"I say the kid's a werewolf. Everyone knows his dad got hisself kilt by ol' Greyback, an' rumor's always had it he bit the boy fer good measure … and now he's all vanishin' once a month and always lookin' all peaky when the moon's comin'," Alecto Carrow said, nodding her dark head vigorously.

The older girl, her pale skin nearly glowing in the watery green light of the Slytherin common room, looked disdainfully at the short, round-shouldered third-year. "If rumor is correct, then clearly Dumbledore wants it here, no matter what it is, and it can only cause trouble to start something over it. If, however, rumor is incorrect and he has some other cyclic illness – of which there are several, Alecto, darling – then it wouldn't look very nice of us, now would it?" Narcissa Black raised one thin, blonde eyebrow patronizingly.

"I don't give a flying Hippogriff about nice!" Alecto sniffed.

Narcissa rolled her eyes, but just then, another voice, low and drawling, intervened. "Amycus …."

A boy, a few years older but just as dark-haired and round-shouldered as his sister, raised his head from where he had been hunched over a scroll of parchment at a nearby table. "Oy?"

"Please take down something for me, I don't trust your sister is capable of taking dictation. D-I-S-C-R-E-T-I-O-N. Also, T-A-C-T. Look them up for her and have her study them. Clearly, she has never heard of the concepts." As he spoke, the owner of the drawling voice stepped forward out of the shadows, and Narcissa felt a sudden flush in her thin cheeks.

It was Lucius Malfoy, Slytherin Prefect and Head Boy of Hogwarts. A seventh-year, tall and slender, he played Seeker for the Slytherin Quidditch team and ruled their house more completely than Professor Slughorn with his refined looks and seemingly bottomless pockets. Even the teachers treated him with respect, but he had never seemed to notice she existed before. Now those icy gray eyes were locked on her with an intensity that made her feel as though her robes had suddenly become transparent.

Alecto, however, seemed utterly unaffected. "Cut out of this, Malfoy. 'T ain't none of your business."

"On the contrary, any stupid thing that a Slytherin does is my business, and spreading rumors about Remus Lupin would certainly qualify." Any other student would have shrunken back from the chilly disapproval in Malfoy's tone, but Alecto merely sneered at him.

"Why you takin' Cissa's side all of a sudden? Got a fancy for girls who're kin to Blood Traitors? I'd have thought you'd be able to snag y'self better, with all that's fallin' at your feet. A person'd think Galleons grew where your shadow fell."

"No, but they do come useful occasionally." He reached into the pocket of his robes and withdrew a gleaming handful of the fat yellow coins. Without even glancing at how many were in his fist, he scattered them across the floor of the common room. They clattered surprisingly loudly in the stunned silence as they rolled away on the stones. "There. Consider yourself paid to shut up and leave your betters alone." For a moment, Alecto looked as though she wanted to say something nasty, then her brother thought better of it and began to dive for the coins, and she followed, scuttling away on her hands and knees to gather up the money.

Narcissa stared in disbelief, counting silently as she realized that the Carrows must have scooped up a dozen already, and a few more still shined richly in odd corners. She had never considered herself one to be moved by mere gold, but there was something exciting, almost indecent about such an extravagant display of wealth. She felt ashamed of her inability to tear her eyes away from the scrabbling siblings as Malfoy stepped up beside her and extended one long-fingered hand.

She took it, and he made a quick, courtly bow, brushing his lips across the back of her fingers. A shiver ran through her from the tips of her toes, making the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. He smiled. "Part Demiguise, perhaps? An Invisibility Cloak? Disillusionment Charm?"

Feeling incredibly stupid, Narcissa frowned. "I don't understand."

"How I could have missed you? Miss Black, if I'm not mistaken … in your sixth year? And yet, I don't think I've particularly noticed you among us." He spoke as if confessing some unforgivably embarrassing secret, and Narcissa shook her head.

"I try not to be noticed. It tends to be safer in my family." She tried to keep the bitterness out of her voice, but doubted she fully succeeded.

Malfoy nodded. "Yes, you do seem to be tucked between extremes … I think Mad Bella is the nicest thing I've heard from the bravest souls, and Andromeda is going out with that Mudblood in fourth year, isn't she?"

Humiliated that he was so familiar with her infamous sisters, she bit her lip and merely nodded. Yet the smile that tugged the edge of his thin mouth was only self-deprecating. "More's my error in ignoring the rose hiding between the thorns."

"Are you flirting with me, Malfoy?" The question blurted out before she could stop it, and her hand flew to her mouth as her face turned hot scarlet.

He did not seem taken aback by her bluntness, merely dipping his head slightly in acknowledgement. "As I told Miss Carrow, I feel responsible for anything that happens in my house … allow me to make up her rudeness. Are you available this Saturday? I believe it is a Hogsmeade weekend?"

Dumbstruck, she nodded. "Yes, but …."

"Because," he said, "you handled that beautifully, and I believe that your unfortunate family situation may have some assets as well … Le Fey? Eight o'clock?"

Narcissa may not have had the highest opinion of herself, but she was not stupid, and when the most sought-after boy in your house asked you to an elegant restaurant, there was only one answer. She gave it, and he brushed his lips once again over her hand, sending that same electric tingle up her spine, and then vanished into the darkness towards the boys' dormitory as smoothly as he had appeared.

She stood there, stunned, still holding her hand out limply in front of her, her blue eyes wide as she stared at where Malfoy had vanished. Finally, there was a low whistle, and she turned to see Lydia Nott staring at her in a mixture of envy and disbelief. Unflattering or not, Narcissa considered, the brief swear word Nott employed certainly did sum things up nicely.

Even though the date was not until eight o'clock, Narcissa had started getting ready at barely after three on Saturday. The other Slytherin girls seemed evenly divided between those who loathed her for her unexpected good fortune, and those who had abruptly materialized from nowhere as her new best friends. The date had become a headline event in Slytherin. Although nearly every girl had been enthusiastically chasing after Malfoy since he first set foot in Hogwarts, his cool rejection had been so complete that general consensus had long held that his cauldron stirred the other way … despite the few boys who had tried finding no more luck.

