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This, Too, Is Sacred

Chapter Text

The air smelled of magic. It was a difficult scent to put one's finger on, but Draco could have recognized it in his sleep.

Everyday magic, as its name implied, was present in everything, every day of the year and was much different from Old Magic; this had a distinct nostalgia, of pacts made centuries ago, of power that most modern minds could barely comprehend, of times even his ancestors had forgotten…

Layered atop it was the familiar smell of burning sage and the varied perfumes of oils being worn by all the purebloods present that evening. Censers of incense muddled it all together, making it seem less like they were on the brink of sensory overload and more as though the myriad collection of smells actually went together. Even though they didn't, really.

The sun had not fully set until quite late in the evening, as tonight marked the solstice. All the same, Draco and his mother had arrived for the midsummer celebrations some hours ago. He had spent much of the previous week preparing himself for this day. Tonight, for the first time, he would cast in with the Old Magic - for this was the first year it had called him. Tonight, he might even marry… or he might not, depending on what the magic had in store for him. He'd had his nineteenth birthday only a couple weeks prior and though Draco had been in attendance for two of these celebrations before, this was his first year actually participating. It had certainly flipped his perspective upside-down.

A breeze rushed past him, raising gooseflesh on his skin in its wake; as he wore only a thin, white linen shirt and trousers, it nearly felt as if he were naked. He glanced down at his bare feet and experienced a moment's suffering as he noted that they were dirty from wandering about. Going without shoes was really quite uncivilized, in his opinion – but as it was only one day of the year, he felt optimistic that he could cope.

At the top of the hill, he waited for his turn to enter the henge. Though he had intended to swagger in, brimming with confidence, the moment his bare, dirty feet stepped inside the circle of stone monoliths, he felt only humbled, suddenly berated by the magic he had been sensing all evening. This was a power the likes of which he had never contended with... not even when the Dark Lord had been at his full strength.

He plucked his rune-stone from his trouser pocket and hesitated. That rune-stone had been his for above five months now, ever since the Old Magic had first called him. On one side, it was carefully carved with the Malfoy family crest, while on the other, was a rune the Old Magic had specifically chosen for him. What if he did not want to cast it away?

To do so would mean he was officially accepting his inheritance... but it was also a final soldering point to the blood pact, which would continue to affect his life for as long as he breathed.

It's your duty, he castigated himself.

It was not hard to sense his father in those words.

Lucius was still in Azkaban, finishing up a two-year sentence left over from the war. Despite that the Battle of Hogwarts had been thirteen months ago, Draco's father had not actually been tried until three months later due to the high volume of persons arrested at the time and their newfound, Boy-Wonder-led determination to give everyone a fair trial.

Mouth set into a hard line, Draco tossed his rune-stone into the center basin and took a vacant place amongst the other purebloods that stood along the inside perimeter of the stone circle.

Both Draco and Narcissa had been given short house-arrest sentences, followed by a probationary period, which was quickly waning. They had got lucky that the Minister for Magic was Kingsley Shacklebolt, because he had been able to allow a reprieve for Draco to complete this ritual, as he had been called to do. The House of Shacklebolt was another pureblood family, other keepers of the blood pact. Kingsley understood.

With only some bitterness, Draco reflected, But then, it's always been about blood.

There were thirty-three of them gathered there that night. He glanced over to where the tall, dark Kingsley Shacklebolt stood in his own place of the circle. He might be the most politically powerful wizard in Britain but here he was, complying with the Old Magic himself. This type of authority went beyond any one person; it was older than England, nearly as old as the earth itself. What were mere witches and wizards in the face of such power?

The officiant of the casting ceremony, Cornelius Lestrange, was a very old man indeed, rumored to be 128 years old - though you would never know it to look at him. He was the singular remaining member of the House of Lestrange following the death of his two grandsons during the Battle of Hogwarts. Rodolphus and Bellatrix had thankfully never had any children, while nearly everyone suspected Rabastan of having been a deeply closeted homosexual. They had given up their lives for Voldemort and in doing so, had essentially rendered their entire line extinct.

As the picks for casting were chosen in order from eldest to youngest person present, Lestrange commenced with, "Etta Rosier, eldest daughter of the House of Rosier."

One by one, they were announced and called forward. Kingsley Shacklebolt was the second called, as he was in his mid-thirties. Most of those present were in some phase of their twenties, though there were a few teenagers. The Old Magic could require you to stake your first cast at any point between your coming of age at seventeen, up until the age of twenty-one... and keep casting until you were matched, or older than fifty-five.

"Percival Weasley, thirdborn son of the House of Weasley."

The red-haired man – who, in Draco's opinion, had always been the most tolerable of all the Weasleys – had taken his eldest brother's place as the representative for that House, apparently. Despite that the Weasleys had long been considered blood traitors, they were still compelled by the Old Magic to make a cast. Percy stepped forward to take a rune-stone from the center basin and must have come back with his match, because his face became white as a sheet, followed quickly by a spreading flush as red as his hair. He stepped backward to remain in the henge, the first to do so. His eyes never left the stone in his hand except to glance up around the circle, no doubt searching for the face of his imminent wife-to-be.

"Pansy Parkinson, eldest daughter of the House of Parkinson."

Please not mine, Draco inwardly wished. There had always been an unofficial hope between her family and his that they would be paired – but he and Pansy had tried an informal sort of courting while they were at Hogwarts. As it turned out, neither were really attracted to the other and they had opted to remain close acquaintances.

The hard-faced girl reached into the basin and pulled out her destiny. Ever the Slytherin, her expression was impassive though she stepped back into the circle with the others that had been chosen.

"Theodore Nott IV, last heir and sole survivor of the House of Nott."

Draco watched as his good friend stepped forward and reached down to remove a rune-stone. He picked it up, glanced at it... and breathed an audible sigh of relief. Knowing Theo had been adamant in his wish not to marry this year, Draco suspected the Nott heir had pulled out the same rune-stone he had cast in. This was confirmed when the wiry, dark-haired wizard smirked in satisfaction and made his way out of the henge.

Finally, "Draco Malfoy, sole heir of the House of Malfoy."

He was a bundle of nerves. What if he was picked? What if he wasn't picked? Some of the purebloods there had been casting for over a decade with no luck…

He feigned his best composure, fighting to emulate Lucius's iciness when it had been at its best. Nevertheless, when he reached in and plucked out a rune-stone, he felt his heart stop completely. He could very nearly feel the weight of destiny entombed within his fingers.

He opened his hand. The Malfoy crest was chiseled into the dolomite.

A flood of relief spread like warmth into his limbs and even into the extremities of his fingertips. No pairing for him tonight. Thank Merlin!

He made his way toward the outside of the stone circle where Theo had been waiting for him. His friend laughed at the expression on his face. "You look positively relieved!"

"Aren't you?" Draco queried cheekily, feeling much more chipper with his own rune-stone still in his pocket.

Theo glanced back into the henge, where the ceremony was swiftly coming to a close and shuddered. "I suppose I am. This was my second year casting in. I felt like I was starting to play with fire this year. Like it's only a matter of time for me…"

Draco laughed. "It's marriage, Theo, not death."

"Don't try to tell me you weren't glad when your own family crest was staring you in the face just now," Nott teased. The wizards began to descend back to the bottom of the hill toward the brightly colored pavilion in a meadow where the rest of the celebrations were well underway. Bonfires in flames of red, blue, green, or purple formed a perimeter around the clearing, where a veritable feast was occurring.

As they set foot inside, Narcissa hastened toward Draco. One look at his face told her all she needed to know. "So, you are still my son for another year."

Theo politely excused himself.

Draco smirked. "It looks as if you're stuck with me."

It was not that Draco was necessarily against marriage, it just did not feel like good timing for him yet. He was only nineteen, and it had been a mere year since the Dark Lord had fallen. He was still going through some personal issues, especially with regard to his father.

She placed a hand on his cheek and made a small smile. "I'm glad. It's another year I get to be your mother."

"Another year you get to be the most important witch in my life," he agreed indulgently.

Her small smile blossomed out into something more full-fledged. "Do enjoy the feasting, won't you?"

She departed to recommence with the festivities herself, leaving Draco to his own devices. By this time, Theo had moved off to acquire a plateful of assorted delicacies and had joined Avery at an end of one of the long tables assembled there.

Cadfael Avery had been a year ahead of them in Slytherin, and had also not been paired that night. His flaxen hair was pulled back into a ponytail while a small scruff of beard dusted his cheeks and jawline. Dark lashes framed his hazel eyes.

"Well, well, well," Draco drawled, approaching his friends as they indulged in some of the freely flowing wine. "Another year as free wizards, all three of us. How shall we commemorate this auspicious event?"

"You're behind, mate," Cadfael grinned. "We've already decided we're getting completely pissed."

"It's too bad they've only got wine here," Theo bemoaned, drinking from his goblet nonetheless.

Cadfael's grin morphed into a smirk and he reached into the pocket of his ceremonial linen trousers to produce a flask. "Amateurs, both of you. Always come prepared to a casting ceremony."

"Firewhiskey?" Nott eyed the flask with interest before protesting, "There's hardly enough there."

"It's called a Bottomless Charm, nimrod."

"Ah, right."

Cadfael unscrewed the top and drank deeply before offering it to Draco. Feeling he could certainly use a pick-me-up, he took a deep swig before passing it to Theo. All around them, ninety-odd other purebloods were carrying on, feasting and celebrating; even those without family members casting in were mostly in attendance, as all those who were of age were encouraged to come.

Meanwhile, the last of the unpaired stragglers from the casting ceremony were making their way into the pavilion to join the others. Draco noticed that this included both of the Carrow twins in their matching white gowns embroidered with silver thread, along with the Greengrass sisters, and Longbottom, who was stumbling over himself as usual.

Standing alone at the bottom of the hill, were the wary, careworn figures of Mr. and Mrs. Weasley (Draco could remember that the patriarch's name was Arthur, but for the life of him he could not remember his wife's given name). Their hands were clasped in solidarity and their eyes gazed upward toward the henge, where fourteen figures in white now stood in pairs. Draco recalled that their son would be up there, currently getting married; he wondered what was going through their minds.

"Thoughts on who'll have to go first to consummate?" Cadfael interrupted his pondering, rubbing his hands together as he eyed the long table off near the front of the pavilion. It was set up for the seven paired couples to enjoy their feasting later on.

"They always pick the eldest couple to start, right?" Theo queried.

"Right."

"Who do you suppose Parkinson got matched to?" Draco wondered, his eyes still fixed on the group of figures standing stock-still in the circle of monolithic stones at the top of the hill.

"It was Declan. He was standing right beside me up there. I saw that the rune-stone he had picked out was hers." The smile slid from Theo's face immediately. "She wanted Rowan, didn't she?"

The three wizards simultaneously looked toward the other side of the celebration tent where Rowan Selwyn, a quiet wizard who had been a couple years ahead of them in Slytherin, was staring blankly at the wall of the tent, unseeing. He had clearly hoped to be paired with Pansy, too.

"It's a little bit sick," Theo observed, glancing away from the stricken wizard, "that she got paired to his older brother. He and Declan are nothing alike."

It was true: Declan Selwyn, who had been five years their senior at Hogwarts, had been an almost clinically stereotypical Ravenclaw.

Draco was merely relieved he had not been paired with Pansy, himself. He supposed it would not have been awful being married to her – he could at least respect her cunning nature – but it would not have been very rewarding, either. She was in love with another man, and considering that wizard was also in love with her… well, Draco did not fancy being cuckolded, that was for sure.

He winced, wondering how Pansy was handling herself knowing she would have to be married to the brother of the man she loved, until death do them part…

A short while later, six of the seven pairs descended the hill into a cacophony of noise and congratulations. Some of these new couples were beaming, clearly ecstatic to have been matched to their now-spouse, while others like Pansy and Declan, merely remained impassive. In fact, Pansy might have seemed completely unaffected but for the fact that her good friend, Daphne Greengrass, immediately rushed to her side and began consoling her.

Draco drank deeply from his wine; a smaller, white-clad figure trailing behind Daphne caught his eye.

Astoria Greengrass had cast in for her first year, at only just seventeen. Despite that the blood pact only called for an eldest son and eldest daughter from the same family (if both were available), many families urged younger sons or daughters to cast in as well. The Greengrasses were no exception.

While Theo and Cadfael amused themselves by shouting bawdy comments in the direction of the six couples who were awaiting their turn to consummate their marriage in the henge, Draco eyed Astoria contemplatively.

She's too young to be here, he thought to himself. She surely was not yet ready for the responsibilities and trials of the blood pact... or of marriage…

Draco had never paid her any mind while she was two years behind them in school. She had always just been Daphne's younger sister and that had comprised the extent of her personality. Tonight, Draco surveyed her in her white casting gown and recognized her potential to turn into something exquisite. There were flowers in her hair – many of the witches making a cast chose to do this, and there was always a deeper meaning to the flowers they opted to use.

He'd had too much wine but still was just sober enough to recognize that Astoria had chosen daisies, which represented purity and innocence. His skin felt hot under his white linen shirt and pants. Perhaps it would not hurt to get to know her in the year before the next casting…

 

Chapter Text

Hermione leaned over the railing of the second-floor balcony and considered, There's something beautiful about Sydney in April…

The sprawling city stretched before her, vibrant and teeming with energy. The weather had been gorgeous in the past month, lovely and warm but not too hot. She had even gone sea bathing last week, as a way to clear her mind.

But not today.

She glanced behind her again, at the drawn curtains on the sliding glass doors that led to the interior of the Wilkins home. There was no sign of movement; indeed, there was no indication whatsoever that anyone at all was within. She knew, however, that beyond those doors was a team of Healers comprised from both St. Mungo's in Britain and the Murrumburrah Magical Hospital of Australia.

She had been advised by the Healers not to go inside - and technically she wasn't, as the balcony was out-of-doors. That balcony had been her residence for over eight hours now, and she wished she had thought to bring more to amuse herself there. An armchair she had dragged outside sat haphazardly by a stack of books, which had already been combed through with near-brutal velocity, so eager was she to occupy her thoughts…

Beyond those doors, the team of Healers was attempting to render Wendell and Monica Wilkins back into Martin and Jeannette Granger.

It was the culmination of nearly two years' research and hard work. After the Battle of Hogwarts, Hermione had taken only a week to recover - and felt guilty doing even that - before marching right into St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries in London to demand an appointment with one of their mind Healers. This was granted, likely only because of her newly minted role as one of the saviors of the wizarding world.

It would be a dangerous, tricky business trying to break through such a vast memory charm. Foremost in her mind was the unfortunate Bertha Jorkins, who had once 'seen too much' and been subsequently Obliviated, causing her to develop a reputation for being forgetful and lost. That was, until Voldemort had happened upon her while on his rise to power. He had tortured her for information until he cracked through the memory charm that had kept her quiet for nearly thirteen years. Voldemort had killed her afterward, deeming her useless.

Despite the warm autumnal air, Hermione shivered and glanced again at the set of glass doors.

That's the trick of the thing, she thought, breaking through a memory charm without torture.

It would not be easy… but things had not been easy for some time now...

While Australia was beautiful, it was halfway across the world from home. She missed Harry something terrible; he was a passable correspondent, often taking longer than she would wish to respond to her letters, but at least he wrote, which was more than she could say for Ron.

"You can't really blame him," she reminded herself in a whisper. After everything that passed between you…

A first kiss exchanged during the heat of battle had naturally flowed directly into a relationship, which grew more serious in time. He had been her first - and while their sex life could best be described as irregular, it had not been terrible once they had both got the hang of things. All the same, when Hermione had announced her plan to move to Sydney, there had been a creeping sense of rightness when she and Ron then chose to split up... almost as if this too, had been the natural flow of what their relationship was meant to be.

The only person who had actually visited was Ginny. These days, she was a reserve Chaser for the Montrose Magpies, who had thrice played against one of the Australian teams in the past year. Hermione had attended all three of these matches, as Ginny had been able to get her front-row tickets. Two of the three games, Hermione had even managed to procure a date to occupy the other seat, as she had been casually seeing one of the bookkeepers at the Australian embassy for a time.

After these games, she and Ginny would grab drinks at one of Sydney's plentiful bars. On one such occasion, her friend had informed Hermione that Ron was now dating Susan Bones. She honestly could say she hoped he was happy with Susan, and that knowledge gave her an odd sense of completion despite that she had not done any serious dating, herself.

Her focus was on her parents right now. She did not have time for a relationship.

The sound of the glass door sliding open behind her snapped her attention up to Healer Smythe, who popped his head out. "Miss Granger?"

She rushed away from the railing, the city beyond forgotten. "Are they alright? How did it go? May I see them?"

The man held up his hands to stem her tirade of questions. "You may come in, if you are quiet. Your father is currently resting, but you may see him after we speak. I would be happy to go over everything with you..."

"Are my parents alright?" she repeated the most important question.

A pause. Her heart stopped.

"Perhaps you had better come inside…"

.

.

For Martin Granger, the process had gone as smoothly as could be hoped. His wife, on the other hand, had not responded well to even the gentlest of mental probing and had been placed in a magically-induced coma while the Healers attempted to knit her mind back together… at least, that was how Healer Smythe had described what they were doing.

"As we discussed beforehand," Smythe explained, "the mind is a terribly complicated web. Even the most minor of disruptions can damage it irreparably. With your father, the memory charm reacted exactly as it should, therefore it was easier to patch back together…"

Over the past two years, Hermione had made it her business to read anything about the subject she could lay her hands on. She nodded when the information aligned with what she knew.

"...But your mother already had spell damage in her mind, from many years ago."

She been fidgeting nervously in her seat while the Healer spoke, but here, she paused. "What was that?"

"Years ago, in her childhood, someone placed a series of memory charms on your mother."

The issue with that statement, for Hermione, was obvious: "But… my mother is a Muggle."

Smythe shifted in his seat. "Yes, well… I think your father might be the best person to shed light on that particular subject. His mental faculties are not ready for an interrogation yet, but he is awake. He's tired and still a bit muddled, but he may be ready for a brief visit if you…"

"I'd like to see him."

The Healer seemed to understand some of what she was feeling because he obligingly led her to the upstairs bedroom that, until recently, had been shared by Wendell and Monica Wilkins.

The door clicked open. Smythe poked his head inside and queried, "Cam? Are we ready for a visit?"

"Bring her in," replied a voice belonging to Healer Nguyen.

She entered tentatively. Nguyen had been sitting up with Hermione's father and testing his reflexes.

Softly, the Healer murmured to her patient, "Your daughter is here to see you, Martin."

Mr. Granger looked up and met her eyes. There, Hermione could see him… her father, donned in the green-and-white pinstriped hospital robes of the Murrumburrah Magical Hospital, and sitting up in bed. Quietly, he acknowledged, "Hermione..."

"Just remember, Miss Granger, his emotions are still in a fragile state," Nguyen warned. The woman rose to give them some privacy but as she passed, she leaned toward Hermione and whispered, "We have not informed him about your mother yet. Most of the team is still working on her now… it would not be wise to upset him until his mind has had some more time to heal."

"I understand. Thank you."

Once the Healer left, Hermione slowly made her way to the Queen-sized bed and sank down on the end of it. "How're you doing, Dad?"

"I feel like I've been hit by a triple-decker," he admitted, but cracked a smile just the same. "They tell me I was informed beforehand that I would be undergoing mind surgery - but I probably just don't remember it, given what I've just been through... A confusing thought, that."

"They informed Wendell Wilkins of it, that's for sure!" she admitted with a tinny-sounding laugh. She scooted further up the bedspread, eager to be near him. "I'm so relieved you're alright…"

His familiar crooked grin spread across his features. "I'll forever be rolling my eyes when a patient complains about how they feel post-anesthesia now... but it could be worse…"

She smiled, taking his hand and giving it a squeeze, which he returned.

A moment later, a frown marred his brow. "Where's your mother?"

.

.

Hours later, Jeannette remained in her magically-induced coma and the team of Healers had officially opted to give her mind some respite and were taking a break. She was to be removed to the Murrumburrah Magical Hospital, where she would probably need to be a resident for some time, as they were not very optimistic about her condition. In fact, Hermione had been told in no uncertain terms, that her mother would likely never be the same Jeannette Granger that her family knew, ever again.

The moment Martin was stable enough to be told, Healer Smythe had broken the news to him. The next time Hermione visited, Mr. Granger was sitting in the kitchen with his head in his hands, elbows resting on the table in front of him.

"Dad?"

He was silent.

"Dad… I'm so sorry."

After a long while, his eyes slowly slid back into focus and he returned to the present. To his daughter, he rasped out, "Why?"

"I had to. I was wanted by a madman; Harry and Ron were, too. I knew they would come after you if I didn't hide you. They would have killed you both without a second thought..."

The story came pouring out of her like water from a gushing spout: the rise of Voldemort, the discovery and subsequent destruction of the horcruxes, and the Dark Lord's eventual demise. It took several minutes to detail. Martin's eyes were fixed on his daughter the entire time. When she finally fell silent, he only sat quietly for several minutes. Hermione allowed him to do so, knowing it was an awful lot to take in. She set about making some tea and it was not until her father had been supplied with a cuppa – just as he liked it – that he mused, "So it happened again…"

Sinking into the chair across from him and clutching at her own steaming cup, she queried, "What did?"

"Voldemort. He rose again."

Hermione blanched, "Did you already know about him? How? I purposefully never mentioned a thing because I didn't want you and Mum to get scared and try to… I don't know... take me from the wizarding world, or something…"

"You were born during the height of the first war. How was I to not know? I might not be magical myself, but it was obvious what was happening. Even after cutting ties with my family…"

Stricken, Hermione iterated only, "What?"

Martin frowned. "I'm having some difficulty remembering what's happened and what hasn't… what's real and what isn't…"

His daughter's eyes filled with sympathy. "It's okay, Dad. The Healers say that will be normal for a few days. You've been through a lot."

But his frown only deepened and he lowered his teacup. "You're a witch."

"I am," she agreed.

"But you only found out when you were eleven, is that also right?"

"It is."

He nodded when the memories aligned properly. "Jeannette and I were astonished."

With a wan smile, she recalled, "I remember. Neither of you spoke a syllable for several minutes after Professor McGonagall came to explain everything."

"Why did Minerva have to come explain anything?"

"Well, it's the usual protocol for Muggle-born families. Don't you remember? Otherwise, we probably would have discarded the Hogwarts letter as a silly hoax..."

Martin frowned again. "But you're not Muggle-born. Not really."

Heart beating a little faster, she pressed, "What do you mean?"

The poor man seemed confused. "Hermione… what did Jeannette tell you about your heritage?"

"My heritage?" she repeated. "I'm not sure. Neither of you ever introduced me to other family members. Mum was an only child and her parents died before I was born, before she even met you. It was the same for you. It's always just been the three of us."

He sighed deeply. "We have a lot to talk about…"

The memory charms on Mum from years ago, maybe? she wondered, setting her teacup down.

"When I first met your mother, she was a bright, beautiful young woman studying to get into dentistry school. I was planning to become an accountant at the time, but she was such a captivating woman that listening to her speak about her line of study completely converted me and suddenly I was also learning to become a dentist, too…" A sad smile curled at the corners of Martin's mouth, and did not reach his eyes. "She has always been a highly convincing person, your mother. After courting her for some time, I asked her to marry me and she told me she would accept, on a single condition. She had a secret: her family, her blood... was magical, though she herself was not."

Hermione was listening raptly, her eyes fixed on her father.

"But I also had a secret," he continued. "My family, too, was magical by blood. However, I turned out to be what you would term a Squib."

"But you… you and Mum… you were both so shocked when you found out what I was!"

"Well, dear, as neither of us is magical, it did come as something of a shock."

"But there must have been something that could have tipped you off, if you knew what to look for," she protested keenly. "Accidental magic?"

"You did not display much of that," Martin admitted, "and what you did, was never big. We ignored it."

Astounded, she insisted, "You can't have thought that would make it go away…"

"It's amazing what the mind can convince itself of, when it tries hard enough," he contradicted, draining his teacup and reaching for the pot to take a second. "We were both scared you might be magical... and worried that if any of our distant relatives knew of you, they might try to take you from us. So, years later, we had finally convinced ourselves you had turned out perfectly normal – you hadn't had any magical outbursts that we knew of, for years – and we decided any accidental magic you might have displayed as a child was born of our fears of you being exactly that."

Hermione recalled the numerous times that she had desperately tried to hide any magical outbursts as she grew up, frightened that she could not explain them. "So when Professor McGonagall came… then what?"

"It did not take long for us to realize that Minerva had no idea who we were. We had successfully disguised ourselves from the wizarding world, just as we wished. She believed you were a Muggle-born, so we went right along with it, pretending."

"But why did you never tell me? Why keep up the charade?" she spluttered, stomach churning and her tea still forgotten on the table before her. "You allowed me to shape my entire personality based on an assumption made in the Hogwarts school roster?"

"We did it for the same reason you Obliviated your Mum and me," he answered, having the good graces to at least look guilty, "to protect you."

Taken aback, she repeated, "Protect me? From what?"

"Your mother had a difficult childhood," he explained. "That was partly why she was so determined to love you so much. Her father had been a Macmillan, and also a wizard, but he had never been in the picture. I don't believe he even knew of her existence, actually. Her mother - your grandmother - was a Squib, herself… the result of a union between an Ollivander and a Greengrass…"

All three names were familiar to Hermione in at least some capacity. "But that would mean Mum was technically a pureblood."

"She was," Martin agreed, then corrected, "she is."

Just when I thought I'd heard it all… she thought wryly. Aloud, she voiced, "Healer Smythe said there had been a number of memory charms placed on her when she was a child… and that's why she's having such a rough go of things now."

"I know it," Mr. Granger admitted flatly. "I only ever met your grandmother once and she was not a pleasant woman. She died a number of years ago. Jeannette always suspected her mother hated her because she had hoped for a magical daughter. The abuse that woman inflicted on your mother was… indescribable."

Hermione thought of Harry, and his years spent with the Dursleys. "But why? She was a Squib herself, why punish Mum for being one, too?"

"The Ollivanders are a proud bunch; they've been immersed in wandlore for over a millennium and are very protective of their secrets. What Jeannette knew for sure, was when it was discovered that your grandmother was a Squib, they wiped her memory of all things related to family secrets. Later, upon learning of Jeannette's existence, they tried to take her away – until they realized that she, too, was a Squib."

"That's awful."

"They were not very nice people," Martin agreed. "Jeannette always wondered if she hadn't actually gone to live with them for a time, as there are three years she remembers very little of. In any case, after determining she was non-magical like her mother, her grandparents wiped her memory, too. They also forced the two of them to take a different surname, as they did not want Squibs carrying their name amongst Muggles."

More pureblood megalomania… Hermione's nose wrinkled in distaste. "How horrible. But now that you mention it, I remember Mum always told me her maiden name was Olivier."

"A variation she felt comfortable with, before she took Granger."

Hermione allowed all this information to process for a few moments, before she queried, "And you? You said you were a Squib, too?"

"I'm a Prewett," her father confirmed. "I changed my name when I left home for the Muggle world. While my home life had not been as dicey as your mother's, my family was not sorry to see the back of me."

"Does this mean we're related to Mrs. Weasley?" Hermione pressed, recalling that the red-haired matron had once mentioned her maiden name.

"Yes, Molly is my cousin."

"Your cousin?" she gasped. "But… neither of you ever said anything! We met up with the Weasleys year after year, before the start of each term…"

"Molly and I had never been close as children, and I left for the Muggle world at sixteen – practically a lifetime ago. She did not recognize me and I didn't wish to change that. But I do admit that I worried when you started fraternizing with one of her sons…"

A sudden flash of memory speared into the forefront of her mind: she was being none-too-gently groped by Ron, while she hastily undid his belt buckle, wanting what was tenting the front of his trousers… determined to sate the pressure that was building in her sacrum…

But what her father had just told her, would mean that she and Ron were actually second cousins. She felt bile rising in the back of her throat and struggled to keep it down, trying desperately to close her mind to the memory.

"There's another thing," Martin continued. He seemed to be able to sense her discomfort, but Hermione was confident he could not guess the cause of it. "Because of your parentage - and because you're a witch, yourself - you are technically pureblooded."

Feeling raw, she tried to mask her dismay by summoning her bossiest voice to stipulate, "Not that it makes a difference… 'pureblood', 'Mudblood'... it's all just the same."

Gravely, he contradicted, "They aren't the same thing at all, Hermione. In fact, it might be a good idea for you to visit with Molly. Being a member of the Sacred Twenty-Eight, she could explain everything much better than I."

"The Sacred Twenty-Eight?"

"There are twenty-eight pureblood families from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The distinction is really rather significant."

Silent, she could think of nothing to say. Two years ago, she had lain on a pureblood's drawing room floor while another pureblood had tortured her - for information, but also for fun. Whatever distinction her father thought might come along with being a pureblood, it made no difference to Hermione.

It might be her heritage, but that did not mean she wanted it.

"I know this is a lot to take in," Mr. Granger acknowledged, "but now that it's all out in the open, I really think you need to speak with Molly."

A violent jerk of her head indicated Hermione's unwillingness to go along with this idea. "Maybe when I return to England. They're going to wake Mum up out of the coma tomorrow... see how she does. Mrs. Weasley can wait - Mum is more important right now."

Though he appeared mostly dissatisfied rather than hopeful, Martin passively accepted, "As you say."

 

Chapter Text

In an unspoken agreement, Hermione did not bring up the subject of her parents' secrets, nor did her father mention them. Everything was focused around Mrs. Granger, who had been roused from her coma only to be placed back in it minutes later when she tried to strike at one of the hospital team. Each of the Healers agreed it had been violence born of confusion and was merely turbulence, but Martin and Hermione felt it keenly.

Jeannette was transferred to the Murrumburrah Magical Hospital and in the meantime, a temporary Floo connection was set up for her family's use between there and the home in Sydney. But while that house had been the epitome of comfort to Wendell Wilkins, Martin Granger found it strange and oppressive, especially without his wife there. When he voiced this to Hermione, she encouraged him to sell and the beautiful residence was quickly placed on the market.

Every day without fail, Martin went to see his wife. Within a week, Jeannette was up and wandering about. She was given exercises to aid her memory and her reflexes, both of which had suffered from her trial, especially the former. Speech sometimes was difficult for her, sometimes utterly inaccessible. Her hands shook as if she had a palsy, but she always seemed happy to see her husband.

Hermione went most days too, but her mother's daily reactions to seeing her were… varied.

On one day, Jeannette would see her daughter and smile, then wrap her in a shaky hug. She would share the pudding she had been served for lunch and then listen raptly when Hermione read to her, eyes fixed on her child.

The very next day, she would scream like a banshee and rush at her like an animal.

On the tenth of May, after three of Mrs. Granger's bad days in a row, Martin took his daughter aside to again suggest, "I think you should go back to England, Hermione."

"But why?" she sniffed. There were still tears pricking the corners of her eyes at the violent reception she had just received. "I want to stay here with you and Mum."

"I know you do, honey. But I think…" he glanced again toward the one-way glass that looked into his wife's hospital room. Healers were dosing her with calming draughts and trying to get her to lie down on the bed. "Well, you see the reaction your Mum has sometimes. It isn't good for her. Besides, I still really think you should go see Molly Weasley about what we discussed…"

It was the first time he had brought it up, in nearly four weeks. With a jerk of her head, Hermione insisted, "Mrs. Weasley isn't going to tell me anything about being a pureblood that I wish to hear. I would just as much rather not be one at all."

Martin shifted uneasily, "Perhaps you could just go for a visit… for a couple of weeks, just to talk things over."

Brushing at her eyes where the last remnants of tears were clinging onto her lashes, she asked in a small voice like a child being punished, "Is it really so important to you that I go?"

"More than that, I think it will be important to you. Your magic… it's tied to the earth… there are certain things…" It was unlike Mr. Granger to be unable to form a coherent sentence. He soon gave up and just shook his head. "It will be for the best."

"I don't even know how I would go about bringing up that kind of conversation. Mrs. Weasley and I haven't really spoken since…"

Since she and Ron had broken up. But she was not about to admit to her father that she had been in a ten-month-long relationship with her cousin, especially since the very thought nearly made her gag whenever she thought about it.

"…Since over a year ago."

Martin took a minute to think, eventually deciding, "I will write a letter explaining everything to her."

She saw that there was no deterring him. A glance into the hospital room confirmed that Mrs. Granger had been sedated and was now resting quietly, her blank eyes staring forward. "I still don't see why this is necessary."

"I think it would be for the best," he repeated more firmly. "There are things you need to know that she would do a better job of explaining."

"Alright. I'll go see her."

It was concluded; the nail in the coffin came the very next day when an early offer was made on the house in Sydney. Her father quickly found a small in-law apartment that was for-rent in a magical home in Harden, nearby Murrumburrah. The main benefit was that it came with the Floo already set up.

Heartbroken, Hermione made arrangements with the magical embassy to return back to England in a week's time, and packed up her belongings. She spent much of her last week in Sydney helping her father to get the Wilkins house ready for its new inhabitants, which was a significantly easier task with magic.

When the day came, her father hugged her for a long time. A lot still remained unspoken between the Grangers… Hermione knew her father still harbored some feelings of resentment toward her, but she felt simultaneously confident that he still loved her and at least partially understood why she had done what she did.

"Safe travels," he wished her, hands on her shoulders and taking in his last sight of her for awhile.

She cast him a watery smile, "Take care of Mum."

"You know I will…"

"I know."

"And, Hermione? After you've spoken to Molly, try to remember that we hid your heritage from you because we were trying to protect you."

Her brow furrowed, but she replied, "I understand, Dad."

He shook his head a little sadly as he let go of her shoulders. "I hope you will."

.

.

It was a shock to her system to have to adapt to the clock being pushed back eleven hours; Hermione took a room at the Leaky Cauldron and slept for much of her first three days back. An additional shock came when she discovered that somehow – despite essentially being a hermit – the Daily Prophet had still managed to catch wind of her return.

The paper had been delivered to her door that morning, the headline screaming: GOLDEN TRIO'S BRAINIAC RETURNS FROM AUSTRALIA.

She groaned; she had not yet informed any of her friends about her return to England and now they were going to find out from the newspaper, of all places!

Nothing to be done about it now, she thought dismally. She really could not stand Rita Skeeter.

Picking through her trunk, she located the letter her father had written to Mrs. Weasley. It was sealed in a Muggle envelope and looked for all the world, like an ordinary thing – but Hermione knew it contained details of the long-hidden past of her family. Was she to simply show up on Mrs. Weasley's doorstep and hand her this letter?

She rummaged around for some parchment and some ink. After over a year of composing letters with Muggle writing instruments, the quill felt foreign in her hand. She sat for several moments trying to think what to say before deciding to be succinct.

Dear Mrs. Weasley, she wrote. The ink blotted the page.

"Bollocks," she cursed, crumpling up the parchment and tossing it in the can.

Dear Mrs. Weasley, she tried again, with better results.

Why was she so nervous?

.

.

Three days later, Hermione found herself seated at the kitchen table in the Burrow. She had hired an owl from the post office in Diagon Alley to send Mrs. Weasley her letter and had sent her father's along with it, unopened. For several hours, she toyed with the idea of reading it – even come close a few times, as Mr. Granger had not technically forbade her from doing so – but something had stopped her each time.

She heard back the very next day. Molly would be home alone around tea time… and they did indeed have quite a bit to discuss, the letter indicated. There was a sense of agitation in the way Mrs. Weasley had composed her letter that Hermione had never seen there before. She wondered what that was about.

"Hermione!" Molly welcomed her with a hug, then held her back at arm's length to survey her. "Tea?"

"Oh, please," Hermione accepted politely.

"Come on in then, dear."

Given that it was Molly that was offering, 'tea' was also comprised of heaps of her excellent cooking. Hot scones, ham sandwiches, and an enormous slab of pound cake were all placed in front of her without her even agreeing to anything.

"This is great, Mrs. Weasley!"

"Oh, it's nothing, dear," Molly insisted, though she smiled readily at the compliment nonetheless.

"Is Mr. Weasley working?"

"It seems to be all he does these days," the other woman sighed, though she looked simultaneously proud. "Kingsley is still Minister for Magic, as you know; Arthur is his right-hand man. The both of them work too hard… and as Ron has moved in with Harry for the time being, Percy's recently married, and George is back living above his shop, it's just myself, Arthur and Ginny – when she's home, that is. There are lots of away games with the Magpies… it can get quite lonely."

Hermione made some appropriately sympathetic comments and stuck a fork into her pound cake.

A moment's silence made for the perfect opening; Molly reached into her breast pocket, producing the letter Martin had written. "Have you read this?"

She shook her head and took her first scrumptious bite. It had been a long time since she'd had a proper home-cooked meal.

"I was shocked," the matriarch admitted. "It was a full ten minutes before I could say a word. Arthur nearly brought me to St. Mungo's."

"Shocked about which part?" she wondered curiously.

"Take your pick!" The woman brandished the letter; it was creased in many places from having been read a number of times. She pulled out a small pair of reading spectacles and unfolded the parchment. "Martin Prewett: my cousin and your father… who could have guessed!"

Certainly not me, Hermione thought dismally.

"…I thought he seemed vaguely familiar the first time I met him, but Arthur insisted it was just because he reminded me of my brother, Fabian. He even had the same mess of curly hair, though Fabian's was red. He and Gideon, my other brother, died in the first wizarding war. But this explains it."

"Time and space can certainly add ambiguity," Hermione conceded, taking a sip of her tea to wash down the dense cake. Though it had been ages since she had been treated to something as decadent as dessert, she felt so inexplicably nervous that it was sticking in her throat.

"Poor Martin simply wanted to keep himself a secret," Molly lamented. "How strange a coincidence that fate should have pushed us into one another's paths again… but then, the male line of the House of Prewett ended when Gideon and Fabian were murdered, so I'm sure he was under considerable stress from his mother – my aunt, you know, never came to terms with the fact that she only ever produced a Squib. One can hardly blame the poor man for fleeing to the Muggle world. Despite being technically a pureblood, Squibs cannot house magic in their bodies, so they are unable to participate in the blood pact."

"The blood pact," Hermione repeated, bewildered that Mrs. Weasley was speaking of it as if it were the only one. "What is that?"

"More than just your average bit of wandwork," Molly replied, shrewdly guessing what her guest was thinking. "The closest thing I can liken it to is an Unbreakable Vow, but this one was made between pureblood families and the magic of the earth."

Hermione stopped chewing and became very still.

Her hostess continued, "Had you been acknowledged as a pureblood from birth, there is a tale you would have been told from the time you were a young child, all about the blood pact and how it affects you… how it affects the entire wizarding community of the isles, actually."

She set down her fork on the edge of her plate and gave Molly her full attention. "Will you tell me?"

After all, Hermione was sure she would never underestimate a good fable or bedtime story again, after the epic Deathly Hallows hunt of two years prior…

"If you like, though it's been a few years since any of the children were young enough for me to recount it, so I may be a bit rusty." She cleared her throat, and began: "Long ago, before the earth ever had a name, magic ran wild throughout this land. The world was teeming with it and those that walked the earth could tap into it if they were able, without fear…

"But soon, those that did not have this ability began to grow jealous and tried to steal it away. The magic, recognizing its danger, withdrew into the earth to protect itself…

"Those that relied on magic would do anything to keep it… and so, they began to mine into the land, willing the power to break through. They eventually succeeded, but the magic was displeased at having been uncovered and it threatened to unleash a terrible penance upon them as punishment. Appealing to the preservationist nature of this ancient power, the magic-users struck a deal: this one portal would remain open, so that witches and wizards could access raw magic through the air instead of through the earth. This way, only those who could use it naturally were able to touch it, or bend it to their will…

"In exchange, the magic called upon only the most faithful families, summoning them to this now-sacred site and demanded they pledge themselves to its protection, and to make constant offerings of blood and other life-giving essences...

"That Midsummer, forty of these families entered into a vow of the highest caliber, promising to safeguard this power and agreeing to complete secrecy. In exchange for their unwavering fealty, the magic also bestowed these noble Houses each with two promises as to the legacy of their bloodlines…

"And so, the families kept their word, rarely straying, constantly protecting their magical source. But as a reminder, every Midsummer, members of these families would cast in their lot with this ancient power, allowing it to choose for them, a mate – a compatible person from another of these renowned families with whom they could share their lives, taking their secrets to the grave…"

The last few words hung in the air over the kitchen table, and though it was May, Hermione felt herself shiver. Suddenly, the pound cake was a lot less appealing.

"I'm afraid that's all."

"That's…"

"Sinister?" Mrs. Weasley suggested. "Yes, perhaps. You can see why some of the old pureblood families act the way they do when those are the kinds of bedtime tales they were told as children."

"But how much of it is true?"

"Oh, all of it."

"All…?"

"Yes. The blood pact made with the Old Magic is absolutely real, as is the sworn fealty of the families to its protection."

Hermione could feel her heart beating heavily, her brain whirring faster than her reason could follow. "My father mentioned something about the Sacred Twenty-Eight?"

"Yes, well, it's the Sacred Twenty-Six now, if you care about such things," Molly sniffed dryly, "though in Martin's day, I suppose there still were twenty-eight families left in the pact. You see, of the forty original families, only a little over half of the Houses remain. Until recently, that included the Gaunts – who conditioned the blood pact that Salazar Slytherin's blood would remain only within their House. In so doing, they intermarried within their large family for so many generations that they bred themselves out of existence. The Blacks, too, are extinct in the male line, as it ended when Sirius was killed…

"As for the Prewetts," she continued, "we were once a large family, but due to the Plague of 1939 that swept through wizarding Britain, by the time I was born, it was down to myself, my sister and brothers… and your Dad."

"…Who turned out to be a Squib," Hermione finished flatly.

"Just so. My parents and brothers were killed during the first war against Voldemort, as you know. My sister married Bilius Fawley, but died before they ever had any children. I'm the last left with Prewett blood besides my Aunt Tessie, who never married. Muriel, who you met at Bill's wedding, is also Prewett, but she only married into the family. But though I liked being a Prewett, I do love belonging to the House of Weasley. I was lucky when I casted in, to get paired to Arthur."

"What is meant by 'casting in' exactly?"

Noting that her guest was not eating, Molly pushed a ham sandwich toward Hermione and flicked her wand to reheat the pot of tea. "Another duty belonging to those in the blood pact."

"Beyond protecting the magic of the earth, you mean?" she queried.

"Oh, yes. The magic wants to keep its secret centralized, so purebloods are expected to attend casting ceremonies in order to marry appropriately within the pool of acceptable candidates. An eldest daughter and eldest son from the same family must each pledge themselves, if both exist. Younger siblings can opt to cast in if they choose, as well."

Taking an experimental bite of her sandwich, Hermione pressed, "So… Bill…?"

"Neither the Weasleys nor the Prewetts ever thought too highly about themselves being a part of this pact, though we recognize its inherent importance," Mrs. Weasley explained, pouring herself a fresh cuppa from the chipped, willow-patterned pot. "Bill was called when he was twenty and casted in every summer solstice from then through the age of twenty-five, but was always unsuccessful. Then he met Fleur and knew it was serious, so he tried to convince Charlie to cast in for the family instead."

Hermione swallowed a second bite of her sandwich and was relieved when this did not stick in her throat like the pound cake had. "Did Charlie do it?"

Mrs. Weasley shook her head, "Charlie's always been a wild spirit. He likes his freedom and opted to stay in Romania. The problem was, no Weasley made a cast that year."

"And the magic knew? Even though he hadn't been paired the previous five years, it still wanted him to keep pledging himself?"

"Oh, certainly… and it only solidified the tensions between the House of Weasley and many of the other purebloods. We have long been considered 'blood traitors' by many of the other Houses because we allowed our younger sons or daughters to marry outside of the pureblood – or even half-blood – circles."

Chewing thoughtfully, Hermione turned all the information she had gleaned, in her head. This was serious, heavy stuff – her father had been correct that she needed to be told – but it was also fascinating. The part of her that delighted in research was itching to know more, while the rational part of her brain was screaming with anxiety over the personal implications.

"So what happens when someone doesn't make a cast?"

"Those who defy the blood pact are served with a singular personal tragedy to entice them to comply. If they continue not to, the family suffers next. As you may imagine, Bill's retribution was likely his encounter with Fenrir Greyback. When he later chose to marry Fleur anyway, we, as a family, were dealt the ultimate payback, when we lost Fred. Or perhaps it was mere bad luck. It is difficult to say."

That's new, Hermione noted. Just a year ago, Mrs. Weasley still had not been able to mention Fred's name. It struck her how much time really had passed since she had left England.

The matriarch continued as if it were nothing that she was finally able to speak about her deceased son. "The Old Magic is tapped from the earth in a sacred site: a henge hidden in deeply forested mountains. In the immediate aftermath of the war, it summoned for a Weasley to again pledge themselves to the pact."

"Ginny?" Hermione guessed, given the information she had.

Molly shook her head, "Ginny was only sixteen for a couple months longer at the time, and the summons can be made at any point between a coming-of-age at seventeen and the age of twenty-one. No, it was calling for a replacement for Bill. Percy told Arthur he felt he needed to make amends for his actions during the war and opted to take on the role of the elected firstborn of the House of Weasley. He made his cast and last June, he was married to Audrey Selwyn."

"Oh!" Hermione gasped. Is it really so cut-and-dry?

"She really is a dear," the matron said genuinely. "Though they've been known to produce a few Slytherins from time to time, the Selwyns are a traditionally Ravenclaw family and Audrey is no exception. She was a good match for Percy. They've a child on the way, as well…"

As few more connections and facts slotted into place in her mind, Hermione had a sinking feeling she already knew the answer when she tremulously queried, "And me? How do I fit into all this?"

"You are the missing piece to the puzzle we have all been wondering about for months now! All three crests - Prewett, Ollivander, and Macmillan - have been aglow in the henge since February."

"So the Old Magic has called me," she mused. She cast her eyes down to the table top, which had many dings in it from being in the center of the hubbub for many a large Weasley family dinner. "I thought I might be exempt since my parents are Squibs."

"No such luck I'm afraid. With a unique bloodline like yours - and how magically inclined you are - of course the Old Magic wants to claim you for the blood pact."

Hermione felt a bit sad, but mostly stressed. Her brain was spinning with information, trying to organize and make sense of it all.

"In the end, it is still your choice," Mrs. Weasley reassured her. "There will be consequences if you do not choose to contribute of course, but beyond that, nothing forces you to do so."

She nodded, but then frowned. "But why are all three crests glowing? I was under the impression it followed a paternal bloodline…"

"It usually does," Molly admitted. "If I were to guess, I would say the magic is letting you choose for yourself, on account of the fact that neither of your parents were ever claimed as an heir to any one House."

Her frown deepening, Hermione recognized, "This isn't a decision to be made lightly."

"No, it certainly is not," Mrs. Weasley agreed. "If you decide to claim any particular House, it will define you for the rest of your life."

"But what if I wanted to keep my surname?"

"I don't see why you couldn't… it's blood the magic cares about, more than names."

Pleased that she was at least afforded this little bit of satisfaction, Hermione managed a meager smile. Terrifying as the notion was that she could be compelled to pledge herself to something so ancient as the magic of the earth, she already instinctively knew she would do it. It just felt right somehow. "I've always been fascinated by magic, even before I knew I was a witch. Here is a whole other world of it that I never suspected existed. I am… rather excited, actually."

"There are many responsibilities that come along with pledging yourself," the matriarch warned. "You will have to cast in for whichever House you end up choosing – and then, the magic may pair you to your future spouse. Considering who you are and where you came from – and the fact that two of the three Houses you belong to are nearly extinct but for you – it is very likely that that will happen. You will have no say in your partner, only in how you treat your marriage to that person."

"I understand."

Molly seemed to believe her at least, even if Hermione had not entirely convinced herself of it yet.

"Will you tell me some about the Prewetts, Ollivanders, and Macmillans? I confess I know very little."

"Well, other than the Fawleys, the Macmillans are the largest clan involved in the blood pact; they have over thirty members. They are nearly always Hufflepuffs, although they have occasionally produced a few Gryffindors, as well." Molly chuckled, "They've been raising quite the ruckus because of their summons, I can tell you. Every witch and wizard in their House who had not yet made a cast was pushed to do so, and still their crest is glowing. They are going to be flummoxed when they realize it was trying to account for you… when they find out about you, of course. You might remember Ernie Macmillan? He would have been in your year at Hogwarts."

Hermione recalled the pompous boy with the large ears, and revisited a memory of one particularly excruciating prefect patrol where she had to listen to him wax on about notable persons in his ancestry. "That House doesn't sound like a good fit for me."

"I thought the same," Mrs. Weasley admitted with a smile. "They can be a rather arrogant bunch. I'm also not sure how they would handle the news that one of their own apparently had an illicit affair with a Squib. They may not be so openly elitist as some of those that supported Voldemort, but they still hold to many standards that are a little… much, if you ask me."

"My mother was an Ollivander," Hermione continued haltingly, thinking of all of the terrible things that had been done to Jeannette by her own family.

"As you know, the House of Ollivander is renowned for keeping the secrets of wandmaking, which they have done since before Hogwarts was even a thought. Their line is essentially obliterated, except for Garrick; you'll remember him as the proprietor of the wand shop in Diagon Alley. He is, however, a half-blood – and being so, he will not be able to speak to you about being in the blood pact as he is not a member himself. What he could offer you, is the opportunity to teach you wandlore."

Here, Molly paused and her fingers picked at one of the frayed cuffs of her dress in a nervous manner.

