Draco walked into the hotel lobby, wincing with every step. Blaise had been as true to his word as any Slytherin -- he'd wrung everything he could from Draco, both body and mind, before revealing anything in return. Draco wondered if he'd have time to spell away the fresh bruises, or if Stefano would believe that he'd tumbled down some stairs. He couldn't deny that he'd enjoyed Blaise's body -- although not quite as much as Blaise had enjoyed his -- but Blaise did seem to have confused horses and people, in that you rode one and made love to the other.
Oddly enough -- and despite the ample distraction provided by Blaise -- Draco had spent the last few hours day-dreaming of Stefano. With Harry's admiration of Stefano's body fresh in his mind, Draco couldn't help but renew his own appreciation of the same. He was looking forward to luring Stefano to bed, away from his own sulks and Alexandre's accusing, envious gaze. To that end, he paused at reception to order a champagne dinner and surreptitiously massage his backside.
Gazing idly across the expanse of the foyer, which heavily featured potted palms and red Connemara marble, Draco was brought up short by the sight of one very familiar and hefty rump.
"Will that be all, sir?" oozed the receptionist.
"Yes, thank you." Draco spat out the words with all the finesse of a drill sergeant, his eyes trained on Achilles as he straightened up from where he'd been fussing with the zip of his suitcase. There was absolutely no time to reach the safety of the elevators and no hope that Draco would not bring further trouble down upon himself by magically transforming into Stefano in full view of half a hundred Muggle hotel guests. There was nothing for it but to brazen it out.
As his pain from Blaise's excesses receded and his anticipation of laying hands on Stefano's sinfully gorgeous body mounted, Draco had sunk into a very pleasant, fuzzy-edged mood of relaxation. It bolstered him as he sashayed across the lobby, feeling as if he were dragging his feet out of a quagmire with every step.
Achilles spotted him long before they were in hearing range. Draco let the edges of his mouth lift, acutely aware of his bed-head hair and floor-wrinkled robes. Would Achilles find his debauched appearance arousing, or galling? Would he notice it at all?
In point of fact, Achilles face remained completely immobile. Draco's step faltered as he finally reached him. "Achilles?" he ventured. "Aren't you pleased to see me?"
It was, he immediately realised, a ridiculous thing to say. After all, Draco had run away from Achilles, not the other way around.
To Draco's astonishment, Achilles' face crumpled and unshed tears stood out from his eyes.
"I'm so glad you said that," he rasped. He crushed Draco to his chest, his whiskery cheek sandpapering Draco's forehead. "I've missed you so much, Felix. I thought I'd lost you forever."
Draco allowed the hug to last just long enough so that Achilles wouldn't be insulted when he pulled away. "How did you find me here?"
"I've been tracking you since you left," admitted Achilles. "I'd all but given up hope -- you seemed to have disappeared into thin air. Then I saw a man I met in Spain in Oxford Street, and followed him back here. In some strange way, he reminded me of you. I came to England only because I knew you were born here, not because I thought you'd be here."
"That doesn't explain why you decided to take a room in this hotel," said Draco, trying and failing to make his voice less sharp. Carried away by his own delight and cunning, Achilles didn't appear to notice.
"I needed somewhere to stay, of course!" he said. "I'd been to Manchester and Liverpool, and only just arrived in London. I went back to the train station to collect my suitcase and check in, and then …" He buried Draco in his arms once more. "Oh, my love. After all my efforts, I found you through pure luck."
"And your family, Achilles?" Draco stepped back, radiating icy dignity. "What have they been doing all this time?"
Achilles cleared his throat, looking shame-faced. "They think I'm on a business trip."
Draco narrowed his eyes. He couldn't fault Achilles for living a lie, but as it regarded Draco it was a futile effort.
"Is that so?" he replied. "Well, you'd better start scouting the antique shops then. It wouldn't do to return home empty-handed."
"But I won't be." Achilles beamed, and stroked his beard. The travelling had taken its toll on him; his dark hair had lost its lustre and the skin was sighing away from his face, showing up every wrinkle. "I'll have you."
"I'm not coming back, Achilles."
"What?" Achille's smile bubbled away.
"Why do you think I left in the first place? Just so that you could play a game of hide-and-seek across two continents?" Draco shook his head. "This wasn't about you. You and I ended the day I left."
"But Felix --" Achilles' hands clawed at the empty air, as if it would bind Draco to him.
"My name isn't even Felix," sighed Draco. "Your concern for me is touching, truly it is. But you need to end this foolishness now. Go home. Fondle your wife. Try to see if there was a reason you married her after all. If that doesn't work, get yourself another whore."
