Mid-December, 2006

Malfoy's seduction took on a new tone after that afternoon in the Slytherin dungeon hallway. Rather than the desperate and rough coupling she and he had engaged in for the last two months, the sex became something a little more tender, a little less anxious, and a lot more sure of the direction it was taking.

—At least insofar as Draco was concerned, anyway. He seemed to have taken her admission of the feelings she was harbouring for him as a sign that he'd won some kind of silent tug-of-war with her, and could now bask in the victory. For Hermione, however, she'd never felt so uneasy. Every day she struggled with gnawing doubt about the relationship, worried she was investing too much feeling and would eventually end up the one on the receiving end of a broken heart. She'd only once ever been so swept off her feet by a man, and that had been in the very beginning of her relationship with Ron.

Reminded of how badly that had turned out only made her more anxious.

Not only had she lost the ability to trust another person with her heart, thanks to Ron's affair with Lavender Brown, but she'd also been left holding the short end of the stick in terms of her career. Allowing her husband, his family, and their friends bully her into resigning her position within the Ministry, all for the sake of some archaic laws disallowing married couples to work together, had created a black hole of resentment within her, that to this day continued to fester. Constantly, she questioned why she'd been the one required to make the sacrifice and why he hadn't even offered to do so, especially considering her pay had been quite a bit more than Ron had brought in.

Would it be the same at Hogwarts, if she and Draco were found out? Would she again be forced out of a job she loved? The idea made her positively nauseated.

The occasional sly looks from Minerva weren't helping, of course. The old witch had begun watching her in a way that said the Headmistress might know more than she was letting on about Hermione's extra-curricular activities with a certain blond Potions professor. She could almost feel the woman's eyes on her everywhere she went! It was truly unnerving.

Fearing a repeat of her previous employment termination, she began to be more conscientious of her behaviour around Malfoy in public. She kept her interactions with him strictly professional when others were around, and did her best not to watch him walk away, especially when he wasn't wearing his robes and she had a fantastic view of his arse.

Her resolve to play it cool proved extremely challenging, though, as she seemed to be acutely aware of her lover's every move when they were in the same room together. As a woman with an honest heart, she'd always found it difficult to mask her emotions, and so it began to feel as if the truth of her affair with Malfoy flashed across her forehead in big neon letters whenever he so much as glanced in her direction. Consequently, her paranoia steadily mounted, especially when she noted the portraits began whispering behind their hands whenever she and Draco walked by.

Also, it was difficult to hold back the green-eyed monster of jealousy when the attractive, young Helen Merrythought—granddaughter of Hogwarts' former Defence Against the Dark Arts instructor, Galatea Merrythought, and currently holder of that same position—sat so close to Malfoy in the dining hall and in staff meetings to flirt with him. True, he never encouraged Helen, but he didn't discourage her, either, and many times, Hermione had been forced to leave the room as her temper flared out of control and her wand hand shook to hex the witch.

All those repressed, heightened emotions made Hermione jittery, on edge. Her sleep began to suffer, which adversely affected her ability to concentrate. In class, she occasionally lost track of her point while in the middle of a lecture and had to refer back to her notes. Scared the Headmistress would call her up any day and fire her for incompetence, she began drinking the random Memory potion here and there, despite the fact doing so made her sick to her stomach. To counter the side-effects of that, she stopped eating any kind of fish product (which tended to really roil her up), and as a result, she became sensitive to the oily, greasy smell of the stuff and couldn't be around it.

Needless to say, by the time the testing before Christmas break rolled around, Hermione was a terrible fright. Still, she did manage to muscle through proctoring three days of tests with only the need for Cooling charms. That, in itself, had been quite the feat.

On the evening of the last day of the term, she let out a heavy, relieved sigh and sat down next to Neville, who'd taken up the post of Herbology Professor this year, to enjoy the Christmas feast in the Great Hall.

"Looking forward to going home?" her friend asked as he cut into his slice of pork roast with the apple stuffing.

"For the break, yes," she admitted. "I need a bit of a rest."

The fact was, she was dreading that she'd be leaving on the train tomorrow to meet up with Ron for a stay at the Burrow, where they were to spend Christmas this year. She'd have much preferred to accompany her memory-restored parents on their Caribbean cruise, but it was their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary trip and she didn't want to intrude (besides, the last thing she wanted right then was to be forced into close quarters with her husband on a boat trip whose launch theme was "Rekindling the Romance").

