Continuing Tales

The Catfish

A Harry Potter Story
by Miss Dasti

Part 17 of 25

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"After last night, we will not have so much leisure time to plan—and Draco will not come quietly."

No sooner had the words left Lucius' mouth than the sitting room filled with the sound of apparition. Hermione started violently, clutching her heart; Lucius stood and faced the archway to the kitchen from whence the sound came, and even though he was wandless his body fell into a slight fighting stance, as if he might tackle an intruder in his towel. Hermione felt a strange upwelling of gratitude and amusement at the sight (and a little pang of lust, too, which was really unavoidable with all that lovely flesh in front of her, some of it bearing her own scratch-marks).

"Fergus?" he called.

The elf answered immediately. "So sorry to intrude, Master Malfoy, but reality must be dealt with at some point." He paused. "May I come in?"

Lucius clicked his tongue impatiently, his body relaxing. "Of course, you fool, why wouldn't—" but he stopped abruptly when the elf came inching around the corner, once again wearing his usual gold pillowcase, and also a look of such supreme smugness it was borderline inhuman.

"I see you've recovered from the Doxie," he lilted. "Good! But then I had all the confidence in the world that Miss Granger"—his large eyes found her, the bright purple irises glinting at her in the most unpleasant way—"would be able to handle the situation nicely in my absence."

Hermione had the intense, creeping sensation that not only did Fergus know exactly what they'd done, he may have even—oh Merlin noit was horrific enough that the animals might have—

"Not a word," Lucius snapped, holding up a finger to stop him. He seemed much less at ease about the possibility of Fergus having got a glimpse of them than the dog and cat; Hermione could almost sense the increase in blood pressure as he contained a few violent impulses at the idea. She wondered if it was out of respect for Fergus, or perhaps deference for her presence or even fear of Fergus' retribution that kept him from kicking the elf right there.

Fergus straightened up and cleared his throat. "Very well," he said, suddenly businesslike, and Hermione couldn't have been more grateful for his return to austerity, "I have come to inform you that ten elves have been taken off their normal work schedules to remain at the Irish manse to clean up. Some heathen released Fiendfyre in a top-floor lavatory this morning, around four o'clock. The entire place was engulfed. There was no loss of life thanks to Francis, who happened to notice the spread of the spell and coordinated an evacuation; nearly everyone had passed out in the courtyard and we were able to disapparate the stragglers out of harm's way, but in the process Francis and a few others was burned rather badly. The damage to the property is phenomenal; likely it will be some decades before we are able to rebuild on the same ground. I have reassigned Vergil to the Manor at Wiltshire for the time being; as he was the elf originally assigned to the house that is now in cinders, there will be little else for him to do for a long time." Fergus scowled. "An unfruitful night overall. There remains a few scum strewn about unconscious on the grounds. I didn't think to ask the elves to be gentle with them."

"The whole lot of them may find themselves asleep across train tracks, for all I care," Lucius snarled, his normally lacquered voice rough with anger. "Is Francis all right? Were the injured elves given immediate medical attention?" Fergus nodded. "Good. See that they do not work until they are fully recovered. I know they will try. Fiendfyre does terrible damage to the skin and nerves. I do not want them to overexert themselves and worsen it."

"Francis is most disturbed about being replaced."

"He is not replaced," Lucius said, waving a hand. "He cannot be—let him know that. Do not reassign him rooms at the manor, he is to remain there. I do not want him to feel demoted for this. Introduce him to the idea of a vacation, god knows he deserves it after the debacle last night. And the new elf—"

"Vergil will be an adequate short-term replacement," Fergus said, his lips twisting in slight disapproval, "but he has some work to do on his accent. Still hasn't mastered human-speak. I may just make him a groundskeep and send him back to Ireland once Francis is back on his feet."

"Do not rush him back to work," Lucius admonished, turning around and pacing distractedly back into the sitting room. Hermione, who had gasped in horror at the news and then been raptly watching the entire exchange, noticed the worry lines creasing his face, saw that he was genuinely upset, distressed even, that his elves had been harmed in his absence. A glow lit itself directly in the center of her chest. "And do not allow him to rush back to work. I want him and the others on strict orders to rest for the next two weeks, minimum. Then I'd like some honest answers about pain level; I know they'll try to lie about it. See to it they get some compensation—as it's a sticky subject and they're all prone to crying whenever I bring it up, I'll allow you to handle it. If there were some way I could compensate them in a way they would actually like, without gold—"

"You could let them go back to work immediately, burns and all," Fergus said wryly.

