Author's Note: Thank you as always to everyone who takes the time to read this story, and to those who follow, favourite, and especially those who leave such valuable words of encouragement. It really does help me to carry on writing. I hope you enjoy the chapter!
Alpha love for this story goes to Kyonomiko. Be sure to check out her wonderful new WIP, Looking Glass.
Disclaimer: I do not own any part of the Harry Potter franchise.
August 9, 2002
Hermione sat cross-legged on the floor of her cave, a quill between her teeth and various pages of notes spread out in front of her, her eyes darting rapidly across the lines of text.
The entirety of the cave floor was ordinarily covered in an eclectic mess of blankets, pillows and dried grasses; lately it had been topped with notes and books. The dim lighting from the multiple strings of burnt-out fairy lights she had scrounged from a village, and filled with small points of light, gave the cave an ethereal feeling.
It had been so long since she had had a proper library to utilize – so long she had wondered so many things and been unable to seek answers. She was actually quite grateful to Malfoy for offering unlimited access to the Malfoy library.
Hermione had barely left her cave for a week, poring over countless texts, scrolls and journals, leaving only to exchange her books at his library.
But while she had spent so much time researching the situation, she had found remarkably little by way of answers, although she had learned a lot about veela and sphinxes. Not that she was surprised – being cursed to ask riddles and transform into a lion was presumably an uncommon predicament to land in.
Malfoy had come by her cave a few times, and after he'd seen her the first time – slightly manic, hair tied into a messy bun with a quill rammed through it – he'd brought food each time thereafter.
He would research with her, or simply sit with her – and during the occasional break they would discuss things of little consequence.
Hermione had to admit – it was nice having someone around, after spending so much time on her own. But therein was the issue – she was meant to be alone. And she didn't know exactly how the curse measured alone.
But so far nothing out of the ordinary had happened, and as she had decided the second day Malfoy had visited her in the forest, she wasn't simply going to let him wither away if there was anything she could do about it. She suspected his visits did as much for his sanity as they did for her own. It was odd how quickly he had started to grow on her.
Hermione glanced up as the grasses outside her cave rustled, trying to keep a smile from gracing her features as his platinum blond head ducked through the mouth of the cave.
He grinned, brandishing a bag of food.
"Hi," Hermione said, setting her quill down and taking the bag, breathing the fragrance in deeply. It certainly beat the lean, gamey critters and rodents she had been subsisting on as a lion. She suspected he had assumed as much. "Thanks."
"No problem," he murmured, settling down on the ground beside her. "Anything new?"
"No," Hermione said, drawing a steaming bowl of soup and a spoon from the bag, magically kept hot. "You?"
"Not necessarily," he said, turning to her. "I sort of figured it wouldn't be worth mentioning, as it was probably one of the first things you tried, but have you been to a curse-breaker?"
Hermione paused, chewing her tongue for a moment.
"I haven't, actually," she admitted. "Though I've thought many times about it. I couldn't find any in Australia, and things were complicated enough over there without talking to too many people." She hesitated, inclining her head. "I guess by the time I came back to England, I was fairly well resigned to just waiting it out. Obviously, until you found me."
"It might help," Malfoy offered, his brow furrowed. "What's the harm?"
"I'm wet while drying –" she began, wincing.
"A towel, Granger, honestly," he interrupted. "Are your riddles getting easier?"
"Maybe," she shrugged, "I don't consciously think about them before they come out. And the harm – other than mauling potentially dozens of people?"
"Okay, you're exaggerating," he teased. "One – two at most." He grew serious again. "What if I came with you? I could be your designated riddle-answerer."
"It isn't a bad idea," Hermione said, pondering the thought. "And I guess the more I've thought about it, the more I've come to terms with the fact that I'll need to look into it, at the very least."
"I'll see if I can track down a curse-breaker, and schedule a consultation," Malfoy said, pulling a warm roll out of the bag of food and biting into it.
"No need," Hermione said with a grimace. "I know one. And – he happens to be married to a part-veela."
"Seriously?" Malfoy asked, agape. "Who?"
"Bill Weasley," Hermione said, pressing her lips together, waiting for him to react.
"Well," he said, finishing his roll and pressing his hands together. "That sounds like a meeting we ought to have, don't you think?"
"Yes," Hermione condeded. "If I write a letter will you owl it?"
Hermione lounged in a pile of pillows later that day, stretching languidly as she took a break from her seemingly endless research. Malfoy gazed around her cave, thoughtful, having returned from owling her letter to Bill and Fleur.
