In the course of that conversation, he had set as many verbal traps as possible, just waiting for her to fall, to fail. To what purpose, she didn’t know, didn’t want to know, and certainly didn’t care. It only showed how bored Malfoy must have been with his perfect life. This house alone was worth a fortune, not to mention most of its contents.
She had not missed the signs of embarrassment when she had glanced around his study. There were gaps in the bookshelves, un-faded squares on the walls, gouges in the rug, all that bespoke of missing items. Sold, perhaps, for a little more pocket money? Now that was indeed not like a Malfoy.
Thinking about Malfoy’s deficiencies were enough to distract her from the house itself, a place that did not hold a pleasant spot in her memory. She could still feel the cold air brushing against her skin, hear the maniacal laughter of Bellatrix Lestrange echoing in her ears alongside the sound of her own voice screaming. Screaming.
“Is mistress alright?” Pokey was a sweet house elf, no matter who his master was.
She nodded. “Thanks, Pokey.”
Now she had to start asking questions. It would help distract her.
“What is it like working for the Malfoys?”
It was a question to satisfy her own personal curiosity. Once they reached the kitchens, she could start on the dead house elf.
“They are good to Pokey, very good. Mistress Astoria keeps us all well, and Master Draco has his requests, but they are no trouble for Pokey.”
Of course he wouldn’t say anything within the negative range, but nonetheless.
“Has there been any trouble like this before?”
Pokey’s eyes widened and he almost tripped over a rug, but caught himself.
“Never, mistress. All things always good here.”
There was no sign of a lie in his words or actions. He was scandalised by this death; it was an atrocity that could only be blamed on him, the head house elf. He should have made sure that this sort of thing did not occur.
Hermione wondered at how much Malfoy Manor had changed. Its head house elf no longer had to run about, bashing himself against anything in sight in order to prevent himself from speaking of his master’s dark dealings. There was no more fear in this house, no more hatred.
Draco Malfoy was living a normal life.
It seemed such a ridiculous thought, but so far, Hermione had seen nothing to contradict it. Even her memories could not blind her to how much things had changed, not only in this house, but within the family, within all of their society. Pride warmed her.
“Can you tell me what you know of this house elf, Pokey?”
He was now beginning to look visibly upset, his hands shaking and his eyes growing watery.
“It was the new elf Mistress Astoria brought from the selling place. Master and Mistress are having a party in some days, and Dratty was supposed to chop the vegetables.” His voice rose as he spoke, becoming so high-pitched that Hermione winced with each syllable. “She was very quiet, never speaking to other house elves. But some are like that.”
Especially if they had been abused at their last home. Hermione frowned. The past history of this Dratty would need to be traced. She’d have to start with Astoria Malfoy, then work backward. The selling places were strictly controlled, but that did not mean illegal activities no longer occurred. Abused house elves would come at a much cheaper price, something that would have well-suited the financial situation of the Malfoy family.
“Here we are, Mistress.”
The kitchen door was firmly locked. Pokey took out a giant ring of keys as large as his hand – where did he find room to store that in his potato sack shirt? – and sorted through them with comfortable efficiency. He seemed to be another of those house elves who found the greatest solace in work, in being useful.
She waited for him to open the door. Locked, why? To keep others from entering the room, obviously, but still, why? How many knew about this death, and why would Malfoy wish to keep it secret? She hadn’t seen anyone else in the house, only Malfoy and Pokey. The other house elves would need to be interviewed, carefully and quietly so as not to upset them. She assumed they would have their own quarters somewhere. Hopefully not in the dustbin.
“This way, Mistress.”
He led her down an aisle of counters, very clean, eerily quiet. The room was proportionally large to the house, but it seemed that only a portion of it was in constant use. It was too clean. The family could not have been eating too much at home of late, which could explain why Malfoy was the only one in residence.
Oh, he had a son, too, didn’t he? She would need to find out where he was.
They came across a lump on the ground, covered with a stained tea towel. You’d have thought they’d at least find a clean one. Hermione felt a scowl, but tried not to let Pokey see it. He would take it as a personal insult.
“Is this where you found her this morning?”
It was a delicate question, but necessary.
“Yes, Mistress.” Pokey’s voice was now very soft. He stared down at the towel, his lip trembling.
