relieve the anger that always seemed to be simmering inside him. Even if he continued to live at Malfoy Manor, a job would at least give him something to do besides watch the old man crumble. Draco tried to answer confidently, but his words didn’t sound quite as firm as he’d intended.

 
“I was planning on taking a job. Not because I need the gold, mind you. No problems with that. It would just be to gain experience. And to make new connections. Make some new acquaintances and allies, you know. Perhaps I’ll look for something that involves travel, or maybe something inside the Ministry, assuming they’d have me. Such as things are these days, you know.”

 
He could have sworn that he saw a hint of amusement on the Headmistress’s stern face as he finished his less than concise answer, and he could feel the tips of his ears flush with warmth as irritation crept up the back of his throat. He felt like a fool, stammering out a response to such a simple question. McGonagall quickly stepped in and relieved his embarrassment. She lowered her voice to make sure she wasn’t overheard.

 
“Just this morning I was contacted by Madam Althea Blishwick from the Ministry of Magic. She has been conducting some very innovative research into a potion to help victims of the Imperius Curse repair the damage inflicted on their memories while they were under its influence. Her work has garnered a lot of attention. Minister Shacklebolt apparently considers it so promising that he’s appointed her to head up a new office dedicated to perfecting and refining potions to help victims of unforgivable curses. She owled me in hopes of finding one or two promising Potions students who could bring fresh perspectives and enthusiasm to the team she’s assembling. When I asked Professor Slughorn, your name was among the first that came up. Do you feel this is something that might interest you?”

 
A bevy of thoughts raced through Draco’s mind. As distasteful as it might be to join the hordes of witches and wizards who trudged into the Ministry of Magic each day to earn their meager salaries, the benefits were obvious. His work would directly benefit victims of the war. Shacklebolt, himself, was apparently championing this project. He didn’t know the witch heading it up, but he recognized the name. The Blishwicks were an old, pure blood family. There might even be a chance that...

 
“She would consider hiring me in spite of my family’s involvement in the war?”

 
McGonagall maintained her soft volume.

 
“I taught Madam Blishwick when she was at Hogwarts. I don’t recall that she ever had much use for politics. Althea cares about results. That’s why her career has flourished in spite of the political instability that has plagued the Ministry over the past thirty years. When I mentioned this to Professor Slughorn, he made great fanfare of the fact that she was one of his favorite students. He claims to have arranged her first job interview at the Ministry. I believe we can assume that a good word from him will carry some weight with her. Her owl made it clear, however, that an acceptable N.E.W.T. score in Herbology was essential due to the rare and potentially dangerous ingredients required to brew this potion. With that in mind, do you accept the bargain I’m offering?”

 
Draco tried to pause for a moment before answering, even though there really was no decision. Whether he managed to get the N.E.W.T.s that he needed or not, he wasn’t going to spend another minute in Muggle Studies.

 
“It sounds like a very fair offer, Professor. I accept.”

 
McGonagall offered him a tight smile in response.

 
“Very well. I’ll inform Professor Bainbridge and make the necessary arrangements with the Ministry.”

 
Draco waited for her to say something more, but she merely stared at him. After a few seconds, he was beginning to feel uncomfortable. He shifted his weight slightly between his feet, trying to read anything from McGonagall’s expressionless face. Finally, he couldn’t bear the silence any longer.


“Were you planning to escort me out, Professor? I have all of my books and papers.”

 
The Headmistress stared at him for a moment longer before she spoke. She seemed to deflate ever so slightly, as though she’d arrived at a decision she’d been struggling to make.

 
“I’ll leave that decision up to you. In light of the respect that you’ve earned from your teachers and even a few of your fellow students, I’ve decided to allow you use of the Library starting at seven o’clock each morning until curfew. From now until the end of the term, you may find your own way into and out of the castle. I believe you’ve earned those privileges, Mr. Malfoy. Kindly refrain from making me regret the trust I’ve placed in you.”

 
For the second time in ten minutes, Draco found himself struggling for words. McGonagall seemed to sense his difficulty and offered him a small nod, encouraging him to speak.

 
“You won’t regret your decision, Professor. You have my word on that.”

 
“Very well. On with your revision, then.”

 
Draco turned and headed back toward the Library. He looked over his shoulder as he was pulling the heavy, wooden door open and realized that McGonagall was still staring at him. Was she already second-guessing her decision? He paused and looked at her earnestly.

 
“I appreciate what you’re doing for me, Professor. I realize that most people would say I don’t deserve it.”

 
The Headmistress allowed her stern expression to ease just a bit.

 
“Whether you deserved it or not, Draco, life gave you a second chance and you’ve made the most of it. Whatever else I might feel toward you, I can respect that.”

 
McGonagall walked away toward her office and Draco watched her back until she turned the corner at the end of the corridor. She didn’t treat him in a warm, friendly manner. Her words weren’t filled with admiration as they were when she spoke of Saint Potter and his friends. But she seemed to understand him enough to trust him. For now, that would do.

 
Draco hurried back to the table near the window, ignoring the shocked expression on Madam Pince’s face. He didn’t bother to tell her anything; she’d find out soon enough. Maybe there would be elderberry pie left at the cafe if he stopped for breakfast in the morning. He pulled his books and papers back out of his bag and sifted through them until he found a crumpled roll of parchment containing Professor Sprout’s N.E.W.T. revision list. Thanking his lucky stars that he hadn’t lost it or tossed it in the bin, he set it aside and took out a clean sheet of parchment and a quill. He had a lot of revising to do, but first there was a very important letter he needed to write.






Astoria walked slowly down the third floor corridor that led to the main stairs. Only half an hour remained before curfew, and the castle was quiet. Most of the students were tucked away in their common rooms, revising for their end of year exams. She felt a sense of relief at being between her O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. years. It allowed her extra time to pursue other interests.

 
She smiled to herself, feeling the tingle of anticipation spread over her skin. Astoria Greengrass was a very good, very well-behaved student. Not the type to be wandering the corridors so close to curfew. Astoria Greengrass was a proper young lady. Nobody would ever expect to find her lurking in the castle’s dark corners and hidden passages, ducking behind tapestries and peeking around suits of armor.

 
It wouldn’t be long now. The warmth flushed over her skin and she was certain that she was blushing scarlet. Never in her life had she felt so excited, so alive. Her heart was pounding in her ears, rivaling the noise that her shoes made as the heels tapped against the stone floor. Nothing in her sheltered life had prepared her for this moment. Not the chaste kisses she shared with her past boyfriends, not the trashy romance novels that she secretly borrowed from her mother, not even the giddy, giggling stories that her roommates shared about their own romantic escapades could have given Astoria any hint of the aching eagerness that seemed to electrify every nerve in her body.

 
In spite of her excitement, some doubts tugged at the edges of her mind. What if he didn’t show up? His owls had become shorter and less frequent due to his punishing revision schedule. Perhaps he’d get so caught up that he’d forget. Or maybe someone would follow him out of the Library and he wouldn’t be able to slip away. Draco still had many enemies inside the castle who would love nothing more than to catch him in some misdeed. Astoria tried to push the doubts out of her mind and focus on the exhilaration of the moment. Of course he would come. He cared enough about her to take the risk, didn’t he?

 
She felt a little thrill run up her spine as she walked past every statue. Would this be the one? Would she hear the faint whisper of his voice or catch a flash of platinum blonde hair in the shadows? Her vision seemed to narrow as the anticipation continued to build. She passed a richly woven tapestry that depicted a wizard summoning a great storm. Astoria could feel a hint of a presence, like something brushing up against the edge of her awareness. She closed her eyes and reached out with her senses and her magic, feeling, desiring, needing him to be near.

 
Another tapestry hung opposite the entrance to the Trophy Room. Was he there? She allowed herself to wander slightly, breaking her perfect stride and drawing nearer to the wall. Her knees felt weak as she tilted her head, trying to peer behind the tapestry. Nothing was visible in the darkness. Taking a quick look around, she reached out to lift the tapestry away from the wall. Her heart dropped when she discovered nothing but bare stone behind it. Maybe her doubts were well-placed. Maybe he wasn’t coming.

 
Astoria never heard a sound before she felt the soft tap of a wand against the top of her head. She spun around, finding nothing. Suddenly, she felt something creeping over her, like cold water being poured very slowly down her back. A touch of fear joined the intoxicating mix of excitement and anticipation coursing through her veins, and she felt the tiny hairs on her arms stand on end. She raised her hand to feel for his presence and just caught sight of her fingernails before they disappeared beneath the shimmering edge of a Disillusionment Charm.

 
A strong arm wrapped around her trembling shoulders and led her into the Trophy Room. Her breathing became rapid and shallow as her heart hammered away inside her chest. They stopped in a secluded corner beside a shelf full of old Quidditch trophies. She felt him wrap his arms around her and pull her body into him. Warm flesh pressed against her cheek, and the barest whisper reached her ear.

 
“It’s me.”

 
His lips lightly grazed the skin along the line of her jaw before settling onto hers. Astoria slid her hands up his sides until they came to rest just below his shoulders. The kiss deepened as she clung to him with all of her might.

 
Astoria Greengrass was a perfect pure blood daughter. She didn’t have secret evening encounters with boys in the hidden niches of Hogwarts Castle. She certainly didn’t snog them. And she would never, ever enjoy it.






Astoria was just completing a letter to Draco when she heard the prefects moving through the train, announcing that they were half an hour from King’s Cross Station. She carefully tucked the letter away inside her Arithmancy text and returned the heavy volume to her bag. Once she arrived home, she could loiter by the entrance to the manor and catch a departing owl to have it delivered. It wasn’t without a measure of risk, but she felt fairly sure that the preparations for Daphne’s wedding were reaching a fever pitch. It was unlikely that her mother and father would pay her any mind.

 
She closed her eyes and let her thoughts drift back to the previous evening. She had met Draco at what she’d come to think of as “their corner” of the Trophy Room just before curfew. He’d arranged a visit with Professor Slughorn on the final day of the term, ostensibly to offer his gratitude for a job interview at the Ministry that the professor had helped him to secure. Once the meeting was over, he simply neglected to leave the castle. The worst that anyone could do, after all, was throw him out.

 
Under the cover of Draco’s powerful disillusionment charms, the two of them had stolen through the nearly deserted corridors until they reached the seventh floor. He told her to close her eyes, and when she opened them they were standing in front of a door that she could never remember seeing before. It led to a cozy sitting room with a very comfortable settee that was just large enough for the two of them.

 
They spent a long time simply talking. Draco told her all about his N.E.W.T. exams and she complained about the large amount of summer reading she’d been assigned. Astoria showed him her timetable of Seventh Year N.E.W.T. lessons and he explained the job he was interviewing for. They shared funny stories about their classmates and the foolish antics of the muggles who frequented the little cafe in Derbyshire. Astoria kept catching herself staring into his beautiful grey eyes, losing track of what he was saying. Draco didn’t seem to mind repeating himself.

 
More than once, she felt as though he was holding back a little. Astoria had hoped that he would open up more about his past. Instead, he talked mostly about the future and all of the things he wanted to share with her. She couldn’t help but feel happy for him. The tormented young man she remembered from the cafe had become so happy and optimistic. Still, she wanted to learn more about his life before they met. She tried several times to gently steer the conversation toward his memories of the war, but he always managed to change the subject or shoot her a look that gave her goosebumps.

 
Finally, Astoria closed her eyes and took a steadying breath. Draco noticed the change in her demeanor and paused in the middle of telling her the names he was considering for his first son. She had tried to sound matter-of-fact, but her words ended up with more of a pleading tone than she would have liked.

 
“Draco, why don’t you want to talk about the war?”

 
The smile fell from his lips and she remembered the haunted look that passed over his eyes as he stared at the ceiling for a moment before answering.

 
“The war is over. What is there to talk about?”

 
She hadn’t wanted to hurt him any more. But part of her longed to feel the same connection they had made over tea and pastries in Derbyshire. Astoria had struggled to find the right words to explain it to him.

 
“I want to talk about you, Draco. I want to know about all the things you had to go through. I want you to help me feel what you felt. When you told me the story about the raid on the house in Hogsmeade, it was terrible and awful and sad, but I learned so much about you. I learned how sensitive you are. How big your heart really is. I’ve never felt so close to you.”

 
It was a long time before he met her gaze. Astoria recalled the pain in his eyes and the way that she instantly felt horrible for pushing him so hard. She hadn’t been able to stop herself from reaching out and taking his hands into her own, squeezing them gently.

 
“I’m sorry, Draco. I shouldn’t have. I know how difficult-”

 
And then suddenly he leaned forward and kissed her and the world melted into a warm, fuzzy blur. Astoria shivered with delight as she recalled the peculiar tingling that spread through her veins and the way her heartbeat throbbed in her ears. She had been completely unprepared for the way that his lips and his fingers and the heat of his breath made her feel. Everywhere he touched her, her body seemed to come alive with delicious new sensations. As Draco slid closer to her, she remembered arching her back and pressing herself into his embrace, craving every bit of contact they were able to create. Her breathing became shallow and uneven as he pressed his lips against the side of her neck and she delighted in the intoxicating feeling of his fingertips dancing lightly over places she had only imagined in-

 
“Astoria!”

 
Astoria’s eyes snapped open and she was momentarily startled to find herself sitting across from Isadore on the Hogwarts Express. She shook herself slightly, trying to regain her composure and disperse the butterflies that seemed to be congregating in her stomach. Isadore lowered her voice and smiled deviously.

 
“Where were you just now? You were practically glowing.”

 
“Sorry, I was just drifting off a bit. It’s been a long day and I didn’t sleep well.”

 
Astoria faked a yawn that turned into a real one after a certain point. When she opened her eyes, Isadore was still fixing her with an eager, probing stare.

 
“This wouldn’t have anything to do with how you wandered in after midnight last night, would it?”

 
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 
Isadore stared at her incredulously and Astoria responded with her best innocent look, but neither lasted for very long. Both girls quickly erupted into a fit of giggles. Isadore managed to recover first, and her voice fell to a whisper.

 
“You were with him, weren’t you?”

 
Astoria looked out the window and fixed an exaggerated thoughtful expression on her face, as though she was pretending to think about her answer. Truthfully, she was thinking hard about her answer. Was there really any harm in letting her best friend know? Astoria had a feeling, a premonition, almost, that the situation with Draco was going to come to a head on or shortly after her seventeenth birthday. It was only two weeks away. How much harm could Isadore do in two weeks that she would be spending with her spinster aunt?

 
She looked back to Isadore with a twinkle in her eyes and nodded her head ever so slightly. Isadore squealed with glee and practically launched herself across the train compartment, wrapping her arms around Astoria’s neck and eventually settling into the seat next to her. She drew close to Astoria’s ear and whispered excitedly.

 
“So how was it?”

 
“How was what?”

 
It!

 
Astoria wasn’t quite sure what Isadore was playing at. Then realization dawned on her and she felt her eyes grow to a very unattractive size as her fingers flew reflexively over her lips. Did Isadore really believe that...

 
“Are you being serious? We had a brilliant evening, but we didn’t do that.”

 
Isadore looked slightly crestfallen. Then the mischievous sparkle returned to her eyes and she nodded slowly.

 
“So you’re telling me that you were all alone with a gorgeous boy in some hidden spot in the castle for over three hours and it didn’t happen? Alright, Astoria. If you say so.”

 
Astoria rolled her eyes and placed her hands on Isadore’s shoulders, resisting the urge to shake some sense into her friend.

 
“Isadore, you know I’d tell you if it did. The time just wasn’t right. We both agreed that the proper thing to do was to stop at a certain point. Besides, it isn’t like we didn’t do anything. I had... fun. Quite a lot of fun, actually.”

 
It took a moment for Isadore to process what she was hearing, then she giggled devilishly and pulled Astoria into another hug.

 
“So did he have as much fun as you did?”

 
Where Isadore was heading with that question, Astoria could only guess. She thought back to the night before and tried to recall the look on Draco’s face.

 
“Yes. I mean, I think so. He did look a bit restive when we decided that it was time to stop. But that was as much his decision as mine!”

 
Astoria wasn’t sure why it seemed so important to emphasize the fact that Draco had been the one to seize her by the shoulders and push the two of them apart. She was certain that it was important, however. If he had wanted more from her, he would have simply allowed things to continue, wouldn’t he? It wasn’t as though she’d been suffering from any excess of self-control at that moment.

 
Isadore gave her a patent look of disbelief.

 
“Astoria, you didn’t get him all wound up and then just leave him hanging did you?”

 
Panic shot through Astoria’s mind as she struggled to recall more about the way Draco had been acting as they left the hidden room on the seventh floor. Had she made a terrible mistake?

 
“I don’t think so. I mean, he seemed alright. What should I have done?”

 
Isadore spoke slowly and calmly, as though she was gently correcting the behavior of a small child.

 
“You have to mind the little wizard, Astoria. If the little wizard isn’t happy then the big wizard isn’t happy, either.”

 
Astoria’s head was spinning. She felt the train car shudder beneath them as the Hogwarts Express started to brake. King’s Cross was only a few minutes away.

 
“Mind the little wizard? Isadore, what on earth are you talking about? Just tell me what I need to do!”

 
Isadore looked almost giddy with excitement as she stood up and started to collect her things.

 
“Astoria, you and I need to have some very serious girl talk. Floo to my aunt’s house one afternoon this week, alright? She takes her afternoon potion around two o’clock most days and then she takes a little kip. It’s supposed to be a beauty draught, but just between you and me it smells suspiciously like gin. Don’t fret, we’ll get you all sorted out. The next time you’re alone with him, the little wizard will be in good hands.”

 
Isadore apparently found her own words hilarious and fell into another fit of giggles, leaving Astoria completely flummoxed. She sighed and decided that she was going to floo to Isadore’s aunt’s house on her first free afternoon. If Daphne had all of her afternoons filled with wedding-related plans, well... she’d make up something about Isadore’s aunt being sick and Isadore needing help around the house. Astoria couldn’t stand the feeling of being in the dark about something so important. One way or another, she was going to get to the bottom of this little wizard business.

 
After the porter set their school trunks onto the train platform, Astoria wrapped Isadore in a warm hug and said her goodbyes. Then she tugged her trunk through the magical barrier and out of King’s Cross. She found her father waiting by the back of a hired black sedan, talking to another older wizard that she was sure she recognized from some social event she’d attended in recent years. He nodded toward her and then stepped away from the car and pulled her into a hug when she drew near.

 
“I’ve missed you, princess. How were your exams?”

 
“They went well. My marks were high enough to keep going with all of my N.E.W.T. level subjects. I missed getting top marks in Charms by two little points! Ah, it was so frustrating!”

 
Her father smiled at her warmly and took her hand, leading her toward the back of the sedan while the driver loaded her trunk into the boot. Once the were on the road, her father asked her more questions about her studies. Astoria thought that she could detect more than just a casual interest behind his inquiries.

 
“So you’re planning to sit your N.E.W.T.s in Potions, Charms, Transfiguration, Herbology, Ancient Runes and Arithmancy?”

 
“I hope to, yes. Professor Slughorn said that it was going to be a heavy workload, but he believes I can do it if I’m willing to put in enough time in the Library.”

 
The beginnings of a frown appeared on her father’s face. Astoria was confused. He had always encouraged her to excel at her studies.

 
“I assume that you also have a lot of reading and revision to do over the summer?”

 
“I worked out a timetable. Assuming that the next week is pretty much lost to Daphne’s wedding, I’ll need to devote about twenty-five hours a week for the rest of the holiday. The reading list in my bag. Speaking of which, once the wedding is over, I need to make a trip to Flourish and Blotts. There were several books on the list that I don’t think we have in our library at home.”

 
Her father’s frown only deepened. Finally, Astoria couldn’t stand the tense silence any longer.

 
“Father, is something wrong?”

 
He stayed silent for a moment longer, looking as if he was dreading the conversation.

 
“Astoria, all of this schoolwork doesn’t allow much time for the sort of things a young lady your age should be seriously thinking about. Your mother and I have already arranged several dinner parties for you to spend time with young gentlemen who would make excellent husbands. I’m afraid you may need to find a better balance between your studies and your future.”

 
Astoria could only stare at her father. She had no idea what to say. For as long as she could remember, he had lectured her and Daphne on the importance of doing well in school. Was it all just for show? Her father must have noticed her growing anger because he did his best to soothe her.

 
“You’re still upset about attending the wedding with young Mr. Montague, aren’t you? Well, you can stop worrying about him, Astoria. After you shared your concerns with your mother over the Easter holiday, we spoke to several people who know him and they agreed that he is rather... pungent. After the wedding, we’ll quietly inform his parents that we don’t see the two of you as a good match. Your mother and I can be reasonable, you see. Besides, the young men you’re going to meet over the summer are a much better lot anyway. Very promising young wizards from impeccable families, untainted by the war. Think of Mr. Montague as good practice.”

 
Astoria turned away from her father and fought back tears as she watched the streets of London gradually give way to the English countryside. All of her worst fears were coming true. Her parents were determined to marry her off to some boy that she didn’t care for at all. Her future husband would be chosen on the basis of what he was, not who he was. Far from leaving her torn, the anger raging just below the surface of her calm facade clarified things for Astoria. She was falling deeply, madly in love with Draco Malfoy. And once she turned seventeen, her parents would either accept that or there was no place for them in her future.






So there it is! Draco and Astoria's first Big Moment. I hope that you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Your reviews are always appreciated!



Chapter 10: Future Imperfect
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As always, that which you recognize from the books belongs to JK Rowling.





“So I’m supposed to just touch him down there when he kisses me?”

 
“Not that instant, no! My goodness, Astoria, you have to make him wait a bit, let his anticipation build. According to this article, wizards appreciate a witch who’s willing to take control in the bedroom sometimes. A wealthy, powerful man like Draco must get tired of being in charge all the time. If you show him that you’re a strong, confident woman who knows how to take care of his needs, he’ll be able to relax and you two will totally connect.”

 
Astoria felt cold fingers of panic creeping up her spine. Maybe coming to Isadore for advice wasn’t such a good idea after all. The two teenagers had sequestered themselves in her aunt’s parlor after the elderly witch retired to her bedroom for an afternoon nap that Isadore assured her would last until dinnertime. They’d pulled the curtains, dimmed the lanterns and Astoria found herself whispering a great deal even though there wasn’t another conscious soul in the large house to overhear their conversation. Unless you counted the cats, of course, but Astoria wasn’t especially worried about them grassing her up. It felt strange to have such an important, personal conversation in an unfamiliar place.

 
“Isadore, I have no idea what his needs even are, let alone how to take care of them!”

 
Isadore rolled her eyes indulgently and gestured toward the issue of Sorcière lying on the chaise lounge next to Astoria’s knee.

 
“You haven’t forgotten the Ten Sex Moves That Will Set His Wand on Fire already, have you? Pick any one of the top five on that list and he’ll never know what hit him. Personally, I would go with number three, followed by a strong dose of number four. By the time you’re done, he will be begging you to marry him.”

 
Even as the image of Draco begging for her hand in marriage made Astora’s heart flutter, the reality of her dilemma kept her brain buzzing with anxiety. She and Draco had come so close on the final day of the term, and she wanted to take things even farther the next time they were able to be alone together. But most of the suggestions in Isadore’s magazines seemed more like carnival acts than intimate experiences.

 
“Number three, Isadore? Seriously? Where am I going to get Dizziness Draught and an ostrich feather? And as far as number four goes... Well, it isn’t that I wouldn’t do that for him, if he really wanted me to. It’s just that... what if I mess it up somehow?”

 
Isadore grinned conspiratorially and lowered her voice to a whisper.

 
“Well, if you’re really that worried, you can always just skip the preliminaries and go straight to the big finale. If you told him that you wanted him to be your first, I’m sure he wouldn’t object.”

 
A cold, prickling sensation settled into Astoria’s stomach as she considered the possibility. She was almost certain that Isadore was wrong about Draco’s reaction. After all, he had been the one to call a halt to their passionate interlude in the hidden room at Hogwarts. For reasons she couldn’t quite explain, she was pretty sure that his reluctance made her more nervous than she would have felt if he’d pressured her to have sex with him. It seemed so much easier to say no than to wonder why he hadn’t even asked the question.

 
“I just don’t think we’re ready for that yet. It’s a big step, after all. I need to find some things to try that are a bit less... drastic.”

 
“Astoria, you’re almost seventeen. I was only fifteen when Richard and I did it for the first time.”

 
Astoria rolled her eyes.

 
“How could I forget? You didn’t take any potions beforehand and you spent the next ten days keeping me up half the night, fretting about how you were going to look in maternity robes.”

 
Isadore shivered slightly as the memory passed through her, and quickly changed the subject.

 
“Alright, back to number four, then. I think you’re worrying too much, Astoria. Don’t think so much about it, just do it, alright? He’s a man. Even if you aren’t very good at it, he’ll probably think it’s amazing anyway.”

 
Astoria was far from convinced. Lingering uncertainty tugged at the edges of Isadore’s smile, which was entirely too large. Astoria was starting to suspect that more of Isadore’s advice came from the pages of a magazine than from her own, personal experience, and it annoyed her. Didn’t she understand? This was far too important to guess at the details and hope that things worked out alright.

 
“So you’ve actually... done that before? With Richard or Bertrand or...”

 
Astoria let the question trail off. She didn’t even want to imagine Isadore doing such things with one of her boyfriends from before their fifth year.

 
“Yes! I mean, mostly, anyway. Richard was a bit too squeamish, actually. He was so sensitive and ticklish and I think the boy has some sort of phobia about teeth. With Bertrand, I was just getting started and he got a little too excited and, well... Oh, don’t make such a face, Astoria! It happens to thirty-four percent of wizards according to an article I saw in Witch’s Wiles. Don’t you read at all?”

 
A loud moan of frustration escaped Astoria’s lips as she buried her face in her hands.

 
“This isn’t helping. I’m even more confused than when we started. I don’t want to disappoint him. Isn’t there anything in these magazines that just tells me what to do? Surely you know more than you’re telling me, Isadore. Just spill it or draw a diagram for me or something. Please?”

 
Isadore shifted her weight uncomfortably and shrugged helplessly as her smile gradually turned to a sympathetic frown.

 
“I’m sorry, Astoria, these things are hard to put into words without being, you know, vulgar. That’s why they can’t put that in a magazine, either. Unless they want to sell it from behind the counter, anyway. I think there might be some of those kind of magazines in the back of Theo’s closet at home if you’re really interested.”

 
Astoria pulled a face of pure disgust while making a mental note that she could ask Isadore to borrow Theo’s girly magazines if worst came to worst. Why did this have to be so complicated? Madam Pomfrey had spent over an hour explaining the ins and outs of pregnancy, diseases and the potions created to prevent them. Couldn’t she have spared ten minutes to explain what you were supposed to do after you took the potions?

 
Isadore flipped through the magazine in her lap, scanning the text for something helpful.

 
“You’re overthinking things. All the articles I’ve read say that there’s no right way or wrong way to please your man. You just need to be creative. It’s is supposed to be fun, you know, like an adventure.”

 
"Draco used to date Pansy Parkinson, Isadore! I'm sure his little wizard has had adventures that Great Merlin himself only dreamed of."

 
Isadore cocked her head to the side, giving Astoria a knowing look and crossing her arms.

 
“Is that what you’re worried about? You’re so much prettier than her, Astoria! If Draco really wanted her, he’d just start dating her again. She’s single and she’s not likely to do any better. Besides, everyone knows she’s a slag. She’s been on more little wizards than the Sorting Hat.”

 
Isadore covered her mouth with her hands, looking scandalized by her own words. Astoria tried to hold it in, but a snort escaped her lips and soon both girls erupted into giggles. Astoria’s were driven as much by nerves as amusement, however. She thought that Draco was falling in love with her the same way she was falling for him, but he never really talked about his feelings, so there was no way to be certain. Had he felt the same way about Pansy once? He didn’t seem to be interested in her any longer, but would he change his mind if Astoria turned out to be hopeless in bed? He was bound to notice her lack of experience, wasn’t he? Even if it was only in the back of his mind, Astoria didn’t want to be on the losing side of that comparison. This was a big step for their relationship. She didn’t want to mess it up.

 
When she caught her breath, Isadore reached out and laid her hands on top of Astoria’s.

 
“You’re making too big of a deal out of this. It’s just sex. Use your imagination. You have imagined the two of you doing... stuff, haven’t you?”

 
Astoria felt the heat seeping into her cheeks. She had indulged herself on a number of occasions, recalling the way that Draco touched her and imagining his caresses wandering into new and exhilarating places. Those thoughts fueled unfamiliar urges, very different from the ones she recalled from her past boyfriends and crushes. She was still trying to make sense of it all. But no matter how she allowed her imagination to wander -- and she had let it wander so far the night before last, tucked into the privacy of her own bed, that even thinking about her actions made her blush furiously -- it stubbornly refused to show her taking a more active role in the encounter. Whether that was because her imagination didn’t want to go to that place or because it just didn’t know the way, she had no idea.

