The warehouse and office of Importations Magique, Inc. were draped in shadow on this cold, overcast December day. As a precaution against prying eyes, Draco had chosen to Apparate directly into his office instead of appearing in the Apparation point he and his magical employees usually used to get to work. It seemed important to Draco that he not call attention to the fact that he was alone in the massive building, save the watchman who would be coming past the stairs to the office on his rounds in just a few minutes.
Taking off his cloak, he hung it on a hat stand, which was next to the door to the outer office, before unlocking the door and going to find the files he needed to prepare for the next week's business. It was such a pain to have to work at home when everything he needed was here. However, Asteria was right about using caution, since the Aurors had not yet captured the criminals using the warehouse across the street. He hoped that the matter would be resolved soon, for while it was good policy to keep erratic hours, it was also very inconvenient for his workers whose schedules he had been interrupting for over a week.
Sighing, he walked through the gloom past his secretary's desk to the filing cabinets that stood in a row along one wall and unlocked the one he wanted. It took a few moments to find and extract the files he wanted by wandlight, but he thought it would call attention to his presence if he were to turn on the lights. Finished with his search, he murmured, "Nox," plunging the outer office once again into deep shadow, before relocking the cabinet and turning to go back to his office.
"Hello, Mr Malfoy. I was hoping you would drop by today. You business blokes are such a predictable lot."
Draco jumped and dropped his pile of files, scattering parchments of various sizes over the floor in front of him. He hadn't known anyone was in the outer office, much less sitting in his secretary's chair behind the desk.
"Who are you and what do you want?" Draco demanded. He brought his wand up in a defensive position, choosing not to strike a combative pose just in case the intruder was one of his employees. However, instinct told him the other man was up to no good.
"It matters little who I am," the intruder drawled. "I'm here to deliver a message." There was a rustle of clothing as the intruder stood up.
"And what would that be?"
"Keep your opinions to yourself!" barked the intruder. "I will be watching you, I have been watching you, and if you contact Harry Potter or the Aurors again, you will be stopped. Do I make myself clear?" He vaulted over the desk so fast that Draco had no time to defend himself.
As he pinned Draco against the filing cabinets and lifted him several inches off the floor by his shirt, the intruder demanded, "Did I make myself clear?"
"Yes! Quite… clear," Draco squeaked around the hand full of shirt that was cutting off his ability to breathe.
"Good," the intruder snarled, bringing his wand up to Draco's eye level, causing him to go cross-eyed when he focused on the point that was no more than an inch from his nose.
It had been a long time since Draco had needed to defend himself, but he still had his wand in hand and as he flicked his gaze from the wand point back to his attacker's face, he pushed his magic into his wand and cast the strongest Shield Spell he could between them.
The spell expanded, instantly pushing the two apart and making Draco's attacker drop him as he stumbled backwards and skidded on the fallen files. Draco landed on his feet, gulping air, just as the green light of a Killing Curse whizzed past his head. It struck one of the office oil lamps, which erupted into flames. Alarmed enough to momentarily take his attention off his opponent, Draco cast several protective spells on the cabinets before facing him again: his caution had given the man enough time to stand back up again and he was now waving his wand wildly about, pointing it at various pieces of furniture.
"I'll blow this place to smithereens," cried the intruder. "You can't protect it all!" He pointed his wand at the secretary's desk and fired off a spell. The desk exploded, forcing Draco to retreat across the room toward the door to the warehouse. The intruder laughed maliciously and blasted several framed paintings and a chair on the other side of the room as Draco slammed the door to his office shut with a spell and sealed it.
The sound of the sealing door distracted the intruder long enough for Draco to unlock the warehouse door. He opened it, thinking that if he could entice the wanker down to the warehouse floor, he'd have a better chance of defeating his opponent without blowing the office sky high.
"Come and get me, you wanker!" Draco taunted and he raced down the stairs to the first landing where he Disapparated and materialized a second later on the ground floor. "I'm down here now!" Looking up, he saw his attacker fire off another spell, and as the man Disapparated, another of the office oil lamps burst into flames. Draco groaned as the man joined him on the warehouse floor.
