Chapter: XVIII. Yardstick
Fandom: Harry Potter
Pairing: Harry/Draco (intended); others.
Disclaimer: JKR owns. I only play. You do not sue.
Chapter Rating: PG-13
Chapter Warnings: Second-hand, non-graphic description of an animal suffering (not dying).
Chapter Length: 4200
Chapter Summary: Harry's memory fails at the worst moment, Draco is not on a date, the Daily Prophet continues to uphold a remarkably stellar reputation, and Hermione is always right.
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, Harry decided to agree to meet with Malfoy and see what he has to say.]
Harry frowned. Malfoy looked as though he might take back the offer at any moment, and could Harry refuse it? He didn't have much reason to, loath as he was to keep such company.
"Sure," he said, casting about for a likely place to suggest. The Leaky Cauldron was right out, as was the Three Broomsticks -- both too famous and too conspicuous; as much as Harry didn't want to see Malfoy outside his working hours, he wanted to be seen with Malfoy even less. "What about the Merry Whale?" He had little notion of where he'd got the name, but he remembered it was a new place in Dover's wizarding district, with a pirate theme--
Malfoy's pale eyebrows shot up. "That's a gay bar, Potter; are you trying for front-page news?"
The heat flooding Harry's face was so intense he was almost sure he could have illuminated the darkest recess of the Room of Requirement. "Oh," he managed. "I didn't know--"
"Don’t' tell me you've taken my sage advice about Ron Weasley," Malfoy said, an insufferable smirk replacing all earlier traces of actual humanity on his face.
"Don't be disgusting," Harry shot back. "He's taken."
That, of course, had been the wrong thing to say under the circumstances, but Harry's mind was still reeling from what he'd said before. He remembered now where he'd seen the advert for the Merry Whale -- the second page of Double You, the most popular magazine amongst wizarding London's gay community. He'd picked it up on a whim after the strange dreams wouldn't go away, just to thoroughly disgust himself with what he'd been sure would be pornography. He'd found it quite engaging reading, instead -- it was just like any other magazine, with articles on lifestyle, cooking, hobbies, and the arts. The only difference was that the writers didn't assume everyone was heterosexual. That, and the adverts were a little more risqué than those in Witch Weekly and Warlocks' Council.
Harry supposed he ought to have counted his blessings that he was not Artie and his thoughts could not be broadcast; Malfoy already looked like he knew exactly where Harry had seen the name. And maybe he did -- for all Harry knew, it had only ever been advertised in Double You, which Malfoy surely read -- the Auror file showed he seemed to have subscriptions to damn near everything else, after all.
Malfoy's grin was positively feral now; he hadn't taken the opportunity to rib Harry about what he'd said this time, and Harry wondered if that simply meant he had filed it away, to be brought up later and used to humiliate Harry when he least expected it. So Harry took refuge in his official capacity at Cornwall House, straightening up so the early afternoon sunlight sparked off his Auror pin. "If you can suggest--"
Danna knocked on the window and made a gesture that wiped Malfoy's smirk clean away.
"Dover it is," he said, all business. "The Augurey's Perch, eight tonight."
Draco had regretted the decision to bring Potter into this as soon as he'd asked, but there was nothing for it now. He wished he'd given himself more time to prepare for the meeting, to manufacture a likely cover story -- something only partly true but dire-sounding, that would send Potter off on a false chase while Draco continued to try and work out a way to assist Ginny on his own.
She had sent him two follow-up letters after his unfortunate Far-Flung Floo message; both demanded to know what the hell he'd been on about. They remained unanswered: Draco was fairly certain that Ginny's outgoing letters couldn't be opened and read, since she probably posted them herself, but he was not so sure about incoming ones. Since he couldn't write to her about something Coury would expect to see -- namely, their impending nuptials -- he didn't dare write anything at all.
Maybe it was a good thing, in a way -- Draco's continued silence might make him appear unreachable, and his attention the more desirable for it. Some women rather liked a good chase, and Ginny had struck him as just such a one -- had she not kept in pursuit of Potter for some years, to the Slytherins' usually silent amusement? It was true that Potter had only become interested after she'd finally given up, but that just made them two of a kind. Draco didn't intend to make the same mistakes Potter did.
