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 Four

Mel was sitting in her tiny quarters. She stared at her bed where she'd laid out all of her possessions in a neat row. She knew why Curry had taken her life; she knew why Timi was so angry all of the time; and she knew what was expected of her.

She would not do it again.

The family she'd grown up in hadn't been a nice one. The children had been cruel, and her master had never protected her.

She'd asked for clothes. She'd fought for her freedom. She'd come all the way to Hogwarts and started a new, wonderful life. She'd found friends and family. She'd found a home.

Everything she owned fit into a small bag: a few clothes, a toothbrush, a journal she sometimes wrote in, and an ancient teddy bear Curry had given her when she'd arrived at Hogwarts. "So you never feel lonely," Curry had said.

Mel touched the little bear and smoothed back his frayed ears. She'd never felt so lonely in her whole life.

She put the bear in the bag, zipped it closed, and slung it over her small shoulder. Never again would someone force her to do something against her will.

With her head held high, she walked out the front gates of Hogwarts. She didn't know where she was going; she just knew she couldn't stay.

Mel was a free elf.

**

Hermione was awake long before the sun rose above the horizon. She had given up on sleep and was sitting on her work table, surrounded by files, parchment, one snoring rabbit, and one wheezing half-Kneazle.

She'd written a list in red ink:

Bulstrode
MacFarlan
Nott
Beauparlants
Slughorn


Millicent Bulstrode had talked to three of the dead elves. She had contacts among the elf-possessing families, and she knew far more than she let on. There were mysterious parties, sudden wealth and a person that seemed to be very different from the girl Hermione had known in school. Could people change that much?

Isabel MacFarlan was the Head of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. She'd taken over the job from Amos Diggory and seemed to have inherited his dislike for house-elves. She certainly had never gone out of her way to help them. Fright, the dead Ministry-elf had worked for her. Shouldn't she be more interested in solving this puzzle? Or was she trying to protect herself because she was involved?

Mora Nott was just as mysterious. The woman had seemed nice at first. But why hadn't she let Hermione talk to Libby? Where had she sent Herman and Libby before they died?

The Beauparlants' absence was suspicious. But according to the report, they'd also been out of the country when Libby had died. What about their Ministry connection?

Horace Slughorn. He was one of three people who'd known that Minerva had given Hermione the booklet. Only Slughorn, Minerva or Mel could have either leaked the information, or organised the attack. Slughorn seemed most likely. But why?

Hermione needed to work out who had a motive. In order to work out who had a motive, she needed to know what exactly the crime was. Damn.

She wasn't going to find it out all alone in her flat with a snoring bunny draped over her right foot. She gently wiggled her foot free from under Roger. It was time to get dressed and play investigator.

The wind was cool against her cheeks as she left her flat, early morning fog bathing the world in an eerie mist.

She'd walked only a few steps before she spotted the shadow of a tall figure out of the corner of her eyes. Her instinct told her to waste no time and Apparate. Her head told her to stay and gather information. Her heart hoped they were elf-killers and looking for a lesson in free will.

A shake of her wrist made her wand glide from its holster into her hand. There were three people, potentially a forth directly behind her. Amateurs, judging from the way they moved and their inexpert disguise. Hermione drew up the hood of her cloak. The thick, charmed leather would protect everything but her face from anything that wasn't an unforgivable curse.

The shadowy figure came closer. It was a man, and he stepped in front of her, facing her. A spell was blurring his features. She looked directly at him, but she couldn't make out any outlines. It was like looking through murky water.

The others drew closer as well until four men were standing around her in a circle.

"Don't try to Apparate," the one in front of her said. He had a deep voice and spoke without haste. "We set up wards. You will arrive in pieces if you try."

Hermione took a broader stance and centred her weight. She smiled a little while she tried to figure out how she was going to defend herself if all four of them attacked at the same time. No, not all four. One of them would have to keep up the temporary wards. A quick glance showed that the man on the left was chanting under his breath, maintaining the spell.

She could take out the ward maintainer. But she'd need at least two seconds to do it, and those were long enough for the others to throw at least one spell at her. With a little luck they'd all try to curse or hex her directly and hit her cloak instead.

Counting on luck was reserved for desperate situations. It wasn't that bad yet.

"What do you want?" she asked.

The man in front of her seemed to be the chosen spokesperson. "We just want to talk."

"Talk," she said. "Don't waste my time."

A chuckle made his blurry features wobble. "Not wasting your precious time is exactly what we want," he said. "Leave the elves alone, and everyone will be happier."

Oh. It was one of those. That was rather anticlimactic. "Who are you?" she asked.

Again the chuckle. "I'm just someone with an interest in your well-being. Fewer people - and elves - will get hurt if you stop right now. Including yourself."

Hermione gripped her wand tighter. "I can take care of myself," she said. "I suggest you take down those wards, go out of my way and seek help for that delusion problem you seem to be having. For whom did you say you were working?"

She'd watched him and saw the barely noticeable nod.

When using magic, standing in a circle around a chosen victim was pretty damn stupid and another sign that they were amateurs.

As soon as the leader nodded - the signal for his companions to attack - Hermione crouched and cast a shield charm, hoping that there were indeed only anti-Apparition wards, and not wards that would prevent her from using magic altogether. She didn't miscalculate.

The shield went up, a transparent barrier an inch above her skin. She wouldn't be able to hold it and cast an attacking spell, but it would serve her well for surviving the first round.

The circle helped. The second man on her left took out the one standing on her right with what looked like a nasty and painful hex. The man on the right fell to the ground and screamed.

Cheap thugs weren't cost effective.

The speaker shot a stunning spell at her that was deflected by her shield. Hermione kicked with her right foot, throwing the power of her hips into the equation, aiming for his ankle. She hit him squarely, but instead of falling, the man just cried out in pain and took a step backward.

