Continuing Tales

The Catfish

A Harry Potter Story
by Miss Dasti

Part 14 of 25

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Hermione had an especially fitful night. Between replaying the strange, violent scene from last night ad nauseam—here and there inserting a few choice comebacks and fantasizing about the alternative routes they might've taken if she'd just kept her damn mouth shut and allowed herself to be wrong once (which, if she was honest with herself, absorbed most of the intervening hours)—any hopes of her sleeping until daybreak were utterly dashed. She got two hours maximum.

When she finally accepted the fact that she'd gotten all the rest she would, she dragged herself miserably out of bed and shucked off her rumpled nightclothes. She glanced at herself in the mirror and paused when she noticed the bruises on her arms in the shape of large hands, and all the very obvious marks on her neck, the crowning jewel of these being nearly two inches across and brilliantly purple.

Huffing, she grabbed up her wand and waved it furiously over every inch of her body, reciting every common healing spell she could think of—as well as a few cleansing charms. She checked herself in the mirror again and was satisfied that, at least physically, last night never happened.

The rest of the morning seemed to crawl on at a snail's pace. It had never taken her so long to get ready; she had no idea what was waiting for her outside her bedroom door and she was, admittedly, dawdling a bit. All possibilities, even the more outlandish ones, seemed equally plausible at that moment.

What she did not expect was to be the first one awake.

The apartment was dim and silent; the kitchen was empty and the only illumination came from the pale blue light creeping in through the blinds. A quick look at the clock confirmed that it was around 5 in the morning. She grimaced, but there was no going back to bed now: she'd abandoned any chance of sleeping ever again and besides, she had to find out what became of her unsolicited houseguests.

A trip into the living room confirmed that she was not alone. Belgium, at least, was still here. She was curled up on the couch with Crookshanks, the both of them breathing deep and slow in unison. Hermione shook her head; the massive dog was lying on her back with her paws sticking up in the air, and Crookshanks was coiled up on her chest, rising and falling with each of her deep breaths. It was hard not to die a little at the cuteness of it.

After a moment, Belgium cracked open an eye and stared up at Hermione as if to say, What? You need something?

"Go back to sleep," Hermione whispered, and her heart melted as Belgium yawned, stretched out her legs, and closed her eye again, now smiling. Hermione couldn't help it; she scratched the dog on the head, right down near the neck where she'd seen Lucius do, and Belgium's wolfish smile grew.

How had she ever disliked dogs?

It was with some grim satisfaction that Hermione laid out the finishing touches on the best breakfast she'd ever prepared. It was equal parts sweet and savory: she wasn't sure which her guests preferred, and she didn't want to give either of them any sort of angle on which to criticize her. She'd even made waffles ostentatiously with her electric waffle iron, which she'd left out on the countertop for Fergus to see, just to add a little vindication to the meal. As she garnished the last plate with a bit of parsley she wondered if Fergus would have much of an appetite after eating all of his fucking words about her ability to cook.

There was a sudden snap from behind her and she yelped in fright. "Well, doesn't this look lovely," Fergus trilled. He'd apparated directly into his chair and was already lying a napkin in his lap. "Rather a lot for two people and an elf, though, don't you think?"

Hermione sighed. Trust him to find something to pick at. "Well, I'm glad you at least recognize good cooking when you see it." She levitated the last plate—this one piled with bacon—off the counter and onto the table with the rest. "I'm guessing you've never had waffles before. They're primarily a Muggle dish."

"Actually, they were all the rage in the late 18th century, especially in the French wizarding scene," Fergus sniffed, pouring himself a coffee. "It was waffles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Blast the infernal things… every few weeks I had to re-teach the other elves how to operate the hot irons—they all had some difficulty getting it down. You humans and your obsession with oddly shaped foods…" He clicked his tongue, but nevertheless loaded his plate with a fourth of a waffle and upended the syrup over it. Hermione smiled a little; she'd count this as a victory. "Do you have any cream for the coffee? Or sugar, for that matter? It smells burnt."

She rolled her eyes but got up to fetch the fixings anyway. When she turned back around she locked eyes with Lucius Malfoy sitting there at her dining room table and nearly dropped the milk jug.

