In the end, Draco returned to England for a girl.
The irony was lost on neither of them.
Eyes were following the man he pursued: a tall and vigorous figure with gleaming dark skin and dressed almost to the point of foppishness, but with a striding gait that rendered the intricate tailoring of his coat military rather than dandy. He moved through the morning crowd like a raptor through the skies.
The man in the grey coat caught at his sleeve. ‘Blaise …’
Blaise Zabini turned, prepared to shake off an admirer or confound a creditor. He met with neither, and instead found himself smiling with rare joy. ‘Draco!’ he exclaimed.
Draco Malfoy’s whole face brightened with his responding smile. ‘I knew it had to be you the moment I spotted you,’ he said, enveloping his friend in a firm hug.
Blaise returned the gesture, but broke away after a count of two. ‘Brief, manly hugs only, these days,’ he said in a quiet voice. ‘A lot has changed while you’ve been away. Walk with me?’
Draco fell into step beside his old school friend. It was true. The city itself had visibly changed. Parts of it had surged upwards, while others bored vast tunnels underground. He had seen men driving sputtering automobiles twice that morning, frightening horses and ladies with the abominable blare of their horns. The graceful shoulders and sweeping skirts of women’s gowns had long disappeared, replaced by narrow, rigid columns of dress, their fronts like the prows of ships as they hurried towards the new century.
Muggle Britain seemed every bit as unfriendly and in flux as Wizarding Britain had been when he left it. He wondered if a revolutionary war was about to descend here, too.
‘What brings you back?’ Blaise asked. ‘And why no letter announcing your return? I had planned to visit you in Geneva next month.’
Draco shook his head. ‘I apologise. It’s inexcusable rudeness on my part. Until yesterday I had no idea we would be travelling, and then Mother appeared with a Portkey and informed me of her plans. I barely had time to pack. I’ve spent the last twenty hours being dragged halfway across the continent and subjected to endless cups of tea as she outlined her vision for my future – which is how I’ve ended up here.’ He gestured with his hand to indicate that ‘here’ took in the entire excrescence that was Muggle London.
Blaise patted his shoulder in fleeting sympathy. ‘And her plan?’ he asked.
‘Marriage,’ Draco intoned dolefully.
‘Oh, hard luck,’ Blaise sympathised. ‘Rich? Pretty?’
Draco sighed. ‘Good,’ he answered.
The sad truth was that the Malfoys would never need to marry for money, and Draco’s bloodlines ran strong for looks on both sides, but, once again, the family’s reputation was in need of polishing, and there were families whose blameless good works could be relied on to lift the sorriest of tarnishes.
Blaise grinned in sympathy. ‘Who’s the lucky girl?’
This elicited a respectful nod. ‘A pleasant young woman. But I thought she lived near your family home?’
Blaise raised an eloquent brow and followed it with a sweep of his eyes to indicate that, bucolic though the park may be, it was hardly rural Wiltshire. ‘So what are you doing here?’
Draco sighed again. ‘Bailing her from police custody.’
The police sergeant across the table from her was still a relatively young man, though frowns were prematurely ageing him as she watched, and he clearly thought she was in the process of ruining her marriage prospects by following Mrs Millicent Fawcett’s magnificent example.
‘We can’t have young ladies interrupting members of parliament as they go about their business,’ he explained gently.
She smiled winningly at him. ‘But, Sergeant Craddock, I wasn’t interrupting Mr Asquith, I was attempting to exercise my franchise as any good Briton might.’
‘You were haranguing him as to when women would be allowed to possess said franchise,’ the sergeant reminded her.
‘Yes, Sergeant, because half the adult population of the nation finds itself in a situation where it is liable to taxation without representation and I believe you will find that revolutions have been fought over less. I was merely enquiring in a ladylike fashion when this gross injustice would cease.’
The sergeant’s frowns deepened. ‘You were, Miss Greengrass. Just as you have every day for the last fortnight. And, since he first threatened to have you arrested last week and has overlooked several such incidents past that time, I feel we must in all fairness agree that the Honourable member has been more than patient and much less than hasty in calling in the authorities.’
Astoria held her smile. ‘And yet, still no satisfactory answer.’
Sergeant Craddock gave in and rolled his eyes. ‘Never, Miss Greengrass. The answer is never. Women will never have the vote and thus the British Empire will never fall into swift decay. Now go home and embroider something nice. Or take up nursing. If you’re determined to make a spectacle of yourself, you may as well be useful at the same time.’
‘Women have the vote in New Zealand,’ she reminded him, having already run through her lecture on suffrage twice since her arrest that morning. ‘And in South Australia.’
‘And those heathen colonies can make whatever mad decisions they choose, I am sure we will hear of them descending into chaos soon enough.’
‘We’ve been voting on the Isle of Man and Pitcairn Island for decades without disaster, you know.’
‘That’s as may be, but for my part, I would rather the Empire not fold and the streets not be filled with riot simply to satisfy irrational Suffragists. Now gather your things.’
Astoria had opened her mouth to debate the ‘irrational’, but focussed on the more vital part of Craddock’s speech. ‘You’re letting me go?’
Craddock nodded. ‘There’s a man at the front desk who’s come to collect you.’
‘Ah.’ Astoria put on her jacket and smoothed her skirts. Her reticule and hat, with its attendant long pins, had been surrendered at the desk on her arrival, so there was little she could do to manage a delay in leaving the comfortable interview room where she had been held. Though she stepped lively through the door as Craddock held it open, she was in no rush to meet her rescuer, as she had a very good idea who he would be. Her mother had broken the news over luncheon the previous day, informing her the families would meet this morning to finalise arrangements, thus ensuring that Mr H.H Asquith, MP, began his working day on the receiving end of an act of polite political protest.
The public foyer was filled with sunlight that dazzled her eyes as they walked through the dark corridor towards it. She would have held back to smooth her hair and buy precious seconds of freedom, but, alas, brave heart could not quail before Sergeant Craddock.
He ushered her through the doorway. ‘Here she is, Major,’ he announced.
Astoria looked up sharply, blinking the room into focus. ‘Major?’ Her eyes widened. ‘Harry Potter?’
It was indeed the youngest Head Auror in history, dressed in Muggle clothing of a crisp cut that made his assumption of the Military title eminently plausible. Particularly, Astoria reflected, when his own would translate more closely to General. And, to her great relief, he was smiling at her.
‘Miss Greengrass,’ he made a small bow, ‘your father asked me to stop by and assist you with your small difficulty.’
Even Sergeant Craddock was smiling, presumably happy to see his personable if wholly misguided charge becoming someone else’s problem. ‘Very glad to see you, sir. I’ve had a little chat with the young lady and she assures me she’s seen the error of her ways,’ he lied smoothly. ‘Clever young ladies often find themselves with an excess of spirit, but then turn out to be marvellously capable at running the family home.’
Dear Craddock, clearly trying to smooth her way with the man who could be anything from a cousin to a fiancé. Astoria shot him a look that was part appreciation and part an intention to convey that the only error in her ways had been in not shouting her questions more loudly.
Potter nodded seriously. ‘Thank you so much for taking care of her. I’ve already paid the fine, so we can be on our way.’
‘A fine?’ It was the first Astoria had heard of it.
‘Only ten shillings,’ Harry assured her.
The desk sergeant was handing over her hat and reticule at that precise moment. ‘I’ll refund it to you as soon as we are on our way,’ she promised, securing her hat with its jewelled pins and resisting the urge to plunge one of them into the leering desk sergeant.
‘Please don’t let me see you here again,’ Sergeant Craddock said as she completed her arrangement.
‘And I thought we had made such a firm start on our friendship,’ Astoria sighed.
‘Yes, Miss,’ he replied. ‘But I would be happier to see us start again in a more proper situation with a formal introduction.'
Astoria’s smile was genuine this time. ‘You’re a gem, Sergeant Craddock. And a gentleman. Thank you for the courtesy and the tea.’
‘Miss Greengrass.’ He farewelled her with a bow.
Harry Potter gave her his arm and led her out of the station. Astoria felt a small thrill. Even though she knew it was not rational, she let herself be caught up in the moment. He was the Hero of Hogwarts and she had grown up on stories of this, the most famous wizard of their age.
She had been too young to fight in the great battle beside him, thwarting the Imperial ambitions of Voldemort, but her older sister Daphne had regularly recounted the events of the night for her younger siblings, lingering over the scenes where a ragged but resolute young man had offered the villain pity, then implacably cast the spell that would bring about his end.
Regardless of his purpose in being here, it was exciting to be at the centre of his attention and have those bright green eyes focussed on her. And he was terribly handsome, even if his clean-shaven face failed the fashions of the day (Craddock’s whiskers were positively walrussian).
‘Am I in Auror custody now?’ she whispered as they left the busy police station.
‘Of course not,’ he whispered back as they emerged onto busier Whitehall. ‘I owed your father a favour and he asked me to spring you loose.’
Her father! Astoria gave a quiet prayer of thanks for the old dear. He had frequently supported Auror Potter in his advances around the Ministry and clearly cashed in a small debt of gratitude to her advantage. The knowledge that he was also thwarting his wife would have made the bargain even better.
‘I’m so pleased it was you,’ she said, squeezing Potter’s arm. Although they had crossed paths semi-regularly, she did not know him well, but he did not seem to mind her easy manner. ‘I was in such a state thinking that my mother would send … Oh –’
‘Draco Malfoy,’ said Potter, for such was the man who stood in front of them, looking confusedly one to the other.
They all remembered their manners at the same moment, the gentlemen performing the slightest of bows and Astoria inclining her head with perfunctory courtesy.
‘Miss Greengrass,’ Malfoy said. ‘Your mother sent me to secure your release, but I see that all is in hand. Auror Potter,’ he repeated his small bow, ‘I am in your debt.’
‘Oh,’ Astoria remembered. ‘Actually, no, I am.’ She reached into her reticule and fished out her purse. ‘Please don’t argue, I pay my own way. Though I might suggest you use it to buy us all tea as we’re starting to cause quite the blockage on the pavement.’
It was true: people were parting around them as though they were a new islet in the tide, and more than a few cross words were muttered in passing.
‘There’s a place around the corner,’ Potter began.
‘I hardly think …’ Malfoy spoke over him.
Astoria clung to Harry’s arm. ‘You don’t own me yet, Mr Malfoy,’ she said with crisp brightness. ‘I’m sorry,’ she looked up at Harry. ‘I’m afraid Mr Malfoy has come to pick up his property. It turns out my mother has sold my virtue to his family for rather a lot of money.’
Potter’s eyes widened and went straight to Malfoy’s face, which blanched.
‘Are you in danger?’ Potter’s eyes were back on hers.
Astoria felt a wave of desire to tell him that she was, and then to let herself be rescued – after all, rescuing was what Harry Potter did. But she had her pride.
‘Not imminently,’ she assured him. ‘But I promise to call for you the moment things deteriorate.’
Potter gave Malfoy a long look that was evaluative and not a little suspicious. He turned back to her. ‘Would you like me to escort you home? Or to the Ministry? Your father is there.’
Astoria quickly calculated the length of time she could hide in her Father’s office. It was distressingly short.
‘No,’ she said, reluctantly letting go of his arm. ‘I should return to Mother. She’s gone to such trouble to organise a fiancé for me.’
For a moment she thought Potter was going to laugh, and then his brow creased. ‘Astoria …’ he began.
‘I should go,’ she said, slipping her hand around Malfoy’s upper arm.
Potter’s frown deepened. ‘Come and see me tomorrow,’ he said. ‘Tell me what you’ve been up to with these protests. I will expect you between ten and eleven.’
‘I will,’ she promised. She looked up at the man beside her. ‘Come along, my precious one. Let’s go and face the music.’
Malfoy’s jaw tightened, but he bowed farewell to Potter and began to escort her down the street. He did not once look at her. But she noticed that he glanced back at Potter as often as he could until the crowd swallowed his shape.
‘You wouldn’t believe how pleased I am to see you,’ he said, kissing her cheek in fraternal welcome.
‘Of course I would,’ she said, stepping away from his incoming correspondence tray, which she had been shamelessly snooping through in the absence of his secretary. ‘Without me, neither you nor my husband would manage for a week.’
‘It’s a truth, Mrs Weasley.’ Harry said, holding his door open for her.
She strode past him, walking freely in the loose-cut trousers that were popular with Ministry witches who were involved in fieldwork. Brooms, Floos and Apparition all played merry hell with layered skirts and big hats, she had assured him, while a good woollen trouser leg could be stuffed into a sock if there were any aerial exploits to undertake, and a wide leg still concealed the shape of one’s calves and ankles if one came across Muggles ready to be scandalised.
‘I’ve got a new case for you,’ she told him, dropping into his guest chair. ‘Illegal trafficking of Magical creatures. They’re coming in and out through Hull, using Muggle shipping. I’ve tracked and compiled a disturbing large set of false manifests, and Ron’s new cameras have captured two centaurs being delivered in chains to the wharf. I’d like you to send a team in tonight to rescue them and round up as many of the smugglers as we can.’
Harry was busily taking notes. ‘Aurors and Hit Wizards. I’ll see to it. Do you want to be there to give the order?’
Hermione’s eyes brightened. ‘Yes, please.’
‘Brilliant. With the goblin nappers you rounded up last week, I really think we might be close to putting an end to this.’
‘What about the incomings?’ Harry asked. ‘Are they all unwilling? Or are they just falling prey to traffickers now the Muggle borders are better policed?’
‘Both,’ Hermione sighed. ‘We’re going to have to set up something official so they don’t need to try the ferries. Ever since the Channel Thestral Service was discontinued, it’s been a shambles.’
Harry smiled. Hermione ran the whole of Magical Law Enforcement, but treated Harry and her other division heads as though they were all part of the one collegiate process. While such treatment had been traditional for the Head Auror, due to the care with which any wise department head treated the person in charge of a large armed force, it had been a clever move with the other division chiefs, who had responded with such improvement in policy that the Minister now left the whole department to its own devices, declaring that he wasn’t going to touch it in case he broke it. It meant that she could afford to spare him a few minutes of her day.
‘Do you know Astoria Greengrass?’ he asked.
‘Daphne’s little sister?’
Pale, proud Daphne Greengrass had not endeared herself to either of them at school. But during the War, she had acquitted herself well, coming to fight in defence of their school when she had every reason not to. They had never grown very close, but a cheerful acquaintanceship had grown among them. Both the Weasleys and Harry had been invited to her wedding and she to the Weasleys’.
In recent years, she had busied herself in the country with a large estate and children, but semi-regular letters were still exchanged, mostly between her and Hermione, though Harry heard all of the chattier portions and the occasional message addressed to him.
‘Daphne’s written about her several times,’ Hermione said. ‘She’s been working up in Edinburgh for the past few years with witches and wizards from Muggle families, helping the parents manage immature magic and the children prepare for Hogwarts. The last I heard she was expected home on a holiday. Why do you ask?’
‘I had to free her from police custody this morning,’ Harry told her, trying not to grin and make light of it, despite the silliness of the charges.
‘Oh dear. Was she protesting? Or abusing landlords?’
‘Protesting, but do tell me about this landlord business.’
Hermione leaned back and stretched her legs. ‘Nothing more than a rumour, I’m sure. I’ve been known to curse the odd front gate or door to make it impervious to bailiffs, you know. We live in a brutal time.’
‘Yes,’ Harry agreed. ‘The top magical law officer in the country turns out to be an anarchist.’
‘Oh hush, my hypocritical friend, I know what you did to Jack the Ripper.’
Harry snorted. ‘I neither broke Muggle law nor breached the Statutes of Secrecy,’ he defended himself.
‘Did Astoria?’ Hermione asked, shifting the conversation back on track.
Harry shook his head. ‘No, the policeman I spoke to said that she had been a wholly pleasant prisoner, though a repeat public nuisance.’
‘I know,’ said Harry. ‘I like her, too.’
‘So you were there in an official capacity?’
‘No. Her father asked me to get her out. But as we were leaving, we ran into Draco Malfoy, who had been sent by her mother to collect her.’
‘I though he was in Geneva.’
‘Not as of this morning,’ Harry said. ‘I wanted to talk to you about it, because Miss Greengrass told me that her mother had sold her virtue to the Malfoy family for rather a lot of money.’
Hermione frowned. ‘I assume she was being metaphorical, but probably not entirely. Mrs Greengrass is one of the most materialistic witches I have ever met, and it is a source of constant irritation to her that, as part of the Sacred Twenty Eight, both her own and her husband’s families have always been poorer than at least twenty three of the others. Twenty four now that Ron, George and Charlie are doing so well.’
‘So you think the Greengrasses and Malfoys have arranged a marriage?’
Hermione thought on it. ‘Probably,’ she decided. ‘I know that Mrs Greengrass has been saying that Astoria should marry a wealthy wizard for years. She’s trading on the girl’s beauty, but ignoring her sizeable brain. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Narcissa Malfoy has lost patience with her son’s “confirmed bachelorhood”, but I’ll be very surprised if Astoria and Draco are willing participants in the whole thing. How did he appear to you?’
Harry shrugged. ‘Pointy. Sulky. Normal.’
‘So it’s possible that neither of them is particularly thrilled about the situation. I see. And what did you hope I could do about it?’
Harry grinned. He had always been transparent to her. ‘Bully someone. Find a law that says parents can’t have any say. Send Astoria off to New Zealand on a research scholarship.’
She grinned back. ‘There’s already a law that says they can’t be forced, but never underestimate the force of family persuasion with that set. They could be persuaded into a lifetime of compromise if their people tried hard enough.’
‘Yes, I know,’ Hermione interrupted. ‘And she’s too brilliant to be thrown away like that.’
‘So we act like the interfering busybodies we are.’
Harry’s grin broadened. ‘I have an appointment for a chat with Miss Greengrass about her political escapades tomorrow morning. Can I make you part of the meeting?’
‘Of course. Do you want me to look for a project to distract her?’
‘Does she need another? I hear she’s very busy waging war on bad landlords.’
Hermione began to laugh, then shifted to looking thoughtful. ‘It’s just occurred to me, we should find a project to distract him.’
Harry raised a doubtful eyebrow.
She waved his doubt away. ‘No, think on it from their perspective. Malfoy’s our age, and while I know he’s been doing some really rather clever things with herbs, potions and research in Switzerland, he’s never held an official post in any institution and never had a serious romantic entanglement past Pansy Parkinson pining for him at school. Lots of casual flings with young European wizards, but nothing serious.’
Harry was startled by Hermione’s level of detail. ‘I wouldn’t know; it’s not as though I keep track of such things.’
‘I do,’ Hermione assured him. ‘I keep track of everything, and he hasn’t. Meanwhile, Astoria’s still young for a witch, but she’s older than her sister was when she was married, older even than I was, and she seems wholly committed to political causes, most of them what her people would consider distressingly Muggle. To their mothers, it doubtless appears that they are both frittering away their prime years.
‘But if she was an integral part of a vital Ministry-Muggle revolution, or he was a leading figure in Magical Sciences, or both, then perhaps, not only would they feel more able to resist their family pressures, their families might think twice about trading off such prestigious social status in the public sphere for a more mundane status in the private?’
Harry looked at her with admiration and amazement. ‘You’re consistently brilliant,’ he said.
‘I know,’ she replied with a smile. ‘What do you think? Worth a try?’
‘Worth a try,’ he agreed.
Hers had been full of apologies for her daughter’s waywardness, tardiness, stubbornness and general nessness.
Mrs Malfoy was, in contrast, a figure of reason and gentility. ‘Nonsense, Amarantha,’ she said, patting her arm. ‘We all had our little adventures when we were young, and Astoria’s are far more productive than some. It’s good for them to meet each other with eyes wide open. I’m sure that Draco appreciates a young woman of conviction as much as Astoria values a young man who can be relied upon.’
Astoria almost liked Draco at that moment, when he turned so that his body shielded her from either of the older women and initiated an exchange of eyerolls disguised as polite nods.
Fortunately, neither of them was expected to speak beyond the most banal pleasantries, so she instead spent her time observing.
Mrs Malfoy’s reputation as a cool beauty was clearly deserved. She was dressed in a proudly Wizarding style, all velvets and brocades, and yet her attire would have inspired delight in the most avant garde of Muggle designers with her sweeping robe of a design that had changed little since the Renaissance, draping her in fluid, geometric lines of startling simplicity. Beneath it she wore a comfortable gown that sat somewhere between the 14th century and Regency, and which would have made the heart beat faster in any Rational Dress exponent who caught a glimpse of her, with its natural lines and freedom of movement.
In contrast, Astoria felt overstuffed and absurd in her Mugglish wools and linens. The bones of her corset were making themselves known and the piles of hair and pins balanced on her head were bringing on an ache.
And Mrs Malfoy was kind. Or, at least, she was being kind to her today. When Astoria’s mother grew too strident in her criticisms, Mrs Malfoy delicately treated the comments as humour, not drawing attention to their gaucheness by deliberately ignoring them, but not for a moment pretending that Mrs Greengrass could possibly be serious. It worked. Astoria’s mother became gentler as their morning tea went on.
If they had been proposing she marry Narcissa Malfoy for the sake of the family fortunes, Astoria, despite never previously having been particularly attracted to women, would have seriously considered it.
Draco Malfoy, alas, had little of his mother’s charm. He didn’t seem to be a bad person, despite his reputation; indeed she had moments where she sensed a genuine fellow feeling between the two of them. Granted it was a feeling that they should both Apparate as far from there as possible, but still. She took every opportunity to observe him while their mothers chatted. The basic lines of his face and body were good, but his stance was cautious and his expression self-doubting. He had tried to grow a beard, after the fashion of the day, which was for once uniform in both Wizarding and Muggle worlds. His attempt had not been wholly successful and it was a thin and pale specimen that served only to emphasise the angularity of his cheeks.
His clothes were well made, but he had not thought about them. The frock coat he wore was in vogue among young European wizards, she knew, but he had worn it to a Muggle police station, where – at best – it denoted a country cousin not yet attuned to the vogue for lounge suits and morning coats, or else a deliberately anachronistic choice, such as might be worn by a older doctor, not someone with smooth brows and all his hair. Though she could see him as a mediwizard, she thought. It would give him a practical focus he sorely needed, since his research seemed to flit from herbology to potions, to zoology to spellcraft. Not that his dilettantism was her problem. She would not be the one to guide his future steps. She realised she was being spoken to just in time to catch the second half of the sentence.
‘…to discuss your plans and perhaps consider some activities to get to know each other? Perhaps you might ask Draco about his botanical studies? I hear he has been doing some remarkable work in Switzerland.’
Mrs Malfoy was smiling at her in a friendly fashion, and Astoria quickly followed suit to cover up her distraction.
‘I’m very fond of plants,’ she said. ‘That sounds fascinating.’
‘Marvellous.’ Mrs Malfoy stood up. ‘Come, Amarantha, let us leave these young people to become better acquainted.’ She bustled Astoria’s mother from the room and such was her force of personality that Mrs Greengrass allowed herself to be directed, despite being in her own home.
Left alone with Mr Malfoy, Astoria took refuge in good manners. ‘Tea? Another scone? Nightshade and wolfsbane?’ she added in the light of his inattention.
‘Thank you, that would be lovely,’ Malfoy muttered. Then, his brain catching up with his ears: ‘Wait, what?’
‘I was offering to poison you,’ Astoria said cheerily. ‘To save you the trouble of making the effort.’
‘Very droll, Miss Greengrass,’ Malfoy muttered, helping himself to a scone, which he proceeded to break into small pieces.
‘So how do we get out of this?’ Astoria asked.
‘Ha!’ Malfoy replied, uselessly.
She resisted the urge to kick him. ‘I’m being serious. We need to put a stop to it soon, otherwise it will go beyond our mothers and the whole families will become involved and we’ll end up with a national incident when we refuse to go through with it.’
He ignored her. ‘How long have you been friends with Potter?’ he asked instead.
‘Harry?’ Astoria began to say that they were more in the pleasant acquaintance category, but a racing thought stopped her. There was an edge of jealously in Malfoy’s voice. She had seen some of the strange tension between him and Potter at school, and Daphne had dropped any number of hints about the enmity between them in those years – perhaps there was something there she could use to her advantage.
‘He’s a very dear man,’ she said, airily. ‘I feel as though I’ve known him all my life, which I suppose is true on one level. I can’t tell you how upset he’ll be by all this. Obviously I’ve tried to shield him …’
‘It looked as though the first he heard of any of this was this morning,’ said Malfoy, with a distressingly accurate memory for detail.
‘I’m very good at shielding,’ Astoria said.
‘So I’m to take it that the two of you have some sort of understanding?’ Malfoy asked, stiffly.
‘What, with Harry?’ Astoria blurted, undoing her own good work in her surprise.
Malfoy nodded. ‘No, I suppose that he and Miss Weasley …’
Astoria blinked. ‘You have been away a long time.’ She tried another tack. ‘You were going to tell me about Swiss plants.’
Malfoy sighed. ‘Do you have any genuine desire to hear about them?’
‘I’m not uninterested,’ Astoria replied, trying to encourage him.
‘Can we not just pretend I lectured you on the properties of alpine woodruff and sit in blessed silence?’ he asked.
Astoria gave up. In compromise between her conscience and her desires, she kicked his chair. ‘How are we meant to get out of this when you have all the manly vigour of an infants’ choir?’ she hissed.
‘My affectionate fiancée,’ he muttered, ironically.
‘I have just as little desire to marry you as you do me,’ she pointed out. ‘So stop sitting there being sarcastic and start trying to be useful.’
Malfoy dropped his head into his hands. ‘What’s the point?’ he muttered. ‘Your mother is in love with the idea of my Gringotts vaults and my mother is seduced by your family’s virtue.’
‘So much so that she’d sacrifice mine?’ Astoria demanded.
Malfoy didn’t even look up. ‘Don’t be dramatic,’ he said.
Astoria gaped at him for a full ten seconds before she managed to speak. ‘And I’m suppose to deliver myself into a state that, under Muggle law, allows you to rape me at will and with impunity because it is a simpler option for you than fighting it?’
It was Malfoy’s turn to gape. ‘I would never … The Wizengamot doesn’t … That’s just wrong …’ he stammered.
‘I don’t for a moment think you would,’ Astoria said briskly. ‘But it might do well for you to recall that there are two adults affected by this situation and one of them isn’t you.’
Malfoy took a moment to compose himself, then bowed, a little stiffly, but with sincerity. ‘My apologies, Miss Greengrass. I have been selfish and self-serving. Do you really think there is any way we could convince our mothers they don’t know best?’
And the frost between them melted away as Astoria laughed. ‘No, that’s not within the realms of possibility. But we can convince them that their original plan was less perfect than another.’
Malfoy nodded, first in understanding, then in agreement. ‘Not fight them head on, but rather change the playing field so that their strategies no longer make sense,’ he mused.
‘Yes, exactly,’ Astoria agreed, moving her chair closer to his. ‘We need to either make this match less attractive, or another option more so.’
Malfoy rubbed his beard. ‘I think we will need to tread carefully with this one. The obvious solution would be a loss of reputation, but yours is famously shining and ethical and mine seems unreasonably robust, remaining only mildly damaged no matter what I do to it.’
Astoria interrupted him. ‘I wouldn’t want to take that path. Your mother is wholly disinterested in my politics, I’m wholly disinterested in philandering with random young wizards, and I don’t think anyone who is not you should be interested in what you get up to in your private life.’
‘Mostly philandering with young wizards,’ Malfoy admitted, with a smile.
Astoria smiled back at him. ‘We should be friends, don’t you think? In adversity if nothing else. It would please me if you addressed me as Astoria.’ She removed her lace dress glove and held out her hand.
Malfoy took it and gave a companionable shake. ‘I feel I take the better part of the bargain in this friendship, Astoria. Please, call me Draco, and I promise that no matter what fresh horrors our mothers devise, I will remember that I am not alone in suffering and that you, too, depend on our wits outdoing theirs.’
Grinning, they shook hands again in a promise of action. The mood perceptibly lightened.
‘All right,’ Draco continued, ‘the next option is that one of us secures a better offer. I’m very much afraid it will have to be you, since my prospects are rather limited. I’m not for a moment suggesting we should marry you off, but someone better than me who could appear to be a genuine prospect should supply enough in the way of distraction.’
Astoria thought about it. ‘There aren’t many options,’ she admitted. ‘I see dear Sergeant Craddock every few days when I’m protesting at the Houses of Parliament, but I strongly suspect there is already a Mrs Craddock and a tribe of Craddockettes.’
‘I don’t suppose you find Blaise Zabini attractive?’ Draco offered, ignoring her rather than running the risk of learning what a Craddockette might be. ‘He owes me more than a few favours.’
‘That incorrigible playboy?’
‘I thought not.’ An idea occurred to him. ‘What about Potter? I know that you were only joking before, but he would be ideal. He’s rich, he’s handsome, he is unable to resist saving people who need saving, and all in all he’s as good a catch as can be found in Wizarding Britain.’
Astoria trod carefully around the topic. ‘I’m not certain I’m his type,’ she began.
Draco held up his hand. ‘None of that. So you’re not a flame-haired virago. Look at you. You’re all chestnut and blue, the rich colours of an autumn day, but with marvellous skin like a spring morning. Eyes shining with a quick intelligence and a spirit that sings. You’re everything a man who isn’t like me would find delightful in a life companion. Plus, you’re very conventionally attractive, which will help when it comes to all the photographs you will be expected to appear in.’
Astoria looked at him in wonderment. ‘You have absolutely no idea how to speak to a woman, do you?’
‘None at all,’ he admitted.
‘Did you get all that from a book?’
‘Parts of it. But the bit about you being very conventionally attractive was all my own invention.’
‘Flatterer.’ Astoria tossed her empty glove at him. ‘Don’t think the idea doesn’t appeal, he’s a very handsome man. The problem is that I rather suspect that you’re in with more of a chance than I.’
Draco’s eyes widened. ‘What are you saying?’
‘That he is a man like you. To whom I would not count as a delightful life companion, many though my charms may be.’
‘But …’ Draco shook his head sharply. ‘How can this be news to me?’ he wondered.
Astoria considered teasing him, but he seemed genuinely emotional about the revelation. ‘Perhaps your friends believed all the rumours regarding the lifelong enmity between the two of you? Rumours you began, if Daphne is to be believed?’
He began to nod, considering the prospect.
‘Or one of them has long been the Head Auror’s secret liaison and has made it his mission to keep news of his preferences out of circulation,’ she added, unable to resist a little teasing.
Draco frowned at her. ‘Be serious. Is this something that’s widely known? Could you be mistaken?’
She took pity on him. ‘It’s widely rumoured among witches between twenty and thirty-five, but if that were all, I would assume they were speaking only from frustration. However, I had the misfortune to be hiding in this very room after Daphne’s wedding, sequestered on the window seat behind that heavy blue curtain, which is how I came to be the unwilling witness to the official end of the romantic relationship between Mr Potter and Miss Weasley. Details were given. Names. Male names. Though I hasten to add, invoked only as examples of preference, not as any confession of misbehaviour on the part of Mr Potter.’
Draco slowly nodded his understanding.
‘Nor Miss Weasley, neither,’ Astoria added conscientiously.
Draco continued to nod.
‘Are you all right?’ she asked after a long moment.
Draco blinked. ‘What? Oh, yes. Yes, mostly, though it’s putting quite the different complexion on a great many moments of my youth.’
‘Ah. Yes, Daphne did say she used to think …’
Draco snorted. ‘Would have been nice if she’d told me.’
‘Well, it’s not the sort of matter people discuss, is it?’ Astoria asked. ‘It’s hardly good manners to walk up to a schoolmate and suggest that you have piercing insights into not only their personal preferences, but also those of the people around them, and – incidentally – were you aware that hatred is often no more than a conventionally acceptable outlet for suppressed desire?’
As she had intended, Draco began to laugh. ‘No, I suppose not. And our schooldays were already a hotbed of treachery and political revolt; Merlin forbid we add suppressed passion to the mix.’
‘I can’t imagine it would have ended well,’ Astoria said, smiling.
‘No. Anything but,’ Draco agreed, though his smile carried a rueful edge. ‘So,’ he continued, ‘Given we can assume I am unlikely to embark on a passionate liaison with the Saviour of the Wizarding World in the near future, we’re left with the need to find you a very nice young wizard who can squire you about town and be convinced to woo you publicly until our mothers give up on us.’
Astoria mentally ran through the list of all the single men of her acquaintance. Most were automatically excluded by virtue of being Muggles. She was related to a majority of the remainder, which – though her mother would happily have settled for any one of her cousins – ruled them out for her taste, if only because she knew how crashingly dull they all were at family functions.
She pulled a face. ‘I can only think of two who would be at all suitable, and I just don’t see how we could convince either of them to play along.’
‘Names?’ asked Draco.
‘Neville Longbottom and Charlie Weasley.’
Draco frowned. ‘I thought Longbottom was going to marry Hannah Abbott.’
‘Didn’t you hear?’ Astoria stopped herself, aware that she sounded like her school friends gossiping. ‘I mean to say, they parted ways amicably when they couldn’t agree on their future plans. Neville wanted her to come and work at Hogwarts, but she was still very invested in owning the Leaky Cauldron.’
‘Hannah Abbott owns a pub?’ Draco asked, surprised. ‘She was so mild and swotty at school.’
‘She had a difficult time of it during the war,’ Astoria said, carefully. ‘Afterwards, she wanted to find a life in which people were happy around her.’ And where she would be likely to hear early rumours of future fomenting trouble, she did not add.
Draco looked serious. ‘That makes sense,’ he said. ‘Most of us came out of it quite different to the people who went in.’
Astoria had no words for that moment, so she leaned across the occasional table that stood between them and patted his arm. He smiled in appreciation of both the gesture and her silence.
After a moment his smile broadened. ‘Charlie Weasley would be a fun option. He’s handsome, a little bit wild, has loads of money since his brothers licensed his flying dragon model range, and his mother would like nothing more than to seriously annoy mine. I think we might be able to convince him it’s a good idea on that alone.’
Astoria laughed. ‘Mrs Weasley has always considered my mother to be a gigantic bore and overpuffed egoist. If you think it will help, I’m more than happy to offer her up for annoyance, too.’
‘I feel certain it can’t hurt. Particularly if you’re the one who approaches him and outlines it to him.’ He stretched out his hand. ‘It appears we have a plan.’
Astoria took it and shook it. ‘For the sake of our ongoing happiness, I will flirt with the – as you put it – wild and handsome Charlie Weasley.’
‘A generous sacrifice, Miss Greengrass.’
They grinned conspiratorially at each other.
‘All right,’ Astoria said. ‘Let’s start right away. You need to shave and dress as though you’re not fifty; I need to get out of these Muggle clothes and into something less uncomfortable. Then we should go to Diagon Alley and swan about together looking utterly miserable.’
‘Miserable, you say?’
‘Oh yes. Because we can in one fell swoop both obey our mothers and spend time getting to know each other, and impress upon all of our acquaintance that we are the most set upon young people in the country and that they should be doing all within their power to help. One thing I do know about Charlie Weasley is that he can’t resist a damsel in distress, especially one who scored O’s in Care of Magical Creatures.’
Draco took her hand and shook it again. ‘I was quite right: I have by far the better part of this connexion. Come, I’ll inform the maters that we have a tea date and we can take an hour to make ourselves presentable.’
‘Lead on, Comrade Malfoy,’ Astoria declared, forgetting for a moment that Draco had probably never heard of Marx.
‘After you, Comrade Greengrass,’ he replied, for though he was as ignorant as a babe when it came to the subjugation of the masses, his manners were impeccable.
‘Late,’ she declared, standing up and following him into his office, much to his secretary’s relief.
‘Giant smugglers,’ he replied, closing the door behind her.
‘And you didn’t wake me?’ She smacked him as he walked past her.
‘It was 4am. You’d already had one adventure for the evening. You husband and children would have complained if I’d dragged you out on another. They would have complained to me. You probably would have got away with it scot free.’
She smiled. ‘They know the departmental power balance.’
When it came to her children at least, she was quite right. Uncle Harry could be relied upon to listen at length to their lisped complaints and buy all the ridiculous gifts their mother denied them under the policy that she refused to buy things that would be discarded or broken within the month. Their father was less firm, but thought it safer to channel his indulgence via his oldest friend.
‘Sorted?’ she asked, throwing herself into his best visitor’s chair and kicking her shoes off.
‘Sorted,’ he affirmed. ‘While the boffins in our admin team were dealing with the centaur rescue reports they noticed an anomaly in your notes: a short-term warehouse lease in Dover that covered a large amount of space but had no transport arrangements connected. I sent a two-man team down to check it out and had just made it home when I was hauled back in – along with the rest of the Auror Corps – to go down and assist. Four giants who were meant to be there for one night only. We rounded up seven bad’uns, and what Lepworth described as a wagonload of incriminating papers.’
‘Sounds splendid. He’ll be a very happy deductive auditor. Did you get any sleep?’
‘An hour,’ Harry admitted. ‘Potions, tea and coffee are keeping me together.’
‘So you’ve covered all contingencies.’
Hermione’s teasing was not far wrong, Harry admitted. He could feel the lack of sleep and rest scratching beneath his skin, but the mixture of magical and mundane stimulants would be enough to get him through the day. He pulled a fresh shirt from his office wardrobe and wished there was time for a shower before Miss Greengrass was due.
‘Toothbrushing,’ he announced, opening the door to his office bathroom and embarking on an abbreviated series of ablutions.
Hermione swung her chair round to follow him. ‘Good idea,’ she replied, talking in the pauses between water running and brushes scrubbing. ‘In all the excitement last night, I didn’t get a chance to tell you about my afternoon. I ran into our unwilling couple on Diagon Alley.’
Harry popped out of the bathroom and raised his eyebrows. ‘Details, please,’ he asked, wiping the toothpaste from his chin.
‘They were sitting in the tearooms, vying for the All England Moping title,’ she began, and went on to describe in detail the tableau of Miss Greengrass and Mr Malfoy, both dressed as though they were at a romantic tete-a-tete, sitting beside an untouched plate of cakes, sighing into the air and occasionally exchanging sad, but ever-so-brave, little smiles of shared misery.
‘What did you make of it?’ Harry asked, his voice slightly muffled by pulling on his fresh shirt without fully unbuttoning it first.
‘They clearly weren’t happy, but they seemed to be mutually supportive about their situation,’ Hermione replied. ‘So I think we might find it easier than we thought to push each of them towards more attractive occupations.’
Harry made a last effort to smooth his hair down, then shut the bathroom door, looking almost groomed. He plucked a fresh formal robe from its coat hook and slid it on – the pristine red wool and crisp white linen beneath it successfully distracting attention from the fight-stained flight leathers just visible on his legs. ‘That’s good news. Have you had any ideas about actual jobs?’
If he hadn’t known her for most of his life, Harry would have missed the slight hesitation in her reply. ‘Yes, and they’re both excellent options.’
‘Oh no, both for Mr Malfoy. Miss Greengrass will doubtless have her own ideas about what she should be doing, and I feel certain she’ll share them with us. Though I’ve had what I consider to be rather a good idea about helping her along.’
‘I’m sure she’ll be open to the suggestion,’ Harry said, sinking gratefully into his comfortable chair. ‘So, Draco Malfoy …’
‘I confess, I’m not convinced you’re going to like the first option,’ Hermione began.
‘Break it to me.’
‘I thought he could work with me at the Ministry developing kits to detect illegal potions. There are dens full of kids doing appalling things to their brains down by the docks and we know someone has to be manufacturing or importing the rubbish they’re using.’
Harry shook his head. ‘You’re right, I don’t like it. Let’s focus on Option Two, shall we?’
‘You’re going to regret saying that.’
‘It’s work with me, isn’t it?’
Hermione grinned. ‘You’ve known me too long. But in all seriousness, it’s a very good option. You need someone to work with you on cases like this smuggling racket who is able to help you prove where everything and everyone has come from. Pollen on clothes, types of mud, plants in packing crates … they all help to build a case and while you do have a little laboratory team, they are only used to prove links you already suspect, not look for fresh clues in the material evidence.’
‘You’ve been reading Sherlock Holmes again.’
‘I have. And Doctor Doyle is right: the proof is in the details. We rely too heavily on being in the right place at the right time, on Pensieves and Veritaserum. As a whole Department, we would benefit from a more scientific approach. And think of all the areas where magic can augment science! He could invent spells that separate out mixed particles of matter and then describe their origins. Or reconstitute stains and tell you what made them. Think of all that work you’ve done on recreating the events from the scenes of crimes and imagine what more you could do with a spell that separated out each spray of blood. You can see the potential.’
‘Damn it,’ said Harry, who could. ‘Do you think he can actually do any of that?’
Hermione shrugged. ‘It looks to me as though much of it would be a natural extension of the work he’s been doing on soils and leaf litter in the last four or five years, but you’d have to ask him. You have to admit, aside from the obvious difficulty of you working with Malfoy, it’s an excellent plan.’
‘Let us not pretend that it’s a small difficulty,’ Harry cautioned. ‘Even if I’m on my best behaviour, I can’t imagine he’ll be keen on the idea.’
‘No,’ Hermione admitted. ‘Though it is the only one: his research really has been excellent.’
Harry pulled a face.
A knock at the door interrupted her rebuttal and was swiftly followed by his secretary’s be-whiskered visage. ‘Miss Greengrass here to see you, sir.’
‘She’s early,’ Hermione noted.
‘Thank you, Carston, I’ll fetch her in.’ Harry got to his feet. ‘You,’ he added to Hermione, ‘try to look more like the woman in charge.’
She sat up properly in her chair and slid her shoes back on with a grin.
Harry followed Cartson out into his anteroom. Astoria sat there, dressed in a flowing green robe rather than the stiff Mugglish dress of their previous meeting. Beside her sat an unexpected Draco Malfoy, who was standing and bowing with what appeared to be courtesy. Harry returned it automatically.
‘Mr Malfoy,’ he said. ‘Can I have my assistant bring you tea or other refreshments while you wait?’
A fleeting look of amusement crossed Malfoy’s face, as though they had both passed an unwritten test. ‘Thank you, no. I have already breakfasted, and I have a book at the ready if your meeting goes long.’
‘Very sensible. In which case, Miss Greengrass…’ Harry offered her his arm.
Astoria took it, smiling a hello for him and a goodbye for Draco Malfoy. Harry was relieved to see that she no longer seemed to regard Malfoy as any sort of threat.
He held open his heavy oak office door and ushered her inside. Hermione was sitting primly in the taller of his guest chairs, trousered legs crossed demurely at the ankles. Miss Greengrass paused for a half-step, clearly surprised to see her here.
‘Mrs Weasley,’ said Harry, ‘allow me to introduce Miss Astoria Greengrass. I believe you were previously acquainted with her as Mrs Tallenbeck’s younger sister.’
Hermione stretched out a hand. ‘How do you do, Miss Greengrass?’
‘How do you do?’ Miss Greengrass replied, slightly awed. ‘I was just reading On the Subjugation of House Elves last night. It’s really exciting to meet you properly – not at school or at one of Daphne’s events.’
Hermione grinned. ‘You’re making me sound like a veiled matron. As far as I remember I’m only a few years older than you. Sit down and tell me what you’ve been up to, Harry tells me it’s hilarious.’
Still somewhat awed, but at least partially disarmed by the Department Head’s encouragement, Astoria took a seat.
‘For the most part,’ she said, ‘I’ve been working as a liaison between our society and Muggle parents who find their children exhibiting a talent for magic. There’s always at least one or two of them in any given year, so it makes sense to meet with them early, teach them some of the non-magical tricks our parents use to quell the sorts of temper tantrums that can set the house on fire. It means that by the time the children are ready for Hogwarts, we’ve got a long-established network of trust in place. It not only helps the Muggles; the witches and wizards who volunteer as mentors and guides all gain insights into Muggle culture, too, so it eases tensions in both directions.’
‘I would have thought you’d use mostly Muggle-born witches and wizards in the programme,’ Hermione said.
‘We have them give talks, and several have left contacts with open-ended invitations for questions, but it’s actually the Pure-bloods who work best because we end up with just as many questions for the Muggles as they have for us, so the parents don’t feel as though they are being lectured to, they feel as though they are part of an exchange of ideas and cultures.’
Hermione nodded. ‘Very intelligent. But I believe it was your side interests Auror Potter was making reference to when he described your meeting to me yesterday.’
Astoria’s confidence faltered, and a slow blush crept up her cheeks. ‘That was just … I haven’t breached the Statutes of Secrecy, you know.’
