Note on Astronomy: Mars-Earth oppositions (the "times of bright" in this story's title) took place four times between the years 1992 and 1999, with Mars and Earth closest approximately on January 3 in 1993, on February 12 in 1995, on March 17 in 1997, and on May 2 in 1999.

Times of Bright

oOo

"Every two years or so the Earth catches up with Mars as they both circle the Sun,
and the two planets are in line with the Sun. That is called opposition
as the Sun and Mars are then on opposite sides of the Earth. Opposition is
when Mars is at its closest to Earth and at its brightest. Of course, it is more complicated."

from: "The changing brightness of the planet Mars" by Nick Lomb

oOo

Rennes, Le Havre, Calais - Draco had learned the names by heart. Muggle places, all of them, as if his route to Harry was some kind of Muggle pilgrimage. When the ferry approached Britain, he was startled to see the white cliffs in front of him. The boat jumped at just that moment, and hot tea from the Muggle plastic cup scalded his fingers, leaving them tender for the entire train ride, later, into London. He had of course been to the Foreland Cliffs, they were one of the most powerful places of magic in Britain. How stands the old Lord Warden? Father would have quoted at their sight. Are Dover's cliffs still white? But only when Draco saw them from the ferry did he understand that it was neither tradition nor history which made this place so powerful. It was the rocks themselves, bridging sea and sky, their colour like the clouds at times, and then again like the spray, as if the sea itself had white-washed them, to leave a testament for the times when even the oceans were gone, but certain that the cliffs would endure.

Other people were standing with him on the ferry's platform in the rain. Muggles, most likely, but he wasn't sure. A woman in a sky-blue uniform, her legs bare below the short skirt, was speaking in hushed tones to her companion. Someone stepped close to the railing, all wrapped in a green raincoat, staring at the cliffs. The rocks came close faster now, rising ever higher from the water. All of a sudden the person turned to him, a woman with grey hair, and Draco saw her awe-struck face. Even Muggles can feel it, he thought. And he wondered whether the magic, which had so subtly shaped the last seven years of his life, could truly ever be broken.

oOo

"… as we have come together here, one year to the day after the final battle in the long war against the One-Who-Will-Never-Again-Be-Named, his crusade of pure-blood terror crushed in this very hall, we commemorate the dead …"

Fudge's smooth, magic-enhanced voice droned on above the muted rustles and whispers of as many people as could possibly fit into Hogwarts' Great Hall. Traces of the battle could still be seen everywhere, shallow holes and gashes in the walls, dark star-shaped smears where spells had missed their living targets and were deflected to the stones. The students were lined up against the walls, standing beneath their House colours. A row of seats was set up at the head of the hall for the dignitaries – high-ranking politicians, members of the Wizengamot and a selected choice of war heroes. But while the hall was filled to bursting, there was one spot that people avoided, skirting around it, gingerly stepping over it. Nothing marked that spot, no polished brass plate, no rusty stain of blood or the black soot of that final spell. Yet its location was etched into the memory of all that had been present that fateful afternoon, when the sun had shone so brightly to dim even the garish green of the Killing Curse that struck down Voldemort. Fudge elaborated on the event, well-worded diplomacy was his forte, after all, and he waxed on about the boy who had given his entire youth in preparation for this moment in time.

Or not. Harry had gracelessly declined the Ministry's offer to be seated amongst the guests of honour. He was standing with his House, listening with less than half an ear to a story that more and more became less his own. Hero, Chosen One, sacrifice – he had heard the words ad nauseam. They'd lost all their meaning, turned into mere post-war rhetoric. Harry knew that there were people in the hall who owed him their lives. But it was the dead who were with him most of the times.

The dead and the missing. Hermione was still in Sydney, trying to bring her parents' memories back. Her last letter had sounded hopeful – Mrs and Mr Granger remembered now that once there had been a bright, bushy-haired little girl in their lives. If the hours Ron spent in the library were any indication, he missed Hermione even more than Harry did. They would pour over their Advanced Transfiguration books, and Harry would catch Ron staring at the table back near the Restricted Section which had been theirs, Hermione always sitting at the broad side on her own, taking up the space of three with all her books and endless rolls of parchment.

