Chapter Seventy-Two: Friday Evening

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 arrived in her suite with a smirk lingering on her face. Teasing Lucius Malfoy was intensely gratifying, especially now that she was becoming increasingly aware of her power over him. She gave a silent huff of laughter as she recalled the open look of desire on his face just before she’d Disapparated. And in a few hours he and I will . . . The stray thought was enough to send a frisson of nerves down her spine and a blush to her face.

 

The lovely rooms were bathed in candlelight, and soft music was playing. A civil argument was being waged somewhere nearby, and the young witch followed the sound out onto the balcony. There she found Molly and Beetle in a standoff, a table set for two between them.

 

The Weasley Wife looked relieved to see her. “Sweetheart, I was just explaining to Beetle that I can look after you perfectly well on my own this evening.”

 

Beetle responded in a no-nonsense tone that outstripped Molly’s own, “Mistress Weasley does not understand the ways of this House.”

 

“Errrrr, I’m afraid I don’t either,” admitted the curly-haired witch. When the elf’s eye twitched, she added quickly, “But I’d like to learn. Will you explain, please?”

 

Beetle sent Molly a warning look and shook a finger in a chastising manner. “Malfoy is an elf-bound House, and tonight under the moon Lady will become our Mistress. It is proper that the elves bless her with service. Beetle attends the Lady with pride.”

 

It’s not as though Beetle is going to negotiate. “If you’re sure it won’t be too much for you,” she ventured doubtfully as she took a seat.

 

It was obviously the worst thing she could have said. Beetle drew herself up, which added mere centimeters in height but layers upon layers of command. Her eyes, however, told a different story altogether. They looked frightened. “Does Lady dismiss me from my service?”

 

Lucius’ brief explanation of bound house elves came to mind. Her life is tied to her service. She thinks I’m telling her to . . . Hermione couldn’t finish that thought. “No! Certainly not, and I’m sorry to have offended you! I’m . . . I’m honored to be served by you, Beetle.”

 

The little creature seemed to relax somewhat, and she bowed her wrinkled head. “The elves of this House live to serve.” The little creature shot a triumphant glare Molly’s way before shuffling toward a serving board laden with covered dishes. “First you must be fed. There is much to do before my bedtime.”

 

At Beetle’s command, the dishes flew one by one to the table. When the last one had landed with a quiet thunk, she Summoned a large carafe and filled their goblets. “Elf wine, summer of 1910. A very good year,” she explained. One of her joints gave a loud pop.

 

A wave of guilt washed over Hermione. I’m being served by an elf who is quite possibly the oldest in existence simply because her life is tied to her work. Surely there must be some way to make it easier. She remembered how Lucius had alluded to giving her the bare minimum of work as a means to meet the requirement and said hesitantly, “Beetle, you would serve me best tonight in a different way. Sit with us and share the meal you’ve prepared, and tell me about the House you serve so faithfully.”

 

Beetle said reflectively, “Master requests this, too, sometimes.” She seemed to be deep in her own thoughts for a time, but finally nodded. “Very well, Lady.” She snapped her fingers and another chair and table setting appeared, and she obeyed. Summoning the wine carafe, she filled her goblet to the brim. “Just a small taste.”

 

Molly relaxed immediately and took the role of hostess. “I propose a toast!” She raised her glass, waiting for Hermione and Beetle to follow suit, and said, “To the House of Malfoy and its bespoke witch: may your covenant prosper you, and may you honor your covenant.”

 

“The House of Malfoy,” echoed Beetle solemnly.

 

Hermione stored the words in her heart, to be pondered at a later date. She raised her goblet and clinked it with the other two together happily. To the House of Malfoy, she thought, and to its bespoke witch. And to everyone who helped get her here tonight. Good sweet Circe, but this wine is delicious.

 

The moment ended. With a wave of her wand, Molly sent the covers of the serving dishes sailing to the serving board. “Well, this looks delicious! So many different things.” She looked at Beetle questioningly. “Is there a name for it?”

 

Hermione recognized it at once as the meal provided for her first rune ritual. “It’s mélange!” She grinned at her dinner partners. “Fruit, nuts, bread with cheese and honey, and consommé. Oh, and trifle!” Her face flamed with the images her brain now paired with that word, but the other two didn’t seem to notice.

 

Beetle nodded as she took a serving bowl from Molly’s outstretched hands. “Trinket used only a little brandy tonight.” That caused Hermione to snicker, and the old house elf made a face that might have been a grin. “She is a good elfling.”

 

The house elf served well. She talked all through dinner, pausing now and then to eat something or to sip at her wine. It was clear she had a high tolerance for it, judging by the amount she ingested, and Hermione kept her goblet full throughout the meal. As the last spoonfuls of trifle were savored, Beetle concluded, “Then Lady accepted the war stake, and the elves of this House began to prepare for this happy day. “

 

Hermione interjected quietly, “You’ve all been very kind to me.”

 

Beetle raised ancient eyes to meet the gaze of the curly-haired witch. “We have lived in the hope of you, Lady.”

 

At the pause that followed that statement, Molly took charge again. She said in a motherly tone that brooked no argument, “All right, enough dawdling! It’s time you had a bath and began to get ready. We have a lot to get done.” She pushed her chair away from the table and stood, motioning for the other two to join her. To Beetle she offered kindly, “Tell us about Lucius and Draco. I’ll bet you have all kinds of stories to tell about those two!”

 

Beetle climbed stiffly from her chair, taking both her goblet and the wine carafe, and followed. Hobbling slowly she said, “Mistress Calpurnia died when Master Lucius was a babe.” At a sympathetic noise from Molly, the elf clarified, “It was a good thing. Wicked that woman was, and would have ruined our boy.” When they reached the dressing rom she paused. “Time to unseal your dress, Lady.” She gave a snap of her fingers and continued talking as the dress reverted to its previous torn state. “Master Abraxas was a cruel man, but we kept the son away from him when we could. Such a quiet boy was Master Lucius. Always with his flowers and the Thestrals.”

 

Molly’s mouth quirked in a knowing smile when she took in the wide-ripped skirt of the reception dress, but she nothing.

 

Neither did Hermione, although she blushed deeply and was exceedingly grateful for Beetle’s diverting narrative. Her heart gave a painful squeeze at the accompanying mental images for the few words the old elf had used, even as her body revelled in the freedom her torn and gaping dress offered.   She sank onto one of the dressing room couches and gestured to the open seats nearest her. “Please,” she urged gently, “tell me more.” Good and Gracious Merlin, I can finally breathe!

 

Beetle made a wheezy sound that could have been a laugh and clambered onto the low couch with effort. “Already the Lady orders me about. But I will tell you gladly of your elder wizard. Beetle rocked Master Lucius to sleep and taught him not to eat poison plants. Packed his trunk for school each fall and cried when he left. Used a stinging hex on his backside when he spoke back, and cried along with him after.” She sighed sadly. “Taught him to be so tidy, his clothes rarely need washing.”