"I've already told you some things about the Prewetts. We have always been in Gryffindor – are distantly descended from his line as a matter of fact, or so the legend goes. My family were very reluctant members of the blood pact, complying only out of duty." With an effort at keeping her expression neutral, she continued, "If you opted to become a Prewett, I could adopt you… in a sense…"

"That," she decided swiftly, "I want that."

Molly's eyes filled with tears and she clasped Hermione's hand tightly from across the battered kitchen table. "Oh, my child. We have so much to discuss…"

 

Chapter Text

"Draco, darling?"

"Yes, mother?"

Narcissa stood at the top of the staircase, just visible over the ornate marble balustrade. "Were you headed out?"

He paused halfway across the wide foyer. "I was."

"Please don't forget that the Averys and Greengrasses are visiting for dinner. I had hoped you would at least be around to greet the ladies, even if you were planning to disappear with Cadfael afterward…"

He had not forgotten, but Draco had only thought Cadfael and his mother would be in attendance for this particular one of Narcissa's dinner parties. Cousins through the Black line, Narcissa and Mrs. Avery had only grown closer after the war. They were in similar situations: their husbands were imprisoned in Azkaban, with grown children to see off into the world. Draco had never been familiar with Cadfael while at Hogwarts but found that these days, the wizard made a good companion.

Now, his heart leapt somewhat at the prospect that he would be able to spend at least some part of the evening with Astoria. He had called on her several times in the last eleven months since his first casting, and had only been further impressed by her grace and good nature.

"Actually, I was headed over to Nott Estate."

"Well, perhaps you could invite Theodore over to add to our number this evening," Narcissa suggested. "It would make an even number for table settings and you know how I prefer symmetry in such things."

"I'll do that," he promised, "and I won't be long."

She waved his words away, "I'll send one of the elves for you when it is time."

.

.

"...Just this morning I discovered a curse on my father's lockbox that would cut off the thumbs of anyone who tried to use magic on it," Theo was saying. Sinking into an armchair, he offered Draco a tumbler of firewhiskey before propping his feet up on the adjacent end table in a manner that would have made Narcissa cringe.

"Somehow, you managed to discover that and keep your thumbs, I see," Draco observed mildly.

They had spent the better part of two hours touring the recent slew of renovations Theo had been spending lavishly on to improve Nott Estate. Given the type of wizard the late Theodore Nott III had been, an almost-total remodeling had been deemed necessary. Now, well over a year later, the project was nearly two-thirds complete.

"The man was a bloody terror," Theo bemoaned. "I haven't gone anywhere in this place for the past three years without casting reconnaissance spells ahead of me."

Draco's eyebrows raised.

"It might seem paranoid," the wizard admitted, catching his companion's look, "but if I hadn't, I would currently have no tongue, no thumbs, no toenails, and my eyes would've been gouged out with an antique dirk one of my ancestors inherited as a part of his wife's dowry." He ticked these off on his fingers as his listed them.

"You'd be a sorrier sight, even than you already are."

Smirking at the jibe, Theo joked back, "We can't all be as pretty as you, Malfoy."

Theodore IV had never been a handsome man, as he had the pinched, slightly-hunched demeanor of a person who spent too much time poring over books. He wore glasses that were slightly too large for his face, and kept his dark hair buzzed out of convenience. While the Nott heir had a distinct Ravenclaw-ish look and had been something of a lone wolf at Hogwarts, the other Slytherins had let him be, almostly solely based on his father's terrifying reputation.

Draco had known him for as long as he could remember, though Theo had not been considered a friend until after they graduated.

"I'm surprised you're still discovering concealed curses. It's been two years since you inherited."

"Heir or not, my steward thinks dear old Dad never did the paperwork properly to allow the estate to transfer over to me." The words might have been bitter, but Theo did not look as if he expected any less.

Whatever his father's shortcomings, Draco was glad that Lucius had always been fastidious about such things. Though he was still serving time in Azkaban, Draco was able to acceptably run Malfoy Manor in his absence - with his mother's assistance, of course.

"I just keep thinking," Theo continued, "what if, in a month, I end up married and bring my wife to Nott Estate, only to have her be decapitated for opening the wrong book in the library?"

"That is a problem…" Draco admitted. "Are you hoping for a match, then?"

"Maybe in another year. Most of the evil should be cleared out by then and I could have the estate in much better order." Theodore shrugged. "I never did discover what was in the lockbox, either. It had to be destroyed to break the curse on it."

Eyeing his friend critically over the rim of his near-empty glass, Draco felt a measure of sympathy for the man. While Malfoy Manor was considerably larger, at least Narcissa was there too, even if Draco only really saw her at mealtimes twice daily. To be the very last of your name... to be alone in this vast estate with only a couple of house elves for company…

An elf dressed in the Malfoy livery Apparated into the study to announce, "Your guests is arrived for dinner, master."

"We'll be along in a moment," Draco told it. "You may tell my mother."

With a curtsey and a crack, the elf was gone.

"Excellent," Theo announced, downing the last of his firewhiskey and setting the glass on the end table with a clunk. "Curse-breaking always works up such an appetite…"

.

.

Draco had known for many years that he would have no say in who he married one day. His parents had been lucky, as they had openly courted before their marriage and were matched to one another within a year. But such favorable circumstances were not always the case.

He had imagined his ideal woman many times, but she never had a face. She possessed many of the traits which the youngest Miss Greengrass embodied, but there was also something… more to her. Traits which he was very aware existed in a scarce minority of women, and among none that were of his acquaintance. Regardless, he would have to be very careful how he acted around Astoria; his wishes with regard to her were already scarily stuck into place.

He was therefore somewhat chagrined to notice that his mother had placed him directly across the dinner table from her.

The witch in question was looking particularly lovely this evening, her dark hair like a midnight curtain swept over one shoulder and leaving the other bare, thanks to the low neckline of her pale-purple gown. She caught him looking, but instead of shooting him a self-satisfied smirk like many other women would do, she only smiled shyly and returned her eyes to her plate.

Her older sister, Daphne, only rolled her eyes. This went unnoticed by their mother, as the main course was being brought to the table.

"Ah, stuffed pheasant, you certainly know the way to my heart, Narcissa," Cadfael complemented, his eyes flickering lasciviously toward his hostess.

"Thank you, Cadfael, you are too kind."

Draco kicked his friend under the table. How many times must I ask that arsehole not to hit on mother?

Avery smirked at Draco, knowing full well what he had done. If Narcissa was also aware, she betrayed nothing and moved on to politely offer Cadfael's mother a second glass of riesling.

"Thank you," Carina Avery accepted, and her wineglass magically filled itself. "So, Narcissa, what do you say now about the mystery of the henge? One month out and still none have answered!"

"Are you referring to the fact that the Old Magic continues to issue an unanswered summons for an Ollivander and a Prewett to honor the blood pact?" Saoirse Greengrass interjected.

"Indeed, they have been that way since February."

"It is a mystery," Narcissa remarked, though Draco could tell she was deeply curious.

Daphne, who was the less reserved of Saoirse's two daughters, spoke up, "What does that mean? Why haven't those people made their pledges if it's been nearly three months?"

"Why indeed?" her mother agreed.

"I was under the impression both of those lines were extinct," Draco put in as he picked at his pheasant.

"Well the Prewetts are like the Lestranges: their line only remains through older folk and will disappear with their passing," Carina explained. "The Ollivanders, though... that has long been a mystery."

"Because the last of their line is a half-blood?" Daphne queried.

"Right," Cadfael nodded. "Given Garrick's impure bloodline, the House of Ollivander's presence should have gone from the henge with the passing of his father - his mother was a Muggleborn - but the crest is still there."

"Perhaps the summons for the two Houses is for same person, but they just don't know it," Astoria suggested thoughtfully. Draco noticed she had not served herself any wine.

Avery snorted, "More likely they are someone's bastards, only just now come of age…"

"As far as I'm aware, there have been no childless widows from either of those Houses who might choose to cast in again for their birth surnames," Carina mused. Her eyes were narrowed as she scanned through her mental database of the convoluted family trees of recent purebloods. When she still came up empty-handed, she concluded, "Time will tell."

After a pause, Narcissa turned to Mrs. Avery and politely queried, "How is the planning of Rhona's wedding coming along?"

Cadfael was the third child of four, both his older brother and older sister having already casted in and been married within the past few years. Being a younger son, he was able to choose whether or not he wanted to cast. His parents had pressured him to do it and he had complied - but his younger sister had not been swayed. She had fallen in love with Raymond Urquhart and the two were to be married by the end of the summer. Though the current generation of Urquharts were not pureblood, their pedigree was one of the best around - and it was not uncommon for younger siblings who did not cast in, to marry half-bloods from good families.

"Raymond Urquhart is a nice boy. Rhona could do worse, though I still do wish she had opted to make a cast. Her children will be better than half-blood, but half-blood nonetheless," Carina judged blandly. A moment later, she snorted indelicately; her second glass of wine was now nearing its end. "Imagine what Aunt Walburga would have said?"

Narcissa allowed a smile to tug at the corners of her lips; she and Carina shared this aunt, now deceased. The woman had been a paragon of blood purity.

Not the type of person to be left out when there was news or information to be exchanged, Daphne leaned forward over her half-finished portion of pheasant and gossiped, "I heard the younger Abbott daughter is opting to make a House cast now that she's the last of her line."

"Hannah, I think her name is," Theo put in. "Her older brother and sister were both killed along with the rest of the House. It happened while we were at Hogwarts."

Draco's eyes flicked to Theo. He had mostly been an observer during his time at school and had picked up more on what was happening in the other Hogwarts houses. Draco, himself, had been preoccupied with other things.

"She has an aunt who was traveling abroad at the time," Saoirse Greengrass corrected. "Hannah will be casting for a younger son to take her surname, to perpetuate the House of Abbott."

"Can such a thing be done?" Astoria wondered aloud, surprised at the very notion.

"It isn't common, but yes," Narcissa smiled.

"Don't get any ideas, Tori," Daphne warned.

"It is usually only done when a House is failing," Draco explained to the younger sister. "If the Crouch heir had a couple of sisters, the younger could opt to make a House cast to keep their name going – it's a shame he does not have those sisters, as he certainly won't be doing so while rotting in Azkaban without a soul."

"Draco, such things are hardly appropriate for dinner conversations…"

"My apologies, mother. I was merely trying to help Miss Greengrass to better understand."

The rest of the meal was thus restricted to more pleasant topics. Afterward, the witches retired to the drawing room for tea and cake; Draco, Theo and Cadfael sequestered themselves in the receiving room of Draco's suite. The place was well-stocked for visits, especially with how often Theo came around.

Once he was properly supplied with a snifter of honeyed brandy, Cadfael teased, "Draco, you are a fool for that younger Greengrass girl."

Gray eyes hardening with the knowledge that it was the inconvenient truth, he hissed, "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."

Theo whistled lowly, "That was a good Lucius impression. Kind of weirdly delicate, but also threatening."

Draco rolled his eyes in feigned nonchalance. His mother had recently cornered him for a chat, having felt compelled to share her opinion that a year had really made all the difference in preparing him for marriage.

It's really time for you to start thinking about providing an heir for the estate, darling, the memory of her words echoed in his mind. As if he had any say! Right now there's only you, and such things take time...

"Just be careful," Cadfael offered, friendly enough.

No kidding, Draco thought, downing the rest of his brandy with the hope that it would bring some form of mental release.

One month to go before the solstice and potential marriage… and he was already anxious.

 

Chapter Text

As Hermione had originally planned to only visit England for two weeks before returning to Australia, she had not procured any lodgings for herself beyond the Leaky Cauldron. By the time Mr. Weasley arrived home from work that evening, his wife had already exacted a promise that Hermione would take a room at the Burrow for the next month until the casting.

"But, Ron…" Hermione began to protest, wary of seeing her ex-boyfriend for a myriad of reasons.

"...Does not know you're a pureblood," Molly assured her as she helped Arthur off with his traveling cloak, "and does not need to be told, until you're ready for him to know."

"I'm not afraid of him knowing," she said quickly, "just his reaction."

"Would you like us to tell him for you?" Mr. Weasley asked charitably. He had greeted her warmly, though Hermione could tell that the stresses of being the Minister for Magic's main aide was draining his natural store of energy.

"I could write him a letter," his wife offered.

"In the meantime, you're welcome to take Percy's old room. It's on the second floor," Arthur added, smiling.

"But won't I be imposing?"

He laughed, his blue eyes crinkling at the corners, "Are you kidding? Molly's been hankering for someone to dote on, for weeks!"

His wife swatted him playfully, but said to Hermione more seriously, "Besides, you've a lot to learn in a very short span of time."

"True," Hermione mused. "I suppose many purebloods learn about this sort of thing from quite a young age."

"The stone in the henge has been glowing for three months now," Arthur agreed. "You'll want to mark it soon, or it may decide it's being met with insubordination."

"Let her settle in first, Arthur. Hermione and I will go tomorrow."

.

.

The next morning, Molly brought a Weasley family rune-stone down to breakfast.

"Is this… it?"

She laughed at Hermione's reaction. "It's Arthur's rune-stone that I pulled for him during our casting. Once you pull the stone that belongs to your spouse, it is yours to keep. You can see the Weasley family crest on one side, while Arthur's specific rune is on the other."

Hermione examined the stone carefully. It seemed to be made of a sturdy granite, polished smooth except for a piece at the top that jutted out irregularly and was rough to the touch. There was definitely a distinct magic to the feel of it, and though it was not an unwelcome sort of vibe, the magic seemed merely to be tolerant of her holding it, rather than welcoming. One side bore a delicately carved depiction of a lion wearing a crown of laurels against a shield; when she flipped it over, she observed the rune tiwaz.

The scales, she recognized from her multiple years' study in Ancient Runes. Justice ruled from a higher rationality... Sacrifice of the individual for the well-being of the whole society...

She felt a newfound kind of respect for Mr. Weasley, who had already left for the Ministry early that morning, despite having come home at nearly dark the night before. At the same time, it made sense.

"How is the rune chosen?"

"The magic chooses it for you," Molly answered as she siphoned a heap of bacon onto Hermione's plate.

"So Mr. Weasley has yours now? What was your rune?"

"Ehwaz."

The horse, Hermione recalled from memory as she slowly chewed on a piece of bacon. Harmonious teamwork and trust, plus willingness to work together for a common goal…

"I think both your runes are perfect for you."

To her surprise, Mrs. Weasley's cheeks tinged pink with the compliment, "Thank you, love. We'll go fetch yours after you've eaten some. I don't like how skinny you got while in Australia. I'm sure you weren't eating as often as you should…"

.

.

The two witches took the rune-stone to use as a Portkey; Hermione initially questioned the magical logistics of this, but Mrs. Weasley only said, "It's a Portkey when it's needed to be one and it only goes to this one place. I can't explain how it knows."

She wondered when she had accepted that there were some things that went beyond a simple explanation. The old Hermione would not have stood for it.

The mountains were not tall spires by any stretch of the imagination, but they were clustered closely together and heavily forested. The Portkey dropped them into an oblong clearing within a valley surrounded by three peaks. Gentle but insistent wind currents were rippling the surface of a small lake nearby. The air smelled differently here: mostly untouched by humans, but also like it knew magic.

"There it is," Mrs. Weasley indicated, pointing upward. Part way up the mountain face was a cliff's edge so wide it was as if someone had shaved away half of the mountaintop. Upon it was a stone circle, standing out starkly against the trees.

"We have to hike there?"

"It isn't as far as it looks," Molly responded practically, "but yes."

She was right; the trek took less than ten minutes. The way was mostly forested with pine trees and soft ferns, but a footpath had been worn into the rock from generations of purebloods making this very walk. The ground soon leveled out and Hermione peered curiously out onto the outcropping. Great craggy stones erupted from the earth in a circle, which made up the henge. In the center was a curious boulder, wider than the kitchen at the Burrow, but short and squat, barely taller than Hermione.

Mrs. Weasley did not pause, but bustled directly into the circle without preamble. Hermione followed, but shrunk back when she set foot inside and was assaulted by an onslaught of magic that had a distinctive, nearly sentient flavor to it.

"Come on in, dear."

She shuffled in, feeling self-conscious. "What do I do now?"

"We're going to find the Prewett crest," Molly instructed. She looked very out-of-place in her worn, floral print dress and stained traveling cloak. "It'll be over this way. But do let's be quick, it looks like rain."

The sky was indeed a somber gray. Hermione thought it reflected her mixed emotional state uncannily well.

The center boulder was decorated all over with carved family crests, each line of which was carved with the precision of a Renaissance marble artist, and each about the size of a quaffle. Her eyes were drawn to one in particular, which was glowing with an insistent golden light. She recognized the symbol immediately: two wands were crossed in the foreground, while a dragon, a unicorn, and a phoenix were all intertwined together beneath. It could only belong to the House of Ollivander.

Hermione's fingers brushed the carefully chiseled lines of the crest and noted that it felt warm to her touch…

"Oh," Molly gasped suddenly.

Hermione's wand was drawn and ready in an instant, a habit she'd had ever since the war. But Mrs. Weasley was not looking at anything immediately dangerous: she was looking at the carved Weasley crest, which was also glowing a bright gold through each of its crevices.

"Ginny," Molly murmured quietly.

Then Hermione understood: it was time for Ginny to mark the monolith as well. A selfish feeling crept into her heart and for a moment, she felt unadulterated gladness that she would not be going through this alone. She would have to share these new experiences with the youngest Weasley, meaning that at least she would have a companion to experience things and suffer with, for the next four weeks.

You don't need to do this at all, her subconscious self reminded her. You can turn your back on all of this. It's now or never.

But she found she did not want to. She could hardly say why, except for the inexplicable feeling that it was the right thing to do.

"Should we go back to get her?"

This snapped Molly from whatever funk was beginning to cloud the forefront of her mind. "No, dear. This time is for you, a big milestone in your life. You are being officially recognized as an heir of the House of Prewett, by magic as old as this land we stand on. I will bring Ginny another time. This is your moment."

The matron led her charge around the perimeter of the center stone, pausing at a third crest that was aglow.

As Hermione had chosen to uphold the name of Prewett, she approached the crest. It was a tree with seven stars in a half-circle around the top; a lion had reared up on one side to place its paws on the trunk of the tree, facing right, while a stag did the same on the opposite side, facing left.

Her eyes lingered on the image of the stag and a niggling feeling took a few seconds to work its way into a question: "Are the Prewetts related to the Potters?"

"Extremely distantly," Molly answered. "The Potters are descended from the Peverells, as are the Prewetts. It's plenty far enough back that I don't worry about Ginny and Harry."

Not like me and Ron, she reflected with distaste. She was speared with a bolt of anger toward her parents at keeping that information from her; she could have been spared so many things if she had known…

But what was done, was done. It did not do to dwell on it.

"How do I mark it?"

"With your blood. Some like to be dramatic and slice through the palm of their hand, but there's no need for heroics in something like this. We are going to make a small cut near your shoulder where it's not going to make a mess, then heal you back up… that's it, just roll your cloak down a bit."

Hermione took a deep breath, then drew the tip of her wand across the top of her arm. A small cut opened up near her shoulder and she pressed her fingers to it. They came away with a small bit of bright red blood.

Her eyes hardened as she looked at it. To think we recently fought a war over this…

A moment's trepidation caused Hermione to pause again. Did she really want to do this? Did she have a choice? Since the answer to both questions was a resounding 'yes', her resolve solidified and she dragged her bloodied fingers across the glowing crest. She stepped backward and Mrs. Weasley murmured a quick spell for healing cuts so she would not ruin her clothing.

The crest for the House of Prewett ceased glowing and became a mere carving, like most of the others. Simultaneously, the glow from the Ollivander crest also snuffed out. Hermione's eyes scanned toward the place where she knew to look for the crossed wands, but found she was only gazing at a blank expanse of rock.

Mrs. Weasley was looking very serious as she also took note of the crest's disappearance. "I suppose we are the Sacred Twenty-Five now."

"That's kind of… sad," Hermione remarked, her eyes remaining fixed on the now-blank stretch of rock. I did that.

"The same would eventually have happened to Prewett if you had chosen Ollivander: both Muriel and Tessie are far too old to be having children," Molly reminded her quietly. She then craned her neck around the side of the enormous rock and remarked, "The Macmillan crest is predictably silent, as well. I'll have to send Errol when we return home; Randall and Ursa are going to have kittens when I tell them the summons was for a Prewett, after all."

Hermione shifted uncomfortably. "I feel bad about that, too. What if someone was pressured to cast, who otherwise wouldn't have?"

"With a clan as large as the House of Macmillan, it can sometimes get confusing just who the summons is meant for. Potentially life-altering though they may be, these things happen all the time," Molly reassured her. "Now, climb to the top and fetch your stone. Just go around this side and you'll see some steps…"

Shallow recesses were carved into the enormous boulder on one side, though Hermione would have sworn they had not been there a moment ago. She set her foot into one, grabbing onto the others to haul herself up. When she reached the top – about six feet up – she stood and was arrested by the extraordinary view.

She looked out over the tops of vast evergreens and birches that dipped down into the valley below between the three mountain peaks. The lake they had seen earlier was at the bottom, with surrounding meadows sprinkled with the occasional yellow and pale blue of wildflowers. The sky, though gray and threatening rain, was the perfect backdrop for such splendid natural beauty.

"Your rune-stone should be in the middle," Molly called up in reminder.

Hermione diverted her attention back to the center of the monolith and found that a basin was carved out of it like a shallow crater. Inside had pooled with water, upon which a curled, dead leaf from the previous autumn was spiraling in the rain-scented wind. It took only three steps to reach it from the edge of the rock and she bent down to better peer in.

Inside was a small, smooth smoky quartz stone. Grasping it, she picked it up and examined it eagerly.

Of everything she had learned recently about being a pureblood, this was what excited her the most. She ran her fingers over the engraving of the lion and stag, the tree with stars that represented the House of Prewett. When she flipped it over, she immediately recognized the rune kenaz.

"The torch," she whispered breathlessly. The light within... The quest for knowledge.

The magic of it seemed to vibrate where it touched her skin, making her blood sing. It felt correct, powerful, like she was meant to have it.

She held it up to look more closely. A water droplet fell, and she was reminded that Mrs. Weasley was waiting for her. With some reluctance, she cast a glance backward at the view of the mountains, then down below, where she was surrounded by the henge. She could examine it later, in private…

She kept her hand in her pocket with it when they Portkeyed back, however. Just in case.

 

Chapter Text

Percy's old room at the Burrow, now Hermione's temporary bedroom, was small but cozy. From the multi-paned window, she had a view of a few alder trees in a crooked line, and the crumbling stone wall which separated the garden from the backyard. Everywhere, there were small evidences that this room had once belonged to Percy, from the compact desk in the corner to the neat shelves filled with books that had titles like Prefects Who Gained Power and An Annotated History of Ministers for Magic. Hermione might not initially have noticed these nuances, but for having peeked in several of the other now-abandoned bedrooms. Fred and George's old room just down the hall, for example, still smelled vaguely of gunpowder.

On the crammed bookshelf, she soon discovered a rather small volume titled Runes & Symbolism. Taking a seat at the little writing desk to peruse it, Hermione noted that it naturally fell open to a page devoted to the rune raidho. Percy had always been fastidious, but this page had several passages that were underlined or marked. With her own newfound discovery of her personal rune-stone, Hermione suspected that raidho was Percy's, and that he had done plenty of research.

She flipped through the pages until she came to the one she was most interested in:

Kenaz
" The Torch"
Related energy : transformation (phoenix fire)
Symbolic of : illumination, acquisition and application of knowledge, exploration of paradigms in the search for truth, the light within.
Ancestrally, we must each carry our own torch, creating a path of light that flows through darkness. These torches are never extinguished, and can be used as signposts in the navigation of the ancestral stream.
Like a torchlit library, the energy contained within this rune is filled with unlimited potential to learn and map. The map however, is not the territory; kenaz represents the acquisition of knowledge, not knowledge itself.

With everything Hermione had learned recently about being pureblooded, the passage held a new interest for her with all its talk of ancestry in relation to her rune. She was subsequently unsurprised to note that the author of the text had been one Tobias Yaxley, a presumed member of the blood pact.

No longer paying attention to the page of her book, Hermione was now obsessively examining the rune-stone in her hand. She had felt an immediate draw to it from the moment she picked it up, but now there was something else… a newfound sense of rightness when she flipped her stone over and examined the crest for the House of Prewett.

A week ago at the henge, she had run her fingers over the Ollivander crest carved into the center monolith and felt a definite pull. Now, there was a sense of correctness when she looked at the Prewett one and she knew in her heart that she had chosen rightly.

It was a little strange how emotionally attached she had become to her new House, considering how recently she had even come to know of it. All the same, she still felt sad when she thought about the now-obliterated crest that no longer had any place in the blood pact's magic…

A blur of motion from outside the window caught her eye and her hand automatically closed around the rune-stone as if to protect it. A second look revealed that it was only Ginny, whizzing by on her broomstick in the backyard.

The youngest Weasley had been obliged to take a leave of absence from the Magpies in order to prepare for her first Midsummer revels. With the solstice only three weeks away, it was quite late for any pureblood to be newly pledging themselves. She had cited 'family reasons' to her team's manager, and given that Ginny was still only a reserve Chaser, she was not given much difficulty over taking some time. Regardless of this – or perhaps, at least in part, because of this – she spent much of her time out-of-doors, ruthlessly practicing drills on her own in the fields behind the Burrow.

From inside her borrowed bedroom, Hermione could hear Mrs. Weasley bringing the laundry up the stairs. Despite that there were only four of them, there always seemed to be plenty of it. Though Hermione had offered to pay rent for living there, she had been quickly denied. She eased her conscience by helping out wherever she could around the house.

Tucking her rune-stone back into her pocket, she moved away from the window.

"Thank you, love," Molly accepted when her guest knocked on the door to the master bedroom and offered to help with the folding.

Though Hermione had hoped to find a measure of comfort in the fact that she and Ginny would be going through their first casting ceremony together, she was sorely disappointed. Ginny had been weirdly silent ever since the day Molly had first taken her to the henge.

Even now, the redhead was solitary, still pushing herself to her own limits outside.

Watching Ginny toss a quaffle as far as she could and dive after it at full speed, Hermione turned from the fourth-floor window and remarked, "Ginny doesn't seem to be taking things very well."

"She's worried about Harry," Mrs. Weasley explained, her mouth a grim line. "He wants to do things properly: finish Auror training, buy a house… before he settles down."

"But Ginny doesn't care about such things, does she?"

"Oh, dear me, no."

Brows knitting together, she questioned, "Then why doesn't Harry hurry up and marry her?"

"The blood pact forbids those involved from speaking of its existence, to outsiders."

Chewing on the inside of her cheek as she paired up various socks, Hermione wondered, "But how does that work? I mean, take half-bloods as an example… many of them are friends with purebloods, or related closely to them. Even if a member of the blood pact is unable to communicate anything about it to others, they must suspect something, right? If their friends and family annually turn up married to spouses of varying degrees of compatibility with them, they have to know that some part of that is beyond their control…"

"You always were clever," Mrs. Weasley chuckled, pouring out a second laundry basket full of clean linens onto the bed, "and you are correct. Some are in on the secret. Originally, there were forty families involved in the blood pact, and many of those families have merely been removed from that group because they are no longer pureblood, not because they've gone extinct. All the same, the Old Magic prevents them from passing on any exact knowledge, even within their own families. That's why many younger sons or daughters still choose to cast in along with their elder siblings: keeping secrets can be tiresome, even if it is magic making you do so."

Hermione flicked her wand and the pile of bed linens began to fold themselves; she had already grown more adept at household charms in the week it had been since she moved in. "I see."

"Even so, as it pertains to Ginny… Arthur and I never got to have a normal courtship like what Harry is planning for my daughter. I can't want to take that small thing away from her by pressuring him on her behalf."

"That makes sense," Hermione conceded, falling silent for moment while the pillowcases formed themselves into a neat stack.

From what she understood of the agreement with the Old Magic, there was still a lot she did not understand. Molly – and even Arthur, when he was home – had taken on the gargantuan task of instructing her and answering her many questions, teaching her whatever they could think of. The problem was, since there was no handbook on the matter, it seemed that everything she was taught opened up a new hole in Hermione's collection of information.

She recalled her ninth birthday, when Martin Granger had presented her with a copy of Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. A specific quotation stuck out for her now: her 'old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front.' *

An unsettling feeling coiled in her heart. "What is it like? The casting?"

Molly glanced at her knowingly and pulled her into the hug Hermione did not know she wanted.

When she let go, she soothed, "It's normal to be nervous. I don't mean a bit nervous either – it's normal to be a full-body kind of nervous. It just means you're a true Prewett: the Prewetts, Weasleys, Shacklebolts, or Fawleys never held much stock in the superiority that tends to run rampant amongst the old families. There's centuries of it – back and forth, the backstabbing oligarchy of the pureblood community…"

"Then why do you participate? Isn't there a way to break away from all this?"

"We must do it. The magic laid down in this land is a resource for everyone, not just ourselves. We carry the weight of it for all those who are magical. It's why so many families do not care for the inclusion of Muggle-borns amongst their ranks, as the magic must spread out amongst everyone. You might call it a long-standing grudge."

"So this is why purebloods perpetuate such a racist ideology?"

Molly nodded, "Voldemort's rise only stirred up latent feelings left over from Grindelwald."

"…And no one could explain that to anyone who wasn't of pureblood heritage because of the binding secrecy!" Hermione quickly deduced, her jaw physically dropping open as everything fell into place. "Muggle-borns thought it was all about prejudice and purebloods were angry because they saw them as freeloaders, but the Old Magic prevented setting them right!"

"It does change your perspective on the two wars that were just fought, doesn't it?" Mrs. Weasley sardonically queried.

"Almost completely," she marveled. "It makes sense to me on both levels now…"

Utilizing simple levitation spells, the witches descended the staircase once more, using magic to send fresh stacks of laundry to their appropriate rooms as they went. Their task complete, Hermione followed Mrs. Weasley into the kitchen, where the aromas of her delicious cooking were seeping from the oven and reminding them both that it had been several hours since lunch.

"I can't decide if I feel better now that I understand why everything happened with Voldemort, or worse because the reasons are still wrong," Hermione admitted. Taking a seat at the battered table, she listed off, "On the one hand, it does make memories of the war easier to bear, because I can finally recognize the real reasons for purebloods to have prejudice… On the other hand, there is still no justified reason for things to have got to the extremity they did..."

Molly nodded solemnly. "It was very frustrating for us, and for Kingsley. Minerva's family were once in the blood pact before they became half-blood, so she knew something of it, too. Watching, waiting... not being able to explain... was a huge burden."

Shaking her head so that her curls bounced wildly around her shoulders, Hermione affirmed, "It's still unfathomable."

Mrs. Weasley slowly broke into a smile before she proudly remarked, "Some of those wizards are going to get a mighty surprise when you show up to their ceremony next month."

Hermione huffed out a single laugh, but it was genuine despite the strange feelings still writhing in her chest. She knew there would be time to reflect more on the war, but it was hard to want to deal with it all at once. "Do you know some of who is going to be casting this year?"

"There are some from your year at Hogwarts you'll know already: Neville, for one, and Hannah Abbott."

"A fair few of the Slytherins, too, I would imagine?"

Molly cast her a shrewd look, "There are always several Slytherins. You'll recognize the Malfoy heir, of course, and Nott's son. There are two Avery boys – cousins I believe – plus Marcus Flint. Daphne Greengrass and her younger sister will also be offering themselves. Then, I think a younger son of the Selwyns will be present… Percy's wife, Audrey, was a Selwyn, you know. They're usually either Ravenclaws or Slytherins. She and Percy turned out to be a wonderful pair."

"I suppose…"

"Another important thing to remember is that while there are quite a few Slytherins, there are more than a couple families that tend toward some of the other Hogwarts houses. The Abbotts, for example, and the Fawleys, are always Hufflepuff without exception. They both descend from the Hufflepuff line, actually. The Bulstrodes are split: one faction in Slytherin, their cousins in Hufflepuff. The Longbottoms are the same: either Gryffindor or Hufflepuff. The Weasleys and Prewetts have been Gryffindor for centuries, while your mother's family – the Ollivanders – are traditionally Ravenclaw."

"But a Hogwarts house doesn't really matter, surely?"

"Of course not, dear. I was trying to reassure you."

"After the war we just fought, I try not to judge someone by their Hogwarts house any longer. If I should end up paired to a Slytherin, I only wish it could be someone who will respect me," Hermione announced, nose in the air defiantly. She crumbled somewhat before adding, "Though… I should like it if he made me happy, also."

"Well, I daresay that's very forward-thinking of you, Hermione." A far-away look passed across Molly's face. "I could have wept with joy that I matched to Arthur."

Her nose wrinkled. "If I'm honest, the whole casting process still sounds awful."

"It's just the way of things, another part of the blood pact our ancestors made with the earth. I got lucky: I could have been paired with Nott, you know… instead. I heard he often turned his wand on his wife. The gossips claim her death was somewhat dubious; she died shortly after their heir was born."

Hermione shuddered. She recalled the wiry, dark-haired Theodore Nott from her year at Hogwarts. He had been a Slytherin, but only on the outskirts of Malfoy's crowd…

Blanching, she admitted to herself, That's another thing…

She had not seen Draco Malfoy in nearly two years.

There had been a day - only six months after the Battle of Hogwarts - when Hermione had been at the Ministry procuring the necessary documents for travel to Australia. She had been on her way down the hall, absorbed in examining her newly acquired passport, when she took a corner sharply and nearly collided with none other than the former Prince of Slytherin, himself.

While she had not followed the Death Eater trials in the Prophet, Ron avidly had. He had been incensed when Draco and his mother only received probationary periods and a hefty fine for their being involved with Voldemort.

That day, Hermione thought it likely Malfoy had merely been reporting for his probation when she had come around the corner and nearly smacked into him.

"Granger," he acknowledged distantly, before continuing on his way. She had been so surprised by the exchange, she had not said anything back… and then he was gone.

He will be at the casting, she thought now, with trepidation. Aloud, she only admitted, "I miss being a Muggleborn."

Molly chuckled a bit at that. "Perhaps you'll feel a little less that way when you hear what Muriel has in store for you."

"Muriel?" Hermione repeated, the beginnings of a lopsided grin stretching onto her face as she attempted to restore her good cheer. "Is she that great-aunt of yours from Bill's wedding that told me I had bad posture and skinny ankles?"

"She's rude to everyone," Molly assured her brightly. "But yes. She's written you into her will."

Taken aback, Hermione uttered, "She – what?"

Molly chuckled again. "She's given you access to the Prewett family vaults, along with a substantial dowry, and inheritance for any children you may have one day."

"But – why would she do that?"

"Well, despite being a mean-tempered old woman – she's 110, you know – she isn't all bad. She never thought much of Arthur, or of the House of Weasley in general, but she helped us out during both wars when we were in trouble. She let us use Fosgate Hall as a safe house both times… I suspect she's always had a secret soft spot under that crusty exterior."

"Fosgate Hall is where she lives?"

"Oh, yes. I forget you've never been there. It's the ancestral home of the Prewetts. She and her daughter, Tessie, live there now. Tessie will inherit when Muriel passes, but apparently Muriel has altered her will so that everything will then pass on to you."

"To me? But she barely knows me!"

"The moment you answered the summons for the blood pact and claimed the House of Prewett, the family ledger was magically updated. Muriel keeps it at Fosgate Hall, where it belongs – she's been watching it obsessively ever since the crest in the henge began to glow. The only way she could have been more pleased about your existence is if you had turned out to be a male heir, to keep the name going."

Stunned, Hermione asked, "But why doesn't she pass Fosgate Hall on to you? You were once a Prewett…"

"It's… complicated," Molly admitted. "Pureblood estates are rarely ever split up. Eldest sons inherit everything and younger sons must shift for themselves, while daughters are often married off as quickly as possible."

"But that's so medieval," Hermione protested, wrinkling her nose.

Molly nodded in agreement and went on to explain, "The Weasleys are an exception, as they spread around whatever wealth they possess. It's why Arthur and I are considered to be poor, despite raising seven children while always having a roof over our heads and food on our table. The Burkes do it too, which is why they took to keeping shop."

"But this is the twenty-first century!" Hermione exploded.

"I know, dear," Molly soothed kindly, patting her charge's hand. "The Weasleys have traditionally always had a lot of children to provide for – so did the Prewetts. In fact, when Arthur and I were paired at our casting, there was a fair bit of unkind speculation amongst the other families about how large our family would be. One of the more forward matriarchs even had a chat with me right after the ceremony about limiting the number of children Arthur and I might have…"

Hermione looked at her host oddly, wondering if she and her husband had conceived seven children out of pure spite. It did not seem to be in character for either of them, but there were many things Hermione had used to take for granted that she didn't any longer.

"Will you head outside to see if you can entice Ginny to come in for dinner? The roast smells like it's just about ready."

Obligingly, Hermione stood from the kitchen table and turned on her heel to head for the front door. Mind preoccupied with what she had just learned, she almost did not hear Mr. Weasley speaking to someone in the sitting room.

She paused just outside the entryway to listen. Arthur seemed to be greeting someone who had just arrived by Floo, only to apologize that he had to Floo away himself for a few moments to put out a metaphorical fire at the Ministry.

"It's okay, Dad."

Recognizing the voice, Hermione immediately deduced it was Ron and became very still. The sound of Mr. Weasley's departure was announced by the whoosh of the fireplace.

Steeling her courage, she tried to act naturally as she walked through the open doorway to face him.

There stood Ron in the sitting room; she had not seen him in so long, it was almost surreal. He turned when he heard someone approach, mouth already open to speak, but froze when he saw it was her. He had grown a beard and was more carefully groomed than Hermione was used to seeing him.

She could feel that he was unsure what her reaction toward him would be, so she offered a half-smile of encouragement. For a second before he returned it, an expression of relief flooded through. It was that same boyish smile that used to make her heart flutter – but now, she felt nothing.

"So, er, you're back…" Ron floundered awkwardly, "from Australia, I mean."

"Yes."

Silence.

She tried, "Did you just arrive?"

"Oh, er, yeah. I was just going to stop by to see Ginny, and… well, Dad told me you were here, so I didn't want to…"

"Do you know? About how we're… related."

His blue eyes looked away quickly and a spasm of something like horror crossed his face. "Yeah. That. Mum wrote me a letter pretty soon after she found out about, you know… you being a Prewett and all. I think she thought I should know. You know me… sometimes I need a bit of time to cool off when I get news like that."

Same old Ron. Hermione was grateful for his self-depreciation, as it was a good tool at further unraveling the tension between them. "That was a good idea on her part."

"Harry and I were both surprised. And Susan, too – Susan Bones, I mean. I'm dating her, actually. Although you probably don't want to hear…"

"Really, Ron, I'm happy for you. If she's anything like the Susan I remember from Hogwarts, I bet you two are great together."

He smiled sheepishly, running a hand through his ginger hair. "I don't regret that it was you, you know. I just wish… we knew beforehand."

"So do I," she agreed quickly. "But while we don't need to forget it, let's maybe act like it never happened?"

He looked relieved. "Agreed."

They both became easier instantly.

"So what are you doing these days? The only thing your Mum said was that you and Harry were renting a flat. I hope the two of you aren't surviving on takeaway and crisps…"

He laughed, "Nah, we've got Kreacher! Harry didn't want to go back to Grimmauld – reminded him too much of Sirius – which nearly sent Kreacher off his rocker. He threatened to follow us there and drag us back, but Harry compromised with him. We've got a place in Hackney. It's a bit dodgy, but it's cheap, and we don't expect to be there long anyway. Since I'm working at Wheezes now, George offered me to move in with him above the shop for basically nothing."

"That's great, Ron."

"Yeah," he grinned, "especially as Harry's nearly saved up to buy a house and wants to ask Ginny move into it by Christmas."

Her expression darkened, "What is he going to do if she casts next month and is married off?"

His smile faded, "He will be devastated."

"For what it's worth, I think we're all hoping it won't come to that," she agreed.

After a pause, he tentatively asked, "What about you?"

Hermione closed her eyes as if she would rather not think about it, herself. "I don't know what's going to happen to me. A part of me is hoping I end up never getting paired and die as a single, old lady. Another part of me is ready for an adventure."

He eyed her keenly; there was no spark between them like there used to be, and they both knew it. "Look on the bright side, 'Mione: Percy's already out of the running."

They both laughed.

.

.

Later that night, Hermione lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. She and Ron had parted quickly – if amicably enough – but she was now fiercely missing Harry, and finding it difficult to drift off into slumber when she was so distracted.

A moment later there came a small knock on her door, so quiet she almost did not hear it. She sat up and softly called, "Ginny?"

"I can't sleep," came the muffled reply from the other side of the door.

"Come in, then."

The door creaked open and a shadowed figure in a too-short nightgown crept in, closing the door behind her. Like old times when the girls had been young, Ginny crawled into bed beside her friend and snuggled under the covers. Without any other preamble, she questioned, "Do you think it would be worth it if I didn't make a cast?"

Hermione propped herself up on her elbow to seriously ask, "Haven't you already pledged yourself to the pact?"

Her friend nodded, her red hair oddly pale in the persistent moonlight streaming through the window. "I did. I never had a problem with that part… Dad explained it to us all when we were little. It's just… Harry…"

"You love him," Hermione nodded, "I know. I think it's normal to question your actions in a situation like this."

"But… I can't just not do it, right? Look what happened to Bill… to Fred? The personal tragedy doesn't scare me – but the familial one definitely does."

The soft zing of crickets singing in the backyard was all that could be heard in the small bedroom for a few moments, as both girls retreated into private reflection. Finally, Hermione asked, "What are you going to do?"

"Channel my inner Gryffindor and make a cast, I guess," Ginny decided, sounding deflated. She made a face as if it were distasteful, but determined, "I don't really have any other choice. I can't betray my family, right?"

"Are you scared?"

"Aren't you?"

"Yes," she answered honestly. Reaching out to clasp Ginny's hand, she affirmed, "I am gravely frightened. What if I get paired to someone who will make me miserable? What if it's a perfect stranger? What if the wizard I marry has no interest in looking after me, or worrying about my happiness…"

"You have me," her friend promised, "for always."

"You're a good friend, Ginny…"

"We're family," she reminded her. After a beat, she recalled, "Dad said Ron stopped by today, but he didn't stay. Did you run into him? Was it awkward?"

"A bit, but I think it'll be okay between us. He initially came to see you, you know. I think I scared him off."

Ginny snorted. "According to Harry, my brother had a hard time with the idea of being related to you, at first. If you recall, Ron always made fun of Malfoy for his family marrying their distant relatives – though they're definitely not the only ones that did that – but your big news effectively made him a hypocrite. I mean, he had sex with his own second cousin!"

Hermione closed her eyes, feeling pained. "Do me a favor, Ginny, and never bring that up again."

"Noted."

"Do you want to stay in here with me tonight? I can widen the bed like we used to."

"Yes, please."

Hermione performed the charm to give them both a bit more space for sleeping, then nestled in to Ginny's warmth. In a voice more cheerful than she felt, she murmured, "Just like old times…"

But it wasn't, really. Everything was different – even, Hermione suspected, the subject of her friend's nightmares as she tossed and turned in the wee hours of the morning. What had once been creeping basilisks and the memory of a sneering Tom Riddle emerging from a diary, had somehow morphed into the thought of losing Harry to a faceless, pureblooded man.

 

Chapter Text

Evening sunlight flooded Draco's study the moment the curtains were pulled back from the floor-to-ceiling windows. Several candles also floated throughout the room offering additional illumination, as it would be dark within the hour. A spacious and meticulously tidy area, most of the furniture were pieces fashioned from stained heartwood. The walls were lined with several bookshelves bearing a vast collection of over two hundred different tomes. Each shelf contained different subject matter, alphabetized and lined in straight rows. His desk had clawed feet and ornate flourishes on its corners; the surface displayed an inkwell of Venetian glass boasting an impressive collection of beautiful quills.

Reclining in a seat that had been upholstered with dragon hide, Avery sat opposite him, tapping his cigar into an ashtray while Nott sucked away at his nearby. The pile of curling ashes was now becoming quite tall, indicating the wizards had been there for some time.

Draco had pulled up his chair to the side of the sizeable desk, so that speaking with his guests felt more social and less like an interrogation. Lucius would never have done it, as it bespoke familiarity… but given space and separation from the suffocation of his father's high expectations, Draco had lately found that being his own man came so naturally, he nearly did not have to try any longer.

Though they had covered a plethora of topics, the one that weighed most heavily on all three wizards' minds had not yet been broached. Theo was the one to finally break the interdiction: "Are we going to talk about tomorrow at all?"

Tomorrow… the summer solstice.

Draco cringed. It would be his second year casting, Theo's third, and Cadfael's fourth. Despite this, he suspected all three of them were nervous – though none would have admitted it aloud – as they were each nursing a glass of firewhiskey like it was a lifeline.

Cadfael raised his glass to his lips and observed his companions from over the top of the rim. "What is there to talk about?"

Theo shrugged, affecting nonchalance. "Witches."

Draco snorted. Sardonically, he remarked, "Millicent Bulstrode is casting this year. She who you want to talk about?"

While Cadfael merely grimaced, a look of dawning horror spread across Theo's features. "Mother of Merlin," he gaped, "I mean, guess she is of the same age as us so it's to be expected... but hell, can you imagine?"

"Unfortunately, I can," Draco answered. While it was true that Millicent had never been an attractive person, her unbridled stupidity and her tendency to gossip were what really made her a dreadful prospect.

He was therefore not in the slightest bit worried about being paired up with her.

A Malfoy always gets the best of everything, the memory of Lucius from years ago explained. Draco could still see him, clear as day, idly swirling a glass of firewhiskey as he took a thirteen-year-old Draco aside to remind him of the same things he had been reminding him of, practically since birth. His customary glass of liquor was such a common repetition, it almost seemed to be an extension of his arm. You see, Draco, you are triply special: first, as a wizard… second, as a pureblood… and third, as a Malfoy.

I understand, father, he had answered automatically.

Do not forget it, Lucius insisted.

I won't, Draco promised.

His father had leaned back to survey him, You will grow into a fine young man, soon enough. Before you know it, you will be making your pledge to the blood pact and accepting a wife into your bed.

The younger Draco had grimaced. At just thirteen, the idea of a wife was as distasteful as the concept of spending the entire summer indoors, without any opportunity to practice Quidditch.

Lucius continued, A wife is one of the crowning jewels to any estate, Draco. After all, she makes possible the ultimate contribution to any House in giving life to its next heir.

As you say, father, he had replied, willing the conversation to end so he could escape.

But while a wife may be a necessity, a Malfoy wife is something more. Lucius's eyes had gone slightly glazed, as if he was not really speaking to his son any longer, but narrating a draft to a clerk. Centuries ago, our ancestors bargained with the Old Magic of the land so that, in exchange for our blood, our sons would always receive the very best wives to take up the mantle for the House of Malfoy.

Draco shifted uncomfortably.

Lucius seemed not to notice as he waxed on, Narcissa is… beautiful, intelligent... graceful… cunning…

May I go flying, father? his son interrupted, desperate to be away from the conversation now that it was headed in the direction it was.

Only then did Lucius seem to remember that he was not inwardly reflecting, but speaking aloud. He dismissed, You may go.

Today, Draco could recall that conversation as if it were something that had occurred last week, rather than seven years ago. It had always stuck with him, in part because it had been both reassuring and terrifying all at once. Reassuring, because of the promise that his very blood was magically bound to the assurance that whoever his future wife might be, she would be an exemplary specimen of a witch. Terrifying, because Draco had not felt like an exemplary wizard, himself, for some years now. Not since the war. What in Merlin's name was he to do with a high-caliber, well-rounded witch?

With any luck, the Old Magic would recognize that the younger Greengrass sister was his best possible match. Astoria was demure, innocent, accomplished... and very pretty. She was also younger; his experience would give him the upper hand with her management. A jewel for his crown, indeed.

"Twenty-eight casters tomorrow, including the three of us," Draco mused, pretending he was not nervous.

"You have old news," Cadfael corrected. "There are thirty."

"Who's been added this late?"

"That Weasley girl - whatever her name is - pledged to make a cast, only three weeks ago."

"Oh, you mean Ginevra," Theo supplied. "I'm kind of hoping to get paired with her. Maybe not this year, what with the estate only partly finished... but next year, maybe."

Draco and Cadfael both turned to him and raised their eyebrows. Avery sneered, "Why would you want to marry a Weasley?"

Popping the cigar from his mouth, Nott drained the remainder of his firewhiskey before setting his glass down with a clumsy clunk; the combination of smoke and liquor was clearly beginning to affect him. "Come on, have you seen that Quidditch body? Goyle and I went to a Magpies versus Arrows match a few months back… that arse as she bends over a broomstick? That hair streaming behind her in the wind? Weasley is fit!"

His companions stared at him, nonplussed. Draco scowled and japed, "You're a true poet, Nott."

Unabashed, Theo continued, "She plays for Montrose. She's only a reserve Chaser, but still… the best seats at every game and VIP access!"

Avery nodded in a small way, apparently agreeing that this, at least, was a good point.

"Not to mention the whole bloody family are all heroes after the war…"

"What, so now that your father is dead, the Nott name could use some redemption?" Draco suggested sarcastically.

"Exactly."

He's done more thinking on this than he's letting on, Draco deduced, eyeing Theodore and feeling somewhat worried. From what he remembered of Ginny Weasley, she was a holy terror.

Cadfael only stared, clearly convinced Theo had gone at least a little bit mental. After a moment, he cleared his throat and said, "Anyway... the other late addition is a Prewett."

