In the end, Draco returned to England for a girl.
The irony was lost on neither of them.
Eyes were following the man he pursued: a tall and vigorous figure with gleaming dark skin and dressed almost to the point of foppishness, but with a striding gait that rendered the intricate tailoring of his coat military rather than dandy. He moved through the morning crowd like a raptor through the skies.
The man in the grey coat caught at his sleeve. ‘Blaise …’
Blaise Zabini turned, prepared to shake off an admirer or confound a creditor. He met with neither, and instead found himself smiling with rare joy. ‘Draco!’ he exclaimed.
Draco Malfoy’s whole face brightened with his responding smile. ‘I knew it had to be you the moment I spotted you,’ he said, enveloping his friend in a firm hug.
Blaise returned the gesture, but broke away after a count of two. ‘Brief, manly hugs only, these days,’ he said in a quiet voice. ‘A lot has changed while you’ve been away. Walk with me?’
Draco fell into step beside his old school friend. It was true. The city itself had visibly changed. Parts of it had surged upwards, while others bored vast tunnels underground. He had seen men driving sputtering automobiles twice that morning, frightening horses and ladies with the abominable blare of their horns. The graceful shoulders and sweeping skirts of women’s gowns had long disappeared, replaced by narrow, rigid columns of dress, their fronts like the prows of ships as they hurried towards the new century.
Muggle Britain seemed every bit as unfriendly and in flux as Wizarding Britain had been when he left it. He wondered if a revolutionary war was about to descend here, too.
‘What brings you back?’ Blaise asked. ‘And why no letter announcing your return? I had planned to visit you in Geneva next month.’
Draco shook his head. ‘I apologise. It’s inexcusable rudeness on my part. Until yesterday I had no idea we would be travelling, and then Mother appeared with a Portkey and informed me of her plans. I barely had time to pack. I’ve spent the last twenty hours being dragged halfway across the continent and subjected to endless cups of tea as she outlined her vision for my future – which is how I’ve ended up here.’ He gestured with his hand to indicate that ‘here’ took in the entire excrescence that was Muggle London.
Blaise patted his shoulder in fleeting sympathy. ‘And her plan?’ he asked.
‘Marriage,’ Draco intoned dolefully.
‘Oh, hard luck,’ Blaise sympathised. ‘Rich? Pretty?’
Draco sighed. ‘Good,’ he answered.
The sad truth was that the Malfoys would never need to marry for money, and Draco’s bloodlines ran strong for looks on both sides, but, once again, the family’s reputation was in need of polishing, and there were families whose blameless good works could be relied on to lift the sorriest of tarnishes.
Blaise grinned in sympathy. ‘Who’s the lucky girl?’
This elicited a respectful nod. ‘A pleasant young woman. But I thought she lived near your family home?’
Blaise raised an eloquent brow and followed it with a sweep of his eyes to indicate that, bucolic though the park may be, it was hardly rural Wiltshire. ‘So what are you doing here?’
Draco sighed again. ‘Bailing her from police custody.’
The police sergeant across the table from her was still a relatively young man, though frowns were prematurely ageing him as she watched, and he clearly thought she was in the process of ruining her marriage prospects by following Mrs Millicent Fawcett’s magnificent example.
‘We can’t have young ladies interrupting members of parliament as they go about their business,’ he explained gently.
She smiled winningly at him. ‘But, Sergeant Craddock, I wasn’t interrupting Mr Asquith, I was attempting to exercise my franchise as any good Briton might.’
‘You were haranguing him as to when women would be allowed to possess said franchise,’ the sergeant reminded her.
‘Yes, Sergeant, because half the adult population of the nation finds itself in a situation where it is liable to taxation without representation and I believe you will find that revolutions have been fought over less. I was merely enquiring in a ladylike fashion when this gross injustice would cease.’
The sergeant’s frowns deepened. ‘You were, Miss Greengrass. Just as you have every day for the last fortnight. And, since he first threatened to have you arrested last week and has overlooked several such incidents past that time, I feel we must in all fairness agree that the Honourable member has been more than patient and much less than hasty in calling in the authorities.’
Astoria held her smile. ‘And yet, still no satisfactory answer.’
Sergeant Craddock gave in and rolled his eyes. ‘Never, Miss Greengrass. The answer is never. Women will never have the vote and thus the British Empire will never fall into swift decay. Now go home and embroider something nice. Or take up nursing. If you’re determined to make a spectacle of yourself, you may as well be useful at the same time.’
‘Women have the vote in New Zealand,’ she reminded him, having already run through her lecture on suffrage twice since her arrest that morning. ‘And in South Australia.’
‘And those heathen colonies can make whatever mad decisions they choose, I am sure we will hear of them descending into chaos soon enough.’
‘We’ve been voting on the Isle of Man and Pitcairn Island for decades without disaster, you know.’
‘That’s as may be, but for my part, I would rather the Empire not fold and the streets not be filled with riot simply to satisfy irrational Suffragists. Now gather your things.’
Astoria had opened her mouth to debate the ‘irrational’, but focussed on the more vital part of Craddock’s speech. ‘You’re letting me go?’
Craddock nodded. ‘There’s a man at the front desk who’s come to collect you.’
‘Ah.’ Astoria put on her jacket and smoothed her skirts. Her reticule and hat, with its attendant long pins, had been surrendered at the desk on her arrival, so there was little she could do to manage a delay in leaving the comfortable interview room where she had been held. Though she stepped lively through the door as Craddock held it open, she was in no rush to meet her rescuer, as she had a very good idea who he would be. Her mother had broken the news over luncheon the previous day, informing her the families would meet this morning to finalise arrangements, thus ensuring that Mr H.H Asquith, MP, began his working day on the receiving end of an act of polite political protest.
The public foyer was filled with sunlight that dazzled her eyes as they walked through the dark corridor towards it. She would have held back to smooth her hair and buy precious seconds of freedom, but, alas, brave heart could not quail before Sergeant Craddock.
He ushered her through the doorway. ‘Here she is, Major,’ he announced.
Astoria looked up sharply, blinking the room into focus. ‘Major?’ Her eyes widened. ‘Harry Potter?’
It was indeed the youngest Head Auror in history, dressed in Muggle clothing of a crisp cut that made his assumption of the Military title eminently plausible. Particularly, Astoria reflected, when his own would translate more closely to General. And, to her great relief, he was smiling at her.
‘Miss Greengrass,’ he made a small bow, ‘your father asked me to stop by and assist you with your small difficulty.’
Even Sergeant Craddock was smiling, presumably happy to see his personable if wholly misguided charge becoming someone else’s problem. ‘Very glad to see you, sir. I’ve had a little chat with the young lady and she assures me she’s seen the error of her ways,’ he lied smoothly. ‘Clever young ladies often find themselves with an excess of spirit, but then turn out to be marvellously capable at running the family home.’
Dear Craddock, clearly trying to smooth her way with the man who could be anything from a cousin to a fiancé. Astoria shot him a look that was part appreciation and part an intention to convey that the only error in her ways had been in not shouting her questions more loudly.
Potter nodded seriously. ‘Thank you so much for taking care of her. I’ve already paid the fine, so we can be on our way.’
‘A fine?’ It was the first Astoria had heard of it.
‘Only ten shillings,’ Harry assured her.
The desk sergeant was handing over her hat and reticule at that precise moment. ‘I’ll refund it to you as soon as we are on our way,’ she promised, securing her hat with its jewelled pins and resisting the urge to plunge one of them into the leering desk sergeant.
‘Please don’t let me see you here again,’ Sergeant Craddock said as she completed her arrangement.
‘And I thought we had made such a firm start on our friendship,’ Astoria sighed.
‘Yes, Miss,’ he replied. ‘But I would be happier to see us start again in a more proper situation with a formal introduction.'
