The dream was a pleasant break from nightmares of those she could not save, even as simple as it was, merely a glowing ball of blue flame, so like her bluebell flames that came to her as naturally as anything. There was a bell-like sound to it, and as always, as she reached out to touch it the flame that gave no heat, she woke, feeling a kind of longing that made her breath stutter. Still, there were worse ways to start a day.
Like with whispers. Hermione Granger straightened her spine as she stepped into the Department of Mysteries, ignoring the looks and grumblings of senior unspeakables, who still had not forgiven her for the intrusion in her fifth year. She had started out trying to make friends, but in the end, her work and the purity of purpose was more important. She disliked alienating her coworkers, but at least she got things done . The side chambers of the Department of Mysteries were worse than the closets of Grimmauld Place, full of artefacts and junk alike, anything some enterprising young Unspeakable found and thought might be somehow mysterious or magical in a way they didn’t understand. Her assignment, as always, was to clear out these chambers, solve what mysterious objects she could, and file them appropriately. There was a lot of rubbish.
Her current project, however, intrigued her as much as it made her peers roll their eyes. It wasn’t flashy, but she could fe el the power emanating from it. The stone arch reminded her of The Veil, but there was no fluttering tapestry or whispering voices here. It was rounded instead of square, and carved with symbols that Hermione had been trying to decode for weeks. She had set up an appointment with one of the Ancient Rune experts in the department to come by today, but if she were honest, she was hoping for some eleventh hour inspiration, some eureka moment that would keep her project hers. She ran her fingers over the inscriptions that looked like some strange combination of older forms of runes, certainly not the more standard ogham or futhark. They glowed under her fingers.
Out of the corner of her eye Hermione saw the same ball of blue flame from her dream. She stopped, dropping her hand and turning her head to look at it. It bobbed in front of her, with that same bell-like tinkle, then swooped toward her. She took a step back and then realised there was nothing there. “I really need to get to sleep before three in the morning.”
“You actually find someone to warm your bed, or are your books still keeping you company, Granger?”
Two things happened at once when Hermione heard that voice, like silk on steel. She tensed slightly, mind already jumping three steps ahead for yet another battle of wits with Draco Malfoy, while her body...her body swayed slightly toward his voice, heat flushing up her spine in a way she could not explain. She tried to ignore it, snapping instead. “So little happening in your bed you have to worry about mine, Draco?”
Draco Malfoy smirked his infuriating smirk at her, and Hermione had to fight to keep herself pressing up against him. They had come to a good relationship since he had joined the Department of Mysteries. He had apologised and while they didn’t go out for coffee or go to parties like she did with Harry and Ron, they were friends. They could talk and debate for hours over theories and ancient magics, the purpose of their work and what the Ministry could do with it. He had helped her develop a potion to retrieve her parents’ memories. It didn’t work, but through no fault of the potion. It would have worked properly, had she been their daughter and not...she shook her head, still unwilling to deal with the truth that had haunted her since that failed trip to Australia.
“Hardly Hermione.” The irritating blonde replied, beginning to inspect the archway. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”
Hermione had been about to respond to the jibe, assuring Draco that he had no impact on the state of her knickers, but was distracted back to the actual reason they were here when Draco ran his hand over the runes, and they did not fluoresce. “Wait, why didn’t they glow?”
Draco turned and gave her an odd look. “Why would they?"
Hermione blinked and moved forward beside him. She touched where his fingers were, and she wasn’t sure what shocked her more, the way the runes snapped to life, glowing under her fingers, or the heat that traveled from her hand to her core when she brushed his hand.
“Why do they glow for you?” Draco demanded, with just a hint of his old petulance.
“I...I have no idea.” Hermione admitted, trying to overcome the ridiculous, uncharacteristic urge to press up against him. She forced herself to take several large steps away, in the guise of going for her copious notes. “It always has.”
“Hmmm.” Draco murmured, teasing forgotten in wake of the mystery before him. “I wonder why it reacts to you, what’s different about you?”