"You have no right to do that!" Draco yelled, casting a Stunning Spell at the man, who dodged it easily.
"This is payback for sending the Aurors to investigate our warehouse!" the man yelled. "And paybacks are hell!"
Draco dodged a Stunning Spell, a Bludgeoning Spell and the Cruciatus Curse in rapid succession. "I know about paybacks, so take this!" he responded, his wand moving in a blur. He was encouraged when the intruder backed up a few steps.
This wanker doesn't duel much, Draco thought. He advanced on the intruder, firing combat spells he hadn't used in over twenty years. The man was able to dodge or shield himself from most of what Draco sent his way, but his own spells, though deadly, were delivered much slower than Draco's. They circled each other, firing spell after spell and with each circuit, Draco pressed the man back towards the warehouse wall, away from his inventory. Finally, Draco had the man backed against the giant steel door to the warehouse, cornered like an animal.
"Avada Kedavra!" the man yelled, sending the bright green spell once again at Draco.
The two men were still far enough apart that Draco knew he could dodge the spell. He threw himself to the ground, his wand still pointed at his opponent, and attempted to tie him up as the Killing Curse sailed over his head.
The man dodged the ropes and Disapparated with a loud POP!
Gasping for air from the exertion of the duel, Draco lay on the cold cement, glad to have defeated the intruder. Oh Merlin, that was close, he thought as he felt his body go limp with relief. I wonder where the security guard is?
The shriek of the warehouse's fire alarm made him look up towards the office. "Damn!" Draco yelled, and he sprinted up the stairs towards the door, hoping against hope that there was still something left in the reception room after the Muggle sprinkler system, which he knew would activate as soon as smoke was detected, shut off.
He arrived just as the last of the flames was doused. Stepping inside, Draco surveyed the damage and was gratified to see that although it was completely drenched and scorched by the flames, the wall dividing his office from the reception room had not been breached, nor had the filing cabinets with their precious records been harmed. He picked his way through the soggy mess that had been his secretary's desk and chair to his door and cancelled the spells holding it shut. His heart pounding in his ears, he entered the room and looked about. To his surprise, the room was dry, his desk was intact, and his cloak was still hanging exactly where he had hung it twenty minutes before.
"Thank Merlin," he breathed as he sank onto the nearest sofa and buried his head in his hands.
Suddenly, the fireplace flared green and Ron Weasley's face appeared in the flames.
"Mr Malfoy, are you all right?" he asked. "A fire alarm went off at the Ministry and I've been sent to investigate. Can I come through?"
Draco raised his head. "Sure," he said weakly and removed the spell blocking entrance to his office.
"What happened?" the Auror demanded as he stepped out of the fireplace and stood sniffing the air like a dog.
"Intruder," Draco said dully. "Fire."
Auror Weasley raised an eyebrow. Then turning back to the fireplace, he stuck his head inside and made a Floo call. A moment later, a second Auror stepped through the fireplace and excused himself after receiving instructions to interview Draco's night watchman and being introduced as Auror Carmichael.
The fact that the two Aurors knew so much about how Draco protected his business didn't surprise him a bit. They'd probably known for years where he was employed, who was on his payroll and the sorts of goods he imported and sold to other businesses.
"Did you get a good look at the intruder?" Auror Weasley asked, catching Draco's attention again.
Draco closed his eyes, trying to remember. Finally, he said, "Surprisingly, I think I did when we were duelling downstairs. I remember dark blond hair and dark eyes. Unshaven, possibly two days' worth of beard. He was shorter than me and very thin." He paused, feeling embarrassed to admit the rest. "Before we duelled up here, he easily picked me up by my shirt with one hand so that my feet dangled above the ground; he's quite strong."
Auror Weasley took out a small notebook and scribbled a few words on it with a Muggle pencil. "What was he wearing? Anything that stands out in your memory?"
"I didn't give it a thought at the time, but I think he was wearing blue uniform robes of some sort," Draco answered.
Auror Weasley raised an eyebrow. "Were there any distinguishing markings on the intruder's robes?" he asked.