"You're not -- you weren't --" The words were eked from a strangled throat.
"I was and I am." Draco lifted one shoulder and let it drop. "Don't worry." He smiled. "You're not owing."
He walked away, feeling a coil of regret. However, his life had no room for the Achille du Toits of this world. Achilles had sated a need, much as Draco had done for him. The sooner he realised it, the better for him.
"Fe -- please. Please, wait."
Against his better judgement, Draco slowed his step.
"Give me a chance."
Draco shifted his head into profile, staring at his own shoulder. He could sense Achilles, a large colourful blur at the edge of his vision, wringing his hands.
"I love you."
Draco turned around.
Achilles' face was a roadmap of despair. Draco let his gaze roam from Achilles' feet -- encased in expensive leather shoes -- to his head, where grey hairs were sprouting with the avowed intention of one day ousting all the black. For a whole minute, he let Achilles hope.
Then he spun on his heel and strode away. By the time he reached the stairs, Achilles' soundless shout of sorrow had faded from his mind. As his foot hit the first step, he was already longing for Stefano's hot little mouth.
Clearly the gods were intent on hubris. Draco found the hotel room to be conspicuously devoid of Stefano. Calling his name and inspecting his bedroom revealed nothing.
Striding back into the living area under a black cloud revealed Alexandre in situ.
He was fresh from a shower, clad only in jeans and the towel with which he was vigorously drying his hair. Stray drops of water were drying on a back as broad and brown as teak. Two chocolate-button nipples, one slightly lower than the other, snagged Draco's attention; a curly line of hair invited him to move it further south, to appreciate the narrowness and sharpness of the hips that Draco had only touched once.
Draco felt his mouth go dry, and licked his parched lips in consternation. Two wary black eyes were regarding him, torn between suspicion and poorly caged desire.
"Where's Stefano?" managed Draco.
Alexandre snorted in derision. It did nothing to distract Draco from the way Alexandre was staring at his mouth. "He has a job in McDonald's, remember? He started on night shifts. Left about an hour ago. But you knew that already."
"Obviously." Draco tossed his head, marking the way Alexandre's eyes followed the movement hungrily. He was so very like Stefano. And Draco had wanted Stefano, naked and at his mercy, so very much. The one night Draco had ceased to be bored by Stefano's attentions, and he decided to go out mopping floors. Typical.
Draco sank on to the sofa, toeing off his shoes and socks in swift, practised gestures. Perhaps Stefano's absence was a blessing in disguise. As soon as Draco sat down, he felt so bone-weary that getting up again seemed an impossible achievement. Acrobatic sex was definitely out of the question.
"So." Alexandre's voice was hard and challenging. "What did you do all day?"
Draco contemplated telling him the truth, just to see the look on his face. Of course, in reality he could never risk it. "I had another interview with Harry Potter. I visited an old school-friend. I got a bite to eat. And then I came home, because the one thing my day was pointless without was an interrogation from you."
"I'm just looking out for my brother!" snarled Alexandre.
Draco loosened the collar of Blaise's shirt with one finger. His exertions had left him too exhausted to Apparate, so he'd had to borrow some Muggle clothes and cash for a taxi from Blaise to get back. He let his eyes slide closed as he answered Alexandre.
"Don't worry." He yawned. "He finds me equally as satisfying as you did."
"You're such a bastard." Alexandre's voice shook.
"So I've been told," said Draco pleasantly. "Although I've never slept with my brother's boyfriend."
"I --" Alexandre's expression of righteous indignation was slowly infiltrated by doubt.
"Please, don't add hypocrisy to the long list of your other charms." Draco yawned again, cracking his jaw. "I'm not about to judge you. If you'd just pay me the same courtesy, the world would be a happier place."
Draco's eyes sprung open in surprise. "For what? Doubting me, or seeing me naked?"
"Both." Alexandre hesitated, then winced. "Not the latter."
Draco laughed. "Thank you. I'll take that as a compliment."
"It was meant as one," said Alexandre. He stepped closer to Draco and dropped his towel, in such close proximity that a drop of water from his wet tendrils splashed on to Draco's nose.
Oh dear, thought Draco, raising his eyes to Alexandre's painfully sincere face.
"Alexandre, I --" he began, determined to let his tiredness win the day if his conscience would not.
Alexandre popped a button and his jeans crumpled to the floor. Underneath he was still wet from his shower, and very, very naked.
