It was harder to buy an evening dress than Draco had imagined. He found the shop again without difficulty – the window display hadn't changed since their last visit. It was even the same shopgirl. Helpfully, most of their eveningwear was one-off pieces, rather than in multiple sizes, so he didn't have to guess at Pansy's dimensions. Less helpfully, there were a great many black frocks with plunging necklines.
He and the girl took to standing in front of the mirror, with Draco holding each frock before him as Pansy had been doing when he saw her, trying to work out exactly which one it had been. Half an hour, many frocks, and the disapproving looks of two local matrons who had muttered to each other that there was no way he could fit his shoulders into that one, he and the still-giggling assistant had found what they were reasonably certain was the right one.
He was still smiling when he reached home. Mother was busy with Father, so he sat down to read for a few hours to stop himself changing twelve times before he went to Potter's. For a brief moment he let himself remember Potter's hip, sharp in his hand, and the lithe strength of him in Draco's arms, and the fluid line of his neck as it dipped beneath its loosened collar. Draco forced himself to concentrate on his book, wanting to follow everything through in reality before he indulged it in fantasy.
So well did he concentrate that the house-elf had to clear its throat twice before he noticed her.
"Master Draco? Master has a guest."
Draco looked up, and past the elf, to empty air.
"Master's guest is downstairs in the reception hall," the house-elf informed him, with only the slightest suggestion that guests who came traipsing all over the house weren't her fault.
"Of course. I'll follow you down. Who is it?"
"Miss Periwinkle Brown."
Draco assumed he must have invited her at some point. He'd certainly asked her to come out flying or out for a drink. Maybe she'd decided that Thursday afternoon was the ideal time to take him up on the offer. He could see her pacing from upstairs, and she looked up at the sound of his feet on the stone steps.
"Draco!" She ran up the stairs and hugged him briefly. Before he could be more than surprised, she let go. "All right. Grab your broom, some money and some clothes. You can stop at my house tonight, we'll find you somewhere safer tomorrow."
"Peri, what …"
There was a loud banging at the door. "I'm too late …" Brown whispered.
"Mr Malfoy?" a voice called.
"Relax, it's Wellingham." Draco left Peri on the stairs and went down to let Wellingham in. He was immediately gripped in another fierce hug by a sleet-coated secretary.
Draco looked up at Peri in confusion.
She came back down the stairs. "My friend Claire from MLE came down to find me. She says there's a warrant out for your arrest. It's meant to be top-secret, though, I suppose our secretary and your secretary are quite good friends …"
"You'll have to run, Mr Malfoy," Wellingham said, his voice a little muffled by the wool of Draco's jacket.
"We'll have to shut the door and go inside out of this vile weather and come up with a coherent plan while you dry off," Draco told him.
Wellingham nodded and let him go. In the garden behind him there was a sudden crack of Apparition and crunch of shrubbery. Draco pushed Wellingham inside and stepped out with his wand drawn.
"My dear boy!" Abernathy shouted, righting himself and trotting towards the front door. "What are you doing out here alone and exposed?"
It took Draco a minute to drag them all inside and send one house elf for refreshments and towels, another for a bag of his clothes and money, and a third for his mother. In the ensuing cacophony he heard three different versions of the same news, and at least seven perfectly useful offers of escape routes.
"It's instant dismissal if I'm found stealing any signed visas," Peri was saying.
"Don't worry, I stole a batch from you a few weeks ago just in case."
"Oh." Peri finished drawing her own pilfered permit from her pocket with an embarrassed shrug.
"You brave and resourceful girl!" Abernathy congratulated her.
She smiled at him, and Draco kissed her forehead as he ushered her into the downstairs drawing room ahead of him.
"Does anyone know if the warrant has reached Aurors yet?" he asked.
There was general head shaking. "Does it make a difference?" Wellingham asked.
"Potter can't delay in coming to search for me without handing Percy lethal ammunition against him. I should move quickly. And you should all get back to the Ministry before anyone spots you're gone."
"Rubbish," said Abernathy. "I'm having a meeting with one of my more valued staff. Wellingham, who possibly should have consulted me before haring off on his own, but we'll overlook it this time, is here to take minutes and Brown very thoughtfully agreed to come with me to explain some of the finer points of Magical Transportation for a conference we're planning in the new year."
"You really are the best boss in the Ministry, sir," Draco said with a smile.
"And yet you spend all your time with Potter," Abernathy replied with a too-knowing look.
"They're busy on the campaign, sir," Wellingham pointed out, all innocence, which made Draco feel tremendous fondness for the young man.
"That will be Mother," Draco said, hearing footsteps outside the door.
It wasn't. It was Ron Weasley with his wand drawn and a wary expression.
"No hexing!" Draco said quickly. "They're all friends, come to warn me."
Ron walked in and nodded at the others. "All right, well, I'm here to take you away."
"Don't be angry, Mr Weasley, but I'm not going to let you," Wellingham said, staring nervously up at Ron but holding his wand firmly pointed.
"To hide," Ron clarified. "Take him away to hide."
"Oh." Wellingham lowered his wand.
"You're a good friend, Broderick," Draco told him. Broderick blushed, and then blushed more deeply when Peri put her arm around his shoulders.
There were more footsteps outside, this time lighter and more rapid. His mother walked quickly in, carrying a bag and followed by two house-elves who were trying to carry it for her. She looked straight to him and relaxed at his smile and nod.
"Apparently you're leaving us for the evening, darling. Do take care, and send word. I'll go and find out who I need to hex to sort all this out."
"Mrs Malfoy …" Abernathy began.
Ron took Draco's arm. "We should go."
Draco dragged his mother close with his other arm and breathed deeply. "All right. Mother, stay here with Abernathy. There will be Aurors, be polite. Broderick, get Peri back to the Ministry and check she's not in any trouble …"
Abernathy interrupted him, "If she is, tell them it's my fault and I'll explain when I get back."
"Thanks, sir, and can you …"
"I'll stay with your mother as long as she needs me."
"I owe all of you," Draco said. "And will, with luck, see you all soon."
"Very nice, come on." Ron dragged him out the door. "Can we Apparate from inside?"
"Yes. Where are we—?"
A sharp lurch and a stumble and they were in a well-lit room with timber floors and painted furniture. A sugar bowl and butter dish sat on a green table, with crumbs suggesting they may have been left out after breakfast. Nearby was a capacious sofa with blue cushions and a low table in front of it covered in a set-up chess board, chess books and Quidditch magazines.
"Sorry about the landing," Ron apologised. "This is my place, you should be safe – no one in their right mind would think I was harbouring you. You can kip on the sofa if you need to, the spare room's full of things from the shop – don't touch any of it unless you want to vomit, piss blue, turn into a canary or fart like a trumpet – there's food in the pantry, wireless, mags … I can't stay long, I promised George I'd be quick, but we're downstairs, so if you need anything, just stomp around heavily and I'll come up."
Draco was still trying to catch his bearings. "Did Potter send you?"
"No, Hermione. She's got a spy network in that Ministry that scares the bejesus out of me. Knows far too much, though I will say the whole place seems to leak like a sieve. Anyway, she came to me the moment she heard and I set off for you. George knows, so if he sticks his head up here, you don't need to hide. And for Merlin's sake, don't hex him!"
"But she, you …" Draco inhaled and exhaled slowly. "I'm not convinced that it's worth risking yourselves for me." And because he was honest, he added, "Again."
Ron stopped moving, and gave a half-smile. "I'm not entirely convinced, either," he admitted. "Because you were such a little shit at school. But so was Percy – in a different way – and you've been one of the few people consistently reminding the others that he's a person, too. You've changed. And maybe I'm a bit less black-and-white than I used to be, too. I get it now that everything has consequences. I didn't before. So I don't think I should expect you to be smarter than I was."
Draco wasn't going to say a word.
"Ok, maybe at potions, but I leave you for dead at business," Ron said, and winked, and Draco realised they might actually be friends.
"I'm not taking you home for Christmas, mind."
"And if my parents still want to hate you and all your family …"
"Right and proper. My mother's not an enormous fan of yours, in truth."
"Well, your aunt …"
They smiled at each other.
"OK. Right. Well, you settle down for the afternoon, I need to get back to work. I'll let Harry know you're here so he doesn't do anything stupid."
"Are you …"
"We are so not talking about the two of you."
"I was going to say are you sure your brother's all right with having me here?"
"He suggested it."
"He …" Draco was so surprised that he couldn't find words.
Ron shrugged. "You remember at the end of the war, when Voldemort came out of the forest and we all thought Harry was dead?"
Draco remembered a long moment of horror, seeing Potter still and prone, his father blank and broken. Only his mother's calm and steady face as his eyes found hers had given him any hope. He nodded.
"You remember how Voldemort said that if we laid down our wands and stopped fighting, everyone would be forgiven?"
Draco nodded again.
"That's what George said to Percy. He said he didn't think we were much chop if we were being out-done in the courtesy stakes by Voldemort."
Draco wasn't sure it was appropriate to laugh, but he did anyway.
"Exactly," said Ron. "Put your feet up and get some rest, I'm back to work for a bit. You can only get up here through the shop, so anyone coming up the stairs is safe. Anyone coming in through the window is a burglar, feel free to whack 'em one."
"Will do," Draco promised. "And say thanks to your brother for me."
Ron's flat wasn't huge, but it was comfortable and pleasant. There was more colour and less mess than Draco would have expected, and a whole shelf of Geraldine Batterthwayte. He found the one he was reading – Abernathy's copy was safely back at the Ministry – found his page and sat down to wait. Somewhere between ruling out the handsome Quidditch player as the killer and finding out whether or not the quail had been laced with henbane, he fell asleep.
It was dark when he woke up. The lights of Diagon Alley twinkled in through the light curtains, and Potter was standing there.
"Sorry," Potter said, squatting down beside the sofa. "I was trying not to wake you."
"When did you get here?"
"Just now. Ron's still at work, so's Hermione. I had a huge shouting match with Percy over the fact we haven't apprehended you and stormed out. The advantage to him still thinking of me as a slightly dramatic fifteen year old is that I can bunk off an hour early and no one is shocked."
"I thought it was later than that."
"No, just raining again."
The inappropriately early Christmas lights of the second-hand bookshop across the road glinted on Potter's glasses.
"Are you all right?" Draco asked.
"I'm fine. Hermione's moved Pansy to Ness's for a few days, just to be safe. Seamus says Theo's fine, and over at that girl's house half the time anyway. Justin's taking Blaise visiting at one of their studs in Ireland for a week, and is threatening to teach him to ride. They're all safe."
