Continuing Tales

The Catfish

A Harry Potter Story
by Miss Dasti

Part 10 of 25

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Hermione couldn't breathe. The room was airless, frozen, so cold she felt goosebumps rising on her skin. Her breath hitched when Lucius raised his wand again, but he only flicked it and reclothed them. Well, reclothed himself, anyway. Hermione's dress didn't reappear: instead she found herself in an unfamiliar, knee-length pink nightgown and knickers. The tiny fragment of her mind that was still coherent found itself surprised at his deference here, now, in this situation—though obviously he'd chosen the nightgown to keep her feeling vulnerable. As if she didn't feel vulnerable enough tied down to the bed beneath him.

She didn't want to look at him. She didn't want to be alive just then. She kept her eyes on the wall and did her best to bear the hot, sticky shame currently filling her up from toes to crown; her eyes stung but she fought the tears. It was obvious Lucius was waiting for her to say something, and if she'd learned anything about him—and she seriously doubted now that she actually had—he was perfectly comfortable sitting in silence until she broke.

And break she finally did. Her voice came out thick and cracked. "How long did you know?"

"After you left the first day," he said conversationally. "I will confess that I was initially taken by your ruse, not because you were at all good at impersonating Narcissa, but because I believed that surely it was impossible that anyone would try something so remarkably stupid." He paused. "I will also admit to indulging in a little wishful thinking. Perhaps Narcissa had actually returned, but had changed so much that I no longer recognized her?" Those cold eyes narrowed. "Goodness, you now have such terrible blackmail material on me! Who would have thought that I was a human being, in possession of feelings, with the capacity to want for human contact, and yes, that I'm the sort of man to miss my ex-wife and wish her back badly enough that I was willing to go against my better judgment and show deference to an imposter. I have been caught out. Congratulations."

His words were hard ice and Hermione found herself choking back rattling sobs. He paused a moment, seemingly to reign in his anger, then went on.

"After you left, I found both Belgium and Fairway had been Confounded, and Francis informed me that you took quite a long time to locate the bedroom that had once been yours for several decades; he was, and is, concerned that you may have a brain injury. I also discovered that the hairbrush out of Narcissa's old vanity was gone. Rather a useful item, if one were brewing Polyjuice."

Hermione swallowed hard. She groped around for something to say, but the first words she heard herself speak surprised even her. "Ex-wife?"

Apparently he hadn't been expecting that, either. His eyebrows quirked up a little, but he remained silent, looking at her as if he couldn't quite believe anyone could be such an idiot.

Hermione swallowed again; tears slipped out of the corners of her eyes. It really made no difference, Lucius' marital status, but somehow the knowledge that he and Narcissa were well and truly divorced had a distinct, and totally insane, impact on her: she felt a small sense of relief. Well, she'd done everything completely wrong and was still a fucked up person, fundamentally, but at least she hadn't fooled around with a married man. What a wonderful saving grace. The courts would definitely take it into account when they tallied up the number of years she'd spend in Azkaban for this.

Lucius was still staring at her. It didn't seem wise to let him dwell on her stupidity; she decided that if she could keep him talking, she'd bide herself enough time to think up a plan to escape this with her life.

"You didn't seem to know I wasn't her when I showed up at your house the second time," she forced out. "You even asked a security question. Why did you play along?"

He smiled softly at her. "Why not? I was curious. I wanted to see if I could guess who you were and what you wanted—and in order to do that, I had to make you feel comfortable in your camouflage. Comfortable enough to slip me tidbits of information. So I played a little game of pretend, and you certainly did get comfortable." His eyes slipped down Narcissa's body, just for a second, but it was enough to make Hermione's humiliation skyrocket. She writhed, trying to get out of her confines, though she had no idea what she'd do if she actually got a hand loose: Lucius was sitting across her hips, a solid mass of muscle pinning her to the mattress, and his wand was already drawn. She was finished.

And when he leaned over, put a hand on her throat and pushed her down, hard, into the duvet, all escape attempts ceased immediately.

