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,
“So...you say a brown owl delivered this?”
Hermione nodded. “Yes.”
“I’m supposed to know the breeds of ‘brown owl’ now?” Hermione glanced at Malfoy, making sure to communicate annoyance.
He sighed irritably. “It’s your job to know!”
“Owls really aren’t all that magical, but if I ever get the task of cataloguing the brown owls indigenous to Britain, I’ll let you know.”
“Fine. How big was it?”
Hermione wearily rubbed her forehead. Faking a note from ‘Lethe’ had perhaps not been her best idea. “I’d say it was about...owl-sized.”
“Owl-sized?” He put his hands on her desk and leaned down, looking quite intimidating, actually. He was certainly not amused. “Are you making fun of me, Granger?” His voice was the kind of silky calm that warned you that you might want to run now.
“What do you want me to say?” she demanded.
“I want you to tell me about the bloody owl, is what I want!”
He was actually furious. Hermione was still a bit shocked about that. It wasn’t that he was upset; it was the sheer intensity of his emotions. ‘Lethe’ certainly seemed to be getting under his skin.
And now ‘she’ had sent him a note that she knew perfectly well who he was and they had had a nice evening together, but that she really wasn’t interested in pursuing it, asking him not to ask about her or look for her further.
Malfoy, apparently, had decided to ignore that last bit.
“I told you what I know!”
“Did it have spots?”
“Yeah, spots, stripes, anything that would help me identify it!”
Hermione stared at him incredulously. “It was an owl. Go up to the owlery and you’ll probably find 200 brown owls, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you one from the other!”
“Bloody worthless,” he growled. “How could you not notice a simple owl?”
“Maybe because I’m not as obsessive as you!”
She had hoped to feel better after sending the note, but she didn’t. The door to his office had been open as he had read it and she had seen the look on his face. For a long time he’d just been frozen, staring at the rejection—that Hermione now regretted she hadn’t written in a gentler manner, but she had really just tried to make him give it up—and then he’d gotten that horrible dejected look on his face again.
Of course, the next step had been anger. Hermione supposed she was lucky that he had spent the worst of it smashing his office before marching out and demanding answers from her.
“I may be obsessive, but you’re just a useless waste of space!” he shot back. “Go on, get back to pushing papers about pixies and garden gnomes. Who cares about people, right?”
Hermione stared at the door in wide-eyed shock and what felt suspiciously like hurt long after he’d slammed it behind himself.
Things didn’t improve much over the next few days. Hermione discovered that a moody Malfoy was definitely worse than a mocking Malfoy. Fortunately, he didn’t quite blow up at her again, but his demeanour towards her was positively chilling.
Suddenly, the office was a very cold and lonely place to work.
She understood that he needed to blame someone for the note and right now she was the easiest one to place that blame on—that the blame was placed in exactly the right place was just ironic.
Every day was worse than the next. Not because they were really worse, per se, but because they were the same and it just ate away at her. She didn’t like this new hostile environment. Not that the old environment had been all that friendly, but there was something remarkably changed about it now. It was much colder. Wasn’t there a way for him to just get over it so things could get back to the way they were? She would give anything for him to scoff at her hair right about now.
She could only imagine his reaction if she’d actually revealed her identity to him. If he could hate her so passionately just for not noticing the markings of an owl, he would be positively murderous if he found out that she’d been the one to fool him in the first place. Never mind that she hadn’t meant to fool anyone.
She really didn’t think she could handle the force of that kind of hate.
Feeling miserable, she got ready for another solitary lunch at her desk. Normally, she might have sought Harry out when she felt like this, but he hadn’t been in for a couple of weeks now. He was out on some mission somewhere, getting his adventure fix. Besides, she was supposed to be carrying a grudge that he had Malfoy placed in her department in the first place.
The fact that Malfoy was actually around only made it worse. It wasn’t as easy to ignore the silence as when she was alone.
This couldn’t possibly be good for her digestion.
“Why don’t you ever go out?”
Hermione almost choked on her sandwich when Malfoy spoke to her. It was such a new and disturbing experience after the days of silence. “Some of us work here,” she managed to get out after she had swallowed the wayward crumbs.
“I mean for lunch. There’s a cafeteria, you know. With people in it. Taking their lunch.”