However, she really did need the break from teaching and from the anxiety she felt surrounding her affair, and even the distraction offered by a Weasley-packed Burrow was better than staying behind, especially as Draco wouldn't be there to entertain her (he'd planned to go home to Malfoy Manor to be with his parents, who had just come off of their post-war house-arrest sentencing).

That wasn't to say she wouldn't miss Draco or his attentions, because she most certainly would, but she would also like to not have to keep them a secret, and not have to worry about what their relationship's revelation would mean for her life, both personally and professionally.

Her friend glanced sideways at her, shuffling a short stack of almond green beans around on his plate. "I wasn't going to say anything, but you've looked a bit unwell the past few weeks, 'Mione. Is everything alright?"

"Fine," she lied. "Perfectly fine. How are you? How's the wooing of Hannah Abbot going?"

As Neville talked about the Christmas shopping date he and the proprietess of the Leaky Cauldron had gone on the weekend before last, Hermione tried to concentrate on what he was saying, but as she split a home-baked roll in half and added a liberal slab of salted butter to it, the glint of the thin, gold band encircling her left ring finger abruptly caught her attention… and suddenly, she was focussing on it, obsessing over its dull and dented surface, finding the metaphor that she and the ring were as one. They were both covered in scratches, in desperate need of repair.

What had happened to her? She'd been so full of courage once, unafraid of taking on the world's curses and ills.

Of course, that had been before her husband had begun working full-time at the Ministry with Lavender Brown. Before Hermione had begun to fear losing him and the childish dream she'd built up around him.

Before she'd learned how to lie really well…

Overall, Ron Weasley had been a loyal, fun, and generally romantic boyfriend. Yes, on occasion he could be a thoughtless pile of poo, too, but by-and-large he hadn't been a bad partner in the early days of their relationship. He'd been supportive of her sitting her N.E.W.T.s, and of her application to the Department of Magical Creatures, and then of her transfer to Magical Law Enforcement to join the Defence council, where she'd finally found a good home for her interests and talents. They'd gone on dates, enjoyed sunsets together, and made love often enough to sate both of their needs without interrupting their work schedules.

Two years later, her former Gryffindor roommate had begun working in the Auror's Office as a secretary, and Ron had started having lunch with his ex-girlfriend, mainly on Thursdays, when Hermione was in meetings all afternoon. When confronted on these mini-dates, he'd brushed off her concerns, reminding Hermione that she still kept in contact with Viktor Krum and reiterating that a friendship with Brown would not interfere with his love for her. The lunches continued, and it followed thereafter that Brown was seen hanging around Ron's desk more than would be considered appropriate by most, wearing low-cut blouses and high-cut skirts.

Over the next several months, Hermione fought against her jealous mistrust of the situation, which warred with her desire to believe in her committed boyfriend. It put a strain their relationship.

When the rumours began circulating half-way through the year that things weren't perfect between the 'Golden Duo', as the papers had dubbed her and Ron, that's when Hermione's self-esteem began to take a serious nose-dive.

In truth, she'd always felt inadequate when it came to keeping the attention of the opposite sex. As a woman with a fierce intellectual curiosity, a precise wand aim, and a rather sizable vocabulary, she knew she was considered intimidating to most men. That she was also rather argumentative and opinionated, too, and had a set of personal goals that included someday running for Minister of Magic was a decided turn-off for weaker-willed guys, according to both Harry and Ron. In terms of dress and appearance, it was a fact that Hermione was more the casual type and not very fashion-oriented. She tended to wear her hair up in the same bun or tight ponytail every day, painted on very little-to-no make-up, and wore conservative trouser suits to work. She owned precisely one pair of black heels, a single black dress that she wore to every function, and some costume jewellery pieces to spice up her outfits. Honestly, the nicest things in her wardrobe were the various lingerie pieces she'd gotten for her bridal shower. Clothes, she'd always felt, did not make the person; it was their deeds and ideas that mattered.