Another spell hit her shield. She couldn't keep that tactic up forever. She leaped to the right, over the writhing body of the thug who'd been taken out by his accomplice and straightened up. One was still chanting, the other two seemed to have figured out that her shield was only good against magic and not physical attack.

That was faster than she'd given them credit for, but it didn't matter. Hermione was ready. She moved her wand in a half circle before her, dropping the shield a moment before she spoke the spell. "Duro," she said, concentrating on making the air itself impenetrable. A wall formed in less than a second between her and her opponents, giving her a moment to breathe.

"Confringo," the leader of the three hollered in his deep voice. The wall exploded with a deafening sound, and Hermione had to use her arm to shield her face from falling stone.

She had barely time to throw herself out of the way of a shouted 'Crucio', her cloak saving her from another stunning spell coming from the other man.

In quick succession she cast two wordless 'Petrificus Totalus' that didn't have any effect whatsoever. Great.

That was the moment when the fist of the one who'd charmed the wards hit her squarely in the face. She screamed in rage.

Her body remembered the long hours when Harry and Ron had showed her their newly acquired Auror combat techniques. Instead of letting herself be thrown back and open herself for attack, she threw her weight forward.

Hermione wasn't very tall, and she wasn't heavy either. But the combined force of her body, her anger, and a strategically lifted knee knocked the man down. She cast another shield over herself. He fell back, his head hitting the ground so hard that Hermione could hear his teeth chattering.

The other two advanced, and she realised that she'd knocked out the ward-holder, which meant she'd be able to Apparate.

Hermione braced herself, rolled off the man, imagined herself standing and conjured up an image of the dark alley behind the agency in her mind.

Then she Apparated.

Instead of arriving with blazing eyes, flying hair and billowing coat, arousing admiration from bystanders, she appeared lying on the cobblestones in a stinking water puddle, blood running out of her nose. She detested having to run. Her nose was throbbing viscously, and her vision was a little blurry. A quick check made sure that the only thing she'd left behind was her dignity.

It took longer to get the smelly, murky water out of her hair, than it took to repair her nose. Hermione wasn't bad at healing magic, but she lacked the patience it took to make it painless. She gritted her teeth and got the job done fast.

**

Hermione swallowed her anger at being attacked and put aside the frustration at having been caught off guard. She pushed her wand up her sleeve with a little more force than strictly necessary and stalked toward the front entrance of the agency. Her cloak was billowing.

Millicent looked up from behind the counter when the door bell jingled. "Are you going to come in every morning now?" She looked at Hermione and frowned. "Did someone punch your nose? It looks," Millicent tilted her head, "bit lopsided."

Hermione glared at her. "I'll let my favourite healer fix it once I have the time to worry about it." She felt another drop of blood trickle out of her nose, and she wiped it away with the sleeve of her cloak. The rough gesture sent white sparks of pain straight into the centre of her brain. She winced.

"Don't be a baby," Millicent said. There wasn't the faintest trace of compassion in her voice. "From what I hear you must have a flat-rate at St. Mungo's."

Hermione snorted; she couldn't help it. "What exactly have you heard?" she asked.

Millicent grinned as she got up. She was still a prime suspect, Hermione reminded herself. Would Millicent underestimate her far enough to send some spineless, brainless thugs? Hermione didn't think so. It was, of course, possible that Millicent had done it so Hermione would come to that very conclusion. "Paranoia, I heart thee," Hermione muttered.

"What?" Millicent was standing directly in front of Hermione, and she hadn't even noticed her coming closer.

"Nothing," Hermione said.

"Hold still." Millicent was taller than Hermione by at least half a head, and she was broader. There was a considerable amount of muscle to her, of the kind that usually came from hard work instead of exercise. Was she shovelling earth in her free time?

The spells directed at Hermione's face were of subtle, soothing magic that felt as if it rearranged the basic structures of her face. How sane was it to give Millicent the perfect opportunity of hexing her, maybe giving her a new face altogether? Would Argus Filch look back at her the next time Hermione looked into a mirror?

She shuddered.

"Not so brave now, huh?" Millicent said between incantations. She touched the tip of Hermione's nose with her wand, and instead of the expected pain, there was only a very mild throbbing. She stepped back and regarded her work. "Not the prettiest I've done, but one of the most accurate."

Hermione scowled. She took out her own wand and tapped the surface of the counter. It rippled, went through the colours of the rainbow, and then reflected her own face back at her. It was slightly swollen, red, and there were still traces of blood. Otherwise it looked fine.

"What happened?" Millicent asked

Hermione described the four men and their ineffective attempt to first threaten and scare her, and then attack her. "You wouldn't know any of them?" she asked when she'd finished the story.

Millicent glared but didn't answer her question. "They don't sound like seasoned criminals," she said. "They sound a lot like desperation."

"Exactly what I was thinking," Hermione said. "Which of course means, I must be right on track. Someone is looking over their shoulder and sees me coming closer."

The conversation was interrupted as the door opened. In came an elf. She was wearing a yellow skirt, a pink woollen jumper and an enormous bead bracelet around her right forearm. The elf greeted them politely. She walked to the counter and opened her big messenger bag that hung low on her hip, the strap across her shoulder. When she moved her hand to take several envelopes out of the bag, the colourful wooden beads clicked against each other, making a very distinct rattling sound. It was a sound Hermione recognised.

Several things fell into place.

Hermione waited until the elf was gone. "Who was that?" she asked.

"That's Frame. She brings the mail," Millicent said, shifting through the envelopes. "The owl office decided to collect regular mail and then send it out with an elf, instead of letting hundreds of owls fly through Diagon. They still let urgent and top secret messages through, but otherwise, an elf comes around twice a day to bring mail to everyone." She sorted the mail into three piles, much like Hermione did it. "Haven't you noticed that it's become less dangerous to go outside?" Millicent smirked. "Then again, maybe you wouldn't notice, what with that nest already on your head."

