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A Question of Loyalty

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For Lucius Malfoy, twenty years of mask-wearing had come to an end.

Or... perhaps they hadn't.

Even if he had been caught breaking into the most highly restricted part of the Ministry. Even if he was accompanied by some of Britain's most notorious criminals...

He glared at the hooded head in front of him.

Criminals? Cretins, was more like it. This group of idiots couldn't kill a Puffskein if it fell asleep in front of them! They'd have been more use back in their Azkaban cells.

But they weren't. They were standing beside him in the Death Chamber of the Department of Mysteries, all trapped by this damned Anti-Disapparation Jinx. All, that was, except Nott, who'd been felled by a shelf of prophecies; Macnair, still sprawled across two stone steps on the other side of the room; and - he scanned the faces around him - Avery. Not to mention Bellatrix, who was fleeing up the stairs without a backwards glance...

He clenched his fists. How dare Dumbledore bind him! How dare he come charging in to snatch his rightful victory out from under his nose!

No. This was no time to let anger cloud his judgement. There would be time enough for recriminations later.

Lucius Malfoy secured his mask of lofty indifference, and took stock of his situation.

Huddled about him, the others looked as stunned as the day they'd stepped from their cells for their first sight of the sky in fourteen years. Above him, the acrid trails of their desperate final curses twisted lazily in the motionless air. In front of him that tattered curtain was fluttering relentlessly, as if nothing had changed or would ever change again. And beside him, Harry Potter was screaming his defiance at Death's refusal to yield up her own.

He watched, expressionless, as Potter fled from the room. Tearing after Bellatrix with his usual misguided heroism... the boy seemed to think himself invincible. Although, Lucius admitted with no little irritation, fortune had certainly smiled on the insolent half-blood thus far. Yet again, that meddling idiot had evaded his grasp - just five seconds more and he'd have had the Dark Lord's prophecy in his hand! Surely, one day, Potter's luck would run out.

Perhaps it already had. Perhaps Bellatrix had cornered the boy. Perhaps she would even remember to seize the prophecy before she tortured him. Perhaps she would bring the Dark Lord the prize he had been obsessing over for the last year.

Though that outcome could... complicate matters.

Dumbledore didn't follow the boy, but quickly trained his wand on Macnair's huge frame and forced the executioner to his feet. One of Macnair's eyes was red and swollen - almost as if he'd run into the end of someone's wand. Most careless of him. Not to mention unsightly.

Lucius did not care to ponder how he himself must look. He couldn't even raise his hand to brush his hair from his face. It was irritating.

His concern was not born of vanity. Appearances were important - especially now.

Dumbledore drove Macnair towards the little knot of Death Eaters, blue eyes blazing with cold fire, wand moving in a swift circle to strengthen the jinx that held them. The spell was invisible, but all too real for those bound in the tightening coils of power. It would be a long time before Lucius would again call this opponent an old fool.

That time would come, though. Lucius settled his features into icy challenge. Let their so-called Order know that he did not fear defeat!

But Dumbledore ignored him. The leader of the forces of Light simply turned his back on nine of his Darkest enemies.

That was not the act of a fool. It was the worst insult he could throw at them. And, Lucius swore, one day Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore was going to pay for it.

For now, though, he was merely bending down to reach under the lowest tier of stone benches. He stood up with a glass sphere glinting in his hand and for a moment Lucius was sure he was holding the prophecy - but no, it was only Moody's revolting false eye, squirming round to peer out from between Dumbledore's fingers.

Moody had crawled to aid the female Auror, heedless of the trail of blood he left across the flagstones. Lucius frowned. Mad-Eye's rough-but-gallant act might go down well with the ladies, but anyone who'd ever been arrested by the old Auror knew what really lay behind that façade.

None of those two-faced do-gooders, Lucius noted, was showing the slightest concern for the painful angle of Antonin Dolohov's left arm or the blood oozing out of Crabbe's ear or the green undertone to Augustus Rookwood's skin. The Lestrange brothers, though, seemed to have escaped visible damage. Both of them were standing between Lucius and Augustus - just as well, really, if the former Unspeakable was going to be sick.

Moody took back his glass eye, wiped it off with a large blue handkerchief and squelched it back into place.

Disgusting.

The werewolf joined them, looking shabbier than ever, a guiding hand on the Longbottom boy's shoulder. He muttered something, and Dumbledore nodded. Lucius strained to listen: something about Potter's state of mind.

Well it would be, wouldn't it? Potter, Potter, always Potter. Sometimes it seemed as if the whole world revolved around the boy, whether he was an obstacle to be crushed or a hero to be shielded. And now Bellatrix had blasted a hole right through the heart of their pathetic circle of protection - now the boy would have to learn that his only real security lay in his own hands.

That was a lesson Lucius had learned for himself long ago.

Perhaps Dumbledore saw it the same way - he was definitely taking an inordinately long time to go after his young protégé. Or maybe he knew something that Lucius didn't.

And if he didn't, Moody certainly seemed to. His glass eye spun wildly and he grabbed at Dumbledore's arm. Dumbledore bent down to listen - and then Disapparated with a resounding crack.

Lucius had no time to wonder what Moody had seen. The werewolf took over the attempt to revive the woman as the old Auror got heavily to his feet and approached the Death Eaters. The maddened glint in both eyes more than justified his reputation.

Ah, here was one who knew how to treat an enemy! Lucius' lip curled.

Moody mirrored his glare. Lucius raised a supercilious eyebrow.

"You're not wriggling out of this one, Malfoy," growled Moody. "This time you're going to Azkaban where you belong."

Lucius raised his other eyebrow. "Tsk, tsk. With that propensity for jumping to unfounded conclusions, we can all be thankful for the day they expelled you from the Wizengamot."

Rage shone in Moody's good eye. "No one in their right mind could fail to convict you now, you slippery bastard!" he spat. "You think you're untouchable, just because you have a fancy manor house and a vault full of gold - well, none of that's going to stop the Dementors once they get their hands on you! You've had it coming for fifteen years, Malfoy - I'm only sorry that the idiots who let you off last time won't be rotting there beside you."

That faint chill trickling down Lucius' neck was some after-effect of the fight, nothing more.

"Really?" he replied. "I do hope you'll be conveying those sentiments to the Minister."

Moody glowered at him.

"Filth!"

His glass eye scanned the little crowd of Death Eaters. Then, like Dumbledore, he walked away.

"He's right, Malfoy," muttered a voice from Lucius' left. "If we're going down, this time you're coming with us."

Lucius' nostrils flared. He glanced over at Moody - but he and the werewolf were fussing over their companion again. That ill-considered remark, then, had gone unheard. It was safe to reply.

When he did, his voice was just as low as the other wizard's, and twice as dangerous.