He went on, his face much closer to hers than before. His pale eyes were mesmerizing; she couldn't decide what she saw in them. His voice was still so soft, almost a caress, terrifyingly calm. A part of her knew he was relishing this, enjoying his power over her, and that part of her quivered with a barrage of confusing emotions.

"Anyway," he purred, "it was worth it to watch your impression of Narcissa. Hilarious. Piotrowski! She hates him nearly as much as she loves his wife's books—of which, by the way, Tired Ramparts is her favorite. She only abided Clements' concerts in the hopes she'd glimpse Emilia and persuade her to sign one. She loved Emilia even more than Austen. Clever guess, by the way, but incorrect insofar as I know. Still, it had me thinking for a while that you might actually be acquainted with Narcissa. I can now be certain you probably have never even spoken to her, which invalidates the possibility of you being one of her friends playing games with me. That leaves us two likely options." He twirled the vial between his fingers; its blue contents formed a tiny vortex. "You are either working for my manufacturers, or you are some self-righteous rogue from the Ministry."

Another wave of tears sprang free, running hot over her temples, but Hermione kept decent control over her voice. "You don't know who I am?"

"No," he drawled, his eyes following the droplets now soaking into Narcissa's fair hairline. "Not specifically. But let me see if I might narrow it down." He smiled indulgently at her, and she coughed out a sad whimper. "You are definitely a woman."

"What makes you so sure?" she dared, still trying to keep him talking, still trying to find some way, any way, out of this hole she'd dug so very deeply around herself.

"I suppose you could be a man," he mused, "but I don't think so. You don't kiss like one."

"Wait—what?" she said, distracted for a moment. "You know how men kiss?"

"Yes," he said simply. "So, you are a woman. But from which institution? I don't believe you're with my colleagues, they would not have bothered asking about my work. I do believe, however, that that would be the obligation of a Ministry official." He smirked a little. "A Ministry official that allowed herself to get far too carried away with her vigilantism. I'm guessing you are also quite young. Mid-twenties, perhaps? Young enough to believe you are above the authority of the legal system, and to have absolutely no knowledge of the dynamics of mature marriages. I get the feeling that catfishing me is the first, truly awful thing you have done in your life—you are, of course, acquainted with the beloved Aery Derry?"

Only too well. Hermione bit her lip to keep it from trembling. She was caught, permanently trapped, just like Derry and the catfish. Lucius tutted at her. "Shame you didn't learn from his mistakes. I'm guessing you had full confidence that you would never be discovered: you broke so easily there. No back-and-forth at all. My, my, but this is quite a bad day for you…"

Hermione choked out a little sob. "I—I didn't—you should be in prison. You confessed you were involved in the Dark market."

"Even if it were true, it is information that you cannot use against me, considering both the illegal methods you used to obtain it, as well as your current position—pinned underneath me with little chance of leaving this house unless I give my consent. I assume you haven't worked out the address to this place, let alone sent it off to any potential rescuers. So liberation by an outside source seems rather slim on the ground for you—that is, if you've even told anyone you were planning to meet me today?"

The look on her face was sufficient enough answer. Lucius tsked. "You really shouldn't brave strange waters alone." He smiled ironically. "So, here we have a young Ministry official of the female persuasion, a lover of books and music but not, I take it, of Quidditch? I don't think you were bluffing earlier." He raised his eyebrows at her, but when she gave no conformation his smile only deepened. "All of this is hardly something from which I could draw a name. Let us find out for certain, shall we?" He showed her the bottle. "I am going to give this to you. It's a corrective for Polyjuice. Once you have transformed back, we will have a discussion about what happens to you next."

"No!" Hermione struggled harder against the binds, twisted and tried to throw him off her. She couldn't let him figure out who she was. Nobody, not a single human being on this good green planet could ever know about this. Ever. But Lucius was unmoved, a stoic statue, the hard pillars of his thighs locking her in place.

"No?" Lucius drawled, quirking his eyebrows and making a show of thinking it over. "I suppose that is somewhat understandable. The antidote is supposed to be remarkably painful, rather more so than Polyjuice itself. Perhaps you would want to lie there and wait for it to wear off on its own? I only thought you'd want to get this over with as quickly as possible."