"Are you all right?" Draco repeated.
"No," Potter answered, honestly this time. "I'm angry, and I'm worried. Percy's coming after you based on your own testimony in the Higgs case."
"It was always a risk," Draco admitted.
"But nothing has changed since the end of the war, and it wasn't enough to indict you then."
"Yes it was. Shacklebolt just chose not to. Because you were grateful to Mother. And because you were too stubborn to pull me out of an inferno and then send me off to Azkaban."
Potter took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "I'm not letting him take you," he said, looking up at Draco.
There was just enough light to see in the green in Potter's eyes, "Course you're not." Draco reached out and pushed Potter's hair back from his face. "You need another haircut."
"It just grows," Potter said distractedly, and let Draco's hand on the back of his head pull him forward until their lips met. He was off balance, then, so Draco took advantage and dragged him all the way onto the sofa, rolling so they both ended up on their sides, just fitting. Potter still had his damp coat on, which was probably just as well, given it was Ron's sofa and he would presumably rather not have to burn it.
"I'm serious," Potter said, moving back just enough to give space to the words. "I'm not putting you at risk."
"It's going to be all right," Draco said. "I left Mother with Abernathy, I'm sure they've come up with something."
Draco felt the shift of Potter's cheek against his own as he grinned. "You should have seen them when we turned up to search the Manor. Percy insisted on coming along, and your mother followed him about silently glaring in a fury, while Abernathy critiqued him on policy and practise at every turn. I'm afraid Percy probably thinks they're having an affair."
"Mother will be amused and Abernathy will be flattered."
Potter's lips played over Draco's jaw, and for a moment Draco let himself delight in the sharp line of Potter's nose against his cheek and the soft fall of Potter's hair as its ends brushed the side of his face. Then Potter leaned back.
"I should stop," he whispered. His eyes were wide in the half-light, and his lips flushed.
"You should," Draco agreed. "Ron doesn't want to burn his sofa. You look nice without your glasses."
"I have a plan," Potter promised.
"I know you do."
"It just involves waiting around for a bit."
"So we'll wait. We can lie here and watch the lights changing colour."
It involved a little shuffling, and Draco needed to reach out and pick up Potter's glasses so he could actually see the shifting pattern on the ceiling as anything more than a blur of tones, but even with Potter's coat buttons digging into him, Draco had rarely felt as comfortable as here feeling every one of Potter's breaths both against his ribs and trailing gently through his hair. He almost felt gratitude towards Percy for this moment.
He must have drifted off again, because he woke to feel a blanket being pulled up over them both, and Potter stirring slightly behind him.
"What time is it?" Potter whispered.
"Quarter to six," Ron replied quietly. "No rush. Let him sleep for a bit."
"I'm awake," Draco mumbled. "More or less."
He sat up and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "We should get up, before Hermione gets here and her brain explodes."
"I'm going to have to break it to her at some point," Ron said with an exaggerated sigh. "Though I confess I'm hoping she's so busy working on the house-elf legislation reform that you two get through the whole whatever it is you're doing and go back to hating each other before she notices."
Draco blinked at him.
"It might work! That's how Harry's relationships have always gone before! Two or three years of low-key pining followed by a brief fling then flaming disaster. He has form."
Draco couldn't help but laugh at the annoyance in Potter's voice.
There was a knock at the door. Draco leapt from the sofa to the dining table in almost one move, Potter stood up and tried to smooth his clothes and hair back into place and Ron turned the lights on before he opened the door.
Armitage barrelled in.
"Sorry for the delay, sir," she said. "I got away as quickly as I could. I had to buy a Skiving Snackbox downstairs because I thought I was being followed."
"Take it out of expenses tomorrow," Potter told her.
Draco looked at Potter. "Is there anyone in your department who isn't in on this conspiracy?" he asked.
"Gallagher, Savage, May …"
"You right, Draco?" Armitage asked.
"So far. Though no one's told me many details about what's going on."
"Hermione's due in a few minutes," Ron said. "We should wait until she gets here."
"She and Angelina were just behind me," said Armitage. "Your brother was going to close up and then follow them up."
"I'll put the kettle on."
There was a rap at Ron's window while the water was boiling. Draco would not have been surprised if it had been rappelling Aurors at this point, but it was in fact an owl, delivering the evening edition of the Prophet.
As bad luck would have it, Potter was nearest the window, so it was he who retrieved the paper and held it up so they could all see the headline: POTTER POLLS PLUMMET.
"Well," said Ron, "the good news is that you won't have to attend all those meetings …"
This time it was a key in the door, and Granger bustled in carrying an armload of scrolls and papers. George Weasley and Angelina followed her, each with more.
"Sorry I'm late," Granger apologised. "I had to wait for Goshawk to send me copies of all her files. She's with Kingsley and Tiberius and they're going through all of this tonight, too."
"All of what?" Draco asked.
"Your case files. Harry sent us all word as soon as the warrant hit his desk. Ooh, is that tea? Ron, you're the best."
Draco felt as though he should thank Granger, but she'd already stepped past him to drop her files on the table. So he passed over both of his chocolate biscuits instead. She took them with a smile.
"Tiberius thinks that it is extremely iffy that the warrant was based on your own testimony. While it is entirely possible to incriminate yourself in front of the Wizengamot, none of your statements were new, and all have been on file with the Aurors since 1998, so to wait two and a half years before doing anything about … well, it reeks of a political decision. The good news is that it doesn't seem to be public knowledge yet …"
"Hermione …" Harry held up page five, which declared Draco Malfoy Sought For Questioning.
"Bugger. No, it's fine. We will come up with something. If I can bring Goblins to the negotiating table, I can come up with a plausible explanation for all this."
"I wish I had more biscuits now," Draco said, smiling. "Thanks, Granger."
"It's all right. You're part of the team. I'd do as much for Pansy, even if she keeps trying to sneak in and straighten my hair in the middle of the night."
Draco managed not to laugh. "Is she all right?"
"She's fine. Ness, on the other hand, is convinced we're in the middle of a training op. And please don't ask me to explain that all to you because life is too short. Pansy has her head around it, so you can ask her when we're all sorted.
"All right, everyone got a cuppa? Come over here, I'm going to need all hands."
She divided the paperwork up into piles and distributed them around the table. "I'm putting you all to work, because we only have tonight to sort this one. The scrolls with blue ribbons are Malfoy's Auror testimony from '98. The ones with red ribbons are from the Wizengamot this morning. Two of you need to pair up and compare those to see if there was anything new introduced this morning. I'm going to plough through these books of case law, if anyone wants to help, I can show you what we're looking for. The loose sheets are notes Miranda and Tiberius sent, along with a copy of the warrant. It would be great if Harry could take a look at the warrant and if someone could read through the notes and let us know anything pertinent, that would be brill."
Hands reached for the files. Draco gave a small cough for attention. "Sorry, it's just, I still haven't been told what's on the warrant."
"Oh." Granger looked embarrassed. "I thought Harry would have …"
"No, because it's stupid." Harry stepped forward and took the warrant from the pile on the table before Draco could reach for it.
He went on, tense and terse. "Percy's accused you of providing material support and assistance to Voldemort. It's the same charge we used to prosecute any Death Eaters that we couldn't tie to a specific crime. He's also told me that he plans to lay further charges for the attack at Hogwarts in 1997, but he needed to look up your birthday to see if you'd already turned seventeen."
"I know. But I didn't tell him."
Draco nodded. "The thing is," he said, "I am guilty. I did do those things. I'm not like Higgs. Having me front the Wizengamot isn't going to expose any great injustice, it's going to show that I spent the war making stupid choices. All this work isn't going to pay off, it's just going to damage the rest of you for defending me. I think I'd be better off just running."
Granger bit her lip and looked crossly down at her pile of books. Potter looked as though he was about to launch into one of his occasional speeches, but George Weasley beat him to it.
"Malfoy, I confess I'm not an expert on your life, but as I understand it, you were acting under threat of being murdered, and also having your mother killed. Yes?"
"I could have said no."
"You were sixteen for most of that year, and a complete idiot for all of it. And you did your level best to balls it all up. From what Harry's said, Dumbledore was playing some complex double-hander there and I have no doubt that he could have stepped in and stopped things if he wanted to, so he's just as guilty as you are."
"That's very comforting, but …"
"And you spent the next year a virtual prisoner in your own home surrounded by psychopaths, which sounds a lot like punishment to me. So shut up, and let us help you."
"That was beautiful, George," said Angelina, admiringly.
"Oh, stop being so dramatic, Malfoy," Hermione snapped. "You're the line. More guilty than you, stuff 'em. Less guilty, save 'em. As guilty, save, because it's always better to err on the side of charity."
"Sorry. Thank you. You, too, George. Granger, please stop being cross, you're making me very nervous."
Granger harrumphed. "All this drama is stopping me from reading."
Draco sat himself down and started to go through Ogden and Goshawk's notes, while George and Angelina compared the testimonies and Armitage helped Granger. Ron supplied everyone with quills and parchment for notes, then went to assist with the case law.
"This warrant was signed by Elphias Doge," Potter said after a few minutes. "It's all in order, but he never signs warrants these days. He's been taking a back seat for years now, says he hasn't been well. Rumour has it he's only stayed on the Wizengamot for the free lunches and stipend."
Granger nodded. "You're right. He's exactly the sort of person you'd go to for a signature if you wanted to slip something shady through, because he's not been at his best since Dumbledore died. Good work, Harry."
"Goshawk says to ask me whether I was told that I could choose to withhold information that might incriminate me," Draco read.
"I was when I was interviewed under Auror caution in 1998, I wasn't before giving testimony on behalf of Higgs."
Granger grinned. "Yes! That's good news. Everybody keep going. More like that!"
After twenty minutes, Hester Armitage found a case in which the Wizengamot had declared that eighteen months was an unreasonable length of time to wait between being questioned and being brought to trial and had thrown the case out accordingly. Admittedly it had been for attempted assault with a cauldron, but Granger assured them that "every precedent counts. And that could have been really rather serious."
Draco was almost starting to enjoy the camaraderie of working at a shared problem, when there was another knock at the door. He looked to Potter, and then to Ron, both of who gave small shakes of their heads. Granger stood up without a word and took Draco's arm, leading him into the bedroom, while Ron and Potter drew their wands.
"Harry," a voice shouted through the door. "It's Williamson, open up."