"That you were ever sent to Azkaban, Rabastan Lestrange, was entirely due to your own stupidity - stupidity that, as you should remember, I warned you against. But no. Bellatrix had to have her moment of glory, you had to follow her like an obedient Crup, and the Ministry had to go back on full alert just when we were starting to have some freedom to manoeuvre. That little escapade nearly exposed us all. So don't question my judgement, if you know what's good for you."

Beside his brother, Rodolphus Lestrange turned sheet-white, his normally darting little eyes fixed furiously on Lucius. He didn't defend his wife, though. Rodolphus had always been content to let others do the speaking.

"It's not your judgement that I'm questioning," Rabastan snarled softly. "Though after what happened tonight, perhaps it should be."

"And whose judgement are you questioning there, exactly?" hissed Lucius under his breath. "If that's all the loyalty you can muster, don't complain if He tells you to take orders from me."

"Don't try to lecture me about loyalty, of all things! Fourteen years I spent in that place! What were you doing all that time?"

"You dare to question my effectiveness? But of course, it's so easy to be heroic when you're safely locked away and unable to do anything..."

Rabastan Lestrange twitched, as if longing to attack Lucius with his fists rather than his impotent words. But both wizards were bound by Dumbledore's jinx.

"Go to hell, Malfoy," he muttered at last.

Lucius shrugged and looked away. The other wizards shuffled, pretending disinterest in the exchange. Lucius was careful to lock eyes with each one in turn. He was second-in-command, and he intended to stay that way.

But Bellatrix was the one who'd got away. And she had drawn Potter after her. And she could use her stupid posturing in front of the Wizengamot all those years ago as proof of her fidelity. If she succeeded where he had failed...

Lucius knew there was no back-up plan. The Dark Lord had been so sure of success - even now, even after thirteen years confined to the shadows, that old blind arrogance had reared its head. Or had this assignment only ever been intended as a test of their loyalty? That was unlikely, all things considered, but the Dark Lord would probably use it that way now.

So there would be no rescue mission, not immediately. Lucius was on his own. He was no stranger to that - the narrow path he had walked between respectability and rebellion had earned him little trust and less friendship. It had, however, enabled him to stand where many others had fallen, as he wielded the guile that was a Malfoy birthright. Even so, he was heartily sick of pandering to the weak and incompetent. For a few glorious days last summer he had thought the time had finally come to throw away the masks for good... but he was no longer in his twenties. This time he knew that freedom lay not in casting off restraints, but in learning to move within them.

And if Bellatrix had got away there was no way to contradict any report she might make to the Dark Lord - so it was still prudent to keep his options open, though he would do what he could for this motley group of fools he'd had to work with tonight. He might need them in the future, after all.

But first, he needed to look after himself. He surveyed his surroundings with the practised eye of a veteran survivor.

The werewolf was following the Longbottom boy as he scrambled up the stairs, presumably to see whether any of his little comrades were still breathing. Not that Lucius cared either way - that was what happened to children who meddled with things they didn't understand. Why they'd been there in the first place was something he couldn't fathom. He'd been so certain that Potter would come alone.

The female Auror had finally regained consciousness. He recognised that half-blood freak now - not that her identity wasn't obvious from the red colour streaking through her hair and the wrinkles rapidly spreading across her face. Falling down all those stone benches had obviously scrambled her Metamorphmagical abilities. Or perhaps she just didn't want to be recognised as one of Dumbledore's collaborators when her Ministry colleagues arrived...

Moody had helped her onto a bench, from where she was watching them with a slightly cross-eyed stare and a rather unsteady wand. Probably still concussed - all things considered, Lucius really would have preferred for her not to be allowed in the same room as a wand while in that state. But then, it wasn't as if Moody had ever had a scrap of concern for the welfare of his prisoners.

Moody himself was on the other side of the dais. It sounded as if he was dragging the dark-skinned Auror to his feet, and judging by the way the latter was groaning, it was no easy task.

Three members of their ‘Order', then, only three, and none of them in any fit state to walk, let alone fight. Lucius' hand twitched, but he had no wand and no chance of escaping Dumbledore's jinx. Not by force, at least.

In the distance, the lift-chains rattled.

- - - - -

As the lift descended, Cornelius Fudge shuffled his slippered feet and avoided Albus Dumbledore's eyes. He'd always found that piercing gaze unsettling, ever since that time - back when he was still a Hogwarts prefect - when Dumbledore had caught him overlooking minor infractions in exchange for help with his Transfiguration homework. It was even more unsettling now. Their last meeting had not exactly ended amicably, after all, and Merlin only knew what the ex-Headmaster had been doing in the meantime. Furthering his plot to take over the Ministry, no doubt. Why else would he have shown his face here tonight, publicly contradicting everything Cornelius had been saying for the last year?

Although... if Cornelius had really seen what for a fleeting second he'd thought he'd seen...

He glanced at Dawlish and Williamson. The Aurors were bracing themselves against the swaying of the lift, but that alone didn't explain the tension evident in their stiff postures, nor their grim frowns.

If what Dumbledore was saying was true...

Well. They would see for themselves soon enough. Cornelius had insisted upon coming down in person, after Dumbledore had had the gall to Transfigure that unauthorised Portkey in full view of everyone. Didn't the old wizard understand that he couldn't just order him about in public like that, especially when they had a crisis on their hands? It wasn't that he didn't respect Dumbledore's abilities, but the man had no political sense. At a time like this, it was important to give an impression of strong leadership, and he was the Minister, for Merlin's sake!

Not that he felt much like a Minister at the moment. The pyjamas didn't help, of course - how he wished he'd invested in a Quick-Clothe Cloak - but it was more those memories of his days in the Magical Catastrophe Squad at the height of, of, all that, fifteen years ago... and now, if he really had seen Y-Y-... if there really were Death Eaters in the Ministry, of all places...

Cornelius shivered. He'd never forget those Cruciatus-wracked bodies the Death Eaters used to leave behind, nor the screams of those Muggles caught up in Black's final atrocity.

Black. That was another thing. How could Dumbledore say that Black was innocent? If he had seen what Cornelius himself had seen... no. Black was a madman, and Dumbledore... well, even the best wizards sometimes went a little odd as they got older, and to be honest, Dumbledore had been showing signs of that for years.

But if Y-You-Know-Who really was back...

It was unthinkable - nobody wanted all that again. Stability, Spellpower, Sickles: that's what the wizard in the street wanted. That's what the Ministry was expected to provide. And they'd been doing it, frantically calming the anxiety stirred up by that crazy Potter child and irresponsible rumour-mongers like Lovegood.

But if You-Know-Who really was back...

How could this happen? What were they going to do?

He was going to need all the help he could get.

The lift clattered to a halt. As the grille opened, Cornelius Fudge drew himself up. He wasn't Minister of Magic for nothing! He'd deal with this rabble properly, like he'd dealt with everything else over the years, and in time his name would be inscribed in gold in the Moste Magnificente Ministers gallery for generations to come.