Astoria’s smile was genuine this time. ‘You’re a gem, Sergeant Craddock. And a gentleman. Thank you for the courtesy and the tea.’
‘Miss Greengrass.’ He farewelled her with a bow.
Harry Potter gave her his arm and led her out of the station. Astoria felt a small thrill. Even though she knew it was not rational, she let herself be caught up in the moment. He was the Hero of Hogwarts and she had grown up on stories of this, the most famous wizard of their age.
She had been too young to fight in the great battle beside him, thwarting the Imperial ambitions of Voldemort, but her older sister Daphne had regularly recounted the events of the night for her younger siblings, lingering over the scenes where a ragged but resolute young man had offered the villain pity, then implacably cast the spell that would bring about his end.
Regardless of his purpose in being here, it was exciting to be at the centre of his attention and have those bright green eyes focussed on her. And he was terribly handsome, even if his clean-shaven face failed the fashions of the day (Craddock’s whiskers were positively walrussian).
‘Am I in Auror custody now?’ she whispered as they left the busy police station.
‘Of course not,’ he whispered back as they emerged onto busier Whitehall. ‘I owed your father a favour and he asked me to spring you loose.’
Her father! Astoria gave a quiet prayer of thanks for the old dear. He had frequently supported Auror Potter in his advances around the Ministry and clearly cashed in a small debt of gratitude to her advantage. The knowledge that he was also thwarting his wife would have made the bargain even better.
‘I’m so pleased it was you,’ she said, squeezing Potter’s arm. Although they had crossed paths semi-regularly, she did not know him well, but he did not seem to mind her easy manner. ‘I was in such a state thinking that my mother would send … Oh –’
‘Draco Malfoy,’ said Potter, for such was the man who stood in front of them, looking confusedly one to the other.
They all remembered their manners at the same moment, the gentlemen performing the slightest of bows and Astoria inclining her head with perfunctory courtesy.
‘Miss Greengrass,’ Malfoy said. ‘Your mother sent me to secure your release, but I see that all is in hand. Auror Potter,’ he repeated his small bow, ‘I am in your debt.’
‘Oh,’ Astoria remembered. ‘Actually, no, I am.’ She reached into her reticule and fished out her purse. ‘Please don’t argue, I pay my own way. Though I might suggest you use it to buy us all tea as we’re starting to cause quite the blockage on the pavement.’
It was true: people were parting around them as though they were a new islet in the tide, and more than a few cross words were muttered in passing.
‘There’s a place around the corner,’ Potter began.
‘I hardly think …’ Malfoy spoke over him.
Astoria clung to Harry’s arm. ‘You don’t own me yet, Mr Malfoy,’ she said with crisp brightness. ‘I’m sorry,’ she looked up at Harry. ‘I’m afraid Mr Malfoy has come to pick up his property. It turns out my mother has sold my virtue to his family for rather a lot of money.’
Potter’s eyes widened and went straight to Malfoy’s face, which blanched.
‘Are you in danger?’ Potter’s eyes were back on hers.
Astoria felt a wave of desire to tell him that she was, and then to let herself be rescued – after all, rescuing was what Harry Potter did. But she had her pride.
‘Not imminently,’ she assured him. ‘But I promise to call for you the moment things deteriorate.’
Potter gave Malfoy a long look that was evaluative and not a little suspicious. He turned back to her. ‘Would you like me to escort you home? Or to the Ministry? Your father is there.’
Astoria quickly calculated the length of time she could hide in her Father’s office. It was distressingly short.
‘No,’ she said, reluctantly letting go of his arm. ‘I should return to Mother. She’s gone to such trouble to organise a fiancé for me.’
For a moment she thought Potter was going to laugh, and then his brow creased. ‘Astoria …’ he began.
‘I should go,’ she said, slipping her hand around Malfoy’s upper arm.
Potter’s frown deepened. ‘Come and see me tomorrow,’ he said. ‘Tell me what you’ve been up to with these protests. I will expect you between ten and eleven.’
‘I will,’ she promised. She looked up at the man beside her. ‘Come along, my precious one. Let’s go and face the music.’
Malfoy’s jaw tightened, but he bowed farewell to Potter and began to escort her down the street. He did not once look at her. But she noticed that he glanced back at Potter as often as he could until the crowd swallowed his shape.
‘You wouldn’t believe how pleased I am to see you,’ he said, kissing her cheek in fraternal welcome.
‘Of course I would,’ she said, stepping away from his incoming correspondence tray, which she had been shamelessly snooping through in the absence of his secretary. ‘Without me, neither you nor my husband would manage for a week.’
‘It’s a truth, Mrs Weasley.’ Harry said, holding his door open for her.
She strode past him, walking freely in the loose-cut trousers that were popular with Ministry witches who were involved in fieldwork. Brooms, Floos and Apparition all played merry hell with layered skirts and big hats, she had assured him, while a good woollen trouser leg could be stuffed into a sock if there were any aerial exploits to undertake, and a wide leg still concealed the shape of one’s calves and ankles if one came across Muggles ready to be scandalised.
‘I’ve got a new case for you,’ she told him, dropping into his guest chair. ‘Illegal trafficking of Magical creatures. They’re coming in and out through Hull, using Muggle shipping. I’ve tracked and compiled a disturbing large set of false manifests, and Ron’s new cameras have captured two centaurs being delivered in chains to the wharf. I’d like you to send a team in tonight to rescue them and round up as many of the smugglers as we can.’
Harry was busily taking notes. ‘Aurors and Hit Wizards. I’ll see to it. Do you want to be there to give the order?’
Hermione’s eyes brightened. ‘Yes, please.’
‘Brilliant. With the goblin nappers you rounded up last week, I really think we might be close to putting an end to this.’
‘What about the incomings?’ Harry asked. ‘Are they all unwilling? Or are they just falling prey to traffickers now the Muggle borders are better policed?’
‘Both,’ Hermione sighed. ‘We’re going to have to set up something official so they don’t need to try the ferries. Ever since the Channel Thestral Service was discontinued, it’s been a shambles.’
Harry smiled. Hermione ran the whole of Magical Law Enforcement, but treated Harry and her other division heads as though they were all part of the one collegiate process. While such treatment had been traditional for the Head Auror, due to the care with which any wise department head treated the person in charge of a large armed force, it had been a clever move with the other division chiefs, who had responded with such improvement in policy that the Minister now left the whole department to its own devices, declaring that he wasn’t going to touch it in case he broke it. It meant that she could afford to spare him a few minutes of her day.
‘Do you know Astoria Greengrass?’ he asked.
‘Daphne’s little sister?’
Pale, proud Daphne Greengrass had not endeared herself to either of them at school. But during the War, she had acquitted herself well, coming to fight in defence of their school when she had every reason not to. They had never grown very close, but a cheerful acquaintanceship had grown among them. Both the Weasleys and Harry had been invited to her wedding and she to the Weasleys’.
In recent years, she had busied herself in the country with a large estate and children, but semi-regular letters were still exchanged, mostly between her and Hermione, though Harry heard all of the chattier portions and the occasional message addressed to him.
‘Daphne’s written about her several times,’ Hermione said. ‘She’s been working up in Edinburgh for the past few years with witches and wizards from Muggle families, helping the parents manage immature magic and the children prepare for Hogwarts. The last I heard she was expected home on a holiday. Why do you ask?’
‘I had to free her from police custody this morning,’ Harry told her, trying not to grin and make light of it, despite the silliness of the charges.
‘Oh dear. Was she protesting? Or abusing landlords?’
‘Protesting, but do tell me about this landlord business.’
Hermione leaned back and stretched her legs. ‘Nothing more than a rumour, I’m sure. I’ve been known to curse the odd front gate or door to make it impervious to bailiffs, you know. We live in a brutal time.’
‘Yes,’ Harry agreed. ‘The top magical law officer in the country turns out to be an anarchist.’
