Disclaimer: Not mine. Rowling's. No profit being made, no offense intended, no point in suing. Really.
Thanks, Sam and CD, for the beta. And thanks, Samayel, for Bewitching Changes, which convinced me that where Draco Malfoy has a stuffed dragon, it must be named Grr.
Nothing but an ordinary office door, separating him, a herd of mischievous magical toddlers, and the Ministry's main potions lab, was there? Honestly, how Bennington hadn't blown himself up yet with wits like that was nothing short of baffling.
"Why are you telling me this?" Draco looked at Minister Shacklebolt in the vague hope there'd be a better explanation coming. Surely they hadn't called him away from his cauldrons for idle chatter.
"Two of those children are my best Aurors," Shacklebolt said, eyes narrowing. "All four are close personal friends. I want this fixed and I want it done last week, Malfoy."
Like Draco was somehow responsible for the continued idiocy of Potter and his friends. He stared blandly and feigned patience until Shacklebolt grunted what he supposed was Auror approval and continued.
"I can't let them out of the Ministry, not even for St. Mungo's. The Prophet would love this one — they've only just stopped calling him the Boy Who Lived." Shacklebolt cast a telling glare at the office door.
Okay, Draco could see his point. Having finally convinced the wizarding world to treat him as an adult icon rather than, well, a child icon, really, Potter probably wouldn't take it well if they saw him as he currently was…about four years old and drinking pumpkin juice from a sippy cup.
Still. For all the shit he took routinely, Draco wasn't caving that easily.
"Again, why tell me?" If the Malfoy, Slytherin, and Dark Mark weren't incentive enough to choose someone else, the potions lab peon status should have been.
Shacklebolt looked like the words were mild Crucio to speak aloud. "We're told it's a potions-based problem, which requires a potions-based solution. Since the maker is currently — " Another vicious glare at the office door " — indisposed, we have to rely on someone in-house."
"And my name came up, did it?" Because it never did come promotions time, though he'd aced the testing.
Bennington turned an unbecoming shade of chartreuse. Shacklebolt straight grimaced. "Your name came up."
Draco considered that, cast his own glance at the office door and frowned. "Who else is on the team?"
"No one," Shacklebolt snapped. "We're trying to keep this quiet, Malfoy. That doesn't happen with teams."
"Pfft. You're telling me you've lost Potter and several Weasleys, and the only person you're asking to get them back is me?"
"No one's lost anyone," Bennington said, hands fluttering in mad panic. Shacklebolt's eyes narrowed.
"Mrs. Longbottom and Mrs. Granger-Weasley asked for you personally, Malfoy," he said, and his tone promised that if Draco didn't produce adequate results, Shacklebolt looked forward to dealing with him personally, too.
And much as Draco hated his boss and the stuffy bureaucracy of the Ministry, he did rather like his job. Maybe not enough to pull off a miracle to save Potter from his own idiocy yet again, but Shacklebolt had accidentally stumbled on the magic word, so…
"Yeah, all right." Bennington sagged with unearned relief. Shacklebolt's posture eased. Draco smirked. "But what's in it for me?"
Right on cue, Bennington whimpered and Shacklebolt blazed. Merlin, it was good to be Slytherin.
The wee Weasleys thumped each other as though it was some strange fist-borne form of conversation. Tiny Potter sat dwarfed by his chair, both hands on the tiny handles of his sippy cup, eyes downcast. Draco spotted and dismissed these three, sought out the one he'd agreed for.
He found little Longbottom hiding across the room, as quiet as Potter and without the consolation of the juice.
Draco crouched by Longbottom and moderated his tone to keep from scaring the boy off outright. Lovegood would never forgive him.
"Longbottom?" Those cautious eyes lifted to his, hangdog expression in place. "Do you know who I am?"
Longbottom's chubby little face screwed up in thought. "Are you my dad?"
Oh, this assignment was going to be a charm.
"Was that part of the wedding service, or just a general requirement for joining the family?"
Granger frowned. "Wheeze."
His brows rose. "This sort of thing happens frequently then, does it?"
Granger sighed. "It's been known to, yes. They like to test the new products personally before they put them to market."
"Contain the damage, you mean?"
Granger smiled. "So to speak."
Lovegood — Longbottom now, but he'd always think of her as Lovegood — turned her vague attention his way. "I knew you could fix it, Draco." Her half-smile hadn't changed since her first year at Hogwarts, not even with the horrors of her last. He thought Lovegood far stronger than anyone guessed.