She swallowed. “You don’t have to watch this, Pokey,” she said gently. “I’ll need to take a closer look. It might be better if–”
Pokey shuffled away, then back, then away again. Malfoy must not have given him orders to stay with her, otherwise he would have been more wildly affected by her request. He stood at the end of the counter with his back turned, wiping his eyes with a surprisingly clean rag. But he was not going to leave the room. That must have been his master’s orders at work.
Hermione looked down at the draped body. It had been a long time since she’d seen a dead house elf, since she’d seen anyone dead at all. She was not looking forward to renewing the experience, but what choice did she have? This was her job. She had wanted to help the house elves, fighting against their suffering at the hands of wizards.
With this one dead, she finally had the chance to prove why house elf rights mattered, why these beings deserved attention.
And if she could bring Malfoy down at the same time, then she would be very lucky indeed.
The presence of this sudden maliciousness against Malfoy did not disturb her. It was a malignance, left smouldering for years while she settled into the banality of adult life. It was easy to forget the war when she was busy with work or with her children, but now, in this place, it might have been seventeen years before.
But the elf came first. Poor Dratty. Why did someone have to die before a problem in society could be fixed?
In this case, there was more than one problem.
She knelt on the ground beside Dratty’s body, willing herself to lift the makeshift shroud and get on with her work. It should not have been this difficult. It was dead, there was nothing she could do but find out why.
Biting her lip, she took out her wand and waved aside the tea towel. It folded neatly onto the ground beside the body. Hermione stared down at Dratty.
There was something very wrong.
Nothing had prepared her for this.
The eyes were bulging slightly, wide open to the ceiling. At least they were not looking at her, but the wax-like face, the black tongue, the clenched hands, none of them were as they should be. She pulled a glove onto her hand and reached down to brush her hand against Dratty’s face.
Yes, just like wax. The skin moved under her hand, like putty.
Dratty was melting.
Thoughts of Malfoy and revenge and the past went out of her head. They no longer mattered, not when the evidence of suspicious death was disappearing before her very eyes. What in Merlin’s name could cause this?
She checked over the rest of the body, observing marks where the tea towel had settled too closely to the skin. There were no signs of violence, nothing to tell how this could have occurred. A spell, perhaps, or poison, a Potion slipped into the house elf’s food? What else was there?
If it was the latter, she’d have to warn the other elves right away, before they also became afflicted by this... this... horrible end.
“Pokey!” Hermione tried to sound unaffected. She blocked Dratty’s body from the head house elf’s sight. Please don’t let him see....
“Yes, mistress?” Always at the ready. He practically leapt across the room.
She held up her hand. “Don’t come closer, please.”
He stopped so quickly that he fell backwards onto his backside with a squeak.
“I need to know what Dratty ate today.”
Pokey rose, rubbing the part that had made contact with the floor.
“What we always eat, mistress.”
Leftovers. Whatever peelings and rind remained from last night’s dinner, even if the meal itself had been small.
“She didn’t have anything different?”
Pokey was shaking his head. “No, mistress.”
Not poisoned food, but there were other ways of administering something like this. But why? If no one else in the house had experienced any symptoms of poisoning, why would this new house elf? Unless....
“How long has Dratty been here?”
Pokey tilted his head to the side, thinking. After a moment, he replied, “Two days, mistress.”
Only that long? It was possible that the poisoning or whatever it was had occurred before Dratty had arrived at Malfoy Manor. This could be a more wide-spread problem. She would have to inform the Ministry right away. They would take the necessary precautions while she took Dratty off for examination... somehow.
Melting bodies were not included in protocol.
Hermione cast a chilling spell over the body. That would, at least, prevent the temperature of the room from causing further damage. She shifted through her memory, hoping that some arcane bit of knowledge would shed light on this case. She should know this, she had to. There had to be a logical answer.
Setting her jaw, she looked at Pokey once again. “No one enters this room.”
He was catching on to a problem. Eyes too wide and ears now shuddering in terror. He must have felt it in the air, an extra tinge in the stale air of death. Her own fear was growing.
“Yes, mistress.” His voice was almost inaudible.
