So, we come to the competition! Woo Hoo! Usual disclaimer: Not mine, wish it were, but then I'd be arrested for molesting Lucius 24/7. ;) Thank you for all of those who followed this story!
The second month of her preparation had included yoga classes along with Tai Chi, to help with her balance, and an hour of meditation each day that did wonders for her concentration. Occasionally, Lucius would test Draco's possessive streak by directing the lesson and trying to insinuate himself in between her and his son, but Draco would snarl and pull her closer, placing his hand on her inner right thigh, which bore the evidence of their mating.
There were several days towards the last two weeks where they would do nothing scripted or planned, instead just playing and having fun while dancing. Draco had explained that, oftentimes, many amateur dancers put too much thought into the technical aspects, and became too focused on their routines, moves, and ranking, which made them look stiff and affected their dancing in a negative way. When she'd found it hard to 'let go,' he had cautioned that judges could usually tell when the sole concentration had been on technique.
Her dress was a haute couture work of art. The bodice was black satin, encrusted with gold and silver crystals in a paisley-type pattern, with thin gold spaghetti straps to show off her shoulders, and a heart-shaped décolletage to accentuate her ample breasts. The waistline was cinched at the top, leading to a flared black satin skirt with a black lace ruffle along the scalloped hem and gauzy black overlay that allowed for extreme freedom of movement. Arm cuffs in the same material as her skirt would adorn her biceps, the swathe of gossamer fabric creating a nymph-like appearance whenever she twirled. Black satin shoes with the same pattern as her bodice would grace her feet.
The first time Draco had seen her in the dress, she'd nearly had to have another one made since he had ravished her within an inch of her life, leaving them both breathless in the dress-maker's studio. The second time, he had used the hairs he had snagged while in London and Polyjuiced himself into the man that was to be her dance partner, dressed to match her in trim black trousers, bolero jacket that had the same design as her bodice, and a crisp white linen shirt. Hermione had been unable to keep her hands off him. That time, the designer refused to have them fitted in her studio again, swearing at them in French for having defiled her work area.
Because nothing magical could be affixed to the dancer's person, Hermione's performance shoes had been worn during the last two weeks of practice, so as to be broken in and not cause blisters. She also wore her dress and undergarments—black cotton knickers and nude stockings—for those two weeks, casting a Cleansing Charm suitable for delicate items after each use. Her hair, still unmanageable, was to be braided on each side of her head then wound somewhat loosely around into a crown, tendrils springing free and curling beautifully about her face. Light make-up would be applied, with only tinted lip gloss. Draco knew Hermione's tendency to lick her lips until they were chapped would negate the use of actual lipstick as they couldn't even affix a charm that would prevent smearing.
There was nothing more Lucius Malfoy could do for Hermione to prepare her for iLa Grande Danse/i; he had wrought his talent upon her and changed practically everything about her.
But there was something more Draco could do.
Two days before the competition, Draco removed a single strand of his shoulder-length platinum hair and offered it to Hermione, uncertainty shining in his eyes. She stared at it, her mouth agape, so he assumed she knew what kind of treasure she had been gifted. With a tremulous smile, she nodded, turned, and brushed aside some of her hair, giving him access to several places he could weave said strand.
He pressed feather-light kisses on the nape of her neck before selecting a particularly curled lock and murmuring the spell that wove his hair around it, infusing her with protection, devotion, and love. When she turned to face him afterwards, his breath was stolen at the vision she presented.
He could say that was the moment he had fallen in love with his mate, Hermione Granger.
The morning of the competition found the lovers buried underneath the covers in Draco's bedchamber. While Hermione was still deeply asleep, Draco had been awake for hours, curled around her protectively, watching her. She was nothing like the witch that had tumbled into his life some two months before.
He skimmed the surface of her skin with his long fingers, smiling contentedly as he watched it instinctively react to his nearness. They had loved slow and long the night before, tasting each other, desire and passion overwhelming them at times. She would be spectacular in her movements that day, especially now that they knew each other's body intimately. He knew that if he pulled her closer to his hips than was customary for a normal dance partner, she would be able to gain extra leverage for one of the more strenuous leg manoeuvres for the Tango. And because she trusted him implicitly, Draco could balance her above his head, twirling before letting her slide down his body to the correct position at his feet. Any of these moves would've been impossible at the beginning, but she had now tasted what it felt like to be thoroughly loved and the natural motions that intrinsically imprinted themselves in her every day actions.
Once he had marked her, the tension between them had eased considerably, just as Lucius had promised. Draco had asked his father at one point why he had not seen the attraction during their Hogwarts years, but had been reminded with a sardonic smile that he would often talk incessantly about the 'Granger girl' and how she was always showing him up, how preoccupied he'd been with her throughout their schooling. It had been a precursor, Lucius had said, a mating dance of sorts, to see if the other was worthy. Yes, time and circumstance had separated them for several years, but when in one another's presence again, it was as if the sleeping beast had finally awakened.
And when Draco thrust home into her welcoming heat that first time, he'd known why his father had pined for his mother so badly. He couldn't imagine the rest of his days without the witch currently turning over to bury her nose against his neck.
"Draco," Hermione murmured sleepily.
He smiled to himself and pressed a soft kiss on her forehead. "Good morning, little bird."
She returned his smile without opening her eyes while stretching like a contented cat. "What time is it?"
Draco glanced towards the French doors. "Just after dawn." He wrapped his arms around her, his lips fluttering about her temple. "We have a half hour before we need to start preparations."
