Chapter Sixty-Four: Thursday Afternoon

The characters and canon situations in the following story belong solely to JK Rowling, Scholastic, and WB. I am not making any money from the publishing or writing of this story.

beta credit:  Brightki and CoquetteKitten.

 

Molly took charge right away. “Bill, Charlie, Percy – enough dawdling for today! We have a lot to get done before tomorrow. Bill, I want you to check in with each vendor one more time and confirm the delivery times. Nothing after six-thirty in the morning! Alcohol especially! Charlie, you and Percy are on . . .” Her strident tone went on, but Hermione tuned her out when Ginny grabbed hold of her with one hand, Fleur secured tightly with the other.

 

“Say goodbye to lover-boy for now. We have work to do!” The redhead was practically vibrating with excitement, and completely ignoring the fact that the blonde chaperone was obviously trying to escape her clutch. As Ginny steered the two witches toward the study door, she called over her shoulder, “Bye, Mum! See you tomorrow!”

 

Molly interrupted her bossy discourse to scold, “Ginevra Molly Weasley, I haven’t seen you hardly at all this week, and I need your help! Luna and Harry have already promised to help with the enchanted pavilions and I hardly think this is the time for irresponsible traipsing about-“

 

Ginny, who was still dragging the curly-haired witch across the room, interrupted in a saccharine-sweet tone, “Got it, Mum — irresponsible, traipsing, the whole bit. See you tomorrow!” In a much quieter voice, she said, “Mother of Magic, I am eloping,” and when Hermione nudged her, added by way of explanation, “This is going to be the wedding of the century, and Mum’s definitely risen to the challenge. She’s already preparing for her interview as ‘wedding planner for wizarding royalty’ with Which Witch.”

 

They reached the door. Hermione cast one last, longing glance back to Draco, who appeared to be receiving an assignment of his own from the Weasley House Wife. Slightly behind her wizard, Luna beamed and made a shooing motion with her hands. Then his eyes met hers, and he gave her one of his patented almost-smiles. There wasn’t time to consider swooning, unfortunately. She turned back to the current conversation as the three of them swept down the corridor. “Wedding of the . . . wizarding roy- . . . that’s ridiculous.   She paused. “She’s only had a week, you know.”

 

Ginny’s pace was furious, and they passed through the Great Hall as if in flight. “Standard planning time for a Pureblood wedding. Remember? It’s traditionally kept a secret until the dawn of the event. For goodness sakes, Hermione, pick up your skirt before it trips us all!”

 

“Well, I would if you’d release your death grip on my arm, Ginevra.” She tugged her limb free, finally, and gathered the long skirt of the engagement gown. “What’s your idea for my gift?”

 

“Sssshhhhh!” Ginny looked wildly about and took hold of Hermione’s arm again, walking even faster. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from having Fred and George as brothers, it’s that walls actually can have ears!”

 

This piqued Fleur’s interest. “What do you mean? You know, it would be faster to just-“

 

“I am not going to Side Along with you!” Hermione’s retort didn’t have much bite; she’d secretly had the same thought just seconds before, but there was something infinitely satisfying in calling the shots with the Frenchwoman.

 

Ginny ignored the suggestion, whipping up a winding staircase. “Let’s just say that when you meet the twins, you’ll never trust an innocent-looking . . . anything . . . again. How’s your sense of humor?”

 

Hermione countered, “They’re wonderful, Fleur – two of the most fun-loving, good-natured wizards you’ll ever meet. A bit immature, perhaps, but that’s part of their charm.”

 

They reached the gallery along the ballroom in record time and paused to catch their breath at the chaperone’s insistence. Along the ceiling of the room below, just above their eye level, the magnificent chandeliers glistened and cast myriad reflections on every surface. “I don’t like practical jokes, if that’s what you mean,” she answered with an expression of concern.

 

Ginny waved that off. “Oh, they’re completely harmless. Mostly. And they’re not so difficult to control when you know their secrets. Of course, they do seem to enjoy getting into trouble . . . You know what, let’s just leave it at ‘they’re completely harmless’.”

 

“Mostly,” Hermione added with a smirk.

 

Obviously intent on steering the talk away from the potentially disastrous subject of Fred and George, Ginny returned to their previous topic. “The female third of the Golden Trio has accepted the war stake of the House of Malfoy, which is the closest thing to royalty that wizarding England gets. There hasn’t been a wedding like this since . . . well, I honestly have no idea. There’s more than one reason Lucius and Draco have kept it under such tight wraps and whisked you away to the Manor as soon as they could.”

 

“What do you mean?” It didn’t escape Hermione’s attention that Ginny had just made an indirect reference to her weeded brother, but she bit her tongue. I wonder how I can bring that up later.

 

“The moment my mum began placing orders in the Malfoy name, rumors started to fly. Then the school shut down prematurely, and every student with any interest in current events went home and told their families about your engagement immediately. Everyone knows about the wedding and expects the invitations to go out at any time. It’s already being hinted at in the papers. Of course, no one wants to get on the wrong side of Lucius, so they’re keeping it as discreet as celebrity gossip can be, but you get the idea.”

 

Hermione could only blink at her friend, mouth opening and shutting soundlessly. Finally she managed, “Exactly how many people will be at the reception tomorrow?” She gathered her skirt once more as they began ascending the final staircase.

 

Fleur raised her delicate eyebrows in a what-broomcloset-have-you-been-living-in sort of expression. Ginny waved a hand dismissively. “Pretty much everyone. That’s why she’s in such a tizzy – she wants it to be perfect.”

