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A Court of Stars and Dreams

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~.~.~.~.~

I stared at Draco across the organized chaos of my desk and fought to keep my expression blank.

“You’re serious?” I asked him, unsure if that was indignation or dazed incredulity that made my voice sound so breathy. When dealing with Malfoy, it was always one or the other. “Did Fred and George put you up to this?”

Over the rims of a set of dark Muggle sunglasses, bloodshot grey eyes stared back at me, unflinching and as sincere as I’d ever seen them in all the years of our friendship. “I wouldn’t joke about this,” my best friend assured me, shoving the glasses back over his eyes to block out the light. 

My chest went tight and achy, caving in just a little bit.

My temper, however, flared to righteous proportions.

“So, let me see if I understand you correctly,” I said, putting my paint brush down in the cup of water nearby to assure it didn’t dry out and ruin the bristles. “You want me to go to some 'pure-bloods only' event—this Calanmai Festival, that hails back a thousand years, give or take—all so I can be moral support for you while you engage in a ridiculous Dark Ages secret tradition that allows you to utilize a type of mystical, Hoodoo-ish Divination magic to determine your perfect mate from among the participants, all for the purposes of marrying her and carrying on your disgusting family’s tradition of discrimination based upon some misguided and unscientific notion of magical superiority through family lineages.”

I raised an eyebrow at how ridiculous the whole thing sounded.

That didn’t stop me from worrying, however, especially when Draco didn’t interrupt to make any corrections, which meant that I was either dead-on with my assessment of the situation or…well, he was still too blotto from last night’s Firewhisky shots challenge to care.

“Well?”

A small snore escaped him.

Cleaning the paint from my fingers with a rag kept me from strangling him, but I did round the desk and kick him in the shins to wake him up. He jolted and came fully conscious with a start, but then a pained sound escaped his lips a moment later and he slumped back behind his hand.

I tried putting the debate into simpler terms, as it was clear by the way he was drooping in his chair that intellectual conversation was beyond his ability at the moment. “In other words, you want me to watch you carelessly walk into a marriage that is, in effect, chosen for you by the same type of magic used by the Tri-Wizard Tournament cup to pick its champions, only in this case, it’ll be some pure-blood princess who only wants you for your money, political connections, and fame. That about sum it up?”

He moaned long and loud, looking a bit green around the gills.

“Granger, for all that’s holy!” He paused, made an ‘urpy’ noise, and then tried again. “Listen, pet, I’ll love you all the rest of our lives together if you’d just once share with me one of those Sobriety Potions you keep secretly tucked away in that desk of yours, the ones you think I don’t know about.” He waved a tired hand towards the left side of my desk. “Bottom drawer, in the back, behind your emergency stash of fluffy vagina blankets.”

My back teeth met and ground together with such force I thought it possible I’d have to go see my parents at their work after this meeting to be fitted for a set of caps.

“They’re called feminine pads, you pig, and FYI: I don’t recall ever giving you permission to root around in my office desk.”

He winced. “I’m sure you must have.”

I grumbled something about slimy thief Slytherins keeping their sticky paws to themselves under my breath and then crossed the room to my desk and reached into the drawer where he’d indicated, pulling out a small, green vial from the exact spot he’d described. 

I took my time sauntering back to him, cashing in on twelve years' worth of good karma to privately enjoy his suffering.

“You owe me," I made sure to rub it in.

“A million times over by now. I’m well aware,” he replied, grabbing the potion from my hand, uncorking it and downing it in one toss. Moments later, he sighed in relief. “Ah, you truly are a goddess among women, love.” He bowed his head to me in mock veneration and at the same time, slipped the empty potions vial into his pocket using sleight of hand. I caught the move easily after all these years, though. Bloody klepto. “A true Circe in the making,” he droned on, “with your effortless ability to put the ‘mask’ on ‘masculinity’ and tame silver-tongued Basilisks. It is a fact that I worship the very intractable ground you smash daily under your righteous heels.”

Right. If only he really felt that way about me.

What I wouldn't give to have him do a little 'worshiping' of me once more, his head between my thighs...

“Nice dodge and weave there,” I complimented him, trying not to be too let down by the reality that I’d never get this man on his knees for me again. Not literally, or figuratively speaking. “However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how you failed to actually answer the question. Shall I remind you of the primary topic at hand by asking it again, or would it be better for your alcohol-sodden grey-matter if I wrote it down instead? I can use small words, if it helps.”

My companion waved me off. “You know, for an intelligent woman, you talk more and say less than anyone I’ve ever met.”

That tickled a laugh out of me, because Draco was the king of prevarication. “Pot, meet kettle,” I pointed out.

Taking up a defensive posture, complete with sulking expression and crossed arms, Draco huffed at having been called out on his hypocrisy. I admit I found great amusement in his playacting, though, especially as it made him look adorably boyish, but I was careful to keep my expression blank so I didn’t give him any performance anxiety issues. I really wanted to see what he’d come up with next.

“Fine. Since you’re like a Crup with a sodding bone when it comes to the truth anyway,” he said, complete with dramatic surrendering sigh. This was, I knew, all part of a much bigger game to him, after all. “Essentially, you’re right. Congrats, you hit the bludger with the bat this time. Calenmai is a magical tradition for pure-blood parents to play matchmaker for their grown-up children who enjoy their adult freedom a little too much and who seem in danger of straying from Salazar Slytherin’s exalted doctrine of blood superiority. It’s also a way our kind can continue to segregate our vainglorious selves from you do-gooder Muggle-borns and those unfortunate orphan half-bloods you tend to hang out with.”

I definitely rolled my eyes at the Harry cheap-shot, but waited for the rest.

He dropped the sullen act altogether, probably realising I wasn’t buying it, and went straight for shock-value instead. “So, I figured that if I’m going to be confronting the end of my single days at long last, closing the chapter on twelve years of guilt-free sexual experimentation and forced to take the plunge into staid monogamy, who better to record my humiliation than the very woman who’d had the honour of sponsoring and viewing my first ever orgasm face?”

My jaw, almost literally, hit the floor.

It took me another few seconds to put into words what I wanted to say, because “Stupefy” would only land me in a Ministry jail for the night.

“You’re saying you want me to come with you not because we’ve been best friends since seventh year and I know you just about as well as your mother, or even because you want my help getting out of this ridiculous custom altogether, but because I was the first to shag you? What, I get to pick the next Lady Malfoy and pass you off into her arms so you can experience marital bliss at long last, all because I had sex with you once upon a time?”

He grinned. “Apropos, isn’t it? First, meet last.”

I counted to thirty, trying to get my blood pressure back under control.

How could he be so bloody clueless? And his cheeky expression wasn’t winning him any points, because I didn’t find him charming in the least and told him as much.

“But you’ll do it?” he insisted. “You’ll come be my witness and help me pick the right bird for the job?”

I sighed. He was really pushing my buttons today, wasn’t he?

Too bad they were all the wrong ones…

“Just so we’re clear: you do know that painting is just a hobby.” I waved at my latest piece sitting on the easel behind me. “Six-to-midnight, Monday through Friday, I’m actually a reporter,” I reminded him. “You know what that means for the secrecy of your little get-together if you take me along, yes?”

It was a good-natured warning, but it was also meant to distract both of us from the things Malfoy tended to make me feel with the complication he’d conveniently dropped into my lap. I’d gotten really good at misdirection over the past decade-plus-two as a result of this friendship.

“I’ll print the Calanmai story if it’s a bang, and not a bust.”

The look Draco threw me told me not to be dense.

“Don’t be dense, Granger, why else do you think I’m inviting you along?”

No surprise that he had another agenda going on here.

Now I was getting a headache.

“Okay, enough of the snake-games. Who are you gunning for this time?”

I asked because I knew Draco never did anything without at least three reasons, and usually one of those intentions had a consequence for some hapless fool, but was so well-concealed, that Machiavelli, himself, would have been left with his head spinning when the dust finally settled. The phrase ‘never saw it coming’ was invented specifically to describe a Malfoy’s scheming.

“Who says I’m after anyone?” he casually fired back.

Glaring at him didn’t seem to faze him in the least. He simply stared back at me, expression innocent and eyes guileless, as patient as a serpent waiting to strike.

“It’s my ex, isn’t it?” It had to be. No one else we discussed, aside from maybe Lucius, could make Draco this careful with his expression. “Cormac’s going to be there, isn’t he?”

He blinked at me, the perfect little angel.

The McLaggens were ‘new’ pure-bloods, who had relocated to Britain from America a century ago. They’d kept their ‘no mingling with No-Maj’ conditioning when they’d moved, and so were eligible to participate in the Calenmai festivities.

“You’re still trying to get me to ruin him,” I accused.

It was as if I was speaking a foreign language; Draco simply stared at me as if he didn’t comprehend what I was saying.

“I swear, one day you will tell me why you hate Cor so much.”

He smiled like a cat at me. “No, I won’t.”

I pointed a finger at him in warning. “Look, I know you’re up to at least three somethings devious, but I’ll go along with it, if only to satisfy my curiosity. But if printing this story hurts one of my other friends‒”

That won me a genuine, softer smile. “You won’t let it, I’m sure.”

Having had enough of his games for one morning, my finger moved to suggest he head for the door. Like, now.

When he didn’t, I gave him a rather pointed look. “Go, you rapscallion, before I change my mind!”

That got him moving. Chuckling all the way to the door, he paused as he turned the knob and opened it. “For the record: I do love your vocabulary in the morning, Granger. It gets me hard every time.”

I used wandless magic to make sure the door gave him a good shove on his way out.

Chapter Text

 

Draco’s owl had brought me a package the next day.

After unwrapping it, I discovered it was a sixteenth-century journal from one of his ancestors, Lucius Malfoy the First, and it contained the specifics of the seven-day Calanmai festivities. The attached note written in Draco’s scrawl told me not to spill anything on its pages, but we both knew I took better care of my books than he did of his, so the note was more a way to poke at me than anything else.

 I devoured the journal’s contents within a few short hours, then went back and re-read it, making my own notes.

The beginnings of Calenmai, as the pure-bloods celebrated it, were found in the tenth-century beliefs of Hogwarts founder, Salazar Slytherin, who was a notorious pure-blood supremacist.

After the construction of the school and the building of the Chamber of Secrets, Slytherin had cut all ties to his three former friends—Godric Gryffindor, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Helga Hufflepuff—and instead went into politics, taking up a seat on the Wizards’ Council, the Ministry’s precursor. There, he began putting together a coalition of families who had kept their lineages ‘pure’ over the ages, and together they continually pushed their conservative agenda, which included setting up policies of segregating against and limiting the power of half-bloods and Muggle-borns in everything from seats held on the Wizengamot to educational rights at Hogwarts, even to what kind of healing services they qualified to receive by Hags. At every turn, Slytherin and his cronies tried to introduce new laws that would effectively deny rights or strip rights away from anyone who was not ‘pure-blood’.

At every turn, Slytherin and his cronies tried to introduce new laws that would effectively deny rights or strip rights away from anyone who was not ‘pure-blood’.

When he finally died during the last week of April in 1070 A.D. at the age of one-hundred and seventy-three, he’d left behind a legacy of hatred and intolerance that, sadly, continued into the current era. His followers at the time, who were many, mourned his death in the ancient Celtic tradition, taking a full seven days to grieve over him. Each day, a different group of pure-blood families would band together to host a party on their property in memoriam of the man they saw as a hero to their cause, and at the end of each night, thanks was given to each of the four seasons—Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter—as well as to the three periods of the day—Dawn, Day, and Night—for Slytherin’s long life.

The last night of the mourning period, dedicated to Night happened to coincide with the first of May that year. They cremated Salazar Slytherin’s body atop a massive bonfire then, and the pure-bloods danced and drank and fornicated around the fire as their great leader burned, even as their Seers divined the future in the falling stars of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower overhead.

The next day, all that ‘despoiling of innocence’ led to a slew of shotgun weddings, of course. Those alliances were unplanned, though, and as such were not necessarily in the best interests of the families involved. Most of the marriages endured, but the involved parties resented them, according to the journal.

In the ten years following Slytherin’s death, the pure-blood families of Britain floundered, mostly due to the bad string of marriages. The cohesion the pure-bloods had created under their charismatic director was lost to petty squabbling over politics, land rights, and hereditary titles.

Then in 1080 A.D., Armand Malfoy, an ambitious and sly wizard-soldier who had come to Britain from France with the Muggle bastard, William (who was called ‘The Conqueror’), took up the ‘noble’ cause of Salazar Slytherin’s vision. With the aid of the ancient families of Black, Nott, Peverell, and Gaunt, Armand established a non-governmental Council of pure-blood families whose official purpose, according to Armand, was “to form a fraternal order that celebrated pure-blood cultural traditions and beliefs”. The council’s unofficial purpose, however, was to further the agenda of pure-blood supremacy at all levels of society. In short, they made themselves a political force to reckon with and infiltrated all levels of society—the Wizards’ Council, Hogwarts, even various merchant shops and pubs in mediaeval wizarding villages—to gain control in a quiet coup d’etat of the British wizarding world.

The council’s first official act was to declare a seven-day festival commemorating the ten-year anniversary of Salazar Slytherin’s death.

The new festival, which co-opted the Welsh springtime celebration of Calan Mai, or Bonfire Night, and the Gaelic tradition of Beltane, or May Day, was simply called ‘Calanmai’ and was determined by Armand’s new council to be an official holiday among all pure-blood families.

That first festival was relatively tame, consisting of seven days of feasting, singing, and dancing around bonfires and Maypoles. At least so it appeared to outsiders. The merrymaking, however, was all an elaborate ruse, intended to misdirect the Wizards’ Council from paying too close attention to the festivity’s real purpose happening behind the scenes: to create a 'Pure-blood Council’ whose job it would be to discuss matters of politics and to arrange alliances between their families for furthering their own power.

The result of that first festival was an accord between the rival pure-blood families and the drafting of their constitution. Henceforth, they would celebrate Calanmai every ten years and the celebration would last for seven days, because ten and seven were powerful numbers Arithmatically and in Divination. The newly made Council would consequently consist of seven seats, also referred to as ‘Courts’, and no one family could hold more than a single seat per session. The Courts were named for the four seasons and the three periods of the day, to honour the memory of Slytherin’s funerary rites. The Court seats would come up for re-election on the first night of each Calanmai festival, and there was allowed only one vote per family. Once a new Council was established, they would meet during the remainder of the celebration to put forth and vote on policies that they intended to pursue over the next ten years.   

The pure-blood families became a unified front again as a result of Armand’s cunning, wielding their power and money in a cooperative effort to direct the rest of society in a manner that would benefit pure-bloods most.

Ten years later, during the second Calenmai, the idea of fertility rituals had found their way into the mix, too, to ensure that pure-blood marriage arrangements bore fruit. By the sixth Calenmai, they’d added magical dueling and martial tournaments, including horse and wrestling challenges. By the tenth festival, women were allowed to participate in contests of heraldry, fashion, and cooking.

By the sixth Calenmai, they’d added magical wand dueling and martial tournaments, including horse and archery challenges. 

By the tenth festival, women were allowed to participate in contests of heraldry, fashion, cooking, and potions-making.

Then, in the middle of the sixteenth century, under the direction of another Malfoy—the first Lucius—the Calanmai festival became an extravagant affair in typical High Renaissance style. By then, the Court seats had evolved as well, with each seat being endowed with special attributes, or blessings, which gave its holder and all those who followed them certain magical advantages over the others. For instance, the families aligned with the Spring Court, whose chosen symbol was the yellow rose, did so because they were seeking the magical blessing of fertility for their families. For the ten years they sat under Spring Court’s banner, they would tend to bear more children than the other pure-blood families. For the Summer Court, who wore orange roses, the blessing was for a harmonious hearth and home. Divorce and infidelity would be non-existent in such families for ten years, and love would abide and strengthen its individual members, creating stronger bonds between siblings, parents, and extended family and friends. Autumn Court, known by their preference for a magenta-coloured rose, would be rewarded with financial success, to the tune of overflowing bank vaults and resources, and the purple-rose wearing Winter Court lusted for political power, which they would achieve within the Wizards' Council and at Hogwarts. The Court of Dawn’s banner was the pink rose and they simply asked for good health, and so disease and mental deficiency would be staved off, and the Day Court, who claimed the red rose, wished for social and artistic talent, including all the fame born from such gifts. The Court of Night, bearing pure white roses, sought rare knowledge and wisdom, things which would allow them to discover and pave the way for new areas of magical exploration.

At the same time as the various Courts were getting an overhaul, Lucius the First also decided to extend his propagandizing campaign. In an effort to sound Tudor romantic and dashing, he gave a name to the ruling Pure-blood Council, too. Thereafter, the seven seats of power became known as the ‘Court of Thorns and Roses’.

It’s all in how you market a thing, I thought with some amusement as I read on.

For the next four-hundred years, the Calenmai tradition continued, but with the rise of the democratically-inclined Ministry of Magic to take the place of the feudal Wizards’ Council, the pure-bloods had to adjust again, and they’d had a hell of a time of it, because by then some of the more powerful families had gone extinct, like the Peverells, while others had become pure-blood as a result of maintaining the last five generations as pure-blood-only marriages, like the Prewetts and Weasleys, and still others had lost most of their political capital and money due to bad investments, like the Gaunts. Furthermore, in the interim, new families had arrived from Europe, Ireland, Asia, and the New World to fill the void. Not all of those families were willing to play by the former established rules, either, if the journal entries were to be believed. Some of them, like the Potters and the Diggorys, actually disliked the entire concept of a Pure-blood Council, as they were more accepting of a ‘melting-pot’ society, and so they worked to see the pure-blood’s power kept in check.

When Grindewald had appeared on the scene in the twentieth-century, the ‘Court of Thorns and Roses’ had decided to go on a permanent hiatus, as the council itself was divided between those who followed the madman’s ways and those who’d vehemently opposed him. The two factions become political enemies practically overnight.

Following Gindewald’s defeat, Tom Riddle and his Knights of Walpurgis came on the scene, and the schism only widened, as those who stood on the side of tolerance and acceptance of non-pure-bloods were labeled ‘blood-traitors’ and were hunted down by the supremacists, known then as Death Eaters.

It was ironic really that Salazar Slytherin’s dream of uniting all pure-bloods under a single banner of pure-blood supremacy had finally failed a thousand years after its inception with the rise of the last of his lineage, the man calling himself Lord Voldemort.

...And now Calenmai was being resurrected, twenty-seven years after the Dark Lord’s demise, when the new generation had come to a moral crossroads between adopting their ancestor’s narrow-minded, bigoted ways or progressing towards a kinder consideration and respect for all. I wondered who was behind the sudden desire to kick-start such an awful, ancient tradition, and as to their ultimate agenda, because I was sure it wasn’t something obvious. The Malfoy family’s journal had made it clear that no pure-blood, even those I’d always inherently trusted, did anything so bold without a reason.

