Hermione scowled as she followed Lucius Stinking Malfoy up the long and winding path. At least they were heading away from the manor. That was the important part, she reminded herself. She aimed a petulant kick at a stone, and frowned as it stayed firmly put. Right. They weren't actually 'here', Dumbledore had explained. He'd likened what they were experiencing to viewing a memory in a Pensieve, but it was hard to keep that in mind when everything looked so real.

"Observe, Draco," Lucius said, and Hermione thought he sounded inordinately excited. "Just over this hill," he continued, taking Draco's arm and leading him off the path in a straighter trajectory, "is where Fondant built me a tree house."

A tree house? Hermione stopped short, incensed. She was trotting to keep up with Lucius the Prat Malfoy so that he could see a tree house? Severus, who, she noted grimly, had no trouble keeping up with Lucius' brisk stride, stopped beside her and offered her his arm.

"We needn't be in quite so much of a hurry," he said, walking beside her at a much more manageable pace. "I'm sure that Lucius will want a moment to show off his," he sneered, "tree house to Draco."

"Now, now, Severus. No need to be churlish." Dumbledore's faint voice reached them easily enough, even though he was considerably behind them on the path. Severus and Hermione both turned to watch the spirit make his way toward them, chains dragging laboriously behind him. It was obvious that he was expending a considerable amount of energy to reach them, and Hermione knew that she should probably be feeling some sort of pity or compassion or sympathy, but she found that she felt curiously empty, instead. Almost blank, really.

How very odd.

She risked a glance at Severus, wondering how he felt about seeing the man whose life he had been compelled to take. His face was impassive, however, and despite his initial shock at the sight of the spirit, and the eagerness he'd shown in trying to leave the room at Hogwarts, she realized that he hadn't reacted strongly to Dumbledore's presence, either.

Had the war really desensitized them to this degree?

"We'll never end this bloody farce at this rate," Severus muttered, and met Dumbledore as he drew closer. "May I cast a charm on the chains?" he inquired politely, wand at the ready. "I fear that Draco and Lucius will have walked halfway to London before we catch them up."

Dumbledore shook his head. "I think you'll find these chains impervious to magic," he said, smiling sadly. "Though your offer is appreciated."

Severus waved the words aside and matched the spirit's slow pace as he returned to his place beside Hermione. They stood in silence for a moment, Hermione half-expecting to hear Dumbledore panting as he rested from dragging the cumbersome links, but it seemed that spirits didn't need to breathe. Which made her question why, exactly, the chains would even bother him. She frowned and was mentally running over a list of known characteristics of ghosts, spirits, and spectres when Dumbledore stood up a touch straighter and then followed the route Lucius and Draco had taken.

They found the two men looking up into the branches of an old and beautiful tree. A wooden structure was nestled in the uppermost branches, and Hermione could hear two voices, though neither of the speakers was visible.

"You isn't to be worrying about fallings, Master," a high, squeaky voice said. "I has charmed the tree home! You couldn't fall if yous tried!"

A head appeared in the window of the tree house, and Hermione gaped at the handsome little boy. The white-blond hair could belong to no one but a Malfoy. She darted a glance toward Draco, wondering if she was seeing him as a child.

"Father!" Draco gasped, also staring up at the little boy. "Is that—"

Lucius took a step back from the tree to find a better angle for viewing the child. "Yes," he said, his eyes on the child. "That is I."

And then Hermione could see the likeness, and wondered how she could have doubted it in the first place. The boy leaning dangerously far out of the window was solid in a way that she didn't think Draco had ever been, even as an active child. The young boy's eyes flashed with what Hermione suspected was victory, and she thought his smile looked rather more genuine than what was usually seen on a Malfoy, even if said Malfoy was barely out of nappies.

"I'd almost forgotten about those charms," Lucius said, transfixed. "I never did fall. Not once. Though I'm sure I put those charms through their paces."

"As charming as this pastoral scene is," Severus began, but Dumbledore merely shook his head.

"He'll need this," he said simply, "before the night is over. In fact, I rather believe that you all will."

Severus huffed impatiently and crossed his arms over his chest. "I have never yet been in need of observing spoiled children receive said spoiling. I hardly care to begin now."

Dumbledore shook his head. "Still so prickly, Severus." He tutted disapprovingly. "I had hoped that the end of the war would see you relax a touch."

"Then you know me even less than I thought," Severus spat. "Honestly. How long are we to endure this?"