Hermione groaned and thumped her head on his chest with a slight whimper. "I'm only going to admit this once, Draco Malfoy, so mark this occasion well: I'm utterly frightened about today."
Frowning, he tilted her chin up until she was looking at him. "We've practiced ceaselessly, and never have you complained, never have you faltered, even when Father and I asked the impossible of you." A lingering kiss left her with a muzzy expression. "I have every faith in you today, Hermione."
"But I took the wrong stance during the final simulation," she complained. "They will deduct points for that in a real competition."
The Malfoys had held a mock competition to acclimate Hermione to the contest atmosphere without the stress of its reality, allowing her to develop the endurance and perfect her technique. It was true she had assumed the wrong starting position for the Foxtrot, but that was minor in comparison to her overall performance. "Remember what Lucius said: keep going, even if you make a mistake. The judges may catch it, but they are more forgiving if you don't react to your mistake. Don't let one wrong move dictate the rest of the dance."
"I'll try, but the other dancers are all so much more talented than me."
He caressed her cheek. "A famous dancer once said, 'I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.' If you are confident in yourself, it will shine through in anything you do. Dance is the only art wherein we ourselves are the stuff in which it is made."
"Who knew that Draco Malfoy was a romantic philosopher? Certainly not I," she teased with a grin.
Placing her hand over his heart, he feigned a hurt look. "You wound me, love." He slapped her on her pert arse and added, "Time for breakfast."
She turned a little green. "I don't think I can manage anything this morning. I'm too nervous."
"You have to eat—something small, perhaps," he admonished. "Dancing on a full stomach is almost as bad as dancing on an empty stomach. If you don't eat at all, then you risk having no energy on the dance floor when you need it most. Fruit and yoghurt or a cereal bar will do." He pulled her from the bed and wrapped her dressing gown around her. "Water as well. Dehydration can be very dangerous and may lead to muscle cramps or even black outs."
Her colour paled. "Black outs?"
He tugged her close and embraced her fully. "I swear I won't let anything happen to you." He felt her nod against his chest. "Good. Now, come on. It's show time."
The overwhelming noise of the crowd grated on Hermione's already frayed nerves.
"There would have to be thousands of people here, wouldn't there?" she lamented as she gazed upon the immense audience.
Indeed, there were at least ten thousand people gathered, the box seats flanking the judges' podium filled with Ministers from different countries, some as far away as the States and Australia. She scanned the guests for the British Minister, finding him three boxes away and to the right.
"Harry and Ron are sitting with Kingsley!" she squealed, clapping her hand over her mouth to keep from hyperventilating. "And I think that's Severus, right next to them, though I didn't know he would glamour himself to look like..." She tilted her head to the left to study the blonde beside Shacklebolt, just as Severus had instructed her. "Erm, a woman?"
"He always did like to play dress-up," Draco observed over her shoulder, earning himself a nervous giggle from Hermione. "Too bad Lucius' parole prevented him from being here. He would've given Snape a run for his money."
"Stop," she whispered harshly. She turned and had to force herself not to do a double-take. "Just how many hairs did you pull from... what was his name?"
"It doesn't matter; he was a Muggle. I've given the judges the name of Alex Elssler." Polyjuiced Draco touched the queue of long, tawny locks. "It's been interesting, trying to get used to this body while practicing." His now green eyes flashed with mirth.
"I don't know," she teased, "I sort of like this new you."
His expression became stormy and he pulled her into a darkened alcove, waiting until a couple of dancers had passed them before speaking. "You are mine, Hermione," he growled low, loving the way it clearly affected her. "You will not touch this Muggle body once I am through using it for the competition."
"Lovers' spat?" purred a voice behind Draco.
Hermione and Draco turned to peer at a voluptuous woman that had dark mahogany waves, richly tanned skin, and cool brown eyes. "Nothing of the sort," Hermione said primly.
The woman gave them both a shrewd look. "You are Hermione Granger, si?" She glanced at Draco, not recognising him in the least, for which Draco was extremely relieved.
"And if I were?" Hermione challenged, hands on hips.
"Then I would suggest that you abandon the competition," the woman said with a seductive smile. "For I am going to win, and you will become an object of ridicule."
"Who are you?" Draco snarled. He, of course, knew who she was, but could not reveal himself to her.
"The winner of La Grande Danse, Isabella Sacerdote." She had no pretence of humility.
"What makes you so sure that you will win?" asked another contestant off to their right as a crowd gathered. "You have the same chance as any of us."
"No, I have Paon Deux," Isabella boasted.
Several gasps echoed throughout the training room and Hermione caught Draco rolling his eyes.
"So they are talented at what they do," Draco said with disdain. "That proves nothing."
"Oh, they are very talented," Isabella assured him with a lascivious smirk, her tongue wetting her lips. "They made me dance all. Night. Long."
Hermione swallowed thickly, anger and jealousy roiling in her stomach. This must have been Draco's prior conquest before Hermione had been dropped into the middle of their lives. Her first instinct was to claw out the other woman's eyes, but she drew in a deep breath and let it slowly unfurl between her lips. Draco's past didn't matter. Hermione was his future and, with every bit of confidence she possessed, she gracefully stepped around Draco to face the harpy.
"Is that why you walk like a slag?"
There were several snorts of laughter, including Draco's.
Isabella's eyes narrowed dangerously. "At least I know how to satisfy a man, niñita. What can you do?"
"She helped defeat the Dark Lord," someone in the crowd pointed out.
Stepping closer, Isabella caressed Hermione's cheek. "Si, she did. But what can you do that does not require magic?" She looked the shorter witch up and down. "I bet there are cobwebs between your legs."
