Well. This is it! This story was always meant to stand alone, to wrap up one or two select hanging threads from Witnessed Here in Time in Blood. It was a strange little interlude, and thanks for indulging me!
Ivory and Horn, Chapter 5
The castle before you is built from blocks of stone, hewn long ago from a distant quarry. It rests beneath an ever changing sky and will sometimes appear golden, under the right light. Its roofs are clad in slate, edged with dull lead. Its windows filled with thick glass to deter the ever probing wind. You sit on a vast, immaculate lawn and enjoy the sight. It is solid, built to last forever, but not at the expense of the comfort of its inhabitants. Children empty from a gate, chasing each other through the crisp autumn air. None pay you the slightest attention, for which you're grateful but also a bit lonesome. It seems like it would have been a nice place to go to school, a nostalgic part of you whispers.
The castle is beautiful; inviting and homey despite its grandeur. Though it skirts the fringes of improbability, there is no doubt in your mind that it is real. That somewhere, beyond a high moor and forbidding forest, sits the castle of your childhood dreams.
Your mind drifts to other castles. To the ruin. To the evidence that time inevitably finds us all. Despite the sorrow there, though, it is not difficult to recall. Unlike another place.
Unlike the castle which is not real. Cannot be real.
You have only ever glimpsed it from the corner of your eye, while flitting from one dream to another. It inhabits the centre of the land you visit; the seat of power of its Lord. The heart of the land of nod. It is, most emphatically, not inviting. It never looks warm and buttery under afternoon (or any) light.
It is vast. Spires and towers compete for wisps of smoke and cloud high overhead. Walls throw themselves against one another with little care for line or continuity or sanity. Parts of it vanish when not in use. Other parts of it vanish once they're snared their prey.
This castle does not belong in a fairy tale, like the other one. This castle is one that those folk have trouble entering, for deep, tempting shadows house cold iron and sweet nectar, in uncomfortable proximity. Gods have entered, and spent their time restlessly pacing opulent suites. Demons don't tarry, either.
You tear your gaze away. The castle hurts your eyes and quickens your breath. It's not real, but too real at the same time. It's too strange.
Before its gates stand a group of travelers. An errant knight. A laughing fool. A wise advisor. A monster bounds from a shadowy corner of the castle and roars. It bellows, thunder in its voice and you wake in a cold sweat, trembling.
Though it's late (or horribly early) you don't return to bed, not trusting yourself to find your way back to the right castle.
"Halt!" a great, booming voice demanded. Fleur felt her jaw drop at the sight of an immense hippogriff pawing the ground before her. He lowered his head and glared at her. Fleur skidded to a stop, preparing to bow. Cain strode past her, imperiously and unconcerned by the threat.
"Shut up, Odds'n'Ends. Where's Lucien?"
"You," the hippogriff said, gruffly. "You're far from your house." He retreated though, taking a step away from the man.
A great scaly head loomed into view, regarding Fleur with eyes eerily reminiscent of a certain Welsh Green. She swallowed thickly and the beast blinked lazily, disregarding her as a threat and meal at once.
"You've brought a dreamer. Why?"
Cain sighed, clearly aggravated. Matthew flapped lazily over his head, perching on the balustrade beside a third guardian, an enormous griffon. The beast yawned, his tongue the colour of fresh blood. Fleur's skin crawled, prickling all up and down her spine. The small hairs on her arms were standing to wary attention.
"Hey boys," he said, by way of greeting. "Is Loosh in? We found this chick. We think something's up. Could we talk to him?"
The hippogriff clacked his beak and turned his back. The griffon settled his heavy head on paws the size of beer casks and the wyvern tucked his head under his wing. Fleur turned to Cain but he was inspecting his fingernails.
"Well," an amused voice called, announcing the appearance of an incredibly skinny man. He was probably the tallest, thinnest man Fleur had ever seen. He bobbed as he walked, peering at her over the top of a pair of spectacles. Given how he towered over her, it was an admirable accomplishment. "Good evening. Welcome."
He extended a hand, which was warm and dry and felt very normal. Fleur smiled, relief lightening her chest. "Hello. My name is Fleur."
"Lucien. Head librarian. Now," he turned his gaze to Matthew. "Why is she here? Not to be rude, miss."
Fleur waved her hand, dismissing the apology as unnecessary.
"Well, she won't wake up. Ah, uh, she followed another dreamer in." Matthew's feathers puffed up for a moment. "Was a bit more worried about the other one, to be honest."
Lucien frowned. "You suspect a vortex? Nonsense. We aren't due one for scores of years." Lucien peered at Fleur thoughtfully. "Curious, though."
He turned on his heel and walked towards the great castle. When no one moved, he turned to glance over his shoulder. "Well? Come along."
Cain snorted. "I've done my bit. And I have a brother who needs some… attention."
Fleur shuddered as the macabre little man sloped off into the shadows. Matthew beat his wings and settled himself on her shoulder. He was heavier than she expected, more solid and reassuring. She smiled up at him and he winked.
"So," Lucien said as they trailed behind him, "who are you?"
"My name is Fleur Delacour," she said, forced to scurry to match his long stride. Her cheeks flushed. She hadn't needed to resort to this kind of thing since she was a child.
"Well, that it a good name, but who are you?" he asked, taking a sharp turn. "Keep up, now, don't get lost." He ascended a steep flight of stairs. "There's something unspeakably ghastly roaming the halls at the moment."