Someone touched Harry's wrist and he winced. Ginny was standing beside him, but she was holding Dean's hand. They had been going out for five months now, since before the Christmas holidays. There was no talk about marriage, no cheesy lines about how Dean would be like another son to the Weasleys. But he was. Harry could tell from the way Mrs. Weasley was trading recipes with Mrs. Thomas, both of them looking with bright, happy eyes at their children. It was with a mixture of bitterness and relief that Harry would watch Mr. Weasley put a glass of milk out on the table for Dean especially, cherishing the strange Muggle custom.

"Are you coming with us to the Burrow after the ceremony?" Ginny whispered, quickly withdrawing her fingers from where she had touched Harry.

He turned to her and squeezed her hand. The last thing he wanted was Ginny to think that he didn't like her to touch him. For he did - did want her to touch him. Look at him, talk to him, laugh and be silly with him. He just didn't want to be her boyfriend. He'd gladly be another brother to her, wanted her in his life, wanted to be in hers. He'd offered her friendship, and sometimes they were friends. Other times, she was Ron's little sister, Dean's beautiful girlfriend, the best Chaser Gryffindor had had in years, a girl he barely knew who had once thought she'd loved him.

The Burrow. He shook his head, and suddenly knew that he had some place else to go after this. In fact –

Ginny squinted her eyes, leaned towards him. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Harry said. A lie – and Ginny of all people could see right through it. But she didn't know any of it. Nobody did. Nobody but … another one who was missing.

And perhaps, Firenze knew.

Harry had been watching the centaur all through the ceremony, had looked right at him when he gave his short, muddled speech about the new House solidarity in Hogwarts. Firenze still taught Divination, and Harry took the class, although he wasn't going for Divination N.E.W.T.s. But Firenze knew – perhaps he knew, and at least Harry could hope – and it was this thought which had kept him together throughout the school year: to know that there was someone who – perhaps – knew. Firenze never addressed him in class, left Harry to his wandering thoughts. Once he had given him a red jasper pendant encased in a flowery circle of silver. "For direction," he had mumbled, then had grasped Harry's wrist, to only stare at it and retreat with an awkward bow.

Harry was watching Firenze now, with the sunlight streaming through the tall windows of the Great Hall. It made the palomino body of the horse-man gleam a light silver. White-blond hair.

Harry wanted to ask him – for the millionth time – Had it been you?

The one with the frantic whisper – Run, Potter! –, the one who'd pushed Harry's head to the ground, the touch so gentle that it still made Harry's heart stop to remember it, after more than seven years. The one with the frightened look from eyes grey like stone, like the sea, gone seconds before a pale sapphire gaze appeared in front of Harry's face.

Had that white-blond streak truly been the centaur's fur? Had that body which yanked Harry out of the way of Voldemort's charge really been half-horse, half-man? Or had it been just another boy, so young, both of them, and so afraid (silvery-blue unicorn blood dripping from sharply gleaming fangs)? Had it been Malfoy – that blond vision Harry remembered so vividly (a lighter shadow at his side reflected in the unicorn's wide-open eyes)? Had Malfoy come back after he'd fled in panic? Had he watched from underneath the trees, had he seen, before Harry did, that thing attacking him? Had he – for whatever reason – hurled himself across the clearing to pull Harry from its grasp?

Harry didn't know for certain, and in all those years, he'd never asked Malfoy. He hadn't asked Firenze either. And the other two who had been present were both dead and could no longer tell him what they had seen.

"I need to go," he said abruptly.

Ginny stared at him, then blinked. "Now? But, Harry … you can't just leave." Her voice shook with a disbelieving chuckle. "There is still the gathering at Dumbledore's grave, and you're to say a few words." She stepped closer, as heads turned towards them and a small bald man hissed at them to be quiet.