"Nothing against the decor," he said, "but why do you choose to live in a cave? Wouldn't you be fine to live as a human as long as you lived alone? The riddles only come when you're around others, right?"
"Right," she replied. "Why not a cave? Honestly, life is so much simpler as a lion. And if I had a flat, I'd have to get a job and pay rent and bills and be around people all day and –" she shuddered. "No thanks. I suppose I just thought once I was rid of the curse, then I could do all of that."
"Fair point," he said, stretching his long legs out in front of him. He stared at her for a long moment. "You know, you could come live with Theo and I. We have a spare bedroom. And I own the flat so you wouldn't have to pay rent."
Hermione nearly laughed aloud at the thought until she realized he was being serious. She chewed her lip as she gazed at him, seeing the honest vulnerability in his eyes. She swallowed, looking away.
"I think Nott would slay me in my sleep," she breathed, grinning. "Then you would feel obliged to seek revenge, and I don't want to be the reason you and your best mate try to kill one another, you know?"
She didn't want to admit that she was afraid of growing too close to him – too accustomed to having him around.
"He wouldn't dare," Malfoy said, rolling his eyes, but the flicker in his expression was gone, as if he knew she had been flippant with her response. "Besides, he goes out at night, and I don't ask what he does, but I know he's responsible. He usually comes home with bags of blood from St. Mungo's."
"How does he manage that?" Hermione asked, curious despite herself.
"He works there – worked," Malfoy corrected himself, then paused. "Works. I think he still works there. Not sure how he hasn't been fired given he hasn't worked a shift in months. He's messed with the schedule, I think, so they all believe he's working the other shift. Means he can swipe all the blood he wants, within reason."
"He's a healer?" Hermione asked, surprised.
"Yes," Malfoy said, nodding. "He was the one to suggest I was coming into a veela inheritance when it first began. But he'd never seen the transition so he called in more experienced healers."
"How did he get turned into a vampire? Hermione pondered.
Malfoy shrugged. "He didn't share the details, and I didn't particularly want them," he said. "All I know is supposedly it was the night of his life."
"Noted," Hermione murmured delicately. Malfoy chuckled. "What about you? Do you have a job or are you so wealthy you don't need one?" She suppressed a smile at his scandalized expression.
"I have a job, thank you," he said, eyes mockingly wide. "I'm apprenticing for a potions mastery at the apothecary in Carkitt Market. But when everything went chaotic, Master Herrero offered to put the apprenticeship on hold. I told him when I came into my veela inheritance, of course. He's been more than reasonable."
"Oh," Hermione said, tilting her head. "That makes sense, I suppose. It doesn't surprise me you've gone into potioneering."
"Why's that?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Well, you were always quite good at it, weren't you?" she asked, brow furrowing as she looked at him.
He relaxed, leaning back against the wall. "I was expecting something more derisive."
"Ah," Hermione mused, smiling. "Like that you were Snape's pet or something along those lines."
"Something like that." His lips twitched. "But it was one of my best subjects in school, and I did take a greater interest after Hogwarts."
Hermione dug through the bag of food he'd brought and selected a cauldron cake.
"What about you?" Malfoy asked, turning to her as she took a large bite of the confection. "Say you hadn't needed to go to Australia, and all this didn't happen. What was the plan for the most brilliant Hermione Granger?" His lips quirked into a smile.
"That's a bit of an ironic story," Hermione said, swallowing the bite of cake. "I always thought I wanted to work at the Ministry, in Creature rights." She snickered, picking at the dessert. "I guess I might as well consider myself a creature at this point. Not to mention veelas fall under the same category."
"Right," Malfoy mused, meeting her eyes. "Technically, I'm not even considered pureblooded anymore."
"It's absolutely ridiculous," Hermione said, rolling her eyes. "The sort of thing I always wanted to fight against. But I suppose, after all this, and living in the wild… a desk job no longer appeals to me."
"What, then?" he asked, eyes aglow as he absently picked at the dried grasses poking between blankets. "If you could do absolutely anything, and none of this was a factor."
Hermione opened her mouth then closed it, eyes darting to his. She tilted her head, pursing her lips. "Honestly, Malfoy," she finally said. "I have no idea." She drew a towelette from the bag and washed her hands. "It isn't really something I've allowed myself to think too extensively on, since the curse took most of my other options away."
"Well," Malfoy said, and his smile grew sad, his brow furrowed. "You'll have to give that some thought then, won't you? When you escape the curse – with or without me – you'll need options, hmm?"
