Faster, Mudblood! Kill! Kill!
Chapter Nine: Flight of the Fallen
No matter how exotic the establishment, almost all bars and clubs seem seedy in the middle of the afternoon. They were also, Harry realised, a bit depressing. Something about the way the thick curtains fell over the windows created a fortress against any and all natural light, rendering the atmosphere stuffy and dim, a false sort of night life that failed to live up to the real thing. Mostly because, at the moment, the Pink Bishop was almost entirely empty. It was four-thirty and the club had just opened, empty of customers but for Lars, who sat down at the far end of the bar with his little shih-tzu , Pepper, in his lap, slowly nursing an amaretto sour. The traffic came muffled through the heavily draped windows, more like a memory of traffic, and the air was already laced with peppery cigarette smoke, thanks to the Sobranies that Lars kept lighting up, one after another.
Harry was counting out the cash drawer, trying to calculate how much he could afford to borrow from the weekly deposit. Earlier, he had asked Varda if she could manage to hold things down for a week or so; if she could, please, give up her Poke-a-hot-ass act in exchange for boring managerial duties as a personal favour to Big H. Her eyes had narrowed at the suggestion of having to do menial work for a week; despite being part owner in this enterprise, Varda did not like to be associated with the day-in, day-out tasks of maintaining a successful business, like checking to see that the toilet stalls were clean and stocked with paper, as well as making sure that the drug dealers kept their business confined to that same general area. And while she was always the consummate hostess, having memorised the names of almost all the regulars, she far preferred being perceived as the star of the stage show.
"Where do you need to go for a week?" She raised a severely penciled-in eyebrow. "You haven't taken a night off since we opened the doors over a year ago."
"So I'm due one then, don't you agree?" Harry had asked. The club was still closed at this point, and he was busy restocking the liquor as they conversed, bottles and canisters clinking as he worked.
"Sure doll," she said, dumping a container of lime slices into the garnish caddy. "It's just not like you to…" She stopped, absently fingering a lime. "Wait a minute..." Her face lit up, quite suddenly. "It's that blond gutter-rat, isn't it? You took him home and want to spend a week alone with your new pet! Why you dirty--"
"Erm, no," Harry had said hurriedly, so startled that he accidentally clanged two bottles of bombay gin together, nearly breaking them.
"But he's still at your flat, innit he?" She asked, grinning in a knowing way.
"Yes. He's recuperating."
"Recuperating from what? You?" She pelted him with a cocktail onion, which bounced wetly off his shoulder.
Harry sighed and considered how exactly he could explain his current situation without opening Varda up to the terrible truth: Remember when you met me on the streets three years ago, and you thought that I was a runaway like you? And that hustler Brody Dingle gave us lavender-grade LSD and we jumped naked in the Thames and you laughed when I insisted there was a giant squid sleeping at the bottom? Well that wasn't just the acid talking, Varda—it was a very confused, amnesiac seventeen year old wizard. How's that for a giggle?
"Okay, you've got it spot-on. The blond gutter-rat and I are running away to Brighton for the week. Fun in the sun, if you know what I mean," Harry finally said, rolling his eyes in an exaggerated way. It might be better to let Varda keep her original impression of the situation, if anything to keep her from jumping in with another barrage of questions. Abstaining from the business of others wasn't exactly her forte.
"Brilliant!" She had looked quite pleased at having made the correct assumption. "And that poor boy could use a little sun—though I'm sure you'll make certain that his flesh is adequately drenched in sunscreen." She grinned and Harry struggled to return a smile. He tried to imagine how Malfoy would respond to something like sunscreen: What is this? It stinks. It looks like…well, I won't say, but I'd much rather have burnt skin. A simple shading charm and you wouldn't need this gook anyway.
Varda had then leaned against the bar, fiddling with the clasp of her turquoise spangled belt, which just happened to match the earrings, necklace, and bracelets that dripped from all points of her body. Harry slowly shifted around the vodka bottles, feeling her eyes on him.
"What?" he finally said, turning.
"Nothing." She smiled mistily. "Just a little jealous is all." She reached out and touched the side of his face, seeming to blanch a little at how stubbled it was. "No one's ever been able to reach you—though we've all had our share of trying. And now here you are, taking a boy to the seaside on holiday." She finished with a sniffle.
"Gee, Varda, you don't…" He shifted on his feet, grappling for words.
"Oh, quit being such a stone fox," she said, voice flaring in annoyance. "Take a compliment like everyone else for once!"
She had startled him with her outburst; so much so that he nearly dropped the bottle of Grey Goose he was shelving. For just a scant second, he had been strongly reminded of Hermione—her fine balance of kindness and impatience, a set of scales that could fluctuate with the slightest joggle. But Varda and Hermione were otherwise nothing alike: Hermione wouldn't be caught dead in such a low-cut blouse, for instance. Not to mention that Hermione was a witch by practise, rather than mere reputation.
Something in his expression must have betrayed his troubled thoughts, because her temper was doused at once, soon replaced with rare concern. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"Nothing." He reached out and placed his free hand on her shoulder, squeezing it lightly. The light in her eyes suggested she was moved by the gesture; he knew he wasn't known for displays of affection, he rarely touched anyone and typically pulled away—though he tried not to, he really did—when others touched him. "I wouldn't have made it these last few years without you," he said quietly. "I just wanted you to know that."
She had lunged forward then, peppering his cheek with kisses. "You're doing this just so I'll agree to let you escape for a week, aren't you?" she exclaimed, punching him in the side. "Fine then. You're free! But I expect a souvenir... several of them, in fact. And don't forget that my best colours are aqua and peach—preferably together."
She fled out the door soon after, claiming that she was late for an appointment with her psychic. Harry thought that had she been a witch, she probably would have been keen on divination, though just as impatient with Trelawney as the rest of them.
Trelawney! That was her name…and she had those huge spectacles. We always thought she looked like an insect. . .
