Draco stood with his hands behind his back and his posture absolutely straight in the room he'd been shown to when he appeared in the Ministry, a room with a broad table where the Minister and his most important advisers sat. One by one they were looking into the Pensieve that contained his memories of the attack on the Magical Menagerie. For the most part, they made no sound, though sometimes one of them would grunt as they pulled their heads out and began to write on the parchments sprawled in front of them. Draco watched their faces instead. They were pale and grim, and sometimes they exchanged glances that spoke of deeper and more hidden meanings, though Draco couldn't read those.
The funniest part was when one of them turned around, glaring, and tried to intimidate him. Animagus training, if completed, was good for many things, and one of them was absolute poise and self-control over the body. Draco had done far harder things when learning to be an albatross, especially when learning to fly, than endure a few glares from people who wanted to make him less important than he was. He looked back, unimpressed, and one by one they turned away.
Potter leaned against the far wall in almost the same posture as Draco, with his face as stiff and neutral, though his arms hung down at his sides instead of being clasped behind his back. Draco considered altering his own stance for a moment, wondering if he looked defensive in comparison to Potter, and then discarded the idea. He liked this position because it arranged his arms in the shape of folded wings, and his own appreciation for that outweighed an untrue perception in the minds of his enemies.
Besides, it was untrue. Draco was quietly confident in the value of his memories as evidence. He'd distinctly seen the black hand on the back of the white robe.
Finally the large wizard drowning in hair to the right of the Minister pushed the Pensieve away from him, indicating that he'd viewed the memories and was done. Minister Shacklebolt cleared his throat. Draco noted in interest that that sound brought more tension to Potter's stance, rather than less.
"Well, Mr. Malfoy," said Shacklebolt, "what you bring to us is remarkable."
"But," Draco said helpfully, keeping his outrage so far beneath the surface that it didn't affect his tone.
"Pardon?" Shacklebolt frowned at him.
"You were about to add a 'but' to the end of that sentence, telling me why my memories are remarkable but not enough," Draco said. "I was providing it for you, so that you didn't need to exhaust yourself talking."
He thought he caught a darting smile from Potter before his face froze again. Though the smile had a touch of bitterness in it, it was interesting nonetheless. Draco spared a moment to frown at Potter. Life would be so much easier if he could only tell what the Auror's Animagus form was. Overnight he had considered the forms of owl, hare, crow, and dolphin in turn, and had to reject each of them for different reasons.
"Quite." Shacklebolt's dry tone drew Draco's eyes back to him. "They are not enough to arrest anyone."
"I don't see why not," said Draco. "If nothing else, Athena Wellward, or the woman who calls herself that, is clearly attacking my school. With her is one wizard wearing the emblem of Medea Shrivelfig."
"We'll look for this Athena Wellward," said Shacklebolt. "But it's likely that that's not her real name. And we can't arrest her until we find her. As for the other, those wearing Shrivelfig's emblem have so far caused mostly harmless trouble. This would be an exception. And we have no idea who the wizard is, either. We can't inquire after those who might have been wearing that emblem in Diagon Alley of a Tuesday afternoon and arrest them on principle."
"Would you have made the same qualification about someone who wore Death Earth robes and mask during the war?" Draco asked, simply because he was curious.
"The followers of You-Know-Who were known troublemakers," said the hairy wizard. He shifted ostentatiously, and Draco caught a glimpse of the heavy bone ornament hanging around his neck. He was a member of the Wizengamot, then, given the crossed wands on the ornament. "The followers of Medea Shrivelfig are not present in such numbers yet, and they are capable of pranks and high spirits."
"Then don't arrest all of them," said Draco. "Just arrest the one who attacked my school."
"It's not clear that he threw any curses," said the Councilor.
"Yes, it is," said Draco, wondering whose memories he had watched. "He was the one who hurled the spell that shook my school like an earthquake and began to crack the foundations. I appreciate that you may be thinking of the trouble and panic such an arrest would cause, Councilor, but it would be far more trouble if the Magical Menagerie burned down, or if the criminals found the letters and documents that I assume they attacked the school in order to take."
"Nevertheless," said the Councilor, and then didn't bother saying what part of Draco's speech he'd appended the "nevertheless" to. He stroked his beard and looked at Minister Shacklebolt, who took the hint and seized and turned the conversation.
"We thank you for your help, Mr. Malfoy. We will contact you if we learn anything."
"Do you need information from me on this attack's connection to the Ferguson case?" Draco asked quietly.
The Minister winced. The hairy Councilor leaned towards him, as if he wanted to see the Minister's face as much as Draco did in that moment. Shacklebolt foiled both of them by putting a hand over his eyes and shaking his head. "I know only one source that you could have got that information about a connection between the cases from," he said, and dropped his hand to stare towards Potter. "I told you that you were off the case, Harry."
"I know that." Potter didn't appear at all startled, as Draco was, that an attack on his information had been turned into an attack on Potter. He stood up straighter, but that was the only change he made to his posture as he faced his superior. His face was perfectly blank and calm still, and his voice no more than mildly polite. "But it seemed only right to visit Mr. Malfoy when he told me that he suspected Gully of more than simply using his school for Animagus training. And there is more, sir. He mentioned the letters that he discovered, containing information about Medea Shrivelfig and Gully's and Wellward's association with her. Those should be read over for clues—"
"And they will be," said Shacklebolt, "if it turns out that we can uncover the existence of Wellward in the first place. But there is no need to rush this case and accuse innocent people." He had half-risen to his feet and was staring over the table at Potter, his gaze heavy with import that Draco couldn't read any more than he could read the glances the advisers had exchanged earlier. Maybe that was why he couldn't grasp Potter's Animagus form from mere observation, he thought in irritation. There was simply too much he didn't know about him, especially his work environment over the past few years. "Don't you agree, Harry?"
"No," Potter said.
He didn't lay any particular emphasis on the word, but this time Draco could make some guess at the meaning of the charged silence that filled the air between the two men. Potter was defying a direct order, and he did it without a trace of guilt or dissembling. The Minister might just have lost control over one of his most potent weapons, and everyone in the room knew it.
Draco found his nostrils flaring and his gaze raking down Potter's body with new appreciation. If Potter had merely become cynical and jaded over the years, then Draco could have discarded him as a source of interest. But he had his old ability to set the world on end. That now he was using it on those who were supposedly his friends and allies only made Draco want him the more.
"Your Minister has told you there is not enough of a connection between these two cases to warrant investigation," said the hairy Councilor suddenly. Potter's gaze shifted towards him, and Draco didn't think he was the only one who noticed the flicker in Potter's eyes, though he might have been the only one who realized its true importance. Left alone, the Minister might have managed Potter, who still had a trace of respect for him. But Potter disliked this Councilor and would resent his attempt at interference. Shacklebolt had lost the opportunity to talk Potter back into serfdom. "I think that if his word is good enough for the Wizengamot, it ought to be good enough for you."
"You would think that," said Potter.
Only those words, but they made both the hairy Councilor and Shacklebolt flush. "You make mistakes when you go too fast, Harry," said Shacklebolt, his voice holding so much warning that Draco nearly winced. That wasn't the right way to handle Potter either, right now. He would lock his legs if someone tried to drive him. He needed to be lured.
There, Draco thought suddenly, feeling, despite the situation, the brilliant flash that often accompanied a particularly important insight. There, right there, is a glimpse of Potter's soul. He needs to be worked with or coaxed or tempted into doing something by himself, and that means he's an animal who will share the same quality.
I wonder, did the Minister ever know that about Potter and then forget the lesson, or did he manage to handle Potter by luck alone all these years?
"You need to give me your word that you won't pursue either the Ferguson case or the attack on Malfoy's shop," said the Minister. His voice was low but shaking with tension. "I need that much from you, Harry."
"You're using my name too much," said Potter.
"I need it."
"Too bad." Potter spoke coolly, unmoved by the desperation Draco could hear working beneath the surface of the Minister's voice. "You can't have it."
"Then you are suspended without pay for a week," said the Minister, and banged his hand down in the middle of the table, so that the Pensieve holding Draco's memories wavered and nearly fell over. Draco quietly Summoned the Pensieve. No one appeared to notice, too focused on what was unfolding between Potter and Shacklebolt. "At the end of that time, you and I are going to talk to each other and figure out what kinds of cases you can be trusted with in the future, since you disobeyed me this time."
Potter bowed, inflexible, stubborn, and moved out of the room without looking back. Draco joined him swiftly. It was a bad idea to claim Potter as an ally in front of the most important people in the British wizarding world, perhaps, but Potter seemed to be the only one willing to investigate the attack that had nearly cost Draco his school.
Stubborn, Draco thought, as he watched Potter pacing ahead of him. A goat? Maybe. But I don't know that he fits the other characteristics of goats as shown in the popular imagination…
Harry had anticipated this day for a long time, the day that Kingsley would finally be angry enough to reprimand him sharply in front of other people. He supposed he should be more upset than he was. But his anticipation had lessened that pain, and so had the fact that many small ruptures had occurred between him and Kingsley before this, loosening the chains that bound them.
He was not what he had been fifteen years ago. Kingsley was not what he had been. The Order of the Phoenix was long ago enough that both of them considered themselves defined by other things now. Harry only had to show the Minister what those other things were for him and wait for Kingsley to decide if he wanted to accept them or not.