Who were the faces behind the newly revived 'Court of Thorns and Roses'?

Chapter Text

 

The packages began arriving at my door over the next few days, and they told me the rest of what I needed to know about the event I was being bribed to attend...

First, I was going to be expected to dress-up for my role.

Second, the entire week of events was black tie and fancy tails.

Finally, every minute I was there, I was going to be expected to behave like a ‘pure-bred lady’.

Seven days, fourteen outfits. One set of clothes for day wear, and one for evening wear, including a special dress for a ball that was to take place on the sixth night. Shoes, lingerie, and accessories were all included as well.

Sitting on my bed, surrounded by boxes and garment bags, I suddenly felt rather overwhelmed and a tad irritated with my host. I mean, I could overlook (with a bit of strained patience) that Draco had shopped for my outer apparel, because…well, because it was Draco, the man who rather emphatically claimed not to care about society’s wagging tongues with his first breath, but with his second, went out of his way to make a dramatic entrance at every Ministry event. He had a bit of an unacknowledged self-esteem problem, thanks to his father, so I could understand his desire to want things to be perfect for this important milestone in his life, including me, his ‘date’—even if it was a tad obsessive-compulsive of him to play dress-up doll with me with a wardrobe that probably cost more money than I’d make in my entire lifetime.

That he’d personally selected my undergarments for the event made me feel a tad awkward, though. He’d picked out the most sensually erotic underwear I’d ever laid eyes on, and in exactly my sizes. It made me wonder how he’d done that, and more importantly, why. It wasn’t as if he was going to see what I was wearing under the dresses, so why go through all the trouble of choosing sexy, naughty thongs, low-cut sheer knickers, and French boned corsets for me?

Then there was pair after pair of the most sinfully gorgeous shoes, and such lovely jewellery—pieces that glittered and gleamed like twinkling stars…

Okay, yes, if I was being honest, Draco’s excellent fashion sense called to that feminine part of me I’d neglected too much in recent years, and I knew there was simply no way I was sending anything back to him in protest. I found I wanted to wear those pretty things, not just for him, but for me.

Still, it was a bit…overdone.

When the house-elf appeared at my door the night before the event was to kick-off though, that’s when I finally drew the line.

“I will not have it!” I hissed through the Fire-call at Draco. “You know how I feel about the enslavement of‒”

“It’ll be enough of a surprise to most of these purity snobs when you show up at Calanmai not as one of the help, but as an actual guest, Granger, but that you’re also there to cover it for a magazine piece, to air their private business to the rest of the world? We’ll be lucky they don’t turn their wands on you,” he told me. “We need to remind them that you’re under constant surveillance, so they can’t try anything when I’m not looking. Having an official ‘press elf’ at your side when I’m not there will assure your safety and the crowd’s restraint.” His tone hardened. “And someone will try something, Hermione. For some of these people, you’ll be an interloper, someone who threatens their ability to continue their policies of segregation.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He sighed. “Do you really think that half-bloods and Muggle-borns won’t insist they have a right to join in the Calenmai festivities once they learn you’ve been in the thick of it as a participant and not just someone hired for their professional services? You being there as a guest will be a rallying call for them to demand not to be shut out anymore.”

I hadn’t considered that when I’d agreed. Would my mere presence and my coverage of the event be enough of a catalyst to spark such change?

“You’ll need the elf attendants, so don’t turn them away,” he insisted.

“Attendants, as in plural?” I screeched. “No, absolutely not! One is more than enough!”

He made a clucking noise with his tongue in disapproval. “Merlin’s balls, you know how much I despise using the Floo for anything, Granger, much less to conduct duplicitous undertakings and screaming matches. Both are much better tackled in person. I’m coming over.”

“You are not!” I countered, embarrassed by my state of undress at the moment. I was in my pyjamas, for Godric’s sake!

“Be right there.”

I pulled my head out of the hearth, used my wand to extinguish the Fire-call, and had just enough time to turn around with a face full of soot when Draco came sauntering into my flat, throwing the door open like a visiting prince given the run of the place.

“You really need to fix that lock,” he joked.

He stopped on a Sickle as he noticed my state of evening dishevelment.

“Good lord, love, but you’re a mess!”

I sighed.

He grinned.

It was going to be one of those nights, wasn’t it?

Chapter Text

 

We were standing in the line for Calanmai registration check-in the next morning, and like most people who shuffled along with the herd in such instances, I was becoming fidgety and irritated with what seemed an interminable wait.

“Quit playing with your hair. You’ll ruin it.”

I dropped the strand I’d been twirling around my finger. “Nervous habit.”

“Mmm. I’m well aware, love.”

I really wish he’d stop calling me that, as I was well aware of his lack of romantic feelings for me.

I glanced down at the long, elaborately-braided rope of my hair hanging over my shoulder, finding its tameness at once abhorrent and appealing in the way only a new hairdo could be. “It’s just…different,” I whispered, not wanting to be overheard.

“Different is not necessarily a bad thing,” he pointed out with a private smirk. “You once told me that, if I recall correctly.”

I had said such a thing to him, I realised—just after the first time we’d had sex.

“Of course I have no basis for comparing you to others, as you were obviously my first,” he’d said back then while lazily stroking the underside of one of my breasts and cuddling against my sweat-slicked body with his own. “But how would you rate my performance?”

“Different,” I’d said after a long pause to consider how to best answer, still stunned at the experience. Draco had outdone any sexual liaison I’d had up to that point, showing remarkable restraint, stamina, and passion for a virgin, and it had knocked me for a six. I’d spent several minutes coming down from the best series of orgasms of my life, then panicking, and finally accepting that the Head Boy and I had rounded a corner somewhere that night and there would be no going back as a result.

I’d turned in his arms to face him then and ran my fingers over his smooth cheek. “But in this case, ‘different’ was good. One might even say it was extraordinary.”

Every time after that had been even better, too, as I’d helped him refine his sexual technique with new positions and new locations, and together we’d shattered several taboos…

“Yes, I suppose so,” I told him now, refusing to jump down the rabbit hole of despair that following those memories would bring me. Those days were in the past, and soon, insofar as our friendship was concerned, I knew I would be, too.

The fact was we’d had twelve good years of friendship, Draco and I, but coming here and agreeing to this ridiculous custom had made it abundantly clear that he had no intention of choosing me for a wife. No matter how good the sex had been between us all those years ago, no matter how much of a friend I’d been to him since, he was going to become engaged to someone else come Sunday. I had this one week to accept that fact and find closure.

To spare my heart, it was probably best to get started on that immediately, I figured, so I forcibly pushed aside all thoughts of our brief sexual history and returned to the safer topic we’d been discussing before I’d taken an ill-advised trip down ‘Memory Lane’: my make-over.

Despite the fact I wanted to disagree with Draco about my appearance for today’s event, I couldn’t. He was right in implying my hair looked fantastic. His House-elf, Bonnet, had done an amazing job transforming me for this event. She’d tamed my mother’s Greek heritage—the tight, frizzy curls—with her unique brand of magic, so my hair had fallen as a curtain down my back in smooth, big waves that had glistened with vibrant health in the sunlight. Then, she’d braided it for the first day’s presentation, to give me a younger, seemingly ‘harmless’ aspect, to help detract from the hostility I was sure to face.

As for the rest…

I also had to admit that this first day’s outfit was quite lovely as well. A style of dress that hailed back to the early 1960’s: flaring collar that swept to one side, big buttons down the front, three-quarter capped sleeves, cinched waist, with a flouncy skirt that touched the tops of my knees. It was dyed a deep indigo, dark like the midnight sky. Tasteful makeup, some diamond studs, and a pair of matching heels completed the picture, and gave me an elegant, refined image, much like a Princess hailing from Buckingham’s halls.

I certainly felt like royalty this morning, what with all the attention we’d garnered upon Apparating in. Heads had turned the moment the crack of our thunderous entrance reverberated around the vale, and then we’d been surrounded by Draco’s cadre of friends, whom I’d also befriended in acquaintance over the years.

Everyone behaved perfectly Slytherin, of course, pretending I belonged without making a fuss over my appearance. Draco had clearly cued them in on the plan in advance. I’ll admit it had been weird to have Blaise turn his charming smile on me, while Theo gave me an appraising once-over from the edge of the group. I was used to the duo being a bit more reserved in my company. Today, they were acting like I was simply one of them.

Perhaps the strangest encounter, however, had been with Pansy Parkinson, who’d hung upon me like I was her new bestie. We normally got along fine in the real world, especially after she’d begun seeing Harry, but like Blaise and Theo, Pansy had always been a bit restrained in her friendship with me. Here and now, though, she was like an entirely different person, one who was as gregarious and flamboyant as Draco usually behaved.

Oddly, it was as if he and she had exchanged roles for the event.

Of them all, only Millicent Bulstrode had kept in character, dismissing me almost immediately after a glance at my arm resting comfortably in Draco’s. She was totally disinterested with the new ‘toy’ otherwise.

After the initial greets were over, the four Slytherins had walked off across the glade to the refreshment tables, as they’d already enlisted in the event. Draco and I were then left alone, to take our turn waiting the interminable registration line.

I could feel his eyes upon me just now, clearly as amazed by Bonnet’s work as everyone else.

“You do look beautiful,” he admitted.

“You mean I don’t normally?” I teased, knowing that was one of those ‘no win’ questions for men, like commenting on a woman’s weight or how her bum looked in a certain pair of jeans.

As predicted, his cheeks turned a hilarious shade of pink.

I patted his arm. “It’s okay. I understood. You look quite dapper, yourself.”

He did, too. More than, actually. He was the epitome of upper-crust casual, dressed in a black long coat made of stiff satin, with a high Oriental collar. Its big silver buttons were obviously for ornamental display only, as there was a row on each side of the jacket’s divide, matching the ones on the elaborately embroidered cuffs. A snowy white shirt with a high V-collar sat under the coat and offset all that ebony. He wore no tie or cravat. Black silk trousers that were tailored to show off his incredibly long, strong legs and a pair of shiny black dragon-skin dress shoes completed the outfit. His only accessory was a black cane with silver trim, which reminded me of the one Lucius had once carried with him everywhere.

My ‘date’ was the hottest male in the glade, and I was sure he knew it.

He leaned his head towards my ear and whispered into it, “’Dapper’, hmm? Is that witch’s code for ‘fuckable’?”

He was trying to embarrass me, as I had him. He’d forgotten, however, that he was dealing with a journalist. One of the perks of the vocation was the witty retort. “No, it’s the housing estate agent’s equivalent of ‘charming’ – small, but has potential,” I whispered back.

He threw his face to the sky and laughed aloud, and I knew I’d won this round.

We moved forward a few steps as the couple at the front of the line completed their registration and headed off into the crowd to socialize. As they went by, I spied Lisa Turpin standing behind the enrollment attendant, acting in the capacity of hired security. I knew Lisa from school’ she’d been a Ravenclaw in my year, and was a Muggle-born witch, like me.

So, it seemed Draco had been right when he’d said some of the staff would be hired professionals of mixed magical heritage. I was betting she’d been made to sign a confidentiality agreement so the secrets of this event didn’t get out.

Too bad the mysterious ‘Court of Thorns and Roses’ didn’t consider that Draco would break their rules and take me as his guest of honour to this shindig. I was betting they would be roaring mad once word got around that I was there, and in an official capacity, too. Hell, maybe, if we were both really lucky, they’d boot him from the festivities altogether. That would take care of his ‘forced marriage’ problem and it would allow me to breathe again.

As the line slowly moved forward, I became engrossed in observing and recording in my head what I was seeing around me. I wanted to be sure that what I wrote down later was as accurate as it could be, as this was an important moment in British wizarding history: the possible return of extreme conservativism to the U.K. An event such as this one, Calanmai, which glamorized the concept of arranged marriages between elite parties, was the perfect ground-zero to begin influencing people’s belief systems. As the Roman emperors had once rightly concluded, if you made a thing seem commonplace, enjoyable, and even destined, then over time and no matter how abhorrent it may be in the beginning or how much it is against their best interests in the long-run, the mob would eventually accept that such a thing was true and right, and maybe even ‘fun’. Cognitive dissonance was their secret for turning the murderous massacres at the Roman Coliseum into a form of ‘entertainment’ and for perpetuating the slave trade across most of Europe. It’s why the Caesars were able to douse the light on a five-hundred year old Republic, and exchange that fair form of government for a dictatorial Empire ruled for four-hundred years by their psychotic ancestors.

In this case, the normalizing of ‘traditional pure-blood values’ in England would be bad for people like me, people seen as ‘undesirable’ by that same set due to something as whimsical as the circumstances of my birth. If that sort of thinking spread, within a short period of time, I and others like me could be unfairly, perhaps even violently cast out of this society…or worse.

According to Harry, whose role as an Auror allowed him an insight into the darker aspects of wizarding society, the underground movement by elder pure-bloods to re-embrace the ways of Grindewald and Voldemort was still just as strong as it had always been since the end of the last war in the 80’s. It was only our generation that stood in the way of another civil war. People like Draco, Blaise, Theo, Pansy, and even Millicent were turning their noses up at their parents’ conditioning now that they were adults and could make up their own minds.

…And yet here they all were ready to kick-off an event where people like me did not even merit an official invitation.

Anyone attending today who was not pure-blood was, as Draco had pointed out, one of the hired help. Wait staff, security enforcers, vendors—all were either half-blood or Muggle-born. None were registrants.

Well, except for me.

I reached for the thick braid of my hair and twirled it around and around my fingers in nervousness as I eyed the gathered crowd around us.

Was the tide really turning again? Would these pure-blood snobs someday rise up, take over the Ministry with their “Might Is Right” propaganda, and destroy our precious democracy? Would they threaten my life and the lives of other Muggle-borns simply because we were different? Would they break our wands and cast us out, then change the laws to disallow anyone back in who was not “magically pure”, as they had in the American Ministry so long ago? Or, would it be like the Muggle’s Second Great War, with concentration camps and branding?

Gently, Draco removed my hair from between my fingers. “You’re thinking too hard again.”

I glanced up at him.

His finger came to rest upon the worry crease between my perfectly tweezed brows. “Someday, you’ll freeze just like this, and I’ll be forced to stare at that horrid expression for the remainder of my life, Granger.”

I swatted his hand aside, irked by his teasing. “Keep it up and you won’t live to see twenty-nine in a few weeks. Problem solved.”

When he leaned down, his lips only an inch from mine, I froze like a deer in wandlight.

“Don’t tell me you’ve been faking that whole ‘Gryffindor courage’ thing all these years, darling. What a complete disappointment that would be!”

The not-so-subtle poke at my pride had just made it clear in two simple sentence that not only was I being watched and sized-up by the whole bloody place right then, but that I was most likely found wanting by those too-perceptive gazes as well. It reminded me that I couldn’t afford to show even a hint of weakness in this den of snakes. My purpose in coming here today was to make sure that not only did I support my dearest friend during this difficult duty, but that I represented all ‘outsiders’ as well.

Straightening my spine and dropping the hold on my braid, I slipped into the façade of Ace Reporter!Hermione once more. “I’m parched,” I stated and waved Draco towards the refreshment table. “Be a dear and fetch your special VIP guest a Mimosa, won’t you?”

His eyebrows shot into orbit at the audacity of my request.

“You wouldn’t want me fainting and missing the opening ceremonies, would you?” I asked, whipping out a Muggle pencil and a pad of paper. “What would my readers think of your lack of hosting manners, Mister Malfoy?”

His smile was slow and devastating to my blood pressure, filled with amusement and admiration. “As you wish, Mistress Mine.”

He gave the back of my hand a quick kiss, but I could feel the air against it as he chuckled under his breath, then he was away, striding across the grass to get me a drink.

“You handle him well,” an elderly woman behind me commented. As she adjusted her hat, she tossed me the kind of smirk only women who knew how to manipulate their men would understand as praise for a job well-done. “It took me thirty years of marriage to get that right.”

I gave her a gracious nod for her praise, and then turned back to the crowd to take in the details while I could, scribbling down my observations, and all the while shuffling forward every few seconds like a good, little groupie.

 


 

Images of Hermione and Draco's outfits - DAY ONE (DAY TIME)

 

Chapter Text

 

The sea of pure-blood families crowding the vale were like glittering gems and strutting peacocks, all dressed in their Sunday best, including to my surprise, the Weasleys.

I spied the familiar swell of ginger approaching from my peripheral vision and turning my head, was floored at how handsome they all looked in their finery.

Molly and Arthur were leading their family as patriarch and matriarch, heads held high, Molly touting a lovely, colourful parasol to keep the sun off her head. Her gown trailed through the grass behind her by an extravagant half-foot and its lovely cream and gold tones accentuated her apricot tresses, gathered in a lovely French twist at the nape of her neck. At her side, chin tilted up with pride, Arthur cut a splendid figure in an all-black Victorian suit with tails, well-tailored to his tall, lanky form, complete with white shirt and cravat. He was even wearing a top hat, and I had to wonder which old family trunk he'd pulled it out of...

Directly behind them strode Bill dressed in smart navy robes that was embroidered with glittery orange thread at the collar and wrists. He wore black Hessians, his trousers tucked into them at the knee. His long red hair was tied neatly into a tail and left to fall down his back in simple elegance. By sharp contrast, walking at his side was his wife, Fleur, who looked as if she'd magically emerged straight out of a 1830's ladies' fashion magazine—conservative blue satin dress with gigot sleeves and an orange sash, and under it, I could tell she'd donned a corset that had purposefully narrowed her waist and amplified her small breasts. Her golden hair sat atop her head in an elegant series of coiled braids that made her appear to be wearing a crown. Their three children, Victoire, Dominique, and Louis—all too young to participate, but certainly old enough to observe the proceedings—tagged along at her heels, dressed in similar children's splendor. I watched as Fleur leaned down to speak in French to her little brood, and how doing so earned her quite an eye of suspicion from some of the other participants. 

Percy and his placid, well-composed wife, Audrey, drew up behind Bill's family. The two were dressed similarly in conservative, but colourful wizarding robes in matching shades of burnt orange and black. Their two daughters were miniature clones of their mother in appearance, dress, and manner, although I did note little Molly peeking around wide-eyed at the proceedings, showing remarkable restraint in the face of her child-like curiosity.

Fred's wife, Angelina was not far behind Percy's tight ship. Where Audrey and Fleur chose more Tory-like fashion, Angie was bold and rebellious in a pair of black leather trousers, thigh-high matching boots, and an orange frock tied at the waist. Her black, wide-brimmed hat had boisterous ostrich feathers died bright orange to match, and on her hip, she sported a replica Spanish sword. A Spanish Pirate Queen, if ever I saw one, I thought. Tall, lean from years of professional Quidditch, and beautiful of face, she drew everyone's eye. 

