Title: Albatross Around His Neck
Disclaimer: J. K. Rowling and her associates own these characters. I am writing this story for fun and not profit.
Word Count: 30,000
Warnings: Violence, profanity, unusual Animagus transformations. DH Spoilers but ignores epilogue.
Summary: When an unregistered Animagus commits murder, Harry Potter investigates the agency that trained him, Malfoy's Magical Menagerie ("Discover your inner animal in two days, become one over a lifetime!") Things would be so much easier if he was not growing disillusioned and if Malfoy were less intelligent.
Author's Notes: Happy birthday, leochi! Thank you for the wonderful art you gifted me with. Your request was I'm not very interested in dark themes or smut. My favourites are credible stories with lots of psychology and inner developments. Accordingly, this story has no smut or extreme darkness, although it has some violence, and focuses a lot on both Harry and Draco's inner perspectives. Hope you enjoy it!
Albatross Around His Neck
The façade of Malfoy's Magical Menagerie was meant to overwhelm. It loomed twice as high as the front of any other shop in Diagon Alley, with the gaudy, flashing letters of the motto marching around the doorframe and the windows in curlicues of red and gold on black that Harry thought George Weasley must have designed. The windows showed elaborate scenes of running wolves, foxes, stags, and lions in stained glass. Some magical effect Harry hadn't seen before and couldn't track to its source made the whole building shimmer as if it stood in moonlight instead of sunlight.
Discover your inner animal in two days! proclaimed the lettering. Become one over a lifetime!
Harry scratched at the stubble that remained from yesterday—he'd felt too tired to use the Shaving Charm that morning—and tilted his head back to study the top of the building. Yes, it had honest-to-God battlements, probably because Malfoy was always living in the shadow of Hogwarts and needed some psychological connection to the most important place of his life. There also appeared to be a flat green space on the roof where winged Animagi could practice their takeoffs and landings. As Harry watched, a plump brown bird of a kind he didn't know took off and skimmed over the grass, struggling the way that no bird would. A few moments later, it sank out of sight, and Harry saw a feather drift up into the air. He smiled briefly as he imagined it crashing.
He lowered his gaze and fixed it on the front door again, made of some frost-blue stone with a knocker as dark as obsidian. The knocker was in the shape of a hawk, wings flung back as it alighted in a dramatic pose Harry was willing to bet was not copied from nature. He didn't want to knock on the door and go in there.
But then, he rarely wanted anything to do with Auror cases these days, and yet he took them anyway, because what else did he have to do with himself?
Efficiently, Harry banished the thoughts. They occupied the time he spent in his flat and his pub. They weren't allowed to interfere on the job, where he had prided himself for the last ten years on acting like a professional.
He stepped towards the door and knocked with his fist instead of the hawk. He heard several bells go off at once, like fireworks. Harry pushed his hair back from his forehead, perfectly willing to use the scar, in this case, to awe whatever shop clerk answered the door. Merlin knew it would have no appreciable effect on Malfoy.
But of course, Malfoy himself opened the door, and his gaze flickered to Harry's forehead in a way that said he understood the effort Harry had made with the scar and was unimpressed.
Nothing ever goes the way I plan it.
Whinging wasn't allowed on the job either, Harry reminded himself, and made his voice like iron, as heavy and as inflexible. But polite. He could do that. "Good afternoon, Malfoy. I'm here in my official capacity as Second Auror. I wondered if I might ask you questions about a recent student at your school."
Potter would be a lion, Draco decided immediately. No other answer for it. The Chosen One had grown taller but hadn't otherwise changed, as his ridiculous stunt with the scar showed, and he would have been a lion Animagus if he'd chosen to undertake the training in school, because what else could so pure a symbol of Gryffindor change into?
Then Potter shifted, perhaps because Draco hadn't answered him inside one second, and Draco caught his first glimpse of those shadowed green eyes. He paused. It seemed thirteen years of looking at crime scenes, if only ten as a full-fledged Auror, had taken their toll on that Gryffindor purity. Perhaps he would be a wolf. Draco had trained his share of wolf Animagi in his time, because it was felt to be a symbolic animal and one's form depended in large part on what one already thought of one's soul.
You can't be an animal you've never heard of, and you can't be an animal that you feel indifferent to, was the way one of Draco's trainers had phrased it.
"I really don't see what one of my students might have done to require the attention of the Aurors," Draco said, his voice perfectly respectful. Potter didn't react one way or the other. Draco found himself stepping closer and adding a touch of insolence to his tone before he thought about it, because that indifference was just so disappointing. "Of course, you've always been ready to believe the worst of anyone associated with me, haven't you?"
The shadows in Potter's eyes glided into motion. Draco hoped he was remembering one of the times Draco had seriously threatened or changed his life. There was the presence of his hawthorn wand in Potter's hand during the final battle with Voldemort, of course, but Draco didn't think enough people remembered that.
"In this case," said Potter, "it was an unregistered Animagus. It was only by carefully scrutinizing a few of his letters in recent weeks that we learned he trained at your school." He reached into his robe pocket and started to pull something out. Draco took a step back to put distance between them, again without thinking about it.
Potter paused and glanced at him. Draco was sure his mouth twitched.
"Impossible," he did manage to say. "All my students are required to register the day they transform for the first time."
"And this is someone who didn't," said Potter. "Exceptions exist all around us, Malfoy." He finished pulling out the object he'd reached into his robe for. Draco lowered his glance and realized he was confronting a familiar photograph. The young wizard in the picture blinked up at him from behind large glasses and then grinned shyly, waving a hand before he looked towards the far side of what seemed to be a Hogwarts courtyard.
Septimus Gully. Yes, if anyone was going to do something like that, it would be him.
Draco swore under his breath, then stepped aside. "You'd better come in."
The inside of the Magical Menagerie was dimmer than Harry had expected it to be, with all the magical lighting on the outside and the enormous windows. It was also filled with drifting scents that didn't seem to come from potions. As his eyes adjusted, Harry made out candlewicks floating in pools of glimmering liquid, shedding small trails of smoke and the scents of new-mown grass, raked leaves, wet earth, and the salt of the sea.
"It comforts the students the first time they transform," said Malfoy matter-of-factly, stepping around him so he could gesture Harry towards a chair. "Most of them are confused and overwhelmed by their new senses, and they need something that smells like home to their animal bodies."
Harry nodded, and watched Malfoy for a moment. He had changed, but what hadn't in the years since the war? He had a guarded, listening face and stripped-down movements, as if he wanted to accomplish everything he did with the least waste of time and energy possible. His hair hung in fine, loose strands past his ears, cropped at an angle that made the ears look almost pointed, and his robes were entirely white, to point up the pallor of his skin. When he looked back at Harry, his eyes had a flinty shine that the sunlight had hidden when Harry stood on the doorstep. In fact, if Harry hadn't been forsworn from intimacy for a great many excellent reasons, he might have—
Once again, Harry banished the thoughts that didn't belong on the job, and sat in the chair Malfoy offered him. "How well did you know Gully?" he asked.
Malfoy sat down opposite him and gave him an oblique look. "Why don't you start by telling me what he's supposed to have done?"
Harry sighed once, and then nodded. That was only fair, he reckoned, especially because Malfoy looked to have no idea what this was about. Harry had made such quick judgments before in his experience as an Auror, and they rarely failed him.
"His Animagus form is a scorpion," Harry said, recalling the details from the file he'd been handed with an ease born of long practice. Malfoy stirred in his chair but said nothing to contradict him, so Harry thought he was safe to continue. "He's discovered a way to fill his sting with more powerful venom; we know that because the poison that Councilor Ferguson died of was not natural to a scorpion. On the other hand, there were signs of his having been stung by one."
Malfoy was sitting straight up, his face pale. "Ferguson?" he asked. "Gerald Ferguson?"
