Title: The Nymph Hunt
Disclaimer: JKR owns anything that is obviously hers. I own the rest.
Characters: Draco Malfoy, Hermione Granger
Genres: Drama, Humor, Post-Hogwarts, Romance
Warnings: EWE?, Unrelieved Sexual Tension
Overall Rating: PG-13
Summary: Sometimes you're a hag in a nymph's body, and sometimes you're just a witch trying to hide the nymph in you...
Extra Note: Written for angeepang in the dmhgficexchange 'Shine A Light' 2008. Written based on a Mark Twain quote from The Czar's Soliloquy: "There is no power without clothes. It is the power that governs the human race. Strip its chiefs to the skin, and no State could be governed; naked officials could exercise no authority; they would look (and be) like everybody else - commonplace, inconsequential." No-no's were Cheating!Jealous!CompleteIdiot!Ron,
Length: 3/5 chapters. This chapter: 4239 words.
A hand was stretched out just outside of her vision. Hermione glanced up at its owner and sighed. “What do you want?”
“The report,” Malfoy smoothly answered.
“You said it wasn’t due until Tuesday!”
“Yes, but I know you have it.”
Hermione scowled and handed him the report.
He shook his head. “Always so predictable, Granger.... You just can’t help yourself, can you?”
“I don’t see you complaining about that fact.”
“Of course not. It makes my life immensely easier that you are so neurotic when it comes to work that you can’t leave off for even a minute.”
“I am not neurotic about work!”
“Of course you are. You were the same at school. Always stressing because you couldn’t do everything at once, believing that the world would end if you didn’t know every single little thing. It’s quite a wonder you ever looked up long enough to manage to become engaged to that Weasel of yours.”
“His name is Ron,” she hissed out through clenched teeth.
“And how is he doing? What was it he did for a living? Practical jokes?” He snorted. “Why doesn’t he get a real job? Or is he actually aspiring to be as dirt poor as his parents?”
Hermione crossed her arms, feeling very defensive. “He’s doing quite well, actually. He and George are opening up their third shop next month and he’s currently earning more than twice of what he would have made as an Auror.”
Malfoy raised an eyebrow. “Really? He just cheap, then? Can’t spare a few galleons to give his intended something nice to wear so she won’t have to wear..." He made some loose gesture. “That.”
Hermione blushed, more with anger than embarrassment. There was nothing wrong with her robes. They were black and serviceable and it wasn’t as if she really saw that many people around here. “I told him to save his money,” she bit out. “It does a lot more good put towards long-term investments than spent on frivolities.”
He grinned. “Please do tell me you said that right after he gave you a present.”
Her blush deepened. How could he be right about this?
His grin widened. “And you made him take it back? I almost feel sorry for the poor bloke.”
She scowled, not liking where this was going. “He couldn’t afford it. It was too much. Of course he had to take it back.”
“So, your fiancé at some point in time decided to get you a big gift to show you that he cared, getting something he couldn’t really afford which would have to mean he would have to go without some things, and you refused it, talking about money and investments instead of appreciating the gesture like a normal person? Now I do feel sorry for him. Please give him my condolences.”
He sauntered off, leaving Hermione in a state of shock. This had happened quite a while ago, right before things had seriously gone wrong. She had always assumed Ron hadn’t truly tried to get through to her, but maybe he had. Maybe it had just been her. Maybe he had actually tried to show her that he still cared and she had paid no attention whatsoever to his efforts.
When the tears came, she was powerless to stop them and for once she was grateful that Malfoy avoided work like the plague.
What was worse? Being a failure at relationships or being a failure at her job? Hermione spent a good part of her Tuesday morning pondering this. If she could just have one, what would it be? The greater good or her own happiness? And could those two even be separated? She wanted to do good. She needed to do good. She needed to know that the world would be just marginally better for her having been in it.
But did that really mean she had to sacrifice her personal life? She had messed things up with Ron, but now she knew what she had done wrong. She wouldn’t be making the same mistake twice.
She could have a relationship.
