Continuing Tales

The Catfish

A Harry Potter Story
by Miss Dasti

Part 2 of 25

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In her second year at Hogwarts, Hermione Jean Granger made a mistake.

It was an innocuous little thing. She'd mistook a cat hair for a human one, and it had led to one of the most humiliating experiences of her life. But unbeknownst to her friends at the time, it had changed her, and not just in that she'd ended up an abomination for a few weeks. No, the consequences had burrowed much deeper than that.

You see, when Hermione awoke in the Hospital Wing the morning following her disastrous slip-up, still furry-faced and tailed, she found that someone had left a book on her bedside table. Aery Derry, it had been called—and its pages contained a collection of numerous old wizarding fables, rather like Beetle's, but less… child-centric. She'd later discovered that Aery Derry was a household name among the older families, just not as openly slung around as, say, Babbity Rabbity (probably since nobody in Babbity got their cock stuck in a Snargaluff and had to fuck it twice in order to be set free again).

The stories in Aery Derry followed the misadventures of a young wizard by the same name, who had a tendency to use deceptive magic to achieve his ends, all with calamitous results. Whether the book had been planted by a discerning Madam Pomfrey or (she later suspected) Dumbledore himself (which was a bit creepy in its own right, but it got the job done), she never found out, but the message was clear on her first read-through. One story in particular had rattled young Hermione to her core, as it hit close to home and had let her know, on no uncertain terms, that someone had guessed what she'd been trying to do that had gone so terribly wrong.

In it, young Aery Derry followed a dodgy prophecy to a village on the coast, where he was told he would finally find a wife. Upon arrival, however, he found that all of the eligible bachelorettes had been placed under a terrible curse and now languished in the sea, trapped under the waves; the only way he would be able to marry one was by foraging a magical pole from the rachises of an Abraxan, thread it with hair from a unicorn, and tie a golden ring to the end of the line. This kludge would somehow catch him a maid that would be equal to him in looks and standing, and bind him to her for as long as she wore the ring.

But Aery Derry was not a pretty man, and he did not want to be rejected on sight or risk catching an ugly woman; so he used a nefarious magic to make himself handsome, and tied a gold hook to the end of his line, so his catch could not escape once she had bought his ruse. He cast; the line tightened; and for a day and a night he struggled to land his new wife, all the while fantasizing about her beauty, ecstatically anticipating her splendor… for several very explicit paragraphs. (Hermione had actually been grateful for the hair covering her face, she'd blushed continuously for days over those pages. Really, she ought to have skipped over it all, the good girl in her insisted she did, but it had been her first contact with anything remotely graphic, and if she were being honest with herself she had—well—rather enjoyed it. Not the writing, really, but the sensations it had evoked in her. To this day she blamed that dirty little book for triggering her interest in the opposite sex.)

When young Derry had stopped masturbating long enough to finally land his catch, he realized it was not a pretty maiden he had caught, but a large, slimy, smelly catfish—and it had swallowed his hook down into the irretrievable depths of its belly, permanently binding him to it.

From that infamous fable, the catfish had become among wizards a sort of symbol of the pitfalls of deceptive magic, as well as a rather popular verb, especially in reference to Polyjuice (which was commonly believed to have been the means by which Aery Derry had made himself handsome). To catfish someone was to deceive them, by low means, to achieve your ends; and to be a catfish was to be a bottom-feeder, a cheat. At some point the expression had leaked into muggle culture (the Statute of Secrecy wasn't watertight, after all) and retained some of its original meaning, though its application among them was rather different.

Hermione had realized on her final read-through (yes, she'd gone back and read it again, but it had been purely for academic purposes!) that she'd essentially made a catfish of herself. She'd well and truly besmirched her perfect record—not that she'd never broken rules! She'd just never made such huge mistakes while doing so. And in the case of Aery Derry, who was married to that catfish for sixty-seven years, some mistakes had lifelong consequences.

So Hermione had promised herself, in that hospital bed, that she would never again debase herself by resorting to such low trickery.

