Title: In These Dreams of Eternity
Summary: An adventure as old as Merlin. An unknown Prize. One magical ship. Exotic locations. Extreme danger. Two enemies. No wands. Destiny waits.
Disclaimer: This work of fiction is not intended to be a derivative work as that term applies to the rights of JK Rowling, Warner Bros, Bloomsbury Publishing, et al with regard to the world and characters created by Ms. Rowling in the Harry Potter books, films, et cetera. Rather, it is intended as a transformative work which comments upon the original. As such, no infringement is intended. No money is being made from this work. To the extent permissible by law, I retain the rights to my language/text/story. A Journey To The Center of the Earth was written by Jules Verne and a few elements of this story owe their origins to him. Also, I had a specific image from the picture book Dinotopia, by James Gurney in my head for a good portion of the story, so some credit goes to him. And I borrowed something from Pirates of the Caribbean. See if you can find it.
Chapter Seven: Quest's End
Chapter Notes: I hope you enjoyed my fluffy little story. I tried to make it as entertaining as possible! I had fun experimenting with the format, otherwise this beast of a story would have never been completed. Enjoy the conclusion!
A Few Days Later
The competition for the Prize narrowed considerably. Draco and Hermione, now on their way to the seventh Task, only had one other team to contend with - the Bulgarians. They had seen the other teams fall, heard about it through rumors and through the section in the Daily Prophet that kept tabs on the Quest.
Something about them still made Hermione shudder after all of these months. Maybe it was the way Andrei leered at her breasts. Or maybe it was the deadness in Gavril's eyes. Hermione's instincts had been honed by war and challenge, and she trusted them. Her skin crawled whenever she was around the other team, and that bothered her.
Hermione studied the map carefully one Sunday morning as Draco filled the sails. Sipping her hot tea, she stared at the bright gold signaling their new destination – the North Pole.
Hermione bit her lip and judged that it would take them a good two days to get to the mystical island of Frisland in the Artic Circle. It would be an unwelcome change from their current location off of Morocco, but there wasn't anything that they could do about it. She only hoped that the old ship could make it through the icy waters. It was summertime in the Northern Hemisphere, what little that meant in the chilly waters of the Arctic.
She was carefully plotting their course when Draco stomped down the stairs into the main cabin. His blond hair now fell well below his ears, and was windswept from his time on deck. His fair skin sported a faint flush from the early morning chill, highlighting the stormy grey of his eyes. He grunted his good morning and shuffled to the kitchenette tiredly to serve himself the breakfast Hermione made and to pour a generous mug of tea. He rolled up the sleeves of his navy blue jumper, exposing pale, heavily muscled forearms lightly sprinkled with blond hair that she was helpless not to notice lately.
Worse, Hermione caught herself staring at his graceful hands as they served his breakfast and blushed. She looked away and took a large gulp of tea, hopefully hiding her red face from his gaze.
This could be a problem, Hermione thought, I wasn't supposed to want to jump my partner's bones every time I see his bare feet. Which is everyday.
She supposed that a male and female could go on adventures together and resist attraction. But with Harry, repeatedly facing danger together, saving each other's lives, sharing joy and frustrations had led to a bond of deep friendship. Certainly she had never really considered Harry as anything other than a brother.
And, strangely enough, Draco and Hermione bonded. She couldn't quite pinpoint the exact moment it happened - certainly it was sometime after the first Task. They played Exploding Snap on quiet evenings floating on the sea, and argued about the wisdom of Eldric the Elder or about his passion for Ancient Runes. She found that she actually didn't hate him. She didn't hate him quite a bit.
And Merlin, he was easy on the eyes.
She was fascinated by the way his trousers clung to his tight arse as he manipulated the sails of the Ouroboros. She was drawn by the way he bit his bottom lip as they poured over their books as they attempted to figure out the next Task. She couldn't look away when his grey eyes snapped as he figured out an important piece of the puzzle.
Not to mention that she slept in the bunk next to him for eight months. Knowing intimately the sound of his sighs and moans while sleeping and the feel of him in the room at night would drive any woman round the bend.
She was afraid that she was beginning to like the bastard. If just a little bit. And she wasn't certain it was entirely cabin-fever inspired attraction that was encouraging that niggling flutter of affection.
As Draco padded over to the small table with his breakfast, Hermione noticed his feet were bare again. To her horror, she felt herself blushing. Swiftly taking her gaze from his feet, she focused on the map.
"We're currently off the coast of Morocco. We should make it to the island in a day, if the winds steer us right." Hermione said, determined to keep her mind off of Draco, off of the casual intimacy of bare feet and the way her stomach did somersaults in his presence.
Draco grunted in agreement. "If the weather holds. I don't want to be trapped in a storm like the one off of India anytime soon."
Hermione shuddered at the memory. "Let's hope not. I don't think that this is the hurricane season, but I can listen to the wireless tonight to see if there is anything brewing."
Draco nodded and dumped a little sugar in his tea. Reaching over Hermione's shoulder, he snagged a thick tome from the stack behind her, the bare skin of his forearm brushing her cheek. His scent- sea salt, soap, and man- lingered in the air. Hermione's mouth went dry.
Clearing her throat, she said, "What do you think we're facing?"
"I don't rightly know. Headed to that part of the world... something Norse, perhaps? The clue is particularly ambiguous this time. Lucky we have the map to show up the general direction." He pulled the slip of parchment out of the small chest, "Quest's end is near at an island in the North- under, under to the city of eternity." He frowned as he sipped his tea, "I'm not sure this could be any more cryptic."
"The island is near Greenland. It's a possibility." Hermione tapped her fingers. "But it doesn't feel right." She glanced up and found Draco scrutinizing her carefully. She fought down her blush. "Hopefully no Dragons this time, eh?" She teased, hoping that she took his attention away from her attraction.
Draco made a face. "I don't know how you enjoyed the Atlantean Dragon preserve as much as you did. Terrible creatures."
"Afraid of your namesake?"
Draco raised a brow. "Certainly. I have a healthy respect for something fifty times my size and that wants to have me for breakfast. What's your excuse?"
"After my brush with the Dragon in Gringotts, I've never been able to look at them the same way. I'm scared of them, but I can control it."
Draco shook his head, but smiled. "Gryffindors."
"Sneaky Slytherins just wouldn't understand." Hermione quickly dusted the crumbs of toast off of her fingers, and started to gather the remains of her breakfast plates. "Would you like a warm-up?" she asked, extending her hand.
"Yes, please." As Draco gave her his chipped mug, their hands brushed ever so slightly. A sharp tingle started from her hand and settled deep in her belly, and a fierce flush rose from her chest. Draco quickly snatched his hand away and cradled it against his chest. He cleared his throat awkwardly. "A cuppa would be lovely, thank you."
Hermione whirled around and marched to the stove, her face on fire.
This is unbearable, she thought wildly, This has to end. The challenge, the sexual tension, all of it. Soon.
That night, Hermione stood outside, watching the stars from the deck. She felt a nudge against her foot and glanced down. Snakey looked at her hopefully, nudging her foot again.
