Chapter 19: The Wedding.

Malfoy Manor was an unusual building – hundreds of years old, its original rectangular defensive shape had been added to and embellished, over the centuries, with whatever was considered an architectural status symbol of that time. Turrets and Spires abounded, and many of these extensions had been added as a statement of wealth and importance, rather than for defensive purposes, as the original Anglo-Saxon building had been intended. The end result was, however, surprisingly elegant.

This eclectic style contrasted sharply with the square, Romanesque plainness of a chapel which nestled in quiet dignity to the back of the west wing of the main building. The Norman chapel was dwarfed by the stately manor both in size and architectural style. It seemed to have been forgotten by time, its weathered grey walls resting in ivy-covered retirement beneath a slate roof, a remnant of the Malfoy family's French roots.

The only feature of interest was the round Norman arch above the doorway to the chapel: intricately-carved chevron mouldings drew the eye naturally towards the door, and today, unexpectedly, it was open.

The Malfoy chapel was only very, very, rarely opened.

Mostly it was because of a funeral. On even rarer occasions, a wedding, and, rarest of all, a Naming Ceremony. The last baptism in this chapel had been Lucius Malfoy's, twenty three years ago.

A birth had become as rare as a dragon's egg in the Malfoy family.

The organ music that drifted up to a cloudy summer sky however, was not a funeral dirge. The fitful breeze that blew scudding clouds across the late afternoon sun, brought with it the notes of a music that somehow contrived to be both dignified and uplifting.

A wedding was being celebrated in the old chapel today.

Inside the arched doorway, the doleful faces of medieval French saints looked down on the congregation from remnants of frescoes on the old walls. They had been commissioned by Nicholas Malfoy back in the 14 th century. The Malfoys had a very ambiguous attitude to religion at the best of times, considering political influence as a far more secure guarantee to wellbeing in the here and now, rather than vague promises about the hereafter. In 1560, a certain Lucius Malfoy had the frescoes magically covered with an Obscuring Charm during the period when he was trying to ingratiate himself with the current reigning monarch, the Protestant Elisabeth I.

That was, of course, before the Statute of Secrecy turned the political ambitions of the Malfoys towards the fledgling Ministry of Magic, wherein the seeds of greatness would always be stronger.

The Obscuring Charm had dissipated over the years, and the pictures of the old saints, flaked and aged, were visible now, and they looked down disapprovingly on the brightly-dressed throngs of witches and wizards in creaking walnut pews. The chapel had been magically enlarged of course, for there were hundreds of people – the best of pureblood society was gathered in the chapel, for the ancient and proud House of Black was to be united, today, with the equally ancient and proud House of Malfoy. Banners bearing the coats-of-arms of the two houses enlivened the stone walls.

Two narrow high windows on the west wall of the chapel let through the sun in fitful bursts, making the diamonds and precious stones adorning many of the dress-robes of the congregation sparkle and gleam.

One young wizard stood at the back of the festive throng, near the doorway. One could easily have overlooked him perhaps, for he had a knack of blending into the background, especially when that background was dark or nondescript, but today he was drawing quite a few backward glances.

Perhaps it was because the stark, black dress-robes he wore were in sharp contrast to the colourful array of the other wedding guests, or perhaps it was because there was an air of mystery about him that didn't quite fit into the self-important parade of those around him. In any case, although he appeared not to notice, much less care, he was drawing some attention to himself.

Especially from the witches.

Most witches in Pureblood society (especially the matronly sort) were always on the look-out for potential suitors for their daughters, and even if they did not have daughters, matchmaking was ingrained in their nature. It was the way fortunes were made or lost.

And the dark young man was nobody they recognised.

This was not good news by their standards, but somehow, their eyes kept flitting back to him as often as they thought appropriate without seeming too obvious.