"It's not done yet," he said. He'd only just agreed, after all. "I'll need access to their lab and whatever formula they were using. Do we have any idea what they've taken?"
The Weaselette still couldn't meet his gaze. No surprise there. "It was meant to be a Childhood Chew," Granger said. "As best we can tell, they meant a sort of second childhood feeling from, erm, chewing gum."
The top Aurors in England, brought down by chewing gum. Yes, he could see why they might want to keep that quiet.
"Well, it worked."
"Not like that," the Weaselette said, mild annoyance colouring her freckled cheeks. "It wasn't supposed to physically make them children, it was supposed to make them feel like children."
He cast a glance at the office door. No point repeating that it had indeed done that. "How long was it meant to last?"
"Again, as best we can tell, until they stopped chewing the gum." Granger shifted in impatience. "They stopped chewing it four hours ago."
He found their recipe in, of all things, a hat box tucked beside a stack of Skiving Snackboxes and atop a collection of Exploding Wand packages. The Weaselette hovered at the doorway while he searched — though surely her need for a re-aged Potter would have diminished her apparent misery that he was poking through her brothers' things during their mutual incapacitation — and by the time he'd found what he was looking for, she'd huffed and sighed and sneered her way through an afternoon.
She'd warned him against a vague Accio in that room, because Merlin knew what might happen should any of this mess be dislodged in the process, but they really didn't have time for an ineffective Muggle search, so as soon as her freckled red head was turned, he flicked his wand and muttered his summons.
Which was good, because damned if he'd have gone near those wands any time soon.
Fixing this was not only going to be relatively simple, it would likely be fun. Perhaps he could talk to the Weasleys when this was done, make arrangements to look over…no, best not to think that. He had enough on his plate as it was without looking to add more.
And anyway, what were the chances the Weasleys would even agree? He suspected if The Weasel knew who was brewing his remedy, they'd have trouble convincing him to take it.
"You've found something, then?" Granger's voice caught him off-guard. He looked up from his purloined parchment grudgingly and nodded. "Something helpful?"
"Very." Much as he wanted to hold it his own secret until he'd worked through it all, the worry in her posture convinced him otherwise. "I'll have some research ahead of me, as your lot bunged up some fairly common theory in ways I've never seen before, but it's nothing I can't handle." Merlin help him, he even spared her a smile. "Don't worry, Granger. You'll have your Weasel safe and legal in no time. I swear."
"You swear?" She shot him a dubious look, then wrecked it with a slight smile of her own.
He held his wand hand up, held the other over his heart. "Malfoy honour. You'll have him back." Draco twisted to scan for onlookers, aware it was all quite beyond what he wanted his co-workers to spot. "Look, I've work to do and you've children to mind. I'll find you if I need you, yeah?"
Then he hurried back in to his lab, where he'd have no more dealings with compassion-causing Gryffindors.
"Look, we're thinking of taking them back to the Burrow for the night if you can't sort this out before bedtime," Granger said, glancing around the lab. "This really isn't a place for children."
"So I've heard." He didn't point out how much of his childhood he'd spent in the Malfoy lab with Severus or his mother. Four years after the Battle of Hogwarts, Severus' name was still somewhat touchy among those who'd fought.
"So you're all right if we leave, then?" She watched him; Merlin knew what for. He rubbed his temples to clear the fog of research gone too far and winced at the sound of squawking children when the door opened again.
"Well?" the Weaselette hissed. "Are we taking them home now or what? I think they're getting hungry and it's long since past their nap."
"What? Yeah, yeah." He waved a hand in dismissal, then cursed his own impetuousness. "No, sod it, not yet. It's a rush job, yeah? So I'll need access to at least one of them to monitor any changes in their condition." He thought it best not to mention the possible solution testing. Parents were notoriously squeamish about that sort of thing and under the circumstances, he thought he should consider these parents particularly attached. "Shall I ask Lovegood if she minds Longbottom staying?"
"We were hoping to keep them all together," Granger said. "You know, around children their own age so they wouldn't be as frightened." She glanced around his lab again, obviously disapproving of it as any place for children long term. "Were you planning to keep him in their little conference room, then?"
"No, I thought I might look through the Malfoy library for a bit. He can stay in Teddy's wing if he likes. There's loads of space there." Besides which, Pansy was due back with Teddy shortly and he could only imagine what she'd make of this mess if he wasn't there to collect the boy. Bad enough he'd had to call her in to Teddy-watch when he'd been called in to work. Right inconvenient, the Black sisters naffing off to the Continent like this, extended holiday or no.