 
Isadore’s face split into a wide grin in response to the blush searing Astoria’s pale cheeks.

 
“I knew it. You’re a naughty little witch on the inside, Astoria. You just need to let her come out and play. Several of these articles say that you have to try different things until you find something that he really likes. Then you just keep doing it, only faster. Not too fast, though, unless you want Draco to end up like poor Bertrand.”

 
“Fast, but not too fast? This is impossible! How am I supposed to know when he likes something? I mean, I can’t even see his face if my head is down there.”

 
Isadore tutted indulgently, giving Astoria’s hands a gentle squeeze.

 
“Do I need to draw you a picture? Get him to lie on his back, Astoria. It should be pretty easy to see whether he’s enjoying himself. Maybe... have him lie face down and give him a massage or something. That should help to set the mood. And once he’s all relaxed, you just start crawling around on top of him, rubbing up against him and see how long it takes before, ah, necessity forces him to roll over.”

 
Astoria nodded slowly as she processed what Isadore was saying. It just might work. There were plenty of books on massage. If she could learn how to give Draco a proper one, maybe it wouldn’t matter that every other aspect of sex was a mystery to her. Oddly, the fact that Isadore had been so unhelpful was making her feel a bit better. Maybe every girl her age who was an “expert” on sex just read lots of magazines and made up the rest. She reached out and threw her arms around Isadore’s neck, pulling her best friend into a hug. In a couple weeks time, she’d turn seventeen and then she would be free to pursue her relationship with Draco on her own terms. If her parents couldn’t handle that, it was their problem, not hers.






Four damselfly wings, sliced lengthwise, added one at a time with half of a clockwise stir following each. After a few seconds, the potion turned a shimmering azure. Draco reduced the flame burning below the cauldron and impaled a wriggling scarab beetle from the dish on the bench with a surgical jab of his knife. The beetle needed to be dissected and added to the potion very soon after the color change. Inexperienced potioneers tended to dissect the beetles in advance, so that they were ready when needed. Draco knew better than to take that shortcut. Too much of the beetle’s precious hemolymph would ooze out of its body, reducing the potency of the final product. He deftly sliced the beetle into four quadrants on the surface of a mirror and slid the first two into the potion. A puff of sulfurous, yellow smoke arose from the cauldron and Draco nodded approvingly. As soon as the potion attained a slight aquamarine hue, the remainder of the beetle...

 
Draco felt a sudden, insistent pull at his arm and nearly dropped the second half of his beetle as he yanked his arm free. The ugly, climbing plant that sat on the end of the bench was once again attempting to latch onto him. He swatted at the infuriating thing, pushing back its clinging tendrils without taking his eyes off of the cauldron. Just as the potion turned the proper color, the plant managed to land a vine on the edge of the cauldron and Draco cursed out loud as the entire apparatus tipped dangerously to one side. He dropped the remaining beetle parts into the potion as he righted the cauldron, burning his fingertips on the process.

 
The small laboratory where Madam Blishwick’s assistant had left him was extremely spartan. The plant was the only item in the windowless room that might qualify as decoration. The assistant, a short wizard with greying tufts of hair separating his ears from his shiny, bald pate, had directed Draco to brew a series of complicated potions and then left him to his own devices. The plant immediately became a nuisance. Its long vines seemed almost prehensile, sliding silently across the bench to meddle in Draco’s ingredients, his equipment and occasionally the cauldron itself.

 
Once the potion reached a point where he could leave it unattended for a few moments, Draco pushed all of the plant’s crawlers over the side of the bench for the third time. He had a good mind to take his potion knife to it, trimming it down to the bare roots, but that didn’t seem like a wise thing to do in the middle of a job interview. Madam Blishwick must have had a reason for allowing the plant to remain in the laboratory. Perhaps it was placed there as a test of Draco’s patience or his ability to overcome distractions and maintain his concentration. If so, the test was giving him at least as much trouble as the potions he had been asked to brew. With four more remaining on the list, Draco’s patience was stretched to the breaking point.

 
He quickly mopped his damp brow with the back of his sleeve before uncorking a phial of Bulbadox juice and preparing to add three drams to the softly bubbling cauldron. Draco really, really hoped that he hadn’t come so far only to mess up the one part of the interview he felt most confident about. From the moment he arrived at the Ministry, it was obvious he was fighting an uphill battle. The security officer responsible for weighing Draco’s wand and issuing him a guest badge had taken one look at him and called for backup. When the supervisor on duty eventually determined that Draco had a legitimate reason for being there, he looked disappointed. It was abundantly clear that the man would have liked nothing more than to hex Draco and toss him out on his ear.

 
After the security officers finished with their little inquisition, Madam Blishwich’s assistant took his sweet time arriving in the lobby to collect Draco for the interview. The man stared at him with thinly veiled disdain, even going so far as to ask why Draco had any interest in helping to heal the injuries that his kind inflicted in the first place. Draco did his best to stick to his carefully rehearsed speech about his passion to working as a potioneer and his determination to make amends for his role in the war, but he was pretty sure that it sounded trite, terse and every bit as fake as Draco was feeling. It wasn’t the first or the last time he wondered whether he could function among the judgmental sheep who clung unquestioningly to whatever orthodoxy the Ministry served up.

 
Draco increased the flames beneath the cauldron again and began pulverizing dried Hellebore blossoms with a mortar and pestle. As he watched the greenish liquid come back to a boil, he mentally went over the potions he had left to brew, looking for opportunities to make the work go faster or more efficiently. For all he knew, Madam Blishwick was monitoring his progress somehow, and he wanted to appear competent and thoughtful. Draco also knew that the sooner he finished with his appointed tasks, the sooner he would be able to speak with her directly. Don’t waste your time with underlings, Draco. Always deal with the wizard in charge. It bothered Draco how readily his father’s words came to him, even as he was doing everything possible to distance himself from the old man.

 
The potion fizzled vigorously and changed to a warm shade of ochre as the hellebore dissolved into its depths. Draco studied the color and carefully drew his ladle across the surface, noting the consistency. A perfect Fire Protection Potion. Drawing a phial out of the rack provided by Madam Blishwick’s assistant, he duplicated it with his wand and ladled a sample of the potion into each. Stoppering the phials, he returned the original to the rack and slipped the duplicate into the pocket of his robes. It was a trick he learned from watching Potter contend with Professor Snape and the “unfortunate accidents” that often occurred when his favorite teacher was evaluating the potions brewed by the Gryffindors. Draco still wasn’t sure whether he believed the official story about Snape being a double agent. It seemed entirely too convenient, like a ruse calculated to spread uncertainty and mistrust among the surviving Death Eaters. If it was true and Snape was working for Dumbledore all along then Draco had to hand it to the greasy, old bat, he played his role with impressive pettiness and panache.

 
Draco vanished the remaining contents of the cauldron and started to assemble the ingredients to brew Wolfsbane Potion. Of all the potions on the list, he considered this to be the trickiest and he was glad that it wasn’t left for last. Better to take up the challenge while his wits were sharp and his mind was thoroughly immersed in potion-making than to wait until he was mentally and physically worn down. As he started to carefully separate aconite blossoms from their poisonous stems, he caught a twitch of movement in his peripheral vision. Across the bench, one of the plant’s tendrils had managed to climb back up and wrap itself around a flask of salamander blood. Draco watched in impotent horror as the flask tipped over the side of the bench and crashed to the floor.

 
“Of all the bloody- Ahh!”

 
Another vine latched on to the rack of completed potions sitting on the bench. Draco managed to grab it a fraction of an inch before it joined the salamander blood staining the floor tiles. His heart was pounding in his ears and he could feel the heat rising from underneath his collar. A third vine pulled its way onto the bench and began to slither toward his ingredients. The light in the room seemed to take on a crimson hue that had nothing to do with the lingering vapors in the air. Draco seized his wand from the bench and unleashed his frustration.

 
Incendio!

 
The plant burst into flames, emitting a high-pitched squeal as its vines were quickly reduced to ashes. When the last of the flames died away, Draco stood, panting, still clutching the rack of completed potions in his hand. It gradually dawned on him what he had done, and he listlessly dropped the rack back onto the bench, barely flinching as three of the phials bounced out and clattered across the stone surface. His temper had once again gotten the best of him and his new career was over before it had even begun. He felt hollow, leaden and... thirsty. Maybe the Ragged Fang opened early on Tuesdays...

 
“That was an impressive spell, for someone who didn’t sit their Defense N.E.W.T.”

 
Draco spun around to find a middle-aged witch standing in the doorway. Her sharp, angular face was set in an appraising stare and her dark hair was gathered into a tight bun on the back of her head. She wore a set of loose-fitting laboratory robes that appeared to be reinforced with dragonhide and her pockets bulged with glass phials, scrolls of parchment and potion-making utensils. A collection of colored lenses was attached to either side of her oval-shaped eyeglasses on hinged arms. If this was Madam Blishwick standing before him, Draco surmised that McGonagall was correct about her preference for function over form.

 
“I would have liked to sit that exam, but the Ministry wouldn’t allow it.”

 
“That’s a shame. It seems that you would have scored well.”

 
The woman entered the room and looked at the glass phials scattered across the bench. She picked up the Memory Potion that Draco had brewed and swung an emerald green filter over her left eye, studying it in the warm light of the room’s oil lamps. With a flick of her wand, she righted the rack of phials and returned the Memory Potion to its place before continuing.

 
“Why did you wait so long?”

 
Draco stared back at her dumbly. She couldn’t possibly mean what it sounded like she meant, could she? After he’d gone several seconds without answering, she stared at him impatiently.

 
“Did you not understand the question? Why did you wait so long to do something about Edgar?”

 
“Edgar?”

 
Draco’s brain was spinning and he didn’t feel at all qualified to speak. Fortunately, Madam Blishwick seemed to have no problems carrying the conversation on her own.

 
“Yes, Edgar. You’ll recall that you incinerated him? Granted, you could have simply banished him to the corner of the room and warded him in, but I understand that you were probably a bit nervous about the interview. Why did you allow him to interfere with your work for so long before doing something about it?”

 
“I... I... You mean I was supposed to get rid of the bloody plant?”

 
The dark-haired witch regarded him gravely, adding heavy emphasis to her words.

 
“Mr. Malfoy, if you’re going to work for me, there’s one thing I need for you to understand. The research my department is conducting is unprecedented in the history of magic. We’re in completely uncharted territory and there are no textbooks to follow or experts to rely on. Our ability to get results is dependent on our willingness to embrace new ideas and our ability to explore them thoroughly and document the results exhaustively. We cannot allow hesitation and doubt to interfere. If you were to see a potential solution to a problem, I would expect you to follow up on it, no matter how unorthodox it might seem. Is that clear?”

 
Draco nodded in response, trying to collect his thoughts into some sort of intelligent-sounding sentence. Madam Blishwick wasn’t anything like what he’d expected and unorthodox was not his strong suit. In spite of his uneasiness, he realized that he wanted the job more than ever. Aside from the opportunity to rebuild his reputation in the magical community, any superior who condoned the destruction of irritating flora and fauna couldn’t be all bad.

 
Madam Blishwick studied Draco’s remaining potions, testing their hues and exposing them to small amounts of other ingredients to see how they reacted. She seemed satisfied with his work and turned back to face him.

 
“I noticed that you placed a second sample of each potion in your robe pocket. Why?”

 
Draco was impressed by her thoroughness, even if he was annoyed by the fact that she’d been spying on him.

 
“It’s a habit I developed at school. In a Potions classroom full of rude, clumsy, inattentive students, accidents happen. It’s better to take precautions.”

 
Madam Blishwick nodded approvingly.

 
“In our department, we collect no less than eight samples of every new potion that we brew, in case we ever need to backtrack and retest an idea. Part of the job of our new potioneers will be to organize and catalog all of those samples.”

 
Clerical work. Draco suppressed a sigh and kept his expression neutral. If he was able to land the job, he was going to be the new hire, the wizard at the bottom of the seniority ladder. It made sense that he’d be expected to do a certain amount of grunt work. He wasn’t at all happy about it, but it made sense.

 
Madam Blishwick stared at him for a moment, looking expectant then confused.

 
“Well, aren’t you going to ask about the pay or the benefits or the holiday time allotment?”

 
Draco was surprised by the question, but it was the first one she’d asked where he felt confident that he knew the correct answer.

 
“The salary and benefits aren’t the primary reasons I’m interested in this position. If you’re familiar with my family, I’m sure you’re aware that our financial resources are more than adequate. As far as the holiday time, I expect that I’ll be working a great deal at the beginning, until I learn everything that I need to know. Once I’m performing up to your expectations, I’ll worry about holiday time.”

 
The tiniest hint of amusement crept into Madam Blishwick’s flinty eyes.

 
“Mr. Malfoy, I appreciate your eagerness, but let’s not let it turn into overzealousness at such an early point in your career. If I had any concerns about your ability to meet my expectations, I wouldn’t be offering you the position. And as far as your holiday time, which happens to be four weeks, by the way, I’m afraid I must insist that you take it. You’re of no use to me if you’re too fatigued to think creatively.”

 
Draco wasn’t sure that he’d understood her correctly. Tentatively, he met her stare.

 
“So you’re offering me the job?”

 
“That’s correct.”

 
“Even though I only finished six of the potions and killed your plant?”

 
“Oh, you’ve not killed Edgar, although I think you have given him quite a scare.”

 
Madam Blishwick waved her wand over the flowerpot on the end of the bench, clearing away the ashes of the plant’s creeping vines. A pair of pale, green buds peeked out from beneath the soil, cautiously probing the air.

 
“You see, Mr. Malfoy, Edgar will be just fine in a few days. His species is native to Jiangxi province in China, and they’re quite resilient. Their blossoms are actually a key ingredient in a very promising new restorative draught that we’re working on. For the record, you were the only interview candidate who managed to completely subdue him. I only interrupted your work because I’d already seen everything that I needed to see.”

 
Slowly, Draco felt like his brain was catching up to the conversation. What he was hearing was certainly pleasing. But the year that had passed since the end of the war had taught him to be wary of any situation that looked too promising. He carefully formulated a question to try to tease out any hidden agendas.

 
“It sounds almost as though your mind was made up before the interview?”

 
For the first time since she entered the room, Madam Blishwick seemed pleased with Draco’s understanding of his situation.

 
“Let’s just say that I had a strong feeling about you. Ever since Horace contacted me, I’ve been hoping that your practical skills were as strong as he indicated. I’m sure you realize that isn’t always a given with one of his favorites. What I’m most excited about, however, is your experience. I believe you’re going to bring a totally new perspective to my department.”

 
Uneasiness crept into Draco’s stomach. The eagerness in her eyes was unnerving.

 
“You mean my experiences during the war?”

 
“Exactly. My current staff is rather one-dimensional, I’m afraid. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all brilliant researchers, talented and very driven. But they’re academics. They could go on for hours about the magical theory behind the Unforgivable Curses, but they’ve only seen them used on laboratory animals. You, Mr. Malfoy, have seen these curses used in real life situations. While I’m sure those experiences were not pleasant or easy, the fact remains that you’ve seen things that we will never be able to replicate in a laboratory setting. I want you to bring that knowledge to my department.”

 
The walls of the small laboratory felt as though they were closing in on Draco and he fought to keep his breathing even. Memories that he’d struggled for months to bury in the depths of his mind were bubbling toward the surface, filled with screams of agony and cold, lifeless eyes staring up at him. He felt his pulse quickening as he tried to blink away the horrifying images. He forced himself to smile and met Madam Blishwick’s eyes.

 
“I’d be happy to try and contribute in any way that I can.”

 
The middle-aged witch was practically beaming in response. She extended her hand and Draco desperately hoped that she didn’t notice how clammy his palms suddenly felt.

 
“Wonderful, Mr. Malfoy. You have no idea how excited I am to begin introducing you to our work. In fact, if you’d be available to start this week, you could attend a Friday afternoon presentation by one of your new coworkers, Reginald Penhallow. He’s been conducting some fascinating research on the effects of the Cruciatus Curse on doxies. Their higher brain functions are far less advanced than our own, of course, and I’m certain that we would all be fascinated to hear any insights you could offer on how their physiological reactions compare to those of humans.”

 
Draco closed his eyes for a moment, trying to focus on his breathing. He could feel tiny rivulets of sweat running down the small of his back and the air in the room had grown uncomfortably thin.

 
“That sounds... fascinating. You know, I was told that your department was trying to help reverse memory loss induced by the Imperius Curse. I had no idea that you were also researching... um... why, exactly are you torturing doxies?”

 
Madam Blishwick clasped her hands together and smiled, seemingly oblivious to the difficulties Draco was having.

 
“You’re commendably well-informed, Mr. Malfoy. Imperius Curse damage is our primary project at the moment, of course, but we’re preparing several additional research proposals for the Minister’s consideration. Reginald is trying to develop a better model of how the torture curse attacks the human nervous system. His experiments with doxies are only a first step. We’re already in contact with the families of several patients who’ve been admitted to St. Mungos after being subjected to the curse, seeking permission to study their injuries.”

 
Draco silently wondered why they couldn’t just get permission from the victims themselves. Then the answer dawned on him and the knot in his stomach twisted tighter. The air in the room was getting thinner and thinner. He needed to get out.

 
“It sounds like I have a great deal to look forward to. Friday works well for me. I don’t want to keep you from your work, so if there’s nothing else you need-”

 
“That’s wonderful, Mr. Malfoy. I was so in hopes that things would work out for you that I’ve already started to make preparations. You’ll need to visit the Ministry’s Office of Records on Thursday so you can complete all of the necessary forms. They’ll issue your identification badge and get you set up with payroll, benefits, security, clearance to view classified information, limited authorization to use Unforgivable Curses, waivers related to dangerous magical plants and animals, authorization to handle hazardous substances... There’s oh so much paperwork involved. I suggest you arrive bright and early.”

 
... limited authorization to use Unforgivable Curses... Draco tugged at his shirt collar and resisted the urge to back away from his new boss. There was no reason to panic. Working in a laboratory wouldn’t be anything like forcing Madam Rosmerta to assist in his plot to kill Dumbledore. Doxy screams didn’t sound like human screams, which were echoing through the depths of his mind at that moment.

 
“I‘m grateful for the opportunity, Madam Blishwick. I’ve kept you long enough. If you’ll excuse me-”

 
“Oh, my, look at the time. Well, I should be getting back to my office. Thank you so much for coming in today, Mr. Malfoy. I am ever so excited to have you join my department, and your timing simply couldn’t be more opportune. Our research is going to change people’s lives, I’m certain of it. Once you’re settled, I’d like you to begin reviewing the case files of the curse victims we’ve selected for our initial trial of an experimental memory-reinforcing potion we’ve been working on. Several of them claim that they were placed under the Imperius Curse by You Know Who himself, and if you see any names that are familiar to you, well, let’s just say that I wouldn’t be above tweaking the distribution between the experimental group and the control group so we have a chance to study-”

 
“Sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt, but could you direct me to the nearest gents? Too much tea this morning, you know. Trying to settle my nerves before the interview.”

 
Madam Blishwick looked slightly bemused as she directed Draco out of the small laboratory and around the corner. As soon as he was out of her sight, he broke into a jog. The loo was blessedly empty, and he fell to his knees in front of the toilet and surrendered the contents of his stomach. Once he caught his breath, he couldn’t help but chuckle bitterly. The harder he tried to put the past behind him, the more insidiously it managed to torment him.





 
Hello, dear readers. I hope I didn't ruin anyone's impression of Astoria too much with this chapter, but she is a teenager, after all. And even when poor Draco manages to catch a break, there seems to be a cloud around his silver lining. I owe a lot of credit to Jami and sophie for how the "girl talk" section of the chapter shaped up. Without their help, it wouldn't have turned out nearly so well.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Anything you feel like you need to get off of your chest? You know where to put it!


Chapter 11: Errors in Judgment
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As always, that which you recognize from the books belongs to the inimitable JK Rowling.






Ouch! Bloody hell...”


The dark-haired boy rubbed the back of his head and grimaced, his face twisted into a filthy glare. The blond-haired man paid him no mind. He separated the stringy, slightly greasy brown hairs into three equal portions and dropped each into a flask of grey sludge that bubbled vigorously in response to the new addition. The concoction gradually turned to a moldy shade of green and emitted an aroma similar to damp, old socks festering beneath a veneer of inexpensive cologne. Satisfied, the blond man capped each flask and slid them into the pockets of the dress robes he’d borrowed from the dark-haired boy. They were a bit tight in the shoulders and loose in the midsection, but they were freshly laundered and neatly pressed. From the feel, he was pretty sure they had never been worn.


“If you bollocks this up, there’ll be hell to pay, Malfoy. I’m supposed to be meeting my future wife today. My parents won’t take kindly to finding out that that we switched places. You’re sure you can pull this off?”


Draco continued to ignore the boy, studying the fit of his robes in the mirror and straightening them so that they laid properly. The tailoring was quite impressive, even if it was completely wasted on the slothenly specimen standing beside him. He turned and studied the anxious boy, noting his greasy, uncombed hair and the disheveled dressing gown covering a pair of pajamas stained with mustard and other substances that Draco didn’t care to try to identify. Heaving a sigh, Draco turned back to the mirror and tugged at the fringes of his robes until they hung haphazardly around his body. Better to suffer through a few minutes of Mrs. Montague fussing over them than to give himself away at first sight.


“Are you listening, Malfoy? They’ll ground me for the entire summer!”


“If you’re so worried about it, Montague, you can always attend the wedding yourself.”


Draco fixed the boy with a knowing stare and watched him wither. He wasn’t at all concerned about Emery Montague going back on their arrangement. The pile of Quidditch magazines and the tray of snacks sitting on his bedside table made it apparent that the boy’s entire day was already planned out, and those plans did not involve Daphne Greengrass’s wedding.


“Just be careful, understand?”


“Relax, Montague. I have just as much reason to avoid being discovered as you do. Rest assured that I only intend to see to the business I have with one of the wedding guests. Aside from that, I’ll be keeping the lowest profile possible.”


Montague still looked apprehensive, but when he stole a glance at his bed, Draco knew that the matter was settled.


“You’ll come back here to my quarters after you return from the wedding, then? Change back into your own clothes and leave?”


“That’s right. Just make sure that... whatever it is you plan to do today, you’re not still doing it when I return, are we clear?”


The boy shot Draco another filthy glare, which he took as acquiescence. Draco stepped to the chamber door and pulled the first flask of polyjuice potion from his pocket. Taking a deep breath, he tilted a measure of the revolting liquid into his upturned mouth. Several gut-wrenching moments later, two identical copies of Emery Montague studied one another from opposite sides of the room.


Satisfied with his work, Draco turned and exited the room without another word.






“I simply don’t understand. Why did Horatio Greengrass even agree to have our son escort his daughter to the wedding if she was going to do nothing but avoid him all night long? Father never would have tolerated me behaving so rudely toward a guest. Especially a young man of such quality as our Emery. The nerve of some people is just beyond comprehension.”


Dolohov’s Flame Cutter Curse, death occurs from bleeding and internal injuries. Entrail Expelling Curse, death occurs from organ failure. Lead Lungs Curse, death by suffocation. Disguised as Emery Montague, Draco continued to stare sullenly at the table in front of him, imagining a series of dark curses that he ached to unleash on the two elder Montagues. How did anyone tolerate such small-minded, self-important people for any length of time? The fact that they believed their son was anything close to a worthy husband for Astoria infuriated him. He would certainly speak to his parents about striking them from the guest list for any future social function at Malfoy Manor. Assuming that Malfoy Manor ever hosted another social function. And that he was someday on speaking terms with his father again.


“Well it doesn’t help that the boy refuses to make eye contact with anyone. His brother was never like this. You don’t suppose somebody put a jinx on him, do you?”


“I’m sitting right here, you know!”


Draco pushed back from the table and nearly knocked over his chair as he stood and turned. He actually found himself getting indignant on Emery Montague’s behalf, even though the lazy twat doubtless deserved his father’s condescension. Nine hours of drinking vile polyjuice potion and submitting to Mrs. Montague’s incessant tutting had taken its toll. Draco was pretty sure that he was beginning to understand why kidnapping victims sometimes started to sympathize with their captors. Mr. Montague called after him, and with great effort he forced himself to stop walking in order to prevent an even bigger scene.


“See now, Emery! The wedding party will be making their way in soon. Come back here this instant!”


“I have to powder my nose and check my mascara!”


Resuming his rapid pace, Draco made his way to the narrow hallway leading to the toilets. At least the Montagues had the social grace not to follow him, which was the first positive thing he’d been able to say for them all day. The door to the nearest loo was locked, but that didn’t trouble him in the slightest, He was in no hurry at all to return to his seat and listen to more of Mrs. Montague’s carping.


Rubbing the heels of his hands over Emery Montague’s face, Draco wondered for the tenth time in the past hour whether he’d made a terrible mistake by not telling Astoria about his plan. It all made so much sense when he was working things out in his head. She would be so surprised when he revealed himself and she couldn’t help but be impressed by his cleverness and determination to spend time with her. Also, in the event that he’d been forced to abort the plan for some reason, he wouldn’t have to disappoint her. It was flawless, except for the fact that she had no idea that he’d succeeded in taking Montague’s place and was therefore avoiding him entirely.


Draco sighed and reminded himself that she couldn’t stay hidden away forever. When the evening entertainment commenced, the wedding party would split up and decorum would require her to take to the dance floor with her date. Once he was able to whisper in her ear, he knew exactly what he would say to make her realize who he was. A smile settled onto his lips just as the door opened, then fell away as he found himself face to face with Theodore Nott.


“Nott.”


Draco delivered the acknowledgment listlessly, trying to greet his former housemate with the sort of slothenly indifference that Emery Montague was known for. Nott stared at him for a second and nodded slightly in recognition before answering.


“Malfoy.”


A lifetime of being conditioned by his parents to never let his face betray his thoughts fell aside in an instant and Draco felt his mouth fall open in complete shock. Nott tossed his head back and chuckled heartily before continuing.


“Surprised, Malfoy? You shouldn’t be. You seriously trusted Zabini with a secret? That’s almost as bad as trusting the nattering old bag who gave birth to him. Maybe the war really did scramble your brains as bad as Flint says.”


Draco quickly found his voice and tried to stammer out a response.


“Don’t be ridiculous, Nott. It’s plain as the nose on your face. I’m-”


“You’re Draco Malfoy. You’re here because you talked Emery Montague into letting you polyjuice yourself to look like him and take his place, which I’m sure didn’t require a whole lot of convincing because he’s too much of a slob to get dressed up and a complete poof. You have business with one of the guests here tonight, at least that’s the story you told Zabini. Personally, I’m guessing there’s more to it than that, but I won’t bother asking because I’m sure you’re not gonna to tell me anyway.”


Draco’s initial shock had faded just enough that he was filled with a burning desire to murder Zabini in cold blood. He lowered his voice to a hiss and glared at Nott.


“Very well, then. What are you going to do about it?”


Nott checked the lay of his robes for a moment before looking Draco in the eye and answering.


“That very much depends, Malfoy. I’m actually glad I ran into you here. Saved me the trouble of hunting you down. Gamp wanted me to tell you that he’s moving up the timetable. He’s planning to cut his honeymoon short and return a week early.”


“Daphne must be overjoyed.”


Nott snorted in response and took a long sip of his drink.


“He isn’t planning to tell her until after they get to Switzerland and they’ve had a few rolls in the hay, but that’s beside the point. We’re all meeting at the house in Wales where Gamp’s parents are setting him up on the night he gets back. Seems this new acquaintance of his has something big in the works. Gamp wanted me to make sure that you’re gonna be there.”


Draco felt an icy lump growing in his stomach. He had planned on having at least another two weeks before he had to inform Gamp and the others that he had no interest in being part of their group. Two weeks in which he could determine how his father had gotten involved in their ludicrous scheme to overthrow the Ministry. Now he was cornered, with no way out that didn’t involve being found out and putting Astoria in a very bad situation with her father. The notion of bolting for the nearest door crossed his mind, but he dismissed it. Gamp knew he was here, and if he made Gamp angry, everyone at the wedding would soon know. He needed time to think, so he did his best to stall.


“How big are we talking, Nott?”