Wouldn’t she just be hurting herself for no reason if she didn’t go to see Muggle-wannabe John tomorrow? It was true, they might not be attracted to each other as themselves, but maybe they could at least be friends. It would really be cowardice to just stay away because it might not work out. Maybe he really was a sweet person, someone who could make her life just a little more bearable.
She would go. She needed to return her costume, anyway.
“Daydreaming during office hours. Careful, someone might notice that you aren’t saving the world one memo at a time.”
Hermione scowled up at her least favourite person. She was having some very deep and meaningful revelations here, how dare he interrupt?
He just ignored her scowl. “I was wondering, exactly how many hags were present at that party?”
“How would I know?”
“Well, who else would you hang around?” He looked thoughtful. “Can’t have been that many. I mean, I saw a few, but I bet half of them were actual hags.... Normal people try to look better than they normally do. Not that I’m implying that you are better-looking than a hag by any means, wouldn’t want to offend your sensibilities like that.”
Hermione uttered a heartfelt sigh. When Malfoy got started there was no way to stop him. “You’re right, I should really stop daydreaming and get back to work. Nice talking to you.”
Again, she was completely ignored. “Take Brunhilde down from Magical Transportation. You know her, right? Incredibly fat. Extremely good baking skills, though.”
“Yeah, I see you know the one.” He was completely unfazed. “I have no doubt that you left the dance before the unmasking because you have to be in bed by ten otherwise Father Christmas might not bring you those warts, but Brunhilde, alas, didn’t.”
She wondered where this was going.
“Good! I was counting on you not having heard!” He took a seat. This was a very bad sign. It meant he meant to stay for longer than just a minute. “See, Brunhilde is not an unhappy person, but she’s as vain as the next witch—provided they aren’t you—and she didn’t want to go as an Erumpent, so she cheated. With a little help from a nice bloke down Knockturn Alley, she got a costume that was a little more than a glamour, using a Polyjuice variant.”
“Is there a point to this?”
“I know you’re eager to get to my brilliant point, but you’ll just have to wait for it. Now, the Polyjuice variant worked as it was supposed to, and she was having the night of her life as a beautiful Veela, something that was probably nothing like what Brunhilde ever experienced before. However, there was one thing she hadn’t accounted for.”
He paused expectantly, staring Hermione down until she rolled her eyes and asked, “What was that, then?”
“The unmasking,” he said with a satisfied smirk. “It lifted the effect of her slimming disguise and being about six times the size, she didn’t fit into her clothes anymore. They ripped and tore as she blew up, leaving her just about as naked as when she was born, trying to hide behind her thin-as-a-reed husband who obviously doesn’t appreciate her baking skills.”
“Poor woman,” Hermione drily said. “Although I’m sure you had the time of your life.”
“It was amusing,” he conceded. “But Brunhilde has never been one to let things get her down. Besides, most people like her and her fairy cakes too much to be mean to her for long. She’ll survive.”
“But you still haven’t made your point.”
His smile was slow and calculated, making her realise that he’d just been waiting for her to ask. “Do you think that Brunhilde would rather have been an Erumpent, and never have suffered a moment of embarrassment, or do you think that given the choice, she would go as a Veela again?”
“I still fail to see your point,” Hermione insisted, although she knew very well where this was going.
“Hiding with the hags while others were having fun, Granger? What are you afraid of?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Hermione said with a sigh. “Maybe I’m afraid that people will bore me to death with their lame stories and amateur psychology.”
Malfoy just smiled. He seemed completely unable to take offense. It was annoying. “Or maybe you’re as afraid of success as you are of failure. Now, wouldn’t that be funny?”
She gave him her best death stare.
“Don’t give me those lovey-dovey eyes, what wouldn’t Weasley think? Get some work done!” And finally, he got up and left.
Hermione sighed and reminded herself that it was just a few more months and then she would never ever have to see Malfoy again. Ever. And if she did, she could hex him without getting fired.
“So, did you enjoy your costume?”
Hermione gave the smug shopkeeper a pained smile. She really didn’t like it when people thought they knew better and forced things on her—especially not when they turned out to be right. It always made them quite intolerable. “I survived,” she neutrally said.