He let Dawlish and Williamson go first. No point in taking chances, after all, and he wasn't particularly at ease in the Department of Mysteries at the best of times. He'd started off in the field, after all, and Wizards of Action like himself were generally content to leave the boffins to their own strange little world. The DoM certainly liked it that way - no one really knew what went on down here, and when it came to projects like the Death Chamber, no one really wanted to know.

As they entered the circular entrance hall, a worried-looking wizard emerged from one of the doors opposite, brushing a wisp of greying brown hair from his forehead.

"What happened up there? Is Harry all right?" the newcomer asked Dumbledore.

"He's safe, Remus. I sent him back to Hogwarts. I'll tell you the rest later, I just came down to explain matters to Cornelius."

Remus? Name was vaguely familiar. Face wasn't, though. A stranger - insignificant. And very shabbily dressed.

‘Remus' was staring at him rather oddly. Cornelius glanced down, and wrapped his pinstripe cloak over his yellow and lime striped pyjamas.

"Albus..." the shabby wizard was saying, "Neville Longbottom's injuries are minor, but the other four are going to need Healers before we can move them."

Four? And wasn't Longbottom in the same year as Potter? Was this some kind of post-OWL prank?

"Now see here, Dumbledore, you can't go bringing children into the Department of Mysteries, of all places. It's Unspeakably Secret! Some of these projects are Unthinkably Secret!"

"Then perhaps, Cornelius, you should have made sure that the doors were locked?"

"But... but the doors were-"

"And the children came of their own accord. Surely you won't object if I make arrangements to get them safely back to the School?"

"But they were trespassing on Ministry property! They should be detained imm..." He trailed off under Dumbledore's glare.

He fidgeted as he watched Dumbledore give hurried instructions to the shabby stranger. Then he motioned his Aurors towards the Death Chamber and strode purposefully into the room... resolutely ignoring that arch.

Two figures stood guard over a group of wizards behind the dais below, and of those, the few he could see were wearing black robes. Black robes that no nineteen-seventies Ministry official could fail to recognise.

Death Eaters.

Cornelius looked away, feeling suddenly cold. Dumbledore had been telling the truth about that, then. Nine of them, he'd said, plus two left unconscious and immobilised in the other rooms. He glanced at the Headmaster. Could an Anti-Disapparation Jinx hold that many?

Dumbledore gestured towards the steps. "If we could get on, Cornelius? I really ought to be getting back to the School."

Since when did he, Cornelius Fudge, work to Dumbledore's schedule? The old wizard might have delusions of supplanting him as Minister, but with such a complete disregard for protocol he didn't stand a chance. No appreciation at all for the way things should be done.

But by the time he'd stopped spluttering, Dumbledore was already halfway down the stone tiers. Cornelius had no choice but to follow. He kept his eyes on the steps - it would be so undignified to lose a slipper.

As he reached the bottom he clutched his cloak around him, checking for telltale signs of striped pyjamas. Dumbledore had already reached the two wizards who were guarding the... them, and they turned towards him as he approached.

Cornelius frowned when he recognised Alastor Moody's straggly grey mane. Hadn't he told that paranoid ex-Auror never to darken the doors of the Ministry again, after he'd refused to stop bothering him about Ministry security last summer? As a young wizard, he'd looked up to Moody as a hero, but these days it wasn't just the man's eye that was mad.

The other face was more welcome - he'd been starting to have reservations about Kingsley Shacklebolt, after his conspicuous failure to bring in either Black or Dumbledore, but it was good to see that at least one of his people had been quick off the mark tonight.

He heard a movement behind him and whipped round, reaching for his wand. Then he relaxed. Of course it wasn't another Death Eater. At least, it didn't look like a Death Eater - just a rather dizzy-looking old witch with bright red hair down to her waist, sitting on the lowest stone bench and swaying a little.

Another stranger - in both senses of the word. Who on earth were these people?

But as he turned back he caught sight of a familiar aristocratic face, and he heaved a sigh of relief. Lucius Malfoy. Thank Merlin there was someone here he could rely on.

Lucius nodded at him cordially. "Good evening, Minister."

But... but... why was he standing with the Death Eaters?

Cornelius' jaw dropped. He stared. Then he rounded on Dumbledore.

"What's going on?"

"As I explained before," Dumbledore replied in that infuriatingly patronising tone, "these Death Eaters broke into the Department of Mysteries-"

"Lucius Malfoy is no Death Eater!"

"Then why, Cornelius, do you think he was trying to steal-"

"And he's no thief, either! I've never heard such a ridiculous accusation!"

Except for... Cornelius cast his mind back a year, to that ridiculous scene in Hogwarts' hospital wing. He frowned.

"This isn't another of Harry Potter's tall tales, is it?"

Dumbledore's eyes blazed. "Look at the evidence in front of you, Cornelius!"

Cornelius stared at the black-robed wizards. This was completely preposterous! It was part of Dumbledore's plot, it had to be! He suddenly wished Dolores were with him. Dolores knew how to handle Dumbledore.

"Thank you for your vote of confidence, Minister." Lucius' mellifluous voice carried clearly across the chamber. "I assure you, I can explain everything."

"The only thing you're going to explain is how you got this lot of scum past Ministry security," growled Moody. "Then we can make completely certain that no one can do the same for you."

"Alastor..." Dumbledore put a warning hand on his arm.

"And while you're at it, Mister Malfoy, perhaps you could explain why we just saw You-Know-Who Disapparate from the Atrium," Williamson said coldly.

A few of the Death Eaters gasped, and for a moment a flicker of fear - or was it anger? - showed in Lucius' eyes. But only for a moment. Now there was class - most wizards would have been gibbering with terror at the thought of Lord... Thingy's return.

Unless...

No, no, no, no, no. It was impossible. Lucius Malfoy was a model citizen. Yes, of course Cornelius had heard the rumours surrounding the trials fourteen years ago, but Lucius' so-called involvement with the Death Eaters had been an unequivocal case of Imperius. Cornelius, of all people, knew just how much the man regretted being caught that way, how much he'd worked to make amends. Why, just last week he had made that handsome donation to the International Magical Co-operation Department's Apprentices-from-Albania programme! So generous of the man to help foreign wizards come to Britain to learn the proper way of doing things...

But, standing right next to him was... was Antonin Dolohov, who had sat at his trial listening to Auror Moody's harrowing description of the remains of Gideon and Fabian Prewett, and smiled. What was Lucius doing with these people?

No... No. Lucius would explain everything. He had to.

"As I wasn't there, Mr Williamson," came Lucius' cultured drawl, "I couldn't possibly comment on what you may or may not have seen." He stared down his nose at the Auror. "But as, if I recall correctly, you hadn't met any wizards until nineteen-eighty-two, I would have to question your basis for making such a positive identification."