“Big enough that everyone in our world will take notice. We’re going to raise an army, Malfoy. We’re going to free our brothers and sisters who were imprisoned because they believe in the superiority of pure magical blood. The Ministry won’t be able to dismiss us or pretend that we’re just some fringe group of nutters. We’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”


Mad. Nott and the others were stark, raving mad. Draco couldn’t even fathom how they believed there was any chance that they’d succeed. Unfortunately, their stupidity was now his problem, and a pressing one at that. A pair of witches suddenly came around the corner, cradling flutes of champagne between their fingers and whispering vicious critiques of the atrocious bridesmaids dresses Daphne had selected. Nott looked at them for a moment, then turned back to Draco with a victorious smirk on his face.


“Shall I let the others know that you’ll be joining us, Emery?”


Draco suppressed a sigh. There really was no other option.


“Yes, thank you very much. I’d be pleased to join you.”


Nott nodded imperiously before shooting a flirtatious grin at the two witches and walking away. The proper thing to do would have been for Draco to offer the loo to the two ladies, but when had Emery Montague ever been proper about anything? Draco stepped inside, catching a huff of indignation just before the door closed behind him. He leaned back against the door, trying to gather his thoughts. Just as things should have been getting better, they had once again taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Right on cue, he felt an unpleasant tingling in his extremities, reminding him that it was time for another disgusting sip of polyjuice potion.


As he choked down the wretched, greenish sludge, several things occurred to Draco. First of all, Nott was right. He had been foolish to trust Zabini. Second, whatever his former housemates had gotten themselves mixed up in, it suddenly appeared much larger and far more serious than Draco had ever imagined. And he was now trapped squarely in the middle of it. If he tried to back out, he was certain that Gamp and the others would threaten to expose the fact that he had crashed the wedding. Whether they could prove it was irrelevant. Once word got back to Mr. Greengrass, there would be far too many difficult and unpleasant questions for...


Astoria. Draco felt a chill run down his spine as it dawned on him how much danger he had put her in. If his former housemates noticed any semblance of affection between the two of them then they would have no qualms about using her as a pawn to ensure his compliance. How could he have been so stupid? It was bad enough that Gamp was marrying her sister, but that was ultimately Daphne’s problem. The Greengrass family had managed to stay out of the last war, and Draco dearly hoped that Astoria’s father would have the good sense to do so again if Gamp’s plans actually amounted to anything. Like it or not, her father’s house was the safest place for her to be until everything sorted itself out.


His thoughts were interrupted by a loud banging on the door. The two witches were obviously dying to powder their noses and continue savaging Daphne’s wedding decor in private. Draco splashed some water on Emery Montague’s face and toweled it off before checking his appearance in the mirror. The pounding on the door came again, and Draco realized that the blows were far too heavy for the dainty hands of the witches he’d seen. He opened the door to find Mr. Montague glaring at him.


“There you are, Emery! While you were in there, doing... whatever, your future wife is sitting all by herself at a table in the corner. Get out there and talk to her for Merlin’s sake! So help me, if you embarrass us in front of the Greengrasses, I will burn every last Quidditch magazine in that unholy hog sty you call your chambers. Am I clear?”


Draco tried to decide whether he cared enough about Emery Montague’s happiness to appease his red-faced father. He didn’t.


“Be sure to bring a house elf along, or somebody else who’s smart enough to make fire. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to get this over with.”


Draco calmly walked away, leaving Mr. Montague standing outside the loo with his mouth hanging open in shock. There was only one thing to do. Astoria had no idea that he’d taken Emery Montague’s place and Draco was going to keep it that way. He’d stumble through a ham-fisted attempt to make conversation with her, then excuse himself and disapparate back to the Montagues’ estate before anyone knew what had happened. Emery couldn’t tell his parents that Draco had used polyjuice potion to impersonate him without admitting that he was complicit in the whole plan. He’d just have to deal with their anger.


He found Astoria sitting quietly at a table that was far from the head table and the dance floor, just as Mr. Montague had indicated. Draco couldn’t help but stop and stare for a moment. Her hair hung in long, dark curls that tumbled gently onto her shoulders. The alabaster skin of her cheeks looked radiant, and her brown eyes sparkled as they slowly scanned the room. She seemed to be expecting something or someone and from the expression on her face, Draco could only guess that she was dreading the sight of her “date” for the evening.


Taking one last breath to steel his resolve, he sauntered over to her table. It gave him a small measure of comfort to know that he’d be able to help her validate all of the terrible things she’d been telling her parents about Emery Montague. She noticed him when he was still some distance away, and the sour look that crossed her face was no surprise. In her letters, she’d gone on at length about how upset she was with her parents. He was glad that she’d decided to maintain appearances and keep them happy. That would go a long way toward keeping her safe in the turbulent times to come.


“Hello, Emery. So good of you to actually make an appearance. Do have a seat.”


Draco did his best to keep Emery Montague’s signature look of befuddled indifference fixed on his face. Astoria impatiently patted the table in front of the seat beside her and he stood perfectly still for a long moment, staring. She truly was beautiful, and Draco drank in her appearance. After tonight, there was no way to know when he’d be able to see her again. Astoria patted the table more insistently, and he sidled around and sat down.


“Um, hi, Astoria. Enjoying your holiday?”


“Oh, it’s been splendid. Helping my deranged sister prepare for this blessed day, watching my mother slowly lose her mind. What’s not to enjoy?”


The bitterness in her voice pained Draco. He knew very well from her letters that being at home, suffering through her parents’ lectures about her future and putting up with Daphne’s rapidly changing moods had made for a miserable start to her summer. He had been so in hopes that he would be able to surprise her and brighten up her evening just a bit. Now that wasn’t going to happen.


“Dunno. I don’t really know much about weddings.”


Mumbling out brief replies seemed like the safest idea to Draco. Soon, he would find a way to excuse himself and leave. He promised himself that he would write an extra-long letter to her as soon as he arrived home.


They eyed one another for a long, silent moment. Draco slowly swept his eyes over the peach chiffon abomination wrapped around Astoria’s petite frame. Had it been worn by any other woman in the world, he would have felt a strong urge to set it on fire. For her part, she was staring at him so intently that it made him uncomfortable.


“There’s something... different about you, Emery. You look older... more dignified, I think. Have you lost weight?”


Concern spiked in Draco’s mind. The polyjuice potion couldn’t be wearing off already, he’d only just had another dose. Had he messed up the recipe somehow? No, he had been quite careful and it had worked flawlessly all evening. Maybe something he was subconsciously doing was giving him away, some mannerism that he couldn’t quite control. She continued to stare at him, and he thought he could see a trace of anger behind her brown eyes.


She suddenly rose to her feet and stared past the room’s other tables toward the doors that led to the vast patio and the gardens beyond. After taking a moment to adjust her dress, she held out her hand toward him.


“It’s a lovely night out. Would you care to escort me on a stroll through the gardens?”


It was phrased like a question, but Astoria’s tone made it clear that she did not expect him to refuse. Perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing. Once they were outside, away from the other guests, he could say something that drove the final nail into the coffin containing Emery Montague’s ill-fated courtship, then leave. He offered her the crook of his arm and they made their way outside. Neither one of them spoke as they crossed the patio, and the silence started to feel very oppressive. Even though his logical mind wanted to leave her annoyed and disgusted, his heart felt heavy. He needed to get this over with. Taking in deep breath, he lowered his voice to a mumble and addressed her.


“Astoria, I... uh... there’s things I ought to tell you. I know our parents are excited about this date but... well, it’s that... I don’t fancy girls. Quite the opposite, actually.”


There. If that wasn’t enough to put an end to the farce, Draco wasn’t sure what would. Astoria was quiet for a moment as they rounded a bend in the path that led to a quiet spot behind a copse of trees. She abruptly let go of his arm and spun around so that she was standing in front of him. One of her small hands found its way into the center of his chest while the other wrapped itself around his neck and pulled his head lower, so she could whisper into his ear.


“That’s really too bad, Draco. Because I know a girl who fancies you a great deal.”






Astoria held back for as long as she was able before the hurt and annoyance she was feeling were finally too much. She pushed Draco away and punched him right in Emery Montague’s well-padded midsection. He yelped in surprise, but she still wasn’t satisfied. She hit him again and again until he finally seized her slender wrists and forced her to stop. Astoria felt an unwelcome prickling of the backs of her eyes, but she refused to allow any tears to fall. There was a stunned look on Emery Montague’s pudgy face as she yanked her arms free and backed away from him. Her voice fell to an angry hiss.


“What were you thinking, sneaking in here? You risk our entire relationship and then you don’t even let me know that you’re coming? You’d better start explaining, you bloody fool.”


Draco’s mouth was slowly opening and closing, but no sound was coming out. She waited for him to find his voice, glaring icily. When he finally managed to speak, it was in a stammering whisper.


“I... I just wanted to see you. I wanted to surprise you. I started planning as soon as you told me about Montague and the wedding. How did you know it was me?”


The crestfallen look on his face combined with the obvious contrition in his voice took the searing edge off of Astoria’s anger, but she still stamped her foot and huffed before she answered.


“I overheard Jeremy talking about you with several of those friends of his. He tends to think that he’s whispering when he isn’t. Besides, I think they all started drinking before brunch. How do you think I felt, Draco? Finding out that you were here from that lot?”


Draco’s shoulders fell and he jammed his hands into the pockets of his robes. He seemed equal parts embarrassed and sad and Astoria could feel it tugging at her heart, but she wasn’t ready to let this one go. Not yet, anyway. She continued to glare at him until he finally spoke.


“I’m sorry, Astoria. I didn’t mean for things to end up like this. I was going to surprise you, try to make your evening more bearable. Now it seems that your parents might be the only ones who don’t know that I’m here. I tried to be clever and I messed up everything. Will you forgive me?”


She was still angry, but deep down she knew that this wasn’t how she wanted him to remember their time together. Men did stupid things sometimes. Isadore’s magazines were unanimous on that point. Her thoughts were rapidly turning toward what was going to happen next. She narrowed her eyes and stamped her foot softly.


“You promise you’ll never go and do something like this again without telling me first?”


No sooner had the question left her mouth than Astoria realized how strange it sounded. They weren’t married. They weren’t even a proper couple in the eyes of society. She was a rising Seventh Year, a week shy of her seventeenth birthday and he was an nineteen-year-old outcast, one year removed from fighting on the losing side of a devastating war. Somehow, in spite of it all, the question felt perfectly right.


“Yes, I promise.”


There wasn’t a hint of that meaningless, perfunctory Malfoy flippancy in his voice. She sighed and took a step closer, laying her palm in the middle of his chest. It was difficult to look behind Emery Montague’s dull, brown eyes and find Draco, but if she tried hard enough she convinced herself that she could see the warm spark of his affection.


“You know why I’m so angry, don’t you? I can’t lose you. Not now.”


She closed her eyes and tucked herself into his warm embrace. Maybe the arms around her didn’t feel like Draco’s arms, and the chest she buried her face in didn’t feel like Draco’s tall, slender frame, but when he pressed his cheek against the top of her head and whispered I love you into her ear, the voice she heard was distinctly his.


“Promise me one more thing, Draco.”


“Anything.”


“Don’t buy me anything for my birthday. Instead, I want you to meet me at the front door of the Manor first thing in the morning. I’m going to tell my parents everything. I’m going to tell them all about us. And then if they won’t allow you to stay, promise me that we’ll leave together. Please?”






Her question struck him like a blow to the chest. She had just confirmed everything he had dared to dream that she felt for him, but at the worst possible moment. The word yes danced on the tip of his tongue. It would be so easy to let it fall. To throw caution to the wind and follow his heart’s deepest desire. He loved her and she loved him. That was what mattered. Everything else was just a distraction, bumps in the road that led to a life more wonderful than he had allowed himself to imagine in the dark days following the end of the war.


But those were foolish thoughts. Nothing more than the dreams of a misguided boy who chose to ignore the harsh realities of the world around him. The man holding Astoria Greengrass in his arms knew better. Another war was coming. Perhaps it wouldn’t be as long or costly as the one that came before, but that wouldn’t make it any less dangerous. Once again his family found themselves positioned on the losing side and unless Draco could unravel his father’s involvement and pull them back from the brink, they would lose everything. He enjoyed the gentle rise and fall of her shoulders for as long as he dared, but his resolve only grew stronger. He would not -- could not -- allow her to be put in harm’s way. If she never forgave him for it, he could only hope that she would live to be angry for a long, long time.


“Astoria, I have to go soon. Too many people know that I’m here. It isn’t safe for us to be seen together.”


He felt her body tense in his arms, and it brought a pain to his chest unlike any physical discomfort he’d ever felt. Draco silently reminded himself that he was doing the right thing.


“You didn’t answer my question.”


Draco took a deep breath and tried to decide what to say. Telling her about Gamp’s conspiracy would only make things worse. She’s already made it very clear how she felt about him taking risks on her behalf. Maybe he could appeal to her practical nature.


“Astoria, are you sure that’s what you want? We’ve both come so far over the past six months. I want to earn your father’s respect and court you properly if it’s at all possible.”


Astoria stared back at him with a look of suspicion and disbelief.


“Since when do you care what my father thinks, Draco?”


He should have known that she was too smart to blindly accept that answer, no matter how upset she was. Still, he couldn’t think of anything better, so he pressed on, reminding himself over and over that he was doing this for her.


“We had a plan, Astoria. To convince him that I’d changed so that we could be together with his blessing. I still think it’s a good one.”


That plan went out the window when I realized what an impossibly stubborn, arrogant fool my father is. It doesn’t matter to him that you’ve changed since the war. He’s incapable of changing his mind. He’d have to admit that he was wrong in the first place.”


There was something more lurking behind her frustrated glare and the impatient tapping of her foot. Draco could see the worry in her eyes, the desperation. If he thought that he’d felt conflicted before, it had just become a thousand times worse. As if she could sense his indecision -- and he thought it entirely possible that she could -- she dropped all pretense of still being angry with him and the tears started to pool in her eyes.


“Please, Draco. Say that you’ll do it. I never knew that a person could mean as much to me as you do. I love you and I don’t want to lose you.”


“Astoria, listen to me. You aren’t going to lose me. I’m yours for as long as you’ll have me. I just don’t want to see you hurt. If you run away from your family, people will say terrible, hurtful things. I know what it’s like to live in a world where everyone thinks the worst of you and I don’t want to see you suffer like that.”


The tears started to roll down her cheeks and she grasped both of his hands in hers.


“You don’t think I’m suffering right now? Emery Montague is only the first, Draco! My parents have lined up a parade of young men to court me this summer. When I told father about all the N.E.W.T.s I’d been allowed to sit, he was disappointed. He doesn’t think I have enough time to find a husband.”


She gripped his hands more tightly, staring at him with a pleading look in her eyes. Draco nearly had to look away. Her expression was killing him.


“What he doesn’t know is that I don’t want anybody else. I want you. Don’t make me beg, Draco. Say you’ll do it. I know I can make you the happiest wizard in the world if you’ll only give me the chance.”


The ache in Draco’s chest felt as though it might stop his heart. He was facing the moment of truth, and he knew that what came next was going to hurt worse than anything anyone had ever done to him with a wand. If he was going to keep Astoria in her father’s house where she would be safe until Gamp’s insane, dangerous scheme was finished playing out, there was no choice. He took a deep breath.






“Astoria, you’ve already made me happier than I ever thought I could be after the war. You know I mean that. But I can’t make that promise. There are things... things that you don’t understand. I couldn’t live with myself if you were hurt because of me.”


Astoria stared back at the unfamiliar face speaking in Draco’s voice. His words were like a knife through her heart. She had been ready to throw away it all away for him. Her relationship with her parents. Her place in society. She was prepared to sacrifice everything that had ever mattered in her life because she loved him with all her heart. And he had turned her down. A small part of her was crying out that something wasn’t right with his answer. That his wavering, mournful voice didn’t match the ugly finality of his words. But that tiny voice of reason was swept away in a tide of grief and panic.


“But why? Have I done something wrong? Tell me, Draco, please. Is there something more you want from me? I know I have a lot to learn about being a proper wife, but I’ll do whatever it takes to make you happy. Please, just give me the chance.”


She hadn’t noticed the tears running down her cheeks until he took her face in his hands and gently brushed them away with his thumbs. When he spoke, he sounded more resolute, although the certainty didn’t quite reach his eyes.


“You’ve done nothing wrong and our relationship makes me happier than I’m able to put into words.”


“Then why won’t you just say yes? What’s stopping you, Draco?”


She chewed on her lower lip while she searched for any sort of answer in his eyes. He seemed to be completely at a loss for words, leaving only Isadore’s advice echoing through her mind. If the little wizard isn’t happy then the big wizard isn’t happy, either. Was that why Draco was holding back? Was he not satisfied with the physical part of their relationship? Worried that she was unwilling or unable to please him? She fixed him with a beseeching look and tried again.


“Do you want... more than what happened in the hidden room at Hogwarts? Is that it? It isn’t a problem, you know. I’d do whatever you wanted.”


The somber expression suddenly disappeared from Draco’s face, replaced by a look somewhere between shock and disbelief.


“You would?”


Desperate hope gripped Astoria’s heart. Perhaps she’d found the chink in his emotional armor, the way for her to get past whatever barriers he’d decided to throw up between the two of them. She paused for a moment, trying to decide whether she had the courage to act. This wasn’t how she’d imagined their first time. Granted, she hadn’t expected Draco to whisk her away to some impossibly beautiful place, sweep her off of her feet with heartfelt professions of his undying love and devotion and then lay her down on a bed of rose petals. But she also hadn’t expected that she would be seducing him in the middle of her sister’s wedding. She took a deep breath and tried to push all of the doubts out of her mind. If she didn’t do something, she was going to lose him. Of that much, she felt certain.


Acting bolder than she really felt, she closed the gap between them with a single step and slipped her hand around the back of his neck. As she pulled his head lower, she closed her eyes and sought out his lips with hers. As long as she couldn’t see him, it was possible to imagine that she was kissing Draco’s lips, not Emery Montague’s. He felt tentative at first, but then he started to warm to her. It was time to throw caution to the wind.


As she felt her mind starting to grow fuzzy with passion, Astoria tried to imagine what Pansy Parkinson would do in this situation. She pressed her hand against his belly, toying with the waistband of his trousers. Draco’s kiss became more insistent, and she felt emboldened by his response. It was working! Her knees were starting to feel weak from sheer exhilaration, and she knew that it was time to show Draco her true intentions, how far she was really willing to go to make him happy. With Isadore’s advice ringing in her ears, she thrust her hand deeper and lower, until it came into contact with...






Draco’s eyes flew open and he nearly fell down at the sudden shock of Astoria’s hand invading his nether regions. He broke their kiss as quickly as he could without knocking her down and grabbed her arm, pulling her hand out of his trousers. Much later, when he’d been able to calm down and reflect on the events of that day, it would occur to Draco that of all the strange experiences that came with using polyjuice potion, the sensation of feeling another person’s hand gripping private parts that were not truly your own was by far the strangest.


Astoria, what are you doing?


He immediately regretted the tone of his voice. Her lower lip was quivering noticeably and she looked confused and hurt.


“I thought... I thought this is what you wanted.”


“No! You think I want you to demean yourself like that? Of course not!”


“So you don’t want to make love to me?”


The question sent Draco’s already overwhelmed mind reeling. It was as though she was determined to make this as difficult for him as humanly possible. Memories of their passionate night in the hidden room flowed unbidden through his mind. The way that her body responded to his touch and the soft moans of pleasure that escaped her lips. It would be so easy to give in and tell her what she wanted to hear. So very easy.


“Of course I want to, Astoria, but the timing... it just isn’t right. I want our first time together to be special. I want it to mean something.”


“So the time we spent together in the hidden room didn’t mean anything?”


Draco didn’t like the sudden change in her voice. There was something dangerous in her tone, forbidding.


“No. It meant a lot to me, Astoria.”


“Did you take Pansy there, too? I bet you didn’t stop yourself from making love to her!”


Draco knew that girls could be hard to follow at times, but Astoria was taking things to a whole different level. He shook his head in disbelief and stammered out a response.


“What? No! What has Pansy got to do with any of this?”


“You were never worried about whether the time was right with her. You just shagged her every chance you got. Maybe I’m just too much of a bother for you!”


The hurt in Astoria’s eyes had gradually twisted into rage. She crossed her arms across her chest, cramming clenched fists into the crooks of her elbows as she awaited his response. Draco could feel his own anger rising. He was willing to give up everything, all of his hopes and dreams for a happy future, to protect her and keep her away from harm, and now she was accusing him of... something. He couldn’t exactly say what, but he had a suspicion and it made him furious.


“You think I’m still in love with Pansy? You’re mental!”


“Well you’re plainly not in love with me! I was ready to give up everything for you, you big, stupid prat. My life, my family, all of it!”


“I never asked you to give up anything! You’re the one who decided we need to throw away everything and run off together! That was your choice, not mine!”


The anger radiating from Astoria seemed to condense and intensify. She lowered her arms to her sides and unclenched her fists as her back straightened into a proper posture. A dangerous calm settled onto her tear-stained face.


“You’re right, Draco. It was my choice, and now I regret it. You want to know the choice I regret most, though? The choice I made when I pulled your selfish arse out of the gutter in Diagon Alley. It’s funny, how my father could be completely wrong about you but still get one thing right. You are evil. Evil enough to let me fall in love with you when you when you obviously never gave a damn.”


With that, she spun on her heel and stormed away.


Draco stumbled along the garden path, feeling completely empty and numb. He had no idea how long he wandered. Long enough for the polyjuice potion to wear off, at least. Long enough to finally realize what he’d done. How his own stupid mistakes, one after the other, had cost him the only thing that still mattered. Long enough for his anger to turn inward, focused on the one place it truly belonged.


“Emery! Emery, is that you?”


Mr. Montague’s voice was rapidly coming closer. He sounded very upset, and it infuriated Draco that the gormless idiot felt entitled to such an emotion.


“You come here this instant, Emery! I would like an explanation for why your date has locked herself in her chambers, sobbing uncontrollably. If you’ve done anything to embarrass our family-”


Draco could count on one hand the number of times he’d performed magic without a wand. His displays of baby magic had been exceedingly rare, much to his parents’ chagrin. In the instant that Mr. Montague’s hand clamped down on his shoulder, Draco felt a surge of magic unlike anything he’d ever experienced. An otherworldly howl escaped from his lips as all of the pent-up anger and frustration and hurt and disappointment exploded outward. The stones beneath his feet were torn from the path and shattered into pieces. Several branches were ripped from nearby trees. Mr. Montague was flung twenty paces away where he landed in a heap.


The red haze of fury gradually cleared from Draco’s vision and he stood, panting softly and surveying the destruction he’d caused. He heard shouts of alarm coming from the direction of the manor house. They grew louder and he could make out the sound of rapid footsteps approaching. Taking one last look at the rubble strewn around the gardens, he laughed bitterly. The irony was simply too much. Then he turned and disappeared with a crack.






The flickering light of a single candle sent shadows dancing along the walls as Astoria rubbed her sore, red eyes with the heels of her hands. She had no idea how long she’d been holed up in her bedroom. Hours perhaps. Her horrible dress lay in a heap by the door, still in the same spot where her severing charm had split the corseted sides with an especially satisfying sound. The satisfaction had lasted only a second, however. For the longest time, she’d simply buried her face in her pillows and sobbed.


Several times she’d heard a soft knock at her door, but she ignored them. The locking spells she used weren’t especially strong. If her mother or father really cared enough to see whether she was alright, they could have easily forced their way in. Apparently they cared more about not damaging the door than their own daughter’s well-being.


She stared at the pile of Draco’s letters lying on her writing desk. She had torn the room apart, making sure to find every one. Clothes from her turned-out dresser drawers were strewn across the floor and her books were scattered across the bed. Astoria couldn’t stand the thought of a single letter surviving the purge. Each one was a mocking reminder of the future she’d been naive enough to imagine could be hers. A token of her childish belief that true love really existed. Before the sun rose, her childhood would be over. Tomorrow, she would face the reality of life as a proper pureblood lady. But on this last night, she mourned what she had lost.


Her wand twisted loosely between her fingers as Astoria lifted her arm and aimed it at the pile of parchment. With a single word, she would wipe away the last trace of her foolish desires. One spell, and she would never again allow herself to feel such pain and vulnerability. She would face her fate with the same equanimity and lack of emotion that she imagined on her mother’s face all those years ago when her father was introduced to the young woman as her future husband. The incantation sat on the tip of her tongue. She felt her hand starting to shake. Why now? One little spell and all the hurt would end. Why was she so weak?


Astoria collapsed to the floor, new sobs gripping her. As her discarded wand skittered away, the truth crashed over her. She couldn’t simply turn off her feelings for Draco by burning his letters and pretending she’d never loved him. That would only be another layer of delusion, a weak attempt to lie to herself about how broken her heart truly was. She never could have imagined how much losing Draco would hurt. How deeply in love with him she really was. But she had lost him, likely forever. And it was her own stupid fault.


Why in god’s name had she pushed him so hard? It should have been obvious how uncomfortable she was making him. She could see it so clearly now. Why had she let Isadore’s advice override her own judgment? And why had she said all those hateful things to him? In the heat of her anger and disappointment, she had allowed her temper to completely consume her. When she recalled the furious, humiliated young woman who had stood in front of Draco and called him evil, Astoria could barely recognize herself.


Nevertheless, she had done it, and now she couldn’t take those horrible, spiteful words back for all the gold in Gringotts. She could blame Draco for upsetting her. She could blame her parents, she could blame Isadore, she could even blame Pansy if she wanted to. Deep down, Astoria knew the awful truth. The only person responsible for her misery was Astoria, herself.


She curled up on the floor at the foot of her bed and let the tears fall.






First off, I'd like to apologize for the long delay between chapters. I felt like this was an especially important one, and it turned out to be surprisingly difficult. I wanted to make sure that I got it right. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my beta reader, sophie_hatter, for this chapter. Her suggestions and insights made it so much better than my first draft. Lastly, a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed Detox. The feedback always puts a smile on my face.


Chapter 12: Climbing Back
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As always, that which you regognize from the books belongs to the great JK Rowling.






Astoria lay on her side, staring at the wall where the reflection of the morning sun in her dressing mirror was slowly making its way toward the floor molding. Or perhaps it was the evening sun. She really couldn’t bring herself to care. At some point, her parents had forced their way into her bedroom and lifted her from the floor into her bed. Otherwise, she hadn’t moved since collapsing the night before. The guilt and anguish from her row with Draco still sat on her chest; she could feel it slowly squeezing the life out of her. Nothing was ever going to be the same again, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever be ready to face life without him.

 
Human shadows occasionally passed through the reflection. Her mother must be pacing, possibly her father as well. She could hear them talking in quiet voices, but their words failed to penetrate the thick layers of grief and hopelessness. If they were talking about her, it really didn’t matter what they were saying. Better that they should marry her off to some pathetic, rich young man sooner rather than later. Better to get it over with.


The events of the previous evening played over and over again in her mind, every detail horrifyingly vivid. The hurt and fear of rejection that had fueled her anger. The moment of panic that had led her to try to seduce him. The feeling of his strong hands pushing her away. Her own cruel words echoed in her ears, every drop of venom that she’d laced them with, and they sent sharp lances of pain through her ribs. How could she have been so horrible, so selfish, so stupid?

 
The volume and pitch of her mother’s voice increased. She sounded upset. With great effort, Astoria managed to focus on what she was saying.

 
“Horatio, we need to call for a healer! Maybe somebody slipped something into the food. The Montague boy had some sort of magical explosion in our garden for heaven’s sake! Then Jasper and Sophia found him in his bed at home, naked and... defiling himself. They’ve sent him to St. Mungo’s to check for spell damage! What if the same thing happened to her?”

 
Astoria felt a bitter smirk try and fail to make its way to her lips. At least she wasn’t the only one suffering in the aftermath of Daphne’s wedding reception. She hadn’t stopped to wonder what had actually become of her intended suitor because she honestly couldn’t care less. The only Emery Montague that mattered was the copy that she’d driven away with her own temper and stupidity.

 
Her father captured her attention when he spoke. His voice lacked the deep resonance of self-assurance that always seemed to add weight to his words. They sounded flat and lifeless without it.

 
“I’m not sure what to do. Last night wasn’t the first time I’ve noticed her acting strangely, although it was obviously the worst. Ever since the incident with the Malfoy boy in Hogsmeade, there’s been something off about her.”

 
So her father wasn’t a complete idiot. Her refusal to entertain any conversation about her love life lasting longer than thirty seconds apparently hadn’t gone unnoticed.

 
“Maybe...”

 
Her mother’s voice was tentative, as though she wanted to say something but wasn’t entirely sure that she should.

 
“Maybe what?”

 
“It’s nothing. Just a stray thought. I still say we should call for a healer.”

 
Her father’s voice remained diffident, but he grew more insistent.

 
“Priscilla, if you have any thoughts about her condition, please, share them.”

