The streets where baron, as they should have remained, even the pesky rats that slinked through the nooks and crannies between the slanting homes dared not venture out before the early, rising sun. Nonetheless, there stalked a slender figure in the shadows, shrouded by the darkness. Little could be seen from the man other than his ethereal silhouette, outlined by the silver mop atop his head. Draco walked from his hovel in the alley of Spinners End and trekked the deserted roadway with care, taking the precaution most wizards employed only when magic was to be concealed, but with no living soul in sight, it was queer that he took his precious time to follow the letter of the law and apparate from the sanctioned hidden alcove in a deserted walkway.
Draco arrived to a destination not dissimilar to the one he had just left. Dripping water, mouldy stone, and dilapidated ruins welcomed his arrival. The only marked difference between the two scenes was their air. Spinners End, though sketchy and down-right eerie, still held a shred of humanity. The houses were not marred by the gloom and desperation that suffocated Knockturn Alley.
Shrugging the melancholy from his shoulders, Draco skirted past a few busy-bodied hags, making their rounds from exploiting drunken fools, foolish enough to have fallen for their fiendish plots. The clink of galleons in a hidden satchel declared that their night had been highly profitable, but Draco had no time to ponder what poor soul had lost his gold to the toothless hags. Instead, he stopped before a neat doorway, an anomaly in an otherwise chaotic menagerie of splintered entrances.
The shop was feeble, too small and in the worst possible location. However, it was well-known, no thanks in part due to its owner's infamy, and its reputation for solid and flawless service. The alchemist shop walked a fine line, especially considering it moonlighted as a questionable potion-for-pay outlet whenever Draco was in need of a few spare galleons, and hence, all walks of life made their way through the red door of his shop.
Lifting the disillusionment spells meant to confuse any would-be thieves, curses for those brazen enough to attempt lifting anything of value, and half-a-dozen charms to keep the store from harm, Draco settled to the back room dubbed his sanctuary.
Cauldrons of all shapes, sizes, and colours lined the work bench, along with kilns, and shelves of some of the rarest ingredients known to man stood against the mouldy walls. Books were scattered about the lab and bits of parchment on the floor. It was the haphazard, chaotic order Draco had accustomed himself to, as he allowed himself to pour his energies in a craft he had willingly, and unwillingly, entered.
Dragging a stool from the corner, Draco threw out the tail of his robes as he sat, pulling out a journal, magically bound and charmed to never divulge the secrets he kept within their pages, or to run out of space for him to jot his discoveries and progress upon. He had begun to fall into his habituated focus pertinent of an alchemist or potion master until the airy charm of a bell sounded his day's first customers.
Making his way out of his lab, Draco grimaced slightly at what greeted his eyes. Mrs. Jenkins fluttered about the shop in her signature lemon hat, kiwi inspired frock, and winding curls jetting out from the sides of her face. Her hooked tooth caught on her lip as she shot Draco a saccharine grin. To her right stood Anika Jenkins, her daughter, who was too busy touching the articles in the display clearly labelled, Do Not Touch, to notice Draco's presence.
Little was expected from the girl when it came to beauty, considering her mother was right to frighten a banshee, but only a cruel god could curse the girl with features that would have turned Medusa to stone.
"How do you do, Mrs. Jenkins, and a pleasure to meet you again, Miss Anika," drawled Draco.
Anika sprang from her contemplations as she heard Draco's voice, and offered him a wide smile, though it was anything but innocent. While her teeth, unlike her mother's, were surprisingly passable, they were owing to the extensive potions of Draco's creation and much like Anika's current appearance, it was not to last. The Jenkins were dependant on the virtues of glamour potions, and not your run-of-the-mill glamour creations, mind you. Every concoction was personalized to the witch, though Draco was wise to the elder Jenkins witch dabbling in her daughter's brews. However, considering the potency already required stopping children from screaming at the sight of poor Anika, Draco was finding his client's requests quite the challenge.
Mrs. Jenkins was adamant on marrying her three-time, twenty-nine year old daughter to an appropriate wizard. One who not only had the correct pedigree, but possessed the needed beauty to dilute the Jenkins's strong line of unsavoury features. It was a tall order to demand, almost damned impossible, but the income Draco received from the family for his services was simply too great for him to refuse. Even if it meant walking a thin line between freedom and Azkaban considering the ingredients required to turn a fury into a goddess were not found in your corner shop.
