It all began at Vincent Crabbe's funeral. It all ended a hundred and eighty-seven years earlier, but we'll get to that presently.
Draco Malfoy didn't remember inviting the woman in the blue suit, but then he didn't remember much about the hurried days that came between the Battle of Hogwarts and the small, rained-on ceremony. If his mother had turned up leading a matched team of eight Thestrals in nodding black plumes, he'd probably have assumed that the lugubrious goblin funeral director had slipped in and then of course you'll want the formation team of Thestrals between all the awful, workaday calculations about the cost of coffins and the fee to the Ministry for safe disposal of Vincent's wand, and why that should cost the estate a hundred and fifty Galleons Draco had no idea, but it didn't seem to matter.
There had been a pro forma offer from the Ministry to include Vincent in the official ceremony of remembrance at Hogwarts, but frankly Draco didn't see why he should make life any easier for the Ministry, even when Professor Slughorn showed up to try to talk him into it by explaining how it would heal wounds to have a Slytherin banner in the procession. It wouldn't heal any of Vincent's wounds.
Besides, as far as Draco was concerned, school felt as if it had ended half a lifetime ago rather than a couple of weeks, and people who carried wearing Gryffindor ties into late middle-age and so on were... well, they were a bit like Professor Slughorn. Draco wasn't sure that he was morally any better than Professor Slughorn - was fairly sure, in fact, that he wasn't - but he was different, and that was at least a small thing to cling on to.
To do Professor Slughorn justice, he did at least turn out for the funeral, even though he looked pained at the lack of graveside comforts. He kept fortifying himself against the elements with refreshments from the contents of a large japanned tea-tray which he had animated to follow him about, and even then, as Draco could hear him fussily telling Blaise Zabini, the rain was getting into his half-boots. Blaise looked faintly nauseated and then took several chocolate biscuits when no one was looking.
Blaise, Draco and Gregory Goyle were the only members of Vincent's year present. Draco was quite glad of the absence of Pansy, whose reported behaviour in the Great Hall had pained him greatly - he hadn't expected her to go flinging herself into the fray on Neville Longbottom's say-so, but he hadn't expected her to be stupid, either - and also of the lack of Theodore Nott, who was rather too interested in corpses and had spent much of his final term trying to raise Inferi.
The rest of the Slytherins had apparently decided that prudence was the better part of great ambition and were nowhere to be seen, and it wasn't as if Vincent had been one for making friends in other Houses. Professor McGonagall had sent a representative in the form of that great idiot Hagrid, who was hulking about at the back looking squalid.
The vicar intoned some words that Draco didn't listen to. The vicar was one of the Cattermoles from the village, who had, to Draco's certain knowledge, been feuding with the Crabbes over a disputed fence since 1867. Several of the rest of the Cattermoles had turned up as well and were looking unctuously pious, possibly because they now believed that there was no one left to argue about the fence.
As it happened, Draco knew that Vincent had left his personal effects, such as they were, to Goyle, and that the cottage had gone to Zabini's mother of all people, due to a complicated pile-up of legacies involving one of her earlier husbands, a Crabbe great-uncle from Cumbria. He was inclined to back Ms Zabini rather than the Cattermoles. She was glamorously present at the graveside, wearing sunglasses and an enormously wide-brimmed hat despite the rain, and turning one elegant shoulder to the reporter from the Daily Prophet, a lugubrious young man with a soggy owl sitting on his shoulder ready to carry off any exclusives. Draco didn't know what he was expecting.
Possibly he was expecting Lucius and Narcissa to make an appearance. If so, he was out of luck. Narcissa was there, thoughtfully offering a handkerchief to Goyle's mother, but she had Polyjuiced herself to look like a spry elderly witch in a deerstalker hat, and the reporter paid her no attention whatever. As for Lucius, he had locked himself in the Manor library after the Battle of Hogwarts and had remained in there ever since, sustaining himself on meals winched up to him via the dumbwaiter and claiming to be writing his memoirs. Draco wasn't sure whether he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or merely acute social embarrassment. He thought he should probably do something about it, but he didn't, at present, seem to have the energy to think what. At least Lucius wasn't likely to try to make the place his funeral pyre; the library had been hung about with the strongest possible fireproofing spells after one of the family's Black connections (Draco thought his great-great-uncle Rasalgethi, but he wasn't at all certain) had tried to immolate himself in there after a disagreement about implementation of the Taliesin Tridecimal System in the late 1890s.
