Chapter Sixty-Seven: Friday Morning

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

 

 

Hermione yawned and stretched between the silk sheets of her cozy bed. The slippery bedding made it difficult to remain in an upright position, but eventually she managed to sit up with her back propped against the pillows. Her dreams of the night before had been interlaced with the events of the second rune ceremony, and it took a few moments for her to separate fantasy from what had actually happened. When she succeeded in that, she blushed deeply and looked to make sure that her chaperone was still sleeping.

 

Fleur snored away beside her, albeit silently thanks to another Silencio. Hermione’s brain replayed the last part of the rune ceremony once more. Sweet Circe, we really . . . I really did that. The thought made her smirk self-consciously and then chew on the side of a finger. My corruption is proceeding nicely. The accompanying mental images were like an invigorating shower, and suddenly she was suffused with adrenaline. Mother of Magic, I . . . As her heart began to race, an unexpected thrill passed through her and she grinned. I got the best of Lucius, is what I did. And . . . errrrr . . . Draco got the best of me. Thank Merlin for brandied trifle!

 

There was no use lying idly in bed – as it was, she’d slept far past the time she regularly woke up. A glance at the nearest timepiece showed it to be half-past seven already, and she was wide-awake and ready to begin the day. As was her wont she had insisted that the French windows be left open all night, and now the sound of early morning birdsong floated through the room. She cancelled the silencing charm on her loud friend and gave her a few brisk pats on the backside. “Rise and shine, Fleur! Daylight’s wasting!”

 

The Frenchwoman groaned and pulled the covers over her head. “It’s the middle of the night, you pest. Go back to sleep.”

 

Hermione stood her ground and smacked Fleur with a pillow. “Up! Up! Up! I need to talk with you about last night!”

 

The blonde witch sighed loudly and poked her head out of the covers. “Coffee.”

 

Hermione summoned Trinket, surprised at how easily the action came to her this morning. Trinket seemed to notice as well, judging by her pleased expression and energetic curtsy. “Good morning, Lady! What can Trinket do for you?”

 

“If it isn’t too much trouble, may I please have-” She stopped short at the house elf’s disapproving frown and began again. “I would like a pot of strong coffee and whatever else you think might help wake Mademoiselle Delacour.”

 

Trinket nodded in a gratified manner. “With pleasure, Lady! Oh, Trinket will be so proud to call you Mistress!” The little creature clasped her hands ecstatically and disappeared with a crack.

 

Hermione sighed. She’s definitely enjoying training me. She flopped back on the bed beside her friend. “You know, for someone who’s supposedly under my employ you’re a lot of work at times.” Fleur didn’t bother to open her eyes, but she slapped blindly at Hermione, connecting with her thigh loudly. “Ouch! Oh, you’re going to get it now!” By the time Trinket reappeared, tray in hand, there was a rather one-sided pillow fight being fought. Understandably, Hermione was winning. On Fleur’s part there was mostly shielding and unhappy yelling going on as the younger witch attacked her with vigor. At the sound of the house elf’s Apparition, an unspoken cease-fire was issued. Then coffee was all but poured down the throat of the chaperone and eventually Hermione had the audience she needed – or so she thought.

 

“As I said before, I need to talk to you about last night.”

 

Fleur set down her cup, which was empty now for the third time, and waved a forefinger at the curly-haired witch. “Oh, no. I have an inkling what went on, and I have no desire at all to hear the details.”

 

“It doesn’t matter whether you want to hear it or not – I need to talk about it!” Hermione was serious.

 

So, it seemed, was Fleur. “Absolutely not. A rune ceremony is a private thing between a bespoke witch and her wizards! If you must talk about it, you’re going to have to find someone else. Like Molly.”

 

“You have got to be kidding me!”

 

“Hermione, I’m not trying to be difficult. This is something you would normally talk about with your mother, or another House Wife. Hopefully I’ll have my own rune ceremony soon, and I don’t want to jinx it by worrying whether it will be as perfect as yours was. Talk to Molly.”

 

“Who said it was perfect?” she asked suspiciously. I don’t remember saying anything to her about it last night. If I can recall that whole thing in such detail, then I couldn’t forget that.