 

From Molly’s empathetic expression, Hermione guessed that Beetle was experiencing all the emotions of a mother whose child was grown. Aloud she responded, “It sounds to me as though he’d be lost without you.” I’d like to hear her tell the history of the family as she knows it, and then write it down. An idea sprang up in her brain, and she smiled to herself. I know a job that’s even easier than laundry. “What about Draco? I’m sure he was a very sweet boy.”

 

The elf drained her goblet, hiccupping as she pointed an authoritative finger at the carafe. As Molly dutifully filled it to the rim, Beetle answered, “Master Lucius was most selfish with his boy! The elves had to fight for time with Master Draco. Such a beautiful child.”

 

The Weasley Wife made a noise of agreement. “That he was. We started calling him our little prince. Oh, but Severus loved that, even though it was only a nickname!” For a minute she looked as though she was forcing herself back to the present. “And speaking of beautiful, we still haven’t decided what you’re going to wear to the ritual. I cannot believe that . . . that bitch took your dress!”

 

Hermione waved the thought away dismissively. “Anything from my trousseau will do. It doesn’t matter.” Between the elf wine she’d ingested and the fact that she could now curl up in a comfortable manner, she found it difficult to be worried about much of anything. And I could always do as Lucius suggested and just wear the veil. Talk about being naked! Then she thought of would happen after the ritual, and a flutter of nerves settled in her stomach. She quelled that thought immediately. Focus on the present.

 

“Of course it matters, Hermione! It’s your wedding,” Molly gasped reproachfully. “What would Lucius and Draco say?”

 

They’d say wear the veil. She imagined doing just that, and the butterflies in her stomach fluttered madly. Whatever I wear, it won’t be on very long. Aaagh! Think of something else! She offered, “Something with a lot of buttons, then.”

 

Beetle gave a loud hiccup and curled up on the soft leather couch. “Do not fret about the dress, Lady. Beetle will just close her eyes and think about what is to be done.” She was snoring almost immediately.

 

The motherly redhead gave a hearty sigh. “Well, there’s one less thing for me to do! You go have a nice soak and I’ll put my feet up for a bit. The bath’s all drawn.” She added sternly, “Don’t forget to wash behind your ears!”

 

I wonder if Molly treats everyone like this. Hermione visualized her mother-figure lunching with the Minister of Magic and making him take three bites of everything on his plate. As she walked toward the bathroom she looked over her shoulder and said, “I’m not five, Molly.”

 

“Sorry!” Molly grimaced apologetically as if she’d just realized what she’d done. “If it makes you feel any better, it’s not just you. Yesterday I asked Charlie if he was wearing clean boxers.”

 

In the bathroom Hermione stripped down and removed the beautiful shields she’d worn all day, but not before she paused to admire her image in the nearest mirror. Draco’s not going to know what hit him . . . She forced herself back to the current conversation, relieved to know that Molly’s patronizing manner was an automatic response. In the spirit of progress she called to her mother-figure, “Why don’t we start again, and talk as adults?” The words were barely out of her mouth when she realized exactly what it was she’d just done. Mother of Merlin, I’ve just . . . She hurriedly made her way to the fragrant, steaming tub and climbed in. Maybe if I hide underwater she won’t be able to find me.

 

Molly seemed to forget her original plan. She charged into the bathroom and perched on the wide ledge of the tub. “Oh, how lovely! Now,” she rubbed her hands together, “Let’s talk about tonight.”

 

“Errrrr . . .” was all the young witch could manage. Brightest witch of the age, my sainted aunt! All I had to do was keep my mouth shut, but no – I had to reassert my maturity like an idiot! “Maybe we could talk about the reception first,” she hedged.

 

“Good idea! Tell me, how was your visit with Astoria and her wizards?” Molly leaned forward, eyes dancing.

 

Hermione gave an inward groan and reached for the shampoo, which was ironically labeled ‘Serenity’. Of course she’d go straight there. Why would she want to talk about something ordinary like ice cream flavors, or what Neville Longbottom’s grandmother wore? “It was . . . enlightening,” she offered cautiously as she began lathering her tresses.

 

“Oh, I’m sure it was!” Molly chirped.

 

Hermione made a noncommittal noise and hid under the water again as she remembered Astoria’s shocking entrance. The Ravenclaw witch had floated in on the heels of the Nott wizards, wearing nothing more than copious amounts of jewelry and a manic gleam in her eye.

 

Molly was ready when she came up for air. “I’m sure they didn’t stay long.”

 

“Nope.” That wine packs a punch, Hermione mused. Her extremities were tingling in a pleasant way, and her cheeks felt warm. Between that and this tub, an unsuspecting witch could let her guard down quite easily. She reached for the conditioner.

 

“And did you have a nice chat? Astoria’s such a sweet girl.” Molly gazed at her innocently.

 

Hermione blindly dumped an entire handful of the slippery stuff into her outstretched hand and then began working it through her hair furiously as she growled, “No, because she was wearing a bejeweled ball gag. Bejeweled. Ball. Gag. Molly, she was gagged!” The words left her mouth of their own volition, and Hermione realized she’d let her guard slip. The wine was definitely not helping in that regard. Now that she’d actually begun talking, though, the words wouldn’t stop. “I had to sit in the same room with a naked Astoria Greengrass, who knelt at the feet of her wizards, for fifteen minutes! I had to listen to Mr. Nott croon to her about what a good girl she’d been, and how she was going to be rewarded with cock! For Merlin’s sake, Molly, there’s such a thing as decency! And dignity! My dignity!” Her voice had risen to a shriek by the end of her rant, but dropped to a mutter as she finished, “Sweet Circe, I’ll never be able to look any of them in the eye again.”

 

Molly was still smirking. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with a little reward, now and then – although in the case of cock, the bigger the better!” She must have noticed that Hermione’s wasn’t amused because she added, “Oh, come on, sweetheart. It sounds as though they were practicing erotic humiliation. Astoria must have wanted that, otherwise they’d never have done it. But if they weren’t embarrassed, I don’t see why you need to be.”

 

Hermione performed a rapid self-evaluation. She felt much better after her rant; so much so, in fact, that she wondered if talking to Molly about some things might be all right. She smoothed the conditioner through her hair and ventured, “I didn’t even get to talk with her.”

 

“I suspect that’s what really upset you. You were looking forward to having a visit with your friend; maybe talk about tonight. After all, regardless of her lifestyle preference you and Astoria have more in common than most.” Molly changed subjects abruptly. “I had the loveliest chinwag with Luna yesterday while we were clearing the lower fields of narleywhickets.”

 

Hermione held up her hand in protest, inadvertently flinging a blob of conditioner at Molly. “Wait, wait, wait. You cleared the fields of-“

 

“Narleywhickets,” Molly finished with a smile. “Don’t ask me whether they’re real or not; it doesn’t matter. Whenever Luna brings them up, she’s usually talking about something else altogether. I think she just wanted to have a private conversation about someone she cares about very much: you.”

 

“You’re saying she doesn’t actually see imaginary things,” mused the curly-haired witch.

