Somberly, Hermione placed a tiny bouquet near the wolf-shaped marble headstone, fighting the prickle that always threatened the corners of her eyes whenever she came here.
"Hopefully this doesn't attract unsavory wildlife," Astoria muttered beside her, leaning down so that the tiny bundle in her arms could drop another token near the bouquet: a dog biscuit.
There was already a third token placed at the sight, evidence that Lucius had been there earlier: an old-looking stuffed rabbit, slightly chewed around the ears.
The sight wreaked havoc on Hermione's ability to keep the tears in. Despite the thousands of galleons he had spent attempting to save the poor creature, Lucius had ended up holding her as she passed in the Babbitty Institute of Animal Healing. Hermione knew he blamed himself for her death, knew he felt such a terrible guilt he couldn't speak about it. Belgium had been a guard dog, after all, but Lucius had grown to love her as a pet and had placed her in the path of a danger she was unprepared for. Hermione doubted he would ever fully recover; Belgium would certainly be his last dog.
It was a freezing winter morning but Hermione knew the spells she'd cast would keep the bouquet fresh and the dog treat safe from marauding raccoons. She gazed down at the pile of offerings and, once again, fought back the wave of tears. Poor, poor Bel…
"OUCH!" Hermione leapt up, grabbing her foot and hopping up-and-down as she massaged it furiously. "Fergus!"
The elf glowered up at her from the miniature wheelchair he'd used to run over her foot. "Just a reminder, Miss Granger," he sniped at her, "if you aren't staying for dinner, it's getting rather late for guests, so I would suggest you return to your primary life and leave us secondaries to our own devices." And with that he turned and rolled back up the hill towards the manor from whence he came.
Hermione threw a hand (the hand not still massaging her foot) up in the air. "Can you believe that?" she exclaimed to Astoria. "He rolled himself all that way―through an inch of snow!—just to spread a little misery!"
"He's certainly determined to make sure everyone is just as miserable as he is," Astoria agreed, scowling after him. "Little shit. It's just a temporary measure while his spine is healing, and yet, somehow, he's acting as though it's the end of the world and it's his duty to drag everyone else down to hell with him! You wouldn't believe it―this morning I found Scor's dummy squashed on the floor with little tire tracks over it. Damn elf wouldn't shut up about how the scion should always have a real tit available, so I'm sure my buying a 'fake' was the ultimate insult, and he had to take revenge."
"That little wretch," Hermione muttered. "I'm sure when he gets out of that chair at least he'll go back to being his usual level of awful." Sorely, Hermione placed her foot back on the ground and turned her attention back to the gravesite. "I can't believe it's been months since… since all of this," she sighed, linking arms with Astoria against the cold and allowing Scor to pat her non-too-gently on the face. He'd grown exponentially under Astoria's skillful care, and was now almost normal sized for his age.
"Time does fly," Astoria agreed, redirecting Scor's hand off Hermione's face to the pull-ties of her jacket. They were quiet for a time, Astoria letting Hermione to pay respects to the dog to whom she'd gotten so attached. Then Astoria said, "Is Lucius upset you'll be spending Christmas with a group of people who don't even know you two are dating?"
Blunt as ever, Tori. Hermione gave Astoria a look. "That's not fair. Harry knows about us."
"Potter knows you were researching Lucius' involvement in some criminal activity, and then all of a sudden you two were arrested together in a weird hostage recovery situation. Potter doesn't know you two shag indiscriminately all over the manor and are revoltingly sweet together."
"Tori!" Hermione blushed scarlet. "We don't―"
"Oh don't even try denying it," Astoria turned and steered them back towards the Manor. "What I don't hear all around the place, I can guess. But we're off the subject. Is Lucius upset?"
Hermione bit her lip. "I don't think it bothers him. He knows how important my friends are to me, they're practically my family, and he knows we can't… really have a public relationship―"
Astoria made a disapproving noise. "You mean, he knows it's a condition to be with you that you get to hide him like some dirty magazine under your bed, and lie to all of your friends because you're afraid they'll judge you, and he tolerates it because he actually loves you enough to make all the sacrifices―"
Hermione pulled her arm out of Astoria's and stood back, shocked almost beyond words. "I can't believe you just said that to me," she stammered out, when she finally found her tongue again. "Has Draco rubbed off on you so much you've forgotten how to properly treat people?"