He will, once I solve the Ferguson case. Harry paused near the fireplace that would take him home and studied one of the paintings that hung in the Ministry Atrium, depicting what was supposedly the battle between Voldemort and Dumbledore in his fifth year. The painting was little more than a chaotic series of streaks, white and blue and yellow, making it look as if the dim figures in the center stood in a maelstrom of lightning. I'm still a warrior, though not as mighty as they were. I want to show Kingsley that there's still room for a warrior in the world.
First step was to get the documents from Malfoy and decide on the angle to pursue. There were certain spells Harry had researched and studied in his spare time, or dreamed up during those long evenings at the pub when he didn't have anything else to think about, that should let him start tracking down Athena Wellward, or the woman who bore that name. And then—well, he would see what he would see.
He turned to Malfoy and nodded to him. "Where's the nearest open Floo to your school?" he asked. "Or should we Apparate instead?"
"Are you in a particular hurry?" Malfoy wore the same intense introspective expression he had during their conversation in the pub last night. Harry wondered what the reason for it was this time. He had done nothing more than pick up a pinch of Floo powder and hold it between finger and thumb, ready to use.
"Well, I wanted to retrieve the letters you spoke of from you, as well as any other evidence you have of Gully's possible illegal activities," said Harry, surprised Malfoy wouldn't realize that. "But since you said that ward prevents magical access to your school as long as it exists, I thought a Floo wouldn't work."
Malfoy raised his eyebrows slightly. "What makes you think that I'd surrender the documents to you?"
"Because then you have someone to blame when the Ministry comes looking for you." Harry studied Malfoy more closely. Maybe he'd said something offensive to Malfoy when he was defying Kingsley. It wouldn't be the first time Harry had done that. He tended to pay attention to his tirades when his anger was roused, not the exact shape of his words or the bad memories they might bring up for other people. "I mean, since your involvement in this case is ended—"
"I want vengeance," said Malfoy. He laid a hand on Harry's arm, not seeming to think the gesture strange at all, which only made it stranger to Harry. "I'm going to join you in the investigation."
Harry snorted. "You're not an Auror. What makes you think you'll have anything to add? And don't say your Animagus form," he added, when Malfoy opened his mouth. "My enemies know about it, so it's not useful for spying or sneaking up on them."
"I was going to say," Malfoy said, his fingers tightening on Harry's arm until they were squeezing a ridge of flesh and cloth, "that I'm extremely observant, used to figuring out what Animagus form someone would take from a few clues about the state of their soul and their inclinations and history."
"Which animal am I, then?"
"You're the hardest person to divine that for I've ever met," said Malfoy, and his face twitched and convulsed, as if he suspected Harry was being hard to guess on purpose. "But that doesn't mean I'm as in the dark about everyone. And I can at least predict Wellward's and Gully's movements. There might be other former students of mine among Shrivelfig's minions. She seems to have had an idea of using my school as a recruiting ground."
"And you don't like that," said Harry, hearing the ice spread along the surface of Malfoy's last words.
"Oh, Potter." The pinching fingers eased their hold a little, smoothing down the cloth and soothing the flesh. "I hate that."
Harry thought about it for a moment. He supposed that he could use an ally, especially someone who knew to get out of the way when the dangerous magic started and allow Harry to handle himself, the way Malfoy had when he'd flown to the roof of the Magical Menagerie to trigger that ward. Besides, half the Aurors he'd worked with hadn't had Malfoy's power—he must be magically powerful to master the Animagus form—or observational skills, or intelligence, though Harry was basing his estimate of the bloke's intelligence solely on their conversation in the pub last night. And considering the tactics their enemies had used so far, he could use someone who understood Animagi.
"All right, Malfoy," he said, and when a wide grin spread across Malfoy's face, added, "But you'll do what I tell you to when I tell you to do it, and get out of the way immediately if someone tosses a curse at you."
"I'm not stupid, and I have no desire to be cursed." Malfoy patted Harry's arm once before he withdrew his hand. "I know to leave Dark magic up to the experts."
There was a time, Harry thought, when he would have been unable to imagine Malfoy saying that unironically, but after seeing what Malfoy had made of his life, and knowing what he'd made of his own, he had to admit he'd probably spent more time in proximity to Dark magic than Malfoy in the last decade.
And I'm about to spend more, he thought as he and Malfoy strode out of the Atrium, preparing to Apparate. Not that I think I'll tell Kingsley that. Or even Malfoy, at least not until I see how he reacts to the Seeking spells.
Potter looked through the letters quickly, Draco noted, his eyes studying them so fast that Draco might have thought he was skimming them if he didn't know better. Potter put them down and fired a series of rapid questions at him that tested Draco's own knowledge of the letters and his students.
"Why would Gully leave these here, when he must have realized that they would be revealing to anyone who looked?"
"He didn't expect anyone to look," said Draco. He resisted the temptation to add an "of course"; obviously, Potter didn't find this as obvious as he did. "I keep many effects that my students leave here, sometimes because they go traveling after they've mastered their Animagus transformations or because their families don't approve of their dedicating so much time and effort to the study in the first place. I guarantee my students' privacy. When Gully realized that you'd visited me, he must have said something that spurred the attack. I would guess the attack was partially to retrieve the documents, after all."
Potter nodded, stirring through the letters with one hand like someone stirring the faded ashes of a fire with a poker. "And this 'love affair' Wellward mentions in the third letter. What do you think that refers to? Were they actually sleeping together?"
Draco gave a grim little smile. "Someone actually dangerous and perceptive, and someone as nasty and short-tempered as Wellward? I doubt it."
"Stranger things have happened." Potter gave him an annoyed glance, as if Draco's pronouncement about his two students was a denial of all strange things happening in the world ever.
"Yes, they have," said Draco, and controlled his temper with a stern effort. "But I trust my perceptions of those two. They're mismatched. The love affair refers to something else, and based on what she says in the seventh letter, I'd wager it's to do with their service to Shrivelfig."
He expected Potter to hunt through the letters to track down his allusion, but Potter opened his mouth and hissed deeply instead, as though Draco had insulted him. His eyes were glowing, though, and Draco doubted animation in Potter was a bad thing. When he was feeling insulted, as he had with Shacklebolt, he retreated into stubborn taciturnity.
And that's another thing about him, Draco thought suddenly, another clue to his animal form. He can be loud when he's provoked, but he's often silent the rest of the time. What animal do I know that is stubborn and silent most of the time?
A giraffe? Maybe, but Draco had never actually trained any giraffe Animagi, so he didn't know for certain.
"Yes," said Potter. "'The love greater than any man knows,' Wellward calls it. And one of the slogans that Shrivelfig and her lot throw around is the love of a lady for her people. They're drawing on legends of Morgana le Fay and Nimue and the like, witches who defeated wizards. They want to convince those who will listen that a Dark Lady could succeed where a Dark Lord failed."
Draco snorted. "That's ridiculous. Who listens to these kinds of things?"
"Evidently, people like Septimus Gully." Potter turned a burning gaze on him. "Do you know why he might have wanted to follow Shrivelfig? What was the point of it all? Why would someone like you describe him want to do that, rather than use his obvious intelligence and magical power to achieve something grander?"
Draco leaned back and thought seriously about the question for a moment. The first thing he had been inclined to believe when Potter brought him word of the Ferguson murder was that he had misjudged Gully, or that Shrivelfig and Wellward had corrupted him. But it wasn't that long ago that Draco had trained Gully, and his memories of his scorpion student were still sharp. Besides, the letters were proof that he had entered the school in the first place at the behest of the witch he followed. If there was any corruption, it had existed before he entered the Magical Menagerie.
He'd just been bragging to Potter what a keen observer he was, and how he could understand the hidden motives of people around him. Could he solve this puzzle?
He closed his eyes and recalled Septimus Gully. An inquisitive student, who had asked questions that others hadn't thought of about the Animagus training method and pushed Draco to tell him why and how the magic worked, rather than simply accepting that it did. The transformation had not been a source of wonder to him, Draco thought, but something more like science to Muggles. He had known he could perform it once he received the proper training, and he had been confident he could understand it.
Draco did not have that attitude himself. Even after ten years, the ability to grow wings was still a source of pride and pleasure. And that made it harder for him to understand Gully.
But if he could see good qualities in Potter and want to know more about him, then he could certainly do the same thing with Gully. He tapped a store of observations he'd never had use for before now, and thought of everything from the way Gully ate his meals to the way he frequently looked guilty when caught writing letters to Wellward instead of working on the exercises Draco put him through.
"I think," said Draco slowly at last, aware of the intensely listening silence from Potter as he spoke, "that he was looking for something he could believe in. He had one of those minds that pull all the mystery from the world, and he couldn't be contented with the world of problems that remained. He wanted something odd, wondrous—something, if you'll excuse the obvious pun, magical. He didn't find that in my training or in his Hogwarts education, that's certain. For some reason, he found it when he listened to the doctrine Medea Shrivelfig and her kind preached." He opened his eyes and shook his head. "I couldn't tell you why he chose that doctrine out of all the ones he met to follow, but he obviously did."
Potter nodded and closed his eyes, tilting his head back. Draco admired the line of his throat in abstracted silence for a moment.