‘Oh hush, my hypocritical friend, I know what you did to Jack the Ripper.’
Harry snorted. ‘I neither broke Muggle law nor breached the Statutes of Secrecy,’ he defended himself.
‘Did Astoria?’ Hermione asked, shifting the conversation back on track.
Harry shook his head. ‘No, the policeman I spoke to said that she had been a wholly pleasant prisoner, though a repeat public nuisance.’
‘I know,’ said Harry. ‘I like her, too.’
‘So you were there in an official capacity?’
‘No. Her father asked me to get her out. But as we were leaving, we ran into Draco Malfoy, who had been sent by her mother to collect her.’
‘I though he was in Geneva.’
‘Not as of this morning,’ Harry said. ‘I wanted to talk to you about it, because Miss Greengrass told me that her mother had sold her virtue to the Malfoy family for rather a lot of money.’
Hermione frowned. ‘I assume she was being metaphorical, but probably not entirely. Mrs Greengrass is one of the most materialistic witches I have ever met, and it is a source of constant irritation to her that, as part of the Sacred Twenty Eight, both her own and her husband’s families have always been poorer than at least twenty three of the others. Twenty four now that Ron, George and Charlie are doing so well.’
‘So you think the Greengrasses and Malfoys have arranged a marriage?’
Hermione thought on it. ‘Probably,’ she decided. ‘I know that Mrs Greengrass has been saying that Astoria should marry a wealthy wizard for years. She’s trading on the girl’s beauty, but ignoring her sizeable brain. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Narcissa Malfoy has lost patience with her son’s “confirmed bachelorhood”, but I’ll be very surprised if Astoria and Draco are willing participants in the whole thing. How did he appear to you?’
Harry shrugged. ‘Pointy. Sulky. Normal.’
‘So it’s possible that neither of them is particularly thrilled about the situation. I see. And what did you hope I could do about it?’
Harry grinned. He had always been transparent to her. ‘Bully someone. Find a law that says parents can’t have any say. Send Astoria off to New Zealand on a research scholarship.’
She grinned back. ‘There’s already a law that says they can’t be forced, but never underestimate the force of family persuasion with that set. They could be persuaded into a lifetime of compromise if their people tried hard enough.’
‘Yes, I know,’ Hermione interrupted. ‘And she’s too brilliant to be thrown away like that.’
‘So we act like the interfering busybodies we are.’
Harry’s grin broadened. ‘I have an appointment for a chat with Miss Greengrass about her political escapades tomorrow morning. Can I make you part of the meeting?’
‘Of course. Do you want me to look for a project to distract her?’
‘Does she need another? I hear she’s very busy waging war on bad landlords.’
Hermione began to laugh, then shifted to looking thoughtful. ‘It’s just occurred to me, we should find a project to distract him.’
Harry raised a doubtful eyebrow.
She waved his doubt away. ‘No, think on it from their perspective. Malfoy’s our age, and while I know he’s been doing some really rather clever things with herbs, potions and research in Switzerland, he’s never held an official post in any institution and never had a serious romantic entanglement past Pansy Parkinson pining for him at school. Lots of casual flings with young European wizards, but nothing serious.’
Harry was startled by Hermione’s level of detail. ‘I wouldn’t know; it’s not as though I keep track of such things.’
‘I do,’ Hermione assured him. ‘I keep track of everything, and he hasn’t. Meanwhile, Astoria’s still young for a witch, but she’s older than her sister was when she was married, older even than I was, and she seems wholly committed to political causes, most of them what her people would consider distressingly Muggle. To their mothers, it doubtless appears that they are both frittering away their prime years.
‘But if she was an integral part of a vital Ministry-Muggle revolution, or he was a leading figure in Magical Sciences, or both, then perhaps, not only would they feel more able to resist their family pressures, their families might think twice about trading off such prestigious social status in the public sphere for a more mundane status in the private?’
Harry looked at her with admiration and amazement. ‘You’re consistently brilliant,’ he said.
‘I know,’ she replied with a smile. ‘What do you think? Worth a try?’
‘Worth a try,’ he agreed.
Hers had been full of apologies for her daughter’s waywardness, tardiness, stubbornness and general nessness.
Mrs Malfoy was, in contrast, a figure of reason and gentility. ‘Nonsense, Amarantha,’ she said, patting her arm. ‘We all had our little adventures when we were young, and Astoria’s are far more productive than some. It’s good for them to meet each other with eyes wide open. I’m sure that Draco appreciates a young woman of conviction as much as Astoria values a young man who can be relied upon.’
Astoria almost liked Draco at that moment, when he turned so that his body shielded her from either of the older women and initiated an exchange of eyerolls disguised as polite nods.
Fortunately, neither of them was expected to speak beyond the most banal pleasantries, so she instead spent her time observing.
Mrs Malfoy’s reputation as a cool beauty was clearly deserved. She was dressed in a proudly Wizarding style, all velvets and brocades, and yet her attire would have inspired delight in the most avant garde of Muggle designers with her sweeping robe of a design that had changed little since the Renaissance, draping her in fluid, geometric lines of startling simplicity. Beneath it she wore a comfortable gown that sat somewhere between the 14th century and Regency, and which would have made the heart beat faster in any Rational Dress exponent who caught a glimpse of her, with its natural lines and freedom of movement.
In contrast, Astoria felt overstuffed and absurd in her Mugglish wools and linens. The bones of her corset were making themselves known and the piles of hair and pins balanced on her head were bringing on an ache.
And Mrs Malfoy was kind. Or, at least, she was being kind to her today. When Astoria’s mother grew too strident in her criticisms, Mrs Malfoy delicately treated the comments as humour, not drawing attention to their gaucheness by deliberately ignoring them, but not for a moment pretending that Mrs Greengrass could possibly be serious. It worked. Astoria’s mother became gentler as their morning tea went on.
If they had been proposing she marry Narcissa Malfoy for the sake of the family fortunes, Astoria, despite never previously having been particularly attracted to women, would have seriously considered it.
Draco Malfoy, alas, had little of his mother’s charm. He didn’t seem to be a bad person, despite his reputation; indeed she had moments where she sensed a genuine fellow feeling between the two of them. Granted it was a feeling that they should both Apparate as far from there as possible, but still. She took every opportunity to observe him while their mothers chatted. The basic lines of his face and body were good, but his stance was cautious and his expression self-doubting. He had tried to grow a beard, after the fashion of the day, which was for once uniform in both Wizarding and Muggle worlds. His attempt had not been wholly successful and it was a thin and pale specimen that served only to emphasise the angularity of his cheeks.
His clothes were well made, but he had not thought about them. The frock coat he wore was in vogue among young European wizards, she knew, but he had worn it to a Muggle police station, where – at best – it denoted a country cousin not yet attuned to the vogue for lounge suits and morning coats, or else a deliberately anachronistic choice, such as might be worn by an older doctor, not someone with smooth brows and all his hair. Though she could see him as a mediwizard, she thought. It would give him a practical focus he sorely needed, since his research seemed to flit from herbology to potions, to zoology to spellcraft. Not that his dilettantism was her problem. She would not be the one to guide his future steps. She realised she was being spoken to just in time to catch the second half of the sentence.
‘…to discuss your plans and perhaps consider some activities to get to know each other? Perhaps you might ask Draco about his botanical studies? I hear he has been doing some remarkable work in Switzerland.’
Mrs Malfoy was smiling at her in a friendly fashion, and Astoria quickly followed suit to cover up her distraction.
‘I’m very fond of plants,’ she said. ‘That sounds fascinating.’
‘Marvellous.’ Mrs Malfoy stood up. ‘Come, Amarantha, let us leave these young people to become better acquainted.’ She bustled Astoria’s mother from the room and such was her force of personality that Mrs Greengrass allowed herself to be directed, despite being in her own home.