"Good Morning, Mr. Malfoy. I hope we are not keeping you from any pertinent matters," wheezed Mrs. Jenkins.
Draco shook his head, as he stepped closer to Anika, ceasing her fidgeting amongst his vials. They were valuable and still of use, he didn't need the witch to muddle the display because she turned into a ball of nerves every time she laid eyes upon him.
Draco sighed as Mrs. Jenkins beamed at his silent response. She was a self-proclaimed gossip who suffered serious bouts of jabbering, and relished in chatting the ear off anyone facing her direction, let alone Draco, and by the way Anika continued to bat her uneven eyelashes in his direction, a cold chill ran up Draco's spine.
As mentioned, Mrs. Jenkins was determined to betroth her daughter to a wizard, and sometimes, especially in situations similar to moments such as these, Draco feared the old witch held the rather ridiculous intention of nabbing him as the unfortunate sod to wed her daughter. Regrettably, Draco counted himself blessed to have someone consider aligning their family name with his reputation. The war had made it absolutely certain that his privileged life of the past was a distant memory. He was now relegated to a status on the subterranean rung of the social ladder. Yet, looking upon Anika's face, already morphing into its usual crests and valleys, Draco came to understand why Snape had never wed, for if Anika Jenkins was the only suitable partner that would take his name and all that it entailed, Draco would happily die a bachelor, regardless of the girl's dowry.
"What brings you to the shop?"
The question hung in the air, the silence confirmation that their motive was not a social call.
Lowering her head, Mrs. Jenkins grabbed hold of her daughter's arm and pulled her closer to Draco. Lifting her daughter's sleeve, Draco looked upon a hodgepodge of lavender and periwinkle boils. Looking up to meet the bright, blue eyes of a blushing girl, he was both relieved and deeply disturbed at what the sores entailed.
"You've been dabbling in potions I'm certain I haven't been supplying."
The comment blanched Anika's face, as her mother looked upon Draco in a horrified manner. Alchemists, let alone Potion masters, were notorious for their ego and pride. Taking potions from rival masters was the greatest insult a witch or wizard could hurl.
"No! Anika would never do such a thing. How dare you accuse her of such perfidy?" Mrs. Jenkins anger rose along with her voice, as she brewed with indignation, but Draco stood calmly by, staring Anika down his nose.
The girl squirmed beneath his gaze, and as she rolled her sleeve down, she mumbled something unintelligible.
"What was that, Anika?" Draco interrupted Mrs. Jenkins's tirade. Though he had not heard Anika's exact words, he knew what her confession held. "You've been taking contraceptive potions from Milner Bumbleweed in Diagon Alley."
Mrs. Jenkins's eyes nearly popped from her head, as she shrieked and grabbed her daughter's hand. To lay such a claim on her poor, unfortunate girl was an outrage, and regardless of Draco's evident gifts, the Jenkins mum would not stand idly by while a Death Eater denounced her daughter's virtue before her ears. Let alone with a claim that could destroy the family name. Such insolence toward a woman of her standing was not to be borne.
"Why I never! How dare you insult Anika in such a fashion, considering all we have done for you?"
Draco smirked. "I beg your pardon, Mrs. Jenkins, but it is I who have done the doing, you've merely supplied the incentive," the barb was laced with tactless mockery, not an action becoming a Malfoy, though certainly one befitting a Snape.
Mrs. Jenkins stared bug-eyed at Draco before huffing about in a complete rage. Grabbing her daughter's arm, she soon dragged the girl towards the door.
"Mark my words, boy. My husband will hear of this, and when he does, you will rue the day you meddled with those that are clearly above your station. I regret ever getting involved with the likes of a wizard such as yourself, and let me tell you, I had plenty of dire warning, but, like a fool, I ran straight into the clutches of a Death Eater. Now my daughter, poor Anika, must take the brunt of my foolish actions," Mrs. Jenkins jabbered away, still not making the grand exit she was preparing.
"So should I take this as your wish to absolve our contract considering your daughter has found someone who is evidently, and hopefully, willing to sleep with her, or do you believe you will still need my services even after she has bagged the mystery bloke?"