Smiling, she sat on the cold wood, tickling the wooden snake on the chin. "Sometimes I think you're better than a real pet. Don't tell Crookshanks."
She spent a better part of an hour staring at the stars, alone with her thoughts. A strong breeze brushed past, and Hermione shivered, wishing she had worn her cloak.
Just as she couldn't stand it anymore, Draco walked up the stairs.
His brows jumped in surprise as he saw her by the bow. He frowned, disapproving, as he took in her light clothing and something glittered in his gaze for a moment. Then he dropped his heavy cloak around her shoulders, and Hermione snuggled into its warmth gratefully.
As Hermione watched, he lifted his arms and filled the sails, his arms dancing. When he was through, he didn't go downstairs as expected; instead, he stood next to her, leaning against the railing, gazing at the stars.
After a long, awkward silence, he said, "Have you been out here awhile?"
Hermione nodded. "It reminds me of Astronomy class at Hogwarts. But even in Scotland the stars weren't this clear."
Draco grunted in agreement and sat next to her on the bench, his warmth palpable. The awareness of him grew into a living thing, stretching her nerves to a breaking point. She wondered if he also thought about long-ago kisses and stolen touches, or if she was still just that annoying swot from school.
When she couldn't stand it anymore, she stood. Draco stood too, his large body dangerously close to hers.
"Thanks for the cloak." She reluctantly started to unwrap herself, but Draco halted her with a gesture.
Hermione looked at her feet suddenly shy. She gathered her courage and glanced at his face, his expression unreadable in the deep darkness. "Thanks."
She hesitated at the stairs. "Goodnight, Draco."
She left him on the deck, his lonely figure silhouetted by the stars.
Hermione woke suddenly. She had been deeply asleep, dreaming highly erotic and highly disturbing dreams about Malfoy, the beach of Tír na nÓg and massage oil. Blinking wearily in the darkness, she assessed that she didn't need to use the W.C. so she rolled over onto her belly and snuggled deeper into her downy pillows. She listened carefully and picked out Draco's quiet breathing over the soft sounds of the waves. Smiling sleepily, she listened as she slowly drifted back asleep...
That was when she heard it.
Hermione was instantly wide awake, her body on high alert.
It was probably what saved her.
A sweaty hand clamped on her upper arm, another one over her mouth. A raspy, heavily accented voice said, "We meet again. You won't get away so easily this time. Now I have the tricks."
Hermione, terrified, blindly threw back her elbow in the darkness, connecting solidly to flesh with a crunch.
The man reared back, dropping his grip and shouting curses in Bulgarian.
"Draco!" Hermione shrieked, "Wake up!" Twisting out of his grip, she dropped out of her bunk and landed hard on the floor the sheets tangling around her ankles. Rolling quickly out of the way of the Bulgarian's heavy boots, she leapt for the door. She almost made it, touching the cool metal of the doorknob, but was pulled back by a brutal yank on her hair, the force pulling out a great chunk of it. Tears sprung to her eyes at the sharp pain, and her hands rose automatically to claw at the Bulgarian's fierce grip.
She heard Draco shout something, and the lights came on as she concentrated on wriggling out of Andrei's grasp. Blood dripped steadily out of his nose, and his eyes flashed furiously. "You'll pay for that, bitch!"
Terrified, Hermione lashed out with her bare foot, connecting squarely with his groin. At the same time, Draco smashed the brute on the head with a lamp.
Andrei released her hair, and Hermione felt a sharp rush of relief. Staggering, she leaned against the door and caught her breath for a few precious moments.
"Hermione! I'll deal with this prick, you find the other arsehole!" Draco shouted. Hermione, spurred into action again, ignored her pain and ran out of the bedroom to the common space. A quick assessment proved that the other Bulgarian was not present below deck.
Running to the kitchen, Hermione grabbed a large carving knife. Merlin, I wish I had my wand. Those two idiots wouldn't stand a chance against me if I did.
She contemplated going back to the bedroom to get it - at this point the contest loomed in far second to survival. However, Andrei was still in the bedroom, between her and her wand, so the chances of her rescuing it with that fistfight still going on were next to none.
Gavril and Andrei obviously attacked the Ouroboros because they were worried about the competition for the Prize. I should have known, Hermione thought while creeping up the stairs as quietly as she could, I should have done something to prevent this.
Reaching the door, she pushed it open as carefully as she could, praying the hinges didn't squeak. Petrol fumes rushed into the cabin, the smell overpowering and making Hermione a little lightheaded, and increased her growing dread. Taking short, deep breaths through her mouth, she crept onto the deck as soundlessly as possible.
Gavril was emptying a large can of petrol onto the deck and sails, and few empty cans already lay scattered around his feet.
Hermione's heart froze. The whole boat could go up. Surely the Ouroboros has magical protections against this sort of thing. She adjusted her grip on the knife, hoping it didn't slide too much in her suddenly sweaty hands. Where the hell is Malfoy?
Snakey was agitated- swirling around the small man's feet in tight circles, trying to trip him up, his wooden tongue flicking furiously. When Gavril went to empty the can onto the aft sail, he tripped over the large snake. Making a split-second, adrenalin-fueled, probably stupid decision, Hermione attacked.
The man was small, but he moved like he knew his way around a fight. She knew her way around a wizarding duel, and she would bet she could take him in a match of magic and wits any day of the week. But a physical fight?
Those self-defense classes had better pay off, Hermione thought as she stalked closer, Or else I'm toast.
Gavril must have heard something because he looked up, dead blue eyes wide with surprise. He threw the now-empty can at her, and Hermione, still barefoot on the now-slippery deck, almost lost her footing and skewered herself. Regaining some of her poise, she raised her knife and glared at him, desperately bracing herself mentally for the inevitable showdown.
He slipped into an easy defensive stance. Hermione's gut clenched.
Suddenly, Gavril leapt up, screaming in pain, clutching his foot, cursing loudly.
Snakey! The wooden snake circled the little man, its wooden teeth stained with blood. Hermione, sensing her opportunity, rushed in. She maneuvered behind him, holding her blade against his neck. "Freeze, arsehole."
"What do you want?" Hermione said, panting heavily.
Gavril remained stubbornly silent.
Hermione pressed the sharp knife harder against his pale throat. "You know what? Fuck that. I don't care. Just get your friend and get the hell off of my boat."
Gavril swallowed hard. "You are a woman. Soft. You will do nothing."
Hermione smiled, showing lots of teeth. "You know nothing about me and what I've done. See if I won't. See if I won't skewer you, and then toss your friend overboard without a life raft."
She pressed the knife harder into Gavril's thin neck. A thin trickle of blood dripped down, staining his shirt. She watched him intently, and saw his expression start to waver. She allowed herself a brief flicker of triumph. He's going to surrender!
Suddenly, hearing footsteps on the stairs, Hermione automatically glanced at the door, her attention wavering from the dangerous man at her feet for a split second. Twisting away, gracefully, Gavril knocked the knife at his throat away, grinning maliciously. Hermione backed up defensively, adjusting her grip on the knife, her anger growing, growing, until it felt like a living thing.