 

Her brain refused to analyze much of what Ginny had said so far. Maybe it’s a good thing the twins haven’t been helping. “Well, she seems to be in her element so I’m glad I handed the whole thing off to her.” And there’s no use worrying about something that’s going to happen anyway. She smiled as she remembered Molly’s calming talk earlier that morning, until she remembered the diary she’d requested from Bowly. Grabbing both witches by the arms she cried, “Wait! We need to go back! I forgot all about the-“

 

Ginny paused at the door to Hermione’s suite, interrupting her in a mock-exasperated tone. “Honestly, ‘Mione. I sometimes find it hard to believe that you kept Harry alive during the war. If you’re talking about,” here Ginny rummaged in the pocket of her dress and produced a very small book, “this, you’re not getting it until I’m done with you.” Hermione tried to snatch the little volume from her friend, but wasn’t quick enough. “Oh, no – don’t even think about it.”

 

Hermione considered hexing the infuriatingly bossy redhead, until she remembered she needed her help. “I also earned eleven O.W.L.S. and was dubbed the smartest witch of the age.”

 

“Yeah,” Ginny sniggered as she opened the door and ushered the other two through, “but only because you hadn’t discovered the opposite sex yet. Come on, we have a lot of work to do.” She rounded on the Hermione the moment the door had been shut behind them and a Muffliato had been cast. “Do you know what an odalisque is?”

 

Hermione bridled at the insulting question. “Of course — any idiot does!” At Ginny’s challenging look, she expanded, “An odalisque was a slave –the lowest level of the Turkish harem system.” Ginny made the universal gesture for get on with it, and she continued, “If she was particularly beautiful, or was talented in some way, she might aspire to become a concubine or even a wife. I don’t see how this . . .” She trailed off questioningly. Now the redhead’s expression morphed to one of pity, and Hermione said slowly, “Of course, there’s also a strong tradition of artistic representation of that subject – a sort of celebration of the female form . . .” Her brain began whirring, and multiple lightning bolts of comprehension struck her mind at once. “Sweet Circe, you want me to pose for nude photographs!”

 

Fleur gasped and smiled in apparent delight. “What a perfect wedding gift for your husbands! Hermione, they’ll love it!”

 

Ginny looked like the proverbial cat who caught the canary. “I know. I’m brilliant.”

 

“Oh, no, no, no. I am not going to end up in some magically animated, tawdry pose for the rest of my life. This isn’t a photo shoot for one of Luna’s magazines, Gin!” Even as she argued, her mind was supplying facts in support of the idea. They wouldn’t have to be tawdry – there were some rather tasteful odalisques painted in the nineteenth century. Ginny wouldn’t suggest it if she didn’t think it was a great idea. Lucius and Draco would love it. “But in the sake of open-mindedness let’s hear your idea.”

 

Ginny proceeded to cleverly sell her concept of a series of artistic photographs, taken in various rooms of the Manor and perhaps even outside, of Hermione in varying degrees of undress. “It won’t look cheap, I promise – there’s nothing artistic about that. What do you say?”

 

“Please say ‘yes’,” begged Fleur. “It’s such a romantic idea, Hermione!”

 

The chaperone’s enthusiastic approval lent the idea an extra ounce of credibility, but there were several rather large hurdles that needed to be overcome. “And how exactly are we going to get these taken and printed out secretly in one afternoon without Lucius and Draco finding out? I don’t have a camera of my own, let alone a fancy self-printing one.”

 

“I happen to have within my possession – Fleur, get that bag, will you? It’s over by the . . . yes, that’s it – one state of the art vintage wizard camera, loaned to me by Luna Lovegood.” Here she pulled from the bag a monstrosity of a camera. “She handed it to me as we left Grimmauld Place and told me to bring it along. I completely forgot about it until we were in the rose garden. By the way, those golden roses are unbelievable!”

 

“That thing looks ancient,” Hermione said dubiously. She thought of the sleek camera Lucius had used to take pictures of her handmark, and wondered if she could ask Trinket to get it without him knowing.

 

Ginny narrowed her eyes in warning. “I did say it was vintage! There’s a tripod in here somewhere . . .” She dug through the large bag at her feet. Eventually, and with some help from Fleur, the redhead got the thing set up. “There we go. It’s what Xenophilius used to use for The Quibbler, before he upgraded. Anyway, Luna says it will be perfect.”

 

Hermione was torn between arguing that Luna’s interpretation of perfect often differed from her own, and accepting that fact that her dotty friend was well on her way to becoming a confirmed Seer. She settled on the latter. “Okay. But does it-“

 

“It prints and I have rolls upon rolls of film,” Ginny growled. “Now can we please get started?”

 

Fleur surprised them both by rattling off a list of suggested settings and poses. When the other two witches regarded her in silent surprise, she said almost defensively, “I find the idea of this gift captivating.” Then her eyes dropped as a blush bloomed across her pale skin. Sweet Merlin, she’s thinking about doing this for Ginny’s brothers!

 

The same thought seemed to cross Ginny’s mind at that moment, too, because her face screwed up in a grimace as though she’d eaten something sour.   Still, she managed to offer, “If it works half as well as Luna promised, we’ll do the same for you. Let’s, uh, save that thought for later.” She winced and muttered, “Much later.”

 

They set to work, and Hermione quickly added her own set of skills to the project. Within ten minutes, she’d divided all the ideas into easily cross-referenced lists of possible locations, poses, and props. Then Ginny raided the closets, and under her direction Fleur began separating all kinds of things into piles around the dressing room.   The redhead looked over what they’d accomplished. “Right, then. I think we’re ready.”

 

With the knowledge that she was putting complete trust in a tyrant – and that the entire endeavor was based on the vision of a witch from Ravenclaw – Hermione sank onto the chair at her dressing table. “Where do you want to start?”

 

Ginny frowned, the scope of her idea quickly becoming apparent. “I really want to take some outside, but we need to avoid my mother and the boys.” She cast a sideways glance at Hermione and added, “And your wizards. That excludes pretty much everything outside the Manor. What else is on the list?”