And then there was the woman in blue. It was a dark blue, entirely suitable for a funeral where one didn't know the deceased well enough to wear black, and she was quite dry-eyed, which ruled out (one would have thought) the possibility that she was Vincent's hitherto unheard-of wife. In any case, whilst not as spectacular as Ms Zabini, she was certainly out of Vincent's league. She was the sort of woman who you could look at for some minutes without noticing that she was a blue-eyed blonde with a handsome figure. Draco wondered in appreciative fascination how she did it.
She didn't seem to know anyone there except Zabini (though it was entirely possible, knowing Zabini's habits, that he didn't know her from Professor Slughorn's tea-tray either and was just trying to oil his way into an acquaintance) and Draco had expected her to slip away after the ceremony; but then he saw Narcissa heading over to her, firmly gathering her into the fold along with Mrs Goyle and Ms Zabini, and making sure she took hold of the Portkey, which took the form of a tasteful memorial wreath. Knowing his mother as he did, Draco was certain that the 'Secret Mrs Crabbe' theory had occurred to her also, and that the blonde wasn't going anywhere until Narcissa had either confirmation or denial.
He put his own hand on the next wreath, suppressed a shudder of distaste as he realised he was sharing the Portkey with Hagrid, wished he hadn't bothered suppressing it as Hagrid in his turn looked as if he was considering hiding in his own beard rather than acknowledging Draco's existence, and found himself in the cool tiled surroundings of the pantry at Malfoy Manor.
"There's sherry in the third best receiving-room," he said politely to Hagrid and the two Cattermoles who had also come in on the same Portkey, since he supposed he must say something. "And there's something that might be a hybrid Niffler infesting the strawberry patch. It's dug up two separate caches of Roman coins and a poison-necklace that we all thought went out of the family when Julia Nobilia Malfoy married into the Venetian aristocracy, but it seems to be having trouble digesting them."
"We're not here as help," said one of the Cattermoles, who evidently had never met Hagrid.
"Wouldn't expect you to be on any occasion," said Draco briskly. "As I said, sherry in the third-best receiving room, out of the door and up the stairs, turn left when you start hearing the harpsichord."
Hagrid's head nearly bumped against the elegant moulding of the roof of the pantry. He was holding a large slouch hat against his belly, presumably in respect for Vincent rather than Draco. "Yeh recovered, I suppose?" he said grudgingly.
I've spent the past two years in hell, Draco thought, but it's not as if I didn't make the occasional effort to invite you to join me. He didn't feel any compunction at all about his part in getting the man sacked. Hagrid wasn't fit to be a professor, and Professor Snape would have got rid of him on becoming Headmaster if Umbridge hadn't done it a year earlier. He supposed that Hagrid was among the people he owed a more general apology to for the complete, utter, scrabbling-for-a-fingerhold-on-a-constantly-tilting-cliff mess he'd made of staying alive for the last year under the rule of the Dark Lord, and he didn't suppose I did it so that he wouldn't torture my parents to death would cut much ice with a Gryffindor, even an expelled one.
"We didn't really see eye-to-eye at Hogwarts, did we?" was the best he could manage. And not just because I didn't have a stepladder. "I'm sorry for my part of it."
Hagrid looked profoundly dubious, in as much as one could tell when the dubiousness was being overlaid upon his usual expression of even more profound stupidity. "It's not me yeh owe an apology to," he grunted. "Which way did yeh say to the strawberry bed?"
Draco's brain performed a ferret-like backflip; he then realised that whilst, in Malfoy family cant, the Strawberry Bed was the one embroidered all over with strawberry leaves and topped with a disgustingly flamboyant coronet which had come into the family when an early nineteenth-century namesake of his eloped with a rather louche widowed duchess, in everyday usage it was synonymous with strawberry patch and that Hagrid was not in fact, suggesting that he should expiate his sins by... working his passage. So to speak. "Out of the door and down the steps, turn right at the fountain," he said in a somewhat strangled tone of voice.
"It 'appens when they don't get the right balance of trace metals," Hagrid mumbled to himself as he ducked himself almost double to get out through the doorway. "If you don't want to nurse the poor little mite, I suppose as I could find room for..."