She couldn't take it anymore. Her body became a focus for her rage, and she felt her magic answer in response. She was so tired of this bullshit. I want my wand!
Suddenly, she saw fear spark into Gavril's eyes, and she was confused. He was staring at her hands. Why is he suddenly afraid of the kitchen knife?
Curious, Hermione glanced down, stunned by the blue electricity she saw sparking there. Wandless magic!
Gavril slowly backed away towards the railing of the ship, his expression suddenly wary.
"Get back here," Hermione hissed, "I'm not done with you yet."
Putting on an air of self-assurance, as if lightening sparking from her fingertips were an everyday occurrence, she casually strolled in his direction. Lifting her hand, she said, "Call off your friend, bastard. Or I'll fry you."
He held up small roll of paper. "Ah, but do you want to destroy this? I don't think so, Miss Granger. I do not believe that you have enough control to destroy me but save this."
Hermione gasped. The map! That bastard! Hermione forcibly calmed herself down, and she felt the levels of innate magic decrease to safer levels, the magical blue lightening dissipating from her fingers with a puff of smoke.
Gavril smirked. "That is what I thought." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a lighter.
"No!" Hermione gasped, lunging at him with the knife desperately.
He dodged gracefully, and flicked on the little lighter, which glowed bright and menacing. That's no ordinary flame, Hermione thought, That's Fiendfyre!
Feeling sick, Hermione lashed out, attempting to wrestle the lighter out of his hand, or to knock it into the sea, anything to get it away from the boat.
Gavril, with a grin, simply tossed the lighter at the sail, which caught fire immediately.
"No!" Hermione screamed.
As if to mock her, Andrei's balding head appeared from below deck, and her already heaving stomach dropped to her feet. Draco!
Andrei was bleeding from multiple gashes, and his right eye was almost swollen shut. Walking with a definite limp, he hobbled up the stairs slowly, cursing loudly in a mixture of Bulgarian and English.
"Ah, my friend, you went for the honey before smoking out the bees. Did you not think you would be stung?"
Hermione rather resented being talked about as if she weren't there. "Where is Draco, you bastard!"
"He is not dead. Yet." Andrei smiled then, terrible and cold. "Come with us, woman, if you want to live. We will promise not to kill you."
"I'd rather die," Hermione hissed, holding her knife up defensively, prepared for another fight.
"The time for that has passed," Gavril snapped, "Come." He stepped to the railing, and gestured impatiently for Andrei to follow.
Andrei glared at him, mutinous. "She will pay for this." He gestured to his bleeding face.
Gavril gestured to the growing fire, coughing. "Andrei! Get over here- we have what we need. Do you wish to die for your revenge?"
Andrei shot him a dirty look, but slowly grinned as he realized her situation. Trapped on a burning ship. No escape but a wand that was downstairs in an inferno. Either way, out of the quest. Hermione could almost see the sadistic gears in his mind tick. She's going to die here. A slow smile spread over his face revealing rotten teeth. Perfect.
"Goodbye, pet. We parted too soon." He blew a kiss, and disappeared over the side of the ship.
Hermione was glad that they were gone. Two less idiots to worry about. Now where is my idiot…
Frantic, Hermione ignored the growing fire and rushed below deck. Draco, Draco, Draco, Her mind chanted, You had better be all right, because I am going to kill you if you aren't!
In the few moments between the Bulgarians leaving and Hermione streaking to the cabin, she must have had a hundred visions of Draco lifeless or dismembered. The short distance to the cabin seemed like an eternity. She kicked open the half closed door, and the scene inside was like a punch to the gut.
Draco lay on the floor, motionless.
For a moment, Hermione stood, frozen, convinced he was dead.
Rushing to his side and touching his cheek, she felt her spirit stretched to the breaking point when he didn't respond. "Malfoy? Malfoy! Wake up! WAKE UP!"
She reached for her wand on the nightstand to revive him, quest be damned, when she heard him groan.
"Malfoy?" She turned, finding Draco half-sitting, half-slumped over, holding his head.
"Draco! Oh, Draco, I thought you were dead, you great git!" Hermione scolded, cradling his face in her hands, assessing his pupils, and cataloguing his injuries. "Don't do that ever again."
Draco sneered, but the effort seemed weak. "I feel fine, thanks for asking."
Smelling smoke, Hermione remembered the urgency of their situation. "Draco, there's a fire! We need to get out of here!" Grabbing their wands and her beaded bag she rushed out of the bedroom into the common area. Looking around frantically for things she needed to save, she stuffed the compass and the other contents of the table into her purse.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Draco snag the chest containing the Prize items. Coughing, feeling lightheaded, she grabbed his hand and tugged his sore body to the deck.
It was like walking into Hell.
The fiendfyre had spread from the sails to the deck, the magical flames consuming the magical ship as if it were paper. Hermione caught Draco's eye, and saw his fear, and horrific visions of the Room of Requirement flashed through her brain. They couldn't stop it, even if they used their wands.
"Malfoy!" Hermione shouted, "Is there a life raft?"
Draco frowned, face grim in between bouts of coughing. "I'm not sure."
"Not sure! How can you not be sure?" Hermione screamed, grabbing her wand, preparing to apparate them both. "It's basic safety, you idiot! Are the Malfoys…"
Hermione's rant was interrupted by a hard nudge against her foot. Snakey looked at her, and then slithered away to the aft deck. Deciding that she would look for one more minute before apparating, she yanked on Draco's hand and plunged after the wooden snake.
At the very aft section of the Ouroboros, Snakey circled a ladder that Hermione was sure had never been there before. A small dinghy was bobbing in the water, connected to the larger ship by a thin rope.
"Draco, there's a life raft!"
Draco scrambled down the ladder to the boat, and Hermione quickly followed. She glanced upwards, to see Snakey watching them, surrounded by flames.
"Goodbye," She said quietly. The snake looked at her solemnly as the raft lowered. She craned her neck as they rowed away, and when she could no longer see it, a sob broke from her throat involuntarily.
The Arctic wind was frigid, and the water was colder. Hermione turned her face from the ship and fumbled with her beaded purse. She scrounged around and pulled out layer after layer of warm clothing, keeping her mind deliberately blank.
She met Draco's eyes briefly, but looked away quickly. The devastation there was too familiar, too cutting. "Get dressed. You don't want to freeze."
Hermione pulled on her layers automatically, numbly by the light of the burning ship. It was awkward to try to pull on her clothes in the small craft, especially with Draco doing the same, but they managed it without too much water sloshing over the side. She could barely tie her boots her hands were shaking so badly - whether from numbness or shock, she couldn't rightly say. When she was done, she tucked her beaded purse into her pocket and zipped it shut. She adjusted her scarf and was surprised to find her face wet.
Tears, Hermione thought numbly. I'm crying.
The Ouroboros was burning.
They could have stopped the Bulgarians with their wands, could have prevented the fire from starting, but that would break the thrice-damned rules.
And so they watched the Ouroboros, their ship, their home, be destroyed.
They survived to landfall, if barely.
Hermione liked to think that it was the rage that kept her going.