Lucius sighed, stressed. "Gold it is. But if I catch them trying to redeposit it back into my accounts again I shall have words with them." Lucius sat himself in the armchair, heaving a sigh. "Damn Raleigh to the blackest pit in hell."

Fergus' expression, of possible, grew even more somber. "They will kill you, Master Malfoy. You cannot go back to them if they call. You must flee. I shall see to your family and your elves. Your life is not worth the risk."

Lucius scowled at him. "You and I both know that will never be an option."

The elf's ears—perpetually set back and high in straitlaced propriety—drooped, and he looked at Lucius with the sort of grim, sad expression of a man watching his son march off to war. Hermione wondered how often he'd worn that same expression in the past. Likely often.

Lucius went on, "It just so happens that Miss Granger and I have determined the next course of action."

Fergus glanced at her again, and she saw a tiny flicker of the smugness he'd worn when he first came in. "Oh? And are these details I really need to know?"

Lucius grit his teeth and ignored the jab. "We will capture Draco."

Fergus sighed deeply, looking neither impressed nor surprised. "A novel concept. Have you progressed to the actual 'how' of the matter? I should like to know it."

"Can't you just surprise him and apparate him here?" Hermione asked him, speaking for the first time. Man and elf glanced at her with such similar expressions of wry amusement that she nearly laughed.

"Have you ever attempted to disapparate with someone who was adamantly trying not to go with you, Miss Granger?" Lucius asked.

Hermione thought. "No… I guess not."

"An impossibility," Fergus announced. "We would both be spliced asunder."

"So we have to convince him to come?"

"It seems so," Lucius sighed. "I have thought of an idea that may—"

There was a knock at the door.

Everyone froze. Lucius glanced at Hermione, frowning, his eyes wide; Hermione looked back in equal confusion and shock. The knock sounded again, more insistent; Fergus was the first to move, tiptoeing over to the window and gently brushing the curtains aside a hair's breadth, peering out for a fraction of a second. He spun back around, his face drawn, and hissed, "It's Harry Potter and a million others!"

"Hermione?" came the muffled call, along with more pounding. It was indeed Harry's voice. "Hermione, I know you're in there, I can hear the telly!"

"Come on, let us in, we've brought lunch for you!" came Luna's musical voice. "Even Neville made something!"

"Not sure what, though," added another male voice, one that made Hermione's stomach drop into her toes: Ron. "We could use your help identifying it."

"Hey!" Neville admonished to attendant chuckles. There was an infantile squeal that could only be James. Harry had brought the whole damn party.

"Go!" Hermione mouthed, leaping to her feet and shoving Lucius over in the armchair. "Go go go!" she breathed, nearly crying as she pushed him.

He looked annoyed as he got up, grabbing her wrist in one hand and her wand in the other, giving her a firm push towards the door. "Answer them," he hissed, tossing her wand over. "And fix your hair!"

"Just a minute," she called, and she could've winced at the warble in her voice. Oh god, her sex hair. Oh god—she probably looked so obvious, Lucius had savaged her so brutally, she probably had swollen lips and bite marks everywhere—frantically she cast all the glamour charms she could remember on herself, and, waving her hands wildly at Fergus (who ducked away, looking harassed), she flicked her wand at the television, which plugged itself back in and switched on just as she opened the door.

There were five people and a baby on her doorstep—Harry, Ginny, James, Ron, Neville and Luna—all of them clutching tinfoiled dishes and plates (excluding James of course) and all of them beaming. Hermione watched as their happy expressions all faltered comically in the same moment when they'd gotten a look at her.

"You look terrible," said Luna pensively, the only one who looked entirely unfazed by it. "Harry heard at work that you'd been sick for a while. We came over to cheer you up."

"Oh," Hermione gushed, trying her damnest to look pleased rather than horrified, "Oh my—oh my god, you lot! I'm so… surprised and—and pleased—oh wow, yes—there's absolutely nothing wrong with this! It's just"—she squeezed out, breathless, crowding them on the doorstep—"just that, well, I'm still under the weather and I don't want you to catch anything, especially not little Jamesy there—"

"Catch food poisoning?" Harry said, deadpan.