Unfortunately, some things are just cyclic.

In the twenty-fourth year of her life, Hermione Jean Granger made another mistake.

"I can't believe this!" she screamed over the rowdy pub music.

Ginny grinned. "Can't you? I knew you'd cave and show up eventually! You work too much, Hermione!"

A bottlecap whizzed over Hermione's head, narrowly missing the veritable black hole that was her bushy hair. Friday nights were live-band nights at the Leaky Cauldron; after Tom's retirement, Hannah Longbottom (nee Abbott) had taken it upon herself to liven the place up. Everything was washed out under orange and pink spotlights and the crowd here was much younger than usual. Some were "dancing" in front of the stage, if that's what you wanted to call it; others were draped around the bar or collapsed in booths, using crude sign language to try and communicate over the bassline.

Hermione, Ginny, Harry and Neville fell into this last category. Harry and Ginny were clutching hands, Ginny practically sitting in his lap, and Neville kept glancing at the bar, where his wife was serving drinks so fast her arms blurred. It was all so depressing and it made Hermione feel lonelier than usual, but after three drinks it seemed to matter a little less. After four, it didn't matter at all.

Now she wanted to vent about work and she didn't give a damn that Ginny hadn't been listening all night. To be fair, Hermione had first tried talking to Harry and Neville, but the both of them were so sloshed by the time she arrived that, even if they could hear her, she doubted if they could follow a simple conversation.

"It's so stupid!" Hermione bellowed, taking a huge swallow of sauvignon blanc. Ginny watched the wine vanish with a wistful expression. "We barely even know if the pillock has anything to do with it but Belby's making me follow it up again, and I'm so sick of looking at their stupid faces, Ginny—"

"Just ask for reassignment," Ginny said, bored. "You don't have to take on every project he throws at you. Just let him know it's a waste of time and go do something else."

Hermione gave her a look of bleary outrage. "I couldn't do that! They'd all think I was a slacker, how am I supposed to advance if—?"

Ginny gave a rather caustic laugh. "That'll be the day—someone on god's green earth calling Hermione Granger a slacker."

Hermione felt a little stung, and she might've retorted, too, except that Ginny's face was suddenly alight with mischief. "Put the work down for a second," she said. "I think I've found the answer to your sleeping troubles!"

Hermione followed Ginny's gaze over her shoulder. Standing near the bar was a dark-haired man clutching a tumbler of some amber liquid; he was surrounded by a load of friends, all shouting over the music, their conversation punctuated by occasional laughter. He was handsome, definitely—he had nice blue eyes and straight, white teeth. He was dressed well, too. And after only a second of watching him, his eyes suddenly zeroed right in on Hermione's.

Hermione immediately felt sick. "Oh my God, no!" she yelled, spinning back around to face Ginny. "That guy would never—come on—are you serious?"

Ginny glared at her. "Come on, Hermione, you've got to try!" At that moment, however, she was distracted as Harry spilled a bit of beer on her skirt.

"I could ask Hannah to ask his name," Neville said. He peered at Hermione with uncharacteristic slyness, and he might've pulled off the whole conspiratorial look if he wasn't currently dumping his drink on the table.

Hermione went even redder. "No! No, Neville, don't you dare—"

But then he was gone, hurrying for the bar in a jagged line, and suddenly Hermione felt weepy. "It's not fair!" she yelled a Harry and Ginny across the table, her voice breaking. "Why can't you—why can't anyonejust—first at work, with Belby giving me this impossible assignment, it's so stupid, I don't even care, you know? And now Neville's going to humiliate me by making me flirt with this guy who's obviously prettier than me—I mean, not prettier, more handsome, he's more handsome than I am—"

"Look, Hermione," Harry said, his glasses a little askew, "it's the Chamber of Secrets all over again, isn't it? Malfoy's got a secret and he's probably gloating about it back home—he probably talks about all his dirty business all the time with his son, probably training him up to take over even. Or maybe he talks to his wife or whatever. Why don't you just use Polyjuice Potion and sneak in? You'd probably only have to go once, remember, back in second year it only took us an hour to figure out—"

"—that Malfoy wasn't hiding anything!" Hermione bellowed, finishing his sentence. She felt like crying loudly and holding Crookshanks, except last time she sobbed into his fur he'd passed gas on her. The memory made her even sadder. "All we figured out was Malfoy had kleptomania and there was a vault of Dark objects under daddy dearest's drawing room!" Her eyes widened suddenly. Dark objects. Dark market, secret business… "Oh my God, Harry, you're brilliant!"

