Chapter Sixty-Five: 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.

 

Draco finally let Hermione up for air, and the young witch lay in the support of Lucius’ arms with chest heaving. Her younger wizard looked down at her with a smug expression, and she couldn’t help herself from asking with a fairly straight face, “What if I don’t want another rune?”

 

That wiped the look right off his face. Shocked, he managed to stammer, “I- I beg your pardon?”

 

Lucius was chuckling quietly against the back of her neck, and he murmured so that only she could hear, “Play nice, pet.”

 

Hermione gave her elder wizard a gentle, warning elbow in the chest. She continued to gaze at Draco with innocent eyes. “What if I only want one? I mean, isn’t that traditional?”

 

“I would never presume to force such a thing on you, Hermione,” Draco said solemnly, obviously schooling his features to hide his disappointment. “The traditions of House runes are varied, but ultimately the decision rests with you.” He looked away for a moment, flexing his jaw, and then back at her with an almost-smile.

 

He’s crushed. The realization that Draco didn’t yet possess the staggering assurance of his brother – the very thing that made it such fun to tease Lucius – pierced her heart, and she knew she had gone far, far over the line. They’re so alike, but so different – and some of that just has to do with their age difference. She reached a hand up and brushed back the platinum hair that fell over his forehead. “Oh, Draco! Of course I want a second rune – I was only playing.”

 

His handsome face relaxed into a genuine expression of relieved happiness. “You’re quite sure?”

 

Hermione blushed, thinking how she’d filed away the arousing mental image of Astoria’s set of runes and thought about it more frequently than she would ever admit. “Very sure.” She sat up and hugged him close, burying her nose in the crisp linen of his button-down, then looked up at him again. “And you’ll do it this time?”

 

Draco’s eyes were darkening again. He dropped his mouth down to brush against hers as he answered. “Oh, yes.”

 

The air surrounding them began to crackle with anticipation and building desire, and Hermione pulled away reluctantly, moving to an even distance between her two wizards. She turned to Lucius, who was regarding her in that confident, slightly amused way of his. The look affected her as it always did. “What did you find out?”

 

He shrugged gracefully. “Grand-père Louis assumed we knew of the paired runes because Draco had both of them recast, hence he said nothing before.”

 

“Well, surely he had some information about it,” she pushed. Draco was trying to pull her closer, and she evaded his embrace with a happy sound. “Oh, no – I’m staying away from you so that my brain functions optimally. Lucius, what did your ancestor say?”

 

His well-shaped lips stretched to a slightly wider smirk, and one dark eyebrow rose eloquently. It was a supremely predatory look, and Hermione felt the tiniest bit of apprehension at what he was about to say. “He did make a few observations about our bespoken one-“

 

“Lucius, stop.” Draco’s tone was one of warning, his fingers tightening reflexively at her waist, and Hermione’s curiosity flared. As if sensing this, her younger wizard leaned down and murmured, “I know how stubborn you are. If you insist on hearing this, I’d really rather not be present. I’ll just go and help Molly for a bit. Would you please excuse me, sweetheart?”

 

He stood from their seat, kissing the back of her hand, and walked away. She couldn’t help but notice that his face and neck were suffused with a deep flush, and turned with trepidation to Lucius. She felt a blush of her own rise up from her chest and sweep over her face in anticipation of something potentially embarrassing. “What is it?”

 

“Such a brave kitten you are, my prize, always meeting a challenge with that firm little chin held high,” he purred appreciatively. “Since you insist, our progenitor moved between several picture frames in the study area you and Draco used yesterday afternoon. It seems he quite enjoyed what he saw of the next Malfoy House Wife.”

 

Hermione strained her brain to think what had happened in the library during the time she’d been there with her younger wizard. We asked Bowly for the books, studied law and custom for far too brief a time, and then . . . The color drained from her face instantly, and Lucius’ smirk widened even further until it was a wolfish smile. Her mouth dropped open as her eyes fell shut. “Oh, dear Merlin . . .”