"It's all right," Potter said, and went to the door.
Draco heard Granger's small sigh of relief beside him and smiled in agreement at her.
Williamson looked grim as he came in. "Sorry, Harry. We need you to come back in. You too, Hester. They've found Walden Macnair's body in Spondon Wood, near Derby, and pear-shaped doesn't begin to describe the way it's going in there."
"But there's so much …" Armitage began to protest, but stopped at the look on Potter's face.
It was quite complimentary that Potter was that conflicted, thought a small part of Draco's brain, but the far larger part was occupied saying, "Spondon Wood? That's where Unity Fraser lives. "
Potter frowned. "I've heard that name before."
"It was on your list. The one you made of all the old families who hadn't involved themselves in the war."
"You didn't tick it."
"No. She may not have lifted a finger during the actual war, but she's Thorfinn Rowle's great aunt and she'd curse you on sight."
"Rowle!" Williamson exclaimed. He looked at Potter. "Do you think?"
"It's an awfully big coincidence … Williamson, sit down. Run us through what's happened."
Williamson sat, George fetched him tea and several biscuits, which he made short work of as he spoke. "A group of kids were searching for a lost dog in the woods last night. They say they saw people firing 'green lasers' and shouting, and when they went to investigate, there was a tall man who turned the laser in their direction, so they all ran away and rang the police as soon as they got home. No details on the man, other than height, but Rowle is tall. The local coppers ran a sweep this morning and found the body. Our Derbyshire liaison was able to have a look at it an hour ago and he says there's no doubt, it's definitely Macnair. They found the dog safe and well, by the way."
"What's a laser?" Angelina asked.
"A type of light – what a Muggle would think a Killing Curse looked like," Hermione answered. "Malfoy, this woman …?"
"Unity Fraser. She's Rowle's great aunt, and has always been close to his family. She hates almost everyone else, famously anti-social. It would be the perfect place to hide, anyone who came looking for him would have to contend with a vicious, screaming old witch, and even if they didn't give up in the face of her, Rowle would have plenty of warning."
"How do you know all this?" Williamson asked.
"She's my great aunt, too."
Harry looked at him, surprised. "You mean, you and Rowle …"
"Second cousins. It's not that unusual to have family connections among the Pureblood families. She's related to you, too, I think. My other great aunt married Ron's great uncle, so it all links up."
"That's just …"
"Small population. Most of the older families are related if you go back a handful of generations. Ron's actually quite brilliant for snagging the only good-looking witch in his peer group who's not one of his extended family."
Hermione beamed at Draco.
"Well, there's Gabrielle …" Ron mused, then ducked away from the inevitable smack.
"So it sounds as though there's a good chance Rowle is there …" Potter said. "We should go in. Tonight. The longer we leave it the more likely he is to move on."
Draco frowned. "Potter, I'm not being poetic when I call her a vicious witch. She's roughly as dangerous as Rowle is."
"Then we're best off going in under cover of darkness."
"You don't even know what the house is like inside," Draco protested.
"Do you?" Potter asked, hopefully.
"No, but I could find out," Draco realised.
"No, but …" Draco let his glance slide over to the paper, which was still on the sofa, turned to page five.
The others followed his line of thought at different speeds. "Brilliant," said Williamson.
"No," said Potter.
"Are you sure she'd take you in?" Granger asked.
"She might say no to me, but she'd say yes to my mother. Mother's one of the few people Great Aunt Unity likes. If she received a letter asking if I could hide there, I think she'd say yes."
"Your mother would never send you into danger like that," Potter pointed out.
"No. But I've been able to forge her handwriting and signature for years."
"Forge? Oh …" Hermione said, but kept her thoughts to herself.
"How dangerous would it be?" Armitage asked. "We've been doing such a good job of keeping you alive and at liberty up until now."
"Not very, Great Aunt Unity thinks I'm useless, but harmless, and Rowle was kinder to me than most of the other Death Eaters."
Armitage looked at him thoughtfully. "So you'd be able to get in without a great deal of risk."
"And," said Draco, "more importantly, I'd be able to get Rowle out. He's going to be much easier to capture outside in the open."
"No," said Potter. "You're a civilian."
"Oh, when has that ever stopped Aurors in the past?"
"It's not a bad plan," Armitage ventured.
"It's a very good one," Williamson corrected her. "If anything starts to go wrong, we can send Narcissa Malfoy in to defuse the situation."
"You can't involve my mother," Draco protested, just as Potter said, "We're not doing it."
Granger reached across the table and tapped Draco's arm for attention. "How long has it been since you've seen your Great Aunt?"
"About a year."
"After the war. And she was all right with … with how you …"
Draco's nose screwed up at the memory. "She told mother that it was a shame I wasn't very useful, but that my father had always been a bit dim, so it was only to be expected."
Granger, kindly, didn't laugh. "It sounds as though she doesn't think you'd be up to much in the way of duplicity and scheming."
"No," Potter said. "You've been all over the papers working with me for weeks. If she's read any of that she's going to know that you're suspect."
"Or that I've been trying to ingratiate myself with powerful allies to keep myself safe," Draco pointed out.
The moment of silence that followed was uncomfortably long. Clearly the idea had never occurred to Potter before.
"But in that case," said Ron, "surely you'd have sucked up to Percy. He's the Department Head, and he's much easier to impress with a bit of judicious flattery and a few nice gifts."
"You tell me this now." Draco gave an exaggerated sigh, and the tension left the room. "Anyway, my point is that there are a lot of good reasons why I might want to associate with all of you without liking any of you. In fact, I seem to recall that was my original plan, but Armitage won me over with her cups of tea and shortbread biscuits."
"And your relatives would expect you to be doing what you could to rebuild networks of influence," Granger said, smiling at Draco's attempted humour.
"Exactly. So rather than being suspicious, my being seen with you in the press could be read as a sign of competence at last, from my Great Aunt's perspective. And the fact that you were part of the team that came to the Manor looking for me today would add credibility to that."
"Let me be perfectly clear about this," Potter said, "since the rest of you seem to have forgotten a few salient points. To the best of our knowledge, Thorfinn Rowle killed Walden Macnair last night. He's killed before, and he has no reason not to kill again. I would put my money on Malfoy against most people if it was a question of Potions or debating, but he's not the fastest when it comes to duelling and he's not the most ruthless, either. I am not going to send him in against a murderer."
"You're not," said Draco. "I am."
"Shut up for a moment. I know Rowle, you don't. He's belligerent and violent, but in the same way a bear is; if you annoy him, or if you're his enemy, he'll lash out, but he's not like my Aunt, who took actual pleasure in hurting people. And he's not very bright. The others used to give him grief over that sometimes, Macnair in particular. I'm guessing Macnair said one cruel thing too many and Rowle struck him down.
"I'm not saying he's secretly decent or misunderstood, but I am saying he's a lot more like Gregory Goyle than he is like Voldemort. So I think that I'm very likely to be safe there. But you're not, because if you get inside that house, he will fight like a cornered dog, and if I know my Great Aunt, the house itself will be filled with defences. But if I can get him outside, then you have the advantage of numbers, and clear sight lines, and I can Disapparate, or you can Stun me to make it look as though I'm not in on it. I'm making sense, Potter, admit it. There is much less risk to me than to you."
And Draco knew exactly how unfair he was being, because to judge by his face, Potter was feeling exactly the same sick fear that he was at the thought of Potter going into that house without inside help, and there were too many people here to say a meaningful word about it. But since one of them had to be in danger, no matter what, Draco could only hope that Potter's good sense would win out and he would go with the choice that represented less risk to fewer people.
"And just think of Percy's face if Draco's the reason you capture Rowle," Ron said.
That clinched it. Draco could see the quick calculation in Potter's eyes as he envisioned running the story through the press. Malfoy Vital to Auror Efforts was too good to turn down.
"We'll need a signal in case anything goes wrong," Potter said.
"And you'll need an owl that can't be traced back to any of us," Granger added.
"If Draco can write the letter, I can get over to Swindon and send it from their central Owlery," Armitage offered. "They're open late."
Ron passed Draco a quill and a sheet of parchment. "Do you want some sealing wax?" he asked. "I think George has some in the shop."
"Only the type that changes seals to rude pictures," George said. "Not very helpful here, sorry."
"It's all right, I don't have any of the right seals, anyway. And she sometimes sends plain notes when she's anxious. Give me a minute." He took up the quill and tried to think like his mother. It was hard to start.
Potter stepped closer and looked at the blank sheet. "You should say, 'I am asking you for a favour, and I will pay any price you want. Keep Draco safe.'"
And Draco looked up at him, startled at both the unfamiliar sound of his name on Potter's lips and the fact that he knew exactly what his mother would say.
Potter looked back at him. "I've seen what she was prepared to risk for you," he said. "In the war, remember?"
And then Potter stepped away, which was a relief, because Draco was absolutely certain Ron did not want Granger's head to explode.
Draco wrote, careful to use the sweeps and curlicues of his Mother's hand rather than the hurried angularity of his own. "We're not going to be able to intercept any post getting to Mother, so I'm saying that I'm not going to wait for a reply, I'm just going to send Draco hot on the heels of this message, and if she can't help, then she needn't look to us for any assistance in the future." He saw the look on Armitage's face at that, and added, "My Mother is a lovely woman, but a little ruthless."
He folded up the note and passed it to Armitage, along with a handful of Galleons. "Thanks, Hester. Choose the best owl. Mother would pay for express service and for a security charm. I've written the address on the outside, so she'd also pay for a sealed container in case it was intercepted. That should be enough, if it's not, let me know."
She hugged him quickly. "I'll head off now. Give me half an hour's start, I'll get word to Harry if I run into any problems. Good luck, you."
Draco watched Potter's face as Armitage left. He was not best pleased, but he didn't move to stop her.
"I'd like to keep going with all this while we wait," Granger said. "Or do you two need to go back into the Ministry?"
"We should go back," Williamson said. "Weasley's expected back in around nine and Savage is probably going to kill the next journalist he catches trying to sneak in for information on Macnair."
Potter nodded. "I'm just going to have a quick word with Malfoy."
Draco looked up expectantly, but apparently Potter meant a quick word away from everyone else, which boded ill for poor Granger's brain. Draco followed him into the bedroom at the rear of the flat.
"I'm not happy," Potter said as soon as he closed the door.
"But it is the best option," Draco replied.
"Yes, I can see that, but I still don't like it."
"You'd let Granger go. Or Ron."