Harry shook his head, palming over one hundred pounds from the deposit bag and slamming the register shut. Memories were beginning to crop up faster than mushrooms after a rainy season —some of them insignificant, others profound—and they were making it that much more difficult to concentrate on the present. Part of him just wanted to crawl into bed and sleep, if only to dream his past back to him, but he knew that lingering beyond the more mundane memories was something big: whatever it was that had caused him to retreat from his memories in the first place. He wasn't sure he was ready to encounter that. He wasn't sure he would ever be ready.
Harry looked up in surprise. A customer had just settled down on the barstool across from the register—a man in a rather ordinary business suit, a pair of very dark shades covering his eyes—and was so quiet that Harry hadn't even heard him enter the club.
"Oh, I'm sorry." Harry quickly took stock of the garnish caddy. "We don't have any fresh mint. Can I get you something else?"
"Malacca and tonic. Extra limes."
Harry nodded and went to the business of preparing the drink. He went heavy on the gin and rather clumsily squeezed three limes slices into the glass; the first shift bartender, Gene, didn't arrive until five, and Harry was really only so-so at the art of mixing cocktails. The customer didn't seem to mind, though; he knocked back the gin as if it were water, then slid forth his empty glass and requested another. The second drink he sipped leisurely, appearing deep in thought—though it was hard to tell, given that his sunglasses seemed to render him completely expressionless. Harry shrugged slightly and went back to the liquor stock, noting that the opening strains of "The Girl from Ipanema" were coming from the stage area. The Monday afternoon singer appeared to be launching into her shaky set of recycled lounge tunes. She wasn't terribly good, to tell the truth, but Varda had an unfortunate soft spot when it came to hiring aspiring talent.
"So tell me about the bird." The gin-drinking customer suddenly said, tapping his fingers on the slick counter to get Harry's attention.
"Oh, the singer?" Harry raised his eyebrows quizzically. "Her name is…um…Venus? Star? Something sort of celestial, but I'm not sure I have it just right."
The man laughed; a low, rough laugh that made Harry wonder if this wasn't the fifth or sixth bar that he had stopped at this afternoon. "Not that bird," the man said.
"Um?" Harry felt a strange sort of helplessness pass over him. With any other customer, he would have simply said: If you want to know about birds, I suggest you get yourself a field guide. The stoic presence he had innately perfected over the years seemed to have abandoned him completely, though, and he felt quite awkward, quite like…he had as a boy.
"The other bird, Harry. You know the one. . .big, red, and bursts into flames?" The man leaned over when he spoke, as if they were sharing an intimate secret.
"What, a Phoenix?" Harry asked dimly. Then everything suddenly became much clearer—the ground beneath him evened out; the air became much sharper, suddenly pungent with the smell of lime juice and liquor. The boyish awkwardness disappeared. "Who are you?" he asked, phrasing it as a demand, not a question.
The man grinned expectantly. "No one, mate. Just a passing stranger…a drifting dust mote, no more remarkable than a fart in the wind."
Harry refused to let his expression betray the paranoia that was beginning to simmer within him. "I think I know you."
The man laughed and pretended to wipe non-existent sweat beads from his forehead. "Okay, you got me. You and I go way back, Harry. We were close, once upon a time."
Harry frowned, straining to see what he could of the man beyond those black shades. He had ordinary brownish hair and appeared to be anywhere from age thirty to forty. Looking at him caused Harry no sense of alarm, but he wasn't exactly at ease, either.
"You're the one who left the Phoenix feather," he finally determined.
The man's smile was wide, showing his crooked bottom teeth. "Very sharp," he said, nodding his head as if impressed. "But it's not from me. The dame asked me to bring it."
Harry quickly surveyed the club; Lars and the singer were still the only other people in sight, and thanks to the singer's overly-loud version of "You Light Up My Life", there was no way Lars could overhear them from his position down at the end of the bar. "You mean Somae?" he finally asked, keeping his voice low.
"That's right. She wanted me to pass it along to the rich bloke. Said he'd know what it meant. But you know. . . I saw that kid with my own eyes and he didn't strike me as overly clever. So you can consider this visit additional clarification on the matter."
Harry faced the man head-on, dropping a few cubes of ice into a glass and pouring some Dewer's over it. "Clarification received," he said, enunciating his words carefully. "Now if we're really old friends, why don't you tell me who you are? Because to be honest, I can't place you." He tipped back his head and took the scotch in one swallow.
The man shook his head. "Not really important anymore," he said, and something about the way his too-wide smile disappeared made it clear that the subject was no longer up for discussion.
"Okay then." Harry swirled the ice in his empty glass a few times. "Tell me how you were able to find Malfoy, then. Because the story I have says that he's banished from the wizarding world—which means you shouldn't even be able to find him."
The man's smile returned. "Who said I'm a wizard?"
Harry was surprised. "You're not?" he asked, lowering his glass of ice and setting it on the counter.
The man's smile twitched once and changed into…something vague. A strange sort of nostalgia? That didn't seem likely, but then those sunglasses hid so much. "Not really," he finally answered. "Though from what I've been told, you can relate to my predicament."
Harry's body temperature felt as if it had dropped several degrees, the muscles in his neck paining as if he'd been grasped by the scruff of his hair. "Who told you that?" he asked. "Who's been talking to you about me?"
The man chuckled. "Don't worry, Harry! They've said nothing but good things. . .to some people you're still a hero, after all. Not everyone forgot about the Boy Who Lived." He half-stood and reached across the bar, hand outstretched in a fist as if he planned to knock Harry in the face. Harry flinched in spite of himself and the man let loose another barking laugh. "Here," he said, opening his fist. Two five-pound notes dropped lazily to the counter. "Keep the change."
He pushed away from the bar and turned for the exit, stuffing his hands in his trouser pockets as he went. Harry watched him leave, struggling with a strange urgency to flee the club and get back to his flat, back to where Malfoy was waiting.
