Early in the morning, freshly showered and dry, Hermione stood naked in front of the full mirror in the bathroom, carefully checking every freckle on her light skin, every runaway curl of her hair and every little bruise that Draco Malfoy had left on her body. She thought about each bite and hard kiss and methodically started applying healing charms on the little tokens of her night.
“He is sand.” She told herself, willing the high Draco left in her veins to cool off.
“Go on…Clench your fist…”
Hermione finished the healing the last one on her thigh and watched the marks slowly vanish. She didn’t let herself caress them or leave one for obsessing over later. They were superficial anyways. The real brand of his touch was inside, somewhere she couldn’t reach or heal.
She finally met her eyes in the mirror reflection.
“Try holding him in, and watch him slip away from your little grasping fingers.” She whispered to herself, as she pulled and prodded her wild hair back into a tight braid, keenly aware of the rough tracks on her scalp that Draco’s long fingers running through her open locks had left. He liked her hair free, of pins and bands, of structure or style, and always messed it up at first opportunity.
She couldn’t help being jealous of her hair. What would freedom from all pins and bands and structure and control feel like to her?
When Minerva McGonaggal called Hermione for a meeting at work, she didn’t know that short discussion would turn her life on its head.
The witch knocked on her boss’s door and entered when called. McGonaggal sat all prim and proper behind her desk, back straight, glasses halfway down the nose, with just one small piece of parchment present on the fastidiously clean wooden surface. Hermione glanced to confirm that the parchment was the missive about Malfoy that she had sent McGonaggal two days back.
So, this was about that note.
“You must know why we are having this talk Miss Granger.” Minerva McGonaggal stated, calm, collected and sure of her position in their world.
“It is about my assignment.” Hermione nodded.
“Yes.” The older witch nodded back, “You are off the case.”
Hermione felt the ground getting yanked from under her feet.
“You haven’t had anything substantive to report since a month. You have reached the limit of your influence with Malfoy. Clearly, this secret friendship has run its course. I have identified a better fit for this job. Your talents are to be focused somewhere else.”
Hermione heard the words, refusing to face their consequences and tried her best to appear nonchalant while her thoughts ran a mile a minute.
Why was McGonaggal doing this? Months could pass without new information in such cases. What was the hurry? What changed? Why the sudden doubts about her effectiveness or influence?
“Limit of influence? What are you…” Hermione repeated the words to allow time for her mind to stop its spiral.
She abruptly stopped talking. And focused all attention on the witch in front of her.
McGonaggal’s eyes didn’t gain an ounce of warmth as she continued to talk.
“It should be a relief for you to stop having to sneak around behind everybody’s back. No one has seen you with Mr Malfoy and no one would be the wiser when you stop meeting him. You can move on with your life and other work. Leave this to someone in a better position to get close to him than you are.”
Hermione coldly noted that the churning in her gut was rage. Wisely, she kept it separate from the discussion, lest she lose McGonaggal’s favor. She pinched her face in a slight worried frown, the better to prove her commitment to the cause and utter professionalism.
“I have worked hard to build a friendship with Malfoy. We have history. He trusts me now, in his own way. He talks to me, confides… I am sure this is just a slump and new information may turn up. Can my replacement ensure this degree of familiarity without raising red flags? We have to cover all our bases here, lest something slip past scrutiny.”
Her input didn’t seem to bother the older witch. But Minerva did breath out a quite sigh, perhaps relieved that Hermione was taking this all as professionally as she was supposed to. Maybe her suspicions of Hermione’s growing attachment to Malfoy were unfounded after all. But the decision was already made, the replacement contacted and in place. Looking at the bigger picture, Hermione was better suited for the straightforward but exacting task of keeping tabs on written communications of people of interest. Sneaking around, lying and hiding one’s true self must be taking a toll on the younger witch. Minerva was sure she was doing Hermione a favor.
Confident in her righteous decision, McGonaggal addressed Hermione’s concerns as best as she could.
“You need not worry. Your replacement doesn’t need a cover or build a relationship, being already in the inner circle. Most importantly, she doesn’t need to hide her association with him.”
A female then. From the inner circle no less.
Another emotion joined the bubbling rage, trying to tip the proverbial cup of her sanity over. It looked disturbingly like… insecurity. What if this new female made a connection with Malfoy? She was already inner circle. A pureblood then. What if he decided to hold on to this pureblood? Draco wouldn’t need to hide her like he obviously did Hermione.
Hermione stopped the runaway train of her inner teenage witch and scoffed at herself.
She had no need to feel less than adequate. Despite his constant need for foul words, Draco did allow her unprecedented liberties. She just needed to wait this insanity out, till Minerva McGonaggal realized that Draco Malfoy didn’t like or trust anyone. He certainly didn’t take just about anyone to bed. She knew. She had seen his memories after all. This new girl would obviously proceed as expected, with friendship and a chaste pureblood relationship. Draco wouldn’t blurt out his secrets to her. Being in the inner circle meant nothing. Draco had secretly been against even his father and Voldemort, who were the embodiment of their whole bloody circle of death! Surely this new woman would try at being his spy and crash. Then where would this sorry bunch of sleuths go? They would have to come back to her. After all, even McGonaggal didn’t know just how Hermione got inside the head of their unsuspecting person of interest.
