Iolanthe Malfoy swallowed the bile in her throat and stilled. The last thing she wanted was to alert Romilda Vane and her cohorts to the knowledge that they weren't plotting in private.
"Do you really think it will work?"
"Of course!" said Romilda, voice laced with smug superiority. "Henry's a Potter, after all, and they are unbearably honorable. All I have to do is give him my maiden's kiss in front of a group of people. Then he will have no choice but to make me the future Lady Potter. Anything else would shame his family name."
Iolanthe squeezed her eyes shut and placed one hand over her mouth, while she fought the urge to be ill. How dare Romilda plan something so despicable! Henry, her Henry, was an honorable wizard, while Romilda acted without honor entirely. She had known keeping their betrothal a secret would make things difficult, but she hadn't wanted all the extra attention. Now the need for privacy was coming back to haunt her.
Earlier this week she had barely stopped a Muggle-born from dosing Henry with love potions. And just last week, a half-blood from Slytherin had attempted to appear in a compromising position with him.
Iolanthe had hoped to wait until she was older . . . but now she couldn't. She wasn't sleeping, and she could hardly keep anything in her stomach. The thought of anyone managing to steal Henry away from her was her worst nightmare. She had lost almost ten pounds in the past month alone, and with her already slender figure, she needed to keep her weight up before she dwindled away to skin and bones.
Would Henry still care for her if she were too skinny?
Don't be stupid. He'll always love me. He promised, she told herself.
She had been out of sorts for months, now. Henry had spent the past summer at one of Marvolo and Haesel's villas, visiting his brand new niece and nephew: Merope and Merlin. (The scandal over such a daring name for his heir had still to die down months later.) And though he had written her frequently, she hadn't seen him. Then, while they were at Hogwarts, they rarely interacted, per her own request.
Iolanthe had thought it was the wise decision, but now she regretted it more than anything. If she hadn't been afraid of bullying, or being outed as a Matchmaker, none of this would be happening.
Where was her faith?
Quietly, she spun on her heel and walked through the corridors and down the staircases. Dinner would have surely begun while she was eavesdropping, and she was ready to settle this matter. The opinions and actions of others no longer mattered to her; she had turned fifteen the night before, and was now old enough to legally bond. This night, tonight, by Morgana, she would get some sleep!
Henry would guarantee it. She knew he would.
Iolanthe paused for a moment in the entrance hall to marshal her courage, and then lifted her head imperiously and strolled into the great hall. She was a Malfoy, the future Lady Potter, and she refused to be cowed by brainless, dishonorable chits who thought that they could steal Henry away from her. She was liable to kill Romilda if the chit kissed him, and spending her life in Azkaban was not one of her goals.
Not unaware of the wizards who eyed her with more than friendly interest—not that she would ever give them the time of day (Henry was it for her, and her abilities showed just how truly incompatible they all were)—she bypassed the Hufflepuff table. Her resolve wavered for just a moment as she approached the Gryffindor table, due to the enormous amount of attention she had drawn. Even after all these years, she could still feel Lacerta's judgmental and unforgiving gaze on her.
With a daring that would have scandalized her mother, Iolanthe stopped behind Henry and feathered her fingers through his messy golden hair. He fell silent the moment she touched him, but leaned his head back into her grasp. "Henry, dear, I'm tired." A tidal wave of gasps echoed through the near-silent room at her pronouncement.
Iolanthe quivered, fearing the repercussions of her actions, but not regretting them. She couldn't stand to be apart from him any longer. She felt raw and open to the world, exposed, and she needed his love and protection to feel safe—just as she knew he needed to protect her. The secret had been harming him as much as her.
"Me too, Darling Io. Me too," whispered Henry. The gasps that followed were twice as loud as before. He turned in his seat and stood up, towering over her. Tenderly, he folded her against his chest. "What would you have me do, darling?" he breathed.
"I'm fifteen now. We've waited long enough," she answered. Was that too forthright? Was Henry ready for the commitment of a full soul-bonding? Was she pushing him too hard, too fast, for fear of losing him?
His grip tightened fiercely as his magic rankled with possessiveness. Before she could speak another word, he stepped to the side and guided her from the room, his arm solidly about her waist. She leaned against him, allowing him to hold her slight weight, exhaustion making spots dance before her eyes. Soon enough he was carrying her up the last flight of stairs, stopping only long enough to give the password to the Head Boy's chambers.