She stood, but her eyes remained on Dratty. Anguish. Merlin, she had suffered before death. If there had been screams, Pokey would have known. Sensitive ears. A silent, but painful death, the worst sort possible. Too much like–
“Anything else, mistress?”
He was closer to her now, his eyes remaining focussed upon her. Better than looking at Dratty. He couldn’t have missed the signs of wrongness there.
“Check that the others are still healthy, please.”
Something was coming to mind now. Don’t let it be that.
They left the kitchen together, Hermione thinking as furiously as possible and Pokey shaking so furiously that he was hardly able to hold the keys. Hermione took the keys from him and locked the door, trying to give the house elf an encouraging smile. It must have been hideous. Pokey scampered off at top speed.
A disease. It was a possibility. House elves were not exempt from illness. They were just too terrified to let their owners – she despised the word – know if they felt ill. House elves did not get days off. Because of this, there was a decided lack of information about house elf diseases. How they got them, how they dealt with them, the nature of the disease or infection itself: all unknown. It was infuriating to not know.
In the entry hall, she cast her Patronus. Quigley would get it as soon as possible. Faster, more secure than any owl post. This news could not get out, could not go beyond her and her superior. The consequences of a fatal disease at, of all places, Malfoy Manor, would be uncontrollable. The Prophet would be all over it. Word of it would be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Look what Malfoy had done now.
“What are you doing, Granger?”
The last thing she needed was for Draco Malfoy to wheedle his way into the problem.
So of course he had to choose that very moment to enter it.
“Sending word to my superior at the Ministry.”
Hermione congratulated herself for not immediately cursing him to Hades. The expression on his face was quite gratifying.
“Does that mean that more of you people will be invading my house?”
The words were angry, his voice was not. Curious.
“Possibly. It depends on how they respond to my findings.”
Somehow, she was managing to sound just like she had in third year. The same know-it-all tone was coming through. Ron would love the sound of that, ha!
He stepped further into the foyer, hands in pockets, lips pursed. He looked exactly as she expected the pureblooded businessman she’d read of in the Prophet, the perfect family man who had transcended the crimes of his father. Someone to potentially be admired (if he remained on the good side). There was something sad about him, too, something weighing him down.
All those years of “mudblood” and threats, hearing from his lips a curse against her life. People like that didn’t change, they didn’t leap over to the good side unless something was in it for them. For Malfoy, there was nothing beyond darkness.
He was angry at her, frustrated, pained. He did not want her in his house. It was there in the way he held his head, the stiffness of his shoulders, the storm of emotion on his face.
“Your findings, Granger? That my house elf is dead and your useless office has wasted time and money in sending you here?”
Still the emotionless voice. How long would it last?
She took a deep breath, holding it a moment before letting it go. Along with her news.
“It is very likely that your house elf, whose name is Dratty, died of a disease, some kind of infection. I cannot be more specific than that.” She kept her spine straight, wand still clasped in her hand, just in case.
He raised an eyebrow. “A disease.”
Neither of them moved. Hermione was afraid to blink.
“House elves do–”
“I don’t need the lecture, Granger. I want to know why this is so important.” His voice lowered, the first sign of increasing emotion. “So what if my wife purchased a bad elf? It makes no difference to anyone.”
To me it does, she thought. It makes a difference to me.
He should have known where this was going to lead, but he was too cursed pig-headed to think of it. Infection meant contagion. Contagion meant transmission, perhaps between species, magical or not.
“Malfoy Manor will be quarantined until the nature of this disease is discovered, Malfoy.” Her voice was almost a snarl. She knew damn well what this meant for her as well.
He was a highly unresponsive person to talk with. She was not looking forward to however long she’d be stuck here.
“No one in unless properly attired.”
What would he think of first? His son? His wife? Or something else, completely different?
Malfoy was going pale, his skin matching up with the colour of his hair.
She struck the final blow. “And neither of us, nor any of the other house elves, can leave until we know what it is and how to stop it.”
He stepped backward to lean against the wall. One hand emerged to rest against his forehead. Malfoy did not speak. He only stood there, his body saying everything he did not.
She was the most unwelcome of guests.
And she was trapped in Malfoy Manor with one of the people she hated most in the world, the threat of death hanging over them at every moment.
The nightmare was only beginning.
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