 

Hermione found herself becoming the teensiest bit excited, despite her trepidations. The result was a flurry of butterflies in her stomach and an accompanying idea. “Errrrr, I know this isn’t on our list, but Draco had this suite designed around the dress I wore to the Yule Ball in fourth year. Maybe something right here? At the very least, it’d be convenient for a practice shot.”

 

The frown on her friend’s face smoothed into a look of cunning. “I thought that bedding reminded me of something. So Draco’s been fantasizing about you in that dress for years, has he?” She wandered into the outer room, followed by the other two witches, and stood at the end of the huge canopied bed. “Fleur, open the French windows all the way, will you?” As more sunlight streamed in behind them, Ginny looked at Hermione speculatively. “Right. Gown off and climb under the covers.”

 

Hermione paused as she started to comply. “Errrrr, I need a pair of knickers. I’m not going completely starkers.”

 

Ginny raised an eyebrow, her mouth twitching as if she were trying not to smile. “I thought you used a Sticking Charm this morning.”

 

Hermione Summoned a pair of knickers from the dressing room closet, making sure they clipped her friend’s head as they whizzed past. Then, drawing them on, she replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She took off the engagement gown and handed it to Fleur.

 

This is for Lucius and Draco. I will not take offense at Ginny. I love Ginny. I will not hex Ginny. The two thoughts quickly became a mantra, which she repeated over and over as her friend proceeded to do what she did best. “Center of the bed. Covers down – not, not like that! It should be carelessly draped . . . Oh, for the love of Merlin I’ll do it myself!” Now Ginny had crawled up on the bed, adding manhandling to her list of offenses. She tugged at Hermione’s arms and legs, rearranged the silken sheets and comforter again and again, and then went so far as to jerk Hermione’s knickers down off her bum. Gin gave her a swat and scolded, “Stop squirming! Honestly, it’s not like I’ve never seen your arse. Now lie still while I look through the lens . . . and look back over your left shoulder at me.”

 

Hermione maintained her pose as Ginny slid off the bed and went to the camera. She offered, “I don’t know if it’s important, but I did wear my hair up at the Yule Ball.”

 

This sent her friend into another dictatorial frenzy. “Perfect, although why you couldn’t have told us that ten minutes ago is beyond me. Fleur, hairpins! Do you mind . . . Oh, that’s very nice. Wow.” She sounded impressed, but quickly added, “Wipe that smug look off your face and get off the bed — and don’t move anything!”

 

Finally Fleur extricated herself from the scene and stood by Hermione’s head, looking in turns incredulous and somewhat outraged. There was something infinitely satisfying in sharing Ginny’s harping with Fleur, and Hermione grinned at her chaperone. “I’d tell you she’s harmless, but that would be a lie.”

 

Fleur snorted, turning her attention to her charge. “I can’t decide how I feel about that statement.”

 

Ginny scolded Hermione for moving slightly, and she froze back into place, saying loudly, “You should feel honored. She only crushes the spirits of those she loves best.” She looked over her shoulder with laughter in her eyes, and heard the click of the camera shutter. “May I please breathe now, Gin?”

 

For a second the only sound was of the ancient camera printing out the picture. Then there was a sharp inhale, and Ginny was suddenly clambering onto the bed next to her. “I’m a genius. Will you just look at this masterpiece!”

 

The three witches stared at the print silently. In it, Hermione lay on her stomach amidst a flurry of ruffled periwinkle bed linens, the length of her back bared all the way to the curve of her buttocks. The picture had been taken at the very end of her conversation with Fleur, when her lips had curved up slightly and she’d looked over her shoulder right into the lens of the camera. It was lovely and innocent, and Hermione said as much to her friend. “It’s almost as though I’m wearing that gown,” she added softly, nodding approvingly at Ginny. As if I’m taking it off for Draco.

 

“More like you’re almost not wearing it. It’s an innocent picture by most standards, but Draco’s imagination is going to run wild.” The two shared an evil grin, and Hermione experienced a little thrill of anticipation. I want to see Draco’s face when he first looks at this.

 

Fleur was much more verbose. “Such talent! Ginny, this is incredible. You’re truly a genius!”

 

Hermione shot her chaperone a cautionary look. “Rule number one when dealing with any Weasley, Fleur: never give them more power than is absolutely necessary at any time.”

 

The advice came too late, though, and the damage had been done. Ginny’s lovely brown eyes glowed maniacally as she slid from the bed and raced back toward the dressing room. “Come on, you two! We haven’t got all day!”

 

Fleur rolled her eyes as she held out a dressing gown to Hermione. “How do you put up with her?” Her eyes wandered to where Ginny was now pacing back and forth, lists in hand.

 

Hermione slipped into the robe, a defensive emotion flaring up within her. No one talks about Ginny like that. Except me. “She’s bossy, impatient, and intolerant, it’s true.” She held up a hand in warning as she continued, “But Ginny is the most generous, the hardest working, and most creative witch you’ll ever meet. She’s loyal, too. If you prove yourself a good friend, she’ll stand by your side through anything.” She finished softly, “She’s the best witch I know.”

 

Hermione took a step toward the dressing room but was held back by a hand on her sleeve. “And how exactly do I prove myself to be a good friend to her?” The chaperone asked apprehensively. She wore a nervous expression, and now Hermione’s protective feelings swung in her direction. She’s going to be Ginny’s sister in law.

 

She gave a sympathetic smirk. “And there’s the rub – the best way to prove yourself to that heartless tyrant is to do exactly what she says. Come on.” As they crossed the outer room, she continued, “On the upside, she really only uses her powers for good. Plus, she’s the one thing in the world that her brothers actually fear.”

 

Ginny was deep in one of the closets, judging by the noises coming from it and Fleur went straight to the storage space, apparently intent on heeding Hermione’s advice. “What can I do to help you, Ginny?”