"Hair insults. Really. Haven't you told me to grow up?"

"What can I say," Millicent said with a smile, "I'm a hypocrite."

The idea was neat. Hermione made a mental note to go to the owl office and ask for an expansion of the service. Dodging stray owl bombs was crap. Literally.

"What do you know about her?" Hermione turned around and watched the elf enter the bakery across the street.

"She was a Ministry-elf before she asked for clothes a couple of months back. I helped her go through the procedure and then helped her find a job."

"Why didn't she stay at the Ministry? Didn't they want to keep her?"

Millicent shook her head. "I don't know. She just said she wanted to leave; I suspect she had trouble with her former master. I usually don't push. They tell me what they want me to tell. Everything else is none of my business."

Hermione huffed. "Yeah. That's the easy way out."

"It has nothing to do with easy," Millicent said. "It has something to do with treating them like adults. They're capable of making their own decisions. That's the whole point of this business."

"Who are you trying to out-holy?"

Frame was coming out of the bakery now, walking down the street. A confrontation didn't seem like a smart idea. Following her wouldn't make much sense as long as she was working and carrying mail around Diagon Alley.

"Why are you interested in her?" Millicent asked.

"I'm not sure how it all fits together, but I've had trouble with elves. One of them stole important information from me. One followed me in Hogsmeade the other day. And I think this one, Frame, was watching my office. I tripped over her yesterday. I heard the sound of the beads. Now I know where I heard it before. I saw her leave your agency two days ago."

"That's a bit weak."

"I know. That's why I'm going to follow her when she's done. Do you have any idea when her shift is over?"

Millicent checked her clock. "She's on time this morning, so I reckon as usual. She told me she delivers mail until eleven, then goes back to the owl office for half an hour. She then goes home for a long lunch and returns some time in the afternoon for her second shift. Don't think there'll be a second shift today. It's Halloween."

Eleven thirty. That would give Hermione a bit over three hours before she had to be at the owl office. "I'll see you at the party," she said and turned toward the door. Before she left, she remembered why she'd come in the first place. She turned back to face Millicent again. "Did you hear about Libby?"

"Libby? Nott's elf? What's with her?"

She watched Millicent's reaction. "Libby killed herself yesterday."

Colour drowned from Millicent's face. She looked shaken. Either Millicent was a good enough actor to perform on stage or she'd really not known. "I had no idea," she said. "Why?"

"That's a very good question," Hermione said. "You should think about becoming an investigator. What with your talents."

Anger replaced the look of sadness, and Millicent's eyes were blazing as she took a step toward Hermione. Her temper was finally getting the best of her. More like anything else that Hermione had seen in the last days, this was a sign that brass-plate-Millie was a real person, and not a fake shell that had been designed to fool unsuspecting investigators.

Hermione decided to leave. One brawl per morning was enough.

**

Lavender opened the door in a long orange bathrobe, her hair twisted around at least a million tiny curlers that were stacked up on her head in neat piles. She wore purple slippers the size and fluffity of large bunnies that looked so comfortable that Hermione's toes started to hurt longingly in her heavy boots.

"Hey," Lavender said. She smiled and gestured for Hermione to come inside. "Aren't you a little early? The party won't start for another ten hours."

Hermione coughed as she entered the little house. "About that," she said.

Lavender's face fell. "Don't tell me you're not coming. Parvati invited her cousin. She's gorgeous."

Hermione ignored the last part and gestured at her hair. "There's no way I'm going to be able to compete with hair that had time to get in shape for ten hours. Where's the point in trying?"

One corner of Lavender's mouth quirked up. "Do it like last year. Wrap yourself up in bandages and be a mummy. Not a strand of hair was visible as far as I remember."

Hermione groaned. "I've sworn never to let Bill help me get dressed again."

"Which is why you're here, I take it."

"What gave it away?" Hermione asked.

"You're wearing your cloak, which means you're working. You know that Ron is at work so you didn't come to talk to him, and you wouldn't have come here for a friendly chat when you're in the middle of a case." Hermione was about to protest but Lavender held up her hand to silence her. "What could you possibly want from a dressmaker on Halloween? You're not the only one who can find answers to obvious questions, you know?"

"You're my hero, Lavender."

"Because I'm going to help you?"

"That, too. But mainly because you still haven't killed Ron after five years of marriage."

"It's been a close call a few times."

"Believe me, I know."

They shared a chuckle and a shoulder nudge that was full of intimate knowledge of the man they both loved. One of them had married him after the other had given him up as her lover and embraced him as her best friend. It had taken a lot of time, patience and fighting in shrill voices to get to the point of accepting each other as different people with different values.

"What do you need?" Lavender asked. She led Hermione to their living room. It was an odd mixture of modern and cosy, old furniture matched with a sparkling white couch that Hermione knew was charmed to remain pristine even when faced with Weasley enthusiasm.

"I need a costume for a fancy party. I don't want to be recognised."

Lavender eyed her from head to toe, probably already taking measures in her head and going through alternatives. When it came to fabric, Lavender was a miracle worker. Her tiny boutique in Diagon Alley was a renowned address not only in Britain.

"What kind of party is it? Who's the host? Who's your date?" Lavender asked as she went over to an old cabinet and opened it. She took out a catalogue with lists upon lists of handwritten inventory. Hermione had seen her consult it before. It wasn't the first time Hermione had asked Lavender to help in a fashion emergency.

Hermione grinned before she answered the question. "Super-secret. Millicent Bulstrode. An elf."

