I've woken in many strange places. My first thought regaining consciousness was how warm I was and I wondered for a moment if I had drowsed off in the backyard of the Burrow. That was one of my favourite things to do on long summer afternoons. It's been almost two years since the end of the war and I still don't think I've caught up on all my missed sleep.
Bang up on the supply of nightmares and cold early mornings. And watchfulness. I catch myself keeping an eye on people at work. Not staring, just watching in my peripheral vision. Just in case.
So I was warm and not lying on soft grass. Details percolated in, bright light beyond my closed eyelids, the ruffling of stiff institutional sheets and the ground-in medicinal smell common to all hospitals. No machines going ping, though. Thus, St Mungo's.
I opened my eyes. White ceiling, smooth without panels or those odd grids you see in modern buildings. Floating ceilings, I think they're called. I'll have to ask Dad. He likes DIY and knows all the jargon. Turning my head, it's a bit sore so I move cautiously, I see one of the private examination rooms. Been there, done that.
When I sit up, I feel a bit woozy. Last thing I remember I was at work. If I've fainted, I'll never hear the end of it from Molly. She thinks I'm working too hard. Says the same to Arthur and Percy. Ron and Harry get it worse as they're Aurors. Molly worries all the time.
Can't blame her, really.
I'm still in my work clothes. There's no blood and they're not unusually rumpled so it doesn't look like I was in an accident. Stray hex perhaps? The Department of Magical Law Enforcement as been trialling new security spells and they've been a bit tetchy. I suppose one of them could've knocked me out.
No lingering muscle stiffness and when I investigate my head I don't find any bumps. Back to the classic swoon, then. Embarrassing but acceptable. I didn't sleep well last night and I rushed breakfast. Low blood sugar perhaps.
Swinging my legs out from under the blankets I cautiously slide off the bed. The wooziness is still there but I'm steady enough on my feet. I take a couple of paces up and down along the bed to test my balance. Seems okay.
There's an odd smell. I check myself. Did someone spill something on me? The scent of salt and cold water, as best as I can guess. There are several saline based potions, including one for dehydration that the Healer might have given me. I don't think it's coming from me though.
In stocking feet, I pad to the door and pause there to do another self-assessment. I feel fine. A slight mental fogginess as though I woke suddenly and the temperature thing. Maybe I'm coming down with something. I suppose I could take a few days off and sweat it out. Molly would be happy to ply me with soup. It must be fairly serious if I ended up in St Mungo's.
I open the door then stop suddenly as I cross out of the Quiet Spell on my room. People are shouting in the corridor. People I recognise. I would've drawn my wand if I'd had it. I don't, which is a far more pressing problem than incipient sniffles. I want my wand.
I want my wand.
I don't like it when I don't have it.
It's not a paranoia thing.
I just prefer to have my wand.
I am a witch, after all.
I take a deep breath as I survey the combatants. Harry is holding Ron back. Molly and Arthur are there too, both red in the face. A couple of Healers not looking too pleased with the rumpus. And Draco Malfoy, being restrained by his mother, who looks like she's having a tough time of it.
"Excuse me." I do my best impersonation of a substitute teacher with an unruly class. They all turn to look at me. Harry and Ron move quickly to put themselves between me and Malfoy, who grimaces and shudders like he's being electrocuted. "What's going on?"
"Please get back in the room. I'll explain, but right now you need to be not here." Harry said urgently, Ron backing up his request with an imploring glance before returning to glaring at Malfoy. Who was glaring right back as though it was Hogwarts again.
I did as he asked because I could see my presence was only making everyone more tense. Which was odd enough it made me cautious. When I shut the door, the spell was still active. All sound beyond snuffed out leaving me in what I presumed was supposed to be soothing silence.
I'll admit that I made noise deliberately as I searched the room for my wand. It was disquieting, ha ha, to be alone when I knew my friends were just outside. I tried not to think of it as being locked in. I could leave whenever I wanted.
Still didn't like it.
There was the expected medical paraphernalia and my shoes but no wand. I put on my leather flats. They were my favourites, comfortable and I think quite stylish.