"I need to leave," Harry said again and he knew that it was true, that he couldn't lose any more time here, with the past, that he had to go. "Will you please tell McGonagall I'm sorry but something came up?" He leaned down to retrieve his bag.

"What happened, Harry?" There was open concern now in Ginny's voice. "What can possibly be more important than this ceremony? You didn't want to leave just minutes ago …" She watched him, as he closed the clasps of his robes. Then she caught his wrist in her fingers, deliberately, as she would catch the Snitch. "It's because of this, isn't it?" she whispered softy so that only Harry could hear her.

He suppressed a gasp and tried not let his face betray the pain that was shooting up his arm. Slowly he freed his wrist from Ginny's grip. "Don't touch it," he told her with as much kindness as he could muster. His wrist burned as if Ginny had prodded a half-healed wound.

"So I'm right." She edged even closer but kept at a distance from Harry's right arm.

Dean was watching them, his hand on Ginny's shoulder. The bald wizard put a finger to his mouth, giving them a stern look. Harry nodded apologetically, then looked to where Firenze was standing. The centaur had his proud head turned towards him and their eyes met.

"I'm right," Ginny repeated. "Am I not?"

"Yes," Harry simply said. Ginny always noted things about him, but she didn't understand.

"You should go to Madam Pomfrey with it," she said, putting her palm against Harry's chest as if she could hold him back with sheer physical force.

Harry moved his head to the side. "It's not a sickness. Just a spell."

"Spells can be as dangerous as illnesses," Dean said, stating the obvious.

"I need to be going, Ginny," Harry said. "You will tell McGonagall, won't you?" He looked over to where Firenze was watching him, then turned back to Ginny, took her face in his hands. "And tell Ron I'll be back Monday for Potions, at the latest." He paused, a memory of Ginny's soft lips flashing through his mind. And of someone else's lips, and teeth and tongue, kissing him with a passion he'd never known with Ginny. "Please," he whispered, and Ginny nodded, her cheeks moving ever so lightly against his palms.

"Thanks." Harry put his hand to the shoulder strap of his bag and moved towards the doors. He felt Firenze's gaze on him as he weaved through the crowds, trying to draw as little attention to himself as possible. Fudge's voice was still droning on. The Minister for Magic never realised that the Boy Who Lived was leaving.

oOo

He had to be a fool to arrive at the Leaky Cauldron in the middle of the day. On that very special day, even. The day when "all of wizarding kind" – thus the official wording in the Daily Prophet, and even in that French rag, Le Télégramme Magique – was getting drunk and careless, revealing themselves to Muggles, all in good sport, to celebrate the first anniversary of the downfall of the former Dark Lord, now officially declared megalomaniac par excellence. Still, here he was, number 47 on the Ministry's Most Wanted Death Eaters list, heavily Glamoured, with a false name so ridiculous it might even convince that twit of a barkeeper. He had come all the way from Brittany to London, for a secret rendezvous with his maybe-lover. Who did or did not know that he was waiting here. Who was unlikely to even think of them as lovers. Who was going to get married any day now, for all he knew. He was, Draco Malfoy couldn't repeat often enough to himself, a fool of extraordinary dimensions.

"The room's to the back, Sir, quiet, as you requested. Well, at least you won't hear the bustle of Diagon Alley." Tom the bald barkeeper, whose pure-blood name not even his most loyal customers could recall (but Draco knew, for family mattered, especially for those in exile), glanced at him quickly, not unfriendly, but clearly taking him for a Mudblood. The Muggle clothes were part of Draco's disguise. The jeans and leather jacket hopefully spelled tourist to anyone who gave a second look. One of those travelling wizards who were at home all over the world, staying in London for a couple of days to see the sights at the centre of wizarding Britain. Not its heart nor its soul, as Father had never grown tired of pointing out. Draco smiled faintly, a smile that the old fool could only misunderstand, and he did, flashed him a toothless grin and nodded back over his shoulder.