Fred, of course, noticed and preened at the attention his lovely wife garnered, even as he bent his head towards his twin and conspired with him. George, married to his work, had become over the years the lead developer on the WWW product line, content to leave the running of the company to his twin. Unfortunately, as a result of his bachelor status, he was now mandated for a magical match during this week's event, the same as Draco. His long hours in the lab would have to be curtailed in favour of beginning a family soon, if the requirements of Calenmai were to be met. Despite that fact, George seemed utterly unconcerned, however, laughing and joking with his twin as if he wasn't currently being sized up for the marriage mart.

The twins dressed identically 'en mode' in Georgian era style: simple, but masculine long coats, creame-coloured peasant shirts underneath, and coordinated breeches, all very casual country-wear. The bright, summery theme that the rest of the Weasleys were sporting was carried through in the form of orange cravats and boot tassels on the twins.

Taking up the rear of the small procession were Charlie, Ron, and Ginny, and the three were engaged in what looked to be a serious conversation. 

Ron, taller than his two siblings and the most striking of the bunch, appeared the least self-conscious of the stares he was receiving right then. He knew he'd grown into an attractive specimen over the years, with a lovely smile and lazy blue eyes that could stare straight into a woman's heart and end up stroking her libido at the same moment. His shoulders were wide and had filled in after years of chasing dark wizards, and his thighs were strong. He had a great arse, too, I had to admit. Overall, he'd kept fit, and between that and his easy-going nature, he was never without prospects in his bed. I'd have thought he'd have to be trussed up and forced to come to Calenmai, given his aversion to commitment, but surprisingly, he seemed most at ease with his situation. Hands nonchalantly shoved in his trouser pockets as he walked, he looked as if he was actually eager for the event to get underway—unlike the brother at his side. 

Charlie had that panicked expression on his face as if he was being hunted by overly-eager aristocratic mothers and their unappealing debutante daughters...which probably described the situation perfectly, given that he, too, was a participant of the games and would become a martyr to the Bonfire by week's end. Ruggedly handsome and openly bi-sexual, with a dangerous career to boot, he attracted fan girls and naughty boys looking to walk on the wild side a bit more often than his prying mother was comfortable hearing about over the Christmas supper table, and especially given his age. It might be honest to say Charlie's bedroom notches hovered somewhere in the upper hundreds, if one were to fathom a guess. Right then, his eyes darted back and forth around the glade like a badminton birdie to keep the 'enemy' in his line of sights, though, as he hissed in a low voice about something important to Ron and Ginny, and nervously kept pushing his fringe back from his eyes.

Both Charlie and Ron, I noted, were dressed in similar uniforms that looked more Steampunk, less authentic to the Victorian period from which they'd taken their cue: a Lancer's dress uniform in a rusty-orange, minus epaulets or sashes, high brown leather cavalier boots on their feet with tight adventurer trousers tucked in, they looked like they were preparing to go on a some sort of military expedition into uncharted Africa. The orange pips and embroidery at their collars, cuffs, and the hems of their boots were all that kept them from auditioning for an 'Allan Quatermain' movie, I thought with some amusement.

I turned my attention to my girlfriend. Ginny looked stunning in a wispy, fairy-like dress made of burnt red and burnished copper fabric. On her head and around each wrist was a wreath of similarly shaded roses and greenery. She walked barefoot, unafraid of grass stains on the soles of her feet, or at how wild and fae-like she appeared. In truth, with minimal effort, she'd managed to look like Áine, the Celtic goddess of summer, and I had to give it up once more for Mrs. Weasley's talent with a needle and thread.

As I stood back and absorbed the entrance of the Weasley clan to the clearing, I realised that they stood out as brilliant, startling robins in a sea of pale, porcelain canaries and black-feathered ravens.

Quite fetching, the lot.

I was careful not to call attention to myself right then by waving and calling out to my friends; I'd approach them later, I decided, when there were fewer eyes watching my every move. I did note, however, that across the way, Blaise Zabini's dark eyes followed Ginny across the lawn with a predatory gleam. I knew he'd had a thing for Ginny since the moment they'd met back in school, and I'll admit I'd always suspected they'd had a fling at some point—maybe more than one over the years. If so, Ginny had certainly never fessed to it, but that could be because Blaise had been rather obvious about enjoying his bachelor status a bit too much and frankly, my girlfriend was allergic to coming in second best, especially when it came to love.

I knew that feeling well.

Theodore Nott was suddenly just standing next to me as if he'd stepped out of the shadows of the nearby trees.

"Hello again, Miss Granger."

"Jesus, Nott, I wish you wouldn't do that!" I accused him, nearly having jumped out of my skin at his unexpected entrance. Playfully, I slapped his arm. "Slinking around like some sort of Spy Master is going to get you hexed one of these days."

Playing skittish could excuse a lot of mistakes, I'd learned over the years as a reporter. It was also a great cover for actually being nervous, and Theo had a tendency to make me so. He was far too astute for my tastes. A small smile tilted the edges of his full mouth as if he quite understood his effect upon me and enjoyed it.

"Did you notice that you never call me 'Theo' or 'Theodore'?" he asked, taking up Draco's place next to me in line without an invitation.

"I don't?"

That was something I hadn't paid any attention to, in truth. I wondered if it was my subconscious way of keeping him at arm's distance, as he was incredibly attractive and carried a mysterious aura about him that was a temptation to my more inquisitive side. I'd long ago decided not to ever again become involved with any Slytherin, however, and now I wondered if that wasn't the reason why I'd refrained from developing a closer relationship with Draco's friends.

He glanced sideways at me, his smile widening. "Is your intentional avoidance in using my given name an aversion to the name itself, do you suppose? It is rather bland and uninspiring, I'll admit. Although, my father tells me I was named after the famous painter, Théodore Géricault. He was French." He paused as if to consider that. "Do you suppose that counts for or against me?"

I looked up at his greater height and realised he was teasing me.

I gave him a skeptical once-over and dryly replied, "It's an allergic reaction to you, most likely, as I'm partial to French artists…and croissants."

His laughter was very masculine.

We took a simultaneous step forward as the line moved again.

"You're Draco's plus one for the event," he stated the obvious. "Interesting."

"I'm his guest, not his date," I corrected him, reminding us both of that fact again. "We're friends. Nothing more."

Disappointingly true.

"Ah."

"Quite."

"Then you wouldn't mind if I called upon you some time?"

I glance up at him again. "Aren't you here to pick out a wife, too?"

"It all depends."

"On what?"

He glanced askance at me. "If she'll have me."

"Why wouldn't she? You're titled, rich, educated, and an heir to one of the 'Sacred Twenty-Eight' families."

"Not handsome, though?"

I snorted. "Quit fishing. You know you're that."

We stepped forward in unison again as the line moved.

"You find me appealing, then?" he asked.

I shrugged, refusing to comment further. I'd already put my foot in it by telling him I found him attractive.

"Then perhaps you won't mind having dinner with me tomorrow night?"

I frowned at the idea. I really didn't want to get involved with another Slytherin, especially one of Draco's friends—no matter how many of my 'perfect partner' checklist items he met. Besides, I wasn't here for fun, but work, I told myself again. And for moral support, of course.

"If you're looking to audition mistresses, then you're wasting your time. I don't date men who are spoken for, and after Bonfire night, you will most definitely be that, as I understand it."

Theo was quiet for a time, and we took another step forward together.

The registration table was close, thankfully. I kept wishing for things to move faster if only to end this awkward confab. My mouth was parched, and the heat in the glade was beginning to become unbearable. "Where is Draco?" I murmured, looking out over the attendees for that familiar shock of sugar-white hair. "He was supposed to get me a drink ten minutes ago, the thoughtless clod."

I spied him, finally, halfway between the refreshment table and the line, having been stopped by the beauteous Greengrass sisters, Daphne and Astoria. They seemed to be engaged in a lively discussion with him, complete with girlish giggling that was loud enough to be heard even across the distance. Draco was giving them his famous knicker-melting smile and playfully flirting back.

Something dark and jealous writhed through my belly at the sight.

"Miss Granger?"

I turned back to Theo, a bit dazed by the strength of my green-eyed monster. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"

Theo studied me through a narrowed gaze and then peered over my shoulder at Draco and the Greengrass sisters. When he turned his attention back to me, I thought I saw a hint of that smile once more appear upon his lips. "I asked if you had your wand ready for presentment, for registration. It's required for all participants."

What? Why hadn't Draco told me about that bit?

In truth, I didn't want complete strangers to know my personal magical strengths and weaknesses, which was something they could get from inspecting my wand. I didn't know most of these people here today, and the fact that they were resurrecting an old blood supremacist tradition didn't speak very highly of their motives, to be honest. I'd learned over the years in my job that when one was at a disadvantage with a host, it would be smarter to be less forthcoming with private information.

Keep your cards close to your chest, Hermione, my father would tell me as a child whenever we'd played 'Happy Families'.

It was good advice, then and now.

"Oh, but-"

Quickly, I thought up a lie and realised I really didn't need to tell one. The truth would do in this case.

"I'm not really participating. I'm only an observer at the event."

Theo firmly shook his head and reaching into his own pocket to extract his wand from his jacket. "The Council—I mean, the Court of Thorns and Roses—has traditionally required wands to be registered for all Calenmai attendees in the distant past, as proof of blood status. For this renewed event, however, it's a security measure to ensure good behaviour on everyone's part. Surely, Draco told you?"

No, he hadn't. I was going to murder the little ferret for it, too!

"He neglected to mention it," I growled, throwing Draco a nasty look across the grounds. "Very convenient…for him."

I knew the moment the registrars touched my wand, it would be singing my Muggle-born status to the moon and back, and that was sure to raise a few eyebrows from those not in-the-know already. I was beginning to suspect that perhaps that had been Draco's game all along: to fly in the face of tradition by bringing an outsider to a 'members-only' party. This group had tied his hands and brought him to heel with this ridiculous custom, and bringing me here today was his Slytherin way of getting back at them for it.

At my expense.

That knowledge hurt. Sure, I'd known going into this that he'd had ulterior motives, but I'd never suspected that he was going to rub me in the faces of others just to get his revenge. I suddenly felt like his dirty secret, a weapon to be used and discarded when this was all over.

As if sensing my sudden displeasure in him, Draco looked straight at me and frowned.

I purposefully turned my back on him and gave all my attention to Theo.

Nott was looking at me as if he was confused by something. "Would you have really changed your plans if you'd known?" he asked.

Yes.

Maybe.

Alright, probably not. This was too good a story to pass up, even given the price.

As we were next up, there wasn't time to attempt to work out a magical ruse to use against the registrar. I was simply going to have to attempt to distract the attendant with some clever flirting. He was an elderly gentleman, so perhaps a bit of flattery and then a fake-out faint due to 'heat stress' might do the trick… "I think, before I'd agreed to come here, I should have demanded more answers from Draco," I admitted to Nott. "I feel there's a lot he's not telling me about this event, and that deception is really beginning to irritate me."

"Then I shall have to make it up to you," Draco stated, coming up behind me. His arm slithered around me to present me with the Mimosa I'd ordered. It was in a champagne glass, with a strawberry garnishing the lip. "Here, trade me your clutch."

Sullenly silent, I did as he asked, and took a big swig of the drink he'd brought me. It slid down my throat, chilling my emotions.

"Here's your wand, pet," he said, closing my clutch back up and presenting me with…

Not my wand.

It looked nothing like my wand, in fact.

The sly devil had done a sleight-of-hand. The excuse of passing me a drink had only given him what he'd needed to get his sticky fingers on my handbag so he could make the switch. Colour me slightly impressed.

I was still angry at him, though.

"Thank you," I simply said, rather than cause a scene. Later, when we were alone, I'd give him an earful about keeping things from me. "I appreciate your attempt at an apology."

"Anytime, love."

Theo barked an odd laugh at that and then stepped forward to register next. Finally, it was our turn.

Registration was easy with Draco's swapped wand.

Yes, it did announce that it belonged to a Muggle-born, but it contained none of my personal magical signature to it, and so my secrets were safe for the moment.

I wondered if it had been stolen or procured from the black market, passed through many unfriendly hands, because frankly, it didn't seem to like me very much. The feeling was mutual, though. It felt too angry for my tastes.

Theo took his temporary leave of us after with an elegant bow and headed across the vale to speak with Daphne Greengrass. He did not, I noticed, bow over the back of my fingers and give them the traditional kiss in farewell, nor did he offer Draco a handshake in goodbye. I didn't take offence to that, however, for I knew from our long acquaintance that he rarely, if ever, touched others. His elegant hands had been ruined by his vindictive, abusive half-brothers when he'd been a small child, and although the fractures and cuts had been mended long ago, the burn scars remained, as his asshole of a father had refused to take him to St. Mungo's in time to save them, not wanting to deal with the scandal of domestic abuse. As a result, Theo tended to keep his hands out of sight, gloved and hidden behind his back or in his pockets.

I watched him go, and when he was out of hearing range, I used the excuse of having Draco place and secure the white rose corsage I'd been given to my left wrist as I talked to him.

"According to that journal you sent me, the Malfoys have always been affiliated with the Winter Court," I murmured low enough so that only the two of us could hear.

"Yes," he acknowledged, buttoning the corsage's ribbon around my wrist.

I reached up to fix the white rose boutonniere on his jacket. "Then why are we not wearing purple roses? That is their symbol, yes?

"It is," he assured me, "but we're not members of the Winter Court this time around. For this Calenmai, I petitioned for the Malfoys to join the Court of Night."

That, I'll admit, took me by surprise. "But that would mean you're not after political power, then."

"Amazing, someone's had her coffee this morning!" he joked.

"You're saying you want rare knowledge instead?"

I was surprised when his fingertips lightly caressed my cheek. "I want the wisdom of the stars, love, and the freedom to dream for something better," he corrected me, and his silvery-grey eyes finally met mine. "After Lucius' long-time misguidance, I think the Malfoys could use such things, don't you? We've dabbled enough in politics."

I sighed. "Your father's rolling over in his grave right now, you know that, right?"

His lips twitched with amusement. "I live for such moments."

I knew he did. There at the end of his father's life, he'd hated Lucius as much as I had.

Back during our seventh year, after the man had found out about my relationship with his son, the elder Malfoy had threatened to disinherit his only heir for 'dallying with a Mudblood' and 'soiling the family's good name'. When that had failed to deter my lover from fucking me into the mattress regularly, his father had beaten him unconscious with his cane.

I still cringed at the memory of how bloody and broken Draco had looked that day, lying on the floor of our dorm room when I'd come back to find him there and Lucius long gone. He'd spent a week in the hospital wing after that, and although the bruise paste, Skele-gro, and healing spells had done their work, it had taken him another week to find his voice after that. He'd suffered terrible nightmares from the incident as well.

After that, I'd been the one to end the relationship, not wanting to put Draco into any more danger. We'd remained friends, but anything more between us had been repeatedly refused on my end until he'd finally given up asking.

When Lucius had succumbed to cancer a few years later, neither of us had felt in the least bit sorry that the odious snake was dead and gone. He'd spent a lifetime training Draco how to hate, and in the end, he'd sown the fruits of that labour and gotten his comeuppance in his son's refusal to visit him in the hospital, where he'd died alone in the middle of the night.

As for me, Lucius had caused me to break my own heart, and that had been simply unforgivable.

"Is your mother coming to the event?"

He nodded. "As the eldest living Malfoy, she gets the right to vote for our family tonight."

"For who should take the Night Court's seat on the new Court of Thorns and Roses, you mean?"

"Mmm, as well as the seats for the other Courts."

As I finished fiddling with his suit's garnishment, I gave him the once-over.

He looked powerful, like royalty.

"So, who do you think it'll be for each seat? Who gets elected tonight to represent the new pure-blood Council?"

He paused and I could see he was considering telling me his bets, but at the last moment, he simply smirked and held his arm out to me and said, "Why don't you tell me, Ms. Reporter."

He guided me towards a group of people nearby to begin the social networking game, and I knew this was a test…the first of many he'd throw at me, surely, over the next week.

The game, it seemed, was afoot.

 

Chapter Text

 

The day was spent hobnobbing with various families, getting a feel for them and their reasons for choosing the Courts that they had for this Calenmai reboot. Some of the petitions were not surprising to me in the least, while others had floored me completely.

"Why am I not thunderstruck that Zabini went for Winter Court?" I murmured under my breath as the man in question turned to address someone who'd tapped him on the shoulder.

"Because his mum's the Black Widow of the Italian Ministry, perhaps?" Draco replied while pulling a glass of Champagne for me off a passing floating tray. "And he's a man of great ambitions, himself."

I held the glass to my nose and let the bubbles tickle it before taking a sip. "Ginny's going to go mad. She's Summer Court, you know. They stand in direct opposition." I nodded my head in the direction of where my best girlfriend was in animated discussion with Luna, who was also wearing an orange rose corsage, and Neville, whose well-tailored robes bore a pink rose boutonniere upon the breast to signify his family's choice of the Dawn Court this year.

"You do know the Court pledges aren't necessarily promises of loyalty or even pacts of harmony between families, correct?"

I nodded and glanced around at the familiar faces, memorizing what rose colours they wore.

Oh, yes, I understood well that a family could join a Court, but have nothing to do with the other members who were a part of it. Sometimes a family picked a Court just to be able to influence its politics, and other times, they joined so they could only take advantage of the magic that Court offered to its members, like improved health or additional luck when it came to financial matters. Joining a Court was a chess move a family made together, either to broadcast their intentions for the next seven years or to keep their hidden agendas secret for a much larger game they were playing that was years in the making.

Pure-blood politics made my brain ache, honestly, because they were so irritatingly Slytherin.

I drifted in and out of conversational circles for the next few hours. Draco made sure we stopped to talk to every single family who had joined the Night Court, though, and I got the distinct impression it was because he was campaigning for something. "You're gunning for the seat on the council for the Night Court, aren't you?" I asked him after we'd stopped to spend some quality time with the Greengrasses, Sinistras, Notts, Montagues, Rosiers, and Moodys, all of whom wore the same white roses we did.

A sideways glance from my companion told me I'd guessed right.

"What makes you think that?" he asked.

"Because I know you," I murmured behind a fake smile I directed at Marcus Flint when our eyes met quite by accident as I surveyed the crowd. The man bowed to me across the glade, and I played at being flattered by his attention. "You're as subtle as Crookshanks when he's doing something he knows he shouldn't."

"That old fleabag has you wrapped around his paw."

I shrugged, having accepted long ago that my half-Kneazle covertly ruled my world. "You're one to talk. He owns you just as much as he does me. You even reserve your lap for him every time you crash my flat."

Draco snorted. "Sniffing the catnip a bit too much again, are we, pet?" He suddenly stiffened against me. "Hell, here comes my mother," he suddenly warned me and, giving Narcissa a smile as false as the one I'd just passed off to Flint, he waved to her.

Narcissa Malfoy was the wizarding equivalent of Queen Elizabeth—both of them combined. Poised, refined, in complete control at all times while in public, and scary as hell, the woman had become a force of nature after seizing control of the family's interests in the wake of Lucius' death. She owned everything, including Draco's sizable inheritance and all of the Malfoy properties.