Draco attempted to use the sea magic to propel the dinghy like the Ouroboros, but the little raft wasn't innately magical. It worked, to some extent, but the pathetic effort still made it necessary to row and row and row until Hermione's arms and back went beyond pain and into numb. So she could row more. She wanted to quit and apparate herself to a tropical island where she could sip fruity drinks and a masseuse could rub the knots out of her back for hours.
But her stubbornness and his nastiness kept them on task.
As she paddled, her wand lay heavy against her side, taunting her with its presence and the comfort it represented. She felt herself reach for it over and over, but something stopped her every time. She suspected it was stupidity.
Soon, the burning in her arms left no room for thinking.
It was almost a surprise when they sighted land, and their exhausted, freezing bodies gave one last final burst of energy needed to make it to the sweet, frozen land.
All Hermione wanted to do was collapse, but she knew that if she did, she would probably fall asleep on the icy tundra and die. Somehow, she dredged up the willpower to care.
If there is anything I'm good at, it's camping. Hermione thought. And if there's anything I hate more, I haven't discovered it yet. Still, she sent a silent prayer to Merlin for the foresight in grabbing the beaded purse off of the nightstand. Likely, the supplies would save their lives tonight. If I can ever get this damn tent sent up, that is.
Finally finding the trusty tent at the bottom of the purse, she quickly pulled it out and cleared a space for it on the frozen ground while Draco secured the boat. Setting it up efficiently, she was absurdly grateful to get out of the biting wind and into some sort of shelter by the time she was finished.
The tent sent a fierce wave of nostalgia through Hermione. The smell of canvas and smoke sent her back years. Suddenly, the banked terror of the night's events swamped her, and dizzily, she sat down next to the fireplace on a soft, well-worn chair. Harry… Ron… I need you.
She missed her friends. She missed her parents. She missed her comfortable, happy life.
And she wished she had someone to talk to besides the giant prick she was currently ignoring.
Dashing the tears away stubbornly, she noted the extensive supply of wood and fire-starting equipment and smiled sadly. Always prepared, weren't we? A good thing too.
Gathering wood, paper and sticks, Hermione set about starting a fire the muggle way. Back then we were fighting for our lives against an evil tyrant. I'm here with a great prat and I almost died for an unknown Prize. Is this really worth it?
Soon, Hermione had a cheery little fire going in the grate. Taking off her mittens, she held her cold red hands near the flames and groaned with pleasure at the warmth. Draco was still snubbing her, but Hermione could see him looking at the fire with naked longing. When Hermione faced him directly, his face was set in an expression of cool disdain.
Fine, Hermione thought bitterly. Let him freeze. I'm sure the Malfoy pride will keep his fat head warm tonight.
Hermione finished with the fire, and scrounged in her purse for something edible while waiting for her feet to thaw. I'm sure I have rations in here somewhere. I'm certainly never subsisting on berries and mushrooms again, not that they even exist this far north.
Finding her case of freeze-dried food, Hermione set to reconstituting a brown substance that she supposed was some sort of beef stew. Just add water- instant food. Hermione grimaced. Delicious.
As she was setting to cooking, Draco inched over to the fire, biological function winning against his pride. They sat in silence, studiously ignoring the other until the silence grew and grew and grew into a living thing.
Their reconstituted dinner was tasteless and barely edible, but both were so hungry that they didn't notice. The food was hot, which was all that mattered.
Hermione began to feel the heat seep into her bones, and her fingers finally returned to normal sensation after a bout of tingly pain. Heaving a sigh of relief that no frostbite had set in, she shed her jacket and gloves. Glancing across the fire, she noted that Draco has shed his outer layers, and even though she was furious at the git, she was gratified that he also seemed to be recovering from the attack.
Then she noticed the blood.
Horrified, Hermione's gaze was riveted to his rusty red shirtsleeve.
"Malfoy, you're hurt!"
Draco looked at his arm blearily, clearly not caring. "Suppose I am. Happened during the fight- that bastard Gavril had a knife I wasn't expecting." His mouth twisted bitterly. "If I had than maybe the Ouroboros wouldn't have… wouldn't have been destroyed."
He sank into brooding silence once more, rubbing his arm, staring at the fire, his eyes bleak.
"Well, don't rub at it!" Hermione cried and Draco sent her a dirty look. Ignoring him, she rooted around in her purse and found her first aid kit. "Here."
Kneeling beside his chair, she gently touched his shoulder. "I'd like to see it, I think I can help."
"I don't need any more of your help." Draco sneered, "Haven't you done enough?"
Hermione's spine stiffened, and she blinked, hard, to stop the sudden rush of tears. "Fine! See if I care when you die of infection! I don't give a damn anymore! You and your stupid contest can go to hell." She dropped her first aid kit with a loud bang and stormed away to the other side of the fire. Fumbling with her clothes, she pulled out her wand, the familiar length of vine feeling so warm and so right in her hand.
Draco's eyes widened. "Wait!"
But Hermione's fury wouldn't be placated, and she snarled at him, prepared to apparate.
Draco lunged for her, his arms wrapping around her torso, snakelike.
"Let me go!"
"Not until you listen, you daft cow!"
Hermione tried to squirm out of his grasp, but his hold was too strong. Fine, she thought, I'll just apparate us both out of here. She gripped her wand tighter, prepared for the swift swish and flick that would send them both back to England.
Draco's hand slipped down to hers, over her wand, staying her movements. "Just listen, please." His eyes, open for once, searched hers. "Please."
Although she kept her expression angry and closed, she was shocked, by both his tone and his words. Hermione would have sworn up and down that Malfoy didn't know the word "Please." Eventually, she lowered her wand. "Fine. You have two minutes."
"I don't know where to start," Draco sat down on the worn sofa heavily. "Everything I've ever done has been defined by other people. My parents, the dark lord. Everything I've ever done has been defined by the expectations of others."
Hermione stood still, stunned by the confession. She was expecting a trite apology or a brief explanation of his anger, blaming it on grief for the lost Ouroboros. Not this. This was real. Malfoy uncensored. She tucked her wand away and sat by his side, listening.
"No one has ever cared about my wants or needs. I was just a tool for them to use. My parents loved me, but they never really considered what was best for me." He laughed bitterly. "Just what was best for the Malfoy dynasty."
It made a certain sort of sense, Hermione supposed. She always knew that the Malfoys were close, but also noticed that their expectations for the one and only Malfoy heir were certainly overwhelming.
"When the invitation came, I thought that it was an answer to everything. I wanted to do something for myself for once, something great, something good. I wanted to try to make my name echo throughout history, for people to associate the name Malfoy with something other than darkness."
"And when I found out you were my partner," He trailed off, looking at the fire.
"I know," Hermione said softly, "You were severely disappointed."
"No," Draco said. He looked up, and Hermione felt the weight of his gaze, the hunger in it burn through her body, making her dizzy. "Quite the opposite."
Hermione couldn't breathe. She couldn't think. They sat in pregnant silence for a long moment, staring at each other, until finally Hermione noticed a fresh crimson staining Draco's shirt, she said, "You're bleeding."
