The knock at the door is heavy but hesitant, and Draco looks up from the stacks of papers on his desk.
He pushes the binder to the side, the silver emblem embossed on it — a serpent wrapped around a sparkling wand — gleaming on the front page. Potiones sine corde Venenum est, reads the line underneath it.
With a sigh, he gets himself ready. He’d been expecting this moment. It won’t be easy, but he won't lose his composure. He may be different from the boy he was twelve years ago, but he’s still a Malfoy.
“Enter,” he says.
The door opens with a slow creak. The lumbering frame of Greg Goyle appears, silhouetted in the light coming from the parlour. He seems to dither in the doorway, eyebrows drawn down against the relative darkness of Draco’s study, lit only by the fire crackling in the hearth and the small Muggle lamp on Draco’s desk.
Draco’s scowl softens. “Hello, Greg. Take a seat.”
Greg stomps across the room and settles on the chair across from Draco’s desk. It’s a beautiful antique that Draco salvaged from the Manor years ago, upholstered with soft, satiny grey silk. Half of the seat and back are covered with drawings of dragons, unicorns, and stars, a reminder of Draco’s son’s first attempts at figurative art and all the more perfect for it.
Of course his oldest friend would pick that special seat for their last official meeting.
He steeples his fingers and focuses his attention on Greg. Greg’s steady brown eyes hold his gaze. Few people dare to these days. Then again, Greg is nothing if not stubbornly brave. He could have sorted Gryffindor, were it not for his pureblood ancestry and all the misinformed choices he would make as a teenager.
With hindsight, Draco wonders if making bad choices is a Slytherin trait.
“You’re not changing your mind, then?” Draco finally breaks the silence.
“You know I’m not, Draco,” Greg tells him, his deep, rumbling voice soft as always. When he speaks, his lips barely move. It’s always been that way. Draco was one of the few people who could understand Greg’s poorly articulated words. He knows that to almost everyone else, it accentuated the impression of Greg being slightly dim; someone who’s only good enough to play one of Draco’s cronies.
Or Draco’s bodyguard.
He frowns at the thought.
“It was your last day,” Draco reminds him. “You could have left already.”
“Not without saying goodbye.”
“This isn’t goodbye. We’re still going to see each other.”
“Not often. Not every day.”
“Yes,” Draco concedes. “It’ll take some time to get used to. You’ve been working for me since I came back to London.”
“Working for you, yes. I’ve been your bodyguard for far longer,” Greg responds, a small smile quirking his lips.
Draco exhales a soft laugh. “I would not have lived as long as I have without your help, that’s for sure.”
The memory of the third member of their trio, who hadn’t survived to live out the past twelve years with them tugs Draco’s heart. He can tell by Greg’s shadowed eyes that he’s thinking about him too.
But now is not the time for this kind of reminiscence. Now is the time to focus on the present, or more accurately, on the future.
Draco clears his throat and continues as lightly as he can. “Scorpius is going to miss you.”
“I’m going to miss him too.” Greg looks down at his big hands. “I told him goodnight before he went to bed. I didn’t remind him that I won’t be here tomorrow.”
Draco sighs. “You know how well he deals with change. Thanks ever so much for that.” He smiles at the thought. “I still can’t believe you’re leaving.”
“It’s time for me to retire. I don’t want to sound ungrateful… I know I wouldn’t even have anywhere to retire to if it wasn’t for you. There’s no way I could have found a job after the war. And I don’t have the brains to do what you’ ve done.” Greg gives his shaggy head a shake. “And now I’m looking forward to… something quieter.”
“I know,” Draco says. He taps his fingers against the leather blotter on his desk. “I understand. I need to find someone to replace you, though. And trust me, that won't be an easy task.”
Greg lets out a rumbling laugh. “I’m flattered.”
“You should be. You were the best bodyguard — official or not — that I could have hoped for.”
“That’s because you trust me, and I trust you. That’s the kind of person you need to find,” Greg tells him, his earnest eyes trained on Draco’s.