Astoria gave her a very serious look. "Hermione, I consider us very good friends," she said frankly. "We've been through enough together, and we spend nearly every day together up in that Manor. And I'm not so sure about you, but I personally like my friends to tell me the truth. I like them to challenge me when I'm out of line." She hefted Scor higher in her arms, still fixing Hermione with that same serious look. "To me, that's true respect. So when I do the same for you, it's not because I'm trying to be a bitch. I just―Lucius is family to me and I don't think the way you're treating him―or your friends―is alright. Sooner or later, Hermione, you're going to have to come clean… or lose everyone."
And she continued on towards the manor, leaving Hermione standing in the cold.
It seemed the journey to the Burrow took much longer than usual this Christmas eve. Hermione kept thinking about all of the things Astoria had said, and despite herself and her own well-rehearsed excuses, she was wracked with guilt.
It was true. As harsh as Astoria had been, she'd struck the nail right on the head: Hermione was hiding Lucius, and she was lying to her friends. None of them knew that she had been seeing the father of their least-liked classmate, and former Death Eater to boot. She's been hiding it for months, and with absolutely no intention of breaking the news at any point in the future.
Hermione put her face in her hands, ignoring the looks she was getting from her fellow train-goers. How was she supposed to explain to anyone, much less the Weasleys, that she was involved with a Malfoy? No, not just a Malfoy. The Malfoy. A man nearly twice her age, who had committed more than a few evil deeds in his past. What would Molly think―could she even survive such news? What would Arthur do? (Or rather, what would Arthur break?) And could her friends ever forgive her for lying so thoroughly to him for so long?
But Astoria had brought up the ugliest truth of all: sooner or later, if Hermione kept ignoring her own double life, the fantasy would end, and she would lose all of her friends and the man she couldn't live without.
Hermione cast around, looking for some form of distraction from her painful thoughts. Everyone in sight had their faces glued to their phones. She took a moment to feel slightly disdainful of them, thinking to herself they were missing out on their entire lives by absorbing themselves in those devices―and she almost choked when she realized her inner monolog was beginning to sound just like Lucius. Interesting… so sleeping with a former Muggle-hater did have its risks...
As she scanned the people around her―texting, reading, but predominantly watching videos―a plan begin to take shape in her mind. A very harebrained, very mortifying plan. And the more she thought about it, the more absurd it seemed, and the more perfect it sounded.
She would need to stop somewhere before Ottery St Catchpole, but it wouldn't delay her by much and she would still be able to make it to Christmas Eve dinner with time to spare. And then, the reckoning would commence...
The fire roared a sudden brilliant green, and in the midst of stepping out of the floo into Lucius' study Hermione caught the eager look on the man's face as he recognized her, before he smoothed it away again. It still made her heart leap to occasionally catch him so open, even though it was still quite a rare occurrence.
He had been reading the Evening Prophet but he tossed it aside as Hermione came through. She still saw the front cover, however, and it stopped her in her tracks. A picture of Raleigh dominated the entire front page: he was being led into the ministry courtroom in chains, and above him the headline blared Raleigh Ozols Captured at Last!
"They finally cornered him," Hermione said, nodding at the paper.
Lucius glanced at it, nodding grimly. "Ink―or should I say Claudius Inkwell―woke up from his coma in St. Mungo's two days ago and was given the choice to rot in Azkaban or sing like a canary for a chance at permanent deportation instead. I believe in exchange for Raleigh, they've exiled him to Greenland. Whichever choice he would have made, I'm glad to be rid of him. With Raleigh captured as well, the entire syndicate has been dismantled." He frowned. "For now."
There was a moment where he seemed to disappear inside his head, and Hermione knew he was thinking of Belgium, and the sacrifices made to capture the criminal that had made his life hell for so many years. After a moment he waved a hand dismissively at the paper. "But enough about that… it's a lovely surprise to see you here so early, pet." He rose to greet her with a soft―yet still dizzying―kiss. "I hadn't expected you until Christmas evening. You're a day early."