As the Malfoy eldest matriarch, she also apparently held the voting rights for her family.

"Mother," he warmly greeted her and released me to take his mother's hand up to bow over it and give it a kiss. He then followed that up with a kiss on her cheek. "I thought you weren't coming until tonight."

Her ice-blue eyes snapped to me, and I felt skewed upon her gaze. My mouth went dry.

"I thought it prudent to meet my son's newest life coach and advisor, as it seems he no longer trusts his mother's judgment."

I knew right then and there that she wasn't at all fooled by my reporter disguise; she knew I was here to support her son, to offer him advice on which pure-blood princess would be best for him of the lot. I'd taken her place in that respect, and therefore, I was a threat to her—especially as my opinion on the matter of Draco's potential wife would be 'tainted' by my desire to see him happy, rather than politically matched. As I glanced at Narcissa's rigid expression, I honestly thought she was worried I'd influence Draco enough not to go through with any sort of betrothal agreement this week, and instead send him scurrying towards 'lesser' prospects, like some half-blood or, gasp, even a Muggle-born witch.

And she was right to fear that possible outcome because that's precisely what I'd planned to do. Draco deserved happiness and love from a mate, not a lifetime of being shackled to some harpy gold digger he despised. I'd make sure that he'd steer clear of such creatures this week…even if I was still angry at him at the moment.

Bottom line: if his future wife wasn't going to be me, it was going to be someone worthy of him, and Narcissa wasn't going to stand in the way of me assuring that.

The Malfoy matriarch crossed to me and held a hand out for me to take. "Ms. Granger, a pleasure as always. How was your trip over this morning?" She gave me the once-over, seeming to find me less than presentable, despite the contrary. "Oh, dear, it appears to have been quite difficult for you."

Score one, Narcissa.

The woman had it out for me, though, so I was used to her passive aggressive bitchiness by now. For years she'd attempt to wreck the friendship Draco and I shared, clearly threatened by it. I was positive the fact that I'd been the one to 'initiate' her son into his adulthood back during our seventh year, when we shared a Heads dormitory and had christened every inch of it, contributed to her great dislike of me.

A quick look at my companion gave me no clue as to how to react to his mother's sniping under the circumstances, so I winged it. I took that icy, gloved hand of hers and performed a curtsey worthy of royalty over it, pressing my forehead to the knuckles. "How wonderful to see you again, Lady Malfoy!" I straightened and once more affected a warm smile, knowing we were being watched and our conversation eavesdropped upon by those around us. "On the contrary, my trip was positively delightful. Draco was most solicitous in seeing to my comfort."

Scratch a tick off for me on the battle board, as Narcissa's eye twitched at the veiled sexual reference and her hand withdrew from mine.

Besides, I'd had no complaints hitching a lift with "Air Draco", who had Side-along Apparated me smoothly to the super-secret location where the Calanmai Festival was being held, so technically, I hadn't lied, either.

"I thank you for your sincere concern, however," I added as an afterthought. "It's so good of you to show such kindness and care."

"Yes, well, as you're aware the Malfoy family is always solicitous, even of the less fortunate."

With that parting shot, the old battle axe simply smiled and then dismissed me entirely, turning to her son to discuss the night's plans in veiled terms and covert signals. I stood to the side and bit my tongue so hard, I nearly saw stars.

Would it be indecorous to 'accidentally' kick the wicked witch in her shiny, white shin?

To hell with it, I wasn't here to please the privileged. I was here to get a scoop, and I wasn't accomplishing that goal by standing on the sidelines and butting heads with Draco's mother. Heading off towards Ginny and her family, I decided now would be the perfect opportunity to find out the Weasley family's plans for thwarting the likes of Narcissa and her cronies.

On my way across the glade, I ran into Neville attempting to convey three small plates of hors-d'oeuvres from the refreshment table. I offered to help him, as his juggling act looked a little precarious, and he blushed terribly but accepted my aid.

"You look beautiful," he said, cheeks a healthy shade of pink to match the rose at his collar. "Not that you don't always, but…you know what I mean."

I smiled. "Yes, well, if I'm playing the part Fate has decided for me, it seems I'm to do it in style. Draco's house-elves are into perfecting images."

That seemed to catch him off guard, and it took him a minute to formulate a response. "I thought you didn't believe in Fate and watching the stars, and such nonsense. That's why you dropped Divination back in school, anyway."

"Mmm, maybe I'm changing in my old age."

He laughed. "You're not old, Hermione. You're not yet even thirty! And you're still as pretty as you were at eighteen."

I nearly dropped the plate in my hand. Was Neville flirting with me? First Nott, now this! What was it about Calanmai that seemed to bring out the courage in pure-bloods?

"Was that Hannah Abbott and Cho Chang I saw behind the refreshment tables?" I asked, deciding I was much too sober to have sort of coquetry going with Neville. "Aren't they both half-bloods?"

"Hannah's catering company won the contract for today's event," he said with a prideful gleam in his eye. "Cho's her assistant chef and business partner."

I knew he'd had his eye on Hannah for a while, and that Cho had recently gotten back together with Cedric Diggory after both their divorces. I carefully elbowed my friend. "Do I detect someone had a hand in assuring their company won the bid so they'd both be here today? Are you hoping they'll interfere in the Calenmai bonfire's magic so you and Cedric won't be hitched to someone less desirable?"

Was such a thing even possible? None of my reading indicated it would be, but it didn't negate the option either. I'd have to ask Draco later what he might know of it.

Neville glanced sideways at me and grinned. "I used to wonder why you became a reporter after leaving the Ministry. Now I know."

I blushed at the subtle praise. "So, what do you think of all this?" I indicated the gathering. "Calenmai being resurrected, I mean." I was curious as to his insight into the pure-bloods-only tradition, as I knew Neville to be relatively observant and a man of good moral character. "Good, bad, indifferent? What's your take?"

"Depends."

"On?"

He glanced down at me, seeming to consider how best to respond. There was a calculated glint in his eye as if he was attempting to be very careful with his next choice of words. This was a side of Neville I'd never seen before.

"On whether or not you're here respect or destroy traditions," he finally said.

What a curious thing to say! What was that all about, I wondered.

"And what if I'm here for another reason?" I dared to ask, zeroing in on Pansy Parkinson throwing her head back and laughing in unrestrained delight to something Evan Rosier II said to her. I absently wondered why Harry wasn't here, protesting his girlfriend's participation. It seemed odd to me. Another mystery to solve… "What if I'm here to show my friends that I support them, no matter their decisions?"

He gave me a lopsided smile. "Then, I'd say you're in the right place." He handed me one of the plates, not for wait serving someone else, but to offer to me. "Welcome to the most bizarre family reunion in the world!"

I picked up a strawberry and dipped it in a blop of cream on the plate. "What do you mean?" I bit down on it…and moaned, loudly. People turned and looked at me like I was mad, but honestly, it was the most succulent berry I'd ever tasted, and the cream was smooth and sweet. It hit all the right spots in my mouth in an explosion of wonderful flavour. I don't think I'd ever tasted anything quite so delicious in all my life.

Neville's ears went pink.

"Sorry. It's…really good," I made the excuse, and dropped the fruit back on my plate. I'd forego the rest until later when I was alone.

Jesus, I'd nearly orgasmed over the bloody thing, hadn't I? Where had that come from?

My friend tugged his collar away from his neck as if he was a bit embarrassed by my near-sexual experience with the strawberry. "Um, as I was saying, everyone here's pretty much related to everyone else in some way or another," my friend admitted with a good-natured shrug. "I mean, Draco's my third cousin on his mother's side. Or is that fourth? I can't recall."

Was he really? I didn't know that!

"Only the Zabinis, Perks, Lowes, and Wilkes are new families to the Court. Everyone else has been in England at least three generations."

More good information for my piece.

Thank goodness I owned a Pensieve. It would have been a bit too obvious to have a pen and paper in hand right then and writing all this down, and I could always go back and review conversations just like these later, in private and from a variety of angles, to make sure I got the details right.

He turned to me just before we'd joined a large group comprised of Weasleys, Lovegoods, Longbottoms, Diggorys, and Prewetts, all huddled together in conversation nearby. "Look, Hermione, you're clearly unattached." He nodded towards my left hand, which was bare of any engagement or wedding bands. "So, er, you should probably know that every wizard is going to be‒"

"Granger hardly needs your do-gooding chaperoning, Longbottom. This is the twenty-first century, and she's quite a capable witch with a mind of her own."

I turned at the icy, growly tone in Draco's voice, surprised that he'd sneaked up on me when I hadn't been paying attention.

He took my plate from my hand and held his arm out to me to take. "Now, if you don't mind excusing us, my guest and I have matters to discuss before retiring for tea."

The look he threw me told me not to argue, and although I thought his reaction extreme and quite rude, I grit my back teeth, forcing my voice to sound pleasant as I thanked Neville for his conversation. Just before we left, however, I made sure to knock the wind out of Draco's arrogant sails.

"I'll talk to you tomorrow, Neville!"

Neville blushed, glanced nervously at Draco, but then wished me a good afternoon and went on his way.

As my host escorted me back across the grass, I could feel his anger burning under the surface. The tension was palpable and nerve-wracking, so I hissed under my breath at him, "Just what is your problem? Neville was being a perfect gentleman!"

Draco's lips twitched in genuine outrage. "If that moan was anything to go by, he was being perfectly something to you, alright."

Now I was overheating, but not from embarrassment, but in mounting anger. "It wasn't him. It was… Oh, forget it! And what right do you have to comment on such a thing anyway? We're not dating."

A fact I mustn't forget, no matter how romantic the clothing. We were play-acting, nothing more.

His bicep tightened as if my words set his whole body on edge, but he refrained from replying. By then, we'd returned to stand near the banner of the Night Court, with the rest of our so-called 'allies'…and I noticed that every person in the group turned to Draco and me, watching us with open curiosity—especially Narcissa Malfoy.

 


 

As the sun set later that evening, the glade came alive with fairy lights and romance.

Long tables had been laid out and set with cloth, silver, and fine bone china by the festival's organizers, who turned out to be most of the pure-blood matriarchs, like Narcissa and Mrs. Weasley. Each Court had its own table, much like how the Hogwarts' Dining Hall had been set-up, with the Court's banner and colours dominating the decoration.

Draco showed me to a seat near the centre of the table, tucking me in with gentlemanly fashion, and he took the one directly opposite me on the other side.

On one side of me sat Alastor Moody and on the other, Alfred Sinistra. Both were wizards of my father's generation—meaning I'd been stationed between two elderly, curmudgeon men, far enough away from the attractive, single, gregarious men in our age group.

Neither one of them was very forthcoming with opinions or information about this Calanmai, either.

Over a sip of wine, I glanced across the table at Draco and gave him a pointed look, letting him know I understood what he was up to.

He tossed me a humourless smile back.

Clearly, he was still upset about what had happened earlier with the strawberry incident, although I couldn't fathom why that would bother him so. That he was hampering my ability to get a story here, though, was what really irked me.

Refusing to be thwarted, I turned to Draco's left and addressed Astoria Greengrass. The pretty, youngest daughter of the Greengrass family was a bubbly former Hufflepuff, and more than willing to talk all our ears off. Her opinions, however, tended towards inconsequential things, like fashions and entertainments. She loved, apparently, betting on the Abraxan races.

That topic, of course, spurred an entire conversation that ran up and down the table by horse and gambling enthusiasts. When Graham Montague talked so loudly that he was overheard by the tables nearest us, that set off a cascade of dialogue on the topic throughout the magical glade.

Bored to tears, I kicked Draco under the table to get his attention.

He paused and looked up at me, his fork half-way to his mouth. "Yes?"

I tried not to let too much sarcasm leak into my voice when I said, "Oh, good, you're speaking to me now. Although, technically, you have no room for being upset at me. Quite the opposite, actually."

He dropped his hand back down and gave me his whole attention. "How so?"

I glared at him. "We'll discuss that after dinner. Needless to say, you're quickly losing a place on my Christmas list this year."

Several seats down the table, and across the way from me, Theo interrupted, having eavesdropped on our conversation. "Would that be the 'nice' or 'naughty' list, Ms. Granger?"

Many people around us abruptly ended their debate to listen in on ours, I suddenly noticed.

I thought Draco was going to get up and punch his friend in the head. To my surprise instead, he played along. "You should know by now, Theo, that Ms. Granger was a Gryffindor. They only do 'nice'." He smirked at me. "Don't you, my dear?"

I reached down and grabbed my clutch from where I'd set it at my feet earlier, withdrawing a Quick Quotes Quill and a notebook. With a wave of wandless, non-verbal magic, I set them to activate and sat back in my chair. "Mister Malfoy, would you like to make an official statement regarding your family's position on the Calenmai festivities? Specifically, do you feel that resurrecting an ancient pure-blood-only tradition might strain relationships with half-bloods and Muggle-borns throughout wizarding Britain?"

Draco's amusement vanished. Everyone around us went silent and still.

I stared at him, quill at the ready, refusing to be the one who blinked first.

Surprisingly, it was Moody who broke the tension. He chuckled. "Well, lad, I'd say the lady has just called your bluff." My former professor slapped me gently on the shoulder in congratulations. "Gryffindors do 'nice'." He snickered and it sounded almost sinister. "You've the wrong House, there, boy. Try Hufflepuff."

At that, Astoria sat up straighter in her chair and blustered a bit about how no one appreciated her House.

Draco sighed.

I'd made my point and set my quill and notepad back into my clutch. Then, I returned to my meal. "The braised beef is delicious, by the way, but it's the roasted pine nuts over the pilaf that sends this meal into stardom." With the refined manners my grandmother and mother had raised me to show, I delicately cut up my meat. "Your caterer is haute cuisine top notch. I'll be sure to include that information in my article."

Everyone returned to their meal and the conversation flowed naturally after that onto other topics. I stayed silent, enjoying my meal and listening. There were conversations about sailing and fashion and horticulture, but I noticed no one discussed the voting to come later that night, much to my disappointment. It seemed politics was as off-limits a topic over dinner here as it was back at my Muggle home.

I reached for my wine glass. At that same moment, I'd chanced a quick look across the table… To my surprise, Draco's gaze was wholly fixated on me as he sipped his wine, and there was nothing but warmth and approval for me in his glimmering grey eyes.

I felt my cheeks flush with heat and quickly looked away.

How he could forgive me for antagonizing and embarrassing him in front of his peers was beyond my understanding, but it seemed I'd passed another one of his tests. I just had to wonder what the parameters of that unspoken assessment were…and what the ultimate prize would be if I actually did cross the finish line in the end.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The voting that night was, much to my astonishment, transparent and I was allowed to observe.

I left my quill and notebook tucked away inside my clutch, knowing that with all the activity, this was an event best recorded by my memory and observed later. So, I sat quietly in an elevated chair in the corner of a circus-sized tent as the elders of each pure-blood family took a seat behind a large, curved table in the centre of the room. There were fifty-seven families represented at this Calanmai event, so I was amazed by the size of that table.

Everyone else sat outside that circle, on a series of tiered amphitheater benches that all faced inwards, towards the ring of patriarchs and matriarchs. They sat with their Courts, each one designated by a colourful cloth banner that showcased their roses and spelled out the names of their Court in big, bold letters.

Under the Night Court's banner, I spied Draco easily, his bright white hair a beacon in the crowd of brunettes surrounding him. Theo sat next to him on his right. I noted their matching white rose boutineers—glamoured not to wilt or discolour, despite the many hours they'd worn them—stood out in stark contrast to their clothing. The two looked to be in serious conversation, and I could only assume it had something to do with the vote yet to come.

In the section next to theirs, I caught Luna's eyes and waved to her. She was wearing the orange rose of Summer Court and seated next to the Weasleys with her father. Ginny was a few seats down the same row from her, but my friend's attention was directed elsewhere. When I followed her line of sight, I noticed it was firmly fixed on Zabini, who was representing his family in his mother's stead at the elder's table. Interesting.

Down at the table in the centre, the only one who would look at me was Sirius Black, who was the sole remaining member of the Black family and thus the family elder by default. His yellow rose of the Spring Court stood out prominently upon his cranberry-coloured velvet jacket. It made him look like a dandy, I thought, but was quite a fetching contrast at the same time. When he nodded at me, I waved back.

I let my eyes skim row after row of the amphitheater, moving slowly so I could catalogue each person's location and face later under the Pensieve. I saw Neville speaking to Miles Bletchley, who was also a member of the Dawn Court, and in the section next to theirs, my former Housemate, Lavender Brown wearing the red rose of the Day Court and flirting with Cedric Diggory, who also sported the Day Court's colours. As I moved on, it was no surprise to see Ernie Macmillan wearing the Autumn Court's magenta rose; his family was in love with making money almost as fast as they spent it on their gambling habits and poor investment schemes.

As my attention shifted to the Spring Court's quarter, I groaned in dismay to find that git ex-boyfriend of mine, Cormac McLaggen, eye-fucking me from across the arena. He tossed me a dark, bitter smirk as our gazes met and clashed, and I just knew what he was silently promising was to make this week hell upon me, if he could. Clearly, he hadn't come to Calenmai for a marriage of convenience with some hapless, ignorant female, although I was sure he'd take that anyway, given his age and continuing bachelor status. No, I was betting he'd agreed to come only once he'd heard the rumours floating around that I'd planned to cover the event. I'd put my last Sickle down on that bet, in fact. Cor was just that vindictive.

When we'd been twenty-four and in lust with each other, I'd really thought it possible that he could be a good husband to me someday, even if my heart had never really settled upon him. Then he'd gone and mucked everything up by having a string of clandestine affairs that he hadn't thought I'd never discover.

Idiot, I'm a reporter. Uncovering the truth is what I do.

Of course, being a narcissist of the tenth degree, Cor had not only refused to acknowledge his responsibility in our relationship's ending but had repeatedly tried to convince me to give him a second chance. He'd been arrogant and persistent in his belief over the years that we'd get together again someday, but I wasn't having any of it then or now.

Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Yes, that. Furthermore, I had no intention of catching whatever diseases Cor was carrying now that he'd passed himself around like the mustard. Besides, whatever I'd felt for him once upon a time had been pounded into the ground and stomped out when I'd caught him having sex in our bed with another woman. There was nothing left to want, as far as I was concerned.

The look I threw back at him was intended to convey that one, simple message: our ship hadn't just sailed years ago—it had been torched, scuttled, and sent to Davy Jones' locker. I wasn't interested.

Moving on, I continued to peruse the gallery. There were over a thousand people present, making the tent terribly noisy. Thankfully, someone had thought to cast a cooling charm on the place to keep the heat under control, and I had a good enough seat that I could see and hear the proceedings well when they were finally called to order.

