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.



Chapter Three

"How did you find us?"

"I heard Frame outside the office. You keeps watch."

"Why are you here?"

"Because you knows what happens. You needs to tell Miss Hermione. She can help."

"No."

"Please tell her. She is able to stop it."

"She cannot stop it. Do you not understand? It is too dangerous for them. The more questions she asks, the more will die. We are helping ourselves."

"Then I tells her what I know. She will help."

"We cannot let you go if you tell her. Do not betray us. I warn you."

"I doesn't betray you. I will help. I will tell."

"You will not."

**

Hermione was tired when she returned to her flat in the early hours of the morning. She opened the door, turned on the lights, pulled off her cloak and shoes, and then went over to her sofa. A very sleepy Crookshanks climbed onto her lap. He demanded to have his ears scratched.

The first time she'd broken into someone's home, long ago, it had been a matter of life and death. She'd torn herself apart for weeks, wondering whether she had crossed a line when she'd committed a crime in order to solve one.

Of course, she had crossed a line. She'd done so every time she'd entered a building uninvited, threatened an individual to obtain information or used lies and deception to reach her goals. Every time she'd crossed the line, her reasons had been important and there had been lives and fates on her side of the equation. And every time she'd crossed the line, it had become a little easier.

Was she proud of it? No. Did she think it was necessary? Hell, yes. If she was going to be judged for it one day, she'd wait for the verdict with her chin up.

Hermione took one duplicated file and opened it. It looked like a standard consultation report, containing a profile of Herman, Mora Nott's elf, some notes about the conversation, and a date that looked like a scheduled second visit that had never happened. They'd talked mainly about the laws, about what would happen if Herman asked for clothes, what he could do then, whether it would be possible to remain at Nott's house and what would happen to Libby, the other elf. His sister.

Hermione hadn't known that Herman had been Libby's brother. She read that they'd been born into the Nott's family and had lived and worked together their whole lives. Hermione's heart ached for Libby who must be devastated. Was that the reason why Mora Nott hadn't let her talk to Libby?

Hermione closed the file and leaned back against her comfy sofa. She had a nagging feeling that she was missing something important. If only she wasn't too damn tired to see it.

What were the facts?

One: The wards. They had been made to look competent on first glance. They'd felt decent, and yet she'd dismantled them with ease. She'd become an expert over the years, sure, but was she really that good? Would a woman who'd started an elf agency in Knockturn Alley with a Quidditch field full of adversaries become careless once she moved to a better neighbourhood?

Two: Where had the second line of defence been? No triggered hexes, no invisible barriers, no sound or magic detectors. It had been harder to break into Diagon Alley's main library that one time.

Three: The files. Would someone who was under regular Ministry surveillance leave potentially compromising files out in the open? Just like that? Why had they been there in the first place? Shouldn't Millicent have tried to get rid of them as soon as possible?

Four: Variables. What about something unforeseen, something Hermione hadn't expected? There were always unknowns that couldn't be predicted. This time there had been nothing out of the ordinary that would have forced Hermione to react and adjust her plan.

Five: Someone had watched her. There was nothing logical to lead her to the conclusion except for the noise she'd heard and the feeling in her gut.

Hermione sighed and scratched Crookshanks behind his furry ears. "It was a set-up, wasn't it?" She closed her eyes and imagined how wonderful it would be to go to sleep. "I played right into someone's hands. Son of a troll."

Crookshanks snorted.

"If you tell Harry that I stumbled around like a first year Auror, you won't get fillet for at least a week." With super-human effort, she lifted her head and opened her eyes. "And if you tell Ron that I talk to cats, I'll let Roger use your litter box."

It was almost two o'clock, still the middle of the night. No one would be in the agency before six, she hoped. She could squeeze in two hours of sleep before checking whether her suspicion was correct. She cast a charm that would wake her up in time, sank back against the cushions, turned off the lights, closed her eyes and was instantly unconscious.

Two hours later, her wand made a shrill noise and woke her up from a dreamless sleep. She made a pathetic whining sound as she got up and put her boots and cloak back on. She went into the bathroom without turning on the lights, moving through her flat in the dark in case someone was watching from outside. Sometimes she wished she'd taken Professor McGonagall's offer and started working at Hogwarts as a teacher. Would anyone really miss those teenagers she'd have killed over the years?

She disillusioned herself before she Apparated into the dark alley behind the agency.

Once again she activated the brown disc and its counterpart and waited.

Nothing happened.

Those weren't the same wards as those she'd disabled earlier. Those were strong ones. They held. Someone must have been there and replaced the fake ones that had gone back up after she'd turned off the discs on her first try.

"You think you're so much smarter than I am," she muttered. She had a grudging kind of respect for people who outmanoeuvred her. "That's one point for you. But don't think you can fool me a second time."

Someone had lowered the wards far enough to make it easy for her to slip through. The important questions being: who and why. The vengeful part of her mind, the part that remembered being bullied in school, was sure it was some elaborate plot from Millicent to distract her from finding out what was happening. The rest of her mind, the part that earned money by being reasonable and neutral, was still caught in a state of what-the-sodding-hippogriff.