Lavender's smile widened. "My fee is the usual. I'll charge for the materials in Galleons. For my work and considerable expertise at a time when I should do last minute arrangements for my own party, you'll pay me in information. I want to know everything." Her hands were already leafing through the folder until she came to a page that seemed to be what she was looking for.

"You've got yourself a deal, lady," Hermione said. She reached into the depths of her cloak and gave Lavender one of her most treasured possessions. "You know where it goes," she said.

Lavender took it. "You can count on me."

**

Hermione regarded her dark office. The lights were out, the door had been locked and three owls were sitting outside on the window board. Was Pixy still sick? Hermione opened the window and let the owls in. The letters they carried didn't have an answer.

Hermione wrote a note and sent it out with her owl, hoping there'd be a reply once she'd come back from following Frame.

Rain was coming down when she arrived at the owl office. It made her disillusionment spell less efficient. If the rain became stronger, her shape would be clearly outlined. Hermione glanced up at the clouds and hoped she'd be lucky.

She scanned the street, her eyes trained to pick up subtle inconsistencies. She spotted the other disillusioned person at once.

Slowly, Hermione walked over to the almost invisible shape, trying not to step into puddles that could give away her position.

"What are you doing here?" she whispered.

"I'm thinking about becoming an investigator, what with my talents," Millicent whispered back.

"No you don't. This isn't the time and place to annoy me. Go back to your agency and let me work."

"Or what?" Millicent whispered. "Are you going to glare at me?"

What in the name of Aberforth's dirty glasses was she trying to accomplish? Hermione couldn't see Millicent's face so her ability to judge her seriousness was limited. "Go away," she whispered furiously.

"Bite me."

The door opened. Frame came down the stairs that led up to the entrance. She was easy to spot with her yellow skirt, pink top and noisy bead bracelet.

"What are you going to do if she Apparates?"

Hermione made a shushing noise. "Shut up; huge ears," she said. She couldn't stun Millicent without her falling over and making some kind of noise, but she'd be able to hex her silent. One more word, and Hermione would do just that.

They followed Frame down Diagon Alley. Hermione put her hand into her pocket, closing it around a small packet of light blue dust. Frame looked left and right before she turned around a corner and walked quickly down a small side street. Then, almost at the end of it where there were deep shadows, Frame disappeared.

Millicent let out a string of colourful curses. Hermione ignored her. She sprinted as fast as she could toward the place where Frame had vanished, pulling out the small bag of powder as she went. Every second counted.

"What are you doing?" Millicent watched as Hermione threw a handful of powder over the elf-less spot.

"When you Apparate, you concentrate on your destination. It can't be all that different with elf magic." Hermione was waiting for the blue dust to settle under a protective magical dome she'd created to shield it from the rain. "It leaves an imprint behind, an image of pure energy that stays for only a few moments."

Hermione waved her wand in concentric circles over the dust, muttering a charm. The dust rose; more and more grains flew into the air, swirling in strange and complicated patterns. Very slowly, the dust created an image. On a small hill stood a crooked building surrounded by a fence. The doors and windows were boarded up, a narrow road led to a village.

"That's the Shrieking Shack in Hogsmeade," Millicent said.

"At least I know the terrain," Hermione answered. She reached out and grabbed what she hoped was Millicent's arm. Then she Apparated them both.

They arrived under a cluster of trees out of sight from the house.

Millicent yanked her arm free. "What are we going to do?" she asked.

"We're going to cast some spells to determine how many people or elves are inside." Hermione did that, using a bit of complicated magic and long years of experience. "Four elves," she said.

"So what are we going to do now?" Millicent repeated.

"This must be their centre of operation. Whoever they are. And whatever they operate. They won't just vanish from here. Which is why we'll be polite, walk up to the front door and knock." Hermione dropped her disillusionment charm.

"What?"

"Follow me and try to look like you know what you're doing."

Werewolf sanctuary, Death Eater stronghold and now what? House-elf conspiracy centre? A lot of bad things had happened in this house, and Hermione couldn't escape the memories. She gripped her wand tightly as they walked up to the front door.

The door was boarded and looked as if it hadn't been used in decades.

She knocked.

Millicent had dropped her disillusionment charm and was standing next to Hermione, tall and solid as a rock.

They never saw the spell coming.

**

Hermione woke up on a hard wooden floor. It smelled musty, and as she blinked her eyes open, she couldn't make out anything but the faintest traces of light coming in through tiny cracks in the otherwise dark room. What had happened?

She tried to sit up and nearly jumped when small, firm hands helped her.

"Miss Hermione, you is alright?"

"Pix? What are you doing here? What happened?" Hermione stretched a little to get a feel for her body. When nothing hurt, she patted her pockets and checked her holster. Everything including her wand was still there.

Pixy let out a breath. When she spoke, she sounded relieved. "They took me. And now they took you and Miss Millicent."

Millicent. Hermione tried to make out a Bulstrode-sized shape but her eyes hadn't yet adjusted to the darkness. She concentrated on her other senses and heard quiet, regular breathing on the other side of the room that turned into a groan as she was listening.

"Excellent plan, Granger," Millicent said a minute later. "That worked really well. I wish I were as good as you. You sure showed them how-"

"Oh, shut up," Hermione said. She still had no idea what had happened. "Pix?" she asked more softly. "I thought you were sick. You sent a note, didn't you?"

"Sick?" Pixy sounded scandalised. "I is not sick."

"But why did they take you? What do they want?"

"They wants to stop the murders." The last word was hardly audible.

"Who are they?" Hermione asked.

Pixy hesitated. "They's not evil," she finally said. "They's worried and trying to do something."

"I know, Pix." Hermione put as much honesty into her voice as possible. Pixy was kind and caring, and it wasn't the first time that she was torn between her loyalty as an elf, and her loyalty as Hermione's friend and assistant. "We came to talk and not to attack."