"Oh no it's, uuh, the doctor said it's something else," Hermione invented, trying very hard not to look at Ron and think about how Lucius had just plowed her on the same couch where they'd used to kiss, Lucius fucking Malfoy, "they're running some tests, I should get some answers back soon—"

"But it's from eating seafood, right?" Harry persisted. "So it's not really transferable, is it? I mean, unless you throw up on us?"

"We have the mail," Neville added, holding up a large, dirty wad of envelopes and newsprint. "We aren't afraid to hold it hostage, either."

"Come on, 'Mione," Ron groaned, "we'll be fine, just let us in already, I'm starving!"

They were starting to push past her. Harry was somehow already in. Never in her life had Hermione ever been so resentful of the familiarity of her social circle. She knew they would not normally have come over unannounced like this unless they thought there was something going on with her, something bad, like perhaps she was depressed or had secretly become an alcoholic; she knew they were acting more out of deep concern than anything. And really, it wasn't unfounded: she hadn't been to work in a while, she'd vanished without warning, and overall her life had stagnated pretty spectacularly. Likely they all thought she was on a steep downward spiral and were trying to catch her. It was sweet, really, and she might've found it touching if it hadn't been so god-damned badly timed. "Guys, I really don't—"

"Nothing helps you get back on your feet like a big lively lunch! Or so mum says," Ginny intoned brightly, navigating her large belly past Hermione, but not quickly enough to prevent James grabbing a handful of Hermione's hair. "Oh, sorry—he's got this fascination with hair now—just give him a minute, he'll let go."

"Gwah!" James added, tugging happily on his prize (with far more force than should've been possible for a baby).

"Aaah—" Hermione was dragged bodily back into her flat; Ron, Neville and Luna followed. The door shut with a final sort of snap on Hermione's personal hell.

"It looks different in here," Luna said, her large eyes scanning the walls. She breathed deep. "It smells different, too. Have you redecorated?"

"No—I mean yes, sort of—spring cleaning and all, I figured while I'm out of work I should be doing something useful—" Hermione was desperately trying to accept everyone's greeting hugs and kisses while gingerly attempting to free herself from her child captor, who was still insisting on dragging her around by the head.

"I didn't know you knew German, Hermione," said Harry, frowning at the telly.

Hermione peered over her shoulder (the best she could do under James' control). She must've flipped the channels by accident at some point, or perhaps Fergus had messed with the set while he was dismantling everything, because there was some foreign film rolling on the screen without any captions.

"Oh, you know me," Hermione said, forcing herself to be chipper, "I like to learn all sorts of new things all the time! And German's such an interesting language, don't you think?"

"I think it's Russian, actually," Neville said, eyeing the television. "Yeah, that's definitely Russain." He and Harry turned to her, frowning.

"Oh!" Hermione said, her voice arcing out of control, "Well, I guess I'm pretty hopeless with languages then!" She forced a crazy laugh. "Better stick to English! It's one of the most widely used languages, did you know?!"

They were all looking at her. James gave another mighty tug on her hair, making her wince and shoot him a resentful look, but Ginny didn't seem to notice; she took James and, by extension, Hermione back into the kitchen, where Harry set about enlarging Hermione's dining table to accommodate the seven of them.

Dishes were set down and uncovered; James finally bored of tormenting Hermione and released her; and Ginny conjured up a few more chairs and a high-seat for the baby. Hermione was forced to accept that she would indeed be having a large social lunch, and there wasn't a thing she could do about it. Working on autopilot, she pulled out tableware and set places for everyone while feverishly scanning the room for some giveaway of her secret life. Nothing was immediately apparent; hopefully her guests would stop being quite so perceptive with full bellies.

Everyone loaded their plates, poured themselves a bit of Ginny's famous lemonade and settled right into the meal, all seemingly without noticing their hostess' mounting panic.

"Hermione," Ginny said, pausing with a baby spoon full of mash halfway towards Jame's mouth, "what happened there?" She nodded, brows furrowed, at something above Hermione's head.

Hermione almost upended her drink in her haste to spin around. It took her less than a second to spot what Ginny was looking at: the covering had been removed on one of the kitchen lights, its bulb broken, and a half-melted candle was sticking out of the dome of broken glass. God damn you, Fergus.