Williamson tossed his ponytail in a manner uncannily reminiscent of the way Cornelius' wife's Kneazle swished her tail when he invaded her favourite chair. The Auror's fist clenched and unclenched, but he said nothing.

Cornelius remembered now. Three-and-a-half years ago, just before Christmas in fact, Lucius had come storming into his office, insisting that if the Ministry deemed it necessary to raid the properties of law-abiding citizens, it could at least ensure that the officials concerned - meaning Auror Williamson - had enough wizarding background to understand what they were looking at. Privately, Cornelius thought that Lucius' attitude to Muggleborns could be a bit over the top at times, but it was hardly uncommon - and besides, he had financed the expansion of the Dilys Derwent Children's Ward that had given Cornelius' popularity such a boost in the midst of those... problems at Hogwarts, so who was he to complain? Quietly blocking Weasley's request for a Niffler-class raid on Malfoy Manor had been the least he could do in return.

But what if Williamson had been right about what he thought he'd seen then?

Cornelius frowned. He hadn't done anything wrong, exactly, in protecting a respected citizen from one of the Ministry's more eccentric employees, and besides, he doubted anything could be proved. Still, one didn't want those sorts of allegations fuelling the gossip columns of the less reputable newspapers, and who knew what might come out if this mess wasn't cleared up quietly? The wizard in the street so often misunderstood that the machinery of government needed to be oiled for anything to function at all.

He cleared his throat and gave Lucius an apologetic nod.

"Well, Dumbledore, the Ministry appreciates your assistance. We'll take it from here. Dawlish, Williamson, Shacklebolt, please make sure that these..." scum-of-the-earth, was his first thought, but that could never be applied to Lucius, "... these people are given suitable accommodation while we get to the bottom of this. And then, if you could escort Mr Malfoy to my office?"

"Don't tell me you believe him!" spat Moody.

Dumbledore held up a restraining hand, but it was Williamson who spoke.

"You can't see him alone, Sir! It's against Prisoner Interrogation Protocol Three-and-Five-Sevenths!"

"I wasn't intending to interrogate him." Cornelius gave a forced chuckle. He could almost feel Lucius' gaze on him, and it was not a particularly comfortable feeling. "I was merely going to give one of our most prominent citizens a reasonable opportunity to explain his perspective on, ah, events in an atmosphere more conducive to, erm, reasonable explanations."

Right, that was settled then.

He smiled around at the others. They stared back at him.

"You're mad," Moody growled.

"But Sir! Your personal safety is at stake!"

What, did Williamson really think that Lucius Malfoy, of all people, was going to attack the Minister for Magic? Cornelius shook his head.

And yet... there was a delicate political balance to be struck here. Even if Dumbledore's faction was a trifle unhinged, they still carried influence in some quarters - he couldn't give them an excuse to move openly against him. And if it was true that You-Know-Who was... well, he needed them, not to put too fine a point on it. He couldn't be seen to disregard their advice. But if Lucius was innocent, and if he found anything to complain about in the Ministry's handling of the situation, then Cornelius could lose the support of all the old wizarding families. And, as he knew only too well, Lucius could usually find plenty to complain about.

Still, he thought, looking towards Lucius, no one could deny that the situation was a little suspicious. And it was his duty as Minister to investigate it properly. Surely Lucius couldn't blame him for that?

"Cornelius, I really think you should reconsider-," said Dumbledore.

"And I will abide by the judgement of the Minister," Lucius broke in. "If he would prefer to meet in private, I will of course comply with any security measures deemed to be necessary."

Cornelius felt a rush of relief. Now there was someone who understood the subtleties of diplomacy. Not to mention the respect due to a Minister.

"Thank you, Lucius - your co-operation will not go un-noted. Now, if you Aurors would take care of the necessary?"

Dawlish and Williamson moved quickly to herd the black-cloaked wizards towards the stairs. Cornelius looked pointedly at Shacklebolt.

The Auror cleared his throat. "You'll want proper statements taken from the remaining witnesses, Minister?"

Witnesses? Oh - that dizzy old witch, the children, Moody... not that the ex‑Auror's paranoid ramblings were worth much.

"Ah... yes. We should get everything on record while it's still fresh in their minds. Get on to it, will you?"

"Yes, Minister." Shacklebolt nodded sharply.

No, not sharply - efficiently. It was so good to have Aurors he could rely on. Especially now.

"And now, Cornelius, I really must be getting back to Harry," Dumbledore said. "You know where to find me if you need me." He glanced at Shacklebolt. "Give me two hours, Kingsley, and I'll be ready to give you my statement."

He Disapparated.

Cornelius blinked.

Moody turned away towards the strange witch, who was still sitting unsteadily on the lowest stone bench. The line of Death Eaters had almost reached the top of the stairs.

The room suddenly felt very empty. The curtain in the archway fluttered in the non-existent breeze.

"Shall I escort you to your office, Minister?" said Shacklebolt.

"What? Oh. No. That won't be necessary." It would never do to show weakness in front of his men - not that that arch wouldn't make anyone uneasy.

Cornelius started up the stairs. The Death Eaters were already shuffling out of the door ahead.

Ridiculous, to think that Lucius was involved with people like those, especially after the malicious accusations at his trial all those years ago! But there, though he could hardly believe it, was his distinctive silver-haired head in their midst...

It alone was unbowed.

- - - - -

Lucius leaned back on the pea-green couch, moving slowly to avoid triggering the jinx hovering at the edge of his awareness.

It was irksome to be kept waiting. It was more than irksome to have to submit to a Containment Curse as if he were a common criminal, and it was downright outrageous that they'd let a Mudblood cast it on him, Lucius Malfoy.

Still, at least they hadn't made him wait till the morning. Fudge was evidently worried enough to want to hear what Lucius had to say immediately, or perhaps just worried about how Lucius might react to being summarily imprisoned. Either was a good sign.

As was the absence of that fawning turncloak Snape from this evening's little drama - if Dumbledore was still holding cards in reserve, the game was not yet over. Perhaps Lucius would oblige him by neglecting to tell Fudge that Narcissa's half-blood niece was part of Dumbledore's faction.

That Mudblood Auror's comment about the Dark Lord, however, was less auspicious. Whatever had possessed Him to show His face here, of all places? It was... unnecessary. Wasteful, given the not inconsiderable resources Lucius had committed to maintaining public disbelief in His return. And it certainly made this regrettable incident rather more difficult to explain.

But not impossible. He hoped not impossible. He hoped the others would have the sense to keep their mouths shut.

If only he knew what had happened to that prophecy!

Lucius frowned.

What was Fudge doing in there? Was he deliberately making him wait? If so, he would live to regret it. Lucius Malfoy did not forget such insults.

He stifled a yawn and cast his eyes around the anteroom. He was not alone - Fudge's assistant was sitting at a desk in the corner, scratching away at a roll of parchment and clearly attempting to ignore Lucius' presence.