Draco barks a laugh. It’s laced with bitterness, and he hates himself for it.
“Ah, yes, of course. And that’s easy, because there are so many people out there willing to do just that.”
Greg doesn’t bat an eye. “You’re trustworthy, Draco.”
“You say so, Greg. To the rest of the wizarding world, I’m nothing more than the ex-Death Eater who escaped a lifelong sentence in Azkaban to live a life of abundance thanks to his father’s vaults. No matter what I’ve done since I was eighteen. No matter what I do now.”
“You care too much about what other people think. You’re allowed to change. You’re a good person.”
Draco sighs, frustrated. “Let’s... talk about something else. Please.” He reaches for his raven feather quill across the desk and fiddles with it to avoid looking at his friend. He’s aware that he indulges himself when he lets his sullen moods take over. It’s a natural tendency of his, one he should learn to fight.
That is part of the problem, though. After all these years, after all that he’d changed… he still isn’t entirely convinced that Greg is right.
“All right,” Greg says at length. “I’ve got to go. Millie must be waiting for me.”
Draco glances at the grandfather clock tucked between two bookcases in a corner of his office. His eyes widen when he realises it’s almost quarter to ten.
“Merlin, Greg, Millicent will have your head! And mine, when she finds out you stayed late talking to me.”
Greg laughs again. “Better go, then. She can be fearsome when she’s miffed.”
“That’s an accurate description of your wife." Draco smiles. "Give her my best. And good luck with the move.”
Greg pushes the chair back and stands. Last week, he’d moved his things out of the attic rooms he’d occupied while under Draco’s employ. The boxes are now crowding Millicent’s flat. If Draco knows her at all, she must be thoroughly annoyed. He pictures her tapping her toe, waiting for the moment she and Greg move to Australia. Millicent starts a teaching assistant job at the Wizarding University of Melbourne at the end of the month. She’s waited for this opportunity for years.
They are starting the next stage of their lives.
A stage Draco’s already been through, and which passed in a flash so brief he sometimes can’t believe it happened at all.
Because really, never taking anything for granted is the only constant in Draco’s life.
When they reach the door, Draco turns to gaze at his friend. Greg holds himself still, waiting for Draco’s orders. Just like he’s always done since they first met at the age of five, two little pureblood wizards from neighbouring families in Wiltshire.
“Goodbye, Greg.” Draco smiles. “Best of luck on your Australian adventures.”
“Goodbye, Draco,” Greg says, and leaning forward with surprising agility for someone his size, he envelops Draco into a rib-cracking hug. Draco smiles against Greg’s shirt and pats his back. Then Greg lets him go, slightly awkward after this rare display of affection, and Draco laughs. He snaps his fingers and his house-elf, Ernestina, appears with a pop.
“Ernestina, would you like to escort Greg out?”
Greg waves his hand shyly. “There’s no need, Ernestina.”
“Oh, but I wants to, Mistor Greg,” Ernestina wrings her hands, her huge brown eyes already swimming with tears. “Ernestina is going to be missing Mistor Greg a lot.”
Draco gives Greg a meaningful look. “She told me she wanted to say goodbye too.”
Greg sighs, his mouth curling slightly. It’s almost unnoticeable, but Draco knows him well enough. Greg is moved. He holds out a hand as big as the house-elf’s head, and Ernestina wraps her long fingers around his and leads him out of Draco’s office.
“Follow me, Mistor Greg,” Draco hears her tell Greg, “I has a gift for Mistor before he leaves.”
Leaning against the doorframe, Draco smiles faintly. Ernestina has cooked all day and the kitchen is filled with containers of Greg’s favourite foods. Greg always jokes about how Ernestina’s cooking would be the thing he misses the most about working for Draco.
Draco can’t blame him, even if he knows it’s far from the only one. Ernestina’s cooking is bloody phenomenal.
Draco pushes himself up and straightens his jacket.
Greg is officially gone, and he can't put off finding a replacement any longer.