Left alone with Mr Malfoy, Astoria took refuge in good manners. ‘Tea? Another scone? Nightshade and wolfsbane?’ she added in the light of his inattention.
‘Thank you, that would be lovely,’ Malfoy muttered. Then, his brain catching up with his ears: ‘Wait, what?’
‘I was offering to poison you,’ Astoria said cheerily. ‘To save you the trouble of making the effort.’
‘Very droll, Miss Greengrass,’ Malfoy muttered, helping himself to a scone, which he proceeded to break into small pieces.
‘So how do we get out of this?’ Astoria asked.
‘Ha!’ Malfoy replied, uselessly.
She resisted the urge to kick him. ‘I’m being serious. We need to put a stop to it soon, otherwise it will go beyond our mothers and the whole families will become involved and we’ll end up with a national incident when we refuse to go through with it.’
He ignored her. ‘How long have you been friends with Potter?’ he asked instead.
‘Harry?’ Astoria began to say that they were more in the pleasant acquaintance category, but a racing thought stopped her. There was an edge of jealously in Malfoy’s voice. She had seen some of the strange tension between him and Potter at school, and Daphne had dropped any number of hints about the enmity between them in those years – perhaps there was something there she could use to her advantage.
‘He’s a very dear man,’ she said, airily. ‘I feel as though I’ve known him all my life, which I suppose is true on one level. I can’t tell you how upset he’ll be by all this. Obviously, I’ve tried to shield him …’
‘It looked as though the first he heard of any of this was this morning,’ said Malfoy, with a distressingly accurate memory for detail.
‘I’m very good at shielding,’ Astoria said.
‘So I’m to take it that the two of you have some sort of understanding?’ Malfoy asked, stiffly.
‘What, with Harry?’ Astoria blurted, undoing her own good work in her surprise.
Malfoy nodded. ‘No, I suppose that he and Miss Weasley …’
Astoria blinked. ‘You have been away a long time.’ She tried another tack. ‘You were going to tell me about Swiss plants.’
Malfoy sighed. ‘Do you have any genuine desire to hear about them?’
‘I’m not uninterested,’ Astoria replied, trying to encourage him.
‘Can we not just pretend I lectured you on the properties of alpine woodruff and sit in blessed silence?’ he asked.
Astoria gave up. In compromise between her conscience and her desires, she kicked his chair. ‘How are we meant to get out of this when you have all the manly vigour of an infants’ choir?’ she hissed.
‘My affectionate fiancée,’ he muttered, ironically.
‘I have just as little desire to marry you as you do me,’ she pointed out. ‘So stop sitting there being sarcastic and start trying to be useful.’
Malfoy dropped his head into his hands. ‘What’s the point?’ he muttered. ‘Your mother is in love with the idea of my Gringotts vaults and my mother is seduced by your family’s virtue.’
‘So much so that she’d sacrifice mine?’ Astoria demanded.
Malfoy didn’t even look up. ‘Don’t be dramatic,’ he said.
Astoria gaped at him for a full ten seconds before she managed to speak. ‘And I’m supposed to deliver myself into a state that, under Muggle law, allows you to rape me at will and with impunity because it is a simpler option for you than fighting it?’
It was Malfoy’s turn to gape. ‘I would never … The Wizengamot doesn’t … That’s just wrong …’ he stammered.
‘I don’t for a moment think you would,’ Astoria said briskly. ‘But it might do well for you to recall that there are two adults affected by this situation and one of them isn’t you.’
Malfoy took a moment to compose himself, then bowed, a little stiffly, but with sincerity. ‘My apologies, Miss Greengrass. I have been selfish and self-serving. Do you really think there is any way we could convince our mothers they don’t know best?’
And the frost between them melted away as Astoria laughed. ‘No, that’s not within the realms of possibility. But we can convince them that their original plan was less perfect than another.’
Malfoy nodded, first in understanding, then in agreement. ‘Not fight them head on, but rather change the playing field so that their strategies no longer make sense,’ he mused.
‘Yes, exactly,’ Astoria agreed, moving her chair closer to his. ‘We need to either make this match less attractive, or another option more so.’
Malfoy rubbed his beard. ‘I think we will need to tread carefully with this one. The obvious solution would be a loss of reputation, but yours is famously shining and ethical and mine seems unreasonably robust, remaining only mildly damaged no matter what I do to it.’
Astoria interrupted him. ‘I wouldn’t want to take that path. Your mother is wholly disinterested in my politics, I’m wholly disinterested in philandering with random young wizards, and I don’t think anyone who is not you should be interested in what you get up to in your private life.’
‘Mostly philandering with young wizards,’ Malfoy admitted, with a smile.
Astoria smiled back at him. ‘We should be friends, don’t you think? In adversity if nothing else. It would please me if you addressed me as Astoria.’ She removed her lace dress glove and held out her hand.
Malfoy took it and gave a companionable shake. ‘I feel I take the better part of the bargain in this friendship, Astoria. Please, call me Draco, and I promise that no matter what fresh horrors our mothers devise, I will remember that I am not alone in suffering and that you, too, depend on our wits outdoing theirs.’
Grinning, they shook hands again in a promise of action. The mood perceptibly lightened.
‘All right,’ Draco continued, ‘the next option is that one of us secures a better offer. I’m very much afraid it will have to be you, since my prospects are rather limited. I’m not for a moment suggesting we should marry you off, but someone better than me who could appear to be a genuine prospect should supply enough in the way of distraction.’
Astoria thought about it. ‘There aren’t many options,’ she admitted. ‘I see dear Sergeant Craddock every few days when I’m protesting at the Houses of Parliament, but I strongly suspect there is already a Mrs Craddock and a tribe of Craddockettes.’
‘I don’t suppose you find Blaise Zabini attractive?’ Draco offered, ignoring her rather than running the risk of learning what a Craddockette might be. ‘He owes me more than a few favours.’
‘That incorrigible playboy?’
‘I thought not.’ An idea occurred to him. ‘What about Potter? I know that you were only joking before, but he would be ideal. He’s rich, he’s handsome, he is unable to resist saving people who need saving, and all in all he’s as good a catch as can be found in Wizarding Britain.’
Astoria trod carefully around the topic. ‘I’m not certain I’m his type,’ she began.
Draco held up his hand. ‘None of that. So you’re not a flame-haired virago. Look at you. You’re all chestnut and blue, the rich colours of an autumn day, but with marvellous skin like a spring morning. Eyes shining with a quick intelligence and a spirit that sings. You’re everything a man who isn’t like me would find delightful in a life companion. Plus, you’re very conventionally attractive, which will help when it comes to all the photographs you will be expected to appear in.’
Astoria looked at him in wonderment. ‘You have absolutely no idea how to speak to a woman, do you?’
‘None at all,’ he admitted.
‘Did you get all that from a book?’
‘Parts of it. But the bit about you being very conventionally attractive was all my own invention.’
‘Flatterer.’ Astoria tossed her empty glove at him. ‘Don’t think the idea doesn’t appeal, he’s a very handsome man. The problem is that I rather suspect that you’re in with more of a chance than I.’
Draco’s eyes widened. ‘What are you saying?’
‘That he is a man like you. To whom I would not count as a delightful life companion, many though my charms may be.’
‘But …’ Draco shook his head sharply. ‘How can this be news to me?’ he wondered.
Astoria considered teasing him, but he seemed genuinely emotional about the revelation. ‘Perhaps your friends believed all the rumours regarding the lifelong enmity between the two of you? Rumours you began, if Daphne is to be believed?’
He began to nod, considering the prospect.
‘Or one of them has long been the Head Auror’s secret liaison and has made it his mission to keep news of his preferences out of circulation,’ she added, unable to resist a little teasing.
Draco frowned at her. ‘Be serious. Is this something that’s widely known? Could you be mistaken?’