 
Astoria waited for her mother to reply. When she did, it sounded as though she was choosing her words cautiously.

 
“I was merely wondering whether all the emotional turmoil from Daphne’s wedding got to be too much for her.”

 
Her father gave a tired sigh.

 
“At times, I suspected that none of us were going to survive Daphne’s wedding.”

 
“That isn’t what I mean... not exactly, anyway. We’ve been pushing her so hard to think about her future. All the while, she was watching her sister go through a very difficult and emotional time in her life. She’s still so young. Maybe she isn’t ready.”

 
It took a moment for her father to answer, but he seemed to find a measure of confidence.

 
“In less than a week, she’ll be of age. You and I were only fifteen when we were betrothed to one another. ”

 
“Things were different for us, Horatio. When I was a little girl, I wanted nothing more than to marry a wonderful man and raise beautiful children. I know that Astoria wants that, as well, but she also wants to excel in her lessons. Maybe she simply needs more time.”

 
“How much time does she need? She’s nearly seventeen and she’s never had a proper relationship. Jeremy had been courting Daphne for over a year by the time they were Astoria’s age. And even at that it took her another six months to get him to propose. If she waits too long, all of the suitable young men will find wives elsewhere. I don’t want our little girl to end up alone.”

 
Something about her father’s words seemed to provoke a reaction in her mother. Not quite anger; Astoria had never known Priscilla Greengrass to show any sort of hostility toward her husband. But the deference was suddenly gone from her voice, replaced by a deep and somewhat dangerous conviction.

 
“Astoria is not going to end up alone. There isn’t a young man in all of Britain who wouldn’t be fortunate to have her.”

 
“You know that and I know that, but there are any number of fine young wizards from good families who’ve never even met her. That’s why it’s so important for her to make the most of this summer. She should be attending dinner parties and balls, not studying for exams that will never matter again once she’s married.”

 
The temperature of her mother’s voice dropped another few degrees. In spite of the smothering weight of her sadness, Astoria felt as though she should leave her own room.

 
“They matter to her, Horatio. If we wanted her to simply marry off the moment she was of age, we should have filled her head with empty thoughts and fantasies. I’ve always been proud of the fact that we didn’t make that choice. I thought you felt the same way.”

 
There was a long moment of silence, and in her mind’s eye, Astoria could picture her parents’ faces. Her mother was never one to glare at her father. Not only was it improper for a pureblood wife to undermine her husband in such a visible manner, but it was also tantamount to admitting defeat. Their mother had always drilled it into Astoria and her sister that if matters had gotten so far beyond a person’s control as to make them angry then that person had done a poor job indeed of managing their circumstances. Instead, Astoria imagined a look of total serenity on her mother’s face, the type of placid contentment that her father would be loathe to spoil by disagreeing. As it turned out, Astoria was at least correct about her father’s reaction.

 
“I think you’re right. We should call for a healer. I’ve donated enough gold to St. Mungo’s over the years. The least they can do is dispatch somebody to figure out whether there’s anything wrong with her.”

 
Astoria pondered their conversation as her parents’ voices disappeared into the hallway. In the darkest moment of her young life, it appeared that she had found something of an ally. In a quiet, dignified way, her mother had no problems making her opinions clear and standing up for what she thought was right. It made Astoria feel badly about wallowing in her misery, which oddly felt like a bit of a relief after spending so many hours feeling badly about how things ended with Draco.

 
Ended. It was such a stark, permanent-sounding word. She imagined it chiseled in stone, like a somber monument to the future she and Draco had imagined together. Did things really need to be this way? For the first time in what seemed like forever, Astoria considered the possibility that she could fix things. Apologize to Draco for her behavior. Explain herself. If her mother could find the strength to force her father to reconsider his opinions, why couldn’t she take control of her own life?

 
Astoria couldn’t help it, the rational part of her brain started to spin in spite of her aching heart. There were things that she could do to help make her father understand that her mother was right. Make it seem as though she was open to a compromise. Suffer through one or two dinner parties as long as her father accepted the fact that her studies were going to be the principal focus of her holiday. That’s what she’d let him believe, at any rate. Her true focus was going to be finding some way -- any way -- to mend her relationship with Draco and earn back his love. Because she felt certain that her heart would never be whole again if she couldn’t.

 
Slowly, she lifted her head from her pillow. Her muscles whinged from lack of use as she pulled herself to a sitting position. Recalling the events of the past twenty-four hours didn’t hurt any less, but at least she had the beginnings of a plan. Something to concentrate on instead of the hollow pain inside her chest. Besides, she had no desire to end up in St. Mungo’s. The way her luck was running, they’d probably make her share a room with Emery Montague.

 




 “I... I can’t do it.”

 
Draco’s hands were shaking visibly as he struggled not to drop his wand. He looked up from the doxy frantically trying to escape from the glass jar on the laboratory bench and found the confused faces of Madam Blishwick and Reginald Penhallow staring back at him. Penhallow had been experimenting on doxies for weeks, trying to induce the same sort of damage to their central nervous systems that the Healers at St. Mungo’s found in human victims of the Cruciatus Curse. Madam Blishwick had apparently reached the limits of her patience and now she was looking to Draco to help make some headway on the project.

 
“Mr. Malfoy, it’s only a doxy. And you are fully authorized to use Unforgivable Curses for research on non-sentient creatures.”

 
“It’s not that, it’s just...”
 

Draco searched for the right words to justify his refusal without revealing anything more about his experiences during the war. How was he supposed to explain that the last time he’d uttered that curse, his wand was pointed toward a helpless old man who begged him for a quick, painless death to end his suffering? How could he make her understand that only his fear of the Dark Lord’s anger kept him from granting the old man’s wish?

 
“... It’s just that for the curse to have the greatest possible effect, you need to really want the victim to suffer. You have to mean it. I don’t really have anything against this doxy, so it’s not possible for me to cast the curse properly.”

 
He’d hoped that would be enough to convince her to drop the subject. He could not have been more mistaken. Madam Blishwick’s eyes lit up as though somebody had just handed her a very large package wrapped in shiny silver paper with an oversized bow on top.

 
“That’s extraordinary, Mr. Malfoy. The available literature on the Cruciatus Curse has no indications of any correlation between the animosity the caster feels for the victim and the efficacy of the curse. -- Reginald, are you writing this down? -- Now, let’s start with the basics. Where did you learn this?”

 
Draco swallowed hard. This was bad. The entire topic of conversation was very, very bad. As if on cue, his stomach came to life, threatening his esophagus with a revolting mix of half-digested food and bile. Was there anything he could say that would convince her to let it go?

 
“I, I don’t exactly remember, to be honest. I think I heard my aunt say that once.”

 
“Do you mean Bellatrix Lestrange? The witch who tortured the Longbottoms into insanity? Mr. Malfoy, your aunt is legendary among Healers who treat curse injuries. By some estimates, she’s personally responsible for fifteen percent of the patients now residing in the Permanent Care Ward at St. Mungo’s. -- Reginald, run to the supply cupboard and get a new roll of parchment. -- If I’d had any idea that you could offer first-hand accounts of your aunt’s use of dark curses, I would have spared you a week’s worth of filing duty. Now, can you be more specific about how the caster’s emotions affect the Cruciatus Curse? Does it have to be hatred or will any strong emotion suffice?”

 
Draco’s frustration started to rise alongside the contents of his stomach. Why couldn’t anyone in this bloody department take a hint?

 
“I told you, I don’t exactly remember. My aunt said a lot of things that didn’t make sense. She was almost completely mad by the end.”

 
Madam Blishwich and shared a quick glance with Penhallow and then her voice took on a coddling, almost patronizing tone. Draco supposed that this was how she spoke when she wanted people to think that she was being understanding, and it infuriated him.

 
“Draco -- May I call you Draco? -- I’m sure that things were very hectic during the war. I understand that recalling the specifics is a challenge. But your aunt’s skill with dark curses is nearly unmatched in the history of our world. You were given a unique opportunity, Draco. You were able to observe her closely.”

 
Unique opportunity? Draco suppressed a bitter snort of laughter and stared incredulously at his coworkers. They had no idea what they were talking about. None. He could feel his control slipping away and his voice rose as he tried once more to make them understand.

 
“She was mental, don’t you get it? Completely insane. She use to talk to herself and laugh out loud when nobody said anything funny. What you’re asking me to recall is nothing but rubbish.”

 
Madam Blishwick abandoned her attempt at sensitivity and started to lecture him instead.

 
“One person’s rubbish is another’s treasure, Mr. Malfoy. Just because a person is mad doesn’t mean that we have nothing to learn from them. Taken together, all of the little things you’re able to recall could greatly expand our understanding of how these curses work. There are people in St. Mungo’s who will never leave because of the things your aunt did to them. Don’t you feel that you owe it to them to at least try?”

 
Owe? Something inside of Draco snapped. Suddenly his wand was in his hand and it was aimed directly at the bridge of Madam Blishwick’s ugly, institutional spectacles. The curse sat on the tip of his tongue. She really wanted to know how the Cruciatus Curse worked? She wanted to understand madness? The room felt as though it was collapsing on him. What was he doing? He was so angry. He needed a way out. His chest felt as though it was going to explode. He whipped his arm around-

 
CRUCIO!

 
The doxy in the jar let out an otherworldly shriek of agony as its limbs went rigid and hurled its tiny body backward with such force that the impact of its head cracked the thick glass. For a long moment the room was completely silent aside from the doxy’s pitiful moaning. For the first time since he’d known her, Madam Blishwick seemed to be at a complete loss for words. Reginald Penhallow stood behind her with his mouth agape and his quill hovering over a crisp new roll of parchment. Draco focused on a tiny droplet of ink clinging to the tip as he struggled to rein in his racing heartbeat. Somewhere in the back of his mind, it dawned on him that he had just opened a door that he would never be able to close. As suddenly as the silence had fallen, the room seemed to erupt into a whirlwind of activity.

 
“Reginald, get a diagnostic potions kit in here immediately! We need to sample the subject’s neurotransmitter levels before they have a chance to normalize. Mr. Malfoy, fetch Audrina and Julian from Laboratory Number Five, right away! We need to start the dissection...”

 
Draco never heard the rest of her instructions nor did he bother to look for Audrina or Julian. The cacophony coming from Reginald Penhallow’s lab was certainly enough to attract the attention of everyone in the department. He couldn’t even explain the emotions clouding his mind as he stalked back to his desk. He was furious, but the anger was blunted by a horrible sense of disappointment and regret. More than anything else in the world, he wanted a drink. Several drinks, actually. He wanted to drink until Madam Blishwick’s asinine questions and Reginald Penhallow’s stupid face and especially the doxy’s horrible scream was eradicated from his memory.

 




Draco stormed out of the lift car and set his sights on the wall of fireplaces on the far side of the Ministry Atrium. He kept his head down and his balled-up fists jammed deep into the pockets of his robes. The security officers hardly paid him any mind as he stalked past. It amazed him how quickly the novelty had worn off of his presence inside the Ministry. A mere eight days into his new career and already the busybodies and fusspots had moved on to more interesting gossip. If they had any idea what a wreck his life had become, he felt certain that the whispers and sidelong glances would start all over again.

 
Alcohol had once again become a fixture in Draco’s life. Each of the three nights since Daphne’s wedding, he had warded the doors to his chambers and drank himself into a stupor. When he wasn’t at work, it was the only way he could dull the pain and anger that plagued him. Thus far, he had managed to avoid finding himself inside the Ragged Fang or any of his other old haunts but that was mostly because he didn’t want to end up sitting next to Flint, Goyle, Nott or especially Zabini, who he probably would have killed if he’d been drunk enough.

 
The obvious alternative was to bury himself in his work, but fate, it seemed, never grew tired of indulging its cruel and capricious sense of humor. He had never been comfortable around Madam Blishwick. Her insatiable hunger for researching the finer points of dark curses made him very uneasy. It wasn’t that she seemed especially dangerous in her own right, unless you happened to be a doxy, but she was the sort of pure academic who believed that the only bad thing a person could do with information was keep it to themselves. In other words, she was a naive fool. Given the broad discretion she’d been granted by the Minister to pursue her studies, the danger posed by her foolishness was practically unlimited.

 
The conversation about his aunt Bellatrix had pushed Draco past the breaking point. He had spent the remainder of the day randomly shuffling sheets of parchment from one file to another without even reading them. Madam Blishwick had been so excited to study her prize that she never left the laboratory. When he finally decided to leave work, his stomach was still twisted in knots. By some miracle, nothing happened along the journey from his desk to the Atrium that caused him to lose his temper. Fate was probably saving that for a moment when Weaselbee happened to be standing nearby.

 
Draco stepped in front of the nearest available fireplace and hurled in floo powder with such force that the emerald flames roared well above his head.

 
“Malfoy Manor!”

 
As the Ministry of Magic spun away in his wake, there was only one thought on Draco’s mind. He would make his way to his chambers as rapidly as possible and retrieve the half-empty bottle of firewhiskey tucked away in his wardrobe. Dinner wasn’t even a consideration; he never had much of an appetite any more. Once he lost himself in the depths of the swirling brown liquid, the knotted muscles in his back would finally loosen. The pounding in his head would cease and the barely-contained fury filling his chest would be extinguished by a wonderful, numbing haze.

 
No sooner had he stepped from the large stone fireplace into the great room of his family home than he realized even that dubiously beneficial comfort was about to be delayed. His mother and father were waiting for him, sitting in a pair of high-backed leather chairs. Old Lucius was trying very hard to appear stern, but his incessant fidgeting with the signet ring on his finger betrayed his nervousness. If it had been only him, Draco would have swept out of the room without a second thought. The look on his mother’s face was one of pure concern. Even when his father started to speak, Draco found that he couldn’t look away from her piercing blue eyes.

 
“Draco, your mother and I would like a word with you.”

 
“Oh, we’re on speaking terms again?”

 
The venom in Draco’s words had been meant solely for his father, but his mother flinched ever so slightly in response. Most people never would have noticed, so strong was her emotional control. But Draco had grown up looking into that stoic face. She was upset and he was most likely the cause. He reluctantly came to a stop. Standing before the two of them made him feel like a young boy again. He hated the feeling, but the sight of his mother kept him rooted to the spot.

 
His father apparently chose to ignore his angry response. Draco took this as another sign that the conversation they were about to have was not the old man’s idea.

 
“Draco... son, we’re worried about you. Things seemed to be going so well. You finished your education and even though I can’t imagine why you took that wretched job at the Ministry, you seemed so pleased with yourself. These past few days, something has plainly changed. I know that things haven’t been exactly cordial between the two of us recently and I know that... well, the fault doesn’t lie exclusively on either side. I’d simply appreciate it if you’d tell us what’s wrong.”

 
Draco took his time parsing through the tangled web of half-truths and backhanded compliments. Even though the bottle of alcohol in his chambers was calling out to him, he needed to do right by his mother. He needed to show that he was taking the conversation seriously. And making the old man wait for his answer didn’t bother him, either. It was obvious from his father’s little speech that his retreat from the rest of humanity had not gone unnoticed. He hadn’t bothered to look in a mirror for the past few days, and he wondered whether there were outward signs that he was drinking again. Perhaps he was losing weight. Aside from a few bites of lunch at the Ministry cafeteria, he realized that he’d had nothing to eat in the past twenty-four hours.

 
Whatever it was that had upset his mother, he couldn’t understand was why she was dragging his father into the middle of things. She knew all about the angry confrontations. The yelling had been audible from one end of Malfoy Manor to the other. Why wouldn’t she simply come to Draco in private if she was worried for him? Why risk another angry shouting match? For his mother’s sake, Draco decided to try to keep the conversation civil.

 
“It’s my job. The standards are high in Madam Blishwick’s department. I’m still new, so I have to prove myself. She says that I’m doing well, but it hasn’t been easy. I suppose the stress has been affecting me.”

 
“All the more reason to quit! I have no idea what you’re trying to prove, Draco, but whatever it is, it’s not worth damaging your health. Simply resign and we’ll all take a holiday in France. After a week of relaxation, you’ll be back to your old self again and your ancestors can stop spinning in their graves.”

 
Draco glared at his father as he slowly counted to five inside his head. He was determined not to lose his temper in front of his mother, but his patience was starting to wear very thin. The sheer audacity was unbelievable, lecturing Draco about his health while the old man allowed himself to slowly waste away.

 
“I don’t want to quit. Can’t you see this is important, father? If I’m ever going to put the war behind me and make a name for myself in the world, I need to win the respect of my peers and I can’t very well do that by giving up as soon as something becomes difficult.”

 
Something changed in his father’s demeanor. A spark of the old Lucius Malfoy seemed to light up his eyes. As his face twisted into a furious look of reproach, he almost appeared to grow larger before Draco’s eyes.

 
“Your name is Malfoy, in case you’ve forgotten. Or perhaps you think you’re too good to share a name with your mother and I any longer.”

 
Draco took a step toward his father. Inside his pocket, he could feel his wand vibrating with the energy of his anger. Fighting back the urge to draw it and reduce the old man to cinders, he spat out a response.

 
“Forgotten? I’m the one who’s trying to restore our family name to respectability. To win back what we lost by backing the wrong side during the war. In other words, I’m trying to fix your mistakes, you arrogant old fool!”

 
Lucius was on his feet by this point, and he gripped his walking stick in both hands, ready to draw his wand.

 
How dare you! You weren’t even a gleam in my eye during the Dark Lord’s first rise to power. I made every possible inquiry, assessed the situation from every possible angle and I made the best decision for this family. Perhaps we didn’t end up on the winning side, but unlike you, I have the courage to live with the repercussions of that decision.”

 
A sharp, dry laugh escaped from Draco’s throat as he took another step closer. His wand was clutched in his hand, trembling between white-knuckled fingers.

 
“Courage? What do you know about courage? You didn’t have to stand before the Dark Lord and suffer the repercussions of your decision. I did. I was the one who was branded with the Dark Mark before I even turned seventeen. I was the one who was sent on a suicide mission to kill Professor Dumbledore. I was the one who was handed over to my insane Aunt Bellatrix for her special training. All you did was sit in Azkaban and wait to be summoned when I was finished paying for your ambitions!”

 
Something about Draco’s response seemed to set his father back a step. A pained expression briefly haunted the old man’s eyes. Draco couldn’t be certain whether it was the reminder of the trials he’d faced or merely the mention of Azkaban, but when old Lucius spoke, the spite was conspicuously absent from his voice.

 
“You think I didn’t know that, Draco? Not a day went by when I didn’t think about what might have happened to you and your mother. Before the last Dementors left to join the Dark Lord, they would occasionally drift pass by my cell. When they did, they only thing I could see was the two of you lying dead on the ground. Even after they were gone, that vision tormented me in the darkness of night. Don’t you presume to know the price I paid for my ambitions.”

 
Draco stood silently for a moment. His father had never spoken about his time in Azkaban except to make grandiose statements about how a lesser man wouldn’t have survived. In his own reckoning, Draco had always discounted the physical discomfort of prison by the fact that the old man wasn’t living in constant fear of death. As long as Draco continued to please the Dark Lord, he had assumed that both of his parents were safe. With the benefit of hindsight, he knew it was a foolish conceit. Nobody had ever been safe from the Dark Lord’s murderous whims. But at the time that burden of responsibility only added to the bitterness he felt. Draco filed the realization away in the back of his mind for the time being. He wasn’t finished being angry. Not by a damn sight.

 
“So why are you so eager to see all of us pay that price again, father? Why are you conspiring with lunatics and fools and trying to start another war? Have you gone completely mad?”

 
If old Lucius had looked humbled by Draco’s previous outburst, now he merely looked confused. Narcissa turned a purposeful look toward her husband, the first time her gaze had left Draco since he stepped out of the floo. Feeling the weight of their attention, the old man squared his shoulders and answered.

 
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Draco. We have nothing to gain from another war.”

 
Liar! You admitted as much, several weeks ago, in your study. Goyle, Nott, Gamp; do those names ring any bells, father? The petty torments of blood traitors and mudbloods? Powerful and respected again? Any of this coming back to you now or should we go fetch a pensieve?”

 
Lucius seemed to shrink before Draco’s eyes as he stared blankly at his shoes. He sunk back into his chair and rested his walking stick across his lap. Finally he shook his head and lowered his forehead into his palm before speaking softly, more to himself than to anybody else.

 
“Goyle, Nott... Yes, we’ve been speaking recently. The old families are gathering again. Gamp, Rowle and Travers... they’re all involved.”

 
“Lucius, Goyle was killed during the war. So was Travers. Nott and Rowle are imprisoned in Azkaban.”

 
Narcissa’s soft words caught Draco by surprise. She gently laid her slender hand on her husband’s arm, causing him to lift his gaze. There was a frightened, almost panicked look in his grey eyes.

 
“That’s not possible. I’ve only just spoken with them... was it last week? Maybe it was the week before. Certainly not more than a month ago. I’ll need to check my journal.”

 
Lucius started to stand, but Narcissa held firm to his arm, causing him to settle slowly back into his chair. She tried again, her voice soothing.

 
“You’re remembering things that happened before the war, my love. You haven’t spoken to any of your old friends since the battle at Hogwarts.”

 
The old man’s eyes flicked nervously between Draco, Narcissa and his own hands. He seemed to grow more agitated for a moment, then he focused on his wife and addressed her in a beseeching tone.

 
“But darling, I remember it. I remember the entire conversation. Goyle was telling us how he helped to chase away a half-blood family that had taken up residence in the village adjoining his estate. Nott was planning to demand that Millicent Bagnold step down for her proposal to allow mudbloods to serve on the Wizengamot.”

 
Narcissa’s voice remained calm and gentle, yet firm.

 
“Lucius, Minister Bagnold retired nine years ago. Kingsley Shacklebolt is Minister now.”

 
As his father’s eyes traveled helplessly back to his own hands, Draco stared intently at his parents, trying in vain to get his head around what he’d just seen and heard. The old man looked weak and feeble as he mumbled a series of names under his breath. Finally Draco couldn’t take the awkward tension any longer.

 
“Mother, what’s wrong? What’s happened to him?”

 
His father suddenly lifted his chin and stared at Draco, the beginnings of a disdainful sneer evident on his pale face. It faded just as quickly, however, and Lucius dropped his gaze back to his hands. Narcissa gave his arm a reassuring squeeze before turning to face Draco.

 
“Your father has been having problems with his memory since the war. It started when he first returned from Azkaban, but in recent months the episodes have been getting worse.”

 
A strange and unpleasant sensation started to well up in Draco’s chest. His throat suddenly felt tight and the room seemed uncomfortably quiet.

 
“What sort of problems? What’s wrong with him, mother?”

 
An eternity seemed to pass before his mother answered, although the deafening ticks of the grandfather clock counted off four seconds at most. She spoke very softly, as though she might somehow prevent her husband from hearing even though he sat only inches away.

 
“Sometimes he has difficulty separating recent events from those that happened long ago. The healers told us that this can happen to people who’ve suffered prolonged exposure to Dementors. Sometimes the problems go away on their own.

 
And sometimes they don’t. The implication was obvious enough that she didn’t need to say anything more. Many things flashed through Draco’s mind. All of the times that he’d quarreled with his father. The times that he’d wanted to curse the old man into oblivion and the times that he’d thought about how much better his life would be if his father simply wasn’t around any longer. In retrospect, no matter how angry he’d been, the possibility that old Lucius might actually die had never really crossed his mind. Now it filled him with a cold sense of dread unlike anything he’d ever felt.

 
Draco found himself pondering all of his hopes for the future. The dreams of the life that he’d wanted to build with Astoria. The love that they would have shared and the children they would have raised together, if only he hadn’t been such a fool. It occurred to him that his parents featured prominently in all of those dreams. He imagined old Lucius sitting by the fire, spinning tales of the old times for his grandchildren the way that Draco’s own grandfather had entertained him when he was a boy. He saw his mother doting over her grandchildren, spoiling them in every imaginable way. Without either one of them, the visions felt incomplete.

 
Dropping to one knee in front of his father, Draco took the old man’s shaking hands in his own. At first, Lucius looked surprised and even a little frightened. Draco gave him a moment to settle down before speaking.

 
“Father, I need you to think about this very carefully before you answer. Are you absolutely certain that the Goyle and Nott you’ve been speaking to are your old friends and not their sons?”

 
Lucius’s eyes snapped upward. He looked suspicious at first and then incredibly pleased that somebody finally seemed to be taking him seriously.

 
“Yes, I’m quite sure. Goyle’s son, he’s around your age, isn’t he, Draco? I do hope he gets sorted into Slytherin. You mustn't repeat this to anyone, but apparently the boy is rather slow. His father is worried that he might not have the cunning and the hat will place him in Hufflepuff, instead.”

 
Draco patted his father’s hands one final time and stood up. He found his mother staring at him intently. They studied each other for a long moment before she spoke.

 
“Now that you know the truth, is there anything else you’d like to tell us?”

 
Draco’s mind was still reeling from the revelations about his father when a new realization hit him. If old Lucius wasn’t the Death Eater that Gamp had been in contact with, that meant it was someone else. The most recent list of names from the Prophet popped into his head and a cold chill ran down his spine. They were all dangerous men. Genuine fugitives with nothing to lose. If Gamp was working with one of them, the risk of another war suddenly seemed far greater.

 
His mother was still staring at him, patiently waiting for an answer. He struggled to decide how much he should share with her. In her zeal to protect him, he worried that she might put herself in danger. At the same time, he also knew that she was a far more powerful and cunning witch than most people gave her credit for. Besides, he had concealed the truth from Astoria and it had cost him everything. Nearly cost him everything, Draco silently corrected himself. The battle was not yet lost. In fact, it was only beginning.

 
“There’s a great deal I need to tell you, actually.”

 
Then he told his mother everything. He told her about Gamp’s conspiracy and their plan to stage a prison break at Azkaban. He told her about Astoria and the terrible argument they’d had at Daphne’s wedding. He even told her about Madam Blishwick and her mad fascination with torturing doxies. Through it all, his mother simply listened, maintaining a thoughtful expression and nodding occasionally. After he finished summarizing the awful afternoon he’d spent relating his memories of his Aunt Bellatrix, he voiced the question that had been tormenting him.

 
“Before we fought, Astoria begged me to take her away from her father’s house. She was being emotional, completely irrational. I thought that she’d be safest in her father’s house. He’s a wealthy, influential man, after all, and not the type to get involved in the sort of insanity Gamp and the others are plotting. Now I’m not so sure. Her sister just married a man who’s trying to start a war. And aside from the matter of her safety, I know she isn’t happy there. Walking away from her was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. What do you think I should do?”

 
Narcissa seemed to ponder the question for a moment before responding with one of her own.

 
“I know that we have a tenuous relationship with the Ministry, Draco, but given the fact that you haven’t even mentioned contacting the Aurors, may I infer that your dealings with Mr. Gamp and the others have not been completely beyond reproach?”

 
Draco tried to formulate an intelligent-sounding response. Her ability to size up the situation amazed him.

 
“It’s rather... complicated. They’ve tried several times to recruit me. In order to secretly attend the wedding, I was forced to play along for a time. If someone asked them, they’d probably say that I was on their side. I’m concerned about how the Aurors would perceive that, especially now that Potter and half of his friends from school have joined the department.”

 
His mother nodded slowly.

 
“That is a complication, but not an insurmountable one. Many people will likely die if the conspirators manage to liberate the Dark Lord’s former followers. The information they’ve shared with you could be the key to preventing that from happening. You said before that you want to make a name for yourself and win the respect of your peers. Unless Gamp and his friends are the peers whose respect you desire, speaking to the Aurors wouldn’t be a bad first step.”

 
It all seemed rather obvious coming from his mother. Truthfully, Draco had to admit that even after his former housemates had threatened him and tried to drag him down into their self-destructive ring of stupidity, something still felt wrong about turning them over to the Ministry. The war had been over for more than a year and at some level he still thought of Shacklebolt and the others as his enemies. That needed to change. Even though he was never likely to be friends with those who had opposed the Dark Lord, enemies were too costly to maintain. Voldemort was the true enemy and he was dead.

 
His mother shook him from his moment of reflection when she spoke again.

 
“And Draco, if your heart’s desire is to be with her and keep her safe, she needs to know that. A proper lady doesn’t like to have to guess about such things.”

 
A plan quickly formed in Draco’s mind. He would go to the Aurors -- quietly -- and bargain with the information he held. Keep his family out of the shadow of innuendo and suspicion. Then he would get a message to Astoria, letting her know that he had reconsidered her request. If all went well then in three days time, when she came of age, he would present himself at the gates of her family home and give her the freedom to choose her own future.