The man exited into bright sunlight, a grin still lingering on his face. Harry Potter was alive and all grown up, yes, but he had the woebegotten look of someone who knew, deep down, that he wasn't meant to have lived this long. It was written in the premature lines at his eyes, the touch of grey at his temples that he mistakenly thought was a secret between himself and his hair dresser. Grey hair at only two decades old: surely it was the body's way of voicing surrender.
If Harry's body was only now giving up, then his soul must have surely retired long before.
The man walked, parting the pedestrian crowd with quick ease. There was a time when he would have scoffed at the idea of a soul, but that was no longer the case. Soul, heart, essence—words were inadequate when it came to describing the internal struggle, the fire that kept a person fuelled even in the face of immeasurable odds. And in Harry's case, in the hollow way he spoke, the way he never let his eyes touch on another person's for more than a second, as if something might emerge and yank him back to the land of the living, it was clear that the embers within him had begun to run cold. At this thought the man let out a thin sigh. He knew the feeling.
His pace swift and steady, the man reached his destination soon enough. His new shoes clicked up the stairs and carried him into the train station. Kings Cross, to be exact. He stopped briefly near a barrier—the opening to platform nine and three-quarters, he noted with a level of muted amusement—before moving on. He found a high perch on the stairs and watched the crowd intently, using not just his eyes to see, but reaching out. . . .reaching with his soul, one might say. Someone was here; someone familiar. Already he could sense the undertones of her panic, how it ran fine on the surface of her skin, sending a wash of goose bumps over her arms and thighs.
He finally spotted her by the ticket booth, and he knew her at once. She was gussied up in a red kimono print, her hair black and bobbed to her chin, but it was still her—that thin, youthful face, peering suspiciously out at passers-by as she rummaged through her bag for money. He walked towards her, approaching from behind. The tightening in her shoulders made him wonder if she sensed him. He made no noise, not a sound. But yet she must have sensed him just the same, because for no good reason she jerked upright, her bag spurting from her hands, raining papers and coins to the ground.
The man crouched smoothly at her side, scooping up a handful of the detritus: lint, a pot of lip gloss, a candy wrapper, a sickle, a business card. She apologised profusely, despite having nothing to be sorry for, and they nearly bumped heads as they went about the production of cleaning up. Her apologies turned into a broken record of thanks as he passed over the handful he'd looted up, and ceased only when she spotted the sickle in his outstretched hand. She shut her mouth then, clearly worried that he'd ask her where she'd gotten such an unusual coin. He smiled in a reassuring way and dropped it into her bag without saying a thing. Relief passed over her features and she smiled awkwardly, a dimple forming in her chin as she did so.
She thanked him again and turned back to the ticket counter, taking a few steps towards it. He called out for her to wait. I think you forgot something, he said, taking a step after her.
She turned, her brow arched in surprise. She stared quizzically at the business card he had pinched between his thumb and forefinger. It's nothing, she said, shrugging. Just a bit of rubbish.
Are you sure? He smiled benignly, but wiggled the card slightly, as if it were a treat that could tempt a house pet to his side. She squinted at the card, her shoulders twitching into a nervous shrug once again. You might want to hang on to this, he offered helpfully, tapping his finger against the image of the chess piece that was printed in the upper left corner of the card. Then he reached out for her hand, opening it and pressing the stiff cardboard into the centre of her palm.
It wasn't something he hadn't planned on doing, but he enjoyed the quizzical expression on her face just the same. She was so close to what she was looking for, and she didn't even know it.
He didn't see the watch until he'd already dropped her hand. But there it was, glittering unmistakably on her wrist. It was good that he was wearing sunglasses, then, because surprise must have surely shone in his eyes.
You? . . he whispered, and she stuffed the card into her bag and began to back away, murmuring polite thanks. She swivelled around and hurried away, a blinding pattern of bright red and black.
He could only stand open-mouthed, still awash in surprise—a feeling foreign and unfamiliar to him. He was here for the girl with the watch. The girl with the cauldron. He had been told that her name was Helen.
He hadn't known that Helen and Hermione Granger would be one in the same.
Despite the fact that he had insisted on being in charge, Snape had already been relegated to bench far, far away from the ticket booth. Stay Hermione had ordered, and both he and Weasley had sat down obediently, tucking their bags behind their feet. Snape consented to the girl's request without a word, cowed by the throng of bustling train-goers. He hadn't been to Kings Cross since he'd been a child attending Hogwarts, and he certainly didn't remember all these teeming Muggles, with their loud voices and alarmingly hairstyles. Discreetly, Snape pretended to watch them, far preferring that to forcing conversation with Weasley, who sat nearby in stone-silence, slowly shredding a paper cup he'd been drinking coffee from. But it was no use to avoid conversation; once he had no coffee to fill his mouth, Weasley went to work talking.
"I heard you two speaking in the bathroom before we left," he said slowly, flicking a curl of paper onto the ground. "I saw the look on her face when she came out. What did you say to her?"
Snape suppressed a weary sigh. Weasley was more observant than he appeared. "That's between the two of us," he said, quite aware that such a statement would bother Weasley. Hermione was his partner, and he was clearly protective of her in the way that any good friend would be—almost as protective as a significant other. He wouldn't appreciate being excluded.
Weasley leaned towards him. "Aren't you the smug one," he said unpleasantly, dropping the remains of his cup and crushing it under his shoe.
"I'm not," Snape said, rather smugly.
He expected an explosion, but Weasley did nothing but breathe heavily for several seconds. Then, finally, a deep, satisfied chuckle surfaced from his chest. "Still petty and jealous after all these years, aren't you?" he said, a mean grin jack-knifing over his otherwise jovial features. "Still trying like mad to prove that you're above everyone—even me, a stinking, Muggle-loving Weasley. You are truly pathetic, Professor. You really are."
