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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!

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