A/N: There will be some tiny jumps back and forth through time over the first few chapters only; after which time, the story should proceed without any flashbacks. Essentially, any gaps in the story early on (i.e. what days one, two, and three were actually all about with regards to Draco) shall be made clear to you fairly soon!
1. On the third day of Malfoy
Eight years later:
On a moderately overcast day, in the leafy outskirts of north London, a large clock on a stark white wall struck ten in its usual fashion.
Firstly, warped sounding bells began to chime in a rhythm more random than the human ears could typically take.
Secondly, a tiny wooden door opened and a small golden Snidget bird, perched upon a metal runner, slid out, wobbling slightly from side to side as it moved. There, at the end of its journey forward, it attempted to announce the time in a manner perfected by all fine cuckoo-styled clocks that went before. Unfortunately, this clock was over a century old and required serious maintenance.
Instead of chirping sweetly as it dipped its head forward, opened its beak, and flapped its wings, the Snidget made like an old drunken derelict, three beers past the point of no return. "Bleh…bleh… bleh," the wooden bird seemed to faintly hurl rather than tweet, lunging forward in a rolling fashion, as if truly expelling all contents from its tiny stomach. Meanwhile, one wing wobbled randomly up and down in the air, while the other dangled loosely, almost sadly, by its side.
It was a wonder - far that beyond its owner's fathoming - that the clock still managed to run on time. But it did, and the owner wouldn't have replaced it for anything.
Proud owner of the antique Snidget clock, Harry Potter, swiftly raised his head from beneath the cave of his arms, noted the time above the flailing bird (and somehow took no notice of its 'flailing-ness'), and gave a truly elated smile. He dropped his head back on his neck and exclaimed to the ceiling above, arms stretched out wide in the air:
"Thank Merlin! And Godric Gryffindor! And - and St. Mungo's! And - just - all the stars above!"
This part was not usual. He didn't normally act like an excited, born-again preacher at teatime. Typically, at ten a.m., if he was in the office and not out on some case, he smiled quickly but appreciatively at his much-adored clock (taking no notice of its 'flailing-ness'), fetched his coat, and nipped down the street for a quiet cup of coffee or tea.
But then of course, Harry wouldn't normally box himself in his own office like a bloody prisoner all day, either! He frowned. Nor would he feel the need to over-ward his office door! Or slip stealthily around Headquarters in a fashion distinctly different from the norm, just to avoid one stupid, STUPID person, for that matter either! He clenched his jaw and the edge of the desk angrily, wishing he could clench something else, if only laws would allow it.
And Harry, most certainly, would not normally want to sort of yell and - and scream, or – or cry a bit, either! But right now, even the smallest thing was very nearly setting him off.
He heaved a bone-weary sigh out into the world and rubbed his madly-tired eyes.
Things weren't even remotely normal around here anymore. His four-year dream was as good as over.
Everything in his life, his beautiful, beautiful life, had changed dramatically over the course of a few days, and there was nothing he could do.
He knew who was entirely to blame.
Harry exhaled sharply but quietly before he begun his journey from his closed office door to the outside world.
With a fortifying breath, he mentally cursed a certain blond (using several expletives he'd surely just made up), swallowed his pride, and then finally proceeded.
A moment later, he was clinging to the office wall, like a confused ninja wearing tweed.
His back and hands were pressed flat against the cool surface. He bent his knees and sidestepped slowly and quietly across the long wall of the general office area, noting how well the desk, topped with folders and other items, plus the rolled out chair hid his moving form. His eyes coasted perfectly across the top of the office equipment, giving him enough vision to avoid his target as he slipped towards the exit.