"Oh my god." She clutched at her heart. "I didn't hear you come in. You startled me."

Lucius raised his eyebrows. "Good morning, Miss Granger."

Hermione's stomach lurched. She swallowed. Act natural. "Good morning." She waved a hand at the table. "I made breakfast."

"I see." She thought perhaps he would smile at her, but she really must've nailed him in the face much harder than she thought last night, because he looked away and effectively ended the exchange there.

She couldn't help but stare at him for as long as she dared. Once he entered the room it was as if her eyes were drawn to him automatically. No one had ever affected her quite like that, except perhaps Voldemort, although the reasons had been slightly different. Like her, Lucius had healed up all the marks he'd gotten last night, or at least patched up all the visible ones. In fact he looked as immaculate as ever, and was even wearing different set of clothes from yesterday. That made her frown.

"Did you leave last night?" she blurted without thinking.

Lucius took his sweet time mulling that one over. After what must've been a full minute he appeared to tire of watching her squirm and deigned to answer. "No."

Hermione cleared her throat. "Okay, well—I was just wondering about your clothes."

He didn't look up from his food. "What about them?"

"Well, you've changed them."

"Fergus was kind enough to fetch a few items from the manor last night for me and Belgium. We shall be adequately comfortable here for the week."


Lucius had found her Prophet and was now perusing the front page as he ate. He didn't look at her again as she awkwardly took her seat across from him. It was amazing how wooden everything tasted after such an innocuous little exchange.

Fergus was watching them like a hawk. A smirk was playing around his mouth, and Hermione wondered just how much he knew about what happened last night. She hoped to god he only had his speculation.

It was by far the most awkward meal Hermione had ever endured. Eventually she couldn't take the silence anymore and cleared her throat. "So, what are we supposed to do now?"

Neither man nor elf answered her. She stared at them both—Lucius, hidden behind a wall of newsprint, and Fergus stirring another dash of milk into his coffee with an air of distaste—until it became apparent neither of them intended to answer.

"Merlin's beard," Hermione muttered to herself, wiping her mouth on her napkin, setting it down hard on the table and getting up to leave, "no wonder Draco turned to drugs…"

That got their attention. Fergus spat a bit of coffee back into his mug and Lucius reappeared from behind the paper.

"I'm sorry?" Lucius said sharply. "I seemed to have misheard that. Would you care to repeat yourself?"

Hermione went red (she'd have to invest in a good anti-blush charm at some point) but she didn't back down. "I just thought, since we're going to be taking down the biggest criminal alliance in the country, we should go over the plan until it's perfect. But I see you two have it all figured out and don't need my help, so I'm guessing you'll be leaving soon."

Lucius clenched his jaw, but it was Fergus who responded. "Sit down, Miss Granger," he snapped, glaring at her with more dislike than usual.

She glared back at him. "I'll sit down if you two agree to stop acting like a pair of surly toddlers and actually make an effort to communicate with me. We're a team now—the three of us. We might as well start acting like one."

"We are no Golden Trio, Miss Granger," Lucius snapped. "These are no longer your glory days." He turned to Fergus. "Now may be a good time to go. Better it gets done sooner than later. But for god's sake, be cautious. I shall call you if you are needed."

Fergus dusted off his hands and apparated—but not before shooting Hermione a sly look that made her blood run cold.

"Wait—where's he gone to?" she demanded, pointing at Fergus' now-empty seat. "What needs to get done sooner than later? Won't we need him?"

"Not for the next week, no. Just now he has more important tasks to accomplish than doing your housework." Lucius waved his wand and the dishes vanished, replaced with a huge piece of parchment that took up the entire tabletop. Most of it was covered in writing, but there were also a number of hand-drawn portraits; Hermione recognized one of the faces as the tall, dark-haired man she'd met back in Lucius' drawing room. The rest were strangers.

"I took the liberty of compiling what I know about my associates onto this," Lucius said, gesturing at the parchment. "I've also attempted to transcribe here as much of your ludicrously convoluted plan as I could. Forgive me if I missed a few of its finer points: I was tired and did not have access to that notebook you were abusing yesterday."

