Chapter: X. Nascence
Fandom: Harry Potter
Pairing: Harry/Draco (intended); others.
Disclaimer: JKR owns. I only play. You do not sue.
Chapter Rating: PG
Chapter Warnings: None.
Chapter Length: 3700
Chapter Summary: Draco takes care of business, Artie is extremely multi-talented, Harry feels left out, and Ginny gets called in by the boss.
Beta: None. Read at your own risk.
Note: This is a CYOA fic styled after the 乙女ゲーム/Otome game genre. There will be a poll at the end of each chapter, and readers' majority vote will decide the POV character's actions for the following chapter.
Concrit: Always welcome and appreciated.
[Previously, Draco decided to make Laura disappear and think of a new strategy.]
A drop of midnight-blue ink grew fat at the end of Draco's quill as he considered the sign-off on the last letter from the life of Laura Delamare. He tapped the nib against the inside of the ink bottle and wrote,
He cast a quick charm to dry the ink, rolled the parchment up tightly, tied it off with a thick green ribbon, and attached the address-card to one of the ribbon's loose ends. The letter was short, but Draco had needed more parchment than usual, having used a bolder cursive this time, letters slanting to the left. Laura's father couldn't very well write in Laura's right-leaning, economical hand.
In a week or so, Ginny Weasley would receive news of Laura's tragic death of a particularly violent Scrofungulus infection she'd mistaken for an allergy rash and thus ignored for too long. If Ginny chose to write a letter of sympathy, it would be the only one -- the real Delamares, who had no daughter that they knew of, would forward it to Draco as soon as it arrived. A friend of Narcissa's at the Paris Family Registration Bureau would add Laura's name on a death list -- one name more or less wouldn't make a difference; wizards and witches died all the time for all sorts of reasons. This had been a bad summer for Scrofungulus on the continent, mostly in the east, and of course Laura had gone to the hot springs there earlier in the season.
It had taken two weeks to get to this point, and it was all as flimsy as a hut made out of twigs. Someone determined enough to unearth information about Laura's life could find out that Laura's birth had never been registered. If anyone actually tried to speak to the Delamares about her, they would expose Draco in a minute; good neighbourly relations could only go so far. He had assured them, quite truthfully, that he was doing nothing illegal, but they didn't want to get involved with authorities. Draco couldn't blame them. He was just glad he hadn't invented Laura's surname; finding a random middle-aged couple named Delamare and willing to assist him might've been impossible.
He whirled to find his mother and Luce on the doorstep. The baby was dressed in vibrant green dress robes -- her first. She looked puzzled and uncomfortable.
Draco called for an owl from the mansion's east wing and handed it the letter. "Take this to Pierre Delamare. Make sure he sends it on to the attached address before you come home."
The owl flew off into the distance, and Draco rose. "Ready, Mother."
Harry knocked on the door, listening to the steady murmur of voices inside and wondering uneasily if he should've let Andromeda know he was stopping by today. He had drawn the lot to oversee the office tomorrow and wasn't sure he'd make it out of the Ministry before Teddy's bedtime. He heard Andromeda excuse herself to someone and approach.
The door opened, and Artie dug his claws a little too hard into Harry's shoulder. He was growing too big to sit up there comfortably.
"Harry!" Andromeda exclaimed. "I could've sworn today was Friday."
"It Is Friday," Harry said. "I can't make it tomorrow, so I thought I'd stop buy a little earlier. But if you've got company--"
"Don't be silly," she said, moving out of the way and ushering him inside. "My sister's here, but you're good friends, aren't you? Is that the famous Artie I keep hearing about? He's lovely."
She began to recount an anecdote from her girlhood somehow involving a Kneazle, six Galleons, and Nearly Headless Nick, and Harry had no choice but follow her down the corridor into the cosy sitting room, where Narcissa and Draco Malfoy sat side-by-side in armchairs while Teddy and Luce played on the floor near the baby-barricaded fireplace. Teddy was making his hands turn into a dog's paws and grabbing at a giggling Luce.