 

“Oh, please – that part was plastered all over the faces of the three of you when you exited the site. I’ve never seen more blissful people in my life. But you’re going to need to find someone else to talk with – like Molly.”

 

We looked blissful? Well, that certainly fits with . . . I need to talk to Molly. Merlin’s left nut, I’m so desperate I want to talk to Molly!   “Aaargh! Alright, fine.”

 

“Now leave me alone until she comes.” The beautiful Frenchwoman snuggled back down under the covers.

 

“Oh, honestly! How can you possibly go back to sleep? You just drank an entire pot of coffee!” Hermione smacked her friend one last time with the pillow and then flopped back on the bed, wondering idly if either of her wizards were early risers.

 

Eventually she wandered to the bathroom, where she turned on the shower. While she waited for the water to heat, she simultaneously brushed her teeth and read a few more pages of Yolande’s increasingly steamy diary, wishing for either a real book or some company. Her thoughts drifted to her lost Transfigurations book. I wonder if I’ll ever see it again. Steam finally spilled out from the spacious shower stall, and Hermione was just stripping off Draco’s Quidditch jersey when she thought she heard a loud knock on her bedroom door. She glanced through the open doors of the dressing room and shrugged. It’s Molly, most likely. She’ll let herself in. She turned her attention back to the shower and stepped in.

 

Hermione had never been the sort of girl to waste large amounts of time in complex bathing rituals, preferring instead an efficient routine of rigorous hygiene that left every inch of her skin scrubbed clean within ten minutes. Then, thanks to Ginny, in her last year at Hogwarts she had developed a fondness for a once-a-week soak in an oil-infused bubble bath, often in the company of her redheaded friend. But since arriving at Malfoy Manor, Hermione had fallen in love with the idea of bathing – whether by tub or shower. There was an entire shelf in the bathroom cupboard devoted to marvelous shampoos and conditioners, rich-lathering soaps, bubble potions, and redolent body oils – sweet Merlin, the oils! – and she found herself loathe to exit the water without having tried at least half a dozen each time. Consequently, her morning shower no longer fit into her previous time allotment.

 

As the hot water poured over her skin, her mind turned to the upcoming events of the day and her stomach began flip-flopping much as it had the night before. Last night Lucius had been there to calm her, but now she was alone with a brain that, unfortunately, was capable of efficiently rehashing every fear and insecurity within her. The result was a nerve-wracked witch whose wand-hand trembled so much that she was barely able to safely use a simple hair-removal charm on her legs. She’d chosen a set of soap, scrub, and oil that had been labeled ‘Calming’, but the soothing scent of amyris and rose had little effect other than coating her skin in a lovely fragrance.

 

Suddenly Hermione was jarred out of her spiraling thoughts by the voice of Fleur. “Hermione, for the sake of all that’s magic hurry up! You aren’t the only witch who needs a shower sometime today!”

 

At the interruption, the vial of oil Hermione had been holding slipped from her hands to the shower floor and shattered, and the young witch slipped in the ensuing slick mess. “Oh, for Merlin’s- hang on! I’ve just stepped on a shard. Ouch!” It took a few moments for the mess to be cleaned up. Fleur helped by casting a Reparo on the broken vial as Hermione tended to her bleeding foot. She glanced at her chaperone as she reached for a thick robe and wrapped it around herself. “What’s got you in such a hurry?”

 

Fleur was certainly nothing like her usual collected self. She waved her hands wildly, shooing Hermione out of her way as she stripped out of her nightgown. “No time, no time!” And then, more to herself, she wailed, “This can only end badly!”

 

Hermione limped toward the dressing room, wondering what on earth had gotten into her friend, but quickly passed on into the outer room when she saw that Molly was indeed there. The motherly witch noticed her hurt foot at once. “Sit down and let me tend that!” She all but pushed her into the nearest chair and performed a healing charm. “What on earth happened, sweetheart?”

 

Hermione tried not to squirm as the familiar crawling sensation emanated from the healing wound. “Fleur just startled me, and I dropped a glass vial of oil in the shower. What’s going on with her?” Her own concerns were now forgotten.

