Pairings and Main Characters: Harry Potter/Draco Malfoy, Ron Weasley/Hermione Granger.
Summary: Five years post-war, Harry is having dinner at the Weasleys' when a stranger apparates into the dining room. Harry, a junior auror, deals with the situation, but is left with a mystery; who is that man? Harry visits WIFGER – the Wizarding Institute for Genetic Engineering and Research, where Draco Malfoy and Angelina Johnson are working on their PhDs, hoping for some answers. After a rocky start, Draco examines the body and discovers a strange ailment which makes the man's magic grow out of control. With Draco’s help, Harry investigates the mystery. However, he has personal issues to deal with as well; troubles at work, his doubts about his upcoming wedding, and his growing attraction to Draco. Trying to deal with so much conflict leads Harry almost to disaster, and he is forced to re-evaluate who he is and what he wants out of his life, before he can solve the mystery and start afresh.
Word Count: ~ 58,100
Warnings: Voyeurism, References to drug use (not graphic).
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Romance
Canon: Post-Hogwarts, EWE
Notes: I can’t thank nenne and dulcemia enough for their excellent advice, support, and most of all, their cheerleading. This story would be so much poorer and duller without their spit n’ shine. I couldn't ask for better betas. They were brilliant. Also, thank you melusinahp who was nice enough to give very useful advice to tweak it just that little bit more. Finally, thanks to the artists for prettying the story up so nicely! I hope you find the story enjoyable.
“Have you thought about what kind of flowers you’d like, Ginevra, dear? And Harry, of course.”Harry paused, his dessert spoon halfway to his mouth, his eyes wide, as Molly turned to him. “Erm…” He bit his lip. “I thought Ginny had already decided on roses?”“Yeah, those fancy French ones that cost a galleon a flower,” Ron muttered next to him, nursing a beer. “Which she only wants because the Malfoys used to go on about theirs.”“Ronald, those are for the bouquet,” Molly explained. “I’m talking about the flowers that are going to decorate the Ministry Atrium.”“They’re not that expensive.” Ginny flashed Ron an annoyed glance. “I’m not that much of a galleon Niffler. And the Malfoys have nothing to do with it. I chose them because they look classy without being too pricey, and they complement my colouring.”Molly again turned to Harry, with that gaze that always seemed so…moist and expectant. He cringed and dropped his eyes. “I want the entire hall blooming!” She turned back to her daughter. “Peonies! Those Morgan le Fay peonies, in apricot pink.”Ginny’s eyes lit up. “Oh, yes!” Then she hesitated and flashed him an apologetic glance. “…They are pricey, though.” “Neville dear, you’ve almost finished your apprenticeship with Professor Sprout, haven't you?” Molly turned to Neville, who sat next to Harry. “What do you think of the Morgan le Fay peonies?”Harry wanted to sigh with relief at the reprieve and sent his friend a silent apology. He liked Molly, really he did, but her palpable need for him to always make everything all right for her, to never disappoint her, five years on, made him squirm. He snatched a moment to imagine transforming, twisting, changing, and then flying, or loping, out in the wilds. He ached for it.“Well…they’re very beautiful,” Neville replied, his hand twitching. He was probably hoping Godric’s sword would appear to give him strength. “But…er, aren’t they usually used for small corsages?”“Oh, Harry doesn’t mind the expense, do you?” Molly turned that terrifying hopeful gaze upon him and he swallowed.“Mum,” Ginny muttered, putting her hand on Molly’s. Harry cleared his throat. “…Er…how many were you thinking?”“Molly,” Arthur sat down with his second beer and popped the cap with his favourite Muggle opener. “I’m sure Harry doesn’t begrudge any expense, which is why we must always be careful not to ask it of him.” His voice dropped. “Remember what we talked about?”Harry huffed out a quiet sigh. Thank you, Arthur. Ginny flashed Harry a smile both embarrassed and defensive. Molly’s face crumpled a little, but she drew herself up in a shadow of her former self and gave a bright smile. “Of course. Of course, Harry dear. You know how mothers of the bride can get; a little over-enthusiastic! There are plenty of more sensible flowers to choose from that are just as lovely.”“How about Rosebay Willow herb?” Ginny offered jokingly. “We’ve got plenty of that in the backyard. It’ll be a real Weasley wedding.”“That purple stuff?” Harry grinned. “I rather like it, actually.”Ginny smiled warily. “Yes, it is nice, but not quite the thing for our wedding…right?”He almost teased her by pretending to want the herb, but the tightening around her eyes stopped him. She didn’t insist on the most extravagant of everything, but sometimes she did seem a little too concerned with what would impress people, rather than what suited them both. But that was natural, right? Of course she’d want a luxurious society wedding to flounce and preen and rub it in to everyone who’d insulted her in school. And being the only girl amongst so many older brothers, it was natural for her to have Princess fantasies. At least, it had made sense when Hermione had explained it. And weddings mattered to girls. Ginny wasn’t shallow, and she rarely made unreasonable monetary demands of him. Moreover, it was an easy way of making her happy. Something he could do without having to…do anything. Let her have the pricey peonies, and he could relax and not feel…well, guilty. “Er, I guess if-”“We’ve got a lot of Astrum Pratense in greenhouse number four,” Neville broke in meekly. “Bit of an accident with some experimental fertilizer, actually. They’re under a stasis spell. Pretty stuff.”Angelina perked up in her seat beside George. “Oh, Red Star? That would look nice against the cream colour of the Atrium walls.”“Well…” Ginny pondered this for a moment, and then smiled. “Red Star is rather pretty.”Neville beamed. “This lot has cream streaks running through; no one else will have had that. Plus the foliage is a lovely dark green, nice and thick. Add some Comet bloom to frame it, and it’ll be just the thing.”Ginny’s eyes lit up. “Oh, Nev!”Thank Merlin that was settled. He sent his intended a coaxing smile. “And the name suits, yeah? Red Star. Like you.”“Oh, smooth,” Ron whispered.Ginny gave him a fond and friendly smile. “Glad you think so!”Ron winked at him and turned to his older brother. “Still up for the Montrose-Canons game this weekend?” His friend had been the first to drop that god-awful hearty tone almost everyone had first adopted when speaking with George, probably due to working with him at the store. George lifted his head, looked blank for a moment, and then nodded. “Okay, Ron.”“Well!” Molly interjected in that same bright tone. “Red Star! Just right for the season, too, and-”A deafening crack of apparition stabbed into the room, silencing all but a few startled shrieks. Harry rose, wand in hand, and gasped as a figure stumbled into the dining room. He moved closer to the intruder, into the forefront, noting the sounds of his companions rising from their seats and hopefully staying back. He heard Ron beside him suck in a sharp breath.“Oh Merlin…” That was George.“What on earth…?” Arthur’s voice came from behind him. “Molly, get back. All of you. Harry?”He nodded, heart thumping. The shape lumbering towards them was a human, naked, his face and body covered in angry, raised red and black lumps, rendering him unrecognizable. His hair turned black, grew to his shoulders, and turned brown. The facial features morphed. Harry raised his wand as the man’s arms jerked and magic flared out.“Protego!” he yelled.The spell the figure had wrought bounced away, searing a curtain, which caught fire. “Aguamenti!” This came from Hermione.“What is that thing?” Ginny cried.“I don’t know, but…” Harry felt sick as skin sloughed off from the man’s legs and slid onto the carpet. He heard someone retch behind him.A croaking voice garbled out from the man’s mouth and Harry watched as he jerked towards himself, Ron and George. “Oh god, watch out!” Angelina shrieked.George gripped his arm. “Harry, careful!” “Stupefy!”The man froze, but when he lowered his wand, the man jerked forward again, his hair turned red, and then another resounding crack shattered the room.The man was gone.There was a moment of deathly silence. He looked over at Hermione to share his stupefaction and saw her shiver.“Harry, what was that?”He shook his head. “Herm, I have no idea.” He transfigured a drinks coaster into a Petri dish and a spoon into a slender glass rod, and then scooped the skin left behind into the dish. “I was hoping you might know.” He looked around to see her shaking her head slowly as she stared at the stain left behind. Everyone else was still and silent.“Can everyone stay here? Ron, send a message to Kingsley, will you?” He pointed his wand directly at the dish.“Will do, mate.”“Harry, you can’t mean to follow that thing?” Ginny gasped.He shot her an incredulous look. “Of course I am. I’m an Auror. It’s my job.”Her eyes pleaded with him. “But Harry, it’s too dangerous! Get one of the senior Aurors to do it!”“There’s not enough time; this spell won’t work if it’s left too long,” he snapped. Did she always have to say that, every time he took to the field? “It has to be now.” He repositioned his wand at the sample. “Investigo Exuviae!” He grimaced as he felt a tug in his middle and Apparated.* * *He staggered over damp grass, fought off dizziness, and looked around. He had landed in someone’s backyard; normal, domestic, all lights off. He could be anywhere. The person stood nearby, shuddered, twitched, and then morphed into a lumpy Crup. The dog choked on a rusty howl. A prickle of wild magic crackled and itched over his skin. “Protego!” he shouted. The grass around him shot up to his waist. It became drenched with water. The water started to sizzle, and steamy heat rose, making him sweat, obfuscating his sight. The deformed Crup barked, coughed, choked, and in a serious of wild jerks, became human again. It was too dark to recognize a face. Crack. Apparition. Shit, no time to subdue it. He squeezed his eyes shut as his own body followed.
* * *Harry gasped and choked as wet, icy darkness engulfed him, closed in on him, wanting to crush him. He clutched his wand and kicked his arms and legs out, eyes tight shut, his heart hammering, hoping like hell up was the right direction to go. He couldn’t tell, but it felt like he was going nowhere. His lungs started to squeeze and he kicked out desperately as the squeeze tightened and tightened. He thrashed with all that he had, panic and pressure behind him, when he finally he broke through the water. He gasped in breath, put his arms out and treaded water, jerking his head around. Holy crap.His heart kicked up its pace as his body started to seize up from cold. “In…Inferves…fervesco…” he choked out, teeth chattering. Sod all. He sucked in a large breath and fought down panic. He had to get warm. “Infervesco!” he howled. The surrounding water heated and he forced himself to relax and look around, arms out, wading. All around him was inky darkness, punctured only by moonlight shining on waves, as gentle as a storm.He was in the middle of an ocean.There was no sight of his quarry. No sight of anything. Not half an hour ago, he’d been toasty warm in convivial company, worried about flowers, for fuck’s sake. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Please let it Apparate again. Now. The water warmed further. His gaze darted across the darkness, silently blessing Hermione for making him get his eyesight fixed, and grimaced; maybe he’d overdone the heating spell; the water heated further. Still no sign of the person he was trailing. When the water became uncomfortable, he froze. That wasn’t his spell.He pointed his wand in front of him. “Glacius!” Ice snapped and crackled around him and spread out in a concentric wave. He was only able to manage a five yard radius, but it would give him some thinking space, and gave him a shelf of ice to stand on. “All right!” he muttered through chattering teeth. “Come on, then!”All was silent and still. Wind rustled by his ears and sent shards of ice particles pricking every centimetre of his exposed neck and face. His eyes watered and he squinted against the glitter of moonlight on the ice. The vast austerity surrounding him made him feel small.A tremendous roar broke the silence as a ten–foot wall of water gushed up from ten yards away. The water slowly dropped down to reveal a monster that looked like shiny, liquid ink. Long, tentacled limbs thrashed in the water. Bloody hell. It was the biggest fucking squid he’d ever seen. He raised his wand and traced a large circle above his head as its flailing limbs crashed through the tips of his ice safety net. “Lacarnum Inflamarae!” he roared. A ring of fire flared out and chased the squid and he hoped to hell it worked because if it—A loud crack pierced the air. Thank Mer- He was tugged away.
* * *He landed, streaming seawater, onto blessedly solid ground, opened his eyes and found himself surrounded by trees. The squid spasmodically twisted and morphed back into its humanoid shape, flinging leaves and branches in its wake. He jabbed his wand forward, uncaring of his dripping state. “Stupefy!” he yelled. “Petrificus Totalus!” The man that remained froze and keeled over. Harry sucked in a few breaths and glanced around. He wasn’t sure of his location, but it felt like the Forbidden Forest. At least he didn’t have to wade through a mass of terrified people. He raised his wand. “Lumos.” He cautiously approached the man…thing.“Harry Potter!” He jumped and twisted his head around to find Firenze stamping and snorting some distance away. The centaur turned to frown at the body. “…And…friend.”“Firenze,” he greeted with a nod. “Can you give me a moment?”The centaur cantered a few steps closer and halted. “I felt a strange flare of magic.”“Yeah, well…I’m dealing with it.” Harry turned back to his quarry. Those ugly red and black raised welts had grown even worse; several had split and torn, oozing pus and blood. He crept up, wand steady. The body quivered, jerked and flailed like a fish in a net. A muted flare of magic sputtered weakly out, the features settled, and the man’s eyes opened. He jabbed his wand forward again, glaring, but hesitated when the figure stayed still.Harry looked down. Dumb, uncomprehending pain glowed from the man’s watery eyes, seeped, sputtered, and slowly, gently, faded away. Relief and rest melted over his distorted face for one perfect moment, and then he was gone. Harry waited for a moment, swallowing a lump in his throat, but it was truly over; the man was dead. He turned to Firenze, who stared at the man with marble-like calm. He turned back to the body. More of the skin sloughed soggily off.“The trees whispered of magic awry,” Firenze pronounced. “A happening unexpected.”Harry shrugged. “I guess so.”The centaur turned his head to stare down at him. He found himself gripping his arms and giving them a brisk rub. It was silly to feel unnerved; Firenze wouldn’t hurt him, but he did feel like his soul was being dissected under that gaze.“Many stars rise to influence your fate, Harry Potter. Castor, Pollux, Eltanin, and Pallas Parthenos. The stars will be both your answer and salvation.” “Yes, thank you, Firenze,” Harry replied tartly. “That’s a big help.”The look of majestic calm certainty did not change. Centaurs didn’t get sarcasm, he was sure of it. “It is time for me to return to my brethren. It would be well for you to do likewise. Your place is no longer here.”Harry shivered and gave a nod. “I’ll contact Shacklebolt and have this body removed, and leave as soon as possible.”Firenze dipped his head and reared back. “Fare you well, Harry Potter.” The centaur galloped away.Harry sighed, blasted himself with a drying charm, and slumped down onto a log. He’d call Shacklebolt, of course, but a breather first…just for a few moments. He turned to stare at what remained. Whoever he had been, he was beyond suffering now, and he clung on to that as the memory of those eyes stirred up his guts.Presently, he roused sufficiently to transfigure a few more Petri dishes and take further samples before enveloping the body in a stasis spell and special quarantine bubble charm that skimmed the body. He then applied the charm to himself, silently blessing Hermione. She had presented it to him after he’d complained of a hideously tedious weekend spent in lockdown after a virus scare, and had promptly won the gratitude of Kingsley and a promotion at work. Perhaps it was needless, but nothing he’d ever seen or heard came remotely close to what he had just experienced, and he had no desire to suffer a like fate, assuming it wasn’t already too late.
* * *“Merlin, Harry,” Ron breathed for the fourth time. He was perched up on a desk nearby Harry’s own, his drumming fingers not quite connecting with the wood, and looking strangely hazy and pearlescent through his own quarantine charm. According to him, all those present at the scene and the entire Weasley dining room had been so charmed the moment he’d disappeared. “It…well, it beggars belief, don’t it, mate? What’s been done with that, um, well, the body?”“It’s been put safely in storage for further examination.” Harry spared a moment from his report writing to pat the keys beside him. “Shacklebolt’s called St Mungo’s; they’ll send out experts to see us and the body tomorrow morning.”“Will you come back with us once your report’s done?”He shook his head. “I’d rather be here, just in case. I’ll kip on the couch for tonight.”“Out in the middle of the ocean,” Ron muttered, peering over his shoulder and shaking his head. “Oh, brilliant charm work there, you’ve always been a bit of all right with thinking on your feet, eh?”The door opened, and Eddie Carmichael stormed in, stopping short just inside the door. His lips compressed into a thin line. “Well, well. If it isn’t my roster partner,” he greeted.Harry swallowed a heartfelt groan and placed his quill down. “Carmichael,” he replied, voice neutral.“Yeah, look at you,” Carmichael sneered. “Back from battle again. Hero of the hour, again. Alone.”“Look,” he began wearily. “Ron will tell you; there was no time-”“Of course there wasn’t,” Carmichael roared. “There never is when it’s you.” He stabbed a finger towards him. “Got to rush in first. Got to know what’s best. Got to have the glory. Never letting me have my chance!”“Carmichael, if you’d been there, you’d have done the same,” he retorted, exasperated.“I would have sent out a Patronus first, which is what we are supposed to do!” Carmichael spat. He slammed his fist down on the nearby desk. “But no, the rules don’t apply to Harry Potter.”Harry rolled his eyes. It was always Harry Potter, never Saviour or Chosen One. Carmichael never admitted or alluded to the sacrifices he’d made, or everything he’d done. It seemed to sooth his ego to insinuate that Harry’s fame was undeserved. However…“You’re right, I should have done so,” he admitted, rubbing his fingers over his temples. “But just think; only a month more and this rotation will be over; you’ll have someone new.”“Merlin, anyone would be better than you.” Carmichael shook his head. “I can’t believe I’d actually looked forward to partnering you. Everyone else around here values teamwork and doesn’t act like only they can do the job right.” He picked up some paperwork on his desk and moved to the door, looking back with a saccharine smile. “I heard the victim was a squid Animagus. Not quite as useful as my Animagus form, but at least it’s better than not having one.” He marched away.Harry curled his hands into tight fists, blood throbbing unpleasantly at his temples. Animagus. His gut churned. He’d tried, Merlin knew how hard he’d tried, how much he’d wanted it. How much time he’d dedicated to reading, learning, practicing. The relentless hours spent churning, straining, exhausting himself. Always for nothing. Why Carmichael could do it, when he, whose father could do it, who’d suffered and struggled and lost, who deserved it, could not? It wasn’t fair.Ron shot the retreating figure a look of disgust. “Well, ain’t that the bleedin’ limit?” he scoffed. He turned back to him. “…Do you act like he can’t do the job right?”Harry flushed, fiddled with his quill, and then put it down. “…Yeah, I guess,” he mumbled. “Sort of. I know I shouldn’t, but I just get so exasperated…” He grimaced. “The thing is; I am better than him.” He scratched at the back of his neck. “He may have been in Ravenclaw and got nine Newts, but he’s hopeless in the field. Almost every time I’ve let him take the lead, he makes a cock up of it, or forgets things, or can’t identify the quickest solutions, and then not only do I have to fix it up, because if I don’t I get reamed out by Kingsley along with him, I always have to do it in a way that doesn’t tread on his toes, because he gets all snappy and defensive and tries to convince everyone I’m being an obnoxious know-it-all prat overstepping my authority. It’s such a pain.”Ron nodded and gave him a hesitant glance. “You know, mate, sometimes you can be a little…impatient with people.”He almost burst out with a list of all the provocation he’d been subjected to, all the times he’d rolled his eyes and bit his tongue, with Ron sometimes, and paused. Wouldn’t that be proving his point? “…Maybe.”“All right, I’m off for home. I’ll let Ginny know you’re staying here.” His friend brought his hand down to slap him on the shoulder only to have it bounce away before it could contact. “Mate, I’m glad it’s you, though. Wouldn’t trust anyone here but you to deal with this.”He smiled. “Thanks, Ron.”
* * *The following day, he was showering in the bathroom set aside for those under quarantine, when a knock came at the door.“Harry? You in there?”He pulled his head out of the spray and blinked, wiping hair and water out of his eyes. The muffled voice was a familiar one, although not heard in a while. “Oh! Be out in a minute!”“Okay. Just wanted to let you know we’re here. We’ll be in your office.”“Sure!”He rinsed off, cast a drying charm, dressed in a spare set of clean Auror robes, and reapplied the quarantine charm. Before leaving the bathroom, he glanced in the mirror and blanched; the drying charm had turned his hair into a giant black Puffskein. However, he made it to his office with only a few poorly hidden smiles from random Ministry staff. When he opened his office door, he found Padma Patil and her supervisor, Healer May, both seated.“Junior Auror Potter.” Healer May stretched out a long, bony hand with a nod that included him as an equal. Considering her age and experience, it was a bit embarrassing. He did his best to shake her hand, but the quarantine charm made his own hand feel numb, and it slid out before he could get a decent grip. If she found the sensation strange, she gave no sign of it. “Apprentice Healer Patil and I are here to examine you after your experience last night. We have taken the liberty of reading your report. Is it permissible for you to have Apprentice Healer Patil present during our consultation?”“Sure. And call me Harry.” He gave Padma a friendly nod. He’d never had a great deal to do with her, but the twins had supported him through school and the war, and therefore deserved his time whenever asked for. Especially because they didn’t ask.“Thank you, Harry. Please call me Jemima. Well, let’s get to it, shall we?” Healer May stood, so he did likewise. “First of all, I’m sure you’d like to get out of that clever charm, wouldn’t you?” She put her hands on her hips and looked him over. “Clothes off, if you please!”He did a double take. “Erm...what?”The healer gave a tolerant smile. “Many of my spells will be all the more sensitive without a physical barrier clouding the issue. Don’t worry; you have nothing we both haven’t seen before.”Cripes. Who had decided that was a helpful comment anyway? It’d be better if neither of them had seen a bloke’s bits before, that way they couldn’t compare. He stifled a groan and reluctantly shucked off, pushing the clothes out through the quarantine barrier.“Excellent. Thank you, Harry.”He deliberately stared at the floor as the Healer continued.“Now, Trainee Patil, perhaps you could guide me through the steps one would take for a patient coming in under quarantine?”He looked up to see Padma biting her lips and felt a rush of sympathy. Ten to one her session would end with the dreaded question; so what did you think of your performance just now? He hated that question. The examination was fairly routine; a whirl of tests, scans and procedures that were ticklish, uncomfortable, and generally fucking boring. He waited patiently for Padma to run her tests, a few times on the occasions that Healer May wasn’t quite happy, until they both lowered their wands.“Harry, if you’d like to get dressed now?”He nodded and let them draw away to confer while he dressed. Charts and readings glowed in patterns in the air before them. It seemed okay; the elderly healer asked questions, Padma answered, neither appeared alarmed. Healer May turned towards him with a smile.“You will be pleased to know that we have ruled out any form of infection from your contact with the body. In fact, you are in very good health, although your cortisol levels are somewhat high; perhaps not so surprising given your career and recent activities. However, I foresee stomach ulcers and a stroke in your future if you do not learn to relax. Be wise, and prevent.”She made that sound like a St. Mungo’s poster slogan. “Erm. Yeah. Yes. I, uh…yes.” He attempted to flatten his hair as Padma hid a smile. He flicked his wand and cancelled the quarantine bubble. “Do you want to check the Weasleys now?”“We will see the body first, if we may, while we’re here.”“Sure.” He fished out his keys and led them through the Auror headquarters until they reached storage room ten. He unlocked and ushered them in.The body was as he’d left it, and no prettier for its overnight rest. Healer May and Padma approached with due caution, muttering incantations as they did so. He pulled up a chair and sat away from the body. He didn’t want to see that face again. Instead, he watched the two healers move this way and that, their wands waving, muttering spells. Every so often, he heard phrases such as; Very good, Trainee Patil, or; What do you make of this? And; What would your diagnosis be in that case? Meanwhile, he let his mind wander.Who was it? What had happened? Was it (pray to Merlin) an isolated case, of unfortunate but natural causes? He shook his head. That was too good to be true. The best he could hope for was a single case of unnatural causes. Even that didn’t tell him what his next step should be.Of course, Ginny would insist that his next step should be to dump the case onto someone else and concentrate on wedding details. Ginny was sweet, but her concern was annoying and needless. Hadn’t he already proved his ability to look after himself a thousand times over?“Harry?”He jerked back to the present to find the older healer’s hand on his shoulder. “Yes?”“Well, I’ve never seen anything like this, not in fifty two years of healing.” She shook her head and glanced at the corpse with pity in her eyes. “Cancer, but metastasized, I mean spread from its initial location, beyond all I’ve ever seen. I suspect that is the reason for the wild, uncontrolled magic you detailed in your report. In particular, my hypothesis is that the cancer and magic both influenced each other in a deadly cycle of positive feedback. I would be surprised if this was seen again.” She gave him a card. “If I were you, I would visit this group. They might give a better explanation for this…unfortunate malady, and the resources to identify him. I am afraid that is beyond our ability.”He stared at the card. WIFGER, it read. Wizarding Institute for Forensic and Genetic Engineering Research. His heart sank, but he forced a polite nod. He was overdue for a visit there, and although he wasn’t looking forward to it, it had to be done. “Thank you, Healer May, and Apprentice Healer Padma.” He shoved the card in his robe pocket with little enthusiasm. “You’ve been very helpful.”“My pleasure, Mr Potter.” She turned to Padma. “Let’s visit the Weasley household and give them the all clear, shall we?”“Bye, Harry.” Padma winked surreptitiously and followed the lady out the door.
* * *Before he trudged over to WIFGER, he floo’ed home to Grimmauld Place and crashed down on the couch by the fireplace with a beer. Kreacher shuffled into the living room and stared up at him from under heavy brows.“Master is home early,” he intoned. “It is but eleven o’clock. Will Master be requiring some luncheon?”“Uh huh.” He ran a hand through his hair and put his feet up on the recliner. “Master had a rough night, and was given permission for a few hours’ kip at home before heading back to work. Master could really do with that lamb pie of yours.”He was graced with a rare smile. Sure, it looked more like a grimace, but it was the thought that counted and all. “Master is humorous. Master will wait, and luncheon will be served in half an hour.”“Brilliant.” He settled down, slugged back his beer and let out a long sigh. The floo roared to life, and he sat up as a familiar face popped up in the flames, dusted with soot. “Nev!” he cried. “Hey, mate. Got the all clear from Healer May?”“Yeah, not half an hour ago. Went straight home.” Neville grinned and held up a plant. Long, dirty roots jangled, dusting more dirt on his arm and clothes. “I did it; Nepeta Kneazlearia! I’m going to call it Kneazlenap! Hermione loaned Crookshanks as a test subject, and it worked like a dream. Crooks was out like a Nox in ten minutes, with no side effects.”Harry laughed. “That’s great, Nev. All the animal healers in the wizarding world will worship you.”“I can’t wait to show Luna; I hope she isn’t working overtime for a change.”“Lot of late nights?” he asked sympathetically.“Yeah, she said she’s working on a top-secret project; probably some sort of hush-hush thing for the Unspeakables, I didn’t ask. Something about breeding tracking bugs, I think.” Neville gave a big grin. “Anyway, must dash! Want to get this plant all settled in its new pot – just wanted to tell you!”He grinned. “Great Nev. Let’s catch up soon and you can-” A bell sounded. “Oh. Got another floo call trying to get through anyway.”“Righty-oh. I’ll get going. Bye!”Neville’s face disappeared, and the floo roared to life again. This time, Ginny’s face was in flames, and her temper too, from the looks of it. He mentally groaned and managed a smile.“Hey Gin!”“Yeah, hey,” she returned, her smile slightly forced. “I thought you’d be back at the Burrow by now. I know I would have preferred hearing all about it from you, rather than from Ron. We were worried about you."“Well, you know…thought I’d better stay at the office just in case…and I’m only here for a quick lunch before I’m back to work and all…”Her face fell. “What do you mean, you’re going on with this? I was hoping...”She was obviously making an effort not to yell or make demands, which was great, but seriously, he shouldn’t have to be pleased about that, it shouldn’t even be an issue. “Of course I am,” he edged out, still keeping the smile in place. “Gin, this doesn’t appear to be dangerous, I’m not dealing directly with criminals; it’s just research and investigation.”Her face crinkled up. “I don’t know, Harry. It was…it was awful. What if it is something dangerous?”“What if Voldemort comes back?” he retaliated, throwing his hands up. “What if I become a squib tomorrow? What if all the flowers in England wither and you have to use transfigured bouquets?”Ginny folded her arms. “At least I could be sure the bouquets would last longer than you! I hate this, Harry. I’m always worried about you. You always seem to be right up the front in the dangerous cases. What happens when we have kids? Are you willing to put your life at risk and leave them fatherless?”He could barely restrain himself from rolling his eyes. “Ginny, we talked about this. I’ve said all along that I was going to continue on with Auror work for a few years. When we have kids, yes, I will retire from the field, but we don’t have them yet.”Ginny let out a groan of irritation. “But I know what that office is like, and I know you. You’ll be forever taking on just one more case, because this newest one is just too damned important to leave to someone else. They’ll drain you dry and you’ll go along with it because you always have to be the one to do everything.” She sucked in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “You need to make it clear you can’t always be the one to save the day.”“I won’t let them take advantage of me.” He gave a bitter laugh. “Often it’s quite the opposite, believe me. Just because you defeated you-know-who don’t think you can take over here,” he mimicked savagely. “We can’t all have prophecies and a host of adult wizards behind us, doing all the real work to guarantee our success.”She sighed, and her expression softened. “Yes, I know how annoying that is, but you don’t have to prove anything.”“I’m not trying to-”“Really?” Her brow rose. She seemed so sure of herself that he stuttered to a halt. Could she see something he couldn’t? Hermione had told him, her face creased with sympathy, that he wasn’t crash hot at recognizing emotions and motivations in himself, let alone others, and he was forced to conclude she…might have a point.“Besides,” she continued. “You know Quid ditch players have a shelf life of five years or so. I don’t want to wait until I’m in my thirties to have children!”“…What? But…” I do, and I thought we’d agreed on that.She sighed again. “Look, this is a conversation that should be happening face to face, when things are calmer. Call me when you’re free.”Kreacher shuffled in and he turned to the elf gladly. “Yes, Kreacher?”“Lunch is ready, master.”He nodded and turned back to his fiancé. “I’ll call you.”She spared him a fond yet exasperated look before disappearing. He figured his face looked the same. Ginny was kick-arse in many ways; pretty, confident, and usually lots of fun, but oh god please don’t let her be one of those girls who try to change their man once the ring’s on. He’d have to make it clear that that wasn’t on. Somehow.