 

Her fiancé was still talking in that silky, sex-infused voice of his. “He told me he approved of your willingness to both learn and please – a woman who was both educated and knew the beauty of her own body was as much a prize in his time as it is now.” His mouth was at her temple now, and his hands drew her against him in a hold that was meant to be both comforting and desirous. In the moment it felt like neither to her. “Louis took great pleasure in telling me how you bared your pretty breasts to Draco and touched them them until the young Master fell under the spell of your persuasiveness.” Hermione groaned in mortification. This was the Gryffindor Fat Lady and her unwanted commentary all over again, only far, far worse! Lucius went on, though. “He was quite taken with the sight of his descendant on his knees, the future Mistress of the Manor astride his lap. And do you know what he asked me, pet? Do you know what the keeper of the Malfoy runes was dying to know?”

 

She had been hiding in the fabric of his robes for most of this, and shook her head miserably. She whispered, “No, Lucius. I can only imagine it was-“

 

He shushed her with a chuckle and tipped her head up to press a kiss to her lips. When she finally opened her eyes, he caught her gaze and crooned, “He wanted to know if your cunt was as pretty as your mouth.” Then he was kissing her again, adding to her feelings of humiliation a physical craving for more. It jarred with her emotions.

 

Finally, as Draco had before, he broke the kiss so they could breathe. Hermione took advantage of the fact to pull away from him, pushing a hand firmly against his chest. “I cannot believe . . .” she squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. “I can never show my face outside my current suite again.”

 

He hummed. “So you noticed there are no paintings hung in your rooms?”

 

Hermione made a choked noise. “I thought it was odd, but now I see the advantage. Lucius!” She was blinking back tears of shame. “I am not some . . . something for you and your relatives to discuss as you would livestock. I’m every bit as deserving as dignity and respect as anyone else.”

 

The last bit was whispered in a quiet tone as she pushed away farther and stood, walking to the small fountain nearby. Her mind whirred, and a million different thoughts sped through. She turned, barely able to meet his eyes. “I need to be alone.”

 

Hermione walked blindly through the formal garden, vaguely aware that Lucius followed at a distance. Her thoughts insisted on returning to the fact that she had been so . . . so wanton in such a public place. Her brain argued that she’d done many such things in the past few days, never paying heed to who might be watching from a nearby portrait frame. Oh, Circe – were there any frames in the House Bedroom? And what about Lucius’ study?! Not that it mattered – the initial damage had already been done, and no doubt Louis had spread what he’d seen around the Manor.

 

She passed by Draco, who was being given instructions by Molly, but she ducked her eyes to avoid his gaze and turned down the steps that led from the center edge of the gardens down to the fields and river below. “Hermione, are you alright?” He called, but she only motioned with her nearest hand for him to stay away. “Hermione? Lucius-“ She was moving much faster now, her feet flying over the stone steps, and Draco’s soft, husky voice faded as she went.

 

This isn’t me – none of this is me! The covenant seemed to take offense at this thought. What – you’re telling me that Hermione Granger is the kind of girl to forget herself just because some man does or doesn’t pay attention to her? That’s preposterous.  The images in her head moved quickly, but she gasped in hurt at what she saw – memories of different points of her Hogwarts years. The feeling of quiet fury when Ron had first discovered girls and was tickling tonsils with Lavender Brown; the wild jubilation when Viktor Krum had aimed his sights on her during the Triwizard Tournament, and ensuing foray into beauty charms in order to feel more worthy of his attention; the despair she’d tried to keep at bay as Ron became more and more of a flagrant skirt-chaser. That’s different – I wasn’t tearing off my clothes without thought of an audience! Those were simply emotions and reactions to them. My feelings are valid!

 

She was at the bottom of the staircase now and set off across the grassy field, mindless of the fact that her delicate shoes were being destroyed. How dare that vile painting share what he saw with . . . anyone! How dare he watch! Her hands, which had been holding up her long skirts since she’d left Lucius’ side, tightened to white-knuckled fists at this idea! From not far behind her, a familiar voice was calling her name, and she hurried her pace.