‘I know,’ Hermione assured her.
‘I told her so,’ Harry added, smiling.
Astoria rallied. ‘When I’m in London, I go to the Houses of Parliament and I find the MPs and Lords who vote and speak most actively against women’s rights to vote. For the last few weeks I’ve been following H.H. Asquith. I don’t abuse or slander them, I just call out in a loud, clear voice asking them why the stupidest man in Britain has the opportunity to vote for any politician they choose, while the cleverest woman doesn’t. Occasionally one of his flunkies replies that the stupidest man is still brighter than the cleverest woman and then I cheerfully start quizzing that one on square roots, commonly known astronomical trivia, major historic dates and English, French and Latin grammar. You’d be astonished how poorly they do, even though I am led to believe that many of their schools are rather good.’
Harry risked glancing over at Hermione, who was making a concerted effort not to laugh.
Astoria misinterpreted their expressions. ‘Asquith was Home Secretary in the previous government and could have done a world of good. Instead, he acted to quash Suffragists. Now he’s in Opposition, he doesn’t even bother about being a good MP. If he’s not called upon to sit, he’s off pursuing his private legal practise.
‘And it’s not just that Muggle women ought to have the same rights to political power that we do. I’ve seen the way they live and it’s ridiculous. We’ve had witches as Minister for Magic. Half the Founders of Hogwarts were women. My own great-aunt was Deputy Head of this very department, and the current head,’ she inclined her head towards Hermione, ‘is very much a lady. Whereas for them, none of that is possible. The lucky ones are treasured and protected, but forced by the law to act as minor partners in their marriages. The unlucky ones are decorations, or chattels, or drudges – at home or out in a workplace where they are paid a pittance, it’s all the same. And they have hardly any rights. And men are never going to change that because it’s entirely to their benefit to enslave the weaker sex: men make enormous amounts of money out of women’s oppression. Women’s Franchise is the only hope for change.
‘I don’t use my magic, just my loud voice and my pretty face, which embarrasses men like Asquith because they want to say that all Suffragists are harridans. But, in fact, we come in all varieties. If necessary, I’ll happily sit in gaol for a month for breaching the Queen’s peace.’
Astoria’s chin was high now, and her cheeks flushed. Harry thought her voice had grown a little higher as she searched Hermione’s face for signs of disapproval.
Hermione, instead, grinned. ‘Well said! Would it make your life easier if we gave you Ministry support for your activities?’
Astoria blinked. ‘What? Make Muggle women’s suffrage Ministry policy?’
‘Sadly, it’s unlikely we could get Department-wide approval to make prosecuting the case a Ministry priority. But I could create you Muggle Legal Liaison, which would give you an office, a budget, and a meeting with the Muggle Home Secretary twice a month and probably the odd chat with the Prime Minister.’
‘Oh!’ Astoria flung herself at Hermione, embracing her with fierce enthusiasm. ‘Oh, that would be wonderful! Excuse me, I’m sorry, I’m just so excited. I thought you’d be angry with me, you see, for drawing attention to myself.’
Hermione smoothed her jacket and smiled. ‘That would be enormously hypocritical. Harry, Ron and I have done far, far worse. You’ve never brought down the ceiling of a bank and set a dragon free over London.’
Astoria laughed, and for a moment, levity prevailed, with Harry and Hermione joining in.
With a mind to practicality, Harry followed up with a question. ‘Will you be available to work regular office hours while you are in the city, Miss Greengrass? Obviously your other work will call you north when it draws closer to the beginning of the school year, but there are at least six weeks in which we can offer you a desk and whatever resources you require.’
He was watching her face carefully, so he saw the moment at which she pieced together the conundrum of the previous day and the ever-so-convenient occupation presented by their offer. She looked from him to Hermione, then back, and it was clear that she was pleased by their conspiracy.
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I would be pleased to accept your generous offer.’
Harry extended a hand across his desk, which Astoria took and gave a businesslike shake before turning to Hermione and repeating the action.
‘Marvellous,’ said Hermione. ‘Now that’s settled we won’t have tell Harry about your landlord campaign.’
‘Oh, for pity’s sake, tell me,’ Harry said, rising to the bait. ‘It can’t possibly be worse than what I’ve been imagining.’
Astoria had just opened her mouth to speak when Harry’s clock chimed the half hour. She looked back suddenly at the office door. Hermione raised a quizzical eyebrow.
‘Draco Malfoy is waiting for Miss Greengrass in the anteroom,’ Harry explained. ‘She is too courteous to wish to delay him long.’
Hermione’s eyebrows changed angle, and Harry could tell that she was wishing she had listened to Ron all those years ago when he insisted they all learn to waggle their eyebrows meaningly. He didn’t possess the streak of cruelty it would have taken to pretend he didn’t understand her.
‘Now that I think on it, I did have an idea that might interest Mr Malfoy,’ Harry announced. ‘Miss Greengrass, would you mind very much if I left you in the capable and excellent-tea-making hands of my secretary Carston while I had a quick word with your fiancé?’
Astoria looked surprised, but not displeased. ‘Not at all. I have no pressing engagements. Unless,’ she turned to Hermione, ‘you wanted me to start today?’
‘Better leave it till tomorrow so I can make sure your office is cleaned and stocked with quills and paper. Shall we say meet at 10am in the Atrium?’
Astoria nodded quickly.
‘Marvellous,’ Hermione said. ‘See you then.’ She nodded a friendly farewell and waited in her seat while Harry escorted Astoria out.
Draco Malfoy stood up as Harry opened his office door and was in the process of slipping his book into his pocket when he noticed Harry was looking at him. Surprised, he gave a half-smile, which Harry automatically began to return before realising what he was doing and pausing halfway. Feeling foolish, he frowned instead. ‘Could I see you in my office for a moment, Mr Malfoy?’ he asked, more briskly than he had intended.
Malfoy looked to Astoria, who nodded reassuringly, before straightening the line of his jacket and stepping forwards. ‘Certainly, Auror Potter.’
Harry turned to his secretary. ‘Cartson, could you fetch a cup of tea for Miss Greengrass? We won’t be long.’ He noticed Malfoy’s slight relaxation in pose at the news his ordeal was to be short. Harry couldn’t blame the man, he hadn’t framed the invitation well.
Malfoy’s shoulders stiffened again as he walked into Harry’s office and caught sight of Hermione. ‘Miss— sorry, Mrs Weasley,’ he said, bowing.
‘Mr Malfoy,’ she replied, nodding, but not standing.
‘Please, take a seat,’ Harry said. ‘We have an offer we’d like to put to you.’
Malfoy sat and looked at each of them expectantly.
Harry made a bid to regain the optimistic tone the room had held a few moments previously. ‘Hermione and Miss Greengrass tell me you’ve been doing remarkable work with botanical research in Switzerland.’
Malfoy’s eyebrows raised, but his tone was sincere as he thanked Hermione. ‘That’s a generous compliment. I value your opinion highly, Mrs Weasley,’ he said. ‘I once thought it would be beyond my ability to secure.’
‘If you’d kept to politics, it would have been,’ Hermione replied. ‘I’m pleased you found a better outlet for your talents.’ Her tone was blunt, but not cruel, and Malfoy nodded a small acknowledgement of her comment’s fairness.
‘Which is what we would like to discuss,’ said Harry, wrestling the conversation back on track. ‘The Auror department excels at some parts of law enforcement research and is devoid of trained staff in others. From what Hermione tells me, your skills could be put to very good use here. I’m not sure how long you plan to stay in Britain, but if this is more than a fleeting visit, then I would be very interested in securing your services, should you be looking for interesting employment.’
Malfoy’s eyebrows surpassed their previous heights. ‘You’re offering me a position?’ he asked, sounding as surprised by the idea of working as he was by the offer coming from Harry.
‘No,’ Harry corrected him. ‘I am offering you a career. Perhaps even a vocation. You could make real changes here, make a productive impact on the whole of the country. You don’t need to commit forever. Long enough to come up with protocols, establish systems and then train the good young lab team we already have up into being a proper research department. That’s all I ask. Someone as intelligent as you have always told me you are could make a decent start on it in three or four months, but there’s work enough for years. Decades, even.’
Harry thought he had phrased the whole thing rather well, and when Malfoy did not immediately refuse, he mentally added it to the very short list of successful conversations the two of them had conducted.
‘Working alongside you?’ Malfoy sought clarification.
‘In my department, but I spend a lot of time in the field and you will mostly be in the laboratories, I imagine.’
‘You’ll come under Auror auspices,’ said Hermione, ‘but you’ll be a part of general Magical Law Enforcement, so the Hit Wizards and MLE will want a look at your work and I’ll be supplying your budget.’
‘That sounds reasonable,’ Malfoy said. ‘I’ll have to discuss all this with my fiancée, but on the face of it, the idea is intriguing. I can only commit for three months at the moment, though. I have no idea if I’ll even be in the country by the time the weather cools.’
‘Of course,’ said Hermione, graciously.
‘That will do,’ said Harry, somewhat less so. But he managed to see Malfoy back out into the anteroom and the company of Miss Greengrass and a fresh pot of tea with neither of them snapping, hexing or openly glaring at each other, so he counted the meeting as a victory.
Closing his door, he came back to his desk. ‘Don’t get up,’ he told Hermione, ironically.
‘I wasn’t going to,’ she replied, smoothly. ‘She’s at least six inches taller than me, I would have looked like a schoolgirl.’
‘And with Malfoy?’
She grinned. ‘I didn’t feel like it.’
‘I feel we could have been a little less abrupt with him,’ Harry admitted.
‘I feel all three of us did very well not to resort to wands,’ she replied. ‘He’s matured, you’ve learned the meaning of the word equanimity and I haven’t punched anyone in years.’
‘You make that sound like a bad thing.’
‘You don’t have to attend the Heads of Department meetings, Harry.’ Hermione stood up and smiled. ‘On the topic of which, I should get back to work. Have you got a lot on today?’
‘Follow-up interviews from last night and then poring through the paperwork for more leads. The usual.’
‘Have a nap for lunch,’ she advised. ‘The bags under your eyes are positively Byronic.’
Harry’s equanimity did not prevent him poking his tongue out. But he did consider her words after she had left. Malfoy had matured. There was a willingness to listen, to conciliate, that he had never shown as a boy – or, at least, shown only in glimpses under great duress. He even looked different. More like a scholar than a Death Eater. He had shaved since yesterday and his white chin made him look younger than he was.
Perhaps this whole mad plan could work? Astoria had seemed thrilled at the prospect, and Malfoy not wholly against it. Harry tried, for a moment, to imagine working productively alongside Draco Malfoy.
Failing to convince himself of the possibility, he made a start on his paperwork.
‘That’s splendid,’ Draco said.
‘What did they want with you?’
‘I, too, received an offer of employment,’ he confessed.
Astoria paused mid-step. ‘You? Working?’
‘It has been known to happen.’
Since they were friends now, she didn’t bother to apologise, but concentrated on the broader issues raised. ‘You realise what this means?’
Draco did not.
‘They’re managing us,’ Astoria explained. ‘After yesterday, they’ve thought along exactly the same lines we did and come to the conclusion that if we are gainfully employed as vital cogs in the Ministry machine, our mothers will be less inclined to marry us off.’
‘It isn’t a bad plan,’ Draco conceded. ‘Though ours is more fun.’
‘A back-up won’t hurt,’ said Astoria, gazing idly at the tearoom where they had sat the day before. ‘Oh!’
A fluffy grey bird had appeared in front of them, wide-eyed, big-beaked, and terribly confused in expression.
‘Oh, you darling little thing!’ cooed Astoria, kneeling down and coaxing it forward with the offer of a head scratch.
The bird ambled towards her with an amiable ‘Awk!’
She could hear running footsteps approaching, but ignored them in favour of gently rubbing the young bird’s brow ridges. It leaned against her, humming ecstatically.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ said a deep voice behind her.
‘Why would I be afraid?’ she asked. ‘It’s just a darling little diricawl. Aren’t you, precious? You’re not even properly grown up yet.’
The owner of the voice knelt beside her and a pair of strong, freckled and definitely masculine hands reached out to pat the bird’s fluffy side and belly. ‘You’re quite right. He’s only just fledged. And he keeps vanishing whenever he gets a fright.’
‘Then you should stop frightening him,’ Astoria said, turning to face the man. He looked to be about her height, but broader of shoulder and square of jaw. Bright eyes danced beneath a wave of dark-red hair.
‘Who are you and why are we not spending our lives together?’ he asked.
She smiled at his boldness. ‘I’m Astoria Greengrass, and since you’re Charlie Weasley, it’s probably because you’ve been living almost entirely in Romania since I was a schoolgirl.’
He grinned. ‘Good thing I’m back now, then, isn’t it? I remember you. Little Astoria, Daphne’s sister. You asked me about the mating habits of dragons when I came to Hogwarts for the Triwizard Tournament.’
Astoria let her smile broaden. ‘And you did everything possible to avoid answering me.’
‘Rightly so, no man should face such a terrifying eleven year old. You grew up.’
‘People do.’ She accepted his hand to help her rise, the diricawl craning out from under his other arm for more brow rubs.
‘He’s definitely taken to you,’ Weasley observed. ‘You should come and take tea with us in a bid to help socialise him. Purely for science, of course.’
Astoria wanted to laugh. The man’s cheek and charm were both monumental. Instead, she raised an eyebrow. ‘I was under the impression that birds imprinted soon after hatching and that further socialisation was minimal.’
‘Ah, but that’s just the accepted view,’ Charlie Weasley responded. ‘No-one’s ever examined the matter closely to see whether it’s based on fact or assumption.’
‘Like gender and plumage, or gender and song,’ said a voice behind them.
Astoria had forgotten entirely about Draco.
Charlie Weasley regarded him calmly. ‘Quite right, Mr Malfoy. Birds people were convinced were male because of their song or brightness, turned out to be female when they were actually looked at.’
‘Mr Weasley.’ Draco bowed a greeting, which was returned.
‘Are you with …’ Charlie Weasley let the sentence dangle.
Astoria was about to give a cautious answer when Draco leapt in.
‘Miss Greengrass and I are trying to prevent our mothers marrying us off to each other. They have a mad plan, which I am determined to put a respectable end to, if for no other reason that the fact that Miss Greengrass is entirely too delightful a young woman to end up attached to a man to whom she is politely indifferent.’
Weasley turned to Astoria. ‘Is that true?’
‘Yes. I am politely indifferent to Mr Malfoy.’ But she could see that a more serious answer was required. ‘I’m afraid so. We were informed of our betrothal yesterday, so since then we’ve been trying to come up with a fool-proof escape plan.’
‘But that’s awful.’
Draco nodded. ‘I don’t suppose you’d care to carry Miss Greengrass off to Romania?’
The look that flashed across Charlie Weasley’s face was thoroughly improper and, Astoria guiltily admitted to herself, quite thrilling. ‘It’s a very tempting prospect, but I feel it would be more advisable to start with a quiet luncheon. Are the two of you free to join me at one?’
He reached past the squirming bird in his arms and pulled a card from his pocket, which he handed to Draco. ‘This is my address while I’m in London. Give me a little time to get Horace here sorted and some food arranged, then the three of us can work on your cunning plan.’
She did not need to dissemble a bright smile. ‘That sounds marvellous.’
‘Thank you, Weasley,’ Draco said, bowing again. 'It’s kind of you to help, and gracious of you to include me in the invitation.’
Astoria was watching Charlie Weasley’s face carefully, so she could see the moment when he was tempted to insist that he had been referring to Horace as the third member of the party. But Draco seemed so sincere in his thanks, that Weasley quashed the impulse and smiled instead. ‘You are welcome, Malfoy. I’ve read several of your papers over the years. Your work has real merit.’
And that produced the nicest smile she had ever seen on Draco Malfoy’s face.
‘If you will excuse me,’ Charlie Weasley said, bowing, ‘Horace and I will go home and prepare for visitors.’
‘He seems very nice,’ Astoria said, once Charlie Weasley was out of hearing. ‘Though it was almost as though you two were speaking in code at the end there.’
‘You have no idea of the extent of his niceness,’ Draco said. ‘And if I’m lucky, you never will need to know so far as it pertains to me.’
‘Judging by our current streak of good fortune, you’ll be fine. This has all been ridiculously easy.’
‘Don’t even think that!’ Draco exclaimed.
‘Oh, don’t look so stricken. What’s the worst that can happen?’
‘Draco Malfoy and little Story Greengrass,’ announced a woman’s voice behind her.
Astoria’s blood ran cold. The last time she had heard that voice, it had been bullying her into handing over money for sweets in Hogsmeade.
‘Hello, Pans,’ said Draco, slipping an arm around Astoria’s shoulders and giving her a reassuring hug. ‘Believe me,’ he whispered in her ear. ‘This is much less awful than I was expecting.’
Charlie Weasley’s Piccadilly house was the type of residence Draco would have chosen for himself. And, he recognised, the type that only old money like his or serious new money like Weasley’s, could hope to afford.
Set back a little from the street, it appeared to be a quiet, if extensive, mid-century residence of the type favoured by the former Prime Minister. But as they came through the front gate and approached the door, Draco could feel the layers of Illusion that parted for his wizardly eyes but remained in place for Muggles. Layers which were just as well: goodness knows what any neighbours would have made of it had they been able to see Horace perched on the interior sill of the small glassed window above the glossy black door.
Draco rang the bell, as Astoria was too busy laughing.
Charlie answered it himself. He had obviously made an effort for Astoria’s sake and was dressed in cream linens, looking fresh and unruffled, despite the fact that Horace had chosen that moment to flop from the windowsill onto Charlie’s head.
‘I would like to pretend that this has never happened before,’ Charlie said. ‘But that would be a lie.’
Draco gave him a look of sympathy and helped Astoria through the doorway, she being too convulsed with laughter to be of much use.
‘You are ruining my image, Horace,’ Charlie said, plucking the bird from his head and tucking it under his arm.
Draco smiled. ‘You have very little to worry about,’ he assured him. ‘In the context of dragon-wrangling philanthropist, this is merely charmingly eccentric.’
Charlie smiled back. ‘Come on, you two, I’ve set lunch in the conservatory.’
He led the way through the well-appointed house, which had clearly been furnished some years before the current resident took possession. Yet Draco could see signs of Charlie Weasley as they went: three broomsticks in the corner of the foyer, piles of books beside a sofa and winged chair in one room, crates of unguents and medicines lining the long hallway and, somewhere in the back of the house, a chirruping and answering growl that spoke of wilder residents aside from Horace.
‘Have you lived here long?’ Draco asked.
‘Just over a month,’ Charlie answered. ‘I had a project in the Antipodes that took longer than expected, and by then breeding at the Sanctuary in Romania was well underway and going perfectly without me. Since I would only have been in the way, I decided I deserved a holiday.’
‘And you chose London, not Ottery St Catchpole?’
‘I said a holiday, Mr Malfoy.’ Charlie grinned over his shoulder to show that he was mostly joking. ‘Besides, it gave me a chance to follow up some business interests.’
‘It’s a beautiful house,’ Astoria said, having composed herself enough for speech.
‘It belongs to an old wizarding family who are friends of mine. It’s sufficiently large, quiet and private while still being close to everything. I’m considering buying it if I decide to spend more time in England.’
He opened a white door panelled by stained glass and held it for them. The room beyond was a masterpiece of the gardener’s art. Elkhorns and orchids hung from the rafters, with bromeliads and tillandseeas covering the gaps between them, the last blinking curiously at the visitors. Delicately wrought cast-iron stands were placed below, covered in pots of herbs and flowers, some magical, some mundane, but all lovely. Huge pots of flowering and fruiting oranges dotted the room, with pools of self-seeded forget-me-nothing tumbling from the pots, the leaves practising the shapes of keys, reticules and glasses, ready for whatever might be left behind when the group left.
‘Miss Greengrass, you might like to avoid the alihotsy tree in the corner,’ Charlie said, indicating a large pot containing the laughter-inducing tree.
‘I will make a note of it, Mr Weasley,’ she replied, eyes dancing merrily.
A circular table of good size had been positioned near the huge glass windows and was covered in plates of sandwiches, salads and sweets. Outside, clematis and roses scrambled over the walls and the glass ceiling, and the louvred windows allowed the sweet summer scents in. Charlie held Astoria’s chair for her; he had positioned the seating so that his visitors would have the best view of the garden and the rows of flowering plants cascading down the inside of the walls.
‘So,’ he said, offering them a plate of delicately cut sandwiches before taking his seat, ‘you are trying to thwart your mothers without overly upsetting them. It may surprise you to learn that I have some personal experience of the difficulties involved.’
Draco remembered Charlie’s mother. His respect for the man increased: she was a terrifying prospect.
‘It’s my fault,’ said Astoria. ‘Mother was only just tolerating my work with Muggle parents. When I became involved with a group of Muggle Suffragists, it was clearly one step away from running wild and being incarcerated in St Mungo’s. So my mother panicked and the next thing I knew she had contacted Mrs Malfoy and poor Draco was being summoned back from Switzerland.’
Draco shook his head. ‘Miss Greengrass—’
Astoria interrupted him. ‘Oh, let’s all be on first names today. I feel incapable of a polite Mr Weasley after seeing him wearing Horace as a hat.’
The diricawl looked up at his name and rested his large beak on the table.
‘Call me Charlie, please. In fact, I insist on it.’
‘Charlie, Astoria, Draco. Fine.’ Draco began his comment again: ‘Astoria is being overly generous. My mother does not approve of my lifestyle choices, so she leapt at the chance of a liaison when Mrs Greengrass bemoaned Astoria’s admirable social conscience. I confess, I was prepared to go along with her plan for the sake of keeping the peace, but Astoria has convinced me that we need to outsmart them.’
‘Be fair on yourself,’ Astoria said. ‘You came up with the plan. And you rescued me from Pansy Parkinson this morning.’
‘Any trouble I get you into, I will get you out of,’ Draco promised. Indeed, Pansy had looked as though she was ready to cause trouble for both of them, but a quick comment that it was wonderful to see her, but she was looking terribly tired and could they treat her to a restorative cup of tea? had seen her on her way to the nearest mirror.
Charlie grinned. Draco’s best guess was that he must be at least 37 by now, but he looked boyish when he smiled. ‘I remember you when you were at school with my brother. You were not an engaging child, and I would never have thought the two of us would find much in common. Yet here we are with intellectual interrogations of received scientific wisdoms, the desire to assist Miss Astoria Greengrass and the disapproval of our mothers to bond us.’
Draco noticed that he omitted vaults of cash, but he felt bound to clarify one point. ‘Forgive me, Charlie, but rumour has it that your mother disapproved of the number of witches who had been linked with your name – all in the most proper fashion,’ he added as an aside to Astoria. ‘My mother complains of the utter absence of witches linked to mine. And the ongoing disinterest on my part to rectify the situation, if you understand me.’
Charlie waved a hand dismissively. ‘Oh, that’s not a problem. There are plenty of single young wizards with similar predilections. Indeed, if you were wanting to carry on the family line, I know of several young witches who would consider a mutually beneficial arrangement for the sake of an easier life with their families. You, I think, will be fine one way or the other. It’s extricating Astoria from the arrangement we need to focus on. So, what’s this plan of yours?’
Draco and Astoria exchanged looks, aware that this might not be the most politic moment to announce the plan they had formulated.
‘We’ve secured gainful employment,’ she began. ‘Each of us has an impressive new role at the Ministry, which should provide us with a little breathing space as we focus on work of vital national importance rather than engagement announcements.’
‘A very good start,’ said Charlie. ‘Any fallback plans?’
Draco started to say no, but Astoria spoke over him. ‘We did consider finding alternative partners who were superior options for, and indeed to, each of us, and thus convince our mothers to leave us to make our own choices.’
Draco was very impressed that Astoria had managed that sentence without a blush. He wasn’t at all certain he could have managed the same, given how flippantly they had discussed roping in the services of the man who was now so generously offering them help.
‘A risky option,’ Charlie said. ‘To listen to my sister, Wizarding Britain is devoid of eligible single men since she married Dean Thomas.’
‘She’s very nearly right,’ said Astoria. ‘Once you leave off the men who like quiet little women, the rakes, the laybouts, the in love with someone elses, the in love with themselves, the not attracted to witches and the grindingly dull, it’s a very short shortlist.’
Charlie laughed. ‘I hope I was on it.’
‘You were it. Well, you and Neville, but I feel certain he’s still secretly pining for Hannah.’
Charlie’s eyes widened, and for moment Draco feared that Astoria’s candour have been entirely too candid by half. But then he let out a roar of laughter and Draco could begin to breathe easily again.
‘So when Horace appeared and I blundered onto the scene…’
‘I couldn’t believe my luck,’ Astoria told him.
‘Oh, you can get a lot luckier than this,’ Charlie replied with a wink.
Astoria laughed, and told him he was a terrible man. Draco decided to blush for both of them, since they clearly lacked any semblance of decorum.
‘Who owns the house?’ he asked, hoping for a distraction from their rampant flirting.
‘Rolf Scamander,’ Charlie answered. ‘His grandfather gave it to him a few years ago. Most of the gardens are Rolf’s work, he was planning to use it as a base for his research, but he’s not in England enough. We worked together in Iceland for the whole of the winter before last and he was complaining that he would have to let or sell it, as the house elf fees for keeping the gardens and resident Kneazles were really adding up. Luckily, they’ve got pots of money, thanks to old Newt’s textbook empire and Billywig importation business.
‘When I decided to spend the summer here, this was the first place I thought of, since I knew it already had facilities in place for any creature I brought along.’
‘Horace has friends?’ Astoria asked.
‘More “colleagues”, in some cases,’ Charlie replied. ‘A few of them would like to eat him. I can give you a tour after lunch if you would like.’
‘Draco, will you have time?’
The invitation may have only been good manners, but Draco gave a definite ‘I would be delighted’ in reply.
‘Good. I think you’ll be very interested in the Icelandic puffskeins I have. They all came from the one litter and were the customary pure white for that subspecies, but, following on from your paper in Quizzical Cryptozoology, I’ve been feeding each a diet rich in contrasting magical plants and I’ve achieved some remarkable pastel tones.’
One brother dead – which may not have been entirely his fault even though Draco felt it was – and another scarred for life – and Draco knew that was his responsibility – and Charlie Weasley devised experiments based on his research. Draco couldn’t blame Astoria for her bright-eyed interest, he was half in love with the man himself.
‘I’d be very pleased to see them, he said.
‘Marvellous. But first, do try some of the salmon salad and tell me how upset you’d be if I asked your fiancée to marry me?’
Astoria choked on the sip of elderflower cordial she had just taken. Draco passed her a napkin and pretended to give the matter serious thought.
‘Obviously, it’s too soon and the two of you should take time to grow acquainted. Because I believe your previous interactions all took place when she was a schoolgirl and I feel certain your intentions at the time were wholly pure.’
‘She was a frankly terrifying adolescent,’ Charlie agreed.
‘So time is clearly required. And then there is the matter of your schedules: you supervise breeding programmes for several rare dragon species in Romania, she agitates for Muggle-born schoolchildren in Scotland for much of the year and for political causes in London for the remainder. But if you could both rely on some of the people you have trained to carry out the day-to-day work, I feel there should be at least six months of the year in which you could enjoy each other’s company. So if you can sort out the logistics and are still gazing besottedly at each other by the end of the month, you’ll have my blessing.’
Charlie laughed, but Astoria kicked Draco in the shin.
‘I’m not property you can pass on!’ she said.
‘I know you’re not,’ he replied, rubbing his leg. ‘You seemed keen enough on him a minute ago.’
‘Yes, but you’re not as amusing as you might think you are,’ she said, frowning at them. ‘I might not even want to marry, you know.’
‘That would be a deplorable waste,’ observed Charlie.
‘Oh, I didn’t say stay single. There are alternatives, you know. Professor Sinistra has successfully managed at least three long-term relationships without succumbing to matrimony.’
‘But she’s old,’ Draco argued. ‘And she has no children. She wrote a book about the joys of not having children. People care much less about that sort of thing when you are in your sixties and seventies. You’re still young, so it would be far more scandalous. Even Blaise’s mother always has a husband on the go to maintain a veneer of respectability.’
‘Well, perhaps I don’t want children, either,’ Astoria said. ‘I’ve managed this long without an overwhelming desire for the life maternal.’
‘You are such a dedicated radical,’ Draco sighed.
‘You may be the perfect woman,’ Charlie corrected him. ‘There are altogether too many children in the world as it is. My brothers and sisters all have at least two, and Bill and Ginny both say they want more. How many before it becomes too difficult to maintain the Statutes of Secrecy with small children flying freely across fields about the country?’
‘Exactly!’ Astoria turned to Draco with an expression that, in a Hogwarts’ homework assignment, would have been a flourished QED.
He rolled his eyes. ‘You are both abject failures as examples of Pureblooded Wizardry,’ he said, with little seriousness.
‘Because the Sacred Twenty Eight is a load of twaddle,’ Charlie replied. ‘And anyway, you’re not a prime example of traditionalism yourself.’
‘Three rebels around a round table,’ Draco muttered. ‘What does that make us?’
‘Allies,’ Charlie answered. And his grin spread to both of them.
‘Human cooks, I’m afraid,’ Carston apologised.
He had led the way to Draco’s office and adjoining laboratories. They were on the same level as the rest of the Auror Department, but at the south end of the building, closer to the MLE management team.
‘So don’t blow anything up too badly,’ Carston had said. ‘Mrs Weasley is irreplaceable.’
There was a small team at his disposal. Emmeline Lewis, Garamond Yallop and David Periwig all had experience in the current set of Auror forensic spells and were anxious to help him break new ground. None of them could have been more than a decade younger than him, but Draco felt as though he came from a much older generation. Perhaps he was just irredeemably 19th century and they already had one foot in the 20th?
His office was well appointed. Potter or Gra— dammit, Weasley! had put thought into what he might require and left a goodly supply of order forms should their imagination have been insufficient.
After thanking Carston and memorising his way to the lavatories and kitchen – thankfully in different directions – all that remained was to get started with his division overhaul.
All three of his underlings were in the main laboratory, pretending to work while actually gossiping. Draco assumed it was abut him, but at least in this context it was natural, unlike those few witches and wizards he had passed on Diagon Alley, who had pointedly waited for his attention to frown their displeasure at his presence.
He watched them for a moment. No-one had ever asked him to manage people before. Unless one counted his experience as a prefect, and it was probably best not to. He ran through his mental list of potential role models. Porfessor Snape would not do, nor Professor Dumbledore. Professor Lupin, on the other hand …
He stepped through the doorway briskly. ‘Good morning,’ he began. ‘You have, through no fault of your own, inherited me as your superior for the next few months at least. While in age and general experience, the term may be apt, in the specific case of Auror spellwork and science, it is not. I will be relying on you to guide me over the next weeks and to help me settle into this role.
‘In return, I will share whatever skills I have that you feel might complement your own. I will also run a collegiate laboratory, where everyone’s ideas will be both appreciated and acknowledged – in external correspondence as well as within our team.
‘Please feel free to ask any questions you have and to bring to my attention any matters you know to be urgent. I am happy to start with your work systems as they are – together we will refine them and find ways to make our services more valuable and more essential to this department.’
There was a pause after he finished speaking, Lewis and Yallop exchanged a non-committal look, but Periwig frowned at him. ‘So you’re not a Dark Wizard anymore, then?’ he asked.
Lewis dropped her face into her hands, Yallop merely looked pained. Draco didn’t mind. There was always at least one and they were rarely as upfront as Periwig.
‘Absolutely not,’ Draco assured him. ‘Many years without a single association with a murdering lunatic. Unless there’s something one of you needs to tell me.’
Periwig blinked at him, confused. Yallop looked panickedly at his colleagues, but Lewis burst out laughing.
‘I’ll take that as a no, shall I, Miss Lewis?’
‘Emmeline, please,’ she said. ‘Welcome to MLE, Mr Malfoy. Although Garamond will pretend otherwise, we’ve all read your work and been very impressed.’
Yallop flushed. ‘I’ve read some of it,’ he said quickly. ‘I was interested in what you had to say about underlying tonal etymologies uniting International Spellcraft.’
‘Gara’s a pure spellcraft man,’ Lewis said. ‘I’m more of a numbers girl – power of spell, number of casters, potions enhancements, that sort of thing. And although Davy looks as though he’d get lost between here and the café, he’s one of the finest minds in Britain when it comes to both spell and potion components. So that’s us.’
‘Call me Draco, please,’ he said. ‘If you’re all comfortable with informality, it would be foolish of me to change the established culture without reason. I know that some parts of this department work along more militaristic lines, but we are all scientists together. Emmeline, David, a great pleasure to meet you. Garamond, are you the G. Yallop who had a review of Flitwick’s “Beyond the Basic Tenets of Transformation” in Spell Insights?’
Yallop looked nervous. ‘Yes?’ he replied.
‘Some fascinating commentary. I’d like to discuss it further with you when we have time.’
‘Oh. Yes. Thank you, yes. That would be good. Thank you.’
It was easier than Draco had ever expected. To be fair, they were young and they were bound by a common interest. He could see that in their clothes: civilian like his, but covered in extra pockets where they could store tools, several of which were visible as intriguing brass and silver nozzles. Moreover, he had not been lying when he said he was here for the betterment of the group. Since he had taken on the job, he intended to do it well.
He had made them wait a full two days, of course. Astoria had regaled him with tales of her new office (not far from his) and the horrors of the café’s coffee for an entire evening before he had admitted he planned to say yes.
He had sent his acceptance care of Mrs Hermione Weasley and Mr Harry Potter, but it must have been Weasley’s team who opened it, as the reply had come from her, as had the brief welcome at the start of the day. Potter had sent Carston, which made sense, and it wasn’t as though he was expecting Potter to take time out of his over-busy day.
That was a flagrant lie. He had absolutely expected Potter to be there.
Astoria’s news that Potter not only had no wife, but no interest in ever securing one, had changed his life. He did not know if it was normal to frame memory as a series of defining moments – despite a certain schoolboy flair for Legilemancy, he determinedly stayed out of the minds of others – but he strongly believed there were several key points at which his own personality had been … if not shaped, then at least brought into focus.
When it came to his sexuality, he could point to three such occasions. Moments in which an otherwise amorphous sense of otherness had crystallised into knowledge. In reality, there had been four if he admitted to a shock of arousal the time Blaise had sprinted naked through the dormitory pursued by a furious first year whose towel he had attempted to steal, but Draco never did. Blaise’s ego was already overly buoyant.
The strongest memory, the one that played unbidden when he allowed his mind to idle, was of Potter flying at him, arm outstretched, and the sheer muscular strength of his hand, and of his forearm under Draco’s own hand, and the slim but powerful body he had clung to in those moments of chaotic flight.
He had told himself many times that it had been terror, or lack of oxygen, or the sheer generative force of not dying. But what if there had been something in Potter’s face that had spoken the same awareness? What if he had been responding to something seen? He tried to remember the expression in Potter’s eyes, but the passage of time and repetition of memory had eroded the details. They had probably been hidden behind the reflection of fire in his glasses. Now the event was little more than a series of sensations, blurred with the overlay of other young arms, and the occasional indulgence of dangerous fantasy – so thought because he had assumed it could never be anything more.
And now a series of what-ifs plagued him. And would continue to do so until he could spend time with Potter, and see with his own eyes whether there was any mirror of the possibility that existed in his own mind. If not, they could calmly focus on work and constructing a productive professional relationship. And if yes … he had no idea.
Draco had spent time the previous night searching for clues in their recent meetings. The first had been nothing but surprise on both their parts, the second had been a series of ineptitudes in their interaction: Potter too brusque and then too accommodating, his own manner too sardonic throughout.
And now here he was, being shown through the laboratory stores by three very nice young people, having taken on board almost nothing of what they had said in the previous four minutes.
‘I’ve had an idea,’ he announced to cover up his distraction. ‘Up until now I believe you’ve been investigating material based on requests from Field Aurors, yes?’
‘Yes,’ replied Garamond, still awestruck.
‘But how do they know what is scientifically useful and what is not?’ Draco asked.
‘They usually start with anything covered in blood,’ Emmeilne said, dryly.
‘But what if the real clue is the items not covered in blood?’ Draco continued. ‘Is it because the person who committed the crime was a certain height and the droplets landed on him instead? Or was the area spelled clean? Or were items moved after the event?’
‘You’re talking about going out into the field,’ said Emmeline, as quick as she was humorous.
‘I am,’ said Draco.
‘Potter will never allow it,’ said Yallop.
Draco smiled at him. ‘Potter offered me this position because he admires my research skills. Research starts with an hypothesis formed in the field, not in the laboratory.’
And, said a small part of his brain, he said he worked mostly in the field, so you have a much higher chance of coming into contact with him if you are out at crime scenes.
Draco ignored it.
This time, it appeared she had brought her own.
‘Request from Malfoy,’ she announced at the sight of Harry. ‘Wants to change our operational procedures.’
Harry opened his office door and ushered her in. ‘Already? He’s only been here ninety minutes.’
‘Sixty,’ she corrected him. ‘He had a tour and orientation session to start the day. Apparently he’s already deep in confab with his underlings and they’ve all come up with the idea that they need to go out into the field to do their job well.’ She flopped down in her favourite chair and tossed Malfoy’s memo across the desk to Harry.
He picked it up and took a quick look at the proposal and costings contained. ‘He makes a cogent argument. I’ve said as much many a time and you’ve knocked it back on the grounds of costs, but, if his figures are right, there’s a minimal increase.’
Hermione sniffed at him. ‘I’ve knocked it back on the grounds that your lab team has only existed for a year and is made up of recruits who are little more than children and likely to be hexed into next week if they come across anyone actually dangerous out in the big, bad world.’
‘And now?’ Harry asked, sensing a change.
‘I’m less fussed when it comes to Malfoy’s safety,' Hermione admitted.
Harry shook his head. ‘It’s a good thing the Ministry uses up all your energy. You have an evil streak that could do enormous damage if it ever had time to prosper.’
‘You’d be my first victim,’ she told him with a wink. ‘So, what do you think? Approve or deny?’
Harry thought for a moment. ‘Approve for field-qualified personnel. Malfoy can have a de-facto qualification – we know he’s capable of taking care of himself. Lewis made it all the way through Auror training before deciding to join the lab, but I’ll need to invent a course that we can send Yallop and Periwig on. I’ll see if I can fit it in this week, so they can start on it soon if they desire.’
‘It will mean having Malfoy in the field,’ Hermione warned.
‘I thought you were keen on him being hexed.’
‘Just enough to singe him. We should keep him alive until he’s had time to train your people.’
‘That would be my preference, yes.’
Hemione grinned. ‘Right. Well, in that case, I’ll be off to find my Approved stamp.’
‘It’s languishing in a bottom drawer, covered in dust,’ Harry teased, remembering budgets past.
‘Guarded by Doxies,’ Hermione agreed. Then, in a swift change of pace, ‘We missed you at the tour this morning.’
‘I didn’t know you wanted me there.’
‘Oh, it was wholly up to you,’ she said, in a manner that made Harry feel his absence had carried more significance than intended.
‘I was interviewing your rescued centaurs,’ he explained, not certain why he felt he needed to. ‘They insisted on an early morning meeting and it took longer than I expected.’
‘So you weren’t avoiding anything, then?’
‘I miss Ron,’ Harry mused. ‘Sometimes I feel that you two made the wrong choices, because you would have been able to make even more of a commercial success out of Weasley’s, and his fine strategic mind would have navigated Ministry politics with ease and without torturing me.’
She poked her tongue out. ‘I’m off. I’m going to approve this effective immediately.’
‘Fine,’ said Harry. ‘I’ll take Malfoy and Lewis down to Dover with me and they can inspect the warehouse where those giants were held.’
‘I thought you’d already parcelled up the evidence there and sent it up to the lab.’
‘Two days ago,’ Harry agreed.
‘The memorandum says they want to investigate fresh crime scenes in situ before the evidence is compromised by others.’
Harry sighed. ‘Fine. I’ll wait for someone to be hexed, kidnapped or robbed and then I’ll call them in.’
‘That’s the ticket!’ Hermione grinned as she let herself out. ‘Who knows? They may even prove to be useful.’
Harry waved her off, used to her teasing. She was not, however, wrong. He had argued in favour of taking the laboratory team outside the Ministry since first introducing them to the Corps. There were obvious areas where their insights would prove helpful, and probably dozens more of which he had no current inkling. Logistically, it made perfect sense.
It just meant working far more closely than he had intended with Malfoy.
There was a perfunctory knock at his door, which opened to admit Carston. ‘Sir? You’re needed in Operations.’
Harry picked up his robe. ‘Anything serious?’
‘Missing wizard in Dover. Signs of a fight, but no trace of him.’
Of course, thought Harry, surprised it had taken all of five minutes. ‘All right. Get Lewis and Malfoy from the lab and bring them to the Blue Room. We’re going to Dover after all.’
Carston looked surprised, but said nothing before scuttling out.
As he strode the short distance to the department’s operational centre, Harry wondered if he was being premature. He hadn’t even introduced Malfoy to the whole Corps, and he certainly had no understanding of the scene they were being called to. If there were active dangers, he would be putting two scientists at risk.
Dawlish and Mulligan met him outside the Blue Room – crusty old Aurors that they were, their first response to any non-emergency call was to head for the lavatory, as it always took five to ten minutes for everyone to assemble, and you never know when you’d next have a chance.
‘Do you have any details?’ Harry asked them.
‘Grocer arrived with a delivery, found the front door open and man missing, so called MLE patrol, MELP called us. They say there are signs of a struggle, but it was long over by the time MELP called it in.’ Dawlish remained the Department champion of the succinct report.
Mulligan added, ‘The house is very near the operation in Dover the other night, and Gideon Hall, the missing wizard, has some seriously suspicious connections.’
Harry nodded. ‘Thanks for the heads-up.’
‘Not a problem,’ said Mulligan. ‘Just make sure you don’t slap us on another overnight op this month. We need our sleep more than you young lot.’
Harry grunted an assent, though he hardly felt young this week. There never seemed to be enough time to catch up on sleep, let alone develop a real life outside the office.
They had been waiting for him in the Blue Room, and with his entrance Fitzwallace began the briefing on the disappearance of Gideon Hall.
Harry listened with half an ear hearing the facts slide into line with those Dawlish and Mulligan had sketched, while keeping an eye on the door. Five minutes into the briefing it opened to admit a slightly uncertain Malfoy and Lewis.
‘Sir,’ said Lewis. ‘We were told to report.’
Malfoy didn’t say a word. Harry suspected it was to avoid having to call him sir.
‘Lewis, Malfoy, come in.’ Harry ushered them over to seats near his. ‘I’ve invited Mr Malfoy to work with us over the next few months revisiting the operational capacities of the research team,’ he explained to the other Aurors. ‘He’s suggested they come out into the field with us to provide more insights into the particulars of our crime scenes. I’ve approved the idea for field-qualified personnel.’
There was a general muttering. Romney, one of the newest Aurors, raised her hand. ‘Sir?’ she asked.
Harry nodded for her to speak.
‘Sir, Lewis made it through training, but Mr Malfoy is a civilian. Will he be all right if things go wrong?’
‘He’s extremely capable,’ said Harry, glancing at Malfoy, who seemed uncertain whether he should be smiling thanks or looking grimly competent.
‘He didn’t die in the war,’ said Dawlish. ‘ So he must have reasonable skills, since both sides were trying to kill him at one point.’
Harry was still watching Malfoy and was surprised to see him grin broadly at Dawlish. It was exactly the right reaction, and at Dawlish’s laugh, the others all relaxed.
Fitzwallace gave an edited version of the briefing for the newcomers, then a conclusion for all, and then it was down to Harry to deploy his staff.
It was not complex: Lewis and Malfoy to inspect the house once it had been checked for safety; a larger team to scour the neighbourhood, interviewing witches, wizards and Muggles alike, though the Muggles met Aurors with sober suits and cards that directed their enquiries to a very special address – or, for those abreast of the new technologies, telephonic number – at Scotland Yard; the remainder, including Dawlish and Mulligan, holding the fort at the Ministry.
The briefing ended, and those who were scheduled for Dover went to assemble their kits in the fifteen minutes before departure. Harry was going to fetch a broom and add flying gear to his uniform, but his elbow was grabbed before he made it halfway to the door.
‘Sorry,’ said Malfoy, moving them both to one side of the stream of exiting Aurors. ‘I just wanted to say thank you. We thought it would be much harder to make a change in your procedures.’