Harry let a faint smile touch his mouth. At least that had got a reaction out of Malfoy. "As in Gerald Ferguson the Wizengamot member, yes," he said. "Did you not hear of his death?"
"I read an article that he was sick and had been taken to hospital." Malfoy closed his eyes and bowed his head. It made his face look much more pale, his hair tumbling like a fall of snow across his brow. Harry flicked a whip of discipline and banished the inappropriate thoughts again. "I was busy right after that, helping a student who had changed into her quail form and couldn't change back. I never read the end of the story."
"He did die." Harry half-closed his eyes and stared at a candle. If his brain would insist on taking note of things it had no business taking note of, then it could take note of a spot of light instead. "We didn't think it was murder at first, but then one of his secretaries reported seeing a scorpion." He bared his teeth in an expression Malfoy could take as a smile if he wanted to. "It didn't take much time to come up with a report of Gully in the area shortly thereafter. And then we managed to find people who confirmed that he was a scorpion Animagus, and that he had trained here."
"I don't see what information I can give you." Malfoy's voice had dropped the politeness he'd greeted Harry with at first and now crackled with old ice and old animosity. "You know more about the crime than I do."
Harry didn't turn a hair. He had prepared himself by doing all his complaining in his head before he actually entered the shop, or the school, or whatever it was. "I'm told that you know more about his personality," he said. "That you must, because you were his teacher and the teacher learns a student's soul whilst he coaches him to become an Animagus. Sometimes he has to guide him in the right direction and teach him to envision the animal he actually is, rather than the animal he wishes he was." He looked at Malfoy, his breathing calm and steady. "Is that true?"
Draco's perception of Potter's possible Animagus form was rapidly changing. Not a bear, because though he had the same coiled danger about him now as a bear did when emerging from his den, he didn't have that slowness of temper. He was quicker, more lithe, more deadly. A bear would often be satisfied once it had chased the initial threat away. A leopard, perhaps? Those striking, wary green eyes would fit one.
It had been a while since he had such a challenge. Draco regretted that it was Auror business which had brought Potter to the Magical Menagerie. Had he entered as a student, Draco could have had fun belittling him, laughing at him, and tugging him in the right direction against his will. No doubt he would have wanted to believe he was a stag, like his Patronus, or some neat compact animal like a house-cat. Not anything dangerous. Potter had never wanted to be dangerous to anyone but Voldemort.
At least he'd done some research before he came, or got Granger to do it for him. "Yes, that's true," Draco said. "But Gully was one of my more puzzling students. I wouldn't have pegged him for a scorpion. He came to me when he was barely out of Hogwarts, wide-eyed and begging to become an Animagus. He was humble and learned from his mistakes, although he didn't learn quickly. He never seemed dangerous or aggressive, which is usually the case for those who become venomous animals, no matter how small."
Potter gave a small frown and lifted his head. The candles made dancing flames appear in his glasses and his eyes. Draco was startled to feel his stomach tighten with want. Then he shrugged and dismissed it. Well, why not? He'd always been attracted to bright eyes, and he'd never minded green.
"I did some reading on scorpions, too," Potter said.
Granger did some reading, Draco translated in his head. He nodded wisely.
"I didn't think scorpions were aggressive. Is it possible he was a better fit for his form than you expected?"
Draco snorted. "And beetles like Rita Skeeter aren't naturally nosy." Potter frowned. Draco took pity on his small intellect and explained. "What is important is what the students think of the animal, Potter, and not what they actually are. Natural snakes don't have a great deal of cunning, either, or ambition. But many of my Slytherin students to whom House pride was important become snakes of one sort or another, because they've been taught to associate snakes with qualities inherent in them. Had the lion been our symbol, I would expect many lion Animagi among them."
Potter smiled faintly. "It's been a decade and a half, Malfoy," he said with unexpected gentleness. "Do you think you could let the grudge based on House points go?"
Draco stared at him. Suddenly the brilliance in Potter's eyes and the stubborn lack of knowledge he was revealing couldn't hide the fact that Draco didn't know him anymore. He had up and changed his soul in those fifteen years, and that made speculations about his possible form based on their shared past useless.
I resent that, Draco thought, and then wondered why. Surely he should have known Potter would move on without him.
"Very well," he said, aware that that wasn't much of an answer to Potter's statement, and not caring. "But it's the students' own perception that's important, that and the students' knowledge of themselves. Sometimes they take months or even years to transform because they're clinging to one perception of themselves and they have to come to see that they're not actually as clever or brave or strong as they thought they were."
"Could Gully have seen himself as secretly venomous, then?" Potter leaned forwards. "How fast did he transform? How accurate was his perception of his soul?"
Stop demonstrating brains, Draco thought, intensely irritated. His perception had shifted again. No, Potter couldn't be a leopard; he was no longer restless or monofocused enough.
"You may have something there," Draco said. "His transformation itself, once he got past his learning mistakes in the process, was swift. I thought it was simply because he accepted the form of the scorpion the first time I suggested it to him, rather than arguing with me, as others have done when they didn't want to believe themselves venomous."
Potter nodded. "And do you happen to know who visited him during the time he was training here?" He spoke as if he thought it highly possible Draco wouldn't remember every odd visitor his students had.
Draco glared at him. "As a matter of fact, yes, I do. His sister visited him, and a woman he called his Aunt Medea."
Potter snarled. Draco flinched before he could help himself, but then he realized Potter's eyes were trained past him on the far wall and his hands were clenched into fists, aiming his wand at someone who wasn't there.
"That wasn't his aunt, Malfoy," Potter said absently. Draco felt a dim surprise. Most of the Aurors he had known wouldn't have bothered explaining. "Neither of his parents has any siblings. That's almost certainly Medea Shrivelfig. We've been after her for months. She's trying to overthrow the Ministry—"
"Is she?" Draco laughed. It seemed to him a saner goal than trying to assert blood purity as Voldemort had done. "Good luck to her, then!"
"—and set herself up as sole dictator in its place," Potter finished, with a sidelong glance at him, "allowing the use of Dark magic. She wants to use Transfiguration and experiments to make Muggles into various species of magical creatures to serve wizards."
"Oh." Draco kept his acknowledgment to that simple word and saw the faintest shadow of amusement slide over Potter's face before he rose to his feet.
"Please write down every bit of information you can remember about this 'Aunt Medea,' and send it to us with a post-owl," said Potter. He stood with his head bent for a moment, his hands clenched at his sides, and Draco could feel his magic gathering in his shoulders and arms, as if he were preparing himself to charge out and arrest Shrivelfig immediately. "I'll need to report to the Minister himself, and don't have more time to stay and collect your testimony." He began to stride across the room towards the door.
"Wait!" Draco wasn't entirely sure why he scrambled to his feet and called after Potter, except that he hadn't encountered someone whose Animagus form he couldn't narrow down to within a few possibilities in months. "Why do you need to report to the Minister? Is it something that could damage the reputation of my school?"
Potter looked back at him with his eyebrow raised, a hand balanced on the doorframe and a foot uplifted. He seemed utterly unconscious that he was assuming a strange stance. For a moment, Draco saw the grace of a hoofed animal about him, the shadow of antelope or deer, and then that faded as he caught sight of the shadows in Potter's eyes again.
"A threat of treason goes beyond the Aurors," said Potter. "And that's really all I can tell you if you don't want your school implicated."
Draco nodded slowly. He watched as Potter opened the door, not bothering to shut it behind him, and stepped out into the middle of the street. He Apparated by seeming to spring forwards into space, as if he were about to take flight.
A winged form, maybe? Considering how much he loves Quidditch, that might make the most sense.