What now? Go in and wait for Millicent? Go in and look through the files again? Go in and set the building on fire just because? After some deliberation, Hermione decided to break in and wait for Millicent.

If she ended up in a cell, she could point to her Ministry badge and ask Harry for a huge favour. It wouldn't be the first time. Besides, Hermione was far too old to play school games, and far too impatient to wait and see what would happen. There was also that nagging feeling in her gut that told her to hurry before more elves lost their lives.

Disabling the wards turned out to be complicated. She was muttering a string of complaints under her breath as she identified the nature of the protective magic.

There was an intricate pattern of interwoven spells surrounding the whole building. It was smooth and elastic, and Hermione admired the beauty in the spell-work. She concentrated on the lines, and then took them apart one by one, unravelling dozens of magical knots. She kept the discs activated. They didn't help her with the wards, but they caught a few nasty hexes and stunning spells that were triggered by her actions.

It took the better part of an hour to take down the wards, open the door, and disable a cleverly disguised trap that Hermione was sure hadn't been there earlier. All those security measures could have only been set by the owner herself.

Once she was inside, Hermione cancelled the disillusionment charm and settled down in the chair behind the counter to wait. She put her feet on the lower part of the counter, cast a shield charm to protect herself in case brass-plate-Millie would have any objections regarding her presence, and then fell asleep.

**

The jingle of the door bell woke her up what felt like only a minute later. A very angry looking Millicent was standing in front of her with a drawn wand.

"What the hell?" Millicent said.

"Good morning. How are you?" Hermione said in the most cheerful voice she could muster.

"Give me one reason not to call the Aurors right now." Millicent made it sound like there were far more hissable syllables in that sentence than a proper pronunciation would suggest.

"I'll give you two," Hermione said, lifted her feet off the counter as it seemed rude not to, and got up. "This is an official Ministry investigation. The Aurors wouldn't so much as laugh at you." She was stretching the truth. But Hermione didn't think Millicent knew that. "And you wanted me here in the first place to collect all that lovely information you laid out for me. If you'd wanted to turn me over to the Aurors, you'd have called them when I was here and let them catch me red-handed."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Millicent said. She was a good actress.

"I'm sure you don't. Now why don't you give me one good reason why I shouldn't call the Aurors, tell them what happened tonight and let them snoop around your place for a while."

Millicent made a sound that couldn't decide if it wanted to be a laugh or a snort. "You've done that so often in the last years that even the Aurors are sick of your calls. They wouldn't so much as laugh at you."

Touché. Hermione scowled.

They stared at each other in tense silence until Millicent let out a breath. "Let's talk business," she said. "And for Merlin's sake, lower that shield, I won't hex you. It doesn't look as if it's going to protect you from a punch in the face."

That was true. Hermione flicked her wand, and the shield collapsed. "What business?"

"At least four elves are dead, three of them came to talk to me, and I have no idea how many more there are. They refuse to talk to me about it, even my own employees. There's something serious going on." She scrunched up her nose. "That's why I sent you an anonymous letter. Salazar only knows how long it would have taken for you to catch up on your own."

"You lied to me," Hermione said.

Millicent gave her an annoyed look. "If that's your only concern, then we can stop this talk right here."

"Do go on," Hermione said. "I'm dying with curiosity. You were explaining the part where you sent an anonymous letter including your own business ad. And why, when I came to talk to you, you threw me out. And there's the thing where you wanted me to break into your business and find your files. Is this the point where things will start to make sense? Because I might need a few more pointers to get there."

Millicent walked through the door that led to her office and came back a minute later without her purse and coat, and with two steaming cups. How had she done that so fast? "I need coffee before I can deal with all your Gryffindor righteousness," she said. "Follow me."

Hermione didn't like taking orders. Nevertheless she followed Millicent into the nice room with the big table, and they sat down together like civilized people. She sipped from her coffee. It was acceptable. Belatedly she realised that she hadn't checked for spells or potions. Mad-Eye must be nauseous from all the spinning he was doing in his grave. "What is going on here?"

"I don't know." The look on Millicent's face made something in Hermione's jaw twitch. Millicent looked sad, and more importantly, she looked sincere. What in the name of soul-saving coffee was going on? After a few moments, Millicent continued. "Let me ask you a question. What would have happened if I'd come to your office and asked for your help."

Hermione took a sip of coffee.

What would have happened? Crimes against house-elves, a Ministry report Millicent shouldn't have, the history between them, the people surrounding Millicent, the agency's sudden wealth, the mere fact that Millicent Bulstrode was dedicating her time to helping elves. Instead of launching into an investigation, Hermione would have wasted time trying to figure out what Millicent might want from her beside the obvious. Investigator, know thy enemy. Especially when your enemy is your own weakness.

Could Millicent know her well enough to make this a plausible theory? Could the woman be bright enough to set her up like this, starting an investigation without ever approaching her? Feed her information, using her own methods against her? Letting her break in to make everything look as authentic as possibly?

Hermione eyed her. "You lousy snake," she said.

"I didn't think you'd catch on so fast."

"Convince me." Hermione took another sip from her coffee. The sheer gall. "I'm not convinced that you're on my side of this case."