Draco looked down, "So I am."
"Here." Kneeling, she picked up her First Aid kit from the floor, and opened it. Finding some antibacterial wash and some sterile gauze, she set them next to him on the sofa. She firmly fixed her gaze on his shirtsleeve and said, "Take off your shirt."
There was a long pause before Hermione heard the rustle of clothing. She felt heat rise to her cheeks as Draco painfully worked the sweater over his head, but she was too mortified to help him.
All embarrassment was forgotten as the jagged wound was revealed. Stretching from bicep to elbow, it was long and thin, and leaking blood profusely. "Malfoy!" She gasped, you're such an idiot. You should have had this looked at immediately after it happened."
Draco shrugged, his muscles rippling with the movement in ways that left Hermione breathless. When she looked up, his grey eyes were still focused on her intently. "What good would it have done on the dinghy? Besides, after awhile in the cold I couldn't even feel it."
Huffing about the stupidity of men, she set about cleaning and dressing the long cut. "It doesn't look like it needs to be stitched up, thank Merlin."
She concentrated on her task in comfortable silence, happy to have something to occupy her thoughts, and happy that his wound wasn't more serious. "All done," Hermione smiled as she smoothed the bandage, "I think you'll be fine. Are you in any pain?"
She made the mistake of looking up.
He was watching at her again, this time with an expression of hard, naked longing. His bare torso gleamed in the firelight, and a lock of blond hair had fallen onto his forehead into his eyes. One hand reached for her, the soft pads of his fingers lightly brushing her soft, full lips and up one cheekbone to toy with a springy curl.
Her mouth went dry.
Licking her lips, her breath sped up and time slowed down as his mouth slowly found hers.
It was just as good as she remembered, if not better. Her memories of that wild, adrenalin-fueled kiss were wonderful and thrilling, but it was nothing compared to this slow exploration of mouths. There was no initial hesitation, no lingering embarrassment as Draco's lips caressed hers, slowly stoking the fire between them into a red-hot blaze.
Their kisses grew feverish and wild, and soon the careful studies of lips and tongue turned to a frenzy of lust. Hermione found herself laying below him on the sagging sofa, his heavy weight pressing her into the cushions. She could feel his heavy erection through their clothing, and it made the soft, feminine parts of her body quiver with anticipation.
His hands groped wildly, tugging on layers of winter gear. While Hermione's palms ran greedily up and down the planes of Draco's bare back, her fingers delving down the top of his trousers to massage the curve of his bum. Draco gave a pained groan and his head fell down to rest upon her forehead.
"Minx," he growled, digging one hand into the curls at the nape of her neck and jerking her chin upwards. Licking his way up the smooth column, his mouth a brand, he chuckled darkly at her ecstatic whimpers while he worked on her clothes.
Soon, Draco grew frustrated with the muggle zippers and fastenings of Hermione's jacket and salopettes. Cursing floridly against her skin, he tugged on the jacket's zipper again, getting it stuck on a bit of her scarf.
Hermione giggled and caught his hands. Kissing the palms, lingering at the soft bit of flesh between the thumb and wrist, she tasted salt and smoke of the fire and a bit of something that she thought might be unique to his skin. She scooted out from under him and said, "Let me do it."
She took her time disrobing, peeling off her many layers carefully. If she had thought that stripping off her boots and ski trousers to her practical underthings would be less sexy than stripping to sexy lingerie, the heated look in Draco's eyes dispelled her of the notion. Soon, she was naked, fully exposed to his eyes for the first time.
She shivered a little, both with excitement and with the chill that still lingered in the tent. She sidled a little closer to the fire, enjoying the way Draco drank in the movements with his eyes.
Suddenly nervous, she turned away from him, presenting him with a lovely image of her pert arse and the feminine curve of her back outlined by the flickering fire. She heard the sounds of shuffling and clothing being quickly removed. When she leaned over to add a few more logs to the fire, she heard a muffled curse and she smiled.
She didn't turn as she heard heavy footsteps approach, nor when she felt his hot hands on her waist. He tugged on her forcefully, bringing them skin-to-skin for the first time, and Hermione melted over him like butter. His skin was hot, burning hot, and so very, very male. Lean and hard, he enfolded her into a protective embrace, surrounding her and filling her senses until there was nothing in the universe but him.
He pushed her curls out of the way, and kissed her neck again, this time worrying at the muscle at the joining of her neck and shoulder with his teeth. His hands made little swirling caresses on her abdomen, making larger and larger whirls until he brushed the bottoms of her breasts lightly with his thumbs.
She gasped, and Draco chuckled. "Like that?" He brushed again, harder, causing Hermione's nipples to pucker. Draco made a low sound in his throat, the noise vibrating through his chest.
"Ah!" She whimpered, looking up at him through her lashes, she caught the amused smile playing around his mouth. "You're such a tease," she breathed. Snaking a hand behind his head, she caught a handful of pale blond hair.
She turned around, rubbing her breasts against his chest, his proud erection hot against her belly. Standing on her tiptoes and captured his lips again.
Groaning in response, Draco hauled her up against him, and awkwardly walked backwards in between wet, searing kisses until they reached the large, old sofa. Sitting down heavily, he brought her on top of him, kissing her wildly.
While one hand toyed with her breasts, alternately tugging and stroking her nipples, one hand cupped her sex intimately. As he touched it, he hissed in delight, eyes closed with pleasure. "You're so wet."
He began to toy with her, circling the bud of her clitoris obliquely, petting her labia, teasing the entrance of her cunt with light, barely-there touches until Hermione thought she might die from want. Panting, she glared at him, only to be rewarded with an arrogant smirk.
I'll wipe that smug look of your face. Leaning forward, Hermione kissed his lips briefly, only to drag her tongue from the corner of his mouth along the edge of his sharp jaw line. She lavished his body with kisses, learning his likes and dislikes. Biting the junction of his shoulder and neck rewarded her with a strangled shout and tugging on her hair, while licking his nipple with light flicking motions of his tongue made him whimper.
She was fascinated with the pale hair on his flat abdomen, so pale that it was almost translucent, shimmering like gold in the firelight on his pale skin. She laved it with her tongue, lovingly dragging the edges of her teeth down the ridges of his rectus muscles.
"Damnit, Hermione, come up here." Draco groaned.
Hermione knelt at his feet, and toyed with his thighs and lower abdomen, careful not to touch his cock. She glanced at him through her lashes and smiled. "No. No I don't think so."
Draco cursed as she gripped his dick, throwing his head back against the couch. "Witch!" He hissed.
She examined his cock with an artist's appreciation, caressing it lovingly. It was long, not as long as Ron's, but it seemed a lot thicker. She measured it with her palm, dragging the sensitive pads of her fingers over the organ lightly, causing it to twitch. A pearly drop of pre-cum leaked out, and she bent down, and delicately licked it up.
Draco's fingers tightened in her hair, and she heard him moan appreciatively. Swirling her tongue around the tip, she opened her throat and sucked him, hard, relishing his sharp gasps and curses.