He was not classically handsome – far from it. He was tall, but not remarkably so, and he was thin - his cheeks had a hollow look that verged on the unhealthy, and his skin was far too pale, considering it was summer. But silky, dark hair framed his thin face, softening its rather angular outline, and reached, unchecked, beyond his shoulders. A thin, aquiline nose gave him that disdainful air that was intriguing, rather than off-putting, and his eyes – his eyes were an arresting feature. Deep-set and dark – they appeared black in the suffused light of the chapel – were shaded by thick, black lashes, that somewhat mitigated the cold, hard look in them. It was this expression that was more surprising – disquieting even – for one would not expect to find it in a face so young. He appeared to be around 17 or 18 years old, yet his robes sat on him with the dignified grace of someone much older, and they were tight enough to reveal that the young wizard did not have an ounce of extra flesh on him: just lean muscle, sinew and bone.

The blackness of his robes was relieved only by some silver and green embroidery at the cuffs and collar, and a belt with a silver buckle – barely enough to pass as dress robes – yet they lent a sombre dignity to his youthful looks.

'Do thou, Lucius Archon Malfoy, take Narcissa Lyra Black as thine handfasted and blood-bound wife, to have and to hold, to pledge thy troth to, ...'

The solemn words came from the alter, and all heads, included those surreptitiously stealing curious looks at the young wizard, turned as one towards the front of the chapel.

A shaft of bright afternoon sun broke through the high, narrow windows at that moment, illuminating the young bride and groom as they stood facing each other, their right hand clasping the other's. Narcissa Black was slender and pale in a silvery-white robe trimmed with black lace and an intricate design of white and black pearls. Family heirloom jewels glittered in her hair and around her neck, yet it was her ethereal beauty that drew everyone's eyes. Like an alabaster statue, her skin shone in translucent perfection and her white-blonde hair gleamed in the shaft of sunlight.

Lucius Malfoy was in rich black velvet robes, emblazoned down the right side, with his family crest and coat-of-arms, and he had eyes only for Narcissa as he swore his fealty in the ancient words of the Bonding Vows.

Narcissa' voice was clear and strong as she, too, pledged herself to the tall, blonde, handsome wizard in front of her.

The celebrant, an old wizard with a deeply-lined face and a baritone voice, raised his wand and a silver light spiralled from its tip, encircling the conjoined hands of the young witch and wizard like an incandescent ribbon around their entwined hands. Then the celebrant intoned the final words of the magic vow just as the glowing ribbon of light was absorbed through the pale skin of the young couple's hands.

' ... and therefore I now declare thee both bonded for life.'

A soft rustle of emotion shivered through those gathered there at the solemnity of that old magic.

The dark-haired young wizard just inside the doorway of the chapel had watched the entire ceremony with an almost coldly-indifferent expression. Only now, as he witnessed the magic of the bonding, did his eyes betray a flicker of emotion.

The Bonding was old magic – for the words of the vows were an intrinsic part of a magical wedding- it was rumoured some Malfoy witches in centuries past, had woven an Unbreakable Vow into their own bonding ceremony, making any infidelity by their husbands-to-be punishable by instant death.

But it was not interest in Malfoy family history or delight in witnessing the young couple's obvious happiness that passed fleetingly across the young wizard's face –it was something akin to sadness. It did not mar his features for long, however, for the habitual disdain was soon back and his black eyes revealed nothing. One got the feeling however, that there was a keen, intelligent mind there, and those eyes were carefully observing every single detail of that which they did not appear to see.

Suddenly, the young wizard's dark eyes flickered to Lucius Malfoy. The groom had stiffened, tearing his gaze away from his radiant bride to look towards the doorway. Many among the guests followed his gaze.

Beyond the round Norman Arch, the fitful afternoon sunshine had given way to a dull shadow, and in the doorway the air itself was thickening and darkening, sending invisible waves of thrumming expectancy among the crowd. Whispers and hushed voices rustled excitedly – some querying; some hardly daring to believe...

A tall, dark wizard appeared, framed by the ancient archway. There had been no sharp sound of Apparition – the wizard appeared to have just materialised silently, as though born of the darkness beyond the door way.

