Disclaimer: Do I really need to do this? Oh well, here goes: I own nothing, I'm just having fun.
Hermione Granger, 23 and Underpaid Ministry Employee
The old grandfather clock was getting annoying. Really annoying. Hermione Granger crossed out a whole sentence with more vigour than necessary and the pen went straight through the thin Muggle-made paper.
Oh, the thing was charming enough during the noisy office hours. A nice homely touch. But at 8:30 on a Friday evening, it was ticking away the seconds as loudly as gunshots in the deserted room. At least that was the impression Hermione got as she tried to concentrate on the notes in front of her.
This lesson plan on the sword Excalibur was not going well at all. She should have listened to Ginny and refused to teach that Myths and Legends class at Cambridge University in addition to her already time-consuming job. It had seemed an interesting thing to do at the time. Well, it still was interesting but why did they have to move her weekly lecture on Friday evenings for the second semester?
And she couldn't believe she had forgotten to organise her notes on Excalibur for tonight's lesson. She had thirteen minutes to finish up –two minutes to Apparate out of the Ministry and run to the classroom had to be enough—and the two hours of lesson were bound to be the worst of her short teaching career. Had her students been wizards she could have actually shown them the real thing and then she would only have had to improvise from there. The sword was kept in the 'official' section of the Department of Mysteries but Ernie McMillan owed her a favour and would have allowed her to 'borrow' it for a few hours.
8:35. Hermione sighed. Wishful thinking wouldn't get her anywhere. The truth was that her week had been so hectic that she had not even had time to open a book for a bit of light reading; The Different Methods of Runes Carving in Magical Stones still sat brand new and unopened on her night table. In fact, the past three weeks had been nerve-wracking. Even her excellent organising skills were failing her and she felt her life was taking a turn for the worse.
Hermione worked at the Ministry of Magic in the Department of Muggle Affairs as the expert on enchanted ancient Muggle artefacts. In theory. In practice she spent most of her time either running after rebellious youths or cranky wizards who liked to cast spells and curses on Muggle objects— sometimes even on Muggles themselves-- or resolving everyone's little problems. Just yesterday she had spent the afternoon working on an antidote for a colleague who had swallowed a bad anti-wrinkle potion.
She loved her job, she really did. Most of the time.
After Voldemort's defeat five years ago a large number of wizards started to take an interest in Muggles and their way of life. Madam Bones, the current Minister for Magic, had created the Department of Muggle Affairs in 1999 and Hermione had been engaged shortly thereafter. About fifty people worked in the new department and they even had their own floor, organised in low-walled cubicles to promote conviviality. But Arthur Weasley, their very happy boss, had his own office.
Hermione could hardly move in her small cubicle. No matter how many bottomless enchantments she put on her drawers there still were papers, files and reference books all over the place. Magic could only get you so far.
She was about to go back to her notes when the doors of the lift clicked open and a flying memo came zooming toward her at an alarming speed before crashing into the potted plant she had managed to squeeze on her desk for a bit of a 'natural look'.
Getting the plant to release the note was a matter of seconds; it was pretty well trained by now and hardly chewed on paper anymore—unless it was the scented kind.
Still working? I sincerely hope you'll find the time to get a life one of these days. Don't fall asleep in your office again; I'm leaving and won't be able to drag you home like last time.
Hermione gritted her teeth as she blasted the note into oblivion.
Zabini. The git.
He'd been around making a general nuisance of himself ever since he'd joined the DA in their seventh year at Hogwarts along with Millicent Bulstrode. He was now working as an Unspeakable and still delighted in making her life miserable. At least Millicent made some effort to be agreeable most the time. She worked as an Auror with Harry and they formed a very efficient-if slightly scary- team. Hemione still remembered the wild tango duo she had pulled off with Millicent one night, when the Auror had needed comforting because Harry had found himself a girlfriend after three years of bachelorhood. Granted they both had an enormous quantity of alcohol in their systems at the time, but, still, it was an improvement on the dirty fight they had in Second year.
But Zabini…He just waltzed into a room unconcerned with anything or anyone. She was sure he was the type of guy who took every opportunity to look at his reflection in anything shiny to check if his hair was still as it should, be it perfectly neat or artfully messed up. Hermione's own hair was never neat come midday. She could spend ages in the bathroom, wand in hand, creating an elaborate chignon and a few hours later it would look like a bird nest badly mistreated by the elements. Her hair would hardly give anyone the wayward thought to run his fingers through it to feel its softness.
The clock chimed, indicating the quarter till and causing Hermione to jump out of her reverie. She'd just spent the last ten minutes thinking of Blaise Zabini of all people when she should have completed her paper. And now she was late and completely unprepared. She remembered berating Ron and Harry for their lack of organisation in their fifth year and she felt like smashing something. Preferably Zabini's perfect nose. But there was no time for that, not to mention that she would have to be highly inebriated to purposefully get on his bad side. The man could be scary.
Hermione stuffed her half-finished notes into her bag and left the office hastily. It was going to be a very lousy evening.
It was Sunday night but The Amazing Wand was crowded all the same. Hermione would have liked to drown all her sorrows and forget about her disastrous lecture directly on Friday, but Ginny worked as a Trainee-Healer at St Mungo's and had night duty that night. The two friends had agreed on Sunday and were now sitting at a secluded table with quite a few empty glasses in front of them. Their hair was garishly purple for the occasion and Ginny had insisted on gold and red nail polish.
"So what you're saying is that Millicent Bulstrode is covertly looking at Harry's ass when he doesn't have his Auror robes on but that Blaise Zabini doesn't look at your ass and you're pissed off about it?"
It took a while for Hermione's slightly foggy brain to process Ginny's words. She twirled the bright yellow umbrella around her glass. Wasn't the umbrella pink a second ago? No, the pink umbrella was for the Magic Wand Explosive cocktail and she had finished it already. What was the thing in front of her then? It looked purple and fuzzy and matched her hair to perfection. She took a generous swig. Not bad. She looked up at Ginny. "Are you sure it's what I said? The Zabini part I mean; I'm fairly positive I remember the ogling Millicent bit."