She scowled at his statement of the obvious, ignoring the little excited flutter that he was speaking to her. “I don’t see you ever going there.”
He merely raised his eyebrows. “I sincerely doubt you’re waiting for me to go, which means you’re avoiding the question.”
Hermione shrugged, feeling too mentally exhausted to care what he knew. “I don’t really know anyone anyway. Here I can at least get some work done while eating.”
He shook his head at her. “It’s not all about work, Granger. Why can’t you see that?”
He turned away to leave, but she stopped him. “Why don’t you ever go to the cafeteria, then?”
There was a hesitation, and for a moment she didn’t think he’d reply.
“They don’t want me there.”
Hermione blinked and frowned. “What? Who?”
He half-turned with a sardonic smile. “Don’t look so surprised, Granger. You don’t want me here, either. Everyone knows I’m forced to be here and everyone knows why. It’s a matter of public record. Everyone can go look up every single detail and I imagine that most people did months ago.”
“So what?” she asked, feeling bewildered. “You were not the only one on the other side in the war. You were not the only one that changed sides, either. You aren’t even the only one working a lousy temporary job here at the Ministry as punishment.”
“No,” he muttered. “But I’m the only Malfoy. ‘The Malfoys didn’t turn for personal ambition or gain. In fact, they gave up personal ambition to help the side of the light. The logical course would have been for Narcissa Malfoy née Black to betray Harry James Potter at his time of need for the promise of a position of glory, but the fact that she did not do so shows that she recognised the error of her ways and sought to remedy them. And let us not forget: had she not boldly lied to the face of Tom Marvolo Riddle a.k.a. Lord Voldemort—” he winced at the name “—then the outcome of the war in all probability would have been wholly undesirable.’”
Hermione just stared.
Malfoy rolled his eyes. “I thought you’d be the first one to look up the files from the trial. It was part of the defence speech that acquitted my family from most of the charges. It’s a load of nonsense, of course. There would never have been a ‘position of glory’ for us, but it was enough to convince our old ‘friends’ that, apart from being pivotal for the outcome of the war, we are completely unpredictable turncoats—much less desirable than the predictable turncoats, I can tell you—and the other side isn’t quite as forgiving as you’d expect from the so-called good guys. They still don’t trust us.”
“Sins of the mother?”
“Oh, believe me. The sins of the father and the son play a part in it as well. Apparently, I should have seen my family killed rather than follow orders.” He wasn’t even hiding his bitterness at this judgment.
“But I’ve seen you get along with people,” Hermione weakly insisted.
“I can still make most of their lives miserable if they don’t play nice. Doesn’t mean they really want to. Besides...my reason for not taking lunch in the cafeteria definitely beats yours.”
She couldn’t really argue with that. If this was true, then he had probably been telling ‘Lethe’ the truth about how alone he felt. It disturbed her in a way she couldn’t really put her finger on.
But even more disturbing—to the point of distraction—was the almost giddiness she felt that he seemed to be talking to her again.
Hermione looked up at the cloaked Malfoy in front of her. “You’re leaving early. Again. What a surprise. You know, the day you put in a full day’s work there will be a Ministry celebration.” She was quite proud of the amount of dryness in her voice. Not too subtle and not too overdone. Practice truly did make perfect.
“I have a lunch date.”
“No, you don’t. I have your schedule, you know.”
He just flashed her a condescending smile. “I have a lunch date.”
“Oh.” Hermione did a double take. “Oh.” She frowned with dismay. “Give up on that other elusive female, then? Lose her glass shoe?”
“Never mind, Muggle fairy tale,” she muttered. “You stopped trying to find that witch?”
He just shrugged nonchalantly. “She doesn’t want to be found by me and told me as much. She could have walked in here any time and at least let me see who she was, but she didn’t. What am I supposed to do about it? I don’t know who she is, I don’t know where she is, and I certainly don’t know why she would rather be a cold bitch than come talk to me in person. So, I thought that instead of waiting around for anything to change, I might as well date.”
“I see,” Hermione murmured, feeling a bit uncomfortable. She wasn’t a cold bitch! She had just...seen no other way.
He cocked an eyebrow. “What? That’s it? No passionate defence of the witch? No telling me that I could be wrong? That’s a first. You usually like to jump to the defence of anyone whose motives aren’t fully known.”