Potter frowned. "I'd hesitate with Hermione. She's brilliant, and got me out of some terrible places during the war, but she's a thinker, like you. Ron's more Aurory – and yes, before you say it, I do mean a bit less prone to over-thinking a situation, because there are some occasions where it is best to hex first and think later."
"I can be brave," Draco assured him.
The frown disappeared from Potter's face. "Oh, I know that. Did you think I wasn't paying any attention?"
Draco smiled, but stayed carefully out of Potter's reach, because quite aside from everything else, that was Ron and Granger's bed and there weren't enough words for the many levels of wrongness of that thought.
"It will be easy," he promised. "I won't be in any danger."
And he was, but there was no reason Potter should know that.
"I'm trying to avoid having to go on the run. And I'm trying to keep you from getting your head hexed off."
"Just … Don't take any risks. If it goes wrong, leave."
"Because I like the way you look. I don't want you coming back damaged."
"I thought you were attracted to my mind."
"Don't be ridiculous."
And Draco was certain that he had been out of arm's reach, but one of them must have moved, because suddenly he was wrapped in Potter's arms, and Potter was whispering "Be safe" in his ear and kissing his way along Draco's jaw to his lips and Draco let himself stop caring about what people might think long enough to hold Potter and feel the shift of muscle in his back and the sharpness of his hips against his own and taste the bitter tang of coffee on his mouth.
But there were other people, and he did care what they thought. He stepped back.
"Stop now," Draco told him. "Save that sort of thing for my triumphant return."
"If they hurt you, I will kill them," Potter promised.
"No you won't," Draco told him. "You'll arrest them. And you'll hit them with the full force of the law. And then my mother will probably try to sneak in and kill them and you'll be tempted to pretend you didn't see her… None of which is going to be necessary, because it's going to be fine."
Potter didn't look happy, but he didn't argue. "What time should we be in place?"
"Dawn seems like a sensible hour to get a bit of exercise in when you're on the lam," Draco suggested. "Sun's coming up about seven-thirty, so a bit before that?"
"We'll get there before seven. I'd rather put a watch on tonight, but …"
Draco shook his head. "The longer there are Aurors around, the more risk to me."
"Exactly." Potter reached into his pocket and pulled out a Galleon. "Take this, if you start to get worried, just tap on it and change the date. There's a Protean Charm on it, so the change will go straight out to all the others and one of us will be able to get help to you immediately. It's a lot subtler than sending out a Patronus."
"Thank you." Draco reached for the coin, and Potter took his hand. "It's going to be fine," Draco said. "Now let go, and open the door, before Ron starts having to explain anything."
Potter squeezed his hand before letting it go. His hands were strong, and there was still a flying callus on his palm. Draco filed away the memory.
"And whatever you do, don't let my mother know until I'm back safely, or she'll kill you. And … and keep her safe, no matter what."
Potter let go of his hand and opened it. "So we're clear on the timing?" he said loudly as they stepped through it. "And any problems, just get out or call for help."
"Absolutely. No heroics," Draco responded similarly.
From the calculating look on Granger's face, they were possibly the worst two actors in the world, but Ron, who was fast becoming Draco's favourite, knocked a pile of scrolls off the table and Potter was able to gather up Williamson while she was berating him and picking parchment up from the floor.
"All right. If you come up with anything, send Angelina in. Everyone's used to her popping in and out at all hours, so it won't attract any attention. We'll kip in the office tonight, and we'll get word to the rest of you as soon as we can in the morning."
"We're going to keep going here for as long as we can and then I'll send our notes to Kingsley," Granger said.
"And I'm going to sit around making myself useful for another twenty minutes, then mess up my hair and suit and throw myself on the mercy of my fourth-least-favourite relative," said Draco.
"Who are the … never mind," said Angelina. "I've just realised I have no urge to meet them."
"Two are in Azkaban, you're safe." Draco flashed her a smile. He turned his attention back to Potter. "Dawn, yeah? I'll try to get us out on time. I'll see if he wants to go up to the park near there. It's on the same road as the house, and it's a nice walk."
"If you're too close to him …"
"Just Stun me. It can't hurt more than a friendly thump of approval from Williamson."
Williamson grinned broadly. Potter looked at Draco, and Draco gave a small shake of his head, which was met with resigned acceptance and a general "Good luck" as Potter left. Ron jumped up and offered a fresh round of tea before Granger could start to do any thinking on that exchange, and Draco gratefully turned himself back to Goshawk and Ogden's scratchy handwriting. Twenty minutes passed all too quickly.
It took another few minutes to make him look as though he had been authentically on the run and not holed up in a cosy flat. Angelina turned his hair into something resembling Potter's birds' nest, while George contributed a Nosebleed Nougat and Granger carefully scorched one of his sleeves with a just-missing jinx.
"You look awful," Ron said approvingly. "I'll hide your bag while you're gone. If it all goes tits-up, I'll find a way to get it to you."
"Thanks. All right then, I should be off."
He hesitated. "Thank you, all of you," he said, quietly. "I know I don't deserve any of the help you've given me, but I appreciate it."
"Bloody hell, Malfoy," said George. "It's bad enough you've got Ron saying you're not that bad. Don't start me down that path, it'll break our little old mum's heart!"
Malfoy grinned. "Can't have that, your mum's scarier than mine."
"And don't you forget it."
"Be careful," Granger said. "Pansy would be insufferable about it if we let you get hurt."
"Merlin forbid. OK. See you all tomorrow." And before he could think too much about any of it, he Disapparated.
Great Aunt Unity's house had been a place best avoided by Draco as a boy. Not only did she believe children should be seen and not heard, but she was quite vocal in her opinion they ought to be seen at a distance, and preferably at someone else's home so she wouldn't have to clean up after them.
Though, she had sent him a tin of good broom polish every year at Christmas since he was eleven, so she wasn't entirely bad. Draco had visited her house twice with his parents, each time being entertained in the back garden. It was here that he Apparated, careful of the intruder traps he knew were set near all the doors and windows.
He was intentionally not careful with the sound of his Apparition, though the splash he made as he landed in a rather large puddle was nearly as loud. The back door opened in response to the crack, as he had hoped.
"Great Aunt Unity?" he asked.
"Get inside, boy. Before you get wet!" she croaked.
He did. The back door led into the old washroom, from when the house had been part of a working farm. Light spilled out from the kitchen beyond, and he could see his Great Aunt peering up at him critically.
"You've taken a bit of a beating, I see."
"Have you seen the paper?"
"Disgraceful. You were doing so well, too. Very clever of you getting that Potter boy onside."
Draco kept his sigh of relief silent. "He's the future of the Ministry. Seemed only logical."
"Did he give you that?" She pointed to his bloody nose.
"No, that was an over-enthusiastic member of the MLE Patrol down in Swindon. Mother got me away from the house in time, but I was spotted leaving her at the Owlery."
She wet a cloth and passed it to him. "Clean yourself up." She looked him over and Vanished the mud from his shoes and trousers. "Not having that muck tracked into my nice clean house."
"Thank you. Mother said we could trust you."
Unity barked with laughter. "Of course she did. Popped a little threat in her letter, you know. I always liked your mother. She makes a far better Malfoy than your father ever did. Knows how to choose her battles, that one."
Draco nodded, then turned at a sound beyond the kitchen door. "Is there …"
The door was pushed back, revealing Thorfinn Rowle, wand in hand. Draco had forgotten how very large he was.
"Put your wand away, Thorfinn, it's your cousin."
"Thorfinn …" And Draco was enveloped in a bone-crushing hug, which meant that he didn't need to feign a mild battering anymore. "I thought you'd fled the country," he managed to gasp out.
Rowle let him go. "I tried. It was too hard to get away. I spent the first few months living rough on Dartmoor, but no one came to find me. Then I went north for a while, and then I came to see Aunty and she let me stay. And they still haven't come to find me."
"Are you all right?"
Rowle shook his head.
"There was some trouble yesterday," Unity said briskly. "Nothing to worry about. It's too cold for an old woman to be up on a night like this. Draco, there's a camp bed in Thorfinn's room. You can sleep there."
"He needs some food first," Rowle protested.
"You can sort that, then. I'm off to bed."
Draco courteously wished her good night and followed Rowle into the kitchen.
A fire was burning in the kitchen hearth, with herbs drying on a rack above it and a small cauldron bubbling away on one side. Now that he could see Rowle more closely, he did not look well. His eyes were darkly shadowed, and his hands twitched randomly. The scar on the side of his face looked red and angry. Draco winced as he remembered Voldemort inflicting it, in a fury that Rowle had let Potter escape him.
"What happened to you?" Rowle asked, nodding at the bloody wet cloth in Draco's hand.
"Minor altercation. I'm fine. Just need to lay low for a few days or weeks. What about you? Have you been all right?"
"I've been better," Rowle admitted. "It's been hard being by myself. I'm glad you're here, someone to talk to."
"What about Great Aunt Unity?" Draco smiled a little, to show he knew she was no great conversationalist.
"She's been loyal, for the sake of the family, but …" Rowle shrugged.
Draco began to feel sorry for him. "And you really lived on the moor? That must have been hard."
"Only because I was alone with my thoughts for so long. I was lucky, it was a nice summer. But I was afraid a lot of the time."
"Of the Aurors?"
"No," Rowle leaned across the table with sudden intensity. "Of Him."
"Of … the Dark Lord?" Draco asked, hesitantly finding his way back into the language of the war.
Rowle nodded, his eyes darting around the room. "Do you not feel his eyes still on you?"
Draco shook his head.
"Deep in the dark of night, I see him, shadowy and red. He asks me why they haven't come for me, and I have no answer to give him."
It was cold, despite the crackling fire. "Thorfinn, he's dead. Really, finally, totally dead."
"But are you sure?"
"Then why haven't they come?"
And Draco had no answers for him, so he reached across the table and squeezed his cousin's hand and said that he would make them both something to eat.
As it turned out, the cauldron contained quite a serviceable soup, and there was bread and cheese. Draco made Rowle a mug of sweet tea, and seriously considered trying to find the cocoa. For all that he knew the detail of Rowle's many sins, it was impossible not to feel some pity for the man.
"Do you remember Macnair?" Rowle asked, biting into a thickly buttered slice of bread.
"Never liked him," Draco said.
"Ha! I remember. He was a pig to you, too."
"Absolutely. I used to volunteer to feed the prisoners just to get away from him."
"You'll never need to worry about him again."
Draco put his spoon down carefully. "What do you mean?"