"Very well." Dumbledore sighed and snapped his fingers. The tree house wavered out of focus, causing Lucius and Draco to exclaim and turn angrily in his direction.

"What is the meaning of this?" Lucius demanded. "I would like to see more of—"

"No need to be alarmed, Lucius," Dumbledore said wearily. "This night is far from over. I suspect that this will not be your only opportunity to view your younger self."

Lucius looked uncertain briefly. "Do we choose the memories we wish to view?" he asked. "Do you pull them from our minds? Or are you in charge of what we witness?" He grimaced at the last thought, and Hermione couldn't blame him. Who knew what kind of memories Dumbledore would choose, given free rein! And she certainly didn't want him in her mind, slinking through memories that he had no business intruding upon.

The thought of what he might pull from the three men was enough to turn her stomach.

"We are all being guided," Dumbledore said. "I am merely the vehicle, or catalyst, if you will, to transport you from memory to memory."

"Guided?" Severus questioned, frowning. Hermione could practically see the tension radiate from him, and she found she didn't blame him in the least. Dumbledore, at least, was a known quantity. If he, the consummate puppet master, was being guided by another force… She shivered. Dumbledore had died. Who knew what or whom he'd encountered since then? The entire scenario had been odd from the get-go, but she'd been intrigued by the similarity to A Christmas Carol. And comforted. That story, after all, had a happy ending. But really, it was naïve of her to assume that they were guaranteed the same happy conclusion. They were being manipulated by magic, Hermione reminded herself. Any number of things could go wrong. And if whoever was orchestrating this fiasco wanted to harm them… Well. It wouldn't be very hard to leave them trapped in this transient sort of memory world, would it?

She opened her mouth to demand answers, but was thwarted by the sudden gathering of mist and the familiar tug at her navel. They were off again, to Merlin knew where. Her only satisfaction was in Draco's grunt of annoyance and Lucius' muttered oath.

The sensation of falling through time and space didn't last nearly as long as it had on their initial trip, and when Hermione opened her eyes, she was chagrined to find herself staring at the front facade of the Manor they'd glimpsed upon their initial arrival.

"If I had known that we were on a Meet the Malfoys tour I would have brought my own peacock," Severus complained, glaring at the brightly plumaged bird strutting towards him. "Honestly, Lucius. What possible benefit do you find in keeping and breeding these popinjays?"

But Lucius was staring at an ornamental garden at the side of the house. "My mother's garden," he breathed. "Draco, you must see it. You have not truly appreciated a flower until you have seen and smelled her silver roses."

Draco raised an eyebrow, and Hermione had the distinct impression that he was less than impressed with his father's effusive description of flora. He did, however, allow himself to be led to the garden. Hermione and Severus lagged behind, close enough to hear Lucius wax eloquent on the intricate breeding processes his mother had employed to create the new strain of roses.

"The gardens were let go after her death," he lamented, "and her records lost or destroyed during…" He paused. "Well. No matter. Suffice it to say, I have not been able to replicate her success." He reached toward the blooming bush with a practiced, steady hand, but paused before coming in contact with the plant.

"I will not be able to touch it, will I?" he questioned, looking at the rose instead of Dumbledore.

"I am afraid not," Dumbledore confirmed.

Lucius' hand fell to his side, but he continued to study the flower. "She used to spend her mornings tending these flowers. Not once did she allow a house elf to assist her. And in the evenings she would sit for hours, content to watch them grow." He straightened. "I had not thought of this garden for years," he said, and nodded once in Dumbledore's direction. "I am pleased to see it again."

In lieu of a reply, Dumbledore merely flicked his fingers, and the sky changed from brilliant afternoon sun to midnight blue. The shock caused more than one gasp among the party, and Hermione snapped, "I really think you might give us some warning."

"Of course, Miss Granger," Dumbledore agreed, but though she couldn't see, she was quite certain that his eyes were twinkling, and that this would not be the last unheralded transport of the night. She took a deep breath, taking in the fragrant scent of the nearly invisible garden. The night was hot and humid, and she suspected that a thunderstorm was pending. Would they feel the rain, she wondered? They hadn't been able to make contact with any objects, but she could feel the heat. It would be just her luck that she'd feel the rain, too, she thought to herself, but quickly pushed the thought away when she heard the scuffle of stealthy feet.

