DISCLAIMER: The characters aren't mine. I'm borrowing them from the esteemed Joss Whedon and J.K. Rawling. I'm not making any money off this; in fact, if I didn't do this, I could probably get better grades and make more money someday.
SPOILERS/BACKGROUND: Everything from BtVS Season 1 to Season 6, AtS Seasons 1 to 3, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Reviews always welcome!
The next week passed in a blur.
Xander quickly got the hang of directing a construction team made of short, purple-skinned, long-eared creatures with no construction equipment. The fact that they had the ability to levitate enormous loads, knew all kinds of useful magics, and were willing to work nearly nonstop certainly helped matters. In addition, he had already earned himself a claim to fame by bringing the Muggle business practice of subcontracting to the wizarding world; it had never occurred to any of the great families that house-elves could be hired out, but Xander had managed to convince Draco to hire some of the excess house-elves from the school, who weren't as necessary during the summer. By the time dawn lightened the eastern sky on the morning of Draco's inauguration, very little damage from the great duel between Willow and Voldemort remained, though there were still some marks in distant corners of the grounds for those who knew where to look, and some of the inner, private chambers of the manor were still a little worse for the wear.
Anya knew how to work the Floo and spent an inordinate amount of time on it, contacting the Malfoys' most important clients and assuring them that their investments were safe and that the Malfoy treasury was largely intact. She had also arranged a much more attractive settlement with Gringott's than Draco would have believed possible, based on some banking laws that could have made them liable for participating in money laundering and dealing with a convicted Death Eater; Knobscale, head of Gringott's' legal division, had pointed out that they had no knowledge of that, but Anya pointed out that that was going to be a very flimsy excuse in court, that all the evidence was going to say that they had negligently looked the other way, and that a trial was not going to help their own image or credit. The goblins had come around reasonably quickly, and much of the loot that Lucius had pirated from the Malfoy's official coffers had been restored or traced.
Once he stopped drooling, Giles was right at home in the Malfoy library, and quickly took steps to reorganize it to make it more friendly to outside researchers; its previous design had been to make knowledge nearly impossible to find. He also quickly arranged for his own collection from the Magic Box to be added to the Malfoy collection, and had already made a few deals to bring in some older materials from the Council's repository to fill in some conspicuous gaps in the collection, largely the result of the Malfoys' long neglect of developments in the magical world outside the realm of the great families.
Dawn helped out wherever she could, largely planning some rearrangement of the various guest suites throughout Malfoy Manor; the house-elves had always kept everything in order, but they had always done so by repairing and restoring everything to the way it had always been. There had not been any real redecoration or remodeling in decades. Some suites, including all the most lavish, were left that way for the use of the great families, all of whom tended to be traditionalists. However, Dawn was given free rein to use her creativity on some of the lesser suites and servants' quarters, as Draco was already making arrangements to bring human servants back into the manorial staff again. Her main function, however, was to simply be there at the manor and share a guest suite with Buffy to quell at least some of the rumors that would have started had Buffy and Draco lived there alone. Some of those rumors were inevitable, anyway, but having her there helped.
Once her belongings were relocated from Hogwarts to the manor, Buffy spent most of her time with Draco. Draco was working overtime contacting all the other great families by owl and Floo, assuring them that the inauguration would continue as planned, though several names had been conspicuously disinvited and there was a substantial revision of the names at the VIP table. Buffy handled all the other communications, from the catering staff to the Prophet; a small army of reporters had gathered in Salazar's Crossing almost overnight after that wild night. The two of them had appeared on the front page of the Prophet three times in the past week. The full story of what had happened to the two of them had still not been brought to light, but Dumbledore and Harry weren't talking and Willow and Flamel had been avoiding attention, so Buffy and Draco were the only ones involved that any reporter could get near.
Almost from the instant Willow, Harry, Dumbledore, and Flamel had left the Ministry a week earlier, Willow had been plagued by reporters everywhere she went. She had avoided them since that first day, even resting out in the wilderness on several nights instead of staying at the manor or the school, but that had hardly stopped the speculation and punditry from spreading like wildfire. The Prophet and several international papers had assigned entire teams of researchers to digging up everything they could about the Marvolo lineage, to the point where Willow was sure that there were dozens of people out there now who knew more about her than she did. She had not even been out to her estate yet; she was determined to wait until all her friends were settled and the damage she had done to Draco's estate had been completely restored. She was certain that that was driving insane many reporters, and possibly even a few Ministry officials, because the Marvolo lands had sealed themselves when Voldemort had been stripped of his title and Willow's coming was the only thing that would lower the barrier. However, as she had told her friends in London, she had only intended to put her name to the estate to prevent Voldemort from doing so; she wasn't sure how ready she was to be a countess.
