"Is she dead…I mean completely dead?"
Hermione was so lost in thought; Camille's soft query startled her. Not wanting to, but having little choice; she looked back down at the horrifically ruptured body in question. A sense of Déjà vu settled deep in the pit of her stomach; making her uneasy. Ignoring her instincts like a first year novice, she pushed them aside - foolishly. This was not the same as then, it couldn't be.
Involuntary, her nose wrinkled as the sharp tang of blood invaded her already tired senses. She tried once again to avert her gaze from the gross parody which mimicked a body, but like a moth to the flame it was futile. The body demanded her full attention. Hermione let her eyes follow the grisly path, which ended at what remained of the face. Bile rose to the back of her throat. It wasn't so much the blood she had issues with; it was the lack of body it had come from.
Fatigue threatened to creep up again; she had now been awake for more days than she thought humanly possible. Feeling too tired, and a tad cranky, Hermione was in no way prepared for what was in-front of her. Not that you could ever prepare yourself for a ripped body strewn across a kitchen floor. And if you could, she didn't want that job - ever. Somehow, Hermione had a feeling today wasn't going to improve either. Apparently life thought she needed another challenge, and threw her the big one.
The victim was a witch she knew well; had worked with on occasion. This fact only made the whole situation seem unbelievable, like a bad dream. Hermione knew instantly Isabelle's life-spark had winked out of existence. No question about it. There wasn't a spell strong enough in the universe to reform such a mutilated body.
Looking down at her hands, she could literally see them trembling. Clasping them together, she attempted to ease the shaky movement. In no way did she want to alert Camille to the fact this scared her. Okay, she was more than scared, but losing it was not an option. Hermione had a shredded operative lying in-front of her, and couldn't fathom who in their right mind would kill a witch who was under the protection of the Ministry. Maybe a half-baked lunatic, that's who.
A yelp of surprise almost managed to escape, but she swallowed it quickly. Glancing up at Camille, she saw her partner was still waiting for a response. Masking the apprehension she was certain was plastered over her face, Hermione took a deep breath in. The last thing she needed was for Camille to panic; her eyes were already too wide as it was.
"She is isn't she?" Camille's voice was edging up a notch.
Hermione nodded curtly, not trusting her voice just yet; and looked back down at what was left of Isabelle. She didn't deserve this. Nobody did. Camille paced restlessly behind her, the clack of boots loud on the linoleum. Her agitation and fear was palpable, and Hermione found it hard not to let it get to her. Already her blood pressure was skyrocketing. But she knew she couldn't afford to break down, not yet anyway. Even though pulling out her hair and rambling seemed like good options at the moment.
Isabelle's entire torso had been ripped apart. Her insides seeped onto the royal blue floor making a sick mosaic portrait. She was missing her right leg, and Hermione had a horrendous suspicion the pile of mush near the fridge might contain femur bones. Swallowing tightly, she tried to piece together anything that would make sense. The situation was familiar in a way she could not quite grasp. Shaking the thoughts from her mind, she realised Camille was waiting for her to speak. She still didn't know what to say; which was a first. Hermione always had some form of input, welcomed or not. It just went to show her how affected she really was. Finally she looked away, and stood up; finding her legs shaking. From the heat or the shock, she wasn't sure.
The room was stifling; it was over 40 degrees outside, and the air conditioner had obviously blown a fuse. No sound came from the rickety old machine which hung precariously from the window. Hermione would have welcomed any form of moving air at the moment; the heat and blood made her queasy. Curls which had escaped her bun, hugged the back of her neck like a wet t-shirt. It was damn frustrating. Hermione's hands itched to wipe the slick perspiration from the base of her head. Yet, she knew it was pointless; it would be wet again in a second. She had to wonder why this was her main concern at the moment. Stress made for strange thought patterns.