Sitting down on the bed I gave some serious thought to the last thing I could remember. I'm sure it was Ron, Harry and I meeting in the Atrium to head out for lunch. We don't always get together for the midday meal (midday random grabbed snack while reading endless reports, more like) but we try to.
We were running a bit late so there weren't many people and... that's it. Perfectly normal day then hospital. And why was Malfoy here? Had he done something? Wasn't he supposed to be under house arrest? He'd been lucky to get away with such a light sentence. Lucius was in Azkaban for life.
When the door opened it wasn't Harry. Molly Weasley walked in and sat down on the visitor's chair then didn't say anything. She was still flushed, with that pinch to her mouth that gave away how upset she was even when everything was 'fine'.
"Just tell me." I said, not wanting to have all this palaver over what I firmly hoped was a bit of random magic or a careless curse.
"This is all nonsense. We'll complain, of course. And there's plenty you and Ron can do so don't worry, Hermione. Everything will be fine." She was babbling, trying to be reassuring which for Mrs Weasley was about a seven out of ten on the agitation scale. She was very concerned but it wasn't life threatening. And it didn't involve her children. Just me.
We get along well most of the time. She's kind and welcoming and very happy that Ron and I are seeing each other respectably, as she put it. Not like Harry and Ginny who make no attempt to be discrete. It's only sometimes, in little ways I shouldn't notice that she draws a line between her family and me.
It's the same for Fleur. Little things. So I notice without wanting to that she is more concerned about Ron and me than just me. Which was a clue, I suppose. Along with that odd smell that had been very strong in the hallway.
When I pressed her for information, she told me. Not in detail. Molly phrased it as though this was another conspiracy, that there was no question of it not being a vicious plot. That the Malfoys were psychologically incapable of simply wanting their privacy.
When she finally told me the secret I was underwhelmed. The Malfoys were descended from the union of a wizard and a Veela. Apparently some centuries ago it had been quite the rage to infuse one's lineage with the blood of a magical creature. Such heritage carefully dispersed brought great power.
Unfortunately the pure-blood habit of marrying cousins had concentrated the traits rather than diluting them. Molly was rather smug about that. The Prewetts had always been careful in that regard, happy to marry out of the Sacred Twenty-Eight or even out of the country.
To pure-bloods. I thought it but didn't say it. The old grudge between the Weasleys and the Malfoys wasn't something I could fix. All I could do was ensure my children didn't parrot their grandparents' bias.
"I don't see how Malfoy's heritage has anything to do with why I'm in hospital." I sounded petulant. That smell was starting to really annoy me and I was still warm. I cast a Cooling Charm, which made Molly frown.
"You're feeling alright, aren't you, dear?" She asked with well-concealed interest. She hadn't told me everything, I could tell. Well, quid pro quo.
"I'm fine. It's stuffy in here. I don't see why I'm shut away when it's Malfoy who's causing a scene." The verbal fishing didn't get me any more information. She clammed right up, patted my hand and spouted some drivel about me being over-tired. Mrs Weasley left, quickly replaced by her son.
Ron looked furious. He was trying to hide how angry he was, which was never a good sign. His affable smile was strained. He sat down beside me on the bed and held my hand.
"It'll be alright, Hermione. We can sort it out. We'll get married and get you pregnant and then the bloody ferret can go sniffing around somewhere else." He was trying to reassure me. He failed. His statement was so odd I paused to mull it over wondering if I'd misheard, when a whole chunk of understanding slid into place.
"Malfoy thinks I'm his mate." I realised what Molly had been trying to say or hint rather. If Draco had inherited sufficient of the Veela traits for it to be a problem then he was more than likely to be manifesting the behaviour. Veela were territorial, aggressive when threatened and had a strong drive to pair-bond. "He's delusional."
"That's what Harry and I said. That bastard's just doing this to get back at us." Ron's partisan view of all Slytherins was patent. It hadn't abated an inch since the end of the war. If anything, seeing so many of the baddies get light sentences had made his anger against them worse.