 

The river was coming into view. Hermione wrestled her way through a swath of high grasses that ran along the edge of the field, breaking through to find a small, paved path that had been hidden until now. She stepped onto it, dropping her gathered skirts and pausing before heading left. Lucius was calling her name again from a short distance, and she picked up her pace. “I don’t want to talk to you, Lucius!”

 

The river ran downstream along her right, and she followed the path as it wound between the rushing water and the high grasses. The sound was soothing, slowly working its way between her brain and its current thoughts, but did nothing for the anger and mortification inside her. And it’s not just the painting’s fault – knowing Lucius, he enjoyed the conversation! Her shoes were quite literally falling apart. Hermione stooped to unfasten the tiny buckles at her ankles, stepping out of them and continuing on barefoot. She walked on, a shoe gripped tightly in each fist.

 

The young witch could hear Lucius’ boots on the path directly behind her now, but she ignored him. He’s impossible! He’s filthy-mouthed, and arrogant, and he doesn’t give one whit about what I think about anything! The last thought was so hurtful that she couldn’t stop the angry sob that welled up from deep in her chest, and she hurled one shoe into the river with all of her might.

 

The slight disturbance startled a nearby family of mute swans, who turned their heads reproachfully in her direction. “Hermione.” He was very close to her back.

 

She whirled, giving her full attention to his broad chest. “I said I don’t want to talk to you.”

 

“Then I will talk for the both of us. Do you wish to continue attempting to out-walk me?”

 

Hermione huffed and turned on her heel. Even when he knows I’m furious with him, he sounds as if the fact amuses him! She began walking again. Arrogant, misogynistic, domineering, superior ass!

 

As if he could hear her thoughts, he said in a firm tone, “I do not think myself superior to you.” Her head whipped up, her eyes betraying her by finding his gaze before she could tear them away. Lucius continued, “There is no need for Legilimens, as your face is particularly expressive.”

 

But I’ll bet you’d use it in a heartbeat if you thought it would serve to your advantage. She continued in silence. Again, he seemed to know what she was thinking, because he added, “And I would never use force with you of any kind.”

 

Oh, you wouldn’t, would you? I’ll just bet, given the right set of circumstances, you’d find a way to justify doing just that! There was a heron standing up ahead in the reeds along the river’s edge, and she gave it her full attention.

 

“I’m overbearing, and my confidence is nearly absolute.” His voice was low, and there was a note of consideration in it. “I find humor everywhere, regardless of others’ feelings. I have mastered my temper, but barely. I take great pleasure in pushing the limits of those around me, often in a crass manner.”

 

Hermione snorted loudly. That’s not the half of it! Looking closer at the beautiful scene around her, she realized the area was teeming with birds. Kingfishers perched on the reeds, moorhens and a lone cormorant bobbed in the water’s current, and the song of reed warblers filled the silent parts of this one-sided conversation.

 

He was still talking as they walked side by side along the path. “As a boy, I was taught that one day Abraxas would find a witch who was perfect for us. He described her in terms of what was most important to him – namely beauty – but from a young age I was certain she would also have qualities for which I didn’t even have names. There was an ache in my heart, though, and somehow I knew that only she would soothe it. Later, as a fourth year at Hogwarts who was already sick with the knowledge that the bespoken one chosen by his father was a loathsome creature, I made a list.”

 

The seeming non sequitur caught her off guard, causing her glance up at him again and blurt, “What?” Cursing her curiosity and impulsiveness, she turned her eyes back to the river and walked on.

 

Lucius continued as if she hadn’t said anything. “I sat in my bed one night, curtains drawn, and wrote out a list of the qualities I was certain a bespoken one should have. Over the years I refined it, but the traits themselves never changed.” His hands came up before him, and he began ticking off on his fingers. “She would have a sweetness about her that drove the breath from my lungs. Her kindness would be evident in the way she regarded others at all times. She would be generous and true of heart, brave and loyal as a warrior, and virginal in mind and body.” He had slowly stopped walking, and she found it impossible to continue on without him. She stayed at his side. “Her beauty would be in keeping with her nature, sweet and shining. Of course, knowing myself as I did even then, I knew the perfect witch must be able to stand up to me. She would be adorably stubborn and have a delicious temper.”