* * *When the WIFGER centre doors opened, a small reception room greeted him, manned by a young witch in the middle of a floo call. He shoved his hands into his robe pockets and looked around. It was like any standard office, livened up with a few paintings and sculptures that appeared to be local artists’ work. While he waited, he wandered over to an oil painting that portrayed a fountain of X’s and Y’s, each one bigger, more intricate and more colourful than the one before. He peered at the placard underneath. The Evolution of Wizard, he read.“Can I help you, sir?”He straightened and turned to the desk. The witch sat primly, her face suspiciously bland. She recognized him, but was maintaining professionalism, thank Merlin. He’d found in the past that his junior Auror uniform discouraged personal gushing, too. “Yes, thank you. I’d like to speak to--”“Harry!”He turned and sighed with a smile as a familiar figure appeared from a nearby door. “Katie. Just the person I wanted.” The door stayed opened, and Angelina appeared, followed by George and Ron, all divested of the quarantine charm. They all stopped abruptly, looking as startled as he felt. “Oh. Hello.”Katie gave him a humorous smile. “Yes, found this lot wandering around, looking for me, as usual.”“We were about to drag her off for lunch,” Angelina broke in. “Want to come along?”“Oh, no can do, I’m afraid.” Katie shook her head and sighed. “Back-to-back meetings until five o’clock in…” she flicked her wand. “Tempus…five minutes. It’ll have to be tomorrow. Sorry.”“Oh,” Angelina and Harry mourned simultaneously. Everyone stared at him. “I need to talk to you about the case.”Katie frowned. “Oh yes. This lot…” she gestured to Ron and George, who were shuffling in place, “…told me. Yes, very sad, but also very interesting. You can’t imagine how disappointed I am that I have to hand over the reins to Draco. Which reminds me…” She flicked her wand again and a Peahen Patronus squawked and fluttered its way down the corridor.“Is it a criminal investigation, then?” George asked.He shrugged. “Well…it’s an investigation, of course. I don’t know if it’s classified as criminal exactly. Yet. You’d have to ask Kingsley.” He turned back to Katie. “Malfoy?” he asked weakly.“He said he’d step in. As luck would have it, our senior researchers are both in Sweden at a conference.”“They can’t be called back?” he pleaded.“And miss our big chance?” Katie was no longer smiling. “At least Draco will share. The seniors always snatch up the interesting cases and get all the glory. Us lowly PhD students get the dregs. Not so long ago, Dr Uberschwartz, or Uberwanker as we like to call him, published an article about a mutated transcription factor that regulates the gene that codes for a protein we suspect is involved in-” She broke off. “Well, never mind the nerd talk; suffice to say it may be a huge breakthrough in wizarding genetics; Wiznature published it, for Merlin’s sake! But it was Draco that discovered it; not Uberwanker. That bastard picked up Draco’s data as cool as you please, and published the results under his own name. He claimed that it was his right as the lead investigator. So no, I won’t be calling them, and I’ll thank you not to do so, either.”His eyes widened. “What? Malfoy never--”“Never what, Potter?”Draco Malfoy appeared, shutting a nearby door behind him. The form-fitting knee-length Prussian blue WIFGER robe, with its mandarin collar and twin rows of silver embroidery and buttons down the front suited him, he admitted. Paired with black boots, it conveyed quality. It made his thin, bony frame and sharp features suggest austerity, class and elegance. Still, the forest green robe with muted gold trimming and brown boots that had been introduced post-battle as the “New Look!” for the junior Aurors lost nothing in comparison. He kept his chin up. “Told me about Uber…er…,” he trailed off as Draco flashed a surprised scowl to his co-worker, who stared at her nails. Harry cleared his throat. “Katie told me you’ve agreed to work with me.”Draco let his frown linger for a moment longer, before returning his attention to him. “Indeed. Here I am.”“Well, we’d best be getting on,” Ron interrupted, shuffling. “Catch you later, Harry, eh?”“What? Oh, yeah, sure Ron. Angie. George.” He gave a nod to George and Angelina, who were whispering together. “Angie? George?”They both jerked up and gave him embarrassed smiles.“Sure, Harry.”“Harry.”He watched all three mooch down the corridor as Katie gave a dramatic sigh.“Well, off I go to fawn all over our latest investors,” she groaned. She turned to Draco with a snarl. “Jammy bastard.”Draco delivered a casual wave. His annoyance had apparently dissipated. “Your name will be right next to mine,” he promised.“Better be.” With that good-natured growl, Katie turned tail, leaving them alone.Draco gestured back towards where he’d come. “Potter. My office.” When he stalked back up the corridor, Harry followed, shoving his hands into his pockets.“You have your own?”“I share with Katie, but she will be gone, obviously.”He allowed Draco to enter first, and followed, curious. They’d made good use of wizarding space, like he had, but this was more what he expected from a lab; sterling silver tables, shelving filled with manuals, textbooks and files, machines he didn’t recognize, rows of lab equipment and bottles filled with…stuff. It was all pristine and orderly; big surprise.Draco opened a drawer, shoved a case inside, locked it with a flick of his wand, and then sank down into a plush chair that fronted a tidy desk. A photo of Draco and his parents, standing in front of the Manor, sat next to a computer monitor. Harry sat in Katie’s chair and manoeuvred it closer, nodding at the photo. “Looks recent,” he noted. Lucius had his arms around Narcissa, and Draco stood next to them. “You all look…peaceful,” he added.“It was a good day.” The photo was pushed aside.“…So, about that senior researcher that—““Leave it.” Draco’s tone was as encouraging as his words.“But…”Draco turned a ferocious scowl on him. “I said leave it!” His eyes narrowed. “How are you getting on with investigating the break in?”Harry winced. Draco twirled a quill and gave him a cold smile.“Nothing? Of course not. Well, what does it matter, right Potter? It was only my flat that was robbed. Only a few rare and valuable texts stolen. I’m sure there are hundreds of more important cases for you to solve.”“No, I…” Oh god. Why me? “…It isn’t that I haven’t been trying.” He swallowed, gripped the arms of his chair. “I had an idea. I know that the brick that needs to be tapped in order to reveal the gate to your block of flats doesn’t save magical signatures, but I thought someone unfamiliar with the area, like your intruder, might have tapped other surrounding bricks first. And those bricks may have retained a magical signature. They had, but…”There was a deadly silence. “…But?” Draco asked softly.His stomach lurched. “…Carmichael found my file notes,” he continued reluctantly. “And he insisted on being the one to get the signatures. I tried to stop him, but he went to Kingsley, and Kingsley insisted that it’d be a good experience for Carmichael to…” He swallowed again, wishing he’d brought some water. “I warned him…” He threw his hands up. “…I told him to be careful …” he trailed away. “And so you let an incompetent idiot who you knew couldn’t manage fuck up the only decent lead you had,” Draco snarled. He shot to his feet and slammed the chair home. “You know, when my flat was robbed a year ago, and the bloody Aurors never solved it, hardly tried to, I let it go. I wasn’t surprised. I knew they wouldn’t care. But I thought this time, with you on the case…” His face twisted. “You knew he would screw up. You should have been more careful to keep the real leads away from him!”“I know,” Harry cried out wretchedly. He pushed his knuckles up against his eyes. “I’m so sorry, but I didn’t imagine he’d go through my desk, and Kingsley insisted I let him-”“Oh, of course, blame someone else! The fact is we both know Carmichael’s a cretin, and you let him fuck up,” Draco hissed. “You should have followed him at the very least. I’ve got to wonder if you even want to be bothered with me.” He paced. “Damn it, Potter. It’s been two months, and you’ve done sod all. I thought…well, after the room of requirement, the trials…I thought we were getting over the past. I thought things were different between us now.”Harry jerked upright. “They are!” he insisted. “Things are different! I wanted – I want to see it through!”“Words are cheap, Potter,” Draco spat. He crossed his arms, sagged against his table, and looked away. “Be honest; you just can’t be arsed when it’s me.”For fuck’s sake; did Draco think Harry could do whatever the hell he liked at work? Order everything to his choosing? He wished! “All right,” he bit out, “here’s something that might appeal to your demented need to make me the bad guy here: I’m working hard on your case because knowing that someone’s swatting up on the dark arts courtesy of the books he or she stole has me a bit antsy, I couldn’t give a stuff about you. Okay? Work for you?”“It isn’t about making you the bad guy,” Draco retorted. “You’re doing a great job on your own! This is about me wondering why I bothered flaying myself alive in front of you with that fucking humiliating apology. This is me wondering whether I was the only one who thought our catch-ups over drinks meant something. I know they were awkward and sporadic and superficial, especially at first, but that was natural, or so I thought. Damn it, even Pansy thought she’d been wrong about you. Pity she wasn’t.”“For fuck’s sake Malfoy,” Harry exploded. “Why do you think I kept suggesting drinks? No, don’t answer,” he continued bitterly. “You’d just say I was being condescending; wanting to be seen with you to highlight to the world how noble and forgiving I am.”Draco shrugged, his chin raised. “And it isn’t that? You’d be frantic if it were fucking Weasley who’d been robbed, or Granger. Or any of your Gryffindor friends. But me? Too bad.”For all the sneering tone, Draco’s tight lower lip trembled. Harry’s anger drained. Malfoy was hurt. Really hurt. “No,” he returned, more gently. “I swear it. It was cool, you know? Us having a pint and a chat. I liked it. I thought we were starting to be…” He shrugged awkwardly. “…Y’ know, mates.”Draco didn’t change his pose, but he did turn his head to look down at him. “Willing to take veritaserum?”“Yes,” he retorted.Draco’s brow rose, and smiled nastily as he reached into his desk. “Well, well, Potter. Your luck’s in; I have some right here.”Harry winced. “Funny, that,” he replied evenly.“Be prepared.” Draco smirked down at him, tendrils of his shoulder length hair sweeping forward to cast his face in shadow. “Open up.”He did, and then hesitated. “Any questions not directly related to the robbery investigation, and I’ll arrest you for unregistered possession.”Draco waved that away. “Please, Potter. If I want juicy gossip about the Golden Boy I need simply pick up the Prophet.”Harry stared at him, eyes narrowed, then opened his mouth and let his tongue rest forward. Draco extended his long, bony hand, and tilted the bottle. He had nice fingers, Harry thought vaguely. Slender and strong. He let three drops fall. Harry swallowed.Draco sucked in a breath, and then tucked his bottle away. They stared at each other for a long moment. Draco looked better than he had two months ago when he’d first come into the Auror office, with bruising under his wild eyes. He looked much better than he had five years ago. “So, Potter.” Draco tapped his quill against his cheek. “Do you want to solve the crime committed against me?”“Yes.”Draco’s brow rose. “Hm. Did you deliberately sabotage your lead by giving it to Carmichael?”“No. I was afraid it would happen though,” he continued. He winced but the words would drag out. “But Carmichael kept bitching about me never letting him do anything, and some of the other Aurors started to believe him, and Kingsley chewed me out for not allowing Carmichael to prove himself…and it was just easier to hope like hell he’d get it right.”Draco rolled his eyes. “Well, then. Cowardice rather than active spite.”“Look, if you knew-”Draco shrugged this off. “Oh, very well. Office politics is something I have experience in, after all. I absolve you and your Gryffindorish need to keep the peace.” He smirked. “After all, you’ll need all the practice you can get, considering your upcoming wedding.”Harry glared and then widened his eyes as Draco’s lips curled up.“Is she a good fuck, Potter?”“I don’t know. We haven’t yet.” Harry clapped his hands over his mouth in horrified anguish as Draco shrieked with laughter. “You bastard,” he gritted.“Oh, come on.” Draco snickered. “Look, I’m sorry. I never dreamed that the Weasleys would keep to such an old-fashioned, and dare I say it; pure-blood, tradition.”He ignored the tinge of disparagement he heard; it was a mere wisp of its former self; hardly worth the notice. “Molly is protective,” he muttered, staring at his fingers. “We’ve done stuff, but she sprung us once, and then put this charm on her…” He shrugged. “Ginny’s too embarrassed to find someone who can take it off.”“Cheer up, Potter. They only last till the wedding night.”Harry stared at him. Draco huffed and shrugged. “Astoria’s been given the treatment too.”“Oh...so you…I didn’t know.”Draco shrugged again, and stood. Harry did likewise. “Yes. Though for us, it’s more of a formality. It’s part of the set of traditional customs that lead up to the ceremony.”His brow rose. He didn’t know Astoria by sight, but if she was anything like her older sister, she’d be pretty fit. “Not tempted?” he asked.Draco spared him a snort as he gathered together some notes. “It’s not a love match,” he retorted, “it’s marriage. I find my pleasure elsewhere.”Pansy, probably. He hadn’t seen her since the war, as she had completed school at Beaubaxtons, promptly married a wealthy French wizard, and called an exclusive wizarding community in Cannes home. However, that didn’t mean they weren’t lovers; Draco talked of her often. A tight, burning spear of ire stabbed him, and he winced. Damn it, not again. Feeling uptight and uncomfortable around Malfoy was just wrong. “Well. Right then.” He cleared his throat. “Is it too much to hope we can get to work?”“Lead on, Potter. I’d like a look at this body of yours and take some samples, then come back here to analyse them.”He turned to look at Draco as they walked down the corridor towards the floo together. “What have you heard about the body?”Draco shrugged. “Sod all yet, beyond that you have one that needs identifying.”Harry nodded and said no more. Hopefully Malfoy would get a shock, and it’d serve him right, the git.
* * *“…I see.”Harry vanished the last of the protective and preserving spells on the body, took a step back and raised his brows. “That’s it?”Draco scowled. “Why not? Cloyingly sentimental, insincere platitudes won’t help.” “No, that’s not what I meant,” Harry retorted. “You act like it’s just routine, like you’ve seen it before…” Unease crawled all over his body. Could Malfoy have something to do with this? The nasty cold crawl plunged down into his gut. Honestly, it hadn’t even occurred to him, but surely no one could be that blasé? Show a face that blank?“I have never seen this body before,” Draco replied shortly.Harry folded his arms and cocked a brow. “Willing to repeat that under Veritaserum?” “Yes,” Draco snapped. He unpacked some of his instruments and went about taking samples, plunging a syringe in various locations, scraping skin.“I took some samples already,” Harry offered. “Keep them. I’d prefer my own.”Harry rolled his eyes. Of course he did. Never mind that Aurors were well trained in sampling correctly. Then again, Draco had his own area of expertise. “Why?”Draco’s head jerked up and he scowled again before his expression softened. “You actually want to know? Will wonders never cease.” Before Harry could do more than open his mouth to retort, Draco held up a forestalling hand. “My area of expertise requires special tissue samples; bone marrow and cells from the testes, for example. Dare I hope you obtained some?”“Dare away,” he muttered.“You know, Potter, I don’t think I will.” Draco flashed him a smirk and went back to work. He used his wand to peel back skin and the underlying viscera, slice through muscle tendon, and cut into bone. Harry winced, looked away, and stifled a sigh. In a just world, he would wave his marrow sample high and crush that git like the insufferable twat he was. Alas, he could only jam his hands in his pockets and kick himself for his ineptitude. And suddenly remember with soul-crushing horror that he had a robe-fitting at Malkins later in the day and Molly was making noises about going, just to observe. Oh, piss it.“There. That should be sufficient, I think.”Harry made careful note of the way the samples were secured and stored by hand, in a specially designed carry-case. Draco had once told him that they were researching the effect magic had on tissue sampling; obviously they still kept to manual methods, to be safe.“What can you tell me, based on your experience?” he asked with a nod to the body.Draco stared at it, and then stared at his case. He sucked in a long breath. “Died of cancer. Obviously. I’d hazard a guess that his magic must have increased the rate of growth and metastasis.”Harry nodded. “Healer May said the same thing. I think.”Draco gave a short, absent nod, his brows creased. “I’ll do a DNA profile, and get a magical signature. If you’re lucky, he’ll be a criminal already on your database.”Harry snorted, sighed, and walked Draco towards the door. “Any help would be appreciated.” He was speared with a pointed look. “And in return, perhaps you could get around to using your much-vaunted Auror skills to actually find out who robbed me.”He wanted to push the git through the door as he shut up behind him. “I do not…vaunt,” he spluttered, cheeks hot.“No, of course you don’t, and why would you, when you have so many loyal worshipers to do it for you?”“I…you…it isn’t...argh!” Harry grabbed his hair and forced himself to deep breath. “Now you’re just yanking my chain.”Draco hit him with a genuine smile, tinged with malice. “Because you make it so easy.”
* * *Harry forced himself to trudge to Madam Malkin’s, deep in thought. Damn it; he should never have let Draco distract him from his suspicions. Had it been deliberate? He just couldn’t see that body as anything natural; was Draco responsible? I’ve never seen this body before, he had said. That didn’t mean he hadn’t seen another body like it.It couldn’t be Draco; not really.Not really? He could practically hear Ron’s incredulous disbelief, but…no, really. Things had changed between them. Draco hadn’t been joking when he’d claimed his apology had been akin to being flayed alive; Harry remembered how every word had twisted and dragged from between his teeth, and while others might snort and claim it just figured that the git would find a simple and well-deserved grovel so painful, wanker, Harry decided that a raw apology given with difficulty held more weight than a polished one easily tossed out.Sure, Draco was still disparaging at times, couldn’t seem to resist the odd snide comment or dig, and perhaps his attitude to Hermione was grudgingly respectful, but it was still genuine respect. His contempt for Ron hadn’t changed, but, Harry thought guiltily, he couldn’t really argue when Draco muttered comments about loyalty and desertion under his breath. But that wasn’t fair to Ron, he told himself. Sure, Ron had let him down - badly – twice! But the thing was; Ron had learned from it, and had redeemed himself in a hundred ways since; sticking up for him when the Weasley women got a bit much, running interference when strangers gushed, or defending him when other Aurors got on his arse. Anyway, the point was; he had grown up, maybe Malfoy had too, and he wasn’t going to regress to assuming guilt and childish insults. Unless Draco started it.A fluttering of feathers broke into his abstraction. A familiar owl careened towards him, wings flapping at bruising clip, listing to the side, a note crammed in its beak. Harry’s jaw dropped, he braced himself for impact and just managed to clutch the owl to his chest without crushing the poor, stupid thing. “Hello, Pig.” He fished out the crumpled paper and smoothed the owl’s feathers down with exasperated affection. Pig shoved his face into Harry’s neck and ruffled his feathers, making Harry twitch and laugh, and then flew away, leaving him to peruse the note. He read through the missive twice, frowning, shrugged and cast a Tempus. There was time. Just.He Apparated to the rear of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes and used his wand to good effect. With a few muttered words, the hidden door revealed itself and allowed him entrance to the chaotic wonderland that constituted the work room, also referred to as the Invention Room or, more commonly, the Don’t Worry room, the rider; We Can Fix That - I Think being assumed. The room appeared empty. “…George?” he called.A side door banged open and George rushed into the room, clutching a sheaf of papers.“Harry!” he carolled, eyes alight. “Glad you could make it, mate! You won’t believe what we…” There was a long pause. Harry’s soul cringed. He didn’t think the ‘we’ had meant Ron. “…We’ve done!”He edged a smile on his face as George stopped short inches before him, vibrating with tension. Harry winced. George’s pupils were mere pinpricks. Fucking great. He took a step back, received the crumpled papers thrust on him and stared down at the scrawl before him. “Your note said something about a new invention?” There were diagrams and exclamation marks in abundance, but he couldn’t make anything of it. The following pages brought no light. “Er…”“Flying Fudge, mate.” George waved his arms. “Tastes so good…” There was another pause. “…you’ll feel like you’re soaring, the package will say. And…you will be! Fifteen feet straight up. Based on Mobilicorpus, of course, but we…managed to tie it to the cocoa using a variation of Contineo. Isn’t it brilliant? Isn’t it inspired? This is what…we’ve been missing!”Harry couldn’t help a short grin. “Oh my god; that is brilliant!” Then he paused. “But won’t they just go crashing to the ground once it’s eaten?” he asked.George stared at him blankly. “…So? They can eat more, right? Get back up there!”“Er…right.” He offered a diffident shrug. “Um…wouldn’t broken bones be a bit awkward?”George huffed. “So? Skelegrow.”“Yeah, but what if it’s their neck?” he couldn’t help adding.“Details.” George waved them off. His eyes lit up again. “This is…going to be killer.”Harry winced. “Mm. That’s what I’m afra-”The door opened and Ron mooched in, licking his fingers and tossing a wrapper into the air. It vanished as it reached its zenith and his eyes widened.“Harry!” He lifted a brow. “Did you want to see me? Sorry. Just back from a quick spot of afternoon tea.”“Er, no, not that it isn’t great to see you again. George wanted to show me his latest idea.”“Flying Fudge!” George stared dreamily into space.“Uh. Hm. Yeah.” Ron forced a smile. “It’ll be great.” He sent Harry a speaking glance, which Harry returned. He shoved his hands in his pockets and turned to the elder Weasley. “Need to bugger off to Madam Malkins. We’ll talk more about the fudge later, yeah?”George gave no indication he’d heard, lost as he was in scribbling down more notes in the margins. Harry sauntered over to Ron, and they both sighed.“Bloody hell,” Ron muttered. He glanced over at his brother and lowered his voice. “I can’t watch him all the time.”“I know.” Harry shrugged. “What can you do? He’s an adult; it’s his call.”Ron sighed again. “I’ve tried to find out where he gets the stuff, but he won’t cough up. He’s touchy about it. Doesn’t like any of us telling him what to do. Says it’s under control.” He smiled weakly. “It does give him great ideas. The Tattling Taffy was brilliant.”“I dunno, Ron,” Harry sighed. “He never needed that stuff to come up with great ideas before…well, before.”He heard George swear and looked over to see him hurl something that splattered against the wall. George kicked the table so hard it rattled. Harry glanced over to Ron with wide eyes. Ron smiled weakly. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.”Harry didn’t try to hide his worry as George tossed various notes and papers onto the floor in a frenzy, cursing all the while. “You’d better. I do not want to have to arrest him for possession sometime down the track.” Though he couldn’t really blame the guy. It was hard enough as an outsider to listen to his sentences still pause in the expectation of having them completed. At least he finished them himself, now. He swore. “Fuck, I’m so late. Gotta run.” He returned Ron’s nod and Apparated, cursing. He’d have to endure Molly’s anxious smiles and lie through his teeth about what kept him.And to think he’d once longed for family.
* * *Perhaps he had been a little slack at following up the robbery at Draco’s flat, he admitted to himself the following day. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about it, but…Oh, all right, thinking about Draco made him…uncomfortable, and he had no real leads, and it was just easier to put things off. But Draco deserved more than for him to give up so soon. The trouble was; with the magical signatures ruined, the pickings were slim indeed. If only the intruder would try and sell some of the artefacts and books, that would be something to go on. Or a convenient fucking witness.He perched his elbows on his desk and let his face fall into his hands. If only the intruder hadn’t been clever enough to use Muggle methods for breaking in.…That’s it! He sat up, eyes alight. It was only a slight chance, but it was still worth checking out. He grabbed his wand and had just pushed back his chair when a perfunctory knock heralded the arrival of a familiar redhead.“Hey Harry!” Ron strolled in, munching on pie. “Just came to see if-”“Gotta run, sorry mate.” He clapped a hand down on his friend’s shoulder. “See yourself out?”“But where-? Oh, forget it.” Ron let himself fall into Harry’s chair and waved his hand. “Fine. Go.”He grinned and went.* * *He floo’ed into WIFGER late in the afternoon, only to find the receptionist yawning over a coffee and flicking her wand at the lights, which sluggishly sputtered out. She jumped at his entrance, spilling her coffee. “Oh.” He cleared his throat and used his wand to good effect.“Auror Potter!” The woman straightened and sighed as the spilled coffee plopped back into her cup and her blouse was restored to pristine perfection. “Thank you, sir.”“No, no,” he muttered. “My fault.”“Are we expecting you?” she asked doubtfully.“No, I was hoping to see Malfoy, actually,” he admitted. “I figured he’d still be here. No?”She shrugged. “He usually leaves at six. You’ve just missed him.”He cast a quick Tempus. “Ah, yes. Damn.” He indicated the package under his arm. “I’ll just pop this on his desk with a note.”“Oh. Wait a minute, I’ll let you in.” She hurried forward and led the way to the office. “Only certain wands will work,” she explained.“Thank you, Ms…?”“Mrs Veronica Weldon,” she corrected with a blush. “Since a month ago. Call me Ronnie.”“Oh, well then, Ronnie.” He cleared his throat. “Congratulations.”“Thank you. Of course, soon enough I’ll be congratulating you too, shan’t I?”“Uh, thanks.” She was being nice, but he needed commiseration. Any fly on the wall at Madam Malkin’s the previous afternoon would agree. The proprietor had looked ready to sick a hit wizard on Molly by the end.The lab Draco shared with Katie was still lit; both he and Veronica stopped short at the sight of Luna Lovegood at Draco’s desk. Veronica sighed.“Hello Luna,” she said with affectionate exasperation. “Lost?”Luna turned mild eyes upon them both. “Hello Veronica. Hi, Harry.” She drifted towards them, her pineapple earrings swaying. “No, not lost. I was hoping to catch…”“Some Blibbering Humdingers. I know.” Veronica huffed fondly. “I don’t know, Luna. I just don’t think they’re here.”Luna folded parchment and put it in one of her oversized pockets. “They are. It’s just a matter of finding the right time.”“Right.” Veronica rolled her eyes. “I’ll leave you both to it.” She left.Harry turned to Luna and shoved his hands in his back pockets, hunching up his robe. “So…how’s everything over at Entomology?”“Fine, Harry.” She smiled, her eyes alight. “I catalogued a new species of Monumentalis Burkolutium this morning.”“…Great. That’s…great, Luna. How’s Neville’s kneazlenap going?”“Very well; he’s thrilled. He’s also working on his raspberry mint,” she said tranquilly. “You should drop by and try it. It goes nicely with soda or vodka.”“I’ll do that.”“Bye, Harry.”He watched her wander out the door, shrugged and smiled, then placed his package on Malfoy’s desk and waved his wand in a serious of sweeps, muttering under his breath. The glowing mesh around it satisfied him greatly.Then again, why not go back to Draco’s flat? He might be home, and he probably wouldn’t mind the interruption, considering. And if he did mind; too bloody bad.He went back to the main floo nearby, and tested it. Draco hadn’t revoked his ability to enter the flat straight from the floo; that was…interesting. He stepped through, brushed himself off and looked around. The living room was empty, but he could hear the shower running in the distance. Ah. Strangely, Mugsley the house elf was absent. He wandered towards the shower, and saw the study door ajar. It was as good a place as any to leave his package. WowThe study was as neat as the office, but the furniture and ambiance were softer; gently carved black walnut desk, chair, shelving and liquor cabinet. A large landscape of the parental manor dwarfed the portrait of a garden nook he’d recognized on his first visit as a part of Hogwarts. He couldn’t remember anything special about that spot, which suggested some kind of personal significance to Malfoy. What had happened there, to make him immortalize it on his wall? The only other ornaments were two photos; one of Draco flanked by Pansy and Blaise; the girl brushing hair from her lips, the other two with gently ruffling hair, holding brooms. All three looked haughty, until their lips twitched and Pansy dissolved into laughter, forcing the other two to break down before it looped. The other was of his parents. Like the photo in Draco’s office, it appeared recent, and reflected both Lucius and Narcissa strolling by a pond, evidently unaware they were observed. Narcissa’s mouth was moving, and at one point, Lucius looked down at his wife, squeezed her hand, and smiled. Harry sucked in a breath. Perhaps the son and wife’s devotion to their patriarch wasn’t so incomprehensible after all; Lucius’s smile was very attractive. He could feel his face heat, and quickly turned away, picking up desk items and putting them down again, and taking the time to smooth down his hair.The desk held various files and books in tidy piles, plus the samples he’d taken of the body. Harry frowned as he laid his package down, there was something about one of the files…He waved his wand, muttering under his breath: Yes, one particular file had so many protective spells around it, it screamed suspicious. His heart sank. It would be easy enough to remove the spells and take a look, but he had no warrant and wasn’t keen on having his bollocks sautéed in acid by Kingsley for disregarding correct procedure. It would have to wait. It was a WIFGER file, and that would make it easier for Kingsley to give the go-ahead. Or maybe…maybe it was legitimate work that he was protecting from theft by the senior staff.At home? A sly voice asked. Well…Malfoy had only just got in; it wasn’t like Harry could ever be arsed to do more than crash onto the settee with a beer when he first got home.The sound of abrupt silence brought him back to the present; Draco had finished his shower. He’d give him five minutes to dress and then he’d search him out. It just seemed...creepy, to stand in the study, waiting to be found.Two minutes later, he looked at his watch. Piss it. He’d knock on the bedroom door. It was ajar, so he paused by the door frame and lifted his hand to knock on that instead. And then Draco appeared in a cloud of steam from an archway inside his bedroom. Harry hesitated. Draco was wearing black satin pyjama pants that clung lovingly to nooks and crannies and he ought to cough and knock and act cool but somehow all he could do was stare and feel his face turn red.Well, it was natural to be a bit…taken aback. He’d grown up with tumbling lion cubs who wore cotton and had tans and freckles and roughhoused: He was not used to slinking, undulating struts across soft carpet. He was certainly unused to hands that pressed on breastbone and trailed slowly, sensually down a flat belly to cup and squeeze somewhere where he shouldn’t be looking. He felt his face flame afresh and crept back, casting a super-Auror-strength disillusionment charm on himself. Not to gawk, he castigated himself. To creep away, so he could stride noisily up again with dramatic coughing and a hearty “Ho there, Malfoy!”Sure, if he wanted to sound completely mental. He took one last look (to ensure he wasn’t going to interrupt a wank, because that would be embarrassing and just mean). Draco was standing in front of the mirrored wardrobe adjacent to the door, a private smile on his face. Fuck, did he know? No, he had faith in his charm work, and despite being fairly obvious by now, Draco did not react and he didn’t appear in the mirror’s reflection. Draco sucked in breath, rose onto his toes and thrust his hands in the air, stretching up. His breath caught. Draco was ropey and toned, rather than buff, his ribcage seemed almost too prominent as he held the pose, but he looked…not bad.And there was nothing unnatural in admiring the obviously nice physique of another human. It was…an objective, arty sort of thing. Luna would probably have the right word for it. It wasn’t like it was a girl, so it wasn’t Ginny’s business and he needn’t tell her. Draco slid one foot up until it rested on the side of the opposite knee and breathed in and out. Right. So it was some kind of yoga thing. He’d taken a class with Ginny, once. It hadn’t been so bad. In fact, he might have kept at it if Ginny hadn’t flitted off to ballet, leaving him too embarrassed to go alone. Maybe he could watch what Draco did, so he could do that at home himself.Draco let his foot sink down again, clasped both hands together behind his back and thrust his chest out, letting his head fall back, with his heavy-lidded eyes still glued to the mirror. Harry swallowed and clutched at his prick as it grew heavy. Draco was getting off on himself; standing there in front of the mirror, all flagrant, with his own prick bobbing out against the satin, making it wet, and oh hell…Draco moved down into a slow lunge, and then he sank to his knees, tilted his torso back and pressed his outstretched hands on his heels. The pose made his groin thrust out and he was still erect. Harry gripped the door frame, his face pained. This wasn’t dispassionate observation anymore. This wasn’t right. This was bad. He was aroused. When Draco sank onto his knees, pushed his hands forward and lifted his parted arse up into the air, cat flow, he thought numbly, he realized he was humping the door frame in rhythmic pulses. Oh fuck. Holy hell. If he didn’t stop, he was going to do something disgraceful. He couldn’t take it anymore; he fled.
* * *Harry stumbled out of the floo into his office the next morning, cursed and brushed himself down while he nursed a take-away coffee. He’d done all-night stakeouts and weekend-long training sessions and felt better the following day than he did now. He couldn’t lie to himself: He’d gone home and wanked twice, his whole face and torso red with shame and guilt, and then spent the rest of the night tossing and turning. It had been three thirty in the morning when he’d realized in agonized horror that he’d left the evidence he’d collected on Draco’s desk; a sure sign he’d been there. What was wrong with him? Sexual frustration was no excuse to fall to pieces around Malfoy.Well, bloody Molly Weasley could thank herself for that. Maybe if she hadn’t interfered, he’d be hotter for Ginny. He sank down into his chair, let his elbows rest of the table and his head in his hands. He groaned. He’d never been hot for Ginny. Not like that. Their fooling around was…pleasant. Nice. Comfy. He smiled weakly as a scene from a movie he’d once watched popped into his head. Comfy? the actor had shrieked, glammed up to the nines. Sex shouldn’t be comfy!Malfoy was not comfy.Harry was jerked from his reverie when his office door slammed open. Hermione burst in, her hair a-tumble, her brow creased with anxiety.“Oh Harry,” she cried. “Thank god!”He rose up, arms outstretched to take her hands. “Herm? What’s wrong? Ron? George?”She shook her head. “No, it’s not me-”“Well, look who’s here!” Harry straightened and scowled as Carmichael leaned against the doorway, looking like he’d burst with pleasurable excitement. “If it isn’t our top junior Auror!”Harry glared at him and gasped as hot liquid spilled over his hand; he’d crushed his coffee cup. He winced and flicked his wand over the mess as Hermione gazed at him, sympathy oozing out of her pores. Oh, god.“Harry, the body…it was stolen, and, well, it…doesn’t look good,” she explained, biting her lip.“…What? Stolen?” Harry straightened. “What happened? Are there any leads? I’ll go see Kingsley now.”“Not so fast, Potter.” Carmichael thrust his arm out in a warding gesture. “I’m in charge of this.”“But…”“It was given to me to manage.”“What?” Harry burst out, scowling, eyelids narrowed.“Harry…” Hermione’s anxious tone made his gut twist. She put a hand on his shoulder. “…There are no signs of forced entry, and the records show that you were the last one to sign into the room.”“You forgot to lock up!” Carmichael exclaimed joyfully. “How could you be so careless?”“I did not-” He broke off and almost vomited on the spot; he’d been arguing with Draco; completely distracted. Had he…? He swallowed down bile.“That’s right, Potter.”Harry glared. The bastard wasn’t even trying to hide his exuberant delight.“Two witnesses have stated on record that they saw you arguing with Malfoy as you closed the door.”“But did they say I didn’t lock the door?” he challenged, throat clogged.Carmichael lifted his chin and assumed a pitying expression. “Really, Potter. Try to show some dignity.” He straightened and turned his back at the doorway, then tilted his head back. “Oh, by the way, Head Auror Shacklebolt wants to see you at ten o’ clock, so you can receive the bollocking you so thoroughly deserve. Excuse me while I go down to the crowded cafeteria and satisfy everyone’s curiosity about this morning’s drama.” The moment Carmichael closed the door behind him, Hermione let out a choked scream, looking like a bristling cat, arms ramrod straight by her sides, fists clenched. “That…that insufferable maggot,” she shrieked. “He’s…ooohhh…he’s oozing so much jealousy of you; you could marinate him in it.”That broke him out of his numbed stasis enough to smile weakly. “Hermione…don’t tell Ron I said this, but…I love you. Don’t ever change.”She smiled and gave him an impulsive hug. “Harry, don’t worry too much. We’re all behind you and we’ll weather it together. If Kingsley gives you too much of a hard time, just remind him that you’ve made one mistake, compared to how many of that…that…” She broke off.He hugged her back, his gaze fixed. “Herm, it’s not just that. I can survive the ridicule; I had enough practice at Hogwarts, remember?” Even though he’d hated every moment of it. “What worries me more is…who did it? And why?”Hermione broke away to stare at him, her face dismayed.
* * *When he finally emerged from the Head Auror office, sweating and feeling limper than Lockhart’s brain, he found Hermione, Ron and Ginny waiting in the foyer, lined up on the leather-lined bench, whispering and looking ill at ease. He winced. Oh god, he thought. Not Ginny. Not now. He let the door shut and they all jerked to attention.“Mate.” Ron nodded, looking pale. “All right, then?”He shrugged. “Yeah. All right.” Ron lumbered up and drew him in for his typical awkward half-hug-and-back-slap. “All over now, though, right?”He drew in a quivering breath and let it out on a long sigh. “…Yeah.”Ginny approached, he pasted on a weak smile and accepted her hug and brief kiss.“Oh Harry, it’s just not fair.” She stroked a hand down his arm. “Was he very awful?”He stiffened. For all her honeyed words, she wasn’t much of an actress; he could tell she was pleased about it, thinking that a wedge driven between himself and the Auror division was no bad thing. “No, not awful at all,” he replied tersely. “He was professional about it, and treated me the same as the others, which was brilliant, actually.”She swallowed and looked down for a moment, then lifted her chin, her smile resolutely in place. “Well, I still think you ought to have been given the benefit of the doubt. Hermione tells me no one actually saw you forgetting to lock the door.”“And Kingsley acknowledged that. But unfortunately, the most likely scenario is that I forgot to lock up. And I am not going to be like Carmichael; blustering, denying and trying to shove the blame onto someone else,” he replied, fists clenched.“Hey mate,” Ron broke in, looking awkward. “It wouldn’t be the same. I mean, he is a tosser, isn’t he? Have you been suspended?”He smiled tiredly. “No. It’s only my first major blunder.”Hermione gave his shoulder a soothing rub and sighed. “Come on. It’s nearly lunch time. Let’s go to the Leaky.”Harry blew his fringe out of his eyes on a heaving sigh. He wished Ginny wasn’t there, to give him some space to deal with the guilt he felt for the previous night’s little adventure, but Hermione and Ron would buffer, and he really wanted a beer. “Yes.”
* * *By the end of the afternoon, Harry felt like his heart was dragging, bloody and trampled, two feet behind him. Catching hell from a certain clique of senior Aurors was a given; he’d forced himself to take afternoon tea amongst them to get the worst over with, but it had still felt akin to enduring ten thirteen-year-old Malfoys. And lunch at the Leaky had been a mixed blessing; Ginny’s effort to conceal her dissatisfaction with him and be supportive, and his attempt to treat her normally, wore him out.He barely managed to touch arse to chair when a message slipped in from under the door and fluttered in front of his face. He snatched at it and read the missive, then crumpled it with a quiet groan. Kingsley. Again.The Head Auror office door was open, and Kingsley wasn’t alone; Carmichael stood in front of his desk. He stopped at the threshold, schooled his expression to blankness and entered.“You wanted to see me, sir?” He forced himself to nod to Carmichael, who returned the civility. If he wasn’t standing in front of Kingsley, he’d be tempted to tack on a further politeness and start a Better Man war for the laughs.Kingsley inclined his head from behind his desk. His expression was forbidding. “Yes. Come in, Potter. Take a seat, the both of you.”Harry did as he was bid, folded his hands on his lap and waited. Kingsley shuffled a few papers and finally looked up.“I have a new case for the two of you.” Oh god, another case with Carmichael. He barely restrained an audible huff.“The intelligence committee have issued a report on the increased distribution of Athena’s Dream on the wizarding population. One store in particular has been implicated. What we want, of course, is who is behind the distribution. I know you’re both working on discovering the identity of the man who Apparated into the Weasley household, and the break in at Mr Malfoy’s flat, but this is a little more urgent. Senior Auror Li will be supervising you on this mission. You will both consider this your final test as junior Aurors.”Harry bit his lip to stop a protest. He’d been praying that his final test as a junior wouldn’t happen when he was paired with Carmichael; typical. He snuck a resentful glare at his partner, who was doing the same.“I want you both to work together on this.”And Kingsley was glaring at him. Him! As if all the problems he’d had with Carmichael were his entire fault, when Kingsley should know that it was Carmichael’s inadequacy and inability to admit when he was wrong that was the true problem. “Yes, Head Auror Shacklebolt,” he bit out. “I’m looking forward to it, sir,” Carmichael added smoothly. Bloody arse-kisser.“Wonderful. See Senior Auror Li now for a fuller briefing. Dismissed.”Perhaps it was childish, but he couldn’t bring himself to give the same observances to his boss that he usually gave and Carmichael could give, thus he was first out the door and down the corridor, waiting outside Li’s office for his partner to catch up. He paced a short stretch of the corridor and ran his hands through his hair. He could do this. He’d managed to carry Carmichael through other cases; it would be the same now, but with extra gloating and smugness from the wanker. He’d just have to ignore that. Carmichael finally joined him, sporting a satisfied smile.“Teamwork, Potter. You’ll finally have to hold back, and listen to me, and not hog the limelight, if you want to pass. You’re hanging on by a thread as it is.” He knocked on the door while Harry rolled his eyes behind his back. Hanging on by a thread? Oh, please.“Come in.”Li was sipping coffee, perched on her desk and flicking her wand at her white board, bringing up images from a computer. She had always shown Harry the same respect she showed the other juniors, thank god; having to battle prejudice to ensure a well-deserved promotion would have been the last straw. “Ah. Potter. Carmichael. Just in time.” Li gave them a nod and flicked at the screen again. Harry envied the fact that she scraped her hair back to expose a scar’s path over her neck and the side of her face, while he always had to hide his. “Sit. Head Auror Kingsley’s undoubtedly told you the basics, I’ll fill you in.”They both sat. “Now, then: We’ve been gathering information about the increase in distribution of Athena’s Dream for a while now, and we’re finally at the stage where we can make a definitive move.” She flicked her wand, bringing up a picture of a store front. “Cole-Porter’s Apothecary on Knockturn Alley is a definite receiver of the drug. We know that for sure, now. What we don’t know is who is supplying. That’s your task.”Harry nodded. “Is there any information about how often the drop-off is made? Any regular patterns?”Li gave him an approving look. “Once a month, but the day varies. What do you make of that?”“The supplier knows not to be too regular in his habits; so he or she’s experienced, not a novice,” Carmichael suggested. “He or she will be cautious and we cannot risk warning him by bringing the shop owner in for questioning. Minimal spell work should be employed during the stake out, to reduce the risk of our magical signatures warning the supplier away.”“Yes, precisely,” Li gave Carmichael a nod.This was what was so irritating about Carmichael. He wasn’t stupid and had all the right answers in these sorts of question-and-answer scenarios, leading their supervisors to believe he was clever. Thus Harry always felt that he wasn’t believed when he tried to explain that it just didn’t translate out in the field. Their noncommittal responses oozed the suggestion that Carmichael was right when he asserted that Harry didn’t give him a chance.“Therefore, a stakeout will work best,” Carmichael continued. “I suggest we take the nights as the drop-off is more likely then. Perhaps Junior Aurors Wozniak and Lanjar could cover the day shift. I happen to know they’ve finished a case.” He kept his eyes fixed on Li. “My Animagus form would be right useful in this case.”Li nodded. “Cross breed dog, yes? Yes, I agree. No one would notice a stray, and could be useful in bringing him down unawares. Good work.”Carmichael smiled brilliantly while Harry tried to quash down his roiling gut. Wanker. He hated feeling this petty, but for fuck’s sake; did Carmichael have to gloat? Not only that, he was going to be working a day shift and a night shift for the foreseeable future. That meant a shitload of Absentisomnia potion and an inevitable rebound when it was over. He’d done it before. It was going to suck.“You’re both familiar with what is required of a stakeout,” she continued briskly, “So you won’t be coddled through this. Come to me for any resources the Ministry can provide that you might need. I’ll expect to see reports on my desk by ten in the morning, no excuses,” Li added. “I’ve had juniors think it was okay to be late because I’m small and Chinese and polite and nice. Don’t be one of them.”Harry and Carmichael both nodded, and took their cue to leave. Outside, the door safely closed, Carmichael turned that bright smile on to him. “Well, Potter. Meet you outside the Apothecary. Rug up; you won’t be able to use any warming charms.”He rolled his eyes. Wanker. And he’d have to remember to drop a word in Ron’s ear and make sure George kept his nose clean. Meanwhile, he needed to talk to Malfoy.