That he would suddenly take an interest in nearly-invisible Narcissa Black, who hadn't managed a single date in six and a half years – not to mention Le Fey – pushed the event from interesting to near scandal. Love Potions, Confundus Charms, even the Imperius Curse had all been seriously debated, but no one had so far suggested Narcissa's own secret worry, which was that the whole thing was just a cruel joke. She could see no reason for it, but growing up with Bella had certainly taught her that some people didn't need a reason to be cruel.

At half-seven, she turned slowly before the full-length mirror in the girls' dorm, studying her reflection inside the frame of entwined serpents. Her robes were the palest blue satin, almost white, and they clung flatteringly to her slim body, shimmering slightly as she turned to study the effect. She had pulled her hair up into a simple twist on top of her head, exposing the long, white line of her throat, which she had adorned with a single opal mounted on a misty blue velvet ribbon. It was the only ornamentation she wore, but after long consideration, she had decided to keep things simple.

For as long as she could remember, she had been the pale, skinny, quiet one in the middle who kept her head down and tried to be a good girl and avoid getting hit from either side. It was almost as if her fair skin, light blue eyes, and white-blonde hair were nature's attempt to make her vanish like a ghost, and she had never tried to do any differently. The gloss on her lips and the Setting Potion in her hair felt sticky and foreign, and the scent of jasmine wafting up from the hollow of her throat still seemed to belong to the girl she had borrowed it from.

Still, though, as Cassandra Flint fussed fawningly over a stray tendril at the nape of her neck, she was forced to admit that she had grown into a striking, even beautiful young woman. She had Bella's high cheekbones and sculptured nose, but Andromeda's softer eyes and jaw, and her father's full mouth, and with the silvery robes, her pale coloring had transformed from sickly to ethereal. It seemed suddenly not entirely beyond the realm of belief that even a boy like Malfoy might see something in her, and a tiny wisp of hope began to grow that perhaps this might not be a joke after all.

Her hands were shaking as she clasped the cloak around her neck, and the babble of last-second advice from the other girls was meaningless noise as she prepared to step out into the common room. Narcissa nearly leapt out of her skin as Flint grabbed her wrist and shoved a tiny vial into her hand. She stared at it blankly, and Flint sighed wearily. "This kind of catch isn't time to play shy, love, but it's no good to get in trouble, either. Just take a tot of this before the snogging gets really going, and there'll be no unexpected heirs to the Malfoy gold.…" She paused, then gave a knowing smile that bordered on a leer and snatched the vial back. "On second thought, that might be useful."

Narcissa looked appalled, and several of the girls laughed, but she quickly collected herself, fixing them with a hard stare that would have done her elder sister proud. The laughter withered instantly, and she swept the cloak around herself and slipped out through the carved doors into the common room.

Malfoy was waiting near the emerald-flamed fire, and she felt her breath catch in her throat. He was wearing dress robes of black cashmere, and his long, silvery hair was tied into a loose ponytail at the nape of his neck with a silk ribbon. A few strands escaped artfully, framing his high cheekbones and tapered jaw with just enough softness to make his features elegant rather than severe. For a moment, she felt like a scared first-year and almost darted back into the dormitory, then a voice she had never heard before seemed to sound in her head.

It was arch, cool, confident, and seemed to belong not to little Cissa Black, but to the young woman she had seen in the mirror. You are the daughter of a house every bit as ancient and noble as the Malfoys, and your sisters have no more bearing on who you are than the Carrows. You receive top marks in all your subjects, your blood is as pure as anyone can wish, and your looks were made to be on his arm. The only thing you should be asking yourself is why he didn't see it sooner.

With a deep breath, her head drew up, her shoulders pulling back as her spine straightened and she glided smoothly across the common room, extending her hand graciously, palm down. "Lucius .…" Her voice was deeper and richer than she had ever heard it before, an elegant seduction to the tone that she had never imagined issuing from her lips.

For a split second, the flawless aristocracy cracked, and she saw a glimpse of a seventeen-year-old youth who had just been hit on the head with something heavy and unexpected. His eyes widened, his lips parting in shock, then he swallowed, pulling himself together and taking her hand to kiss it elegantly. The thrill that went through her, however, had nothing to do with the kiss. For the first time in her life, Narcissa had tasted power, and it was more intoxicating than Firewhisky.

"You look … extraordinary," he murmured, straightening and offering her his arm. She noticed that although he had regained his composure completely, his gray eyes kept flicking ever-so-briefly to the shadows in the low dip of her neckline, and she smiled.

It was a choice now, not an act of embarrassment as she lowered her eyes demurely, glancing up at him through the lashes as she slipped her arm through his. "Thank you."

Their discussion was all but meaningless as they joined the other students going down to Hogsmeade and waited in the queue for their turn to head towards the village. They made small talk about the Quiddich standings, teachers, NEWTs, the weather, and the latest popular music on the WWN until it was finally their turn to pass beyond the winged boars at the gate. Narcissa found that it wasn't nearly as intimidating as she had feared to talk to him after that brief glimpse of humanity, and she gradually allowed herself to show more and more of the wit that she had long suppressed out of self-preservation.

A few steps beyond the gate, Malfoy stopped, pulling an elaborate silver pocket watch out of his robes and glancing at it with a quick frown. "I'm afraid they were as paranoid as ever in letting us out," he said, "would you be willing to consider Apparating?"

Narcissa shook her head ruefully. "I can't take my test for another four months."

"No matter." Malfoy put one hand towards her waist, then paused, letting his fingers hover so near the small of her back that she could almost feel them. "If you won't be offended, I could take you side-along."

