Continuing Tales

The Catfish

A Harry Potter Story
by Miss Dasti

Part 12 of 25

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Fergus did not relinquish his hold on Hermione when they arrived back at her apartment. He pressed his fingertip harder into the side of her knee and she found herself moving against her will to sit on the couch; he waved a hand over her and left her there, stiff as a board and unable to do anything but blink.

Lucius let go of Belgium and she set to sniffing all around the apartment. Hermione could hear things being knocked off tables, cabinets being nosed open, end-tables toppling over, all supplemented by the sound of heavy panting. Fergus seemed none too pleased about it, but he kept quiet. Eventually the dog reentered the room and went to sit beneath Crookshanks' kitty tree, her eyes following the languid progress of a graying, bottlebrush tail as it swayed from the topmost platform. Hermione's knee-jerk reaction was to yell at Lucius to keep his dog under control and away from her cat—but then Lucius sat down on the sofa across from her, boring into her with his knifelike eyes, and all thoughts of yelling anything at him disintegrated.

Fergus sat himself in the armchair between them and clasped his little hands. He seemed a lot calmer now that all of the living things in the apartment were within cursing distance.

"Well then," he said, smiling pleasantly and gazing between Hermione (frozen and horrified) and Lucius (rigid and glowering), "I suggest we get on with this. We all say our parts—myself first, then I'd like to hear from Lucius, and if there's time or if we end up getting bored we might let Miss Granger say a few words. Her or the dog, it depends. Now, let me remind you both that this is a safe place, and we can say anything here without fear of judgment, unless I decide otherwise and I forcibly eject the offender." He bent his large eyes on Lucius, who was now smirking up at the ceiling. "Do you have a comment, Lucius?"

Lucius scoffed a little. "Get on with it, you conceited little shit."

Fergus' smile didn't waver. "Very well. Lucius, on Saturday evening I released this woman, Hermione Granger, from your unlawful imprisonment. I might remind you that I did not act against orders, although I was aware my actions would upset you. I have since avoided your summons, as well as the summons of the other Malfoy elves." Lucius was glaring at him now, all frosty rage; Fergus lowered his ears and spread his hands upwards in a plaintive gesture. "All of this I did for good reason. You divulged your plans for the girl to me, and I realized that, if this woman impersonating Narcissa was merely a lowly grunt in the Ministry, everything would fail. You would not be believed and our situation would be further jeopardized—we only have one chance to pull this off, you see. The stakes are already so high.

"When Miss Granger here summoned me to your bedroom to plead for my help—and she was, at the time, transformed back—I had to make a snap decision. I knew you would deem her suitable for your plan: a famous war heroine, the last person who could be discredited or ignored should she speak on your behalf. I knew you would make that call instantaneously. But I was not so certain. Her actions with the Polyjuice were desperate and stupid and I felt that more concrete evidence of her high status was necessary before I would allow you to use her and perhaps endanger yourself even more.

"Now, I realize I didn't discuss the matter with you. And the reason being is that I simply had no time. I needed to act immediately in order to make her believe I was sympathetic to her. Had I taken the time to argue with you over it, she might have been suspicious. By making my snap decision, I was able to win some of her trust, and find out more about her career and her standing in the Ministry, as well as create a safehouse out of her god-awful flat."

Fergus glanced at Hermione. "I have since determined that she is quite respected in her position regardless of her ridiculous SEX group and her total lack of common sense. When all is said and done, they will listen to her. I hereby give you my blessing to proceed."

Lucius raised an eyebrow. "Why didn't you tell me this last night, when you stuck your head in the Floo and screamed at me loud enough to deafen God that I ought to visit Diagon Park at noon tomorrow? You made me spill my brandy."

"I wasn't completely confident that you wouldn't kill me on sight," Fergus said cheerfully. "In any case I wasn't convinced that she was worth her salt last night. That was confirmed to me today, by her boss."

Lucius frowned. "And what if it hadn't been confirmed today?"

"You would've found me standing in the park ready to hand her over regardless, but I would've at least been able to tell you that she was an unfit candidate for your plan." Fergus raised an eyebrow to match Lucius. "How were you able to identify us so quickly? I was planning on calling to you once I saw you, but by that time you were already coming over."