Hermione was currently standing in one of The Firm's half-way houses - in Dubai. It was a safe place for operatives to bunk down when on a mission. You could not Apparate in, or out. It was only accessible by a secret underground railway; made especially for The Firm and its employees. This made it perfect to disappear and leave no magical trail. The houses were impenetrable - supposedly. Hermione hadn't stayed in this one for a few months, but knew she would never set foot in it again. Camille had stopped pacing, and now stood before Hermione.
"What do you think happened here? God, I'm going to be sick. This is sick – beyond sick."
Hermione watched as Camille turned six different shades of white. She knew by her own quivering stomach, that her colour wasn't looking too healthy either. The thing was; she had no idea what had happened here. There was not one spell in her extensive repertoire which could determine what had caused Isabelle to be ripped apart. It was some poor medi-witch's challenge to do that. Even then, they probably couldn't help do anything but find her missing body parts.
"Crap, I don't know Cam. This is a safe house, no-one outside of The Firm is supposed to know about it." Hermione finally wiped the sweat from her neck in frustration; it was a small relief in an otherwise dire situation. "It just doesn't make sense killing Isabelle. Whoever did it was either insane - or has a death wish once Franklin finds out."
Hermione didn't want to think about how their superior would act. He was unstable on a good day - usually. You never knew how he would react to bad news. Hermione remembered once when they'd run out of coffee; he'd gone ballistic and cursed the kettle to sing 'I'm sorry' all day; it was more than annoying.
She had been working at The Firm for about seven years now. She'd turned down countless Ministry office jobs, so she could live the adrenaline life which came with being an operative with Britain's top wizarding spy network. The entire company was made up of magic folk. Witches, Wizards, Centaurs, Giants, even a handful of dissatisfied Goblins managed to cross over from Gringotts. You name it, they worked at The Firm. Even Squibs were offered office positions, yet no field work; you needed a certain amount of magical skill to do the job. Hermione had been paired up with Camille about four years ago, becoming as close to her as she had with Ron and Harry. Adrenaline and danger made an excellent bonding activity.
Camille was a witch a few years younger than her; a tiny gorgeous ethereal being, with a blonde pixie cut to make her entire appearance even more elf-like. Although her size might belie her strength, she'd helped Hermione out of more scrapes than she could count.
At least one of her partners was trustworthy. Hermione frowned in anger at allowing herself to think about the past. Now was not the time to tackle those demons.
They were here at the safe-house to meet Isabelle and Marcus, and pick up a top secret brief. It was a little unusual for two field operatives like Camille and Hermione to do a pick up, but it wasn't unheard of either. Hermione's brain stopped whizzing for a second as she honed in on one errant thought.
"What?" Camille frowned at Hermione's panicked tone.
"Oh crap…Marcus. He was meant to be here with Isabelle."
Hermione clapped a hand over her mouth. Oh God, what if the attacker was still here? Wide eyed, she caught Camille's blue gaze, neither daring to breathe. Every instinct inside of her was screaming to flee. Go, and not look back. The word 'run' physically pulsed through her body. Exhaling slowly, Hermione tried to get herself back in the game. She'd seen dead bodies before; you couldn't be in this profession and not see them. But this was the first time she had really known the victims. Camille's eyes flicked behind her then back to her face. Tilting her head to the right, she mouthed the word 'door'.
Nodding in understanding; Hermione slowly lifted the back of her shirt, and un-holstered her wand. Camille was one step ahead, already having hers pointed straight ahead. They were completely underprepared, overexposed and didn't have nearly as much information as they should. This could not end well.
Making a 'shush' motion with a finger to her lips, Hermione pointed to the left side of the door. Camille dipped her head in agreement and slowly made her way over. Stepping over a broken chair and avoiding another pool of blood, Hermione followed Camille's slender form.
Her heart was beating erratically, as if trying to jump out of her chest. Never had she been exposed to such a feeling of dread in her line of work. Never had she believed a violent killer to be hiding in the next room either. She was hoping to rip the door open to find a normal neat bedroom with nothing amiss. Somehow she didn't believe her wish was going to come true. She probably needed to work up more brownie points somewhere for that to happen.