Millicent looked at her without flinching. "I don't have to convince you. Without me, there wouldn't even be a 'your side' of this case. I've heard you're a good investigator. But you're a thick-headed beast." Millicent gestured at herself. "I got over myself years ago. Time for you to grow up, too."

"But why?" Maybe there was something in the coffee after all. Why else would this make sense? Why else would she start to believe Millicent? Surely not because of her pretty eyes. Though there were kind of attractive, deep and dark and in the head of a shameless manipulator. Hermione glared. "Why house-elves?"

"That's your real question, isn't it? You want to know why someone like me cares for them."

Hermione wasn't going to admit a thing. "I mainly want to know where the money comes from."

"No, you don't. But you know what? If you can't be bothered to find out for yourself, I'm not going to enlighten you." Millicent drank down half of her coffee in one go. "Work with me. I want to stop whoever is doing this."

Hermione considered it. She was already neck-deep in this investigation, and she had no intention of stopping before the crime was solved. Did she believe Millicent? Hermione wasn't sure. Did it matter whether she believed her? Hermione didn't think so. Until proven innocent, Millicent remained a suspect.

The cup was empty when Hermione looked up. She'd made her decision. "I'm not going to work with you," she said. "I'm going to work for you. You're going to pay me. Once this is over and you're not in Azkaban, I'll send you an invoice with all my hours, expenses and travel costs. Then you'll hand over a reasonable amount of Galleons. Before that happens, you'll provide any information that's relevant for the case and you'll collaborate to the best of your abilities." Hermione put down her cup. Then she asked, "Is that clear?"

Millicent raised her thick eyebrows. "Do you need me to tremble in fear or is my word good enough?"

**

Hermione came to her office far later than usual. They had discussed every detail Millicent claimed to know about the dead elves, about their relationships, about their owners, about the circumstances of their deaths. It was disappointingly little. Hermione had in turn shared most of the results of her investigations. She'd kept a few secrets. One can never be too paranoid.

Percy was already waiting for her. He had a bag with what looked like muffins in his hands and glared at the door.

"Where's Pix?" Hermione asked.

"Left a note," he answered, waving a small piece of parchment. "Says she's sick."

That was a first. Pixy had never been sick before.

It was cold and gloomy inside the office. Hermione lit the candles and magical lights. She was too impatient to use anything but magic to warm up the air.

Percy put the bag on the small table. Hermione shrugged out of her cloak, grabbed the bag, opened it and moaned as she plopped down on the sofa. "You're an angel," she said. "A red-haired, bespectacled, freckled and glowering angel, but an angel nonetheless."

She picked a muffin that was covered in thick frosting and looked like it hid blueberries somewhere inside. It tasted heavenly.

"Long night?" Percy asked, and she grunted something non-committal in return. There was no need to tell him about her new client yet. There were few things worse than a gloating Weasley. He sat down next to her. "I've gone through the old files. I think you'll be interested."

"I know I am." Hermione took another bite of muffin, ignoring the crumbs that landed on the front of her shirt. "What have you got?"

"Mitty and Herman weren't the first elves who died," he said.

"Yeah, they were." Hermione remembered the Ministry report. "Mitty and Herman died on the same day. Two weeks later, Fright from the Ministry died, and the last one was Curry, the Hogwarts-elf."

Percy shook his head. "That's not what I meant."

He paused, and Hermione started dreading the next sentences; she suspected where it was going. "You're not going to tell me there have been more than four deaths? Please? Not when I'm having breakfast?"

Percy held out a piece of parchment. "I found another four registered suicides of young, healthy house-elves within the last five years."

"Oh Merlin," Hermione muttered. She took the parchment and read through the summarised reports. How could eight elves die without anyone asking a few questions? And again, there was no obvious connection. Only one thing stood out. "Don't you think it's strange that all of those elves killed themselves in the same way?"

Percy rubbed his eyes. "No, I don't think so. It's logical."

"What do you mean?"

"There aren't many ways in which an elf would commit suicide. It's always going to be clean. A house-elf won't leave a mess, so anything involving blood is out of the question. The elf won't want to waste anything that belongs to the master, like a potion. The elf can't ask other elves for help; killing an elf is a punishable offence. Hanging is the most common way for an elf to commit suicide."

Hermione wished for only a second that she had never ended her infamous affair with Hannah Abbott. The woman had known that there were times when a drink for breakfast was not only an option but a necessity. She put the half-eaten muffin down on the table. Her hunger had disappeared.

**

It was almost noon when Hermione pulled on her cloak and headed out into the surprisingly bright October day. She blinked at the sudden light, momentarily blinded and almost tripping over a small hooded figure. The goblin or elf scurried away; a strange rattling sound followed it.

As she walked to the Leaky Cauldron and its public Floo, Hermione asked herself again why young, healthy elves were committing suicide. Had they really taken their own lives? Had someone killed them? How did Curry, the Hogwarts-elf, fit into the picture?

At the Leaky, she asked Tom to send Pixy some soup and wrote a quick note telling her to stay at home as long as she needed. Then she made a Floo call to Hogwarts. Minerva was in her office and asked Hermione to come through once she heard Curry's name.