At this pronouncement, Draco's eyebrows raised so that they were in danger of disappearing into his hairline. "Is the great mystery finally at an end, then?"

"It's like this," Cadfael explained, leaning forward somewhat. His face was partially obscured by the growing darkness of night and the haze of cigar smoke the three wizards had filled the study with. "Whoever this mysterious caster is, there was initially some question over whether they were an Ollivander or a Prewett…"

"Probably somebody's bastard," Theo interrupted lowly, reaching for one of the nearby cut-crystal decanters that gleamed on a pewter salver. He poured himself a fourth glassful whilst gripping the remainder of his cigar between his teeth.

"…But whoever they are, they've chosen to fashion themselves as the heir of the House of Prewett. The Ollivanders are officially extinct," Cadfael continued as if Theo had not said a word. He tapped his cigar on the edge of the ashtray before adding, "The thing is, no one has any idea if it's a witch or a bloke."

"Hopefully it's a witch," Draco put in, adding, "we've got enough blokes casting."

"That Abbott girl from your year is making a House cast," Avery mentioned after a beat, his lip curling somewhat, "so neither of you will be matched to her. She's going for a younger son."

Snarkily, Theo concluded, "Like you."

"Anyone ever tell you you're a manky arsehole, Nott?"

"Oh, he knows," Draco assured his companion. "He gets told all the time."

Theo pretended to be offended but failed utterly at the attempt, having been distracted by the end of his cigar beginning to burn his fingertips. Smothering it in the ashtray, he relished, "Just thought I'd remind you that of all those casting in on Wednesday, Avery, you're one of only three possible pairings for sweet, little, Hufflepuff Abbott. How do you think you'd feel giving up your surname for a girl that wore pigtails every day until she was fifteen?"

Cadfael winced; clearly the situation was not one he fancied.

"Is that why you shaved your head?"

Avery had had long, blond hair for as long as Draco could remember. He was not a white-blond like the Malfoys, but more a flaxen color: the difference between white and yellow gold. When Cadfael arrived at Malfoy Manor that evening, both Draco and Theo had been startled to note that their friend's head was newly shaved but for a thick band across the top, where his hair was still long, though he had pulled it back into a ponytail.

"'Course not," Cadfael snorted. "I just wanted to do something different."

"So you opted for a long Mohican?" Draco queried. He had mixed feelings about the hairstyle, which was anything but traditional for a pureblood.

Wiggling his eyebrows, Avery insinuated, "Narcissa seemed to like it."

Nose wrinkling, Draco retorted, "You are aptly named a cad. How many times must I ask you not to flirt with my mother?"

"With her husband away in Azkaban, a beautiful woman like Narcissa practically requires the attentions of a young, handsome wizard..."

"So, not you?" Theo quipped impishly.

"Don't make me hex you, Nott."

Theo held up his hands, "I'm just saying, it's more likely you're getting into Abbott's skirts than anyone else's. It's only you, that Macmillan bloke, and Rowan Selwyn she could get."

"I get it," Cadfael grit out, looking stymied. After a tense pause, he added, "Even if that happens, it could be worse. Just think if you got Rosier?"

"She's got to be… what?" Theo tried to figure, successfully distracted. "Fifty?"

"Early forties, I think," Draco corrected, though the number did not change the fact that this match would be distasteful to a wizard in his early twenties.

The witch in question - Etta Rosier - had made her first cast over twenty summers ago and had never been paired. While others in her family had been matched, married, and had children of their own, the years had passed with no mate for her. She had taken to showing up for the casting ceremonies completely inebriated; meanwhile, loneliness and depression had stolen what little beauty she once possessed.

Unkindly, Theo posited, "Who would you rather be stuck with: Etta or Millicent?"

"Fuck, Theo, why do you have to even think of this shite?" Cadfael demanded.

"Well who are you hoping to get, then?"

"Salmeh Shafiq," Avery answered automatically. "What I wouldn't give just for one night between those thighs... then to have her as my wife?" He elicited a nearly predatory growl. "She'd be pregnant in no time at all."

"She is a hell of a witch," Draco acknowledged fairly. After a moment's thought, he snorted into his firewhiskey glass, "Watch, she'll get someone who doesn't know what to do with her, like Longbottom."

With a sly, sidelong glance at his friend, Nott quizzed, "Still hoping to get Astoria, Draco?"

"She's exquisite," he freely admitted, feeling confident that it was true. "But you know the Old Magic doesn't take your choice into account."

"Wonder how it does decide..." Cadfael mused.

"The point is," Theo interjected, "it's slim pickings. It's either going to be Millie, that weird Hufflepuff cousin she's got, Weasley, Rosier, Shafiq, or either of the Rowle, Carrow, or Greengrass sisters."

"At least it's no one I'm immediately related to," Draco drawled sarcastically. For the sake of being accurate however, he amended, "Except Rosier."

His mother's family had sometimes married their cousins, leading to the House of Black's famously convoluted family tree that was often difficult to decipher. Draco felt a spike of gratitude that his ancestors had stipulated the House of Malfoy's heir be granted his best possible match, as it weeded out the likelihood of inbreeding. Other families were not so fortunate.

"I'll toast to that!" Cadfael joked, an amused smirk playing about his lips. He raised his glass in mock commemoration. "Here's to possibly only twenty-four more hours of being a rich, eligible bachelor…"

Anxiousness creeping back in, Draco drank deeply from his glass, willing oblivion to come so he could have some brief hours of respite before tomorrow night.

.

.

The next morning, Draco slid into wakefulness with a groan and a mild headache. He rejuvenated himself with a hangover potion and, noting the time, recognized that it was the breakfast hour. His mother might even be already waiting for him at the table.

Consulting his wardrobe, he made to dress as usual for breakfast when his eye caught the white linen pants and shirt that were draped over a hook near the front of the enormous closet. A spasm of anxiety seized him, and lingered tellingly. He selected his robes and dressed quickly, eager to be away from the ceremonial garments that acted as loud reminders of what day it was. Sitting on the edge of his bed, he pulled on his shoes and made to stand, when the disheveled sheets gave him pause.

Before you know it, you will be accepting a wife into your bed, his father's words from years ago reminded him.

If he were married that evening, Draco would not be sleeping in this bed any longer. That part of his life would be over, as a much larger suite in a private wing of the Manor had been cleared for him and his future bride. This room, where he had passed his nights since early childhood, would no longer be his.

He thought of Theo and his friend's casual mention that being paired to Ginny Weasley would not be so bad. Draco disagreed, as Weasleys and Malfoys had historically never got along. She was also practically engaged to Harry Potter, and was likely wishing she were not a pureblood at all. He could not relate, even in the slightest.

He then thought of Pansy, who hated her husband and was still in love with his younger brother. With that match, there was reasonable cause for suspicion that an affair was occurring… but when someone had hinted at this to Declan, the wizard had been reported as saying, "Well, at least I'll have a Selwyn heir, after all."

Draco shuddered. He cast a backward glance toward the over-full closet where his casting clothes were hanging on their hook, then hastily stood to make his way down to breakfast.

 

Chapter Text

When Hermione opened her eyes, beams of sunlight were creeping in through the bedroom window. It only took her a split-second to recall why she had woken already wracked with body-numbing anxiety. She sat up in bed, noting that she was alone; Ginny must have crept out during the night.

Her eyes fell to the calendar on the wall: Wednesday, June the twenty-first. She crawled back under the sheets and despite the midsummer heat already radiating throughout the room, she shivered.

Hermione spent much of her morning pacing nervously across her bedroom, or attempting to focus on one of the books she had borrowed from Percy's old collection. Ginny, meanwhile, had awakened in a state of high dudgeon which persisted throughout the day and even led to a screaming match between her and her mother around lunchtime, ending with Ginny in tears and Molly consoling her.

With tensions as high as they were, Hermione was almost glad of it when the late afternoon rolled around and Mrs. Weasley decided it was time to hustle both her charges down the hall to prepare for the casting ceremony.

Already having had a meltdown, Ginny was on edge and extremely nervous… so much so, that Hermione nearly forgot to be nervous herself, being too busy feeling empathy for her friend. After all, in a few hours, Ginny might find herself married to someone that was not Harry. Worse, she was not even able to tell him about what she was going through, or give him any warning whatsoever…

"I'm going to draw a bath," Mrs. Weasley announced. "Hermione, dear, you're older so you can go first. This way, Ginny can soak for a bit while I help you dress."

With an almost-manic energy that made Hermione wonder if Molly wasn't entirely able to contain her anxiousness herself, she bustled off to fill the tub and left the girls alone.

Ginny sat on the edge of her bed, looking anxious and pale. "I tried to get Harry to elope with me yesterday."

Glancing sharply at her friend, Hermione queried, "He wouldn't?"

"I was so scared, I think I frightened him," she admitted with a nervous laugh. "But he asked why I was suddenly so keen, and I couldn't even tell him… Hermione, he has no one but me, not really. I was supposed to be his family!"

Hermione had seen Harry several times in the past three weeks. They had met at various locations in Diagon Alley or in Hogsmeade to spend time with one another, though Ron conspicuously never showed up, always claiming that he was working. At one point, nearly a week prior, when Hermione and Harry had been laughing over ice creams at the re-opened Fortescue's, he mentioned Ginny, and Hermione had grown very serious. Knowing that she had been told that she would not be able to explain any aspect of the blood pact to those not in it, she had still tried, for Harry's sake. Every time she made an attempt however, it felt as if her tongue had begun curling backward on itself and she had to give up.

Feeling panged, Hermione put an arm around her friend and soothed, "Calm down, Ginny, you might not even get picked."

"You don't know that," she said swiftly. "I don't know that. We can't know that until tonight… when it happens."

Molly reappeared a moment later, poking her head into Ginny's bedroom. "The bath's ready for you, Hermione. I've put some oils in it, so you'll want to tie your hair back so it doesn't get wet, or it will be greasy later."

"What are the oils for?" Ginny questioned suspiciously, looking miserable.

Fixing her daughter with a frank look, she explained, "In the event Hermione is chosen tonight, she will have to consummate her marriage in a few mere hours. She should be looking and smelling her best."

Ginny burst into tears.

Hermione took that as her cue to leave and grabbed her towel to head up to the second floor to begin her bath; as she ascended the creaking staircase, Ginny's violent affliction resonated throughout the house. Pausing on the landing, she heard the sound of the front door slamming below. Peering outside, she saw Arthur standing with his head bowed down as his hands gripped the fencepost that gated in the front gardens. Hermione felt no doubt that he was feeling very keenly for his youngest at that moment.

The bathroom was directly above Ginny's bedroom, so her friend's sobs were in no way muffled, even when Hermione shut the door behind her. Pulling out her wand, she cast, "Silencio."

Because there was nothing she – or Ginny – could do about it.

Mrs. Weasley had clearly gone through great lengths to make the bath a place of comfort. There were a few candles floating throughout the room and it smelled heavenly thanks to the oils she had added to the bath… like rose and sandalwood.

Slipping off her clothing piece by piece, Hermione folded everything neatly and placed it on the edge of the sink. Craning her leg over the side of the ancient claw-footed bathtub, she stuck her big toe in and concluded that the temperature of the water was perfect. She slid the rest of the way in, in a single, fluid motion that sent the water slapping to the edges of the tub.

Settling in, Hermione could feel her tense muscles begin to relax from the heat. Careful not to wet her hair, she leaned her long neck against the edge and closed her eyes.

.

.

Molly knocked on the bathroom door an hour later, "Hermione?"

Her eyes slowly fluttered open, "Hnh?"

"It's time to get out, my dear. You'll turn into a prune soon enough. There's a spare robe hanging on the doorknob – I'll meet you in Percy's… in your bedchamber, in about ten minutes to help you dress."

The footsteps on the other side of the door died away and Hermione realized that she must have fallen asleep, because she was indeed rather wrinkled and the water had gone slightly cold as the warming charm on it had begun to wear off.

She heaved herself up and stepped out onto the bathmat. After toweling off, she opened the door a crack, determined that the coast was clear, and grabbed the robe that was hanging on the doorknob. Tying it about her waist, she performed a drying charm on the hair at the nape of her neck that had touched the water, and made her way up toward Percy's old room.

A small pile of linen was folded on the bed. For a moment, she thought it might be a stack of clean pillowcases from the laundry, but when she unfolded it, she realized it was a gown.

But what am I to wear under it? she wondered, her eyes raking over the thin, gauzy material.

Her question was answered only moments later when Mrs. Weasley knocked, entered, and noticed that the garment was in Hermione's hands. "Ah, yes, that used to belong to my sister. I hope you don't mind that it isn't new. These things are hard to come by and can be terribly expensive. Between you and Ginny this year…"

"I don't mind," Hermione quickly insisted. Money had always been tight with the Weasleys, even now when they were comparatively well-off. That was not what mattered. "I was just wondering what I'm to wear under it?"

"Oh, not to worry – it may look sheer now, but it's been charmed not to be."

"I'm to wear nothing underneath?" She touched the fabric, feeling nauseating curiosity roiling in her empty stomach.

"It may perhaps seem a strange thing to you, but I assure you that all the others making a cast will also have nothing beneath their clothes, either."

"But… why?" Pleadingly, she entreated, "Please, tell me everything I have to know. Let's pretend I am going to be married tonight – and all that entails. I need to know what I'm to expect."

Smiling sympathetically, Molly related, "When the sun goes down, the officiator will lead all those who are making a cast up to the henge. Once there, you'll cast your rune-stone into the center basin and everyone will form a perimeter inside the stone circle. It is blood magic and Old Magic working in tandem, as it is meant to do. Once everyone has staked their cast, the officiator will announce the names in order from eldest to youngest. When your name is called, you step forward and pick out a rune-stone. If you come up with your own, you remain unwed and may leave the henge – at which point, you return to the festivities occurring at the bottom of the hill…"

Hermione quickly prompted, "Festivities?"

"Oh yes, there's a party going on at the same time, at the bottom of the hill. There will be feasting, and bonfires, and socializing."

"But why?" she asked, scandalized.

"For celebrating the continuation of the blood pact… without which, magic could not continue to thrive here," Mrs. Weasley explained patiently. "Now, get that gown on. I'll turn around."

She did and Hermione pulled off her robe before yanking the gown over her head. It had an extremely wide collar, like an old-fashioned shift, which she had to pull a tie for, so that it did not merely fall back to the ground. As she cinched this tie, feeling very much as though she were still naked, she pressed, "But if I don't pull my own rune-stone?"

"If you pull a rune that is not yours, you are to hold onto it and remain within the circle until the casting is done. The magic will pick enough witches and wizards to form seven couples. These seven couples are then simultaneously married by the officiator."

"Just like that?"

"Just like that," Molly confirmed.

Hermione paused, still fingering the tie to her gown, before announcing, "I'm decent."

Mrs. Weasley turned and surveyed her critically. "Hmm… I'll have to do something about these sleeves, they're a bit outdated. Be still just a tick."

With some impressive incantations, the woman set to work on Hermione's borrowed linen gown. It truly was a beautiful garment – the hem, which fell just below her knees, had been lovingly embroidered with golden flowers near the bottom, as had the sleeves. It took some tricky wandwork for Mrs. Weasley to save this adornment, while making the sleeves look less like some of those that had been purposely puffed during the early 1900s.

"So," Hermione continued, standing very still as instructed, "after the marriage is performed…?"

"The eldest couple will be asked to consummate first. This part is Old Magic and blood magic now mingling with sex magic."

"And… is that… public, or…?"

"Heavens, child, is that what's got you wound into knots? No, your consummation is highly private – just yourself and your new husband. You will be alone in the henge and there will be a privacy shield around you to prevent prying eyes."

She sighed in relief; though it sounded silly, she was taking nothing for granted now. It turned out that despite her former know-it-all status, there was still quite a lot Hermione Granger did not know.

"There," Molly settled as the last of the new seams fell into place. "You're perfectly lovely."

Hermione did not feel even the remotest bit 'lovely', but she knew better than to say so. A glance in the mirror reflected her wan face right back at her. The sleeves were much better – more modern – and fitted to her slim arms. Still, she could not shake the feeling that she looked like some kind of virgin sacrifice.

Almost, she decided critically. I'm a blood sacrifice for the House of Prewett.

"Truly, my dear, you are beautiful," Molly reiterated, as if she knew what Hermione was thinking. A look of nostalgia crept over her features as she gazed at her. "I was once beautiful. Seven children will take that from you, though. I look in the mirror sometimes and it's not that I've lost all my beauty, it's just that the woman there doesn't look like me."

Hermione picked at the flowing white linen of her dress, then enveloped the matron into a hug, "I'm so glad you're here to help me through all this, Mrs. Weasley."

Molly burst into tears, surprising Hermione completely. "I shouldn't be such a mess, but it's so hard with both you and Ginny fully grown. Where have all my children gone? I know you're nervous – and that's normal – but I promise, I'm going to be right there with you for every step that I'm allowed to be."

"I hope I'm not picked," Hermione wished.

"It's very unlikely you won't be," Molly admitted. "If not this year, then probably the next. The last of a line – the Old Magic will want to pair you."

She gulped, "Just as long as it isn't someone vile…"

With a frown, Mrs. Weasley firmly reminded, "You'll always have us, love. You're family – don't you forget."

Determined not to get teary herself, she only answered, "Thank you."

"You know, I had always hoped I would be able to help you prepare for your wedding day because I had hoped you would be marrying my son. But given the circumstances…"

Hermione did not know what to say to that. Was she meant to say she wished she and Ron had worked out? They were related just closely enough that she knew she would never have allowed romantic liaison between them to happen if she had only known about the relation. She inwardly chided, You told yourself you would stop thinking about it…

"Come along, love. Let's make sure Ginny hasn't drowned herself in the tub, and get her dressed. Then we've got to pick out some flowers for both of your hair…"

.

.

It was a very different sort of gathering from what she had been expecting.

Hermione and the three Weasleys had used their rune-stones to Portkey to the same site she had visited when she had initially got her rune-stone and made her pledge. Now, however, an enormous pavilion took up much of the meadow, all milling about with dozens of chatting, gossiping, and laughing strangers. The place was done up in multi-colored streamers and lit by blazing torches; in fact, the entire area was positively covered in ribbons and festive gaieties. Even the trees on the outskirts of the pavilion were decorated, and bonfires were lit all around with flames of every imaginable color. The smell of many wonderful things cooking also permeated the air and though Hermione was too nervous to be truly hungry, she still felt herself salivating at some of the scents assaulting her senses.

She was so wrapped up in staring that she nearly walked right into something that was both very large and very stationary. It turned out to be a fountain fashioned out of cut crystal that sparkled in the torchlight and was emitting continuous streams of blood-red wine.

Keep your wits, Hermione, she chided herself, straightening and smoothing out some nonexistent wrinkles in the front of her linen gown.

"Percy and Audrey will be meeting us," Arthur commented as he took in the scene before him.

Ginny swallowed heavily. Hermione queried, "But, surely they don't need to be here?"

"Every witch and wizard in the blood pact who is of age, is invited to come," Molly explained, "even if they do not have a family member casting in, and even if they have not been called by the Old Magic yet."

It seemed to Hermione that this did not actually amount to very many individuals, as there were probably just over a hundred people there in all. Most were not faces she recognized, though at least many of them seemed to be in good cheer. The wine was already flowing heavily.

"You never took any of us here when we came of age," Ginny observed, her eyes darting everywhere as if she were expecting an imminent attack.

"Well, no," Mr. Weasley conceded. He had worn his best robes and wizards' hat for the occasion, and was nodding to certain individuals in acknowledgement as they made their way toward the pavilion. "We never much liked the idea of being involved in revels at all. The casting ceremony can sometimes be very stressful, Ginny."

The atmosphere inside the tent was one of near-claustrophobic cacophony. At one table, a group of wizened warlocks were shouting over politics, while a group of younger wizards debated at another. Witches were gossiping, sharing news, giggling, or laughing aloud. At one table, a small family seemed to have got into a shouting match over something, while a sequestered cluster of teenagers whispered amongst themselves.

Having always been under the impression that the Weasleys had been relatively unpopular in pureblood circles, Hermione was initially surprised when they were descended upon by a group of friends. She quickly amended her first opinions when she recalled that Arthur had political swing these days.

"This is Ginny, my youngest… and have you met Hermione? This is Hermione Granger – she is casting tonight for the House of Prewett."

Hermione was unsure how many times she heard those words, or some variation of them, spoken over the course of the next few minutes as she was introduced to nearly twenty new acquaintances. Many of them appeared to be from the House of Fawley, which was traditionally friendly with both Weasleys and also, historically, Prewetts.

"Great," Ginny grit out, her eyes downcast. "Auntie Muriel is here."

Indeed, a group of old dowagers had formed a circle of judgment and disapproval from a corner where they could watch all the proceedings with hawk-like eyes. Hermione recognized Molly's great-aunt Muriel from the time she had met the woman at Bill's wedding. She was sitting beside Mrs. Longbottom, who Hermione only knew because Neville's grandmother had introduced herself years ago, and was distinctive in her tall witches' hat topped with a stuffed vulture.

"Muriel never did miss an opportunity to turn out at a social gathering," Arthur observed wryly.

Molly added, "Tessie is here, too, I see. They're the last Prewetts besides you, Hermione dear. We should go say hi."

Great, thought Hermione, echoing Ginny's earlier sarcasm. The woman had left her a house and a dowry – little though she had asked for them – so she supposed it was her duty to at least say hello…

.

.

Disentangling herself from the dowagers' table was more difficult than Hermione had anticipated. Her ancestry, her parents' story, and her own accomplishments had been picked apart and analyzed on a near-microscopic level, until she began to wish for a glass of wine, or several.

This must have shown plainly on her face, because the moment she was free, a familiar someone swept in front of her and placed one such glass right into her waiting hand.

"Neville!" she exclaimed, her features brightening.

"Hey, Hermione," he grinned, "I just saw you being questioned by my grandmother and her friends over there and figured you needed a pick-me-up."

"I sure do!" she laughed. "Your timing is impeccable! It's so good to see you."

The round-faced, nervous boy she had known from her youth was gone; in his place stood a self-assured wizard with an easy smile. He wore loosely fitting linen garments similar to those she had seen some of the other wizards wearing.

Curiosity apparent in his sparkling eyes, he queried, "Is it true you're the last heir to the House of Prewett?"

"So you've heard?"

"You're the talk of the celebration," he explained, seemingly surprised that she had not picked up on it.

"Well as odd as it still sounds to admit it, I am." She looked up at him interestedly, an unsure kind of hopefulness lighting her eyes, "And you? You're casting in this year, too?"

"It's my second year. I didn't get picked last time."

She felt a creeping sense of hope that she might cast in and be married to Neville Longbottom. Despite her less-than-romantic history with Neville, Hermione recognized that if she married him, it would certainly be a lot easier to explain than if she married a perfect stranger. Additionally, he was not a bad-looking wizard… All the same, it struck her as an odd thing to wish for, and she was again struck by how insane this entire situation really was.

"Hermione Granger!" another voice recognized. Suddenly, Ernie Macmillan was striding over to where she stood with Neville. "How do ye do?"

She smiled again at the sight of a familiar face. "Hello, Ernie."

"I've heard your whole story – we are first cousins, apparently."

"Oh… wow, that's…"

"Unexpected?" he prompted for her. Ernie had always been grandiloquent. "It's my first casting as well, I only got my rune-stone about four months ago…"

A witch passed near the three of them and shot a cryptic glance in her direction, effectively diverting Hermione's attention. It was barely a moment before she recognized the expertly coiffed up-do that belonged to Narcissa Malfoy… and it was only another moment longer when she realized that would mean her son was likely present already, too. Scanning the crowd, it did not take long to locate him thanks to his shockingly platinum hair.

The two years that had passed since the war had changed Draco Malfoy, at least outwardly. He seemed taller, though not broader, more like a panther or other large cat rather than a bear – but predacious nonetheless. At Hogwarts and afterward, she had always remembered him with a pointed face: his nose and his chin especially. Now he was angular, as if nature had finally come around to put the finishing touches on a masterpiece.

The one thing that was the same, was his paleness. His hair, his skin… in fact, when clad in the white linen of his ceremonial garb, he nearly looked like a ghost.

"Hermione?" Neville queried, bringing her back to the present.

Her attention diverted back to her friends, she smiled. "It's nice to see some friendly faces here. I had worried."

"Especially since it looks like Ginny's still stuck over by my grandmother," he grinned.

Glancing toward the table, Hermione felt for Ginny, who was indeed still being accosted by Muriel and looking miserable.

"Here comes the Minister," Ernie warned lowly. Hermione watched with fascination as a mask of perfect politesse slid over the former-Hufflepuff's features as Kingsley approached the three of them. Mr. Weasley was at his side, along with Percy, who shook her hand amiably enough in greeting.

Arthur grinned, "Hermione, you remember Kingsley?"

"How could I forget!" she exclaimed.

Kingsley Shacklebolt, garbed in his own ceremonial robes, chuckled. In his deep, reassuring voice, he greeted, "I know I'm not speaking only for myself when I tell you I'm glad you've returned to England, Hermione."

They shook hands, and as they did so, Hermione recognized for the first time, that there was a possibility she might cast her rune-stone in with fate, and be paired to the wizard before her: the former Order of the Phoenix member, and current Minister for Magic. It was a queer feeling. Surrounded by Arthur, Kingsley, Percy, Neville, and Ernie – and eventually, Ginny, when she escaped – Hermione was pulled into a conversation about the atmosphere of this celebration, and how different it was to those that took place in previous years, especially during wartime.

"This is really the first year it has started to feel normal again," Kingsley was remarking, seeming pleased about it. Hermione wondered how many years he had casted in without being matched, himself. "The summer after the war ended was the most sparse attendance I've seen…"

As the discussion wended its way through other topics, with Ernie inserting himself wherever he felt he could say something clever or noteworthy, Hermione found her attention again wandering over to where Malfoy stood. He was now engaged in conversation with a wizard she thought might be a grown-up Theodore Nott and another she did not know. The latter of the wizards was sporting a Mohawk-style ponytail and a scruff of a beard. She tried to place him, but couldn't.

All at once, the wizard caught her eyeing him, winked, and made a show of raking his eyes up and down her body. She looked away quickly, blushing furiously, and hoping against hope that she would not be paired up with whoever that was…

 

Chapter Text

At the sight of Hermione Granger dressed in the ceremonial white gown of a pureblood making a cast that evening, Draco did a double-take. The former resident of Gryffindor tower was chatting up Longbottom near one of the bonfires dancing with purple and green flames as high as the trees.

He did not know what to make of her presence. By any of his calculations, she should not be here - should not even know what was occurring here this night. Drinking deeply from the frosted goblet of wine in his hand, he pretended not to be observing her over the rim.

It had been two years since the end of Voldemort's regime, and the members of the infamous Golden Trio were still lauded as heroes on a regular basis by the press. Despite that the Daily Prophet rarely had anything good to report when it came to something Malfoy-related, Draco recognized the benefits of staying informed. It was something Lucius had hammered into his head: it was always best to be aware what was being said, even if it was not ego-stroking. Especially if it was not ego-stroking.

Harry Potter, of course, appeared in the newspaper with some frequency, even now. He probably always would. He was reported on often, nearly daily, due to his new situation as an Auror, but also because he had started up a charitable campaign that placed war orphans without magical relatives into homes with magic families. It had been a wild success. Draco would have sneered, as he would have thought Granger would have been the brains a scheme like that... but it appeared that was not the case. She had left for Australia; meanwhile some reporter had nabbed her whole sordid story that she'd had to obliviate her parents before the war, and now wanted to restore their memories.

In fact, while Potter was being inspirationally quoted saying something-or-other in nearly every issue... and Weasley's love life was just interesting enough that the papers loved him... the other one-third of the hydra that had been Potter's posse (the bushy-haired, know-it-all swot of a Muggleborn one-third), was notably missing.

But somehow… she was here.

Draco felt many ways about her presence. His first gut reaction was confusion, followed quickly by abhorrence.

His third reaction, was wonder.

Fourth, understanding.

Finally, as if an obstructing panel of gauze had prevented his properly seeing it before, it was obvious she was a pureblood. The conclusion came slowly, in the way a brook loosens from April banks, ice hurled up along the edges, winter leaving in a hush.

He recalled her as an eleven-year old: she knew too much, was too intelligent, to be a Mudblood. His father had told him all about Mudbloods, hadn't he? She was nothing like what he had been assured a Muggle-born would be like. Then, he had got his letter with his final examination grades and he had done so well, he was deeply proud of himself. But Severus had also provided Lucius with a list of grade rankings… and Draco had done quite well - was second in his entire year, as a matter of fact - just behind Hermione Granger.

In second year, she had bossily stood up to him as if she were better than him. Hadn't anyone taught her that he was the superior? He spat out that slur – he had grown up using it, only being warned during the summer before Hogwarts that it was considered to be offensive by some – and he had not necessarily meant it to hurt her feelings: it was just what she was.

In third year, he stared down the end of her wand and was afraid. Crabbe and Goyle had not even tried to do anything about it, having been both stunned by the action themselves. Who would dare actually hex a Malfoy?

Hermione, it's not worth it, one of the brainless oafs she called friends yelled from behind her.

She lowered her wand, but socked him in the face. As blood poured from his nose, her expression was one of warning, but also smugness. He had run for it.

At the beginning of fourth year, talk was beginning to reach the old pureblood families that the Dark Lord might rise again, and soon.

He can rise from the dead? Draco had skeptically worried, but thought little of it. Lucius spoke of revels from the old days for a few months prior to the Quidditch World Cup. In the aftermath of the match, Draco was told to hide in the woods to be sure he was safe. He had known what that meant, but knew better than to get in the way.

He would have been quite content to stay in the wooded area of the massive campground and watch as chaos unfolded around him, when who should come along, but the Golden Trio. Of course.

...Ron, where are you? Oh, this is stupid - lumos. A narrow beam of wandlight illuminated the area to reveal Weasley sprawled on the ground.

Tripped over a tree root, he grunted as he stood.

Hard not to, with feet that size, Draco drawled, more annoyed at their presence than amused.

The Gryffindors spun around and Weasley promptly jabbed him with, Next time I need the opinion of a colossal fuckwit, I'll ask, Malfoy.

Language, Weasley… hadn't you better be hurrying along, now? You wouldn't like HER spotted, would you?

Granger's eyes narrowed, What's that supposed to mean?

Granger, they're after Muggles. D'you want to be showing off your knickers in midair? Because if you do, hang around… they're moving this way and it would give us all a laugh.

Potter snarled, Hermione's a witch.

But he only shrugged, Have it your own way, Potter. If you think they can't spot a Mudblood, stay where you are…

The trio had left shortly thereafter, but Draco almost wished Granger would get in the way of his father and his friends. In fact, after the punch she had dared to land on his face only a few months prior, he gloatingly dreamed that she could be floated up above the heads of the crowd. After all, those Muggles would be fine, eventually – and so would she – but she would certainly have learned her place...

Instead, he had to wait for comeuppance. He graced her with long, beaver-like teeth at the first opportunity.

But then there was the Yule Ball. She had been stunning in that periwinkle dress, which made her look like an ice nymph floating on water. For so long, she had been a mass of bushy, unremarkably brown hair that obscured her face, hunched over with a heavy bookbag… she nearly did not look like the same person. None of the girls in Slytherin, or amongst his family acquaintances, looked like that. None of them looked as purely good as her.

How could that be?

Fifth year was rougher than the last. Voldemort had risen and a darkness had suddenly crept over Draco's life. His father assured him they were favored amongst the ranks, but he felt the umbra of uncertainty all the same.

He followed, blindly, because his father told him to.

He hated Hermione Granger and everyone like her, blindly, because his father told him to.

But then, everything flipped on its head.

Years later, when the Golden Trio was brought to Malfoy Manor, Draco panicked. The three of them looked very much the worse for wear: Potter was the worst, having been disfigured in some way, probably by a hex, while Weasley was dirty and looked as if he had taken a tumble through some mud. Granger was thin, a little dirty, and her hair was a fwooper's nest of a ponytail. The look in her eyes was terrified determination. He would never forget it.

Bellatrix had tortured her on his drawing room floor. She had pressed her cursed knife (lately used to gut one of Greyback's werewolves for disobeying orders) to Granger's throat until bright red drops of blood beaded there.

It was the same color as all the rest of the blood he had seen. By now, of course, he knew it would be.

By a stroke of luck, they created a whirlwind of confusion and escaped. It was to Draco's relief; he was done trying to convince himself otherwise.

Now, two years after the great battle, here was Hermione Granger. A pureblood.

Fuck.

"One hell of a plot twist, that, eh?" Theo murmured, noting Draco's gaze. He must have been staring more intently than he realized.

"How is it even possible she's here?" he demanded.

"Turns out she's the last heir of the House of Prewett," Cadfael explained. "My mother got it straight from the mouth of one of the old biddies left in that House. Apparently she's existed all these years without even knowing she was a pureblood…"

That explains why she was able to best me all those years in school, Draco thought as he discreetly sized her up. It should have been impossible for a Mudblood - and it was, in the end. Of course she's a pureblood.

Despite this, it still could not quell his astonishment at the fact. All the times he had called her a Mudblood and she had really been a member of the ancient wizarding blood pact the whole time!

It must have been at least a year she was resident in Australia, as attested by her sun-kissed skin. She was far tanner than he could ever dream of becoming, and it made the white linen of her gown that much more beautiful when contrasted against her tawny skin. The garment was one of the more old-fashioned ones he had seen, but there was something nearly ethereal about it. She may have been covered from elbows to knees, but it was clear her figure was very good. The way she moved, even subtle movement had a certain lissome.

In the light from the bonfire where she stood, Draco could see her elegant collarbone on display from the wide neckline of her gown, and the dark freckles on her shoulders from exposure to the sun, perhaps thrown into greater contrast by the flickering quality of the light.

Longbottom leaned in toward her to whisper something in her ear and she threw her head back and laughed. Draco admired the long column of her throat. Her hair, which he had constantly teased her about in their younger years, was a cascade of shining brown curls down to the middle of her back. Her eyes were dark, but he had never much seen them in mirth like they were now. He felt an unexpected spike of jealousy toward Longbottom.

Jealousy…?

...Of Longbottom?

Fuck, he thought again for the second time in only moments.

Granger was a pillar of light moving around in the mists that was everyone else. Even the gown she wore was as if it was fashioned of its own essence, separate from everything and everyone around them. It struck him that there was magic afoot, clouding his brain to everyone but her… and it terrified him.

She terrified him.

He would be damned before he let it show however, and straightened up. He had very little faith he could focus on anything else, however, so strongly had her presence been pressed into his brain. Gathering up that tenuous faith - so shaky, it vibrated like a plucked wire - he wrapped himself up in it like a cloak. It was his camouflage, his safety... at least it was something.

"Look, Theo, it's your lady fair," Avery jibed with a snicker.

"I saw," Nott attested, the slightest of smirks lifting the corners of his lips.

Draco glanced over to where his companions' attention had shifted and noticed Ginny Weasley making her way over toward the group that had formed around Granger. The ginger girl looked pale and pinched, nothing like the Valkyrie he remembered her as. Instead of the traditional flower crown many of the casting witches wore, the Weaslette had opted on more of a wreath, of sage.

Sage for protection, he recognized. It was an interesting choice, and he shrewdly guessed she was hoping she would not be matched up that evening so she could run back home to Potter…

He glanced again at the small group, of which Granger was the center of attention.

All men, he noticed, appraising her again.

Unlike the Weaslette, Granger had opted for a more traditional approach to adorning her hair, but while he was sure she had chosen dahlias - a symbol of dignity - with strategy, he wondered if she had known that eglantine also had its own meaning as well, or if she had merely chosen it to fill in the thin band of flowers that surrounded the top of her head. It seemed unlikely, as he had never heard of a witch willingly advertising such a conundrum as what the dog-rose stood for: a kind of balance of pleasure and pain.

"Malfoy?" Cadfael prodded.

"What?" he demanded acerbically, rounding on his friend.

"You're staring."

Fuck.

 

Chapter Text

A resonating boom shook silence into the entire pavilion and amongst those outside of it. All eyes turned toward the hill, where the henge rested strikingly at the top, shadows against the night sky.

A second boom then transferred all gazes toward a single individual standing at the foot of that same hill. Hermione stared at the man, wondering who he was. He carried a staff and when he hit the earth with it a third time, she realized that it had been this that made the company fall silent.

"There's your signal, girls," Mr. Weasley told Hermione and Ginny, placing a protective hand on his youngest's back. "You're to join the others and follow Mr. Lestrange to the top for the casting."

Lestrange? Hermione thought with mild horror. The Lestranges had been notorious for being involved on Voldemort's side of the War, both times. She took in the sight of the man: he appeared quite old, though there was an energy about him that made him seem younger than he probably was. He stood up straight, gray hair carefully combed to the side, his olive skin wrinkled with age.

Without further ado, Kingsley bid the assembled group adieu and joined the elderly man at the foot of the peak. Even in this, it seemed he was instrumental in leading others, as several other casters quickly joined him, Ernie included. Soon, the small group was beginning a slow but purposeful ascent, while various witches and wizards in white linen robes trickled up the mount behind them.

Neville offered both Ginny and Hermione a small smile before shoving his hands into his trouser pockets and beginning the climb alone. Hermione suspected Neville wanted to allow himself a few moments of private reflection. She could have used it herself…

Ginny turned to Percy and bitterly said, "You're a good brother, Perce. Bill was lucky to have you."

"You'll be fine, Ginny," he told her, his eyes shining suspiciously from behind his horn-rimmed glasses. "The magic knows what it's doing."

"That's what I'm afraid of," she muttered mutinously.

Having nothing more encouraging to offer in the way of advice, Percy hugged his sister, hesitated, then did the same for Hermione. Though it was a bit awkward, as she'd had very little contact with Percy for the past few years, she appreciated the gesture all the same. He told her, "Good luck."

I'll need it, she thought grimly. Her hand slipped into her pocket of its own will, grasping her rune-stone firmly as if it were a protective talisman. A comforting warmth coursed through her, reminding her that only fate had any say from here on out; it was reassuring, like a pair of hands promising to catch her if she fell.

Arthur took his turn embracing both the girls. Molly, who had appeared by their side at the signal to see them off, saved her hugs for last. It took several moments for Ginny to release her father's hand, but she clung to her mother like a desperate child.

"All you have to do now," Mrs. Weasley instructed when she finally stepped back, "is walk up that hill. The rest is in the hands of the Old Magic. Be brave and remember that no matter what happens, you'll always have family."

Lestrange was out of sight by now, as were many of the others. Only a few stragglers - mostly younger casters, like them - remained below. Hermione's instinct commanded her to follow, so she took Ginny's arm in hers and nodded toward the hill.

"Are you ready?" she whispered to her companion.

"No," Ginny murmured back, gripping her friend's arm for dear life. Her freckled face had gone white as a sheet.

"Let's go then," she replied as if she had got an affirmative answer.

With more confidence than she felt, she took her first step forward with Ginny to join the rest of the group. Behind her, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley clasped hands in solidarity; Percy only watched them go, an inscrutable expression on his face.

To keep both herself and Ginny distracted, Hermione questioned, "Got your rune-stone?"

Ginny nodded.

"Good." Inwardly, she added, All that's left to do now is to pray to Morgana that neither of us get matched - or that if we do, it's to someone kind, with values, who will make a good husband… like Neville, or Kingsley…

When had her life come to this?

Like before, the climb took several minutes. Ahead of them were other figures dressed in white, looking like ghosts wandering purposefully through the forest. Above them, moonlight flooded through the trees, dappling the path. At least twice, Hermione trod on a bramble or briar that prickled the bottoms of her bare feet and made her wince, but they still soldiered on. Ginny had gone completely silent.

While it was true that Hermione was extremely nervous, she was also acutely curious about what was going to happen. In mere minutes, she would play a part in an aspect of the wizarding world she had never explored before… that she had not even realized existed until a month ago.

The leaves of the trees rustled softly, like a lullaby.

They were among the last to reach the henge, due to Hermione's unwillingness to let go of Ginny's arm, coupled with Ginny's reluctance to be there at all. Neville had waited for them at the top, and joined them presently. He murmured some words of encouragement which Hermione did not quite catch; while he was no longer the round-faced, nervous boy who had lost his toad on the train to Hogwarts, it was clear he was maintaining his own edge of anxiety in this moment.

At last, thirty white-clad figures stood in a cluster outside of the henge. Instead of addressing the group, Lestrange spoke into the center of the stone circle when he declared, "We are gathered here, on this auspicious Midsummer's eve to place casts with the ancient magics of this land."

The old warlock again used his staff to strike the earth, this time to a count of seven. Each hit boomed loudly and seemed to reverberate into their very bones, like a signal.

For a full ten seconds, nothing happened. Ginny began to fidget on Hermione's arm.

Then, the enormous boulder that sat in the center of the stone circle shifted and a loud grinding sound emanated forth, shaking the ground beneath their bare feet; it was such a violent trembling that Hermione might have suspected an earthquake but for the calmness of the others. Craning her neck to try getting a better view, she saw the center stone was spiraling downward like an enormous corkscrew, finally shuddering to a halt when only three feet of it remained above ground.

Like the Chamber of Secrets, she assessed, glancing sidelong at Ginny and hoping her companion had not made the connection as well. Ginny's first year had not been an easy one…

"Enter," barked Lestrange to the assembled group.

The crowd seemed to already know the protocol, because they entered one at a time, casting their rune-stones into the center basin of the monolith - now at waist-height - before flanking back outward to form a circle along the inside perimeter of the henge. Hermione and Ginny were the last to make their casts, being on the outside of the gathered group.

When it was her turn, Hermione disentangled her arm from her friend's and forced her feet to move. With more than a little trepidation, she made her way slowly toward the middle, rune-stone grasped tightly in her hand. It had become warm from her body's heat but was also now pulsating with raw magic.

Pressing the smooth quartz to her lips, she whispered to it, "Don't pair me."

She did not know if it would help, but it certainly could not hurt to try.

With a toss, her stone clattered into the center with the others and she stepped back, feeling self-conscious. Ginny went last, her freckles standing out in vivid contrast to the paleness of her complexion.

A moment's stillness enveloped them all like a web of magic, circulating in their veins. Hermione could feel it swirling throughout her body, right down to her fingertips.

Seven more times Lestrange struck the earth with his staff, but there was nothing to wait for this time. The second half of the ritual began when he announced, "Etta Rosier, eldest daughter of the House of Rosier."

Hermione recognized the name, as Mrs. Weasley had mentioned Etta before. The witch had been unsuccessfully casting for over twenty-five summers; it was widely believed that she must be barren, which was why the Old Magic had never made a match for her. The forty-something-year-old woman stumbled forward, very clearly drunk. Hermione felt queerly sorry for her.

Etta rummaged unceremoniously through the basin full of rune-stones and grasped one, pulling it out. She glanced at it once, then stalked from the stone circle and back down the hill toward the pavilion without a word.

No pairing, then, Hermione deduced. She could not help mentally adding, One down, twenty-nine to go…

"Kingsley Shacklebolt, last heir and sole survivor of the House of Shacklebolt."

The Minister for Magic strode forward and reached into the basin, plucking out a stone with two fingers. He appeared confident that he would be following Rosier from the henge without a match – until his eyebrows raised suddenly, eyes darting quickly to do a double-take at the stone in his hand before he returned back to his place within the henge.

Hermione supposed that must mean he had been paired… but to whom?

It might even be me, she realized, her heart aflutter with anxiety. She began appraising Kingsley's imposing figure in a bold manner which she had never done before.

Lestrange's list went on, though he appeared to know it from memory as he called each witch or wizard up individually by announcing their name and title before they picked their cast. Some left the circle immediately, presumably with their original rune-stone back in their possession, while others slid back into the dwindling circle, their faces betraying a variety of emotions.

"Salmeh Shafiq, eldest daughter of the House of Shafiq."

The young witch that stepped forward was likely the loveliest woman Hermione had ever laid eyes on (the sole exception being Fleur, who was part veela). Nearly every gaze was upon her, including even Kingsley's. Her hips swayed in just the right way to entice the male eye, while her nut-brown skin was flawless and smooth, her dark eyes inviting, intelligent, and mysterious.

The group seemed to hold its collective breath as she picked out a rune-stone. Upon peering at what was in her hand, her delicate eyebrows raised toward her hairline before she stepped backward again.

"Cadfael Avery, second son of the House of Avery."

The wizard who had winked at Hermione earlier swaggered forward to pick out a stone from amongst the diminishing collection in the center basin. He caught her eye again, smirked saucily, then pulled out a rock that must have been his match because he stepped backward into the inner circle - though he did not meet her eye again, his attention now arrested by the stone in his hand.

Hermione silently prayed it was not hers.

One of the Selwyns remained, as did a Burke and a Macmillan; neither of the Rowle sisters were chosen and left looking disappointed. Soon, Lestrange announced, "Hermione Granger, eldest daughter of the House of Prewett."

Nice of him to use the last name I've always had, she thought disconnectedly as she strode forward, trying to exude an aura of confidence as some of the others had.

Her hand betrayed her, shaking as she reached into the basin and felt the telling smoothness of a stone fall into her grasp. She clasped her fingers around it and pulled it up. With a deep breath, she opened her hand to gaze at the rune-stone – most certainly not her own – now resting in her palm.

A pair of spears were crossed over a fleur de lis, guarded by wyverns with their mouths open for battle. Toward the top of the crest, a pair of snakes were intertwined above a single letter 'M'.

The House of Malfoy.

She had been paired to Draco.

Her mouth opened slightly and she quickly shut it, her teeth clicking in finality. Without a word, she stepped backward into the circle, where Ginny was staring at her, stricken. The other girl mouthed, Who?

But Hermione was speechless.

"Theodore Nott IV, last heir and sole survivor of the House of Nott," was called, followed shortly by, "Daphne Greengrass, eldest daughter of the House of Greengrass."

Nott pulled a stone and it must have been his own, because he promptly left the henge with the same sort of loping easiness that he had exhibited inside it. Greengrass was not paired either; Daphne left the circle, but hovered just outside. Hermione suspected she was waiting for her younger sister to join her.

Finally, "Draco Malfoy, sole heir to the House of Malfoy."

Hermione watched as her unknowing husband-to-be sauntered forward. His body language would have them all believe that he felt nothing but confidence, but upon closer study, she thought she could detect an undercurrent of trepidation, even in him. She examined his form, evaluating what she saw: Malfoy was fit. He had always exhibited the potential to be an extremely attractive wizard, even at Hogwarts. No, it was his personality that was mostly reprehensible. Had he changed, at all, since their school days? She hoped so.

She imagined being naked in front of him and could feel heat flooding her cheeks at the very thought. Yet regardless, in a very short amount of time, she would be doing that very thing, baring her body to the former tormenter of her adolescence...

Malfoy flippantly reached into the center basin and picked out his mate – her. His eyebrows contracted somewhat and he glanced upward.

Their eyes met.

Sweet Merlin, this was going to be awkward…

She tried to focus on anything but him; meanwhile, his gaze had never left her. It was difficult to pay full attention to the rest of the casting.

Hannah Abbott picked out the rune-stone belonging to her future husband next, followed by Neville, who discovered his future wife. A look of confusion followed immediately by panic crossed his face and Hermione was able to get out of her own head just long enough to wonder who her fellow former-Gryffindor had been matched to, to make him look like that.

"Ginevra Weasley, eldest daughter of the House of Weasley."

Ginny stumbled forward. Unlike many of the others, she was utterly unable to hide her displeasure at being present, or her terror at meeting her imminent fate. In fact, it almost seemed as if she were battling against a force greater than herself, which was propelling her forward. Perhaps she was.

She reached into the basin of rune-stones and pulled one out. With a glance at it, Hermione saw her friend's entire body sag with what appeared to be complete relief, even though she could not see her face.

She pulled her own rune, she deduced, feeling bereft. This was confirmed when Ginny turned around and flitted back to Hermione, clasped her free hand in solidarity, and squeezed it (Malfoy's rune-stone was pulsating magic in her other hand). The redhead could not disguise her relief, but she seemed to be trying to show her support all the same.

"Ginevra Weasley, having not been slated to be bonded by the Old Magic to a spouse, you must leave the henge at once," boomed Lestrange.

With a second and final squeeze of her friend's hand, Ginny turned and left the circle. Hermione watched her go, feeling at once both satisfied for Harry and Ginny - at least until next year's ceremony - and growing apprehension for her own fate.

She chanced another look up at Draco; he was still watching her with an intensity that alarmed her. Trying not to look away, she thought to match his concentration with equal energy, but found that she quickly grew uncomfortable.

The Carrow twins were both paired shortly thereafter. Astoria Greengrass was also matched, one of the last. Her sister, Daphne, had been waiting just outside the henge for her, but when Astoria resumed her place back in the circle, the small girl glanced toward her older sister and slowly shook her head. For a moment, Daphne looked confused before dawning comprehension seized her and she headed down alone.

Finally, the list finished off when the youngest of their bunch, "Zelda Macmillan, thirdborn daughter of the House of Macmillan," was called up and promptly left, unmatched. Hermione wondered if this barely-of-age thirdborn daughter had been among those pressured by her family to make a cast when their glowing crest in the henge refused to extinguish itself. Had she been the cause of this young Macmillan girl's fate? Would the girl otherwise have gone on to try finding love on her own, without the aid of magic? The witch would now be tied to her decision, for life. Hermione tried to remember Molly's words that this sort of thing happened all the time, but found no comfort in them.

