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Perfect. Everything was perfect. It would have to be, this night would be very important and nothing less than perfection would be acceptable for a Malfoy dinner party. She ran her flawlessly manicured fingers over the fine linen tablecloth and smoothed an errant wrinkle. She’d deal with the house elf for this later. The fine china, white trimmed with narrow rings of silver and green on the edges. Her husband’s choice. It was her only household concession to his tastes. The man was a Slytherin to his core. She suspected if he cut himself while shaving the blood would run green. Tonight was important. She would have to play this perfectly. There could be no errors or she would end up in an intolerable situation. This had to be balanced perfectly. She had to keep Lucius happy, satisfy their special guest and protect herself at the same time. Even as she pondered this, no doubt over her ability to do just this entered the mind of Narcissa Black Malfoy. Never in her life had she failed to get what she wanted, and this would be no exception. She studied the floral arrangements scattered about the table and made a minor adjustment. The red roses were too close together in this smaller spray. She lifted a lily from elsewhere in the arrangement and switched it with one of the crimson blooms. Better. Perfect. How to do this tonight? How to maintain what she desired and please those around her? She was no fool, if she displeased tonight’s guest or embarrassed or angered her husband she would pay a terrible price. This was part and parcel of the bargain she had made when she married Lucius Malfoy. She would take his darkness, his secrets, his coldness and she would take his beauty, his passion, and his status, adding it to hers and ensuring her children would be at the top of any social ladder. His money would bring comfort, but no more than she was used to, in fact any lesser man would have meant compromises. And Narcissa did not make compromises, she may change her mind, but she never compromised. She knew what Lucius wanted. She liked that he had not pressed this issue before now. She believed the fact that he had to this point not insisted upon this concession to be a sign he did respect her. Even now he was not insisting, he was prompting, he was urging and he was asking. A satisfied smile curled the deep red lips. Lucius Malfoy was asking. Such little moments were like secret treasures she kept locked inside herself, warming her when she felt cold. She could make Lucius Malfoy ask. And not just for this. Lucius asked. Sighing slightly she moved from the room and glided gracefully up the stairs. She passed her husband’s room and heard the sounds of him speaking to his valet. She too must dress for what was to come. She entered her room and began to remove her robe. Letting it drop to the floor she unpinned her hair and let it fall well past her softly curving shoulders. Sitting before her mirror, she pulled the antique silver brush through her long golden hair. This would be the night. She was to meet the man himself. She had avoided and sidestepped this again and again, now she would have to face him. The man her proud and arrogant husband called Lord. Lord Voldemort. Narcissa closed her eyes. Lucius might call this man Lord, he might allow him to brand him into his service, scorching the fine white skin of his forearm, but Narcissa would never call any man Lord. She reached for the ornate glass bottle on the dresser top. Pulling the stopper she let the fragrance fill her senses before dabbing it delicately behind each ear, in the hollow of her throat, at her pulsing wrists, and leaning down gently, behind each knee. The faintly floral scent drew her memory to her mother’s garden. Or rather the garden her mother commanded to be grown. The scents of the tropical flowers flourishing there, defying all that was natural in the weather of this country, had filled the air with heavy perfume. Stepping from the sitting room into this special garden was like enveloping yourself in a warm embrace. The heating charm kept the temperature high and the sultry humidity filled the air. The rural placement of the Black house and substantial yearly donations to various charities, kept the Ministry from investigating and complaining. Taking her cue from her mother, her father had been her Lord, her Master, her first love. She had been Daddy’s darling. Her father could speak no wrong, he could do no wrong, nothing Daddy did was in error, the whole world might be wrong, but Daddy never was. Until that day. The day Narcissa learned the reality about the relationships between men and women. The day she walked in and found her father with a woman who was not her