...and with persons even worse
"Why me?" Harry stood in front of Robards' desk, arms crossed over his chest.
Robards returned Harry's glare without blinking or flinching. "Name another Auror capable of doing this?"
His mind clicking through the Aurors who were available to take on an undercover assignment, Harry opened his mouth to say something then shut it again. Everyone else was either too old or in a serious relationship. Not someone Robards could ask to go undercover down Maiden Alley. "I hate you," he said.
"Business as usual then." Robards laughed and waved at the chairs across from his desk. "Sit down," he said, "and read this."
Harry did as he was told with great reluctance. It wasn't that he couldn't do what Robards wanted. He just thought there ought to be another way. He sighed as he sat down, tugging awkwardly at his robes — he just couldn't seem to sit down without getting them twisted uncomfortably around his legs. Some days he wished Hogwarts had given lessons in how to move in the bloody things.
At a wave of Robards' wand, a folder floated over from the top of a filing cabinet to settle on the side of the desk in front of Harry. The cover flipped open to show a photograph of a man. The skinny silver jeans that hung low on his too-thin hips were partly open, showing patches of blond curly hair. His torso was bare and littered with scars, cursed and otherwise. He was the only unmoving object in the scene.
"Anders Holst," Robards said. "He worked the third lamppost down from the corner of Maiden Lane and Angel Alley in Lower Knockturn."
After a quick scan of the case notes, Harry moved to the next set of photographs. Another unmoving body, this one with dark hair, light-brown skin, and a chimaera tattooed on his chest.
"Taj Kowsik. Corner of Flowers Street and Angel Alley."
A third, a fourth, and then a fifth set of photographs and case notes. The only things the victims had in common was that they were males, in their early to mid-twenties, and they worked the alleys of Lower Knockturn. And they were all dead from an as-yet-unidentified curse.
"All from the same stable?" Harry asked.
"That would be too easy. Three were from Rastrick's bunch, one from Carlyle's, and one independent. Different times of night. Different days of the week."
"Four purebloods and one half-blood," Harry mused aloud, the threads of the cases spun through his mind as he tried to form a pattern with them. "So it's not about blood status, unless the half-blood was a mistake?"
"You're not the only one to think that," Robards said.
Harry raised his head and looked into Robards' eyes. "Why me?"
"This case is getting attention from the top, despite the fact that the victims are all prostitutes. No one wants another Ripper. The Ministry had a hard enough time keeping the first one covered up after he moved into Muggle London." Robards sighed and rubbed his ever-expanding bald spot. "We've got all the usual protocols in place. Teams of Unspeakables and Aurors are researching the case and doing door-to-door enquiries. We've activated the usual monitoring spells for the duration, but they're giving us next to nothing. I need someone down there."
"Someone who fits the profile?"
"Someone who's willing to do what it takes." Robards waved a hand at the photographs. "I can't imagine that just standing on a street corner, looking pretty, is going to do the job here. You're going to have to be one of them."
Turning back to the first set of photographs, Harry slumped back in his chair and stared at the victim for a few long seconds. Had he seen this man? Talked to him during one of the endless patrols in Lower Knockturn? Arrested him for possession of illegal potions? There'd been so many of them, men and women of all ages, some out under the harsh lamplight and others clinging to the shadows.
A memory rose up out of the depths of Harry's mind, of white blond hair shining through darkness and fog. At the time he'd thought it was Malfoy, but maybe it had been Holst.
Biting his lip, Harry closed his eyes briefly. He really didn't have a choice, did he? "All right," he finally said, wishing he knew what he was letting himself in for.
Draco took up his usual perch on the window seat where he could see everyone but was at least half-hidden by the curtains from most of them. He drew his legs up in front of him, wrapped his arms around his shins, and considered the others. They were all there, even the few who usually worked mornings and those, like Draco, who'd not been long home after a long night's work . He frowned at the empty armchair which stood at the front of the room.
What in Salazar's name could be so important that it had Rastrick demanding everyone be there? He gave the room another sharp glance, but no one else was missing. Not someone else murdered then.
"Shift over," Pansy hissed at him.
"Get your own seat," Draco whispered back, but he let her push his feet apart and settle against his legs.
Before Pansy could ask the questions that he couldn't answer, Bartolomew Rastrick strode into the room and settled into his armchair. Tall and almost skeletally thin, with long brown hair and a penchant for silk, Rastrick's terminal amusement always left Draco feeling somehow betrayed. No one who looked like that, who made his money the way Rastrick did, should be that happy, that incapable of sarcasm. Draco didn't trust him one bit.
As if summoned by Draco's thoughts, Rastrick smiled and said, "Good morning, sunshines." A snap of his fingers brought the house-elves popping into the room, bearing trays of tea, coffee, and breakfast for all of them.
Draco accepted a cup of strong black coffee from Roxy, waving away the proffered plate of muffins and croissants. It was far too early to eat anything, and the sickly sweet and utterly vile smell coming from Pansy's bowl of golden syrup, with a dash of porridge for flavour, wasn't helping.
He was about to tell her where to take it and herself, when Rastrick cleared his throat. So Draco settled for digging the pointed toe of his boot into her side.
"Stay still," she murmured and rested her bowl on his knees.
"So glad you could all make it this morning," Rastrick said, cutting off Draco's oh-so-smart and vicious retort. "I know it's a bad time for some of you, but there's never a good time to bring everyone together in this house. And it's important that you're all aware of what's going on."
"Did someone else die?" Carl Fairclough mumbled through a mouthful of toast.
"Prat," Draco muttered under his breath.
"Of course not, my dear." Rastrick smiled at him over the rim of his teacup. "Take a look around you. We're all here this morning. Even our loved ones who have moved on to their next great adventure." He raised his cup to the photographs hung over the fireplace. "Now, I'm sure you're all wondering what I'm nattering on about."
"Hardly. We're wondering why you can't get to the bloody point so we can get to bed."
Pansy slapped Draco's leg, and he scowled at her. "Shut up or he'll blather on forever," she whispered.
Rastrick continued before Pansy could respond. "We are about to welcome a very special guest into our home. An Auror, or possibly an Unspeakable." He paused to let the noise die down, then said, "At this point, I don't know who the Ministry is sending, but you will welcome him with open arms. I want the bastard who has been killing my lovelies caught and punished, and this is the best way to make that happen."
"There's got to be a better way," Draco said, his quiet comment carrying through the unexpected silence.
"If you've got a suggestion, Draco, please share it." Rastrick looked directly into Draco's eyes.
"Just about anything has to be better than letting the Ministry in," Draco said. "How do you expect us to welcome someone who's probably had a hand in arresting at least one of us?"
"He's got a point," Markos Alatza said and a chorus of voices spoke up in agreement.
Then Lavender Brown asked, "When was the last time any of us were arrested?"
"Lavender has a point," Rastrick said. "It's been more than a year since Portia was arrested, and she was set free the next day. Without charges, might I add."
"Treated me lovely when I was in the nick," Portia said, primping her long, blonde wig and crossing her legs in a way that ensured her slit skirt fell open and exposed them from hip to ankle.
"Bitch," Pansy said. "He looks better in that dress than I ever could."
Draco ignored her, far more concerned about the fact that Rastrick was looking at him once again. That never boded well, in his experience.
"Now," Rastrick said, smiling at Draco in a way that sent a cold shiver down Draco's spine. "Let us finish breakfast and be on with our day. Draco, darling, if you don't mind, I'd like to speak with you in my sitting room when you're done."
"Draco's in trouble," Pansy said in a sing-song voice.
Unable to disagree with her, Draco looked down at his coffee. Just when I'd finally grown to like it here, he thought.
Spinning his cup out into the air, he pulled his wand just in time to catch it with a spell and land it gently on the closest table. He yanked his legs out from under Pansy, ignoring her shrieks of objection at having porridge splashed over her clothes, and took off for his bedroom and a little peace and quiet. He had a feeling he'd need it.
Harry smiled at himself in the mirror, liking what he saw. A spell had dimmed the green of his eyes to a grey-green. A handful of Spikeazy had his hair under control, spiked up in the back and pulled down into a long fringe that obscured his forehead and left eye. A combination of Muggle hair dye and a styling spell had darkened his hair, turned the tips green, and made sure that the colour wouldn't fade before he was ready.
Lifting his fringe carefully, Harry examined his forehead. The makeup was doing a great job of reshaping his face and covering up his scar. Without magic, there was nothing to draw any attention to his forehead. Someone would have to be extremely close to see it. He smiled, amused as always by how very few people recognised him without his scar and glasses.
Leaning in towards the mirror, Harry used his wand to narrow and shape his eyebrows. Then he drew dark black lines around his eyes with a pencil and smudged them carefully. A little gloss made his lips shine.