 
Just as he was about to explain the plan to his mother, a loud banging rang out from the entry hall. She shook her head slightly in response to his questioning look. Neither one of them was expecting company. They heard an elf appear at the great wooden doors with a loud pop followed by muffled voices. Lucius seemed to still be lost in his own thoughts, so Draco made his way to the entry hall, followed closely by his mother.

 
When he turned the corner, the sight that greeted him made his breath catch in his throat. Marcus Flint was standing in the doorway, supporting an ashen, feeble-looking Theodore Nott. Nott’s shirt was soaked with blood and he clutched a saturated handkerchief tightly to his side with his free hand. As the elf fretted over the red droplets staining the marble floor, Flint caught Draco’s eyes and spoke in a demanding tone.

 
“Call for a healer, Malfoy. We need to get him fixed up before we floo to Gamp’s house. The plan has changed. It all starts tonight and we don’t want to be late.”





 
Things will get better for Draco and Astoria soon, I promise! Like any good story, the path to Happily Ever After is not an easy one.

Many thanks to my pal Jami for being there to bounce ideas off of, and to my lovely beta reader sophie_hatter for taking time out of her vacation to give this chapter a once-over. And thanks to all of you for reading! If you can spare the time to leave a review, that would be awesome!


Chapter 13: A Break with the Past
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As always, that which you recognize from the books belongs to JK Rowling






“What are you doing here, Flint?”


Draco tried to be nonchalant about sliding his wand out of his pocket, but for all the civility Flint was showing, he needn’t have bothered.


“Are you deaf, Malfoy? Nott needs a healer. Don’t just stand there, get moving! Chop, chop!”


Draco didn’t budge, although if he had moved it probably would have been to hex Flint. The fact that Flint was the only thing keeping Nott from collapsing to the floor slightly edged out the burning anger Draco felt. Swallowing his annoyance for a moment, he locked eyes with Flint and kept his voice even.


“What happened to him? He looks like he caught the bad end of a cutting hex.”


Flint rolled his eyes and snorted contemptuously.


“Nott and I had to call on the local muggle constabulary and one of the filthy animals managed to grab one of those repeating flintlocks they use before I could curse him. Bloody thing nearly deafened me and now Nott’s bleeding all over the place. If you weren’t so busy sucking up to all of your new friends at the Ministry, you could have been there to help us.”


Draco struggled to put the pieces together in his mind as Flint aimed a swipe of his boot at the house elf trying to wipe Nott’s blood off of the floor. Muggle-baiting didn’t seem like a good idea when you were part of a conspiracy to overthrow the Ministry, but Flint wasn’t all that smart, either. Whatever it was, they had clearly found more trouble than they could handle. Nott’s appearance was growing worse by the second. His eyes were starting to look unfocused and he was shaking noticeably. Draco felt a small urge to help his former housemate, but suspicion and anger rapidly squelched it. There was no way he was going to let himself get dragged into the fiasco playing out before his eyes.


“What were you two doing in a muggle police station? What’s going on?”


“We don’t have time for this, Malfoy! Gamp wants everyone at his house in Wales by half seven and who knows how long it’s gonna take for a healer to set this mess right.”


Flint’s beady eyes flicked nervously back and forth between Draco and Nott. There was obviously more to the situation than he was letting on. Draco decided to push him for more information before sending the pair of them on their way.


“A whole team of healers couldn’t fix that mess by half seven, and you didn’t answer my question. Why did Gamp send you to terrorize muggles?”


No matter now much of a hurry he was in, Flint didn’t seem able to pass on the opportunity to direct a slight in Draco’s direction.


“What’s wrong, Malfoy? Does your family not approve of terrorizing muggles anymore?”


It infuriated Draco to continue absorbing Flint’s barbs, but it did seem like the best way to keep the obnoxious wanker talking. He swallowed his pride for a moment and kept his tone frosty but civil.


“Approval has nothing to do with it, Flint. Terrorizing muggle police officers just doesn’t seem like the best way to keep your secret plan a secret. If you were actually able to curse any of them, the Ministry will surely know all about it by morning.”


The self-satisfied sneer that settled onto Flint’s face was exactly the reaction Draco had been hoping for.


“By morning, it’ll be too late. We’ll have our own army by then, thanks to these.”


Flint reached into his cloak and pulled out the shirt from a muggle police uniform.


“We’ve got two complete sets. We’re gonna use them to sneak up on the guard post at the dock where the boats to Azkaban depart. The guards will think something’s wrong with the muggle-repelling charms, and they’ll try to fix them. When they come outside to obliviate us and recast the charms, Gamp, Goyle, Zabini and our friend will be waiting for them. We’ll only need to take down a few more guards at the prison gates and then we’ll start freeing the prisoners. The whole thing snowballs from there.”


Nott suddenly coughed violently, interrupting Flint’s moment. Rivulets of blood spilled down his chin and onto the front of his shirt. His knees failed him and Flint helped him to the floor.


“What are you waiting on, Malfoy? He needs a healer right away!”


Draco took a deep breath, allowing his heart rate to slow. He loosened the white-knuckle grip on his wand and spoke slowly and calmly.


“This plan of Gamp’s is insanity. You’re all going to end up dead or in Azkaban. I’ll let you use our floo to take Nott to St. Mungo’s, but I’m not going anywhere with you.”


Flint’s imperious glare quickly turned angry and he leveled his wand at Draco.


“You miserable, back-stabbing worm! I told Gamp that you’d turn on us.”


Taking half a step to his right, Draco positioned himself between Flint and his mother. He willed his muscles to relax, bending his knees slightly. His thumb was pressing the hilt of his wand firmly against the pads of his fingers. If Flint tried to get a curse off in their direction, Draco would see to it that the incantation never made it past his lips.


“Believe whatever you like, Flint, but do it somewhere else. At the moment, nobody outside of this room knows that you’re here. If you leave now, it can stay that way.”


Flint stared back with a look of pure hatred simmering in his eyes, but he clearly hadn’t forgotten the dose of humility Draco had administered to him at Zabini’s house. Without Gamp in his corner, the beady-eyed wizard wasn’t nearly so bold.


Nott moaned piteously, an ominous gurgling sound audible from the back of his throat. Neither Draco nor Flint was willing to break eye contact to try to assess their former housemate’s condition. It wasn’t really necessary. Flint gestured toward Nott’s prone form with his elbow.


“What about him?”


With barely a sound, Draco’s mother stepped from behind him. It took Draco completely by surprise, and she was already crossing between the points of their wands by the time he recovered enough to realize what she was doing. At some level, he had to admit that it was brilliant. Narcissa Malfoy was exactly the sort of person Flint had been raised to respect, a pureblood witch his own mother’s age who exuded icy, aristocratic detachment. Flint would be as hard-pressed to cast a curse at her now as he would have been to speak out of turn in her presence at age ten. Her expressionless face didn’t betray any hint of anxiety as she stopped in front of Nott and gracefully lowered herself into a crouch, drawing her wand. She swept it back and forth over his injured body, softly mumbling an incantation that sounded strangely familiar to Draco. Nott suddenly sucked in a deep breath. The steady flow of blood through the fingers clutching his side ceased and a small amount of color returned to his ashen cheeks.


Narcissa rose to her full height and fixed Flint with a stare that seemed to make him shrink just a bit before her.


“He’ll survive until he can see a proper Healer. Now honor my son’s wishes. Take your friend and leave. The Houses of Black and Malfoy have no quarrel with your family. If what you’ve said is true, this isn’t a good time to be making enemies unnecessarily. You’ll have more than enough by morning.”


For a long moment, Flint seemed to be at a loss for what to say. Narcissa turned away and walked back to where Draco was standing, conspicuously taking a spot by his side rather than behind him. Eventually it seemed to dawn on Flint that he was being talked down to, and the angry scowl returned to his face.


“Black and Malfoy. I’m almost old enough to remember when those two names stood for something.”


Narcissa’s expression didn’t waver in the slightest as she stared down her nose at Flint. Draco wished that he could maintain his composure the way she did. When she responded, her voice was as cold and emotionless as ever.


“You’ve been asked to leave twice already. You won’t be asked again.”


Flint’s lip curled upward and he opened his mouth, probably about to deliver another belittling comment, when several loud cracks sounded from the front gates of the Manor. Draco’s breath caught in his throat. If the Ministry had already found out about Flint and Nott attacking the muggle police station and they were found at Malfoy Manor, there would be no explaining his way out of the situation. The best case scenario would be spending the night in a holding cell and the worst... he didn’t even want to think about the worst case.


The elf who’d been scrubbing Nott’s blood off of the marble floor stood up and hurried over to the front doors of the manor. As Draco struggled to compose himself, he felt his mother’s hand on his forearm. Her grip was firm, comforting. His nerves were far from settled, but he managed to fix a serene expression on his face. The elf wrapped its bony fingers around the doorknob. If there were Aurors on the other side, he was prepared to look them in the eye and calmly tell the truth.


The sight that greeted him when the elf pulled the great, wooden door aside was perchance the only one in the world that he was less happy to see than the glint of torchlight on a Ministry badge. He squinted for a moment, trying to make sure that his eyes weren’t deceiving him. A moment later, the deep, gravelly voice removed any doubt that things had just gotten even worse.


“Oi, Flint, what the hell happened to Nott? Malfoy, what d’you have to drink in this place?”


Draco resisted the urge to shout in frustration.


“Gamp, what the hell are you doing here?”


If the uncivil greeting bothered Gamp in the slightest, he didn’t show it. He strolled into the entry hall, nudging Nott’s shoulder experimentally with the toe of his boot. Nott groaned softly and rolled his head to one side, which seemed to satisfy Gamp for the moment. Zabini peered through the doorway before entering, looking nervous. Goyle followed a moment later and a happy grin settled onto his fat face when he saw Draco and Narcissa.


“Hi, there, Malfoy, Mrs. Malfoy. How are you?”


Draco couldn’t help himself. An angry sneer settled onto his face as he threw his arms into the air.


“Oh, never better, Goyle. Just when life was starting to get boring, Flint and Nott turn up to bleed all over the floor. Now you and Zabini are here, it’s like a bloody class reunion. I daresay when the Ministry shows up to toss us all in Azkaban, they’re going to find the happiest bunch of arseholes this side of the sanitarium!”


Goyle’s smile fell slightly, as if he couldn’t exactly decide whether Draco was being serious.


“Uh, glad to hear it. I’m chuffed to see you, too.”


Gamp completed his inspection of Nott and turned his attention to Draco and his mother with a predatory smirk on his face.


“Relax, Malfoy. By the time the Ministry sorts their shite out, Azkaban’s gonna have worse troubles than finding a cell for your scrawny arse.”


Apparently emboldened by Gamp’s presence, Flint sneered at Draco and Narcissa and gestured menacingly with his wand.


“You missed out on Malfoy’s little speech, Gamp. Turns out he’s had a change of heart about which side he’s on, just like I told you he would. I say we hex him the lot of them, then leave them at Azkaban for the Ministry to find after we’re gone. Shacklebolt and the Aurors will be so happy to be able to lock them up that they might not bother to come looking for us.”


Draco aimed his wand directly at Flint’s heart. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the point of his mother’s wand directed toward Gamp. He lowered his voice to a snarl.


“Go ahead and try, Flint. I’ll spare the Ministry the trouble and expense of your trial.”


Zabini surveyed the scene nervously from a kneeling position beside Nott, who was starting to open his eyes just a bit. The dark-skinned boy raised his empty palms and addressed the room in a smooth voice that didn’t quite conceal his anxiety.


“Everyone calm down, yeah? I’m sure the change of plans just came as a surprise to Malfoy. We’re all on the same side here.”


“Are we?”


Gamp’s gravely snarl silenced the room. Draco’s eyes flicked away from Flint just long enough to realize that Gamp had also drawn his wand and it was pointed toward Draco and his mother. The situation had all the makings of a violent confrontation and Draco was far from certain of who would remain alive when it was over. Given a choice, he would have preferred to face Gamp and let his mother deal with Flint. Attempting to switch positions would be a highly provocative act, however, and one that would leave them vulnerable for a fraction of a second that could prove fatal. He kept his wand trained on Flint while Gamp continued to speak.


“I warned you, Malfoy. I told you I wasn’t going to put up with you trying to play both sides of this thing. Now if you wanna deny what Flint’s saying, go ahead and put your wand down and I’ll hear you out. Somehow, I don’t think you’re gonna do that, though. I think you made your decision a long time ago. You and your smooth-talking father have always been in it for yourselves. The other side won the war and you just changed your stripes and never missed a beat. I bet you’re the one who tipped off the Aurors.”


The sudden twitch of Flint’s jaw made it clear that the beady-eyed wizard was slightly behind the times. Without taking his eyes off of Draco, he eased ever so slightly toward Zabini and Nott.


“What are you talking about, Gamp? What’s happened?”


“When Goyle and Zabini showed up at my house this evening, we suddenly found ourselves caught in anti-apparition jinxes. We were bloody lucky our new friend arrived when he did or we’d have been done for. He managed to get the drop on the Aurors surrounding the place. Sent two of ‘em to St. Mungo’s in pieces. We’re meeting up with him when we’re done here.”


Gamp’s story was the final piece of the puzzle. Draco’s father was still living in old memories by the fireplace in the next room. There was no way old Lucius was the Death Eater Gamp had been working with. Draco’s mind was buzzing with activity as he tried to come up with a way to get rid of Flint and Gamp without exposing his mother to danger. If he could somehow sway Zabini and Goyle to his side, at least he’d have a chance. He needed to either frighten them out of following Gamp or bribe them into changing their allegiance. As he was pondering the best way to proceed, Flint broke the silence.


“So where are we gonna go? The Aurors will be looking for us everywhere.”


“Hold your water, Flint. We have business to wrap up here first. What’s it gonna be, Malfoy? No more empty words. Either you show us that you’re on our side or you just became a loose end that’s gonna have to be dealt with.”


Draco took a deep breath, buying himself every last moment to think. He stole a glance at his mother, who was directing an icy, defiant glare toward Gamp. She stood tall, her perfect posture betraying not a hint of the fear she must be feeling. It was the way she had always faced danger, even the Dark Lord himself. The sight of her made Draco’s decision easier. Ignoring Gamp, he shifted his gaze, making eye contact with Goyle and then Zabini.


“These two fools are going to get you killed if you try to follow through on this idiotic plan. If somebody tipped off the Aurors about Gamp’s house in Wales, they probably told them about Azkaban, too. They’ll be waiting for you. The only way you’ll make it to the island is in chains. We’ve known each other since we were eleven. Help me toss them out of the house and I’ll make sure you’re both taken care of.”


For a long moment, nobody spoke or moved. Zabini and Goyle both shifted their gaze nervously between Gamp and Draco. The silence was broken by Gamp’s cold, hollow laugh, which echoed off of the vaulted ceiling of the entry hall as he threw his head back and slapped his belly with his free hand.


“That was a good one, Malfoy. Hell, I was about ready to join you for a second there. Goyle, Zabini, go ahead if you want. But ask yourself this. If I’m right and Malfoy’s the one that ratted us out, do you think he hasn’t already given your names to the Aurors? Yeah, he’d make sure you’re taken care of.”


Draco adjusted his grip on his wand slightly. Unfortunately, Gamp had a point. Whoever it was that had beaten Draco to the punch on turning this sad lot over to the Aurors must have known who the key players were. Even though Draco was telling the truth for once, it didn’t matter. Goyle and Zabini were finished. It was so obvious that even Goyle wasn’t thick enough to miss the point. He slid his wand out of his pocket and pointed it toward Draco before speaking.


“The last thing Crabbe said to me while we were looking for that hidden room at Hogwarts was not to turn my back on you, Malfoy. He didn’t trust you and neither do I.”


Gamp let out another dry, menacing chuckle.


“You see, Malfoy, you can’t buy trust. It’s a bloody shame. With all you’ve seen and done, you’d have been damn good to have on our side. But you decided to cast your lot with the mudbloods and blood traitors. Now it’s time to pay the piper.”


What is the meaning of this?


Every set of eyes in the room instantly snapped to the door leading to the great room. Lucius Malfoy stood in front of it, tall and imperious looking. His face was still thin and pale, but his chin was held high and he clutched his walking stick in one hand while the other rested dangerously on the silver serpent’s head adorning the end that was well known to contain his wand. He seemed to effortlessly read the situation playing out before him, and fixed Gamp with a cold sneer.


“Explain yourself. Men have paid with their lives for lesser insults offered to my family, let alone threatening my son in my own home.”


Draco couldn’t quite justify the energizing sense of serendipity that settled over him as Gamp’s wand wavered slightly between targeting his mother and coming to bear on his father. It felt good nonetheless. Old Lucius certainly wasn’t the formidable duelist that he’d once been. The wasting of his mind and body had taken the edge off of his curses and weakened his defenses. Draco had seen that firsthand during the war. There was no way to be sure that the old man even knew what year it was. But Gamp and the others didn’t know that.


While Gamp was trying to decide where the bigger threat lay, Flint took it upon himself to speak on behalf of the conspirators.


“It’s not an insult if it’s true, Malfoy. Your precious son betrayed us to the muggle-lovers that run the Ministry. He’s a coward and a liar!”


With one smooth motion, Lucius slid his wand out of his walking stick and fired a sizzling curse at Flint. It missed, but Flint reflexively cast a shield charm to protect himself. That was all the distraction Draco needed to hurl a vicious cutting hex at Gamp, forcing the heavyset wizard onto his back foot. Dropping into a crouch, Draco hit Goyle in the midsection with a knockback jinx, dumping his former lackey unceremoniously onto his ample backside.


At the same time, Draco’s mother cast a powerful shield in front of herself and her husband, deflecting a pair of nasty curses from Flint and Gamp. The room came alive with colorful blasts of light and the sound of spells colliding with cold marble. The long-forgotten elf squealed in terror and disapparated away as Flint stepped closer to the door, trying to pin Draco and his mother in a crossfire. Goyle managed to pull himself into a crouch and joined the fray, alternating among the small number of offensive spells he was able to cast proficiently.


“Scoundrels! Filthy mudbloods! You won’t stop us this time. The Dark Lord will prevail, with or without your precious prophecy!”


If Draco hadn’t been caught up in a fierce duel for his life, he would have been tempted to bury his face in his palm. The old man thought that he was back in the Department of Mysteries. Still, his father was holding his own admirably in the fight, turning aside spells and countering with a wide array of non-verbal magic. If they all managed to make it out of this mess alive, Draco planned on having a very serious conversation with old Lucius about some of the memory reinforcing potions that Madam Blishwick’s team was working on.


Crucio!


Gamp’s gravelly voice delivered the incantation with relish and the angry blast of red light missed Narcissa by mere inches. The blood was pounding in Draco’s ears as he turned the full force of his fury against the bastard who dared to try to harm his mother. Gamp barely avoided a slashing jet of purple flames from Draco’s wand that would have opened him up from shoulder to hip, turning aside and attempting to retaliate with a bludgeoning hex. Draco was ready for it, however. Gamp’s brutish nature made him as predictable as he was dangerous. Deflecting Gamp’s spell with an angled shield charm, Draco borrowed a page from Saint Potter’s book, twirling his wand and disarming Gamp with a simple but effective charm known to every first year student.


“You won’t get away this time, Potter! You have a date with the Dark Lord, but first you’ll watch all of your little friends die.”


Lucius’s delusional rant barely registered in Draco’s brain as he stalked toward Gamp, who was struggling to locate and retrieve his lost wand. The fierce battle going on around him faded into the background. He aimed his wand at the side of Gamp’s head with only one thought on his mind. Nobody was ever going to hurl an unforgivable curse at Draco’s mother and live to tell the tale.


Narcissa’s scream snapped Draco out of his fugue an instant too late. He instinctively tried to throw his body to the floor, but Flint’s bludgeoning hex clipped his shoulder as he fell, sending him spinning through the air. He landed flat on his back, knocking the air out of his lungs and filling his vision with a shower of colorful sparks. Only the survival instincts he’d developed during the war kept his fingers tightly wrapped around the handle of his wand. As soon as he was able to suck down a painful breath, he threw his left shoulder forward, rolling onto his side to face three identical copies of Marcus Flint that were swimming erratically through the colorful haze that seemed to fill the room. Just as he was trying to aim his wand at the middle copy, three jets of blue light struck the three Flints squarely in their three chests, sending them cartwheeling backward into the haze.


Slumping back onto his back, Draco rolled his head to the opposite side and found his father standing tall behind him, slashing his wand back and forth as he dueled Gamp and Goyle. Draco felt his mother’s cold, slender fingers on his cheek. Her voice sounded slightly garbled as she urged him to sit up, and he heard the crack of a curse against her shield charm mere inches from his head. His back muscles cried out in protest as Draco hauled himself to a sitting position. Gamp, Flint and Goyle were directing a hail of curses at his parents while Zabini only seemed interested in dragging Nott out of the middle of the fight. Draco shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs. He cast a disappointingly weak shield charm, trying to give his mother a break, and stole a glance back toward his father. The old man was breathing hard, strain evident on his thin face. But there was a renewed spirit in his eyes, an intensity that Draco hadn’t seen since before the failed attack on the Department of Mysteries. The old man threw his head back and laughed in between spells.


“That’s the way, lads! Dumbledore’s pathetic lot of half-bloods and filthy muggle scum are no match for us. Watch our flank, Rosier! Travers, Avery, advance on them!”


Realization seemed to dawn on the conspirators and Draco willed his reluctant body into a crouch. Gamp shouted to the others over the din of spellfire.


“Old Malfoy’s gone around the bend! Take him down!”


Gamp, Goyle and Flint increased the intensity of their attack, focusing on Lucius. Draco did his best to shore up his father’s defenses, but the barrage of curses and hexes was unrelenting. Draco tried to call out to his mother for help, but he wasn’t sure she could hear him over the cacophony. She was still on her knees, clutching something small and shiny in her slender hands. It dawned on Draco that she might be injured, but at the moment there wasn’t anything he could do about it. He gradually rose to his feet, standing beside his father and pouring his remaining energy into keeping them alive.


“Come on then, you filthy animals! Come and meet your doom!”


Much of the energy was gone from his father’s words, and the old man sounded extremely weary. Draco could feel his own reserves dwindling as he cast shield charm after shield charm. This was how it was going to end. His father had gone mad, Astoria hated him and he was about to be cut down by the very men he once considered friends. As a cutting hex cracked the floor near his foot, he gathered himself for one last assault. If he was going to die, Gamp was coming with him. Without Gamp, the others would never be able to pull off this foolish attack. And with her sister’s husband dead, Astoria would be safe. She might never know Draco was the one who’d made it possible, but as long as she had many years of blissful ignorance, he could handle the disappointment.


A great, roaring noise arose from Draco’s right as he prepared to launch himself toward Gamp. He felt the searing heat against the side of his face before he could spare a moment to turn and look. Suddenly the entire room was bathed in an intense red glow that drowned out the light of the torches. Draco turned to look for the source just as an inferno erupted beside him, knocking him backward onto his father. A pillar of churning orange and yellow flames rose into the air and coalesced into the form of an enormous, snarling dragon. Beneath it, his mother held her wand arm aloft, slowly turning her wrist in a tight circle. When the top of the fiery creature was scorching the ceiling of the entrance hall, she whipped her arm downward and the dragon dove toward the conspirators, spewing white-hot jets of fire from its curved mouth.


Shouts of alarm echoed off the stone walls but they were nearly drowned out by the roar of the inferno. Draco grabbed his father’s shoulders and pulled the old man down as the beast made a pass overhead before attacking Gamp and Flint again. Draco’s old housemates were in full retreat, casting barely effective shield charms over their shoulders to cover their backs as they hurried to make their way out. All of the room’s furnishings were ablaze as the dragon sought out anything not made of stone to feed its insatiable hunger. Gamp shouted something about a rendezvous point as he blasted the flaming hulk of the front door out of the way, but Draco was unable to make it out. The room was growing hotter by the second. It seemed they had traded a death by curses for being cooked alive.


Narcissa stood calmly in the middle of the inferno. Once Flint and Goyle disappeared out the door, she lifted her wand arm back toward the ceiling. The great fire beast reluctantly followed her lead, tossing the charred remains of a piece of furniture into the air and then consuming them. With a look of intense focus on her thin face, Draco’s mother began to move her wand in ever-tightening circles, drawing the beast in on itself. Soon, the flames were contained to a large, churning ball that resembled the evening sun, only far too close for comfort.


As the flames swirled near the ceiling, Narcissa held a small, metallic object out in front of her chest, suspended from a fine chain. Draco squinted to shield his eyes from the light and the heat and realized that it was a locket of some sort. She tapped the tip of her wand on it and the ball of fire started to spiral downward, like water into a drain. The spiral grew tighter and faster until only a thin, twisted ribbon of flames remained. In a matter of moments, the huge, fiery monster drained into the locket, which his mother then snapped shut with a flick of her wand.


Narcissa pulled a handkerchief from the folds her her dress and grasped the intricate, silver locket in her hand. She inspected it until the lingering heat had nearly burned through the silky fabric, then allowed it to dangle freely from its chain. Turning toward Draco and his father, who were still lying on the floor, she must have noticed the stunned expressions on their faces.


“It’s a very old family heirloom. Nobody knows who performed the enchantments. Your great-grandfather passed it down to me.”


Draco found his voice first, but only after a long, uncomfortable moment of silence.


“He left that thing to you?”


Narcissa lifted her eyebrows noncommittally in response.


“He couldn’t very well leave it to your Aunt Bellatrix. She would have burned down the entire island.”


Draco slowly pulled himself to his feet, feeling the ache in his arms and back. He turned and offered a hand to his father, who stared at it uncertainly for a moment before accepting the help with a small nod of appreciation. As the shock started to wear off, Draco realized two things. First, his body hurt a lot worse than he’d thought. Second, the fight with Gamp and the other conspirators wasn’t over. Now not only Draco knew about their plan, but his mother knew as well. If Gamp was serious about containing loose ends, they were all in danger. He thought back to the final moments of the fight and realized that he’d missed a key piece of information.


“Did anyone manage to hear what Gamp said when he told the others where to go?”


His mother nodded slowly.


“I couldn’t make it all out, but I believe he said something about Daphne. Isn’t that the young lady he married?”


Draco felt his blood run cold. If Daphne had been at Gamp’s house in Wales when the Aurors came, she would have been taken into custody. That only left one place she could be.


Without another word, he broke into a sprint toward the entrance. His mother’s cries of alarm fell on deaf ears as he leapt over the elf that was trying to smother the embers that were once the front door. As soon as he passed through the front gates, he turned and disapparated with a loud crack.






“Shag, eat, sleep and get drunk! For three days, that’s all he did! Then, out of the blue, he wakes up this morning and decides that we’re coming back to Britain. Our honeymoon was supposed to be two weeks, Astoria! Two weeks! Then he decides to cut it to a week. Then he decides to come home after three bloody nights! Do you know how many outfits I packed that I never even got to wear?”


Astoria rested her chin on her knuckles and tried to pretend that she was interested in what Daphne was saying. Her sister had been ranting and raving for nearly three hours about her new husband’s boorish, insensitive behavior. If anything surprised Astoria, it was that Daphne could be so surprised. Astoria hadn’t spent much time around Jeremy Gamp, but it was obvious that he didn’t have a romantic bone in his body. He tended to drink a great deal and be very blunt with his opinions. His wide eyes always seemed to linger a bit too long when he stared at you. Astoria found it very unsettling, and she was pretty sure that she wasn’t the only one.


“Don’t you agree, Astoria?”


Astoria realized that her mind had been drifting when Daphne suddenly fell silent and stared at her expectantly. She shook her head slightly and stifled a yawn before replying.


“I’m sorry, Daphne, I didn’t hear the question.”


Daphne glared at her for a second before throwing her arms into the air.


“I’m sorry that the collapse of my marriage bores you so.”


Astoria sighed and raised her palms slightly in a conciliatory gesture.


“No, I’m the one who should apologize. I just haven’t slept very well these past few nights. Please, what was the question again?”


Daphne’s fists gradually slid from their perches on either hip and her angry frown softened.


“I’m sorry I snapped at you. I know you’re probably still upset about what happened with that awful Montague boy. I was just asking whether you agree that it’s the very height of poor etiquette to interrupt our lovemaking because his drink was empty and he wanted a refill? Please, Astoria, be honest. Am I that boring?”


Astoria bit back the urge to ask her sister whether she’d been minding the little wizard and tried to think of something reassuring she could say in response. A wave of relief washed over her when the tolling of the door chimes announced the arrival of company at the gates of the manor. She shrugged her shoulders slightly and gave Daphne a quizzical look.


“Are you expecting anyone?”


Daphne shook her head in response.


“Jeremy told me he’s spending the evening at the house in Wales with his drinking buddies. Maybe it’s one of father’s business associates.”


They heard a loud crack as an elf appeared at the front door.