mother. He had raged at her for violating his privacy. He had slapped her. She never told her mother, but held her secret to her chest tightly. All the gifts and apologies in the world could not erase what had happened. She had grown up. She took to heart this lesson and no man would ever again be her Lord. Not Lucius and certainly not this half-blood upstart who called himself Lord Voldemort. A feeling of satisfaction filled her as she remembered her father’s face and the face of her uncle, proud Black men both, remembered them the day her cousin had dropped his bombshell. Rogue and radical, Sirius Black had never done things the way a true Black did. He had even managed to somehow get himself sorted into Gryffindor rather than Slytherin. The first Black in memory, and the Black family memory was a long one, to be labeled as anything but a Slytherin. Narcissa remembered the day the outcast, the exiled Black had shown up at the traditional Solstice celebration uninvited. His mother had shown her non-Black roots by creating a scene insisting he leave. Sirius had refused and had grabbed his brother Regulus by the arm, trying to drag him away for a private conversation. Ever the weakling, ever the momma’s boy, Regulus had refused. Not one to be thwarted, Sirius had stood his ground and insisted he would say what he had to say, private or public. It was when Regulus and his father turned their backs on him that her cousin had burst forth the shocking news. Straight from the lips of Albus Dumbledore, confirmed by those old enough to remember and brave enough to admit it, came the news that the champion of the Pureblood, the self styled Lord Voldemort was a half-blood. Son of a muggle. Her father had stared open mouthed, sputtering at Sirius to cease his lies. But her handsome, grey-eyed cousin had simply smirked at them. “So you have chosen your champion, mounted your horse and now you discover not a thoroughbred but a nag. You have earned your saddle sores gentleman. I have done what I could to stop it. Don’t expect me to help when this runaway mount carries you straight into the burning barn.” He had turned on his heel and left. Slender pale hands gathered the blond locks and twisted them deftly. So practiced, so skilled, they left just the right amount of curling tendrils to frame her face. No servant dressed her hair. She trusted none to do it so well as she. Reaching out she lifted the small crystal bell and gave it a delicate ring. The connecting door opened and a young woman dressed in crisp uniform entered. Narcissa remained indifferently silent as the maid pulled three gowns from the wardrobe and offered them to her for her approval. After careful consideration, the perfect article was selected and the petite servant assisted her Mistress to complete her preparations. Minutes passed as she sat in calm and simple silence before her dressing table. At length the knock came. She picked up the hand mirror and feigned final adjustments to her hair. The door swung open without a sound and the footsteps of the man who entered made no sound. Slowly she looked up and caught the eye of his reflection in the large looking glass. His hair was swept back from his proud face and fell in sheets of ashen silk to caress just below his shoulders. Silver-grey eyes held a guarded expression, but one she knew now how to read. He approved. Her husband approved of her appearance. She affected a faint coloring of her cheeks and rose to stand before him. She watched his eyes sweep over her form. The ivory gown was sleeveless and scooped low in a princess neckline, drawing her husband’s gaze to the delicately displayed hint of cleavage. The waist clung tightly to her willowy form and the skirt swept down almost straight to the floor, but sweeping back up behind her to create a full cut to the back, while maintaining a trim line to the front. She wore no adornments beyond the three diamond drop pendant earrings that fell from her ears. “I see you are ready,” his low and sultry voice vibrated through her. “I am almost ready, there is one more thing.” She did not look at him, but at the serpent shaped pin that shown from his cravat. She stepped closer to him and laid the alabaster hand, palm flat, against his chest. “One more detail to be attended to.” Lucius frowned down at her slightly. “What could possibly be left?” “This.” She took his hand and laid it against the flat plane of her stomach. She did not lift her face, but looked up at him through the thick lashes that circled the sapphire blue orbs. Her eyes shown with moisture, “Your son grows.” There it was, exactly as she had planned. Only for the barest instant, only the briefest flicker, but there it was. Joy. Lucius was elated. It illuminated the silver depths