Draco blinked away the itch in his eyes that demanded that he close them. Alexandre reached down to brush Draco's jaw with his fingers. With an inaudible sigh, Draco leaned into them, and curled his own hands around Alexandre's jutting hipbones to draw him closer.
At least, he thought with relief, I don't have to get up.
The next day, Angus was back at his post by Harry's side. Although this would usually have been an occasion for much gnashing of teeth on Draco's part, for the first time he was glad to see the kid -- although not out of any particular concern for his welfare.
Angus' high, childish voice rang out across the octagon as Draco neared the bed. The curtains had been flung back and bound with strips of red silk. Harry, Draco was pleased to see, was dressed to the nines in a deep blue robe of flattering severity.
"-- and then they took me to another part of the Ministry of Magic called the Department of Mysteries, where Mum worked for a while. They hooked me up to this huge aquarium full of brains and when they did the brains went crazy and tried to climb out of the glass, and a bunch of Time Turners all shattered. They said they hadn't seen such levels of destruction since you last visited. When did you visit, Uncle Harry? Was it a long time ago?"
"Well before you were born," laughed Harry. "Go on, what happened next?"
"Not much. A woman with a quill was following me around for ages writing down everything I said. But Mum said it was ridiculous to subject me to that all of the time and she knew what a prophetic trance looked like when she saw one, she's read about loads of them."
"I'll bet they weren't too pleased about it."
"Nope!" Angus grinned, displaying a gap in his milk teeth. "But she pointed out that as I was 'the first authentic seer since Cassandra Trelawney' no one else alive had been around to witness one, either, so she was just as well qualified as anyone."
"What about your dad? Was he pleased?" pressed Harry.
Draco could have put an accurate answer to that even with out Angus' sudden frown and mumbled, "Yeah, well, a bit." Draco judged it a superlative moment to intervene in the conversation.
"Hello Harry. Angus," he said. "Is your mother around today?"
"Yup." Angus fairly bounced at the news. "She's taken all the kids to my grandma's and she's been with some researchers answering questions since we arrived."
"Good," replied Draco, to everyone's evident surprise. He swiftly added, "That means we can eat these without fear of retribution." He produced a large bag of toffees from the depths of his pocket. After he relinquished ownership by placing them on the bed, Angus fell upon them with the appetite of a ravening horde.
With the child suitably distracted, Draco pulled up the chair and sat as close to Harry's bed as he could manage. Harry, for his part, looked suddenly uncomfortable at being the sole focus of attention. He tugged at the sleeves of his robes as if they were about to come off.
Draco almost wished they would.
"How's your hand today?" he asked.
"Better." Harry held it up, palm out. It had been expertly healed, but it still looked redder than it should and, where his fingers met his palm, a puckered blotch of proud flesh stood out from the rest. It was just about where Draco's lips had touched him.
"They say that might fade after a while, but it'll never go away," said Harry, following his gaze. "I'm stuck with it." He sounded oddly victorious, as if this were an feat worthy of note.
"I'm sorry." Draco pressed a fingertip to the scar.
Harry sucked in a breath. "I'm not."
At that moment a bevy of dove-grey Aurors bustled through the doors, Granger's electrocuted mop in their midst.
"Excuse me," murmured Draco, not meeting Harry's eyes. "I just want to ask Mrs McLaggen a few questions about the war."
"Really?" Harry sounded bemused, as well he should. It was the first time that Draco had shown any interest in gathering background information for his 'story.' But Draco didn't let that minor detail deter him as he edged through the throng. By a miracle, he caught Granger's eye and gestured her outside. Eyebrows mountaineering into her hairline, she bobbed her head and followed him.
As soon as they were alone, Granger burst into speech. "On Harry's behalf, I want to thank you for not revealing that classified information about his condition."
"There's no need," drawled Draco. "He's already done that. And I would suggest that you keep your voice down, unless you want the information to become unclassified right here in the corridor."
Granger flushed and subsided. Good. An on-the-ball Granger was the last thing Draco needed if he were to extract the desired confession.
"I have reason to believe," Draco went on, pretending to check his notes, "that you sent out a search warrant for one Draco Malfoy on the day Harry woke from his coma. Could you explain that for me?"
Granger's eyebrows wiggled towards each other like two obese worms. "I can't, because I did no such thing."
"Please, Mrs McLaggen," sighed Draco, "let's not prevaricate here. I have gained access to certain files, courtesy of P.I. Zabini, that conclusively state that you obtained his services on the twenty-ninth of May, 2005. He was hired to find --" Draco's tongue nearly slipped to say me "-- Draco Malfoy and, if possible, hand him over to you."