Willow sat high on one of the steep hills north of the manor as Draco's big day dawned; there was a small depression in the hillside here caused by the meteor shower she had summoned a week earlier. The house-elves had been working around the clock to repair the damage done to the manor and its landscaped grounds, but the vast, sprawling lands that were part of the manorial hinterland still bore a lot of scars. She was reading the morning paper.
Even with Willow hidden from the public eye, it had been a good week for the Prophet. There was a second person on the planet that Voldemort feared, who also happened to be dating Harry Potter. The Malfoy estate had been almost destroyed. Lucius Malfoy had been exposed masquerading as his son, and his status was being kept in close confidence by the Ministry. The real Draco's inauguration was fast approaching. Twenty-two Death Eaters had been captured in Salazar's Crossing. Preparations for the upcoming war were accelerating, and many wondered openly if the battle of Malfoy Manor had not indeed been the opening salvo. And, of course, it had been generally assumed that the heir apparent to the Marvolo estate would be reappearing today for Draco's inauguration. The very air in Salazar's Crossing last night had been nearly quivering with anticipation.
Willow felt a change in the air and cast her gaze upward. Harry was circling down on his broom; he was hidden under his invisibility cloak to avoid the omnipresent eyes of the reporter corps in town, but Willow had been able to see through it ever since her battle with Voldemort.
"Hey," she greeted shyly as he landed and doffed the cloak.
"Hey," he answered. "Anything interesting?"
"Hmm," Willow answered, rustling through the pages thoughtfully. "Me. You. Me again. You again. Draco. Dumbledore. You. Me. And Fudge keeps trying to force his way into this picture but Buffy isn't letting him."
Harry laughed. "It'll settle down after a while."
"This is what … sixteen years that they haven't left you alone?"
"True," Harry conceded with a light grin. "But Dumbledore tells me that they tend to let things go after a half-century or so."
"Ah, something to look forward to."
"You know they're not going to leave you alone for a while. Probably not until this is all over."
Willow sighed. "I know."
"You know you're the countess of someplace you've never even seen. Plus it can seal itself off, like Diagon Alley only bigger, so if you want to get away …"
Willow cut him off with a soft finger to his lips. She knew that he, like most of the rest of the wizarding world, was puzzled by the fact that she hadn't even gone out to look at her estate yet, even though Harry was one of the few who knew that she had accepted the title largely to prevent Voldemort from staking any further claim to it.
"Shh," she breathed softly. "Everything I want is right here."
A warm smile lit Harry's face, and he scooted over to her, allowing her to nestle in the crook of his arm. "More than I ever dreamed I'd have is right here," he answered softly.
"Can we skip the ceremony?" Willow purred.
"Tempting," Harry admitted. "But I think Buffy might get mad at us."
"Mm. Bad idea," Willow conceded.
"But I think we could probably get away with not showing up until the last minute," he added, dropping a soft kiss on her forehead.
"Still have to get changed."
"That takes all of … ten seconds?"
"Plus it's not even seven in the morning yet. Gates open at noon. Most of them won't even be up yet."
Willow grinned. "It's all right. You've convinced me."
Harry grinned back and stretched his arms expansively. "Well, splendid then," he said, leaning his head closer to hers. "So … what to do with the next few hours?"
Willow wriggled deeper into his embrace. "Let me think ..."
"Willow, where have you been!" Dawn asked as the redheaded wiccan found her way back into the embassy suite at Malfoy Manor. "Big ceremony today? Gates open in ten minutes? Ring a bell?"
The suite had become Scooby Central for the past week. Buffy, Willow, and Dawn shared the master bedroom; Giles and Xander had taken one of the smaller bedrooms and Anya had gotten the other to herself. Harry had been staying on at the school and visiting by Floo.
"Relax, Dawnie," Willow laughed. "I'll be fine. And you look great."
"Aw, thanks," Dawn smiled. Her face hardened again a moment later. "But don't think you can distract me with flattery." Willow fought down the urge to break out laughing; Dawn definitely needed to work on her resolve face. Buffy's sister did indeed dress up well, however; she was clad in a loose, flowing gown of royal blue with silver fur accents, and she was draped in matching shawl of thin silk that draped loosely around her shoulders and across the small of her back.
Willow allowed herself a small inward smile. She had planned something a little more extravagant for herself, but she was certain that neither she nor Buffy would have approved of Dawn wearing what Willow had in mind.