* * *Veronica was busy at a different floo when he stepped through to the WIFGER reception area, so he waved and moved on to Draco and Katie’s office. He sucked in a large, steadying breath. You can do this. You will not blush. You will not get hard. He knocked.“Come in.” He did so and found Draco alone, doing something complicated-looking at some equipment. Draco eyed him, continued working, and then put his instrument down and walked towards him. “Potter. I thought I might see you today.” Oh god he knows. “Really? Why?” Draco’s lips curled. “The…disk thing…I found on my desk this morning. It isn’t a stretch to conclude you dropped by last night.”He cleared his throat and scratched at the back of his hair. “Uh…yeah. I came, uh, dropped by, but you were in the shower, so I thought I’d come back later, only…wedding stuff, you know how it is…”“Indeed I do.” Draco leaned against the bench, closer to him. “I know exactly how it is. I assume you’re here to explain.”He nodded. “Well, I was thinking about how the intruder had used Muggle methods to rob you. And then it came to me; why not use Muggle methods to solve it? Right next door to Dilys Derwent Drive is a Muggle gated community with security cameras.”“Cameras? Like that Creevey kid used to have?”He bit his lip and sucked in a steadying breath. “Yes, like wizarding cameras, almost. They capture moving images of whatever the camera is pointing at. So I….er…obtained the footage dating back to the night you were robbed.”“Yes, I remember “er-obtaining” a number of things during Hogwarts,” Draco broke in with a twitching mouth. “Late night snacks, a few questionable herbs from Severus’s private collection…”“Shut up. This is Serious Auror Business,” he retorted, fingers scrubbing his lips into submission. “Anyway, it will show whoever entered Dilys Derwent. I made three copies; one for the office, one for me, and one for you. That way there’ll always be a copy safe from…er, harm. Generally the quality is crap, but it might help. Do you want to come by my office sometime? We can go through the disk together.” “Well done, Potter,” Draco drawled. “I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it, but I’m afraid I’m still not au fait with Muggle culture. But then; Auror Potter can do no wrong.” Harry winced. Draco stopped smirking. “Oh dear, Potter. I’ve hit a nerve.”Harry desperately wanted to fiddle with something, but knowing his luck he’d pick up a thousand galleon Petri dish, break it, and release the bubonic plague. “…The body was stolen last night,” he mumbled. “The consensus is that I forgot to lock up after showing you out.” He flashed Draco a defiant gaze. “So yeah, it hit a nerve.” Draco was silent for one pregnant moment. Probably wondering which insult would give him the most satisfaction. Bring it.Draco finally spoke up. “Well, beside it causing you more headaches, now that we have samples, the rest is useless anyway.”Harry stared at him bitterly. Figures; the one time he’d have preferred the usual snark. “Um, yeah, I guess,” he muttered. He shoved his hands in his back pockets and cleared his throat. Draco drifted closer, a brow lifting.“Is there something else you wanted, Potter?”He stood up straighter and took his hands out of his pockets. His face felt awkwardly stiff. “I need to question you, and I’d like your permission to use Veritaserum.” Draco froze, and panic flashed on his face before he swallowed and folded his hands neatly at his front. “You don’t trust my word?” he hedged.Harry grimaced. “Legislation decrees that all interviews are conducted with it, with the interviewee’s permission, for legal reasons. Besides, formally eliminating you means I can focus my time on the real suspects, and I cannot just say to the Wizengamot It is my professional opinion as an Auror that the culprit isn’t Malfoy because he said so and I wanted to believe him-.” He bit off, flushed then fixed Draco with a meaningful look. “Besides, this is informal, so I decide what goes in the report. If you refuse, I’ll be forced to take you to the office and then everything you say is on record.”Draco’s eyes relaxed into a look of wonder. “…Very well, Potter. I suppose turnabout is fair play, after all.” He reached into his top drawer, gave him the bottle, and then sat, parted his legs, pressed his hands onto the edge of the chair, leaned forward, opened his mouth and slowly let his tongue slide forward, never breaking eye contact with him. A dark, burning blush scorched his body and his groin tingled as he envisioned sliding his prick across that tongue and into Draco’s mouth, to be swallowed and sucked, in some sort of dark, sexual communion rite. If Draco noticed, he said nothing; he just waited, keeping to his pose. Harry fumbled with the lid, and then let three drops fall. Draco retracted his tongue and swallowed. Harry fumbled with a chair and sat, facing opposite him. For a moment, they both waited, hands on knees, watching each other. Draco’s face had softened with good health over the past four or five years. That was good; there’d been a time just after the war when he’d looked like absolute crap and all Harry could do was mumble all right there, Malfoy? like a complete tosser. Finally, he sighed.“Well…I suppose I should begin. Did you steal the body from the Auror offices?”“No.”“Do you know who did?”“No.”“Had you seen the victim before? Know him?”“No.”He breathed out. So far, so good. But there was more to come. “Have you seen a body like that before?”Draco’s face twisted. “…Yes,” he choked out. He nodded. Draco barked a short laugh. “You don’t seem surprised.”“I’m not, really. Your attitude to the body was way too blasé. So, tell me about it.”Draco inclined his head, took a deep breath in, but the drug wouldn’t let him procrastinate. “As you know, here at WIFGER we are researching wizarding DNA. In particular; the genes that code for magic with the eventual idea that the entire wizard genome will be mapped. Well, I had an idea, that if I isolated some of the more important, larger genes, I might produce a vaccine of sorts that could transfer those genes to squibs, or those weaker magically, and improve their magic.” Harry’s jaw dropped. “You’re kidding? I just…wow. That’s…amazing.” The very idea was fantastical, but how incredible would it be? “I’m a little surprised, though; the direction you’ve taken,” he continued dryly. “I’d have thought you’d focus on trying to prove that purebloods are superior genetically.” Draco flushed and squirmed. “…At first, I did focus on that, yes.”Harry cursed the sinking feeling in his stomach. What did he expect? That Malfoy would suddenly throw over a lifetime of belief to embrace Mugglekind? “For fuck’s sake, wipe that look off your face,” Draco muttered. “I wasn’t planning on starting a pureblood agenda or be the third coming of the dark lord. This was more for…private interest.”He folded his arms across his chest. “Oh? Do explain.” He’d meant the question rhetorically; he’d forgotten Draco would be forced to take it at face value. Draco’s jaw tightened and the muscles in his neck strained, but the words would rip out. “I suppose I wanted to prove to myself that everything I’d believed in and defended so strongly hadn’t been complete bollocks.” “And was it?” Harry waved down a withering stare. “No, I want to know. Seriously.”“…Purebloods have some advantages,” Draco said slowly. “For example; I believe the Animagus ability is coded for by four genes. We all have the same genes, but different people have different variants, or alleles, of the genes, like eye colour. As an example; you might be aware that to have blue eyes, generally, both parents need to provide a copy of the blue eyes variant of the gene. When a particular trait requires both parents to provide the right variant of gene, the trait is called recessive. For Animagi, three of the genes are recessive, meaning that both parents need to carry the variant of gene that codes for the ability to transform, to be a viable Animagus. The fourth gene, only one parent needs to provide a copy of the right Animagus variant. Which is why, statistically, more pureblood families have Animagi. Keeping the right genes in the family.”“But Tonks-” he started.Draco raised a hand. “Metamorphmagi are different. My research suggests that no less than ten genes are involved, but each Metamorphmagus-expressing variant of gene are dominant, meaning only one parents needs to express them. That’s why they’re so rare,” he added. “The chance of having all ten of the right variants of the genes isn’t high. I suspect her father, though Muggleborn, had a few magical genes, just not enough to express themselves physiologically.” He gave a sour smile. “But I was forced to conclude that half-bloods and born-born are not necessarily weaker. They can show strong magical traits, actually. A lot of it is pure luck of the genetic draw. Your Granger is a good example,” he gave a reluctant smile. “Though I hated her for it in school. Plus mixing decreases some of the deleterious effects of inbreeding.”“I could have told you that,” Harry protested, half joking.“But your words would be meaningless; parroting what Dumbledore told you,” Draco retorted. “I prefer evidence based on scientific research.”Harry almost rose up in his seat, but then forced himself to relax. He was right. Damn him.“My theory about Muggleborns is that their parents may have had enough of the right kind of recessive alleles coming together to express magic, and maybe a few are spontaneous mutations in the regulatory genes that allow the translation of some or all of the genes that code for magic.” Draco smiled apologetically. “It gets even more confusing, if I talk about genetic recombination, and I have simplified things a bit.” He took in a breath.“But the steady decrease in wizarding numbers still worried me, so I thought, as well as conserving as many wizarding traditions as possible, why not increase wizarding numbers by strengthening wizarding families? Offer squibs the chance for at least some magic? Even…” he leaned forward a little. “Offer the siblings of Muggleborns the same chance their brother or sister has.”Harry was dumbstruck. “It’s hard to believe it would even be possible…” He frowned. “I dunno, Malfoy. The idea itself is amazing, but it could get right ugly.” He shivered. “Umbridge-style laws that force Muggleborns families to take the vaccine…Not all Muggles would want this, y’ know.” He waved his arm around in a vague gesture. “They’d think it scary. And I’m sure there are plenty of people who would still look down on those who weren’t born with it. Plus I believe that there’s a big fuss about genetics and insurance in the Muggle world.”Draco shrugged. “I know. Nothing’s ever simple. I thought the good outweighed the potential risks.”Harry hesitated, then asked haltingly, “…And was this the research that Dr Ubershorts stole from you?”Draco flinched and his lips tightened. “…Uberschwartz. And no. That has nothing to do with this, so kindly refrain from questioning me about it.”Harry bit his lip, but reluctantly let it drop. Curiosity wasn’t a good enough reason to poke and prod at something that was still obviously so tender, but why wasn’t Malfoy ranting about the injustice and demanding Auror involvement, like he had for the robberies? “So how far along have you got? And how does this tie in to that body I found?”Draco’s fists scrunched the edge of his robe. “I’d managed to isolate some genes, get a serum, or vaccine ready. I was ready to try it on someone else. I had a volunteer.” He swallowed. “An old man. I was completely honest,” he broke in hastily. “I told him it was all experimental, and I couldn’t vouch for his safety. But he was brilliant.” Draco’s eyes shone for a moment. “He could match you for courage; he was all for it.”Harry started and flushed. If only he could think up something self-deprecating to say that didn’t involved fumbling and stuttering and making a complete arse of himself. “…I gather something went wrong.”Draco’s fists and voice tightened, he kept his eyes down. “I gave him the vaccine, and for a while, I thought it had worked. I mean, it worked perfectly on me.” “What?” Harry gasped. “You…?”“Of course,” Draco bridled. “I may not be the epitome of Gryffindor courage, Potter,” he uttered stiffly, “But I do have some standards.”“Sorry…sorry. So how…?”Draco sat forward again, his eyes alight. “I found my magic had increased in some areas. For me, it’s been especially noticeable in my Patronus. I never really could do it before, but now it’s much better. And, also…” He shook himself. “Anyway, it didn’t work that way for my volunteer. He developed virulent, metastatic cancer and died within two months. I felt so fucking helpless.” He rubbed his face in his hands. “He was wonderful about it. I looked after him. Stayed with him. It…was tough.”Harry thought of those he’d had to comfort over the years. “Yeah, I know.”“I realized later that the genes I’d injected had inserted into his DNA next to a proto-oncogene. In general, proto-oncogenes express proteins that regulate the cell cycle, so if those proto-oncogenes are mutated into oncogenes, cells proliferate uncontrollably, and hence cause cancer. It didn’t happen that way for me, because I was lucky; the extra genes inserted into the genome somewhere away from the proto-oncogenes. There’s a lot of DNA in our genome that doesn’t appear to do anything, so that would probably be an ideal place to insert extra DNA, if only I could work out how to do it. Then again, doing so might re-activate genes that have been phased out of active use over our evolutionary journey, which would of course be very interesting, hm, I wonder if…” Draco stopped abruptly and pressed his hand over is lips. “I hate the way Veritaserum makes one intolerably verbose. You ought to stop me.”Harry shrugged off the tone of annoyance. “But I like to hear about it,” he returned truthfully. Admittedly he was a bit fuzzy on the details, but it made Draco’s mouth turn up for a moment, before gloom settled once more. “His natural magic just worsened the situation; it flared out of control as the cancer progressed… I’d imagine it was similar for your man.” He grimaced. “So of course, I canned the whole project. I can’t control where the genes insert at this stage, and until I can, I can’t risk that happening to someone else.”“But it has,” Harry replied slowly. “What did you do with your notes and files?”Draco’s face turned pained. He gripped his knees and stared at them. “I couldn’t bear to destroy all my notes. I locked them away. As far as I know, they’ve never gone missing. After you showed me the body, I took them out to examine them, but there was no trace of a magical signature. If someone did find them and decide to experiment him or herself, he or she was very careful about not getting caught.”“But what if…” Harry’s eyes brightened, and he straightened. “You’ve been a victim of theft twice now. You said some of the books that were stolen were about genetic engineering and cloning. What if it isn’t a coincidence?”Draco bit his lip, and his brow furrowed as he stared into space. “One of the books was a fairly intricate and detailed volume on Necromancy.”“What?” Harry frowned. “You never mentioned…Oh.”Draco smirked while chewing on his thumbnail. “Quite.”Harry winced, irritated. “You know, you’re lucky that you’re dealing with me; any of the other Aurors would have you thrown into Azkaban.” “I know.” Draco continued to chew on his nail, staring at him. “Five years ago, you would have done the same.”“Five years ago, you would have deserved it,” he snapped. “What’s your point?”Draco made a calming gesture. “Merely that you’ve markedly improved in intelligence, these last few years. I attribute it to being less under Weasley’s influence.”“You know, you’re just laying yourself open to speculation on whose company you’re missing to make you less of a complete twat,” he returned dryly. “So many options, so little time…”Draco clutched at his heart and twisted his face into mock pain. “That hurt, Potter.” He sobered. “Necromancy and genetic engineering are separate fields. Unless someone thought they could raise a spirit and wanted to provide that spirit with a body that was powerful in magic…”They both stared at each other. Harry slowly let his eyes sink shut. “Oh no. Times the power of a thousand burning suns.”“Cheer up, Potter.” Draco flashed him a nervous smile. “No one has ever managed to successfully transfer a spirit back into a body. And the thief may have just stolen the book on Necromancy because it happened to be right next to the books on genetic engineering. It’s worth a fortune if you know where to sell it.”Harry’s eyes narrowed. “Did you try?”Draco winced. “I…may have considered it, in an abstract way. Purely out of scientific interest. Wondering whether cloning a deceased person’s body might make it easier for a spirit to return into it. But you’d need stem cells or the gametes – sorry; sperm or ovum - of that body to manage it. It wasn’t worth pursuing.”Harry gnawed on his own thumbnail, and Draco pressed his hand onto his shoulder. “Really, Potter. Father once said that of everyone he knew; only Dumbledore had enough power to raise spirits. Aunt Bellatrix could, too, but they were always unstable and only lasted a moment or two. Even the dark…Voldemort couldn’t do it.”He nodded. “Who would have the technical know-how to mess around with this sort of stuff? Let’s say you’re right and the Necromancy is a red herring of sorts. The fact remains that it seems likely that someone injected themselves or someone else with extra genes and triggered that cancer stuff. Who? And why?”“The why seems obvious to me,” Draco shrugged. “Either a resentful squib wanting magic, or someone who wanted to improve their magical abilities. As for who had the opportunity; I’m afraid the field is broader than you’d think. We have a staff of around one hundred researchers and administration, and really, security procedures aren’t followed as strictly as they ought.”“But it would have to be someone who actually understood this genetic stuff and could follow your notes,” Harry countered. Draco snorted. “Granger could do it with her eyes shut. Hell, you could do it. I’m afraid I was quite scrupulous about writing down all my methods and procedures in painful detail. If you can read and have enough intelligence to follow detailed instructions, then…” He shrugged. “It wouldn’t be easy, but if the person had enough time, patience and motivation…” He bit his lip, frowning. “The first robbery; just over a year ago, a lot of textbooks on cloning were stolen. The notes may have been stolen then also. Whoever stole them may have spent the past year experimenting, with the person…body you found being the culmination of their efforts.”Harry nodded. “What can you tell me from the samples you have?”Draco shrugged. “I’m working on it. Give me a day or two, and I’ll be able to give you the genome. However, it won’t tell you much. I’ll be able to tell you the victim’s likely eye colour…to around eighty percent accuracy. Also, if he had any particular genetic defects.”“That’s it?” Harry exclaimed. Draco bristled. “It’s a young science! These things take a lot of time and money and research.” He paused. “I could clone the cells.”Harry blanched. “Wouldn’t that just create...the same thing?”“…Possibly. But you would see who it was before the cancer took over.”He shuddered. “No. No, just no. I’d rather fail. You didn’t see the pain in that man’s eyes just before he…died.”Draco nodded absently. “If it was the victim himself who was responsible, you could compare his genome with that of other family members. If there is a higher percentage of similarity between them, compared to non-family members, then that would provide some proof of identification. If the one responsible injected genes into someone else, then that makes it harder. We would need to provide proof of association.”Harry grimaced. “If we could find where this person did his experimentation, there may be some clues there.”Draco sat up straighter. “Potter. If the one responsible is not the victim, and left DNA of his own behind, through hair, for example, or even fingerprints, being able to prove they were found together in the same room would help your case.”He rubbed his temples. “I wonder…I’m going to go talk to Hermione. We’ve been working on modifying tracking spells. I used Investigo Exuviae to track the victim originally, the problem is it only tracks the item you cast the spell on. It only worked on the skin it left behind because it was still fresh. What we need is a tracking spell that can locate the body now. Like a magical sniffer dog.”“Like a hunting Crup, you mean?”“Close enough.” Harry stretched, and cast Tempus. “Bollocks. I have to go.”Draco raised a brow, then rose, stretching his arms up as high as he could, and holding it for long liquid moments. Harry swallowed.Draco smiled, grabbed his hands behind his torso, and stretching back, pushing his chest out. “Potter. You do realize that somehow, we’re now working together.”He realized his eyes were glazing over and gave himself a quick shake. “Um. Yeah. I…yeah. I guess we are.” He cleared his throat. Perhaps if he kept talking, Draco might drop into a yoga cat thingy again. “Huh. Weird, eh, Malfoy? But I think it could be…y’ know…good.”Draco’s expression flickered. His eyes were glittery, but soft. “I’m starting to think so too, Potter.”He cleared his throat and danced from foot to foot. “Yeah, well…come by the office tomorrow around eight in the morning, yeah? I know it’s early, but it’ll bugger up your schedule less, I reckon. I’ll grab Hermione, and we’ll go through the security camera footage together.”“I’ll be there.”He nodded. “Right. Right. Um, I’ll just go.” He headed over to the door.“Potter.”He turned his head and raised a brow. Draco glided over to him, a funny smile on his face, moved in close to his shoulder, and tilted his head down until his mouth was at his ear. “You know, Potter. I heard your father was an Animagus. You’d have some of the right alleles for the Animagus ability; just not all of them. But I could isolate the ones you’re missing. Give them to you. You could be an Animagus, too.”Harry sucked in a startled, pained breath. Oh, to feel it; to twist and change and take on a new life, to run or swim or fly and feel free, exultant, his father’s son. He bit his lip to stop it trembling. He could almost feel Draco’s lips turn up.“You don’t have to decide now. Think about it.”He swallowed. “I…I will.” He turned tail and left, trying to calm his chaotic mind. He had a stakeout with Carmichael to endure, and he needed to be on top of his game. Concentrate, he told himself. Yeah, right.* * *“So then McMurtrie tried to block Jenny by clipping too close to her left leg brace, which she was fouled on, and serves her right.” Ginny sucked in a triumphant breath. “She’s such a slag, anyway, Jinghua said that her sister works with McMurtrie’s cousin who told her that-”“Gin.” Harry held up his hand. “Quidditch.” He stifled down a sigh. He’d endured a dreary and fruitless stakeout the night before; shivering in a draughty corner near the apothecary, while bloody Carmichael had made a show of trotting around, sniffing and barking. He’d passed the time dreaming of loping through a forest, all fur and claws, exalting in the strength of his body, the coordination of his muscles as he ran with the pack, his nose snuffing the cold air. Even though nothing had happened, the Absentisomnia made him feel jittery and his eyes scratchy. He’d been in a bad mood ever since: How dull seemed the morning, how dry the day. He wanted to strangle Malfoy for re-igniting his longing for an Animagus form to aching levels. That, or snog him.He flushed. That was not an appropriate thought. Especially not now.Ginny broke into a reluctant laugh. “Sorry. I try to remember to save the girl-talk for girls.”“And I thank you. Quidditch.”She rolled her eyes and popped a slice of lemon tart into her mouth. “Well, Jenny scored, of course, and I caught the snitch soon after, but it was a fairly standard play, nothing to interest you. We won by ten points; too close.”He gave her hand a pat. “Still, you scored high enough to move on to the district finals, right?”She nodded, flicking her hair back. “You bet.”It was these times when things were right between them: When they were talking Quidditch and society news that didn’t involve boring salacious relationship crap. No drama, no accusations, no expectations that kept changing, no bloody never-ending wedding stuff, just friendly chat at their favourite bistro: When Ginny was his mate and not his…mate.Fucking hell. That vague, unacknowledged constriction in his chest he’d carried for so long sputtered and flared into a small, clear flame, bedraggled and far too late. He was fond of Ginny. Loved her. But he would never feel that throb of desire that he was now aware he ought to feel. She was his mate, the sister he’d always wanted. Only he’d got caught up in the rush of adrenaline and competitiveness in sixth year, and an ache for stability and family after, and he was an idiot for letting the whole tide of emotion and familial pressure sweep them both away. It was going to ruin them. But she didn’t appear to recognize it, and how could he call it all off now, a month before the wedding? How could he face Mrs Weasley? All the Weasleys? His promises were supposed to mean something.She gave him a friendly smile with a perfunctory edge. “Better go. Training starts at five.”Luckily she was too busy fussing with her purse to notice his pathetic, mechanical farce of a smile. She leaned across the table for a kiss. He tilted to catch her cheek. Maybe it wasn’t right of him, but she drew back without comment. “Don’t forget we’re going to Magical Memories tomorrow to get a quote for wedding photography.” He barely stifled a groan; he’d hoped for a quick nap before the next stakeout. Well, there was always the bloody Absentisomnia.Ginny left enough sickles on the table to pay for her share, and then snapped her purse shut. “I’ll meet you there at six, by the front door; I’ll go straight after training. Would you mind settling the bill? Got to dash.” She gave him another quick smile and Apparated away.Harry slumped back down in his seat and poured himself the last of the wine, trying not to long for the freedom of four swift legs or flight. * * *“Junior Auror Potter.”Harry gritted his teeth as he walked down the Ministry corridor, coffee in hand. He kept his head forward as he passed the woman leaning against her office doorframe. “Auror Minks.”“Junior Auror Potter.” This was from a man further down the hall, walking towards him, also carrying coffee. “Auror Prescott.”“Hey Potter!” Minks called, as he wrenched open his office door. “Don’t forget to lock up after you!”The two Aurors burst into muffled laughter. He slammed the door behind him and stifled a groan as he saw Carmichael at his desk, his chest puffed out, sorting through files. Carmichael’s latest strategy was to act as if he were in control of their stakeout; casually telling him to write and file their report and to have this and that on his desk by the end of the working day. When the demands were not met, he called him childish, petulant and uncooperative. “I’ve decided we’ll move our operation to Duke Street,” Carmichael told him. “I thought to take a look there, and found that the coverage is better, plus there’s a clearer view of Johnson’s flat above the apothecary.”Harry ground his teeth and just nodded. Perhaps if he wasn’t working a double shift he’d have had time to do those basics it was usually up to him to remember.“I’m off to meet with Senior Auror Patterson; he took a novel approach to his stakeout a month ago that proved highly successful. But I suppose you wouldn’t know about that, would you? Since you think you know it all and don’t bother to read anyone else’s reports.” Fuck it. He’d meant to read through the report; he had. But time had gotten away with him, and then…he’d forgotten. Carmichael took his silence as acknowledgement and smiled triumphantly before sailing out the door. Harry crashed down into his seat and rubbed over his face. He really ought to make time to read up on other Aurors’ work. He cast a quick Tempus. Seven fifty eight.At seven fifty nine, he heard a tap on his door. “Come in,” he called. The door opened, and Hermione entered, butt first, using her wand to guide two trolleys in behind her; one hosting a large Muggle computer, the other a tray with three steaming mugs of coffee and an assortment of muffins. “Morning, Harry. I’ve brought my computer, obviously. I think the charm-work on mine might be a bit more secure than yours. I can’t believe we’re actually going to be working with Malfoy.” She shut the door and turned. “Are you sure he….Oh Harry.” She clasped her hands together and looked grave. “You look terrible.”“Just knackered,” he mumbled. Then he winced. Idiot. Hermione knew that was Harry-code for something’s wrong but leave me alone. She’d called him on it too many times before. He hesitated. “Herm, when you invented that brilliant quarantine charm for me, did you take any steps to ensure no one could steal your work?”His friend stopped fussing with her equipment to frown. “…No, actually I don’t think I did. It didn’t occur to me to do so. Why?”“Do we have any…I don’t know…laws to protect intellectual property rights?”Hermione leaned against the desk and folded her hands. “Hm…you know; that’s an interesting question, Harry. I don’t think we do. And really, we should.” Harry could practically smell the waft of a dawning crusade permeate her being, all fresh and windy and citrusy. He nodded encouragingly. “Might be a good thing, yeah? It’s not right to steal other people’s ideas.”“No.” Hermione’s expression turned suspicious. “What’s this all about?”He flicked his wand and cast Mudflat. “This is just between you and me, yeah?”She nodded. “Of course.”“It’s Malfoy. A senior researcher at his work snitched some of his papers and published them as his own. I can tell Malfoy’s all cut up, but he’s being weird about it. I figure he thought there was nothing that could be done. I have to admit we Aurors have done sod all for him,” he mumbled.Hermione nodded slowly. “I’m afraid he might be right; senior staff can get away with murder no matter what the field, when it’s your word against theirs and your job is at risk, and there’s not enough evidence to warrant Auror involvement.” She sighed. “I’ll look into it, though. It’s an area that we can’t afford to ignore.”“Brilliant.” Harry rubbed his chin. “Don’t suppose you could dig up a little dirt on this Dr Uberschwartz, could you? I can do my bit, of course, but I’d rather this remain strictly under the wand.”“Of course I will.”There came another knock at the door. Harry cancelled the silencing spell. “Come in!” he called.Draco himself entered, in uniform, quirked his brow at him, noticed Hermione, and assumed a polite expression. “Ah. Granger. You brought coffee; smart as ever.” He frowned. “Or should that be Weasley?”“No, I’ve kept my surname as Granger.” She took her own mug. “It’s easier while I’m working.” “I see.” Draco picked up a mug and sipped, screwed up his nose, and added more cream and sugar.Hermione ignored this and fiddled with her computer. “Well, Malfoy. To work: I took the liberty of looking at the disk at work yesterday.” She pressed some buttons and the monitor flared to life. “Harry was right; the quality of the film is terrible. However, I was able to clean it up a little and get better contrast.” She consulted some notes. “There are seven people who walked by the Muggle gates towards Dilys Derwent Drive, I’ll fast forward to each one. Have a look.” All three watched quietly as figures zipped through the gate of the Muggle community at double speed. Harry could make out cues such as gender, height and weight, whether the figures had light or dark hair, but no more than that. After five minutes, Hermione slowed the recording down, and a woman walked past the Muggle gates. “There goes Mrs Sorini,” Draco murmured. “She has the flat under mine.” Hermione nodded and speeded up the recording again. A few Muggle cars zipped by, some went into the Muggle gated community. She slowed the tape again. Another man walked past. “Mr Gillis, I think,” Draco continued, his gaze glued to the screen. “It’s hard to make out.”Hermione nodded. The next four figures that walked past the gates, Draco was able to identify, although he did mumble about percent degree of accuracy and reasonable doubt. The last figure on Hermione’s list made him pause and stare at the screen. “…I don’t recognize this man,” he stated flatly. “Rewind.” Hermione did so, and all three of them leaned forward. The figure that slouched by, his face moving this way and that, but never towards the camera, was covered by a hat, and he wore a long Muggle coat.“Well, he’s tall, thin and…pale, judging from his hands.” Harry grimaced. “Four thirty in the afternoon; that would give him enough time to get in and out of your flat before you got home from work.”“Great.” Draco slumped back. “That narrows it down.”“Bugger it,” Harry muttered. “I was hoping for something more.” He rubbed the back of his neck. Nothing seemed to be going right, lately, and he felt so stuck. “Well, what inferences can we make, based on this?” Hermione asked.He shrugged. “Likely to be a pureblood? Most Muggleborns know about security cameras and would probably have disabled it first.”Draco shot him a look that he liked to think was admiring. “Indeed. I have to admit I’d never noticed them.”“I’ll try to run this through some more programs,” Hermione murmured, tapping her wand against her lips. “I might be able to get a better quality view of his clothing; who knows, it might provide some clues.”“Thank you, Granger.” Draco turned to him. “Potter. Care to join me at my lab for a quick chat?”Hermione flicked a curious glance between them, but said nothing. She switched off her equipment. “I’ll see you tonight, Harry.” Her pointed look told him he’d be in for a grilling and he blanched. He could pretend his distraction was nothing personal and he was worried about the investigation.What was he thinking? He was worried about the investigation.The moment his friend had left, Draco’s bony hand came out to clutch at his arm. “Potter. Come with me.”
