Thank you again for all the reviews!

Chapter Fifty-Four-Taking the Ministry by Storm

"Ready?"

"I'm more ready than you look," Harry couldn't help pointing out to Ron, who was standing next to him with a face so pale that his freckles looked like spattered dots of dirt instead of anything more intimidating.

Ron promptly gave him a scowl and straightened his shoulders, then turned around and strode in front of him down the corridor that led to the cells where the Ministry had told them the Spiders were being held. Harry snickered and followed him.

"I don't quite understand that," Draco remarked, following behind Harry in turn. "Is making fun of him for being afraid a normal part of your friendship?"

"Sometimes, yes," said Harry, and grinned over his shoulder at Draco, who only shook his head in what looked like polite bafflement. "And he does the same thing to me, when we're facing something that we know perfectly well we have to go ahead and face, but one of us is hesitating. As long as it works, what does it matter?" he added, because Draco's lip was curling, and it looked as though he was fighting hard to hold back exactly what mattered about it.

"It's not the way that I would handle you in this situation," Draco murmured. He was walking nearly as fast as Harry, but staying well back, so that he didn't tread on Harry's flowing robes. Harry needed to be the one that was front and center in this little assault they'd planned, while Ron was there to act as big burly escort and Draco as extra protection against the sort of people in the Ministry who wouldn't fear Ron.

"Of course not," Harry said. "But as you reminded me right before Ron came through the fireplace, your handling techniques are different for a reason."

Draco's face could still turn scarlet, it seemed. Harry was chuckling even as they passed through the door of the first cell, watched by stern-faced Aurors who did nothing to stop them from going through.

The cell inside had the highest level of security Harry had seen in the Ministry in quite a while. Glowing walls of light divided it, screens of a shimmering magical power that Harry could feel the strength of from this distance. Trying to cross them would result in a stinging sensation if all you did was press your hand against them, then in a shock, then in a sensation like poison burning down your throat, and it would increase in severity from there. Harry didn't think the Ministry had used them in recent memory except during some of the Death Eater captures.

"Mr. Potter."

That was a voice Harry didn't recognize, and when he turned around, it was coming from a yellow-haired witch he didn't recognize, either. He thought she was probably the one who had written to him this morning, the signature he didn't know at the end of the letter. He nodded to her as she stepped forwards, but made no attempt to shake the hand she was holding out to him.

"Mr. Potter?" she repeated, as though there could be a doubt when he had his eyes and his scar to distinguish him.

"Auror Alexandra Upatia?" he asked, and inclined his head as though wondering how he knew her name. "Well. I am here, as requested, to assist in the interrogation of the Spiders. I see no reason for an Auror to greet me as any more than another member of the public," he added, when Upatia made another move towards him.

Upatia's face promptly flushed, and she did a stiff little nod of her own. This was the part of the plan Ron had wondered the most about, but Draco had approved it. He said that the Ministry couldn't keep treating Harry like an Auror some of the time and an ordinary civilian the rest. Harry should pick the status he wanted, and force them to stick to it.

"I see no reason for you to be so quick to condemn someone, Mr. Potter," said Upatia, folding her arms. "Someone who's only trying to help."

"The Spiders aren't trying to help me," Harry said, keeping his face still with a huge effort. Draco had told him that he showed his emotions too openly, and that it would only injure his attempt to remain free of the Ministry. He turned to study the curtains of light. He couldn't actually see any Spiders, but then, one curtain behind the other would block out all sight of what was behind either.

"I meant," Upatia said, harshly enough to make Harry flinch if he wasn't prepared for this, "the Ministry. Me. The other Aurors."

"I came in as a favor to the Aurors," said Harry. "I don't think that makes the help flowing towards me. Where are the people you wanted me to confront?"

Upatia opened her mouth, perhaps to object to his phrasing, and then nodded stiffly. "Fine, if you want to talk about it like that," she said, and marched to the far side of the room, where she flicked a string that ran along the wall a fair distance above her head. Harry heard the distant horn call that sounded in the depths of the Ministry. That meant a strong detachment of Aurors should come to the cell. "But we are trying to give you a chance to see why the Spiders are so interested in you."

"Your letter told me that already," Harry said blandly. "Unless you're trying to argue that there's some other reason they might be?"

Upatia didn't reply, but kept her back turned. Harry went back to examining the screens of light again, but he did catch Ron's eye on the way. They winked at each other.

Draco put a hefty hand on his shoulder and shook it a little, reminding him of the next part of the plan. Harry cleared his throat theatrically. Upatia turned towards him, although she also kept one shoulder stiff as though to remind him that she wasn't going to be too friendly to him.