Snape blinked, finding that he had no words, no barbs of response. Worse yet, Weasley's words were resonating in his head, reverberating with enough force to almost resemble something like truth and accuracy. "Your opinion is noted," he replied, his tone chilly, tinged with resentment.
"Oh I'm sure it is," Weasley laughed again. "Just remember this: she may think you're salvageable, but she's the only one of us who ever has."
Snape jumped. Weasley took note and let out one final laugh To his own surprise, Snape felt his temper draining away, leaving behind a rather empty sense of resignation. He wasn't sure what had expunged his fury. Perhaps it was the rather comical sight of Hermione over fifty metres away, having spilled out her handbag and bending over to gather up the contents. A stranger was helping her, but as she crawled around foolishly on her hands and knees, the skirt of her flimsy dress rode up to show what she wore underneath: a pair of black men's boxer shorts, the word cannons emblazoned on the seat in hideous bright orange script.
It was strange that only a bit over twenty-four hours ago, looking at her had caused him nothing but a deep sense of embarrassment and lost pride. Relying on a former student for refuge, for a reprieve from his suffering at the hands of Minister Fudge—it would have been deeply painful, had he not been so knee-deep in numbness at the time. He may have left the Leaky Cauldron with her out of nothing better to do, but he was about to leave London with her because it was what he preferred to do. It was a narrow distinction, but enough to make him uneasy. All those years of chasing Weasley, Granger, and Potter around the castle, hoping to catch them in their acts of wanton rule-breaking, and now he was gladly joining in, behaving as if their sad, misguided adventure could be adopted as his own.
And yet she said I was salvageable. Salvageable? It's not much. . .it's barely anything. But it's something. More, perhaps, than anyone else has been willing to offer you. But don't go getting misty-eyed, fool. Some people salvage half-eaten food and moth-eaten clothing. One person's treasure is another's trash…
Weasley went quiet and still at his side. They sat like that, saying nothing, as Hermione trotted back towards them, uneven and coltish in her high-heeled boots, still rooting around in her bag with a look of distraction on her face.
She led them to platform seven for the train to Dover, and both Snape and Weasley were well-behaved as they boarded the carriage, acting as if their tense exchange had never occurred. Snape thought it unusual that Hermione failed to comment on their matching sombre attitudes, but she seemed too absorbed in a small scrap of paper to notice. It was clutched in the fingers of her free hand, and she studied it closely, as if trying to make sense of a difficult arithmancy problem. By the time the train had departed, the lightly-occupied carriage rocking gently to and fro, a tentative look of recognition was forming on her face.
"Look," she said suddenly, holding out the piece of paper. Snape recognised it as the card that the strange Muggle woman—Nova something or other—had given Hermione back at Crookshanks'. "Does this look like anything to you?"
Weasley leaned in and Snape unconsciously did the same. Hermione was tapping her fingernail against the card, pointing at the small illustration of a chess piece.
"Uh, yes. It looks like a bishop. In more ways than one." Weasley looked squeamish, his face going red enough to match his hair.
"Well yes, but ignoring the phallic resemblance, doesn't it look like a bishop that we've seen before?"
Weasley shrugged. "I don't know anyone who makes chess sets quite that obscene. Though I should pass the design along to Fred or George. Would be a best seller, I bet."
"No," Hermione sighed, verging on exasperation. "I recognize the style. It's just like McGonagall's giant chess set…the one that nearly got you killed at the end of our first year. Remember?"
Snape, who had been half-listening up until now, was suddenly shot with a bolt of recognition himself. "You refer to the transfigured chess pieces used to guard the philosopher's stone?" he asked, giving the card a closer look. "Minerva's sense of humour was always deceptively uncouth."
"So you agree there's a resemblance?" Hermione asked, taking a wobbly step forward as the train lurched into curve.
"A bit," Snape concurred, though he was beginning to wonder what this was all leading to. Whatever it was, it was significant enough to colour the faces of both Ron and Hermione with a small degree of concern.
"It's probably just coincidence," Weasley said, uneasy.
"Maybe," Hermione said, crooking an eyebrow. She then stuffed the card back in her bag, turning away so quickly that Snape was left with the distinct impression that she wasn't telling them something.
Concluding that whatever was on Hermione's mind would have to stew inside her before she was willing to dish, Snape sat back and stretched out his legs, looking forward to a quiet, leisurely ride. He was relieved to see that there were only two other passengers in the carriage: what looked like two men clumped together at the end of the train, both of them facing the windows. One of the men was wearing two hats, Snape noticed. That seemed rather odd, but these were Muggles, and if they were like the others he'd seen in his life then they were likely quite irrational when it came to accessorising.
Without asking, Hermione sat herself between Ron and Snape, wiggling her hips until they were forced to scoot aside, allowing her room to sit between them.
"What are you doing?" Snape hissed. "We have nearly the whole car to ourselves."
"Mmm-hmm," she murmured, a strange, tight smile on her face. She kept making the same motion over and over again, reaching for her boot and then pulling away, as if she couldn't make up her mind about something.
Now Weasley looked troubled, too. "Say there. . .you all right, Helen?" he asked, using the name that Hermione requested they use while out and about in the Muggle world.
"Shhh." She laid a hand on both of them, squeezing a wrist on either side. "I can't reach my wand."
"So…you want one of us to get it for you?" Weasley asked, his brow wrinkled in puzzlement.
Alarmed, Snape pulled in his outstretched feet with a thump. Weasley had no idea what Hermione was on about, but Snape had the sudden fear that he knew exactly where she was going with this. His hand automatically went for his jacket pocket, to where his wand was safely stowed, but an unseen force propelled his hand away, as if he were reaching for the flip side of a magnet. There was a spell here, then, keeping him from retrieving his wand.