"I discovered her identity on my own," Lucius said. "Or I had a very good idea of it, in any case. There are very few attendees at Piotrowski's concerts. All I had to do was check the guest list of his last one and select the most likely options." His eyes bored into Hermione's again; she tried to bear his gaze but eventually the pounding in her ears became unbearable and she had to shut her eyes. "Miss Granger was the most likely. She has… something of a rebellious streak, believe it or not. The stint she pulled with the Polyjuice would not be out of place on her scandalous record. When I saw her in the park I assumed you were with her, unseen. If my guess had been wrong, well…" Hermione opened her eyes a sliver and caught the small, enigmatic smile on Lucius' lips. "I would have merely had a delightful conversation with Miss Granger and been on my way."

Fergus looked impressed. "Well then, you seem to understand my actions. You therefore will have no difficulty allowing this whole matter to be water under the bridge." He held out a hand. "Truce?"

Lucius' smile vanished. "You did not only do this to make sure the girl was worth the risk," he growled. "You and I both know you did it to lure me out of the manor and into this… bunker you've made out of the girl's home. And I detest that. I do not need the extra protection and I resent your incessant stewing on the matter."

Fergus dropped his hand, but his smile didn't waver. "If you're going to hate me because I prefer your head on your shoulders and not rolling across the floor, then by all means, burn me in effigy. Either way I'm not sorry."

Lucius clenched his jaw, and for a moment it seemed he might go on arguing, but then he rolled his shoulders and huffed out a conceding little sigh. "Fine," he said, and (to Hermione's shock) he extended his hand, which Fergus immediately took and shook once, firmly, "truce. You won't need to go into hiding. The matter is done now, in any case." He sat back on the couch looking displeased but considerably less stormy. "I would like to point out, however, that it is unacceptable for you to doubt me and I will not tolerate such antics in the future. Furthermore, you need to reign in your paranoia. Miss Granger is the perfect candidate for my plan, even if her standing in the Ministry was laughable. All your nosing around was superfluous: could have made the right call." His eyes narrowed. "Kindly do not interfere like that again."

Fergus bowed his head. "Very well, Master Malfoy. My apologies." He didn't sound terribly sincere but Lucius seemed not to care; his eyes were already back on Hermione.

Idly he flicked a hand at Fergus. "Please go undo whatever it was Belgium has done to this… place, and allow myself and Miss Granger a private word." He smiled gently. "Unstick her tongue but leave the rest of her as is."

Fergus bowed again and, with another twirl of his fingers at Hermione, left the room.

Hermione gulped. She wasn't sure if she could speak now, but regardless she had no idea what to say. Lucius pulled his hat off and allowed his platinum hair to flow down; he wore an odd expression, something like cool detachment with the faintest hint of interest, as if she were some amusing streetside performer that had barely caught his eye, and might earn a Knut from him with the right trick.

"It's been some time since I've seen you," he said at last.

Hermione gulped again. "I don't know what you're planning to do with me, but I hope you know that I sent an owl to Harry earlier and he's planning on coming over soon—"

"No," Lucius said softly, giving her that gentle, knowing smile, "I don't think so. At this moment I imagine Mr. Potter, along with everyone else in your spiraling double-life, believes you're at lunch. It's unfortunate that you happened to eat that bad scallop, though." He raised his voice slightly. "Fergus, please send a note to the Ministry informing them of Miss Granger's terrible food poisoning or giardia or what have you. She's just come down with it, you see, and I fear she won't be fit to return to work for some days."

"I will at once, sir."

Lucius leveled his gaze back on her and added softly, "How terrible. But how fortunate for me—that will give us a little time to plan."

Hermione felt cold. "Please," she said, and it she hated herself for how closely the word resembled a sob, "please don't do this." She shuddered involuntarily. "I'll do anything."

Lucius arched an eyebrow. "What exactly do you believe I am going to do to you?"

She swallowed. There were a million possibilities, each worse than the last. She settled on the most likely option. "Ransoming me."