 

The Weasley Wife looked both happy and upset. “The twins came here looking for the rest of the boys – they’d only say that they’d found another bespoke witch and want to cast stakes at once.” She grabbed hold of Hermione and held her, struggling, in a suffocating hug. “This is unheard of! Two bespoke witches found in less than two days! Oh, my dear girl, this could either go very, very badly or very, very well.” She seemed to realize she was holding the young witch against her will, and that there were other things at stake. “But this is your day, sweetheart. Let’s get that beautiful hair dried properly and then have a nice breakfast. And no more careless accidents – that’s bad luck on your wedding day!”

 

Once Hermione could properly breathe again, she reacted immediately. “We can’t just go about my special day when other equally important things are happening! As soon as we’re both ready, we’ll all go downstairs and see what’s happening.” She headed for the dressing room and sat at her table, immediately starting on her hair.

 

Molly followed on her heels, wringing her hands in an agitated way. “That’s just it, sweetheart – you can’t see your wizards until the reception. No,” she shook her head firmly, “We’ll have to do some juggling and it will be suspenseful, but tradition must be followed.”

 

Hermione was in the process of working Sleakeazy’s potion through her hair as her mother-figure said that last part. She whipped her head in Molly’s direction and argued, “Fleur will want to know what’s happening, and she can’t do that if I’m up here!” Molly shook her head again and opened her mouth to speak, but Hermione continued sharply, “Oh, no you don’t! I have gone along with everything everyone has told me for over two weeks – barring the initial acceptance of the scroll, because I did that all on my own – without blinking an eye! I have come round to the idea of courtship and House marriages and two wizards! I have resigned myself to having a chaperone and observing ridiculous rules! I’ve allowed my body to be marked pretty much as property by my future husbands and agreed to wear jewelry that I’m still convinced is deviant!” At this point she knew she was almost screeching, and she made herself take a deep breath before finishing, “I could go on, but in the interests of time let’s just skip to the part where I say ‘to Hell’ with this particular tradition. As soon as Fleur is ready, we’re going downstairs to find out exactly what’s going on. You’re welcome to join us.”

 

There was a long silence, during which Molly stood blinking back tears. Her hands had stopped their wringing motion and now were held out almost in supplication. Finally she said quietly, “Alright.”

 

Hermione wondered what the consequences were of breaking such a tradition, and what had prompted Molly to fold so relatively quickly to her argument. I wonder if she was listening to her covenant. With a pang, Hermione reached out to her own family magic. You’re awfully quiet lately – not that I’m complaining. The last thing I want is to be rendered unconscious again. Ever. The Malfoy covenant gave the emotional equivalent of a smirk, prompting Hermione’s mouth to curl into one of its own. Just so we’re clear, this choice isn’t taboo, right? The covenant purred contentedly along the edges of her awareness. Excellent. I’m blaming my choice on you. She began wand-drying her curls and said aloud, “Logically speaking, when two important traditions collide, one has to take precedence. Since the Malfoy stake has already been accepted and can no longer be contested, it only makes sense that the Weasley stake – or stakes – be considered next.”

 

The sound of the water in the shower stopped, followed by the sound of Fleur stepping out. She came flying into the dressing room seconds later, clearly distraught, and paused uncertainly before them. Molly quickly pulled her into a tight hug and crooned, “There, there, my dear. Everything will be just fine. Get dressed and we’ll go down to see what’s going on.”

 

Fleur looked between the two other witches in confusion. “But that’s against-“

 

Hermione interrupted before that dreaded word could be used again. “Yes, well, we’ve sent that one to a very warm place. Now dry your hair and get ready, because you have two more wizards to meet!”

 

After a very small hesitation, Fleur did as she was told, and Hermione allowed Molly to boss her through the rest of her beauty regimen. If I close my eyes, it’s almost like having Ginny here.   Less than fifteen minutes later, she stepped into a set of delicate undergarments and was fastened into a beautiful dress. Hermione turned back and forth several times, smiling with satisfaction at the way the lovely, rich maroon garment accentuated the curves of her slender figure. The deep V-neck bodice was made of delicate faille, cut so that wide ruffles rather than sleeves fluttered over her upper arms, and draped in the back to expose her shoulder blades. The crepe skirt was slim, with a fan to match the ruffles on her shoulders and a deep hem with tiny box pleats. “Oh, this is . . .”