"They doesn't trust you," Pixy said. "Wizards doesn't want to know, they said. Wizards kill elves, they said." She paused, and then she whispered, "They said you killed Libby."

The words made Hermione nauseous. Had she killed Libby? She shook her head. No, she hadn't killed the elf. But her actions might have caused Libby's death. The difference was purely intellectual; the result was the same.

Millicent picked up the conversation. "Do you know why the elves are dead?"

"No," Pixy said.

Hermione frowned in the darkness. She took out her wand and muttered, "Lumos." Nothing happened, and she tried again, very precise in her charm work. Again, nothing happened. She heard Millicent do the same.

"Magic doesn't work here," Pixy said. "They blocks us from it."

"That's why they left us the wands." Hermione rummaged around in her pockets until she found a slender tube about four inches long, filled with a gel that would have appeared yellow if they'd had enough light to see it. "And that's why we have a back-up plan." She gripped the tube with both hands and snapped it.

Yellow light illuminated the room. All three of them were sitting on the floor. Hermione and Pixy leaned against the wall next to a door, and Millicent sat on the opposite side under a boarded up window. A quick check made sure that the door was locked and the boards were solid. Nothing else was in the room - no furniture, no rug, no pictures on the wall.

Millicent eyed the glowing tube. "What's that? It's not magic, is it?" she asked.

"Chemistry," Hermione said. Both Millicent and Pixy looked at her blankly. Hermione sighed. "Nevermind. We can see now."

"Why did they bring us here? What do they want from us?" Millicent asked.

Hermione looked around in the empty room once more. "I don't think they want anything from us," she said. "I think they want us to stay out of something. Who are they, Pixy?" she asked again.

"I doesn't know all of them," Pixy said. "I followed Frame yesterday because I heard her watch the office. There was three - one of them I saw before at Hogwarts."

So Pixy had basically done the same as Hermione and Millicent, just a day earlier. "And they kept you here?" Hermione said.

Pixy nodded.

"Where are they now? Are they still in the house?" Hermione hadn't heard any noises from outside the room despite it not being soundproof. The rain was audible through the boarded window.

"They said that they won't come back until tomorrow. They plans something tonight."

"Do you know what they're planning?"

Pixy looked up and met Hermione's gaze. Her skin looked sick in the yellow light. "I heard them talk. They said there is only one way to stop it." Pixy's voice dropped to a low whisper. "They wants to kill him."

Hermione blinked. That went against everything elves believed in. They must be desperate. "Who is it?"

Pixy shook her head. "I does not know. But I knows where."

"Where?" Hermione asked.

"They has a black card."

"Sweet Salazar," Millicent said.

Hermione frowned. "You think they'll do it at the party? But there'll be no party if you're not there, right?"

"There will," Millicent said. "It's well organised. Frame has been there before; she knows that they don't need me to be there. "

Hermione wrecked her brain, trying to make all the information fit together. "The elves know what is happening," she thought aloud. "They think whatever happens will continue if they don't do something soon. They locked us up so we can't intervene." Another thing fell into place. "That's why they stole Minerva's booklet. They wanted to keep me from using the information to hurt more elves." Hermione gritted her teeth. "They think Libby died because she told me something."

But why did Libby die? Why would she kill herself because she said something? No one could get away with making so many murders look like suicides. It made no sense. Murder would make sense. But suicide? An elf couldn't be forced to commit suicide. A master's will didn't reach that far; ordering suicide meant breaking the bond that made an elf a slave.

The bond wasn't unbreakable.

Not unbreakable.

Break it.

Hermione lifted her hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp. "Those sons of Blast-Ended Screwts."

"Could you give us a hint what you're talking about?" Millicent sounded impatient.

"The bond between elf and master isn't unbreakable," Hermione said. "Think about it. The new laws give elves the right to request clothes. The master cannot deny it; it's illegal. He can't threaten them with forced suicide either, because that would be the equivalent of giving clothes."

Millicent frowned. "So if you want to keep your elf, but your elf wants to be free, you need something stronger. You need something that is unbreakable."

"There's only one thing I know that would do this," Hermione said. "They must have used Unbreakable Vows to bind the elves. If the elf request to be free, or if the elf talks about what happened, they die. They forced the elves to swear on their lives."

Millicent got up and started pacing. She oozed anger and tension from every pore. "An Unbreakable Vow must be voluntarily given. But the magic doesn't care if someone is threatened or coerced or whatever. If the elf is there and says yes, it's enough."

"Exactly," Hermione said. "The master orders the elf to take the vow but stays clear of the ritual itself because that would be like ordering suicide."

Millicent made a disgusted sound. "So we have someone who took the vow, someone who bound it, and each and every master of the dead elves." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm sick of those fuckers."

Pixy cleared her throat. "And Curry?" she asked. "Curry was free and worked at Hogwarts. Why did she kill herself?"

That was a good question. Why had Curry killed herself? Had she been forced to take a vow as well? But why?

"Anyone else noticing how much Hogwarts we have in this story?" Millicent said. "We are now close to Hogwarts. The only free elf was killed at Hogwarts. This information report from McGonagall was stolen after you left Hogwarts. One of the elves who locked us up here works at Hogwarts."

"You're saying we'll find the killer at Hogwarts?" Hermione asked.

"Nah," Millicent said. "We're going to find the killer at my party. I'd bet good money, though, that they're operating from Hogwarts."

Hermione thought of her list of suspects. Horace Slughorn had been one of them. "Who from Hogwarts is on your guest-list?" Hermione asked.

"Two members of the staff, and usually around five to ten of their elves."

"I still don't understand the concept of those parties," Hermione said.

"And I'm not going to waste time explaining it when you can see it tonight for yourself. We have to concentrate on getting out of here."

