Harry's leg jiggled and he tapped on the edge of the desk with his pen. Because fuck quills. Seriously.
Robards was droning on and on about the latest updates on all the active cases. Harry tuned him out. What was the point? He gnawed at his lip and glanced at Ron as he thought about their row the night before. His head was still throbbing and he cursed himself for the third time that fortnight for getting plastered and not calling in sick. Who the fuck held a team briefing at seven in the morning anyway?
Ron was sitting on the other side of the room, listening attentively, like the rising Auror he was. Harry forced himself not to glare. It wasn't Ron's fault. He knew it wasn't, but fuck, it pissed him off. He glanced at the Tempus on the wall, mentally calculating how long it would be until he could go outside for a smoke.
He scraped at the desk with a broken and bitten fingernail, thinking about whether he wanted to go out that night. Dean might be up for it. Dean had come out most nights since he and Seamus had broken it off a few months ago. Harry could do with a good lay, even if doing it Polyjuiced into someone else's body always made him feel fucking weird. And if neither him or Dean found someone at the club, well, it wouldn't be the first time they'd come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.
It wasn't until he caught the word 'Malfoy' that Harry jerked his head up, roughly pushing his tangled hair out of his eyes as he focussed on the debrief board beside Robards. At the top left of the board, a headshot that was unmistakably Draco Malfoy had appeared. Malfoy glared out of the image at the assembled Aurors, mouth thin and bitter as his eyes swept across them. He looked - he looked like the past five years had treated him about as well as Harry. His face was thin, gaunt in a way it hadn't been at school. He had dark circles that looked like bruises under his eyes, and his hair was a tangled mess that hung limply to his chin. Most surprising, though, was the scar. It was an angry, twisted thing, running from the corner of his mouth up over his cheek, narrowly missing his eye. Harry wondered, suddenly, how he'd got it - what had happened to him.
He was in Azkaban, Harry remembered, wondering just when Malfoy had gotten out, and why the hell his mug was on the case board. He focussed in on the details, pulling his eyes away from the photo. Robards had changed the board to show a dingy bar, which Malfoy apparently ran now, as well as three headshots of people who had last been seen there. Harry tried to force his mind past the idea of Malfoy running a bar - Malfoy working - as he took in the details. The final thing Harry ran his eyes over was a list of substances, all legal, though some questionable, sold in Malfoy's bar. 'Dreaming Darkly.' Harry rolled his eyes; what a pretentious fucking name.
Then he looked at the head shots again. People were disappearing from that bar. Was Malfoy murdering them? He shied automatically from that thought. Malfoy was many things, but he wasn't a killer. Was he? Harry thought back to sixth year; thought of Katie Bell. Thought of Ron, choking on the floor, foam coming from his mouth.
Harry glanced across at Ron again, feeling that same anger from the night before flaring within him. Ron must have known about this case. It was clearly ongoing and Harry had just missed the previous briefings. Ron hadn't breathed a word to him about it. Not even to have a laugh at Malfoy and the fact that he'd clearly turned out as badly as they'd all known he would.
Harry looked back at the shot of Malfoy, turning his anger on the photo as he watched the way Malfoy lifted his chin, as though daring them all to have a go at him. Still a fucking arrogant twat then. He looked like he thought he was cleverer than all of them. Harry grit his teeth, remembering every single time he'd bested Malfoy and made him eat his words. He - if he was doing that - if he was killing people, he had to be stopped. Harry hadn't won the bloody war to allow that sort of shit to keep happening.
Jeffries moved up to the front of the room and Harry's leg jiggled harder at the thought that he was lead on Malfoy's case. He forced himself to stop. Damn, but he wanted a smoke. Jeffries was an incompetent, trumped-up dickwad and Harry could run rings around him - or he would, if Robards would ever let him actually do anything.
'Our raid of the suspect's premises two nights ago allowed us to procure samples of Dreamless, Gillyweed, Euphoria, Alihotsy, Billywig, a range of alcohols, and Felix. We're currently investigating Malfoy's permits to brew and sell these substances,' Jeffries said, puffing out his chest in that way he had that made him look like a giant cock. Rooster? No, definitely cock.
