seedee: (free elf)
[personal profile] seedee
Title: Unbreakable
Characters: Hermione/Millicent (McGonagall/Slughorn)
Rating: NC-17
Summary: Why do elves keep dying? What's the secret of the striving elf agency? Where is Pixy? What do you wear to a Halloween party if your host is Millicent Bulstrode? Hermione's profession is to find answers; and she has the cloak to prove it.
Word Count: ~35,000
Content: Disregards the epilogue, BDSM/humiliation, voyeurism
Author's/Artist's notes: Many thanks to [livejournal.com profile] ridicu_liz, [livejournal.com profile] tree00faery and [livejournal.com profile] thimble_kiss for their help. Written for [livejournal.com profile] samhain_smut.



Unbreakable


Chapter One

In the end, there was no hope.

Herman held on as long as possible. He performed his duties as was expected until the pain in his chest became unbearable. It burned like a living flame, eating him from the inside out, easing only when he stopped fighting.

The rope slithered through his hands, the rough surface something to concentrate on as he manipulated its form with practised ease.

Mitty felt the same kind of pain. It was Herman's fault because he'd asked her to risk it. He'd told her to be strong for the three of them. He'd promised to find a way.

"My magic is strong," he had said. "I will protect you."

Bitter tears threatened to fall down his face while his hands fastened the noose around his neck. He'd stopped fighting. There was no hope. The last bit of his strength, he used to send a message. "I is sorry," he told her, and he knew that she was listening no matter how many miles were between them.

The rope tightened and lifted him off the floor, using his own magic to destroy him. "I is sorry," he whispered.

Then he closed his eyes.

**

A blank envelope lay on the doormat in front of Hermione's office. She scowled at it, knowing from experience that unlabelled envelopes meant trouble. She'd yet to encounter one that contained money, or an invitation to a book reading, or maybe even tickets for a jazz concert.

A charm revealed no curses or hexes, and she bent down to pick it up. Her stomach, still full from lunch, protested.

Envelope in one hand, a bag half full of left-over curry in the other, she banged her knee against the door. A small sign was attached to the wall: Hermione Granger - Research. The door swung open, and Pixy, Hermione's assistant, took the bag from her.

"Hey Pix, did you see who left this?" Hermione asked, shrugging out of her long cloak.

Pixy shook her head. "No," she said.

A one-word reply was unusual. Hermione regarded Pixy, but as there was no further response, she walked over to her chair and sat down.

Her desk, small and unassuming, was crammed into a corner of the office, which was otherwise occupied by rows of bookshelves, stacks of newspapers, and an enormous filing cabinet that bowed under the weight of her investigative research. Pixy's elf-sized desk, a comfy sofa and a tiny coffee table had found some space as well.

It was early afternoon, and magical lights flickered on the walls. The room would have been dark and gloomy without them. Even in the midst of summer, this part of Knockturn Alley was rarely a cheerful place. At the end of October, it was downright bleak.

Hermione opened the envelope. She found two pieces of paper within: a torn-out Daily Prophet advertisement and a Ministry report.

The report bore the signature of the head of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, Isabel MacFarlan. It described the alleged suicide of four house-elves. While the facts, traces and witnesses all seemed to prove the conclusion - four unrelated suicides with no extraneous influence - not one elf seemed to have had a motive.

The second piece of paper, the advertisement, announced in bold and flashing letters the new address of the elf agency. With growing suspicion, Hermione read that the agency had moved from an office in her vicinity to Diagon Alley where prices were notoriously high.

What was the connection between the report and the advertisement? Why had those elves killed themselves, or had they? And why in the name of lukewarm curry could the agency afford a location like this?

Hermione caught herself compiling a list of people she needed to talk to, places she had to visit, and things she should research. There went her holiday. After the centaur case that had been taking all her energy and time for more than five weeks, she'd wanted to get some rest, do some reading and relax a little. She barely kept herself from snorting.

She checked the envelope again. Why was there no note from the sender, nothing that told her where to dig? Was the sender involved? Was someone afraid to be the next victim?

"Pix? Where do we have the file about the agency?"

Pixy bounced up from her chair, her large ears bobbing up and down with the movement. She headed over to the filing cabinet, tapped one of the drawers and waited for the rattling noise to stop. Then she opened the drawer, took out a file and brought it over to Hermione's table. "This is everything we has."

Hermione took the file. It wasn't as thick as she'd hoped. "Thank you. Are you sure you didn't see who left the envelope on the door-step?"

"Yes," Pixy said.

"Did you hear anything? Did you notice anything else?"

"No?" Pixy said. It was a tentative question rather than an answer, and Pixy was shifting her weight from one sneaker-clad foot to the other, tugging at her ears.

"There wasn't anything that made you think it was an elf?"

Pixy coughed and hopped once. "No?" she said.

Hermione sighed. "We need to teach you how to lie."

"I doesn't lie," Pixy said, just as unconvincing.

"No, you don't." Hermione offered one of Molly Weasley's biscuits. "Not really." She took one for herself and chewed thoughtfully. "Did you recognise the elf?"