"You'll be taking the stairs leading up from the kitchen hallway, if you please, Sir."

Draco walked towards the arched doorway to the left of the long bar. A young wizard in an old-fashioned sky-blue coat looked up from his glass of firewhisky, gave him the once-over, then winked at him. A nice arse, a good smile, but Draco was not here for that kind of distraction, little as the Breton countryside had to offer in that respect. He shrugged non-committally as he stepped through the archway.

The hallway was dark, there was no other source of light but what filtered in from the barroom. The air was filled with dust and the smell of a savoury stew, wafting over from the kitchen. Venison was on today's menu and perhaps it was safe to go down later and have some. A narrow flight of stairs opened to Draco's left, and he walked up, letting the banister guide him in the murky darkness. He registered the pitiful creaks of the ancient, splintery steps. Good. No one could sneak up those stairs without making a racket. Potter he'd know by the sound of his steps, like he'd always known, whenever they had met. The dark had always been their friend, final irony of ironies. And if the Aurors Apparated up to his room, then he'd been found out anyway and would Disapparate, no matter that the magic trace betrayed him for good.

He stepped into the hallway on top of the stairs, treading heavily on the carpeting. There was no sound, which wasn't good. Draco counted the doors leading off on both sides. Twelve doors, four to the right, eight to the left. And a half, if one included the broom closet. His room was the third to the left, the number 9 a flourished affair in brass attached to the door with a Permanent Sticking Charm. Leave it to fate – or rather to that fool Tom – to decide whether to give him a room on the Muggle or the wizarding side of the Leaky. Harry's side or his – which was a ridiculous thought, really, Harry Potter being a celebrated hero, and Draco Malfoy for all the world a wanted criminal who had sought refuge in exile.

Draco lightly touched his wrist, where the red lines of the Dark Mark were still clearly visible. The ribbon binding the Mark, however, couldn't be seen, not now, at midday. But its nightly bluish shimmer had been getting stronger in the last weeks, to the point where Draco hated its faint, but insistent squeeze almost as much as he had dreaded Voldemort's painful Summons. For all that he had learned about the voluntary nature of this particular bond, it sure was persuasive. How else could he explain even to himself (much less to his astounded mother) that he had dared to come to Britain, to Diagon Alley, of all places, the Ministry of Magic just across Trafalgar Square? He had been careful, used only the most basic spells, refrained from using any magic which could give his identity away. With Father gone, killed in cold blood by the Special Aurors' Force, Mother needed him to stay alive. But he … he needed to see Harry, even if it was for the very last time.

And so here he was, standing in this dark hallway, waiting for who knew what. He opened the door and stepped into the room. Immediately he was overwhelmed by the scent of old magic, so strong and familiar, it almost brought tears to his eyes. But he would not cry for this – this country with its magic so different from the effervescent, fleeting magique of Brittany. He was not here to cry for his lost home, or even to take revenge upon it. He was here to end it, whatever was between him and Potter, to end it, cut the bond, and go on with his life.

When Draco cast a Lumos into the shadows of the room, he let its magic pass through his body, trying to not give it another thought. Three white candles on a small table near the door flared up and another one ignited on the bedside cabinet. The curtains were drawn, keeping out the sun. He walked into the room, taking in the dark-wooded four-poster bed, the small ebony secretary in front of the windows, two stuffed chairs at the dead fireplace. So here they would meet again. The room reminded Draco of another one, back at Hogwarts, a room that had been provided for them by the Castle itself, as if all magic had conspired to bring them together, against their will –