Isabella was abruptly shoved backwards by Draco. "Do not touch her again unless you wish to lose some vital part of your anatomy," he hissed.
"Are you threatening me?" Isabella glanced at the smug look on Hermione's face and curled her lip, turning her attention to the man standing next to her. "I could satisfy you better than she can, guapo."
Draco didn't have time to intervene, because Hermione was already lunging towards Isabella in a magnificent fit of rage. He grabbed his mate before she could lay a hand on the offensive witch, knowing if she touched Sacerdote, Hermione would be disqualified.
"You will never have him!" Hermione snarled while trying to wiggle out of Draco's grasp. "You would completely destroy anything good that came into your life, so go ahead and waste yourself on men that want only your fame or money, but you will never have him!"
Incensed, Isabella kicked Hermione's knee with her sharp heel, causing Hermione to cry out. "See if your man will have you now!" Sacerdote stormed off to the warm-up area.
Several contestants followed Sacerdote while others helped Draco and Hermione to a bench so that she could sit. Draco would have gone after Isabella, but he needed to stay with his witch.
"I thought your hair was supposed to protect me," Hermione whispered in Draco's ear.
He looked over her bruised knee. "It did. You've got a painful bruise, at most. She meant to break your kneecap."
She winced when his fingers drifted over it. "Metal kneecaps, remember?"
"That will be something I'll tell our children, how their mother nearly emasculated me on the first day of her training and put their lives in jeopardy."
Hermione stilled at his words. "Children." A panicky feeling filled her chest. "We haven't been using protection, Draco," she murmured harshly. "What if I'm pregnant right now?"
Draco laid a hand on her fluttering stomach and began rubbing in soothing circles. "You're not; I would be able to tell. Plus, I wouldn't have let you perform."
Brow arched, she crossed her arms. "Let me? Let's get one thing straight, Draco Malfoy—"
"You're going to go off on a tangent, aren't you?" He really needed to talk to the judges about Sacerdote's behaviour.
"And if you think that, just because I'm your mate, you can dictate how I run my life and—oomph!"
He effectively silenced her with a heated kiss until he felt all resistance leave her. "Better?"
She ran her fingers over her knee, and while it still twinged a bit, it wasn't as bad as it had been. "Yes, thank you."
There was a loud announcement that La Grande Danse was about to commence and contestants should either be practicing or on the floor ready to dance. Draco's window of opportunity to speak to the judges had just closed, unfortunately, because no dancers could approach the officials once the tournament began, so he concentrated on keeping his mate from panicking.
Hermione stood quickly and began wringing her hands. "Oh goddess, oh Merlin!"
Draco took her cold fingers, warming them with his. "Why are you doing this? You know the material and the music better than any student we've ever had."
She nodded, biting her lip as she was wont to do. "Even better than Sacerdote?"
He laid his forehead on hers and nuzzled her nose. "You, Hermione Granger, could kick her arse all over the world and back, and still look bloody fantastic while doing it."
She wrapped her arms around him and took several deep breaths. "Forget about the world; I just need to kick it all over the dance floor."
Draco pressed a soft kiss to her lips. "That's my woman." He pulled back and grabbed her hand. "Come on, our first dance is in ten minutes."
Each couple had to perform three types of dance. Draco and Hermione chose the Tango, the Foxtrot, and the Rumba—all dances that she had excelled at while training. She was proficient in Waltz and Paso Doble, but Lucius had argued that the Waltz was too slow for her and the opportunity to make mistakes increased while the Paso Doble made her look like a matador ready to slay a bull.
Hermione's favourite was the Foxtrot; she loved the Big Band era type of music and this dance allowed for fewer restrictions in movement. Draco preferred the Tango, where he could hold her close and pivot his hips against hers. Rumba was the slowest of the Latin dances she had learned and she loved the hip-sway over the standing leg, which brought her nearer to Draco. Of course, there were other dances the competitors could choose from, but those particular ones had been selected a month earlier and there had been concentrated study in each.
They both had a number attached to their backs—Hermione's a little lower due to the cut of her dress—and they took their places for the first dance: the Tango.
Draco led with his whole body once the music began, Hermione following effortlessly amongst the twenty other couples. They melded their bodies into one, in total synchronisation with each other. Draco would deliberately lift and place his foot down in a staccato action, urging Hermione to follow, while their heads snapped to suddenly freeze and then melt into the slowness of Tango.
Several times they narrowly avoided bumping into other couples, but they retained the ability to continue dancing without pause when boxed in. To the judges, it showed the command of the couple over their choreography, as well as Draco's skill to choose and lead extrinsic to their usual work when the necessity presented itself.
When the music came to a halt, there was cheering the likes of which Hermione had never heard before, and as she panted heavily and waved her arms in the air, she found that she could quickly become addicted to the euphoria coursing through her veins. Draco waved with her, tugging her hand to place a fervent kiss on the back of it then releasing it.
All the couples bowed and left the floor while attendants readied the area for another group. It would be two hours before Hermione and Draco performed again, so they relaxed in the training room, talking softly so as not to disturb the other contestants who were still practicing.
"How's your knee?" Draco asked, slipping a flask from his jacket pocket.
Hermione rubbed the bruise. "It's a bit achy." Sipping from her own bottle of water, she watched him gulp two mouthfuls of the Polyjuice he had brought with him.
"Bloody disgusting stuff," he said with a grimace. He replaced the cap and stowed it away for the next lull. "How do you feel about your performance?"