 

Ginny emerged, only to yank Fleur inside. Hermione crept warily to the doorway, not sure she was ready to be swept into Ginny’s madness, listening in to the conversation. Her friend replied, “Can you help me find a ball gown that looks like bed sheets, and laces up the back? And ‘Mione – yes, I can see you lurking around the corner – would you look down our list of possible places and try to find a scene where you wouldn’t want to be undressed?”

 

Hermione went to her list on the dressing table and stared down at it. Let’s see, somewhere I wouldn’t want to be undressed. It seemed a fairly straightforward decision – nearly everywhere except her bedroom – until her mind began supplying images of places around the Manor Lucius and Draco had managed to at least partially undress her. Library – done it. Rose garden – done it. Lucius’ study – done it. The knowledge that she’d probably add a few more locations to the list before her wedding caused her to smirk. Maybe I should look for a place I HAVEN’T been undressed yet . . . Her smirk widened. “How about the ballroom?”

 

Ginny poked her head out of the closet, a pair of elegant heels dangling from her fingertips. “That might work.”

 

“I think this one looks like an entire bed!” Fleur appeared at her side, holding up a cream-colored gown with a strapless, heavily brocaded bodice and incredibly full taffeta skirts.

 

Ginny scrutinized the gown and then stared off in to space. “Absolutely perfect. Let’s get to work.”

 

Hermione found herself being manhandled once again as Ginny forced her into a daunting backless bustier and tried rearranging her breasts to her own specifications. “Hands off, Ginevra! I can adjust my own boobs, thank you very much!” She smacked her friend’s hands far, far away and proceeded to do so quickly. “All you had to say was that you wanted them pushed up higher.” She stepped into the gown being held out by a smirking Fleur. “Wipe that smile off your face, you traitor. Oof!” Fleur gave a superior quirk with one elegant eyebrow as her sneaky Charm laced the back of the gown tightly, but managed to straighten her face. Hermione managed to hiss, “Just you wait until it’s your turn. I’ll be the first to volunteer for this job!”

 

Ginny completely ignored Hermione’s fit of pique and looked her over with a critical eye. “Much better cleavage. More makeup, and see if you can pile her hair up more dramatically.” Fleur made a few passes with her wand, and the redhead seemed pleased. Hermione didn’t even bother to look in the mirror – if Ginny was happy, that was all that mattered.

 

This scene took slightly longer. After finally agreeing to Side-Along with Fleur, Hermione had arrived at their destination with the expectation that Ginny would be as decisive as she had been before. Instead, her friend walked back and forth at the foot of the dramatic staircase for a good twenty minutes, clearly unsure of what she wanted. Finally Hermione plopped down near her feet, sprawled back against the ornate railing. She played with the stiff, heavy taffeta skirt. “I feel like a meringue in this thing.”

 

The remark caught Fleur’s attention, and she sent a glance Hermione’s way. “Oh, Ginny – how about that pose?” the chaperone breathed, an admiring smile on her face.

 

That’s all it took for Ginny to be caught up in another utterly domineering creative frenzy. “No, that’s not what we want at all. Stand up, ‘Mione. First let’s try having you . . . like that. Turn just so. And Fleur, could you . . .? Perfect. Now take one step up when I say ‘go’, look back at me, and keep your hands exactly where I’ve placed them. And try not to look like you hate me quite so much – it’s not the sort of expression you want to frame. That’s only slightly better. And . . . go!”

 

Mere seconds later, there was the unmistakable click of the shutter and the three young women gathered to see the resulting print. As it appeared on the piece of photo paper, Hermione found herself speechless. There before her, a stunning witch – could that actually be her? – stood looking back over her shoulder, her gown unfastened in the back and falling open down to her waist. One of her hands was raised, holding the bodice up to barely cover her breasts, and the other lifted a handful of the gown’s voluminous skirts as she took a step up the staircase. Hermione’s expression was enigmatic; her eyes were glowing under half-closed lids as she looked directly at the camera, and her mouth opened as if she were going to share a secret with the viewer. Now Hermione understood why Ginny had wanted a gown that was reminiscent of bedding, because the picture evoked the idea of a woman rising from her bed, sheets slowly falling from her body. The image was sensual – an inviting picture of unfettered, confident beauty. “It’s amazing, Gin.” Wow – she really knows how to arrange breasts . . .

 

Fleur was once again far more effusive. “It’s magnificent! Such talent, Ginny!”

 

Ginny grinned wickedly. “We’re just getting started, witches. Come on, back to the room for a change of clothes.”

 

Hermione braced herself not only for an afternoon of Side-Alongs with Fleur, but also for the brunt of Ginny’s exhausting genius. She’d never considered herself easily pushed around, but was finding that the combination of Fleur’s no-nonsense older sister mien and Ginny’s formidable youngest-of-seven attitude was truly terrifying. And soon they’ll be related! When they got back to her room, though, Hermione nipped Ginny’s hands-y approach in the bud. In fact, as it was becoming more and more apparent that her friend was doing an excellent job overall, tshe traded unilateral decision-making power for the right to dress herself by herself for the rest of the project.

 

They decided to go to the library next, with Hermione wearing her school uniform. She led them to the top floor, where the natural light was plentiful. Ginny looked down over the floor upon floors of printed knowledge. “I bet fifty Galleons that Draco and Hermione christen the library first. Merlin’s left nut, but this place is enormous!” She wandered to the nearest reading area, pulling a chair out from the table. “This will do nicely.”

 

Hermione sighed dreamily, following along automatically. “Draco’s going to sleep here with me. He has an eleventh century translation of Courtenay’s Tretis de Magique, and he promised to read it to me by wandlight.”

 

Her friend gave a happy, girlish laugh. “Oh, ‘Mione – only you would focus on that part of his offer!” She began setting up the scene with Fleur’s competent help.

 

“Gin, you know how I feel about Anglo Norman dissertations! Clearly he likes them, too – how else would he even be aware of their existence?” She blushed and grinned as she realized what Ginny really meant. “Oh, yes, well . . .”