 

Fleur came to stand behind her and smiled approvingly, although her nerves were evident. “Very nice, and very traditional for a reception.” She turned to Molly. “I suppose you have the correct shoes as well?”

 

Hermione took hold of her friend’s hand to offer her strength, asking the other two, “How is this traditional?” She eagerly latched on to yet another distraction that could keep her thoughts from what was soon to come.

 

The simple question was enough to take the other two witches’ minds off the most current situation. Molly said excitedly, “A reception outfit is always demure, and always meets the following criteria: fine fabric to show a glimpse of your rune, a flattering style to show a glimpse of your figure, a narrow skirt to prevent your wizards from trying to get under it before the wedding ceremony-“

 

Fleur finished with a small laugh, “And heels to prevent you from running away!”

 

Molly Summoned a pair of dangerously high heels from the closet and waggled her eyebrows. Hermione eyed the shoes apprehensively. They were the prettiest, strappiest, most hazardous-looking shoes she’d ever seen in her life and she said as much to Molly. The Weasley Wife gave a loud, long-suffering sigh. “Oh, for Circe’s sake. Hermione, sweetheart, you’re a witch. Surely you know that shoes can be charmed! You don’t think your wizards would give you shoes that could kill you, do you?” They slipped on as if they’d been made for her feet. For all I know, they were. Fleur bent down to buckle the little straps, and Molly gave a satisfied nod. “One down, one to go. Fleur, you cannot possibly wear that.

 

The Frenchwoman looked taken aback. “What would you have me wear, Molly?”

 

“Something pretty!” Molly protested. “Surely you don’t always wear these heavy gowns!”

 

Fleur raised an eloquent eyebrow. “Yes, and then I cover them with heavy robes. I also wear a veiled hat.”

 

Hermione turned from where she practiced walking in her heels, grateful that she had such trivial things to focus on in this moment. The shoes were indeed charmed in some way – no matter how she set down her feet, the shoe was always exactly under her foot. It seemed she’d be safe from twisted ankles and humiliating falls for this day, at least. “Molly, let her be. Fleur can wear whatever she likes.” She knew that this was her friend’s defense against the leers of wizards and sneers of witches alike. And if I see anyone so much as twitch an eyebrow at her, I’ll hex him or her.

 

“This is the way I dress at all times in public, Molly. Don’t you remember how you felt when you first saw me?” Fleur gave the Weasley Wife a wistful, meaningful look. “Sometimes it helps a little.”

 

Molly must have realized her gaffe, because she backtracked immediately. “Of course. I’m terribly sorry, Fleur. Although I do hope,” here she smiled hopefully, “that my beautiful daughter-to-be won’t have to hide when she’s a Wife.”

 

“Perhaps we shouldn’t talk of these things quite yet.” Her voice trembled as she smoothed her hands down over her long, thick skirts.

 

The moment of blissful distraction had passed, Hermione realized with a heavy sigh. She should have realized Molly was due for an embarrassing outburst, especially when an increasingly familiar look crept into the older witch’s eyes. “Oh, your shields – you forgot to put them on, sweetheart!”

 

Face burning, Hermione gritted her teeth. “Errrrr, thank you, Molly.” She went to her bedside table and drew out the little pouch, thinking murderous thoughts. I love Molly – I’m sure I do – but right now I’d like to hex her.   She made her way back to the dressing room, flinging up a hand in the universal sign for ‘stop!’ when the motherly witch tried to follow her. “That’s quite all right. I’m sure I can manage on my own.” She closed the door as much as she could without actually shutting it, then walked through to the bathroom and did the same to that door. When she stood alone before the large wall mirror hanging above the washbasin, she cast one furtive glance door and unzipped the back opening of her bodice with a flick of her wand.