The whispering reached a crescendo at this but then died completely as soon the Wizard stepped silently onto the red-carpeted aisle. He was dressed in plain black robes made of a strange material – like woven smoke – and his face, white-skinned and hairless, was instantly recognisable by the gathered assembly.

Lord Voldemort. He stopped barely a few paces within the chapel, and looked expectantly at the newly-weds.

Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy looked tense but proud, as they walked slowly down the steps of the alter and up the aisle towards the dark wizard. They, (but not their guests), had clearly known, or hoped, this visit would take place. Half-way up the aisle they stopped and made a deep obeisance. Lord Voldemort walked a few more steps towards them and raised his wand above their bowed heads:

'Lucius, Narcissa...' he said in a clear, high voice that echoed up to the chapel's rafters ' ...in sign of the nobility and purity of your bloodline and in hope for its perpetuation...'

He waved his wand in a spiral pattern and a beautiful, pure silver Occamy egg appeared, symbol of fruitfulness and prosperity. It was set in gold, with many precious stones especially amethyst and moonstone, denoting fertility, worked into a complex design around it.

There were Ooohs and Aaahs form the gathered guests as Narcissa and Lucius expressed their gratitude with shining eyes. An Occamy egg was a rare and beautiful thing, for apart from its symbolism, and the intrinsic value of the pure silver of its shell, it had magical properties derived from the exotic beast that produced it. Then Lord Voldemort turned to go, and many among the gathered mass of Purebloods craned their necks to see better or catch a glimpse of the fabled dark wizard. Some tried to catch his eyes, hoping he would notice them, others curtsied or bowed; others pretended it was unnecessary or undignified to try and attract his attention; and other still pushed forward between the wooden pews in undisguised eagerness.

Lord Voldemort, however, ignored most of them. He gave a perfunctory nod to some, and his smile became a little wider when his eyes fell on the bride's sister, Bellatrix, where she sat near her husband Rodolphus Lestrange, but otherwise, he spoke to none.

It was a theatrical entrance, but everyone present knew that it could be no other way. Lord Voldemort exuded presence – somehow, nobody could imagine him sitting quietly in a pew...

At the doorway, Lord Voldemort paused for a split second as his eyes fell on the silent young wizard there. Only then did he speak, and it was just one word:

'Severus.'

Lord Voldemort spoke in a level voice that betrayed neither pleasure nor displeasure.

'My Lord.' The young wizard returned the greeting in a low, colourless voice, and then Voldemort was gone.

It was not much, and nobody was sure what the Dark Lord meant. But it was recognition, and recognition, among pureblood wizarding society, meant something, even if it did not mean everything. In these rare events that brought together the oldest wizarding families in Britain, every gesture, every greeting (or lack of it), every nod or nuance of speech was usually deliberate and calculated, and nothing went unnoticed.

Severus Snape had quietly disappeared back into the shadowy corners of the chapel. He silently thanked his erstwhile training in the complex art of understanding human emotion and body language at the hands of the old witch Madeira, for he thought that recognition was exactly what the Dark Lord had in mind with that gesture.

A babble of noise had broken out as the newly-weds walked down the aisle and a crowd of witches and wizards surrounded them to wish them well. The excitement and gossip was doubled given how Lord Voldemort had graced the Malfoy's wedding and personally given them a gift. Few weddings had ever been thus honoured. But this was the society wedding of the decade – even more important than that between the bride's sister Bellatrix and Rodolphus Lestrange. And then again – there were scandalous rumours being whispered about that particular bonding ceremony. Bellatrix had always been the most strong-willed and difficult to handle of the Black sisters.

Many among the well wishers who crowded around the newly-weds were now looking about them to see where the young wizard who Voldemort greeted, was.

'Do you know him?' whispered a skinny, middle-aged witch with so many large rings on her bony fingers, it was a wonder she could lift her hand.

'No, Lucretzia, I was too far away, but Alphard heard from his nephew that he's called the Half-Blood Prince.' Her companion, a stout wizard with a huge moustache and a monocle, looked back towards the corner of the chapel.