‘It’s a good idea,’ said Harry, honestly.
Malfoy was peering at him oddly. ‘Do I have to call you “sir”?’ he asked.
‘Chief or Potter will do,’ said Harry, slightly confused by the staring. ‘Whichever syllable count the situation allows.’
Malfoy nodded. ‘Right. Well, thank you, then, Potter. I’d better go and help Lewis with our equipment.’
Harry was left staring bemusedly after him until he remembered his broom and leathers.
Gideon Hall’s cottage was small. Harry had acceded to Malfoy’s request they all place levitation spells on their feet indoors, in return for which Malfoy and Lewis had waited uncomplainingly outside while Harry searched the house with Senior Auror Peasegood. One large room dominated the building, with a small bedroom, kitchen and bathroom at the back of the house. It was very empty, and the rear rooms seemed untouched, while the main room showed signs of two people drinking and then a brief struggle. Cups and a chair were overturned, and an empty vase had been broken on a sideboard. There were a few drops of blood on the table that stood in the middle of the room, though not enough to make Harry nervous they might be investigating a homicide.
He had intended only to check the scene was safe and start the scientists on their way before returning to the mountain of paperwork that awaited him in London, but Lewis and Malfoy had walked in and calmly begun their analysis and he was captivated.
Malfoy took the lead, conjuring a two-dimensional grid that hung faintly in the air. ‘We want to divide the search systematically and then record everything accurately, Emmeline, so we start with a grid. Can you tell me what the problem is with this one?’
Lewis thought for a moment. ‘It only divides the room by length and breadth, not height,’ she said.
‘Precisely.’ Malfoy flicked his wand and the grid move up to the ceiling, spooling into three dimensions and dividing the room into silver cubes about fifteen inches per side. ‘Pick a corner,’ he instructed. Lewis pointed to the top far right. Malfoy adjusted the spell, and small red numbers started to stream into the corner of each cube.
‘That cube becomes 1,1,’ Malfoy explained. ‘In our reference notes it will be the topmost. leftmost, furthest corner of the room. We number to the right from it, so 12 cubes across. The top row is therefore 1,1 to 1,12. The room is 13 cubes deep, so the second row will be 1,13 to 1, 24 and so on until we reach 1,156. The next layer below is 2,1 to 2,156 and so on.’
As he spoke, the numbers settled into their appropriate points and glowed quietly.
‘Now the spell is useful enough in itself to record the basics of each grid cube and recreate an image of the room for us back in the laboratory, but, like most images, it will only be part of the truth. For genuine analysis, this spell requires clever witches and wizards who keep their eyes open and really look for detail. The good news is that we can record notes about anything we find straight to their grid references, which will help us later.’
Malfoy pulled a notebook and quill from his pocket and passed them to Lewis.
‘I find it’s usually best to start at the top and work your way down.’ Malfoy waved his wand casually and he and Lewis floated up towards the ceiling.
It was fascinating to watch, Harry found. Everything was noted. When grid 1,12 was found to contain spider web and dead flies, Malfoy came over to join Lewis in peering at it.
‘You need to check whether or not the flies were affected by what happened here, or have they just been spidered? As a general rule, when the spider is still alive, the flies have usually died from natural causes. But look for any residue in the web in case of airborne potions.’
Anything considered worth further study was carefully logged, then lifted with tweezers and placed into a stoppered tube or flask that was shrunken and stowed in a sectioned bag. Malfoy’s systematic and logical procedures were similar to many of Harry’s own. He guessed they had a partially shared source – Snape, McGonagall and Flitwick had instilled certain values into them at school, even if Harry had been too hot-headed and Malfoy too much a reprobate to appreciate them at the time.
Seeing the man in action, Harry had a sudden sense that employing him could in fact have been one of his better decisions. Malfoy came into his own with the precision and focus; all traces of discomfort were gone, confidence and engagement in its place.
Partway through their careful study of the room, Lewis said, ‘Ooh!’
Malfoy stopped what he was doing and came to look. ‘There’s no real blood spatter,’ she told him. ‘Just a few drops, which I’m not up to yet. But I am up to the top of the lilies on this table. This table in the middle of the room. With a vase full of lilies and flowering pomegranate. And I thought, well, those flowers are full of pollen. And if someone was trying to hex me, I’d try and hex them back. And since hexes carry energy that converts to mass when it encounters an object …’
‘You’ve been looking at the pollen traces,’ Malfoy finished, admiringly. ‘That’s very clever! We can set them as a particular colour in the grid spell, you know. Let’s find samples to use as a reference.’
Harry watched as Lewis delicately captured what, from his vantage point, looked like a portion of air and transferred it from her wand to Malfoy’s. Malfoy uttered a short spell and then, across the room, a delicate haze of electric blue developed. Most of the pollen had travelled in one direction, but not all of it. Some hovered in the air, kicked up by their breath and movement, but a startling amount covered surfaces. Silhouetted against the wall beside him, Harry could see the blurred outline of a tall figure. On the floorboards below was a smudge and a smear that led towards the door, presumably where the pollen-covered figure had fallen and been dragged. He leaned forward to see it more closely.
Harry looked at Malfoy, who seemed as surprised to have barked a command as Harry had been to hear it.
‘Sorry, Auror Potter. But please don’t move. There’s a boot print in front of you that isn’t smudged, isn’t Ministry standard issue and certainly isn’t mine. I don’t want to disturb the air around it before we can get a copy of it.’
Harry looked down. There, protected by the lip of the table, was a brightly glowing perfect boot print, clearly made by stepping first into the pool of pollen and then onto a patch of bare floor. Blurred heel edges followed the smear of pollen towards the doorway, and he could see two pairs of footsteps on the other side of the table, presumably the MELP patrol.
‘I have recording parchment,’ Harry suggested.
Malfoy hesitated, but only briefly. ‘Yes. That’s a good idea. We should record it to the grid, too, but make a copy first.’
Harry took a sheet of parchment from his pocket and spelled a copy of the boot print onto it.
‘Thank you,’ said Malfoy.
‘Would I be better out of your way?’ Harry asked.
Malfoy frowned. 'Isn’t it up to you?’
‘Not if I’m in your way.’
Malfoy looked at Lewis, who shrugged. ‘Do you want to help with the grid search?’ Malfoy offered.
‘It looks interesting,’ Harry understated.
‘Then stay. But mind you keep the levitation spell on.’
Malfoy put him to work helping to record the pollen trajectories. He had a plan to capture the broad images first and then return to the grid by grid recording, since the latter would shift some of the pollen as they worked. Lewis was very put-out to find that the rebounding spray of pollen did not reveal the assailant’s height – at least, not to anything more specific than between five-and-a-half and six feet. But they now knew the shoe size, which indicated it was more likely to be a man of above-average height.
As they returned to a systematic search, Harry thought they would get in each other’s way. But a simple allotment of grid cubes gave them ample space. Harry noted that Malfoy offered him rather less than a third of the remainder, and all in the part of the room that seemed furthest from the action, but it was only fair, since he was no scientist.
On his fourth cube, he made a worthwhile discovery: a fine red-gold hair held to the wall by static electricity. Hall was dark, according to the grocer who had reported him missing. Malfoy congratulated him, showed him how to log the details to the grid spell, and then passed him a pair of tweezers and a stoppered test tube.
Harry retrieved and recorded the sample, feeling unreasonably pleased with himself as he passed the test tube back. So much of his work involved shouting and hexing, it was pleasant to spend some time systematically searching for small, non-violent details.
‘Sir?’ Peasegood had returned from interviewing locals and was standing at the door. ‘Sir, I think we’ve found something.’
Harry was perversely annoyed by the news. ‘Thank you, Peasegood. I’ll meet you at the front gate in a moment.’
He took note of which grid he had last worked on, and pulled the boot print parchment from his pocket. ‘I should leave this with you,’ he said, passing the sheet to Malfoy. ‘This has been fascinating. Thank you for humouring me.’
Malfoy took the parchment and frowned. ‘I wasn’t humouring you, you proved to be surprisingly competent. Did you finish grid 6,72?’
‘Barely started. 6,71 is complete, though.’
Malfoy nodded. ‘We’ll pick it up from there. Thank you.’
Harry found it hard not to grin, but kept his face straight until he joined Peasegood at the gate.
‘Share the joke, sir?”
‘I’ll have you know I’m surprisingly competent,’ Harry told him.
‘Never doubted it for a moment,’ replied Peasegood, familiar with his boss’s eccentricities. ‘If you can see that blue house at the turn of the road, sir, we think we may have a witness.’
Harry followed Peasegood’s pointing finger. There was only one blue house in the straggly row. ‘Thank you, Cecil. I’ll go straight down. Stay here and make sure these two aren’t disturbed, will you? For all that I have faith in their ability to handle themselves, it’s their first day out.’
The witness was a young witch who lived near Hall’s cottage. She was dressed in a manner that would raise eyebrows in both the wizarding and Muggle worlds. Harry was just glad they were having a spot of warm weather, as there definitely wasn’t enough fabric to protect her from the cold. She was talking animatedly to Fitzwallace on the verandah of what Harry guessed to be her house, and Fitzwallace was doing his level best to keep his eyes above her collarbones.
Someone, probably the girl, had provided refreshments, which Harry found rather charming. Fitzwallace was pouring her a glass of juice and cutting her a slice of fruit cake, while listening attentively to what she was saying. There were reasons the man had an enviable record, Harry thought to himself, and the rest of his staff could do worse than emulate his courteous focus.
The girl jumped up as Harry walked down the garden path. ‘You’re Harry Potter!’ she explained as he reached her.
‘I am,’ said Harry, smiling. ‘And you are…?’
‘Ryla Murglesten,’ said the girl. ‘Amaryllis properly, but nobody calls me that.’
Harry stepped up onto the verandah and took the spare seat beside the table. ‘Very pleased to meet you, Miss Murglesten. I’m told you may have seen something last night that could help us with our inquiries.’
Ryla nodded. ‘I think I may have. Gideon’s house is between mine and the shops. He’s a bit of an old reprobate, but he’s an excellent neighbour, just … well, he’s the sort who always has “a deal” on the go, if you understand me. When my father was alive, he had to wade into Gideon’s a few times, wand first, and help expel an unhappy customer, if you get my meaning.’
Harry didn’t entirely, but nor did he want to interrupt her.
‘But he’s just a bit of a rascal. He’s got a good heart. Since my Dad died, Gideon’s always been very good about saying hello every day, remembering my birthday and coming over to help whenever I had gnomes in the garden. And I look out for him, too – bake the odd cake, make sure there’s a fuss when it’s his birthday, you see? I’m telling you this so you’ll see that Gideon’s not a bad sort, he just has questionable taste in some of his friends and that can happen to anyone.’ She looked at Harry, as though awaiting confirmation.
‘It can,’ Harry agreed, thinking unexpectedly of Malfoy.
‘So last night, he had a caller arrive just as I was walking past his on my way back from the grocer. They were standing out the front and Gid started to introduce me, and the man cut him off before he could get a name out, saying they had business to conduct inside.
‘Now, I didn’t think anything of it at the time, because there aren’t a lot of courteous smugglers in this world, and I just assumed he was part of another of Gideon’s “deals”. So I dropped my groceries at home, grabbed a cloak and headed down to the Docks. I run a little service there, helping the working ladies with their medicinal needs and hexing the balls of any chap who tries to do them wrong. In a wholly surreptitious fashion, of course,’ she added for Harry’s benefit.
‘Of course,’ Harry replied. Fitzwallace, who had been pouring a glass of juice for Harry, found himself pouring juice down his own arm.
‘That’s why I dress like this,’ Ryla explained, ignoring Fitzwallace’s attempts to dry his arm without anyone noticing. ‘It’s not a fashion statement.’
‘I thought you might have been going bathing,’ said Harry.
‘I’ll admit, I’ve had to go into the water a few times. When I’ve gone running in to break up an altercation, some of the men have tried to put me off by throwing the girls into the harbour. Dressed like this, it’s easy to go straight in after them, I just kick of my boots and skirt. And the lads never reckon on me being able to bespell a nearby cart to randomly run away from its tether and catch them in the family jewels while I’m fishing the poor lass out of the drink.’
‘Couldn’t you give the miscreant a good kicking and magic the girl out of the water?’ Harry asked, finding himself liking Ryla a lot.
‘Not without your lot dragging me over the coals for breeching the Statutes of Secrecy. Besides, the girls would end up with the heebie jeebies if I floated them out of the drink, and I need them to be willing to talk to me, so we can sort out their little problems before they become large ones. But this is all besides the point. As I was saying, I was down at the docks last night – early this morning, really – when I saw the same man. Except this time he was driving a cart and there was a huge crate on the back of it, with an awful sound coming out of it.
‘Now you’ll think me stupid, but I had no idea there’d been a kidnapping, so I assumed it was monkeys. I know that sounds mad, but we get a lot of monkeys down here. There are always people bringing them in through the port, and they sound just like people when they moan. I thought Gideon was just working with another set of excise-avoiders, I had no idea they were smuggling him.’
‘I don’t think you’re stupid,’ Harry assured her. ‘But we’ll need a description of the man. And of the cart, if possible. And do you know where it was headed?’
‘It was headed towards the warehouses, but that’s not much help as there’s any number of other buildings it may have stopped at. Or it could have kept going to the passenger terminal, or the railway. I’m sorry, I wasn’t really looking. But I can do you one better than a description if you’ll wait here a moment.’
Ryla ducked inside her house and returned with a large sheet of parchment and a set of pencils. Using swift, confident strokes she drew a fair-haired man with coarse, cranky features and a distinctively crooked nose. Harry thought it better than the reconstructive drawings his department put out after interviewing witnesses using Legilemency.
She drew the cart, too. While it lacked signage, it was old-fashioned and had strange spokes and notable suspension. When Harry complimented her recall and draughtsmanship, she grinned. ‘Professor McGonagall always used to say I had an excellent visual memory. She’d always tell me that I had the shape exactly right in Transfiguration, at the same time as bemoaning my problems with density, like the ten-pound sparrow.'
Harry laughed. ‘You don’t want to know what she used to say to me.’
Ryla laughed, too. ‘She told us you were an outstanding student who always did his homework even when being actively pursued by the darkest wizard of our times. We knew it was all lies.’
‘Terrible, terrible lies. She was always my favourite teacher, you know.’
‘Tell me, Ryla, do you know Miss Astoria Greengrass?’
Ryla shook her head. ‘I know of her. She helps the Muggle-borns. We had a girl in Ravenclaw who said she was terrific and made everything very easy.’
‘I think the two of you should meet,’ said Harry. He took a card from his pocket. ‘You can Floo-call the Ministry on this line and it will get you directly through to the internal operator. If I’m in the building I will be happy to meet with you and introduce you to her formally, but if you can’t find me, tell her that I sent you and that I think you have a lot in common. She will be delighted to hear of your efforts here and may even be able to help you with resources.’
‘I would be pleased to meet her,’ Ryla said. ‘Only, she’s not keen on the Salvation Army, is she? I had a lady at St Mungo’s who I asked for help with contraceptives and she told me the girls would do much better with religion than prophylactics. But the Sallies and the local missionary types come down here and upset the girls and tell them they would be happier working as a scullerymaid. And no-one is happier as a scullerymaid. If they really had the girls’ best interests at heart, they’d give them elocution lessons and teach them how to dress and make their grooming more refined so they could work in a high-class establishment and charge a lot more.’
‘I promise that Miss Greengrass will do her utmost to stop missionaries,’ Harry told her. ‘And that she will be delighted to talk moral philosophy with you. I’m afraid I have to circulate your drawings. Can I leave you with Fitzwallace?’
‘Of course. It was a pleasure to meet you, Auror Potter.’
‘It was an honour to meet you, Miss Murglesten. You are doing remarkable work.’ He patted Fitzwallace on the back. ‘Don’t forget to breathe, Stephen.’
Harry trotted back to Hall’s house, eager to show Malfoy and Lewis the sketch of the man. But when he reached the cottage, only Peasegood was there, still guarding the door.
‘They’ve gone back to the Ministry, sir. They had to get more specimen containers, they said.’
‘Oh,’ said Harry. ‘Well, they’d know best.’ He took the sketches from his pocket and handed them to Peasegood with instructions to send them back with the next Auror available for copying and circulation, then went off to see how the rest of the doorknockers were going, and to have Ryla Murglesten draw them an image of Gideon Hall if she would be so kind, determinedly not wondering why he felt so absurdly disappointed.
Draco did not interrupt her. It was true that Potter had seemed intrigued by their processes, and apparently approving. But Draco had no more sense of him as a person than he had possessed at the start of the day. Perhaps a little more respect for the man’s ability to focus…
‘Should we just grab the supplies and head straight back out?’ Lewis asked him directly.
‘What? Oh, sorry. Let’s just see how Yallop and Periwig are doing before we leave.’
Astoria appeared in the hallway and Draco realised they were passing her office. ‘I thought I heard you,’ she said. ‘Are you free for lunch?’
Draco glanced at his watch. ‘Maybe a late one? Around two?’ he suggested. ‘Afternoon tea might be a safer bet.’
She smiled brightly at him. ‘Probably wise, I’ve got a meeting with the Home Secretary at eleven-thirty that could go brilliantly or awfully. Having a good first day?’
‘Surprisingly so.’ Noticing Astoria’s questioning glance at Emmeline, he added, ‘Sorry, Miss Astoria Greengrass, may I present Miss Emmeline Lewis. Miss Lewis is a treasure of the Auror laboratory team. Miss Lewis, I am pleased to introduce Miss Astoria Greengrass, the new Muggle Legal Liaison.’
The two women nodded courteously at each other and exchanged How do you do’s.
‘You were in Ravenclaw at school, weren’t you?’ Astoria asked.
‘Yes, I started the year you were Head Girl. You were very nice to all the Firsties and none of us received a single detention from you, even when we probably deserved one.’
Astoria smiled. ‘I always thought it was terribly unfair expecting First Years to behave.’
‘I’m sorry, Astoria,’ Draco interrupted. ‘But we’re on a case.’
Astoria raised an eyebrow.
‘Really,’ Emmeline assured her, mistaking surprise for doubt.
‘I will tell you all about it later,’ Draco promised, as he set off down the hallway. ‘I’ll let you know as soon as we’re back properly.’
Yallop and Periwig were surprised to see them back so soon. ‘Vastly underestimated the need for sample containers,’ Draco explained.
‘Have you found anything?’ Yallop asked.
‘Loads,’ said Emmeline, placing a de-shrunken bag of samples and notes on the table. ‘Gara, be a dear and make sure no-one touches any of this while we’re out.’
‘Don’t worry, Ems, I will guard it with someone else’s life.’
‘What about you two?’ Draco asked. ‘Any discoveries?’
The young men grinned. ‘Several. We’ve noticed a number of commonalities in the fine debris from the impounded packing crates and the bedding in their cells. Another half an hour and we should have a complete list identifying them and their place of origin,’ said Yallop.
‘Excellent work, Garamond. And you, too, David.’
‘We were lucky. They put down lots of straw, and things get caught in it easily,’ Periwig added.
‘Nothing interesting about the straw itself?’ Draco asked.
Yallop and Periwig looked at each other, smiles departing. ‘We are very stupid men,’ said Yallop.
‘Not at all,’ Draco interrupted, overriding their self-recrimination. ‘You are very busy young men who prioritised the complex. Just be sure to leave some time to investigate the simple later on.’
‘Yes, si—Draco,’ Yallop replied, sliding out of the honorific halfway through at Draco’s frown.
‘What’s it like in the field?’ Periwig blurted, clearly unable to contain himself any longer.
‘Quite satisfactory,’ Draco replied.
‘Brilliant!’ Lewis enthused. ‘We’re going over everything inch by inch. It’s amazing what we’re finding!’
‘And the Chief Auror still thinks it’s a good idea?’ Yallop asked, clearly wanting to be rid of his scepticism.
‘He joined in!’ Lewis told him. ‘He even found a hair.’
Yallop and Periwig exchanged looks of approval. Though not veterans, they were experienced and competent enough at their jobs to know that a hair could place an individual at a scene and possibly even secure a conviction.
‘So…’ Periwig squirmed a little, embarrassed, but determined to ask his question. ‘Does this mean we’ll get uniforms?’
Draco smiled. ‘You’ll get uniforms,’ he said. And they would. Even if he had to pay for them himself.
Astoria’s father, however, had slipped easily into complicity with her. He had ‘taken Astoria into work’ on her first day, a nicely ambiguous phrase that conjured up a vision of her sitting quietly in one of the less restricted parts of the Department of Mysteries, helping her father to decipher his habitually scrawled notes. Yesterday morning he had announced that he planned to introduce his daughter to several visiting delegates from Germany, which he had done – albeit as the new Muggle Legal Liaison.
Last night, her mother had mentioned her plans to take her daughter dress shopping, and Astoria had been on the brink of explaining that she had taken up a position in the Ministry when her father had interrupted. ‘Sorry, dear, she won’t be able to. Young Malfoy has been onto me and he has plans to see her in town tomorrow.’
Mrs Greengrass had readily demurred to love’s greater need, and Astoria had caught up with her father before he went upstairs to bed and hugged him soundly. ‘We’ll need to tell her at some point,’ she had whispered.
‘Yes, but not today.’
Clearly she would need her own home if things were to go on like this. It worked well for Charlie, and even Draco had taken a city flat to be closer to work and further from Malfoy Manor.
But that would have to wait. First she had a meeting with the Home Secretary. Taking a moment to ensure her dress and hair were suitably Mugglish. she picked up her reticule and began the long walk to the Atrium.
It was her second meeting with Sir Matthew. The first had been a quiet introduction facilitated by Mrs Weasley. He had been polite and encouraged her to raise concerns with him, but he had not been comfortable. Conservative in manner as well as politics, he was clearly not at ease with the existence of a second, secret Britain, but was too polite to openly ask what stopped witches and wizards from prosecuting open rebellion or takeover. Astoria was glad he had not been in government during the Voldemort War; she felt it would have gone very hard with him.
Several of her MLE colleagues nodded to her as she made her way to the Floos. It was harder to get all of their names right than she had imagined. She reassured herself that it was the same problem every new person faced: there were so many of them to learn while they all had to remember only one of you.
She took the short Floo to Diagon Alley, then Apparated to Westminster, to one of the palace’s Neo-Gothic shadows that provided solace to both those of a magical persuasion and those hiding from the Chief Whip. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Sir Matthew White Ridley, was a pleasant man with bristling muttonchops and a verdant soup-strainer moustache that made up for his receding hairline. Alas, while he welcomed her into his vast office and was respectfully attentive, he was not overly persuaded by her argument.
‘It’s all very well to tell me that you have had several women Ministers for Magic, but that’s really apples and oranges, isn’t it?’
‘Not at all,’ replied Astoria. ‘Your government and our government cover much of the same territory: legislation, defence, industry … It’s just that women have full franchise under our system and nothing like under your own.’
‘British women already have excellent representation in Parliament,’ he assured her.
His desk was considerably more intimidating than Harry’s, and the office had an oppressive fug of old pipe tobacco, though Sir Matthew was far too courteous to smoke in front of a lady. Astoria felt a head-ache coming on.
‘With respect, Sir Matthew, that’s only partially true,’ she said. ‘While I have every faith in your good will, and that of many others in both Government and Opposition, I know that there are areas of concern of which you remain uninformed. When you worry about the problems of the man of the land, you turn to the Board of Agriculture and the many members of both Houses with farming concerns. When you worry about the Armed Forces, you turn to the Secretary of State for War, and the many men in this Parliament who have valiantly served their country. But when you worry about the problems of women, there is no Minister for Women, there are no women in either House.’
Sir Matthew attempted a joke. ‘Am I to understand that you wish for women to take seats in Parliament as well as the vote?’
Astoria did not rise to his bait. ‘You know that to be a part of Mrs Fawcett’s argument and a logical progression of women’s franchise.’
Sir Matthew twinkled at her, a mannerism that Astoria had always found particularly annoying since, in the vast majority of cases, it attempted to disguise patronage with indulgence. ‘True, Miss Greengrass, true. But as to your earlier point, there may be no women within the House, but you may rest assured that almost all of us have wives, sisters and daughters and so once we are outside this building, we receive full and frank accounts of the needs of women today, and those foreseen for the next century.’
‘With the greatest respect, Sir Matthew,’ Astoria began – using the phrase that under parliamentary convention had long stood for ‘What a complete load of codswallop’ – ‘Your wives are all upstanding members of the professional and landed classes. Not one of them has ever been in service. Not one of them is a widowed mother forced to work in a factory to feed her children. Not one of them is a fallen woman who makes a living in the oldest trade. I am very glad that it is the case, but not one of them has ever had to choose between feeding all her children and taking one of them to see a doctor.
‘And then there is the other side of the matter. I am certain your wife loves you dearly, but has she ever spoken to you of her gynaecological health? Have you ever discussed family planning? If your sister was being beaten by her husband, would she tell you? Would you act?’
Sir Matthew was taken aback, but not without a defence. ‘A gentleman would never hit a lady, Miss Greengrass.’
Astoria knew he did not mean to offend, and yet … ‘Can I show you something that would change your mind?’ she asked.
‘Most certainly, good lady, but it will have to be another day, we only have forty-five minutes remaining in this meeting, and I know that you wanted to touch on education as well as suffrage.’
‘How high are you in the hierarchy of secrets within this government?’
He frowned. ‘I have Most Secret authorisation,’ he told her. ‘Second only to the Prime Minister.’
Astoria suspected he was exaggerating, but was too fired up to care. ‘Good,’ she said, then stood up, reached across the table and took hold of his arm.
It was a short Apparition to Whitechapel, and she made sure to account for the fact that Sir Matthew had been sitting down, adding a little spin and lift at the end that brought him to his feet.
‘What have you …?’ His face went white, and she realised he was scared as well as shocked.
‘My apologies, Sir Matthew,’ she said quickly. ‘That was appallingly ill-mannered of me. We’ve only travelled a few miles, but I don’t think what I have to show you should wait.’ Astoria widened her eyes beseechingly, judging herself for relying on her looks even as she did so.
‘We’ve travelled through the ether?’ asked Sir Matthew.
‘That’s a surprisingly accurate description of it, yes.’
His eyes widened and all fear left them. ‘And this is a thing your people can do? At will?’
Astoria had a creeping sense of worry that his briefing on her had involved little detail of what witches and wizards actually did. ‘Short distances only,’ she lied, visions of requests for translocations to Scottish shooting weekends dancing behind her eyes.
‘Still, what a remarkable thing!’
Astoria was relieved. She needed him to listen for the next forty-three minutes, and terrified people did not listen well.
‘Are we in Whitechapel?’ Sir Matthew asked.
She looked behind herself and saw a group of men wearing kippot and prayer shawls passing two young women who might, with a charitable eye, have been actresses from The Pavilion. It was a well-educated guess.
‘Down this way, if you would be so kind, Sir Matthew,’ Astoria said, leading him out of the alley she had Apparated them to and down the street.
The Whitechapel Women’s Dispensary and Hospital was an old building, but inside it was clean and well-ordered. Astoria left Sir Matthew in a quiet corner of the foyer and went in search of her friend. It took only a few minutes to find her, and a few seconds to convince her to show the Home Secretary around.
‘Sir Matthew, this is Doctor Annabel Stewart, one of the directors of the Dispensary. Annabel, this is Sir Matthew White Ridley, Secretary of State for the Home Department.’
‘One of yours?’ Sir Matthew asked Astoria, with a meaningful eyebrow.
Dr Stewart smiled. ‘No, but my youngest sister is. That’s how I met Astoria, and we’ve been friends ever since.’
‘Well, it’s very good to see a woman doctor,’ said Sir Matthew. ‘It’s not a field that attracts many of the fairer sex, but I know from Mrs Garrett Anderson that there are a great many advantages to having ladies working in the medical sciences and that you are very capable.’
‘I trained with her,’ Dr Stewart replied. ‘She inculcated a sense of excellence in all of us, with a passion for the sciences combined with a social conscience: it’s what led to me working here.’
‘Very good, very good, And do you have a great many patients?’
‘More than we can handle some days.’ Dr Stewart led them in through the left hand set of doors and into a large, busy room where queues of women waited at one end for a spare chair with the doctors – three men and two women – at the other end. ‘Most of the women who come in are just in need of basic medicine or hygienic care: sulphur paste, a clean dressing, or a packet of prophylactics. Many of our cases are obstetric and dealt with in the home. We have a pre-natal clinic on the other side of the building, for more complicated cases we arrange to have them come here for their lying-in or call us to attend the birth. A lot of then can’t afford it so we pretend that it’s staff training. For others, it’s just a matter of emphasising the importance of cleanliness and a good wash down with a sterile solution.
‘But Astoria didn’t bring you here to see them. She wants me to show you one of our hospital wards. Which I will do, Sir Matthew, but do you have time for a quick walk through the remainder of the facility first?’
‘Yes, of course,’ he assured her.
Dr Stewart smiled, and took his arm to lead him out into the building’s central corridor. She opened a door on the left and led them into a room filled with squalling babies and patient mothers sitting in rows of chairs while nursing sisters weighed and examined babies around a central table.
‘The post-natal clinic, We ask the new mothers to come in every few weeks after baby is born to check on feeding, recovery and infant health. We emphasise the need for good maternal nutrition and encourage the breast over the bottle, if you’ll pardon my directness. Those bottle manufacturers should be whipped for some of the germ traps they produce. Most of the time this is one of our more enjoyable wards to work on.
‘We do have complications, of course,’ she pointed back out through the door they had entered to a set of double doors on the other side of the corridor. ‘Our lying-in ward. We can perform caesarean sections here in an emergency, and have a very low infection rate. And we can provide ether for labour under safe conditions. Sadly, half our beds in there are taken up with cases that should not have had to end up here. Young girls or mothers of ten who have tried to rid themselves of their unwanted burdens. Those cases are not enjoyable. The ones who don’t bleed to death before we can help them, or die of sepsis we can’t control, often do themselves irreparable harm. One day a government will be brave enough to subsidise prophylactics or legalise termination, then we will be able to stop these cases occurring, or at least see to them early on, and save great trauma.’
Sir Matthew looked shocked, but treated her words seriously. ‘Does the morality of the issue not concern you?’ he asked.
‘Yes, of course. But there are more than enough unwanted children already alive in this city. I’d rather not add to the tally, and I’d far rather not kill unwilling mothers.’
Sir Matthew conceded the point. ‘You’re a pragmatist, Dr Stewart.’
‘I’m a scientist. We deal in practical matters,’ she replied. ‘Come along, I’ll walk you through the family clinic next, you’ll like that.’
It was a mark of Sir Matthew’s skill as a public figure that he did indeed give every indication of actually liking the family clinic, telling harried mothers that their whining sons and bored daughters were beautiful children of whom they must be very proud. He left smiles in his wake, bought, in the case of the children, by a liberal distribution of sixpences.
‘Another happy part of our work,’ Dr Stewart told them. ‘It’s mostly health checks, minor childhood illnesses and injuries and then education. We vaccinate against the diseases we can control, and for the rest, we teach good sanitation and early detection. An ounce of quarantine is worth a ton of cure, especially since our fever ward can only fit forty.’ She led them away from children hoping for more handouts and back into the dispensary’s central corridor.
‘And now we’re coming to the ward that Astoria wanted you to see. It is not, I warn you, one of our pleasant wards. It’s not our worst – we have a venereal disease ward, mostly girls from the streets but sometimes wives and sometimes victims of employers and other men who believe they have a right to a woman’s body. At least we can treat them as medical cases these days, not as social threats, but I say again that a subsidy for prophylactics would do some good.’
Astoria felt a small rush of pride at Annabel’s words. Her mentor, Mrs Millicent Fawcett, had been a leading voice in repealing the Contagious Diseases Act, which had imprisoned women found to carry venereal diseases, while leaving the men who had infected them at liberty. That she had been able to persuade politicians of the basic fairness and logic of repealing the Act gave them hope when it came to the prospect of Muggles gaining the vote.
‘Do you distribute such items here?’ Sir Matthew was asking Dr Stewart.
‘Most certainly. Our budget is mostly made up of private donations, many of them from the city’s wealthier women. My aunt’s bequest specifies that a percentage of its income be put to that very purpose every year. Between us, she refers to them as Sheridan’s Sheaths, after her husband.’
‘So you are privately funded?’
‘We approached the parish and the city, neither of which were persuaded that the needs of poor women and prostitutes were a good use of their funds, I’m afraid.’
She stopped outside a very heavy door with steel reinforcement. ‘This is our destination. I want to pause for a moment before we go through. Inside is our emergency ward. I would like you to see it as much as Astoria would, but you must promise me that you will not stare and that you will not do anything to cause these women distress. Many of them are very fragile and none of them will want to feel like an exhibit.’
‘I promise you,’ said Sir Matthew.
Dr Stewart led them in. Two-dozen beds lined the walls, every one of them full. Most of the faces were bruised, some battered. Only one looked up at them with interest, the others turned away from the strangers. Several plastered limbs were in evidence. While a few of the women had bleached or hennaed hair, most were dressed modestly and two wore bedclothes of great cost.
Dr Stewart saw Sir Matthew’s surprise at the presence of the wealthier ladies. ‘Their husbands won’t pay for them to see their own doctors,’ she explained in a quiet voice as she led them through the ward. ‘There is a good word of mouth about our work here, and some of our more well-to-do patients arrive in a friend’s carriage – the same friend usually foots all the bills. Others arrive on foot and hope that our charity will extend to them, which it always does.’
Sir Matthew turned to Astoria. ‘This is what you wanted me to see,’ he whispered.
‘I am afraid it is,’ she whispered back.
‘Of course, Lucy here,’ said Dr Stewart in a louder voice, ‘is staying with us because she thought she could run across the street faster than a carriage could run down it, didn’t you, Lu?’
‘Very nearly made it,’ replied the young girl with two broken arms. Astoria was pleased to see that neither of her legs appeared to be broken, so presumably she would one day run again.
‘You keep healing,’ Dr Stewart said, leading them back out through the door.
Astoria noticed there were significant locks and bolts on the inside.
‘We’ve had a few men who came here to finish the job,’ Dr Stewart informed them grimly once they were back in the corridor.
Sir Matthew turned to Astoria. ‘You believe that women’s suffrage will end this?’ he asked.
‘For as long as the law does not recognise women’s full citizenry, nor will those under the law,’ she replied.
He shook his head. ‘Giving women more rights won’t stop the evil of some men.’
‘True,’ said Astoria. ‘But it will make it easier for the women to demand the protection of the law, to retain property and to seek divorce if the situation cannot be improved.’
Dr Stewart scoffed. ‘The only way to improve the situation is to take the bullies who raise their fists to these girls and throw them into a deep, dark pit.’ She paused at Sir Matthew’s startled expression. ‘Forgive my directness, but I see the damage they do. And it’s very rarely a once-off occurrence. Lady Millington – the small brunette in the mauve bed jacket – this is her sixth visit. I have offered to take her into my own home, but every time she goes back to him.’
‘For the sake of the children, perhaps?’ asked Sir Matthew.
‘He beat a child from her womb. She will never bear another. Yes, it is horrible. At least the men who live off the earnings of our working girls announce their perfidy to the world. And for the most part, they stop hitting before they do permanent damage, because they know the value of their property. Lord Millington is a pillar of the community, so he can be as free with his fists as he likes.’
Sir Matthew was openly shocked. ‘I have met the man,’ he said. ‘I had no idea. Why does she go back?’
‘Because while she may have rights to property now, she has no means of acquiring any. And our society has taught women that to be a wife is the only honourable role.’
Air Matthew nodded soberly. ‘Wealth is a difficulty,’ he said. ‘But it is a more complex question that it appears, requiring changes to everything from employment to the banking system, and there are concerns about inheritance and taxation. I grant you that we need to work more urgently on this.
‘But I would say that the idea our society only respects women as wives is demonstrably untrue: look at you, Dr Stewart. Look at your nurses, at Miss Greengrass. There are a great many women filling vital roles within society, and many of you are unmarried. The twentieth century will be a time of great strides for women.’
Dr Stewart sighed. ‘Sir Matthew, you seem a very decent man. I know that you are genuinely acting in good faith, but not, I fear, in full possession of the facts. I obtained my degrees with the assistance of my aunt. My mother and favour wait anxiously for the day when I will give all this up to become a wife and mother. I imagine Astoria has the same problem.’
‘My mother,’ Astoria confirmed. ‘My father appreciates my work.’
‘My nurses are safe here,’ Dr Stewart continued, ‘but some have come from employment where they were treated as available bonuses for the senior staff, a view shared by some patients, I am sorry to say. There are nursing matrons across the United Kingdom who would do the army proud with the vigorous defences they have mounted for their girls.
‘You acknowledge, as many do, that there are women who feel they have a vocation. And many more women who know they have no choice but to work. Yet our laws rarely reflect that. There are few protections for us, few avenues for advancement in most fields. You know that government can do more. Your own coalition has been instrumental in stamping out the most egregious abuses in our factory system, and for that you should be rightly proud. But your work is not done.’
Sir Matthew took Dr Stewart’s hands and looked at her seriously. ‘Tell me, doctor, do you believe that votes for women will make a difference? Is that the most pressing need for all these poor souls?’
Dr Stewart gripped his hands. ‘Probably not. Most of them need more money, cheaper food, better housing more than they need the vote. But if women do vote, they will vote for people who understand the struggle to put food in a child’s mouth, and who think that jail is the appropriate destination for a rapist or wife beater. Ultimately, it will make a difference, though I have no hope of it happening swiftly.’
‘Thank you.’ Sir Matthew shook her hand. ‘You have opened my eyes to a great many issues that were previously too abstract in my thinking.’
Stewart smiled at him. ‘Please feel free to return and visit at a more relaxed pace. You could meet some of our staff, and see some of your government’s successes to balance out the failings.’
‘I would be honoured.’ He fished a card from its case and passed it to her. ‘Please, contact me directly if you can think of any specific ways in which I can support your endeavours here.’
Astoria sneaked a glance at her watch. She had minutes left to return the Home Secretary to his office. ‘I’m sorry, Bel, we have to rush.’
Dr Stewart kissed her cheek. ‘Come and visit me properly soon,’ she instructed.
Astoria promised to. Outside, the main thoroughfare was busy and Astoria was not sure she would be able to find a secluded spot to Disapparate in time. But then a woman screamed ‘Thief!’ at the same time a series of cabs trotted past, and Astoria was able to take advantage of the noise and distraction to whisk them away.
The Home Secretary was a quick learner, and kept his feet as they appeared in his office. Though his eyes danced with the marvel of the trip, the rest of his face was sombre.
‘Miss Greengrass, I must thank you. Though it is unorthodox to kidnap senior members of the Government, this has been an enlightening hour and I have changed my thinking on several issues.’
‘Including universal suffrage?’
‘You have tipped me from wavering to in favour,’ he acknowledged. ‘Alas, my opinion will count for little. There is a war coming and will not be able to prosecute significant reforms until it is over.’
‘War?’ asked Astoria, wishing she had stayed abreast of developments in the Transvaal.
‘I am afraid so,’ said Sir Matthew.
‘And nothing will stop it?’
‘I fear not. We have all but exhausted every diplomatic channel and the momentum all leads towards conflict.’
‘So more young blood to be shed in the name of ambition and false patriotism,’ said Astoria, bitterly.
Sir Matthew was a kind man, and he had heard something of the Wizarding War. ‘Your brother?’ he asked gently.
‘My sister,’ Astoria corrected him. ‘She lived. Barely a scar, on the outside. Just memories of friends with their throats ripped out, or dead at the hands of their cousins. I hope you can find another way.’
Sir Matthew patted her arm. ‘I share your hopes, Miss Greengrass. I’m sorry, I have Balfour waiting for me…’
Astoria composed herself. ‘Not at all. I thank you for your time.’
‘I thank you. I hope that all our meetings will be as fascinating as this one. I can immediately work with the police forces to improve their work on violence in the home and the scourge of rape,’ he said as he escorted her to the door.
‘That is a good start,’ Astoria said, smiling at him, because she could see he was trying.
‘We meet again in a fortnight, I believe. Let us both look for more areas that can be improved before then.’
Astoria was able to return his parting courtesies with all sincerity. But as she took her leave, she felt as though she had just played an exhausting game of Quidditch, only to find that no one had released the Snitch.
She rounded out the time before lunch writing out her report for Hermione. An Owl from Charlie arrived, inviting her to dinner and a discussion on how they would break his plans to whisk her away from it all to her mother and Mrs Malfoy. She grinned at his foolishness, while simultaneously hoping he was not entirely joking. It was followed by an Owl from Draco, saying he would be back at three, and bringing afternoon tea with him. She sent positive replies to both and then ordered a sandwich from the MLE kitchens and began to compile a list of Wizarding families who had offered to help Muggle-borns and their parents onto platform 9 3/4 at the start of the next Hogwarts term.
Draco’s eventual appearance was ahead of the hour appointed, and his idea of afternoon tea appeared to be half a patisserie. ‘Are you celebrating? Or in need of cheering up?’ he asked her as he came in behind a pile of boxes.
‘The latter, I’m afraid. What’s all this?’
He put the boxes down and began to open the topmost. ‘Mostly cake, some buns and eclairs. I’m afraid that I forgot to ask what you like, so I just bought a selection. There’s a choice of teas in the big box.’ He smiled at her. ‘I’m celebrating the successful beginning of our plans for national importance. What am I commiserating with you?’
The spread was so ridiculously overdone that Astoria began to smile. ‘I was going to moan that Muggle politicians are far too cautious, short-sighted and self-focussed, but that’s all politicians, really, isn’t it?’
‘Don’t let our glorious Heads of Department hear you say that,’ Draco warned teasingly.
‘They’re not politicians, they’re dedicated civil servants. Even though they appear to play politics as frequently as it suits them.’ She took a slice of fruit flan. ‘Thank you, this all looks delicious and very bad for me. You’re a gem for thinking of it, I needed a jolly good cheer up. And you’re quite right, all our plans are progressing apace.’
Draco poured them tea. ‘I take it that means you have another rendezvous planned with Charlie.’
‘He’s taking me out to dinner. A Muggle restaurant tonight, where we can plan some very public appearances on Diagon Alley. You’d be welcome to join us.’
‘Alas, I already have plans this evening, and I suspect I’d be something of a gooseberry.’
Astoria patted his knee. ‘Don’t be silly. Our mothers think we are engaged, what could be more proper than you taking me out to see my prospective fancy man?’
Draco laughed. ‘You’re a terrible person under all your niceness.’
Astoria grinned, pleased that he’d noticed. It was turning out that there were many unexpected benefits to her mother’s meddling, not least of which was gaining Draco as a friend. He was thoughtful and amusing, a far cry from the cross and haunted character she remembered from school.
‘Are you missing Geneva?’ she asked.
‘Not really,’ he admitted. ‘I didn’t really know anyone I enjoyed spending time with.’
Astoria who had heard some of the more salacious stories, raised an eyebrow.
Draco rolled his eyes. ‘Which is to say, I had few real friends there, and while I enjoyed my work, it was all research for research’s sake. Here, in not yet a full day, I’ve already found new real-world applications for spells I had previously thought of esoteric interest only, and I seem to be encouraging a set of young people. It’s all rather invigorating.’
‘You’re enjoying yourself,’ Astoria teased.
‘I wouldn’t go that far,’ Draco replied, winking. ‘After all, this is employment. Now tell me about your day.’
Astoria did, and accepted his praise for engaging Sir Matthew’s interest along with his commiseration that her main goal seemed unachievable in the near future. She made him recount his adventures in Dover, laughing at his Emmeline impressions. All too soon, he looked sadly at his watch and declared he had to return to the laboratory. She insisted he take most of the remaining baked goods with him, and promised that she or Charlie would Owl him if they came up with any brilliant plans that evening.
Hermione Weasley stopped in around four, a copy of Astoria’s report in her hand. ‘Did you really Apparate the Home Secretary to Whitechapel?’ she asked.
‘Should I not have?’ Astoria replied, suddenly anxious.
Hermione smiled and shrugged. ‘There’s no rule against it, he has the clearance and I gave you carte-blanche in dealing with him. But the look on his face must have been priceless.’
‘He looked sick for a moment and then he wanted to do it again. Be warned that we could end up with a Home Secretary who suggests an excursion every meeting.’
Mrs Weasley laughed. ‘He’ll have to explain away any press appearances at opposite ends of the country in the same morning.’
