He was doing it again, wasn’t he, lounging against the new girl’s desk, his tall, lean frame as graceful as a dancer’s. One hand rested lightly, carelessly, on the desk, his long fingers extended and softly drumming an idle pattern. His voice was low and sultry, his eyes only on her, and there was a roguish smile playing about his lips.
It was Wednesday. The girl had only worked in the Ministry’s Department of Magical Artefacts since Monday. However, it hadn’t taken Draco Malfoy long to spot a new quarry and move in for the kill. It was patently obvious to anyone with eyes in their head that she was already a goner.
Hermione Granger pursed her lips and turned away, walking swiftly down the hall towards her office in the archives of the Documents Division. She could only just imagine the line of swill Malfoy was feeding that poor, hapless girl, probably regaling her with his latest adventures in the field where, as one of the department’s shining lights, he consistently managed to unearth one amazing treasure after another. Or so it seemed, from the way he so often boasted about his archaeological exploits. Hermione had a sneaking suspicion that he tended to gild the lily more than a bit. Whatever he said, though, the effect was invariably the same: huge, gaga eyes and rapt attention, followed by an immediate acceptance of the proposed lunch date. (Lunch was always first, followed by after-work drinks, and if that went as planned, a dinner date would be suggested. It wasn’t difficult to work out what the after-dinner scenario would be, if the flavour of the week passed muster. She knew – the entire department knew! – the routine that Malfoy followed religiously whenever he was on the pull.)
Arriving at her office, Hermione sighed as she reached for the doorknob. As she did so, another arm shot past her own, grazing hers lightly, a palm resting on the door just above her head.
“Miss me, did you?” The voice was silken and supremely self-assured.
Turning her head, she looked over her shoulder, an eyebrow raised. Malfoy was standing there, an insouciant grin on his face.
“Oh, were you gone? I hadn’t noticed.” The smile she gave him was cool and contained. “Do excuse me, Malfoy. Some of us actually have work to do.”
Pushing the door open, she sailed into her office, kicking it shut behind her. Hopefully, right in Malfoy’s smug face. That should give him the message.
Shaking her head, Hermione settled herself at her desk and pulled out a thick book cataloguing historically and magically important documents unearthed in the last five years and added to the Ministry’s collections. Five seconds passed, and then, in spite of herself, she raised her eyes just enough to glance at the frosted glass of the door. The darkened outline of a tall male body was still there, though she couldn’t tell if he were still facing her door. And then, as she watched, the shadowy figure moved slowly away.
Good. Peace and quiet at last.
Algernon Parsifal sat at his desk, drumming his fingers nervously on the blotter. This job was beginning to cause his nerve endings to fray. Fifty-six years old and he was still in the same Ministry post that he’d held for the past twenty-five years. And what was worse, he’d been passed over countless times when positions had opened up in the higher echelons of his own department as well as the Ministry at large. “You’ve no ambition at all, Algernon,” his wife constantly carped at him, and in his darker, firewhisky-fuelled moments, he supposed she was right. He ought to have been made department director long ago, but no. That position had gone to the spineless, arse-kissing turd whose father just happened to have come up through the Ministry’s ranks and evidently still held some sway with the Minister of Magic. Obsequious, pontificating little ginger snotnose, he was. Even his name sounded precious. Percy.
And now Weasley Junior was throwing his weight around as if he were the bloody Minister himself. Probably had his beady little eye on that position as well. The line of arses between his office and the top man’s upstairs was long, but no doubt Percy Weasley was ready to suck up to every last one of them.
In so doing, he was making Algernon’s life at the Ministry a miserable and utterly thankless experience. The only thing that the little git was interested in was scoring points by making headlines. True, Magical Artefacts did occasionally have some genuinely spectacular finds to report, truly astounding objects that not only made the professional journals but also the headlines of the more mundane Daily Prophet. Or at least page three, anyway. Algernon had always been quite satisfied with page three whenever his department’s activities happened to make the news. Not too flashy, but then, the business of digging up old things was never meant to be. But since the second war, over now these eleven years, the Ministry had wanted to remake itself in the wizarding public’s eyes, change the popular impression that it was a corrupt, hidebound, bureaucratic mess. The word had come down from on high that there was to be a sea change. The Ministry of Magic would reinvent itself, becoming a vital, muscular government organ that would energetically embrace reform while still honouring and celebrating the oldest wizarding traditions.