"Good afternoon," Harry said stiffly to the Malfoys. Narcissa smiled up at him; Malfoy nodded, barely lifting his gaze from the babies.
As Harry sat down in the last remaining armchair, Artie hopped down to the floor and stalked over to inspect Teddy's paws. The children quieted, regarding the newcomer with obvious curiosity. Harry really hoped Artie wouldn't speak in front of the Malfoys. He'd more or less resigned himself to the possibility that after today, Andromeda would join the growing ranks of people who knew Harry had an exceptional Kneazle, but he didn't want Draco Malfoy to know it. There was no real reason for it; Artie's outspoken and independent nature made him ill-suited to join the Auror Department as a service animal. But Harry felt like Artie's abilities were a private thing, an inner-circle thing, and Draco Malfoy was not invited.
The babies had apparently decided Artie was not a threat, for they went right back to their back-and-forth babbling, with Teddy's speech sounding almost like English: he kept dropping the words he knew into the streams of nonsense syllables as though hoping to impress his new friend with the breadth of his vocabulary. Artie curled up between the two of them, apparently oblivious of Luce's firm grip on his tail.
"Now we know the most trustworthy people in this room," Narcissa said to Andromeda.
"As if there was any doubt," Andromeda replied. "Harry, dear, will you have tea with us or would you like me to fix you a coffee? You look tired."
Harry glanced at Draco, who was still studying the children. He gripped the handles of his armchair so tightly that it looked like his knuckles would slice right through his skin at any moment. What was he so nervous about?
"Thanks, Mrs Tonks, tea is fine--"
"Andromeda is just fine, Harry. You don't need to stand on ceremony just because my sister's here."
Harry thought it was a bit strange that Andromeda kept referring to Narcissa alone, as though Draco weren't there too. The sentiment wasn't lost on Malfoy, either; he stiffened even more and the line of his mouth thinned almost imperceptibly, but he didn't react otherwise.
Harry realised he was staring. He wished he could apply this sort of observational diligence to all his work, but most people he had to interview didn't interest him quite as much as Draco Malfoy did. That was a problem, wasn't it? He couldn't even prove Malfoy was up to anything.
"Teddy and I made cranberry scones," Andromeda said, pouring out Harry's tea. "I hope you try one."
"Teddy, too?" Harry asked, glancing at him. He felt a little hurt that Teddy hadn't even acknowledged his presence yet, but he supposed that was just the way of the world. A boy shouldn't have to pay attention to his scruffy godfather when there's a cute girl in the room.
"He just loves kneading dough," Andromeda said. "I used to do it with magic, but ever since he's shown an interest in it, he gets very upset if I don't let him do it."
"Dough!" Teddy exclaimed, tottering over to the adults. "Baby! Dough!"
"Yes, darling, I was just telling them how much you love it. Would you like a scone?" Andromeda turned to Narcissa. "We made a batch with very little sugar especially for Teddy; they're just in the kitchen. Do you think Luce can have one?"
"We can try," Narcissa said.
Andromeda took Teddy into the kitchen, and a weighty silence fell in the sitting room, punctuated only by Luce's occasional exclamations. She was crawling in circles after Artie, who looked very pleased with himself.
"Artie, don't tease the baby," Harry called.
"Is that his name?" Narcissa asked, leaning forward a bit. "Such an impressive animal."
"Yeah, he chose it himself from a list of baby names," Harry said, and cursed inwardly. What was it about Narcissa Malfoy that took him off guard?
"Really? How did he manage that?"
"I'm not quite sure myself," Harry said. It was true -- he hadn't been there to witness it, so he couldn't be sure of what had really happened. "But he's clever even for a Kneazle."
"Here we are," Andromeda called. She was leading Teddy by the forearm; a miniature scone was clasped in each of his two hands. He ran over to Luce and offered her one; she sat up and took it with a curious look, then looked around until her eyes lit on Malfoy.
"Go on," Malfoy said. It was the first time he'd spoken since Harry had arrived. He didn't sound like he was planning mass murder, but who could really tell?