Which was why the last thing he wanted was Potter riding to the rescue now, but, that was exactly what he was going to get -- unless he managed to impress upon Potter the dire need for utmost discretion. The prospect was dubious to say the least; Potter was about as inclined for subtlety as Dorsey and Luce making mischief together. The longer Draco thought about telling Potter what was going on, the more clearly he saw Potter dropping everything and sailing out on the first ship out of Southampton. That Potter could move about so freely filled him with a jealousy so bitter, Draco didn't think he'd ever experienced its like. He'd never been pleased with the travel restrictions, but he had never felt quite so caged until now.
But Draco had been so distraught after the patient from Orange Nine had attacked Betsy with the blasted glass shard. Where he had got it was still a mystery, though Draco supposed Danna would coax it out of him soon. He was surprised at how badly the panther-dog's suffering had shaken him; he supposed that between Dorsey and the Cornwall House dogs, all with their own personalities, he had come to see them as friends of a sort; indeed, they were better friends than most of their human counterparts.
Cleaning Betsy's wounds and providing what first aid he could until the Animal Healer arrived, seeing her bear it so patiently and gratefully had driven Draco to the brink of tears; nothing could do that to him save for rage borne from helplessness. And there came Potter in his crisp regulation robes and the official pin at the collar, and, perhaps most importantly, with appropriate deference to Draco's privacy. For once, Potter had asked for information, not demanded it, and asked properly, giving Draco a chance to refuse. Draco felt as though he were being rescued from his dark misery.
Betsy was safe at Malfoy Manor now -- Draco had convinced Danna that she would recover better if she didn't have to see the other animals going off to work without her; the panther-dogs' sense of duty was second only to their loyalty. Betsy would stay at the Manor until she was well enough to run -- a week at most, the Healer had said. She was protected and cared for, and while Draco's memories of the awful bloody scene that afternoon would haunt his sleep for days, he felt immeasurably better about -- well, about everything, including his ability to find a way out of difficulty.
But there was no time left to think about a likely diversion -- Potter came strolling through the pub's swinging double doors, dressed in black jeans and a fitted shirt; a practically scandalous outfit for a wizarding establishment such as the Augurey's Perch. His hair looked wet, but as Potter approached, Draco realised it was styled to look that way, and it made him look rather fetching. If he were anyone else, Draco supposed he might have been glad of such company, fine wizarding establishment this or that.
"I hope I didn't give you the impression this was a date," he drawled, giving Potter an exaggerated once-over.
"Now who's flattering himself?" Potter retorted, sliding onto the bench across from Draco. "I read about the hair thing and my Kne-- er, Hermione convinced me to try it."
Draco nodded with feigned sympathy. "I imagine the poor woman must be at her wit's end to pair you up with a likely lady, what with you mooning over her boyfriend and all. Oh, sorry, perhaps it's a likely lad you're thinking of."
Potter blushed, and again, Draco was struck with black resentment. When his colour was high, his face and neck turned the most revolting shade of pink. In Potter's case, a dusky, rose-petal pink bloomed just in his cheeks, brightening his eyes even behind the hideous glasses. Draco squashed the flutter of butterflies in his stomach; he did not need to complicate things even further by becoming attracted to Harry sodding Potter. Of all the people in the world. "Never mind," he said, waving at the barmaid. "Force of habit. We're not here to talk about you."
The thought of what he was going to order disappeared from Draco's mind, because Potter actually looked... disappointed. He masked it at once with a disapproving frown, but Draco had watched Potter jealously from the shadows for most of his teenage years. He knew Potter's face as well as he knew Blaise's.
Could Potter actually be interested? Could it be that Potter has somehow--? No. Even if it were possible, Potter isn't the one I want.
"That's right," Potter said, the moment gone. "You said Ginny might be in danger."
"Danger? No, I should think she is not in any danger; I daresay I've made sure of that," Draco said, thinking that given Coury's unspoken debt to his mother, it was in the man's foremost interest to make sure Ginny's life and health were protected, at least. But if she continued trying to play detective, Draco reckoned she would eventually run into some very bad trouble. He told Potter as much as he knew, after all -- he couldn't unmake the decision to seek Potter's assistance, but he knew that if he made Ginny's interests a priority, his warnings would not go unheeded.
After Draco was done, he was on his third pint; he had to stop drinking if he hoped to Apparate home in one piece. Potter stared through his own empty glass, so deep in concentration that Draco could practically hear whatever passed for his brains squirming around in search of answers.
