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22 January 2011 @ 03:44 am
Fic: Of Hoof Picks, Centaurs and Flight, part 2  
Part one

Harry saw Malfoy several times in the Ministry over the following weeks, which was to say that he made fleeting eye contact followed by a leisurely view of Malfoy’s rapidly retreating back.

Hermione had threatened to hex him when he reported their last interaction, but given there was no subsequent resignation, and Harry had turned up of his own free will to amuse Rose on three occasions in the one week, she had forgiven him. Ron was still giggling unkindly at random moments, though.

It could have been worse, Harry consoled himself. It could have been a Friday morning, with Justin Finch-Fletchley running down a Ministry corridor towards him dragging Malfoy and shouting that he needed Harry’s help. Sadly, Harry discovered this through experience, and he was right, it was worse.

‘We need an Auror!’ Justin panted. ‘Someone who is good with Muggles and centaurs.’

Harry held up his hand. ‘Slow down. What’s happened?’

Malfoy answered: ‘Centaurs in Cumbria.’

‘What?’ Harry realised there were many non-Auror ears in the corridor. ‘Into my office, through here.’

He led the way, instructing Aurelia to keep everyone else out, and shut the heavy door behind them. ‘Right, from the beginning. Which one of you has the details?’

Malfoy deferred to Justin, who took up the tale. ‘My sisters and I were up in Cumbria – we go there every second year with some friends of ours. We were all out on a ride before breakfast and I saw what I thought were wild ponies. I was just about to draw everyone’s attention to them when I realised they were actually centaurs. I pretended I needed to tighten my horse’s girth, and waited until the others were out of view, before I went over to investigate. I couldn’t get close, but I am certain they were centaur foals.’

‘Foals? In Cumbria? That’s an awfully long way from the Forbidden Forest.’

‘Yes, I know,’ said Justin. ‘I couldn’t get close enough to talk with them, even when I sent some sparks through the trees so they’d know I was a wizard rather than a Muggle. So I gave up and concentrated on keeping my friends away. Once I had everyone safely back inside the castle I feigned a desperate need to visit Beatrix Potter’s house and fled in the car until I could find somewhere to Apparate.’

Harry and Malfoy started to speak at once. ‘Castle?’ said Malfoy. ‘Just how rich is your family?’

‘Beatrix Potter?’ said Harry. ‘The talking rabbit lady?’

Justin just managed to avoid rolling his eyes at each of them. ‘It’s not our castle, it’s the Howards’, and they rent it out to anyone with deep enough pockets. So the answer to your question is rich enough to rent one. As for you,’ he turned to Harry, ‘It’s Peter Rabbit. How can you not know that?’

‘I lived in a cupboard at home and at school the librarian was instructed to keep me from anything that might encourage my alleged criminal tendencies,’ Harry explained.

‘Oh. I’m so sorry, I had no idea. I really should have read one of your biographies at some point …’

Justin’s embarrassment was so charmingly him that Harry couldn’t help grinning. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, you know the actual me. No need for reading up.’

Malfoy coughed. ‘If you two are quite done. Finch-Fletchley here ran into my office declaring it was an emergency. Having heard his story twice now, I think he was right. We need one of your Aurors. Someone good in a corner, who is passably fluent in Muggle and will be able to work with the centaurs without taking a hoof to the forehead.’

Harry nodded. ‘Yes, well that’s easy enough. Me. I’ll grab my cloak.’

This time it was Justin and Malfoy who spoke together. Both said ‘No!’ and then glared at the other.

‘No cloak,’ said Justin, quickly. ‘I really don’t want to Obliviate my friends. I was hoping that we could just sneak a couple of Ministry officials in for a day or two, and problem solved.’

Malfoy followed hard on the end of Justin’s words. ‘And since I am one of those Ministry officials, you can’t be the other one.’

‘You?’

‘Obviously me,’ Malfoy said determinedly. ‘It’s the most significant Department of Co-operation with Magical Creatures, Beings and non-Wizarding Part-Humans issue to arise so far during my administration. It’s not as though I can hand it on to the Centaur Liaison Office, is it?’

Harry brightened. ‘Why not? That sounds perfect!’

‘Because it’s an empty office. How can you not know that? And none of your rubbish about deprived childhoods.’

‘It’s a euphemism,’ Justin whispered while Malfoy ranted. ‘The centaurs refuse to liaise, so being sent to the Centaur Liaison Office means you’re about to get the sack.’

‘Oh, right …’ Harry nodded. ‘That makes sense. Anyway, none of this changes the fact that I’m the best-qualified Auror, so you’ll have to find someone else, Malfoy.’

Malfoy glared. ‘Unfortunately for you, I specialised in Centaur Law, which makes me the best qualified in my department.’