"I mean," he clarified, after pausing to allow a stage coach to pass in front of them, "are you a journeying artisan? Are you, in fact, a wandering star? Are you the long lost daughter of an ancient kingdom?"
Fleur blinked, frowning at the back of Lucien's head. "No, not at all. I'm just Fleur Delacour. I," she paused. "Well, I'm a witch. I'm about to start a job with Hogwarts, as a helper."
They ducked through a chamber filled with penguins serving drinks to a man who resembled a muggle accountant. His eyes were glassy, his motion slow. He moved as though ploughing through molasses.
As though dreaming.
"Who was that?" she demanded, as they entered a narrow corridor on the other side of the room.
"Oh, him?" Lucien asked. "Just a dreamer."
"Well," Fleur said, frowning, "I'm a dreamer, too. I think."
"You may be that, but there's more to it," he mused. He threw open enormous doors, striding into a dusty, marble floored room. Fleur watched clouds of dust rise as he moved to stand in the centre of a strange, arcing pattern of tiles. The light that managed to penetrate was heavy with motes and drier than old bones. Fleur spun as she entered, barely able to take in the entire place in a single glance. Columns the width of tree trunks lined distant walls, arching into the dim heights where, presumably, the ceiling dwelt. Lines of bookshelves taller than church spires extended from the tiled entrance and seemed, where Fleur could glimpse the aisles between them, to extend indefinitely.
She stopped abruptly, causing Matthew to caw and alight from her shoulder. He swooped through the air, his calls echoing through the cavernous structure.
"Where," Fleur swallowed, overwhelmed and awed, "where are we?"
"The library of the Lord of Dream," Lucien replied, casting a fond look over the miles of shelving. "Which contains every book written. Every book ever conceived, as well. Every book ever dreamed, even if the author never put pen to paper."
Fleur's jaw gaped despite herself. "How? Why?"
Lucien smiled. "Well, why? Let me tell you, I do think the best stories are dreamt. They lose something, when you have to trap them in words. When you have to make them submit to grammar and logic and all that. As to how, well." He adjusted the spectacles on the bridge of his nose, an apologetic expression creasing his face. "That is the function of this place. That is how. The exact mechanics are… beyond most of us."
Fleur frowned. "You sound like an old teacher of mine."
Lucien rolled his eyes. "You'd be amazed how often I hear that. Come now, tell me though, who are you? You must have realised by now that something strange is happening. You're not acting like a dreamer."
"Neither was her friend," Matthew croaked. "It was weird, Loosh."
Lucian hummed to himself, wandering between stacks of bookshelves. "Do you possess any enchanted amulets?"
Fleur blinked. "Oh, well, my girlfriend enchanted my handbag to hold more. But I don't have it with me."
Lucien paused. "Given access to the untold possibilities afforded by being magically gifted, you enchanted a handbag?"
Fleur frowned. "I don't own any amulets. I'm sorry, but there's no need to be so snippy, sir."
Lucien raised his eyebrows mildly. "My apologies. It's just that, well, whenever people come here, they usually have a fantastic story to accompany them. It's usually not a case of, well, wandering in without so much as an interesting artifact or quest."
She paused, gathering her thoughts. She lacked artefacts of any description and wasn't so much on a quest as… fetching Hermione. A smile stretched her face at the thought of her lover. Perhaps there was a story there, in the midst of it all.
"I'm the daughter of Apolline and Albert Delacour," she said, softly. "I have a younger sister, named Gabrielle, who is named for the Veela Queen, Gabriela Senka. My mother's mother is a fearsome warrior who often wears the shape of a monster. Hermione Granger is the best friend of Harry Potter, the boy who lived." She straightened her back and grinned.
"Let me tell you a story about war, and secrets and how two people fell in love."
Lucien tipped his head to one side, excitement clear on his long face. "Well, do go on."
Vega sighed, stifling a yawn as she surveyed the scene before her. Madame Pomfrey had long since dropped into a doze, if the snores escaping from beneath the brim of her hat were anything to judge by. Senka was scratching a monstrous orange cat behind the ears and McGonagall was gazing resentfully out into the bright afternoon sunlight. Though only a few hours had passed, it seemed like years since she'd sat with her family and broken her fast. She felt a pout threatening but resisted, given the company.
Iliana sat beside Fleur, perched on the side of the bed, stroking her hair fondly. She was quiet, which was usually not a good sign, in Vega's experience. The other woman could stew and ruminate with the best of them. It was often more prudent to head her off at the pass, so to speak.
"Tell me more," she found herself saying, "about the sparrows." She spoke in English, in an effort to include McGonagall. Of course, if she'd actually been interested, she would have asked later, in secret. The witch stopped her pacing and sat, her eyes bright and curious.
"Yes, I wouldn't mind hearing more, myself."
Iliana sighed, aggravated. "Well, it's simple. There exists the dreaming, the place each of us venture at night. It is close, but also terribly far away, as all sensible people know. In that realm, one finds possibilities. It becomes possible to fly without wings, or to relive a childhood day."
"Or to encounter dreadful beasts," Senka added, a small grimace on her face.
Iliana's wings shifted with annoyance. "Anyway. The future is similar. It is something we can never touch, yet all experience, in due course. In the dreaming, the fantastical, nonsensical possibilities of the imagination exist along side with the possible, potential realities of the future. So, if one can navigate dreams, she may gain an insight into the future."