 

Molly made a good-natured, exasperated noise. “I’m saying, sweetheart, that magical creatures aside, Luna is a very observant young woman and a loyal friend.”

 

Hermione’s curiosity was piqued. “What did she say?”

 

“That June is hatching time for narleywhickets,” Molly said with a soft smile. “And that she knows what it’s like to be motherless. I would never presume to take your mother’s place, but I hope you know I count you as one of my own.“

 

“I’m glad to have you, Molly. I feel selfish sometimes, the way you drop everything to help me,” here Hermione’s voice grew quieter as she admitted, “but I love it when you do.”

 

Molly wore a look of pained pleasure as she pressed a hand over her heart. “Oh, my sweet girl! Always. And I will always be here to talk with you about anything.” She pulled a comical face. “No bejeweled ball gags for me.”

 

Hermione choked out a reluctant laugh. Then her quick brain calculated the trajectory of this conversation, and her eyes narrowed as she said, “Luna meant sex, didn’t she? That you should talk to me about sex. I might be a blushing virgin, Molly, but I’m not an ignorant one. I know the mechanics of it, and I’ve had the distinct and dubious privilege of seeing numerous variations of it performed by your daughter and her two partners in crime repeatedly. I’m not sure how many questions I have left.” For you especially.

 

“Honestly, Hermione! Everything isn’t about sex, you know!” Molly sounded a bit miffed. “Actually, Luna was talking about losing her mother at such a young age, and forging her bond with Harry and Ginny without any guidance. Luna saw the correlation with your own situation; you’re both motherless girls entering exceptional relationships.”

 

Hermione gave a weary sigh and attempted one last avoidance technique. “How do you even know about erotic humiliation?” She began rinsing her hair, postponing the answer she wasn’t altogether sure she wanted.

 

Molly waved a hand in a vague gesture. “Abbott introduced me to kink. It wasn’t really my thing, but he was very persuasive.”

 

When no steamy anecdote followed that statement, it occurred to Hermione that Molly Weasley was actually trying to respect her boundaries. She decided to meet her halfway. “I’m quite certain Lucius wasn’t happy with the visit, although he was polite as always.”

 

“Oh, good heavens!” Molly giggled loudly. “I would have paid Galleons to see his expression! I think you’ll find the current House of Malfoy to be very conservative, and by that I mean they prefer to be clothed in public.”

 

“Well, thank Circe for small favors,” joked the young witch. I’d hex their testes off if either so much as suggested such a thing. “Did it bother your other husbands? When you and Abbott . . . you know.”

 

“A House Wife has one marriage, but her relationships with each of her husbands are individual. Not everything is shared with everyone.” Molly Summoned some towels from a closet.

 

Hermione considered that statement. “That makes sense.”

 

“But remember that every marriage – regardless of the number of partners – is different. When all of my husbands were alive, I had four very distinct relationships that rarely overlapped outside of the House bed. Somehow I don’t think that will be true for you.”

 

Hermione regarded the motherly witch pensively. She’s right. Lucius and Draco seem to need each other, and that shouldn’t change. I won’t just be getting to know them as individuals, but as a pair. Thoughts of the House bed swirled in her brain, causing her to shiver with both nerves and anticipation. And we’ll worship each other.

 

Molly got up and turned toward the door. “I’ll go see if Beetle has solved our wardrobe problem yet. Finish up in here and we can talk as you get ready.”

 

Hermione’s brain whirred busily as she complied. Do I have questions I can ask Molly? She smoothed oil into her skin. Of course I do! Then she slipped on her rune shields, remembering Draco’s request of the previous evening, and wrapped herself in her robe. But do I WANT to ask her? Halfway to the dressing room she concluded that knowledge was power regardless of the source. Yes. Yes I do. Her chin came up in a determined manner. I am Gryffindor! A mere millisecond later she added, and I’m probably going to regret this later.

 

Beetle was absent, and the young witch concluded the elf must be looking for a suitable replacement dress. I wonder how many places a potential wedding gown could be kept in the Manor. She sat down at her dressing table, began smoothing Sleakeazy’s through her hair and said, “Tell me about the full moon ritual, please.”

 

The request had barely left her mouth when Beetle reappeared carrying a bundle that was bigger than she. Hermione watched through her mirror as the elf held it out to Molly imperiously and said, “It must be ironed and hung.”

 

The Weasley Wife complied with the order at once. As she bustled about, she spoke. “It’s like a handfasting, but with much heavier layers of magic. Albus and I will escort you as your guardians, and representatives from some of the Houses will stand guard around the site. There are a lot of runes involved, and your covenant will draw from these and participate to a point. There’ll be an Unspeakable to perform the ritual, of course. The ritual is a closely guarded secret.”

 

Despite all the information divulged, Hermione focused on only one thing. “What do you mean, ‘the covenant will participate?” She began wand-drying her hair.

 

Beetle took up her former position on the couch, goblet in hand. She said solemnly, “Before the Fall of Four, when the Twenty-Eight runes united under a waxing moon, the covenants walked as wizards.”

 

At Hermione’s inquisitive look Molly explained sadly, “The Houses of Gaunt, Prewett, Crouch and Black have fallen.”

 

A feeling of wistful pride flooded her being, and Hermione recognized the presence of the family magic. “Tell me more, please.”

 

The ancient house elf hummed reminiscently. “The twenty-eight runes combined and drew dark magic. The covenants fed from it and took form. Those were the days when the Houses were mighty and ruled both Muggles and magic-kind.” She glanced toward Molly, who was just finishing steaming the gown. “You missed a spot.”

 

There was another flare of alien emotion within Hermione’s being, this one far stronger than the last. You were there. You remember it all. Aloud she asked, “And now?”

 

“Now we divide into groups of smaller magical numbers. It isn’t as powerful, but it satisfies the covenants. That’s what makes it possible to hold more than one ritual in one night,” Molly explained. “Tonight we’re divided between here and Nott Manor.”

 

There was a slight pause as the younger witch reflected on what she’d just learned and the other two remembered the past. Forget a job – I’m going to research Pureblood society and write about it for the rest of my life. Hermione finished drying the last section of her hair and applied a light beauty charm. Of course, I’ll have to make time for Lucius and Draco as well . . . she grinned to herself. Lucky, lucky witch!

 

Suddenly Beetle set down her goblet and struggled to her feet. “Enough talk. The ritual draws nigh.”

 

Molly sprang into action at once. She crossed the room and pulled Hermione up from the dressing table. “Come on, sweetheart! Off with your robe – it’s time to paint your runes!”

 

The ‘lot of runes’ Molly had mentioned previously happened to include a series painted on the bare skin of the bespoken one. For the next half hour, Hermione stood in varying states of undress, blushing furiously and flinching madly as the Weasley Wife daubed the symbols over her ticklish body under the direction of Beetle. The paint felt sticky at first and smelled faintly of berries, but once dried it was quickly forgotten.

