Draco divested himself of his rain-slicked hood and shook out his hair. It immediately billowed upwards, the combination of an inherent capricious tendency and the moisture in the air making it harbour delusions of thistledown.
"Hello, Blaise," said Draco warmly.
He knew better than to demand why Blaise had summoned him to a clandestine meeting, or to divulge the fact that Draco's time was limited. Blaise responded to histrionics by sanding down his face and voice to the consistency and helpfulness of a plank of oak. When they were kids this talent of Blaise's could wind Draco up no end. However, a lot of water had gone under the bridge of Draco's propensity to fly off the handle since then. Although as easily enraged as ever, Draco was better able to corral it.
Blaise was clearly disgruntled at this turn of events. That, or he was mentally lamenting Draco's lack of sartorial savvy. Although Draco had left England before his immersion in Muggle culture alerted him to what was posh and what was not, even he could see that the clientele of the Ivy did not usually dine there in jeans and an inside-out sweatshirt belonging to their washing-machine-allergic lover.
"Draco," responded Blaise. His voice was so cool Draco wondered if he hadn't accidentally stapled his arm to the ice bucket. "How good of you to come."
"Oh, I've learned never to turn down a good meal," said Draco. Also, you haven't paid me yet, he added to himself. He glanced at the menu, although he had no doubt but that Blaise would be deciding what to order.
"There's something I've been meaning to discuss with you."
Blaise leaned forward on his elbows. He looked extremely slick today, Draco noticed. Thanks to Achilles, Draco knew enough about top-of-the-line bespoke Armani suits to recognise one when he saw it. Clearly, Draco was not the only Slytherin who had found it advantageous to more deeply investigate the world of Muggles. It was merely a pity that Blaise had oiled his hair into hundreds of fussy little curls on the crown of his head. It made him look like an exceedingly well-dressed brindle calf.
"Oh yes?" Draco glimpsed duck à l'orange listed on the menu. His mouth began to water. It had been years since he'd had duck. Blaise knew about his taste for it, which doubtless would inspire Blaise to foist chicken on him.
"I never got around to telling you what I do for a living," said Blaise.
"Yes, you did," said Draco. "You work in the Ministry." Blaise's eyes were flat. "Ah. You lied."
"My family has no monetary assets to speak of," said Blaise tightly. "My mother did not keep marrying wizened old coots for her own amusement, you know. Despite what people say, not one of them left her anything when he died -- not even my father. Her husbands' families were too suspicious of her to grant her a cut of anything."
And rightly so, though Draco, although he refrained from mentioning it aloud. Lucretia Zabini was the woman for whom the phrase 'give them an inch and they'll take a mile' had been invented. Only, in her case, it would be several square miles of wooded estate, a manor, a small castle or two, a town house, a vast quantity of uncut gems and trunks full of the rarest and most exquisite perfumes and gowns ever created.
"We had plenty of social connexions," continued Blaise, "but no friends, except when Mother married another walking purse and we had some cash for a while. I couldn't possibly hang off her apron strings forever, though. I knew when she died all our acquaintances would scorn me before she was cold in her grave -- so I started to make my own way in the world."
Genuinely interested now, Draco stopped staring wistfully at the menu and concentrated on Blaise's liquid brown eyes instead. A small jolt in the region of his stomach alerted him to the fact that he hadn't entirely steeled himself against Blaise's old charms. Blaise hadn't turned out to be the most skilled or thoughtful partner Draco had ever had, but there was no denying that his predatory manner radiated raw sexuality.
Blaise sighed, fixing his gaze at a point some two feet above Draco's head. "What I'm trying to say is, Draco … I'm a private investigator."
A cold mist settled over Draco's skin, but he forced himself to laugh. "You? A detective? Dusting for fingerprints and going through people's sock drawers? I'm finding it difficult to visualise."
Blaise shrugged, a glint of pride melting his chocolate-coloured irises. "My mother taught me how to manipulate the intrigues of high society. Finding evidence that Mrs Smith's husband is cheating on her with Miss Jones is a doddle by comparison."