* * *Draco gestured to a large piece of equipment that lay right at the back of his and Katie’s shared lab. Harry stared at it blankly, wishing he could stop being so damn aware of his long, bony hands and his bony shoulders and flat stomach and his eagerness and decreased git-ness and his bloody fucking yoga. “I was thinking, Potter. It seemed likely to me that whoever is behind this probably used this lab. We don’t enjoy quite the same level of security privileges the seniors have, and the fact that we’d make easy targets to blame, especially me, isn’t lost on me either.” Harry snorted. “Too bad for him that I’m on the case. Or her.”Draco looked at him, and then focused on the equipment again. “Yes. I am rather lucky.” He waved his wand with a mutter, and a small spray of glowing grey splotches appeared on the machinery. “This is DNA. It isn’t mine or Katie’s. I’ve compared it to our samples, and it’s a match. This machine is used for cloning. Muggles use surrogates to carry cloned embryos, but we prefer this baby here.” He gave the machine a fond pat. “I think someone must have cloned that body, and possibly injected some genes of interest from another source, and in doing so, created the problem that you are now trying to solve.” Harry nodded. “I don’t suppose WIFGER keeps a list of those who’ve entered the building?”“Only during working hours,” Draco replied, biting his lip. “I know, I know,” he added, holding up a hand. “It’s the height of stupidity, if you ask me, but they outsource security to a private company who charge by the hour.”Harry considered this. “Well, give me a list for as far back as you can, anyway. Don’t you think whoever did this must be familiar with the lab and equipment in the first place? Check which names keep popping up. Employees, of course, but civilians also.”“Why, Potter.” Draco lavished doe-eyed admiration on him. “That is a good idea. You have come along.” He snorted and shuffled and ignored the flush that burned on his neck and cheeks. Yeah, Malfoy was laying it on, but there was some sincerity underneath, wasn’t there? “I’m meeting Hermione tonight at the Burrow. I’ll talk to her about that sniffing Crup thing we talked about.” “Granger works in the Ministry, doesn’t she?” Draco’s tone invited elaboration. “Yes. She works with the Department for Magical Innovation and Expansion. She’s brilliant.”Draco nodded. “I’d considered moving into that area. Then I got side tracked by genetics. She must be useful to you.”Which was probably as close as Malfoy was ever going to get to complimenting her. He gave an overly casual shrug. “I’d like for us to all work together on this. I don’t know what your schedule is like right now…”Draco let his bottom lip drop and rubbed it with his index finger. Harry’s gaze fell to that lip; thin but shapely, with pearly wet teeth behind. He jerked his gaze away as Draco continued.“I’m trying to get my thesis done, it’s true, but I will make myself available to you when you want me. Just give me some warning when you come, so I can be prepared.”Harry nodded feverishly and cleared his throat. Mind out of your trousers, Potter. “Er…thanks, Malfoy.” His gaze dropped onto a sheaf of sparkling wizarding pamphlets on the table. Twill and Tattings: Ceremonial Robes. The wizard model on the front flourished and preened in an extravaganza of embroidered satin. Various rings, diadems and bracelets slowly spun and sparkled from Marchesa’s Jewellery Emporium. And a familiar one; Magical Memories. His gut squeezed so painfully he clutched at it. “Oh.” He swallowed heavily. “So….”“Yes, Potter.” Draco shrugged. “The Malfoy-Greengrass Wedding Juggernaut rumbles on, spewing brochures and samples left, right and centre as it mows down all in its path.”“So…it’s definitely on, then,” he said as carelessly as possible. Draco raised a brow. “Of course. I’m sure it will prove useful.” He reached up to toy with a silver hoop in his ear. He massaged the lobe gently. “It certainly won’t be an obstacle for…other ventures.” Harry’s gut clenched again; a confusing mix of longing and trepidation. He gave a casual shrug and ran his finger over the edge of the table, staring at it. “I suppose it would be impossible to call off something like that when everyone else is making such a fuss about it,” he mumbled.There was a moment of silence. Harry started and blushed, then turned to find Draco staring at him as if he’d had a revelation. Which of course, he’d just had. Fuck. How obvious could he be?“Potter, you know-”A sharp knock came at the door, and it jerked open. They both swung around in surprise, and Harry started; he’d never felt so conflicted upon seeing Hermione’s face. “Harry? Oh thank god.” “Herm, what’s wrong?” He strode over and held his hands out. “You look absolutely shattered.”“It’s your evidence disk,” she moaned. Tears dripped down her face. “Oh Harry, I’m so sorry,” she wailed, scrubbing at her face. “Ron came to get me for lunch, and I left the disk on my desk, and we were arguing about where to go, and I thought I’d locked up, but when I came back, I found my door unlocked and the disk was gone.” She sucked in a quivering breath and turned to Draco. “And Malfoy, I don’t even know how to face you-”“Herm, relax.” Harry gave her a hearty hug and rubbed her back. “We have copies. It’s okay, Herm, it’s okay.”“What he said, Granger,” Draco added, waving a negligent hand. “Do relax.”She sucked in a hiccupping breath and let it out slowly. “Oh, thank Merlin.”Draco frowned. “However, I would be very interested to know who stole it. Evidently the thief knew enough about Potter’s investigation to know what the disk contained, but not enough to know that he’d made copies.”“That’s right.” Harry’s eyes narrowed. “This person must be someone with ties to the Ministry, somehow. Watching us. Snooping. Trying to stay one ahead of us.”Hermione gasped, and clutched at his arm. “Harry – Carmichael?”His jaw slowly dropped. “…Herm…do you think…what if he stole the body, too? To deliberately sabotage me? I wouldn’t put it past him. After all, he had access to my keys, my files, he knew where the body was stored…”“We’d need proof.” Hermione folded her arms, frowning.“I need to check for bugs in the office,” Harry added with a scowl. He sighed. “I hate to say this, but I want it to be Carmichael so much that it’s sure not to be him.”Hermione also sighed. “You’re probably right.”Draco rubbed his jaw. “I should check for bugs myself. And get that list of suspects for you, Potter.” He made a brisk gesture. “Do run along now, Granger, and take this lummox with you. You have work to do, and so do I.”Harry rolled his eyes. “Thanks, Malfoy.” He allowed his friend to guide him to the door.“Oh, Potter?”He turned back warily. “Yeah?”“With regards to my previous comments on business. My father told me that of all business deals, company mergers required the greatest of care. Any doubts at all, and the deal was off. He made mistakes, I know, but has always been an exceptional businessman, and his own was a great success.” Harry nodded awkwardly and left.* * *The Burrow was operating at a muted hum when Harry Apparated onto the side porch that night. He gave a perfunctory knock and entered the kitchen to find Mrs Weasley flicking her wand here and there, presiding over preparations for dinner. He’d seen it countless times before, but when he’d mumbled a half-hearted suggestion that maybe someone else should do it for a change and give her a break, her face had fallen so ludicrously that he’d back-peddled and stammered and blathered about how she belonged in the kitchen and wound up sounding like a sexist pig. Mr Weasley had drawn him aside and explained that she liked to feel in control; it was her way of coping. Then he’d presented him with a calculator and smiled expectantly.He smiled fondly at the memory, and Mrs Weasley, catching sight of him, responded with a big, beaming smile. Something was off, though; she looked…worried. “Harry!” she greeted. “Just in time!” He held still while she hugged him and gave her an embarrassed smile. “Hi Molly. Need a wand?”“No, you go ahead, Harry dear. I think Ginny’s in her room. You should go fetch her.”“Er…right.” Wow; she must be really distracted; she never let him alone with Ginny in her room. He felt sick. “I’ll just….” He shoved his hands into his back pockets, shrugged and shuffled out into the living area. Ron and George were whispering together heatedly at a corner of the living room, but they broke off when they noticed him.“Harry!” Ron jumped up hastily as George gave an awkward smile. “Hey, mate.”“You two look deep in discussion,” he noted with amusement. “Secret shop business,” Ron returned smartly. “Can’t tell…all our secrets,” George added. George looked a little red-eyed and twitchy. Harry crooked a brow at Ron and gave a tiny nod George’s way. Ron cleared his throat and stared down, shoving his hands in his pockets. Evidently he’d had no luck convincing George to go easy on the drugs. And there he was, bored senseless enduring nocturnal stakeouts, intending to cut off the poor bugger’s supply. Awkward. “Yeah, yeah. Even though I am the primary investor, I know better than to ask. Where are Angie and Hermione?” “Hermione should be here soon, she’s just finishing up at the office,” Ron replied. “Angie and Katie are outside. Angie bought a new broom.”“Ah.” New broom outside or face Ginny upstairs. He went down the corridor to the back door only to stop dead as he noticed Ginny by the floo. She was sitting by the hearth and he couldn’t see whom she was talking to, but she giggled and smiled coyly. “I’m not sure you should be saying things like that to an engaged woman,” she said demurely. Harry stiffened. Maybe not, but she certainly did look pleased about it. “Ah, Ginny, how could I not?” A voice from the floo replied. Harry frowned. He knew that voice, but couldn’t place it. “It’s only what you deserve.”She giggled again. “Oh, you. I have to go. Bye.” “Bye, Ginny.”Harry froze, mouth open. Ginny looked and sounded…soft. Shy. Like the girls in Hogwarts had acted when they’d gushed about the boys they liked. “Ginny.”She jumped and jerked around, then rose and gave him the perfunctory smile he’d grown to expect. “Harry, you startled me.”“Sorry.” Except that he wasn’t. Was she cheating on him? When he’d been in an agony of guilt just for having doubts? “Who were you talking to?” he asked evenly.She hesitated. “Oh…Tony Goldstein,” she admitted, flicking her hair back. “His sister Jenny’s our beater, remember? He’s trying to convince me to be a part of a Mags calendar he’s thinking of putting out, as part of a charity fundraiser.” His eyes narrowed sceptically. “…Right.” “He’s a tremendous flirt,” she continued airily, “He’s like that with all the girls.”Sure he is. “I’m going to go check out Angie’s new broom,” he said shortly. “I’ll see you later.” And how dare she roll her eyes and look fed up?“I’m going to go help mum in the kitchen.” She left him to stomp down the backyard steps and outside into the autumn air. Just what was going on between those two? All right, so there was no evidence she was actually cheating, but no way was that totally innocent, either. She hadn’t slapped Goldstein down, she’d encouraged him. What was she thinking? That she’d dutifully marry Harry and then mess around with that wanker behind his back?He slowed down, sat on the wooden bench beside Mr Weasley’s shed, rubbed at his tired, gritty eyes, and listened to Angie and Katie in the background, somewhere behind him. They’d moved on from Quidditch-talk, it seemed; he could hear Katie yakking about something to do with her work; it involved a whole slew of technical terms he didn’t understand, although Angie must have; her responses seemed intelligent enough. Meanwhile he let his thoughts cycle through resentful ranting and railing until he could no longer deny the truth. It was shaming, but he was pleased. Because he now had an excuse to end it. And this was Ginny. Yeah, she was a bit of a princess, and bossy at times, and he suspected her great love for him was just hero-worship that had tarnished, but she wasn’t a liar or a cheat. So Goldstein had flirted, and she had probably felt flattered and embarrassed and pleased, and had flirted back, but girls liked being made a fuss of, and to feel desirable and wanted, and he had to admit he hadn’t been giving that to her. Because he just didn’t feel that way for her. And deep down, she probably knew.He ought to go find her and talk it out, but it was all still too nebulous and chaotic and he was shit at emotional stuff; it could wait a few days while he rehearsed how best to end it and how to convince her it was her job to tell Molly. “Hey, Harry.” His head jerked up and he found Hermione walking towards him. She must have ducked home before Apparating to the Burrow, for she wore a stylish autumn robe of rust reds and sand that ended just at the top of olive suede knee high boots. “You look nice,” he noted, as she sat beside him. “New robe?”“Yes.” She grinned behind her hand. “Ron shocked the life out of me by gifting it to me last night. It’s not that he never buys me things, but this hits all three fashion Fs; it’s fashionable, flattering and it fits.”“You’ve got him well trained, then, yeah?”She giggled. “I’m working on it.” She put her hands in her lap and turned to look at him. “You’re still looking a bit ragged,” she observed.“Herm-”“Harry,” she mocked. She gave his shoulder a pat. “Would it really be so bad to tell me?”He sighed. “No. Look, just give me a day or two, yeah? I…could do with your advice, I just want some time to get it straight in my head first.”She nodded. “All right, Harry. Oh, I can’t believe you almost distracted me; I’ve had some ideas for that tracking spell you asked me to work on; I was wondering if I could take some tissue samples to work with.”“Really? That’s brilliant!” He gnawed on a thumbnail. “Perhaps you should ask Malfoy. We’ve only got a limited supply of the tissue, and he would know better how to utilize it effectively.”“Yes, perhaps. Oh, I’ve been looking into Dr Uberschwartz, as you asked.” She paused and he gave her a nudge. “…I might just have something for you. There are rumours that the only reason his sub-par PhD was accepted was due to the fact that he was having an affair with one of the panel members on the board.”He mulled this over. “Hm. Can you give me the name of the panel member? I think I might ask Kreacher to sniff around for me; he’s good at that.”“I’ll get onto it. I’m also starting to get the paperwork together to submit a proposal for an overhaul of our laws on theft, to include intellectual theft, and that’ll take some time.” She stared at him curiously. “All right; despite us all growing up, seeing you sanguine about working with Malfoy is bizarre. Wanting to help him defies belief. You seem almost eager to spend time with him.”He jumped. “What? No. I mean…it’s not. Um. It’s just.” He gave himself a swift mental kick as his friend’s eyes narrowed. “He’s all right. Still a twat at times, but…he’s all right,” he finished awkwardly.Hermione stared at him for a long, long time as he squirmed; she looked like she’d found a reference to an obscure text she’d been hunting down for months. Merlin only knew what completely wrong conclusions she was drawing. “Oh,” she exhaled long and softly. “Oh Harry. I don’t believe it.”He reared back. “Believe what?” he muttered. “So…so he’s been all right. So what?”Her eyes narrowed again. “Harry, don’t play dumb. What are you going to do?”Oh god, she was being all sympathetic and stuff. “Do?” he hedged. “Well I didn’t find any bugs in my office. I think my next step will be to find out if Carmichael has an alibi for the times when the body and disk were stolen. Then I’m-”“Harry,” Hermione interrupted sternly. “You’re prevaricating.”He shrugged weakly. “Is it working?”“No,” she retorted, her lip quivering. She sighed. “You asked me to give you a few days. Well, all right, I can do that. But Harry; you’re getting married in a month. You don’t have much time to sort yourself out.”“I know,” he muttered. “It’s just…”“Oi! Harry!” Ron called from the back veranda. “Stop hitting on to my woman and come in for dinner!”
* * *He would talk to Hermione. Who else knew him, gave good advice, and could be trusted to keep quiet about it? She was good at that sort of thing. He turned off the shower, stepped out, and gave himself a vigorous towel-dry. Malfoy had sent an owl at lunch time, inviting him to discuss the case at his flat at seven, which had somehow required an exhausting run after work and an aggressive wank in the shower afterwards. He agonized over his wardrobe; what did he have that looked posh without trying too hard?There was that dark blue tunic robe with black embroidery that the girls had all said looked great with black jeans and boots. He studied the effect, and before he could change his mind, added a squish of the hideously expensive cologne that he’d bought at Ginny’s insistence; it was based on the Amortentia potion. For a seduction tailor made, the packaging had boasted. Not that he was attempting a seduction. Of course not! But Draco was still so high class and well groomed, he wanted to keep up. And if Draco just happened to smell his favourite scent and lean a little closer, well why shouldn’t he? It was just a scent. Maybe it would draw attention away from his hair.A quick Tempus told him it was quarter to. He could hang around Grimmauld for fifteen minutes and pace and angst, or he could pop over early and just…wait around, if Draco was still getting dressed or…whatever. Of course, Mugsley might be there. Or he might not. He Apparated just inside the front door of Draco’s flat and paused. The living room was deserted, and no house elf appeared. He cleared his throat. “Malfoy?” There was no reply. His heart rate picked up and he pressed forward into the kitchen. No one. He moved down the corridor and peered into the study. Empty. He paused outside the bedroom, the door was once again ajar. He bit his lip. “Malfoy?” he called. He supposed he could have been louder. He peered around the door and froze, his gut lurching and twisting into a painful knot.Draco was not alone. Blaise Zabini was with him. They stood in the middle of the room, pressed up against each other, Zabini murmuring into Draco’s ear as he rubbed sensuous little circles at the small of his back. It was small comfort to see them fully clothed; they looked cosy together; comfortable in that post-shag afterglow way. Draco was smiling; a private, amused smile, that turned sly as his gaze flicked to the mirror. Harry swallowed past a lump in his throat. Draco must have seen him in the reflection, and expected him to combust at the sight of two men together. Well, screw that. He was perfectly fine seeing them together. He wanted to throw up. Draco spoke. “Potter. You’re here.”He forced his eyes up and a travesty of a smile pasted on his face. It was ridiculous to feel this way. He had no reason or right to; he was just overwrought, tired. Absentisomnia did that to you. “Malfoy. Zabini.” He cleared his throat. “I’m…early. Sorry to interrupt.”“Not at all,” Zabini returned with a rich smile. “I’ve been here too long already; I was just on my way out.”As generous pardons went, it failed utterly to console. But he kept that smile pasted on as he shoved his hands into his back trouser pockets. “All right, then, Zabini?”“I’ve been very well, thank you.” Zabini flashed a sly smile to his friend that made his own grow fixed. “Busy.”So this was what Draco had meant by finding his pleasure elsewhere. And he’d thought he’d meant Pansy. Maybe he does. Maybe it’s the both of them. He’d suspected Draco wasn’t too fussed about gender after certain casual remarks had been let drop during drinks, but this was the first time to be in his face about it.“That’s good.”Zabini flashed his friend a wink. “I’ll see myself out. See you later, Draco.”Draco lifted his hand in a coy little wave. “Bye, Blaise.”Harry shifted to allow Zabini to pass. Zabini did so, brushing up against his chest and belly as he passed, his hand drifting across his shoulder as if to steady himself. He smelled of warm bread and sugar cinnamon. His prick twitched and his face heated. It wasn’t his fault! They screamed sex. He couldn’t help thinking about it. Once they were alone, he cleared his throat.“Er…Sorry again.”“Not at all. Just let me get changed; this particular robe got wrinkled.”Draco sounded a little seductive, probably a remnant of his no doubt productive afternoon. He let his eyes wander around the room to avoid staring. It was nice. He hadn’t noticed a damn thing on his previous visit. He’d expected it to be filled with manor extras, but the theme suggested the roaring 20’s; art deco, black metal frames and stained glass adornment and linen done in blues, greens and cream. It still managed to look as expensive as hell.“You can look, you know.” Harry broke from his fixed contemplation of a bookshelf to find Draco’s lips curled up. “Oh. Uh…”“I’m sure you saw much more before.”His eyes bugged out. “...What?” he squeaked. Draco’s brow rose. “Quidditch showers at school.”…Oh. Thank Merlin. He breathed in and out to calm the adrenaline surge. “I didn’t stare at you in the showers,” he protested indignantly. His occasional, very casual glances to who was bigger had always been stymied by the rest of the team being in the way, towels, open locker doors…And what if he’d been seen?“Really?” Draco’s brow rose. “I can tell you that you have a small mole on your arse.”“What?” His mouth went dry. “Yes. Left cheek, right up at the top, near the crack. Didn’t you know?” “…No.” He imagined leaning forward, arms against the Quidditch shower stall, and Draco kneeling behind him, kissing it, nipping it, licking it, sucking it…Draco shrugged. “Well, now you do. Come on, let’s eat.”Harry followed behind in a daze, discretely rubbing his crotch in an attempt to sooth it. Fucking hell. He’d thought he’d sorted the whole bent thing back in school when he’d realized that, as much as he secretly enjoyed admiring fit blokes, he didn’t feel any particular need for more. However, this was beyond anything he’d ever felt for a bloke. Or bird, for that matter. Admittedly, he did have that breath-catching, tingling feeling whenever Charlie was around, but even Arctic Swamp Ghouls had the hots for Charlie. Maybe it was just frustration. Desperation. Stress. He bit his lip. Once, during sixth year, when he’d been staring at Draco, knowing he was up to something, some sly little bastard had sidled up to him and asked him if he wanted to shag Malfoy. He’d explosively asked if the questioner was mental and slammed a fist out. He’d felt so turbulent and sensitive, he’d gone for a gruelling flight down at the Quidditch pitch and felt out of sorts for days. Because, he finally admitted, the question had given him a stiffy. He’d ruthlessly quashed the memory, of course, and convinced himself it was one of those teenage things where just the word shag was enough to spring wood, and that it had nothing to do with real arousal. However, this felt all too similar, and he wasn’t a teenager anymore.“Dinner is warming in the kitchen,” Draco called. “Sit at the dining table and I’ll bring it out.”The dining table had been shortened for two, he noted. The fancy bread dish and cutlery and the muted lighting overhead made him feel like he was at an exclusive restaurant, on a date. But then, this had probably been for Zabini’s pleasure, not his. A basket of bread and two plates floated onto the table, followed by Draco who carried a bottle of wine. He sat and tried to ignore his erection.“Allow me to pour, Potter. I have a rather nice Sauvignon Blanc here that you might find palatable.” The tinge of hauteur in his voice suggested that the wine had come from the cellar of Malfoy Manor. He must remember to comment on it. Draco hovered at his elbow and poured, then paused. “Mm. Have you been mowing or something?”Harry’s jaw dropped. “…Mowing?” I paid fifty-two galleons and twenty sickles to stink of sweat? “Yeah.” Draco’s voice turned distant, and his eyelids slowly sank. “I used to spend summers outside on the Manor grounds, just after the grass had been mowed, and we’d had a summer shower, and the air would be ripe with the scent of wet grass, and flowers, and a breeze. You smell like that.” His eyes popped open. “You…oh.” He stared at him, eyes sharp and bright. “Are you trying to seduce me?”“What?” he squeaked again.“Amortentique: For a seduction tailor made,” Draco quoted. He leaned forward, presenting his neck. “Here. Sniff.”His gut roiling with nerves, he leaned in and breathed in brine, bark, sand, sunshine and wind. “The beach,” he murmured. “In the afternoon, after a storm. Also…” He blushed. “Treacle tart.” He cleared his throat and pulled away as Draco looked at him with his head slightly tilted. “Ginny made me buy it,” he stammered. “Seems a waste not to wear it, yeah?”“Class and taste are never a waste,” Draco recited. Harry could imagine Narcissa Malfoy teaching this to her son as a toddler while she fussed over his sailor suit. It was a pity that purebloods probably considered a quiet wank under the dinner table bad form. Draco moved back over to his side of the table, sat, and grabbed a roll from the basket. “I hope dinner meets with your approval.”Harry glanced down at chicken with sauce, done up all fancy with lightly steamed vegetables that had been carved or shaped into flowers. The bread was rich with nuts and seeds and still gently steaming. “It looks great.” He cut up his chicken as Draco slid his fork into his mouth, still staring at him, and bit down, grateful he hadn’t stabbed himself in the cheek. He didn’t have a great track record with food and trying to impress people. “Mm. It tastes great. The sauce is just right. You’ve got a top-rate elf there.”Draco gave a pleased smile. “I’m glad you think so, Potter.”Something in Draco’s tone made him pause. “Did you make this?”“Dinner?” Draco waved a dismissive hand. “Cooking is a hobby of mine.”Harry nodded. “Figures. You used to love Potions.” He made a face. “I hate cooking.”“I bet.”“Not just because I wasn’t great at Potions. I also hate it because it reminds me of-” He broke off. “…Other stuff. Anyway, this is great.”Draco eyed him, but thankfully didn’t push for an explanation. They both ate quietly for a while, discussing Quidditch and the latest headlines in the Prophet, until both pushed their plates away. Draco rose. “I have coffee and dessert, but first; business. One never spoils dessert with work issues.” He gestured to the living room. “We’ll be more comfortable on the couch. Take your wine glass over.”Harry transferred over and Draco poured again before sitting next to him, holding a file. He breathed in the scent of beach and tart and tried not to squirm. He couldn’t smell bread or sugar cinnamon, thank god.“Here we are. I’ve narrowed it down to people who have actually been in our lab on more than one occasion. Some names are obvious, like Angelina Johnson, who’s been Katie’s “bestie” since forever, the way they go on. George Weasley often tags along with her, and by association, Ronald Weasley too. Luna Lovegood – she’s an entomologist, but now that I think of it, she has asked a lot of questions about our work. Anthony Goldstein works with her, and I’m a bit sick of tripping over him, actually. I used to think he was trying to court Katie.” Draco took a sip of his wine as Harry reigned in a snort and a few pithy observations on Goldstein. “I suppose we need to include Veronica at reception and Dr Uber-arsehole and Dr Bendover-”Harry choked over a mouthful of wine. “Dr Bendover?”Draco gave a twelve-year-old smirk. “All right; Wendover. But he deserves it. Also here’s something that will interest you; I’d caught Sarah Reid, who works in admin over at the histology lab, poking around in my files once or twice. I thought she was just being nosy. Guess who her live-in boyfriend is?”Harry raised his brow.“Edward Carmichael,” Draco finished triumphantly. “Brilliant,” he breathed. “I still can’t imagine a world so just that he turns out to be the bad guy, but that doesn’t mean I can’t formally interrogate him on suspicion.”“Nice,” Draco approved, holding his wine glass to his lips. “The incompetent twat,” he ended with a sneer. “Still your partner?”“Yeah.” He grimaced. “Working with him on a drug bust. Athena’s Dream.”Draco started, and then gave him a searching glance. “Night shift?”“Yeah.” He’d tried hard to sound casual, but even he could hear the almighty whinge in his voice. He flushed and braced himself for a sneer. Instead, Draco peered at his eyes. “I was wondering why you look like a week-dead Kneazle. Absentisomnia. You’re going to plead for death when you come off it.”He scowled. “I know. I’ve done it before.”Draco smiled wryly. “So have I.” The smile faded. “Potter. Know who you’re after?”All senses went into alert. “No.” Really, he ought to be offended at Draco’s unsurprised nod, but he let it go; getting information was of greater import. Draco swallowed, his eyes shifted. “If I had to make a guess, I’d say it was Terence Mulciber. He wasn’t only good at Imperius; he also specialized in getting young Death Eater wannabes hooked on Athena’s Dream. He managed to slink away before the end.”Harry’s eyes widened. “I thought he was killed?”Draco shook his head. Harry watched Draco’s fingers tap a rapid staccato against his wine glass. “…You seem very certain.” There was no answer. He slapped a hand through his hair. “For fuck’s sake, Malfoy. You didn’t think to turn him in? Providing the Ministry with that kind of information would have made your trial a hell of a lot easier for all of us. Not to mention if we’d found him by chance, he’d have squealed on you like a stuck pig! You’d have kissed your freedom goodbye.” Draco flushed, and his expression was at once resentful, defiant and embarrassed. “I needed him. Until I…well, until I stopped. By the time I was ready to face the world again, he’d disappeared.” He scowled. “You know, I didn’t have to tell you this. A bit of appreciation wouldn’t be amiss.”Harry let out a long sigh. “…I guess not. Well…well, fuck it. Better late than never, I guess.” He shrugged. “Thanks, Malfoy. It does help to have an idea who we’re looking for. I’ll call it an anonymous tip.”Draco shrugged also. “I’d appreciate that.” “If I can convince Kingsley that Carmichael is a suspect,” Harry continued, “I should be given free rein to handle this. I definitely want to be the one to interview our…” It seemed disloyal and idiotic to label the people on the list who were his friends and bound to have nothing to do with this suspects. “…Everyone.” “Good,” Draco returned crisply. “I would like for you to arrange a meeting with Granger, if you will,” he added, rising from his seat. “I have a few ideas about that hunting Crup spell you’re after.”Harry nodded as Draco floated a coffee tray and assorted liqueurs, together with a plate of treacle tart, onto the coffee table. “I’ll do that. Just let me know what time suits you. Do you want to be part of the interviewing process?” The moment it was out he wanted to kick himself. You’re gagging for excuses to spend time with him. Which was wrong and he shouldn’t give in to it. For fuck’s sake; what about Zabini; walking sex. He couldn’t hope to compete. And for fuck’s sake; he shouldn’t even be contemplating competing; he was still technically engaged to Ginny. But it was too late; Draco’s eyes gleamed with surprise and pleasure.“I’d be delighted to assist. I learned interrogation techniques from the best.” This was said with so much self-mocking irony he couldn’t take offense. “Besides,” Draco continued. “I already told you I’d make myself available to you any time you want me. How would you like your coffee?”“Er…dash of Bailey’s and cream,” he mumbled. He watched Draco’s elegant, bony hands flex as he prepared the coffee. These almost flirtatious comments delivered in a commonplace tone were bloody annoying. It was probably the pureblood way; to use clever and flirtatious words that no one took seriously, but he wasn’t used to it; it stirred him up and made him feel stupid and ashamed for wanting. Draco placed his coffee into his hands. “There. And don’t go without trying the tart.”Did he know it was his favourite? Harry accepted a generous slice and added clotted cream. “Oh, thanks.” He took a bite and felt his eyes squeeze shut in bliss. He opened his eyes to find Draco staring avidly, his bottom lip lowered and wet. He smirked. “You like it.”Smug git. He shrugged and assumed a mild tone. “It’s nice.” He thought of adding almost as good as the tart at Hogwarts but that would be childish, and something about Draco’s self-congratulatory pleasure made him smile. “So. I’d like to interview doctors Uberars- er, Uberschwartz and…Wendover first. Out of everyone, they have the most opportunity and know-how.”Draco nodded and rubbed his chin. “Yes. Uberwanker in particular is the likely one. He would believe he had the power to succeed where I had…failed.”He winced. “But he didn’t, did he? And you were the one who came up with all that stuff, not him.” And oh god, he was defending him, encouraging him, trying to cheer him up, all because seeing that tentative, pleased, intrigued smile soothed and warmed him. It excited him. Idiot.Draco let a brow rise. “Potter. You’d better be the one to interview them. I doubt they’d agree to questioning at all, let alone with Veritaserum, if I was present.”Harry nodded. “Just tell me when, and I’ll bring all the weight of the Aurors behind me. If they’re involved, I’ll find out.”* * *Harry closed the door behind him and winced as Draco’s head jerked up from where he sat at his desk, files opened before him, his face a study of anticipation. He rubbed at his face. His kingdom for a headache potion. “It isn’t Uberschwartz or Bend-” He cursed as Draco sniggered. “Wendover.” He sighed and collapsed into Katie’s vacant chair. “I had such high hopes.”Draco made a face as he made a careful note in a file and closed it. “It was too much to hope for,” he admitted. His gaze grew abstracted and hard for a moment, then he shook himself out of it and gave him a small smile. “But do not despair, Potter. It leaves Carmichael as prime suspect.”“If only,” Harry replied dreamily. These fruitless nights on stakeout were driving him mental. If he’d been with a trusted partner, they’d have taken turns napping. Instead, he felt like a zombie, with every canine bark winding his temper tighter and tighter. He sat up straighter. “Where is Katie? Gone home already?”“Just missed her.” Draco tidied his desk. “Said something about a few errands to run.”“Oh.” Harry sighed. “I was hoping to get her interview out of the way.”“You really are going to interview her?” Draco’s neutral tone failed to hide his cynicism. Harry scowled. “No, I’m only going to interview Evil Slytherins,” he retorted. “Believe it or not, I actually don’t judge people based on their house anymore, and when it comes to Auror work, I don’t make exceptions for my friends.”Draco held his hands up. “Very well, Potter. Don’t get your knickers in a twist. I apologize.” He gave a sly smile. “Lovegood may still be around, so you have a wonderful opportunity to prove your impartiality.”“Good!” He flicked his Patronus into life and sent it galloping away. “Stay and ensure that I don’t hiss Flee! All is discovered! at her, too.” Draco’s eyes danced as he bit down on a snicker. “I will.”The door opened and Luna sailed in with her usual unselfconscious, swaying, floating stride. He rose to his feet and took her hand. Her brown and yellow entomology robe was enhanced with distinctly un-regulation yellow patchwork pansies and she had a matching one in her hair. He was no judge of female fashion – well, any fashion - but it didn’t seem as way-out as her clothes had appeared at Hogwarts. “Hello, Luna. Thanks for coming at such short notice.”“Hello, Harry. Hello, Draco. Of course, Harry. You’re my friend.”Which was just what he wanted to hear before pushing Veritaserum on her and launching into an interrogation. Ouch. He edged an uneasy smile on his face and gestured to a nearby seat. “Erm. Yeah. Uh.” He saw Draco press a hand to his lips and convulse and shot him a nasty glare. “Luna, I’m actually here on official business, and I’d like to ask you some questions as part of my investigation.”She blinked and shrugged. “Ask me anything, Harry.” He shot a quelling look at his companion, whose brows were still raised high, his hand over his mouth, his skin pink. “And erm…” He sheepishly raised the bottle he’d shoved into a pocket. “I’d appreciate it if you’d agree to being questioned under Veritaserum. Just as a formality.” Luna’s brows rose also, and she fluttered her hands. “I can’t, Harry, I’m allergic to it.”“What?” Harry hesitated. “You’re allergic to Veritaserum?” He glanced helplessly at Draco, who was staring at her, mouth agape. “Is that even possible?”“Oh yes, Harry. I’ve known about it for a long time.”“Er…Um…” He shrugged and glanced at Draco again, whose eyes were narrowed. “Malfoy?”“…Of all the rare cases of allergy to Veritaserum, it was due to the Rotfang saliva.”“No, no,” Luna shook her head. “Perimpus Alranigus saliva.”Draco bit his lip and turned to him. “She knows what she’s talking about,” he admitted. “It’s possible.”He shrugged again. “Well, then.” He cleared his throat. “Do you know anything about the disappearance of the cadaver from the Ministry Auror storage room number four, last Thursday night on the second of October, between the hours of six pm and seven in the morning?”“No.”“What do you know about that cadaver?”Luna looked mildly interested. “Nothing, except what Neville told me.”“Which was?”“That you and the Weasleys had a strange person Apparate into the kitchen during dinner, and that you went after him. And that Ginny’s mad at you for putting Auror work ahead of her wishes and he thinks your marriage won’t work because you’re not really suited and you’re only going ahead with it because you think you ought to.”Harry felt his jaw drop as the wanker beside him silently convulsed again. “Er…thanks, Luna,” he managed. “One last thing; where were you the night the cadaver was stolen?”“With Neville.”“Right. Well, that’s it I guess.” He turned to Draco, who had recovered enough to clear his throat, his face pink and eyes shining with hilarity. Sodding wanker. “Unless you have anything to add?” And if you know what’s good for you, you won’t.“No. Nothing,” Draco choked out. “Thanks, Lovegood. We’ll keep in touch.”She nodded and jumped to her feet. “Well, time to head back to work. Those Excruvium Extensiae won’t wait. See you later, Harry.”They both watched Luna prance out the door. Harry winced as Draco snorted. “Salazar, she doesn’t need a truth potion; it all comes blurting out, doesn’t it?” He turned to him with a cocked brow. “Do you think she’s telling the truth? Veritaserum allergy is possible, but it’s very, very rare.”“I don’t know; it’s hard to tell with Luna.” Harry rubbed his hands through his hair. “She could be telling the truth, deliberately lying, or it could be that she genuinely thinks she’s allergic because it’s…I dunno…” He threw up his hands. “..Nargle mating season or the Humpback Snorklerags are hawking coloured gobs of spit on the Dinglefucking Snoofers.”Draco winced. “That should have sounded ridiculous, but when associated with Lovegood...”Harry looked down at their list. Well, while we’re waiting for Goldstein and Katie, how about we ask-” The door opened, Katie stomped in, jabbed her wand at her chair, which zipped into place, and at her computer, which flared into life, and collapsed down. “Bloody buggering suppliers,” she seethed. “Where’s my fucking coffee?”Harry shot a wary glance to Draco, who gave him a slight shrug. “I’ll get some coffee.” He turned to Harry with a forced genial air. “Don’t do anything till I get back.”Draco could make all the snide jokes he wanted about his intelligence, but he could recognize a warning when he heard it, and his time with Ginny hadn’t been for naught. He fished around in his bag and came up with the chocolate truffles he’d bought for dessert, the ones advertised by Honeydukes as Female Bezoars. “Here. These will go well with your coffee.” Katie’s eyes flared and she all but snatched at the offering. “Life saver,” she breathed. “God yes!” She ripped open the packaging and stuffed a truffle into her mouth, paused to savour, and moaned. In time, Draco returned, floating a steaming coffee mug before him. “Here we are.”Katie accepted the mug with alacrity and took a long sip. “…Ah.” She let out a long sigh.“Feeling better?” Harry asked. She grunted and took another long sip of coffee. “…Er, right.”“Just give her a moment,” Draco advised, sinking down onto his seat. “Our suppliers could drive a Flobberworm to homicide.”Harry watched the wire tensing Katie’s body slowly dissipate with every sip of her beverage. Finally, she sighed.“Well, they’ll know better for next time,” she remarked more cheerfully. “If they want that hex removed.”Harry glanced at Draco to find him shuddering and decided ignorance was bliss. “Katie, when you’ve had your coffee, I’d like to ask you a few questions.”She perked up a little. “Sure, Harry. Fire away.”He cleared his throat. “I’d also consider it a favour if you’d agree to take Veritaserum,” he mumbled. “It’s just procedure.”Katie reared back, eyes wide. “Veritaserum?” she protested. “Don’t you trust me?”She looked so insulted that he winced. “I have to,” he pleaded. “It’s part of our procedure.”