Harry hates coming to the Ministry.
Ten years after the war and he still fights the beginning of a panic attack every time he has to cross that fucking Atrium to meet with Kingsley.
It doesn’t help that so little has changed since the war; that same bloody fountain, the same whooshing sounds of Ministry employees coming in and out of the Floo, those same claustrophobic lifts that he avoids whenever possible. He prefers the exertion of walking several flights of stairs to the dreadful memories that the creaky lifts never fail to trigger.
He'd thought he’d have more time to rest after his last mission. He’d come in from Shanghai only yesterday. The task—infiltrating and exposing a network of Chinese spies who posed as interns and collected information on British Unspeakables’ experiments—had taken him half a year to complete. He missed London. He missed his bed. He still feels jet-lagged and woozy from the long Portkey trip. Kingsley, however, had been adamant. So Harry'd assumed he had no choice in the matter and left Grimmauld Place that morning, resolving to ask Kingsley for double the days off next time he wanted to take a holiday.
The bloody stairs are drafty and steep, and Harry has half a mind to abandon his ascent halfway through and go back home. He’s in good shape—his job requires him to be—but there’s something about this building that scrapes at his nerves and drains him of his energy.
Constantly having to fight waves of terrible memories must do that, he thinks, as he powers through the rush of unease. He grabs the golden handrail and keeps climbing the stairs.
A few years ago, Angelica, the Mind-Healer he was seeing at the time, had asked him why he insisted on working for the Ministry for Magic when the place always left him restless and anxious. He had told her the same thing that still holds true today: the Atrium, the lifts, the stairs, the bloody corridors and sodding offices and meeting rooms… they were all part of his history. He could either deny it all or accept it all, but he wasn’t going to pick and choose.
So he reaches the top, panting slightly, and heads for the Minister’s office.
The protective wards chime as they yield and let Harry pass.
“Hello, Mr Potter,” says Dewey, the Minister’s secretary. He looks up from the large diary on his desk, a golden curl falling on his forehead.
Dewey has known Harry for years now, but he still calls him by his last name when the rest of the wizarding world thinks it’s perfectly okay to call him ‘Harry’ as though he’s their friend. Their family. Their Saviour.
Harry appreciates Dewey’s respectful distance all the more for that.
“Good morning, Dewey,” he says. “I’ve a meeting with Kingsley. Ten o’clock?”
Dewey’s eyes skim the page of the diary open in front of him, so heavy with notes and writing in various ink colours that Harry’s head hurts just looking at it. He spots the time slot reserved for Harry’s meeting quickly, somewhere between a note flashing ‘IMPORTANT’ in red ink and an appointment that keeps slithering across the page, and he crosses it out with a sharp slash of his quill. Then he lifts his big blue eyes to Harry’s face and smiles.
“Minister Shacklebolt will be with you any minute.”
“Thanks,” Harry tells him, a lopsided little grin tugging at his lips.
It would be so easy, he thinks. Dewey is just a few years younger than Harry, with a tall, lean frame and a dimple in his right cheek when he smiles. Ron likes to tease Harry about his ‘thing for blondes’. He has to admit that Ron is right, no matter how much he pretends otherwise. Dewey is just his type. Or he would be, if Harry had any interest in romantic entanglements. His life and his job leave no room for dating, and while a casual shag is definitely a welcome option, there’s no way he’s going to have a fling with the Minister’s secretary. If Harry ever made Dewey feel like he was used for sex, the young man could make his life hell—and his visits to the Ministry ten times more unpleasant than they already are.
So Harry just walks to the bay windows lining the side of the waiting room that overlook the Atrium.
From up here, the Atrium looks like an anthill, busy but innocuous — nothing like it does in the nightmares he sometimes still has — and he lets himself relax a fraction.
“Harry,” Kingsley’s deep voice pulls him out of his listlessness. “Thank you for coming at short notice. If you’ll follow me?”