Draco shut the door of the shop and sat down for long moments. He knew this mood in himself, and it was useless to try and work on anything else until he solved the puzzle. He would decide what Animagus form would best suit Potter, and then he would go and investigate other documents, to prove to himself that Gully could have no further connection with his school.
Had the Ministry's senior advisers not been sitting around one end of a round table, and had Harry not been looking directly at them when Kingsley began to speak, he might have missed the very small headshake from Acheron Hidefell.
The Wizengamot member was an enormous wizard, both tall and big, though Harry would have been wary getting into a wrestling match with him; more of his weight was muscle than fat. He wore blue and silver robes, apparently the official heraldic colors of his family, and a tall pointed hat that rivaled McGonagall's. His long flowing dark hair and beard almost obscured his face. Harry, who had always needed to look someone in the eyes and read his expressions to tell if he was being honest or not, objected to this on principle.
And because he had shaken his head at Kingsley, Kingsley said something different than what he otherwise would have said; Harry was sure of it.
"That's very interesting news, Auror Potter, and we will be sure to follow up on it." Kingsley nodded twice and shuffled some papers in front of him. Harry had known for some time now that was a distraction technique for the Minister, designed to make him look busy and dignified when he was neither. "For the present, however, we will need to turn to the case of the Obliviators in South London. They've been overzealous, and destroyed the memories of several Muggleborn wizards and Squibs visiting relatives as well as those of the Muggles who actually witnessed the explosion of a Weasleys' Wizard Wheeze."
Harry leaned forwards, interrupting the attempt of the Head Obliviator to defend herself. "Minister," he said, working hard to control his voice and his temper and make them both sound calm and unruffled, "I've just given you evidence of a possible treason plot, and you want to discuss what's essentially a political squabble?"
Kingsley looked at him with cautious eyes, the expression he always wore when trying to handle the dangerous political commodity that was the Boy-Who-Lived. Harry closed his hands into fists behind his back. He wouldn't be dangerous or a mere commodity to Kingsley if he was allowed to use his influence to actually protect the wizarding world, or if Kingsley listened to him instead of people like Hidefell, who probably wanted the matter of Shrivelfig swept under the carpet because it connected to his business or a relative.
"This is more than a political squabble, Auror Potter," Kingsley said, a warning note in the back of his voice. Harry didn't give a bloody damn for his warning note. "It involves the human rights of Squibs and Muggleborns, which I'm sure your friend Mrs. Granger-Weasley would be interested in—"
"Well, yeah, I'm not her." Harry leaned forwards and only became aware then that he was quivering like a bow strung too tight. Well, fuck that. If it made the Wizengamot members and the others underestimate him, it was all to the good. "I want to know why we aren't pursuing Shrivelfig more closely, why Councilor Ferguson's murder has been shuffled away and kept as quiet as possible, why—"
"You only have the evidence that a woman called Medea visited this Gully at an Animagus school," Hidefell interrupted, his voice soft as always. "It could have been an assumed name. It could be an entirely innocent coincidence. It could be a red herring. It has not been hard for the enemies of the Ministry to learn that you are impulsive, Auror, and to use that to their advantage." He paused delicately, and if he had ended there, then Harry could perhaps have forgiven him, but no, he just had to keep going. "I believe there was the matter of two Aurors who died because you simply had to charge ahead and try to rescue a little girl who turned out not to exist?"
Harry stared at him. The air around them grew thick and syrupy, and then two of the legs of Hidefell's chair broke and he sat on the floor with a rather sudden thump.
"Harry," Kingsley said sharply.
"I know, I know," said Harry, keeping his eyes on Hidefell's flushed face as the man scrambled to right his chair. He was also glaring at Harry, or Harry thought he was, though it was rather hard to tell in all the mass of hair. "I'm a political liability when I'm not doing exactly as you tell me to. I already understood that."
Hidefell looked at him contemplatively, one hand locked on the back of the chair. "I suggest you control yourself, Mr. Potter," he said. "You do not understand how many lives might be made harder because you chose to exert your strength where it was not wanted."
Harry snorted. "Is that a threat? I'm sorry, I can't give you a fair hearing for one. I'm afraid Voldemort spoiled me for lesser performances." He watched in intense satisfaction as Hidefell flinched at the name, and then turned back to Kingsley, who was slowly rubbing his brow as if he were trying to ease the headache forming there. "Sir, what do you want me to do about Gully?"
"You treat the case as an ordinary murder case," said Kingsley, opening one eye. "That, and nothing else."
Harry felt his mouth tighten. "Sir, beyond the name of this aunt who visited him at Malfoy's school, there are some other oddities we've discovered. Correspondence during his Hogwarts years with an owl that matches the description of the one that delivered Shrivelfig's threats to several of her targets, for example. And his family is related to one of the Wizengamot members who lost the election ten years ago. We think he may have entered this plot believing it would give his family a chance to—"
"That is enough, Auror Potter." Kingsley leaned forwards with his hands splayed on the table like a newborn foal's legs. "Do you understand me? You have nothing but your intuition and a series of coincidences as evidence. You cannot base an investigation on a resemblance of owls and family connections."
"Sometimes," Harry said, eyes never wavering from the Minister's face, "I can."
Kingsley flushed deeply. He was likely remembering, as much as Harry was, the evening six years ago when someone had made an assassination attempt on him. Harry had figured it out because his intuition had told him something was wrong with a witch in a long sweeping set of violet robes and wearing a unicorn earring who had passed him several times.
That was why they couldn't simply dismiss him and refuse to take his concerns seriously, though Harry knew they would have liked to; most of the "new" Wizengamot and their compatriots considered that Harry was too wild and crass for serious politics. His brand of uncanny guesses and half-madness had saved not only the Minister's life but the lives of various other people around this table many times.
"Not in this case," said Kingsley. "This is not a targeted assassination plot, Potter." It was the first time the Minister had neglected to call him Auror in months, Harry noted absently. That probably didn't bode well for his chances to investigate the case. "Insisting on dragging innocents into this—"
"You really think Gully is innocent, sir?" Harry had perfected a tone that made it seem as if he agreed, with sarcasm lurking so obviously under the surface that most of the time people couldn't resist calling him out.
"I do not." Kingsley hung onto his temper with a death grip, if the glare he gave Harry was any indication. "What I do think is that innocent people, Hogwarts students especially, follow Medea Shrivelfig in fun, because they don't understand what she believes and it gives them pleasure to call themselves rebels or anarchists. Until we have a better idea of what plots she is and is not involved in, especially whether she has any connection to Councilor Ferguson's murder—" He shook his head. "I will not rip innocents up by the roots and demand the names of their playmates from them, especially when questioning those people might not produce anything concrete."
Harry breathed lightly, his eyes locked on Kingsley's. There had been a point when Kingsley trusted him to investigate on his own and to follow up on any lead, but that had ended, because Harry had made his mistakes just like anyone else and acted sometimes on insufficient evidence. With the authority of the Minister's office behind him, those mistakes became Kingsley's own. And when Kingsley began to gain real political support and not simply the thundering popular tide of the moment that had elected him because he was associated with the revealed Order of the Phoenix, he had become less willing to take risks. He had explained to Harry several times how those pointed, sweeping investigations Harry made disrupted the lives and livelihoods of the people he targeted.
Of course they do, Harry longed to say. That's what they're meant to do. The innocent can stand a bit of questioning and a bit of suspicion. The wizarding world is like a weighted candle. It always wobbles back to equilibrium in the end, except for the truly guilty, and people who stared hard at their neighbors one day are nodding to them the next.
But Kingsley had long ago ceased to believe that. Probably about the time he had gained the backing of influential people who didn't like trouble, Harry thought.
"And if I bring you concrete evidence, sir?" Harry asked at last. "Would you let me open the investigation further if I could prove that Shrivelfig is once again trying to stir up animosity against you?"