Hi, there! I'm sorry this chapter has taken so long to write. I really wanted to do a good job with the fight scene at Malfoy Manor, so I took my time with it. I hope it was worth it!

Huge thanks, as always, to my beta reader, sophie_hatter. Her story Evolution (M) is about to get a fantastic update. If you haven't checked it out, what are you waiting for?

Also, thanks to everyone who chipped in with ideas as to what a pureblood wizard might call a firearm. I hope you like what I settled on.


Chapter 14: Clarity
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As always, that which you recognize from the books belongs to the inimitable JK Rowling






A lazy summer breeze passed through the lush orchards surrounding the Greengrass Estate. The soft hooting of an owl was the only sound that rose above the gentle rustling of the leaves. The trees surrounding the imposing manor house cast a blanket of shadows that concealed its foundations, but torchlight illuminated the tall windows from within. The contrast made the old stone facade look unnaturally dark against the starlit sky. As he hurried up the stone path toward the front gates, Draco searched for any shadows passing the windows that might indicate which rooms were occupied. There was no time to mount a room to room search. Every passing second could be the one Astoria didn’t have.


Inside his aching ribs, his heart beat with a singularity of purpose unlike any he had ever felt. He hated Flint and Gamp, hated them for what they’d tried to do to his family, but vengeance was a secondary matter. Throughout the war, he’d fervently, methodically carried out the Dark Lord’s orders, but that was done out of fear. Draco no longer felt fear, not for his own life, anyway. He was going to find Astoria and keep her safe. Safe from Flint and Gamp, safe from the foolish conceits of her parents... just safe. He had no plan for what to do after; after wasn’t important. She would be safe. That was what mattered. He couldn’t spare the time to worry about the rest. Any moment could be her last.


As he approached the heavy, painted gates, a cherub cast into the ironwork turned and started speaking in a high, squeaky voice. Something about wanting to know his business with the House of Greengrass. Draco paid it no mind. His business was with Flint and Gamp. Turning to the wall beside the gate, he pointed his wand. Reducto. The old stonework exploded inward, opening a hole that he quickly stepped through.


They now knew that he was coming, but he couldn’t be bothered to care. If they didn’t expect somebody to try to stop them, they were fools. And nothing was going to stop him from finding Astoria and taking her out of harm’s way. Not a talking gate, not her arrogant father and certainly not some misguided tosser who hadn’t learned a thing from the living hell the Dark Lord had inflicted on the world. They were all obstacles on a path that Draco could finally see clearly. He felt like kicking himself for letting doubt and anger cloud his judgment for so long. Of course he wanted to take Astoria away from all of this. He’d been a fool to think that hiding the truth from her made her any safer. Tonight, he would set everything right, starting with his old housemates and their delusional schemes.


The front door of the manor burst open as Draco drew near and Flint stormed out, searching for the source of the noise. When he spotted Draco, Flint didn’t waste a moment hurling a spell at him. Draco slashed his wand across his chest, turning the sizzling blast of red light aside. He rapidly closed the distance between himself and Flint, parrying some curses and dodging others.


“What are you doing here, Malfoy? We’ll kill you!”


The threat fell on deaf ears. Flint’s words didn’t matter to Draco. What did matter was the opportunity created as Flint wasted his breath on words that weren’t incantations. The curse rolled off of Draco’s tongue without an instant of hesitation. Fear and doubt belonged to a past that he had moved beyond. A past where Astoria was not in mortal danger.


Sectumsempra!


Flint cried out in pain and fell to the ground. As he stalked past, Draco glanced down at his fallen adversary, noting the growing crimson stripe across the front of Flint’s shirt. In a war, small acts of mercy had a way of coming back to haunt you. An enemy who was merely stunned could be revived. Don’t take foolish chances, Draco. Finish the job. His Aunt Bella's words echoed in his mind and for once Draco didn't even flinch. She might have been mad, but she was seldom wrong when it came to hurting people.


The rapid cadence of Draco’s boots against the stone path echoed softly off of the front of the manor house as he hurried toward the door. He could make out voices from inside the house and he paused on the stoop to catch his breath and listen. The barely audible sounds turned out be be shouting, muffled by the thick stone walls and wooden doors that separated him from their source. Draco forced another gulp of oxygen into his lungs. There was no way to know what to expect, but he would face whatever trials lay ahead in order to save Astoria. When he heard the distinctive crack of spellfire, he took a step back and blew the door open with a curse.


Draco stepped through the ruined door and into the entrance hall of the old manor house. Shouts of alarm were coming from the far end of the hall. It led to a large room the Greengrasses used for entertaining; Draco remembered that much from the wedding. As he jogged ahead, he recalled the layout. Long, open, sparsely furnished... it didn’t offer a great deal of cover. He had to make the most of the element of surprise.


Goyle appeared at the far end of the hallway and cast a hex at Draco but it was poorly aimed and he easily dodged it. He allowed the fat wizard to send two more spells in his direction, closing the distance between them and waiting for Goyle to make a mistake. When Goyle drew back his wand to cast something stronger, Draco attacked. The knockback jinx caught Goyle in the shoulder, flinging his wand arm backward, and the bludgeoning hex caught him full in the chest. Goyle’s limp body flew through the air, landing on the far side of the room with a resounding thud.


Draco raised his wand arm into an offensive position and stepped into the room. What he found stopped him dead in his tracks. At least half a dozen wands were pointed at him from all around the room. Gamp was joined by not only Zabini and a pallid-looking Nott, but also their old housemates Warrington and Urquhart and several of Gamp’s cousins. Draco’s eyes flicked to the far corner of the room where Astoria was staring at him in shock. She and her mother were crouched next to the unconscious form of Horatio Greengrass, who was bleeding from a nasty cut on his forehead. Daphne was standing halfway between her family and her new husband, looking distraught.


Gamp fixed Draco with a cruel smirk and twirled his wand between his fingers.


“Well I’ll be damned. I reckoned you’d be in London by now, Malfoy, grabbin’ your ankles and coughing for the Aurors to keep you and your barmy old man out of prison. I guess I ought to thank you. You saved me the trouble of hunting your cowardly arse down.”


Draco tried to keep a stoic expression as he tilted his wand into a more neutral position. The situation looked grim. It was obvious from Mr. Greengrass’s injuries that Gamp and his fellows had no qualms about hurting Astoria and her family. He needed to keep them talking for long enough to get close to her. Maybe they could make a run for the edge of the manor’s wards.


“I was rethinking your offer, Gamp. You’re right, we could make a good team. Why don’t you all put your wands away and we’ll talk.”


The dry, mirthless chuckle emanating from Gamp’s throat left little doubt how much trouble Draco was in. Every wand in the room was still pointed directly toward him.


“The time for talking is over, Malfoy. I’ve heard all I ever want to hear from the likes of you.”


Draco felt a cold bead of sweat running down the side of his face as Gamp took a step toward him and pointed his wand directly at the center of Draco’s chest.


“You’re a lying, cowardly piece of shite, Malfoy. You and your whole bloody family. And as much as I’d love to draw this out and let you suffer a bit, I can’t waste any more time on you. Avada...


LEAVE HIM ALONE!


Astoria’s furious cry rang out across the room as she leapt up from her father’s side and rushed at Gamp. Daphne managed to shake off her emotional turmoil just enough to grab Astoria before she came within range of Gamp’s clinched fist. As Daphne struggled to hold on, Gamp’s scowl turned even more dangerous.


“You didn’t learn much from what happened to your old man, did you missy? Get back over there and shut up!”


Daphne appeared to be getting more upset by the second as she desperately clung to Astoria’s shoulders. A choked sob escaped her lips and she started to plead with her husband.


“Jeremy, I don’t know what’s happened but you need to stop this. Please! You’re going to hurt somebody!”


With a disinterested flick of his wand, Gamp sent Daphne flying across the room into the wall. Astoria was dragged along until Daphne lost her grip and she ended up sprawled on the floor. Draco felt a wave of anger roll through him and he started to lunge at Gamp before half a dozen wands came to bear on his head. A vicious smirk settled on Gamp’s lips as he pointed his own wand back toward the center of Draco’s chest. For the second time in a minute, it appeared that he was about to draw his last breath. Just as Gamp’s lips parted to speak the incantation, Draco heard a voice that he instantly recognized. It sent an icy shiver down his spine.


“Not yet, Gamp. I have a few questions for ickle Malfoy here.”


A dark figure in a black, hooded cloak emerged from the doorway that led to the patio. The man’s face was obscured from the torchlight, but Draco didn’t need to see it. He’d heard the harsh, nasal voice many times before. He had to suppress the urge to duck, since the voice often used to precede a hex flying in his direction. Without taking his eyes off of Gamp, Draco spoke as calmly as he could.


“It’s been a long time, Avery.”


The hooded figure snorted with laughter as he stepped farther into the room.


“You remember me. I’m bloody touched. Tell me, how’s your old man?”


Draco had no idea what Avery was playing at but as long as the former Death Eater remained interested in their conversation, he’d continue to live.


“He’s been better. Azkaban didn’t really agree with him.”


Avery laughed again, this time a deep, full laugh that echoed around the room.


“Azkaban don’t agree with nobody. But a ponce like Lucius? It’s a wonder he made it out alive.”


Gamp let out a frustrated snarl and threw his hands in the air.


“Are you mad, Avery? We don’t have time for bloody tea. Let’s kill this lying bastard and get to Azkaban before the Aurors get their shite together to stop us!”


Draco knew what was about to happen before it happened. Long before the war, Draco’s father had warned him about Avery. The man had a nasty temper and he was prone to excessive violence. Combined with a bad drinking problem and a limited intellect, those traits made Avery dangerously unstable. Although he lacked Bellatrix’s rigid self-discipline and raw magical talent, the Dark Lord valued the fear that his volatile, brutish nature created. So it was no surprise to Draco when Avery suddenly turned and blasted Gamp off of his feet with a curse.


Avery casually strolled over to where Gamp was lying on his back, ignoring the unsettled glances that fell on him from all around the room. He placed his boot in the middle of Gamp’s chest, eliciting a sharp moan, and then spoke loudly.


“You’ll wait until I’m bloody well ready, Gamp. I spent the last year hiding out in barns and caves, waiting for the rest of you so-called purebloods to grow some bollocks and fight back against the blood traitors and muggle-lovers. Show some bloody respect for your elders!”


If Draco hadn’t been held at wandpoint, he would have taken great joy in telling Zabini, I told you so. Already, he could feel a subtle shift in the pecking order inside the room. Avery had put Gamp in his place, leaving little doubt who was really making the decisions. It pained Draco slightly that Flint couldn’t be there to share in the disappointment. The moment of contemplation quickly came to an end as Avery turned his full attention back to Draco. Lowering his hood, Avery revealed a horrible-looking patchwork of poorly-healed curse scars on one side of his head. His flinty eyes locked onto Draco, but his tone remained oddly conversational.


“Tell me about this artifact the Dark Lord left you to mind for him.”


The question caught Draco by surprise and he was barely able to keep it from showing on his face. Gamp had obviously passed Draco’s lie about searching for a stolen dark artifact along to Avery. He couldn’t fathom why Gamp would have said anything. The first thing you learned as a Death Eater was to never share information without getting something of value in return, particularly if that information related to the Dark Lord’s secrets. Avery, on the other hand, understood exactly how the game was played. He’d be expecting Draco to deny that the object existed and, since it actually did not exist, Draco couldn’t see a better alternative.


“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Avery.”


“Is that so?”


Avery stared at Draco with keen interest, apparently trying to read something from his reaction. After a pregnant moment passed, Avery started to pace while he talked.


“Gamp here told me all about your little scheme, what it was you were lookin’ for inside the Ministry. He thought you were lyin’ about it, but me, I knew better. The Master had ways of beatin’ death. Experiments, he called ‘em. He tol’ us about ‘em when he got his powers back. I heard he left one with the Lestranges. Bella went spare when she found out Potter broke into Gringotts. Whatever it is the Master gave you, Malfoy, I want it.”


In spite of his considerable desire to go on living, Draco couldn’t quite contain his horror.


“You want to bring him back?”


Avery’s eyes darkened noticeably, so Draco crossed his arms in front of his chest, trying to feign patience. The former Death Eater stopped his pacing and stared directly at Draco.


“The last time our Master disappeared, nobody tried to find him. He was furious when he came back, an’ he took most of that out on me. Thirteen years, Malfoy. That was his price for lettin’ him down. As I reckon things, I still owe him nine more. D’you know what’ll happen if we let him down again?”


Draco had no idea how to respond, so he merely kept his silence. The idea that the Dark Lord could possibly return was beyond terrifying. Avery seemed to take Draco’s lack of a response as affirmation. He drew closer to Draco and lowered his voice conspiratorially.


“Give me whatever he gave you, Malfoy. When he comes back, I’ll even tell him how you kept it safe til you could get it to me. We’ll be rewarded beyond all his other servants.”


Draco felt an odd combination of hope and mortal terror. The fact that he had made up this dark artifact out of thin air didn’t mean that he couldn’t twist the situation to his advantage. He nodded his head toward Astoria and her family.


“Let them all go. Then I’ll tell you where it is.”


For a brief moment, Draco allowed himself to look at Astoria. She was sitting on the floor, cradling Daphne’s head in her lap. The look in her eyes was pleading, and she shook her head ever so slightly. Draco found that he had to turn away. He couldn’t bear to see the sadness in her eyes. He was doing the right thing. That was what mattered.


Avery laughed coldly, drawing Draco’s attention back to the matter at hand.


“Don’ think so, Malfoy. I like your little girlfriend right where she is. Puts you in a more agreeable mood, I think.”


“She’s not-”


Avery silenced Draco with one menacing twitch of his wand. The former Death Eater tensed up for a moment, as though he was struggling to maintain control. His head twitched violently, and when he opened his eyes, the madness that burned behind them was chilling.


“There you go tryin’ to lie to me again, Malfoy. You think I didn’t see the look on her face when Gamp almost cursed you? The way you was just starin’ at her? You can barely stop yourself from runnin’ over there.”


Avery strolled over to where Astoria was sitting and tapped the top of her head with the tip of his wand. She cringed and pulled her unconscious sister closer, trying in vain to conceal her fear. It took every last ounce of Draco’s self control not to throw a curse at the former Death Eater.


“First you show up here all by your lonesome and then you let something like that slip out? You got soft since the war, Malfoy.”


Draco clenched and unclenched his fists, trying to think clearly. He hated how easily Avery had managed to get to him. Avery was right, Draco’s instincts weren’t as sharp as they’d been when he lived in constant fear of death. He had to stay calm if they were going to have any chance of surviving.


Behind Avery, Gamp had managed to pull himself to his feet. The stocky wizard still looked dazed, but anger simmered behind his glassy eyes. When he stared at Avery, Draco thought he could detect a level of hatred previously reserved for muggle-borns and the Ministry. This revolution was going to be short-lived, indeed. Draco did his best to ignore Gamp and address Avery as though he was the only person of importance in the room. That was certain to make Gamp even angrier.


“I’m not telling you anything until you let her go, Avery. After that, I’ll give you everything the Dark Lord placed in my care. I’ll swear to it if you like.”


Draco felt rather pleased with himself. Even if Avery made him swear the Unbreakable Vow, it didn’t matter. The Dark Lord had never given him anything. The sense of satisfaction quickly passed, however, as Avery shook his head and a dismissive sneer settled on his angular face.


“You’re just like your father, Malfoy. Always thinkin’ you’re the one in charge. Well this time you got nothin’ to bargain with. Spill your guts before she gets hurt real bad.”


Draco’s disappointment quickly gave way to raw, black rage. Whether he was more angry at Avery or at himself, he wasn’t quite sure. Astoria was in mortal danger, and somehow he kept finding ways to make it worse. When Avery learned that Draco didn’t really have any of the Dark Lord’s effects, he’d kill her for sure. There was only one alternative that came to Draco’s mind. He needed to draw Avery’s anger solely upon himself.


“This is between you and me, Avery. If you hurt her, I swear I’ll kill you.”


Avery’s cheek twitched with agitation as he took two measured steps toward Draco. He didn’t appear worried, but Draco took a mote of satisfaction from the fact that he wasn’t laughing, either.


“You threatened to kill me once before, during the war.”


Draco nodded slowly. Now that he thought about it, the number of hexes Avery directed at his back had dwindled sharply after that particular confrontation. It didn’t hurt that Bellatrix had made it clear to Avery exactly how she felt about attacks on members of her family.


Avery pressed the tip of his wand into the palm of his hand and slowly twisted the handle, never breaking eye contact.


“Didn’ amount to much, though, did it? I’m still alive. And you will tell me what I wan’ to know, you miserable little coward. CRUCIO!


Without warning, Avery spun on his heel and struck Astoria with the torture curse. As her scream of agony filled the cavernous room, something snapped inside Draco’s head. He barely heard Astoria’s mother scream or the crack of the spell that silenced her. Emotional walls holding back three years worth of anger, despair and bitterness crumbled and everything that Draco had bottled up inside since the day his father was sent to Azkaban exploded outward. Avery barely managed to block the first blast of light from Draco’s wand, throwing his body to the side as the deflected curse left a blackened crater in the wall. Astoria slumped to the floor, unconscious, when Avery was forced to release his curse. The sight of her battered body filled Draco with an indescribable rage.


Expulso!


The curse tore a chunk out of the back of Avery’s cloak as he dodged to the right and a second later the room was showered with flaming debris from an exploded table. Avery tried to cast a cutting hex but it collided with Draco’s own reductor curse and the deafening impact of the two spells knocked the former Death Eater back onto his heels. As Draco slashed his wand back and forth, parrying Avery’s spells and casting his own, he noted with grim satisfaction that Gamp and the others were merely watching. He would either kill Avery or die in the attempt.


Draco tried to press his advantage, casting curses as fast as he possibly could. Once Avery got past the shock of being attacked, however, the older Death Eater’s experience started to outweigh Draco’s fury. Throwing himself to the side to dodge a curse, Avery flicked his wand at a chair and sent it flying toward Draco. Acting on instinct, Draco stepped out of the way, but just as the chair was sailing past his side Avery hit it with a curse, causing it to explode. Draco was thrown to the floor by the force of the blast. He just managed to shield himself from a cutting hex that Avery sent in his direction and when he rolled to the side to avoid the next curse he could feel the pain of fresh burns on his shoulder and arm. From his vantage point on the floor, Draco was able to slip a tripping jinx beneath Avery’s defenses that knocked him down.


Scrambling to his knees, Draco used shield charms to ward off several more curses. There was no way he was going to win this fight by passively defending himself from the onslaught. Avery was far more experienced that Flint or Goyle; he wasn’t going to make a mistake no matter how long Draco waited. But he did hold one key advantage over the former Death Eater. Avery needed him alive if he was going to get any answers whereas the possibility of Avery ending up as a smoldering black stain on the floor didn’t worry Draco one bit. Hauling himself to his feet, he whipped his wand at Avery.


Confringo!


Draco’s blasting curse erupted against Avery’s hastily cast shield charm, buckling it and driving the older wizard back. Trying to take advantage of Avery’s weakened defenses, Draco conjured a jet of flames from the tip of his wand, buffeting Avery’s shield. He remembered the way that Weaselbee had turned the spell against him, and he made sure to keep control of his wand and maintain enough separation that the searing heat reflecting off of the shield charm didn’t interfere with his breathing. Avery spun away with surprising agility, rolling over top of a couch before Draco was able to set the upholstery on fire. A fraction of a second later, Draco found the flaming couch rushing toward him, but this time he was ready. He used a shield charm to drive it back from where it came, preventing Avery from using it as a bomb.


Around the room, the conspirators appeared to be transfixed by the intensity of the duel. Occasionally one of them would be forced to dodge an errant curse, but for the most part they simply watched the fight play out. As he countered Avery’s curses, Draco tried to maneuver in such a way that Avery’s back was turned on Gamp, just on the off chance that his former housemate would act on the hostility he appeared to feel toward his so-called partner. Unfortunately Gamp didn’t take the bait. He seemed content to allow Draco and Avery to expend their energy on one another.


Draco watched Avery closely as they continued to trade spells. It appeared that the older man was starting to wear down. Whenever his cloak billowed outward as he moved to avoid a curse, Draco could see that Avery looked very thin. The hardships of life on the run from the Ministry had obviously taken their toll. If he could push Avery to the point of exhaustion, he’d have a better chance of getting the opening he needed. Draco stopped varying his spells and started pounding Avery’s defenses with a rapid series of bludgeoning hexes. The spells were easy to cast quickly so that Avery didn’t have any chance to mount a counterattack. As the former Death Eater retreated under the onslaught Draco continued to pour all of his energy into the attack. Avery was breathing hard and stumbling as he struggled to keep his feet and maintain his defenses.


Sensing that his opponent was in trouble, Draco broke his rhythm to cast another blasting curse. The fiery explosion buckled Avery’s shield, forcing him to slump to the side to avoid being hit. As Avery collapsed, he made a desperate swipe of his wand toward a buffet table near the far wall. The heavy table flew into the air, but the spell was poorly aimed and Draco quickly realized that it wasn’t going to come anywhere near him. Draco was about to put Avery down for good when panic filled his chest as it dawned on him what Avery had actually done. He caught a flash of the wicked grin on Avery’s face as he spun around and cast the strongest bludgeoning hex he could manage. It struck the table just as it was beginning to fall, altering its trajectory. At the same instant that the heavy table crashed to the floor inches from Astoria’s unconscious body, Avery’s shout filled the room.


Petrificus Totalus!


Draco’s body hit the floor with a thud, and he lay perfectly still. From his vantage point, he couldn’t see Avery stand up, but he could hear. The former Death Eater chuckled viciously, and from the look on Zabini’s face, Draco guessed that it was probably better that he couldn’t see Avery’s facial expression. Avery slowly stalked around to stand in front of Draco’s stiff body. He could see Avery’s hard-worn boots in front of his face and smell the acrid stench of the curse burns on his cloak. Avery swung his leg back and Draco would have flinched if he’d been able, but the blow never came. Only a cold, menacing laugh.


“I got a better idea. Imperio.


The curse washed over Draco like the waves of a warm, turbulent sea. He struggled to resist, trying to keep his thoughts intact, but he was quickly overwhelmed. The sensation was like sinking into a state of perfect contentment, where you were more of an observer of events than a participant. Draco hated every moment of it. He was not brought up to be someone else’s puppet, especially a crass, uncultured barbarian like Avery. Dancing to the whims of another wizards was...


Draco suddenly realized that he was standing upright, holding his wand, and he couldn’t remember that happening. For a heart-stopping moment, he wondered what else he had done, but then he heard Avery’s voice. It was a bizarre sensation. Avery’s words seemed to reach his brain from within and without simultaneously. The inner voice resonated from the depths of his mind, while the outer voice came from somewhere near his left ear.


“Now we’re going to have a little fun, Draco. Wake her.”


Draco had no idea what sort of “fun” Avery had in mind, but he was going to have no part of it. Astoria was in no condition to be moved. He hadn’t had a chance to check on her since Avery cursed her, but he was sure that she was injured and in a lot of pain. No, it was definitely best for her to stay put. So Draco was very surprised when he saw his wand arm point to her and heard the sound of his own voice.


Rennervate.






A loud moan escaped Astoria’s lips as she awoke. The first thing she realized was that she didn’t recall going to bed. The light in her bedroom was unusually bright, and everything appeared blurry as she tried to open her eyes. Voices, unfamiliar ones, seemed to surround her. She suddenly felt very exposed and vulnerable. Why were there strange people by her bed? Astoria tried to roll onto her side and that was when the pain hit her.


Every muscle hurt. She felt as though her entire body had cramped up at once. All of her joints ached. Even small, experimental movements felt excruciating. But the worst part, far and away, was the buzzing residual pain that danced in every nerve ending. It was as if thousands of angry bees were swarming just below the surface of her skin. As a pathetic-sounding whimper escaped her lips, she heard a cold, nasal voice from somewhere nearby.


“Hello, there, doll. Bloody sorry to have to be so rough on you, but you see your little boyfrien’ here isn’ bein’ too cooperative. So we’re gonna have to make an example outta you. Nothin’ personal.”


Boyfriend? In spite of the pain, Astoria forced her eyes open. As the world started to get a little less blurry, she could make out Draco, standing over her. His wand was pointed at her, and she flinched involuntarily. Was he still angry with her about what happened on the evening of Daphne’s wedding? Was he so upset about their breakup that he turned dark?


No, something didn’t make sense about that. Astoria shook her head and tried to gather herself. She realized that they were still in the manor’s great room and other details started coming back to her. It had all started when Jeremy arrived with his friends, bruised and bloodied with their robes scorched and covered in soot. She remembered having her wand taken away by Marcus Flint while Jeremy argued with her father. Then they were all herded into the great room as more of Jeremy’s friends and cousins started to arrive. Her father grew more and more angry, but Jeremy simply ignored him.


Astoria shuddered, recalling the arrival of the wizard called Avery. The moment she laid eyes on him, she knew that he was dangerous. He had the same sort of unrelentingly intense stare as Jeremy, but he lacked even the thin veneer of civility that Jeremy was able to affect in polite company. His clothes were filthy and worn and he smelled terrible. Avery had the look of a man who feared nothing because he had already lost everything. Astoria’s breath caught in her throat when she remembered the moment he’d cast the Cruciatus Curse on her. Never in her life had she imagined that something could hurt so bad. It was like every inch of her body was on fire. No wonder she was so sore, her muscles had literally been trying to tear themselves apart.


Astoria blinked several times to clear her vision and Draco’s face finally came into focus. It was obvious that something was wrong. His jaw was slack and his face expressionless, but his eyes told a very different story. Strain and conflict swirled through those beautiful grey pools that often haunted her dreams. A look of intense concentration and effort. Whatever was happening to Draco, Astoria was pretty sure that he was fighting back as hard as he could. Things were starting to make more sense. Draco hadn’t turned dark and he had no interest in joining Avery or Jeremy. So what was he doing there?


Next to Draco, Avery sighed in mock frustration.


“You have to go and make this hard, don’ you, Malfoy? Well tha’s alright. I like a challenge. We got all the time in the world.”


“No we don’t. You’re forgetting why we’re here, Avery.”


Astoria had nearly forgotten that Gamp and the others were in the room. Apparently Avery had as well. He looked surprised at the interruption, then annoyed. The vacant look on Draco’s face gradually became more intent and his gaze shifted toward Gamp. Astoria followed Draco’s eyes and found her brother-in-law glaring angrily at Avery. His wand was halfway between a casual position and a very hostile one. Avery seemed completely unconcerned.


“Mind your place, Gamp. We have a chance to resurrect the Dark Lord. Azkaban can wait.”


“Mind my place? Last I counted, the rest of us were eight wands to your one.”


Even though she had no idea why the two wizards were arguing, it seemed to Astoria that it was a good thing. Draco was looking more like himself with each passing second. Whatever they’d done to him, it seemed to weaken as they glared at one another. She noticed that his lips were slowly moving and she tried to follow the pattern. I love you. Her eyes widened and for a moment she found it hard to breathe. After everything that had happened between the two of them, he still loved her! Astoria’s heart was singing inside her aching ribs. She wanted to fling her arms around him, but it was obviously the wrong time. Astoria tried to pay attention to what Gamp and Avery were saying as the volume of their argument grew louder. Maybe if they actually started to fight, Draco would be able to break free and get away.


“You think you and your band o’ poppets scare me, Gamp? I serve only the Dark Lord. Compared to him, you’re nothin’.”


“You’re all talk, Avery. If you’re so intent on bringing back the Dark Lord, why’d you spend the last year hiding like an animal?”


“Because I’m not a fool, you bloody-”


A sharp crack and a blinding flash of light suddenly silenced the room. Astoria drew a sharp breath as the muscles in her neck protested against her attempt to quickly turn her head. A tall, dark figure in a hooded cloak stood in the doorway that led to the front door. The man’s face was hidden by a ghoulish silver mask, but there was no mistaking the angle of his wand. Whoever the new arrival might be, Astoria felt quite sure that he wasn’t a friend.


The masked wizard slowly swept his wand around, seemingly challenging anyone to make a move. His gaze finally settled on Avery.


“Of course you’re a fool, Avery. Just count yourself lucky that I arrived when I did.”






Hello, dear readers! These chapters seem to take longer and longer to write, but I have good news for a change. Chapter 15 is mostly finished already because this chapter ended up being so long that I had to split it.

Much gratitude, as always, to my beta reader, sophie_hatter. And a huge, preliminary
CONGRATULATIONS! to her as well. She knows why.

Lastly, thanks to all of you who've read Detox and especially those who've left reviews. I appreciate any and all feedback!


Chapter 15: Yes
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As always, that which you recognize from the books belongs to JK Rowling.