'Traces of each have been sampled, and so far we've found no dark remnants or indications that any of the substances are not what they appear.'
Harry snorted to himself. Of course they hadn't. Malfoy might be a bastard, but he wasn't an idiot. He never had been.
Robards fixed Harry with a glare from his position at the front of the room and Harry raised an eyebrow at him. What was Robards going to do? Sack him? He'd kept Harry around for the last five years, despite the fact he was a giant liability, couldn't be seen in public without causing an incident, turned up drunk or high once a month on average, and was a PR nightmare - ironic, given that good PR for the Ministry was the reason he'd originally been hired, it turned out.
Robards clenched his jaw and turned back to Jeffries. Harry snorted his disdain, louder this time, and Ron turned, shooting him a quick, worried look before turning his attention back to the front. Harry sat back in his chair, crossing his arms across his chest and ignoring the way his leg started to jiggle again. Fuck, but he hated these briefings. Hated being sidelined month after month.
'We don't believe the raid spooked the suspect, as Dreaming Darkly has remained open the last few nights,' Jeffries was saying while the rest of the room nodded inanely and scribbled notes, ridiculous feathered quills waving in the air. Harry turned his attention back to the photos on the case board. The shot of the bar showed a flickering neon sign, a paint job from the seventies and a façade that screamed dive. Harry met Malfoy's piercing grey eyes as he found his mind returning to just what he was doing running a place like that … and just why the fuck people kept disappearing from it.
Ron came by his office at lunchtime. Harry had been surprised when they gave him the office in his second year, not long out of his training. It had taken him approximately three days to realise that it was a way to keep him quarantined, rather than to reward him. Apparently he was either a) too distracting to the rest of the recruits - though Ron didn't have that problem and he was still splashed across the papers as much as Harry back then. Or b) his 'I don't give a shit' attitude was grating on his supervisors and they were afraid it would rub off on the rest. The Rules at the Ministry were apparently so much more sacrosanct than The Rules of Hogwarts or The Rules of fucking keeping yourself alive while fighting the Dark Lord from ages eleven to seventeen.
Harry liked to think it had been c) he was more competent than the rest of them put together and they didn't like the reminder of the fact that he was wasting his time sitting on his arse while everyone else got assigned cases.
But whatever, he'd moved on from that a long time ago. Sometimes he thought he should have moved jobs too. Only what would he have done?
Plus Ron was here. And he liked working with Ron. Mostly. Except lately, ever since Robards had started whispering things like 'Team Leader' and 'Career Progression' in his ear.
The look on Ron's face was wary, like he didn't know if he was going to get a hello or a hex. Harry felt a grim satisfaction. It wasn't like he'd ever actually hexed Ron, and the row they'd had last night hadn't been any worse than any other. Sure, he'd accused Ron of climbing over the top of him to get in bed with Robards … but for Ron not to have told him about the Malfoy case, that was just low. And he knew it. Harry could see the proof written all over his face.
Harry looked up at his best mate, Auror uniform impeccably buttoned, shoulders square and strong. Ron had filled out in the last few years. He was the very poster-boy of Auror training. Literally; they'd removed Harry from the posters two years ago. Harry resisted glancing down at his own appearance. He knew how he looked beside Ron.
'Hi,' he said instead.
'Hi,' Ron replied, something in his stance relaxing a fraction. 'Want to get lunch?'
Harry wasn't hungry - he was on his fourth coffee of the day - but he knew a peace offering when one was extended. Plus, he needed to know just what Ron knew.
'Sure,' he said, rising and grabbing his Auror robes from the chair he'd chucked them onto as soon as he'd walked back into his 'office'. He didn't bother buttoning them up. The red and blue pills on the front of his Matrix t-shirt were far more obscure and far less offensive than many he'd worn in the last few years. He kept waiting to be brought up on probation, even some sort of reprimand, but Robards just ground his teeth and looked the other way. His Metallica 'Cunning Stunts' t-shirt was one of his favourites. He liked to watch the vein throb in Robards' forehead when he wore it.
'Caf or Oliver's?' Ron asked as they walked.