A child, most likely an older version of the Lucius they'd seen in tree house, was wandering among the flowers, pausing often to smell or touch a bloom. His careful steps and furtive glances over his shoulder told Hermione that he was out of bed without permission, and she found herself smiling at the notion of Lucius Malfoy sneaking away from the tender care of his nanny elf to wander in a garden. It just went to prove, she reminded herself, that everyone was once a child.

And really, she couldn't blame him. The garden had been beautiful enough by daylight, but the fairy lights were now glowing softly, illuminating the dark with an ethereal haze. The flowers themselves seemed to take on a haunting luminescence that transformed them into objects of mystery as well as beauty.

By unspoken agreement, the group remained silent, even though they were incapable of disturbing the boy. With more patience than Hermione would have expected of a boy, ten years old at the outside, to exhibit, the young Lucius examined each bloom in detail, smoothing his fingers over the silky texture of the petals. His attention was so complete that Hermione found herself drifting closer to him, curiously compelled to take a closer look at the flowers herself. Before she had moved more than a few steps, however, the silence of the night was broken by the crack of Disapparation and a figure appeared just outside the garden.

Hermione clapped a hand to her mouth to stifle her gasp of surprise before remembering that she was merely a spectator without the capability of disturbing the scene. When the newly arrived figure faltered, staggered, and finally fell to his knees, both the young and the current Lucius started violently. Young Lucius secreted himself in a bush so swiftly and quietly that if she hadn't been practically beside him, Hermione would never have noticed him. Current Lucius let out a soft, strangled cry and stepped toward the figure.

The cry of a woman's voice filled the warm summer night air.

"Abraxas!" A tall, slender woman with her hair pinned in an elaborate twist rushed out of the patio doors. "Abraxas! What is it? What has happened?" She rushed straight to Abraxas, kneeling beside him in the lush grass.

Abraxas clutched his forearm and she sucked in a shuddering breath.

"I had to," he whispered. "I'm sorry, Lenore."

And though no tears marred the man's cheek, the agony in his voice was palpable. Lenore sagged, and Abraxas immediately stiffened his spine, holding her to him and lending support. Lenore's shoulders shook silently.

A queer choking noise emanated from young Lucius' hiding spot, and current Lucius tore his focus away from his parents to stare at the bush concealing his younger self.

"Lucius," Lenore whispered, her voice sounding tight and choked. "He must have slipped past Fondant again."

As if the physical and emotional duress they had just witnessed had never happened, both Abraxas and Lenore rose to their feet and stood straight, shoulders square, facing the rose bush.

"Come out, Lucius," Abraxas ordered, his tone kind but unyielding.

Young Lucius emerged from the rose bush biting his lower lip uncertainly, his gaze darting between his parents. Hermione tensed, wondering how Abraxas and Lenore would handle their son. Would they call for Fondant? March him up to bed themselves? Discipline him for his disobedience?

"Come here, son," Abraxas said, reaching out his hand.

Lucius obeyed immediately, though his steps were slow and halting. "Are you hurt, Father?" the boy asked, staring up at Abraxas with frightened grey eyes.

"No, son. I am perfectly well."

Young Lucius' shoulders sagged in relief, but current Lucius shook his head.

"Come," Lenore said, and took her son's hand. "Sit with us for a moment. Since you are awake anyway," she added archly, and young Lucius ducked his head at the mild rebuke.

"Yes, yes," Lenore said, smoothing down his hair and smiling affectionately at the young boy. "You wanted to walk among the flowers, I know."

Riveted by the familial interaction, Hermione followed quickly after the rest of her companions as Abraxas, Lenore, and young Lucius took seats at an ornate wrought iron table situated to view the gardens perfectly. Lucius sat between his parents, looking from one to the other, as if for an indication of what would happen next, and Hermione wondered if this was the first time he'd been caught out of bed.

"Lucius," Abraxas began, moving far enough away that he could look his child in the eye, "I believe it's time I told you about the meetings I attend."

Lenore flung both arms around her son in a reflexive motion that had young Lucius squirming in a bid to acquire freedom.

"Surely not, Abraxas," Lenore murmured. "He is too young!"

"He is the Malfoy heir," Abraxas replied, and there was steel in his voice. "He would do well to learn now what it means to be head of a family."

Even in the dark, Hermione could tell that Lenore's face had paled. She looked as if she wanted to argue further, but only closed her eyes instead, her grip on Lucius still tight. Suddenly curious as to how current Lucius was reacting to the scene, Hermione glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and saw that he was standing perfectly still, fists clenched at his sides. Draco stood beside him, looking vaguely uncomfortable, and she wondered if Lucius and Draco were close. Was this a memory that Lucius had already shared with Draco, or was it new to Draco? More importantly, how angry was Lucius going to be that not only his son, but Severus and Hermione had also witnessed what was obviously an emotionally charged memory? For it was not a question of whether or not he would be upset, Hermione thought ruefully. It was more a question of degree.