Harry grinned, tipping his glass sloppily at her. Ginny was glancing from Harry to Hermione, a frown on her face. "What's all this about Polyjuice and Malfoy?" she asked.

Hermione shook her head. "You explain!" she yelled at Harry.

Hermione left the bar a few hours after midnight. She stumbled a little on her way out; it took her a few minutes to put on her coat, and when she finally got her arms in the right holes, she'd pulled it on backwards. Muttering angrily, she finally gave up and threw it over her arm, stomping off to find a good apparition point.

"Hermione Granger?"

She turned. It was the dark-haired man Ginny had pointed out earlier. Suddenly she recalled Neville shambling off to figure out his name and never returning; Hermione assumed that Hannah had gotten off her shift and Neville had completely forgotten about it. They'd probably snuck off to do sleazy things in a storeroom.

Now here he was, standing alone with his hands in his pockets, smiling at her.

She stared at him like a deer in the headlights for so long that his smile faltered.

"You are Hermione Granger, aren't you?" he asked, now sounding a little unsure of himself.

Hermione blinked. "Um," she said, "um, yes—yes, that's me. That's my name. Hermione Gramer—I mean, Granger. Granger." Oh God please let it stop—but no, the words kept coming, faster now. "What do you want?" His eyes widened slightly and she tried to backpedal. "No, I don't mean that in a mean way, no, not like 'go away' or anything, I was just—I'm just surprised because I saw you earlier—I mean I wasn't staring obviously but it was—you know, you were there and now you're here and it's like, it's amazing, you know, how it's such a small world?"

Her voice trailed off into a squeak. He now looked distinctly uncomfortable, and it was nearly a relief when he glanced away and muttered, "Well—okay then. I saw you sitting with Harry Potter and I assumed it was you. It was good finally meeting you; you did a lot to bring down You-Know-Who. I just wanted to express my gratitude for that." He was casually backing away as he spoke, his eyes wandering, as if looking for someone else to perhaps come and save him. "I s'pose I'll see you around."

"Oh," Hermione said, and she wished to god in her inebriated state that she didn't sound so forlorn. "Oh, okay well, it was nice meeting you, mister—?"

But he was already gone.

She stared after him, and then turned on her heel and went hurrying off down the street, already in tears.

As soon as she woke up the next morning—sticky and hungover on her couch—Hermione didn't allow herself to linger on the mortifying events of the night prior. She drowned out all of her shame by getting to work on Harry's suggestion.

Polyjuice Potion. It would be simple. She could whip up a big batch in her own kitchen and nobody would know. Of course, she couldn't use anything she heard while impersonating Draco or Narcissa in court, since the use of Polyjuice to get a confession off Lucius Malfoy would be entrapment—like forcing Veritaserum on him, or using the Imperius Curse. But whatever she heard would give her a place to start. All she needed was for him to slip the name of an associate, or an address to a warehouse, anything she could later track down and pin on him. God knew she wanted to see a terrible bigot like Malfoy permanently behind bars, but more than that, bringing down the Dark market could advance her career past all this tedious criminal-watching. She might finally be able to address those laws that desperately needed changing. All she had to do was get some hair or something off Draco or Narcissa, sneak into Malfoy Manor, and spend a little quality time with Mr. Dead-Eyes.