"If he's simply being vindictive then we don't have to do anything, certainly not anything rash like getting married." I would've liked everything to be sunshine and roses after we'd put Voldemort to bed with a shovel. But the healing process took time. I could well believe Malfoy was being a vengeful tosser though if he wanted to bond with a witch to aggravate Ron, Ginny was a purer target.
"You don't want to?" There was a mix of unflattering relief and a little stung pride in his voice.
"Not at twenty." I loved Ron. I loved Harry. I loved my life. In the fullness of time I'd love children, but right now I'd like the opportunity to love myself and just be me for a while. "We don't have to fight any more. We can relax."
"Yeah." He nodded, understanding the need to breathe. "Not to be rude or anything, 'Mione but I asked because I want to help you. Not because I'm ready for all that."
"A baby is a big 'all that'." Coming from a large family he mightn't think so. There was always someone around to mind the little ones. As an only child, the child of only children, having a baby had always been explained to me as a huge commitment you needed to be sure about. You had to be responsible. "Muggle birth control might have the same effect. Some types mimic pregnancy hormonally."
"So Muggles wander around all bloated and cranky?" Ron's question made me laugh. Fleur's pregnancy with Victoire had not been an example of glowing, serene motherhood. Most of that I put down to the stress of the war and possibly some of Bill's werewolf infection warring with her Veela genes.
I explained about the Pill and Ron calmed down. He hated Malfoy. He wasn't going to like what I wanted to suggest. However, I was not going to sit in this room twiddling my thumbs like Rapunzel.
"I want to talk to him." I said when I thought Ron had cooled down enough to listen to reason.
"Bloody Hell!" The curse was more comment than outrage. He went red again but he was a tactical thinker once he'd had time to rein in his temper. Years of living with Fred and George had made him averse to surprises, that's all.
"I need to. Or he'll get his own way. Even disgraced, he's got the bulk of precedent on his side. You know how bad those archaic laws against werewolves were." We'd looked them up to help Remus and Bill, then to help Teddy get legal status as a wizard. Some of the old statues were frankly fascist. "And I want my wand."
He handed it over as though he'd forgotten he had it. I clutched my vine wood with pale knuckles. It had been returned to me after the Aurors had cleaned up the human remains amongst the bridge debris in the aftermath of the Battle of Hogwarts. One of the dead Snatchers had it on him. I have never told anyone how glad I was my wand had not saved him.
Ron clearly didn't like me talking to Malfoy but he knew what his brother had gone through to get his marriage acknowledged by the Ministry after the war. Bogging someone in red tape and lawsuits was easy if you had money and patience. The Malfoys still had the former, with enough spare to buy the latter.
The first thing I noticed when he came into the room was how dishevelled he was. Even at his worst, Malfoy had always been well put together. Now his hair resembled Harry's and his shirt looked like he'd slept in it. No tie, no jacket. His shoes were polished but the toes were scuffed.
And he just stood there as I looked him up and down. He was breathing hard and that damn smell was definitely his. Salt, cold water with an overtone of citrus from his cologne. Sweat glistened on his skin turning it from alabaster to opal.
Hell, no. I had not just thought that to myself.
"Let's hear it, then." I said, not saying outright that I was expecting him to lie but I think he heard it anyway. He stiffened, looking down his nose at me. When had he got so damn tall?
"I don't want this!" His voice shook with anger and a bit of that stubbed pride like Ron. I was not being tactful at all today.
"Good. That makes two of us." Ah, no tact there either. I gave myself a mental clip upside the head. "It is my understanding that you are suffering from a Veela bonding urge."
"Yes." He said the word with his teeth.
"Yes." More teeth, almost a snarl. I stared at him, keeping mum so he could collect himself and offer more explanation than two syllables. "How can you be so calm? I want to fuck you so badly it hurts. You, the Mudblood. I hate this."
"Why should I be alarmed?" I didn't think I was being that mellow, though compared to Malfoy's taut bowstring body I was ice water. The Cooling Charm helped. At least I wasn't sweating. "If you attack me, I'll turn you into a garden ornament. If you try to browbeat me, I'll hex you out the door. This medical condition of yours has got me out of a dull meeting this afternoon. So life is simply peachy."
"Bitch." He groaned. I shoved the chair towards him with my foot.