'So Alphard came after all? I was almost afraid he wouldn't.' Lucrezia gave a lugubrious sigh, 'Such a shameful story.'

'Shameful?'

The bejewelled fingers came up to cover Lucrezia's scarlet-daubed mouth, but her eyes glittered malevolently at the gossip she was evidently eager to share. She leaned closer to her companion.

'There was a great family row a couple of weeks ago. You know how rebellious my nephew has become – my brother Orion has his hands full with that young lad. Bad company, you know... Hogwart standards have fallen, and they let in all sorts of low-down scum nowadays. Ever since Dumbledore became Headmaster...'

'You're absolutely right. He never liked us even when he was our Transfiguration teacher remember?'

'Of course I remember, Hubert. He was always docking points off Slytherin, and now I hear his prejudices against our old school house have reached outrageous proportions.'

'Those were the good old days, though, weren't they?' Hubert said, grinning widely, 'Remember when I stole that Basilisk-skin and frightened old Professor Swagsworth?'

'You were always a prankster, Hubert – but you didn't steal that basilisk-skin: our old Prefect, Tom, gave it to you.'

'Well I always assumed it was stolen. Tom always had a knack of ...uh ...finding these really weird things, but he couldn't have bought anything: the chap was an orphan! Brilliant, but no money and no real family connections. I wonder what happened to him?'

'Some say he was killed, others that he went abroad...I don't know. Anyway, I was telling you about my brother...'

'I beg your pardon, please continue...I did suspect something was wrong, because I only saw Regulus in the chapel.'

'Exactly. Sirius didn't want to come to his cousin's wedding. That's what started it. Apparently, he heard Narcissa and her betrothed had invited the Dark Lord. I'm afraid my nephew's mind has been poisoned by the bloodtraitors and mudbloods he associates with.'

'He has been sorted into Gryffindor, after all...'

Lucretzia threw the stout wizard a dark look. 'I told Walburga to take him out of Hogwarts as soon as I heard of that disastrous sorting. I warned her! Send him to Durmstrang, I said. But Walburga is obstinate ...' Lucrezia pursed her lips in displeasure 'You know I don't really see eye-to-eye with Walburga, but now she's got to admit I had been right all along. Sirius ran away from home two weeks ago after a huge row over his refusal to come to the wedding! That boy will be her death!'

She paused and eyed with evident satisfaction the effect of this piece of news on Hubert.

'Where is he now?' Hubert asked, astounded.

No doubt, Lucretzia's age-old dislike of her sister-in-law was driving her to expose the family's dirty laundry in public, but Hubert knew Lucrezia had a malevolent streak in her. It prompted her to use others people's indiscretions to appear virtuous by contrast.

'At the Potter's. A family of bloodtraitors, if there ever was one.'

'And Alphard, why did you say-?'

'Oh , him. Well, if there's someone more stubborn and hard-headed than Walburga, it's her brother! He's also an eccentric and a confirmed old Bachelor. I don't know how my brother tolerates him. Orion told me Alphard threatened to give a huge sum of gold to his runaway nephew. He said he wants Sirius to open his mind to the possibilities, and go explore the world, or some-such rubbish! Even Walburga won't speak to him now. I'm surprised Alphard came to this wedding at all – I wouldn't put it past Walburga to duel him to a frazzled mess if she saw him...'

'Hubert! Lucrezia! It's been so long...' A wizard with splendidly embroidered dress-robes came up to them with open arms. He had dark eyes and dark hair peppered with white at the temples, and rather heavy features.

'Ah, Cygnus!' Hubert said with a smile 'How does it feel to be the father of the bride?'

'Very proud , Hubert, very proud – it does my old heart good to see my youngest daughter settled now. Yes, yes indeed...' A slight frown passed fleetingly over his features.