Lavender Brown, on the other hand, had apparently no interest in pursuing anything meaningful other than married men. Her ambitions had always run, even back during their Hogwarts days, towards the spiteful and intentional breaking up of the happy relationships of others, and the witch relied primarily upon her physical attributes to achieve those aims. In that department, the woman reigned supreme, though, as she was not just tall, but she was well-proportioned and quite lovely, too, having been gifted by the gods with the three 'b's'—blonde hair, beauty, and huge breasts.

In a direct comparison between them, Hermione knew she was considered the frumpy one, while Lavender was 'fun'. Serious, sincere, and studious were apparently not sexy attributes.

Apparently, neither was stress eating, for within a few, short months, Hermione had added a stone and a half to her weight and an inch or two to her waist... and Ron had commented on that fact with some disapproval, further shaking her confidence. The additional fat gain, she'd despaired, had only widened the gap between her and Ms. 'Bloody Perfect' Brown.

One day in early March, a picture in the gossip section of the Daily Prophet featured Ron and Lavender leaving the Ministry lift together, his hand resting on the small of her back. The caption above read, "Golden Duo Split Inevitable? Brown Moves Into Position". The piece moved Hermione to tears as she recognised the truth of it.

Knowing it was only a matter of time before she lost Ron in the battle for his affections, she concocted a mad, desperate, and poorly-conceived plan that very afternoon: she exaggerated the possibility that she might be pregnant, knowing Ron was the type of man who would want to do the right thing by a child. It was an underhanded, despicable tactic, and in hindsight, Hermione deeply regretted the lie now. Yet, at the time, it had worked and she had felt an arrogant satisfaction in knowing Lavender Brown had lost out to her for a second time.

She and Ron had married in a small, quick ceremony at the Burrow two weeks later, and a week after that, Hermione's period had 'miraculously' appeared. Her pregnancy had been dubbed a false alarm, but by then, Ron didn't seem to mind that he'd gotten hitched over a mistake. The newlyweds were too deliriously happy enjoying the act of honeymooning to care.

What goes around, comes around.

In retrospect, Hermione now understood that getting married to Ron had been the worst mistake of her life. If only she had a Time-Turner and could go back to warn her past self of the folly.

Aside from the fact Brown continued to flirt with Ron despite his newly married status, there had also been the contention of that buggering archaic law about husbands and wives not being allowed to work in the same Ministry Department together. Unmarried family members could continue to be employed together, as could in-laws, best friends, former classmates, ex's, people casually dating, and neighbors. Husbands and wives as co-workers, however, were considered a conflict of interest, for a reason Hermione had never been able to properly discern.

Needless to say, the edict had caused much strife between the newly bound couple. There had been one particular row between them that had ended with a coffee mug smashed and Hermione in tears.

Feeling guilty for the deceit that had been responsible for the pickle they'd found themselves in, and because it was naturally her way to sacrifice for those she loved, and because she knew if she didn't, Ron's attitude had made it clear that he'd resent her for the rest of their married life together, Hermione had eventually given in to his demand that she be the one to leave the M.L.E.

Giving up her chosen career had been hard, though. It had really smothered her inner fire to be so thoroughly defeated by the very system she'd believed would provide equality and justice to all, and especially after having worked so hard to get into a position of power to affect change and make lives better.

Word having gotten around, a month later she'd received an owl from Professor McGonagall asking her to consider the post of Charms instructor at Hogwarts, since Professor Flitwick was finally retiring.

Three weeks after that, and only after great deliberation and discussion with her new husband, she'd boarded the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9¾, embarking upon a new career adventure, determined to make the best of her situation.

Although Charms was not the ideal position for someone of Hermione's temperament, it proved to be an adequate match for her talents, and she had to admit that it was fun to return to her secondary home. The only dark cloud in her sky was that she and Ron were separated for most of the year. However, with his Auror schedule as busy as it was, he was frequently out in the field anyway, sometimes undercover for a few weeks at a time, so the separation would have occurred regardless. At least, that's how she'd consoled herself during the long, dark winter nights and the yearning for mischief that followed the arrival of spring.

The next school year, Draco Malfoy had accepted the post as Potions Master when Horace Slughorn had retired. To everyone's surprise, even her own, she and Malfoy had behaved civilly towards each other, even striking up something of a tentative friendship.

No one had been more astonished than her the first time Malfoy had outright flirted with her. She hadn't known how to react, honestly, and had laughed it off... until it happened a second and a third time, and thereafter became a frequent occurrence. Incrementally, his words began carrying dangerous, seductive innuendo, his looks lingered on parts of her they shouldn't, and once he'd even dared to use the excuse of wiping something from the corner of her mouth to caress her lips with the pad of his thumb.