‘Excellent!’ said Justin. ‘The two top people – I couldn’t have asked for better. But neither of you can go looking like that. Meet you in the Atrium in ten minutes, leave your robes behind, and I’ll kit you out in Muggle before we head up to Naworth. Lovely! Thanks, it’s such a relief.’

He was gone before either Harry or Malfoy could say anything. Which left them glaring at each other and feeling faintly ridiculous.

‘All right. Fine,’ said Malfoy. ‘I’m off to let everyone know I’ll be out in the field.’

‘How long do you think it will take?’ Harry wondered.

‘Surely we ought to be able to manage it in an afternoon,’ said Malfoy, but his voice was less than certain.

‘So why is Justin going to kit us out? And what’s he kitting us out in? How can you not have asked him all of this?’

‘You didn’t either.’

‘I was too busy arguing with you.’

Unexpectedly, a burst of laughter erupted from Malfoy. Harry looked at him blankly.

‘We’re so good at being adults,’ Malfoy said, shaking his head. ‘It’s like being back at school. I spent so much energy arguing with you in first year that I received a D in History of Magic. Narrowly avoided a T, in fact. You’d think I would have learned my lesson by now. Atrium in ten minutes. I suggest you tell your team we’ll be a couple of days at most – that should cover all eventualities.’

‘Right,’ said Harry, but Malfoy had already left.

Harry picked up his Auror robe and stuck his head out of the door to call for Aurelia.

Ron was sitting on Aurelia’s desk. ‘I hear you have centaur problems,’ he said.

‘I was just about to shout for you,’ said Harry.

‘I foresaw this eventuality,’ Ron replied, with a grin. ‘Actually, Mallard came running in to tell me she’d seen you heading in here with Malfoy, and so I should hurry in case things went pear-shaped.’

‘What were you planning to do?’

‘Take photos for the Prophet.’ Ron laughed at the face Harry pulled. ‘Anyway, you were coming to look for me, what’s up?’

‘Centaur foals roaming around in Cumbria. Justin thinks they’re lost. Malfoy and I are heading there with him to see what’s up. We could be a few hours, could be a couple of days. I’m leaving you in charge.’

Ron frowned. ‘You’re going out on a mission with Malfoy? Is that really a good idea? Ten of us with brooms could sweep the area thoroughly in an afternoon.’

‘Justin is very opposed to us Obliviating any of his friends.’

‘Oh, that’s just ridiculous …’

Harry thought for a moment. ‘Actually, I’ve met some of his friends. It’s probably best not to mess with their minds.’

‘All right.’ Ron jumped off the desk. ‘So, what, you two are going to sneak in and investigate while Justin distracts all the Muggles?’

‘I have a terrible feeling that Justin wants us to go in undercover.’

‘And you’ve bowed to his operational expertise?’

Harry pulled another face. ‘We work with the community where we can.’

‘So the fact that he’s your ex-boyfriend means nothing.’

Harry frowned and flicked his glance meaningly towards Aurelia.

‘Don’t mind me, Mr Potter,’ she said, cheerfully. ‘And Mr Weasley, I think he’s trying to indicate that they were never officially in a relationship and that he subsequently feels somewhat guilty where Mr Finch-Fletchley is concerned, and is more likely than usual to agree to ridiculous things.’

Ron grinned. ‘Which, given his usual penchant for the ridiculous …’

‘Exactly.’

‘I have other friends,’ Harry reminded Ron.

‘Yes, but they’re also mine. And even if you could get rid of me, you can’t get rid of Aurelia because you’d never to work out her filing system.’

‘It’s alphabetical,’ Aurelia added, slyly.

Harry shook his head sadly. ‘I would hope that the Chief Auror would be accorded respect.’

‘You are, sir’ Aurelia assured him. ‘Whenever anyone else is around.’

‘We function to keep you humble,’ Ron added. ‘Now come on. You’re headed off to Cumbria for somewhere between two hours and two days, with Malfoy of all people, in search of centaur foals. And I’m in charge while you’re gone. What else?’

‘That’s it. The only ongoing operation is the potion smuggling ring that you’re overseeing. Just keep an eye on people wanting to work late, the overtime budget is minimal this month.’

‘Right-io. Have you told Kreacher?’

‘No, I should send an owl …’

‘If you’re not back before I head home tonight, I’ll drop in at yours and let him know.’

‘Cheers, you’re a mate.’

‘If I’m lucky, he’ll have cooked dinner for you and someone will have to eat it. When are you heading off?’

‘Now. Meeting Justin down in the Atrium. He says he has to kit us out.’

‘Ooh! Muggle clothes! Can I get Dad? He’d love to have a look.’

‘No time. Anything I need to sign for you, Aurelia, before I go?’