"It's an ability rarely found," Senka said, leaning forward. "Though there are pockets here and there. Us, some in the furthest east… It is more common in some populations than others."
"And," said Iliana, "if identified early on, can be trained. The talent may be honed. In each generation of our people, there are a few girls who may practice this art. Fleur was one."
"So you were allowed to prevent her, merely because her mother wouldn't have approved?" McGonagall asked, skeptically.
Iliana shrugged. "The live-span of a sparrow, once trained, is long indeed. There is no pressing need to fill the ranks, at this time. And it is rarely prudent to have too many."
McGonagall sighed, visibly annoyed. "What troubles me still is the fact that Fleur experienced a vision of Hermione's death. How do we know this jaunt into dreams won't kill her?"
Iliana sighed. "We don't. It's not unknown for these journeys to be fatal, especially for an untrained pair of fools such as these. Hopefully, I will be able to find help with my people."
McGonagall closed her eyes, pain clear in her bearing. "So this is it? Her surviving the Battle was nothing more than a brief reprieve?"
Senka leaned towards her. "We don't know that. Perhaps seeing that vision allowed Fleur to save her. Maybe this is how it's supposed to be."
"I can't help but feel," McGonagall said, her voice tremulous, "that it could very much go one way or the other, at this moment in time."
Vega held her tongue, but could not argue with the sentiment. Senka reached for her and she clasped her wife's hand firmly. The sensation that they were poised, ready to fly or fall, was palpable.
"I just wish we could help," the witch said, in a low voice, appearing older than Vega could ever recall seeing her.
"And the next thing I remember," Fleur said, her voice hoarse from speaking, "I was here. On a bank somewhere."
She was seated on the floor of the library, across from Lucien, who bore an expression of rapt enthrallment. He grinned broadly.
"My! That was some story! Brava!"
"Yes," a solemn voice intoned, from a dark nook several yards away, "indeed it was."
Lucien, with incredible agility for one so gangling, leapt to his feet. Fleur rose more slowly, taking stock of the newcomer. As with many others before her, the first thing that struck her about the person before her was his gaze. His eyes were dark, almost impossible to discern. They burned beneath a brow paler than newly fallen snow, like stars reflected in a winter puddle. But there was no doubt in her mind that he was watching her, calmly regarding her.
He was slim, she saw, dressed in plain robes. The only visible ornament was a large gem stone hanging around his neck. His hair was unruly, though unlike her beloved's, seemed genuinely unkempt. It was as though he had much more important things to consider than mere hair.
"My Lord," Lucien said, startled. "Oh, you caught me dallying. I do apologise. Allow me to present Fleur, a dreamer, a witch and a daughter of the Veela. She's searching for her one true love."
Fleur's eyebrow twitched at the summary. It made her feel quite ridiculous, to be described as a grown adult's one true love. But she sketched a bow for the Lord before her, despite herself.
"Fleur, this is Dream of the Endless, ruler of the dreaming."
"Thank you for allowing me entrance," she said, respectfully.
Mirth danced on Dream's lips. "Well, it's not my place to debar dreamers. I bid you welcome, Fleur of the Veela. I haven't spoken with one of your seers for a long time. How sleeps the forest?"
Fleur blinked, sure that confusion was clearly written on her face. "Oh, I'm not a seer. I'm here searching for Hermione." Fleur wasn't entirely sure that the Veela had seers. She'd have to ask her grandmother.
"Her one true love, sire," Lucien piped up. Fleur blushed, earning a cackling laugh from Matthew.
"Oh," he said, frowning briefly. "How odd. You shouldn't be able to walk so freely here, then. Most unusual." He paused for a moment, his chin in his hand as he peered at her. "Ah. I see. Well, it is easily remedied. It's time for you to return to the waking world."
"No!" Fleur shouted, her hands flying up. "No! Please, I won't leave without Hermione!"
Dream frowned and folded his arms. After a tense moment, he released a sigh. "Very well. Do you have anything that belongs to her?"
Fleur blinked. She patted her pockets dumbly, searching for so much as a sweet paper. Sadly, her search was fruitless. Her eyes flew to the impassive, distant depths of the dream king's, before they slid sideways, spying the bookshelves.
"Wait," she breathed. "Lucien, please. Does Hermione have a book here?"
Lucien chuckled. "Why, miss Granger has several."
A shaggy grey dog lay with his head on his paws, staring out over a busy London street. He yawned once, turning his attention to the pile of rags tucked into a doorway behind him. A small, vein coloured fish popped out of the jumble, eyeing him before retreating into the noisome depths.
A passing stranger, with very shiny shoes, dropped a coin onto a plate in front of him.
Barnabas lifted his head and peered at the little copper disc.
"Stingy city bastard," he muttered to himself. A jewel green fish flitted between his ears and he closed his eyes.
"Here," Lucien said, handing down several impossibly large volumes, each bound in enough leather to keep Vega happy for several years. "Hogwarts: A History; Complete and Unabridged, with Startling New Chapters Correcting Grievous and Stupid Errors."
Fleur caught the book, staggering briefly under its weight.
"Here are the next three volumes," Lucien called.
Fleur's eyes widened, but she was saved by the presence of Matthew, who swooped down with a slim, brightly coloured volume. Dream plucked the book from his talon, smiling with amusement.