She took a deep breath and kept all emotion out of her eyes and just like an accomplished legilimens, out of the forefront of her mind.
“And Miss Granger, cut your ties with him. Association with a notorious death-eater, ex or not, will bring you nothing but grief. He might tell you things now, but don’t forget where his allegiances lay when it mattered, or what we are currently investigating him for. You will lose your credibility with the Ministry and get a bad name if this gets out. You have a bright future. Keep it that way. Make a clean break.”
Like that was even possible, Hermione thought bitterly. Cut ties with Draco and lose what little gave her pleasure in her life these days? Never.
But McGonaggal didn’t need to know what Hermione was thinking. Sidestepping and hiding things from the Ministry of Magic and Aurors was something Hermione had a lot of experience in. She just had to exercise more caution in future.
And she needed to know who the next spy was.
“Do you need me to brief this new agent?”
Hermione would find out who it was on her own then.
“And I do not want you to harbor any hard feelings either Hermione. This is all in a day’s work. Now you go back to Runes and Codes. After all, no one decodes secret messages like you do.” McGonaggal showed a hint of a smile.
Hermione noted how McGonaggal shifted from Miss Granger to Hermione once she had said her piece. She got up, thanked her boss and left for her office.
Minerva kept note of the young witch’s face and body language even as she left. Hermione betrayed no emotion, good or bad, which made McGonaggal proud of her protege. But this tight control over her reactions and words disturbed the caring ex professor in Minerva. For the umpteenth time, she wondered when the passionate, impulsive and most importantly, happy young girl had been lost to the rigors of the wizard wars and her place had been taken by this carefully restrained young witch. What had changed, she wondered.
Half a month had gone by.
Two weeks of grueling nonstop work in Codes.
Fourteen days of struggling to keep smiling for her friends, boyfriend and family, of keeping things normal.
Three hundred and thirty six hours of agonizing over what the new agent was doing with Draco Malfoy, how close she was getting, what learnt wiles she was using.
Twenty thousand one hundred and sixty minutes of missing his touch, his eyes, his voice, his quips and retorts.
Twelve lakh nine thousand and six hundred seconds of curbing the urge to apparate within his reach and see if he would touch her, or talk to her again.
The sad thing was, she didn’t even feel guilty over her obsession any more. Getting involved with Malfoy had left her such a knot of contradictions that outside of work, nothing seemed right anymore. He was supposed to be a shallow entitled prat who Hermione despised, not someone with depths and intelligence Hermione had just begun to see. He constantly challenged her beliefs, taunted her to lose control, got turned on when she insulted him in logic he could not refute and got into hours of debates with her about the political climate of their world, or something as innocuous as yoga or the current styles of witch robes. As far as his track record of bullying was concerned, Hermione had quite accidently stumbled upon the fact that all of their longest and most satisfying conversations started with a taunting remark or a sneered out veiled insult to someone’s ineptitude, things that used to push her into rages in school and now just made her push him into a verbal spar.
She knew why she wanted him so much. But she couldn’t reconcile how four months of slowly getting to know Draco Malfoy had complicated and put in question years of past friendships and relationships. She failed to see why she shouldn’t want to settle for safe, tried and tested and go for intriguing and new instead.
Anger and despair were her constant companion these days. Anger at herself for having lost her mind and eighty percent brain function to Malfoy. Despair at how she was going to manage to pull off being with him in reality. Not that he had actually come out and asked for a relationship with her. For all her mental free falling, he might just be enjoying the sex and content with hiding it from everyone. He could get bored, find someone more…
Hermione walked the gleaming red carpet hallway of the British Ministry of Magic on autopilot. She reached the nearest bank of elevators and without taking note of the people inside, boarded the first one to open in front of her. The jolt of the crazy lift taking off towards the bowels of the Ministry shook her enough to remember to press the button for her department. As she reached out to the panel, a pale hand beat her to it and pressed the right button for her.
“Allow me.” He whispered, an inch from her ear. And just like that, he stole her breathe away.
Hermione suddenly became keenly aware that she stood towards the side, her right shoulder touching the lift wall. The source of all her troubles and the cure of all her maladies was directly behind her, his body touched her’s at just this side of appropriate for a crowded lift. His black shirt cuff peeked from within the sleeve of a dark wool robe. His Malfoy signet ring on his middle finger presented a stark contrast to his flawless, too white skin. The same finger that had been buried inside her a few days ago.
The lift jerked to a stop and Draco slammed into her, hands planted firmly on her narrow waist. Hermione felt the heat of his hands all the way to her skin. Four men and a woman disembarked and they were suddenly alone. The lift jerked again and Hermione tumbled back into him.
“What are you doing here?” she hissed, trying in vain to control the flush creeping up her neck.
Draco turned her around and his hand went to grip the few curls at the base of her neck that had escaped her proper bun. He forced her face to tilt up and looked into her eyes.