 

“You two were meant for each other, and you’re going to have the most beautiful, swottiest babies this world has even seen.” Ginny’s face warped into a fiendish smirk. “You do realize you won’t be going anywhere near a book any time soon, don’t you?”

 

Hermione frowned. “What’s that supposed to-“

 

Her friend interrupted, a knowing look on her face. “You’d better enjoy the next thirty-six hours of fresh air and freedom, because by the way those two were looking at you this morning, you won’t be doing much outside the bedroom for a very long time.”

 

“I think Lucius all but said that to Slughorn last Saturday at the game,” she replied, remembering how he had declined the professor’s idea of a get-together in the near future.

 

Ginny looked pleasurably scandalized. “What did you do?”

 

“Nothing, actually. I was so busy being irritated by that pompous windbag that I didn’t process what Lucius said until just now. Huh.” She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about her fiancé making such an insinuation until Fleur gave a snort of amusement. She quickly found herself giggling as well. Oh, Lucius!

 

Ginny was grinning madly. “And he’s not the only Malfoy with Hermione-on-the-brain. Which one do you think will tie you to the headboard first?” For some reason this sent all three girls into paroxysms of laughter, and for a few minutes it was all they could do to remember how to breathe.

 

The library picture was just as clever as the first two, but in a different way. Ginny had pushed the envelope even further this time, once again showcasing her Transfigurations skills with clothing. She arranged Hermione at the table wearing only an unbuttoned oversized uniform shirt, with a tie in Slytherin colors loosely knotted around her neck. The resultant print showed her chewing on a quill and looking up at the camera from under her dark lashes just as the shirt slipped off her shoulder.

 

Ginny was perhaps the most pleased with this picture. “Can you imagine how many times he imagined meeting you in the library for this kind of study date? I’m so incredibly clever it’s scary.”

 

Hermione had just opened her mouth to tease that her friend was indeed scary, when there was a noise on the ground floor below. She motioned for silence and quickly slipped her clothes back on. Then, on her signal, the three witches crept to the balustrade that ringed the upper floor. Below, Draco strode into the library. He called out urgently, “Lucius, are you still here?”

 

More sounds came from the back of the ground floor, as if someone was shutting something and then walking in Draco’s direction. It was Lucius, and he was carrying a small, familiar-looking box. “Obviously. I thought you were helping Molly.”

 

The acoustics in the library were phenomenal, because even though it appeared that both men were speaking rather quietly, their words carried all the way to the top floor. “I was, but I needed to know what you found out. Tell me, Lucius.”

 

Lucius clapped the younger Malfoy on the back and drew him into a one-armed embrace. “Oh, Draco – you worry too much. Come, we can talk on our way across the house. I want to find out where Castor and Pollux have been hiding since yesterday morning, and you need to fulfill your obligations.”

 

The two men began walking toward the main entrance arm in arm, and it was obvious that Draco was being dragged along by Lucius. “Why can’t we talk in here?”

 

Lucius cast a curious glance upward, although he didn’t seem to see the witches who had quickly pulled away from the railing. “I’m not sure, but something tells me we shouldn’t.”

 

Hermione had slid down, her face pressed between the bases of two stone balusters. She saw Draco tug against Lucius’ hold. “You sound like Hermione, when she talks about the covenant. She seems to have a strong bond with it. Gods, she’s amazing in every way.”

 

Lucius seemed to tighten his grip, trying to urge Draco forward again. His tone was urgent. “I agree wholeheartedly, but such things should remain unspoken while there are so many other people at the Manor. It isn’t wise to speak of her so freely.”

 

Draco looked as if he was shaking his head, but it was really too great a distance to know for sure. The bear hug he gave the elder Malfoy, though, was obvious. “He’s gone, Lucius. He can’t take her away from us. No one can. She wants to be ours.” Lucius had dropped his head onto his brother’s shoulder, and Draco repeated, “She wants us.”

 

Lucius appeared to take control of whatever emotion had overwhelmed him, because he stood tall once again and began dragging Draco towards the door. “Why is it that you are always trying to comfort me? Hmm? It’s a good thing you’re so handsome, Draco, or people might mistake you for a witch, with all that sensitivity you have.”

 

They were just passing her line of sight, but Hermione distinctly saw Draco punch Lucius in the side hard enough to make the older wizard double over. “I’ll give you sensitivity, old man. And stop torturing yourself — what you need to do is have Hermione get you off. Now tell me what you’ve learned, and then I’ll tell you how talented our witch is with her . . .”

 

Their voices faded, and then the heavy door slammed shut. Hermione’s head and heart worked in tandem to process every word she’d overheard, and a sense of ferocious protectiveness for her wizards overwhelmed her. She turned to her companions almost fiercely. “What did you hear?”

 

They both shrugged, and Fleur offered, “Nothing that made sense. It sounded like a private conversation.” Ginny nodded in agreement.

 

Hermione took a deep breath. Every muscle in her body strained to chase down Lucius and wrap her arms around him comfortingly. And help him to get off. She sighed. I cannot do everything at once. This project needs to be finished first. Her brain whirred to life, cranking out possibilities. She turned to her redheaded friend. “We need to work as quickly as possible, and I have some new, non-negotiable ideas.”

 

Ginny was regarding her with understanding eyes. “I have no idea what all that meant, but you’re a lucky witch, Hermione Granger,” she said softly.

 

“I know that!” Her friend’s gentle tone had her backtracking almost immediately. “Ummmm, why do you think so?”

 

“Because the way they were both speaking about you – that’s the way Harry speaks about us. That’s not just desire – it’s love.” It was Fleur’s turn to nod in agreement.

 

“You’re right, Gin. I don’t know how it’s possible, but in a little more than two weeks, I’ve come to love them both. Which is why,” she continued in an entirely different tone of voice, “We need to pick up the pace.”