She took pity on him. ‘It’s widely rumoured among witches between twenty and thirty-five, but if that were all, I would assume they were speaking only from frustration. However, I had the misfortune to be hiding in this very room after Daphne’s wedding, sequestered on the window seat behind that heavy blue curtain, which is how I came to be the unwilling witness to the official end of the romantic relationship between Mr Potter and Miss Weasley. Details were given. Names. Male names. Though I hasten to add, invoked only as examples of preference, not as any confession of misbehaviour on the part of Mr Potter.’
Draco slowly nodded his understanding.
‘Nor Miss Weasley, neither,’ Astoria added conscientiously.
Draco continued to nod.
‘Are you all right?’ she asked after a long moment.
Draco blinked. ‘What? Oh, yes. Yes, mostly, though it’s putting quite the different complexion on a great many moments of my youth.’
‘Ah. Yes, Daphne did say she used to think …’
Draco snorted. ‘Would have been nice if she’d told me.’
‘Well, it’s not the sort of matter people discuss, is it?’ Astoria asked. ‘It’s hardly good manners to walk up to a schoolmate and suggest that you have piercing insights into not only their personal preferences, but also those of the people around them, and – incidentally – were you aware that hatred is often no more than a conventionally acceptable outlet for suppressed desire?’
As she had intended, Draco began to laugh. ‘No, I suppose not. And our schooldays were already a hotbed of treachery and political revolt; Merlin forbid we add suppressed passion to the mix.’
‘I can’t imagine it would have ended well,’ Astoria said, smiling.
‘No. Anything but,’ Draco agreed, though his smile carried a rueful edge. ‘So,’ he continued, ‘Given we can assume I am unlikely to embark on a passionate liaison with the Saviour of the Wizarding World in the near future, we’re left with the need to find you a very nice young wizard who can squire you about town and be convinced to woo you publicly until our mothers give up on us.’
Astoria mentally ran through the list of all the single men of her acquaintance. Most were automatically excluded by virtue of being Muggles. She was related to a majority of the remainder, which – though her mother would happily have settled for any one of her cousins – ruled them out for her taste, if only because she knew how crashingly dull they all were at family functions.
She pulled a face. ‘I can only think of two who would be at all suitable, and I just don’t see how we could convince either of them to play along.’
‘Names?’ asked Draco.
‘Neville Longbottom and Charlie Weasley.’
Draco frowned. ‘I thought Longbottom was going to marry Hannah Abbott.’
‘Didn’t you hear?’ Astoria stopped herself, aware that she sounded like her school friends gossiping. ‘I mean to say, they parted ways amicably when they couldn’t agree on their future plans. Neville wanted her to come and work at Hogwarts, but she was still very invested in owning the Leaky Cauldron.’
‘Hannah Abbott owns a pub?’ Draco asked, surprised. ‘She was so mild and swotty at school.’
‘She had a difficult time of it during the war,’ Astoria said, carefully. ‘Afterwards, she wanted to find a life in which people were happy around her.’ And where she would be likely to hear early rumours of future fomenting trouble, she did not add.
Draco looked serious. ‘That makes sense,’ he said. ‘Most of us came out of it quite different to the people who went in.’
Astoria had no words for that moment, so she leaned across the occasional table that stood between them and patted his arm. He smiled in appreciation of both the gesture and her silence.
After a moment, his smile broadened. ‘Charlie Weasley would be a fun option. He’s handsome, a little bit wild, has loads of money since his brothers licensed his flying dragon model range, and his mother would like nothing more than to seriously annoy mine. I think we might be able to convince him it’s a good idea on that alone.’
Astoria laughed. ‘Mrs Weasley has always considered my mother to be a gigantic bore and overpuffed egoist. If you think it will help, I’m more than happy to offer her up for annoyance, too.’
‘I feel certain it can’t hurt. Particularly if you’re the one who approaches him and outlines it to him.’ He stretched out his hand. ‘It appears we have a plan.’
Astoria took it and shook it. ‘For the sake of our ongoing happiness, I will flirt with the – as you put it – wild and handsome Charlie Weasley.’
‘A generous sacrifice, Miss Greengrass.’
They grinned conspiratorially at each other.
‘All right,’ Astoria said. ‘Let’s start right away. You need to shave and dress as though you’re not fifty; I need to get out of these Muggle clothes and into something less uncomfortable. Then we should go to Diagon Alley and swan about together looking utterly miserable.’
‘Miserable, you say?’
‘Oh yes. Because we can in one fell swoop both obey our mothers and spend time getting to know each other, and impress upon all of our acquaintance that we are the most set upon young people in the country and that they should be doing all within their power to help. One thing I do know about Charlie Weasley is that he can’t resist a damsel in distress, especially one who scored O’s in Care of Magical Creatures.’
Draco took her hand and shook it again. ‘I was quite right: I have by far the better part of this connexion. Come, I’ll inform the maters that we have a tea date and we can take an hour to make ourselves presentable.’
‘Lead on, Comrade Malfoy,’ Astoria declared, forgetting for a moment that Draco had probably never heard of Marx.
‘After you, Comrade Greengrass,’ he replied, for though he was as ignorant as a babe when it came to the subjugation of the masses, his manners were impeccable.
‘Late,’ she declared, standing up and following him into his office, much to his secretary’s relief.
‘Giant smugglers,’ he replied, closing the door behind her.
‘And you didn’t wake me?’ She smacked him as he walked past her.
‘It was 4am. You’d already had one adventure for the evening. You husband and children would have complained if I’d dragged you out on another. They would have complained to me. You probably would have got away with it scot free.’
She smiled. ‘They know the departmental power balance.’
When it came to her children at least, she was quite right. Uncle Harry could be relied upon to listen at length to their lisped complaints and buy all the ridiculous gifts their mother denied them under the policy that she refused to buy things that would be discarded or broken within the month. Their father was less firm, but thought it safer to channel his indulgence via his oldest friend.
‘Sorted?’ she asked, throwing herself into his best visitor’s chair and kicking her shoes off.
‘Sorted,’ he affirmed. ‘While the boffins in our admin team were dealing with the centaur rescue reports they noticed an anomaly in your notes: a short-term warehouse lease in Dover that covered a large amount of space but had no transport arrangements connected. I sent a two-man team down to check it out and had just made it home when I was hauled back in – along with the rest of the Auror Corps – to go down and assist. Four giants who were meant to be there for one night only. We rounded up seven bad’uns, and what Lepworth described as a wagonload of incriminating papers.’
‘Sounds splendid. He’ll be a very happy deductive auditor. Did you get any sleep?’
‘An hour,’ Harry admitted. ‘Potions, tea and coffee are keeping me together.’
‘So you’ve covered all contingencies.’
Hermione’s teasing was not far wrong, Harry admitted. He could feel the lack of sleep and rest scratching beneath his skin, but the mixture of magical and mundane stimulants would be enough to get him through the day. He pulled a fresh shirt from his office wardrobe and wished there was time for a shower before Miss Greengrass was due.
‘Toothbrushing,’ he announced, opening the door to his office bathroom and embarking on an abbreviated series of ablutions.
Hermione swung her chair round to follow him. ‘Good idea,’ she replied, talking in the pauses between water running and brushes scrubbing. ‘In all the excitement last night, I didn’t get a chance to tell you about my afternoon. I ran into our unwilling couple on Diagon Alley.’
Harry popped out of the bathroom and raised his eyebrows. ‘Details, please,’ he asked, wiping the toothpaste from his chin.
‘They were sitting in the tearooms, vying for the All England Moping title,’ she began, and went on to describe in detail the tableau of Miss Greengrass and Mr Malfoy, both dressed as though they were at a romantic tete-a-tete, sitting beside an untouched plate of cakes, sighing into the air and occasionally exchanging sad, but ever-so-brave, little smiles of shared misery.
‘What did you make of it?’ Harry asked, his voice slightly muffled by pulling on his fresh shirt without fully unbuttoning it first.