Draco started pulling apart a bread roll, his hunger dropping away. It was only when he truly couldn't bear to eat that he played with food. His experiences in certain unsavoury parts of the Muggle world had taught him to eat when and where he could.
"So," he said, striving to keep his voice on an even keel, "who hired you to investigate me? And why?"
"I can't really disclose that kind of information," began Blaise.
"Don't give me that. After what I let you do to me, I have the right to know if someone wants me dead!"
"Draco, shut up," hissed Blaise. "I was never not going to tell you. I was just about to say that my information is yours -- for a price."
Draco crumbled bread between his fingers in an effort to stop them shaking. "I don't have any money."
"I don't want money." Blaise's shockingly pink tongue darted between his lips, nudging the corner of his mouth. "You can get money anywhere. You have two things I want that no one else has."
"Right," muttered Draco. He slouched his neck to dump his cheek into his palm, only to jolt upright a second later when a large, warm hand cupped the frayed denim at his knee.
"Right," repeated Blaise. "Do you want to know what they are?"
Draco swallowed. "Do I have a choice?"
The hand disappeared. "You always have a choice."
Draco tilted his head back, feeling his muscles protest at the pull. 'You always have a choice?' That was a good one. He thought briefly of Alexandre and Stefano, Achilles and Harry. Yes, a normal person would have chosen one of them. For most people, life was a case of either or, not both. Draco wasn't deprived of choices. He just didn't make them.
"Go on," he said.
Blaise's whisper undulated across the tabletop, burrowing under Draco's skin without consulting his ears. "I tell you who's after you. I tell you what they want you for. After all, we are friends." His fingers found Draco's knee again and ventured higher, squeezing the flesh of his thigh.
"Friends," echoed Draco. Languidly, he slipped his own hand under the table to rest it atop Blaise's. To hold it there or to halt its northward journey? Even Draco wasn't entirely certain.
"And in return," Blaise's voice dropped to a husky hum, "you give me what's between your legs … and Harry Potter."
Reflexively, Draco patted the battered bottle of Butterbeer in his pocket. It was now an ingrained habit, as was checking his watch every five minutes to see if an hour had passed or not. With his other hand he wafted a folded parchment in front of his lips, breathing hot air on to long-dried ink.
A clatter of heels sounded on the grubby tiles. A moment later their owner appeared at the grille separating Draco from the rows and rows of blinking, golden-eyed birds. Draco was heartily grateful for it. He'd never much liked owls. Even his own owl, Hephastion -- long dead, even before Draco lived in places where keeping a pet owl would be an infringement of animal rights -- Draco had tolerated only on sufferance. Much like with cows, Draco felt that owls were only waiting for the right moment to attack en masse and wreak bloody revenge on humans for their centuries of persecution.
"Thank you so much for waiting!" chirped the girl behind the grille. There were clearly only two ways to go when you worked in the Owl Post Office. One assimilated -- which was what the girl, with her perfectly circular spectacles, tufty hair and brown-varnished fingernails, had clearly chosen to do -- or went insane. "My apologies for the delay! Some of the post owls are a little frisky this morning!"
Wordlessly, Draco handed over his letter.
"That's excellent, sir! Are you sure you have the direction correct? People often don't! It can be very embarrassing for all concerned!"
For form's sake, and to hopefully curtail the high-pitched squeaking -- echoes of which were even now bouncing around Draco's eardrums -- Draco flicked a cursory glance over the address. Minerva McGonagall, Headmistress, Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Of course, he had no idea if McGonagall was still alive, not to mention reigning head of Hogwarts, but Draco trusted the sense of post owls. They'd get the letter to Hogwarts, and from there someone else would be sure to take up the slack -- out of kindness and out of duty, both of which qualities were prevalent among the teaching staff.
"It's correct," he drawled. "How much do I owe you?"