"Stories I Hope to Tell Teddy, and Other Assorted Small People," he read. "Yes. Much better. Thank you, Lucien."
Lucien, in his element perched atop a rickety ladder with several stone of hardcover books, waved merrily. Fleur scowled and set Hermione's History down carefully. She peered curiously at the little book in the Dream Lord's hands, but couldn't quite make it out. For a fleeting moment, she wanted nothing more than to read it; to see Hermione's thoughts laid bare.
"I know where she is," he said, quietly. He held the book up and a startlingly long arm swooped down and snatched it from his hand. "Come with me, Fleur."
He stepped forward, through a hazy piece of the world, into somewhere bright. Glaring. She hurried after him and, when her vision cleared, saw that she was on a familiar moor. Frowning, she spun around, trying to get her bearings. In the distance, perhaps a couple of miles away, sat a horrible, squat little hovel.
Her breath caught. The memory of Bellatrix's cruel mouth and painted lips flashed through her mind. The feeling of Hermione's ribs beneath her hands. The rattling of her last few breaths within her chest. Matthew called above them, his tattered wings dark against the grey sky.
"She's there?" she asked, turning to Dream. He nodded, though he appeared somewhat confused.
"She's not alone," he said, quietly. "My older sister is there, too."
Fleur felt the blood drain from her face.
Dream, older than the stars. Older than galaxies, was not the first of the Endless, if Eve had spoken truly.
Fighting back a scream of terror, Fleur ran.
Hermione sat, her mouth dry as she regarded the other woman. She looked around Fleur's age but something told Hermione that she was far, far older. Her eyes flickered around her form in the dim light, resting on the necklace she wore.
"I know you probably don't want to hear this," the other woman said, interrupting her train of thought gently, "but I don't think it's fair that you be kept in the dark."
She drew one foot up onto the inglenook, letting her knee rest lazily against the wall. Her torn jeans, frayed and scuffed, seemed to have gotten that way honestly, rather than by design. Hermione frowned, looking at her face again. Was it a tear drop painted on her cheek, or something else? Something flitted at the very edge of recollection and her frustration grew when she couldn't resolve it more clearly.
"You were almost killed during the Battle."
Hermione was surprised that this woman knew of such things, as she appeared very much to be a muggle, but nodded warily. She was slightly shaken to hear such a thing but, on even brief reflection, realised that the Battle had been incredibly dangerous. It was a miracle they'd made it out relatively unscathed. It was a miracle they hadn't lost more.
"The Dementors," she guessed, remembering the chill that had permeated her soul. The utter despair of knowing that death was at hand. The yawning, screaming void that had opened in the night air around her.
The girl shook her head. "No. Your friends were there to keep you safe. You were never in any danger from those awful things. But you were when you destroyed the cup. It should have left you incapacitated, vulnerable. Which would have changed the whole course of the Battle."
Hermione frowned, remembering stabbing a yellowed fang into soft metal. There'd been the echo of a scream, and some aquatic dramatics from the Chamber walls, but nothing remarkable. She and Ron had exited the Chamber drenched but exultant; ready for the next step. "It didn't harm me at all."
"No, it didn't," she agreed. "It harmed Fleur, instead." Hermione's heart made its presence known once more and she swallowed. This woman knew Fleur, too? And, more importantly, Fleur had suffered on her behalf during the Battle?
"What happened to her?" she asked, quietly. "We, I mean, we haven't spoken about it. About the Battle." A cowardly part of her almost wished that they never would, though it was shrinking, as time passed.
"Well, she wasn't too badly hurt," the woman said, gently. "She was able to fight it, mainly because she's strong, was further away and hadn't earned the personal hatred of the guardian of that cup."
Hermione was curious. "But she was nowhere near me. I don't even know where she was, at that stage. I didn't see her until we met the Dementors. How could she have been hurt at all?"
The woman frowned, as though disappointed that Hermione wasn't keeping up.
"She made you a promise, didn't she? Only the night before?"
Hermione felt her mouth gape open.
A pale hand swept dark hair over her ear and she nodded.
"Yes. The ritual. I doubt you realised that it was powerful enough to protect you from Death, yet here we are."
A young City of London bank worker paused to tie his shoelace. As soon as he grasped the tan lace, he realised, too late, that the laces were rat-tails and that he was, in fact. sporting two of London's biggest, foulest brown vermin on each foot.
The screams echoed over the gentrified banks of the Thames. A blue fish broke the surface of the river, peering up blankly before submerging once more.
Hermione was quiet, digesting all that she'd heard. Her throat was tight and it took several attempts before she could speak.
"Was I meant to die, that night?"
The pale woman nodded her head, with no malice and a hint of regret. "You were meant to fall. To have been unable to fight in the rest of the Battle."
Hermione swallowed thickly, her hand coming to her throat. "But I did fight. I didn't fall
She nodded again, apparently pleased that Hermione was keeping up. "Things changed. Things that don't often change. I thought it was important that you knew that."
"Why?" Hermione asked, her heart racing.
The woman smiled faintly. "Because you helped save the world and earned an explanation, maybe? Harry got his, why shouldn't you?"
"You're not Dumbledore, though," Hermione pointed out.
"No!" she laughed. "No, I'm not. And I'm not the heartless bitch you all think I am, either."