 

That meant less conversation and far more bossing from Ginny, but Hermione’s mind was far away and focused on her elder wizard. When Gin understood what it was Hermione wanted, she set to work at once. Within an hour and a half, four more gorgeous prints had been added to the pile, each one showing just a bit more skin than the last. There was one of Hermione in Draco’s Quidditch jersey, straddling his Firebolt (acquired stealthily by Trinket); there was one of her in a tub of bubbles, water streaming over the glistening tops of her breasts; there was one of her bent over the arm of Lucius’ armchair, wearing only ruffled white knickers and a naughty smile; and the last was of Hermione reclining amongst the rosa praestruxit, bare except for the flowers which had twined themselves around her body.

 

Trinket had been thrilled to help, and was so disappointed when she realized the fun was over that she insisted she be allowed to clean up the dressing room. The three witches watched her work happily away as they lounged on the couch in a heap of limbs. Hermione was rubbing Ginny’s feet, which happened to be resting on her lap. “You’re the best friend ever, Ginny. Thank you for this.” She turned to Fleur. “And thank you, Fleur, for putting up with us. I’m glad we’ve become friends.”

 

“This was the most fun I’ve ever had.” Fleur smiled happily. She was sitting in the middle of the couch, her hands resting on Ginny’s knees. “I only wish Gabi could have been here – I know you’d like her.”

 

Hermione nodded. “If she’s anything like you, Fleur, I’m sure you’re right. And we’ll get to meet her tomorrow, right?”

 

“I hope so.” The chaperone’s expression turned hopeful. “Perhaps my father plans to bring the stake along with him then!”

 

Ginny pulled Fleur into a one-armed hug. “I’ll hunt him down myself if needed. You’re going to be a Weasley, and that’s that.”

 

The room had been set back to rights by now, and Trinket caught Hermione’s attention. “Trinket was wondering if . . . Trinket has been thinking . . .” she was wringing her hands and looking up at the curly-haired witch nervously.

 

“Go ahead, tell me,” encouraged Hermione. She released her hold on Ginny’s feet, and the redhead sat up on her end of the couch.

 

“There is one picture the Masters would love more than anything, if you are interested, Lady.” The housekeeper spoke in a whisper, and her ears were quivering. It hadn’t escaped Hermione’s notice that the housekeeper had taken great interest in the photographs, pointing out the appropriateness of each one for the Malfoys.

 

 

“I’d love to hear your idea, Trinket. What is it?” It was becoming clear that Trinket wasn’t nearly as confident when she acted outside her role as housekeeper.

 

“The House bed, Lady.” The house elf was looking at her in a meaningful way, nodding her head as if her suggestion needed no explanation.

 

Fleur was up off the couch like a shot, startling everyone –Trinket especially. “Yes, we must take this picture!” The chaperone turned to the curly-haired witch. “Hermione, I have seen the Delacour House bed only once, when I was a small child, and I have never forgotten the magic of that place. It will hold special meaning to your wizards – this I know.” She asked the housekeeper excitedly. “Can you take us all there, if Hermione gives you permission?”

 

The small creature regarded her future Mistress thoughtfully. “It is a secret place accessible only to the House of Malfoy, but if Lady gives her permission, this can be done.”

 

Astoria said she thought some Houses still had them, and now it seems that this one does. Hermione’s brain kicked in to high gear, and her mind’s eye was suddenly inundated with images from her recent dreams and erotic fantasies involving both of her wizards. If the idea of their reaction to each of the previously taken pictures was arousing, the thought of this new one was ten times more so. An image meant for all three of us at the same time. She glanced at her friends, who both looked intrigued, and said to Trinket, “You have my permission. Please take us there.”

 

Ginny barely had time to scoop up the camera bag before the housekeeper Apparated the entire group with a loud crack. When time and space settled, and Hermione got her bearings, she found herself in a large, dark room. Moments later, it was filled with intimate light as thousands of candles flamed to life. It was a large space, lit now by wall sconces, multiple candelabras, and a chandelier, and dominated by an enormous bed against the far wall. Strong, heavy magic pervaded it, along with the faintest scent of her Amortentia. She smiled, seeking out the covenant’s presence within her. Is this where you hide outside of the blood of the Malfoys? She thought that in a teasing way, and the covenant gave a roll of amusement. I’m going to ask you more about that sometime. The young witch interpreted its reaction to mean that their presence in this place was acceptable.

 

Hermione took a step toward the huge bed, her imagination running wild. The magic in the air was so thick she felt it licking along her skin like a lover’s tongue. Both the sensation and simile her brain had provided for it were incredibly arousing. This place is designed for all three of us to . . . be together. As if on autopilot, she walked the rest of the way, kicked off her sandals, and then climbed up onto the silky bedding. Lucius and Draco will bring me here, and we’ll share our love without any chance of interruption. Giving herself a shake in an attempt to clear her fogging mind, she looked over her shoulder at her friends. “Are you ready?”

 

For once Ginny was quiet, her eyes darting around the room. “Can you feel that? I don’t think we’re meant to be here.”

 

“What are you talking about?” The curly-haired witch leaned down to rub her cheek against the silken coverlet, letting the sensory input stoke the pleasant hum of desire within her. “It’s incredible.”

 

Fleur had followed to the side of the bed, and she spoke in a low, reverent tone. “This magic we feel is the Malfoy covenant, Ginny. I think it allows us here because it senses we mean no harm. Still, I agree that we aren’t exactly welcome. This place is meant only for the Malfoy wizards and their House Wife.”