And, equally clearly, not succeeding. The boy's quill paused as soon as Lucius' gaze fell on him, but still he did not look up. It was so insolent, it was almost amusing - but then, what else could one expect from a Weasley? Even a Weasley who had rejected his family's love of the mediocre in exchange for bourgeois ambition. Even a Weasley who owed his current position to Lucius' own subtle promptings... but the boy knew nothing of that, of course. Pity Arthur's uncharacteristic lack of naiveté had driven the boy away from where he could have been useful...

The scratching resumed. Lucius cast his eyes over the photographs on the wall opposite. A hundred garish Fudges beamed back: Fudge receiving his Admirable Administrator Award for his role in clearing up the mess Pettigrew and Black left behind; Fudge taking up the Ministerial Mace; Fudge standing in the lobby of St Mungo's, accepting a large bag of gold from Lucius himself. Lucius was gratified to see that his photo-self had not a hair out of place and was maintaining his dignity impeccably in the face of Fudge's forced joviality.

Actually, Lucius was in rather a lot of the photographs. Of course, it was only natural that Fudge should look up to a wizard of his lineage, but still, it didn't do to be too - obvious - about such associations. But creatures like Fudge were oblivious to subtlety, and besides, Malfoys should be able to do as they pleased. Without question.

At least the photographs served to cover the garish purple and lime striped wallpaper. Such poor taste for one of Fudge's supposed rank... but then Fudge was one of those grasping fools who thought that gaining the trappings of power meant he could do as he liked. That never lasted long. Fudge had learned soon enough that respect had to be... earned.

How long would it take for Weasley's son to grasp that essential fact of life? It might be amusing to see how far the boy could be corrupted, knowing that Arthur was watching and powerless to stop it. Always assuming the man would even notice the loss of one of his oversized brood.

The quill-scratching had stopped again, Lucius realised. He glanced towards the corner. The boy's glasses flashed as he dropped his gaze to his parchment.

Lucius smiled.

"Did you want something, Mr Weasley?"

No response, other than a creeping blush that clashed horribly with his hair.

"I am not an exhibit in a museum, Mr Weasley. If you can stare at me, you can speak to me, especially when I ask you a direct question. Or is such discourtesy normal practice at the Ministry these days?"

The boy looked up at that, clearly unsure of what he should do. That was good. Unstable subjects required less leverage.

"I- You'll have to excuse me, Mr Malfoy," he said. "I'm not supposed to talk to you." And he picked up his quill.

Lucius smirked. A typical petty bureaucrat, then, blinkered by procedure and the rigid hierarchy he inhabited.

And the blinkered bureaucrats were so much more easily led...

"Your devotion to duty does you credit," said Lucius, "but that comes as no surprise. The Minister speaks most highly of you."

That would pique the boy's curiosity - and increase his confusion. What ambitious young wizard didn't want to hear himself praised?

Not this one, clearly. He looked up, quill in hand. Oh, he so obviously wanted to ask...

"No, Mr Weasley, please don't feel you need to speak. I wouldn't want you to get into trouble with your superiors on my account. Unless they said you weren't to listen, either?"

A smart shake of his head, left-right. Expression wary.

"Good," said Lucius. "So... Mr Weasley - it's Percival, isn't it? May I call you Percival? Or do you prefer Percy?"

He looked at his parchment for a moment. Then he sat up straight. "Most people call me Percy, Mr Malfoy, but I'll also answer to Percival."

But addressing him by the more distinguished form had thawed the boy's reserve a little. Lucius' instinct had been correct - but then manipulating petty officials was never particularly difficult, especially when they were as ambitious as this boy. Or as Fudge had been. Fools! It was going to be such a pleasure to watch when the Dark Lord brought the whole Muggle-loving Ministry crashing down on top of them.

Lucius smiled. "Percival then. And I expect we could be hearing a lot more of that name in the future, if what the Minister tells me is correct. Not that I'd need him to tell me - the fact that you came into work at this hour speaks for itself."

‘Percival' glanced at the clock on the wall with an irritating air of self-satisfaction.

"But that will only get you so far, Percival."

The boy frowned.

"Although you're aware of that already, I'm sure," Lucius continued. "Unfortunately, there will always be those who will hold your... background against you. But there are others - both inside and outside the Ministry - who will not allow prejudice to blind them to the evidence of your abilities."

The boy really needed to learn to look less... calculating, if he truly wished to succeed in the world of power and influence. Lucius would leave him to come to his own conclusions.

He looked at the clock, and brought his hand to his mouth to cover an elegant yawn.

"But for now, it seems that we must both wait upon Minister Fudge's bidding. Though I expect you know his schedule better than I do."

He puffed himself up a little - yes, he was eager to demonstrate what a loyal and trusted aide he was.

"I don't think he'll be long, Sir. Just before you arrived, he got a Floocall from Madam Bo-"

Lucius ignored the boy's horrified expression.

"Oh, so he's speaking to someone?" he said. He settled back on the couch and resumed his study of the wall in front of him. "Well, as you say, I don't expect he'll want to spend too long talking into a fireplace."

At least, Lucius hoped he wouldn't. It was inevitable that Amelia Bones would get involved - she was the Head of Magical Law Enforcement, after all. But she and Lucius had never seen eye-to-eye, even before her brother's family had been exterminated. Not, of course, that she could prove he had been anywhere near Edgar Bones' home that night...

A soft pinging sound cut through his thoughts.

Weasley's son cleared his throat. "The Minister will see you now, Mr Malfoy."

Perhaps Lucius was imagining the note of respect in the boy's voice, but he rather doubted it. He wouldn't want Lucius to mention his little slip to his boss, after all.

"Thank you, Mr Weasley."

Lucius had never thought he might utter those words and - almost - mean them.

- - - - -

Cornelius stared into the flames for a moment - Amelia's head was definitely gone. He doused the flames and picked up a buttered crumpet from the plate on his desk. There was definitely something rather comforting about a pile of buttered crumpets.

Amelia wasn't happy. She had even dared to suggest that her department should take sole charge of the investigation into tonight's fiasco, as if he wasn't capable of making his own judgements! Well, he wasn't particularly happy with her, either. Wasn't Ministry security her responsibility?

Not that he didn't respect the woman. But, well... she hadn't exactly been helpful at Potter's hearing last year, had she? She just didn't know how to play the game - not ‘One of Us', as Dolores would say. And hadn't her niece been on that list of rebellious students Dumbledore had recruited?

He still didn't trust Dumbledore. From what Dolores had told him, Dumbledore's assistant - that McGonagall woman - had even been going on in front of one of the students about how there was going to be a new Minister. Cornelius wasn't likely to forget that in a hurry. But, if You-Know-Who really was back... Dumbledore wouldn't put his own ambition before the good of the wizarding world, would he? He had to realise that they needed to pull together under a strong leader.