"It seems we have unwelcome company." He gestured with a bobble of his head at the two Muggles at the other end of the car. "If I'm right in thinking that no sane Muggle would really wear two hats," he added in a biting whisper. Hermione merely looked in the direction of the two men, eyes darkening in confirmation.
"Hey, what's this?" Weasley suddenly asked in a loud voice. "Why can't I touch my wand?" He was making wild, desperate passes at his trouser pocket, and Snape might have let loose a mocking laugh had the situation not been so serious.
"Now, now," a voice said. It was the man in two hats, who was now approaching them with his wand outstretched, his partner lumbering not far behind. "There will be no more wand-touching for you lot, I'm afraid."
"Who are you?" Hermione spat, still uselessly groping for her boot. "Death Eaters or Ministry?"
"Ministry," the man said, sounding insulted. "And in case you haven't noticed, this train is no longer going to Dover."
"I hope you don't think that we'll willingly go on holiday with a pair of Fudge lackeys such as yourselves," Weasley said, both his hands automatically curling into fists. "What do you want with us, anyway?"
The man in two hats took another step forward, ignoring Weasley and smiling, quite unpleasantly, at Snape instead. "You would do well not to hang about the Leaky Cauldron with your former students, Professor," he said, aiming his wand in the direction of Snape's neck. "People are bound to talk. Especially when you have sworn duty to our Minister, Cornelius Fudge."
"I know the Minister's name well enough to not need reminding from you," Snape replied, clearing his throat. "Though I was never important enough for him to memorise mine."
"You underestimate the importance of your role," the man said, moving close enough so that the tip of his wand was at Snape's Adam's apple.
Snape's eyes widened in genuine surprise. Things were happening too fast. To Fudge he'd always been Sevvy—how important could he really be, then? Important enough to send spies to check up on him at the Leaky Cauldron, apparently. "And what might that role be?" he finally asked, admittedly curious.
"To be kept out of the way."
There was then a resounding silence in which Snape's mind failed to entirely compute the significance of what had just been said. He knew he had been of no real use to Fudge as a Ministry worker, but it had never occurred to him, never, that Fudge might have taken him on as a worker in order to keep an eye on him. In order to…keep him out of the way? Of what, exactly?
Before he could ask, the other man, hatless and much taller and more formidable than his friend, stepped up, his wand aimed at Hermione. "She has a weapon," he intoned. Up close, Snape now saw that the man had a reeling blue orb in his left eye socket—a magical implement available to only the most experienced and skilled Aurors. Fudge, it seemed, had sent the big guns after them.
And speaking of guns, Hermione chose at that moment to spring to her feet, whipping out her wee pistol and cocking the safety. "You forgot to put a no-touchy spell on this," she said in a taunting way, squinting one eye, her lipstick smeared so that her mouth resembled a melting candy. Her bravado was all for show, unfortunately. Snape saw her squinted eye flutter, her red lip tremble, and knew that she was allowing her conscience to slip between herself and the target.
Her pause allowed the larger Auror to leap forward and make his move. Hermione let out a small squeal and dropped the burning-hot pistol at once, frantically waving her blistered hand in the air for relief.
"That's bollocks!" Weasley bellowed foolishly, lunging forward to pummel the smaller Auror with his fists. The man was so busy pointing his wand at Snape that he was actually thrown off his feet before the larger of the two Aurors stepped forward and knocked Ron back against the windows, hard enough to cause a hairline crack to appear in the glass.
"Enough," the Auror said, brandishing his wand in a beefy fist. "Take your seats." He made a swishing motion and all three of them were swept to the ground, landing awkwardly atop their own neat stack of luggage. Snape's elbow clanged against something hard and his wand jabbed him in the ribs—now something more painful than useful.
"That's right," the smaller Auror said, now favouring his side thanks to Weasley's ill-timed attack. "We'll be at the Ministry's own station within minutes. In the meantime, I suggest you three sit quietly."
"I want to know why you're doing this to us," Hermione piped up.
"Because," the large Auror said, his voice low and trollish, "you've been a bad girl."
"I don't know what you mean," she said back, tossing her head in disgust. It was then that Snape noticed she had one hand at her back, and that the hand was very carefully looting through the duffle bag she was leaning against. He wondered if she was looking for another gun—whatever it was she was searching out, she had best find it quickly. Snape didn't like the look of that big Auror's eye, which was wobbling wildly from side to side, as if expecting attack at any moment.
"Oh, I think you do," the smaller Auror said, eager to join in. The man was younger than his partner, and his way of dancing in front of the bigger Auror in order to make himself heard gave the impression of a bouncing, desperate show-off; Snape wondered if it wasn't a weakness that could be used against him.
"Your games grow tiresome," Snape said, curling his lip in what he knew was an unattractive sneer. "You play them so very poorly."
"You think we're playing games, Professor?" the small Auror said in an incredulous sort of way. "You ought to know something about games. You lot used one of those Muggle weapons to shoot a Ministry worker full of metal. It tore up his insides. We couldn't heal him!" The rising, almost hysterical pitch of his voice made him seem very young, not much older than Hermione or Ron.
"We don't know a thing about your Ministry worker," Ron said, his voice thick with hatred. Snape was prepared to make similar protest, but he was distracted by the tug of Hermione's fingers, which had fluttered against the flat plane of his wrist, finally wrapping around and pulling at his entire hand, slowing guiding it around her hip and into the open duffle that was shored up at her back. As she did this, Snape felt uncharacteristic perspiration bead up on his forehead. The big Auror had his blue eye on Ron for the time being, but he could turn it on Hermione at any time. Inch by painstaking inch, Hermione coaxed Snape's hand into the duffle, finally crooking his fingers around something hard and metallic, squeezing his knuckles in a way that he took to mean don't move. So he didn't, his fingers clinging to the strange object. Was it a weapon of some kind? Another gun?
Then the object let out a slight shudder, and he knew at once what it was he was touching.