A silly grin spread across her face. "Of all the things I've done in my short life, I can say that was, by far, the most powerful I've experienced."
"Hey, what about me?"
She leaned over and kissed him. "You know, you're irresistible when you pout."
"Excuse me, Miss Granger?"
Hermione turned to see a younger woman standing at the entrance to the room, Kingsley Shacklebolt at her side. "You have a visitor."
Glancing quickly at Draco, Hermione asked, "Am I allowed visitors?"
Malfoy nodded slightly, now wary of the man whose eyes were shining when he looked upon Draco's mate. "The woman is a Tournament official. She'll monitor your actions to make sure no magic is cast upon you without your knowledge."
"Right." Hermione rose from her seat and approached Kingsley. "I should be furious with you."
Kingsley's smile fell, though he left his arms open for a hug. "But you were magnificent, Hermione! Wasn't it worth two months of study?"
She moved into his embrace hesitantly. "That remains to be seen, doesn't it?" Stepping back, she had the sudden urge to cover herself from his stare. "I hope I win for the sake of the Ministry." But not for you, was left unsaid.
"On the grave of Albus Dumbledore, I promise to never put you in this sort of position again."
"A likely story," she said with a snort. "Next week you'll probably have me counting the vampire population on the continent."
Shacklebolt looked decidedly nervous. "Erm, well, no. I had planned for you to do that, but Luna volunteered to organize the covens, and the project was successful."
"Oh." Feeling Draco at her back, Hermione gave the Minister an insincere smile as she leaned against her dance partner. "I'm glad she's working out for you."
Having watched the entire exchange, Draco wound an arm possessively around Hermione's shoulders. "You're hiding something, Minister." He could smell the man's anxiety a mile away.
"I don't like your tone, young man," Kingsley warned, levelling the stranger with a heated glare.
"I don't like the way you look at Hermione or the way you speak to her," Draco returned, tightening his grip on his mate.
"Easy, Draco," she said under her breath, stroking his arms to sooth his proverbial ruffled feathers.
The Foxtrot will commence in two minutes!
"I'm sorry, sir, you'll need to return to your seat," the attendant requested, placing a hand on Kingsley's upper arm.
The Minister gave Draco a calculating look and then turned with a flourish, his colourful robes whipping about him as he left.
"He could give Severus a run for his money in the 'billowing cloak' department," Hermione observed.
"Severus outclasses that fool any day."
She turned in his arms. "Draco, what is it?"
He laid his cheek alongside hers. "What happens after the competition?"
She had concentrated so hard on her dancing, and then Draco, that she hadn't considered what would happen after the tournament. "I have a life, back in London," she murmured, clutching at him.
Last call for Foxtrot!
"Bloody hell!" Draco kissed her passionately and pulled her out of the room to join the other couples already positioned on the floor.
Draco and Hermione assumed the correct stance and began the Foxtrot, stealing time from one step to allow another to hover. Knowing powerful movements were an asset in this dance, they both channelled their emotions into the correct swing of their bodies, the lilt of the music matched only by their actions. Hermione stroked her feet across the floor to achieve smoothness and softness, while Draco used the appropriate shape on outside partner steps to ensure body contact was maintained. They were allowed to improvise to a certain degree, and they did so, incorporating both quick and slow movements into the routine. They were graceful and romantic, conveying to their audience—and ultimately the judges—the embodiment of love.
This time, when the music ended, the crowd roared even louder, with several whistles aimed towards Hermione and Draco. She glanced at Kingsley's box and saw Harry and Ron standing, cheering her on. The woman to Shacklebolt's left nodded discreetly with a hint of a smirk. Hermione returned the gesture and finally bowed.
In the training room, Draco found a secluded spot, away from prying eyes, and led Hermione there. "You were superb, love."
She was still trying to catch her breath. "So were you!" Her smile was contagious. "Oh, Draco, this feeling is absolutely amazing!"
"Now you know why my family has done this for generations. It's not only the prestige, it's feeling that rush whenever you win."
Her expression faltered somewhat. "But I haven't won. I won't even know my scores until the end."
He shook his head. "Doesn't matter." He cupped her face and pressed soft kisses on her smooth and flushed skin. "Regardless of how today turns out, you win, Hermione."
"Draco," she whispered, wrapping her arms around him, practically sitting in his lap.
They stayed that way for the duration of the time left to them, Draco stopping only to sip from his flask once more, and Hermione to snack on an energy bar and have some juice. Once the tournament was completed, Draco vowed to approach the judges and inform them of the violation of the rules where Isabella Sacerdote was concerned.
When time was nearing for them to prepare for the last dance, he lifted her weary form from his lap and brushed a few tendrils away from her eyes. She looked so very tired, but he was proud of her perseverance. "Last one. Are you ready?"
She yawned but nodded. "I think the first thing I'm going to do after this is over is sleep for a week."
He laughed and tapped her on the nose. "You and I both."
Her fingers twisted in the gauze of her dress. "What about your next student?"
Tilting her chin up, he kissed her before saying, "I'm rethinking Paon Deux's methods."
Lashes slowly lifting, she gazed into unfamiliar eyes. "What are you saying, Draco?"
"I've noticed my father taking less interest in the business, and I can't even begin to run it on my own." He shrugged, for once shy about what he was asking. "I don't suppose you would consider being part of Paon Deux?"
"Me?" She stepped away from him to clear her head. "But I can't dance."
Draco laughed at that. "Of course you can, love. Look at what you've been doing for the past two months. No ordinary witch could have pulled that off, and you know it."