"Be my guest," said Draco lavishly to his back, thinking that Hagrid and the whatever-it-was could run away to the South of France together for all he cared, and if it meant there were no more steaming little piles of half-digested copper burning holes in the front lawns, so much the better.
The receiving-room was full of people in black milling about as if courage were some form of static electricity, and if they shuffled about enough they might work up enough to be the first person to leave. Goyle fell upon Draco, nearly drenching him in sherry and some things that Draco thought were profiteroles. Draco wasn't certain profiteroles were appropriate at a funeral, and suspected the advisory hand of Professor Slughorn. He really must have words with the staff, which consisted of an irritatingly keen band of house-elves on some kind of ghastly Ministry-sponsored Work To Freedom programme which Draco was morally certain none of them understood.
"You all right?" said Goyle. "I thought - when you went off on your own - "
"The Portkey dumped me in the pantry. I think the parameters of the spell probably weren't set up to expect something the size of Hagrid."
Goyle's comprehension visibly stuttered to a stop at parameters. "So, you're all right, then?" he persisted.
Draco was almost tempted to tell him. Luckily, he realised in time that what Goyle wanted - deserved, especially at a time like this - were not answers, but reassurance. "I'll be fine," he said with disgusting, near-Gryffindor quantities of stiff upper lip. "Is your mum OK, though?"
Goyle turned and ploughed his way back through the mostly Cattermole crowd, some of whom were putting profiteroles in their pockets, towards his mother, a dumpy, defeated-looking little woman in rusty black. Draco was uneasily glad that Goyle was over with her and not with him; it felt unbalanced, a constant reminder of Crabbe not being there off his other shoulder, though of course he would never say so. For want of anything else to do, he went over to the large picture of Crabbe in Quidditch strip which had temporary pride of place over the mantelpiece. The portrait clenched its jaw with determination and waved one fist in the air. Draco wondered, suddenly chilled, whether that had been an unsuspected gleam of intelligence in Crabbe's eye, and concluded that he would never know now.
"I know you were very close. I'm so sorry," said the woman in blue.
She looked teasingly familiar up close. He'd definitely seen her somewhere - not just seen, either, been aware of her with all his senses, though considering that he was only just emerging from adolescence and she was, as had already been established, not only out of Vincent's league but probably out of his as well, that wasn't any too surprising. She wore her hair, which was golden, and well worth looking at, in a plaited style around the back of her head, and she smelt of some enticing thing that was halfway between lily soap and flapjacks. "I am terribly sorry," he said, taking refuge in exquisitely good manners. "I know we've met. Were you one of the Triwizard Tournament delegation from Beauxbatons?"
She blushed. He had the feeling that compliments didn't come her way often, which was proof that the world was demented. As if more proof were needed. "Oh, no. I'm sorry," she said again. "I should have realised you wouldn't remember me. I barely knew Vincent, really, and the one time we did really talk I thought he was a Hufflepuff second-year girl - I'd only come back to Hogwarts because Ginty's trunk somehow got Apported to me in Bujumbura, and..."
Ginty? He remembered a Ginty from school. Ginty Marlow, that was it, which made it a fair likelihood that this was one or other of her sisters. "We did experiment rather with Polyjuice Potion," he said, hoping that it sounded vaguely dashing, though it hadn't been, in the slightest. He'd known Vincent disliked it; he hadn't known that Vincent had gone so far as to express his dislike to someone who wasn't a Slytherin. It was another... his brain jittered away from nail in the coffin... another proof that he hadn't known Vincent as well as he might have done.
Whichever sister this was, he wanted to keep talking to her. "So - um - what were you doing in Bujumbura?"
Missionary work, it appeared, but then she'd been called home by a circular proclaiming a shortage of nurses at St. Mungo's. Draco stared at her in wonderment. He had never met anybody who thought those Ministry exhortations applied to them. "And what are you doing?" she asked brightly.
He couldn't believe she'd said it. He looked into her face for mockery and found none; and there she was, at the end of an unrolling and ever more embarrassing silence, awaiting an answer... "Waiting to see whether the Ministry's peace-and-reconciliation policy involves sending me to Azkaban," he said, shocked into the flat truth.
She blushed again. "Oh, but surely..."
"Surely Harry Potter wouldn't have saved my life just to see it drag on for - what's the average - five years eleven months of the Dementors' company? You don't know him like I do."