Hermione hated it when other people had better points than herself but was at least honest enough to admit it.

"We cannot get out," Pixy said. "No one is able to use magic here. And there is no tools."

"We'll see about that." Millicent was pacing with purpose now. She walked along the walls of their prison, knocking on boards every now and then, peering into corners and stomping her feet.

"What is she doing?" Pixy asked.

"Don't worry, Pix." Hermione said. "The big bad woman is planning an outbreak." She got up as well and dusted off her trousers and cloak. "Oi, Bulstrode, you think the two of us are more hard-headed than those ancient boards?"

Millicent winked at her. "You bet, princess."

**

Protective elf magic was stronger than the spells of most wizards. Hermione had seen an elf breach the ancient wards of Malfoy Manor and rescue prisoners without so much as being slowed down. Elves could Apparate within Hogwarts; they could Apparate into Hogwarts. If Pixy wasn't able to get out of the room, the wards were solid.

When it came to pure physical strength, elves were less capable. An elf like Pixy could have never made it out of the locked room with only her muscles. It had been enough to use wards that only blocked magical energy. Their captors had missed, though, that Hermione and Millicent were no elves.

"The window?" Millicent asked, and Hermione nodded. It looked like the weakest spot.

Hermione pulled off her cloak, took off her wand holster and pushed up the long sleeves of her shirt.

Millicent did more or less the same.

Hermione looked at the window with a frown. "How are we going to do this?" she asked.

"We're going to do it simply," Millicent said. "Pixy, would you please help us out with the light?"

Pixy bounced up at once and grabbed the glowing stick. She stood next to the window and held the luminescent tube at an angle that allowed Hermione and Millicent to see every crack and weakness in the dry wood.

They had a crucial advantage. The window had been boarded from the inside.

"Isn't this supposed to be a haunted house?" Millicent asked.

"I think so," Hermione said.

Millicent frowned at the boards. "Wouldn't a haunted house be boarded from the outside to prevent anything from coming out? Boards on the inside suggest the opposite."

Hermione tipped her head, hiding a smile. "Maybe a ghost who's afraid of burglars?" she suggested.

"Does the answer have anything to do with the elves?" Millicent asked. "Don't even pretend you don't know more than you want to tell me."

Hermione laughed quietly. She thought about a werewolf she'd known a long time ago, about a man who'd escaped prison only to be locked up in his own house, and about a little boy who'd grown up without his father. "No. It has nothing to do with the elves."

Millicent studied her face and then nodded.

It wasn't as easy as it had seemed at first. The boards were old and dry, but they weren't yet falling apart all by themselves.

They had tried standing side by side; it didn't work. The angle for at least one of them was awkward when they tried to focus their power and pull at the same board. Then they tried pulling on either ends of the same board, but that didn't work either.

"Get behind me," Hermione said.

"Behind you?" Millicent was grinning. Damn her.

"Just do it. Your arms are longer, you can reach from behind me, we can both pull into the same direction and use one leg as a lever."

"Oh yeah," Millicent said, her grin widening, "I should get behind you."

Hermione gripped the board with both hands and did very maturely not think about anything but pulling when Millicent's arms came around her and she felt rippling muscles on either side of her. Oh boy.

The board came off the wall slowly. They were both breathing hard and sweating once the first side of it was loose. It was easier to pull the rest of the board free then, but it still required a lot of effort.

When it was done and the first board clattered to the floor, they both let out a breath full of relief. Hermione used her sleeve to wipe sweat from her brow, and Millicent leaned against the far wall and shook out her arms.

"There's a time and place for everything," Millicent said. "Even for wishing Marcus Flint were here."

Hermione snorted. "I'm not quite that desperate yet." She eyed the small gap where dim light came in, unfiltered as the window had lost its glass a long time ago.

They used the same technique to loosen a second board, and then a third. Millicent's proximity did strange things to Hermione. Or maybe it wasn't so strange if she considered how long it had been since she'd had someone so close that she could feel their warmth and hear them breathing into her ear. Her skin tingled where their bare arms met, and when they stopped for a moment to reload their reserves, she leaned her head back against a firm shoulder. Just a little.

"Only one more," Pixy said, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "You needs only one more. Then you can climb outside and open the window with spells. Spells are working when you is outside."

Thank Merlin, Hermione thought.

The last board was the hardest. They pulled with all their strength, groaning and cursing. Hermione was grateful for Pixy who talked them through it: "It's almost being free. Just a little more. You is doing fine, Miss Hermione. It is coming!"

And finally, it was done. The gap was wide enough for Hermione to squeeze through. Rain was falling outside, thick grey clouds obscuring the sky. The window was on the first floor, facing the back of the house. No one would see them from the road that led to the house, and none of the elves seemed to be around.

It looked more or less safe - unless Hermione thought about the possibility of braking her neck if she slipped and fell before reaching the roof of the little tool shed and using it to lower herself to the ground. She did not think about it. She had enough problems already.

With her wand holster back on her forearm, Hermione climbed out of the window. Millicent held her until her feet found the window sill. She made sure that it wouldn't break under her weight. Then she slowly pushed herself to the side, aware of how vulnerable she was in this position. She couldn't see what was behind her; she would fall if she let go to reach for her wand. There were noises around her, coming from the trees and the ground and the rain, and she felt a little dizzy as she tried to see as much as possible.

"Sweet Merlin," she muttered to herself. "Calm down or Lavender will give that gorgeous costume to someone else. Can't have that."

One tiny step after the other she came closer to the shed. "Now," Millicent called from inside. Hermione didn't hesitate. She used both arms and legs to fling herself into the general direction of the shed and hoped she wouldn't miss.

She didn't. She landed on the roof, scraping both palms on rough clay bricks that covered the shed. Why was there always blood involved? She cursed before she gave herself a mental shove and climbed down the roof.