Harry hardly cared about that, of course. "Listen, Auror Upatia. What was the real reason that you wanted me here?"

She faced him fully, blinking as though someone had slapped her across the face. "What? It's the reason that I told you in the letter, of course. The Spiders keep insisting that they used the weapons against you because you wouldn't die like normal people. We want to see if they change their tune when they see you."

Harry sighed. "Do you really think I believe that? You have confessions. If you doubt them, you could get even more out of them with Veritaserum. It sounds like there are some people who might even be willing to take it," he added, with mild enough sarcasm that it took Upatia a moment to get the reference back to the secrets he had revealed to the press, and then she colored fast enough to drown out all other expressions. "Usually, you don't invite witnesses back here unless you think that they can make an impact on criminals who are reluctant to confess. Here, you know what my impact is, what they're saying. Why am I here?"

Upatia gave a distracted little touch to her hair with the back of one hand, then dropped it when she saw the way Harry was staring at her. "Listen, Mr. Potter," she said. "I'm not the one who can tell you that. My colleagues-"

"But you were the one who wrote the letter," Harry said. "Why you? Unless they thought I was more likely to trust someone who I didn't know and didn't have any reason to think was involved in the plots against me, of course."

Upatia's high color had started to fade. Now it came back, and she shook her head furiously, making a few strands of hair bounce off her shoulders. "You have no right to say things like that to me," she hissed.

"Really." Harry folded his arms and leaned against the wall. He could feel Draco's presence, gentle and commanding, but reassuring so far. He thought Harry was doing the right thing, or doing all right enough that he didn't have to interfere. "So far I've had Spiders attack me in the street, in a pub, and in a situation where they shouldn't have been able to lure me to. I never did get answers about how they managed to make my wrist-bell tell me the wrong information. Then I had to face them in the Department of Mysteries by myself. The press was shocked to hear that," he added, smugly, because Upatia looked as if she wanted to hit him, and would probably take very little additional prodding. "I want to know why I'm here, when the last time I saw the Spiders, I'd captured them at great trouble and expense, to myself."

"You're the only one who can tell us how they keep finding you again and again."

It was Robards who had come through the door. Harry bit his lip to avoid sneering as he turned and studied him. Cold and distant, Draco had said, was the route to use, and Harry didn't want to disappoint Draco or give up the advantage he had gained so far. "What does that mean? Do you think I've taken part in sabotaging my own wrist-bell and giving them information against my fellow Aurors?"

Robards seemed to have decided to use the same tactic against Harry. He sneered and turned his back, looking at Auror Upatia. "You haven't brought any of the Spiders out yet?"

"I was summoning you, as you asked," said Auror Upatia, and then looked as though she wished she could sink through the floor.

Robards eyed her hard enough to make the flush burn up her cheeks, and then nodded distantly and turned back to Harry. "You are here to answer our questions, and not the other way around," he said.

"No," said Harry. He thought that he'd achieved just the right tone, because Robards froze and stared at him. "I'm a private citizen accepting a polite invitation to help the Ministry with its inquiries, not one of your Aurors you can order around. And I'm someone who tried to do the right thing last time, and got thrown into the middle of Spiders for my troubles, after being promised Auror backup."

"You charged down the stairs before anyone could reach you—"

"No one was allowed to be there even before that," said Harry, and shook his head. "I was there, Robards. And so was Draco." He nudged his shoulder into Draco's, giving Draco a taste of his support in case he needed it. "We could probably question a whole lot of other witnesses who would agree with the same thing, too. Why do you keep lying like this? What's the bloody point of it? You know as well as we do that there's nothing that's going to stop me from walking out the door right now."

"You can't believe that, or you wouldn't have come here." Robards was apparently attempting to subdue his anger by channeling it all into the nails that pressed into his palms.

"I might believe it, and go lots of places," said Harry, rolling his eyes when he saw the way Robards glared at him. "I came because I want the saga of the Spiders ended once and for all. I could do without the saga of your stupid attempts to get me back under control. Are you going to show me the Spiders or not?"

"You can't speak to the Head Auror that way." Apparently, Upatia felt that she should inject some nonsense in case everyone else forgot about her. The other Aurors who had come with Robards knew better, and were carefully not saying anything.

"Yes, I can," said Harry. "Any private citizen who was put through what I was put through after I resigned can. Now, show me the Spiders, and we'll try to solve this mystery that you say needs my help. Or I can walk out the door and go tell the press in even more detail about the ways that you've tried to bully and control me over the years, Robards. It seems a simple choice, but I wonder if your own arrogance will permit you to make it?"