"I believe I understand the young man," said Hidefell, before Kingsley could respond. "He grew up in a time of conspiracies and active double agents, and of course he would see shadows around every corner when he had become an adult as well, because there was a time when ignoring them would have cost him his life." He gave Harry a sympathetic smile. "He does not realize that circumstances have altered, and our world has come to political maturity. We don't have to worry about Dark Lords any longer, because the average wizard knows better than that. There's only one madman seeking immortality every few generations, and thanks to the efforts of wizards like Potter and Albus, the majority of us will never have to battle them and can live normal lives."
It always burned Harry when Hidefell spoke as if he had known Dumbledore as a personal friend. At least he wasn't stupid enough to try that with Harry. He narrowed his eyes and curved his lips into a false smile that was good enough to pass in photographs and memories, which was all the Ministry required. "But the existence of those madmen is remembered and imitated, Councilor," he said. "It doesn't matter whether Shrivelfig really has the power to become a Dark Lady. The point is that she's trying, and this murder will upset the balance of the Wizengamot and necessitate the election of a new member. She'll try to slip in someone who has ties to her."
"Ties to a rebellion are not always evil," said Hidefell, and then made a real mistake: he tried for jollity about Harry's past. "After all, during the period when You-Know-Who was taking over the Ministry, someone could have been called a rebel for supporting you? Eh?" He made a movement as if he would nudge a companionable elbow into Harry's ribs, and then stopped, perhaps because he'd just now taken in Harry's real expression.
"Harry, that is enough." Kingsley's voice was soft and furious. "I am removing you from the Shrivelfig case as well as the Gully one. And I don't want you to investigate on your own, either." Harry tensed; that took away the silent permission to do so that removing him from a case had once constituted. "You've already caused more trouble than this murder is worth."
Harry laughed bitterly before he could stop himself. "More trouble than a murder is worth, sir? Are you only doing this because Ferguson was your political opponent? I agree, the man was a pompous arse, but he didn't deserve to die."
Kingsley's face froze, and Harry understood that his careless words might have inflicted a wound between them that would not heal.
"I care about justice, Potter," Kingsley said. "Get out."
Harry bowed and went.
Of course, he had no intention of dropping the Ferguson case or his pursuit of Shrivelfig, especially when he found an owl waiting on his desk.
You'll need to come by the school again. I've uncovered information about Gully and another student of mine that I think you should read.
Of course Draco could have investigated the information he'd discovered on his own, but he wanted another chance to observe Potter. Perhaps he would be able to identify his proper Animagus form if he had him at close quarters for a longer period.
He received Potter this time at a side door of the Magical Menagerie, which led into his personal living quarters. Potter looked around the blue and white room without any expression on his face. Draco waited to hear what he would say about it—surely he would make some reference to Hogwarts, surely he would say something about how he had never expected a Slytherin to have any sense of beauty—but instead he simply nodded and turned to Draco. He might have expected Draco to live in a room with all the colors of the sea. Draco narrowed his eyes as a stab of disappointment came to rest below his breastbone.
"There's one thing you should know before you share any information with me." Potter's voice was calm today, though the shadows in his eyes were deeper than before. He was looking at one of the walls behind Draco covered with a seascape, but Draco doubted that he really saw it. "The Minister has officially removed me from the Ferguson case. You could risk censure from the Ministry if they discovered that you'd associated with me, or helped me track down Gully." He looked sideways and met Draco's eyes.
Draco stared at him. Then he said, "Explain to me how that makes sense, Potter, when you're the Auror with the best record for tracking and arrests."
"The movement Shrivelfig has started is quite extensive," said Potter. Draco nodded; he had reason to believe that after the documents he'd discovered. Potter moved papers gently off a chair and sat down in it. Draco blinked. He found he liked the simple, unpretentious quality with which Potter performed that action, not asking but not flinging the papers impatiently aside, either. "They're afraid that my investigations would disrupt the lives of 'innocent' people," Potter continued, bringing Draco's attention back to his face. "And business, according to Councilor Hidefell."
Draco laughed. "I hadn't realized he won his election," he said. "Your Minister knew what sort of snake he was letting into his henhouse, I hope?"
"You speak as if he weren't also your Minister, Malfoy." Potter was looking at him with a touch of interest on his face that Draco hadn't managed to rouse before.
"I don't consider him so, since I voted for his opponent." Draco shrugged. "None of that means I won't obey the laws he passes. But I don't feel bound to obey his lesser commands, like removing you from this case." Anger tightened his gut. "They were using the space and the trust I gave them, this Shrivelfig of yours and at least two of her people."
"Two? Not just Gully?" Potter's fingers tapped on his knee as he leaned forwards. Draco caught his breath. It was very hard to look away from Potter when he pinned you with a gaze like that. Perhaps his Animagus form would turn out to be something striking, like a peacock or a butterfly.
Then Draco revised his assumption, and shook his head. No, he couldn't imagine Potter as something that had so little impact on the world.
"Yes," said Draco. "It turns out that another student of mine was in regular contact with Gully at the time he was training, before he left and she came here. I didn't realize it because she used an assumed name when she wrote to him. But he left her letters here, and she has the same handwriting as a student who arrived the day after he completed his training."
"Why would he leave the letters?" Potter bared his teeth like the wolf Draco had decided he couldn't be. "That seems like the obvious bait in a trap."
"The letters are innocent on the surface," said Draco. "And he moved hastily when he finally did leave. I think he must have received a summons, or been informed that they would need his magic and his venom earlier than they thought they did." He waved his wand, and the wall in front of Potter shimmered and became a screen like that of a Muggle computer. Potter blinked, looking briefly impressed before he focused on the information in front of him. Draco preened. To capture the attention of someone as forceful as Potter—a whale, maybe? Simply for the size of his impact on the world, Draco would not be surprised, but he hoped not, because he didn't have the facilities here to train a whale Animagus—was a coup.
"I've created a timeline," Draco explained, and dates began to swirl and dart in blue letters across the screen, courtesy of the same spell that had changed the wall in the first place. "Based on when Gully arrived, how fast he trained, and how quickly he left and this second student—Athena Wellward is the name she used with me—arrived, I think I've worked out what happened."
"Thank you," Potter said.
Startled, as he'd just begun to get absorbed in the information again himself, Draco stared at him. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," said Potter, a small smile crossing his mouth as he stared at the dates, "that I'm used to collecting information like this and noting connections myself. And asking someone else to arrange it? I would have been lucky if I could get someone who loved me as much as Hermione to do that."
"Why don't you have a partner, Potter?" Draco asked. It hadn't struck him as odd that Potter would continue working on the case despite the Minister's orders, but surely he should have had someone trailing him when he came to Draco's school the first time. "Don't tell me they're not knocking each other down in the corridors to work with you."
"They aren't, actually." Potter stretched his legs out, the only sign of his discomfort, and kept his eyes fastened on the screen. "They used to, but they discovered that I was too bullish, as they termed it. I kept smashing into the lives of people who should have been left decently alone, and who didn't turn out to have as much connection with the case as they might. I asked painful questions. On a few occasions I implicated my partner's family." Potter caught Draco's eye as he glanced over his shoulder. "And the opportunities for promotion and for keeping peace with the Wizengamot aren't good if one works with me. Not everyone cared about the first, but on the other hand, not everyone has the power of my name to protect them as far as the second goes."
Draco nodded slowly. Potter had grown in political astuteness, as well as the ability to answer Draco civilly. But on the other hand—"If you know it annoys people, why don't you try to act differently?"
"Because I don't want the guilty to go free," said Potter. "That happened often enough during the war."
Draco drew back with a hiss. "I reckon you're referring to my family."
Potter laughed. Draco blinked. He hadn't expected to hear that sound with a bitter twist to it that wasn't directed at him.