Harry turns around. The Minister is standing in his office doorway, tall and wide-shouldered and formidable-looking. He hasn’t changed much in all the years Harry’s known him. Except for the deep creases across his forehead and between his brows, Kingsley looks just as youthful, authoritative, and charismatic as he’s always done. The one time Harry had brought it up with him, the Minister had just laughed. “Thank you, Harry,” he’d said, “but you should know that’s how people describe you, not me. You could be the next Minister for Magic if you decided to run for office.”
Which Harry knows really means ‘if you ever pulled your head out of your arse’.
Harry doesn’t envy Kingsley’s job. He’s perfectly content with his own occupation: the fieldwork, the planning, the wait before a big strike. He enjoys his independence, and he enjoys occasionally working with Ron’s team of Aurors and Hermione’s army of Unspeakables.
This is the reason why he follows Kingsley into his office expecting to see both his friends there.
When he only finds Ron waiting for him, he stops in his tracks.
“Hey, mate,” Ron greets him. He stands as Kingsley and Harry walk in, his freckled face crinkling with a cautious smile. “Nice seeing you again.”
Harry nods, mind blank. Cautious is not something Ron ever is. Not with Harry, anyway.
“Gentlemen,” Kingsley sits at his desk. He folds one large hand on top of the other. “Thank you for meeting me at such short notice, but as Ron already knows, this required some urgency. A case just opened that the Ministry has hoped to take on for a few years.”
“A case?” Harry leans forward in his chair, his curiosity piqued. “What’s it about?”
The Minister usually sends him a few cases via owl whenever Harry’s in-between missions. The fact that he requested an appointment means it’s something important for Kingsley, or he wouldn’t be discussing this in person first.
Kingsley glances at Ron, who nods shortly. Their collusion feels distinctly odd, and Harry’s previous sense of unease strengthens, clawing at his gut.
Then the Minister slides a folder across the desk.
Harry takes it, leans back against the back of the chair, and opens it.
The folder contains several pages covered with columns of numbers. Financial statements, Harry guesses. Corporate information about a potions company whose name vaguely rings a bell. Everywhere the same ominous logo: a silver snake wrapped around a wand shooting sparks. Everywhere the same tagline in silver-lettered, pretentious Latin. Potiones sine corde Venenum est. He braces himself for refusing the case—he’s never been one for financial fraud cases, and he supposes that’s what this one is—when his eyes fall on the next page in the folder.
A blurry photograph taken across the street from an elegant London building.
The picture is slightly unfocused, a short, apparently uneventful moment captured on paper and running on a loop. Yet Harry would recognise that white-blond hair and those sharp, pointy features anywhere.
Draco Malfoy is photographed walking out of the building, the large silhouette of another man looming over him as he opens the door of a sleek black car parked a few feet away. The scene lasts for all but two seconds before the photograph loops back to Malfoy walking out of the building again.
Harry stares at it for a long moment, unable to tear his eyes away.
His throat is tight all of a sudden, and his hands shake slightly when he rests the folder in his lap. He hasn’t seen Malfoy or heard anything about him in years. As far as he knows, Malfoy fled England shortly after the war. Harry has been abroad on missions most of the time. He’s kept away from the press. He’s never asked anyone about what happened with Malfoy. He just can’t comprehend where the visceral shock comes from, seeing Draco Malfoy’s picture among papers that clearly document a case where he’s considered the prime suspect by the Ministry.
Not looking at either Ron or Kingsley, he carefully turns the page. The next few ones are newspaper clippings—from The Daily Prophet, The New York Wizarding Post, Le Monde Magique, Ilvermorny Business Review —above-the-fold stories about Malfoy and a potions company called Caduceus. Malfoy looks slightly severe and threatening in the photographs, which Harry assumes were all chosen to enhance the content of the articles, full of mixed feelings and covert innuendos about Malfoy's success. That haughty scowl is a good look on him, though, Harry can’t help but think. Malfoy even made the cover of last year’s ‘30 under 30’ edition of The Wizarding Times. Except in that issue, unlike the one where Hermione was on the cover, they added a question mark next to the title, ‘Draco Malfoy, Man of the year?’ The newspaper clippings are followed by several bank statements, showing revenue streams from countries around the world.