She peeked up at him through her lashes and found he was staring at her intently. His grey eyes were heavy-lidded with pleasure, his face set in an expression of grim resolve. She felt his organ swell, and released it from her mouth with a small 'pop.'
He moaned, loudly, at the loss, and Hermione crawled up his body, dragging her breasts along his torso. Leaning close, dragging her cunt over his throbbing cock, she whispered into the sensitive shell of his ear, "I can tease too, Malfoy."
Her only warning was a flash of determination in his smoldering glare.
Two fingers suddenly plunged into her wet entrance, causing Hermione to cry out in surprise. Flipping her over, pinning her to the sofa in a rough power play, Draco proceeded to thoroughly dominate her body, wringing out gasps, moans and screams, delighting in them.
"No more games, now, Granger," Draco gritted out through clenched teeth. The firelight framed his pointed face in shadow, giving his pointed features a particularly devilish cast. He parted her legs forcefully, and with little fanfare, thrust balls deep.
Hermione gasped, arching her back, the feeling of suddenly being filled overwhelming after the seemingly endless foreplay. Draco was still for a moment, and when Hermione opened her eyes again, his gaze was riveted on her face. She shot him a trembling smile, and he grinned back.
Then he moved, and there was no time for thought.
His thrusts built them closer and closer to the peak, but just as she was about to orgasm, he would slow down, his cock barely moving until the peak dissipated. After a few round of this, Hermione glared at him. "You're evil," She panted.
"I know," He smirked unsteadily, his damp hair sticking to his forehead.
Her fingers slid over the sweat-slicked flesh of his back, his bottom with restless urgency. Faster, faster… Oh, Draco, I can't take any more…
Moaning, she screamed as he changed positions, leaning backwards and hitching her knees over his shoulders. The position made Draco's cock slide against a particularly sensitive place, and Hermione felt her orgasm building, stronger and stronger, only needing a small snowball for the avalanche to start sliding.
All her senses were amplified. The sound of their slick bodies rubbing, the popping and crackling of the fire echoed through her brain with the force of a shout. The rough material of the couch rubbed her back, and a small spring jammed into her side with each thrust. The smell of smoke and sweat lingered in the air, tickling her nose.
She felt the magic in her body ebb and flow with each hard thrust, and the peak grew higher and higher, until it exploded in a thousand shimmering bits of starlight, settling into Hermione's skin like tingling bubbles.
Draco cursed and shouted, and gave a few more frantic thrusts, and he was there too. Collapsing into oblivion.
They lay together underneath a big pile of blankets by the fire, not willing to leave the warmth to share a lumpy cot on the other side of the tent. The made love for hours, and slept for more until time grew fuzzy.
Eventually, once the soreness and exhaustion wore off, their thoughts focused on the quest.
Draco had found an atlas in the beaded purse and was examining it. He thumbed through the pages delineating the artic region quickly, his movements growing more and more frustrated as he tried to pinpoint their location. "It's impossible to tell where we are."
"Or where we need to go." Hermione said, watching him, uncharacteristically quiet.
Her instincts were screaming - they were close; she knew it in her bones. It was both a disturbing and happy realization. They may be the first in all of recorded history to find the Prize.
But the Quest would end, and so would their partnership.
Hermione's mind shied away from the thought. What would they do afterwards? Could their fragile bond survive what was to come?
Draco was thinking hard, so hard that Hermione fancied she saw a little spark of magic when his eyes popped open. "Agartha is the city in the center of the earth, right? If I recall correctly, Binns used to go on about it in history class."
"Do you think that is what the clue refers to? Quest's end is near at an island in the North- under, under to the city of eternity."
"Could be," Hermione sighed and burrowed under the covers. "I wish we had the books on the Ouroboros. I remember a little about Agartha, but I'm sure there was more."
"What do you remember?" Draco smiled as he played with a tendril of her springy hair, "The short version, please."
She snatched the lock back with a dirty look. She used her lecturer voice, just to annoy him. "It's an ancient wizarding city at the center of the earth, supposedly created thousands of years ago by Norse wizards to escape persecution. It was famous for its cauldrons, which are often auctioned for obscene amounts of money today. It was also famed for the extreme difficulty in getting there, even for wizardkind."
"It disappeared about a thousand years ago, never heard from again."
Draco rolled over to look at the ceiling, arms tucked behind his head. The pose made his biceps look huge, and bared his chest in a way that made Hermione tingle in delicious ways. She wanted to trace those muscles with her fingertips, lingering on rosy flat nipples and the deep creases of his pectorals.
Cursing her lack of confidence, Hermione looked at the fire instead. "We could use the compass."
Draco furrowed his brow and scowled. Hermione immediately wanted to smooth it. "That thing is unreliable."
"It's the only chance we've got."
"Then we have to try." His frown immediately lightened and eyes gleamed in a way Hermione was beginning to recognize. He nuzzled her neck softly, "Tomorrow."
With the compass, finding the cave entrance was relatively easy. The rest was not.
They had traversed mazes before, but this particular labyrinth made the Catacombs of Paris look like a child's toy. As they descended into the bowels of the earth, the air grew warmer, and thankfully Draco and Hermione shed some of their layers as they carefully picked their way through the underground caverns.
Eventually, the cave formations started to look less and less like the usual stalactite and stalagmites, or the delicate, familiar eerily beautiful calcite formations. Things rapidly started to take a turn for the bizarre. Pale mushrooms as big as trees. Bat-like rodents the size of cats flew overhead. Pink glowing lichen covered the walls of certain grottos, and waist-high blue-violet grass covered the floor of another. At one point Hermione swore she saw a Triceratops grazing in the corner of a particularly large cavern. Perhaps most bizarrely, as they walked deeper and deeper into the earth, the cave grew less and less black, the darkness broken by an eerie red light eventually growing so bright that torchlight was no longer necessary.
Stopping for food and sleep, they walked for what seemed like weeks, although it was impossible to tell in the pitch black of the underground.
During one of the stops, Hermione chewed on a stale ration bar that taste like chocolate-flavored cardboard and frowned at her compass.
"The compass isn't working anymore," Hermione said, staring at the compass and frowning. The needle warbled around in the drunkenly, as if it couldn't make up its mind which direction it wanted to point. She shook it, hard, not really expecting that it would fix it, but her Muggle instincts wouldn't allow her to at least not try to bang on the broken object to fix it.
"Let me see," Draco said, grabbing it from her hands. Fiddling with it for a few minutes, he came to the same conclusion. "Damn." He squinted at the tunnels. "Without it we really have no idea where to go, do we?"
Hermione chewed on her lip. "Should we go back?"
Draco frowned. "It has to be nearby."
Hermione silently regarded the useless compass and finished the ration bar. Tucking the wrapper in their waste bag, she stood up and dusted the dirt off her trousers. "The red light is getting stronger, especially in that direction," She nodded towards the tunnel to their left, "Agartha is supposedly at the center of the Earth. We've been walking for what feels like weeks. Could that light be related to the city? I can't imagine a self-sustaining city in the dark. I could be completely wrong, but it seems like the only avenue we have now that damned compass is out of order."