"That depends!" The girl held up a scroll, which unfurled to a length greater than Draco's body and cascaded over the counter and on to the ground. "Here is the list of our standard charges and additional extras! If you want a local delivery by our trusty little Scops, that'll be five Sickles! If you're planning on an overseas delivery you need a Great Grey -- it's a flat charge of ten Galleons with a tariff of one Sickle per pound in weight! If you'd just like to go as far as our neighbouring countries, Scotland and Wales, that will be twenty Sickles --"
"That's the one I want," Draco cut in. He was sure the girl could cheerfully have stood there all day and enumerated each and every levy and excise duty, but he had a hero to visit and one too many plans to keep ticking over. He dumped all his silver on the counter and hurried out. Giving someone an unprecedented tip of over fifty Sickles was one of the best methods devised for erasing people's memories, Memory Charms notwithstanding.
The wind was whipping up a storm as Draco battled through the rain-soaked streets to the wizarding entrance to St Mungo's. His soaked robes clung to his body, the water completely ruining the blush colour of the fabric and turning it a dark, griseous pink. Stefano's hair was plastered to his head, tendrils creeping down his collar to send icy rivulets down his back. Totally disgusted, Draco took a bolstering sip of Polyjuice and stomped up the stairs to Harry's ward.
"You look like a drowned ferret," remarked Moody on his way through.
Draco froze, sure that he'd been rumbled at the final gate. But Moody just turned back to his game of solitaire, snorting to himself. The other Aurors sent Draco glances of mixed pity and amusement, but Draco could deal with that. He blasted himself with as hot a Drying Charm as he could muster and squeezed out his now damp hair. He looked hopelessly ungroomed, but Harry should be used to that from a twenty-five year acquaintance with his own reflection.
The crude curtains that Draco had conjured had been improved upon since his last visit. Someone had added rails and hooks and lengthened the cloth, so that when fully closed they encircled and totally shielded Harry's bed from view. Such was the case now.
Draco wasn't in the least sure that he was entitled to disturb Harry's obvious ploy for solitude, but at the same time he had less to lose than anyone else. He didn't have to face years of dealing with Harry's anger and grief; nor did he have the time to linger or return another day.
Draco ventured as close as the gap between the curtains and peered through. Harry was flopped across the bed in a starfish formation. He was back to wearing his old prison-design pyjamas, from which his narrow wrists and feet emerged several inches too early.
Just as Draco was debating whether or not to wake him up, Harry cracked open an eyelid. "How long were you planning on standing there?" he asked. To Draco's infinite relief he sounded almost amused, and certainly not irritated.
"Until you said something like that, I suppose," replied Draco, slipping between the curtains.
Harry sat up at his approach, his mussed hair sticking up in a halo of static. "I can't believe you need more information. Yesterday's revelation should have been enough for a month's worth of front-page headlines."
"True." Draco wondered if Harry was concealing volcanic anger for having a reporter privy to the biggest secret of his life to date. He supposed that it made no difference that Draco had known for days and hadn't blabbed. Despite Harry's tolerance of 'Michel,' he probably still subscribed to the view that the only good journalist was a dead journalist.
"I was prepared to release the hounds of hell after you," Harry went on, "and then today's papers came in and they were full of the Minister for Magic's indiscretions with a lady of the night that, while newsworthy, were hardly likely to top the release of my news."
"Don't flatter yourself." Draco smirked. "Sex is always good press." He chose to ignore his usual chair in favour of the end of Harry's bed. He counted it a small triumph when Harry didn't shift away from him -- although his toes did curl slightly, snagging the sheets.
"I suppose." Harry was clearly not to be deterred. "So I wanted to apologise for doubting you, and thank you for not saying anything."
Draco picked at a hangnail. "Save your gratitude until I've handed in my report. For all you know, it will be a blow-by-blow account of what happened yesterday."
"It could," conceded Harry. "But I don't think it will be."
"Your faith in people astounds me," snapped Draco. "Who am I, that you should trust me so? And do you really call prostitutes 'ladies of the night?'"
Harry released a splintered laugh. "No, I don't. That's just the phrase the Daily Prophet used. I don't actually call prostitutes anything."
"I expect you've never had any need to use them," Draco said idly. "People throw themselves at you. Beg you to seduce them. Hero's dues."
Harry blushed darkly. Draco was charmed, despite himself. "Not so far," muttered Harry.
"You'd probably get sick of it pretty quickly," Draco surmised. "Having all those lacy knickers lobbed at your head and dirty letters in the post. Once you've sniffed one you've sniffed them all."