"Oh—oh that?" Hermione forced a hysterical laugh. "Oh that's nothing. It's nothing. Um, yeah, the bulb just blew up, like, poof!" She made a wild exploding gesture with her fingers. Everyone started a little. "It was the strangest thing! And um, I put the candle there because I couldn't—I was too sick to get a spare bulb. And I was out of spares here. So. That's what happened."

Everyone was staring at her. She blushed scarlet and tried to eat some crisps and look nonchalant, but then Luna said, "I noticed another bulb in the hall like that," and Hermione choked.

"Yeah," she said hoarsely, coughing, trying to swallow while Neville patted her on the back with some concern, "yeah, it was the strangest thing—there was a big power surge, I guess, you know it happens sometimes in the Muggle world, I'll have to call the electric company and complain, they're really irresponsible allowing one this strong to happen, I mean, it's a fire hazard—"

"Probably even more so with a candle in the socket," Harry said, his eyebrows furrowing slowly.

Hermione gulped. "Yes, well, I need to see, don't I? The candles are temporary. And I—I like my lighting to be consistent. It helps. With reading."

She saw Harry and Ron exchange looks, Harry's eyebrows raised, Ron's packed mouth hanging open mid-chew; she tried not to let her casual veneer slip, kept smiling around at everyone, willing them to accept the lie, even though she realized she must've looked insane. Perhaps she was—actually, that was a much better explanation than what was really going on. She contemplated going with a "Hermione's finally cracked" cover story until she realized they'd invariably commit her, and that would mean hanging Lucius out to dry.

And she knew, despite everything, that she couldn't do that. Not now. Not after everything.

Her guests eventually shrugged it off and went back to eating.

"How've you been lately, Hermione?" Ginny asked after a few moments of quiet. "We haven't heard from you in ages." She was speaking in the sort of determinedly casual voice you'd use with someone who'd been recently disfigured in a terrible accident, but was trying to get back to normality. Hermione almost winced.

"Oh, you know," Hermione said, trying to wave away the question, but it actually made matters far worse: Ginny laid down her silverware and reached over, placing her hand over Hermione's, holding her tight.

"We're all here for you, you know that, right?" Ginny said urgently, nodding around at everyone, who all nodded back (Ron a little out of synch, being so engrossed with his food to cotton on right away). "Anything that's going on—you know you can tell us, don't you?"

"Yeah, Hermione," Harry insisted, "we're your friends. You could always talk to us."

"We won't judge you," Luna added, smiling serenely. "Not even if you were growing goomdrops in your bathtub."

"I might judge you for that," Neville muttered, and they all chuckled a little.

Hermione's heart broke. She looked around at them, all the intent, open faces. They all cared about her so much. And she was lying to them. She was hiding the biggest secret of her life from them and all they wanted to do was help her. Could they accept what she'd been doing? Would they still feel so adamantly about helping if they'd known that she was harboring—and had slept with—an honest-to-god gangster and trafficker, one that had done so much harm to them in the past? Lucius had slipped Ginny that diary. He'd kept Luna incarcerated in his cellar for months. He'd hounded all of them through the Department of Mysteries and beyond. Hermione wanted badly to believe they would listen to her about how he wasn't all that, how he was more now, different. How tragic and beautiful he was. They would understand, surely? She was still Hermione, after all—still their Hermione?

Everything was balanced on the tip of her tongue, threatening to spill—

"Agag!" James screamed, pointing (his fat little fist still clinging to a few loose brown hairs he'd managed to rip out of Hermione's scalp).

Everyone turned. Belgium was standing there in the doorway, her nose twitching, peering at all the new faces.

A load of collective breaths were released. "Hermione!" Harry said, grinning, "I didn't know you got a dog!"

"So that's why you were reading that book awhile ago!" Ginny laughed. "I didn't even know you liked dogs!"

"Oh cool!" Ron said through a mouthful of potato salad, scraping back his chair and getting up, "And it's a real dog too, not one of those tiny yappy ones!" He dusted his hands off on his trousers and reached for Belgium, making to stroke her head. "I'd always wished I had a dog but you know mum, she says they don't have proper wizarding feeling—rubbish, obviously—c'mere boy!"