"Not everything is about you, Malfoy," Potter said, looking away. "And the exact opposite is true. The Wizengamot tried to cast all the blame on families like yours instead of acknowledging that some of their own relatives and friends had been caught up in the madness or done horrible things in order to survive. I wouldn't have minded excusing people who made mistakes, but they didn't want to do that. They wanted one side that in some cases did nothing worse to take all the blame. I argued for your family to be set free and ignored those people who tried to say that your father bearing the Dark Mark was enough reason to send your lot to prison. That was when I made my first enemies on the Wizengamot."
Draco licked his lips. He was getting a full insight into the mind of Harry Potter and his conflicts with the people Draco had always assumed he served without question. Should I feel privileged or appalled? "Tell me again why you're still an Auror."
"Because I want the innocent to be protected and the guilty to be punished." Potter gave him an oblique glance. "Now. Shouldn't we pay attention to the case instead? My conflicts with the Minister and the Wizengamot will only affect you if your association with me is discovered, and I don't intend that it should be."
"Ashamed of a Malfoy helping you?"
"If I were, I would never have told the Wizengamot about your mother lying for my life in the Forbidden Forest." For the first time, a gleam of real temper showed in the backs of Potter's eyes, and once again Draco wanted to preen. He wondered how long it had been since someone not associated with the Ministry had managed to rouse Potter's temper. "No, it's because I want the innocent to be protected. Why does Wellward's date of arrival make you so suspicious?"
"It's that combined with her other behavior." Reluctantly, Draco turned back to the timeline. Potter at thirty and with an edge of jaded annoyance to his behavior was certainly much more fascinating than Potter at sixteen or seventeen had been. Draco waved his wand, and a date near the bottom of the timeline glowed. "She arrived the same day Gully departed, and without making her previous association with him clear. But there are some inferences I can make, now that I know her true allegiance."
"You're certain she's part of this rebellion?" The fire in Potter's eyes had been banked, and a reptilian cunning had taken its place. Crocodile? Draco thought. There was an animal that was striking, had a large impact on the world—or at least its particular river—and possessed Potter's kind of intelligence.
"Yes. She referred to the legend of Medea in her letters to Gully, and many times to fig trees."
Potter's soft snarl showed that this amount of proof satisfied him. "Go on."
"She didn't come in with the perception and self-awareness that Gully showed," Draco said. A flick again, and the very last date of the timeline glowed. "She was impatient with the training and the exercises that were designed to help her clear away various symbolic rubbish from her awareness and help her find her animal. I attribute that to her having seen that the Animagus training could help Gully and wanting to do the exact same thing." Draco laughed coldly. The rage he'd felt on first confronting the evidence and learning how he'd been used was bubbling back up within him, but along with it came amusement as he thought of the way Wellward had been disappointed. "This is the date she discovered her Animagus form. She left in a huff, not even seeming to care that the manner of her departure ensured that I kept the fees for boarding she'd paid me."
"What was her form?" Potter tapped his fingernail against his teeth, a habit Draco usually found annoying, but which he let happen this time because of how civil and complimentary Potter was being.
Potter laughed again, and Draco felt a burst of happiness travel through him. At the moment, he was the only one sitting with Potter and inspiring that amusement from him. No one and nothing else.
"I can see why she was disappointed." Potter rubbed a moment at the stubble on his chin, which he didn't seem to have taken the time to attend to in the few days since Draco last saw him.
"A swan can break someone's arm with a wing," Draco said, shrugging. "But it's true that it doesn't have the venom or the huge teeth she was perhaps anticipating." He smirked. "I knew she was a good candidate for being a swan from the first day I saw her."
"Did she have grace about her?" Potter was studying the labeled dates, probably committing them to memory.
"No." Draco controlled his annoyance that Potter had fallen prey to the common symbolic perception of the swan. After all, that perception was important, and not entirely useless; it had changed some graceful people into swans in Draco's time. "Rather, a certain nastiness of temper, suited to hissing over eggs and a mate she might not be able to keep anyway, considering how many male swans pair with one another."
Potter laughed yet again and glanced at Draco with his eyes still shining with amusement. "You had reason to think such things with her?"
Draco blinked, thrown by the direction the conversation had taken. "I'm not sure what you mean."
Potter rose to his feet, now staring at him. The air between them had shifted and become charged. Draco licked his lips and rose to his feet in return. He was not sure he wanted to be sitting down in front of a Potter who looked like that.
"I mean," Potter said softly, "that she might have been chasing a man who preferred to be with another man."
Draco just managed to keep from staring like a gosling confronted with a dog for the first time. Potter's frightening intuition was also new. "Yes," he said at last. "Me."
Potter nodded quickly, seeming satisfied. "I would have been in the same situation," he said.
"But I've never heard anything about that," said Draco. "I mean—I would have." Though homosexuality was not unaccepted in the wizarding world, the Daily Prophet would have had enormous fun in talking about all the witches who had lost their chance of becoming the honored and celebrated wife of the honored and celebrated Harry Potter.
Potter shrugged. "I told you that I'd learned to understand the power of my name. Bribing gossipy reporters happens to be one of those gifts." He grinned. "Besides, I think they overdosed themselves on gossip about my love life when I broke up with Ginny, at least for a few years."
Draco took a step close in spite of himself. He didn't normally move this fast, but Potter had several qualities he found attractive—despite his maddening refusal to conform to one set of personality traits and allow Draco to identify his Animagus form—and he was fit. He'd always been fit; Draco had admitted that to himself in the days when he was still coming to terms with his own preference for men.
"And are you ashamed to let others know about it?" he murmured.
"No more than I'm ashamed to let my name be splayed all over the paper when I capture a Dark wizard." Potter met his eyes. "I only want the truth, that's all, instead of unfounded gossip that I was trying to capture a member of the Wizengamot or a happily married husband." He smiled slowly and leaned forwards as if he were testing the problems Draco might have with his personal space. "I don't think either of those is in effect here," he whispered.
"Especially not the second," Draco breathed, "much to my mother's despair." He lifted a hand, not entirely sure where it would come to rest on Potter's body, and thrilling to the uncertainty. Potter's eyelids dropped, and Draco licked his lips. Why not? He didn't work in the Ministry, there was some initial fascination here, and whilst they might not be suited and might not last, they could have some fun in the meantime.
The Magical Menagerie rocked. One of the pieces of tile that constructed a mosaic in the corner fell away from the wall. Potter cursed in startlement and whirled so that he was safely away from Draco and in fact standing in front of him, his wand aimed at the doorway. Draco, who had a better idea of what a shaking like that implied, swore and Summoned his wand, which he often left upstairs; most students learned better without a wand and the distracting possibilities of spells it presented at first.
"Attack on the wards?" Potter had recovered his balance already, and his eyes burned for battle as fiercely as they'd burned for Draco. Draco wondered if he should admire or be annoyed at that.
Wonder will be my most frequent emotion around Potter, I think. "Yes," Draco said. "I can't say I didn't expect it, once I read Wellward's pursuit of me as an attempt to recruit me into Shrivelfig's rebellion, but—"
"My arrival here twice in a few days probably decided them on the attack," Potter said, voicing Draco's thought so neatly that he stared in amazement. Potter didn't notice, his eyes fixed on the doorway to Diagon Alley by which he'd entered. "What kinds of protections do you have? Where are they most likely to come in?"
"We have to assume that Gully and Wellward told them about the common protections," Draco said. "There's a more uncommon one, but I'll have to get to the roof to begin it. Because Gully's form wasn't winged and Wellward refused to train, neither of them had reason to be up there." He frowned as a ward in his head began to wail a silent alarm. Yes, I know about that already. "Can you distract them whilst I make it to the roof? I should need only a few moments."