Harry takes a deep steadying breath and closes the folder.
“What is this about, Kingsley?” he asks bluntly, wariness inexplicably flaring in the pit of his stomach.
The Minister sighs and sits further back into his chair, surveying Harry with something akin to compassion.
“Draco Malfoy has been in the Ministry’s sights for quite some time now, Harry. As you may or may not be aware, the man has built a literal empire with Caduceus over the course of just a few years. That isn’t a problem in itself. What poses question, however, is the source of his initial assets. A company like Caduceus must have required a very substantial investment to get started. Our experts at the Ministry estimate the initial investment at around three million Galleons.”
Harry just stares back. “That’s a lot of money, but I’m not sure I understand why it’s a problem. The Malfoys have been wealthy for generations. That’s all Malfoy ever talked about in school. What he did with his family money is none of the Ministry’s business as long as it’s not illegal, is it?”
“That is the thing, though,” Kingsley says. “When Malfoy started his company, he was twenty-four, and he wasn’t supposed to have that kind of money. In reality, he wasn’t supposed to have any kind of money. The Malfoy vaults were entirely confiscated after their trials, along with the rest of their properties. Even the Manor was taken once Narcissa and Draco Malfoy finished their three-year house arrest. There was only a small vault left that guaranteed just enough income for Narcissa and her son to live for a few years until they both put their lives back together. Draco Malfoy should have had nothing to start a business with, let alone three million Galleons.”
“And how does that pertain to my job?” Harry demands. “Isn’t the Fraud and Finance Department on that case?”
Kingsley fixes him with a level look. “They’ve been on Malfoy’s case for years. Zacharias Smith leads the auditing team and swears they’ve never found any irregularities in Caduceus’ statements. In appearance at least, Malfoy is clean. Too clean. Not only does his company display impeccable financial records, but he also owns and runs several charities for which he donates substantial amounts of Caduceus’ profits. Still, there’s something about the way it all started that makes us suspect that Caduceus — and by extension, Malfoy — are not as guiltless as they seem to be.”
“Right now we’re considering several leads,” Ron chimes in, and Harry struggles to keep his expression neutral despite his growing wariness. “Old Death Eater ties, obviously. Dark artefacts contraband. Illegal potions and drugs. Money laundering, possibly.”
“Have any of these led to anything?” Harry asks.
“No, but the investigation has just taken a new turn. Smith believes legal financial audits won’t be enough to uncover whatever provided Malfoy with the starting assets for Caduceus. We need to send someone in. Undercover.” Ron’s eyes shift away from Harry’s, and Harry can tell Ron is not as comfortable with the topic as he appears to be. “Of course, Malfoy can’t be aware of it.”
Slowly, Harry looks back at Kingsley, asking the question he must ask and dreading the answer.
“Why did you really call me in today, Kingsley?”
Kingsley contemplates him for a second. He sighs.
“We need our best agent on the case. We want you to infiltrate Malfoy’s inner circle and help us identify which lead we need to follow so we can be ready to strike and catch him in the act when he steps out of line.”
“If he steps out of line,” Harry corrects.
“If, ” Kingsley concedes.
Harry frowns. “But see, there’s a slight flaw in your plans, Kingsley,” he tells him. “Malfoy notoriously disliked me back when we were at Hogwarts. And I can’t say I liked him much either.” Harry runs a hand through his messy hair. Kingsley’s eyes lift to the lightning scar on his forehead and Harry drops his hand, annoyed. His hair flops back into his eyes. “I don’t see Hermione here, nor anyone else from the Department of Mysteries, so I assume I’ll have to go as myself and not count on Polyjuice or a glamour to hide my identity like I usually do on cases. I can’t see things going well for me if I contact Malfoy after twelve years and ask to be his friend.”