Hermione scanned the parchment. "Which one of these men are in charge?"

Lucius tapped the portrait closest to the top. "They call him Raleigh." He slurred the name with the same sort of distasteful expression that Fergus had worn whilst drinking her coffee. "It may possibly be his real name, but I doubt it."

Hermione scrutinized the portrait. The man appeared to be in his mid-fifties. Dark hair and eyes. By all accounts a perfectly ordinary person. "You're sure he's in charge?"

"No. Nor am I sure you will ever have the pleasure to make his acquaintance regardless; at times he neglects to attend our board meetings. In fact, I am not even sure if that is his actual face, or if, like someone we know, he has employed the use of Polyjuice to make himself even more difficult to trace."

Hermione frowned at him. "You've used Polyjuice too. At the ribbon-cutting for the Liverpool Preschool."

"I would recommend that you avoid idle chitchat with Fergus in the future," Lucius said, his eyes still riveted on the parchment. "That elf is known to cause problems when it suits him."

"So you weren't involved with the school?"

"It is neither here nor there, Miss Granger. What I do in my spare time is of no concern to you."

She glared at the fine-chiseled profile and inhaled to spit back a retort, but at the last moment she swallowed her words. Lucius looked at her, and they had another one. Another staring contest. The sort where they really looked at one another, directly in the eyes, longer than any two strangers ever managed.

But they weren't strangers now, she supposed. They hadn't been for a while.

"What were you going to say?" he murmured.

She scoffed. "It's neither here nor there, Mr. Malfoy."

He straightened up so fast that Hermione flinched back a little, and he closed in, moving well into her personal space—as he so often did when he meant to intimidate. She might've been getting used to his… magnetism, as it were, but in these moments, it was extremely difficult not to bow under those pale eyes.

She nearly flinched when he reached up towards her face, but it was only to wind a loose brown curl around his fingers, idly twining it between the middle and index, then tucking it behind her ear. Such a gesture would normally come off as affectionate—sweet, even. Had Ron done something like that to her back when they dated, it would've made her feel warm. When Lucius did it, it gave her vertigo.

"Tell me what you were going to say," he whispered. "I really am very curious."

She steeled herself. "I was going to say, Mr. Malfoy, that I actually think it does matter. Despite your opinion, we are working together, and I've found that working with someone gets a lot easier the more you learn about them."

He smiled gently. "So if I'm to understand you, you're demanding that we spend some of our very limited time before the party in order to… get to know one another better? You believe this will facilitate our preparation for the upcoming task?" She scowled at him, but nodded. He leaned in, so close she felt his breath, and then closer still—surely his lips were brushing her ear. The same ear he'd lavished all his devious skill on the night before. And there was no use denying it: she was leaning into him, willing the heat of his skin closer. He smelled just as sinful as ever and it was hard not to drown in that dark, subtle aroma. Just a few more millimeters and they would touch…

Then he whispered, "I disagree."

And he pulled back, turned, and bent over the parchment again, indicating a block of text near Ink's portrait. "We should reiterate the plan and discuss potential exit strategies should things go sour. I would also like to address a few small concerns that Fergus broached last night, shortly before I put him out of the guest room."

"Right," she said, just as brisk and businesslike as him. Perhaps she was already adjusting to him; her recovery times were certainly getting shorter every time he threw her off like that. "We'll need more ingredients for Polyjuice as well. I'll get my notebook."

The next few days were interesting, to say the least. Fergus would habitually pop back around from doing god knew what to have quiet conversations with Lucius, or to take Belgium home for several hours at a time to "wrangle the peacocks." He never stayed long, and did not encourage conversation, though Hermione thought he was looking fairly smug nowadays.

Malfoy himself remained succinct, but he was, for all intents and purposes, perfectly cordial to Hermione. There were no more breaches in decorum and he'd intensified his politeness to the point where Hermione almost felt as if she were playing at politics back at the Ministry. It was certainly much easier to plan with him than it had been that first day. He was more willing to listen to her ideas and would more readily concede when they differed. When he wasn't plotting away in the kitchen with her, he'd either pull a book off one of her shelves and retreat to the guest bedroom.