“For interviewing suspects,” she retorted. “So, what, I’m a suspect now? What am I supposed to have done?” She paused and slammed her mug down on the table. “Oh, I get it. This is about that body you discovered. So because I work here, I’m automatically prime suspect? What about everyone else here? Have you interviewed Draco?”He held up his hands. “Yes, and with Veritaserum. Katie, please. I don’t like this, but Kingsley would have my bollocks if I didn’t follow procedure.”“Yes, but you’d think as a friend you’d just…” she shoved a hand across her face and sucked in a deep breath. “Shit. I’m just…sorry,” she muttered. “Chalk it up to a bad day.”Harry pressed another truffle into her hand. “We could do this tomorrow?”“No, let’s get this done,” she groused. “Get it over with.”He shrugged uneasily and fished out the Veritaserum. She accepted the three drops without further comment and grimaced at the taste. When enough time had passed, he cleared his throat. “What do you know about the disappearance of the cadaver from the Ministry Auror storage room number four, on the second of October, last Thursday, between the hours of six pm and seven in the morning?”She shrugged. “Nothing useful. Just that it happened.”“Where were you that night?”“With Angelina, we were having a girl’s night out.”“What do you know about that cadaver?”“Again, nothing much, except that it looked like the man died of an unusually metastatic cancer.”Harry narrowed his eyes. “Got any ideas about it?”Katie looked uncomfortable. “Well, I’ve wondered about it. It seemed unnatural, and I couldn’t help but wonder if someone from the institute had something to do with it.”“Why?”“…Well, like I said, it just seemed unnatural, and I realized that I…that a lot of us…haven’t taken security and our code of ethics as seriously as maybe we should have,” she admitted reluctantly. “I wondered if one of us had decided to experiment illegally.”Harry leaned forward. “Who did you suspect?”“Lots of people. Mostly; Uberschwartz. Wendover, Laurel Barker, Penny Ptelomy.” She swallowed uncomfortably. “…Draco,” she whispered. He winced as Draco’s amusement evaporated and his lips thinned. He said nothing, however.“I’m sorry, okay?” Katie pleaded, staring at her hands in her lap. “I didn’t want to think it was you, and I swear I usually trust you, it’s just…”Draco grimaced. “Let it go, Bell. It’s fine.”“No it isn’t.” Katie sniffed and wiped at her eyes. “I feel dreadful for suspecting you, when I made such a fuss of telling you I was too Gryffindor to hold a grudge.”Harry watched Draco’s face twist and wondered if he would admit that her suspicions weren’t as far off as she thought. He merely gave her hand a pat.“Seriously, Bell. It’s okay.” He smirked. “I suspected you.”She gasped and threw him an indignant glare that faded when she saw his face. “…Bastard,” she muttered with a reluctant grin. She turned back to Harry. “Seriously, Harry. I don’t know who’s involved, but I do suspect one of us might have had something to do with it.”“Well, thanks for that, Katie,” he said with a sigh. “I know this wasn’t enjoyable, especially after such a crap morning.”She sniffed, sighed and shoved a few belongings, as well as the truffles, into her bag. “I’m going home,” she muttered. She half turned to Draco but didn’t look him in the eyes. “Tell admin I’m sick, yeah?” Draco shrugged. “I will.”Katie trudged off, leaving Harry to flick a glance over to his companion. “…Ouch.”“Quite.” Draco assumed a bored mien that didn’t quite ring true as he scribbled down some words on a note and sent it slipping under the door with a flick of his wand. He shifted uncomfortably. He was pants at comforting his friends; if he tried to fumble out some words for Draco, he’d probably earn a vitriolic bollocking. “Erm…”When the door opened to admit Veronica, he wanted to kiss her. Her brow rose.“Mr Malfoy?” she asked.“Miss Bell has left for the day, sick,” he informed with a lazy flick of his wrist. “And as per procedure, I am informing you of it.”Veronica gave a perfunctory smile. “Yes, thank you, Mr Malfoy.” Harry turned to Draco. “Hey, since she’s here…” he suggested.Draco started, and shrugged. “Certainly.” He turned to the receptionist. “Mrs Weldon…Veronica. Would you be so good as to answer a few questions for Auror Potter?”Veronica’s eyes widened and she shot a nervous glance between them. “…What?” she shrilled. “Why?”Harry stiffened, his skin crawling. Her tone held more than just the standard nervousness at being questioned by Aurors. He straightened and gestured towards a seat. “Please sit down, Mrs Weldon,” he said tightly. “I would like your permission to ask a few questions using Veritaserum.”“No…no, I don’t give permission. Why should I? I haven’t been charged with any crime.” She shifted from foot to foot and shot an almost resentful glance to Draco. “I refuse.”He grasped his wand firmly and forced his lips to curl up. His head was aching. “You are, of course, welcome to do so. However, I caution you that in doing so, you automatically become a Person Of Interest to the Ministry, and as such, if any evidence suggests that you are involved in illegal or dangerous activities, a warrant may be supplied for your arrest, where you will be taken into custody and in that case, legislation permits the use of Veritaserum whether you agree to it, or not,” he recited. Veronica was involved? He certainly hadn’t seen that coming. Why on earth…?Draco half rose, his face taut. “You ought to submit yourself to Potter’s mercy,” he advised coolly. “Believe me when I say that if I, after all I’ve done, can benefit from his pathetically tender heart, you can have little to fear.”Veronica stepped forward and back almost rhythmically, biting her lower lip. “…All right.” She flashed Harry a nervous stare. “But only Mr Potter.”Harry dragged his stupefied gaze away from Draco and nodded. “That can be arranged.” He turned an apologetic glance to his companion. “If you don’t mind?”Draco rose and swept a derisive bow. “I am all accommodation.” He swept from the room without bothering to conceal his irritation, and Harry jabbed a hand towards Katie’s seat. “Sit.” He realized his tone was hardly conciliatory, but he was too annoyed, and frankly shocked, to censor himself. He prepared the Veritaserum and held the dropper out. The secretary hesitated, and he bit back an impatient snarl. “…Mrs Weldon?” he edged out.She grimaced and reluctantly accepted the dose. After sufficient time had passed, he cleared his throat. “What do you know about the disappearance of the cadaver from the Ministry Auror storage room number four, on the second of October, last Thursday, between the hours of six pm and seven in the morning?” Veronica started. “What? Is that what this is all about?” She started to laugh in hysterical relief. “I don’t know anything about that!”“What?” Harry felt his jaw drop and ran his hand over it. Fucking hell. This was getting ridiculous. “What did you think this was about?” he snapped.Veronica flushed and choked, but she couldn’t fight the potion. “…I thought this was about my stealing Mr Malfoy’s work,” she was forced to admit. “You stole his work?” he gasped.“I had to!” Her eyes pleaded for understanding. “I didn’t want to, but Professor Uberschwartz insinuated that if I didn’t snoop around and bring him anything that looked important, he’d have me fired, and I was getting married and I needed the money, and well, Mr Malfoy is rich, he doesn’t have to work, and I was always on your side, and…” she trailed off. “…And I thought I deserved my job more than he did,” she finished stiffly. “But I didn’t like it,” she repeated.He rubbed at his face and wished the stab, stab, stab behind his eyes would subside. There was a time when Sirius’s roar that Pettigrew should have died rather than betray his friends had seemed so clear cut, so pure and shining. He’d been so certain of all that was right. “…Are you going to tell him?” she muttered. “No. Interrogations under Veritaserum are seen only by Aurors, possibly Wizengamot members, and any parties the interviewee deems acceptable. You have not permitted Mr Malfoy to be present, therefore I cannot divulge the contents of this interview to him,” he recited mechanically.“Thank Merlin,” she breathed. He swallowed down a scathing retort. It was easy enough for him to judge; he too had plenty of dosh. “It’s not my decision, of course,” he said, “but if I were you, I’d confess to Malfoy and throw my lot in with him.”“Tell him?” she squeaked. “I’d rather drink Bubotuber pus.”“You might find him more sympathetic than you think,” he suggested gently. “He knows a lot about being blackmailed into doing something one doesn’t want to do. Besides,” he added, “He’s richer, smarter, fairer, and younger than Uberschwartz. He has more to give.”She bit on her thumbnail and swung her legs. “…I’ll think about it.” She kept her eyes trained on the ground in front of her. “…I ought to get back to work.” She flicked him a quick glance. “Are you done?”“Sure.” She rose on unsteady feet and lingered by the door. He winced. He’d seen this often as an Auror, and had finally come to recognize that she wanted reassurance, forgiveness, a sign that he still thought she was an okay person. He’d always been crap at this part. Give him a few hours, or a few days, in some cases, and the irritation would subside, allowing all that was good in the person to shine through, and he could reassure with sincerity. It was harder now, when the less nice parts were still too fresh. “Look, just remember what I said,” he managed. “Malfoy makes a good ally.”She gave a jerk of her head and disappeared. He groaned, ran his hand through his hair, scrubbed at it, and let out a long sigh. Then he dragged his wand up and gave it a half-hearted flick. “Expecto Patronum,” he mumbled. His wand dribbled out a sorry wisp of nothing and he sighed again and slumped into the chair. It was easier to scribble a note and send it fluttering and wriggling under the door. Draco returned in time, the note crumpled in his hand. He set two steaming coffee mugs on the table and sat down gracefully.“Here. Coffee. So, how is she involved?” he greeted sourly.Harry cleared his throat as he took a sip. “…She isn’t.”Draco’s jaw dropped. “She isn’t? Then what the bloody fuck was that all about?”He winced. “I can’t tell you. Confidentiality.”“Well, it must have had something to do with me, since she didn’t…” Draco’s voice faded, and he gave a slow, mirthless laugh. “Oh, I see.” He sprang back up and started to pace. “…She had something to do with my research that was stolen from my desk, which Uberfucker published, didn’t she?” he ground out. Harry bit his lip, knowing his silence was as good as a shout. If only Draco wasn’t quite so intelligent. Draco barked a harsh laugh. “Well, this certainly has been a most instructive day,” he sneered. “It joys me to realize in what high regard my two closest co-workers hold me.” “She didn’t want to,” he muttered. Since Draco had guessed, it couldn’t hurt to try and smooth the waters. “Apparently Uber…er, Schwartz, is blackmailing her. You…you know better than anyone how awful that is,” he finished hesitantly.Draco’s vengeful face faltered, and twisted into a disgusted snort. He slumped back into his chair with his hands gripping his hair. “Fuck,” he muttered. He picked up a quill and started stuttering it against the desk with quick, trembling fingers. “…Sometimes I wonder why I bother,” he burst out. “She wouldn’t have done that to Katie, or Lovegood, or any of the others here who don’t have half my talent. Katie had no trouble imagining that I must have…” He threw the quill at his monitor. “And don’t tell me it’s my own fault,” he ground out. “I know it is. I just wonder how many more years I’m going to pay for it. I didn’t want to--” he cut himself off.Some days it just seemed that everyone was trapped into doing things they didn’t want to do. Katie didn’t want to doubt, Veronica didn’t want to steal, Malfoy didn’t want to betray, Harry didn’t want to work with Carmichael or get fucking married. Of them all, Malfoy’s had been the hardest to bear. He wanted to do something for him, but what? He couldn’t cuddle him like he did for Ginny, or dance with him like he had for Hermione. He couldn’t slap him on the back and offer a beer like he did with Ron. “I know,” he responded helplessly. “I know you didn’t want…a lot of things.” He shrugged. “I can’t really do much about everyone else, but for what it’s worth, you don’t have anything to prove to me.” Draco’s head turned sharply to stare at him. Harry could feel himself turn red, but the words would trip over his tongue. Maybe his constant handling of Veritaserum and nail chewing habit had caused him to ingest some. “’Cause I know you’ve changed. That’s what I say to myself whenever I’m exasperated with Ministerial ineptitude, with Daily Prophet lies, with injustice and unfair laws, and I wonder whether people I loved died in vain, I think to myself; Yeah, but Malfoy got his shit together. He rose above it all and made something of himself.” He sucked in a breath, shoved his hands in his back pockets and hoped like hell he didn’t sound melodramatic and cheesy. “…You’ve kinda been my mascot, Malfoy. My golden…whatever. Because I figured your success meant…things were working out.”Draco started, flushed, reared back, and finally scoffed. “Fucking great. A Gryffindor mascot.” He shook his head. “This is it; rock bottom.”Harry blushed and scowled. “Oh piss off, arsehole.” He was never, ever going to try and comfort that wanker ever again.Draco sniggered, twisted his chair around and rammed his elbow into Harry’s stomach. “Oooff!” Harry snarled and used both hands to thrust Draco away. Draco’s back slammed into his desk, he grunted, and then sprang to his feet, a light in his eyes. Harry did likewise, braced for the inevitable punch. He blocked, twisted Draco’s arm behind his back, lifted onto his toes and wrapped his other arm around his neck. “Suffer!” He noogied Draco’s head.“You fucking prick,” Draco howled, voice choked with laughter, twisting this way and that. “Not my hair, you jealous arse.”“Take it, wanker.” He didn’t want to stop, he admitted to himself. The subtle scent of treacle and stormy beach trickled warmth all through his limbs and down to his balls, weakening him. He breathed in the fragrance and yelped as Draco twisted around and grabbed his own hair, giving it a firm, playful tug. Draco’s hair was delightfully dishevelled, his eyes gleaming with soft, malicious amusement. Oh god, did Malfoy know he’d just sniffed him? “Potter, you-”A knock on the door made both of them jump. Draco jerked away and cleared his throat, his hand flying straight to his hair. Harry stepped back, ran a hand through the back of his own hair and tried to act nonchalant. “…Come in,” Draco called.Anthony Goldstein’s head peered around the door, looking hesitant and surly. “I got a note saying you wanted to see me?” Harry stared for one moment before gesturing for Goldstein to enter, who looked distinctly reluctant. Guilty conscience at facing the man who was engaged to the girl he was hitting on? Or was he hiding a darker secret? “Just a few questions, Goldstein. To help with an investigation. As per Auror regulations, I’d like you to agree to take Veritaserum.”Goldstein’s gaze flicked between them, and he chewed on his lip. “An investigation?” he said with an attempt at calm. “Auror work?”“That’s right.”Goldstein shrugged, his toe tapping. “I suppose I have to, right? But you’re only allowed to ask about official work, not personal stuff, right?”Harry gave a bland smile. Bastard. “That’s right.” He prepared the truth serum, and it was accepted with some reluctance. “What do you know about the disappearance of the cadaver from the Ministry Auror storage room number four, on the second of October, last Thursday, between the hours of six pm and seven in the morning?” he repeated wearily.Goldstein relaxed. “I know that a body was stolen, that’s all.”Great. Everyone seemed to know about it. What the hell kind of security did this place have, anyway? Couldn’t anyone keep their mouths shut? “How did you hear about it?”Something flared in Goldstein’s eyes, and he assumed a casual stance that didn’t quite ring true to Harry’s trained eyes. “Ginevra Weasley told me.”“Ginny…?” His gut tightened. He felt rather than saw Draco shift on the seat beside him. The air grew strangely tense. “Where were you that night?” he stabbed out.Goldstein struggled, but his mouth seemed to rip open. “With Ginevra Weasley.” Once it was out, he slumped back, wincing. “Fuck.”A cold, sick prickling wave washed over him. “With Ginevra Weasley,” he repeated flatly. He gave a mirthless smile. “And what were you doing with Ginevra Weasley?”“…Talking.”Harry raised his brow and waited.“…Touching. Kissing,” Goldstein ripped out from clenched teeth.He scoffed out a sigh and hid his face in his hand. Beside him, Draco pressed a hand on his and squeezed. “…Right,” he said tightly. “Do you know who stole the cadaver?”“No.”“Do you know anything about the cadaver?”“No.”“Then fuck off.”Goldstein scrambled to his feet and headed for the door with no time lost. He did hesitate with his hand on the handle. “Look, I never meant to…I’m sor-”“Piss off, Goldstein,” Draco interjected. “Not now.”Goldstein flashed Draco an annoyed glance, but ended with an awkward, apologetic look to Harry. “I’ll…” Draco flicked his wand and muttered a long stream of Latin. Goldstein jerked as the rush of magic hit him, and then looked confused. “What was that?” he asked angrily.“Merely a silencing spell. You won’t be able to tell anyone what we talked about today,” Draco re-sheathed his wand with a self-congratulatory smirk. “Including Miss Ginevra Weasley.”Goldstein looked as though he wanted to argue it, and then thought better of it. “…Fuck.” He left.There was a long silence. Harry sank into the chair and let his head tilt back, hiding his face in his hands. “…Did you know?” he asked.He heard the sounds of a drawer opening, the clink of glass. He cracked open an eye to see Draco pouring a generous shot of whiskey into a glass.“Here.” He pressed the glass into his hand. It looked expensive; both the exquisitely-cut glass and the liquor. “Nineteen thirty nine Highland Park Reserve scotch whiskey,” he introduced. “For those days when the only alternative is an Unforgivable.”Harry snorted out a choked laugh and slugged back a healthy swallow of the whiskey. It was smooth and buttery and spread much-needed warmth through his stomach. He sighed and eyed Draco askance. “You knew.”“…I wondered, not knew,” Draco admitted. “I’ve seen her disappear into Goldstein’s office a few times. Slag,” he finished, slugging back his own whiskey. He snorted. “Fuck, sometimes this whole place seems overrun by Weasels.”“Malfoy,” he warned. “Potter,” Draco returned with exaggerated disparagement. He stared down at his glass. “What are you going to do?”“Do?” Harry barked out a laugh. “End it. I guess.” He thought of Molly’s face and winced. “Oh god.”Draco stabbed a finger at him. “Doubts. I told you, didn’t I? Don’t ignore them.” He rose to his feet and moved over to the lab area, opening glass cabinets, taking down boxes and equipment. Harry sighed and scrubbed at his face. “It’s not all her fault,” he admitted reluctantly. Draco turned an incredulous expression on him. “No, really.” He sipped the whiskey. “I just don’t…This has turned out to be the shitiest day I’ve had since…” Hell, since the battle of Hogwarts. “…God, I just want to go home and…” Draco grabbed his arm and shoved his Auror uniform sleeve up past his elbow. “Malfoy?” Draco flicked his wand and muttered something under his breath. “Malfoy, what are you…OW!” Harry sucked in a startled, angry breath and rubbed at his arm, as blood rose from a graze on his wrist and glided into a tube. “Fuck, you arse!” He received a brief, professional smile. “Sorry, but these things go better when you don’t have time to anticipate them.”“What on earth are you doing?”“Taking a sample,” Draco replied calmly. He turned to give him a funny look. “I told you I wanted to map out your genome and give you the Animagi alleles you’re missing.”Oh. Oh. What he wouldn’t give for that now. To be a stag, like his father, and run hard and fast, blend with a pack, where all his worries seemed unimportant. Or to form a bird and soar away, feel the wind through feathers and let his mind go blank with bliss. “…I…want…” he croaked.“Of course you do.” Draco sealed his sample away and turned to look him up and down.Harry hesitated. “If you did, what are the chances of me turning out like…like that old man, and the one I saw?”Draco hesitated. “…I don’t know. I can only tell you I didn’t. And come on; you’re Harry Potter. You can shake off killing curses and Imperius. You can face Dark Lords and win with an Expelliarmus. I can’t imagine you…” he trailed away.Neither could he. But he could imagine soaring, screeching, gliding, he could imagine loping, panting, howling. He could almost taste it, smell it. And didn’t he deserve it? Shouldn’t he have a reward of his choosing for all he’d done and sacrificed? And Malfoy was right; he might have tremendously bad luck in some respects, but he was magically strong; if anyone could do this successfully - if Malfoy could - then he could. He could do this, have all the pleasure, all the joy. He could turn up to an Auror meeting of the future. We need an Animagus for this case, Robards would state. Carmichael? And Harry would diffidently raise his hand. I could, also, he would toss out casually. It came late, but I finally… And Carmichael would be furious. Draco gave him a small but sharp push. “Go home, Potter. Sleep it off. Don’t do anything until tomorrow. Meanwhile, think of this.” He nodded. It’d give him something else to stew over during the long and probably pointless stakeout. “Yeah. I guess.” He turned to the door, then looked behind. “Thanks, Malfoy.”Draco inclined his head. “Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur.”“What?”But Draco just shook his head. “Go.”He hesitated, but was ignored. He left.
* * *Harry stirred his Irish coffee and glanced around the café. It was quiet for a Saturday morning, and he’d chosen a table in a quiet nook; perfect for the coming confrontation. He cast a Tempus. It was time, and Ginny was generally punctual. Which was good in a way, as much as he’d love her to just never show up, he wanted it done. The café paraphernalia in front of him was blurry. He rubbed at his eyes and blinked. True to form, he had no sooner raised the mug to his lips when Ginny strode in, high heeled boots teamed with a fashionable black robe, looking for him. He waved her over and she sat down with that slightly forced smile she’d taken to wearing. He stifled a sigh. She clearly wasn’t happy. Why didn’t she say something? “Hi, Harry.” She looked around. “This is nice.” A waiter swept up to the table.“What can I get you, ma’am?”“Skinny mocha, and a low-fat banana muffin.” She put the menu down.“And you, sir? Another Irish coffee?”Harry nodded while Ginny settled down. “So Harry, what’s the occasion? You don’t usually ask me out for coffee like this.”He stiffened; how dare she sound so bitter and hard done by? He wasn’t the one sneaking around behind her back! And then he flushed. She was right; he didn’t spontaneously ask her out to coffee, or take her out on dates, or want to spy on her changing, or wear seductive cologne for her. These days, he only ever saw her during family dinners at the Burrow, or frantic rushed meetings with shopkeepers for wedding stuff. When was the last time he’d really looked at her? He did so now as she tucked her purse away. She looked nice. She looked pretty. Any man ought to be wild about her; she was beautiful and spirited and a brilliant Quidditch player, and…and he was fond of her. “I know.” He fiddled with his mug and drained the last of it. “I wanted to talk to you.”“Oh?” She wasn’t stupid; her eyes narrowed. “…What about?” He sucked in a deep breath and hoped there were enough patrons around for her to keep a lid on her temper. “I know about you and Goldstein.”“What?” Ginny stilled with shock, went white, then red, and then looked…relieved. “…Oh.” She stared at her plate. “How did you find out?”Harry let out a long breath. At least she wasn’t kicking up a scene. “I was questioning him as a part of an investigation and it turns out you’re his alibi.”She bit her lip as tears sprang up in her eyes. “I’m so sorry, Harry. I feel so awful about it. I promise I didn’t go out deliberately intending to…but I was feeling down, and he came on to me, and the attention just went to my head; he was so romantic, and passionate, and…and you never were.”He bridled, but forced himself not to react. “Yeah. I know.” Ginny looked at him uncertainly. “You’re taking this so calmly.” She then smiled bitterly. “Which is good, I suppose, but damn it, Harry, this is why I couldn’t resist Tony in the first place; he really wants me, and you just sit there and don’t even care enough to get angry at me.”He made a face. “I was plenty narked at first; back when I caught you at the floo with him, but I’ve had time to think about it, and you’re right.” He glanced around to ensure they couldn’t be overheard, reached across the table and grabbed hold of her hand. “Gin, don’t you think we got it wrong? That we both just…made a mistake?”Ginny stared back down at her plate and shrugged. “I guess.”He swallowed awkwardly. “Gin, I’ll be honest; I love you, but not the way I ought to; the way you deserve. I should have said something earlier too, but I was, well…” he cleared his throat. “Too much of a coward. I mean; your mum,” he muttered.Ginny shuddered. “Oh Merlin; mum.” She took a fortifying sip of coffee and sighed. “Well…oh god. I guess this is it, huh?”He winced and nodded. She gave a sad smile. “You’d think the fact that we both know we aren’t working out, would make this easier.”He shrugged. “Yeah. I’m relieved. You’re relieved. We’re not fighting over this, funnily enough, which is great. But I still feel like crap.”“Me too.” She raised her head. “Thanks Harry.”He blinked. “For what? Did you think I’d scream and yell at you?”“No! Well, maybe.” She grimaced. “No, what I meant was, I guess just thank you for not…blaming me.”He shrugged. “Jeez, Gin. I know I’m pants at this kind of thing, but I hope I’m not a completely hypocritical berk.”“No, of course you aren’t.” Ginny squeezed his hand, they both stared helplessly at each other for a moment, and then they started to laugh. Relieved, awkward laughter, perhaps, but considering he’d been in knots dreading a screaming confrontation, this wasn’t so bad. They fell quiet as their coffees came, and they sipped in the kind of companionable silence they’d used to have that he’d missed so much. Ginny grimaced. “I suppose I should tell mum.”For a moment, he was tempted to keep quiet and let Ginny bear the brunt of the inevitable backlash; this was his fourth day without sleep and he was absolutely exhausted, but no: That would be something Peter Pettigrew would do. He grimaced. “No, we’ll do it together. Now. Get it over with.”She held a hand to her chest and heaved in a breath. “Thank Merlin. I did not want to face her alone.”He laughed and brought her to her feet. “Come on. Let’s go now. Oh, I almost forgot.” Harry flicked his wand and his concealing charm evaporated, revealing a bouquet of Morgan La Fey peonies. Ginny gasped, and he pressed the bouquet into her shaking hands. “These are for you.” Ginny stared at them in awe and he cleared his throat. “I mean, I can still give you flowers as a brother, right?”She clutched the flowers and buried her face in them. “You…you pillock,” she said helpless with a mix of laughter and tears. “Now? You bring me flowers now?”“No?” he asked anxiously.She hit him with them and heaved an exasperated sigh. “Come on, idiot. Let’s go.”
* * *The following Monday afternoon, Harry was in his blessedly empty office clearing away the last of his outstanding paperwork when a knock came at his door. “Come in?” A familiar head peeped around and he smiled. “Hey, Herm.”“Harry.” She closed the door behind her and gave him a rueful grin. “How are you holding up?”He grimaced. “Still recovering.”She gave him a sympathetic smile. “It was rather shattering.”“Yeah. Gin’s staying over at George’s for a while, just for the peace. I don’t blame her. I think I would have preferred for Molly to just get angry.” He smiled. “Thanks, Herm.”She sat down and gave his hand a pat. “Silly.” He eyed her with resignation. “…You knew.”She nodded and sighed. “Well, to be honest, I could see it happening. I’m glad you sorted it out without needing me to step in, though.” She gave a small smile. “I would have, but I am trying not to be so much of an interfering busybody.”He grinned. “Thank you, Hermione.” He fiddled with his coffee mug. “What surprises me though,” he said slowly, “Is how well Ron took it. I expected him to go mental.”She gave a sheepish smile. “…I may have hammered a few hints into his thick skull over the past few weeks,” she admitted. “Though actually,” she continued thoughtfully, “I must say he didn’t kick up a fuss at all. I think he still feels bad about what happened in the forest,” she concluded. They were both silent for a moment. She stared at him. “…Harry, you look terrible.”He forced a grin. “Yeah, thanks.”She hit his arm impatiently. “No, really. Your eyes are all red and hollow-looking, and you’re terribly pale.”Harry shrugged. “I’m on a night-time stakeout with Carmichael. The event we’re waiting for could happen anytime, so…”“Oh, Harry.” She gripped his arm. “Don’t tell me; Absentisomnia?” His silence was all she needed. “Harry,” she scolded. “Remember what happened last time?”“I could hardly forget,” he retorted. “I fucking have to, okay? I can’t drop my current investigation, and Carmichael will not win.” Her lips pursed. “Perhaps you should let someone else-”“No!” he interrupted fiercely.Hermione let her gaze speak volumes. “…Fine. At least I know what to expect this time around. But don’t expect me to put up with you when you get increasingly irritable – which is already happening, by the way.”“Herm,” he said helplessly. She touched the back of her hand to his cheek. “Just promise me you’ll tell me when you start withdrawing. You don’t have to go through that alone again.”The door burst open and Carmichael entered, hugging a file to his chest and glowing with excitement. Harry shared a grimace with Hermione and they drew back. Carmichael flicked them a doubtful glance; as if he were dying to impart momentous news but found the recipients lacking. Well, he could make the decision easy for him. “Come on, Herm,” he muttered. “I’ll go file this paperwork, then we can go back to your office, yeah? I’ve got some news about Malfoy.”“Malfoy?” Carmichael’s head jerked around, his eyes wide. “You know already?”Harry stiffened and shot Hermione a questioning look. She shrugged. He turned back to Carmichael. “Know what?”Carmichael smiled with satisfaction. “So you don’t know. I just arrested him.”Harry froze, staring, feeling his body reverberate with shock. He was distantly aware of Hermione’s gasp. “What?”“Yes, I happened to be on hand when…” He consulted his notes. “…A Dr Hendrick Uberschwartz contacted us, claiming he’d caught Draco Malfoy in his flat, going through his desk drawers. I was given the duty to arrest Malfoy. And I did.” Carmichael paused to contemplate this apparent work of genius for a moment. Harry wanted to rip his face off. “I couldn’t wait to contact you, but I’m sure you understand,” he added sardonically. “There was no time.”“Of course not,” he muttered. Malfoy, arrested. He’d bet his last Knut it had been to search his superior’s flat for proof of theft. Damn it, he knew Malfoy had been more cut up about it than he’d admitted, but what had the silly twit been thinking? Harry straightened, his eyes hard. It was time to turn Kreacher’s information to good account. He turned to Carmichael, and gave him his best professional smile. “Well, since you made the arrest, I’ll go and get a statement from Uberschwartz,” he said pleasantly. “Get the paperwork sorted for you.”Carmichael looked pleased and surprised. “…Right. Thanks. That would be great.”He nodded and turned to Hermione, who stared at him with resignation in her eyes. He flashed a deprecating smile as he got the necessary paperwork together. “I’ll catch up with you later, yeah?”She sighed. “Sure, Harry. Just…” She glanced at their unwelcome addition and lowered her voice. “…Just be careful.”He nodded noncommittally and followed her out the door.
* * *When the Uberschwartz house elf answered Harry’s summons and let him in, he looked around with jaundiced eyes. The house was large, of course, sprawling, but not in the macabre, quirky manner of Grimmauld, or the majestic, history-saturated way of the Malfoy estate. It boasted modern lines and contemporary furniture. “Figures,” he muttered. It suited the good-looking and superficially charming scientist to the ground. Even the house elf’s modesty tea towel depicted the chemists’ periodic table. The house elf bowed.“Vimsky will let master know that Auror Potter is here.” She disappeared with a pop, leaving him to peruse a cluster of photos. Uberschwartz posed with a well-groomed and pleasant-faced woman, holding hands and giving each other a smile while two teens fidgeted and edged to the outer limits of the shot. In another photo, he shook hands with a dignitary and accepted a certificate of some sort. Funding? Acknowledgement of scientific achievement ripped away from Malfoy without remorse?“Ah. Auror Potter.” Hendrick Uberschwartz paused in the doorway, then bustled forward, hand outstretched, radiating professional bonhomie. It was beyond him to shake hands, so he neatly gestured to the chair nearby.“Do you mind?”His quarry hesitated, then gracefully inclined his head and gestured to the bar. “Of course, please sit. A drink?”“No thank you.” He smiled blandly as he sat. “Not while I’m on official business, I’m sure you understand.”“Yes, naturally. You don’t mind if I do?”Harry shrugged. “Feel free.” He’d need it. He watched Uberschwartz sluice a generous serve of whiskey into a finely-cut glass and sit across from him on the nearby settee. “Well, then. I assume you’re here to take a statement about the terrible business this afternoon?”“Yes, if you would be so good.” Harry brought out a quill and parchment, and directed a limpid glance of encouragement to the scientist.Uberschwartz sat up straighter and nodded. “Shocking business. I was at a meeting in Lisbon, canvassing for investors, and it finished early. Yes, astounding, I know,” he interjected in a jocular manner. “A business meeting; finishing early. I hardly knew what to do with myself.”Harry smiled mechanically. “And when you’d given the matter some thought?”Uberschwartz looked nonplussed for a moment, and then laughed. “Oh, yes. Well, I came home early, only to find Malfoy rifling through my desk. He knew I was at the meeting, of course, and was well aware of what time I was supposed to have returned. I know he overheard me mention to a colleague that my wife is away visiting her parents for a few days. Presumably he thought the coast was clear, as they say.”“And you’re sure it was Malfoy?”“Oh yes. I saw him before he ever knew I was there. I’d Apparated into the kitchen at the other side of the house, you see, and found little Vimsky out cold; he’d stunned her, poor thing. So I knew something was up. I crept to the study, and found him there. Once he saw me, he Apparated straight away; Merlin only knows how he dismantled my wards; I paid good money for them. But then, we know all about his background, don’t we?” He sighed heavily. “I thought the institute might regret its choice, but then, I’m merely a worker bee.”This was said with such obvious expectation of receiving comfortable laughter at this false modesty, he hardly knew where to look. He was pants at faking emotion. “I see. And what motive do you ascribe to Malfoy’s behaviour?”Uberschwartz shook his head sadly. “Who knows? I have one or two valuables, but I don’t flatter myself that the little luxuries I’ve earned can compare to the wealth the Malfoys inherited.”Well, wasn’t that the smoothest little insult he’d heard in a while. “Any other reasons?” The scientist stroked his chin. “I can only imagine he was looking through my papers, hoping to steal some ideas. It happens, you know,” he added with astounding aplomb. “Usually PhD students, who tend to be impatient for fame, but you’d be surprised, sometimes.”“Probably not,” he muttered. “And you’re determined to press charges?” he added more clearly.Uberschwartz appeared to contemplate this. “I think it may be for the best,” he said slowly. “I hesitate to bring any scandal to the institute, but I’m confident the Aurors will minimize media involvement, give some vague reason for Malfoy’s arrest that keeps my name, and therefore the institute’s, out of it. The scientific community can’t allow a precedent to be set, after all.”“Do you really think that’s wise?” he prodded.Uberschwartz hesitated, and a flash of wariness tightened his eyes. “…As I said, I don’t like it, but I feel it must be done; an example must be made. You don’t agree?”Harry made a show of stroking his chin. “Well, Malfoy is wealthy, as you say. He won’t stint on hiring the best lawyer to defend him.”This was waved away. “On an open and shut case such as this? He was caught red handed.”Harry leaned forward, clasping his hands together. “Ah, but you know lawyers. They want to win, and that means searching for muck, doesn’t it? Digging around in people’s pasts, bringing up all sorts of unsavoury incidents that one might prefer to keep hidden…”He watched Uberschwartz pale. This was starting to get fun.“…But I…”“For example, a good lawyer might investigate your past, and find out that your PhD was initially rejected, and wasn’t accepted until six months later.”Uberschwartz stilled. “…And so? A few revisions were necessary, of course, but that is standard in the field of science. It’s expected, even.” His finger started to tap on the edge of his glass. “Ah, but if evidence of an affair with one of the married panel members during those six months came to light, doubt might descend on your qualifications.”Uberschwartz turned even paler. “…But…surely…” He swallowed. “…But Malfoy did break into my house.”“I’m sure he did, but you have to understand, defence lawyers will descend to anything to cast doubt on the veracity of the prosecuting case,” Harry explained.“…But surely you could…”Harry shook his head, slowly and remorselessly. “Aurors can only do so much. You’d be surprised at how little jurisdiction we have in the courtroom.”Uberschwartz’s eyes slid to the family photo, and Harry saw genuine distress tighten his eyes. “It was all so long ago,” he muttered feebly. “Long before I met Meg. I’ve done so much good work…excellent work. I personally brought in five significant investors when the institute was being threatened with receivership…” He flicked an apologetic glance to the woman in the family photo. “I’m afraid if you persist in your desire to formally prosecute Mr Malfoy, you have to be prepared for this outcome. For, as you say,” he reminded, “you can’t allow a precedent to be set.” Harry affected sympathy at the agonized expression this engendered. “Of course, if you drop the charges now, before this incident becomes widely known, no one need ever know, and no scandal will rear its ugly head. For anyone.”Uberschwartz stared at him.
* * *“He folded like a house of cards,” Harry reported with satisfaction. He leaned back at his desk and clasped his hands behind his head. “All charges dropped.”Hermione sighed. “Good. Not that I approve of Malfoy breaking into Uberschwartz’s flat in the first place,” she added severely. “But I understand why he did, so I guess this is really for the best.”“Uh huh.” He cast a Tempus. “Malfoy is probably being released as we speak.”“You’re not going to go see him?” she asked.He shook his head. “I don’t want him to know it was me,” he admitted. “So don’t you spill the beans, will you?”She glanced at him curiously. “No, not if you don’t want me to. But why…?” She frowned. “…Oh. Well, yes, I see. I don’t suppose he would react well to knowing you’ve saved him again.”He nodded glumly. “That’s what I figured. I mean, a bloke’s got his pride, doesn’t he? It’s just easier if he doesn’t know, yeah?”Hermione smiled. “Why Harry, that was insightful and sensitive of you. I’m impressed.” Then she whacked him. “And then you spoilt it by insinuating that girls don’t count.”“Hey!” He ducked and raised his arms protectively over his head. “I didn’t mean it like that!”The door opened, and once again Carmichael entered the office, but with a decidedly different mien. His face was stiff, his lips tight. Harry winced. Shit. In his zeal to rescue Malfoy, he hadn’t even considered what that would mean to Carmichael. It had been his arrest, and a genuine one. And sure the guy was a twat, but Harry had suffered the loss of a few legitimate cases that had mattered to him due to legal loopholes. He knew how it felt. Carmichael glared at him.“What the hell happened?” he demanded. “It was supposed to be a cake walk, Malfoy was as guilty as sin!”Harry let his hands lift and fall helplessly. “Dr Ubershwartz decided not to prosecute due to his fear of the scandal hurting the institute’s funding. It happens.”“And you couldn’t convince him otherwise?” Carmichael demanded. “This was my case. My arrest . Why did you have to go cock it up?” The genuine pain in his partner’s voice both angered and upset him. “For fuck’s sake, I didn’t convince the guy not to prosecute so I could screw you over!”“Yeah? Sometimes I wonder. I really do.” Carmichael slapped a few folders down on his desk and spared him one last angry glare before leaving.Harry winced and shared an uncomfortable glance with Hermione. “…Bugger,” he mumbled. There didn’t seem to be anything more to say.