"Iolanthe, what's wrong?" asked Henry, voice frantic as she lay listlessly in his arms. His grip was gentle as he supported her, but she felt him shake with fear when his hands completely encircled her waist; she hadn't been this thin since she was a child. "Are you ill? Should I get Pomfrey?" His voice was hard and threatening, as if he wanted to cast the Killing Curse at whatever plagued her.
"I can't sleep. I can barely eat," she confessed, vision somewhat blurry. "They keep plotting to take you away from me, and I can't let them. I love you, Henry. I love you so much that I'm sick with it." Her hands fisted in his shirt as she clung to him. "I wasn't wrong all those years ago, was I? You do love me best, don't you?" There was a begging quality to her tone that made her nauseous; she despised that weakness in a witch's character, and hated it doubly when it appeared in her own voice.
"Of course! I love you more than life itself," Henry answered as he sat on the sofa and settled her at his side. "Who's plotting? And what are they plotting?" Henry demanded.
"Romilda, the Slytherin, the Mudblood," she hissed spitefully, completely unlike her usual temperament. "They're trying to compromise you, to drug you, to"—she rubbed her stinging eyes—"she had potions . . . line theft . . ." Iolanthe shifted until she was sitting on his lap and securely in his arms. "Promise me, Henry, that all of your children will be mine." Her throat closed, and she almost didn't get the words out. That had been her greatest fear as she uncovered each new scheme—that someone would succeed, that one of the heartless witches would forcibly steal Henry from her. And then, someday in the future, she would be shopping in Diagon Alley, lifeless and broken, and she would see children with his eyes and another witch's hair, or his hair and another witch's eyes. They would look nothing like her—no trace of her heritage and blood giving them spark.
Henry cupped her chin gently and met her tortured gaze with burning aureate eyes. "I swear on Haesel's life that every child of my loins will also be a child of yours." The vow was so resolute that his magic sounded like a shot from a cannon.
Iolanthe collapsed fully against him, like a puppet whose strings had been sliced. "Thank you." Her eyelashes fluttered down, as that overwhelming fear died within her.
"Why did you mention your birthday?" asked Henry as he removed the elaborate comb from her hair; he had given it to her for her thirteenth birthday. It was an ivory gryphon in midflight, a symbol of loyalty and honesty, as well as part of his family's history. Her long, golden curls fell from the elegant twist and spilled over them, blanketing them in pale silk. Henry groaned and nuzzled her hair before stroking the comb through her locks.
"You know why," she breathed, afraid to say the words. What if he thought she was too young? What if he thought she wasn't ready? Most witches didn't bond until after their graduation. Morgana, Lady Haesel and Lord Marvolo were the victims of multiple rumors and great speculation when they didn't bond until the Yule after Haesel had graduated.
"I need the words, darling."
Iolanthe whimpered and cleaved to Henry, wishing her gift away. "The threads are driving me mental," she whispered. "It's bad enough to see how many of the witches lust after you, with their impure emotions, but then . . ." She shuddered and burrowed closer.
Henry inhaled sharply. "The secret you share with my sister . . . Darling, are you a Matchmaker?" He was stunned, worried, and furious. She could only nod. "How bad is it?"
"It's fine, Henry. There's no need—"
"Don't lie to me, Iolanthe. Never lie to me. But especially not about anything that could affect your health or safety." All at once, the last traces of childhood faded from Henry's face, leaving him a man—protective and powerful. "I, of all people, am not ignorant of your beauty, darling." He kissed her forehead gently. "How bad is it?"
"Without being bonded, there are no filters for my power," she confessed softly. "There are a f-few who f-frighten me on occasion." The lecherous feeling of the threads some of the wizards formed, aimed at her, hadn't helped her sickness any. Some had been intrigued before this year, but never . . . truly desirous.
Henry's magic erupted at her words and poured over her from head to toe, cloaking her in the power of the Potter family. For the first time in months, she felt completely safe.
"Have they tried anything?" he growled.
Iolanthe's thoughts briefly centered on her sister, and Lacerta's occasional companion: Uriah Urquhart. As much as she didn't want to think her sister would help a pureblood intentionally compromise her, she couldn't rule it out. After all, if Iolanthe were to be compromised the betrothal contract would be invalid and Henry would, once again, be available. "Not yet," she breathed.