"And you haven't told her any of this," Potter murmured, almost accusatory.
"I told you, I can't," Draco snapped. "Think, Potter. If anyone around her is suspicious, her letters are almost surely being read, and her Floo communications monitored. That's how your lot works, doesn't it?" That last was unnecessary as it was spoken more out of bitterness than any real purpose, but it felt good, at that.
Potter flushed prettily again. "They're not Law Enforcement; they've got no right--"
"Rights are very nice," Draco agreed, rolling his eyes. "But come now, surely you can see that the Americans work differently? Whoever's got the most money has got the most rights. Ginny isn't even a reserve on that pitch." He picked up a cold chip from his plate and ate it before adding, "I've got the money to turn this around for her but I would have to go there first. So--"
Potter's eyes flashed with understanding. "So what, you want me to convince Robards to let you off early so you can nance off to America? Save your breath; not a chance."
"No," Draco said with perfect dignity -- and honesty; as obvious as it was, that solution hadn't even occurred to him until now. "I was thinking nothing of the sort. I told you I am needed at Cornwall House. I merely--"
"Why?" Potter asked, leaning forward. "Why, Malfoy? Why do you care about what happens to Ginny? What's so important about Cornwall House to you? How do I know this isn't some new machination, how do I even know any of this is true? It certainly sounds like horseshit -- hard to believe that a betting scam of these proportions would be allowed to continue for all these years. Just what is it that you want from me?"
His vehemence was infectious; acrid resentment rose in Draco's gut, but he fought it; this time, he really did have the truth on his side, and he was not going to be provoked. "If your suspicions of my character are so dear to your heart that you'd rather see Ginny publicly humiliated -- thrown off the team, her career ruined forever -- than accept that perhaps I might be capable of the tiniest amount of goodwill, then we've got nothing else to talk about." Some of the fervour went out of Potter's glare, but Draco's anger had taken hold of him, too firmly to be dismissed. "I felt some degree of responsibility because I helped Ginny get on the team -- which she asked me for when she thought I was Laura -- but now that I've relayed what I know of her situation to someone with the resources to help her, if not the wits to know good information when he hears it, I am quite done with you, and with Ginny, and with this whole sorry business of helping those who didn't ask for it."
He half-rose from his seat and leaned in -- having worked himself up to such a righteous tizzy, he just couldn't spare Potter a cheap shot. "By the way, your hair looks awful," he murmured, bared his teeth in a most insincere smile, and walked out into the foggy night.
Harry woke after what felt like twenty minutes of sleep. He'd retired near four, after spending a good part of last night summarising Malfoy's account of the sponsorship; that wouldn't have taken long but for Artie's constant stream of questions as he read each word Harry wrote and tried to interpret it out of context.
He really should've taken Artie along to the pub somehow, but there had been no time to think of an excuse, plus he hadn't wanted Malfoy to feel like he was being questioned.
And yet I ended up offending him, and this time he had the right of it.
As much as Harry hated to admit it, he had been too hard on Malfoy. The report from St. Mungo's about what had happened at Cornwall House that day had been waiting for him upon his return from Dover, and by the looks of it, Malfoy had witnessed and intervened in a gruesome attack on one of the panther-dogs he worked with. Even at his most uncharitable, Harry couldn't deny that Malfoy had a great deal of affection for the animals. For reasons God only knew, it was mutual. Harry's question had probably come when Malfoy was feeling particularly out of sorts -- the incident had happened just before Harry's arrival -- and he'd doubtless thought better of it afterwards, but still he hadn't begged off; he'd shown up and hadn't even complained at Harry's -- deliberate -- lateness.
Malfoy was right to be angry, fine. That didn't mean Harry had to apologise specially. Malfoy had never apologised for any of the things he'd done to make Harry angry; turnabout was fair play.
Your hair looks awful.
That remark had been the chief reason Harry hadn't managed to respond to Malfoy at all -- he'd been struck speechless. And not by the idea that he might look less than presentable in public; that was nothing new. It had actually hurt to hear it, the same way it would if he'd put on a fancy new suit to impress Ginny only to have her laugh in his face for looking foppish.
But that was nonsense; he hadn't done his hair like that because of Malfoy; he'd done it because Artie read the stupid bloody tips and tricks article in stupid bloody Double You and wouldn't shut up about wanting to see it done.