His heart squeezed tightly in a wave of nostalgia. All of his beloved workmates were about: Snufflehorn, the man who loved everything and everyone, was leaning on Smithers' desk and engaging him in light-hearted banter. Harry's eyes scanned further. Morris was walking about distributing the daily owl-mail with a thoroughly excited and purposeful expression on his face, as if delivery of mail - mail as critical as the latest Quills and Parchment Supplies catalogue to all the Aurors that worked here - was a matter of national security, and he was happy to have been given the opportunity to do it. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Gerard was hobbling about, ready to start (coincidentally at the time as Callida Loven's show on WWN) his daily four-hour outside of the office 'case work' block, which Harry thoroughly suspected took place at home. Possibly with a couple of pumpkin pasties on hand, and probably even a Butterbeer or two to wash them down with. Maureen, dear, dear old Maureen, was thoughtful as always in her disposition, nibbling on a fingernail while reading a file note and glancing out the window, every so often, in quiet consideration.
But Malfoy (his jaw tightened just at the thought of his name) was nowhere in sight.
It struck Harry, though: this felt like he was peering in on his family, and he could almost kid himself that everything was the same here - with these people - as it had always been. But it wasn't. Now it was like he was looking in on them through a glass wall.
Harry made it to the far end of the wall experiencing only one heart-jerking moment: Snufflehorn asked Morris where a certain file was, and Morris gestured over his shoulder towards the desk Harry was currently sliding behind. Harry sank an inch lower (as far as his knees could handle) and froze, hoping Snufflehorn would pass his tufts of hair off as part of the floor-to-ceiling mural on the wall behind him; the one Smithers had painted furiously one afternoon ("Together we can make a difference!") in a fit of feverish passion. Something he experienced towards 'the team' and 'promoting their emotional wellbeing' on a weekly-basis, it seemed.
Panic raged silently through his body as the older man walked towards his mostly-hidden body. But Harry received no sign that he'd been spotted by Snufflehorn; he was thankful that Smithers' mural was such a swirly monstrosity that even Harry's hair could blend into it.
With a final sidestep, a quick diagonal roll across the carpet of the hallway, and he'd made it to the front foyer avoiding everyone and everything he'd hoped to avoid (Malfoy, Malfoy, and also, Malfoy). Thankfully, all the Floo fireplaces in the foyer were inactive too and he found himself, quite happily, alone. Well, a dive-roll across the foyer floor was not how he typically wished to greet visitors.
He stood up swiftly, straightened his jacket and moved towards the wide main door and regathered his dignity. Hands braced against the dark wood, he pressed forward and welcomed the fresh air that rushed inwards and hit him square in the face.
He could beat this, he could! This would not get the better of him!
He squared his shoulders and took a step forward. He had no idea that his luck would take a dramatic nosedive, yet again, as he soon as he exited the building.
That was when Harry first realised that the strange goings-on around here of late were nothing compared to what was to come. For he'd somehow acquired a second shadow; one that was distinctly bigger than his own. It even talked.
Harry Potter walked out into the street, acutely aware that one Gregory Goyle was, quite honestly, tailing him.
Although Harry had been an Auror for years and could detect a well-trained spy from one hundred feet away, spotting Gregory Goyle, at this point in time, was not exactly hard.
"Goyle?" Harry finally stopped and said after fifteen minutes of sporadic glaring at the man over his shoulder.
Goyle stayed completely still behind a thin post with either side of his large body well and truly protruding out into view.
"Goyle," he said more firmly, his forehead crinkling in exasperation. "I can see you."
Goyle stayed still for at least another few seconds before he poked his head tentatively around the side of the pole. "Oh, er, hi, Harry! I mean," his face fell, "P-Potter."
Harry frowned. "Erm. Hello, Goyle." The words felt strange as they slipped from his disbelieving, crooked mouth. Goyle simply stood there blinking oddly at him. Harry sighed and decided to inquire about the obvious. "So." He pulled one hand out of the pocket of his pants and motioned towards the pole. "What're you doing back there?"
"Investigative wor- er, just… going… for, erm, a walk!"
One of Harry's eyebrows swiftly rose to swiftly question Goyle on that. "Going for a walk? Behind a pole?"
"Well, yeah… cos I… l-like… looking at poles."