He raised an eyebrow at her and regarded her sceptically. “You didn’t have fun? I gave you all the tools, all you had to—”
“Luckily, it wasn’t your responsibility,” Hermione muttered, ignoring the offended look he shot her.
Abandoning the skimpy dress in the capable hands of the pushy salesman, Hermione decided she had some time to kill before she could go to the café. Not really knowing what to do with that time, she decided to just browse the clothes for a while. Apart from costumes they also rented out formal wear. Something that Hermione did have a use for from time to time and couldn’t afford to buy. With her current wages, she could hardly afford the rent. She really ought to find a new place now that Ron had moved out, but.... Anyway, she wanted to see if it would be worth to come back and rent for the next function in spite of the pushy shopkeeper.
In any case, she hadn’t meant to leave the office quite this early. But when Malfoy had left for lunch, she had decided to slip out before he got back in order to avoid his interrogations. Or, well, if he came back. He didn’t always. It was just that with her luck, he would come back, and, besides, she was feeling too anxious to get anything done.
She went a bit deeper into the store and was trying to identify a very strange garment that seemed to be just patches of fabric put together in no particular order with too many openings to fit a normal human form, when she heard another customer enter. At first, she didn’t pay any attention, but then she thought the person sounded familiar and froze.
No, that can’t be! She peeked around the shelf, and then shrank back. Great, just what she needed—for Malfoy to catch her here. Not that she was doing anything she shouldn’t—it was still her lunch hour, after all—but he just had such a habit of prodding and poking where he had absolutely no business, and he would no doubt find some way to ridicule her if he found out she was here.
“Did you enjoy your costume, sir?” the assistant asked in a rather flat tone. Hermione assumed that Malfoy must have pissed him off at some point. He was good at that.
“Immensely,” Malfoy answered with that good cheer that was aimed to annoy even further.
“Glad to hear it,” was the dry reply. “So, what was it exactly that was so enjoyable? The blending in with the wallpaper or just the total lack of imagination you exhibited?”
“I’ll have you know that I was the only one with a costume like this. I was being unique.”
“Yes, you are a snowflake.”
Hermione bit back a giggle at the miffed shopkeeper, for the first time wondering just what Malfoy had been wearing.
“Listen,” Malfoy was suddenly saying in a more serious voice. “Any chance you could tell me who rented another costume? A nymph with dark hair and green eyes. Silver dress.”
There was a short pause, all the more emphasized by the stillness as Hermione’s heart stopped beating and her breath caught in her throat, as she rejected the impossible.
“You know we have a policy of complete discretion,” the other man then said, sounding slightly bewildered. “Sorry.”
“Come on, you’d be doing everyone a favour. I could even make it worth your while, if you like.”
“I’m sure that if your nymph wanted to be found, she would be,” the shopkeeper said, sounding indignant. “Besides, we rented out so many, I really couldn’t be sure.”
“You know exactly who it was!” Malfoy was sounding irritable now.
“If I see her again, I could let her know you were looking for her,” the man offered, his voice inviting no argument, but knowing Malfoy, he would get one just the same.
Hermione stopped listening. She shouldn’t have listened in the first place. It was bad manners. Really, what had she been thinking? She took a few careful steps backwards. There were so many women dressed as beautiful beings at that party. It was probably a coincidence that he had met a nymph that night. It was a coincidence that he had been wearing a costume that the assistant would find dull.
A hundred other coincidences came crashing through her head, making Hermione dizzy. She clutched her stomach, afraid that she was going to lose its contents.
Not him. Anyone but him.
He had lied to her. He must have. For one thing, he had talked about working. Hah. That was a laugh. And...and....
Hermione felt her eyes fill with tears.
He had tricked her. He had made her think that he was someone worth knowing, someone she might form a connection with. He wasn’t. She knew him well enough to know that he wasn’t the person he had pretended to be. If he found out that she had been Lethe, he’d just mock her for it. That was, if he could get over the fact that he’d kissed her. And he would be angry that she had tricked him and would make her life a living hell until he left. She couldn’t allow that.