"You'll do," he told his reflection, then he bit his lip. The change in his voice, the way it had deepened and gained a rasp after a — thankfully misfired — beheading spell still surprised him, but it would help with his disguise. As would a general disguising spell, he thought, casting one that changed absolutely nothing about him but would give people the impression that he looked completely different.
Gathering up his makeup, he went into the bedroom and stowed it away in his bag. A pair of heeled boots added a couple of inches to his height, and then he was ready. He shrugged on his leather jacket, slung his rucksack over his shoulder, and went downstairs to the Floo.
Three spinning trips later, with a long walk between the second and the third to ensure that he couldn't be traced, Harry stepped out of the Floo into a room that seemed to have been decorated to match a picture in one of his Aunt Petunia's design magazines. Harry hated it on principle.
"Welcome, Mr..." Bartolomew Rastrick arched an eyebrow at Harry, obviously waiting for him to fill in the blank. His black silk house-robes were the exact same shade as the cushions on the turquoise sofa.
"Griffin Hale," Harry said. "Most people call me Griff."
Rastrick's gaze swept over Harry from head to toe, and he nodded. "You will most definitely do. Although the clothing will have to change. More leather, I think." He tapped his lips with a long finger. "The gloss is a lovely touch. The men will flock to you."
"Not the women?" Harry pretended not to notice the imperious twirl of Rastrick's fingers that was clearly an indication for him to turn around.
"Perhaps. Although my female clients tend to prefer a more... comfortable venue than the streets for their trysts. As for you, my lovely Auror—"
To Harry's relief, the door opened and interrupted whatever Rastrick had been about to say. That feeling disappeared quickly when Draco Malfoy walked through the door. Malfoy looked stunning. He wore black skinny jeans and a tunic-style top that buttoned to right about where his belly button would be and then split into a sharp vee to frame his hips and draw attention to—
Harry yanked his attention and his eyes upwards only to look directly into Malfoy's knowing smirk. Rolling his shoulders to relax them, Harry tried to put aside the instinctive reaction to Malfoy that would give him away in less than a second. "Hullo," he said and smiled at Malfoy, gratified by the minute widening of Malfoy's eyes and the way one of Malfoy's hands rose up towards his hair and then dropped down by his side again.
"Draco, my dear." Rising gracefully, Rastrick went over to Malfoy and gave him a hug and a kiss on both cheeks. "So glad you could join us."
Malfoy stiffened before relaxing and kissing Rastrick's cheeks in return, which interested Harry even more than Malfoy's reaction to his smile. All was definitely not as well between Rastrick and his stable as he'd led the Aurors to believe. Harry filed that information away as he watched Rastrick lead Malfoy over to him.
"Draco, this is Griffin Hale," Rastrick said. "Griff, this is Draco Malfoy." He hesitated, then added, "I don't care what you know about Draco's past. He's a good man and one of my very best. You will treat him with respect. And, Draco, I want you to show Griff the ropes, make sure he doesn't embarrass me out there."
The smirk that twisted Malfoy's lips sent a familiar thrill down Harry's spine. He gritted his teeth and gave Rastrick a nod. "I'm sure we'll manage."
"Are you now?" Malfoy gave Harry a quick once-over. "I hope you know what you're getting yourself into," he said. "This job isn't as easy as the books would have you believe."
Harry smiled. "Since I haven't read any of those books, I should be just fine."
One of Malfoy's eyebrows rose, and his lips twitched. "An Auror among the great unread," he drawled. "What a complete non-surprise."
An Auror? Harry blinked and tried to keep his surprise from showing on his face. What the hell had Rastrick done? Exposed him just to Malfoy or to his whole stable? He turned to say something to Rastrick, but all he could see was the tail-end of the man's robes disappearing through a door that had been hidden behind the curtains that were draped over the far wall.
"Well?" Malfoy said from the door, his voice sharp and snotty as ever. "Are you coming or do I have to draw you a map?"
Sparing one last glance for the wall with the once-again invisible door, Harry shrugged and forced himself back into the character of Griffin Hale. He curved his lips up into a smile and said, "Always assuming I can read a map."
Malfoy's laugh echoed around the hallway as they walked up the stairs. "You just might do," he said.
As he followed Malfoy up the stairs, Harry couldn't quite decide if that was a good thing or not.
The room next to Draco's looked nothing like it had even twenty-four hours earlier. The red and black Muggle football scarves were gone from the bedposts, the curtains were back to brown velvet, and the shelves that had been full of weird Muggle and Wizarding gadgets and statuettes were gone. The entire room felt as if no one had ever lived there, and certainly not Taj with his inexplicable love for the strange and different.
He missed Taj, missed his laughter and his smile, and the way he hadn't so much as hesitated before welcoming Draco into the fold. Merlin, he even missed the way Taj had teased and taunted him.
Swallowing down the grief that was rising from deep inside him, Draco turned around. He crossed his arms over his chest and allowed himself the time to examine Griff. For Gryffindor, he wondered, but then dismissed the thought. It was also the kind of name a Slytherin would choose for the simple reason that it would make people assume Gryffindor.
Draco sighed and massaged the bridge of his nose.
"Will I do, then?" Griff asked.
Stung by the thread of amusement in Griff's voice, Draco twisted his lips into a deliberate smirk and sauntered towards him. "I don't know," he said. "Will you? Do you have what it takes to put yourself out there? Can you look the part you need play?"
"Isn't working that out your job?"
"Just a very tiny bit of it." Draco circled Griff, trailing his fingers over Griff's chest, arm, and back. The solidity of him, of his muscles, sent a shiver down Draco's spine. He crowded in behind him. "How do you feel," he touched his lips to Griff's earlobe, "about having strangers touch you, " he slid a hand over Griff's hip, "fondle you," he grazed his thumb over Griff's hardening cock, "act like they own you."
The breath Griff sucked in was audible, but he didn't flinch. He did hesitate, just long enough for Draco to wonder if he'd scared him off, but then he pressed back against Draco and rotated his hips, rubbing his arse against Draco's cock. "I think I can handle it."
His tone of voice, the way he wrapped a hand around Draco's wrist, had Draco wanting to hex him. He stepped back, smiling tightly when Griff stumbled before regaining his balance.
"The makeup's a good touch," Draco said, "but you'll need tighter clothes if you want anyone to give you a second look out there."
"A few tailoring spells can take care of that." Stepping away, Griff put some space between them.
His amusement was gone, and an odd sense of loss mixed in with Draco's triumph at that. "Tailoring spells won't help that shirt," he said, curling his lip disdainfully. "Unless, of course, you're looking to attract deluded Hufflepuffs who think paying for a blow job means you care."
Griff twitched, his jaw flexed, and his hand rose and fell in an abortive movement that was almost familiar.
Before he could chase that thought down, however, there was a quick knock on the door and Lavender stuck her head into the room. "Rastrick said to tell you that you're on tonight and you're to take him with you."
"Tonight?" Griff coughed.
Tilting her head, Lavender gave him a thoughtful look before she moved into the room. Her hair was up in a ponytail, exposing the scars left from the war. "Hi," she said, "I'm Lavender Brown."
An indefinable emotion flashed through Griff's eyes as his gaze slid over Lavender's scars.
Draco tensed, ready to defend Lavender if Griff proved himself to be like half the Aurors they'd run into on the street. Gryffindor she might be, but she took care of Pansy out there and that meant far more to Draco than any long-dead school rivalry.
A minute tremor went through Griff's body — one that Draco would have missed if he hadn't been watching so closely. "Griff Hale," he said, giving her a small bow that would have been more than acceptable in the upper circles of Wizarding society where Draco had once lived.
Lavender giggled and dipped into a small, wobbly curtsey. When she straightened up, she said, "I think we should keep him."
Rolling his eyes, Draco said, "If he proves himself and brings in enough galleons, I'm sure Rastrick will do whatever it takes to separate him from the Aurors."
To Draco's shock, rather than taking offence, Griff laughed. A deep, rich sound with a raspy edge that seemed to fill the room and made it feel less empty. "I've always been a bit rubbish at turning down a challenge," Griff said.
"The question is," Draco drawled, "whether I'm supposed to help you or hinder you in that challenge."
"I'll help," Lavender said, a trifle too eagerly.
"Not quite," Draco said. "You'll go downstairs and tell Rastrick that we'll be ready."
"Fine. Be that way." Lavender stuck her tongue out at Draco and left the room in a huff.
"One of these days, she's going to learn discrimination even if it kills her." Draco snorted and added under his breath, "or me."
"Does that mean you're going to help me?" Griff grinned at him. "After all, why give Rastrick the satisfaction of knowing you hated the babysitting job he dumped on you? Much better to succeed beyond his wildest dreams."