"The answer might lie in his childhood, or in the approach that Shrivelfig first made to him, or any number of things." Potter sighed and rubbed his hand over his face. "Well, damn. We have the information I was looking for, the connection between Gully and Shrivelfig, but I doubt even this will convince Shacklebolt."
"Do you have to convince him?" Draco returned to something that had been bothering him since he watched Potter in the Minister's office. "Follow Gully and catch him doing something dastardly. Then you can arrest him and present this case to your Minister as a done deal."
Harry smiled in spite of himself. The solution Malfoy spoke of was one he had actually envisioned at one point, and a younger Harry Potter would have tried it and been scorned for his pains. But he had those bad experiences to make him wiser now.
"It does matter," he answered. "If I'm acting outside the Minister's purview, I can't be trusted to obey the code of the Aurors and the laws themselves. I'll find Gully, yes, and catch him with evidence that the Minister can't ignore, but I'll wait to present him with that evidence. The Minister has to be the one who makes the arrest."
"I don't understand why." Malfoy folded his arms and gave Harry a pointed look, as if he wanted to remind him that these were the people who had attacked his shop.
Harry had no intention of forgetting that. Malfoy had proven a more trustworthy ally than any he'd had in the past several years. "Because I want to protect people, but I also want to go on protecting them," he explained. "I challenged Kingsley today only because I thought there was a chance he might back down and keep me on the case, let me do the job. But I've pushed him too far this time. If I want to go back on the job and help other people as an Auror, then I need to wait until he calms down."
"And in the meantime, investigate and try to find the evidence that you think you need to convict Gully."
"That's right." Harry cocked his head inquisitively. There was the heaviness of disbelief in Malfoy's voice, as if he didn't understand why Harry would want to find Gully, and had in fact given up his desire for vengeance.
"When you could make more money, and have more prestige, and probably save more people, if you were working outside the Ministry structure." Malfoy leaned forwards. "You're stubborn, yes, but the Minister is more so, and he has the power. You ought to see that you'll get along better if you make your way outside the Ministry."
"I won't become a vigilante," said Harry sharply. He could feel a worm of guilt stirring at the base of his spine. There had been a time, drunk and bitter, when he'd made the same suggestion to Hermione that Malfoy was making to him. She had destroyed him with swift, precise arguments about how Harry Potter and the Ministry at odds would lead to a weakened Minister at best, a civil war at worst. There were still fanatic champions of Harry Potter who would do frightening things if they thought he'd been insulted.
"I was talking about a private investigator, Potter, not a vigilante." Malfoy took a step towards him. "Do you think the existence of my Animagus school challenges Hogwarts? Of course not, but I do exist outside that structure. There are certain rules I have to obey, but they're not the rules of Hogwarts's Headmistress."
"But you still have to obey some rules," Harry parroted back at him. He could feel his heart beating, the beat racing through his ears and his blood, and he didn't know why he felt so frantic.
"Of course I do," said Malfoy. "But I was offered a position as the Transfiguration professor when I became fully trained. It seems that McGonagall has never found herself a satisfactory one since she had to abandon the job to become Headmistress. I refused, because I knew I could never obey all the rules in Hogwarts and still be myself." He reached out and poked Harry in the chest with one finger, a gesture that Harry tried to feel insulted about. He failed. "You could do the same thing."
Harry licked his lips and glanced away. For the first time in a long time, the apathetic shell that he'd wrapped himself in, the shell of cynicism that said of course the Ministry would screw him over and he would just have to put up with it, cracked and a shaft of light flooded in. But he couldn't actually be certain that it would ever happen, so he shrugged stiffly and said, "With the Ministry's authority behind me, at least I can make arrests. If I was an investigator, then I might be able to prove the crimes to my satisfaction, but I couldn't be sure the criminals were actually punished."
"There are ways around that as well," Malfoy said calmly.
Harry glared at him. "Now you are talking about being a vigilante."
"So what if I am?" Malfoy grinned suddenly, and the dash of the brilliant smile across his face was shocking. "You'd be better-suited to it than you are to work as an Auror. You're stubborn and short-tempered and have to work hard to control yourself. You have to be coaxed instead of prodded or driven."
"You've been collecting observations about me." Harry shook his head, a bit of amusement mixing with his indignation. "You're still not going to learn what you need about me to determine what my Animagus form would be."
"How do you know?"
"Because I don't want to become an Animagus, so I think my desire will affect your perception," Harry said. "You did mention that something like that might happen."
"Everyone has a potential animal form, even if they don't want the training." Malfoy had his arms folded now, as if he thought that Harry was mad not to want the specialized training that he provided.
"But some find it hard to see," said Harry. "I prefer to be blind to mine." He drew his wand and spoke quickly, because otherwise Malfoy might try to continue the argument, and Harry didn't want to do that. He'd already confessed more of his personal anxieties to Malfoy in the past few days than he had to anyone in the past few years, and he still didn't know why. It wasn't as if he trusted the git. "Now, I do have a chance to find Septimus Gully since I've touched one of his letters. A better chance than I did this morning, at least."
"Why?" Malfoy allowed himself to be diverted, though the heavy tone of his voice said he was reluctant to allow it to happen.
"Because I've handled a piece of paper he's touched more than once," said Harry, his eyes falling shut. "And I've read words addressed to him, by a person who was thinking intensely of him." The pressure of the magic built and built in the back of his head, making him breathe harshly, making him waver and struggle on his feet. "Those are both good things to carry a trace of his presence, to make him—ah!"
And he felt the tearing that always happened, centered somewhere around the middle of his chest, as the incantation of the Seeking Spell spilled of its own free will past his lips. He dropped to his knees, the magic beating him like a rug as it flooded out of him. Pain made dizzy rings circle his vision when he opened his eyes, but Harry could bear that; it was the most minor of the physical sensations that were likely to assail him after the Seeking Spell. He knelt where he'd fallen, breathing quietly, eyes tracking the white flitting shape that streaked away from him towards the east.
"What the fuck was that?"
At least Malfoy sounded sufficiently impressed. Harry grinned tiredly and reached out for a moment, intending to clasp the leg of the table on which Gully's letters lay spread and let that help him up. Instead, he caught Malfoy's hand. Malfoy pulled him effortlessly to his feet and stood staring at him, not releasing Harry's wrist. Harry raised an eyebrow, but let the strangeness pass unremarked for now.
"That's called a Seeking Spell," he said. "Spectacular, wasn't it?"
"That was Dark magic," said Malfoy. His hand tightened as if he would crush the truth out of Harry. "Do you want to tell me exactly why the top Auror in the Ministry is using Dark Arts?"
"Really?" Harry widened his eyes innocently. "You could tell it was Dark magic? How?"
"The pain it caused you," said Malfoy. "And the way it made the skin around my temples tighten when it flew." His mouth was set into a hard line. "Now, Potter. Tell me, or I'll simply go to the Minister and render your little rebellion worthless."
"I thought you wanted vengeance?" Harry knew he was pushing, and perhaps as unwisely as he'd pushed against Kingsley's edict, but he really didn't understand Malfoy. One moment he was suggesting that Harry defy the Ministry, and the next moment he appeared to believe that the Ministry was the only thing that could control Harry. "You won't get it if the Minister locks me up now."
"I think you matter more than to become a sacrifice to this case," said Malfoy bluntly. His hand moved from Harry's wrist to his shoulder and squeezed painfully. "You can't use Dark Arts simply to find a criminal. What's next? Will you use the Unforgivables because someone annoys you?"
"I did that during the war," said Harry, but it was surprisingly hard to meet Malfoy's gaze. He shifted his feet and sighed noisily. "Listen, Malfoy, this spell works. It keeps me from having to charge headlong into dangerous situations, and it locates people who might have so many contacts or plans that they can easily hide whilst they inflict more torment and pain on their victims. The only one it hurts is me."
"Still not acceptable," said Malfoy, and the hold of his hand on Harry's shoulder tightened until he was sure his face was white. Combined with the haze that still swam around his vision, it made Harry feel nauseated. But he composed his expression into stubborn lines and glared back at Malfoy. "What does it do?"
"It turns part of my soul into a Seeker," said Harry reluctantly. "That part of my soul flies after the person I want to find and briefly embeds itself into him. Then it brings me back a sense of where he is, including a picture of his location."
Malfoy hissed, and his hands ground down until Harry cried out, softly. Malfoy immediately stopped pressing down, but his arms remained looped around Harry's shoulders as he moved closer, his voice low and passionate. "And the piece of your torn soul reunites with you after a certain period of time?"
Harry nodded. His eyes were watering with tears, but he blinked them away. He wouldn't lift a hand to wipe them off his face. That would be like admitting weakness to Malfoy. "It always comes back. I don't cause myself permanent harm—"
"No, you're only splitting your soul because you're an idiot." Malfoy's voice was shaking now. He looked away and shut his eyes, his lashes standing out in pale lines against his even paler skin. "How long have you done this?"
"For years, but not often," said Harry, thinking that Malfoy had asked the question with the most inconvenient phrasing he could possibly have chosen. "A few of my harder arrests—"
"Should never have happened at all." Malfoy stepped away from him, his breath racing, and Harry was certain he had changed his mind about helping Harry after all, that the Dark Arts would be a bargain-breaker. But instead he opened his eyes and glared at Harry. "I want your word that you'll never use that spell again."
