It had come in the early hours of Thursday morning. An incessant pecking that, try as he might, Draco could not sleep through. At first he had been extremely annoyed at the interruption to his rest, especially when he saw that the owl carried nothing more than a scrap of grubby paper. With rough hands he grabbed hold of the owl and relived it of its message. Tossing the ruffled bird aside, he turned to the text, fully expecting to have to visit someone with a curse the next day.
'It happens tonight, at five. Be ready.'
The note was unsigned, but it didn't have to be. Draco put all thoughts of sleep aside, that would be impossible now. And anyway, he had work to do.
Harry Potter shook his mane of hair dry and pulled a towel around himself as he stepped out of the changing room showers. He dodged around a hot and sweaty Tomas who was walking in the other direction and stopped at his locker, flicking it open with a wave of his hand.
"In a rush, Potter?" said Rob, clapping a sweaty hand on Harry's shoulder. "Haven't found yourself girl have you?"
Shrugging off the hand, Harry kept his mind on getting changed and reached into his locker for a clean shirt. "I wish." he said, feigning a sigh, "Some club sponsor wants to talk to me about making a 'Harry Potter' doll."
Harry shook his head, partly play acting, and partly due to the fact that this was, in fact, an almost truth. It was just that 'that' meeting had been last month. Robert seemed delighted by the idea though.
"Really? You're getting your first doll made?" he clapped another hand on Harry's shoulder and spun the boy around. Harry was initially annoyed at the Chaser for doing this, but the look of pride on the man's face quickly changed his mind.
"I remember 'my' first doll... well, figurine really." Rob said wistfully, staring up and away in remembrance. "The nose was a little big for my liking, and they had me on a terrible broom – a Comet 210, hardly my style – but it was still recognisable as me." He sighed, "My Gran, god rest her, bought every single one that she saw! In the end my dad and I had to steal them all, dig a hole in the garden and then bury them, or the house would have been full! She was so proud."
Harry grinned at the thought of Ron, who collected the figurines, purchasing an entire room-full of Harry's image, and what Hermione would say about it. Probably something along the lines of 'You can be a complete idiot sometimes, Ron. You know that? The real man is just over there, sitting on your sofa!'
"Enjoy the experience, kid." Rob said, bringing Harry back to reality. "Eventually people get tired of the same old face and move onto the next bright new thing. Suppose you know all this anyway, hey? What with being out the limelight for a while. Anyway, I'll not hold you up any more, them sponsor types can be a little grouchy if you turn up late. Enjoy it!"
"I wish..." Harry said under his breath, shaking his head as he stared after his eldest Chaser, wondering how somebody could be so good in the air, and yet so clueless in real life. If only people 'had' forgotten him in his absence last year. In reality, he was hunted down mercilessly by the media. It was actually better now that he was once again in the public domain, because they knew where to find him at work, rather than having to sneak into his home.
He turned back to his locker and pulled on his jeans. Hopefully these interviews would do the same sort of thing for him and, just like Ms Finley had said, stop the press hounding him on the streets with stupid questions about his youth. If he could just find a status-quo with the media, he could start to think about letting Ginny have her way. Sure, the papers would go crazy for a couple of weeks, that fan group in Wolverhampton would probably send Ginny daily death threats, but once people had gotten used to the idea, maybe they'd get some semblance of life back.
Or maybe 'Harry Potter' would never get a normal life. Maybe he should change his name?
Harry shook his head again, his hair whipping him in the face reminding him that he needed to get it cut. Not completely bald this time though - there was no way he was going to let George do 'that' again.
Now fully dressed, Harry grabbed his cloak and slug it over his shoulder, giving Robin a parting wave as he strode purposefully out the door and into Flight's training ground. Navigating the pristinely clean corridors in auto pilot, he started to mentally prepare himself for what he was about to put himself through. Was he crazy? Probably. Was this reporter trustworthy? Probably not. Was it all going to backfire? Most definitely.
What did he have to be nervous about?
Checking his watch, he noted that he was already late, but that was okay. He had always planned to turn up late. The last thing he wanted was to walk into a media ambush, and turning up late always caused one or two cameramen to break cover, just in case they'd missed him. He'd spot them a mile off.
Nodding to Rosie, the receptionist, Harry exited the front door of the stadium, finding himself in the middle of what looked like a building site. Of course, no builder had worked on it since 1983, but the Muggles never seemed to notice.
Despite that, Harry found himself scanning the area as he slipped his wand out of his sleeve. He always did – a nervous twitch of sorts. Satisfied that he was alone, he twirled on the spot.