From there it was easy. They left the house and hexed the boards back on once they were outside so it looked as if nothing had been moved. Millicent scowled a lot and called her clumsy, but she held Hermione's hands and healed the shallow cuts.

Hermione raised an eyebrow at Pixy who hadn't said a word to tell Millicent that she could heal such wounds in the blink of an eye. Pixy looked back at her with big innocent eyes. Her ears twitched.

Then they figured out a plan.

**

While Millicent went to prepare her part of the plan, Hermione and Pixy walked from the Shrieking Shack back to the place where the threads seemed to meet. Hermione still had only a faint idea how those threads were connected. Fake it until you make it, she told herself, pulled her shoulders back and gave Pixy an encouraging smile.

"You doesn't know what to do either?" Pixy asked.

"Oh hush," Hermione said. "If we already knew everything, there'd be nothing left to learn. That would be a tragedy."

The corners of Pixy's eyes crinkled as they always did when she was trying not to laugh.

"If you keep that up, you won't get knitted gloves for Christmas," Hermione said.

"But I already has-"

Hermione scowled, and Pixy closed her mouth with a snap. The corners of her eyes were still crinkled.

When they reached the gates, Hermione sent a Patronus to Hagrid's hut. He appeared ten minutes later, covered from head to heavy boots in mud and slime.

"'Hermione," he said, beaming. "An' little Pixy. Come in, come in." He beckoned them both inside, mud and slime falling from his big hands.

"Hello Hagrid," Hermione said. "It's lovely to see you. You look busy." She gestured at him and his dirty clothes.

"Oh tha'. Don't yeh worry. I was jus' takin' care o' the giant mudworms. Feisty little buggers. Yeh want to see 'em?"

"We'd love to," Hermione said, lying through her teeth. "It's just that we're in a hurry. I talked to Minerva and Horace yesterday." That didn't at all explain why she was here one day later, but maybe Hagrid wouldn't notice.

Pixy nodded, her big ears bobbing up and down.

"'Course." Hagrid looked disappointed. "Yeh need to come more often."

Hermione promised she would, and she even evaded a hug, only grasping a big slimy hand. "Thank you Hagrid, I'll see you soon."

"On yer way," he said. "I'll be stayin' here, watchin' me worms." He waved at them and turned around, disappearing into the forest and muttering, "Feisty little buggers."

Mel wasn't in her quarters, and as expected, Slughorn wasn't either. When Hermione asked for Minerva, the translucent form of Professor Binns told her that she'd be back for the Halloween feast, but right now, she wasn't available.

That was good. It meant they didn't have to explain why they were there. Was she supposed to be suspicious at the convenience of it?

They found Timi in the kitchen. His eyes widened when he saw them, and a full bowl of pumpkin soup looked as if it was going to fall out of his hands, they were shaking so much.

Hermione drew her wand and spoke a charm to save the bowl.

Timi shrieked. He put his hands in front of his face, trying to shield himself from what he obviously thought was a curse directed at him.

Hermione put away the offending piece of wood. She showed Timi her hands, palms up. "It's okay," she said. "We came to talk. It's okay."

The kitchen around them had become silent. The elves had stopped working and were looking at them; some stood far closer than they had before.

Hermione repeated a bit louder, "Everything is okay. We just came to talk."

Timi looked confused, then seemed to realise that he hadn't been attacked. "Why?" he asked. "Why do you want to talk?"

"We want the same thing, Timi. If we work together, we can stop it before more blood is spilt."

Timi shook his head. "I do not know what you mean."

"Yes, you know it." The elves weren't working; they were still listening to every word. "Can we talk in private?" Hermione asked. "I promise we won't harm you."

"She is lying," an elf shouted. "They is all lying. They is hurting us."

Pixy squeezed Hermione's hand, signalling that this, too, had been one of the elves from the Shrieking Shack.

Another elf raised his voice. "I did see them with Hagrid. He would never bring harm to us. You know that."

Timi looked from one elf to the other and then said, "I will talk to you."

They went back to the same room where they'd talked the first time. It was the room where they kept the pumpkin juice. It was the room where Curry had died.

Timi sat down on one of the crates. Hermione and Pixy did the same.

"Timi, it won't help if you kill the man."

"Yes, it will," Timi said. He looked too tired to be able to deny what he and his friends were planning. "It will break the vows."

Pixy cleared her throat. When both Timi and Hermione looked at her, she spoke. "It will not break the vows."

"What?" Timi said, just as Hermione asked, "It will not?"

"I thinks it will not," Pixy said again, a little more confidence in her voice.

"It is impossible," Timi said.

Pixy held up the index finger of her left hand. "You needs one for binding the vow." Then she held up two fingers of her right hand. "You needs two for the vow itself. One who gives it, and one who receives it."

Three people were needed for an Unbreakable Vow; there was no question about that.

Pixy wiggled the single finger. "The binder is only needed for the ritual. He starts the vow. Then he is finished."

"We do not want to kill the binder," Timi said.

"Yes, you does."

"How do you know that, Pix?" Hermione asked.

Pixy showed them the two fingers of her right hand. "Because they needs to be the same." Her fingers trembled. "The vow combines the magic and braids it together. It forms a strong bond between receiver and giver. The vow doesn't break until one of them is dead."

Hermione understood. "You're saying that the magic of both of them must be compatible."

"Yes," Pixy said.

"But the magic of a witch or wizard and the magic of an elf is very different."

"Yes," Pixy said again.

Timi buried his face in his hands.

The conclusion was simple: If the giver of the vow was an elf, the receiver must be an elf as well.

There was silence in the small room with the pumpkin pie where an elf had lost her life.