Draco racked his brain, trying to identify of the new arrival. The obvious answer was another fugitive Death Eater. The man knew how to conjure one of the chilling silver masks favored by the Dark Lord’s followers, although the spell itself was not a closely-guarded secret. Unlike Avery, he appeared to be going to considerable lengths to conceal his identity. The mask and cloak seemed to subtly alter the sound of his voice. Whoever he was, he was more cautious than Avery. More cautious or at least smarter, not that being smarter than Avery was anything to boast about.


Draco was starting to mentally scroll through the list of Death Eaters still at large when Avery swept past him, opening his arms in a welcoming gesture.


“Good to see you, old friend. I wasn’t sure you’d get my message.”


The hooded figure nodded stiffly, maintaining his position. Avery turned again to face the conspirators. He fixed Gamp with a superior sneer and spoke with mock formality.


“Children, I’d like you to meet my old friend Mulciber. He an’ I served the Dark Lord faithfully in both wars. Now, why don’ you all run along to Azkaban. We have important business to attend to.”


Draco felt a chill pass through his body. The last time he’d seen Mulciber was during the battle at Hogwarts. Together, Avery and Mulciber were a formidable pair. Mulciber’s cold, calculating nature helped to balance Avery’s unfocused brutality. The difficulty Draco faced had just gone up exponentially.


Gamp looked like he wanted to argue with Avery, but the former Death Eater ignored him and started talking excitedly to Mulciber.


“We’re in luck. Turns out the Dark Lord left one of his experiments with Malfoy here. ‘Course, he don’ wanna say where it is, but that’s easy enough to fix. He don’ wanna to see his little lovely here get hurt, either. Especially not by his own wand. Why don’ you shake the rust off your Imperius Curse and see if we can’ persuade him to talk.”


Draco tried with all his might to raise his wand, but it was no use. Avery could cast the Imperius Curse just proficiently enough to hold him in place. Mulciber, on the other hand, was a master. He had placed dozens of Ministry officials under the curse to help the Dark Lord take control. With his last bit of self-determination, Draco turned his head to meet Astoria’s eyes and mouthed the words I’m sorry. Then he turned to face Mulciber and mentally prepared to put up the fight of his life. Just because he was going to lose in the end didn’t mean that he planned to make things easy.


Gamp snorted with annoyance and jabbed his thick finger toward Avery’s back.


“You’re mental, Avery. If you’ll excuse us, we’re gonna go overthrow the Ministry. When you’re done wasting time on these blood traitors, you can go crawl back into your cave.”


Avery paid him no mind, continuing to explain his theories about the Dark Lord’s non-existent artifact to Mulciber. As Gamp turned and started to talk quietly to his cousins, the masked wizard made his way across the room and stood next to Draco. Avery seemed almost gleeful.


“I think you should start by havin’ Malfoy cut her up a bit. If that don’ weaken his resolve, we try some less savory stuff. Why don’ you take your mask and cloak off and make yourself comfortable. I saw an elf aroun’ here somewhere. We’ll get firewhiskey and somethin’ to eat.”


Avery turned his attention toward Astoria, probably intending to force her to her feet. As Mulciber came closer, Draco steeled himself, knowing that the consequences of failure were too awful to think about. Where Avery was quick to inflict violent injury, Mulciber preferred to take his time and draw out every moment of suffering. Merely extracting information wasn’t enough. Mulciber was surgical in the way he went about breaking his victims. The masked wizard pointed his wand at Draco’s face, preparing the cast the curse. Draco refused to give the former Death Eater the satisfaction of blinking. He fixed the eye holes of the silvery mask with an icy glare, clearing his mind of everything except his need to keep Astoria safe. That was when Mulciber suddenly whipped his wand down and fired a powerful stunning spell into the middle of Avery’s back.






Astoria stared up at Avery, trying to steel herself against whatever was coming next. The leering cruelty in the man’s eyes didn’t leave much room for doubt; he wasn’t just planning to hurt her, he was going to enjoy it. She tried to curl up into a ball, not that it was going to do any good. He’d already proven that he was able to make Draco do things and Draco had far more experience fighting off dark curses than she did. Astoria closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable, feeling completely miserable. She needed to be strong to try to help Draco, but her body felt so tired and weak. Then she heard a loud crack.


Astoria’s eyes snapped open just in time to see Avery’s limp body cartwheel over her head. In an instant, the room exploded into a cacophony of shouting and cursefire. She watched the wizard Avery had called Mulciber slash his wand toward the tall windows and blow out the glass panes with a spell. Half a dozen witches and wizards in crimson Auror robes shook off their disillusionment charms as they leapt through the empty window frames. It was like something out of a novel, except it was happening in the great room of her own home. A moment later, she felt Draco fling his body over top of hers.


“You’re safe now, Astoria. Everything is going to be alright.”


If she’d felt a little less weary and sore, Astoria was certain that she would have set him straight. Nasty-looking spells were flying everywhere, making loud cracks as they collided with walls and shield charms. It was difficult to distinguish friend from foe as the conspirators and Aurors fought for the upper hand in a chaotic duel that quickly spread around the room. Whatever else they might have been, they were definitely not safe. Astoria looked up at Draco and watched his eyes rapidly flitting around the room as his wand twitched nervously in his free hand. No, they weren’t safe, but the intensely protective look on his face did make her feel slightly better.


After a minute or so, it became obvious that the tide was turning against the conspirators. Urquhart and Warrington were the first to fall, overwhelmed by the Aurors’ superior dueling skills. Gamp and his cousins proved to be stronger opponents, fending off the initial wave of spells and even managing to injure one of the Aurors. Out of the corner of her eye, Astoria noticed Blaise Zabini standing near the wall, looking overwhelmed by the fighting going on around him. Part of her felt bad for her former housemate, even though the fool had brought this fate on himself. Since he wasn’t fighting back, she wondered whether the Wizengamot might show him a bit of mercy.


Gamp’s cousin Aston was the next to go down, succumbing to the combined attack of a dark-haired female Auror and the wizard who had been impersonating Mulciber. Astoria scanned the room until she found Jeremy Gamp, who was engaged in a fierce duel with a tall, broad-shouldered Auror. He seemed to realize that the fight was not going well for his side and his eyes started to take on the crazed look of a cornered animal. Draco had obviously noticed the same thing and Astoria felt him pull her a bit closer. A few seconds later, Jeremy went for broke.


Whipping his wand toward the floor, he cast a blasting curse that caused the stone tiles to erupt in a deafening explosion. Everyone in the vicinity was knocked off their feet by the shockwave and shards of broken tile cut through the air like razors. The cartwheeling body of the tall Auror struck Draco in the side, and the two of them ended up in a tangle of limbs next to her. Something thin and light bounced off of Astoria’s cheek and landed next to her head. She forced her aching arms to move, feeling around on the floor next to her until her stiff fingers closed around a warm, wooden handle. There was no way to know whose wand it was, but that didn’t concern Astoria in the slightest. She was no longer helpless!


An angry, feral-sounding growl interrupted her moment of empowerment. Jeremy had pulled himself to his knees and he seemed to be trying to clear his head. Because he’d cast the curse away from himself, he’d suffered the least injury from the blast, but he was still bloodied and bruised and his robes were riddled with ragged holes. Astoria felt pretty sure that he’d collapse from his accumulated injuries within minutes, but that was an eternity in the chaos that surrounded them. She turned in the other direction and saw Draco still trying to get out from under the unconscious Auror. He looked dazed and exhausted and his wand was nowhere to be found. Astoria quickly realized that he was in no position to protect anyone, including himself.


She rolled onto her side toward Jeremy Gamp just in time to see him raise his wand. It was pointing directly over top of her and she quickly surmised that he was aiming at Draco. Astoria’s entire arm was shaking from the strain as she tightened her grip on the wand she’d found and tried to aim. Her vision narrowed until every quiver of her ravaged muscles made the tip of her wand appear to veer wildly off target. Jeremy’s ragged shout seemed to drown out all of the other sounds in the room.


“Filthy blood traitor! I’ll see you in hell, Malfoy! AVADA-”


Flipendo!”


The jinx was weak, but Astoria managed to strike Jeremy’s shoulder in the middle of his incantation. His arm lurched upward and a jet of green light from his wand struck the far wall, showering the floor with bits of pulverized plaster. She was feeling rather proud of herself until Jeremy’s crazed, bloodshot eyes settled squarely on her. There was something triumphant about the nasty sneer that crossed his lips as he pointed his wand at her face. It confused her at first but then the truth hit her. Killing her wasn’t just about settling a score. Jeremy was going to take something away from Draco, something that Draco valued more than his own life. And the image of Draco grieving over her bothered Astoria much more than the idea of her own death. In that fraction of a second, the one that was sure to be her last, she realized what true love was all about.


Stupefy!


Jeremy Gamp slumped over as his wand fell harmlessly to the floor. Astoria managed to tear her eyes away from his body and found Blaise Zabini standing nearby with his wand still pointed at the unconscious wizard. All around the room the Aurors were sounding the all clear, and she was shocked to hear the final call come from Zabini himself. An instant later, she felt herself being pulled into Draco’s arms. As her head sunk into his chest, the emotions started to pour out of her. Tears streamed down her cheeks and soaked into the fabric of Draco’s shirt. Relief, anger, sadness, gratitude, worry, hope, love... Astoria was gripped by more feelings than she could readily name. Draco’s soft words filled her ears.


“Shhhh. It’s all over. We’re safe now.”


He gently ran his fingertips over her forehead, brushing the stray locks of hair out of her face. She looked up at him, drinking in every detail of his bruised, dirty face. He was alive. They both were. Somehow, against all odds, they had both survived. Joy welled up from deep inside her, but along the way it encountered another powerful emotion. She knew it wasn’t appropriate or even nice, but she couldn’t help herself. Her nose wrinkled and her brows knitted together in what she was sure was a horribly unattractive face.


You prat! You almost got yourself killed!”


For a brief moment, Draco looked stunned and embarrassed. His frown quickly melted away, however, replaced by a wry grin that she found equal parts irresistible and infuriating. She made a weak attempt to punch him on the arm even as her own face split into a grin. He pulled her tighter and she could feel the low rumble of laughter in his chest. It hurt so much to laugh that she nearly passed out, but Astoria couldn’t stop herself. As she nestled her head underneath his chin, he tried -- and failed -- to answer her in a serious voice.


“As I recall, I wasn’t the only one who came close to dying.”


“Well if I hadn’t needed to keep Jeremy from killing you, I would have been perfectly fine. Prat.”


As quickly as it had started, Draco’s chuckling ceased. Astoria wondered what had happened to change his mood so suddenly. He bowed his head so that his lips were very close to her ear. She could feel the soft warmth of his breath against her skin as he lowered his voice to the barest whisper, making sure that no one else could hear.


“Astoria, I am so sorry. You mean everything to me, I was just too stubborn and foolish to see it. That’s why I came here tonight. If you’ll have me back, I promise that I’ll never do something so stupid ever again.”


A sense of profound warmth spread through Astoria’s body, followed by a tingling in her extremities. She tilted her head back, brushing Draco’s jaw with her cheek as she moved her lips close to his ear. She whispered to him, surprised by the amount of emotion she could hear spilling into her own words.


“You weren’t the only one who was acting stupidly, Draco. I got so caught up in being angry at my father and feeling sorry for myself that I tried to push you into something you weren’t ready for. Something we weren’t ready for. I can’t bear to lose you. Please forgive me.”


Slowly, he lifted her off of his chest and held her so that they could look into one another’s eyes. She groaned softly as her muscles and joints protested, but in spite of the discomfort she wanted to see his face.


“What if I was ready? I love you, Astoria. I never want to be apart again. If you still want me to meet you outside of your front gate on the morning of your birthday then that’s where I’ll be.”


Astoria’s felt her eyes open wider and a tear rolled down her pale cheek. It was everything she had ever wanted to hear, and the emotions pouring from her heart threatened to overwhelm her. She tried to speak but the words wouldn’t come to her so she just nodded slowly. Draco gently pulled her back into him, wrapping his arms tightly around her. She finally found her voice as she buried her face in the crook of his shoulder.


“I love you, Draco. I love you, I love you, I-”


“Get away from her, Malfoy!”


Her attention snapped back to their long-forgotten surroundings so quickly that it made her neck muscles scream with pain. She found the lanky, crimson-clad form of Ron Weasley towering over them. The red-headed Auror trainee was glaring down at Draco with a look of pure contempt. In the back of her mind, it occurred to Astoria that she’d gotten so used to having wands pointed at her that it barely registered any more. Draco seemed to feel exactly the same, and he returned his cheek to the top of her head as he tightened his arms around her.


“Go away, Weaselbee. This is a private conversation.”


Weasley was undaunted, and the volume of his voice rose alongside his anger.


“I’m placing you under arrest for aiding and abetting known fugitives, conspiracy to attack a Ministry penal facility, use of lethal curses in the act of resisting arrest and probably a few other things I’ll think of on the way back to London. Now get up before I put you in a full bodybind and levitate you!”


Astoria grimaced in pain as she pushed herself up from Draco’s chest. He seemed surprised that she was moving, but still he had the good sense to let her go. She wasn’t sure where the anger came from, but once it took control of her thoughts there was no stopping it. Astoria turned around on Draco’s lap and fixed Weasley with a furious glare.


“Draco didn’t do any of those things. He fought off all of these lunatics while you and the rest of the Ministry were taking your sweet time getting here. I’d be dead right now if it wasn’t for him. Now leave us alone or my father will have your badge delivered to him on a plaque!”


Weasley looked like somebody had slapped him. Much later, Draco would admit to her that he felt so smitten in that moment that only his enjoyment of the great, red-headed buffoon’s shocked expression kept him from abandoning any semblance of dignity and snogging her senseless in front of half of the Auror Department. It took Weasley a good five seconds to recover and stammer out a response.


“Is that so? Well... how’d you like to join your boyfriend in a holding cell for obstructing-”


“Let him be, Ron. He didn’t do anything wrong.”


Astoria was starting to get very annoyed with the endless stream of head-turning surprises this day had offered. She was definitely going to need muscle-relaxing potions and probably a massage. The new voice belonged to Blaise Zabini, who was standing nearby. But it wasn’t Zabini’s voice. And for some reason he was still holding a wand and he wasn’t being hauled off to a jail cell like the other conspirators. Weasley continued to glare at Draco and Astoria as he spoke.


“Don’t be thick, Harry. This is Malfoy we’re talking about. You think he was just here by coincidence? He’s messed up in all of this somehow.”


Astoria was sure that her mouth was hanging open in a most undignified way. “Zabini” was actually Potter. Also, he was talking sense to Weasley instead of just letting him act like a prat. Potter spoke softly, but insistently.


“He wasn’t here by coincidence, Ron, but she’s right. He kept Avery busy long enough for all of you to get here. Just let him be.”


The tone of Weasley’s voice changed noticeably. His frustration and anger were evident as he refused to back down.


“Bollocks, Harry! He’s a Death Eater. They don’t just turn on their own kind. Now I’m gonna-”


“Weasley!”


A commanding voice rang out from the other side of the room and Weasley instantly spun on his heel. The man who had impersonated Mulciber slowly made his way over. The Death Eater mask was gone and Astoria recognized the stern face from pictures she’d seen in the Daily Prophet. “Mulciber” was actually Gawain Robards, the head of the Auror Department.


“We have six dark wizards who need to be processed for transfer to Azkaban and three more on the way to St. Mungo’s for treatment. Stop wasting time. I want you back in London, helping Jeremy and Tarquin with the transfer paperwork. Move.”


Weasley shot one last filthy glare in their direction before stalking off toward the wall full of ruined windows. As the red-headed Auror trainee departed, Astoria collapsed back onto Draco’s chest. The effort required to tell Weasley off had left her exhausted. Potter kneeled down beside them and spoke quietly and calmly.


“We need to get both of you to St. Mungo’s. Once you’ve been cleared by a Healer, we’ll also need statements from both of you on what happened here this evening.”


She felt Draco nod slowly. Cradled in his arms, Astoria suddenly felt very tired. The sounds in the room seemed to grow more distant and she could barely keep her eyes open. As Potter started to stand up, Draco interrupted him with a question.


“Potter. How long?”


Zabini’s face looked confused for a moment, then nodded in understanding.


“About three days. His mother was apparently tipped off by someone inside the Ministry. We believe she managed to slip him out of the country. She’s obviously not saying and, well, she’s gotten pretty good at this over the years. Otherwise, she’d have ended up in Azkaban four or five husbands ago.”


Astoria heard a small chuckle echo inside Draco’s chest, but it never made it to his lips. At that moment, a group of Medi Wizards rushed into the room, levitating gurneys in front of them. Potter flagged two of them down and directed them to see to Draco and Astoria. He gave a small nod of Zabini’s head toward them, then moved on to some other task.


In spite of his own injuries, Draco insisted on lifting Astoria onto a gurney. She felt slightly annoyed with him for being so stubborn, but she did appreciate the gesture. Across the room, her mother and father were being prepared for the trip to St. Mungo’s and a wave of guilt rolled over her. In all the chaos and terror, she’d completely forgotten about them. Still, they were alive and in good hands, so she allowed herself to relax. She would deal with her father when they were both well enough to talk.


The Medi Witch who was taking care of Astoria tucked a white sheet under her sides and then pulled a flask out of her bag that contained a pale, blue potion.


“This will help with the pain until the Healers can see to your curse injuries.”


Astoria took one last look at Draco, who was staring at her intently as he gingerly lowered himself onto a gurney. She smiled at him and enjoyed the way his eyes lit up in response. There were still many problems they needed to deal with, but there probably always would be. Draco loved her and she loved him. The rest would work out somehow. She allowed the Medi Witch to tip the potion into her open mouth. As the warm, tingling darkness claimed Astoria, her last thoughts were of Draco’s beautiful grey eyes.






“I’m really quite alright. You’ve healed all of the burns and I feel much better, thank you very much. I don’t understand why I need to remain in this sorry excuse for a bed.”


Draco fixed the Healer with an angry glare and crossed his arms across his chest. He couldn’t quite suppress the twinge of discomfort that the motion caused in his shoulder. The Healer sighed and gave him a knowing look.


“Mr. Malfoy, it’s been slightly less than ten hours since the Medi Wizards brought you in here with a collection of injuries rivaling anything I’ve seen since the end of the war. You will remain in this sorry excuse of a bed because your body needs time to heal. Now lie down and rest before I have you sedated.”


The smug self-importance in the Healer’s voice made Draco’s blood boil. If he could fight Avery to a draw with the injuries he had when he walked into old man Greengrass’s house then he could certainly get out of bed now that they were mostly healed.


“Draco, please listen to him. Your father and I want to be sure you make a full recovery.”


Draco lowered his torso back onto the thin mattress with a huff of indignation. It was far too soft for his tastes and the coarse, scratchy sheets chafed at his skin every time he moved.


“Yes, Mother.”


The Healer allowed his professional detachment to slip ever so slightly. His eyes narrowed and Draco could hear the distaste in his voice.


“Rest assured, Mr. Malfoy, the moment you’re medically fit to leave St. Mungo’s, we will be pleased to send you on your way.”


Draco groaned petulantly as the Healer left the room. His mother simply pretended that she didn’t hear him and went back to reading the Daily Prophet. Splashed across the front page was a huge, moving picture of the Aurors levitating a bound and gagged Avery across the Ministry Atrium. The headline underneath shouted CONSPIRACY OF YOU-KNOW-WHO’S FOLLOWERS THWARTED!. It made Draco feel mildly ill. Over a year had passed and they were still frightened to print the Dark Lord’s name.


A soft knock at the door caused his mother to lower her paper. Wearing a deep green dressing gown and leaning on a cane, Horatio Greengrass looked more than a little unsure of himself. He seemed unable to meet Draco’s eyes, so he addressed Draco’s mother instead.


“Narcissa. Doing well, I hope?”


“Very well, now that my son is no longer in danger. And your family?”


Mr. Greengrass seemed puzzled, as though he didn’t quite know what to make of Narcissa’s genuine concern. His answer had an air of forced cordiality to it.


“Fine. The Healers say that they’ll all be just fine. Thank you for asking.”


The awkward silence persisted for a long moment. It seemed that nobody was quite sure what to say next. Finally Mr. Greengrass took another hesitant step into Draco’s room.


“I was hoping that I might have a private word with your son, assuming he’s feeling up to it.”


Narcissa gave Draco a concerned look. In her eyes, he could see that she was more than willing to make his excuses for him. He shook his head subtly and then nodded toward a well-worn chair near the foot of his bed.


“Please, have a seat.”


Narcissa stood and folded her paper as Mr. Greengrass limped over. She offered Draco one last look of concern which he met with a small, forced smile. In his heart, he knew that the conversation at hand was important, whether or not he felt like having it at this exact moment. With a cordial nod toward Mr. Greengrass, Narcissa left the room and pulled the door closed behind her.


Draco waited for Mr. Greengrass to speak, feeling that he had nothing to gain by being the first to break the silence. The older man seemed to feel the same way, so the two of them shared several awkward seconds before Mr. Greengrass finally spoke.


“I suppose you’re wondering why I wanted to speak with you.”


It was a question geared to elicit a response, but Draco refused to take the bait.


“The question had crossed my mind, yes, but I assume you’ll tell me when you’re ready.”


Mr. Greengrass stared at the watercolor painting that hung over the head of Draco’s bed for another long moment. He appeared to be lost in thought. Finally, he met Draco’s eyes with a resolute stare.


“I should start with the obvious. You saved my daughter’s life and possibly the lives of my entire family. That was a very brave thing you did, facing down Jeremy and his accomplices. The House of Greengrass owes you a debt of gratitude.”


With some effort, Draco kept his expression neutral. He wasn’t accustomed to people thanking him for such things.


“I’m very pleased that I was able to help. Your daughter means a great deal to me.”


Draco noticed a momentary stiffening of Mr. Greengrass’s back. He looked like a man who was struggling with a difficult dilemma. A tight smile crossed his lips as he seemed to force himself to relax.


“Apparently you mean a great deal to her, as well. Astoria, along with my wife, wouldn’t allow me a moment’s peace until I came to speak with you.”


The muscles in Draco’s cheeks nearly cramped up as he tried to suppress the smile that threatened to take over his face. He could feel the corners of his mouth twitching and he nodded slowly to try to hide his reaction. His discomfort wasn’t lost on Astoria’s father, who sighed and lowered his eyes to the floor, slowly rubbing his forehead.


“This isn’t easy for me, Mr. Malfoy. I’m the head of a noble house and Astoria’s father, besides. For a man in my position, making the correct choices is about more than just avoiding the embarrassment of being wrong.”


Mr. Greengrass’s candor was starting to make Draco uncomfortable. Prominent pureblood wizards didn’t open up to strangers like this, it wasn’t proper. Then he thought about Astoria and made a conscious effort to push his discomfort aside. There was a genuine opportunity in front of him if he could find the right words.


“Years before I was even born, my father chose to align our family with the Dark-”


Draco took a fortifying breath. He couldn’t hold the publishers of the Daily Prophet to a higher standard than the one he held himself to.


“... chose to align our family with Lord Voldemort. That choice has defined every moment of my life. There’s nothing I can do to change the decision he made all those years ago. All I can do is move past it and make sure that I make the right choices from now on.”


At least Mr. Greengrass didn’t cringe at the mention of the Dark Lord’s name, although he did look a bit surprised. Draco could respect that. The room was quiet for a while as Mr. Greengrass seemed to consider what Draco had said. His voice sounded rather flat when he responded.


“Contrary to what she seems to believe, I don’t like to see my daughter unhappy, Mr. Malfoy. It’s just hard for me to accept what you’re saying when I know the types of things you’ve been part of.”


“I’m not asking you to accept anything that I’m saying. I’m only asking that you see for yourself. And please, call me Draco.”


Mr. Greengrass stared at Draco quizzically. In a way, Draco was humbling himself by allowing Horatio Greengrass to use his first name. When an older pureblood wizard referred to a younger man by his first name, the relationship implied was almost paternal in nature, like a favorite uncle or a respected mentor. Draco hoped that the gesture wasn’t lost on Astoria’s father.


The older man seemed to collect his thoughts for a moment before he started again.


“Very well then, Draco. If you’re serious about showing me how much you’re changed then I’ll offer you the following proposition. My family owns a company that imports rare potions and ingredients from the Far East. My sources tell me that the Ministry is about to open bidding on a contract to supply a potion that uses a rare plant found only in China. I intend to win that contract and I’m preparing to depart on a three week business trip to negotiate with several suppliers. You work in Madam Blishwick’s department, correct?”


Draco nodded his affirmation as he recalled nearly incinerating Edgar during his job interview. Horatio Greengrass’s sources were impressive, indeed.


“Then I assume you’re familiar with this plant and how it’s used in the potion. Come to work for me, Draco. With your knowledge on our side, we can’t lose. And while we travel, I’ll have the chance to make up my mind about you.”


Two things were immediately apparent to Draco. First, whether or not she wanted to admit it, having her father’s blessing would mean a lot to Astoria. Second, he could possibly have his resignation letter on Madam Blishwick’s desk before she left for the day if somebody in this wretched hospital had an owl he could borrow. Still, he didn’t want to appear too eager.


“How much would this position pay?”


Mr. Greengrass’s eyes hardened slightly.


“I’ll pay you twenty Galleons a week plus a one hundred Galleon bonus if we win the contract.”


“Make it thirty Galleons a week and we have a deal.”


The older man’s eyebrows arched and his back straightened.


“You’d haggle with your possible future father-in-law over ten Galleons a week?”


“You’d marry your daughter off to a man who settled for a twenty Galleon salary when he’s obviously worth thirty?”


The two wizards stared at one another for a long moment. The hard look on Mr. Greengrass’s face gradually eased. Draco thought he could see a hint of respect.


“I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s anything obvious here, Draco. It’s not obvious that I’ll be marrying my daughter off to you and it’s certainly not obvious that you’re worth thirty Galleons a week. Twenty-five, and not a knut more.”


Draco allowed himself a smile and extended his hand, which Mr. Greengrass gripped firmly in acknowledgment.


“You won’t regret it. This plant is tricky to work with. It has a bit of a personality.”


The older wizard nodded approvingly as he rose stiffly to his feet.


“I’ll send an owl with all of the details. We leave in four days, assuming we’re both cleared to travel by then.”


Astoria’s father made his way to the door then paused before opening it. His voice sounded slightly shaky when he spoke.


“For what it’s worth, Draco, I do hope that I was wrong about you. I came very close to losing my entire family yesterday. I don’t want to lose Astoria.”


Then he opened the door and stepped into the corridor. He spotted something that Draco couldn’t see and glanced back over his shoulder.


“It seems there’s somebody else here who wants to speak with you.”






Astoria fixed her father with a stare as he emerged from Draco’s hospital room, looking for any hint in his eyes. He looked weary and he leaned more heavily on his cane as he took a couple of steps toward her. When he finally met her gaze, he hesitated for a moment. Then he nodded slightly. Astoria rushed over to him and wrapped her arms around his waist.


“Thank you, Father. You’re going to love him once you get to know him.”


She felt her father’s arm wrap around her shoulders, then release her. The smile on his face didn’t look entirely genuine, but for now she was happy to accept it.


“You’d better get in there before I change my mind.”


Astoria gave her father’s arm one last squeeze and then hurried into Draco’s room. The sight of his eyes lighting up when he saw her sent a shiver down her spine. She hurried across the room as quickly as her sore muscles would allow while Draco picked his wand up and flicked it over her shoulder. She heard a gentle thud as the door closed behind her. Coming to a stop at the side of his bed, she suddenly felt very self-conscious about being alone with him. It surprised her, considering how eager she’d been just moments before. He seemed to be waiting for her to speak, so she tried not to sound too awkward.


“How are you feeling?”


“Better. The Healers want me to stay in bed, but I’m fine really.”


Astoria was about to lecture him on the importance of getting plenty of rest when he noticed the incredulous look on her face and quickly turned the question back on her.


“How about you?”


“My arms and legs are still sore, but it doesn’t hurt to breathe anymore. I might be able to go home today.”


Draco nodded approvingly. Astoria could see a hint of disappointment behind his smile, and her heart fluttered in response. He didn’t want her to leave! Still, she wasn’t quite sure how to steer the conversation toward their relationship. Why was it so much easier to express your feelings when people were trying to kill you?


“So, things are alright between you and Father?”


Draco shrugged his shoulders slightly in response.


“They’re not perfect, but it’s a start. He’s offered me a job helping him import potions ingredients and I accepted. We’re traveling to China in four days.”


“Oh. Well that’s a step in the right direction I suppose.”