"He came here last night, making demands, threatening us both. I put an end to him. Cold and stiff in the forest, he is."
Draco made himself smile. "That's good. Then we'll be safe."
"Exactly." Rowle smiled back at him, and resumed eating his soup.
He was quite mad, Draco realised. Perhaps he had always been this way, and it had just passed for normal among the Death Eaters. Perhaps it was just a twisted response to thwarted ambition and regret. That was Mother's excuse for Father: a two-year tantrum, in essence. But Draco wondered, was it in fact Voldemort's last revenge on those who had failed him? If he had been given the Dark Mark, would he, too, still be seeing those snake eyes in dark corners and in his dreams?
Because he had not dreamed of Voldemort since the war. Not like those terrifying nights at home, where he died a thousand times in his sleep, where his mother was eviscerated before his eyes, where his Aunt laughed wildly as his Father was forced to kill his wife and son … That had all ended at the sight of that shrunken white shell on the floor of the Great Hall.
His nightmares were all of fire, and of losing grip on that slim strong hand that had reached for him. They were of Potter staying still and dead in Hagrid's arms. And Draco had a terrible moment of realisation that his subconscious had been way ahead of the rest of him for some time now.
"What is it?" Rowle asked.
"You looked as though you had just thought of something."
"Oh." Draco smiled encouragingly. "I had. I thought that Macnair was the last threat to you. You're safe, now."
"Oh, Draco, no. I'm not safe. I'll never be safe."
"Are you afraid of the Ministry?"
"Of course not. I'm afraid of myself. I still see him."
There was no rational response to that, so Draco poured him another mug of tea, and spooned sugar into it.
"You're a good boy," Rowle told him.
"Great Aunt Unity thinks I'm an idiot," Draco replied, smiling ruefully.
"She thinks your father's an idiot. She's not decided about you."
"Oh. Well, that's much better."
"How is Lucius?"
Draco wished he hadn't asked.
"I don't see him much. He drinks too much. He shouts. He regrets. Mother won't buy him a new wand. She's hidden all the spares. She says she won't until he's his old self again, but I don't know if he ever will be at this rate."
Rowle leaned forward. "Does he regret losing, or does he regret trying?"
Draco shrugged. "Both, I think."
Rowle sank back, nodding to himself.
"What about you, Thorfinn?"
Rowle thought for a moment. "I miss the righteousness of battle. I miss the glory of the kill. But Macnair was the last true enemy, and I defeated him."
"Macnair was the last? But, wasn't he on your side?"
"How could he be, when he didn't sacrifice himself? The others have all gone, those of us He truly loved. It's not your fault He abandoned you, Draco, your father was weak, and had to be left behind," Rowle explained. "I am the only one left in the palm of the Dark Lord."
Draco thought very carefully about his words. "And what do you think he wants you to do?"
"To die for him. But no one has come to kill me. And I have been waiting for so long."
Draco nodded slowly, torn between pity and horror. "And when they come?"
Rowle grinned, and Draco forced himself to smile in reply.
"It's late," Draco said, shivering.
"It's early. I want to hear what you've been doing."
"Getting by. Keeping my head down, mostly. I made a mistake. I got involved in some politics, because I thought it would put me into a position where I could help our people. It nearly worked, but Percy Weasley's been made head of Magical Law Enforcement, and he's decided to come after me."
"Weasleys. Blood traitors, the lot of them."
Draco shrugged. "It's really just an inconvenience. There are moves afoot at the Ministry to usurp him. I just have to wait."
"Great Aunt Unity said you'd been plotting."
"Can't have our lot left out in the cold."
Rowle beamed at him.
"I really am tired, though. I've been running around the countryside for most of the day, and it's more like nine."
"All right, but tomorrow, you will tell me everything you've been doing. I'm behind on all the news. Aunty keeps the paper to herself."
"We could get up early," Draco suggested. "Go for a walk while there's no one about."
"That would be grand." Rowle smiled at him, and Draco refused to let himself feel guilty.
Even if the fold-out bed had been more comfortable, and even if Rowle had not been snoring in the old feather bed on the other side of the small room, Draco would still not have slept well. He had hoped never to feel that tense, claustrophobic darkness again, and yet here he was, feet away from someone in whose head Voldemort still lived.
But it wasn't the same. He had caught Potter's hand and been dragged out of the fire. He had heard the interest in Potter's voice and made the first move. He had stood up for what he knew to be right and found that he wasn't alone, and that there was help from the least-expected quarters. He wasn't the same.
Draco felt the coin in his pocket and wondered if he should send a message, but there was no code to say I think he's mad, he wants to die, I don't know how many people he wants to take with him. He drifted off, and did not dream.
It was cold when he woke up. The grey pre-dawn light showed up frost on the windowpanes. Draco pulled his boots on and wrapped a blanket around his shoulders. He headed downstairs to put the kettle on, and found Great Aunt Unity already in the kitchen, making porridge and waiting for the water to boil.
"Did you sleep well?" she asked.
"As well as could be expected. What about you?"
"You don't sleep much when you get to my age. I listened to the rain stopping. I think it might be a fine day, after all."
"How's your cousin?" she asked.
"No," she looked up from the porridge. "I mean how did you find him?"
Draco hesitated. "He's … He's been under a lot of pressure …"
"He's madder than a Muggle," she stated baldly. "Will your friends be able to put him into a hospital rather than prison?"
Draco stayed very still.
"You did a good job with the letter, boy, but you should have checked with your mother. She'd already sent me one telling me you were being taken care of. And she knows how to spell subsequently."
His hand nearest the coin was under the blanket, he edged it towards his pocket. With his wand upstairs it would be harder, but he was reasonably confident he could manage the spell.
"Don't look at me like that, Draco. I'm a Malfoy, a proper one, and I am not stupid. There's only one reason for you to come here. Your cousin is broken, and he is dangerous and he needs help, and I can't give it to him."
Draco allowed himself to breathe. Either she was being honest, or she was planning to hex him the moment his back was turned. Without a wand he'd just have to rely on moving quickly if it were the latter.
"I am relying on you to do what you can to see that he gets some care."
"I'll do what I can," he promised.
"And if you need me to say that he was always barmy, I will. Merlin knows, even if it wasn't true before, it is now."
She took the porridge off the heat and spooned it liberally into two bowls. "I trust you have a plan?"
"Get him outside this morning. They want to take him alive."
"Even if that's not what he wants?"
Draco spooned brown sugar over his porridge. "Potter will be there. I trust him."
Unity narrowed her eyes. "Did he really come to arrest you yesterday?"
"Yes, because it's his job. But he also worked with his friends to make sure I could escape, because that's who he is."
"All right. Go and get your cousin, he's missing breakfast."
And since no curses whizzed past him on the way out the door, Draco assumed his Great Aunt was being honest with him.
Rowle did not want to get up. "It's still dark!" he complained.
"It's nearly sunrise. I thought we could have a walk outside before everyone's out and about. It looks like the rain's cleared up at last. Aunty's made us breakfast, and it's actually quite tasty."
Grumbling, but good-naturedly, Rowle slumped out of bed and into his clothes. Draco took the opportunity to put his blanket back and put on his jacket. He tucked his wand into his pocket and draped his coat over his arm. "Come on, my porridge is getting cold."
Great Aunt Unity had put a warming spell on the bowl. This, more than anything else, reassured Draco as he sat back down at the table.
Rowle seemed less twitchy this morning, though that could have been because he was still half-asleep. Unity piled his bowl high and gave him the heavy cream as a treat.
"It's good having Draco here, isn't it?" Rowle asked.
"Yes, some fresh conversation," she agreed, smiling fondly at him.
"We're going for a walk," he told her.
"You wear your good coat. And your scarf. And put on a pair of gloves. There's a good frost out there and the sun won't burn it off for a few hours yet."
"And mind you don't go getting into trouble. I'm not having Narcissa say I can't look after her boy."
"You're a good boy, Thorfinn. Would you like some bacon?"
"I'll have it when we get back."
But she made them wait ten minutes and cooked it for him now, with eggs, and fried bread. Draco did not begrudge her a second of the time.
"We're being spoiled now you're here," Rowle told him, smiling.
"We are," Draco agreed, though he had been unable to finish even his porridge. Thicknesse had ended up in St Mungo's, he told himself. The Ministry was capable of compassion these days. Potter would make it better. Here he was, a traitor, yet again. And yet to stop now would be a worse betrayal still.
"So, walk?" he asked cheerily.
"Walk," Rowle agreed. "Do you want to borrow a hat?"
Draco shook his head. "I've got one in my pocket."
Rowle ran upstairs to find his. Draco sat still, and tried not to think.
"When Macnair came the other night, he just wanted food," Great Aunt Unity said quietly. "Thorfinn's become a danger to himself."
"And to you?" Draco guessed.
"It's only a matter of time."
Rowle's heavy footsteps bounced down the back stairs. "Come on, Draco, the sun's coming up," he said as he came through the kitchen.
Draco hauled on his coat and wrapped his scarf around his throat. "Coming."
"You're a good boy."
"Thanks, Aunty. See you soon."
It was beautiful outside. The frost crackled underneath their feet and the rabbits that had ventured out to see what remained in the vegetable garden after all the water and ice were too hungry to be timid. Draco smiled at their determination as they wormed their way around the woven willow barriers Unity had placed around the winter greens and the last of the lovage.
A robin was singing its plaintive autumn song and a skirl of small birds scurried from tree to tree as a red kite came into focus high above them.
"Look, Draco," said Rowle, pointing upwards as they passed through the gate onto the road. "The tips of its wings look like fingers."
And Draco was pleased to see that he looked happy, and that he did not look down, so there was no way he could have seen Williamson step out from the tree cover across the way and Stun Draco back onto the soft ground, and there would not have been time for him to hear Potter's hex as it struck him. As Draco's eyes closed, he took comfort that the light from Potter's wand had been red.
Draco did not need to open his eyes to know it was Potter's hand smoothing his hair back from his face.
"How are you feeling?" Potter asked.
"It's actually much less painful than Williamson's standard 'well-done' wallop," Draco said, opening his eyes at last.
"I made him carry you in as punishment. Apparently, you're quite heavy for someone that skinny."
Potter did not look too worried. Draco took that as a good sign.
"Of course, I should have made him carry Rowle, but that took four of us. Come on, sit up."
They were in Potter's office, alone for the moment, but the door was open and there were many voices outside.
"How is Rowle?" Draco asked.