The mirror above the mantelpiece exploded in a shower of glass, but not one piece of it met her tender flesh. "Not ever!" Henry snarled, eyes glowing with power.
She lay still against him, waiting for his rage to calm. It didn't. If anything, it worsened with each passing second, as if he were witnessing one demented tragedy after another. Iolanthe lifted an unsteady hand and stroked his cheek. "Shh, my love. I'm here."
"Forgive me," he commanded.
Before she could ask for an explanation, Henry kissed her. His lips were gentle, but insistent, and she didn't even consider denying him. How often had she longed for this scenario since the summer began and she was all alone? She closed her eyes and surrendered to him, yielding her mouth to her lord. Henry teased her with short, quick kisses, and then would press his lips to hers for what felt like hours. When she was so dazed that she could barely focus, Henry licked her bottom lip; she gasped in shock, and he carefully eased his tongue inside her mouth. Iolanthe froze for several seconds, and Henry's hands in her hair stilled, as if he had only just realized what he had done. As his tongue began withdrawing, she licked it. This time, it was Henry who froze. When his tongue returned to her, it was with more tenderness and care, his hands petting her hair, instead of fisting it to tilt her head just so.
Henry Potter tasted right.
When she whimpered into his mouth, he pulled away and buried his face against her shoulder. "Merlin, Io, I . . ." He groaned and hugged her closer, if such a thing were possible.
Iolanthe panted for breath and stroked his hair mindlessly. That had been—magical. She grinned impishly. "I'm afraid I cannot allow a mere betrothed such liberties with my person."
Some of the fear and worry on his visage faded away. "Oh?"
"You, sir, will have to bond with me. Tonight. I insist. Else I'll be a fallen witch," Iolanthe said; her tone was teasing, but her magic sang with raw desperation for their bonding to be fulfilled. He would love and shield her, and she would love and be faithful to him all the days of her life.
"I would never allow someone to cast aspersions on your reputation, Darling Io." He kissed her neck; she shivered. "And since you insist, nothing could make me wait another day to make you my bride." He kissed her earlobe, and then nipped it. "I'll always keep you safe, Io. I promise. None of them will succeed in taking me away, and I'll kill anyone who tries to force you into anything. You're mine."
The low timbre of possessiveness in his voice reassured her fully. That was a Potter Vow, if ever she heard one.
Smiling, Iolanthe wriggled out of his grip and off his lap, blushing fiercely when she heard him groan. She smoothed out her robes and said, "Close your eyes, then."
Henry tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
Flushing a deeper shade of pink, Iolanthe whispered, "I don't have stunning bonding robes to awe you with, but that doesn't mean I'm going to wear drab Hogwarts robes to my bonding. Close your eyes."
Henry gulped and stared at her. His Adam's apple bobbed in his throat, and she had a very strange desire to lick it. What an odd thought! "As my lady commands," he croaked.
Once Henry had closed his eyes, Iolanthe walked toward the armchair that was beside the fireplace. His Quidditch jersey was flung over the back of it. She bent over and inhaled the scent of Quidditch leathers, sweat, baby's breath, and magic. Wasn't it every man's fantasy to see his beloved in his clothes? Someone had told her that—perhaps Haesel, during one of their luncheons. Haesel was ever fond of teasing her about Henry. As quickly as she could, Iolanthe stripped out of her robes and underclothes, her back to the couch. Once she was down to her knickers, she pulled the Gryffindor Quidditch jersey over her head. It drowned her, sliding off one shoulder entirely and baring it to the room. It was a winter jersey, so the sleeves were so long that they covered her hands and hung down a little farther. The bottom stopped halfway down her thighs, revealing her shapely legs, and the v-neck in the front offered a hint of cleavage. Her hair was free and tousled, and she felt like an idiot. "What was I thinking?" she mumbled.
Just as she grabbed the bottom of the jersey to yank it back over her head, Henry said, voice husky and deep, "Don't take it off. You look—" Words failed him.
Iolanthe turned to face him and hid her face in the overly long sleeves. "I asked you to close your eyes!" she cried, mortified beyond belief. Had he seen how slender she was now? Her ribs were showing slightly. Was he disgusted? Would he not want her anymore? She wasn't as blessed in the bosom area as Romilda was. Would he care?