"Poles…?" Harry repeated, wondering faintly when the sky might open up and cave in on him.
"Yeah. I, er," a quick scratch of his head, "like them."
"Right... Poles." Goyle halted anxiously, and then gave him a nod, and then halted anxiously once more, and finally nodded repeatedly with much more enthusiasm. "I see. Well, then…. Just - sort of - have a nice day, won't you?" For the second time today, in so many minutes, words again felt foreign as they left Harry's mouth. But Harry was beyond the point of caring. He was fed up trying to decipher even a tenth of what had happened around him of late.
Instead, he nodded Goyle farewell and attempted to turn and walk away. It would have worked too, only his feet experienced a sudden desire to stay rooted to the ground; his gaze dropped downwards. "Wait," Harry said. "What are you wearing?! On your feet?"
Goyle's face lit up like Lumos itself. "Snipflers! Harry, they're called 'snipflers'! And aren't they brilliant?"
Harry blinked and stared at what were in fact piglet slippers – fluffy and pale pink, with flat, comically-oversized snouts – peeking out from beneath Goyle's wizard robes. Goyle hoisted his robes up and hopped on one foot and then the next, and again, several times over, to show how his 'snipflers' worked in action. "I like the way the ears flop about when I move," he near-giggled. "See?"
Harry searched his brain for when The Prophet might have released the story: Gregory Goyle, dropped on head. But he came up with none. Still, he was not the most avid follower of the news.
Harry went on to seal his own fate as certifiably insane when he murmured: "Right. They're - they're very nice."
"I know! And comfortable too, Harry!"
Harry contemplated asking Goyle why he was wearing them, why he was following him, why Malfoy was an evil twerp, why Harry's life had always been like an uphill battle, and why it suddenly felt like he'd never be happy again!
But he thought better of it. Something told him that Gregory Goyle might not have the answer to all of these questions.
Plus Rudolph's and their great caffeine products were calling his name - screaming it, actually - and who was he to not answer?
When the Ministry decided to localise Auror work after the war and created several new headquarters in regional areas to achieve it, Harry had jumped at the chance. It was too tempting to ignore.
Everyone else thought he was clearly mad. It was well-known that, when it came to Auror work in England, only the Central Division of Aurors in London would follow-up on the most high profile of cases, while the more suburban North, South, East and West teams would tend to the lower level matters.
Few wanted to relocate, and the thought of menial work didn't appeal to many either.
The only likely candidates were inexperienced new recruits more clumsy than Tonks, older Aurors nearing retirement, or those nursing war-injuries that, in someway, affected their abilities.
But to Harry? The opportunity was perfect!
Harry could run away a little, leave all and sundry behind, and never look back.
Sure, it meant that his days would, no doubt, be filled with rescuing kittens from trees. But Harry thought that sounded like a holiday. A much-needed holiday. A gorgeous walk in the kitten-filled, sunny park sort of holiday.
And he'd be damned if he'd let anyone try to talk him out of it.
"You can't be serious."
"Of course I can."
"Harry. I know you're tired. I know… I know it all. I mean," Hermione winced, "we're all tired. Incredibly tired." She raised her brows slowly at him; the deep lines that formed in her forehead there drove her point home more than any further words she said possibly could. "It's just - if you're determined to be an Auror, don't you want to do real work, Harry? As in proper Auror work? Work that is clearly for the greater good?"
Harry frowned. "Hermione?" He reached over and rested a hand on her arm. "Rescuing kittens – much loved kittens – from trees – really, really tall trees - for the frail and elderly – the frail and elderly who've forgotten common spells - is important work. Very important work."
She'd sighed at that.
He slipped his hand down to meet hers. "I'll tell you what. If another Evil Idiot plans to take over the world and starts lording about the countryside, reeking havoc?" He squeezed her hand in his comforting grasp, watching her worry-lines smooth out. "I shall leave the kitten up in the tree."
She awarded him a small, hopeful smile.