Finally, there were only fourteen of them left, plus Lestrange. At this point, everyone was glancing around the circle at one another furtively. Hermione looked up again to find Malfoy still studying her. It was unsettling.

The earth quivered when Lestrange signaled with his staff another seven times. The center boulder revolved again until it had descended completely into the ground. Fascinated, despite now also feeling nauseous, Hermione watched as seven family crests glowed to life at the top of the boulder, now level with the earth. At the same time, a channel opened up into the ground from each of these crests, siphoning away all dirt and pebbles that had collected in their path, and stopping at the perimeter of the henge.

For a second, Hermione wondered what the purpose of this was, until she realized that it formed seven sectors within the circle.

As officiator, Lestrange began this next part of the ritual with the command, "House of Abbott, claim your spouse."

Little Hannah Abbott, who was small and blonde and looked a bit like a mouse, crossed meekly over toward her own glowing crest carved into the top of the hidden monolith. She was met there by Rowan Selwyn, a stocky, dark-haired wizard whose nose had distinctly wrinkled at the sight of her. Hermione felt immediately sorry for Hannah, but still not as sorry as she did for herself.

"House of Avery, claim your spouse."

The tall, fair-haired wizard stuck his hands in his pockets and made his way toward young Astoria. The girl gazed at his approach with wide eyes, looking for all the world to be an innocent; given the wizard's earlier antics, it seemed an uneven match. Hermione wondered how Daphne was feeling about her younger sister being married before her...

"House of Burke, claim your spouse."

A wizard who looked as if he could be in his late twenties or early thirties nearly tripped over himself to get to his partner, who Hermione thought might be one of the Bulstrodes. They, at least, looked beyond ecstatic to have been paired, hastening toward one another to clasp hands as they stood over the glowing crest for the House of Burke.

Bully for them, she thought bitterly.

"House of Longbottom, claim your spouse."

Hands shaking, Neville stumbled somewhat as he nervously made his way toward the identical Carrow twins, who both happened to be standing nearby the crest for the House of Longbottom already. The girls had been a year behind them at Hogwarts, and both in Slytherin.

"I'm so sorry," he began, holding up a rune-stone, "...but which of you belongs to this rune?"

One of the girls smiled and offered her hand, taking a step toward him as she introduced herself: "Flora."

Perking up somewhat that he had not been received coldly, Neville took his place beside Flora Carrow, sneaking surreptitious looks at her every couple of seconds.

"House of Macmillan, claim your spouse."

One of Ernie's cousins strode toward Flora's twin sister, Hestia, and took her arm. Unlike Flora's comparatively warm acceptance of Neville, Hestia appeared less-than-thrilled to be matched to this wizard. Hermione wondered how common it was that twins would cast in together, and be paired the same year.

"House of Malfoy, claim your spouse."

She could not remember moving her feet to get there, but Hermione was certainly glad that the Malfoy crest had already been nearby, as she was able to reach it in only four strides. Draco, who had been on the opposite side of the circle from her, took longer to get there - but he stopped before her when he did. She was suddenly very aware of his chest and shoulders, which were eye-level with her. It took a moment to realize she should be showing her fearlessness at this time, and she again raised her eyes to meet his. They were framed by thick, dark lashes that had no right being on a man, but at their center they were chips of ice - cold as moonbeams on water's surface, fleetingly mysterious as the glint of light on a trout's silver scales as it rises at dusk to feed...

He offered her his hand. Knowing it would be obvious if she pretended not to see it, and wanting to at least start off on the right foot with him, she took it. Taking a further liberty, he intertwined his fingers through hers; she initially balked until she settled a bit and recognized that his hand felt nice in hers… almost comforting. So long as she did not look up at his face, she could almost forget it was him.

"House of Shacklebolt, claim your spouse."

Hermione could not help but feel an interest in Kingsley's match, as it was sure to raise a few eyebrows in the public sphere. After all, here would be the Minister for Magic – a man in his late thirties – looking as if he had suddenly eloped with beautiful, twenty-three-year-old Salmeh Shafiq… who, for all her charms, had likely not been groomed for the world of politics. It was going to appear very strange to the wizarding community at large, especially given that none outside of the blood pact knew about this ceremony at all. Hermione suspected the tabloids were going to have a field day when they found out.

Lestrange went to the center of the circle and stood on the boulder in the direct middle of the assembled couples as if he were on a stone dais. Using his staff, he tapped the the boulder a single time. Presently, dark-red rivulets streamed forth from it into the narrow channels that had earlier opened into the ground.

Horrified, Hermione took a half-step backward as the metallic tang of blood assaulted her nostrils, filling the long crevices in the earth.

"By the blood of we present, and those of our ancestors," Lestrange orated, "these seven couples communally accept their place in the ancient and auspicious pact between themselves, their Houses, the Old Magic, and this earth we currently stand upon.

"These Houses symbolize the most magically powerful number, seven. A number of security, perfection, safety, and rest... these persons present represent all of these things in their vows to protect the magic of this land. To show their commitment, they offer blood and life-giving essences, further tying them to the vows of their Houses…"

Blood? Hermione blanched. Molly had not mentioned that. And life-giving essences? Her imagination went wild with speculation as to what that entailed…

The ceremony was brief, considering its importance. In fact, Hermione played no part in it whatsoever except to be present - not even to give her consent, a fact that did not escape her notice. Only two simple words were required of each pair, and were asked of Draco, not her.

"Heir of the House of Malfoy," Lestrange murmured when it was their turn to be asked, "do you swear to uphold the vows of the blood pact, and to take this witch into your home to aid you in its cause? Will you provide for her, clothe her, feed her, and fill her with children? Will you then instruct those children in the ways of the Old Magic, vowing that any offspring born of your union will continue to uphold our sacred ways?"

Hermione could feel her face heating up at the public mention of Malfoy impregnating her. Undeterred, he boldly stated, "I will."

And that was that.

Afterward, Lestrange ended the ceremony with the words, "May blessings be abundant in your respective unions."

As the eldest pair, Kingsley and Salmeh were called upon to consummate first. With an anxiety-ridden curiosity, Hermione paid very close attention to this, trying to discover clues on what was to be expected.

Kingsley held out his hand to the beautiful witch beside him, his eyes meeting hers. He asked, "Will you permit me?"

Salmeh batted her eyelashes and took his offered hand, pushing up on the balls of her feet to kiss his cheek. "Of course…"

Hermione swallowed heavily.

In the meantime, the other six couples were instructed to leave the henge and retreat to the celebration pavilion at the foot of the hill until it would be their turn. At the mention of this, Draco released her hand. She drifted off like a balloon that had been freed of whatever had been weighing it down to the earth. With only a single backward glance at him, she noticed his resigned expression as he made his way over toward the new Cadfael and Astoria Avery. She wondered if he were resigned because they had not yet even spoken a word to one another, or because it had been her that he was paired to.

"Are you alright, Hermione?" Neville queried, coming up alongside her as she practically flew down the hill.

"Fine," she managed, feeling it had never been less true.

The path downhill seemed to take no time at all, where it had been an eternity on the way up.

Molly, Arthur, and Ginny were waiting for her at the foot of the hill. Upon seeing Mrs. Weasley, a dam seemed to crack within her. Possibly it was because she was missing her own mother in this moment, or perhaps it was because she had been trying to be strong for Ginny for weeks now, that she crumbled. She ran into Molly's arms and allowed herself to be coddled, her hair stroked, for a few minutes.

It was not until she had finished, that Arthur quietly asked, "Who is he, Hermione?"

"Draco Malfoy."

"No," Ginny gasped, her hand flying to her mouth.

"That's… unexpected," Arthur only said.

"Oh, my girl," Molly lamented, pity in her eyes.

It was exactly the sort of thing Hermione had fervently wished would not happen.

A minute later, the ancient Muriel Prewett ambled her way over to the collected group. Without any preface, she demanded, "Well? Who are we tied to?"

"The House of Malfoy," Molly informed her.

Muriel let out a low whistle, "Nice job, girl. They're a tough House to bag, and no Prewett ever has. We'll have to increase your dowry."

This only made Hermione feel more miserable, something she had not thought possible.

"You should be getting yourself into the pavilion for the feasting," Muriel continued abrasively. "You don't want to leave your husband waiting."

Mostly to escape Muriel herself, Hermione complied. A long table stretched the width of the pavilion near the head of the area, magically elongated to accommodate seven couples; Hermione took this to presume they were meant to return to the celebrations following their consummation. Her heart fluttered weirdly at the thought.

Draco was already seated at the table, and was watching her approach. Though the Weasleys and Muriel had followed her inside, she did not wait for them, instead striding purposefully toward her new husband. If he had changed - even a little - there was only one way to find out. There was not much use in feeling sorry for herself before she even knew if she had to.

Watching her approach, Draco stood when she reached him and pulled out her chair for her.

"Thank you," she told him, sitting.

"You're welcome," he answered evenly, pushing her seat in and resuming his place beside her. They were the first words they had spoken to one another in nearly two years.

The feasting was extravagance like nothing Hermione had ever seen before. Oysters on beds of ice sat beside platters overflowing with whole fishes, while at the center of the table rested an entire pig on a spit and an enormous rack of lamb. There seemed to be a bit of everything else: from salads, Belgian waffles, canapés, tartare, ceviche, roasted vegetables, aromatic stews, and even what looked like roasted scorpions on sticks. There were colossal mushrooms that had been roasted and stuffed and were so big, they had to be cut like meat. Pies and cheeses littered the area, along with an assortment of fruit so varied and exotic, Hermione could not begin to name them all.

Dessert was a similar sort of eyeful: chocolate-dipped strawberries were arranged in displays around truffles and great blocks of chocolate. Other selections included a variety of ices and sorbets. It went beyond decadent.

Just when Hermione felt she might be able to finally eat something - she had not had an appetite all day - Narcissa Malfoy approached. She wore a set of dress robes that looked more expensive than the Wilkins' house in Sydney had been, and was holding a pomegranate in one hand.

"Mother," Draco greeted.

"Darling," she cooed sweetly. A genuine smile spread across her lips when she then turned to Hermione and greeted, "Welcome to our family, my dear."

Hermione supposed this would be the point at which she was meant to say something along the lines of 'the pleasure is all mine' or 'oh, do please call me Hermione' but as this felt disingenuous, she remained silent and only inclined her head toward the woman.

Narcissa's smile faded halfway, as if she were guessing her new daughter-in-law's thoughts. She pressed onward, "My husband, unfortunately, remains in Azkaban finishing out the remainder of his sentence and is therefore, not present. However, in his absence, I will uphold his duty…"

She held up the pomegranate, as if to explain. Hermione only looked confused.

Reaching for her wand, Mrs. Malfoy set the pomegranate on the tabletop and halved it with magic. Bright red seeds burst forth, some popping outward and landing on the table, while a few others skittered away across the ground with newfound freedom. With the air of Lestrange officiating the ceremony, she declared, "In honor of your pairing, the House of Malfoy offers this pomegranate as a token, a symbol of your fertility. We wish you the speedy conception of an heir for the continuation of our line."

Hermione's face reddened yet again, as it had before when a person casually mentioned Draco impregnating her. She began to feel somewhat indignant. Are we a modern era, or not? Do these purebloods expect me to sit at home, waiting to get pregnant?

If so, they had another thing coming.

She could feel her jaw clenching. Was this woman really going to simply pretend that she had not watched her own sister torture her on the Malfoys' drawing room floor, only two years ago?

It seemed this was so, as Narcissa continued, "I know I can speak for Lucius as well, when I say that the House of Malfoy couldn't be more excited to accept you as a part of it."

"Thank you," Hermione merely said, opting to be polite considering the Malfoy matriarch's little display had begun to draw several nearby gazes; she had no wish to make a scene.

She glanced over toward the Weasleys - Molly, Arthur, Ginny, Percy, and a heavily pregnant woman she suspected was Percy's wife - were collected at a large table with some of the Fawleys and a Hufflepuff faction of the Bulstrodes. Ginny was gazing at her sadly; Hermione looked away, refusing the pity on principle.

"Well, darlings," Narcissa sighed. Her smile had faded almost completely now and Hermione suspected the conference had not gone at all the way the woman had hoped. "I'll be around for after your consummation, but I think I'll let the two of you get to know one another better in the interim."

Hastily excusing herself, she pressed a quick peck on her son's cheek before departure. Hermione was not sorry to see the back of her.

Draco inclined his head toward her and in a low murmur, commented, "You look as if you are feeling faint."

She was, but she was not going to give him the satisfaction of saying it out loud. She only elicited an oddly high-pitched laugh that could have passed for a strangled sob. Aloud, she answered, "I'm fine, thank you."

I'm fine.

She wasn't, of course. The whole situation was a complete nightmare.

 

Chapter Text

"So… kenaz."

Hermione's head turned to look at Draco. He was holding her rune-stone in the palm of his hand. The way he examined it was like watching a person at the apothecary, sifting through a barrel of dried bat wings and inspecting them, searching for a rip in the paper-thin membranes that would mark it a less-desirable candidate for use in potioneering. Watching him handle her rune, almost like he was looking for flaws in it, caused Hermione to feel a surge of distress, tempered with intrigue.

What did he think of her rune? Did she want to know?

It felt like bad juju to voice all that, so she only replied, "What of it?"

He shrugged, his long fingers closing around it as he slipped it back into the pocket of his ceremonial trousers. She watched it disappear from sight, reflecting on the stark fact that it was his now, regardless of what he thought of it… or of what she thought…

"Nothing. It's very fitting for you."

"Thanks," she accepted, deciding his answer was neutral enough. Then, as another thought occurred to her, she frowned, "Are you flirting with me based off of my rune-stone?"

He chuckled and answered, "Possibly."

What to say to that? She was boggled for a second, but quickly recovered. After a moment spent scrambling through her thoughts, the best she could come up with was, "I noticed yours is isa."

Over the past five weeks, Hermione had read Percy's Runes & Symbolism booklet through at least eight times, cover-to-cover, determined to retain everything she could from it. She could recall what she had read about isa with mixed feelings.

Ice, she remembered. A symbol of stasis, control, and stillness of presence.

But there was more, she knew. She pressed further into the banks of her memory…

Ice can lull a traveler to peace with its serenity - but while isa generally shows itself more or less as it is, there is little so treacherous as a weak spot in the ice that will swallow the unwary with surprising swiftness, leaving hardly a trace. While often maintaining a steady tension, the slow-moving glacier is a powerful force of nature which can tear apart even the bedrock as it inches forward. The underbelly of an iceberg can remain hidden until the last moment, gutting ships without mercy.

Analyzing each implication with new interest, she grew more and more wary of him as she swiftly came to the conclusion that they were polar opposites.

Draco must have been thinking along the same lines, because he observed, "The glacier meets the torch."

His words were left open and she decided he was probably doing so purposely, to force her into responding. Morgana help me, I'm going to be navigating these little Slytherin games for a long time…

Refusing to play along, she answered, "It doesn't get much more opposite than that."

"I see I'll have to accustom myself to straightforwardness," he said. Just like in the henge, his eyes were fixed on her. "Perhaps it will be a good thing for me."

Unsure what to say to that either, Hermione decided that if he was open to her straightforwardness, she may as well continue the trend. "You must have been surprised to see me here."

"Yes," he agreed. "At some point, I would be most interested in hearing the tale behind the discovery of your parentage."

This seemed to be the wrong thing to say, because though Hermione could not put her finger on exactly what had rubbed her the wrong way, she could not stop herself from darkly muttering, "I'm sure you would."

His eyebrows contracted, which indicated Draco had heard her answer; she was spared his response by a cacophony that erupted from outside the pavilion. Kingsley and Salmeh had returned.

Before she even thought, Hermione remarked, "That was fast."

Draco snorted. "They've been gone an hour. I'd say they did just fine."

Coloring, she protested, "I wasn't making a joke about his performance."

But he only chuckled, attention drawn away to the commotion nearby. A crowd had formed around Kingsley and Salmeh, offering blessings and congratulations. Hermione saw at least two other pomegranates halved in front of them and thought back to when Narcissa had done it, almost twenty minutes ago. Shelving her embarrassment over what appeared to be a relatively commonplace practice, she took a closer look at the newlyweds.

Kingsley seemed happy, more so than she had ever seen him. His eyes, which bore established crow's feet, were fixed on his young wife and already shining with adoration that was almost too blatant to witness. Hermione's gaze slid to Salmeh, who was returning Kingsley's affection by caressing his arm and shoulders, even as they were still surrounded by well-wishers. Though Hermione had not thought it possible, the witch seemed to have grown even more beautiful since the ceremony; more than anything, she resembled a freshly plucked rose.

The next pair of newlyweds stood, and Hermione recognized the Burke groom and his new Bulstrode wife from the henge, though she could not recall either of their given names. The witch was giggling as the two of them pushed through the crowd, which patted them on their shoulders. Some of the younger men wolf-whistled at them. Hand-in-hand, the duo strode together up the hill toward the henge.

Glancing around at the other couples also collected at the long table, Hermione recalled that Molly had told her the order for consummation went from the eldest to youngest person present, rather than collective age of the pairs.

She frowned, her eyes darting from couple to couple. So that means…

"Sizing everyone's age up, are you?" Draco queried shrewdly.

"Maybe," she answered vaguely.

Sensing her lack of familiarity with those around her, he interpreted for her, "We'll go sixth."

More time to stew over it before it happens, she grimaced. Her optimistic side countered, Or more time to get to know him, maybe.

"Malfoy," a new voice greeted.

Hermione's head whipped around to see the newcomer, and recognized Theodore Nott. He was tall and so thin he looked as if he might snap in half, and his face was somewhat pinched-looking. Though Nott had been in her year at Hogwarts, he had been a Slytherin and despite that he had not counted himself as a usual member of Draco's gang of bullies, they had never spoken.

He appeared to infer all of this from her look, but nevertheless, the wizard stuck out his hand to her and began, "We know one another from Hogwarts of course, but have never been introduced. Theo Nott."

Emboldened by the fact that he had not decided to start them off on the wrong foot - and she had no specific bad memories of him to prejudice her - she offered him a half-smile and shook his hand. "Hermione. Pleasure."

Dropping her hand after an appropriate amount of time, he turned to Draco.

"Congratulations, mate," he said, then with another glance toward Hermione, "and to the new Mrs. Malfoy."

"Thanks," Draco accepted.

He seems nice enough, Hermione thought. If I had to get paired with a Slytherin, why couldn't it have been him?

She gave herself a mental slap at her inward prejudice. After the war, she had told herself she would stamp out biases based on Hogwarts houses; apparently, there was still a bit of lingering resentment she had not been able to eradicate.

Malfoy and Nott spoke for a little while longer, but Hermione was distracted when Ginny caught her eye from across the tent, visibly appraised the situation, then stood to approach. Her stride was purposeful, aggressive, and Hermione saw again - for the first time since Ginny had been told she would be required to make a cast - the fire that so characterized her personality.

"'Mione," her friend greeted, kissing her cheek.

"Hey, Ginny."

"Weaslette," Draco drawled, distracted by her appearance. He seemed to be eyeing her dubiously.

"Ferret-face," she answered with mock-sweetness. Theo chortled and Ginny's attention was successfully diverted, "Nott."

"Miss Weasley," Theodore responded, his eyes sparkling, "please call me Theo."

"I think I'll stick with 'Nott', thanks," Ginny countered acerbically.

"As you wish, Ginevra," he chuckled. "I never choose to be at odds with the wishes of a beautiful witch."

Ginny's brows furrowed, but she ignored the jape, recognizing that Nott was messing with her to elicit a reaction. Hermione thought Draco looked highly amused with the exchange between Theo and Ginny, though it was not immediately clear why.

Theo excused himself, "I think I'm going to pay my respects and take off for the evening."

"Don't be a stranger."

Grinning impishly, Theo promised, "I'll be in touch."

He moved off down toward the other end of the table, where the new Mr. and Mrs. Avery were seated. Hermione noticed Draco intently watching this exchange with the new couple, his eyes lingering on them for a moment longer than was strictly necessary. She wondered if he was friends with either or both of the Averys, and thought it likely given that they had all been in the same house at Hogwarts; she had got to know most of the Gryffindors from different years, just from sharing the same common room.

Ginny's eyes locked into Hermione's, "Are you going to be alright?"

Draco rolled his eyes, but Ginny ignored him. Hermione noticed her friend had taken off the sage wreath she had put on her head for the ceremony, and her red hair was now somewhat mussed from its removal. "Yes."

"Ginny!" Arthur called from their place at one of the other tables. The Weasley clan's eyes were fixed on their exchange.

"I've got to go… don't leave without saying good-bye, yeah?"

"I won't," Hermione promised. "I don't think your Mum would let me, in any case."

"That's true," Ginny agreed. She turned to Draco, her nose wrinkling somewhat at the very sight of him, "You had better not hurt her, Malfoy."

"Oh yes," he drawled, sarcasm dripping from his voice like a poison, "I always prefer to bring harm to my wife whenever possible. It really just completes my day."

Turning on her heel, Ginny left them to rejoin her family. A moment's awkward silence stretched between the two of them, though it seemed like an eternity.

Finally, "Are you hungry?"

Relieved to at least be talking to him, given that they would be having sex within the span of a few short hours, Hermione breathed out, "Somewhat."

"Well, you're not likely to find a better variety than at one of these parties. Every House contributes several traditional dishes."

Fascinating! she mentally exclaimed. Aloud, she only answered, "I didn't even know there were traditional pureblood foods."

Draco raised an eyebrow, looking at her from behind a tentative half-smile. "Shall we go look? I can probably explain most of them to you if you have questions."

Recognizing the olive branch for what it was, Hermione nodded, "That would be nice."

The two of them stood, and Draco led her to the least occupied of the many enormous tables along the sides of the pavilion. As it was served buffet-style, most of the party paid them little mind, carrying on with talking, laughing, gossiping, whispering, or plotting privately to their hearts' content.

The tables were beautifully laden with banks of greenery trailing along the center of the boards, interspersed with candles and ewers of wine. With so many dishes beckoning to be tasted, it was difficult to decide where to start

"What is that?" Hermione asked, pointing to the bottom half of a pumpkin larger than Crookshanks, which acted as an enormous bowl from which to serve an orange soup flecked all over with brown.

Draco eyed it and replied, "A Fawley creation. I believe it's some sort of spicy pumpkin soup."

"I thought you said you knew what they all were?" she teased.

Recognizing that she had engaged him in banter, a smirk twitched into existence on his lips. "I did specify that it was 'most'."

"How about that one, then?" she quizzed, pointing to a different soup that was a creamy-white with almonds garnishing the center.

"Easy, that's a Malfoy dish: crème almaundys, a French recipe from the sixteenth century."

"Cream of almond soup?" she guessed, grasping into the far reaches of her memory for scraps of the limited French she had learned during the summer her family had vacationed in Paris. "I didn't know your family was French?"

"The Malfoys initially moved to England from France many centuries ago."

"But that's cheating," she insisted, "I'm not counting that as a point to knowing all these foods in your favor if it was your own family's dish."

It turned out, despite her initially timid teasing, Draco did know quite a bit about the many different foods she asked about. When she wondered what a particular savory-looking pie was, he cut into it for them, revealing that it had been stuffed with what looked like hard-boiled eggs and currants, and smelled of cloves. He tasted it, deducing, "Rabbit pie – it's something the Slughorns usually bring."

He even pointed the family out to her. The group there did not include her old Potions professor, but there was an older man around his age and a woman surrounded by their three grown sons, all of whom had wives and children of their own. They seemed to be a merry group, and Draco knew many of their names and something about them.

"Our old professor was the brother of Alfred Slughorn, who is the old man you see at the center of the family," he explained.

"How can you keep all these family trees straight?" she wondered, impressed despite herself.

"I've been taught them since a young age," he reminded her. "My parents were always very social when I was a kid."

What a life, she reflected, wondering just how she felt about that.

He seemed ready enough to change the subject, because he gestured to a specific fish platter and told her, "You should try some of that. It's a baked carp with figs – the Flints bring it. It's one of the best things here."

To humor him more than anything, she took a small piece. Levitating their plates back to their seats, Hermione tried the fish first and decided it was rather good. When she told him so, he smiled in a more confident way.

They talked about food for a while, seeming to have mutually decided it was a neutral enough topic. She brought up the different foods she had tried when visiting Paris with her parents, and he answered with a humorous tale from last year's casting celebrations when Avery had dared Nott to eat one of the roasted scorpions that remained mostly untouched on one of the buffet tables, and Nott had done it.

He even listened politely when Hermione told him about the cake her mother made for her each year on her birthday, while growing up.

Haltingly, since she had now brought up the subject of her parents twice, Draco glanced around as if the thought had just occurred to him that they might be present. "Are they here? Your parents?"

She shook her head, "They live in Australia, but they wouldn't have been able to come to this gathering anyway. They're both Squibs."

Whatever reaction he may have had to this revelation was cut short when the new Mr. and Mrs. Burke returned from the henge. Having been gone nearly a full hour and a half, they were immediately the subject of a great uproar of ribald jokes from those assembled nearest them.

The Macmillan wizard Hermione did not know, along with Hestia Carrow, rose from their seats to go next. It was impossible not to notice how different their body language was from the Burkes, who could not seem to stop touching one another. The new Macmillan couple were both stiff-backed and unsmiling. Though Hermione did not know Hestia outside of when they had both been present for the Slug Club parties in sixth year, she immediately felt sorry for the witch.

Unfortunately, this reminder of where they were brought back the awkwardness between her and Draco. She wished their conversation had not been brought to an end; though it had been a neutral enough topic, it was the first time they had been able to have real discourse with one another that did not end in insults.

In light of this, Hermione tried to bring back the easy discussion by deciding to try dessert. Though he seemed to have been overtaken by a sudden bout of broodiness, she announced this to Draco, and he reluctantly joined her. Though it was not entirely successful, they were both clearly making efforts to grasp at the tendrils of the previous conversation.

"Something smells divine," Hermione remarked, perking up at the scent of cinnamon and ginger.

"It's that," Draco decided, pointing to a cake the color of rich molasses, "spicebrede. Your own House brings it."

"Spicebrede," she repeated before realizing, "that's just a fancy word for gingerbread."

"I'm offended," he replied, though he did not look it, "that dessert dates back to the thirteenth century at least."

"You're just showing off, is what you're doing," she teased.

Only his smirk gave him away.

They retreated to their seats once more, where Hermione discovered that the lemon syllabub was more to her liking than anything else. The two of them finally seemed to have regained some footing in having a real conversation, when it was again interrupted by the return of the Macmillans from the henge, after only thirty minutes.

Hermione was unsure what to think about their appearances. Truly, both witch and wizard looked completely unruffled, as if what had happened in the stone circle had not even occurred. When the couple sat, the wizard engaged Hestia in a polite discourse, which she returned; the two were acting like strangers stuck at the same bus stop, remarking on the weather to one another. Eyes sliding to Kingsley for reference, Hermione had to look away at the sight of Salmeh now feeding him pomegranate seeds with her fingers.

Near them, Neville and Flora had begun a lively conversation, and Hermione was happy for her friend. Thinking how easily the couple had come to be friendly, she felt a pang of some unknown emotion rattling around in her chest. Hermione no longer had it in her to try forcing her way into another conversation with Malfoy, but was luckily - or unluckily- spared the awkwardness by a different sort of diversion when Muriel approached. The old witch hobbled over, levitating two bottles of something along with her, while a sinisterly gleeful grin plastered onto her face. Hermione's stomach plummeted at the very sight.

"Ah yes, the Malfoys," the Prewett matriarch greeted, her smile spreading with satisfaction.

"Madam Prewett," Draco acknowledged politely, "to what do we owe the pleasure?"

To Hermione's mortification, Muriel was appraising Draco with an appreciative eye. "I came to offer my congratulations of course, and to bestow a gift to yourself and the heiress of my House."

It was the most polite Hermione thought she had ever heard Muriel speaking before: something that lit an ember of resentment deep down that the woman should reserve that voice for Draco Malfoy, of all people.

"We are very grateful," he accepted.

Muriel presented them with two identical bottles of what appeared to be wine. "In honor of your pairing, two bottles of metheglin."

Resisting the urge to say bless you in response, Hermione mustered, "Come again?"

"Cornish ginger mead, girl," Muriel translated irritably, "what did that great-nephew of mine teach you?"

Despite her uncharitable feelings, Hermione knew better than to argue with the head of her House. She settled on, "Thank you."

This seemed to be good enough for Muriel, because she continued, "This particular batch was laid down by the Prewetts in 1877. These are two of the last bottles."

Draco whistled lowly, taking a bottle and looking at it with interest.

Appreciating his interest, Muriel uncorked one for them, explaining, "One for tonight, a second for another special occasion."

"Thank you."

"Additionally, Tessie and I hope to receive you both at Fosgate Hall very soon," the witch continued. "We've a dowry to transfer, along with several family heirlooms for Hermione…"

Wishing for little else besides for Muriel to simply go away, Hermione took a sip of the metheglin and, considering its apparent age, she was surprised by how easy it was to drink. She took a few more sips, while Muriel prattled away, content to let Draco deal with the difficult woman. She had little patience for simpering, in any case.

After Muriel departed - to Hermione's profound relief - Draco leaned in toward her and murmured, "You may want to slow down on that. I think it's a lot stronger than it tastes."

She only shrugged, taking another sip. Perhaps if I'm drunk, I'll be able to get through this easier.

Hannah Abbott and Rowan Selwyn returned from the henge a short while later, having been gone for even less time than the Macmillans had before them. Hannah looked stricken, as if a ghost had accidentally passed through her, while Rowan only looked down at the grass, his eyebrows contracted in anger or resentment. Returning to her seat, Hermione noticed Hannah winced as she sat, while Rowan did not join her at all, instead making his way toward a group of the Selwyns, among whom Pansy Parkinson was present.

Turning to Draco to ask if Pansy had married into that family, she found his attention diverted toward Cadfael and Astoria, who were rising from their seats to go next. His eyes lingered on them a moment, before tearing them away.

That's the second time he's done that, she noticed, even despite the fuzziness that had crept into the forefront of her brain from the metheglin.

Many things were happening around the pavilion by now. Food and drink had been consumed in large quantities, and many of the older folk were heading home for the evening. Hermione had guessed before, judging by Nott's earlier departure, that for those that were not required to consummate that evening, their presence was not required. She was, however, surprised when the Burke newlyweds also rose to begin bidding adieus.

"Do they not have to stay for the duration?" she asked Draco.

"Nope… and those two have been an item for nearly five years, so I'm not surprised they're heading home early."

She tried not to think about the fact that their turn was next. Catching Neville's eye, he now looked as nervous as she felt, which only solidified the weight that had formed in the pit of her innards. She still knew very little about Draco, even though they'd had a few hours to talk. Figuring she at least had another half an hour before she would be required to go, she rose from her seat, explaining that she was going to speak to the Weasleys. Having had a fair bit of metheglin by now, himself, Draco only waved this away and turned his attention elsewhere.

Isa, indeed, she thought, her hand automatically clenching around the rune-stone in her pocket.

 

Chapter Text

She spent a quarter of an hour with Molly, Arthur, and Ginny. Percy and his wife had left for the evening, as Audrey was fatigued from being out late and eating rich food while so heavily pregnant. When Hermione explained that Muriel had brought over two bottles of metheglin for her and Draco, Arthur chortled.

To Hermione's confused expression, Molly explained, "She only gave us one when we were matched. Apparently she's excited to have her family tree connected to the Malfoys."

Ginny made a noise of deep disgust.

A little while later, Arthur glanced toward the Malfoy in question and advised, "You should be getting back to Draco, Hermione. It will be your turn soon, and you want to start out with him on the right foot."

"I think it might be too late for that," she replied sadly. "Our wrong foot was established back in our first year at Hogwarts…"

But she went anyway, sliding back into the chair stiffly. At her approach, Draco quickly returned something to his trouser pocket and Hermione wondered if he had been examining her rune again. A weird fluttering sensation stirred in her chest.

When the Averys returned from the henge, the both of them were glowing with satisfaction in a way that neither of them had exhibited toward one another that evening. Astoria had removed her flower crown, and her midnight hair was somewhat tousled, but her eyes were shining with adoration for the wizard beside her.

Hermione could feel her face growing warm. She turned to look at Draco, and noticed that he was looking anywhere but at his friends.

Odd, she thought disconnectedly. He had been staring at them intermittently, all evening; she wondered what he had been thinking. Had Cadfael perhaps been hoping for a different outcome? He looked pretty pleased with himself now, in any case...

Draco stood and made a move to help her with her chair. "Are you ready?"

She wasn't really - but that was moot when he was only asking to be polite.

They were spared most of the loud congratulations and bawdy comments by the other purebloods, as since they were the sixth couple, most of the novelty of it had worn off for those assembled. The teasing they were subjected to, Hermione barely heard, and it seemed only seconds later that they had left the pavilion and were beginning up the hill. A backward glance found that Mrs. Weasley was standing outside, watching them ascend; the matriarch must have seen how nervous her charge was, because she smiled encouragingly and nodded.

About halfway up, they had still not spoken. The ferns that blanketed the forest floor were rustling in the wind, and crickets were singing all around. Hermione thought she noticed some bowtruckles creeping along a bent tree at one point and tried to calm herself by focusing on the growth charts they had once made for them in Care of Magical Creatures. She tried to remember all the labeled parts, but her mind was spinning as a result from the mead and her intense trepidation.

An owl could be heard hooting closeby. Draco recognized, "That's a great horned owl call."

"If you say so." He could have told her it was a hippopotamus and she might have agreed, with how distracted she was.

"Hermione, relax."

Startled at hearing her given name rolling off his tongue in that familiar drawl, she stumbled over a tree root. "S-Sorry. Just a bit…"

"Preoccupied?" he suggested.

"Yes."

He sighed and reached for her hand, stopping them.

She tried to pull away, gasping, "What are you doing?"

"Trying to hold your hand, you barmy witch," he snapped. "Believe it or not, this situation is difficult for me to come to terms with, too."

She stared; she had been so wrapped up in her own emotions, she had not spared a thought for his. "Well, what now?"

The owl hooted again, closer this time. He asked, "Can I kiss you?"

The rustling ferns were tickling the backs of her calves, and though her toes still throbbed from where she had tripped over the root, Hermione's entire being vibrated with uncertainty. He wants to kiss me?

She was silent too long. Making a move to dislodge his hand from hers, he muttered, "Forget it."

"No," she protested, grasping his hand tighter. "No, I… want to."

He looked at her a little suspiciously.

"We should try it," she decided. "Before…"

"Before we have to fuck," he finished for her. At her scandalized look, he chastised, "Don't look at me like that. That's what's going to happen, and the faster you come to terms with that fact, the better off we'll both be."

"It's not that I haven't come to terms with it," she lied, "I just wasn't expecting you to be so crude about it."

He snorted, "Are you implying you want us to make love?"

After a moment's pause, she conceded, "I suppose that would be too much to ask of two people with a history like ours."

Draco glanced upward, toward the direction of the stone circle, where Lestrange was no doubt waiting for them.

"Are you going to kiss me or not?" she queried.

He turned back to her, resolutely stating, "Yes. But we should be quick."

"It's a first kiss," she argued, "it's not supposed to be quick…!"

But Hermione was silenced when he leaned in; she initially recoiled from the abruptness of his face growing closer to hers, before going very still like a prey animal sensing danger. He paused, very close now, and looked intrigued, like she was a puzzle he needed to figure out.

His kiss was firm, though his lips were soft. One hand migrated to her waist, while his other curled around the back of her neck. Without thought, she wrapped her arms around his neck and closed her eyes to savor the taste of him.

With her eyes shut, blocking out the view of who she was kissing, Hermione was gradually able to accept that it was the most satisfyingly carnal kiss she had ever partaken in. Draco's tongue snaked its way into her mouth almost without her realizing, just as his hand moved without thought to tangle into her wild curls. A tremor ran the length of Hermione's spine and she shuddered - like an electrical current, it surged outward into her body, from her toes to her fingertips - and she grasped a fistful of his shirt where her hand had roved of its own volition down to his chest.

When they parted, it felt like all the air had been pulled from her lungs. Her body was roaring with magic and desire, heart pounding heavily in her chest. Opening her eyes, she found Draco gazing at her with wonder. She licked her lips, and would swear she could still taste him there.

"That was… unexpected," he murmured, raking his hands through his hair.

"How do you mean?"

She anticipated him this time, when he leaned in to kiss her again. Unlike their only other kiss, this one was swift, a quick peck on her lips. "Even without magic running amok between us and complicating things, that still would have been spectacular."

Her brows furrowed. Was that all it was? Just magic, forcing us to be compatible?

"Hermione," he pressed, taking her hand again, "don't overthink it. Let's go."

But she was overthinking already - so much so that she nearly did not find it unusual this time to find her fingers intertwined with his. Her mind whirred as they continued their ascent. She expected him to release her hand at some point, but he did not drop it until they had reached the summit of the hill, where Lestrange was ready for them.

Even this had its own rituals, it seemed. The old man, leaning heavily on his staff and seeming very much awake despite that his office could not have been less sociable in nature, bid them kneel outside the stone circle. The inside of the henge was ensconced in an enormous, iridescent bubble of privacy like a shield; Hermione could not see inside it from where she kneeled beside Draco, and she wondered if the enchantment went both ways.

"Oil of magnolia for fidelity, thistle for strength, and tansy for longevity: these are the blessings bestowed upon your marriage, should you choose to honor them," Lestrange dictated. The officiator dipped his fingers separately into three small crocks full of the three oils he had named, and anointed their foreheads with them in three sure swipes. He then spoke some words in an ancient tongue that meant nothing whatsoever to Hermione, before wafting a burning sage stick toward them. "Sage for protection."

What do we need protection from, I wonder… she thought darkly, mired in worry. Despite everything that had happened so far that evening, it was the first time Hermione wondered if she had not made a gigantic mistake in accepting her call into the blood pact.

"The Houses of Malfoy and Prewett have been called upon by the ancient magics of this land to pay homage to its prowess and beneficence," Lestrange orated. "Blood magic, sex magic, old magic - all will intermingle tonight… "

Without another word, he gestured into the henge and its magical bubble within, then walked away toward the edge of the closest trees in the nearby copse.

Hesitating, Hermione looked to Draco, who nodded toward the stone circle. "Are you ready?"

"I don't know," she answered honestly, dubiously eyeing the nearest monolith that stretched upward toward the inky night sky. Her attention was diverted when he stood and brushed the dirt off his knees, "Aren't you nervous?"

Quirking a pale eyebrow at her, he held out his hand to help her up, which she took. "I have no opinion. When you are ready, join me inside."

Without waiting any longer, he relinquished her hand and stepped into the henge, immediately disappearing from sight. Hermione supposed this was a mercy, as it confirmed that no one outside could see what was happening within the circle, even Lestrange. Especially Lestrange…

On the other hand, she reflected that she did not think he had been entirely truthful with her about having no opinion on the matter. Perhaps he was merely saving face. But I'm his wife! How are we meant to achieve anything close to happiness in marriage if he can't even be open with me? She suspected it was probably naive of her to suppose it possible in the first place.

"Here goes nothing," she breathed out, glad she had imbibed in some of the metheglin beforehand, as she was not convinced she would have had the courage to go through it with it otherwise.

When she stepped inside the stone circle, everything became veiled around her like a canopy of privacy. For most of the evening, her imagination had run amok - and in her mind's eye, she had visualized herself entering this area only to find it crumpled and dirty from the last couple to use it. She was relieved to discover that she had been wrong.

Hundreds of candles lined the perimeter of the sphere. Some were enormous, larger than her arm, while others were tiny and floating along the edges of the area, dripping wax onto the ground from above. They were also in a variety of colors, from white to black, and every color in-between. Irregardless of how eye-catching the display of lights, this could not subdue the main feature, which was undoubtedly the center.

The main monolith in the middle of the stone circle was still descended fully into the earth, but surrounding it were veritable heaps of white flower petals. Draco had bent down to examine them, but stood when Hermione made her presence known.

"Peonies," he explained, holding up one of the delicate petals and looking at her curiously. "What were you thinking about, outside the henge?"

Hermione tilted her head to the side a bit, still taking in the scene. It was, for lack of any other correct descriptor… romantic. She had not thought this was a ceremony characterized by romance of any kind.

Recalling that he had asked her a question, she replied, "Oh, er… I'm not sure."

He looked as if he did not believe her, but stood, eyes still rooted to her with a new interest. The crest for the House of Malfoy was glowing a faint golden color in the center stone behind him - and it struck Hermione again that she was alone with Draco. Truly alone, with him.

He approached slowly, taking both her hands in his and drawing her to the eye of the circle. Her nerves were swiftly fraying, breaching her mental safeguards. Trying to summon her bossiest voice as a kind of defense, she snapped, "I'm sorry, but are we really meant to do this on a bed of flower petals?"

"Why not?" he queried, genuinely curious. "Do they offend you?"

"It just seems so impractical," she sassed, reaching for her wand. Conjuring a soft blanket, she laid it down on top of the sea of white. "There."

She turned back to him as if to ask his opinion on the matter, but her attention was arrested at the sight of him yanking his white, linen shirt over his head and discarding it on the ground. When he turned to his trousers to divest himself of those next, she hastily looked away.

I guess this is it, then...

As he was undressing, she nervously picked at the tie that held her gown together, wondering if she were really brave enough to simply bare herself to him. She glanced up again to find that he was now fully nude, and her fingers fell still on the neat bow just above her breasts. Secretly, she admired the view: Draco was all hard planes and smooth skin, except for a small bit of hair on his chest - only a shade or two darker than the hair on his head - that ran in a thin line down his stomach and clustered around his… sweet Merlin…

He approached as one might do to a trapped animal, apprehensive that they might lash out. Theirs, after all, would be a tenuous coupling. Hermione felt like she knew him on an essential level based off of what she knew of his rune, but the truth was, she barely knew a thing about Draco Malfoy at all. Despite this, she could feel something inside her - deep within, something innate and primitive - that drew her to him. Recognizing that it was probably the Old Magic at work, she attempted to stifle it.

His fingers brushed her arm lightly, butterfly-soft, and where his skin touched hers, it left paths of heat in its wake. Another spike of fear speared into her heart, recognizing that magic was certainly afoot here, of a much different sort than she was used to. His hand, like a tongue of flame, reached up to cup her cheek, bringing her eyes up to meet his. She expected to see any number of emotions in his eyes: veiled distaste, perhaps - or a small, hopeful part of her wished to see in him the maturity to try to make this work. What she did not expect to see, was hunger.

"There are things that still need to be said between us," he told her openly, acknowledging their volatile past.

Given that he was standing before her fully nude, while she was still clothed in her casting gown, Hermione found it very difficult to keep her gaze focused on his eyes.

"We will have those words," he promised her. His eyes were like ice, like isa. "But not at this moment."

Still struggling to keep his gaze, she swallowed. "Okay."

He pulled the tie holding up her gown and the thing fell to the ground in a single, fluid movement, pooling around her bare feet. A moment later, his hands were on her, circling around her waist, touching her softly, gently, unchaining wild, delicious feelings within her.

"You're not a virgin, are you?"

She hauled in a breath and tensed. "No - you?"

He chuckled, as if amused at the very notion. "No."

An aching tension was swiftly building between them and Hermione could physically feel her magic boiling inside of her, like her blood was running red-hot. Everywhere he touched her was Fiendfyre in its wake, and suddenly she wished she had asked more questions about what was involved with the sex magic that occurred during a consummation.

"Relax," Draco coaxed, hands moving up to cup the back of her neck, "this is what we were born to do."

With a nervous laugh, Hermione remarked, "I'd like to think I was built for more than just sex, Malfoy."

"Draco," he corrected. His mercurial eyes were dancing from the light of so many candles. "We're married. You may as well stop calling me by my surname, as it is now also yours."

Right, she remembered, somewhat sheepish that the fact of their marriage had nearly slipped her mind in the depth of her nervousness.

"...And if you think for a moment that the powers of this land intended a greater purpose for us than to pay homage to it as we are about to do, then someone did not do their full job in explaining to you what it is to be a member of the ancient pact."

It was hard to think when the magic was causing her blood to hum in her veins like a drug. His hands went to her breasts, agile fingers fondling one of her hardened peaks, while he pinched the other. A small sound of surprise - and also, pleasure - spilled from her mouth before she could smother it.

Body and mind were at war within her. Cognizant of her own arousal, Hermione recognized that her body had complied to the whims of the magic without protest, and was sublimely ready to accept him; her mind, however, was having a difficult time catching up. Just hearing his drawl set her on edge.

"Hermione… relax," he repeated.

"I'm trying," she insisted, acting as if they were not already naked and pressed against one another. "So… what now?"

An amused smirk played about his lips and his hand left her breast, only to twist a finger through one of her curls. "Now I am going to kiss you. In fact, I am going to continue kissing you until you've forgotten all those thoughts and protestations I can hear whirring around in that vast brain of yours."

She opened her mouth to dissent, but closed it again promptly when she realized that was exactly what he had been talking about.

His smirk widened and he pulled the curl downward, only to watch it spring back up. "Once you've overcome that, I am going to slide blissfully between your thighs and fuck you until you are breathtakingly aware of the simple fact that you and I were born to make love. Here. Tonight."

Her demurrals died on her lips. Damn him. The wizard's tongue was as silver as his eyes.

Draco claimed her mouth for a kiss only seconds later, lighting within her an acute surge of desire. He kissed her languidly, like he was taking great care to take his time with her - but he tasted like fire and a moment later, Hermione's magic was crackling like heat lightning.

His brazen hands returned to her breasts, caressing them as he cherished her mouth. What remained of her mental stronghold was swiftly crumbling. Moments later, he guided them gently down onto the blanket she had conjured, crushing the peonies beneath it and releasing a great gust of flowery scent into the air around them like a perfume. The softness of the fabric against her back brought her back to reality and Hermione was suddenly very nervous again.

He sighed, "Must I remind you to relax?"

"Easy for you to say," she grumbled.

"Is it?" He grasped her knees and eased them apart as he slipped a hand into the apex of her legs; she wanted him so desperately that she was already slick with readiness. She had expected a snide remark about her obvious arousal, but his only response was the feel of his heavy erection pulsing against the bone of her hip where he lay beside her. "How do you figure?"

"Well," she reasoned, not entirely able to stifle as gasp as he stroked her softly, "it's just, you've had all your life to prepare for this… sort of thing. I've had only a month or so."

His lips pressed hot, open-mouthed kisses onto the column of her throat. She shivered deliciously, her body basking in their shared heat and wanting so much more.

"I've had time, yes - but to prepare myself for a pureblood woman. Instead, I got you."

"But I cast in for the House of Prewett… I am a…"

"I know you are." He stopped her lips with another searing kiss as he climbed atop her, his hard thighs crowning her hips. "Will you allow me?"

Last chance to chicken out, she interpreted. But truly, she could not figure how anyone in her position would have been able to say no, given the coil of need that had curled into her sacrum, budding outward and sending sinful currents of want throughout her entire being.

She offered him a slight nod of consent, but it was her eyes that truly gave him permission. Hermione had expected him to be more talkative, to ask her if she was sure – but she was dead wrong, because he surged into her with urgency. Her eyes flew wide open and she threw back her head, knees clamping onto his naked hips as a keening sound erupted from her mouth.

He was raining kisses along her shoulders and clavicle, murmuring reassurances, but Hermione was too busy reeling in wicked delight to try interpreting what he might be saying. A cyclone of heady sensations were wracking her body, transcending what she might previously have believed about the boundaries of physical pleasure.

He pulled most of the way back out and then pushed inside again, deliberately stretching her softness with consummate skill. His voice husky, he rasped out, "You're… incredible."

She gazed into his face: he was handsome, powerful in an understated way, and his eyes were hypnotic. For once in her life, she was at a loss for words; he seemed instinctively to understand. They were wrapped in a web of magic, and where their bodies were fused together, it was almost impossible to tell where one of them ended and the other began. All Hermione knew for sure, was that every sliding thrust he pushed into her, coaxed her steadily to abandon. She met each of his movements by grinding upward against him, hands gripping his back and noting the flexing muscles there as he moved inside her. Reason had tumbled into oblivion to be replaced by a constant onslaught of raw physical desire.

He picked up his rhythm in answer to the silent plea in her eyes. Feeling his shaft rearing hard and hot within her brought on a state of burgeoning frenzy.

Climax came eventually, in drugging waves for both of them, for Hermione could very nearly feel Draco's orgasm as well as her own. Her eyes slid shut and she released a wail of ecstasy as her body shuddered and convulsed. Draco gripped the firm curve of her hip with one hand, lifting her leg onto his shoulder, while his other hand pressed heavily on the slender limb of her arm. She could feel the head of his staff nudging her in a secret place, deep within her body, even as he was flooding her with warmth.

The aftermath was euphoric. She had never known such an earth-shattering orgasm was possible. As she was overtaken by the lethargy of spent passion, a deep sense of completion overwhelmed her. He thrust into her a few more times before pulling himself from her body and collapsing on the crumpled blanket beside her, both their chests heaving. Some of the peony petals had got themselves entangled into Hermione's hair, but she could not be bothered with such trifles for the moment.

Eventually, she glanced down at the apex of her legs, where evidence of their coupling had left trails of sticky wetness on the inner face of her thigh. She reached for her wand to clean herself, but Draco's hand grasped her wrist.

"Don't," he advised in a gravelly voice.

She lowered her hand without asking why. His eyes were at half-mast with latent desire and he leaned over to kiss her again. Unlike the kissing that had preceded their consummation, this was more tender. His fingers slid down her stomach and with a hiss, she felt two of them enter her; she was somewhat tender from what they had done, now that the high was over.

