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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 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!

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