Awash in tears, Hermione could no longer make out his expression; everything was a colored blob with runny edges. "Just—just let me go. Please. I'll never bother you again, you won't ever hear from me for as long as I live."

"I won't ever know whether or not I hear from you again, if I let you go now," Lucius responded. "You could stroll up to me tomorrow and I'd be completely unaware. And I hardly think that's fair. I'm the wronged one in this situation, why should I let you off with a warning?" His voice hardened again. "I doubt you would have let me off, had you found solid evidence of any transgressions."

"But I did!" she wailed nonsensically. "I know you're involve in the Dark market! You—you knew about the dragon eggs and the Doxie Dust! You knew those were being traded more than anything!"

"Anyone who purchases a newspaper could figure that out," he said shortly. "There's two or three Doxie overdoses a day—and that instance last week? A dozen dragon hatchlings confiscated from that old warlock's bathroom in Exeter? Come now. Everyone knows about those chinks in the Ministry's armor."

Hermione rolled her head back, away from him, choking on her own tears. The sobs were coming freely now, because he was right. She hadn't even gathered enough evidence to convince anyone of his involvement. It had all been for nothing.

Lucius was watching her fall apart with an interesting look on his face. Not that she could see it, with her eyes now as tightly shut as she could screw them. Eventually she heard him scoff and the substantial weight resting on her hips was lifted. She blinked her eyes open again and saw him standing at the foot of the bed, hands clasped behind his back, gazing up at the large mirror above her.

"I did so want to fuck Narcissa here," he murmured, and she noticed that he looked coldly angry. Under the fury in his eyes Hermione thought she could see pain. It made her soul wither a little. "I wanted to fuck her hard, and I wanted you to watch us. I wanted to make you—the both of you—scream my name. I was so terribly close to following through, and my god you were as well. It would have been good." A flicker of something else, something Hermione recognized as lust, darted across his face. For a second she felt herself squirm a little, and not in fear. "I hadn't anticipated being so taken by this. Of course, there would have been no way that you could have mimicked Narcissa perfectly enough to fool me, and I thought that I would be more amused than anything at your attempts." He smiled again, though the anger hadn't vanished. "Poor judgment on my part. I knew you were not Narcissa, but yet I was still pleasuring her body. And the way you moved, the sounds you made… I confess, I got a little carried away before I remembered that what we are doing is exceptionally cruel to her. You may be dying to have me, but she is not. Otherwise she would have come back long ago and fucked me herself."

His eyes flicked down at Hermione. "I'm feeling mawkish," he sighed. "I don't particularly want to stand here and watch my former life partner morph into someone else." His lip curled a little. "Possibly someone hideous, in which case I'd prefer not to make the association. So I'll leave you here to think about what you've done, and in a few hours we'll convene again and… chat, about all this. I have a proposition for you that you will definitely want to hear."

Hermione was fairly certain she didn't want to hear him say anything to her ever again, but she was thankful that he was at least leaving her alone for a while: she couldn't remember the last time she'd had to sit through this level of verbal torture and was already exhausted and sweat-slicked. Polyjuice antidote was indeed painful to take, and the fact that he wasn't forcing it on her was… well, shocking. She hadn't dared hope for that level of mercy.

When he turned and swept out the door without another word, she felt Narcissa's whole body wilt with relief. But it didn't last long. She'd topped off on Polyjuice a few hours ago; she was certain she'd be good for a few hours more, but unless she could get a hold of her wand or escape these binds, a whole month's worth of Polyjuice wouldn't do her any good.

Twenty minutes of struggling only left her frustrated and raw on her wrists and ankles. The binds, she discovered, tightened when she pulled them. She tried biting through them, but that did about as much good as biting on steel chains. Half an hour later, and she was almost to the point of chewing off her own hand. They had spells to regrow limbs, after all—she could go without hers for awhile. It would be less painful than Lucius Malfoy discovering her identity.

She went as far as to test-bite herself once before she canned that bright idea. A long stretch of time passed, she wasn't sure about the specifics; she struggled herself to exhaustion every ten minutes or so. Things got a little fuzzy and she might've passed out at some point, it was difficult to say. All she knew was that at one point her eyes snapped open and she was staring at Narcissa in the ceiling mirror, only Narcissa's hair was rapidly getting darker and curlier.