"Sleeping like a baby. It was a fairly solid Stupefy, I didn't want to take any chances. Of course, Williamson was meant to wait to see if you were in any danger before he took you out, but he says he couldn't risk it. I'm not sure if you should be flattered or nervous. Drink this."
Potter held a glass of cold water up for him. Draco drank gratefully, very aware of Potter's hand helping him to steady the glass.
"You'll be all right in a few minutes. Which is just as well, Abernathy's bringing your mum in and Ron and Hermione are on their way, too."
"I really should have a shower. Or at least do my hair."
"You look fine." Potter peered at him closely. "Are you?"
"I am. Great Aunt Unity knew. She wanted him to be caught. He's … he's absolutely barking. And not in the 'I'm an evil psycho' way Aunt Bella was, in the 'Kneazles talk to me' way Great Uncle Alphard is."
"OK." Potter nodded. "I'll have him checked out. If he's really out of his tree, we'll move him to the Secure Wing at St Mungo's. We might even be able to keep him there."
Potter was still peering. Draco realised he was checking for bruises.
"I'm really fine. We sat around last night and talked, and then we had a good breakfast this morning. What did my Great Aunt say when you went to the house?"
"Nothing. She wasn't there."
Draco laughed. "Typical. She gave him shelter, but the sort you'd give a wounded animal. Do you have to question her?"
"We have to let her know what's happened, she's his closest relative. But I think we can probably just ignore the whole habouring thing. The only person who suffered by it was Macnair, and I just can't work up the energy to feel badly about his death."
"Nor I," Draco admitted. "And what about me? Am I under arrest?"
"Ah," said Potter. "Technically, there's still a warrant out for you. But the Atrium was filled with journalists when we got here – Armitage seems to have given them the impression that you're the hero of the hour."
"She's easily my favourite Auror," Draco said, smiling up at Potter.
Potter finally started to relax, and smiled back.
Of course Mother was standing in the doorway now. And of course she had that expression on her face. Though to judge from the expression on Abernathy's face behind her, it was confirmation rather than news. Life would have been so much simpler if Potter had killed him in the girl's lavatory back in Sixth Year.
His Mother looked at them both for a moment, then shrugged with resignation. "Nothing I can do about that, I suppose," she said, sweeping into the room. "What I want to know is what you think you've been doing gadding about in Derbyshire? You were meant to be staying out of harm's way."
"I have been, Mother."
"Look at the state of you."
Draco caught Potter's eye over the top of his Mother's hair as she caught him in a swift hug and hoped that he was conveying how Malfoy grooming standards differed from Potter ones.
Mother sat on the sofa beside him and took his hands. "Mister Abernathy has assured me that he intends to spare no influence in making sure you come to no harm. And I see that Mr Potter is taking his duty of care to characteristic extremes. It's all going to be all right, darling."
"I know." He squeezed her hands gently. "You didn't have to come in here. I know how much you hate the Ministry."
"It's just a building."
And he hugged her again at that, because he knew she was lying.
There was a loud bustle out in the main Auror offices. Before Harry could get to his door, it was opened and Ron swept in, with Granger, Luna, Longbottom, Angelina and George in tow.
"Ah, Minister Potter," Ron said. "We bring tidings of hope!"
The startled expression on Potter's face was matched with the one on Ron's when he saw Draco's mother, but she bowed her head slightly and said "Mr Weasley, Miss Granger, Miss Johnson, isn't it? Miss Lovegood, I am pleased to see you looking so well, Mr Longbottom, and Mr George Weasley."
There was a chorus of muttered Mrs Malfoys, but she waved her hand encouragingly. "I believe you had news?"
"Yes …" said Ron, but went no further.
"And it seems to be confidential in nature." She smiled briskly and stood up, smoothing her skirts.
"Mother, wait." Draco looked at the others. "She's been a part of this, too."
Granger looked at them thoughtfully, but Ron and George were both frowning.
"Don't be silly, darling," his mother said brightly. "I would be completely in the way here with all you young people. Do excuse me. Mr Abernathy has been promising to show me where you work, Draco. If you're delayed here, I'll be returning home once we're done. You can catch me up on all your news when you have a chance. Do be sure to let me know what time to expect you."
Draco stood up with her and hugged her once more. "I'll come home as soon as I can," he promised.
She smiled at them all, and moved towards the door with Abernathy. Granger stopped her with a light hand to her arm. "It is confidential, but it's good news," she said.
"Thank you, Miss Granger." Draco assumed she must have smiled then, because Granger's smile in reply was warm.
Ron waited until the door had shut before he said, "It's Ms," but there was no malice in his tone.
"Election-winning news?" Draco reminded him.
"Almost certainly," Ron replied. "Though not necessarily Malfoy-saving."
"You were clear on which was the more urgent problem, weren't you?" Potter asked with only a little acerbity.
"No need for temper. Some of us have been up all night slaving away. As it turns out, there are some things we can fix with the information we have, and some things we can keep our fingers crossed on."
Draco was confused. "You'll have to explain."
"Absolutely. To be honest, Hermione had to run me through it twice before I got my head around it." He grinned, and Draco smiled back, quite certain there was no need to make any of the obvious jokes. "Come over to the table – you too, Harry – and we'll try to talk you through it."
Granger started piling scrolls on one end of the table, and Luna began to pull papers from her satchel, so Draco moved across and took one of the end seats, beside Potter, who was looking slightly sceptical.
Luna began proceedings. "Last night, Hermione sent us an owl explaining the situation. We were already in damage-control mode after the Prophet came out, so all we had to do was to add a few more last-minute interviews. And look, even Mr Ollivander helped."
She spread a copy of the Quibbler out onto the table in front of them. POSTER BOY FRAMED said the headline. "That was Neville," Luna said, proudly. Longbottom looked as though he knew he ought to be ashamed, but was secretly a little bit chuffed.
It was followed by a story in which the editorial team spoke of their horror at seeing the news that Draco was under suspicion. Luna wrote persuasively of Draco's last two years of apologising and making amends. She gave a first-person account of life in the Malfoy cellar, and spoke rather more glowingly than he felt he deserved of Draco's efforts to keep them safe and well cared-for.
It was not only Luna. Dean, too, had written a piece, pointing out that he had never seen Draco as anything other than a less-restrained prisoner during those months. His was a little more persuasive, because he opened and finished it by mentioning that he "never really liked Malfoy". Even Ollivander was quoted as saying Draco was less objectionable than expected. That part made Draco smile with its accuracy.
"That's brilliant, Luna, thank you."
"It should definitely help with public opinion if Malfoy goes to trial." Potter said. "But it's not going encourage Percy to rethink that warrant."
"No," said Angelina. "But wait until you hear what Hermione has to tell you about that."
Granger shuffled through the papers in front of her, looking worn-out, but smiling. "It was Malfoy who gave me the idea originally," she said. "Ah, here we go, this is the one. See? This signature on the warrant is definitely Doge's, but I suddenly realised that even if the signature was authentic, that was no reason to believe the document was.
"So I got in touch with Kingsley and the others and they took a look at the original. It turned out that the signature had been lifted off another document and placed onto the warrant. And when Kingsley went to investigate, he found out that Elphias had gone straight from the Wizengamot to a private event in Scotland yesterday and there was no way Percy could have found him to sign that paper in the afternoon, which is when the time and date stamp say it was signed."
"Which means he's tried to be too clever and he's brought himself undone," said Ron. "If we take this to the papers, his whole career is gone."
"But we don't want to do that," George reminded him.
"Nah," Ron agreed. "Just get him to drop the cases against Malfoy and the others. And drop out of the race for Minister. And maybe take a holiday until everything blows over and he can get back to something approaching normal."
"Tiberius, Kingsley and Miranda are on their way in," Granger said. "They're bringing the original evidence with them."
Draco turned to Potter. "Surely that's enough?" he asked. "If Percy's discredited …"
Potter gnawed his thumbnail, thinking. After a minute, he spoke. "It means we can't exonerate you without incriminating Percy," he said. "We're still relying on him to do the right thing if he twigs to the fact that we really don't want to drop him in it publicly."
Draco turned to see Ron nodding agreement, and the frown on George Weasley's face. "Bugger," he said.
"And," said Granger, "it's one thing to know that we can remove Percy if we have to, but that's not going to change the minds of all his supporters."
Draco dropped his head against the high back of his seat. "I suppose the good news is that we've just revolutionised prisoner's rights in this country. So I'm going to be very comfortable and you can all visit me down in the cells."
George Weasley smiled at what even Draco would admit was a weak joke. "Nil desperandum, young Malfoy. We didn't give up on you that quickly. We decided that since we couldn't take everything we knew to the press, we'd take something else instead."
A flicker of doubt crossed George's face. "I can't tell you exactly. I mean, I can tell you what we put out there, but what gets reported may not be the same thing …"
"Who did you talk to?" Potter asked. "Leamington? He's reliable, and he's been very supportive."
"No, Skeeter," said Luna.
"Oh, well that can't possibly go wrong," Potter said.
"They were there when you came back from capturing Rowle this morning, weren't they?" Angelina asked.
Harry admitted that there had indeed been a large contingent of media in attendance, including Rita Skeeter.
"That was Luna. George came up with the plan and Luna used all her contacts."
Luna nodded. "I let them know that you'd be bringing in a big case first thing this morning. The Prophet's putting out a special late morning edition today so they could cover it. And Skeeter's told everyone she has a big scoop coming out, so even the Wireless is holding off on reporting anything beyond the basic facts of Rowle's arrest and Macnair's death."
Draco could feel Potter's knee bouncing nervously beside him, which was comforting, because it was taking all his willpower to keep his own still.
"Your 'plan'. What exactly does it involve?"
George smiled, and then stifled a yawn. "A bit of truth, a big lie, and a lot of hope. Don't suppose you have any coffee?"
"Or food?" Ron added.
"I could go and ask Armitage," Draco offered.
But before he could stand there was another knock to the door and Armitage came barging in without waiting for a reply. "It's here!" she announced, waving morning editions of the Prophet.
She distributed them quickly, Draco grabbed the first and found himself looking at his own unconscious face. Williamson was carrying him with exaggerated care, while beside them Potter and Savage gripped Rowle's arms, Dawlish and May behind them with his legs. Flashes of cameras lit the scene as they walked through the Atrium, and Potter looked over at Draco several times, his concern obvious.
Draco turned his eyes to Potter beside him, who looked mildly embarrassed. "It's nice," Draco assured him. Then remembered they weren't alone.