Malfoy brought his hand to his mouth, mimed a bite, and said, "Nom."
Luce gummed the scone experimentally. A look of renewed puzzlement crossed her face. "Bleargh," she said, and stuck one end of the scone in her mouth like a dummy.
"She likes it," Narcissa said.
Crumbs from the scone flew to the floor as Luce's tight clutch began to demolish it. A dazzling blue streak passed over the floor, clearing the crumbs clean away.
"Cleaning charm?" Narcissa asked.
Andromeda nodded. "Took forever to fine-tune it so it wouldn't try to Vanish everything that fell to the floor, but it was worth losing my favourite hat."
Teddy watched Luce eat, his own scone forgotten. He turned to Harry and favoured him with a sunny grin. "Baby!"
Harry grinned back. "You like your new friend, Teddy?"
"Baby," Teddy confirmed and scooted closer to Luce, seemingly forgetting all about Harry once again. Andromeda was telling Narcissa how she'd made the charm work. Malfoy continued to stare sullenly at Luce, who was clearly as used to being the centre of attention as Teddy, and thus paid her brother no mind.
Artie walked up to Harry and leapt up into his lap. "Let's get out of here."
The thought came over as a whisper so low Harry barely heard it. When had Artie learned to do that? Artie gave Harry a round-eyed look of extreme impatience, turned his head once to Malfoy, who still hadn't moved, and then looked at Harry again.
"You have something to tell me?" Harry asked in a carefully playful tone.
Artie put his front paws on Harry's chest and rubbed the top of his head against Harry's chin.
"We'll get going, then," Harry said.
"But you haven't even had any tea," Andromeda protested, rising a little.
"It's okay," Harry said. "I think Artie's hungry; he's not going to let me have any tea if that's so."
"Well, all right, dear," Andromeda said. "See you next week?"
"As always," Harry said. "Hopefully they won't make me work on Saturday again."
He knelt down to give Teddy a kiss, receiving a sticky pat on the cheek from the boy in the bargain, and made an awkward good-bye to the Malfoys. Andromeda saw him to the door, and -- barely twenty minutes after arriving -- Harry was back where he'd started.
"What was your hurry?" he asked Artie when they were clear of the building and wouldn't be overheard. "I didn't know you could whisper."
"I am a man of many talents," Artie said, trotting alongside him. Harry didn't bother pointing out that Artie was feline; that line of reasoning wouldn't get him anywhere. "And you're right, I'm hungry."
Harry stopped and faced Artie, incredulous. "Are you serious?"
Artie sat down and curled his tail around himself like only professional cats could. "That's not the only reason I wanted to leave."
Harry stared at him.
Artie sighed. "This, my strange human companion, is what one might call a dramatic pause. You are supposed to ask me what the other reason was."
Harry folded his arms and grinned. "All right, then, what was the other reason?"
Artie swished the tip of his tail up and down. "I have solved the mystery."
"The mystery of the woman you keep muttering about every chance you get. You see, she is not a woman at all. She is actually that rabbity-looking bloke we met in there. Luce's brother."
Harry blinked rapidly, realising that it made perfect sense. Laura Delamare, who showed up so conveniently and disappeared so mysteriously, who had always seemed so nervous whenever Harry was around -- if this woman were actually Malfoy in disguise, that tied off a lot of the loose ends waving like tentacles around the Malfoy family. It didn't explain how Ginny was involved, but that was secondary. It was so bloody simple he wondered why it hadn't even occurred to him until now.
"But how, Artie--"
"Luce told me," Artie said. "She told me and Teddy her brother is sometimes her sister, even showed us a picture. Looked exactly like you described, hat and all."
"We were getting acquainted, if you must know. Teddy and I told her all about you and your funny friends, and they told me all about their families."
"But how did you understand them?"
"Babies are far better at communicating than adults, but you burn it out of them and call it teaching. The way they talk sends images across, since they don't know many words. Adults can't pick them up, but other babies can. Not even speaking of intelligent creatures like myself."