She frowned. "What would I do? I can't instruct dance in any way."
"Are you saying the job is too much for you? You're not the Hermione Granger I know, then," he baited her.
In a rare show of immaturity, she playfully stuck her tongue out at him. "That's not what I'm saying. I'm still a novice compared to you and many of the people here. I'm not a peacock, either."
Draco snagged her about the waist, wrapping his arms around her possessively. "Oh, but you are, my little bird. You are the most colourful, the most spectacular specimen I have laid eyes on." He caressed her braided crown. "No ordinary plumage for you."
Last call for Rumba!
"Blasted," Draco snarled. "I didn't even hear the first call." Releasing all but her hand, he pulled her towards the entrance and onto the floor, where they once again took their place amongst several couples.
Correct bending and straightening of the knees to create hip motions were the key to Rumba; extension of the ankles and pointing of the toes of the non-supporting foot enhanced the line of a figure. Rumba demonstrated the unique love and attraction between a man and a woman, and was based around the concept of a lady's pursuit of the man, with the steps representing the woman's charm. Hermione danced around Draco, her steps quick and withdrawn, as he followed her. It often reminded her of their practice time, casually flirting with one another and his subtle pursuit of her. The dance was considered very sensual and she felt like they were practically making love in front of the entire audience.
Everything was going well until Hermione's knee began to ache abominably, causing her to misstep. Draco squeezed her side to let her know that he would support her as best he could without altering the dance too much. Her genuine smile faded into one that was forced, and he had to think quickly or risk her faltering further.
Pulling her close, he dipped her low and murmured, "I love you."
She gasped but did not hesitate with the next move, executing it flawlessly. They had one more sequence left, and while it was performed with a few stiff moves, they finished to a standing ovation. Draco stepped away and bowed low to her, letting Hermione soak up all the praise that was her due, smiling unrepentantly at her beaming expression. The applause lasted for at least five minutes.
There was one more set to be danced by another group, then the final tally would be made, and the winners announced. Draco led them to a room that had been closed off from spectators and dancers alike, slipped inside, and quietly shut the door. It was dark, so he cast Lumos, producing a soft pulsing light that lit their faces.
Only for him to see Hermione in tears. "I'm so sorry, Draco."
He laid his wand down and pulled her close, cradling her, pressing his cheek against her hair. "I'm not sure what for, love. You were brilliant." He punctuated his thoughts with a kiss to her temple.
"There were so many mistakes! My knee hurt so badly, I just couldn't put any weight on it after a certain point." She clutched at his shoulders, burying her nose against his neck. "I know I wasn't supposed to react, and I tried not to, but—"
His lips silenced her, exploring her mouth thoroughly, stopping only so he could reassure her. "Don't think about it. To everyone that counts, you were a complete professional." He dropped to his knees and carefully lifted her voluminous skirt, spotting his mark on her inner thigh. "To me, you were and always will be radiant."
He spread her thighs further, delighting in her whimper and latched onto the bite mark, suckling it until she was fisting strands of his hair in her hands, incoherent with lust. When her legs started giving way, he pushed aside the crotch of her knickers and swiped his fingers over her damp core, flicking her clit.
"Draco!" Her shout sounded loud in the small room.
He dropped her skirt and stood, holding onto her hips so she wouldn't collapse. "Feel better?"
After testing the stability of her knee, she gave him a lopsided grin. "This is becoming a habit."
He ran his thumb over her bottom lip. "I hope so."
She leaned into his touch. "I love you, too."
"I know," he said smugly. She swatted at him, but he sidestepped her assault. "That's uncalled for. I was just stating the truth."
"Must you be so self-assured about it?"
"Of course. Would you want me any other way?"
She studied him in the dim light. "I would love to have you in any and every way."
He bowed over her hand, kissing it. "As my lady wishes."
All the couples that had participated stood on the dance floor awaiting the results of the competition... and the prize money from Jules Laurent. Draco and Hermione were in the third row, next to a couple from Italy.
The head judge, a rotund man with a handlebar moustache and a keen interest in footwork, approached the podium, pointed his wand at his throat, and cast Sonorous so that he could be heard by everyone.
"Ladies, gentlemen, and esteemed guests. We are proud to present the winners of this year's La Grande Danse!"
The crowd erupted into applause, everyone eagerly awaiting the outcome.
Making a spectacle of opening the envelope, the judge intoned, "In third place, we have Christian Libfeld and Sarah Berger!"
A couple extracted themselves from the group and quickly made their way to the stage, where they were gifted with a satin sash, flowers, and a medal. They bowed graciously, smiling at the applause, then moved off to the far left of the platform.
"In second place, an unprecedented event, ladies and gentlemen!" The judge mopped his brow. "In their premier showing, the second place winners are Hermione Granger and Alex Elssler!"
Shaking, Hermione looked at Draco with a mixture of pain and gratitude, but his brilliant smile eased the hurt fluttering in her chest. They approached the stage amidst the shouts and roars of the crowd, the chant of Granger bringing tears to her eyes. She glanced quickly at Kingsley, who simply nodded and clapped.
"You were exceptional, Miss Granger," the judge said as he handed them their sash, flowers and medals. "And you as well, Mister Elssler."
They thanked the judge and moved to stand next to the other couple, Draco keeping a firm hand on her elbow. "I'm very proud of you," he whispered to her. He was definitely going to speak to the judges afterward. He knew Hermione should have won.
She smiled, still shaking. "I wish I could've won for you."
"Nonsense. You didn't do this for me. It was for yourself. You should be bloody proud. Never has an amateur dancer ranked this high in their first competition."