They had fucked on the seventeenth of March in their sixth year, going within minutes from threatening each other, at wand-point before the Room of Requirement, to ripping their clothes off. The Room had opened for them to a chamber all silver and black, with nothing in it but a bed. What little light there had been, Draco had extinguished with a handful of Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder. He hadn't been able to trust Potter, not then, and Potter would have seen that he had taken the Dark Mark. The ribbons had swirled around their bodies that night, but he'd never seen them. The Darkness Powder had effectively cancelled out even the spell's shimmering light. They had stumbled onto the bed, had barely exchanged a word. Potter had been so eager to touch him, had kissed and caressed him with such sweet passion, then had finally succumbed and let Draco fuck him. In the entire miserable year, it was the one night he remembered fondly, remembered, as if it had been just yesterday, how he'd pierced Potter with a need so desperate and raw, precisely because he had needed so much more than sex. He'd been utterly alone that year, and that had been the worst of it. That night, the ribbons floating around them in the darkness, and Potter's slick, writhing body underneath him, he had wished that he could simply talk to him. He had needed a friend, not a spell-bound lover who went back to being his enemy, come daybreak. The next time they'd met, just the two of them, Potter had tried to kill him …

A few steps brought Draco to the windows and he threw the curtains open. Two glass doors led out to a balcony, and he opened them, just wide enough so he could step outside and get some fresh air. Directly opposite the balcony rose the Eleanor Cross. Not its cheap nineteenth century imitation, but the old one, one of the twelve crosses marking the way of the Queen's dead body from Harby to Westminster Abbey. The magic of death and love had made the cross resilient to fire, earthquake and the slow poisons of time. Half-hidden behind it, Draco could see the statue of Charles I, one of the Muggle Kings, and for a moment he was tempted to cast a Paint-Flashing Jinx, just to test the reach of the Leaky's Disillusionment Charm. But of course that would have drawn the Aurors towards him in an instant.

Draco squinted into the sun. A lantern made from leaded glass was attached to the Leaky's wall. He had seen similar lanterns in Hungary, in Kastély Kinizsi where he and his parents had spent those first months after Voldemort's demise, hidden by friends still loyal to Father and the Malfoy name. Another memory threatened to surface, a stronger one, of lanterns glowing in the dark. Draco turned quickly as if he could stop remembering when he no longer saw the lantern swaying in the breeze. Damn, he was not here for a trip down memory lane. And those lanterns in the Great Hall belonged to another life –

It had been the night of the Yule Ball in their fourth year, with students and teachers from the best schools of France and Russia in attendance, the future European wizarding elite. Draco had danced with Pansy all through the evening, her in clothes all pale pink, and moving pliantly in his arms. They had easily been the best-looking couple in the Great Hall. They'd certainly been dressed sharper and were better dancers than that Hufflepuff fool Diggory and Chang, who Draco later heard, had been some kind of unrequited crush of Potter's. The Sunday Prophet had proclaimed those two the Couple of the Evening, but during the event, he and Pansy had been the stars. It had possibly been the happiest night of all his years at school, with the magical grandeur of the Ball, the feeling that this was the world he was born into, rightfully his to succeed in, his element, more even than the Potions lab or the Quidditch pitch. What had made it even sweeter was Potter, who had looked dismal with Parvati half-dragging, half-steering him across the dance floor. For all that Draco could tell, the Chosen One had been miserable all evening.

They had stumbled into each other later. Their encounters always seemed to be by chance, and this time Longbottom's left shoe, of all possible things, had brought them together. After the Ball, there had been partying in the dungeons, and in the wee hours of the night Draco found himself tiptoeing through the Castle to return Longbottom's shoe to the Great Hall. Some overly clever Slytherin second-year had taken it, when Longbottom slipped his footwear off to do some shimmy (the extent of Gryffindor fun!). Goyle couldn't be sent on such a mission, he and Filch attracted each other like magnets after curfew. Crabbe was out, snoring in their dormitory room, and Pansy had declared quite huffily that this was boys' business.

