Harry pressed his fingers into his temples. He had stopped rubbing his scar some years ago, but the habit had merely shifted sideways and he often stroked the throbbing vein in his temple, especially when he was agitated. The one person absolutely guaranteed to bring on agitation slouched over Harry's desk at the moment, pointing out column after meaningless column of numbers on what looked to be an endless scroll. The tip of his wand tapped against the paper in sharp jabs for emphasis and the grey eyes pierced Harry as if trying to force knowledge home through the sheer power of his personality.
"Malfoy," Harry said tiredly, "Can we please go over this tomorrow? I really don't understand how my expense reports can drag you up here to personally go over them with me every single week."
"Because your expense reports are always wrong, Potter," Malfoy explained with a patience that still surprised Harry, even after four long years of dealing with Malfoy's financial annoyance on a weekly basis.
"I filled them out exactly as you instructed!" Harry snapped and immediately regretted it when the blond drew back. No matter how many years passed, Malfoy still bristled like a hedgehog whenever someone hinted that he was even slightly inferior, mistaken, or heaven forbid wrong.
"Obviously not, Potter, or you would have placed the Robe Cleaning Fees into Column G rather than Column N. And speaking of Robe Cleaning Fees, do you realize how much it costs to have robes professionally cleaned?" The tip of Malfoy's wand smacked against the parchment. "Well it's right there in ink. It's a ridiculous waste when all you need to do is cast a decent Cleaning Charm."
"I can't cast a 'decent Cleaning Charm' as you well know," Harry protested hotly and dug his fingers even more deeply into his aching temple. "It makes holes in the robes, inviting yet another tirade from you about how I'm wasting money by forcing the department to purchase new robes for me. Remember?"
Malfoy pulled back again with a ghost of his old smirk. "You look tired, Potter. Are you sleeping all right?"
Harry shot him a suspicious glare. Whenever Draco Malfoy started acting solicitous, it generally meant bad news for Harry Potter.
"I'm sleeping just fine, Malfoy," Harry gritted. Malfoy toyed with his wand for a moment and seemed almost uncomfortable. Harry sat up straight and moved his fingers away from his headache. Malfoy looked as if he had some sort of question to ask and he was not quite sure how to phrase it. Auror training had given Harry at least a rudimentary ability to read body language.
"I wanted to ask you about—"
Malfoy's words were cut short by Kingsley throwing the door open and barging inside. Malfoy glared at him and Harry grinned. The Minister had no sense of propriety and had walked in on several inappropriate "conversations" in certain offices before. None of it fazed the Minister a bit. He still slammed through closed doors whenever he needed something and unprofessional behaviour was swiftly punished. His habits had certainly put a damper on office romances.
"Malfoy, still complaining about the budget?" Kingsley asked.
The blonde drew himself up with a huff. "Sir, as the Official Financial Liaison between the Ministry and Gringotts, it is my job—"
Kingsley waved an impatient hand. "Yes, yes, it's your job to police us all and make sure we're not wasting a precious Knut of Ministry Funding. So you have mentioned. At least a trillion times. Shouldn't you actually be at Gringotts instead of here harassing my Aurors?"
Malfoy sighed, but leaned over one last time to tap tap tap at Harry's scroll. "Column G, Potter. Remember." With that, he sauntered toward the door and Harry looked hopefully at Kingsley. Harry had been given ridiculous case after ridiculous case for the past few years and he was beginning to feel completely frustrated with his job. All of the good, important cases had gone to other Aurors, including Harry's fellow Gryffindors Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnegan. Kingsley had explained several times that he was forced to keep Harry out of the limelight as much as possible because he was simply too famous. He could not even work undercover, as his cases were usually leaked to the press and a mob of curious onlookers would show up trying to catch a glimpse of Harry Potter.
Instead, he was typically given assignments in Muggle parts of Britain where he would not be recognized. The expression on Kingsley's face quelled Harry's initial burst of hope. Another stupid, useless case then. Harry sighed.
"Malfoy, freeze," Kingsley yelled, stopping the blond partway out the door. Malfoy turned back curiously. "I might be able to use your help on this case."
Malfoy returned to the room immediately. If there was one thing the blond lived for, it was to be helpful so that he could bask in glory and whatever reward might be forthcoming. Harry rolled his eyes.
"Something financial?" Malfoy asked politely.
"You are a registered Animagus, are you not?" Kingsley asked. Harry's brows shot up in surprise when Malfoy nodded. The grey eyes were instantly shuttered.
"You are?" Harry asked.
"Of course I am. I don't spend all my time counting Galleons, you know."
"No, I didn't know," Harry said. "I can't imagine you doing anything else, even in your spare time."
"That just shows how well you know me, doesn't it, Potter?"