Hermione felt her heart hit her stomach, not sure what disturbed her worse, the fact that she thought she knew why the gate might react to her and not to Draco, or the fact that her body had seemingly decided that his low hum was enough to turn her on. They were friends , sure, but that didn’t explain this sudden desire...need...to climb him like a tree, or offer herself up to his whims. She sucked in a breath past her teeth, trying to clear her head. It was just hormones, right?
It wasn’t just a hormones, and it wasn’t a head injury. It was something far, far worse. Hermione slammed her copy of ‘ Changelings and Cambions’ shut, before turning to ‘ Changelings: Cute or Cuckoos? ’ to try and find alternate information. That book went flying against the wall for being a bigoted pile of excrement. Three hours later, she gave up. She had to face the truth, there was no other logical explanation. She had known the truth since she had tried to restore her parents’ memories. She was a changeling. Now, though, she had found that her nature had decided to take yet another thing from her: apparently her sidhe nature had decided that Draco Malfoy was her mate .
Yeah, that would go over like a bad move in gobstones.
It wasn’t that she doubted that he cared about her, they had, after all become friends, but she knew his dearest wish was to restore the Malfoy name from the ruin it had become after the war, to show that not all purebloods and Slytherins were bigots and that prejudices could be overcome. For all that she was a war hero, Hermione Granger had not changed in that she was strident and active in her work to see justice for others: in other words, she was not at all politic. She would do more harm than good to his image. It wasn’t that she found him unattractive, either. She was always drawn to people with intelligence, or the appearance of intelligence, in Lockhart’s case. Draco was smart and witty. In fact, he often left her alternating between flustered and needing to change her knickers from his flirty banter or wanting to drop a cauldron of pepper-up on his head, oftentimes both at the same time. More than that, though, she knew Draco well enough to know that he still struggled with what had happened to her in the Manor. If he found out that he was her mate, he would marry her just to keep her alive, out of guilt. She hadn’t asked for a mate and she certainly didn’t want a mate who was only with her for obligation or guilt. She couldn’t do that to herself, and she wouldn’t do it to Draco. He had been compelled to do too many things against his will. She wouldn’t add to that.
So, she abandoned her books on changelings and fae, going to Flourish and Blotts for books on magical estate planning instead. She would go on to ‘the next great adventure’ as organised as she went anywhere else.
Harry was the first one to notice something was wrong, despite his demanding career as an Auror and his new relationship. “Merlin, Hermione, you really need to get some more sleep!”
Hermione smiled wryly. “I’m fine, don’t worry about me. I got some new books the other day, and I guess I got a little caught up.”
Harry chuckled and the topic was dropped, except for some lighthearted teasing. It wasn’t a lie after all. She had been painstakingly going through her things, sorting and organising and checking off plans on a list.
Draco noticed next, commenting as they worked on the mysterious archway on a Friday afternoon, “What’s causing the dark circles under your eyes, Granger? Is it a lack of sleep or are you trying to look like a raccoon?” She actually looked and felt a little less bad than she did at home, simply for being in his presence, but he didn’t have to know that.
“Trouble sleeping,” Hermione replied, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. She found herself leaning towards him whenever he was nearby. “I keep waking up reaching for something that isn’t there.” She didn’t tell him that she woke up reaching for him , after dreams left her desperate and wanting.
“Take the rest of the day off and some dreamless sleep, Hermione.” Draco suggested. “I’m still trying to sort out this translation, and you’ll be more help to me at your best.”
Hermione wanted to argue, wanted to stomp her foot and remind him that this was her project and he was her on her invitation only -- an invitation that could be rescinded, but she was too tired and that desire was clashing with one to throw herself into his arms with a sob and ask him to take care of her. She stomped on her on her own foot instead, fighting the uncharacteristic urge. She was not some clingy witch and she would not allow her new nature to make her one.
Still, a touch couldn’t hurt. She stepped close to him, close enough that she could smell his expensive aftershave, the scent of newly-washed parchment as he sorted through his notes, and something indefinably Draco that just screamed mate at her as if it were a caterwauling charm. She placed her hand on his shoulder, and before she even thought it through, kissed him chastely. “You’re a good man, Draco Malfoy, no matter what other people think.” Hermione hadn’t intended to do that, and as much as she hated to leave work early, her control was obviously lacking, so without another word she pulled on every ounce of confidence and inner strength she had in order to leave, not wanting to see Draco’s reaction when the shocked expression left his face. She would get some rest and everything would be better in the morning.