just long enough for her to be certain she had seen it. And then, Lucius was once again, Lucius. “That is happy news indeed. I am pleased.” He lifted her hand to his lips and pressed them against the soft skin. “I am truly pleased.” She took his offered arm and allowed him to lead her downstairs. Their true guests had not yet arrived, but shedding cloaks into the waiting hands of a tall stately wizard whose family had been serving the Malfoys for generations, were the people Narcissa had most wished to see. Bellatrix Black Lestrange, her sister, and her husband Rodolphus. Behind them, skulking in the shadows as usual was Rodolphus’ younger brother Rabastan. These next few minutes were as close to a casual family gathering as this group ever got, and would be the most crucial. Her plans would triumph or fail based on the next few minutes. Dropping her husband’s arm she approached her sister and embraced her warmly. This was not the norm for the two, but after the close call her sister had experienced just days ago, it would not seem suspicious. Narcissa hugged her sister tightly, tucking her head into the other woman’s shoulder. This move exposed the long pale skin of her neck and the smooth white expanse of shoulder the dress revealed. She pulled away briefly, “Oh, Bella, I was so worried. How silly of me. You are of course fine. You were always able to manage.” As she spoke she circled her sister and Bellatix turned to keep her eyes to Narcissa. When her back was to the men, Bellatrix’s eyebrow rose in silent question. “But I see you are not hurt after all,” Narcissa continued, again hugging her sister to her. As she pulled way she saw Lucius’ eyes fall to Bella’s back. Her gown dipped low and to the uninformed eye, nothing would seem amiss. However, if one knew exactly where to look for it, the bruising, so carefully hidden under the beauty enchantments, was visible. As the sisters separated, Bellatrix’s lips curled in a faint smile. She understood, or believed she understood what Narcissa did not say. You understand only half my dear sister, the other half I must keep from you as well. It was a game the two had played for years. Playing off the startling differences between them to accentuate the charms and very different appeals each held was a well used weapon in the arsenal of the Black sisters. Bellatrix took her sister by the hand and began to walk into the salon. “It is nothing my dear, nothing at all. It was only a minor inconvenience.” The three men followed silently until Lucius had secured the doors to the room behind them. They were now alone. As close to intimacy as these five could attain. “A minor inconvenience?” Rodolphus drew wryly. “Nothing?” Rabastan exclaimed. “Nothing. She calls being set upon by Aurors nothing.” “She was magnificent, wasn’t she Lucius?” Rodolphus smiled, gazing at his wife in sincere appreciation. Lucius did not smile. His eyes had followed the two sisters who now sat side by side on the settee, claiming a throne that allowed only room for them, while all others must look upon as admiring courtiers. “She would not have had to be magnificent, Rodolphus if you had been more careful with your wife.” The dark man lifted an eyebrow, his sardonic reply falling easily from his lips. “Bella can take care of herself, she doesn’t need me.” Narcissa watched Lucius frown deepen and his eyes flit between his brother-in-law and herself. She sat holding Bellatrix’s gloved hand tightly in hers. “You have always been magnificent, my dear.” Her eyes rested on her sister’s face, but cataloged Lucius’ every response. “I only hope I shall be as brave and as lucky as you in the future.” Bellatrix’s eyes flickered with amusement. She understood exactly what was happening. “My dear,” her sister purred in her low voice, “you have a bravery of another sort. One I shall never equal.” Sisters first and always. “Well, whatever you two want to debate,” Rabastan declared, taking a glass of wine from the tray that had appeared on the small low table between them, “a toast is definitely in order here.” He raised his glass to the darker woman. “To Bella, the most ruthless and wicked of us all. My dear you are slicker than that greasy little kid who used to follow Lucius around at school. What was his name?” Rabastan shrugged, “To Bella.” Narcissa lifted her glass to her sister with a smile on her face. The dark brothers clinked glasses enthusiastically and Bellatrix sipped quietly basking in the glow of the praise. Narcissa watched her husband over the rim of her glass. He drank to her sister, but his eyes were not on her. His expression was clouded and he seemed to be looking at nothing and no one. “So,” Bellatrix turned to her sister, “how have you spent the last two days while I was