Nodding, she squeezed his hand. "I am rather pleased with myself."
"And now, tonight's first place contestants!" The judge mopped his brow once more, and Hermione had the insane urge to giggle at his actions. "The winners of La Grande Danse are... Isabella Sacerdote and Mikhail Dvorovenko!"
The couple in the first row came forward and presented themselves to less-than-stellar applause, for the crowd had clearly chosen their favourites. But it made no difference, at least not to Isabella. Before she reached the judge, she gave Hermione a sidelong glance that was so superior, Hermione felt the other girl could have given Lucius lessons in vanity.
"I knew this was our night!" Isabella crowed, casting a Sonorous on herself, which irritated the judge. "And Mikhail was fantástico!" She wrapped her arms around her partner and fervently kissed him... without removing the amplification charm. The sounds of their snogging turned quite a few spectators green.
Disgusted with the display, Draco leaned over and whispered to Hermione, "Watch this." Concentrating on Sacerdote, he murmured, "Accio Lucius' hair."
A single strand unfurled from Isabella's head, unbeknownst to her or anyone, and floated towards Draco, who caught and pocketed it. Hermione watched, eyes wide with mirth, while the woman continued to blather on about how fortunate she was to have found Paon Deux, and how without them, her dream would have never come true. It made Hermione want to retch.
Annoyed beyond reason, the judge forcefully regained his voice and glared at Isabella and Mikhail, instructing them to perform their winning dance once more. She smiled brilliantly and made to step down from the podium...
...only to twist her ankle and fall face first to the dance floor, shocked gasps from the crowd filling the air.
"She was as clumsy as Trelawney with her glasses," Draco said, feeling no remorse for having retrieved his father's gift. "While she could dance somewhat, she would've never made it through the preliminaries without Minister Sacerdote lining someone's pockets."
Hermione didn't know whether to feel sorry for the woman currently crying while she struggled to stand, or feel vindicated that Karma was indeed a vicious bitch. "They can heal her quickly enough, though." She watched as several Healers cast spells about the witch's ankle.
"I know, and it's a bloody shame."
"Draco," Hermione admonished gently. "That could've been me."
He snorted and shook his head. "Perish the thought. You were awkward, but at least you knew how to walk without becoming a menace to everything in your path."
With the tournament over, everyone was standing to leave and Draco thought it the perfect opportunity to speak to the judges, especially since the so-called winner was not deserving of the accolade. He started towards the stage, but spied Shacklebolt approaching Hermione, and decided he would wait to hear what her employer would have to say about her performance.
"Minister," Hermione greeted with a nod.
The tall wizard looked at her with a calculating eye. "You've changed, Hermione."
Her spine immediately stiffened. "Not really. I just changed my eating habits. Got some exercise. Worked my arse off. You know, those things my boss said I should do so that I could win him some Galleons."
He took exception to that. "This was too great an opportunity to miss. That money could have rebuilt the Ministry!" he argued.
"At my expense!"
"What do you mean?" Draco interrupted. He glanced between Hermione and Kingsley, not liking the feeling crawling over his skin.
"I was sent to Paon Deux to learn how to dance, because Kingsley here had entered me into the competition based on the knowledge that I had danced with Viktor Krum back in fourth year." She was fuming now. "What he hadn't accounted for was the fact that I literally couldn't dance. Ginny Weasley had cast a Decorus Tripudio charm on me for that evening."
"Oh, that's priceless," Draco said with a sneer aimed at Kingsley. "You offered up your best employee, a valuable asset, on a whim? How is it you're still Minister?"
"Who are you?" Kingsley demanded.
Draco held out his hand. "Alex Elssler."
"Well, Alex Elssler, keep your mouth shut in regards to issues you know nothing about!"
"Stop!" Hermione shouted, insinuating herself between the two men who looked ready to maul each other. "I lost; there's nothing that can be done about it."
"You didn't lose, Hermione," Draco pleaded. He glanced towards the judges, seeing them in heated discussions with several other contestants.
"Yes, I did." Stepping close, she brushed a stray lock of hair behind his ear and smiled. "It's all right. I know I did my best and I couldn't have done it without you."
He bent low to kiss her, but raised voices the judges' podium made him pause.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I beg your pardon." The head judge looked flustered to the point he was going to pass out. "There has been a major violation to the code of conduct this evening!"
The people that were exiting stopped and filed back into the main arena, rapt with attention. So did all the contestants.
"It has recently been brought to my attention that a certain person has engaged in poor sportsmanship. Isabella Sacerdote, will you please come forward."
The two Healers surrounding Isabella hefted her up, carried her to the stage, and directed her to a chair. Hair askew, a pronounced limp, and a flushed face made Isabella look nothing like the winner she thought she was.
"Per the testimony and corroboration of several eye-witnesses, you, Miss Isabella Sacerdote, were observed attacking Miss Hermione Granger earlier this afternoon, possibly eliminating her from the competition through a physical altercation, which is conduct unbecoming of a contestant... and as a young lady," the judge reprimanded the now visibly shocked Isabella. "I have conferred with the other judges, and we have unanimously agreed to strip you of your title and award La Grande Danse championship to Hermione Granger and Alex Elssler."
There was a brief moment of silence, before the auditorium burst into thunderous applause and cheer. Hermione was too stunned to respond.
"Hermione, you won!" Draco said loudly, trying to shake her from her stupor.
"I won?" It was starting to sink in. "I won," she whispered. Overwhelmed, she did the one thing she promised herself that she would never do.