She beamed up at him, taking the opportunity to run her hands over his firm chest. "I brought you a Christmas present."
"Oh?" He was backing her towards the nearest wall, his hands making long, sensual strokes up the sides of her body. "And what might that be?"
"You might want to sit down for this one," she said breathily.
Looking interested, Lucius retreated with her back to the couch, and watched as―with trembling hands―Hermione brought out a small, sleek video camera. Lucius frowned at it, clearly unimpressed, but Hermione raised a finger in a wordless gesture to be patient.
After pressing a few buttons, the little screen on the face of the camera sprang to life, revealing a double image of both her and Lucius' legs twined together on the couch, where the lens was pointing.
"Ah, what are useful contraption," Lucius drawled. "Now we can see exactly what's in front of us. The inventive mind of the muggle knows no bounds."
Hermione gave him a stern look. "I'd explain this to you, but I know you would just be obstinate and I really just want to give you your Christmas present, so if you'd be patient for one moment, I promise this will pay off."
Lucius gave her a wry look, but it was clear he wanted to know what she'd brought him, so he remained silent through the rest of the setup.
She wasn't exactly familiar with this model yet so it took her a few moments to get it working, but once she had, the screen changed from an image of their legs to an image of her a few hours earlier, when she'd been in the process of placing the camera on the mantelpiece at the Burrow so it overlooked the dinner table.
"Ah," Lucius sat up a little straighter, "If I am to understand this correctly, this device remembers everything it sees, and on command it will show you its memories―like a limited pensieve, correct?"
"That's a good way to describe it," Hermione agreed.
The video began to play, showing her past self quickly placing the camera and rushing back to help set the table. Hermione briefly regretted not investing any time in editing, as the dinner preparations and idle chatter of the Burrow's inhabitants went on for quite some time―but eventually, the main attraction began.
It was tradition at the Burrow for everyone to make a toast at Christmas Eve dinner, with a brief recap of their year and a hope for the future. Harry and Ginny both reiterated the birth of the newest little Potter (to much fanfare; George and his wife announced their new pregnancy; Percy announced his new promotion; and Ron announced that he was now reserve keeper on the Chudley Cannons.
Lucius watched all of this was surprising patience, silent as each member of the Weasley family waxed eloquent about their lives. Eventually Hermione couldn't take it anymore and had to ask: "What are you thinking right now?"
"Only that I wish I had made more children," he answered mildly. "It looks rather pleasant, celebrating in a crowd of your own making." He smirked. "Of course, some ideas are far more appealing on parchment. More than one Draco would have undoubtedly been the death of me."
At long last, video-Hermione stood up and began her toast. "I think it goes without saying that all of you are like a second family to me," she began, and simply watching this gave the present Hermione a rush of residual nerves. "Well, I believe family should be truthful with each other. That's why I've decided to make this announcement."
Lucius was watching the little screen with an expression of dawning incredulity. "You didn't," he muttered, his eyes glued to the camera.
"For the past several months now," video-Hermione went on, "I've been seeing someone. And I want to say that, as much as I adore my Christmases with all of you, I believe my relationship with this man is serious enough that I would like to spend Christmas with him this year."
An excited murmur went around the room. "That's wonderful, Hermione, dear!" Molly exclaimed. "Is it anyone that we know?"
Video-Hermione's face went notably paler. "All of you know him," she said slowly. "He's not someone you would expect that I would be with."
The murmur grew louder and more agitated. "Well don't torture us, woman, who the hell is it?" Ron demanded, never one for tact.
Hermione's recorded face seemed to falter―but then she squared her shoulders and drew herself up. "I've been seeing Lucius Malfoy," she announced. The room went suddenly and eerily silent. Swallowing hard, she went on, "We haven't been together long but I'm certain of one thing: I've fallen deeply in love with him. And while I don't expect all of us to sit down for Christmas brunch together, I hope that you all will still be my friends―my family―no matter who I'm with." She drew a deep breath. "So I'm going to meet him now. I'm sorry I can't stay for dinner… but I belong there now."
"Aaand that's it," the present Hermione said, quickly shutting off the camera.