A crash bellowed from the room, followed closely by splintering glass. Instinct kicked in; there was no thought about consequence. All Hermione could visualize was Marcus needing their help. There was no room for doubts on if he was alive. She slammed through the door with Camille hot on her heels. Camille blasted off three stun-shots immediately. Hermione caught a glimpse of a black shadow fleeing out the shattered window, but then her eyes fixed firmly on Marcus's limp body.
"Cam, give chase" Hesitating slightly, she added "Be careful."
Camille smiled at Hermione's words; then was off like a shot. Hermione heard footfalls echo a moment before the front door slammed. She couldn't let herself worry about Camille; she was a good operative. She was nothing like her last partner, she wouldn't disappear by choice. Yet, the pang of concern didn't leave straight away. Looking down at Marcus, she noticed his pallor was sickly grey, which didn't bode well. He was barely breathing.
"Marcus, can you hear me?" Her voice echoed in the small room. He didn't look good, and the congealed blood and gore made her mind run into overdrive; who could have done this? The fleeing shadow?
Hermione ripped a sheet off the nearest bed and fell next to Marcus's broken body. She wanted to staunch the blood flow but his body was hacked apart. She couldn't hold the sheet everywhere it needed to be. Ten sheets and a fifty foot roll of gauze wouldn't have been enough. Helplessness welled up and threatened to break out. A wet trail made its solitary path from her eye to chin. She'd worked with Marcus since the beginning, hell, he'd practically trained her. Sure, they disliked each other at Hogwarts, but that was all water under the bridge years ago. The war made everyone grow up quickly; petty quarrels were forgotten while the wizarding community was rebuilt. But this wasn't supposed to happen. Not to Marcus, he was almost an institution of The Firm.
"Hermione, is that you?" His voice cracked and gurgled.
She gasped and held him closer; not even thinking it would be causing him more pain.
"I'm here Marcus. Shhh. It will be alright. It's not as bad as it looks." The lie slipped from her mouth without conscious thought.
"Liar." Marcus chuckled, which caused a coughing fit. When he'd settled down, a new trace of crimson trailed from the corner of his mouth. Hermione stroked his dark hair away from his forehead. She was hard pressed keeping the tears at bay, but she had a job to do.
"What happened? Who did this?" Hermione's voice was panicky; taking a deep breath she tried to calm her racing heart. It didn't work as well as she'd hoped.
"What did this, you mean? It wasn't anything I'd ever seen before." His crackling voice fell silent, so silent she became scared and placed a hand in front of his mouth. Feeling slight warmth she let herself relax slightly.
"I'm not dead yet, Granger."
She smiled down at him, tears clouding her vision. There were only two operative's to have called her by her last name – both ex-Slytherin. The familiarity of it made her feel better. Hermione knew he wouldn't make it, knew it in her heart. But, if she could do anything, it would be to stay here and make sure Marcus wasn't alone when he died.
Hermione's brain kept whirling; finding it extremely disturbing Marcus didn't recognize the creature that did this to him. He'd been an operative for over 10 years and had seen it all. Hermione couldn't even imagine what new threat could be out there. He coughed again, bringing Hermione out of her thoughts.
"It will take more than this to kill you. What did it want?" Hermione hated making him talk when it so obviously pained him. But she needed answers. Tapping her back pocket, she felt for the familiar outline of her phone. Alarm fled through her when she didn't feel the comforting shape. She then remembered it was still on the train being charged. Damn it to hell. She needed back up, and she needed it now. Muggle phones were the only form of communication from a safe house, the wards didn't allow outside contact via magic. A blessing and now a curse, Hermione realised. Why didn't she think to get Cam to ring for a medic?
"Hey, I'm too far gone; there's no helping me now." Marcus's eyes held hers for the longest time. Hermione looked away first, not knowing how to deal with death on her lap. His words rang true, and she hated that she could do nothing to ease his passing. He shuddered in her arms, and it took all her courage to look back down at him.