"I'll be right back," she said. "If Harry gets here, tell him I'll be out in the minute." She quickly strode into the master bedroom and into the closet, where an unobtrusive garment bag near the rear wall lay waiting for her.
"Apparellate," she chanted, and the contents quickly settled themselves around her figure. She took a quick look at the three-paneled mirror and smiled. "Hygienis femina," she finished.
She emerged from the bedroom a minute later, and saw that Harry had indeed joined Buffy's sister in the sitting room. She raised an eyebrow at him approvingly. After the outlandishness of Diagon Alley, she had never thought she would appreciate wizarding world fashions as much as the trusty Muggle apparel she had grown up with, but she was starting to change her opinion.
Harry was wearing a rich red robe inlaid with golden runes that flamed dimly whenever they passed through a patch of shadow, trimmed with golden sable. The robe parted to reveal a formal tunic of minotaur-skin leather, and his feet rested in sandals of the same material.
"Bloody Lockhart never wore anything this garish," Harry observed, spoiling the moment. He said it with a smile, however, and from the look on his face, Willow could tell that it was not his own appearance that he was intent on at the moment.
"Willow, where did you get that!" Dawn asked, her mouth dropping open.
Willow strode fully into the room. "Made it myself. Figure if I'm not going to avoid the cameras today, might as well enjoy it."
A thin sable circlet encircled Willow's brow and kept the ornate ringlets of her hair away from her face; they streamed loosely behind her to just past her neck, which was itself graced with a string of enormous black pearls. Her dress fell to her ankles, but was a rich, sensual crimson, and the bodice was a close-fitting corset of ruby-accented crimson hydra skin cut to just below the top of her chest. Red hydra-skin slingbacks accented with rubies and white gold and a diaphanous black half-cape that seemed to blend into a trailing aura of shadow completed the ensemble.
"You made that?" Dawn goggled.
"For the most part," Willow admitted, keeping her eye on Harry and enjoying his reaction. His eyes made no secret of his approval as he crossed the room to her.
He dropped a soft kiss on her lips. "What's the special occasion?" he asked innocently.
"Um … Malfoy inauguration, remember?" Dawn interjected from the corner. Willow smiled. Dawn hadn't been around long enough to grasp the intricacies of the Potter-Malfoy rivalry … though it was quite often anything but 'intricate.'
"So I repeat … what's the special occasion?" Harry asked with a laugh.
"How about 'Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy sitting at the same table?' That doesn't happen too often," Willow countered pointedly.
Harry rolled his eyes. "And may it never happen again," he finished airily.
"Manners, children," Buffy laughed from the door.
"Yes, Mother," Willow grinned as Buffy strode into the room. Apparently she wasn't the only one who had decided to dress for the occasion. A thin circlet, silver but otherwise nearly the twin of Willow's own, held her hair away from her face. She was clad in a soft black dress falling to her thighs that glittered green from the thousands of flecks of emerald dust somehow woven into the fabric in the pattern of green flames trailing up from the hem. A bracelet of silver pearls adorned her wrist, and her emerald-on-black sandals were accented by ornate silver anklets on each ankle.
"Check you out!" Buffy exclaimed as she got a better look at Willow's outfit. "I was half expecting school robes."
"It was tempting," Willow admitted. "Though not as much as an invisibility cloak."
Buffy chuckled understandingly. "I hear that … except there's the whole, well, can't-wear-it-forever problem."
Willow nodded glumly, until she felt Harry's arms encircle her warmly from behind.
"Well, I for one am glad you didn't wear an invisibility cloak," he said in her ear, in a whisper meant to be heard by all. Buffy and Dawn grinned, and Willow laughed softly.
"Well, when you put it that way …"
An hour after the gates opened, Willow was just beginning to get an inkling of what the atmosphere at the manor had to have been like during the height of the era of the eldritch nobility. The manor and grounds were nearly as full now as they had been empty when Willow had attacked the palace eight days earlier. Xander and his house-elf construction crew had done a nearly flawless job of getting all the pieces of the manor back to where they needed to be and then some. There were at least two thousand people in attendance, though only six hundred had been invited for the actual inauguration ceremony in the Hall of Wisdom and given palace passes. That was still enough to fill almost every corridor and gathering place in the manor with people, however, and nearly all of the great families in the United Kingdom were in attendance, as well as many from the continent. Willow had read about some fairly lavish events in her History of Magic readings, and even so could scarcely have imagined the kind of pageantry on display today.