"No," Ginny said after a few seconds' thought. "Maybe you said you were pissed at Zabini but that you liked his arse all the same."
Hermione frowned. "Well, I'm probably drunk enough to have said it as well as thought it. Doesn't signify though."
"Probably not." Ginny's glass was empty and she had it refilled before resuming her slightly slurred speech. "You're right though. The guy's a hottie. Can't remember his arse though. Haven't seen him in a while, what with this Unspeakable business and all…he's not around much. Never was one of my patients though, so he must be good at his job."
Hermione sniggered. "Or just lucky. Besides I find he's around more than enough. The way he prances about the Ministry flirting and joking, you'd think he worked in Public relations. Hardly Unspeakable material if you ask me. And isn't he supposed to be unsociable anyway? I thought all Slytherins were."
Ginny giggled. "Perhaps he likes you and just want to get your attention."
"Or rather the attention of the blonde witch in the cubicle next to mine," Hermione snorted disdainfully. "I've seen the way she looks at him when he comes to pester me with some thing or other. Don't they have experts down there who could solve his little problems?"
"Perhaps these experts don't have quite such a pair of breasts."
Hermione choked on the last of her purple drink—Smashing Wand, that was the name—and Ginny patted her none too gently on the back. "That was just a suggestion since you seemed to be at loss", Ginny said soothingly. "Didn't you used to go to that awful Muggle café just because you thought the waiter had beautiful hands and you had naughty dreams about them afterwards? Zabini could be fantasising about your breasts. You never know," she finished sagely, a strand of purple hair fell in front of her face obscuring one very unfocused eye. She blew it out of the way. "Think we should go home. We're foxed enough and I have to get up early. What time is it anyway?"
After checking her wrist twice to make sure that no, she didn't have her watch, Hermione frowned. "Dunno. Late. Or early. But I don't think I'll be able to Apparate home without splinching myself"
"Me neither." Ginny rummaged through her handbag and withdrew a rubber duck. "We'll use my emergency portkey to St Mungo's and we'll sleep in one of the deserted wards. My boss never comes in before 10:00 on Mondays so we'll be okay."
The two young women made their way out of the bar unsteadily and drew close together against the cold February wind. Ginny took out her wand. "Ready?" She asked. A second later Hermione could feel the jerk to her navel. Another second and she was throwing up on the floor of Ginny's tiny office.
As she blearily made her way to her cubicle the next morning Hermione told herself to look on the bright side of things. There was always a bright side. It was just that it was really hard to find one when you had just Apparated in the middle of your crowded office forty-five minutes late wearing a borrowed set of Ginny's lime-green healer robes and still sporting the purple hairdo of last night's debauchery.
Since she was into positive thinking at the moment, she supposed she should be grateful that Arthur Weasley was unlikely to reprimand her for her slightly miscalculated Apparition. It was considered very rude to Apparate directly into the office. She had aimed for the bathroom --which was only one wall away-- so she could make herself presentable. The hours the Ministry employees spent at work were automatically recorded as soon as you set foot in the building. Hermione considered herself sufficiently underpaid without having to waste a few galleons on the fifteen minutes it would have taken to pop back at her flat for a change of clothes and hair colour. Unfortunately it didn't work the other way and no matter how long you stayed the recording was stopped after five o'clock and you wouldn't get a knut for working over hours. Obviously things were different for Aurors and Unspeakables.
Hermione glared around until her nosy colleagues stopped staring at her. She sat regally at her desk and decided she should wait at least ten minutes before casually making her way out of the room to drown her shame in the bathroom. At least her head wasn't pounding too much. Ginny really knew her stuff when it came to make life bearable for someone who had an enormous hangover.
She opened a desk drawer and had to plunge her whole arm inside before she could extricate the little notebook she was after. She opened it on the red-covered side where DON'Ts was written in bold letters. After a little more fumbling she found her quill.
"Don't try to use a portkey when you have a large quantity of alcohol in your body. Results are nasty."
"I can't believe you actually followed my advice and got yourself a social life, Granger! I'm so proud of you. Although I must say the drunken portkeying wasn't a bright move."
Hermione jumped. Of all the times the git could pick it had to be now. She should have known. He probably had her followed so he would know when he could extract maximum humiliation. She closed her notebook carefully and turned to him with a sweetly poisonous smile. "Zabini. How nice of you to drop by." She congratulated herself on her perfectly amiable voice.
The prat actually had the nerve to smile one of his dazzling smiles. Hermione was sure Catriona Wartok was fainting in the next cubicle.
"I always try to be agreeable to you, dear Granger. I know you enjoy my company…"
Would there be blood on her desk if his gorgeous lips split when she punched them?
"…as I enjoy yours," he finished in a low, seductive voice.
"Don't use your sweet talk on me, Zabini. Just come to the point. What do you want this time?" Hermione hoped her face was impassive. She had actually shivered at his tone of voice. What was wrong with her for Merlin's sake! The man was using all his sneaky Slytherin tricks and it affected her. Clearly, all those drinks had messed with her sensible brain. Perhaps she should avoid The Amazing Wand for a while.
Blaise Zabini perched a hip on an ancient thesaurus and his expensive black robes fell gracefully to the floor in perfect folds. He picked up an old and very sharp dagger from under a pile of unopened files and Hermione told herself she wouldn't look at his long fingers turning it absently over and over. She took a handful of parchments from her in-tray and started going through them without actually taking anything in. Was that his cologne she smelled? It was something spicy. She liked it.
"Why do you automatically assume I want something?"
He sounded a bit exasperated but Hermione didn't raise her eyes and continued to divide her papers into two piles. "I don't know," she said casually, "perhaps because you always want something. I'm not your personal House-elf your know. And I don't appreciate you always striding in here as if you owned the place. Some people are actually working in this building, they don't just stroll around and make a nuisance of themselves."
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the dagger still between his fingers. He rose and put it back on her desk. "Since I know you've been working too much these past weeks I wanted to take you away for the afternoon, somewhere I know you would have liked, somewhere I needed to be for my job," he bit out angrily, albeit very softly so as not to be overheard. "But seeing that my presence is particularly loathsome to you I think I'll take myself off."