A quick glance around showed almost everyone focussed on the papers, except for Granger, who was looking at them with wide eyes and a mouth opening in surprise, and Ron, who was looking at her.
"I'll tell you later," he whispered quickly, just loudly enough for Draco to hear.
Draco knew that his own face was wearing the exact same expression of rumbled trepidation as Potter's and was grateful for the excuse of needing to read the story in front of them. At least Granger's brain seemed intact, even if her face was suggesting that it was making a solid bid to take refuge in denial.
POTTER DEFEATS LAST DEATH EATER! the headline blared.
"Three slammers," Luna observed. "They've lost the plot entirely."
"It's Rita Skeeter," Potter said. "What do you expect?"
Draco elbowed him in the ribs. "Shut up and read. This could be my freedom for the next few months." The paragraphs stretched down the page in tight columns, and they were nothing short of a miracle.
In dramatic scenes at the Ministry this morning, Acting Head Auror Harry Potter brought in the unconscious form of Thorfinn Rowle, Britain's Most Wanted fugitive.
Rowle took over the position as Most Wanted on the Auror's list with the death of Walden Macnair in unresolved circumstances yesterday.
Potter was unable to confirm whether or not Rowle is suspected in the death of Macnair. However, he is wanted for a series of crimes stretching through the war years and back into the early 1990s. It is believed that the list contains several murders.
Confidential sources spoke exclusively to this reporter, revealing details of the daring Auror action that finally brought an end to this reign of terror. Not only was Auror Potter the man wielding the wand that brought Rowle down, it is believed that he is also one of the key figures behind the complex plot that finally flushed out this most elusive of fugitives.
Readers of this paper will recall that yesterday's issues contained several stories of an alarming nature, including one reporting that Draco Malfoy was wanted by the Aurors. This reporter can now reveal that this story was in fact planted to make it possible for Mr Malfoy to undertake a daring covert operation in which it was hoped that Rowle and the then-still at large Macnair would make contact with him.
Events overtook the plan, with Walden Macnair discovered by Muggle police dead in Spondon Wood near Derby yesterday morning. However, as hoped, Rowle reached out to his distant relative, and with the courageous assistance of Mr Malfoy, the Aurors were able to affect an arrest in the early hours of this morning with no serious casualties.
It is believed that several recent warrants and statements issued by Head of Magical Law Enforcement Percy Weasley were in fact a part of this complex and cunning plan.
This will come as a relief to those who, like this reporter, had been concerned that Percy Weasley had taken leave of his previously celebrated senses.
The one concerning detail in all of this has been the willingness of some members of the media to wilfully ignore reality in the pursuit of a perceived 'scoop', as evidenced in recent reporting by less scrupulous members of this esteemed profession.
No-one can accuse this reporter of being a one-eyed supported of Harry Potter. Over the years I have had cause to point out several of his shortcomings and failings, not all of which he has grown out of. Until recently his non-Auror wardrobe was a disgrace and he still sports a haircut that anyone over the age of twenty-five itches to take a comb to. Nevertheless, to suggest that he has a corrupt bone in his body …
A page throw indicated the story continued on page two, with further reporting on pages three, five and seven.
Draco shook his head in amazement, while Potter began to laugh.
"George and Ron decided there's nothing the public likes as much as a good story, so they made one up," Angelina explained. "It was mostly George, he's quite brilliant, really. Hermione said she knew Rita Skeeter, so we sent her an owl in the middle of the night and she came over and George told her what he thought she could write and said she'd do it."
"Hermione, don't tell me you blackmailed her again?" Potter sounded only mildly disapproving.
"Not at all!" Granger protested. "I merely pointed out that you'd been Head Auror for four months and despite every horrible thing she'd ever written about you, you'd still not arrested her for being an unregistered Animagus."
"I find it hard to believe she was this grateful."
"I may have also pointed out that you winning the election and becoming Minister would allow her to release an updated version of Hogwarts to Hero, the Harry Potter Story, while you being discredited would inevitably see sales drop."
"That sounds more like it."
Draco began to laugh, too. "Percy is going to kill us," he said.
George shrugged. "He can't kill us, Mum would kill him."
"And she knows how," Ron added.
"The other stories are rather good, too," said Luna, flicking forward. "Leamington interviewed all the other Department Heads and most of them have come out in favour of the voting changes, calling it a legal necessity that drags the wizarding world into the new Millennium. Camberwell calls it the Shacklebolt-Granger Law."
"Ooh!" Granger snatched up the copy from Ron's hands and flicked through to find the reference.
A loud knock crashed three times into Potter's poor door, before it was pushed open without ceremony. Draco recognised the young wizard standing there as Percy's assistant. He did not look happy.
"Potter, the Department Head wants to see you right away," he said. "No delays."
Potter stood up. "Time to face the music."
"I'm coming with you," Draco said.
"So are we," said Ron, with George nodding beside him. "You wait here with the others, Hermione. This isn't going to be Percy's finest hour, and I think he'll cope better if there are fewer people around."
She kissed his cheek. "Good luck."
It really was not far from the Auror offices to Percy's, and yet the difference in atmosphere was immense. While the Aurors radiated cooperative chaos with offices only for the Head Auror and the sick room, MLE was arrayed down a long twisting corridor, brass nameplates in doors radiating off each side. Percy's was a third of the way down the hallway, at the corner of the building. His assistant led them into a large anteroom that served as a reception as well as the assistant's office. Without stopping, he went to the main door knocked once, then opened it and announced, 'They're here, sir."
Potter led the way in.
Draco could hear Percy before he could see him. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Harry? And what's he doing here?"
"He's here because he deserves to be after the stunt you pulled yesterday," said George, coming in behind and putting a hand on Draco's shoulder. "Now sit down, Perce, and shut up for a few minutes."
Percy was so surprised, he sat down.
"We know," said Ron, shutting the door behind them. "About the signature on Malfoy's warrant not being real. That is so out of order, Percy. You could get in really serious trouble for that."
Percy raised an eyebrow. "So you're here to threaten me?"
"No, we're here to offer you a way out."
"Is that what this is meant to be?" Percy asked with a scornful laugh, lifting up the Prophet. "This is your idea?"
"It's mine," said George. "I'm not losing another brother just because you're an idiot."
And that silenced Percy for a long moment.
"I had good reason for acting as I did," he said finally.
"Yeah, but it would have been better if you hadn't," said George.
"So what do you want me to do? Resign?"
"There's no need for that," said Ron.
"Yes," said Potter.
Draco looked at him in surprise, as did Ron and George.
"You need to withdraw from the Ministerial race, and you need to step down as Head of MLE. There's too much temptation here, and too many ways to go subtly wrong thinking that you're doing good. It's not a good place for you at the moment."
"So you'd end my career?"
"Take a holiday. There's bound to be something at the Ministry that would suit you better without tempting you down paths you'll one day regret."
Percy's face began to flush red. "Harry, do not presume to tell me what I will and won't regret."
Potter leaned over the desk. "For fuck's sake, Percy, I have been watching you destroy yourself out of grief for over a year now and you need to trust me when I say that you are not in a position to think objectively about this."
"Fuck you, Harry," Percy snarled. Then his eyes slid sideways to Draco. His gaze narrowed. "Is that it?" he asked. "Is that how he twisted you to his cause?"
His voice was as ugly as his suggestion, and it killed all of Draco's hopes, because of course that was what people were going to think, going to believe. And Potter would see that made it all impossible.
"No," Potter said. "That came afterwards."
And Draco thought he might have been more shocked than Percy, because even if it never came true, that idea existed in the world now, and Percy evidently believed it.
"As long as it wasn't at my place," Ron muttered, and George clearly tried not to laugh, but no matter how much he kept his lips closed, there was no mistaking his snorting noise and shoulder shaking.
Percy stared at them. "You're all mad," he said.
"Runs in the family," Ron replied. "So what's it going to be, Percy?"
Draco could see that it wasn't easy. He should probably have stayed back in Potter's office, because every time Percy seemed to reach a decision, his eyes would slide across and see Draco and his frown would return.
After a minute of tense silence, George stepped around to the other side of the desk and put his hand on Percy's shoulder. "Mate, you have to give it up. I understand that you thought you were doing the right thing, and I understand that you don't get why we won't support you, but if we're arguing Malfoy's case, then you have to allow there might be another way of looking at all of this.
"So just let it go. Don't make me get Mum and Dad involved. Let them think you were playing some brilliant long game that's had a good result. You can claim Rowle as your scalp. In fact, if you want, Harry will tell the press it was all your idea."
Potter nodded vigorously.
Percy seemed to deflate. "What about Ginny?" he asked.
"I'll talk to her," George promised. "Really, properly talk. Not just tell her she doesn't know what she's on about. That was my fault. I should have paid more attention to how badly the two of you were feeling. I was too busy trying to get on with my own life."
And Percy suddenly looked years younger as he looked up at his brother and shook his head. "No, don't be silly, I mean, Fred …"
Draco felt Potter tap his arm. He looked round, and Potter pointed towards the door. Draco nodded, and they left quietly, because this was a talk for family, and they weren't.
Percy's assistant had clearly taken the opportunity to grab a cup of tea, as the anteroom was empty.
"That was less awful than it could have been," Potter said.
"You lied," Draco reminded him, with a hopeful smile.
"I predicted," Potter corrected him.
Draco grinned, but did not laugh in case the door wasn't quite as soundproof as Potter's. He pushed his hair back with both hands. "So, do you think that's really it?"
Potter nodded. "We'll need to fiddle a few details, but on the whole, yes. Congratulations, you're a courageous supporter of the Auror department rather than a wanted criminal. Consider yourself released."
"I feel as though, after all this, I should have been allowed to hex someone."
"It hardly seems fair, I agree."
There were two sets of formal robes on the coat hook inside the door. Draco winked at Potter, drew his wand, and shrank each of them by a size.
Potter shook his head. "Do you feel better?"
"I do, actually." He smiled all the way back to Potter's office.
Shacklebolt, Ogden and Goshawk had arrived in their absence, so Potter's office once again resembled a Hogwarts' Common Room. Williamson was distributing coffee, toast and biscuits, much to Armitage's delight, and Savage was reading through the paper, commenting that he didn't think Weasley had it in him to pull off a scheme of such complexity. Potter shooed him outside, and told him to raid the petty cash for more biscuits, cake if it would stretch.
"Ron and George are staying with Percy for a bit," Potter told the rest of them once the door was shut.
"Is he all right?" Granger asked.