“Let go. Merlin Malfoy, anyone could-”
He cut her off with a bite to her lower lip. No way was that a kiss. Hermione brought her hands to his chest and pushed him back. It was like trying to push a warded wall. He twisted her head back and sucked at the bite, then let go of her lip. His turbulent gray eyes took stock of her face, as if he was counting every blushing freckle there was to count.
“You need to remember this.” he answered, his voice far cooler than his eyes and hands on her.
“What are you-” Hermione managed to gasp out.
Draco thrust his hips into her, blatantly making her feel his need and kissed her savagely. Then he pushed her away, in time for the lift to stop and walked out, his dark robes sweeping behind him with a life of their own.
Hermione felt the whiplash down to her core. She tried to wrap her head around what had just happened. Draco Malfoy acousted her, her, in the middle of the Ministry of Magic, in broad daylight, when any number of her colleagues could walk in on them and put his hands and lips on her as if he had the right to do so.
As if she belonged to him.
She touched her lips and wondered if he had left a mark of his ownership.
It took a look through of a couple of weekend gossip rags for Hermione to figure out the identity of the new girl McGonaggal put on Malfoy.
Astoria Fucking Greengrass.
Malfoy never repeated dates in a row and he had taken Astoria to a charity event and the opening of the newest wizard musical already. The Witch’s Weekly had a report that Astoria was heard discussing a designer gown for a private party with her friends. A source close to the lady in question revealed that Malfoy was escorting her to this affair tonight. Three dates, two of them on two consecutive days. For someone like him, this was practically announcing a relationship. That, or Astoria inner-circle-pureblood Greengrass had somehow gained the in McGonaggal wanted and Hermione had failed to secure.
It burned like the gates of hell.
Since appearing at the War Hero Rehabilitation Charity Gala together last week, the press had taken to following Malfoy or Greengrass or the two of them together, everywhere they went. And why not. Malfoy was handsome, rich as sin and a bit of a bad boy rake. Astoria was stunning, graceful and the consummate benefactor of a number of charities and ‘do-gooder’ groups. Together, they made for nauseatingly striking pictures. The newspapers wouldn’t miss this piece of gossip gold for Dumbledore’s left nut.
Hermione Granger was sick to her stomach. She finally lost the exhilaration of their tête-à-tête of the previous day. However, she had not expected this rude awakening to the reality of her value to him. And the reality was that Draco Malfoy may enjoy having sex with her, he may amuse himself with groping her at her workplace, he may mark her in secret, but when he stepped out into public, it would be with a picture perfect pureblood. So much for winning the war against blood prejudices.
Looking at Draco and Astoria in their moving picture, holding hands and smiling at each other, made her feel cheap for the first time in her life. Like she had been short changed.
She wanted to lash out at something or someone. She wanted to cry. She wanted to be good enough for once. And the she wanted to slap herself for feeling inadequate.
“Hermione? You alright?”
“Just tired from work Ginny. What gave me away?” Hermione smiled ruefully.
Ginny looked skeptical.
“Are you sure it’s just work?”
“Yes of course. What else?”
Hermione turned to stir the pot on the stove. Ginny elbowed her to the side and charmed the ladle to keep stirring. Then she turned to look at Hermione again.
“Because you see, Ron and the family are outside making the most of the rare day of sun we have today. Harry is there. Luna too. So, basically all our friends. And yet you are hiding from everyone in the kitchen and twisting the Daily Prophet to death.”
“Oh this. I was just going to trash this piece of rubbish.” Hermione threw the balled up news sheet in the trash.
Ginny hesitantly touched the older witch’s hand and looked into her eyes.
“You can talk to me you know. If something is bothering you. Or if my brother is being an oaf. Anything.”
Hermione sighed. Of course Ginny, observant to a fault, would notice all was not right between Ron and her. And since she was Ginny the straight talker, she had to come right out and say it. But Hermione couldn’t tell her that Ron and she stopped being the cute couple in love a long time ago. Nor did she want to air out the fact she wanted to end her romantic relationship with Ron.
“Ron and I…We are just…I don’t know Ginny. I am just too tired all the time. I guess he misses me and acts out.”
“Well…That’s something some fancy lingerie and sweet talk can easily solve.” Ginny smirked. “Blokes are easy that way. Just bring out a racy pair and he’ll have that stupid grin on his ugly mug in no time. He’ll even do most of the work to get the grin there.”
Hermione caught herself mid cringe and immediately tried to look more embarrassed than repulsed for Ginny’s benefit.
“I’ll see what I can do” she replied faintly, thinking that she had gotten great at lying to her friends.
“C’mon. Let’s go out and join the others.”
Ginny grabbed her hand and pulled her out of the kitchen. Hermione saw Ron laughing at something Molly was saying and he bear hugged his mother affectionately. Molly slapped him upside the head, her cheeks pink, her smile wide at her son’s antics. Fred and George hooted from a corner. Ginny let Hermione’s hand go to join the assembled Weasleys and Hermione came face to face with the realization that her heart didn’t feel at home with Ron’s family anymore.
That decided her. She was going to talk to Ron tonight. She needed to break up with him and end this bleeding chapter of her life once and for all.
Then she needed to find this bloody event one Miss Astoria Greengrass was being taken to by the very elusive Mr Malfoy.