His words left Hermione feeling cold.
August 14, 2002
Hermione fidgeted with her hands as she and Malfoy approached the front door of Shell Cottage. Hermione hadn't been to the small seaside home since the war, after they had escaped Malfoy Manor. She glanced up at the tall blond beside her; she hadn't deemed it important to share that detail with him. She knew he shouldered enough blame for everything that had happened.
And though it had been years since the war had ended, Hermione was still prone to the sting of those memories. She didn't know what all Malfoy had been through, but it was obvious the war had changed him as well.
Her eyes flickered to the small grave marker by the beach and her heart mourned the loss of Dobby, after his heroic actions that fateful day.
"You ready?" Malfoy asked, misreading her reticence. "There are other options… you know, if this doesn't pan out."
Hermione turned to her strange new companion and forced a smile. She could see the careful mask in place, but in his eyes was the quiet hint of desperation to which she had grown accustomed. She opened her mouth to assure him they would keep trying, if it didn't, but flinched instead.
"I am essential to life, yet I can take your breath away. I am both in you and around you," she breathed hopefully.
Malfoy stared at her for a moment thoughtfully and his gaze flickered to the sea, before responding, "Water." He absently lifted his hand to her back, his fingers trailing lightly along her spine, before dropping his hand again.
"Thanks," Hermione murmured, shivering at his touch. "I'm ready."
She rapped sharply on the door three times, unable to tear her eyes from his until the door swung open and she turned to see Bill Weasley in the door, his scarred face grinning down at her.
"Hermione! Wow, Merlin, it's been years!" he exclaimed, wrapping his arms around her briefly before pulling back. Beside her, Malfoy instantly tensed, his hands clenching. Hermione instinctively inched closer to Malfoy when Bill released her.
Bill's gaze flickered to Malfoy, his expression shifting with surprise and his mouth falling open. He took a careful step back from Hermione.
"Malfoy," he said, gaze darting between the two of them, shaking his head slowly. "Well this is interesting, isn't it?"
"Interesting is one word for it," Hermione quipped. Malfoy continued to glower beside her, and she gave the blond a nudge. Instantly his face relaxed as he turned to her.
"Your owl only said you needed help with a curse?" Bill asked, monitoring the two of them closely. "There isn't a way to break a veela bond, if that's what you're wondering about."
Malfoy turned back to Bill in surprise. "You know?"
"I married a veela," Bill said easily, shrugging. "I can see the signs. And clearly, Hermione is your mate. Why don't you two come in off the step? Fleur will like to meet you, I'm sure."
Hermione exchanged a look with Malfoy and he carefully followed her across the threshold into Shell Cottage. Bill gave her a reassuring sort of look as they walked.
"Fleur is just putting Victoire for a nap," Bill explained, gesturing to the kitchen table. "So let's discuss this curse? Like I said, the veela bond is considered to be some of the most natural magic – so while some humans subject to a veela bond may view it as a curse –" Bill cracked a roguish grin. Malfoy raised an eyebrow.
"The veela bond is not the issue, as it turns out," Malfoy started delicately.
"I've been cursed, Bill," Hermione said softly. "A little over two years ago, in Australia. It's why I haven't… been around, much."
"Cursed?" Bill asked, his brow furrowed. "In what capacity?"
Hermione pressed her lips together and glanced at Malfoy. His smirk, surprisingly, made her feel more relaxed.
"I've been turned into an approximation of a sphinx," Hermione said, meeting Bill's nervous gaze. "Insofar as I can turn into a lion, I blurt riddles uncontrollably, and if someone can't answer, I have a terrible urge to eat them."
Bill blinked. He glanced suspiciously at Malfoy.
"It's true," the blond offered. "I've seen it. Getting quite proficient at riddles, too, if I do say so myself."
"A sphinx," Bill said slowly. "But a sphinx is just part human, part lion, all the time."
"Yes," Hermione said, flushing. "Not even a proper one, am I?"
"Okay, back up," Bill said, shaking his head. He ran a hand through his long red hair. "How did this happen?"
"Right," Hermione said, letting out a long breath. "What are three keys that open no doors?"
"Keys?" Bill asked, exchanging a look with Malfoy. "Keys…"
"Oh, keys," Malfoy exclaimed. Hermione grimaced. "Er, monkeys?" Hermione nodded, clenching her hands into fists.
"Donkeys," Bill added quickly. She could feel her claws lengthening, shredding into her palms.
"Monkeys, donkeys..." Malfoy listed to himself.