Something glinted in Granger's eyes, something almost…Slytherin. Only years of Malfoy training kept him from gulping. "How much space?"
The wee Weasleys held Granger's hands in what appeared to be momentary docility. Wouldn't last, he suspected, but it was better than instant rampage and wild magic, which was good.
Little Longbottom held Lovegood's hand, sheepish and smiling sweet.
Tiny Potter held the Weaselette's hand all right, but only a total twit would miss the way the boy shuffled uncomfortably, the shy looks he gave his surroundings. Tiny Potter, Draco suspected, wanted to bolt.
Well, wasn't that interesting?
"C'mon, you lot, let's find the nursery and get you all settled, yeah?"
The wee Weasleys looked at each other — and there was trouble, right there — and beamed. Little Longbottom moved closer to Lovegood, hiding behind her robes. Tiny Potter shuffled his feet and cast a quick, frightened glance at the Weaselette, who's face pinched at something.
"You have a nursery?" she asked.
Draco raised a brow. "You're in the Malfoy ancestral manor, She-Weasel. Home of every Malfoy heir for centuries. You thought we were hatched from pods ready for Hogwarts?"
Granger opened her gob, undoubtedly to chastise him for something, but Lovegood stepped up instead.
"Now now, children, let's play nice, shall we?"
It grated only slightly that Lovegood wasn't looking at the nursery schoolers when she spoke.
"Teddy Cub." He caught the small projectile cousin and squeezed, part crush, part rib-tickle, just to hear Teddy's infectious laughter rolling through the Manor's too-quiet halls. How his parents had managed once he'd outgrown such sounds was beyond him — without Teddy there to lighten the atmosphere, he sometimes thought the place would stew in its own bleak memory.
As always, he found Teddy's face a rough, childish mirror of his own when he pulled back. Another Metamorphmagus for the family tree, he supposed, good-natured as Lupin — what he'd heard of the man's memory, anyway — and irrepressible as tales of his cousin Dora.
"Not Teddy Cub," Teddy pouted, then grinned and rubbed his now-pointed nose against Draco's. "Teddy Bear."
Draco pulled back further for inspection, cocking a brow and assuming feigned skepticism. "No, not just yet, I don't think. Still too small to be a proper bear." He pressed Teddy's nose like a button and watched it shift.
Teddy giggled again, then looked away, playing coy at the sound. Almost as soon as he'd done that, Teddy gasped and turned back, wide-eyed and incredulous. "There's kids in the Manor, Uncle Dragon," he stage-whispered.
"I know," Draco stage-whispered back. "They're friends of mine and they're staying here tonight. Is that all right?"
"In my room?"
"In your nursery."
Teddy considered that with all the solemnity Draco supposed a four-year-old might give the situation. The boy looked back at the group warily, then back at Draco to nod. "Yeah, all right. But just for tonight."
"Merlin, Draco, where've you been?" Pansy strolled through the doorway from the parlour, something he suspected was only pretending to be a proper cuppa in her hand. He knew the moment she spotted the group behind him – she was too Slytherin to react much at all. "Hello, Luna. Draco, are we having some sort of Gryffindor slumber party and I've forgotten?"
"Hullo, Pansy," Lovegood said, dreamy smile in place. "There's been an accident and Draco offered to help us fix it."
"Accident? What sort of accident?"
"Please, sir, could you find the Dursleys?"
She sought some nuance in him before answering. "What brought them up?"
"Potter wanted me to find it — them. What am I looking for?"
"They're his Muggle relatives."
"Oh." Draco frowned in thought. "Dunno how to get Muggles to the Manor. Maybe if you could get them to your Burrow, we could Floo them over? Can Muggles Floo? Or should I be trying to crack the Muggle repelling wards on the gates?"
Granger's expression softened. "You'd do that for him? Let Muggles in Malfoy Manor?"
"He's a child, Granger. Bad enough he's surrounded by things he doesn't recognize and things he doesn't understand. Even I'm not cruel enough to keep him from the people who'd make him feel safe."
She looked away then; he didn't know why, but he understood the need to compose one's self with a modicum of privacy. When she turned back, something steel showed in the set of her mouth. "I appreciate what you're trying to do, really I do, but trust me on this, the Dursleys won't make him feel safe at this age. How much do you know about Harry's childhood?"
Several minutes later, Granger's hand laid atop his while he absorbed what he'd learned.