Hubert and Lucrezia exchanged looks. Yes, this wedding certainly made up for the scandalous one nobody in the family ever mentioned: - Cygnus' middle daughter, Andromeda, had done the unthinkable and married a mudblood...

'Cygnus, who's that young wizard talking to Evan Rosier and Regulus?' Lucrezia asked, nodding to a small know of young wizards at the far edge of the lawn in front of the chapel 'Is he foreign?'

'Foreign? No – whatever makes you say that?'

'Hubert heard he's a Prince – a half-blood one. Since no-one magical has that title on British soil, I assumed- '

Cygnus shook his head. 'I don't know what you heard, Hubert – he's Narcissa's acquaintance from Hogwarts. Going up to his last year, I think. His name is Severus Snape and Narcissa invited him...' Neither Hubert nor Lucrezia missed the faint disapproval in his words. 'My daughter thinks very highly of him: she said he comes from an old wizarding family on his mothers' side, but his present circumstances are ...uh... a mystery.'

'The Dark Lord spoke to him,' Lucrezia's eyes narrowed, assessing Cygnus' reaction.

'Yes. I suppose that's what makes him a mystery,' Cygnus said, with a deadpan expression. 'Shall we move to the Hall now?'

The sky above the Wiltshire countryside had turned into the russet and gold of a sunset and the newly-weds were leading the way in a short procession towards the Manor, along a path of magical red rose petals that released a beautiful smell on the warm evening air when trodden.

As they approached the manor, the guests passed beneath archways of free-standing garlands of ivy within which pale, heavily-scented narcissus flowers were entwined, and finally, along the wide, imposing flight of steps that led to the manor door, where old suits of armour worn by Malfoy ancestors and emblazoned with the family coat-of-arms, stood at attention, swords raised to salute the bride and groom.

Lucretzia turned to give one last curious look at the small group of teenage wizards bringing up the rear of the procession, and then followed Cygnus up the wide flight of steps and inside the Manor.

Wedding guests poured into the well-lit enormous Hall and then spilled over into the drawing room. The harmonious notes of a string quartet floated from a corner of the hall and silver platters bearing finger-foods floated among the guests as did bottles of mead and Firewhisky. The enormous chandelier cast glittering reflections everywhere, and the gold, silver and precious stones at the neck and in the hair of the witches gleamed brightly in the crystal light, as did the gold and silver thread of the heavily-embroidered dress robes of the wizards.

Severus Snape had managed to slink unobtrusively into a dark corner of the hallway where he was inspected with some disdain by a portrait of a splendidly over-dressed, pale-faced, 16 th century Malfoy wizard.

Severus hated weddings – not that he had been to many – but this was one of the biggest he'd ever been to. Actually, he hated any sort of large gathering of people. Even old Slughorn's dinner parties had been bad enough, but this was worse. It wouldn't have been so bad if he could have disappeared in some quiet corner, as he usually did, and observed people's antics and shallowness from the undisturbed space, but this time, he hadn't quite been able to sidle away.

Severus Snape was good at getting himself ignored or emphatically left alone even whilst in the midst of a huge crowd. He was no good at small talk, and whatever he did say was, more often than not, abrasive and factual, for he refused to play at the silly games of those around him.

This time, however, several witches and wizards insisted on speaking to him, ignoring his monosyllabic answers and twittering excitedly about this, that, and the other. One of them was even hinting heavily that she would like to dance with him later. He knew they were curious because the Dark Lord had spoken to him, and they just couldn't put their finger upon who he was exactly.

Well, he wasn't going to make it easy for them, but he didn't quite expect a couple of young witches to come up to him and ask him if he was really the 'Half-blood Prince'!

With these people's obsessive digging into everybody's past and family background, no doubt there were many among the guests – like the Rosiers - who knew his mother's story, and they would soon enlighten the rest of the genealogically-obsessed crowd. But what people would probably be asking next, is why in Merlin's name was he here!? A half-blood from the slums of Cokeworth at the most prestigious and acclaimed wedding of the decade...