"Oh, I don't know. I don't think I'd mind the first one or two times. I'd have to try it out, to see how much I liked it …" Harry's voice trailed off, and he glanced up at Draco through his thick lashes.
Draco drew in a quick, delighted breath. Harry was flirting with him!
Although this was, on many levels, a turn of events much to his advantage, Draco could think of nothing but the pure joy that suffused him from bantering with Harry Potter. A giddy smile rose to his lips and he reached a hand towards Harry -- only to draw it back in confusion, the leaden realisation that Harry was flirting with a beautiful shell and not Draco at all crushing the tendrils of euphoria threatening to choke him.
"Why are you dressed like that?" he said. The change of topic made his own head spin, and Harry looked bewildered.
"Do you, or do you not, possess a lovely pair of green silk pyjamas?" Draco eyed the worn striped cloth with distaste. "What is the reason behind recycling this dishrag masquerading as a piece of clothing?"
Harry tugged down the short hem of his pyjama shirt, drawing Draco's eyes to the sliver of pale skin beneath like an arrow to a target. "The reason is that it is laundry day. I don't know about you, but I'd rather wear ugly clothes than smelly ones."
"Humph. Not good enough. What about your robes?"
"What's the point?" Bitterness seeped into Harry's words for the first time that morning. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm not doing anything. What is there to get dressed for?"
"Well … there's me," said Draco.
This time, when Harry blushed, Draco did not feel elated.
"I just didn't feel like it, okay?" Harry reached up to scrub at his cheek. His skin was very dry. Draco could see it peeling in places, like on his knuckles and just below his ears. It wasn't surprising -- stuck in this airless room day in day out, Harry had no chance of regaining a healthy complexion.
His right palm seemed to have taken the brunt of it, though: it was a bright, raw red. Draco frowned. Unless he was much mistaken, either Harry's palm had peeled overnight or something else had happened to scar it this way.
"Harry?" he said, unfolding his arm with tectonic slowness. "Give me your hand."
Harry hesitated, rolled his eyes, bit his lip, and eventually hooked his fingers over Draco's outstretched hand. Quick as a snake, Draco turned Harry's hand over and held it there, the better to inspect the damage.
Draco had seen burns before. Hell, he'd suffered burns before, but none so extensive as these. All one side of Harry's hand was torn and blistered, weeping sores capped by swirly mixtures of blood and pus that made Draco queasy to look at them. Flecks of burned skin stretched beyond his wrist, extending half-way up his arm.
"What the hell happened to you?" choked Draco. "You dunk your hands into boiling tar or something?"
"Close." Harry flinched as Draco leaned in closer -- willing himself not to heave -- as if the mere touch of Draco's breath hurt him. "I tried to do magic."
"Without a wand?" Draco raised his eyebrows. You'd have to be very angry to tap into your reservoirs of wild magic … "Ah."
Harry made a wry face. "Oh, I got a wand. Eventually." He nodded at the floor. For a moment Draco couldn't see anything amiss. Then he noted that the usually sterile white tiles were coated in a fine dust, as if someone had spilled instant coffee all over them.
Draco's eyes fluttered shut of their own accord. He heard a hiss of pain as he involuntarily tightened his grip on Harry's fingers, but Harry did not move them away. Thinking as little as possible and leaving room for only one thought in his head -- a far off memory of his mother comforting him after he'd skinned his knee in one of the disused torture chambers -- Draco raised Harry's palm to his mouth, and kissed it.
"Oh," breathed Harry.
As if stung, Draco released his hand. "I'm sorry. I don't know what I was thinking. I must've hurt you --"
"No." Harry smiled. With a wrench, Draco felt his heart start to pound. "It felt nice."
Draco inspected Harry's hand, anything not to look him in the face. "Unfortunately, the 'kiss it better' technique only works if you are four," he said. "Shouldn't you ought to have someone look at this?"
Harry shrugged. "I will in a while."
"If you leave it too long, it'll scar," warned Draco.
Harry looked down at his hand -- curling his fingers over the spot where Draco's lips had touched his skin -- and back up at Draco. "Yes," he said, "it will."