 

The house elf named each one after it was applied in vivid red and blue paint. “The mark of Wisdom,” she said as Molly painted a delicate symbol on her forehead. When the Weasley Wife drew the brush over the upper curve of Hermione’s left breast in a series of intricate lines, Beetle offered, “Devotion.” The next was a large pattern over her abdomen, which was Life, and then Strength, which spanned the tops of her shoulders. The last design trailed from the back of her right knee up her inner thigh to within an inch of her . . . In the end, a single word from Beetle enabled Hermione to allow that rune’s completion: Desire.

 

The mood shifted to one of quiet intensity as the last rune dried, and Hermione watched silently as Molly Summoned the dress and began gathering the long skirt in her hands. When she made a move toward the closet where her undergarments were kept, she was stopped with a shake of the head and another one-word explanation: Tradition. So many things had occupied her mind this evening, and the fluttering sensation in her stomach had increased so much that she’d given little to no thought to what she would wear for her own wedding. When Lucius told me about my dress, I was so upset about that decision being taken from me! She slipped off her robe and raised her arms above her head at Molly’s wordless command. So much has changed since then. The gown fell down over her head, each part seeming to have been tailored to her shape. She stayed motionless as Molly gently tightened the stays along her sides. I don’t care if I wear a house elf hankie – I just want to be with him and Draco. OH.

 

The reflected witch seemed like a stranger, although Hermione had spent more time looking at her in the past three weeks than she’d done in her entire life to that point. Before her was the princess from her mother’s fairy tales, a beautiful girl garbed in a diaphanous gown of silver with a train like a comet’s tail. A mysterious symbol marked her forehead and another was partially visible along the upper swell of her breast, thanks to the wide, low, old-fashioned neckline of the garment.

 

Hermione ran a reverent hand over the ethereal fabric. It slipped and shivered against her skin, magic whispering in every thread. It was as though a piece of the finest silk gossamer had been infused with starlight. “What is this made of?”

 

“Fairy wings.” The hushed answer came from behind her knees, causing her to jump about a foot in the air. “A good Lady wore it long ago to wed the Malfoy wizards.”

 

I’m wearing a Potions ingredient to my wedding. Draco will be pleased. The implication of the elf’s words struck her. This is highly significant, and she thinks I deserve to wear it. She knelt down and locked eyes with Beetle. “Thank you. I want be a good Wife; will you help me?”

 

Beetle closed her eyes for a long moment, and when she opened them her eyes were full of strong emotion. “Mistress, from this day the elves of Malfoy bind ourselves to you.” Then she added gruffly, “It is past Beetle’s bedtime. Go and wed my boys, and do not pester me again tonight.” She Disapparated promptly.

 

Hermione stayed on her knees for a moment, committing that brief conversation to her mind and heart. She’s a very loveable tyrant. I hope she likes the new job I have planned for her. She stood and turned to her mother-figure.

 

Molly was regarding her with admiration. “Sweetheart, you look like Circe incarnate.”

 

Hermione stole another long look at her reflection, smiling at the complement. She stood straight and poised, her face awash with confidence and the faintest trace of amusement. I look like a Malfoy.   Her eye was drawn by the glittering diamonds encircling her throat. Lucius will be pleased. So will Draco, for that matter, she thought as her gaze dropped to where her rune shields glittered through the sheer fabric of the gown. Sheer. Realization struck, and she screeched, “Molly, this is transparent!”

 

“Oh, hush, Hermione! Do you honestly think Beetle, who knows your wizards better than anyone else and whose goal is to serve your House to the best of her ability, would let you traipse in public naked?” Molly was back to sounding miffed.

 

Hermione looked at her reflection again and argued, “The evidence says otherwise! I can see my outline through it; Merlin, I can see that rune you insisted on drawing up my inner thigh, along with everything else!” She hoisted the skirt of her dress and stormed toward the nearest closet.

 

“What are you doing?” cried Molly, following behind. “Oh, no – absolutely not! No shoes, and no undergarments!” She jerked the offending pieces of lace out of Hermione’s hands.

 

“Absolutely yes!” The young witch simply grabbed another set and leaned down to slip into the knickers.

 

Molly sounded frustrated as she said with a sigh, “Sweetheart, stop. Now.” When Hermione paused warily the motherly witch continued, “I would have thought it was obvious after having worn your engagement dress.”

 

Yes, but only The Malfoy wizards and I could see through that one- Comprehension dawned and she winced apologetically. “Oh. Well, that makes sense.” In my defense, I’ve spent a good portion of the past three weeks trying to avoid becoming deviant. Suspicion has become second nature. She returned the undergarments to their place in the closet.

 

The Weasley Wife shook her head with a helpless shrug and handed Hermione’s wand to her. “It’s nearly time.” She pressed a maternal kiss to the young witch’s cheek and asked lovingly, “Before we leave, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?”

 

Hermione looked at the motherly witch before her. She was uninhibited, overbearing, and seven kinds of cunning but in spite of that she was everything that Hermione admired. She was kind, and helpful, and quick to laugh at herself. Most of all, Molly was . . . she was fearless. I want to be like her. The words hung in her consciousness for a few seconds, and then she acted on them. “Tell me the most important thing to know about tonight. About after the ritual,” she said in a strong voice.

 

Molly gathered the young witch into her arms, pressing her head down to one ample shoulder. She rubbed Hermione’s back gently and spoke in a quiet voice. “Lucius will take you to his bed and make a Wife of you. Don’t let that brain of yours make it into anything more than a continuation of what the two of you have already started. Trust Lucius; he’s a very good man. As eldest Malfoy, he may keep you in his bed until you wish to leave, at which point you should return here to prepare for Draco.”

 

It’ll be on my terms. Hermione raised her head and held Molly’s gaze. “And then?”

 

The Weasley Wife smiled lovingly and patted her cheek. “Then you go to Draco. He’ll be waiting for you.” Here Molly made a sympathetic noise. “He’ll be unsure of himself, and most likely worried about living up to your expectations, but I’ve seen the two of you together and everything will be fine. Spend as much time with him as you did Lucius, and then-“

 

“Oh, Merlin,” Hermione croaked, suddenly an even bigger bundle of nerves (which seemed to be concentrated in her stomach), “the House bed! Molly, I don’t know if-“

 

The Weasley Wife placed a hand over Hermione’s mouth and grinned. “But of course you do, sweetheart! You’ve already had two practice runs.” She raised an eyebrow and nodded meaningfully. “And from what I gleaned from Fleur and your wizards, you most certainly practiced.”

 

Hermione blushed. “I just don’t want to . . .” fail, she finished inwardly.

 

Molly seemed to know exactly what she’d meant. “You’re not going to fail, Hermione, because this isn’t a test. It’s just one night in the course of a lifetime.” She chuckled. “And believe me, if you decide you need remedial help, I know two wizards who’ll be falling all over themselves to tutor you.”

 

Hermione nodded uncertainly. She managed a wavering smile and said, “Can you believe it? This Gryffindor is a bit of a coward.”

 

“Pish!” Molly scoffed. “There’s nothing cowardly about you; you’re simply cautious, and there’s a lot of wisdom in that trait. You’re as much Slytherin as you are Gryffindor.” She patted the young witch’s cheek gently. “Tonight, however, you’ll need your maroon and gold. Be a lioness.”