Oh shit. The Polyjuice was wearing off.

In the overwhelming panic that took hold in the next few seconds, an idea struck her. She screamed, "Francis!" and then, when there was no response, "Harriot!" Still no response. Not entirely unexpected. She mentally steeled herself before playing her last card. "Fergus!"

There was a snap and Fergus appeared at her bedside; his back was to her, but he turned around as soon as he appeared and regarded her in that haughty, un-Elfish way of his. He did not look at all surprised to see her strapped to the bed with tears in her eyes, sporting an entirely new hairdo and a faint patch of rapidly blooming freckles across her nose. And that was deeply disturbing.

"Fergus," she breathed. "Please—help me. Lucius has gone insane. Please untie me!"

Fergus raised an eyebrow. "It doesn't look as though I ought to be butting into this situation, Mrs. Malfoy." He tilted his head. "Have you forgotten your safe-word?"

Hermione stifled a sob. "No, no, this isn't—Lucius has been gone for hours, he's left me here! Please let me go, I've been tied down here all night!"

The elf was unfazed. "Yes, from what I've had to witness before, these things can last that long." His eyes tracked the progress of her hair, which was now so massive that Hermione could almost call it her own again. "I never knew you dyed and straightened your hair."

"I—" It struck Hermione then that Fergus was being sarcastic. He must've known what was going on. No point in beating around the bush, she supposed. "Okay, Fergus, all right, I'm not Narcissa, I've been using Polyjuice, but please help me, I can't be found like this, Malfoy is going to come back and kill me—"

"I believe he said he had a proposition for you," Fergus corrected. "And he did not look the least bit murderous when I brought him his nightcap and beat him at chess earlier."

At this point Hermione's body was completely her own again under the nightdress, and Narcissa's face had begun to change in earnest; a few more seconds, and the last bit of her disguise was wicked away. Hermione Granger looked down at herself from the mirror with an expression appropriate to witnessing Voldemort rise again.

At last, Fergus revealed the tiniest ounce of shock. "Well, well, well," he said, padding up to the side of the bed and gazing at her with his little mouth hanging open, "Hermione Granger. You were the very last person I would have ever suspected. Honestly. I put money on Lucius' old secretary." He slicked back his ears, thoughtful. "I suppose it isn't technically a loss, since I don't have any money, but still, the principle…"

"Fergus!" Hermione gasped out; she was sobbing wholeheartedly, her crime now witnessed, her humiliation complete. "Please, please help me—I've—I've dedicated my life to helping house-elves, I've devoted years to improving your standing in society, I can't be brought down like this, all of the work I've done for you will get buried under this scandal! Please, you can't let that happen!"

It was a long shot, considering Francis' and Harriot's earlier sentiments about SEX, but Hermione figured there'd be little she could lose in trying.

Fergus was looking at her steadily. He looked at her for so long that she turned away from him, giving him up as a lost cause, burying her face in a nearby pillow and crying hear heart out. Her career was over. Lucius would take this to the press, and everyone would know her shame. Her friends would shun her. There'd be a criminal trial and she'd likely do jail time. Perhaps her war heroine status might fetch her a lighter sentence, and she'd only have to do community service. Hermione Jane Granger, picking up garbage at the roadside in a striped jumpsuit…

She paused in her wailing only to rub her knuckles into her eyes—and realized then that her hand was no longer bound. She sat bolt upright and looked down at herself. The black ties were gone, and Fergus was standing there in the center of the room, twirling her wand between his long fingers. He tossed it to her, and she was so shocked that her grab for it was a second too late; it struck her in the face and tumbled into her lap.

"You won't be able to apparate here," he said, extending a hand, "but I can take you. Just give me an address."

Hermione snatched up her wand, scrambled off the bed and dove for his hand, clutching it so hard that he winced a little. She managed to yammer out the address of her favorite café in wizarding London; even in her state of high terror she didn't want to chance Lucius figuring out exactly where she lived.