"It is the privilege and honour of the head of the Malfoy family to protect his family," Abraxas told his son. "It is necessary, it is right, and, when you are older and I am gone, you will find that love for your family will not allow you to act otherwise, difficult though your choices may be."

Lenore turned away. Her expression was carefully controlled, but the convulsing of her throat convinced Hermione that she was struggling not to cry.

"Tonight I made a very difficult decision," Abraxas continued, looking his son in the eye. "As you will also learn as you grow older, we are sometimes called upon to make decisions before we are ready, and when we can have no way of knowing what the results of those decisions will be."

Young Lucius nodded solemnly. "Yes, Father," he dutifully replied, though it was clear that he could not fully understand what his father meant.

"Tonight I made a decision to join a group," Abraxas continued, and began to roll up the already uncuffed sleeve of his shirt. Young Lucius watched with wide eyes as the first patch of black ink became visible.

Hermione felt a sickening twist of her stomach as she realized Abraxas was about to reveal the Dark Mark to his son. She'd seen more than her fair share of the Marks; in fact, the three men ranged around her each bore one, if she was not mistaken. But seeing the freshness of the jet black ink was somehow worse, though she couldn't explain why.

"But, Father," young Lucius protested, even as his fingers skimmed over the Mark. "You have always said that it is a disgrace to mar the physical perfection of the Malfoy body."

Abraxas winced as the raw skin of his forearm was irritated by Lucius' questing fingers, and exchanged a wry glance with Lenore.

"A Mark such as this is not to be taken lightly," Abraxas agreed, gently removing Lucius' hand from his arm. "And I hope that you will wait until you are an adult, and that you will think long and hard before you make a decision such as this."

"But, Father," Lucius said, frowning as he looked at the imposing snake and skull. "I don't understand. Why did you not choose peacocks? Or the Malfoy crest? Or—"

Abraxas rolled down his sleeve and adroitly buttoned the cuff, but Lucius continued to stare at his father's arm, though the Mark was no longer visible. Was it worse, Hermione wondered, to see the Mark, or to cover it, still knowing it was there? Was it possible to ever forget that it was there?

"Our world is changing," Abraxas continued, speaking both to his son and wife. "And people will soon have to decide in what they believe, and whom they wish to support."

"But Malfoys look only to themselves," Lucius said proudly. "Isn't that right, Father?"

The faintest ghost of a smile flitted over Abraxas' face before he sobered again. "That is true. But even a Malfoy has to choose his allies carefully. Even more so when an ally must be chosen, and there is no good option."

Lucius nodded, though once again, it was obvious that his comprehension of the conversation was on a superficial level only.

"He has sucked in too many of our circle," Abraxas said quietly to Lenore over Lucius' head. "A choice had to be made, and you know Dumbledore's stance. I cannot put blind faith in a man with the appearance of openness, but who withholds information from his allies. Lord Voldemort holds no pretence."

"Better the devil you know," Lenore murmured, once again smoothing Lucius' hair and covering his ears at the same time. Lucius frowned and swatted ineffectually at the hands, but Lenore held firm and Lucius resigned himself to moving further into his mother's embrace. He was at an age where he desperately desired to be considered more than a child, yet it was clear that he also craved his parents' affection.

Abraxas and Lenore continued to converse above Lucius' head, but their tones were so low that Hermione could catch only one in every six words, and couldn't follow the flow of the conversation. Instead, she focused on young Lucius and the look on his face as he relaxed in his mother's arms and allowed his gaze to wander to the plants. He felt safe, Hermione realized. His parents loved him, he had every comfort a boy could ask for, and he was utterly content.

"Lucius," Lenore said after a time, gently calling his attention back to her. "You asked why your father did not take the mark of a peacock or the Malfoy crest."

Lucius nodded, his eyes heavy with sleep. Hermione watched in surprise as Lenore slid from the bench and knelt before her husband. With quick, industrious fingers she loosened Abraxas' cuff and rolled the sleeve. "This," she said, still kneeling but looking her son in the eyes, "whatever else it may be, is a mark of love and sacrifice in the Malfoy family. It is a mark of putting the good of the family above all else, and it is something to be proud of, even as we hold it close to our hearts and share it with no others."