 

Suddenly there were so many questions Hermione wanted to ask Molly, and she bitterly regretted the time she’d wasted to this point. Dignity and self-respect only go so far – I could have gotten perspective! “Please; if there was one thing you’d have liked to know before you got married, what would it have been?”

 

The redheaded witch grasped Hermione’s hand in a comforting manner. “Desire isn’t only about lust and heat and sweat,” She said softly. “It’s comfort, and the feel and smell of the wizards you love. Each new thing builds on the last, and each is done together.”

 

Hermione pulled Molly into a fierce hug. She whispered, “I couldn’t have asked for a better second mother.”

 

Molly was far too emotional at that point to do more than blink and swallow rapidly. Finally she said in a thick voice, “Come, daughter. Your House awaits.” She pulled Hermione against her tightly and spun on her heel, Apparating the two of them.

 

They arrived just outside the front entrance of the manor, under the portico. When Hermione had recovered from the Side-Along Apparition she released her death-grip on Molly and stepped away. “Where to?” She noticed with pleasure that her dress glowed in the moonlight, but grimaced at the feel of the cold flagstones under her bare feet.

 

The Weasley Wife laughed quietly. “Hermione, a bride doesn’t burst into her wedding; she waits for the cue to enter,” she said in an amused tone. “While we do that, why don’t you put that exceptional brain of yours to work paying attention to what I say?” When Hermione nodded she continued, “Remain silent until we enter the site, and then speak only when spoken to. The ceremony is simple enough, although there are a few things that might-“ Molly stopped short as a green flare lit the sky. She patted Hermione’s shoulder and grabbed her hand. “Well, that was fast. Come on, then!” She turned and pulled Hermione toward the north side of the manor.

 

“A few things that might what?” hissed Hermione as they rounded the corner of the gigantic house. They walked along the paved path until they came to the outer half of Lucius’ rose garden. There were fairies flitting about the plants, and when the young witch approached they came to hover around her, fascinated with her gown. The sight caused a series of unrelated thoughts to spin through her mind, and she asked, “Wait, Minerva never came tonight!”

 

“She fell asleep at dinner and Albus took her back to Hogwarts.” At Hermione’s look of concern she asked, “Would you really have wanted Minerva near that elf wine? And have a little faith in our traditions,” Molly added in a hushed, exasperated tone. “If we’re very quiet, I can explain here and there. Here we are.” The air was heavy with the fragrance of the flowers and a low, steady pulse that could only be magic. The musical laughter of the fairies only added to the atmosphere.

 

There at the back, between the fountain and the wall of the manor, was a spot that seemed to shimmer in the moonlight: the warded site. The heavily shrouded representatives of the Pureblood Houses stood guard around it facing inward, and each was casting a charm over it. They were chanting together quietly. As the two witches drew near, glowing symbols could be seen marking the ground around the circle. Those are the House runes, Hermione thought in awe. The closer they got, the stronger that pulse of magic got, and with it the strangest sensation that every living thing in the garden was participating.

 

“The Houses have cast their runes,” Molly whispered. “Albus will meet us, and then we’ll enter.”

 

No sooner had she finished speaking, than the Headmaster came out of the shadows nearby. He bowed to them and presented Molly with a wreath of roses. Then he offered his arm to Hermione gallantly, and she took it.

 

Molly set the wreath on Hermione’s head. “Magic and earth combined to make this witch, and we do welcome both here this night.” She kissed both of the young witch’s cheeks and took her other hand. “Come, daughter; under the waxing moon you will be made a Wife.”

 

As they came to the site, the two guards nearest them turned and said in unison, “The ancient House of Malfoy awaits its bespoken one.”

 

The rest of echoed, “The House of Malfoy.” The chanting resumed.

 

“We bring the one of whom you speak,” said the Headmaster. “She took the stake and bears the runes. Will you grant us entrance?”

 

The same two guards lowered their wands, and the wards rippled in front of them. Just as they were about to enter, however, one of the guards said in a deep, familiar voice, “Relinquish your wands or leave this place.”

 

Professor Dumbledore and Molly handed theirs over at once, and Hermione obeyed reluctantly. She glanced up at the guard who took it, surprised to see that it was Kingsley Shacklebolt under the hooded robes.

 

He winked at her and waved his large hand toward the site. Aloud he said, “Bring the bespoke witch, then, that Malfoy may claim its own.”

 

That small, kind gesture stilled some of the butterflies in Hermione’s stomach. She all but pulled her guardians through the lowered wards, hesitating only when they’d all three crossed over the threshold. Inside, the site bore no resemblance to the garden other than the grass beneath their feet and the fairies that still hovered around her dress. The air was heavy, and the moonlight streamed weakly through the wards, causing most of the circle to be cast in deep shadows. Her luminescent gown and the wings of the now quiet fairies stood out in stark contrast. She looked around, unconsciously tightening her grip on Molly’s hand.

 

The Weasley Wife squeezed it back and breathed, “Dark magic amplified by the runes. Your covenant will awaken soon.”

 

That made no sense to Hermione. It’s always awake, she thought, it just doesn’t always participate. She said nothing, as Molly had instructed, but nodded. Then her nose was assailed by the faint yet unmistakable scent of her wizards, and she looked again for Lucius and Draco.

 

They stood together on the far side of the circle, their eyes locked on Hermione. They wore dress robes and were also barefoot. At the center of it was a short, thick figure clad in the distinctive robes of an Unspeakable, head covered by a deep hood.

 

Hermione let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding as a feeling of relief flooded her being. She gave a small, self-conscious smile, switching her gaze every few seconds between the two men.

 

Lucius regarded her with heavy-lidded triumph, his eyes managing to both smolder and twinkle at the same time. His handsome mouth bore the faintest trace of a smile as he looked back at her.

 

Draco, on the other hand, was pale and wide-eyed. For a moment Hermione thought it might be caused by his recent head injury, but soon realized her younger wizard was terrified. His posture, his clenched hands, his deer-in-the-headlamps expression all spoke to this.

 

The two sets of emotions represented the dichotomy of her own feelings. She was by turns excited and happy, and then sick with nerves. If only I could stand between them I’d feel fine!

 

Just then the Unspeakable stepped forward and raised both hands moonward. A woman’s voice came from underneath the hood. “We gather under the moon to witness this joining under the protection of the ancient magics.” The Unspeakable turned toward Lucius and Draco. “Malfoy, is this the witch for whom you cast? Is this the one who bears your mark?”

 

“She is,” they answered together. “She is our bespoken one.”

 

The figure turned toward Hermione now. “Witch, do you come here of your own volition?”

 

At a nudge from Molly, Hermione answered breathlessly, “Yes.” Her heart began beating in a slightly faster rhythm.

 

“Come, then, and hear the vows of your House.”

 

Hermione allowed herself to be guided across the site to the Unspeakable, Molly and the Headmaster still holding her hands firmly. They stopped when they stood slightly to one side of the shrouded woman, and directly facing Lucius and Draco. Her heart rate increased yet again as the Unspeakable said to the Malfoy wizards, “If you will have this witch, she is yours.”