Pixy shook her head. There was so much conviction behind the movement that Hermione was sure she was telling the truth.

**

Hermione left the office early, and yet she was almost too late. She hurried down the street to the closest public Floo as fast as possible without having to run. The continuous drizzle and cold wind would have made her shiver if the lining of her long leather cloak hadn't been charmed to keep her cool in summer, warm in winter and dry in the rain.

The cloak was her working uniform, made from supple Hippogriff leather. It had been given to her as the payment for her first job almost a decade earlier.

"A profession such as yours requires a cloak, young lady," the Hippogriff breeder, whom she'd helped to keep his animals and his business, had said. "Wear it with respect, and you will be respected in turn." There had been a twinkle in the man's eyes as he'd handed over the heavy piece of clothing.

The cloak had served her well ever since, forcing her through its weight to stand up straight, changing her appearance in a way that gave her more credibility and confidence. Charmed with a variety of spells, two bottomless pockets that held a few dozen of George's special products, and her treasured old DA Galleon that was sewn into the lining above her heart, the cloak wasn't just a fashion statement; it was pretty damn useful.

She reached the Leaky Cauldron three minutes before five o'clock, hoping she wouldn't have to fight her way to the front of a queue. Some people - in her experience - didn't like that, no matter the emergency.

The trip went without problems, something Hermione could appreciate. She'd learnt to treasure the little things; the big ones never turned out well without interference. She stepped out of the Floo in the Ministry entrance hall at four minutes past five o'clock, just in time to spot Percy Weasley push open the door to the Portation Room that would take him to a destination of his choice. Hermione muttered a quiet curse and started to run.

"Percy," she called. "Wait for me. I need to talk to you."

Percy hesitated, looked back over his shoulder, and then stepped through the door.

Hermione didn't call again. She saved her breath and increased her speed. She reached the door a split second before it closed. It flew open under the impact of her momentum and propelled her into the room. Then it bounced against the wall, fell shut, and a moment later they were in the middle of Percy's flat.

"Was that really necessary?" Percy said.

"I could ask the same thing," she said. "Don't tell me you didn't see me." She poked his shoulder. Percy scowled.

He took a step backward, almost tripping over an expensive black chair. "Of course I saw you. I'm not blind." He pushed up his glasses. "The last time you waited for me after work, a werewolf nearly tore me apart. And the time before that, I ended up neck deep in some potion dealer conspiracy - it's still in my personal record, in case you were wondering. And the time before that-"

"Stop whining," Hermione interrupted. "Quit your job, and I'll ask your successor. Until then, we'll both have to deal with you being the Head of Internal Affairs."

"Do you know anyone who'd want my job?"

Hermione poked him again, but far more gently. "You love your job."

Percy muttered something Hermione didn't catch. She watched him go into the kitchen and come back a couple of minutes later with two cups, a pot full of hot water, tea leaves and instant coffee. They sat down at the table, each preparing their own beverage of choice. The scent of tea and coffee mingled to a rich aroma before Percy spoke.

"House-elves," he said.

"That's why I like you," Hermione answered. From her pocket, she took out a piece of parchment and a self-inking quill. "What do you know?"

Percy took a sip from his tea, making a face when the hot water came in contact with his lips. "What do you know?"

"Not sure if I have the patience to play games," Hermione said. "There are four dead elves: a Hogwarts-elf, a Ministry-elf, and two house-elves from respectable families." Hermione said 'respectable' with the same infliction she'd use for 'mucopurulent'. "All elves were registered, and all killed themselves with no apparent reason within the last six weeks. They weren't particularly young or old or related, or had anything else in common that is obvious enough to be noticed. The Ministry doesn't think it's worthy of an Auror investigation."

Percy thought before he spoke. "You know the drill. There needs to be substantial evidence to justify an Auror investigation. In this case, it's the decision of the head of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. MacFarlan doesn't think there's more to it."

"You talked to her?"

"I saw the report and asked her about it. She wasn't eager to talk."

"Big surprise," Hermione said. She took a sip from her coffee and grimaced at the bitterness. "What about the agency?"

Percy raised his eyebrows. "What about them?"

Hermione shrugged and summoned the sugar from the kitchen counter. She put some into her cup, stirred, then answered. "I've heard they're doing well lately. They moved to Diagon Alley." She let the statement linger, prompting Percy without leading him into a distinct direction.

"The business picked up speed. It's high time, if you ask me. They've been trying for years to improve the elves' situation." He glanced sideways at Hermione. "You don't trust them."

"Think, Percy. A spoilt girl from a rich family does everything she can to help free elves find jobs. She offers counselling for any elf who needs it. She gains trust because what she does seems to be," Hermione made air-quotes, "honourable. A couple of years, nothing much happens. And then boom," Hermione balled her hands into fists and then spread her fingers wide, "there she goes. She employs people, moves to Diagon Alley, and no one knows where all the freed house-elves come from, just as no one knows why there are suddenly so many people willing to pay for their service." Hermione huffed out a breath. "Doesn't that seem a little strange to you?"