The thrill of taking action, of actually doing something, propelled her through the next few weeks of feverish brewing. Belby wasn't pleased with her seeming lack of progress on the Malfoy case, but since she was dutifully churning out reports, showing that she was at least trying, he kept his mouth shut. He didn't even interrogate her when she requested an extension on her loan of the department's shitty Invisibility Cloak; it was standard procedure to go out spying every once in awhile, after all. At least this way nobody would be suspicious of her—meddling in the Malfoys' business was her job, after all.

Every so often, when passing a mirror or a darkened window, she'd catch a glimpse of herself, looking more unkempt than usual these days, and she could've swore she saw whiskers on her face: sometimes the black cat's whiskers she'd borne in second year, sometimes longer, droopier, fleshier—like a certain aquatic bottom-feeder she refused to name.

And as ever, when wrapped up in her own righteousness, she ignored her conscious.

She decided early on to impersonate Narcissa. This was not only because she was a woman and it would automatically be easier, but because the thought of being Draco for a day made her skin crawl with a million tiny spiders. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Narcissa was a ridiculously gorgeous woman, and Hermione was not at all curious to see what life was like when you looked that good all the time. No, that didn't factor into her plans at all. Not in the slightest…

Hermione kept the ratty DMLE cloak on her at all times, venturing away from the Ministry whenever she could to explore the most common wizarding hotspots in the country, her eyes peeled for any familiar blonde heads in the crowd. But the Malfoys had become shy creatures after Voldemort's fall, and it wasn't until five weeks following Harry's suggestion that Hermione actually spotted one of them.

Hermione had given up her search for the day and had been buying ice-cream at a stall in Diagon Park—a beautiful patch of land the Ministry had developed off Diagon Alley following the War, to honor those that died fighting Voldemort—when she noticed a pair of expensive boots clicking along the sidewalk ahead of her. The woman wearing them had on a rich purple dress and matching hat, gloves, scarf and large, dark sunglasses. Her hair was completely covered and most of her face was shielded by the glasses, but Hermione had seen her so often in the Ministry file that she recognized her instantly.

Quickly, Hermione ducked behind the ice cream stall and, much to the vendor's confusion, covered herself in the horrendous DMLE cloak, muttering as she did, "Ministry business, there's nothing to see here." The cloak had a few holes in it, so she had to be careful; as she slipped out from behind the stall the vendor stared blankly at the place where she'd vanished, then just shrugged and went on counting the change in his till.

Narcissa Malfoy wasn't in a hurry, it seemed. Hermione followed her at a safe distance as she meandered through the park; she wasn't rushing, but she didn't seem to really be enjoying herself, either. Occasionally she'd glance around, as if worried someone would recognize her. Eventually she stopped in the very center of the park: a large statue of Hogwarts following the Final Battle, cast in dark iron; destroyed and desolate, a memory of what the War had cost.

Narcissa stared at it for a long moment, her hands clasped in front of her (just like in her picture, Hermione noted), then quietly she withdrew a small, white flower from her purse and laid it among the bouquets and candles at the foot of the statue. She drew out a light-colored wand and flicked it; one of the abandoned candles sprang to life. She went on staring at it for a moment; Hermione, standing behind her, couldn't see her expression. Then she sniffed and seated herself on a bench nearby, pulling a dog-eared book out of her purse and beginning to read. Hermione was alarmed to see Jane Austen's name stamped in fading letters across the spine.

Narcissa looked so… elegant. So refined and delicate, like some sort of royal. Her legs were crossed at the ankle, her back straight, turning the frail pages of her book with gentle little flicks of her gloved hands. Hermione felt a twinge of envy, watching her from several meters away. Seriously, how could there not be a single wrinkle in her dress? How did she get her scarf to fold just so—or her hat to sit just right? How did anyone go around looking so… perfect like that?

It occurred to Hermione, then, that she was supposed to impersonate this woman, and yet she knew absolutely nothing about her—not her habits, not her diction, not even the sorts of things she was interested in (as evidenced by her shock at Narcissa's choice of novel). For a wild moment Hermione panicked a little and almost dropped the whole thing. How in the hell was she supposed to emulate this weird flawless poster-child for femininity well enough to fool Lucius Malfoy, a man who'd been her husband for nearly three decades?