Hermione chuckled. "You really don't seem heartless, not at all. In fact you seem very kind."
She smiled. "I get called that, too. But not usually by people your age."
Hermione was quiet for a moment. "So we changed things. There are going to be consequences, aren't there? There's a price for everything."
The girl scoffed. "No there's not, you know. The universe doesn't sit weighing out right and wrong, balancing it all on some set of cosmic scales. Things were one way. Then you did something so now they're another. Simple as that. From your point of view, things are as they should be. That's what's important."
"That said," she began, slowly, "there were prophecies made, in your world. Fortunes were foretold."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Please don't tell me you think there's a big… I don't know, book with all the future written out in it!"
The girl shrugged. "OK. I won't tell you. But just bear it in mind. You have, in some ways, broken free of prophesy. Or rather, you're on a path where you could escape its notice entirely. That could prove to be very useful."
"We all forge our own path," Hermione insisted, folding her arms. "If you start believing in destiny and the like, then you have to admit that there's no choice. That we're just playing out the roles assigned to us. I refuse to believe that. Destiny is an emergent phenomenon. We see random events occur and assign importance to them, depending on our point of view."
The girl chuckled. "Well. That's true. It is. But it's also true that there's a big book, with every thing that has ever happened written within it."
Hermione frowned. "Aren't those mutually exclusive?"
"Not if the book also contains all the possibilities." She smiled. "All of them, overlapping and endless."
Hermione nodded. "Well. It must be a very big book, then."
The girl nodded, her face wistful and somewhat distant. "It is a big book. It weighs as much as all of creation. In it is written all that was, all that is and all that will be." She chuckled. "Strange, to be talking about it here, in a place of things that never were and will never be."
Hermione took that in, her eyes drifting to a candle flame. "There's an idea, isn't there, that two things may exist at once. Unseen, until they're observed."
"At which point one becomes real," the girl agreed. "It doesn't work exactly like that, but it's a good start."
She sighed. "You live in a world filled with experts in divination and the like. A world rotten with prophecies. It's a rare talent to be beyond their scope."
Hermione shrugged. "Prophesy is what one makes of it. Even the prophecy made about Harry was, at the end of the day, fulfilled by the actions Voldemort took. If he'd ignored it, who knows what would have happened." She smiled. "But I appreciate the idea of evading them."
"Be careful," she said, softly. "Few people walk beyond the paths of destiny, Hermione. Few return the way they left."
Hermione was quiet for a moment. "There aren't many who walk any path unchanged. And I 'd rather do so of my own will. Of my own volition."
The girl smiled. "So be it. In the end, we'll meet again whatever happens."
Fleur's legs were burning, her breath coming in shallow pants as she threw herself up the last few paces to the little hovel. She didn't even reach for a weapon, this time, so complete was her anxiety and terror.
"Hermione!" she roared, flinging herself through the door way, her shoulder shoving the flimsy door out of the way. Her lover was half way to her feet, startled and blinking, and Fleur threw her arms around her, clutching her to her chest.
"Fleur," she laughed, "what's gotten into you?"
"Hermione," she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut and burying her face into the soft, fragrant skin of her neck. She inhaled, letting her senses fill with unique, beloved scent of the woman in her arms. Tears stung her eyes. "I thought you were lost."
"Fleur," she murmured, stroking Fleur's hair gently, sounding somewhat bemused. "I'm fine. I wandered around by myself for a bit. But I'm all right."
"Oh," Fleur gulped, swallowing a sob, "this place… You were alone here." Didn't she realise the danger? Didn't she realise what had happened here?
"It was fine," Hermione said, soothingly. "What happened to you?"
"She entered through nightmare," Dream said. Hermione squirmed, probably to see who else was here but Fleur did not loosen her grasp.
"She was accosted by one of my subjects. She was unharmed, but unable to awaken. She found refuge in the House of Mysteries with a group of my servants." Fleur's legs were trembling, weakening, and she fought the urge to collapse. Hermione was solid in her arms, steady and sure even if she was a bit confused.
"Nightmare?" Hermione echoed, her tone sharp. "What did your subject do?" she demanded, her fingers digging into Fleur's shoulders.
"Nothing that is not in its nature," Dream said, baldly. "Nothing that will harm her permanently."
"We all have nightmares," a short woman said, softly. Fleur's face whipped up, and she could feel the blood drain from it. Sitting where Bellatrix had, was a woman with chalky skin, bearing the Eye of Horus and wearing an ankh.
"The important thing is that we wake up from them," she finished. She had, some part of Fleur noted, a beautiful smile. She seemed very kind.
Fleur took several steps backwards, separating from the other witch but pulling Hermione with her. The was no way she was letting her lover anywhere near the being. Kind or not, she was death personified and Fleur wanted nothing to do with her.
"I still don't see how they're here," Matthew muttered from Dream's shoulder, confused. "I mean, she has Veela blood, so it is not impossible, but the other one should never have been able to enter by the paths she did, if I'm following this right."
"They performed a spell," Dream said, peering at the pair with his disconcerting eyes. Fleur tightened her grasp on Hermione's hand, wondering if now would be a good time to try and escape. "They made promises to one another. Cleaved to each other's fate. And they did this with blood."
"And they drifted off to sleep in a particularly soft place," Death reminded him. "I mean, it's kind of amazing they didn't stumble here sooner, don't you think."