"Not at all." She spoke evenly, even as a tight knot of anxiety bloomed through the newfound confidence. She had never actually Apparated before, even in practice, but she had heard all kinds of stories about the sensation, and the prospect was a little frightening. Determined not to let him think less of her now, she stepped in close, boldly wrapping her hands around his neck as though they were about to dance.

As he pulled her in towards him, Narcissa became abruptly aware that the only grown man she had ever been this close to physically was her father, and that Malfoy was something completely different. Unlike her father's middle-aged physique or her own soft curves, his body was hard, almost harshly so, and seemed to pulse with a heat that made her dizzy. Then the dizziness spread, crushing down, and she thought she might pass out as everything tightened in and went black.

A moment later, the crushing sensation eased, and the blackness changed from a blind totality to something that seemed somehow more real. A hand moved at her back, and she realized that her face was buried in black robes. Pulling back, she looked up dazedly into Malfoy's face, now drawn into lines of uncertain concern. "Are you all right?" he asked. "I didn't splinch you, did I?"

Taking a deep breath, she stepped back, smoothing her robes and fluttering her hands over her hair shakily. "No … no … I'm fine." The lights and sounds of Hogsmeade village were resolving into something more real now, and she shook her head, pulling herself up to her full height with a forced smile. "I've just never felt anything like that before." Which was more true than she would ever admit to him.

"The first time can be a bit … disconcerting." Malfoy seemed more relieved than he was willing to show as he extended his arm again. "But Le Fey is right here, and we mustn't miss our reservation … even gold cannot forgive being late at some places."

Glad that he had not suspected her reaction to be anything more than the Apparation, she took his arm, and they moved towards a very plain wooden door tucked between two closed shops. Narcissa tried to hide her disappointment. She had heard of Le Fey only by reputation, but she thought it must have been exaggerated, because this looked more like the entrance to cheap offices than an exclusive restaurant. The letters on the door were badly tarnished, with the "y" nearly hanging off the weathered wood by one feeble nail, and there did not appear to be a knob or knocker.

Malfoy did not appear in the least concerned, however, and simply pulled out his wand and touched it casually against the dangling letter. "You must be on the list, of course," he noted, and her breath caught as the door suddenly transformed. The pitted oak was now elaborately carved rosewood inlaid with ivory and what looked like pure gold, and the name was etched in smoothly flowing lettering on the frosted glass of the oval window through which glowed the warm flicker of candlelight. There was still no handle, but before she could even register what had happened, the door opened. At first it seemed to have done so of its own accord, but she soon noticed a house-elf, his posture painfully rigid, clad in a sharply starched white napkin and extending one hand invitingly.

Following Malfoy's example, she passed the elf her cloak, and he disappeared, closing the door behind them. It was everything Narcissa could do not to gape openly as she looked around. She had grown up comfortably enough, but the true wealth of the Black family had been lost long ago, and if she was brutally honest, they would never have been able to afford a third of their own possessions. They lived in the appearance of luxury, but this was the reality of it, and to a degree that the faded glory of the Black heirlooms had barely hinted at.

They seemed to be in a forest glade, but it was unlike any forest nature had ever created. The tree trunks and branches were carved from warmly shaded chocolate marble, and the leaves, perfect to the tiniest vein, were unmistakably gold. The thick moss that engulfed her feet so lavishly was replicated from silk carpeting, and the petals of the wildflowers scattered among it were cleverly enameled. "Goblin work," Malfoy commented, noticing her unconcealed stare, "lovely, isn't it?"

"Mmmmm." She wished she could say something more intelligent, but the beauty of their surroundings had rendered her speechless. The ceiling, like that of the Great Hall in Hogwarts, was a charmed night sky, but unlike the overcast night outside, here a bright, full harvest moon and shimmering stars cast a flattering glow over the diners, perfectly complimenting the candles that hovered over each delicate crystal table.

Narcissa jumped as a voice sounded from right behind her, strongly accented and so unctuous that it seemed to physically ooze over them. "Monsieur Malfoy, eet 'as been too long!" She turned to see a short, plump wizard with a vast handlebar moustache and gray hair that appeared to have been parted with a ruler before being oiled down to his skull. "Your table eez waiting, of course … but Mademoiselle!" He twirled his wrist in an elaborate bow that threatened to bury his nose in the thick plush of the carpet. "Your taste eez as exquizeet as ever … she is très jolie!"

"Thank you." Malfoy smiled in private amusement, and as they followed the headwaiter through the diners – all of whom, Narcissa noticed, seemed to be shrouded in a faint mist that prevented one from quite recognizing faces or making out words, and which lead her to believe that there were probably a lot of very famous and powerful witches and wizards surrounding her – Malfoy leaned in close. "Peter, or Pierre, as he does insist upon, is as French as I am Muggle-born, but the chef, I assure you, is the genuine article."

The crystal chairs moved out on their own as she approached, sliding in again under her as a delicate place setting appeared on the table, a silken napkin materializing out of nowhere on her lap. There were at least a dozen different forks and spoons, each goblin-crafted out of pure gold, and the china was as thin as eggshell, the dainty vines and flowers painted around the rim fluttering in the faintest breeze that stirred the dining room. The wine and water goblets were paper-thin crystal, and she gave silent thanks for her mother's insistence that they dine formally on any possible occasion.

A waiter in starched black dress robes, a crisp napkin draped over one arm, had appeared at their table as if he had Apparated there, and he smiled at Malfoy like an old friend. "Lucius, I don't think I've ever seen you here with a lady friend before, is it a special occasion?"

"Etienne's cooking is always a special occasion," Malfoy drawled, "but yes …." His eyes met hers across the table with that unnerving intensity. "I do hope this is a particular one."

"The chef's discretion, or a special request, perhaps?" inquired the waiter, and Malfoy raised one eyebrow questioningly at her.

"Oh, I trust the chef's judgement, of course." Narcissa kept her tone casual, managing to hide the fact that although she certainly knew what fork to use for what, she had no idea what would be served at an establishment of this caliber, and certainly wouldn't presume to try and make special requests. To her relief, she saw a tiny nod of approval from Malfoy.