He was drunk too, from the firewhisky Montague had smuggled into their common room. And he noted the glimmer around his wrist, but paid it no heed. He hadn't spent a thought on Potter since Weasley and the Mudblood (and Draco'd be damned if he knew what Krum, Victor Krum, saw in that little brain-for-balls bitch) had had their shouting match. All he thought about when he slipped into the Great Hall, was Longbottom's dumbfounded face when his one shoe would be found tomorrow morning, dangling from the garlands. Draco chuckled silently. The other shoe, of course, had long been tossed out of the dungeons' windows into the lake.

He came to a full stop when he saw the figure standing in the middle of the Hall. The emptied space still vibrated from the festivities, with the last of the lanterns burning out their magical light. He knew at once it was Potter, still wearing his dress robes and staring up into the starry black sky of the enchanted ceiling. As Draco walked towards him – really, he couldn't help but get closer to him – Potter turned and flashed him a smile, the light from the little lanterns red and golden on his face. For all that Draco could tell, Potter had been waiting for him.

"You noticed it, too, then?" Potter raised his arm, so the robes fell back and revealed the tell-tale shimmer on his arm.

The ribbon on Draco's wrist tightened painfully. He reached for it, wanted to rub the pain away, and moved so clumsily that he dropped Longbottom's shoe. "It's not yet time," he muttered, startled by the vivid shimmer on his own wrist. The twirling patterns of the ribbon were clearer than he'd ever seen them before. Like the markings on a unicorn horn, he thought.

"This is Neville's shoe," Potter said. "God, you idiots took his shoes. He's been driving us crazy, looking for them." He sounded not a little pissed off, and the anger in Potter's voice gave Draco a quick moment of savage satisfaction.

"It's not yet time," he repeated stubbornly, only too aware of Potter's closeness, the way he reached out hesitantly towards Draco. The words were barely out of his mouth when Potter closed his fingers around Draco's wrist, pulling him even closer. The feeling was overwhelming, just like last time in that deserted corridor. Only this time Draco knew what to make of the sudden tightening in his groin, that heat which spread within moments from his stomach all the way up to his face. He couldn't help leaning into Potter and inhale the faint scent of soap and sweat.

"It's close," Potter whispered at Draco's cheek. "And look," he pointed up to the ceiling, "in here, it's that time already."

Draco didn't want to move, the soft touch of Potter's skin on his face felt just too good. But he turned his head a bit, so he could see what it was that Potter wanted to show him. It took a few moments for Draco's eyes to adjust to the inky dark, criss-crossed with garlands of mistletoe and ivy. But then he saw the single star Potter was pointing at. It shone brighter than all of the others, a red hue to its silver light.

"Mars."

Potter nodded. His hands were moving up Draco's arms and down his sides, circling him, until he had him wrapped in a tight embrace. Draco pressed his body against Potter, and it was not like he could help it, the way Potter's chest felt so firm, and his cock hard, pushing against Draco's own erection. "Why the fuck Mars?" he hissed. His hands were on Potter's hips, which were moving ever so slightly, forward and back, in a rhythm of their own.

"I've no idea. I don't get any of this." Potter's voice was hoarse. "Do you want to dance?"

Dance? Draco looked around in the empty hall, which was almost all dark now, with only three lanterns left burning, two red, one golden. "Yeah, sure. Let's dance. Whatever." He made a few steps, and Potter tried to follow, but they moved in different directions, and Potter stumbled over that idiot Longbottom's shoe. They almost crashed to the floor together, and Potter would have gone down for sure, if Draco hadn't steadied him with a firm grip. "Fuck, Potter, you can't dance without music."

He realised then that Potter was blasted, too, for he giggled, like a girl, and searched for Draco's mouth. Their lips touched when the golden lantern sputtered and died, leaving them in red-hued darkness. Draco had kissed before, Pansy mostly, but also a second year Ravenclaw whose name he couldn't remember. And Nott, of course, a sloppy snogging session before they had tossed each other off in the shower. But kissing Nott or Pansy was nothing like kissing Potter. In the beginning, his kisses were little more than shy pecks. When Draco responded, he started sucking at his lower lip in way that made Draco groan loudly, from a place so deep within, it startled him. He broke the kiss, panting, he didn't know why.