His first question — and only, he swore, it wasn't his to discern Potter's deepest darkest secrets without the man's leave — seemed to surprise her.
"Was Dumbledore trying to make him a Muggle hater?" Because really, Draco couldn't see any other rationale.
Granger frowned. "Let's not ask Harry that, shall we?"
"Would you mind?" Lovegood asked, laying a hand on her belly. "I would, I mean, but I'm right knackered. Maybe if I just have a bit of a sit?"
Lovegood, pregnant. With a real Little Longbottom. Something inside him softened. "Yeah, yeah, you go have a kip, yeah? I've got a handle on these little monsters."
"Yeah, I'll be fine. Or rather, we will be. Won't we, lads?" He turned back to the boys, who stared at him silent and unblinking until Teddy agreed, at which point both little Gryffindors followed suit. Really, the whole thing was remarkably soppy and if he didn't watch himself, he'd make Hagrid look stalwart in the face of adorable danger.
On no planet did Draco believe three four-year-olds harmless.
Draco wasn't surprised — but all the boys were — when Tiny Potter caught each one he chased.
Then it was out and dried and into pyjamas, soft and fluffy. Teddy's had snitchy spots, Longbottom's had dancing stripes, and Potter's had…oh. Tiny fangless serpents. Which, apparently, he was trying to talk to.
While Teddy gushed that he'd only ever met one other Parselmouth and Longbottom asked how Teddy even knew one, Tiny Potter snuffled Grr, Draco's old stuffed dragon, hiding in well-worn green fur.
"I see you've met Grr." Draco crouched down, aware that standing tall over this lot cowed all but Teddy. Potter froze, then nodded, nose burying into the toy, fingers curled to white knuckles. "D'you like him? He was always my favourite." Those big green eyes were killing him. Just doing him in right there. With eyes like those, Draco really had to wonder how anyone saw the scar first. Tiny Potter was…scared? Waiting? Something solemn, far more so than any child that age should be. At four, Draco remembered playing with the house-elves and Pansy while their parents talked downstairs, not bracing like any word could be a strike.
Ideological shift aside, he thought maybe Muggle hating wasn't all bad. Just needed to find the right Muggles to hate, hadn't he? "D'you want to hear a secret?"
Tiny Potter's eyes shifted. Gor, they were near impossible to look at properly like that, open and honest and broadcasting his ache. "Yes," Tiny Potter said, mumbling quiet into the fur. Draco smiled and thought maybe Tiny Potter did, too.
"When I was little, Grr used to sleep with me. And before I went to sleep, I'd crawl into bed, snuggle up close, and ask him to tell me a story."
Somehow, Tiny Potter's eyes widened. "And did he?"
"Yeah. Yeah, he did."
Tiny Potter thought that over. "Will he tell me a story, d'you think?"
"Maybe. If you're good." Like Potter, tiny or not, could be anything but. Draco ruffled the boy's hair absently, irritated with the Muggle gits again when Tiny Potter stiffened.
"Oh." Tiny Potter frowned. Wrong as it was to see that expression on Big Potter's face, it was worse on this one. "I'm not very good."
"Bollocks. You're very good and anyone who says different should be…" He paused to find some child-suitable punishment, aware hexing madly wouldn't cut it with someone this skittish. "…should be turned green and left to stay that way."
"Green?" Tiny Potter giggled. "People aren't green."
"But some of them should be." And because it worked with Teddy, Draco poked Tiny Potter's adorable tiny nose. Tiny Potter scrunched his face accordingly.
Then Tiny Potter thought something over. "Will you tell me a story?"
"Would you really like one?"
Tiny Potter nodded. "If that's all right."
"From me, I mean, and not from Grr? He tells them brilliantly." He couldn't, in good conscience, allow a man who generally hated him — when he wasn't avoiding him — to snuggle up for a bedtime story over a potions mishap. Not feeling as he did.
But he found he couldn't say no to the boy, either, which was something of a dilemma.
Tiny Potter swiped his foot across the floor, toeing the carpet as he squeezed Grr.
"Shouldn't you be working?" Weaselette asked.
"Taking a break," he said. "Union rules." He flashed her a false smile, watched Granger titter. Clearly, she'd had more than enough of whatever they'd been adding to their cups. "Actually, just letting a few of the ingredients combine. Need time to steep, yeah?"
"Steep?" Oh, the Weaselette was going to be a right charm, he could tell. Git.