She got a hold of herself. She didn't have to become Narcissa, she could just be her with a bad headache or something. She could say she was having an off day, or perhaps even fake food poisoning, and Lucius would shrug off whatever small incongruences he would've otherwise noticed, right? Actually, that was a brilliant plan. Yes, she'd just do that, and everything would go smoothly.

But it couldn't hurt to do a little more field work, surely? Hermione thought hard. Would it matter if Narcissa Malfoy saw her today? Probably not. It was extremely unlikely that Narcissa knew what Hermione was working on at the Ministry; Hermione hadn't been the one to interview Narcissa or her family when it came time to give their testimonies. Hermione hadn't attended the Malfoy's trials, either. So what did it matter?

Steeling herself, Hermione slipped around to the other side of the memorial, made sure nobody was looking, then pulled off the Invisibility Cloak and stuffed it in her pocket. She paused—trying to straighten her clothes and her hair, suddenly self-conscious—then went ambling back around the memorial, pretending to admire it.

At first Narcissa didn't notice her, but when Hermione plonked down on the bench right beside her, it was hard not to.

Narcissa glanced up quickly from her book; Hermione saw her impossibly blue eyes widen, alarmed, behind the glasses. In a sudden tidal wave of nerves, Hermione found herself vomiting up the words: "Good morning, Mrs. Malfoy! It's a really lovely day, isn't it?" in a voice that was far louder than necessary.

Good lord, why did she have to turn into such a social retard whenever she got nervous? Narcissa stared at her incredulously for several long moments; then her mouth thinned, and she leaned away from Hermione, glancing frostily across the park. "Good afternoon, Miss Granger."

Oh, it was afternoon now, wasn't it? Hermione glanced up at the sun—a motion not lost on Narcissa, whose frown deepened as she returned to her book, pulling the brim of her hat down to shield her face.

Hermione found herself reddening. Oh god, what was she supposed to do now? Then she remembered the author of Narcissa's book, and more verbal diarrhea came streaming out of her before she could stop herself: "I see you're reading Jane Austen—she's one of my favorites. Which book is that?"

Narcissa did not look up. She was glaring behind her glasses and her eyes were no longer moving; Hermione wondered if Narcissa was just sitting there waiting for her to leave before she went on reading. Eventually the silence became unbearable, and Narcissa relented: "This particular book is a compilation of a few of her works." Another long silence, then: "Is there anything in particular I may help you with, Miss Granger?"

Hermione swallowed back another torrent, and forced herself to smile. "No, nothing comes to mind. I just came here to see the memorial again. I haven't seen it since its dedication," she said, trying her hardest to sound friendly and conversational. Instead she sounded like a B-rated actress overdoing her lines at her first audition. Frantically—because Narcissa was now looking colder than ever—Hermione pretended to notice the candle flickering at the base of the memorial, and spewed out, "Oh, did you light that?"

The book closed with a smart snap, and Narcissa was on her feet, tucking it away in her handbag and straightening her hat. "I must be going," she said icily. "Goodbye, Miss Granger."

"I—what?" Hermione spluttered, but in a moment Narcissa had turned on the spot and vanished.

Well, that was terrible. Hermione felt queasy as she looked around, making sure nobody had actually witnessed that debacle of a conversation. At least she'd got close enough to see the brand of Narcissa's dress and the general look of her accessories, including her wand; Hermione was free to buy similar items now when the time came to take the Polyjuice.

And oh, wait a minute—what was this? She leaned over and carefully extracted the single golden hair caught on a splinter on the bench. She held it up to eye-level and examined it closely. Yes, definitely human hair, and if she remembered correctly, Narcissa did have blonde hair around this length.

Well, all right then. Perhaps this hadn't been a total waste after all.

The Catfish

A Harry Potter Story
by Miss Dasti

Part 2 of 25

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