 

“She was a rather idealized witch, don’t you think?” That’s the sort of woman my parents always said was the best kind. Hermione was struck by that thought. The romantic language of Lucius’ list didn’t hurt, either, but she was still upset. I’ll never be able to go back into that house.

 

He wasn’t done. “I kept my list, locking it away in my desk on the night of my wedding. I married that vile witch at my father’s demand, and took what pleasure I could from her, all the time knowing she possessed none of the qualities I wanted in a woman. When she was dead, I took my infant brother in my arms and went to my study.”

 

She looked up at him to find him watching her closely. “For your list?”

 

Lucius nodded solemnly, never breaking their gaze. “Only, I found that I had memorized it and had no need to carry it in my pocket any more. I taught it to Draco, making sure to weave this perfect witch’s traits into every bedtime story I told him, so that from an early age he would know these were characteristics to be admired. On the day I first recognized you in Diagon Alley, he and I had just sworn an unbreakable vow to each other that we would search for a bespoken one unceasingly, and consider her character above all else before we cast our stake. Then you brushed my sleeve,” His hand reached out and ran over the fabric covering her shoulder, “and I began carrying my list in my pocket again.”

 

“Why?” It occurred to her he hadn’t once used a pet-name for her yet, and somehow it bothered her.

 

He gave a small smile. “Severus gave Draco unlimited use of his own Floo so that the two of us could talk, and each night my brother would tell me about you. The first three years were the most credible in terms of character reference, because he hadn’t yet figured out that you were a woman. I looked at my list often, comparing his words of you to my ideal witch.” He breathed a short laugh. “After that, his hormones took over completely for a while. Then, I began hearing your name while in the Dark Lord’s camp, and . . . well, the most honest observations of strengths and weaknesses often come from our enemies. The Death Eaters spent much time dissecting your personality.”

 

Hermione had always known that Voldemort’s cronies had been fascinated with Harry, but the idea that they’d openly talked about her was new. “Me?”

 

He nodded. “Yes, you. You were Harry Potter’s most valuable ally besides Albus – you were incredibly intelligent, your magical abilities were highly advanced, and your resourcefulness was boundless. This is what they said of Hermione Granger, and it remains true. Do you know what else can be said of you?”

 

“No?” It came out as a question, and she nervously awaited his answer.

 

He was looking at her in that reverent way that his brother often did, his hand still barely touching her shoulder, and Hermione found there was very little ire left in her. “You are so sweet that you drive the air from my lungs. Your kindness exceeds all expectation. You are generous and true of heart, brave and loyal as a warrior, and pure in mind and body. Your beauty is incomparable, your fiery temper is arousing, and you challenge me.”

 

Halfway through his declaration, Hermione had given up trying to remain angry. Her heart beat erratically, and she felt almost dizzy. Now he was kneeling down before her, so that to meet her eye he had to look up slightly. “One part of that unbreakable vow eight years ago was that I would read my list to our bespoken one in our wedding bed, so that she would know her worthiness from the start, and I will read it again tomorrow night so that my vow may be fulfilled. I think, though, that it was meant for this moment as well.” Were there tears in her eyes? Lucius was swimming in her vision. His voice was rough and quavered slightly, though, so perhaps it was he who was crying. Could one see through another’s eyes? “Hermione, I have dreamed of you my entire life and now that I have won you as the greatest of all prizes, I offer myself to you – every arrogant, prideful, controlling part of me. Do with me as you will, so long as I may be near you.” Then, lowering his head he murmured, “I am sorry, my love.”

 

Hermione stood frozen in place for a long moment, but not because she was considering her response. Certainly not – the fierce, almost wild love that had first reared its protective head on Sunday night was nearly overwhelming her being! But such a profound speech needed to be memorized, however quickly, and locked away in a memory vault of precious things to be revisited often. That, and she had been robbed of language. She stepped forward, cradling his head to her chest with almost crushing arms, and felt him give one hard, long sob against her breasts. The remaining shoe, which she had unknowingly kept in her hand, dropped unnoticed beside them.