‘They clearly weren’t happy, but they seemed to be mutually supportive about their situation,’ Hermione replied. ‘So I think we might find it easier than we thought to push each of them towards more attractive occupations.’
Harry made a last effort to smooth his hair down, then shut the bathroom door, looking almost groomed. He plucked a fresh formal robe from its coat hook and slid it on – the pristine red wool and crisp white linen beneath it successfully distracting attention from the fight-stained flight leathers just visible on his legs. ‘That’s good news. Have you had any ideas about actual jobs?’
If he hadn’t known her for most of his life, Harry would have missed the slight hesitation in her reply. ‘Yes, and they’re both excellent options.’
‘Oh no, both for Mr Malfoy. Miss Greengrass will doubtless have her own ideas about what she should be doing, and I feel certain she’ll share them with us. Though I’ve had what I consider to be rather a good idea about helping her along.’
‘I’m sure she’ll be open to the suggestion,’ Harry said, sinking gratefully into his comfortable chair. ‘So, Draco Malfoy …’
‘I confess, I’m not convinced you’re going to like the first option,’ Hermione began.
‘Break it to me.’
‘I thought he could work with me at the Ministry developing kits to detect illegal potions. There are dens full of kids doing appalling things to their brains down by the docks and we know someone has to be manufacturing or importing the rubbish they’re using.’
Harry shook his head. ‘You’re right, I don’t like it. Let’s focus on Option Two, shall we?’
‘You’re going to regret saying that.’
‘It’s work with me, isn’t it?’
Hermione grinned. ‘You’ve known me too long. But in all seriousness, it’s a very good option. You need someone to work with you on cases like this smuggling racket who is able to help you prove where everything and everyone has come from. Pollen on clothes, types of mud, plants in packing crates … they all help to build a case and while you do have a little laboratory team, they are only used to prove links you already suspect, not look for fresh clues in the material evidence.’
‘You’ve been reading Sherlock Holmes again.’
‘I have. And Doctor Doyle is right: the proof is in the details. We rely too heavily on being in the right place at the right time, on Pensieves and Veritaserum. As a whole Department, we would benefit from a more scientific approach. And think of all the areas where magic can augment science! He could invent spells that separate out mixed particles of matter and then describe their origins. Or reconstitute stains and tell you what made them. Think of all that work you’ve done on recreating the events from the scenes of crimes and imagine what more you could do with a spell that separated out each spray of blood. You can see the potential.’
‘Damn it,’ said Harry, who could. ‘Do you think he can actually do any of that?’
Hermione shrugged. ‘It looks to me as though much of it would be a natural extension of the work he’s been doing on soils and leaf litter in the last four or five years, but you’d have to ask him. You have to admit, aside from the obvious difficulty of you working with Malfoy, it’s an excellent plan.’
‘Let us not pretend that it’s a small difficulty,’ Harry cautioned. ‘Even if I’m on my best behaviour, I can’t imagine he’ll be keen on the idea.’
‘No,’ Hermione admitted. ‘Though it is the only one: his research really has been excellent.’
Harry pulled a face.
A knock at the door interrupted her rebuttal and was swiftly followed by his secretary’s be-whiskered visage. ‘Miss Greengrass here to see you, sir.’
‘She’s early,’ Hermione noted.
‘Thank you, Carston, I’ll fetch her in.’ Harry got to his feet. ‘You,’ he added to Hermione, ‘try to look more like the woman in charge.’
She sat up properly in her chair and slid her shoes back on with a grin.
Harry followed Cartson out into his anteroom. Astoria sat there, dressed in a flowing green robe rather than the stiff Mugglish dress of their previous meeting. Beside her sat an unexpected Draco Malfoy, who was standing and bowing with what appeared to be courtesy. Harry returned it automatically.
‘Mr Malfoy,’ he said. ‘Can I have my assistant bring you tea or other refreshments while you wait?’
A fleeting look of amusement crossed Malfoy’s face, as though they had both passed an unwritten test. ‘Thank you, no. I have already breakfasted, and I have a book at the ready if your meeting goes long.’
‘Very sensible. In which case, Miss Greengrass…’ Harry offered her his arm.
Astoria took it, smiling a hello for him and a goodbye for Draco Malfoy. Harry was relieved to see that she no longer seemed to regard Malfoy as any sort of threat.
He held open his heavy oak office door and ushered her inside. Hermione was sitting primly in the taller of his guest chairs, trousered legs crossed demurely at the ankles. Miss Greengrass paused for a half-step, clearly surprised to see her here.
‘Mrs Weasley,’ said Harry, ‘allow me to introduce Miss Astoria Greengrass. I believe you were previously acquainted with her as Mrs Tallenbeck’s younger sister.’
Hermione stretched out a hand. ‘How do you do, Miss Greengrass?’
‘How do you do?’ Miss Greengrass replied, slightly awed. ‘I was just reading On the Subjugation of House Elves last night. It’s really exciting to meet you properly – not at school or at one of Daphne’s events.’
Hermione grinned. ‘You’re making me sound like a veiled matron. As far as I remember I’m only a few years older than you. Sit down and tell me what you’ve been up to, Harry tells me it’s hilarious.’
Still somewhat awed, but at least partially disarmed by the Department Head’s encouragement, Astoria took a seat.
‘For the most part,’ she said, ‘I’ve been working as a liaison between our society and Muggle parents who find their children exhibiting a talent for magic. There’s always at least one or two of them in any given year, so it makes sense to meet with them early, teach them some of the non-magical tricks our parents use to quell the sorts of temper tantrums that can set the house on fire. It means that by the time the children are ready for Hogwarts, we’ve got a long-established network of trust in place. It not only helps the Muggles; the witches and wizards who volunteer as mentors and guides all gain insights into Muggle culture, too, so it eases tensions in both directions.’
‘I would have thought you’d use mostly Muggle-born witches and wizards in the programme,’ Hermione said.
‘We have them give talks, and several have left contacts with open-ended invitations for questions, but it’s actually the Pure-bloods who work best because we end up with just as many questions for the Muggles as they have for us, so the parents don’t feel as though they are being lectured to, they feel as though they are part of an exchange of ideas and cultures.’
Hermione nodded. ‘Very intelligent. But I believe it was your side interests Auror Potter was making reference to when he described your meeting to me yesterday.’
Astoria’s confidence faltered, and a slow blush crept up her cheeks. ‘That was just … I haven’t breached the Statutes of Secrecy, you know.’
‘I know,’ Hermione assured her.
‘I told her so,’ Harry added, smiling.
Astoria rallied. ‘When I’m in London, I go to the Houses of Parliament and I find the MPs and Lords who vote and speak most actively against women’s rights to vote. For the last few weeks I’ve been following H.H. Asquith. I don’t abuse or slander them, I just call out in a loud, clear voice asking them why the stupidest man in Britain has the opportunity to vote for any politician they choose, while the cleverest woman doesn’t. Occasionally one of his flunkies replies that the stupidest man is still brighter than the cleverest woman and then I cheerfully start quizzing that one on square roots, commonly known astronomical trivia, major historic dates and English, French and Latin grammar. You’d be astonished how poorly they do, even though I am led to believe that many of their schools are rather good.’
Harry risked glancing over at Hermione, who was making a concerted effort not to laugh.
Astoria misinterpreted their expressions. ‘Asquith was Home Secretary in the previous government and could have done a world of good. Instead, he acted to quash Suffragists. Now he’s in Opposition, he doesn’t even bother about being a good MP. If he’s not called upon to sit, he’s off pursuing his private legal practise.