Closing his eyes, Draco thought hard. "I seem to remember there was something on the left breast," he said slowly.
Auror Weasley smiled. "Describe it, please," he requested.
"I was a bit preoccupied to see it properly," Draco said guardedly, "but it looked liked an 'X'."
"Might it have been similar to this?" Auror Weasley asked, taking a slip of parchment from his pocket and handing it to Draco. On it was a drawing in the shape of an 'X'.
Draco studied the drawing. "This is the St Mungo's insignia," he said. "I'm almost certain this was printed on the intruder's robes."
A grim expression spread across Auror Weasley's face. "Thank you for confirming my suspicions, Mr Malfoy," he said as he took back the drawing and put it back in his pocket.
Draco suddenly felt very uneasy by the Auror's reaction. He waited silently for the next question.
"What did the intruder do after he made himself known to you?" Weasley asked, changing the subject.
"He threatened to blow up my warehouse," Draco said warily.
"Any special reason?" Weasley asked as he came over and sat in an overstuffed leather wing chair, which was arranged perpendicular to the couch.
"I don't believe that for an instant, Mr Malfoy," Auror Weasley said stiffly, making Draco feel slightly defensive.
"Believe what you want, Weasley, but I didn't invite the wanker into my office so he could accost me and then attempt to set the place on fire," he said, feeling irritated.
"When we're done, would you consent to giving me a copy of your memory as evidence in this investigation?" Auror Weasley asked, surprising Draco. He'd never heard of this sort of evidence-gathering technique.
"Why do you want the memory?" he demanded.
Auror Weasley explained, "In certain high-priority cases it is helpful to our office to have not only the verbal or written statements of the victims but an actual copy of the memory. You may have noticed something significant even when you were fighting for your life and business which might shed more light on the identity of the intruder than you are aware of."
Draco considered this for a moment. "What do I do?" he asked.
Auror Weasley explained the process and Draco consented to give his memory. When they were done, Draco again waited for the interrogation to continue.
"Where were you when you discovered the intruder?"
Draco sighed and told the story as he remembered it. Then, at Weasley's request, he showed him the damage done to the reception room and allowed him to collect evidence from what was left of the room.
When he was done, Weasley said, "Smart thinking to lure the perpetrator into an open area, Mr Malfoy. Not many people would have kept their head long enough to do such a thing."
"There's twenty-five years' worth of records in those filing cabinets and I wasn't about to sacrifice them," Draco snapped.
"I'm sorry. I meant no offence," Weasley said, surprising Draco. He'd never known Ron Weasley to apologize for anything.
Weasley stood up as the other Auror came back into the office. The two conferred in low voices for a few moments and then the second man left the way he'd come. Weasley turned back to face Draco.
"I'll tell Harry his instinct was correct," he said.
"Why should Harry Potter be involved with this?" Draco demanded, angrily jumping to his feet.
"You're the informant who gave us the tip about someone using the warehouse across the street," Weasley explained. He held up a hand to keep Draco from speaking. "Before you become angry at Harry for revealing your identity, let me tell you that I figured out you were his informant on my own."
"But—" Draco protested.
"Let me finish," Weasley requested. "My office knows of only two magical warehouses in this area: yours and the one across the street. You and the previous owner have been in business here for over thirty years while the other warehouse has stood empty for the last two. It didn't take long for me to figure out you were the one Harry was protecting. I promise you that I've told no one who you are until a half hour ago. Auror Carmichael will not reveal your identity either."
Draco couldn't help the sigh of relief that escaped him. "Thanks for that." He was silent for a moment. Then, he asked, "Why did the alarm go off at the Ministry? This is a private business."
"Two days ago, Harry asked me to cast monitoring spells on your property. He was worried the people involved in the case we're investigating might want to harm you or your business," Weasley answered.
"Tell him I appreciate his concern," Draco said as Weasley stuffed his notebook in his breast pocket.
"Will you be able to open for business tomorrow?"
"Most likely," Draco answered. "I've only lost a few files and some office furniture. Hopefully my secretary will have located the duplicate copies of those files by morning and have them ready for me to use at the start of business."