"I want all of this inside of you," he murmured, trailing his hand down to wipe at what had escaped onto her thighs, pushing it back into her with his fingers. She quivered at the words, and at his intimate touching.

Sealing this admission with a kiss, it almost seemed inadvertent when he groaned into her mouth. As the kiss deepened, Hermione felt, once again, bubbling desire building up between them. Draco must have felt it too, because with a near-feral growl, he pulled her up atop him so that she straddled his hips and ground against her soaked entrance with his rapidly hardening member.

"Again?" she gasped, her eyes wide.

"Until you can't walk straight," he swore, his voice dark with promise.

"But," she stammered, even as her body screamed its complete assent, "what about the refractory period?"

In answer, he thrust into her slick passage once more, beckoning them back to the entrance of the vortex…

 

Chapter Text

Many purebloods, Draco included, had been taught plant symbolism from a young age. Indeed, whole volumes could be spoken in the language of flowers without ever saying a single word aloud. But it was not merely a society thing - no, the meanings of different flora, both magical and non-magical, were also important in potion-making.

Buckthorn, for example, was an ingredient in at least three different protective brews Draco knew of off the top of his head. Daisies, which were sometimes given in bouquets as a symbol of innocence, also stood for luck, and daisy root was an ingredient in Felix Felicis. Sage, a symbol of longevity as well as protection, factored into many anti-ageing potions and serums.

Peonies, Draco recalled, were an occasional additive into love potions… and that was what worried him.

The flowers had not initially been inside the stone circle when he entered, only appearing later, right before Granger, no… Hermione herself had.

That meant they had to be a projection of something she had been thinking. Yet, she had seemed as clueless about them as Draco had… and if they were a projection of something she had been pondering, just what exactly was that?

A happy marriage, compassion… that was what the bleeding peonies stood for. That was why they were an ingredient in love potions. Had she wished to be happy with him? Not likely. It was a perplexing matter.

The great-horned owl from earlier was still throatily calling into the night, only this time its mate was answering with deep hoots from somewhere further down the treeline. Draco glanced sidelong at the witch beside him, treading silently downhill back toward the celebrations with a new, definite sway to her gait. Hiding his self-satisfied smirk, he tried to admire the figure she cut without giving himself away that he was doing it.

The truth was, while Hermione had been something of a shrew whilst at Hogwarts, there was none of that now. Draco had never seen allure like hers; he had held the idea that women had varying degrees of beauty, and that beauty could be enhanced through the use of cosmetics or caring properly for one's physical appearance. But never before had attractiveness been so blatant, so arresting - she was thunder, crashing down on him and electrifying his body so that he felt on fire.

Truly, she was a helion - but that persona was gone now, hidden. A smoldering torch, reduced to embers. Kenaz, waiting for its moment to spit back into flame.

Now she seemed as meek as a mouse, as she had done following their coupling. Draco had taken her three times, and would have done again, except that she had begun to shrink away from him. Perhaps it had taken that long for her to properly comprehend anything other than the utterly all-consuming need to fuck and be fucked.

She had not said a single word since their leaving the henge, not even through the post-ceremony with Lestrange when they had finished and were required to make offerings of blood and life-giving essences. Draco had always been curious what that part had entailed; it was not the sort of thing you asked your mother. It turned out that, having accepted his 'seed' (Lestrange's word, not his), Hermione acted as a kind of vessel for the offering. Recalling his unbidden words to her in the stone circle after their initial coupling, he thought perhaps sex magic had controlled even that impulse when he entreated her to allow each release to remain within her.

He thought of himself filling her womb and a shiver of something base and primal shuddered within him.

They made blood offerings afterward. Draco had sliced through the palm of his hand, clenching it into a fist and squeezing out deep red droplets of blood onto his family's ancient crest, just as his ancestors had done before him for generations. He fought back a grimace, not wanting his new wife to think him weak, but she seemed totally unimpressed by him. He healed himself with magic, as was customary, but noticed that instead of slicing through her own palm, Hermione made her offering by making a cut into the skin of her forearm.

As her skin split like an overripe berry, she pressed her fingers to the opening and smeared her fingers along the crest. Draco reflected on the act and thought it almost dainty; Lestrange certainly did not seem to find anything unusual with the sacrifice, yet Draco had always been shown to slice through his palm. Was that just theatrics, after all?

He glanced down to her forearm, the skin now having been magically knitted back together, and began to feel self-conscious of his own left forearm where the gray, scarred remains of what had once been the inky-black Dark Mark had left an ugly blemish that would persist for the rest of his days. He wondered what she would think of it. As they were now married, there would be no hiding it forever, and Draco somehow doubted that just because she was pureblood now, Hermione's views on the Dark Lord were much altered.

Looking at her now as they descended the hill together, he wondered if she were thinking about similar things - about their opposite roles in the war, about their tarnished interactions of years ago, about their differences in upbringing.

Because at the end of the day, pureblood or not, she had been raised as a Muggle. What on earth were they ever to find in common?

The pavilion soon came into view as the ground began to level out, along with the sound of boisterous activity, which meant the party was still in full swing. Too late, he realized they had been utterly uncommunicative on the entire trek down.

"Hermione..." he began.

She only shot him an inscrutable look and sped up so that she was walking ahead of him. He allowed her to flee, unsure what he had intended to say to her anyway. What did you say to a woman you had not spoken to in years since bullying her relentlessly in school, and after you had shagged her senseless because some ancient magic required it?

They had reached the base of the hill and he found his mother engaged in negotiations with Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. The balding, red-haired man was speaking politely enough, discussing Hermione's upkeep and making arrangements. Draco's nose wrinkled; not for the first time, it occurred to him that marriage to Hermione Granger came with a veritable assortment of Weasleys. He supposed he should at least learn their names… and how many of them there actually were.

With affected confidence, he strode over toward the conversation. Interestingly, Hermione herself was some steps away, conversing with the Weasley girl. Draco gave them a wide berth, recalling very little about Ginevra Weasley except that she had once placed a hellish bat-bogey curse on him during his fifth year which he had no wish to relive, and that for reasons unknown, Theo Nott was relatively head-over-heels for the witch.

"Draco, darling," his mother greeted as he approached, "you remember Arthur and Molly Weasley?"

Bless her, he thought, grateful for his mother's social proclivities that involved her issuing out important names just when he wanted them.

"Of course," he answered smoothly, holding out a hand to the patriarch, "though we have never officially met…"

He shook Arthur's hand and noticed the wizard was watching him with a mixture of both wariness and hopefulness, like he wanted to think the best of him, but his experience with Malfoys in general prevented him actually doing so. Draco moved on to Molly, who took his hand stiffly and let go of it rather quickly.

The rather dumpy-looking witch turned to Narcissa, "I'm sure you understand that we both are firm in the belief that as Hermione was tortured at Malfoy Manor, she should not be expected to live there."

"As to that," his mother was already answering, "the… highly unfortunate incident took place in our old drawing room, which I've had torn out of the manor and replaced with a thriving outdoor garden…"

Draco reflected a moment on his mother's near-manic desire to remodel the entire manor following the end of the war. It had served both as a way for her to banish the bad memories from their home, as well as a pastime for her while on house arrest. The renovations had been substantial, both in their physical manifestations and in their cost. There were some parts of his home that Draco hardly recognized anymore - and truly, he had so many nightmares involved with certain rooms he was glad of the change, himself.

"...Not to mention, we've had an entire wing done up just last year in the event of Draco's marriage, so it could be ready for immediate use. It's quite separate from any part of the manor which Hermione entered on that night. I think she will be quite pleased with it."

Draco privately suspected differently. He glanced toward his new wife, who was still standing a few paces away with Ginny; the girls' hands were clasped together and the redheaded girl was rubbing Hermione's hands soothingly with her thumbs as both listened. A bit of movement from the pavilion snagged his attention for a moment, but it only turned out to be Longbottom and his new wife winding their own way up the hill toward the henge, the last to go.

He turned back to Arthur and Molly and added, "More to the point, I am perfectly aware of the less-than-savory past between my House and Hermione's. For whatever my word may be worth to you, I swear to care for her. If she enters the manor and finds herself unable to stay there, alternative lodgings can be arranged. The carriage house, for example, could be renovated quite comfortably into a smaller home…"

"The carriage house, Draco?" his mother hissed.

"The carriage house, indeed," he confirmed solemnly. "You know as well as I do, mother, that it is a perfectly acceptable building, if not so grand as the main house."

This, at least, seemed to have swayed Mrs. Weasley, who tentatively admitted, "That does seem like the start of a good compromise…"

Glancing toward the two witches off to the side, Draco noticed Hermione was frowning, her eyes trained to the ground. It almost looked as if she were having a difficult time reconciling Draco's words with the boy she had grown up loathing. He hoped, Perhaps it's a start…

"Well, that's settled then," Arthur concluded, "unless you have anything to add, Hermione?"

"Why can't I stay with you?" she asked, eyes now raising to bore into Mrs. Weasley's.

Narcissa looked mortified.

"Oh, love, you're not a Prewett anymore, you're a Malfoy," the woman answered. Her eyes were sparkling with affection; Draco wondered what it was like to be looked at like that. "Malfoys belong at their ancestral homes. It is the way of things."

Looking put out, Hermione murmured, "My identity has changed so many times in the past couple of months alone… I feel quite dizzy with it all."

"You do look tired, dear," Narcissa commented. "I suppose my son wore you out."

"Mother!" Draco cried, eyes darting to the ground.

Rounding on him, she soothed, "It's nothing to be ashamed of, Draco. Your father was that way, too… in fact, I'm nearly sure our consummation might have taken some kind of record for being so lengthy. Though the two of you were up there nearly two hours yourselves, which is no small thing…"

I'm not hearing this. This isn't real. My own mother is definitely not actually speaking about her marital relations with father in front of an audience…

But he knew it was real. To quiet her, he affected nonchalance, and drawled, "I've had a thought, mother. Why don't you stay and enjoy the festivities while I take Hermione back to the manor? She'll want to get settled in, I'm sure."

Unaffected by the not-so-subtle hint, she responded, "Nonsense, darling, we'll all go."

Draco shot an apologetic look at the Weasleys and was bewildered to find that Molly appeared amused with him, while Arthur was silently searching. His eyes then slid toward his new wife, whose hands were still clasped with Ginny's. Approaching the two women, he posited, "Are you ready to leave, Hermione?"

She glanced nervously toward Ginny. "I… don't know."

He could nearly sense her thoughts, her trepidation. Quietly, he requested, "Ginevra, a minute?"

She made a face, "That's 'Weasley' to you, Malfoy."

Despite the retort, he was pleased when she did actually give them some space. Hermione looked up at him. She was such a fascinating juxtaposition: her chin was defiantly jutted outward, but her pupils were dilated with fear. He longed to run a hand through those wild, curly locks the way he had less than an hour ago as he had rutted into her, but she had clearly withdrawn from such advances, so he respectfully kept his distance.

Instead, he reached for her hand. When she did not pull away, he took that as a good sign. "I have a good idea of what you're feeling, I think. I suspect you aren't keen to return to my home, but I promise you that no harm will come to you while you are there."

"I'm not afraid of you, you know," she told him frankly.

"Really?" he murmured so only she could hear. "Because being married to you terrifies me. I only hope I can get it right. Are you ready to go?"

Seeming surprised by him, she removed her hand from his but answered, "Yes. Let's go."

.

.

Even as far as multi-generational estates went, Malfoy Manor was enormous. Draco was conscious of that fact, even after having passed his childhood there. Visitors would enter through a gated front driveway wide enough for three horse-drawn carriages to be pulled side-by-side, leading up to a sweeping stone staircase that dated back centuries and brought a traveler to doors nearly the size of those in the Entrance Hall at Hogwarts.

From there, the doors opened into a magnificent grand foyer with floors of exquisite marble, perfectly cut and arranged in a diamond-pattern. Twin staircases on either side of the foyer led to a parapet-esque balcony up on the second floor so that a host could preside over their visitors. One would be invited to leave their outer wrappings in the cloakroom, discreetly hidden behind a pocket door just off the foyer entrance, before being persuaded into one of a number of places. There was a drawing room, two parlors, a billiard room, the gallery, the ballroom, the dining room, and a conservatory. For business meetings of especial import, a guest might even be invited into the library.

The rest of the manor's main wing included a great many rooms for the family only. These included a master suite with two dressing rooms, two receiving rooms, baths, enormous closets, and powder rooms. There were five guest suites (each with their own bathrooms and receiving rooms as well), plus a drawing room, and roughly forty other rooms for hobbies and the running of a household.

But while this was commonplace for Draco, he could see Hermione's head swiveling this way and that as his mother gave her an accelerated tour of the place. The little witch had spoken barely two syllables since setting foot into the manor, but on some level Draco had to admire her bravery - expected though it was - at being there at all, considering the plaintive nature of her earlier protestations against that very thing.

Despite the late hour and the trying day, Narcissa was clearly determined to prove to her new daughter-in-law exactly what a catch her son was, by flaunting the family's assets. After they had viewed many of the pertinent chambers (Draco noticed Narcissa had barely offered mention of places like the kitchen, larder, pantry, butler's pantry, scullery, and wine cellar), they moved on to some of the rarely-used spaces like the outdoor rotunda with its copious space for summertime entertaining out-of-doors.

Finally, Draco was forced to hint, "Mother, I believe Hermione is tired. Perhaps we can forgo a tour of the rest of the manor in favor of a more limited perusal of her new living quarters?"

"Certainly, darling. Thank you for catching me as I prattle away…"

Narcissa Malfoy never prattled. Draco found it disconcerting.

"...Come just this way, Hermione, dear. You'll see we've prepared an entire wing for yours and Draco's use."

Still, Draco noticed they were led along the slightly longer route there, so Hermione could catch a glimpse of the ballroom, and pass through the back of their wing, past the as-of-yet empty children's rooms, which included nurseries, playrooms, school rooms, a nanny's chamber, and reading rooms.

Children, Draco thought suddenly. Mother is going to want grandchildren right away…

It was one of Narcissa's biggest character flaws: how she doted on children. He glanced sidelong at his new wife, wondering if her brilliant mind had already suspected such a thing, but she seemed drawn and tired more than discerning at the moment.

Still… though he would have scoffed had anyone told him it would be true as recently as twenty-four hours ago, Draco suspected that getting Hermione formerly-Granger pregnant was not going to be difficult in the slightest. An unbidden thought of the curly-haired witch with her abdomen swollen with child sprung into his mind, and it stirred up a flame of desire within him.

What was happening to him? He never used to be able to be turned on like the flip of a switch… nor did he have a proclivity for pregnant witches…

Magic, he reminded himself. Hopefully he would be more like himself after a good night's sleep.

"...And these are your own dining rooms, for when the two of you have guests you would like to entertain privately," Narcissa was showing off. Hermione was barely paying attention, hardly even feigning interest. Draco could sense that his mother thought that meant she was unimpressed. She remarked, "Modest, I know… it doesn't have a ballroom…"

Hermione snorted like she thought Narcissa might have been making a joke. Draco watched her face as the witch slowly came to realize her new mother-in-law had been completely serious.

"I mean," the young woman tried to amend, "it's just… this is less like the wing of a house and more like an entire mansion all its own."

Narcissa either did not notice the wryness of her voice, or did not acknowledge it. "Oh, but it is connected to the main part of the manor, where all the real receiving of guests occurs…"

"Mother," Draco interrupted pointedly, "the library is on the way to our rooms, if you are trying to think of something which Hermione will be impressed by."

The truth of that statement was obvious, and he was rewarded when she visibly perked up. Hermione's expression quickly gave way to distrust when she glanced at him however, possibly expecting one of the insults the Draco of Hogwarts-age might have speared her way.

"It's this way," he intimated, taking her by the arm and leading her there.

Moments later, Hermione was exploring their own sizeable library. It was not the main library, which had been off the main foyer and would be a surprise for another day - this was in their own personal wing, and for their own uses. A constantly growing and changing organism, the Malfoy family library was a massive collection that rivaled the famed one of Hogwarts itself.

The room itself was also dramatic: the walls were gilded in copper trim and often twisted into various shapes of magical creatures. A pair of filigreed gryphons dueled along the ceiling, while runespoors twisted up some of the walls. Wrapping itself along the tops of some of the far shelves was the outline of a nundu, crouching low as if ready to pounce.

Above it all rose a glass dome. Surrounded by rural lands with little to no light pollution, the stars above the manor twinkled particularly bright. As striking as it was to see so many stars through the glass above them, the room became truly awe-inspiring during the daytime when the sun lit up the kaleidoscope cupola perched atop the dome. It had been a part of the reason Draco had chosen this wing of the three that were available. Just beyond a few tall bookshelves, a narrow belvedere opened outward, leading toward an old gallery of paintings (these were mostly old portraits), but its main purpose was to offer a spectacular view of the gardens. Even in the night, the white peacocks that had been his father's addition to the manor, could be seen strutting about in the moonlight.

Hermione barely noticed any of this, because the moment they turned her loose into the room, she began exploring the library's fundamental purpose. Draco would not have been surprised if she were making a mental catalogue of each book in the room.

Taking him aside, Narcissa commended, "She's a brilliant match for you, Draco."

He hesitated, "I'm not so sure..."

"Whyever not?"

"We are…" his eyes flickered toward the direction Hermione had disappeared, "complete opposites, mother."

She smoothed her fingers down his cheek lovingly, briefly - something she had done often when he was a child - before seeming to remember he was a grown man now and not a little boy, and swiftly removing her hand. "You may be your own man, Draco - but you are so like your father in so many ways. You Malfoy men like a woman who will challenge you. I knew this about your father going into our marriage, and I made sure to do so at many turns. But Hermione Granger will not have to work hard to challenge you, and you will be a better man for it."

Draco's brows furrowed. Was that true? Did he want someone who would challenge him?

On a more concerning note, Hermione was the type of witch who was inherently good, whereas he was not, well... anything. He was not evil, that much he knew - truly, he would not even consider himself to be a bad person. He was just so…

So…

What?

Lonely. He knew it was true; he was a lonely person.

"Promise me you will try with her," Narcissa worried, searching his face. "If she's anything like the girl she used to be, she is very strong-willed. It will not be easy, for either of you. Not at first. You have to try."

He thought back to the words Hermione had spoken in the henge: You've had all your life to prepare for this sort of thing. I've had only a month or so.

He agreed, "She's been through a lot in a short amount of time."

"Yes. I did a lot of digging about her past tonight. Her parents are both Squibs, an Ollivander and a Prewett - both respectable families. She is the last of each line. If you desire a fulfilling marriage, both for yourself and for her, you are going to have to meet her halfway."

Glancing toward the witch in question, who was now snooping through the texts on giant wars which some Malfoy ancestor or another had collected eons ago, Draco's brows furrowed. There was so much history between them - would she even be willing to try? Would he attempt something with her, only to have her spurn him and thus rendering him a fool? Sex was one thing - and by the grace of Morgana, it had been spectacular - but emotions were another thing entirely.

Draco Malfoy did not like to feel a fool. He had also never been in this situation before.

It took Hermione another twenty minutes before she seemed to realize how long she had been keeping her companions waiting. By then, Narcissa had excused herself for bed, having separately bid Draco a fair evening.

"This is a lovely library," Hermione slowly admitted. It was less an olive branch and more like a twig, but Draco jumped on it.

"This is only one of the smaller libraries, meant for our personal use," he explained. "If you like, I can show you the main one tomorrow, which is much larger. Any books can be transferred from it to ours if you wish them to be more accessible."

Slowly - very slowly - she smiled. Draco could feel an odd fluttering sensation in his gut, which he attributed to nerves. He would have loved a stiff drink.

Next appearing politely confused to see that he was alone, she queried, "Did your mother leave?"

"Yes, she did not wish to disturb you by taking her leave. She has retired to her chambers for the evening."

For a split-second, Draco would have sworn Hermione looked terrified to be alone with him, but the moment passed so quickly, he chalked it up to his imagination. Of course she wasn't frightened of him! She was Hermione Granger. Probably the only thing that frightened her was a hairbrush… and one thing was for certain, she definitely was not afraid of him.

You don't know that, his subconscious dissented quietly.

"Would you like to turn in for the night?" he asked.

"I think so," she answered hesitantly. Then, more decisively, "Yes."

Judging from her wan complexion and the wariness of her gaze, Draco took that to mean they would not be having any more sex that evening, which was a shame. He could have spent all night filling up that sweet cunt until she positively dripped with his essence. Or possibly he might bury his head between her thighs, slowly bringing her to nirvana. Would she have made those intoxicating little mewling noises like she had done only a handful of hours ago?

Preoccupied with inward reflection, he did not immediately realize he had been leading her down the corridor again in silence. Just like their descent down the hill from the stone circle, she was not looking at him.

Say something, his subconscious hissed. You promised you would try, remember?

"I hope you'll be comfortable here," he said. He could have kicked himself - what blundering thing to say!

She huffed out a single laugh that did not sound at all like amusement and just like that, Draco knew he was losing her.

"Listen, I know I'm not… what you expected to get as a result of tonight," he told her, hoping he wasn't chasing mermaids before he knew how to swim by trying to appeal to her better nature. "But as we're married now, I was hoping…"

What was he hoping? That they would get along? That they would spend the next several decades in wedded bliss? He knew better than to hope for that - their past was about as peaceful as centuries' worth of negotiations with goblins.

Still, those peonies had appeared in the center of the stone circle until just before she had. That had to mean that, at least on some level, she wanted things to work out with him. Right?

He wished the answer were more clear.

"What were you hoping for, Draco?" she asked quietly.

Startled, it was a moment before he realized that despite that he had been calling her 'Hermione' all evening, it was the first time she had called him 'Draco.' He felt jolted, his brain jumbled… and he really, really wanted that drink! "What I mean to say is, I know we don't exactly have a stellar history…"

"Understatement of the year," she murmured under her breath.

This was not going at all how he had hoped. There was nothing for it; he would have to apologize.

"Look, I'm sorry." He grimaced; he hated apologies. "I was a total arse to you back in school. I should never have called you… that. Especially as it turns out you aren't one."

Her eyes flashed and immediately, Draco knew it had been the wrong thing to say.

"Bugger," he muttered. "I'm shite at apologies, but please know that I'm sincere, despite maybe not seeming so."

She crossed her arms, but seemed to be biting back a response. He felt like a fool, and he hated it.

"Here we are," he announced stiffly, reaching for the doorknob on their suite and pushing the door open.

Inside was a spacious receiving room, which had been recently refurbished. The walls were a light gray, the high ceiling an inky blue that depicted numerous constellations above them like a fresco. Sumptuously furnished, the room was meant to impress. Hermione barely looked at it.

"The bedroom is just through there," Draco remarked.

Just try. You have to meet her halfway. Just try. It was like a mantra in his head.

With a little sigh, he reached for her hand, causing her to jump slightly. He reassured, "It's just me."

It seemed barely a moment later that she wrenched her hand out of his and barrelled into the bedroom, shutting the door behind her. He heard the lock slip into place and presently - even more worrisome - the sounds of her quietly sobbing.

Despite wanting to roar with frustration and kick something, he restrained himself. Still, Draco's footfalls were heavy as he crossed the room to the far wall, where a pair of handsome, French doors looked out onto a small balcony. He pushed them open and stepped outside to get some air.

There was something consistently calming about looking out into the sky. He recognized several constellations, mentally cataloguing them and their placements, then leaned forward, his forearms resting on the stone of the balcony's parapet. Stretching before him was a heavily forested wood, the treetops rustling in the slight breeze. The night was hot, his clothes were sticking to his skin in places, and it might have warranted the use of a cooling charm, if not for the gentle air currents that lifted his hair, slightly ruffling it.

He thought of returning to his childhood bedroom, but quickly dismissed the idea. No, he had promised to try, and what good was that if he gave up the moment she pushed back? Of course she was upset - she had been tortured here.

Another thought occurred to him as he recalled the way she had clung to Ginny Weasley before they left: did she have a boyfriend? It was clear that Weasley had been dating Potter. What if Hermione had been seeing someone before tonight?

No, she had answered when he asked if she were a virgin. Clearly someone had been there before him, then.

But who?

He felt a surge of jealousy, and also a firm desire to claim his territory. She was his now - he would not be entertaining any kind of marriage such as the one Pansy and Rowan had…

Unsure how long it had been since he walked out onto the balcony, Draco now was determined to head inside and confront her. All was silent on the other side of the bedroom door, so he squared his shoulders, steeled himself, and opened the door with magic. He intended to give her a piece of his mind - politely, of course - and to remind her of her duties to the Old Magic, and now to him.

Instead, he found Hermione in the center of the bed, asleep.

He supposed it had been a trying night for him, too.

She looked exhausted, even in slumber, and he wondered how long it had been since she had got some proper rest. If he were to guess, it looked as if she had been sleeping poorly for at least a month, which was how long she had indicated she had known she was a pureblood.

He exhaled deeply. Perhaps he was being too hard on her.

Peeking under the covers, he observed that she had passed out while still clad in her ceremonial gown. Consciously opting to do the same - it seemed symbolic somehow - he took a chance and crawled into bed with her. When she immediately nestled into his lean body, he was reassured that it had been at least an okay decision.

Figuring this was as good a start as any, he slowly drifted off, holding her.

Chapter Text

Hermione slowly slid in and out of consciousness, her blissfully deep sleep coming to an end in starts and stops.

Sometime in the night, she had ensconced herself in sheets that were light and cozy and felt like cottony bliss. The pillow under her head contained just the right amount of firmness, while still soft, almost as if it had been charmed to remain in a stasis of perfection. To complete her nirvana, there was a warm body beside her in bed which she had snuggled into as she slowly came awake. She fit perfectly against it; an arm wrapped around her, pulling her in closer.

Unwilling to accept that it might be morning, it was some minutes before she peeked through her bleary eyes - and it was not until she began to take in her surroundings that she grew confused. Suddenly panicked, she searched her memories for whatever chain of events had brought her to this unknown place; it was not long before she was able to compile a patchy anamnesis. Stiffening with suspicion as the last recollection filtered back into place, she rolled over in bed.

"Good morning," Draco murmured. His right arm was casually slung over her and he had clearly been awake for some time.

"Is it?" she answered before she could even think about it.

His eyebrows contracted somewhat at the defensive reply and for a moment, Hermione wondered if she had been too harsh. But he only confirmed, "Indeed, it is."

Clearly recognizing her discomfort, he pulled his arm back and sat up in bed. Swinging his legs over the edge, he tumbled away from her and yanked his shirt off over his head; she noticed he had still been wearing his ceremonial linen shirt and trousers from the night before and she glanced down at her own chest. Sure enough, she too was still garbed in the white gown Mrs. Weasley had gifted her the previous evening. The front of it was wrinkled where she had slept on it. Suddenly, she felt quite dirty.

"I'm desperate for a shower," Draco drawled as if reading her mind. "You're welcome to join me."

I would really rather not, she thought, appalled at the very idea. Not wanting to be the rude one however, she refuted with a polite, "Thank you, but I think I'll take one on my own after you're done."

He shrugged, "Suit yourself."

A moment later, his trousers joined his shirt on the floor and Hermione's face had flushed crimson as he swaggered into the adjacent room, which she supposed must be the bathroom.

From the doorway, he turned. Noticing her gaze had been transfixed on his naked buttocks, he smirked and invited, "I'll leave the door unlocked in case you change your mind."

Alone again, Hermione took in a gulp of fresh air. Her face was hot as she thought of his unabashed nakedness. Had he no decency?

You had sex with him three times last night, Hermione, her inner self chided practically. Three times.

And damn his stupid, smug self, but it had been thrilling each time.

The first time had been awkward only up until she allowed the magic in the stone circle to take over her body. Once she had given in, it had been… well, magical. Fiery. Compelling.

The second time had been long, languorous, and fulfilling. Almost like making love, or as close as they could get to it without actually being in love. She had ridden him until he burst, and in getting him there she reached climax twice herself.

The third time, he had fucked her. There really was no other word for it. After finishing inside of her the second time, he had flipped her over so she was doubled-down on her knees before entering her again from behind. She had been borderline-sore at the start of it and despite that the change in position caused her to orgasm twice more, she was thoroughly knackered by the time he found completion again.

She had withdrawn quickly, not wishing to be fucked to death by the closeted sex-beast known as Draco Malfoy. Luckily, he did not argue - and even more luckily, he had finally gone flaccid. She did not think she could have handled another round.

Afterward, she cast a non-verbal contraceptive charm on herself, just in case… and then a second, to be absolutely sure. She had been taking potions for some time as a precaution, but the very thought of finding out she was pregnant by her schoolyard-tormentor turned her stomach. No, it was going to take quite a lot of getting used to before she could imagine creating a future with her new husband, married or not.

In fact, now that morning had arrived, Hermione felt utterly unequal to the task of being a Malfoy.

Alone now in the suite she shared with him, she took a perfunctory look around the room in which she had just passed the night. It was a handsome room, all paneled and furnished in cherrywood, and with a vaguely Victorian wallpaper in black and silver that managed not to be the main feature of the room despite how elaborate it was. The windows were tall with old glass that had waves in the panes, as if it had been made a few hundred years ago by a glassblower. She might have been at a bed-and-breakfast in the countryside, for how impersonal the place was.

In short, it looked nothing like the sort of place she would have expected her new husband to live.

Gathering her gown around her like a flimsy shield, she presently gathered up enough curiosity to traipse into the receiving room just outside the bedroom. She had not really got a good look at it the night before, in her haste to get away from Draco.

Look, I'm sorry. I should never have called you... that. Especially as it turns out you aren't one. His words from the previous night still incensed her. Did he truly believe them to be an adequate apology? Did they indicate he was still prejudiced? She supposed it would be too much to hope that he wasn't, but she knew there was a not-so-small part of her that wished his narrow worldview had changed after the war...

The receiving room was enormous, with enough space to entertain an entire Quidditch team. Though she knew it was silly, she had somehow expected this pace to reflect Slytherin green-and-silver; she was relieved to be wrong. Instead, the walls had been painted a light gray, while the high ceiling featured molded designs that spread upward from an ornate crown molding that ran the border of the ceiling. In the center of it all, the Malfoy family crest breached the surrounding ornamentation, where it was painted in gold leaf. As if Hermione could forget where she was...

Reaching over to touch the smooth wood of the fireplace mantle, expertly carved into all sorts of seemingly meaningless designs with varying degrees of complexity, her hand sprang back as if burned when she heard a tapping off to her right.

Head swiveling toward the sound, she discovered a familiar owl rapping on the glass of the French doors that led off to the balcony. Recognizing him instantly, she rushed toward the doors to open them, her footfalls muffled by the soft, braided carpet.

"Thylluan!" she exclaimed.

There was a long history of Ginny's owl delivering messages to Hermione in Australia, which was quite the journey for any animal. Often, he would have to stay with her for a few days to recover before setting off on the pilgrimage back home. Yet, the bird was mild-tempered and never seemed to mind spending a few days with her.

With a self-satisfied hoot, the handsome tawny owl circled over her head once before landing on the nearby side table and sticking out his leg for Hermione to remove the note he carried. It was barely two lines, just an entreaty for Hermione to meet Ginny at the Leaky Cauldron that afternoon for lunch. It was not even signed.

Flipping the parchment over, she summoned a quill and ink, which whizzed into her hand from a folding writing desk on the other side of the room. On the back side of the note, she hastily scribbled an affirmative reply and rolled it up, sealing it with her wand. Then, turning back to the owl, she told him mournfully, "I haven't got anything for you as a treat."

He hooted indignantly.

Reaching out to stroke his head, she cooed, "But you are a lovely, good boy. That's right… good boy, Thylluan…"

"If you send him to the aviaries, there will be something there for him."

Hermione's head shot up, this time to see Draco clad in only a towel which was wrapped around his waist. He was combing roughly through his hair with his fingers and watching her interact with the owl.

"Thanks," she replied, trying not to look at him in all his half-clothed glory. While not muscular, his body was superb. It really was not fair.

After attaching Ginny's recycled note to the owl's leg, she released Thylluan back outside, directing him to head toward the aviaries first. He was happy to comply and nipped fondly at her shoulder before taking flight again.

"Not even here twenty-hour hours and you're already getting fan mail," Draco tutted from behind her. "Either that or it's your friends checking in to make sure you're still alive… or seeing if they need to help you cover up a murder."

"Both of those last ones, actually," she confirmed, attempting a small smile. "It was from Ginny. I'll be meeting her for lunch."

"Ah."

An awkward silence stretched between them and Hermione shifted uncomfortably where she stood. What was she supposed to say to him? Should she wait for him to speak first? It was going to be a long, awkward lifetime of uncomfortable reticence at this rate. She picked at the tie that held her wrinkled linen gown up, but her fingers stilled when she recalled the moment, mere hours ago now, when Draco had pulled it and the whole thing had pooled at her feet...

Breaking her from her reverie, he informed her, "My mother will be expecting us for breakfast soon. I would recommend you use economy with the timing of your shower."

"Why are we breakfasting with her?" she blurted out.

Draco eyed her enigmatically, "It is something my family does in the mornings. What did yours do?"

"I suppose… the same." Immediately feeling foolish, she stumbled, "Right. I'll go... shower, then…"

Leaving her arcane, too-handsome husband behind, she padded back into their bedroom and gratefully stepped into the privacy of the adjoining bathroom.

After the luxuriousness of the other rooms that belonged to their suite, she was nearly afraid of what sort of ridiculous opulence she might find here. While not quite so absurd as her imagination had conjured, the room did not disappoint. It seemed nearly to have been crafted out of a singular piece of imported marble: something that should not have been possible without magic - and maybe it wasn't.

With an unexpected pang of nostalgia, she suddenly missed her childhood bedroom and its purple walls, her bed in the dormitory of Gryffindor Tower, and the apartment she leased in Australia though she had often bemoaned its small size - in that order. A deep, afflicted sadness kicked in, followed by a fervent wish that she could return to the little borrowed bedroom at the Burrow that had once been Percy's.

It was never going to be easy, she steeled herself, grimly beginning the task of scrubbing the mingling scents of oils, incense, wood smoke, and sex with Draco out of her pores.

.

.

Breakfast was awkward, at best.

There was too much silverware and Hermione had to try looking at which fork Draco used to eat his poached quail eggs without trying to seem too obvious about it. She also had to dress in something she might wear on a lunch date with someone she was trying to impress. All for breakfast. With her new family.

It did not escape her that Draco had included her in that word less than an hour ago, yet it was still surreal to her that both he and the functionally flawless woman at the end of the table were now counted amongst her family, too.

"Just think about it," Narcissa was gushing, "a society wedding! We could make it on the smaller side, only about a hundred guests. Smaller weddings are so chic these days, so exclusive. And dahlias… dahlias everywhere…"

Draco lazily interjected, "I think Hermione would prefer peonies, mother."

Mortified, Hermione could only stare at him for a moment before turning her attention to Narcissa with a kind of desperation. "We're already married. Surely we don't need to have a second wedding?"

"Oh, but my dear, don't you want something a bit more modern?" Narcissa protested, her eyes widening. "It will be a beautiful way to announce your union to those who have not the privilege of being included in the blood pact."

Reality came to a screeching halt, and a spasm of horror passed through Hermione. With a groan, her fork fell onto the table with a clatter and she buried her face in her hands.

"Hermione! What is it?" Narcissa exclaimed in worry.

"How am I supposed to tell my friends I'm married?" she bewailed. "This will completely blind-side them!"

"And your parents, I suppose?" Draco drawled.

Sitting up suddenly as this thought assaulted her, she slapped a hand to her forehead and agonized, "My parents! How am I going to tell them that I essentially eloped? Oh no, no, no… this is awful..."

"Don't fret, my dear," Narcissa soothed, though she looked troubled, "I'm sure your parents will understand…"

"But they aren't members of the blood pact!" she protested. How had it taken her this long to think of them? Perhaps she had become so used to not telling them things over the past decade or so, that it was no longer a conscious decision to keep them in the dark. The same sense of loss and sadness from earlier stole over her, lending a droop to her shoulders.

"Well," Narcissa mused, clearly discomfited, "we can wait for you to break the news to them first... before we announce anything, I suppose."

.

.

It was a mercy when Hermione could finally escape to meet with Ginny for lunch.

"Tell me everything," her friend demanded after bestowing her with a fierce hug. The duo found a secluded booth at the Leaky and Ginny cast a precautionary Muffliato over their table.

It did not take long for Hermione to share everything from the time they had parted the night before. Ginny had taken Hermione aside last night when she returned to the pavillion, first checking to make sure she hadn't been forced to do anything against her will, then commiserating with her over it having to be Draco Malfoy, out of all the eligible wizards. Beyond that, not much more had been said. Again, she found herself doing most of the talking, while Ginny listened.

As Hermione neared the end of her narrative, she continued with, "...And Draco's mother wants to have some big society wedding..."

"You're going to have to be firm with her," Ginny insisted as she fished the cherry from the bottom of her drink. "There are certain people you need to tell before she can throw her big party. Like your parents… and Harry and Ron."

"Harry and Ron are not going to take this well at all," she fretted.

"No, they are not," Ginny agreed solemnly. After a pause, she offered, "Do you want me to tell Ron for you?"

"You would do that?"

"He's my brother," she shrugged. "An idiot, it's true - but still my brother. And you're my friend, and also technically my cousin. Of course I would do that."

Hermione sighed deeply, relieved. She was beginning to feel thoroughly wrung-out; it was time for a change of subject. "How are you doing? You must be relieved you didn't get paired."

"Beyond what I am capable of expressing," Ginny admitted. "Harry and I fucked so hard last night, I think we might have broke his box spring. I had to tell him I had accidentally got into a bit of lust potion to explain myself."

Hermione winced, "Only on a need-to-know basis, Ginny, from now on, please."

"Right, sorry. It's hard when you lose perspective. I mean, you've barely seen Harry, right?"

"That's true. It's going to be supremely awkward to meet with him again and go, 'Hiya, Harry. By the way, I got married to Draco Malfoy. You remember that bloke you've always hated?'" she deduced miserably.

Placing her hand on her friend's for comfort, Ginny reminded her, "Write him a letter if you can't face him. No matter how he finds out, he'd rather hear it from you than from some tabloid…"

"Good Godric, if the tabloids get wind of this, they are going to have a field day."

"I wish I could tell you that you're wrong, but you're not."

"I can see it now: War Heroine Marries Former-Death Eater."

With a slight shiver, Ginny's eyes flickered up to her friend, watching her carefully. Then, tentatively, she queried, "There's one thing you've been conspicuously silent on, which I didn't feel quite right about bringing up last night, 'Mione, but considering you and Malfoy were up in the henge for nearly two hours… was the sex good, at least?"

"Draco has," Hermione began, fishing for the correct words, "an alarmingly short refractory period."

Ginny raised one rust-colored eyebrow speculatively. "So, it was good then?"

"Mind-blowing," she confirmed, seeming stunned at her own confession. "I believe I had five orgasms, which I did not even realize was possible."

After a long pause, Ginny remarked, "Well, I suppose he has to have some redeeming qualities. Go figure, the Slytherin knows how to use that serpent he's got between his legs."

.

.

Dinner, it appeared, was like breakfast in that they ate it with Draco's mother. Just as Ginny had advised, Hermione decided to preempt the woman by bringing the subject up herself and firmly putting her foot down about any wedding ceremony being arranged in the near future.

She expected some resistance, or perhaps some plaintive remarks, but surprisingly, Narcissa agreed to put any planning off, at least for a few months. "Lucius will be released from Azkaban in August. I am sure he would like to attend his only son's wedding."

Hermione blanched; she had not factored Draco's father into this equation. Would she really have to share a roof with the man? She called on the few memories she had stored up about Lucius Malfoy and suddenly, her future became a whole lot more sinister.

The silence was deafening. Every click of a fork against china seemed amplified. Though she had barely acknowledged, let alone touched her food, Hermione had to excuse herself. "I'm not feeling well. I think I'm going to go lie down for a bit."

Already rising halfway from his seat, Draco queried, "Would you like me to come with you?"

"No," she answered, a little too quickly. She thought she saw a spasm of indignance cross his brow, and swiftly amended, "Thank you, I think I just need some rest. I'd hate to disturb your meal for a trifle like this."

Though he looked somewhat appeased by her more polite tone of voice, she could sense a vague tinge of suspicion in Draco's voice when he concluded, "As you like. I'll check in on you in a little while."

Scuttling from the dining room as quickly as she could, Hermione very nearly breathed a sigh of relief the moment she was free of the stifling atmosphere. Though she was perfectly aware that both Draco and his mother had been surprisingly accommodating - concerned about her comfort, even - it was supremely difficult for her even to be in the manor at all. She kept wondering about certain rooms… if the death of anyone she knew had been planned them, perhaps even her own. If Voldemort himself had set foot into them, eaten at the supper table, sat in an armchair…

One thing was for certain, she did not wish to return to the bedroom she shared with Draco. She opted instead, for a walk. Perhaps she could clear her head as she did some exploring - preferably in the wing she needed to start regarding as her and Draco's - rather than in the heart of the manor. The air somehow felt different there; she wondered if it had been blocked off during the war, as something about the aura of the rooms felt cleaner.

Maybe I can check out more of the library, she thought, perking up at the idea.

Considering how vast the estate was, she was pleased when she only had to double-back once from having got lost. Finally, she came upon their wing, and from there it was nearly as if she were attracted to the library by a magnetic force pulling her to it.

Pushing the door open, she gasped at the sight that met her eyes. The ceiling, which rose into an eye-grabbing cupola in the center, featured an intricate set of colorful mirrors assembled in such a way and at such angles, that it created an enormous kaleidoscope. A array of colorful light spread across the floors, crept across the shelves, and stretched onto the walls and assembled furniture. It was breathtaking.

Hard to believe this is a part of Malfoy Manor, she thought ruefully.

Realizing that she had been arrested in the doorway, Hermione pushed inside, shutting the door behind her. Light drifted across the ceiling and walls as if she were underwater, only it waveringly took on the color of green, red, orange, blue, purple, turquoise… then green again, beginning the cycle over.

The theme of magical creatures was apparent from every angle, from the copper-filigreed outlines of gryphons, nundus, and runespoors on the walls, to the statued depictions of hissing selkies, soaring owls, and rearing thestrals.

As she turned the corner of a massive shelf containing old history tomes, Hermione discovered a corridor she had not noticed the previous evening. While one side of it was merely a wall decorated with tasteful but impersonal adornments every few feet, the other side featured more window than building, and looked out over the gardens. They stretched impressively into the growing darkness of night, the maze-like hedges and pruned trees mysterious in the foggy evening. The stark whiteness of what appeared to be albino peacocks paraded importantly about the grounds.

Curious where this way might lead - especially given that it was attached to the library - she followed the hallway to discover that it led to an archway which opened into a gallery. This was mostly shrouded in darkness. Poking her head through, her eyes widened as she realized the room was at least two stories tall, and every inch of the walls seemed to be covered in art.

Hermione jumped when a disembodied voice spoke from somewhere along the gallery, "Well, well… what have we here?"

 

Chapter Text

Hermione's head shot up to follow the direction the voice had come from. "Who said that?"

"Over here."

She squinted toward the end of the gallery, which was still unlit and dark.

"She hasn't figured it out yet," a different voice sneered.

"It's dark in here," another countered. "Who could?"

Gas lamps lining the walls roared into life. One toward the middle of the showroom stuttered twice before illuminating. Barely a moment later, Hermione realized that the room did not house art - but rather, portraits. Several of them were trying to speak at once.

A burly man with a red moustache eyed her through a monocled eyepiece and pondered, "Who is she?"

"She's the new wife, look at her!" a thin, frail-looking woman exclaimed.

"She looks familiar," spoke a man with with a very neatly combed haircut. It almost appeared as if he had shellacked his platinum blond locks.

"Look at all that hair!" interrupted a robust-looking woman who was rather more handsome than she was beautiful. "She must be a MacKirk."

"Don't be daft, Morag," another woman chided through her thick, Welsh accent, "the MacKirks blinked out of existence nearly fifty years ago…"

A man in bright purple robes corrected, "Actually it's been more like eighty..."

The woman named Morag looked right into Hermione's eyes and demanded, "Well, who are you, then?"

"She's the new wife," the frail woman repeated, irritably this time.

Glaring at this last portrait, Hermione protested, "I have a name..."

"Well, what is it?" snapped Morag.

Good question, she thought grimly. Her identity had changed so many times in the recent months, it was hard to say anymore. "Technically, it is Hermione Malfoy now. Though I assume you are trying to discern what my surname was prior to taking this one. That's a bit more complicated, to be sure."

Hermione Malfoy. Oh, but that was weird. It was the first time she had said it aloud. Everything was happening so fast...

A few of the portraits had begun bickering over this, to the point where they were no longer intelligible. Mentally glazing over all the shouting, Hermione took another moment to peer about the room. Upon closer inspection, not all of the frames in the gallery contained portraits; in fact, the entire eastern wall exclusively showcased family crests, of which there were forty in all.

Thinking back to a few weeks ago, when Mrs. Weasley had been teaching her about the blood pact, she recalled that there had originally been forty families involved in it, despite that many of them had either gone extinct, or married into families that were deemed incompatible.

"Quite the collection, isn't it?"

Her head turned to her left and Hermione's eyes locked onto those of the man in the closest painting, which was level with her. He had a sensible-looking face, and she quietly agreed, "It is."

Seeming encouraged by her interaction with him, the painting explained, "Vespasian Malfoy spent much of his lifetime acquiring us all - regardless of which of the forty Houses we hailed from - some 200 years ago. His widow created this gallery."

Hermione's eyes scanned the collection with interest. She identified all twenty-eight of the House names that belonged to the current blood pact, but also recognized some of the others: Potter, for one - along with Lovegood, Crabbe, Flitwick, and Urquhart... plus MacKirk, as mentioned by the portrait named Morag.

The portraits seemed to have all come to the realization that Hermione was no longer paying them much attention, and had resumed a state of partial-quiet.

Recognizing that she had an audience once more, she gestured to the House crests and observed, "There are so many that aren't a part of the pact anymore."

"Which is why it is of the utmost importance to keep the old ways alive," an ancient man murmured, so old he nearly looked mummified. "How else are we who are charged with protecting them, to do so?"

Before Hermione could even answer, a mousy-looking witch who rather resembled Hannah Abbott interrupted, "You will need to provide an heir for the family, forthwith."

"Well you're certainly not shy, are you?" she fumed in the portrait's direction.

Hannah's doppelgänger waved this away as if it were nothing, "Once a witch has been bound to her husband by the ancient magic, her first duty is to give him an heir. Only afterward can you concern yourself with more selfish pursuits."

"Ha!" Hermione snorted incredulously.

The painting only looked down its nose at her.

"I am not getting pregnant any time soon," she insisted, stomping her foot slightly for emphasis. "There are so many more things I want to do with my life before having children, if I have them at all." With an air of superiority, she proclaimed, "I'm taking a contraceptive potion."

To her surprise, the woman in the painting began to laugh, and was shortly joined by the snickering of several others.

"What?" Hermione demanded.

A portrait of a witch in a bright green, glittering hat that seemed to be decorated with fairies glared disdainfully at her from the other side of the hall. With the air of someone forced to explain complex arithmancy to a person of limited intelligence, she accounted, "Children are among the greatest blessings that can be bestowed on any House. The ancient magic knows this, and negates any potions you may be on for the prevention of offspring."

Aghast, Hermione gaped, "You mean, I could be pregnant right now?"

Curtly, the witch nodded once. Another painting continued to snicker.

"But - those are my rights as a woman! Gone!"

The green-hatted witch did not look as though she thought very highly of Hermione. "Each member of the pact has opted to make a commitment to the Old Magic… a lifelong commitment. From the moment you answered its call and accepted your rune-stone, your life ceased to be your own. When the magic decides it to be so, you will marry, bear children, and die."

As the other portraits had gone silent to watch Hermione's reaction, a slight echo made the room reverberate a few times with the woman's final word: die, die, die.

An ominous feeling crept its way up from Hermione's stomach into her esophagus. Her hands had subconsciously travelled to her abdomen, as if she might be able to detect signs of life beginning to stir there… a futile venture, to be sure, considering it had been only the previous evening they had first engaged in sex.

When she had opted to cast in with the ancient magic, she thought she had understood the depth of its permanence in her life - but clearly, she had not. How could she have anticipated that knowledge gleaned from Mr. and Mrs. Weasley over the course of a handful of weeks would be enough, even when supplemented with Percy's rune book? Of course it hadn't been enough! For the first time, she felt frightened, like she was simply treading water, unable to see the shore...

Breaking the augural aura the gallery had suddenly taken on, a painting of a witch with rather severe eyebrows explained, "If your husband is a Malfoy, he'll want to secure an heir right away. Malfoy men are usually only allotted one or two children - such is their way."

"Allotted?" Hermione repeated, thinking it was an odd choice in words.

"Yes," agreed the man with the monocle and the red mustache. "It is a part of the individual magic of the family."

"How do you mean?"

"At the time of the initial casting," he continued, "the Old Magic granted each House certain boons, gifts to help them obtain what they valued most. The Malfoys have always favored self-preservation, along with the centralization of wealth and power... therefore, their House's blessing was that their heirs would have only one, or occasionally two, children. Fewer siblings meant the family fortune would not need to be split up, while the guarantee of at least one meant that their line would not die out."

"Indeed," said the frail, old woman, "each House holds different values. Things that are important to that line in particular…"

Another portrait interrupted, his chest puffed out, "We Blacks favored prowess in the Dark arts."