"Then," he said smoothly, "we will take his suggestions … and give the sommelier free hand with the wines, as well. Completely." The waiter's eyes widened slightly before he gave a quick bow and vanished again, and Narcissa had the distinct impression that a free hand on the wine list was a substantial amount of gold even in these circles.

Trying not to look dazzled by her surroundings, she struggled to find that feeling of confidence that had been there earlier in the night, but was stopped when she looked across the table and saw the look on Malfoy's face. He seemed … uncertain. "Is everything all right?" he asked.

Narcissa could not help a tiny, shocked laugh. "All right? Lucius, it's stunning beyond a witch's wildest dreams, and we haven't even seen the food yet!"

"I have … never done this before," Malfoy admitted, clearly reluctant, and she felt the earlier confidence returning.

"Every girl in Slytherin knows that, and a few of the other houses too … even a couple of Gryffindor girls have given it a try." She paused, hesitating, then decided to plunge ahead before she lost her nerve. "But why me? I mean, you must have noticed that you've been nicknamed the Golden Snitch not entirely behind your back, and not because you play Seeker or have little wings."

He chuckled at this, then waved one hand in a dismissive fashion. "I prefer an air of mystery, you might say … and of course, there are the Galleondiggers. Too many of them. But mostly I find that when a boy starts going with a girl, it makes all sorts of statements that I simply have not wanted to make."

"And what statement do I make?" Narcissa asked guardedly.

"Exactly the one I have been wanting to make." Before she had a chance to challenge this non-answer, the waiter arrived again. He waved his wand at their plates, and the first course materialized out of thin air; emerald green slivers of meat delicately balanced atop small piles of thin, golden-brown curls.

"Your appetizer, with the chef's compliments. Ceviche of dragon liver with lime atop crisp curried eggplant. Our sommelier," another flick of his wand half-filled the wine glasses with a pale gold liquid, "recommends an elf-made but full-bodied savignon blanc, very dry."

Narcissa's eyebrows raised at the lovely presentation, and she half wondered if it would be rude to disrupt it with utensils, even as Malfoy thanked the waiter, who left once again as swiftly as if he had Apparated away. Gingerly, she took a forkful of the appetizer, and her eyes closed as an involuntary little moan slipped past her lips. The rich, deep taste of the liver was set off to perfection by the tang of the lime and the earthy spice of the curry, while the creamy eggplant had been charmed to remain warm and perfectly crisped despite the contrast of the cool, moist ceviche atop it. She had never tasted food so complex and artfully handled, and it was every bit the sensual revelation that the feel of Malfoy's firm shoulders had been.

When she opened her eyes again, he was smiling at her almost paternally from across the table. "Exquisite, isn't it?" She nodded, fighting the impulse to dig in heartily as she took another dainty mouthful. "I brought you here in hope that I would find you someone who could fit in well in the highest echelons of wizarding society. Your breeding is impeccable, of course, but forgive me if I say that some in your family have little more refinement than the Carrows."

"There's nothing to forgive in the truth." Narcissa shrugged, then paused, frowning. "But you sound almost as if you're testing me for something."

"To be entirely honest, Narcissa, I asked you here to marry me."

She nearly choked. Swallowing hard, she gaped at him, suddenly sure that this was, in fact, the punch line of a cruel joke after all. "If you wanted my undivided attention, Lucius," she intoned, stunned, "you have it."

"May I ask your feelings regarding the Dark Lord?"

Of all the questions he could have asked, that was certainly one of the last she had expected. Narcissa blinked, then answered slowly, choosing her words carefully. "I certainly understand and agree with his larger ideas … but I have heard things about his methods that make me uncomfortable. Although I admit that I cannot make any final decisions off of such hearsay, even, and maybe even especially when so much of it comes from Bellatrix."

Malfoy nodded, seemingly deeply satisfied with her answer. "Beautifully phrased," he murmured, "not a single thing to hang you on there."

"Thank you, I think," she said bemusedly.

"We are facing an extremely dangerous situation right now, you and I." He leaned forward slightly, dropping his voice so low that she had to lean forward herself to hear him clearly. "Purebloods, Slytherins, members of extremely prominent families … there is a coup going on right now, and that is always a dangerous time for everyone, but more so for us. A coup is never a certainty, and whichever way it goes, we will be the first to hang if the winners feel we were less than loyal."

Narcissa frowned. "So we don't choose sides."

Malfoy shook his head. "Things have gotten too hot for that. Keeping to the middle and placating everyone works well enough at Hogwarts, but within a few months for me, a year for you, we will be asked to take sides completely, and there lay the dragon's teeth."

"And what does this have to do with asking a girl you don't even know to marry you?"

"Everything." He took the last bite of his appetizer, and their plates cleared spotlessly. "I have known what needed to be done for years, I simply had not found the right girl, though it seems she was under my nose the whole time. If we get married, we are both perfectly safe, no matter who comes out of this the victor … much thanks to your sisters, oddly enough."

Her eyes narrowed, the faintest outline of his idea starting to become clear to her. "Go on."

"If the Dark Lord should prevail, then you have made an unimpeachable Pureblood marriage that more than assures against anything little Andromeda might go on to do. I have shown my own loyalty marrying into the family of one of his staunchest supporters, and, of course, becoming a Death Eater myself and bringing him all of the wealth and connections my family has to offer. If, however, he should somehow fail, you married into a family you hoped powerful enough to protect you. I married a girl with the same beliefs as her younger sister – you have kept your head down enough that no one knows your true feelings, thankfully – but we both underestimated Bellatrix's madness. She forced us to follow him to spare herself the shame of another Blood Traitor sister …." He trailed off as the waiter arrived again.

"Sea scallops Engorgio, partially transfigured with New Zealand mussels just enough to cut the sweetness, smoked, and presented with spiced and jellied pomegranate and a light German red." Once again the food appeared on their plates and the wine in their goblets, the thick, creamy fillets issuing thin tendrils of fragrant smoke under their scattering of ruby arils, but this time, she scarcely noticed.