Things were undoubtedly worse in the morning. Hermione had thus far been simply tired, and she had assumed she would just become more and more exhausted until her body ceased to function. Today though, came pain. At odd intervals her muscles would start to cramp and seize, and nothing seemed to help. Any attempts to sleep it off only brought dreams of the drawing room at Malfoy Manor, Bellatrix’s wand, and horror in grey eyes. Crookshanks followed her around worriedly as she tried to treat the day as normal, finally curling up with her on the floor, after a tremor had sent her careening off the sofa.
“Hermione! Hey, Hermione!”
Hermione frowned at the voice, and blinked awake, startled to find herself on the floor for a moment, before she remembered what had brought her to it. She blinked up into the worried face of Ron Weasley.
“Ron, what are you doing here?” Hermione asked, forcing herself to her feet and ignoring the sharp jab of pain from having slept on her floor in a less than comfortable position.
“You were late for lunch, and Mum sent me to find you.” The grinning redhead explained. “Pansy’s not well pleased, of course, but I didn’t expect to find you passed out and hungover.”
“I forgot about lunch.” Hermione didn’t really want to face the bustling Burrow right now, but she couldn’t afford to make anyone suspicious. If anyone knew what was going on, they’d frog-march Draco into her sitting room and demand that he mate her or go to Azkaban. “I’ll be along in a bit.” She smiled wryly. “You don’t want to leave Pansy waiting too long.”
“I’ll sneak you some Sober-Up when you get there.” Ron promised with a wink, and headed back to the fireplace to buy her some time.
Twenty minutes later, Hermione appeared at the Burrow, and was immediately surrounded by worried friends, including a bustling Molly Weasley. “Are you sure you’re feeling alright dear? You look a bit peaky.” Molly fussed, checking Hermione’s forehead for a temperature.
“I’m fine, Molly. Just a bit too much wine last night.” Hermione assured her, pocketing the potion Ron slipped her on the sly. He had become more thoughtful since the war, but even moreso since he had struck out on his own and married Pansy, even if he did have a collection of his own Chocolate Frog card.
Hermione usually loved Sunday lunch at the Burrow, playing with Victoire and Molly, and reconnecting with old friends she didn’t see in her day-to-day life as often as she used to do when they were all bundled up in Gryffindor Tower or Grimmauld Place. It was a time in the week where she could really relax, even if Molly was bothering her about finding a nice wizard or the boys wouldn’t stop talking about Quidditch. It was a normal part of her week, and for a little while she was able to forget, to put Draco Malfoy, changelings, mysterious gates, and death out of her mind and be with the people that were the closest thing she had to a family.
Before long, however, the pain started, and she found herself trying to hide winces and grimacing at odd moments. It wasn’t as bad as the day before, for which she was grateful, but it was still hard to hide.
“You okie, Tante Herminny?” Victoire asked, curling into Hermione’s side as she noticed the older witch wince.
“Yes, sweetie, I’m fine.” Hermione answered, unfolding a leg from underneath her as she shifted the way she sat. “My...leg just went a little numb.” Victoire might have been fooled, happily dragging ‘Tante Hermione’ off to a corner to play tea party, but Hermione felt Fleur’s eyes on her back and that made her nervous.
Lunch was a Molly Weasley special, but just a few bites had Hermione’s stomach in knots, and she pushed food around her plate for a few minutes, before she felt the twitching that meant a bad attack was coming. She excused herself, and walked as nonchalantly as she could to the bathroom, before putting her head down on the sink, in an effort to curl in on herself before the pain started, hoping to make it less severe. It didn’t work.
Fleur found her what felt like hours but was in actuality only minutes later. The part-veela sunk to the floor beside her, and pulled the younger witch into her arms, brushing hair off of her sweaty forehead, and rocking slightly. “If he rejected you, I can have Bill speak to him.” She crooned. “Bill can make him understand.”