"For what?" Lucius demanded. "And from whom? Your parents? Mr. Potter? You believe I want their money or possessions? Come now, Miss Granger, I know you're a far more capable thinker. I have more money than I could spend in a lifetime. I could purchase anything I desired." He beckoned. "Try again."

She hiccoughed. "T-torturing me."

His other eyebrow rose to join the first. "Torturing you?" he repeated quietly. "You mean with the Cruciatus? Or perhaps manually, with your own belts and burners and kitchen knives? Perhaps you thought I might drown you to within an inch of your life in your own bathtub, or worse—maybe you feared I might force myself upon you?"

Hermione was well and truly crying again. Honestly, she spent more time in tears than not nowadays.

Lucius tsked. "Calm yourself, Miss Granger. Use your beloved logic. Whyever would I do those awful things to such a beguiling young witch? To put a bad taste in my mouth, perhaps earn myself a life sentence to Azkaban or a Dementor's Kiss? I may not have the cleanest of records, but I am no senseless monster, and I believe you know this to some degree. You've attempted to sabotage my life, but I will admit to having done the same to you once or twice in the past. What's done is done: what matters now is that we are here in this unsavory situation together. I suggest we put our differences behind us and proceed unencumbered."

Hermione couldn't prevent an angry tongue-click. Lucius tilted his head, waiting. She tried to control herself—she knew she was only digging herself deeper—but the words came tumbling out as they always did, breathless and unrestrained. "I'm having a hard time imaging you'll put all our differences behind us."

He smiled again with instant comprehension; Hermione took a moment to appreciate how sharp he was. She couldn't remember the last time she'd dealt with someone who just knew what she meant right off the bat. It was disconcerting. "If you're referring to your blood-status, I can only insist again that we put our differences behind us. It will be necessary in the coming days."

She practically snarled, "I can't just put my blood-status behind me!"

"I have."

They stared at each other a long moment. Something lifted then—something in Hermione changed, lightened. Almost as if she'd been filled with helium. A chill rushed from her scalp to her toes as she stared directly into his eyes; the pounding was back in her ears. He stared back, his posture open, receptive, his face expectant. Somehow she didn't doubt his simple admission. She believed him.

At long last he spoke. Thank god, because Hermione couldn't have forced out anything if she'd tried. "I'm asking you to listen to my proposal. Will you?"

Hermione unstuck her tongue. "Do I have a choice?"

"You always have a choice."

She huffed out a small, sad laugh. "Fine. Go on."

"I need you to catfish again." Her jaw dropped, but he ploughed on pitilessly, "I need you to masquerade as Narcissa, but this time you will be fooling another man, and this time it is going to work, because the man you will be fooling has never met Narcissa. I need you to come to the board meeting I mentioned back at Shorecliff." He paused. "I must make a confession right now, but it will remain between us. I am involved in the mass distribution of illegal substances—"

"AHA!" Hermione wanted to point at his face, but Fergus' spell still held her captive. She settled for a vindicated grin. "I knew it!"

"Very astute of you," Lucius said coldly. "The Malfoy family has been involved in such activity for many, many years. It is a very close-kept secret. So close-kept, in fact, that I only learned of it the day my father retired and I took over the business. A group of men accosted me, took me to some dank basement and put me through a round of torture and intimidation. I was told to run the companies as they have always been run: smoothly and efficiently, all the while turning a blind eye and a blind abacus to the underground railroad of Dark materials passing through my shops and warehouses. I would do this, or my entire family would be wiped from the earth, one by one. These are not reasonable men, Miss Granger. Their wealth and lifestyles depend on my ability to transport and sell their merchandise. Failing to do so would forfeit more than I have to give."

Hermione's mind was racing, absorbing his words as fast as he could get them out. "I've been on your case for a while," she said at last, "and I haven't found a trace of any illicit activity in your businesses. The buildings have been checked, the numbers match up."

"As they should. Do not concern yourself with the logistics; given a few centuries, any organization could master the art of deception. The system is airtight. We have been held under scrutiny in the past and have always been found guiltless."

Hermione suddenly recalled Fergus' worry over Lucius' safety. "I'm guessing something went wrong recently?"