Percy pushed up his glasses. "Boom? She's been one of the biggest supporters of the elf movement from the start. She's made a lot of enemies. She's campaigned for years within the Ministry. She's one of the reasons why we have the new laws."

"Oh come on, Percy. It was the Minister who adopted the laws."

"Maybe," Percy said. "But with half of the Wizengamot against him, he could never have done it."

Hermione felt her anger rise. "That's exactly what I'm saying. She's surrounded herself with bigoted, narrow-minded people. I don't understand why she's leading the agency. There must be more behind it."

"She's been working hard under constant Ministry monitoring. she has endured years of public ridicule, and now, finally, she's in a place where she really can do something. She's one of the people who's changing our community. I don't think you're being fair."

Hermione couldn't help the laughter that bubbled out of her throat. "Life's not fair. That's why it's called life, and not a fair-y tale."

**

After she left Percy's flat, Hermione headed over to the Three Broomsticks. The pub was only a couple of minutes down the street. She was a little late, but not outrageously so. For years, they'd been meeting every other week at the pub. Same place, same time, same people.

It was warm inside and smelled like good food. Most tables were occupied as people fled from the cold, wet October night.

"Ron's not coming?" she asked as she approached the reserved table in the back of the pub.

Harry gulped down a mouthful of ale. "Stuck at work."

"He's going to work himself into the ground one day," Hermione said.

Harry grinned at her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder, giving her half a hug. "Look who's talking."

They sat down. The familiar banter made Hermione smile.

They talked about family and friends, about news and gossip. At one point Hermione kicked him under the table as he insisted on asking if there was still no 'girl at her side'. Sometimes he was worse than Molly Weasley - only that she was looking for a suitable man.

When Rosmerta brought the second round of beer - bitter for Harry, butter for Hermione - there was a pause.

They were silent for a long moment before Hermione asked, "What do a Hogwarts-elf, a Ministry-elf and two house-elves have in common?"

Harry squinted at her. "Is that the start of a complicated joke that will make me feel bad for laughing?"

"Probably. But I've not yet figured out the punch line."

"Ah." Harry gave her a knowing smile. "We're working. What have you got?"

"Four dead house-elves."

Harry nearly choked on another gulp of beer. "Four? All dead? Not possible. The Aurors would have heard about it."

"Four suicides. There is evidence and witnesses and no signs of anything but house-elves killing themselves. MacFarlan decided not to bring in the Aurors."

"MacFarlan, huh? Still not your best friend."

"Not really. What do you know?"

"Me? I've heard nothing. Nothing official, no rumours. If people were talking about it, I'd know."

Hermione glowered. "I can't believe that no one is asking questions. Four dead elves. Isn't that at least a little strange?"

"You're going to investigate?"

"Someone has to. Doesn't look like it's going to be you and your Aurors."

Harry nodded. The awkward silence that followed didn't last. They'd been friends for too long.

It was almost eleven when Harry decided it was time to go home.

"Hey, Harry," Hermione called before he left. "That's a nice pair of charmed working boots."

Harry grinned. "Birthday present from Ginny. I've wanted them for ages." His grin faltered. "You'd know that - if you'd been at the party. Work's not the most important thing in the world, you know? Life's too short for that."

Hermione shrugged. "Explain that to my clients," she said, and inwardly, she smiled. "Those are brilliant boots."

**

Hermione sat a little longer in the warm pub, completing her notes before the impressions and details could vanish. She drew random lines between facts, scribbled down possible and impossible connections, and she planned her next steps.

Three things were on top of her agenda. One: She needed to talk to the Minister. The anonymous sender of the report hardly counted as a client, and if she could get the Ministry to approve her investigation, she might have a chance to get paid at least a small sum of money. Two: She needed to talk to the woman who founded and ran the agency. Three: She'd visit as many of the suicide scenes as the time would allow. It was going to be a busy day.

She waved goodbye to Rosmerta and stepped out into the silence of the night. The rain had stopped and the sky was clear, opening up to a myriad of stars. The air was clean and sharp, smelling as if winter was waiting just around the corner. Hermione breathed deeply, deciding to walk down to the gates of Hogwarts and Apparate from there. She'd get her head free and relax her mind before heading home.

Deep in thought, she walked down the empty street. She'd been in her line of business long enough to have been robbed, attacked, ambushed and various other things that most of the time started with someone sneaking up behind her and ended with either something missing, or a part of her body hurting. It made her extra alert, and made her hear the noise behind her at once.

Soft footsteps followed her, tapping a quick rhythm on the hard ground. She walked faster; the footsteps were getting faster as well. She slowed down, and the footsteps did, too. She let her wand glide from the holster in her sleeve down to her hand.

Instead of taking the next step, she shifted her weight and spun around. Whoever had followed her couldn't possibly have vanished in the instant she needed to turn. And yet, there was no one. The street behind her was empty. The footsteps were gone.

**



Chapter Two

Annie told Mistress MacFarlan what she had heard this morning.