Hermione was happy with the arrangement. Ecstatic. Thrilled. It was, after all, exactly what she'd wanted. He was no longer coming onto her. There was no more touching, no more mercurial mood swings, no more looking at her for longer than politely necessary, no more showing even the slightest ounce of emotion about anything… and that was just wonderful. And it did not make her so irrationally angry that she snapped one of her favorite quills or beat her pillow until the seams split. And it had no effect whatsoever on the way her libido had spiraled completely out of control, resulting in several furious—erm—self-care sessions every moment she wasn't in his company. And it did not make her feel more miserable than she'd felt in easy memory. These things were surely due to stress, and fatigue, and anxiety over the upcoming ordeal.

That's what she told herself, anyway.

On the day of their exploit, Hermione got up early and set about frantically making sure everything was in order. She triple-checked that the Polyjuice was ready, combed over every inch of the plan, forced herself to take a quick nap (Lucius had warned her it would be a long night) and then she gave Belgium a bath, partially out of nerves and partially because of the horrific smell that had begun to linger around the dog after a few days of sharing a couch with Crookshanks.

It was around this time—when Belgium finally won a long and hysterical tug-of-war over the loofa, escaped the tub and coated everything, including Hermione, in a few inches of suds—that Hermione realized it. In the few days Malfoy had taken up residence in her life, she'd fallen desperately in love… with his dog.

Quite opposite her master, Belgium had opened to Hermione like a flower in springtime. She'd taken to bringing Hermione her dressing gown every morning, and slipping into Hermione's bedroom every night before bed to check on things and pull the shams off her pillows. More than once Hermione had jerked awake in total darkness, startled by a fledgling nightmare, only to feel a large, furry bundle snuggle up to her in the dark—as if to reassure her all was well.

Lucius noticed their antics. If he thought anything of it, he kept it to himself.

Hermione siphoned the water off Belgium (and herself, and her bathroom, and most of the hallway) and checked the clock. Nearly time. She hadn't seen Lucius all day, which was just as well: she didn't think she could stand much more of his icy company. With less than an hour to go, she pulled on her ill-fitting outfit and drank a measured gulp of Polyjuice.

Narcissa Malfoy frowned back at her out of her vanity mirror. She looked careworn; Hermione wondered if her emotions were as obvious in her natural skin. Taking a moment to readjust to being someone completely different, Hermione styled the golden hair, applied makeup to the beautiful features and straightened the expensive clothing on the willowy body.


She found Lucius in the sitting room, watching the streetlamps flicker on outside the window. He was in finer clothes than usual for the occasion, and had groomed himself immaculately. He looked gorgeous, particularly from the back.

She noticed his spine stiffen as she walked in. "We should depart soon," he said, turning. "They will begin to arrive in nearly a quarter—" He stopped when he clapped eyes on her. He was startled, but only for a moment. Too quickly he'd masked it under the usual glossy coat of nonchalance. "I see you're ahead of me already."

"Yes," she said, in Narcissa's soft voice. "Shall we go, then?"

He nodded and offered her his arm. After a second's hesitation she slid her hands around it; this was the first they'd touched since the fight, and it was like a static charge hummed between the stitching of his jacket and the fine silk of her gloves. She breathed in his now-familiar scent and closed her eyes, allowing him to guide her into the abyss of apparation.

And then there were lights.

The so-called board meeting would occur, as they always did, on one of Malfoy's own properties: a stately house in the southern part of Northern Ireland. As Hermione understood it, Fergus had marshalled all the Malfoy elves there and they'd been busy with preparations for days; she knew it wasn't the only duty Lucius had the old elf doing, but every attempt she'd made to butt into his business had been met with stonewalling.

When she opened her eyes, it was to find herself standing on a stone landing overlooking a brilliantly lit, beautifully decorated courtyard. Everything seemed to glow brilliantly as if cast under stadium lights. She glanced over her shoulder at the house; they would be partying in the backyard, it seemed, but the doors had been thrown open to invite guests to fluctuate in and out if they chose. There were people mulling around, all dressed in black and white to match the monochromatic décor. Entertainers, by the looks of them; most were busy tuning their instruments, setting up equipment or stretching in preparation to do god knew what later on.