Hermione was hardly out of the Floo when a small elf started batting at her clothes, getting rid of residual powder and ash. "Good to see you again, Mel. How have you been?" Hermione said.

Mel was a young elf, eager to please and with a sunny disposition. That's how Hermione knew her. Now, Mel's eyes were sad, and her smile looked forced. "I is doing well," she said. "No working in the kitchen any more. I is cleaning now."

"Oh really?" Hermione said. Mel was zealous and smart, but had a talent for knocking things down. The bigger the pot, the better. "And do you like your new work?"

"Of course," Mel said. It didn't sound convincing.

Hermione had hardly finished the thought when Minerva spoke. "Welcome, Hermione."

"Thank you, Professor," Hermione said. Minerva had given up on trying to get her to address her by first name. There was no way Hermione would ever be able to drop the title. Hogwarts' headmistress was one of the few people who had earned it, deserved it and lived it.

"Sit down."

Hermione sat down on one of the chairs. "Is Mel alright?" she asked the headmistress.

"I believe she is still a little shaken; all of us are," said Minerva. "It's been almost two weeks since Curry died." There was a moment when Hermione could see pain flashing across Minerva's face. She recognised it for what it was: being tired of losing yet another friend.

"I'm sorry, professor," Hermione said.

"Yes, I am as well." Minerva poured both of them a cup of tea. "How can I help you?"

"I'm here as an Auror consultant. There are some open questions, and I was asked to investigate."

Minerva peered at Hermione through her spectacles as if she knew exactly that this was a loose interpretation of the truth. "We reported Curry's death immediately," Minerva said. "A representative from the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures was here. We told him everything we know."

"Yes," Hermione said. "I saw the report. I'm not here because of it. I'm here because there was more than one death, and they all look similar."

"More than one?"

"Yes," Hermione said. "We have four dead elves in the last six weeks and four more in the last five years."

"Eight dead elves?" Minerva looked shocked. "I didn't think..." Her voice trailed away. "Curry committed suicide."

"They all did. Or so it would look if there was only one case. But so many? It's too much of a coincidence," Hermione said. "Did you find anything at all that made you doubt it was a suicide? Were there any traces of anyone else involved?"

Minerva shook her head. "Professor Slughorn gathered all available information and came to the conclusion that it was suicide. The cause of her death was self-inflicted. We have no reason to believe otherwise."

"Do you know how exactly it happened?"

Minerva nodded. "We reconstructed what she must have done. She went into a little chamber next to the kitchens. Curry fastened a rope to one of the beams that run across the ceiling. She stepped onto a stool, put the sling around her neck, and then stepped off the stool."

"No magic?" Hermione asked.

"No magic," Minerva confirmed.

That was interesting. Mitty, Herman and Fright had killed themselves without the help of a stool. According to the Ministry report, all three of them had fastened the rope to the ceiling by magic, and then used some kind of spell to tighten the rope and pull themselves up. It had been proven that they'd used their own magic. Was it significant that Curry had used a variation of the same method?

"Did you talk to the other elves?" Hermione asked. "I couldn't find a possible reason for a suicide in the report."

"We talked to them, of course." Minerva took a sip from her tea. "Her friends among the staff wouldn't reveal any relevant information. We never found out why she would have killed herself."

"What did Curry do exactly?"

"She cleaned," Minerva said. "Mostly down in the dungeons and some of the professors' rooms."

It wasn't much. Hermione needed more if she wanted this to make sense. "Would you let me talk to the elves?"

"Naturally. You should also talk to Professor Slughorn; he examined the body." Minerva lifted her hand, and the filing cabinet behind the desk opened. A small stack of leather-bound parchment floated out and landed smoothly in front of Hermione who tried not to stare at the casual display of wandless magic. "This is everything we found out. You are welcome to take it with you. Mel will take you to Professor Slughorn and then to Timi, Curry's best friend."

"Thank you, Professor, I'll return it when the investigations are finished," she said and shrank the parchment.

"Yes, please. I do not have a copy and would like to keep it in our records."

"How many suicides have there been in the history of Hogwarts?" Hermione asked.

"Among the elves?" Minerva said. "Only one that I know of." Her mouth was a thin line; her frown deepened. "Hogwarts has always taken care of its elves. We were the first who offered clothes to every elf in combination with a work guarantee. I have gone through a century worth of extensive records. A suicide would have been mentioned."

"I'm sorry, professor," Hermione said. She hadn't meant to offend.

"Don't be sorry. Keep asking questions. It's necessary."

Hermione did as she was told and asked some more, but Minerva didn't seem to know anything that could help her.

"I'll do my best to find out what happened," Hermione said and then excused herself.

Mel led her down to the dungeons.

They found Horace Slughorn in the Hogwarts potion lab, preparing a lesson for the following day. His face lit up when he spotted Hermione. It made her smile in return.

"Hermione Granger," he said in his usual booming voice. "What a wonderful surprise."

Slughorn didn't move away from his cauldron, so Hermione came closer. She peered inside and saw a black, tar-like substance bubbling. "I'm sorry for interrupting. I shouldn't have come unannounced."