"At least for an hour or so," he added.
Harry let his latest cup of coffee seep slowly into his system as he looked out the window of Rudolph's Café and onto the street with an odd mixture of serious concern and (seriously concerning) mild intrigue.
Gregory Goyle, his school-time bully of apparently questionable faculties, whom Harry had not seen in years, had just followed Harry from the office to here, and was presently still outside.
When Harry had first retreated into Rudolph's, Goyle had, once more, hidden badly behind a pole. This time for perhaps two minutes, before the effort appeared to have become too taxing for him.
Then he'd yawned in a larger-than-life fashion (his jaw opening so wide birds could have called it their new home) at the same time as indulging in a leisurely stretch (his arms reaching outwards and moving about wildly in the air like unsteady propellers) before slumping wearily against a post box... a post box that was several feet away from the pole.
Soon after, he'd moved on to kicking an empty can up and down the footpath, before engaging in quite a gleeful 'open-hand, outstretched arms' chasing of pigeons.
Right in front of Rudolph's large, front windows. And, thus, right in front of Harry.
What an odd day. No. More like, what an odd three days.
Merlin and his poodle in matching pink jumpsuits, Harry thought grimly, his shoulders sagging. Malfoy had something to do with this; he just had to.
Harry's heart plummeted.
He contemplated drowning himself in his coffee, or handing himself over to the gods - good, evil, or otherwise, it didn't matter; they could take him, whatever their persuasion.
But, instead he went with the highly dignified act of almost-crying in a public setting.
What was happening to his life? What was happening to it?
A man three stools down shifted uncomfortably away as Harry let out a ragged whimper.
Of course, Auroring in North England had not exactly been about kittens in trees. It seemed that this part of the country had its fair share of scattered Death Eaters, new bands of militia, independent masterminds, and even organised wizarding crime.
Harry didn't mind though. He'd surprisingly enjoyed making a difference still - only now he was doing it in a quieter fashion, perhaps even in a more autonomous fashion, as well, and wasn't that something to be thankful for?
In fact, there'd been quite a few big cases assigned to Harry and Harry was happy to put every one of the offenders he'd caught behind bars. Each time, after doing so, he'd even enjoyed his co-workers' response. The genuine pats on the back from Snufflehorn were always welcomed. Maureen baking a cake for all to enjoy at afternoon tea the next day was a sheer delight. He'd relished Gerard buying him those few beers from the local Muggle pub (knowing Gerard was still squeamish about wearing Muggle clothes and hobbling down the street on his wooden leg, being the king of Apparation and all) after his last big arrest. And he'd smiled each time Smithers excitedly outlined the important impact achievements like Harry's had on office morale.
There was something new and different about fighting evil and bad guys out here; the air felt fresher, the town felt quieter, and Harry Potter felt free.
The people felt warmer, too.
But the Bealsey case – the Beasley case? Well. It hurt.
I need my Invisibility Cloak back. ASAP.
Harry walked back to the office the long way. Specifically, three times around the roundabout on Robbins Road, across the road on Smith, then back again, only to cross Smith Road once more. Followed by a swift walk all the way up the Adams Street hill, then all the way back down again, ending with a very obvious and quite long death stare in Goyle-pole's direction.
But it was all to no avail, for Gregory Goyle and his fondness for poles (and remaining ever so still behind them) continued in earnest.
Strange, but Harry – in a moment of serious madness that he should surely reflect upon later, possibly with a bottle of Firewhiskey in one hand and maybe even Hermione Granger's phone number in the other – supposed there were worse 'tails' in the world to have than Gregory Goyle, a lot worse.
He still wanted to cry a bit though.
No, no, no, he'd said to himself as he stood in front of Malfoy on that first day. It can't be.
The blond awarded him with his best smirk, effectively telling him: Yes, it can.
Just - NO, he'd almost growled out loud in defiance. Smirk be bloody damned! This wasn't happening!
Because this was why he'd come here, this.