Astoria felt compelled to confess. ‘I lied and told him it only works over short distances in case he started asking us to provide transport services.’
‘Very wise. Any luck with your discussion or do I need to read all the way to the end of this?’ Hermione waved the report.
Astoria drooped. ‘Sir Matthew thinks there’s no prospect of the question even being put forward at a top level for years. It’s going to take decades at this rate.’
Hermione helped herself to one of the eclairs remaining on Astoria’s desk. ‘Cheer up,’ she said, heading for the door. ‘They might lose the next general election, even without women voting in it.’
Astoria tried to smile, but she felt increasingly downhearted about the day. It was hard to concentrate on any of her work and she contemplated telling Charlie she had to go home for an early night. But she decided to rally and took advantage of her private bathroom to give herself a quick wash and tidy. Transfiguring her walking suit into something more suited to the evening, she determined to take advantage of the good company and food. It was still fully light and her evening cape was more than adequate for the weather, so she decided to walk.
Harry Potter was leaving the Ministry just as she stepped outside. She stopped in her tracks, unreasonably surprised to see him. ‘Miss Greengrass,’ he said, smiling.
‘Auror Potter,’ she returned the greeting. ‘Are you leaving for the day?’
‘Off for a spot of dinner in Soho, then back for a few more hours, for my sins. It’s so pleasant, I thought I’d walk. And you?’
‘Much the same, except I’m to the Criterion.’
‘Oh please, allow me to escort you.’
‘It’s out of your way,’ Astoria said, though she wanted to accept his offer.
‘Barely, and I need the exercise after sitting at my desk for half the afternoon.’
She smiled. ‘Thank you, I would be delighted.’
Astoria was a keen walker, even in Muggle dress, and they fell into an easy pace that took them past the mass of dawdling pedestrians. Here in the centre of the city the streets and pavements were well swept and reasonably clean; even at the end of a summer’s day the smell was bearable as long as the breeze held up. Vacant cab drivers slowed their horses as they passed, in hopes of a fare, but were ignored or waved on.
‘Your ersatz fiancé had a good first day,’ Harry told her.
‘I saw him earlier. He seemed very pleased with things.’
‘And I hear that you leapt straight into revolutionising the Home Department.’
Astoria winced. ‘Does everyone know?’
Harry shook his head. ‘No, I only know because Hermione insists on using my office as some sort of gentlewoman’s club where she can drink a metaphorical glass of port and discuss the day’s events.’
The image was instantly believable.
‘I wouldn’t say that I’ve made any revolutionary changes,’ Astoria said. ‘But at least I’ve engaged the Home Secretary’s interest when it comes to some of the inequalities Muggles face. I admit that I completely forgot to even raise the issues of schooling for Squibs or our Cross-Channel services with him, but I see him again in a fortnight.’
‘Excellent work. And what about you and Mr Malfoy? Are your mothers still trying to manage your lives?’
Astoria laughed. ‘I suspect so, but the truth is that I’ve been too busy to find out in the last few days.’
‘Are you going to tell yours about your new career? Or are you going to wait until you have a great success announced in the Daily Prophet?’
‘I haven’t decided,’ she confessed. ‘I’ve spent so much time coming up with plans to do things that I’ve had none at all to reflect on what happens once they’re actually done.’
Harry smiled at her. ‘Well, you’ve had a success with the Home Secretary at any rate.’
‘Not the one I wanted,’ she sighed.
‘Perhaps not, but it is nevertheless a success that will make a positive, practical difference, I am told.’
‘That’s true,’ Astoria conceded.
‘Then you should be proud of your work.’
‘I’m more proud of the Home Secretary for finding something he could do even though his hands were tied on the bigger issues, and of my friend Annabel, for being so extraordinary. They’re the ones who did the actual work today.’
Harry took her hand and placed it on his arm. ‘Don’t focus too much on your end goal, or you’ll miss the small victories along the way,’ he advised her.
‘I have ended the day with a more profound sense of gratitude for my opportunities and my friends,’ Astoria told him.
‘That is indeed a small victory. I hope you count me amongst your friends.’
Strangely enough, she did. There was something tremendously comforting about the Head Auror, quite aside from his very pleasant face. ‘One of the five finest,’ she assured him. He grinned in reply.
The crowd had changed from the bustling professionals around Charing Cross to theatre goers and other pleasure seekers. It was easier to keep their striding pace.
‘I met someone today who reminded me of you,’ Harry said. ‘I’d take it as a personal favour if you could make time to meet with her at some point in the near future.’
‘Of course,’ said Astoria. 'What’s her name?’
‘Amarylis Murgleston, known as Ryla. She lives in Dover and has become a one-woman medical and protection service for the girls who work down by the docks.’
‘And by “work”, you mean …’
‘I like the sound of her. Can you introduce us?’
‘I’ve already asked her to visit us at the Ministry. I’ll put on a tea when she does.’
‘Thank you. I would like to make her acquaintance. I sometimes wonder if I should cease political campaigns like votes for women and spend my energies on improving the lot of ordinary working women and men,’ Astoria mused.
‘Can’t you do both?’ Harry asked. ‘In fact, don’t you already do both? There are a lot of ordinary Muggle-born families who have benefitted from your help.’
‘There’s just so much more to do,’ Astoria sighed. ‘Everywhere I turn in London, there is need. Look across the road. That house with the green door is a gentlemen’s club, for gentlemen of particular taste. Those boys waiting outside are— well, you can guess.’
When Harry didn’t reply, Astoria realised she may have been inadvertently tactless. She was just framing an apology when she looked up at him and then followed his gaze. There, across the road, in front of the house with the green door, talking to a young man and with his back to them, was Draco Malfoy.
Draco would not have described himself as having a song in his heart the following morning, but would, if pressed, have admitted to a spring in his step. He was looking forward to seeing his team and embarking on another day of discoveries. He had made it barely five feet out of the elevator when he heard his name being called, ‘Mr Malfoy…’
He did not need to turn around to know that the voice belonged to Harry Potter.
Draco composed his features into an expression of polite interest. ‘Good morning, Auror Potter.’
‘Good morning.’ Potter looked a little flustered – there was something odd about him today. ‘Do you have a few minutes available for a quick meeting?’
‘Are you terminating my employment?’ Draco asked, pretending to both himself and Potter that the question was wholly in jest.
‘Merlin no, I’m looking forward to seeing some of your results.’
‘Then I’d be happy to meet. Your office or mine?’
Potter ignored the opportunity for a joke, answering ‘Yours is closer, and we won’t have to contend with Hermione if she gets bored and comes in search of distraction.’
‘Then this way,’ Draco said, gesturing even though Potter knew the way better than he did.
It was remarkable, thought Draco on opening his door, how much clutter he had managed to accumulate in one day. Especially given he had spent half of yesterday in Dover. He had intended to arrange the piles of reference books on his shelves, but instead they teetered across half the desk surface and overflowed onto the floor. The pages of raw data were, at least, part of their current investigation. But the box of leftover pastries just looked indulgent. At least there was a keeping charm on them. ‘Sorry about the mess,’ he apologised. ‘Croissant? Chelsea bun?’
Potter looked amused. ‘No, thank you, I had a large breakfast. And don’t worry, clean desks are usually the sign of someone with too little to do.’
Draco gestured to his guest chair and navigated his way round the desk. ‘So, we have reams of data from our samples,’ he said, holding up a selection of the parchments that littered his desk. ‘But it is going to take time to fully collate and analyse it. However, there are already several points of interest that we believe to be pertinent to the case. Before I go on, do you prefer informal briefings or full annotated presentations when we have findings for you?’
‘Informal,’ Potter said without pause. ‘Though we will need full and annotated versions for evidence that proves useful if we want our case to stand up in the Wizengamot.’
‘We can do that. So, two main findings: firstly, all the straw in the crates originating the the UK and in the various warehouses has come from the one supplier: T.B. Perkins and Sons in Norwich. They’re a very large enterprise and wholly Muggle, so it may be hard to get a look at their records without resorting to the sort of sleight of hand that I suspect is frowned upon by those of us meant to be upholding the Statutes of Secrecy. And that’s supposing that there are legitimate accounts and that our smugglers have not just been accommodated cash in hand, no questions asked.
‘Given the volumes they’ve been going through, Periwig thinks it’s very likely that they have weekly deliveries set up, so a surveillance team could prove useful. Additionally, Yallop tells me that while Perkins have a reputation for good prices and quality, it’s not so extreme that customers would flock to Norfolk from across the nation. Straw is, apparently, not an item one would put too much thought into, so he believes our smugglers had a pre-existing relationship with the company and are therefore likely to be local.’
‘That’s good work,’ said Potter.
‘There’s better to come. Yallop and Periwig also identified a number of common particulates in the bedding – mostly fine estuarine gravel and grass seeds. Their best guess is that it comes from somewhere in the vicinity of King’s Lynn. I cross-referenced the town with T.B. Perkins and Sons’ public records and they have an offshoot of their main Norwich depot in the town. So that’s where we recommend you start.’
Draco could see that Potter was impressed, and felt a pleasant rush of pride.
‘This is excellent,’ Potter told him. ‘What about the materials we collected in Dover?’
‘Still analysing, I’m afraid. It takes time. We should have some useful conclusions for you by this afternoon.’
Potter smiled at him. ‘Not to worry, you’ve already made a very fine start.’
‘So,’ said Draco, ‘Is this what you came in to discuss?’
Potter looked uncomfortable. Draco wasn’t sure whether to be intrigued or worried.
‘Last night, well, early evening, really …’ Potter began, seeming reluctant to come to the point. ‘I was walking with a friend in Haymarket, and we saw you …’
‘I see.’ Draco could hear the coldness in his own voice.
Potter dragged a hand through his hair. ‘No, you don’t see. I’m the last person on Earth who would question your choice of clubs, or what you do inside them. But you were talking to one of the boys outside.’
‘Percival Maddowes. He’s 25. Muggle. Thinks I am, too. And his affections are not negotiable.’
Potter’s other hand brought havoc to the other side of his hair. ‘I was not suggesting they were. You haven’t done anything wrong, I’m trying to warn you. His name is really Percy Meadows and he’s a low-level confidence trickster. He doesn’t cause a great deal of harm, but I wouldn’t leave him alone with any of your valuables.’
‘Ah,’ said Draco.
Potter peered at him. ‘You’ve lent him money, haven’t you?’’
‘Ten pounds,’ Draco confessed. ‘Apparently his affections were negotiable after all.’
Potter half-smiled. ‘Don’t be too disappointed. Usually he just secures the money and doesn’t bother with any affection at all. He must have liked you.’
Draco found himself smiling back, albeit ruefully.
‘And there’s one more thing you should know,’ Potter went on. ‘The friend I was walking with was Miss Greengrass. I assured her that I knew the man you were with and that the circumstances were innocent – or not,’ he allowed at Draco’s raised eyebrow, ‘But you should chat with her so she stops worrying that you might be spending your evenings corrupting the nation’s minors.’
Draco’s creeping mortification was alleviated by the thought of Potter trying to explain his familiarity with young London sodomites to Astoria. Particularly yesterday’s Astoria in full Virago flight.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Useful information on both counts.’
‘Not at all,’ said Potter. ‘Since Labouchère has been enforced, one can’t be too careful. And what of you? It’s only your second day, and for all that you have made great strides already, you must have questions. Is there anything you’d like to ask?’
Dozens of things, thought Draco.What did the departmental deductive auditor do? Could he meet with Mr Greengrass in Mysteries and discuss the nature of air and vapours? How did Potter deal with a taste for men in the public chaos that was London? Which clubs did he attend? Did he have a private arrangement that others should know of? Why was the Ministry coffee so remarkably undrinkable?
‘Where are your spectacles?,’ he asked, finally putting his finger on what had changed most about Potter’s appearance that morning.
Potter patted his pocket. ‘Here. I don’t always need them, you know. I can see well enough to get around. Just not for reading or on a case.’
‘Right. Silly of me not to notice earlier. I just don’t think I’ve ever seen you without them before.’
Potter looked at him quizzically. Or possibly myopically.
Draco made a show of straightening the papers on his desk. ‘Thank you, Auror Potter, I appreciate your time and thoughtfulness. I should begin work on your remaining samples and the full report on the straw findings.’
Potter nodded. ‘Keep up the good work.’
He was halfway to the door before Draco’s mouth made a treacherous bid for independence. ‘Call on us if there’s anything more we can do in the field.’
Potter turned back, his half-smile reappearing. ‘I will,’ he said.
Draco waited until he had left the room before banging his head on the desk.
With timing that suggested she had waited for Potter to leave and then counted to twenty, Emmeline Lewis knocked on his open door.
‘Come in,’ said Draco. ‘Have a pastry. Do you have any momentous news you need to tell me?’
Emmeline raised an eyebrow. ‘Gara was in early and thinks he’s narrowed down the make of that boot print to two possible models and is cross-referencing them to shoemakers. Will that do?’
‘It’s a good start. Take a Chelsea bun.’
Emmeline did. ‘So, Chief Auror Potter was here …’ Her face was simultaneously hopeful and nervous.
‘Praising our work,’ Draco assured her.
She smiled. ‘Will we get to go out again today?’
‘If there’s another fresh crime. Until then, let’s focus on working through what we already have.’
‘I suppose that would be an efficient use of our time,’ Emmeline allowed. 'Are you coming down to the lab?’
‘In a few minutes. I need to have a brief word with Miss Greengrass first. If she hexes me, could you please assure Potter that it was all my fault.’
‘Is that likely?’
Emmeline picked up On the Measurements of Magic from the book pile closest to her. ‘If you die, can I have this?’
‘Yes, unless you are complicit in my death.’
Emmeline grinned at him. ‘I wouldn’t do that, Draco, you’re the most fun we’ve ever had in this department.’
‘Go. Analyse. I’ll join you shortly.’
There was, he told himself as he walked down the corridor, every possibility that Astoria was busy, or out, or running late this morning. Naturally, this meant that she was sitting quietly at her desk with the door open.
‘I’ve been expecting you,’ she said. ‘Did Harry warn you about last night?’
Draco took the upholstered chair opposite her desk. ‘Auror Potter alerted me to the fact there could have been a small misunderstanding. He also said that he had explained the situation.’
‘He gave an explanation,’ said Astoria. ‘Which is unlikely to be true.’
‘The parts about my companion being twenty-five were wholly accurate,’ Draco told her. ‘Though I learned this morning that he was more interested in my wealth than my beauty.’ Even as he said it, he realised it was not the most politic statement given her mother’s machinations. ‘Sorry,’ he added.
‘Don’t apologise to me, I’m interested in neither.’ Astoria looked at the wall for a long minute.
Draco considered wishing her a good morning and returning to work, but he valued her friendship and needed her co-operation. ‘It’s just a gentlemen’s club, Astoria,’ he said. ‘Blaise is a member, he took me along. And yes, it’s mostly full of nancys and artists and the odd Sapphist in trousers, but there’s no cruelty or oppression happening behind closed doors. Occasional bouts of immorality in some of the quieter corners and the guest accommodation, I will grant you, but it’s between adults who both wish for it.’
‘And those boys out the front?’ Astoria asked. ‘Some of them couldn’t be older than 14.’
‘They are there to ply their trade, yes. Blaise tells me they are banned from the inside of the club, and that few members associate with them. But they are conveniently available for those gentlemen of the city who would never dream of setting foot behind that green door, yet will crawl past it in their carriages, hoping for the chance to acquire a companion for an hour. Some of them prefer the younger lads because they can tell themselves it’s just a return to schooldays. Others actively seek out the youngest. I’ve seen it time and again in many cities. I knew a lad who used to work in the trade, he told me that he thought it was better he get paid for it than their unsuspecting sons find themselves put to use.’
‘That’s horrible,’ said Astoria.
‘Yes,’ Draco agreed. ‘And he was happier with the good salary I give him to collect alpine herbs. But what was it you told me your doctor friend said yesterday? Morality needs to give way to reality.’
‘They’re children,’ Astoria snapped.
Draco ran his hands through his hair – pausing mid-gesture when he realised he was emulating Potter. ‘I don’t know what to tell you, Astoria. Boys like that are to be found across most of the world. I don’t know how much choice they have in their way of life. I’ve never had much to do with them. Certainly never any sort of commercial transaction.
‘I went to the club with Blaise looking for diverting company. I found some. He was a consenting adult and we entered into a mutually beneficial arrangement that was nothing more. Yes, I walked straight past those boys without even considering if they were venal or vulnerable. I do not know what to do about them. I don’t want to pay for their services, which they would find useful, and they would be suspicious of my charity if I offered it. It’s one thing for you to walk into a situation like that, distributing pound notes and soup. If I tried the same, with my proclivities, I would find myself arrested and facing two years with hard labour.’
Astoria frowned. ‘You’d just Apparate away if you were arrested.’
‘That is not the point. Those boys would have no way of knowing that and their suspicions would be sensible.’
She dropped her face into her hands. ‘Damn it all, Draco, I know that you haven’t done anything wrong, and that I have no real right to complain. But when I saw you there, I was so angry for a moment. Harry assured me that you wouldn’t be doing anything improper – by which I assumed he meant unethical rather than illegal – but those boys looked so unhappy to be there.’
‘I’m sure some of them were,’ Draco admitted.
‘You think some weren’t?’
‘It’s hard to make a living if you’re a Muggle. Some would be hoping to make good money before their looks fade, and to possibly secure a long-term benefactor. It’s no different than the shopgirls who frequent theatres looking for wealthy admirers. The telegraph boys have the same goals, they just need to be more circumspect about them.’
‘There must be something we can do,’ Astoria sighed.
‘I hear Socialism is the coming thing,’ Draco suggested. ‘I looked up the term Comrade.’
If ever there were a person she would never suspect of embracing Marx … ‘Would you be happy sharing your wealth?’ Astoria asked.
‘It depends with whom. You and Charlie, certainly, not that he needs it. Pansy and Theodore Nott, absolutely not.’
Astoria gave him a small smile. ‘No, they’re awful.’ She stood up and came around her desk to hug him. ‘I’m sorry. I just hate the fact we can’t make these things better. I can take a man across the country in a second, turn a desklamp into a duck, but I can’t do a thing to just make people’s lives better.’
‘I probably don’t need all my money,’ Draco mused, surprised to hear the words come out of his mouth.
Astoria looked at him. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that I could easily make do without enough to pay for a few scholarships. If there’s one thing we know works to change lives, it’s schooling.’
Astoria hugged him again, more fiercely this time. ‘That would be magnificent. Could you afford thirty and mix them up between Hogwarts and Muggle schools?’
‘I imagine so. More, probably. And we should make sure they have clothes and books and housing. And some spending money so they can socialise with other students.’
‘When can we start?’
‘I don’t know,’ Draco confessed. ‘I have no idea where to start. Is there somewhere we can just give money? How do we find the people who will benefit the most?’
‘I’ll ask Annabel and Professor McGonagall,’ Astoria said.
‘A good plan. And now, I’m afraid I have to go and supervise my staff if I want Potter to continue laving my team with praise.’
‘Harry was right about you.’
Draco tried to stay relaxed. She still had her arms around him and would feel it if he let himself show the tension provoked by her words. ‘What did he say?’
‘He said that you would be a very good man if you could only stop being so afraid of the prospect.’
‘I could just as easily put my mind to being a very bad man instead, you know.’
‘No you couldn’t. You have no talent for it. You want to be liked and loved, not feared.’
He rested his chin on her shoulder. ‘You don’t know that. You’ve only really known me for less than a week.’
Astoria stepped back from him, grinning. ‘Yes, and in that time, you’ve changed your entire life to help me.’
‘Damn,’ Draco said, an echoing grin spreading across his face. ‘Hoist by my own petard.’
Astoria straightened his jacket lapels and smoothed his cravat. ‘You go and help bring evildoers to justice. I’ll get to work on increasing the levels of social justice in the United Kingdom. We will be forces for good in a sorry world.’
‘As you say, Miss Greengrass.’ Draco bowed.
‘Mr Malfoy.’ She dropped an insouciant curtsey.
Smiling, he went to work. Lewis, Yallop and Periwig were all busily working on reconstructing the Dover grid in an empty corner of the laboratory, reassembling the grid at one-half size.
‘Excellent work,’ Draco commended them as the door swung closed behind him. ‘Was that your idea, Emmeline?’
She spared him a quick glance. ‘I thought it was yours. You showed me how to adjust the scale yesterday.’
‘Yes,’ said Draco, ‘for fresh grids in new environments. I never thought of using it to view an extant one at a more convenient size.’
Emmeline shrugged. ‘It seemed an obvious next step from what you taught me.’
‘Oh, I fully agree that it does. Now that you have thought of doing it.’
She flashed a quick grin over her shoulder.
Draco pitched in to help and within the hour they had the answers to several questions. Garamond’s boot evidence topped the list. The soles were a specialty item sold only to two cordwainers and the maker’s elderly family. Both the cordwainers were in Norfolk. From the Murglesten sketch and description of the culprit, plus compiled witness accounts of Gideon Hall, they had been able to estimate the culprit’s rough size, given the pollen evidence and other signs of Hall being dragged at least part of the way from his house.
The hair that Potter had found belonged to a Northern European who did not use hair oil, or at leat had not since he last gave his hair a thorough wash.
There was not enough for Garamond to entirely recreate the original hexes cast, but he could say that, judging by the apparent velocity, Hall had been knocked down by Impello, or a variation thereof.
‘Knowing that is not a lot of use in terms of specialisation – most people can cast it competently – but if we find a suspect we should be able to check back through his wand’s history.'
‘And there was a large amount of Floo powder mixed among the samples gathered from the floor,’ added David. ‘Together with an unusually large container of it on the mantel. So I checked and Hall never passed his Apparition licence. If he’s not capable of Apparating, it will be easier for his kidnappers to hold him without needing complex spellcraft or to drug him to the point of sedation.’
'I just hope he doesn’t get desperate and try to Apparate,’ Emmeline said.
Draco joined his young team in shuddering at the thought. He had seen people Splinched during the War; so desperate to get away that they could not focus enough to take the entirety of their bodies.
‘Let’s take all of this to Potter, he said. ‘There’s enough here for him to have a real opportunity of finding the kidnapper at least.’
The others looked at him expectantly.
‘What?’ Draco asked.
‘We’re waiting for you to go to Potter,’ Emmeline told him.
‘We’re all going. That’s what let us take this to Potter means,’ said Draco, with perhaps a little more eyerolling than was necessary ‘I’m not sure how many times I have to say this, but credit is shared when collective and apportioned fairly when not in this team. I have no idea how you were treated before I got here, but this is the way it is now.’
‘Aurors asked us to tell them the answers then pretended they thought them up,’ David muttered. ‘Except Potter, Fitzwallace and Dawlish. They’re all OK.
‘Well, I will personally hex the next one who tries that,’ Draco promised, earning looks of surprised interest from all three of his juniors. He sincerely hoped the old rumours of Malfoy Dark Spells would prevent anyone trying, he could only imagine the look on Potter’s face and the difficulty of explaining the situation to Gra–Weasley. ‘Come on. You all deserve to hear praise first hand.’
Shaking his head at the foolish grins on their faces, he led his team down the corridors towards the Chief Auror’s office.
Carston was startled to see all four of them appear, but Draco smiled brightly at the man and told him they were there with good news for Potter. He heard the message relayed through Potter’s open door – ‘The whole lot of them, with not even an appointment!’ – followed by a laugh and an instruction to show them in.
Potter gave him a questioning look as they traipsed in and Draco could only suppose that it was in reference to Astoria. He tried to convey his successful conversation in a reassuring nod, which seemed to work.
‘Miss Lewis, Messrs Malfoy, Yallop and Periwig, I’m told you have good news for me.’
The team looked to Draco again.
‘You did most of the work,’ he said. ‘You tell him.’
Though they fell over each other at first in their enthusiasm, they quickly fell into a systematic report that conveyed their findings surprisingly well. Draco was proud to see how naturally they shared credit for the intellectual leaps that had brought them to their conclusions, as well as the hard work along the way.
‘So start with talking to the cordwainers,’ Emmeline concluded. ‘Because one of them will likely know our man. Unfortunately, aside from location, we can’t find anything that links them to the broader smuggling case.’
‘Location is a start,’ said Potter. ‘It’s still possible that it’s all coincidence, but given Mr Hall’s past familiarity with smuggling, there’s every chance it’s not. None of the flunkies we captured in this week’s raids have led us anywhere, let’s hope this does. It’s been very impressive work from all of you.’
Draco could feel a dismissal pending, so leapt in to forestall it. ‘We need uniforms,’ he said. ‘Not,’ he added at Potter’s frown, ‘standard Auror issue. Only Emmeline has earned that right, and they don’t have anything like enough pockets. But something to identify the team both within the Ministry and when we are out on cases. I was thinking a band of Auror red around the collar and front fold, and then black for the main fabric, as we encounter a lot of scorches and stains in our work.’
Potter looked interested. ‘I support the idea in principle,’ he said. ‘Can you sketch me some designs?’
‘I can,’ said Periwig.
‘I’ll help,’ said Lewis, before Draco could even begin to worry what sort of added extras Periwig would incorporate.
‘Splendid,’ said Potter. ‘Mr Malfoy, would you mind staying behind for a moment?’
Emmeline raised her eyebrows at him as she turned to leave. Draco shrugged and shooed her out with the others. Yallop closed the door behind him and Draco half-wished he hadn’t.
‘Sit down,’ Potter said. ‘I take it your meaning nods earlier mean that you have sorted everything out with Miss Greengrass?’
Draco smiled. ‘Yes, she’s back to raging at the state of the world rather than at me.’
‘Good to hear.’ Potter paused and looked uncomfortable, which Draco was starting to suspect could be his natural expression whenever he was about to mention anything remotely personal.
He took a breath and went on: ‘Now, I know it’s not my place…’ Draco’s eyebrows broke free of his control and shot up. Potter faltered. ‘Oh, bloody hell…’ He smiled ruefully. ‘I know – I know – that a lot has happened in the last 15 years. Hermione gave me a report on everything you’ve been doing. You’re clever, you’ve done good work in Geneva, you’re doing good work here and being a force for good within the department. And that last good is a moral one rather than just a quality assessment, I saw the looks on your team’s faces. I even remember that you did what you could to help towards the end of the War. I’ve never forgotten that, you know. I’ve never let anyone else forget it, either.
‘But you still look like you. And we had seven years of antagonism. So you’ll have to forgive me if I occasionally have to close my eyes, because half of me still wants to poke you in the nose.’
Draco suppressed the urge to ask where the other half wanted to poke him. Instead, his smile broadened. ‘If it makes you feel any better, I did spend quite a lot of time yesterday hoping there would be some sort of sudden crisis necessitating broom travel and that I’d be able to race you across the countryside back to the Ministry and soundly defeat you.’
Potter smiled back at him. ‘It does make me feel better, actually,’ he said. ‘If you were wholly composed and adult with not a trace of “Potter stinks” left in you, then it would have spoken poorly of my maturity.’
‘Well, now I wish I’d kept quiet.’
Potter’s eyes crinkled in amusement. He took a square of parchment from his pocket and handed it across the desk to Draco. ‘It’s an address. A more exclusive club. Muggle again, because I imagine that, like me, you would have your own reasons for stepping outside Wizarding London with your personal life. The password is written on there. The doorman will ask who you are looking for, you give the password and he’ll let you in.
‘I’ve informed the management that you’re a guest of mine, so there won’t be any problems. If you decide to stay in London, and if you would like the option, I’d be happy to propose you for membership.’
Draco looked at the parchment in his hand. The address was in a good street, busy enough to allow for clubs to function without disturbing residents, quiet enough to allow some discretion for those who might want an unobserved arrival.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘That’s very good of you.’
‘It’s a quieter set,’ Potter said, and was he blushing slightly? ‘So you’ll run less risk. But you’ll find they’re a diverse lot, so there should be someone there to … suit, as it were.’
‘I am in your debt,’ said Draco, and realised that he meant it. ‘You had every reason to ignore my predicament and just help Astoria. I would have even understood if you laughed at me, it’s a risible situation, after all. But instead you have helped me in profoundly significant ways.’
Potter looked even more uncomfortable. Draco wondered if he was he was as ill at ease with gratitude as he seemed to be with personal details. ‘You’re doing a good job. Helping you gives me the advantage of your expertise.’
‘You didn’t have to approve my request for fieldwork. That was kind of you.’
Potter pressed his lips together for a moment. ‘I wouldn’t have been able to get that through without Hermione’s approval.’
Draco thought quickly. ‘Did she approve it hoping I might be hexed while carrying out my work?’
‘No, of course not,’ said Potter, and was almost convincing.
Draco smiled again. ‘I do appreciate it,’ he said. ‘I know that this is all an unearned favour.’
Potter smiled back. ‘Part-earned, I’d say. And I have every expectation of you paying off the rest. Just, be cautious. London isn’t Europe. Things have become far less casual since you have been away.’
Draco knew he wasn’t alluding to life in the Auror Corps. ‘I will.’ He held up the square of parchment. ‘Am I likely to see you there? Are there any days I should avoid?’
Potter frowned. ‘I didn’t even think of that.’
‘Play it by ear?’ Draco suggested.
Potter nodded. ‘I’ll let you know if I can foresee anything that would be awkward.’
‘And I likewise,’ Draco promised. ‘Astoria will be thrilled. Two days and I’m already in possession of a social invitation from the Head Auror.’
Potter laughed out loud. ‘Good morning, Mr Malfoy, back to your lab.’
Grinning, Draco left. He tucked the small square of parchment into an inner pocket, where it would be safe. It was a valuable item, after all. But not as valuable as the expression on Potter’s face had been. It was possible there may have been a song in his heart today after all.
‘Ron, shh,’ Harry cautioned.
‘You invited him to your club. Your … special, private club.’
‘For raging nancys, yes.’
Ron rolled his eyes. ‘Well, that’s just marvellous. I can see the headlines in the Daily Prophet now, the editor in St Mungo’s, having collapsed in a paroxysm of delight when Malfoy handed him the incriminating photos.
‘It won’t happen,’ said Harry, sipping his tea and smiling benignly at the other patrons of the tea room, who were still startled by Ron’s shout.
‘And you know this because…’
‘Two reasons. One: Malfoy, who is also a raging nancy, has very rarely acted against his own self-interest, and two: he’s having altogether too much fun running the Auror laboratory.’
Ron shook his head. ‘I am very disappointed at you and Hermione letting him into the Department, I must say. At least she has the excuse of wanting to put him in harm’s way.’
‘She doesn’t want to put him in harm’s way, Ron,’ said Harry, calmly pouring them more tea.
‘She promised me it was a major motivation,’ Ron insisted. ‘Why else would you want him in there?’
‘He’s very capable,’ Harry said. ‘And I’ve been needing someone to make the laboratory team work for some time now. Having Malfoy is a sterling choice for me, because he’s a brilliant researcher and Hermione isn’t fussed about protecting him, so I can take him out into the field. And when he starts having a few more risky ideas, I’ll be able to get them approved, too.’
‘So she does want him in harm’s way.’
Harry allowed Ron his small triumph. ‘What about you?’ he asked. ‘Are you enjoying having Charlie back in the country?’
‘For the most part, though he is a bugger to work with on the model dragon range. He wants everything to be spot-on perfect, which means it takes three times longer to manufacture them than a reasonably good job would have taken.’
‘Still, stroke of genius for him to suggest Muggle versions of each model,’ Harry pointed out.
Ron grinned. ‘I know! We are going to need a bigger vault if the money keeps rolling in.’
Harry grinned back. Ron and George had made a great success of Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, but last Christmas’s new product line had broken all sales records and the craze showed no signs of abating. Magical varieties flew about a room, breathing non-heat flame where appropriate, while the Muggle versions were clockwork and could be suspended from the ceiling by strings to flap in circles.
The first range had been dragons commonly known in Wizarding Britain. For the next Christmas range, he knew that Charlie had been in the Southern Hemisphere on some odd mission known only to dragon wranglers, but Ron and George had been full of enthusiasm since he had returned lugging detailed drawings and specifications for several Australian and South African species. They had all raved at Harry about the new toys that would be launched in a few months, once they had survived product testing by the tribe of Weasley children who checked for quality, entertainment value, and, above all, durability.
Ron and George still insisted on paying Harry a dividend four times a year, titling him their one and only minority share holder. The money was mostly spent on lavish gifts for the ever-growing band of Weasley children, and on Teddy, of course.
‘He’s up to something, though.’ Harry realised he had let his attention wander and tried to catch the thread of Ron’s conversation.
‘Who is? Malfoy?’
‘No, not Malfoy. Charlie. He was meant to be coming over last night and he cancelled with a very vague excuse. I think there’s a woman involved.
‘Just the one?’ asked Harry. ‘That’s not like him.’
‘Joke all you like, Harry, but if he decides to settle down and move back to London, then my working life will become intolerable. And if he has children, then your god-children will see their inheritance diminish with each birth.’
‘Though their allotment of cousins will increase,’ Harry countered.
‘It’s easy for you to say that, you’ve never been poor.’
Harry raised his eyebrows meaningly at Ron, who failed to notice and went on blithely recounting the deprivations of his childhood. It was always thus, thought Harry. A childhood spent in a closet counted for very little in Ron’s mind, since there had been a vault full of gold waiting for him in Gringotts the whole time.
It hadn’t upset Harry the way he had thought it would the first time Ron went on like this, and he had coped equally well each subsequent iteration. He had realised that in his best friend’s narratives for each of them, there was room for only one great tragedy. Ron’s was his poverty, Harry’s being orphaned by Voldemort, and Hermione’s taking seven years to realise the magnificence of Mr Ronald B. Weasley.
He would have worried about Ron’s children in the face of their father’s relentless ambition and revisionism, but Rose was already as big a bookworm as Hermione had been, while Hugo had historically preferred the box to every expensive gift Harry had bought for him over his so-far three-and-a-half years. And then there was Hermione’s unshakeable rationality and Ron’s basic decency for the family to fall back on as required.
Harry realised he had a very good idea what Charlie had been up to. ‘How long has he been acting strangely?’
‘Most of this week,’ said Ron. ‘He’s suddenly not available of an evening; rushed out of the shop on Wednesday declaring he had an urgent luncheon to attend, and he hasn’t tried to offload Horace in days, which is the most damning item on the list, because that diricawl is a menace. Today at lunch, he was even lecturing us on Muggle women’s rights. I told George he’s probably seeing a Muggle, but George thinks he’s fallen for some type of crusading reformer.’
Ron took a sip of his tea, then paused, an idea occurring to him and spreading horror across his features. ‘Oh Merlin, it’s not you is it?’
Harry burst out laughing. ‘No, I am not the responsible party, but I have a very good idea who is.’
Ron looked at him expectantly.
‘It’s not my place to say,’ Harry deflected.
‘Fine. Well, when we’re all ruined, we’re coming to live with you.’
‘I can think of nothing I would enjoy more.’
‘We’ll let Hugo chew on your broom bristles.’
‘I’ve been looking for an excuse to upgrade.’
Ron rolled his eyes in annoyance.
‘You can take a deep breath, Ron, none of this is going to happen. You’re imagining the whole disaster.’
‘That may be so, but I am cursed with a very vivid imagination.’
Another thought flashed visibly through Ron’s mind, apparently even more horrifying than the previous. ‘Bloody hell, you’re not seeing Malfoy are you? I mean, that would explain everything, but I don’t think I want everything explained if it means you stepping out with old ferret face.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Harry said. ‘I told him he made me want to poke him in the nose just this morning.’
Ron visibly relaxed. ‘That’s all right then. But you’ll warn me if you suddenly do start seeing somebody totally inappropriate, won’t you? It took Mum years to get her head around you saying no to Ginny and yes to Wizards. A Death Eater or a Seer would put her into a state that could last till halfway into the next century.’
‘I will warn you,’ Harry promised.
They chatted through the remainder of their afternoon tea with little significance. One thought nagged at Harry. He had not said ‘no’ to Ron’s question. And he couldn’t say exactly why not.
Charlie was the first man she had ever met who was both a charming rascal and an enormous swot. ‘The thing about Billywigs,’ he was saying as he sat across the table from her in his conservatory,’ is that they don’t just have regional variations in colouring and display, they occur in a range of patterns within the one area depending on the endemic plant life and relative risk.
‘Now, I would have put this down to Darwin’s theory of evolution – which, I should point out, is wholly under-rated and turns out to be vastly superior to Feathrington’s Theory of Species Accretion, because centaurs are not going to come about just because you have one single magical accident with a baby and a foal: that’s a horrible incident, not a species— ooh, unless you had one horrible accident and then decided that you couldn’t leave that baby to go through life alone like that and so you repeated it, but that’s awful — anyway, as I was saying, – I would have put it down to evolution and just thought they sought out very small niches, but as Scamander and Lovegood showed in their revolutionary paper in April this year, the patterns within a population can and do change within a generation to accommodate sudden shifts in environmental conditions. So either it’s magical, or else their whole colouring is adaptive camouflage that can change to suit the conditions.’
‘And here I was thinking they were all blue,’ said Astoria, .
Charlie smiled. ‘It’s a common belief. You do find blue ones far more commonly than any other colour. We now think it’s because they’re using the tones of the Australian sky as a safe backdrop. Most of their predators are ground-dwelling, after all, so they’ll usually be looking for them against a bright blue background.’
‘How do you know all this?’ Astoria asked, laughing.
‘My friend Rolf is very keen on them. His grandfather made a fortune importing them as party favours and sweet ingredients; more than he even made out of selling books. One day, Rolf will be a very rich young man.’
‘And apparently seeing Luna Lovegood.’
Charlie smiled indulgently. ‘They’re not seeing each other, they just undertook an expedition to Australia together.’
Astoria nodded. ‘I see. For how long?’
‘Six months. I was meant to meet up with them in Adelaide, but they were detained in Broken Hill and weren’t able to send me the details in time for me to Apparate over and see them and … and I’m an idiot, aren’t I?’
Astoria patted his arm. ‘Not at all. I am led to believe that cryptozoologists are unusually sneaky.’
‘Famous for it,’ Charlie confirmed, his eyes crinkling as Astoria smiled at him. ‘So there you have it, everything you ever wanted to know about Billywigs. Any other questions I can answer for you?’
Astoria thought for a moment. ‘Do you know Mrs Granger Weasley well?’
‘As well as a man should know his sister-in-law, which is to say that I know her favourite colours and shoe size for birthdays and Christmas, and her favourite flowers and wine for general social occasions.’
Astoria frowned. ‘You buy her shoes for Christmas?’
‘Don’t be silly. Christmas is for those thick dragon-hide boots she likes to stomp about in. For birthdays it’s usually woven sandals from wherever I’ve been visiting lately. I have a wonderful pair of reed ones for her this year from Bechuanaland.’
‘In Southern Africa?’
‘Exactly. Picked them up while chasing down rumours of Opaleyes in Madagascar; it was a short hop from there over to Mauritius where I accidentally inherited Horace,’ the bird lifted its head from its nestle in Astoria’s lap at the sound of its name, ‘then down to the Bechuanaland Protectorate looking for Fwoopers. And sandals.’
Astoria smiled at him. ‘So she likes stompy boots and comfy slippers?’
‘Yes. And good books, Indian tea, Arithmancy journals, Kneazles and chocolate. Are you planning to climb the Ministry ladder through insightful gift giving?’
Astoria was appalled to realise she was blushing. ‘No.’
‘You simply must tell me what you’re thinking if you’re going to look like that about it.’
‘You’ll laugh at me if I tell you.’
Charlie reached across the table and patted her arm. ‘I promise I won’t. And since I’m sitting disconcertingly close to a pot of Devil’s Snare, I’m not going to do anything to provoke you.’
Astoria’s smile broadened. ‘You can relax, I’ve never thrown anyone into a dangerous plant. All right, I’ll tel you, but you have to remember that you promised. I’m just so excited to be working with her and with Chief Auror Potter. They’ve always been kind to me because I’m Daphne’s little sister, but now they’re listening to me, asking my advice on important policies, trusting me with a high-level role … I’m just a bit giddy to be working alongside my schoolgirl crush.’
‘You had a crush on Harry?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. On Hermione.’
Charlie’s eyes widened. ‘You really do have to marry me at some point, you’ve spoiled me for all other women.’
Astoria shook her head and tutted. ‘I expected better of you, Mr Weasley. The first hint of Sapphism and it’s as though we’re at the Music Hall for your entertainment. I am not Vesta Victoria, you know.’
Charlie raised his hands placatingly. ‘I have no idea who that is, but I feel certain she’s not half the woman you are. However, I will say in my own defence that I think I am being misunderstood here. I was actually praising you for spotting that my sister-in-law is magnificent. Most other women – and men – are intimidated by her intelligence and force of character. While I have the purest of intentions and am merely stating a fact, I think that her gorgeousness should be noted.’
Astoria relaxed. ‘Well, in that case, we are in agreement. She’s beautiful. Your brother is very lucky.’
‘You’d see her at family gatherings all the time if you married me, you know.’
‘You haven’t even asked me, you know.’
‘Will you marry me?’
She reached across the table and took his hand. ‘What say we just live together and scandalise our mothers?’
Charlie kissed her knuckles and Astoria had to work hard to suppress a shiver. ‘Do you aim to scandalise your mother?’ he asked.
‘It seems to happen naturally,’ she confessed. ‘For example, I feel fairly certain she’d be horrified to learn that I am currently alone with a single gentleman in his abode at seven pm.’
‘We’re not alone,’ protested Charlie. ‘We’ve got Horace.’
A grunt from Astoria’s lap confirmed this, and she patted the bird absently with her spare hand.
‘And I’m not certain I’m a gentleman,’ Charlie added. ‘I don’t even own a cravat.’
‘You’re a man of action, not cravats,’ she told him.
‘It’s true. Alas, most of the actions I have in mind at the moment are wholly improper and I would like to meet at least your father and break it to him that I plan to continue asking you to marry me for the rest of my life while you keep me on as your tame domestic before I give into any of them.’
Astoria laughed. ‘You think very highly of yourself. What if I tire of you after a year?’
‘I’ll brew up a bottle of Polyjuice and beg some hair from Hermione.’
Astoria’s laughter was so loud, she shocked Horace into a squawk of complaint.
‘We should go out,’ Charlie said. ‘Diagon Alley. Grab a bite to eat and I can show you some of my toy designs in the shop window. My brothers will all have gone home by now, and I think it’s very unlikely we’ll run into your mother.’
‘Though we will be seen,’ Astoria pointed out.
‘I will be a model of decorum,’ Charlie promised. ‘I will give you my arm as though you were my sister. In fact, not as though you were my sister because then I would be tempted to put slugs down her sleeve, whereas you are perfectly safe from molluscs.’
‘Very pleased to hear that,’ said Astoria. ‘A promenade and a spot of food sounds marvellous. But why the sudden rush?’
His answering smile left Astoria in no doubt of his intentions. ‘I am trying very hard to behave,’ he assured her.
‘Shame,’ she replied. ‘But probably for the best. Draco was right when he said we should spend time getting to know each other first. Sudden passions can fizzle out, after all.’
Charlie stood up and offered her his arm. ‘This isn’t a sudden passion, I’ve been looking for you for years.’
‘Are you going to expect me to stop working?’ Astoria asked as she took the proffered arm.
‘Goodness no, I was going to ask you if you’d mind me scaling back my work so we could spend more time in Britain.’
‘Then I suspect this is all going to end very well,’ Astoria said. ‘I’ll Apparate us to Diagon Alley, shall I? Before we accidentally end up in bed.’
She ignored the slow smile that spread across Charlie’s face, and the feel of his muscular arm under her hand, and – by dint of sheer willpower – sent them from Piccadilly to Diagon Alley with nary a pop.
There were a decent number of people perambulating in the fine early evening, and Astoria was not surprised to find they were soon both nodding at people each of them knew. There were no small number of interested glances their way, which Astoria had been prepared for. And Pansy Parkinson with Theodore Nott, which she had not.
‘I see you’ve abandoned your fiancé, Story,’ Pansy said, far more loudly than was necessary.
Astoria’s feet wanted to run, but she remembered Draco’s elegant subduing of Pansy the other day, done entirely through politeness. She decided to follow suit.
‘Not at all, Miss Parkinson. Mr Malfoy is working late at the Ministry tonight, in his new role. Mr Weasley is our mutual friend, and Mr Malfoy is fully aware that we were planning to dine together this evening.’
Pansy looked doubtful. ‘I don’t think my fiancé would be pleased to see me stepping out with another man? Would you, Theodore, darling?’