Lucius glanced aside, and although his voice remained deceptively light, Hermione could see the stress in his face. "Within the last few years I have been experiencing some… difficulty. With Draco."

Hermione blinked. "Draco?"

"He has been… wrestling with an addiction." Lucius paused. "To Doxie Dust."

"Oh my god."

"The irony is not lost on me," Lucius snapped. "Forgive me for not finding the situation very humorous. My son took up the habit immediately following the War. He was unable to cope with the traumas he experienced while living in this house with that… with the Dark Lord and his followers. And I was ill-equipped to help him."

Remorse just whispered under Lucius' tone, but Hermione could tell he was carrying around a mountain of guilt where his son was concerned. She didn't even want to think about the tangled, thorny mess that was his and Draco's relationship. "Anyway," he went on, "that is the situation. I knew what was happening within a week he began, but was unable to get him into rehabilitation until two years later, when I finally threatened disownment. He went, but he also cut me out of his life entirely and vowed to never speak to me again. It is my understanding that, until this year, he was doing reasonably well. Married, even… But he relapsed. And I know he relapsed only because my manufacturers told me. They have discovered his addiction and they have been using it to their advantage."

Hermione blinked again. "Wait," she said slowly, "so they've been…? What? Giving him drugs—"

"—in exchange for information on me, the company, escalating amounts of money… anything they wish," Lucius finished, "including allowing them permission to store and sell more Dark materials than our inventories can safely handle. It has reached the point that the whole system threatens to collapse. Draco either does not understand what he's doing, or does not care—or perhaps he's afraid. Doxie Dust can induce paranoia, and he has never been the… most intrepid of boys to begin with."

Hermione recalled Draco's unwillingness to walk past windows and felt a pang in her gut. Suddenly a lot of Draco's odd behavior made sense. She wasn't at all fond of him, in fact she still thought of him as the hurtful teenager with the penchant for spitting venom, but her heart wasn't made of stone: being driven to drugs because of extreme suffering wasn't something she'd wish on anyone, even him. She couldn't fault him for passing up counseling, either: such things were nonexistent in the wizarding world. Hermione had found it necessary to speak with someone in the year following the War and it had helped immensely with her anxiety attacks, but she'd had to go into the Muggle world for care. How strange it was, that no wizarding healers had branched out into the realm of healing the minds of their patients…

"I don't know where his head is right now," Lucius was saying, "as he still refuses to see or speak with me. Every time I get within five meters of the damned fool he apparates to god knows where and goes missing for days. He also refuses to speak with any of the elves."

Hermione frowned a little. It was on the tip of her tongue to point out that, if he wanted to get back on speaking terms with Draco, it might help to not refer to him as a "damned fool," but somehow she didn't think he'd listen to her parenting advice.

"I have attempted to cut him out of the family business," Lucius continued, "and to close off his access to the accounts, but my so-called business partners were waiting for me to try it. They dissuaded me from such actions by threatening to kill him. They are now applying increasing amounts of pressure on me to retire and leave the business to Draco."

He paused. "As a Death Eater, I earned their respect and fear. It was the main reason I joined The Cause: they feared the Dark Lord and his influence. They kept their distance from me and allowed me to manage my empire as I saw fit—which included constricting their input to a bare minimum. But everything changed after the second War." He pinched the bridge of his nose, rubbing his eyes. "I have, time and again, refused their urgings to step down and officially sign the company over to Draco. I have not been very tolerant of the changes to the company, either, and they have made their displeasure obvious. Fergus is convinced they will soon try to kill me. I know that the only reason they have not done so already is that the family is under the Ministry's scrutiny. They don't want to bring forth any more unwanted attention to their dealings. But their patience runs thin."

Hermione was now grateful for Fergus' binding spell: without it she would've been reeling in her seat. "And what am I supposed to do about this?" she demanded at last. "This is insane! This is way too dangerous to handle ourselves! We have to go to the Aurors right away, you have to testify—"

"No," Lucius said firmly. "You do not understand the situation. I have never learned the names of these individuals, nor where they are based. If I waltz into the Ministry with nothing but tales of my participating in the Dark market, with no information on these men, I shall be thrown back into prison, or perhaps Kissed, and Draco will go down with me. And my associates will walk free, protected by their anonymity. It will take them some time to restart their operation, but I do not believe they will be out of business for long. Nothing will have been achieved."