 

Hermione was reminded of the way the covenant had flowed over and under her skin when she’d accepted the Malfoy stake. You’ve been influencing my state of mind and decisions since we first met so that your plan for this House could continue. She could feel it influencing her now, and instead of panicking at the slight loss of control, she bent to its will as she’d done unconsciously at the very beginning. Show me. Her mind was suffused with images of things she had only imagined to this point – her body writhing in pleasure, limbs tangled with those of her husbands-to-be. It made her gut tighten and her clitoris throb. Draco spoke of worship, and that’s what this place is – a place where the three of us will worship each other. She crawled up to the massive headboard, crouching near the double row of thick pillows to run her fingers along the luxurious fabrics, and suddenly she knew. Hermione looked over her shoulder at her silent friends. “This will be a true odalisque. Get the camera ready.”

 

Fleur held out her hands, ready to take the engagement gown out of which Hermione was struggling. She finally slipped it over her head and gave it to her friend, then wriggled out of her knickers. Closing her eyes and conjuring up the image of a Courtat odalisque she’d once seen at the Louvre, she thought of the beautiful siren in the painting. She let the magic flow over and through her, the enthralling mental images to keep running in a loop, and her body to respond in desire. Her nipples tightened and the fluid of her arousal pooled at the apex of her legs. Hermione reclined against the rows of pillows, allowing her curls to fall thickly around her. She leaned slightly to one side, arms draped softly and one knee bent gently, and looked at the camera with all the want and need her wizards had awakened in her. The covenant purred at the edge of her awareness, and the young witch lost track of everything but the heavy magic in the room and the arousing images still flooding her mind.

 

So focused was she that it took Fleur throwing her clothes on top of her to wake her out of her trance. Ginny was heading toward the bed with the print, a strange look on her face as she held it out to Hermione. “What do you think?”

 

Hermione sat up and clutched at the gown, uncomfortable with the knowledge she was still so aroused in the presence of her friends. “Just a minute, Gin.” She worked the material through her hands until she could pull it over her head, and then navigated the delicate straps carefully. “Thank you.” Taking the image from the redhead and dropping her eyes to it, she gasped. “Oh.”

 

Fleur was peeking over her shoulder, trying to get a glimpse of what had tongue-tied the other two. Her eyebrows rose delicately. “Sweet Circe.”

 

The print was by far the most erotic of all the pictures they’d taken. In it, she was bared completely to the viewer, laid out and clearly begging for sex. The witch in the photograph leaned back against dark green pillows, her pale, smooth skin set off against a coverlet of the same deep hue. Her expression was sensual – her eyes heavy-lidded, her glistening lips parted in a seductive half-smile. Hermione looked at her nude body, evaluating what she saw, and in her head she heard Lucius’ voice as he had described her body to her. Lovely legs, delectable backside, beautiful breasts . . . In that moment she saw herself through his eyes, and she was both pleased and even more aroused. I want my wizards. Right now. “It’s perfect.”

 

Trinket made her presence known at that point, whispering in an anxious way, “Lady, we should leave.”

 

“Of course.” Hermione shook away her lustful thoughts and slid from the huge bed. She stepped into her knickers and then stood still as Fleur fastened the back of the engagement gown. “Is there a certain reason why that is?”

 

The housekeeper was motioning for them to join her at the far side of the room, and she was once again wringing her hands. “Yes, Lady. The Master comes here often, and Trinket does not think he would want us to find him here.” As soon as the witches were within her reach, she grabbed onto their hands and Disapparated from the secret room.

 

As soon as the dizziness of Apparition had worn off, Hermione excused herself from her friends and all but physically dragged the house elf onto the balcony. “What did you mean by that, Trinket?” The housekeeper had a profoundly guilty look on her face, and she turned her gaze down to her feet. The young witch pressed, “Please tell me, if you can.” A stray thought hit her. “Oh, Merlin – does he . . . does he go there to think about Narcissa?” Jealousy swept through Hermione. Her logical brain identified it as irrational, reminding her of Lucius’ obvious disdain for his dead Wife, but the emotion would not be stifled.

 

Righteous anger flared in the normally happy creature’s eyes. “No one here speaks that name!” In a much different, hushed tone of voice, she added, “Since the Master has not forbidden me to speak of it . . . he goes there to hide his troubles, so that the young Master will not worry.”

 

Hermione dropped to her knees before the housekeeper, taking one of her odd little hands between her own. “His sorrow?”

 

Trinket nodded, smiling sadly, and she patted Hermione’s much larger hand. “The last Mistress of our House was dark, much like Master Abraxas. Those two invited evil into this House, and such darkness broke my Master’s good heart. He has cared for the young Master and waited for you, Lady, and he has not taken care of himself. Oh, but Trinket watches over him, though!” There were tears in the large, round eyes of the little elf.

 

“He goes there when he needs to be alone – when his heart is aching,” repeated Hermione quietly, wanting to be sure she’d understood. He probably doesn’t even realize it‘s because the family magic is there to comfort him – he doesn’t have the same relationship with the covenant that I do. Her own heart clenched painfully at the thought of her love hiding his wounds under that mask of arrogant confidence. “Oh, Lucius, my love.” Tears threatened to spill from her own eyes.

 

Trinket squeezed the young witch’s hand, looking up at her earnestly. “There has been such change in Master since he first found you, good, sweet Lady! And now that you have accepted the Malfoy stake, his heart can mend.” She gave a happy smile. “Never has there been such a perfect one – and Trinket has served over ten generations of our House!”

 

Hermione stood, releasing her hold on the housekeeper, and vowed solemnly, “I will watch over our Masters with you, Trinket, and darkness will never find its way into our House again.” She sighed. There is so much to get done, and so little time. “I need to get this present finished so that it can be ready for tomorrow. And then I need to find that silly snake of a wizard and cheer the both of us up.”

 

The words acted as a leavening agent, and the heavy mood lifted. Trinket gave a smile that was much closer to her usual manic beam and curtsied. “Lady is most welcome! If there is nothing else?” At Hermione’s headshake, the house elf disappeared with a happy crack.