Weasley smiled. He sounded genuinely concerned as he said, "Good luck with the clean-up. Let me know if you need anything or feel threatened in any way." He stuck out his had for Draco to shake.
It felt odd shaking Ron Weasley's hand, but Draco managed to keep from jerking his hand away.
"I'll keep in touch," Weasley promised as he walked to the fireplace. He threw in some Floo powder, called out his destination and disappeared in a puff of green flame.
Draco resealed the fireplace and then walked into the outer office again. He couldn't hold back a gigantic sigh as he surveyed the damage. He shook his head as he thought wryly, Asteria's going to get her wish to redecorate this office faster than she knew…
The Auror office was quiet when Ron arrived and strode down the aisle to his cubicle. He waved to Auror Wentworth who sat in the Situation Room manning the communications fireplaces for any alerts which might come via the Floo Network as the one at Importations Magique, Inc. had. Wentworth waved back and Ron continued on, changing his mind and turning left towards Evidence rather than right towards his cubicle.
"I sent some evidence bags in about a half hour ago," he told the witch sitting behind the glass partition. "Have they arrived yet?"
Looking peeved, the witch put down her copy of Witch Weekly, stood up, and sauntered over to a basket marked New Evidence and picked up several bags. She brought them back, cast a few spells and then shoved the lot plus a clipboard at Ron through the opening in the partition. "You know where to sign," she said in a bored tone.
Ron signed for the bags and took them back to his cubicle where he opened his notebook and began reviewing his notes. What he'd collected wasn't much, but it proved without a doubt that the intruder at the warehouse was indeed Tim Dawson, the St Mungo's employee working for the Matron.
He felt a little bit of satisfaction in finally identifying this minor suspect. Surely, once caught and properly prosecuted, he would be spending some time in Azkaban for participating in the Matron's twisted experiments…
In the tall cabinet behind his desk, Ron found the proper forms to enter his evidence into his files and when that was finished, he began converting his notes to report form. The thing was, no matter how hard he tried, this time he simply couldn't be very objective. He simply couldn't get Draco Malfoy out of his mind like he usually could.
When he had first responded to the alarm at Malfoy's warehouse, he'd done so almost reluctantly and only because Auror regulations required him to respond. He had gone there expecting to find the Draco Malfoy of his teen years, an arrogant wizard who belittled those he thought inferior. Despite the things Harry had said over the last few years about the changes in Malfoy's demeanour, Ron hadn't been prepared to find a broken and defeated-looking man slumped on his office sofa.
The changes in his old rival had been very disconcerting; they had confused Ron enough that he had dropped much of his guard by the end of the interview. Sure, he'd maintained his professionalism, but it had actually seemed stiff and stilted in the face of the damage done to the office and, it seemed, to Draco Malfoy himself.
Could I have been more compassionate, less businesslike? he asked himself. Would it have been less professional if I had shown Malfoy how much the attack affected me?
Ron knew deep down that he still harboured a grudge towards Draco Malfoy for the things he'd visited upon the Weasley family all those years ago. That Ginny had been the victim of Draco's father's plan to discredit Arthur Weasley with the diary and that he himself had been Draco's unintended victim due to the poisoned mead in Professor Slughorn's office still made his blood warm dangerously when he thought about them. Ron remembered, too, that it had been Draco who had let the Death Eaters into Hogwarts the night Dumbledore died, and that Bill had become one of Fenrir Greyback's snacks because of Draco's actions. But after all these years, did things like this really matter? Was it worth holding the past against Malfoy when he obviously had spent the intervening years suffering the consequences of his actions as a teenager? Because if it was, Ron knew any further dealings with Draco Malfoy would forever be coloured with the stain of past transgressions.
On the other hand, if he forgave Draco because of what he had done the night he, Harry and Hermione had been captured by the Snatchers, how would he feel the next time he encountered him? Was he capable of forgiving Draco, of accepting him? If he was, Ron knew his future demeanour would be completely different than what it had been today for he would have phrased his words differently and dropped the business tone from his voice.