"But why couldn't we hear you?
"You can't hear me when I talk to the mice, either."
"There are no mice in Grimmauld Place, Artie."
"You just keep telling yourself that."
"Why didn't you expose him right then?" Harry demanded.
"You always get angry when I speak up in front of strangers!" Artie countered. "Make up your mind, for Merlin's sake. Humans are so fickle."
Harry practically flew through the entrance to his house, intent on sharing the new development with Ron and Hermione, but when he burst into the sitting room, he found Ron alone by one of the open windows, shrouded by the gauzy curtains Hermione had bought last week and looking more like a young bride than Ron Weasley.
"Ginny wrote back," Ron said without turning around. "'S why I'm out here in a high dudgeon, as Hermione will tell you." His voice was muffled.
"What's wrong with--"
"Nothing's wrong with her," Ron said, waving the letter in his hand. "It's just family stuff. I don't mind telling you, but she asks not to, you know how it is."
"Yeah," Harry said. "No problem."
He no longer felt like sharing Artie's revelation with Ron for some reason. It felt petty and pointless, but good, to know something Ron didn't. When later that night he heard Ron and Hermione's hushed, serious voices in their bedroom down the hall, Harry felt what he imagined Malfoy must've felt like earlier that day at Andromeda's -- tucked into a convenient piece of furniture and forgotten.
He would write to Ginny himself, he decided. Once he made a few inquiries to cover his arse, he'd write to Ginny and let her know that her wonderful benefactor was none other than Draco Malfoy, son of the man responsible for the nightmares she'd had since she was eleven, son of the man who gave her the diary that had nearly stolen her soul.
There was little else Harry could do about Malfoy's masquerade party for one; it wasn't illegal to conceal one's identity by magic as long as one did not break the law, and neither Malfoy nor his pretty woman alter ego had broken any laws. It wasn't illegal to lie or to mislead people, either, not as long as they lost no possessions. If anything, Malfoy's deceit had been profitable -- for Ginny.
"Died of Scrofungulus," Harry said to his ink blotter, staring at the record excerpt he'd received moments ago. "How convenient."
He had no doubt now that Malfoy and Laura were one and the same. He had no authority to dig deeper than the family registry in Paris, but as they had no records of a Laura Delamare ever being born, Harry was sure that if he visited the place of the return address on any letter from Laura Delamare, he would find an elderly or middle-aged couple named Delamare who had never had a daughter. But perhaps they were acquainted with a certain Mr Draco Malfoy from the Isles.
A shocking pink memo flew up to his desk and hovered impatiently in front of his eyes, and Harry hurried to Robards's office. Shocking pink meant drop everything, and he wondered, heart thumping, if a cold Death Eater trail had come alive again. There were far too many of those.
"Sir," he said, entering after a perfunctory knock.
"Potter. You've done well with the filing; think you can remember not to be a complete imbecile next time there's alcohol at a social function?"
"Yes, sir," Harry said. A shocking pink memo to tell him he was doing a good job? Not bloody likely.
"You accessed French family registry information a little earlier," Robards said. "Why?"
"To confirm a hunch I had about what Draco Malfoy was up to," Harry said. Now that he knew Laura was fictional, he could justify his actions.
"Nothing came of it, sir," Harry said. "He's not up to anything of interest to our department."
"That's a relief," Robards said. "I've had his third formal complaint against you here for a week now, and the way I saw it, I had to tell you to drop it or else. You may go."
"Good afternoon, sir."
Harry walked back to his desk in a kind of daze. His mind had been so full of Malfoy lately, it felt surreal to be able to let go, to leave well enough alone. He'd write to Ginny and caution her -- and maybe even start up a correspondence of sorts, who knew? -- but the Delamare affair was over.
Ginny had just walked in from evening practise when she'd got the news about Laura's death from a US Wizarding Post owl waiting patiently at her window.