 

Hermione wriggled the dress off her shoulders and stood bared to the waist, staring contemplatively at the little pouch she’d laid on the counter. It could have been filled with something explosive, for all the apprehension she now felt. She looked up in the mirror to see a positively panicked-looking young witch. Get a hold of yourself, Hermione. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and when she opened them again the witch looking back at her appeared slightly less desperate. See what your wizards see when they look at you.

 

Her brilliant mind supplied a fairly complete list of compliments and heated looks she’d received from Lucius and Draco, making her mouth curl in a tiny smile. I’m their bespoken one. She thought of Draco’s admission from the night before, and her smile grew. At least one of them has fantasized about me for years. The witch in the mirror was smiling now, but Hermione didn’t notice because her attention was on her breasts and the glittering runes piercing her nipples. Her hands came up to cup the lush flesh, fingers brushing against the runes and sending a frisson of pleasure along her nerves. Mother of magic, Draco was right – two runes really do look better than one!   Hermione glanced down at the small pouch and back at her breasts. He didn’t just give me these because of the tradition; he gave them to me because he’s imagined me wearing them for years – it’s his fantasy.

 

One hand reached for the pouch, emptying the two shields into her other hand. Tentatively, she brought one up to a rune, giving a startled jump when it clicked into place with a little snick. She put on the other one quickly before she could change her mind and then looked bravely into the mirror. Her mouth dropped open the tiniest bit. The openwork filigree sunbursts surrounded her tight nipples, their rays spreading over her areolae and the surrounding skin in waving lines. Hermione looked back and forth between the reflection of her face and her shielded runes, watching a confident glow come over her. She turned back and forth, admiring the way the decorations drew attention to the feminine curves of her body. Somehow those two little disks – or perhaps the knowledge of what they’d do to Draco – empowered her. Unbelievably hot. Even as the thought came to her mind, she knew she shared Draco’s opinion unequivocally. I’ll be wearing these under my dress, and Draco will know I’m wearing them. She wondered what Lucius’ opinion of them was, and then gave a smirk worthy of her elder wizard himself. Well, he liked his handprint on my arse – chances are he’ll like these, too. She leaned forward, watching the light catch the tiny green stones of the shields and, peeking out from between the openwork filigree, the larger emeralds of her runes. Who knew Hermione Granger could be so . . . hot! She bit her lip in amusement, because her first thought hadn’t actually been ‘hot’ at all, but ‘deviant’! Maybe I like a little bit of deviant after all. Her brow wrinkled for a moment. Does that make me depraved?

 

Molly’s voice wrenched her from her reverie, and she spun away from the mirror, pulling her dress back up into place. “Hermione, sweetheart, are you alright?”

 

“Errrrr, yes!” You have no idea. “Be right there.” The idea that her attitude had taken a direct turn pleased her immensely. Had she put the shields on and felt uncomfortable, if she had worn them only for Draco, the act would have been contrived. Instead, she’d had a moment of epiphany – albeit a very rushed, very brief epiphany – and knew that she wore them for herself as well; that she wanted to wear them. Hermione zipped up her dress quickly and noticed with satisfaction that the intricate pattern of the shields was somewhat visible through the delicate faille bodice.

 

It was a very different Hermione who emerged from the dressing room. Her chin was high, her shoulders squared, and there was an amused gleam in her eye. “Well, come on then! What are we waiting for? We’ve got twin redheads to interrogate!” She turned to Fleur, who looked positively green. “Oh, don’t worry – we won’t hurt them. Much.”

 

The curly-haired witch didn’t really want to Side Along, given Fleur’s emotional state at the moment – somehow being Splinched on her wedding day didn’t appeal to her – but hid her trepidation with the argument that walking would give Molly time to tell her more about the reception. Molly seemed to take the idea as some sort of challenge and began the moment they left the room. “Oh, yes – that’s a wonderful idea! Come along, girls. It took the boys and me all week to finish layering all the charms around the formal garden. Why, did you know . . .” By the time the three witches passed through the gallery overlooking the ballroom, Hermione knew more than she needed about the planning and preparation leading up to this event. She tried to pay attention as her mother-figure talked on and on about stasis charms on ice sculptures, fairy lights, Glamours, and extra warding on the estate, but her attention faded in and out as other thoughts crossed her mind.