 

Lucius replied, “We will have her.” His eyes slid to hers for a second, flashing with an intensity that lit a spark in Hermione’s churning gut.

 

“And how will you keep her?’ The woman asked.

 

Draco answered, “She will dwell with us in the halls of our House.” He looked nauseous, but managed an almost-smile.

 

“She will be bathed in honor and wrapped in glory,” added Lucius, his eyes dipping down over her figure for a fraction of a second.

 

Wait, I’ve heard these before! Hermione recognized these vows instantly as the ones that had been said at their binding ceremony. She flushed under Lucius’ appreciative glance. And this time I can actually enjoy them.

 

Draco responded, “She will be filled with sons by us, and she will birth our champions.” He blushed.

 

She focused on the beauty of the ancient litany and the knowledge that every Malfoy bride before her had heard these same words. And she realized that Astoria had been right at their first meeting: these vows were hot. Three weeks ago Hermione might have concerned that the words might be meant literally, but tonight she hoped they were.

 

“She will sit between us and sleep in our bed, and her breast shall bear our mark,” concluded Lucius. He sent another smoldering look her way.

 

The Unspeakable turned to Hermione with an outstretched hand. When the young witch had taken it, she asked her, “Will you be kept in this way by the House of Malfoy?”

 

“Yes.” Hermione’s answer was immediate and sure. Her heart was pounding again, and the fluttering sensation in her stomach was increasing.

 

“Will you follow its covenant?” Asked the woman.

 

She was aware of the covenant pricking up its ears at the question and could almost feel its smirk. “Yes.” Please help me calm down.

 

“Will you keep the traditions of the ancient Houses and teach them to your children?”

 

If I survive this ritual, then yes. Absolutely. My children will be well informed in every possible subject, especially Pureblood traditions. “Yes.”

 

The Unspeakable ordered, “Join hands.” When they’d done so, she performed an intricate spell in the air above, sending golden tendrils of light curling around their knot of hands.

 

The magic licked along Hermione’s skin pleasantly before it slipped underneath and traveled throughout her body. It was warmth and light and amusement, and the curly-haired witch recognized the sentient magic of the Malfoy covenant. It’s providing all the magic for the ceremony, she guessed. The magic settled in her heart and stomach like a calming potion, and she thanked the covenant profusely.

 

The Unspeakable began the next segment. “A House is founded on its warriors and furthered by its Wife. Who takes up the burden of care for this witch?”

 

Lucius started this time, his eyes lingering on Hermione’s mouth as he said, “By my hand shall her lips be fed.”

 

She remembered the first time he’d fed her, and how unprepared she’d been for her body’s response. What if that happens tonight? What if I panic? The butterflies in her stomach returned, but to a lesser extent.

 

“By my hand shall her body be clothed, “ responded Draco. Her younger wizard’s voice had grown steadily stronger throughout the ceremony, and now he looked at her with a look of hopeful yearning.

 

“She will know the depth of my heart,” said the elder Malfoy in a solemn tone.

 

Draco finished, “And her pleasure shall be mine.” As it had at their binding ceremony his face flamed, but he held her gaze.

 

“Will you be cared for in this manner, bespoke witch?” The Unspeakable asked.

 

Hermione attempted to quell her nerves by sheer force of will and said steadily, “Yes.” Inwardly she sought out the presence of the family magic. Where did you go? I need you!

 

“Between the earth and the waxing moon these vows are sealed, and the covenant of this ancient House draws nigh. Malfoy, accept the blessing of your covenant.”

 

During the second part of the ritual, the air had begun thickening to an even greater extent, but the previously weak light had slowly increased until the warded site was as bright as midday. Now the hairs on the back of Hermione’s neck began to stand on end, and at her sides the Headmaster and Molly bowed their heads reverently.

 

The air seemed to become somewhat solid at a point nearby and a vague, transparent shape began to grow. It was enormous, magically powerful, and slightly terrifying, until it spoke in an oddly familiar voice. A voice that was Other and also slightly amused. “Greetings, little Bespoken One. I see you have not run away screaming yet.”

 

Out of the corner of her eye Hermione saw her wizards watching her intently. The way Lucius’ head had snapped between her and the family magic, she guessed he hadn’t been expecting such an opening line from it. She let out a breath of relief. Oh, thank goodness. It’s you! “Errrrr, there’s probably still time for that, so don’t push your luck.”

 

A throaty chuckle vibrated through the room. “You will bring light to this House, witch.”

 

The conversation was such a natural continuation of their one-sided internal dialogues that Hermione completely forgot about the others. She teased, “I’ll probably bring a good deal more than that, and not all good. You know how difficult I can be.”

 

Another wave of amusement washed over the area. “And do you still demand control, Mistress of Malfoy?”

 

Hermione reflected for a moment and responded, “Not nearly as much as before. I’ve grown accustomed to your bossy ways.” She paused and asked impishly, “Are we going to repeat that entire conversation?”

 

“Perhaps. That was the first time I had spoken in a long while, and I enjoyed it very much. Tell me, witch, have you considered my offer?”

 

I don’t see what was so enjoyable about me having a nervous breakdown, she groused internally. And I know you can hear me thinking. You don’t miss much, do you? “The one where I trust you blindly?” she asked with a satisfying roll of the eyes. “Yes, I have; and I’m willing to take it.” She added in a warning tone, “It won’t be easy for me.”

 

“I told you once: you are not the first Wife I have guided,” the presence said in its alien voice, “Although I have not met such a one as you since my awakening. Together we will bring glory as yet unseen to the House of Malfoy.”

 

Hermione squirmed under the mixture of praise and promise, countering, “And I warned you that if you cause my husbands one moment of needless pain or anguish, I will reject you with every part of my body and mind. Mess up, and you’ll have no Wife for your House.”

 

The covenant chuckled once more, sending vibrations through the air. “Well spoken, little Bespoke Witch. You will trust me, and I will prosper you and your House. So shall it be.”

 

“Agreed.” She cast another glance around the bright space, taking in the expressions of the people around her. They all seemed to be following the conversation avidly, but with shock and awe. “Why does everyone look that way?”

 

It chuckled again. “We covenants do not converse with just anyone. You took the runes of the Great One, whom I guided to birth the foundations of this House, but even before then I saw your destiny.”

 

“I’m flattered?” The statement sounded more like a question to Hermione’s ears.

 

“My time in this form is fleeting, but know that I am with you always. Now hush, and accept the blessing I bestow.”

 

TShe was tempted to ask exactly what sort of blessing that might be, but she bit her tongue and decided to practice a bit of blind trust. But if you love me, don’t let it be births of multiples. One baby at a time, please.