From the opening speech, made clear to all under the tent courtesy of a Sonorus charm, I gathered that the circle of elders' Calenmai committee—the mysterious 'Court of Thorns and Roses', spearheaded by Draco's boss, the tall and imposing Auror, Kingsley Shacklebolt—had been responsible for much of the organization of the festival. The event, it seemed, had been in the planning stages for the last year, finally culminating in the successful kick-off today.

The speech continued with the requisite thanks to important donors and praise for a job well done in organizing the festivity. By the time we'd gotten past the grandstanding and on to the meat of the meeting, my watch read half-past seven. After introducing each head of house seated around the table, representing all of the pure-blood families in England, Shacklebolt explained the rules of the voting.

"The elders are responsible for casting their family's vote for the High Lord or High Lady of each Court tonight," he explained in layman's terms to the audience. "Each elder must cast seven votes. Once a vote is cast it cannot be revoked. There can be no abstention of a vote. The votes will be publicly tallied first by magic, then by hand, before the entire assembly. High Lords and High Ladies will be announced as the tallies are completed."

He made a circle around the inside of the table's ring, looking at each elder with an aura of seriousness. "High Lords and High Ladies represent their Court not just during this Calenmai festival, but the entire Court's future for the next seven years. They take on the mantle of responsibility for each family that aligns with them and serve as liaisons between their Court and the other Courts. They are mentors, planners, and protectors. Health, financial security, fame, familial happiness—whatever aspect their Court represents—relies upon the High Lord or High Lady of a Court to see those goals met for everyone under their banner. It is a duty not entered into lightly, for should they fail to lead the other families under their charge, their alliance fails and the desires of each family under them remains unmet. Remember that when casting your votes tonight."

There was some discussion between Kingsley and several members of the committee, who were not elders, then the seven boxes were brought out into the centre of the ring and lined up. They were clearly marked: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Dawn, Day, and Night. Their corresponding Court banners swung freely under them, in case there was any confusion.

At that point, members of each Court from the stands were allowed to shout the names of their wants for High Lord or High Lady. That rabble-rousing went on for some time, and each elder turned to their section to listen to what their family wanted. Then, when Kingsley had decided that had gone on long enough, he called for silence and for the vote to commence.

Elders filled out their seven slips of paper with the name of their choice for High Lord or High Lady of that Court and then approached the boxes slipped them in. When they were done, they held up their wand and lit the tip to indicate their votes had been cast.

It took half an hour for the last vote to be cast. Then, Kingsley called for a count, and the members of his committee, comprised of people from various families, came forward and began counting the totals in front of the group.

The first to be called was the Autumn Court. Apparently, they'd had a sweep.

"The High Lord of the Autumn Court is Cornelius Fudge."

The former Minister stood from his seat at the elder's table and waved as his Court cheered. He'd been a shoo-in with his political connections. That Court's families would certainly be seeing financial success for the next seven years.

The next was Summer Court. No surprise, the title of High Lord was given to a Weasley. However, it surprised me to see it had been Bill Weasley, the eldest son, to take the seat. I'd expected Arthur or Molly, honestly. Strange that it had been their child who'd been entrusted with such a great responsibility, instead of the eldest of their clan.

After that, Neville won the seat for the Dawn Court and Oliver Wood took Day Court next. Again, both were perplexing choices as it was obvious there were older, more seasoned witches and wizards standing behind the two men whom I'd have expected to have secured the nominations instead. Perhaps Neville's grandmother and Oliver's much older father simply didn't want the stress now that they were in their twilight years? But what about the other families from Dawn and Day, surely they had more experiencing people among their group? Not that a man in his mid-thirties who coached a winning Quidditch team couldn't do the job, or that an established and well-liked Hogwarts Herbology professor didn't understand how to multi-task...

Perhaps I was simply overthinking this. Many people in my generation held esteemed seats within the current Ministry. Harry was Assistant Head Auror, after all, and he wasn't yet thirty. Maybe this kind of regime change in authority was part of the natural order, as the old made way for the young. The way Neville's grandmum was happily congratulating her grandson right then seemed legitimate, and Oliver's father shook his hand in such a way, it was impossible to mistake it for anything but pride for a job well-done.

Yes, that must be it. I was just being silly, letting my suspicious nature get the better of me. One of the hazards of the job. In my line of work, it was common to see moving shadows where there was only a flickering light.

Much to my expectation, Draco's appointment as High Lord of the Night Court was next. I glanced at him, only to see him nodding as if that outcome had never been in dispute.

After that, the voting became a little more hotly contested.

When Cormac took the coveted spot for Spring Court, the Perkes family challenged the vote. Kingsley had had to intervene, reminding every one of the rules. Eventually, the Perkes' conceded that the rules had been followed to the letter and McLaggen had won the spot fair and square.

Winter Court's results drew the most debate however, as there was a challenge by the Shafiqs and the MacDougals, who claimed the Zabini family didn't qualify for nomination, as the seat of their family's power, Blaise's mother, remained in Italy. There was the further accusation that they were ineligible to even participate in Calenmai until their foreign matriarch passed, as they hadn't established themselves as a homesteaded family in Britain. Another hour of frustrated debate ensued, with people around the gallery speaking for or against the nomination. In the end, it became a show of hands from everyone, and the majority, who were made up primarily of wizards and witches aged forty and younger, ruled in favour of the Zabini clan not only being allowed to participate but for Blaise to take the role of High Lord of the Winter Court. The democratic establishment had decided that, despite having been foreign born and there being only one member of his family—Blaise, himself—represented in England at the moment, he was a vested member of their pure-blood family, as he owned property in London and resided there exclusively, as well as maintained ownership in a British professional Quidditch league. His ties to the community made him eligible, and that was the end of the debate.

As the 'younger' generation cheered their sweep of the new Council, I again felt like something important had just happened there, and that it meant more than even I understood at that moment. I filed it away for future consideration, however, as Kingsley returned to the centre ring and declared the voting complete. He then went over the schedule for the next few days and a reminder of the crowning of the May King and May Queen on Saturday morning. Magical copies appeared in front of every guest on parchment rolls, to take with them as they left for the night.

We dispersed and I made my way over to Draco, winding through bodies to cross the floor. I stopped on a Knut when I noticed he was in conversation again with Astoria Greengrass, though. The witch was laughing and batting her eyes at him like she had lash-tourettes.

Once more, the green-eyed monster of jealousy rose up in my chest and made me see red.

"They're quite a fetching couple, don't you think?" Theo asked, sidling up to me and nodding towards Greengrass and his best friend. "What pretty babies they'd make."

Rather than respond to that, I said simply, "Tell him I'll see him tomorrow for the first tournament."

With that I walked off, heading for tent city, which had been set up on the outskirts of the glade.

Draco had, apparently, had his house-elves set-up his family's accommodations while we'd been busy all day, and I found them easily, given the tent size and the giant Night Court banner situated in front of it.

The inside of the tent had been expanded by an Undetectable Extensions Charm and reminded me of something straight out of "1001 Arabian Nights" with its exotic extravagance. Plush Turkish carpeting had been laid out wall-to-wall, silken swathes of Night Court-coloured fabrics were strung up from one side to the other and hung in lovely dips and bows from the ceiling, Moroccan-themed lamps hovered near the top of the tent to provide a romantic atmosphere. Cushioned seating—divans, sectional sofas, and chaise longues—were set low to the ground in keeping with the motif, and small tables dotted here and there among them to allow for eating or smoking. A silk panel, tied to the side with a gold cord, revealed a small exit off to the left that led, presumably, towards the bedrooms.

To my relief, Narcissa and any trucks belonging to her were notably absent from the site. I'd guessed that meant she wouldn't be lodging down with us during the event, most likely Apparating back to her family's manor house in Wiltshire during the evenings instead. That was fine by me, as I wasn't in the mood to spar with her again, anyway. Besides, it wasn't as if she was the 'roughing it' type.

I headed towards the sleeping sectional and picked one of five divided chambers for my use, closing the curtain behind me to indicate that the spot was now occupied.

The sleeping quarters were as lavish as the front room, with a giant, round mattress in the centre. Sheer curtains fell all around it to give it a bit of privacy, and it had a stack of fluffy pillows and what appeared to be silken sheets covering it. Draped along the bottom edge was a thicker blanket made of some furred animal, fox or ermine, I guessed. I hoped it wasn't real, in either case.

A dresser and a wardrobe were made available, too. The moment I touched one of them, my baggage popped into the room and began setting itself away in the drawers and on the hooks.

As the magic did my work for me, I slipped out of my shoes and ran my toes over the thick, sumptuous carpeting beneath me. Then, I yanked the earrings from my ears and tossed them and my clutch, with my wand still inside, atop a small side table. Draco's house-elves appeared then, and hurriedly prepared a bath for me in the corner, behind a privacy screen. I undressed and tossed my clothing over a nearby stool, and the elves quickly scooped it up for laundering. I remembered to thank them for all their help as I pinned my long braid to the top of my head to keep it from getting wet and then slid into the warm, scented water and leaned back, closing my eyes.

Within moments, I fell asleep.

When I awoke much later, my toes were pruned, the elves were long gone, and the water was cooling. I got out, used the towel left for me by my little, conscientious friends, and dried off. Then, I loosed the braid and let my hair fall free. It tumbled in curly, tight waves to the middle of my back, and I ran my fingers through it to untangle any knots.

As I rounded the privacy screen to prepare for bed I nearly jumped out of my skin to find someone else in the room with me and scurried to cover up. Draco was sitting in a chair near the bed, grinning like a viper who had successfully sneaked up on unsuspecting prey.

I frowned at his juvenile antics and wrapped the towel tighter around my middle. "You nearly scared me out of my skin, you utter prat!" I growled at him. "Why are you here?"

He didn't immediately reply. Instead, his eyes languidly perused me from head to toe.

I felt my cheeks go instantly hot.

Yes, my ex had seen me naked in the past, many times in fact, but that had been more than a decade before, and not since. Furthermore, he hadn't given me any indication over the years that he'd thought of me as a woman any longer, much less an attractive one. Since our break-up, I'd simply been his best friend, 'Granger'—the one who always stayed sober at any Ministry charity event so I could Apparate him home safely after he'd had one too many, the one who helped him decide on Narcissa's Christmas gift every year because the woman was as picky as a hag, and the one who encouraged him not to let his father's memory haunt him, especially on the anniversary of the wretched man's death. I was his rock as he was mine...but he certainly hadn't looked at me like this in over ten years.

I was suddenly, acutely aware of the fact that we were alone, and I was only a single strip of well-made terry cloth away from being on full display for him.

He met my eyes at last and his lips curled into a naughty smile. "Nice," he said. "Dare you to drop it."

I sighed in disappointment. This was just more of his usual tomfoolery, and there was nothing personal about it at all. "If that's the same line you used on Greengrass tonight, it's no wonder she didn't follow you home like a puppy," I said and crossed the room to the dresser, to pull out a light blue nightgown made of soft cotton and a pair of knickers. I took them with me behind the privacy screen where I changed into them. "Although I bet you could get her to fetch for you if you'd only flirt a little better."

"Jealous, much?" he countered.

I hung the towel up over the privacy screen to dry. I was sure the elves would appear tomorrow morning and remove it, but just tossing it on the ground seemed classless, and my mother had raised me better. "On the contrary, she'd make you the perfect wife," I said, clamping down on the envy and resentment writhing around in my chest. "You two look like matching bookends." I came around the screen and headed for the bed, conscious of how my free breasts bounced as I moved and trying not to draw attention to that fact. "Nott thinks you'd make pretty babies together."

I could feel Draco watching my every step to the bed. "Theo should learn to keep his mouth shut," he growled.

"He's become quite bold since this morning," I said, curious by that fact. I pulled the curtains open around the bed and fell into it, tucking under the silken, cool sheets. "Can you believe he even offered me the option to become his mistress after this whole shenanigan is over?"

Draco was clearly shocked by the idea. "I'm surprised you didn't hex him a new opening," he replied, scowling. "Aside from the insult, any idiot would know you'd never accept playing second string."

"No woman should," I countered and covered a yawn. Exhaustion was pulling at me; it had been a busy first day. I was too tired to bother brushing my teeth or hair as usual before bed, so just for tonight, I'd just let my usual ablutions slide and ignore my mother and father's warnings of good dental hygiene this one time. "In any case, it seems congratulations are in order for your win. I had a feeling you were gunning for High Lord of Night." I yawned again and shut my eyes, trusting Draco would see his way out the moment I was asleep. "And you always win what you're after, don't you?"

I felt the fur blanket drawn up over me and gently set into place, covering me to my shoulder. My best friend leaned over and pressed a small kiss to my temple. "That I do," he whispered.

Behind my closed lids, I could see the light in my room dim, and knew Draco had left.

A moment later, I was playing in Slumber Land.

 


 

My dreams that night were erotic, the last of them featuring one of my favourite memories of my last time with Draco during seventh-year...

After making a bet about his improved sexual skill level, Draco had dragged me to the shore of the Black Lake to make good on his bragging. There, hidden by night's shadows, he'd slowly stripped me of my clothes, laid me back in soft, green grass, kissing and touching every span of revealed flesh, before finally making tender love to me under the stars. Afterwards, as he'd leaned over me, our bodies still intimately connected at the hips, he'd pressed small kisses over the curves of my throat and shoulder, and down my body until he was gently sucking upon my nipples.

"I concede: you've become a sex god," I'd said, running my fingers through his soft, white-blond hair and thinking how it was possible to love someone so much in such a short time. "Your wife is going to be an extraordinarily happy woman someday."

The thought had depressed me, but I'd known even then that he'd been destined for a life that wouldn't include me. His father's most recent letter had made that abundantly clear.

He'd kissed my mouth then, and there had been an odd twinkle in his lazy, grey gaze when he'd carelessly replied, "Yes, she will be."

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The next day, at dawn the first major tournament of the festival began.

It was, as expected, a wand dueling competition.

I had to give props to the Court of Thorns and Roses; they'd come prepared to handle a sizable group of contestants for this event, traditionally the most popular of Calenmai. Three registration stations were set up outside the dueling tent, complete with rope lines to steer the crowds towards them. Wait staff stood at the curls of each line with trays of drinks and small morning pastries—offerings to keep the participants from grumbling too loudly about missing breakfast. In the background, a chamber group stationed on a small platform performed the more serene classical pieces from Grieg, Chopin, and Debussy. As a result, the usual obnoxiousness that tended to infect most sports competitions was missing. Overall, the mood was tranquil and the Calenmai players in good spirits. No one was behaving badly, not even the hung-over Weasley twins.

Well done, ACOTAR, I thought.

Enrolling in the duel was equally as well-coordinated, requiring the signing of a legal contract:

"...in the event of limb, sense, or memory loss, permanent maiming, coma, or death, the event's coordinators and financial sponsors are not responsible..." I heard ACOTAR Registrar Arietes Carrow, father of the twins Flora and Hestia, explaining to the Dawn Court's Julius Gamp. "The participant enters into such an agreement wholly under their own faculties and with a complete understanding of the potential hazards."

Being a man in his young twenties and clearly out to prove himself, Julius hardly seemed concerned when he signed at the bottom of the agreement and sealed it with wax that had been diluted with a drop of his blood.

I moved on to the second registration station where Barty Crouch Sr. was explaining the rules to the Spring Court's Symon Yaxley, who looked to be barely of legal age to participate in an event like this one. "Hexes, jinxes, and charms are the only legal and allowable spells," Crouch told the ferrety young wizard. "No physical contact, no potions, and no outside interference of any kind. Use of any curses are an automatic expulsion and a revoking of all rights to participate in any other event during Calenmai."

Yaxley looked too eager to get to it to care about rules, in my opinion. He practically vibrated where he stood, gripping his wand like it was a saber preparing for battle.

He, like Gamp, was going to be trouble with a capital "T", clearly.

At the third station, Athelstan Fawley handed the Autumn Court's Alan Runcorn a white arm band with a black "2B" embroidered on it. "Put this on, left upper arm. You're dueling at Ring Two, and are part of Group B. Be at ringside no later than eleven o'clock." The elderly man pointed towards the other side of the tent where a podium had been erected and a glass fishbowl set upon a table in the middle. "Your dueling partner will be drawn from the bowl at eight A.M. over there." He dismissed the taciturn Runcorn with a wave and beckoned to the person behind him in line. "Next!"

On it went.

Overall and much to my surprise, the registration process was efficiently handled despite the fact it was staffed with a large number of people who worked at the Ministry for their regular day jobs.

Then again, I mused, Kingsley Shacklebolt was in charge of this shindig, and if there was one thing I knew about him as Draco's boss, it was that he well understood how to manage and motivate people. His Department was one of the few within the government to run like a well-oiled machine, and I was convinced the man would make a fabulous Minister once Rufus Scrimgeour retired from the spot.

The dueling registration line moved with that same energy and competence as Shacklebolt's committee smoothly dealt with each registrant...and yet I noted that blockheaded best friend of mine was still nowhere to be seen by the time the last person in line had cleared the first turn.

If Draco didn't get a move on, he'd miss his chance to register for the dueling contest.

I started wondering what could have held him up. Had he, perhaps, left me last night and gone out trolling for Astoria Greengrass or some other pretty, pure-blood princess to shag into insensibility, killing time until Saturday's bonfire rolled around? Or was he delving back into the darker sin of drugs and alcohol excess in an attempt to make this godawful week pass in a blur?

Nearly six years ago, my best friend had gone on a serious bender. He'd consumed too much intoxicant, slagged around the whole of London with little regard for where he was sticking his wick, and on occasion, he'd even showed up at my home in the middle of the night half-cooked on concoctions of potions and pills that would make him vomit all over my rugs. He'd nearly lost his job then, and it had only been as a result of me pleading with Shacklebolt to put Draco on temporary leave instead that had spared him his place in the Aurors.

At the time I'd been newly-affianced to Cormac and he'd advised me to take out a restraining order against Draco. I hadn't, and a year later, Cor had been the one 'advised' to stay five-hundred feet away from me at all times.

Fortunately, soon after that Draco had a 'coming to Jesus' moment without the religious fervour, so at least my carpets were spared. I'd always been concerned, though, that someday my best friend would take up where he'd left off, and next time, maybe even complete the quest he'd been on towards self-destruction. Thus far he hadn't slipped back down the rabbit hole and gotten lost in Wonderland again, thankfully, but I knew if anything could push him in that direction it would most likely be this blasted Calenmai and it's 'forced marriage' requirement.

Please, no, I worried as I took up a place near the back of the pavilion and watched the tent opening for him. I wasn't sure my heart would survive another three o'clock in the morning run to St. Mungo's to have his stomach pumped, much less his body resuscitated. Please let him have either overslept or be taking his time eating breakfast.

With nerves clacking my back teeth together, I again checked my watch.

If he didn't show by half-past, I was going to hunt him down and get my own answers.

 


 

Fifteen minutes later, Draco sauntered in with Zabini and Nott at his side, seeming without a care in the world.