‘And it’s not just that Muggle women ought to have the same rights to political power that we do. I’ve seen the way they live and it’s ridiculous. We’ve had witches as Minister for Magic. Half the Founders of Hogwarts were women. My own great-aunt was Deputy Head of this very department, and the current head,’ she inclined her head towards Hermione, ‘is very much a lady. Whereas for them, none of that is possible. The lucky ones are treasured and protected, but forced by the law to act as minor partners in their marriages. The unlucky ones are decorations, or chattels, or drudges – at home or out in a workplace where they are paid a pittance, it’s all the same. And they have hardly any rights. And men are never going to change that because it’s entirely to their benefit to enslave the weaker sex: men make enormous amounts of money out of women’s oppression. Women’s Franchise is the only hope for change.
‘I don’t use my magic, just my loud voice and my pretty face, which embarrasses men like Asquith because they want to say that all Suffragists are harridans. But, in fact, we come in all varieties. If necessary, I’ll happily sit in gaol for a month for breaching the Queen’s peace.’
Astoria’s chin was high now, and her cheeks flushed. Harry thought her voice had grown a little higher as she searched Hermione’s face for signs of disapproval.
Hermione, instead, grinned. ‘Well said! Would it make your life easier if we gave you Ministry support for your activities?’
Astoria blinked. ‘What? Make Muggle women’s suffrage Ministry policy?’
‘Sadly, it’s unlikely we could get Department-wide approval to make prosecuting the case a Ministry priority. But I could create you Muggle Legal Liaison, which would give you an office, a budget, and a meeting with the Muggle Home Secretary twice a month and probably the odd chat with the Prime Minister.’
‘Oh!’ Astoria flung herself at Hermione, embracing her with fierce enthusiasm. ‘Oh, that would be wonderful! Excuse me, I’m sorry, I’m just so excited. I thought you’d be angry with me, you see, for drawing attention to myself.’
Hermione smoothed her jacket and smiled. ‘That would be enormously hypocritical. Harry, Ron and I have done far, far worse. You’ve never brought down the ceiling of a bank and set a dragon free over London.’
Astoria laughed, and for a moment, levity prevailed, with Harry and Hermione joining in.
With a mind to practicality, Harry followed up with a question. ‘Will you be available to work regular office hours while you are in the city, Miss Greengrass? Obviously, your other work will call you north when it draws closer to the beginning of the school year, but there are at least six weeks in which we can offer you a desk and whatever resources you require.’
He was watching her face carefully, so he saw the moment at which she pieced together the conundrum of the previous day and the ever-so-convenient occupation presented by their offer. She looked from him to Hermione, then back, and it was clear that she was pleased by their conspiracy.
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I would be pleased to accept your generous offer.’
Harry extended a hand across his desk, which Astoria took and gave a businesslike shake before turning to Hermione and repeating the action.
‘Marvellous,’ said Hermione. ‘Now that’s settled we won’t have tell Harry about your landlord campaign.’
‘Oh, for pity’s sake, tell me,’ Harry said, rising to the bait. ‘It can’t possibly be worse than what I’ve been imagining.’
Astoria had just opened her mouth to speak when Harry’s clock chimed the half hour. She looked back suddenly at the office door. Hermione raised a quizzical eyebrow.
‘Draco Malfoy is waiting for Miss Greengrass in the anteroom,’ Harry explained. ‘She is too courteous to wish to delay him long.’
Hermione’s eyebrows changed angle, and Harry could tell that she was wishing she had listened to Ron all those years ago when he insisted they all learn to waggle their eyebrows meaningly. He didn’t possess the streak of cruelty it would have taken to pretend he didn’t understand her.
‘Now that I think on it, I did have an idea that might interest Mr Malfoy,’ Harry announced. ‘Miss Greengrass, would you mind very much if I left you in the capable and excellent-tea-making hands of my secretary Carston while I had a quick word with your fiancé?’
Astoria looked surprised, but not displeased. ‘Not at all. I have no pressing engagements. Unless,’ she turned to Hermione, ‘you wanted me to start today?’
‘Better leave it till tomorrow so I can make sure your office is cleaned and stocked with quills and paper. Shall we say meet at 10am in the Atrium?’
Astoria nodded quickly.
‘Marvellous,’ Hermione said. ‘See you then.’ She nodded a friendly farewell and waited in her seat while Harry escorted Astoria out.
Draco Malfoy stood up as Harry opened his office door and was in the process of slipping his book into his pocket when he noticed Harry was looking at him. Surprised, he gave a half-smile, which Harry automatically began to return before realising what he was doing and pausing halfway. Feeling foolish, he frowned instead. ‘Could I see you in my office for a moment, Mr Malfoy?’ he asked, more briskly than he had intended.
Malfoy looked to Astoria, who nodded reassuringly, before straightening the line of his jacket and stepping forwards. ‘Certainly, Auror Potter.’
Harry turned to his secretary. ‘Cartson, could you fetch a cup of tea for Miss Greengrass? We won’t be long.’ He noticed Malfoy’s slight relaxation in pose at the news his ordeal was to be short. Harry couldn’t blame the man, he hadn’t framed the invitation well.
Malfoy’s shoulders stiffened again as he walked into Harry’s office and caught sight of Hermione. ‘Miss— sorry, Mrs Weasley,’ he said, bowing.
‘Mr Malfoy,’ she replied, nodding, but not standing.
‘Please, take a seat,’ Harry said. ‘We have an offer we’d like to put to you.’
Malfoy sat and looked at each of them expectantly.
Harry made a bid to regain the optimistic tone the room had held a few moments previously. ‘Hermione and Miss Greengrass tell me you’ve been doing remarkable work with botanical research in Switzerland.’
Malfoy’s eyebrows raised, but his tone was sincere as he thanked Hermione. ‘That’s a generous compliment. I value your opinion highly, Mrs Weasley,’ he said. ‘I once thought it would be beyond my ability to secure.’
‘If you’d kept to politics, it would have been,’ Hermione replied. ‘I’m pleased you found a better outlet for your talents.’ Her tone was blunt, but not cruel, and Malfoy nodded a small acknowledgement of her comment’s fairness.
‘Which is what we would like to discuss,’ said Harry, wrestling the conversation back on track. ‘The Auror department excels at some parts of law enforcement research and is devoid of trained staff in others. From what Hermione tells me, your skills could be put to very good use here. I’m not sure how long you plan to stay in Britain, but if this is more than a fleeting visit, then I would be very interested in securing your services, should you be looking for interesting employment.’
Malfoy’s eyebrows surpassed their previous heights. ‘You’re offering me a position?’ he asked, sounding as surprised by the idea of working as he was by the offer coming from Harry.
‘No,’ Harry corrected him. ‘I am offering you a career. Perhaps even a vocation. You could make real changes here, make a productive impact on the whole of the country. You don’t need to commit forever. Long enough to come up with protocols, establish systems and then train the good young lab team we already have up into being a proper research department. That’s all I ask. Someone as intelligent as you have always told me you are could make a decent start on it in three or four months, but there’s work enough for years. Decades, even.’
Harry thought he had phrased the whole thing rather well, and when Malfoy did not immediately refuse, he mentally added it to the very short list of successful conversations the two of them had conducted.
‘Working alongside you?’ Malfoy sought clarification.
‘In my department, but I spend a lot of time in the field and you will mostly be in the laboratories, I imagine.’
‘You’ll come under Auror auspices,’ said Hermione, ‘but you’ll be a part of general Magical Law Enforcement, so the Hit Wizards and MLE will want a look at your work and I’ll be supplying your budget.’
‘That sounds reasonable,’ Malfoy said. ‘I’ll have to discuss all this with my fiancée, but on the face of it, the idea is intriguing. I can only commit for three months at the moment, though. I have no idea if I’ll even be in the country by the time the weather cools.’
‘Of course,’ said Hermione, graciously.
‘That will do,’ said Harry, somewhat less so. But he managed to see Malfoy back out into the anteroom and the company of Miss Greengrass and a fresh pot of tea with neither of them snapping, hexing or openly glaring at each other, so he counted the meeting as a victory.