Fergus snapped, and Hermione swore the pressure of apparation had never felt sweeter.

They made a bit of a scene when Hermione appeared on a tabletop right in the middle of the café wearing nothing but her tiny pink nightgown and clutching at a house-elf like a little girl clinging to her teddy. Thank god there were only a few people around, most of them employees: dawn was breaking softly in the east but all the street-lamps were still glowing outside. Hermione supposed she shouldn't have chosen an all-night place but it was the first she could think of under all that pressure.

Fergus wriggled and made an angry noise in the back of his throat, and she immediately put him down and jumped off the table.

"Oh my god, Fergus, thank you," Hermione gasped, reaching out for him again and pulling him into a crushing hug. She cried a little on his shoulder—it was mostly out of relief but she drew back when she heard his disapproving sniff.

He glared at her and started daubing the little wet patch on the shoulder of his gold pillowcase with a napkin. "I don't know if you understand the predica—"

"What's going on here?" A barista had appeared, looking between Hermione and Fergus with a bewildered expression on her face. "Hermione Granger? Is that you?"

Hermione went brilliant red. "I—we—sorry, we got a little disoriented," she said, and then quickly added to Fergus, "I've got to go. I really can't express how grateful I am. Thank you so much."

Hermione apparated a second time, but not before she caught Fergus' forbidding expression, saw him grab for her and miss. While floating in the crushing darkness she felt a little pang of guilt, but she couldn't have stayed in the café for a protracted conversation and made an even bigger scene: Lucius would soon discover the elf's treason and would come looking for them, and the less he knew about her whereabouts, the better.

It was a little sad that she probably couldn't show her face in that café again. They had delicious lattes. But she supposed it was a small price to pay to maintain some anonymity.

She rematerialized in the middle of her own living room, and immediately fell down on the carpet and cried until she was too exhausted to cry anymore. Crookshanks came tottering over on his unsteady old-man legs and rubbed against her head as she let it all out; she didn't even mind when he farted on her and walked away again. She was so relieved to be out of Shorecliff and back in her own apartment. For a while there it hadn't looked as if she'd ever see it again.

She thought about just passing out right there on the floor, but her sense of propriety, somehow undamaged by the events of the last few days, wouldn't allow it. She pulled her leaden body up and staggered into the kitchen, grabbing things at random, trying to make her brain remember how to brew the herbal tea she drank whenever she was struggling to put herself to sleep. She'd throw off the nightgown and knickers, probably take a shower, and go to bed naked tonight; she didn't want any reminders of the past twenty-four hours on her. She prayed to god that she'd be able to sleep for longer than just a few hours. The longer she could avoid thinking about what happened, the better off she'd be.

She'd just filled the kettle when she heard the crack of apparation in her living room.

Without pausing to think, she dove at the nearest cabinet and crawled inside; a large, precariously piled heap of crockery crashed down around her, but she got the door closed before any of it could spill onto the linoleum. Wand in hand, she crouched there in the dark, straining her ears for the tiniest sound in the next room.

She didn't have to wait long. In a few seconds her cabinet door was flung open again, and she rolled out, waving her wand and screaming, "Petrificus totalus!" while the pots and pans thundered around her.

To her alarm, the spell immediately took effect—on her. The intruder must've repelled it, but if he had, that had been the quickest nonverbal spellwork she'd ever seen. She hit the floor, frozen mid-jump, her wand still aloft. There was an explosion of hysterical laughter behind her.

"Oh my god," Fergus gasped between fits. Despite his humanized voice, his laugh was still quite squeaky. "You're such a card!"

Hermione felt a twang of embarrassment. "Fergus! How did you find me?"

"Elves have a special knack for finding things that are lost," he said. She heard him sniff and wipe his eyes, still chuckling weakly. "I've got to say, it was very rude of you to leave me there, but this—this has made up for it. I forgive you."

"How'd you do that Protego so fast?"

Fergus lost it again. It was awhile before he could get the words out. "You've got a ladle caught on your wand-tip," he coughed, pointing. "It must have deflected your spell right back at your hand."