"It was after the brief. Listen carefully, Hermione. The brief is not what it seems. It's been transformed magically to look like a file…but it's not…." Coughs and splutters erupted in his throat, making it hard to hear what he was saying.
It took Hermione a moment to realise what he was talking about; the file Camille and her were here to pick up. Marcus went quiet again. Hermione wanted to scream, it wasn't fair that he should be lying here, dying. Selfishly, Hermione thought it unfair she had to bear witness to it. She didn't deal with emotions very well – not anymore.
"God damn it, Granger - focus. It didn't get what it was after. The brief is in the safe. I had just enough time to hide it. Isabelle gave me that time." Marcus winced in pain but it wasn't physical discomfort which caused this. He'd worked with Isabelle since first starting with The Firm. They'd been a team for over a decade. "Get it back to HQ. This creature was like nothing I'd ever seen. It was solid, yet mist at the same time. It hit like a truck and had talons like a hawk. Hermione, be careful. It might not be gone. We…. need….. forces….. Malfoy…"
Marcus ended on a whisper which gurgled into nothingness. Hermione stiffened at his last words, Malfoy, what the hell did he mean? Pushing the unsettling feeling away in her stomach; Hermione let her tears fall, hard and silent. Never had anyone died in her arms before; it was a process she never wanted to repeat.
A whisper of breath brushed across Hermione's cheek, startled she looked up. Nothing was in the room with her. Her nerves were thoroughly rattled, and thoughts of horror whipped through her mind like a tornado. Slowly she laid Marcus on the floor.
Standing up, Hermione made her way to the built-in robes which lined one wall of the room and opened them. They squeaked in protest at first, but she wasn't concerned about the noise. Using a wand-less spell, Hermione made a small hole appear in the floor. It wasn't a particularly original hiding spot, or even a good one, but it was a means to an end.
Pulling out the A4 sized file, she minimized it to the size of a stamp and placed it in her back pocket. She would ask Camille whether they should try and transform it back into the original item later. Unfortunately, Marcus never got to tell her what its true form was. Then the thought barreled through her head.
"Oh my God - Camille."
Leaping to her feet, Hermione took one step before slipping on the blood which ran from Marcus's immobile body. Before she could react, she skidded straight into the door frame, hitting it hard. Grabbing her now throbbing forearm she swore out loud and continued into the other room tripping and sliding in her haste to get outside to Camille.
Camille yelling her name spurred Hermione into action. Sprinting for the door, she couldn't help but wonder if she was too late. A wall of heat smacked into her as she burst outside. The warmth was like molasses and covered every inch of her. Squinting into the sun, Hermione frantically looked every way for some sign that Camille was nearby. Her voice resonated over and over in Hermione's mind. Camille sounded scared. Hermione felt her stomach drop in fear, Marcus's and Isabelle's mangled bodies floated in her vision. She would not let that happen to Camille. The thought of it left her nauseous; and coupled with the fear in her heart, she felt like a wobbling piece of jelly. No substance at all to hold her upright.
Dust bit into her skin as an impromptu wind storm kicked up. All that was out here was the house and barren desert. The Firm chose this sight because of its locale, and it was right above the train system they used to travel over England and most of the rest of the world. Hermione swore as sand caught in her eyes and the world blurred for a moment. She had to lift her game and take control.
There was no movement outside to Hermione's incredulity. No cars, helicopters or any other vehicle of any kind. Whipping around she looked at the ramshackle house, impatiently holding wisps of hair away from her eyes. It was an old colonial style which would have housed the family of a farmer. The outside needed a good coat of paint and the guttering was falling in places. But the inside had state of the art security, a new kitchen, and a laboratory. Apart from a small garden shed behind the house, nothing else was visible. About a hundred meters to the left was a shack. This housed the stairs which led to the underground train platform. It was the only place Camille could have been taken. There was no other shelter for miles, and Hermione would have seen the dust trail of a vehicle.