She shook her head, still feeling uncomfortable. “It’s your life.”
“Really, Granger, you disappoint me,” he said, adjusting his sleeve. “You could at least have argued that she might have been sick or somehow prevented from seeing me.”
“That wouldn’t explain the note, would it?” She supposed with a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach that that had seemed cold.
“No, it wouldn’t. And I checked.”
“What?” Hermione had to concentrate not to stare dumbly.
Malfoy shrugged again. “Had to consider all possibilities. But since there were no grave accidents to any Ministry employee or any of their family—although Eric down in Magical Games and Sports, or rather his wife, did have a baby boy—I had to assume that was not it. Of course, the note confirmed my findings.”
“Well, good for you,” she vaguely replied, focusing on the paper in front of her and trying not to show her discomfort. “Does this mean that you will be back from lunch or that you won’t?”
He just smirked. “Don’t wait up.”
She didn’t think so. He didn’t really make it a habit to return whenever he went out. Dating during work hours was sort of new, though. Perhaps he hoped for ‘Lethe’ to find out and react? But that wouldn’t make any sense. She had told him that she didn’t want to see him and to stop looking, so why would she care if he went out with others?
She spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between wondering if Malfoy’s date was pretty and reminding herself that it didn’t matter.
Hermione watched Malfoy get ready to go out for the third day in a row. Naturally, he had no actual work plans. He really didn’t have those that often. Mostly, when he went out it was just to skive off work with no real purpose other than that.
But she had noticed that he took extra care with his appearance.
It was another date.
“So you must really like her, then,” she observed as neutrally as possible.
“Like who?” he absentmindedly asked as he was taking care not to wrinkle his robes. Why, she couldn’t fathom. She honestly didn’t think he believed in wearing the same robes twice.
“The witch you’ve been seeing, obviously.”
He looked up at her with a confused frown. “Which witch?”
“Ok, something isn’t working in this conversation,” she muttered. “You are going on a date, aren’t you?”
“So, why do you not understand what I’m saying?”
Finally something cleared in his expression. “Ah, you’re assuming it’s the same person.”
Hermione’s jaw dropped. “You’ve been out with three different witches in three days?”
“No, actually,” he said, finally looking ready to go. “Six. I thought about making it three a day, but I can really only handle two at the most.”
Hermione shook her head, because there seemed to be words coming out of his mouth that she couldn’t quite comprehend. “Three...six...two... why?”
He pursed his lips, looking rather amused. “Well, since I’m looking, I might as well be looking hard, no?”
Before she could think of a suitable answer, he had left.
What was going on?
A few days later, Hermione was almost completely sure she knew what was going on.
Malfoy hadn’t given up.
He was working his way through the available—and a few that were technically less available—women at the Ministry as fast as he possibly could. A surprising amount of witches apparently didn’t mind his insane dating schedule, because they actually went out with him.
Hermione supposed agreeing was easier than arguing with him. It usually was. Besides, rumour had it that he was auditioning for a much more lucrative position than anyone would ever find working at the Ministry. One could hardly blame the women to want to at least see if they could get along with him, since the prize could potentially be rather large.
But Hermione knew he was just looking for ‘Lethe’. He hadn’t as much as implied it, but it became more and more obvious that he was becoming frustrated with the whole thing and she had a suspicion that he was really more interested in who would turn him down than who would accept.
Of course, he would never dream of asking her, so she was safe. As far as he was concerned, she was still happily engaged to Ron and hence not a likely candidate. Besides, he saw her every day. A meal with her wouldn’t be likely to suddenly reveal anything to him.
No, he was assuming that he didn’t usually see ‘Lethe’ and that he would know who she was from being in her presence for a mere hour. Obviously he wouldn’t—because ‘Lethe’ was a fantasy. She wished he would realise that.
As the list got shorter and shorter, so did his temper. He became unreasonable and rude to an extent that Hermione had rarely seen before. She began to dread seeing him because his words were beginning to cut her in places she didn’t know she had, but she felt so guilty that she accepted it without any real resistance. She even covered for him a few times when the boss asked for him. Not that Malfoy would ever really get in trouble but...still. Before the dating scheme, he was usually around at least a few afternoons a week and if Magical Law Enforcement heard how lax things were around here, they might pile on his punishment.