* * *The Don’t Worry room felt like a spiritual home when Harry mooched in and slumped down on a chair the following noon: George, in a quiet corner, rocked back and forth, twitchy and red-eyed, his lips down-turned and grim. Nearby, Angelina chatted with Ron with a calm face that couldn’t quite hide an imminent explosion. Ron returned her words promptly enough, but his gaze slid to his brother nervously, and he practically jumped on Harry with an air of relief.“Harry, mate! Join us for lunch? Ginny should be back with take away soon.”“Yeah. She asked me over.” He opened his mouth to ask how Ron was, but really, it was kind of obvious, even to him. “Glad to be here,” he replied instead. Though he wasn’t sure about that.“Rough day?”Harry grimaced. He’d had a fruitless go-over of the footage of Dilys Derwent Drive with Hermione, after a very awkward stakeout with Carmichael the night before. Even fantasies of Draco finding out about his help and thanking him couldn’t console him; Zabini kept appearing to join Malfoy in laughing at his gullibility in thinking he was wanted. Then he felt stupid and grumpy for dreaming of kisses and sincerity along with the hot sex. “Rotten,” he admitted.Ron shifted in his chair. “It’s tough sometimes, this love stuff, yeah?” he mumbled.Harry’s eyes widened in alarm. He knew? How the hell-? And then he realized; Ron meant Ginny.“Oh don’t look like that, I’m not mad,” Ron waved an arm. “Better to know now than too late, eh?” He heaved a sigh. “I’m just glad it’s put a scupper on all the wedding hoopla. It was driving me mental, mate.”Harry breathed a sigh of relief. No, Ron did not know about Malfoy, and he never would. He hesitated. “…Things all right? You and Herm, I mean.”Ron nodded. “Yeah, brilliant, mostly. I mean, we still bicker a lot; mostly harmless stuff, but sometimes it gets out of hand, you know? Then we have to put down the Bludgers and sort things out. Anyway, just sayin’; worth it, but not always easy.” He straightened. “Where is she, anyhow? She said she was coming.”“She told me she had something to chase up, but she’d be right behind me,” Harry reported. “So she should be here soon.”When the floo roared to life, they both turned expectantly, but it was Ginny who came through, holding a cardboard box. “Chinese!” she reported in a crisply bright tone. She gave him a tentative smile. “Harry, you made it! Thanks for coming so quickly.” Harry forced himself up and gave her a brief hug. “All right, then?”They drew apart, and Harry kept loose hands on her arms. Her smile dawned brighter and clearer. “All right, Harry.”He gave her arms a quick squeeze. “Good.”They gave each other embarrassed smiles, and parted. She drew herself together and walked away, tossing over her shoulder; “Be a dear and grab me some lunch, yeah?”He nodded and grabbed two plates that had been stacked on the table. Ron and Angelina joined him, dishing out takeaway silently. Angelina sent a few hurt glances over her shoulder, but it wasn’t enough to budge George, if he even noticed. Harry winced; at a guess, he’d say George was trying to kick his habit. He really couldn’t blame him for the resulting tantrum, but it was sure no walk in the park for everyone who had to live with him.When Ginny returned, she sat next to him and thrust a folder into his hands. “I made a list of all the companies you’ll need to contact. Most of them will give some kind of refund.”He gave her a plate of Chinese in return. “Sure,” he mumbled. “No problems.” He was rewarded with a grateful smile. “You know I’d do it if I wasn’t going on tour. It’s just that some of these places will only give a refund with adequate advanced notice, and I just couldn’t ask mum.”He shivered. “God, no. Really Gin; a few floo calls, some arse-kissing, some apologies…no big deal; I’ll manage.” The floo flared again, and this time Hermione stepped through. Her expression of triumph seemed out of place, especially considering how little success they’d had that morning, but beyond flashing him a meaningful stare, she said nothing until she had returned her husband’s hug and kiss.“Herm, you grow more beautiful every time I see you,” Ron crooned.“Flatterer,” she beamed. The air around him grew slightly awkward, but Ginny kept her eyes firmly on her plate as Ron handed one to his wife. “Lunch,” he offered.“My favourite.” Hermione sank onto a chair and ate mechanically, her gaze far away, smiling away to herself. Ron, it appeared, was used to this; he smiled, ruffled her hair and applied himself to his own food. Harry smiled also; at least here was one thing that was going right. Although their chat was desultory, and George returned grunts to the questions put to him, making Angelina’s lips tighten, his gradual return to friendship with Ginny made him glad he’d come. Thus he sighed also when Ron glanced at the clock and grimaced. “Ngh. Gotta re-open.” “I’d better get going too,” he admitted. “Got a few loose ends to tie up.” Hermione rose and vanished her plate. “Me too. Harry, drop by the office okay? Remember that spell we were working on?” Her eyes lit up. “I think I’ve done it!”Harry gaped at her for one long, stunned moment. “Brilliant,” he breathed. He scrambled to his feet and shrugged back into his Auror robe, making quick work of the buttons and belt. “I’ll meet you there.” He turned to the group at large. “Bye all! Gin, keep in touch. I expect you to win every match.”She gave a smart salute as Ron reached over to slap him on the back and Angelina edged out a pallid smile.“No macking onto my wife,” Ron warned.“Shan’t make promises,” Harry returned with a grin. He gave a final wave, exhorted Hermione to hurry with his eyes, then Apparated straight to her office.He hadn’t too long to wait before Hermione appeared, smoothed her hair down, and then broke into a dance. “I am so clever!” she crowed cheerfully. “I’ve been dying to tell you, all through lunch.”“You are.” He grabbed her arms and smooched her cheek. “Just let me message Malfoy; he’d love to be part of this.” He flicked his wand with a joyful Expecto Patronum, and his stag flared out, bucking and prancing. “Hermione’s finished the tracking spell, and we’re waiting for you at her office.” The stag bounded away. His friend gave him a very speaking glance, and he turned away. “Has he found out what you did?”“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him since it happened.” He cleared his throat and noticed the preserved specimen she’d discarded on her desk. “So how did you manage this?”Her eyes brightened. “Well, actually, I modified the Investigo Exuviae spell. I had a talk with Malfoy, and linked the spell to a few specific genes of the sample, using Contineo Corpus Corporis. Like this.” She demonstrated the wand movement. “Investigo Exuviae Contineo Corpus Corporis.” She tapped her wand to the sample, and it glowed. “I can feel it working.” She glowed with pride. “Finite Incantatem. But I’ll wait till Malfoy gets here.”A knock came at the door, and his heart quickened. “Come in.”As expected, Draco entered, and although he was as well-groomed as always, he appeared subdued and his eyes were watchful. Do you know? Of course you do, damn you, could be read plainly from his eyes. “Potter. Granger.” Draco inclined his head as he removed a long black and white tartan scarf. “Malfoy.” He decided to say nothing. “I hope it isn’t a bad time?” “Not at all.” Draco let his head tilt. “I was just having a late lunch with Blaise. Celebrating my narrow escape from unfortunate incarceration,” he explained with a sour smile. “I’m sure you both know all about it, in lurid detail.” He gritted his teeth against the feeling of being sucker punched and cleared his throat. “Oh. Right. Yeah.” For one wild moment, he wanted to tell Draco to piss off, that he wasn’t necessary. That his ability to celebrate with Zabini was due to him, and he’d better fucking remember it and be grateful. But to expose himself like that…no. Just no. Draco’s gaze sharpened, his lids narrowed. “Nothing to say?”He shrugged. “Do you need me to tell you what a stupid twat you were? Why didn’t you cast Obliviate?”“Harry!” Hermione gasped.“What?” He spread out his hands. “I’m not saying it’s right, but you can’t tell me he doesn’t know how to do it.”Draco flushed, flicked a glance at Hermione, stared at the ground and mumbled. It sounded a lot like “…I panicked, all right?” Harry didn’t press him to speak up. “Malfoy,” Hermione broke in, her expression uncertain, “I’m in the middle of drafting a proposal to introduce legislation that will protect intellectual property rights. It might take some time, but once it has passed, you could think about prosecuting him.”Draco started, looked nonplussed and then distinctly chagrined. “You what? I…” Harry reined in a snicker. Served the git right; to be indebted to someone he’d so often sneered at.“…Thank you, Granger,” Draco finally replied. “I’ll think about it. Decent of you.”“It was Harry’s idea,” his friend demurred. Harry scowled at her and tried to frown her silent. She ignored this. “So you should thank him.”Draco turned to stare at him, his face softened, then turned considering. “Potter,” was all he said. Thank god. “Anyway, let’s get going, all right?” Harry shoved his hands in his pockets and turned to Hermione. “Ready?” At her nod, he continued, “I’d like for Hermione to cast the spell, and for us two to side-along Apparate with her. I don’t anticipate danger, but it’s best for us to stick together, just in case.”“Yes, Auror Potter.” He flushed and sent a dark look to Draco, who simpered at him. Twat. “Right. Herm?” Hermione looked between them with poorly hidden amusement and offered her arm. He took it, but instead of also taking her arm, Draco stepped close and grabbed hold of his. Beach. Treacle tart. Tingling, liquid tug in his groin. Bloody hell. Zabini. Get a grip. “…Ready when you are, Herm.”She nodded and repeated the incantation. Harry sucked in a breath as they Apparated.
* * *The moment he regained his sense of self, he had his wand out. He felt Draco appear beside him, mirroring his pose, backing up against him to cover behind him. He resisted the temptation to press back and smiled to himself. It seemed Draco was indulging in an Auror fantasy. It would be nice if they could have a minor confrontation, just to give him a safe thrill. And then, maybe Malfoy could get captured, and tied down to a chair, and I could rescue him, and he could have been force-fed a lust potion, and he’d be all hazy-eyed and his lips would be all wet and parted, and he’d be writhing and straining, and I’d try to free him, but he’d be crying and pleading and first I’d have to open his trousers and-“…Harry? Oi, Harry!”He started and turned to find Hermione’s hands on her hips. His best mate, who had been strangely absent from his little fantasy. “Oh…uh, it looks like it’s all clear,” he mumbled, clearing his throat. He waved his wand around and hoped it looked full of import. “I don’t sense any magical signature.”Hermione gave him a sceptical glance, he faked innocence and examined the structure in front of them as Draco crunched over gravel to stand by his side. They were in front of one of many similar warehouses, in the seedier part of Diagon Alley, not far from his nightly stakeouts. He jabbed his wand and muttered the correct spell. “No, it’s empty,” he confirmed. He skirted the area, wand out, enunciating all the standard spells, and a few little extras of his own. “No traps or tricks that I can sense. Still, be on guard. Let me go first.”He opened the door. The warehouse was small, and consisted of one room packed with metal shelving and trolleys, all carrying an abundance of plants. When he raised his head, he noted a neat system of copper pipes, tubes and spigots. The roof consisted of windows, allowing the morning sunlight in. His brows rose. “…A greenhouse?”“How strange.” Hermione had her wand out; following a trail he couldn’t see. “Illegal plant distribution?” she asked.“Possibly.” Draco snorted. “I don’t see a single illegal plant. It looks like Herbology class. Why all the Astrum Pratense?”Harry frowned as Hermione stopped at the back of the greenhouse. “I think the body was here. It’s gone now, though.”He bit back an exclamation of annoyance and held out his hand. “Let’s try the spell again. Maybe it’ll take us further.”Hermione took his hand, and once more, Draco gripped tightly to his upper arm. He listened to Hermione repeat the spell, and sucked in a breath as they jumped into their second apparition.
* * *Harry stumbled onto dry grass and twigs, and looked around. They were in a forest. He frowned as Hermione joined him. “Does this look familiar to you?” She bit her lip as her gaze travelled. “…It does look a bit like…” she trailed off.He sighed. “Yeah, I thought so, too.”Draco gave them a curious look. “Been here before?”Harry looked at Hermione, who gave him a speaking look. She was remembering, too, all the discomfort of that time, the hopelessness, the sadness. But maybe she also thought of dancing. He gave her a small, encouraging smile, which she returned. “…Maybe.”The inquisitive look on Draco’s face sharpened. “…Oh?” He glanced between them, a speculative, and dare he say it, displeased tilt to his mouth. Harry liked to think it was jealousy, though more likely Draco just didn’t like to be excluded, rendered unimportant.Hermione turned away to let her wand guide her forward, until they came upon a seven-by-two foot area of turned earth. All three stared at it. Harry shook his head. “…Someone buried him?”She shrugged. “…I guess so. Should we…you know…have a look?”He winced. “I suppose we ought to. For all we know, the body was marked, or mutilated, or something.”“I don’t know, Harry,” Hermione sighed. “What would be the point?”“Beats me. But I should be thorough. Stand back.” They did so, and he pointed his wand. “Reducto!”A mound of earth shot into the air and scattered like volcanic ash. He heard both his companions cry out in disgust as the dirt rained down on them. He snuck a glance behind him. Hermione was shaking herself out, Draco brushing at his clothes and hair. “…Sorry,” he muttered.“Fucking twat,” Draco growled.“Sorry again,” he returned insincerely. He turned back to the task at hand. A plain coffin lay resting. He pointed his wand at a corner and eased it downwards, whispering. The lid glowed and turned transparent. Beside him, he could hear Draco suck in a quiet breath. “Nice work, Potter.”He shrugged. “Seems a shame to disturb it more than necessary. He glanced down. The body had further decayed. “Ugh. Not a pretty sight,” he mumbled. “I don’t think it’s been tampered with, but at this stage, it’s hard to say.” Draco looked pinched, but said nothing. Perhaps he’d seen worse, during those untenable months under Voldemort’s feet. Hermione stood by him, but said nothing. “How strange,” he murmured. “That someone stole the body, only to bury it. Why?”Draco shrugged. “Perhaps this person overestimated the detective abilities of the Auror division. No disrespect intended.”He let it pass. “Perhaps.” He turned to Hermione. “Herm, I’d like you to make inquiries as to who owns that warehouse or who it’s leased to. I’d do it myself, but then I’d have to go through official channels. If you do it informally, it would be faster.”His friend nodded. “I can do that, Harry.”“Incidentally, I still need to interrogate Carmichael,” Harry added thoughtfully. “I had permission from Kingsley this morning, I might do that tomorrow.” He almost turned to Draco to share a meaningful smirk of revenge anticipated, but managed to stop just in time. Instead, he lifted his wand. “Herm, you can get going, if you like. I’ll just set this to rights, there’s no need to stay.” She scrunched her nose up. “I won’t deny I’d kill for a shower right now.” She gathered herself together. “I’ll get onto this first thing in the morning.”“Thanks, Herm. Remember to keep this quiet. Not even Ron.”She gave another nod. “I understand. I won’t tell anyone. Bye Harry. Bye, Malfoy.”Draco inclined his head. “Granger.”She Apparated away. Harry turned and concentrated on shifting dirt back into place. “Malfoy, thanks for your help,” he offered. “I guess there’s nothing more to be done here.”Draco walked up to stand beside him, and helped him pack the dirt down, flicking his wand in graceful arcs. He had lovely hands; thin, with flared knuckles, and neat nails. “I appreciate the inclusion,” he replied. “Are you heading back to your office?”“Yes,” he sighed. “I promised Kingsley I’d file a private report for him. It’ll only take an hour or so, but I have to admit I wouldn’t mind a shower myself.”“Which is greatly needed for both of us.” Draco shot him a glare. “Prat.”He scratched at the back of his head. “Yeah, sorry ‘bout that.” He heaved a sigh. “Well, I’m off for that report writing and shower. Got a long, boring night ahead of me. Bye, Malfoy.”Draco gave a nod. “Potter.” He gave him a once-over. “You need some rest, Potter.” He Apparated away. Harry stared at the spot he’d vacated for a moment while absent-mindedly giving the earth a pat-down with his shoe, then spent a moment staring at the primitive grave. He flicked his wand, and a flowering wreath shimmered into being. He levitated a nice, smooth rock, placed it down to act as a headstone, and then shifted the wreath into place. As far as resting places went, he’d seen worse.
* * * Harry ducked into the Auror gym for a quick shower and change into clean clothes, then spent an hour at his desk finishing off the report to his, if not Kingsley’s, satisfaction. He sealed it and cleaned up his desk. A scarf was draped over the guest chair. He picked it up, brows creased. A scent teased at him, and he sniffed it. Treacle, seawater and something else…something private, something purely Draco. He clutched it tight and stared. …Malfoy might miss it. Perhaps it had sentimental value, or was hideously expensive. Malfoy was sure to appreciate him taking the time to drop it off at his flat. And if he happened to be showering, he could just…drop it off quietly.He grinned derisively as he pushed his report into Kingsley’s pigeonhole and made his way over to the apparition point. And he was just going to sneak away and not take a peak right? Yeah, right.
* * *Mugsley wasn’t around again, which was bloody convenient, if surprising. Still, he’d got the impression the house elf was old and odd, well, even more so than usual, so perhaps Draco had pensioned him off back to Malfoy manor and hadn’t got around to getting a new one. Harry cleared his throat and crept forward into the flat. “…Malfoy?”Oh, come on. Louder. Be fair. “Malfoy? Are you here?”The flat was quiet, perhaps he had been and gone. Maybe to the Manor. Or out on a date with Astoria. Or Zabini. He ignored the churning in his belly and flicked his wand. “Homenum Revelio.” Draco was there, in his bedroom. Alone, thank god. The churning twitched and turned and fluttered. “Malfoy?”The bedroom door was ajar. With a sense of fatalism, he approached. “…Malfoy?” His voice came out squeaky and broken. He cleared his throat again. “Malfoy? Are you there? Hello?” He frowned. He’d raised his voice well above what was needed; Draco should have heard him. He slid his wand out and hunched into a defensive pose. There were still those who might seek to hurt a former Death Eater, however unlikely it was that they could get through Draco’s wards. Perhaps Uberschwartz had hired thugs to extract a private revenge? No; that was ridiculous, but then; he’d been proven wrong before about what levels of idiocy people could descend to. He gently pressed the door open, his heart thumping. He stared. Then he rolled his eyes.Draco was in his room, all right; upright and perfectly hale. His back was to the doorway, he wore a tank top and running shorts, and was in the process of toeing off trainers. In his ears were Muggle earphones, and crap ones, too; he could hear tinny music blaring from them. His hair was damp with sweat, lying plastered to his forehead, cheeks, and the curled lightly against the back of his neck. Harry cast an arsenal of disillusionment and silencing charms with shaking hands, his face prickling painfully with heat. Holy hell, he was actually going to do it; deliberately spy on Draco, without his knowledge, without his consent. It was disgusting, but his shame was swamped with anticipation and knee-weakening excitement. His feet carried him inside, in a daze, to sink down onto the soft carpet and rest his back against the wall, just inside the door. Draco unclipped his iPod and tossed it on the bed, smiling to himself. His socks, singlet top and shorts came off next, he used his wand to flick them into his en suite. All that remained was a snug, soft jockstrap. Harry sucked in a quiet breath; Draco was dirty, dishevelled and sweating, and he was breathless at all the lush sensuality he displayed. It was in his voluptuous movements, how he caressed his nipples, ran his hands down his sides. How he flirted with the mirror, admiring himself, turning this way and that. He raised himself onto his toes, his arms stretched above his head, thrusting his chest out, breathing deeply. Harry drank it in, both hands cupping his groin, letting his thumbs rub in small circles over the bulge in his jeans, utterly transfixed.Sure, he occasionally flexed in front of the mirror, in doubt over his attractiveness, but his masturbation tended towards under the covers, hand straight to prick, fantasy-driven. He rarely even wanked in the shower, preferring to lie down in darkness. Watching Draco touching himself, stripping naked to tease himself, enjoying himself, was a revelation. Draco stretched his arms behind his back, let his head fall slowly back, eyes fixed on the mirror. He watched hungrily as Draco moved into a slow lunge, the way he’d done before. His whipcord muscles quivered with the strain, until he shifted down onto his knees, once again pressing his hands back to slowly thrust his groin forward. The jockstrap hid him, but it was damp and clingy with sweat, it looked warm and inviting, and Harry wanted to nuzzle his face into it and breathe in the scent. He remembered what came next. His prick’s throbbing intensified. God. Do it. Please. But Draco turned till his back was to the door, stood, hooked his thumbs under the elastic of the jock strap and bent over, slipping off the strap and revealing his pucker and bollocks. Harry stifled a groan and feasted his eyes, imagining pressing his tongue there and licking. Draco wouldn’t be nearly so in control then; he’d squeal and shake and plead. Draco turned back to the mirror, and he was finally able to see his prick. It was like him; slender and long, and slightly curved. As Harry stared at it, he absently tongued his index finger, licked it, sucked on it, imagining it was Draco’s prick as he watched it jerk, watched those long fingers come down to press hard at the base. Draco was practically hyperventilating. His hand flew out to grab his wand. “Accio lube, Accio vibrator,” he rasped. The objects slid out from the bedside table into his hands.Oh god. Harry thought his heart was going to beat out of his chest as Draco fumbled with the lid, squeezed a generous glob of lubricant out and smoothed it over the vibrator with shaking hands. Harry whimpered and scrabbled for the buttons to his trousers and let his prick out to slap up wetly into his hand, grateful for the silencing charm around him. His chest heaved as Draco panted out a series of charms, his voice jerky and breathless. And then, oh then; Draco sank down into the cat-flow pose, lifted his rump high, and spread his legs. He moaned out a word, and the vibrator pushed forward, impaling him. He let out a high, reedy gasp. Harry jerked his prick fast as the vibrator plunged in and out, in and out, over and over, Draco took every thrust, his heavy-eyed gaze locked onto the mirror, letting out a tight grunt with every jerk of his rump. Harry forced his eyes to stay open as his throat jerked out a moan from past his clenched jaw as he continued to rub. There was no hope of drawing it out. His eyes widened as his climax started to build in earnest; the strength of the tension inside him was astonishing. He stuffed the fleshy part of his thumb into his mouth as his hips lifted. And then came the thundering rush of orgasm, lifting him up off the ground. He felt his head tilt back and a grimace twist his lips; he opened his mouth to scream out the tension but no sound came; he was blind, deaf and dumb as he drowned in pleasure, and then pulsed in intense contractions over his hands and legs. When he heard Draco’s panting turn into a long, helpless, gasping moan, he forced his eyes opened in time to watch Draco’s entire body spasm uncontrollably, and then ejaculate squirted out onto the carpet in long, wet pulses.They both panted. Harry sank back against the wall, and he watched Draco collapse down, remove the vibrator, and roll onto his back, still staring at the mirror. Despite his exhaustion, he smiled fondly. Damned narcissist. Draco turned his head away from the mirror, then, folding his hands on his chest and staring up at the ceiling, his face softer and gentler than he could ever remember. What fantasies were running rampant through that complex brain? He bit his lip. Maybe one day, in some unimaginable future, he would be in a position to ask Malfoy, and offer to help him act them out. Glamours, Polyjuice, whatever. It was disturbing to realize he wasn’t too proud to take a subservient role, to play-act Malfoy’s fantasy for him, to be someone else for him, but holy crap; he’d just had the most mind-blowing, spectacular orgasm – he’d never realized it could be like that – and he knew he’d do more shameful things than that to experience it again. He panted quietly, awash with sleepy lassitude, watching Draco’s chest rise and fall. So, he had to face it: He seriously fancied Malfoy. Draco. Not just because he was a fit bloke. He knew other fit blokes, and he hadn’t gone off like fireworks for them. It was the kind of want that came from your core to invade every bit of your being and you were helpless to do anything but feed it, any way you could, even though you knew you shouldn’t, even though it strangled you and made you toss and turn and ache. He bit his lip. There didn’t seem to be much he could do about it. Draco was no doubt perfectly content with Blaise Zabini, who was sure to be a skilled and sensual lover, and was getting married, for god’s sake. Harry could only invite ridicule for making a fumbling pass. He sighed and stood, using the wall to support his shaky legs. He needed to go home and have a drink, where he could ride out the inevitable shame in private. He let his eyes drift over to Draco, who had turned to sit up, facing the mirror, forearms draped across his bent knees. Harry watched perspiration trail down his temple before soaking into his damp, stringy fringe. His lips were parted, his face and chest mottled pink from exertion, the hair under his arms clumped from sweat. Never had he seen him so messy, never had he looked more desirable, down to the distant, introspective smile he wore. Harry pressed two fingers to his lips, pressed those fingers to the wall, in lieu of all he wished he could say, and crept away.
* * *“Hey, mate.”Harry jerked his head up from where it had rested (momentarily!) on top of his paperwork. Ron’s face peered around his door. “Hey, Ron.” He cleared his throat and straightened in his seat as his friend loped in to crash down on the guest chair. “All right, then?”“Fine, fine. Nothing special. You?” He laughed nervously. “Same. Nothing much.” No one knew of his evening escapade. No one ever would. “How’s land-land anyway, Harry?” Ron picked up a quill and twirled it, looking around the room. “Getting anywhere in your investigation?”“Oh, not really.” He hated lying to him, but although he knew Ron would never deliberately sabotage his investigation, he wasn’t convinced Ron didn’t try to cheer George up by regaling him with Harry’s more interesting Auror stories, George probably mentioned them to Angelina, Angelina and Katie gossiped, Katie was friends with loads of people, and…so he lied. “Not sure I ever will, honestly, but don’t tell anyone I said that.” “I thought Katie and that lot would be able to tell you something about whoever it was?”Harry stifled a wry smile. That Lot meaning Draco. Draco. His gut clenched and quivered. “Not as much as I’d hoped,” he admitted. “Malfoy said it’s a young science.” He hesitated. “…About George. I shouldn’t tell you this, but…” He lowered his voice. “I’m on a case that intends to bust a supplier of Athena’s Dream. Warn George away, yeah?”“Ah.” Ron put the quill down. “Will do.” He shrugged awkwardly. “Glad about that, actually. Gives me an excuse to bring it up without nagging him. He doesn’t like that.” He jumped to his feet. “Well, just touching base. Got to get back to the shop.” He rose. “Come to dinner tonight at the Burrow, eh mate? It’ll be all good.” He paused by the door before Harry had a chance to reply. “Oh, Herm wanted to see you. Something about a spell you two had been working on?”“Oh, yeah.” Harry stood likewise. “Yeah, right.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Auror stuff.”Ron fixed him with a mock suspicious look. “Right; Auror stuff. You’re having an affair with my wife, admit it!”“Damn it; I thought we’d been so clever about hiding it,” he deadpanned. “Piss off, Ron.”His friend chortled as he shoved his hands in his pockets and fell into step beside him until they reached the Ministry lifts. “Well, here’s where we part. See you tonight, yeah?”“Yeah, okay.” He slapped Ron’s shoulder and took a different lift to Hermione’s office. When he knocked on her door and heard her call to enter, he found her sorting through some scrolls with a listless air. She smiled mechanically at him and gestured to the chair.“Hi Harry. Have a seat.”“Herm? Everything all right?” He started as she grabbed her wand and cast Mudflat. He straightened his chair. “Herm?”“The warehouse.” Hermione rubbed at her eyes wearily. “I suppose it makes sense, but it’s just so strange. It’s rented by Neville.”“Neville?” he blurted. A cold sting of shock seemed to paralyze his brain. “I mean, sure Neville renting a greenhouse isn’t a surprise, but Neville?” He gave himself a shake. “I don’t believe it. This is a coincidence. There’s no way Neville could be responsible for what happened.” He snorted and rubbed at his forehead. The damned eternal ache. He’d known it would happen, but it still drove him mad. “Even if he was, I could more easily imagine Neville pulling me aside and admitting what he’d done, and asking for help, not trying to hide it. Or that someone else who knew about his greenhouse broke in and—“ He paused.“Harry?” Hermione urged.“…Luna would have known about it,” he said slowly. “She said she’d been with Neville that night, but…” His hands gripped the front of his trousers. “I want to talk to him.” He rose. “Luna might be allergic to Veritaserum, but Neville isn’t.” She nodded and stood. “That might be for the best, Harry. I’m sure it can’t be him. I’ll just disappear to the ladies’ for a minute while you contact Malfoy.” Oh god. Malfoy. How could he look him in the face? Hermione’s brows rose. Sometimes he wished his bloody face wasn’t so expressive. “…You don’t want to contact him?” She didn’t bother to hide her surprise. “No, I will, I guess, I um…” He shrugged. “Go on.” She sent him a suspicious look and left. He slapped a hand to his forehead. He’d have to face Malfoy some time, and since never seemed brilliant but unrealistic; better to do it now, when he could make it all about the investigation. He sucked in a fortifying breath. “Expecto Patronum.”
* * *“I had my doubts about Luna.” Draco tapped his wand against his chin as they walked down the corridor that led to Neville’s office. “Oh?” Harry let his eyes rest on the painting nearby and hoped he was a better actor than he feared. Their actual meeting had been all right; he hadn’t stammered too much, and Draco, in his crisp uniform, had been business as usual. As long as he didn’t look him in the eye (or look at him at all) he could pretend he hadn’t been a disgusting, lurid voyeur who’d spied on his private moments. He ignored a deep, wrenching flutter in his groin. “Yes. You must have noticed how unstable she’s been.” The note in Draco’s voice made his gaze drag over. Draco’s lip lifted, and trembled a little. “I know she’s always been barking, but even more so since…since the war. I blame…” he swallowed. Harry knew they were both thinking of Malfoy Manor. “Potter, it wouldn’t be right if she was punished. Aunt Bellatrix was…” Draco swallowed again, but the words seemed to choke him. “So while I’d normally heap well-deserved scorn on you for playing favourites, I will turn a blind eye, just this once.”“I know.” Harry stared back at the ground, and then forced himself to raise his eyes. “I’m not quite the Ministry stooge you seem to think.”Draco looked thoughtful. “Maybe not.”“Do you think she was trying to bring back her mum? Or dad?” Hermione asked. She bit her lip. “She must be lonely.” Harry turned to his friend and blinked. “…Really?” He felt a pang of guilt as he remembered all those photos and pictures in her room, when they’d visited her dad. How many times had he rolled his eyes fondly and thought; “well, that’s Luna!” at her harmless, if sometimes awkward, oddities. It hadn’t occurred to him that she might not be happy. He bowed his head. He was crap at this sort of relationship stuff; crap. “…But she has Neville, right?”“Well…” Hermione shrugged. “If you consider having a housemate someone.”“They’re not together?” Harry blinked. “I thought…”“Oh no, just house sharing. Neville spends the weekdays here at Hogwarts, of course, but he likes having a place to go home to on the weekends. He’s recently started dating Hannah Abbott.” It didn’t make him feel better to realize that Hermione took it for granted that he didn’t know. Was he really that famous for being an oblivious arse? “Here we are.” She lifted a hand to knock on the door, then stood back, flicking him a sheepish glance. “Sorry, Harry. You’re the Auror here.”He gave her a teasing grin. “Yeah, thanks Herm.” He gave a brisk knock. “Neville?” he called.The door swung open, revealing Neville alone, sitting at his desk, awash in scrolls and parchment. The other desk was empty. “Hi Nev,” Harry greeted. “Got a minute?”His friend nodded, glancing at them all in turn. His eyes widened a little on sighting Draco, but he made no comment about it. “Sure, Harry. It’s good to see you. You too, Hermione.” He gave a slightly nervous nod. “…Malfoy.” Draco nodded in turn.“It’s been too long.” Harry stared at a nearby plant. It smelled of raspberry and mint. “Oh, is this your new mint? Can I try some?”Neville beamed. “Yeah, sure.” Harry broke off a few leaves and nibbled on them. “Mm. Luna was right. Nev, we need to break this in with some vodka,” he mumbled. “It’s great.”“Ha. Ron said the same thing when he dropped by a few days ago.”Hermione’s brow rose. “Oh. He didn’t tell me.”“Oh well, it was just a quick visit; his mum had asked him to come and talk about the flowers for the…” he trailed off and snuck an awkward, apologetic glance to Harry. “…Well, but never mind about that.”Beside him, Draco stifled a snicker and he felt his cheeks grow warm. “Yeah, never mind, Nev. Professor Sprout out teaching class?” Neville nodded. Good. They could have this conversation in private. “Got stuck with marking assignments?” He plonked his rump down on a seat and winced at how fake and hearty his voice sounded. “Yeah. Pomona says it’s a really useful way of learning how to teach. You become familiar with the common mistakes and questions. I don’t mind.” He shoved a scroll to the side and looked at all three of them. “What’s up, Harry?” he asked simply.He took a moment to settle himself. “Actually, I wanted to ask you some questions relating to an investigation I’m conducting.” He sucked in a breath. “I’d also like your permission to use Veritaserum.”Neville’s eyes widened, but he didn’t appear unduly disturbed. “Well…of course, if you need to.” “Thanks, Nev.” Draco silently handed over the bottle of Veritaserum, and he flushed and winced as their fingers tangled. His hands weren’t quite steady as he administered the drug, but no one commented. He sighed.“Okay, Nev. While we wait for the Veritaserum to take effect, I’ll just let you know that I have some routine questions about the body that Apparated into the Weasleys’ kitchen that night.” He smiled wryly. “I know you’ve heard it was stolen from the Ministry.” Neville looked uncomfortable, and he wondered if Neville was remembering the comments he’d made to Luna about his situation with Ginny. “Er, well, yes,” he admitted apologetically.He nodded. “Okay. What do you know about the disappearance of the cadaver from the Ministry Auror storage room number four, on the second of October, last Thursday, between the hours of six pm and seven in the morning?”“Sod all,” Neville replied.“Where were you that night?” “At home.”“Alone?”“No, Luna was there.”He hesitated, distantly aware of Draco and Hermione shifting in their seats, doubtless as surprised as he. “Oh. All night?”“Yes, as far as I’m aware. She went to bed around eleven, I think, and I went to bed around one in the morning. I don’t think she ever left the house. I didn’t.”“Ah. Do you know who stole the cadaver?” “No.”“Right.” He tried not to show how surprised he was. “Are you currently renting the greenhouse at number thirty four, Cooper Avenue?”“Yes.”“We have reason to believe that the cadaver was taken to that location. Do you know who did so?”Neville’s eyes widened. “Was it? No! I had no idea.”“Has anyone asked you to let them store anything at that greenhouse?”“No. Well, except Ron asking if his mum could store the Astrum Pratense there. Only it turned out we didn’t need to.”Harry joined Neville in smiling weakly. “…Er, right. Who has access to the key?”“Er…” His friend looked guilty. “I leave it on a hook just inside the door,” he admitted. “I’m afraid anyone could have taken it: I barely notice if it’s there or not.”He bit down an aggravated sigh. It was hardly Nev’s fault for not anticipating the circumstances. “Well, if you do hear of anything, let me know, yeah?” Neville nodded. “Of course, Harry.”He rose to his feet. Beside him, Hermione and Draco did likewise. “Better let you get back to it,” he finished awkwardly. “Thanks, Nev.”Draco nodded. “Longbottom.” Hermione gave Neville a smile. “Coming to the Burrow Friday for dinner? Make sure Luna comes, this time.”Neville grinned and gave a thumbs-up. When the door closed, Draco grimaced. “I can’t believe I’m wrong.”“I’m glad you are.”Hermione shrugged as they walked down the Hogwarts halls. “Well, I guess I’d better get back to work, I have a meeting soon.” She gave him a helpless little smile. “I really don’t envy you this one, Harry.” He gave her a feeble grin as they moved to the nearest floo. “Me too.” She gave him a sympathetic smile as she grabbed floo powder. “See you Friday?” At his nod, she reached forward to squeeze his shoulder. “Department of Charm-work and Spell Innovation!” She was soon gone.“Cheer up, Potter.”Harry turned from his blank stare of the floo to find Draco at his elbow, his smile only hinting at sarcasm. “It might be Carmichael after all.”He grimaced as he grabbed floo powder. “If only.”“Go to my office, Potter. I’ll be right behind you. I’ve got something to show you.”A shockingly lurid picture slammed into mind before Harry slapped it down and nodded. “Sure. WIFGER .”When he stumbled into the reception area and dusted himself off, he noticed Veronica at the office desk. She did not look pleased to see him.“Mr Potter,” she intoned stiffly. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”He stifled down a sigh. Auror trainers liked to scare new recruits by laying on thick the danger, the tedium of stakeouts, the hours spent in rain and mud, the paperwork, but no one thought to mention how depressing it was to have interviewees under Veritaserum, who you’d previously had mutual liking and respect for, grow to hate you for exposing their incidental secrets. “I’m here with Mr Malfoy. He’ll be here-”Draco stepped out from the floo, brushing at his sleeves. “Mrs Weldon.” They both eyed each other with wariness. “I’ll take it from here.” She gave a brisk nod and turned back to her work as Draco strode on ahead. Harry spared a regretful glance backwards as he followed Draco to his lab. When they entered, he found Katie at her desk, repeatedly stabbing her wand at her computer screen.“Die, die--” She broke off as Harry grinned at her. She put her wand down and managed a sheepish grin in return. “Hi, Harry. Draco.”Draco moved over to his own desk and unlocked the bottom drawer with a series of spells. “Not working out?”Katie huffed out a sigh. “No. I thought I was getting somewhere, but…”“Keep on it. I think your idea was sound.”Katie flashed her co-worker a grateful glance and stood. “Maybe if I take a coffee break it’ll clear my head.” She grabbed her bag and gave them both a nod. “Back in fifteen.” Harry turned to watch her go. Once the door had closed, he cocked an eyebrow at his companion. “Getting on all right, then?”Draco shrugged. “We had a talk over a few drinks. She’s sorry, I’m sorry…” He shrugged again. “What can you do? We’re dealing and moving on.” He retrieved a box from his desk. Harry could feel the magic glowing from it. He was so curious he almost missed Draco’s next words. “I heard about your break up with Femme Weasley, by the way. Etiquette demands I express how sorry I am, but a cataclysmic lie of that scale sticks even in my throat.”His heart rate picked up. “…You’re not sorry?”Draco flashed him a sardonic glance. “Come on, Potter. You two didn’t suit. See? I can be polite. When what I really mean is; she’s a knut-sniffing princess with delusions of grandeur, and you deserve better.”“She is not!” he protested hotly. He bridled at Draco’s obvious amusement. “Okay, so she is a tiny bit of a princess at times, but so what? No one’s perfect. She’s also pretty, and fun, and a brilliant Seeker, and she’s nice. I sure as hell treated her like crap, so I don’t deserve better. I just…”“Want something different. Or someone.”Harry paused. “…Yeah.” His face heated, and he casually turned away. “Perfectly understandable, Potter,” Draco returned briskly. He opened the box with a few decisive flicks of his wand. Harry stared at the glass tubing inside. “What’s all this?” Draco stared intently at him. His face looked suddenly serious. “I know it was you.”Harry started. Fuck! Malfoy knew! How the hell had he found out? His charm work was faultless! He’d been so sure Malfoy had never known he was there. How could he ever hold his head up again? “...You know?” he squeaked. Draco stared at him, a strange expression twisting his lip. “…Did you think I wouldn’t find out?”“…I…I didn’t mean…” he stuttered. “…I can’t even explain, I…”It was Draco’s turn to look surprised. Then he smiled and held up a hand. “Potter…stop. You saved me. Again.” His mouth twisted a little. “And okay, sure; I wasn’t thrilled at first. No one likes to be in need of repeated rescue, especially by one’s school rival.” He grinned sardonically. “And we weren’t just any school rivals, were we, Potter?” Harry huffed out a little laugh. “No, I guess not.”“But rescue me you did,” Draco continued. His eyes softened. “…You amaze me, Potter.”Harry let the tremendous wave of numb relief wash over him. Draco was talking about the break-in. Thank Merlin. “Oh, ah…” he mumbled. “It was nothing. I mean, it wasn’t nothing, because that was just stupid, Malfoy. But I don’t blame you, really I don’t. It wasn’t right that you felt you had to do that. And...” He sighed. “I guess I can’t blame you for not going to the Aurors about it.” “The Aurors.” Draco rolled his eyes. “Go to the Aurors. Oh, please. Oh, of course we believe you, Mr Malfoy,” he mimicked. “We’ll go right over and arrest a respected member of the community on your Death-Eater say-so.”“And you included me in that assessment?” he asked evenly. He didn’t think so, but he wanted to hear it said.Draco stared at him for a moment, and sighed. “Look, Potter. I know you’d try. Hell; you didn’t just try, you did. But you had enough on your plate already, and I didn’t want to be the one to add more.”Harry flushed and bridled. “I’m doing fine, Malfoy. I can hold my own.”“Yes, but not everyone else’s as well,” Draco retorted. He put his hands back down on the box he’d opened before. “In any case, I wanted something that would show you just how much I appreciate what you did.”Harry found he couldn’t break the gaze. “…What?”Draco’s eyes lit up. “I isolated the genes you need for the Animagus ability. You might recall, I mentioned that for it to manifest, four genes are involved, and you need the right variant of each four genes from both parents. Your father had all the right gene variants, but your mother didn’t. This meant you didn’t have enough of the right variant of gene to manage the transformation. However, I’ve introduced your father’s genes into a vector, or an attenuated virus, and what I think will happen is that if you are willing, I will inject this into you, and the virus will take over, slotting an extra copy of your father’s talent into your DNA, you could say. That way, you ought to have enough of the right variant genes expressing the magic to manage the transformation.” Draco broke off and sighed. “…You didn’t understand any of that, did you.”“A bit!” he protested. “But I haven’t spent the last four or five years studying it, so less of the superiority, git.” He bit at his lower lip. “…But…that’s it? Inject this, and I could…” his throat clogged up. “It would take some time; I’m not sure how long,” Draco continued eagerly. “And you’d have to practice, of course. I couldn’t guarantee anything, but…”Harry forced himself to stop staring at the box and look at Draco. His arm rose. He offered the inside of his wrist. He could hear himself panting. He was so excited his groin tingled and felt full and heavy. “Go on,” he whispered shakily. “Go on.”Draco also breathed heavily, his hands unsteady as he fiddled around doing god only knew what. “Did it feel like this for you?” he asked, his voice uneven.“I was worse.” Draco laughed breathlessly. “I had to have a few stiff drinks to stop my hands shaking.”Harry’s arm lowered. Merlin, what am I doing? He could die. But there was something half-formed inside of him, calling to him, begging to be let free. And for better or worse, he’d always been marked as different, special. Made for this. “Hurry, just…”Draco approached him, syringe in hand. “Now, are you sure?”“Yes, yes,” Harry blurted. “I’ve thought about it all the time since you first mentioned it. I’m ready. I am.”Draco lifted the syringe to his skin and paused. His thumb rested on the plunger. Harry thought his heart was going to burst out of his chest.“Just get it over with!” he cried out. “I can’t just…” Draco’s lips quivered. He sucked in a sharp breath and pulled away. “I’m sorry, I…”“Malfoy!” he howled. “What are you doing? Just do it!”“I can’t! I’m sorry!” Draco stumbled back and shivered as his hands, trembling badly, clattered the syringe onto the nearby lab table. “I want to, but I can’t risk it. I just…” He ran a hand over his face.“Oh come on! You did it on yourself!” Harry reminded desperately. “But that was only risking me,” Draco retorted. “And back then I had no idea it was possible that something could go hideously wrong. But now I do know, and I find I can’t risk it. I just can’t.”“Then let me do it.” Harry made a grab for the syringe only to have Draco’s wand whip out to vanish it. “Malfoy! You fucking vindictive prick tease!” he howled, banging his fist on the table. “How could you be so cruel? How could you get my hopes up and dangle it and…” he buried his face in his hands and heaved in a breath teetering on a sob.“I know, I’m sorry,” Draco gritted out harshly. “I meant to go through with it. I did. But I can’t risk you like that. Okay? I thought I could, I convinced myself you couldn’t die, but now all I can see is you going down the same path as that man, and it’ll have been my entire fault.”Harry sucked in a long, steadying breath. “No one would blame you,” he replied, trying to be gentle.“Oh, yes they would,” Draco riposted with a snort. “They’d revel in it! I’d be in Azkaban before I could blink. Anyway, that’s not the point.” He turned away. “I know you’re mad. It’s understandable,” he said with an assumption of calm. “It wasn’t fair for me to be a…prick tease.” His mouth twisted up, then. “Go back to work. Or go home. Sleep it off. And I’ll work on a way to ensure that I can give it to you without fear of anything going wrong. It’s not the end, Potter.”But it felt like it. Something inside him scrabbled, howling in disappointment. Draco smiled then, looking both sad and almost affectionate.“Oh, Potter,” he murmured. “Your big, mournful eyes are breaking my heart. Piss off and come back tomorrow. We’ll talk about it then.”Harry had to laugh then, even if it was just a huff that barely made it past his chest. “…Right. I’ll do that.”He paused at the door to find Draco slumped in his chair, staring at his desk. He wasn’t sure what he was feeling; anger, bitter disappointment, longing. Maybe Draco was right; he needed time away to calm down.