She set Laura's father's letter down on her writing desk and gazed out of the window. It was so strange -- she'd felt a real connection building between her and Laura in the two letters they'd exchanged since Ginny's departure for Salem, and reading the death letter had felt like someone reached up and sliced that invisible cord clean in two.
Ginny turned to her fireplace. "Hi, Priya," she said. "Is something wrong?"
"No, not at all; quite the opposite. I need you to come to my office right now, please."
Ginny, grateful for the chance to flee from Mr Delamare's letter, hightailed it out the door, her gear bag still on her shoulder. It was as though the sorrow of Laura's passing hung around her room like a mist-cloud, and surely it would be gone when she returned. Maybe.
Priya's office was on the third floor of the team's building next to the stadium, and Ginny took the steps two at a time -- no Apparition was allowed inside the building. She was out of breath by the time she knocked on Priya's door and heard the melodic, "Enter."
"I hope I didn't disturb anything important," Priya said as Ginny put her gear bag down and took a seat. "You look... out of sorts."
"Just some bad news from home," Ginny said.
"I'm sorry to hear that. Anything that will require your absence?"
"No," Ginny said. She would have liked to attend Laura's funeral, but she'd already been cremated and buried, her father had written. For sanitary reasons -- Scrofungulus could feast on a corpse for weeks.
"That's a relief, then, because you'll be playing with the main team in Sunday's match against the Hemingford Hawks."
"I-- what?" Ginny couldn't believe what she'd just heard. "Me?"
"You don't have to look so surprised. You haven't missed a single session since you came here, so your stamina is up to par, and Massey, the regular Beater, had a family emergency situation run longer than she'd expected."
"But why me?" Ginny asked. "Alex has been on reserve longer, and--"
"You'll get nowhere trying to prop your teammates up at your own expense, Ginny," Priya said. "As a matter of fact, I've spoken to Alex and she thinks you should play this one. The Hawks are a by-the-book team, and they'll base their strategies on what they know about us. They've seen Alex in action, but they haven't seen you. You're our dark horse; you'll throw them off their plans because they won't be able to predict what you do."
"I... thanks! Really, I mean--"
Priya waved a hand. "Don't even start. Go on, I've got a call to make -- Stitch'll give you the details tomorrow morning."
"Thanks, Priya," Ginny said again, feeling completely overwhelmed. She was halfway down the stairs when she realised she'd forgotten her gear bag, so she turned around and trudged back up, not quite flying this time. Why was it that whenever things happened to her, they happened all at once and in a big way? Was she wearing an invisible "thrill addict" headband or something?
As she neared Priya's office, she heard Priya say, "I told you already, it's done: the new girl will play instead of Massey or Alex."
Ginny froze, uneasy. She didn't know why she was uneasy; it sounded like Priya was talking to one of the sponsors or another higher-up, confirming the change in team line-up. But it felt off to her; there was an unspoken sinister quality to Priya's tone. She'd sounded irritated, yes, but it had been more than that.
She couldn't hear the voice Priya was talking to very well; the fireplace was furthest away from the door, and Priya had probably been speaking from her office chair, which was why Ginny had heard her so clearly in the first place. She'd need to get right up against the door to hear the other person.
But the corridor was long and white, with no places to hide, and did she really want to risk her credibility -- and maybe even her career -- on inexplicable instinct? She had a pair of Extendable Ears in her room, and she wouldn't even need to go up the stairs to use them -- she could just crouch down below and send the Ears up to the open window. But what if by the time she went and got them, the conversation was over?
Also, you might be suffering from a brief episode of Harry-itis, her mind told her. Thinking everything is about you somehow, even when it isn't.
... listen to the rest of the conversation despite the risk of getting caught.
... run downstairs and quickly Apparate home to get her Extendable Ears, then hurry back to listen from downstairs.
... knock and walk in -- she does, after all, have a legitimate reason to be there -- and try to gauge the situation from Priya's reaction.
... stop being so paranoid, leave quietly and don't disturb what's probably a private conversation that has nothing to do with her. She can get her gear later.
... investigate the shrubbery.
[IX. Alibi | ToC | XI. Nepenthe]