Littered among the action were at least twenty elves, each in a different colored pillowcase embroidered with the Malfoy crest. Hermione spotted Fergus balanced on a large stone carving of a dragon, shouting instructions at the others through a megaphone. Francis was among those fussing over the food; he kept pulling off his glasses for polishing. Harriot was running atop a barrel, one of many being brought into the yard and opened to breathe. The Malfoys' claim to fame was their exquisite wine, after all.

At the crack signaling Hermione and Lucius' arrival, everyone stopped what they were doing to gawk up at them. Once again, it occurred to Hermione that Narcissa and Lucius made a fantastically beautiful couple, terribly intimidating to outside eyes; she was surprised at how awful the thought made her feel. While she stood there trying to get her bearings Lucius had already disengaged from her and gone off to circulate among the entertainers. He did not glance back at her once.

After standing there like an idiot for a moment, Hermione put on her best bitch face and went off to find herself a glass. She wouldn't be drinking alcohol tonight, but it would look that way. Thank Merlin Narcissa had such a convenient-looking Polyjuice; she just had to make sure not to set her glass down or spill on anyone, and she could sustain her disguise throughout the night without raising suspicions.

Fergus made a sweeping motion with his hand and all of the elves' pillowcases changed color to white with black threading—his included. Then he jumped down off the statue and disappeared among the rabble, resurfacing only to prop up a tray of delicate glass flutes right in Hermione's path. Only one of them contained pink champagne.

"Another few minutes and we'll find out if all your scheming was for naught, Mrs. Malfoy," he said, bowing and giving her a truly evil smile. Hermione scoffed and took the Polyjuice, but really all she wanted to do was throw up from nerves. Lucius had gone inside; the plan dictated that she spend most of the night mingling on her own. She was regretting agreeing to that now.

Just as she was taking the first sip from her glass, a clock chimed the hour dramatically from somewhere in the bowels of the house—and the air was rent with a noise like a lightning strike as hundreds of people apparated into the courtyard at once. There was a simultaneous rumble of laughter from all the new arrivals (Hermione hadn't been the only one to nearly piss herself from surprise, after all: the staff were all shaking and clutching their hearts) and then a raucous din built up as all of the guests began to talk at once, shouting out greetings and introductions, exclaiming over the entertainers as each one got over their shock and began his or her acts, and calling for the elves to bring them food and drink.

In literally a blink of an eye, the courtyard went from lifeless to full-blown chaos, and Hermione was caught in the thick of it.

None of these people were supposed to be particularly well-acquainted with Narcissa. Lucius had warned her that his colleagues wrote up the guest lists for these things, and that most of them were buyers of their products, and out of the hundreds of people who showed, only two were at all important: Raleigh and Ink. God willing, she'd only have to talk to the latter; she and Lucius had agreed it'd be best if she avoided all other conversation. The goal now was to find Ink and "befriend" him.

She spent the better part of the next hour gravitating from one dark-haired man to another. She tried to be casual about it; it wouldn't do if Ink were watching and figured out what was going on. She didn't see Lucius in all this time, but it didn't escape her notice that, regardless of where she went, an elf was always nearby, watching. She wondered if Lucius was having them dog her—whether to keep her safe, or to make sure she didn't somehow betray him, she didn't know.

She must've combed the crowd a dozen times before one of the little creatures sidled up to her. "Madam Malfoy." She glanced down. The elf was mostly hidden under a tray of polenta but she could tell it was Fergus: no other elf could sound half so menacing, and unlike all the rest, the tips of his ears were bent all the way back, like Crookshanks' did whenever Hermione tried to sing. "Your presence has been requested in the smoking room."

"Oh. Thank you." And thank god Lucius had walked her through the blueprints of the estate earlier, because Fergus didn't stick around to show her the way.