No. Dumbledore would be loyal to the Ministry - at least for now. He had to be. If Cornelius wasn't careful, he'd end up as paranoid as Alastor Moody.

Meanwhile, Lucius was waiting. And Lucius didn't like to be kept waiting.

Cornelius stifled a yawn. It was way past his bedtime. But at least he didn't have to face Lucius in his pyjamas this time, thanks to the spare set of robes young Weasley had fetched for him.

He waved his wand at the Chiming Charm to the outer office, sat down at his desk, and poured himself a cup of tea. His hand shook only a little. Quite steady, really, considering the late hour.

The office door opened.

"Good evening, Minister," Lucius said.

"Ah, yes, do come and sit down. Can I offer you a cup of tea?"

"No, thank you."

Didn't he trust the tea? That meant he didn't trust Cornelius. Was that why he had called him ‘Minister'? He was never usually this formal when they met privately.

Lucius settled himself in the chair on the opposite side of the desk. "On the other hand, perhaps I could use one. It's been quite an eventful evening."

Cornelius was relieved to see the faint smile on Lucius' face. He poured the tea, his hand hardly shaking at all.

"Crumpet?" Cornelius pushed the plate across the desk. Lucius ignored it.

Well. Now what? He needed to take charge of the situation. Wizards like Lucius appreciated strong leadership.

"So, Lucius, I believe you were going to... um..."

Lucius raised his eyebrows.

"...explain how, er-"

This was so damnably awkward!

Lucius came to his aid. "Indeed, Minister, but-"

"Oh, call me Cornelius, for Merlin's sake! How many years have we known each other?"

Lucius sipped his tea.

Damn the man! How could he sit there so calmly? Didn't he realise that this could bring down the Ministry? Didn't he realise that they could send him to Azkaban? And then who would Cornelius turn to? Lucius always gave such helpful advice, and what was more, he never ordered him around in the arrogant way Dumbledore had done tonight.

"I'm glad you see it that way... Cornelius," he said at last. "It will make this so much easier. But, as I rather suspect that some of your subordinates may not share your... broader perspective, I must ask if there is any danger of us being overheard?"

What? Oh... Spying Spells. Cornelius knew that Amelia's spooks liked to listen in on Ministerial conversations, but no politician worth his pension got to Fudge's position without mastering Impenetrable Privacy Charms. But what on earth was Lucius going to say to him that required such measures?

Or was it a question of what Lucius was going to do to him?

Where did that thought come from? Lucius was a gentleman. One of us. And no one would be stupid enough to try anything with young Weasley sitting right outside.

But... what if Lucius was under Imperius? The Aurors would have checked for that, wouldn't they? They'd always checked for Imperius back, back then, but with the years of peace since...

No. They would have checked. Of course they would have checked. And he knew Lucius wouldn't have let himself be caught by Imperius again. It was an unworthy thought, a poor way to repay the trust Lucius had placed in him.

"Please forgive me for asking," Lucius said. "I would do it myself, but your Aurors appear to have taken it upon themselves to revoke my right to carry a wand."

They what? That was outrageous!

But... Oh. Lucius was technically under arrest, after all. The Aurors were within their rights, if perhaps a trifle over-zealous.

He really shouldn't feel this uneasy about blocking the possibility of outside intervention when he was just having a chat with an old friend, but... oh well. If it was the only way to get to the bottom of this...

He activated the Charms.

"Thank you, Cornelius. I'm most grateful."

Lucius raised his cup to his lips. It didn't seem to be getting emptier.

So, was Lucius going to explain himself? Surely he could see that - to those who didn't know him well - the circumstances were rather, well, incriminating?

"So, ah, Lucius..."

Lucius put his cup on the desk.

"First of all," he said crisply, "I must apologise for tonight's... inconvenience. If I could have stopped it, I would."

"Sorry?"

"Well, you'll remember that I expressed my concern last year about the security measures at the Department of Mysteries?"

Indeed, Cornelius did remember. He'd had to learn far more than he'd ever wanted to about the intricate web of Cryptocharms and Hiding Hexes that surrounded the place, before he'd finally managed to persuade Lucius that the Ministry was at least as well defended as Malfoy Manor. Sometimes the man could almost rival Moody for paranoia.

And tonight both Moody and Lucius had been found on the wrong side of those defences, defences that Amelia Bones had assured him were foolproof...

And now Amelia was questioning his judgement, trying to cover up her failure by manoeuvring against him. He had to stay one step ahead of her. And that meant he needed to have some answers ready.

"Lucius. Need to ask - regret the necessity... but, well, what's to stop someone saying that you raised your - ah - concerns in order to find out how to get past those security measures yourself?"

"Nothing."

Cornelius blinked. Lucius reached for his teacup. Cornelius reached for another crumpet.

Actually, there was something... reassuring about Lucius' bluntness. If he really were guilty, wouldn't he be smoothly assuring Cornelius that he had nothing to worry about, rather than being honest about the situation?

Unless...

No. Lucius wouldn't ask him to cover this up, for the sake of past, well, friendship. He couldn't. There were limits to personal loyalty.

Unfortunately, that also applied to Lucius' silence regarding certain other matters that were best kept out of the public eye.

"I would, however, ask you to consider," Lucius said, "that had the Department of Magical Law Enforcement chosen to give sufficient weight to my warnings, neither of us would be sitting here now."

Cornelius swallowed. "Well. Have to look into that, of course."

He bit into his crumpet and chewed it slowly. He needed time to think.

Lucius surely wasn't suggesting that someone in DMLE had deliberately left the Ministry open to attack? That was unthinkable. He trusted Amelia. At least, he had trusted her, until she'd started siding with Dumbledore. And she had been rather too defensive earlier... Oh Merlin, if he couldn't trust the DMLE...

He'd have to keep an eye on her. Perhaps it was time to take Dolores off her assignment at Hogwarts. She'd shown she could carry out a thorough investigation, and he knew he could rely on her discretion. If it came out in public that they had received warnings but hadn't put the necessary measures in place, the Ministry would lose any credibility it still had left after tonight.

But none of this explained quite what Lucius had been doing in the Department of Mysteries.

A dribble of melted butter was running down Cornelius' thumb - he was holding his crumpet too tightly. He wiped his hand on his handkerchief, hoping Lucius hadn't noticed.

"So, ah..." he began, "you were going to explain-"

"I said I will, and I will. But let me start at the beginning, would you?"

"Of course, Lucius, if that's what you-"

"You will recall, I presume, the details of the trials, fourteen years ago?"

Cornelius swallowed. It wasn't done to speak about such things in polite company. Lucius could be, well, sensitive on the subject of his trial.

"Ah, yes," he said, "but no one-"

"And you are undoubtedly aware that there are certain people who feel that the verdict was... erroneous?"