Why Draco felt the need to fuel the flames of fire, he never could understand, but as Mrs. Jenkins shrieked, Draco promptly received a reply to his query with the slam of his front door.
In most cases, Draco would be worried considering the Jenkins's potions brought him a good salary, but the wizard knew that if Anika wanted to stay out of the public eye concerning her unique looks, Mrs. Jenkins would have to face the reality that her daughter was meddling in a pre-martial affair. An issue that many women from similar breeding have lost their fortune, name, and even life over, considering the stanch customs still imposed by pureblood dictates over the fairer sex.
Turning on his heel, Draco returned to his solitary domain amongst his research, potions, and experiments. Grabbing the few constituents that were solely intended to brew Anika's glamour potions, Draco placed them in storage amongst his other unsavoury, though not completely, illegal store of ingredients. Casting a disillusionment charm upon the parcel, Draco headed from the small alcove between a rickety bookshelf and stone wall, and towards the small kiln set ablaze next to a slow simmering cauldron. Inside was a new derivative from daisy root and merweed that Draco was interested in using as a supplement, and perhaps, replacement, in any potion that required wolfsbane, an ingredient whose price had increased significantly thanks to the foolish Ministry regulations trying, yet again, to stamp out anything that held a shade other than the purest of white magic.
Scooping a small sample of the brew, Draco corked the heat resistant vial and placed the contents in the kiln. It would be a few hours until the brew would turn into a crystalline form, the state in which the ingredients had to be, as to let Draco test to see if his hypothesis was correct, but not wanting to waste his time waiting for the ingredients to cure, Draco set to light another cauldron and make a batch of Dragon pox tonic. He had heard the murmurings of a new outbreak in Surrey, and if the rumour held any truth, it would not be long until desperate parents would be searching high and low to alleviate the potential fatal and annoying fiery bumps that were notoriously fickle when it came to being scratched.
Chopping the ginger leaves into a fine mince, Draco added a pinch of crushed pixy wings to the large volume of red aqua that came from the enchanted Bavarian mountain caves of the hump-back trolls. Slowly stirring the contents of the potion in a clockwise fashion, Draco did not hear the knob of his door squeak, while he scraped the last of the ginger leaves from his cutting board into the bubbling brew.
Coming in through the front door where two men who would have happily been anywhere but the shop. Fitted in their blue robes, their shining pin of respected stature shone brightly even in the dimly lit ambiance of the shop. Grimacing at the displays that Harry hoped would not need his attention, he watched Ron carefully pace the counter.
Draco soon entered the room, the door bell calling his attention to the front. No doubt, Malfoy had expected to greet potential customers, but soon, he too, wore the usual mask of apprehension, foreboding, and heated hate.
"Has it been three months already?" Draco drawled.
Harry frowned as he took out his wand. It was the Ministry's duty, the Aurors in particularly, to search and verify the validity and doings of businesses in Knockturn Alley. It was a precaution meant to keep the store proprietors from selling any objects, services, or concoctions that were not on the Ministry's list of acceptable goods and services. If a business was found to break any law, the Aurors had the power to revoke the quarterly license needed for any store to operate in the area, and even detain the owner if the case was a dire infringement against the laws of the land.
The job was tedious and usually meant a full day of bickering with wizards and witches that loathed the presence of any authority figures in their domain. Let alone the boy who had defeated the wizard that had brought them the best business years of their lives, so Harry was looking to minimize his time with any of the shop keepers, and bring a swift end to the day's work.
"Can we get this over with," Harry spoke, not wanting another standoff between Malfoy, something that usually transpired whenever they met.
Malfoy stood back as Harry approached the spot where Draco stood. Waving his wand, he began the first of the series of spells to search for any subterfuge. Harry tried not to divert his attention toward Ron, who was stalking the area. It had been almost a month since the raid on the Death Eater safe-house that had brought Greyback to his much deserved end, and Bellatrix and McNair to justice. However, since that night, things have not been the same.