He saw Ron wince off to the side, and just barely managed to refrain from shrugging at him. Ron had always got on better with Robards than Harry had. In fact, Harry thought he could have adopted the same nodding and smiling in front of Robards, and then going off and doing on his own what had to be done that Ron had, except with Robards, there was always his bloody fame getting in between them.

Robards teetered on the edge of forcing Harry to enact his threat for a moment. Harry recognized the signs that had often exploded in another bout of manipulation. He held Robards's eyes this time, though, and didn't flinch. He didn't have the handles of guilt that Robards had turned so often. And he would rather force Robards to the choice: either the Head Auror could break relations between them off completely now, and Harry would get the chance to do what he'd threatened, or he could hold back a little, and break off the relationship when Harry walked out of here. And then Harry would never have to see Robards again, and he would be spared the burden of publicity.

"Fine," Robards snapped, and he was shaking as he turned to take down one of the screens of light. Harry smiled a little, and didn't care who saw it. He had finally made Robards decide that the bother of dealing with the Chosen One outweighed the use he could make of him.

It had been what Draco had said was most likely to happen, but then, Draco didn't know every detail of how the Ministry had tried to use him down the years. Harry had refrained from telling him. They would be at home for a lot longer if he did, and Draco would have come here a lot angrier—maybe too angry to remain silent.

Draco shot him a look now that said he wanted to know the meaning behind Robards's rage, and would probably be demanding that explanation sooner rather than later. Harry inclined his head.

Behind the first screen of light stood a Spider who looked like one of the ones Harry had captured last night. When he blinked and raised his hand in front of his eyes, he turned his head, and Harry could see the bloody lump. Yes, this was one of the two his net had tried to drag into the cobblestones.

"What?" the Spider whined. "I already answered all your bloody questions, what do you want now?"

"I want to know if what you said is true, and you were testing your inventions against Mr. Potter because you thought he could not die," Robards said, and glared at Harry. Harry stared back, not reacting. He had given up the Auror title of his own free will. There was no way that Robards could hurt him with its lack.

"Yeah, like I told you," said the Spider, nodding. "We thought he could be useful if he would mention our inventions to you. We thought he'd approach you and speak for us if we promised him some of the Galleons. But then someone said he was too fucking moral to be of any use like that." He glared at Harry as though that was his own fault. Harry just looked blandly back. "So we thought we would at least see if he could die like a normal person. And then he kept capturing us, and resisting our weapons, and killing our spiders." He said the last as if it was the most heinous crime of all. Harry supposed it was, to people who named themselves after arachnids and kept putting marks of them on their bodies. "We wanted revenge. Revenge that we didn't even get."

Robards was turning purple again. Harry wondered if he had wanted to draw it out more, and keep torturing the Spider for information. But it made too much sense that revenge had been their main reason for attacking Harry after the first few times.

"That seems straightforward," said Harry. "And unless you wanted me to ask them questions, I think that I should leave."

"Certainly we don't want you to ask questions," Robards said, turning back to him and raising the screen of light again with a single flick of his wand. "There's no way that a member of the public can ask any questions they want of an imprisoned wizard."

Harry nodded. "I know the law," he said, and held Robards's gaze for a long moment, willing him to remember how Harry had gone to the press with some of the laws he knew, and the reasons for the Ministry breaking them. "All right. Thank you for your cooperation. Come on, Draco." He took Draco's hand openly as he crossed the cell. He could feel Ron following behind them, but smoothly and unobtrusively, letting himself blend in with the other Aurors. He would probably leave and Floo home once he was outside the cell. Harry thought it best.

"Mr. Potter."

Harry glanced back once. "Yes?" He wouldn't lose anything by letting Robards have a final say. Robards didn't have the power to hurt him, not anymore.

Robards was standing stiff and straight, staring at him. Harry just looked back, unimpressed. He couldn't imagine what Robards thought he would get out of this.

"You had better never think you were indispensable," Robards whispered. "You weren't. You were just useful."

Harry wanted to laugh. If Robards had meant that to be a body-blow, he would have done better addressing it to an earlier Harry, someone who had wanted to be of use and who had run so far away from his marriage that he would fill in for someone even when he was wounded and magically exhausted. That Harry didn't exist anymore.

And the reason was the man standing beside him, whose hand Harry gasped more firmly than ever now.

"Thank you for letting me know," Harry said sweetly, and then turned and walked out of the room, with his future and the only part of the Auror past he wanted to remember—his best friend, his partner—beside him.