She promptly fainted.
The first thing she heard was the jumble of voices surrounding her. When they started becoming clearer, Hermione pried one of her eyes open. "What happened?"
Draco was instantly by her side, helping her sit up. "You still look peaked." He pressed the back of his hand to her forehead. "How are you feeling?"
She assumed she was in the makeshift infirmary, where there were two other contestants nursing strains and one suffering from exhaustion. Blinking, she glanced at all the faces around her bed, her gaze landing on Dvorovenko standing off to the side.
"My apologies, Miss Granger," Dvorovenko said in a heavy accent. "Had I known what sort of woman Miss Sacerdote was, I would have never entertained the notion of dancing with her. Please accept my deepest regrets. Should you have need of a partner in the future, you need only ask." He bowed deeply and then left.
Hermione, Draco, and those gathered, stared after him. "Well, that was..."
"Interesting," Draco finished. "You just had one of the world's most premier dancers offer to dance with you at your beck and call."
"That sounds promising," Hermione said with a teasing gleam in her eye.
"You will not even consider it," Draco growled. He leaned close to her ear. "You're mine. He will not touch you."
Harry, Ron and Kingsley exchanged glances at Draco's heated words. Snape, who was glamoured to look strikingly familiar to Marilyn Monroe, rolled his eyes.
"Excuse me, but do I know you? You look very familiar," Harry said, his gaze analysing the lithe man sitting next to his best friend. "Have we met before?"
"Minister, if you don't mind, I must be going," the curvy blonde at Kingsley's side cut in, obviously trying to draw the attention away from his godson.
"I'd like a word with the Minister, if you don't mind," Hermione said. "Alone."
Taking the hint, Draco shooed the others around the privacy curtain and out the door, remaining just inside the entryway, listening.
"Effective two weeks from today, I am resigning my position with the Ministry," she said quietly as she removed the arm cuffs from her biceps. "I have done as you asked and won the money."
"No!" She sat up a little straighter. "I was wrong to let you do this to me in the first place. I won't ever be put in that position again."
"Minister Sacerdote said you would be changed by Paon Deux," Kingsley lamented.
Her eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. "Sacerdote? Isabella's father?" She shook her head in disgust. "Let me guess. He advised that you send me to Paon Deux. And you listened to him, didn't you?" Tired, aching and annoyed, Hermione swung her legs over the bed and rose on shaky legs. "Alex was right. How you've managed to stay in office is beyond me."
"Now wait just a bloody minute—"
"I will not," she countered with a mutinous expression. "You want to know how you've managed to stay in office so long, Kingsley? Because of me. Me! I kept your affairs straight. I made sure you avoided disaster at every turn. I have even lied for you!" She gripped the partition curtain to remain upright. "You've used me for the last time, Minister. Find someone else to wager on."
Disregarding his rebuttal, Hermione walked to the door, knowing Draco awaited her on the other side.
"Father?" Draco called hesitantly as he entered the library.
There was no answer, which heightened Draco's unease, and he stepped into the room to scan the area for Lucius. He found him, lounging in front of the fire, his dishevelled appearance and rumey eyes clearly announcing his inebriated state. "Father?"
Lucius barely glanced at Draco. "So, has the swot won?" He snorted and downed another snifter of his best brandy.
Draco sat next to him and took the glass out of his hands. "You don't need this."
"Mind your own business!"
"I am! You are my business!" Draco quickly banished the alcohol. "Why are you doing this to yourself?"
His jaw tightening, Lucius turned to glare at Draco. "For the past year, I have done nothing but ache here." He thumped his chest. "I cannot touch my mate. I can't even see her—only a facsimile of something so precious to me." He pointed to the picture of Narcissa that he had always conversed with.
"But you are precious to me, as well, Father," Draco said quietly. "What can I do to ease your pain?"
"Let me go," Lucius whispered, his voice thin.
Draco grabbed his father's hand and held tight. "Stay with me, please?"
Lucius withdrew from the grasp to stand by the large hearth. "Tell me, Draco, if Hermione were to suffer the same fate as your mother, what would you do?"
The thought of Hermione's demise sent him around the bend, and Draco had to force himself to relax. "I would kill the perpetrator and then join her. But, if we had children, I would mourn her the rest of my days until I could meet her again."
"Why would it matter if you had offspring?" Lucius asked, frowning in confusion.
Draco rose and came to stand in front of his father. "Because she would want me to watch over them, care for them, love them in her place. To see them happy and beloved." He smiled softly. "And when it was my time, I envision that she would find me more than willing to go with her." He placed his hand on Lucius' shoulder. "Do you hear Mother calling you?"
Lucius gasped a sob. "No," he managed. "She is resolutely silent."
"Then, maybe it is not your time, yet," Draco offered. "I still need you." He moved to embrace Lucius. "We still need you."
The Malfoy men were still clinging to one another when Hermione found them. "I'm sorry, I'll come back later."
"No, please," Lucius said after he cleared his throat and stepped away from Draco. "I'm glad that you both have returned. Pardon my appearance."
Hermione gave him a gentle smile. "You are still very debonair, Lucius Malfoy. I doubt you could ever be anything else."
He gave her an appreciative nod. "So, tell me, are congratulations in order?"
"Yes," Draco countered, sending her an exasperated look. "The most interesting thing happened."
A devious smile broke out on Lucius' face. "Do tell."
They regaled the Malfoy patriarch of the competition, their initial standing, and then the judges' last minute decision. Draco produced Lucius' reclaimed hair and handed it over to his father.