Suddenly the world turned to streaks of black and white, and all the air in Harry's lungs seemed to disappear. When he had first experienced it, Harry had tried to fight it, but he knew now that it was a perfectly normal part of the process, and so relaxed, allowing himself to be compressed into what felt like a very small Smarties tube. With a 'Pop' of expanding air, he felt himself return to real-space. Before he'd even touched the ground with both feet Harry was ducking for cover behind a grubby-looking bin.
He'd apparated into the alleyway behind Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes – Hogsmeade branch, a place he knew quite well, having sneaked out of the store this way on many occasions. Happy that nobody was about to jump out at him, he silently crept to the far end, where he could survey the small square that the Three Broomsticks stood on.
Early spring, the sun had set almost an hour ago, and whilst there was no snow on the ground, this far north a thin coating of ice seemed to sparkle on every surface. Lit only by the flickering yellow-orange oil lamps of the pub, the square seemed to shimmer in the early evening air. It was almost like a scene off a postcard. Not for the first time, Harry wished he could settle down in a quiet place like this, away from the noise of the cities he was forced to live in for the anonymity it provided.
He sighed. One day.
As beautiful as it was, there wasn't a soul in sight, and the frost on the ground gave him a pretty good indication that the only people to have walked through the area recently were already in the pub.
Harry readjusted his hood to cover his face better and then stepped out into the square, bracing himself for every freelance photographer to jump out at him at once. It never came, and he managed to walk across the entirety of the square without so much as a butterfly getting in his way. He paused at the door, spying those inside through an amber-tinted square of glass in the door. It was busy, just as he'd hoped, but it was easy enough to spot Rachel Finley – wearing that same blue muggle raincoat as before, chewing the end of her ballpoint pen nervously as she read through some notes, presumably about him. He wondered what they said, and how much of it was based on the factually-lacking series of articles on him by Rita Skeeter in his fourth year at Hogwarts. Her mentor perhaps?
Harry shook off the idea. Finley had seemed critical of Skeeter during their first meeting, and anyway, it was unfair to judge her before the facts, just like it was for the rest of the world to do with him. He'd give her a chance. Just one.
Bracing himself, Harry pulled the door open and stepped inside. The air was warm, cosy, just as he knew it would be. This was a place he was comfortable, and it was also a place where he knew the landlady. If any trouble were to unexpectedly arise... Well, despite her size, Rosmerta had been known to singly handedly throw the odd half giant out when he became a little too enthusiastic with his singing.
Pushing through the forest of tightly-packed tables and chairs, Harry made his over to the corner that Finley had positioned herself in. It was a good spot, the same one Hermione had used for the only true Skeeter interview ever taken. Fitting.
At the last minute, Harry turned towards the bar.
Two minutes later, Harry sat down completely unannounced, apart from the two steaming mugs of butterbeer he'd plonked onto the table moments before.
"Sorry I'm late." he said, shuffling round so he was sitting right in the corner, looking out. "Got caught in a meeting about dolls – Terribly dull. How's your evening been?"
Up until this point he hadn't even looked Finley's way, but now he cracked a smile at her. The poor woman was staring at him like he'd grown two heads. Of course, he supposed this wasn't exactly what she had been expecting from 'Harry Potter – Saviour of the Wizarding World'.
"What? Don't like butterbeer?" he said, enjoying the woman's imbalance. "Ginny says it's a children's drink, but then, she's too grown up for her own good sometimes."
Finley stared at him for a few moments longer, before some semblance of professionalism seemed to kick in. She straightened in her seat and the notebook she had been reading through mysteriously flicked to a clean page all by itself.
"Mr. Potter..." she said, pausing to fill her lungs with air.
Harry grinned. "Call me 'Harry'. You sound like my Head of House when you call me that."
Finley's brow creased. "Sorry, er, Harry..."
There was a pregnant pause in which Finley glanced nervously at the blank notebook. She seemed lost without the notes that once appeared upon it. Harry sipped politely at his drink.
"Well, this is interesting." he said eventually, drawing Finley's gaze, "I've never been in an interview that I've had to conduct myself."
Finley ducked her head. "Sorry...er...Harry. I'm just a little...I don't...Where..."
"To begin?" Harry suggested, grinning.
Finley ducked her head again, but smiled sheepishly back at him. "...to begin." she agreed.
Harry took a long swig of his butterbeer. "How about the beginning?"
"The beginning sounds...good." Finley said slowly, and then again, more confidently "Yes, the beginning sounds good."
Harry sighed and settled back in his seat. "Well, my Aunt and Uncle: Mr and Mrs Dursley, that's 'D-u-r-s-l-E-y', of number four, Privet Drive, are the biggest pair of muggles you'll ever meet..."