"I was in the same House as him. I think you're wrong."
I was in the same House as him made it certain she wasn't one of the twins in Draco's year, who had been in Hufflepuff. Who, then? Not Ginty; she'd said Ginty's trunk. Besides, from what he remembered of Ginty, she was the sort of person who would cry off the funerals even of her nearest and dearest out of a complicated blend of squeamishness and a desire to look interesting. Draco understood that kind of thinking at a deep and intimate level, but that didn't mean he admired it. He felt momentarily dizzy under the accumulated weight of worry and lack of sleep. She was still talking to him. He wasn't sure what about, but probably Harry Potter still. "He's a good person," she assured him earnestly.
If his inner resources were a barometer, the mercury would be bumping against the bottom; he simply had no more to give, of politeness, of anything. "I think you think that because you are," he said with the last of gentleness.
"I think you're completely overwrought and you shouldn't have any more sherry," she said firmly. "Come over here - sit down - " He cast one last look at the portrait of Crabbe, which was trying to fold its own lower lip up over its nose, and allowed himself to be led over to a wing-chair. Just to add to everything else, Draco heard what he was very much afraid was a cackle from the library. He hoped that cackling wasn't going to become a regular component of Lucius' memoirs.
It was looking up at her from the chair, rather than across and slightly down, that finally jogged loose his memory. Not just a Marlow. Ann Marlow.
The last time he'd given any thought whatever to Ann Marlow they'd been the kind of thoughts that he'd made Crabbe and Goyle go and have in the bathroom because they both groaned so. For about three months, when he was fifteen and the entire Slytherin Dungeon had been positively awash with hormones (with, once again, the exception of Theodore Nott, whose contribution to the general pheromonal fug was to keep a box full of partially dissected wildlife under the bed) he'd been unable to so much as see her smile and sit down with her seventh-year friends at the Gryffindor table without having Those Thoughts.
It started when he saw her walking back to Gryffindor Tower from the Prefects' bathroom, smiling to herself in a collected way and towelling the ends of her splendid hair. He had spent the remainder of the term hoping for an opportunity to silence all the other Gryffindors with a devastatingly witty word when she had a difference of conscience with them, which seemed to happen once or twice a year and dragged on forever, because the world would end in fire and ice before a Gryffindor admitted they'd been wrong about a matter of principle. The opportunity had never come, which, given the Gryffindors' willingness to settle arguments with their fists, had perhaps been a blessing.
He couldn't think how he'd forgotten. Perhaps it was simply because thinking about anything to do with the years when he'd had nothing better to do than score points off Harry Potter and wonder about a career in potion-making... didn't so much hurt as seem, these days, completely and incandescently irrelevant.
Lucius cackled again and seemed to be throwing the furniture about. Ann looked nervously upward. "Oh dear, have you got ghouls? They do tend to get agitated around the time of funerals, I'm afraid."
"Thankfully not. That would be my father."
"Oh. There is a programme at St. Mungo's..." she began unconvincedly.
"How long do you think he'd survive at St. Mungo's before someone with a grudge put a pillow over his face?"
"Draco Malfoy!" The intonation in her voice was absolutely the same as when he'd been a second-year and she a lofty fifth-year prefect. "I know you don't know me very well, but I wouldn't work at a place where that kind of thing went on. I don't think you know what you're saying. Oh, goodness, you've gone completely white. Have some chocolate. Now. Honestly, you're just like Ginty or Lawrie - highly strung - "
"Don't even joke about the Ministry re-introducing capital punishment," he croaked. He wasn't sure she heard him.
"And you've been worrying about this - all this time - and had to look after your father and arrange a funeral for your best friend?" He submitted to being fussed over. It was quite soothing, really. He felt as if he were floating. Had someone levitated the wing-chair? He couldn't see any likely suspects, though Blaise was glowering at him. "It must have been a terrible shock. But at least you know he was - doing his bit - trying to defend - " Her voice tailed away.
Draco did not particularly feel like going into the circumstances of Crabbe's death, particularly since in his present mental state if he opened his mouth he'd probably begin with yes, it was a terrible shock, I had no idea he knew that curse existed, let alone that he was going to try and use it.
"I didn't know him as well as... There were things about him I wish I'd known," he said, which was true, as far as I went, even though what he mostly wished was that he'd known Crabbe hated him soon enough to do something about it.