She didn't think that was hurt she heard underneath the bruised pride in his voice but she looked up nonetheless, just in case. His dark blue eyes were inscrutable as he watched her for a few seconds before turning away. She heard him throw a friendly greeting to Catriona as he walked toward the lifts.
Hermione watched him disappear in a cloud of flying memos as he stepped into the lift. Her hands laid flat in front of her. The gold and red nail polish was chirped here and there, she noticed as she looked down.
She felt bad.
She had been in a cranky mood for the past three weeks and she had started to complain about everything and everyone. She had even managed to antagonise Ron—a spectacular feast since he was flying on cloud nine since he had landed that coaching job for the Chudley Cannons.
Blaise wasn't so bad. Of course he was obnoxious. But he was also funny. And clever. And it wasn't true he always wanted her to help with something. Actually, most of the time, he just dropped by for a few minutes for a chat. Never mind that his comments nearly always seemed somewhat derogatory. It was very funny when he wasn't referring to her personally. She realised she liked it when they sparred verbally over her paper-loving plant.
Drat. She had made a mess of things. And there was no denying the guy was gorgeous with his thick black hair, slightly curly when it was long enough… his gorgeous blue eyes, always so dark and mysterious…his strong and fit body and, yes, his very nice bum. Hermione dropped her head on her desk. Merlin, don't tell me I'm lusting after Zabini, she thought miserably.
"Nice outfit, Hermione," said a cheerful voice from somewhere above her. "Did you have one of those 'wake-overs' the Muggle like so much?"
" 'Make-over', Ron. It's called a 'make-over'. Hermione raised her head from the desk and looked at her friend. "And I didn't have one. I just had an eventful night."
Ron grinned. "Got foxed with Ginny again? That's not what I call eventful. You should come with me and the team when we go out some of these days. That'll give your definition of 'eventful' a whole new meaning".
Hermione had no intention to 'go out' with the Cannons as Ron put it. The last time they played—and lost—one of the players had put his hand squarely on her bum as she asked for an autograph for a colleague of hers. "Yes well, to each his kind of amusement I suppose. What are you doing here by the way? I thought you were training non-stop for next week's match?"
"I had to settle something with Angelina Johnson. She's head of the department of Magical Games and Sports now, you know. Youngest one in fifty years too. I just thought I'd stop to say hello. Care for a cup of coffee?"
Fifteen minutes later they were seated in the Ministry cafeteria with two steaming cups of coffee. Hermione had talked without interruption while Ron was trying not to burn his tongue with the hot beverage. She hadn't seen him in ages and it felt good to talk to him. Since their short, failed fling back in sixth year there hadn't been one bit of awkwardness between them. She wasn't even sure Harry knew of it.
"I don't think this obsession with Zabini's body is unhealthy. I mean, everyone can fantasise as they please, can't they? Nothing wrong with that."
"I wouldn't call it an 'obsession' exactly, Ron", Hermione said prudently. "Let's just say I generally approve of his anatomy."
"Yeah, whatever way you want to phrase it." Ron waved a dismissive hand. "The point is there's nothing to worry about. It's not as if you were in love with him or anything, right?"
"Of course I'm not in love with him!" Hermione exclaimed, horrified. What was Ron saying? She sincerely hoped it wasn't his Seer instinct kicking in.
She mistrusted that whole Divination business but even she had to admit that Ron could predict the future in the most casual ways. Scary stuff. Even the Ministry was impressed and they paid him really good money for some help from time to time. She just couldn't fall in love with Zabini. He'd stomp on her heart like one would crush a flobberworm. He was a shark. She was a shrimp. Why was she even giving the matter any thought at all? Of course, she would never fall in love with Blaise Zabini. Still…
She cleared her throat. "Say, Ron. You haven't been, you know…divining lately, have you?" That sounded casual enough, didn't it?
Ron looked up from his cup. "Divining?" he asked morosely. "What for? I don't want to see that the team will lose yet another match. It's depressing enough when it happens without seeing it in a vision beforehand."
Hermione had to admit he had a point. Still, she felt better. Things were perking up for the first time in three weeks. Discharging all her bad feelings had done the trick; her life was not really going down the drain anyway. It had just been a bleak period.
Ron's cloud seemed to have plummeted since she had seen him last though. She'd have to talk to Harry about that. Ron's voice brought her out of her reverie.
"So, when are you going to change your hair back to normal? People are staring."
Blaise didn't come once during the following days and Hermione knew better than to try to seek him out down to his office. One did not just waltz into the Unspeakable's quarters. Besides, it would have been a very awkward meeting since she had absolutely no idea what she would say to him.
Hermione left the office on Friday evening at 7:30. Her lesson plan for her class was very satisfactory and the whole week had actually been very quiet. She could see the dark wood of her desktop for the first time in a month and she had even given her plant a new and pretty blue pot to match her quill holder.
All was back to normal.
It was on a Wednesday morning, nearly two weeks later, that Hermione saw Blaise Zabini again. She had just collected what looked like a very old talking doorknob from one of her sources in London and was walking back to the Ministry to have a closer look at it. It might well be the one she'd been after for years, the one which, placed on any door, would transform it into a magic gateway to anywhere you pleased. She felt giddy and was nearly skipping down the streets. This was the reason she had chosen that job. It fit her like a glove.
She didn't see him of course. It seemed that he was always the one finding her.
It came as such a surprise to meet him here, in the middle of Muggle London, that Hermione missed a step and was only prevented from falling on her face by Blaise's quick reflexes. If she hadn't been so embarrassed Hermione might have realised his hand felt good around her arm.
"Aren't we quite the happy witch today," he drawled as Hermione fussed with her skirt while she waited for her flush to fade. When she finally looked up she saw that he had a nasty cut above his right eyebrow. It was deep and obviously not very recent. Even if healed with magic it would leave a light scar now.
"What happened to you, Zabini?" she asked, sharply. "I've never seen you hurt before."
Blaise shrugged. "I don't have a hazard-free job. It's nothing."
"It'll leave a scar."
"I want a scar."
"To be more like Harry?" Hermione asked tartly.