Willow had anticipated a great deal of attention from the media, and had not been disappointed, but what she had completely underestimated was the amount of other people, some of the most potent figures in Europe, who wanted to meet her. Buffy was staying with her as much as possible, and attracted quite a bit of attention herself, but most of the great families seemed more interested in talking to the new Marvolo heiress. Willow had already had three very uncomfortable meetings, though she had done her best to suppress her feelings when introduced to the parents of three of the prefects she had defeated earlier in the summer. She imagined she was going to have to meet the others before long; she had spotted and avoided a rather pug-faced looking couple earlier that she feared were the Parkinson parents.
On the other hand, she had thoroughly enjoyed meeting Barbarina Giovanni, mother of Vincent Byron, who also seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself. Willow imagined that the familiar hug she had given Vincent on seeing him here had probably translated into at least some measure of status for his mother. Vincent later explained that she had unknowing done so right in front of his mother's family, the ones that had disowned her on knowing that she was pregnant with the son of a peasant.
She was just finishing her second glass of champagne when she and Buffy were approached by yet another world-famous figure in the wizarding world.
"Professor Dumbledore!" she greeted him excitedly. There was one of the few people she had actually enjoyed the prospect of seeing again today.
"I wish I could get away with wearing that," Buffy pouted. Dumbledore had conspicuously not dressed up for the occasion; Willow guessed that he would wear that patented threadbare purple robe and those yellow galoshes to his grave.
Dumbledore smiled. "Well, thank you, Miss Summers." His eyes sparkled lightly. "Though I unfortunately cannot say that I return the sentiment."
Buffy laughed. "I'll call that a good thing."
"See? Let no one say I'm not a man of taste," Dumbledore quipped. "Anyway, I think there's someone here you both might like to meet. He just arrived."
"He's unfortunately going to have to leave after the ceremony, so you might want to see him now."
Willow was puzzled by now, especially because there was a decidedly wicked edge developing in the sparkle in Dumbledore's eyes. She looked at Buffy, and they both shrugged. "Sure, why not?" she asked.
Dumbledore smiled, turned, and led them out of the Hall of Wisdom into the palace grounds. The festivities were a bit wilder out here, as most of the dignitaries and V.I.P.'s were inside, while their entourages and the children who weren't inclined towards high-brow socializing were enjoying themselves on the grounds. Several party tents had been pitched on the plazas leading up to the manor, and drinks were flowing like water. Several children were playing a pick-up game of Quidditch in the distance.
The old wizard led them to one of the party tents; Willow's eyes widened as she approached it, as she spotted both Harry and Draco loitering outside it. Not only was it hardly expected to see both of them together without Buffy or Willow there to keep the peace, but both of them were wearing decidedly predatory grins.
"Ah, good afternoon, fair ladies," Draco said airily, giving them a graceful bow as they approached. He seemed to be in a wickedly good humor.
"Countess Marvolo," Harry announced, his grin broadening, clearly in a voice designed to be heard by whoever was in the tent; he seemed to be in a rather pompous mood at the moment as well. "And my lady Slayer," he announced, seeming to enjoy that even more. Buffy broke out in a laugh; she had never expected to be addressed like that, and even less so by Harry Potter.
"All right, what's the what here?" Buffy laughed.
"Oh, but we are just overwhelmed by your grace and generosity," Draco announced. "Such noble ladies, giving so graciously of their precious time and descending to visit a most distressed peasant." He put a biting emphasis on the last word.
"Peasant?" Buffy wondered aloud.
"Draco, we mustn't keep them waiting," Harry admonished in his most mock-noble air. He was obviously nearly bursting at the seams repressing laughter.
"Ah, indeed, do forgive me, Countess Marvolo, Lady Summers," Draco said, drawing back the tent flap. "Do come in, my ladies," he announced.
"Oh, must we?" Dumbledore asked. "This is really quite entertaining." Draco and Harry both blushed, but shrugged sheepishly.
"Can you really blame us?" Draco asked.
"I didn't say I blamed you for anything. I said I found you entertaining," Dumbledore said as they all passed within.
Buffy straightened as soon as she saw who was within, and her eyes blazed. Willow quickly put a hand on her friend's hand to keep her from reaching for her wand. Or a weapon. Willow was sure Buffy had one hidden somewhere. "Lucius," Buffy growled.
Lucius Malfoy was seated within, apparently unrestrained, though the young Auror that Willow had learned was named Kingsley Shacklebolt was guarding him. His hair was disheveled, and he was slumped over, sipping a mug of butterbeer despondently. By the look in his eyes, he had done a lot of crying and not a lot of sleeping lately. He gave no acknowledgement of their presence.