Belgium was looking scandalized; her head was reared back, her ears flat on her skull, and as Ron's fingers threatened to muss her fur she bared her teeth and let loose a bone-chilling snarl.

"Ron!" Hermione jumped up; Harry and Neville, who'd been halfway out of their seats to join Ron, both froze, looking alarmed. Belgium snapped her jaws at Ron's fingers and he jumped back, aghast. "Ron—Ron sit back down, she's not used to strangers!"

Hermione rushed over and wrapped her arms around Belgium's neck, scratching the soft ruff. She felt the dog calm somewhat in her grasp, but the pale eyes stayed on Ron as he stumbled back to the table. "She's a rescue," Hermione tried to explain while attempting to tug her back into the hall, "she's been through a lot and she still needs to be sociali—ugh!"

Belgium moved forward, dragging Hermione with her; the dog seemed to have decided that all of the guests were, if not repugnant, then at least nonthreatening, so she promptly waltzed into the room and climbed right up to the table, sitting her furry rump down in Hermione's vacant seat, dragging Hermione with her as if she weighed no more than a doll.

Everyone scooted an inch or two back. "She's uh, she seems pretty powerful," Harry said uneasily, his hand in his pocket, no doubt wrapped around his wand. Belgium had her snout in Hermione's glass and was lapping delightedly at the lemonade while Hermione heaved on her collar, trying to drag her down.

"Yes," Hermione puffed, "she's very—very willful!" She tried to laugh off her dismay as Belgium set about snapping up her pulled pork sandwich. "Oh no—no, bad dog! Bad Bel! No, get down, Bel, that's a very bad girl—"

"Her name's Bel, then?" Neville said, trying to sound conversational while he leaned so far away from her in his chair that he was nearly falling off.

"Her tag says Belgium," Luna hummed, totally unperturbed that there was a possibly violent animal sitting and eating at the table with her. "That's a much better name, I think."

"Well it is Belgium, I just call her Bel sometimes!" Hermione snapped, having reached the end of her rope. She slid her hand deliberately over the golden plaque on Belgium's collar to hide any more incriminating evidence and, with all of her might, heaved the dog down off the chair. At last, after giving Hermione's plate one last lick, and sending Ron a last loathsome glance across the condiments, Belgium allowed Hermione to steer her out of the room and back into the hall.

Hermione turned the corner and nearly ran over Fergus, who was waiting just out of sight; he didn't spare her a glance, just seized Belgium's collar and proceeded to tug her the rest of the way into the guest bedroom and slam the door behind them.

Hermione gave herself a second in the hall to collect herself. She felt close to tears, and in fact allowed a few to escape before pulling herself together and reentering the room.

They'd all been murmuring, but once she was back a sudden hush fell. Everybody looked disturbed.

"Sorry," she said, and she didn't have it in her to pretend anymore, just let her voice come out as ragged and exhausted as it wanted to. "She's a handful."

"That's one way to put it," Ron snapped. He looked none too pleased about nearly having his hand bitten off. "What are you doing keeping an animal like that in here? That's not a dog you can have in an apartment!"

Well, so much for 'real dog,' Hermione thought blandly. "She was just frightened, Ron!" she snapped back at him.

"She does seem a little… high-energy, Hermione," Ginny said with a small tilt of disapproval, her hand laid protectively on James' head.

"An unsocialized husky at that age?" Neville muttered, his brows knit. "I donno, Hermione… it's not really our business"—he glanced around—"but with your job being so demanding and all… seems a bit… inappropriate, to be honest."

"Hermione," Harry said, with the air of trying to sound tactful, although he too looked somewhat critical, half-glancing at James, "does this apartment even allow dogs? I know you mentioned how it was hard even getting Crookshanks approved."

"And what does Crookshanks think of that thing, anyway?" Ron added sharply. Clearly his mind was on the whole Scabbers, aka Peter Pettigrew, incident. "He isn't getting younger you know, I'd've thought you'd be spending your time caring for him. That dodgy thing probably chases him around all night!"

Hermione looked around at them all. Suddenly she couldn't help it. She burst into tears.

How had she allowed herself to believe, for even one second, that they would accept her secret? If this was their reaction to Belgium, how on earth would they have reacted to the larger, far more dangerous creature in her home had she dared reveal him? No… there would be no reconciling the two fissured halves of her life. She could have her friends on one side, and on the other? Danger, fear, mystery… desire. They could not exist together.