"Please hurry," Hermione breathed. She could feel the transformation beginning, against her will. Desperately, she tried to fight it off.
The two men looked at one another again: Malfoy with apprehension, Bill with astonishment.
Hermione could feel fur sprouting across her body; Malfoy clenched his wand beside her. She jumped from her seat, preparing to run if they couldn't get the answer.
"Turkeys," Malfoy said suddenly.
With a great exhale of relief, Hermione re-took her seat. She pressed her lips together and avoided looking at anyone with a breathy, "Sorry about that."
Malfoy gazed at her for a long moment, before taking her hands into his, healing the open slices on her palms. She gave him a small smile of gratitude.
"That was interesting," Bill said under his breath, eyes wide. It threw his scars into sharp relief. "Doesn't leave a lot of time to think, does she?" He glanced at Malfoy.
"I've never heard her ask a riddle with a three-part answer," Malfoy replied, brows flickering.
Despite herself, Hermione relaxed at their bantering. "They're rare," she whispered, feeling the corners of her lips twitch.
"Well," Bill said, setting his hands on the table. "I believe you. But how did this happen?"
Hermione recounted the story with the Witch Doctor, scrounging deep in her memory for any detail that might help. When she got to the part about learning humility alone for a thousand days, Bill's eyebrows raised.
"Alone," Bill said, shaking his head. "Well that isn't going to work with him kicking around, is it?" He gestured to Malfoy who had the grace to shrug it off.
"That's the problem, isn't it?" Hermione asked. "My original plan was to just remain a lion until the end of the thousand days. Then he came along."
Malfoy poked her in the shoulder with a long finger, his lips twitching with a genuine smile.
"When did you realize she was your mate?" Bill asked, turning to Malfoy.
"July twenty-seventh," he said after a moment. "Around two and a half weeks ago. By all accounts I've read, if the bond isn't accepted within six months at the most…"
Bill was nodding. "I can't say I understand that part. As soon as I learned about Fleur, well… I mean..."
"We get it," Hermione choked on a laugh. Malfoy grinned wickedly beside her.
"I wonder if there is a way to stasis the magic of the bond," Bill said thoughtfully. "What percentage veela are you? Quarter? Half?"
"Not even close," Malfoy said with a grimace. "It's very small. I shouldn't have manifested at all, let alone so strongly. None of the healers and magical creature specialists could believe it."
"I'll look into it," Bill said, scribbling an illegible note on a sheet of parchment on the table. Then he turned to Hermione. "I'll run some curse-breaking diagnostic spells on you, if you don't mind. A fairly standard battery of tests: strength of the curse, tests for dark magic, whether the curse has altered your natural magic… that sort of thing."
Swallowing, Hermione nodded. Malfoy squeezed her arm reassuringly. She hadn't even considered that the curse could have affected her core magic.
"Over here, if you would, Hermione," Bill said, gesturing to an open space in the sitting room.
Awkwardly, Hermione stood in place as Bill performed a number of tests and diagnostics, absently making notes on his scrap of parchment as he worked. Malfoy didn't take his eyes off her, his chin down and jaw clenched, and Hermione found herself suddenly relieved she wasn't facing this mess alone.
Even despite the fact that it would be less of a mess if she were still alone.
Finally Bill stepped back, folding one arm across his chest while he ran the other down the length of his face, looking distraught.
Just then Fleur returned, holding her hands up in surprise. "We 'ave guests! 'Ermione, 'ow nice to see you!"
"Hello Fleur," Hermione said, allowing the other woman to embrace her. "So nice to see you, as well."
"Fleur, this is Draco Malfoy," Bill said, gesturing to Malfoy, who rose to greet Fleur.
"I remember you from 'Ogwarts," Fleur said with a demure smile on her face. She stepped toward Malfoy, as if to embrace him as well, when she suddenly froze, her gaze flickering from Malfoy, to Bill, to Hermione. She dropped her arms to her sides and Malfoy visibly relaxed. Fleur took a careful step back and seemed to express something to Malfoy. "You are most welcome, Draco Malfoy. It 'as been some time since we 'ave met another veela."
"Thank you," Malfoy said with a grin. "We very much appreciate your hospitality."
Fleur waved a hand and bustled off to make a pot of tea. If she had any questions with regards to what they were doing in her house, she refrained from asking.
"Well, Hermione, I'm not sure what to tell you," Bill said, as the two of them reclaimed their seats at the kitchen table. "You're definitely cursed, and it's strong. It is not dark magic, which is good. But – and I hate to say this – the magic of the curse has adhered itself to your core magic."