"To remind me never to be careless on a assignment again", he answered shortly. He was frowning and did not seem to care that they were attracting glances, standing there, arguing in the middle of the street.
She dragged him over to a shop window and made as if she was inspecting the display. "It doesn't seem like you to be careless, what with all the lectures you gave me on the risks I took by handing strongly magical artefacts and what nots." She saw him stiffen in the reflection of the window and chose a more gentle approach. "You don't have any problems, do you? I mean, you're not in any danger, are you?"
A small bitter smile hovered on his lips. "Would you care?"
Merlin, she had hurt him with her thoughtless remark. She was appalled at her shameful behaviour and she answered with a bit more feelings than she would have usually shown in front of him.
"Of course I'd care!" she exclaimed. "I mean, alright I think you're an obnoxious git who's full of himself and who thinks he's Merlin's gift to the world, but we've know each other -- I mean really known each other—for more than five years. We've mutually blasted ourselves into eight-legged dancing rabbits during practice at a DA meeting… once I even sent you to the hospital wing for three days with two extra arms sprouting from your head. Of course you had to get me back and you jinxed my copy of Hogwarts: a History with so much enthusiasm that it's still breathing fire every once in a while. But we actually spent some moments in quiet peacefulness; you were the only one who actually cared enough to help me do some back-research on the spells we were using so freely. If it hadn't been for us, the whole group would have ceased to exist shortly after insisting we really should try this cool spell Ron had found Merlin knows where. Would have been a mess. Bits and pieces all over the place for the House-elves to clean up." Hermione drew a much needed breath and looked at Blaise expectantly.
"I mean, we've formed a bond of sort, haven't we?" she asked after a while because Blaise wasn't saying anything and was just looking at her oddly. There was something in his eyes. She couldn't tell what, but she knew it was rare to actually see something, a hint of emotion, in the dark blue depths. The ex-Slytherin was a master at masking his thoughts and feelings. She had never met anyone like him.
Then he smiled. Not a smirk or a twist of the lips. A genuine smile. "You were a very cute eight-legged rabbit. You even had very fluffy hair."
Hermione's face had started to light up at the remembrance of their peculiar friendship but a scowl was quick to appear. "You couldn't possibly remember. You were a rabbit too at the time," she said crossly. She did not want Zabini to think of her as a fluffy eight-legged rabbit. It was bad enough he had seen her with purple hair and lime-green robes just two weeks ago. How on earth was she ever going to get him to find her attractive if he thought of things like that when he saw her? Wait, since when did she want him to find her attractive?
"Well, I clearly remember thinking in my rabbit's brain that there was a very cute fluffy female rabbit in front of me. Had you not tried to gouge my eyes out as soon as the smoke had cleared my rabbit self could very well have fallen in love with you. But, alas", Blaise sighed dramatically, "it was not to be."
"Female rabbits are very choosy, when it comes to mates," Hermione sniffed haughtily before spoiling it all by bursting into laughter. She was delighted when Blaise laughed along with her.
"I'm sorry about the other day," Hermione said spontaneously when they had both subsided. "I was in a foul mood."
Blaise nodded, accepting her apology without a word, as if it didn't really matter,but Hermione knew she had hurt him and that he was being a gentleman. It seemed their relationship had changed all of a sudden, and through her own actions, not his. The idea made her uncomfortable for some reason and she hastened to go back to their usual banter.
"But don't think for a minute that I approve of you wasting your office hours on annoying visits to my too small cubicle," she warned in her bossiest voice. "Or I'll have to report you someday."
"I should like to see you try to account for an Unspeakable schedule," he smirked. "For all you know, one of my numerous assignments could be watching you, my dear Miss Granger."
Blaise Zabini was back on her desk the next day and by the end of the week she was ready to tear him apart slowly and painfully with a pair of enchanted tweezers
It was only a day after their unexpected meeting in the streets of London that she realised he hadn't answered her questions about his well-being and possible dangers. She was also dying to know where he had planned to take her that Monday two weeks ago. But, knowing Zabini, he'd answer only one question, if he chose to answer at all.
When he took her for lunch the following Tuesday she judged he was in a good enough mood for her to risk a personal question.
"So," she started casually, picking out the nut topping from her ice-cream, "do you really like this job of yours then?"
Hermione had generously decided that his health was more important than her curiosity and she would keep her other, more trivial, question for another day. Of course she was still going about it the round-about way, Slytherin-style; or else she would not get anywhere with him.
Blaise eyed her ice-cream before turning to his more conventional choice of lunch. "Very," he answered un-informatively, cutting into his steak.
The fragile biscuit Hermione was dipping in the chocolate sauce crumbled between her fingers. She was sure he knew was she was about. He was much more adept at these little games than she was but she would not give up she told herself sternly.
"I've never heard of an Unspeakable being taken hostage to extract information," she tried again. "I know it can happen to Aurors but that they don't bother with Unspeakable. Is that true? It would seem that Aurors are much more at risk then, wouldn't it? It's said that no-one can make an Unspeakable speak about his work against his will." Damn, she was babbling.
"Let's just say that spells and Veritaserum would not accomplish anything."
"You can't place an Unspeakable under Imperio?" Hermione asked, interested.
Blaise laid down his knife and fork and looked at her. "If I didn't know better I'd swear you were a journalist conducting an interview." He paused. " You're not collecting information for that Lovegood girl and her weird newspaper, are you?"
"You know Unspeakables aren't Quibbler material. Everyone actually know for a fact that you exist."
"Right." He turned back to his steak. He was using his knife with precision and elegance. Sometimes he reminded her of Draco Malfoy.
Hermione's ice-cream was melting.
"So," she said after a while. "I suppose there's some sort of spell preventing you from blurting out anything work related." She absently moved her spoon around her cup in a ceaseless circle, watching the chocolate and vanilla swirling and mixing. Perhaps it wasn't that he would not answer her but simply that he couldn't. "But what if you want to talk about it? Are you jinxed so you can't?" And, as he didn't answer, "Could you talk if you wanted?" she persisted.