"Not at all, not at all. Take a seat," he said and nodded at a high chair that stood at the short side of the worktable. "I'm afraid I can't leave this alone right now. I'll do my best to help with whatever you need, though. How have you been?"

"Busy," Hermione said. She sat down on the chair, awkwardly balancing her weight, her legs too short to reach the floor. She hated those kinds of stools and wished she'd remained standing. "I'm here to talk about Curry."

"Ah, the elf," Slughorn said. His voice was less cheerful and the corners of his mouth curved downward. "What a tragedy." He sighed.

"What can you tell me about her death?" Hermione asked.

"One of the other elves found her late in the afternoon. She killed herself in a little chamber where we store pumpkin juice. The elf alerted the headmistress, and Minerva asked me to examine the body."

"What did you find?"

Slughorn was slowly stirring the tar-like potion. It smelled heavy, like old, dirty cloth. "She'd not taken any potions, and there were no signs of a spell, a struggle, and no signs of anyone else involved. As far as I can tell, she did everything herself."

"Did you know her?"

"Who, the elf?" Slughorn frowned. "Not very well."

"Professor McGonagall told me she was cleaning the dungeons."

"That's true," Slughorn said.

"And you didn't know her?"

"How many of the elves who cleaned your dorm did you know in the seven years you've lived here?"

Six years, Hermione thought. He was right, though. Elves were as good as invisible when they wanted to be.

"Professor McGonagall gave me her file on the case. I assume you're familiar with it?" she asked.

Slughorn looked surprised. "Why yes," he said.

"Does the file contain a report of your examination?"

"Yes. You'll find everything I know in the report. Is there a reason why you're investigating?"

Hermione shrugged. "Just some routine questions. It's something the Ministry has to do."

"Why didn't they send an Auror?" Slughorn asked.

"Aurors?" Hermione flashed him a conspiratorial smile. "They're too expensive. They're needed for the real cases." The lies came easily. She waved at him. "Thank you, Horace. I think that's all I need to know." Maybe it was rude to cut the conversation short. But Hermione had never grown fond of the old potions professor, who was still weaving his contact net like a big fat spider whenever he got the chance. The longer she stayed, the more advances she'd have to ward off; it was tiresome.

He smiled. "I hope it helps. You're welcome to come back any time if you need more support." His smile widened. "Or if you would like to come to one of our meetings. We have some guests from Durmstrang here next month. Are you sure you aren't interested?"

There he went. Hermione lifted her hand and waved at him on her way out.

"I brings you to the kitchens," Mel said. She'd waited for Hermione outside the lab.

On the way to the kitchen, Mel told her she'd known Curry only by name. She said she didn't know why Curry would have wanted to 'stop working forever', as Mel called it.

**

It had been a long time since Hermione had last seen the kitchens. She remembered coming here to visit Dobby and Winky. Merlin. Those were memories from another life.

Dobby had never lived to see the changes in the Wizarding world. His story – Harry had told it to everyone who'd listened – had helped to change their culture. Dobby was a hero. He was an inspiration. He'd made history and had been left behind.

Hermione missed him.

At lunchtime the kitchens were a busy place. Elves were preparing food, running around with pots and bowls, each of them wearing a white apron over colourful clothes. Hermione gasped in surprise when she spotted and recognised an old knitted, slightly lopsided hat.

"Excuse me, Miss," an elf said, levitating a huge bowl full of potatoes and pushing past her.

Hermione stepped back, trying not to stand in the way, her stomach growling at the wonderful smells.

She watched the elves for a couple of minutes. Why were they ignoring her? They hadn't greeted her; they weren't even looking at her. They hadn't asked her if she wanted something to eat or drink.

Hermione nudged Mel. "Did Curry have family here?"

"No family," Mel said.

"Where did she come from?" Hermione asked.

Mel shook her head. "I is not knowing. She was already being here when I was coming to Hogwarts." Hermione watched her skip a step and hop. She frowned.

"Where's her friend Timi?"

Mel tugged at Hermione's cloak. "Follow me," she said and walked down the length of the first big table. There were four of them, mirroring the four tables in the Great Hall of Hogwarts where the students were seated during their meals.

They crossed the huge room and then entered another one that was packed with elves and stoves, heat rising from filled pans and pots, the air steamy.

Mel pointed to an elf, smaller and thinner than the others. "Timi," she said. "Curry's best friend."

"Thank you, Mel." Hermione went over to Timi who was expertly handling a knife that looked too big for his hands. "Hello Timi, I'm Hermione Granger. I'd like to talk to you."

Timi looked up from his carrots, his hands never stopping their movements. His eyes went wide for a moment, and then he quickly looked back at his carrots. "I am busy," he said.

Hermione was taken aback. She didn't remember any elf ever responding in such a way. "It won't take long," she said. "The headmistress knows that I'm here."

Timi dismembered another carrot with precise cuts and then put the knife down a little too hard. He wiped his hands, talking quietly to the elf next to him. As he stepped away, his neighbour took his place. "Please come," Timi said. "It is too crowded here."

They went into a small chamber filled with numerous crates and bottles. Hermione looked around and realised that those she could see were all labelled 'pumpkin juice'. She looked up and spotted wooden beams across the ceiling. Was this the place where it had happened? She shivered.