Cornelius shifted in his chair. Of course he knew. Some people would never accept the truth, no matter how clear the evidence.

Lucius smiled. "No, it's not a matter that I particularly care to dwell upon myself. But let's just say that the notoriety can be - useful - in certain circles. I dare say I shouldn't have exploited it - there's always a risk to one's reputation, after all - but it has allowed me access to certain... sources of information."

Ah, yes. Cornelius had never asked too many questions about Lucius ‘sources'. Everyone had their sources, after all, and sources had a tendency to dry up if you examined them too closely. Now, though, he found himself wondering what aspects of Lucius Malfoy's life he hadn't been privy to.

"Ah... Lucius. Would those sources of yours know...? Do you think..."

"Mmm?"

"Is it really true that Y-Y-"

"Yes, Cornelius. I'm afraid it is."

"But- but only last week you said that-"

"I lied."

"You- you- what?"

Cornelius gripped the edge of the desk. How could Lucius have made such a fool of him?

Maybe this wasn't really Lucius. Or maybe he was under Imperius after all.

Cornelius scrabbled for his wand.

Lucius held up a hand. "A moment, Cornelius. I was only acting in your best interests."

"But..."

"Think about it. Didn't we agree that it was better for the public not to be whipped up into mass hysteria? This way you could be utterly convincing in your appeals for calm - and you didn't even need to lie."

Cornelius furrowed his brow. There was something wrong with that argument.

"But... public concern is one thing. But the Ministry needed to be told. We should have been making preparations! By thunder, Lucius, you just can't take that sort of decision unilaterally!"

"Don't tell me what I can and can't do! I am the Head of the Honourable House of Malfoy. I will take whatever action I see fit, and I alone will answer for the consequences!"

Cornelius shivered under the man's stare. He'd known Lucius for years, but there were still times when he felt he didn't know him at all, and this was one of them. How could he take something like that on himself, without an organisation to back him up?

"It wasn't that simple, Cornelius," Lucius said quietly. "With all those malicious rumours about me, I'm afraid I could hardly rely on the Aurors to act with discretion. And that could have made things - difficult - for my family, not to mention cutting my access to more specific pieces of information. But now... well. After tonight, we find ourselves in an awkward position, don't we?"

We?

"Well, let me put it bluntly." Lucius looked Cornelius in the eye. "If you had not been wise enough to listen to what I'm telling you now, I would be stuck in Azkaban and unable to give you even indirect warning of what Lord Voldemort is planning."

He... he said the name.

Cornelius couldn't help glancing over his shoulder. Lucius frowned.

"On the other hand," he continued, "if my - companions - downstairs even suspected we were having this conversation... if I hadn't accompanied them tonight... well. I do have my wife and son to think about. I do hope you appreciate the risk I'm taking by telling you even this much."

So Lucius had been spying on Y-You-Know-Who? Cornelius shivered. He had always admired the man's political insight and level-headed advice, but this... this was heroic. Almost beyond his ability to comprehend.

But... if he hadn't told him about... that, then what else might he be keeping back?

Cornelius resisted the urge to bury his head in his hands.

"Answer me one thing, Lucius, will you?"

Lucius raised one of his aristocratic eyebrows.

"Whose side are you on?"

Lucius smiled. "The same side as you're on, Cornelius, you know that. I've never made a secret of where I stand. I want to see wizarding Britain restored to its former glory. I want an end to the dilution and corruption of our proud heritage, so that we're no longer vulnerable to any wizard who takes it upon himself to resurrect the ancient forms of magic."

Yes, yes, he and Lucius had been over this ground many times before. But arguing that pure-blooded wizards should be taught some of the more... questionable defences was one thing. Risking his life, though... not to mention his reputation. That Lucius might go to those lengths to prove his point had never even occurred to him.

Still.

Claiming that he had broken into the bowels of the Ministry in order to protect it was rather an... original defence. Almost too preposterous to be credible, one might say. Dumbledore, for one, would never believe it - the old wizard had never really accepted Lucius for what he was. But if it were true... he needed Lucius, more than ever before. The trouble was, he needed Dumbledore as well.

Cornelius sighed.

"Look, Lucius, this is all very well, but you've just been found trespassing in the most sensitive part of the Ministry with some of the worst criminals the wizarding world has ever seen!"

"Please bear in mind that some of those unfortunates are loyal Ministry employees who have found themselves under similar - pressure - as myself."

"But the Lestrange brothers? Mulciber? Dolohov, for Merlin's sake? We've been looking for those people for months, damn it!"

"Well, I could hardly find out what they were up to by avoiding them, could I?"

"But-"

"Cornelius. I told you - there was no choice." Lucius leaned forward. "Of course I would have warned you if I could. But the call was so sudden... as it was, all I could do was to stop the more - unhinged - members of the party from harming the children."

"But a couple of them were rather badly hurt, by the sound of it."

Lucius looked at his hands. "Sometimes, things don't go exactly as one would have liked. Potter could tell you that I prevented Bellatrix Lestrange from attacking him... though whether he will or not is another matter. He and my son are not on the best of terms, and regrettably that appears to colour his attitude towards me - as you saw for yourself after the hearing last summer."

That didn't quite match what Dumbledore had said, but then who - other than Dumbledore - was to say that Dumbledore's version of events was more accurate than what Lucius was telling him? At least Lucius had been there.

"So what were the children doing there, anyway?"

"Ah. Well. Harry Potter appears to have been under the impression that L- ah, You-Know-Who had kidnapped Sirius Black and taken him to the Prophecy Room."

"Sirius Black? You-Know-Who? In the Ministry?"

"That is what the boy said. But you shouldn't judge him too harshly, Cornelius. I don't believe he is entirely responsible for his actions."

"Not... Imperius?"

"Hmm. I think it more likely that he's just a little unhinged - hardly surprising, with the pressure Dumbledore puts on him. My son tells me he can be quite violent at times. Terribly sad, really."

He couldn't argue with that. Harry Potter was one Gobstone short of a full set, there were no two ways around it.

"Yes," Lucius said. "The boy nearly ruined everything tonight, when he and his friends started breaking things - it was almost impossible to rein in the others after that. And I'm afraid you'll find that several shelves of prophecies have been smashed beyond repair."

"Prophecies? Smashed? That's terrible!"

"Regrettable, certainly. Such vandalism is inexcusable. But all is not lost, surely? I expect the Ministry has other copies elsewhere."

"Well, maybe." Cornelius rubbed his chin. "I've not heard of any such thing, but you never know with Unspeakables, do you?"

"Indeed," said Lucius, frowning slightly.

"You still haven't explained exactly what you were doing there yourself."

"Of course - I was coming to that. You see, He Who Must Not Be Named had developed an insatiable curiosity about a certain prophecy, and he wanted us to fetch it for him."