"Sit down. You look faint." I was surprised when he folded up into the seat like a good boy. I had expected a sneer at least. "Have you had this reaction with anyone else?"
"No." Malfoy clearly warred with himself and the social expectation of a civil conversation. "When the nesting instincts first began, we assumed it was in response to the marriage negotiations. Father was the same. Psychological stimulus can suppress or encourage the urges."
"I expect Voldemort was one long cold shower." Given the sensitivity of Veela to Dark Magic, being around Death Eaters would have kept the symptoms at bay. Most magical creatures got the jitters near such negative energy.
"Absolutely." He took a deep breath, fidgeting with his hands as though he didn't know what to do with them. In the end he crossed his arms and made himself sit still. "Nine weeks in Azkaban helped too." His voice was bitter almonds.
"So, why not your fianceé? Surely it'd be easy enough to imprint on her." Fleur had always been a bit coy about how the bonding process worked. She had assured the Weasleys that it was all voluntary. That she and Bill had fallen in love regardless of her Veela heritage. Having seen the effect she'd had on my schoolmates during the Triwizard Tournament, I wasn't entirely convinced.
"I don't want her." Malfoy snapped. "She smells wrong and moves wrong and I can't stand it." He hunched in the chair, clenching his arms to keep still. I could see he had it bad. I didn't trust him but I didn't think he was faking it either.
"What happened at the Ministry today?" If I was going to blame him for being an arse I might as well know all the facts. He didn't look happy to share, clamping his mouth shut apparently unwilling to answer. "Come on, spit it out."
"I had to register my condition. The Healer I was seeing insisted, in case I was without a mate for a prolonged time." He spat out the words as though under an Imperius Curse. "I was angry and tired. I had to wait for an Auror to escort me because I'm a bloody security risk. Then I saw the three of you and..." His teeth ground as he tried to keep himself from speaking.
That was definitely a compulsion. I cast a Finite on him in case he had been magically coerced. Harry and Ron could well have put something on him to keep him on his best behaviour. Nothing seemed to change. He was still tense, his steel eyes watching me almost unblinking.
"Malfoy." I said cautiously to test out a hypothesis. "I want you to relax. Uncross your arms." There was no push in my voice. Just a request as though I were a Medi-Witch talking to a fractious patient.
And Malfoy unfolded. He rested his arms in his lap. His fingers twitched but he didn't shift. His gaze never wavered from my face. Oh hell, I thought. Circe's flaming knickers and all those other colourful wizarding cusses.
I walked over to him, standing by the side of the chair. I locked the door with a flick of my wand. I did not want to be interrupted. This was no one's business but ours.
"Malfoy, I want you to answer honestly. This is very serious." Not to say also extremely ethically suspect. "I would like you to tell me if you feel forced to obey me as though you as being puppeted. I know you know the Imperius. I would like you to tell me if you feel you are being made to do what I ask."
"No." He breathed, staring at me. "I want to."
"You don't like me." It was a statement but he still answered with an emphatic nod. "But you still want to do what I say?" Another nod. Well, shite. "I am going to test the compulsion. I would like you to tell me something you think you'd absolutely not do willingly in my presence. Anything at all but it has to be something you would be able to resist doing even under the Imperius."
"Wank." Malfoy said through his teeth. "Never let you see. Never be vulnerable. Never risk being laughed at."
"I'd prefer you pick something else." I wasn't going to ask him to do that just to satisfy my curiosity. He shook his head.
"Death Eater. Survival at all costs. I've done a lot worse." He grimaced, sweating enough now to make his shirt stick to his chest. "Kissed Fenrir's feet once, to avoid the Crucio."
"That was a bastard thing to make you do." The feral werewolf would have loved that. He'd have enjoyed rubbing Malfoy's face in it every chance he got. I checked the door was definitely locked. "I'm sorry, Malfoy." I sighed. "I really want you to resist this." That was not a command. The next bit was. "I order you to touch yourself."
His eyes never left mine as he unbuckled his belt and slid a hand into his underwear, stroking slowly. A dark flush stained his cheeks and his teeth grated but he did it.