Mistress asked a lot of questions in a very loud voice. Annie didn't know why Mister Weasley was interested in what happened to elves, why he had started to ask questions, or what he was going to do next. Annie didn't know either, if that 'idiot' of a Minister - and oh, she didn't like hearing that word; he'd always been kind to her - was informed yet.

Miss MacFarlan wasn't a bad mistress. Most of the time.

The little black card Annie had received from a friend felt heavier than it had any right to be in the inner pocket of the tea towel she was wearing.

"Elf!" Mistress MacFarlan's voice was loud enough to make Annie's ears ring.

She jumped. "Yes?" she asked, because she knew Mistress would get even more angry if she stayed silent.

"Stop dreaming. Keep me informed. Stay close to the other elves. I need to know what is happening."

Annie's hand lay on her hip; she could feel the sharp edges of the card beneath her worn towel.

**

The Minister's schedule was always busy. There was no way to come by an appointment on short notice, even for someone who knew the man well and regarded him as a friend. Well, there was no way if one played by the rules.

Kingsley Shacklebolt, for all his dedication and work load, had never been an early riser. Hermione, on the other hand, was. He came through the door into his office, impeccably clad in fine but not too expensive fabric that was tailored to be comfortable and complimentary - and Hermione was already sitting in the visitor chair, smiling at him. She rose when she heard his exasperated sigh and offered her hand.

Kingsley shook both the hand and his head. "She let you in again? Why would she do that to me?" he asked loud enough for his assistant to hear.

"Sorry," Ginny Potter called back. "She threatened to tell Harry that I forgot his birthday present. If he knew that Hermione bought the boots for him, I'd never live it down."

Kingsley's face was caught somewhere between a scowl and a smile. "That's all?" he said. "You sell me for a pair of boots?" He closed the door and muttered, "We're going to have a talk about this."

Hermione suppressed a smile. "I won't need much of your time."

Kingsley gestured for her to sit down and walked around his desk. He looked tall and graceful in his robes. Time had etched itself into his face, and Hermione imagined if he didn't shave his head, she'd be able to see his hair getting grey. And yet, he looked full of energy, not getting older, but getting wiser. Eleven years after the end of the war against Voldemort he was still the Minister for Magic - often challenged, but never overpowered. He'd become a true politician, both for the better and for the worse.

"What can I do for you?"

Wordlessly, Hermione handed him a copy of the house-elf suicide report.

Kingsley looked at it, his face betraying not a single emotion. He waited for Hermione to speak.

After a minute of silence that stretched and stretched and grew thick between them, Hermione gave in. "Why is there no investigation?" she asked.

"There was an investigation. This is the result," Kingsley said. "Why don't you ask Isabel MacFarlan? She's the head of the department in charge."

Hermione bit back an insult and kept herself from going into a rant about Isabel MacFarlan and her known disregard for house-elf rights. "Do you agree with this report?" she asked.

"I trust the head of the department." Kingsley's voice was firm, and there was an edge to it. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"Yes. As a concerned citizen and as an Auror consultant, I would like to request a full Auror investigation. This," she pointed at the report, "is a disgrace for the Ministry." As an afterthought, and almost too low for Kingsley to hear, she muttered, "Merlin knows what would happen if the papers got wind of it."

Kingsley's gaze never wavered. "You don't have any rights to request an investigation, neither as a citizen, nor as a consultant." He paused, and Hermione wondered if he'd address her barely concealed threat. She didn't think he'd give her any manpower, but that wasn't what she wanted. She wanted access to the resources of the Ministry - the archive, the library, the elves - she wanted a reason for Percy to help her, and she wanted to be able to show her consultant badge if she needed it.

"I want to know what is going on. Don't you want to know what happened? Fright was a Ministry-elf." Hermione pursed her lips as if thinking. "Wasn't he working for the Head of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures? That's quite a coincidence." Hermione leaned forward. "You know me, Kingsley, I'll poke around with or without an official assignment."

The Minister looked at her steadily with dark searching eyes. Then he nodded once. "Tell Ginny to activate your badge for a week. If you need more time, ask MacFarlan. It'll be her decision."

Hermione was surprised. She'd counted on getting her wish eventually, but she'd prepared for having to invest a lot more effort and pressure.

"You will be on your own," the Minister continued. "But you can work within the frame of an official Ministry investigation." There was a warning in his eyes. "Do not occupy any of our resources. And be discreet. I don't think I have to tell you what kind of trouble this could stir up."

"Thank you, Minister," Hermione said. Stir up trouble, her regularly-exercised bum.

**

Hermione Apparated to Diagon Alley, made a quick detour to the bakery next to Gringotts, and then walked to her office.

The change of scenery was as fascinating as the first time she'd entered this other world that coexisted in the shadow of the reputable shops of Diagon. What had been a question of money at first, had become something she wasn't willing to give up.

Many of the clients who asked her for help were just as out of Galleons as she had been when she'd started her business. Some of them preferred the relative anonymity of the dark alley; some clients were just as shady as the alley itself, not knowing who to turn to when they were in need, sure - and often right in the assumption - that the Ministry and its Aurors weren't interested in helping them.