"Don't know. Never tried to." Hermione scowled at his dismissive reply. He sighed. "Look, could we talk about something else? I promise I'm not in any danger of being tortured, or kidnapped or whatever it is your over-active brain can imagine."
"Fine," Hermione sniffed haughtily and proceeded to ignore him for the next five minutes as he launched into one of the little reports she liked so much.
She could never sulk too long though. Not with Blaise Zabini bent on entertaining her. "Vincent Crabbe can't be the author of Pride and Leather Corsets!" she exclaimed, forgetting to continue reducing her ice-cream to mush.
"I assure you he is. He's going to go public and publish under his own name for his next book."
Hermione was speechless for a second. "But he can't have written it!" she spluttered at last. "It's one of the best books of enlightened erotic literature ever written! I've always thought Snape was the anonymous author."
She had spoken quite loudly and several customers turned to look at her. Hermione was mortified.
Blaise smirked. "I knew you had read it. I bet you even have a worn copy under you bed."
"Crabbe?" Ron nearly choked on his drink.
"And that's not all," Hermione said, looking around at her audience. Harry, Ron and Ginny had dragged her to The Amazing Wand to celebrate Ginny's promotion as a fully qualified Healer and the foursome were seated in their usual corner. They were going easy on the drinks since Harry had to leave for an assignment early the following morning.
Her three friends leaned closer for Hermione had dropped her voice to a whisper. "He was inspired by Millicent Bulstrode for his Elizabeth Benniwitch."
There was a collective gasp.
"Of course Crabbe himself is Fitzwilliam Dark." Hermione took a swig of her Butterbeer with a satisfied smile.
"Can you imagine Millicent wearing than corset and coiling that magical whip around her lover?" Ginny asked a bit breathlessly.
"Actually, I can."
Three heads turned to look at the speaker with incredulous eyes.
"Er…I mean, you haven't seen her on the job, when she's really into it," Harry said, blushing. "Most of the time I don't even have to draw out my wand, she's really good at taking care of business."
Ron was choking for good now. "Harry, do you realise how that could be misinterpreted?" he said when he could finally speak.
Harry looked clueless. "How? It's true; she's the one beating the baddies to a pulp."
"Never mind," Ginny said hastily. "How did you find out anyway, Hermione?"
"Zabini told me." She took care to put all the disdain she felt for the wretched man in that small sentence.
"What did he do this time?" Ginny asked resignedly. "I thought you were actually starting to like him."
"I never said I liked him," Hermione said defensively.
"Come off it. You were drooling after the guy a month ago. And you were supposedly angry with him at the time too. You were angry with everyone come to think of it."
"Thank you so much for revealing something I told you in confidence, Ron," Hermione said sourly.
Ron shrugged. "Everyone knew it anyway."
Hermione glared at Ginny and Harry who looked away guiltily. "I hope by 'everyone' you only meant those two traitors here," she gritted through her teeth.
"That's what I meant," Ron acquiesced jovially.
"So, anyway…" Ginny said. "What happened?"
And Hermione told it all. How she was sure he was looking for a girlfriend, not even being discreet about it: it looked like he was on intimate speaking terms with all the female employees of the Ministry. He must be making a mental list or something, checking attributes or possible hidden vices.
"How do you know he's looking for a girlfriend anyway?" Harry asked. He looked a bit skeptical.
"From some of the things he said. Nothing too obvious, but I figured it out. I'm good at that sort of thing. And also I'm not sure he's looking for one girlfriend. I saw him at the cafeteria the other day, he was surrounded by group of at least ten witches, all young and shapely mind you, and he was holding court there, basking in all the adoration. I swear he's trying to get himself a harem. He reminded me of Crookshanks when I had to drop him at Mrs Figg's and I thought he looked just like a pacha and his harem."
"Er, Hermione, doesn't Mrs Figg mostly have geldings?" Harry asked, obviously completely lost.
"So? It's not a true harem without at least a few eunuchs," Hermione said knowingly.
Ron choked on his drink for the second time in the evening.
Hermione was honest enough to acknowledge she might have been slightly exaggerating. She was also honest enough to acknowledge—only to herself of course—that she just might like Blaise Zabini and that she was jealous.
It was Monday, March 15th, and she was standing in front of the mirror--Muggle model-- in her bathroom.
Did it show on her face? She couldn't see it.
"I like Blaise Zabini," she said clearly. She peered closer. No, nothing. No-one would be able to see. Especially not Blaise himself.
She Apparated to the Ministry on time and was able to work undisturbed for most of the day. She hadn't really minded fixing George Poulty's regurgitating paper bin or de-jinxing a crazy competition broomstick for a member of Ron's Quidditch team.
She hadn't seen Blaise in nearly a week and was surprised to see him strolling towards her as she was gathering some files to take home with her. The office was half-empty by then and no-one was paying attention to them.
"If it isn't my favourite mysterious Unspkeakable." She tried hard not to seem too pleased to see him. It wouldn't do to have him know she had been afraid he had found himself a pretty witch to occupy his time.
"Granger, I'm the only Unspeakable you know. You have to work on your compliments."
"It was sarcasm."
"Then you have to work on your sarcasm. It certainly sounded as if you were pleased to see me." He leaned against the wall of her cubicle and looked at her smugly.
Merlin, she couldn't be this obvious. She chose a pile of papers at random and shoved it in her bag. "Where were you anyway?" she asked. Her hair was out of its pins and fell in waves in front of her bent face, effectively preventing him from seeing her flush. He looked like a watchful panther standing over her like that. Why did he have to be so devastatingly handsome?
There was a few moment of silence and Hermione knew she couldn't keep rummaging in her overflowing bag for much longer. Blaise wasn't making a sound. When she straightened up at last she saw that he hadn't moved at all and was still leaning against the wall, observing her.
She cleared her throat. "Was there something you wanted?"
"Why do you always assume I want something?" he said, almost in a whisper. He seemed to be holding his breath.
Hermione was determined not to ruin anything this time. "Well, I wasn't assuming anything actually. Just asking."
She hadn't realised he was tense until she saw his shoulders relax a fraction.
"In this case you would have assumed right though," he said after a while. "I want something." She arched an enquiring eyebrow and he went on. "I would like your company to be precise. I have to go somewhere for work tomorrow morning and I was wondering if you would come with me this time? You would enjoy it."