Draco was not happy. Not yet, anyway. At the present moment he was sitting in his bathroom, staring at a small bottle of a sludgy liquid that looked surprisingly like snot – surprising, because he always imagined that the essence of 'golden-boy' Potter would be more...golden.
He checked his watch. The window of opportunity had been open for more than ten minutes now, and who knew how much longer Potter would put up with a reporter's questioning. He had agreed to two hours, but Draco knew that Potter could walk out at any point.
He had to do it, and he had to do it now.
Grimacing, he snatched up the bottle and downed the contents in one go. The taste was bad – worse even than real bogeys, but it was nothing compared with what came next. First there was the pain in his gut, twisting and stretching that felt like his internal organs had turned to rubber and were actively tying themselves in knots. Then there was his skin, bubbling and fizzing, waxy to the touch and as hot as a cauldron fire. The worst though, was his bones, cracking and resetting as they shrunk to fit Potter's smaller frame.
It was over within twenty seconds, but they were the longest twenty seconds of his life. The pain came a pale seconds to the Cruciatus curse, but this was self-inflicted, and all the way though it, there was the knowledge that he was doing this to look like Harry-bloody-Potter.
And that, if anything, hurt more.
It was a shock to find out quite how badly Potter needed his glasses, but luckily Draco had thought ahead and had a pair of glasses ready. Once he could see again, Draco quickly changed into more fitting clothes and grabbed the bag he'd pre-packed.
He had some shopping to do.
A quick trip though the Floo found him falling spectacularly out of the fireplace in the Leaky Cauldron. He tried to hide the smirk as he got to his feet, and was deliberately slow to pull the hood back over his face. Happy that he'd been noticed, Draco quickly exited towards Diagon Alley before anyone could confront him directly.
Whilst he wanted to be seen, Draco couldn't afford to be too open. If Potter found out before it was time – and the papers were sure to have a field day if he did something 'too' stupid – the entire game would be up. Luckily, the entrance to Diagon Alley was already open, and Draco was able to escape the growing murmur inside the pub without delay.
Draco headed straight towards Gringotts. It was a detour, but a necessary one. The entrance to Knockturn Alley, his final destination, was actually relatively close to the Leaky Cauldron entrance to Diagon Alley, but there would be no one there who would report seeing Harry Potter when the time came – too interested in avoiding questions as to why 'they' were in the Alley at the time. He had to find other witnesses.
And anyway, by Draco's reckoning, even the famous Harry Potter had to go to the bank every so often.
The alley was packed with early-evening shoppers, those businesspeople who could only shop at this time of night. Draco grinned and deliberately barged through a tightly-packed family group headed by one such man who looked like he was working overtime rather than 'enjoying' shopping with his family. There was a yell of protest, but Draco was able to slip away into the crowd before they could identify Potter too well.
After interrupting a couple more family shops in the same way, Draco made it to the steps of Gringotts. He daren't enter the building – the Goblins had more protections on that place than Hogwarts during the war, and Draco didn't fancy testing whether there were any wards against Polyjuice – so he stood on the bottom step and reached his hand into one of his pockets.
In a marvellous bit of play-acting, deliberately using overenthusiastic movements to shake the hood from his head a little more every second, Draco 'miraculously' found a full money bag, meaning that Harry Potter did not need to enter Gringotts after all.
Well, what a turn up for the books...
With that problem 'solved', Draco pulled up the slipping hood once more and stepped back into the crowd, happily ignoring the handful of people that had been pointing him out to their friends.
This time Draco deliberately kept a low profile. Potter had been seen in the alley – mission accomplished, but it had taken longer than he had planned, and he only had twenty minutes to get into Knockturn Alley and purchase the Felix ingredients. As much as he liked making Potter look like a clumsy oaf, he was out of time, and he still had to make his grand exit too.
After all. Potter couldn't be found guilty in the court of public opinion unless he was seen carrying a smoking gun, or in this case, a still-beating albatross heart.
Draco started to go over the plan in his head as he pushed through the crowd, but suddenly became aware of two shadows lurking just behind either shoulder that seemed to appear from nowhere. He had a tail.
Without blinking he increased his stride, this time using his barging technique in an attempt to put some bodies between himself and his assailants. It didn't work, and within seconds of his attempted escape, he felt two strong arms link into his own at the elbows. Without a word, Draco felt himself being turned on the spot, and the three of them started back down the alley, back towards Gringotts.
This time Draco paused, a small voice telling him that he was about to be murdered just for looking like Harry Potter. How Ironic.