Hermione had found a niche for herself, a place where she fit in. Somewhere along the way, soon after the war had ended, she'd realised that she didn't possess the patience and political finesse to change abstract concepts and community structures. She wasn't a politician, nor did she ever want to make the compromises it took to become one. Her talent was to get things done with dedicated stubbornness. She was passionate; she was smart; she cared; and no matter what Ron or Harry said, most of the time, she was damn right.

Her door was open for anyone who needed genuine help. She'd worked for house-elves and werewolves, centaurs and giants, witches who needed protection from their husbands, and wizards who needed protection from their wives. She'd worked for Half-bloods, Pure-bloods and Muggle-borns, and, on occasion, for Muggles. She was a private investigator, a research expert, the voice for those who needed to be heard and a link between the Ministry and the community when one was needed. Her clients paid her in Galleons and potions, in food and secrets, in promises and favours, and on one occasion, she'd been paid with a live bunny. Crookshanks hadn't been happy about the new addition, but Roger's irresistible charm had convinced even the old half-Kneazle.

She pushed the door of her office open and waved at Pixy. By all appearances, her assistant had done some cleaning.

"Thanks, Pix," Hermione said, shrugging out of her cloak and hanging it on the rack next to the door.

"Good morning. How is you?"

"Good. I met Ginny. She sends her love and tells you to come over soon. James misses you."

Pixy beamed. "I will bring him pie."

"He'll love it." Hermione blew a strand of wildly curled hair out of her face. "Pix? I need you to tell me something about elf suicide. How common is it? Why do elves do it?"

Pixy sat down on her small swivel chair. "Not common. But it does happen. Sometimes." Pixy nibbled on her lips, kicking her feet. "There is only one kind," Pixy said. "One kind Pixy knows." Hermione noticed that Pixy was talking about herself in the third person. She'd done this when she'd been new at the office, but had gradually lost the habit. She rarely fell back into it.

"What is the reason?" Hermione asked.

"Elf is old, or ill, or has accident and is not useful. An Elf needs to work, you sees. If not, she becomes very, very sad. She stops being elf." The statement was matter of fact, and Hermione understood the reasoning. She'd watched it often in elves that had been freed against their will. She'd seen depression and desperation. Those elves often did any job that was available, no matter how low the payment was. It was slavery under the guise of freedom, and it had thrived after the new laws had been introduced and before there had been a minimum wage.

The four dead elves, though, hadn't been old or ill - and with the exception of Curry from Hogwarts, they hadn't been free either.

"Do you know of any cases where a working, uninjured, middle-aged, healthy elf commits suicide?"

Pixy scrunched up her face in concentration. Then she shook her head, ears drooping. "No. It's like throwing away good food. Master wouldn't want that."

Like good food.

Hermione decided to write Percy an owl and ask him to go through the elf archives in the Ministry library. They needed to know more about recorded suicides in recent years. It would give her an idea of numbers and causes for registered elves.

"Pix. Could a master order an elf to commit suicide?" The thought was horrifying.

"No. It's not possible. Ordering death is like giving clothes. Elf will be free."

That wasn't much, but it was something.

**

The connection between agency and deaths - Hermione had stopped calling them suicides but couldn't justify using the term murder yet - was still unclear. Dead elves and a growing business. What could they have in common? Had the elves approached the agency? Had they refused to be freed, or had they wanted to be freed?

The new laws said that it was neither possible to free an elf against their will, nor to keep a house-elf if they wanted to be free. If they asked for clothes, a master couldn't refuse. Which was a huge step for any elf.

The agency was on the far end of Diagon Alley where it was less busy than in the area around Gringotts and the Leaky Cauldron. The houses were neat and clean and reeked of money. The agency itself had a large window on the ground floor of a three-storey building, and a wizard in bright yellow working robes was busy painting the agency's name in bold, colourful letters, whistling as he worked.

Hermione walked around the building, noticing details like the small back door and the window with the broken latch that opened to a dark side-alley. At this time of day, the wards of the building must be lowered to allow clients to enter. Hermione looked around before she cast a quick disillusionment charm on herself. Then she took a small device out of her pocket, opened the window with a little magic, and attached the brown disc the size of a sickle to the window sill. It instantly changed its colour to the exact same shade as the wood of the sill, invisible for anyone who didn't know what to look for. With another spell, she closed the window, dusted off her hands and walked back to the front of the building.

Still disillusioned, she leaned against the wall of a nearby building. In order to get a sense of the people frequenting a business, it was best to watch the entrance for a while. What people did the venue attract? How many people went inside? Did the clients match its reputation?

An elf left the building a couple of minutes later. She was wearing an enormous bead bracelet on her left wrist. The beads made a merry sound as they rattled and clacked whenever the elf moved. Hermione saw two more elves come and go, and a woman, not much older than herself, entered, stayed for eleven minutes, came back out and hurried down the street.

After almost an hour, Hermione slipped out of sight behind a corner and lifted the spell. She smoothed down the front of her cloak, straightened up and walked toward the agency.

A bell above the door tinkled when she entered.