"Is it the same place you thought I would have enjoyed a month ago?"
"The very same."
He had been tense a minute ago but now did not appear overly concerned. To Hermione, it sounded like he was doing her a favour and did not particularly care if she accepted or not. Clearly, it was implied that it'd be her loss, not his. Still, he'd said he'd like her company.
"It's awfully dull these days at the office," she finally said. "A day off wouldn't kill me, I suppose."
"Such enthusiasm," Blaise remarked with sarcasm. "Then I suppose it wouldn't kill me to pick you up at your flat tomorrow morning? Nine o'clock?"
As Hermione went to bed that night it occurred to her she hadn't given him her address. He'd probably be on the doorstep at nine sharp the following morning nonetheless. It was a bit disturbing that he knew so much about her although she practically never discussed her private life with him. For the first time she wondered if he really had been joking when he had said he could very well be watching her. He was around quite a lot but she hardly saw any of his colleagues in the corridors of the Ministry.
As she thought more about it she realised she was being silly. He was around a lot but certainly not enough to be watching her seriously.
Hermione's mouth dropped open as she looked at the imposing building in front of her.
"Stonehenge Library?" she whispered in awe. "But it's a restricted monument. We can't just stroll in there."
Blaise grasped her arm and steered her up the old stone stairs. When he placed a hand on the massive double door it swung noiselessly open. "There's nothing 'restricted' when you're an Unspeakable, Granger. One of the perks of the job."
"What about the other advantages?" Hermione asked, her mind only half on the conversation. She was looking at the arched ceiling, marvelling at the wonderful stone work. Merlin, but the place was beautiful. She couldn't believe she was in the most ancient wizarding library in the world that now also served as a museum. Legendary artefacts she had only read about in obscure books might be only a wall away.
"You'd only hate me if I told you," Blaise answered before heading for what looked like the reception desk. It was a piece of art in itself, Hermione noticed as they drew closer. Ron would have described it as a big slab of rock but he had never taken Ancient Runes at school and wouldn't have known how many centuries it must have taken to complete all the magical carvings hewed in the hard stone. The tall middle-aged witch seated behind it surveyed Hermione coolly but broke into an engaging smile when she spotted Blaise.
Her hair was pulled back even tighter than Minerva McGonagall's and her robes were hideous,Hermione thought uncharitably. She ran a hand down her own dark green ones to smooth out imaginary wrinkles. The robes were very well cut and suited her to perfection. She had spent a small fortune on them but it had been worth it.
"I'm Agent Zabini," Blaise said in his most suave voice. The reception witch was already melting. Hermione rolled her eyes. "I believe you were informed of our arrival."
The older witch barely glanced at the registry in front of her. "Of course. I remember you from last month Mr Zabini. You will be wanting an open pass again, I suppose?"
Blaise smiled. "Two open passes," he corrected gently.
The tall witch sent a nasty look towards Hermione but gave them two red badges with the word 'Unrestricted' on them.
No such thing as 'restricted' for an Unspeakable indeed, Hermione mused as she pinned the badge on the front of her robes.
"There's something I have to do alone," Blaise told her as they walked out of the cavernous entry hall and into a smaller room with many doors. "You can go explore wherever you want in the meantime, you're all cleared."
"Wait! Where do you want us to meet again?" Hermione asked as he started to walk away.
He laughed. "Don't worry about that. I'll find you."
Hermione stood in the middle of the room for a while after Blaise had disappeared.
Unrestricted access to the Stonehenge Library…She doubted even Harry would be admitted if he asked, which he was unlikely to do anyway. Probably didn't even know the place. She made a note to thank Zabini later and started her exploration.
It was hard not to stop at every wonder she saw but she knew she would never have the time to see everything if she did. There were rooms upon rooms filled with every kind of book imaginable, and here and there, as if placed at random, old objects and weapons laid in charmed glass-boxes. Hermione visited every room and decided to go back to the Grimoires collection to explore more thoroughly while waiting for Blaise.
She finally ended up in the middle of an exhibition room, examining Merlin's very own grimoire. Her nose was practically touching the glass of its protective box as she read the writings of England's most famous wizard, when Blaise came back.
"Have you seen this?" she asked when she felt him standing behind her. She twirled her wand and the pages turned at her command. Blaise came closer and leaned over her shoulder. He was almost touching her and the scent of his cologne engulfed her. Her stomach flipped-flopped exactly as it had done this morning when she had opened the door to let him in. Sober black robes, serious blue eyes, his black hair still slightly wet and curling, he had been a vision of male gorgeousness.
"It looks like a painting of the lake and the forbidden forest back at Hogwarts," he said after studying the illustration for a moment. "No castle yet though."
Hermione nodded. "No castle yet," she agreed. "Too early by a century I'd say. But look." She taped her wand on the magic case and the book rose upward close to the glass barrier. "There's a kind of hut on the hill, or perhaps a house, it's too far away to say. But it's just at the emplacement of the actual castle. There must still be some residual traces of magic, he was such a powerful wizard."
Blaise looked down the page at the title of the illustration: "My humble abode" it read.
"I bet the Slytherin common room is just above it," he said. "That would explain why we're such a talented bunch."
"A big-headed bunch you mean."
He was standing much too close Hermione thought. Her brain was getting fuzzy and thinking became incredibly hard when he extended an arm around her and placed his hand on the edge of the glass case for support. Her right shoulder was now in contact with his robe-covered chest and she realised how a well-muscled chest it actually was.
Hermione wondered…were you in love when your heart skipped a beat when you spotted him strolling out of the lift toward you? when your breath hitched every time he came close? when you thought he had the most beautiful eyes in the world? Were you in love when you hardly thought of anything else but him?
'Oh no no no no no. I'm not going there,' Hermione panicked. She tried to think of something else and turned a page with her wand, then another and another. They flipped in quick succession in front of her unseeing eyes. Her shoulder burned where it came in contact with his chest.