"Wotcher, Harry." said one voice, male, although the identity of the person was disguised by a hood almost twice as deep as his own. "Fancy seeing you here." said the other, an identical voice from his other side. This time, Draco saw a wisp of violently orange hair sneak out of the hood.
All at once, it twigged who his assailants were.
"Weasleys." Draco said, hoping he'd managed to keep the venom and hatred out of his voice. "What do I owe the pleasure of your...company?"
He was very aware that he was still being frog-marched away from Knockturn Alley. Whist he was no longer in fear for his life, he didn't have time for this.
"Oh," said one of the twins, "So you've noticed our less-than-usually-friendly approach then."
"Well, we all have our little secrets, don't we, Harry?" said the other.
Draco swallowed. "Secrets?"
"Yes, Harry. Secrets. You know, that situation that occurs when one person 'forgets' to inform other people about a certain aspect of their life. Gred, give him an example."
"Why certainly, Forge." 'Gred' pulled Draco closer, into a conspirational kind of whisper. "How about when one person happens to be 'dating' a second person, but neither person tells that second person's family?"
Draco was baffled. What were they implying? That Potter was dating? Impossible, the press would have a field day. "I'm sorry," Draco said, not having to put any acted confusion into his tone, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Forge grunted. "Of course you don't, Harry." he said, patting Draco on the arm in a patronising way, "To be fair to him, Gred. Poor Harry here is so used to keeping secrets that he'd probably kept 'himself' in the dark about this one."
Gred seemed to agree. "Indeed, brother of mine. I wonder, do you think dear Ginny is in the dark too?"
Draco's ears picked up. Ginny? Ginevra Weasley? No...
"Oh, how terrible!" cried Forge, "Imagine, both of them not knowing they were seeing each other! This can't be allowed to continue."
Gred shook his head enthusiastically. "Do you think we should perhaps hold a small family intervention? It might help break the news to them."
"Too small." said Forge, "I think a press conference. Get the papers involved. Not even Potter could ignore that!"
"You wouldn't!" Draco chimed, deciding that it was high-time he at least attempted to act like Potter would – all snivelling and apologetic. "Please!"
"Oh, Harry, Harry, Harry." said Forge, unhooking his arm from Draco's and laying across his shoulders instead. "Of course we would!"
"Why, I'm almost insulted." added Gred. "It's like you don't know us at all."
Draco swallowed, very aware that he didn't. "How?" he asked, fishing for more information.
Forge sighed. "Well it's simply amazing how much sound travels in the Burrow when people forget to put up silencing charms..."
"The Wizarding Wireless Network...Ron's cries of anguish after every single Cannons game..."
"Fred's singing..." Added Forge, who was presumably George. To his credit, Fred didn't even pause in his dressing down of Harry.
"...even secret rendezvous between lovers. Caught Ron and Hermione loads of times, but then, they never tried to hide it either."
"It was rather disturbing, actually." said George, who seemed to be full of one-liners today.
"So, imagine our surprise when we hear a different set of voices coming from that room. Why, we just had to investigate."
"And the rest is history. Except in this case, it's not, because it hasn't happened yet, but it will be one day."
"'Something to tell the grand-kids', as they say."
Draco nervously checked his watch – Fifteen minutes before Potter would disappear. "What is it that you want?" he asked, acting defeated.
George seemed offended. "Want? We don't 'want' anything but the truth, Harry."
"And interestingly, apparently so does Ginny." Added Fred.
"So that's why we're giving you a month..."
"Ten days to break the news to the rest of the family, or we're going to do it for you."
Draco nodded, trying to keep his face down so the pair couldn't see the gleeful smile that was slowly spreading across it at the thought of what the pair might do to Harry once those ten days were up.
"Ten days. I understand." he said.
Abruptly, he was released on both sides.
"I know this is hard, Harry. But it's not like we're asking you to tell the world. It's just Mum..."
Fred paused and stared at his brother. "Actually, on second thoughts, I might lend Harry that new set of dragon-scale armour we recently acquired. He's going to need it to survive the hug Mum'll give him."
"Ahh, he'll work something out." said George, clapping Harry on the shoulder. "If he survived old Mouldy Wart, I'm sure he can survive one day of Mum being...well, 'Mum'."
The pair gave Harry an identical cheeky smile and then walked the short distance to their store, talking as they went:
"Fifty Galleons says he doesn't survive the night."
"Make it Eighty, and you're on!"
Meanwhile, Draco tried not to smile too much as he headed for the nearest floo. A glance at his watch told him that he only had ten minutes before Harry Potter would turn into a Slytherin, but it didn't matter any more. He had information that made his Felix Felicis plan look like a playground prank.