The entrance room was small and empty. A counter dominated the room. It started at the left wall at around human waist-level and dropped down almost to the floor in a gentle arc. It was cleverly manufactured; both elves and humans could use it without having to stand on tip-toes or crouch. Tailor-made and not at all cheap, Hermione reckoned. She picked up a flier and an information brochure, and risked a look over the counter, trying to read the names on a couple of files that lay there.

"Hermione Granger. What a rare sight. Are you looking for something?"

Hermione froze at the voice. Bugger. She hadn't heard a thing, and she hated being taken by surprise. Mad-Eye Moody would turn in his grave. "Millicent Bulstrode. It's lovely to see you again."

"I'm sure it is."

The amused smirk on Millicent's face made something in Hermione's jaw twitch. She smiled, sure that it looked as fake as it felt, but proud of herself for the effort. "Four house-elves committed suicide."

The smirk slid from Millicent's face, leaving her features bland and uneven. Her lips were thin, her eyes dark, and her forehead broad. She had large and strong-looking hands, one of them lying on the counter, fingers tapping lightly against the red-painted wood. "What does it have to do with me?" The playfulness was gone from her tone. She sounded very business-like.

"House-elves? I'd say a lot." Hermione noticed that Millicent hadn't asked any of the obvious questions: who, what, when, where, why. "What can you tell me about it?"

"Nothing," Millicent answered. "Get out."

Hermione blinked. "That's it? Aren't you interested in helping? I thought this was some kind of charity organisation that does nothing but save elves. And while we're at it, would you tell me where the sudden wealth comes from?"

"Get. Out." Millicent spoke through clenched teeth. "You'll use everything I say against me. So why don't you find out for yourself? The Prophet will be delighted to let you back onto the front page with another hero story." With a flick of Millicent's wand the door behind Hermione opened.

Hermione took a step backwards. "Suit yourself. But don't think your arrogance will protect you this time." She turned on the spot and stalked out of the agency, muttering a curse that had nothing to with magic. In a small corner of her mind, a quiet voice suggested that she could have been a little more diplomatic. The rest of her sneered the voice into silence.

**

The estate of the Nott family was north of Hogsmeade. A narrow, impeccably clean path led through an ivory gate, overgrown with rich red roses. Money oozed out of every corner, even before the old, majestic building came in sight.

The sun was shining, birds were chirping, flowers were blossoming despite it being bloody October, and the house itself looked resilient and huge without having lost the welcoming character of a home. The windows on the upper level stood open; laughter from inside drifted down. Hermione scowled and pulled her cloak shut as if to shield herself against an overdose of picture postcard panorama.

The door opened before she had the chance to knock.

The woman was tall and attractive, somewhere in her late forties. Her hair was tied back in a loose bun, salt and pepper strands escaping at the sides. She wore an apron and what looked suspiciously like jeans and a t-shirt underneath. Her round cheeks and kind smile reminded her more of Molly Weasley than of Narcissa Malfoy. It wasn't at all what Hermione had expected.

"I'm not surprised to see you here," the woman said. She offered her hand. "I'm Mora Nott. Come inside."

Hermione took the hand and returned the firm grip. "Hermione Granger. Why aren't you surprised?" The smile she received was unsettling.

Mora shrugged and made it look elegant instead of dismissive. "Call it a hunch." There was an amused quality to her tone.

Mora led her to a small room that had been designed to greet visitors. Heavy rugs and expensive tapestry formed the background for a comfortable seating area and a voluminous fire place. There was no need to bend one's head or crouch when Flooing here.

Hermione was offered a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits. She accepted both and sat down, waiting for Mora to join her. The house-elf who brought the tea wore a tea-towel, she noticed. It was fancy, beautifully crafted with colourful embroidery, but it was still a tea-towel. Like Herman, who'd died in this house and had been found with a noose around his neck, dangling from the ceiling in the utility room, the elf that served the tea wasn't free.

"Ask your questions," Mora said.

Hermione tasted her tea. It was rich and strong with only a hint of honey. She took out her notebook and gathered her thoughts before she began.

According to Mora Nott, it had been a day as any other. Herman had prepared breakfast, and then gone about his daily duties. Both elves, Herman and Libby - the elf who'd served tea earlier - had been free to split tasks however they wanted to.

Nothing out of the ordinary had happened until Libby had found Herman in the utility room. He'd been dead. Mora had helped Libby to take Herman down. Then they'd waited until her husband had come home, and then they'd alerted the Ministry.

End of story. At least for Herman.

"Would you mind if I asked Libby a few questions?"

Mora frowned, an expression that looked alien on her face. She considered the request, and then said, "Yes. I mind."

"I'm trying to find out what happened, Mrs. Nott," Hermione said

"I know, dear." Mora said. "I have talked to Libby. She doesn't know anything. She's very distraught and confused, and I don't want her to become even more upset."

Why would a few questions upset Libby? Even if, why would that be more important for Mora Nott than knowing what had happened to Herman? Was she afraid of the answers?