Only Luna had remained silent, looking across at her with that slight natural smile on her mouth, her eyes remarkably clear. Just before the tears Hermione locked gazes with her, only for a moment, and Luna's smile deepened, rueful, apologetic, not at all amused or critical. It stilled Hermione's soul just a little, but did not make the crushing truth any easier to swallow.

Eventually, Hermione knew she would have to choose.

A few minutes later Hermione was in the sitting room with everyone gathered close by, tea things laid out on the coffee table, one of her hands in Ginny's lap, the other in Luna's.

As soon as she'd started crying, her friends had leapt into action, almost as if they'd been expecting a breakdown and had an emergency plan in place for it. Hands had grasped her, steering her out, someone (likely Ron) had brewed up some of Hermione's favorite Rooibos and they'd all grouped around her in a grand show of solidarity, words of comfort and apology being murmured at her from all angles. She hardly noticed any of it.

"I—thank you," she hiccoughed, taking the handkerchief someone was brandishing on her left, "I'm just so—things have been—" She combed her brain. "It's Crookshanks," she ground out. "He's been very sick. And he's just so old. I think he's—he might be—" She gave herself back over to quiet sobs, which in reality weren't fake, though none of the people present really knew what they were for.

Everybody made soft noises of dismay; Ginny's hand tightened on hers. There were more pats on her back, more words of comfort, Luna was stroking her hair. Hermione felt a swoop of guilt, but banished it immediately: she had no option but to lie. She couldn't tell them the truth. She couldn't.

"Oh Hermione," Ginny said sadly, "why didn't you tell us?"

"I just—I didn't want to say it aloud," Hermione coughed. "I kept hoping he'd just get better! I've just been spending time with him, and Belgium just sort of… fell into my lap. And she's been such a handful… I've just been really overwhelmed."

"Well, I could keep Crookshanks for a little while," Neville offered. "We've got a few plants back in Greenhouse Six that're supposed to be really good for cats, and there's all that open space on the grounds for him to roam—"

"No, no," Hermione said quickly, "I couldn't bear to part from him, not now. I really do appreciate the offer though." She forced out a watery smile at him.

"I could see if they've got anything for kneazle hybrids at the Magical Menagerie," Ginny offered. "Here, let me take a look at him, just so I could describe his symptoms to the attendant, maybe they could help."

"Oh—well—he's resting just now, I really just let him have his quiet during the day, I don't like to wake him up, it seems to stress him."

"He's—well I mean, Hermione, he's really ancient," Ron said with a grimace. "He's been looking pretty bad for ages. It could just be his time, you know. To die."

"Thanks, Ron," Hermione said flatly, whilst everyone shot him scandalized looks.

"We all were sort of wondering what was going on," Harry said quickly, trying to smooth over the sticky moment. "We worry about you. You seemed pretty unhappy last time I saw you—what with your assignment dealing with the Malfoys not going so good and all. You looked ready to snap."

The casual way Harry dropped the name threw Hermione for a loop. She stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment, not hearing the rest of the sentence after "the Malfoys;" her heartbeat had risen directly into her throat and there it remained, filling her head with its frantic rhythm.

Eventually she realized she was supposed to give him some kind of answer and moved her shoulders in a feeble shrug.

They all stayed for another twenty minutes or so, talking about Crookshanks, then about Hogwarts and the happier past; the conversation ambled from there and Hermione couldn't have been more grateful: lying had put a sharp pain in her chest that seemed to be worsening the more she did it.

"I really am so grateful you guys came," she said eventually, cutting across Ron's retelling of the night Sirius dragged him under the Whomping Willow, "but I'm pretty knackered from all the… emotions. I think I might just take a nap."

"Sounds like a good idea," Ginny said, nodding at Harry. "James is due for his nap as well."

"Maybe—I donno—maybe one of us should stay the night?" Ron said casually. "Just to lend you a little more support?"

"I could," Luna announced, and Ron shot her a little sideways glare. She smiled serenely at Hermione, oblivious (or perhaps not, it really was difficult to tell with her). "I could show you the bowtruckles Rolf photographed this past autumn, they were knitting. Or we could practice mermish, mine's getting a little rusty."