"She had a little accident after I removed it."
Lucius' eyebrows rose, a smirk playing about his mouth. "Did she? Most unfortunate." He murmured a quick Incendio, letting the hair burn out of existence. "Well, Miss Granger, I must say I'm impressed. You exceeded my expectations and mated with my son in the process. What do you have to say for yourself?"
She grinned at his gruff manner. "Thank you."
"Thank you? We made it feasible for you to win three million Galleons, and all you have to say is thank you?"
"Father," Draco drawled.
"Maybe I should explain what 'thank you' entails," Hermione said, coming around the chaise lounge to sit in front of the men. "Thank you for turning an ugly duckling into a swan."
"You were never an ugly duckling—"
"Draco, let the chit speak. I'm interested in what she has to say."
She rolled her eyes, but continued. "Thank you for giving me the tools and the knowledge to become something I never dared imagine." Turning her focus to Lucius, she said, "Thank you for not coddling me, for pushing me beyond my boundaries to find the best in myself." She shifted her attention to Draco. "Thank you for being patient and caring, for being just as determined as I was, and boosting me when I faltered. That means the world to me."
"I do believe she will be good for you, Draco."
His son stared at him, incredulous. "Now you tell me that?"
"I have been telling you that all along, but as usual, you are bent on your own path."
Hermione sat back in her chair, shaking her head. "You two are a pair."
"A pair of what?" Lucius asked.
"Nothing." Hermione chuckled and waved her hand. She stood and yawned. "I, for one, am going to bed. I'm exhausted." She made to leave, but Draco grabbed her hand in passing.
"I'll be with you shortly to discuss some things."
She smiled, leaned down, and kissed him. "I'll see you then."
"What things will you be discussing?" Lucius asked after she had closed the door.
"I want to change the way Paon Deux runs things." Draco shifted in his seat to face his father. "I know your interest in the company is waning, and I can't begin to do this on my own, so I'm going to ask Hermione to become an instructor here."
"Do you think she is capable?"
"More than. Besides the dance lessons, she can set written course work that would entail the background of the steps and reasoning behind them. That way, when time comes for the practical application, the transition from knowledge to function will be easier. Also, I thought of reducing the fee and allotted instruction time. It would allow for an increase in student base, even enticing younger people to learn the art."
Though the particulars would have to be sorted, the changes had merit. "And what of your mating?"
Draco grinned. "We may have to change our company name to Paon Trois."
Lucius smiled for the first time in a long while. "That will be very interesting, indeed."
Six months later…
Lucius found the couple in the practice ballroom, swaying to the evocative rhythm of the music playing in the air. Unwilling to disturb them just yet, he leaned against the doorframe and watched his son twirl his future wife away from him before pulling her back to cradle her close. Her back was to his front, and she had a radiant smile only for Draco, who wrapped his arms around her from behind, one hand protectively splayed over her abdomen.
They looked utterly happy together.
They also looked like they were about to mate right in front of him.
"Ahem," Lucius said, pre-empting Draco and Hermione's love making.
"Father," Draco greeted with a smirk. "We were just coming to join you for tea."
Lucius glanced at the tent in his son's trousers. "Yes, it's obvious you were."
Hermione giggled. "Lucius, we have wonderful news!"
The older Malfoy arched an expectant brow. He had guessed at the news, having observed his son and Granger together, but he was feeling charitable that day and decided to let them tell him in their own time.
"You will be a grandfather next summer." Draco pressed a kiss to Hermione's temple and held her close, both beaming like besotted fools.
"My, you two have been busy," Lucius said discreetly. Of course they had been busy. He had heard them from sunup to sundown, christening every room in the château. It was a wonder she hadn't been enceinte before now.
Both blushed, but neither seemed repentant—not that they needed to be. "Are you happy, Father?" Draco asked in a worried tone.
Lucius had promised Draco some months ago that he would wait for Narcissa to call him instead of languishing as he had done for the past year. He had not heard his mate's call then and he did not hear it now. He would bide his time, though. In the meanwhile, he had a grandchild on the way.
"I am content, Draco," he admitted softly.
"I can accept that." Draco approached his father, Hermione in tow, and they all embraced.
Withdrawing, Lucius straightened his vest and crossed his arms. "You may not accept our next student, however." With the changes to the company came a wide variety of students from all over.
"They're here already?" Hermione looked down the long hallway behind Lucius.
"They are waiting in the receiving parlour."
The three made their way to the room, and upon opening the door, Draco groaned. "You've got to be kidding me."
"I wish I were," Lucius drawled as he sat to review the documents that had accompanied the student. "I wonder if we should include Severus in this particular student's regime..." he mused idly.
This earned a squeak from said student, and Hermione glared at Lucius. "Quit scaring him."
Lucius sneered. "You are no fun. Draco, how ever did you saddle yourself with such a spoilsport?"
"Lucky, I suspect."
"I doubt it."
"Hey, I'm in the room," Hermione groused. She shook her head at the blond pair and went to the shy wizard standing before the hearth and hugged him. "So, Neville, are you ready?"
"I think so," he muttered.
"Good." She levitated his bags and indicated he was to follow her, Draco not far behind.
Lucius watched the trio leave and sat back in his chair, his eyes resting on a different picture of his wife. "Draco chose well, love."
Narcissa smiled softly and nodded, then blew several kisses his way.
"There is a little one on the way." He enjoyed the look of unadulterated joy that shined on her face. "I'm sorry I must tarry, but I do so wish to see the child." He caressed the picture's cheek. "I know you understand."
And she did.