 

Then his arms wrapped around her torso, and he was crushing her to him as well, and murmuring sweet things of which she could only hear half. Eventually, the moment of intense emotion ebbed. Hermione loosened Lucius’ hair from its clasp and ran her fingers through it lovingly, feeling him sigh deeply against her chest. “I forgive you.” The words gave her pause for thought, and she added, “You didn’t actually do anything wrong. I was horribly embarrassed, and your attitude was . . . it was like oil added to fire.”

 

Lucius loosened his hold on her and looked up with red-rimmed eyes. “Nevertheless, I hurt you.”

 

It felt odd looking down at the great and powerful Lucius Malfoy, and she tugged him to his feet. She said firmly, “No. You did not hurt me, Lucius. I was mortified and ran away from the issue like a coward. I should have stayed and talked with you. Will you . . . will you talk with me about it now?” She glanced up shyly, and Lucius held his arm out gallantly, drawing hers under it.

 

“There is a spot around the bend – perhaps we could sit there,” he offered. “Is that to your liking?” Hermione’s mouth twitched with slight amusement. He’s trying to please me. Outwardly she simply nodded, and the two set off arm in arm. A few minutes later, seated on a bench under a willow tree on the bank of the river, she at last talked with him.

 

She began by asking bluntly, “Am I the only person in the world who has a problem with the fact that our lives are scrutinized by portraits?”

 

Lucius looked puzzled. “How does that bother you?”

 

“You have got to be joking! Lucius, these characters in magical paintings – they’re voyeurs! Did you know, for instance, that the Fat Lady of Gryffindor tower seems to know the dimensions of your . . . you know what I mean.” A glance out of the corner of her eyes toward him proved he did.

 

He smirked. “I imagine many other portraits do as well, then.”

 

“That isn’t creepy in the slightest sense?” Her expression probably matched the incredulous tone of her voice, if her face was as expressive as Lucius had said.

 

He seemed to be trying to see it from her viewpoint, and finally said confidently, “This is because you were raised in the Muggle world.”

 

“I don’t see how that comes to bear on voyeurism, Lucius. It’s the same in both worlds!”

 

Lucius shook his head. “Voyeurism is purely of a sexual nature, pet. The portraits watch everything that goes on around them.”

 

She couldn’t help but notice he had once again reverted to his favorite nickname for her, and the fact pleased her. Then she processed his other words. “That’s even worse!” Then she realized that Lucius’ point of view was completely opposite of hers and not likely to change. This conversation isn’t going to go anywhere. She changed topics. “Grand-père Louis didn’t need to follow the . . . show . . . from frame to frame.”

 

He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “No other portrait in this house would have done so, most likely, but I find it difficult to assign blame to him.”

 

There had better be a very good reason. “Will you please tell me why you don’t seem to mind the fact that your ancestor watched me undress halfway and then told you about it in detail?” And asked you a question that could only have come from a debauched mind?

 

“You are too far away from me, my prize.” She was curled up against his side, but knew exactly what he meant – she’d just been thinking how much nicer it would be to be sitting on his lap. When she complied, he pulled her head down against his shoulder and stroked her hair. “I realize it is unlikely that anything I say will have any bearing on your opinion, but perhaps, in time, you will understand. I have been alone every night in this house, save for business trips and Christmas and summer holidays, for eight long years. The house elves care for me without fault, but don’t offer much in terms of conversation-“

 

Realization was dawning quickly, and she interrupted, “The portraits kept you company.”

 

“Hmmmmm. Magical portraits have many household functions – for instance, they often act as sentries, and provide wisdom or information. In this case, they have also, as you say, kept me company. Louis regularly kept me from drowning in Firewhiskey through the worst years, and we grew close. He is every bit as crass as I can be, although you’d never know that because he won’t speak to any woman, and we have talked about you together almost incessantly.”

 

Hermione inhaled a calming breath of Lucius’ fragrant skin before she replied, “That explains his commentary, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that he was watching in the first place!”