Narcissa motioned him to go on, and Malfoy waited until the waiter was gone for sure before continuing. "Claiming pure threats may be enough, or anyone would believe her more than capable of having Imperiused one or both of us. I have been trying to find a way to survive this situation as intact as possible, and you, Narcissa, are the answer. And I am the answer for you. So will you consider my proposition?"

Her head was spinning as though she had already drunk three times as much wine, and she shook it, trying in vain to clear her thoughts. "But … what about love, Lucius?"

Now it was his turn to look away, and he busied himself with cutting a bite of scallop as he avoided her eyes. "Do you think either your sister if the Dark Lord should win, or the Dementors if he should lose, would give much care to whether you loved your husband?"

The thought was chillingly practical, but she raised her head defiantly. "I would."

"And do you think …" This time he did look up, and she was surprised to see a vulnerability in his piercing gaze. "… that it would be so impossible to come to love me?"

She paused, uncertain how to answer. Part of her insisted that she could never love anyone in such a coldly arranged marriage, but another part of her wondered why not. He was from an excellent Pureblood family, charming, intelligent, witty, cultured, they shared the same essential beliefs, were from the same house, not to mention that he also happened to be extremely handsome and richer than a goblin, neither of which were exactly points against him. Yet the thought of being trapped for life in a loveless partnership seemed almost worse than taking her chances of winding up on the wrong side of this war. She looked down, her voice hushed. "And if I didn't?"

"Then you would be extremely comfortable," Malfoy spoke in a drawling monotone, stripped of all emotion. "And I would have no problem with you taking any lover you chose, provided you told me and were discreet." He paused, and when he spoke again, his voice was almost inaudible. "Though I believe I could very easily come to love you."

"Lucius … I just … we've never even really spoken, and you're proposing marriage .…" She gestured vaguely, not even sure how many things she was trying to explain in the insanity and yet the perfect sensibility of it all.

"Doing it quickly is the best way … we can wait for the wedding, but if we become engaged immediately, then people are less likely to see it as calculated. We are simply another young couple swept off our feet."

It made sense. It all made so much sense, and the thought of not being caught in the middle any more, of not being afraid … of having someone else to come between her and the chaos of it all .… Slowly, Narcissa nodded, and when the words came, they had all the confidence behind them that she had only just come to know she was capable of. "Yes, Lucius. Yes, I'll marry you."

Her mother had nearly fainted in delight at the news, and the next full year and a half had been spent planning a wedding that she strongly suspected was more involved than most invasion plans. A full orchestra had been brought in from Austria, live white peacocks, catering by the finest chefs, champagne in rivers, and a guest list so influential that Slughorn had bounced around the room like a Quaffle all night, stunned to meet so many people even he could not claim to know. They had honeymooned in the islands, her pale skin now shaded to a respectable tan, but she had seen almost nothing of Lucius since they had returned, as he seemed to live at the Ministry these days, the Dark Lord's right hand in the political pie.

The entire affair had been a surreal dream. On the one hand, she was living out every witch's fantasy, but on the other, that was really all it was, a fantasy. She and Lucius had not shared so much as a single night alone together between their first date and their wedding night. Her NEWT levels and his first year catapulting into power among the Death Eaters had consumed everything, and she had more and more often begun to fear that her worries of a loveless bond had been true as she learned exactly how cold and calculating Lucius was capable of being.

Narcissa had even started to wonder, since meeting his father, Abraxas, if her new husband even knew what love was supposed to be. One could not precisely argue that Abraxas did not love his son, but it was the kind of love a wizard usually showed for an exclusive racing broom, a high-performance possession to be envied by others and shown off at parties. She had seen him rattle off Lucius's statistics of investments, NEWTs, Quidditch victories, and political connections, and when she had heard herself listed among those assets as "and he's acquired the only decent Black girl", Narcissa had shivered to see Lucius nod in cool agreement.

Yet just when she was utterly certain that it was nothing but practicality, there would come a moment of eye contact with a warm, even boyish smile, a tender squeeze of her hand, a gentle brush of fingers against her cheek. At those times, she could believe easily that he loved her as long as she didn't let herself think about how skilled he was at manipulating others.

For herself, Narcissa was forced to admit that no, she did not love her new husband. Oh, she loved the security, the power, the way that people scraped at her feet with all the fawning they usually showed Bellatrix. The unlimited accounts at every wizarding shop and the sprawling, lavish beauty of Malfoy Manor, her new home, were quite nice as well. And there was the physical … Lucius wanted an heir, and she supposed that she should have felt used, degraded, bred like an animal, but she could not deny that even if she did not love the cold heart, she lusted after the body that held it.

She smiled darkly to herself. Most witches who married for security at least had to deal with withered old bachelors, poor dears. She got the lovely young boy toy and the powerful politician all at once, all she had to trade out was the love.

"Cissy!" Her thoughts were interrupted harshly as a shrill scream echoed through the marble halls of the Manor, and Narcissa leapt to her feet just as her younger sister exploded through the doors of her private suite. Andromeda's face was stark white, an ugly burn running along one cheekbone, her robes torn and her hair disheveled. Yet that was not what caused Narcissa's mouth to drop open in shock. She had not seen her sister since the wedding three months ago, and an unmistakable bulge distended the younger witch's robes that was as damning as any curse.

"Anna …." Her mouth twisted as though the truth had a foul taste. "In the name of Merlin, tell me it's not his!"

Andromeda fell to her knees, panting for air as one hand clutched at her swollen belly in a protective caress. "Bella …." She looked up, terror taut across every feature. "Oh, Cissa, she found out … she's going to kill me! Please, Cissa … you're my sister …."

Narcissa shook her head in slow disbelief. "Anna, how could you? How could you let that filthy creature … I can't believe my own blood is going to have some disgusting Mudblood bastard!"