 

The covenant filled the site with a feeling of immense delight, and at the same time Hermione felt it brush against her mind and skin in a very feline way. Beside her, Molly and Professor Dumbledore both shuddered but kept their heads bowed low. It sent a comforting sensation curling around her body, tempting Hermione to reach out and run her hand over it. The ancient family magic rolled through her mind with satisfaction and said aloud, “This witch is our own, to be recognized and protected by all the ancient covenants. Harm her, and bear our wrath.” Then it was gone from the site, and curled back up around the edge of Hermione’s awareness as if it were napping.

 

She waited for someone to speak, remembering Molly’s instructions, but when the silence had stretched out for an uncomfortably long time Hermione blurted, “Errrrr, what’s next?”

 

The Unspeakable pushed off her hood, exposing a pleasant, plump, rosy-cheeked face. “Good heavens, Madame Malfoy! In all my days I’ve never . . .” She trailed off, shaking her head in bewilderment.

 

Hermione turned to Molly. “What’s next?” She waited for a response, and when none came looked to Lucius.

 

The elder Malfoy looked at her with an expression of pride. He held out his arms to her, pulling her close when she went to him. “I had no idea how serious you were when you said you’d communicated with it,” he murmured against her temple. “There has never been such an occurrence at a Pureblood ritual in my lifetime, and probably since the Fall of Four.”

 

“Oh, sweet Merlin, I knew it. I’m a freak!” She gasped the words against Lucius’ chest, pushing against his hold on her. “Did I ruin everything?”

 

He let out a low, happy laugh and gave her a chaste but sound kiss. His thumb brushed against her lower lip. Rub, rub, rub. “You have exceeded every expectation and left us speechless as usual, pet.” Then he threw an arm around Draco, who was staring at Hermione in an adoring manner. “What say you to the concerns of our lovely prize, Draco?”

 

The younger Malfoy shook his head and reached hesitantly for her hand. Seemingly encouraged by her eager clutch, he replied, “Sweetheart, that was . . . You’re no freak, believe me.”

 

Lucius looked between the Unspeakable and the Headmaster. “Are you satisfied with the ritual?” Now his fingers were moving in that same pattern on her lower back. Rub, rub, rub.

 

The Unspeakable, who seemed to have recovered from her confusion, replied sternly, “Take her to your bed and make her yours now. Such a powerful conduit of dark magic must be permanently aligned with a House.” She glanced between the others. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that this must remain unspoken outside this site. The last thing we need is another wizarding war.”

 

Hermione tucked those comments away. It didn’t seem like the time to launch a full-scale investigation, especially with the way Lucius was regarding her. Her request for help from the covenant had been answered doubly; not only had her nerves settled nicely, but she felt her body responding to her elder wizard’s ministrations. She was having difficulty looking away from him at the moment.

 

“We have one last part of the ritual to complete, but say good-night to Draco, pet, and then bid your guardians good-bye,” He said in his silkiest voice. “I plan to spirit you away the moment we are finished.”

 

The young witch shivered and complied. She approached the Headmaster first and shook his hand. “Thank you again, Professor.”

 

He twinkled at her kindly and patted her hand in the manner of a favorite elderly uncle. “I don’t think we’re done with each other quite yet, Madame Malfoy, but you are most welcome all the same.” He wandered away toward the Unspeakable after a genteel bow.

 

Hermione turned to her mother-figure and was immediately caught up in a suffocating hug. “Oof! Thank you for everything, Molly.”

 

“It was my pleasure, sweetheart!” Molly pinched her cheek and leaned in to say quietly, “And don’t overthink things. You’ve always been extraordinary; of course your family magic wants to befriend you! I’m not surprised in the least.” She made sure Hermione was paying attention before adding, “Each new thing builds on the last, don’t forget.”

 

Draco was suddenly stealing her away. He led her a few feet from the others and stood, hands shoved in his pockets for a few moments. Finally he blurted, “I don’t know how to be a husband. I don’t know anything about it, I’m afraid you’ll despise me because I didn’t know what to study beforehand.”

 

Oh, Draco. You and I are so very much alike, worried about failing for lack of research. She flung her arms around him and said bravely, “I don’t know how to be any kind of wife, either; Pureblood or otherwise. I’m afraid I won’t be any good at . . .” she hesitated and blushed.   “You know.”

 

Draco wrapped one long arm around her. He lifted her chin with a forefinger and looked down at her with an incredulous expression on his handsome, blushing face. “You’re good at everything, Hermione. If anyone disappoints in that department, it will be me.”

 

Hermione reached her arms up around his neck and pulled him down to her level, snuggling into the fragrant spot between his jaw and the collar of his robes. “I love you, Draco. You could never disappoint me.” She pressed a kiss to the soft skin below his ear.

 

“I feel the same about you, little witch,” he murmured into her curls. “Perhaps we should agree not to worry about things that don’t matter to one another.”

 

She nodded against him. “I’d rather look forward to . . . those kinds of things.”

 

Draco pulled back slightly with a grin, his face still darkly flushed. “Do you think we’ll be this shy forever?”

 

“I like the way you make me feel, you silly snake, even when that means I’m blushing and tripping over words.” Lucius was beckoning to them, so she pressed her lips to Draco’s mouth. It was a gentle, promising kiss, and they broke away with happy grins on their faces.

 

Draco tugged her back toward the others by one hand, leaning down at the last minute to whisper in her ear, “I’ll wait for you in the library, Wife. Third floor, in the back of the philosophy of magic section.”

 

She beamed up at him, remembering his promise from Wednesday. “Don’t forget the Courtenay treatise, husband.”

 

The wards were falling around them now, and the robed representatives from the attending Houses entered the site. Everyone but Hermione seemed to know exactly where to go, and in the end the House of Malfoy was surrounded.

 

Molly and the Headmaster left the immediate area, but not before the she’d kissed both Lucius and Draco on the cheek and then done the newest Malfoy. “Thank you for the vacation! Just imagine: an entire fortnight at the Harmandir Sahib! Arthur and I just have to pick up our bags at The Burrow and then we’ll be off by the portkey you arranged.” She waved to Hermione and blew her a kiss as she left. “I’ll send a postcard!”

 

Kingsley Shacklebolt handed her wand over with kind smile.   “Madame Malfoy, the remainder of the Sacred Twenty-Eight pledge to protect you and your children with our lives. We spill our blood on this spot as proof of that promise. Let it be remembered until the fall of our Houses.”

 

“Until the fall of our Houses,” echoed the other representatives. Each one drew a small, gleaming knife from their robes and then drew it over the palm of their left hand. Then they knelt in a tight circle around the Malfoys and pressed their bleeding hands to the ground. As one they stood and offered their cut palms to Hermione, Lucius, and Draco.

 

When she looked at Lucius questioningly, she saw he had begun performing a healing charm on one. She followed suit, yelping in surprise when a strong jolt of magic jumped from her hand to the wizard’s. “What was that?”

 

The representative pushed back his hood, revealing the pleasant face of a silver-haired man. He smiled down at her. “Residual dark magic, Madame Malfoy. You must have absorbed more than your share.” He gestured with the hand she’d just healed. “My thanks.” Then he retreated to the edge of the site, where the rest of the heavily robed figures had begun gathering.