North England was supposed to be his escape, his refuge, his haven.
It was supposed to be free from Malfoys! Free from scaling walls in the stark daylight wearing his God-awful stained and mismatching office gear. And free from… well, free from pole-loving Goyles.
Essentially, free from everything and everyone who had ever bothered him in the slightest! Okay, so that might be quite a long list, but - but too bad.
Surely he'd earned it; surely.
Five years ago, Harry killed a man.
He'd raised his wand and cast a spell and watched as the life-force, still somehow holding on, even after all the dividing of its soul, attempted to cling futilely to its mutated body. The snake eyes had flashed for the briefest of moments before they turned grey and lifeless.
It was then as if time had somehow decelerated; Harry watched as the figure fell slowly towards the ground.
It was done. And Harry could only stand there quietly at the other's feet.
The wind had whipped around him, ruffling his hair and rippling through the robes of the alive and the deceased; that is, Harry Potter, and Tom Riddle, respectively.
In that moment, he'd felt the culmination of seven years - no, of his entire seventeen years of being - rain down on him and drench him.
He let out a futile sob. But he couldn't cry, he couldn't even cry.
Harry had hated that day. He'd hated it.
Four years ago, Harry had opened a decrepit pair of French doors, ignored the thud as one of the screws came loose and a door swung on its hinges, hitting the floor.
He looked out into the dusty, overgrown yard, beyond the burnt-out shell of an old car, beyond the rusty open fridge sitting on its side amongst tall, weedy grass, and beyond the wild goat that was feasting on a ratty rag hanging from the rotting fence. Instead he'd gazed towards the rolling hills that ascended and descended behind the property until they hit the horizon; he took in the view of a running brook far beyond the property, and several large trees that dotted the landscape. And he felt the rush of new beginnings and something else, something he'd never really felt before – perhaps, perhaps it was 'freedom'. Whatever it was, it flew through his veins like something rare and precious and, in that instant, he'd vowed to never leave.
He'd just bought a house. A home.
He was twenty years of age.
Harry had loved that day. He'd loved it.
Harry, mate. You said I could have it for a three weeks.
I still need it; just for a bit longer. This is important. Really.
I've looked long and hard but I still haven't found Hermione's birthday present for me anywhere! I'm thinking of looking at mum and dad's place because I am a genius and she can't pull one over me, right?!
Plus - you'll love this - I've thought of three new pranks to pull on George, Fred, and Percy! Just wait 'til you hear them, Harry; just wait!
Three days ago, Harry Potter, had woken at six, munched absently on a well-balanced breakfast of oats and fruit, dressed himself in his office attire at a casual pace, and walked to work his most favoured way: down past the quaint Piccadilly Lane with all its roses in bloom, across the grassy park and through the tens of quacking ducks, along the edge of the pond admiring the blue sky and white clouds reflected in the still surface of the water, and then through the glass front doors of the Northern Auror Headquarters to start his day at work.
"Harry, m'boy!" Eldrid Snufflehorn, all-round good guy and very decent boss of his said, greeting him warmly as per always. "I've a wonderful surprise for you. Look who has just joined our little family here... Your old school mate!"
Harry turned and looked into the face of someone who he hadn't dared to even conceive would re-enter his life, let alone be referred to, ever, as his 'mate'.
"Potter! It is a wonderful surprise, isn't it?" Draco Malfoy asked, a half-smirk stuck on his stupid face, his eyes twinkling stupidly.
Harry tried to remember the definition of 'wonderful' and what constituted unlawful assault, and also how to speak. It seemed he'd forgotten all three in that instant. His hand, however, had not forgotten how to go right ahead and form a fist without even consulting him first, crushing a paper cup within his hand; a paper cup that was full of hot, burning liquid that is. Good thing Harry remembered the spell to heal burns.