Hermione's eyes darted up. Oh. He was right. She felt a new wave of embarrassment coming on, but at this point, in the safety of her own home, she managed to whip up a little defensive anger too. "Well, I was frightened, all right! Now could you please unfreeze me?"

Fergus snorted. "Not if you're going to apparate away again. You and I have things to talk about and I can't have you swimming off again before we're sorted, little catfish."

Hermione clicked her tongue impatiently. "Where would I go? This is my home. I can't go wandering the streets in a nightgown, you saw the way those people in the café looked at me!"

"Give me your word that you won't try to escape, and I'll unfreeze you."

"Fine. I give you my word. Now let me up!"

Hermione felt her muscles relax and pushed herself into a sitting position. Fergus padded up to her, reached out, and rapped his knuckles smartly on the top of her head. A metallic clang sounded.

"Is this what the kids are wearing nowadays?" he said, smirking. "Saucepans for hats?"

Hermione yanked the crockery off her head, blushing angrily, but Fergus wasn't paying much attention anymore; he was gazing around her kitchen now with a look of distinct disgust on his face. "My god, do you ever clean this place?"

"I don't really—" Hermione couldn't get the words out before the elf went bustling around, tidying the mess of cookware she'd scattered, reorganizing the cabinet she'd fallen out of, putting on the tea she'd tried to make and, for good measure, waving a finger and setting her underused broom to sweeping on its own. He got the dishes started too, and seemed to have to restrain himself from wiping down her counters. The sight of her minimally cluttered and dusty living space seemed to pain him.

While she was still spluttering he took the hem of her nightgown, apparated them back into the living room, pushed her down onto the couch then sat across from her in the loveseat. Even though the furniture dwarfed him he still somehow managed to look grave and intimidating, like a wizened little judge holding court on his bench.

Hermione found her words. "Are you going to tell Malfoy where I am?"

Fergus made an impatient noise. "Would I have bothered to rescue you if I was going to do so?" He bent his eyes on her in a manner reminiscent of Lucius; Hermione had little doubt now that the elf must've had something to do with the man's upbringing. "You're a very lucky woman. My relationship with the Malfoy family is not typical among elves; my contract is possibly unique. No other elf would have been able to do what I did today. It was clearly an act against my master's wishes." He steepled his long fingers. "I therefore think you owe me an explanation of your behavior."

"I was impersonating Narcissa to see if Malfoy's been spearheading the illegal trade of Dark artifacts," Hermione said without hesitation. "I was just going to wait for him to drop a name or an address I could look up later, but then all the… other stuff started happening." She flushed at Fergus' knowing smile and changed the subject. "Why were you able to rescue me today?" She thought of Dobby. "The only other elf I'd met of the Malfoys' aside from Francis and Harriot wasn't able to act against their wishes without punishing himself."

Fergus balked a little but he gave her a prompt response. "Some centuries ago, when the Malfoy empire hit a high in its status and grandeur, Nicodemus Malfoy, the patriarch at the time, took me aside for a private chat. Now that the Malfoys had attained true greatness, he said it was tantamount that we retained our power through the centuries by removing as much outside influence as possible, to reduce the chances of breeding blood-traitors, progressivists, or any other such riffraff in the family line. He thought that having a steady… keeper of the house, as he called it, would benefit the family enormously. But he needed someone that could be trusted implicitly, who could also withstand the wear and tear of time. And who more suitable than an elf, unable to disobey even if he wanted to?

"He gave me several orders that he instructed me to follow even after his passing. He told me that I was to become the head servant and maintain the other elves and properties, so that they didn't fall into disrepair or dishonor; educate myself to act as a tutor of the Malfoy scions, to avoid a constant parade of teachers through the generations that may potentially poison their minds; and most importantly, I was not allowed to die unless instructed otherwise. I would also be a warden of the family history and genealogy, the details of which I should only divulge to the patriarch should he ask. Such things are kept close in pureblood society."