Letting out a long-suffering sigh, Ron leaned back in his chair, thinking. It was time to let go, time to follow Harry in accepting that Draco Malfoy was not in any way like his father, and had circumstances been different, Draco might have been a Ravenclaw or Gryffindor rather than a hated Slytherin and he and Ron might have become friends rather than rivals.
It wouldn't be easy, but for Harry's sake and the sake of the investigation, Ron let go of his grudge and began to accept Draco Malfoy as an acquaintance.
Monday, 28 December 2020
The kitchen of Weasel's Keep was chilly and nearly dark when Hermione, Ron, Rose, and Hugo emerged from the kitchen fireplace. The children immediately headed for their rooms, their presents from their Grandparents Granger tucked under their arms.
"It's good to be home," Hermione said as she hung her cloak up on its peg by the fire. When Ron didn't comment right away as he usually did, she turned to face him. He just stood where he'd stopped, holding his cloak in his hand and staring at nothing in particular. Puzzled, she walked over and took his cloak.
"Oh! Sorry, Hermione, what was it you were saying?" he asked, looking distracted.
"I just commented that it was good to be home," she repeated. She hung up his cloak next to hers.
"Thanks," he murmured and headed towards the stairs.
Hermione flicked her wand at their packages, levitating them in front of her as she followed Ron. She found him sitting in one of the overstuffed wing chairs in their room, his shoes off with his feet propped on a matching pouf, and staring at the fire he'd lit in the grate.
"Is what happened at Draco Malfoy's warehouse still bothering you?" she asked as she sat down in the other wing chair.
Ron shook his head. "Hermione, I can't keep this from you any longer," he said, looking into the fire. "My team is planning a classified mission. It's very, very dangerous, one where I could get badly hurt if something goes wrong. The big planning meeting is tomorrow. It's my last opportunity to back out, but I know I won't…" He trailed off, his face troubled.
Hermione gazed at the fire, too. "Would it help if I told you I have faith that the other Aurors will do their best to keep you safe when the mission is in progress?" she asked quietly. It seemed her trust was the only thing she could give him at the moment and she hoped it was enough. She glanced over at her husband and was startled to see a lone tear making its way down his cheek.
Ron swiped at the tear, looking greatly relieved. "It does, Hermione, it does," he murmured.
Hermione rose to her feet and went to kneel by his chair. She put her arms around him and hugged him gently. He returned the hug more fiercely than she expected as he asked, "What did I ever do to deserve you?"
Pulling away just enough to look into his face, Hermione said, "You wanted to keep the house-elves safe during the final battle at Hogwarts. That's what you did!"
Ron's ears turned pink and he smiled at her. "Thanks for reminding me, Hermione. Tell me something… is it all right to be scared about a planning meeting?"
Hermione cocked her head to one side, thinking. "It depends on what's going to happen at the meeting," she said slowly, speaking as her thoughts formed. "If you're scared because you're ill-prepared for the meeting, then I'd say no. However… if what you're committing to is the scary part, then I think it's all right to be apprehensive. You said the mission was dangerous and you seem uncertain about its outcome, so I think you're justified in being scared."
Her husband pulled her into another hug and she felt him sigh as her arms tightened around him. "Thank you for understanding, Hermione," he whispered. "I feel a little better about what we need to do."
1200 hours, Tuesday, 29 December 2020
The cold blowing in off the North Sea penetrated the rooms of the cave containing the hideout. Tim shivered as he entered the main treatment room where the Matron was waiting for him.
"I have come as you requested," he reported, bowing his head in shame.
"What have you to report?" she asked imperiously.
Tim quailed at her tone. "My only success was at the Malfoy warehouse."
"Tell me what you have done!" she demanded. "Your orders were to watch the houses, to gain access to them and set my traps! How is it you were successful at a warehouse when you had specific orders?" The Matron levelled her wand at him, green sparks issuing from its tip.
Tim reported his activities, admitting his shame at failing to do her bidding but feeling good that at least he'd been able to damage the warehouse.
"You absolute imbecile!" screeched the Matron when he was done. "You've botched everything!" She advanced a few steps towards him, her wand twitching in her anger.