To my relief, he looked to be in relatively good health, not expressing any of the usual signs of having overindulged in any addictions overnight, including a romp through the sheets with some female. Rather, he didn't smirk and swagger about in that arrogant manner many men who'd had their brooms well-polished tended to do.

His eyes searched the crowd until they met mine, and I tossed him a wave and a smile.

He nudged his chin to indicate he wanted me to come over to him, but I refused. No way was I making the mistake of standing in another line where the registrar mistook my mere presence as a desire for participation, especially given the end result in this case was a wand duel. I indicated I'd wait for him where I was, and he simply nodded in acquiescence, taking up a place in line next to his friends, returning to their interrupted conversation.

While I waited, I drank in every detail around me, eavesdropped on discussions around me, and placed names with unfamiliar faces.

About half of the participants in this year's Calenmai were younger than my generation by a full to a half decade, I noticed, while a quarter was older than my generation by the same. That would make for some interesting match-ups come Bonfire Night... Personally, I couldn't imagine being paired with someone who was a green twenty if I was nearing thirty, much less forty. No wonder Charlie Weasley was so panicked! He might end up with a virgin for a wife, and for a man of his known sexual experience and tastes, that could prove wholly incompatible and make for a bad marriage.

I wondered if the bonfire took personal choice into consideration.

Come to think of it, I wondered how the blasted thing even worked! According to the book that Draco had loaned me, the bonfire was a mysterious magic and a closely-guarded secret known only to the members of the Court of Thorns and Roses. I had a guess it had something to do with partnering up harmonious magical signatures, but as with the Tri-Wizard Tournament champion selection, how a non-sentient thing could determine something as complex as compatibility criteria from a multitude of participants, I hadn't a clue. Nothing I'd ever read even came close to an explanation as to how to achieve such a thing outside of a Patronus changing its shape to resemble or 'mate' that of a lover's.

Perhaps when this whole thing was over, I might wrangle such information out of Shacklebolt in exchange for a phrase or two in my forthcoming article that would put his part in Calenmai in a good light.

Because if my suspicions about this event turned out to be true, he'd need all the good public relations he could get once I went to print.

 


 

Sooner than I'd expected, the registration portion was completed and the members of ACOTAR began pairing duelists up for their first contest by drawing names randomly from the fishbowl.

Standing near the podium was Winter Court's Thomas Selwyn...and as his name was the first called, I saw him throw a look of loathing across the tent at Marcus Flint of the Autumn Court, who was announced would be his opponent a beat later. The two wizards may have both been sorted Slytherins during their school days, but it was clear now that Court politics and a competitive edge was taking precedence.

Elizabeth Burke, another of Summer Court's 'goddesses', nodded as she was informed she'd be battling Miles Bletchley. Miles, whose pink rose was tucked back behind his ear and whose waist-length straight hair was tied back at his nape with a pink bow, gave a jaunty bow at the waist in Burke's direction to show sportsmanlike respect for his opponent.

Pansy Parkinson, decked out in Spring's yellow like a goldfinch on steroids, was set to fight the Day Court's Rolly Travers...and she looked like she'd eat the man alive, if given the chance.

"Draco Malfoy," Sirius Black called out next, pulling his cousin's name from the bowl with a flair for the dramatic. He and Draco might have physically been opposites, but the Black family genes had clearly carried through when it came to theatrics, for Sirius shared Draco's love of flamboyancy. "You, m'boy, will face...Terrence Higgs," he told my best friend as he pulled the other man's name from the bowl.

Unperturbed, Draco merely acquiesced to the assignment with a cool nod.

I knew that meant he was going to clean the floor with Higgs later.

Draco might have been one cocky rooster, but the truth was, he had cause to be. I'd never seen anyone with a faster wand arm or a more accurate aim when it came to offensive spells.

Of course, that had been primarily thanks to Lucius' cruel 'parenting' techniques, the vicious bastard. The man had ruined Draco's childhood with his dreams of gaining greater power through his son's achievements, and that had included teaching Draco at the earliest opportunity how to duel. No twelve-year-old should have known how to cast Serpensortia, and yet the Malfoy heir had done so flawlessly against 'The Boy Who Lived' in Lockhart's Dueling Club, thanks wholly to his mad father's influence.

At least all of that training had paid off in Draco's career when he'd up and joined the Aurors a few months after we'd graduated Hogwarts. I knew he'd done it to get even with Lucius, but more than once I'd been thankful he was so quick with his magic, especially when facing off against dark wizards who still evoked the dead Voldemort's name as their call-to-arms.

Would it be enough for him to win the dueling tournament, though? Defeating magic users wasn't just about one's skill with spell-craft, but it also had a lot to do with physical endurance and agility. Sometimes the best defense was to dodge an incoming hex, rather than waste precious energy attempting to ward it off, and there was something to be said for a bigger person putting their weight behind a shield spell and using it to push forward. Not to mention the amount of arm waving one did, which could quickly exhaust a weaker person.

I glanced across the tent at where my best friend, Zabini, and Nott were all standing, talking amicably. Admittedly, I couldn't help comparing Draco to his two friends.

Zabini had a good three inches on Draco, which made him seem bigger, but the width of their shoulders and biceps were about the same when you took a good measure.

Nott was narrower and shorter than either of them, but equally as fit, and he seemed to have a good centre of gravity.

Physically, the three men were in excellent shape. I attributed that to the regular exercise regime they'd adopted over the last few years. Three mornings a week, Draco and his two misfit friends met up, went for a run, pumped iron, and then proceeded to pound on each other with both fists and magic before going their separate ways to work.

Ah, bromances!

Yet, despite that extreme level of exercise, a tiny voice in the back of my head wondered if retiring from Shacklebolt's Aurors to join Robards' Prosecutorial team last year and becoming a 'desk jockey' had slowed Draco down.

"He'll win," Narcissa confidently told me as she appeared at my elbow without fanfare or expectation. Her Victorian-styled dress, complete with tightly-cinched corset, was made of the finest green and black silk, with silver threads at the collar and wrists. The black, mini top hat on her head sat at a jaunty angle and was decorated with a large, black Occamy feather and a hanging black veil. She looked as if she was preparing for a walk in Hyde Park on Halloween night. "Draco always gets what he wants once he sets his mind to it."

"I'm well aware of his capabilities," I snapped back, making it clear that my relationship with her son went deeper than she was comfortable admitting and that I was tired of her challenging that. After a dozen years, I'd earned the right, and it was about time she acknowledged it. "He's the most indomitable man I know."

She didn't look at me when she said, "His father was much the same, you know: determined to have what he wanted, no matter the cost."

That made me grit my back teeth. "Draco is nothing like Lucius was, especially where it counts."

I expected Narcissa to snarl and bark at my sniping at her dead husband. Instead, her lips turned up in a curious smile. "In matters of the spirit and the heart, it's true Draco follows my example, but in temperament, Ms. Granger‒" Her smile dropped and her eyes cast a worried glance her son's way. "‒he's more like his father than either of us cares to admit."

"Meaning?"

I knew she was hinting at some dangerous possibility lurking on the horizon, and for once I wished she would just speak plainly, but Narcissa was a snake with a forked tongue, and that made double-speak an evolved adaptation in her case.

"Men with ambitious dreams remake the world for the sake of their personal desires, caring little for the roses they trim and bleed in the doing," she stated while glancing around at the congregation of pure-bloods in their dueling finery with a peculiar sadness. "If he is thwarted this week, Draco will tear the world apart and bring the mountain to its knees with his father's rage. If he succeeds, it will be a gentler wave that rocks our boat, as I would have it."

She turned and looked at me, and in her eyes, there burned a cold resentment for me.

"Either way, it will be as I said: he will win, and the course will be irrevocably altered. None of us will ever be the same...most especially you, Ms. Granger."

As she walked off, I contemplated what she'd said, trying to read between the lines to piece together whatever nefarious plans Draco had for Calenmai. Was this event meant to be his launching pad into the world of politics?

I considered his moves of late: he hadn't dated in a year and had thrown out his 'bachelor black book' of names, he'd left the Aurors for a Prosecutor's post within the Wizagamot's offices, he'd become friendlier with Kingsley Shacklebolt‒a Ministry superstar who was universally liked, he'd toed the party line and agreed to participate in a pure-blood only event meant to bring strength back to that diminished political pool, he'd agreed in advance to a match with a pure-blood female who might bring influence and/or money to a marriage...and he'd charmed me into standing at his side which, for all intents and purposes, was the equivalent of bringing the media to heel.

Did all of that add up to a bid for Minister or Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot someday, though?

And what had Narcissa meant by his willingness to bring the whole system crashing around our ears if he was 'thwarted' in whatever goals he had set for this Calenmai festival?

"What are you up to, Draco?" I hissed under my breath, noting he and his two friends were once more conspiring together across the room. They looked to be in a serious discussion that smacked of Slytherin scheming.

Whatever my best friend's aims really were, the more worrisome part was that his mother feared them enough to give me fair warning.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

The dueling tent was enormous, an Undetectable Extensions Charm expanding it to the size of a school Quidditch arena.

In the centre of the tent, six gigantic combat rings were laid out side-by-side, like a row of coins with their edges touching. Members of the ACOTAR took up judging positions in and around each one and began casting wards around each ring to prevent stray spells from hitting bystanders or other duelists. The spectator seats surrounding the dueling area contained rows of coliseum-style theater seating, much the same as they had last night during the voting session.

The first group of duelists was given a thirty-minute break before they were to begin, enough time for a run to the loo or for last-minute warm-ups.

I decided to use that time to snoop.

After a quick check-in with Draco, who was part of the second group and so wouldn't be competing for a bit, I decided to wander around to the other activity tents to get a feel for what everyone else was doing today. I'd learned earlier that morning that Calenmai included plenty of opportunities for participants to earn competition points, enough that they didn't even have to participate in the wand duels if they chose not to. A magical cook-off, a gambling tournament, various Quidditch trials, an Exploding Snap tourney...the place was ripe with opportunities.

And points were the name of the game here.

Individual points earned for wins were tallied up on Friday night. There was some sort of prize for first place and second place, but as to what that was I couldn't seem to get anyone to say outright.

I was at the refreshment table a few minutes later when Theodore Nott unexpectedly appeared at my elbow again. His sudden presence caught me off guard and made me jump...and I spilled what remained of my Bloody Mary all over the person to my left.

Specifically, 'Mad-Eye' Moody.

Rather, his mechanical leg.

"Oh, Merlin, I'm so sorry, Alastor!" I grabbed a napkin from off the table without thought and bent between his legs to clean up the awkward mess. I patted the metal appendage, soaking up tomato juice and picking bits of celery out of the riveted knee joint. "Your leg is...er, water-proof, right?"

The man snorted at my stupidity.

I glanced up...and froze in horror. Apparently, it was true that Scots wore nothing under their kilts.

Quickly, I scampered to my feet, face flaming with heat. Moody's censuring frown twitched at the corners with amusement at my accidental discovery. "Ah, if only I was thirty years younger, lass," he said with a dark laugh and climbed to his feet, wandering off into the crowd.

Behind me, Nott burst into chortling laughter, having caught the entire exchange.

I whirled on him and hissed. "I'm blaming you for that, you miscreant! My eyeballs will need a thorough scrubbing now, thank you very much!"

He laughed harder, grabbing his belly.

I slugged his arm. "Argh, stop slinking around like a thief in the shadows! You're going to give someone a heart attack someday!"

With a small bow, he got his humour back under control and apologised for his part in giving me permanent nightmares. "May I escort you around the tent, Miss Granger? I'm assuming you're interested in watching the other matches, too?" He held his elbow out to me as a peace offering.

Well, yes, I was interested in seeing the other duelists perform. I had a job to do, to report the facts of this event to the public...and, yes, to look over the crop of witches for Draco's consideration, no matter how unpleasant the task.

Trying not to let that thought depress me, I took Nott's arm and we headed off down the tent line.

The first circle contained Ginny's fight. She'd been paired against a younger fellow named Damien Urquhart, whom I'd never met, but who sported the yellow rose of Spring Court upon his chest. As I hugged her and we chit-chatted about her lovely outfits thus far and her assumed win in this first contest, it occurred to me that she might indeed be a good match for Draco. Both were pleasure-seekers, flamboyant and fearless in their own ways. She was, in a word, formidable and grabbed life like it was her due, acting without hesitation. In addition, she had a frisky and playful attitude, was a fantastic flyer and a Quidditch lover, was unquestionably wand-strong, and incredibly beautiful, I'd always thought. I'd forever envied her fiery mane of hair and her Amazonian shape and height. Surely, Draco could be happy with a witch like her.

The thought of them together like that had my heart sobbing blood.

As if sensing my distress, Nott interrupted our discussion with excuses of taking the 'nosy journalist' around for her 'story of the century'. He hurried me away down the line of the combat rings.

"Thank you for that," I told him. "The excitement of the contest is making me a bit...anxious."

As far as excuses went, it was an awful one, but thankfully, Nott didn't call me on it. In his hazel eyes, however, I saw his knowledge that I was lying to him about the reasons for my upset...and something that looked remarkably like understanding, too.

The second circle showcased Blaise Zabini facing off against the Night Court's Graham Montague. The two former Slytherins were rumoured to be evenly matched, but it soon became apparent who would be the better duelist by their warm-up regime.

"Zabini," I told Nott, calling the match before it had even begun.

"Mmm," he agreed.

We were both traitors to our chosen Court, it seemed, but realistically that match's conclusion seemed inevitable. Zabini had both the better muscle and finesse.

We moved on.

Down the row we went, quietly murmuring to each other our picks for winners.

"When's your match?" I asked.

He held up the fabric band he'd been given at registration, which he had not yet placed upon his arm. It read '3E'. "I'm part of the third group," he told me, "so probably sometime before the noon meal." He glanced back at the dueling circles behind us. "Perhaps sooner, if the matches go quickly and circles open up."

I let out a heavy breath at that. "Must be hell on the nerves to have to wait."

Nott shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. "I'm not fighting for the top spot, so it truly doesn't matter much to me."

That made me wonder again what the ultimate prize was for these contests. "So you're in it for the sport of it?"

"Hardly," he admitted. "I'm just trying to make a good impression."

"For whom?"

His smile was mysteriously cat-like. "We shall see."

 


 

When Nott and I had walked the line of the combat zone from ring one to six, and I'd observed as much as I'd cared to, we started back towards the stands in preparation for the first matches to begin.

Chivalrous to a fault, my escort directed me back to Draco's side. He released me to my 'host', but only after executing a formal bow upon the back of my hand, even daring to be so bold as to place his lips there as well.

He left Draco and me with a parting grin for his best friend, drifting back into the crowd and disappearing like a shadowy wraith among the myriad of bodies.

Draco's laser-like glare at the man's back could have cut diamonds in half. Then, he turned that look on me.

"What?" I didn't care much for the accusatory scowl he threw my way, especially as I didn't understand why he was so upset in the first place. "I told you last night that Nott's been playing his own game with me." I shrugged at that. "He's Slytherin. It's what you lot do, so I'm not sure why you're surprised." I turned back to the centre stage, which was preparing to kick off the first round of duels. "Besides, I don't need a man to defend me or to promulgate some antiquated belief that my virtue is somehow in need of rescue, thanks. I'm a big girl with a wand all my own, and I definitely know how to use it."

He gave a dragon-like snort. "It's his wand I'm more concerned with, specifically where he's sticking it."

I elbowed him. "Don't be crude."

He harrumphed at that, then we both turned to watch as the first duels began.

Sitting as we were in front of the first combat ring, we had a good seat for watching Gin trounce the competition. She fired a relentless barrage of hexes and jinxes from the get-go in an aggressive strategy that was clearly working for her. However, I did spy one big weakness that could, very well, cost her the match. "She needs to tighten up her left side," I said, leaning close to Draco so he could hear over the roar of the crowd. "She's wide open whenever she fires off offensive spells, see?" I pointed as she turned in such a way as to leave her left side vulnerable as he cast a Conjunctivitis Curse.

"What?" he shouted back, obviously not having heard me. He was further distracted by fine-tuning the pair of Omnioculars I'd purchased in advance for the event and brought along for us to share. When he got the focus right, he watched for a bit and then leaned into me and yelled in my ear, "Weaselette's leaving her whole left side open every time she casts a curse!"

"You don't say," I wryly replied.

"What?"

I cast a Muffle Bubble around us, and instantly the crowd's shouting was dimmed.

"Better?"

"Much, thanks," he said. "Can't hear the bloody ref calls anyway."

"I'll watch Gin, you watch Zabini," I told him in solidarity. "I think he's going to be a contender."

Draco shrugged at my prediction, as if unconcerned. "It's Diggory that actually concerns me. He's a powerful duelist on the professional circuit. It's how he makes his living." He frowned again. "And that psycho ex of yours, McLaggen needs to be watched."

"Cormac's just brute strength."

He shook his head. "He's clever and unpredictable. It's difficult to get a measure of what he'll fire off next because he never tries the same tactic twice. And he likes to test your defences randomly, to find where your weakness actually lies. That's what makes him a dangerous opponent in a fight."

I narrowed my eyes at him, suddenly suspicious. "You sounds as if you know this from experience."

He didn't reply, and instead brought the Omnioculars back up and turned them on the farthest combat rings, where I knew Diggory was battling Astoria Greengrass, and my ex-fiance was fighting Morag MacDougal.

That smooth dodge had me gnashing my teeth. Someday I'd get to the bottom of what he and Cor had once done to each other to cause such hate to exist between them. That kind of enmity doesn't just poof into existence, and I suspected my best friend might be the root of it.

While he was riveted on the combat below, focused in a manner I'd only seen him be when he was Seeking a Snitch, I took a few seconds to admire him with a covert series of glances. Dressed in a Regency-styled military overcoat in dark navy blue, a white Victorian-styled men's undershirt beneath, a simple pair of black Regency-styled trousers, and shiny black dress shoes, Draco simply oozed old money and screamed 'aristocracy', right down to his sharp, straight nose.

Just peeking at him was making me hot under the collar.

I had to admit, the thought of him standing in the ring of combat later, subduing and mastering his opponents with his wand with ease had me squeezing and rubbing my thighs together.

As if summoned, an image came to me then, a vision in my mind's eye of Draco, draped in Night's dark cover, pointing his wand at an opponent to subdue him. His eyes were like ice, his hand steady and true, his expression confident of the win. Darkness surrounded him, and yet was held at bay by the light of his good soul...something with wings...

I blinked the vision away, both shaken and aroused in equal measures as it passed.

Jesus, what was that?

Had it been simple artist's inspiration or something more Divination-oriented? I wondered with a shudder. I'd been having similar 'fantasy visions' for years now about my friends and family, and had found painting them allowed me to get them out of my head and onto a medium in which I could make sense of them. It's why I'd taken up art. That vision, though, had stirred my blood as no other before it. Could I actually express something that sexy on canvas? I'd never painted Draco before. Would I do him any sort of justice? He was a beautiful man, eloquent and passionate...