Draco also quickly wrapped his arms gently around Buffy's waist to calm her for the moment. "Everyone, I would like you to meet Lucius Malfoy, formerly Lord Malfoy and Chairman of Malfoy Financial, esteemed member of the Board of Directors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and acclaimed Ministry of Magic insider …" Lucius turned an absolutely venomous look at his son before returning to his butterbeer.
"Draco …" Buffy was clearly puzzled and more than a little angry.
"… or at least, what's left of him," Draco concluded. Harry chuckled mirthlessly, though he definitely seemed to be enjoying himself.
"I thought you might want to see in person that Willow's spell worked," Dumbledore explained. "Mostly. At any rate, Lucius is not dead."
"You should have left me that way, Dumbledore." Lucius' voice was weak and broken.
"Mostly?" Willow asked. She had felt that her spell had been a complete success.
"Ah, yes, well, I might have misspoke. Willow's spell worked to perfection. However, Lucius' soul did have a small amount of time to digest. Apparently that part which connects a wizard's spirit to the flows of the wizarding world was … well …"
Willow's mind leapt. The lack of a guard, the one thing that Lucius would have hated more than death … "He can't do magic anymore," Willow mused, wonderingly.
"My father, the Muggle," Draco announced. Willow suddenly understood the predatory grins that both Harry and Draco had been wearing.
Willow sensed the tightness in Buffy's muscles begin to loosen nearby, and saw Draco relaxing a little against her back. A wicked grin spread across her face, and Willow realized that she was realizing the significance of that. Buffy had still been harboring lingering guilt about what she had done to Lucius, but had also clearly been secretly wishing that something worse than just imprisonment would come to Draco's father after what he had nearly done to her. This was something that would sit easier on Buffy's conscience … and if Lucius hated it worse than death, Willow imagined that Buffy could live with that.
"We've arranged for him to be committed to a minimum-security Muggle psychiatric hospital after today," Kingsley explained with a fierce and knowing grin. "You know, the kind of place they send people that get delusions that they can do 'magic' and all that kind of stuff. But we thought it would be … cruel … not to let him see his own son's inauguration … you know, considering how much this event has meant to him all summer," he finished pointedly. Lucius dejectedly drained another entire mug of butterbeer in one gulp.
"Anyway," Draco said brightly. "Good to see you again, old man … but I think I've got to get back inside. Important people to meet, things to do, that kind of thing. This is a big day for me. I'm sure you understand."
"Now, now, Draco," Dumbledore cautioned softly, but there was a dangerous twinkle in his eyes. Willow remembered hearing that Lucius had arranged for Dumbledore to be sacked several years earlier. "Do leave your father in peace. He's had a rather difficult week."
Draco grinned. "Of course, professor." He turned from the tent, and the others followed. Willow noticed a slight extra bounce in Buffy's step as they returned to the manor, and she was feeling a bit more festive herself.
The hours ticked by until sunset, and the stream of personages eager to greet the new Marvolo heiress finally began to abate. The preparations for the evening meal heightened and the assembled aristocracy began to look for their places at the tables that the house-elves were hurriedly bringing into the Hall of Wisdom. The V.I.P. table was the largest and most elaborate, set on the dais above the rest of the hall, but there was no shortage of lavishness on any of the tables anywhere.
Draco cast a quick look at the rosy rays of the setting sun began to stream in the new skylight. "You'll have to pardon us, Minister, I think it's getting to be about that time."
Yes, yes, Willow agreed quickly to herself; Cornelius Fudge had been among the last group of functionaries to approach the four of them, and Willow guessed that it was more to be sure that some Prophet reporter got a picture of the two of them together than any real desire to get Willow's opinion on the weather or the champagne.
"Oh, yes, of course, Mr. Malfoy," Fudge agreed hastily, and the four of them headed off towards the dais before he could find some way to change the subject and keep the conversation going.
Many of the other Scoobies were already loitering near their places at the V.I.P. table, waiting for Draco to arrive so they could seat themselves, as the lines of people waiting to make their acquaintance had not been quite as endless. Willow guessed that one of the hundred stories in the Prophet the following morning was going to be about the fact that no less than seven people not of the great families were seated at the V.I.P. table, something nearly unheard-of, but it had been convenient enough to arrange without damaging Draco's reputation: Willow was simply given six seats at the table to invite for her own guests, which had promptly gone to Buffy, Giles, Dawn, Anya, Xander, and Harry. Draco had offered to invite Buffy himself, but she had insisted that her invitation go through Willow like the rest of her friends'. The last person not from a great family was, of course, Dumbledore, who sat between Anya and Lord Delacroix, to prevent another of the noteworthies there from having to sit next to anyone not of suitable status.