"In any case," she said, kneeling down beside the chair as if she might pat his hand given enough of a run-up at it, "I happen to know that the Ministry is not inclined to trust the Dementors again, not after they went over to - "
"It's all right. He doesn't come when you call his name any more. Like a rather badly-trained poodle, I always thought."
He wondered whether she would flinch. She didn't. She looked ruffled, and as if she was about to say Now then, let's have no more of that, but she wasn't giving him that Gryffindor you-were-predestined-to-be-the-Dark-Lord's-henchman-from-your-cradle look. "There's no need to be brave - " she began.
"That's a good thing, isn't it, considering how bad I always was at it."
She looked as if she were going to say something in reply to that; but Narcissa had noticed what was going on and was coming over to fuss, and Ann was effacing herself, and then getting scooped up by wretched Blaise, who probably had any number of smooth and clever things to say to her, and steered towards sherry.
"Don't tell me it's one of those when I am cold in the earth curses," said Narcissa practically. "Give me my wand."
Impossible to tell his mother that his resilience was not infinite. She knew it was not, just as he thought he had a fair idea of the limits of hers; but the only way they could even begin to live in the long shadow of the events of the last two years was to pretend, as hard as they could, that there was no shadow there at all. "It's not a curse. It's probably the profiteroles. Are all these people ever going to go away?"
"I thought you'd like me to ask Gregory to stay - no, perhaps not." She looked long-sufferingly around at the guests. "At least there's no one dangling from the ceiling."
"We must be recovering if we can joke about Lord... Him."
Narcissa looked shocked; and then appreciative, and then very vague indeed, as if rotating something in her mind's eye. "I was thinking about your grandfather's funeral," she said and pressed a kiss onto the side of his brow. "We survived that, even if your Aunt Bellatrix did try to test the purity of your blood by attempting to drown you in the punchbowl, and we can survive another hour or so of the Cattermoles."
"In that case I think you should be informed that Professor Slughorn seems to have got into the good brandy."
Narcissa looked up at the ceiling. "I'll send one of the house-elves to shout through the door to Lucius. Maybe he'll feel strongly enough about it to come down and defend the contents of his cellar. He never did like Professor Slughorn."
Goyle lumbered back over. "Some of the Cattermoles were talking about having a bit of a knees-up."
"In the village?"
"No, they thought you might take the dust-sheets off the ballroom. One of them's got the sheet-music to something called the Harry Potter Stomp."
Draco extricated himself from the chair. Time to be a host again. He felt better, at least, for the chocolate. "Go and tell them to all have another sherry and then I'll take them on the tour of the Monument Gallery. The long tour."
This ruse had its effect; a female Cattermole with two profiterole-sticky Cattermole children clinging to her hands came over to him and said that they really must be going. The rest of the guests left shortly afterwards. Draco had no idea why it was that it took so much bravery to be the first to leave social occasions at the Manor; his family had managed to breed the blood-thirst out of the peacocks several generations ago, more or less.
Mrs Goyle offered to stay and help clear up. He'd rather hoped Ann Marlow might, as well, but he didn't see her. He very much hoped she hadn't left with Blaise. The more he considered this, the more it became a fixed and sullen certainty that she had left with Blaise, and eventually, stacking glasses on trays so as not to make work for the house-elves, he asked Narcissa about it.
"Yes, she did offer. Twice. But the last thing I wanted was more Gryffindors on the premises. It feels like we've only just cleared out the ones your father used to keep under the drawing-room floor," said Narcissa, clearly less interested in her guests than in outrage at finding a large hole burnt into the leaf of one of her house-plants and a pipe knocked out in its pot. "Honestly, my poor Bouncing Scabroot, it'd only just managed to give up. People are so thoughtless." She put down the pot and picked up the picture of Vincent, which leered at her. "Do you think Gregory would like this?"
"I know I don't want it," said Draco wearily. "Give it to Professor Slughorn. Memorial of one of his students, fallen in the Battle of Hogwarts. It'll go over well with the Ministry."
"Yes, dear," said Narcissa absently. "And shall we send these flowers to St. Mungo's?"
"They do look as if they could use medical intervention," Draco agreed. He looked out of the window, at the empty drive.
He did not suppose he would ever see Ann Marlow again.