"Do you have staircases that you can float up?" Potter was flexing his arms, his fingers tapping on the wand as if on a wall. "Judging from the power of these attacks, they could break through when you're still running."
"Ah," Draco said, and smiled at Potter in a way that made him turn around and stare. "But you don't know what I am." He bowed his head and began to transform.
Harry had watched Animagus transformations before, but none as fast, smooth, or skilled as this one. Malfoy vanished in a whirlwind of white and black feathers, and Harry barely caught a glimpse of his arms or his nose lengthening. Then an enormous seabird with webbed feet and powerfully beating wings had replaced him, and one of the walls was falling away to give Malfoy the space he needed to fly out.
An albatross, Harry thought, his gaze pinned irresistibly to the seabird for long moments. It would make sense. He was always so pale.
A juddering crack from the wall on the other side of the room, the one that faced the back of the shop, reminded Harry that he had more urgent things to worry about than Malfoy's Animagus form. He dropped to one knee to brace himself as the shop shuddered and lifted his wand, sketching it in a quick cross pattern in front of him. He rarely spoke his spells aloud anymore. It was unnecessary for them to succeed, and he preferred not to give his enemies the warning.
The magic began to glimmer along the lines of the cross, and then it caught fire in the air before him, burning brilliant blue and white. Small crosses began to spin off it, whirling away and crashing into the cracks Harry could see opening in front of him, a spell designed specifically to attack stone and which seemed to be shaking the building to its foundations.
The crosses divided; they were an all-purpose protection spell, one that would become defensive or offensive as the caster required. Half of them vanished into the cracks in the wall and began to spread a glowing mortar that dripped and flowed and then froze like water suddenly turned to ice. The rest swooped outside in a motion that Harry imagined would mimic the motion of Malfoy's Animagus form in flight, and there came several shrieks and the smells of burning flesh.
Kingsley would scold him for using spells so dangerous when he couldn't see his opponents, and might strike an innocent by mistake. Harry had long ago made the decision that protecting the innocent people he knew about, and himself, was more important than worrying about bystanders who might not have fled when they saw hostile spells flying.
He could not be responsible for everyone. He'd learned that when he attempted to take on the guilt of the deaths during the war and it had crushed him. He could accept a limited amount of responsibility and no more than that.
Right now, his responsibility was in holding the opponents' attention, so that they wouldn't have time to attack Malfoy even if they saw him flying up to the roof. Harry grinned hard enough to make his teeth cut his lip and began to chant one of his more eye-catching spells. Kingsley couldn't have much to object to with this one, since it was mostly illusion.
Draco soared and banked, grimacing as he flapped his wings hard to get around the corner of the school. Whilst many things about Animagus forms were controlled by the wizards' perceptions of the animals involved, once the transformation was achieved, the wizard was at the mercy of that body's physical limitations. And albatrosses required a lot of effort both to take off and to fly in direct wind instead of gliding. He'd solved the first problem by changing as he leaped into the air. For the second, there was no answer except flapping, and aiming upwards, and striving, and more flapping.
His wings whipped the air, eleven feet from tip to tip and very noticeable. But no one cast a curse at him as he looped around the school and headed for the roof. He could hear shouts from the side of the school that faced the street and from the back, and when he got high enough he could look down and see two groups of wizards and witches ranging back and forth in the alley before and the yard behind the Magical Menagerie.
Shall I take it as a compliment? he thought, as he caught a draft and was briefly able to glide in a circle that aimed him back towards the grassy space on the roof like a wind aiming an ordinary albatross back at the waves. Or shall I decide that they sent that many only because they feared Potter?
Abruptly, the entire school was consumed in flames. An enormous blue-white fireball bloomed through the windows and tossed the glass onto the streets with a roar. The attackers backed away, screaming in shock and panic.
Draco nearly froze in surprise, but his body had more of an instinct than that, luckily. In fact, it kept him not only aimed in the right direction but headed downwards. Draco realized after a moment that whilst his eyes could see the flames and his ears hear the sounds he would expect of an inferno, he couldn't feel heat at all.
Illusion, he realized as he dropped through the covering of flames and found himself in a stretch of unscarred grass. Such a good one that they probably won't be able to convince themselves to go forwards even if they notice there's no heat, and it buys Potter time to do something else.
Draco came down towards the roof and cheated by changing back to human form when he was still several feet above the grass, to obviate the necessity for a landing. He dropped to all fours with a loud gasp and a jolt, but he'd done this before and rolled over twice to recover his breath and his balance.
Then he stood up and flicked his wand at what looked like an ordinary boulder in the middle of the grass. Dozens of his students had rested there, in the forms of owls or seabirds or doves—for some reason, that was a popular Animagus form since the war, perhaps because of the association of doves with peace—and never realized that the stone their claws or webbed feet clasped was actually a solidified ward.
The boulder split down the middle with a soft popping sound like a pupa being torn. A gray light spilled out and grew spider legs, running rapidly over the roof of the Magical Menagerie and then down the sides. Draco gave a hard smile as he watched it cover the windows and seep over the doors and then reach the foundations and lock in place like a sheet of rock. Where it ran, Potter's illusory flames disappeared and the curses the attackers had been trying to hurl through the windows and doors stopped sparking. That ward vanished magic without collapsing in on itself through draining its own magic. It was an innovation that defense experts had been trying to achieve for years, and of course when it was achieved it was hideously expensive and only available to the rich. Draco had made sure to buy it. Vengeance at the hands of someone who resented his family was always possible, and his school meant too much for him to allow it to suffer.
The attackers may not have known what they were facing, but they knew not to linger too long when they'd been defeated. One by one, they stepped back and Apparated out. Draco had taken the chance to study their faces, though, and had already recognized the narrow face and oddly pale hair of the woman he had known as Athena Wellward. Another tall wizard was unfamiliar, but wearing a white robe with a grasping black hand on the back, which Draco would wager was the symbol of Medea Shrivelfig.
When they were gone, Draco leaped into the air and changed back into an albatross again. The Animagus transformation was an exception to the rules of the ward that forbade magic, as it was an exception to so many things. He glided down, whipping briefly to the side on a particularly hard current, and landed as a human on his knees in front of the door into the alley.
Potter was waiting for him. He studied Draco with no expression on his face for long moments, which made Draco wonder if Potter was thinking of some law Draco hadn't known existed but which forbade the existence of the ward. Then he smiled, slowly, and held out his hand. Draco clasped it and let himself be drawn to his feet.
"Impressive," Potter murmured. "Were you able to see them?"
Draco nodded. "One was definitely Wellward. The other wore a white robe—"
"With a black hand on it," Potter completed. "Yes. Medea has become confident enough to choose her own symbol, the way Voldemort was." He closed his eyes and stood in silent thought for long moments. "Well, keeping your association with me secret is no longer possible," he said. "But I might save you trouble with the Ministry if I can't save you trouble with Shrivelfig's people. If you have a loud argument with me in public, say, and claim that you know the Minister told me to stay away from this case and—"
"Fuck that," said Draco, his senses set on fire by the flight and the remembrance of Potter's illusion spell and the smile Potter had given him. "What will happen if I go in and show your Minister my memory of the attack? Shouldn't that change his mind and demonstrate there's actually a case here?"
Potter exhaled slowly through parted lips. Then he said, "It might. At the very least, it couldn't hurt, and there are other people it might convince if Kingsley won't listen." He extended the hand that still held Draco's further, his fingers tracing the bones and veins of Draco's wrist. Draco watched his eyes instead of his hand, though, because there was a triumph in the back of them he did not understand.
"Thank you," Potter said.
"For supporting you in this?" Draco raised an eyebrow. "It's a small enough thing to do, given that they would have killed me and destroyed my school if I hadn't fought back."
"For supporting me," Potter said, in a way that made it more than a confirmation. "It's been a long time since someone's done that."