"My baby is no bastard! I married Ted six months ago!" The words were cried out with a defiance that came clearly even through the desperation, and she shivered. She was a married woman now, no longer innocent, and the thought of allowing some horrid Mudblood to touch her, to be inside her as intimately as Lucius did was beyond repellant. It was easier to think of making love to an animal. She stared in horror at her sister as though expecting something vile to come crawling out of her at any moment.

"That makes it worse!" Her voice was thick, the words choked with revulsion. "Not even some crazed hormonal lapse in sanity, but to marry it … I'd like to kill you myself, Anna! What will Mother …. "

But her words were cut off in a loud crack, and Andromeda screamed again as their older sister Apparated into the room. Her sculptured cheeks were flushed scarlet, her heavily lidded eyes gleaming with an enraged, insane fire. Bellatrix had her wand out already, and her chest was heaving beneath her Death Eater's robes as she glared at their debased sibling. "You filth!" she shrieked. "Blood Traitor!"

Suddenly sure that she was about to witness a murder in her own home, Narcissa stepped forward. As repulsed as she was by what Andromeda had done, she did not honestly believe that her sister deserved to die for it. Be cast out of the family, certainly. Shunned, disgraced, but not murdered. She held out her hands in a soothing motion towards Bellatrix. "Bella …."

Bellatrix ignored her as completely as a buzzing fly. In a lightning motion, she spun around Narcissa and whipped her wand towards the young woman huddled on the floor. "Avada Utero!" Narcissa would never have believed anyone capable of producing a shield charm strong and fast enough to repel such a fiercely flung and powerful curse, but the wand was in Andromeda's hand before anyone could see the motion, and the jet of green light rebounded off of a shimmering wall.

For a moment, time froze. Everything was green and numb, and it was an age before the reality of searing pain began to penetrate the shock. As if from a great distance, Narcissa heard high, thin, horrible screams that sounded oddly like her own as she sank to her knees, arms folded over the searing, cramping pain that had seized her lower belly. Somewhere, two witches were dueling, but for her, there was only pain so violent that she didn't even care as she vomited onto the polished marble floor, the world spinning green and scarlet as something terribly, unspeakably wrong happened inside her body.

And then the floor rushed towards her, there was a crack, and everything went black and still.

The witch was ancient, her eyes rheumy and thickly webbed with deep lines, her fingers as sharp and brittle as spider's legs as they prodded harshly across the smooth white plane of Narcissa's flat stomach. "You say this was done by kin?" Her voice was a thin rasp, barely audible, but Narcissa nodded.

"My sister."

"Makes it worse, that." She was silent for a long moment, then jabbed one knotted finger so deeply that Narcissa gasped. "I can't make promises."

"I know."

"You'll have to be with him at exactly the full moon."

"I'll use a love potion if I have to."

"You'll be sicker than you ever thought possible."

"I know."

"There's a good chance you could die in childbirth."

"I know."

"If you have twins, or if you ever try this again, you will die for certain."

"I'm already half dead." It was the truth. For too many long years now, Narcissa had lived a life that was increasingly nothing more than lavishly furnished breathing. Lucius had been tender at first, surprisingly attentive to his stricken wife, but as time wore on and it became clear that he would be the last of his line, he had withdrawn further and further. They could barely even be said to live together now, sleeping in separate rooms, scarcely ever seeing one another, and the vast, empty rooms of the Manor had become a cold, lonely prison. She entertained often, but the price of such power in such dangerous times was no real friendships, and her family was even less comfort than it ever had been. She had even found herself seeking out the company of their incompetent house-elf, Dobby, just to have someone to talk to.

This last, desperate hope for a baby was the one thing that held Narcissa back from simply brewing a potion so powerful that she would never feel it end. There would be no power games with a baby, no cold ambitions, no crazed devotions, no bitter feuds. A baby would be hers, hers to love and be loved by, another living being within the empty estate, someone she could care for, nurture, live for.

And so she was here, in a filthy little hut deep in the oak groves of Wales, naked on her back on a pile of musty, scratchy, reeking straw as she stared up at bundles of herbs and desiccated animal body parts dangling from the beams of the thatched roof. It had taken her months to find this woman, straining through layers of myth and reputation to seek out one of the last witches who dealt in some of the oldest and most dangerous forms of women's magic. Narcissa was frightened, but she had already been pronounced beyond hope by the best at St. Mungo's, and she had nothing more to lose.

Closing her eyes, she forced her voice to be calm and steady. "What do I have to do?"

"A life for a life."

Horror flooded over her. This was one thing she had not been prepared for, and for the first time, she was forced to hesitate. "I can't have a baby from murder!"

The old witch let out a harsh, wheezing laugh. "This is magic older than dark or light, but it's not murder."

Narcissa frowned. "But you said …."

"Not a witch or a wizard, but a magical creature, a powerful one, and a newborn. A unicorn or a dragon. I will prepare my charms, and at midnight, you will kill the creature at the moment of its birth and drink the blood in a potion I will brew for you. The pain will be terrible, and when you lay with your husband for this, it will be like fire, but he will put you with child."

The witch drew back, and Narcissa sat up, clutching up her robes more out of fear than modesty. "Where am I supposed to find a pregnant unicorn or a hatching dragon's egg by midnight?"

Another wheezing laugh. "Your problem, dearest, not mine. Be back at midnight with my gold and your creature, and you'll have your baby if you truly desire it." She wagged a finger. "But no promises! If you do not truly, deeply desire this child, if you're just trying to keep the husband that put that big diamond on your finger, or if you hesitate, your womb will stay cold as ever."

Hard, bitter determination turned the blue eyes to sapphire ice as they met the crone's gaze unflinchingly. "A dragon's egg, then, by midnight. I'll be here."