Hermione had only just begun to pick up her pace, when out of nowhere somebody slammed into her. She hit the ground hard, getting a mouthful of dirt in the process. Her fighting spirit kicked in, and she lashed out at the heavy person who was crushing her. Her left arm was pinned awkwardly underneath her. But she managed to force her right arm back, so her elbow would connect with something - hopefully.
It did. She heard a masculine grunt of surprise before being wrenched around onto her back. Hermione found herself looking up into the most mesmerizing eyes she'd ever seen. They were so gray she could almost see herself reflected in them. They also looked extremely pissed off. On the heels of her initial appraisal, was the thought that the eyes were very familiar – too familiar.
"Malfoy." Hermione hissed in disbelief.
"Granger." Draco's matter of fact response sounded gravelly, as if he hadn't spoken for some time. He coughed lightly, but said no more, which infuriated Hermione to no end.
"What the blazes are you doing here? No, actually don't answer that, you've been AWOL for six years now, running from the law. It's only fitting you're here now, kidnapping my partner and killing operatives." Hermione missed Draco's look of shock at her words, since she was trying to buck him off again.
Hermione ignored him and continued to struggle. His hands tightened on her until she yelped in pain. Looking back to his face she saw his eyes burning in anger. Hermione realised it might not be such a smart idea to bait the bad guy. Because that's all Draco Malfoy could be – the bad guy.
"As if you don't know." She spat at him.
Draco shut his eyes for a moment, barely concealing his furious impatience.
"Fine, Granger, you always did have the amazing ability of jumping to the wrong conclusions. One trait I can say I haven't missed. Just tell me that Blaise wasn't one of them." Draco's voice almost broke on his former friends' name.
Hermione stopped her wriggling for a second. Was he serious? No of course not, he was a Malfoy, and he'd proven just how much he could lie. She'd trusted him once, but never again. Draco still had one of her arms in his vice like grip, and as much as she pulled, she couldn't release it. It felt as if her shoulder would pop from its socket if he put any more pressure on it. Hermione winced against the pain and gritted her teeth as she pulled her other arm out from between their bodies.
She managed to get in one punch, landing it on his side under his ribs. He hissed and blinked once slowly; scowling down at her. It didn't affect him in the slightest, and she had sore knuckles for her trouble.
"You know he wasn't. Get off of me you traitor. What the hell have you done with Camille?" Hermione found her voice wavering. She needed to get Malfoy to move so she could find Camille. So far he was the only likely suspect, and it made her anxious. After everything, she honestly believed he was innocent, apparently he wasn't.
He said nothing but just held down the offending arm. Hermione hated being helpless, especially when something important was at stake. She also hated that this was as close as she'd been to a man for as long as she could remember. She'd forgotten how attractive she'd once found Draco. Ignoring how good his weight felt on her was pointless, so she enjoyed it for a moment; even though she loathed the prat.
Looking at him now, she saw his hair was longer than she remembered; it skimmed his collar, but was still almost white blonde. It brought back memories of a very small unrequited crush on her behalf, thank god she'd never let him know about it. Of course he had to be the one person who'd betrayed her and left her to face the tribunal - alone. Oh yeah, he was also probably a killer. Hermione had noticed though, that he wasn't actually trying to hurt her. All he had done so far was hold her immobile. Why, she could only guess.
"Don't fight me on this, Hermione. I didn't take your partner, I know you won't believe me, but I'm here to help. You're in danger." Hermione went limp in surprise. Who did he think he was? Be damned if she wasn't going to fight him, either. One thing she knew emphatically was; that to trust a Malfoy was to be a fool. She let out a sharp bark of laughter.
"In what universe, in what lifetime could I ever put my trust in you, Malfoy? Remember what happened last time…Oh of course you wouldn't, you disappeared just when I needed you the most. Camille is the partner I should have had the entire time, not you. I should never have been paired off with you." The past threatened to take over Hermione's emotions. But, she held onto her anger and used it to clear her head.