The Dark lord had a purpose in everything he said or did, so it was more than likely he intended to send a message with his simple greeting. Severus didn't know whether to be pleased or apprehensive: he hadn't forgotten the Dark Lord's words to him on Ben Cόrhveinn: words that were unusually encouraging for a half-blood like him, but words that held a faint menace, nonetheless.

'Ah, there you are! You look good tonight - why aren't you with those young witches? I thought you'd take advantage.' A teenage wizard holding a Firewhisky he was probably too young to be drinking had spotted Severus.

Slender, dark-haired and handsome, his grey eyes were shining a bit too brightly and his cheeks were a bit too flushed, but the smile with which he greeted Severus seemed genuine.

Severus however, glowered at him.

'You started the rumour, Reg, didn't you?'

'Why are you complaining, Severus? The Half-Blood Prince is a title with just the right touch of transgressive mystique that makes witches go wild to know more...'

'And you think I'd appreciate that because...?'

'Oh, come on – these girls have a lot to recommend them... they're pureblood, attractive- '

'They're mostly old gossips with nothing better to do than perpetuate stupid rumours like yours...'

'Well, you wrote that title on your Potions book.'

'And that's where it was meant to stay. You shouldn't have been prying...'

'I wasn't. I was looking up some stuff on Potions.'

Severus snorted in disgust, but Reg just grinned. 'Well, you promised to show me some spells,' Reg continued 'and that book of yours is more like a diary ...'

'Which makes it prying.'

'It's only a diary of spells – good ones. I tried the Langlock one on Kreacher – fantastic, Severus, he couldn't speak for an hour! One of these days, I'll try it on my mother, she's been impossible lately...' A look of something akin to annoyance passed fleetingly over his face.

It was rare that Regulus spoke disrespectfully of his parents, but things were rough at Grimauld place right now. Severus looked on with a frown as Regulus lifted the thick crystal glass and took a large gulp.

'You shouldn't be drinking that stuff like it was water,' he said sourly.

'You're not my nursemaid, Severus,' Reg said, the flush in his cheeks deepening and his hand tightening around a slightly shaking glass.

'No, Kreacher is. But if you don't want your cousin to say something to your Mum, you'd better act like you can hold that Firewhisky - Narcissa's coming over.' Severus nodded to where Narcissa and Lucius with several other people were making their way over to them.

Regulus melted away discreetly.

'Severus, so glad to see you could make it,' Lucius said, as they shook hands.

'Yes, I was afraid you wouldn't come,' Narcissa murmured, as she took his hand.

'You insisted,' he said in a low voice, fixing his dark eyes on her.

Narcissa just smiled. The cool pale perfection of Narcissa's skin was tinged with a heightened colour that became her more than her usual pale, unblemished perfection, and her eyes sparkled with more warmth than was her wont. And a touch of triumph. Her wedding had been a resounding success on many levels, and success suited Narcissa, who shone at these kinds of social events - especially when said event was her own wedding.

'So this is young Severus Snape.' A tall man with ruddy face and thinning blonde hair was looking at Severus curiously. 'My son speaks most highly of you, and so does Narcissa.'

'This is my father, Abraxas, Severus,' Lucius said with a touch of formality that did not escape Severus. Probably Malfoy senior had questioned his son's choice of wedding guest. Well, he was used to it.

'You caused quite a stir back there, young man,' Abraxas said, leaning closer and lowering his voice 'The Dark Lord acknowledged you.'

'We are acquainted,' Severus replied, cautiously.

'Of course you are. The Dark Lord is a frequent guest at Malfoy Manor and it was here that you first met the Dark Lord two years ago. I saw you.'

'I'm afraid I don't remember meeting you that night, Sir.'

'You didn't. The Dark Lord desired to speak with you alone and besides I had ...er... other business to attend to.' Abraxas' meaningful smile reminded Severus that this wizard had been with Bellatrix the night she tortured and killed the unfortunate traitor, Percival Prewitt.