Nott looked as though he was contemplating Apparating to Edinburgh. Astoria smiled brightly. ‘We have a much less traditional relationship.’
Pansy sneered. ‘If you continue like this, I doubt you’ll have any sort of relationship at all.’
Astoria’s smile broadened. ‘Miss Parkinson, don’t you think that of all the thousands of topics we could be discussing, social morés regarding relationships are one of the three least interesting?’
Pansy looked down her nose. ‘I’m afraid I don’t think,’ she said, and stalked away.
Nott smiled at them apologetically. ‘I’m afraid it’s true, she really doesn’t. Don’t take it personally,’ he said, before hurrying away after her.
Astoria and Charlie watched him disappear before turning to each other. ‘I’ve misjudged him,’ said Astoria.
‘Hopeless crush on Malfoy?’ Charlie asked, looking after Pansy Parkinson.
‘According to Daphne, it’s a tragic case.’
Charlie looked after them. ‘Do you think we should rescue Nott?’ he asked.
‘Apparently he’s deeply in love. They’re to be married next week. Daphne does say that Pansy has hidden qualities, though I confess they’ve always been too deeply hidden for me to find them. And she did have an awful time of it after the war, which would be enough to make anyone bitter. Not that she wasn’t already a horrid sneak at school…’
Charlie shook his head. ‘To each their own. Maybe she has a tongue like a snake.’
Astoria elbowed him in the ribs as subtly as possible. ‘She’ll be off to see my mother any minute now, you know.’
Charlie frowned. ‘What does that mean for you?’
‘I’m not certain,’ Astoria admitted. ‘A week ago I would have told you that I would just invent a plausible explanation and all would have been well. But that was before she arranged a marriage for me.’
‘Do you want me to accompany you home? Do you want to stay at my house? Would you like me to ask Ron and Hermione if you can stay at theirs?’
‘A range of ever-so-tempting offers, but I should go home and face her alone. After dinner.’
Charlie’s spare hand covered Astoria’s on his arm and gave a gentle squeeze of reassurance. ‘Then I will make sure that dinner is delicious,’ he promised. They walked a little further down the alley, towards the small but select group of restaurants that plied their trade at this end of the street.
‘You realise,’ she said as they neared their destination, ‘that we haven’t even kissed yet.’
‘I know,’ said Charlie. ‘Because it would be a terrible idea to kiss you at my house if we are genuinely trying to take this slowly, and dreadfully bad manners to do it in public.’
Astoria smiled at him. ‘I like to outrage public morality now and then.’
He stepped them to one side of the pavement, then into the shelter of a shop awning’s shadow, and tenderly cupped the side of her face with once hand. Smiling, he kissed her; gently at first and then less so. Astoria stepped forward, backing him against the door of the closed shop and pressing herself against him. His hands moved to her shoulders, and then her waist. She left hers against his chest, able to feel the shift of his muscles, the catch in his breath.
‘Astoria…’ He moved his lips away from hers.
‘I know.’ She ducked her head and rested it on his chest, listening to his racing heart beat.
‘What do you want to do?’ he asked after a long moment.
Astoria knew what she wanted to do, but they had both agreed they should take more time. She stepped back and straightened her dress and hair. It took a little while before she could trust her voice. ‘You promised me a delicious dinner,’ she said at last.
‘I did,’ he agreed.
In years to come, they both remembered that they had eaten, but the could never entirely recall what or where. Astoria had a terrible feeling that they had spent the entire meal gazing besottedly at each other.
But they did recall the conversation they had as they walked arm-in-arm back along Diagon Alley. ‘I feel I’ve failed you,’ Charlie said.
‘If I hadn’t fallen head over heels for you at our first meeting, then Pansy Parkinson wouldn’t be blackening your name to your mother and you could take the time to engineer a brilliant success at the Ministry rather than supplying an alternative romantic candidate. I’ve ruined your plan.’
Astoria smiled. ‘Not at all. You were my plan. You've ruined Harry Potter’s plan. I’ve ruined my credentials as a campaigner for women’s rights by having only two plans, both of which revolved around men. But that was my decision, which somewhat redeems the situation.’
Charlie smiled back at her. ‘Are you going to be all right when you go home?’
‘If not, I’ll just have to hex my mother. I’ll make certain it’s mild, so I feel my father will understand, and I do have friends in the Aurors.’
Charlie stopped walking and began to search his pockets, pulling out a notebook and pencil. ‘Here,’ he said, writing. ‘If she starts to complain about me or to threaten you with anything, hand her this.’ He tore the sheet of paper from the book, folded it and wrote ‘Mrs Greengrass’ on the outside.
‘What does it say?’ Astoria asked.
‘It declares my honourable intentions and gives an estimate of my current Gringotts balance. I know my mother can be very judgemental and that she is not fond of yours, but if even a quarter of her comments about your mother’s materialism are true, then that should help.’
Astoria pulled a face. ‘Alas, she’s probably every bit as bad as your mother suggests. In her defence, she grew up poor. She thought she was marrying a rich cousin, but my father’s wealth lies wholly in the house and land, and he’s always loved his work too much to focus on making money. She has good qualities, too, it’s just that her weaker ones are often more readily apparent.’
Charlie handed her the paper. ‘I had to move to Romania to convince my mother I could survive without her for two days. You’re not alone. But both our fathers are absolute dears, so all is not lost.’
‘True,’ Astoria agreed.
‘You know you’ll have to meet my family, too,’ Charlie said. ‘My mother will be so beside herself to hear of a serious relationship that she might forget to ask how long we’ve known each other and how many children we plan to have. But my brother Ron will very likely find a way to ask if you’re after my money.’
Astoria leaned against him. ‘Don’t be absurd, I’m after your body.’
‘And no-one can blame you. I could Apparate us to Dover, you know, and we cold be on the train for Romania by this time tomorrow.’
‘And leave Horace and the Home Secretary?’
‘I suppose not.’
Astoria knew she should go home and face her mother. But the evening was balmy and Charlie’s arm under her hand was muscular and warm and … she very much hoped that he had been as overwhelmed by their kiss as she had been.
Without warning, he lifted her and swung her into a dark space between two shopfronts. ‘Ron,’ he whispered.
Looking over his shoulder, she could see the figure of his brother a little way down the road. She tried to stifle her laughter against his jacket shoulder. ‘Is he really that terrifying?’ she asked, murmuring the question into his ear.
‘No, just that relentless. There will be a twenty-minute questionnaire on your expectations, your finances and your plans for a family. Abject retreat is by far the better part of valour in this case.’
Astoria kissed the tip of his nose. ‘Fine. In that case, I am headed home.’
Charlie’s arms were still around her and he tightened them a little. ‘Are you certain you don’t want me to come with you?’
‘Certain,’ she replied. ‘But if you don’t see me for twenty-four hours, I expect you to come looking. I wouldn’t put a Portkey to Canada past her.’
‘I have friends there. I’ll get Harry onto their Mounted Aurors and we’ll have you back within the week, possibly astride a Thestral.’
‘I’ll hold you to that, though preferably without the Thestral.’ She stepped back from him. ‘I can’t kiss you goodnight, because …’
She held out a hand, which Charlie shook amiably. ‘Thank you for a very lovely evening, Mr Weasley.’
‘It was my very great pleasure, Miss Greengrass,’ he replied with a wink.
She let go of his hand and Disapparated away without replying, as everything she had in mind to say was at least a little improper.
Her father was waiting for her outside the house. ‘I take it Miss Parkinson has been here,’ she said, kissing his cheek in greeting.
‘For half an hour,’ her father confirmed. ‘I don’t like that girl very much. It was good of you to stay away for a few hours, I think your mother has calmed down a little, but I have a small purse of Galleons stashed away if you’d rather flee for a few days.’
She smiled and took his hand. ‘No, let’s face the dragon and have done with it.’
‘Don’t call your mother names, Astoria.’
He patted her hand to show it was all right.
‘She was a charming girl when I met her. But I’ve disappointed her many times. It’s my fault, my dear, but I am afraid you bear the brunt of it.’
Astoria shook her head. ‘It’s not your fault, she chooses to act this way. But we both let her get away with it because we love her under all her silliness.’
‘Alas, all too true.’
‘Come on. If things go horribly wrong I am counting on you to distract her for long enough for me to get away.’
Her father kissed the top of her head. ‘I promise.’
Mrs Greengrass had arranged the scene of her ambush carefully. She had moved the sofa to the far side of the sitting room and placed two stiff-backed chairs opposite her well-stuffed armchair. The other comfortable chair was placed to her left and slightly behind her, presumably for her husband to join her in chastising their daughter should he so choose.
Astoria and her father exchanged little smiles as they took their positions.
‘I expect your father has warned you,’ Amarantha began with a sigh. ‘I do wish the two of you wouldn’t treat me as a common foe. Everything I do, I do for your own good, Astoria. It simply won’t do to have you traipsing about in public with a man who is not your fiancé. I know that you feel that public scandal is something that only my generation finds concerning, but I assure you that your own peers will not fail to censure you. And on top of it all, to be fraternising with a Weasley. I can see now that I have given you far too free a rein. What will poor Draco say?’
Astoria waited a moment, but it appeared to be an actual question rather than a prelude to a rant, so she answered it. ‘Draco was the one who thought I ought to meet Charlie,’ she said. ‘He gave us his blessing when Charlie and I found each other attractive. Draco doesn’t want to marry me, Mother, though we have become good friends. He wants me to be happy.’
‘My dear girl, it’s not that simple. You young people—’
‘Mother, I’m twenty-seven. Draco’s thirty-two and Charlie’s thirty-nine. We’re none of us “young”.’
‘Oh, Astoria, you think you know the world, but…’
Astoria’s father coughed gently. ‘My dear, our daughter took a meeting with the Home Secretary on Wednesday.’
‘The whom? Wilberforce, you know I can never follow your Ministry jargon.’
‘He’s a very senior man in the Muggle government, dear. Astoria met with him at their parliament – something like the Wizengamot, I am led to believe.’
‘Astoria, you know it worries me when you go off into the Muggle world. I can see the value in what you do to help those poor souls from Muggle families, and you know that I won’t hear a word of criticism about it from any of my friends. And of course, it’s very good of you to make their parents and siblings feel comfortable with our world. But do you really think that should extend as far as talking to their government?’
‘Someone’s got to. Most of them won’t listen to any of their own women complaining they don’t have the vote.’
‘Neverthele… What did you say?’
‘We’re trying to get the vote for Muggle women, Mother. They have an appalling lack of legal rights and we’re trying to obtain equality with Muggle men for them.’
Amarantha Greengrass had a ferocious frown and it was on full show now. ‘You mean to say they have neither at the moment?’
‘I’m afraid not,’ said Astoria. Her father confirmed her words with a nod.
‘But that’s absurd. We are citizens of the British Empire and we enjoy full rights as citizens, so how can there be one system of rights for witches and another for Muggle women?’
Astoria’s eyes opened wide. ‘That’s exactly right, Mother. I said as much to the Home Secretary.’
‘Good for you, Astoria. Did he have any halfway sensible reply?’
‘He said that while I had personally convinced him, there is a war coming and so he feels that nothing will happen until it has passed.’
Amarantha tutted; a sound which would have struck fear into Sir Matthew had he been in hearing range. ‘Utterly absurd. If there is a war coming then he will be requiring women to work in all sorts of roles, yet doesn’t think it worth recognising their rights? Either the man is a fool or his system of government is ridiculous.’
Astoria applauded. ‘Oh, well said, Mama! I’ve never heard you talk like this before.’
Amarantha blushed a little – and then more as her husband leaned forward and kissed her cheek. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it’s because you’ve never raised any of these issues before. If I had known that Muggle British women were being kept in reduced circumstances, I can assure you that I would have complained about matters far sooner.’
‘Oh Mama,’ Astoria said, leaving her stiff seat to hug and kiss her mother. ‘You are a dear underneath it all, aren’t you?’
‘I’m a dear all the way through, Astoria. None of this “underneath” business, thank you very much.’ She sat back and smoothed her sleeves, but was clearly very pleased. ‘I suppose you think this means that I have forgotten about that other matter.’
Astoria smiled hopefully, making her mother laugh for a moment before she stifled it. She sat up straighter. ‘I still say it is not appropriate. However, if Mr Malfoy officially releases you from your engagement, I will have fewer objections. Though the man remains a Weasley.’
‘Does it really count as an engagement if he never asked, I never answered, and only our mothers told people?’ Astoria asked.
Her mother looked at her meaningly.
‘Fine,’ conceded Astoria. ‘I’ll ask Draco to place a notice in the Prophet. And while Charlie is a Weasley, he’s surprisingly magnificent. He asked me to give you this.’ She fished the folded paper from her pocket and handed it to her mother.
Amarantha unfolded it and peered at the paper. ‘He has minuscule handwriting. What does he say?’
Astoria leaned forward and tried to read upside down. ‘Mostly that his intentions are honourable, and he hopes to spend the rest of his life with me,’ she said, her heart lifting with each word.
‘And what’s this number at the bottom?’
‘That’s the number of Galleons in his Gringotts account, though the figure is a bit old, it’s gone up a bit since then.’
Amarantha looked at the paper. It was a long number. It was a powerful argument. It was a promise of security for her troublesome and yet much-loved daughter. She sighed.
‘What will poor Narcissa say?’
‘Here,’ said a voice, depositing a cup of tea in front of him. ‘I made us all a cuppa.’
‘You’re a good man, Garamond,’ said Draco.
Yallop smiled. ‘It’s best I do it: Ems has all the domestic ability of a newt, and David can get a bit creative.’
Draco looked questioningly.
‘Don’t ever try his home brew.’
‘Thanks for the warning.’
Yallop hovered. ‘Have they found McDougal?’
Potter’s team had followed up the shoe-making lead and put a name to their kidnapping suspect.
‘I’m sure they’d have told us. But I know they were talking with his neighbours. I imagine they’ll have us in to examine his house tomorrow.
Yallop leaned closer and lowered his voice. ‘Do you have the same feeling I do, Draco?’
‘Why Garamond, I didn’t know you cared.’
Yallop not only got the joke, he actually smiled, which Draco counted as a personal triumph. ‘I have a feeling there’s something we can already see the threads of, but can’t yet see how they all tie together. But I can’t tell you whether that’s because I want there to be an overarching narrative to these crimes, and so am trying to find one, or because my subconscious is several steps ahead of my conscious mind and has already connected all the strands.’
Yallop’s voice had gone back to normal volume and Periwig and Lewis gravitated over to them. ‘Potter said it would be quite the coincidence for so much to be happening in Norfolk,’ said Periwig.
‘Yes,’ said Lewis. ‘But then, coincidences happen. I think that all we can do is keep open minds and keep looking at the evidence we have.’
Draco sighed. ‘I just wish we had one place to focus on. Hull, Dover, King’s Lynn … if only we knew where the creatures were coming from or going to…’
He was aware of a sudden silence. It took him a minute to reach the same conclusion. ‘Oh hell. We can work that out, can’t we? How could I have been so stupid?’
‘Prioritising the complex,’ said Yallop, with another smile.
Draco smiled back at him. ‘Right. We need maps, shipping routes, shipping news, police reports and any other news on vessels sighted – even Muggle smugglers would be a valid option, though would they be able to operate out of major ports? Whoever is dong the shipping is almost certain to be Muggle, because otherwise we’d have had our European cousins banging on our metaphorical door demanding to know why we have allowed illegal trade to spring up. Chances are it’s as diffuse over there as it is over here, but we could be lucky and find one focal point that fits in with everything we know, which will be doubly lucky in fact, because if their operation stretches through all the ports I can think of reached from ours, then we’ll be looking at an operation stretching from Oslo to Dieppe, and we may not have enough Aurors to round them up.’
It took less time than Draco would have imagined to assemble all the pieces of information. Peasegood provided the charts and called on his contacts at Scotland Yard for much of the rest; those contacts had telegrammed forces throughout the East Riding for the remainder. Draco invited Peasegood to join them in the search, but he begged off, saying that his shift had been over for an hour, so the four of them spread all the papers across every available piece of wall, table and floor space and began to cross reference. It was not simple. Dover saw an incredible amount of traffic, with both passenger and freight ships sailing and streaming across the Channel. Hull was surprisingly busy, with Norway and Sweden using it as a key British port.
They had a moment of excitement looking at Rotterdam, which would have made sense of some of the plant traces Periwig had found, but it wouldn’t account for King’s Lynn and it had the wrong types of soil and gravel to explain away much of the imported evidence. For a while, Dunkirk looked like a good option, but it, too, left as many questions open as it answered.
Garamond became convinced for a half hour that everything could be explained by the traffic of Wilson Line ships, with Dover merely a stopover in their activities, but Emmeline argued that would only make sense if the smuggling had all been into Britain. Smuggling export goods out through a multi-step process made no sense.
It was David who first suggested Zeebrugge. Though less popular than many of the other ports they were considering, it took regular traffic from Dover, Hull and King’s Lynn. Garamond found matching pollen and soil to the local flora and geological profiles and none of them could find anything to exclude it as a possibility.
They all looked at each other. ‘So that could be it,’ said David.
‘If we’re very lucky,’ Emmeline amended.
‘But there is at least a reasonable probability,’ Garamond added. ‘It’s enough to take to Potter in the morning.’
‘In the morning?’ Draco looked at his watch. It was after 9.30pm. ‘Oh good grief. It’s Friday night. Go home the lot of you and come in late on Monday. No working on the weekend, any of you. I’ll find Potter wherever he is and see what he wants to do about this. We’ve done our part, go out and have lives.’
He was a little suspicious of the knowing look Emmeline cast in his direction, but the other two began to pack up for the day with cheerful alacrity.
‘He’s probably still in his office,’ Draco told Emmeline, who agreed far too readily. ‘Or out on some Auror operation somewhere.’
‘Very likely,’ she replied. ‘Though I suspect you’ll be able to find him regardless.’
‘Yallop is my new favourite,’ he whispered to her.
‘No-one believes that,’ she whispered back, winking at him.
Potter was not in his office. Fitzwallace, who was in the main Auror office, shared the information that Potter had headed out over an hour go, dressed in Muggle clothing, which Fitzwallace assumed meant the Head Auror wanted a quiet dinner out, and he wasn’t sure they should disturb him.
‘Can you report to me instead?’ he asked.
Draco realised he could. ‘The short version is that we think we should be looking at Zeebrugge, as all of the British ports have direct routes there and we’ve found a statistically significant amount of physical evidence linking it to the crime scenes over here. We know they’e had security issues with their port authorities being paid off in the past, so it makes sense for them to be targeted by smugglers with a lot of available money.’
Fitzwallace nodded. ‘That’s good reasoning. If we go there and can find exact physical evidence that ties it to…’
‘Already have some,’ Draco interrupted him. ‘But yes, exactly, if we can tick the remaining boxes, we’ll know they’re shipping from there and can set up a more thorough operation to try and find the people at the top of this.’
Fitzwallace nodded, and then stopped and shook his head. ‘It’s no good tonight, though, I’d need authorisation from the Head Auror or the Head of Department to fund the Portkeys to get a team there. It might have to wait until morning.’
‘I know Mrs Weasley’s gone home,’ Draco said. ‘I heard her go down the hallway hours ago. But I have an idea where I might be able to find Potter if he’s still out. I’m just going to copy this report so one of your team can hand it over to Potter or Weasley in case I don’t find him tonight. Your lot are always in first thing, so you’ll see them before I will.’
‘Thanks, Draco,’ said Fitzwallace, catching him off guard.
‘You’re very welcome … I’m afraid I don’t know your first name.’
‘Stephen.’ Fitzwallace held out his hand.
Draco shook it. ‘Stephen. Good to meet you properly. All right, here’s your version of our report, I’m going to see if Potter is in any of the restaurants I suspect him of frequenting. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘Good evening to you,’ Fitzwallace said with a smile. Draco remembered to smile and wish him likewise. It was surprisingly pleasant being treated as one of the team – being one of the team.
He made a few alterations to his clothing to appear more Muggle, and it was only sensible to check his hair and nails at the same time. Then he took the square of parchment from his safe inner pocket and read the already memorised address, just to be certain before setting off.
The doorman of Potter’s club was dressed in a respectable green livery and listened attentively when Draco asked if Colonel Crittenden was in attendance this evening. He looked at Draco carefully, and replied that he believed he may have seen the gentleman earlier that evening
Draco wasn’t sure if he was passing muster. ‘Would it be all right if I went in to look for him? Major Potter told me he thought Crittenden would be here tonight.’ He was very proud of himself for remembering Astoria’s detail on Potter’s assumed title.
‘Are you a friend of Major Potter’s?’ the doorman asked, interested.
‘He’s a valued colleague,’ Draco answered, unsure whether no or yes was the more accurate answer.
The doorman looked even more interested. ‘I see. What do you think, then, sir? Any hope for peace in South Africa?’
‘Precious little, I’m afraid,’ said Draco, thanking the fates for Astoria once more.
‘Awful business. Head on in. Major Potter can usually be found in the library around this hour, the concierge will be able to direct you.’
Potter’s club was a distinct improvement on Blaise’s in most respects. There was no music or cabaret, and the décor was a little less fashionable, but it spoke of comfortable wealth and taste. The club members were not what Draco had been expecting. They ranged in age from barely out of school to grey-whiskered venerables. There were women, too, some in elegant tasselled gowns, others in well-tailored gentleman’s evening dress. Draco attracted glances as he followed the concierge’s directions to the library, but the were of polite interest rather than the calculating leers of Blaise’s set.
The library wasn’t just the name of a room. Desks and comfortable chairs were set around the book-lined walls, many of them occupied, with a waiter delivering glasses of port and whisky, or cups of tea as required. Draco spent a moment trying to imagine what it would be like to try and obtain company for an evening here. He would probably have to pass a test on contemporary politics and the state of the Modern Theatre. He resolved to read up on both.
A hand tapped his shoulder lightly. It was Potter, who put a finger to his lips and beckoned Draco back out into the hallway. ‘Poor form to talk in the library,’ he explained. ‘Unless you’re ordering a drink or asking if another member has finished with the paper.’
Draco nodded. ‘I’ll remember. I was looking for you.’ Potter’s expression showed a flicker of surprise, but not, Draco noted, displeasure. ‘It’s about work,’ he clarified.
‘Of course,’ Potter said, as something disappeared from his eyes.
Draco wondered if it might have been interest, and found it hard not to smile at the possibility. ‘We have discoveries for you. I’ve brought the whole report, but what it boils down to is that there could be a common destination from all three ports we’ve been looking at. They all have regular ships to and from Zeebrugge, and Yallop, Periwig and Lewis have all identified multiple physical traces that match that part of Belgium.’
Potter listened keenly. ‘Do you think it’s worth investigating?’
‘Yes,’ Draco replied. ‘Fitzwallace did, too, but said you or Mrs Weasley would need to authorise the costs before he could do anything.’
‘You told Fitzwallace first?’ Potter seemed put out.
‘He was on duty. I was looking for you.’
‘It can’t be helped,’ Potter conceded, somewhat mollified. ‘We should get back to the Ministry and organise a Portkey.’
Draco was startled. ‘You want me to come with you?’
‘Don’t you want to?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Good. There’s a quiet little spot I usually Apparate from just down the road. We can be back in the office in a few minutes.’
Draco couldn’t hold in this smile. ‘Is your life always like this? Rushing from one thing to the next?’
‘Not at all. Sometimes I have thirty-five minutes at a stretch to catch up on the papers.’
Draco wanted to laugh, but they were still too near the library. Potter seemed to notice the same thing and began to walk them out. ‘I like your club,’ Draco said instead. ‘It’s very calm. People are just being themselves rather than a performance of themselves. I find that refreshing and appealing.’
‘There’s a bit of posing and one-upmanship,’ Potter admitted. ‘But it’s mostly of an intellectual sort, so it’s easy to ignore if they all have you marked down as someone more brawn than brains.’
‘But you’re both,’ said Draco, accidentally honest.
Potter was definitely surprised by that. ‘Could you please tell Hermione? She at least acknowledges your intelligence.’ They exchanged smiles and continued walking.
An older gentleman paused in the doorway of one of the side rooms to let them pass. ‘Harry,’ he said. ‘Good to see you.’
‘Frederick,’ Harry greeted him. ‘You’re looking well.’
The man chuckled. ‘Top form, my boy, fine fettle. But don’t let me detain you.’ He looked knowingly at Draco and smiled, motioning for them to go on.
Draco knew that he looked at Potter as they walked away in a bid to convey some form of apology, though for what he was not certain. He had not expected the expression he found on Potter’s face, and no more could he precisely quantify it. He had expected amusement, or perhaps mild incredulity that anyone would expect his taste to run that way. Instead he caught a glimmer of – possibility? Assessment? Potter smoothed his features to neutral as soon as he saw Draco looking.
He did that now, Draco realised. Back at school, he had been able to read Potter like a book. Every emotion had shone out: determination, disdain, suspicion, occasionally envy, sometimes open loathing; and then those rarer moments – utter regret, hope, desperation, pity … Now that book was closed. Potter had perfected a default expression of interested pleasantness. Emotions still punched through, but were quickly suppressed. Just as they had been for many years on Draco’s own face, he realised.
‘Sorry,’ he said.
‘I’m not really sure.’
Potter let the corners of his eyes tilt up. ‘You’re an odd duck, Malfoy.’
There were a few more interested glances as he left with Potter. He had the impression that it was an unusual occurrence for Potter to be seen to leave in company. Which made no sense, as surely that was the whole purpose of belonging to a club like this? That and … and not feeling alone.
Draco nearly stopped walking, such was the force of his epiphany.
Potter noticed. ‘What is it?’
He should have pretended he’d forgotten something, or that his bootlace was loose. But he didn’t. ‘This is where you come to feel yourself,’ he said.
Potter’s look was long and considering. ‘Yes,’ he said, after a pause.
‘But why would you tell me about it? This is your place of comfort. Your refuge.’
Potter’s ill-at-ease expression was back. ‘I thought you might need a place of refuge, too. It’s exhausting to pretend you’re something you’re not, but too often we have no choice in the matter.’
Draco knew that Potter was referring to more than just his sexuality. ‘Thank you,’ he said, hoping that Potter could hear his gratitude for more than just this week of favours.
‘You being here doesn’t spoil anything for me,’ said Potter, so quietly Draco could only just hear him. ‘Come on, we should go.’
Draco went with him, silent, because he could not find words that would match his feelings of the moment.
‘Should I read the whole report?’ he asked Malfoy as they waited for the lift.
‘Later,’ Malfoy replied. ‘To see how much work we put into it. But Zeebrugge is all you need to know right now.’
They stepped into the lift and Harry pressed the button for level two. ‘And how sure are you there’s something pivotal there?’
Malfoy shrugged. ‘I’d say between sixty-five and eighty-five per cent. If the port isn’t involved at all, I’ll be very surprised, but then, it may be just another small piece in the puzzle rather than the focal point we’ve hoped.’
‘It’s a lead,’ Harry said. ‘Which is more than we had an hour ago.’
Fitzwallace and Romney were the only Aurors in the main office. Lepworth was called in from his workrooms and Harry had Malfoy give a potted summary of his team’s findings.
‘Stephen was only waiting on you or Mrs Weasley to give the go-ahead,’ Malfoy finished. ‘It was his idea that I might be able to find you before you went home.’
Harry was amused. ‘“Stephen”, is it? You’ve been here less than a week, Malfoy and already you’re on first name terms with my whole staff.’
‘Not all of us, sir,’ observed Lepworth.
‘Do you actually have a first name, Lepworth?’ asked Harry, who had signed off on the man’s pay for years and could only recall initials.
‘Closely guarded secret, sir,’ Lepworth replied.
‘Glad to hear it. I want to take two teams for an initial scoping mission tonight, because we know that most of their activity has taken place under the cover of darkness. So with five of us here, that’s two teams of two and one to take care of anything that arises in our absence.’
‘You’re going?’ asked Malfoy, surprised.
Romney looked at him with pity for the newcomer. ‘He always goes. Which of us would you like to stay, sir?’
Harry looked at his small range of options. Fitzwallace was an obvious field choice. Romney was still very new, but had shown good common sense and had excelled in defensive spellcraft. And Lepworth was essentially an accountant. ‘Lepworth, I think.’
‘Good choice, sir,’ said Lepworth, unwilling as ever to be separated from his paperwork.
It occurred to Harry that the thought of leaving Malfoy behind had not crossed his mind. Because I need his forensic skills, he told himself. He had an unnerving moment of self-scepticism.
‘Our nearest Portkey in stock is Bruges,’ said Fitzwallace.
‘We can Apparate from there. Fitzwallace and I attended a crime scene in Zeebrugge last year – drunken British wizards stealing boats – it’s not far. Malfoy, Romney, will you feel confident making the Apparition or will you need to side-along?’
Malfoy declared his familiarity with the small port, but Romney opted to let Fitzwallace manage the Apparating, since she didn’t want to accidentally end up in the Netherlands.
Harry gave everyone fifteen minutes to organise their kit and reassemble. ‘Pack a few clothes,’ he told Malfoy, ‘as well as your sample containers and measuring apparatus. Something warm and waterproof never hurts. We’ll probably be out all night at this rate. And good strong boots. I’ve never regretted a pair of comfortable, tough boots. You never know when you might need to run away or kick something.’
‘Should I pack a snack?’ Malfoy asked.
Harry suspected him of teasing, but answered seriously. ‘It’s not a bad idea. We often don’t have time to organise food on an operation.’
‘I’ll bring spares,’ Malfoy said, now almost certainly teasing.
Except that he wasn’t. He was the first back after Harry, wearing an oil-skin coat and woollen scarf and carrying four wicker boxes with straps.
‘I made hampers for my team for the next time we go out to a crime scene,’ Malfoy explained. ‘Emmeline and I were ravenous by the time we got back.’
He handed one to Harry, who checked inside and found thick-cut sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, a roasted spatchcock, chocolate biscuits and flasks marked Tea and Water. He blinked, unsure whether this was a sign of genius or an example of Pure-blood privilege run mad.
‘There are Keep Fresh charms on everything,’ Malfoy explained. ‘and the water flask can draw moisture from the atmosphere to refill once it’s empty.’ He handed hampers to the newly arrived Fitzwallace and Romney, and showed all of them how to activate the boxes’ shrinking charms.
‘I brought you one, too, Lepworth, because I can only imagine what the overnight café food is like.’
‘Very pleased to have you on the team, Malfoy,’ said Lepworth, clearly touched. ‘I’m not leaving you short?’
‘Mine’s already in my pocket. If I could get the boxes and flasks back later, I can refill them for future use.’
Harry had been too busy marvelling to speak. ‘You create water out of air?’ he asked.
‘Surprisingly easy. Even Muggles do it with their dew ponds.’
‘You’re one long series of surprises, Malfoy.’
That brought a smile, and Harry noted again how smiling changed Malfoy’s face. It was much easier to forget what a mammoth pain he had been in their younger days when he was smiling. He was surprised by how often and how naturally it seemed to happen.
Fitzwallace had brought the Portkey, so all that remained was to encourage Lepworth not to requisition a score of deluxe goose quills in Harry’s absence, then all four of them to place hands on the Portkey and say the words to activate it.
It was a far more wrenching way to travel than by Apparition, Harry had always thought, and they all staggered on arrival. The Portkey had been tied to a quiet part of the wizarding city, and the smell of good beer and hot chips wafted from a nearby group of young people enjoying a quiet night. One of them raised a bottle in greeting, and Harry waved back.
‘All all right?’ he asked his team. Fitzwallace had twisted his ankle slightly, but on the whole, they were.
‘Next stop is Zeebrugge,’ he said. ‘Fitzwallace, Malfoy, do you know the church near there?’ There was one famous house of worship in the village that deserved the definite article. Both men did. ‘Meet at the rear. It should be quiet at this hour, but let’s not risk scaring the parishioners.’
Harry took a quick look at them. Romney and Fitzwallace glowed in the streetlight, the red of their robes looking tremendously official.
‘We should transfigure our robes,’ he said, realising the problem. ‘Malfoy’s the only one of us who looks as though he belongs at a port.’ Harry tapped his wand to his clothing, producing worsted wool trousers, a thick Aran jumper and a dark cap – his boots were already sufficiently workaday. Fitzwallace’s look was more particular – Harry guessed he had modelled it after a large ship’s engineer – while Romney had chosen the classic Boy Who Ran Away From Home and Even Now Regrets It.
‘Good work. All right, let’s go.’
The shift to Sint-Donaaskerk was much gentler than the Portkey had been. There were no late-night parishioners to be seen, but they were in a graveyard, so anyone there was probably hiding and holding their breath. They were not far from the dock, and the distant sounds of cranes and nearer rumbles and clinks of traffic on the roads and canals came through the clear night. Harry waited a few seconds until they were all there, then began to walk towards the road.
‘We’ll go in on foot, there’s enough traffic in and out of the port that it won't attract attention. We’ll need to search as much of the area as we can, but the problem is that they could have Muggle or magical security, or both. So if anyone accosts you, your first move is to sound like an amiable drunk and your second is to Apparate straight back to Bruges. Head for the Auror department and send reinforcements if you think anyone is in danger. No-one goes anywhere alone. Two teams at all times. We know that at least some of them are prepared to use violence, so look out for each other. When you spot something, stop, go back to the rendezvous point, wait and alert the other team before you proceed.
‘Malfoy, you’re with me. Fitzwallace, you stick with Romney and don’t let her go haring off. Our most likely option is a part of the dock that doesn’t get much use, but we could be looking for a nearby barn or similar, and they could be carting creatures to and from the water. Look for Disillusionments, and trust your ears and nose as much as your eyes. Am I clear?’
Two ‘Yes, sirs’ and one ‘Yes, Potter’ were his reward.
‘Is he always like this?’ he heard Malfoy mutter to Romney.
‘Worse, usually,’ he heard her whisper back.
An unladen cart clip-clopped past them on the way to the port, its driver and his porter exchanging unremarkable nods with Harry and his team.
As they neared the docks they were joined by other walkers. Some were locals, some visiting sailors, some itinerant labourers hoping for a shift in the unpopular early hours. They spoke a babel of French, English, German, Flemish and Danish, and Harry found it hard to follow the meaning of their chatter. Malfoy seemed fluent, though, and apparently his Danish pronunciation was hilarious. Harry thought he could translate Malfoy describing them as sailors on a short stopover, just wanting a quiet walk now they had a few hours’ shore leave.
He didn’t need Danish to understand some of the suggestions offered – there was more than enough light to see the hand gestures. But it seemed Malfoy was spinning a convincing tale of religious wives and mothers given promises. And while the strangers made it clear they thought the four of them were missing out, it was a generous teasing, with respect for personal choices behind it. Harry hoped that none of these men were part of the smuggling set: they seemed comradely and likeable, and he would hate to hex them. As they entered the main port their new acquaintances peeled off one by one, some to their ships, others to the docks where loading was underway.
Harry casually led his team down to the wharves furthest from the busiest part of the night port, closer to the canal. Warehouses came up close to the dock here, with wide lanes between them. There were ships tied up, but most were small fishing vessels or sail craft with only basic safety lights showing. The bigger steamers were back in the main part of the port, alongside the new wharves with their cranes and refrigeration capacity. Carts and a small rail service shuffled cargo up to the canal from the larger vessels.
‘Good thinking on the clothes, sir,’ Romney muttered. ‘No one batted an eyelid at us coming as part of that big group. Mr Malfoy, I didn’t understand all of what you were saying, but did you mention something about my mother to those men?’
‘Only that we promised her we’d protect her little boy’s virtue and make sure you went to church twice a week. I may have mentioned that she was a sweet old widowed lady.’
‘She’s forty-six and a committed atheist,’ Romney informed him.
‘But sailors are a sentimental lot, my version was better.’
Romney shook her head and Harry had to work not to laugh. A quick glance told him that Fitzwallace was in the same situation.
The warehouses were their obvious starting point. The ones beside them were dilapidated, the ones nearer to the canal in better condition: Harry guessed those ones provided services to the barges and smaller seagoing vessels, possibly with storage or freight organisation for the fish.
‘Fitzwallace, you and Romney start from that end, we’ll start from this. Remember – find anything that looks like a lead and we stop, find the other team and report. We need physical evidence, so try not to touch things before Malfoy looks at them. Every half hour I want us to assemble under that gaslight. If you’re there and the other team is delayed by more than ten minutes, then get a message away to the Bruges Aurors at least before you even think about going in search.’
‘Shouldn’t we tell the Bruges force we’re here now?’ asked Malfoy.
Harry admitted it was a sensible question, but… ‘They don’t believe in quiet operations. And they take all the credit when you bring them in at the end of a investigation. And let’s not forget that there’s a reasonable possibility there’s nothing here, which they’d be unnecessarily sarcastic about.’
‘So you don’t get on,’ Malfoy summarised.
Malfoy nodded. ‘All right. Then let’s get started.’
Fitzwallace gave Harry one of his calm and evaluative looks. ‘You going to be all right?’ he asked.
‘Fine,’ said Harry. ‘Malfoy knows what he’s doing.’
‘I’m not worried about Malfoy.’ He turned away and set off towards the far warehouse with Romney.
The first two Harry looked at were derelict. He and Malfoy climbed in through doors torn off their hinges and wandered around the refuse of years, disturbing only cats and rats. They walked to the next, Harry beckoning Malfoy down the laneway between it and its neighbour, away from the lights, which were stronger out front. The other warehouses had had multiple points of entry: broken doors, missing windows, holes in the walls. This one seemed in unusually good repair.
Malfoy put out an arm and stopped him. ‘Can you hear that?’ he whispered. ‘Movement inside.’
Harry listened. It was nothing definite, but there was a sort of shuffling coming from the other side of the wall. ‘We couldn’t be that lucky, could we?’ he asked.
Malfoy snorted softly. ‘It’s not luck, it’s a process of elimination. Maybe we’ve just eliminated very cleverly.’
He sounded just a little smug. Harry wished there was enough light here to see his expression.
‘Perhaps,’ Harry granted. ‘But let’s focus on finding a way in that doesn’t alert whoever or whatever is making that noise.’
‘Shame we didn’t bring brooms.’
Harry was about to agree when he looked upwards. ‘Malfoy, you’re a genius,’ he said.
Malfoy was close enough that Harry could hear him misstep. ‘I’ve always thought so,’ he said, keeping his voice even. ‘But I never expected to hear it from you.’
‘Look up,’ Harry said.
Above them was a wide set of open doors set high into the wall, with a pulley on the end of an arm set into the wall above them and a thick ledge below. There was only enough light coming from within to see the outline of the doorway and ledge, and none at all shining in from outside to backlight the two wizards who had just Apparated onto the ledge.
‘Wand at the ready?’ Harry asked from his side of the door. He could just see Malfoy’s nod. ‘If anything goes wrong, Apparate straight out. Try to find Fitzwallace or Romney, or head straight to the Bruges Aurors if things look grim.’
‘I promise to leave immediately,’ Malfoy promised. ‘Though preferably without leaving you in mortal danger. Lepworth would have words.’
‘I’ll be hot on your heels, don’t worry. All right. Stay behind me if possible and try not to get damaged. Astoria would thump me and Hermione would unreasonably cheery.’
Malfoy’s shoulders shook, and Harry realised he was laughing. He tried – and failed – to look sternly disapproving and made his way inside.
The warehouse was organised over two main floors, with a large stairwell and atrium in the centre. Low lamplight glimmered up from below and Harry peered through the shadows, trying to make out the shapes across the unlit floor. Timber pylons provided hiding places across the expanse of the floor. Near them, large piles of entry crates were stacked, in a jumble of sizes and types. He could see a pile of what appeared to be rope, but may have been chain on the other side of the stairwell.
Harry could hear no movement or breath aside from Malfoy’s nearby, but whispered the words of a spell of revelation regardless, sending it shimmering invisibly across the space. No living beings or ambush spells were illuminated, much to his relief.
‘This floor is safe,’ he whispered. ‘But tread carefully: that spell won’t show Muggle traps or holes in the floor. Keep an eye on the stairs in case anyone comes up.’
Malfoy nodded, and stepped in behind him. Harry noticed that his wand was held in the mid-grip most Aurors preferred – far enough from the tip to make it unlikely you could hex your hand off; far enough from the end to make it unlikely an assailant could knock or snatch it from your hand. He wondered if Malfoy had learned it from one of the Aurors, or had chosen the hold himself since the war.
They crept to the steps in tandem. Harry motioned for Malfoy to stand back from the edge, then crawled the distance to the stairs’ lip and peered out into the void from the darkest corner.
The lower floor had been partitioned into what looked like a series of cells. Small lamps glimmered in three of them, and he could see a large, pale shape lurking at the rear of one. There were tables, chairs and crates arranged in the middle of the space, but Harry could not see anyone acting as a guard. The large shape stirred – and there was the shuffling sound that Malfoy had noticed earlier.
Harry crept back from the edge. ‘There’s something down there in a cage, but I don’t see anyone else. I’m going to head down and take a proper look. I’ll be back shortly; wait for me, unless things go horribly wrong – which I’m assuming you’ll hear.’
‘Surely they’ll see you?’
‘Ah, no, they won’t.’ It wasn’t light enough for Malfoy to see the subtle glisten of the air as Harry pulled his invisibility cloak from underneath his jersey, but the man had a memory.
‘You’ve still got that cloak.’
‘I most certainly do.’
It almost sounded like concern for Harry’s welfare, but, given it was Malfoy, it could just as easily have been concern for Hermione’s retribution should he come back minus a Head Auror.
He slipped the cloak over himself and padded silently down the stairs. There had been people there. Empty plates littered the table along with tepid cups of half-drunk coffee. All but one of the cages were empty, though smell told Harry of past occupants. The shape he had seen from upstairs shone dully in the half-light, dirty light-coloured hair or fur half-buried in straw. Harry moved closer, aware that a beast would be able to detect his scent even if it couldn’t see him, so it was pointless keeping his distance.
From outside there came a shout – sailors impugning each other’s parenthood, not an alarm as he had feared. But in that instant of distraction, strong arms reached through the bars of the cell and pushed the cloak back from his face.
‘Harry Potter. At last.’
Astoria had expected a reply to her Owl. To her three Owls, now. Charlie had sent six in the space of an hour, offering to come over, inviting her parents to breakfast, to lunch and to dinner … At least two new proposals tucked in among the invitations. Yet from Draco, not a word.
Around eleven, she started to really worry.
‘He’s more reliable than this,’ she told her father.
‘Are you going to be able to sleep?’ he asked her.
She tried to look cheerful and failed miserably.
‘All right,’ he said. ‘Go and change into something warm with trousers. I’ll grab our brooms and let your mother know what we’re up to.’
Astoria hugged him. ‘You are the best of fathers!’
Less than twenty minutes later they were landing in the garden of nearby Malfoy Manor, where peacocks alerted Narcissa Malfoy to her late-night visitors. Astoria did her best to keep her voice calm and light – one person fretting was enough.
‘So sorry to bother you at this hour. I was wondering if Draco was here? I’ve been trying to contact him urgently and he’s nowhere to be found by my owl, which simply means he’s out – I have the stupidest owl in the country.’
Narcissa frowned very slightly, but her voice was smooth and gracious. ‘I’m afraid not, he’s been staying at his place down in London. Is anything the matter?’
‘Oh no,’ Astoria said quickly. ‘It’s all good news, just something he would probably prefer to know tonight.’
And then she was filled with guilt, because Mrs Malfoy looked so pleased that Astoria knew she was leaping to one of several very wrong conclusions and just hoped she wasn’t even now planning to learn how to knit to get a start on a pair of booties.
‘We’re so sorry to disturb you, Mrs Malfoy. He’s ever so likely to be at the Ministry, I’ll try there.’
And then more guilt – Draco hadn’t yet told his mother about his new role and her face was stricken. Thankfully, Astoria’s father was there.
‘Oh, Astoria,’ he said benignly. ‘You’ve spoiled young Draco’s surprise. I know he’s been dying to tell you. Narcissa, Harry Potter has brought him in to work with the Aurors on a very special project. Said he’s been looking for the right man for years and it wasn’t until Malfoy was back in the country that he could trust it to anyone. His very words.’
Mars Malfoy’s eyes were wide and shining. ‘Harry Potter? And Draco the only one who could do the work?’
‘The only one who could do it to the standard required,’ Mr Greengrass clarified. ‘I was talking to Potter yesterday and he said it’s been an almost instant revolution. He’s very impressed.’
