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3. THE GIFT
She woke to the sun beating on the exposed skin of her arms and thighs. Her whole torso felt squeezed and abraded, as if she were once again cinched into that corset Suze had tried to persuade her to wear under her wedding dress. Something was draped over her, something large and heavy, like a fleece, but much thicker. She opened her eyes and saw an orange mist of circle shapes, which resolved itself into curls as she focused. No sheep of the McGonagall flocks was that color. But it wasn't a fleece, or even a blanket weighing her down.
"Dug?" she croaked, then screamed, "Dugald!"
He was sprawled over her and some upthrust rocks she was caught between. The bulk of his body balanced on their rounded points, his head hung down close to hers, and there was blood on his face.
"Dug! Dearie, wake up—please—wake up--"
He stirred and took some time to open his eyes. Then he rolled off of her, groaning. She felt suddenly cold in spite of the sunshine and realized that she was wearing only her shift, and that it was so torn, she might as well have been nude. She struggled out of the rocks' embrace and shielded what she could with her hands. "Can—can you give me something to cover myself with?"
"Not my kilt," he said, averting his eyes. "I've nothing on under it." She saw that he had on the remains of a lawn shirt. He stripped it off and tossed it to her. "Will that do?"
She made it do, slipping it over her head and tying the torn ends together as best she could. They straggled, limping, back up the hill. At its crest, she perceived, gratefully, that their only audience was a flock of small foraging birds. When they were on the downslope, she regained breath enough to ask the question, "What happened?" but he remained silent until they got back inside the cottage.
Sinking onto the sofa, he muttered thickly, "You changed—last night."
"Yes, I remember. I took off my gown, and—"
"Not that kind of change. The Change."
"You mean--I became my cat?”
"Aye, you hid under the bed and scratched me, then you bolted."
"What? No… that's impossible... I… I fell asleep. I did have a dream about cats—a nightmare. They were toms—" Toms.
"You mean you don't remember Changing?" He sounded unconvinced.
It shocked her into anger. "I was drunk out of my mind," she hissed.
He glared at her a moment, then nodded. "Och aye, you were. Stinkin' drunk!"
The accusation stung her. "No worse than you," she retorted.
He rose and strode to her, waggling a finger. "But I, unlike you, can hold my liquor."
They were eye to eye now. "I'll have to agree with you there," she growled. "You've the bulk for it." She smacked his stomach with the back of her hand.
"You've never minded it before. In fact, I always thought you rather—cherished—my—bulk—" He rubbed his gut, which was actually quite flat, and winced.
For the first time, she got a good look at the deep scratches on his face and chest. "Och—no—did I do that?"
"Aye. Well… yer Creature did."
Her hands flew to her mouth. "Dugald… I'm so sorry."
"You ran from me. I followed you up the hill."
"I remember running… in my dream. But you could never have caught me—"
"But I did." His eyes widened. "I think… I flew."
"You did? Aye, I remember... it was a bird pursued me. Your kestrel?"
"Oh dearie, that's wonderful!" She wanted to hug him, but hesitated. His skin looked so raw, and she saw now that the shirt she was wearing—his shirt--was stiff with gore.
He ran a hand through his hair. "I… just realized… I can't believe it. I've never been able to do it… so easily…."
"Need drove you."
"No, I'd say it was more frustration and out-and-out Macmillan rage."
"But you didn't hurt me—not at all."
"Nae, but you might have a few scratches on yer back from where I tried to slow you down."
She felt deeply ashamed. "You were in control. Whereas I was not."
He grinned. "As you say: you were bung full, and your brains were a wee bit pickled."
She returned his grin. "Let me clean you up." She went to the dry sink, filling a bowl with water from her wand, and Accio-ing a clean cloth, a bottle of witch-hazel, and some bandages.
"I'm all right—" he protested.
"No, you're not." She chivvied him to the sofa. "You could get Cat-Scratch Fever."
"Arrr, that's just an old hag's tale."
"Still, you don't look very appealing, striped like a—what do they call it? A Muggle zebra." They sat down and she gently poked at his forehead with the dampened cloth. Dried blood and dirt came away in clots onto her minimally covered lap. The wounds bled afresh, and she cleaned them with the astringent.
"Ouch! Woman, are ye tryin' to blind me?" He grabbed her hand and looked at her for a moment, then kissed the hand.
She finished her ablutions silently, briskly, holding at bay the wave of passion generated by that tiny gesture of forgiveness. She was still exhausted, and he looked drawn. "How do you feel?" she asked finally as she Banished the improvised first aid kit.
"Och, sore all through my back. I've never flown much before. Wing muscles out of shape, you ken?" He was staring at her bare legs.