"Or what?" Harry frowned. "You'll tell the Ministry? How are you going to know that I'm using it after this case?"
"Or I'll cast a spell I know, which is perfectly legal, and constrain and bind your magic," Malfoy said. His wand was in his hand; Harry hadn't even seen it move. "It'll make you incapable of ever using a spell that powerful and Dark again. Of course, it'll also keep you from some of the more powerful magic that you might use to arrest criminals and save their victims, but that's the consequences."
Harry felt his face flush. Ordinarily, he would have been able to outface Malfoy's threat, but he was magically and physically weaker with a piece of his soul gone from him. And he found it hard to look Malfoy in the eye. If Malfoy had been angry about the taint of the Dark Arts being performed in his shop, then Harry could have understood, but this—this was different. This was concern about Harry himself, and he didn't know how to handle it.
You have friends, he told himself. You should.
But concern from Ron and Hermione if they ever found out he was using Dark Arts would only have been proper and expected, which was one reason Harry had been careful to hide his use of that magic from them. Concern from Malfoy changed his perception of the man intolerably and made him think that there might be lasting consequences, after all, from their conversation in the pub the other night.
He bowed his head and murmured, in response to that concern far more than to the threat, "I promise."
"Say what you're promising." Neither Malfoy's gaze nor his wand had wavered when Harry glanced up at him. "You'll never use that particular spell again."
"It's called the Seeker Spell."
"Then call it by its proper name."
Harry licked his lips. Technically, there was nothing binding on him. Malfoy wasn't forcing him to make an Unbreakable Vow. Harry could make the promise and snap it later without consequences. How likely was it that Malfoy would ever know?
But precisely because it had to be his choice to let this promise bind him in the future, it had become more sacred and solemn to Harry than an Unbreakable Vow could possibly be.
"I'll never use the Seeker Spell again," he said. "I promise. No matter what the temptation, no matter how many people I might save because of it." He waited to see if his choice of words would cause Malfoy to look at all sorry—would he like possibly being the cause of innocent people's deaths?—but there was a flash in Malfoy's eyes before he slowly nodded.
"Yes," he said. "That's what I needed to hear. You started using it in the first place to save people, didn't you? Because you think anything is permissible if you do it to save other people's lives. Dark magic, or conflict with the Minister, or being miserable in your job."
Harry blinked. "I don't understand you," he said. "Will you please decide which side you're on and stop changing your mind, and my perception of you, constantly?"
"I'm on your side, as long as you don't do anything stupid," said Malfoy. "And my own side, always." He lowered his wand and looked up as a shuriken-shaped point of white light traveled through the wall and back towards Harry. He held out his hands, and the torn, flying piece of soul slammed into his chest and rocked him back on his feet.
He closed his eyes, and an image of a small stone house unfolded in his mind's eye. In one corner was a large hearth covered with gray ashes that might have been the remnants of burned documents. The major piece of furniture in it was a large table draped with maps. More maps hung on the walls. They were maps of the wizarding sections of the British Isles, Harry saw at once. Hogsmeade, Hogwarts, several small wizarding villages in Ireland, and Diagon Alley were the areas he recognized at a glance.
A tall woman with straggling red hair bent over the table and tapped one of the maps with a long fingernail painted black, speaking loud words in a strangled voice that sounded like a duck choking. The man next to her was small and hunched in his chair, but Harry recognized him anyway from his photograph: Septimus Gully. And next to her was the woman who might be Athena Wellward, with an unpleasantness about her eyes and mouth that Harry could imagine issuing in a swan's hiss.
The image pulled back from the cottage and showed him a line unfolding across a map of his own, across the streams and flatlands and meadows and mountains that stood in his way. It was too long a distance to Apparate there from London in one jump, so here and there places that would provide safe Apparition coordinates shone with clear light. Harry nodded and opened his eyes, knowing a grim smile was playing around his mouth.
"You know where we're going?" Malfoy asked. He had moved up beside Harry, his breath oddly warm on Harry's neck and ear. Harry shivered absently and stretched out an arm to claim his. It seemed that Malfoy was still intent on going into battle with Harry after he'd found out that Harry used Dark magic.
"I do," Harry said. "A wizarding village north of here. I don't know the name, but I'm certain Medea Shrivelfig is there, with Gully and someone who's probably Wellward. The cottage has no extraordinary wards."
Malfoy nodded, once. At least he was wise enough not to demand that Harry wait until they could find someone else to back them up, Harry thought. There would be no backup coming from the Ministry even if he Apparated straight to Kingsley's flat now and presented his evidence. There would be some reason to delay it, danger or the chance of disrupting a business owned by the Wizengamot Councilors, and in the meantime Shrivelfig and her followers would slip away.
Still, Harry found that he was glad to have company. He gathered himself to Apparate, and then suddenly paused.
"What?" Malfoy stirred next to him, and his breath brushed Harry's hair back from his forehead. He automatically pushed it forwards to hide the scar again.
"I just realized that I shouldn't be able to perform magic in your shop, if that ward that prevents any magic but Animagus transformations is still in place," Harry said.
Malfoy chuckled smugly. "I raised it when we came back. The illusion of it is still in place, though, to prevent my enemies from thinking they have a free chance to attack us."
Harry nodded. "You raised it because you didn't want to go without the convenience of performing magic for yourself?"
"No, actually." Malfoy leaned even closer to him. "Because I noticed your reluctance to have me come with you, and thought it quite probable I would need to perform a spell to save your life before we even started."
Harry couldn't think of anything to say to that, so he focused his mind on the first set of coordinates the Seeker spell had given him and Apparated.
Draco opened his eyes to darkness and immense pain. He lay still for long moments, letting his senses search the area around him for clues as to where he might be. He could smell staleness combined with fresh air, and that let him know there had to be a draft somewhere. Good. He would hate to be trapped in an airless cell.
He rolled slowly to the side, and clenched his teeth down as the pain suddenly centered in one place. His left arm was broken. He lay still and swore between his teeth, then heaved himself to one knee. At least now he knew he was in a room with a stone floor, he thought. Nothing else hurt that much on knees but stone.
A few paces revealed the length and width of the room; tapping with his fingers revealed that the walls were stone, too, though he encountered a few gaps that made him think there were holes and cracks aplenty in them. He lifted his head towards the clean air and sniffed hungrily, and wondered for a moment if he should call out for Potter, or if such an action would be unwise, because it would reveal that he was awake to his enemies.
What did happen?
Draco closed his eyes and managed to recall Apparating from darkness into darkness, alive suddenly with scuttling sounds and flapping wings and crying voices. He had recognized the voices of crows without thinking about it, but he had not known what the crows were doing there; he was too busy trying to defend his face against the diving beaks and claws. He had started to transform, thinking an albatross would at least be able to rise above the other birds and catch a clear glimpse of the area in which they stood.
And then darkness had overwhelmed him. He remembered thinking that it was made of dropped crow feathers, and ought to clear up shortly.
But he didn't remember his arm being broken.
A grating sound came from behind him. Draco turned at once and put his back to the wall, and then realized how much like a scuttling insect he must look. He put up his chin and waited patiently, hands linked together behind his back. Of course, he couldn't move the fingers of his left hand and shifting the arm at all sent tingling jolts of pain up to his shoulder, but he didn't see why he should reveal that to the woman who stood in the open doorway, a flood of light breaking around her, staring at him.
This must be Medea Shrivelfig, Draco thought, though she had worn a different face when she visited his school in the guise of Gully's "Aunt Medea." He remembered her height, though, which was rather above average, and her method of moving, as if she were turning her head from side to side to catch glimpses of all sorts of lovely things hidden from an ordinary observer. Her hair sprang around her ears like a bundle of red straw jammed into her skull, and crackled in the same way as she brushed a hand through it. Her nails were painted black, and tapped on her hipbones as she surveyed him. She wore a white robe that Draco thought would have a black hand on the back.
"Rather surprising to see you here, Mr. Malfoy," she said at last. "I thought you would have the sense to stay out of politics when my children failed to persuade you."
Draco sighed at her. "You should really let us go, you know. Holding one of the Ministry's top Aurors and a teacher with many students who owe him favors isn't going to endear you to anyone."
"It might not, if anyone knew where you were," said Shrivelfig, and her teeth showed, patched with brown and yellow. "But my Arabella was watching and listening very carefully, and I don't think anyone will come after you when you so bravely chose to strike out on your own."
Draco froze. Arabella—"Arabella Emerson?" he said.
"Yes." Shrivelfig lowered her eyes as though she were facing some observer who would judge her on whether or not she had a demure manner. "At first we were disappointed when dear Arabella turned out to be a fly Animagus. It did seem that she would be less than useful. Not even a sting, the way she might have had if she were a wasp. But no one makes a better spy."
Draco closed his eyes and silently cursed himself. He hadn't thought to scan for strange Animagi in the school, and he hadn't even considered that some of his former students were small enough to avoid notice. Of course, he'd never noticed anything that linked Emerson to Shrivelfig, but he should have.
"Don't worry, Mr. Malfoy," said Shrivelfig. "A few concessions, and you can go. Our main business is with Mr. Potter."