 

Walking rapidly and talking even faster was beginning to wear on Molly, who paused her monologue in an attempt to catch her breath. Hermione took the opportunity to say, “Ordinarily I’d be extremely curious about the china pattern being used at the refreshment tables, Molly, but what I really need to know is what will happen. What’s the order of events? Is there a special protocol?”

 

The Weasley Wife waved the curly-haired witch’s concerns aside. “Oh, this is a simple reception, sweetheart!” Nothing about it sounded simple, and Hermione said as much. Molly seemed to have caught her breath, because she urged them along again, saying, “With the amount of people expected today, the only thing you’ll be doing is meeting each and every guest. There’ll be plenty going on around you, but you don’t need to concern yourself with any of it.”

 

“Eight hours reserved just for meeting people?   Surely there’ll be an awful lot of dead space . . .” Hermione trailed off at Molly’s adamant head shaking.

 

“This is the wedding of a lifetime, Hermione!” Fleur interjected. “The Malfoys are followed in the gossip and society pages of every wizarding newspaper. Everyone will be here – especially because the news of your acceptance and courtship was leaked early! A Pureblood courtship is always two weeks long, a full-moon wedding would be expected, which means that most of the wizarding world assumed today would be the day.” She looked at her charge in her superior way. “People have had days to plan.”

 

Hermione was slightly confused, and she was also glad to see that their conversation was providing a necessary distraction for her chaperone. She pressed, “You keep talking as though anyone who wants can just show up – what about the guest list, and invitations?”

 

“This morning invitations went out to all the ancient Houses, but your acceptance was published in every wizarding newspaper the world over.” Molly explained. At Hermione’s blank look, she added, “In the wizarding world, a published acceptance listed with the time of the reception is the same as an invitation. Anyone who wants – and that will be everyone – may attend.” The enormity of the situation struck her brain like a lightning bolt, and she could only blink dumbly. This is going to be a circus. The motherly witch smiled and took her hand, patting it gently. “It’s just eight hours of smiling and meeting people.”

 

Hermione was silent for the rest of the trip across the Manor, learning that a series of Floos had been set up outside the gates of the estate in preparation of the crowds – in fact, Percy’s role in helping had been as a Ministry official, ensuring that magical travel procedure was followed. Guests from farther away would arrive by portkey in an adjacent spot, and once people passed through a security checkpoint, they’ll be allowed to enter the grounds. Apparition would be possible only within the grounds, and guests would come and go at will. As they reached the bottom of the last staircase in their path to the great hall, Hermione abruptly stopped Molly’s forward progress by taking hold of her robes. Another lightning bolt of thought had struck her, and this one involved a tremendous amount of guilt. “Astoria’s reception – it’s today as well! Does this mean no one will go to hers?” I missed her wedding shower, and now I’m sabotaging her special day on top of that. In a much more frustrated tone she added, “That doesn’t even make sense, to have two receptions on the same- Oh, never mind.” Fifty galleons says it has to do with tradition.

 

Molly seemed to be much more aware of Hermione’s train of thoughts than the curly-haired witch had given her credit for, and she most certainly was in possession of more knowledge. “Now, sweetheart you cannot blame yourself for what happened yesterday morning. Astoria certainly doesn’t.”

 

“But how do you know? I only sent her a quick note, and I didn’t even have a gift to send!” She fussed, “She’s been far too kind to me for such a rude brush-off!”

 

“Rude brush-off?” Molly scoffed. “I know for a fact that Lucius and Theodore Sr. talked yesterday right before brunch, and not only did he explain the situation in depth, but he took full responsibility for your absence at the shower. Furthermore, it’s Lucius – he probably sent a gift in your name. Never doubt the thoroughness of a Slytherin! And sweetheart, don’t forget that Astoria didn’t send her invitation until yesterday morning!”