The Lord of Dreams stood still, his dark, inscrutable gaze flicking between them all. Fleur gripped Hermione's hand as tightly as she could, her heart pounding in her chest. His sister laughed and hopped up out of the inglenook where she'd been perched. She pushed her unruly dark hair back over her forehead, her shadowed eyes soft with some private mirth.
"I'll leave this to you, little brother." She clapped him on the shoulder. "But don't be hard on them, they didn't mean to do it."
"It is not done," he muttered, a frown creasing his brow.
"Well, it clearly was!" she chirped. She stepped towards the pair of witches, drawing a small bundle, apparently from no where.
"Hermione, I think this belongs to you," she said, eyes tinged with sadness as she held her hands out.
Hermione frowned and took her hand from Fleur's grasp, leaving the blonde flexing her fingers nervously. Through the still air, the heavy and oppressive atmosphere, she stepped forwards. Unfolding the bundle revealed a familiar battered denim jacket. Fleur's heart leapt into her throat and she wanted to scream, such was the terror that overtook her at the sight.
"I didn't realise I'd lost this," Hermione muttered, frowning.
"You almost did," Death said, a wry expression crossing her face. She sighed. "I have to go. Duty calls. See you soon, little brother."
"And you, sister."
She rolled her eyes at the formal bow the man had sketched and shook her head at the girls. "Until we meet again."
Hermione smiled and gave a little wave, seemingly puzzled by proceedings.
"When?" Fleur croaked, her throat constricted and her eyes shining with unshed tears. "How long until then?"
Death smiled wryly. "Do you really need to know?"
"I… I want to know how much time I have…" with her.
By some miracle, or perhaps long experience, she seemed to know precisely what Fleur meant. She smiled again and turned for the door, stepping out into the grey light.
"You get what everyone gets, Fleur."
Her eyes were soft and dark. They were impossibly ancient but shone with hope and optimism. She held Fleur's gaze, steady and reassuring but without condescension. There was acceptance there, an acknowledgment that all things would end. That all would pass, in its own time.
"You get a life time."
And with that, she was gone.
The three of them walked in silence, Matthew following above them. He occasionally turned his wing and wheeled ahead, looping in great curves, but more often than not, he stayed within hearing range, perhaps expecting to hear something interesting. They came, eventually, to an immense gate. It was roughly hewn, great tree trunks lashed together. It was inlaid with jagged horn, unpolished and uninviting. There did not appear to be a way to climb over or around it and it seemed designed to rip the flesh from unwary hands.
Dream, however, reached surely into the centre of a tangle of horns and pulled, gently. The gate swung open silently, obeying its master's whim. He stood quietly for a moment, gazing out into the void beyond his borders.
"The last time," he said, speaking softly and quietly, "that I escorted a witch from this Kingdom, it did not end well. In fact, there was much harm done. I trust you two will not repeat her mistakes."
Hermione shook her head. "We never even intended to come here. We had no idea that it was even possible."
He turned to them, inscrutable and imperious.
"You didn't know that she has seer's blood?"
"No," Fleur answered, her hand firm around Hermione's. "I never knew."
He stood still for a moment, contemplating what they'd said. Neither knew what to expect, though a small part of Fleur was dreading punishment.
"The Dreaming is a source of magic for your kind, and a potent one at that," the Dream Lord intoned in his quiet, thoughtful voice. "One from which you both drew when the pain of separation became unbearable."
He turned his attention to Hermione, studying her carefully. "You, especially, have walked strange paths through here, recently. I'm still not entirely sure why. But I caution you to be wary."
He sighed, dipping his head for a moment. "It is my sisters who walk beyond the paths laid down by Destiny. If you wish to do the same, know that it will not be easy."
Hermione nodded, her face drawn and solemn. She tightened her grip on Fleur's hand, earning a small smile in return. This, apparently, didn't go unnoticed by Dream.
"It is not unknown for dreamers to accompany one another here but it is seldom wise. Accompany one another through the waking world, if you will. The Dream Marches are to be crossed alone. Otherwise, why traverse them at all?
"You have a mind each. A heart each. A soul each. Seek to compliment one another, not to become one another. Share your dreams in the waking world, as befits your kind."
He turned from them, facing away from his Kingdom. Hermione stepped forward, tugging Fleur after her.
"Could this happen again?" she asked, facing the quiet monarch.
"No," he said, quietly. "I will see to it. You don't have to worry. You'll each enter this place as you should."
"Thank you," Hermione said, softly. "I'm sorry we disrupted your realm."
Dream smiled briefly. "Oh, it's seen far worse in recent years. This will be forgotten by morning."
Hand in hand, they bid their farewells and stepped forward, into the void between worlds. Tumbling, briefly suspended in a place without time, without gravity and without sensation, they awoke, hand in hand.
Evening was falling, the light shifting into red and violet hues. Iliana stood beside her grand daughter, a traveling pack slung between her folded wings. Her face was lined with worry and uncertainty.
"It's time," she said, quietly. "Light fades. I can travel without worrying about detection. I will return, soon."
She lifted her proud face and pinned Vega with solemn eyes. "Please, look after her. It would break my heart…"
Senka laid an understanding hand on her shoulder. "We will. We'll look after both of them."
Iliana nodded and turned to the bed, leaning to kiss her grand daughter's brow. However, just after she began to stoop, the young woman's eyes shot open and she drew in a long, tremulous breath.