"You have him, too?" Draco opened his eyes and tried not to look so worried. Of course, he'd probably revealed that he was with that question. He should have asked about his own fate first, he scolded himself.
It was the damn weight of emotions he'd experienced about Potter in the last few days: curiosity and irritation as he tried to determine the man's elusive Animagus form, anger and shock when he realized Potter was using Dark Arts, exasperation because Potter didn't belong in the ranks of the Aurors but refused to do something else more productive with his life. They made him careless and more invested in someone else than he'd been in a long time. His quick perceptions of people and the endless parade of his students made him more inclined to care about the present than the past, and at any time he had numerous claims on his attention. Potter was the only person in years who had managed to make Draco think exclusively about him.
"Of course," said Shrivelfig. "We captured you both when you arrived at a point we suspected you'd use, with the help of another of your students, the redoubtable Henry."
Draco felt sick. Henry, who refused to give his last name, was another student he'd trained years ago, into a crow Animagus. Like some of the more powerful Animagi, he had a natural ability to commune with the animals whose form he took, and even to command them.
"How long have you been using my school for your benefit?" he asked quietly.
"Oh, almost since it opened." Shrivelfig waved off the question. "It was far too convenient, having a place to train my children into Animagi where they didn't have to provide the credentials and undergo the observation that they would have at Hogwarts." She knelt down suddenly in front of him, and Draco winced at the sour rake of her breath, scented like rotting apples. "And now I want you to promise that you'll work with us freely and openly, and accept students from among my children."
Draco kept his face neutral and his breathing slow. He did push his left arm with his right hand so that it swayed a bit and sent a flash of sickening pain up to his shoulder that almost made him pass out. He needed to remember the costs of disobeying a woman like this; he needed to remember who he was dealing with.
"I can't believe in your doctrine," he said. "Potter explained a bit of it to me, and it sounded absolutely ridiculous."
"Absolute belief is not required," Shrivelfig said, and sighed, her voice traveling in a delicate quiver over his face. "Only a bit of it. Allow me a grain of corn in the cracks of your mind. Promise me that you will consider my claims as neutrally as the claims of any other witch or wizard you might deal with. Promise to listen. And then I will release you, and you can go back to your school and leave Potter to his fate."
If they had a vampire with them, Draco thought, or an Animagus with exceptionally keen hearing, he might hear Draco's heart speed up now. But Draco managed to look calm and interested, he knew, as he nodded. He had had endless practice in looking that way when he was listening to students tell him passionately that they were unicorns, or dragons, or phoenixes—anything but the ordinary animals that actually represented their souls.
Shrivelfig smiled, looking pleased, and leaned closer still.
"Once," she said softly, "there was only an unformed world of magic. The mountains and the streams were hardly solid; they danced and wavered back and forth like a heat haze."
Draco thought of pointing out that streams weren't solid even now, unless Shrivelfig was referring to their stillness when frozen in winter, but it didn't seem like the best move at the moment.
"There was magic in blood and breath, magic in names and in plants and animals. Some of those disciplines were solidified in time. The magic of plants and animals became appreciated in Care of Magical Creatures and Potions, for example. But the magic of the human body was forbidden, looked down on as Dark Arts when it concerned skin and blood, or at best tightly regulated, like the Polyjuice Potion.
"That forbade power to those very people who needed it most, the poor and downtrodden. They could not afford to purchase expensive magical training, or the ingredients needed to create precise potions that might save their lives. As time went on, some of them forgot about magic altogether and bred it out of their systems and turned their backs on it when they encountered it in real life. They became the Muggles, willing to use the machines that answered to any hand to achieve power for themselves, because the pure-blood witches and wizards wouldn't let them have it in any other way.
"And there were other divisions happening. Many of the most powerful and famous wizards were men—Merlin, Gryffindor, Slytherin, Taliesin, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Oh, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff receive equal credit for founding Hogwarts, but who tells their stories as much as the story of Gryffindor and Slytherin's famous falling-out? No one. And the stories of witches go ignored, too, and memory and history assign more magic and power to men.
"No one noticed when a woman like myself began to recover power, low magic, the magic of the body." Shrivelfig's voice soared to a croon. Draco tried not to wince away from the smell of her breath, but it was hard. "I was ignored by the stories, and I was practicing an art that generations of wizards had learned was no good, filthy and weak. I learned to appreciate the arts of the body. That is one reason I sent my students to become Animagi. They need magic that doesn't flow through a wand and can't be counteracted by pretty little wards like the one you put on your school."
Draco kept his muscles from tensing, but only just. Shrivelfig had a gloating expression as she spoke of that ward, and Draco would wager his albatross form that she'd used it on this place, whatever it was. It would explain why they'd broken his arm. He might be able to transform, but with a broken wing, he couldn't fly.
"We are a new power, a new group. We'll heal the rifts between wizards and Muggles by reintroducing magic into their lives and teaching them how to control it. We'll breathe life back into ancient traditions that will seem new because they've been forgotten. We will teach the corrupt Ministry the meaning of fear under a Dark Lady instead of a Dark Lord." Shrivelfig's eyes were rapt, and though she appeared to be staring directly at him, Draco had the feeling that she wasn't really seeing his face. "Will you allow yourself to believe that? Will you let yourself participate, as you already have in part, in the renaissance of the body?"
Draco drew breath to answer, and a shriek cut through the walls and the silence, stealing his breath away. It was Potter's voice, and from the sound of it, someone had either planted a heavy boot on him or snapped his wand.
Shrivelfig turned her head in that direction and sniffed once. "He must have refused the chance to listen," she said, and looked at Draco. "That doesn't change your answer. Will you accept what I have been saying?"
Draco clenched his back teeth together, though he didn't let them make a sound, and nodded. He was filled with a hatred small and still and silent. Not only had Shrivelfig manipulated him for years, making him train people who would use their gifts to hurt him and others, but he had invested some emotional effort in Potter and it might all come to nothing. This was no time for Gryffindor bravery, of course. That would only get him killed. For the present, he would pretend to agree, and then he would make Shrivelfig pay later, when she might have let down her guard.
"Good." Shrivelfig rose to her feet and stood looking down at him with something like pride. Draco found it hard to judge her age. It was fanaticism that had carved her face, and not time. "I am always eager to see someone new become one of my children, and become convinced of the truth that will change the world." She reached out and swept her fingers down the side of his face. Manfully, Draco didn't flinch away. "I will have someone come to you in a few hours and heal your arm. I apologize for the delay, but we are in the middle of a planning session, and you need the time to think and be sure that you won't change your mind." She gave him a faint smile and turned away, stepping out of the door. It shut behind her, and Draco's eyes were left in stinging darkness.
He didn't waste time. Potter's cry had sounded fairly close, especially since the thick stone walls wouldn't be optimal for conducting sound from rooms on the other side of a castle. Draco slid on his knees over to the wall next to the door, from which, as far as he could judge, Potter's scream had come. He focused his will, hoping it could help him somehow even under the influence of a ward that damped all magic, and began to whisper.
"Potter, can you hear me? You'll need to get us out of here, and there's only one way to do it…"
Harry panted, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. Now and then he uttered a whimper of pain, making it sound as if his lungs were being crushed by an immense weight. In fact, those whimpers were mostly for the benefit of any of Shrivelfig's people who had lingered to listen at the door. He was less hurt than he had pretended to be when they were beating on him.
Of course, that didn't mean he was in perfect condition. They had slammed him in the ribs and the chest with fists and boots, and punched him more than once in the face. One eye was swollen almost shut, and he'd already spat out a loose tooth that he'd have to get replaced later, once they were back in a place with civilized magic.
But he was in much less pain than he'd convinced them he was when he curled up with the first soft cries, and he'd protected the more fragile of his inner organs with his trained dodging and rolling. Nor did he have a concussion or a head wound, which would make all the difference to his speed if he had to move fast.
He did have a bad case of rage, especially since they'd taken his wand, but he could work with that.
And then he heard the whispers.
Harry turned his head, his eyes narrowing. For long moments, he lay still, trying to determine if this was another trick. They were fanatics, after all. It made sense that they would try to persuade him to their side, if they could. Shrivelfig had a positive mania for corrupting and converting people instead of killing them.
But the voice was Malfoy's, and there was a tight edge to it that made Harry think it was genuine. Of course, he had no proof of that.
But he had his intuition, as usual. His captors had used no magic on him, though certain simple spells would have ensured he suffered even greater pain than he had and then remained unconscious afterwards. That suggested they feared his power enough to use a ward similar to the one Malfoy had used on his shop—and that meant a glamour to imitate Malfoy's voice was out. And whilst Malfoy might cooperate with them to avoid a beating like the one Harry'd got, Harry didn't think Malfoy would betray him to his death. Nor after the promise he'd made Harry swear about the Dark Arts.
Painfully, Harry dragged himself towards the part of the wall that the whispers seemed to be coming from. He slapped his hand twice, rapidly, on the floor in acknowledgment. He didn't dare speak yet, in case someone still listened.
At once Malfoy's voice altered, becoming filled with a savage eagerness. "Good. They've got a ward against magic up on this place."
Harry slapped twice in acknowledgment again, half his attention on the door of the cell. He could see a faint line of light under it. At the first sign of its widening, he would have to roll back into the middle of the room and pull his weakling act again.