His hand extended further for a moment, fingers curling down Draco's forearm, and then retracted. "We'll go tomorrow," he added over his shoulder. "Kingsley will have gone home by now. In the meantime, do you want something to eat?"
Harry leaned against the chair and exhaled a satisfied sigh. It had been a while since he'd eaten at his pub, as opposed to drinking there, but the food was as good as he'd remembered. He idly scrubbed a bit of bread through a wet ring on the table, making Malfoy snort. "You have no idea whether that's beer or sweat, Potter."
"I'll take my chances," Harry responded, and popped the bread in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. The taste was dark and heavy, like the walls around them, the lowering rafters, the small crowded tables. The client was mixed Muggle and wizarding, but secretive enough that there was no need for Obliviators; subtly flicked wands under tables could accomplish as much as the flashier sort of magic. Another thing Harry liked about it was the serious business of drinking. Few wizards and witches—although women tended to stay away from this pub—had the time to stare at him when they were urgently seeking the bliss of oblivion.
Harry took another pull of his beer and looked at Malfoy. "So how'd you get into it, anyway?" His voice had acquired a faint blur along the edges from the drink, but he knew he wasn't actually drunk. That would mean forgetting his own name and his own disappointment with the Ministry and how his life had turned out differently than he thought it would.
"You'll have to be more specific." Malfoy still had the same drink he'd started out with, and he kept staring around the pub with the fascination of a visitor to a foreign country. "There are many things I could enter." He laid such a rich emphasis on the word, as if it were the sophisticated alternative to "get into," that Harry had to laugh.
"I meant the business of running an Animagus school, of course." Harry took another drink and sighed deeply. He was finally relaxing, in a way he couldn't when thoughts of Kingsley pulling him off the Ferguson case were whirling through his mind. "It seems an odd career choice. Just because you're an Animagus yourself—"
"It had nothing to do with that, actually," Malfoy said quietly. He set his drink on the table and regarded the mug as if it held the secret of life, lacing his fingers together. "I became fascinated with the theory behind the magic first. Then I trained, and was lucky enough to have the power and perception to recognize and embrace my form." He looked up then, blinking, though he hadn't seemed to have any problems with the dim light before now. "I reckon you know why I'd like to be able to see people's souls, to know more about them."
Harry met and held his gaze. Malfoy had a tight line at the corner of his mouth, as if he would explode if Harry mentioned the war. So Harry only gave a delicate nod and sipped again. His mind was filled with memories of a younger Malfoy, staring at him in terror as Death Eaters stood around them and pushed him to identify Harry, clinging to him as they raced through devouring flames.
Strange how powerfully the presence of a man he hadn't seen in thirteen years, and who had changed greatly since then, could bring it all back. Harry rarely thought about the war any more. What the Ministry had become since the war concerned him far more. He licked a bit of foam off his lip and said, "And so you feel that you know enough about people from being able to guess their Animagus form?"
"I'm almost always right," Malfoy said, a hint of boasting to his voice. Harry smiled. Of course. He wouldn't be Malfoy if he didn't boast. "I knew Athena Wellward was a swan before she did, I told you that. And seventy-five percent of my students are understandable the first time I meet them, either because they have a pronounced affinity to a certain common or symbolic animal or because I can see that they'll never achieve the transformation." He squinted at Harry and pointed at him with his smallest finger. "You, on the other hand—you belong to that confusing twenty-five percent. And even given that, I haven't had as much trouble in years as I'm having with you."
"Really?" Harry asked, not sure if he should be surprised, flattered, or annoyed. "I've never tried to become an Animagus, so I can't give you clues. If I could choose my form, I suppose I'd want to be—" His mind blurred for a moment, and he ended up shaking his head. It had been so long since he'd thought about himself in terms of anything but his relations with the Ministry and with his friends. Trying to imagine himself as an animal was a frivolous exercise in comparison, and somewhere along the way he'd lost the ability to be good at frivolity.
Malfoy was staring at him intently, apparently waiting for an answer. Harry covered his confusion with another sip. "Well. You said it doesn't work like that, in any case. The form chooses the wizard."
"It's not like wands, Potter." Malfoy passed a hand over his eyes.
"If you're tired and don't want to talk about this—" Harry began.
"Shut up," Malfoy said, without venom. "I'm gathering my thoughts." He tapped his fingers on the table, then nodded and leaned forwards. "Think of it like this," he said. "We exist in the center of a maze of connections that binds us to everything around us, in more ways than most of us can comprehend."
"But you can, can't you?" Harry traced his finger through another wet ring on the table. His fascination was growing, but so was the conviction that he wouldn't be able to understand what Malfoy said. He'd never understood Hermione when she started going on about the connections to be found in law, or Arithmancy, or Ancient Runes.
"Did I tell you to shut up or didn't I?" Malfoy drew in a breath and then exhaled hard enough to make the foam on Harry's mug stir. "That connection affects our minds as well as our bodies. All of us have perceptions that we don't realize we have. Information unconsciously absorbed and never used until it's needed, or perhaps never used at all. Stereotypes that we don't acknowledge until we meet someone who fits them, and then they only seem to be common sense. Relationships that we find disgusting and prefer to avoid spending thoughts on, like that with the bacteria which inhabit our intestines." He grinned when Harry stuck out his tongue, but his eyes were absent, staring past Harry's head into an immense distance. "All those things are influencing our beliefs and our perceptions of animals, and then there are individual troubles and prejudices. I would have been opposed to becoming a ferret Animagus, whilst someone else might not have, because of my unique—experiences." He was definitely seeing Harry now.
Harry looked back calmly. He didn't intend to blow up or defend Moody, who hadn't, after all, been Moody. It was Malfoy's choice if he wanted to get angry about that long-ago incident and accuse Harry of playing some part in it.
Apparently, Malfoy didn't want to. He relaxed and turned to watch a tall, dark-haired man eating alone at a table, definitely the best-looking bloke in the room. His voice was a murmur now, so Harry had to lean forwards and concentrate to hear him. "Perceptions of animals interact with experiences with those animals and experiences with and perceptions of the self, along with the delusions that everyone has about him- or herself." He laughed shortly. "Long association is sometimes enough to make the difference, like the student I had who was a horse Animagus largely because her father bred them."
"And that—any chance encounter can change someone's Animagus form?" Harry asked.
"You misunderstand me still, Potter." Malfoy rubbed his ear. "No. It was more that horses were the first animal to enter her awareness. Even before she was properly conscious of herself as a human being, she knew about them, and she compared all other animals to them. She knew as much about them as you know about flying, and in the same instinctive manner. So there was really no choice for her but to become one. They were her most powerfully symbolic animal. On the other hand, if her father had bred them but she'd been raised in a city, she would have had no particular predisposition to becoming a horse."
Harry stared at Malfoy's profile. The man was looking past him again, his face set in a faint frown, as if the process he was describing sounded as bewildering to him as it was to Harry.
"That's insanely complicated," Harry said at last. "I can't imagine how you manage to contain that much information in your head."
Malfoy gave him a faint, pleased glance. "I think that's the first time you've admitted I could do something you couldn't."
"The first time I admitted it, but not the first time I've thought it." Harry took another pull of his beer and gave in to his curiosity. Malfoy had said it was hard to peg Harry's Animagus form, but not impossible. "What do you think I would be? Something with wings, since I love flying?"
Malfoy sighed as if he were put upon, but Harry saw the brilliant shine to his eyes, and suspected there was little he would like better than being asked for his expertise. "I've had so many thoughts about you that I can't remember them all. Wolf and leopard and lion, snake and, yes, a bird. But you aren't defined by any particular set of interests, Potter. You might as well say that you'll become a dog because of your protective instincts as an Auror."