Draco nodded as he squinted down the different passageways. "The light does seem stronger down that passage. It's a sound a plan as any." Standing and stretching, he said, "Let's get another few hours in before we need to sleep."
They walked through the passages for an endless amount of time. It was difficult to say how long. The light only got stronger, and did not wax or wane on any sort of cycle, until it was as bright as the daylight above.
They had luckily never run out of water while in the cave. Every so often on the long trek, one of the caverns would have an underground river, the water cold, clear and swift. Hermione would diligently fill all of the water bottles, because, as she told Draco, camping rule number one was never, ever, pass by something useful lying around without capitalizing upon it. And she was good at camping.
Draco called her a Slytherin. Hermione was insulted.
Well, Hermione thought, At least I know where the rivers were going.
A vast underground lake filled the huge chamber, the water black and eerily still. The lake extended beyond the chamber, so they couldn't simply walk around it. Hermione could easily see to the other side, where a path led into the next chamber.
A wooden bridge was strung across the lake, at points almost sagging into the pitch-black water. It was made of rotting wood, at points covered in moss. There were ropes holding the bridge up were thick but ancient looking, their weave fraying in parts. Overall, the structure looked about as sturdy as Kreacher on a bad day.
It was an obvious death trap.
"So, Granger, how are you at swim…" Draco trailed off, eyes wide, as the fin of a huge creature cut through the calm water.
They shared a panicked look. Draco swallowed. "Uh, never mind."
"We're so close!" Hermione ground her teeth in frustration. "We're going to have to find another way across."
"No, we can make it- it isn't that long! Let's run for it!"
Hermione looked at the lake, and then looked at the bridge. Furrowing her brows, she said, "You have to be kidding me."
"Trust me." Draco held out his hand.
With only a slight hesitation, Hermione gave him hers. This is incredibly stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Tugging her along, they carefully picked their way across the crumbling bridge.
Hermione tried not to look at the black water. Once, when Draco was being particularly slow about deciding the best way to cross a particularly decrepit section of the bridge, she looked down.
She snapped her head back up, face pale, eyes wide. Teeth… Lots of sharp teeth.
They had been making decent progress, almost three-quarters of the way across when Hermione looked back. Years later, she never knew what made her glance behind her, some instinct, lingering curiosity, perhaps, but it probably saved their lives.
Gavril and Andrei were standing at the end of the bridge, expressions murderous.
"Draco!" Hermione squeaked, "Draco, we need to go faster!"
"Hm?" He said, drawing his attention away from his intense scrutiny of the next few planks.
"We need to go! Go now!" She pushed at his larger body, frantically trying to get him to move. "The Bulgarians! Look!"
Draco's eyes followed her trembling finger, and then widened in shock.
Draco caught Hermione's hand, and they sprinted across the rickety bridge as fast as they could. Hermione almost tumblednumerous times, feet slipping on the moldy wood, hands sliding against the worn rope. Draco's heavier weight was more of a problem. Once, he stepped on a particularly weak plank, almost falling straight through the bridge like a lead weight.
As they neared the end, Hermione chanced another glance back. Gavril and Andrei were not on the bridge racing after them. Instead, they were sawing at the ancient ropes holding up the bridge.
Hermione clamped down on her panic. "Faster, Draco, they're going to destroy the bridge!"
Somehow, they were able to move faster, avoiding the large holes in the rotting wood, avoiding slipping and falling into the black, black waters.
As the shore neared, Hermione felt a rising sense of hope that they might make it out of this alive, they just might make it.
Almost there, almost there… Yes! As they stepped onto land, Hermione collapsed into a boneless heap, her legs trembling with exertion and relief. Beside her, Draco did the same, his sides heaving, body covered in sweat.
Not a minute later, the bridge crumbled into the lake with a huge splash. The monster surfaced then, giving them a good look at it for the first time. It was approximately fifteen to twenty feet in length, its skin an unnatural white-grey color, it mouth absolutely enormous, filled with incredibly sharp teeth the size of kitchen knives. Hermione was reminded of field trips to museums during primary school, and the large skeletons of extinct dinosaurs. Its huge jaws engulfed parts of the bridge in a frenzy, obviously looking for flesh to feast on.
Hermione couldn't stop shivering. She clutched Draco's hand like a lifeline, staring at the monster, the Bulgarians, to overwhelmed to process what had just happened.
The Bulgarians were arguing on the other side of the bridge, Andrei screaming incoherently.
"Watch out!" Draco grabbed Hermione, shielding her with his body as the curse ricocheted into the rock face next to them, causing it to blow up.
"They used their wands," Hermione whispered, eyes wide, "They're disqualified!"
As Hermione and Draco watched, peeking out from behind a boulder, two pieces of parchment floated down to the Bulgarian team. Gavril plucked it out of the air, read it, and with the most emotion Hermione had ever seen from him, proceeded to curse. The parchment must have been a portkey, because the team swirled out of existence a few moments later.
With a sense of profound, exhausted relief, Hermione gripped Draco's hand as if clinging to a lifeline. I won't cry, I won't cry, she chanted to herself.
Draco squeezed back tightly.
Once their emotions were under control, they trudged away from the lake and its monsters, stopping to rest after a safe distance, collapsing bonelessly together.
After that, the rest of the way was almost easy. There was a well-beaten path in the dirt, which, with no other real option, compass useless and the sunlight bright in all directions, they followed.
To say they were stunned when they saw the house was an understatement.
It was an ordinary sort of cottage, which wouldn't have been out of place in any wizarding village in England. Small and cozy, it was kept in good repair, with a small garden of strange plants to one side. Hermione's eyes were drawn again and again to the small curl of smoke rising from the chimney. Someone's here. She shivered.
They had been underground so long, away from any sort of civilization that suddenly the sight of humanity so far away from the Earth's crust, so against all expectations was quite shocking.
"Is that what I think it is?" Draco said.
Hermione squinted. "Unless we're both having the same vision, yes, it is a house in the center of the Earth."
"Did we make it? Did we win?"
"I don't know," Hermione said, "Somehow, I expected a little more fanfare."
Draco marched up to the little house, his hand reaching for the knob, his expression determined.
"Draco," Hermione hissed, "We need to knock!"
Draco raised a brow, imperiously, and said, "I have waited almost a year for this. I will not knock."
"Rude prat," Hermione muttered as Draco practically kicked the door down. Hermione sighed and held her trusty kitchen knife at ready.
A handsome black-haired teenage boy sat frozen at the table, a spoon full of stew halfway to his lips. He was dressed in a highly unusual fashion. What looked like a medieval brown tunic was tightly belted over buff breeches and 18-Century style Hessians. Heavy wizarding robes in a deep green covered the outfit. A top hat with golden goggles gracing the brim topped sat jauntily on his head.
Slowly the spoon dropped back to the steaming bowl.
Blinking rapidly, he said, "Um… Who are you?"
"Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy."
The boy continued to stare at them blankly. Obviously, the names had no meaning for him. The teen cocked his head slightly, puzzled. "How did you find this place?"
"Merlin's Quest? The Prize? Isn't this the final destination?"