Granger's eyes had become rounder with every sentence. By the time Draco finished, they looked ready to pop out of their sockets. "What a load of rubbish!" she exclaimed. "I never hired this investigator. I have no reason for wishing to locate Malfoy. Off the record --" she took a step closer, overwhelming Draco with the odour of oatmeal "-- Draco Malfoy is guilty of no crime except stupidity. Harry was there when Dumbledore died. He heard Malfoy say that he was doing it because he wanted to save his parents -- a foolish notion, but an honourable one. In the end, he didn't kill Dumbledore. Snape did."
Draco almost said, "I know." Granger's eyes were too bright and too close to his to even whisper it.
"Come," said Granger briskly. "I think we need to have a little chat."
She led him to what looked like a non-denominational prayer room. Ostensibly most pureblood wizarding families were Anglican, but the intermingling with Muggles had lead to all sorts of religious practices infiltrating the magical psyche. The International Ministry for Magic was most severely displeased with the way one magical sect had penetrated the Muggle world, earning hundreds of Muggle devotees. They were about the only wizards who could get away with wearing robes in public, although they were all a disgusting shade of orange. Draco tried to remember what they were called. The Hairy Chrysanthemums?
Regardless of the faith of the ruling majority, most people who came to St Mungo's felt the need for a little divine reassurance. The sparkling stained glass windows -- fashioned from abstract whorls the colour of jewels -- rained prisms of light down upon the cool white walls and blue velvet pews. Despite adjuring himself to keep up his guard, the calm of the place worked a magic of its own on Draco's tense muscles and racing heart.
The place was empty, but Granger still spoke in a whisper. "I'm going to tell you a story. Don't interrupt --"
Draco snorted. "Let me remind you that I am not one of your squalling children."
"Again," continued Granger, unperturbed. "When the war ended, before Ron and I had our rift and I married Cormac, I went to Gabon for three months as part of a research team. I was quite good at potions and even more interested in research, and there were huge discoveries being made all over the African subcontinent. If it weren't for the interruption of the war, I would never have had a chance to be a part of them. One of the very few benefits to come out of the whole horrible experience.
"Most potions use sap or bark from at least one plant. Unfortunately, many of these can be so easily contaminated that they are useless from the minute they're extracted from the plants. To that end, my team had gone out to study ants and other insects that transported and stored plant materials to see if we could adapt their techniques to our own abstraction of necessary potion components."
Granger had been staring at the window during her soliloquy, but at this point she turned and fixed Draco with an intent gaze. For all that, her eyes weren't looking at him.
"In the African jungles, there is a type of ant called the weaver ant. To make their nests, weavers take the leaves of a tree and literally sew them together. When danger threatens, they emerge from their woven fortress and climb down the outside. Then, each single ant taps its thorax against the leaves. It makes a sound almost like rain falling on glass. At the time, I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world."
She sighed, her head dipping forward so that curls bounced across her forehead. "If they're invaded by another colony of ants, weaver ants don't fight to the death. They spray their enemies with formic acid, paralyse them, and move them out of range. They don't kill them."
"Are you trying to draw some sort of analogy here?" asked Draco.
"Trying? No. I hoped I was succeeding." Granger had such common hazel eyes; it was strange that they could shine with such uncommon fervour. "I believed Harry when he told me that Draco didn't kill Dumbledore. I believed him even before Snape confessed. The reason I believed Harry first was because he knew Malfoy so well. He'd tracked him for a year before Dumbledore's murder. He could have told you what he ate for breakfast. From what I observed, what Harry told me, and what I've pieced together since then, Malfoy was just like a weaver ant. He'd make a big noise to scare people away, to impress them with how great and strong he was, but behind it all was just sewn-up leaves. He'd look like he could kill someone as easy as winking, but in the end all he wanted to do was remove the threat."
Draco's breath caught in his throat. "None -- none of this proves that you didn't set Zabini on him."
Granger smiled. "Honestly, Michel. You might set a Slytherin to catch a Slytherin, but me? I'd go look for him myself. And I was pretty sure that Harry would be wanting to do that himself, when he woke up."
"The fact remains that someone set Zabini on Malfoy's trail, and all the evidence strongly points to you." Draco tried to keep his voice stern, but all the fight was draining out of him.
"And I can tell you nothing but that someone's been pulling the wool over your eyes," replied Granger. "I think you'd best let it die, Michel. Before someone a bit more suspicious than me starts wondering why it is you want this to have happened so badly."
She left him then, alone in the non-denominational chapel and wishing for the first time in his life that there was some greater being calling the shots so that he didn't have to.