Sweeping his wand to the stands, Harry half-heartedly studied the various colours that washed over the displays. Instead, he studied Ron who had grown even more impatient and short-tempered than before. The wizard's mood swings were greater than those expected of a Weasley, as instead of intolerance, there was an edge of cruelty laced with his actions. It wasn't until Harry had witnessed Ron snap at Hermione, though subtly in actions, but not in words, did he begin to suspect something was amiss with his dear friend. However, as Harry finished his first sweep over Draco's blasted shop, he had very little to explain the change in Ron's demeanour.
Harry was not the only wizard inspecting Ron. Draco too, was peaked by Weasley's curious idiosyncrasies. Usually Weasley burst in, doing all the useless primary spells to check the room for any dark paraphernalia, as he was a paranoid git, suspecting Draco of housing the possible means in which to resurrect Voldemort, but today, he simply paced the room. Almost like a caged animal, waiting to make its move.
Quirking an eyebrow, Draco found it quite amusing when Ron began sniffing the air. It didn't take long until Harry abandoned the preliminary spells and turned his attention to his partner and friend.
"I would inquire as to Weasley's mental state, but taking into consideration I simply don't care, I will refrain from voicing any concern other than for my store's safety," Draco explained to an exasperated Harry, who was not keen on hearing any of Draco's witty retorts.
"Shut it, Malfoy. I'm not in the mood to tolerate any of your lip," Harry remarked, a bit harshly than he had intended.
Draco smirked as he turned to move from Harry, but was soon rushed and hurled against his own wall. Somehow, in the few moments of jarring between life-long adversaries, Ron had closed the distance between himself and Malfoy, and with an unknown strength, hoisted Draco up off his feet.
"Where is it?" Ron gritted through barred teeth.
There was a primal rage radiating from Weasley, which Draco quickly noted, and though he was partially unnerved that he was pinned against the wall with Ron's forearm crushing his throat, he soon caught the glimpse of something rather peculiar.
"It would help immensely if I knew what you were speaking of, Weasley. I'm an alchemist, a potions master, not a bloody clairvoyant," Draco rasped, taking a quick peek past Ron's shoulder to a stunned and silent Harry Potter.
There was a subtle growl that suspiciously sounded like a snarl, but Ron soon enlightened Malfoy as to the exact meaning of his words.
"Powdered, onyx unicorn horns, I can smell it in the air."
Draco would have laughed if it not had been for the crushing pressure set against his throat. The thought that Weasley had the nose, let alone experience, to catch the subtle musk of powdered unicorn horns was preposterous. However, it was true. Draco, too, could smell it in the air. It had come from his previous action in moving Anika Jenkins ingredients into safe storage.
"Is it true?" Harry questioned, though still unsure as to what he was going to do if Ron would snap Malfoy in half.
Draco weighed his options. Weasley was a stout fellow, and though the two wizards where of the same height, Ron possessed a distinct weight advantage. He was a hulking fellow that could easily fold Draco in his robe pocket, and in the maddened state Weasley was in, Draco did not see any benefit in angering the red giant.
"Yes. It is locked safely away in an illusion compartment in my lab. It is a required ingredient for a potion I have been called to make on behalf of a patron," Draco explained the situation with as little information as possible.
Harry stood wide-eyed at the confession. Perhaps he was dreaming. Yes, it was the only explanation Harry had, as he blinked in disbelief. First Ron acts out in a fashion he had never before seen, even in the midst of war, and then Draco Malfoy actually goes and tells the truth. It was almost too much to bear.
"What, for all the galleons in the world, would you need powdered onyx unicorn horns?" Harry queried, no longer interested at Ron's tactic in keeping Draco pinned against the wall.
Draco sighed. "As I told you before, it is for a patron."
The answer wasn't the one Ron expected and made his feelings clear with added weight against Draco's breaking figure.
"It's illegal. You'll be in Azkaban by the end of the night," Ron chimed as Harry peeled him from Draco, which brought the wizard crashing to the floor.
Draco coughed as he hit the floorboards in a heap of black robes. Rubbing his neck, Draco looked up at the lunatic wizard, and for a moment, swore he caught a crescent twinkle behind blue eyes - curious indeed.
"I'm not going anywhere," Draco informed his audience, as he got up on his feet. "It is the act of smuggling the ingredient into England that is illegal. Not the acquisition from a legal, wholesale potion's distributor who happens to be Ministry certified. If anyone is to be brought up on any charges, it is them."