Narcissa's hands gripped the sides of the gilded sink so tightly that her knuckles threatened to burst the thin flesh of her shrunken fingers. The face that stared back at her from the mirror seemed beyond the help of beauty potions. She had lost more weight, vomiting almost constantly and running fevers that sent her mind reeling and made her entire body shudder with ague. Her skin was ashen, papery, the dark circles under her sunken eyes shockingly purple against the gray complexion. Even her lips had begun to peel and crack where she chewed at them during the worst of the cramping pain.

It hadn't seemed all that bad at first. She had been able to keep it at bay with simple morning sickness remedies, and although conception had been every bit as bad as she had been warned, the first three months had been no more than the severe side of what she had heard of from other witches. Now it had all changed, and barely a few days into her fifth month, she had begun to fear that she wouldn't survive this after all.

One shaking hand dubbed a Vanishing Potion onto the worst of the darkness under her eyes, and she began to think of excuses. A terrible bout of Fire Flu was probably the best. It had been going around lately, and it would explain how she looked, as well as if she had to dart away and be sick, without worrying people about contagion too much. For the most part, she had been able to just hide in her rooms and be quietly ill, but Lucius was expecting guests again later tonight, and she would be needed to play the part of hostess.

Bitterly, she realized that it had been much easier than it ever should have been to so far fulfill her intention of keeping this a secret from her husband until she was far enough along for the child to survive were it born early. She had only even seen him three times, and if he had noticed she seemed off, he had said nothing. No need, of course, to embarrass her in front of people.

As she reached for her hairbrush, she became aware of a presence behind her. Too nauseous to spin quickly, she carefully turned her head, expecting to see the familiar cowed figure of Dobby crouched in the doorway. Instead, what she saw made her drop the hairbrush in shock as she fell back against the vanity, unable to hold her balance. "Lucius!"

Her husband stood there, archly handsome and imposing in his finest Death Eater's robes, an ebony cane with the silver head of an open-mouthed serpent resting beneath one hand. His gaze was utterly dispassionate as he took in her haggard appearance. "Mistress is sick, Master, very sick, she has been sick for months, and Dobby must tell, because she will not see Healers, and Dobby is afraid, Master." Lucius repeated the elf's words in his own slow drawl, and there was something far more accusatory in them when they were stripped of their simper.

She forced a thin smile. "It's just a bout of Fire Flu after some rather nasty allergies … it took a while to trace them to those Egyptian Moon Lilacs I was using in the arrangements, that's all."

"Fire Flu." He raised one eyebrow skeptically, and she summoned all her will power to stand upright again and smooth back her hair as though he had simply caught her at a bad moment.

"Just that. It's going around, you know."

"I do," he said evenly, "and everyone I know who has it has been smoking at the ears." She was caught, she knew it, and from the look in his eyes, so did he. "Now," he continued, "shall we even discuss that you don't have allergies?"

"You don't use a cane," she shot back.

"I do ever since the business with the Prewetts. Their brother-in-law nearly blew my leg off. Incompetent Muggle-loving fool. Stunned at the start of it all and lost his wand, then as we were leaving, he actually shot me with some horrid Muggle weapon he'd hidden in a hollow book."

"Why didn't you tell me?" The news that he had been injured enough to cause permanent harm without her knowledge bit at her with a sharpness she hadn't expected.

"I saw no point in bothering you. Just as you clearly saw no point in bothering me with … what is it? Potions? Charm abuse? Or have you been going the old fashioned route and simply dipping into the cellar?"

This time it was Narcissa who laughed bitterly. "This coming from the man who, the last year he was ever home, taught me exactly how much claret a wizard can hold without ever quite passing out."

"That's none of your business."

"And this is none of yours."

There was a long pause, then he nodded ingratiatingly and turned to leave. "Perhaps your mind is affected, my love. I think I will call St. Mungo's."

"No!" If the Healers examined her, they would know that she had tangled in illegal magic, and she was terrified that they would take the child away from her. She had to have the baby at home, where she could pass off any questions after the fact to one-in-a-million good luck. Narcissa staggered after him. Falling to her knees as the room spun too wildly to hold her balance, she lurched forward and grabbed the back of his robes, clinging tightly in desperation. "Please, Lucius, no! I'm not … I swear …."

He stopped, but his features were impassive, even disdainful as he looked down at her. "Why not? You are clearly ill, and if you won't say why …."

"I'm going to have a baby!"

The silence was absolute. For a long, horrible moment, he stood utterly frozen, then he licked his lips and spoke in a low, dry rasp that held a danger, a menace she had never imagined from him, and made her think horribly of Bellatrix. "Do. Not. Lie. To. Me."

"No, Lucius … please .…" Clutching his robes in one fist to hold herself off the floor, she groped at the belt of her loose dressing robe with the fingers of her other hand, allowing it to fall away and reveal her body beneath. She was desperately thin, covered in bruises from the dizzy spells, but she was also unmistakably with child.

He slapped her.

Narcissa fell to the floor, her cheek burning hotly, her head swimming with disbelief as her husband seemed transformed into a complete stranger. Gone was the refined aristocrat, now there was a silver-haired monster who roared and slammed the snakes-head cane into the large vase of flowers that stood on her dressing table, scattering her naked body with snapped stalks, shredded petals, and thin shards of china as water sprayed everywhere. She felt like she had fallen into a nightmare as he swept the cane again across the tabletop, sending creams and potions flying, filling the room with the sickly sweet scent of a dozen mingled perfumes.

She wondered if she had begun to hallucinate from the fever, but suddenly, his rage had passed as abruptly as it had begun. He was leaning in close to her now, crouched at her side, his dragonskin boots crunching on pieces of broken glass. "You whore." His voice was shaking, though he had clearly tried to resume control over himself. "All these years, you've made me believe you can't. Who is the father?"

"You are." Narcissa looked up at him, pleading. "You are, I swear."

He slapped her again. "Impossible."