Harry felt chastened by the comment, although he wasn't sure why. It wasn't like he and Malfoy were friends. Even though he saw the blond on a weekly basis, it always regarded business matters, except when Malfoy occasionally brought Harry a cup of coffee or a chocolate bar. Sometimes a sandwich. Fuck, maybe he really was a friend and Harry had simply never acknowledged it.
"You two can work out your personal issues later," Kingsley said bluntly. "Right now I want to see your Animagus form, Malfoy."
"Now?" the blond asked.
Kingsley crossed his arms and glared. Not even Malfoy could withstand a patented Shacklebolt stare for long. The Slytherin sighed heavily.
"All right. No bloody comments from you, Potter," he threatened.
Harry stood up, blatantly curious. He had not even known Malfoy was an Animagus, much less had any idea what sort of creature he could transform into. Malfoy's features seemed to melt for a brief instant and then he disappeared completely. Harry hurried around the desk and looked down in amazement before he laughed.
"A snake. Malfoy's a snake. How appropriate."
Very funny, Potter, the snake hissed and Harry grinned as he bent down to pick up the green reptile. He realized with a particular thrill of delight that he had not spoken Parseltongue in years.
"Malfoy, you are the cutest snake I've ever seen!" Harry exclaimed as the Animagus wrapped his tail firmly around his wrist and stuck out his tongue.
Of course I am. Harry had not known snakes could preen, but Malfoy managed it.
"What sort of snake are you?" Harry asked.
"Atheris squamigera. Bush Viper," Kingsley replied. He had Conjured Malfoy's Animagus file, apparently, and was reading from it. "Poisonous, native of African rain forests. Often hangs by its tail from branches to drop upon its unsuspecting prey."
"That's not surprising," Harry added. "And he's cute." Malfoy was the most unusual snake Harry had ever seen. His scales were rather long and pointed, making him resemble a bristly, almost furry-looking reptile. He was bright green.
Vipers are not cute, Potter. I am very dangerous.
Dangerous and cute, Harry said in Parseltongue. He swiped a finger between the snake's eyes and caressed back over the scales, flattening them down slightly.
Are you petting me?
Harry nearly dropped the Slytherin when he suddenly remembered who was hiding beneath the fluffy green scales. Luckily, Malfoy's tail was quite firmly wrapped around Harry's wrist and the sudden jerking movement merely caused him to sway slightly. He hissed. Harry did not bother to translate.
"Excellent. Malfoy, you'll be working with Harry on this case."
Harry suddenly found himself flat on the floor with a lapful of angry blond.
"What?" Malfoy snapped. "I can't work with Potter! I'm no Auror! I don't even work for the Ministry. I work for Gringotts!"
"And your contract specifically states that if need should arise, you can be requisitioned by the head of any Ministry department. Since I am the head of every Ministry department and I've decided the need has arisen, you are hereby a temporary member of the Auror Department. There will, of course, be the usual salary adjustment, plus a bonus."
Malfoy had apparently been about to protest, but the mention of monetary gain caused him to shift gears. Harry watched a calculating look enter the grey eyes. He vaguely wondered when the blond planned to stop sitting on him, but decided not to mention it.
"What about hazard pay? I assume this has something to do with my Animagus ability?"
Kingsley sighed. "This is probably going to cost me more than it's worth, but it does need to be halted or the Muggle Liaison Office is going to have my head. All right, get off of Potter and I'll explain the case to you both."
Malfoy looked down, seeming to realize he was straddling Harry for the first time. A wicked grin crossed his features. "This is probably the closest you've come to a shag in months, eh, Potter?"
Harry bucked his hips and sent the blond sprawling on the floor, laughing.
"Shut up, Malfoy," Harry said, annoyed mostly because the statement had been true. He got to his feet and crossed back to his chair. Kingsley took another seat and Malfoy Transfigured a rickety metal chair into a cushioned throne. Bloody show off, Harry thought as Malfoy lounged on the seat with a slim ankle crossed over one knee. He winked at Harry.
"All right, here is the scenario, Potter, Malfoy. Someone has been smuggling magical creatures into Muggle pet shops. We are not certain if it is some sort of prank or if their intentions are more serious, but the Muggle Liaison Office is getting very upset. Regardless of why they are doing it, we need to stop it."
"What sort of creatures?" Harry asked.
"Nothing dangerous so far, but we have recovered two Clabberts, a Niffler, and a Fwooper. Luckily, the Fwooper was still under the influence of a Silencing Spell before its song could drive any Muggles to insanity, but the Niffler completely demolished the ground floor of its Muggle owner's flat before we captured it. Not only did we have to Obliviate the Muggle residents, but we also had to open a water pipe and flood half the building to explain the damage."
"What about the Clabberts?"