"Gramere?" she asked, blinking with confusion. "What's going on?"
A brief screech from the other side of the bed sounded and Hermione sat up, her eyes wide as they darted around the group of people standing in her bedroom.
"Fleur!?" she squeaked, gripping her lover's arm, "what's happening?"
Vega felt her mouth sag open, and couldn't contain the bark of laughter that escaped. "Well, you fell asleep and you couldn't wake up. Fleur came to get us. You seem better now, though."
Senka slapped her shoulder and sent a stinging glare her way. "Are you all right? What happened? Was it a curse?"
Fleur blinked, rubbing sleep from her eyes. Hermione shook her head dumbly, before glancing down at her nightdress. She swallowed and adjusted the neck line nervously.
"We, um, well, we got lost. I got lost. But Fleur found me. There wasn't a curse, don't worry."
"Did it have something to do with the spell?" McGonagall asked, peering over the top of her glasses. "The spell you cast on the beach."
Hermione's eyes widened to a comical degree and she whirled to face Fleur.
"You told them!?"
Rain fell beneath orange lights, bathing the world around her in lurid neon tones. She knew that this was the single most likely colour to attract the sort of people she liked, so she was standing with her doggy, idly scratching his head.
"You know, I once was in a place where hats talked."
"Hats always talk," Barnabas replied, leaning his heavy head against her leg. "Or, well, they have people to do that for 'em. Why go to the bother of speaking, when some chump can flap his gums for you?"
The girl smiled. She tipped her face up into the rain, her mismatched eyes sparkling in the sea of slow falling droplets.
Several hours, and many cups of tea, later, the pair of witches had recounted their adventures as best they could. They'd been quizzed and interrogated, unhappy at the intrusion but sheepishly compliant. Eventually, Fleur's eyes had begun to droop and Vega had nudged her wife, gently.
"Well, I don't know about you, but we have to get back to the village. Iliana, are you coming?"
Iliana, being used to the mannerisms of the little queen, did not protest. She kissed her grand daughter's brow and nodded curtly at Hermione before sweeping out of the little cottage.
"We'll take our leave as well," McGonagall stated, standing and nodding primly at Pomfrey. The nurse bustled after her, tired and vaguely shell shocked.
McGonagall paused as she drew level with Hermione, fixing her with a stern gaze.
"Miss Granger," she said, her lips drawn into a thin line. "I trust this doesn't change your desire to complete your schooling?"
Hermione frowned. "No! Of course not."
"Good. But," she leaned forward, peering over the rims of her spectacles. "Might I remind you that Hogwarts students must abide by certain rules. You will, when you return, be inside the portrait of the Fat Lady by ten o'clock, midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. With no guests. Do I make myself clear?"
Hermione's jaw dropped. She opened her mouth to protest but, spying the hard look on the headmistresses' face, nodded meekly instead.
"And," she said, turning to Fleur, "I'm sure you wouldn't even consider encouraging Miss Granger to flout these rules, would you?"
Fleur swallowed. "Perish the thought, headmistress."
"Good. I'm glad we all understand one another." She sighed. "Oh well. It could be worse."
Hermione frowned, completely taken aback. "Headmistress?"
"At least neither of you can get the other pregnant!"
With that she swept out of the little cottage, leaving several shocked witches in her wake.
A young woman dressed in ripped jeans stood beside a wailing infant, frowning. His mother and father lay close by, unmoving in the cold night air. He reached chubby arms out to her, inconsolable. Blood seeped from a jagged wound on his forehead, stinging his eyes.
"Sorry, kiddo," she said, stepping carefully to avoid the dark stain beneath the cot. "Not tonight."
In the fitful light cast by a smouldering fire, three witches sat in pensive silence. One wore the form of a monstrous breast while the other two were unusually beautiful. Each bore a similar burden, though, easily perceived around the eyes.
"We knew," began Gabriela Senka, "we knew before we came here that it was a soft place."
"Indeed," Iliana agreed. "It is the main reason we had for coming at all."
Vega, her inky hair burnished by the flames stared into the dark corners of the Queen's chambers, silent and stoic.
"But," Senka continued, "to be so soft… I didn't think it was possible."
Iliana sighed. "We would never had known how bad it is, if not for Fleur and the girl."
Senka frowned. "She does have a name, you know. Don't be rude."
Iliana huffed. "I challenge you to be as kind to who ever has the misfortune of becoming Celeste's first paramour!"
Vega's eye shot up. "That," she said, her voice low and rumbling, "will not be happening for at least three decades."
Senka rolled her eyes and Iliana chuckled. "We shall see."
They were quiet again, the brief humour evaporating swiftly.
"There is much to do," Senka said, quietly.
"There is," Iliana agreed.
"Do we tell Fleur anything?" Vega asked, "or McGonagall?"
Iliana was quiet for a moment, contemplating the question. "For now, we say nothing. This may be nothing more than echoes from the Battle."
Vega and Senka nodded. Iliana closed her eyes and, in a rare show of weariness, dropped her head to her hands.
"At least, I hope."
The cottage was quiet, finally. The fire snapped in the stove as Fleur tidied cups and saucers onto the dresser. She sighed, rubbing her tired eyes.