To that end, Percy Weasley had informed him two years earlier, the Department of Magical Artefacts would need to redouble its efforts to produce tangible, newsworthy evidence of its work in research and acquisitions. Splashy, eye-catching photos and articles every once in a while would make their work seem, well… sexy. That was how Draco Malfoy had characterised it, snorting derisively following a staff meeting in which this shift in policy had first been explained.
The pressure was still on, and Algernon Parsifal didn’t like it any better now than he had done back then. He hoped that the assignment he was about to hand the Granger girl would shut Weasley up, for a while at least. With a grunt, he set his cigar into a corner of the large glass ashtray just as a crisp knock sounded at his door.
“Come!” he barked, his foul mood clinging to him like the thick, grey halo of cigar smoke that now encircled his head.
The door opened and Hermione took a step inside, immediately waving a hand in front of her face and wrinkling her nose in distaste. Her boss was a decent enough chap, fair and even-handed for the most part and certainly knowledgeable enough, even though he could be a bit rough about the edges at times. But he did have certain personal habits she found completely repellent, and his penchant for large, smelly Cuban cigars was one of them.
“Excuse me, sir,” she began. “You wanted to see me?”
Parsifal waved her into the small office tiredly, gesturing to the chair nearest his desk.
Hermione seated herself, giving her boss an expectant smile.
“Indeed, yes.” He cleared his throat noisily and then rocked back in his chair, tapping the tips of his fingers together. “Tell me, Ms. Granger, how is that project going, the one you’ve been working on lately? Any progress?”
Hermione nodded brightly. “Oh yes, sir, it’s going swimmingly. I’ve got a good bit of the first draft done already. I was hoping to–”
“Yes, yes…” Parsifal waved a hand impatiently. “Jolly good. Look, how soon can you be packed? I’ve arranged for a Portkey.”
Hermione fell back in her chair, her eyes opening very wide. For several seconds, she merely gaped at her boss. “Where to?” she finally managed to squeak.
“Greece, of course. You’ve only been at me for the past two months to let you do some research in the field. Now’s your chance, eh?” Parsifal smiled at her and gestured expansively, loose ash from his cigar dropping in a small shower of grey flakes onto his shirtfront and peppering his lukewarm tea.
Hermione stared at her boss, momentarily dumbstruck. And then a wide smile lit up her face. This was the news she’d been waiting and hoping for.
“Oh gosh! Really? Thanks, Mr. Parsifal! I’ll just get some notes together, and then I’ll go home and pack straightaway. When is the Portkey for?”
Algernon Parsifal slid open the narrow drawer that his rotund belly had been butting up against a moment earlier, withdrawing a small, bronze object resembling a sort of horse shoe. He handed it to her, smiling pleasantly.
“There you are. It’s set for departure at ten o’clock tomorrow morning and will take you directly to a small B&B in the wizarding sector of Athens. You’re expected.”
Turning the object over in her hands, Hermione recognised it as “Omega,” the final letter in the Greek alphabet. The end, the last stage of something. Interesting choice for a Portkey. Fortunately, she wasn’t superstitious, or this particular symbol might seem to bode ill for the project’s outcome. Then again, perhaps the symbol presaged a successful conclusion for the project as a whole. Auspicious, not ominous, she decided.
“Right. I’ll be ready. But you know,” she added, considering, “I’ll need somebody who’s familiar with really ancient documents from the region to go along with me. I was thinking of–”
“Done,” Parsifal interrupted briskly. “I’ve already made the assignment. Your partner should be along shortly. I’ve filled him in and he’s quite keen.”