"I could give you the long, drawn-out explanation of Potions theory involved, but I thought you'd prefer the prettied up version. Most don't like hearing just what they'll be ingesting. Or, erm, feeding loved ones."
Granger nodded like that was sage. Weaselette rolled her eyes.
"I thought so." Then, because it was bothering him just a tad, he said, "Granger, Shacklebolt said you'd asked for me personally." And Merlin, wasn't that awkward as hell?
"Luna said you'd be able to do it. Said she trusts you with her life. Or Neville's, as it happens. Is she wrong?"
"No." He frowned. "Just seems a strange choice is all. Me, helping your lot."
Pansy slid in then, goblet in hand and tipsy smile in place. "Oh, Dragon, now what did you do?"
If he didn't need her help with Teddy — well, and if they hadn't that twenty-year friendship to consider, as well — there were times he thought he'd hex her horns on general principle.
"What makes you think it's me?"
"S'always you." He scowled. "Unless it's Potter." Pansy beamed, tipped her glass to drain it. "Or you on Potter. Darling, I love you dearly, but if you don't sort yourself soon, he'll straight himself into marriage and you'll be the sad old git trolling the clubs for your monthly blow."
Then she cackled, the Weaselette swore, and Granger nearly fell off her chair.
"Worse than her bloke turning preschooler?"
"More like her bloke turning bent," Pansy muttered. Draco's brows didn't quite launch off his forehead, but it was a close thing indeed.
Pansy turned to Granger and Lovegood, and said, conversationally, "Honestly, s'like he never wants to get shagged, this one. Staring since fourth year and can't work up the stones to say. Been my life's work, I tell you, convincing him Potter's as bent as, well, a really bent thing. Rainbows and belly shirts and terribly cheesy dance music." Draco worked to reacquire speech. Pansy turned to him. Laid a hand on his knee and said, as though he were a particularly dim child himself, "Draco, honey, like I keep telling you, Potter is gay."
"Potter. Is. Four."
"Yeah, but you'll fix that soon, won't you?" Pansy smiled. Draco groaned.
Pansy, for obvious reasons, was not among them.
"So I've solved the problem, I think," he said, waving at the nearest cauldron absently.
"Already?" Weaselette frowned.
"Child's play," he said, and he smirked a bit when Granger snorted. "Oh, honestly, Weasley, it's not that difficult. Your brothers blew a fairly simple rule. Once I had their notes, it was mostly a matter of recreating what they'd done to test the possible solutions."
"And you've done that? We're taking them home now?"
"Not quite." He frowned himself. "I've a bit of testing left."
"What sort?" Weaselette shuffled her feet. Granger cocked her head.
"Thought you said you'd need them by for that. Shall I wake them?" Granger offered.
"No, no, not yet. I don't run live subject tests first." Not to mention his newfound love of all things afternoon nap. Even if, technically-speaking, it wasn't quite afternoon.
"So what, you test the dead ones?" Weaselette turned nasty, ginger-clashing pink.
"Where it's possible, I test it on myself," he said, and watched the others fall into fluster.
Like sodding clockwork, that.
"Yeah. Sure as I can be." That ball of nerves lodged in his throat was a good thing, really it was. Adrenalin or whatnot. Nothing to worry about, all part of his process.
Though he rather thought he'd take it harder than normal should this fail.
"If anything happens to you, Malfoy, we've no other choices. I mean, no one else even knows aside from your boss and Kingsley, and the only reason we told them was because we couldn't just pull you off your job for however long this took without informing your superiors. Not even Molly knows."
"Nothing'll happen to me, Granger."
Odd, having that Gryffindor concern for himself. Strange, but nicely so.
"Dead," he said, and he ran through his plan one last time, a final check before he launched into what he hoped would prove mere mild entertainment rather than overt disaster. "There's more."
"This should fix your hair," he said, handing her the yellow phial. "The colour, anyway. Not sure it'll do much for the rest, but it should fix the ginger."
She sniffed suspiciously, then frowned bemusement. "Lemons?"
"Drink it or don't, I leave that to you. But, well, as I'm sorting Wheezes anyway…" He trailed off because really, what was he meant to say? Nice things for Gryffindors. Honestly. Draco pulled out the rack of potions he'd set cooling, set them on the counter beside his notes. "And, if you're up to it, something else to test."
Her brows shot up. "What's this?"
He smirked. Handed her the blue, then hefted his red. "It's a Wheeze," he said, and slugged his back before he could think better of it.