"But you didn't say I couldn't open them again," Henry teased. His smile was mischievous, and made her laugh, despite her embarrassment.
Iolanthe glanced at her bare toenails and fiddled with her unbound hair. "I-I know I'm not very . . ."
"Oh, Darling." Henry leapt from the couch and tucked her head under his chin, holding her firmly against him. "You're beautiful. Of everything you choose to worry about, never let that doubt enter your mind." He kissed the crown of her head. "I will always want you—exactly as you are, at any given moment."
She felt so immature having these fears, but not even she—Lady Iolanthe Malfoy—was exempt from self-image issues. Two months ago, it wouldn't have been such a big issue in her mind. But now that she had lost weight, lost some of her minimal curves, she worried she would resemble nothing more than a child wearing an adult's shirt. But she could not doubt the sincerity in his eyes. Nor could she doubt the need she felt from his magic.
Trembling at the thought of their future finally being real, and not just a potential outcome, Iolanthe Summoned the letter opener from Henry's desk. She pricked her left ring finger, waited for the blood to well, and then began the Olde Bonding Ceremony, for she would accept nothing but a soul-bonding.
Dropping the blood-stained implement on the floor, she traced her bloodied finger across his lips. "So that mine are the only lips you will taste." She created bloody half-circles beneath his eyes. "So that your eyes will never stray from me." She swiped her hand across Henry's forehead. "So that your thoughts will ever seek after me." Iolanthe lifted his shirt and crossed his heart. "So that your love will never waver in disloyalty." She caressed his hands. "So that your hands will strive to protect, not damage." She twined their ring fingers. "May the House of Malfoy and House of Potter join as one through eternity."
As Henry repeated the ritual, bloody finger kissing over her body, Iolanthe felt her muscles grow tighter. This was so close to being real—her happily ever after. What had started years ago, when she was but a child . . . what had been made possible years ago in Haesel's dressing room . . . what had seemed so far away for the past seven months—all of it was now coming to fruition.
Henry's finger curled around hers, and she felt her left hand burn as her family crest appeared on the back of her hand. It was soothed moments later when the Potter crest appeared atop it—the two symbols of power and ancestry overlapping to signify their union.
When the threads of magic finished binding them together, she stumbled forward, exhaustion swamping her. She felt light-headed and dizzy. Henry caught her and lifted her into his arms, fear and worry banking the intense desire that echoed down the bond from her new husband. Merlin, Henry was her husband! Her magic bounced with glee; nothing could steal him away from her now.
Iolanthe smiled, eyes fluttering shut no matter how hard she tried to keep them open. "I know this isn't how you hoped our night would end, Henry. I'm sorry," she whispered.
"Don't be silly, darling." Henry kissed her neck and carried her into his bedroom. There were some rustling sounds, and then he set her on the bed. More rustling sounds followed that, and then he slid under the sheets and pulled her into his arms, enfolding her protectively and possessively against him. "Your health is more important than anything else."
She turned her head and kissed the underside of his chin. "I'm still sorry, my love." She yawned, stretched, and fit herself to the curve of his body. "Tomorrow shouldn't be too late," she mumbled.
"Too late?" he queried. "For what?" He rubbed her side.
"Mmhmm." Iolanthe yawned again. "To bring King Arthur back into the world. Now that's Merlin's here"—she yawned—"it's inevitable."
"King Arthur?" Henry's magic radiated pure astonishment.
"Your heir, Henry. Don't you remember?" Their first child would be named Arthur; she could see it. He was a perfect replica of her Henry, except for the eyes; he had her blue eyes.
"Right, Arthur, my firstborn son—that hasn't been born."
"Just promise me that we won't let him bond with a girl named Guinevere. I'd hate to go to Azkaban for killing my adulterous daughter-in-law."
"I promise," Henry said blankly.
"And remind me in the morning to keep an eye out for Morgana, would you? Magic would never allow Merlin to be reborn without her soon to return as well. I can't let anything happen to my future niece; no one but Merlin will ever be worthy of her," she said, voice hard and determined. "Magic would never forgive me if I let anything ill befall her most beloved daughter." And Merlin, little baby Merlin, she could already feel his magic reaching out in the world, searching for his soul-bonded. His threads searched, but found nothing. If Morgana wasn't born in the next few years, she worried for the little boy's health.