"What do you want to talk about?" Timi asked.

"I'd like to talk about Curry. How well did you know her?"

Timi flinched at the name. He looked at the floor. "We were friends," he said.

"How long have you known her?"

"She came here three years ago. We have been friends ever since."

"Do you know where she came from?" Hermione asked.

"She never said."

The conversation reminded Hermione of pulling teeth: dragging and painful. "Have you noticed anything before she died? Or maybe after she died?"

"No," Timi said.

"Can you think of any reason why she would have killed herself?"

Timi flinched again. "No," he said.

"Timi, is there anything you know that could help me understand what happened? Anything at all?"

Timi shook his head.

Hermione let out a breath. It was frustrating. "Is there anyone else you would rather talk to?"

"No," Timi said.

"Oh, for Merlin's sake. This is the place where she died, isn't it?"

Timi nodded, still looking at the floor.

"Talk to me, Timi, please."

Timi looked up at her. His big eyes were unsettling. "It will not make her come back."

Hermione took one of his hands and squeezed it. "No, it won't. But it'll help to stop it. I can help others."

Timi pulled his hand back. "No," he said. "There is nothing I can tell you." Then he vanished, using his elfish magic to disappear and end the conversation.

**

Outside the sun was shining without much strength but with a lot of enthusiasm. The icy wind already smelled like winter. Hermione decided to walk to Hogsmeade and take some time to sort through her thoughts.

With the tips of her fingers, she felt the leather-bound booklet Minerva had given her. Maybe there was something inside that could help her, something of importance that the headmistress hadn't seen because she hadn't known what to look for.

Hermione passed the gates and stepped into the quiet street that led up to Hogsmeade. The village was almost empty at this time of day when no Hogwarts students were on their way up to the main street where the shops were located. The wind picked up, ruffling the trees and sending the last stubborn leaves to the ground. She pulled her hands out of her pockets to hug herself. The gesture was more instinct than reaction to the temperature as her cloak kept her warm and dry.

The growing noise of the wind was the first thing Hermione noticed. It seemed unnatural and out of place. She furrowed her brow and looked around, using her hands to keep her hair out of her eyes. In hindsight, had she not done that, she'd maybe got to her wand a second earlier. That second would have been all she'd needed to stop the summoning charm that suddenly ripped Minerva's booklet out of her pocket with violent force.

Hermione whipped around, but the noise of the wind had become deafening and prevented her from hearing the attacker. Leaves were kept in the air by a controlled gust of wind; they made it almost impossible to spot whoever just stole the important information. "No," she cried, casting a spell of her own, trying to summon the book back.

There was movement, and she turned toward it, squinting as tears started to form from the icy breeze.

She was too late. A cloaked figure, the size of a child, disappeared, and with it, the noise and the wind.

"Come back!" she shouted, knowing that it was silly to do so, but unable to manage her frustration in any other way. "Come back right now!"

There was no reaction, just the leaves falling down to the ground now that the wind was gone. They seemed to mock her.

She remembered Minerva's words. There was no copy of the report.

**

Minutes later, Hermione appeared in Knockturn Alley. The thief had been an elf, that much was certain. But who? Not many knew about the booklet, even less knew that Minerva had given it to Hermione. Either someone from Hogwarts or someone with contacts in Hogwarts must have stolen it.

Why had they stolen it? Had Minerva collected information that could lead to whoever was behind the crime? What exactly was the crime? Hermione wished she had given in to her curiosity and taken the bloody booklet to an empty classroom, reading it right then and there. Too late for that.

An elf was waiting in the unlit office, bathed in shadows. The face was obscured by a hood that fell down almost to the nose. Hermione didn't recognise the elf, not at first. She stopped in the open door, somewhere between wary and curious.

"Good evening, Miss Granger," the elf said in an unfamiliar voice, and yet, Hermione thought that she'd seen her before. Her gaze fell to the outstretched hand. She recognised the small white paper rectangle. It was her business card.

"Libby," Hermione said. She stepped inside, closed the door and lit the candles around the room with a spell. "What can I do for you?"

Libby seemed to shrink further into the chair, as if trying to disappear. "You wanted to talk to Libby." She sounded timid but firm, like someone who was terrified and willing to risk the consequences of her choices.

Hermione took a minute to settle down on the sofa. "I do, yes. Is there something you can tell me?"

Libby hesitated. "Yes."

Hermione waited a long moment, but Libby didn't seem to know where to start. "I know that Herman was your brother. I'm so sorry."

Libby lifted her head, and for the first time, Hermione was able to see her eyes. They looked sad and hollow. "Libby misses him."

"It must be hard for you," Hermione said.

"Libby is still living," she said.

"Would you talk about what happened?"

"It's why Libby came. Mistress doesn't know."

"I won't tell anyone."

Libby shook her head. "It's not a secret. Herman was brave. Libby can be brave, too." Then she added, "Miss Granger needs to break it."

"What do I need to break?"

Libby opened her mouth but then flinched. "It's the wrong question."

Hermione frowned. What did that mean? "Did your brother take his own life?" she asked.