healing up a bit?” Narcissa demurred an answer and when her sister pressed spoke quietly about the committees and charitable organizations whose boards she served on in the traditional Malfoy seat. She had just finished telling her sister and the now very bored looking Lestrange brothers about her work with a children’s charity that made sure that orphaned children, purebloods of course, were not left to fall between the cracks of muggle social services. She looked up at Lucius questioningly. He held the gaze for a moment before putting down his glass and moving toward her. “You may tell them, if you wish, my dear,” he settled himself elegantly into a chair near his young wife. Narcissa rose from her place next to her sister and walked over to stand beside him. Her left hand rested lightly on his arm. “We have happy news meant for family only.” She watched the look of interest flicker in the dark men and the suppressed smile on her sister’s face. “We will, in some months, welcome the new Malfoy heir.” Grins burst on the men’s faces and they congratulated Lucius. Narcissa gazed down at her husband’s face, now turned toward hers with an expression of satisfaction. He reached for her hand. “Well, I’m happy for you both, but I must say I’m more than pleased Bella hasn’t gotten it into her head to begin this family nonsense as yet.” Rodolphus slid languidly into the space Narcissa had vacated next to his wife. Bellatrix smoothed her black opera gloved left hand over her husband’s arm. Narcissa was aware of Lucius’ gaze falling on that covered arm as it moved up the sleeve of the robe and rested lightly on the bronzed face. “There will be time for that later. I would rather bring a child into a world that was ready to receive it with it’s proper due. Maternal instincts could be so inconvenient given the state of things.” “I fail to see why,” Rabastan grinned. “You never looked so motherly as when you are exterminating little mudbloods.” “Be that as it may,” Lucius ground out. He was decidedly not in a good mood at the moment and the fact thrilled her. He was looking down at her hand where it lay in his. He turned it over and ran his finger up the pale flesh of her inner arm. He never finished his sentence as a knock and the entry of a servant announced the beginning arrival of their real guests. Narcissa had seated Bellatrix next to her and the guest of honor, Lord Voldemort, next to Lucius. She had been surprised by his appearance. His face may once have been handsome, but now he seemed ordinary. A sense of power emanated from him and it was impressive, but that was it. She knew this façade was manufactured, but couldn’t help falling into it as she sat comparing her husband to this other man. The proud and commanding countenance sat in stark contrast to the more subtle sense of energy that pulsed through this Lord. He made one want to whisper in his presence. When ever his eyes moved to her, she found herself looking away quickly, her hand pressing to her stomach. Powerful yes, but a half-blood. No my son, I will never bend my knee before that man and with that resolve I will purchase for you the right of a Black to bow before no man. A Malfoy may kneel, but you will be a Black. You will never call a half-blood Lord or Master. Over the next hours she had spoken no more than five words to the man directly. From the circle of women, which did not include Bellatrix, she watched him listen to her speak of daily activities. He lifted his glass to her along with the others when Lucius, prompted by Rodolphus’ insistence, announced the happy news. He lifted his glass but his expression became more guarded and tinged with what she could only identify as disappointment. As the guests departed, she ticked off the minutes her husband had now spent in his study with their honored guest. Alone now, she stepped into the garden. The door to Lucius’ sanctum was open. “…and so you see, My Lord, it would simply prove a disappointment.” “Yes, Lucius, I do believe you are right. She is a lovely ornament and a perfect wife. But she has not the strength for what we seek.” The high voice carried to her ears. “She has little strength of any kind my Lord. She has long proved malleable to my every whim. She would comply in this if you asked. ” Lucius’ voice was so ingratiating it turned her stomach. “But I will not ask. Nor do I think I would accept if she offered. Yes, she is certainly no Bella. Disappointing. Perhaps the Black blood is no longer what it used to be.” Narcissa turned and glided down the flagstone path amid the fragrant flowers. She leaned down to breath deeply of the gardenia’s perfume. “No,” she whispered softly to the pristine bloom, “I am no Bella.”

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