Malfoy was still staring down at her, his grip loosened slightly. A sentiment she couldn't quiet pinpoint flashed through his eyes before they hardened again.
"I had reasons, good reasons which you ignored. I'm not sure what shit you were told, Granger. But believe me, I would never have willingly betrayed my partner – you. Listen to me for once, this is bigger than you or me. Doesn't this entire situation stink of Romania?"
Hermione frowned, and it all fell into place - the déjà vu, the style of murder. She had seen it all before, six years ago in Romania – with her partner, Malfoy. They had worked together for almost a year, every mission a success, every criteria met with precision never seen before. It came from pairing a bookworm with a 'fly by the seat of your pants' kind of guy. They worked well together too, their years of sniping at each other in Hogwarts long gone. In its place came biting sarcasm and extremely veiled flirting, until Malfoy was accused of killing three operatives and being the mastermind behind a vicious plot to kill all personal who worked within The Firm. He'd told Hermione to trust him, that he'd be back to clear his name and he was innocent. She had let him go, never in a million years thinking he would disappear off the grid for six years, becoming one of the most wanted wizards in the world.
"Yes it does, and what a coincidence that you're here as well. If you're trying to make an argument of your innocence, it's not working."
Hermione ignored the taut muscles that pushed her into the sand and kicked her knee up. She hated doing this to any man but it hit the right spot. He immediately rolled off her, curling into a ball groaning.
"For what it's worth, I'm not sorry. Don't follow me, Malfoy. I have a partner to find, one which I'd never let down."
She didn't know whether she was being ridiculously naïve. Maybe he was the killer, but she had a gut feeling he wasn't. Surely on the odd occasion her gut feeling had to be correct. Then why did it want to go find out whether he was okay?
"Stop and focus, Hermione. You don't have the time to worry about why Malfoys turned up. Now of all times." Her voice was strong, but her mind continued to tick over what he'd said. Of course she was in danger, any moron would know that. She also squashed the uncomfortable bubble of nervous attraction she'd felt for him. Malfoy had always been too good looking, too conceited and too arrogant. Vice's she thought she'd put a lid on six years ago. So how could two minutes pushed into the sand with him jumble her long ignored passion?
She made a bee line for the shed, once again pulling her wand from its holster. Coming to a skidding stop at the door, Hermione saw scuff marks in the sand. She couldn't tell who's they were, but she was betting Cam's would be the pointy toed boots. Listening at the door for a second she couldn't make out any noise. Hermione clicked the door open slowly, and slipped into the shack. If it was hot outside, it was scalding in the small tin space. Sweat began to fall off her in rivulets. It was disgusting; especially when combined with the sand plastered against her body. She headed straight for the steps, taking them two at a time to get to the bottom.
The distinct rumbling of a train approaching made Hermione quicken her pace. The dank smell of earth followed her as she descended deeper into the tunnel. This particular outpost didn't have the modern day concrete lining like the city terminals. Out here in the middle of nowhere they were lucky to have haphazard steps. The small lights which lined the walls flickered slightly as the nearing train interfered with the electricity. Hermione upped her tempo.
She burst into the main area a minute or so before the train arrived. Disappointment filled her stomach when she saw no figures standing on the platform. The train she arrived in, was long gone – with it, her phone. Spinning around, she looked at the few small niches in the walls, yet there was no movement. Where the hell were they, on the missing train?
Suddenly, the light of the next train lit up the small area. Hermione's eyes widened in shock, as she found herself not as alone on the platform as she first thought.
A/N: Hey, just thought I'd pop in a little note to say thanks for reading! . This new story will be in ten chapters; and I hope to post every five or six days. I really, really hope you enjoy my new offering, I've spent ages deliberating on posting or not, but here we go! It's a little different, due to being longer – it gets a little angst going on later, but hopefully there's enough sexual tension to get you through (and eventual smut!) Oh hell, we all need a little sexual tension! Thanks again for reading. Oh, I haven't been able to find a beta, so all mistakes are mine – and I'm sure there are loads! - be gentle!