"The Lovegoods requested that members of our House never be overlooked… and that we remain able to use logic to the best of our ability, to see every side of a situation," a man wearing a belled hat put in, smiling ironically.

This reminded Hermione of something Mrs. Weasley said during her stay at the Burrow. Curious despite herself, she prompted, "What about the Weasleys?"

"They tend to have sons," answered the monocled portrait stiffly. Seeming conscious of his red mustache, he finally introduced himself, "Ciaran Weasley, at your service, madam."

"But each family gets a few things, right?" Hermione pressed. "It's not just one boon… in exchange for protecting the Old Magic?"

"You've still not mentioned what House you hail from," Ciaran Weasley pointed out.

"The House of Prewett," she answered faintly. Barely a second later, another thought occurred to her, "Theoretically, were Draco and I to have two children, could the second child be a Prewett heir?"

"It is possible, yes."

Thinking of the family she had only formally belonged to for less than two months, but which she still regarded with a measure of fondness, she queried, "What happens to the magic of a family when they start to die out?"

"It becomes less," answered the Lovegood wizard with the belled hat. He had become quite serious, despite his assemblage. "The same occurs if a House were to begin interbreeding within itself."

The portrait of Morag MacKirk snorted, "Like those Gaunts."

"I beg your pardon," came an affronted voice. Hermione's attention turned to a painting of an oily-looking man with a large bald patch and a few salt-and-pepper hairs still clinging to the sides of his head. "My lineage was descended from the noble Salazar Slytherin, himself…"

Something about the unnatural gleam in the wizard's eye made Hermione uncomfortable. He seemed to recognize this, for his mouth slid into a wide smile that revealed several gold teeth.

"Allow me to introduce myself, Mrs. Malfoy. My name is Bernhard Gaunt," he said. "My ancestors bartered with the Old Magic, to be the line to carry on Salazar Slytherin's blood..."

"And it was your undoing," Morag MacKirk interrupted smugly. To Hermione, she explained, "The magic twisted their boon so that it became their curse. Eventually, during the casting ceremonies, their only matches were close relatives. When no other Gaunt remained in their final generation but a brother and sister, many of us expected the magic to match the two of them. It seemed they believed it as well, as each cast in every year, but held themselves separate from the rest of the families. Who among us would have expected something worse, in the form of Voldemort?"

The moment the name left Morag's lips, it reverberated into the gallery and everything became hushed and still again. It was nearly as if a ghost had entered the room. Bernhard Gaunt had fixed her with a scowl so severe, it could have turned a flagon of pumpkin juice.

Hermione shuddered. Eager to put the very notion of Voldemort behind her as swiftly as possible, she pressed for more information, "Right, so… the Malfoys desired to be able to keep all their wealth localized on a few individuals? I can't say that surprises me…"

"But there's more than just that," insisted the wizard with the greased-back platinum hair. "My ancestors also stipulated that when the time came for their heir-apparent to cast in with the Old Magic, he would only be paired to someone compatible with their own magic. In short, nothing less than a perfect match."

After a moment's pause, Hermione burst into laughter.

Looking offended, the man's eyes had darkened with distaste as he protested, "I fail to see what is amusing here…"

Wiping at the corners of her eyes, she corrected, "Draco Malfoy and I are probably the farthest thing from a perfect match as could be."

"Don't be so sure of yourself, darling," chirped a pleasant-looking, white-haired man. This wizard's portrait was a fair bit larger than many of the others, and appeared to have been hung on purpose in a place of prominence. "The Old Magic knows what it's about."

Squinting at the portrait, Hermione thought the wizard looked familiar somehow. It was only a moment later that she realized she had seen his likeness in her History of Magic textbook. "You're Geraint Ollivander!"

"Indeed, I am" he confirmed, looking highly pleased. "Have we met?"

Considering the wizard in the portrait had lived during the early Middle Ages - and indeed, had been the original founder of the wand shop still currently in Diagon Alley - Hermione had to wonder if he was only asking to have his ego puffed up a bit more than it already was. Considering the differences in the eras they lived in, she had certainly never met the man, or even a portrait of him, but Professor Binns had spent a handful of hours in fourth year teaching them all about his legacy. The Ollivanders originally hailing from Greece, it had been Geraint that had made the move to London in order to open the shop as an extension of his family's already well-established wand-making business. Thus, all of England benefited from their extensive knowledge of wandlore, handed down only to direct family members since 382 B.C.

"We have never met, but my mother was an Ollivander."

"Ah, so you are the daughter of Squibs!" he cried, eyeing her with renewed interest.

Some of the other portraits were beginning to look at her inquisitively now, too; indeed, those on the far end were craning their necks, and one particularly eager-looking gentleman had walked into the frame of his neighbor to get a better look at her.

Surprised, she questioned, "How do you know about me?"

"I have many portraits across England, my dear lady, including one at the wand shop I founded in Diagon Alley," Geraint explained. "My descendant, Garrick, recently moved back into his home above it." Growing serious, his welcoming look sliding from his face, he went on, "You may or may not know this, but he is the last of the Ollivander line... and a half-blood. Still, he is of my lineage, and the Ollivanders have been keepers of the secrets of wandlore, long before they were ever the protectors of the Old Magic here in England."

"I see," was all Hermione could bring herself to say. She knew this already, of course. Mrs. Weasley had filled her in on it before she had chosen her rune-stone, but she did not like to think about how the carved Ollivander crest had disappeared from its place on the monolith, mere moments after she had chosen to cast her lot with the Prewetts...

"Garrick is aware that he has a relative," Geraint pressed, "and he is willing to teach you wandlore, despite that you do not share a surname. He is an old man with no heir, after all. The Ollivander tradition will die if you do not help."

Falteringly, Hermione admitted, "That is... a large commitment. I need to think about that."

"Do," he admonished her.

Her mounting pile of obligations threatened to overwhelm her, and she had to swallow the sudden urge to… well, she was not sure if she wanted to scream, or cry, or laugh hysterically. In the span of a half-hour, the weighty idea of having to carry the next Malfoy heir went from an eventuality, to a thing that could happen at any time. From there, it had only been a hop, skip, and a jump to her suddenly considering to have two children with Draco, in order to produce a Pewett heir, as well. Between being a broodmare for both families, did she also want to commit to the intense study of wandlore?

Upon her momentary introspection, the portraits all began chattering and passing through one another's frames once more. Hermione was strongly reminded of a large group of children, all clamoring for attention.

Her gaze swept over the room. Besides the portraits, which climbed up the walls in a near-haphazard manner, owing to the varying sizes of the frames, there were large, glass display cases that took up much of the center of the room. A plethora of objects were exquisitely showcased, and excepting only some of them had been lovingly labeled, as if they were on display at a museum, while others were given no explanation.

One large case against the far wall sprawled upward so that it reached the ceiling, and featured an intricately illustrated family tree of pureblood lineages. Fascinated, Hermione had to move closer to read the tiny names. Her eyes raked upward toward the ceiling, following the names back for centuries. Some names, she noticed, appeared multiple times due to marriages between closely-related individuals; one woman, who appeared to have remarried several times and not far out of her own family tree, appeared a total of thirteen times and had over twenty children. When Hermione reached the top, she saw that the enormous tapestry had been tightly rolled, likely obscuring several more centuries' worth of names and dates.

Two tall vitrines stood like sentinels on either side of the doorway Hermione had entered from on the opposite wall, their bases made of what looked like solid brass. One of these contained a collection of sealed crystal vials that appeared to contain blood (Hermione moved quickly away from these), while the other exhibited a collection of daggers and smallswords. The top shelf of this case flaunted a lacquered wooden box, its lid opened to reveal two triangular-like blades, which she vaguely recognized from a book she had once read about knights and their magical rites, and thought might be misericordes.

This is no museum, she decided, stepping backward, it's a trophy room.

"Knowledge is power," murmured a voice to her left, just barely audible over the arguing of the rest of the gallery.

She turned, and saw that an eye-level portrait of a man with dark hair and beady eyes had been watching her. Something about him looked vaguely familiar, but she could not put her finger on it. Quietly, she agreed, "Yes, it is."

"A true Ollivander… Ravenclaw, were you?"

Shaking her head, she felt a swell of pride as she corrected, "Gryffindor."

"That will be your Prewett side, then," he responded as if sizing her up. "But, how rude of me… my name is Aramus Lestrange."

Hearing the surname still made Hermione's blood run cold - but this man more resembled the old man from the casting ceremony than anyone else, and Cornelius Lestrange had not been all bad.

The portrait went on to muse, "Strange that the Old Magic would send a Prewett into the snake pit, though I'm sure it had its reasons…"

Shrugging, she disagreed, "With so few options, it's got to be bored, honestly."

The man looked astonished at her unexpected gall. "The magic of the earth doesn't get bored!"

"Well, it's got to know this antiquated process isn't sustainable. As it stands right now, there will barely be enough pairs to match to one another next year. And the year after…" she trailed off. At some point, the rest of the portraits seemed to have quieted down once more. Hyper-aware that she once again had an audience, she questioned Aramus directly, "Could a new pact be made? I don't see how else purebloods can continue protecting the magic without running themselves extinct. If our Houses didn't have to worry about keeping our bloodlines pure, the pact would continue on for centuries more. There are some half-bloods and Muggleborns that are just as capable..."

An immediate uproar from the gallery cut her off. She could not hear any individual voices over the cacophony, and instead was only able to pick up snippets like "disgrace", "never", or "dying out."

"As keepers of the old ways," Aramus Lestrange's voice rang out over the others, effectively quieting the room, "the Lestranges are privy to the secrets of how the ancient magic thinks... we have communicated with it, learned its wishes and carried them out. But my line is near its end… with only one remaining survivor of the Lestrange line, Cornelius is far too old to be siring new heirs. We will soon be extinct."

"Wait," Hermione paused, her mind whirring. Her spine had straightened as she quickly made a few deductions. "Are you suggesting the Old Magic can be contacted? Does the current heir of Lestrange know how to do that?"

Aramus sighed, glancing at the sprawling family tree on the far wall. "Of course he does. And he would have passed that knowledge on, but for the wipeout of all his descendents during the last wizarding war..." The portrait's beady eyes fixed on Hermione, "In all likelihood, there is no choice but to do as you suggest."

"Unspeakable," spat Bernhard Gaunt. "If this is what the blood pact is to come to, I'm glad my line died out before they could see such days come to pass!"

This radical viewpoint set off another yelling match amongst the portraits, and Hermione began to feel the beginnings of a headache coming on from all the noise. She turned to look back at Aramus Lestrange for guidance, but he, too, had joined in the shouting.

I've got to get out of here, she finally decided. Quietly making her way out of the room, she was relieved when none of the portraits seemed to care enough to call her back.

The dead could argue theories all they wanted; Hermione was not concerned with their postulating, but rather with the living… and now, it seemed, she had to somehow arrange a meeting with Cornelius Lestrange.

.

.

It took a bit of time, but Hermione was able to find her way back to the suite by retracing her steps from the library. When she entered their receiving rooms, she found that Draco had been waiting for her.

"Where have you been?"

Her natural instinct when she heard his voice was still to expect sarcasm, sneering, or hateful words, but when she looked back at him, he appeared only worried. For a moment, she wondered why he had not sent a house-elf after her if that had been the case, but then softened when she decided that perhaps he had been trying to grant her a modicum of privacy.

She willed her shoulders to relax; if truth be told, his sincerity was sweet. On the other hand, she was not quite ready to share her discovery with him, yet. But, if any of the portraits were to travel throughout the Manor and gossip, he might find out anyway…

"I got lost," she decided on, opting to take the middle ground. "I ended up in a gallery off of our library and got caught up speaking to the portraits there."

"Ah," he merely said. He appeared to hesitate a moment before crossing the room to her. Pausing again once he was in front of her, his hand slowly raised to tuck some of her hair behind her ear. "Did you find anything interesting there?"

"There are quite a few old artifacts," she replied quickly. Then, wrinkling her nose, "And some vials, which appear to be filled with blood."

He chuckled, "I will have them removed if they displease you."

Startled by how quickly he was willing to accommodate her, it was another moment before she remembered that they were married and she was to live out her life here, too. "Thank you."

Draco's hand paused near her neck, where he had tucked away her curls. Somehow, they had begun to share a tenuous moment of companionship. Hermione could feel it, tangibly, and something in the back of her mind whispered for her to try... try... try…

"Will you kiss me?"

His eyebrows raised somewhat, but it was the only indication she had that he was at all surprised by the request. Hand reaching over to cup her chin, he slowly brought his mouth down and pressed his lips against hers. Tentatively, she reached out to touch his shoulders. He did not immediately deepen the kiss, allowing her to slowly become comfortable, until she was running her hands up and behind his neck to bring him closer. Tongue dipping into her mouth, he tasted like brandy, and the raspberry tart she had seen on the dessert cart by the dinner table.

It was only when they parted that she realized she had pushed herself up onto her tiptoes to allow herself better access to the kiss. Feeling embarrassed - and not entirely sure why, considering everything they had already done together - she broke the moment by asking, "So… what did you get up to while I was exploring?"

He frowned, "I was here. Thinking."

"I see." She paused. "What were you thinking about?"

Chuckling, he stepped to the side and made a gesture toward the rest of the room, "I had some tea brought up, since you said you weren't feeling well. Would you like some?"

"Oh - yes." She colored, remembering the lie she had exercised to get out of dinner with him and his mother. "Thank you."

Only once she had been supplied with some tea, and had taken her first sip, did Draco finally answer, "I was thinking a lot about our wedding, actually."

She had to stop herself from choking on her tea. "Really?"

"Well, more on how to celebrate our marriage," he amended. Hermione noticed that instead of tea, he was nursing a glass of brandy. "We will have to do something, even if it is only an announcement. Though, I think my mother will be disappointed if there is not at least a small reception."

Settling her teacup onto her lap, she stared down at the surface of her tea and tried to imagine a situation in which she was calmly welcoming Harry, Ron, and Ginny to Malfoy Manor. For the life of her, she could not do it without actually feeling somewhat ill. Slowly, she also concluded, "I suppose the press will also have to be there."

"Possibly. We could simply issue a photograph to the Prophet after the fact. Plenty of other families do so."

Nodding, she tried to will herself to relax once more. She took another sip of her tea, suspecting that once they started issuing invitations to the inevitable party (from the brief time she had known her, Hermione deduced that whatever Narcissa wanted, she generally got), the Daily Prophet would find a way in, some way or another.

"I was more concerned with trying to decide how to incorporate your parents into the equation. Given how high profile this marriage is going to be, once wizarding Britain at large catches wind of it, I suspect that it would be in poor taste to invite them."

In poor taste? She frowned, deeply. "What do you mean by that?"

"Well," he seemed to be choosing his words with care, "they are Squibs. It's generally considered gauche to invite Squib relatives to magical social gatherings."

Setting her teacup down with a rather louder clink than was necessarily polite, Hermione protested, "They're my parents."

"I know, which is why I don't begrudge you wanting to keep them in your life."

Standing abruptly from her chair, she was suddenly fuming mad and wishing she had never asked him to kiss her. "How dare you!"

He appeared only stunned by her outburst.

With a snort of frustration, she pulled at her hair and stormed to the other side of the room from him. "I should have known! I should have known you were still bigoted!"

"They're Squibs, Hermione," he insisted, his lip curling. "If I were my father, I'd have insisted you remove them from your life entirely. It's… unseemly to keep relatives around if magic has failed them…"

Feeling unhinged, she let out a manic-sounding laugh. "Oh, right. Because they aren't magic, we can't admit to being related to them, is that it? Those. Are. My. Parents. Do you have any idea what I sacrificed for them? What they sacrificed for me?"

"You're being unreasonable…" he told her calmly, knocking back his drink and standing like he might approach her.

"Don't you touch me," she spat.

He froze, and looked at her oddly. "I don't understand why you're so upset."

What killed her, was that she believed him. Feeling suddenly sad as well as angry, she swiftly made her way back toward the entrance to the room and grabbed the knob, intent on being anywhere but in his presence. She looked him straight in the eye, chin up. "I don't know why I expected you to."

 

Chapter Text

The next morning, Draco awoke alone. There was a misty quality to the morning, which made the panes look as if they had been crafted of frosted glass, and obscured the spectacular view beyond. Silence reigned in the bedroom, and he dressed quietly, as if to preserve it. A part of him half-expected to find Hermione out in the receiving rooms, asleep on one of the couches, but she was nowhere to be seen. The place felt like a museum after-hours.

A spike of latent anger threatened to pierce his brain with a headache. Trying to do his best to ignore the simultaneous sinking feeling in his chest, he made his way down to breakfast, still angry with her. Hermione did not appear there, either.

About halfway through their morning meal, Narcissa finally asked, "Is Hermione still unwell?"

With an irritated shrug, he only replied, "She does what she likes."

"Draco…" Frowning deeply, she chastised, "Remember what I said before: you are going to have to try with her. It's never going to be easy…"

"I did try, mother," he snapped. She looked shocked, as if she had been slapped - he never spoke to her so harshly, and his anger became immediately laced with a settling guilt and frustration. "She needs to meet me halfway this time."

"What happened?"

He let out a deep sigh, then stood from the table. "I'm not sure I'm very hungry this morning. Excuse me."

Trying not to look at his mother's eyes, Draco retreated to the familiarity of his old study, in the wing of the manor he had recently occupied. Despite that it was not yet ten, he headed straight for the decanter at the back and poured himself an entire tumblerful of whiskey. It was an expensive, single-barrel liquor, and not really meant to be drank that way - but just then, he did not care.

Am I unjustly prejudiced? The question bounced around the back of his brain like a spreading disease. Following the war, he had thoroughly analyzed himself, and the wizarding world at large. Eventually, he had decided that while his father's views on Muggles and Mudbloods had been extremist past the point of reason, there was still some truth to blood-superiority. Otherwise, why would the earth's magic have chosen certain families to keep their blood so tightly within their circles? If nature had decreed it, how could it be wrong?

That was a heavy, sobering thought, and to combat it, he took a rather large gulp of his whiskey. Fortified thus, he felt at least somewhat prepared to take another step back, to analyze the previous evening's conversation with Hermione.

She had called him bigoted. He supposed he was prejudiced, when it came down to it - at least from her perspective of the word. Most respectable families did not keep in touch with their Squibs. It was an arrangement to benefit both parties, for most Squibs were not as self-flagellating as Argus Filch, wanting to be around magic at all times, despite being cut off from it. On the rare occasion that a Squib remained in contact with their magical family, history was clear that those relationships were generally strained.

Yet, he had told Hermione that he did not begrudge her keeping her parents in her life - he just did not want them to be present at whatever marriage celebration Narcissa was sure to cook up for the two of them. A Christmas card once a year, and correspondence by owl… maybe even the very occasional visit. Hell, even the Old Magic did not accept Squibs! No, it was definitely she that had been in the wrong this time… he had been more than accommodating.

Contenting himself with this logic for awhile, Draco kept himself busy for a few hours, attempting not to worry himself over Hermione for the time being. She would come around eventually, he was sure.

Risking his mother's displeasure, he had lunch brought to him in his study, despite that meals were generally family affairs. A little while later, Narcissa herself, appeared to reproach him. She did not stay more than a few minutes. Just long enough to bemoan that she'd had to eat alone.

After her departure, Draco sifted through his cluttered thoughts, and begrudgingly grew concerned that Hermione had not eaten. Should he go after her? Surely not… after all, how long could she keep this up? She had not eaten dinner, breakfast, and now lunch. He checked with one of the house elves, but this only confirmed that she had not called any of them to bring her sustenance. His concern soon grew into active worry, which he attempted to drown with more of the expensive liquor. Merlin, he had not even been married for 48 hours, and he was already attempting to drink himself into a stupor...

"Master?"

Turning his attention to the small elf that had poked her head into the room (he had not even heard the door opening; perhaps he was more inebriated than he originally thought), he replied, "Yes? What is it?"

"Your friend, Mr. Avery, is here."

Finally, a welcome distraction. "Send him up."

A second later, the elf was gone; after a minute or so, Draco heard Cadfael's knock on the door and he answered for him to come in.

"Avery," he greeted. Gesturing to the decanter, "Whiskey?"

"Do you need to ask?"

Grinning, Draco inclined his head toward the decanter and extra tumblers, allowing the other man to serve himself. For a few moments, he only observed his friend over the rim of his own glass. Cadfael had the aura of a man who had been well-shagged and repeatedly. The mischievous spark that usually lit his hazel eyes was in full flame, and he had not attended much to his hair, having simply pulled it back into a ponytail again.

"Look, Malfoy," he broke the silence with a small sigh. Fixing Draco with a frank look, he said, "I'm not going to dance around the reason I came today. I'm here because of Astoria."

Draco's eyebrows raised.

"Both Nott and I knew you originally hoped to cast for my wife…"

Feeling his face growing warm, Draco held up his hand, "I'm going to stop you there, before this gets awkward."

Avery cocked a blond eyebrow.

"Whatever I may have said or intimated before the casting, is obliterated now," he assured his friend. The truth of the matter was, he meant it - he had barely spared a thought for Astoria Avery née Greengrass since before the ceremony of the previous night; the quick realization of this pleased him, as it was only right. When Cadfael's response was merely to look skeptical, Draco continued, "I have not had thoughts about any woman except my new wife since the casting. I don't find that likely to change."

Well, it wasn't a lie. Hermione certainly was plaguing his mind… and there was no harm in allowing Avery to believe that Draco, too, was getting shagged into oblivion.

"I'm relieved," Cadfael admitted, looking it. "I've never had something so pure to worry about and protect, before Astoria. If you had continued to harbor stirrings for her, it may have brought on the end of our friendship."

Though his immediate reaction was indignance, when Draco took a moment to think his friend's statement over, he soon conceded, "Strangely enough, I understand that."

A visible wave of relief washed over the other wizard; his body relaxed, and the hand that was clasping the tumblerful of whiskey slackened somewhat. Sticking out his other hand toward Draco's, the two wizards grasped hands a moment in relief that their friendship remained intact.

A moment later, Cadfael inquired, "And how is the new Mrs. Malfoy?"

Draco rolled his eyes, but allowed a lazy smirk to slide across his mouth. "Resting."

Avery snickered.

The two wizards bantered for above an hour longer before Cadfael determined he should be returning home. He ran a hand through his hair, mussing his ponytail, and set about attempting to straighten it, before realizing, "I might need a sober-up potion before I Apparate."

Digging through his cupboards for some, Draco came up with two vials, deciding that he really could use one, himself. "Cheers."

"Disgusting," Avery announced after knocking back the potion. He set the empty potion bottle down on the desk and stood. "I'd best be going. Sorry for barging in on you like this, but I needed to get that off my chest."

"It's nothing. Give my best to Astoria."

After Cadfael left, Draco merely sat in the silence of his study, eyes staring at nothing. He did not like being sober, but he liked even less the inevitability that he would have to seek out Hermione, and he did not think he should be drunk for that. For a moment, he recalled what she had been like at Hogwarts: an overachieving bookworm who had always bought her uniforms too large, had far too much hair, too much eagerness, too much… everything.

He opted for a walk around the Manor's extensive grounds to help clear his head. In the back of his mind, he knew he was stalling, but he still had no idea what he planned to say to his new wife when he did find her. In times like these, when his mind was preoccupied with unpleasant inevitabilities, the Manor could be oppressive and melancholy. During the year the Dark Lord resided in his home, the grounds had become a place of solace. A place where he could go to collect his thoughts, privately, and immerse himself in the beauty of the gardens, orchards, and winding trails.

From the moment he turned out onto the narrow, gravel path, he could feel his spirits lifting somewhat. Here is where he knew he would find the solution to his predicament, in the company of the earth and sky - not confined within the Manor's walls.

The way was lined with large, meticulously trimmed poplars, their thin branches like silvery spines of light, reaching upward. At the end of the lane, Draco turned into the vineyard, strung with grapevines, and began pacing down the rows of trellises, his mind humming with possible solutions.

Once he had stalked the length of the vineyard, he turned down a footpath that took him past a handful of dovecotes clustered under the cool limbs of some oaks and a chestnut. Beyond, stone-terraced gardens containing herbs and flowers checkered the grounds with an even geometry. He stopped for a moment to admire the manner in which the beds ran first one way, then perpendicular, so that a hawk wheeling above them might consider that the land below appeared almost woven.

Why can't marriage be that way? Neat, tidy… easy to identify and categorize. The absence of Hermione - only so recently a part of his life, at all - suddenly bore down on him like the ponderous day's heat. This was not how he wished to spend his life. After all, what life was worth living if it shunned those that were meant to provide companionship and consolation?

A moment later, he reminded himself that she was just as much tethered to him, as he was to her. His brow furrowed, and he pressed on, further across the grounds.

Soon enough, he came to a place where a few hollow, gnarled trunks still protruded from the earth. Following his initial branding as a Death Eater in the summer before sixth year, he had come to this place to reflect on what he had done and how it would affect him, going forward. Just like then, he sank onto one of the stumps, only to leap up again when the rotten thing gave way beneath him, splintering open.

He looked down. The unassuming, rotten trunk was brimming with walnuts and acorns the squirrels had stowed there in the fall. The reserves unexpectedly cheered him.

He reflected for a moment on his binding to his frustratingly beautiful wife, on their consummation… and somehow, even more importantly than either of those things, on the kiss they had shared between those two events, the moment they were finally alone. He had thought she was going to refuse - or not say anything at all - but she had surprised him by acquiescing. If only they could go back to that moment...

Suddenly, he knew that what he had to do, was really quite simple.

"Lindy?" he murmured.

The crack of Apparition signaled the prompt arrival of the house elf he had called. "You is calling me, Master?"

"Yes," Draco replied decisively. He looked toward the Manor, steeling his resolve. "I need you to find your new mistress for me. She and I need to speak."

 

Chapter Text

Hermione told herself, again, that it was no big thing to leave the country on her own. After all, despite that she was married to Draco, it had not entirely been by choice… and she had left him a note, explaining everything. He did not even need to worry about her.

He's going to be furious, her subconscious chided.

She whispered back, "It will be fine."

After all, she had not exactly been his first choice, either. If the conversation she had overheard between her husband and Avery had been anything to go by - and she suspected it was - Draco'd had a thing for Astoria Greengrass long before he ever married Hermione. Rather, she was Astoria Avery now, but emotions were not always governed by rationality. It suddenly made a lot more sense why he had glanced at the younger witch several times over the course of the evening after the casting, and preceding the consummation: he had hoped for a different outcome.

"Australia," the Floo moderator announced to the room. "Five minutes."

She clutched her ticket in her hand and approached the fireplace, where a green blaze was already flickering. The queue for international travel to Australia that evening was a short one: just herself, a little family of three, and an old warlock with hair sprouting out of his ears.

The moderator took her ticket, passport, and wand to examine them. When he paused, a bolt of anxiety passed through her. What if her name had automatically changed when she had married Draco? She had not thought of that…

But the wizard only glanced up at her and prompted, "The Hermione Granger?"

She smiled, "Do you see a lot of other Hermiones?"

With a chuckle, he took her ticket and handed her wand back, "Fair question. Safe travels to you, Miss Granger."

She was gone in a flash of green flame.

.

.

Martin had been surprised, but pleased, to see his daughter when she showed up outside the door of his rented home in Harden. She had caught him at a rare moment when he was not at the Murrumburrah Magical Hospital with his wife, and when he discovered that she had not eaten dinner (she purposely did not mention the other meals she had skipped prior to that), he suggested they go out for breakfast. Martin appeared nonplussed regarding the eleven hour time difference, while it took Hermione a moment to wrap her head around the thought she was going to breakfast instead of dinner. It was disconcerting to have travelled from the approaching evening of England, to morning in Australia, in no more time than it took to Floo from one location to the other.

"Is there anywhere in Harden to get breakfast?" Hermione genuinely queried. The town was miniscule.

There was, but Mr. Granger conceded that Sydney had a much larger selection of options - and unfortunately, he did not cook much at home.

"I can Apparate us both into the city if you're willing to Side-Along," she offered.

Her father looked at her oddly. "I haven't done that since my mother took me to Edinburgh as a child."

Pausing a moment, she quickly realized she had nothing to say, and held out her arm.

Looking both amused and apprehensive, Martin took it, and less than ten minutes later, they were sitting down at a table at one of her old haunts on the outskirts of the city.

"How's Mum doing?"

"Better. Much better. In fact, I'm sure she'd love to see you today, if you have the time."

"I've already made an appointment," she answered. "I made a Floo call to the hospital shortly before I came to see you."

He smiled, nodding at her meticulousness. "How long are you staying for?"

"I'm not sure."

The waitress interrupted the moment by arriving to tell them the specials, and to take their order. Afterward, Mr. Granger launched into a long-winded speech about Jeannette's progress. Five weeks of rehab and two more procedures had done her a world of good; she was now sometimes extremely lucid, though she continued to have the occasional relapse. To combat this, she was undergoing therapy three times a day to help her re-learn some of her motor skills that had been compromised. Martin was extremely involved in this, travelling every day from his flat to be with his wife.

Though Hermione was paying rapt attention to his words, she was also noting the things he left unsaid. He had barely mentioned her return to England and what that had consisted of, and it was not until they already had their meals in front of them, that she chanced to bring it up.

"So, when I went back home, I gave Mrs. Weasley your letter."

Martin stiffened somewhat. "How did she take it?"

"She was wonderful. She told me everything."

Well, nearly… she mentally corrected, thinking about all the things she had later gleaned from the portrait gallery at Malfoy Manor.

Looking down at his fry up, Mr. Granger poked open the egg yolks with a sad sort of smile on his face. "I knew she would understand. So… what happened?"

Hermione opened her mouth to begin explaining about the manner in which the magic led her to choose which family to accept, but the moment she attempted to speak about the three glowing crests in the henge, her tongue stuck itself to the roof of her mouth. Frowning, she tried to think of a way around it, but several attempts later, she was forced to give up. "It won't let me tell you anything specific."

"It was like that when I tried to explain it to you before," Martin nodded knowingly, lifting a forkful of beans to his mouth. "I know some of what you're trying to say – there are things you learn from growing up amongst purebloods, whether you're magic or not. I couldn't speak of it, and I imagine that neither can you. The magic stops you."

"That's true," she admitted glumly, adding more salt to her fried tomatoes and mushrooms. "It's like my tongue gets stuck to the roof of my mouth when I try."

Her father nodded again. "I understand."

"I allowed myself to be claimed by the House of Prewett," she managed to tell him.

He smiled a little at that. "My family, I hope, was proud to accept you."

Nodding, she answered with a tinge of amusement, "Muriel was most pleased."

Martin snorted. "That old bat… She must still be alive out of pure spite."

Hermione snickered.

"You went to the midsummer celebration… didn't you?"

Sobering somewhat, she dropped her fork onto her napkin, picked it up again, then carefully placed it back. "I did."

"And now?"

Quietly, she answered, "I'm married."

Glancing up at her father, she half-expected him to rage at her, or to look highly disappointed. It was not difficult to recall the numerous conversations he'd had with her while she was growing up, about heading off to college and waiting until she found the right person to marry before settling down. She had done neither of those things, in the end.

Instead, he merely accepted, "I see."

Silently, she watched her father as he watched her. She fidgeted with her fork again, while his remained suspended over his plate. Finally, "That's it?"

Reaching forward with his free arm, Martin clasped his daughter's hand in his. "I may be unable to speak to the details, or have you directly explain what happens, on account of my being a Squib, but growing up in a household like mine, you overhear and see things… I know you had no choice, and no say."

"I didn't," she agreed, frowning.

He released her hand, satisfied that he had been right, then asked, "Is your husband a good man?"

Is he? Hermione picked up a piece of bacon to dip it in egg yolk, avoiding her father's sharp stare. Bringing it to her lips as she ruminated on that question, she was eventually forced to answer, "I don't know."

With a frown, her father pressed, "Will I meet him?"

Worrying her bottom lip with her teeth, she could only repeat, "I don't know."

.

.

After a fitful attempted nap, Hermione eventually gave up trying to rest when the midday hustle and bustle outside of her window announced that the day was waning.

As Martin's single flat was not large enough to comfortably house a guest, she had taken lodgings at a hotel in wizarding Sydney called The Enchanted Amulet. Donning her dressing gown, she trundled over toward the window, trying to lose herself in observing the lives of others. A handsome, young wizard outside of the apothecary was hocking unicorn tail hair at "only seven sickles a strand!" while an older witch pulled along a cart behind her that was stacked tall with cauldrons for sale. The small square was alive with noise and energy.

Eventually, she drew away from the window to shower and dress for the afternoon. She was scheduled to visit with her mother in two hours' time - and regardless of how she had left things with Draco back in England, that was what needed to hold her focus today.

The Amulet housed a small cafe, where she ordered a bowl of soup, despite her internal clock telling her it was still the middle of the night, before heading to the front desk area to utilize the Floo.

She ended up at the hospital a half-hour early, out of nerves more than anything. It was only to be a short visit - probably only about a quarter of an hour, as that was how long Jeannette could consistently handle excitement. Martin was already there, checking in with Healer Nguyen, who had been put in charge of the Grangers' case.

"Miss Granger," Nguyen greeted affably, "great to see you again."

She smiled but did not agree; it would have suited her just fine to have not seen the Healer again, as it would have meant that everything had gone swimmingly and her mother had never had to go through any of this in the first place. She also was not Miss Granger anymore, but did not want to set the Healer to rights on that, either.

Soon enough, she was in front of the door to Mrs. Granger's hospital room. Taking a deep breath and forcing her tensed shoulders to relax, she pushed the door open and entered. Inside, was her mother. Someone had cut her hair mostly off, likely so that it was easier to care for while she was hospitalized, but it was her.

"Oh, Hermione," she sighed, a wan smile on her face.

"Hi, Mum," Hermione croaked out in response.

A beat. "Well, are you just going to stand in the doorway? Or are you going to come give me a hug?"

Due to Jeannette's compromised motor skills, a one-armed hug was all she could manage, but it did not matter. She was speaking, recognizing her daughter, and even somewhat independently moving around. It was progress, just as Mr. Granger and Healer Nguyen had promised. What was difficult to accept was that Mrs. Granger was not the same person Hermione remembered from her childhood. This woman had seemed to openly accept her turbulent past, even the bittersweet place which magic held in it. Her humor had grown twisted and dry, and somewhat dark.

But then, Hermione was not the same little girl she had once been, either.

.

.

Day two went similarly, except Hermione got a full thirty minutes' visit before Jeannette began to grow tired and agitated. Hermione and her father got dinner in Sydney, and for the first time since she had arrived back in Australia, she began to feel like things were looking up again.

They had moved on to sharing a creme brûlée and even laughing over a joke he had dug back up from her childhood, when Martin purposefully broke the moment by inquiring, "Have you heard from your husband?"

Hermione paused as if stunned, and inadvertently choked on her dessert.

"I take that as a 'no'..."

Hoping she did not look as guilty as she felt, she swallowed down what was left of her spoonful and replied, "I left him a note that I would be here. I don't even know if he's seen it."

"A note?"

Hurt by the somewhat accusatory tone in her father's voice, she justified, "Yes. I explained to him where I was going, and he's unlikely to follow me here. He… doesn't exactly want to be married to me…"

Mr. Granger went silent at that and descended into contemplation, being by nature an introspective man; he did not drag the subject back up. Hermione paid their tab with the wizarding currency she had exchanged when she arrived, and her father walked her back to The Amulet, where he could use the Floo to return home.

Once they reached the front doors, he stopped her by clasping her shoulder solidly. "I wish I could have given you a better life, Hermione. I had always hoped… since your mother and I weren't magical, that the rules would have reset. That you never would have had to go through this. I'm so sorry."

She shook her head. "It isn't your fault, Dad."

Though he attempted a smile, the end effect of it was rather grim and not very reassuring. He still looked sad when he disappeared into the dance of green flames from the hotel lobby.

Hermione took her time making her way to her lodgings; there was nothing waiting for her there, so there was no reason to rush. All too soon, she stopped in front of room 34 and dug through the pocket of her jeans for the antique-looking key.

When she pushed the door open, she was confronted by the sudden, unexpected sight of Draco standing there. Her wand was out in an instant, her eyes wide - but he did not seem to notice or care.

"A bloody note, Hermione?" he seethed, approaching.

"How did you find me?" she demanded from the doorway, raising her wand a little higher so he would not come any closer.

He stopped in place, eyeing her wand, but looking scandalized at her words. "What are you going to do, hex me? I came to talk."

Recognizing her overreaction, she frowned at herself, internally questioning what exactly she had been planning. It was not as if this was Draco's fault, any more than it was hers. "I'm sorry. You're right."

Stepping over the threshold, she closed the door behind her and even to her own ears, the small click of it closing sounded like an approbation. She brushed past him into the room.

"Tea?"

"No, I don't want any bloody tea," he snarled, still on the offensive and keeping his front turned toward her as she moved about the small kitchenette. "I want to know why you came halfway across the world and thought a note would suffice to tell me about it."

"To be honest," she answered frankly, retrieving a tea bag from the cardboard box on her counter and magicking some tap water to a boil, "I thought you'd be rather glad to see the back of me. I didn't expect you to follow me."

This seemed to take him aback. Slowly, he ran a hand through his hair and fidgeted somewhat where he stood. "I found your note and panicked. You didn't say where you would be, just that you were going to spend some time with your parents… I thought, surely you wouldn't have embarked on international travel without at least coming to tell me in person - but when I went to the Ministry the next day, I found that you'd got a travel visa."

"I see." She was beginning to experience small pangs of remorse. After the conversation she had overheard in Draco's study, she had thought that perhaps some space might be best for the both of them. She then also thought that, considering they were being honest with one another, she might as well admit it: "I was actually coming to find you the other day, but then I overheard you and Avery in your study. You were talking about Astoria…"

Draco's face flushed so that his cheeks were tinged pink. He lightly reprimanded, "You shouldn't have been listening at my door."

"I hadn't intended to," she told him honestly, now supplied with a steaming cup of tea. She leaned over the counter separating the kitchenette from the rest of the hotel room, resting her elbows on it, holding her mug with both hands. It was somehow comforting to have some kind of physical barrier between them as they conversed. "But when you decide to go attempt a conversation with your husband, and overhear his friend reminding him of the feelings he had for someone else before he married you, it tends to get right into the meat of things, in here." She pressed her hand to her chest.

"Let me set one thing straight, Hermione," he replied, his lips somewhat pinched as if this task was rather unpleasant, "I do not have any feelings for Astoria Avery. Before our casting, sure… I harbored some fondness for her, but you should not doubt that you are my main focus now."

She snorted disbelievingly, taking her first sip of her tea. It scalded her tongue; she barely noticed.

Seeming to sense that she was skeptical of him, he queried, "Did you have a boyfriend before the casting?"

That took her aback. "No… I was too focused on restoring my parents' memories, for any kind of a real relationship." She paused, realizing they had finally come to the point of his visit. "Why did you follow me, Draco?"

"Why did I follow you?" he repeated, nearly hissing it through his teeth as his eyebrows furrowed. "You are my wife, and I made a promise to the Old Magic to provide for you. How can I do that, if you are halfway across the world from me? Magic aside, how can you really be my wife, if we don't discuss the things that are causing problems in our marriage? How could I be a good husband, if I didn't follow you?"

She sat there in stunned silence, her tea halfway to her lips again, but utterly forgotten as she stared at him. It occurred to her that, even despite the last few days in which she had been married to him, this was the first time she was really seeing Draco at all. He was prejudiced, yes… she knew that for sure. There was a chance he always would be. But, where had this facet of his personality come from?

"It was not particularly difficult to find you, though I did have to exchange money at the embassy to do so. I also had to put down in the register that you were my wife, at least here in Australia. Otherwise, they were not interested in speaking to me about your whereabouts." He was running his hands obsessively through his hair now, and Hermione watched, fascinated, wondering if this was a sort of nervous tic for him. "I also had to tell the front desk, which was how I got access to your room in the first place… I've been here for about two hours now, waiting. Where have you been?"

"It was having dinner with my father," she swiftly confirmed. Then, less charitably, "My Squib father."

"There's another thing…"

She interrupted, "I recall vividly what you said the other day, and if you think that I'm relinquishing any part of the relationship I have with my parents, you are wrong. There is nothing you can do to stop me. My parents are an important part of my life, and I have wronged them. I took away their memories - not only of me, but of who they were. As a daughter, that is unforgivable, even though I know why it was necessary. And I would do it again, and be willing to feel the same remorse for the same outcome. What I am not willing to do, is sacrifice my good relationship with them for the sake of what some purebloods might consider to be proper."

Draco was silent for some time, before he finally said, "The other day... the day you left actually... I spent a long time thinking about that argument we had. Yes, I have mixed feelings about your determination to claim your Squib parents publicly. A part of me hoped that they would simply remain in Australia, separating themselves at least by distance. I had a hard time understanding why you got so upset, when I was willing to allow you even that connection."

Hermione's lip curled, but she made the conscious decision to allow him to finish. Biting back a scathing comment, she took another sip of her tea. It was still scalding hot - she must have overdone the heating charm a bit, in her agitation - and she surrendered to setting it down on the countertop in front of her.

"I came to realize," he continued, "that all I had to do, was to ask you to explain your point of view as best you could. And to listen."

Surprised, she blinked a few times, then stared at the pattern on the nearby bedspread. It was a generic, swirling pattern, but her eyes followed the threads upward until she was looking at him again. He was simply watching her, waiting for some kind of a reaction. With a sigh, she stepped from the kitchenette, and in two strides, was at the bed. She sank onto the edge of it and invited him to sit in the only seat, which was across from her.

Hesitating a moment, he seemed to consider the chair she had gestured to, but ultimately decided against it, and strode over to the bed, where he sat directly beside her.

Fidgeting uncomfortably at his unexpected closeness, Hermione murmured, "Do you really want to listen? It's a long story…"

Nodding, he took her hand and she forced away the knee-jerk reaction to recoil. If he was trying, she knew she should also. It shouldn't be so hard - he wanted to be a proper husband. Despite their history, despite his prejudice, shouldn't she at least try?

"If you're sure…" and she launched into the tale of the deathly hallows, the horcruxes, and how her parents tied into her life as a witch, ending her narrative with the restoration of their memories and what her mother was going through, along with her father's revelation that they were a pureblood family in most senses of the word.

She felt as if she had talked for an hour. It also did not escape her notice that when she mentioned having to Obliviate her parents, Draco's other hand reached out and he held both of hers in his; she did not even feel the desire to draw away.

It was the first time either of them had brought up the war, or what had happened on the periphery of it. When she had finished her story - Draco had been quiet throughout - he began to tell one of his own. It began in his childhood, with what had been instilled in him, then followed the rise of the Dark Lord, and Draco's zeal to join the cause (Hermione nearly recoiled here, but forced her hands to remain in his). He spoke of the relish with which he began his task, of the elated way Voldemort's encouragement had made him feel… and then, of the moment the wool had been pulled from over his eyes. At Hogwarts, working on repairing the Vanishing Cabinet, Draco had been cut off from the real deeds of the Death Eaters. He had thought them noble. But when he returned home at the Dark Lord's request over Christmas break, he discovered the real truth of their creed: death, destruction, and cultural poverty.

The problem with his late discovery was that there was no way to back out now that he had committed. The best he could do… was his worst. Until it was not possible any longer, lest he endanger his family and friends. He sabotaged his own Vanishing Cabinet project, even going so far as to send a cryptic warning to Dumbledore about what would be happening. It was to no avail; Dumbledore fell anyway. When Harry had finally defeated Voldemort once and for all, Draco was ready for the old world he had once known to fall back into place.

But the world was different now. How could it be the same? It had been a childish notion, to think it was possible. He stepped into his importance as a member of the blood pact with relief, glad to be of some use even in this way, and began using alcohol daily to dull the pain of existing.

"I had noticed you've been drinking often since we married…" Hermione remarked.

"It's been going on for years now," he admitted. "I can't remember the last day I've not had at least a few drinks to get through it."

It occurred to Hermione that Draco Malfoy was a mess. A high-functioning mess, it was true… but a mess, nonetheless. How could he pick himself up out of it unless he had help?

"Well, that will be one of the first things we need to snap you out of," she announced brusquely.

"What is?" he queried, looking confused.

"Your alcoholism."

"I beg your pardon?" he demanded, dropping one of her hands. "I am not an alcoholic."

"You just admitted to me that you need at least a few drinks a day just to get through your life," she retorted. "I believe that is the very definition of an alcoholic."

He looked stunned. "I don't… know how to stop." Regaining some of his bravado, he added, "And it isn't a problem…"

"Yet," she stipulated. "But think about your health."

He snorted.

"What? Are you so committed to leaving me a widow when I'm middle-aged?"

Spluttering a bit at that, she only tsk'd a bit and vowed they would work on it together. At this proclamation, he went silent a moment before quietly asking, "Does this mean you're planning to return to England with me?"

"I don't have much of a choice, do I? I made a commitment to the blood pact, same as you."

She could tell her answer did not please him. "Yes, you did…"

"And to you."

His gaze shot up, eyes narrowed. "I don't kid myself that you're thinking of me. Your feelings are pretty apparent with regard to how you feel about me."

Deciding a neutral response would be best, she agreed, "I think you're prejudiced."

He fixed her with his stare, "Yes, I am."

She had not expected that answer, and it took her aback. "How can you allow yourself to continue being prejudiced, knowing that you are?"

"I've never seen anything wrong with noticing inferiority."

"It's wrong," she insisted.

"A compromise, then," he proposed. "I had been planning to offer one anyway."

"I'm listening…"

Disentangling his other hand from hers, he stood and walked a short way away, hands clasped behind his back as he went to face the window. "From now on, when you think I am wrong about something, I propose that instead of blowing up and fleeing the country, you agree to sit down with me and explain why you think so. And I will agree to listen."

He turned, as if to see how she would receive it. Thinking it was a pretty good concession coming from him, she smiled and also stood to approach him. When she stopped directly in front of him, she noticed he looked skittish, as if unsure what her intentions were. "I think that is a very good compromise, Draco."

The relief on his face was tangible. His forehead fell forward to rest against hers and softly, she felt his hands slid up her arms. It was not really an embrace, but he seemed nearly afraid to do more. "May I kiss you?"

It reminded her of her tentative query from three nights ago, when she had decided to try after coming across the portrait gallery: Will you kiss me? Then there was the fact that he was courteous enough to ask for her consent, given all that had passed between them. It sparked something within her.

"I would like that," she answered breathlessly. "Very much."

She had nearly forgotten the delicious taste of his mouth; the firm press of his lips reminded her. Of their own accord, her hands wound around the back of his neck and begin playing with the fringe of hair at the nape. It was silky soft; she spread her fingers to allow them to card through his hair. He seemed to like this, as he hummed in satisfaction as he slipped his tongue into her mouth, his hands coming to rest at her waist, thumbs hooking under the waistband of her jeans.

The feel of their skin touching was electrifying, while her mind was swimming with the light static of white noise. A heat began to build in her chest, spreading slowly outward and into her sacrum, and down her thighs. She quivered with sudden want.

Draco seemed to be affected also, because his kiss grew more insistent, more intense. It was as if he could not get enough of her, could not sate himself. Most of her rational thought forgotten, she responded in kind. At some point, she vaguely realized that his hands had crept up beneath her shirt, and were stroking long swipes across the delicate skin of her stomach. Then inching up… up… up…

His hand cupped one of her breasts, having slipped it beneath the wire of her bra. The other hand had slid around the back and was working on her clasp, freeing her all at once when he was successful. His thumb ran across one nipple, causing it to pucker, while his index finger traced the outline of her areola. It was brazen; it was intoxicating. He repeated the motion, her nipple pert and interested this time. Hermione could feel Draco smirk into her mouth, followed by the light exhale through his nose in amusement at her obvious arousal. Evidence of his own interest was pressed hard against her inner thigh, where he had inserted one of his legs between both of hers.

A shiver of cold spiked through the heat that had built up in Hermione's core. This was the doing of magic, at least in part. She was sure of it.

It was with some effort that she stepped backward, looking up at him from under her lashes with a mixture of regret and reproach.

He sighed, as if sensing her thoughts. "I felt it, too. It appears that the magic continues to have a hold over us here, even when we are so far away from home."

"I'm sorry," she murmured, meaning it. "I know we've been down that road before… but I just need… a bit more time, I think. I mean, I was ready to hex you just now, when I first saw you. I think if we are going to make this work - properly - we need to be a bit more past... that point."

"I understand," he faltered, though his brow was furrowed and he looked disappointed. "Soon?"

She bit her lip. "Perhaps."

He only nodded, then moved away. For a moment, Hermione thought she had offended him, and nearly became indignant. She was embarrassed to be proved wrong again, when all he said next was, "I've decided to stay with you in Australia for the remainder of your visit. We can return to England together."

Surprised, she opened her mouth to say something, but promptly shut it again in favor of letting him continue.

"I can procure my own room, if you wish," he offered, quickly adding, "but I was hoping to stay here with you."

Feeling that she had once again underestimated the man before her, she thought for a moment how to reply. "I'd like for you to meet my parents. I think after that, I can come to a decision on room-sharing, depending on how that goes."

"Let's go meet them, then," he agreed, already glancing toward the door. "The lobby has Floo access, I believe?"

Shaking her head, she protested, "It's late. You might still be on English time, but my father is headed to bed shortly, and visiting hours at the MMH are nearly over. We can meet them tomorrow."

Looking somewhat perplexed, he countered, "Where shall I stay tonight, then?"

After a pause, she took a chance. "If you behave, you can stay here tonight with me."