She had to wonder why she didn’t want that to happen anymore, but she ended back at guilt again. That was the only logical reason she could think of why she wouldn’t want him to face consequences for his own actions.
One day, weeks later, he flopped down in the chair in front of her desk and just stared into space. Hermione flinched as he sat down, but when he didn’t say anything, she decided to begin the exchange to get it over with.
“Let me guess: Going out to lunch?” she asked, noting with dismay that her dryness wasn’t as good as it once had been. It sounded rather flat and toneless.
“No,” he muttered.
“Finally work your way through all of them, then?” she asked.
He turned his glum gaze on her. “There’s really no point, is there? They are all wrong. And I’m sick of doing this.”
“What if your mystery girl is one of those you skipped?” she couldn’t help but ask. As he looked at her sharply, she rolled her eyes in a weak imitation of who she used to be. “Yes, you were that obvious. Why else would you be ‘looking’ that hard?”
“Nothing ever gets past you,” he mumbled to himself, and then he frowned. “I think I need your help.”
“It really wasn’t that brilliant a deduction,” she muttered.
“No, I mean it. You’re one of the smartest people I know. Probably the smartest, even. You could find her.”
“I don’t think that—”
“If you help me, you can write your own performance review.”
She stared at him, more than startled. “W-what? No, I really couldn’t—”
“You and Weasley are saving up for a house, aren’t you? I will buy you one. Of course, you may not want to actually tell him where it came from. Just make something up, he’ll never know.”
“Just find her and I’ll give you whatever you want if it’s within my power—and I still do have considerable power.”
She didn’t know how to respond.
“I don’t plan on stalking her or in any way forcing her to do anything. You won’t have to worry about the morals of the thing. I just need to see her once to try and persuade her that I’m not as horrible as she seems to think. I swear, if she asks me to go away I will.”
She searched her brain, desperate for any valid excuse why she couldn’t possibly be looking for his ‘Lethe’ for him, but came up with a whole lot of nothing.
“I know I’ve been...difficult lately. I know I don’t handle frustration well and that I’m being a wanker to you most of the time. But do you really hate me enough to still say no when you have everything to gain and nothing to lose?”
She was in big trouble.
Hermione had asked for time to think. Time to consider whether she would help him find ‘Lethe’. Hah. She was using that time to desperately try to think of a reason—any reason—that she could give him as to why she couldn’t help.
She couldn’t think of anything that he wouldn’t immediately shoot down.
So, she could do some more lying and pretending and let him think she was looking for ‘Lethe’ or...she could tell him the truth and be done with it.
He’d been looking for a girl that didn’t exist for so long. He really deserved to know the truth by now.
She knew this. Somewhere deep inside, she knew this. Now she just needed to somehow gather all of her courage and tell him.
She shouldn’t have let it go on for this long. She should have told him at the shop or at the café or at the very least as soon as she realised he was seriously still looking for her.
But she hadn’t told him. Instead she had let it go on. She had watched Malfoy hurt over this elusive girl for weeks without even once considering speaking up. She had watched him change while searching, not caring about how he appeared to the people around him, just wanting to find someone that he believed he might have something special with.
He had promised Hermione to buy her and Ron—really not his two favourite people—a bloody house if she could just get him one meeting with that girl. He’d sworn that he didn’t mean to force more than that one meeting on the witch. He just wanted a chance.
And now she had to tell him that his dream girl didn’t exist. That it had just been her wearing a disguise. That she had known for so long and chosen not to tell him.
She really didn’t want to tell him, but he didn’t deserve to look for something that didn’t exist any longer. He didn’t deserve to be hurting because he thought some perfect fantasy girl had rejected him, carelessly thrown him aside, for no other reason than him being himself. He really wasn’t that bad a person and he didn’t deserve to think that he was. Sure, he was annoying, manipulative and occasionally rude, but...he had never actually done any harm. She even suspected that he didn’t truly mean for his comments to hurt.
Shockingly, she found herself wishing she could be the fantasy girl he was searching for. She wished she could be ‘Lethe’. She wished she could be someone that wasn’t Hermione Granger and walk in here and watch him react to the revelation with relief and happiness rather than anger and disgust.
She closed her eyes, wishing she wasn’t feeling a telling wetness on her cheeks. This wasn’t supposed to hurt.