The more I looked at him now, the more intense the feeling became, too. By the time Ginny had scored her first point of the three-point match, I was practically coming out of my seat with need. The compulsion to rip my best friend's clothing open, raise my skirt, and ride him right here in front of everyone took a supreme effort to deny.

I quickly glanced away and reached into my satchel, pulling out a hand fan I'd also had the forethought to procure in advance, anticipating stifling crowds of people all around for this event. Snapping it open, I rapidly flicked it back and forth before my face to move some air around. The cool breeze helped to calm me down. I was still uncomfortably wet between my thighs and the sheen of perspiration at my brow required I carefully blot it away, but thankfully, I was mostly myself again.

What was happening to me? This was the second time in two days I'd been aroused to the point of absurdity. First the strawberry, now this! Perhaps it had something to do with all the peacock-strutting going on around me. So many people playing in the mating game was bound to produce a nexus of sexual energy, right? I was rather sensitive to emotional changes in magic as an artist...

"Something bothering you?"

I spied Draco's amused look from the corner of my eye. Obviously, he'd caught me staring at him.

"I don't do well in crowds," I fibbed, unwilling to feed his already-overblown ego. "Confined spaces and all."

His eyebrow arched at that obvious lie. "The tent's as wide as two Quidditch pitches and equally as tall."

Just then, the mob roared as Cedric scored his first hit on his opponent. It erupted again a moment later as my McLaggen did the same against Morag MacDougal and Ginny won her match by hitting Urquart with a rather creative Tempest jinx, causing miniature bolts of lighting to specifically attack his feet until he fell over.

Go Gin!

"It's the smell," I insisted once the commotion died down again. In for a Knut, in for a Galleon, right? "Too many herding mammals grazing in one place."

"Grazing?" he asked with a lazy drawl, and I knew for certain he was toying with me as a cat would its prey. "Well, I'm sure a few around here are ruminating at pasture, Granger, but most of this bunch are obviously predators on the hunt."

Yes, they were, weren't they? That was what Calenmai was all about, after all.

"And you?" I dared to ask him.

He gave a casual shrug but avoided the question by cleverly pointing out, "Nott's certainly got you in his sights. He'd devour you if you'd let him, I bet."

I snorted at the ridiculous notion. As if Theodore Nott and I would ever go there. Sure, the man was ridiculously attractive and mysterious, rich and well-mannered, but he wasn't the Slytherin who'd captured my heart. He'd never be that even once Draco was gone from my life.

My best friend had ruined me for anyone else.

"Why not?" he asked, his smirk becoming something dark and dangerous, almost cynical. "Women throw themselves at him regularly, so you'd be no different in that respect. And speaking of scents, Theo's certainly giving off eau du lust every time you're near...or is that coming from you? I can't tell."

The accusation had my jaw dropping.

"What are you even talking about?" Appearing edible enough to lick did not excuse Draco's overt rudeness. I frowned at him and pinched the back of his hand in censure. "What's got your belt in a buckle this morning?"

Dropping the Omnioculars, his grey eyes searched my face, but whatever he was looking for was beyond me. "You were doing an awful lot of moaning in your sleep last night," he said with a bit of surliness. "It kept me up."

I blinked in surprise at that, and then recalling my dreams from the night before, felt my cheeks go red hot with mortification. God, had I called out his name while reliving that erotic moment in our past? Was that why Draco was glowering at me today because I'd upset him with my lustful obsession for him when it was clear such feelings weren't returned or desired? "I'm sorry for that, but really you can't hold someone's dreams against them," I countered, then went on the offensive. "Besides, why were you listening in on me anyway? That's an invasion of my privacy!"

He tsked, unfazed by my reprimand. "Tell me, was it Theo you were shagging in your nighttime fantasies, Granger?" He sniffed a dismissal when I didn't immediately reply, having drawn the wrong conclusion. "And here I'd thought you'd finally achieved good taste in your old age."

Old…?

I bristled.

He snickered, knowing he'd finally gotten under my skin.

Well, fine, two could play that game…

"Maybe I did have sex on the brain last night while alone in bed." I shrugged, feigning nonchalance over the truth of the matter. I turned back to the duelling arena, to watch as those who had already won their contests were officially declared winners, while the battles continued to rage on in other circles. "But here's a question for you to ponder: are you sure I was asleep while doing all that moaning?"

From my peripheral vision, I took great pleasure in noting how Draco's composure slipped at the thought of me masturbating just feet from where he'd lain all night. His cheeks turned an interesting shade of pink as well.

I slammed the door shut on this ridiculous conversation by effectively offering, "If it bothers you that much, I'll be sure to be quieter about my nocturnal activities from now on, oh great High Lord of Night. Wouldn't want you getting any ideas about joining me, now would we?"

For a long, silent moment, Draco stared at me with an expression that was best described as dubious arousal—it was the look of a man who was considering an offer made to him, unsure of its sincerity or of its attached conditions...or the wisdom of taking it up in the first place.

"I'm joking," I said, feeling the uncomfortable vibe and letting him off the hook.

Some of the stiffness went out of his spine and he raised the Omnioculars to his face again, turning back to the duelling and grumbling under his breath all the while about 'cock-teasing wicked witches'.

I certainly cackled like one as I watched him wipe away the sweat from his upper lip.

Maybe he wasn't as immune to my charms as I'd believed?

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The first round of duels finished about an hour after they'd begun. Winners were announced on a chalk scoreboard in the judge's row, which happened to be directly in front of my seating area, at the bottom of the ring. Through the Omnioculars, I read the list that would be going on to the next phase tomorrow and cheered again at Ginny's name at the top.

I noted Zabini and Diggory had also both won their duels, too...

I groaned as I read Cormac's name next. He'd advanced to the second round.

Ugh!

Was it too much to ask for my git of an ex to get stunned and stay stunned, preferably for the remainder of Calenmai? Could I cash in my karma chips to make that miracle happen?

I read on, got to the bottom of the list, and then whipped out my pad of paper and a Muggle pen and took down all of the names. Jotting a few notes next to each contender, I considered each of them carefully. It was a solid lineup, and it had me worried for my best friend's chances. Draco was an amazing spell caster, but sometimes luck was a fickle thing, favouring you one minute only to trip you up the next.

Speaking of my companion, he gently tugged on a strand of my curly hair, which my assigned house-elf for the day had decided to leave down and loose when putting me together this morning. I turned to him, setting my scribbling aside for the moment.

"They called the second group. I'm up," he told me. "Will you come down to the ring with me?"

"Of course." Why would he think I'd not? "I'm your personal cheerleader this week, aren't I?"

"And human shield. I expect you to protect me from unforeseen hexes, Granger."

"I'd do that anyway," I reminded him. "It's in the 'best friend' contract."

His answering smile was dazzling.

I took his arm as we stood and headed down towards the pedestrian walkway. The crowd was thicker now that the first group had finished, as people made their way to one of four destinations: either to the tents set up out back that contained the portable loos, or outside to catch the other Calenmai events if their interest in the duels had waned, or to the opposite end of the main tent to the refreshment stands, or to the betting tables where markers were already being placed on the second group of duelists.

Pure-bloods definitely had gambling fever, I thought as we passed the gaming area and heard the wagers being made. Everything from who would be first to score three hits to specific spells to be used by a particular duelist was speculated. And it seemed the sums were quite high; some bets were enough to cover my rent for the next three months! One would think some of these people might show some restraint and withhold the majority of their funds for the next four nights worth of gambling competitions, which were part of the overall Calenmai contest, for the wagers were bound to head into high-roller levels at the card and dice tables.

Perhaps some of them were hoping to make enough on the dueling wagers to cover any potential losses tonight? Who knew. The rich lived in another world, one I couldn't fathom. Yes, I'd grown up in a comfortable lifestyle, more so than the Weasleys or Harry, but I'd been taught the value of money at an early age and my parents hadn't been extravagant in their spending habits. As an adult, I lived within my means and on a budget. After all, it wasn't as if a reporter-slash-artist made big money.

Honestly, that was one of the reasons why Draco's over-the-top clothing spree had shocked me down to my little frugal toes...the other being him knowing my correct sizes, from tops to dresses to shoes. And underwear, apparently.

We moved on, making our way down to the duelling area and taking up our place at the side of the second circle, where twenty minutes earlier Zabini had just won his match. Draco stripped out of his coat and I held it for him, and then helped to tie his official duelist armband around his left, upper arm. From the corner of my eye, I spied onlookers and gamblers passing back and forth along the arena's pedestrian promenade, sizing up the competition.

Terrance Higgs took up his position on the opposite side of the circle from us, and he suddenly did not look eager to start, as if he knew the inevitable outcome against someone with Draco's experience and was not looking forward to the beat-down he was going to take.

"This will be an easy win for you," I told him, picking a piece of lint off his sleeve.

His lips twitched with amusement. "Are you sure about that?"

"Quite."

"Such faith you have in me, Granger. I'm unworthy."

I snorted. "Quit fishing for compliments. I don't stroke male egos, especially yours."

His chuckle was low and sinful. "How about stroking me somewhere else, then?"

"Win and I'll consider it."

Where had that come from? I couldn't believe I'd actually said‒

Draco's finger gently slid down the side of my cheek, making me shiver. "Careful. I might just hold you to that."

My breath caught in my throat at the blatant flirtation in his voice.

He stepped back then and turned to enter the dueling circle, leaving me wondering how much of what he'd just said was truth and how much was simply Draco being...Draco.

 


 

As expected, my best friend clobbered his challenger in record time. In fact, his was the first duel to be called during that second group of duelists, and in less than ten minutes. A series of fast and accurate jinxes and a hex were all that was necessary for Higgs to go down.

Fortunately, the man took his defeat well, even as it was clear his pride was smarting. He shook Draco's hand, bowed out to the crowd, and then was off to seek whatever points he could muster by engaging in some of the other opportunities that Calenmai offered. I got the impression, in fact, that he'd only joined the duel because it was expected of him, not because he'd really had the heart for fighting.

"Congratulations," I offered to Draco as he stepped out of the ring, after being officially declared the winner.

"Was it everything you'd expected?" he joked with a lopsided grin that reminded me of when he'd been a younger man having just lost his virginity to me.

I took his arm and we headed off for refreshments, deciding to skirt the dangerous innuendo, because a.) he loved teasing me, as he'd earlier demonstrated with the facetious offer regarding stroking things, and b.) I knew his words to be nothing more than silly banter. He was coming off an euphoric win, and everything out of his mouth was bound to be tainted by a little braggadocio. That was Draco's way. After a dozen years, I'd gotten used to our back-and-forth, and expected to be the occasional butt of his jokes.

"You went easier on him than I'd expected," I noted with a clucking of my tongue. "Not a single curse in the bunch."

He gave a small, faux gasped as if I'd insulted him. "Are you insinuating I'm going soft?"

"It's the old age," I played along. "Don't worry, happens to all men eventually, as I understand it."

He threw his head back and laughed, drawing curious eyes from among the crowd. "Oh, Granger, how I adore your forked tongue!" Pulling my hand to his lips, he quickly pressed a kiss the back of my knuckles. "You're more a snake than I am some days."

I blushed with a furious intensity at the feel of his soft mouth against my skin again, and my brain turned to mush as the blood within my veins suddenly roared towards other, more interesting places within my body. All I could think about was where he could put those lips to better use...

Between one blink and the next, Nott was suddenly standing beside us at the drink table, as if he'd stepped out of the shadows as easily as stepping between rooms. Behind him, Zabini, strolled up, all lion-like, with a powerful, arrogant stride.

"Congratulations, Draco. Brilliantly done," Theo offered.

"Thank you, Theo."

Blaise offered his hand to Draco, who shook it. "Here's to hoping I don't have to face off with you, mate."

"You as well," my best friend stated. "You definitely gave Montague a run for his money earlier."

"I was lucky this time," the other man admitted. "Wasn't playing at my best this morning."

Theo threw his friend a sly, sideways glance. "Too much nocturnal activity, probably. Lack of sleep makes one dull-witted and slow, or so I've heard."

The tall Italian shoved his shoulder into Nott's in a playful gesture. "Spying on me again, eh? Perv. Get your own and stop listening in on mine."

"It's not as if you're covert about it," Theo replied, "especially when you forget the Silencing Charm on your tent. I'm sure the entire camp heard you last night."

I certainly hadn't, and now I wondered who Zabini was entertaining. Was it Ginny...or someone else? And was it a last minute fling, or was he auditioning mistresses, too? I almost wouldn't put it past him, except he'd certainly done his fair share of drooling over Gin when he'd seen her appear for the sign-ups yesterday. She, of course, had cut him dead, refusing to look at him, but I'd thought from the expression on his face then that he'd taken that merely as a personal challenge, and not as a defeat. Perhaps I'd been wrong?

"You're up next," Draco pointed out to Theo, noting the armband on the man's sleeve. "Pyrite doesn't stand a chance."

Theo shrugged. "Francis is tougher than he looks. I might just lose." He turned to me, giving me his full attention. "Would you be so terribly disappointed if I failed in this, Ms. Granger?"

I gaped at him, unsure how to reply to such a strangely worded question.

Zabini barked a laugh.

Draco growled. "Nott..."

I glanced up at him in surprise. Was that actually a jealous sound emanating from his throat?

Theo seemed unperturbed by Draco's irritation. He merely gave his friend a cat-like smile and pulled a glass of Champagne off a passing tray. That, of course, only made Draco's angry-frown deepen. Some silent man-war raged around me then as I looked from first one, then the other, seeking answers. What was going on between these two? I'd thought them brothers in Slytherin for years, but now it seemed like Nott was intentionally provoking Draco where I was concerned. But to what end? "It's hot in here, isn't it," I said, feeling the awkward tension and attempting to alleviate it. "They should have installed fans." I glanced around at the tent's ceiling in irritation. "For all the ACOTAR's elaborate preparations for this week's event, you'd have thought temperature regulation would be at the top of their list. I'm definitely going to note that failure in my story."

I reached for one of the drinks on the refreshment table, not looking too closely at it, and took a quick sip of it to cool down. To my delight, it was freshly squeezed lemonade...

I nearly choked on the pretty mint garnishment as I inhaled it by accident.

"Well, Ms. Granger?" Nott persisted, not noticing my sudden predicament, his attention glued to Draco's expression instead.

I blindly reached out and grabbed Zabini's massive bicep for leverage when I started hacking. "Er, ack!" I sputtered with a wheeze, my eyes watering as I coughed around the piece of greenery stuck in my throat. "H-Help!"

Finally noting my distress, Draco rolled his eyes, tsked, and took my drink away with one hand while pounding me on the back with his other. His "aid" only exacerbated the problem, however, causing the leaf to lodge itself deeper down my windpipe. I grabbed at my throat and nearly passed out on the spot.

Why on Merlin's left tit wasn't anyone running for help? Hell, just shouting for it would be fine by me.

"Her lips are turning blue, mate," Zabini calmly pointed out, looking down at me with mild concern. "You'd better hit harder."

"Quit looking at her mouth!" Draco snarled at the man, and gave me one final, decisive whack that nearly dislodged a lung.

I blarged up the piece of mint into a napkin.

Classy, I thought as I slipped the folded napkin into the hand of an unknown member of the wait staff who stood nearby and wiped at my eyes. "S-sorry," I muttered around a final cough.

A fresh glass of Champagne was passed to me by Nott.

"Here, try this instead," he suggested.

"Not sure alcohol's the best remedy for her right now," Zabini cautioned. "She nearly asphyxiated a second ago."

"Nonsense, that's the best time to be drinking," Theo countered. "Besides, it does wonders to open one's eyes and clear the air, or so I've been told."

There was double-speak in there somewhere, I knew, but I was still too busy reeling from the humiliation of nearly suffocating on a member of the deadnettle family to put it together. "Thanks," I replied instead and swallowed the whole glass in a single go, hoping to wet my dry throat and cool down my temperature at the same time.

Unfortunately, the bubbles once again did their job of tickling my nose, however, and I immediately sneezed...all over Theo. Not a dry sneeze, either.

Zabini nearly keeled over in laughter.

I could have died on the spot.

"Oh Merlin, I'm so sorry!" I ran around like a chicken missing its head then, trying to find another napkin to clean up the snot currently sprayed all over poor Nott's jacket. I finally just grabbed one off a passing waiter's forearm and then turned and began dabbing at the stains on the man's coat lapels. "Is this Italian silk? It is, isn't it? Just my luck." Jesus, it was going to cost a fortune to dry clean! "I'll pay for it to be laundered, I promise."

With a chagrined look, Nott used a handkerchief to wipe the front of his coat, accidentally painting an unattractive streak of goo across the lovely fabric. "No need, no harm done," he kindly said, although his unperturbed tone obviously belied his true feelings on the matter. "It's easily cleaned up."

I glanced over Draco, wondering why he wasn't attempting to help me cover for my inelegant mistakes...and found him smirking so hard at his friend that he looked downright demonic.

I drove a sharp elbow into his gut for being so rude.

He scowled back at me for harshing his wicked.

Zabini was howling by then and had standing tears in his eyes.

Turning back to Theo, I again conveyed my sincerest apologies for the accident, feeling the day's humiliation right down to my toes. "I'm not usually this clumsy or awkward," I attempted to explain. "It's very unlike me." It really wasn't, either, and it struck me as odd that I'd had two bizarre mishaps in as many hours, not to mention that strange moment earlier when I'd felt a rush of lust pass through me with such force, that I'd nearly orgasmed on the spot. What was it about Calenmai that was affecting me so?

Thankfully, Theo was gracious to the bone, giving me an affectionate smile. "No need to explain or apologize again, Ms. Granger. These things happen. However, on that note..." He dipped a polite bow from the waist. "If you'll excuse me, I should go and warm up for my match now."

"Right, good luck!" I wished him and watched him melt back into the crowd without a backward glance.

"Could he be anymore obvious?" Draco growled, keeping an eye on his friend's disappearing form. "I expect he'll be humping your leg next."

Zabini was nearly rolling on the floor now, coughing from laughing so hard.

"Oh, do get up. You're causing a scene," I reprimanded the man. Then I set the soiled napkin down on the nearby table, took my original lemonade drink back from Draco, and eyed it to be sure there were no hidden chunks of fruit or other such nonsense to gag me again as I went in for round two. "Why does the thought bother you, about Nott's flirtations, I mean?" I asked him with a sigh. "I've already told you I'm on to his attempts at breadcrumbing."

"His what?"

I forgot who I was talking to. "It's a kitchy Muggle phrase that means he's flirting without the intention of actually following-through. It's harmless, really...unless of course I was receptive to his advances."

Draco's uncharacteristic lack of a witty or cutting retort had me glancing back up at him in curiosity. He met my eye, his expression carefully neutral.

"And are you?"

What a bizarre question! I decided to toss it back at him.

"And if I was?"

"Would you really allow him to court you?"

"What if I did?"

He sighed, looking quite plagued by my refusal to give him what he wanted. "Why can you never answer a question put to you, except with another question?"