"There's only one magic I know that will work here," Malfoy said grimly. "Animagus transformations."
Harry slapped once, in confusion. Why didn't Malfoy transform and try to escape, then? Perhaps they would take him somewhere that was open to the sky and solve the problem.
"They've broken my arm," Malfoy said. "I can't fly even if I transform, and walking albatrosses are clumsy compared to albatrosses in flight. But they're convinced that you can't master the Animagus transformation, so they don't have anything to worry about with you. You'll have to master it, though, and get us out of here."
That plan was so mad Harry had to speak aloud and take the risk of the guards hearing him. "You don't know I can, first of all," he said. "And then it's just as likely that I'll turn into something that can't help us."
"I think not," said Malfoy, and his voice was so smug that Harry wished there wasn't a stone wall between them, so that he might slap the bastard. "I may not know exactly what you are, but I know that you're strong and stubborn and don't give up no matter what happens. That may make you—"
"A rat," said Harry, thinking of the way that Wormtail had refused to give himself up and go quietly, no matter what happened. "A termite."
"No," said Malfoy flatly. "I refuse to believe that."
"Because it would leave you without hope right now?" Harry rolled his eyes at the invisible ceiling.
"There are worse reasons to believe something," said Malfoy. "Our charming hostess has given me a whole list of them. Now. I want you to close your eyes and concentrate on clearing your mind."
"I'm terrible at that," said Harry, even as he closed his eyes. "Snape tried to teach me Occlumency in my fifth year and it didn't work."
"Of course it didn't," said Malfoy. "You can't get rid of emotions or thoughts. Not you." There was an emotion in his voice that Harry might have mistaken for affection if he didn't know better.
"Then what does clearing your mind mean?" Harry tried to calm himself down, but his bruises ached and the thought of Malfoy's broken arm twined through his mind like smoke. God, the bastard didn't even allow the sound of pain to creep into his voice. Yes, he was braver than Harry had given him credit for. "If not getting rid of all the things that normally clutter it?"
"Make your mind transparent," said Malfoy. "Focused, like a glass lens. Imagine animals. Think only of them."
"What kind of animals?"
"It doesn't matter, Potter." Malfoy could still sound irate with him, then. Good. Harry would have suspected his spirit was broken otherwise, and that he really didn't believe this plan could work. "But it should be a changing group of them, racing around each other, in constant motion. Some of my students picture a flock of birds, some a school of fish, if they think they have winged or aquatic forms. But you shouldn't limit yourself that way, because we really don't know what your form is, and we need to find out."
"Imagine me as a fish, flopping around on the floor of my cell," Harry said darkly. "I might drown before I managed to turn human again. A fat lot of help that would be."
"You're not a fish."
"You said you weren't certain—"
"Picture a group of animals right now, Potter."
Half-grinning despite himself, Harry filled his mind with a gamboling, racing crowd of animals, and imagined dust puffing up around them, because why not? There were lions in his head, and leopards, and a pack of wolves, and a stampede of foxes, and then birds filled the air above them, and a rat and a dog and a stag ran by before he could stop himself, and a glittering stream poured across the dusty ground—because he thought that the animals might need water—and fish surfaced from it, opening their mouths in confusion at the air.
Harry didn't let his thoughts latch onto a single animal, even though he could see some at once that he wanted to be and others that he would prefer to avoid being trapped in the form of. He kept his mind whirling and racing, above a herd of horses and a flock of chickens and the bright fire of a phoenix.
"Good." Malfoy's voice came to him from very far away. "I can feel the force of your concentration. You're doing well, Potter. Now imagine a spiral diving into the middle of the animals, separating them."
"I thought you told me…" The crowd of animals wavered and nearly broke apart into a cloud of colored sparks in Harry's mind as he started to worry about doing something wrong. With an effort, he held onto them and imagined a golden spiral diving into the middle of the crowd. A winged horse reared and danced back from it, and a hive of bees shifted to the side so that they could buzz angrily at the spiral from a distance.
"Not separating out a single animal from the rest," snapped Malfoy. "Just creating a clear place where none of them can go."
Harry created that easily enough. In fact, he was somewhat startled at the intensity of the image that formed in his mind, as if he were standing in front of the animals himself. He could smell the dust and the sweat and, yes, the manure. He wrinkled his nose.
"Think of yourself now," said Malfoy. "Think of the animals, and listen to my voice. You are stubborn. I saw that from the first moment you came into my school. You wouldn't let go of the trail of Septimus Gully, even if the Minister himself ordered you off the case. I could barely move you during school. When you stuck out your lip the way I remember seeing you do before a Quidditch game, I knew I would have a time of it beating you to the Snitch."
Harry felt very strange. He barely seemed to be breathing. His mind was wheeling and tilting, staring down at the animals from an immense distance. Was he a hawk, with wings? But no, the feeling started to leave him when he imagined a specific animal, so he settled back into his acceptance of a transparent body and a fiercely circling mind.
"So stubborn," Malfoy crooned. "And you need to be coaxed. I thought I could coax you into bed when I discovered that you were gay. But no, I can't, can I? I bet that you barely let your dates buy you drinks or presents. You don't want to be bribed. You want to meet someone on the level, strength to strength. You're strong, Potter, though sometimes it's not a traditional kind of strength."
Harry smiled, or the creature in his mind that wore his face did. The circling grew faster.
"And hot-tempered." Malfoy's voice faltered a little, as if he weren't sure about this characteristic, but Harry made a loud grunt that was meant to encourage him. Malfoy's voice firmed and went on. "Yes, you still are. You grow so outraged over the things that Dark wizards do to your victims that you stay in a job you aren't suited for and let others command you—even though you hate that—because you want to punish them. You risk using Dark Arts where nothing else could ever persuade you to do that." His voice lowered. "Despite the promise I forced you to make, I was more worried about you being hurt than I was about your being corrupted. I can't see you using Dark Arts for your own benefit."
Harry's vision was blurring. The crowd of animals in front of him had become a series of colored splotches.
"And loud, in the end," Malfoy went on, his voice gaining strength and confidence. "You'll speak up when something angers you. You don't know how to keep quiet, it's easier for you to imagine yourself in service than in silence—"
Harry smashed into a barrier. He didn't know what it was, but suddenly the wings he'd been imagining wouldn't flap, and he struggled uselessly. He hissed, not a loud sound, but Malfoy seemed to hear it anyway.
"This is the most urgent part." Malfoy's voice rose until Harry suffered from a flash of a thought that their guards might hear him, but he pushed away the thought, because it made his vision waver, and that couldn't be allowed to happen. "You must force your way through this barrier, do you hear me, Potter? It's hard, it's going to wear on your soul, but you must—"
Harry pushed. A wind blowing from behind him was plastering him flat against the barrier, his wings spread out and his feathers ruffled. He grunted and heaved, leaning forwards until he could feel the push in the muscles of his calves. He had legs again, a face that hurt from the push, heavy hands that shook and then curled up into fists and pounded on the glass, trying to shatter it.
Heavy hands. Hard hands. And long ears, and a loud voice that tore itself out of his throat, and…
His head bowed. His body elongated and lifted at the shoulders. His face warped and his voice rose in a cry of triumph he couldn't help giving.
He knew he was different now, but he also knew he was in a body that could cause a great deal of trouble for his captors, and he asked nothing better.
Draco had taken a risk using this method of visualization and control of the Animagus transformation with Potter. It was one that even powerful wizards who intensely desired the transformation had trouble with, and Potter's reluctance just might spell disaster for them. But he couldn't think of another tactic they could use before the few hours Shrivelfig had given him were up.
And when he felt the concentration from the cell next to him, pressing against his body like magic itself, he knew he had made the right decision. Potter could do this. He only had to find the will, and with Draco murmuring a litany of his observations into Potter's ears, he was surrounded and sustained by himself.
The most frightening moment had come when Potter was plastered against the barrier, his body's last resistance to changing. Draco had lost several students there; they'd gone mad rather than surrender, but they hadn't had the power to get through the glass. He knew Potter did, so he had drawn a deep breath and continued to talk about Potter's temper and his ruthlessness and his intractability as either an enemy or a friend. He might have slipped in a few hopes of his own in that part, about how he hoped Potter wouldn't be intractable with him forever, but so what? If it helped Potter through the change, then it was good.
And it had worked. He recognized the cry from the cell next to him, a whinnying that broke and sobbed into a bray, and he threw his head back and laughed aloud.
Stubborn and loud and hot-tempered. Of course he's a mule. Of course he is.
Agitated shouts sounded from the corridor outside their cells, and Draco whispered, "Potter? You must ignore the smells and sounds that might overwhelm you now. You have to hit them—"
A contemptuous bray interrupted him, and then Draco heard a creak that might be the door of Potter's cell opening. He heard a voice that he hoped was Septimus Gully's exclaiming, "Holy shi—"
And Potter brayed again and lashed out with his hooves, or at least Draco assumed he did from the sound of breaking bone and the squash of a body falling heavily. Someone else tried to raise the alarm, and then shrieked. Draco grinned in triumph; since he couldn't see what was happening, he'd just picture a broken arm to compensate for his own.
There came the sound of clamping teeth, angry huffs of breath, another bray, and stamping hooves. Then Draco heard Potter trotting out into the corridor. He could see him there so easily, turning his head back and forth, large nostrils working as he sniffed the air.