 

Lucius kissed the top of her head. “Louis watched you for a reason, pet.” When her curiosity won out over her other emotions, she looked up questioningly and he continued, “The future Mistress of the Manor and the young Master were without direct supervision, and he stood guard over her virtue.” At her raised eyebrow he added with a twinkle in his eyes, “And he happened to enjoy his job immensely.”

 

She snorted involuntarily, allowing herself to see the humor in Lucius’ words, before asking reproachfully, “Has he been watching us in your study as well?”

 

“Absolutely not. He might worry about Draco’s self-control, but he knows that I will only take you to our bed unsullied.”

 

I’m pretty sure I’ve been sullied – at least somewhat. The idea of being taken to bed by Lucius sent a tiny shiver along her spine, but not enough to distract her from their conversation.

 

Lucius, too, seemed more inclined to talk than anything else at the moment. He chuckled, and Hermione felt the vibrations pass from his chest into hers in a comforting, intimate way. “I keep an empty frame in my bedroom just for him, and every night the old bastard asks me if I’ve kept my trousers fastened. It’s become a point of pride to me that I’ve been able to answer that to the affirmative to this point.”

 

She had returned to her nook, but now raised her head again with a disbelieving smirk. “That’s why you haven’t wanted to . . .?” Internally, she was already plotting his downfall. Lucius doesn’t always need to win, and he certainly doesn’t need to always be in control.

 

He gave her a wolfish smile reminiscent of the one that had preceded this whole debacle, and once again she blushed in reaction. “Believe me pet, my choice has little to do with what I want.” He kissed her temple, sighing. “Are you ready to go back? I’m sure that Draco has spent the past hour worrying.”

 

Thoughts of her younger wizard and his sensitive spirit softened the knowledge that she would indeed be forced to go back to the Manor. I can’t avoid it forever – after all, it’s my home now. Hermione gave a sigh of her own. As she slipped from his lap, she said quietly, “I understand that Louis did what he felt was his duty, and that he had a right to say whatever he wished in a private conversation with you, but I . . . what I mean to say is . . . errrrr, does he gossip with the other portraits?”

 

Lucius gave a loud, happy laugh, cupping her cheeks as he did so. “I find that I do not care in the least. It would please me very much for every wizard dead and alive to know what a perfect witch I have won.” At her pleading look, he added, “I have never known Louis to be anything but the embodiment of discretion.” He stood and drew her arm under his once more, and they set off along the path toward the Manor. “You know, he lost all of his brothers and their House Wife to dragonpox.”

 

“That’s terrible! Surely the cure had been found by then – Gunhilda of Gorsemoor developed it in the late 1500s!” Hermione’s attention was divided once again between Lucius and the abundance of waterfowl on the river. The sun sparkled, highlighting the fast flowing current beautifully, and Hermione knew in her heart that she only noticed this now because she had made peace with her wizard. My wonderful, impossible, filthy-mouthed, arrogant Lucius!

 

Lucius’ left hand came up to rest over hers on his right forearm, and his thumb rubbed softly against the inside of her wrist. “She didn’t finish refining it until 1621, which was ten years too late for the Malfoy family. Louis was left as the last of the family for a hundred years, and didn’t find another bespoke witch until he was nearly one hundred-twenty.” Hermione wrinkled her nose, trying to imagine being courted by someone the Headmaster’s age – or even worse, being intimate with them. Lucius seemed to know exactly what she was thinking, because he added with a twinkle, “A comely little Danish thing – her only picture hangs in the portrait gallery. He sired four sons by her.”

 

“Errrrr . . . How nice for him.” No wonder Lucius wants to prove that he has the self-control of a saint – his friend was abstinent for a century! And then proceeded to . . .The young witch turned the conversation away from the unpleasant mental image. “How will tonight be different from last night?”

 

They walked in silence for a time, as Lucius seemed to consider his answer. “The wards haven’t been taken down, and there is no reason we cannot use the site a second time – unless you prefer Mademoiselle Delacour presiding over the ceremony?”