Henry turned Iolanthe around to see that her eyes were open, the irises sloshing about like ocean waves. "Darling?"
"Yes, dear?" Iolanthe blinked, and then her eyes were solid again. "Did you say something? I'm sorry. I'm so tired that I must not have heard you. Are you all right, Henry? You look like you've seen the Bloody Baron!" Iolanthe rubbed her eyes and yawned once more. "I can take a Pepper-Up Potion if you want—"
"No, Io, rest. You need to rest," Henry insisted, brow furrowed. His hand splayed across her lower stomach, and she blushed before ducking her head and laying it on his shoulder.
"Are you sure?" He was acting most peculiarly. She had only said that she was sorry for being too tired to gift him with her virtue, and she was sure she had only blinked a moment, but he was staring at her with awe, wonder, and a healthy dose of fear—not of her, but of something else. She was too exhausted to sort it all out. But if her lord needed her, she could make herself stay awake.
"Yes, darling. I've never desired to take advantage of you."
"All right." She closed her eyes and then frowned. "How odd."
"What's odd?" asked Henry.
"I keep seeing a baby in my mind," she mumbled. "With your hair, and my eyes. He's reaching out to me, Henry, as if begging me to hold him. It's almost as if"—she yawned widely—"he desperately wants to be born. But that's silly, right?"
Henry kissed her lips. "Hold him, Io, and keep him safe until we can bring him into the world. He's going to be my heir."
"He is, is he?" she teased. "And what will you call him? And how do you know it's not a girl?"
Henry chuckled, his chest vibrating beneath her head. "You told me 'He's reaching out to me' just a moment ago, darling. By your own admission, my heir is a son."
"I did, did I?" She was so very tired.
"Yes, darling." Henry kissed her neck and stroked her hair. It was going to be a terrible mess in the morning, but she couldn't bring herself to care; Henry would gladly brush it for her. "His name will be Arthur."
Arthur? The baby giggled and clapped in her head. "He likes it." She cracked open one eye. "What a unique name you've chosen, Henry. Have you been spending too much time with your nephew? Thought Merlin would be lonely without an 'Arthur' to play with and guide and battle beside, did you?"
Henry stared into her eyes and ran his thumb beneath the right one, visibly worried, but she had not the first clue why. Did she truly look that tired? Did her eyes seem to be bruised with lack of sleep?
"Magic, herself, told me my heir was to be named Arthur," said Henry solemnly.
"Mother truly visits so few," Iolanthe whispered, voice fading. "She must like you a lot, Henry. I'm glad. Because I'd hate for her to disapprove of you." She sighed. She wished to be blessed with Magic's presence. She knew some of the other chosen had met her, but Iolanthe hadn't seen Magic since she was a little girl spinning in circles on the lawn of her manor, and turned around to see a boy with golden hair and eyes.
"So am I. She gave me you, after all," he said as he clutched her closely.
"She did. And she gave me you," she whispered. "That reminds me of what Astoria Greengrass said last week when she finally accepted Master Vaisey's suit. It was such a daring thing to say, too. She insisted that her firstborn child would be female, and have black hair, even though both she and Master Vaisey are fair of hair. And, get this, she said her daughter would be named 'Morgana'!"
"Imagine that," Henry said, sounding even more stunned. "That's enough talk for now, darling. Your exhaustion pours down the bond. Sleep. We can talk about heirs and legendary names tomorrow." He kissed her sweetly, tenderly, and she melted against him.
"As you wish, Henry."
Then, fully shielded for the first night since she was twelve, safe from the impure intentions of others, Iolanthe Potter obeyed her husband's commands. She gathered the beautiful, blond baby against her chest, held him close, kissed his rosy cheek, promised she would love him, and went to sleep.
Note: I apologize for the lateness of this. There were a lot of real life issues, and I ended up moving. And I've just been supremely busy. But, finally, here it is! So . . . loving or hating it? Ambivalent? What worked and what didn't? In regards to Cen, she voluntarily removed all her stories and will not be posting online anymore. Thank you for all the well wishes for her health and support for her writing. She will not be sending out copies of her stories and neither will I. She does not want them passed around. -Ell