* * *He almost thought of going home, but there were a few reports to finish off for Kingsley, and it served to fill up the remaining hours before he was expected to go on surveillance duty with Carmichael. Once in his office, he crashed down into his seat and finished the reports, scribbling furiously and slapping them aside once done. His writing was even more atrocious than usual; he was forced to charm each one into legibility at the end; thank god for Hermione drilling the spell into him. By the time all his odds and ends were accounted for, he was weary and felt sore all over, right to the marrow. The reports wavered in front of him, and grew a ghostly double. He blinked and rubbed at his eyes until the two piles joined into one again.To have been so close, so close, only to have Draco lower the syringe at the last moment. It felt a lot like Draco lowering his wand on the Astronomy tower. He’d thought it just cowardice at first, and that might have been part of it, but there were nobler reasons too; Draco hadn’t wanted to kill.He breathed in and out, slowly. Even now, Draco hesitated from hurting him. A warm flicker ignited in his heart. He’d gladly risk himself, but not Harry. Sure, it was galling that something so precious had been dangled and snatched away, but knowing it was because Draco couldn’t bring himself to risk hurting him was…well. He grinned to himself, helpless to stop the tingling excitement in his belly and groin. It was brilliant.And maybe…maybe Draco was right. Maybe he had been too hasty. Maybe all the society fanfare and hoopla about the Chosen One had gone to his head. Because he wasn’t invincible and dying once for a meaningful cause was no protection from dying again, with no meaning at all. Sirius, after suffering unfairly and losing so much, had deserved more than anyone to have his happy ending. He hadn’t had it.The door opened without ceremony and Carmichael leaned in the doorway. “I’m heading off now,” he reported. “Make sure to turn up within half an hour.” He closed the door before Harry could do more than open his mouth. Motherfucker. How dare he act as if he were boss? Make demands of him? What sacrifices or struggles had Carmichael ever faced to presume to talk down to him? He whipped his wand out and jabbed it towards the other desk. “Confringo!” he spat. The entire desk burst into flames and slowly disintegrated. He muttered the counter spell, then slapped his wand down on the table and buried his face in his hands, breathing heavily. A vein throbbed unpleasantly in his cheek, and the pounding in his head worsened. He was going to catch hell for destroying Carmichael’s desk, and it only made him angrier. And the worst thing was, he realized wearily, was that he was going to do as he was told. Because it was getting dark and he couldn’t risk not being there if bloody Mulciber did show up.He dragged to his feet, straightened his robe, and sucked in a few calming breaths. He’d faced worse. By the time he’d made it to Knockturn Alley, he was master of himself to the point where he could give the stray dog trotting around the Apothecary’s perimeter a slight toss of his head before concealing himself at his usual vantage point, in a dank adjacent alley across the main alleyway behind the Apothecary. Carmichael trotted into his alley, switched back to human and set up some privacy charms. “Nothing as yet,” he reported. “But Cole-Porter seems jumpy; and he’s later closing up than usual.”Harry nodded and forced his voice into civility. “This might be it, then. Be nice to get it done, yeah?”Even in the dim light he could see Carmichael look surprised. He felt bad. Maybe they’d both got the wrong end of the stick and had run with it way too long. Maybe they should…well, talk or something. “Yeah.” Carmichael gave a diffident little shrug. “You’re looking about as shit as I feel.” He gave a small smile. “I’m going to insist on a fortnight’s sleep in the Maldives after this, don’t know about you.”Harry nodded. “Sounds good to me.”Carmichael paused, then gave a nod, transformed again, and headed out. Yeah; they really should have a chat and a pint sometime, and clear the air a bit. They probably wouldn’t ever be best mates, but maybe it was simply that Carmichael was as shit as him at dealing with people effectively.Fuck, it was cold. He settled in to wait, making sure to tense and release his muscles at intervals to ward off stiffness. The crates, broom and tarpaulin nearby did the hazy double-up that he’d grown to expect and his headache hadn’t lessened any. Carmichael was right; if Mulciber didn’t show soon, or he didn’t miraculously solve the mystery man puzzle, they were both going to fall apart. And he’d get chewed out for not looking after himself. He rubbed at his temples. Inevitably, his mind drifted back to Draco, holding hope in his hands, and then the aching emptiness. And yet, it wasn’t as all-consuming as it had been; Draco was still there, and somehow that made the disappointment less. Which was all kinds of wrong; thinking of Draco as some kind of constant in his life, that would be there for him, was as unlikely as it was disturbingly seductive.A rough bark broke his introspection and he tensed; that was the signal. He cast disillusionment and silencing spells and crept forward, his eyes fixed on the alleyway at back of the Apothecary. Mulciber (assuming Draco was right) would be disillusioned also, if he had any sense, but Carmichael in his Animagus form, he admitted reluctantly, would not be fooled. If Carmichael followed their plan, he’d wait till the negotiations were in full swing, then aim for Mulciber’s legs, leaving him a clear shot. A man approached, and he frowned. Although covered by a hooded cloak, he was too tall and thin to be either squat Mulciber or the round Watkins. And yet, he must have been expected, for a shorter, stockier figure shimmered into being not three feet in front of him, and approached. Mulciber. Evidently Watkins was either innocent, using a middle man as a barrier between himself and prosecution, or this was a personal drop-off for a single client. Either way; Mulciber would see some serious jail time.Harry crept forward, trusting that Mulciber would be focused on his client and lacked the intense concentration necessary to feel the almost silent hum of magic nearby. Both Mulciber and his anonymous patron looked around, wands drawn and waving in a familiar pattern, but Harry had faith in his masking abilities, no matter what Auror protocol demanded, and they both got down to business.Nearby, Carmichael approached. Not yet. Wait till they’re almost done and at their most relaxed. Carmichael trotted across the path, the taller man’s wand flicked out sharply, then dropped. He watched Mulciber glance behind and shrug before turning back. Thank Merlin, Carmichael got it right. And then his partner morphed back to his human self.“Aurors! Freeze!” he yelled. He stabbed his wand. “Stupefy!” Mulciber ducked and it missed both parties, rebounding off the wall and barely missing Carmichael. “Fuck!” Harry darted forward. “Petrificus Totalus!” But his also missed as Mulciber disillusioned himself once more and instead caused the buyer to freeze and slump to the ground. “Turn back into a dog you moron!” he yelled. But Carmichael was already doing so, and the dog launched himself towards open air. He heard a hiss and Carmichael’s jaw worked. Harry lifted his wand. “Stupefy!”It hit target. Mulciber came into view as he keeled over onto the ground. “Carmichael,” he hissed. “What the hell did you think you were doing? What about our plan?”Carmichael twisted and turned as he shot up and became human once more. “I saw an opportunity, okay?” he returned. “Your plan was all about making you the lead, as usual, and had no guarantee of working any better. We got the job done, didn’t we?”Harry sighed and lowered his wand. “Yes, but...” Oh, hell. This wasn’t the place to argue it out. He flicked his wand. “Expecto Patronum!” He was so tired that his stag looked decidedly smaller, spiky and wavering than normal, but at least it was there. “Senior Auror Li, we have apprehended Mulciber and his customer. Please bring back-up to take the suspects in for questioning.” Be damned if he was going to do it. His head was splitting and all he could think about was bed. “I’m not the first or the last Auror to miss the first shot,” Carmichael added resentfully. “I know,” he replied. “We’ve all done-”They both cut off abruptly as the buyer rose to his feet with a stagger. Harry stared, frozen in horror. He knew those boots; he knew they were one of a kind; he’d been the one to order and gift them, after all. George. Shit. He was going to kill him.Carmichael stiffened, his face eager. “Freeze!” he yelled again, raising his wand. “Aurors!”Shit, fuck, damn! George would be disorientated, slow and vulnerable and Carmichael wouldn’t miss this time, and there was no time to think. He was dimly aware that the loud rushing pop beside him wasn’t a good thing as he thrust his leg out in panic and Carmichael tripped, his Stupefy shooting wide of the mark and allowing George to escape. There was a second of stunned silence, Harry had time only to think, quite clearly; Oh shit, before it hit the proverbial fan.Carmichael scrambled to his feet, his face red and furious.“I can’t believe you-” he spluttered. “You did that deliberately, you wanker,” he screamed. His eyes were bloodshot and wild; so he, too, had been taking Absentisomnia. “Merlin’s balls, you really can’t bear to see me take the spotlight, can you? You let a criminal escape just to stop me from succeeding! You arsehole.” “Oh god, shut up,” he rasped wearily. “It’s not about winning, you idiot. You don’t understand, I had to…” He hid his face in his hands and scrubbed furiously. So much for the better working relationship he’d planned on. Fucking George. He was going to flambé his bollocks.“What the hell am I supposed to think, then?” Carmichael howled. “I can’t think of a single good reason for you to deliberately trip me. Do you think I like knowing you see me as competition? Or worse; as some sort of incompetent idiot?” His eyes slid past him and sparked.Harry turned and paled. Two junior Aurors he knew only by sight disappeared with a low pop, taking Mulciber with them. Auror Li approached, her face stiff. She turned to face Carmichael. “Good work, Junior Auror Carmichael. You can go home, just have your report on my desk by close of business tomorrow.” She gave him a brisk nod, then turned to him, her face cold.“Junior Auror Potter. If I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.”He stiffened. It was one thing to resign oneself for a thorough bollocking, it was another to endure it in public. There were two other Aurors present, for fuck’s sake, both of them looking down, but oh they were listening, all right.“That was the most disgraceful act as an Auror I have seen in a long time,” she continued remorselessly. He opened his mouth to protest, but she held up a hand. “Don’t,” she warned. “Just don’t.”“Feedback, both positive and negative, is always given in private,” he reminded angrily. “Always.” “Insisting on your rights at this point only makes you seem all the more contemptible,” she replied in a low, dangerous voice. His gut heaved. Even though his motive hadn’t been as bad as everyone was going to insist it was, he’d still let a friend escape the consequences of his actions. There was no way to defend himself without giving George away, and he couldn’t. He just couldn’t.“I cannot begin to tell you how shocked and disappointed I am in your behaviour. I didn’t believe half the stories I’d heard about your unwillingness to cooperate, but this,” she flicked a hand to Carmichael. “This is unbelievable. It goes beyond mere non-cooperation, Potter; it was cowardly.”The words hit as sharp as a blow. He physically jerked over, clutching his arms to his stomach, his entire world bleaching white as the blood drained from his head. Li drew away from him.“…will report to Head Auror Shacklebolt immediately, I really don’t think this can wait…Just disgusting…if you don’t show, you will be formally stripped of your title and….”He looked up in time to see Carmichael flash him a look of vindication mixed with pity. He Apparated away.* * *Less than an hour later, Harry found himself standing in front of Kingsley, alone, waiting for his boss to finish viewing the Pensieve memories. To give him his due, Kingsley had dismissed Li, the other junior Aurors and Carmichael, once they had given up their memories. It was small consolation when Kingsley finally emerged with a long, tired sigh. He looked at him without expression.“The memories of Senior Auror Li, and Junior Aurors Carmichael, Wozniak and Lanjar all support the view that you deliberately sabotaged Carmichael’s arrest and allowed a suspect to go free as a consequence. Do you formally deny this charge?”Harry tried to swallow, but his throat felt thick and swollen. “…No,” he croaked. “I can’t,” he added with despair. Kingsley sighed again. “Harry, I have known you for a long time. I know you well enough to know that this is completely out of character for you, and I’m willing – hoping – to believe that there is another reason, a good reason, for your behaviour.” He spread his hands and trailed off encouragingly.Harry felt his lips twist. There was no way he could betray George. Possession of Athena’s Dream was a mandatory six-month stint in Azkaban. Public sympathy for users was at an all-time low after a string of fake sob stories blaming the war for the use; even an acknowledged hero might find little support. At best, George would be forced into a private rehabilitation centre; it would fuck George up and kill Molly. She’d never forgive him for a second betrayal. At his continued silence, Kingsley slowly sat back with a wince.“All right,” he continued carefully. “I will even believe that you feel you can’t tell me what really happened for reasons that seem good to you. However, if you refuse to tell me, and refuse to provide me with a copy of your memory of the event, then…” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Harry, it gives me no joy to do this…but I have no choice but to suspend you for a period of two years for conduct unbecoming of an Auror, effective immediately.”His world bleached white and shaken again, grey crumbled towards the centre of his vision and he swayed. “Two years?” he screeched. He’d expected a suspension, but for a few months, not…this. His legs gave way and he collapsed into a chair. “Harry, this is serious. If it had been a training exercise, a small suspension may have sufficed, but this is Auror law. I can’t waive it simply because you’re the Boy Who Lived and, dare I say it, a friend.”He rubbed his hands over his face, then scrubbed at his hair. “I don’t believe this,” he barked out, his swollen throat dry. Humiliating tears trembled at his eyes. “I don’t believe it.” He found himself dragging to his feet and pacing. “It’s just unbelievable. After everything I’ve done.” Fury boiled up, twisting his stomach and tightening his throat, his chest, his mind. “I’ve busted my arse for the Ministry!” he shrieked. “I’ve fucking died! I worked twice as hard as everyone else, because I knew I had to prove everything I’d done wasn’t just a fluke, and you can bet half the Aurors here didn’t fail to let me know they thought it!” He flung his hands out. “But I didn’t complain! Oh no, not when Carmichael screwed up, making me look bad, no; I just dealt with it and kept quiet, because that’s what you do.”“And that’s part of the problem, Harry.”“What?” He realized he was still screeching and probably looked demented, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.“Harry, do you know what the most common criticism of you indicated in the Partner Feedback forms is? A lack of cooperation.” Kingsley sat back and pressed his fingers together. In that moment, Harry hated him for his assumption of calm, reasonable authority. “Every single one of your partners – admittedly in language more moderate than Carmichael’s – have stated that you always take over and expect them to follow.”“I do not-”Kingsley held up his hand, and he slumped back into the chair. Obviously, the man had made up his mind and would refuse to believe him.“All of them, Harry. Every single one.”…Fucking great. Even Michaels? Itani? Soo Kyung? When they’d worked together, laughed together, gone drinking together, they did this, behind his back, instead of bringing it up to his face, so they could sort it out between themselves? The fucking cowards.“…And believe me; I understand,” Kingsley continued. “You had a burden no child should bear. It was a burden only for you. And you bore that burden continually for seven long years. You grew used to being The Chosen One, and I realize now that you feel you have to continue to be The Chosen One. The media certainly never lets you forget it,” he added. “I suspect that deep down, you still feel it’s up to you to solve every problem around you, and you feel intolerably guilty if you give up control, because you think you’re not doing what is expected of you. And I blame myself for not addressing that. I assumed, wrongly, that you’d delight in not having to be the responsible one for a change.”“But I don’t-” he burst out. Kingsley looked at him sadly.“Harry, look at you. You’re a mess. Your eyes are blood shot, and bruised, you’ve lost…I’d say two stone…over the past few weeks, and I’m not the only person who’s noticed how strung out and irritable you’ve become. You’ve had a lot of stressors both in your professional life and private life to deal with lately. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’ve been abusing Absentisomnia.”He flushed guiltily. “I thought so. Harry; you can’t go on like this. And, frankly, I doubt my words here will change anything for you; it goes too deep. You need help.”“Well you’re the one who had me put on day shift and night shift,” he accused. “So if I’m tired and irritable, it’s your fault!”Even now, Kingsley did not lose his patience. “Harry, I expected you to suspend the investigation into the person who Apparated into the Weasleys’ house; it had a lower priority. Your inability to relinquish responsibility is clouding your judgement.” He sat back and spread his hands. “I don’t expect you to be happy with me. I fully expect you to be angry for a good long while. But I care more for your welfare than your good opinion just now, and I know you need this break. What you do with it is up to you, but I suggest you use the time to deal with everything that’s going through your head that makes you feel that relinquishing control is equal to failure. Because it isn’t. You need to learn how to be a team-member to be successful as an Auror.”“Assuming I come back,” he spat hotly.Kingsley nodded. “Assuming that, yes.” He picked up his wand. “Now, before you leave, I will have a wizard’s oath from you that you will go straight from here to a friend, and not spend the night alone.”Harry sagged; all the heat, the anger, the indignation seemed to sap away, and he wearily held up his hand. “I do solemnly swear under a wizard’s oath that I will spend the night with a friend,” he parroted obediently.Kingsley flicked his wand and a tingle ran down his body. “So witnessed and sealed. Dismissed, Harry. You can keep your insignia and uniform.”For one moment, he wanted to rip it off and hurl it at him, but that was too much, even considering his current mood. He contented himself with slamming the door shut behind him and hurling himself down the corridor. Thank god it was so late the place was deserted; in his current mood he’d A-K random observers from the strength of his glare. Well, now he had to find someone to “be with”, and then toss Peruvian Instant Darkness powder on them so he could finish having a meltdown in privacy. Ron and Hermione were the obvious targets, but oh god no. Hermione would be anxious, and her brow would crease with helpless sympathy. Then she’d want to plan with him what he ought to do for the next two years and how he could best turn this around for the good. And while he never doubted her support for a moment and was deeply grateful for it, it wasn’t the kind of help he wanted. At least, not yet. Ron was better; while he’d be uncomfortable and back slap him, and mumble about how he didn’t need the money, which was exasperating because it wasn’t about the money, he’d also refrain from planning, and ply him with alcohol. But this was assuming he could get Ron without Hermione. Besides…what was he thinking? He couldn’t tell Ron that his beloved and fragile older brother had been responsible for getting him suspended. It would tear him in two. He couldn’t put Ron through that.In the end, he Apparated to where he most wanted to go. He tapped his wand to the doorbell and waited. Mugsley opened the door, his brows beetling.“Master Harry Potter is knocking very late. Or very early,” he admonished. “Master Draco is being asleep.”He ran his hand through his hair. “Yeah, I know, I…” he paused. “He did say he would make himself available to me at my convenience,” he offered weakly. To his surprise, Mugsley nodded. “If Master Draco is saying this, then Master Harry Potter should be entering. I will tell Master Draco that Master Harry Potter is here. You will be waiting on the couch in the living room.”He did as he was bid until the house elf had vanished, then he jumped up and paced. He listened to the door open, to the elf’s voice mumbling, and then to Draco’s sleepy replies, ranging from confused, to surprised, to…intrigued? And then Draco himself was at the doorway, dressed only in those black satin pants that sat low on his hips, and even those appeared to be a concession to the proprieties. His mouth went dry. Well, fuck. Draco hadn’t even said anything and already being suspended seemed insignificant. This was either the best or worst idea he’d ever had. He endured a thorough look-over.“Potter. You look like shit.” Harry watched Draco’s bare feet press across the plush carpet before he sank down onto the opposite couch. “Fuck, Potter. If I’d known it would affect you this much, I’d never have brought it up in the first place. I’m sure being an Animagus would be great, but surely it isn’t worth all this?”He hesitated. “What? No…no, Malfoy. Actually, I’m okay about that. I’m glad you stopped.” Draco looked doubtful. “Really? You don’t look okay.”“No. I guess I just need to vent,” he admitted.Draco raised a brow. “Well, you’ve come to the right place.” He moved to the bar. “Wine? Vodka? Or would you like Scotch again? I have a Glenfidditch twenty-one-year-old single malt that never fails to appease after a particularly rancid day.”He shrugged. “Yeah, sure.” He got up and paced. He couldn’t help himself; he was bone-wrenchingly tired, his eyes were gritty as hell, he felt sick to his stomach, but he was so strung up he couldn’t keep still. Draco shoved the glass into his hand. “Knock it back, and I’ll give you another.”He did as suggested. The scotch felt wonderful burning down his throat. He thrust the glass out blindly and almost dropped it when it was handed back.“Careful there, Potter. That’s Waterford Crystal; Lismore Nouveau.”God, Draco was still such a snob about fancy things. He gave a brief smile and sipped at the scotch.“So, what up?” Draco slid his arse against the console nearby and sipped, staring at him. He opened his mouth, but the words stuck. What if Draco laughed at him? Showed triumph? He shrugged and tossed back the rest of the scotch. At least he’d have a bloody good excuse to hex someone. “I got suspended for two years,” he blurted. Well, Draco didn’t laugh; in fact he looked stunned. “Well…bugger me,” he emitted weakly. “What the hell did you do, Golden Boy?”He snorted. “According to everyone else, I deliberately tripped Carmichael and prevented him from apprehending a suspect, just so he wouldn’t win, because I’m arrogant and jealous of him. And I can’t cooperate.” Draco’s eyes widened. “You let Mulciber go? Why?” He cut off abruptly, and for a second, his eyes wavered and softened in surprise. Draco thought he’d let Mulciber go to protect him. He flushed guiltily. “No; we got him. It was someone else; the buyer.”The softness morphed into wry cynicism. Seeing it go made him ache. “Ah.” Draco tossed back his scotch. He fixed him with a considering look, then his mouth twisted unpleasantly. “And did you? I bet you did. Carmichael’s such an annoying cunt; I would have.”“No,” he shot back, prickling. “For fuck’s sake, Malfoy.”“You did” Draco prowled forward, looking him up and down. “Secretly. Wouldn’t do to admit it, of course, but let’s face it; he’d deserve it.”“Malfoy, no,” he repeated, irritated. “It was just because I had to…I had to. The buyer is a friend,” he admitted.“Oh, so playing favourites. You’re such a hypocrite, Potter,” Draco interjected snidely, his voice hateful. “If I did that, you’d be full of righteous indignation. But you’re the Golden Boy, so that makes anything you do noble and good.”Harry dropped the glass from nerveless fingers, a bristling wave of fury prickled across his skin. After all that he’d done for the wanker! “I should have known. You’ve been gagging for an excuse to lord it over me.” He was distantly dismayed to hear his voice tighten to hysteria, but his mind was all over the place and he couldn’t get it together. “You’re just as much of a hypocrite because you’d do the same! Only you’d think nothing wrong with that.”“Because I don’t pretend to be any better than I am,” Draco shot back viciously. “You’re the one who always looked down his nose at me. But really; you’re a pathetic has-been with a desperate need to hang on to the glory.”“You fucker!” Once more, Harry’s entire world went white. He swung his fist out blindly and was vaguely surprised that it connected. Draco dropped his glass and aimed a precise blow to his belly. He was far enough back that it didn’t do more than make him grunt and flex. He pushed back, Draco responded likewise. When he swung again, Draco blocked it and barrelled forward, knocking them both down to the ground. His breath left him in one sharp whoosh. “Fucker,” he gritted out. He gripped Draco’s arms and tried to turn them over so that he was physically dominant. “…Bloody…wanker…” Draco kept him pinned under him, hitting, pushing, making him strike out blindly. “Arrogant twat,” Draco panted back, straddling him and grabbing his hair. “You…totally…had it coming.” He tugged and pushed, Harry bucked and parried, and almost managed to throw Draco over, but he was too tired and too narked to fight effectively. But so what? It felt great! To lash out and press and twist and pull on Draco’s hair as he did the same. He panted and gasped and enjoyed the pressure of a heavy body on his, even as he pretended to struggle against it. Bliss. He gathered together a last burst of energy and rolled them over so that he took the dominant position, fist raised. He stared down into Draco’s face; his split lip oozing blood, his flushed cheeks and hot eyes.Then he paused: For all the physicality of it, Draco’s blows were suspiciously mediocre, and despite all the dramatic tussling and tugging on his hair, it occurred to him that Draco really wasn’t hurting him much. He sighed, sagged, and lowered his fist. “…Ah, fuck. You totally played me.”Draco laughed breathlessly beneath him, his chest jerking against his. “And you fell for it, you simpleton. I knew you would. But to be fair,” he added, before Harry could do more than open his mouth to object, “You’re so wired from Absentisomnia it was just too easy.” Draco repeatedly brushed his fingers through his hair in a soothing gesture. “…Feel better now?”Harry sighed and let his body relax on Draco’s. “…Yeah. I do. I needed that.”Beneath him, Draco smirked. “I know. Glad to be of service.”“Thanks, Malfoy. Really.” He edged a smile. “Don’t think anyone else would get it.” He shifted, his thigh brushing up against Draco’s groin. He sucked in a sharp breath and stilled. Draco smirked again.“A good physical fight makes me hard,” he admitted. “Always has.”That sounded deliciously, sinfully erotic but he was so exhausted his prick couldn’t physically respond. Which was for the best; he’d as good as said it wasn’t personal, damn it. “…Oh,” he finished weakly.“Come on.” Draco rose to his feet and held out his hand. Harry took it, and allowed himself to be assisted to his feet. “Come with me.” Harry did not protest as Draco slung his arm around his shoulder and led him to the bedroom. “You need a shower, and then you can crash here. You must be ready to drop.”“Uh huh.” He couldn’t manage more. “Stupid jealous fucker,” Draco muttered. “Hey!” He gripped the doorframe to the en suite as Draco flashed him an amused and impatient look. “Not you, moron; Carmichael. I could tell he was jealous of you back in second year. Looks like nothing has changed, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that he automatically assumed your actions were all about him.” Draco’s clear disdain made him smile a little; there were definite sour grapes there, understandably, and he suspected Draco called it jealousy because that’s how he’d felt, back at school. Neither of them had any real idea what it had actually been like to be Harry Potter. But then, Draco had obviously grown past that; he’d had the benefit of hardship to burn the childishness away, and the strength of character to come out refined. Carmichael had had neither.“Clean towel, pyjama pants. You can help yourself to whatever’s there; who knows, it might help.”“Yeah, thanks.” Draco quirked a brow and left him alone. He ripped at the buttons of his Auror uniform, suddenly desperate to get out of the damn thing. All the work he’d put into gaining it, the pride he’d felt in wearing it, had all been smirched. As he showered, he tried to decide who he was most narked at; George, Carmichael, Kingsley, or all his partners who hadn’t had the guts to tell him to his face that they weren’t happy with him. As he rinsed off the soap and shampoo, he leaned his head against the shower wall, squeezed his eyes shut and sagged. He was so ashamed. Not of his behaviour at the stakeout; it was moral in his own mind and he didn’t regret it; he was ashamed that everyone seemed to think he was a shit team player, and he’d been completely oblivious. He’d been so sure Carmichael’s ranting was all jealous self-justification and denial. But Carmichael had said he’d once actually looked forward to partnering him. His interruption of Carmichael’s arrest of Draco, and Ron’s hesitant assertion that he could be a bit impatient at times, settled uncomfortably in his gut. Maybe it really did seem to Carmichael that he deliberately squashed him down. Did everyone secretly think he was a controlling, unapproachable, self-absorbed, arrogant twat? He lingered under the steam for a while, his eyes resolutely shut, trying to regulate his breathing until the prickling heat of humiliation and the tremors subsided. Only when the longing for bed and oblivion became overwhelming did he dry off, dress, and shuffle out into the bedroom, where Draco waited, sitting on the end of his bed. Draco rose and gently pushed him down onto the bed in his place.“Fucking hell, Potter. Your hair! Let me.”Draco raised his wand and Harry felt the stroking waves of a warm breeze run rhythmically through his hair, smoothing it down. It was deliciously soothing.“Lie down.”He was so knackered he let Draco manoeuvre his legs onto the bed. His eyelids inexorably sank down.“You know, I almost wish I’d gone ahead with giving you the Animagi genes,” Draco broke in quietly. “You’d love that right now, I bet. It was your risk to take.” There was a short pause. “I’m not sure it was right of me to make the decision for you, when you want it so much.”“No, really, I’m glad you did.” He yawned and forced his eyes open. “It was stupid to be so obsessed.” He thought of Sirius. “As much as I want it, there’s a point where you can go too far. It isn’t worth dying for.” He paused as he settled down on his side to look up at his companion. “I think…The past couple of years, I felt like something inside me was trying to claw out, wanting to run and fly, and I always wanted to be an Animagus, so I thought it was that. But since I split with Ginny, I realize the desire has lessened.” He gave an awkward smile. “So now I wonder if really, what I was desperate for was what I thought being an Animagus could give me; the feeling of being free.” Draco tapped his wand at his lips, his gaze pensive. “Hm. Good point, Potter.” “But maybe, one day, if you can make it safe….” He tried to keep the hope, the pleading, out of his voice, but he could tell Draco had picked up on it.“I will.” He made one last effort. “…You sure this is okay?” he mumbled. “Won’t Zabini mind?”“No, Potter. Don’t worry your tender little heart over it.”It felt like permission to let go. He felt himself drift away, the last he heard was Draco’s voice, whispering spells he didn’t recognize.