He scratched his chin. "Being head-elf resulted in my forming personal relationships with all the Malfoy scions. Over the years I've learned, and taught, healing, finance, dueling, basket weaving, hunting, flag semaphore, hairstyling and how to play just about every instrument known to mankind." He smiled grimly. "But I have Aristide Malfoy to thank for the most important of my abilities. Aristide and I were quite close, and until Lucius, he was my favorite. He always had some difficulty with social interaction, but I could understand him, after a fashion. He died quite young, but his last request of me—that I should never fear the family, and that I must never harm myself and that I must even defend myself against my masters, should it come to it—has lent me a considerable amount of freedom. His successor, Hadrian, made the suggestion that I should also speak my mind without fear of retribution. I soon grew into the role of an unofficial, off-the-records adviser. I am allowed to say whatever I want and to protect myself should I need to. That's why, at this very moment, even though I can hear Lucius calling for me, I am allowed to ignore him because it falls under the context of 'self-defense.' There have been years when I have had to lay low and avoid the patriarch because I have said or done something… off-color."

He cocked his head at the calendar hanging on her wall near the clock. This month's picture was a pink kneazle. "I imagine this will have to be one of those quiet spells." He sighed. "It really is too bad. I love Lucius and I'm rather upset our relationship had to take this turn."

Hermione gawped at the elf. Her head swum with all the information. "Wow," she said at last. "You—er—look pretty good for being a few centuries old."

He flashed a coy grin. "Every once in a while I get an order to be young again, so I am."

"That's incredible! I've worked with elves for years and I've never met one even remotely like you!" She frowned. "Is that why you rescued me, because of the Society for Elfish Exoneration? Francis and Harriot weren't fans."

Fergus sniffed. "Nor am I. But I didn't rescue you because I appreciated your SEX group, although I won't complain too loudly: I've learned to speak like a human now, and I've seen a remarkable improvement in how the family treats me because of it, Draco in particular. No, I saved you to in turn ask a favor. Now that you're in my debt, I imagine you'll be more than happy to humor an old elf."

Hermione blinked. And then burst out laughing. "No wonder all the Malfoys have ended up in Slytherin. With a nanny like you it's a shock there's any variation at all between generations."

"That was the point, I believe."

"What's the favor?"

He grew serious. "Some years ago, you were brought to the manse against your will. You were tortured there. I'm sure you remember."

Hermione froze. "Yes, I remember that."

"You were rescued by an elf. One that used to belong to the Malfoy family."

"Yes. Dobby."

His eyebrows pursed. "So far as I am aware, you and your companions were the last to hear from Dobby. I want you to take me to him."

Hermione's heart sank like a two-ton rock. "Oh my god, I'm so sorry, Fergus. Dobby—he died that same night we escaped."

Fergus stared at her for a long moment. "What happened?"

"Bellatrix killed him. She threw a knife, and it—it got him," Hermione said lamely. "Harry dug a grave. We had a small ceremony."

Fergus grew still. After another long moment, he drew himself up. "Damn that woman," he murmured. "Well, my request still stands. Take me to the place where he was buried."

Fergus had wanted to set out for the grave immediately, and it was only after a protracted argument that he allowed Hermione to shower and dress. She could hear him crashing around her flat while she scrubbed off at top-speed; when she darted back across the hall to her room in a towel, she caught a glimpse of him carrying her sofa cushions into the kitchen.

Disturbed, she raced through her routine and came out just in time to find her whole apartment looking better than she'd ever seen it. She wandered around, openmouthed, until she stumbled across the elf sitting cross-legged beside her coffee table drinking tea and glancing impatiently at his fancy watch. Crookshanks was sulking in the window looking as if he'd been the unwilling recipient of a few cleansing charms.

"Fergus," she breathed, "this place… you really didn't have to—"

"I certainly did not," he cut her off. "Are you done? I'm eager to be off."

Hermione started. "Right." He put down his tea and waved a hand at the cup; it vanished. Then he offered a hand to her.

Hermione didn't bother knocking on Bill and Fleur's front door. It was about 6 o'clock in the morning and the whole family would probably still be sleeping, and anyway, she didn't want to have to explain the solemn old elf at her ankle, nor why she was leading him to Dobby's grave at this ungodly hour. It wouldn't do any harm if she just snuck him in for a quick… whatever it was he was going to do. Then she'd just hurry him out again and nobody would be any the wiser.