The party was tamer this side of the house. People were knotted into small groups or intimate pairs in the window seats and between pillars, all talking in low voices. The door to the smoking room was shut and, when she tried the handle, locked, and that just about had her stymied enough to go looking for Fergus again before it snapped suddenly open, and Ink was standing there with a forbidding expression on his face. It cleared away, however, when he recognized who she was.

"Ah, Mrs. Malfoy," he said, smiling. "Such a pleasure to see you again."

She tried to smile back. She tried not to grimace. "Yes, it is." And then, remembering herself, she offered him a gloved hand.

He took it, turned it palm-up and leaned down to press a kiss to the soft white of her inner wrist. As he straightened she saw his eyes drop briefly over her body, lingering on her hips and the dip of her neckline. It all happened so fast that by the time she'd caught it, he was already turning away. "Lucius," he called back into the room, "it appears I've located your wife. Or rather, she located us." He stood aside and bowed her in. "Please, do come in and join us. After you."

She was not prepared for what awaited her in the smoking room. The blinds were drawn here, and the only lighting came from the fire and a few yellowy lamps with dark shades along the walls. Hermione could barely make out what was happening and had even sat down on a vacant sofa before she discovered that, right in the middle of the room, there was a knot of about six women writhing around on the carpet, all stark naked aside from some black-and-white paint, and all engaged in various sex acts.

Hermione gaped at them uncomprehendingly. Male laughter emerged from the shadows at her reaction, none of it familiar. The sofa depressed beside her and Ink spoke, his voice very close.

"Your husband has very interesting tastes in entertainment, as I'm sure you'll agree."

She picked up the message clear enough from the slight sneer in his voice. With an effort she pried her eyes off the women, tried to strain to see who else was present; on the other sofas and in various armchairs where several other men, all fixated on the mass of moaning feminine bodies. She could distinguish Lucius only because of his hair, which seemed to glow even in this dim lighting; he was sitting farthest from her and she couldn't tell where he was looking or how his expression read. The others were only shadows.

"Lucius," she called at him, trying to sound as unsurprised as she could manage. It was crucial they launched into the script as fast as possible. "I have been looking for you."

"And you have found me," he responded. She tried not to let his tone bother her; it was important that there appeared to be some rift between them, but in this setting, being spoken down at by your only ally wasn't terribly encouraging, even if it was an act. "What do you want, Narcissa?"

Though she was determinedly not looking at him, Hermione could sense Ink watching the exchange; as Lucius finished she heard Ink tsk quietly in disapproval.

She swallowed. "I'm feeling ill. I'd like to leave now."

"I'm rather busy at the moment."

"Well, then," she said, trying to sound wounded (it wasn't difficult), "I suppose—I suppose you'll want me to wait on you, then?"

"You do that," he growled back, gesturing at the door. "Please do it outside. Our guests are undoubtedly missing you." She still couldn't see his expression. "I shall join you shortly. Behave."

"Now, now, Lucius," came another voice from the figure to Lucius' immediate left. "Surely you aren't going to send her back out there to the wolves on her own? You heard her. The lady feels ill."

Lucius shifted in his seat. "I was under the impression that we were only just starting our discussion here, but if we're done…"

"Oh, we aren't done, no," the voice replied pleasantly. There was a rustle and the yellowy lamps glowed brighter; the glittering mass of sex on the carpet broke apart, and the women all stood, giggling and stroking at each other as they were, undoubtedly, paid to do. The men all became lucidly distinct as well: they each matched one of Lucius' portraits, particularly the man who had spoken. Hermione recognized him as the one called Raleigh.

"Ink," Raleigh said, "if I remember correctly you have a bit of experience with healing. Why don't you escort Mrs. Malfoy outside for some fresh air. See if you can determine the source of her discomfort."

"Certainly." Hermione felt Ink's arm wind itself around hers. He was standing rather closer than necessary to her, and vaguely she thought that he didn't feel like Lucius. Lucius radiated heat. Ink absorbed it.

On cue, Lucius straightened and made to stand. "That won't be necessary. I can tend to my own wife. I will return shortly—"

"As I've mentioned, Lucius," Raleigh cut him off, "our business here is not yet concluded, and I would hate for us to delay it further. It is already well overdue." He spoke gently, and the two men looked at each other for a long, measured moment. It was then Hermione noticed that all of the men, aside from Lucius, had their wands drawn—casually, of course, down at their sides or in their laps—but Lucius' walking stick was leaning on a chair many yards out of reach, his wand still in it.