I grinned at him. "Have you met me?" I glanced over at Zabini, who was up on his feet again, but clutching his stomach like he was in pain. "Are we going to need to ask your house-elf to bring you a change of pants?"

The man waved me off, finally catching his breath enough to talk. "Ooh, forget Calenmai, you three are going to fill my entertainment quota for years to come." He slapped a meaty hand down on Draco's shoulder. "Good luck with it all, mate."

"Where are you off to?" I asked him.

"Cooking Contest," he replied, grinning like a loon as he headed towards the direction of the tent's exit. He threw over his shoulder a loud parting shot, though, one that had several witnesses turning to listen in. "Have to cheer my girl on, before some busy bee comes buzzing around us next, deciding to stick his nose in my honey, too."

I watched him walk off.

"He's odd," I decided.

Draco shrugged. "He's Italian."

I looked up at him. "You have strange friends."

Luna Lovegood breezed by just then, throwing me a wave. She was wearing a pair of pastel blue fuzzy sandals, leopard print leggings, and an overly large t-shirt with the image of a golden retriever on the front wearing human glasses.

Draco snickered. "You were saying?"

Feeling my cheeks pink, I reached into my repertoire for a coping mechanism and found 'deflection' to be my best escape. "Why does it bother you that Theo's pinned his sights on me? It's not as if he's serious. We both know that."

"He's after me, not you," he said as he took my drink from my hand, set it on the table beside my empty Champagne glass, and then grabbed my hand and pulled me alongside him back into the main crowd. "Theo's always liked to poke at me when he thinks I'm being stupid."

"And how does your oafishness and immaturity possibly involve me?"

He tossed me an annoyed look over his shoulder. "I swear, you are the most infuriating female I've ever known," he admitted with a resigned sigh as we moved through people to find a new seat from which to watch the remainder of the duels.

I huffed in doubt at that contention. "Even more so than your mother?"

His lips twitched with amusement, but he sighed in concession. "Perhaps you're a close second."

With that admission, we let drop the topic of his meddlesome friends, my bizarre ones, and cocktail trimmings with murderous intentions, and focused instead on our main mission: manoevering through the mob and then up to a higher elevation of seats, where the crowd was thinnest and the heat not so oppressive. As we sat next to each other on the bench, I got out my Omnioculars and my hand-fan, settling in to watch the remaining Group 2 contenders...constantly aware of how my foot touched Draco's the entire time, and how he didn't move away.

 


 

By one o'clock, all of the duels were over and the board for those advancing to Round Two, set for tomorrow morning, was posted:

.

ROUND TWO (begins Wednesday at 9:00 A.M.)

CIRCLE 1:  Cedric Diggory (Day) vs. Charlie Weasley (Summer)

CIRCLE 2: Elizabeth Burke (Summer) vs. Tomas Selwyn (Winter)

CIRCLE 3:  Blaise Zabini (Winter) vs. Oliver Wood (Day)

CIRCLE 4: Pansy Parkinson (Spring) vs. Symon Yaxley (Spring)

CIRCLE 5: Draco Malfoy (Night) vs. Evan Rosier III (Night)

CIRCLE 6: Millicent Bulstrode (Winter) vs. Luna Lovegood (Summer)

CIRCLE 7: Cormac McLaggen (Spring) vs. Theodore Nott (Night)

CIRCLE 8: Malrissa Kettleburn (Autumn) vs. Ginny Weasley (Summer)

.

ROUND THREE (begins Wednesday at 1:00 P.M.)

CIRCLE 1: ?

CIRCLE 2: ?

CIRCLE 3: ?

CIRCLE 4: ?

.

Presumably the six rings would expand to eight for Round Two, and Round Three's contestants would be filled in when the eight pairs were whittled down to four.

"I'm a little fuzzy as to the prize at the end of all of these contests," I confessed to Draco as we turned from the board and headed out with the rest of the crowd to watch the other contests going on beyond the dueling tent.

He stepped us to the side to allow another couple to pass by before answering. "The top male and the top female contenders who score the most points throughout the competition become the May King and May Queen."

"And?"

On Monday night, after the voting in of the new ACOTAR, Kingsley had mentioned the May King's and May Queen's crownings to be done on Saturday, but the actual purpose of the positions were not discussed by anyone else, nor were they mentioned in the books Draco had lent me, so I didn't understand the significance of those titles in this context.

He gave me a mocking side glance, as if the answer should have been obvious. "On Saturday night, after they're selected, the May King and Queen unite their magic to light the Calenmai bonfire. Because it's their magic that casts the spell, the pair are immune to the bonfire's enchantment."

"They don't have to participate in the partnering-up unless they want to, you mean?"

"Exactly. They can pick a mate from the crowd, and if that person agrees, they'll be joined that night under the same lust spell as everyone else, but they can also just as easily decide not to select a partner and be free of the spell's calling," he added. "The May King and Queen are the only participants given a choice."

Now that was an interesting twist: the two people responsible for enslaving everyone else to lust magic were the only ones granted freedom from it.

Definitely a Slytherin move.

"I see," I said, and finally did. "So this whole thing is just one more game to you."

He stopped us before we entered the tent where the Cooking Contest was well underway, taken aback by the vehemence in my tone. Drawing us to the side and around the tent to a quiet, non-pedestrian area, he assured we were away from prying eyes before demanding me to explain what I'd meant.

"You've been playing the odds since you first heard of Calenmai's resurrection, I'm betting. This is the chance you've always wanted to assume a powerful and influential position within the community, to prove your father wrong about you...and all you had to do to achieve it was sell your body and your future to the possibility of a bad match with an unsuitable witch!"

His face went stony and his eyes glacial at the mention of Lucius as his motivation. I noted the unspoken warning in the depths of his gaze, but refused to be cowed by it. I had my piece to say, and by god, I was getting it out before things went any further this week!

"Don't you see? By participating in Calenmai, you're weighing your chances for power against love, Draco, just like your father did once upon a time!"

We both knew I was referring to the fact that Lucius had signed on to become a Death Eater under Voldemort the Mad's regime long ago, during the last wizarding war. The man had sold his soul in the hopes of riding to glory on the shirt-tails of his master's success. When he'd failed, he'd dragged the Malfoy family name through the mud, and had heaped upon his wife and son a legacy of shame that had never fully been wiped away in society's eyes.

"I'm fighting for both power and love," he corrected me. "Unlike Lucius."

"And what if you can't have your cake, and eat it too?" I demanded in a low hiss, worried by the fact that both of us were now raising our voices and could be overheard by anyone passing by. "You've already seen to the former by taking the High Lord of Night's seat, but what if you lose the May King's crown? I won't be able to help you select someone suitable and you'll be stuck with whatever witch the bonfire decides for you!"

He frowned at that, as if he was angry with me for bringing up the obvious, but I wasn't quite finished.

"You'll have your power, Draco, but at what cost?"

There, now I'd said what I'd been dying to say for a while now.

I knew these were all things I should have mentioned the day he'd come to me with this ridiculous idea of joining Calenmai, but in truth, I'd been knocked completely off-kilter by his blasé attitude about the whole gig then, and later, after he'd sent me the history books for research, I'd allowed my own personal curiosity and journalistic ambitions to get the better of my common sense. The moment I'd stepped onto the grounds where Calenmai was to be held, though, I'd been consumed by jealousy and fear, too. I was losing Draco, losing my best friend, the man I'd loved for almost half my life. He was going to belong to someone else by the end of the week, this was our goodbye, and the knowledge had me twisted up into knots.

All of these thoughts had been bubbling under the surface since he'd sat in my office and told me he was going to bargain away his bachelorhood, and for some unfathomable reason, my mouth had picked now to throw them down between us, like a cast gauntlet, in the desperate hope of talking Draco out of continuing this charade.

It wasn't too late to walk away, right?

He was silent for a bit, and I could see in his face how he was carefully considering what I'd said. When he replied, though, he was entirely too nonchalant, as far as I was concerned, especially over something as important as his future.

"Granger, stop worrying. You didn't think I'd leave something that important to fate, did you? I've got a plan."

I should have expected that, actually. Draco never did anything with less than three reasons—and he never did anything without a plan in place first. Still, I was a pragmatist. I was used to things cocking up. Maybe it was because those schemes usually involved Harry and Ron, though...

"What if it fails?" I asked, my voice sounding as small and unsure as I felt right then.

"It won't," my best friend reassured me.

I sighed. "You sound entirely too cocky."

"Have you met me?" he countered, throwing my earlier words back at me.

I couldn't help but give a little smile at that. "You've taking an awful lot for granted with this whole scheme so far," I pointed out. When he prompted me for an example, I replied, "Well, for one, what if you'd lost the vote for High Lord of Night?"

He shrugged like it wasn't even an issue. "I wasn't going to."

"And how would you know that, unless-"

He'd rigged it in advance by discussing it with families he knew would pledge to Night.

"I've got a plan."

Draco smirked at me as I figured it out.

"You're cheating," I reminded him in a whisper, just in case someone was listening in. "That could get you booted from the event and you stripped of your appointment as High Lord."

"I'm not cheating," he assured me. "This entire event is designed around the idea of courting for favours, everything from getting members of families to call for me to be High Lord of the Night Court on voting night to convincing people to throw their earned points behind me for May King. I simply made as many of those arrangements in advance as possible to assure a victory."

"Wait, what?! What do you mean someone can throw their earned points to a candidate for May King or Queen? Are you implying you can rig that vote, too?"

He gave me a very Cheshire Cat-like grin, all feral teeth and dark implication, and I knew whatever he was about to tell me would grate on my principals. "It's not rigging, per se. Anyone who earns points this week can voluntarily give them up to another contestant, if they want. It's a show of support for a Court, and sometimes a bribe for better, more personal favours later, after the event ends."

See? I knew it.

"Let me just understand you," I attempted to clarify before I gave myself an aneurysm from eye-rolling so hard. "You're saying the contests are a real-life version of 'Survivor'?"

He frowned at the reference. "You're using a Muggle-ism again, aren't you?"

"It's a television show, yes."

His eyes lit up with boyish interest. "Do tell."

There was a specific reason I had, over the last several years, refused to allow Draco any access to my telly when he came over to my flat: the man was obsessed by the horrible thing. When he'd first discovered it, he'd spending whole weekends glued to the front of it, shouting at it in joy, in anger. I'd even once caught him sniffling over the 'Titanic' movie, although he adamantly denied it later. He was terribly addicted to 'the fidiot box', as Harry liked to call it. "You shouldn't be watching such trash, so I'll say only this about it: you win by besting others at contests, and then hope that in the end, they'll vote for you to be the best 'Survivor', despite the fact you tromped all over them to get to the top." My cunning companion seemed entirely too intrigued with the concept for my taste, if the gleam in his eye was anything to go by, so I attempted to keep him on topic. "So, effectively, you're saying you can work hard all week to win the contests, but lose the main prize as a result of bargaining, blackmailing, and/or muckraking the competition at the last minute, yes?"

"Got it in one."

"Well, that hardly seems fair."

Draco shrugged. "Fair has nothing to do with politics, love. Haven't you caught onto that by now?"

I thought I had. Apparently, I hadn't understood just how deep the pure-blood obsession with power-playing went, however. It seemed it was much like their gambling habit, in a way. "So then Calenmai isn't just about showing off your physical skills, but about flexing your political muscles, too, just like in 'Survivor'?"

"And excelling at the fine arts of manipulation and negotiation," he conceded.

"I see."

I started to worry that Draco might not have the solid connections to pull off a point coup for the May King crown if he lost the competitions this week. Yes, he was well-liked by many in our generation, thanks to his former status as an Auror and now as a successful Prosecutor for the Wizengamot, but he also had his share of enemies, too. Cormac, for one. And then there were others who were merely acquaintances or on the fence about him, and they might not lean his way when push came to shove, but instead throw their support behind their closest friends. I knew Neville would most likely give any of his points to Ron, for instance, and the Weasleys would always support their own. As for the Slytherins in this competition, who ever knew what they might do?

The more I considered it, the more my concern overrode what he'd earlier said about a plan.

As if reading my thoughts, he patted my hand and started leading us back around the tent to its entrance. "You worry entirely too much. I know you're used to dealing with idiots on a regular basis-" Meaning my other friends, I was sure. "-but in this, trust me."

I sighed. "You're expecting miracles, Draco."

He chuckled. "I'm a Malfoy, Granger. Not expecting, demanding."

"That's an awfully arrogant statement."

"I'm an awfully arrogant man."

That he was.

It was one of his more charming traits, however, so I could easily forgive him for it.

I still worried, though. Just on principle.

 


 

A little later, after we'd walked the circuit of the Cooking Competition, taking in all of the delectable delights being prepared by contestants hard at work dicing, chopping, sauteing, and baking, my stomach rumbled to remind me that I'd skipped lunch.

To my embarrassment, Draco had heard and with a chuckle, led me over to the area of the glade designated as the dining area, where the Court tables had been laid out the night before. To my delight, afternoon tea was being served, and many other people were similarly partaking of the finger sandwiches, scones, fruit, and tea varieties laid out by Hannah and Cho's catering service.

As we sat by ourselves down the end of the Night Court's table, I continued to press him on the Calenmai tradition, determined to get to the bottom of his scheming, and hopefully glean a bit more information about the event which the books had conveniently skipped. I was writing an article, after all, and this line of questioning could be considered research... "You know, discounting the May King and Queen, the point of Calenmai is that all of you are participating in a competition where the ultimate goal is to be bound to and have sex with a partner that you may or may not despise, one way or another." I slathered a good bit of clotted cream over my lemon scone. "The idea of actually having any sort of choice in the matter is actually an illusion, you realise."

He agreed. "Technically, you're right. Winning the contests and being selected as May King or Queen is the carrot dangled before our eyes to keep our interest away from what this event is really all about: a magically arranged marriage. Everyone unmarried and of age submitted to that deception when they agreed to participate in the event, though, and they did so of their own free will." He shrugged, unconcerned. "I still intend to win."

"Making the best match possible from the pluckings or refusing them altogether," I dryly replied. "I get it."

He smirked, and I wasn't sure if that was in reaction to watching Marcus Flint sniffing after the Kettleburn witch as the two went to town at the food selections and then turned to sit at her table together, or if it was because of the subject we were discussing.

"Hedging my bets, love. You know better than anyone that's what I do."

I sipped my tea rather than answer him with the obvious, and glanced around the glade.

At the Summer table, George Weasley was wooing Sally Ann Perkes with a description of his newest WWW invention, while Rosalind Orpington was making cow-eyes at Julian Gamp over at the Day Court's section.

I went back over all the names and faces I recognised at this event and an odd thought suddenly occurred... "You know, I never realised how many of us between the ages of 20 and 40 hadn't married yet," I stated with some surprise. Daphne Greengrass, Charlie Weasley, Darabell Mulciber, Terrence Higgs, Lucinda Fawley, Lavender Brown…and those were just the ones twaddling around having tea. There was a whole mass of others out on the main thoroughfare or competing at one challenge or another inside the parade of contest tents beyond the glade. And that wasn't even counting my half-blood and Muggle-born friends who weren't in attendance: Harry, Justin, Cho, the Patil twins—all were single. "I'd assumed most of these people would already be hitched, given the wizarding world's push to start families young."

Draco didn't reply, and when I turned to him, I noted his eyes were watching me, as if he was waiting for me to figure out that particular riddle.

"That's why the older generations pushed for Calenmai to be resurrected, isn't it? Not for pure-blood ideals, but because they were worried about our generation not reproducing."

He smirked and took another sip of his cucumber water. "I'm sure some of the old bats were intending to push blood purity back to the forefront with this shenanigan, but you're right. Bringing back the belief in blood purity and segregation wasn't their main concern. It was the lack of children born to our generation that has them and the Ministry worried."

"So why not open Calenmai up to half-bloods and Muggle-borns, too? Increasing the pool of candidates would surely net them what they were after."

"Because some of the most conservative Sacred Twenty-Eight families wouldn't support the idea if they changed the tradition, as most of them are blood purity snobs," he told her frankly. "Shacklebolt needed their buy-in, literally, as it's not a government-sponsored event. Money from my family's coffers, and the vaults of the others here today, paid for all of this." He waved his hand around at the elaborate tents, the dueling arenas, the food tables, and the Court pinions marking the edges of boundaries blowing in the breeze above it all. "Alienating us would mean losing that cash base, and the event would have failed due to lack of funding."

"But why would Shacklebolt care if it failed, since it's not a government-budgeted event and he's a progressive candidate anyway, which means he's against the concept of 'blood purity' to start?"

The moment I asked, I knew the answer.

"An entire generation waiting to marry, purchase property, and have babies affects his government, specifically its tax base," I said with dawning understanding. "Continuing to live at home with our parents nullifies the possibility of the government collecting new property taxes and lowers the inheritance tax rate for pure-blood children like you, who are richer than sin. Less income means the government can't function at peak performance, budgets freeze, and it can't entice new workers with salary incentives to come work for it." I sighed at such an obvious scheme. "So, Calenmai is a political tool, but not necessarily the one I was thinking. Its revival is an unofficial Ministry idea to keep the population steady or increasing so they can continue to generate a steady stream of taxes."

"I wondered how long it would take you to put it together, pet." He clapped me on the shoulder. "Brava!"

Jesus, no wonder Kingsley Shacklebolt was head of the Court of Thorns and Roses! He'd spectacularly manipulated his entire pure-blood citizenry to further his government's agendas. The slippery eel!

This was going to make a great story if I framed it right. It might even make the Minister of Magic my newest best friend. I was practically salivating at the thought of the political capital this piece could bring me, especially as it meant I'd get to stick it to that no-good scrum, Robards, who'd kept me from advancing at the Ministry years ago when I'd been in M.L.E. and interested in government work.

Draco bent his head to mine. "You look like you're about to come," he teased with a husky growl. "Are you dreaming of how you're going to triumph with this story, my dear?"

His nearness and the way he spoke to the heart of me, knowing me better than anyone ever had, was enough to make me shiver. "That obvious?" I joked, trying to keep the arousal from my voice.

With a lazy dragon's gaze and a wicked smile, he said, "Only to those who know and love you."

Love... If only, I thought with an agonized heart.

Lucky for me, the Master of Ceremonies picked just that moment to announce the beginning of the Exploding Snap tournament in the main tent in ten minutes, allowing me an escape from where this conversation seemed to be headed. I hurriedly finished off my scone and my tea, and tucked away in a napkin the remaining finger sandwiches to take away.

"Come on," I urged my best friend as I stood from the table. "Ron's competing in this one. I saw his name on the board earlier."

Draco made a face and assumed a suffering expression, but he accompanied me to the next contest without complaint. Of course, I had to hold his hand and practically drag him behind me the whole way. Still, it gave me an excuse to touch him, something I thought I might not be able to do for much longer, if Draco's plans cocked-up, and so I took full advantage of being able to paw at him while I could.