Closing his door, he came back to his desk. ‘Don’t get up,’ he told Hermione, ironically.
‘I wasn’t going to,’ she replied, smoothly. ‘She’s at least six inches taller than me, I would have looked like a schoolgirl.’
‘And with Malfoy?’
She grinned. ‘I didn’t feel like it.’
‘I feel we could have been a little less abrupt with him,’ Harry admitted.
‘I feel all three of us did very well not to resort to wands,’ she replied. ‘He’s matured, you’ve learned the meaning of the word equanimity and I haven’t punched anyone in years.’
‘You make that sound like a bad thing.’
‘You don’t have to attend the Heads of Department meetings, Harry.’ Hermione stood up and smiled. ‘On the topic of which, I should get back to work. Have you got a lot on today?’
‘Follow-up interviews from last night and then poring through the paperwork for more leads. The usual.’
‘Have a nap for lunch,’ she advised. ‘The bags under your eyes are positively Byronic.’
Harry’s equanimity did not prevent him poking his tongue out. But he did consider her words after she had left. Malfoy had matured. There was a willingness to listen, to conciliate, that he had never shown as a boy – or, at least, shown only in glimpses under great duress. He even looked different. More like a scholar than a Death Eater. He had shaved since yesterday and his white chin made him look younger than he was.
Perhaps this whole mad plan could work? Astoria had seemed thrilled at the prospect, and Malfoy not wholly against it. Harry tried, for a moment, to imagine working productively alongside Draco Malfoy.
Failing to convince himself of the possibility, he made a start on his paperwork.
‘That’s splendid,’ Draco said.
‘What did they want with you?’
‘I, too, received an offer of employment,’ he confessed.
Astoria paused mid-step. ‘You? Working?’
‘It has been known to happen.’
Since they were friends now, she didn’t bother to apologise, but concentrated on the broader issues raised. ‘You realise what this means?’
Draco did not.
‘They’re managing us,’ Astoria explained. ‘After yesterday, they’ve thought along exactly the same lines we did and come to the conclusion that if we are gainfully employed as vital cogs in the Ministry machine, our mothers will be less inclined to marry us off.’
‘It isn’t a bad plan,’ Draco conceded. ‘Though ours is more fun.’
‘A back-up won’t hurt,’ said Astoria, gazing idly at the tearoom where they had sat the day before. ‘Oh!’
A fluffy grey bird had appeared in front of them, wide-eyed, big-beaked, and terribly confused in expression.
‘Oh, you darling little thing!’ cooed Astoria, kneeling down and coaxing it forward with the offer of a head scratch.
The bird ambled towards her with an amiable ‘Awk!’
She could hear running footsteps approaching, but ignored them in favour of gently rubbing the young bird’s brow ridges. It leaned against her, humming ecstatically.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ said a deep voice behind her.
‘Why would I be afraid?’ she asked. ‘It’s just a darling little diricawl. Aren’t you, precious? You’re not even properly grown up yet.’
The owner of the voice knelt beside her and a pair of strong, freckled and definitely masculine hands reached out to pat the bird’s fluffy side and belly. ‘You’re quite right. He’s only just fledged. And he keeps vanishing whenever he gets a fright.’
‘Then you should stop frightening him,’ Astoria said, turning to face the man. He looked to be about her height, but broader of shoulder and square of jaw. Bright eyes danced beneath a wave of dark-red hair.
‘Who are you and why are we not spending our lives together?’ he asked.
She smiled at his boldness. ‘I’m Astoria Greengrass, and since you’re Charlie Weasley, it’s probably because you’ve been living almost entirely in Romania since I was a schoolgirl.’
He grinned. ‘Good thing I’m back now, then, isn’t it? I remember you. Little Astoria, Daphne’s sister. You asked me about the mating habits of dragons when I came to Hogwarts for the Triwizard Tournament.’
Astoria let her smile broaden. ‘And you did everything possible to avoid answering me.’
‘Rightly so, no man should face such a terrifying eleven year old. You grew up.’
‘People do.’ She accepted his hand to help her rise, the diricawl craning out from under his other arm for more brow rubs.
‘He’s definitely taken to you,’ Weasley observed. ‘You should come and take tea with us in a bid to help socialise him. Purely for science, of course.’
Astoria wanted to laugh. The man’s cheek and charm were both monumental. Instead, she raised an eyebrow. ‘I was under the impression that birds imprinted soon after hatching and that further socialisation was minimal.’
‘Ah, but that’s just the accepted view,’ Charlie Weasley responded. ‘No-one’s ever examined the matter closely to see whether it’s based on fact or assumption.’
‘Like gender and plumage, or gender and song,’ said a voice behind them.
Astoria had forgotten entirely about Draco.
Charlie Weasley regarded him calmly. ‘Quite right, Mr Malfoy. Birds people were convinced were male because of their song or brightness, turned out to be female when they were actually looked at.’
‘Mr Weasley.’ Draco bowed a greeting, which was returned.
‘Are you with …’ Charlie Weasley let the sentence dangle.
Astoria was about to give a cautious answer when Draco leapt in.
‘Miss Greengrass and I are trying to prevent our mothers marrying us off to each other. They have a mad plan, which I am determined to put a respectable end to, if for no other reason that the fact that Miss Greengrass is entirely too delightful a young woman to end up attached to a man to whom she is politely indifferent.’
Weasley turned to Astoria. ‘Is that true?’
‘Yes. I am politely indifferent to Mr Malfoy.’ But she could see that a more serious answer was required. ‘I’m afraid so. We were informed of our betrothal yesterday, so since then we’ve been trying to come up with a fool-proof escape plan.’
‘But that’s awful.’
Draco nodded. ‘I don’t suppose you’d care to carry Miss Greengrass off to Romania?’
The look that flashed across Charlie Weasley’s face was thoroughly improper and, Astoria guiltily admitted to herself, quite thrilling. ‘It’s a very tempting prospect, but I feel it would be more advisable to start with a quiet luncheon. Are the two of you free to join me at one?’
He reached past the squirming bird in his arms and pulled a card from his pocket, which he handed to Draco. ‘This is my address while I’m in London. Give me a little time to get Horace here sorted and some food arranged, then the three of us can work on your cunning plan.’
She did not need to dissemble a bright smile. ‘That sounds marvellous.’
‘Thank you, Weasley,’ Draco said, bowing again. 'It’s kind of you to help, and gracious of you to include me in the invitation.’
Astoria was watching Charlie Weasley’s face carefully, so she could see the moment when he was tempted to insist that he had been referring to Horace as the third member of the party. But Draco seemed so sincere in his thanks, that Weasley quashed the impulse and smiled instead. ‘You are welcome, Malfoy. I’ve read several of your papers over the years. Your work has real merit.’
And that produced the nicest smile she had ever seen on Draco Malfoy’s face.
‘If you will excuse me,’ Charlie Weasley said, bowing, ‘Horace and I will go home and prepare for visitors.’
‘He seems very nice,’ Astoria said, once Charlie Weasley was out of hearing. ‘Though it was almost as though you two were speaking in code at the end there.’
‘You have no idea of the extent of his niceness,’ Draco said. ‘And if I’m lucky, you never will need to know so far as it pertains to me.’
‘Judging by our current streak of good fortune, you’ll be fine. This has all been ridiculously easy.’
‘Don’t even think that!’ Draco exclaimed.
‘Oh, don’t look so stricken. What’s the worst that can happen?’
‘Draco Malfoy and little Story Greengrass,’ announced a woman’s voice behind her.
Astoria’s blood ran cold. The last time she had heard that voice, it had been bullying her into handing over money for sweets in Hogsmeade.
‘Hello, Pans,’ said Draco, slipping an arm around Astoria’s shoulders and giving her a reassuring hug. ‘Believe me,’ he whispered in her ear. ‘This is much less awful than I was expecting.’