Hermione shook her head, feeling as though she would vomit, but with so little in her stomach, it would be futile. “He doesn’t know.” She whispered. “He’d...do it out of...guilt. I can’t…”
“Maybe he could love you.” Fleur said, optimistically. “You don’t know until you try.”
“He won’t.” Hermione said sadly. “How...you know?”
Fleur held her a bit tighter. “I’ve seen veela fade. It is not so different.”
Hermione started crying despite herself. She was so used to being in control, to having everything organised, to being strong for everyone else, but she was more scared than she could remember being since the war had ended. She wasn’t ready to die, and finally, for the first time she let herself fall apart over it, until she cried herself to sleep on the floor of a bathroom in the Burrow.
When Hermione woke, she was in her own bed as if everything had been a bad dream, but there, sitting on her trunk, was Harry, with Ron pacing nearby. “You’re awake!” Harry said, eyes wide as he looked at her. “How are you feeling?”
“Everything hurts.” Hermione admitted, despite herself. “How did I get here?”
“Fleur had us bring you home.” Harry said quietly. “Hermione, why didn’t you tell us you were a changeling?”
Hermione shook her head, a little angry at Fleur for telling everyone her business. “I didn’t think it’d change anything before all this happened, now...well…” She swallowed. “Well, it’ll be over soon.”
Ron exploded suddenly. "How can you talk like that!?” He demanded. “Fleur said if you don’t find your mate, you’ll die!”
“I don’t need to find him, I already know who he is.” Hermione admitted, curling deeper into her pillows. “But it doesn’t matter. I won’t force him. He’s been forced to do too many things already.”
“But you’ll DIE!” Ron sputtered angrily.
“I know.” Hermione said quietly. “I’ve been working on my will, I just need to file it at Gringotts.”
Ron’s jaw dropped, and he stormed to the fireplace, speaking to Harry over his shoulder. “You try and talk some sense into her, I’m going to go to see if there’s another way to save her.”
Harry was frowning at her. “You know, Hermione.” He said quietly. “By not telling him, you’re taking away his choice in this as well. Did you ever think that he might just be wanting someone fate or biology or magic says is perfect for him?”
“Not me.” Hermione said sadly, shaking her head. “He could never want me. He didn’t even kiss me back when I kissed him.”
“Then he’s an idiot.” Harry said firmly. “Get some sleep, Hermione. I’ll let the Department of Mysteries know you won’t be in before I go to work on Monday.”
“Thanks Harry.” Hermione mumbled, half asleep again already.
Harry was worried about Hermione. It wasn’t like her to just… give up. Of course, Hermione had a infamous track record in regards to relationships. Her relationship with Krum had fizzled shortly after the Triwizard Tournament, while the post-war relationship with Ron had exploded quickly and with angry fights as he was more fascinated with his fame, while she actively dodged it, and her last relationship, a former Ravenclaw she had met at an art exhibit had gone running to Rita Skeeter with lewd tales about her.
He pondered the issue wondering if he could convince her to visit St. Mungo’s while he descended into the depths of the Department of Mysteries. A shiver still went down his spine every time he visited here, remembering the chaos that was his first real battle. The Head Unspeakable didn’t like him, either, and this time was no exception. He had informed the unpleasant man that Kingsley had given Hermione a leave of absence due to illness, and that she would return when she felt better. Harry was convinced that the day would come when she did feel better.
He was just about to leave when he bumped into yet another unpleasant person, Draco Malfoy. It wasn’t quite fair, he knew, Draco had made a point to be civil, even friendly, towards him, but the two still had trouble getting along. “Hey Potter,” He greeted. “Have you seen Granger? I had a bit of a breakthrough on the arch we’re working on and I’d like to run it by her.”