Harry processed Draco's words, and, for the wizard's sake, was relieved that Malfoy was correct. The Ministry, in its attempts to thwart unwanted and dangerous practices, had implemented many useful laws, but occasionally created loopholes such as the sale of unicorn horns. It wasn't illegal to buy the ingredients from select warehouses, but importing the goods were a punishable offence with a stiff penalty of five years in Azkaban.
"I don't believe you," Ron spat.
"Why am I not surprised," Malfoy responded, as he waited for the only sane Auror to voice his opinion.
"Do you have proof of purchase?" Harry questioned.
Draco nodded his head as he moved to the counter, taking his wand out of his pocket, an action that almost brought Ron lunging in his direction had it not been for Harry's quick reflexes. Draco opened the register's secret compartment and produced the long receipt from Dwindle and Sons Emporium.
Harry took the thin strip of parchment and studied the proof of Draco's technical innocence.
"What would you possibly need unicorn horn for?" Harry inquired, more out of interest than actual need.
Draco grabbed the receipt from Ron's hands as the Auror studied, in disbelief, the only confirmation of his innocence and set to enlighten the two wizards.
"Truthfully, it's useful in an array of potions. Gregory's Unctuous Unction, memory potions, and glamours are but a few that come to mind. There are hundreds more considering the wonders of alchemy on the creation of potions, but I won't bore you with the details," Malfoy explained.
Harry, though skeptical, knew that Draco was still, somewhat honest, though he clearly side-stepped the true meaning of his question, but Harry lacked the will to care. At the moment, his attentions were centered on Ron who was still as furious as when he first caught the scent of the powdered ingredient in the store's air. Evidently, Malfoy's answer was not satisfactory to Ron, and it scared Harry to see his friend in such a state. Yes, there was bad-blood between the foes, and throughout their tumultuous history the two had come to blows, but never had there been a threat of actual, serious bodily harm until now. Truthfully, Harry was scared that Ron was no longer the man he used to be.
"Answer the question. What is it for?" Ron queried, this time leaving no room for Draco to attempt a round-about reply.
However, as if serendipity took pity on poor Draco, the door opened in great haste and in ran the two women for whom Draco was holding, technically, legal ingredients.
Mrs. Jenkins blanched as she looked upon the scene. Draco Malfoy stood to the left, with Harry Potter in the center, abreast to Ron Weasley, who looked fit to crush Malfoy's bones.
"Ah, I see I have caught you at an inopportune time, Mr. Malfoy. I'll just come back when you're not busy," Mrs. Jenkins stuttered, but not before she stepped away from her daughter, and let the three pairs of eyes gaze upon the face of Anika who no longer retained the changes brought on by the potion's she so desperately relied upon.
Harry's mouth hung in the air, his eyes transfixed upon the queerest scene. Had Voldemort transfigured into a tea cozy, which Hagrid would have placed upon his head, Harry would not have looked any more surprised. Not wanting to be rude, he tried to look away, but something about Anika Jenkins being purple, brought out the same instinct one held for horrible automobile or Quidditch accidents, awe for the downright gruesome.
It seemed the sight of Anika was just what was needed to bring Ron back to his former mannerisms. Returned where his awkward sounds, bumbling body language, and complete lack of tact and confidence.
"No!" Draco bellowed, bringing Anika and her mother to a dead stop. "You're clearly in need of an antidote and a dose of glamour, if you will, follow me to the lab and I shall quickly and immediately remedy Anika's situation."
Mrs. Jenkins looked unsure. "But you have guests. Aurors," she whispered the latter part of her reply to Draco, as if to inform him of the vocation of his meddlesome company.
"They were just leaving," Draco grasped the moment.
Harry nodded his head as he tried desperately to write what he hoped was his signature upon the license that he handed to Draco.
The three wizards did not even attempt look at one another as Harry and Ron exited the shop, just as Mrs. Jenkins and her daughter dashed into the lab where Draco began to brew the potions needed to remedy a frightening situation.