"What does that mean?" Malfoy asked sharply.
"It means I don't know how to break it without affecting her magical spring," Bill said uneasily. "But it's strange; I can't tell the depth of it. It could be a simple fix that you'll never notice, or the case could be that your magic could be irrevocably damaged, Hermione."
"Damaged," she gasped, feeling her heartrate escalate. Instantly, Malfoy's hand grasped hers gently, giving her fingers a squeeze. She quickly entwined their fingers, grateful for his easy presence. "So if… say I don't manage to break the curse after a thousand days." Her eyes flickered to Malfoy and she could see both men understood.
"I can't say without more extensive testing," Bill said heavily, his brow furrowed. "But it would seem likely, that in some context, your magic will be affected."
Malfoy's hand went slack in hers; his jaw visibly clenched.
Fleur suddenly returned with a full tea service and poured four cups. Hermione felt her head spinning as she spooned sugar into her tea.
"Let me get this straight," she said, resting her head in her free hand as her brain whirred uncontrollably. "This curse has a hold on my magic until March. If I reach that point, and have been alone, we can only assume, without further clarification, the curse will release my magic and vanish."
"If those are the strict parameters of the curse," Bill said, his tone and expression serious. "But Hermione, you need to realize, the wording around curses is incredibly specific. What concerns me is the part about learning wisdom and humility. How exactly are you supposed to do that, if you only exist as a lion?"
"I don't know," Hermione breathed, feeling a surge of panic. She said, wincing, "What is the worst vegetable to have on a ship?"
Malfoy, having been uncharacteristically silent, merely blinked. Bill chewed his tongue and glanced at Fleur.
"A leek, of course," she purred, waving a hand. "But 'Ermione, zis does not feel like the proper time for riddles."
"You're right, Fleur," Hermione muttered, "it really isn't." She glanced at Malfoy for a long moment, who was staring stonily at his cup of tea. "Bill, what do you suppose will happen if the bond is accepted?"
Malfoy visibly started as he turned his gaze to her. He exhaled a long breath.
"He's already said, hasn't he?" Malfoy said quietly. "Your core magic will be damaged, for good."
His hand, still wrapped within hers, remained unresponsive.
"It's truly hard to say," Bill said, running a hand through his hair. "I don't mean to discourage either of you, but I don't want to feed you lies, either. It doesn't look good. If the bond is completed, it sounds as if the curse will become permanent. If the bond isn't completed…"
No one present needed him to finish that sentence.
"What are the symptoms of your manifestation?" Fleur asked, turning to Malfoy. "Other than the call to mate, of course."
"Throwing fire," Malfoy said flippantly, "wings, apparently, though I can't control those."
Fleur's eyes were wide. "Wings!" she exclaimed. "Which of your parents was a full veela?"
"Neither," Malfoy said with a shrug. "An ancestor of mine in the nineteenth century married a veela. My blood is incredibly diluted; It's a wonder I've manifested at all."
"I can't help but wonder," Bill said, sipping his tea, "whether the strength of your manifestation, borne from a descendant so many generations back, might suggest a stronger constitution than most veela. Whether you might, perhaps, be able to go longer without completion of the bond."
"I don't feel like it's something I'd like to risk finding out," Malfoy said shortly. "But I appreciate the consideration."
Fleur shot Bill a look. "I would not wish a prolonged delay of the mating process on my worst enemy," she purred. Then she looked contrite, her gaze turning to Hermione and Malfoy. "Sorry – I just 'ave 'eard it to be unpleasant."
"So have I," Malfoy said easily. "But surely you can understand, Fleur, if it would put Hermione at risk…"
"Absolutely," Fleur exclaimed, and her expression softened. "Of course. I would do the same."
Hermione, awash with frustration and shame, could only grasp his hand tighter. He returned the gesture with a gentle squeeze.
"Hermione, if you'd be willing to come to Gringotts this coming week, we can attempt to run more extensive testing," Bill said, as if to move on from the heavy tension that had grown in the room. "Malfoy, you should come too."
"We will do that," Malfoy responded before she could. His grey eyes flickered to rest on Hermione's. "Just name a day."
"Tuesday," Bill said, scribbling another note on his sheet of parchment. "Say, two o'clock?"
"Right," Hermione said, swallowing heavily. "That sounds just fine."
From there, the conversation turned to trivial matters, though Hermione wasn't certain she was really hearing anything at all.