Two days ago, Harry Potter had woken late at eight with a sigh. He'd huddled under his pillow for more snoozes than he could count before finally forcing himself out of bed. He'd quickly slurped through some watery porridge with a scowl, tossed on whatever clothes were clean, and proceeded to walk via his second most cherished route to work: by the antique stores along Hibbodsford Way - enjoying the sun on his face as he glanced into each shop window, excitedly making plans as to how to decorate his newly added sunroom (probably starting with an old upright piano - the kind with two candlestick holders on the front, and a restored Chippendale or balloon-back chair which would go nicely in the opposite corner) - before crossing at Banks Rd, making his way over the short bridge, and laughing as he watched several children skittering about at the river's edge, tossing handfuls of dirty water at each other whilst their parents' backs were turned.
All before entering Headquarters and being greeted again by Snufflehorn and the Centre of All Evil, Draco Malfoy, as soon as he walked through the door.
"Harry, m'boy!" his boss, of rapidly declining praise in Harry's mind, greeted him. "Good news! We've decided to put Malfoy in the office across the hall from you!" The rotund man clapped his hands together, rocked on his feet, and chuckled lightly, affecting a very Father Christmas look. "Harry, m'boy? You and Malfoy will be like neighbours."
"Huh! How delightful! Isn't that something...? Neighbours!" Malfoy exclaimed in echo, with a grin that was a hare's breath away from inducing, in Harry, a rage befitting a troll, with all its verbal fluency to boot, too. Apparently.
"Oh… er... h-hm… s-snmpf," Harry stuttered.
Snufflehorn paused, for only a moment, to assess Harry's response, but seemed satisfied that it was a 'good' one - Harry had never once complained to him or denied the man a thing; a fact that Harry was now rapidly regretting - for Snufflehorn went on to say: "He's moving his things in straight away," while grinning, his cheeks rosy from the excitement. And Harry seriously wondered why he'd never thought to punch Snufflehorn.
"Straight away!" Malfoy repeated joyfully.
Harry went to Rudolph's 'straight away' and ordered a triple espresso. He restrained himself, though; he didn't order a second one until at least five minutes after downing the first.
This morning, on the third day of Malfoy, Harry Potter had woken at nine, dragged himself out of bed, skipped breakfast and threw on whatever his hands had first touched (that turned out to be a chequered shirt with a large stain on it and a non-matching thick tweed jacket Harry noted much later) and walked to work via his most loathed way: along the dusty train tracks, down the gravelly road by the factory, shielding his face from the miserable drizzle that was sporadically descending upon him from the swollen clouds above. And then through Devon Street which housed the back of several restaurants, complete with their overloaded rubbish bins and their not exactly enticing buffet of smells.
And, no matter how hard he tried, his feet seemed to have enormous trouble spurring him forward. Like lazy adolescents who just couldn't be told, his feet kicked up dust and dragged rocks along the way with every laboured step he took.
Come on, it's just Malfoy; you can do it, he had gently urged his feet.
He was rapidly rethinking such encouragement when he arrived at work and found Snufflehorn and Malfoy again greeting him and again wearing matching grins.
Harry waited for the pain to hit him.
"Malfoy's offered to take a look at the Beasley file for you!"
Why did Harry Potter ever think Eldrid Snufflehorn was anything less than pure evil?
I mean no disrespect, but right now? I could kill you.
On the outside of an inconspicuous building, Harry pressed his wand to three red bricks in remembered sequence and watched as a previously hidden door rippled into view.
Three minutes later, he was inside headquarters again, clinging once more to a wall and sliding through the general office area with bent knees. Calling upon all Auror-taught skills, he moved like a panther - a sliding, sidestepping panther, one who was unusually thankful for messy, overloaded desks. He was also glad that the office area was completely devoid of coworkers.With a final sidestep, a quick diagonal roll (which he was getting quite good at), and he'd made it to his office door. He smirked and began to push himself up to his feet.
A sardonic voice suddenly reached his ears. "Potter? What are you doing?"
Harry's eyes darted towards the owner.
Malfoy; it was Malfoy.