"Lies," the big Auror said to Ron, smiling to show his brackish-brown teeth. "We came to your little Muggle-style flat to sort out the AWOL Professor, but were surprised by the sight of a dead body, instead." He tapped his wand against his rotating blue eye. "Nice try there, covering Brewster with an invisibility cloak. It almost worked."
"How did you know we were off to Dover?" Snape asked loudly. If Hermione was doing what he thought she was doing, then he needed to keep the big Auror from looking at either her or Ron for the next few seconds. Snape had no idea what the Auror's eye could and could not see through, but he certainly didn't wield it with the adept, hawk-like skill that Moody had possessed. If Snape could hold his attention, they should be fine. Just fine. "And how do you know that it was even one of us who shot your friend Brewster?"
"I didn't know, not until we scanned your fireplace," the Auror said, both his brown eye and blue eye fixed on Snape's own. "With our own ears we heard the girl confess to that barmy old Dumbledore, we did. And then we heard him suggest that you three scoot off to Dover, post haste. It was easy enough to track you down from there."
"If you heard her confession, then you know that it was Brewster who attacked first," Snape said, carefully pacing his words. He could feel Hermione shift at his side, and knew that she was now guiding Weasley's hands into the duffle bag. "Moreover," he added, his voice thin and dry, "unless your ears were entirely plugged up with wax, you should have also heard how He-Who-Mustn't-Be-Named has, as we have always feared, taken control of your Azkaban Dementors, and that he has now harnessed their power in order to manipulate the Ministry itself."
The Auror rolled both of his eyes. "All problems within the Ministry will be handled by the Minister and his staff. It is not our job to…" he paused, now turning his gaze back to Hermione, "…seriously consider the deranged rantings of a murderous ex-Ministry-employee."
"Funny, as you appear to have considered my 'confession' with a great deal of seriousness. Otherwise we wouldn't be here, would we?" Hermione asked, her hand bumping against Snape's as if to make certain that he still had his fingers in place, double checking to see if they were still curled tightly around the cool rim of Andy's cauldron. She then gave the back of his knuckles a tentative pat, as if to say all systems go.
"We're here precisely because. . ." the Auror trailed off, his blue eye suddenly snapping to attention, zeroing in on Hermione's shuffling movements.
"What is it, Mort?" the smaller Auror asked, shifting nervously.
"You, girl, what are you doing there?" The big Auror took a lumbering step forward, flicking his wand in irritation. It was a pity that his body did not move as swiftly as his magical eye.
"Andy, go!" Hermione commanded. There was a thick, familiar tug at Snape's midsection, and the dingy floor of the train seemed to lose mass and substance as either it or he began to pull away, the clamour of chittering rails fading from his ears and replaced by a hollow ringing until the only thing he could hear was Hermione's voice, muttering hold on hold on hold on. . . .
Draco was on his back in Potter's tiny bathtub, his legs bent at an angle and feet splayed out against the tiled wall; every time he moved warm water sluiced over his stomach, sending the bar of soap he'd sat there bobbing to and fro. Draco wasn't typically a fan of long baths, but some time around early afternoon an icy rain had started to fall outside, and Potter's flat had become chilly and draughty. Uncertain as to how muggles heated their dwellings, Draco had immersed himself in hot water instead, taking along one of Potter's battered spy novels, Dash Dawson and the Dirty Angel.
"You shouldn't have come for me, Dawson." Conners stepped out from the shadows, his sawed-off shotgun extending out before him.
Dawson tossed his cigarette butt into a puddle of gleaming engine oil and let out a harsh laugh. "I had to come, Conners. I'm still the law, remember?"
Conners laughed in return. "Sure. But you work so far outside the law you're as filthy as me by now, Dawson." He took a step out into a clear column of moonlight. "Dirty wings, my friend. Dirty wings."
Draco turned the page, his wet fingers wrinkling the paper. He found it odd that the hero and villain constantly referred to one another by their last names, as if always on the verge of forgetting who they were talking to.
"Let's not forget who got dirty first, Conners." Dawson pulled a pair of handcuffs from his pocket. "And I'm taking you in this time. That's a promise."
Conners chuckled, his features sharply illuminated. "Not alive, you're not."
"If that's how you want it, Conners…" Dawson slung his pistol from its holster, releasing the safety. At that sharp, metallic noise a number of pigeons burst from the fire escape overhead. The heads of both men jerked upward at the sound, and Dawson shook himself away from the sight just in time to see Conners take another step forward, his eyes narrowed, trigger finger tightening…
Gunsmoke filled the air and Conners slumped to the ground, clutching his bleeding chest.
"Conners!…" Dawson dropped the handcuffs with a clatter.
"Dash…I…" Conners croaked, seeming to reach out to him. Dawson ran for him, splashing through the puddles and—
Draco looked up, so startled that he dropped the book into the water. Potter had burst into the bathroom, his face frantic and wind-burned, still buttoned up in his smart leather jacket.
"Th' fuck, Potter?" Draco slipped clumsily around in the tub, looking for a washcloth or towel, but there were none near by. He pulled his knees towards his chest instead, using the soggy novel to shield the rest of his nudity. "Don't you know to knock?"
"I did knock," Potter said, breathing hard. "But there was only splashing."
"Did you run all the way here or something?" Draco asked, refusing to look Potter full-on and knowing perfectly well that it made him appear nervous and prudish—vulnerable, in other words. But he figured he had the right to a little prudishness after last night, though for someone with supposed same-sex inclinations, Potter seemed remarkably oblivious to the fact that he'd waltzed in on what most people acknowledged as a private moment. He had slung his jacket to the floor and was washing his hands vigorously under the steaming taps, unaware of Draco's discomfort. Draco wondered briefly if nudity wasn't entirely customary in Muggle society. It was wizards who always cloaked themselves in wafting, voluminous robes, after all.