It was time for a rational decision. She stood up and took his hand. "You must get some rest, young man."
He shrugged and obeyed like a sleepwalking child being led, unwaked, back to his warm bed. As he lay down, she tucked him in, then put her hands on his neck and massaged gently. "You're very taut. Shall I get you an opiate?"
"Naw… it's all… right…." In a moment, he was asleep and making snoring noises, like thunder rolling over the Cairngorms. She snuggled up behind him, uncovered and still unusually warm. She was tired herself, though less sore. After all, she had had many opportunities to exercise her feline muscles since the Change became second nature to her. This was—what?—only his second time? She smiled. He could practice flying and hunting in the Outback and come back at Christmas to register as an Animagus. That would please him.
She tried to sleep, but, as she closed her eyes, a new vision invaded her peace.
She was her dark tabby once again, pursued, not by other cats, but by humans, a horde of them with flaming torches and pitchforks, all screaming. She heard cries from all sides, "The witch's Familiar," "Kill it," "Quick, before it can change again," and "We gotta drown it," "Nar, better to burn the demon!"
A net dropped over her, and the crowd cheered. She was dragged through the streets, poked at with stakes, reviled, her fur torn, her skin abraded. She writhed in panic at her certain fate, tearing, pulling at the mesh, as a tantalizing, ominous smell of fish strengthened.
Her captors lifted her overhead and flung her out over the water. She felt the shocking cold and sank beneath the surface, rowling and thrashing. She felt her breath stifled as water entered her lungs.... Then she felt the Change begin to take her over, yet again…
Minerva sat bolt upright, gasping for air, refusing to give in to that easy escape. What was this? No simple nightmare, it felt unnatural, like a spell, some hex that would not let her sleep. That cat book… All the images came from there….
She threw on a robe, strode to the kitchen, took a bit of powder from the Floo pot, and transported--first to the library at Connghaill, then to St. Mungo's.
"I must see Madam… I mean, Healer… erm… Wallace… I think."
"Is she your personal Healer?" the desk clerk queried, checking a roster. "Hmm… there's no Wallace here…."
"Try McGonagall then."
"Here it is. Still assigned to Artefact Injuries."
"That's what I need." She raced away.
"But, Miss," the clerk called after her, "she'll be gone off-duty by now.… "
Minerva pushed through the double doors and forced herself into a sedate saunter, craning right and left at side rooms as she passed them. She was concentrating so hard on this, she bumped into a figure coming the other way, calling over a shoulder to two other figures at the far end of the corridor.
"Oh, sorry," she muttered, then, "Minerva, my dear, what are you doing here? Is Dugald--is everyone all right?"
"Yes, yes, Ma, everyone but me, I'm afraid."
Her mother's eyes grew wide. She pulled her daughter into an examining room and pushed the door to. "What do you mean?"
"This." Minerva pushed the book into her hands. "Don't open it. I think it's bewitched." She told her mother how she'd received the book as, she thought, a generous, anonymous gift, reading it, the nightmares, the Change, the realization….
Her mother went to a drawer and took out a weighty glass sphere. It had what looked like an eye suspended in it. "Spell-detector," she said.
"I know," Minerva nodded, having had one used on her before by Auror Brown when she was suspected of being a German spy.
Healer-in training McGonagall passed the eye over the book, at which it turned a sickly yellow. Then she turned it on her daughter; the eye remained thoroughly jaundiced.
"Yes," she said, "it's a minor hex. They're common enough, but sometimes tricky to lift. Director Ardmore is the expert in these matters. Let's see if he's still in his office."
He was. "Iffie," he cried, a delighted smile on his face. "And Minerva. I understand felicitations are in order."
Minerva nodded as he took her hand and squeezed it warmly.
"But weren't the nuptials only yesterday? What are you doing here?"
"Gift-hex, Jason," Healer McGonagall said crisply, handing him the book. He took it gingerly and placed it on his desk, then gestured them to sit.
"Ah, how could I forget?" said Director Ardmore, "Jealous hearts and unrequited passion. A common enough reason for newlyweds to turn up in our emergency rooms. So I take it you had a previous amour, Minerva? Before Dugald?"
"No, not at all," she protested vehemently.
"Then who could have sent it?"
"I don't know, but—I was Head Girl last year—I may have made some enemies then."
"So you think it might have been perpetrated by some disgruntled student prankster."
"Well, there is likely more than one…."
"An entire house, do you think?"
"Surely not!" She thought of the Slytherins—and the Macnairs. "At least… I hope not."
He smiled. "Did your attentions lose anyone the House Cup, perhaps?"