Lucius looked completely floored. "What happened after this?" He gestured at the screen, now blank.
"I left," Hermione said. At his expression, she added sheepishly, "Well, I mean, there were questions and some arguing and―and lots of words were said, but none of that's important. In the end I think everything came out as well as could be expected."
"As well as could be expected?" Lucius repeated, eyebrows raised.
Hermione bit her lip. "I… may or may not hear from a lot of them again… but Harry caught up to me on my way out and said he suspected all along, and he wasn't upset. So I still have one friend at least."
"This isn't over," Lucius told her seriously. "Whether or not Potter supports you, the rest of them will suspect I placed an Imperius on you, or some other bewitchment. This announcement you made was very… abrupt." He paused, hesitating for a long moment, looking up into her face with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. "Did you mean it?"
She knew exactly what he was talking about, and smiled, leaning down to press a gentle kiss to the hard-set line of his mouth. "Every word." She tried to draw back but she didn't make it far: he'd taken hold of the back of her neck and drawn her in for a much deeper, much more sensual kiss that seemed to go on and on; it was almost as if she could taste his bliss, or perhaps that was her own welling up in her heart―
When he finally released her they were in an entirely different position: she was pushed back into the couch and he was on top of her, the edges of his hips settling between her legs as if he could be nowhere else. "Had I been an onlooker at that dinner," he murmured against her lips, "I would suspect you of having a nervous breakdown."
"Maybe that's what's happening," she gasped, arching her neck as his mouth ran a hot path from her ear down to her collarbones, "maybe I've just―ah―just joined you and lost my mind…"
She groaned as he nuzzled into the softness of her breast, lifting her shirt to give himself enough access to lick the malleable curve, the wicked tip of his tongue teasing her already rock-hard nipple. Clothes were being shed at lightning speed, and in a hot minute Hermione found herself naked and writhing on Lucius' desk as he teased her core with light strokes of his fingertips, glaring down at her with those dark, hungry eyes. He fitted his cock up against her entrance but didn't press in; she sobbed at the cruel vacancy.
"You said something interesting in that memory you showed me," Lucius purred. "Yes, something you said during your little speech… something you claimed to know for a certainty… remind me again what it was you said?"
A shiver ran down her spine. "I said I love you," she breathed, locking eyes with him, watching his sharpen like whetted knives, "I've fallen deeply in love with you."
A faint smile touched his lips, and the look in his eye was something she couldn't quite describe―if ice could be warm… "Ah yes," he said softly, "that was it." And her declaration was rewarded as he pressed his thick length into her and began to move, firm and deliberate, deeply inside her.
Soon (was it soon?) after, he tossed her over the back of his fine leather couch and teased her from behind with his cockhead, growling into her ear, "And what is it you know for a certainty, Miss Granger? Remind me."
"Mm yes, Lucius, god, please―I love you, I said I love you and I do, please, don't stop…"
And as he finally carried them to bed, and began to fuck her hard with her legs tossed over his shoulders―as they both neared the inevitable climax, the zenith of their sublime struggle, and the heat began to rise beneath their skin and stars burst out behind their eyes, he asked again, nearly shouting the question as the end overtook them: "What do you know?"
Hermione came screaming her answer.
They lay panting afterwards, Lucius resting in the welcoming cradle of Hermione's hips, Hermione stroking her fingertips over the smooth skin of his back, and it occurred to her that she had never felt more true to herself than she did in that moment. After so much lying and deceiving, after playing the catfish for so long, somehow she'd come out the other side a more real person―and most wonderful of all, Lucius had come to see her for what she truly was, and he'd still chosen her anyway.
She never slept better than she did that Christmas eve.
A/N: It's going a bit with the season, I know, but what better time to start shit with family than the most wonderful time of the year?
I can't believe I'm finally hitting 'Complete' after so long. I'm so grateful to all of my readers and your critiques, words of encouragement, and silliness you wrote to me over the years. I love you guys. Please don't kill me over Belgium.
Also: shameless plug for my new story, None The Wiser. (Of course it's a smutty Lumione.) Please give it a shot!
Most importantly, please take a moment to tell me what you thought of this chapter, or even Catfish as a whole. I'd appreciate it more than you know!