He had noticed Malfoy's appreciative gaze, and he had even felt a little thrill at Malfoy's initial banter about being on a date, but those things didn't mean anything. As much as Harry wished to deny it, he wouldn't say no if a "likely lad" came along; with the persistent dreams and the magazines, he had become too curious to just let it go, and Malfoy was just the only person he knew -- besides Zabini -- who was quite verifiably gay.
That made Malfoy at least potentially interested, unlike the rest of the men around Harry, and it made things confusing. It was as though Malfoy was a gatekeeper of sorts -- on some level, Harry's primitive brain felt that if he could win Malfoy's approval, he would be admitted to the strange world he'd glimpsed between the lines of Double You. He knew it was ridiculous, and so embarrassing he reckoned it would make even Artie laugh if he spoke of it. So of course Harry would react a little more strongly to Malfoy's provocations; that didn't mean he was going to have his heart broken every time Malfoy didn't approve of his hair.
"Fuck me, I'm sitting here obsessing over what some bloke I don't even like said to me, like I'm a schoolboy with a crush."
Artie mrrowed, freeing himself from the cocoon he'd made of a corner of Harry's duvet cover. "Didn't he like the hair?"
Harry laughed. He would never stop marvelling at how easily Artie got at the heart of whatever bothered him. "He hated the hair."
"Hmph," Artie said, climbing back into his little hole. "Bad taste, that's all. I thought you looked pretty."
"Handsome," Harry corrected.
"Why, thank you," Artie returned.
"Harry?" Hermione was on the other side of the door. She sounded anxious. "I think you'd better come and have a look at this."
The photograph was a candid shot of Malfoy getting up and leaning close to Harry -- for that last remark and the fake grin, but somehow the camera made it look -- bloody hell, it looked like Malfoy was flirting. The movement was slowed down a little, so Malfoy's rapid rise was languorous, his smile slow and knowing. His long blond hair obscured the half of his face seen by the camera, so the smile looked genuine.
And Harry, instead of looking as pissed-off as he'd felt at the time, first looked up into Malfoy's eyes like a lost little lamb, and then, as Malfoy moved away, Harry looked down at his hands. The flush of anger in his face was augmented at that moment, making it look like he had blushed at whatever Malfoy had said with that lazy smile of his.
Bloody fucking hell, but wizarding photography was annoying. He could shout until he was blue that the photograph had been manipulated to create an effect that didn't reflect reality, but he couldn't deny that he was there, because it was not possible to put a person in a photograph if they hadn't physically been there. Muggles could do that kind of stuff with computers, but wizarding photography was widely known as being true to life.
The photograph by itself wouldn't be so bad, but it was on the front page of the Daily Prophet under the headline BEDFELLOWS?.
For a wonder, the article itself alleged nothing lewd; it was more of Rita Skeeter's usual conspiracy theory-fuelled ranting about how Harry, frustrated with his life and his lack of real power in the Ministry, was using his Auror position to establish contacts in the former Death Eater community. Then some more claptrap about how Harry was up the wrong flagpole since the Malfoys are about as toothless as one can get with that much money.
"I don't get it," Harry said, setting the paper aside. "This isn't how it happened, obviously, I've told you both the story, but why won't she just come out and say it?"
Ron gave him an incredulous look. "Come on, mate. What's one reason she wouldn't take the sleazy angle? It's bloody obvious even to me that it looks like you two are about to start snogging. It'll be obvious to anyone with a pulse who looks at this thing. Why do you think she doesn't go there?"
"To protect Malfoy," Harry said, suddenly understanding. "She doesn't want his reputation ruined, just mine, and she can't do that--"
"Reputation?" Ron asked, frowning. "What do you mean?"
"Well, I mean, it makes it look like we're, you know. Gay."
Ron looked even more puzzled. "So? Why would that ruin Malfoy's reputation? You can tell he's bent just by looking at him; plus it's not like it's a secret that Slytherin girls are off-limits during the school year."
Harry had never known that, but he decided he didn't want to discuss the secret lives of Slytherins at Hogwarts. "It's just, when she said that about Ginny, you got pretty angry," he tried to explain.