"Is this seat taken?" Willow asked Xander, who was standing near the center of the table, as she approached the seat just to the left of where Draco would be sitting.
Xander gave her a look of mock-indignation. "Ahem, does it look like it has your name on it?" he quipped.
Willow reached out and picked up the placard on the dish in front of her. Countess Marvolo, it read. She wrinkled her nose.
She turned and showed the card to Xander again. It now read: Willow Rosenberg. Genius.
Xander smiled and shared a knowing look with her. "Guess it's your seat after all."
A moment later, Draco reached his place at the center of the table. A hush fell. Draco stood and looked around the chamber for a few seconds, then motioned for the gathering to be seated. Willow quickly took her seat next to Draco, in between the Malfoy heir and Harry; she was certain that there would be some comments about Harry Potter sitting only two seats away from his former archnemesis, but it was important that Willow sit next to Draco because of the Marvolo connection with the Malfoys, and it had been important to her to sit next to Harry for obvious reasons. Buffy sat on the other side of Draco, and gave Willow a quick look as if to say, here we go.
Willow took a breath. Inaugurations among the great families were not exactly complex. The heir apparent made his inaugural address, always ending by announcing the inaugural feast. Declaring the feast, like raising and lowering the anti-Apparating wards, was the sole privilege of whoever the ancient enchantments on the lands recognized as the heir of the line. If the feast appeared at the bidding of the claimant, it was proof enough that the claim was legitimate. Willow and Buffy were both certain that Draco's claim was legitimate, but considering all the intrigue that had led up to this day, there was no telling if they had missed something somewhere.
Draco waited until the rustle of clothing and the scratch of chairs had faded, then began. Willow's eyes widened immediately, and she had a premonition that they had done things right. His voice was deeper, more mature, as if he were at least five years older and finished filling out his frame.
"Ladies and gentlemen, lords and ladies of the United Kingdom and beyond," Draco began, "welcome to Malfoy Manor. It has been more than twenty years since this chamber was last used for the purposes to which we put it today, and more than three centuries since it saw such an august gathering as this evening's. You honor me." That would be important to him personally, Willow realized; it meant that his ceremony had attracted a better crowd than his father's had. "Considering all the excitement of the past week, I wouldn't have been surprised had some of you forgotten about today's little get-together. I almost didn't make it here myself." A low laugh rustled through the crowd; the great families appreciated anyone who could survive a near brush with death and joke about it afterwards. Survival was an art form. Draco took a small sip of water and continued.
"Nearly sixtyscore years have passed since Asmodeus Malfoy laid down the first foundation stone of Malfoy Manor, nearly a hundred feet below where I now stand. His inauguration was a smaller affair; there were only three other great families in the British Isles at the time." That reminded everyone that even though Draco was only sixteen, his lineage was among the oldest in the chamber. "There were more by the time Hogwarts was founded, and even more by the time of the founding of the Ministry." There was a murmur laden with mixed feelings at that; many of the great families rued the day the Ministry had been established. They had enjoyed much greater autonomy before that, even though most of them now wielded considerable influence in the Ministry.
"We tend to look back on that time as our age of legends," Draco continued. "Why shouldn't we? Perhaps none of our forefathers then compared with Salazar the Great, but who can forget Livia Marvolo? Hadrian Lestrange? Archibald Barclay? Lyle Nott? Belladonna Delacroix? Magnus Gandersworth? Or the legends of the continent, Domingo Giovanni, Margherita Diablo, Ramses Hellenopolous, Akasma Karamehmet?" Those had been some of the greatest names during the heyday of the Renaissance aristocracy, and most had descendants in the chamber whom Draco wanted to give some recognition. The Lestranges were the only ones unrepresented.
"I think most of us here have been brought up to look back on those days with no small amount of nostalgia," Draco continued. "I remember many times, even before I was old enough to take that first train ride to Hogwarts, wandering through all the galleries of paintings of all the men and women to have stood at this table before me, all the Malfoys from Asmodeus to Eburnius—memories preserved in enchanted ink, all that remains of a mystical, forgotten past of glory and majesty. Even before I ever put on the Sorting Hat, I could have told you each and every one of their names. My father could have recited the life story of each and every one of them. I'm sure many of my schoolmates here have similar galleries in their homes, and many of the lords and ladies have paid similar reverence to their histories.