Nothing for nothing was Draco's mantra these days. He'd learnt the hard way that if he didn't take care of himself, no one else would give a shit. "I couldn't care less about Rastrick's satisfaction. If I do this, I want to be part of your investigation. I want to help you catch the bastard who killed my friends. I don't want to sit on the sidelines—" Draco bit off the last word, gritting his jaw to hold in this time.
Silence hung between them as Griff stared at Draco. Long enough, tense enough that Draco had to draw on all of his training, all of his experience at his father's side, to stop himself from fidgeting, from saying something just to break it. He didn't, though. He kept his head up and his shoulders back, and he met Griff's gaze without backing down.
After what felt like forever, Griff nodded. "All right," he said. "As long as you help and don't hinder."
"Speaking of which," Draco said, arching an eyebrow. "There's a small matter of your wardrobe that is in desperate need of help."
Griff winced, and Draco allowed himself a single, fierce smile.
It wasn't really that cold out, not for London in October anyway, but the brush of a chilly breeze over the bared strip of skin between Harry's t-shirt and the top of his, now very low-slung, leather trousers was very odd and strange. Not exactly bad, more like awkward, uncomfortable, exposed. He sighed and clenched his hands into fists to stop himself from tugging on the hem of his t-shirt.
A wizard paused a few feet away, looking awkward and determined at the same time. Without thinking, Harry faded back into the shadows and began cataloguing the man's appearance. Colouring, height, weight, clothing, anything that could be used to identify the man later if he turned out to be a person of interest.
Then Malfoy moved into Harry's line of sight, approaching the wizard in the same way he'd approached so many others that night. Malfoy seemed to glide, his hips rolling as he walked, drawing attention to his long legs and his arse. Light flashed in his hair as he tilted his head and smiled provocatively, and Harry stared for a few seconds before remembering that he was supposed to be doing the same thing, that watching Malfoy from the shadows wouldn't help him catch this particular killer.
Harry stepped out up to the edge of the pool of light cast by a streetlamp. The wizard raised his head and looked past Malfoy at him. Unable to summon a smile, Harry lifted a hand and dragged it through his hair, cocking one hip, as he'd seen the others do.
The wizard's attention went from Malfoy to Harry, and Harry's heart began to pound. He could do this, he told himself. It wasn't that different from going to a club and pulling a good-looking bloke, or from playing around in the back rooms at Velvet and Steel. A blow job was a blow job, right? Shouldn't make that much difference if the stranger was paying for it or not.
Another step brought Harry further out into the light, gaining him more of the wizard's attention. And that's when Malfoy shook his head, leaned in towards the wizard, and whispered something in his ear. The wizard licked his lips and nodded at Malfoy, and then they were leaving, Malfoy a half-step behind.
Hand dropping down to the nearly invisible sheath that held his wand, Harry stared after them. "Interfering pillock," he muttered. "I almost had that one."
A high-pitched laugh had Harry swinging around.
"Let it be, love. Our Draco's been around enough to handle anything that bloke's limited imagination could possibly come up with." Portia came to stand next to Harry. Even with four-inch heels, she barely came up to his shoulder.
"I'm supposed to be one of you. How can I blend in if no one lets me have my turn?"
Turning, Portia studied him. "Is that what you really want? To walk off with one of our clients? Go down on your knees for some bloke who hasn't washed in a week? For an old man who expects you to get it up for him even though he hasn't been able to in years?" She shook her head. "It's not like the clubs out here. They're not all fit blokes looking for a good time."
"I'm not a complete idiot," Harry said. "I've spent enough time down here to see what happens."
"Have you? Really?"
"Yes," Harry insisted, although he was far less sure than he was trying to make himself and Portia believe. "And I know the spells."
"Do you now?" Amusement flared in Portia's eyes. "And I suppose you think a client will just stand there while you point your wand at his bits?"
Harry winced. "I can always cast them wandlessly."
"Or on yourself."
"Right. Yeah. All right." Harry felt a bit like an idiot. "I can do that."
"Of course, you can."
Not knowing how to respond to that, Harry turned his attention back to the street. Carl was on his way back from his last client, hands in his pockets, whistling tunelessly. Markos was leaving with a short, plump man whose long moustache was waxed to sharp points.
"Go on, then," Portia murmured, nodding towards a man hovering nearby. "Give him your best shot."
When Harry hesitated, she gave him a little push and that drew the man's attention to Harry.
"You're new around here," he said, frowning at Harry.
"I've been around." Harry bit his lip. He hadn't really thought through how to deal with this. Reaching up, he ran his fingers in his hair again, feeling strangely accomplished when the man's gaze dropped down to the bare skin at Harry's waist and then down further to the few hairs that curled over the waistband of his trousers.
The intensity of the attention being given to him was creepy and hot at the same time. Harry licked his lips and shoved his hands in his pockets to avoid reaching for his wand. You can't arrest him unless he tries to kill you, Harry reminded himself. "So..." he said, lengthening the vowel, trailing off, trying to get the man to say something.
"So." The man raised his head slowly. He looked at Portia for a second, then back at Harry. His gaze was a weight on Harry's skin, making it feel much more real than it had when he'd watch the others come and go. "My usual," he said, "at the usual price: ten galleons."
"Oh, honey, pull the other leg, it's got bells on." Portia's laugh was light, but Harry could hear the steel beneath it. "Our Griff may be new to this corner, but that doesn't make him cheap. You want a blow job, you pay the going rate, twenty galleons."
This time the man's gaze was almost obscene. Judging Harry. Holding him up against some standard that Harry couldn't even imagine.
"I... I... all right," the man finally said, his head bobbing.
The walk to the protected alley where Rastrick's stable took clients who didn't need a room seemed endless. Harry distracted himself by taking mental notes of everything the man did, everything he seemed to be feeling. Nervous and sweaty, rubbing his palms over his robes in a constant motion. Occasionally muttering to himself, far too quietly for Harry to understand more than occasional syllables.
At the entrance to the alley, he paused as if to say something to Harry but then gestured for him to go ahead. "After you."
"This way," Harry said.
As soon as they walked past the barriers, carefully woven protection and privacy charms settled around them like dense fog, allowing them to see and hear each other. Only a few feet around them and the path to Harry's designated area were clear and visible. No way for them to accidentally stumble on someone else or be discovered while they were in there. He tensed, strained to hear, to see what was going on around them, but it was impossible.
The perfect venue for a murder, Harry realised. No wonder the monitoring spells were worse than useless. They weren't designed to penetrate this kind of spellweb. The Unspeakables would need to have a conversation with Rastrick and his ilk. But first—
The client stopped dead, glanced from Harry to the brick-lined alcove and back again, and swiped his tongue over his fat lips. "I... I'm Davey," he said.
At a loss for what to do, Harry decided that he'd just do what he usually did. He ran a hand up over the back of his neck and stretched a little. That move worked for him in the clubs, and it seemed to work just as well now. Davey's eyes widened, his gaze slid down Harry's front, and he licked his lips again.
Getting close enough to touch, Harry hooked a finger in one of Davey's belt-loops. "So," he said. "You want a blow job?"
"Y-yes." Davey reached out and pressed his palm against Harry's chest. Heat and dampness from Davey's skin penetrated Harry's thin shirt. "You're strong. So much stronger."
Harry fingered the button of Davey's trousers. "I'll make it good."
"Money," Davey yelped. He dug into his pockets, pulling out some coins and shoving them at Harry, who had to let go of him so he could use both hands to catch them. And then, before Harry could do anything else, Davey said, "I can't. Not with you," and ran past him.
"You... can't..." Harry stared thoughtfully after Davey. He considered the coins in his hands for a moment before dropping them carefully into a bag. He retrieved his wand and ran it over the sweaty mark on his shirt, then left the alley and went back to his lamppost.
"And you just let him go off with that wanker?" Draco glared at Portia, who didn't look the least bit repentant. "Are you mad?"
"Griff will be just fine," Portia said. "Davey Mainwaring wouldn't hurt a fly, and you know it. Afraid of his own shadow, that one."
"Exactly my point," Draco said, throwing his arms up in the air. "Slytherin's balls, Portia. You just sent Daft Davey off with a man who's trained to cast first and ask questions later, and who's never done this before. What the hell were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that Griff would be safe with someone like that for his first time. You know as well as I do, that Davey's as likely to back out and run away as he is to go through with it." Portia stamped her foot on the ground. "Now shut it. You're scaring away the clients, and it's been an abominably slow night as it is."
And with that, she sashayed over to the edge of the sidewalk and posed there, with one hand on her hip. She looked like exactly what she was: a small man dressed as a woman. Flat-chested, with almost no hips to speak of, and yet she pulled as much if not more than any of the rest of them.
"Bitch," Draco muttered.