Harry stopped mid-step, the realization coming to him like pieces of a puzzle fitting together. Hermione thought her mate wouldn’t want her, but more than that, she had said that he would choose to do it out of guilt, and that he had been forced to do enough things in his life. To Harry, that sounded a lot like Draco Malfoy. He certainly had reason enough to feel guilty for how he had treated Hermione over the years, and he was forced to do many things during the war. It made sense. There was only one way to test the theory that had coalesced in his head. “I don’t know that she’ll be back, Malfoy.” He said with a sigh. “Kingsley’s officially given her a leave of absence, but she’s in a bad way. She’s prepared her will and everything.”
Draco froze at that, eyes wide, his usual smirk dropping off of his face. “What?! She just looked a little tired on Friday.”
“It’s gotten worse.” Harry replied, shaking his head. “If you want to talk to her, I’d suggest flooing to her place. I don’t know how much longer you’ll have a chance.”
“Does she have a private Healer?” Draco demanded.
“No.” Harry admitted. “I think Fleur said she’d stop by later.”
“Fleur works at the bank.” Draco argued. “She should be in St. Mungo’s if she’s that bad off!”
“Nothing they can do.” Harry said mournfully.
Draco looked as if he was struggling with something. “Is this because…” He broke off, unwilling to expose a secret he hadn’t even been told.
Harry just gave him a sad expression. “Go talk to her, Malfoy. Maybe you can convince her that this isn’t being noble or brave.”
“Bloody Gryffindors.” Draco muttered, striding out of the Department ahead of Harry, leaving a self-satisfied Boy-Who-Lived in his wake.
Draco stepped out of the Floo into Hermione’s apartment ready to argue, but when he caught sight of the frizzy-haired girl, curled up on a worn couch and whimpering, all his anger drained out of him. Her skin had gone all but grey, and her hair was sticking to her forehead, slick with sweat, his anger drained out of him. He crossed the room in two large strides, and sat beside her, tentatively pulling her back against his chest, wrapping his arms around her middle.
“Draco.” Hermione gasped. “What are you…?”
“Don’t suppose you’d believe me if I said this was about the damn arch?” Draco asked wryly. “I translated it over the weekend, in case you were wondering, seemed I was struck by some inspiration when you left.”
Hermione groaned at that, muttering under her breath. “Bloody leannan sidhe.” She swallowed slightly. “So what is it?”
“It’s an old fae gate.” Draco answered, running his hand through her hair. “From the days of Nicnevin, if my translation is correct. Quite impressive actually. It’s defunct now, probably because of being moved to the Ministry, but there was enough magic in it to sense you.”
“So, you know.” Hermione said sadly.
“I do.” Draco replied, pressing a kiss to her forehead.
“Don’t.” Hermione said, cringing, and trying to hide her face from him. “I don’t want you to be with me because you feel guilty. You don’t even like me.”
“Yes, Granger.” Draco drawled sarcastically. “I’ve spent all those hours discussing experimental charms and magical creature rights with you because I can’t stand your presence. I brewed a highly dangerous potion to try and help your parents because I hate you.” His eyes rolled heavenward. “I certainly didn’t accept your invitation just so I could see you every day until we figured out the mystery.”
In her defence, Hermione still wasn’t feeling all that well, so it took longer than it should have for her to parse through that speech. “But you didn’t kiss me back!”
Draco let out a laugh. “Merlin, Granger, you didn’t give me much of a chance! One minute you’re looking like you hadn’t slept in a month, the next I have the girl that’s been haunting my dreams kissing me and telling me I’m a good man. I didn’t have time to react!”
“Hermione.” Hermione corrected softly. “You dreamed of me?”
“Repeatedly, Hermione.” Came the reply, stressing her name.
Hermione had to smile despite herself, that she must look a horror, in her sweats and worn T-shirt from her mother’s dental college. She winced a little. “So...if I kissed you again…?
Draco cut off her question by kissing her, one hand tangled in her hair, the other supporting her neck. This was a kiss like none she had ever experienced before. His lips were firm against hers, and when his tongue tapped her lips in askance, she allowed him to deepen it, feeling nervous bubbles in her stomach as she returned the kiss, thinking that perhaps this changeling business wasn’t such a horrible thing after all.
Across London, in the depth of the Ministry of Magic, a rounded stone arch flared to life, a bright blue glow surrounding it for just a moment.