"I did my best! The security enchantments around both estates are almost as unbreakable as those at Hogwarts! I spent days at The Burrow and before that at Malfoy Manor trying to get in or at least to follow those you wished me to follow," Tim pleaded defensively.
The wand touched the tip of Tim's nose and he couldn't help staring cross-eyed at it. He jumped when a few sparks singed his face. "You FAILED in your instructions and to make matters worse, you broke into Malfoy's business and nearly were caught! YOU DON'T THINK! YOUR ACTIONS HAVE JEOPARDIZED OUR ENTIRE OPERATION!" the Matron continued.
"I was successful at scaring Malfoy. He won't be reporting to Potter or the Aurors any time soon," Tim yelled back.
"You may have scared him, but you left evidence all over that warehouse, you let Malfoy see you, you duelled with him and he almost cornered you! He knows what you look like and if he goes to the Aurors they'll know exactly who you are because you went to the warehouse IN YOUR HOSPITAL ROBES!!! Of all the stupid things to do, that takes the cake!" The Matron's wand slashed through the air and Tim suddenly found himself dangling upside down by an ankle. "Crucio!"
She screamed the spell with such venom that the word echoed through the cave. Tim was instantly engulfed in the worst pain he'd ever encountered in all the time he'd served the Matron. He tried to curl up in a ball as he usually did when she cast the spell on him, but hanging like this, it was impossible: the spell seemed to go on forever, burning away his nerves, turning his brain to mush. When his tormenter finally lifted her spell, he was barely conscious, gasping for breath and wishing for mercy.
"Matron, I'm… It won't happen again," he murmured in barely a whisper.
The Matron stared at him silently. Then, with a flick of her wand, she caused his body to follow her as she walked rapidly through the cave to the potions lab. She parked him, still dangling in mid-air, in front of a full-length mirror and then stripped him of his clothes from the waist up, exposing his torso. Tim waited in horror as she turned him to face the mirror.
"You will obey my orders or die, Tim Dawson," she said, her tone a deadly hiss. "If you take it upon yourself to go against your instructions as you have this past week, I will not be merciful."
Tim watched in the mirror as the Matron flicked her wand at a tiny cauldron sitting on the cooling shelves, extracting a small, irregularly-shaped piece of metal. She let it drip for a few seconds and then, without warning, she sent the shrapnel hurtling through the air like a deadly missile at him.
The fragment buried itself in the middle of his back and he nearly blacked out from the pain. As he fought to remain conscious, he felt his skin seal around the object and knew that he had been luckier than some of the Matron's toadies to remain completely free-thinking up to this point in time.
The Matron's heels clicked on the floor of the cave as she came nearer. When the clicking stopped, Tim felt himself being rotated to face her. The motion finally stopped and she hoisted him higher so they were nose to nose.
"Imperio," she whispered.
Tim instantly felt more light-headed than he currently was and a strange sense of peace suffused through his battered body. Then the Matron's voice echoed in his head, "You will follow my orders. If you are successful, I will remove the metal. If you fail, I will cast the spell to end your life.
"The metal fragment has been soaked in a potion which is now travelling through your body. The potion is designed to burn through every nerve in your body when a certain spell is cast. You will not know who casts the spell or when it will be cast, if you fail. Do you understand that you will die?"
"I do," Tim intoned.
"Then here are your orders," hissed the Matron.
When she was done speaking, Tim felt her withdraw from his mind. Instantly, his pain returned and he cried out. The sound echoed through the cavern as he was unceremoniously dropped to the floor. He lay there, trembling and frightened, until someone levitated him to another part of the cave.
A/N: So here it is… the Auror action some of you have been asking about. I hope it met your expectations.
Many thanks to my awesome pre-beta team of Jedi34, Mutt n Feathers, RebeccaRipple, Rosina Ferguson and RSS. Without you I'd wallowing in Americanisms, tripping over commas, and writing confusing sentences. You all keep me on my toes so that Aggiebell, my beta, has an easy time of it each week. Thanks Aggie for all of your help and comments this chapter. I also thank you, my readers, for letting me know how you feel about my story with your reviews. I appreciate your opinions more than you know. Thanks for reading.