"The Clabberts were the reason we discovered the smuggling operation at all. Henderson has a Muggle wife and just happened to enter a pet shop to procure a pet for his son when he was surprised to see two Clabberts in a cage. Apparently the Muggles thought they were some sort of mutated primates. Henderson called in immediately and we began the investigation."
"So what do you want us to do, then?"
"We've pinpointed the general region and staked out several likely stores as possible targets. Malfoy will have to infiltrate and keep his ears open for unusual activity."
"Snakes don't have ears," Harry pointed out.
Kingsley threw him a quelling glare and Harry grinned.
"So I have to lounge around in a cage all day long?"
"I thought lounging was what you did best, Malfoy," Harry said.
"I'll have you know I have a very busy job, Potter. More challenging than yours, by all accounts."
Harry's jaw tightened and he threw a look at Kingsley, who stood abruptly. Harry's lack of challenge was a sore point that the Minister always chose to avoid.
"We will arrange for Harry to work in the shop so that you two can remain in touch. I would prefer not to use Polyjuice, but we're not sure if a Glamour will be sufficient, so the Potion might be our only recourse. Harry will have to use it to begin with, regardless. We have several random Muggle hairs available on file with photos attached, so you can find one that suits you."
"Oh, can I choose?" Malfoy offered quickly.
"No, you cannot," Harry said adamantly.
"Why not? I'll be the one forced to look at you," the blond said rationally. Harry rolled his eyes.
"I don't care who picks out the damned Muggle disguise, just so long as one is chosen. I want you two installed in Polly's Pets when it opens tomorrow morning. Johnson has already gone in and laid the groundwork with the owner—she's expecting a new employee as well as an exotic snake to put on display. Naturally, Malfoy will not be for sale."
"Well thank Merlin for that or there would be a Muggle fatality shortly after my purchase," Malfoy said.
"That reminds me," Kingsley said. "No biting Muggles, Malfoy."
The blond tossed his head, but Harry noticed he made no promises.
Malfoy insisted on accompanying Harry to the Auror storeroom where the Muggle hairs were kept. The clerk was an auburn-haired girl who alternated between flustered awe at being in close proximity to the Man Who Lived and giddy delight at being in close proximity to the Man Who Flirted. Malfoy fawned over her until Harry was ready to wretch. He thought the poor girl might actually faint at one point. The damned blond insisted on seeing every Muggle photo on file and held them up next to Harry's increasingly scowling face.
"What do you think, Faye? The redhead is out, of course. I can't abide staring at freckles all day long. They give me hives."
Faye giggled. "How about this blond one, then?"
Malfoy made a scoffing noise. "No, it would only make Potter feel more inferior to be such a substandard blond next to me."
"Malfoy," Harry warned.
Another photo was pressed against Harry's cheek. "Well, this one is dark-haired at least. And vaguely handsome."
"Oh yes," Faye agreed. "Not nearly as handsome as Auror Potter, though."
Malfoy sighed as though regretful. "No. Not nearly so."
Harry snatched a random photo from the pile. "I'm taking this one!" he snapped and stalked out. He heard Malfoy placating the clerk and then the blond trotted after him. Before Malfoy could speak, Harry said, "I'll meet you in my office at eight a.m. tomorrow, Malfoy."
Before he Disapparated, Harry heard Malfoy wail, "Eight? In the morning?"
He almost felt sorry for Malfoy the next day. Obviously, he was far from a morning person, if his never-ending moaning was any indication.
"Potter, kill me now. Put me out of my misery and end my torment at being awake at this hellish hour."
Malfoy sat in the same chair he had Transfigured the previous day, nursing a cup of strong tea. Despite his complaints, he looked perfectly put together. Harry could not have pulled off such a look with a two-hour head start.
"Don't tempt me, Malfoy."
The blond glared at him and drank his tea.
"You have no pity, Potter. You have lost your inner Gryffindor. Your wretched stint as an Auror has turned you into a cold, cold man. You are jaded, Potter. Jaded!"
Harry bit the inside of his cheek to keep from yelling at the blond and rubbed his temples. It was too early for a headache, but damned if he didn't feel a doozy coming on. He managed a reasonable tone after counting to seventy-two silently. "Malfoy, if you're that tired, you can transform into your Animagus form now and sleep in the box."
Unfortunately, that provoked an entirely new tirade.
"A box? I am to be kept in a box?"
In the end, Harry abandoned his office and let Kingsley deal with the irritated Animagus. Shortly before nine, a very annoyed Minister located Harry in the Auror break room where he'd been hiding while having a chat with Seamus. A snake-filled box was thrust into Harry's hands.
"Don't bring him back here," Kingsley warned. "Ever."
A hiss sounded from the interior of the box. Just wait until my next audit, Shacklebolt. Harry sighed and headed out with his cranky new partner. It was going to be a long assignment.