"Yes," Potter said gruffly, wiping his hands dry on his trousers. Draco couldn't be sure, but he thought Potter's hands were trembling. Before he could get a good look Potter shoved them into his pockets and turned to face him, his eyes weirdly magnified by the glasses he had taken to wearing again. He had also shaved before heading out to his club, and his face was pale and stubble-free, rendering him much younger looking than he had been when Draco had first run into him in that back alley.
"Is Somae cunning?" Potter blurted out, reaching up to run a hand through his already untidy hair.
Draco was taken aback, mostly surprised that Potter had remembered Somae's name—though he supposed after the third or fourth reminder it must have finally sunk in. "What's this about? The Phoenix feather?"
"Yes. A strange man came into the club just a little while ago just to tell me that it was from her…from Somae, that is."
"Well, we suspected that, didn't we?" Draco couldn't help but smile. He'd been feeling much better ever since they'd found the feather that morning, and also a twinge guilty that he'd ever mistrusted Somae to begin with. It was becoming more and more apparent to him that his exile into the Muggle world must be some kind of set-up she'd initiated in order to break him out of Azkaban. He wasn't sure why she didn't just come and fetch him already, but he supposed there could be Aurors or other Ministry toadies keeping an eye on her.
"You suspected it," Potter corrected. "I was more inclined to believe that we—you—were being set up for a fall."
"You sure you haven't read this?" Draco asked, holding up the dripping spy novel. "Because you talk as if you have….Potter," he added with relish, chuckling privately to himself.
"I'm serious," Potter said, ignored the book. "Is Somae cunning enough to cook up elaborate plots that involved a middle man in sunglasses and…meaningful feather messages?"
"Maybe," Draco said carefully. "She's a lot like me."
"In other words entirely incapable of something like this."
"Hey! I was Slytherin," Draco protested. Potter hardly noticed, instead beginning to pace the small confines of the bathroom.
"You did a very unconvincing cunning," he said in a distracted way, still pacing.
"I'm still here, aren't I?"
"So at this time yesterday didn't you expect to have gotten rid of me by now?" Draco loaded his words with meaning; it took a damn lot of cunning to convince your childhood enemy that you were worthy of food and shelter. Of this he was certain.
Potter came to a halt, faint anger darkening his face. "I got rid of you last night, as I recall," he said, voice harsh and foreign. "You're only in here lounging about in my tub because I opened the door to you this morning instead of using you as a welcome mat as I should have."
"Not my fault you're plagued with a guilty conscience," Draco said. He then rose to his feet, water running off him in rivulets, no longer caring what Potter saw. "Toss me out now if you want to, Potter. Somae will be coming for me."
"Sure of that, are you?" Potter sneered a bit. "Because Somae's not coming for you. The feather is supposed to be a message. The bloke who came into the bar said you'd know what it meant."
Maybe it was having just risen out of warm water, but Draco felt himself suddenly go cold. "He said that?" he asked dimly, stumbling out of the tub and yanking a towel off a high shelf.
"Yes," Potter said, sneering in triumph. Draco knotted the towel around his waist and cringed, hating to see Potter's face take on such an expression—that expression belonged to him, not Harry-do-gooder-Potter.
"How am I supposed to know what it means? It's a sodding feather."
"It's not just a feather. It belongs to your fiancée. Doesn't it mean anything to you?"
Draco stared at Potter, whose face was beginning to go pink with some kind of stifled emotion. Frustration, was it? Somehow, getting a rise out of Potter didn't give Draco the kind of rush it once would have. Instead, it planted a tiny seed of worry within him, prompting him to tow the line, give Potter the answers he demanded. He hated it, feeling like he owed Potter this obedience. He didn't owe obedience to anyone other than himself and his Malfoy name; everyone and everything else was inconsequential.
"As far as I know, it is just a feather. Somae wore jewels and feathers in her hair all the time; the only thing special about this one is that it came from a Phoenix."
"Yeah, a mythical creature whose very existence is only loaded with metaphorical significance. That's not special at all." The dripping sarcasm again. It would have made Draco wince if he hadn't sort of admired it. Harry Potter could be mean, and once upon a time, Draco had actually taken credit for it. One of his best memories: Potter throwing back and punching him in the gut after a Quidditch match, the snitch still struggling in his clenched fist. It hurt like mad, sure, but the pain hadn't stopped a gleeful thought from ripping through his mind: I did it! Harry Potter hit me! I got him, I did…
"Okay then." Draco let out a sign through gritted teeth. "To you it's special, clearly, but to people like us"—he said, making it clear that us did not include Potter—"a Phoenix feather is nothing. Just another exotic, rare bauble that can be fancied up into an accessory. No hidden meaning, just glitz. Like dragon hide boots."
Potter frowned. "As I recall, dragon hide is used for protection against various forms of damage. Elemental, chemical, and the like."
"For you, maybe."
"Why the fuck do you keep doing this?" Potter burst out, nearly shouting, nearly crying—it was hard to tell which. And Draco saw then that there was more than just anger in his eyes; fear was there too, dark licks of it swarming just under the surface of that furious green.
Something happened to him. Something. . . A number of off-key, haywire thoughts filled Draco's head at once, swarming like a high-pitched choir of Cornish Pixies. Something like he really went crazy. He left Hogwarts and went crazy and really whatever he once was is as good as gone. Champion he's nothing like a champion and is this the only person I have here? Is this my only way back because if it is I'm good as fucked. Good as fucked and fuck, I might be going crazy myself here so how do we like that, Mister Malfoy?
Draco gave his wet head a hard shake, willing it to stay earth-bound for the time being. He thought he saw Potter do the same, biting down on his lower lip as if to keep his temper in check.
"I really don't know what the feather means," Draco said, marvelling at the wooden quality of his own voice. "I don't know what else to tell you, Potter. I can't help it if I don't have the answers." He thought it was the right course of action; to speak to Potter rationally and like an adult. To give him straight, honest answers. Unfortunately, this course of action did little to calm Potter down.