"I heard you," Portia called back. She fluffed her hair and fluttered her eyelashes at the man walking across the street. He blinked, then smiled and veered off, heading straight for her.
Draco sighed and leaned against the lamppost, posing with one foot flat against it. She was right. Angel was usually a lot busier on a Friday night.
"It's the murders," Griff said, as if reading his mind.
Shock made Draco bite the inside of his mouth. "Don't do that," he gritted out.
"What? Talk to you?"
"Sneak up on a person. That kind of behaviour will get you hexed around here." Draco stuck his tongue in the sore spot, tasting his own blood.
"Sorry." Griff looked apologetic, although Draco would have bet everything in his Gringotts' vault that he didn't mean it. "I'll try to walk more loudly next time."
They stood there silently for a few minutes, watched an older wizard begin to approach them and then Apparate away.
"Nothing happened," Griff finally said. "He shoved a handful of galleons at me and then scurried out of the alley like he was being chased by Dementors. No idea why, either."
"The client," Draco explained. "Davey Mainwaring, or Daft Davey, as we call him. He's a bit soft in the head, but he's harmless enough. Wouldn't harm a Glumbumble."
"I'll have him checked out anyway," Griff said.
"Of course. I can hardly expect you to trust me, can I?" Draco turned away from him to face the street. Men came and went, as he watched, walking to this alley and that with one or another of the prostitutes who worked along Angel Alley. A few glanced his way but all of them headed for someone else.
"Circe's tits," Draco swore. It had been years since he'd had such a bad night, not since those first awful weeks after Rastrick had found him in at the bottom of Pinturn Close, hungry and freezing. Selling his body had seemed so easy back then, until he'd actually tried to do it.
"It's not you," Griff murmured.
"The Prophet broke the news about the murders in tonight's edition."
"They..." Draco just stared at him. "Oh, for Merlin's sake, what a pack of bloody wankers. The bastard's killing rentboys. What have they got to be afraid of?"
"Aurors?" Griff said, with a wry twist to his mouth. "I've recognised more than one client tonight."
"Just brilliant." Draco sneered at him. "As if we didn't have enough to worry about, what with a killer after us."
Griff's shrug was diffident and vaguely familiar, teasing at the edges of memories that Draco had tried to suppress. Someone he'd known at Hogwarts, it had to be. He turned away, but not so far that he couldn't see Griff out of the corner of his eye. The real problem was that anyone could be hiding behind that faint haze of spellwork. Anyone with sufficient power to cast the charms, at least, and to maintain them. Not too much older than him, though, nor that much younger.
Draco started running through names, starting with the most likely suspects. He'd about come to an almost unbelievable conclusion when someone screamed. Feminine and high-pitched.
"Lavender," he yelled and began to run.
He could hear Griff behind him, but that only made him speed up. "Malfoy... Draco... wait!"
"Run faster," he called out, grabbing for a lamppost and using it to take the corner of Angel Alley and Flowers Street without slowing down. He nearly skidded and fell when he saw Lavender on her knees in the middle of a pool of blood, but Griff caught him around the waist and kept him upright.
He was warm, solid, reassuring, and Draco hated him in that moment. "Release me," Draco snapped.
"No," Griff said. "Not unless you can promise me that you won't race in there and destroy the evidence."
"Let. Me. Go. Unfeeling bastard."
Draco kicked backwards, lips thinning into a grim smile when his heel connected with Griff's shin, and Griff grunted with pain.
"I'll cuff you, if that's what it takes," Griff muttered.
A tremor ran through Draco's body. "You wouldn't dare."
"Yeah, I would."
But Griff released him anyway, and Draco didn't go rushing over to Lavender. Griff, or whoever the hell he was, had a point, after all, no matter how annoying it might be. Instead, Draco knelt on the street and held out a hand to her. "Lavender? What happened"
She looked up at him, expression strangely blank. "It's not mine," she said. "There was a man, and then another, but they're gone now."
"Where did they go?" Griff's voice was gentle. "Do you remember?"
"I don't. Nothing at all. It's all darkness. And blood." She looked down, at her hands, at the blood. "But I'm not bleeding." Panic crossed her face. "No. No. No. I wouldn't. I never changed, I promise."
"I know, Lavender," Griff said. "I know you wouldn't do anything like that. Not ever."
Draco frowned, his mind once again chasing after phantoms from his past.
But then Lavender started to cry, holding out her hands, blood-painted palms up. "Tell him, Draco, please. Tell him I wouldn't do this."
"He knows," Draco said. "Trust me, he knows."
"I need you to get up," Griff said. "Can you do that, Lavender? Get up as carefully as you can and come over to me."
"I know, but if you come over here, I'll take care of all that blood for you, and Draco can give you a hug."
Lavender stared down at her hands, at the blood around her. "Why don't I remember?"
"Obliviate," Draco murmured, and Lavender flinched as if he'd cast the spell on her.
"It's not your fault," Griff said and gave Draco a meaningful look.
Standing up, Draco moved towards Lavender until Griff shook his head. Then he held out his hand again. "Come on, Lavender. You can't stay there all night. You're far too pretty for that."
She giggled, raising her hand to her mouth and stopping partway. "I'm not pretty," she said, like she always did. "Not anymore."
"You're pretty to me," he said automatically, and beckoned to her.
This time she pushed herself up, looking down at her dress mournfully. "I liked this one. It was my favourite."
"The Aurors know all sorts of spells," Draco said. "I bet they'll be able to save it for you."
Griff winced and gave a minute shake of his head.
"Or get you another one just like it."
"All right," Lavender said. "If you promise."
"I promise," Griff spoke up. "But you've got to come over here first."
As she took one hesitant step after another, cracks of Apparation sounded behind them. Griff swore and pulled his wand, making a point of pointing it away from Lavender and Draco as he raised wards around them.
"Don't worry about them," Draco said, hoping he wasn't making promises that Griff wouldn't be able to keep. "They're not going to come anywhere near you until you're ready."
When she was free of the pool of blood, Griff said, "Stay there, all right. Just for a minute while I take care of that for you."
The spells were quick and fast, and not like any Draco had ever heard before, and when they were done, Lavender's dress and stilettos were in a protective casing and she was wearing soft, wool robes and flat shoes. Her "Oh" was more of a squeak than anything else, repeated when Griff cast another set of spells that cleaned the blood from her hands, drawing it into a phial.
"All done," Griff said, and Draco moved in, wrapping his arms around Lavender and drawing her off to the side. There'd be questions he knew, and answers he didn't want to know, like who'd died tonight, but for now, he'd worry about the friend who was crying in his arms.
Harry was tired, filthy, and more worried about Lavender than he could let on. He'd left her upstairs with Malfoy, Parkinson, and Portia. He knew they'd take care of her, but it wasn't anywhere near enough. Obliviation or not, she was the closest thing to a witness they'd had to any of these murders. Then again, if the killer had any idea that the Unspeakables had come up with a way to extract the remaining echoes of obliviated memories...
Biting his lower lip, Harry reminded himself that he needed to pay better attention to his thoughts. For all he knew, the killer could be a prostitute not a client. Someone in the house with them. He couldn't afford to take any chances. Not with Lavender's life. Or Malfoy's or Parkinson's, Harry's mind filled in before he could avoid finishing the thought.
He settled back on his heels in front of the hearth, watching the flames turn from the purple-edged green that identified a secure call to the normal yellow-red of a fire. A loud tick sounded in the room, and then the Snidget clock began to sing the hour. Late was the only word Harry could come up with as a wave of exhaustion swamped him. He reached up to rub his eyes, only to stop when he remembered that that would just smear makeup and eyeliner into them.
The door opened behind him, hinges squeaking as it did. Harry tensed and then relaxed a fraction when he realised who it was.
"Griff." Malfoy's voice was quiet, and he sounded as tired and stretched thin as Harry did.
"Yeah?" Harry bent his head, then pushed himself to his feet. His muscles ached with tension, but he gritted his teeth and turned around. An energy potion from his kit would take care of the worst of it.
Malfoy had changed into a dark red dressing gown and pyjama bottoms of the same thick, warm material. The pale skin of his hands, neck, and the exposed triangle of his chest gleamed in the candlelight. And Harry hated himself for noticing, especially now.
"It was Markos, wasn't it?"
"They think so. At least the blood is a match to the records at St Mungo's. They won't know for sure until they find his body, which should be some time tomorrow if this follows the same pattern as the previous deaths."
"But it hasn't, has it? You're here now, and Lavender was caught in the middle this time." Malfoy's upper lip curled. "I should have known this would happen when they sent the Ministry in. Making things worse, instead of stopping the killer."