Hermione stared at him, her eyes wide and incredulous. "Lucius—Mr. Malfoy," she corrected, and saw a small hint of a smile grace his lips for just a second at her slip, "you can't be serious about this."

"But I am." Lucius leaned forward slightly. "I am proposing we take down the large majority of the Dark market. You get your promotion or whatever it is that keeps you going in life, and I get a very troublesome monkey off my back. But my plan requires your cooperation, and I also need some reassurance that myself and Draco will be pardoned for our involvement. That will not be possible unless you vouch for us. The Ministry will listen if you do. We did not ask to be in this situation and I am willing to risk everything to help the Ministry put an end to this madness."

Hermione gulped. "And what if I refuse?"

"Then I will have no choice but to press charges against you for using Polyjuice to try and entrap me. I will also take this story to the press. My and Fergus' memories can be searched and Veritaserum may be used as confirmation. I will then attempt to manage the issue of my associates on my own." His gaze hardened. "I would prefer not to take that route."

They sized each other up for a long, hard moment. Hermione was experiencing a curious sensation—the sort of nauseated, adrenaline-fuelled feeling one got before public speaking. She knew what she was going to do even before she allowed the words to form; she knew even before she spoke that she hadn't really gone back-and-forth on the issue at all.

It was so unlike her.

"Okay," she said, "I'll help."

Lucius' expression was still heavily guarded. He extended a hand to her. "Give me your word."

Hermione gave him a sour look. "I'm still in a body-bind, Mr. Malfoy."

Lucius withdrew his silver-handled wand from his pocket and waved it at her; then, with it still held aloft in one hand, he extended the other again. "Your word, then, Miss Granger."

She clasped it; it was hot, firm, just rough enough to remind her of the danger she still faced in his presence. "I'll do everything I can," she said, "and I'll also try to get you that pardon because you are aiding the Ministry with this major threat, but I can't promise it. I'm doing this because it's my job, Mr. Malfoy, not because I feel like I owe you anything."

He smiled wryly. They both knew she was lying: her compliance had everything to do with the blackmail material he had on her. And even though his posture finally relaxed, Hermione noticed he didn't put his wand down. Somehow she didn't think their little gentleman's agreement had him pacified; no doubt he'd have Fergus dogging her every step for signs of betrayal. Such things were probably unavoidable with a man like him. Trust was not common practice in his world. At least now she was sure he wasn't going to kill her, or not until he'd gotten what he wanted, anyway…

"You said the man I'm supposed to be fooling has never met Narcissa," she said at length. "Who are you talking about?"

"I mentioned him to you before," Lucius said. "You've met him. The man with me in the drawing room, before I spirited you away to Shorecliff. If you'll recall, I mentioned that he goes by Ink."

"Ink," Hermione repeated. "And he's the one you see most often?"

"He is my liaison with these people, yes. To my understanding, he also liaisons with Draco. He so loves telling me details of my son's life but I can never be sure if he's being honest. Most of the time I hope he isn't."

A horrible thought struck Hermione. "What if I end up in a room with Draco He'll see right through me! He's still in contact with Narcissa, he talks to her all the time and he most likely knows she's out of the country—"

"If all goes to plan, you will not interact with Draco at all," Lucius said shortly.

"But what if the plan goes to hell and he comes barging in unexpected? This is his mother we're talking about," Hermione stressed. "I was stupid enough to try and pretend to be your wife, you can't seriously think Draco won't suspect something if his mother starts acting like a completely different person!"

"Draco, I believe, is far enough into his addiction that he may overlook it."

Hermione shook her head. "Even if that were true, it's not the only problem! What am I supposed to do if the real Narcissa pops back around in the middle of this? Or what if they're watching her and they know she's out of the country?"