Harry grimaced at the crappy options. The food in the Ministry cafeteria was shit, but if they went to Oliver's, he'd have to Polyjuice first, unless he wanted his face all over fucking Witch Weekly the next day under the heading Chosen One Chooses Pie: Find Harry's Favourite Pies Within! Sometimes he hated Ron and Hermione for the fact that the hype over them had faded after the first few years.
'Caf,' he grunted. 'But I want a fag first.'
Ron opened his mouth and then closed it again. Harry hunched his shoulders, shoving his hands into his pockets as he raised an eyebrow at Ron in silent challenge. He got enough nagging from Hermione about that particular habit. He didn't need it from Ron again, too.
Ron just shook his head and they walked to the lifts without speaking and then out into the ground-level courtyard behind the Atrium. He felt something in him ease as they passed through the warded doorway. The lack of Apparition wards in this area was one of the reasons Harry liked it. Just the thought that he could get away if he wanted was soothing some days.
Harry dug his tobacco and papers out of his pocket and rolled one up, licking it quickly. He lit it with the tip of his wand and brought it to his mouth, breathing in deep, feeling the smoke curl through him. He closed his eyes, leaning against the wall, then tilted his head, blowing the smoke out in a continuous stream as he felt his shoulders relax for the first time all morning.
Ron was sitting on one of the picnic tables a few metres away, head cocked to one side as he watched Harry.
'You don't roll Gillyweed into those, do you?' he asked quietly.
Harry snorted and took another drag. 'Not my work ones, no.'
Something on Ron's face didn't settle and Harry offered him the half-finished smoke. 'Wanna check?'
For a moment there was a hint of curiosity in Ron's eyes, like he was remembering the times they used to get stoned together. Those messy times after the war when everything had been fucked up and anything that numbed the pain was welcomed. Then the look faded and Harry remembered Ron had figured out other ways to cope. Good for fucking Ron.
'Hermione'd kill me,' Ron muttered.
Harry nodded and took another drag, blowing the smoke back out and thinking about the joint that was waiting for him at home. Maybe he'd get high before he Flooed Dean. He frowned as the thought of Gillyweed made his thoughts circle back to Malfoy's bar again.
'Do you think Malfoy did it?' he asked, 'Killed those people?' He didn't ask the real question - Why the fuck didn't you tell me Malfoy was being investigated?
Ron just shrugged, kicking at the ground. 'It's Jeffries' case, not mine.'
'Fuck off,' Harry said. 'You must have some idea. You've been to all the briefings after all.' He couldn't help the hint of a sneer that crept into his voice.
Ron looked across at him and his cheeks flushed with what Harry knew was anger.
'Don't bloody start that again,' Ron muttered.
'What?' Harry asked, spreading his hands in a show of innocence and feeling a brief stab of satisfaction as Ron's mouth compressed into a hard line.
'Yes, I was at the briefing when Malfoy's case was first mentioned,' Ron said. 'Because I actually give a shit about my job.'
Harry rolled his eyes. 'What job? All I fucking do is sit around and get paraded out whenever the Ministry needs the Chosen Face for their Chosen Cause or their Chosen Fucking Message.'
Ron just sighed and crossed his arms, as though Harry was a petulant child he couldn't be bothered reasoning with.
Harry felt his jaw clench and he looked away, putting the smoke up to his lips and sucking back until he felt the heat on the ends of his fingers. He flicked it to the ground and stamped it out and then looked back at Ron as he blew the smoke out.
'Since when has he been out of Azkaban, anyway?' Harry asked, torn between wanting Ron to take up on their argument from the night before and wanting to fill in some gaps. He thought of hard grey eyes and Malfoy's lips twisted into a sneer that extended up his face in a scar now.
Ron shrugged. 'Can't remember exactly when. A few years.'
Harry narrowed his eyes. 'He was supposed to be in for five. It's only just gone five years since the sentencings.'
Ron shrugged again. 'Good behaviour or some shit. I don't know. It was back when Kingsley was doing all those Reparation speeches.'
Harry shook his head, casting his mind back. He'd been all over the place back then, but he knew he would have paid attention to Malfoy being released from prison. Surely.
'I didn't hear about it,' he said, eyeing Ron. He knew his real question was clear. Why didn't I hear about it?