"It's not—" Harry cut himself off. He went to shove his hands in his pockets to give himself something to do with them, something that wasn't reaching out to try and comfort Malfoy, but his wand got in the way. He stared down at it for a second then stuck it in his back pocket.
The thoughtful look on Malfoy's face as he looked at Harry's hand sent a jolt through Harry. He nearly yanked his wand back out of his pocket, but that would only draw more attention to it. Instead, he said, "You left Lavender alone?"
"She was hardly alone," Malfoy said, and Harry was caught between relief that he'd managed to distract him and an odd disquiet at seeing his expression close up again. "Almost everyone in the house is with her."
Harry nodded, because there wasn't anything he could say, and went to walk past Malfoy. A hand on his arm stopped him.
"Who are you?"
Keeping his eyes on the door and his back to Malfoy, Harry asked, "Does it matter? As long as I do my job."
"Perhaps not," Malfoy said, "but I suspect the answer to that question depends upon the answer to mine."
"Then it doesn't matter." Harry pulled his arm out from under Malfoy's hand and walked out of the room. He could hear Malfoy following him, down the hall and up the stairs, but he resolutely didn't look back. Not when he went into his room to get his kit, and not when he broke the seals he'd placed on the door to Markos's room.
A couple of hours later, after he'd placed the bags of evidence in his transport box and made sure they disappeared, heading for a tech's desk in the Ministry, and after he'd reapplied the seals and warded the room, Harry walked down the hall to check on Lavender.
She was in bed, curled up between Parkinson and Malfoy. All three were sound asleep, Malfoy on top of the covers.
"I'm sorry," Harry whispered, leaning against the doorpost. It was his fault that Lavender got caught up in this, all of this. He should have known, should have taken better care to make sure that his friends did more than just survive the battle. Eyes burning, he stood and watched over them, not leaving until the sky outside began to grow lighter and Malfoy began to stir.
Water ran off the roofs and dripped down to the ground. Street lamps shone through the fog, creating pools of light amid the swirling white and grey. The streets were nearly empty, and those desperate enough to come down to Lower Knockturn were willing to pay whatever it took to get what they needed.
It was only Draco and Griff that night. Draco had seen a few others flitting around, but no one seemed to be pulling.
Footsteps sounded nearby, slow and even, echoing off the walls. Goosebumps rose on Draco's skin, and a shiver ran through him, but he forced himself to straighten up and move into the light.
It was Griff.
Draco took a step back, wanting to watch without being seen before he was ready.
But it was too late for that. Griff paused in the middle of the street and looked at him. There were shadows in his grey-green eyes that Draco didn't remember from that first day. A heaviness that rounded his shoulders and made him seem as if he was bearing the weight of the world, not just the investigation.
"Is it worth staying out?" Griff ran a hand through his hair and shook off the drops of water he'd collected. "If it gets much foggier and damper, I'll catch my death out here."
"Are you a wizard or not?" Draco asked, twirling his wand to reinforce his waterproofing charms.
"Wizard." Griff grinned at him. "But I have this thing about rain. Reminds me of flying."
"Up in the clouds on a broom, so high that no one can see you or hear you, ask anything fro—"
Griff stopped talking and gestured Draco to be quiet. His heart starting to speed up, Draco nodded and moved into the street to stand beside him. He arched an eyebrow in inquiry, but Griff just motioned him to wait.
There was nothing — no sounds, no movement — and then there was something. A muffled noise that sent a cold sensation down Draco's spine and had him running after Griff, not wanting to be alone with whatever, whoever, was making it.
They ran side by side for a couple of streets, then Griff swerved down Coal Lane and came to a halt. Markos was laid out on the sidewalk at Griff's feet. He'd been placed carefully, his feet together, arms folded over his bare chest. The solitary light above a shop front shone directly on the unmoving gryphon spread across his ribcage.
"Well, that's new," Draco said, before his brain caught up with his tongue. At the look on Griff's face, he added, "Markos didn't have any tattoos. He was terrified of needles."
"What about Taj Kowsik? Did he have any tattoos?"
"A small one, on his left hip."
"Nothing on his chest?"
"Just answer the questions," Griff said. "What about Anders Holst?"
"No tattoos , but he had scars on his chest." Draco stared down at his wand, turned it over and over again. "From his father, he said, although he never told me how or why."
Griff ran a hand through his hair again, tugging on it. "It doesn't make any sense," he said. "Why scars on some and tattoos on the rest?"
"Something permanent," Draco suggested, feeling the wood of his wand bite into his palm and fingers. "A mark to remind you of mistakes, or that you want to avoid them in the future."
"But why on the chest?" Without waiting for an answer, Griff began casting spells, warding the area, weaving a web of colour that faded into the air above Markos.
Draco sank to the ground and sat on the kerb. Markos hadn't really been a friend, not like Taj, but they'd sat at the same table often enough, laughed at the same stories. Wrapping his arms around his legs, he rested his head on his knees and just looked at Markos. Was this what it had been like with Taj? A body left on the street for a stranger to find? Marked and abandoned?
"Hey." Griff sat down next to him, pressed up against his side, and rested a hand on his back, warm and comforting. "You all right?"
Instead of answering, Draco asked, "How do you do this?" But then he just couldn't stop there. "How do you deal with all this death? When is it enough? More than enough?"
"Haven't a clue," Griff said, his hand rubbing lightly up and down Draco's back. "This is my first murder case. I haven't seen that much death, not since the war anyway."
And that was it. All the pieces fell into place with a snap — the wand, the gestures, the Merlin bedamned war — and Draco knew. "Potter."
"Malfoy." Potter sighed, his hand stopping in the centre of Draco's back.
Words built up in Draco's chest, angry words, accusations he could hurl at Potter. They all faded away when he blinked and Markos still lay there. He had to say something though. He closed his eyes. "Fun was it? Seeing how low the mighty Malfoy has fallen? Watching me flaunt my arse every night?"
Draco turned his head. Potter had that horribly earnest expression his face. The one that had always made Draco want to hex it off when they were in school. Not now though. Now he just wanted to believe it was real. That Potter's utter inability to give up, to do what any wizard with half a brain would do and walk away when faced with the impossible, would get Draco what he wanted this time. Would catch this murderer.
Still... Draco couldn't help thinking, felt compelled to admit, "I should have known."
"It's been a few years. Since school. Since we've seen each other."
Potter didn't respond, but his hand slid up Draco's spine to rest on the nape of his neck briefly before dropping away.
Suddenly cold, as if his charms had worn off, Draco ran his hands up and down his arms. "What now?"
"That's up to you," Potter said. "I can't do my job if everyone knows who I am. Lavender, Parkinson, the others, Rastrick."
"More secrets." Draco wanted to say no, but he couldn't.
"Just for a little while, until we catch whoever killed your friends."
"You know who it is?"
At the question, Potter's expression closed up, became guarded in a way that he'd never have managed in school. "I have an idea," he said, "but I don't know for sure."
"I assume you don't trust me enough to tell me."
"It's got nothing to do with trust."
"If you insist."
Potter sighed. "There'll be Aurors here soon, coming for Markos's body. We should head off."
"We're not done," Draco said, but he got up anyway and followed Potter back out to Angel Alley and their corner.
The letter arrived while Harry was brushing his teeth for the third time. He rinsed his mouth and stared at himself in the mirror over the sink. He stuck out his tongue and made a face at his reflection. Minty fresh just didn't seem good enough anymore. Putting his toothbrush in the holder, he wandered out of the en-suite.
A dark-feathered owl had made itself comfortable on the dressing table and was pecking at the bacon roll that Harry had brought upstairs for his breakfast. An envelope lay on the carpet nearby.
With a sigh, Harry bent down for the envelope. As he walked over to the bed, magic licked at his fingertips, testing him, making sure he was authorised to see the contents. When it was satisfied, the seal cracked open.
He sat down, the bed bouncing a little under him. It was comfortable, like everything else in this house, and kept clean by house-elves. Whatever else Rastrick was, whoever else he was, he seemed to take care of his people. For definitions of taking care of them that included sending them out to sell their bodies to strangers. Harry made a face, testing his mouth again, and picked up his wand to summon his mug of coffee. At least the owl had left that untouched.
When his mouth tasted of strong, bitter, black coffee, Harry unfolded the letter and began to read.
Bartolomew Rastrick was an unmitigated bastard, smart and calculating, with a few unproven verdicts for pandering, assault, and fraud in his Ministry files. He claimed to be a pureblood, but that was just another unproven as far as the Aurors were concerned. No one knew who he'd been before he appeared in Lower Knockturn shortly before Voldemort rose to power. As far as Harry could tell, no one had tried too hard to find out either.
He flipped the page and moved onto David Mainwaring. A pureblood who lived with an elderly father and had no apparent source of income beyond his inheritance and his father's vaults. He wasn't on any of the Ministry watch-lists, but he was a regular down in Lower Knockturn and had been seen with all but two of the dead rentboys at one time or another.