"He will be. Oh, bloody hell, who's that knocking?"
Draco was still standing in front of the door, so he opened it.
"Still at liberty, eh Malfoy? I take it that's a good sign."
"Indeed, sir," Draco confirmed, letting Abernathy in. "We were just saying that Percy looks as though he'll be all right once things settle down."
"Good news, good news." Abernathy moved to the table to sit beside Ogden. "So what do we do with him? He can't retire to spend more time with his wife and children, he doesn't have any."
"Retire to find some?" Angelina suggested.
Draco and Potter joined everyone else at the table, while ideas bounced back and forth about Percy's future. Luna's suggestion that he start his own line of wizarding businesswear was actually a very good one.
Abernathy cleared his throat. "I think we'll all agree that this election campaign has been more stressful than anyone was expecting, and it's hardly surprising that it might lead a young man to take a leave of absence in order to revisit his priorities. It would be an obvious demotion for him to return at anything less than Department Head level, so my suggestion is that we bring him in as a replacement for a retiring head."
"What about Sports?" Ogden suggested.
"I like Camberwell!" Potter protested.
"Domestic Magical Cooperation," Abernathy said firmly. "I've been offered a good position in the European Wizengamot, which comes with a huge travel allowance and very little actual work. The staff in DMC are all excellent and far too stroppy to allow Percy to boss them around the way he does MLE, and it's an up and coming department that still has a lot of legislation to be written, which is what he's good at."
"But sir …" Draco began.
"Oh, he can't have you, Malfoy. That would never do. Kelmscott's been bothering me to trade you to him for months, I think that would be for the best."
"Kelmscott? What does he do?"
"We're not allowed to talk about it."
"He's on Level Nine," Potter said.
"You mean become a …"
Abernathy held up a hand to silence him. "There's a reason they call it the Department of Mysteries, Malfoy. We'll talk more later."
"An elegant solution," Goshawk said. "It gives him status without putting him into a dangerous position. Handled well, he could still be an excellent resource for the Ministry."
"I'm glad you agree, Miranda."
"That just leaves the Ministerial race," Shacklebolt said. "I take it Percy is withdrawing?"
"Excellent. So, Minister Potter?"
"Pay rise for Aurors?" Armitage ventured.
Potter closed his eyes and shook his head.
"I'm not sure that would be the best idea," Ogden said.
"Thank you!" Potter agreed. "I don't want to be Minister! I just want to be a useful Auror. And maybe make a few suggestions about taxes, and prisoner rights, and that sort of thing …"
"Which I think you would be rather good at," Ogden agreed. "But if you are landed with being Minister at your age, it won't do you or the Ministry much good. You have a disturbing tendency to revolution, which is not what we need at this point in time."
"Though you're not wholly lacking in sense. I noticed you left most of your Aurors out of this little conspiracy of yours."
"I had to, sir, if we were found out we had to leave behind a decent staffing strength. To arrest us, if nothing else."
Ogden laughed loudly at that. Even Shacklebolt grinned.
"Well, we need someone to take it on," said Goshawk. "And it's not going to be me. I'm very happy on the legal side of the fence."
"What about Robards?" Shacklebolt suggested. "He's principled, organised, knows the law backwards, but isn't too rigid to work with."
"He's popular, too," Abernathy added. "Worked very well with all the other departments when he was Head Auror. Which is to say, before he became 'ill'."
Draco watched with amazement. "We can't just put someone into the role," he protested. "What about all the people who want to vote for Potter? Surely they deserve to have their choice?"
"What about the people who wanted to vote for Percy?" Potter reminded him.
"Though Malfoy's right that the people deserve a vote," Granger said. "If we don't let them have one, it will be going straight back to the bad old days."
"So we need a second candidate," said Goshawk, turning to her right.
"Someone respected and experienced," Shacklebolt agreed, turning to his left.
Between them, Ogden rolled his eyes. "I'm an old man who was hoping for a pleasant retirement."
"You're sixty-eight and you've were telling me just the other week that you've been bored solid of late," Goshawk reminded him.
"So we're just settling this around the table?" Draco asked, more for confirmation than anything else.
"At least it gives people a choice," Potter said. "And I was always running more against Percy than for myself. Maybe we can have another tilt at it in a few years."
"And at least we don't pretend everyone has equal rights and equal power," said Granger. "Which is more than you can say for Muggle politicians."
Ogden shook his head and smiled. "I'll do it, but I'll be voting for Robards. I will make one promise, though. If I lose, I'll come back to work as head of MLE, so Potter can stay on as Head Auror. He's done a remarkable job with the assistance of an excellent staff."
"Mostly thanks to the staff," Potter clarified.
"Robards has always said he'd like to run the whole department one day," Kingsley added. "So whichever way the vote goes, that should work."
Ogden nodded approval. "I worry less about Harry when I look at the people he surrounds himself with. If they couldn't talk him out of a bad decision, I feel certain that several of them would have no compunction hexing him out of it."
Williamson, Armitage and Longbottom agreed that they would be happy to help. Draco suspected Granger was also tempted to put her hand up, but she was too busy giggling into her sleeve at Potter's facial expression. He suspected that her brain might have been a little dented after all, or it could just have been sleep-deprivation.
"We should break it to the press at the same time as Percy's announcement," Luna said. "Make it look as though they've accomplished their goals and so are stepping out of the way for more experienced candidates."
"Someone should go and get Robards before we sign his life away," Shacklebolt suggested.
"I will," Potter offered, glancing at Draco.
"And I should head home and bring Mother up to speed," Draco said, aware that the others were already moving on without them, planning wording and timing, and who would be best suited to which role in the two campaigns.
"Give her my regards," Abernathy called as they left the room.
Savage and Dawlish were sitting with their feet up on the guest benches drinking tea when they emerged.
"All sorted?" Savage asked.
"I will not be Minister," Potter announced.
"Easily the best news of the month!" Dawlish declared.
"Though you may have to keep me as Head Auror."
"As long as it's not me," Savage replied.
"I was half-hoping for Armitage. She's a lot prettier than you."
"Oh, go home," Potter said. "I'm scaling back our overtime budget."
Draco managed not to laugh until they were outside in the corridor, closing the thick doors behind them.
"I console myself with the knowledge that I'll probably outlive them," Potter told him.
He was smiling, and Draco could finally appreciate the fact that Potter had a truly lovely smile. He looked around, and there was no one in sight, so he took a hold of Potter's robes and drew him close for a kiss.
"Armitage isn't prettier than you," he said after a moment.
And Potter's smile broadened. Draco was about to kiss him again when he heard the click of nearby heels.
They were just a fraction too slow stepping away from each other. Just as Rita Skeeter was a fraction too slow to hide her widening eyes and dropping jaw.
She made a valiant effort. "Harry! Dear boy! Just trying to hunt you down to offer my congratulations. Our on-the-street poll this morning has you in an unassailable lead. Anyway, I can see you're busy, must dash. Ciao!"
"Rita …" Potter warned.
"Oh, be fair!" she protested, waving her hands at the two of them. "This is Christmas for me!"
"One word, and I'll suddenly remember that you've been breaking the law wilfully for years."
"He would," Draco said. "And my mother would make sure you were never invited to another salon opening or gala event."
Draco wasn't sure which threat carried more weight with her, but one must have worked, because her shoulders slumped. "Not even a hint in the gossip column? It would stop a lot of young witches pining fruitlessly. Practically a public service."
"Not one word," Potter said.
"Fine. On the condition that you come to me if and when you decide to make this public."
Draco spoke quickly before Potter could say no. "Only if you've kept quiet until then. Otherwise we have excellent friends on the Quibbler."
She held out a brightly nailed hand. "It's a deal."
Draco shook it, and smiled winningly. "I'll be sure to suggest to Mother that she might like to help you with your gift guide this Christmas."
"Lovely doing business with you, Mr Malfoy." And for a moment, she squeezed his hand in a friendlier fashion and looked through her glasses without archness. "And I'm happy to see you walking out of here. Better times, I think. Harry – a pleasure as always. I'll be in touch about an interview concerning the polls."
"I'll see you, Rita," Potter said, and almost smiled.
They listened to her click-clacking down the hall back to the lift, and crept to the corner of the corridor to peer round and watch her get in.
"Do you think she'll keep quiet?" Draco asked.
"It's possible. Not probable, but possible."
"Do you mind?"
"Only that there'll be a sudden flood of loony letters from all the crazies who want to marry me, or marry me off to their daughters. Seriously, you think your post is deranged …"
Draco reached out and pushed the hair back from Harry's cheek. "Maybe you'll get a few offers for sons?"
Potter laughed, and leaned his face into Draco's hand. "What about you? Do you mind?"
"I've stopped caring what people who don't matter to me think. You're the one who's going to bear the brunt of any press kerfuffle. And anyway, I think she'll manage to keep a lid on it. For a few weeks at least."
"A few weeks would be good," Potter agreed. "Get you settled in Mysteries with all of their tricksy hiding spells before you're set upon by hordes of angry mothers. And there will be crazies, Malfoy. You were never the liability for me that I'm going to be for you."
"You'll have to make it worth my while," Draco said. He felt the smile on his face grow wider.
Potter smiled back at him. "That's my plan."
"We could send an owl to Robards," Draco suggested.
"We could. But your mother will kill me if I don't send you home for a bit at least. And besides," he reached out and combed his fingers through Draco's hair, "you're still wearing half a lawn."
Draco let Potter remove the grass from his hair, then smooth down his coat lapels and tuck his scarf back inside them. He realised it was still Potter's scarf, the one he'd never given back.
"So I'll go home, and shower, and reassure Mother, and then meet you at your place, with a toothbrush and a change of clothes?"
"Several changes," Potter corrected him, with a blinding smile. "Or you could just not worry about the clothes at all, now that I think about it. I'm not sure it'll be worth your while to dress."
Draco felt certain his own smile was just as ridiculously happy as Potter's. "Do you plan to let me up to eat?"
"Best grab a sandwich while you're home."
And Draco laughed at that, which made Potter smile at his own success.
"It's going to work, isn't it?" Potter asked, his voice little more than a whisper.
Draco took Potter's hands and held them in his own. "Of course it is. We're brilliant. Between us, we can do practically anything."
Potter ran his thumb across the back of Draco's knuckles. "Can we be nervous, and young and maybe bollox things up from time to time and just basically work things out as we go?"
And Draco nodded, and kissed Potter gently, and smiled, because it that sounded utterly perfect to him.