This was dismaying news. Hermione had had every facet of the project planned right from the off, including the choice of colleague she’d hoped would be collaborating with her. Losing even a modicum of control was troubling. She hoped it wouldn’t presage future inroads into her autonomy.
“Who is it?” She held her breath just a little, waiting and trying to read her boss’ face. Unfortunately, his expression remained impassive.
“Prewett. He’s got the background you’re looking for and no family obligations keeping him from leaving the country for a while. Acceptable?” There was a twinkle in Parsifal’s eye now as he waited for her reaction.
Conrad Prewett. Not her first choice, but not a bad choice either, all things considered. He was certainly sufficiently well trained and experienced in their shared field and would be more than competent to assist her in deciphering whatever documents they might uncover in their research efforts. Yes, Conrad would do.
“Yes, all right.” Hermione smiled, nodding, and stood to leave. “Thanks again, sir. I’ll be in touch by Floo whilst I’m away.”
Parsifal retrieved what was left of his cigar, just a near-dead stump at this point, and relit it, puffing happily for a long moment. Then he smiled, wisps of smoke escaping his mouth in small bursts. “See that you are, Ms. Granger. I shall expect regular progress reports. Off you go, then.”
With a final nod, Hermione exited the office, hurrying to her own much smaller one with her mind racing at a million miles an hour. So much to do and precious little time to get it all done!
Prewett was waiting outside her office door when she arrived. A slight, fastidious man in his mid-thirties, with wavy, fair hair cut very short and a noticeably receding hairline, he fiddled with his bowtie with an embarrassed smile as she approached.
Tapping her wand against the lock, Hermione muttered a quick “Alohomora” and then returned his smile. “Come in. I hear we’re going to be working together.” She pushed the door open, gesturing for him to take a seat in the spare, modest office.
“I gather you know what I’ve been working on,” she continued, seating herself at the desk.
“Well, yes, the basics anyway,” Conrad replied, pushing at the bridge of eyeglasses that persisted in sliding down his nose. “You’re writing a study of historically important witches or wizards, in hopes of proving their existence by way of solid archaeological evidence. In other words, the real, flesh-and-blood people behind the legends and myths. Is that right?”
“Essentially, yes.” Hermione nodded, pulling out a sheaf of papers from a drawer and laying them on the desk space between her and Conrad. “Here’s what I’ve got so far. It’s a copy; you can take it and look it over tonight. Probably a good idea, as we’re leaving tomorrow. Did Parsifal give you a Portkey as well?”
“No,” Conrad said as he reached out to take the papers from Hermione. “I’m to meet you at your flat tomorrow morning. I’ll be there at nine-thirty, if that’s not too early. Why Greece, by the way?”
Hermione sat back in her chair, regarding Conrad thoughtfully. “Word has it that a document has surfaced in Greece providing irrefutable proof of the existence of Circe more than three thousand years ago. I have a contact at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Supposedly, he can tell me more. I don’t know, though…” She sighed deeply. “I’m not sure how far I can trust what he might say. He’s a wizard working undercover at the museum. But he’s been living as a Muggle for quite a long time.”
Abruptly, Conrad stood, hefting the folder packed with papers. “Divided loyalties, eh? We shall soon have him sorted, I daresay. Well…” He held out a formal hand to her. “I’ll take my leave, if I may. Good evening, Hermione.”
“Bye,” she murmured, watching him disappear as the door clicked shut behind him. Well, she supposed it wouldn’t be too bad working with Prewett. Not terribly imaginative, a bit stiff and fussy, but he was thorough, and he did know his stuff. At the very least, there wasn’t really anything he could do to hurt the project.
Standing and stretching, she rolled one shoulder and then the other, feeling tired and a good deal older than her twenty-nine years. It would be good to get home and relax with a large mug of hot, sweet tea while going over her notes. Then she remembered where she would be and what she would likely be doing in a mere twenty-four hours, and a small thrill of excitement shot through her.