Secondarily, she noticed the knife. It was a silvery spade-shaped blade like the one Bellatrix had used to kill Dobby. Raleigh was holding it in his left hand, the tip balanced idly on the armrest of his chesterfield. Hermione felt all the hairs on Narcissa's arms stand on end.

Oh god. They… were they going to kill him?

Lucius did not break eye contact with Raleigh. "Very well," he said, flicking his hand to dismiss her and Ink. As she was steered from the room, however, Lucius finally locked eyes with her. They had agreed in the planning stages to make it seem as if they were at odds, but not indifferent: it was important that Ink believe there was still some marital bliss between them to destroy. But either Lucius was a world-class actor or the look he was giving Hermione, the look of deep, terrible longing, was genuine.

Oh god. They were going to kill him.

"It's unfortunate you had to witness that disgraceful display. I find I can hardly contain my distaste at these sorts of things, but in the years I've worked with him I've come to expect such riffraff from Lucius. Truly abominable. But forgive me—he's your husband. I'm being insensitive."

Ink was talking, steering her to god knew where in the house, but he might as well have been barking for all the sense Hermione could make of the words. Her brain had gone numb with panic; she knew she must've looked glassy-eyed and slack-jawed but she could not, for the life of her, marshal her thoughts.

That may well have been the last time she saw Lucius alive.

It was an odd sensation, like trying to run in a nightmare. Lucius had cautioned her about the slim possibility of this happening; he'd said that, should it come to it, she ought to keep focus and go on digging up as much about Ink and the other men as possible while she had the opportunity. But she hadn't really thought about what it actually meant. The man that had consumed her life like a fire these past few months might be dying. They might be killing him right then, as she walked away down this hall arm-in-arm with one of the conspirators.

Strangely enough, it was the clock chiming that brought her back to reality. One o'clock. She took a sip of her Polyjuice cocktail, as she'd been doing on the hour, and the rush of magic down her throat seemed to ground her in the present.

She had a job to do. She couldn't think about Lucius now.

"It's always the families that suffer," Ink was saying. "I cannot imagine what you have had to go through these past few years. It must have been so stressful, with the War first and now this ugly business with the company…"

"My husband has his faults," Hermione heard Narcissa's voice say quietly. "But so do we all."

Ink regarded her. "I will be frank, Mrs. Malfoy—"

"Call me Narcissa."

That seemed to please him. "Narcissa. I've wanted to meet you for some time. I've known Lucius for many years, and Draco as well… I'll admit I was curious about you. What sort of woman you were."

"I'm afraid I don't know what you mean, Mr…?"

"My friends call me Ink."

She scoffed a little and withdrew her arm from his. An echo of Lucius' voice sounded in her head: When he dodges a question, withdraw. You want to persuade him to divulge information in order to get closer to you. There had also been an unsavory connotation to that: if Ink did loosen his tongue a little, she'd have to find some way to reward him. She'd avoid that thought for now.

Ink looked, for a split second, affronted and slightly angry. "Narcissa?"

She pretended to yield a little. "I'm sorry. I'm just… tired of masks."

His shoulders relaxed, and he moved in, his eyes locked on hers. He reached out—no doubt to reconnect their arms—but as gracefully as she could she slid away from him and turned to head out the nearest door. It led into a little stone courtyard, blissfully empty. "I need air. Thank you for escorting me, I'm sure I can look after myself here."

As predicted, her rejection only fired his engine. He followed her outside, albeit at a leisurely pace, and changed tactics a little. "I can't imagine," he said, all purring empathy. "Your husband was likely born with a mask strapped to his face."

She forced a laugh and leaned up on the stone railing. From this vantage she could see the increasingly insane revelries unfolding in the backyard. Someone was setting off fireworks; she hoped they were sober enough not to burn the house down with them. "I can see why Lucius has never invited you over for dinner. I can't imagine he and you have very many civil conversations."