There was a soft sound proceeding the answer. "He took the rope and made the noose. He put it around his neck and magicked it so-" Libby couldn't finish the sentence; her voice broke. She gestured with her small fist, pulling an invisible rope from her neck up over her head.

"I understand," Hermione said.

Libby rubbed her eyes. "He didn't take his own life," she said. "He did not kill himself. He wanted to live."

"What makes you think that?"

A sad smile appeared, and it almost reached her hollow eyes. "He was in love," she said. "He wanted to be free. He wanted to have free elfling."

Free elfling? Oh no. Oh Merlin. Hermione took one of Molly's home-made biscuits. "He was going to be a father?"

Libby nodded. Then she said, "Mitty wanted to be free, too. They wanted their own family."

Hermione took another biscuit. "Mitty from Beauparlants," she said. Was that the connection?

"Mitty was so nice to Herman. She was good."

"Do you know what happened?" Hermione asked.

"Libby knows." She broke off and sniffled.

Hermione leaned forward and took Libby's hand. "Tell me what you know."

All in one breath, Libby said, "They didn't want to die, and they wanted to be free and happy, and they planned to ask for freedom, and masters needed to grant it because of the new law that says no elf has to be un-free if elf doesn't want to; and before they asked they were sent to-" Libby gasped and her eyes widened. She clutched at her chest. "And then, when they were dead, I was sent."

"What's wrong, Libby?" Hermione watched the elf in mounting confusion and worry. "Where did they send you?"

But Libby didn't listen. She got up from her chair.

"Libby needs to go now."

"Wait," Hermione called. "Herman and Mitty, where did they meet?" Maybe a change of topic would calm Libby down.

Libby was shaking from head to toe, but she seemed determined to talk. "They met at the parties. Libby needs to go-" Her voice broke again.

"Which parties?"

"Madame Millicent's parties," Libby said. Then she added, "Miss Granger must break it."

Before Hermione could ask her what she meant or ask her for more information about the parties, Libby disappeared.

Hermione stared at the spot where the elf had been. What had just happened? Why the sudden departure? Who had sent Mitty and Herman whereto before they died? And what had happened there?

Hermione could hardly follow Libby and barge into Nott's house and demand to see her. Maybe Harry could come with her in the morning. Someone with an Auror badge should be able to arrange an official conversation even without Mora Nott's agreement.

**

It was a busy day for Diagon Alley. Witches and wizards were out and about, doing their daily business, shopping and preparing for Halloween which was only a day away. There were pumpkins and lanterns and costumes, bags full of food and baskets full of decoration for celebrations and parties.

Hermione had an invitation, too, but in the light of current events, she wasn't so sure if she was going to make it. Her friends wouldn't be surprised. Work had a bad habit of being unmindful of her private life.

She found Millicent behind the counter of the agency, looking surly. There was a deep crease between her eyes, and her lips were set in a thin line, making her dominant jaw look even bigger. The woman was no pixy. Even sitting, she looked tall and strong. She'd grown out of trying to hide her bulk, carrying her large, muscled frame with ease and casual confidence. Her hair was pulled back, just long enough to be held by a rubber band. A few strands had escaped and framed her face, softening the edges of her features that were far more interesting than pretty. They were, however, not unattractive at all. Boy, were they not. Good thing that Hermione didn't notice. It wasn't as if she had a thing for surly athletes.

Hermione cleared her throat, pointedly ignoring that Millicent's look had changed from surly to bemused. "How come you didn't mention that Herman wanted to marry?" Hermione frowned. "Or whatever it is that elves do when they are procreating." Once again she realised how little she knew about elves. Her teenage self would have been disappointed.

"Herman wanted to marry? And procreate?" Millicent asked. She pursed her lips. "Mitty?"

"Lucky guess?" Hermione tried to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.

"Yes. I saw them together."

"Right," Hermione said. "That wouldn't have been by any chance at one of your parties?"

Millicent put away her quill. "Look who's done her homework," she said.

Hermione tried not to let on that she had no idea what she was talking about. "And you never thought of mentioning this? I dimly remember that our deal was to share all information."

Millicent snorted. "Our deal was to share everything that's relevant for the case." She pointed an accusing finger at Hermione. "And don't think I believe for a second that you've done that."

"Of course, I did," Hermione said. She wouldn't lose any sleep over lying to Millicent. "Why didn't you tell me about Herman and Mitty?"

Millicent got up from her chair. "Because I'm obviously the mastermind behind those terrible murders." She sighed and rubbed at her forehead. "Why don't you start using that brain you're so proud of Granger? What reason could I have to hurt elves? What possible reason could I have to kill elves?"

Hermione scowled right back at her. "I don't know. You tell me."

"Oh for fuck's sake." Millicent wrenched open one of the drawers with a force that rattled the whole cabinet. She took out a small black card and slapped it on the wooden surface of the counter. "It will show you the address tomorrow evening. Bring a costume and an elf."

Hermione took the card and turned it. Both sides were black. "Is that an invitation to one of your parties? What kind of party is it? And why do I need an elf?"