Cornelius looked sharply at Lucius. "You mean the prophecy about him and Harry Potter."

"I believe it may have been, yes."

"And you expect... my colleagues to believe that Potter's presence at the same time was a complete co-incidence?"

"Ah. Actually, I believe that Potter had little interest in the prophecy. But his presence did turn out to be rather fortuitous - it certainly provided a successful distraction from the business at hand. I take it the prophecy in question is quite safe, now?"

"I've no idea. No-one mentioned anything..."

Lucius pursed his lips. Then he shrugged.

"Ah well, such things are unimportant. Wizards like you and I have no need of superstition. Leave that to those who lack the strength to make their own fate."

Well, Lucius did have a point there.

But Cornelius needed more than strength to determine his fate tonight - he needed to know who was behind him, and whether they would be guarding his back or waiting to plunge a knife into it.

He took a sip of tea.

If he was completely honest, Lucius' account was perhaps rather less plausible than Dumbledore's. But sometimes the truth was implausible - how many times had he had to say that to the Prophet? And this was Lucius, after all. If he couldn't trust Lucius Malfoy, who could he trust? Dumbledore? Moody? Amelia? At least Lucius wasn't plotting to displace him. Cornelius wasn't stupid - he knew that wasn't loyalty so much as a convenient alignment of interests, but Lucius had always supported him. That had to count for something, surely?

"I understand," Lucius said, "that what I have said may seem a little improbable. If it would make you more comfortable, I would be willing to repeat it under Veritaserum. All I ask for is your discretion."

Cornelius blinked. "No, no, that won't be necessary."

He couldn't ask that, not of Lucius. Not after Lucius had confided in him. But it was good of the man to make the offer - even if he wouldn't have had a choice in the matter, had Cornelius chosen to authorise use of the Truth Potion.

"I'm grateful for your support, as always," said Lucius. "But I fear that your other allies might not be so... reasonable. Albus Dumbledore, for example, has never really forgiven me for that - misunderstanding - three years ago."

Yes, well, there was that. Dumbledore had been particularly irrational on the subject of Lucius since that incident. Sometimes Cornelius felt it would have saved a lot of trouble if the Headmaster had stayed sacked.

But he couldn't afford to think like that now. He needed them both. How could he possibly get them to work together?

Cornelius frowned.

"Ah, Lucius... it might be necessary to ask you to use the Veritaserum after all. Just to provide certain people with that extra assurance. Most damaging for those on the same side to be suspicious of each other, you understand. Wouldn't do at all."

"Well, whatever you feel is necessary, Cornelius. Although if you really feel that Dumbledore won't accept your word, perhaps you should just ask him to provide the potion himself..."

Actually, that wasn't a bad idea. Dumbledore could hardly refuse such a reasonable proposal without looking as if he was out to oppose the Ministry for the sake of it. And if Dumbledore could be convinced that Lucius was innocent, the others would have to fall into line.

"You realise, of course," Cornelius said, "that by keeping your testimony out of the official records... Look, you appreciate my position. Pressure from Magical Law Enforcement, especially after tonight... Could probably get them to record a verdict of Inculpable Under Imperius, but... Well. Might be necessary to go to prison. Only for a short time, I'm sure, but..."

Lucius gave a delicate grimace. "I regret that as well, of course."

"Good of you to understand. I'm sure we can come up with some arrangement to make it less, ah, unpleasant."

"I'm grateful for your concern, Cornelius, but I would hate to put you in an awkward position by asking for favourable treatment." Lucius shrugged. "If nothing else, the experience will serve to cement my credibility with He Who Must Not Be Named and his followers."

That was Lucius all over: always considering the delicate balances Cornelius had to maintain as Minister, always ready to forego his own privileges for the sake of expediency... Cornelius would, of course, do what he could to make Lucius' stay in Azkaban bearable. No need to embarrass the man by pressing the issue.

He cleared his throat. "I have to tell you, Lucius, how much I appreciate you placing your trust in me. The risk you're taking... commendably public spirited... Order of Merlin, First Class, once this is all over with."

"No, no. Anyone would do the same, in my position. And after what happened before... If there was any way to make up for what I was forced to do..."

"Quite, quite."

The man's remorse was unmistakably etched in his face. Just watching was enough to make a fellow, well... uncomfortable.

"But I fear I have already taken up too much of your time..." Lucius said.

"Not at all. Always a pleasure. Well maybe pleasure isn't quite the right... tonight, I mean-" Cornelius studied his teacup. "So dreadfully sorry about all this."

"As am I, Cornelius, believe me."

Cornelius stood up. "Let me see you out - I believe Dawlish and Williamson should have arrived by now. They'll escort you back downstairs... I trust the Law Enforcement people have been treating you well?"

Lucius stiffened for a moment, but then he nodded. "As well as can be expected, under the circumstances."

Cornelius turned the door-handle. Nothing happened.

What...?

He pulled at the door. It didn't budge. He'd have to bang on it, see if he could get Weasley's attention-

Oh. The Privacy Charm. Downright silly of him to forget.

Cornelius fumbled for his wand and muttered the counter-spell. He couldn't quite bring himself to meet Lucius' gaze.

Lucius bowed and left the room.

- - - - -

Lucius Malfoy nodded at the Weasley boy as the two Aurors closed in beside him. He could afford to be magnanimous. He had carefully dangled his suggestion of using Veritaserum to make Dumbledore demonstrate his allegiance, and Fudge's eyes had lit up like those of a goblin sighting treasure.

Fudge would put his proposal to Dumbledore. Dumbledore would provide the Veritaserum and secure his standing with the Ministry. And then, Severus Snape would be forced to reveal his true colours.

He could supply true Veritaserum, so that justice - or Dumbledore's warped conception of justice - would be done. But then there would be no more cosy chats with Severus, no more crumbs of misinformation for him to carry back to Dumbledore. And once the Dark Lord found out about it, there would be no more Severus, either.

Or, he could provide fake Veritaserum - and if Severus' fake Veritaserum could fool the Dark Lord, it would certainly fool Amelia Bones. Dumbledore could keep his spy, and Lucius could keep his standing with the Ministry and the Dark Lord alike.

There was a risk, of course. It was possible that Dumbledore would seize the opportunity to discredit him completely, but that risk, Lucius judged, was acceptably small. Lucius was not Dumbledore's primary target, and - no matter how closely Dumbledore allied himself with the Ministry - he would not wish to lose his independent source of information about the plans of the Dark Lord.

And if he did, he would live to regret it. If the Dark Lord truly wished to succeed, He needed Lucius' experience, and his connections, and his gold. Yes, the Dark Lord would come for him.

Lucius suppressed a smile. He was not a gambling man - not, at least, unless the odds were stacked firmly in his favour. These were shorter than he would have liked, but he was confident enough. He had come out on top before, and he would do so again.

In the end, it was all a question of loyalty.