Narcissa had regained her composure. ‘So he ought to be. He’s lucky to have Draco there.’
‘Exactly what he was saying to me,’ Wilberforce agreed.
Astoria squeezed her father’s arm in gratitude. ‘I’m so sorry for ruining his surprise, Mrs Malfoy. You will pretend you didn’t know when he tells you, won’t you?’
‘Of course, dear. I’m very good at dissembling.’
On impulse, Astoria hugged her. ‘Thank you. We should go. Bustle him out of that office before midnight.’
‘Good luck. Give him my love, won’t you?’
‘I will,’ Astoria promised.
‘Come, Astoria.’ her father said. ‘I’ll side-along you to the Ministry. Let Narcissa get back to her rest. So sorry to have interrupted you.’
Narcissa’s smile was warm and genuine. ‘Not at all. You’ve brought me good news, too. And I always enjoy visitors. You should both drop by more often. Most of the time it’s just me rattling around with the house elves.’
Astoria promised they would come back soon. She meant it, and hoped she would still be welcome once the lack of a wedding was known.
‘Holding your broom tight?’ her father asked. Astoria declared she was and he took hold of her arm, side-alonging her into the Department of Mysteries.
It took her a moment to catch her breath. ‘I didn’t think that was possible,’ she said. And indeed, the Appartion had felt strange – almost as though it had an unfamiliar flavour.
‘There are some benefits to being an Unspeakable,’ her father said. ‘If you stay with the Ministry, you may wish to turn your mind our way. Come along. Draco’s on Level Two, isn’t he?’
‘With MLE, yes.’ Astoria felt a wave of relief at her father’s presence. He had been a slightly distant, if much loved, figure for many years. Though he was a genius at roughhousing games and tree climbing, he had been pushed to the side when his wife had decided their daughters were old enough to start being ladies. But this week it had been as though they had both travelled 20 years back in time and were hiding, giggling, in the inner branches of a tree as Amarantha called out from the house for Astoria to come inside and attend to her needlework. She wondered if they would have ever created this distance to overcome if she had been a boy, or if she had never traded trousers for skirts. His confidence and competence buoyed her, even as she recognised it as the prototype of her own, and it was with sure swift steps that she led him through the corridors of MLE.
Alas, the deserted corridors. All the laboratory team’s suite was quiet and still. They may have been hiding behind the locked and reinforced doors of the evidence room, but if so, they were as silent as the grave. A light shone in the main Auror office and Astoria and her father headed towards it.
An Auror Astoria had not met before looked up from a tableful of ledgers and greeted them with a curt nod. ‘Wilberforce,’ he said at the sight of Astoria’s father. ‘And I take it this is the new Muggle Legal Liaison. Pleased to meet you, miss.’
‘Astoria Greengrass,’ she introduced herself.
‘Lepworth,’ the man replied. ‘Departmental deductive auditor. Is there an emergency? Or are you just working late?’
Anxiety felt that her anxiety may have been somewhat frivolous in the face of Lepworth’s calm unflappability. They should have tried Zabini’s, she thought. Or Draco’s flat.
‘Looking for Draco Malfoy,’ she managed. ‘He was expected earlier this evening and we’ve not heard any word from him.’
‘Ah, Malfoy. Good lad, that. He’s out in the field with Potter, Fitzwallace and young Romney.’
Lepworth frowned. ‘I can’t comment on active operations.’
‘But I’m part of your team,’ Astoria protested.
‘Then I am certain Mrs Weasley will give you full clearance in the morning.’
Astoria opened her mouth to protest, but her father gave a small shake of his head and she closed it again.
‘Thank you,’ she said instead. ‘At least we know he’s not in any danger.’
A flicker of amusement crossed Lepworth’s face, but what he said was, ‘He’s with Potter. Safe as houses.’
They made polite goodbyes and headed back towards the lift. Astoria’s father put his arm around her shoulders. ‘I’m afraid you will have to wait for your mother’s blessing, dear.’
She smiled at him. ‘I can wait. Though we should definitely all take a meal with Charlie tomorrow. He’s marvellous, Daddy, you’re going to love him.’
‘He’ll have to be,’ her father replied, ‘or I’m going to hex him. Now it’s no longer a risk, I can confess to you that I had a nice little Befuddlement planned for young Draco that would have seen him convinced you were a giant chicken had he not come to his senses and conspired with you to call this whole foolish thing off.’
Astoria laughed. ‘You’re a terrible man, Papa, and that is why I love you. So, what do we do now? Just Apparate out again?’
The lift opened in front of them. ‘It’s a nice night,’ her father said. ‘We’re dressed warmly and there are enough clouds that it would be hard for anyone to identify what they were seeing, so what do you say we take in a spot of night flying over the capital and see how far we get before we’re too cold or too tired.’
‘You are the very finest father.’
‘And you are a wonderful daughter. Are you all right now?’
Astoria smiled. ‘You heard Auror Lepworth. He’s with Harry Potter. Safe as houses.’
The voice was not loud, but it carried. Potter could see Malfoy retreat from the lip of the stairwell and was half-annoyed and half-impressed he’d been so quick to come to the rescue.
‘Firenze,’ said Harry. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Wizards have been kidnapping centaurs. I am investigating, just as you are, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. Please put your wand away and join us, Mr Malfoy. I mean neither of you any harm, and we three are alone here.’
Harry found it hard not to smile at the scowl on Malfoy’s face as he came down the stairs, but at the same time he recognised that, had he been in real danger, Malfoy would have been putting himself at risk coming to his aid. ‘Thank you,’ he said.
‘I disobeyed your order,’ Malfoy muttered.
‘You’re a scientist. I don’t expect you’re much good with orders,’ Harry replied, earning a glimmer of a smile from Malfoy.
Firenze looked at the two of them and nodded to himself. ‘You will be coming with me on the barge,’ he announced.
‘What barge?’ Malfoy asked, beating Harry to the question.
‘The one my captors prepare for me even now,’ Firenze replied. ‘They spoke of it openly before me, and of the price they hope to attract for me – which was at least gratifyingly substantial. I saw your coming in the stars, Harry Potter, though I did not understand all the meaning of what they were showing me until I saw Draco Malfoy with you. Our success has been foretold, but you must leave me and find the barge and secrete yourselves upon it. I expect them back within the hour and once they are ready, our departure will be swift.’
‘Are you working alone?’ Harry asked.
‘No, Ronan has also allowed himself to be captured. We left Britain on the same vessel, but he was taken elsewhere on our arrival at this port. I do not believe they intend us to reach the same destination, but, as we have foreseen that our actions will be successful in bringing about the end of this cruel operation, one of us must be bound for the people who are organising such an extensive evil. Our duty, I see now, has been to lay the trap. Your duty will be to apprehend them. Are there more of you?’
‘Another team, searching the warehouses past this one.’
‘Then they will find Ronan. The pieces are falling into place.’
‘Do you know the name of the barge?’ Harry asked.
‘The La Belle Marie. She has been hired by those behind this scheme and used for many months. Inside her hold and on her decks there has been much misery.’
‘Any idea of how many people will be on her?’
‘My two guards will be travelling with us. There is a bargeman and, I believe, a deckhand or boat boy. Beyond that, I have no knowledge. There may be more.’
Malfoy stepped closer. ‘When you say that you have foreseen we will be successful, what exactly do you mean? Do you mean that all three of us will be safe, or is this one of those prophecies where decent people die serving an alleged greater good and other people remember us fondly and name their children after us?’
Amusement shone in Firenze’s eyes. 'The stars weave a great cosmic dance, Draco Malfoy, they do not leave detailed instructions. We have seen that by letting ourselves be captured, these current evils will be ended and new possibilities will be born. Our actions will make the world a better place. The arrival of Harry Potter was shown to us. You were not, but you fit into the pattern like an instrument into a chorus – harmonious and true. I have seen no sudden end to your music. Go now, both of you, and find the La Belle Marie.’
Harry assured Firenze they would meet him on board, then Apparated back to the rendezvous point.
Malfoy appeared a half-second later, frowning at him. ‘So, what? We get on board a mystery barge because a Professor of Divination says he’s foreseen it will bring about a solution to this case?’
Harry cocked an eyebrow and waited for Malfoy to hear his own words. He was rewarded with a scowl and an ‘Oh, shut up.’
He smiled serenely. ‘We’re nearly at the half-hour mark. Fitzwallace and Romney will be here soon. We can exchange our reports and then go and find this barge. And you’ll remember that we’ve made it to this point by following your detailed work and deductive reasoning. The fact that Firenze made it here by following the stars or tealeaves is by the by. Though I would like to share his assurance in our success.’
They didn’t have long to wait. The other two appeared a few minutes later, announced by two soft inrushes of air. Both Fitzwallace and Romney were spilling over with discoveries: 'A centaur—’ ‘Ronan said—’ ‘A barge—’ ‘A prophecy—’
Malfoy was giving him a meaningful look, but Harry had already spotted the flaw in their plan. ‘We met Firenze,’ he told the others once they had reached the end of their tale. ‘Very similar situation to yours, and yes, I agree that we should be on those barges. But now we have two bad choices. Either we send one of us out without their partner, or we fail to notify anyone as to our next move. It’s too far to send a Patronus back to the Minstry, and I don’t think we have time to find any of the Aurors in Bruges and get back here before the boats leave – assuming they don’t want to just arrest these smugglers before they can lead us back to the organisers. I think the best option will be for Malfoy to—’
‘No,’ Malfoy interrupted him.
Harry kept his voice level. ‘You’re a scientist, not a field officer.’
‘Yes, and you’re a wizard, not an automaton. You will need to sleep, and you will need someone to watch your back while you do.’
Harry frowned. ‘I could make it an order.’
Malfoy shrugged. ‘I could quit and just follow you as a concerned citizen.’
‘Sir?’ Now Romney interrupted him. ‘Sir, does it matter if we don’t report for a few more hours? I mean, I know that Lepworth will notice at some point and probably be mildly worried. If we’re not back by morning, he and the others might upgrade that to concerned. But he knows where we are now. If we leave a message here about the barges, when they eventually come looking for us, they’ll find it. And it’s not as though any of us are planning to go racing in arresting everybody on our own; we’re gathering intelligence and will bring in support for the final arrests. By the time we’ve identified the culprits, we’re likely to have fresh Aurors waiting for us here, or on their way along the canals behind us.’
‘Clear thinking, Romney,’ said Fitzwallace.
Malfoy smiled at her approvingly, and looked at Harry as though he were an idiot, which was not unreasonable under the current circumstances, Harry admitted.
‘Fine,’ he said. ‘I have a pen and paper. Our barge is called the La Belle Marie. Yours?’
‘The Fierté de Guillaume,’ Fitzwallace answered. ‘Ronan thinks they mean to sell him somewhere nearby as he heard them discussing a minimal need for provisions.’
‘Good. All right, as Romney has pointed out, I’m too tired to think clearly, so input from all of you on this: where do we stop? Do we keep going until each barge reaches its final destination or do we pull the plug after 12, 24 or 48 hours? These canals all link up, we could make it halfway across France, or the Netherlands. If we stop at a set time, we can leave a message here telling them to expect us.’
‘I’d prefer we hold out to the final destination,’ said Fitzwallace. ‘Barges are slow and can be held up by traffic, we may have only just passed Bruges by the time we hit the 12-hour mark.’
‘I agree,’ said Romney.
‘As do I,’ said Malfoy.
‘Then I’ll tell them we have no useful guesses about when we will be back and that they should scout down the canals for the La Belle Marie and Fierté de Guillaume. They’re both French-sounding names, we could end up Paris-bound after all. In an emergency, send a Patronus to the nearest Auror office. Bruge, Ghent, Brussels, Ypres, Tournai … they’ll all have people who can and will help. The canals run in mostly straight lines, so if things go wrong, Apparate to the shore and it won’t take you long to work out where you are. Malfoy can you cast a Patronus?’
‘Incorporeal,’ Malfoy said. ‘Sometimes.’
Harry wished he hadn’t asked, the man looked as though it was a personal failing. ‘Most people can’t manage even that. You haven’t been drilled in it they way I make this lot suffer. And that will be ample if it’s needed. Now Fitzwallace, Malfoy and I can hide under my Cloak, what’s your plan for you and Romney?’
‘Stay off the barge for as long as possible. Watch from the shore and Apparate between vantage points. Ronan told us that he can hide us in his cell if we need to sleep: they filled their quarters on the cross-Channel ship with a good deep layer of straw and he thinks it will be the same on the barge. His captors have been keeping him at a distance: they’re afraid of him because he is wilder than Firenze, so they don’t come close and they use spears and spells to prod him along. He isn’t pleased about needing to work with us, but says that we fit into their prophecy, so he will do as he must.’
Harry nodded. ‘That seems rational, and has a good chance of working. All right. I’m assuming it will be at least a few hours before anyone comes looking for us. I’m sticking the note to this lamppost and charming it so that you need an MLE pass to see it.’
‘Will people think to come and look down here?’ Romney asked.
Malfoy rolled his eyes and waved his wand, causing a ten-foot-high lightning bolt to appear, painted in white on the dark wall of the nearest warehouse.
‘Yes, that should work,’ said Romney. Harry pretended he hadn’t seen a thing, it was easier.
The four of them walked to the canal together, muttering quietly and pretending they were on their way to work. The La Belle Marie was tied up very near to the warehouses, and four men were re-ordering its cargo. Harry watched one of them walk down steps into a hold that should not have been possible, given the three-to-four-foot draught of most barges. They walked past it, looking for the Fierté de Guillaume. It was berthed further away, but was also in the process of being re-ordered. Harry assumed they would bring it up into the Marie‘s berth once she was underway.
The Fierté de Guillaume stood out from the other watercraft with its shining steam funnels. The La Belle Marie was a classic beutship with curved deck and low-masted sails. Harry was relieved to see that neither were drawn by horse or mule – Muggles and wizards were easier to fool than animals when it came to concealment.
The four of them kept walking to a small barge that had a cheap berth some distance from the docks. It was a family business, and they made themselves useful first calming a fractious horse and cranky toddler and then assisting with the lading of dozens of baskets of fish. Harry understood enough German to know that Malfoy was refusing the family’s offer of payment, declaring they were all very bored and in need of some activity to keep them awake until their own vessels were ready to leave. He thought he heard Malfoy say something about the uselessness of their boss, but after that Harry’s grasp on either the language or anatomical possibility failed him.
‘Sir…’ Romney nudged him.
Harry followed her gaze. There was Firenze being led down to the La Belle Marie – for all the world looking like a horse until Harry squinted and could see through the enchantment. He turned to alert Malfoy and saw he had already noticed. Malfoy made their excuses to the family, who thanked them all warmly.
Harry kept them all close as they walked back. ‘Romney, take the Portkey. It’s set back to London, straight to the Ministry. You both know how to activate it. Malfoy and I know Europe better than you, so it will be easier for us to find help here. You two are on your own now. Be cautious. I value you both more than a quick solution to this case. Malfoy, come here.’
Malfoy frowned but stepped closer. Harry moved directly behind him and threw his invisibility cloak over them. ‘We both fit underneath if we stand close. I’m keeping my right hand on your shoulder, if it falls away, stop, or you’re likely to step out from under the cloak.’
‘I understand,’ said Malfoy, his voice a little tense.
‘Right foot first,’ said Harry. ‘If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to sneak on board while they’re loading. Step quietly, they can still hear us even if they can’t see us. Fingers crossed – it will be vastly easier than Apparating in blind.’
The La Belle Marie was large compared to the English narrow boats Harry had seen: more than seventy feet long and sixteen wide. She was brightly painted in the Dutch style, and furnished with thick tow ropes for when the wind fell away. Harry assumed that the presence of wizards on board meant that it never did. Thick, wide planks had been set down to form a solid ramp from the wharf onto the barge to make the centaur’s crossing easier, and Harry guided Malfoy onto them. He could see four men only, and the barge master and boat boy both had the glazed look of the Imperiused, which suggested that only the two guards were wizards. One of them pulled out his wand.
Harry gripped Malfoy’s shoulder, urging him to pause. Malfoy was still as a statue, aside from a hand moving silently to his own wand. Harry had multiple spells at the ready, but they had not been detected. Instead, he saw the air around them glisten with Concealment, and then the guard pointed his wand at the deck and muttered a spell. The boards in front of him lost their rigidity and eased downwards, forming a gentle ramp into the hold.
‘In you get,’ the guard ordered Firenze. Harry could see the centaur’s arms had been lashed to his body with thick ropes.
‘No complaining,’ said the second guard. ‘We’ve made it comfortable for you and if you’re good there will be food and water supplied during the voyage. And if you make a fuss, you can wait until we reach the end of the journey.’
‘Define good,’ said Firenze, earning a scowl from the second, more loquacious, guard. He lifted his head and started down the ramp, pausing halfway. ‘Are you being paid well to enslave sentient creatures?’ he asked. ‘Does it salve your consciences?’
The second guard looked uncomfortable, but the first sneered. ‘You’re a beast,’ he said, pointing his wand at Firenze. ‘Move.’
But Firenze’s ploy had succeeded. Before Harry had even tapped his shoulder, Malfoy was already lifting a foot and the two of them had sidled past the guards and down the ramp to the hold before the centaur had shaken his head with disappointment and begun his own descent.
There was vastly more space than Harry had expected. By rights, they should have been squeezed into a four-foot draught, but the guards had magically expanded the depth so it could fit a centaur with ease while still managing the shallow canals. They could all stand straight, ducking only for the beams. The floor was thickly covered in clean straw, and bales had been piled in one corner for future use, with safety lamps casting a warm low light.
Firenze followed them down, and Harry was grateful for the expanse of space, as the centaur was larger than he had remembered.
‘Don’t get up to any mischief,’ said the second guard, waving his wand and freeing Firenze from his bonds. ‘We’ll see you shortly,’ he added, before returning the ramp to its purpose as decking.
The sound from above was immediately muffled, almost to silence. Harry looked up, but could see no sign of a hatch. The transport barge had been neatly reconfigured into a jail, but although he could hear the lap of the water all around them, it was dry and had no smell of damp.
‘They will not hear us unless we are loud,’ said Firenze in a low voice.
Harry lifted the Cloak from himself and Malfoy and held up a finger to signal silence. He sent out another spell of revelation, looking for any sort of spying device. None were apparent.
‘It’s safe to speak,’ he announced.
‘Two wizards, two Imperiused Muggles,’ said Malfoy. ‘No easy exit from here, but you and I could easily side-along the Professor between us if we were focussed enough on our destination. They don’t seem obviously dangerous, but nor are they pleasant, so if we can avoid an open confrontation, we should.
‘This canal takes us to Bruges, then links with others. I’ll be able to make an educated guess as to where we are heading once we pass through the city, but I am guessing from the guard’s comments on food and water for Firenze that the journey won’t be less than six hours nor more than seventy-two. The only thing I can tell you for certain is that this is Perkins straw.’
Harry was impressed. ‘How do you know?’
Malfoy pointed to a label affixed to baling twine.
Firenze nickered – a very horsey laugh for one who seemed so serious.
‘Very clever,’ said Harry, trying not to laugh himself. ‘So our next step appears to be a long wait. You should get some sleep, Malfoy. Don’t know when we’ll next have the chance.’
Malfoy gave him a patronising look. ‘We are going to have a small amount to eat, and then you are going to sleep, because I get eight hours a night and you look like something Knockturn Alley would reject.’
Harry was about to argue when his body betrayed him and he yawned.
Firenze shook his head. ‘Draco Malfoy is right. You need to rest. I will do the same. I have faith that we will be well guarded; for all of Draco Malfoy’s faults, he cannot be said to be a disloyal man.’
Malfoy looked away, and Harry had a sudden insight into what he was thinking. He wanted to reassure him, but couldn’t find a way to say that working against Voldemort did not count as disloyalty, as Draco had never freely offered his allegiance in the first place.
Instead, he walked around the hold, looking for the most secure place to sleep. A gap between the stacks of hay bales was out of Firenze’s way and out of sightlines from the ramp should the guards recreate it. There was enough space for two adult men if Malfoy needed to hide alongside him, and enough straw for it to be reasonably comfortable. Harry nodded, satisfied.
Meanwhile, Malfoy had returned his food hamper to its original size and was sharing fruit and water with Firenze. It was a good idea, and Harry followed suit.
‘Sparingly,’ advised Malfoy.
Harry paused in unwrapping his sandwiches to look at him questioningly.
‘No lavatories. And we don’t know how long the trip will be.’
Harry grinned. ‘You’ve become very practical since you left school.’
‘Lots of time in the field,’ Malfoy told him. ‘You have to think about these sorts of things when you know you’re going to be spending the next eight hours clinging to the side of a mountain.’ He thought for a moment. ‘I mean, we could always designate a pile of straw in the corner and banish the evidence, but it’s so undignified, don’t you think?’
‘Fully agree.’ Harry was aware that Malfoy was teasing him, and it was surprisingly pleasant.
Firenze was turning around in circles, stamping the straw flat. He seemed satisfied with his work and settled himself into a specific space, locking his legs and falling asleep, his head drooping from his neck.
Harry realised how tired he was. He ate a little of his sandwich, drank a little water, and shrank his hamper back to pocket-sized. The food helped, but his exhaustion lay over him like a veil. Thinking for a moment, he handed his invisibility cloak to Malfoy. ‘Keep this with you. You’re more likely to need it while guarding us. I should be safe enough down here until you have a chance to cover me, too.’
Malfoy looked at the cloak in his hands. ‘Are you sure?’ he asked.
‘I trust you with it.’
Malfoy looked at him, then nodded and sat down on one of the bales surrounding Harry’s hiding space, cloak in one hand, wand in the other.
‘Sleep,’ he said. ‘I’ll wake you if anything happens, or in eight hours, whichever comes first.’
Harry felt dizzy with tiredness. He tucked his glasses into his pocket and laid his head down. The straw was surprisingly comfortable, though prickly against his skin. He took off his cap and placed it under his cheek, which helped. He closed his eyes and felt consciousness slip from him. As sleep took hold, it seemed he felt a piece of straw fall onto his face, and then it was as though a gentle hand brushed it away.
He stared at the decking boards above them and strained his ears for any signs of the guards returning. He had made it to over two thousand before his brain rebelled at the boredom.
A quill and notebook provided the next distraction. They had cast off at around the count of one thousand. He could feel the vessel still gaining speed, though minimal amounts, he didn’t imagine they would make it past a stiff walking pace. He jotted it all down, and the calls he could hear from other barge dwellers, though only one vey rude piece of German was loud enough for him to distinguish the words. After fifteen or so minutes, the action dropped away. Canals were one of the least exciting methods of travel possible.
So he began to draw instead. Guard Two – Draco shook his head at how easily he fell into Auror nomenclature for the suspect – Guard Two was easy to get down on paper: square face, stocky body, brown hair, small eyes and snub nose. His accent had been from somewhere in Yorkshire, and he seemed weatherbeaten but young, perhaps in his late twenties. Maybe younger, as Draco did not recognise him from school and he did not sound as though he came from the sort of money that could afford private tutors, Durmstrang or Beauxbatons. He scribbled notes in the margins around the image.
Guard One was older. Somewhere in his forties. Grey and angular, his face was harder to render, because no single feature stood out. His accent had sounded Irish, and Draco had a vague feeling that Astoria had mentioned some trouble – perhaps a political movement? – there, but Magical, Muggle or both he couldn’t recall. Should it come to a fight, Guard One was the one to take down first.
He risked a glance at Potter. Still sleeping quietly. All those young witches who cut photographs out of the Prophet and named their Kneazles Harry were not wholly deluded. He was distressingly pleasant to look at. Draco had thought that Potter’s exhaustion might be the product of tortured nights, tossing and turning with memories no mind should hold. Merlin knew his own sleep had fled for almost a year after the war. But it seemed it was simply Potter’s unwillingness to stop. He lay there still and peaceful, his expression at ease, his breathing soft.
Draco looked away. Potter had offered him a window of hope, but also the knowledge that what looked like an invitation could be nothing more than fundamental decency. He was momentarily grateful to Blaise for being one of the few peers who Draco could exceed in selflessness. Associating with Potter, Astoria and Charlie was highly detrimental to one’s sense of self-worth.
A sharp cracking noise snapped him to attention. In one swift movement he leapt behind the hay bales, flinging the cloak over Potter and himself and covering Potter’s mouth with light fingers. ‘Hush,’ he breathed into Potters ear, softening the S so it was half-prayer, half kiss. He felt Potter’s instant wakefulness, and his stillness. Draco realised that he had lain close against the man, that his arm was wrapped around him, that he could feel the slight bristle of his cheek beneath his fingers, but as the ramp reappeared – smaller this time – he thought it ill-advised to move.
Potter’s arm shifted slightly, reaching for his glasses and his wand. Draco let his hand fall from Potter’s mouth and felt it gripped for a moment in reassurance.
Guard Two appeared, wand in one hand, a bag in the other. ‘Are you awake, centaur?’ he asked
‘Firenze,’ said the professor, opening his eyes.
‘I’ve brought you food and drink,’ said the guard. ‘Will you guarantee my safety?’
‘No harm will come to you from me.’
The guard walked the rest of the way into the hold. He handed the bag to Firenze. ‘I know you don’t eat meat, so there is fruit, salad and warm porridge in case your horse stomach wants oats. I remember they taught us at school that you could take sustenance from either stomach, but if it was me, I’d fill both.’
Firenze took the bag and removed a flask of water, from which he took small sips. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘That was kindly thought.’
The guard looked quickly up the ramp. Whatever he saw – or did not see – gave him the confidence to speak. ‘Yeah, well, it’s not personal having you here, you know. I don’t mind when we’re delivering the fairies and the crups and the like, because they’re just animals. But I know who you are, you know. I didn’t take Divination, but I recognised you as soon as I saw you. But even if it wasn’t you, a centaur – that’s just not right. There’s nothing I can do about it now, but when I get back home, I’ll make sure the Aurors know where you went. Harry Potter will be able to find you. You’ll be all right.’
‘Thank you,’ said Firenze quietly. ‘That is a brave plan.’
The guard snorted. ‘If I was brave, I’d do something about it now, but I don’t dare. Him upstairs would hex me, and that’s bad enough, but Wilkins knows where I live, and my Bertha isn’t going to be able to protect both the little ones if he comes looking for me. But there are ways and means once I’m back in England. I’ll do everything I can, I promise you that.’
Firenze nodded soberly, which seemed to settle the guard’s anxiety.
‘All right, I’ll leave you to it. You may as well go back to sleep once you’ve eaten, we’re a long way off journey’s end.’
The guard disappeared, and the ramp followed suit. Firenze took out the porridge and ate a little of it. ‘He added honey,’ he said. ‘A thoughtful man.’
Draco realised he was still holding Potter. He sat up, pulling the cloak from over them. ‘Is that safe to eat?’ he asked Firenze. ‘What if he slipped a potion into it, and all his remorse was just an act?’
‘It is wholesome,’ the centaur replied. ‘We are better at seeing the truth than you wizards.’
Draco looked down. Potter was still lying there, looking up at him, a glint of amusement in his eyes. ‘Good guarding,’ he said.
‘I may have kneed you in the back a bit,’ Draco admitted.
‘Just missed,’ Potter replied.
Draco went to stand. Potter caught his arm. ‘Wait,’ he said. ‘Stay for a minute, I want to talk.’
Potter sat up, which put him altogether too close for comfort. Draco hastily rearranged himself to be sitting facing Potter, with as much leg as possible forming a safety barrier between them.
‘Is it about work?’ he asked, hoping it was, because he could have that conversation without any risk.
‘No, it’s about you,’ Potter replied. ‘When that man was talking, you were so tense, as though you were responding to his sense of guilt.’
Draco considered lying and saying he had been in fear, but it was so unlikely that he did not even try. He absolutely did not want to have this conversation, but there was Potter, looking earnest and unshakeable and maybe it was just easier to have it out?
‘His sense of shame,’ Draco corrected.
Potter frowned. ‘But what for? You’re nothing like him. He’s a grown man who has made his own choices; you were a child.’
Draco looked away. ‘You don’t understand, Potter. Oh, you’re right that we’re not alike, but it’s because he’s a low-level smuggler who’s probably trying to feed his young family, whereas I was a Pure-Blood supremacist who actively supported a genocidal maniac trying to bring about the downfall of the free wizarding world.’
‘You were a terrified boy,’ said Potter.
Draco laughed grimly. ‘You weren’t there.’
‘Yes I was,’ Potter insisted. ‘Even during the months I was on the run, I could still see you.’
Draco froze. ‘When?’ he asked, barely able to get out the word.
‘I could see through his eyes sometimes. When he was angry, when he was exultant. Hear with his ears, taste his emotions.’ Potter did not look as though it had been an easy thing to share, then or now.
For a moment, Draco felt only relief at things not seen. Then he remembered, and covered his face as revulsion rendered it unfit to be shown.
And there were Potter’s hands again, lifting his away, gripping them and forcing him to look into too-green eyes. ‘I saw you not kill,’ Potter said, as loudly as he dared. ‘I saw you terrified and tortured and in a position where most men would have followed orders and you did not. You did not. You made bad choices when times were easy and you tried to make good choices when times were unbearably hard. And that is what defines you.’
Draco realised his cheeks were wet with tears, which was ridiculous, because he never cried these days. Not even when his father died. ‘I failed a lot,’ he said.
Potter half-smiled. ‘So did I. There’s only so much you can do against some enemies. But even though I see the faces of everyone who died, I also see the faces of everyone who lived. And you need to remember them, too. You saved them, too.’
It was a comforting lie, but Draco couldn’t accept it. ‘You saved them,’ he said. ‘I had nothing to do with it.’
‘You saved me,’ Potter said. ‘And you gave me the wand.’
Draco snorted at that. ‘I bloody well did not. You had to fight for it and you nearly broke my fingers.’
Potter shook his head. ‘You were so obviously not trying,’ he said. ‘Remember, I know exactly how hard you can punch and kick. That was all for show.’
Draco didn’t argue. He’d never known himself whether he’d wanted Potter to escape with his wand, only that he hadn’t wanted Potter to die.
Potter still had hold of his hands. Draco eased them free. ‘I don’t think that being pitiful compares to sacrificing yourself, but I held my breath the entire time the Elder Wand was in the air, and wanted for you to win as I had never wanted anything before.’
Potter smiled at him. ‘I knew you did.’
Draco looked away, because he doubted very much that Potter actually knew what he had felt in that moment. ‘So one of the scarier characters is called Wilkins,’ he said instead, hoping Potter would pretend with him that none of that had just happened.
‘Yes,’ said Potter. ‘And probably back in Britain if our friend’s fear is justified.’
‘You should go back to sleep. You heard the man, we have hours to go.’
Potter looked as though he had more to say, but nodded instead. ‘You’re right. Good night, Malfoy.’
‘Good night, Potter.’ Draco cleaned his face with his shirtcuffs and was glad Potter had pretended not to notice his tears. He knew he was no sort of hero, but at least this time he had actively declared himself to be on the right side of the fight, which had to be some sort of progress.
Firenze waited until Potter was soundly sleeping before he spoke to Draco. ‘Does he know?’ he asked, in a voice little more than a murmur.
‘No,’ Draco whispered in reply.
‘But you do.’
‘For years,’ Draco admitted.
Firenze looked at him kindly. ‘Then you are braver than he knows, Draco Malfoy.’
‘Good morning,’ he greeted her on her arrival at the breakfast table. ‘I hear you spent the night flying across the countryside.’
Astoria had a brief moment of wishing she had tidied her hair, but it did not survive her tide of gratitude as he poured her a cup of coffee.
After half of it, she felt up to conversing. ‘My father is a terrible influence,’ she said. ‘It was simply marvellous.’
‘And your beautiful mother tells me that you’ve accidentally lost Draco.’
‘Oh, Mr Weasley,’ Amarantha laughed. ‘I’m over forty, you know.’
Astoria shook her head. ‘If the two of you start exchanging banter, I’m leaving. Mama is right, I’m sorry to say. He's gone out on some sort of mission chasing smugglers with Harry Potter, and Mother says that you and I need a formal release from Draco before she will give us her blessing.’
Charlie digested the information. ‘We’ll just have to find him. I need her working on my side if I’m ever going to convince you to marry me.’
‘Oh Merlin…’ said Astoria, drowning the remainder of her coffee and pouring more.
‘She’s so determined to be Modern,’ her mother sighed.
Charlie ignored them for the sake of peace. ‘So should we spend the morning looking for him?’
‘You can. I have to deliver a proposal on the reinstatement of cross-Channel Thestral services with a full plan for Muggle avoidance technology to Mrs Weasley and the Prime Minister.’
‘The Prime Minister?’ her mother asked.
‘Don’t worry, Mama, I promise to behave myself.’
Her mother took her hand. ‘Rubbish, Astoria. You remind him that he is contributing to the systematic oppression of half of Britain!’
Astoria hugged her mother, and Charlie winked at her. ‘Your family is splendid,’ he said.
‘It is,’ Astoria agreed, at which moment her father appeared, looking as sleepy as she felt. He glanced around and took in the situation.
‘Charlie,’ he said, with a formal nod. ‘Your father speaks highly of you. He’s a good man.’
Charlie had stood the moment Wilberforce appeared, and gave a slight bow in formal greeting. ‘He is, sir. Thank you.’
‘I am guessing from the state of Astoria’s grooming that my beloved wife is responsible for your attendance?’
‘Yes, sir. She owled me first thing this morning. I came right over as soon as I had finished taking care of the animals.’
‘I’m glad to see you don’t neglect your responsibilities even in response to a summons,’ Mr Greengrass said, with a friendly wink they could all see.
‘Very important to feed magical creatures regularly if you want there to be the same number of them when you return home,’ Charlie replied, mostly seriously.
‘And what do you do for a living?’ Mr Greengrass asked, following the formula.
‘I work with dragons in Romania, overseeing the sanctuary creation and breeding programmes. And in addition to that, I’ve joined with my brothers in a toymaking venture.’
‘And it pays well?
‘And you live within your means?’
‘Very much so.’
‘And there are no other young women who feel they have a reasonable expectation of an offer from you?’
‘No-one at all,’ Charlie replied, covering all bases.
‘Well then, lad, eat up. I won’t be turfing you out on your ear over breakfast at least.’
‘Papa!’ Astoria shook her head at the two men’s descent into cliché. ‘Pass me the eggs. I need to finish getting dressed for work soon.’
Her mother passed the eggs, and the toast, and tried to encourage her to take a spot of kedgeree or some waffles. ‘You’ll wear yourself out if you don’t take care,’ she said.
Astoria took a bowl of stewed fruit to placate her. ‘It’s a fine breakfast, Mother. All our favourite things.’
Her mother looked pleased. ‘You need something nourishing in your stomach if you’re going to be meeting with the Prime Minister.’ She held her tongue for a moment, then couldn’t help asking, ‘Tell me about the Thestral service.’
Between bites of food and sips of beverage, Astoria gave a brief précis of the collapse in cheap magical travel between Britain and the Continent.
‘Because there are so many Muggle vessels these days,’ she concluded, ‘the enchantments hiding any magical transport have to be top-notch. The companies managing the ferries wanted to pass the cost of placing and maintaining them straight onto the consumer; the families who mostly use the services said they couldn’t afford it and the government should pay; the Muggle governments said it was our problem; the Ministry said it was theirs; then the French, Belgians and Dutch got involved. There was briefly an excellent compromise proposal put forward by the Belgians with a very fair shared payment scheme, but none of the larger governments wanted to admit that little Belgium had the best idea.’
‘So what has happened since then?’ her mother asked.
‘In terms of travel? Nothing. Services were suspended last year. Those who can afford Portkeys use them instead. Poor people who have access to a Muggle passport and currency have used the Muggle ferries, and the Ministry and other companies with International Floos have made them available for use of employees and their families. As for the rest – well, I think that’s part of the smuggling ring Draco’s been working on.’
Charlie’s fork clattered against his plate. ‘Sorry! So sorry, you caught me by surprise. When you said smuggling earlier, I assumed you were talking about objects and artefacts. But people too?’
‘And creatures,’ Astoria confirmed.
‘I need to speak with Draco,’ Charlie said. ‘What time is your meeting with the Prime Minister?’
Astoria could hear the urgency in his voice. ‘Ten o’clock. Mrs Weasley said it was unlikely to run for more than an hour.’
‘So we could meet up afterwards and start searching?’
‘Yes, of course. Say eleven-thirty in case things run long? If you meet me at the Ministry, then we can talk to the Aurors and Draco’s laboratory team. It’s Saturday, so only a half-day. I can leave early and we can head out straight after if he’s still not back.’
Charlie nodded, but Amarantha looked surprised. ‘Draco has a laboratory at the Ministry? And a team? The two of you have been very busy in the space of a week.’
Astoria felt a little guilt. ‘It’s mostly Harry Potter’s fault,’ she admitted. ‘I think that he and Hermione Weasley had plans they wanted to put into action, but not the people to build them around, and then we conveniently appeared.’
‘So they are in your debt?’ Her mother asked, trying to make it not sound like a calculation.
Astoria laughed. ‘They are, Mama. And yes, I promise that I will make full use of that fact should the need ever arise.’
Her mother spread butter serenely on toast. ‘You make it sound gauche, dear, but there is no harm in being owed a favour or two by people in power. If another war comes, Portkeys will be in short supply, and I will want you to be safe.’
Astoria shook her head. ‘As though I’d go anywhere without you, you silly old thing. You and Papa amuse Charlie, I have to finish dressing for work.’
It was Muggle attire again. Astoria was glad she was a witch – how anyone was supposed to manage corsets and coiled hair with only two hands was beyond her. In honour of the Prime Minister’s status, she chose a white linen shirt with elaborate white embroidery under her best grey silk and wool suit. She added a brooch of violets to her lapel, a light-grey hat with amber pins, and then a blue silk parasol in case they ended up Apparating anywhere – she suspected the Home Secretary of blabbing. Satisfied, she made her way back downstairs.
Charlie’s eyes brightened at the sight of her, but they had done the same at the sight of her in a house coat with tangled hair. She smiled broadly at the knowledge he was enchanted by her, not her grooming.
One day, rather soon, she would start her morning to his face. She had to stop that thought before she was overwhelmed by blushes. Instead, she took refuge in practicality. ‘I’m heading in now. Charlie, can I see you back to London?’
‘If your mother can spare me.’
Amarantha smiled indulgently. ‘Go. You’ve thoroughly charmed me and I can see how you’ve intoxicated my normally too-sober daughter. We will have you to luncheon tomorrow. One o’clock, bring this diricawl of yours, he’ll enjoy the gardens.’
Charlie kissed her hand respectfully. ‘Mr Greengrass?’
‘Off you go, lad. Just remember that I can make you forget your name and species with very little effort on my part.’
‘Duly noted, sir,’ said Charlie.
Astoria mock-frowned at her father, then kissed the top of his head. ‘I should be home in time for dinner. I’ll let you know if things change.’
She and Charlie walked outside before Disapparating. ‘It’s rather beautiful down here,’ he said.
‘It is, and the air is splendid.’
‘It’s a reasonable distance from my mother,’ Charlie offered.
‘But perhaps a little close to mine?’ Astoria countered. ‘I was thinking that Devon or Cornwall might be nice. Close enough for easy visiting, wild enough for your creatures. And for us to hide if there are too many visitors. We could get connected to the Floo network and it would be a short trip for me to Scotland or London for work, then the only trick will be working out which months you want to be in Romania and then how much of that you’ll want me there for.’
‘I always want you there,’ Charlie said. ‘Or me there. Wherever it is, I think we should both be there.’
Astoria smiled and took his arm. ‘Oh, Charlie. And how many witches have you said that to over the years?’
‘None,’ he replied, looking at her very seriously. ‘Because you are the first person I have ever met who I felt I simply had to have in my life, in whatever capacity you would accept. You can’t imagine my relief when I realised you found me attractive, too.’
Astoria rested her head on his shoulder. ‘Oh, I think you’ll find I can.’ They grinned foolishly at each other for a moment. ‘I know it’s probably the least romantic thing a woman has ever said to a man, but I immediately felt there was something just so wholly appropriate about you.’
Charlie smiled back. ‘Not at all – I felt the same way. I mean – once we’ve known each other a little longer and I’ve convinced you I’m more than just a dragon-obsessed reprobate, I’ll be able to tell you how very much I love you, without worrying that I look like some sort of third-rate poet. But for now, I like that language very much. This is wholly appropriate, as anyone can see.’
Had her meeting been with anyone less than the Prime Minister, Astoria would have called in sick there and then. Alas … ‘I do have to go to work,’ she said regretfully.
‘And I have to find your alleged fiancé and inform him that I think I have essential input for his case, as well as a need for him to formally announce your separation.’
‘We were never together,’ Astoria muttered as she took his arm and Apparated them to the Ministry. Seeing no-one else she knew on the street outside, she quickly kissed his cheek. ‘Now off you go, and try to stay out of trouble until you’re due back here.’
‘I’m going home to assemble some of my notes and see if I can contact Rolf,’ Charlie said, ‘If I’m right, we have a lot to tell Harry and Draco.
Astoria did not hug him, because she would not have let go. Instead, she made a short goodbye and headed inside. Emmeline Lewis was in the Atrium, pacing in distracted bursts. She stopped dead when she saw Astoria and came striding towards her. ‘Oh, thank Merlin you’re here!’
Astoria hurried to close the distance, barely able to breathe. ‘What is it? What’s happened? Is Draco all right? Is there news?’
Emmeline shook her head quickly. ‘No, no bad news. No news at all. No-one knows where they are for sure. Fitzwallace and Romney are missing, too. Lepworth said they all headed off to Zeebrugge, and that it was operationally predictable they would be delayed, but Peasegood’s gone spare and is assembling teams to go out in search. Draco gave all of us the day off, but Peasegood hauled us in first thing and has us terrified because he’s so worried. I was hoping you might have heard something.’
‘Nothing. Charlie Weasley and I are planning to head out on a search of our own after my meeting this morning.’
Emmeline raised her eyebrows. ‘Charlie Weasley?’
‘It’s a long story.’
‘I’ll knock off early and help you search and then you can tell it to me.’
Astoria smiled at her cheekiness. ‘What about the two wizards on your team? Do they have any ideas?’
‘Loads. Sadly, most of them involve using highly illegal spellcraft. I’m hoping we can sort it out well before it comes to that. If Minister Shacklebolt ever gets wind of half the things Garamond’s been researching, he’ll close us down in a heartbeat. Or send us to Azkaban.’
‘Let’s not let it come to that, then. I’ll come and find you as soon as Charlie gets here, around half eleven. You learn as much as you can until then, and I’ll ask Mrs Weasley if I can borrow you all.’
‘Not David – he’s busy identifying all the remaining trace evidence so he can send out teams to likely locations. When I left the office, Peasegood had just sent people to Zeebrugge to see if they could find any sign of where they might have gone.’
‘We’ll find them,’ Astoria assured her.
‘We have to,’ Emmeline agreed. ‘Garamond could turn seriously Dark if we have to go back to pre-Malfoy days. He’ll spare the two of us and you for Draco’s sake, but Lepworth is definitely doomed.’
Astoria took a deep breath. ‘All right. Then for Lepworth’s sake, we’ll work quickly. You assemble all the data from David and Peasegood, I’ll see if Mrs Weasley knows anything, and once Charlie gets here, we’ll have a broader picture, with any luck. It’s been less than twelve hours, they’re probably fine, just too busy to report.’
Emmeline walked her to the lift and accompanied her to their floor. She was a personable young witch, and Astoria had the sense she was pleased to make a female friend. ‘It will be all right,’ she told her. ‘Between Draco’s cleverness and Harrys boldness, they’re bound to be fine.’
‘Or surrounded by a hundred enemies with what looked like a clever plan until two minutes ago,’ Emmeline answered dolefully.
The lift doors opened. ‘Chin up,’ said Astoria, leading the way out. ‘I’m going to find Mrs Weasley right now and see if she knows.’
‘She knows,’ said a voice from the corridor behind them. It was not a happy voice. ‘She knows and she is going to have some rather serious words once we’ve got them all back, Are you roping Astoria into the search, Miss Lewis?’
‘Is that all right, Mrs Weasley?’
‘Very much so.’ Mrs Weasley smiled at Astoria. ‘She has good common sense and she can call on her father without going through official channels if we need a spot of illicit surveillance or illegal Apparating. But I am afraid I need her first, we have a very important meeting scheduled, which we will plough through at the highest speed possible.’