Millicent stood up straight. Hermione didn't need to read her thoughts to see her temper rising and bubbling just under the surface. "It's a Halloween party. Bring a costume and an elf," Millicent said again.

"Right." Hermione pocketed the card. She debated hexing the woman and forcing information out of her. She dismissed it. Maybe the party would bring something up. It was an opportunity she couldn't let pass. "I'll be there."

**

Hermione returned to the office. She was surrounded by files and bits and pieces of information she'd found in the depths of her filing cabinet. Ten years was a long time to file away all kinds of things.

She was trying to puzzle together some sort of elf pedigree when an owl pecked against her window. Hermione got up, stretched and let the bird in.

"Hermes," she said. It was Percy's owl.

She stroked over the back of his feathers, waiting for him to stick out his leg. There was a scroll attached to it. Only a moment after she'd taken it off him, Hermes was back in the air. The clever owl had obviously decided that he wasn't going to get a treat from her.

Meet me at my flat. Now. P.

Hermione didn't waste any time; she grabbed her cloak and turned on the spot. She hoped that Percy had lowered his wards.

He had.

She found him sitting at his desk-like table that was the centre of the living room. He was surrounded by paper and files, chewing on his quill.

He looked up when she arrived. "That was fast. Thank you for coming."

Hermione took in some details: slumped shoulders, as if a heavy weight was resting on them, dark circles under his eyes, ink-blackened fingers, two empty bottles of pepper-up potion. "What's going on?" she asked.

"Another house-elf was reported dead," he said. "Another suicide."

Hermione draped her cloak carelessly over the back of the sofa. Percy didn't make a comment, something that spoke volumes about the gravity of the situation. "Anyone I know?"

"I think so," Percy said. "You talked to Mora Nott, didn't you?"

Hermione's stomach dropped. It couldn't be. She nodded.

"Did you meet Libby, Nott's second elf? Mora Nott found her two hours ago. Dead. Killed herself like all the others. Nott informed the Ministry immediately."

"Oh no," Hermione said. Her knees went weak, and she was glad that the sofa was right there to catch her as she sat down. "It can't be. I talked to Libby about," she checked the large clock on the wall, "about five hours ago. She came to my office."

Percy raised his eyebrows. "She came to your office? Did the Notts know about this? They didn't mention it."

Hermione shook her head. She was still processing the news. "No. They didn't know." She leaned back against the sofa and rubbed the palm of her hand over her tired eyes. "What happened?"

"Nott said she found the elf at exactly the same spot where they found Herman. Killed herself in exactly the same way."

But why? Hermione couldn't get past that question. Libby had been there; she'd wanted to help; she'd tried to give her important information.

"Hermione?" Percy asked. He looked concerned. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah," Hermione said. "I'm alright. Peachy." Merlin. She felt sick. "Did you know she was Herman's sister?"

"That wasn't in the registry," Percy said. "Which is odd. But it's not uncommon that whole families of elves work for the same family."

Hermione snorted. "Work. That makes it sound as if they had a choice. They were slaves, not employees."

"I know," Percy said. "Though, if they want to, they can demand to be freed now."

"Herman wanted to be free. Mitty, the Bauparlants elf, wanted to be free, too. Funny how they're dead now. Libby died directly after she gave me a few details, and she was absolutely certain that her brother didn't kill himself."

"But why?" Percy asked. "Why would someone do that?"

"Maybe someone doesn't want free elves. But why not kill free elves instead of house-elves? Why Herman and Mitty? Who'd gain what from their deaths?" Hermione was thinking aloud. "And what about Libby? Her death might have something to do with what she told me. She didn't tell me all that much, though." And there was another question. Who - beside the Notts - could have known that Libby had come to see Hermione?

"What about Fright from the Ministry and Curry from Hogwarts?" Percy asked.

"I don't know. Curry was a free elf. Maybe she knew something that made her a target. Fright? No idea. He knew something, too? That's a very public secret, if you ask me. We know that he thought about asking for freedom from the transcript of his counselling at the agency."

"You saw the transcripts of the agency? How did you get them?" Percy asked.

"Don't ask. You don't want to know." Hermione saw Percy's suspicious look and sighed. "I came to some sort of understanding with Miss Bulstrode. Seriously. Don't ask."

The corners of Percy's mouth twitched.

"Shut it, Weasley. Question is, why didn't Fright request clothes? The Ministry isn't opposed to freeing elves; it would go against their own laws."

"Theoretically," Percy said. "You know that he worked for MacFarlan, right?"

"Yeah," Hermione said. "Poor thing. Makes you understand why he wanted to be free." Hermione gnawed on her bottom lip. "What's the name of the elf who's working for MacFarlan now?" she asked.

"Annie," Percy said. "Before you ask, I don't think it's a good idea to question her right now. I talked to her earlier. She doesn't know anything, but she's terrified. Looks like MacFarlan ordered her to keep an eye on me."

"Keep an eye on you? Why?" This was getting way too complex.

"MacFarlan doesn't want me to poke around. That's why I wanted you to come here. There are no secrets at the Ministry."

Hermione nodded. "That's one perfect reason to talk to Annie and see what happens."

"Like you did with Libby?" Percy asked.

**

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four vBulletin statistic
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