Harry Potter had no idea what was about to hit him.
"...and that was pretty much the end of my first year at Hogwarts." concluded Harry. He necked the last of his fifth butterbeer and signalling for another with a wave of his hand. He gratefully allowed the warm liquid to sooth his sore throat. Who knew talking could be so physically demanding? He wondered how Hermione managed to cope.
Rachel Finley shook her head as she scribbled the last part down in her notepad. "Unbelievable!" She said, reading it back over to make sure she'd gotten everything. "You really stood up against You-Know-Who at the age of eleven? And won!" She shook her head again. "Truly unbelievable!"
Harry shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, it wasn't all that impressive, really. Tom was still weakened, and I had my mother's protection still. Apart from Quirrell's attempt to strangle me, I wasn't in any real danger. I'm not even sure the killing curse would have worked if Quirrell had tried to use it, on account of the prophecy. Maybe that's why he didn't?"
That last part had mostly been to himself, but Rachel's ears perked up. "So there was a Prophecy! And what was that about your mother's protection? Does it have something to do with the night you got your scar? We haven't talked about that yet, you realise..."
Chuckling, Harry gently put his hand on the top of Rachel's notebook to stop her scribbling. "All in good time," he said, taking the book from her. She hesitated for a second, but did relinquish her hold begrudgingly. Journalists weren't known for their generosity when it came to letting people read their notes after all.
"Encrypted." said Harry, more intrigued than annoyed as he surveyed the squiring script. He took out his wand and tapped the page. Nothing happened. He tried again.
"Either you have an exceptional talent for encrypting written text, or I'm being extremely stupid." Harry said eventually, handing the notebook back. "Which one is it?"
Rachel tried to keep the smug look from her face, although the feeling of having one-upped the Saviour of the Wizarding World was making that difficult. She shook her head. "Oh no, Harry. A lady does not reveal her secrets, especially a lady reporter. I have my livelihood to think of here."
"Seeing as I've just given you enough information to write a short novel, I'd have thought your 'livelihood' was relatively secure at this moment." Harry retorted.
Rachel shrugged. "Maybe once we're all finished. I'll let you in on it then. That is..." she took a deep breath, "...that is, if you're happy to continue with these interviews?"
Harry was tempted to make Rachel sweat a little, especially considering her tight-lipped stance on her notebook, but realised he was having too much fun to really turn down having another chat.
"You know, I think I would." he said, and he saw Rachel physically relax back into her seat, genuinely relieved. "Honestly, it feels great to finally get some of this stuff out, and we've barely even scratched the surface."
"Same place next week?" Rachel asked tentatively. Harry shrugged.
"Why wait that long?" he said, taking out his diary. As much as Ron teased him about it, Harry had found the little black book essential for keeping track of his life since joining the Flights. There was always a meeting he was meant to be at, or a media launch of some new broomstick that he was contractually obliged to turn up to. Without it, he would have needed a full time secretary, and he didn't think Ginny would enjoy him being followed around by a young, blond witch straight out of Hogwarts.
Harry flicked through the pages, catching a brief glimpse of a lime green sticky that marked the training session at 0600 the next morning. He sighed and flipped forward a few pages before finding a clear slot.
"How about Monday evening?" he said, happy to put a line through the game of wizarding chess that Ron had been trying to get him to play for months now. They both knew who would win, Ron just liked to show that he wasn't getting slow in his 'old age'. "It's my day off after the match against Montrose, but I've got nothing planned."
Rachel seemed surprised. "Wh..Yes! Of course! But, don't you need that time to, you know, relax and be at home with your family?"
Harry laughed. "That might sound like the perfect day to any other person, but when your 'family' is made up of your two best friends who are so violently in love that they're constantly fighting... Well, being on the quidditch pitch can sometimes be more relaxing." He smiled at Rachel. "Plus, I'm having fun. It's not often I get to talk about the good-old-days with someone who actually listens to me."
Rachel tried desperately to ignore the words, but felt heat creep into her cheeks nonetheless. She deliberately studied her diary intently as she wrote in the appropriate page using her special script. Be professional, damn it!
"Monday evening it is then." she said, risking a glance over the top of her page. Thankfully, Harry seemed intent on scribbling in his own diary, and hadn't noticed her temporary loss of composure. "Around eight?"
"Make it six. Rosmerta always has live bands in here at eight. The place will be packed, and we won't be able to hear ourselves think. I might stay to listen afterwards though, you're welcome to join me."
Rachel felt her heart skip a beat.
"We'll see." she said. "We'll see."