This was also a dangerous time; Draco had had any number of students get confused with the input from their new senses and run off in a panic or a surge of curiosity to explore the world they'd entered on two wings or four legs. He yelled, "Potter! Remember to—"
And then he had to roll, because a section of the stone wall was coming down.
Harry had rarely had so much fun as when he turned around and kicked Septimus Gully square in the groin with his hind hooves. The man was still folding over when Harry kicked him in the jaw, and, from the sound, broke it.
Gully had a companion who was backing away from him, mouth open to ruin Harry's surprise. Harry wasn't in the mood to allow that. He snaked his neck out and fastened his teeth on the man's arm, then shook his head violently. More bones broke, flesh tore, and vicious satisfaction erupted in Harry.
He'd been driven, and shut up, and hit. Only idiots tried that with mules—especially with mules as big as he was, standing easily five feet at the shoulder. Harry laid his ears back and brayed again, starting out "Whinn—" and breaking into "aw-haw-haw" at the end. He liked the sound. There wasn't much about being a mule that he didn't like.
For example, Malfoy was behind a stone wall and trying to tell him something about not running away. Harry had no intention of doing that. But the stone wall could be a problem.
He whirled and bowed his head, putting all his power into a good hard kick at the wall.
It trembled, cracks appeared, and Harry felt a throb of pain travel down his hind legs for the first time. He mingled the pain with the anger and cried out defiantly, kicking harder than before. This time, the wall fell. Harry turned, scraping a hoof on the ground and bobbing his head. He'd like to see Malfoy rescue himself better than that.
Harry did make a magnificent mule, Draco had to admit, as he squinted at Harry against the light from the corridor. He was enormous, for one thing, and his coat was brown-black, with a touch of gray to the muzzle. His laid-back ears were outlined with black, his hooves with white, and he had blazing dark eyes. Or perhaps they were green. Draco wouldn't have been surprised, given that a ragged line of white on his forehead echoed the lightning bolt scar.
He started to stand up, and that jarred his broken arm, which he had nearly forgotten about in the intensity of instructing Harry in the Animagus transformation. He tried to catch his breath and stifle his cry, but he didn't do it quickly enough to disguise his pain from Harry.
The great mule came a few steps forwards and lowered his nose to snuffle at Draco's arm. Then he raised his head and tore the air apart with another great bray. Draco worried for a moment that Harry would lose control in his anger and kick him, or run away and simply leave him there, but instead Harry whirled to present his back to Draco and then knelt, legs folded awkwardly beneath him.
Carefully, supporting the useless weight of his left arm with his right hand as much as possible, Draco climbed onto his back. Harry stood, and Draco had to duck his head so they could pass beneath the doorway into the corridor again. The sconces on the walls, filled with blazing torches, and the tightly fitted stone in the floor reminded Draco of Hogwarts, and he thought it was highly likely that Shrivelfig's headquarters did lie in some old castle.
"Go find them," Draco whispered into one of the donkey-like ears, which twitched back to receive his words. "If we get enough evidence, then we should be able to destroy their operation, and maybe even capture Shrivelfig herself."
Harry bared his teeth and stamped the floor in acquiescence, and began to move. Draco kept his eyes strained, peering into the shadows ahead, but as yet he saw no sign of movement. He frowned, not knowing what to make of it. It seemed impossible that no one heard the cries from the two men Harry wounded. Were they laying a trap? Or trying frantically to figure out what had happened? Of course, if the magic-damping ward was still up, they would have no way to learn that without coming and investigating themselves.
A shadow shifted in the torchlight then. Draco drew his breath to warn Harry, but he'd already broken into a gallop. Draco braced himself as Harry raced to the corner around which one of Shrivelfig's people was trying to peer cautiously, locked his legs, and then clamped his teeth on the shoulder of a young woman. She spilled to the ground, in too much pain and shock to scream. A kick in the temple from Harry, and she lay still, blood seeping onto the floor from her head wound.
Draco looked down at her in undisguised loathing. She was Athena Wellward, or at least the woman he had known as Athena Wellward. He almost hoped that Harry had killed her, except for the thought of the consequences Harry would have to face from the Ministry afterwards.
Beyond Wellward's body, the corridor was dark. Harry peered cautiously forwards, sniffing. Draco concentrated, and felt the wash of magic in the distance, cramping and twisting and forcing itself inwards.
"Animagi are coming," he whispered to Harry.
Sure enough, a moment later a crow who must be the traitorous Henry swooped out of an alcove at them, his claws extended and his voice repeating harsh unnatural noises over and over again. He'd probably hoped to panic Harry, but mules were more intelligent than horses, and Harry had adapted more quickly to his Animagus form than anyone Draco had ever seen. He reared and moved his front legs in boxing motions, hitting the crow and breaking one of its wings. Henry screamed and fell to the floor, fluttering. He barely managed to get out of the way before Harry descended again, hooves tearing into the stone floor with terrible finality.
"Don't kill him," Draco managed to say through a haze of pain. He had been caught unawares when Harry reared, and had had to clutch at the line of bristly hair on the mule's neck instead of using his right hand to support his left arm. He bent over, gasping, and concentrated on staying conscious until he could say the rest. "It'll be counted murder by your enemies in the Ministry. If you've damaged him so he can't fly, his threat should be mostly ended."
"What a pity that the same could not be said of you," said Medea Shrivelfig's voice from ahead of them.
Draco looked up, blinking, in time to see Shrivelfig warping and bending, her body coiling inwards. He hadn't known she was an Animagus herself, but he recognized that contortion of forms.
And a moment later an anaconda that filled half the corridor was on the floor and writhing busily towards them.
Harry felt his rage rise to new heights as he recognized the snake. He badly wanted to charge forwards and simply trample its flat head, but his human instincts warred with his animal ones. The snake could snatch his ribs and stave them inwards before he could hurt her. In crushing contests, an anaconda would always have the advantage.
But Harry had one, too, one that hadn't vanished when Voldemort died.
Now, he forced himself to clear his mind in the way Draco had shown him, by concentrating on the varied crowd of animals and then imagining a man walking through them, a man with glasses and a lightning bolt scar and a weary face—
He changed back to human form, and whirled in the middle of it to catch Draco and keep him from dropping straight to the floor. The snake's shadow had covered them by the time he began to hiss in Parseltongue.
"Don't eat us. I wanted to see you. I wanted to tell you that I believe in some of what you were saying."
The great head swayed back and forth, regarding him. Harry forced himself to remain still and stare calmly into those flat dark eyes. This was still less frightening than confronting Voldemort and Nagini had been. For one thing, he had known all along that Nagini wouldn't have listened to him, even if he could speak to her; she was intensely loyal to her master.
But this snake was a proud woman who wanted someone to believe in her cause more than she wanted anything else in the world. And Harry had an advantage on his side that she probably hadn't anticipated him using, at least not considering that she hated the Ministry and believed everyone else would, too, if they just listened to her.
"I could eat you," she hissed, neck flexing restlessly. With his senses sharpened, keeping him in the moment, Harry could admire the green-gold pattern of her scales, the black splotches on them varying in size from a Knut to several Galleons laid side by side. "So long as you remember that."
"But why would you want to eat someone who would join you?" Harry laid a hand on his heart. "Someone who is a powerful wizard, someone you could command to destroy your enemies, and who would do so gladly?"
Shrivelfig considered this, sliding one coil of her body back and forth on the rough stone. Harry waited, aware of Draco's harsh breathing behind him. He prepared another plan in the back of his head in case Shrivelfig decided to disbelieve him, though he knew it was made of wisps of shadow and smoke.
"You have always hated me, and you have hunted me for several months now," she said at last.
Harry responded instantly. One of the few Ministry experts on Parseltongue, whom Harry had consulted when he was trying to determine how useful his unwanted gift could be in the field, had told him that Parseltongue had a slight hypnotic effect on snakes who heard a human speaking it, but the effect never lasted long. "I finally heard what you stood for—heard it in detail, and really understood it. I've come to hate the Ministry, too. They send me on the wrong missions and won't let me accept the right ones. They forbid me to investigate because there's the chance I'll turn up their relatives in the wrong places. I want to do something to show them that I still matter, and that they're wrong to disregard me like that."
Harry was a little disturbed at how much truth emerged in his voice, and how much hatred and bitterness. But he couldn't have chosen better as a way to persuade Shrivelfig, who swayed eagerly back and forth, hissing. "Yes, yes, yes! There is a better way, and with Harry Potter at my side, I can find it. I will change back now, and instruct you in what you must do to become one of my children."
The moment shadows gathered about her and seemed to involve her fully in her transformation, Harry snapped his eyes shut. The crowd of animals, Draco's remembered voice in his head chanting his attributes, those pieces of his soul that voice had let him find and which were reflected in the mule…
He became an animal just as Shrivelfig rose to her feet as a human. And she didn't have time to look startled before Harry kicked her in the breastbone and flung her several feet down the corridor. She did groan once, pitifully, before Harry trotted up to her and leaned one hoof on her chest, holding her eyes as he bore down, letting her know that he could kill her in instants.
She tensed as though she would try to change again, but Draco said casually from behind Harry, "I can tell him to kill you. No one but us will ever know. And then we'll go on to kill the other 'children' you have here—none of whom have an Animagus form as powerful as Harry, not if I trained them—and your dream will die with them."