'I'm not in love with Blaise Zabini. I'm not in love with Blaise Zabini.' She repeated it like a mantra in her head until she realised she was actually saying 'I am in love with Blaise Zabini. I am in love with Blaise Zabini.'
She moaned. Self-brainwashing. It had to be a first. She became aware that Blaise was talking to her.
"Granger? Granger?…Hermione, are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she said in voice she didn't recognise as her own. Merlin this was bad. Really bad.
Blaise had dropped his arm and taken a step back. He reached over and turned her toward him. "Are you sure?" he asked in a concerned voice. "You don't look fine. Maybe it's all the magic in the air. It can make people dizzy. How long have you been studying this grimoire?"
"No, no. I'm fine. Don't worry," Hermione said pulling herself together. He was right; the magic was making her dizzy. The book must still be holding some great power. She would have to look into this later, she hadn't known mere objects could retain such an amount of magic for so long a time. Perhaps the magical cases helped to preserve it.
Hermione felt better now that her brain was back on track. She saw Blaise shooting her concerned looks as they made their way out of the ancient building and she assured him once again that she was fine. She also thanked him prettily for bringing her here and got a pleased smile from him.
One of his rare, genuine smiles and not the studied one he had given that tall witch. Her stomach flipped-flopped for the third time that day and she knew she was in trouble. There was no magic grimoire messing with her head now. No. Hermione Granger was the one sabotaging herself.
She stood in front of her mirror for long time that night.
"I am in love with Blaise Zabini," she told her reflection.
Merlin, she looked as miserable as she felt.
Blaise made himself scarce for the rest of the week. It suited Hermione just fine. She was going to rip him out of her tender Gryffindor heart and that would be more easily accomplished if he wasn't constantly stopping by with his mocking smile and beautiful eyes.
She forced herself to spill the whole story to Ginny; she would surely feel better if someone knew how miserable she was.
Ginny didn't seem in the least surprised. She only said, "But why is it a bad thing to be in love in him? You could do much worse."
"Why?" Hermione repeated incredulously. "Ginny, it's Zabini we're talking about here. Tall, dark, handsome Blaise Zabini. He must be on first name basis with the majority of the Ministry's female population."
But Ginny was sceptical. "I haven't seen him in a while but I certainly don't remember Zabini paying particular attentions to witches. In fact, I've always thought he was—" she stopped, frowning.
"Was what?" Hermione asked.
"It's not nothing. Your ears are getting pink, I know you're withdrawing important information."
"Alright," Ginny sighed. "It was just a personal observation mind you. But I've always thought he was after one particular witch."
"Well, whoever she was, she didn't last long. I've never seen him accompanying or paying attention to one witch in particular."
Ginny squirmed in her chair. "I never said he actually got the witch."
Hermione thought for a moment. "So what you're saying is that you think he's pining for some girl and that he consoles himself by flirting with every cute witches he meets?"
"I never said anything about him flirting with cute witches."
"No, you didn't. I just filled in the blanks." She waved a dismissive hand when Ginny opened her mouth to protest. "It's even worse than I thought then if he's actually in love with someone. Now you see why it was foolish of me to fall in love with him. I just hope that it'll pass soon."
Hermione came to realise that, unfortunately, you just couldn't fall out of love at will. It was very annoying. Being in love was not all that it was cracked up to be. She certainly didn't feel like she was floating in happiness. She didn't hear birds sing or stop in the street to buy pretty flowers.
It wasn't fair, she thought on Friday morning as she was absently doodling on a roll of parchment. She was supposed to be writing a report on an old penknife that forced anyone who touched it to turn it against themselves. She had half a mind to draw it out of its protective box and be done with it.
She heard the click of the lift doors and automatically looked up. She had to blink twice to make sure she wasn't seeing things. Damn, she thought bending low on her desk in the hopes that he wouldn't see her.
"Good morning, Catriona," she heard him say quite cordially. A terrible thought struck her. What if Catriona was the witch? He certainly greeted her every time he passed her desk. Did they have secret rendez-vous after work? Or, worse, during office hours? Looking back, Hermione could remember quite a number of occasions when the cubicle next to her had been empty for a certain amount of time. Time enough for a tryst that was for sure.
"Something interesting on that parchment? Be careful not to get any ink on the tip of your nose."
Hermione sat up properly. "It's a new method of relaxation," she said primly, confident he couldn't tell her thoughts.
"Right." She wasn't sure he believed her. "They're sending me on an assignment," he brusquely said after several seconds of uneasy silence. "I'll probably be gone a month."
A month? How was she going to stand it?
He was looking at her closely. "I just wanted to make sure you weren't suffering from any dizziness because of your visit to Stonehenge Library before I left. These things can be more serious than we think sometimes."
"I told you I was fine," she managed to say in a normal voice. He was worried about her. He cared about her.
"I know you told me. I just wanted to make sure it wasn't your Gryffindor stubbornness speaking."
Hermione wasn't sure she ought to be grateful for the interruption. She turned to Arthur Weasley, who was standing just outside his office.
"What is it, Arthur?"
"Can you come into my office immediately? We have an emergency." He sounded agitated.
She turned back to Blaise. "I'm sorry but I have to go. It's not like Arthur to be this agitated. I promise I'm fine." She gave him a small smile so that the lie would pass more smoothly. "I'll see you in a month then."
And she left in a hurry before she could blurt out that she loved him and that he'd better be careful.
It was almost 3 o'clock when Hermione came back to the Ministry. She felt sick.
Blaise was gone and she had just witnessed the autopsy of two terribly mangled Muggle corpses. She had immediately recognised the devastating effects of a Black Orb blast but they had kept her until the end, unwilling to let her go before they were absolutely sure of it. The deactivated stone felt heavy in her handbag. It probably wasn't the first time the thing had killed. Voldemort had stolen all the orbs kept at the Ministry five years ago, not long before the final battle. The Ministry was still looking for missing Black Orbs.
When she passed Catriona's cubicle she noticed that her desk was bare except for a stash of quills in a corner. Catriona herself was trying to close a leather suitcase stuffed with papers.
"What on earth are you doing?" Hermione asked. Granted it was Friday afternoon, but no-one took that amount of work just for the week-end.