Astoria had never met a woman as petite as Mrs Weasley with such a long, fast stride. It was almost hard to keep up with her as she made her way towards her offices.
‘Thank you, Mrs Weasley,’ said Emmeline.
‘Not at all. Back you go, we passed your turn off thirty yards ago. Astoria, do you need to pick up anything from your office before the PM arrives?’
Astoria had the entirety of her Thestral Costs Proposal bedded down in her head, and also neatly printed in triplicate within leather folders in her reticule. ‘No, I’m ready now,’ she said.
‘Good. Straight to my office, we need a plan.’
Hermione Weasley’s office was one of the largest in the Ministry. While artificial enlargement of Ministry property was only allowable with multiple permits, Astoria strongly suspected the room had been expanded since her visit on her first day. A new bookcase and chaise longue stood in the corner. Tucked in among copies of reports from the Office for the Misuse of Magical Artefacts was a well-chewed pasteboard version of Beedle the Bard and copies of Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle and The Naughty Little Crup.
‘When I’m running late of an evening, the children use it as their reading corner,’ Mrs Weasley explained. ‘I usually hide it from more official visitors.’
Astoria felt a rush of pride at having graduated to informal guest.
‘Sit down. Would you like a cup of tea? We’ve got a little over an hour before the PM is due and I do need to talk with you about some of your plan there, but first, do you have any idea where our missing Aurors and scientist might be?’
Astoria repeated what she had told Emmeline, though now she had had time to think, more pieces were falling into place. How to share them without confiding that she might soon stop calling Mrs Weasley her boss in favour of her sister-in-law was going to be the tricky part.
‘One of the many people who have kindly helped Draco and me in our current predicament has been your brother-in-law, Mr Charlie Weasley.’ It was a safe enough beginning, even if it did result in raised eyebrows. ‘He and Draco have a lot of shared areas of research interest, and he has been kind enough to invite us for several meals.’ That seemed safer.
‘We were all meant to catch up last night, but, of course, Draco never appeared. Mr Weasley and I were worried and discussed where he might be. I let slip the fact that Draco had been working on a case involving smugglers, which Mr Weasley thought nothing of at the time, but later he learned that the Auror investigation had involved magical beings and dangerous creatures. So we talked this morning, because he thinks he might have additional information that can help.
‘You see, Charlie was in the Southern Hemisphere investigating rumours of missing dragons. He lost the trail and thought it could have all been a series of mistakes, but what if they were shipped to Europe instead of Western Australia or Africa? His friend Rolf has been doing something similar down there and Luna Lovegood is with him. I thought she was just there as an amateur cryptozoologist and probable romantic liaison, but what if she’s also there as a journalist gathering the pieces of a story? This all could be much bigger than we think.’
‘We need to talk with them,’ Mrs Weasley agreed.
‘Charlie is trying to reach Rolf now. Emmeline said that Peasegood was expecting the team at Zeebrugge to find leads. Will he come to you with whatever they discover?’
‘Yes, unless the Prime Minister is here; then he’ll send a memo so I can decide whether or not it’s worth interrupting the meeting.’
Mrs Weasley was already looking at her with more than a little friendly suspicion. Astoria suspected it was because she had forgotten to say Mr Weasley at least once, ‘Mr Weasley has promised to stop by the Ministry later this morning so that we can resume our search for Draco. Can we both be part of the official team? We’re going to be searching for them anyway, if you put us into the information-sharing circuit, then we can only help.’
Mrs Weasley nodded. ‘Of course. I think Emmeline is already counting on you forming part of the search with her.’
‘I think it will be effective,’ Astoria agreed. ‘She has knowledge of all the physical evidence, which we can cross-reference with Mr Weasley’s information and then I can function as a go-between. My Apparition skills are first-rate so I can fetch help or share details as needed.’
‘Approved,’ said Mrs Weasley. ‘I’m very pleased you’re here, Miss Greengrass.’
‘As am I, Mrs Weasley,’ Astoria vowed.
They were running short for preparation before the Prime Minister’s arrival, so Astoria pulled out her folders and was halfway through explaining her plan for funding the new Thestral services when a young Auror she did not recognise was shown in by Mrs Weasley’s secretary.
‘Come in, Auror McKennitt. I assume you have a report to make?’
The Auror swallowed nervously, but spoke clearly. ‘They left a message for us at the docks. They’re pursuing two barges that left late last night, and they planned to stay with each of them until they reach their final destination. They have information that at least one of them is bound for the ringleaders. Peasegood asked me to tell you that he is dispatching teams to find the vessels and to track them at a safe distance until it’s either time to apprehend the miscreants or else offer assistance as required. And that we haven’t informed the local Aurors yet, as Potter asked us not to unless it was strictly necessary. So Peasegood’s waiting until it is.’
‘Thank you, Auror McKennitt, please tell Senior Auror Peasegood that I approve his plan and that my husband will be coming in before lunch so he and I can join in the search.’
‘Yes, Ma’am,’ McKennitt replied and left as fast as he could walk.
‘So they’re very likely still alive, at least,’ Mrs Weasley said. ‘You would think that with all the restrictions Harry places on his staff about staying safe and not rushing in, he might listen to his own advice. But you would be very wrong.’
Astoria nodded sympathetically. ‘I don’t know what possessed Mr Malfoy,’ she said.
Mrs Weasley raised an eyebrow. ‘Don’t you?’
Astoria tried to keep her expression impassive, because she rather thought she did, but she did not know Mrs Weasley half well enough to admit it. ‘Should I go over the remainder of the proposal?’ she asked.
It was a slightly complex, but elegantly straightforward proposition with the majority of costs borne by those who benefited the most financially from the scheme. Importers and exporters of luxury magical goods would have vastly cheaper freight, and so they attracted a higher levy, while traders in essentials and passengers bore a smaller cost. The remainder was split between the nations set to gain from the resumption of official magical freight, with half of that to the magical and half to the Muggle governments. The cost of administering the scheme was factored into the levies and the personnel would be supplied by the Ministry.
Mrs Weasley’s approval was echoed by the Prime Minister once Astoria had outlined the proposal for him. ‘A very elegant solution!’ he declared. 'You ladies have come up with a fine piece of work here. Our chaps in Treasury couldn’t make it work.’
‘Because they’re too busy building a war chest,’ Mrs Weasley reminded him.
‘It is the age we live in, I am afraid, my dear,’ he replied, stroking his beard.
Mrs Weasley smiled charmingly. ‘Now, lambkin, you promised me no pet names in front of the new staff.’ She winked with an utter lack of subtlety.
The Marquess of Salisbury hid his discomfiture well, the only outward sign of it being the bright shade of crimson that coloured his ears. ‘My apologies, madam. I am afraid that my manners are trapped in the mid-century and I may never grow used to the modern woman.’
Mrs Weasley smiled sympathetically. ‘I know that you mean no harm. And the “my dear” wasn’t the problem, it’s the notion that I have no understanding of war. I am a decorated veteran, which is why I can – and will – criticise any policy that takes the country into conflict. But as to the modern woman, we are not hard to manage: you just think of us as people and we will do the same for you. If it will help, we could wear trousers and false beards.’
He laughed at that. ‘No, I don’t think we need go that far. Is there anything else while I am here?’
‘Passports,’ said Astoria quickly, before Mrs Weasley could close the meeting. ‘Our people often have trouble securing the appropriate paperwork for your systems. If you could help us navigate that, then those who do want to use your transports will be able to do so legally.’
‘A good idea,’ said the Prime Minister. ‘I know just the person, and will put him in touch with you. Tell me, Miss Greengrass, did you really send the Home Secretary travelling through the ether?’
Astoria had been expecting the question, and flashed a brief look of apology at Mrs Weasley. ‘I’m afraid I did.’
‘And this is a thing all your people can do?’
‘Not all, no. But some of us.’
‘So you could deposit me in my office at the conclusion of this meeting rather than send me back through the fireplace? It always takes me an age to shake the ash from my clothes.’ The Prime Minister looked boyishly hopeful, which was quite the feat given his grizzled beard and wrinkles.
‘I … I don’t know. Are there Anti-Apparition charms on the office?’
Mrs Weasley looked as though she wanted to say yes, but honesty forbade it. ‘No, I lifted them when we installed the traps. I can take you back, Prime Minister. Miss Greengrass has never been to your office, so you’d run the risk of winding up inside a closet.’
The PM beamed. ‘That is exceptionally kind of you. I know it’s an imposition, but it just sounded so marvellous. Matthew raved at me about the whole thing. Tell me, could it be used to shift large numbers of people, like troops before a battle?’
‘No,’ said Mrs Weasley quickly. ‘No, only a couple of people at a time. And short distances, as Mis Greengrass told Sir Matthew.’
‘What a shame. Well, I think I’ve signed everything that needs signing, and I have copies of it all for Balfour, in which case …’
Hermione smiled graciously and stood, turning to smooth her skirts and glare in mock-anger at Astoria.
Astoria tried to convey her abject apologies in a look.
‘I won’t be long,’ said Mrs Weasley. ‘Astoria, I’ll meet you back here in the Aurors’ offices.’
‘Yes, thank you!’ said Astoria, pleased to get off so lightly. ‘Very good to meet you, Prime Minister.’
‘The pleasure was all mine. Very good work, Miss Greengrass.’
They both made small bows and Astoria left as quickly as was decent. She had just made it back into the main corridor when Harry Potter’s secretary, Carston, hailed her. ‘I’m so relieved to find you!’ he said. ‘You’re needed. There’s a Ryla Murglesten here to see you, and she has Gideon Hall with her.’
The name rang only the faintest bell. Carston saw her lack of comprehension. ‘The kidnapped man? The one they’ve all been looking for? She says he’s Imperiused and she’s been asking for Head Auror Potter, and since we can’t produce him, she says she’ll settle for you instead.’
Astoria squared her shoulders. ‘Take me to her, then, Mr Carston. I suspect we will want to hear whatever it is she has to say.’
‘Morning,’ Harry said.
Malfoy looked up. ‘Good morning. Very little has been happening, so I let you sleep.’
Harry yawned and stretched. ‘Any more visits?’
‘Two. Both guilty guard checking on Firenze and staying for a spot of moral philosophy. They’ve been discussing the mitigating powers of regret. Exactly your sort of conversation, so I didn’t wake you. He doesn’t want to be here, which could be useful for us if it comes to a crisis later.’
Harry grinned, and Malfoy grinned back, which was gratifying. ‘How’s Firenze?’
‘Fine. Napping. We’ve talked a lot and made a plan for if we lose track of him.’
Harry became aware of a faint smell and a pressing need. Malfoy read his mind. ‘The professor decided we needed an urination corner. Far side, over where the straw is bundled. Take the cloak, I’ll be fine here if someone comes down.’
Harry took care of his business, suppressing a laugh at the thought of Malfoy and Firenze discussing best placement for peeing. Malfoy was still scratching away at his notes when Harry returned to their hiding place.
‘What are you working on?’
‘Time, estimated speed, course changes … I’m trying to work out where we might be going. It was obvious when we passed through Bruges, but my best guess now is that we’re headed for Ghent.’
Harry was surprised. ‘That far? How long have I been asleep?’
‘About ten hours.’
‘Ten? I almost never sleep that long.’
Malfoy looked at him. ‘I guessed. Perhaps that could be why you needed to now?’
Harry didn’t argue; it was true. He had a sudden memory. ‘You know, back during the war, Hermione tried to come up with a spell to extract bodily waste by a form of modified Apparition.’
Malfoy stopped writing and looked up at him, his expression caught between fascination and horror, with just the right amount of amusement added.
‘I never did find out how it went,’ Harry went on. ‘She came back into the tent some time later looking very startled and never raised the topic again.’
Malfoy buried his laughter in the crook of his arm. ‘That’s not fair,’ he said after a minute or so. ‘Now I have to pretend I don’t know that when I meet with her in the Ministry.’
‘You do,’ Harry agreed. ‘Because otherwise she’ll hex both of us. I’m properly awake now if you want to get some sleep.’
Malfoy shook his head. ‘I’m fine. I’ve got at least another six hours in me before I start to need potions. Do you want some breakfast?’
Harry was suddenly ravenous. He reached for his hamper, but Malfoy forestalled him. ‘I have the senior manager version,’ he said, enlarging his own. ‘If I’d known you Aurors didn’t have any plans to eat while you’re out on missions, I would have made more of them.’
Harry wrinkled his nose, because poking out his tongue would have been juvenile. ‘Our missions are usually frantic chases after very bad people. This lounging about waiting business is very atypical.’
‘I did wonder,’ Malfoy said, moving the hamper between them and opening its lid. ‘Kipping in straw hardly seems worthy of the dashing reputation for derring-do your team has forged.’
Not poking out his tongue at that moment was nothing less than a triumph of maturity on Harry’s part. He looked into the hamper instead. Malfoy’s version contained the standard ration, lightly nibbled on, then extra fruit, boiled eggs, ham, a flask labelled hot chocolate and another of whisky – ‘Medicinal or otherwise,’ said Malfoy – and a selection of pastries and other bakery items. Harry suspected he could see a jar of caviar beneath the silver cruet, but wasn’t certain.
Malfoy passed him a boiled egg and the salt shaker. ‘Ham on German bread?’ he asked.
‘Sounds good,’ Harry replied. ‘Though if you have any apple or pear pastries…’
Malfoy put down the ham and passed a pastry instead. ‘This has been a learning experience for all of us,’ he said. ‘I would never have picked you as a sweet tooth.’
‘Didn’t have many treats as a child,’ Harry said between mouthfuls. ‘I see no reason to pass them up as an adult.’
‘That is the most obvious lie I have ever heard you tell,’ Malfoy said conversationally, but he appeared to be quite serious. Harry was surprised, he had thought they were getting on rather well.
‘I think I’d know,’ Harry replied evenly.
Malfoy looked at him. It was the same expression that had been on his face a few minutes ago while calculating the speed of the barge: evaluative, but not the least bit cruel. After a long pause in which he was very clearly debating whether or not to speak, he decided in favour of commenting. ‘Potter, I say this as someone who is genuinely surprised to find himself caring about your best interests, but since it appears that I do, you do precious little to advance them. You’re a single workaholic who doesn’t even treat himself to weekends off when he’s the one in charge of the scheduling.’
That had not been what Harry was expecting to hear. ‘I was talking about cake,’ he said, making the only defence he could. ‘And anyway, that’s all true of you, too, you know.’
Malfoy smiled ruefully. ‘Of course I know. It’s how I can recognise it in you. But the key difference is this: I can spend the rest of my life making amends for past misdeeds and it still won’t be enough for some people. Whereas you could demand an annual tribute of twelve young men to carry you everywhere and it would be seen as both wholly deserved and utterly reasonable. Lads freshly out of Hogwarts would compete to be part of the Potter Portage Team.’
Harry smiled at Malfoy’s joke, but he thought he understood something deeper now. ‘You do see that I couldn’t live like that.’
‘I know. It would be fun for a week, though.’
‘Absolutely. But then to stand by when there is so much to be done … And worse to let the circumstances of my childhood – over which I had no control – set my course as an adult?’
Malfoy smiled. A genuine whole-face smile. ‘You’re not very subtle, you know.’
Harry smiled back. ‘Yes, everyone knows that. But it’s true: if I say to you that you shouldn’t suffer the consequences of schoolboy stupidity your whole life, then I shouldn’t bank on the privileges. They’re two sides of the same coin. And it’s not as though I wasn’t stupid at times; I bet you can still see where I accidentally hexed you in Myrtle’s bathroom.’
Malfoy shrugged. ‘Very faintly. For that matter, your nose is still a little crooked.’
‘I like it. It gives my face a more raffish air.’
Malfoy shook his head in mock despair. ‘You could have had such fun with twelve young men!’ he teased.
‘Can you imagine the logistical difficulties?’ Harry replied, knowing that it was not really an appropriate comment for what could loosely be termed the workplace, but counting it as worthwhile for the sight of Malfoy stifling his laughter with his coat.
If this is where things end up with them, he thought, it will be all right. O-Kay as the Americans say. He had no idea what he really wanted anymore, so far as it concerned Malfoy. One moment he was filled with memories of hating the man, then of an overwhelming determination to save him. And all of that was being overwritten by the present: he actively enjoyed spending time with this clever, funny wizard, with his appealing face, who looked at him like just another person rather than the Queen of England.
There was a rare possibility there. But Harry could not begin to decide whether or not he should pursue it. Just – just don’t make the same mistakes twice, he told himself. This time, he could avoid that stupid, wasteful rancour of their early years.
Malfoy caught his breath, and shook his head at Potter. ‘You’re lucky we’re nearing the end of this journey, of you’d have those guards on us like a flash through ill-advised joking.’
‘Nearing the end?’ Harry raised an eyebrow.
‘We’ve been gradually losing speed for the last half an hour,’ Malfoy told him. ‘I’d have put it down to the wind dying away, but two other barges have gone past us, and they were either also under sail or had the quietest towing ever. So I am guessing – and sadly it is a guess, though an educated one – that our boatman is no longer looking for the best wind as he’s just going to need to take that speed off later when we reach our destination.’
Harry was impressed. ‘Can I see your calculations?’ he asked.
Malfoy looked surprisingly uncertain, but after a barely noticeable pause, he handed Harry his notebook.
Harry leafed back through pages of small writing. There was a lot of maths, and even more in the way of notes: ‘wash and sound of engines – past by steam barge’; ‘long pause and level change – travel through lock’; any number of ‘wash from another vessel passing’. Malfoy had recorded every significant event; most of them at the start of the journey as they traversed what had to have been the Canal de Bruge. As he read, Harry realised that he could faintly hear the sounds of the voyage outside: water slapping against the hull, an engine in the distance, hooves much closer … Malfoy had spent ten hours listening closely. It was a remarkable feat of concentration. But there was more.
He had drawn as he wrote. Pen sketches in margins, or snaking over one page while notes filled the next. The first were all of the two guards, with notes to help on their identification. Then there was a series of Firenze: hooves and fetlocks, his sleeping head resting on its broad chest, the muscles of his arms. Then they had reached a part of the voyage where much less happened, and Malfoy expanded his scope. There was a sketch of his whole view inside the barge – straw and timber carefully rendered, Firenze apparently mid-conversation with the artist, and Harry himself sleeping peacefully, wand in hand. It was followed by a truly masterful sketch of Harry’s hand, not quite gripping the wand, but looking as though it could and would in half a heartbeat if given cause. He couldn’t see how Malfoy had captured both sleep and readiness, but they were both there on the page.
And there was a drawing of Harry’s face. He looked up. Malfoy was grimly counting the boards in the decking above them. ‘This is excellent work,’ Harry said. ‘Both the record keeping and the art.’
Malfoy glanced at him. ‘Drawing helps me hold focus,’ he said quickly, explaining it away as though it were nothing. ‘I get a lot of practice on plants with my work.’
And it was a perfectly good explanation. Except that he had made the Harry on the page beautiful. All of Harry’s actual features were there, even the slight crookedness of his nose, but they did not resemble anything he had ever seen in the mirror. There was a grace he did not possess; at least, not to his own eyes.
Malfoy’s study of the decking boards had resumed with even greater intensity, as though he would rather any other discussion than his skill with a pen. Harry realised he was right. So he did not ask the question uppermost in his mind. Instead, he closed the book. ‘Would you be able to teach some of that accuracy?’ he asked. ‘It’s the second time this week good art has been useful when it comes to culprits. We could use it out in the field.’
Malfoy all but sighed with relief. ‘Yes. It’s just a matter of basic draughstmanship and then practice.’
Harry was certain in that moment that Draco could see it, too. The narrowness of one future from another. Just as years of past enmity had been shaped by a few words of ill-advised snobbery, so could the future take a turn in an instant now. And there were multiple likelihoods: a friendly working relationship; a more distant respectfulness; or … or something else he wasn’t ready to think about yet, and neither was Malfoy to judge by the board counting. But they all hovered, waiting for the moment when one would be formed into the real and present.
Harry passed the notebook back to Malfoy, fairly certain that when the moment did come, he would stand a better than even chance of cocking it all up. But at least this time he would be looking for it, and would know what it meant.
‘Getting much slower now,’ Malfoy said.
Now Harry had been told they were slowing, he could feel it: the sense that his body was no longer moving through space as rapidly as it had been, that he was having to work a little harder to balance against the drag of the ship. ‘How long does a barge take to stop?’ he asked.
‘Perhaps ten minutes now,’ said Firenze, opening an eye. ‘They will slow a little more, then the boat boy will step ashore with a rope and tie up to a bollard. We will feel a jerk as the boat comes to a complete halt. He will do the same for the front of the barge, which will secure us. Then they will come and take me.’
Harry’s surprise at the level of detail must have shown, because the professor added: ‘It’s how we were transported from Scotland to Hull. Which you doubtless had guessed, Harry Potter.’
For the briefest of moments, Harry missed the standard awed respect he usually commanded.
Malfoy had already packed away all signs of breakfast and made certain that none of the hay bales had moved position. He seemed much more willing to look Harry in the eye now they were back to chasing criminals.
‘Wand?’ Harry suggested.
Malfoy dropped his hand to allow his wand to slide out from his cuff. Harry had seen the movement before. ‘You learned that from Lewis,’ he said.
‘Spent a few hours practising it last night,’ Malfoy confirmed. ‘There were long stretches when there was really nothing happening.’
‘Smooth,’ Harry told him, not really teasing.
‘If I’m going to work with your team, I’m going to have to learn,’ Malfoy said. ‘Though you need to be better at sharing some things, too. Yallop doesn’t think you like change, but from what I’ve seen, you’re open to new concepts if they have merit.’
‘Obviously. I’d have to be hugely pigheaded not to be.’
‘Well, in that case, Potter, I’ve been thinking about the guards. If we Stun them when they come belowdecks and then bespell them so they can’t see us – it doesn’t have to be an Imperius, there are plenty of less damaging spells that would work – then we won’t have to work out a way to get out of here under the cloak.’
Harry considered it. As a plan, it had a lot of points in its favour. Not being under the cloak would mean they could act independently and not be encumbered by its limited radius. Movement would be far easier and they wouldn’t have to come up with a plan for getting off the barge around Firenze and the guards. But there was no way to know who would be waiting when they docked, and he felt certain two extra wizards would be commented on if they were spotted by others.
‘It’s a good idea, but it relies on there only being these two,’ Harry began.
Malfoy instantly saw the whole problem. ‘Of course, they’re likely to be met by whoever’s managing the next stage. Cloak it is. We definitely don’t want to be Apparating blind given we have no precise idea of where we are.’
‘But you have a guess, don’t you?’
Malfoy nodded. ‘Near Lovendegem, I’d say.’
‘All right. We use the cloak, but as soon as we can see a safe place to Apparate to, we go. So it won’t all be shuffling like cautious penguins.’
‘And I was just getting good at waddling.’
They stood. Firenze nodded that he was ready. Harry stood behind Malfoy, cloak in one hand, wand in the other. ‘Whoever sees a chance – or a need – to Apparate, two taps to the other. If we both tap at the same time, you manage the Side-along and I’ll keep the cloak in place.’
There were more footsteps and voices now, and then the sudden jerk of the barge stopping, more notable for their fleeting awareness of the barge’s bulk than any loss of real speed, they had been at little more than a crawl. The prow of the vessel swung and then straightened as it, too was tied firm.
Harry stepped closer to Malfoy and threw the cloak over the both of them, a hand on Malfoy’s shoulder as before.
There was a moment of tension in Malfoy’s shoulders, as last time, but it passed quickly. They stood together, waiting. Harry could just see a fine trace of hair across Malfoy’s cheek, but it was the only sign of their long adventure. For someone who had not slept, he was otherwise holding up well. Perhaps he had invented some type of cunning wakefulness potion with all that research. Or he had coffee in his hamper, too.
The decking boards began to creak and the ramp descended once more. Both guards came down this time, the second hanging back and looking apologetic.
‘Come on nag,’ said the first. ‘Arms by your sides.’
Harry could see Firenze’s nostrils flare, but the professor held his temper. ‘There is no need for restraints,’ he said. ‘I am a civilised person.’
‘Who can rip my head off. Do it yourself or I’ll do it for you.’
Firenze slowly and deliberately put his arms down, while lifting a rear hoof. The first guard failed to notice, the second grinned broadly. Draco was right, Harry realised. The second guard was not at all happy to be there.
Guard One flicked his wand, sending a thick rope out from its end to coil around Firenze’s upper body. Harry held his wand at the ready; Malfoy was doing the same. But not an iota of attention came their way. The guard left a length of rope unwrapped and transferred it from his wand to his hand, then waved his wand again, and Harry had to squint to see Firenze instead of a horse with a halter and lead.
The illusion was strengthened when Firenze began to move. Instead of his usual sure-footedness, he skittered like a nervous yearling, rocking the La Belle Marie and causing a chorus of shouts.
‘Left foot,’ Harry whispered, taking advantage of the well-wrought chaos. ‘To the ramp, behind nice guard.’
It was awkward to manoeuvre past Firenze and the guards without bumping into anyone or thing. Happily, the straw moved by their feet was adequately explained by the shuddering of the barge.
‘Behave or I will stun you!’ threatened the first guard.
The second guard stepped between his colleague and Firenze. ‘And then what? We drag him from the barge? You know that horses find floating vessels difficult. That’s what his legs are: horse legs. Give him a chance to find his balance before you start tugging on your stupid rope.’
Harry was impressed. Though the first guard clearly frightened the second, and was even now shouting at him, the second guard wasn’t cowed. Malfoy tapped twice on Harry’s hand, and without even thinking, Harry stepped closer and curled his arm around Malfoy’s chest to hold on tightly.
For a second they were on the deck, then on the dock, then in a narrow, shaded alley across the road from the dock, able to see the top of La Belle Marie, though not the tow path or loading ramp alongside it. Harry looked around, there was no-one to spot them in the shadows.
‘Excellent work,’ he said, sweeping the cloak from over them. Belatedly, he remembered to let go of Malfoy and step away.
They could see most of the barge’s deck from here, and watched as Guard One came up empty-handed, spewing invective. The boat boy and barge master stood impassively in the prow, watching the water rather than the drama behind them. Guard Two followed the first, leading Firenze and clearly miserable to be doing so. There was too much noise from the traffic – road and water – to hear what was being said, but it looked for all the world as though the centaur was comforting the young man. The street was busy, Harry noticed, with laden carts rolling past and another barge tied up a little way from the La Belle Marie.
‘Where are we?’ he asked.
Malfoy looked around at the prosperous but not too numerous brick and stone buildings. ‘Vinderhoute,’ he announced. ‘That’s Lovendegem town you can see on the other side of the canal. It’s a pleasant enough region: mostly agriculture and trade. Typical Flemish, sensible, reasonably wealthy, reasonably adaptive to whatever is happening in the world. There are a few posh places within carting distance, one of them may be where we’re headed.’
‘How do you know all this?’ Harry asked.
Malfoy looked amused. ‘You would not believe how much living in Geneva encourages one to travel. Hang on, something’s happening.’
A cart drew up alongside the barge, Harry watched as Guard One carefully laid down planks from the deck to the dock. He may not have been a pleasant man, but he was at least diligent. Guard Two led Firenze from the barge, and Harry could barely see them for a moment as they came up the loading ramp from the tow path to the cart. The boat boy followed behind, laden with bags. Harry could see that the sack over his shoulder was oats, but the others seemed to be the guards’ personal belongings. All were carefully stowed. For some reason, Harry expected to see Firenze loaded as well, but of course he was instead tied to the rear of the cart, with enough loose rope to allow him a degree of free movement.
Guard One swung himself up on the box beside the driver, while Guard Two, shamefaced, climbed onto the rear of the cart, near Firenze.
‘Apparate in jumps,’ Harry said quickly. ‘We’ll stay behind them, so they’re unlikely to see us with this many people about.’
‘It’s market day,’ observed Malfoy, pointing to a brightly dressed young woman carrying a bolt of fabric and a bag of vegetables. ‘The streets in and out of town will also be busy, we should be able to get a long way before there’s any risk of being spotted. It will be more difficult to keep our quarry in sight while having to worry about not Apparating in front of Muggles.’
‘Stay close,’ Harry advised. ‘We don’t need to Side-along, but we should aim to for similar destinations. The last thing we want is to get separated at this point, but if we do, keep going after the cart if you can, and head back to the Ministry if you can’t.’
The cart driver flicked his reins and the horses set off. Firenze followed, and Harry was able to see just enough through the illusion to know that the professor was glaring daggers at the indignity. And then Malfoy stepped out from their hiding place and into the broad canal-side street in full view of everyone. Harry had a moment of shock, them Malfoy hailed an approaching cab and Harry heard him instruct the driver to ‘follow that cart at a discreet distance’ and saw an exchange of coin.
Harry was working his way up to a remonstrance when Malfoy beckoned him to hurry. He swallowed it and ran out into the open cab door instead. It was not as sleek as a London cab, more of a converted stage, but the driver looked sober and the horses healthy, so it could have been far worse. The horses had taken up the slack in their traces and were underway before Malfoy even shut the door. It took Harry a moment to be able to look at him, and when he did, there were no words. The look on his face should have spoken volumes.
Malfoy simply shrugged. ‘You wanted us to not be seen,’ he said. ‘I was going to Apparate and then there was this perfectly good cab and me with a pocketful of perfectly good money, and I thought, well, it’s less fuss and less risky. I was trying to think like you.’
Harry continued to look at him. He desperately wanted to ask why Malfoy was carrying a pocketful of Belgian francs, but feared the reply would be only surprise that none of the Aurors were.
Malfoy shrugged again. ‘If you’d prefer more fuss and more danger, you need only say. He already has his fifty francs, he won’t mind if we disappear. Oh, for goodness’ sake, Potter. Fine. If you want to be less practical, then I am sure I can find a dragon somewhere for you to fly over the city. Will that make you happy?’
Harry’s mouth dropped open, and he could see Malfoy’s confusion at his expression, but – yes, every piece fit. He grabbed Malfoy’s arm in the excitement of revelation. ‘I know who’s behind this!’ he exclaimed.
And for all that Malfoy could be infuriating, mocking and confusing, it was worth every moment of it all for the look on his face.
Ryla Murglesten was exactly as Astoria had expected from Harry’s description, only dressed in a neat black wool cycling suit, with a split calf-length skirt and jaunty cap with a feather in it. She had ensconced herself in the Blue Room, not caring that Aurors were attempting to hold briefings and give reports around her, and she was glaring fiercely at anyone who came close to the tall dark-haired man beside her, who Astoria guessed had to be Gideon Hall.
Senior Auror Peasegood rushed over to Astoria and Carston as soon as he saw them in the doorway. ‘Thank Merlin,’ he said. ‘Miss Greengrass, as you know, time is of the essence at the moment, but we have not been able to ask Mr Hall a single question. Miss Murglesten is threatening to hex any Auror who comes near her who isn’t Harry Potter. She says she’ll speak to you, because Harry vouched for you.’
Astoria tried to hide her surprise. ‘I’m happy to help,’ she said. ‘Perhaps if you wait here with Cartson, I’ll be able to find out what the problem is?’ Peasegood nodded gratefully and let her walk in alone.
Ryla looked up suspiciously as Astoria approached. Astoria realised that Harry’s detailed descriptions had been in one direction only.
‘Miss Murglesten? I’m Astoria Greengrass. Harry Potter told me that I had to meet you.’
The younger woman’s face relaxed. ‘I know all about you,’ she said. ‘People talk. You’re a good egg, like Harry, so I’m going to tell you what’s happening and then you can tell me whether or not you think we’re safe here.’
Astoria’s eyes widened, but Ryla seemed perfectly serious, so she drew up a chair and sat with them, subtly positioning her body so that she was between Ryla and most of the Auror Corps. ‘I’m listening’ she said.
Ryla quickly and quietly recounted her interview with Harry and Fitzwallace – 'Who seemed very nice and I might have trusted him, but he’s disappeared, too, which you have to agree is highly suspicious’ – and her small, independent efforts to find Gideon Hall over the subsequent days.
‘And then, early this morning, as I was bringing in some herbs from the garden, I saw smoke coming out of Gid’s chimney. So I hurried over with my wand ready – in case it was burglars. But it was Gideon himself, making his breakfast, and he said I’d been making a big fuss over nothing, which I was almost ready to believe could have been the case, because some of his friends are not to be trusted and I could imagine him being Shanghaied by one or two of them but still inviting them round to tea a month later, but then I told him the Aurors had been in and, well, see for yourself …’
At the mention of the word ‘Aurors’, Hall had popped his head up and looked around brightly. ‘Aurors,’ he said, with real satisfaction. ‘You can always trust an Auror!’
‘Oh dear,’ said Astoria.
‘Exactly,’ Ryla agreed. ‘Someone’s been in his head and they’ve really done a poor job of it. And it’s not as though poor old Gid was ever overly blessed with brains, but what he did have has been well and truly scrambled. By someone who wants him to think that Aurors are excellent. And I am sure you can see the basis of my suspicions.’
‘I can,’ Astoria agreed. She thought quickly. ‘I hope that it’s no-one in this room. Indeed, in this country. But neither of us are so naive as to think a uniform equals integrity. We both trust Harry, but he’s not here. You trust me, because Harry said you could, does that mean you might trust the people I firmly believe I can trust?’
Ryla frowned. ‘Are they Aurors?’
‘Not technically. They’re the scientific team who work with the whole of Magical Law Enforcement. They are very good at spell identification, and they might be able to tell us what’s happened to your friend.’
Ryla wasn’t wholly convinced.
Astoria had cards left to play: ‘The unit is Harry’s invention. He wanted a team that would interrogate Auror assumptions with science. My friend Emmeline Lewis works with them, and she will jump at the chance to help you, as she’s very close to Harry, too.’
It was a minor lie: she and Lewis would be good friends eventually, and she had seen her standing near Harry Potter at least twice. As she had suspected, the combination of Harry’s imprimatur and another woman to trust worked. ‘Will they let us leave?’ Ryla asked.
The question wouldn’t even have occurred to Astoria, but once it was aired, she had to acknowledge that there was only a ninety-nine per cent certainty. ‘If they do,’ she said, ‘it’s a good sign. And if there’s any trouble, grab Hall as tightly as you can. I’ll grab you and I’ll get us out of here. I’m a thoroughly first-rate Apparator and even if I can’t break all the way through the Ministry’s protections I can certainly get us to the common room in the Department of Mysteries and my father will be there by now and you don’t want to know what he can do to people he doesn’t like.’
Ryla smiled at her, and Astoria smiled back. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Time to see.’
They stood up and, walking close together, made their way to the door. Peasegood stood as they approached, Astoria smiled at him, but let her hand drop to her wand pocket. ‘Just taking these two for a little talk over tea,’ she said.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked. ‘Do you need an escort.’
‘The tea’s not that bad,’ she joked. ‘You keep up your searching, we’ll be fine. Should be right back.’
He nodded and didn’t even wait for them to leave before he went over to join the other Aurors. Carston showed no signs of following them, but sat in his chair, anxious and at a loss.
Astoria shut the door behind them. ‘Left,’ she said. ‘Walk to the end and then right. If anything happens, I’m behind you and I can hold them for a bit. Run down that right hand corridor shrieking for Mrs Weasley or Emmeline Lewis. You’ll get help.’
Ryla looked at her nervously, but hurried Hall along down the corridor. No-one opened the door behind them.
Emmeline was in the laboratory when they arrived. ‘Who’s this?’ she asked by way of greeting. ‘Where’s Charlie?’
Astoria bustled them in and closed the door behind them. Then locked it. Then added a Reinforcing Charm. She turned around. Emmeline, Yallop and Periwig were all staring at her.
Periwig found his voice first. ‘Have things gone horribly wrong again?’ he asked.
Astoria considered a bright smile, but decided in favour of honesty. ‘Somewhere,’ she said. ‘We just need to confirm it’s not here before we do anything else.’
The three scientists all nodded, and Astoria could see why Draco loved working with them so much. She had presented them with a problem: now they were going to fix it. She asked Ryla to show them what she had shown her. None of them laughed at Hall’s antics, they could all see the potential for irreversible damage in the clumsy spells that had been used on him.
Lewis and Periwig were shaking their heads in disgust, and Yallop was frowning in concentration. ‘If we only had a record of what he was like beforehand…’ he said.
‘Can you reconstruct it from my memories?’ Ryla asked, still nervous, but trying to show confidence.
Yallop shook his head. ‘No, we’d need to see the actual thought patterns. It’s hard to record even under laboratory conditions, Em and I have been experimenting.’
Emmeline looked at him. ‘But we might be able to reconstruct it from his memories,’ she said. ‘They’re all over the place now, but there could be enough in there to reconstruct what he was doing when this happened to him.’
Yallop brightened. ‘Do you think you can do it?’
Emmeline looked semi-optimistic. ‘It can’t hurt to try.’
Ryla glanced at Astoria, who had to admit she wasn’t filled with confidence. ‘Could what you’re planning to do make things worse?’ she asked.
‘No,’ Emmeline answered definitively. ‘Straightforward Legilemens, no interfering, no rearranging. I’ll record what I see for the mediwizards, and our modified Pensieve can play back anything that we’ll need as evidence later. The worst outcome is that I’ll end up with a headache and learn nothing useful. Mr Hall will be fine. At least, as fine as he is now.’
Astoria nodded and looked at Ryla, who did the same. Emmeline led Hall over to the lab’s most comfortable chairs and sat him down in one of them. ‘I know you’re having a terrible day,’ she told him. ‘And a lot of it probably hasn’t made much sense. But I promise, this will help. Will you let me?’
He smiled. ‘Of course. You’re a friend of Ryla’s, and so polite.’
She smiled back at him, and pointed her wand, casting the spell silently. Emmeline was as good as her word. Hall seemed wholly unperturbed, indeed, interested by the events that unfolded within his mind. She, on the other hand, looked increasingly concerned.
‘What is it?’ Astoria asked.
‘Uniforms,’ Emmeline muttered. ‘Bloody hell …’
She said nothing more, only exchanged nods with Hall for another minute or two, then calmly ended the spell between them. ‘Thank you so much,’ she said.
‘Not at all,’ he replied graciously.
She turned to the others. ‘Aurors,’ she said. ‘But not ours.’
There was a sudden rapping on the door. Astoria and Ryla drew their wands. Emmeline looked at them nervously, but held hers half-ready.
‘Lewis? Yallop? Are either of you in there?’ It was Mrs Weasley’s voice.
Emmeline looked to Astoria, who tried to silently signal answer her!
‘We both are,’ she called back.
‘Are you currently blowing anything up?’
‘Not right this moment?’
‘Then can you unlock the door? I’ve lost Astoria Greengrass and two witnesses as well now, and I think I’m going to need your help.’
‘Coming!’ Emmeline mimed her confusion about what to do. Astoria began to mime open the door in reply, then realised they were being ridiculous and went and did it herself.
‘Ah,’ said Mrs Weasley.
‘We have news,’ Astoria told her. ‘Best discussed in here.’
‘I have a Charlie, who was trapped in the Atrium with no-one able to find you. Can he come too?’
A handsome, smiling face leaned around the edge of the door. ‘Please?’ he added.
‘In, both of you. Emmeline Lewis is about to explain something utterly vital to this investigation.’
Charlie kissed her cheek as she passed and she was not displeased. Both Emmeline and Ryla gave her looks of complete approval and, thankfully, Mrs Weasley missed the whole thing.
‘Report,’ said Mrs Weasley.
Astoria ceded the floor to Emmeline, who gave a coherent summation of events. ‘What I could see in his memory,’ she concluded, ‘was Aurors in uniform.’ She threw the recovered memory up onto their modified Pensieve screen, and they could all see the two men standing over Hall with wands drawn. ‘But, as you can see, not ours. Blue and black. Belgian.’
‘Where our missing Aurors are,’ Mrs Weasley muttered.
‘And Draco,’ Astoria reminded her. ‘Can you tell more than their nationality from their uniforms?’
Emmeline shook her head. ‘No. Here we could because Scotland, Ireland and Wales all have different lapels and major metropolitan units have badges, but the Belgians have only the one.’
Mrs Weasley rubbed her face. ‘All right. All right, we need a plan. Charlie says he has background information that we need to know, Peasegood and his team need to know about this and I need to get out of the office and start doing something useful or I am going to hex someone. Blue Room the lot of you.’
Periwig raised a hand, which contained two notebooks and three vials of samples.
‘Except you, Periwig,’ she continued. ‘You keep doing what you’re doing.’
He put his hand back down, relieved.
The others trailed after her as she strode back towards the Blue Room. Auror McKennitt met them halfway. ‘Just heard from Fitzwallace and Romney,’ he said. ‘We need you, ma’am.’ He looked nervously at her entourage.
‘You’re getting all of us,’ Mrs Weasley announced. ‘Are they back?’
‘Yes,’ said McKennitt. ‘About five minutes ago. I’m afraid I don’t know much about what they’ve reported, I’ve been looking for you most of the time.’
‘Can you go and fetch the Minister to the Blue Room?’ Mrs Weasley asked.
McKennitt nearly fell over his own feet. ‘Minister Shacklebolt?’ he asked, voice half an octave higher.
‘He doesn’t bite,’ Mrs Weasley assured him. ‘Tell him we need him right now in the Blue Room, as we have a developing case that is going to come under the United Wizarding Europe act. And reassure him that it looks like some bastard out to turn a profit rather than the rise of another Voldemort. We’re going to need his diplomatic genius, not all guns blazing.’
‘Yes, ma’am. Right away, ma’am.’ McKennitt walked away so quickly he might as well have run.
‘You enjoyed that immensely,’ Charlie teased his sister-in-law.
‘I enjoy having a well-working Ministry filled with highly competent people, yes,’ she informed him, keeping her grin mostly in check. ‘Did you see that brother of yours on the way in? I told him to meet me here before twelve.’
‘Haven’t seen him all day,’ Charlie replied. ‘I can go in search.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, you’ll never get back in. Briefing room first, let’s bring everyone up to speed and come up with a strategy for what we do next. Ron will appear eventually.’
Astoria had the unnerving feeling that she, Emmeline, Ryla and Yallop were First Years again, trailing after the popular Head Girl. On the upside, the Head Girl was Hermione Weasley and she could do almost anything.
They reached the Blue Room and found it in a state of chaos. Some thirty or so Aurors were milling about, shouting suggestions in front of a large map of Flanders. Peasegood spotted them and brought quiet with a call of ‘Mrs Weasley…’ Astoria and the others remained at the back of the room while the Aurors parted to let Mrs Weasley through.
‘I’ve called Kingsley in,’ she said in opening. ‘From what I know already, we will be stepping on a few international toes today, so I want us operating under the Minister’s auspices. We’ve been astonishingly lucky so far today. Now I want to add astonishingly clever and effective to that. When the Minister arrives, Fitzwallace and Romney will open the briefing. I’ve asked my brother-in-law to join us because he has information that needs to be added to the mix. He’ll follow Fitzwallace and Romney and after him, Miss Murglesten and Miss Lewis will share their findings with us all.
‘Once we have a clearer understanding of the scope of the situation, we will deploy. Most of us will find our way into action this afternoon. I know that if Harry were here he would exhort you all to stay safe and keep your eyes open. I know you will. We’re going to wrap this up before the day is out, and we’re going to give the Wizengamot a month’s worth of work once we’re done. Well done, all of you.’
Astoria remembered why she had had such a crush on Hermione at school. She was little and could be bossy, but what a leader! Charlie saw her expression of admiration and winked at her. ‘Steady on,’ he whispered. ‘You like me best, remember?’
She poked him gently in the arm. ‘I have to, she’s already married.’
Voices stilled at the Minister’s arrival. Though he had been the nation’s top politician rather than an Auror for over a decade, his tall, strong frame looked wholly at home in this room. ‘Report,’ he said as he strode in, and Fitzwallace snapped to attention.
‘Sir!’ He looked to Mrs Weasley, who nodded, and began to talk. ‘Mr Malfoy came to us last night with the possibility that all our cases linked through Zeebrugge …’ He talked them quickly through the journey to the port, then the discovery of the centaurs and the decision to separate and follow a barge each.
Shacklebolt interrupted at that point: ‘You decided not to report this to the local Aurors. Why was that?’
Fitzwallace looked uncomfortable. ‘In all honesty, sir, we don’t like them very much. Head Auror Potter and I dealt with them on a case last year and we found them to be rude, inefficient, and not entirely trustworthy.’