 

Hermione had expected at least one suggestive comment from him over the course of the past two topics, and was surprised at his restraint. Then she remembered that he appeared to be trying to please her. She smiled up at him angelically. “I should probably go straight to my room when we get back so that I can get ready.”

 

“If you like, pet.” He looked down at her quizzically.

 

The young witch looked away from him, to the fields and Manor on her right, and mused, “I think I’ll take a bubble bath, and then rub some of that lovely scented oil into my skin.” Her words were met with silence, but his hand flexed over hers in an involuntary way. She bit the inside of her mouth to keep from smiling. “I wonder if Fleur will rub my back for a while, too, before I get dressed . . .” Lucius made a strangled sound, but she went on relentlessly, “Tonight I want to wear the traditional white robe. With nothing underneath it.”

 

They reached a path that branched off toward the Manor before Lucius finally managed to respond, “Surely you are trying to kill me, pet.”

 

She looked up through her eyelashes at her handsome wizard as innocently as she possibly could. “Draco is always saying the same thing. Aaaaagh!” The path began an abrupt, steep incline toward the house, and Hermione had completely forgotten to gather her skirts. The result was that she tripped spectacularly, and the ground rushed up to meet her far too quickly.

 

“I’m sure he is,” Lucius muttered as he caught her neatly around the waist. He set her back on her feet, noticing her lack of shoes as if for the first time. “This won’t do. Come here, my lovely one.” He swung her up into his arms easily, ignoring her protests.

 

Eventually Hermione gave up arguing for the right to walk. If Lucius wants to carry me, and I like being this close to him, why on earth am I fighting against it? She wrapped her arms around his neck tenderly, leaning into her nook and inhaling the scent of the war stake, her Amortentia, and the Malfoy wizards.

 

Halfway up the stone steps, she kissed his jaw. “Lucius, I know you’re trying to behave yourself, and that you think I was offended by what you said earlier, but it’s unnecessary. I . . . I love the way you are.”

 

He raised an eyebrow. “And how is that, pet?” He truly didn’t seem to find carrying her a bother, and she wondered absently if he’d used a wordless Levitation Charm. Then again, he’d carried her from the dungeons of Hogwarts all the way to the infirmary a few days ago . . .

 

The young witch raised her free hand to his face, stroking his cheek lovingly. “Wonderful, impossible, vulgar, arrogant,” she paused when he narrowed his eyes, watching as he tried to keep his beautiful mouth from twitching. “Shall I go on?”

 

“That will do.” They reached the top of the steps to find Draco rising from a nearby bench with an expectant expression on his face. Lucius leaned his face into hers, pressing a kiss to her lips. “You love that I’m difficult?” At her nod he kissed her again, teasing her mouth with his. He continued in a silky tone, “You love that I make you blush with filthy words?” She may have groaned a little, causing him to smirk. He kissed her a third time, tasting the seam of her lips with his tongue before pulling away. “You love that my confidence is absolute?”

 

Of course,” Hermione growled, pulling his face down to hers with a handful of long, pale hair. With her lips and tongue she tried to steal the kiss that he’d been denying her, but it was too late. Lucius was already giving it to her freely, and it was one of his patented tonguefuls that left her cross-eyed and addled-headed. When they broke apart to breathe, she managed to whisper, “I love you.”

 

Lucius set her on her feet. As he stood back to his full height, he caught her eye and gave a small, contented smile – not a smirk at all. Hermione was just thinking that it caused him to look handsomer than she’d ever seen him before, but then she was distracted from the thought as he whispered her own words back to her.

 

“Is everything alright, then?” Draco’s question broke the spell of the moment. He stood a few feet away, looking between them hopefully.

 

Hermione reached out and tugged him closer with a smile. “Yes Draco –

other than the fact that I’m considering purging every potentially curious portrait in the Manor, all is well.”

 

Lucius, who still held her in his arms, chuckled. “In time you’ll gain self-assurance, and, in turn, perspective. Until then, pet, simply pay more attention to your surroundings.” He turned to Draco. “All is on schedule for tomorrow?”