"I—I don't think so. It's just a guess. But does it even matter? What I need to know is how to get rid of this blasted curse before—Great Circe, he's only here one more day—" She put her hand over her mouth and blinked back tears.
Director Ardmore looked bewildered, but her mother patted her hand, knowing just what was bothering her. "Jason, she's having nightmares, visions of what she's read in the book. She can't sleep, and her husband's being shipped out to Australia in a few days."
The Director raised his eyebrows at this.
"It's to do with his job," she explained. "We need to act on this quickly. Can you help?"
He whipped out a small glowing telescope, which he used to study the patient's eyes, her ears, her teeth, and oddly, her cheeks and fingernails. Then he donned a pair of Spectoculars and looked her up and down. He ran his finger across a shelf of books behind him and selected a thick tome. He checked the table of contents, opened to the relevant pages and read, mumbling, "Detector shows… patient, as well as suspected hexing agent… yellow… aura, blotchy, reddish,… pores clogged… ocular shadowing…" He turned a few pages and read some more. "Oh, this is devilish clever."
"What is?" The two witches asked.
He answered their question with another. "Minerva, didn't you tell me once that you were an Animagus?"
"And if I know the signs, your familiar is a cat."
"Yes. How did you know?"
"Incipient whiskering in the pores of your cheeks…. An aura peculiarly shaded with what looks like tiger striping…. some residual, shallow tufts of fur… and you've developed a rudimentary tapetum… that—ah—curious, reflective layer in the feline retina…."
Her mother cut him off gently. "That's all very interesting, Jason. But what about the hex?"
"Ah yes, it seems your daughter is being plagued by a spell which agitates the lycanthropic or animagical principle. It's often tied to the libido, as well…. We should run some tests…. It'll just take a few days…."
"A few days?" Minerva wailed. "I haven't got a few days."
"He's just being cautious, my dear," said her mother. "Please, Jason, isn't there something quicker?"
"I could examine the evidence myself…." He picked up the book and started riffling its pages.
"Don't!" cried Minerva. "What if it contaminates you too?"
"Oh, I'm sure I'm immune, not being an Animagus myself."
He turned to the flyleaf, read the inscription, then studied it by the light he called forth from his wand, a greenish light unlike the usual Lumos Minerva was used to. "Mmm… as I expected… runes. And a paw print. And I think… he took a small penknife from his pocket and pried something off the paper… claws." He set the book before them, the light still shining on it, so the two witches could see what he was talking about. There it was, a set of runes surrounding the scrawled dedication, black in the greenish light. And a smudgy mark of toes around a foot pad, a cat's or Kneazle's probably.
"Those runes," said Minerva, "They're ancient Scandic for V and L—then D or T—then M, I think, and R—yes, R—and again, D or T."
Her mother wrote the letters down. "It makes no sense," she said, handing the scrap of parchment to her daughter.
"If I'm right, they're penned in blood," said the director grimly.
"And the claws?"
"—were yanked out. There are still traces of dried tissue clinging—here—and here."
Minerva shuddered. "The poor thing. Was it killed, do you think?"
"There's no knowing from the small amount of blood used. But it was subject to some pain, I'm sure."
"Pain is not a necessary element to this type of hex, but tearing claws out by the root would give discomfort, yes."
"How do we get rid of the hex?"
"We'll need another feline, that's certain."
"What?" cried Minerva. "No, I'll not put another poor creature through that."
"Hush, dear," said her mother. "The creature won't be harmed in any way. But it may have to be Imperiused to get it to destroy the book."
"Yes, it's usual with written hexes," said the Director. "The book has to be ripped to shreds, if possible, or otherwise defaced, so that all the pages are rendered unreadable. We could do it ourselves, but it works much better if the razing is effected by a creature of the same genus as the one that contributed to its construction."
"I can do that," said Minerva, her lip curling into a nasty grin. "In fact, it would be my pleasure."
"What?" said the Director, and then, "Oh," as she shrank into her tabby form before him.
He placed the book on the rug. She started pawing at it, then exercised her claws a bit. Pretty soon, the cover was reduced to so much chaff. She rolled over and pulled it onto her chest. She proceeded to disembowel it with fast sharp kicks of her powerful hind legs. It literally was falling to pieces now. She sat up and looked up at the director.
"That's not enough," said Jason Ardmore. "Every word, every picture must be obliterated so it cannot be read."
The cat danced over to a wastebasket, got behind it, and butted it with her head, knocking it over. Parchment and newsprint came spilling out.
"What the devil—?" the Director cried, but Iffie caught his arm and breathed, "They're old papers aren’t they, Jason?"