Shrivelfig shut her eyes, and tears ran from the corners. She relaxed completely. Her voice was thick with the dust of dead ambition as she whispered, "I surrender. I'll tell my children to surrender. Don't hurt them."
Harry flattened his ears and gave what seemed to be an endless bray of triumph, aware that Draco had limped up beside him and put his good hand on Harry's neck. His fingers stroked the rough fur gently.
The Minister was impressed.
Draco could tell that he was trying hard not to be. He spoke to Harry as little as possible. He frowned fiercely as the Aurors dragged Shrivelfig's followers out of the castle in which they'd made their headquarters, and he asked pointed questions about the wounds some of them had sustained, especially Septimus Gully and the friend who had helped him open Harry's cell. He made remarks to the air that certain people who were currently unregistered Animagi would have to register as soon as possible.
But his eyes were wide, and he kept giving little nods, as if he were mentally counting up all the work that Harry had saved the Ministry in tracking down Shrivelfig. Draco smiled wearily as the Healer beside him reset his broken bone with a few quick flicks of her wand. At least Harry's being appreciated by the people he was determined to stay and serve shouldn't be something Draco needed to worry about anymore.
"There." The Healer reclaimed his attention as she handed Draco a vial of red-brown potion. He took it without pause; he recognized a pain reliever his mother had often used for her headaches the year they'd lived in the Manor beside the Dark Lord. "A few days' rest, and don't try to use that arm often, but you're lucky. It was a clean break."
Draco nodded. He knew that was a coincidence; Shrivelfig's people hadn't been trying to spare him any pain. They hadn't been trying to spare anyone pain, really, except themselves.
He looked back at Harry. He was answering Shacklebolt's questions with an easy air, as though he were inside the Minister's office, not under a dusky sky on a set of wild and desolate cliffs, next to a crumbling castle whose door still lay in splinters from one of his kicks in mule form. He had his back to Draco. Draco couldn't remember one glance from Harry since they'd lifted the ward that prevented magic from happening in the castle and the Aurors had begun to arrive, in fact.
Maybe that was—as it should be. Draco was not at all sure how he would get on with someone who was a mule Animagus.
He turned away, suffered the Healer to bind his left arm up in a sling and give him more stern instructions on how not to move it, and then Apparated.
Once again, Harry stood outside Malfoy's Magical Menagerie and combated his own reluctance to enter. He told himself that Draco Apparating away from the castle and not contacting him any time in the fortnight since didn't necessarily mean anything. He could have been overwhelmed by how close he'd come to death in Shrivelfig's clutches. He could have assumed that Harry didn't need him for anything anymore, now that their enemies were stopped, the danger to his school past, and Harry capable of the Animagus transformation.
But a promise and a conversation lingered between them still, and so Harry had forced himself away from his office, his flat, and the temptation of another case, to seek out someone who had made him feel emotions he hadn't experienced in years.
He opened the door and entered the dark room filled with scented candles. He wondered for a moment, idly, what it would have been like to change into a mule for the first time in this room, and then shook his head, smiling. It never would have happened. I was born to become everything I am, even an Animagus, under abnormal circumstances.
Draco was coming towards him, face artificially neutral, jaw set as if he were grinding his teeth or biting his lip. Harry gazed back at him, and then grinned. Draco's expression was no more forbidding than Kingsley's had been, many a time, and still Harry had challenged him and insisted on presenting his own perspective. He was going to do the same thing this time.
"Draco," he said, and came forwards, and took the other man's hand. Draco started and stared at him before he could stop himself. Harry wondered if the name or the gesture was the greater surprise for him. "I wanted to come by to thank you for how you saved my life in Shrivelfig's dungeon."
Already Draco was trying to fold the emotion back into himself and move past his moment of shock, Harry saw. He shook his head a little and said, "It was you who completed the transformation, Potter, and saved my life."
"But you were the one who taught me to complete it." Harry stepped closer, and Draco stood where he was, perhaps simply from pride, which left their faces close. Harry smiled at him. "In ten minutes and through the pain of a broken arm, no less. Even among Animagus teachers, I would reckon that ability's rare."
Draco's skin flushed a delicate pink, as if he had never imagined that Harry might compliment him. But still he was stubborn; Harry thought he might have made a fine mule himself, if pallor and grace weren't even larger parts of his personality. Or maybe his identification with his own form went deeper than that; Harry hadn't asked him what albatrosses represented.
"Amazing as it might be, it's in the past, and we really lived because you managed to trick Shrivelfig," he said. He paused, as if torn between asking his questions or telling Harry to get out of his school, and then added, "What happened to her?"
"She's been charged," said Harry, a brief burst of that vicious satisfaction he'd felt as a mule going off like a firework in his chest. "With murder, among other things, and corrupting the youth, because she had recruiters working inside Hogwarts. Gully's also up on murder charges, and most of the others will be tried for conspiracy. Some for treason." He sighed. "But you were right."
"Of course I was right about some of my former students being part of her group, though not as many of them as really were," said Draco, with a flash of bitterness. He seemed unconscious of the fact that his hand was still clasped in Harry's.
"Not about that." Harry took a deep breath. "About how useless it is for me to remain within the Ministry if I want to do some good. Councilor Hidefell is already complaining about me again. It seems that he didn't want me to investigate Shrivelfig because he knew his niece was fascinated by her group, although she never did anything criminal, and was frightened that I'd sweep her up in my search, not bothering to differentiate between the innocent and the guilty."
"And so he's got you suspended again?" Draco asked. Harry liked to think that the flush in his cheeks this time was anger, and that the anger was for him.
"Yes." Harry snorted, thinking of the way Kingsley had explained it to him. "I cause too much trouble. I don't obey orders. I use my name and my scar when I shouldn't, and if I used them more, I could cause serious problems for the Ministry. But of course they don't want me to leave, because when it's convenient, I can be of good use to them."
"Are you content with that?" Draco surveyed him with a cool look.
"I was," said Harry. "I thought it was a reasonable trade for me to have the Ministry's power behind me when I wanted to punish someone. But—"
He stopped, wondering how he could confess the whole mess of it. His friendship with Kingsley had disintegrated, strained and tarnished by politics. He did hurt innocents when he acted too rashly, but he didn't know how to stop himself from doing so as long as he had immunity from most consequences. Auror work was not what he had imagined it might be, especially the fruitless investigations and the long hours he had to spend in paperwork. (And yet it seemed childish to complain about that).
In the end, he went with the simplest truth, the one Draco had helped him understand.
"I want to do other things than punish people," he said.
Draco's eyes widened slightly. "Really," he said, and didn't make it a question.
Harry nodded. "The Animagus transformation was—amazing. The first thing I've done in a long time that made me enthusiastic about magic itself, and not just what magic could enable me to do. Or, at least, the first thing that wasn't Dark Arts."
"Which you won't use again," said Draco. His nails cut into Harry's palm.
Harry nodded a second time. "I've started to wonder what other sorts of joy I'm missing by devoting myself to being only an Auror and nothing more than that. I want to see. So I'm leaving the Ministry, because of that and because I'll break my promise if I stay there and become frustrated enough. It's corrupting me, too, even if it's not the same sort of corruption that flourishes among the Wizengamot Councilors. The Ministry is their home now, and not mine."
"What will you do, then?" Draco moved closer. "I know you, Harry. You won't be content simply to sit around your house and spend the Galleons in your vault."
"Oh, no," Harry said. He called me by my first name. It was strange how good that made him feel. Or maybe not so strange after all; Draco was someone who cared enough about him to want to protect him against Dark Arts, someone who could hold the incredible discipline of Animagus training in his head, someone who could tell the animals in people's souls from a glance at them most of the time. "I'll probably become a private investigator in the end. But for now, I want to perfect my Animagus form. I haven't been able to transform since that night, you know, even though I've tried."
Draco's eyes grew hard and brilliant as slate. "There might be several reasons for that."
"And I thought," Harry went on, knowing he faced possible rejection for this as he didn't by applying to become a student, "that I might see what joys I've missed by not being in your company."
And he cupped a hand around the back of Draco's head and kissed him.
Draco didn't hesitate, but kissed him fiercely back, until he had pushed Harry onto his heels and their tongues were striving with one another. When he pulled away, it was to lift a finger and tap him on the chin with a force that made Harry think of a peck from a beak.
"Good," said Draco. "I was wondering the same thing."
Harry smiled. "Why an albatross?" he murmured, as he slung an arm around Draco's shoulders and they proceeded into the school. "I realized I hadn't asked. It can't be just because you have nearly white hair and an enormous—ego."
Draco's elbow caught him in the ribs. "No," he said. "Albatrosses gaze unblinking across the sea, and they can fly without tiring. All they have to do at sea is lock their wings and glide on the air currents, you know, hardly flapping. But they take an awful lot of effort to get off the ground." He paused. "And there's a legend that albatrosses are the souls of sailors, and to kill one is bring on a curse. There was a Muggle who wrote a poem about a mariner who killed an albatross and had the bird hung around his neck as punishment."
Harry nodded. "I understand."
"No, you don't." Draco gave him a slow, fascinating smile. "Not yet. But I look forwards to teaching you."