She'd shied away from his attentions, though, making it clear by dodging him at every chance that she wasn't interested in his invitation to cheat. She was, after all, married to the man she'd dreamed of being wife to since she'd been twelve, and she'd had no intention of buggering that up.

And then her worst fears had been realised, and her whole world had turn on its head...

It had been unseasonably warm for April, and for once, Hermione had finished all her self-assigned tasks. Feeling the rush of spring through her blood, she'd decided to take the opportunity to surprise Ron with a visit. With the fantasy of seducing her husband in a locked conference room and then persuading him to agree to skive off the rest of his day with her, she'd taken a shower, shaved her legs, put on her best lingerie set, and glamoured her hair into behaving. Then, she'd headed off for the staff's private-use Floo in the Faculty Lounge to hop a ride to the Ministry.

She'd arrived at Ron's desk half an hour later, only to find him missing.

The giant staff clock that took up one whole wall in the Auror's Main Office resembled the Weasley's own family clock at the Burrow, and at that time, it had indicated that her wayward husband was somewhere "on the premises". Determined to track down Ron and seduce him into starting that family they'd discussed during the previous Christmas break, Hermione had set out on a search of the building. She'd headed back towards the lifts with a determined stride, loosening the top two buttons of her blouse just in case she ran into Ron along the way.

By pure chance, passing by an old fashioned coat closet, she'd heard a heavy thumping noise, followed by a voice crying out in pained protest. Suspicious, she'd approached the door with her wand in hand, reminding herself that one never knew what strangeness lurked within the shadows of the Ministry.

Gripping the brass doorknob, she'd turned it and pulled the door open fast, a hex ready upon her lips. It turned out the very man she'd been searching for had been inside the closet... with his pants around his ankles and his cock sunk deep into his ex-girlfriend.

Brown, naturally, had smirked in triumph the moment she'd recognised her rival standing in the doorway.

Hermione must have made some sort of sound of distress at that point, because Ron's head had suddenly swung in her direction. When his eyes had registered the fact of her presence and that not only had he been caught in the act of fucking a woman who wasn't his wife, but that it had been said wife who'd done the catching, he went stone still.

When revisiting that exact moment in her mind later, Hermione's attention would linger over the stupid expression on her husband's face and come to realise that he'd really, truly believed he could get away with carrying on an affair with a co-worker, because in his mind, the act itself had been sanctioned already by those in authority—specifically, the Ministry. There were, according to his bosses, no actual sanctions against lovers working together, only married ones, and somehow, that mandate had translated in Ron's puny, sexist brain as permission to engage in sexual relations with Lavender. No ring, no foul.

The whole situation had been, in her opinion, rubber stamped by cosmic irony: she'd tricked Ron into marriage, and that lie had created a situation in which she'd been forced to take a job far away, which had strained her new marriage and set-up the scene for another woman to swoop in and pick up the slack.

Her lies had set in motion the death of the one relationship she'd wanted for half her life. Ron's foolishness had merely been the dirt on their grave.

Now, in hindsight, Hermione recognised how very unfair she'd been on herself to even think such ridiculousness. She wasn't responsible for her husband's puerile decision to fuck another woman. He'd succumbed to that temptation all on his own, and assigning the blame to herself for his unwillingness and inability to be a decent man and honour the vows he'd given her on their wedding day was his cross to bear. That she'd shouldered that betrayal had come from her guilt over tricking him into marriage, but in reality, he'd destroyed their marriage the moment he'd decided to take innocent flirting to another level with Lavender Brown.

At the time, though, karma's brutal lashing had hurt too much for Hermione to rationally consider the situation. Instead, she'd reacted in the only manner she could think of right then to avoid a scandal: quietly, she'd closed the closet door, took the lift back up to the Ministry's lobby, and Floo'd back to Hogwarts.

Hours later, while sitting at the staff dining table in the Great Hall, surrounded by students, ghosts, and her professional colleagues, the shock had finally worn off.

Worst. Place. Possible.

Of course.