The cat sauntered back to the teased and tormented lump of book and picked it up in her mouth. She strolled over to the trash spread out on the carpet. She shook the book hard; ragged leaves scattered over the pile of paper. Then she straddled the largest bit and relieved herself all over it, moving slowly to other smaller clumps until it was all thoroughly wetted down. A strong, acid miasma rose in the room. She finished up with some desultory pawing and scratching which threw a few shreds of newspaper over the destruction.
Then she changed back. "Is that good enough?" she asked. "I hope so. I'm completely… erm… drained."
The Director squatted down and lifted a few sodden leaves with the tip of his quill. "Yes, the ink is running. That'll do nicely." He rose and examined her again with his own Magic Detector. You should have no further trouble, if I'm any judge."
After kissing her mother, Minerva made her way out the door. She heard the Director's voice float out after her, "We should report this, you know," but she had other things on her mind, specifically her husband, and what he might think if he woke to find her gone—again. She Floo-ed home, thinking of the Director's last words. Did she want him to know who V - L - D or T - M - R - D or T was? Did she want know? She thought she might already, but she wasn't sure. The reference to tom cats made her think. And something Flossie Vector had said last year about a Lord Voldemort. She knew she wouldn't tell Dug about any of it though. She expected he would have enough on his mind for the next year or so without worrying about this.
He was still asleep when she dashed into the room, but, having rolled over onto his side, infinitely quieter. She joined him under the fleece and fell, finally into a sweet, dreamless sleep.
There was the sun again, but muted now on her face, a westering chunk of glowing coal. She heard a sound in their kitchen-cum-parlor. He was stumbling about, man-fashion, humming contentedly, as if he'd just discovered a new use for Dragon's Blood.
She moved; the bed creaked.
"You up, dearie?" he called.
"No," she replied. A smell of food cooking—overcooking— came to her. The haggis, surely. He'd placed it too near the coals, and for too long.
"Are you hungry?" he called.
He entered, looking comfortably domestic in a fresh shirt and soft pantaloons, tied in the front with a drawstring. He had a pan in one hand and a fork in the other, and was chewing diligently.
"That the haggis?" she asked.
"Aye. Want some? It's even better hot."
"I know. Thanks, but no."
He sat on the bed next to her and rested the all-but-empty pan on the floor. "What can I get you then? Some of that fruit? Ale?"
Her forehead pressed against his buttocks. She spoke into the cloth; her breath came back at her, hot and moist. "None of those," she murmured, hooking an arm about his waist.
He wriggled his bum. "Aw, I like that feeling. Good for my strained thews."
"I was hoping you wouldn't mind straining them a bit more on my behalf," she countered in a small voice.
"What? Yer not going to run off again, are ye?"
"Never. I'm for staying right here. And… I'd very much like it… if you would join me."
"Really? I like the sound of that." He turned to her and brought his legs up onto the bed, slipping an arm under her torso and drawing her partly up onto his chest. He stroked her arm, then her cheek.
"You're going soon," she observed, trying to keep her voice steady.
"Aye. Tomorrow night."
"We've wasted one night already."
"You might say that."
"Let's not waste another."
"It's all right darlin' we don't have to—"
"But you want to, and… I do to."
"But we'll go slow, dearie. I don't want you to be afraid—or hurt—"
"Hush," she whispered, drawing her hand across his mouth. "I want you now, I want to hold you close, for as long as I can." She did not say, I'll miss you terribly.
His voice went hoarse, and she watched the dear flush go rampant on his cheeks and neck. "Did you take that potion—you know—"
"The contraceptive, aye. Goodie says it'll do for the better part of a week. I'm nicely stoppered up."
He looked horrified at that. "No!"
"It's only a figure of speech, dearie."
"Oh, good. You women with yer witching ways and all… "
"I know. We're quite the mystery, aren't we?" She straightened up and kissed him boldly. Suze had told her about French kissing, but she wasn't sure she could stomach it—tongue to tongue. Now, so close to her love, and hungry to experience every bit of him, it suddenly seemed just exactly the right thing to start with. She relaxed and let her mouth, still open, slide down his neck. She nuzzled his shirt away from his collarbone and lapped at the hollow it made. He responded with an animal sound, and only just restrained himself from leaping onto her. She pressed a hand to his chest. He was burning and glowing now, just like the sunset. He found her breasts and tasted them through the thin robe. Her back arched, a reflex, the opposite to her cat's panic display; there was no fear in her now, only urgency, and frank, unbearable passion.
"Och," he mumbled, as she guided his hand to the soft flesh of her inner thigh, "I've always said you'd make a good teacher."
She picked at his drawstring, as if it were a bit of lint, murmuring, "I think we'll both be learning a thing or two this night."