There was a silence between the two Aurors until they ventured further down Knockturn Alley, to where the bustling sounds of Diagon Alley were heard. It was here that Ron started laughing, as he turned to face the street he had just walked. Still visible was the red sign that matched the red door of Draco's shop, but soon all the merriment of the situation left Ron's jubilant character, as Harry stared at him intently.
"What was that about," Harry began to interrogate his friend.
Yes, the sight of Anika Jenkins was still seared in his mind, but nothing, not even the bulbous nose, slanted eyes, and crocked mouth of the ugliest girl Harry had ever seen could distract him from trying to obtain a plausible justification of Ron's current moods.
"What are going on about, Harry?" Ron was indeed perplexed.
"Ron, you almost crushed Malfoy. You don't think it a bit peculiar that the scent of unicorn horn made you hoist Malfoy up in the air demanding answers?"
Ron's smile faded as his mood began to change yet again.
"It's Malfoy, Harry!"
Harry stood shocked. Yes, it was Malfoy. They hated the wizard, but that fact had never brought any homicidal tendencies against the wizard over potion ingredients, and truth be told, Harry didn't particularly care about the Malfoy incident. It was the marked change in Ron's overall air, both in work and his private life, that had Harry concerned. The incident with Draco Malfoy was merely the catalyst that brought Harry to confront Ron about the changes, and, if needed, help his friend in any possible way he could.
"That doesn't give you the right to assault him, Ron. He did nothing wrong," Harry explained.
Ron stood in disbelief. He never thought he'd see the day when his oldest and trusted friend, Harry Potter, would jump to the defence of the spineless coward, Draco Malfoy.
"Come on. It's not like he isn't holding any illegal ingredients in that shop of his. It's only a matter of time before we catch him."
Harry took a moment to digest Ron's words. Never had the red-haired wizard made such a leap of faith with such conviction, and though Ron had always been Malfoy's harshest critic, this was different. There was an air of apathy toward the situation that unnerved Harry. Anyone with a shred of sanity would have agreed that Ron's attitude and actions in the store was an unwarranted display of power. For Merlin's sake, it was unicorn horns, not the second coming of Voldemort.
"This is exactly what I'm talking about. How can you not see that you over-reacted, and let's forget about Malfoy for the moment, and turn to work, Ron. You've been biting the heads off everyone at the office. I mean, you almost decked Witton when he forgot to hand you the reports on the Elderwood case, and honestly, I don't want to get into the discussion about the matter with how you've been treating everyone else that gives a damn about you, including Hermione and me," Harry made his peace, and waited patiently for Ron's reply.
Ron was tense, he could feel a change radiate through his body whenever an onset of emotion, good or bad, took hold of his mind. Looking back on the situation with Malfoy, he still didn't believe he had gone too far, but it was this realization that panicked Ron. He was never the sort of fellow to cause his friends to fear him. Yes, he had a temper. Prewett's and Weasley's were notorious for the stubbornness and hot-headed temperament, but they had an unwavering, moral fibre that seldom brought them to blows, unless provoked directly. This time, however, it was Ron who had provoked the situation, and in all memory, Ron could not recall a circumstance where he had been the instigator of a feud.
Stepping back, Ron glanced at Harry, and mumbled an apology.
"I think I might need a break. The thing with Greyback and the upcoming trials, it's just a bit much, you know, Harry."
Harry wasn't swayed by the admission, but there was a sense of urgency in Ron's voice that forced Harry to believe his friend.
"Then take a break, Ron. You aren't doing anyone any favours by walking on the edge. Take a week's leave, two...a month! Whatever you need to clear your head. I'm sure Hermione would be thrilled to have you home, and for once, be certain you're out of harms way," Harry reassured Ron, as he patted his friend on the back.
Ron nodded his head in agreement and shot Harry a feeble smile.
"I will, tomorrow, but for now, how about we finish up with the rest of the stores and try to get back to the office before day's end, because, I'm warning you Harry, if I'm stuck in Knockturn Alley till midnight again, I won't be liable for who I attack next," Ron joshed.
Harry happily smiled and rolled his eyes.
The duo turned back from whence they came and approached the next business on their list for inspection, and as Harry walked through the store's entrance, the groans of the owners echoing into the narrow alley, Ron looked back upon Draco's shop. Sighing, he pushed back the darkness that had begun to eat away at his soul and returned to continue his day's work.