The corners of his mouth lifted. "I'd like that."

She offered him a tentative smile of companionship, then collected her night things to change in the bathroom, her cooled tea forgotten on the kitchenette countertop. The lights went out in short order, and they curled up on their own respective sides of the bed. After a while, when Draco had not spoken for some time and she thought he might be asleep, Hermione felt his hand slowly reach over and begin to play with one of her curls.

"Draco?"

"Mm?"

"I'm surprisingly glad… that you came after me."

He did not respond for some time. Eventually, she began to drift off to sleep, finding a kind of comfort in his presence and warmth. Just as her eyelids became heavy, she thought she heard him murmur, "I'm glad I'm here, too."

She dreamt of a field of peonies.

.

.

"Mum?"

"Yes, honey?"

Hermione fidgeted where she stood, nervously glancing backward to the door of the hospital room, where Draco and her father were waiting outside. "I'd like to introduce you to someone. Would that be okay?"

"Oh, love. I haven't even cleaned up the place!" Jeannette frowned and began to worry her bottom lip with her teeth. Her dark eyes scanned the room, falling on the table covered in empty food containers from her morning meal, and then again on the stack of clothes by the bed-stand. "Can it be another time?"

"I'm sure he wouldn't mind. It isn't really very messy in here, you know."

Mrs. Granger sighed deeply. "Well, who is it?"

"My husband, Draco."

"Your…?" Jeannette stumbled, taken aback. "Did you just say husband?"

"I know it's a bit of a shock. It was very sudden. I'm sorry I didn't tell you before now, but I didn't want to upset you."

"What did your father say?"

"Dad was surprisingly okay with it, actually." A beat. "Can I bring him in?"

"He's here now?"

"Yes, he wants to meet you. Introduce himself."

Mrs. Granger's eyes danced toward the door and Hermione noticed with some trepidation, that her mother's hands had begun to shake, a sure sign that she was becoming agitated.

"We don't have to do this today, Mum…"

"No!" she exclaimed, before realizing how loud she had sounded and lowering her volume. "No, I'll be on my best behavior. Of course I want to meet your husband."

Hermione paused. She could see the conundrum racing through her mother's head, plain as day. Quietly, she compromised, "How about this: I'll bring him in, but only for five minutes. When you've had enough, or if you want him to go sooner, just tug on your ear like this." She pulled on her earlobe, to show her. "Okay?"

Her heart broke a little at the expression of relief that washed over Jeannette's face. "Okay."

Crossing over to the door, Hermione poked her head out into the hallway. Martin and Draco were outside, both leaning against the opposite wall, deep in conversation. Though she had not expected perfect silence between the two men, she was a little surprised to see how easily they were conversing.

"Ready?" she queried, feeling somewhat breathless.

Draco nodded, standing from his leaning position, "More than."

 

Chapter Text

They stayed in Sydney for another two weeks, and while Hermione was adamant that she spend at least a part of each day with her parents, Draco also contrived for them to do some sight-seeing.

It started after an offhand remark Hermione had made on Draco's second day there, about how she wished she could attend a show at the Sydney Opera House.

"Why haven't you, then?" he wanted to know as he pulled on his jacket. He had stayed in her hotel room for a second night, and neither had brought back up the idea of him getting his own room.

Hopping a bit ungracefully as she yanked on her shoe, Hermione explained, "It's prohibitively expensive, unfortunately."

Draco had been quiet after that. They were readying for another hospital visit to Mrs. Granger, and Hermione quickly forgot the exchange as they headed out.

The next day, Draco pressed a pair of theatre tickets into her hand. Hermione looked down to examine them and her lips parted slightly in surprise as she recognized the logo for the Sydney Opera House.

At her shocked expression, he quickly stipulated, "It isn't bribery or anything. You said you had always wanted to go, and I just thought that if that were the case… we should."

Face riveted to his, she was too stunned to make more of an intelligible remark than, "You bought these? Because I said I wanted them?"

Draco began to look uncomfortable. "I can always switch them for another show if you don't like that one. Or we don't have to go at all, if you'd rather not…"

She had not even registered which show it was; it hardly mattered. "Is this your way of asking me on a date?"

Draco tilted an eyebrow at her as though he had not considered this angle of things before. "I suppose, yes, it is."

She giggled (he looked scandalized at the noise), and she stuffed the tickets into her purse. "I'm excited."

That was how it started. On another morning, when Jeannette could only handle a short visit and Martin opted to stay with her, Draco took Hermione for a long walk along the coast from Bondi to Coogee, in order to keep her from dwelling.

After the first few days, they seemed to fall into a routine: they would wake up, breakfast together, then go out to visit with her parents in the morning. Afterward, Draco would have something scheduled for them to do together until it was time to return home. Sometimes they had dinner with Martin, but more often than not, he would decline in favor of dining with his wife.

Together, Hermione and Draco visited markets, both wizarding and Muggle. On one occasion, they attended a magical book signing. Another time - after assuring her several times that it was perfectly humane - Draco took her to see some hippogriff racing.

They spent one afternoon strolling leisurely through some botanic gardens, and quietly slipping off to the establishment's hidden magical exhibit when no one was looking. After browsing the separate wizarding gift shop, Hermione returned to their hotel room with a stack of books about potion making, which Draco barely teased her for. In the span of a week, Hermione had experienced more in Sydney than she had on her own in six months.

The morning visits with Jeannette and Martin were varied, to say the least. Though the initial introduction had gone well enough, something about Draco made Jeannette very nervous, so his visits were generally short, and she never said much.

Martin was an entirely different story. Truthfully, Hermione had been surprised by how well her father and Draco had been getting on. The two were now on a first-name basis, though she had never heard them speaking on any topic of significance. Sometimes, Mr. Granger would accompany them on an outing. After Hermione had mentioned an art gallery they were planning to check out that evening, and her father had commented how he had wished he got a chance to go himself, Draco had invited his father-in-law along. Hermione had been surprised.

Though she knew Draco had initially struggled with the idea that her parents were not magical, Hermione could see that he was trying to treat them as he would any other pureblood. Though neither of them had brought up their compromise from the night he had arrived in Sydney, she was certain she was not the only one thinking about it. She truly appreciated his efforts.

His intentions were made perfectly clear when her father joined them for a second outing the following week, when they ventured to Gordon's Bay. Calm and crystalline, Hermione remarked to her father that the water sparkled like glass in the afternoon sunlight. Quietly, Martin only replied, "Wendell Wilkins always loved coming to this place."

Though Draco had been out of earshot at the time of the remark, when he caught up to the two of them sitting on the rocks and looking out at the ocean, he seemed to immediately sense that something was amiss. "You look troubled, Hermione. Do you have a headache?"

"I do," she lied, placing her hand to her head as if it hurt.

"You're not feeling well?" Martin pressed, eyeing her speculatively.

"We should head back to the hotel," Draco said firmly. "Martin, may we see you back home?"

Grateful for his intercession, despite that it walked the line of impolite, Hermione felt that maybe a headache really was coming on. Her father placed a hand on her shoulders. "I'm sorry. It was thoughtless of me to bring it up."

She tried, "It's fine, Dad…"

"Of course it isn't."

Draco interceded, "You'll feel better after you've had a bit of a lie-in, Hermione."

The three of them Apparated back to The Enchanted Amulet a moment later, and sheepishly, Martin insisted he could Floo himself home from there. Before he left, however, he pulled his daughter into a bone-crushing embrace. "You know I love you, Hermione, don't you?"

"I love you, too, Dad," she murmured thickly into the shoulder of his coat.

"I'm proud that you're my daughter." He pulled away and held her at arm's length for a moment, surveying her. Moments later, he was gone.

Hermione hit the shower the moment they returned to their room. Under the heat of the water raining down, she had a good cry, grateful that Draco was not there to see.

When she emerged, however, he was sitting in the chair by the window and watching her as if he had known exactly what happened behind the closed door of the bathroom. "We should start thinking about returning home."

Dismally, she nodded. They had been there two weeks thusfar and neither had broached the topic until now.

"Much as I'm enjoying some space away from home," he continued, "we have responsibilities back in England that shouldn't wait much longer."

She knew he was correct. "Alright. But maybe two more days? I don't know when I'll see my parents again…"

Nodding, he agreed, "We'll leave on Wednesday."

Though Draco had maintained his impeccably respectful behavior to her boundaries, they had continued to share a bed in Hermione's room. They never progressed beyond heavy snogging, even though Hermione had, more than once, felt the hardened length of his arousal pressed against her inner thigh. Every night he fell asleep holding her, and she quickly became used to basking in the warmth of his body wrapped around hers as she drifted off. It occurred to her that despite the daily visits to her parents, and the fact that they had not had sex, this incidental little trip had become something like a honeymoon for them.

That night, however, when Draco leaned over to kiss her, she rolled herself so that she was on top of him, her legs straddling his waist. From where she was seated atop him, she looked down into his surprised gray eyes and murmured, "Thank you for covering for me today."

"Are you going to tell me what happened?"

She could feel him growing hard between the warmth of her legs, and she supposed she had her pyjama shorts to blame for riding up into the crease of her groin.

"Dad brought up something from his time being Obliviated. I just… didn't know what to say to him." She shrugged, bending so that her face was much closer to his now, and pressed a soft kiss to his lips. "I could tell he felt bad about mentioning it afterward, but… thank you for rescuing me from that situation."

"You're welcome."

"You've been so good to me during our time here, Draco." Glancing lower, to where his collarbone was peeking out the neck of his shirt, she requested, "I'd like to show you how much I appreciate it."

He swallowed and hoarsely bit out, "How?"

With a small smile, she scooted lower, slithering down his body until she had disappeared beneath the sheets. Face level with his fully hardened member, she experimentally dragged her fingers across it through the fabric of his pyjama pants.

From her place under the covers, she heard his intake of breath, and she reached over to pull the tie on his pants. So quietly she was almost unsure if she had actually heard it, he whispered, "Merlin, yes."

When she pulled him free, she contemplated his pale cock in the semi-darkness before experimentally licking up the length of him. His hand reached down to tangle in her hair, in response. Finally, she placed her lips on the tip of his shaft, swirling her tongue over the head a few times before slowly, torturously taking him in her mouth; she tried not to choke on his girth.

"Oh, fuck yes."

She smiled around his length, and set to work showing him just how much she appreciated him.

.

.

Hermione felt drained on their way to the Murrumburrah Magical Hospital for her last visit to Jeannette on the day they were to depart.

"When will you be coming back for a visit, darling?"

"I'm not sure, Mum…"

Draco cleared his throat. "I'm going to give you ladies some privacy. Jeannette, it was a pleasure to meet you. I hope your health will be much improved the next time we see you."

"Thank you, Draco," Mrs. Granger answered, clasping his hand, "and thank you for following my headstrong daughter all the way here. I would have been very upset if I hadn't got to know you."

The corners of his mouth twitched upward. "Headstrong is a good word for Hermione, isn't it?"

Hermione swatted at him.

More seriously, he said to her, "I'll be outside with your father. Take as long as you like."

Once the door to the hospital room had closed behind him, Jeannette looked at her daughter and decided, "I like him."

"He's growing on me, as well," Hermione admitted.

She wished her parents could return to England with them - but as Martin had pointed out, it would be difficult to explain to their friends how Jeannette had ended up in such a state, especially after they had left the country without saying goodbye to everyone. Not to mention, Mrs. Granger's primary caregivers were here. No, she knew it was best - but it was still hard.

With a nervous laugh, she added, "Let's hope he keeps up his good behavior once we return to England."

"Oh, love," Mrs. Granger sighed. With some effort, she lifted herself up and slid closer toward where Hermione sat in the chair opposite her. Leaning forward on the bed, she reached out a palsied hand to clasp her daughter's fingers. "Sometimes, you are just going to be too much for that man. Too much witch…"

Hermione snorted.

"...Too smart, too beautiful…"

"Hardly!" she interjected.

"...Too strong."

Looking up at her mother, Hermione flushed with the praise.

"Don't take jewels out of your crown for him. Your job as his wife is to give him bigger hands to carry it." Jeannette leaned back onto the bed, exhaustion visibly creeping onto her face. "You already have that ability… he loves you."

Shaking her head so that her curls bounced about her shoulders, Hermione insisted, "Draco doesn't love me."

"Maybe not yet," Mrs. Granger admitted, her voice fading and eyes beginning to droop, "but he's starting to."

.

.

The queue for travel back to England was much larger than the one Hermione had taken to Australia. As they stood at the embassy, waiting, the line slowly shrinking, Hermione could not help but fidget. She had checked her visa at least ten times, secured her luggage another eight, and was now busily picking at her ragged fingernails.

Draco laid a gentle hand on top of hers, silently beseeching her to cease.

"Sorry," she muttered, hands dropping to her sides.

"You're nervous to leave your parents behind you again. It's perfectly understandable."

"It's just, I don't know when I'll see them again."

"We'll make a point to come out and see them. Maybe for Christmas, if you wish it."

In wonderment, her head shot up to look at him. "So soon?"

He nodded. She hoped that, having learned somewhat to interpret her idiosyncrasies over the past few weeks, he now understood that her questions were less borne from the need for confirmation, as from hopefulness. Hermione supposed she would just have to wait to find out if Draco Malfoy was a man of his word - or not.

A moment later, the numbers before theirs were called from the queue and he murmured, "We're next."

"But what made you decide on Christmas?" she wanted to know.

"Your father and I discussed it as you were saying goodbye to your mother," he said simply. "My mother usually hosts a party on Christmas Eve, but we can make arrangements to leave afterward to spend Christmas Day with your parents."

"Oh. But will your mother be upset?"

Draco shook his head, "I'm sure I can make her understand that this is important."

Heart aglow, she pushed up onto the balls of her feet to press a kiss to his cheek. "Why are you being so patient with me?"

He smiled and took her hand, squeezing it lightly before releasing it. "You can't rush something you hope will last forever, Hermione."

Their numbers were called then, and despite her previous anxiousness, the main concern she had now was not to melt all over the embassy floor.

.

.

When they touched down in their suite at Malfoy Manor about a half hour later, Hermione ditched her bags at the door and flopped onto the settee. "You know, if we had traveled the Muggle way, it would have taken us well over 20 hours to get here."

"I suppose I should be thankful for the Floo then," said Draco, leaving his things beside hers and heading over to the desk by the open window, where a stack of mail was becoming somewhat precarious. He reached for the top one, looked at the return address on the front, and tossed it aside for later. He did the same with the second, but paused. "You've got a letter from Potter here."

Hermione blanched. "I don't know if I'm quite ready to read that one yet…"

Already reading a third letter, Draco added, "There's also an invitation for us to attend a formal dinner at Fosgate Hall."

He tossed her the parchment so she could peruse it. The letter was on a piece of thick, expensive-looking oaken parchment, and was written in gold calligraphy.

"Have you ever been to your ancestral home?" he asked.

"No," she answered, eyeing the letter in her hands with distaste. There was something about Muriel that always put her off. "I found out I was a Prewett only a month and a half before the casting. I suspect Mrs. Weasley quietly fended Muriel off for me during that time so I could adjust to things."

Draco chuckled. "Well, per our agreement regarding culture-sharing, I should inform you that following a marriage, attending a formal dinner with the head of your former House is a pureblood tradition. We should go."

"Alright." Somehow, she had known she would be going, even before he pressed the point. After thinking a moment, she smugly informed him, "Muggles have that same practice of welcoming new members of their family, too, you know."

She stood, smiled casually and flounced off to their bedchamber to change her clothes, basking in his stunned expression.

 

Chapter Text

There were a great many wondrous things to look at in the Malfoy family vault. Gold was in abundance, along with heaps of loose jewels. Bars of silver and other precious metals were stacked neatly and catalogued on shelves along the wall nearest the door. A display case held some of the crown jewels of England, dating back to the Elizabethan era; Draco had been discouraged from asking questions about these. There were other gems and jewelry, as well, of course. Diamond earrings; a silver-and-sapphire bracelet that was purported to be able to detect lies told in the wearer's vicinity; emerald rings set into white gold; a necklace of platinum, pearls, and lapis lazuli; a perfume bottle encrusted with diamonds and a ruby the size of a chicken's egg... and these were just the things that sat on the counter of an ornate vanity made entirely of rosewood and cursed silver.

There were still other things in that vault, some of them less beautiful to look at. The Hand of Glory, which Draco had used in sixth year to achieve a means to an end, rested, dusty, on a shelf beside a bowl full of rune-stones that had once belonged to Malfoys of generations past.

Gazing around at these treasures, Draco reached into the pocket of his trousers, just to confirm that Hermione's rune-stone was still there. His hand closed around it, recognizing the familiar smoothness of it, except where the Prewett crest was carved into one side, and her personal rune on the other. Kenaz...

Turning to the goblin who had accompanied him there, and was now looking expectantly at him, he explained, "I'm looking for something to fashion into a wedding ring."

"For the new Mrs. Malfoy?" the goblin inferred. "There is a large collection of rings to your left."

"No," he protested quickly. Letting go of the rune-stone hidden in his pocket, he clarified, "I'm looking for something I can send to one of your jewelers for redesigning into a new piece. I want the finished product to be a bit more… modern. Unique."

"I see," the goblin murmured lowly. "A showcase piece for a showcase lady. I do have some suggestions, in that case…"

For the better part of an hour, Draco and the Gringotts goblin scoured the place. Once they had a decent sampling of possibilities, Draco stared at the conjured table in the middle of the room to peruse his selection. Pulling Hermione's rune-stone from his pocket, he set it gingerly on the tabletop beside the handful of gems, his eyes flickering from it, back to the jewels, then back to the stone.

Illumination, acquisition and application of knowledge, exploration of paradigms in the search for truth, the light within. Draco had referenced the booklet his mother had given to him upon his pledge into the blood pact, Runes & Symbolism, to find and memorize that snippet. The number of times he had read the page on Hermione's rune was staggering.

For a moment, he hesitated over the idea of creating a ruby and emerald ring to symbolize their two Hogwarts houses. Something about it seemed almost too juvenile, however.

...The light within.

"These," he decided, gesturing to a collection of alexandrite shards. "I'll take these."

The goblin paused, "An… unusual choice. I shall send them up to the jeweler to see what he can do for you."

"I'd also like them checked, to ensure there are no enchantments on them. Just in case." Though he doubted there would be anything nefarious on them, he did not think Hermione would take kindly to the idea of gemstones imbibed with fertility enchantments, or the like.

"Of course. Do you have any other business in your vault, Mr. Malfoy?"

"None."

"Then will you come with me? I will introduce you to Garnaug, our jeweler. He can help you design a wedding band…"

.

.

A few days later, Draco stood at the end of the gravel driveway leading up to the ancestral home of the Prewetts, with Hermione's arm looped through the crook of his. His gaze traveled up the imposing facade of the large country house. It might have seemed like any other English manor dating back to the medieval era, except that it had been entirely built up of purple stonework.

"Interesting choice in color," he remarked.

She looked up at him, as if trying to detect the jeer there. This was something she had been doing for the last handful of weeks since their compromise, though Draco noticed that the intensity of her scrutiny seemed to be less and less as each day passed. Someday, he was sure, he would get there - but for now, he was trying to save most of his snark for the day when she finally got comfortable around him.

Just now, however, she seemed to be hesitating at the sight of her family's ancestral home, and Draco could almost hear the cogs of her brain turning with the notion that her chosen House might actually be more ostentatious than his. The idea filled him with glee - but he was going to let her come to that conclusion all on her own.

"Shall we?"

She sucked on the inside of her cheek for a moment before conceding, "I suppose we shall."

They were greeted at the large, green front door by Tessie. Draco had hardly ever observed this woman before; she was small and meek, with large, protuberant eyes and a weak chin. Her curly, gray hair appeared to be the only large thing about her, and she was dwarfed by it. Comparisons to the bush on his new wife's head could not be avoided, at least mentally.

"Welcome," squeaked the little witch. "My mother is waiting for us in the drawing room."

Without a further word, she led them into the manor house and took off at a surprisingly fast trot in an easterly direction. Draco was reminded of a house elf; in fact, the way Tessie's curly hair made a kind of triangle around her head nearly resembled large, batty ears.

He was sure to keep his thoughts to himself.

"This way," the woman encouraged.

Draco sped up a bit, noticing simultaneously that Hermione seemed to be dragging her feet. He wondered for a moment if she were having second thoughts, but a sideways glance in her direction determined instead that she was trying to take in at everything all at once.

Taking a perfunctory look around the long gallery they were walking through, he had to admit that the Prewetts' famed wealth was obvious here. Wainscoting of the purest white ran along the whole hall from floor to ceiling, while an abundance of portraits as tall as the walls were each displayed in metal frames with gold inlay. There was a crown moulding of white and pale-pink marble. Statues stood in the spaces between the tall portraits. A niche alcove with a scalloped interior stood at the end, displaying a working fountain. As Draco passed it, he peered inside the basin to find that there were lilly pads and koi fish floating lazily. Gas lamps hung at intervals from the embossed ceiling, which reminded him of some of the rooms at his own home.

They made their way from the gallery into the dining room, which was accessed through the main chamber. It was immediately apparent why Tessie had led them this way, because Fosgate was clearly displayed at its best advantage. Though not as magnificent as the receiving chambers of Malfoy Manor, the grand staircase at Fosgate was a thing of beauty, beginning at the bottom floor and spiraling upward around the centerpiece, which was undoubtedly the chandelier hanging from above. This was so large, Draco had to suspect it was hanging there by magic, its crystals twinkling like stars on a clear night.

Hermione appeared suitably shocked at this display of wealth and grandeur, but Draco could not put his finger on why that should be. Surely she had been aware that the House she had chosen was one of the wealthiest of those remaining?

"You seem surprised," he observed under his breath as they were led into the drawing room. "What at?"

Hermione shook her head. "The Weasleys always had such a modest, welcoming environment, and Molly always seemed perfectly at home there."

Draco bit back his sneer. His opinion of the Weasleys has been fixed in place since he was a child, but he was fully invested in making Hermione happy these days - a remark was simply not worth it.

"But years ago, when her father was Head of his House, she would have lived here. If this was where she grew up," the witch beside him observed, her head still swiveling this way and that as she tried to look at everything, "the Burrow must have taken some getting used to…"

After thinking a moment, he murmured, "I suppose…"

With finality, she shook her head again, sending her curls bouncing down her back, and concluded, "Great changes can be made for love, I guess."

He thought back to the custom ring currently being forged by the goblins at Gringotts… and the walks they had taken at Coogee together… visiting the art gallery and museums, and listening to her rattle away about little-known facts… lying beside her at night… and he had to agree. "That's true."

"My dear girl!" interrupted the voice of Muriel from the other room.

Hermione had not heard him.

.

.

They retired to the dining hall a half-hour after being received into the drawing room. It was the first time Muriel had stopped speaking since their arrival. Draco was sure he was going to need a stiff drink to get through the evening, along with a strong nightcap later on. For the moment, Muriel's attention was on her daughter - something Tessie was meekly bearing with extreme patience; the little witch had been utterly silent for the entirety of their time in the drawing room.

"The two of them are like a character sketch," Hermione whispered under her breath; Draco had to bend closer to hear her. After having to listen to the garrulous Muriel for a half-hour, Hermione's voice was a comparative balm. "Like Lady Catherine and Miss Anne de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice."

That did not mean anything to Draco, but it felt nice to be in her confidence over something.

The broad chamber of the dining hall was comparatively modern, though the level of flashy opulence remained consistent. Far too large for the size of their party, the long tables were laden with extravagant dishes as if Muriel had intended to feed a small army. Meat and fowl of every kind graced the board, the most eye-grabbing of which was the centerpiece: a magnificent roasted peacock, re-dressed in all its glorious plumage.

It's a good thing father isn't here for this dinner, Draco thought, eyeing the roasted peacock. Lucius had bred and raised the birds ever since he could remember, and was quite fond of the ones that roamed the Malfoy gardens.

Her attention back on Hermione, Muriel smiled a simpering sort of fake smirk. With a flippant wave of her wrinkled, overly jeweled hand, she remarked, "Regrettable what happened to your mother, Mrs. Malfoy."

Hermione started, as she always did when she was addressed as such; Draco, meanwhile, was secretly pleased by the honorific - though not at the old woman's choice of topic. Muriel Prewett had a terrible reputation for gossip, but knowing what he now knew of his new in-laws, he found the abrupt segue into such a sensitive topic to be extremely gauche.

"Though," the old witch continued, oblivious, "I can't say it surprises me. The Ollivanders always were a such a secretive bunch."

Draco's gaze flickered to Hermione's face and observed her frown. He could not tell what was going through her head, but he could make an educated guess. Before she could come up with a retort that might render the entire party upset for a myriad of reasons, he announced, "We are planning to invite both of Hermione's parents to our wedding."

They had discussed no such thing, of course - but the effects of his statement on the assembled party was instantaneous. Yet, he only had eyes for Hermione.

After meeting Martin and Jeanette Granger, Draco could honestly say that neither of them fit his impression of what he'd always believed Squibs were supposed to be. Yes, it was unusual to claim one's non-magical relatives - but his wife's feelings on the matter had been quite plain. Lucius was going to have a conniption when he found out, of course. But when something so simple was so important to Hermione, he had no wish to deny her.

The absolute rightness of his decision and announcement, was confirmed in the way she sat up a little straighter and lifted her chin at Muriel, though her eyes still flickered to him somewhat suspiciously. He felt a spark of pride at how well she was playing her part.

"Oh, how unusual," their hostess remonstrated, clucking her tongue. "How on earth will you explain the presence of two Squibs in your midst?" Without waiting for an answer, she ploughed on, "I suppose your mother is planning a society wedding for the two of you?"

"She will be, yes," Draco answered, ready to move on from the topic.

Turning to Hermione now, Muriel offered, "I'm sure you recall the tiara I leant William's French, part-veela of a wife, a few years ago, my dear? And darling Audrey, as well? It's a priceless heirloom. Goblin-made. You are welcome to borrow it as well, for your special day."

Draco nearly felt like he was about to get whiplash from the changing subjects.

Appearing faintly overwhelmed, Hermione's vaguely gobsmacked gaze shifted from him, to her Head of House. "I… thank you."

"But I want it back, mind."

"Of course."

Later, after supper, Muriel took Hermione aside and into her private study, leaving Draco alone with Tessie to make small talk. The two stuck mainly to safe topics, such as the weather and the last midsummer ceremony, until Tessie dropped a bomb of a statement on him: "Hermione seems like she really loves you."

Thrown, he replied, "I suppose… perhaps."

They left it that way, with Tessie looking vaguely wistful at the notion. But the idea that he might be able to win Hermione's love certainly was a tantalizing notion. Afterward, he practically begged his subconscious to get a grip on itself; it was like he had turned into a complete sod where she was concerned.

He would have to learn to contain himself.

When the two witches returned, Hermione was laden with a chest that was veritably overflowing with Prewett family heirlooms, and looking overwhelmed. With great pomp, Muriel presented Draco with a letter for Gringotts to transfer Hermione's likely-substantial dowry to the House of Malfoy. Though he was curious what amount the Prewetts might deem worthy for such a witch, he politely tucked the letter away into his pocket for now; for a second, he thought Muriel looked nearly disappointed.

Another glance at Hermione indicated that she, too, felt some way about the exchange - though she wisely said nothing. Draco made the executive decision that it was nearing time they left.

Flashing his most dashing grin at Muriel, he began the process. "We should be thinking of heading out. Still on Australian time, you know."

He added a wink for good measure. The old biddy took the bait. "Ah, a shame. This is exactly why I never suggest international travel. In fact, when I was a teenager…"

But while Muriel went on and on regaeling them with a tale from her youth, Draco had stopped attending to the woman, and had re-focused on Hermione. She did not appear as if she were paying any mind to Muriel either, seeming lost in thought. It was a look he was coming to love on her… hair wild down her back, brow somewhat creased and her tongue in her cheek as she ruminated on something. The stunning, pale-gold gown she had donned for the dinner party showed her figure to its greatest advantage…

Predictably, Draco's own thoughts began to wander the moment his eyes did. He recalled with startling clarity, the moment in the henge when he had pulled the tie of her casting gown and the garment had puddled to her feet in a single, fluid movement. She had a body like sin itself, begging to be explored; a heated wave of compelling magic swept through him at the memory…

Shaking him back into the present, Hermione's voice broke through his reverie: "Do you know what the best way to contact Cornelius Lestrange would be?"

Muriel, apparently still mid-rant, frowned. "What an odd question."

Draco had to agree. How had the conversation got there? He would have to do his best to pay attention.

"Well, you mentioned him just now-" (Had she? It occurred to Draco that he had not even followed the faintest threads of the conversation, though Hermione apparently had been...) "-and I was wondering… well, I would like to speak with him."

Why had the old bat been speaking of Lestrange? More importantly, why did Hermione want to meet him? She had never mentioned the notion before.

"You can simply go visit him. Any pureblood can. He lives at Wandermere, up in the Cotswolds."

"Ah, perfect," Hermione said with a smile. "Thank you."

What could she want with Lestrange? Draco shot her a curious look, but she only shook her head. Well, he supposed she was allowed to have a few secrets of her own… though he could not help being disappointed that she did not want to share them with him. For a split-second, he was experiencing the gut-wrenching disbelief and subsequent anger that he had weeks ago, upon the discovery of her note. Whatever she wanted with Lestrange, he was fairly certain it could not be so bad as leaving the country on her own to see her parents, without so much as wishing him goodbye.

He resolved to ask her about it later.

Once they had said their goodbyes, they used the Floo in Fosgate's oversized fireplace to return home, landing in the parlor of their private wing at Malfoy Manor.

"Well, I would call that a success," he remarked, feeling it was true. He'd had Muriel wrapped around his little finger the entire evening… even if she was insufferable. It was one of the perks of being a Malfoy, he supposed.

Setting off in the direction of their suite, Hermione doubtfully answered, "I hope we don't have to do anything like that again any time soon."

"Well, we will have to invite them over here at some point, to reciprocate," he reasoned. "But after that, the amount of contact you have with your old House is up to you."

They arrived at their door. As she was about to step inside, Hermione's foot paused in midair and she halted so suddenly that Draco nearly smacked into her from behind.

Craning his neck around her, he peered into the receiving room, and his eyebrows raised. "Mother?"

"Hello, darling. Good evening, Hermione. I hope you don't mind – I let myself into your chambers."

"But… what is all this?" Hermione queried, her mouth hanging slightly open as she took in the scene before her.

Narcissa had moved aside every chair, every table… every piece of furniture had been pushed to the walls. She had flung open the doors leading out to the balcony so that the late summer air filled the room with its sweet scents; outside, the sunset was creeping below the horizon, in the final stages of resplendence.

In the center of the room, the Malfoy matriarch had made a circle on the floor of flower petals and an assortment of candles in red, yellow, and pink. Her wand was drawn and she was slowly levitating solid pieces of rose quartz and turquoise into the circular formation on the floor. Likely having been attracted there by the latent magic, a few fairies had found their way into the room and were blinking comfortingly in the dim light.

Snapping Hermione from her staring, Narcissa answered, "It's a fertility circle."

Draco's eyebrows raised and he could feel a heat creeping up his neck that he was sure had nothing to do with the weather. It was one thing to desire his wife - but it was something else when his mother was actively promoting the idea that he knock Hermione up, and quickly.

Hermione, it seemed, could still only stare. "A… why?"

"Surely you don't need me to explain the mechanics of conceiving a child, my dear," the woman chided. She picked up three thick, parchment envelopes she had set down on one of the tables, and pressed them into Hermione's hands. "These contain poppy, sage, and echinacea. Once the moon is up, we can perform the rite in the circle… but you must hold onto these envelopes, and each night for the next moon cycle, you must press them to your stomach and imagine yourself pregnant."

A definite flush had crept into Hermione's cheeks as she clutched the envelopes to her chest. She opened her mouth to respond, but then closed it again, before dropping the parchment envelopes like they had bitten her. It was just about the most awkwardly adorable thing Draco had ever seen; he did his best to control the urge to burst out laughing - something that did not often happen to him. The whole situation was bizarre, especially the part where his mother was behaving like a common hedge-witch.

"Well? Are you going to come inside? The sun is nearly down, and I could use some help setting the rest of this up."

Hermione glanced up behind her at him, but Draco had to bite his lip to continue controlling his laughter. He raised his eyebrows and widened his eyes innocently, as if to remind her that he had no part in this. Still, he supposed he should probably come to her rescue. Taking in a deep breath, he turned, and implored, "Must we do this tonight, mother? Hermione and I are tired."

"Oh, but it's a full moon, darling! If we don't do it tonight, you'll have to wait another whole month to do it."

Glancing down, Draco noted his wife's deepening blush, which had crept not just across her cheeks, but now also on her ears and down her neck.

"I don't think…" But Hermione could not finish whatever thought she had started.

With more firmness this time, Draco said, "This is… greatly appreciated, mother. But we are going to have to skip it tonight. Perhaps next month."

Disappointedly, Narcissa eyed the pair of them and sighed dramatically. Twice. "As you wish."

With a few flicks of her wand, the place was put back to rights. She did, however, also move the abandoned herb packets to a very strategically prominent place on their center table before she departed.

Once she had gone, Draco glanced over to Hermione, who was looking very small and drawn in that moment, and soothed, "Sorry about that. She has wanted grandchildren since I turned seventeen, I'm absolutely certain."

Looking back up at him, Hermione appeared to be choosing her words with care. "There are a lot of people who want us to have a baby. Your mother, my House… the Old Magic. Don't I… don't we… get a say?"

He took two steps to close the gap between them, and took one of her hands to smooth his thumb across the top of it. "To an extent, yes."

Nibbling on her bottom lip, she began to look consternated. "I don't like not having choices. This way of living… having accepted the blood pact... it doesn't give you many opportunities to make choices for yourself. Sometimes I find myself regretting choosing this life."

He wanted to remind her that she hadn't chosen this life at all - that it was the other way around and the Old Magic had chosen her, but he supposed that would probably not make her feel any better about it all. Thinking back to their visit with Muriel, a few connections slotted into place.

"Is that why you wanted to meet with Lestrange? Do you think that in visiting the Old Magic's delegate…" He paused, almost unwilling to say the words. Had he misread her so fully? "Do you believe he will find you a way out of remaining in the blood pact?"

In surprise, her lips separated ever so slightly. "Is that what you think?"

It took a conscious effort to continue holding her hand as he waited for her response.

"No, Draco, that is not why I want to see Lestrange," she clarified firmly, giving his hand a squeeze. "I do have some questions for him about the blood pact, but getting myself out of it is not among them."

Relief flooded his body, even to the extremities. "I'm glad to hear that."

Understatement of the year… He knew she was still keeping something from him, but he felt comfortable enough now to suspect that when she was ready, she would speak to him about it. With this resolution in mind, he accepted that while she had committed to sharing the big things with him, perhaps some of the smaller things would have to remain a mystery for the time being. Though it was a somewhat bitter pill, he allowed himself to hope.

Smiling tentatively up at him, she pushed upward onto the balls of her feet and pressed a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth. It felt nice, not just to have her lips on him, but to have had her be the one to initiate it. Intimacy, for them, was still coming slowly, with building layers.

Kissing her back chastely on the lips, he waited patiently for her to indicate that she wanted more from him. A second later she responded in kind, by slipping her tongue into his mouth. Immediately, this was followed by a familiar tendril of magic curling up his spinal column in an enticing way. Curling his hands around her to pull her closer, they stood like that in their receiving room together, magic wrapping gently around them like silken scarves.

When her hand curled around the back of his neck, it was like cool water soothing sunburned skin. It was slipping into the jacuzzi on a cold, winter night… and it was taking the first bite of a fresh, crisp apple. He wanted more; he sincerely hoped that she wanted the same.

The kiss deepened and Hermione made a small, needy noise that sent a pleasurable shiver down to his groin. Draco's hands roamed down to her hips, still clad in her delectable pale-golden dress, where they stayed, while her arms reached up to pull him closer. When she made the noise again, simultaneously drawing her body up flush with his, he allowed his hands to grope her arse, pulling her upward. Merlin, he just wanted to devour her…

Suddenly, he found himself backed against the doorframe to their bedroom, and he surfaced from the intoxicating kiss only long enough to eye the awaiting bed. Her hand stroked downward, to graze his hardening length through the fabric of his trousers. With great effort, he croaked out, "Hermione… if we aren't going to be having sex, I don't want to spend the night with blue balls."

He could see her eyes clearing, glazed over as they were with the possession of the magic willing her to get busy creating a new heir for him. Unwinding her arms from around his neck and glancing over at the bed just as he had done a moment ago, she had the good graces to look guilty. "Sorry."

Attempting to laugh it off, he adjusted the front of his trousers and pulled away. "I was beginning to think that perhaps we should have allowed my mother to cast that fertility circle, after all."

He followed the thought up with a cheeky wink, earning him a smile from her. Sobering immediately, she apologized, "I'm nearly there, I promise."

Exhaling deeply, he ran a frustrated hand through his hair, but assured her. "Well, with any luck, once you're ready, we have a century or more to fuck like a satyr and nymph."

She giggled, peeking up at him from under her lashes.

Startled at the noise, he asked, "What?"

"Other than the image of… that, you mean?" Shaking her head, she grinned wider. "I was just imagining you… with a white beard as long as Dumbledore's."

Chuckling at the very notion that he would ever let himself be so poorly groomed, he was pleased when she joined in. Once she had ceased, she began taking out her earrings and propelled herself into their bedchamber to place them on the top of the bureau. "Thank you for being patient with me, Draco. It's been difficult navigating all this."

"You're my wife," he reasoned simply, following her as he removed his cufflinks.

"And yet, I never expected to find an ally in you."

Smiling fondly at her, he replied, "The thing is, Hermione, if we don't end up killing one another, you and I could rule the world."

She seemed to turn this idea over in her head as she unclasped her necklace to place it beside the earrings. After a moment's thought, she agreed, "I suspect you're right."

His heart soared.

 

Chapter Text

Two days after her visit to Fosgate Hall, Hermione awoke in the middle of the night, feeling as though something was not quite right. She sat up, much to a sleeping Draco's disgruntlement, and headed to their en suite bathroom to splash some water on her face and use the loo. The cause of her discomfort was made immediately apparent when she realized she had gotten her monthly.

The sight of blood staining her underwear had never given her so much cause for relief before. Her entire body sagged against the counter, elbows on the sink, at this small consolation. She was not pregnant - regardless of whatever the old paintings in the gallery might say - and that was a balm.

After cleaning herself up, she checked that the sheets were not stained before climbing back into bed. As she curled back up in the spot of dwindling warmth she had recently occupied, Draco's arm snaked around her middle, pulling her in to spoon against him. Smiling privately to herself, she soaked in his heat and returned to slumber.

.

.

The following morning over breakfast, Draco announced, "I've an appointment with Gringotts this morning. It'll likely take me a few hours, so I'm afraid I won't be around for lunch."

"Oh." Hermione glanced up at him from across the breakfast table as she spread peach jam onto her toast. "Alright then."

Daintily, Narcissa bit into her blueberry-stuffed french toast, chewed and swallowed, before a pensive look stole across her delicate features. "What business do you have at Gringotts, darling?"

"Just a few things," he answered, not meeting either woman's gaze. Spearing his poached egg with his fork, he appeared to watch the yolk run from it, pooling on his plate, before answering, "I should be home well before dinner. Perhaps you can meet up with some of your friends, Hermione?"

"Right," she said. A glance at Narcissa's line of sight and slightly wrinkled nose made her remove her elbows from the breakfast table. "I suppose I can see if Ginny is free."

"Excellent."

He looked too happy about it, so Hermione belatedly wondered what he was being so mysterious about. She also supposed it was not in her best interest to ask. After all, she had a few secrets of her own - among them, that she had no intention of asking Ginny if she was free for lunch. In truth, she had been waiting for an opportunity to visit with Cornelius Lestrange, ever since she had found herself talking with the portraits in the gallery. This morning, Draco had practically handed her one on a silver platter; in fact, he had even conveniently removed his mother from the picture, as well.

A couple of hours later, she found herself right smack in the middle of a classic village of the Cotswolds. The charming homes here had been built close together along the cobbled streets, and were all constructed of the same golden-colored stone. After consulting the portrait of Aramus in the gallery as to the location of the Lestrange family estate, Hermione had initially been surprised to discover that it was not far at all from Malfoy Manor in Wiltshire. She had noted the address given on a scrap of parchment, and set off once she was sure Draco had left for whatever business he had at Gringotts that day. With a wrinkle in her nose, she suspected it had something to do with her dowry.

However, when she arrived at the given location of Wandermere, the ancestral home of the Lestranges, Hermione was not immediately sure she had come to the correct place. After all, the majority of her experiences with Lestranges of any kind, had been of Bellatrix and her husband, Rodolphus. They, along with Rodolphus' brother Rabastan, had all been Death Eaters.

In fact, the only indicator that she was in the right place at all, was that the Muggles that were making their way up and down the lane seemed not even to really see the place, distinct as it was. Their eyes merely slid right over it, except for one woman, who clucked to her friend, "Shame they let a hovel like that stay in such a beautiful town."

The remark made Hermione suspect that the place had some relatively strong anti-Muggle charms on it, because it absolutely was – there was no other word for it – charming. Evenly cut stonework, of the same golden color as the rest of the town, made up the main body of the house, while the roof was of thatching. A wooden door with an enormous knob directly in the center had been painted a bright red and could be accessed just past a narrow stone-walled walkway through an iron gate. Ivy and other creeping vines had sprawled across the front façade. It was a paragon of an idyllic English town home.

After approaching the house, she spotted Cornelius Lestrange, himself, outside tending the gardens. Hermione had owled him just after breakfast to let him know she would be coming and that she was interested in discussing the blood pact, but the old warlock did not seem as if he had been expecting company; in fact, he did not even look up at her approach.

Nevertheless, she made her way to the front stone wall and placed her hands on it, leaning over into the garden where he worked. "Hello."

He grunted, never pausing a moment in the watering of a ten-foot tall mullein plant. Enormous yellow buds atop a long stalk stretched toward the sun. Muttering, the old man glanced her way, "So, you showed up after all…"

"May I come in?"

He grunted again, and Hermione supposed that could count for an affirmative. She slid through the iron gate, which squeaked slightly in protest, and made her way into the garden.

"Mind the Spitting Oleander," Lestrange warned.

Skirting around the swaying bush of pink flowers, Hermione made her way toward her unwilling host.

"I suppose you'll be expecting me to feed you and serve tea and all…"

"Not at all," she countered, eyeing what appeared to be a bed of peppermint. With this acerbic old man, she suspected that it would require a bit of work to get him to the point where he was ready to discuss what she had come for; suddenly she was quite glad Draco had indicated he would be away for lunch. "Would you like some help with the weeding?"

The old man's eyes narrowed when he caught where she was looking. Despite that he had clearly been at the gardening for some time, not a single one of his gray hairs was out of place, and every inch of him appeared neat and tidy. "Mind you do the peppermint by hand… using magic tends to make them less potent in potion-making."

"Of course," she acquiesced, rolling up the sleeves of her robes.

Sinking to her knees in front of the bed of mint, she accepted the menial task graciously, figuring that if this were the way to get the old man to open up, she could at think of worse ways to be spending her afternoon than weeding a garden. Freshly trimmed mint smelled heavenly.

"That's a lovely specimen of mullein," she complimented, setting to work on the peppermint.

There was a long silence from the wizard before he answered, "Underrated plants, mullein…"

"Yes," Hermione agreed placidly, "Muggles in ancient Rome used to dip the stalks in oil and use them as torches, as they burned for so long."

When he did not answer, she glanced up, only to find him looking at her. Hiding her smirk, she returned to the mint. For several minutes, they tended Lestrange's garden in near-silence.

Finally, with a long sigh, he caved and gruffly invited, "Come in for tea then, why don't you?"

Mere minutes later, Hermione found herself sitting down in one of the cushioned window seats in the front parlor of Wandermere. The large bay window overlooked the garden and the little cobbled lane beyond.

"You have an idyllic property," she remarked to her host.

Lestrange only made a vaguely acquiescent noise and offered her the sugar dish.

"No, thank you," she declined.

"Prefer some lemon, would you?"

"That would be lovely."

"Trot."

A house elf popped into existence, wearing a highly starched pillowcase that had been fashioned into a kind of dress. "Master?"

"Trot, would you be so good as to bring some lemon for Mrs. Malfoy's tea?"

"Of course, master."

Trot reappeared less than ten seconds later with a tiny bowl no larger than an egg. Inside, she had sliced fresh lemon ultra-thin, and arranged the slices artfully to form a sunny, yellow flower-like shape.

Astonished, both by the elf's speed and artistry, Hermione blurted, "It's beautiful."

The elf cracked a pleased smile, curtseyed deeply, and disappeared again without another word.

"Well, madam, we both know why you're here," Lestrange began, breaking Hermione from her conundrum over how she could possibly destroy the lemon-flower.

"Yes. I finally plucked up the courage to visit with you." It felt a shame to ruin the lemon, but as Trot had gone through such trouble, she figured she should. Picking a slice, she dropped it into her teacup with a gentle plunk.

"Every year I get at least one."

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Every year you get one what?"

"Someone who is dissatisfied with their pairing. But I'm afraid I can't help you - it's the Old Magic that makes these decisions, not I… and I am only its servant. Once you've been matched and married, it's until death do you part..."

Understanding filtered in, and Hermione raised her hand to insist, "That's not why I'm here."

Lestrange paused a moment, taking his time in selecting a biscuit from the tray in the center of the table, before leaning back into his seat. For a long moment, he only surveyed her, until she began to grow uncomfortable. Finally, "Do you know what I - and many others - thought when we initially heard that it was you, Golden Girl and famed Muggleborn, that had answered the call in making a cast for the House of Prewett?"

Hermione shook her head.

"I thought, 'here comes trouble'. After the casting, I received several letters from other purebloods asking why the Old Magic would want to include a witch raised by Muggles in the pact."

Taken aback, she frowned. "Everyone seemed perfectly accepting at the midsummer ceremony…"

"The casting is meant to be a time of unity," the old man explained, biting his biscuit. "Even during both wars, outside allegiances were put aside for a single night of the year. It is what we have always been compelled to do."

Feeling somewhat angry now, Hermione took a calming sip of her tea, reminding herself that flying off the handle was not going to get her the answers she wanted. "I did not come here to discuss myself, Mr. Lestrange."

"What did you come here to discuss?"

Hermione tried to emulate Narcissa's dainty way of sipping at tea when she primly responded, "I came across a gallery of portraits at Malfoy Manor some weeks ago, including one of an Aramus Lestrange. He and I had a rather illuminating conversation about the Old Magic, particularly regarding how your line has traditionally communicated with it."

She paused here, waiting for him to speak, but he said nothing, only continued to stare at her with his inscrutable expression.

"Furthermore," she pressed onward, sipping at her tea, "regarding the sustainability of the magic… surely you must have noticed how the castings cannot continue at the rate they've been going."

Mouth pressed into a thin line, Lestrange did not open it to respond, but rather to push the rest of his biscuit between his lips. Chewing slowly, he continued only to look at her, arms folded, from across the table.

Undeterred, Hermione continued, "Purebloods can't continue to protect the magic of the earth without running themselves extinct at this rate. This year, there were thirty casters. Next year, that number will be fewer, and fewer… you must know this. The magic, if it's truly semi-sentient as I've been led to believe, has to know this, too. It has to know that the numbers are dwindling."

She thought back to the day Mrs. Weasley had taken her to the henge for the first time, the day she had got her rune-stone. It might belong to Draco now, but she thought back to that first moment she had held the stone in her hand. She had felt powerful, like she had finally come to accept the fullness of the witch that was Hermione Granger…

Squaring her shoulders, she fixed her eyes back onto Lestrange's own staring ones, and went on, "If our Houses didn't have to worry about keeping our bloodlines pure, the pact could continue on for centuries more. Families need to be added back into it." She paused. "I remember the moment I accepted my place in the pact for the House of Prewett… the moment the Ollivander crest disappeared from the monolith. This cannot go on as it has. A new pact needs to be made."

Still, Lestrange said nothing. But Hermione was not ready to back down so easily - when he avoided answering, she too, remained silent and held her eye contact.

After what seemed like an eternity of silence, he finally broke. Acerbically, he warned, "It's a lonely path you're trying to walk, girlie."

She raised her chin defiantly, "I'm not afraid to walk alone."

"I knew you were going to be trouble, I just didn't realize quite how much." Picking up his teacup in a somewhat careless manner considering the thinness of the china, the wizard took a gruff gulp of tea before setting the cup back down with a clack. "Over the years, veritable volumes of lore regarding the history of the blood pact have been forgotten, with only the House of Lestrange left to guard what is now considered to be lost knowledge. But once, a few hundred years or more ago, there was a way to induct new half-blood lineages into the pact."

In an attempt to hide how eager she was and how her mind was racing, Hermione sipped her tea. "Oh?"

"Once upon a time, all the blood pact needed to accept half-bloods, was the backing of at least two other pre-existing Houses. The new individuals would be initiated into the pact on each winter solstice, and their blood relatives would then become permanently involved… at least until they snuffed themselves out, or opted to defy the pact."

Hermione's mind was racing with this information. "But if it was once so simple, why did it stop?"

"Over time, the pureblood families of the pact pushed them out," Lestrange explained. "When a House's crest disappears, it's the collective intent of the current families that makes it so, rather than the Old Magic. It began with the Statute of Secrecy. The Heads of Houses involved in the blood pact - most of whom were on the Wizengamot, as well - were too worried to allow newcomers any longer… so the winter solstice initiations stopped."