'I admire the Dark Lord's knowledge and clear-headed determination to restore our ancient magical rights, and the power that is our birthright...' Abraxas was saying 'But Malfoy Manor is an old place and only a Malfoy may truly understand all its secrets. This house and its grounds belong to me. This Manor and its grounds allow me to see all who are not of our kin, so you will understand now, Mr Snape, why I say that I saw you the night the Dark Lord summoned you here...'

'Malfoy Manor is bewitched to recognise a true Malfoy ...' Lucius added with a smile at Narcissa '... and their consorts.'

'You have plenty of time to initiate Narcissa in Malfoy Manor's secret enchantments, Lucius, your bride is very young,' Abraxus said, as he turned to look at his new daughter-in-law fondly 'Better this way though, m'dear, better this way... Pureblood witches should be wed young, I always say, for theirs is a sacred duty...'

Narcissa smiled, but Severus thought there was a strained look about her. Abraxas hadn't noticed, however and passed his arms fondly round her shoulders.

'You've made my son very happy, Narcissa,' he continued, 'You've made me very happy. And I'm not only talking about your impeccable wedding arrangements - Today, finally, the old chapel's doors are open to celebrate a joyous occasion after over two decades of silence...'

Abraxus' pale eyes fixed themselves on Narcissa with an unmistakeable gleam: 'The day will come, as it inevitably must, when those chapel doors open for my funeral-'

'Father!'

'I'm not being maudlin, Lucius, just realistic. Before that time comes, I want those chapel doors to open one more time for another joyous occasion: a baptism! I want to be alive to witness at last one Naming Ceremony in that old chapel. The last one was when you were born, Lucius.'

'Father!' A slow flush suffused Lucius' pale face, 'There's no need to go into that –'

But Abraxus brushed off his son's embarrassment. 'What say you, daughter-in-law?' he asked teasingly.

Only Severus knew it was not just teasing. Inheritance was everything for this family and Malfoy senior was applying the pressure.

'I'd be truly blessed and happy if one day I'll be able to present you with a grandson and heir...' Narcissa said demurely, with a shy blush and lowered eyes.

Abraxas beamed in a fatherly way at her and then turned to Lucius. That second, Narcissa raised her eyes and Severus realised with a shock of surprise, that the look in Narcissa' eyes was one of anguish. She only held his gaze for a split second, but in that split second he understood why she had looked so strained, and that her demure shyness was nothing but an act.

Narcissa was afraid that she'd never produce the longed-for heir to the Malfoy family estates.

Next moment, Abraxus had seen someone else and dragged his son and daughter-in-law off to speak to other well-wishers. Severus watched the slender figure of Narcissa recede then disappear among the throng of guests.

He'd almost forgotten about it, but in his fourth-year, he had found out she'd harmed herself with a disastrous potion to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy. She had gone to Madeira for help, but when the old witch disappeared, she found herself alone with unbearable pain.

For some reason, which even now he could not explain to himself, he'd decided to help her. His potions stopped her pain, and but could not undo all of the damage she had caused herself.

All this and more passed between them in that fleeting glance. Narcissa was letting him see how scared she was. She had every reason to be worried – Severus couldn't even place a figure on the potential wealth accumulated by the family she was marrying into, much of it was tied up in this place, Malfoy Manor. It was a big deal. Lucius was an only son and if no heir was produced, the ensuing chaos and troubles from obscure, long-lost distant relations didn't even bear contemplation.

Why she was letting him see her anguish was a different matter, however. He was the only one who knew about her indiscretion, of course. But there was something else, and it wasn't just gratitude for having years ago saved her from the ignominy of having the truth of her abortion discovered.

For some strange reason, Narcissa behaved differently towards him than she did towards others – even though he was a half-blood whose house would barely make the grade as a tool- shed on her new estates. Severus thought he'd seen a silent plea in Narcissa's eyes. He didn't know what to make of that, and he could not do or say anything to reassure her. He had done his best, back then, to help her, but he was not a healer, and now only time would tell...

And the clock had started ticking for Narcissa Malfoy.