She'd been dabbing her mouth after swallowing a mouthful of buttered peas, and that moment had reminded her of the many times in the past she'd nagged Ron to wipe his chin while eating... and that rather insignificant thought triggered a humiliating breakdown, complete with wailing into her napkin.

Minerva had kindly and quickly mothered her away, down into the privacy of the nearby Trophy Room, and there, in a room filled with sparkly gold chalices and smelling of lemon polish, Hermione had confessed all her marital sins. She'd spilled her guts about her whole sordid relationship with Ronald Weasley to her mentor.

Overall, that hour of blubbering had probably been one of the most cathartic she'd ever had, especially as afterwards, Minerva had comforted her and told her she was not to blame for, "Mister Weasley's serious lack of judgment."

A few days after "the incident", Ron appeared in her private chambers at Hogwarts with a handful of flowers and a pack of apologies. The damage had been done by then, however, and Hermione had simply asked him for a divorce. She'd refused to stay with an unfaithful man, regardless of her still-lingering feelings for him. The trust in their marriage and in their love had been broken, and there was no fixing that.

Ron had refused, of course, and he'd stormed off in a huff, swearing Hermione would change her mind.

The day after that, Harry and Ginny had appeared at her door to try to "talk sense" into her.

In what would come as an even bigger blow to her than Ron's infidelity, her two other best friends turned out to be less than sympathetic to her side of the predicament; they'd immediately launched a campaign to get her to stay with the unfaithful Ron. Disgusted by their attempts to sugarcoat his cheating as 'sowing his final oats', she'd firmly asked them to leave and to keep their noses out of it.

Like a bad case of Leprechaun Lesions, however, the two had refused to go away. Ginny had even blown up at Hermione, accusing her of not truly loving Ron, since she was "giving up on him". To which Hermione had icily responded that Ron had given up on her "by bedding the Brown wench".

Harry then took up the cause, implying in a roundabout way that what had happened had been as a direct result of Hermione's absence from the home. Apparently, leaving Ron for months at a time to pursue her career (and ignoring the fact his career often took him away for weeks or months at a time, too), was in Harry's opinion, the root of the evil, and the reason Ron felt it necessary to stray.

"A man has needs," he'd said, regurgitating the age-old, misogynistic cliche.

The two spent hours whittling away at what was left of Hermione's self-esteem, painting the picture of the infidelity in such a way that she actually began considering it as forgivable. Her own conscience, after all, nagged at her along similar lines, reminding her again of her falseness, and causing her to question why she wasn't being more lenient on Ron for this one mistake, when she'd made one against him, too.

In the end, she'd mistakenly relented to the peer pressure, realising she would lose much more than just her marriage were she to dissolve things between her and Ron. Harry and Ginny, and all the Weasleys by default, were part of the marital package, and if she wanted to preserve those vital relationships, she would have to acquiesce to keeping her idiot husband.

So, now here she was, staring at her ruined gold wedding band and thinking about her decayed marriage, and wondering how it had all come to this point. She was married to her former best friend, a man she now greatly disliked, because she was afraid of what other losses she'd incur if she dumped him, and she was having an affair with a man whom she had previously despised, but was now more than a little in love with, despite the fact he was her co-worker and their affair was morally wrong.

Could life get any more convoluted and confusing?

"So, should I?" Neville asked her, jolting Hermione out of her inner musings.

Her friend was staring at her with a nervous kind of anticipation as to her judgement call on whatever important issue he'd been talking to her about. Feeling guilty for not paying attention, haunted by her own demons, she quickly groped for an answer that wouldn't insult Neville further by cluing him into the fact that she'd been too self-absorbed to care about his problems.

"Um... what I think is... well, it's not important what I believe you should or shouldn't do, but what you believe is the right path for you to take," she said, going with the typical psychiatrist's pat response. "It's better to come to a determination on your own, because it empowers you to act according to your own inner moral code."

There, that sounded interested enough, if a bit vague.

Neville grinned at that. "Okay, then the last piece of pumpkin pie is mine, and I won't feel guilty about taking it. Thanks!"

Hermione's fork speared his before he could make a reach for the pie wedge in question from the plate in the middle of the table. "Touch it and lose the hand."

Her friend laughed at her. "That's what I thought."

At least she had the grace to blush as she consumed every bite of her favourite pie... and then looked around for seconds.


TO BE CONTINUED...


Author's Notes:

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