She entered her bedroom, surprised to find it almost dark. The makeshift curtains had been draped over one of the curtain poles, covering the window which looked towards the path, while the other remained bare. Moonlight shone in, illuminating her lover's outline as she sat on the edge of the bed. Her hair was pulled back in an untidy bun, several tendrils escaping to flow over her long, pale neck.
Hermione did not turn her head, clearly lost in thought as she watched the reflection of moonlight on the lake. Fleur, overcome with relief and gratitude, knelt on the bed behind her, touching the nape of her neck with reverent fingers. Hermione leaned back minutely and Fleur leaned forward, kissing the bare skin softly.
Her lover exhaled and silently stood, taking the hem of her t-shirt and peeling it off. She draped the discarded garment on the bed frame and turned, kneeling to face her. Her skin glowed in the moonlight and Fleur swallowed, overcome.
"You came for me," Hermione said, dark eyes soft beneath sooty eyelashes. "Thank you."
Fleur lifted her hand again and touched her face. Hermione's skin was soft and warm and real. This was no dream. That world of half shadows and implicit falsehoods was behind them, for now. She moved closer, their knees touching in a pool of cold, silver light.
"I will always come for you," she whispered, her fingers dropping from Hermione's face, trailing along her neck to rest in the well between her collar bones. Her lover's mouth was parted and her eyes bore into her, intense with passion.
"What happened was impossible," she whispered.
"That's true," Fleur agreed, running her fingers down Hermione's breast bone, reluctantly pulling away long enough to discard her own clothes. "But it happened, none the less. Like it or not, you will never be alone, abandoned, as long as I draw breath."
Hermione's gaze fell to her chest and abdomen. Without glamour, she sat revealed. Body and soul, naked with scars shining. With nothing to hide. Strands of hair fell across Hermione's brow and Fleur brushed them away fondly. Hermione did not smile, but her solemn eyes revealed nothing but peace.
She lifted her hands and touched Fleur's shoulders, guiding her forward as she herself knelt up. Fleur found her face cradled against the curve of Hermione's breast and wrapped her arms around her lover, greedy for the sensation of skin on skin as she pressed them together. One arm beneath, around her thighs, and one above, palm splayed between her shoulder blades. Renewal and revelation offered in equal measure.
Hermione kissed her head, burying her face in her hair as she wound her fingers through. Fleur could hear her heart and breath; air and blood surging beneath her. She pressed her lips to the soft skin beneath her, lingering and unwilling to pull away.
"Neither will you," her lover whispered, her grip tightening. "Never. And if you ever need me, I'll come find you, too."
It was some time before either moved. Before they lay down together and wrote those same promises across each other's bodies in silver, dappled light.
In the northern-most reaches of Scotland, there is a castle. In the shadow of that great fortress sits a little cottage with a crooked roof and small windows. Within that cottage you would, if you were lucky, find two witches. They are both talented and cunning, in the manner of their respective people. They are not yet wise, but only because they are still young. They know spells the likes of which would cause mundane minds like yours and mine to scream to the heavens. They know secrets of this world the likes of which would tear the veil from the void, expose it to even mundane eyes, like yours and mine.
But there is much they do not know. They do not know how long their lives will last. They do not know how much time has been granted for the love they share. They do not know what the future will hold. They do not know if this night will be the last they ever share or if it will be one of many. They do not know what the dawn will bring or the meaning behind the patterns of moonlight on the lake.
They know, though, the sounds the other makes. The sounds they make together. They know the scent and taste of their shared joy. They know that no matter where the paths of the future lead they will, for a while at least, share the journey.
They know, with surety and confidence and independent of one another, that walking together would be a good thing. It's a simple certainty that makes the myriad uncertainties seem unimportant. That their lives will be better if they remain with one another, though neither could hazard a guess as to how they know this.
They suspect that there is a bond between them, though neither would speculate regarding its nature. It is new and perhaps fragile but still strong enough to make impossible things happen. It frightens each of them, though intrigues and excites them, too. After all, it isn't every day that one is chased (or chases) through dreams.
We leave them now, to their quiet slumber and peace. To be soothed by the whisper of night wind through browning rushes and the thrilling of night birds. Leave them in each other's arms, to find that peace they may, in the time allowed.
The castle is still splendid at night. Moonlight washes over the slates and glints on dark windows. Soft light spills here and there, with steam from the kitchen and smoke from a fire. The kitchen workers relax with bottles of frothy liquid and sing in their cellar. Ancient warlocks and witches sit drinking brandy around a warm fire, talking softly.
It is quiet and perfect, and empty rooms beckon. Surely there's room for another? Surely they need another pair of hands? The world recedes from you, though you ache to stay. The fields and hedges blur beneath you and the stars streak together. It's time to leave, though you wish with all your heart that you could stay.
Will you be back? Will this dream repeat itself when next you sleep? Will the castle be there, waiting and perfect. Will you walk its halls this time? Explore its depths? Will you meets its inhabitants? Will you hear their stories?
The waking world tugs at you, stirring you from the depths of slumber. You have seen much but what will you remember, once this dream ends? What will remain in your mind's-eye, in the cold light of day? Pray, do not answer aloud. We all deserve our secrets.
But even if you forget all else, remember that there is a place where impossible things happen. A place where heroes and monsters abound. A place where true love does awaken the sleeping beauty.
Wake softly, and gently. Until the next time.
Well, your thoughts and ideas, now that it's finished, would be much appreciated. Hang in there! Stick me on alert. The next one's less weird, I promise.