* * *When Harry floated to consciousness, he grabbed the pillow, turned over, snuggled into the blankets, and revelled in the comfort. He breathed in and his brows twitched. The bed smelled funny. Nice, but unfamiliar. He opened his eyes and stared blankly at the tableau before him. Fancy furniture. Unfamiliar prints on the walls. Where the hell…?Malfoy.Last night. Oh god. He slapped his hands to his head, groaned loud and long, and then finally eased himself onto his back, taking stock. Well, he felt good physically. That was something. The last time he’d come off Absentisomnia, he’d been a shaking, ravenous zombie for a week. He ran his hand over his face. A few days’ growth. He frowned and eased himself up to a sitting position. Daylight streamed in through the windows, but all was quiet. Where was Malfoy? He sighed, got to his feet and padded into the en suite for a piss. As he stood in front of the toilet, he thought of all that had happened. The stakeout and everything that had come after felt surreal. Sure; he’d dealt with plenty of horrifying, cataclysmic events and unfair consequences in the past, but at least they’d generally been grand and righteous. Not like this; so miserable and petty and sordid. He sighed and turned the shower taps on.When he returned to the bedroom, smoothing Draco’s moisturiser onto his freshly shaved chin, he found Draco walking in through the door, levitating a large tray that held toast, scrambled eggs, tea and coffee paraphernalia and orange juice.“Morning, Potter. How are you feeling?”Harry nodded. “Surprisingly good.” The self-congratulation that deepened Draco’s smile had his brow quirking, but he was given no time to question it. “Back to bed, Potter. Mugsley has breakfast for you.”He shrugged, did as he was bid, and accepted the tray on his lap. He started in on the coffee. “What day is it?” he asked.“Sunday morning. You’ve been asleep for two days.”He took some time to process this. “…The papers?” he asked.Draco’s lips curled in wry sympathy. “As you’d expect. Front page; all scandal and denouncements and questions. Has fame gone to The Chosen One’s head? Poisonous suggestions that Harry Potter has always been an arrogant attention seeker who insists on hogging the glory, citing a terribly old interview of Skeeter’s, dating back to fourth year.” He buffed his nails on his robe. “I don’t know where Skeeter got those lies from.”“Let me think,” Harry deadpanned. Draco continued airily on. “There are a few nauseatingly saccharine articles that are supposed to support you, suggesting that society’s relentless stalking, speculations and heavy expectations of you have been too much. The writer asks the reader to question themselves about how much they are to blame for your ‘nervous breakdown’. Personally, I’d rather be portrayed as just plain evil. They’re embarrassing.”Harry winced.“…To be fair, Kingsley has a few quotes out in your defence, and many of your previous partners have come out praising you, too.”Harry paused with the fork halfway to his mouth. “No, really?” he said unpleasantly. “Fancy that. Because Kingsley told me they all complained about me. That I always took over and didn’t cooperate.”Draco huffed and his nose crinkled. “The mediocre always resent excellence. It’s a burden we bear. I mean, look at Weasley.”“Malfoy!”“Potter.” “You ought to play chess with Ron, and then tell me he’s mediocre.”Draco made a rude noise, and then hesitated. “You’re serious, aren’t you?” His eyes narrowed speculatively. “Hm.”Draco said no more, and he let it rest. Who knew? They could wind up best mates and give him the laugh of the century. God knew he could do with one. Besides, it had been a compliment, and he didn’t want to discourage a repeat performance. “And Carmichael?” “He hasn’t been directly interviewed yet.”Harry paused in his eating. “He hasn’t? What’s he waiting for? A bidding war for exclusive rights?” He shrugged again as he continued eating. “Does everyone know where I am?”Draco nodded. “Granger knocked on my door the next morning. She sends her love and wants you to know that the Weasley clan are all behind you. Not far enough, in my opinion, but I suppose that will please you.”His lips curled at Draco’s taunt, but knowing the Weasleys were all supporting him made his stomach settle and his heart rest. Of course, he was still going to do the Cat’s Cradle with George’s intestines. “Anyway, eat up, Potter. I’m sure Granger and Weasel will be around soon enough.” Harry flushed. Draco wanted him out the door. Which was fair enough; he’d been an awkward lump on his bed for far too long, messing up his plans, getting in Zabini’s way. “Oh. Of course. I’m feeling pretty good, actually, so I might head off home soon, anyway. I can floo them from there.”Draco’s eyes narrowed and his lips thinned. “Something lacking in my hospitality, Potter?” He blinked. “…Well, no, of course not, but I…”Draco scoffed. “Am being oh-so humble and self-deprecating. Stuff it, wanker. You haven’t been a bother, and my schedule’s free today.”Oh god, had he been a total pain in the arse, forcing Draco to look after him? “So what have you been doing? While I was sleeping?” he asked awkwardly.“Sexual debauchery,” Draco responded promptly. “Depravity. I had a wild orgy of one, right here in the bedroom, while you slept. I stripped myself naked, climbed onto the bed and masturbated all over you.” Draco framed his chin with his forefinger and thumb. “And you were oblivious, Potter. Helpless. You never knew I was there. And then, Potter? I did it all over again.”He blushed scarlet with shame. Draco was yanking his chain (…right?) but he…he had done that. The getting-off-while-Draco-was-oblivious bit. Moreover, he was in a painful state of being able to report that he’d made a complete recovery. Only he wasn’t going to. Ever. “Hngh,” he rasped articulately.Draco laughed. “Oh Potter; your face! I went to work, of course. I attended a meeting with the family solicitor. I waded through a few wedding details. I was busy. We can’t all be unemployed lazy bastards like you.”Wedding details. The words stabbed him, left him feeling gutted, sick. It was stupid of him to forget, and to hope, but that was half Draco’s fault for being so damned tender with him. “Fine. So you were busy.” It came out more sharply than he’d intended, and he flushed. Did he have to be so bloody obvious? He cleared his throat. “So how come I’m feeling so well?” he wondered out loud, mostly to change the subject. “I thought I’d be a walking Inferi.”Draco smiled smugly and examined his nails with self-satisfaction. “Beats me.”He narrowed his eyes. “Uh huh. And the Canons will win the World Cup.”“I don’t know what you mean.” Draco turned a look of such innocence on him that he blanched. He braced himself. “Oh god – what did you do?” “Do?” Draco practically glowed with faux holiness. “Why, nothing.” There was a pause. “…Oh, I suppose there’s the insignificant detail of the transference spells I just happened to accidentally perform on you. If you want to be picky about it.” “…Transference spells?” he uttered, aghast. “You transferred all the tiredness and sickness and misery I was supposed to feel onto someone else?”Draco shrugged. “Yes. To Carmichael. It was fun.”A shocked bark of laughter burst from his lips. “That’s…Merlin’s bollocks, Malfoy. Those spells are from the Dark Arts.”Draco straddled his legs and used his finger to lift his chin. He gazed down at him, his eyes narrowed in challenge. “So?”His brow crinkled. “Shit, Malfoy. I don’t know if he really deserves it.”Draco rolled his eyes and moved back. “Oh, fret not, noble Gryffindor. I didn’t transfer all of it. Just a bit, enough to sting. The rest; well, I’m afraid you’ve a few potted plants on your conscience.”A foolish grin spread over his face. It wasn’t that he approved of using Dark magic, he didn’t, honest. But it made him feel that perhaps…just perhaps, if pressed, Draco might just fix cabinets for him.
* * *“Harry, what happened?” Hermione’s face held the kind of sympathetic anxiety he’d expected, but he’d had his rant and rave, and it wasn’t bad, this concern.“We know it couldn’t have been the way those awful papers said it was, but the only person I’d trust to tell the truth is Kingsley, and he hid behind Auror confidentiality.” He snuck a quick look at Ron, who was gazing at him, his expression worried but guileless. Clearly George had kept his mouth shut. Well, that was for the best. He was thankful George and Angelina hadn’t yet shown up to the Weasley family dinner; he could do with some extra processing time before the inevitable confrontation. Facing Molly’s determination to treat him just like normal, and not quite managing it, was hard enough. On the plus side, Arthur ran great interference, and his and Ginny’s friendship only strengthened with every guilty glance they snuck to each other. Go figure. “No, it’s pretty much what they’ve been saying,” he responded carefully. “I lost my temper.” Their expressions of dumbstruck, mystified horror might have been funny if the situation had been less serious. He felt like shit for lying to them, but he had to: Even if he claimed he’d been protecting someone else, Ron wasn’t stupid; he’d realize the truth straight away. “Carmichael deliberately went against our planned attack, without telling me, halfway through the operation to make himself look good, and he almost screwed up the arrest. I was so mad and strung up on Absentisomnia…I just lashed out without thinking.” Which was all very true, with only one salient point omitted.“…Oh.” Hermione drew back and sighed with fond exasperation, while Ron nodded understandingly.“Don’t blame you, mate. He shouldn’t have done that.”“Well Harry ought to have known better, too,” Hermione replied. She turned to face him, hands on hips. “You know that the media is on constant tenterhooks for a salacious story about the Boy Who Lived. I know it’s not fair, but you have to be more careful than the rest of us. I blame the Absentisomnia; it’s a terrible potion, and I’m surprised it’s not under stricter regulation.”He winced in annoyance. “The media can kiss my berk-kicking backside.” He shrugged. “…Maybe I could learn how to deal with people better, though,” he mumbled. “See things from their point of view and all that.” He cringed at the expression of awkward agreement on Hermione’s face; oh god, even she thought he was fucking hopeless with people. All right; so he’d secretly hoped she’d firmly deny he needed such training. However, whatever she was about to say was lost as Ginny burst into the room.“Hey, can I borrow Hermione for a minute?”Ginny stood, hand on the doorframe and vibrating with energy. “Mum found some old robes of hers in the attic and she thought they might fit us. You should see them, Herm, they’re a riot!”“Well…okay?” Hermione rose and joined Ginny at the door, sending one last sympathetic look behind her. Ron let a whistling breath explode out.“Fucking hell, mate,” he muttered.Harry nodded glumly.“What are you going to do?”“Dunno, yet,” Harry replied with a shrug. “I’m still trying to get used to the idea, you know? I just need some time.”“You could travel a bit, yeah?” Ron suggested. “Go while the Galleon’s strong, and miss the worst of the gossip.”He shrugged again. “Maybe. How’s George been?” he asked blandly.Ron’s eyes lit up with cautious optimism. “Not bad, I think? He’s been pretty quiet, but he hasn’t been using the past few days.”He managed a sour smile. “Good to hear.”“So…” Ron trailed off awkwardly. “Seems funny to think you aren’t an Auror anymore. At least; not for a while. I suppose you’ve dropped that case you were working on?”He started. “…I guess so.”“Anyone else taking it up?”“Dunno. Probably Carmichael. Which means it’ll never get solved,” he added sourly. Then he felt guilty. Sure Carmichael wasn’t the best Auror ever, but he had the horrible feeling that Carmichael would probably have done much better with a more supportive partner.Ron sat back with a sigh. “Too bad. Hey, you’ll be free to go to the next Cannons match with me!”Harry sighed with him, rubbing his hands through his hair. The man he’d chased, who had died, probably didn’t deserve to be abandoned, but what could he do? He ought to get his mind off selfish disappointment and think. He might be no longer qualified to apprehend any guilty parties, but he could surely drop a word in Kingsley’s ear. It would serve to ice the apology he needed to give to the poor bloke.He listened politely as Ron launched into a recounting of the latest Cannon’s game. Ron’s words tripped over themselves in his eagerness. It made him smile as he contemplated. The guilty person must be someone he at least knew by sight. Who had access to his office, Hermione’s office, Neville’s house, and could go in and out without raising suspicions? Who knew enough about the affair to keep one step ahead of him? Who had been around, in the background, since the beginning?A stab of horror twisted his gut. Oh my god. He stared at Ron, his mind churning. The answer was suddenly so obvious he was glad Malfoy wasn’t around to read his mind and ridicule him for the monumental cretin he was. But why? Harry’s eyes widened as realisation dawned, and then he remembered those last few moments in the Forbidden Forrest and felt sick. For one long moment, he let his mind go blank. He didn’t want to face it. Then, reluctantly, he steeled himself. All the signs were there. To ignore it would be cowardly, and he was not – not – going to allow his partiality to get in the way of the truth. They settled into silence for a moment as Ron cracked open another butterbeer. Harry did likewise and slugged it back. “…Why couldn’t you just tell me about it, Ron?” he asked gently.His friend twisted around and stared at him. “…Why what?” he asked warily.Harry winced. “Don’t, Ron. Just…don’t. You know what I’m talking about.”Ron raised himself up and his face closed off. “No, actually, I don’t, mate. What the bloody hell’s got into you?”“Fine.” Harry threw up his hands. “I’ll spell it out, shall I? You stole…” He swallowed. “…The cadaver…from my office. You stole the footage of Malfoy’s intruder from Hermione’s desk. You took the cadaver to Neville’s greenhouse, and subsequently buried it in a forest.” He felt his jaw clench. “…And I would really, really like to know why you didn’t just…tell me.”Ron stared at him for a long moment, wearing his chess face. Finally, he stood and folded his arms. “All right. I admit it. I did it.” He looked scared. “…Are you going to tell Kingsley?”Harry swallowed heavily. “No, Ron, course not. I think…I understand. But I need to know for sure.”“Look, I’ll explain, yeah? Promise I will. Just…everyone will be in for dinner soon. How about afterwards, all right?” Ron flicked a nervous glance to the doorway. “I don’t want to spoil dinner.”“It’s okay, Ron.”Harry and Ron both turned to find George in the doorway. Harry cringed. It had to be done, but bloody hell; he was the last person who should be doing this. Then again, George always seemed to find his heavy reliance on silence comfortable. “George,” he mumbled.George poured himself a drink and leaned against the counter. “So, you’ve found me out, eh?” He gave a parody of his old grin as Ron hovered at his shoulder. “Curses, foiled again.”Ron blew out an exasperated breath. “George!”His brother chuckled over his glass. “Sorry, old boy. Go distract the clan for a mo, all right?” Ron hesitated, his body swaying. “Go,” George repeated. Ron sent Harry a beseeching glance and loped out. He slumped back down onto one of the kitchen chairs with his chest to the back, rested his forearms on the top and his chin on his forearms. “So…um, yeah.” He cleared his throat. “I saw you. At the stakeout that night.”George’s gaze flicked up but didn’t meet his. “Yeah…I was afraid of that.” His lips tightened and trembled. “I’d hoped I was mistaken, but…” He slumped down onto the nearest chair. “Seems trite to say sorry. But I am.” He buried his face in his hands. “…I really don’t know how to face you, Harry.” Harry heard George suck in a choked breath. “I cost you your job, and I was too gutless to come forward.”Now that he was here, facing him, all his anger, his indignation, felt distant. Harry swallowed. “It’s all right, George. Really. Even if you’d come forward, I’d have still been suspended, and it would have only made it all worse. I’m more concerned with the person that Apparated here. What happened?”George stared at the glass in his hand, twirling it absently. “Well, if you know it was me who was responsible, then I’m sure you can guess who and what and why.”Harry bit his lip and nodded. “Thought about it the moment Katie came over blathering on and on about her fantastically exciting research. It wasn’t hard to ask questions, everyone fell over themselves to accommodate me,” he added with an ironic smile. “Stole some of Malfoy’s notes and copied ‘em. Broke in after hours to work on it. Even broke into Malfoy’s flat to borrow some textbooks. Was nothin’ personal, you understand,” he added. “But I needed those books. My first idea was to use my cells to make his body, then use Necromancy to bring him back.” He barked a bitter laugh. “But after reading about it, I soon gave up on that. I’m brilliant, Harry, but I’m no Dumbledore.”“But you kept trying,” Harry prodded. “Yeah.” George was silent for a moment. “I figured if I cloned him using my cells, well, maybe he’d come back on his own. I…I was going crazy, and I suppose I sort of brainwashed myself into thinking it’d happen.” “But how were you going to explain it to everyone?” Harry asked gently.George’s lips twisted. “Wasn’t planning on it. I was going to explain to him, find somewhere distant for him to live. It was going to be just us two.” He winced. “I know it all sounds barking, but you gotta understand; the Athena’s Dream made it all seem so logical, so possible. It got to the point I was using almost daily; it made me feel so confident, so excited…the Dream gave me something to do, something to hope for. I couldn’t wait: He’d be back, and everything would be all right again.”The wobble in George’s voice made his throat tighten. He swallowed. “And you finally succeeded?”George laughed without humour. “Yeah. I used my cells, like I said, and added in some genes from his hair I took from his pillow, and it worked like a dream. Malfoy’s notes on cloning and genetic modification were bloody brilliant, I’ll give him that.” He sucked in long breath and let it out on a shaky exhale. “…For a moment there, I really thought it was all going to be perfect. I used spells to speed up the generation, and when I stopped, he opened his eyes….he looked at me, and smiled, and I hugged him…it was the only time I ever felt right again.” He held a trembling hand against his eyes. “But it didn’t last. I soon realize his mind was as formed as a newborn’s. Couldn’t talk, couldn’t walk. Makes sense, huh?” George looked at him, and he nodded. “Well, I was so stupid, so eager, it didn’t cross my mind. But you know what? I didn’t care, I loved him anyway. I figured, well, I’ll just have to teach him everything. Bit by bit. So I hid him away in his old room at the flat. I kept it locked.”Harry felt tears prickle in his eyes. It was absolutely mad. How had no one seen just how bad things were getting for George? Probably because no one had wanted to look closely enough. Not because they didn’t care, but because they felt helpless. “Go on,” he whispered. George rubbed at his own eyes. “Well, even that didn’t last,” he continued wearily. “He got knackered easily, kept falling asleep, and then…the cancer. I didn’t know what to do, I thought I could fix it somehow…but he only ended up dying again, only this time, it was me who killed him. Me.” He lifted his face, which was twisted in agony. “I didn’t mean to! I just wanted him back, Harry. I just wanted him back.”Harry swallowed down a painful lump as he stared down at his lap. “Course you did,” he rasped huskily. George’s lips lifted, even through his tears. “You know, Harry. One of the things I like about you is that you understand. You let me be. You don’t make me want to scream by laving me with soothing platitudes or jollying me up or staring at me anxiously, begging me to be okay to make themselves feel better, like bloody mum.” He sighed. “I’m just so tired of having to pretend I’m holding up. I swear to god, if one more person tells me to buck up, and smile, and face the future bravely by saying he wouldn’t want you to be so sad, I’ll murder ‘em, I swear. Cause if they think that; then they never bloody knew him: He would have told ‘em to piss off and I can go to the devil any way I want.”Harry snorted wetly. “…Yeah.” “It wasn’t really him, anyway,” George whispered. “I know that, now. I was lying in bed not so long ago with a massive hangover, in my fucking pigsty of a room, staring at my reflection in a bottle. It was all distorted from the glass, and I realized that what I’d really created, was a distorted me. And the person I’d killed was me. And I was still killing myself, bit by bit.”Harry felt a stab of anxiety that came out as a strange noise in his throat.George gave a wry smile. “….Don’t worry, Harry. Topping myself again would be overkill. Get it? Overkill?” Harry choked out a watery groan as George continued. “In any case, he might have given everyone else a right bollocking for patronizing me, but he’d give me a double serve if I turned up beside him a day earlier than I needed to. Besides,” he added diffidently, “as long as I’m here, then part of him is still around too, y’ know?”Harry managed a smile. “Yeah. Feels like it.” He shrugged awkwardly. “…All right, then?” He mentally groaned and kicked himself. Did the bloody guy look all right? George snorted. “…Yeah. I think I’ll be okay.” He paused. “When that second me died…it felt like something that wasn’t right in me died too. Like sicking up poison. And talking about it like this…with someone who isn’t all over me fussing and clucking and asking me how could you…it’s…good.” George managed a dry chuckle. “Angie’s been great. So has Ron. When he first got sick, I was frantic, careless. Ron found us, and blew a gasket when he found out what I’d done. But he took charge right away, and after the…incident in the kitchen…he helped me steal the body from the Auror office. I was just scared you or Malfoy would be able to identify him. He also stole the keys from your office. Hermione let slip about that footage of me breaking in to Malfoy’s place, well, Ron nicked that right from under her nose. He also nicked keys to Neville’s greenhouse so we had somewhere to store the body while we thought of the best place to bury him. He was…well, brilliant.” George flashed him a weak grin. “Don’t tell him I said that, yeah?”Harry laughed. “No, mate.”“Mind you, he tore strips off me. Wasn’t too keen on being forced to betray you again. But well, Weasleys stick together, yeah?”He nodded. Suddenly, Ron’s easy acceptance of his and Ginny’s breakup made sense. Bloody tosser; a guilty conscience, that’s what it was! “Yeah.”“Who’d ha’ thought it, eh?” George continued absently. “Bumbling, blustering Ronniekins.” He sucked in a deep, shuddering breath. “Ron told me if I wanted a copy of me so badly, I should do it the fun way and knock Angie up instead. I might, y’ know…” He rubbed his face. “…I just might.” He turned back to him. “And, I’m sorry, mate. Caused you so much grief.” George flashed him a guilty look. “…Don’t suppose you’d keep quiet about…well, you know. I swear to god I’ll do everything I can to make it up to you.”Harry huffed out a quiet laugh. “Won’t say a word. Like I said; it wouldn’t help.” He stabbed a finger forward. “But you are mine, George. Anything I want. Any time. Anywhere.”George managed a reluctant smile. “Deal.”He flushed as he thought back to all that had happened since that fateful dinner at the Burrow. “…Besides,” he finally managed, “…Not all of it was bad.”“Yeah?” George cocked a brow with a twist of his lips. “Glad my misery worked for you.”“George-!”“Kidding, kidding.” George put his glass on the table and pulled up a chair to sit beside him at the table. “What are you going to do, Harry?” he finally asked. “Pretend this conversation never happened, of course,” Harry said indignantly. “Did you really think I’d have you slung off to Azkaban?” “Well, I did break the law. I’d understand if you felt you couldn’t make exceptions for friends.” George managed a weak grin. “All I ask is a head start.”“Technically,” Harry said carefully, “I’m no longer a Ministry employee, and am under no obligations to tell the Auror division anything I know. I’ll just let Kingsley know I’ve solved the case and, as no crime has been committed, beyond Malfoy’s house being broken into, he can close the file. Malfoy may be amenable to an out of court settlement, so…”Ron burst in, panting. “Everyone’s coming in for dinner, couldn’t stall them a moment longer. You all done?”George nodded and Harry stood. “Yeah, we’re done.”Ron sighed explosively. “Thank bloody fuck that’s all over with, then. It’s been driving me spare.” George handed him a drink. “Poor Ronniekins. I really ran you ragged, didn’t I? You might as well tell Hermione. If she kicks up a row, I’ll stand the fuss.”Ron groaned. “Yeah, I’ll tell her. Not looking forward to it, though.”Harry clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re all right, Ron.”His friend stared at him, then gave a small smile. “Thanks, Harry.”* * *Harry stood in front of the mirror hopefully, turning this way and that. His hand lingered over Amortentique and he finally snatched it up and sprayed. He opened Grooming Charms – Pour Homme and flipped to page eighteen. He lifted his wand. “Coma Tersus,” he intoned. His hair shivered and slid into a tidy array over his head. He huffed out a startled laugh; he hadn’t expected it to actually work. He looked…bizarre. Still, Malfoy ought to approve. And yes, he was doing it to impress Malfoy. He had accepted that. He could still act cool, be friendly but casual. Kreacher shuffled in, looked him up and down, and gave an approving grunt.“Master is going out?”“Yes, I’ll be having lunch with Mr Malfoy,” he replied. “Master is looking like a proper wizard at last. Kreacher is pleased, even if Master did not inform Kreacher he wouldn’t be home for lunch.”Harry winced. “Sorry, Kreacher. I guess I…was a bit distracted.”The elf turned back to look up at him from under his heavy brows. “Master is not to be apologizing for his behaviour. But Kreacher despairs of him ever learning that.” He left.Harry made a face; if he wasn’t supposed to apologize, why did the damn elf keep bringing up his mistakes? He glanced down at the note on his dresser. Noon for lunch at my place? He’d sent off an express owl reply (meaning he’d given Humphrey two of his favourite treats) in the affirmative, and now had only ten minutes to calm down.At a minute to, he Apparated to outside of Draco’s flat, sucked in a breath, and knocked. Mugsley opened the door. He blinked and lifted a hand to scrunch up his hair, then remembered and forced his hand down. “Oh. Mugsley. Hello.”“Mr Potter is being right on time,” the elf intoned. “Mr Potter is to be coming inside and taking off his coat. There is being many warming charms inside.”He nodded and remembered not to thank him. Inside, Draco appeared from the study door. His eyes widened, and he padded forward. He wore a lightweight white robe over blue trousers, and he was barefoot. “Mugsley, do help Potter out of his coat and shoes.” He turned to him as Mugsley tugged at his sleeve. “You’re here to be comfortable, Potter.”Harry allowed the elf to take his coat, but toed off his shoes himself. “Right. Thanks, Malfoy.”Draco glided closer, reached up a hand, and ruthlessly shook it through Harry’s hair.“Hey-!” he sputtered. “Just when I finally found a charm that works!”“Yes. Grooming Charms Pour Homme, I suspect. My mother wrote it; of course the charm works. But you’re not Potter like that.”“Your mother-?” “Yes, she wrote it a few years ago as a kind of therapy project; naturally she published under a pseudonym. But come in, and take a seat at the dining table. Mugsley will serve soon.”He sat where he was bid. The table had already been laid and a bread basket lay in the middle. He could smell garlic butter, his mouth watered, and he kissed his chance of a snog a quiet goodbye. Draco approached with a bottle in hand. “Try this; it’s a recent discovery of mine; from the Castello Banfi estate in Montalcino. It’s new, but very good.”Harry accepted a glass, and gave it a try. “It’s nice,” he agreed. Not that he knew much about wines. Draco sat opposite him and lavished a bread roll with the garlic butter. Then Mugsley reappeared, carrying two dishes. “Wood-oven roasted Devil’s Gulch Ranch rabbit loin, with herb brioche and golden raisin stuffing, served with bacon, black trumpet mushrooms, confit shoulder pastille, and chestnuts,” Mugsley intoned, setting the plates down.“Bloody hell,” Harry said blankly. “You cooked this?”“Yes. With Mugsley’s invaluable help.” The words were mild, modest, even, but come on; this was showing off. It made him smile. “Smells brilliant.” They ate for a while in companionable silence. When he’d had his fill and Draco was pushing leftovers around on his plate, he lowered his fork. “Malfoy,” he said slowly.Draco met his gaze, his hand stilling. “Yes?”“It’s finished. The case. I found out what happened. Last night.”“You…” Draco’s eyes blazed, and then closed off. “Congratulations,” he uttered coldly. “All by yourself? Or I suppose Granger was with you to the bitter end?”Harry winced. “No, it sort of happened before I knew it. I was over at the Weasley’s place when I realized…It was George, you see.”For a moment, his eyes were blank, then sparked. “…Oh. I see.” He gave a humourless smile. “Yes, I can’t imagine my presence would have been welcome, and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be there.” His gaze drifted off. “Of course. He always seemed to be around, underfoot with Angelina, but I have to admit I didn’t think…he always seemed so out of it, practically dull. But they were brilliant at school in their own way, I’ll give them that. It would have been about his brother, of course.”“Yeah.” Malfoy rubbed at his temples. “I should have properly disposed of those files, kept them here or at the Manor, safe. But I was careless. More than that, I didn’t want to let go of them; I wanted to succeed; to rub it in to Uberwanker and Bendover. To triumph over them and show the world that I-” He broke off.Could do something right. But he wasn’t about to say it out loud; he was amazed Malfoy had admitted even that much. It had to be galling, he realized, for someone as smart as him to never be recognized for it. He’d always been forced into the shade; by himself at Quidditch, by Hermione at studies, but most terribly by the war. And then to have his highly-deserved triumph stolen…well, it was a wonder that he hadn’t had to save Malfoy from a murder charge. “You’ll make it,” he offered instead. “You’re brilliant at this kind of stuff. It’ll just take time.”“Maybe.” Draco paused. A sneer of old twisted his lips. “I suppose you are going to pretend you don’t know? Shove it under the carpet?” “Yes,” he retorted, his hand clenching on his fork. “Actually, I am. Just like you’d do for Parkinson. Or Zabini. Or your parents.”Draco’s face tightened for a moment, and then he relaxed back and lifted his glass. “Touché. You’re right, of course; I would. And I do try not to be a hypocrite, whatever else I am. So: Well done, Potter. And what are you going to do?” Harry shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know what to do about George. I have to do something, I just don’t know what.”Draco rolled his eyes. “Not him, Potter. You. You don’t have to do anything for Weasley. He’s the one who has to sort himself out. You cheer him on if you have to, but you’ve got your own shit to get together.”Harry shot up on his seat and opened his mouth to protest. Then he remembered Kingsley’s analysis. He felt his face prickle with heat. “…Right.” He sucked in regular breaths, in and out, letting his heart settle. “…No idea. Um. About me. I’ll just…um…make it up as I go along.”Draco scoffed, smiling. “No idea. Figures.”“Hey, thinking on my feet is my thing,” Harry retorted. “I got through seven years of constant danger that way.”His companion buried his face in his hand and sighed. “Oh, Potter.” He looked up and pinned him with a stare, his eyes alight, eager. “Well, reinventing oneself is my “thing”, Potter. I’ll look after you.”I’ll look after you. Not that he needed looking after, no matter what Kingsley implied (…did he feel pressure to live up to the hype, deep down? Was he really that needy for approval?), but it made him feel he could lean back against Draco’s chest, sigh, close his eyes, and rest. However, that was surely reading more into it than Malfoy meant. “I suppose, since you’ve got your own life sorted,” he finally murmured. “Your work, the, uh, wedding…” Blaise Zabini. “Ah, but you see; I haven’t quite got it sorted. There’s still something more that I want.” Draco’s fingers rapped out a staccato on the edge of his glass. “Something spectacular. And I want it all. Every last atom. For keeps. I need help with that.”He sucked in a breath and fumbled with his wine glass. He put it on the table before he could break it; his fingers were shaking so badly. He hoped. Oh how he hoped, but how could he tell for sure? “…Oh?” he managed.“Yes.” Draco’s lips curled up. He walked slowly over to him, pushed his chair out and stood close, forcing his knees out. His heart hammered and his prick started throbbing. Draco leaned over, balancing a hand on the back of his chair, near his shoulder, and braced himself by putting a knee between his legs. “I want it so badly I cancelled the wedding.”“You cancelled your wedding?” he squeaked.“Yes.” Draco pressed a finger into his hair under his ear and ran it through. “I was having…doubts.” “Oh?” He tried to regulate his breathing but he couldn’t. “…Zabini?”Draco stared for a second, then convulsed with hastily-suppressed laughter. “Oh, Potter. I’m such a bad, bad man.”Harry drew back, his eyes narrowing. “…What?”“It was a ruse, Potter. Blaise much prefers females; we’ve never even shagged. Well, besides a few mutual handjobs back at school.”Harry felt his jaw drop. “…What?”Draco rolled his eyes. “He was a lure. A hastily concocted scenario to make you jealous.”Harry drew back. “…Why?”“Because the idea of making you jealous was intriguing, Potter. It excited me.” Draco ran a finger down his cheek. Harry’s prick twitched. “Watching you quietly fall apart in front of me was unspeakably delicious.”“You’re a bastard, Malfoy,” Harry said evenly. Draco drew close, his long, bony fingers exploring his cheek, sighing hotly near his ear. “I know. But oh, Potter; how could I resist? Your breath catches, the muscles in your jaw and neck clench, your eyes are all liquid passion…it’s unbearably erotic. The more agony you feel, the harder my prick gets.”Harry had his arms out and slammed Draco against the nearby wall before he could think. He was distantly aware the room was shaking. “I won’t take shit from you like some dumb bovine-” Draco gasped in winded breath. “Oh yes, Potter. Like that. Just like that.”Harry growled out an angry little noise and slammed his lips against Draco’s, thrusting his tongue in and pressing, pushing, sucking, biting, pushing his hips into the snug space between Draco’s legs, over and over as Draco slowly went slack in his arms. He grabbed the back of Draco’s hair and pulled back abruptly. Draco’s eyes were hazy with lust and his lips slack and wet, but it wasn’t enough to mollify him. “Like that?” he asked, eyes narrowed. “’Cause that’s what you’d get, Malfoy. What you dish out I’ll give back in spades.”“Yes,” Draco gasped, wincing, heaving in breath. “All of it. All of you. I knew you’d be like this; so full of passion.”“Malfoy, I mean it,” Harry said, his voice low. “If you screw me over...”Draco gripped his shoulders and shook him. “You don’t get it, you bloody moron,” he gritted out. “I’m not playing you; I-” He stopped and whined out a frustrated noise. “Do you even know what you’ve done to me? How it felt when you saved me again? No, of course you don’t. You completely undo me, and then shrug and stutter and mumble and don’t have a fucking clue.” Harry stiffened but Draco pushed his hand over his mouth before he could retort.“Loyalty, Potter. I’m giving it to you. Only you.” Draco gripped his shoulders, his eyes searching. He bit his lip. “Potter – what you did for me – what you’ve done for me - No one’s done so much for me, not even my parents. Not my friends. Just you. And I can’t get past that, you twat. I can’t get past you. I never could.” Draco stroked his hair in jerky movements. “After everything…to do that for me…”He let his face rest at the nook of Draco’s shoulder. “You did just as much for me,” he mumbled. “You’re a good man to have around in a fix.”Draco glowed. “I do my best.” It made Harry grin to himself; Draco did so love to be petted and praised. And he was shit at it, but he’d get better. But it was true; he hadn’t appreciated how generous and giving Draco was to those who held his loyalty, until it had been turned onto him. “…I will bring all my broken cabinets to you, Draco,” he promised.Draco leaned forward to kiss him, lingering on sucking his lower lip into his mouth as Harry walked backwards until his legs hit the back of the chair again. Draco straddled him as his legs sank down. “Mm. You’d better.” His turned that intent, searching gaze on him again. “I’m terribly possessive, Potter,” he challenged. “I’m also spiteful when I feel hurt and say the cruellest things I can think of that I don’t really mean. We’ll inevitably clash over social issues. Running, yet?”“No. I can’t. You’re sitting on my lap,” Harry deadpanned. He was glad to see his response cause Draco to relax and even smile. His eyes narrowed. “You told me once you had your sex life sorted. If not Zabini, then who? I’m not going to share.”Draco hesitated for a fraction of a second, then threw his head up. “Oh, I’ve had loads of lovers, Potter, but--” Harry’s eyes narrowed. “Right. Well, I haven’t,” he interrupted grimly. Draco faltered and flushed, biting his lip again. “…All right; I haven’t had loads of lovers. I go to a private masseuse parlour once a week where the staff toss one off for me at the end of the session. Happy?”“I’m glad we’re at the same level,” Harry returned tentatively, trying to catch Draco’s eye. “Yeah, great; clumsy and awkward,” Draco muttered. Harry noted the hectic red staining his cheeks and smiled. “But…still good, yeah?” Draco clutched at his shoulders, forgetting his embarrassment to stare at him, his face sharp and eager. “We are going to be brilliant, Potter.” He searched his face. “I like to think I’ve modified the beliefs I used to have that you hated so much, and you aren’t as fucking self-righteous as you used to be either, thank Merlin.” Harry managed a wry smile. “I hope not.”Draco smirked. “Surprise, surprise; I like being with you, Potter. You’ve grown smart, you’re not so judgemental anymore, and you act like I’m worth your time and consideration.” He ran his fingers through Harry’s hair. “And just think. You want to learn to be a team player? You’ll get all the practice you need dealing with me.”Harry snickered. “Yeah, you’re a real prince. Thanks.” His voice humbled. “I just can’t believe that you want me.”“I can’t believe you’d doubt it,” Draco murmured, his lips ghosting against his. He pressed forward, and Harry parted his lips. Draco slid his tongue in and took, demanding a like response. It lifted him out of himself, made him melt and solidify into an entity comprised entirely of sensitive, vibrating nerves that grew out to wrap and twist and twine with Draco’s. He’d never felt that before. He slid his hands around Draco’s waist, pulled him in closer and responded in kind. He didn’t let him go until they were both panting.“I ought to ask…Do you want to hide this? At least, for a while?” Draco asked awkwardly. “Considering everything.”“No.” Harry shrugged. “Screw everyone else; I’ll do whatever I damn well please. Besides, since the media are going to burn me at the stake anyway, one more log won’t make much difference. And I wouldn’t want to even if things were normal,” he added. “I’d be proud to have you beside me.”Draco stilled, and for one moment, his lower lip trembled. Then a familiar smirk forced it away. “Go, go, Gryffindor.”“Piss off, Malfoy. What about you? Won’t your parents go mental?”“They won’t be happy,” he admitted. “Not because it’s you; even with this minor hiccup they know which sickle shines brightest. They want an heir. Pansy’s willing to be a surrogate.” Harry schooled his expression to be as blank as possible. “That’s one option.”“What?” Draco drew back, his face defensive. “She’s perfect breeding stock; pur-” he cut himself off. “Magically strong, and intelligent.”Harry chose his words carefully. “Perhaps we can talk about it and think of other options; a surrogate of both our choosing, for example.”Draco took a slow breath in and out. “Yes. Of course. We can do that. Yes; compromising.”Harry bit down on his lip, but he couldn’t stop the grin, so he hid his face in the crook of Draco’s neck. Draco made the concept sound like his New Word of the Day. Which it probably was. Best to change the subject quickly; he noticed the house elf sneaking past into the kitchen; that would do. “Mugsley is back,” he noted. “I thought you’d got rid of him.”“No, no.” Draco slid both hands around to cup his face, lifted him to his lips, bit down gently on Harry’s lower lip and tugged. He sucked on it and let it slide from between his lips in a long, languid movement. “Mm. I only got rid of him when you came over. All three times. Well, admittedly the first time you came over, it was a coincidence, but the second time, I wanted our little dinner date to seem…romantic. The third; well, I admit I asked him to piss off, just in case. And subsequent events proved me so deliciously right.” Draco shivered and took the opportunity to suck on his lower lip again. Harry slid into hazy bliss. “Merlin, I came so hard I almost turned inside out. And from the look on your face; you did, too. You haven’t given me my scarf back yet, by the way. This time round, I’m surer of you, so I decided he could stay and serve.” Draco gripped him, jerked his body up against his and pressed them together. "Merlin, I want to fuck you now.”“Oh?” Harry murmured huskily. He leaned forward to kiss Draco’s chin and then froze as the words finally registered. “…Oh! Oh fuck! Fucking hell.” He reared back. “How the hell- “ Draco’s lips turned up in a deep, gloating, smugly satisfied grin. “I never got a chance to tell you; my little experiment in genetic modification made me impervious to disillusionment and silencing charms.” He shoved his groin forward to mash against his and gripped his hair. “Brace yourself, Potter.”