"That, I have come to realize, was always my greatest mistake." There was a surprised murmur at that, and Willow tensed; this was walking on dangerous ground. One did not lightly even hint at disparaging the culture of the great families.
"For the past century, scholars and philosophers among us have spoken and written about my generation, and my parents', as a time of fading and loss. Our ancestors' day was the noon, ours the twilight. When my father taught me about the men and women in those paintings upstairs, I learned about them as a source of pride and a justification for avarice and sloth. I grew up with a sense of entitlement, a feeling that the great deeds of my ancestors had earned me the wealth and privilege into which I had been born. That pride made my father vulnerable to the promises of a poisoned tongue, a voice that preyed on that pride and the sense that the glory that was his birthright had been unjustly taken from him. It offered him an easy way out, a shortcut back to what he believed was going to be the glory of the elder days, or at least to his romanticized vision of that glory, to which he believed his blood entitled him. The lure of that was too much for him, as well as for many other great wizards and witches that by should be sitting among us this evening. That pride might have led me to the same fate, had my eyes not been opened by the events of this past summer.
"For too many years now, without realizing it, we have lived in the past. We have not been studying our history to learn from it, but to attempt to live in it. Our pasts have meant more to many of us than our futures. It took realizing that my father was willing to sacrifice the future of our line for a false hope at reclaiming his phantasmal vision of bygone days to make me see that. I imagine I'll be kicking myself for many years to come that I didn't realize it sooner. I've learned something very important this summer. It is not our gifts that reveal who we really are. It is our choices.
"So, my lords and ladies, I might not have had as much chance to travel this summer as in summers past, but I've learned a few lessons about the world nonetheless. After today, there will be no more looking back or measuring myself against the ghosts of centuries past. I am Lord Malfoy. There have been other Lords of Malfoy before me, but I stand in no one's shadow. Ladies and gentlemen … bon appetit."
A cornucopia of tempting aromas suddenly filled the chamber, and Willow looked out to see every cup and plate in the hall filled with the most delicious-looking food and drink she had ever seen. The Great Hall at Hogwarts seldom looked so festive even on holidays. Even more surprising than the quality of the food, however, was the intensity of the applause. A thunderous standing ovation filled the hall as Draco concluded his speech, especially from the younger guests and the Slytherin students in the hall; most of the few who maintained their seats and their silence were some of the oldest in the chamber, and even some of them wore looks of begrudging approval.
As a final gesture to cement his claim to the title, Draco turned and made a casual beckoning gesture to the rebuilt throne several yards behind the V.I.P. table on the dais, and it scooted forward obligingly. Draco turned again and raised his glass, now filled with a light golden champagne. Everyone in the hall did likewise, and the din of applause subsided momentarily.
Draco paused for a dramatic moment to let the echoes die away.
"To victory!" he announced, raising his glass.
"Victory!" the chorus sounded through the hall. Even those who had not applauded his speech toasted to that. Willow guessed that one or two … or more … probably had their own designs as to whose victory they were toasting, but that stopped no one from participating in the toast. Draco took his seat, and the feast began.
"Nice speech," Willow complimented him as she set her glass down.
"Nice food," Buffy added from the other side of the new Lord Malfoy.
"Thanks, for both," Draco answered with a smile.
"Think you've stirred up a bit of a hornet's nest?"
"With everything else that's happened this week?"
"It sounded like you got to a lot of people," Willow ventured.
"I hope," Draco answered. "It needed to be said, anyway."
"Well, for what it's worth, I think you're off to a good start," Buffy added.
Draco smiled at her and squeezed her hand. "That's all that really counts, then."
"I think you're off to a good start, too," Harry added from the other side of Willow.
"Yes, but you see, I care what she thinks," Draco replied, reaching over to put his arm around Buffy's shoulders.
"Draco, behave," Willow interceded.
"Ah, yes, my lady," Draco replied with his most innocent grin … which Buffy decided he definitely needed to work on. He couldn't look innocent to a jury of blind men.
"And don't call me that!"
"Of course, my lady."
The feast lasted well into the night, and the lords and ladies assembled gradually began spilling out into the rest of the manor to mix and mingle again. Younger ones and Hogwarts students slipped back outside to resume their pick-up Quidditch games or mingle with the more raucous peasant celebrations continuing outside. Enchanted bonfires were lit as the evening progressed and the sun dipped low over the horizon, and the fireworks began just after darkness fell. The Scoobies and their new Hogwarts friends watched it unfold from the second-floor balcony above the main entrance. After the fireworks display ended, many of the personages at the gala began to make their departures, and Draco was beset by a stream of people wishing him farewell and various amounts of luck.