The Minister nodded. ‘Carry on,’ he said.
‘Romney and I tracked the Fierté de Guillaume from the shore. The La Belle Marie quickly disappeared from view, they were making much better time than our vessel, which made no sense to me because they were under sail and ours was under steam. But it all became clear when we realised that our barge was not planning to travel far. Within a few hours we had arrived at Hoeke,’ he tapped at the map to show a village northeast of Bruges. ‘Nothing happened for several hours, then three men appeared around nine and we watched as Ronan was removed from the barge. He had not co-operated with his captors and Romney and I were ready to go in Stunning if it had turned out badly, but they seemed very focussed on keeping him in good condition.
‘He was made to look like a draught horse and then led through the village to a property a little way north. We could see extensive buildings: an impressive residential dwelling surrounded by three major barns and then any number of smaller outbuildings and yards. There were defences in place, but they were poorly maintained, and Romney and I were able to slip through a gap in the border spells to take a closer look, though it took us some time to find a way in that wouldn’t attract attention.
‘Inside, we found Ronan had been stabled in one of the barns. There were two French centaurs there with him, and a kelpie wearing a bridle. Its stall had a pond in it. Ronan told us he had heard the guards saying they were to be shipped out tonight, so Romney and I took a very quick look around the nearest shed, which was filled with cages of yammering pixies, and then we left the premises and activated our Portkey.’
He pointed to the map again. ‘The property was here, and the gap in the spells is on this side. We saw about seventeen wizards and one witch, and the two guards who were on the barge may have arrived later. I had the sense there were more people inside the main house, but there were too many people walking around the grounds to risk getting closer in the bright daylight.
‘Sir, ma’am, with your permission, I’d like to take a larger team back and secure the premises. We promised Ronan we’d return.’
Shacklebolt nodded. ‘We’ll organise some wakefulness potions for you. You’re a fine Auror, Fitzwallace. I want you on this case to the end. And young Romney, too, if she wants.’
‘Yes, please, sir,’ Romney said.
Mrs Weasley spoke up: ‘Minister, Charlie Weasley has information he needs to share.’
Shacklebolt looked about the room, and found Charlie standing next to Astoria. ‘Charlie, come and say your piece.’
He grinned at Astoria before moving to the front of the room. ‘Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll make this quick. Last year we started to notice lower than expected clutches at dragon sanctuaries around the world. In some cases we could point to reasons for this: Romania has had several years of above-average temperatures and below-average rainfalls, so our wildlife stocks are down and female dragons will often miss a breeding season if the food looks insufficient. But through our international scholarship and casual communications, we realised that it was also occurring in areas where there were no obvious environmental problems.
‘We considered an unknown disease. Rolf Scamander and I tested widely among European populations and found nothing. Then we heard from the New Zealanders and Australians that Opaleyes were also missing young. They thought there was smuggling afoot, as they have had difficulties with South Africans looking for easy profit in the past.
‘Remember that every part of a dragon is potentially valuable: from the leather that sells at top price, through to the blood and bones, which are exclusive potions ingredients and the sinew and heartstrings, which are in demand by wandmakers. Some, like the Opaleye, have scales that are in demand by jewellers, and they can fetch a barrel-load of galleons on the open market, alive or dead.
‘Scamander and I went south to investigate. We followed the trail as far as we could, but there was no sign of activity in the usual smuggling stopover points of Mauritius or Madagascar. He stayed behind to continue investigations while I had to return home. But when I learned recently of the smuggling you have been investigating, I contacted him again and he says that there has been a notable upsurge in the number of large ships leaving Port Darwin, which he had put down to booming agriculture in the north of Australia. However, he thinks, and I agree, that it would be very easy to ship out dragon eggs, or even young dragons if you had sufficient sheep on board.’
An Auror Astoria did not know raised her hand. ‘Why dragons?’ she asked.
‘Good question,’ Charlie replied. ‘I at first thought that all the other creatures were merely trial runs, working their way up to the most difficult cargo. But since I’ve learned more, I’ve had another, nastier idea, and it makes sense of the timing and of everything that has been taken. I would like to be wrong, but I don’t think I am. I think they’re all being smuggled to order for hunters.’
There was a wave of angry muttering. While it was an appalling idea to import a dragon for the purposes of killing it, it was thoroughly illegal, not to mention immoral, to do the same to a giant or centaur.
‘I’d like to help, too, if I may,’ Charlie told Shacklebolt.
‘We may need your expertise if we encounter young dragons,’ he replied. ‘Is there more?’ He looked at Mrs Weasley, who nodded and called for Lewis and Miss Murglesten.
Astoria smiled reassuringly at Ryla as she was led up to the front of the room. She was clearly nervous, so Lewis did most of the talking. Emmeline had though to hold onto a copy of Hall’s memory, which she projected for the team. ‘Unfortunately, I can only tell you they’re Belgian, not specifically where they’re from,’ she concluded.
‘Bruges,’ said Fitzwallace. looking at the image. ‘That’s Bolland and Delveaux, two of the more painful of the Aurors Potter and I dealt with last year. What I want to know is, why did they let Hall go?’
‘Because Aurors are lovely people,’ Hall called out from the back of the room.
Emmeline shrugged. ‘Sorry, I have no idea on that at the moment. Number fourteen on the list of mysteries I hope we solve today.’
‘So,’ said Minister Shacklebolt, taking control of the meeting. ‘We have three key fields of operation: the farm in Hoeke, the Auror office in Bruges, and wherever Head Auror Potter and Mr Malfoy are. Peasegood, I understand you have a team out looking for them.’
‘Two now,’ Peasegood corrected him. ‘I sent a messenger over to redirect the team that had been looking for Fitzwallace and Romney. When last heard from they were still combing the canals.’
Shacklebolt nodded. ‘So we’ll need to divide our resources in three …’
‘Four,’ Mrs Weasley corrected him. ‘We’re still looking for Alan McDougal, who we think could be in King’s Lynn or Hull.’
Shacklebolt looked around the room. ‘I’m running low on Aurors,’ he apologised.
‘I know, that’s why I’ll go there, with Charlie, Miss Greengrass, Miss Lewis and Miss Murglesten. And Ron if he gets here in time. I can send Charlie over to you easily enough if you find any dragons, and since they’re likely to be small, you can just keep feeding them sheep until he gets there. Are you going to involve the Belgian Ministry?’
Shacklebolt frowned. ‘I need to, and before hitting any of the Belgian locations if I’m to follow the letter of the law, but since I have no idea how far this corruption extends, I am going to reach out to the French and Germans and we will all go in with senior officials and a small force of friendly visitors who can quickly turn into a suppressive unit if required.
‘If it turns out to be just rotten locals, then we will offer our services to the Belgian Ministry in putting an end to it. And if we find these crimes extend all the way to the top, then we’ll stage a quiet, swift coup and leave administration of their Ministry under European auspices until they can hold new elections.’
‘Easy,’ Mrs Weasley said with cheery irony. ‘I’m going to leave you to organise your teams and head north with mine. Who are you leaving in charge here?’
‘I thought Dawlish and Mulligan, provided Mr Dawlish promises not to put anyone through a wall while we’re all out.’
‘Happened once, sir, was wholly deserved,’ Dawlish piped up from the audience. Astoria recognised him as one of her father’s acquaintances, and noticed the Minister did not disagree with him.
Mrs Weasley tapped Lewis and Ryla on the shoulders. ‘Come on, you two. Miss Greengrass, Charlie, you’re with me. Yallop, stay with the Minister, he may need you to connect the evidentiary dots for the Belgians. Someone get Mr Hall to St Mungo’s and tell them he needs a jolly good rest first and then the best memory restorer they have.’
She nodded a farewell to Shacklebolt and Peasegood and then led her team back out into the corridor, where she paused. ‘Right, they’re going to be at least an hour sorting logistics, which means we may have time to get through all of our work and be back before they’re gone. Charlie, you were telling me you had an idea where to start in Hull.’
‘I have a Muggle friend up there, Christopher Pickering. Big man in boats. Rolf and I chartered from him when we went to Norway, and he took me around Iceland last summer. If people are smuggling into Norfolk, then they’ll need boats to do it, and he’ll know what’s being used where.’
‘Excellent. Will he be down at the docks now?’
Charlie nodded. ‘Very likely. And if not, his offices are a short walk away, as is his home. There are good shadowy spots to Apparate to down where the freight rail hits the docks. Lots of cranes and busyness to cover our appearance.’
‘Good thinking. Can you girls manage a single jump to Hull?’
Ryla and Emmeline both said they knew the area, but Astoria had to confess she had never been there, and felt she was letting the side down.
Charlie took her hand. ‘May I have the pleasure of this Apparition, Miss Greengrass?’ he asked.
She started to smile at him, then stopped when she saw Mrs Weasley’s expression. ‘I…’ she said.
Mrs Weasley held up a hand. ‘No apologies. It’s just the shock, I assure you.’
Charlie looked at each of them. ‘Really? This is news? I’m sorely disappointed that she hasn’t been shouting it from the rooftops since this morning.’
Mrs Weasley’s eyes widened. Astoria felt a blush creeping up her collar, which accelerated when Ryla and Emmeline made broad gestures of approval.
‘You have minds like adolescent boys,’ Charlie scolded. ‘I’ll have you know I breakfasted with her parents to inform them we’re engaged. Probably. If she ever says yes and if I can find her current fiancé to have him end their arrangement. But regardless, and even if she never lets me marry her, I will have you know that ours will be a sacred and lifelong union.’
‘Unless I murder you,’ Astoria reminded him, feeling it a distinct possibility at that moment.
Mrs Weasley shook her head. ‘Marvellous. Lovely. We can all have tea and talk about it later, when no-one is in mortal peril. And where on Earth is my husband?’
‘Behind you,’ said Ron Weasley, loping down the corridor. For someone so tall, he moved surprisingly silently. ‘Any news yet?’
‘Lots,’ said Mrs Weasley. ‘I’ll fill you in later. We’re off to Hull. This is Emmeline Lewis, Auror and scientist, this is Ryla Murglesten, who I should probably have sent home but she went through so much to get here I didn’t have the heart, and this is Astoria Greengrass, you remember, Daphne’s little sister, who is my new Muggle Legal Liaison and probably going to end up as our sister-in-law.’
Ron Weasley, who had been making polite how-do-you-do’s up to that point, boggled and sputtered. ‘How many children do you want to have?’ he asked, though, from the look on his face immediately afterwards, he had not meant to.
Astoria burst out laughing at the absurdity of the question. ‘Ideally, none,’ she replied.
Ron Weasley nodded in relief. ‘Sorry. Pleased to meet you. Welcome to the family.’
‘Later,’ said Mrs Weasley definitively as Charlie opened his mouth. ‘We have much bigger fish to fry. To the Atrium.’ She turned to go, tripped on her skirts and would have fallen if her husband hadn’t caught her. With a grunt of irritation, she waved her wand and her clothes Transfigured into the garments of a young boy, including her hair bundled up into a cloth cap.
Charlie caught Astoria’s eye, his own filled with amusement. ‘That went better than I had hoped,’ he said.
She took his arm, and tried very hard not to burst out laughing.
Potter looked a little abashed. ‘I’m just trying to remember his name,’ he confessed. ‘He was Head Auror of the Bruges Division until earlier this year, when he retired to some big flashy property in the country. I received a stack of reports from locals who thought he had altogether too much money compared to what his family fortunes had been, and were upset that none of their Aurors would investigate him.
‘I thought it was just standard corruption at the time – not worth an international incident – but now I am kicking myself for not thinking faster. Because if this lot have been shipping through Zeebrugge for months, then there’s only one reason the Bruges Aurors won’t have alerted their trading partners to it. And the last time I saw Count de Whatsisface, he was wearing a dragon-skin waistcoat.’
Draco saw the link now. ‘Which you thought was just him being flash, but now realise was advertising.’
‘Exactly.’ Potter ran his hands through his hair. Draco smiled at the gesture. He was starting to read fluent non-verbal Potter. ‘If I’d been thinking, I could have had this sorted yesterday as soon as you alerted me to the Belgain link. It’s so obvious: he’s well connected in both magical and Muggle circles, and the sort of amoral bastard who would see nothing wrong with kidnapping centaurs to add a bit of charm to some Eastern European’s landscaped parklands, or smuggling giants to provide cheap labour in quarries.’
Draco pitched his voice consolingly. Potter may have missed making the connection yesterday, but he was still ahead of any of them in making it today. ‘So what do we do? Head back and bring reinforcements? Alert the locals? Will the Ghent Aurors be as corrupt as the Bruges ones?’
Potter thought. ‘There’s a longstanding rivalry between the two groups, so they should be a safe option, but …’ He pushed back his hair again. ‘I don’t have enough information. I remember that some of the lower-ranked Bruges team were sad when Fitzwallace and I took our culprit and just left; in retrospect it seems to me they wanted us to stay and see what was happening. Which may mean that they were in fear and hoping an outsider would spot the problem, or may mean that they had nowhere to turn locally. And I really don’t want to leave Firenze until we know what they plan to do with him, and what the crime scene looks like. If we’re going to be facing fifty smugglers, I want to return in force.’
‘So if things go wrong, we should head for where?’ Draco asked. ‘Antwerp? Brussels? Or straight to Rotterdam? Will the Dutch want to help us with our Muggle governments about to go to war?’
‘Amiens,’ Potter answered decisively. ‘The French will be only too pleased to step in and politely reassure us that it is no shame we could not handle the situation on our own.’
Malfoy grinned at Potter’s accurate impersonation of French bureaucracy.
The cab drew to a halt and the driver rapped on the roof. ‘I asked him to let us out when the traffic thinned,’ Draco explained. He looked carefully out through the window and could see the cart with Firenze attached walking some distance ahead down the road. They had left the village and were outside an appealing old building of the type tourists might visit, a good choice on the cab driver’s part. ‘Come on,’ he said to Potter. ‘The coast is clear.’
For fifty francs, the cab driver was happy to wait for them to come back, or to follow the cart further, but Draco assured him his work was done and thanked him. Though not, as the driver had hoped, with more money.
‘I say we walk to the corner,’ he told Potter, ‘there are bushes there that will hide our Apparation if my new best friend decides to stay and watch over us.’
Potter nodded and smiled a farewell to the driver and muttered his agreement. ‘The hedges are low enough here that we can still see the cart driver once he goes round.’
‘Precisely. He can’t be going far.’
Draco had cause to regret his optimism two hours later, after a tedious string of Apparitions across the Belgian countryside. His neatly organised coat pockets had all been emptied and their contents stowed in his trouser pockets, along with the too-warm coat itself. Potter, too, was down to shirtsleeves, some thin grey knitted thing that suited him far too well. He and Potter had begun to pick ridiculous meeting points for every jump – ‘the third patch of mullein’, ‘beside that hare, five points if you can touch it’ – and he strongly suspected that the Head Auror was very close to snapping and Imperiusing the driver and both guards.
Then the cart turned off the road.
Draco did not need Potter to tell him to have his wand ready, but he looked to him for orders. Potter pointed at a small copse of trees near the side road the cart had taken and nodded. Draco Apparated there as silently as possible. It was a driveway, only a couple of hundred yards long, with what looked like an inn and stables at the end, but without signage.
Potter stepped close behind him. ‘The road is well-used,’ he whispered. ‘There was a signpost there until recently, you can still see the dirt where it was dug out, and there are only small weed seedlings growing in it.’
Draco followed Potter’s gaze and saw the clean cart tracks and mown drive between them. ‘You think this is a regular stop.’
Potter nodded. ‘We’re close to Sint-Martens-Latem, perhaps they wait here for the next part in the transport link?’
‘Or until after dark for a local delivery,’ Draco suggested.
‘Equally likely,’ Potter agreed. ‘They’re stopping.’
The driver had reined in his draught horse and the two guards had jumped down from the cart and were untying Firenze. The horse was not enamoured of the centaur, and the driver shouted something incoherent at the guards while holding onto his horse’s traces and trying to calm the beast.
Firenze remained calm throughout, and appeared to be speaking. The driver and the first guard wore sneers on their faces, but the second guard seemed to agree with the centaur.
‘I think he’s telling them the horse will calm if they put him in the stable,’ Draco said, using what he could read of their body language as his guide. ‘If I remember rightly, horses will tolerate centaurs, but they find them disconcerting.’
‘That will be good for us, there’s more chance they’ll leave him there alone and we can talk with him.’
Draco nodded, straining his eyes to see what the guards and driver were doing. The driver had left the argument and was concerning himself with his horse, detaching it from the cart and leading it to a nearby trough for a drink. He stood idly, gazing about.
Potter’s arm came around Draco’s chest and the cloak over their heads. The closeness of him would never not be startling. Draco forced himself to breathe normally, lest Potter notice, and then notice the speed of his heartbeat, which he could not control. ‘Are we walking?’ he whispered.
‘I’m going to Apparate us to the stable, once Firenze is inside,’ Potter said, his lips so close to Draco’s ear he could feel them brush his hair. ‘But there’s not enough cover here if any of them look directly. We’ll wait under the cloak until they’re done.’
Draco nodded, aware that it brought Potter’s lips against the skin of his ear, hoping that Potter would say something else he could agree with. Two hours of fruitless jumps past fields and windmills suddenly seemed like an enjoyable morning.
Potter stayed where he was, and Draco could feel his breath matching his own. It was an almost perfect moment, marred only by the presence of smugglers and the possibility that Potter would hex him if he acted on his desire to just turn his face a few degrees.
Or not, he thought. He knew that Potter had seen what he had drawn, and that he had seen how little he wanted to talk about it. And he had let it go. Which meant that either Draco’s feelings mattered to him, or else that he was spending his adult life trying to avoid the pigheadedness of his youth. Regardless of which, Potter’s arm was around him, and it was as strong as it had been all those years ago. The guards reached an agreement and Guard One stamped into the inn, while Guard Two led Firenze into the stable. Draco had rarely been so disappointed.
Potter did not let go. He drew Draco closer. ‘Side-along in three,’ he whispered. ‘To the back of the stables. We should be able to hear what’s being said. Two, one…’
Draco wasn’t sure if it was the lurch of the Apparition or the feeling of Potter’s body pressed against his that made it hard for him to keep his feet as they landed, but once again, Potter was there, holding him safely. He looked around: they were in shadow and with good sightlines to see the other guard, or the driver, or anyone they might be meeting before they would be seen. He stepped away from Potter, which his body told him was a terrible decision, but his mind agreed was a sanity-preserving one.
There was a shuttered window nearby. He pointed at it to show Potter his intention and went to listen.
‘But we’ve got here too early,’ Guard Two was saying. ‘Patrick— oh Merlin, I’ve told you his name, anyway, he says we need to have you at the house by two. They’re expecting you there then. I told him it should make no difference, but he says there are reasons and I amn’t going to ask him what they are.’
‘It’s all right, Benjamin,’ Firenze’s voice carried more clearly, ‘I would like to rest for a while. I find it hard to sleep through the night, and am tired now.’
‘Well, there’s water, and if you need food, let me know. He’s told me I have to leave you tied up, but just call out if you want to stretch, I can pretend I’m feeding you. I’m sorry for all this. So very sorry.’
Firenze nickered. ‘Go. Refresh yourself. I will rest. It will be all right.’
Draco couldn’t hear the second guard’s words in reply, but they did not sound confident that Firenze was correct in his belief. The stable door creaked loudly as he left. A few seconds passed, and then the shutter was pushed open from inside by Firenze’s shoulder. ‘You can come in,’ he whispered.
Draco climbed in through the window, Potter followed closely behind. ‘Are you all right?’ they asked almost simultaneously.
‘I am unharmed,’ Firenze replied. ‘But I am perturbed. There is no obvious reason to delay my arrival to a certain hour.’
Draco was starting to have a very bad feeling about one possibility, but held his tongue until he had more proof. ‘The driver is a wizard,’ he said. ‘Or a Squib. He’s not Imperiused, and he can see Firenze for what he is.’
‘I agree,’ said Potter. ‘What do you think, Firenze? Between the two of us we can get you out of here safely. I’m increasingly of the opinion that the risks are growing beyond the advantages of seeing who’s at the end of this journey.’
The centaur thought on the issue for a few minutes. Draco wanted to hurry him along, but knew it wouldn’t help. ‘We carry on,’ he said at last. ‘What I foresaw has not yet come to pass. There are revelations waiting for us down this road. If we turn back now, they may not be gained.’
There was nothing for it but more waiting. They all ate and drank a little to pass the time. Draco several times looked up to find Potter on the verge of speaking to him, and just as often saw him decide not to. He knew the feeling: there were things that needed explanations, but at any moment they could find themselves under attack. The three of them were altogether a more sombre group than the trio who had laughed on the La Belle Marie.
Shouts cut through their reverie. Draco was on his feet, wand ready before Potter could reach him. A hand around his and a quick headshake no held him. Potter checked out the rear window, then climbed through, beckoning Draco to follow him. No sooner were his feet on the ground than Potter had taken hold of him, cloaked them both and Apparated them to the stableyard, where they had a clear view of the fight in progress.
Guard Two – Benjamin, Draco remembered – was holding a bow and quiver of centaur design. ‘These are his!’ he shouted. ‘You wouldn’t have them if you weren’t planning to do something with them! Well, I won’t let you!’
Guard One lifted his wand. ‘Have it your way,’ he said, Stunning Benjamin into unconsciousness.
‘He’d better not be dead,’ the driver warned, producing a wand from one of his pockets.
Guard One lifted his hands placatingly. ‘He’ll be fine. Give me a hand to stick him in the cart. We may as well go now, it’s nearly time.’
The driver grumbled, but lifted Benjamin’s head and shoulders and helped to place him in the cart with reasonable gentleness. Guard One threw the bow and quiver in alongside him.
‘You get your nag, I’ll get the centaur,’ said Guard One.
‘I’m taking us to the cart,’ Potter whispered as the two men walked briskly off. Draco felt the springs lurch slightly as they landed on the broad timbers, but there was little noise. ‘Check him,’ said Potter.
Draco knelt, and reached two fingers out from underneath the Cloak. Guard Two’s pulse was strong, his breathing regular. He stood up carefully, trying not to brush against Potter. ‘Just unconscious,’ he said. ‘He’s right, though, that’s Firenze’s bow, or one very like it. What are we going to do?’
Potter looked around. ‘It’s not safe on here. I’m going to Apparate us under the cloak. Hold on.’
And Potter, who he had been thinking of as a friend, betrayed him by wrapping his arms around him face to face. Draco turned his head away and tried to make himself as small as possible until they landed back at the gate. He spun about, his back to Potter’s questioning eyes. ‘I can’t see them,’ he said, trying to sound natural. ‘No, there they are. The driver’s re-harnessing his horse. And here comes Firenze.’
‘There’s only one way out,’ Potter said. ‘We’ll wait here and see which way they go when they reach the main road.’
‘Potter,’ said Draco. ‘I have a very bad feeling this is about to get ugly.’
Potter placed his arm around Draco’s chest again. ‘I agree. You get out of there the moment things deteriorate.’
Draco elbowed him in the ribs, less gently than he might have. 'We will grab the professor, and the second guard if we can, and we will get out of there together.’ He avoided adding a term of abuse to the end of the sentence, but felt it was strongly implied by his tone of voice.
‘They’re moving,’ Potter said.
Draco concentrated on holding the cloak in place, leaving Potter to manage their Apparating. It had a different texture to his own, he felt that he moved around space, while Potter seemed to part it and push through. The driver was pushing the horse and the centaur this time, clearly unnerved by the violence at the inn and wanting the delivery to be done.
It was a much shorter trip than the last. Within the quarter hour they turned onto a long avenue with regular plantings on either side. Above the trees that lined the road, the red tiles of a multi-part roof could be seen in the distance. Informal hedges gave way to clipped yew, and then regular bars of wrought iron. The cart, a little way ahead of them, began to slow. Draco could see a gate.
‘Potter, we have to stop them. Now.’
There were no questions, no seconds of hesitation. Draco found himself in front of the gate, cloak still in place, Stunners being thrown over his shoulder. He joined in, and thought the driver may have gone down to one of his own. He tripped on the cloak, and Potter caught him, hauling him upright and letting the cloak slip to the ground.
‘Are you hurt?’ Potter asked, urgent, eyes scanning Draco’s body.
‘No, fine, I tripped,’ Draco assure him. He caught his breath. ‘Thank you,’ he added.
Potter smiled. ‘Don’t mention it. What did you see?’
Draco turned his head and nodded at the crest on the gate. ‘Count van der Leyden. Noted blood sports enthusiast. There’s only one logical reason to want a centaur to arrive at a set hour with his weapons.’
Potter looked sick.
‘I was to be the entertainment,’ Firenze announced, in a tone that made it clear there would be some dark form of reckoning for the wizard who had planned this.
‘You don’t think…’ Potter could barely get the sentence out.
‘That this is where they’ve all been going?’ the centaur finished for him. ‘I fear it may have been the destination for some. But if it consoles you, your own men thwarted the shipment of the first two British centaurs. Alas, I do not know what other creatures have suffered here and in places like this.’
Draco had though Potter’s schoolboy fury gone. He saw now that he was wrong, it was merely tamed. It returned now, more powerful, more silent, more intimidating. With flicks of his wand, he removed Firenze’s bonds and tied the first guard and the driver tightly, adding their bodies to the cart. The horse was too terrified to bolt, and stood shivering in its harness. Draco reached into his pocket to find his hamper and an apple or carrot to offer it.
‘There, there,’ he muttered, wondering if they would be better to let it loose and leave with only Firenze and Benjamin. The horse’s eyes rolled frantically, and its head went back, ears swivelling.
‘Mr Malfoy,’ said Firenze slowly, coming to stand beside the horse and hold its head gently against his chest. ‘We are not alone.’
Draco looked to Potter, and felt fear for the first time in years, because Harry Potter looked scared.
‘Draco,’ Potter said, and that was the moment in which Draco knew they might all die, ‘Go now. Ghent, Amiens, just go.’
Draco looked up and saw the circling black descending. Dementors: fifty or more. Potter jumped up onto the cart and raised his wand. ‘Go, Draco,’ he shouted. ‘Now!’
Draco jumped up onto the cart beside him. ‘You are far, far stupider than I took you for,’ he said.
Potter’s expression matched Draco’s own: he wanted to be anywhere but here; he would not be anywhere else.
‘Can you produce a Patronus?’ Potter asked, lifting his wand high and casting the spell wordlessly, a great silver stag erupting from its end and charging the Dementors above them.
‘I can try,’ Draco replied. His shout of Expecto Patronum rang out loudly, and from his wand surged a cloud of inchoate silver mist that the nearest Dementors shied away from.
‘Good!’ said Potter, his left hand taking Draco’s own. ‘Send it out!’
And Draco was astonished to see the mist take form. A large, snowy owl flew out of it towards the Dementors, talons raised. It flew low circles around the cart while the stag galloped across the sky above them and from their combined assault the Dementors peeled away, shrieking displeasure.
Draco watched until the last one flew away. For as long as he had to concentrate, he was safe from what would happen next. But then the sky was empty, and his eyes turned of their own volition and found Harry’s…
Four Aurors were running towards them, wands drawn. Draco saw dismay on Potter’s face, and knew it was nothing compared to the expression on his own.
‘Five minutes!’ Draco cried, and he could not decide whether he would have preferred earlier or later.
Harry counted at least sixty French, German, British and Belgian Aurors from East Flanders in attendance. McKennitt assured him as many again were in Hoeke and also standing ready to be dispatched to Latem as soon as Harry or Shacklebolt gave the order. Harry ordered him to find the fastest communication channel back to their Ministry and call in every available Hit Wizard. The Belgian Minister was making a speech as they entered the Auror Department, apologising to any of the Bruges division who had been innocently caught up among the criminal few and promising that their careers would be put back on track once the cancer in their midst had been excised.
It was, thought Harry, an overblown speech. Dawlish had often re-enacted the one Shacklebolt had given after the war’s end, which ran along the lines of informing everyone present that Pure-blood privilege was at an end and that anyone who didn’t think they could continue under the new regime should go now, far away.
Sometimes, when Dawlish had sunk a few pints, the end of the speech was replaced by Shacklebolt threatening to perform anatomically unlikely acts upon the personages of anyone who caused further trouble. Harry suspected that version was closer to the truth.
He glanced at Malfoy, who had been ushered into the Auror offices with him. They just needed a few minutes … and they weren’t going to find them soon.
‘Harry!’ Hermione had spotted them through a break in the crowd and came running. Most of the Aurors present were clever enough to get out of her way, a few were elbowed aside – far more vigorously than they expected. Ron trailed in her wake, along with Lewis, Astoria, Charlie, and, Harry was surprised to see, Ryla Murglesten.
Hermione flung her arms around him, and he was even more surprised to see that she was sporting a black eye. ‘What happened?’ he asked, as Lewis and Astoria both enveloped Malfoy in silent, swift, strong hugs.
‘Don’t worry about me, what happened to you?’ Hermione insisted, and then had to grab at him for balance as she was knocked sideways by Yallop, who had seen Draco and rushed to lift the man from his feet in a bear hug. Harry’s bemusement paled against Malfoy’s, and he had to try not to laugh at the man’s mouthed Help me.
‘She got into a fight,’ Ron explained above the chaos, since no-one else was going to. ‘Charlie had an idea about finding who had been hiring boats at our end, and his friend up in Hull turned out to have a very good idea who it was. So good that he had decided to go to the Muggle police about their suspicious activities that very morning. When we got to the address, the local constabulary were being Stunned into submission. My wife, rather than shout that we had them surrounded, went in wand first and ended up on the receiving end of a neat right hook from the one she disarmed.’
Hermione looked completely unconcerned by the injury, indeed, positively cheerful. ‘You fought back, didn’t you?’ Harry asked, already knowing what the answer would be. He could see from the rueful expression on Malfoy’s face that he did, too.
Ron held up his hand when Hermione began to agree that she had. ‘Don’t listen to her version, she’s going to tell you that she acted entirely in self-defence, which I will grant you may well have been true for the beautiful cross she laid him out with, despite the fact she still had a wand in her hand and could have just Petrified him. However, when he expressed surprise and dismay at having hit a girl, she first shouted “I’ll have you know I’m a woman and if you think that hurt, you’ve clearly never given birth!” and then began kicking him in very delicate areas. It was enough to bring a tear to the eye. Or many, to both eyes, in his case.’
Harry began to laugh. Hermione grinned up at him. ‘I had a duty of care to protect Miss Murgelsten. She was there as an innocent civilian. I had to make certain my attacker was thoroughly subdued, particularly because Ron and Charlie were being kept busy.’
‘She thoroughly subdued him,’ Ryla agreed. ‘She even let me help.’
Harry pretended he couldn’t hear them so he wouldn’t have to include it in his report. ‘Who did you arrest?’ he asked.
‘Angus McDougal.’ Hermione replied. ‘Ryla identified him as the one who kidnapped Hall. He had four young wizards there with him, who Astoria and Ryla did a neat job of bringing down, and a Squib called Adrian Wilkins. Nasty piece of work, he went after us with a gun and Ron and Charlie were hard put managing Shielding charms and trying to take him down. It turns out he’s been the main man on our side of the Channel: he saw a way to turn a quick profit and has been using his connections in both worlds to make the logistics work. We wrapped up there and had them back in London before Kingsley had finished planning for the European side of the operation, with no harm done to any of us.’
She paused for a second. ‘Very minor harm done to my face and knuckles,’ she corrected herself, ‘but my boots held up a treat! Anyway, enough about us, where have you been?’
‘Rescuing Professor Firenze from organised slaughter and fighting off Dementors,’ Harry answered.
Hermione frowned. ‘Dementors? Bloody hell. KINGSLEY!’ Her shout silenced much of the room and brought Shacklebolt’s attention on them. ‘Come on, you,’ she said, grabbing Harry and dragging him towards the Minister.
He tried to reach Draco and bring him, too, but Yallop had dropped him out of arm’s reach and Astoria was taking up his attention – ‘Draco, this is Ryla,’ he could hear her saying.
It was half an hour before he saw him again. By then he had given a full – mostly full, there were details they did not need to know – report to Kingsley and the other senior officials and Aurors present, explaining how their teams could break through the Containment Charm he had placed around the entire van der Leyden property and warning them that he had probably contained a great many Dementors in there with the culprits and they should let the Hit Wizards go in ahead of any Aurors. He had demanded a full European Wizengamot be convened to try everyone who had conspired to hunt – or planned to hunt – centaurs or giants, and no-one had argued against him. Harry realised that his fame and fury had carried the argument, but neither had carried him: the crimes were of the highest order and should be treated as such, and if he could cut through any attempts to make excuses on the basis of the status of those accused, then he was happy to look as invincible as his most inflated reputation.
They had left Firenze at the gates near Latem, with three Aurors, bringing only the still-unconscious second guard with them. Harry secured guarantees the guard would be treated well and returned to London, and that the centaur would be allowed to take part in the arrests. He had no fear of the professor losing control, but he could imagine the fear he would engender in those who had sought to make sport of him and he realised anew that he was not a wholly good person, because he relished the prospect.
He had also heard the story of McDougal’s arrest in full, and how he had quickly offered to give evidence against Wilkins and the Count de Bury – that was the Bruges Auror’s name – especially once he had realised exactly whose eye he had blackened.
‘He’s asked for leniency in the courts,’ Hermione had told him. ‘And he’s likely to get it. Though he organised much of the shipping, there’s nothing to suggest he knew about the hunting. He says he thought it was just moving people and illegal trade in magical ingredients, and from what we’ve seen, he might be telling the truth. We know he saved Hall’s life when de Bury and Bolland wanted to drop him in the Channel. He convinced Delveaux to Confund him instead, so he’s looking like a strictly mid-level rotter.’
‘How did Hall get involved?’ Harry had asked.
‘Heard McDougal talking about the profits and asked for a cut in exchange for silence,’ Hermione had told him. ‘No-one has suggested that he’s the least bit clever.’
Malfoy, when Harry finally made his way back to him, was penning a formal notice to the Prophet’s classifieds page, announcing that, despite the well-intentioned efforts of their mothers, he and Miss Astoria Greengrass would not be proceeding with their planned nuptials, but would instead be working together on a series of social projects designed to improve the lot of the underprivileged. Those in need of aid were directed to look for further announcements in upcoming editions of the same paper.
‘Mr Malfoy’s going to fund my finishing school for the dockside girls!’ Ryla Murglesten told Harry excitedly. ‘So they can find husbands, or work in shops, or as high-priced toffers!’
Malfoy looked at Harry apologetically. ‘Miss Murglesten assures me that’s a good thing.’
Harry smiled. ‘Better than low-priced, I have no doubt.’
Ryla ignored them and carried on. ‘And he’s going to help the clever ones get an education. He and Astoria have a brilliant plan, and she has a friend who’s a lady doctor, so we’re all going to work together and we’ll be able to give them real choices!’
‘Choices are good,’ Harry agreed, exchanging a look with Malfoy.
Charlie Weasley was watching them, Harry realised. He wore a slight frown, but it was friendly, sympathetic even. Harry let the corner of his mouth turn up. He didn’t mind Charlie knowing: he and Bill held onto secrets the way Ron spilled them. And now that he thought of it, he could hear Ron trying to engage Astoria on the high cost of living in London and what she thought she might need per annum to maintain a household.
‘I’m starving,’ Charlie announced. ‘Anyone else?’
A chorus of voices, several of them European Aurors, agreed they were in sore need of lunch.
‘You lot,’ said Charlie, indicating the Aurors, 'are on your own. But for those of my personal acquaintance, which includes you, Mr Yallop, I would be happy to treat you to luncheon at my home. Hermione, is there any reason we need to stay here?’
Hermione shrugged and looked to Harry. ‘Don’t look at me,’ he said. ‘I’ve given my evidence and no-one seems keen to interview me. Ask the Minister.’
‘He’ll want to come, too,’ she whispered. ‘And somebody needs to stay here and co-ordinate efforts. What if he tells you to stay? Or me?’
‘I’ve been on duty nonstop since nine o’clock yesterday morning,’ Harry pointed out, omitting a rather good dinner and sleep along the way. ‘I’m leaving these criminals to Aurors who won’t want to hex their legs off on sight.’
‘I’ll ask him,’ said Malfoy. ‘I need to tell him I’m taking Yallop, so I may as well deliver all the bad news at once.’
‘If he says yes, I have a Portkey,’ Hermione offered.
Harry followed Malfoy as he picked his way through the bustling room towards Kingsley. He was pleased to see that Shacklebolt smiled at the sight of him. ‘Mr Malfoy! I hear you have been doing very fine work within Law Enforcement.’
‘I’ve been given an excellent team,’ Malfoy said graciously. ‘I was hoping I could take Yallop and the rest of the non-Aurors back to London with me if you have no further need for any of us. Potter, too. He and I have had a very long day of it, and I’d like Yallop and Lewis to sit down with Periwig and update each other on all that’s happened.’
Harry noted with admiration the way every word suggested an afternoon of diligent work, while still leaving open the possibility of feasting at Charlie’s.
‘Yes, of course,’ said the Minister. ‘I only wish I could go with you. But someone has to manage things here, and I am guessing you and Harry are exhausted.’
‘Utterly, sir,’ said Malfoy, looking convincingly brave yet bone-weary.
‘Then you’re both dismissed,’ Shacklebolt said. ‘Good work.’
Malfoy turned to leave, but was detained by a hand to his shoulder. The Minister leaned close, and Harry could barely hear him. ‘Did I hear correctly that you will be funding educational opportunities for Muggle women?’
‘I’m assured they’re the future of Great Britain, sir,’ Malfoy said, grinning.
An answering grin spread across Shacklebolt’s face. ‘Well said, Mr Malfoy. I look forward to discussing the matter with you further.’
Malfoy stepped away quickly before any more topics of conversation could be broached. Harry walked beside him. ‘London?’ he asked.
‘Better,’ Malfoy replied. ‘Piccadilly. Charlie has the most remarkable house, with a beautiful garden and brainless diricawl.’
‘And that’s where you want to go now?’
Malfoy kept his eyes straight ahead. ‘It’s a safe option, don’t you think? Yallop, good news, I have secured your release. Hug me again and I will hex you halfway into the 20th century.’
Hermione’s Portkey was a book, which required a degree of jostling for all nine of them to take a good grip on it. But within minutes, they were all making their way out of the Ministry and Apparating discreetly to Charlie’s front garden. Astoria took Harry and Ryla, while Charlie side-alonged Yallop and Lewis; the other three knew the property well.
‘I’ll have you know that while I am currently a gentleman living without female company, I keep a very fine kitchen,’ Charlie told them, opening his front door. ‘And there is a good restaurant down the road that will deliver to order.’
He led them inside and began to walk them towards the rear of the house. ‘Astoria, light of my life, take Yallop and Lewis ahead to the conservatory, they’ll want to see the alihotsy. Ron, did I tell you about the pastel Puffskeins Malfoy and I have been working on? I think we can consider selling them as a pet line along with specialised foods. Miss Murglesten, you’ll want to see them too, the calibration in their feeding is fascinating. Hermione, can you help me sort out how much I need to order for nine people?’
Harry watched as Charlie bustled everyone ahead of him. He opened a door into a study as they passed it and shoved Harry and Malfoy inside. ‘I can get you ten minutes,’ he said quietly. ‘Twenty at the outside.’ Without another word he was gone, shouting instructions and shooing the others further into the house.
Harry looked at Malfoy, who was trying not to laugh. ‘I think,’ Malfoy said, ‘that was Charlie being subtle. He’s possibly worse at it than you are.’
‘Well, that’s hardly likely is it?’
As hoped, Malfoy grinned at Harry’s joke. Emboldened, Harry said, ‘So, an owl?’
Malfoy turned away. ‘I really didn’t know,’ he said.
‘And now you do?’ Harry suggested.
Malfoy looked at him, his expression exasperated. ‘Do you? A couple of days ago you still wanted to poke me in the nose.’
Harry realised they were both still standing in the doorway. They were either too close or not close enough, but he felt instinctively that it was not yet time to move. ‘When you drew me …’ he began.
‘It’s just art,’ Malfoy muttered.
Harry refused to be stopped. ‘It’s not. I can’t draw, but that’s what I see, too, when I look at you. We see each other better than we see ourselves. Better than we see anyone else.’
Malfoy looked away again. Then looked back. ‘You don’t have to,’ he said. ‘I can go back to Geneva. Or I can just ignore it. You can work with Lewis and I’ll stay in the lab.’
Harry threw his hands in the air. ‘Bloody hell, Draco, can nothing be easy with you? I am trying to say “yes” and “please” and “let’s try” and you’re acting as though I’ve taken leave of my senses.’
A slow smile started to work its way across Malfoy’s face. ‘That’s because there will be a great many people who will say that’s exactly what’s happened,’ he said.
‘Bugger them,’ said Harry. ‘And I mean that strictly metaphorically.’
‘I’ll be accused of Imperiusing you,’ Malfoy said, his smile broader.
Harry began to smile in reply. ‘I’m famously resistant to it,’ he said. ‘Too pigheaded, I’m told.’
‘And your friends will be somewhere between outraged and appalled.’
Harry thought for a moment. ‘Can I see your left forearm?’ he asked.
Raising an eyebrow, Malfoy rolled back his sleeve to show bare skin.
‘And you’re useless at Divination, aren’t you?’
Harry nodded. ‘Good. I don’t have to warn Ron. They can work it out in their own time and if it all goes to hell, we’ll still have Charlie and Astoria until they come round.’
‘And I promise to protect you from Blaise and Pansy,’ Malfoy replied. ‘And my mother has a sneaking respect for you, so that should be less then awful.’
‘I have to know something,’ Malfoy said.
He didn’t look comfortable, but he launched into the question regardless. ‘In the war, in the fire, when you came back, did you know then?’
It was not the question Harry had been expecting, but from the look on Draco’s face, it was important, so he thought back, and tried to answer honestly. ‘I think … I think that I just thought that, even though you were stupid and infuriating and made the worst decisions of anyone I had ever met, you were too good looking to leave to die.’
Malfoy had started to grin halfway through his answer, and Harry mirrored the expression.
‘Harry Potter,’ Malfoy said.
‘Draco Malfoy,’ Harry replied, reaching out and taking hold of his collar. Malfoy let himself be drawn across the space of the doorway, and his hand was sinking into Harry’s hair even as their lips met.
It was like being hit in the head with a medium-sized bird. Exactly like it.
‘Horace,’ said Malfoy, removing the diricawl from Harry’s head. ‘I am beginning to suspect he’s either allergic to all human happiness, or has a death wish.’
‘Do I want to know why there was a dodo on my head?’ Harry asked.
Malfoy dropped the bird onto the floor and kissed him again. Harry decided he had no interest in avian activities and concentrated on the slim form and smooth skin under his hands.
‘My house contains no dodos,’ Malfoy informed him after a long, euphoric moment.
‘Nor mine,’ Harry concurred.
The doorknob rattled behind them and they sprang apart as the door opened. ‘Auror Potter?’ It was Ryla Murglesten. ‘Mrs Weasley wants to know if you’d rather beef or fish?’
Malfoy scooped up Horace and passed him to her. ‘Poultry, I think,’ he said. ‘Whatever’s quickest.’
Harry followed as she led the way back to the kitchen. Charlie mouthed an apology at the sight of them, but Harry smiled, to show it did not matter. Astoria came back in to kiss Charlie’s cheek and take out an armload of plates and the bustle of meal preparation happened around them.
No-one expected them to be useful, so the two of them stood in the corner and watched. Charlie was the only one who noticed the fact their shoulders met where they leaned against the wall, and his quick smile let Harry know he was pleased with the development.
‘You realise that Firenze knew this was going to happen all along,’ Malfoy said, very quietly.
Harry hadn’t. And his bark of laughter might have given rise to questions, if it hadn’t been for Horace’s magnificent timing in biting Ron’s ankle at that precise moment and the subsequent arrival of food moments later. As it was, they were able to trail the others in to the conservatory for lunch, which allowed for a fleeting kiss.
Harry felt it then, a future different to the one they had faced a week ago, taking form moment by moment. He had little idea what it would hold, but for the first time in years, a lack of certainty did not worry him. Instead, it stretched before him as an adventure.
Malfoy’s fingers brushed against his as he walked past, calling out that it was all Ron’s fault for having such peckable ankles. Harry followed him, glad they had left Firenze in Belgium, because they did not need to start this future with an announcement that it had been written in the stars. They needed to start it together, with their friends, and with lunch.