As quietly and hidden as possible, she tried making her way around the store so she could slip out unnoticed. It was probably safer to just wait, but she felt like she was suffocating. She needed fresh air.
She had almost reached the door when suddenly Malfoy gave up his arguing and whirled around to leave. She froze, hoping against hope that he was the kind of predator that could only see its prey when it moved.
“Granger?” he said, an undercurrent of anger still in his voice. “Returning the hag costume, are we? You know, most people would take it off first.”
Hermione’s stomach clenched in a very uncomfortable way, and she had to forcibly keep from hugging herself. “This coming from the peacock.”
He stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “It was come as you aren’t, remember? Why would I come as myself?”
“And yet you continue with the hag jokes. Either I am not one or I didn’t come as one. Make up your mind.” Her eyes flickered towards the shopkeeper, who didn’t even try to hide his interest in the exchange.
“You wish to be one,” Malfoy just answered. “I’m merely humouring you. But how does Weasley feel about coming home to a hag?”
Hermione’s stomach clenched again and she bit back a moan. She was actually becoming physically ill. “Why...why don’t you ask him?” she forced out.
He frowned and took a step back, even though there was plenty of room between them. “Are you going to be sick?”
Hermione laughed in spite of herself. “Maybe.”
His frown deepened and a brief look of confusion flashed across his features. She supposed she might be acting a little odd. “Well, stay away from me,” he said. “Go home and make that miserable man of yours ill instead.”
Hermione just weakly nodded as he went around her and out the door. Going home sounded really good.
She looked up and caught the eye of the shopkeeper, who raised his eyebrow at her. “Guess someone had fun after all.”
Hermione slowly walked along Diagon Alley, not quite able to gather her wits enough to try and Disapparate—even if she was just going home. Maybe there was some way she could be mistaken. It couldn’t be him. It just couldn’t be him. Never mind the stories of loneliness—he had kissed her and touched her and they had almost... she had almost....
She couldn’t even think it.
What if she had gone down to the café and he had seen her and realised who she was? She could just imagine the look on his face and it made her feel even sicker.
She wished she had never wanted to come here in the first place. If she had just stayed at work, dismissing this thing as an innocent one-night fling as she should have, she wouldn’t be burdened with this extremely uncomfortable knowledge now.
How was she ever going to look him in the eye again?
She looked up and found that she was close to Gringotts. What if this was a bizarre misunderstanding on her part and he wasn’t John, after all? What if some other wizard was currently waiting for her inside that café?
She had to make sure.
Feeling like a stalker, she slowly crept slower to the café he must have been talking about. Taking great pains not to be seen from the inside, she then peeked in one of the oversized windows. It was lunch hour, so a lot of people were currently seated. She knew what she was looking for, though, and it didn’t take her many seconds to find the blond head among the masses. He was alone and appeared to be working—which she had to take a few seconds to get over—but worst of all, he kept glancing up every time someone entered. As if expecting someone any second.
Maybe he was supposed to meet a friend, or he had a meeting with someone from work, or....
Hermione gave herself a shake. Enough with the excuses. There was no one else in there that fit John’s description of himself.
Trembling slightly, she took a few steps backwards and then Disapparated back to her flat.
Owling in sick the next day was really tempting. Hermione even almost did it. She caught herself at the last minute, though, and gave herself a scolding for being such a coward. She would have to face him someday. Staying home just postponed the inevitable and made it that much harder.
So, she went in.
When Malfoy got there—late, of course—she got so flustered she almost knocked over her ink. Then, as she righted the ink, she managed to push a whole pile of paperwork to the floor. He frowned disapprovingly at her, and she did her very best to hide the furious blush that she could feel in her cheeks as she jumped up and began collecting the scrolls of parchment. Naturally, it took extra long to pick it all up because her hands shook.
He just watched without a word. It was unnerving. Malfoy always had words. Was he ill? That was the most preferable explanation she could think of, because she didn’t want it to be that he knew.
In the end, she got her things in order and sat back down, doing her best to ignore his silent gaze. It worked for all of five minutes.