Harry tapped the parchment thoughtfully. Interesting, but not enough to fill in the gaps. He was missing something; he knew it.
The owl hooted loudly, took off from the dressing table, and flew towards the window. A strip of bacon hung from its beak, and scraps of bread tumbled through the air in its wake.
"I assume that means it won't be too difficult to persuade you to join us for a late lunch?"
Head jerking around in surprise, Harry stared at Malfoy. How had he forgotten to reset the wards after lowering them to let the owl in? "You could've knocked," he said.
"Now where's the fun in that?" Malfoy smirked at him from where he was lounging against the doorpost.
"For you or me?"
"For me, of course," Malfoy said. "Now, come on. Rastrick called a house meeting for five minutes ago."
Glancing at the letter, Harry said, "I'll be right down. Just going to finish this."
"No, you're not." Malfoy stepped into the room. "I know you don't care about being on time, but try to be considerate for once in your life. The rest of us don't want to hang around, twiddling our wands, waiting for you to grace us with your presence."
"Git," Harry said. "I'll just be a minute."
"No." Malfoy flicked his wand. "Accio letter."
The letter actually twitched in Harry's hand before the protections took over and resisted Malfoy's charm. Harry smiled and made a performance out of refolding it and pressing on the seal hard enough to make it snap audibly back into place. He went over to the wardrobe and placed it in his kit, sealing that and the wardrobe.
"Secrets upon secrets." Malfoy shrugged. "Do try not to drown in them."
"At least these are mine," Harry said. "I've had enough of drowning in others'."
Malfoy arched an eyebrow, clearly curious, but didn't press him. Instead, he turned on his heel and headed down the hall and towards the stairs. Harry went to catch up with him, after reactivating the warding on his room. He didn't want to scare a potential thief away. He just wanted to know who was interested enough to try and break in when he wasn't there.
Rastrick didn't say a word when Draco and Potter walked into the dining room and took the last two empty chairs around the table, leaving Draco between Lavender and Portia with Potter across from him. As soon as they were seated, Rastrick snapped his fingers and everyone's plates were filled with mini crab and prawn quiches and rocket salad.
Draco picked up his knife and fork, cut off a piece of quiche, brought it to his mouth, then put it down again. Hunger had nothing to do with it. He was long past the point where he could sit at a table, draw his manners around him like an Invisibility Cloak, and eat whether he wanted to or not.
Pushing the food around on his plate, Draco watched the others gossip and eat. He desperately wanted to ask Potter about that letter, whether it answered the question of who was killing rentboys, whether someone sitting at the table with them — Draco shoved his plate away.
"You all right?" Lavender whispered.
Stupid question, Draco thought, but aloud he only said, "Are any of us?"
"I suppose not." She stared down at her plate and made a face at it before putting her rocket- and tomato-laden fork down and sighing. "I want to be though. Is that wrong of me?"
An image of Markos's body rose up in Draco's mind, along with one of Lavender as she'd been the night before when they'd found her in a pool of Markos's blood. Nasty words flooded his mind and churned around inside him. Vicious, biting, cutting insults that Lavender didn't deserve and wouldn't know how to handle. Draco grabbed for his fork and the bit of quiche on it, swallowing it down barely chewed, forcing the words down with it to land like a ball of lead in his stomach.
"No," he murmured.
"Pass the bread," Portia said, nudging him with her elbow, "and the butter, too, if you can reach it."
Doing as he was asked, Draco wrinkled his nose at the warm yeasty scent that he normally loved, raising his eyes so he didn't have to look at it. That had him looking directly into Potter's eyes, and for the first time, he was jarred by how green they weren't. Potter was right, just knowing who he was had changed everything. Annoying git. What difference did it make if he knew the other secrets now that he knew the big one?
"Draco!" Rastrick sounded exasperated. "Would you mind paying attention."
"Not at all," Draco said.
Pansy snickered, and Potter bit his lip. Draco resisted the urge to stick his tongue out at both of them. Instead, he crossed one leg over the other, then folded his napkin and placed it next to his plate.
Rastrick cleared his throat loudly. "I'm so glad that you were all able to join me for lunch today. Nothing is more important at times like this than reminding ourselves that we are a family, able to depend upon each other, to support each other." Giving them a shark-like smile, Rastrick kept rambling on and on and on.
Only by clenching his jaw was Draco able to stop himself from yawning. He dared a look over at Potter, which was a mistake. Potter kept blinking and looked like he was about to bite through his lip. Even worse, Draco found himself wanting to hear Potter laugh again, to see him smile openly instead of trying to hide it.
The ping of silver against crystal drew Draco's attention back to the head of the table and Rastrick. "Now, my lovelies, we must depend upon each other and—" he sneered at Potter "—the inestimable Mr Hale if we are to remain safe on the streets. No one is to go anywhere alone. Not on their break and absolutely not with a client. Until this murdering bastard is caught, every assignation is two for the price of one."
"That's all well and good," Portia said, "but what if the client refuses?"
"Then you will refuse the client, my dear. Your life is worth more than any amount of money."
"Then why go out?" Carl chewed and swallowed. "Why not just stay here until it's all over?"
Why not simply give up our lives and let the murderer win?" Resting his elbows on the arms of his chair, Rastrick steepled his fingers and contemplated Carl. "Is that what you wish? To let this person drive us away? If it is, feel free to do so. The front door is unlocked. There's nothing stopping you from leaving." He looked around the table. "Any of you."
"No, I didn't... that's really... it's not what I meant," Carl stuttered.
"Excellent." Rastrick smiled, baring his teeth and sending a shudder down Draco's spine. "Lavender is the only person who may be excused from work tonight, if she wishes. For everyone else, it's business as usual. In pairs."
With the finding of Markos's body and the end of the rain, the streets of Lower Knockturn were busy again. Prostitutes were back on the corners, and wizards were flocking to them. Harry stood off to one side and tried to keep an eye on everyone around him. A few rentboys were off with clients. Draco and Portia were chatting up a couple of wizards, one Harry didn't know and another who was definitely an Unspeakable. Whether the second was on the job or not, Harry hadn't a clue. He hoped so.
He'd never liked this part of an investigation, being on the edge of knowing who it was, but this time it was even worse. He had friends out here, tempting the killer to strike them.
Dragging his eyes away from Malfoy, Harry worked his jaw, massaging it with his fingertips, and tried to persuade himself that he should be out there, trying to sell himself, but he just couldn't manage it. He didn't feel like he knew anywhere near enough about what was going on, but after his first client of the night, he was absolutely sure of one thing: he needed to get off these streets if he was ever going to be able to enjoy giving a blow job again. Thank Merlin, he hadn't sold his arse.
"Here." Carl offered him a flask. "Works better than any breath freshening charm ever invented."
"All right," Harry said. He twisted off the cap and drank from it without looking to see what was inside. It was strong enough and alcoholic enough to burn the fuzz off his tongue. "Thanks," he said, taking another sip and coughing before handing the flask back.
"My great-grandpa's recipe," Carl said, tipping his head back and taking a swallow. "Never come out here without it." He tucked the flask into a pocket inside his jacket and stood next to Harry, his eyes on the street.
After a moment of silence, Carl asked, "So... we going out there? Or you just want to hang about here all night? Not that I care, mind you. Not exactly anyway. I was just curious."
"I thought you were more interested in staying safe."
"It's a job." Carl shrugged. "Not the kind worth dying for either."
His curiosity aroused, Harry couldn't help asking, "Is any job worth dying for?" He watched Carl carefully. Harry had barely exchanged a word with Carl before Rastrick had informed them that they were to be partners that night.
"Probably, not that I've ever had one that was." Carl pushed at a stone with the toe of his boot. "Wouldn't mind a chance at one, mind you. Anything's gotta be better than this."
"How did you—"
"Cheap-ass bastard," someone shouted.
Spinning around, Harry stared down the street. A rentboy whose name was somewhere in his notes was yelling at a client. Draco and Portia were nowhere to be seen. The two men they'd been talking to were standing at the corner together.
Harry started running.
"Pretty." Daft Davey stroked a hand over Draco's hair. "I want to keep this one."
If Draco had been able to move, he'd have tried to pull away, but he was bound tightly to a table with charms and ropes. "Release me," he hissed as he turned his hand, touching the ropes, testing the spells that ran through them.
"No and no," Portia said. She was sitting on a high stool next to the table, one leg crossed over the other. "You're not keeping him, and you're not going anywhere." She spun her wand and then rested the tip against her pouting lips as she stared at Draco's bared chest. "I don't like that scar."
"Too bad," Draco said. "I earned it, like every other mark on my body."