He didn't see her again all evening and then sometime after midnight, an unpleasant row broke out between Walburga and Alphard. Thankfully, it happened between the high, fairy-illuminated hedgerows of the gardens where many of the guests had spilt out into to enjoy the mild summer night. Regulus broke up the fight before wands were drawn, and managed to calm his mother down. Walburga listened to her youngest son more than anyone else.

The few guests with young children took this as a cue to leave and Severus followed suit a little while later. He sought Lucius and Narcissa out to bid them goodbye, but this time Narcissa kept her poise: everything about her was the picture of a radiant bride, and as he took leave of her, she kissed him goodbye with a smile.

Narcissa was strong – Severus knew that. She had been groomed since childhood for the role she was playing. In the few minutes' conversation with Abraxas Malfoy, Severus had learnt a lot. True, the old wizard was probably in an expansive mood, as all rich Purebloods were when showing off their wealth and importance to their peers, but he had let slip a slight resentment against Voldemort. Possibly for using the manor so freely for his own purposes, for Abraxus was not a Death Eater like his son. Severus got the impression of a shrewd, calculating man who could see exactly where the winds of power and influence where blowing and wanted to ensure he'd be there when the Dark Lord swept to victory in order to get the lion's share. He was already pressuring his new daughter-in-law to produce the heir that would ensure the continued wealth and influence of the Malfoy family...

His thoughts turned to Narcissa and he frowned as he walked down the twinkling fairy-infested hedgerows towards the distant gate. His friendship with the youngest daughter of the House of Black had started in his first years at Hogwarts, but it was no more than a cold acquaintance at first. Narcissa was years ahead of him, and the undisputed queen of Slytherin. A wealthy, pureblood witch with a cold, marble-like beauty and a manipulative streak which she employed with considerable skill on all those around her.

Nothing touched her.

But when it did, Severus was the first to see it. Perhaps it was when he realised she genuinely loved Lucius Malfoy, that he decided to help her. And she had thawed considerably towards him after that: first out of gratitude, but then because she'd found out about his love for a Muggleborn, Lily Evans. Her initial shock at the discovery had unexpectedly turned to sympathy and an unlikely friendship, even though she never actively encouraged his pursuit of Lily.

Severus arrived at the high elaborate wrought-iron gates. A pale-haired, cloaked wizard stood there and at his bare-handed touch, the massive gates swung open and Severus passed through. Before he disapparated, he looked back one last time at the distant Manor alight with the music and noise of people dancing and having a good time.

Probably Narcissa had heard of his falling out with Lily Evans. She had the tact not to mention it, but he wouldn't have put it past her to have told Regulus to try and set him up with someone else. Someone pureblood as Reg had said. Narcissa was probably now convinced of the unworthiness of Muggleborn witches.

He'd let her think that.

After all, perhaps she was right.

He turned back and walked slowly down the dark country lane, then stopped and placed his hand on the wand at his belt. He paused before disapparating, steeling his mind for what was coming: the squalor of his home after the opulence of Malfoy Manor would hit him doubly hard.

But what would hit him hardest of all, even though he was trying desperately to quell the rising turmoil, were the thoughts of Lily Evans that even now were clamouring for attention at the back of his mind. Perhaps he shouldn't have come to this wedding. He had been reminded of something he used to dream about once. Only now it was a forbidden dream: that of seeing Lily in a white dress with her hand in his as they were magically bonded for life.

Silly, stupid, schoolboy dreams. Sentimental drivel. His hand tightened angrily on his wand and he took a deep, calming breath.

He and Lily were already bonded in a way far more mysterious way than the wedding bond. It was a strong bond, but unfortunately, unlike the wedding vows, it was not enough to keep them together.

He closed his eyes as the familiar heaviness settled in his heart. He knew that he would spend the rest of the night in thinking about her, and the past two months at Hogwarts, a surreal time he wanted to forget but couldn't.

Turning silently on the spot, he dissapparated into the night.