Kingsley turns to Ron, who clears his throat.
“Sorry, mate. But you being Harry Potter is exactly why we think you’re the right agent to put on the case.”
Harry looks at him, appalled.
“Okay, first of all, this is a case for the DMLE, not a mission for a private investigator,” he argues. His tone is rising but he can’t bring himself to care. “Second, do you even have a plan, or is it as basic as ‘go to Malfoy’s house and make friends with him and have him spill all his dirty secrets even though you haven’t seen him in a decade and last time you did, he hated you with a passion?’ Because it’s not exactly what I call airtight.”
“Harry,” Kingsley interrupts with his deep, steady voice, “if Malfoy is involved in laundering Death Eater money or drug dealing on a massive scale, then yes, it becomes a matter of national wizarding security. Which is why we can’t just have the Aurors on this case. We need someone with more... power.”
Both Kingsley and Ron look pointedly at Harry, who feels the colour rising on his cheeks.
“To your second point,” Ron adds almost apologetically, “we have a way to get you started with Malfoy that we hope looks natural and unsuspicious.”
Harry lifts his eyebrows but is unable to stop the spark of curiosity that must show on his face.
Ron continues with a placating tone. “Remember Gregory Goyle, from school? He’s just resigned and moved away from London. Up until a couple of days ago, he was Malfoy’s bodyguard. A listing for a replacement was posted yesterday in all the main wizarding news sources.”
Harry suddenly remembers the tall, wide frame of the man standing beside Malfoy on the picture, and understanding hits him like a Bludger in the face.
“No,” he says. “No, I’m not doing this. No way.”
“Harry—” Ron starts.
“You can’t make me,” Harry’s eyes shifts from Kingsley to Ron. “I’m independent, and I’m free to choose my cases.”
“Harry.” There’s something in the Minister’s calm expression that makes Harry realise he knows the outcome of this discussion before it’s even finished. “You’re the only one we want on this case. You’re the only one who can crack Malfoy’s shell. And yes, your shared history, no matter how unpleasant, might make all the difference here. We believe Malfoy will be unable to resist the temptation to hire Harry Potter as his security detail, partly because of your reputation, and partly because, given your old antagonism, he might—well, appreciate an opportunity to have you working under him.”
Ron clears his throat, ears pink.
“Think about the outcome, mate,” he says. “Think about the good it could do if Malfoy turns out to be the bastard we suspect he is. Plus, you get to stay in London for a while, and we get to work together on another case,” Ron adds more cheerfully, elbowing him lightly in the side.
Harry folds his arms over his chest. He’s said no already. He wishes he could be as convinced as he sounded a minute ago. He glances down at his folded arms, his right hand resting on top. After all these years, the scar remains stark and white against his olive skin. I must not tell lies. His fists clench. Most days, he likes the job he’s chosen for himself. He likes the freedom, he likes the feeling of working towards something good, something bigger than him. He likes following in the footsteps of the people who shaped his view of the world, back when he was just a kid.
But most of all, he likes that he got to choose it. It’s a precious, tenuous feeling, in a life that has always left him so little choice in everything.
A few other times — rare times, but still — it all feels like an interminable lie. Moving on from the lies he’s been told as a teenager, to lying for a living himself. There are times when he wants to tell the world — and the Minister — to shove it, and today is clearly shaping up to be a day that tests his resolve.
Because despite all his misgivings, there is something about seeing Malfoy’s face again, after all these years — after thinking that he’d left the memory of that scared, angry boy in the past — that makes him want to prod at the unexpected wave of emotion that rises in him.
The way prodding at a neglected, painful muscle can feel oddly soothing.
“Come on, Harry,” Ron pokes, his voice softer than before. “What do you say?”
He knows he shouldn’t. But when has he ever been able to resist his curiosity, when it came to Malfoy?
So he changes his mind, and makes a decision.
“All right.” He slaps the folder on the Minister's desk. “I’m going to need all the information you have on Draco Malfoy.”