"Even this one?" Portia trailed her wand along Draco's right forearm, over the three crossed wands he'd had tattooed on it to celebrate the Dark Lord's defeat. It balanced the faded Dark Mark on his other arm in some way that Draco wouldn't be able to explain if asked.
"Especially that one."
Portia twirled her wand up and down Draco's forearm, creating an itchy feeling that that spread over his skin and didn't feel like any hex or curse he'd ever experienced before.
"It's not coming off," she complained. "Why isn't it coming off?"
She pressed her wand into the centre of the tattoo, and a jolt went through Draco. His fingers twitched, the muscles in his arm jerked, and he gritted his teeth to hold in the shout of pain. She dug it in harder and harder, repeating it again and again, until Draco's jaw was aching, but he refused to give her the satisfaction of seeing his pain.
When it stopped, when he was sure he'd be able to speak evenly, he said, "Was that supposed to hurt?"
Davey yanked on Draco's hair, banging Draco's head against the table. "I could hurt him, Portia. He's not that strong."
"And I'll let you, love, but he's not right yet."
"I'll tell you who's not right," Draco muttered.
"Will you now?" A twist of Portia's wand sent another jolt through him. "I've learned a lot these last few months since I met Davey. Take you on a nice trip down memory lane, I could."
"Memory lane?" The idea was just too much. Draco started laughing, harsh, painful sounds that scraped through his chest and throat. "Just who in Salazar's name do you think you are? My aunt Bella would have eaten you for breakfast, picked you out of her teeth, and tossed your remains to my father's dogs."
"Oh, Draco, that's not nice at all, comparing me to a madwoman." Portia lifted her wand off Draco's arm, and the pain stopped. "And here I thought you'd be different, but you're not, are you? You're just like the rest of them."
"Now can I?" Davey whined. "Pretty please. Portia."
"When he's right, dearest. I promise."
"All right." Disappointment mingled with resentment in Davey's voice, but the satisfied smile on Portia's face gave Draco the impression that they'd had this conversation before. With every victim, his mind supplied, even as his memory put a name to the binding spell they'd used. One that Draco recognised from the months spent living at the Manor with the Dark Lord.
After a moment, Davey said, "You want me to hold him for you?"
"That would be lovely."
Draco snorted with disbelief. He felt like he'd been captured by a pair of villains straight out of Martin Miggs. Maurice and Latasha, maybe.
"Don't worry your pretty little head," Portia said dreamily, as she caressed Draco's chest. "We'll get you sorted out properly."
"And I get to help." Davey leaned over Draco's head to rest his arms on Draco's shoulders. His upper body was a heavy weight on Draco's head. His soft, cashmere jumper rested over Draco's eyes, forcing him to close them.
Draco opened his mouth to say the counterspell that would release his bonds, or maybe to scream, but no sound emerged.
Harry didn't stop running until he reached the spot on Flowers Street where he and Draco had found Lavender. Dismantling the wards that still hovered over the area, he stepped into the centre. Then, wand held between his hands so he could feel the vibrations, he started the trace.
"What are you—"
A glare from Harry was enough to shut Carl up. He still paced and muttered, but that was simple enough to push aside. Harry had learned that lesson while trying to study with Ron at Hogwarts.
Closing his eyes, Harry focussed on the magic running through his wand. It spread out and around him, seeking a match to Davey's sweat and to Malfoy's magic. The spell flared for a moment, then flickered.
"Come on," Harry muttered, pushing more power into it. When that didn't work, hoping he was right, he reached into his pocket for the strand of Portia's hair that he'd picked off her cloak earlier that evening and wound it around his wand.
The hair burst into green flame and was absorbed, confirming Harry's suspicions, but the spell only flickered again. Demanding more, from Harry.
His desperation rose as he tried not to think about what Portia and Davey had done to their other victims, what they could be doing to Draco. At that thought, the spell flickered for a third time.
"Fine. All right. I get it." Harry gritted his teeth and said, as clearly as he could, "Find Draco for me."
Magic flared out, blue and green stars sparked behind Harry's eyelids, and he knew. Blinking his eyes open, he raced to where the street zigzagged and Flowers Street turned into Coal Lane. A triangular house stood at the not-quite-corner, a door in the narrowest part where it faced the road. Blue and green spellfire coruscated around the entrance.
A grim smile on his face, Harry turned to look at Carl. "Go back," he told him.
"Rastrick said we shouldn't be alone," Carl said. "I don't want to be alone."
"You won't be, I promise. Someone will come up to you. A man with a green cloak and a beard. His name if Proudfoot, and he's an Auror. Tell him where I am."
Carl hesitated, and Harry said, "Go!"
When he was alone, after Carl had disappeared out of sight, Harry walked towards the house. A slice of his wand and a murmured word opened the door without a sound, cancelling the badly cast ward spells. The green and blue path led up the stairs. He stood for a moment, head lowered, and listened. Disjointed sounds came from above, a boyish giggle, the high-pitched buzz of a tattoo charm.
"Chamaeleus," Harry whispered and tapped his wand over his heart. He faded from view, body changing to match the colours around him, not really invisible, but harder to see than if he'd used a Disillusionment charm.
"Silencio," was the next spell, accompanied by a flick of Harry's wand at his feet and the staircase.
He began to run, barely pausing to recast the Silencing charm before he took the landing and the next flight of stairs. Up and up, until he reached the top floor. Slowing down, he crept cautiously down the long, narrow hallway to the door that pulsed with blue and green. Then he stopped, crouching low, and placing his hand against the wood, just below the handle. It was clean, bare of spells, which meant Portia was either convinced that she wouldn't be caught or too lazy to bother.
"Hold him down!"
Portia's order drove Harry to action. He spun his wand in a circle, cutting a hole through the wood, and kicked the door open.
The scene inside might have been comical if Harry had seen it on the screen in a Muggle cinema. In real life though, the snarl on Portia's face was far from amusing as was the gape-mouthed expression on Davey's. As Harry stood there, Draco's right arm yanked free and he slapped at Portia.
She spun around, putting her back to Harry, raised her wand.
And Harry cast the immobilising handcuff spell, locking her into place, hands over her head, wrists bound together.
"You...you shouldn't do that," Davey said. "I don't let strong people hurt my Portia, not anymore."
Harry's spell hit Davey at the same time as Draco whipped one of the ropes that had been binding him across Davey's face. The rope hung there, frozen into place with Davey.
Stepping sideways, his gaze flicking from Portia to Davey to Draco and back again, Harry moved to the opposite side of the table and helped Draco free himself.
"You're late." Draco held onto Harry's left arm, using it to pull himself so he was sitting up.
"I..." Harry shook his head. "I'll try to do better next time."
"Perhaps" Draco said. "Although I'd rather there wasn't a next time. I've grown quite fond of peace."
"That sounds like a plan." Wrapping his left arm around Draco, Harry pulled him close. He desperately wanted to heal the long cuts that were dripping red blood down Draco's chest, but he knew he couldn't. That had to wait for the Aurors. Instead, he moved closer, keeping his wand trained on Portia and Davey, as Draco leaned into him.
Letting Pansy and Lavender follow Draco into his room had seemed like a good idea at the time. He hadn't wanted to be alone, and Potter was stuck at the Ministry, giving his report and doing whatever else Aurors did when they weren't annoying decent people. But Draco was starting to rethink that decision.
"Do you want another cheese scone? Or more tea?" Lavender slipped off the sofa to kneel between it and the coffee table, and reached for Draco's cup. "Or would something else be better? I could call the house-elves. They're always willing to make—"
"I'm fine," Draco cut her off, again. "If I have another cup of tea, I'll be swimming in it. And I'm not hungry." He stretched out his legs to take up the space Lavender had abandoned, hissing in a breath when that set off the pain in his right arm. He moved it carefully, turning it so that the ointment glistened in the candlelight. The crossed wand tattoo seemed fine, but the skin around it was still red and blistered in places.
Pansy's fingers were cool against his skin, as she ran them along the edge of his forearm. "Does it hurt much, Draco? Are you sure the Healers did all they could? You weren't there very long. Maybe we should take you back. I'm sure I can persuade them to take care of you properly."
"I'm not dying, Pansy." Shifting his head in her lap, Draco closed his eyes and tried to get more comfortable.
"I didn't say you were." Pansy placed his arm down carefully and went back to stroking his hair. After a moment, she said, "Don't mind him, Lavender. He always gets like this when he's really hurt."
"No problem," Lavender said. "He's nowhere near as bad as—"
"Draco! You're back!" Carl's near-shout made Draco jump and his arm ache again.
Draco opened his eyes in time to see Carl grab the plate of scones, tarts, and biscuits, and flop down in a chair. "Help yourself," Draco said.