 

When the last slashed palm had been restored, Draco pulled her to him without warning. His previous terror seemed to have been allayed, and he kissed her tenderly. “I’ll see you soon. Don’t rush.”

 

“I don’t want you to be by yourself,” she breathed quietly. The image of him waiting alone for her was troubling.

 

He shook his head with a smile. “I’ll have this lot for company at least through the morning, and probably after that as well. It’s expected for Lucius to keep you to himself for at least that long. Now go, before he throws you over his shoulder.”

 

Hermione laughed at that idea and then realized Draco wasn’t joking at all. Sweet Circe, that was one of my first mental images of the Malfoys, she mused as she fled back to her elder wizard’s side. The butterflies began fluttering in her stomach once again, and they’d obviously been reproducing during their brief absence. She sneaked a glance up at him, chewing furiously at her lip as she did so.

 

Lucius regarded her with a furrowed brow. He seemed deep in thought as he drew her close. “Are you ready, Wife?”

 

She nodded, suddenly unable to speak. So much for being a lioness. I wonder how Molly felt at this moment on her wedding day.

 

She looked once more to Draco, who was now being dragged away by the laughing House representatives. He was blushing and laughing in what looked to be good-natured embarrassment. He’s going to be kept company while his older brother completes my corruption. While we’re . . .

 

“I can hear your brain working from here,” Lucius murmured. He freed her lip from between her teeth with a gentle thumb. “What has my lovely one in such a state of worry?”

 

Hermione was having difficulty breathing. She blinked rapidly, hoping he’d understand she was trying to communicate.

 

When it became obvious she wasn’t going to answer, Lucius leaned low and murmured against her cheek, “I’m going to take you to my bed, sweetling, and make a Wife of you.” He brushed his lips against hers tenderly and then stood to his full height. “But there is something I would like to show you first.”

 

Despite her nerves Hermione nearly snorted. Oh, I’ll bet there is! It’s long, hard, and ready to . . . The expression on his aristocratic face, though, was earnest and slightly vulnerable. Or maybe that wasn’t a double entendre at all. Maybe Lucius just made a gaffe. The butterflies in her stomach settled down slightly as curiosity flooded her brain. What does Lucius want to show me? She filled one hand with the soft fabric of his dress robes and spoke into the front of his shirt. “All right.” She peeked up at him inquisitively.

 

Her interest must have shown on her face, because he smiled down at her and pulled her against him firmly. Then he turned on his heel and spun them away in Apparition.

 

She would have fallen to her hands upon arrival, had not her elder husband kept her upright in his strong arms. When she’d recovered her equilibrium, Hermione stepped out of his embrace and looked around. “Where on earth are we?” They were still outside, but not in any place she recognized. It was a forest, and obviously a very, very old one, judging by the immense size of the tree trunks nearest them. Night sounds filled the area, bats swooped low overhead, and there was a rich, oaky smell in the cooling air. Under her bare feet, the thick groundcover of leaves was cold but soft. Hermione shivered, jumping nervously when Lucius draped his outer robes around her shoulders.

 

He said quietly, “A place I have come all my life. Its tranquility is unrivaled. Come, pet.” Lucius set off between the trees confidently, one arm wrapped around Hermione’s shoulders. “Do you see the tree with the large scar over there? I did that accidentally the day I got my first wand. Abraxas never found out, thank Merlin.”

 

Hermione did, in fact, see the horribly disfigured oak. “What on earth were you trying to do?”

 

He gave a deep, happy laugh. “I don’t remember, but I never tried it again.”

 

“Why did you come here? How far is it from the manor?” Hermione craned her neck in search of other interesting landmarks, her curiosity over this new topic quickly overshadowing all else.

 

Lucius chuckled and reached out to pluck a leaf from a low-lying branch. “The forest is at the far north end of the estate. I came here accidentally when I was very young and looking for a place to hide, and it became my refuge.” At Hermione’s inquisitive, upward glance, he explained, “I imagined a very big tree, and suddenly I was here. Quite terrified, too – so the elves like to remind me.”

 

“How old were you?” She asked.

 

“Young enough to still be under constant supervision; perhaps four or five.” He sighed. “Topsy was minding me that day, and we played here until it was time for dinner. I only agreed to leave when she promised to bring me back whenever I liked.”

 

“You were hiding because of your father,” Hermione guessed, curling her arms around his waist. It made walking side by side more difficult, but she needed to give him comfort for that old hurt.

 

“I did not bring you here tonight to dredge up things best left unspoken, pet.” Lucius hesitated for a moment and then added, “but I will gladly share with you happy memories of this place.”

 

Hermione gave a hum of understanding. “Tell me another one, then.”

 

They came to a small moonlit clearing and stepped into it, moving apart to walk hand in hand. “The old Thestral stable is nearby, moved here because Calpurnia couldn’t bear to have them any nearer to the manor. I found them not long after I discovered this place and they became my pets.”

 

Hermione cast a cynical smirk his way. “Thestrals? They’re not exactly cuddly.”

 

“Nonsense,” Lucius said dismissively. “They’re gentle, intelligent creatures. I could see them from an early age, and we took to each other instantly.”

 

“What were their names, these pets of yours?” She challenged playfully.

 

He laughed and swung their joined hands boyishly. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

 

“Their names, Lucius,” she ground out in mock warning. She tugged on his hand in a demanding manner.

 

He was still chuckling as he said, “Mind you, I was five years old, and learning French.” At her growl of impatience he leaned and murmured into her hair, “Gauche, Droit, Brun, Gentil, and Tenebrus.”

 

The admission sent Hermione into a gale of giggles. “Left and Right? Brown? Pretty? Lucius, did you hit your head as a tot? Thestrals aren’t any of those descriptors! And Tenebrus can’t be modern French!” She poked a teasing finger into his chest.

 

He smirked and caught her hand. “It made perfect sense to a little boy and an elf. And it was Grand-père Louis, I believe, who suggested Tenebrus. I used to tell him about my little adventures each night.”

 

Hermione imagined a sweet, blond, pajama-clad boy regaling an old painting with stories of magical creatures and smiled. “It’s odd, though,” she mused aloud. “Because Tenebrus is the name of Hagrid’s-“ At his smirk, she concluded, “You’ve been talking about them in the past tense because they’re not here any more. They’re what Hagrid calls his foundation herd!”

 

Lucius stepped close to her, leaning down with a grin. “The Forbidden Forest was a far better habitat for them. They went there during my fourth year.” He dropped her hand and wrapped his arms around her.

 

“You’re a fascinating wizard; did you know that?” Hermione tipped up her chin and twined her arms around his neck. “I want to learn everything about you.” She pressed a kiss to his chin.

 

He deftly caught her mouth with his and kissed her until she forgot where they were and what her name was. When they broke apart to breathe he brushed his lips across her cheek to her ear. “Then let us go, my love, and begin learning each other.”

 

The anxieties of the day ceased under his voice and touch. Hermione found herself nodding and stepping even closer to her elder wizard. She pulled him down for one more kiss and then whispered, “Take me to your bed, husband, and make a Wife of me.”

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