"No," Ink said carefully, sidling up to her; the length of his forearm brushed hers. "He is a difficult man to work with."

Time to mix things up. "He is."

Ink seemed surprised to hear her agree—surprised and very encouraged. "I hope you don't think I'm intruding," he said, "but how long have you two been married?"

Hermione shook her head. "Decades." She heaved a sigh and turned to him, putting on a sad little smile. "Can we not talk about my husband? I can't… I don't really want to discuss him. Or my son."

Ink nodded, reaching out and taking her hands, stroking his thumbs over them in slow, soothing circles. "I can tell you're in pain," he murmured. "I see it in your eyes. It may be of little comfort to you, but I'm very glad to have met you—to have gotten the opportunity to speak with you. You seem as if you've had to be very strong for a very long time."

What a snake, Hermione thought coldly, but she did her best to look the part of the tired, oppressed wife of a psychopath. She offered him a smile, which he returned warmly—a warmth that did not quite reach the cool green eyes.

"Sir," a voice said from the doorway. She and Ink turned simultaneously to the elf standing there looking dead on its feet. "Sir, your company is leaving. They await you in the foyer. I was told to fetch you down for them."

Ink grimaced and turned back to her. "I must go."

Hermione let a bit of her genuine disappointment leak onto Narcissa's face. This whole conversation had led nowhere. She hadn't learned a thing—and Lucius… "Very well."

He was leaving. He was really leaving. And there was no guarantee she'd see him, Raleigh or any of the other bastards again, not if they'd actually killed… it'd all be for nothing, and Lucius…

In desperation Hermione took a few quick strides after him and grabbed at his sleeve. "Wait."

He turned around. She hesitated. What could she do? Should she abduct him? Perhaps force-feed him Veritaserum back at her flat? But looking into the highly expectant face, she realized it wouldn't require all that. No, he only needed one last, small push. "Will I… see you again? I mean I've… I've had such a nice time with you. I wish that I could… but I understand, you are all busy men, and I have no place among busy men. It was so very nice talking with you. I haven't felt as if I've properly talked to anyone in so long." She let out a vulnerable little laugh, let him go and backed off. "I'm sorry for keeping you."

He stepped into her again. "Narcissa"—he took her hand—"if you ever feel as if you're tired of being the strong one"—he slid his other hand into his pocket; Hermione tensed—"or if you ever find you need someone to talk to"—he drew out a card—"please, don't hesitate to contact me." He placed it in her palm.

Then he turned, and vanished.

The smoking room was empty when Hermione went racing back inside. The lights were all off, the fire was dead and when she whispered "Lumos!" and cast the light around she couldn't find any indication of a struggle. But then, things were fairly easy to put right with magic. She checked all the surrounding rooms. Nothing. If Lucius was still here, he wasn't on this side of the building anymore.

She hurried back towards the thick of the party, checking rooms as she went. She'd just got back into the main hall when something grabbed her around the ankle, and she was so high-strung she actually screamed and kicked at it before she realized it was an elf—a particularly old and angry elf, who did not take kindly to being kicked at, and in response grabbed her harder and apparated them to an upstairs hallway, out of the noise.

It was a mark of how wild the party had gotten that nobody so much as spared her a glance when she'd screamed.

"Merlin, woman," Fergus snarled, twisting a finger in his ear, "you nearly deafened me! And you'd best consider yourself very lucky your little assault on me missed—I have already pissed in twenty different cups for elf-beating tonight, but now I'm dehydrated and for the likes of you I—"

"Fergus," she cut him off breathlessly, "Lucius is gone. I can't find him anywhere. Those men—"

"I have taken him back to your flat." He looked at her grimly. "I've got to stay here but I need you to go back and tend to him best you can. I will return tomorrow morning."

"What—why don't you come back now?" she demanded. The way he was talking, it sounded as if…

"Someone has to deal with this!" He waved a furious hand at the anarchy unraveling downstairs. "They'll burn the house down and every elf inside it if this isn't contained. Now go, stupid girl. He needs you."

The Catfish

A Harry Potter Story
by Miss Dasti

Part 14 of 25

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