Somewhere, the pain and the shock and the fear and the illness coalesced inside Narcissa around the protectiveness she felt for her child, and she understood finally how Andromeda had produced such a shield charm. Unable to quite believe herself that she had the strength, she reared up and slapped him back hard, the sound ringing as his head snapped around, a scarlet handprint blooming brightly against one pale cheek. With a second lightning motion she snatched his wand from the silver holster at his belt before he had even raised a hand to his cheek. She curled herself into a tight ball against the wall, the wand clutched in both fists and pointed unwaveringly at his chest. "Don't make me." Her voice was utterly clear and steady.

Stunned, Lucius fingered where she had slapped him, and then the empty holster at his waist. "So much more than I expected … I will have to find a better place to keep this .…" He spread both hands in a gesture of surrender. "No need for theatrics, I apologize for losing my temper. Now just give me the wand and tell me who the father is."

"You are."

"Cissa, darling … are you entirely certain? It's been more than a year since we …."

"I came to your study. I had a love potion, but I didn't need it. You were drunk. I'm not surprised you don't remember." She made no effort to hide the bitterness in her voice. "You're always drunk. I can smell the cognac on your breath now. Maybe I should have taken someone else. I don't want my child's father to be a damned sot."

"You don't understand." Lucius' voice was hard, final.

"Then tell me! Make me understand! I'm your wife! Doesn't that mean anything to you, Lucius? Has it ever?" It felt as though something inside her had burst, and the wand clattered to the floor as she buried her face in her hands, making no attempt to cover herself again as she began to cry. Her entire body shook with the sobs, and she wasn't even sure why she was crying. For her child? For her husband? For her marriage? For herself, even?

Through the tears, she felt herself lifted off the floor as easily as a child, her robe wrapped gently around her body as strong arms carried her carefully to her bed, laying her on the satin comforter. She felt the mattress give as Lucius lay on the bed next to her, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her softly against his chest, his fingers combing through her long, loose hair. He was trembling.

"I thought it meant a great deal, once." His voice was soft, but the words were tightly enunciated. "I thought you might come to love me."

"I could have … maybe even did for a while … or was starting to … I don't know … but you've … you've changed …." Narcissa forced the words between the sobs that seemed impossible to stop now that they had begun.

"It hasn't been easy. You don't understand. I've been careful that you haven't understood, tried to protect you." He drew a deep breath, pulling her a little bit tighter into his arms. "I believe in Pureblood superiority as much as anyone, more than most, even. I believe in using force if it becomes necessary, but the Dark Lord … his methods are far more brutal than I had ever imagined. The things I have had to do, Narcissa …." A heavy shudder went through his body. "I am ashamed of what I have resorted to in order to cope, but it has been difficult, very difficult to continue. One's own desire for self-preservation can only take one so far, and what else is there? A family name and bloodline that will die with me? A wife who despises me and tolerates me only for the Galleons while mocking me behind my back and not bothering to tell me as she takes whatever young wizard strikes her fancy … even her own cousin?"

"Lucius!" Shock stopped the tears, and she pulled back, staring at him in utter disbelief. "It has never been about the gold! And I've never despised you! Hated that you've abandoned me like this, that you've been so cold, but … and lovers … I've never … much less Sirius, that ungrateful, disloyal little …."

"Bellatrix …" he said, and she cut him off.

"Bellatrix! You haven't believed her about me, have you?"

"She is your sister, and .…"

"She loves hurting people! How can you work with her for him and not know that?" Narcissa pushed his hands away. "I never thought you were stupid."

"She certainly has passion for our cause that is … unusual, but there was no reason for her to lie to me about you," Lucius protested.

"Did it hurt you?"

There was a long pause, and his gray eyes dropped to stare at the comforter before he finally spoke. "Deeply."

"That was her reason. You didn't grow up with her, Lucius, you don't know what kind of a monster she really is. She only cares about the Dark Lord because he lets her run wild with her sickness. If it weren't for him, she would be exactly the same. She was torturing animals with magic by the time she was five years old! If she knew there was something she could say to you that would hurt you, she would say it, say it a thousand times and drink your pain like Firewhisky."

"Then you …." His voice trailed off, and she recognized someone who could not bring themselves to vocalize hope.

"I don't love you, Lucius. You've done that to yourself, whether it's because of something Bella said or not." Narcissa paused, then continued, allowing an edge of softness into her voice. "But I could love you. I want to love you. I want our child to grow up in a home that has love, no matter what is going on in the world outside. But I can't love you the way things are now. You would have to change."

"There is no need for a cane if the wound heals." He drew her close to him again, and one hand slid down her body, cupping around the swell of her belly. "Is it really true, Narcissa? Is this really our child? I swear upon my blood that if it is not, and you are honest with me now, I will not be angry. I would deserve it, the way I have treated you from unfounded accusations."

She closed her eyes, suddenly more exhausted than she could bear, and leaned her forehead against him, hearing the rhythm of his heartbeat through his robes, feeling it in his fingertips against her stomach. "He's ours."

"He …?"

"I'm a witch for thirty generations," she murmured. "I am ill, the charm that made this possible has made me very ill, but I still have magic enough to know what is growing inside my own body. It's a boy. Our son. I've named him Draco."

"A son." Lucius spoke the words with reverence, even awe. Slowly, his hand smoothed over her stomach again, tracing the curved outline, his touch so gentle that he seemed afraid of shattering the reality of it all. "Draco …"

His head dipped, and his mouth found hers. In the years she had known him, they had kissed hundreds of times, usually perfunctory displays of appropriate public affection, occasionally hard, lustful, passionate couplings, but never like this. His lips were warm, one hand behind her head, his fingers tangled softly in her hair, the other cupping their child between them, and the kiss was deep and tender. It held something more than physical pleasure or desire in it, and Narcissa felt tears slip between the lids of her closed eyes to roll hot down her cheeks again.

He loved her. Perhaps had all along. He was the father of her child. Her husband. He was more flawed and more human than his looks and wealth and power would ever suggest. But he loved her. He loved their son. And she loved him after all.