Ron grimaced. 'I think it all happened when you and Gin were in Greece a few years ago.'
Harry winced. Ah. The Breakup Trip. That explained it.
It was never meant to be a breakup trip. From Ginny's reaction when she found him off his face and on his knees for the bartender at the place next door, she'd been expecting rather the opposite from their holiday.
Harry had locked himself away for a solid month after he got back from that one. It had taken three months and an intervention from the Ministry before the reporters finally fucked off.
'And no one thought to mention this to me, at any point?' Harry asked, voice reaching a level of disinterest he was proud of. Underneath it, he could feel his anger stir to life.
Ron sighed again. 'No, we thought of it. We just decided not to.'
Harry shoved his hands in his pockets as he looked up at Ron from under his fringe. 'And why was that?' he asked, voice harder now. He'd been so sick of the sideways looks, the concerned whispers, the breaks in conversation when he entered the room. But that had stopped ages back. He'd thought it had, anyway.
'Because we knew you'd get like this,' Ron said, gesturing at him and pushing off from the table.
'Like what?' Harry asked, aware his voice was rising. He clenched his fists inside his pockets as he felt his anger - always so close to the surface - grow.
'Obsessed,' Ron said flatly. 'We knew you'd get obsessed. Like you always do where he's concerned.'
Harry glared at him, feeling his anger go from a simmer to a roar. He ignored the way the truth of the words pulled at him. That just made him angrier.
'You don't get to decide shit for me,' he spat. 'I thought we made that fucking clear a long time ago.'
Ron took a step forward, his own jaw clenching. 'You know what?' he said, his own hands curling into fists for a moment and then relaxing, as he very deliberately forced himself to calm down. 'A whole lot of things are clear to me, lately.'
The look Ron gave him was angry, but there was a hint of sadness in it that reached out to Harry. That begged him to stop and think. He pushed it away.
'Fuck off to Robards, then,' Harry said, crossing his arms, aware from the look in Ron's eyes that Ron thought he was acting like a child again. That just drove his anger higher. 'You know what, actually. You stay. Fuck this.'
Harry turned away from Ron, grabbed his wand and Apparated from the courtyard.
Harry landed in the alley outside of Cherry Dick's. It wasn't one of his favourite bars - he'd only walked in there for the first time because he and Ron had been wasted and the name of it had made them laugh so much they'd nearly vomited. But it was cheap and Muggle, which meant he didn’t generally have to Polyjuice. Plus, it opened at eleven in the morning, meaning he could pre-game while he waited for one of the clubs he preferred to open.
He didn't bother transfiguring his robes. They were used to seeing him in all sorts of getup. He was pretty sure at this point they thought he was some sort of fantasy cosplay weirdo.
Harry pushed open the door, the scent of stale beer washing over him, as the blare of the sports channels assaulted his ears. He didn't feel like betting today so he picked a table in the back corner, chucking a handful of notes on the bar and collecting a bottle of whisky and a glass on his way over. That was their one stipulation - that he drink it from a glass.
Harry slumped onto his stool and poured himself a generous splash. He tossed it back, the burn barely registering before he poured again. Then he sat, resting his head on one hand as he scratched aimless patterns into the tabletop with his fingernail.
Malfoy. Just what the fuck was Malfoy doing running some shady bar? Jeffries would never be able to figure it out. Man was lucky to be able to figure out his buttons on a good day.
Harry sat for a long time, the level of the whisky dropping steadily as he got lost in the swirl of thoughts. When he reached for the bottle and found it empty, Harry looked around himself, blinking slowly. The bar was fuller now, and it was dark outside.
He glanced at the glowing red numbers on the wall. It was almost ten. He stood and stretched. The room swayed slightly and a feeling of hazy peace flowed through him. He needed a piss. And then maybe he could head over to Edge and pull. It was a Muggle club - he wouldn't need to Polyjuice. Dean be damned. He didn't need Dean to get himself a good fuck.
Harry could feel the searing heat of the inferno boiling below him, sucking the air from his lungs. The roar of it was a living wall of sound. A beast that promised death and despair. Harry's hands tightened on his broomstick and he leaned forward, feeling the body at his back mirror him, hands gripping him with desperate strength.