"They had to have known that wouldn't be sustainable!" Hermione exploded.

"You may find this difficult to believe," he retorted sarcastically, "but not all decisions are made with pure intentions."

Her mouth snapped shut, and for the first time she allowed herself to glare at the man, never mind that she was sitting in his parlor and drinking his tea.

"If you were to trace family trees backward and look at marriage records, you would see that right around that time, marriages dropped off to occurring only between a few select families."

"But things are different now," she protested.

"Yes," he agreed. "Two wizarding wars have destroyed the blood pact."

"Because of the pact," she argued with vim. "All this so-called superiority nonsense is because of the blood pact in the first place."

Even fired up as she was, Hermione could recognize that she had crossed a line. Here she was, sitting in the immaculate parlor of an equally immaculate warlock whose very lineage compelled him to protect and represent the magic of the earth… and she was insulting his charge. She half-expected him to throw her out.

Instead, he laughed. "I like you, girlie."

She hesitated. "What happened to me being trouble?"

"Oh, you're definitely trouble, absolutely." Lestrange plucked another biscuit from the tray and popped the whole thing into his mouth. He had barely swallowed before continuing, "If you want to bring about a change, you need to know what you can change. You're never going to start a full-blown revolution, but you can alter things."

Eagerly, she leaned forward. "Tell me what I need to do."

"You'll need to gather the names of families that would be willing to enter into a new pact." Eyeing her, he stipulated, "Strong families that have been magical for at least three generations."

Initially, Hermione balked. Despite everything that had happened to her since the restoration of her parents' memories, there was a large part of her - one she suspected would always be there - that still identified as Muggleborn. It was how she had been raised, and was infused into her personality.

"At least at first, it will be necessary," Lestrange added, as if he could sense her forthcoming argument. Maybe he could. "Other pureblood Houses will be more accepting of families they already associate with, more willing to accept them into their sacred pact… rather than families that are completely new to it."

Hermione frowned, but recognized the kernel of truth there.

"Also," he added, "I feel this way, as well, as a guardian of the Old Magic. The families to be added need to already have a foot in the door. We need to know they can be trusted with something so monumental; this is the innate magic of the earth at stake. In fact, to start, I would recommend you speak to Houses that were already once in the pact, but no longer are because of their half-blood status."

Nose wrinkling, she debated arguing with him for a moment. Buying time to mull this over by draining her teacup, she waved her wand to charm the teapot into pouring her a second cuppa. After augmenting it with another ultra-thin slice of lemon, she had come to the conclusion that arguing, at this point in negotiations, would get her very little. She was new to navigating the world of pureblood society; once she was more adept, she could go about implementing more of her views. For now, she needed Lestrange on her side. "Very well."

"I'm surprised," he told her honestly. "I expected you to argue. A Prewett would."

Her heart swelled oddly. "I'm a Malfoy now, Mr. Lestrange."

With a snort, he amended, "I'll be sure to watch my back, then."

She could not help the smirk that slithered into existence across her lips, but she did not address his remark. Perhaps, after all, there were some perks to belonging to the House of Malfoy. "I do have one concern."

"Only one?" he quipped.

"How am I supposed to tell potential newcomers about the pact if I can't speak of it?"

"That is where you will need me," he answered gruffly. "I will travel to the henge and break off a piece of the stone monolith, imbuing it with magic. The knowledge can be imparted through such a fragment - but only to one individual at a time. Once it's broken off, it acts as a promise to be fulfilled, and you will need to choose which family will take the oath. If they do not accept, the Old Magic will be sure to bind their tongues from speaking of it. If that's the case, you will need to try again with a different family, until it is accepted."

"I understand." Determined now, Hermione could feel her own excitement vibrating through her. In fact, she could not wait to get home to tell Draco.

She paused, realization clouding her mind. Home? To tell Draco?

She was going to have to reflect on the implications of that later on.

"We can induct the first of the new Houses at the winter solstice," Lestrange went on, unaware of her internal struggle. "A representation of things being born anew. It will be the first time new families have been introduced to the Old Magic since the end of the 17th century. It will make history."

She blanched. "So soon?"

"In time for the next casting," he insisted with a smile.

Though it made sense, it also cemented tension into her shoulders and upper back. Her first thought was of Harry; the Potters had once been in the blood pact, according to the rosters in the portrait gallery at Malfoy Manor. If Harry could be convinced to take the oath, he and Ginny could have the opportunity to cast in and be paired to one another, without any need for the youngest Weasley to break the pact.

Her mind set, she nodded at her co-conspirator. "I'm ready to start, Mr. Lestrange."

The old man chuckled, "I think now, you may call me Cornelius."

Sticking out her hand, she waited for him to reach across the table to take it. Though his hand was wrinkled with age, his grasp was firm… and she had her ally. "In that case, you may call me Hermione."

He dropped her hand. "I'll owl you in a few days once everything has been suitably prepared, so that we can go over your list of candidates, Hermione."

 

Chapter Text

From the moment Hermione’s feet touched the marble floors of Malfoy Manor, she was vibrating with all-consuming excitement. Everything she had discussed with Lestrange at Wandermere was buzzing around in her brain, unwilling to be quieted. She needed to tell Draco!

How would he take it, though?

She knew he had promised he would listen... that he would try to reconcile what he knew of the world with what she believed, regardless of how different those things might be. On the subject of Squibs, he had nearly even succeeded - at least to the point where he felt comfortable interacting with her parents and accepting that they would be in her life.

But this...

He’s going to hate it , her pessimistic side inwardly voiced. This will take everything he’s known since he was a child and turn it all on its head…

But perhaps with some cajoling, and a great deal of explanation… if he has the fortitude to be patient while I tell him our plans… and maybe if he respects Cornelius’s opinion, as well… Mentally, she shook herself. There was no use harping on what-ifs in a situation like this.

“He promised he would listen to you,” she reminded herself firmly as she strode down the main corridor of their private wing. And besides, her stubborn streak pushed, it doesn’t matter if he likes it or not. This is bigger than just the two of you. You’ve got to do this.

Still, something about the thought did not sit right with her. It might have been mere weeks since they had married, but somehow his happiness had become of paramount importance to her. She did not like to imagine him drinking alone, just to numb the fact of his own existence. Not if she could help it.

After peeking into several of the smaller rooms and finding them empty, Hermione found Draco in the library. He looked as if he had just returned home himself. With a small smile, he crossed the room to greet her.

“I was just looking for you.”

Despite having just indulged in several inner pep talks, she suddenly found that she was not quite ready to broach the subject with him after all. Heart fluttering nervously, she pushed up onto the balls of her feet to kiss his cheek, and gave herself permission to momentarily stall. “Were you successful at Gringotts today?”

Briefly, he touched the pocket of his robes. Her eyes were drawn down by the subtle movement of his hand, and she wondered what that was about. “Very much so. I had a few matters of business to take care of - all resolved to my liking.”

Including my dowry , she suspected. Still, she had to appreciate his subtlety. She had peeked at the document Muriel had handed over to Draco when they had dined at Fosgate Hall, curious how much the dowager had considered her to be worth. The sum had been staggering.

He asked, “Did you enjoy your luncheon?”

You’re not going to get a better opening than that , she deduced. Still, her nerves were on edge, and it was somewhat haltingly that she admitted, “Actually, I didn’t see Ginny today.”

He paused in the act of brushing one of her curls behind her ear, to throw up his guard. “I see.”

“I’m sorry for misleading you,” she said quickly. “I know we agreed to listen to one another about things we might not see eye-to-eye on, but I needed to be sure of a few… particulars, before I broached this subject.”

“You’re winding me up,” he whined,his mercurial eyes trained on her as if he were expecting a lie. “Tell me what you did with your day instead.”

“Come, sit with me,” she entreated. Taking his hand, she led him to the windowed alcove facing the gardens and sank down onto the cushioned ledge, pulling him down next to her before folding her hands in her lap.

Like water from a broken spigot, the details of her visit with Lestrange came out in a great rush. Draco was a very good audience, listening without interruption. Hermione did wish, however, that she was able to read his expression, which was blank and enigmatic at best.

When she finished speaking, there were a few moments of very loud silence. Then, he grasped her hand and observed, “This idea of yours… it sounds monumental.”

Tentatively, she queried, “Do you consider that to be bad or good?”

He seemed thoughtful as his thumb began to stroke her skin. “It’s a good thing, surely. Like you said, we can’t hope to keep doing things the way we’ve doing them without there being repercussions.”

“I thought you would hate it,” she admitted.

“On the contrary.” He smiled, then paused a moment, wherein he seemed to be thinking intently about something. Then, looking suddenly as excited as she inwardly felt, he requested, “Wait right here, I’ll be right back.”

Surprised, Hermione watched as his form retreated from the library with near-boyish excitement radiating from him. She sat back on the window-cushion, her head resting against the wall. Nearly absently at first, her gaze wandered over the manor’s grounds, taking in the trellises climbing with grapes, the little pond with its meandering koi fish, and the beds overflowing with potioneering herbs.

This is where he grew up , she thought of Draco. For someone whose life had been designed so that he could have gone through it without obstacles, he was being surprisingly accommodating of her. I’d have thought he’d hate the idea of adding other families into the pact…

Yet again, it occurred to Hermione that she had underestimated her new husband. When would she stop doing that? Would it take years? Possibly only months? Could she somehow make it so that she could stop now? She did not know.

Her eyes caught the red foliage and shaggy bark of a hawthorn tree in the distance. Draco’s wand is hewn from hawthorn , she remembered. Nearly absentmindedly, she recalled that the flowers were not highly prized because they bore the smell of death, akin to decomposing meat. In fact, the stench was powerful enough that even bees were reluctant to pollinate the flowers; they had to be fertilized by carrion insects.

Her eyebrows knitted together at the thought that the wood of Draco’s wand bore such a connection to death, before they pulled apart and she reconsidered. From what she remembered, Draco had not been a pleasant child or teenager. How much of that had been his prejudice? More importantly, when had it changed?

She already knew: it had changed after the war.

It’s perfect for him , she decided after a moment’s consideration. Just like the smell of hawthorn flowers, Draco needed death to bloom, to grow into his own. And what had I expected? That he would have been completely transformed after Voldemort fell? People don’t always work that way…

But he had grown.

The door clicked open and then shut again. Turning her head, Hermione found Draco had returned and was striding across the room toward her. When he passed under the stained glass cupola, he was bathed in a variety of colored lights, and emerged again without even seeming to have noticed.

He sat back in the window seat across from her, and Hermione studied him now with a new lens. There was a book in his hands, so small it was nearly a pamphlet, which he handed over for her to take. “Here.”

She looked down at the book; it was a copy of Runes & Symbolism - the same little volume Hermione had found in Percy’s old bedroom back when she had been living at the Burrow.

Placing it in her hands, Draco flipped it open to a bookmarked page. It was her rune: kenaz.

A barrage of questions and feelings assailed her all at once. Looking back up at him, she noted that his pale cheeks had taken on a pink tinge. She did not even have to ask him why this particular page was bookmarked, and yet he somehow understood that she was asking. In answer, he pulled her rune-stone from his pocket, flipping it fondly through his fingers. “I did some research after we were paired.”

Feeling uncharacteristically shy, Hermione’s hand slipped into her own pocket and pulled out Draco’s rune-stone. Fingers running over the carved Malfoy crest, she flipped the little piece of smoothed dolomite to reveal isa .

Him.

Of course it was him. Slow to change, yes, but powerful once it had begun… like a glacier cutting its way through the North Sea. It struck her for a second time that, yes, she had underestimated and miscalculated the man her husband was… but more importantly, the man her husband was trying to become.

Unaware of her epiphany, Draco’s expression was an oddly open one, and clearly relieved to find that she carried his rune-stone. He sat up a little straighter before leaning forward to indicate the book he had retrieved, one of his long fingers finding a sentence to trace. Aloud, he read, “‘Ancestrally, we must each carry our own torch, creating a path of light that flows through the darkness. These torches are never extinguished, and can be used as signposts in the navigation of the ancestral stream.’”

Kenaz . Yes, Hermione decided, the Old Magic did well when it paired me to this rune. Everything about it felt exactly right.

“You’re meant to do this,” he said quietly.

She looked up at him; Draco’s gaze was searching her, as if trying to figure out what was going on in her head. Taking his hand, the one that still held her rune-stone, she closed his fingers around the little piece of quartz. “Will you help me?”

“Yes.”

One mere syllable; one single heartbeat. Yet...

.

.

At their family dinner that evening, Draco broached the scheme to his mother. Narcissa had gone quiet the moment she understood the subject, and listened attentively while her son and daughter-in-law relayed their tentative plan to her. Hermione wished she could tell what was happening inside her mother-in-law’s head.

“In short, mother, we need some advice on which families might wish to be involved.”

Narcissa’s next words were unexpected. They were also a warning. “Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. This… what you have planned… it will not be easy, especially amongst some others of those already in the pact…” Here, she paused, looking directly at her son. “Including your father, Draco.”

“I know,” he admitted.

Hermione had not factored Lucius into things at all. It was easy to forget about her father-in-law, given his absence and how infrequently he was mentioned. Yet, he was due to be released from Azkaban in less than two months’ time. How would life change for her then? She shook the thought away. This was not about Lucius, or even about her. This was far bigger.

“All the same, I will help you,” Narcissa continued, sipping at her wine glass as if she had not just agreed to something so momentous. “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”

Hermione had not considered such an angle before.

“I have to admit I’m surprised you…” she paused, glancing at Draco before amending, “ both of you - agreed so easily.”

Narcissa quirked an eyebrow as she swirled her wine around in its goblet. “But this affects us all most intimately. Have you not thought about the state of things when your own children - someday - must cast in?”

Hermione had not. A glance at Draco proved that he unequivocally had. She could feel her cheeks flushing at the quick flash of an idea that she would eventually be expected to birth his - their - children. For the first time, the idea was not accompanied by revulsion. When had that changed?

“Some families have been more recently excluded from the pact due to their becoming half-blood, regardless if that had happened generations ago,” Narcissa went on. “These would be some of the best to start with, particularly the Crabbes, the Zabinis, and the Urquharts.”

“And I’m planning to begin with Harry Potter,” Hermione added quickly, “and with the Lovegoods.”

The rest of dinner was spent discussing the scheme, starting with Hermione’s covert visit to Cornelius Lestrange. By the end of it, she was left thinking that while outwardly cold, Narcissa Malfoy was not nearly as bad as she had once believed.

She voiced this thought aloud to her husband after she and Draco bid the woman goodnight and began the trek back to their private suite.

“Don’t be taken in by her docile nature,” he warned. “During the war, she once murdered someone by gifting them a poisoned hatpin.”

Scandalized, Hermione stared at him, waiting for him to add that he had just been kidding, but he never did.

“The more I think about it, the more I like the idea,” he said as they stepped over the threshold into their wing. “Mother is right - our children… someday… they deserve better than a pool of inbreeding.”

More to change the subject away from their theoretical family than anything else, Hermione posited, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if others had a chance to cast in and get someone they love?”

Draco snorted.

“What? You don’t believe in love?”

He shrugged. “Love’s just a word… until someone comes along and gives it meaning.”

Falling silent at that, she subconsciously leaned in toward him and did not speak again until they reached their bedroom door. “I think it would be great if Ginny and Harry had the chance to cast in and get paired to one another.”

“Theo Nott was hoping to be paired with her, you know.”

Hermione gaped. “ Really ?”

With a shrug, Draco explained, “He’s got a thing for her. Do not tell him I told you.”

The following handful of hours were spent in tranquil routine. Hermione changed into her night things and sat by the window in their receiving room with a book. Draco did the same, and Hermione noticed he had forgone his usual nightcap, the bourbon decanter remaining untouched.

When it was time for bed, they turned down the sheets and climbed in together. She lay on her side and Draco moved in close behind her. It was silent for several minutes.

“Tomorrow we should go to the henge,” he murmured, drawing circles on her shoulder blade with his finger as they spooned.

“Oh?”

From behind her, she could feel the hum of his voice as he spoke. “We have a duty to make a blood offering once per lunar cycle for our first married year. After being in Australia for two-and-a-half weeks, we really should get it out of the way…”

Remembering Mrs. Weasley had mentioned that particular nuance of the Old Magic’s agreement, she agreed, “Okay.”

Sleep claimed her not long after, the images of purple, blue, and green bonfires dancing - and a distant henge on a hill - swirling through her mind.

Chapter Text

The next day was a little blustery, but sticky in the July heat. Hermione found herself standing outside the now-familiar tall stones of the mountaintop henge, a sense of trepidation having stolen over her once she drew near. Draco had headed inside the circle with very little preamble, and was now standing inside of it and looking out at her, wondering at her hesitation.

There was something about the idea of making a blood offering to the Old Magic that put her in a dubious mood. Possibly sensing this, he offered a reassuring half-smile and held out his hand, tugging her into the circle with him. They approached the center monolith together. This time, Draco carefully sliced the pad of his fingertip with surgical precision instead of slashing through his hand. It was a marked difference - one Hermione could not help but notice. Gently, almost reverently, he smeared his bloodied finger across the center boulder, right over the place where the Malfoy family crest was carved. A whispered healing spell sealed the self-inflicted wound.

Haltingly, Hermione questioned aloud, “Do I mark for Malfoy or Prewett?”

“You’re a Malfoy now.” Encouragingly, he nodded in the direction of the carving of the crest.

Copying his wand movement, Hermione watched as the skin of her fingertip split wide like a gruesome smile. Glancing up at the enormous rock, it was rough and covered in lichen in some places. Picking a relatively smooth area beside one of the carved wyverns of the Malfoy crest, she pressed her fingertip to the rocky surface.

A foreign feeling buzzed through her core the moment she made contact, and did not entirely cease once she pulled away. Casting her eyes into the distance, she scanned the far-off treeline, not really seeing it.

Draco’s hand fell gently onto her shoulder. “What’s the matter?”

Her gaze flickered toward him to find he was eyeing her curiously. With a sigh, she admitted, “It’s just… I don’t entirely like this. I know I should have expected something like this when I first accepted my call into the pact, but… it just feels…”

She trailed off. The truth was, it felt elitist and wrong. But as she was taking active steps with Cornelius to rectify that, there was little she could do about the situation at the moment - except to continue on as she was, for now.

“Listen,” Draco encouraged, picking up her hand to cast a healing charm on her still-bleeding fingertip. “This is sacred . Blood… is sacred.”

Hermione cast him a wry smile. His hand was warm around hers; it was a pleasant feeling.

“And this,” he continued, gesturing to the henge, at the crests carved into the center stone, “this is also sacred. The magic , is sacred. You are I are only favored mortals who have been given the grace and ability to guard it for a short time.”

Somewhat taken aback by his candor, Hermione’s eyes were rooted to Draco’s face now.

“But this… you and I...” His hand brushed her cheek, his thumb pressing into the middle of her bottom lip, where it paused. Her lips parted just a fraction at the contact, but her eyes were still fixed on him. Gazing back directly at her, Hermione could feel the stark sincerity with which he finished, “This, too, is sacred.”

At a complete loss for what to say, Hermione opened her mouth and closed it once, twice, before giving up and shaking her head.

“Come,” he entreated, pulling her hand as he made to leave the henge. “There’s something I want to show you.”

They left the stone circle and all its cold austerity behind to begin the trek back down the hill. When they reached the bottom, to the field where the pavilion had once stood with bonfires all around, Draco continued to tug her toward the opposite treeline without offering any explanation. Though her mind was full of questions, Hermione allowed herself to be quietly led into the forest. She had never been here before, as they were traveling outside of the fields around the henge and in the opposite direction from where Molly had brought her during Hermione’s initial claiming by the House of Prewett.

Presently, they came upon a brook, its musical tinkling reaching Hermione’s ears before she even saw it. Following it, Draco continued to lead her away from the known, until they came upon the small mountain lake she had seen in the distance from the top of the henge.

She came to a stop to look out over the still surface of the water; a fish jumped, sending ripples outward from a focal point. “Oh, it’s beautiful.”

“Nearly there,” he encouraged.

Draco had them pick their way over a wet, rocky area until they came to the edge of a different part of the lake. Hermione thought she heard the sound of rushing water - and she was right. Hidden by a copse of evergreen trees and some rocky protrusions was a tall waterfall, about eight feet in height. Where the sun hit it, rainbows misted outward.

“Come on,” he repeated. “We’re going in.”

She stopped. “ In ?”

“Yes,” he confirmed, not at all put out as he made his way down the rocky outcropping and toward the foot of the hidden falls. “What I want to show you is behind the waterfall.”

Hermione made a face. “We’re going to get all wet.”

“We sure will.”

“Hold on then,” she beseeched, fishing around in her robes pocket for her wand. “I’ll cast an Impervius Charm.”

Grinning widely in an almost boyish manner, he grabbed her hand, stopping her. “Getting wet will be half the fun.”

As she passed through the falls after him, Hermione could not say if what he had said was true. But while half of her inwardly bemoaned her sopping wet robes, the other half of her delighted in the crisp coldness of the water pouring down on her shoulders, heavier than she would have thought. It was somehow cleansing.

On the other side was a rocky shelter like a shallow cavern, hollowed and hidden away. Hermione looked around with wonder; the rock of the walls contained chips of mica and pockets of quartz, while the reflections from the water outside threw inconsistent, weird shapes onto the rough surface. She felt nearly as if she were in an underwater grotto.

“How did you find this place?” she breathed as she admired her surroundings.

“Cadfael showed me and Theo the year we turned seventeen,” Draco explained. “It was the first time we attended a midsummer celebration, but before any of us had been called to make a cast. That year, at least, we were more interested in exploring than in who might be getting married. I never thought I’d be someday taking my wife here.”

Hermione swallowed. “Why is that?”

Cocking his head to look at her meaningfully, he answered, “Mostly because I never thought I’d be married to someone like you.”

Feeling her face flushing at his words, Hermione leaned toward him, brushing away some of his sopping wet hair from his face before kissing his cheek, the side of his mouth, and finally, his lips. Pressing her tongue onto them, he allowed her access and she kissed him, long and deep. When she pulled away, she rested her wet forehead against his. “I’ve underestimated you all this time, Draco Malfoy.”

He looked at her with subtle amusement. “Yeah?”

“Definitely. I won’t make that mistake again.”

Taking a step away, she felt her feet squish inside her shoes from all the water that had collected in them. With a small noise of frustration, she reached again for her wand - and again, Draco stopped her.

“I’m just going to cast a Drying Charm,” she whined in protest.

“If you must… but you know we’ll be getting wet again when we leave.”

Quirking an eyebrow at him, she queried, “Well, are we staying here a time?”

He shrugged. Then, reaching for his pocket, he pulled out a small box with the embellished G of Gringotts Bank emblazoned across the front. “I have something for you.”

As he handed her the small box, Hermione forgot completely about Drying Charms. She knew what this was. Was this what his business at Gringotts had been?

Looking up at him in question, he nodded toward the little box. “Open it.”

Lifting the lid revealed an understated band of silvery-platinum embedded with the blue-purple of alexandrite shards. She looked down at it, then back up at him.

“I had it made,” he explained. “The gems were in my vault - as were a ton of heirloom rings, but none of them seemed quite right somehow.”

“Thank you,” she murmured. Then, holding the box like an egg that might break, she paused a moment before asking, “Will you put it on for me?”

He nodded, looking somehow immensely relieved as he took the box back from her and pulled the ring out. Taking her hand, he slipped the ring onto her finger. It was slightly too big, but Hermione noticed that mere seconds later, it had shrunk down to the right size. Magic…

“Thank you, Draco.”

“You like it then?”

“Very much.”

He kissed her as if to seal those words into eternity. “I’m glad.”

“We’ll have to get one for you, too. Otherwise, how will everyone know you’re mine?”

He went very still and quiet, and seemed to be watching her very closely, as if waiting for a punchline to drop. Finally, he finally croaked out, “I would very much like everyone to know that I belong to you.”

There were no more words for the situation, so Hermione kissed him. It was slow, loving, and languid at first, but growing into more. Water from his hair was dripping onto her lips, and their robes were both weighted down from their trip through the falls, which sent rivulets of water up her arms when she went to wrap her hands around the back of his neck. She shivered with the cold, and shrugged her robes off, where they fell to her feet in a sodden heap.

Mimicking her movement, Draco stepped out of his own robes, but when his hands returned to her waist, they were needful and insistent, wrapping around her as if he was unable to sate himself and needed more. Hermione, too, needed more - of him, of all of him .

This time, even though she knew it was the Old Magic taking hold of her, she recognized that it was also her. For the first time, she wanted him.

Reaching for the buttons of his shirt, she sloppily undid them, starting at his neck and working her way down until she ended near his groin; he groaned at the contact as her hand brushed over his length. She felt a twinge of satisfaction when she felt his member responding to her touch, no matter how slight.

Draco’s hands found her waist and pulled her closer, spreading his legs a little so she could step between them, until their bodies were flush with one another. Boldly, his hands roamed up to her chest, toward the thin blouse she had worn under her robes and which was sopping wet, and he began to tug at it. Disentangling her arms from where they had settled around his neck, she lifted them so he could pull the garment off. It landed in a wet pile by their discarded clothes.

His hands went again to her chest, one kneading her breast as he kissed her slowly, the other curling behind her back to unhook her bra. It, too, soon fell to the ground. Taking one of her nipples between two of his fingers, he gently tugged at her hardened peak; she broke their kiss to elicit a lusty moan.

“Should stop,” he muttered disjointedly, nearly too quiet to hear. “Before…”

“Don’t stop,” she panted, reaching for the zip at the front of his trousers as she fumbled with his buckle. For good measure, she repeated, “ Don’t stop , Draco.”

He needed no further encouragement. Almost as if they had disappeared by magic, her jeans were off, and Hermione was only left in her knickers. Draco’s trousers swiftly disappeared as well, followed by his underthings. It did not even occur to her how they were going to do this in little more than a cave behind a waterfall, until she found herself pushed up against the rocky surface of the wall. It was wet and cold, rough in some places and a bit slimy in others.

“How… how?” she stuttered, her brain fuzzed over with want so that she was unable to form a coherent sentence.

Draco, whose hand had slid into Hermione‘s knickers and was already caressing her slit urgently, faltered somewhat. Grasping for his wand, just beyond arm's reach, he had to pull his hand from her underwear to grab it. With a needy moan, her head fell back at the sudden lack of pressure on her intimacy. Her own hand slid into her knickers and pressed on her clitoris, already slick with need.

When Draco looked back around, his eyes darkened at the sight of her. Grabbing a fistful of his cock, he began pumping himself. “Shite, it’s so fucking hot when you touch yourself…”

“Come and do it for me,” she requested plainly, almost like a challenge, her back against the wall and legs parted as she stroked her sex.

He cast a cushioning charm on the rocky wall and on the ground beneath them, but in another second, he was on top of her and kissing her with urgency. Curling his thumbs over the waistband of her knickers, he wrenched them downward and threw them aside.

Slow down, her brain whispered, slow down...

Her body certainly did not want that, but Hermione recognized this inner voice as her own self, wanting this to be special. It would not be the first time they had had sex, no, but it would be the first time they did so entirely of their own free will, and not because it was required of them.

“Draco,” she murmured, placing her hand on his bare chest to pause him.

His hands were running across the skin of her hip, of her stomach, her breast, her clitoris - she gasped. “Mmph?”

A slight grin twitched into existence across her lips; there was something about having the ability to make her husband lose all sense of his usual eloquence that she quite enjoyed. With sudden and startling clarity, she recalled the night they had wed. There had been a moment as they made their way to the henge for their consummation… he had derisively asked, Are you implying you want us to make love?

I suppose that would be too much to ask of two people with a history like ours , she had replied then. Now, wrapped in Draco’s arms, the magic thrumming in her veins but not obstructing her mind, she challenged that exchange.

She leaned in to his ear to whisper, “Make love to me.”

Grey eyes met brown; a heartbeat passed between them, full with understanding. Then, Draco began lavishing her neck and shoulders with kisses, winding her up into a state of frazzled need. Magic was thrumming through her veins, an entity all its own, so that she almost did not feel like Hermione any longer, but rather more like the most elemental and primal version of herself that existed.

She purred when he finally slid inside of her and paused, taking a moment to reacquaint himself with the exquisite tightness of her body. As if that was what she had needed all along, she began to relax and adjust to the feel of him filling her completely. And gods, he filled her so completely. Every dark and empty void within her body and her heart and her soul - whether she had known of their existence or not - was sealed up by him. Not just by his body, but also by his words and in his very presence. This was a magic between them like she had never known before - and unlike their initial frenzied mating during their consummation ceremony, this was gentle, reassuring… a pair of hands that cradled her, promising to catch her should ever she fall.

There were tears in her eyes, even as her body was in ecstasy. She was murmuring things, calling out his name, and he was responding in kind. At some point, she found she was no longer backed up against the wall, but on top of him, his back on the floor while she caged him in with her arms and straddled him.

Her adoring words sent Draco over the edge and he yelled out as he pushed up into her, harder and faster. Her orgasm wrung out a shriek of pleasure. She reached down, murmuring kisses against the side of his neck as she rode him to completion. His hands reached up to cup her buttocks, pulling her down onto him so he could expel himself into her.

She collapsed on top of him before rolling off, thankful that he had thought ahead to cast a cushioning charm on the rocky ground as well. It was only wet now, the spray from the waterfall misting onto them as they caught their breath and stared up at the ceiling of their secluded retreat.

Watching the watery reflections float across the ceiling of the place, she felt sated. Her hands went to her abdomen. Biologically, it was not possible for her to become pregnant this time… but next time, perhaps. Or the time after that…

“If I’d known that was all it took to get in your pants, I’d have given you jewelry much sooner.”

She turned her head to find Draco grinning cheekily at her, and she swatted him on the arm. Then, smiling a content smile, she rolled onto her side to face him. He reached over to play with her hair.

“Well, Mrs. Malfoy, now that you’ve had your wicked way with me, what’s next?”

Suddenly feeling very serious now that magic wasn’t raging hot through her veins, she told him, “I was thinking…”

“Oh dear,” he jested.

“...If we’re really going to try to make this work, I’m going to have to have something to do with myself besides listlessly wandering around the Manor all day.”

“My mother has hobbies…” he suggested, rolling onto his side to mirror her. From the look in his eyes, she suspected he already knew his answer would not suffice for her.

“I was just thinking about something one of the portraits said to me in the gallery about Mr. Ollivander.” Draco’s face darkened at the name, but Hermione persevered. “Perhaps, since I’m the last of his blood, I might be able to study wandlore…”

“I’m sure Garrick wants nothing to do with the Malfoy family.”

Ignoring this, though it was probably true, she pushed, “...But what I want to know is, if you and I had a second child - after the Malfoy name is already secured - would they be able to take up this profession?” She sat up fully now, sweeping all of her curls over one shoulder and running her fingers through them as she spoke. “My mother’s family’s legacy is extinct, but I know Malfoys never split up their estate. I would want a second child to be provided for…”

One of his classic smirks had spread across Draco’s face. “Are we having children now?”

“I meant eventually, not right away,” she justified. It did seem perhaps a bit far-thinking to be speaking of a second child before she was even pregnant with their first, and with his release leaking out of her and onto the rocky floor. Still, she had lately been picking up on an undercurrent of snark from him, subtle but present. Tilting an eyebrow suggestively, she added, “Creating wands for wizarding Britain is a very important responsibility… unless… do you doubt your ability to work your wand?”

His smirk split into a full-fledged grin, and he pulled her closer to him. “You weren’t doubting the efficacy of my wandwork just a minute ago, witch.”

She flashed him a cheeky smile and kissed his cheek before pressing on with her argument. “Without the Ollivander legacy, witches and wizards will have to go out of the country to get their wands. It’s a respectable profession, wandmaking.”

“Certainly respectable,” he agreed. “On the other hand, Malfoys usually only have one offspring.”

“You forget that I’m a Prewett,” she reminded him with a wink. “We’re notorious for having large families.”

His smoldering gaze locked onto her face then roved lasciviously down her naked body. “And I cannot wait to begin putting them inside of you.”

Hermione smiled shyly, despite that they had consummated their marriage several times. “Perhaps in a couple years, I would like that too.”

Getting to his feet, he brushed himself off and offered his hand, pulling her to her feet. They dressed in silence but for the rushing of the falls. It was very unpleasant to be putting cold, soggy clothing back on, particularly the robes heavy with retained water, and it was only this fact that made Draco recant and allow Hermione to cast a Drying Charm after all… even if they were only to get wet again a moment later.

Once dressed, he turned to her and jerked his head toward the waterfall. “Are you ready to head home?

“I’m ready for our next adventure.” Grinning, she added, “I hope it will be slightly less wet.”

With a chuckle, he looked at her openly and kissed her. When he pulled away, he said, “I suspect my life - now that you’re in it - is going to end up being one immense adventure.”

“I like that,” she decided. Then, taking his hand and squeezing it, she joked, “On to the next. You lead the way.”

They passed under the waterfall and emerged on the other side, both laughing.

Chapter Text

Epilogue:  Nineteen Years Later...

.

The air smelled of magic. It was a difficult scent to put one’s finger on, but Draco could have recognized it in his sleep. Bonfires of green, purple, and blue danced as if in homage to the stars high above them. The moon was a great, ghostly ship coming to port on the wisps of clouds that streaked the night sky. All around, witches and wizards too numerous to count were cavorting and carrying-on.

In recent years - now that over 48 Houses comprised the blood pact - they had needed to add a second pavilion to the hidden fields by the mountain lake. With such new inclusions came the addition of many new dishes of food. The long tables were still laden with all the same ones Draco had been used to sampling for half his life - only now, while he could still enjoy his family’s traditional crème almaundys, he could also indulge in some malai kofta, courtesy of the Patils. The roasted scorpions on sticks remained untouched as ever.

“You look far away,” Hermione remarked, touching his arm.

Draco looked down at her; his mind had indeed been drifting. His wife of nineteen years was beautiful as ever, still slender despite having brought children into the world. There were, however, laugh lines permanently etched into her face, and she kept her hair a fair bit shorter than she once had in her youth. These were physical differences from when they had first married, perhaps. But every year since then, she had become more her own witch - become so confident in her place in the world, it was stunning.

Smiling fondly, Draco took her hand and briefly squeezed it. “Every year we come here, I’m reminded of the night I was first bound to you.”

Hermione returned his smile and the squeeze of his hand before turning back toward the festivities. Despite this, he noted she was still glancing at him sidelong while a Malfoy smirk for the ages continued to tilt her lips. She quipped, “Lucky wizard.”

Though it had never taken him over so completely as before their consummation all those years ago, Draco could feel the Old Magic thrumming through him in much the same way as it permeated the air around them. Oh, that saucy witch was going to get it later, of that he was certain.

Any response Draco might have made, however, was cut off by the sudden appearance of their eldest.

Calex wore an expression of the sort of extreme confidence that only came with youth, but Draco could tell it was a front. At 18, it would be the boy’s first year casting in. His fingers were picking at the linen sleeve of his white ceremonial shirt in a nervous manner - the only thing that gave his unruffled mask away. He announced, “Grandmother has arrived.”

Looking amused, Hermione interpreted, “So you’re escaping?”

“She’s trying to introduce me to all of these people.” Their eldest son was Draco’s spitting image - except for his eyes, which were Hermione’s deep brown. He had also been sorted into Gryffindor, much to Draco’s initial chagrin. “I went to school with most of them; introductions seem too… formal.”

“I’m sure she’s only trying to teach you your prospects,” Draco assured his son, clapping him on the shoulder. “There are so many this year...”

It was true. Over the past nearly two decades, Hermione and Lestrange had inducted so many new families into the pact that there were to be 114 casters this midsummer. Yet still, every winter solstice, she somehow seemed to find another family, another individual to include…

There you are!” a familiar voice called over the din of so many high-spirited voices.

“Ginny!” Hermione greeted, waving her friend over.

A heavily pregnant Ginny waddled her way over to the three Malfoys. “It was some work to find you in this throng,” she complained mildly, pushing a few sweaty tendrils of her vibrant hair from her forehead. “I don’t remember ever being this warm.”

“Hey, Aunt Ginny.” Unnoticed, Draco’s second eldest had sidled up to the little group. It was Ilian’s first year attending one of these celebrations, though being barely 17, he would not be making a cast this year.

“Good Godric, Ilian, how long have you been standing there?” Hermione demanded.

Ilian only shrugged. A quintessential Slytherin, the boy had always been sneaky. It was therefore ironic that he was to inherit the Prewett legacy. Draco had often reflected that Ilian had many of the traits traditionally favored by the House of Malfoy, while the actual Malfoy heir, Calex, was really more of a Prewett, himself. But times had been changing for quite awhile now… when both wizards inherited their respective legacies, it would just be yet another tradition made new.

“Ron, Susan, and Rose just got here,” Ginny remarked. She fussed briefly with the collar of her godson's shirt - something Calex bore with extreme patience, considering how Ginny’s huge belly bumped him as she did it. When she finished, she added, “I’ve left Harry by the food. He was dropping treacle tart off at the table when he got pulled into some conversation or other with Xenophilius Lovegood.”

“Barely escaped with your life and all your senses, did you?” Draco drawled, quirking an eyebrow.

Ginny grinned back, used to bantering with him by this point. “It was a near thing , Malfoy.”

Ilian snickered from by Hermione’s side, which caused Ginny’s attention to shift to him, instead.

“My, you look more like your mother every day, Ilian.” He was the only one of their children who had not inherited Draco’s platinum blond locks. Truly, Ilian rather looked like Martin Granger more than either of them. “Where have you left Caris and Scorpius for the evening?”

“Lucius is watching them,” Hermione supplied, referring to their two youngest children.

Ginny’s eyes widened. “You thought that was wise?”

Draco snorted. It was common knowledge that his father - once so austere and unforgiving - had grown into a different wizard upon becoming a grandfather. Lucius was now ‘Papa’... and the only thing Draco and Hermione had to worry about when it came to leaving their remaining two children in his care, was that he would overindulge them. Caris, in particular, being the only granddaughter, had had Lucius wrapped around her little finger from the moment she was born. Thirteen years later, she still did, despite that she was to inherit the Ollivander legacy instead of the Malfoy one.

“We’ve instructed the elves not to allow them too much sugar,” Hermione answered with a wink.

“A necessity, that,” Draco grumbled. “Otherwise, he’ll be feeding them both biscuits and ice cream all evening…”

A boom shook silence into the pavilions and surrounding area. All eyes turned to the base of the low mountain where the sound had emanated from. Now quite old and finally showing his age, a wizened Cornelius Lestrange used his staff to hit the ground twice more. The sound resonated through all those gathered, starting a flurry of quiet movement amongst the families. For the second year in a row, Draco noticed round-faced Hester Longbottom - Neville and Flora’s daughter - was trailing the old warlock as he went through his offices. Flora’s line within the Carrows had been blood relatives of the Lestranges, and just as Ilian Prewett-Malfoy was to inherit a legacy other than his father’s, Hester was to inherit Lestrange’s.

Ginny excused herself to join Ron and Susan seeing Rose off for her first casting year. Harry was a short way away, reassuring seventeen-year-old James before his first casting, as well. Being the older of Harry’s twins, only he was required to make a cast, though Albus was reportedly debating doing so the following year anyway.

Draco only had a moment to notice these things however, because beside him, he felt Calex tense. Hermione pulled him into a swift embrace; he allowed himself to be held there slightly longer than usual before pulling away.

Nodding in Draco’s direction, the boy muttered, “Dad…?”

“Make us proud, son.”

He lifted his chin. “I will.”

Fondly, Draco reached out to fix what Ginny had earlier adjusted on the boy’s shirt collar. “You have nothing to fear. If you’re chosen, know that as the heir to the House of Malfoy, the Old Magic promises you nothing less than your perfect match.”

Calex ran a hand nervously through his hair. “That’s what I'm afraid of…”

Taking her cue, Hermione took Ilian by the shoulder and turned him away from the two of them, discreetly allowing Draco a moment in private with Calex to reassure him.

“I was afraid, too,” Draco admitted, dropping his hands from his son’s collar. With a glance in Hermione’s direction, he amended, “But it worked out better than I could have imagined.”

Rolling his eyes, Calex then voiced a different fear. “What if I’m not picked?”

It was another emotion Draco recalled once having before his marriage. “If it doesn’t happen this year, you cast again next year. And the next, and the next. It’s a life partnership - good things come to those who wait for them.”

Reaching into his trouser pocket, Calex pulled out his newly acquired rune-stone, which Draco had taken him to retrieve only three months prior. Both wizards’ eyes were trained on the Malfoy family crest chiseled into one side of the smooth quartz until he flipped it over, revealing Calex’s personal rune: sowilo .

It had been a curiosity Draco had never prepared himself for, but learning of his child’s rune had been both unsurprising and fascinating. Sowilo represented sunlight - and the Malfoy copy of Runes & Symbolism had been creased open to a new page the moment the rune had claimed Calex. Draco, himself, had consulted the page on more than one occasion: Sunlight acts as guidance for success, allowing for faith in outcomes. Representing the transmutation of thought into energy for action, it activates our highest values and promotes invigoration and persistence in any endeavor. It will ward against the harmful opinions of others to keep the heart focused on its purpose. Additionally, sowilo can expose matters to the clear light of day, while simultaneously invoking the ancient code of honor and morality.

If he were being truthful with himself, Draco could not think of a more Gryffindor rune than the one his heir had been given. Runically, sowilo was the direct opposite of Draco’s own rune, isa , while working in tandem with Hermione’s kenaz . Yet, it fit Calex perfectly - of course it did.

Ilian, however… his would be interesting, when his time came. Draco was unsure what to expect for his second eldest son’s rune. Meanwhile Caris, a shrewd and level-headed Ravenclaw, might cast in and come back with kenaz , just like her mother. It would not shock Draco. Scorpius, who was only nine but destined to inherit the legacy of the House of Black, was still discovering his personality… though Draco had a strong suspicion this youngest son would end up in Hufflepuff. Four Hogwarts houses… and four different Houses within the blood pact as well...

What a life, he reflected before shaking himself and focusing back on the present. Reaching out, he closed Calex’s hand around the small stone.

“It’s normal not to want to give it up so soon.” Reaching into his own trouser pocket, Draco pulled out Hermione’s rune-stone. He had continued to carry it with him every day, as constant as the wedding band on his finger. “But you’ll see… someday, there will be something even more precious to you. But only when you’re ready.”

Simultaneously, both wizards slipped the rune-stones they carried back into their pockets. Draco could see the change that had come over Calex, the determination now obvious in the set of his mouth and in his eyes, so like his mother’s. So like sowilo .

Hermione and Ilian reapproached, Ilian looking curiously at his brother while Hermione was glancing at the clusters of white-clad purebloods ascending the mountain toward the henge in the distance.

“It’s time,” she said, her eyes fixed on her grown son.

Straightening himself, Calex’s eyes caught a similar scene playing out not far away. James Potter - the living image of Harry in the same way that Calex was Draco’s - was readying himself for his own ascent; he was barely seventeen, but had been called to make a cast almost immediately. Without another word, James and Calex locked eyes across the field and strode from their parents to meet in the middle and head up the mount together. Rose Weasley tagged along behind them, wrenching herself out of her mother’s arms to shout after the boys to wait up for her. While both James and Rose were a year younger than Calex and not yet quite finished with their education, they had all grown up together.

When Ginny rejoined them this time, she was accompanied by Ron, Susan, and Harry. The six adults watched the children disappear into the tree line, only turning away when the last swish of Rose’s linen gown was no longer within sight.

At some point, Ilian appeared to have slipped off, just as unnoticed as he had come. Some distance away, Draco spotted him with Albus Potter. Fast friends in Slytherin and both about to begin their final year, the two boys had climbed up onto a large boulder protruding from the ground nearby the second pavilion, as if to get a better view of what might be happening up at the henge. Draco wondered what Ilian was thinking, if he were ruminating on his own casting, which surely was not far off. Ilian had been born very quickly after Calex, though it had been another four years between him and Caris...

The thought of his only daughter eventually casting in and being married off made Draco’s fist clench by his side. He knew it was what she was destined to do, that he and Hermione had chosen that life for her with open eyes… but that did not mean he liked it. He was sure he was going to be unequal to the task when the time came. Caris spent much of her summers studying wandlore under Garrick Ollivander: something she took to with such ease that it almost seemed as if she had been studying up on it in the womb. When she was old enough, she would make a house cast for the House of Ollivander, to marry a younger son. This as-yet-unknown wizard would take her last name, and their ilk would take up the mantle of wand-making for all of Great Britain.

Even at thirteen, Caris already seemed to know exactly how important this was - how important she was. She had already spoken of such a future without any kind of fear... and yet, all Draco could see when he looked at her, were the platinum blonde ringlets that fell past her shoulders, mimicking her mother’s, and her enormous gray eyes, so like his. He had not known what it was to truly want to protect something with everything he had, until he’d had a daughter.

Many of those not sworn by their life’s blood to protect the Old Magic had commented on how unusual it was for all four of the Malfoy children to have different last names. Yes, perhaps it was unusual, Draco conceded. But, as all of his children were blood-related to the surnames that had been chosen for them, they could each take on the responsibility of those Houses when the time came, each inherit their own legacy - and perhaps give all four of their Houses a new reputation in this modern age.

“This is rubbish, innit?” Ron muttered, his voice low and throaty as it broke through the silence from amongst the adults. Susan was gently crying. Draco did not blame them, as they had had to part with their daughter. The mere thought of parting with his own…

Don’t think on it , he inwardly chastised.

Susan Bones had been amongst the first Hermione initially approached regarding their addition to the blood pact, in those first couple of years. She had agreed to take on responsibility for protecting the Old Magic, and proudly cast in for her first time the following year. That same summer, Ron had also decided to make a cast for the House of Weasley in the hopes of being paired to her - though as a younger son, he had not been required to cast a stake at all. Something about their compatibility must have resonated well with the Old Magic, because they were directly married in their first year. Perhaps it was because Susan had already been pregnant with Rose at the time, unbeknownst to either of them.

“Completely rubbish,” Harry grumbled moodily, agreeing with Ron.

Hermione touched first Ron’s shoulder, then Harry’s. “Wouldn’t it be something if James and Rose got paired?”

The suggestion half-cleared Harry’s melancholy and he managed to chuckle. “Daphne would have absolute kittens if James was married and she wasn’t here. She’s counting on him not to be.”

“She’s at home with Lily, I take it?”

Harry nodded; Draco thought the man rather looked as if he was sorely missing his wife’s presence, and wondered why they had not been able to get a sitter. He tried to imagine sending Calex up that hill without Hermione by his side, and decided it sounded like a dismal prospect.

“I thank Merlin none of mine are old enough to be casting yet,” Ginny put in, shifting so that the weight of her enormous belly could be more evenly distributed. “I’ll wait to complain about that after this one’s finally born.” She made a face and explained, “He’s a kicker .”

Susan perked up. “Have you discovered it’s a boy, then?”

“It is. Theo’s ecstatic. He’s at home with the girls... didn’t want me to come tonight for fear of me overexerting myself.” She rolled her eyes. “As if he weren’t responsible for my condition in the first place…”

Draco snickered; even Hermione looked amused.

Seven booms from the top of the hill softly echoed down to the field, signaling the start of the casting ceremony. Looking apprehensive, Hermione slipped her hand into Draco’s, her eyes trained on the rocky outcropping where the henge was just visible from within the trees. The stone circle was so crowded in white-clad figures, it nearly looked as though the place was buried in snow, from far away.

Wrapped up in their own thoughts, the six of them waited in silence, all eyes trained on the hilltop above. Draco wondered if his own mother had once done this very thing, her heart pattering quickly, unsure which outcome she wanted for her son. It was what was currently happening for Draco, now - he knew only that he wanted what was best for Calex. He had to trust the Old Magic to know exactly what that was.It seemed an eternity had passed before the first of the casters made it to the bottom of the hill again. Trying not to crane his neck, Draco waited as patiently as he could, watching as the unpaired rejoined the celebrations still going on in the pavilions. Some of the younger witches or wizards ran to their parents or friends waiting at the base of the hill, alongside Draco.

“Dad!” James Potter was running down the hill, pushing his glasses up his face and looking winded as he ran to Harry.

A moment later, Rose appeared from the treeline. Now, Draco was actually craning his neck. Hermione took his hand, offering him a tentative smile, and squeezed.

After a few more minutes, everyone headed into the pavilion except Draco, Hermione, and Ginny. Finally, Ginny voiced what all three of them were thinking, “Do you think he was matched?”

“It does seem as if he should’ve returned by now…” Hermione allowed.

Draco refused to speak on the subject either way, until it was confirmed. He tried to imagine Calex, so recently just a child, going through the marriage rite and subsequent consummation. Had Draco, himself, really only been 19 when he had taken Hermione into that henge for two hours?

“Calex!” Hermione cried.

Head whipping around, Draco spotted his son slowly making his way from the narrow forest path before stepping into the wildflower-strewn field. He approached slowly, as if he were merely taking an afternoon stroll. Once he finally stood before them, he grinned. “Hey, mum.”

“You’re not married?” she demanded, though the answer was obvious.

“Nope.” His grin spread wider; Draco wanted to both hug him and box him over the ears for his cheek. Instead, Calex nudged Hermione affectionately, “You get to be the most important witch in my life for another year, yet.”

...for another year, yet. It was similar to something he remembered telling his own mother, once.

“Think we can eat now? I’m starving?”

With a chuckle from Draco and some eye rolling from Hermione, the four them turned their backs on the hillside, to head into the celebrations - together.