“What?” she finally snapped, looking up at him. She was really, really thankful that he looked nothing like the man she had been with that night. If he had, she might have to think of the way his hands had caressed her and his lips.... Oh, God. This was bad.
“Why are you here?” he just asked.
“I...work here?” she ventured.
“You’re sick. Go home before you infect everyone around you.”
“There’s no one around me except you and I imagine that in a few seconds you will go into your office, pretend to work for a few hours, and then you will leave and I won’t see you for the rest of the day. I really don’t think you’ll catch anything.”
“What about our boss? And everyone else?” he demanded.
Hermione rolled her eyes. “The boss is not in today. He’s out for meetings all day, meaning he’s out selling his soul to anyone with a smidgen of social influence at the expense of non-humans. As for everyone else, well, we just have so many people coming through this office, don’t we?”
Nobody ever came here if they could help it, and they both knew it.
Malfoy sighed. “Just go home, Granger. It doesn’t even matter if you’re here today or not. It won’t make the least difference. There’s more to life than work, no reason killing yourself over it.”
As he turned away, Hermione noticed that his face looked drawn and he seemed dejected. He hadn’t even offended her yet.
She wilfully stomped a pang of guilt. It probably didn’t have anything to do with ‘Lethe’.
The next few days Hermione’s guilt and worry grew. Malfoy just didn’t seem quite himself. He didn’t try to make her life miserable, which was actually quite the improvement, but it was the way he didn’t do it. He just seemed lost in thought and mostly barricaded himself in his office.
Could it be that he really fancied some strange girl he only met once that much? She hadn’t even been real! None of it had. Not the talking or the kissing. It had been the anonymity going to their heads, making them do things they otherwise wouldn’t. Nothing else.
Maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe...his pet basilisk just died. Right. She needed to work on her theories, they were getting worse all the time.
The secret was choking her.
But what could she do? She couldn’t tell him that it had been her. That wouldn’t benefit anyone. He’d probably be even more angry and upset, and she would almost certainly not have a position at the Ministry anymore. No, there had to be some other way.
She was woken from her reverie by a load of parchment being dumped on her desk. Startled, she looked up at a very determined-looking Malfoy. Great. He was back to over-loading her with work.
“How much do you know about people around here, Granger?” he asked.
She blinked. “Uh, what I need to, I guess.... Why?”
He rolled out a parchment. “These are the complete guest list for the Ministry function. I need to find any witch below the age of...let’s say forty...that works here at the Ministry. If you’re in doubt, just tick them off.” He pushed the stack towards her and sat down on the other side of her desk, beginning work himself.
Hermione stared. “How on earth did you get this?”
“Contacts. Apparently, it’s easier to get a guest list for an official international Ministry party from a diplomat sworn to secrecy than to get one simple name from a bloke with a costume shop down in Diagon Alley. It really makes you wonder.”
It was deeply disturbing, actually. “I’m not doing this,” she announced. “It’s not part of my job and I have actual work to do.”
He shot her an annoyed glance. “Your work can wait. You’re not doing anything important anyway. This is important. This might change something.”
“What? You looking for a date?” She was stalling. Even knowing that the odds of him finding anything he could use were slim to none, she didn’t like to see how determined he was trying.
What if he did find out?
“You could say that,” he absent-mindedly replied. He’d already ticked off twelve women.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to just, you know, go ask someone?”
The glare he sent her could quite possibly burn holes in less stern stuff. “I’m looking for one particular witch, Granger. I just happen to not know her name. Or face. If I narrow this list down, then I might find her anyway, and you will help me because you know I own you until your performance has been reviewed.”
He was right. Hermione didn’t particularly like to be owned and she certainly didn’t like helping Malfoy with his search. Maybe she could just...cheat a bit.
Yes, that was what she needed to do. Cheat. Somehow convince him that ‘Lethe’ wasn’t anyone worth looking for. But right now, she supposed she had to do this.
She sighed. “So, do you think Brunhilde is past forty yet?”
His pet basilisk probably didn’t die, she surmised, because with a glare like the one he was currently sending her way, who needed basilisks? She smiled at him as sweetly as she possibly could, enjoying that, for once, he was the annoyed party.