Hermione wasn't sure when she'd become such a sketchy person, but she made a mental note to stop while she was ahead.

Over the years the wind off the sea had smoothed over the mound of Dobby's grave. It was perfectly flat now, only distinguishable by the headstone and the small number of tributes piled around it.

Hermione's most recent visit to the site had been nearly six months ago. She'd left a small bouquet of Everblooming Daisies with a short thank-you note tucked into the vase. The site wasn't loaded with candles or small gifts like the memorial of Hogwarts in Diagon Park, but it was still a hollowed place, especially for Harry. Unlike the name suggested, Hermione's daisies had wilted long ago, along with all of the other flowers around the stone. She felt suddenly ashamed that she'd let the grave go to seed.

Fergus walked slowly up to it. Feeling as if she were intruding upon something private, Hermione tried to remove herself from the situation by paying far too much attention to a nearby shrub, but she'd barely turned her back on the scene when Fergus was at her elbow again, tugging on her coat and asking to leave.

The arrival back at her flat couldn't have been more uncomfortable. Hermione wasn't sure what to say. Fergus was looking coolly unaffected, as if all they'd done was take a quick trip to the corner store; the instant they appeared back in her living room he bustled off to the kitchen and began brewing them each a cup of coffee.

"It's morning now," he announced, handing Hermione a mug without prompting. "The sun will rise soon. We might as well stay up. We've got to set up a few protective wards around this place; Lucius has stopped calling for me and I believe he's figured out what's happened. The only reason it's taken him this long is because if my hitherto-unwavering loyalty." Fergus grimaced a little. "He is not going to be happy."

Hermione looked at him pityingly. "I really do appreciate everything you've done," she said, wishing to Merlin the words didn't sound so overused. "What are you going to do now?"

Fergus raised an eyebrow. "I've just told you," he said impatiently, "we're going to make this place a fortress. Lucius is a very talented wizard, whatever you think of him, and I don't doubt that he'll be able to determine who you are using the information you've let slip already. And once he does, he will come looking for you."

Hermione's palms began to sweat. "Okay," she said, "but then what do I do now? I still have to go to work on Monday, and I still have to figure out whether or not Malfoy's involved with—" She stopped. "Wait. You would know if Lucius is working in the illegal substance trade, wouldn't you? You could give testimony!"

Fergus gave her a very cold look. "Despite what you may have witnessed tonight, I am not a bad elf, Hermione Granger," he said, raising a threatening finger. "It is a deeply insulting thing you are insinuating. I will not speak out against him on any sort of trumped-up charges you've created. How dare you even suggest it?" He drew himself up, smoothing down the front of his pillowcase. "No, this is what's going to happen. I'm going to remain here in this dreadful little space a few days, to be sure my efforts were not wasted and your anonymity is preserved. Then I'm going to return to the manor and keep my head down, keep everything running smoothly without showing my face, until Lucius needs me again. He will. It may be years, but he'll come around. And if he does not," Fergus grimaced, "Draco will. Or his son, or the son thereafter. And once I am back in their good graces, everything will be as it was. As it has always been."

Hermione scowled. "Well, then, that's just great. Never mind that lives are being lost and our Statute of Secrecy is being jeopardized because of the Dark market, and all of it could be prevented if we disbanded it." Then she let out a pitiful sigh. "I can't believe I went through all that for nothing."

Fergus raised an eyebrow. "You didn't seriously think your little plan would work, did you?" He grew solemn. "On an unrelated note, I'd be very cautious about returning to work, if I were you."

"What? You're not suggesting I play hookie or—"

Fergus scoffed. "No, that would be a good way of drawing unwanted attention to yourself. Act as if nothing has happened, but be careful while you do it. I pulled you out of the lion's den once, but I'm not willing to do it again. There's only so much damage I can do per decade before my reputation goes completely to the dogs." He raised his finger again, looking severe. "Mark my words, Lucius will eventually find out who you are, and I don't think he'll be so kind to you when you're under his control again."

The Catfish

A Harry Potter Story
by Miss Dasti

Part 10 of 25

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