 

Hermione nodded reluctantly. “That’s true.” She dropped her death-grip of Molly’s sleeve and allowed herself to be towed along the corridor. They were just around the corner from the great hall, and the amount of noise reaching them signified a rather large group had already gathered there. “But will they have guests at their reception?”

 

Molly gave another meaningful waggle of her eyebrows as she dragged the curly-haired witch into the enormous room. “The Nott reception will be a much more private party – strictly Purebloods and Ravenclaws – and they’d prefer it that way.   You don’t need to worry about them in the least.” Then they were in the great hall, and for the second time that morning Hermione’s mouth gaped.

 

The room was filled with people – there were the Weasley men, Harry and his girls, a very large group of dark-robed witches and wizards who could only be Crabbes and Goyles, and, in the middle of the room with Lucius and Draco, a stern-looking blond wizard. As the three witches entered, every eye turned in their direction with surprise and all talking ceased. Her wizards, in particular, looked shocked to see her, although Lucius held out a hand toward her.

 

She went to him at once, crossing the room with her gaze locked in his and ignoring the silent stares of everyone else. His face was set in a mask of arrogant imperturbability as he bowed over her hand and pressed his lips to it, but the corner of his mouth twitched as he murmured, “Good morning, pet. To what do we owe this breach of tradition?”

 

Hermione blushed, but held his eye. Her voice was barely a whisper. “If it’s worth mentioning, the covenant is amused.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw Draco watching intently.

 

Lucius gave an almost imperceptible nod and turned so that they were both facing the blond wizard. “Miss Hermione Granger, this is Monsieur Reynard Delacour.”

 

Monsieur Delacour bowed deeply. “Miss Granger, it is an honor.” His English was only slightly accented. As he stood, he gave a small smile that transformed his face completely.

 

Hermione smiled back. I’ll bet he’s just like his daughter – hard on the outside but soft on the inside. “It’s very nice to meet you, Monsieur.” She glanced back at Lucius before adding, “Fleur has been concerned for your well-being.” The words were barely out before she regretted them. Sweet Circe, I’ve just reprimanded the man for not contacting his own daughter!

 

Monsieur Delacour gave a loud bark of laughter. “Oh, Lucius, I like this witch!” To Hermione he said, “And it is plain to see you are concerned for my daughter’s well-being, in turn. It’s true, then – you two have become friends?”

 

“Very good friends, for the short amount of time we’ve had – and that’s why I’m here with her now.” She turned to include her own wizards in the conversation. “Molly told us what happened, and Fleur deserves to be part of this! I’m very sorry if I’ve offended any of you, but it had to be done.”

 

Draco held out both arms in invitation, and Hermione walked the few feet between them to curl into his side. He said in his soft, husky way, “We were just discussing what a shite tradition it is, actually. No harm has been done at all.”

 

Reynard Delacour beckoned to Fleur, who was hovering at the far edge of the room with Molly, and she floated gracefully to him. He hugged her tightly, obviously used to navigating her hat and veil. “Good morning, daughter.”

 

Fleur drew back from her father’s embrace and gave him a dirty look. “Don’t you ‘good morning, daughter’ me, Papa! What’s kept you from replying to my letters? Why haven’t you given the Weasley stake precedence?!” Her voice, which was only loud enough for their small group to hear, held more emotion in it than Hermione had heard from her yet. She smoothed the lapels of her father’s robes and added gently, “How is Mama?”

 

Monsieur Delacour didn’t seem at all put out by his daughter’s attitude. In fact, he looked immensely amused. He also seemed to be very aware of his daughter’s halting English skills, because he answered in very slow English, “She is well and sends her love.” He paused and looked around the room before continuing, “You have created quite the stir, ma fleur. And these Weasley men with their shocking red hair – they are what you want?”

 

His daughter nodded eagerly. “Yes, Papa! Please tell me if you are just teasing, or if there’s some real reason I cannot accept their stake.”

 

Draco had wrapped his arms around Hermione at some point during the conversation they both watched, and now his thumb traced the shape of one of her shields stealthily. She glanced up at him, but his innocent gaze was on Fleur and her father. Maybe he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it, she reasoned. Just then he shifted, and a long hard, increasingly familiar shape pressed into her hipbone. Oh.