By midnight, all of the major names had left, including Dumbledore, and the few lesser family members who remained were all in various states that suggested that they wouldn't be making their goodbyes until morning. House-elves moved among them, conjuring plush green sleeping cushions in out-of-the-way corners and nudging the less ambulatory revelers over to them; most took the hint obligingly. The crowd had begun to thin out a couple of hours earlier, so the Scoobies had had a chance to tell just a few more of the stories of the summer; it was more than obvious that they were going to be catching up on everything that had befallen each other for months to come.
"All right," Draco said at length, casting a glance at a silver pocketwatch within his robe, "it's almost one. I've got a full day tomorrow—only a week until fall term starts back at Hogwarts. So much for the 'relaxed atmosphere' of summer classes."
"Mm-hmm. Dawn, it's past your bedtime, too," Buffy noted. Actually, of all of them, she and Draco were probably still the steadiest on their feet, but this had to have been an even longer day for him than for her, and he didn't have Slayer endurance.
"Aw, come on, it's a special occasion!"
"Hence you getting to stay up past ten."
"You're no fun. I want Faith back."
"Just because you're my sister doesn't mean I won't hurt you."
"Not like any of us really need to do anything in the morning," Xander cut in. "You guys go ahead. We'll crash sometime between now and daybreak. I'm still wired, but you guys have had a bit long day."
"Definitely a long day," Willow agreed. She turned to Harry. "See you in the morning?"
"As if you needed to ask," he replied, and Buffy smiled as she watched him fold the redheaded Wiccan into his arms and draw her into a long, slow kiss. The tiny but visible tremor that passed through Willow's body said all that needed to be said. The two of them moved away.
Buffy sighed. Dawn was going to be up until ... well, dawn. Then again, she did have a point; it was a special occasion. "Don't stay up forever, okay?" she pleaded.
"I won't, I promise," Dawn promised.
Buffy nodded to herself before turning to Draco, who was offering her his arm. Buffy smiled. She had never thought of herself as much of the type for chivalry, but it was definitely growing on her. "Why thank you, my lord," she grinned whimsically as she accepted his arm.
"Quite welcome, my lady," he replied impishly.
"Crazy people," she heard Dawn say behind them as Draco escorted her from the balcony. Her lips compressed wryly, but she was in a good mood, and wasn't about to press the point. She was enjoying herself too much.
The halls of Malfoy Manor were quiet save for the soft snoring of those who had fallen asleep where they lay down to rest for a moment, and whom the house-elves had not yet had a chance to remove. The crystal lamps still shone, however, with a soft silver moonglow that made the walk back to the entrance to the master suite feel like a stroll through a dream. They said very little as they walked; Buffy was enjoying the warmth of the lazy late-summer air, and of Draco's touch on her arm. The walk was from one end of the manor to the other, but at length, the silver-on-teak doors of the master bedroom suite came into view.
"'kay," she whispered, even though there was no one nearby to hear them. "See you in ... mmph!"
Draco cut her off by twirling her around to face him and covering her lips with his. A red warmth blossomed in her veins, and a low, throaty purr escaped from her throat despite the fact that her lips were somewhat occupied.
A quick gasp escaped her lips as Draco abruptly let go of her lips and gathered her in his arms. He was far stronger than his lean frame made him look. Her eyes narrowed wickedly. "I didn't think you looked all that tired," she noted with a feral grin as he carried her lightly through the doors. She slipped one hand free and touched the wand that she'd squirreled away within her dress. You never did know when ... or how ... having one handy might come in useful. "Colloportus," she whispered at the door over Draco's shoulder. She heard, and felt, a low chuckle begin in Draco's chest, and when she pulled back to look into his eyes, the unbridled silver fire she saw burning there sent tiny tendrils of lightning down her body. She let herself go and leaned backward until she felt the soft cushions of the divan in his antechamber against her back. She breathed as deeply as she could as Draco leaned forward to whisper softly in her ear.
"Alone at last."
Author's Notes: Finally finished! For a while there I didn't even think I was going to upload the epilogue at all, since it just wasn't sounding the way I wanted it to, but I woke up one morning and decided I couldn't just leave it hanging.
Thanks so much to everyone who's been with this fic for a long, long time now. I'd never taken on a project of this scale before, so thanks to all of you for keeping me going. I hope I get a chance to do something like this again.
Coming Soon: Um ... finished!
Sneak Preview: Hey, you saw what they were doing at the end, what do you think the next chapter would look like! ;-)