 

The young witch stayed on the balcony a few more minutes, taking the time by herself to channel her elder wizard. She girded her still-tender heart and switched gears in her whirring brain, working to defeat the tears that still swam in her eyes. There’s no reason to grieve for him right now – his pain is in the past, and I’m his future. Hermione looked down into the formal garden and caught sight of Draco’s platinum hair shining up at her like a star. She watched him as he walked the perimeter of the entire garden, obviously performing a charm. As if he felt her eyes on him, he glanced up and waved. Now there’s a sight for sore eyes. Even from this great distance, she knew he was smiling, and she returned his gesture with a smile of her own. Then, feeling much better, she took a deep breath and turned to the bedroom.

 

Ginny and Fleur were at the large desk in the corner, the pictures spread out before them. The redhead looked up as she approached. “I’m sure you’re dying to see Lucius and Draco, and that they’d have a fit if you even suggested leaving the estate, but this project requires some shopping. We need to frame them, or put them in an album. If you want, I could do it right away this afternoon – I promised Draco I’d run an errand for him anyway.” At Hermione’s questioning glance, she leaned forward with a sly smirk and whispered, “You’re not to know.”

 

Hermione grinned gratefully. For all her irritating qualities, Ginny was a truly good friend. “That would be fantastic. Frames, I think – that way they don’t fight over one album. Hang on.” She went to the side table where her beaded bag lay and withdrew the heavy purse of Galleons she’d won at Saturday’s Quidditch match. “Here – take whatever you think you’ll need.”

 

Ginny looked at the purse appreciatively and took a small handful of the gold coins. “Right, then! I’ll just go let Harry know that I’m off.” She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. “You should go find one of your fiancés – or both. You look a bit . . . flushed.” With a quick, tentative hug for Fleur, she walked toward the door.

 

“Wait,” called out Hermione, pausing to scoop up the small stack of pictures, “Won’t you need to take these?”

 

Ginny paused, an incredulous expression on her face. “You’re kidding, right?” She shook her head sternly. “Those pictures shouldn’t leave the Manor. Ever. Don’t worry,” she added as she began the turn required to Disapparate, “I know just what to get.” She was gone with a sharp crack.

 

Hermione turned to Fleur, who was still looking over the photographs. “Fleur, let’s go find our wizards.”

 

“Hmmmmm.” The Frenchwoman was staring off in to space, a dreamy expression on her face.

 

Fleur.” She tapped her chaperone on the shoulder to get her attention. “Redheaded wizards.” The blonde witch whipped her head around, and Hermione rolled her eyes good-naturedly. She repeated her initial suggestion.

 

“Yes! What are we waiting for? Let’s go,” cried Fleur, taking charge of the situation as usual. “Come on, Hermione!” She grabbed hold of the curly-haired witch, and with the most abrupt of warnings, Apparated them both to the Great Hall.

 

In retaliation for the unsettling mode of travel, Hermione physically dragged her chaperone to Lucius’ study. He sat at his desk, looking over some parchment, but at their entrance he stood with an outstretched arm. “Good afternoon, pet. Mademoiselle Delacour.”

 

She went to him at once, insinuating herself into his arms and pressing a kiss to his lowered jaw. “Lucius.” Her arms held him tightly, as if she could convey the depth of her feelings by squeezing him to death.

 

He chuckled and tugged her head back by a handful of curls. “Such a warm greeting. What have you and your friends been up to this afternoon, hmmm?” Rather than attempting a falsehood, she pulled him down for a kiss that quickly turned heated. Fleur made a half-hearted attempt to clear her throat, but Hermione waved a hand in warning, effectively silencing her. Eventually Lucius pulled his lips from hers. He rubbed a thumb along her lower lip, eyes riveted to the action. “We have much to talk about, my prize. Will you walk with me to find Draco?” His eyes flickered to their chaperone, and he added in a silky tone, “He’s in the formal garden with Molly’s boys, I believe.”

 

Fleur was off like a shot, and Lucius took full advantage of their relative privacy during the short walk to the back of the house. His hands traveled over her torso freely, and he murmured filthy things in cultured tones. By the time they exited the Manor and found Draco standing near the central fountain, Hermione was a trembling mess. She all but tumbled into his arms. The younger Malfoy took stock of her current state, his eyes darting from her, to Lucius, to Fleur, who had paused nearby. Finally he asked their chaperone, “Fleur, you don’t mind if we walk in the garden, do you?”

 

Molly had just caught sight of the newcomers, and she was calling out to Fleur across the distance. The blonde witch nodded vaguely. “I’ll just be over there . . .” She wandered away to where the Weasley House Wife was scolding one of her grown sons.

 

Draco didn’t waste a moment; he quickly led Hermione to a small seating area at the furthest point of the garden and sat down beside her. Lucius, who had followed, did the same. She looked between their handsome faces. “What’s going on? Lucius, did you find something about the rune?” When he didn’t answer, she turned to the younger Malfoy. “Draco?”

 

Draco looked down at her with darkening eyes. “Lucius spoke with Louis. The matriarch’s rune, it would seem, has a mate.” She had no time to process the information, because he was leaning down to kiss her, pressing her back into Lucius’ chest in the process. His mouth was hungry, and he delved into her mouth the moment she responded to him. Push, pull, push. His rough, wet tongue moved against hers as it thrust again and again between her lips. When he finally pulled away, they were both breathing roughly. She was aware of two sets of hands supporting her, and then Draco was saying seductively against the corner of her mouth, “You’re going to take another rune, sweetheart.”

 

Hermione sat up slowly. “I’ll have two runes?”

 

Lucius’ hands were cupping her breasts from behind, and Draco pushed his lips to hers again. This kiss was even hungrier, and she moaned into his mouth. The sound morphed into a strangled cry as Lucius gently bit the nape of her neck and began plucking at her nipples with his fingers, and Draco pulled away to murmur, “I’m going to mark you tonight, and then Lucius and I are going to make you scream with pleasure.”

 

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