"I do not believe that is the case. They have no reason to do so. Narcissa is not involved in any of these matters, and my associates are not even aware that she and I are divorced—they have no reason to care about such things. But the odds of her returning are why we must work quickly." Lucius held up a hand, cutting off Hermione's billion other worries. "Enough. I need you to sit there, quietly, and listen to my plan before panicking. You are welcome to panic afterwards. Fair?"

Hermione grit her teeth.

"Good," Lucius crooned. "Now, some months ago I discovered something about our friend Ink. It was at the last board meeting—that's what these people like to call their little get-togethers, which are really just an excuse to use my means to throw themselves, and their clients, ridiculous parties. I overheard a few of them chatting him up. Apparently he has a reputation for targeting married women. From the sound of it, he takes great pride in stealing another man's wife. It's a challenge to him, strokes his ego; he also tends to do it out of revenge. If he targets you, thinking you're Narcissa, that opens a door into his personal life. You can find out about him and his partners—"

"When?" Hermione spluttered. "Before or after he's done having his way with me? I am not going to whore around with a psychopath just to sneak a peek at his ID—"

"I'm not suggesting you whore around with him," Lucius snapped. "I'm suggesting you play coy. Get him interested and a little involved with you. Have conversations with him, and if you play innocent he will eventually grow comfortable enough—"

"He could lie."

"He likely will," Lucius said impatiently. "If you would listen, you might've learned that, with some time, my hope is he lets his guard down enough to leave his drink unattended around you, at which point you might slip him some Veritaserum."

"Lucius," Hermione said, "this is too big a risk—"

"You were willing to take it before. With me."

"That was before I realized how idiotic it was!"

"The circumstances are different," he maintained, "but you already know that. Might I remind you that you've agreed to help me. I'll thank you to stop being so damned needlessly difficult. We cannot proceed if you do nothing but sit there agonizing."

Hermione huffed. "Fine! So you and I go to this party together, and in the off chance this man Ink makes a pass at me, I should… what? What would Narcissa do—?"

"Do not pretend to emulate Narcissa. Your performance is wooden and it would only serve to arouse Ink's suspicions. Just act normal."

Hermione blanched. "How am I supposed to act normal when I'm in some shady meeting arm-in-arm with a…"

There was a moment of awkward silence. "With a what?" Lucius prompted.

Hermione swallowed. "My point is, I would never be in that situation, so how am I supposed to pull this off without making a mess of everything and getting us all killed?"

Lucius sighed, then raised his voice and called, "Fergus, if you've sent that note, please fetch a bag of the Columbian beans from home and brew myself and Miss Granger here a full carafe." He added, almost too quietly for Hermione to hear, "This will take a while."

"At once, sir."

Hermione pushed a flyaway off her cheek and refocused her pencil on her thoroughly broken-in notepad, blinking to try and clear the miasma that had settled in her brain about two hours ago.

"Okay," she said hoarsely, "in the event that there's a woman already around that Ink finds more attractive, or if he's arrived with a date, we've agreed upon Plan D-12, is that right? Or have we decided that Plan D-13 was—Hey! Where are you going?"

Lucius had reached the end of his rope. They'd been holed up in her sitting room drinking coffee and scheming for god knew how long. It was exhausting. Even the most miniscule of details could ignite a ferocious argument and, despite having worked all day, very little headway had been made.

Hermione had always imagined that Lucius was a stubborn sort of man. She'd been wrong, of course. He was downright unyielding. She could tell that he also had a quick temper, although it was something he'd obviously gotten used to controlling: he hadn't raised his voice or made any violent gestures at her, in any case (she wished she could say the same for herself). But when his eyes narrowed just-so, and his body grew still, and his voice dropped to that deep, growling octave that made every hair on her body stand up, it was indisputable: he was angry. And it was very hard not to give in to his demands in those moments.

Sometime around seven o'clock Fergus had brought them a platter he'd obviously prepared at the manor (or Hermione assumed as much, since she couldn't ever remember buying lox) and she and Lucius went on plotting as they ate. The wizened little elf had also lit the flat with a stately new set of candles, so the whole place was awash in the gentle glow quite at odds with the tense atmosphere. Hermione had never felt less comfortable in her home. She wanted to hold Crookshanks for a little moral support, but with Belgium still haunting the foot of the kitty-tree, she dared not try to fetch him down. Somehow she didn't think Lucius' monstrous guard dog just wanted to play gently with her elderly cat.