Hermione made her good-byes, deciding not to apply pressure without having more information. So far, Mora Nott had been more or less cooperative; it wasn't clever to shut that door so early and without good reason.

If she accidentally lost one of her business cards behind a large vase where only a cleaning elf would look, it wasn't her fault. That could have happened to anyone.

**

Another family was on her list. Emil and Caroline Beauparlants. The name sounded like another headache-inducing conversation. Hermione leafed through the file Pixy had prepared, looked up the address and Apparated back to Diagon Alley. They lived in a small side street not far away from the shops. The building where their flat was couldn't be more different from the Notts' estate. And yet, it, too, smelled like old money.

It was one of the modern buildings: clean lines, hard angles, lots of steel. They were rare in the Wizarding world, but they existed.

Emil Beauparlants was working as a diplomat for the Ministry of Magic. His housemaid was the only one home, and she told Hermione that Mr. and Mrs. Beauparlants currently were in Italy, representing the Minister for Magic at an important conference about international laws.

After being persistent - or annoying, depending on the viewpoint - the housemaid told Hermione that she'd only started working for the Beauparlants. She couldn't tell her anything about Mitty, the former house-elf. She'd never known her.

Was it a coincidence that Beauparlants worked for the Ministry? Was it a coincidence that he was out of the country?

**

It was three in the afternoon, and Hermione was already worn out. She'd talked to Kingsley, had been at the office, had visited the agency, the Notts and the Beauparlants. While she'd gathered a few bits and pieces of information, she didn't feel any wiser.

Something about Millicent Bulstrode and her elf agency was fishy. It smelled as pleasant as two-week old unchilled dead trout. She couldn't ask the Aurors for help without further evidence, and she obviously couldn't count on Millicent's collaboration. Hermione decided to go back to the only person who'd be able to do something at this point.

Percy was in his office, his door half open. Hermione knocked on the frame and entered when he peered up at her from behind a file.

"Do you have any more information for me?" she asked by way of greeting.

"Not yet," Percy answered. "I'll let you know when I've talked to some of the other elves. I received your letter and requested registration files from the archive. They should arrive this afternoon."

Hermione nodded. "Thanks, Percy. I need those numbers as soon as possible. Maybe they'll tell us something."

Percy gave Hermione a resigned look. "I'll go through them this evening. I'll be at your office tomorrow morning and give you an update."

"You're a star." Hermione sat down on the visitor side of Percy's clean desk. The papers and utensils must have been aligned with a water level and an angled blade. "I need a favour."

"Who would have thought? What do you want this time?"

"I want you to step on Bulstrode's toes. Make her nervous with some investigation committee or regulation thing, or whatever you always pull out of your perfectly ironed sleeve."

"No," Percy answered.

"I spoke to her this morning. She's hiding something."

"No," Percy said again in that same calm tone.

Hermione made a deliberate effort to keep her voice down. Percy had her removed from his office the last time she'd shouted at him. Which had led to the security guard touching her in inappropriate places. Which had led her to hex him. Which had led him to arrest her. Which had led to Harry having to intervene and get her out of a holding cell. It had been a mess. "Bulstrode is somehow involved in the suicides," Hermione said. "The anonymous letter, the suspicious behaviour. She's as innocent as your mother when she's trying to set you up with a lovely girl."

Percy closed the file with a snap and put it on the table. It sat there, perfectly straight. "She's been working hard for years, despite your efforts to throw as many obstacles in her way as you can. She's doing it despite her social circle's disapproval. She's doing it despite the Ministry monitoring each of her steps. We never found anything that would let us doubt her intentions, her business practices or her sincerity. Stop it, Hermione. It's enough."

"It's an act," Hermione said, giving up on keeping calm. "Don't you see it? This elf friendly endeavour is one big illusion. It's fake!" Even as she said it, Hermione realised that without any evidence, the words sounded silly.

"You're so caught up in your own fight that you don't recognise your allies," Percy said, calm as ever.

Hermione threw a piece of balled up parchment at him. "I'll find a way to prove it." She got up from the chair and turned toward the door.

"Hermione, if you don't stop harassing her, I'm going to step on your toes. I know just enough of your methods to make life uncomfortable for you."

Percy was going to report her methods? Well, then she'd better make sure that he'd have a story to tell.

**

It was four o'clock in the afternoon when she returned to her office - enough time to prepare herself, go through what she'd found out and do some research.

"Hey Pix," she greeted her smiling assistant. "Would you mind getting us something to eat? I'm starving."

Pixy was out of the door before Hermione could discuss what kind of food they should have.

"Overachiever," she muttered.

Hermione looked at the information Pixy had collected in her absence. There was an update on elf laws, various articles and WWN pieces about the agency, the work of other elf-related groups, and a lot of bits and pieces that didn't want to fit into a neat pattern. When Pixy came back, they ate in silence, both lost in thought. Hermione sent her assistant home when the evening turned into night. Pixy protested - she always did - but Hermione stayed firm.

With the help of what she'd seen in the morning, Hermione worked out a plan, prepared charms, looked up helpful spells and pocketed some of her special Wheezes. It was after midnight when she finally decided to leave.