Hermione wanted to jump out of her skin. "No, I couldn't ask it, Luna, thank you, that really is so kind but it won't be necessary."

As the lot of them trekked out the door bearing away their dirty crockery, James fussing, Ginny promising to come around another weekend, Neville offering to lend her his book on cat-centric herbs, she waved each of them off with a feeling like lead in her gut. She'd betrayed all of them, her good friends—she'd lied to their faces. It almost brought her back to tears except she knew they'd all turn around and come back inside if she broke down again.

Luna was the last to leave. "It was wonderful seeing you again, Hermione," she trilled, pulling Hermione into a surprisingly tight embrace. "Even when you were crying."

Hermione laughed wearily. "It was so good to see you again, too. I've missed you. We'll have to catch up properly soon."

As she reached for the doorhandle, Luna added in her absent way, "You know, he plays piano really beautifully, and the violin. I used to listen to him some nights through a vent, it was comforting. But I think he only does it when he's sad. You should ask him."

Hermione stared at her, nonplussed. "Who? Rolf?"

Luna laughed. "No, silly. Lucius Malfoy."

There was a long beat of silence. Luna was looking at her, smiling slightly, and Hermione wondered suddenly if she was a Legillimens, or a Seer or some other arcane thing with powers beyond comprehension. Finally she brought herself to speak. "How did you know?"

"It smells like him in here." She quirked her head, thoughtful. "Maybe it's his cologne. Or something in his clothes, or hair. It's a good smell—very idiosyncratic. I hadn't placed it until I read Belgium's tag, then I remembered."

"But—what—I thought—I hadn't known you interacted with him that much!"

"I did a little." Luna pulled on her jacket, tranquil as a summer meadow. It rattled Hermione to her core.

"Luna," she said, her voice cracking, "please don't tell—"

"Oh I won't say anything," Luna assured her, her pale eyebrows lifting in soft astonishment. "If you'd wanted him to join us at some point, you probably would have. I'll let the others know to owl before they come over again. I feel as if you'd like the warning to hide him better next time."

Hermione stared at her for another long moment, then pulled her back into a tight hug, crying a bit onto her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Luna."

"I don't know why, but it's okay," Luna said, patting her back. When Hermione finally drew away to wipe her eyes, Luna reached again for the door. "If you need me for anything, just owl. I'll keep Crookshanks in my thoughts—maybe I'll send you some filings off a vaperdinger stump for him. Rolf brought me one last week. I'll send them when they're ready, they have to age."

And then, with a last enigmatic smile, she was gone, and Hermione was alone on the welcome mat.

It was the sound of the television that jolted Hermione back to reality. She'd been standing there staring at the front door for god knew how long; with an effort she pulled herself away and wandered back into the sitting room, where Lucius had settled himself on the couch with Belgium by his side and Crookshanks in his lap, Fergus across from them in the armchair, looking more crotchety than usual.

Hermione watched them for a few moments; inevitably her focus narrowed only to Lucius. Her eyes raked over him, the startling figure he cut, an odd achromatic anomaly—like someone had taken a black-and-white figure from an old film and pasted it against the bland earth-tones of her sofa. He was spectacularly out of place there, eased back in total elegant relaxation, one arm draped over the back while the other rested in his lap, the slender fingers idly scratching at Crookshank's ears. Hermione felt, suddenly, a million miles away from him, like there were centuries and galaxies and walls and walls of concrete between them, a hundred lifetimes. In that moment he was as unreal to her as magic had been all those years ago, before Hogwarts, before any of it. He was alien. And she couldn't touch him if she tried.

She'd lied for him, broke her stable life in half for him—at first to destroy him, and now? Now she didn't know what it was for. She didn't seem to know anything anymore. And for Hermione Granger, that was the most terrifying thing in the world.

Without taking his eyes from the screen, Lucius spoke, his expression deadpan. "I can't help but notice that these cushions are mine."

"Correction," Fergus interjected, "were yours. I took the liberty of making a gift of them to Miss Granger—you would have, too, had you sat on the ones she was making due with before."

Lucius' lip curled slightly, but otherwise he gave no indication that the elf had spoken. Again, he addressed Hermione without looking at her, hefting the remote. "I pressed the button labeled Power"—his voice hit a deep, ominous note that recalled her back to masks and black robes—"but I felt no different, so I assume your device is in need of repair."