Hermione slumped back into the couch, defeated. Lucius had vacated his seat (as he'd begun to do more frequently in the last hour) and did not respond to her outburst; rather he went strolling out of the room, examining the pictures tacked to the wall as he went. Hermione finally mustered the strength to get up and follow him, but at that precise moment, Belgium decided she'd had enough of Crookshanks and also jumped up to go after him. They collided at the mouth of the hall.

Hermione flinched back, but something must've happened earlier that she'd missed, because Belgium glanced up at her with a completely different expression than she'd worn in the park. They looked at each other, frozen, Hermione's fists clenched and Belgium's head cocked—then the dog struck a pose that Hermione remembered vividly from an illustration in the dog-training book she'd read earlier that week: forelegs on the ground, furry rump in the air, ears down and eyes squinting.

Belgium was being… friendly. She wanted to play.

Hermione wasn't sure what to do. She was too much a cat person. She looked around, spotted the yellow ball Lucius had been throwing in the park, took a step towards it—and the dog seemed to read her mind: she leaped up and went bounding across the room, tongue lolling, snatching up the ball and doing a ricocheting lap around the furniture. She struck her play-pose again, this time near the front door, her tail wagging furiously.

Hermione couldn't help it: she giggled. "I guess this means you've changed your mind about me?" she asked, taking a knee and beckoning. Belgium padded over and dropped the ball into Hermione's hand, grinning her wolf-like grin. Tentatively, Hermione reached out and, when Belgium didn't revert to terrifying aggression, scratched the dog behind her velvety ear. Belgium closed her eyes and leaned into her hand, and Hermione felt a little upwelling of affection; some bad blood was already ebbing away. "Well, one of you had to be rational."

There was a thud, and dog and woman glanced over in unison as Crookshanks came padding up to them, mewling hoarsely. Belgium's ears shot forward, her nose twitched, and Hermione went to grab the collar on her neck and yank her back—but the dog only lowered her head and sniffed gingerly at her old cat (who held his ground quite bravely, considering Belgium was about ten times his size). After a tense moment, Belgium's tongue darted out and smeared over Crookshank's face, slicking the fur up into a ridiculous pompadour. Crookshanks spat and retreated at once to the top of his kitty tree to groom, shooting a few sour looks over his shoulder at them. Belgium cocked her head and gave Hermione a quizzical look.

Hermione was laughing—out of humor and relief. "He's just finicky with his hair," she explained to the dog, who grinned, almost as if she understood. It was unnerving. For the first time she wondered if Belgium didn't have a little magical blood in her, like Crooks—most likely, since she belonged to Lucius.

She dared to scratch the dog again, and again the dog leaned willingly into her hand. That little bubble of affection swelled slightly. Well, that was one small load off her chest. Now if only she could get the master to warm up as easily…

Hermione ran her hands over her face as the spray of the shower beat a steady rhythm on her crown. She'd drug out an old blanket and set Belgium up in a comfy corner of the living room; the dog seemed satisfied with the accommodations and went right to sleep. After a little while, Crookshanks had even come down and snuggled up to her; the sight made Hermione tear up. She snapped a picture to remember this little moment of peace, wondering if it would last through one of Crookshank's deadly flatulence. They said dogs' sense of smell was a hundred times better than a human's…

She then thought about searching for Lucius, but decided she'd much rather shower and get some sleep before she faced him again. She could imagine how dreadful she looked, and no doubt Fergus would settle Lucius into Hermione's spare bedroom. Hopefully the pair of them would keep to themselves until she was ready to deal with them again.

She waltzed back into her bedroom, towel around her, wringing out her hair, and immediately spotted the unfamiliar pile of dark clothing draped over the reading chair she kept in the corner. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye, turned—and nearly dropped her towel in shock.

Malfoy was lying in her bed, plain as day, leaning back into her pillows and casually perusing a book from her collection. And he was naked.

The Catfish

A Harry Potter Story
by Miss Dasti

Part 12 of 25

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