Catriona jumped and laughed nervously when she saw Hermione. "Oh, it's you, Hermione. I'm a bit jumpy these days, don't pay attention. It's as well I'm going away for a while."
"Yes, for a month. I'm taking all my files with me so I can work on them. Technically, it's not a holiday, I'm still getting paid."
"You're going away for a month," Hermione repeated blankly. She was drowning. She was drowning and there were sharks circling around her. Two sharks laughing at her as she drowned. He couldn't have lied to her, could he? He wasn't taking Catriona away with him, was he?
Catriona smiled cheerfully. "Yes, that's what I said. My fiancé, Frederick, has been staying in the United States as a Transfiguration teacher in Salem. I haven't seen him in six months and I just got permission to go and join him. We'll get married over there and he'll come back in England at the end of the school year in June."
Fiancé…Frederick…United States. Oh, Merlin…she was truly getting paranoïd.
"I'm so happy." Catriona kept babbling. "I just couldn't wait until he came back. It's been so hard without him. I'll be grateful to Arthur Weasley until the end of my days," she finished with a happy sigh.
There was only one thing to say.
Catriona blushed prettily. "Oh, thank you. Er, Hermione, I'm having trouble with my suitcase. Could you…?"
"Of course." Hermione pulled out her wand and performed the appropriate charm. She felt like an idiot.
Hermione came back to her flat just before midnight. Her lecture had gone well enough; her students were interested in the subject, they had to be since they were willing to stay until close to eleven o'clock at night for it. She hadn't felt like going home afterwards and decided to stop at St Mungo's to share a cup of hot chocolate with Ginny who was on night duty again.
She fumbled in her handbag for her keys and promised herself for the umpteenth time that she'd have a Recognition Charm installed on her door.
Once inside she knew at once that there was someone waiting in the dark. As it wasn't possible to break into her flat without magic, she drew her wand as quietly as she could and whispered a Lumos, ready to jump aside at any unfriendly spell. But nothing came.
She threw her bag and wand on the nearest chair and went to turn on the lights before dropping onto her couch beside Blaise Zabini.
"For a moment this afternoon I thought you were eloping with Catriona Wartok," she said.
Blaise raised an eyebrow. "When did you realise you were wrong?"
"When she showed me her engagement ring and gushed about her darling Frederick for fifteen minutes before I could escape."
"Why do you always jump to the worst conclusions when I'm concerned?" He had thrown back his head against the couch and seemed immensely tired.
"I do not jump to the worst conclusions," Hermione protested hotly. "You're allowed to elope with whomever you please, it wouldn't have been any of my business."
Blaise closed his eyes and sighed wearily. "I'm not allowed to elope with anyone if I tell you that I'm going on an assignment. I would not lie to you, Hermione."
"I know that. It's just that I've been feeling funny lately. Been having dreams of sharks and such…"
He chuckled. Hermione wanted to place her hand on his chest and feel the rumble. She settled for twirling the corner of the old patchwork thrown over the couch instead.
"Dreams of sharks and such?"
There was a lull.
"How did you break in?" she asked when the silence became too uncomfortable.
"I didn't. The door wasn't locked." He opened his eyes and turned to look at her. "You should be more careful."
"I'll try." Merlin, what was that glint in his eyes? Her hands were sweaty. He was in her flat, on her couch, barely inches from her. "I must have been distracted because of… of…because of the dreams," she finished lamely.
"The sharks again?"
Hermione swallowed. There was definitely something dangerous in his eyes. Was he angry about the unlocked door? She nodded because he seemed to be waiting for an answer.
He smiled but simply said, "I see."
Hermione squirmed uneasily. "And, er, why are you here again? Did you want something?"
His smile became positively predatory. "Oh yes."
"My company?" Hermione hazarded in a squeaky voice she didn't like at all. If her eyes weren't deceiving her he had moved a good two inches closer. Merlin, the room was getting hot.
"Among other things."
"What other things?" she wanted to ask but couldn't because his mouth was on hers and he was pressing his body against hers in a most pleasurable fashion.
He was a good kisser. Scratch that. He was a damn good kisser. And he had very skilled hands.
When she was able to draw her first breath, about ten minutes later, Hermione said, "Was there anything else you wanted, Mr Zabini?"
They both still had their robes on but Hermione knew she was very flushed and thoroughly dishevelled. Blaise was looking rather ruffled himself.
"I have a list in my pocket," he said against her skin. "It'll take all night and most of the weekend to go through it all."
"What about your assignment?" she gasped as he found a particularly sensitive spot behind her left ear.
"Screw my assignment. I told them I wasn't going. They'll send someone else."
"Of course it's good," he fairly growled as he started attacking the buttons on her robes.
"Most of the weekend, eh?" she teased.
"Well, actually, that's just for the first list. I have several others back home."
Hermione shrugged off her robes impatiently and leaned forward to start working on his.
He was breathing heavily.
"Lots. I spent six years writing them."
Her fingers stilled. She looked up, completely dumbfounded. "Six years?" she breathed.
He looked younger with his hair all mussed and his robes hanging half open. His face was open, vulnerable.
"Six long years." He brought his hand to her face and caressed her cheek. "I love you, Hermione Granger," he said very quietly.
When Hermione remembered to breathe again she sat back and looked at him. His hand fell back on the couch, between them. She picked it up with her much smaller one and gazed at it in wonder.
She had never heard him sound so uncertain before. She looked up. "Yes?"
"Do you…that is I had hoped…you seemed to like it when I kissed you and I…do you…"
Hermione melted. "Oh, Blaise. Of course I love you."
She felt his hand stiffen in her own.
"Do you?" He sounded surprised.
"But I thought—"
"Never mind what you thought. I thought some crazy things too. It doesn't matter. Now, you were saying something about a large, unspecified number of lists?"
Her fingers resumed their interrupted work and she soon had a very eager, very attractive and very naked male all at her disposal.
Hermione spent a good weekend indeed.
Monday morning. The Ministry, Department of Muggle Affairs.
Hermione opened her notebook on the green-covered side and picked up a quill.
"Do run your finger down Blaise Zabini's spine when he does not expect it. Results are very interesting."