"Oh," The teen's youthful face morphed into one of disbelieving shock. "I guess it is that time. God's teeth! You actually won."
Draco grew impatient. In his haughtiest drawl, he said, "And who are you? And where is our Prize?"
The boy looked abashed. "Oh! So sorry! I forgot my manners. The surprise, you know. We don't get many visitors down here." He swooped into an elegant bow, his green robes billowing around him dramatically, quite like a younger, better-looking Professor Snape. "I'm Merlin, the Sorcerer. But I'm hungry now, so can the Prize wait until later?"
He smiled at their stunned expressions and gestured for them to sit.
Agartha was fascinating. A strange combination of Victorian-Era technology and magic, if Hermione had been in her normal frame of mind, she would have had a thousand questions. So, instead of focusing on the fascinating magical waterwheel, the tiny pocket watches that flitted about on wings, or the odd steam-powered vehicle over by the shop, she just floated about in a daze.
Merlin. She was walking next to Merlin. Agartha's resident inventor and Potions master.
Baba Yaga the Trickster was the miller. Circe the Transfiguration Mistress and owner of the tavern. Godric Gryffindor was in charge of Defense and ran the dairy.
And Morgana le Fey, founder of the school of Charms still studied to this day, was apparently the seamstress.
Hermione supposed that her brain was allowed to goggle.
Merlin explained Agartha didn't have a sun, per se, but was lit by the inner fire of the earth's core. This explained the strange reddish light that bathed the village at all times, and explained the lack of night/day cycles. But by Hermione's inner reckoning, it was early in the morning. Not that she got any sleep anyway, having spent a mostly sleepless evening at Merlin's tiny cottage badgering the poor man with questions and sharing modern instant coffee. Luckily there were few residents up and about, as it seemed that they were all on similar sleep schedules, or Hermione probably wouldn't have made it through the morning without her brain melting and dribbling out her ears.
They entered an ancient Potions shop at the end of the main street, breezing by all sorts of fascinating mechanical oddities and fascinating potions. Opening the door to the back room, they found themselves surrounded by clutter. The walls were covered with bottles of all shapes and sizes filled with ingredients Hermione recognized and many she didn't. A huge battered bench stood in the center of the room covered with delicate glass distillation equipment. But one thing eclipsed everything else in comparison- a large black cauldron. It was obviously ancient, the edges somewhat battered, but it was polished to a mirror shine. It was made of black basalt and covered in strange runes, and exuded a sense of power that subtlety dominated the room, making the space seem smaller, more claustrophobic.
"Here we are," Merlin said, taking off his top hat and carefully placing it on a high stool, leaving his golden goggles resting on his head, "My workroom. And this," He caressed the ancient black cauldron, "Is what we've come to see. The end of your noble Quest."
"This was a Grail Quest! I knew it!" Hermione started laughing.
Merlin rolled his eyes and muttered something about Malory and creative license while cleaning his goggles vigorously with a linen handkerchief as Hermione laughed herself to tears, while Draco looked mildly confused. Placing his goggles back on his forehead, he cleared his throat. "I am glad that you find the situation so amusing," He glared pointedly at Hermione, who was still giggling, "But we need to get to business. Shall we?"
"Lets," Draco said.
Merlin held out his hand, "Your chest please?"
Draco handed him the small wooden chest, and Merlin carefully took out the contents, placing them on the tabletop. "These are the ingredients to a potion- a very special potion that I discovered when I was very young."
"These are the ingredients to the Eternity Elixir." He chuckled at their shocked expressions. "Yes, I know. Immortality and eternal youth is impossible, etcetera, etcetera. But I assure you, it is possible. This community is living proof."
Turning serious, he said. "The key ingredient to the potion is the cauldron – the specific basalt is only found here, in Agartha and no other substance will do. It is a very difficult potion to attempt, but rest assured, I have succeeded many times. We would love to have new blood into our community."
"So we can never go back?"
"That is the condition of my service- you must remain here, with us for the duration of your lifespan. If you do not want to partake of the potion, you must take a Vow of silence to never reveal the Prize of the Quest. The secret of this potion can never leave Agartha. You must realize that the dire consequences if the Elixir were common knowledge."
Thinking of Voldemort and his mad quest for immortality, Hermione agreed wholeheartedly.
"So why isn't this place more populated?" Draco said, "I can imagine the size of some of these families must grow exponentially."
Merlin's unlined face grew grim, and suddenly Hermione believed that this man was over a thousand years old. "I won't lie to you. The elixir of life does not come without cost. Those that drink of it will never conceive children of their own blood." He shrugged. "There is always a price to pay for something so precious. Some have waited until after they had a child to drink from the black cauldron. Many in our community have adopted foundlings, when we do have the rare child that wanders our way."
Hermione glanced at Draco, who was staring at the stone cauldron in silence. She tried to read his expression.
Merlin traced a pale finger around the rim of the cauldron almost lovingly. Giving them a quick grin, he said, "I'll give you a day to think about it." Tipping his top hat to them, he strode out of the workroom, whistling a happy tune, leaving two very confused souls in his wake.
They made love that night, but it felt like goodbye.
At least to Hermione. Afterwards, she flopped over on the bed, and pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes, trying to stop tears.
After awhile, she felt Draco's hand on her shoulder. "Are you crying?"
"No," she said, her voice stuffy.
They lay in silence for a while, the air between them heavy with things unsaid.
"We have to talk." Draco said, staring at the ceiling.
"So talk." Hermione said, just as tense.
"What do you want?"
"What do you want?"
This is ridiculous, Hermione thought. Gathering her Gryffindor courage, she said, "What I want is…" She licked suddenly dry lips as she searched his eyes. "I think I want you." She turned away quickly, curling in on herself, feeling terribly vulnerable.
Strong arms suddenly pulled her against Draco's hard, lean body, and she caught a glimpse of happy grey and her lips were caught in a bruising kiss. Suddenly she couldn't think anymore. And it certainly didn't matter.
As they surfaced above the earth, the weak sunlight of the North Pole greeted them, refreshingly bright compared to the smoky haze of Agartha.
"Were you temped? Even a little?" Draco asked, his voice rough with fatigue. He had a few days growth of beard gracing his angular cheeks, and dark circles under his eyes. Hermione knew exactly how long he had gone without grooming, and thought that it was amazingly unfair that he somehow managed to look more attractive without extensive primping.
Draco looked at her, brows raised.
Hermione snorted. "I'm not a saint. Immortality is the one prize that would tempt me- especially when I don't have to sacrifice my soul to gain it."
"So why didn't you take it?"
"Why didn't you?" Hermione countered hotly.
Draco looked thoughtful. "I suppose I have too much to live for here on earth to go to Paradise yet."
Hermione flushed, but smiled widely. She felt Draco grab her hand and squeeze. Grinning stupidly, she squeezed back.
Hermione's head jerked up, suspicious. "And?"
"I stole a piece of that basalt they were going on about." Draco smirked. "Fancy buying a new boat?"
Hermione's laughter rang out with the daylight, echoing brightly over the tundra.