Potter looked at him, the red light washing over his face. He moved his thumb across Draco's lips, his voice a soft murmur. "Come, let's dance now." Potter stepped forward, putting his thigh between Draco's legs, which really made it quite impossible for Draco to do anything even remotely resembling dancing. But Potter had his arms around him and he guided him with careless ease, in a circle of small, graceful steps. From somewhere Draco could hear music, a slow waltz, and he started moving to its rhythm without giving it another thought.

"You hear it?" Potter asked, and Draco nodded, hungry again for Potter's lips.

They had kissed and danced, for what had seemed like hours, until the last of the lanterns had been extinguished. And they'd left just in time, before Filch discovered them walking hand-in-hand through the entrance hall …

Draco closed the balcony door with a last look at the Eleanor Cross. Its shadow seemed longer somehow, as if he'd been standing on the balcony for an hour at least. But it was still early in the afternoon. Still time for Potter to come to the Leaky and find him, like he always did. Draco walked to the fireplace, rifled through the selection of magazines, then picked up the Quidditch Weekly and sat in one of the stuffed chairs.

Longbottom's shoes had reappeared in the Great Hall the next morning, standing side by side. There had been much chuckling and guessing as to why one shoe was soaked and trailing seaweed, whereas the other was dry. Draco would never forget the secretive look Potter had given him, over the heads of a whole mob of Gryffindors, Longbottom among them, his face red like a beet with embarrassment. He had winked at him, a sly smile on his face, Draco was sure of it.

Later they had done more daring things, tossed each other off, fucked for real, during these strange encounters in the dark. But moving to imaginary music with Potter in his arms, his hands around Draco's waist, his fumbling, too wet kisses, that smile which had been just for him – it still made Draco hot and hard just thinking about it. He sighed and opened the paper, trying to concentrate on the Cannons' chances to still wrench the League Cup from the Tutshill Tornados.

The rumbling of the Muggle cars at Charing Cross could be heard in the distance, muted by the Disillusionment Charm. Other than that it was oddly quiet in the room. The creaking of the chair's old springs when Draco moved, the rustling of the paper when he turned a page – it sounded like disturbances in the stillness, too sharp, too loud somehow. Draco found himself listening intently for sounds coming from the hallway, from the narrow flight of stairs. There was nothing. No clanking of pots from the kitchen, no orders bellowed from the barroom, none of the noises that the Leaky's customers were bound to make, especially now, with tea-time near.

He put down the paper, listened again. His look fell on his left wrist, where the Dark Mark was etched into his pale skin. He thought he could detect the soft silver-blue shimmer, but the ribbon's light was too soft still for Potter to be close. What was taking Wonder Boy so bloody long? He got up, pressed his ear to the door. Nothing but that impenetrable silence.

In the secretary's drawer Draco found sheets of paper, blank but for the printed address of the Leaky Cauldron, envelopes, a quill and inkpot. A card saying, We gladly provide Owl Service, compliments of the house. Quickly he composed a message, took his wand from his sleeve and spelled the words so only one pair of eyes could see it. Then he wrote another message, stuffed the paper in an envelope and Summoned an owl. It was only a matter of time now until the Aurors tracked the signature of his magic to room number nine.

A sharp knock from the balcony had him spin in startled fear, but it was only the owl. He opened the door, and the huge bird, obviously well trained, flew straight to the secretary. Draco sent it off with its missive and watched it circle once before the balcony. Then it plunged down towards Charing Cross with a soft hoot.

He went back to the chair at the fireplace, wand still in his hand. When he sat down again, the ribbon at his wrist tightened for a moment. Draco gasped, but it could only mean one thing: Potter was coming. Too late, but he would be here, in this very room. Something like pain made Draco's stomach clench, just as he felt himself get hard at the thought of Potter, here, close to him. Soon …

When minutes later the sharp pop of Apparition shattered the silence in the hallway, Draco was gone.

oOo