 

Monsieur Delacour was speaking to Lucius, and she missed half of it in her momentary preoccupation. She caught the tail end, though. “ . . . only fair she should meet the other two brothers before I grant precedence.”

 

During the conversation and Hermione’s distraction, Fred and George seemed to materialize at Reynard’s side from thin air. Then the curly-haired witch’s eye lighted on the storage room in which Harry had given Ginny a pseudo-spanking less than twenty-four hours earlier – that must have been where the twins had come from! In fact, from the way the door moved furtively it seemed as though there was someone still in the small space watching the goings-on.

 

Fred and George bowed to Fleur, but their faces wore identical tense expressions. “Good morning, Mademoiselle Delacour, I’m-“

 

The second twin interrupted with, “George, and I’m-“

 

“Fred, he is,” finished the original speaker. They reached for her proffered hand simultaneously and said together, “We’re a two-for-one special.”

 

Fleur seemed only able to blink in confusion for a moment. “Good morning.”

 

Her translation skills hadn’t improved over the past two days, and Hermione was having a hard time watching her friend struggle to translate into English. She stepped from Draco’s side and murmured to Fleur, “I could cast an Interpretor, if you like.”

 

“Yes, please!” The charm was cast between all present quickly, and Fleur relaxed visibly. She turned to the twins, who began another of their ridiculously confusing conversations. Hermione couldn’t help but notice that the strained looks hadn’t quite left their faces, and that they each stole occasional glances toward the storage room. Her chaperone noticed, as well, and interrupted Fred’s (or was it George’s?) punch line in her direct way. “Is she in there?” When they traded glances and nodded uncomfortably, she asked no one in particular, “Is there a reason she hides like a coward?”

 

Reynard looked as though he were trying to suppress a smile. “She is waiting for permission to enter the room. If you have satisfied your curiosity with Fred and George, I will bring her to meet you at once. ”

 

Fleur gave her father a suspicious glance and turned her attention back to the twins, engaging them once again in dialogue as her father walked across the great hall. Meanwhile Hermione’s brain was whirring away. Why was she hidden away in the first place? Why aren’t the twins thrilled to meet Fleur? How has Reynard Delacour come to be on a first-name basis with them, and why is he taking responsibility for his daughter’s competition? These thoughts raced around in her mind, despite the fact that Draco had drawn her back into his arms and had managed to sneak a hand back to one of her breasts. She pushed his hand away gently and gave it a reassuring squeeze, whispering to him, “What on earth is going on?”

 

Meanwhile, the twins were answering Fleur’s questions rather too politely, in Hermione’s opinion, in comparison to their usual relaxed, joking selves. The curly-haired witch watched their mannerisms attentively, hoping to figure out what exactly was going on. All at once Fleur’s eyes snapped to the two figures now approaching, and she stopped mid-sentence, plainly more confused than ever. When Monsieur Delacourt and the other bespoke witch drew nigh, the chaperone seemed unable to speak. Hermione’s attention shifted from her friend to this new person, and she found herself staring at a younger witch who, although heavily robed and veiled, was clearly blonde, blue-eyed, and devastatingly beautiful. She looks almost exactly like . . . At that moment, Fleur’s tongue seemed to come unglued and she uttered one word. “Gabi?”

 

The newcomer punched a fist into the air and cried exuberantly, “Ha! Nous avons réussi sans anicroche!” She went at once to worm her way between Fred and George, who were now grinning mischievously at her and each other.

 

“That’s our girl-“

 

“Shock ‘em speechless and-“

 

“Then take credit loudly!”

 

Gabi! It’s Gabrielle Delacour! But where’s the Weasleys’ other bespoke witch? Fleur also seemed confused. “Gabi, what are you doing here? I thought for a moment . . .” She shook her head and then said to Fred and George, “You already seem to have met my younger sister, Gabrielle Delacour.”

 

The young French witch beamed up at the lanky Weasley twins, looping her arms through theirs, before turning to her older sister in pleased defiance. “Oh, no you don’t, Phlegm! These two belong to me.”

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