From behind them, he heard a piercing scream and he jerked his head around, heart thudding in his chest as he watched the dragon rise from the ocean of fire. He shouted, hands outstretched as he forced the broom around, but he was too slow. Far, far too slow. The flames rose. The teeth closed and he watched as Hermione disappeared, her scream cutting off abruptly. Harry shouted again, a sound of rage and anguish. Then he felt hands tightening around his waist, like claws, pulling him back to himself, pulling his broom around.
He leaned forward, unable to see, unable to hear, his mind blank. Hermione. Ron was off to one side, speeding forward, Zabini at his back. Ron's face was empty. Lost. He didn't see the chimaera that rose from beneath him. Harry sobbed out a warning. The jaws closed again.
He could hear a voice at his back, words that didn't make sense.
Harry looked over his shoulder. For a moment, he saw Malfoy, face twisted with terror. And then the features changed, Malfoy's eyes burning bright and red; pools of fire. Malfoy opened his mouth impossibly wide, as his whole body caught alight and coiled around Harry, constricting him, burning him.
Harry felt his skin sear away and he screamed again. Malfoy's fangs sank into his neck and he screamed and screamed at the loss of everything.
Harry sat bolt upright in bed, lungs burning as he gasped for breath. His throat ached and he slumped forward, bringing his knees up as he rested his head on them, hugging his arms around his legs. He was drenched in sweat and shaking from the dream. He could feel the emptiness inside himself where Ron and Hermione used to be.
He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to focus on controlling his breathing, bringing his heart rate back down. It wasn't real. None of it was real. They'd escaped the Fiendfyre. They were alive.
He could still feel the heat from the inferno, the searing of his own skin as Malfoy wrapped - Malfoy. This was his damned fault.
He hadn't had the fire dream in years, and even when he had, Malfoy hadn't been the one killing him. His nightmares were usually about the forest, or the lake, or watching Dumbledore fall into space, green light flowering around him. Now suddenly Malfoy was back, and so was the fire. Harry growled and punched the bed beside himself. He fucking hated the fire. He tried to get the sound of Hermione's ringing screams of terror out of his mind as he carded his fingers through his hair, grimacing at the matted, sweaty mess. Fucking Malfoy.
Harry tried ignore his anger at Malfoy as he reached for his wand to cast a Tempus. He gritted his teeth to keep from swearing as he saw it was three am. He'd only been home two hours. He swung his legs out of bed and put on his glasses and then a pair of joggers and a t-shirt by the dim glow of the streetlight through the window. There was no point trying to sleep again. The brief feeling of relief the whisky and the quick fuck at the club had brought him were long gone. He was lucky to get a solid four hours of sleep on a good night, and he never managed after a nightmare.
He padded out of his room and across the landing into what used to be a formal sitting room, and was now the only other place he really used in this house. He flicked his wand at the lamp as he entered the room, and then at the heating. Damned place was freezing. He swore the chill from the upper rooms sank down through the ceiling every night, as though some malevolent presence lived above him and took its chance when he was asleep to try and reclaim the house. He knew that wasn't true. Hermione herself had warded the upper levels of Grimmauld Place for him. But things that weren't true in the daylight had a way of creeping up on him in the dark.
Harry slumped down onto the couch, pulling the thick knitted blanket around him. It had been a present from Molly. He was pretty sure it had been supposed to adorn his and Ginny's wedding bed. Whatever. It was warm. He scooped the remote out from under one of the cushions and flicked the telly on, then the Playstation, finding his controller underneath a shirt that smelled like it should have been washed a few weeks ago. He threw it towards the door and booted Crash Bandicoot up. If he had to be awake, he may as well do something useful with his time. He'd been stuck on a level full of shitty sideways jumps all week.
He played until the sun came up - resolutely keeping thoughts of Malfoy and his resulting anger out of his mind - then showered and went in to work. Ron didn't visit his office, but then Harry hadn't been expecting him to. There were probably all sorts of Important Tasks Ron had to do.
Harry spent the day in archives, ignoring the strange looks he was getting for case research he hadn’t done in years.
By the end of the day, he had a duplicate of all of the information collected in Malfoy's case.
By the end of the night, he knew exactly what he was going to do about it.