Feeling suddenly revitalised, she grabbed her briefcase and left her office, walked swiftly down the hall towards the lifts. Lounging against the wall there was Draco Malfoy, his hands shoved into the pockets of his trousers. Long, fair hair brushed the shoulders of his impeccably tailored suit jacket, a vague suggestion of dark-blond stubble shadowing his jaw, upper lip and chin. He watched as she approached, a lazy half-smile teasing the corners of his mouth.
“Well, well,” he drawled, reaching up to loosen his tie in a carelessly rakish gesture. “Hail and farewell, is it? Off to sunny Greece, I hear.”
Hermione barely managed not to roll her eyes. “Yes, I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”
“Bit early for swimming still, or I’d remind you to take your bikini. If you’ve got one, that is. Or perhaps…” Draco’s gaze was hooded now, his smile wickedly suggestive. “… you prefer the nude beaches?”
Ugh, leave it to Malfoy. The man was pathologically incapable of having a civil conversation with a woman – any woman – without making it about sex. Or more likely, since she certainly wasn’t one of the tall, leggy types with big tits that he seemed to prefer, he was simply making a rather mean and tasteless joke.
Hermione’s answering smile was chilly. “However did you guess? Going au naturel is so much friendlier and more enlightened, don’t you agree?”
Just then, the doors to the lift opened and she ran past him, pressing the “down” button before he had a chance to make a move.
“Cheers, Malfoy!” she called, laughing as the lift doors slid shut on the fleeting expression of his surprise. “I’ll send you a postcard.”
Rushing about her flat in a frenzy of last-minute nerves as she ticked off items on a mental to-do list, Hermione was momentarily startled when the front-door buzzer sounded, loud and insistent, at eight minutes before ten. She’d been on edge, wondering where Conrad was, and now she breathed a sigh of relief, although it really wasn’t like Conrad to be late. Recovering herself, she hurried to the door and pulled it open.
“Conrad! Hi…” she began excitedly and then the words died in her throat.
Standing there grinning smugly, a well-travelled canvas suitcase in his hand, was the furthest person from Conrad Prewett that Hermione could have imagined.
“You! What are you doing here?”
“Oh, come now,” Draco tutted. “Surely you don’t expect me to believe that you’d rather take that old stuffed shirt Prewett along on this little junket of yours!”
“As a matter of fact,” Hermione puffed, attempting unsuccessfully to shove him back out into the hallway, “I would! And you haven’t answered my question. Why are you here and what have you done with Conrad?”
“I haven’t done anything with him. Just what are you insinuating, Granger?” Miffed, Draco gazed down at Hermione and shook his head ruefully. “No trust whatsoever. It’s really sad. As a matter of fact, I got a Floo call late last night from Parsifal. Seems that tosser Prewett broke his ankle tripping over his cat in the dark. Parsifal asked if I could take his place, and fortunately for you, I am free and completely at your disposal. There now, you see?” he crooned. “Aren’t you ashamed of doubting me?”
“Not in the least!” Hermione muttered, turning her back and heading towards her fireplace. “I shall speak to Parsifal right now and see what can be done about this!”
In a single, long stride, Draco was standing before the hearth, blocking her way. “No. Sorry. Can’t be done. Parsifal is, uh… he’s in a meeting this morning. With the Minister and the rest of those idiots on the first floor. Very hush hush. Mentioned it last night.”
Hermione shot him a dark look. “The idiots who pay our salaries, you mean.” She stepped to the side in an attempt to get around Draco. “Well, I shall just have to interrupt his meeting, then, shan’t I? Because if there’s one thing I am not doing, it’s sharing the fruits of all my hard work with a vain, glory-seeking, high-handed prat like you. Move!”
Horribly frustrated, she tried to get around him once again, but he was quicker. And then he tapped his wristwatch with an annoying little grin.
“Reckon you’re stuck with me, darling. Note the time. I’d grab that Portkey if I were you!”
9:59 AM. Her heart in her throat suddenly, Hermione made a flying lunge for her suitcase and the Portkey, grabbing both just as the familiar and rather disconcerting sensation of being turned inside out hit. She hadn’t even noticed that Draco had swiftly looped his arm through hers in the last few seconds, neatly snagging the Portkey with his other hand.