She took a step closer, feeling the anticipation building inside her chest. Draco scooted away from her, making more space on the side of his narrow hospital bed. As she was about to turn and sit in the space he’d created, he reached out and caressed her cheek. The flush of warmth created by his touch made her weak in the knees. She reached up and laid her hand on top of his, then turned her head and softly kissed the palm of his hand. Draco inhaled sharply. His smoky grey eyes locked onto hers and the intense passion she found in them quickly overwhelmed her lingering reservations. Instead of sitting on the edge of his bed she climbed into the small space he’d made. A second later, she felt her lips crash into his. It wasn’t a proper situation for a young lady to find herself in, but that was a concern for the people on the other side of the door. Not that they’d ever find out.


A warm tingling sensation filled Astoria’s extremities as she pressed her body against Draco’s. She took his face in her hands, pressing her palms against his cheeks and running her fingertips through his hair. His hands glided up her sides, across her shoulders and then down the middle of her back. Tremors of pleasure gripped her as his fingers made their way back up her spine and slipped into the depths of her dark curls, pressing her lips more urgently against his. Soft moans and sharp, sudden breaths were the only sounds that interrupted the intense pounding of Astoria’s heart in her ears.


After what seemed like ages, Draco and Astoria finally broke the kiss. Both of them were quietly gasping for air, still clinging to one another. As the loud buzzing in Astoria’s brain gradually receded, she noticed several things. First, she was almost certain that the belt of her dressing gown had been tied when she came into the room. And her hospital gown definitely hadn’t been all twisted up around her bare thighs. Feeling slightly panicked at the unfamiliarity of it all, she slid off of the bed and onto her feet, smoothing her clothes.


“Astoria? Are you alright?”


Astoria took a deep breath to settle herself before she turned around to face him. Draco looked a little confused and more than a bit worried at her sudden change in demeanor. In spite of her nerves, his expression put a small grin on her lips.


“I’m fine. It’s just... that all happened rather fast. Don’t get me wrong, it was wonderful and I love being so close to you. It’s just not exactly proper, that’s all.”


The worried look on Draco’s face gradually melted into an amused grin. Astoria’s hands instinctively moved to her hips and she tried to give him a reproachful glare even as she felt the smile tugging at the corners of her own mouth.


“What’s so funny about that? I’m a proper lady, you prat!”


A snort of laughter escaped him, and Astoria pressed her fists harder into her sides, trying to stay in control.


“You’re really bothered about being proper, after everything we’ve been through?”


The look on his face was too much. Astoria leaned against the side of his bed and tried to punch him in the chest as a huge grin broke through her wall of composure. Draco managed to wrap his arms around her as she squirmed and giggled, then he pulled her onto the bed beside him. In a matter of moments the two teenagers were consumed by fits of painful laughter. Astoria gripped her aching sides and relished the music of Draco’s laughs. It had been a long time since they’d been able to lose themselves in a moment of pure, frivolous amusement. She felt his body shaking next to hers and tried to press herself even closer to him, drinking in his warmth and nearness.


Suddenly, something changed. Draco’s laughter changed to awful, choking sobs. At first Astoria wasn’t sure that she was hearing correctly, and she pushed herself up onto her elbows to see what was the matter. He tried to roll onto his side, facing away from her, but she placed her hand firmly on his shoulder and pulled him back. Draco pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, but he couldn’t stop the flow of tears and they leaked out onto his cheeks. Astoria pulled his head into her chest, smoothing his platinum hair and whispering softly to him until he was able to compose himself enough to explain.


“I’m sorry. Everything just hit me at once. I don’t know if I can ever explain the place I was in when you found me in Diagon Alley. For two years, my life was nothing but fear and anger and bitterness and death. I was dying Astoria, poisoning myself with whatever I could find that would ease the pain. Living just wasn’t worth it.”


Draco had to pause for another long moment to collect himself. Astoria waited patiently for him to continue.


“You helped me find the way out... gave me something worth living for. I’d be dead right now if you hadn’t. Everything I am and everything I want to be, it’s all because of you. You are the most amazing woman in the world and I want to give you everything you’ve ever wanted. I want to marry you. I want to have a family and a long, wonderful life together. I want your beautiful face to be the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I see before I close my eyes at night. I love you, Astoria. More than anything in the entire world.”


Astoria felt the tears sliding down her own cheeks. She stared into Draco’s damp, grey eyes until she was overwhelmed by the urge to kiss him. When their lips finally parted, she stared lovingly into his eyes.


“Do... do you really mean it? That you want to marry me?”


Slowly, grimacing from the pain in his shoulder and back, Draco slid out of the hospital bed and onto his feet. Astoria couldn’t help herself. She opened her mouth to order him back into bed, but he placed a single finger over her lips. Pulling her off of the bed and onto her feet beside him, he proceeded to gingerly lower himself to one knee.


“I know I don’t have your father’s blessing or a ring to give you, but I’m asking anyway. Please, Astoria, say you’ll be my wife.”


Astoria felt fresh tears spilling down her cheeks as her hand instinctively flew to cover her mouth. His beautiful grey eyes were staring up at her, adoring and beseeching. She nodded her assent and helped him get shakily back to his feet. Draco leaned against his bed for support and then pulled her into him. She felt his arms encircle her shoulders as she wrapped hers around his waist and relished the warmth of his chest. His soft, whispered words drifted to her ears.


“I’ll ask you again, properly, once I have your father’s blessing.”


Through her tears of happiness, Astoria’s smile grew.


“That will make Mother very happy. She loves big, romantic moments.”


“Do you think we should tell them?”


Astoria pondered the question for a moment, then shook her head.


“No. It’ll be our secret for now. Agreed?”


Draco gave her a slightly cheeky smile in return.


“That doesn’t seem very proper.”


Taking his hand between hers, Astoria wrinkled her nose and grinned devilishly.


“Serves them right for everything they put us through! Now back to bed with you before the Healers decide to keep you here even longer.”


Draco protested half-heartedly, but did as he was told. Astoria finished tucking him in and then she leaned down and kissed him again. She’d expected a quick peck on the lips but when she finally pulled away, her face felt extremely warm and the pleasant buzzing situation had returned to her extremities. She smiled adoringly at him and started to back away toward the door.


“I’ll stop to say goodbye when they let me leave.”


Draco smiled weakly in return. He looked tired, but also put out about being stuck in bed.


“Will I be able to see you again before your father and I leave for China?”


Astoria pretended to be taken aback by his question.


“Well I certainly hope so. My birthday is the day before you’re supposed to depart.”


Draco looked equal parts happy and confused as she reached for the doorknob.


“But I thought... I mean... am I still supposed to meet you at the front gate?”


She gave him an innocent smile that gradually melted into a wicked grin.


“I suppose you could come inside the house for a few minutes if you like. Just because we’re not eloping doesn’t mean that your fiancé isn’t expecting a nice evening out to celebrate her seventeenth birthday.”


Astoria blew Draco a kiss and then strolled out of the room feeling very satisfied with herself. One thing she’d learned from watching her own mother was that a proper pureblood wife always had to stay a step or two ahead of her husband. She supposed that it wasn’t too early to get started.






Draco stared at the ceiling over his hospital bed for a long moment. He tried very hard to convince himself that he was perfectly capable of differentiating between fantasy and reality, but in the end he simply had to be sure. He reached beneath the sheets and pinched himself in the side. Hard.


“Bugger!”


Alright, he definitely hadn’t just dreamed it all. Astoria’s father had actually spoken civilly with him and offered him a job. Then Astoria had visited him and they’d snogged each other breathless. Then he’d broken down and wept in front of her. That part would certainly be purged from any version of the day’s events he decided to share with his mother. And he’d asked her to marry him. Twice, actually. And she’d said...


“She said yes.”


Something about hearing the words out loud made the smile on his face grow even larger. She had agreed to marry him. Astoria was going to be his wife. He tried to temper his enthusiasm a bit as his cheeks started to ache. She would want to finish school before they were married. He wasn’t sure how he knew that, but he felt quite sure of it. One trip to China also wasn’t likely to offer enough time to completely alleviate her father’s doubts about him. There was still much to be done, he reasoned. Many opportunities for difficulties and setbacks. So why was he still smiling like an idiot?


“She said yes.”


Everything in his life was about to change. Then again, everything in his life had already changed. If he tried, he could vaguely recall what it was like to be the angry, bitter young man who used to sit at the bar at the Ragged Fang, listening to his delusional mates rant and posture while he gradually poisoned himself with alcohol. That Draco Malfoy was gone now. And he could say without hesitation that the new one was a vast improvement. Because Astoria loved the new Draco Malfoy and he loved her. And that was all that mattered.


“She said yes.”






Hello, dear readers. As you've probably surmised, the main part of the story has come to an end. It will be followed by an epilogue which I hope you find interesting and entertaining.

Nearly a year ago, this story started off as a challenge entry. It was a gift to the amazing JChrissy. I hope that she's happy with how it turned out. And a lot of credit goes to her for making the conversations between Astoria and Isadore sound realistic.

Immense gratitude goes to my beta reader, sophie_hatter, for all of her suggestions and wise counsel. Please check out her story,
Evolution. It's well worth your time!

Lastly, thanks to all of you who've read and reviewed Detox! Your encouragement and feedback have really helped to make it a better story.


Chapter 16: Epilogue
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For the final time, that which you recognize from the books belongs to the inimitable JK Rowling.






Scorpius Malfoy sat on the edge of his bed, staring at the manor’s gardens through his bedroom window. The young man wore a tailored white shirt with french cuffs and black trousers and the fringe of his platinum blonde hair was still damp from his morning shower. He stubbed his toes listlessly against the carpet while one of the elves expertly packed his clothes, books and supplies into his new school trunk. Heaving a sigh, he looked back to the pages of the book lying in his lap before giving up a few moments later and snapping it shut. Then he flopped back onto his bed, closing his eyes and pressing the heels of his hands into them.


From the doorway, Astoria worried at the inside of her lip as she watched her only child prepare to make his first journey to Hogwarts. She felt pangs of something she couldn’t quite describe. Guilt? Regret? Her rational mind argued that neither was justified, although it couldn’t quite convince her heart to see reason. The simple truth was that there was nothing she could do to change the reality he faced. The experience awaiting him in Scotland was going to be very different from her own.


Throughout history, wizarding society had always been slow to acknowledge its own problems. The impact of the war on the old families was no different. At dinner parties and fundraisers, the heads of the noble houses tended to downplay the effects. They’d survived worse through the centuries, or so they liked to say. But the effects were very real and they were rarely so pronounced as when one looked at the dwindling number of pureblood children attending Hogwarts. Scorpius was part of a lost generation. She could only hope that he would find new friends to replace the ready-made social circle that she and Draco had once taken for granted.


It was going to be difficult for him. Scorpius was a quiet boy who didn’t take to strangers easily. It wasn’t hard to understand why. Growing up, he hadn’t had many opportunities to spend time around other children. There were a few second cousins on Astoria’s side of the family, but Scorpius usually only saw them at weddings and funerals. When he wasn’t with his parents or grandparents, he spent most of his time flying or reading. His broomstick and his books were his constant companions, helping to fill the long hours that other children spent with one another.


Astoria took a step into his room, drawing his attention. The boy instantly sat up and straightened his posture, which made her heart ache a bit more. As always, he was trying to do what he thought the adults expected of him. That damnable Malfoy facade that he’d inherited from his father and grandfather. His eyes told the real story. She saw apprehension, loss and fear lurking just below the surface. It made her want to bring the whole world to a halt somehow. To hold her son and comfort him and give him all the time that he needed to be ready for what came next. But her rational mind knew that such things were beyond her magic and, she suspected, anyone else’s. So she put on her best smile and swept an appraising glance over his small, thin frame.


“You look so handsome. Be careful that you don’t break too many hearts during your first year.”


Scorpius forced a small smile in response, but it didn’t reach his eyes and quickly faded.


“Grandfather says that there are hardly any girls left who are suitable for me to marry.”


Astoria kept the smile on her face while she slowly counted to five. The act came easily after so many years of stopping herself from hexing her father-in-law. As though Scorpius’s time at Hogwarts wasn’t going to be difficult enough...


She walked over to his writing desk where a long, slender box lay open. The wand inside felt cool but not unfriendly as she picked it up and twirled it between her fingers. It was hazel, ten and three quarters inches with a core of unicorn hair like his father’s.


“Are you looking forward to learning how to use this?”


Scorpius shrugged his shoulders slightly as she gently returned the wand to its box.


“I guess so. Grandfather thinks that I already know most of what’s taught in First Year. He said that I could spend the extra time getting to know the right sort of people. He said something about sending some owls to his old friends.”


Astoria arched her eyebrow in response and he deflated a bit under her gaze.


“I don’t really know where to start. Will I know the difference between the right sort and the wrong sort?”


Scorpius stared at his feet as Astoria made her way over and sat beside him on the edge of the bed. She waited for him to speak, knowing that if she rushed him, he would merely say what he thought she wanted to hear. When he finally broke the silence, she could hear the conflict and resignation in his voice.


“I’d really rather spend my time flying. I want to be sure that I’m ready when I’m old enough to try out for the house team. But Grandfather’s told me so much about the history of our family at Hogwarts. I don’t want to let him down, especially with his condition...”


Scorpius wasn’t supposed to have known about his grandfather’s condition, but it didn’t surprise Astoria that he’d managed to work it out for himself. He had always been a very bright, very attentive child. She’d noticed over the years that he was often listening to their conversations even when he seemed to be completely lost in the pages of a book. It was one of a select few traits that was distinctly Slytherin.


Astoria wrapped her arm around him and felt him lean his head against her side.


“I’m sorry that your grandfather isn’t feeling well enough to go to London with us. I know how much you wanted him to be there to see you off.”


She could see the hurt and disappointment in his eyes even as he tried to put up a brave front and it broke her heart.


“It’s not his fault. I heard Nanna say that his potions aren’t working as well as they used to.”


Astoria tightened her embrace, pulling him closer to her side. She tried without much success to keep the sadness out of her voice.


“You overhear a lot of things you’re not supposed to, you know that?”


Scorpius looked slightly embarrassed and a little proud of himself, but mostly just sad. They sat together for a long moment before the clicking of the latches on his school trunk broke the silence.


“Begging mistress’s pardon, but young master’s trunk is all packed.”


All too quickly, her final moments with her son were coming to an end. Astoria sighed and addressed the diminutive creature.


“Thank you, Kriffin. Please take it to the entry hall.”


The elf bowed deeply and then disappeared with a crack, taking the trunk with him. Astoria rose to her feet, keeping her son pressed against her side. She knew it was silly, but something inside of her felt as though once she let go of him, she’d never be able to hold him that way again. Scorpius collected his wand and a book from his desk as they made their way toward the door. Just when they were about to step into the hallway, he paused and turned around. Astoria watched as his eyes swept over the shelves filled with his favorite books and the painted Quidditch players that zoomed around the ceiling. He took a deep, shuddering breath and then turned away. By the time his grey eyes reached hers, the imperturbable Malfoy facade was once again fixed on his face.


“I guess we should go downstairs. Father won’t want to be late.”






Draco Malfoy waited in the entry hall of Malfoy Manor, holding a silver snuff box in his hand. Autumn had arrived early and he wore a thick black coat to ward off the cold. He checked his watch and drummed his fingers impatiently on the pedestal by the door. They were in no danger of being late, but he’d been milling around the manor all morning and there was an odd sort of tension in his chest. A fitful, nervous energy that seemed to demand a change in scenery. Just as he was about to go in search of his wife and son, a house elf appeared at the door with Scorpius’s school trunk in tow.


“Mistress and young master will be coming soon.”


Draco waved the creature away, feeling unable to tolerate its foolish prattling. He took a deep breath and tried to compose himself as he waited for them. It wasn’t every day that his only son left to begin his first year at Hogwarts, but Draco still expected better of himself. Perhaps Astoria would shed a few tears as Scorpius boarded the train but he fully intended to retain his dignity, just as his father had done a quarter of a century ago. As he understood it, Potter and Weasley also had children starting their first year of school. There was no way he would make a spectacle of himself in front of their sort.


Astoria and Scorpius appeared at the top of the grand staircase and Draco resisted the urge to rock forward and back on the balls of his feet as they descended. His wife seemed to be clinging to his son, and he squelched a small pang of jealousy at the physical closeness they were sharing. Her only child was about to leave for four months and he couldn’t begrudge her those last few moments of holding him by her side.


“Scorpius.”


Draco turned away from the stairs and saw his mother sweep into the room. There was an effortless air to her movements, a way of hurrying without looking like she was hurrying. At sixty-two years of age, she was still as graceful as Draco remembered her being when he was eleven years old. Considering everything that life had put her through over the years, that was a pretty remarkable thing.


Scorpius smiled at his grandmother and he managed to slip free of his mother’s arm before he found his way into her waiting embrace. After a long moment, Narcissa held him at arms length and took in the sight of him, beaming with pride.


“You look so dashing, my dear. Your grandfather and I are very proud of you.”


A hesitant smile crossed Scorpius’s lips, as though he almost dared to hope for something that he knew was not possible.


“Is he feeling better? Do you think that maybe...”


Narcissa’s face fell ever so slightly. She didn’t wait for the disappointment to set in before pulling her grandson into another tight hug. Draco could barely make out her whispered words.


“I’m so sorry. He wanted very badly to see you off, but he just isn’t able. I promise he’ll be here to greet you when you return for the Christmas holiday.”


Draco surreptitiously checked his watch again while his mother dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief and assured Scorpius that he was going to have a wonderful time at Hogwarts. He still felt unsettled and the longer he stood by the door, the worse it was getting. Scorpius seemed to be feeling the same discomfort. When his grandmother finally released him, the boy turned to Draco and nodded stiffly. Draco returned the gesture and grasped the handle on his son’s school trunk before holding out the snuff box.


“Let’s be on our way then. Better to have your choice of compartments on the train.”


And what sort of people you’ll be sharing the journey with. There was a time when Draco would have completed the sentiment without a second thought. It was the type of phrase that had always rolled so easily off of his father’s tongue. Only when he’d been faced with a world that regarded him as the wrong sort of person did he come to realize the difficulties such words could create. It wasn’t that he wanted his son sitting in a train compartment full of muggle-borns and muggle-lovers, but age and wisdom had taught him to view that as a preferable outcome to the boy becoming an outcast. Times had certainly changed.


Scorpius and Astoria each laid a finger on the snuff box and then she tapped it gently with her wand. It glowed blue for just a moment and then Malfoy Manor disappeared in a twisting blur of motion. Draco timed the journey in his head, feeling the inexorable pull on his internal organs. It was moments like this when he could almost understand wizards like his father-in-law, who preferred to travel in hired muggle automobiles. Just as he felt himself beginning to slow, he released his grip on the snuff box. A fraction of a second later his feet come into contact with a hard, flat surface.


Draco regained his bearings just in time to see his son tumble to the ground. He found it perplexing that the boy had such impressive balance and reflexes on a broomstick but he still struggled with traveling by portkey. As he reached down to help Scorpius to his feet, he took a careful look around. The muggle-repelling charms that protected the abandoned vendor stall appeared to still be intact, but it had plainly fallen into disuse. When Draco was a boy, all of the old families used this space to arrive and depart from King’s Cross. It was a short walk from the magical barrier that led to Platform 9 3/4. Most purebloods would have preferred not to mingle with the muggles at all, but as a matter of security the Ministry refused to allow anyone to travel directly to the train platform.


“Mind what you say, Scorpius. We’ll be surrounded by muggles until we pass through the barrier onto the platform.”


Draco conjured a trolley and loaded Scorpius’s trunk while Astoria added a few small charms to make sure that their attire wasn’t crying out ‘Wizards!’ to anyone who might happen to look in their direction. Then Draco cast the spell to open the magically sealed door that led to the train station. He watched his son carefully as they navigated through swarms of muggles to make their way to the magical barrier. The boy was understandably overwhelmed by the crowd, and Astoria wrapped her arm protectively around his shoulders. Draco shook off an unpleasant feeling that he had somehow failed to properly prepare his son. Scorpius would only have to confront the situation four times a year, after all, and by the start of his second year he’d probably be shrugging off his mother’s attempts to shield him and rushing to meet his friends on the train platform. For the moment, however, the anxious look on the boy’s face bothered Draco much more than he cared to admit.


The sign for Platform Nine had just come into view when Astoria came to a stop so rapidly that Draco bumped into her from behind. He was reluctant to ask her what was wrong while they were surrounded by hordes of muggles, and his hand instinctively found its way to the handle of his wand as he scanned the vicinity for threats. Ahead of them, he spotted a head of shaggy ginger hair towering over the crowd. Draco reached out and pulled Astoria and Scorpius closer, then he whispered into her ear.


“We’re in no hurry. We can wait here for them to go through.”


He felt her shoulder relax under his hand. Draco had always thought Ron Weasley was an idiot -- and nothing had happened to change that -- but since the battle in her father’s home, Astoria refused to be anywhere around the red-headed Auror. It seemed that she’d never forgive Weaselbee for threatening to arrest them after the battle. As far as Draco was concerned, that was just fine. It gave him one more reason to avoid the obnoxious buffoon entirely.


“Father, what will it mean if I’m not sorted into Slytherin?”


Scorpius’s question was so soft that Draco barely caught it over the crowd. In an instant, Weasley and the bustling muggles seemed to disappear from his world and he found himself uncomfortably focused on his son and his wife, both of whom appeared to be waiting intently for his answer.


“Don’t you want to be in Slytherin?”


It wasn’t the most sensitive response. The small frown that instantly appeared on Astoria’s face told him as much. Scorpius was at least outwardly maintaining his composure, and Draco desperately wanted to keep it that way.


“Yes, I want to be in Slytherin. But what it the hat puts me in a different house? What will Grandfather say?”


The last question was whispered so quietly that Draco was essentially reading his son’s lips. He was starting to feel trapped. If he didn’t come up with the correct answer, and quickly, his son was going to be upset and his wife was going to be angry with him. Draco did his best to say something reassuring without being soppy.


"Of course the hat will put you in Slytherin. It's ratty and it smells, but it's not barmy. It barely touched my head before it knew where I belonged."


The frown on Astoria’s face was no longer subtle. Scorpius’s lower lip was trembling slightly. Draco felt cold fingers of panic on the back of his neck. What did they want him to say? The possibility of his son being in any house other that Slytherin had never crossed his mind. What will it mean if I’m not sorted into Slytherin? An equally fair question, he supposed, was what did it mean if Scorpius was sorted into Slytherin? Certainly not the same thing it had meant when Draco was eleven years old. At the time, Slytherin House embodied all of the ideals that his family held dear. If he’d been sorted into any other house, old Lucius probably would have disowned him. Did it matter to Draco what house his only son was sorted into? Of course it did. Was it important enough to destroy the family that he and Astoria had fought so hard to create? In that question, he found his answer. He knelt down so that he was face to face with his son.


“Scorpius, your ancestors have been in Slytherin for countless generations. The hat knows that, and it will know if that’s important to you. But if it chooses to put you in a different house, in spite of custom, in spite of your wishes and in spite of plain common sense, your mother and I won’t feel any differently about you. You’re our son and you always will be no matter what color trim you end up with on your school robes. When they put the wretched old thing on your head, just focus on what you want and the rest will take care of itself.”


Draco looked at his wife and son -- in that order -- and observed that they both seemed satisfied with his answer. The corners of Scorpius’s twitched downward again, however.


“And Grandfather?”


“... will be just fine with it. Otherwise your grandmother will probably stop speaking to him.”


Scorpius seemed to ponder that answer for a moment, then nodded. The boy didn’t look completely certain, but he was also no longer on the verge of tears. Draco rose to his feet and looked toward the magical barrier.


“They’re gone. Let’s go to the platform before anyone else gets in our way.”


Ten minutes later, the three Malfoys were standing amidst the billowing clouds of steam surrounding the Hogwarts Express. Scorpius had selected a compartment and stowed his school trunk with plenty of time remaining for Astoria to fret over his appearance and smother him with reassurance. It was more of a scene that Draco would have preferred to make in public, but he was loathe to deny her. Although he wouldn’t admit it, he wasn’t really looking forward to returning home to the quiet, mostly empty Manor.


“Father?”


He felt a tug at his sleeve and found his son by his side, pointing toward the far end of the train platform.


“Those people were staring at us. Do you know them?”


Draco peered through the shifting plumes of steam. He recognized Weasley, who was standing with his own family as well as Potter’s. He and Potter locked eyes for a moment and Draco nodded curtly before turning his attention back to Scorpius.


“We attended school at the same time. It appears that their children will be classmates of yours.”


Weasley shot a venomous glance in their direction and bent down to whisper something into the ear of a young girl whose bushy mane of bright orange curls left no doubt as to her parentage. Next to him, his wife rolled her eyes and said something in response while Potter seemed to find the whole situation amusing.


“I don’t think I’ll be friends with them. They seem like the wrong sort to me.”


Draco sighed softly. He was surprised how clearly he could hear old Lucius’s words in his son’s voice. It wasn’t that he thought the Potters or the Weasleys were the right sort. Far from it. But his son was going to have enough difficulties at Hogwarts without making powerful enemies. A germ of an idea formed in Draco’s mind, one that was pure Slytherin. He nearly dismissed it as too far-fetched until Weasley shot him another nasty glare and whispered something else to the little girl. If Weasley wanted to fight dirty, Draco was more than happy to engage him on those terms.


“Don’t be too hasty to judge, Scorpius. You might find that they have some redeeming qualities if you give them a chance. The red-headed girl is rather cute, actually.”


Scorpius fixed him with a nauseated look, but Draco only smiled in response. In spite of his overly dramatic display of disgust, Draco caught the boy stealing another glance toward the Weasleys, who were busy saying their goodbyes. The little girl locked eyes with him for just a moment, then she turned away and hurried on board.


A couple of minutes later the train’s whistle blew, and the remaining children on the platform began to scramble into the waiting compartments. Draco watched Astoria wrap their son in one last smothering hug and then the boy hurried into the train car just as the engine roared to life. Wrapping his arm around his wife’s shoulders, Draco watched the train start to move. They stood together as the Hogwarts Express receded into the distance, sharing a moment that they’d talked about for many years. Draco could feel Astoria trembling as she dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief.


All of the other families were making their way back to the magical barrier. The first of September fell on a Friday, so many of them had jobs to return to. The Malfoys lagged behind, allowing time for the crowd to clear. Astoria seemed to be struggling a bit to process the morning’s events, which Draco supposed was one of those female things that he’d never really understand. She suddenly turned to him with an incredulous look on her face that nearly concealed her amusement.


“Did you seriously just tell our son that the Weasley girl is cute?”


Draco shrugged his shoulders in response.


“And if I did?”


Astoria tried to look upset, but a smile kept breaking through her frown.


“You’re unbelievable! What if he actually takes a fancy to her?”


Draco rolled his eyes in response.


“Rubbish. You act as though they’re going to end up married. The chances of that are-”


“-no worse than the chances we once had.”


Draco couldn’t help but smile at her words. He reached out and wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her closer.


“That was different.”


Astoria beamed at him. Draco felt his breath nearly catch in his throat at the sight of her smile.


“How?”


He spun her slowly around, enjoying the gentle sway of her hair. Suddenly, the quiet, mostly empty Manor wasn’t seeming like such a bad place after all.


“You and I were made for one another. Scorpius only wants to play Quidditch and Weasley’s daughter seems a bit... delicate to me.”


Astoria’s eyes sparkled with amusement.


“Oh, so you’re saying they’re mismatched? Well obviously that could never work.”


“You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”


She suddenly ducked out of his arms and seized his hand, then started to pull him toward the entrance to the rapidly emptying train platform.


“Everything except why I agreed to marry such a prat.”


Draco chuckled in response, allowing himself to be led away.


“Doesn’t much matter now, does it? You already said yes.”


As they walked along, Draco realized that he still enjoyed the feeling of her small hand in his as much as he had twenty-five years earlier in Diagon Alley. The afternoon sun illuminated her long, brown hair and three words echoed through his thoughts, familiar and yet amazing.


She said yes.






Hello, dear readers. My second HPFF novel has come to an end. I hope that you enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it.

This story started off as a challenge entry, a gift to my dear friend Jami. I owe her a great deal of thanks for input and insight on the thoughts and behavior of teenage girls that helped to make Astoria and Isadore much more realistic.

Tremendous thanks are due to my wonderful beta reader, sophie_hatter. She always does an amazing job of catching my mistakes, talking me out of bad decisions and finding ways to make my stories better. I would be lost without her. Congratulations and my eternal gratitude!

Finally, thanks to everyone who has read Detox and especially to those of you who've taken the time to review. Kiana, Ral, Nadia, Sharvi, Courtney and Rosie, thank you all so much!

-Dan, November 12, 2013


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