Was this the reason why Curry's death had been a little different from the rest of them? Had she not been able to live with her guilt? Had she been the only elf who'd really killed herself because she must have known that it would break all the vows?

"Timi?" Hermione asked softly. "Curry was a free elf like all the others here, right?

Timi nodded.

"Could she have been forced to do something like that?"

Timi shook his head. Then he seemed to reconsider. "She would have never wanted to," he said. "She was a good elf."

Pixy got up from her crate and sat down next to him, offering support without pushing.

"Every free elf wants to work at Hogwarts," Timi said. "Everyone knows it is the best place for elves to be. Only few ever go away. And only very bad elves are ever asked to leave. They will never get work at another place."

So the binder could have forced Curry to take the vows. She must have heard from the deaths, and it must have literally killed her. But then what? What about Libby? Had the binder been so greedy that he'd continued with another elf after Curry's death as if nothing had happened? It was unthinkable. The whole thing was.

"Do you know which elves have taken the vow? Can you give us a list, so we can avoid them until we're certain that the vows are broken?"

"I do not know them," Timi said.

Hermione had hoped he'd know. She paused to think. Then she asked, "Did you steal the booklet from me?"

Timi hesitated. "We did not mean to harm you," he said. "We do not want more deaths." Then, quietly, "I stole it. I burned it. I am sorry."

"I doesn't think there was anything important inside," Pixy said.

"No. I don't think so either," Hermione said. "He'd have mad sure of that. I just had to know."

"Will you talk to them?" said Timi. "Will you hurt them?"

"I promise not to talk to any elves before we cleared up who's under a vow and who isn't. You have my word," Hermione said. "I ask you to stay away from the Halloween party tonight. We're going to get the binder. If we have him, we can decide what to do next."

Timi nodded. He looked at Pixy. "You are sure we cannot break the vows if we kill him, and that most of the vows are already broken?"

Pixy took Timi's hand and squeezed. "Yes."

Timi lifted his head and looked at the ceiling, staring at one single spot in the middle of the second beam. "I have to work now," he said. "It is a long day for us. We have a feast tonight, and cleaning the kitchen will take at least until midnight."

"Thank you, Timi," Hermione said.

**

"Pix, why did you lie to me when I found the unlabelled envelope?" Hermione asked. They were walking toward the door of Percy's flat.

"I is sorry, Miss Hermione," Pixy said. "I didn't know it was Miss Millicent's elf. I thought the elf was afraid, or maybe in danger."

Hermione nodded. "Is that why you didn't tell me about the elves that watched my office?"

They had reached the door and Hermione knocked. Pixy's eyes were firmly on the floor. "I heard owl-Frame, and I knows she isn't bad."

"So you followed her."

Pixy nodded.

Hermione sighed and rubbed her eyes. "You should have told me, Pix. It's my job, and you know that I try to help where I can."

The door opened just as Pixy said, "I wasn't sure what was happening so I wanted to look first. You sometimes doesn't listen to me, Miss Hermione." She looked crestfallen at her own words.

Percy was grinning. "Don't take it personal, Pixy," he said. "It's her, not you."

Hermione smacked the back of his head non-too-gently.

Chortling, he let them both in. "Where have you been? I was trying to contact you all morning."

"Do you have some food? The story might take a minute to tell." She frowned at him. "You look better than yesterday. Good news?"

Percy pushed up his glasses. "Hopefully. I worked through the elf files, combined it with the information you gathered, added Libby's death and sent it all to the head of the Department of Magical Law enforcement. They'll have to start an official investigation even without MacFarlan's approval. I scheduled a meeting with him tomorrow morning. Then I'll know more."

"You're brilliant," Hermione said and kissed his cheek - mainly to see him turn pink.

Percy provided pumpkin juice and pumpkin soup and pumpkin sandwiches. A carved pumpkin was on his table, a bed sheet was hexed to float around the room in an impersonation of a ghost, and Stravinsky's 'Infernal Dance' was playing in the background.

"You take your Halloween theme seriously," Hermione said between bites. The sandwich tasted excellent.

"I'm getting ready for the party tonight. Are you going to come?"

Hermione shook her head. "I don't think I'll make it." Then she told him what had happened that day, from the attack to the talk with Millicent, how they'd followed Frame and ended up in the Shrieking Shack.

"Oh dear," Percy said. "And now you're attending the black-card Halloween party." He grimaced into his glass of pumpkin juice. "Good luck with that."

"Wait a moment," Hermione said. "Do you know about these parties? Am I the only one who has no clue what they even are?"

"Uh," Percy looked around as if desperately searching for a distraction. "I might have heard about it. But I've never been there."

"What have you heard?"

Percy made a defensive gesture, holding up his hands. "Those are just rumours. No idea what is true and what's just people exaggerating." He cleared his throat. "Do you need back-up?"

Hermione didn't believe a word but didn't push. They were right. She'd see for herself later. The offer to help on the other hand, made her feel warm. "Thanks Percy," she said. "But I've got a plan." She forgot to mention that large parts of the plan depended on Millicent.

He nodded.

"Won't MacFarlan be angry about the report?" she asked.

"Probably," Percy said. "I've wanted to talk to her about it, but she wasn't in the office today. No one knows where she is."

"Isn't that a little suspicious?" Hermione asked.

"I don't know," Percy said. "She has a temper, and she's not all that interested in elves - which is only a small part of her work. Then again, her integration plans when it comes to werewolves have helped a great deal, and her campaign for more acceptance and understanding of mixed blood people has done a lot of good in these last years. She's already done more than her predecessor did in three decades."

"So why isn't she interested in the elf suicides? Does that make sense to you?"

The question was rhetorical, and Percy knew it. It made sense under one condition: If Isabel MacFarlan was somehow involved in the deaths.

**

Part One Part Two Part Three Part FourvBulletin statistic
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