Hermione went on staring at him, unmoving. At last he glanced at her, his eyes instantly finding hers. He met her gaze openly, unblinking, and she found herself falling into those eyes once again, unwilling, unbidden, but entirely unable to resist.

She remembered suddenly that he'd been inside her that very day, had been physically closer to her than anyone had been in a long time. Her breath caught in her throat. With the sudden intrusion of her other life—her real life—the one where she had friends and duties and respectability—it was impossible to think of sex with Lucius as an actual memory, and not a dream or some lascivious fantasy. There was no way he'd pinned her to that same sofa and taken her so ferociously, was there? She noticed, as if for the first time, the tenderness between her legs, the raised heat on her skin where he'd grabbed her, bruised her. It sent a little ripple of pleasure coursing down her spine.

Finally he broke the silence again.

"Come," he said, holding his arms out slightly, as of to invite her in, "sit here with your maladjusted stray dog and your dying cat and stare at this Russian Muggle box with me. God knows these animals have been such a terrible burden of late—you deserve a little rest." Belgium whined in happy agreement, licking the air in Hermione's direction, and Crookshanks yawned and stretched contentedly in Lucius' lap.

It cracked her. She let out a sound, whether it was a laugh or a sob she really couldn't say, and she would have collapsed right there on the floor if Lucius hadn't acted as quickly as he did. As her knees gave out she found herself surrounded by him, engulfed in the steady strength of his arms. Unlike before, when she'd been hoisted out of the kitchen by her friends, she was acutely aware of the man beside her: all of her being wrapped itself up in his physical presence, holding her there, supporting her. She felt a large hand on the side of her face, felt the hardness of his jaw against her hairline. In that moment he was all that existed.

He said nothing, made no noise as he led her back to the couch and sat with her, pulling her against him, holding her firmly like a vice, like a straightjacket. They remained there for some time, just sitting, silent. The television droned mindlessly in the background, ignored by them both, and Fergus had slipped away with the animals with the sort of discreetness only elves could manage; whether by some signal from Lucius or his own volition, there was no knowing.

When the gale in her brain had died down, Hermione privately marveled at the fact that Lucius had a sense of humor. Who would've thought? She replayed his comments in her head and burst abruptly into laughter; it was so out-of-the-blue that Lucius jolted against her like a startled horse. She looked up at him, and he down at her, his eyebrows raised. Their noses were centimeters apart, but she felt as if she were nearer to him, fully ensconced, even closer than when they were kissing or locked in sex. She wondered at how he could make all that distance vanish with so little effort.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I just realized you'd made jokes."

A slow, almost taunting smile curled his fine lips. He clicked his tongue. "For same, Miss Granger. And all those years of being lauded as the brightest witch of your age and here you are, five minutes behind the conversation."

"Oh, well pardon me, but until now I hadn't thought to look for humor in you." She pressed a finger firmly to the center of his chest.

"Well you had best start now and fill that gaping void in your life because frankly, I am delightful."

It couldn't be helped: she let out another burst of laughter and he smiled, genuinely, his eyes softening and warming at her, and it was so rare and lovely a thing that it silenced Hermione the instant she noticed.

He stilled again, his smile fading as quickly as it had come, and his voice dipped back into sobriety. "Will you be all right?" he asked. Not "You okay?" or "What's wrong?" because he already knew. Those questions needed no asking. She looked him over (it was practically a hobby at this point) and as he gazed back at her with equal steadiness, she felt something in her twist.

"Do you have a plan for abducting Draco?" she asked.

It was as much an answer as he needed. "I do."

"Do you want me to come with you?"

"It is imperative that you do."

"When do we leave?"

"That will depend."


"On whether or not you will agree to put it off and pretend for a few minutes that we are two people leading normal, uncomplicated lives, as it may possibly be the last moment we have to do so." He paused. "Of course, that's after I ask Fergus to please take poor Belgium home so she has space again to run, and then to kindly not return here until called for," he added, louder.

"Of course sir," Fergus called back superciliously, and there was a crack of disapparation from the other room.

Hermione felt Lucius nuzzling into her hair, heard him inhale, and she closed her eyes and leaned into his touch—allowing herself, just for a moment, to forget her fear.

The Catfish

A Harry Potter Story
by Miss Dasti

Part 17 of 25

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