"Don't mind if I do." Carl stuffed a Cherry Bakewell into his mouth. "Elves here are the best," he mumbled.
Curling his lip, Draco made a noise of disgust. "Your eating habits aren't helping my recovery one bit."
As Draco had planned, Pansy jumped right in. "Carl, didn't your mother ever teach you not to talk with your mouth full? That is so unacceptable. Lavender, take that plate from him until he finishes what he's got."
"Hey!" Carl objected, but it was too late. The plate was back on the table, out of his reach. He narrowed his eyes at Draco, swallowed, and then smiled. "So... Portia and Daft Davey, huh? Didn't see that one coming."
"I liked Portia," Lavender said. "I feel like such an idiot."
"Everyone liked Portia," Pansy put in, her hand pausing mid-stroke. "Well, except for Anders, but he didn't like anyone."
"Makes me glad I never did anything to set her off," Carl said.
"I don't think that had anything to do with it," Pansy said. "Portia loved Markos, or at least she seemed to."
"True." Carl reached out and snagged another tart, but didn't do anything but stare at it. "Why do you think they did it? Did they say anything, Draco?"
"Nothing that made any sense." Draco pushed Pansy's hand away and sat up. He moved away from her, to the other end of the sofa. Angling himself with his back to the corner, he brought his legs in towards himself with his knees bent. "They were weirdly obsessed with my scars and tattoos."
"With everyone's scars and tattoos," Potter said.
Draco looked up at where Potter was standing by the door, and it was like a weight lifted from him. "I'll try not to feel special then."
"Safer that way." Potter's mouth quirked into a lopsided grin as he came into the room. He paused for a second on the other side of the coffee table then came around to sit on the arm of the sofa, next to Draco. "Is that tea still good? I could murder a cup."
While Lavender busied herself pouring tea and adding milk, Potter glanced down at Draco. "You all right?"
"Barely worse for the wear," Draco said, shrugging. "I've survived far worse."
"May I?" Potter reached for Draco's right arm, and for reasons Draco couldn't identify, he let him. His hand rested in Potter's, while Potter studied the ink. "I only have one of those wands now."
"Me too," Draco said. "The third ought to stay in the history books for all of our sakes."
"We were just wondering..." Carl trailed off when Potter turned to look at him.
"Why did they do it?" Pansy asked.
Still holding onto Draco's hand with one of his, Potter accepted a cup of tea from Lavender with his other. He took a sip, seemingly unbothered by having everyone's attention on him in ways he hadn't been when they were all younger. Then again, Draco thought, Potter had had more time to get used to it.
"Davey wanted to please Portia," Potter eventually said. "As far as we can tell, it was all about making her happy for him. They were still talking to him when I left, and waiting on a Mind-Healer from St Mungo's."
Potter took another drink of his tea. His fingers tightened briefly on Draco's hand, and Draco squeezed back. "As for Portia, her real name is Aldous Porter, and he has a record in the Muggle world and is suspected in at least two violent sexual assaults against female prostitutes."
"Aldous?" Draco made a face. "What kind of name is that to give a child?"
"Pot, kettle," Lavender muttered.
Potter laughed, and Draco arched an eyebrow at him. "Speaking of names," Draco said.
"Yeah, speaking of names..." Potter stared down at his tea and then put the cup on the side table. "I guess I could..."
Looking from Draco to Lavender, Potter sighed and bit his lip. "Undercover's always easier when you don't know anyone."
Rolling onto her knees, Lavender smiled at Potter. "It's all right, Harry. I explained it all to Pansy. We understand why you couldn't tell us."
"What?" Carl said. "Harry? Who's Harry?"
Lavender giggled, Pansy snickered, and Draco and Potter just outright laughed at him.
"Carl Fairclough," Draco said, "meet Harry Potter."
"Merlin," Carl breathed, then his eyes widened and his cheeks flushed red. "Harry Potter? On the streets of Lower Knockturn? No one'll ever believe me."
Draco's amusement died, and he cursed the fact that his wand was too far away to reach.
"They won't get a chance to believe you," Potter said, looking far more composed than Draco felt. "Try and talk about it outside this room, to someone who doesn't already know, and you'll find yourself spouting the kind of nonsense that will get you dragged off to St Mungo's for an examination."
"Well, that's hardly fair," Carl complained. "Where's the fun in that?"
"Fair's got nothing to do with it. The spells are standard Auror spell protocol for undercover assignments." Potter ran his free hand over the back of his neck. "Thing is," he said, "this one is a bit different, as I've known some of you since Hogwarts. So, if you're willing to call me Harry, you'll remember this in the morning."
Carl, Pansy, and Lavender all agreed immediately, nodding and saying, "Of course, Harry," almost in chorus.
Draco waited though, his heart heavy at the base of his throat, until Potter turned to look at him, until all of Potter's attention was on him.
"I think I can manage that, Harry," Draco said, and then he returned Harry's smile.
The others started talking after that, asking Potter questions which he answered without actually giving them any information. Draco stayed quiet, settling back against the sofa, not making any attempt to retrieve his hand from Harry's. He didn't even realise that he'd drifted off into sleep until he opened his eyes to find that he and Harry were alone in the room.
"Hey," Harry said.
"Hi," Draco replied, bringing up a hand to cover a yawn.
"You slept through my brilliant plan."
"From what I've read, your plans, brilliant or not, tend to involve jumping into the thick of things without giving your friends a moment to think first."
"Bugger off," Harry said, with more amusement than heat in his voice. "I like to think I've grown up a bit since then."
Draco's lips twitched, but he managed not to smile this time. He distracted himself by reaching up and fingercombing his hair into something that resembled decent.
"I could tell you about it."
"Or I could tell you," Draco said. "Your saviour-complex is rearing its ugly head again, and you've come up with a brilliant plan to save the sad prostitutes from their dreary lives on the streets, whether they want to be saved or not."
Harry's face fell, and he pulled his hand back to cross his arms over his chest. The sense of comfort between them evaporated, and Draco had to get away before he spoiled everything. He pushed up off the sofa, stifling a yelp of pain when his right forearm brushed against his trousers.
"I should go," Harry said, nearly tripping over the coffee table in his rush to get to the door.
When Harry had his hand on the door handle, Draco said, "I'll find you, I promise. When I'm ready."
And then Harry was gone, and Draco was alone again. It was for the best, he told himself, as he went into his en-suite to get ready for bed. Nothing good could happen with the way they were right now.
Harry pulled the living room curtains back a fraction and peered out the window. He'd put the candles out in that room over an hour ago, making it almost impossible for him to be seen by the dark figure who'd been standing across the street for at least that long.
"Idiot," Harry whispered and let the curtains go. After three months of waiting, his patience had been long exhausted.
Flicking his wand, he murmured, "Flammus," and lights came on behind him as he walked through the room, down the hallway, and out the front door. He shivered as a gust of wind blew through his thin t-shirt.
"It's too cold outside," Harry said, pitching his voice to carry. "Kettle's on in the kitchen, and dinner's almost ready. You're welcome to join me." Then he turned and went back into the house, leaving the door open behind him.
Five minutes after Harry had given up, the wards pinged as Draco crossed the threshold. A few seconds later, as he was taking the kettle off the hob, Draco walked into the kitchen.
Not knowing what else to say, Harry said, "Hullo."
"Rather quaint," Draco said, surveying the room with its long wooden table and ancient cooker, "and somehow perfectly you."
That was all they said for the next few minutes, as Draco shed his cloak and gloves, and Harry made tea for them both and turned off the oven. Harry was still at the counter, and Draco was sitting at the table, neither of them drinking tea, when Draco said, "I couldn't let you save me this time."
Harry curled his hands around the edge of the countertop behind him to stop himself from reaching out. "That's what Pansy and Lavender told me."
"I almost didn't come over," Draco said. "I might have stayed away, but Carl, of all people, told me I was being an idiot. He told me about the spell you cast to find me. How it didn't work until you used my name. My first name." He raised his head and looked directly into Harry's eyes. "Is that true?"
"You understand what that means?"
Draco nodded, looking as if something he already knew had been confirmed, and something hitched in Harry's chest. He gripped the countertop even tighter as Draco stood up and slowly walked across the room, not stopping until he was standing in front of Harry.
"I still can't let you save me," Draco said.
"Can I help you save yourself?"
Seconds passed, with Harry all but holding his breath, before Draco said, "Possibly."
It wasn't quite enough and yet it would have to be enough, Harry decided. He forced himself to let go of the countertop and held out his hands to Draco.
After another few seconds, Draco grasped Harry's hands and laced their fingers together. Then he moved forward until his lips were almost touching Harry's.
"I'll try," Draco said, and the words, the breath that touched Harry's lips felt like a kiss.