Knockturn Alley was sinister during the day; in the middle of the night, it was downright dangerous. She wasn't truly afraid. After ten years of working in the same office, most people had accepted that leaving her alone was far less trouble for everyone involved. However, there was always the possibility of meeting someone who was too drunk to recognise her, too foreign to know her reputation, or too arrogant to take her seriously. That's why she Apparated into the small alley behind Millicent's agency.

From her pocket she took a small brown disc, similar to the one she'd left on the window sill earlier that day. It had taken George and her months to develop the device. It was a spell disabling system; George called it the spell and curse buster, or, far more frequently, the sac-buster. Within a small range, the two discs could detect, identify and disable most spells that were active between them.

Hermione used the sac-buster - she grinned a little and blamed bad influence from too many Weasleys - to disable the wards. They crumbled within minutes. A few more spells confirmed that the wards were down, that no other security measures were in place, and that no one was in the building. The window was too small for her to climb through, so Hermione went around to the front door. It didn't take long to circumvent the locking mechanism.

Hermione cast more spells, looking for some kind of security trap. Her magical scans showed nothing. She frowned. It was one thing to have a temporary security solution because of moving into new premises, but another thing altogether to leave oneself open to attacks.

Hermione didn't waste time searching the room with the counter where she'd talked to Millicent. If there was anything to hide, they wouldn't leave it in the entrance area for any old burglar to find.

In the dim light of her glowing wand, she saw two doors leading out from the small lobby. The first one opened to what looked like a consultation room. Inside was a sitting area with chairs in various sizes and a table full of brochures. Where the lobby was modern and clean, this room seemed far warmer and homelier. But Hermione wasn't there to admire the interior decoration. She closed the door and moved back into the lobby, her movements muffled by a nifty charm.

The hint of a sound, as muffled as her own footsteps, made her freeze on the spot. When she didn't see anything, she put out the light of her wand and listened with closed eyes. Long moments passed, and there was nothing but her own heartbeat drumming a too fast rhythm in her chest. She didn't dare light up the whole room, and she didn't dare cast her own wards, fearing that potent magic could trigger some kind of back-up security system.

After what felt like a very long time, she relaxed, convinced that she must have misheard. No one had been in the building when she entered - her spell had confirmed that - and if anyone had entered in the meantime, she'd have heard it. Or so she told herself, knowing that it wasn't quite that easy but hoping for the best. What else was there to do?

She relit the tip of her wand.

Behind the second door, there was a large room with various desks. There were boxes strewn around the room and shelves leaning against the wall, waiting for someone to hang them up.

Only one of the workplaces looked finished. There was a big desk on which documents were neatly stacked in piles. A shelf on the wall behind it carried more files, and there were two cabinets on either side. The desk was close to the fireplace at the window, and whoever sat there could keep an eye on the door. If that hadn't been enough hints, there was also a big name plate that said in bold, dark letters, simple and clear, 'Millie'.

Hermione went over and lifted the plate. Brass. How tacky.

When she set the plate back down, she noticed files lying on Millicent's desk. Careful not to bump into anything, Hermione walked around the desk. There were three files with three names on them: Herman, the name of the Nott house-elf, Mitty from Beauparlants, and Fright, the name of the Ministry-elf who had committed suicide. No file about Curry, the fourth elf, who had worked for Hogwarts.

"Yeah, Percy," Hermione muttered, imitating his voice. "We never found anything that would let us doubt her intentions, her business practices or her sincerity."

Hermione made duplicates of the files. Then she shrank them and put them away in one of her pockets. She'd look at them once she was in a place where she couldn't get arrested.

There were two main filing cabinets to go through. With gloved hands, Hermione searched as thoroughly as possible while trying to be quick. There was nothing more of interest.

**

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four vBulletin statistic

on 2010-11-05 03:16 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] katmarajade.livejournal.com
SQUEE!! You wrote this?! I hadn't even checked the reveals. I've had this fic bookmarked to read since it was first posted but have been so frazzled with real life that I haven't gotten a chance to read it. I absolutely adore Millicent and will read almost anything featuring her, and this looks amazing and fun and plotty and all around brilliant. Now that I know that you wrote it, it will definitely get bumped up in the pile! *is excited*

on 2010-11-05 03:28 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] vanseedee.livejournal.com
:D I did! Writing it wasn't a smooth ride, but an exciting one. I hope my Millicent can live up to your expectations. *hugs*

on 2010-11-05 03:52 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] thimble-kiss.livejournal.com
You know, I read the first part of this in beta before I had to rush away to Canada, and I thought it was so promising and exciting, and I was absolutely thrilled to read the rest on [livejournal.com profile] samhain_smut last month and find that you'd delivered (and then some) on all that promise.

I know the writing of it was a serious exercise in stress management for you, but you should be so proud of this. :)

on 2010-11-06 06:04 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] vanseedee.livejournal.com
It's been definitely a serious exercise in stress management. It's been a serious exercise all around - which is a good thing (I think). I certainly learned a thing or two.

Thank you again for all your help an encouragement ♥

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