 

Draco ran a hand lightly over Hermione’s curls and down her back. “Molly has done a consummate job, Lucius. Every detail has been executed and every contingency anticipated. All is in order for our gift to her and Arthur as well. We’re officially done – the Weasleys are getting ready to leave soon.”

 

Until then, Hermione hadn’t noticed anything beyond her husbands-to-be, but now she glanced around and saw that Fleur was now talking with Percy, and Molly was sitting with the other two Weasley wizards on a bench not far off. Much farther away, Harry and Luna seemed to be . . . the young witch looked away quickly.   “Oh! Molly and I have plans to visit before she leaves. I really should go-“ She struggled to escape from four strong arms suddenly intent on wrapping around her, “I should- Honestly, you two! Let go!” It was both amusing and irritating how insistent they were that she stay longer.

 

“I hardly think Molly will leave without saying goodbye, my prize. Surely there’s no rush,” Lucius said in his most persuasive tone, running the back of one hand down her cheek and throat and then back and forth over her collarbones.

 

Draco, especially, refused to let go. “I haven’t really seen you since brunch, and now you’re leaving again? That’s hardly fair, little witch.” He leaned low and placed a soft, wet kiss just beneath her ear, causing her to shudder. Her reaction must have pleased him, because she felt him smile against the sensitive skin there. He murmured, “Stay with me a little longer.”

 

She laughed. “Absolutely not. We just saw each other at brunch, and ooooh . . .” It was her younger wizard’s turn to laugh, as he pulled his lips from her neck. Hermione pushed him firmly away. “No, really, Draco. I have to go. Is that . . . Are you whining?!” He was, apparently. Finally, she disentangled herself from the two of them and began to back slowly away. “May we have dinner again like we did last night?”

 

“Of course, sweetheart.” Draco seemed to be resigned to her leaving, although he followed her retreat and pressed several lingering kisses to her mouth. “Eight o’clock in the library.”

 

She nodded, blew a kiss to Lucius and, as she turned to flee toward the Weasley House Wife, added saucily, “I’m going to wear white robes.” Then she took off, skirts gathered high to avoid another fall.

 

Molly must have been watching for her, because she excused herself from her sons and met the young witch halfway. “Oh, Hermione, I’m so glad to see that smile on your face!” She gave her a warm hug and beamed, “Can you believe it? There’s not one single thing left to do, except for you and me to spend a little time together. Now, where should we sit?”

 

Hermione was grateful the motherly witch didn’t add any more to her observation, because she didn’t exactly want to draw any more attention to the fact that she’d had a tantrum.   From their nearby bench Charlie and Bill raised their hands in greeting, and she smiled and waved back. “Errrrr, perhaps somewhere a bit more private?”

 

Molly nodded in understanding. “It is a bit busy out here, isn’t it! What about your room?” At the young witch’s agreeable nod, she called out to the nearby chaperone. “Yoohooooo! Time to say good-night, Fleur!”

 

Fleur looked less than happy to be interrupted, but dutifully headed toward them after a brief exchange with each of the Weasley men. In her usual direct way, she said to Hermione, “You don’t have to be in the library until eight o’clock. What’s the rush?” Then, at Hermione’s questioning look, added, “Draco talked to me after you stomped off.”

 

Hermione narrowed her eyes. “I did not stomp off.”

 

“You most certainly did. It was exactly the sort of tantrum Gabi would have,” the Frenchwoman argued in a superior tone.

 

“Did you just call me a fifteen year-old?” The young witch’s hackles raised in annoyance. “And it was not a tantrum!”

 

Molly bustled them toward the Manor at a brisk pace. “That’s enough, girls. You’ve had a long day, and there’s no reason to take out your frustrations on each other.”

 

The truth of those words struck Hermione forcefully – it had been a long day. The thought of trudging all the way across the Manor and up to her suite was suddenly daunting, and she turned reluctantly to Fleur. “I don’t suppose you’d mind . . .?” She mimed a twirling gesture with one hand.

 

“Of course, my friend. After all,” she waited for Molly to spin into Disapparition before adding smugly, “You must be exhausted after that tantrum.” And without giving Hermione time to respond, she spirited them to their destination.

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