Lucius nodded, seeming to understand that this was important to his mother. Abraxas closed his eyes, and Lenore rose to her feet, caressing her husband's cheek before offering him her hand. Abraxas, however, gathered Lucius into his lap. From the wide-eyed look of surprise on the boy's face, Hermione guessed that this was not a frequent occurrence.

"You must love us a lot," Lucius said, his tone matter-of-fact. "Because that Mark is quite ugly."

Abraxas held him tighter for just a second, and then let him go. "Yes, Lucius, I do," he said, watching as the boy ran toward the house. "Very much."

He and Lenore followed Lucius, arms at each others' waists.

Current Lucius made to follow, but Dumbledore stopped him by placing his hand on his arm. Lucius extricated himself, rising to his full height and staring down his nose at the spectre.

"Unhand me," he hissed. In the split second of Dumbledore's hesitation, Lucius flicked his wrist, and Dumbledore's hand fell limply away. Dumbledore continued to watch him, his expression thoughtful.

"Your father was a complex man," the spirit finally said. "He never did share with me his reasons for supporting Tom."

"It was never a matter of supporting the Dark Lord or agreeing with his ideals," Lucius seethed. "Which you would know, had you ever taken the time to really think about anything from a point of view other than your own." Draco moved to stand beside him and joined him in fixing Dumbledore with a penetrating, haughty glare. "It was about protecting his family in the only way he knew how. Voldemort was utterly determined to have the support of the affluent Pure Blood families, and fully capable of using any means necessary to secure it. By supporting him, my father placed himself in a position to stave off the immediate destruction of his family. Which is not something that you have offered even your most loyal supporters," he finished with a sneer.

Hermione shuddered, thinking of the horrible losses the Order of the Phoenix had sustained, both in the first Wizarding War and the second. It was the Potter family, however, that it always came back to for her. The deaths of James and Lily were horrific unto themselves, but the fact that Dumbledore had groomed Harry to be an unknowing human sacrifice…

Especially considering that Harry would have given his life without a second thought with or without the issue of the bloody Horcrux.

For Dumbledore to make that decision for him, however…

The reckless disregard for Harry's humanity still stung.

"We all made decisions to the best of our abilities with the facts we had at the time," Dumbledore said, and more than one person huffed in annoyance at his sanctimonious tone.

"Some of those decisions might have been easier, had more people been aware of pertinent information," Severus muttered.

"Am I the only one who finds it ironic that Abraxas Malfoy sided with Voldemort because he felt that Voldemort was the more forthright of him and Dumbledore?" Hermione asked, still trying to come to terms with what she'd witnessed.

Severus and Lucius maintained their impassive expressions, but Draco's stifled snort told Hermione that he'd had similar thoughts.

"Be that as it may," Dumbledore said mildly, "I do believe we're right on track for our next adventure!" He clapped his hands together with an expectant expression of enthusiasm, even as his chains clanked loudly, the grating sound causing Hermione to grit her teeth. She frowned at the chains, surprised to see one that looked almost identical to the roses of the Malfoy garden.

"More?" Lucius asked. "I fear what you'll show us next. Perhaps a moment of pre-pubescent awkwardness? My first kiss?" Disdain etched on his aristocratic features, he idly tapped his cane against the ground several times. "Well? How long is this farce to continue?"

Dumbledore smiled benignly. "As long as it takes, I should think."

Severus expelled his breath harshly. "Death hasn't changed you in the least," he informed the spectre, his words clipped with annoyance. "You remain as bloody cryptic as you ever were."

Dumbledore's eyes glinted for just a second. "I think," he said softly, "that I shall enjoy your journey thoroughly." Idly rubbing at his wrist where the manacles chafed, he extended his arms. "Touch my robes," he instructed, just as he had at Hogwarts.

Hermione felt a queer clutching at her chest. Once again, she wasn't certain which she dreaded more: journeying into her own past, or into that of her companions.

"Well, come on, then," Severus snapped, and Hermione saw that the three men had already taken their places around Dumbledore and were waiting for her. The only place left for her, unsurprisingly, was next to Draco.

"If you toss your cookies on me, I'm hexing you," she warned him, even as she touched Dumbledore's robe and the swirling mist surrounded them.




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Author's Notes

Characters from the Harry Potter series are the property of J.K. Rowling. They are used without permission and not for profit.

Thanks, as always, to The Above and Beyond Team of Miss M and Miss B.

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