Harry flinched, then told himself it was only because bad memories always became more pressing when he was drunk. "I wouldn't like to be a dog, I think," he said, memories of a large black dog running joyously through King's Cross Station following him.
Malfoy glanced at him curiously, but didn't ask why, in favor of taking on a lecturing tone. "I told you, you can't choose your Animagus form," he said. "If you were a dog, then you would simply have to accept that you were a dog and live with it."
"Well, it's a good thing I don't have any plans to study and become an Animagus, then." Harry finished his beer and started to rise. He should go to bed soon. He'd been up since early this morning and worrying over the Ferguson case before that, so he hadn't slept well.
"Oh, no, Potter." Malfoy caught his hand when Harry started to drop some Galleons on the table for the pub owner. He had bright, lively eyes that made Harry shudder. He should have known there would be bad consequences from Malfoy's not drinking. "We've talked about me and how I came to be where I was. What about you?"
"What is there to talk about?" Harry shot a narrow glance around the room, and found too many eyes focused on him for his liking, though not all of them belonged to wizards. Some were simply interested Muggles watching the man who had been stopped by another man. Still, he didn't like them watching him. He sat back down. "You know the two most important things about me, that I'm an Auror and that I prefer men to women."
Malfoy snorted and released Harry's hand. "Are you this rude with anyone who tries to learn about you?"
Harry hesitated. He couldn't remember the last time he'd sat down and spoken about himself with anyone. Ron was still a good friend, but he'd grown more distant as he rose up the ranks of the Aurors and started a family with Hermione. Hermione shared even less of Harry's daily life, since she was involved in the study of magical law and the internal politics of both the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and the Weasley family. They knew everything important about him, too, and they hadn't thought to ask him the reason behind things like his and Kingsley's growing estrangement.
Be fair, he thought, and lifted a hand to signal for another beer. You didn't exactly try to tell them, either. You made up excuses about how they were too busy and you didn't really need to talk to them because it didn't matter.
But here was someone who wanted to know, if only to pass the time.
"I've learned that I'm no good at living in a normal world," Harry said. He waited for Malfoy to laugh or say something like Who is? but he remained silent and attentive, moving the mug around with one finger, so Harry had to fill the silence with more words. "I have to have someone to rescue and someone to conquer, or at least a daring deed to perform. There's too much—there's so much I want to do, and it's never done." He shook his head. "At one point I wanted a family and a life outside the Ministry, but I can't bear with either of those."
"So there's no boyfriend?" Malfoy kept his voice low, probably because he didn't want to attract more attention himself but perhaps out of consideration for Harry's privacy. Harry knew which one he preferred to imagine. And unlike the people he met on most jobs, Malfoy wasn't a victim or an enemy, so it shouldn't matter if Harry had a mistaken perception of him.
"No," Harry said. "And no prospect of one, either." He had to pause a moment and think about it, because unlike some people, he didn't keep obsessive count of how many days had passed since he'd last got fucked. He was somewhat startled to realize how long it had been. "Not for three years."
Malfoy stared at him. "I would say that your Animagus form is a turtle," he said at last, "considering how infrequently they mate, but somehow you don't strike me as the kind to sink into your shell."
Harry laughed and shook his head. "I have all the mistress and boyfriend I could ever wish for in my job," he said. His drink arrived, and he nodded to the woman who'd carried it and handed her a few Galleons. She took in the expression on his face and retreated with commendable speed. "It screws me over regularly."
"But something must have happened to make you that way," Malfoy insisted. "I mean, I always knew you were a hero and not good for much of anything else—"
Harry smiled. It felt almost natural to have Malfoy insulting him again, which meant he didn't mind it as much as he would from anyone else.
"—but an obsession with saving people and doing nothing else doesn't happen on its own. When did you give up other dreams?"
"When I realized nothing else mattered as much to me," said Harry simply. He wondered if Malfoy had made a go as a storyteller before he started running an Animagus school. He was certainly anxious to attribute motives and reasons to Harry where there weren't necessarily any motives or any reasons. "Look, it's not some tragic decline. I decided I'd rather be good as an Auror than be social. And even when you're a hero, if you turn down enough invitations, sooner or later people stop inviting you."
"It's not that I think a hero has to be social," Malfoy snapped. He sounded as if Harry had personally offended him. Of course, if understanding people mattered to him and he was running into a mental wall concerning Harry, that was probably enough to annoy him. "It's that you admitted your job fucks you over, and yet you still serve the Ministry. Why not find something else to do if you're prevented from accomplishing what most matters to you?"
Harry took a deep breath and drank again. But that didn't help much, because no convenient answers came to him, and Malfoy still sat there, staring at him and waiting.
"Because leaving the Ministry at this point would mean making a new place and name for myself," Harry said, "outside a hierarchy that I understand even if I hate it, and I'm afraid."
Malfoy happened to be taking a drink as Harry said that, and he choked. Harry eyed him, wondering if he should rise to his feet and pound the other man on the back, but Malfoy shook his head and set his mug down hard.
"I don't believe that," he said.
"I don't have any other truth to offer you," said Harry, irritated for the first time since they'd come to the pub.
"Oh, yes, I can see you believe it," said Malfoy. "I just don't believe that's the real truth. I told you, I deal in perceptions. I've had students who see themselves as cowardly or weak when that's not true at all. They're harder to persuade than the ones who think they're brave when they aren't. For some reason, success is harder for some people to see than failure." He leaned in until his cheek nearly touched Harry's. Harry shifted uneasily in his seat, but the closeness of their faces didn't seem to matter to Malfoy, not next to the chance to persuade Harry. His voice was a whispering hiss. "Leave the Ministry. Do something else. Find a boyfriend who's interested in giving you regular sex. Take a month's holiday and celebrate with the Weasels. Open a private investigator's office and find out if people will still pay you for saving them." He grinned suddenly. "Become an Animagus."
Harry rolled his eyes. "I have no interest in doing so."
"There's every chance that it wouldn't be useful in my job," said Harry, "and you said the training can take years. I don't have the time to spare from—"
"From your job, yes." Malfoy sat back in his seat with a martyred expression on his face. "You have good intuition, Potter. What you lack is common sense. And intuition can be a help in its own right when you're trying to change forms. You'll do something because it feels right and then find a way to explain it later."
Harry hesitated. That did sound awfully like his process when he was solving cases.
But he still didn't have the desire, time, or money to spare to become an Animagus. He finished his drink and stood up decisively. "I have to get some sleep," he said, "and you need to go home. Will you need protection?"
Malfoy stood, too. "No. That magic-sapping ward I showed you isn't the only one on my school, and it'll hold everything safe until I remove it, in any case. My students and I can still transform, but no one can practice any other magic in the school."
"Malfoy." Harry waited until Malfoy met his gaze. "Councilor Ferguson should have been safe, too, and he wasn't."
Malfoy made an impatient little gesture. "I know that, Potter, but I don't plan to spend the night anywhere a scorpion can reach me."
He paused, waiting. Harry had no idea what he wanted. For Harry to walk in front of him? For Harry to say farewell?
Then Malfoy murmured, "Of course it would be too much to ask you for a kiss in public, when you've gone to such great lengths to preserve the silence about who you like to date."
Harry smiled. "It's too much to ask for a kiss right now," he said. "In public has nothing to do with it. Good night, Malfoy." He nodded companionably to Malfoy and walked out the door of the pub, leaving him blinking. Apparently, in his world, a shared drink and conversation and a bit of tension were enough to share a bed.
Not me, Harry thought, his mind already returning to the evidence they'd collected and might be able to use to persuade Kingsley and Kingsley's advisers. I'll need a little more persuasion and courting than that.
Of course, he wouldn't find time for it, because the moment this case ended he'd begin another. But it was a pleasant fantasy to accompany him home and into the loo.