"Don't you fucking do that," Potter said, jabbing a finger at Draco's sternum. "You're condescending to me now? Is that what you're doing? I let you sit around in my bathtub and you act like that?"
Draco frowned. Fine. If Potter didn't want a show of manners, then he'd rather not strain to deliver them. "How else should I act around a person who is acting as nutters as you are?" He tried to swat at Potter's finger, but Potter pulled away too quickly. "I try to do what you want but none of it matters, it's always wrong somehow." A whiny, almost desperate tone had entered Draco's own voice, and he fought valiantly against it, tightening his vocal cords until he went hoarse.
Potter said nothing in response, only looked at him with deep dissatisfaction, as if to acknowledge that yes, indeed, everything Draco did was always bound to be wrong. Draco swallowed thickly, trying to saturate his dry throat. Who would have thought that Harry Potter would one day be his own greatest critic?
"It's always wrong because you don't care about being right. You've never had to be right, have you?" Potter cocked his head to one side as he asked, the scorn on his face indicating that he really didn't expect an answer. "You've never had all the world's eyes boring into you, waiting for you to do the right thing. Your life…your friends' lives…they've never depended on you being right. Have they? Have they?" And on he went like a broken record, until Draco wanted to stuff the ends of his towel into his ears to block out the sound of his voice. This was a familiar scenario; five years ago, it had been Potter's fists battering him. Now it was words. Draco was beginning to think he preferred the fists.
"Look at me! Look at me!" Potter bleated, and now it was his voice that was tinged in desperation. Draco looked and nearly let out a choking gasp. It could have been that same day on the Quidditch Pitch; Harry's face, usually so tight with restrained feeling, was now patchy with emotion: angry red flushing his cheekbones; tight white circling his pursed mouth. Before Draco could finish taking it in, the face swooped toward his own, teeth skidding against his shut mouth, nipping until Draco had no choice but to open, allowing Potter's lips to latch over his own, attacking with fierce suction and hot, sweeping tongue.
Fuck, not again.
Potter's hands pushed against Draco's bare chest until his head was knocked back into the tiled wall with a painful thump. Dracp kept his mouth open, but otherwise did nothing, passive as a board because he knew now that this was Potter's new way of beating the shit out of him, of trying to make him cry out in disgust and horror.
Is this his way of showing me just how bad he's become? Like saying, 'look how low Harry Potter can sink'?
And while part of Draco agreed that the notion of the great Harry Potter as a free-wheeling pooftie was a bit of humour too rich to pass up, another part was unimpressed. Potter being gay wasn't a big deal; what was a big deal—to Potter himself, anyway—was kissing Draco Malfoy. Harry Potter: so bad, so lost that he would gladly lock lips with Hogwarts's most-hated Slytherin.
Well fuck that. I'm not going to play a part in your own self-loathing.
It was hard to say who was more surprised by what Draco did next. Without fully thinking it thought, he quickly wrapped his hands loosely around Harry's waist, nudging him a bit closer. Then he leaned in to the kiss, his own tongue finally uncoiling from its hiding place at the floor of his mouth and tangling with Harry's own. The taste was vaguely salty—like the taste of any other kiss—but Harry's lips were rougher than Somae's had been, his chin knobbly with invisible stubble. Then, as a final gesture, Draco knocked his hips against Potter's own; the slight movement caused the towel to drop from his waist and land with an audible plop.
The whole thing had lasted scarcely a few seconds, but sometime between Draco putting his hands on Potter's waist and the sound of the dropping towel, Potter began to shove him away, finally breaking loose at the mouth and propelling his own body backwards until his shoes skidded on the wet floor. He said nothing, gave Draco a half-hearted scowl, then lunged for the bathroom door.
Draco slowly picked up his towel and re-knotted it around his waist, padding on bare feet towards the tiny medicine-chest mirror and swiping it clear of moisture with the palm of his hand. The flesh around his mouth tingled faintly, and in his own reflection he could see how pink his entire face was. So there it was, the one way to guarantee that Potter wouldn't hit on him: just hit back.
"Potter," Draco called out, exiting the bathroom. A quick scan of the flat indicated that Potter was probably sulking behind the closed door to his own bedroom. Draco knocked twice and was greeted by some shuffling but no real answer. He paused by the door for a long time, and finally, Potter's voice, now quiet and reasonable, came from behind it.
"I don't act this way around other people. Just you."
His voice was muffled. The door, Draco guessed. He didn't know if Potter's words were supposed to be an apology or an explanation, and even though he waited there a while longer, Potter said nothing more.
Draco finally left Potter's bedroom door and sat down at the tiny tea table, where he'd left the Phoenix feather sitting sideways in an empty teacup. It meant nothing to him, but he wrapped his fingers around the feather and held it out-stretched before him, trying to will it to take on some sort of shape and significance in his memory.
He hated to sit still for long; it felt as if his brain were itching, and he had no choice but to tap his feet and shift around to get rid of it. But it must have worked, because after what felt like hours of looking, the crimson plumage of the feather began to remind him of something: sun setting over sea, making it seem as if the blue-green waters of the bay were in flames. And with that, there were sounds: gulls reeling overheard, their cries sharp but distant; waves lapping over stone, then hushed voices.
"Would you do anything for me?"
"Because you love me, right?"
Draco gazed out through hazy eyelids, no longer seeing the feather, instead seeing only the blue-green of Somae's eyes…or was it the blue-green of the water? As always, he couldn't tell. Maybe the eyes were just green, after all; deceptively clear, it was a green that could darken in an instant.
Then he bolted upright in his chair, feet hitting the floor with a thump. He rubbed at his arms, weirdly certain that he could still feel warm salt air. "Potter!" he called, his voice dry, caught somewhere between excitement and dread. "The message…the feather. Now I know."