Ron drew himself up. "I was angry because it was a bloody lie, and, well, you know, I didn't want you to get all depressed thinking you had no chance. Why would you think it was about the les--"
Hermione was giving Ron one of her Very Significant Looks, and Ron clapped his hand over his mouth. "Oh! I always forget that Muggles are strange about that sort of thing -- which is weird, considering how fast they're reproducing, you'd think they'd be happy--"
Hermione coughed pointedly, and Ron ducked. "Sorry, sorry. I didn't mean anything, really. What I meant to say is that she doesn't need to put that in the article, not with the photo. Everyone will think there's something going on between you and Malfoy now, even if the article doesn't mention it."
"I shudder to think what she would've done had she managed to get Ginny and her teammate on camera," Hermione said, scowling. "Is there nothing that will shut her up? I'm all for freedom of the press, but this is just bloody ridiculous; she's turned the Prophet into the Sun, for crying out loud."
"That sounds difficult," Artie spoke up. He had remained uncharacteristically silent throughout the exchange, even though Harry had expected him to chime in with some of his lesbians-related wisdom at least eight times.
"What does, sweetie?" Hermione asked, scratching Artie under the chin.
"Turning the prophet into the sun. I know stars are made of hot air, but surely you need more than one prophet?"
Harry sighed. "Hot gas, Artie, and she was talking about--"
Hermione started to giggle, and Ron and Harry just stared at each other.
"Brutes," Artie said, swishing his tail as he hopped off the sofa with a self-satisfied air. "I'm going to go and see if Crookshanks has returned from the hunt."
"I don't get it," Ron said.
"Never mind," Hermione said, hiccoughing. "My point is, Rita Skeeter's out of control and she's not going to stop until she comes up against something she can't just fly around."
Skeeter had been on the run ever since her deportation from America; now that the Ministry knew she was an unregistered Animagus, she was facing a list of charges that barely fit on three standard-issue rolls of parchment. However, until those charges were formally presented to her, she couldn't be made to stand trial, and catching a beetle is difficult when it's got human-sized intelligence.
Ron chimed in with, "Speaking of flying, how did she even know where you'd be? It can't have been coincidence -- I mean, of all the pubs in the world..."
Harry's eyes narrowed. Malfoy. Malfoy had got Ginny on the team in America; a few months later, Rita was there trying to interview her. Now the minute Harry arranged a private, unofficial, meeting with Malfoy, there was Rita again. Ron was right -- she had to have known they were there; she couldn't have chanced upon them. So how did she know?
"I am pretty sure I know what you're thinking," Hermione said, looking at him cautiously. "And as much as I'd like to agree with you, I don't think Malfoy put her up to it."
Harry flushed, feeling guilty for some reason. It wasn't like it was unreasonable to suspect Malfoy. "Why not?"
"It was the first thing I considered, to be honest, but Malfoy gains nothing from this," Hermione said. "Even if this photo leads to allegations of misconduct on your part -- abusing your power to sexually harass one of your charges, I mean -- he won't get a reprieve; there'll just be a new trial, and this time there are no other Death Eater kids to try, so he might end up in Azkaban."
Ron nodded. "Malfoy would never gamble with his miserable life. Plus, it looks like he's doing all the harassing in this picture."
"But he's helped her in the past, remember?" Harry offered, though he could see the sense in what they were saying. Also, Ron's remark about Malfoy sexually harassing him had sounded scarily appealing for a very brief second. He really didn't have time for this shit.
"Yeah, but in that case, he was getting something in return. The satisfaction of watching you fall victim to gossip, the sense of power that he was manipulating the press. But we were just kids then, and there was no risk for him, none at all. In this case, he might end up in jail."
"She could've rode in with one of you. On your clothes, say," Ron said.
Harry looked around wildly.
"She'd have transformed back into her human form if she entered an Unplottable house," Hermione said with that good old "I've just been to the library" air of hers.
... Go with his gut and confront Malfoy, outright accusing him of handing info about their meeting over to Rita.
... approach Malfoy about the article, but frame it in terms of Rita Skeeter having something against Malfoy rather than Harry.
... ask Robards for permission to assist the Improper Use of Magic Office with Rita's capture so he can question her directly.
... do nothing. Malfoy's probably clean, and Rita Skeeter's lack of credibility as a reporter is known well enough not to bother; the problem will eventually take care of itself.
... investigate the shrubbery.
[XVII. Redux | ToC | XIX. Overpoise]