‘Did you finish the papers on your desk?’

‘Yep.’

‘That’s all for now. Is there a forwarding address if we need you?’

‘Um, Cumbria … Justin said the Howards owned it, er, maybe Naworth?’

‘Naworth Castle,’ said Aurelia briskly. ‘Logging you in now, sir. Have a lovely trip, good luck with the centaurs.’

‘Thanks, Aurelia.’ Harry hung his Auror robe on the coat rack he kept for that purpose. ‘Right. Off. See you both shortly, I hope!’

As the doors of the lift closed, Harry wondered if he ought to have brought his broom. He had grabbed his Invisibilty Cloak, which would probably help in the sneaking about department, but a broom would have allowed him to travel further, faster. Apparating was well and good, but you missed things along the way.

The lift stopped at level four and let in a large broomstick, followed by a cross-looking Draco Malfoy who was talking rapidly to one of his staff members.

‘Durrant is not allowed to make any policy decisions while I am gone, and if he tells you otherwise, you are to look at his contract which specifically sets out the limits of his role. The man’s a gibbon. He can sign pieces of paper that you think need to be signed, and that’s it. Tell him to make you all tea if he complains he’s underemployed. Ask Beeton if you need a second opinion on anything – he’s overly nervy but generally sound. I’m going to try to wrap this all up as quickly as I can and get back here before any fresh problems can arise. If Potter doesn’t lummox it all up, I should be back by the morning. What’s that face for? He’s behind me, isn’t he?’

‘Hello, Malfoy,’ said Harry.

Malfoy turned around, with a completely unconcerned face. ‘Potter. No broom?’

‘I couldn’t think of a plausible reason for taking one to a Muggle residence,’ Harry admitted.

‘Why would you need a reason?’ Malfoy asked, and with a murmured Charm shrunk his broom to a few inches, before popping it into his trouser pocket.

So many inappropriate jokes occurred to Harry all at once that he was momentarily tongue-tied.

‘Owl me immediately if there are any problems,’ Malfoy finished. ‘Serious ones, at least. And if Durrant decides to take the day off because I’m not around to notice, let him – he can’t do any harm from home.’

‘Good luck, sir!’ said the young wizard, as Malfoy let go of the door to allow it to close.

The lift was nearly at level eight before Malfoy spoke again: ‘It’s quite important to my department that we build some sort of relationship with the centaurs.’

‘I see,’ said Harry.

‘So, try not to cock it up, would you?’

‘I’ve always got on very well with centaurs,’ Harry said. ‘Well, almost always,’ he amended in strict accuracy. ‘If there’s any cocking up, it won’t be my fault.’

Malfoy managed to rein in a sneer. ‘Well, since it certainly won’t be mine, we should be fine then.’

‘Good.’

‘Marvellous.’

The lift doors binged and opened before they could enter into a war of politeness.

Justin was waiting for them in the Atrium beside the tasteful water feature that Kingsley had installed after the war as a pointed replacement of any sculpture. A grilled well at the bottom collected coins for the under-privileged, and Harry was surprised to see Malfoy rummage in his pockets and casually toss in a few Galleons as they passed it.

‘You two ready?’ Justin asked brightly. ‘I’ve brought clothes enough, you’re both about my size. But I think you’ll need boots.’

He passed each of them a rucksack. Harry opened his quickly and found it stuffed with worn clothes, mostly tweedy, with some waxed cotton rolled up on top.

‘I’ve rung and told everyone that I’m bringing up a couple of friends I ran into, and that you’re on a rambling holiday. Can either of you draw?’

‘I’m passable,’ Malfoy said.

‘Good.’ Justin passed him a small leather bag with fold-up easel strapped to it. ‘I got carried away and said that one of you was an artist. It was the only reason I could think that anyone would take a rambling holiday in this day and age, unless you’re over fifty, or a weirdo.’

Aware that both men were staring at him, Justin stuttered to a halt. ‘I’m a club owner,’ he said, defensively. ‘The cover stories I usually tell are all along the lines of “No, madam, I haven’t seen your husband since we were at school together.”’

‘You’re fine,’ Harry told him. ‘I think Malfoy will make an admirable artist, he’s got an artistic fringe. And I am excellent at walking, so I will be fully believable as a rambler. Are we going to Floo anywhere, or do you want to Apparate us straight to your car?’

‘Footwear,’ said Justin, pointing at Harry’s knee-length black boots and Malfoy’s highly polished patent slippers.

Malfoy pulled two Sickles from his pocket. ‘Let me,’ he said. ‘What size are your feet?’ he asked Harry.

‘Nine.’

Malfoy placed the Sickles on the ground and Charmed them into two pairs of serviceable, slightly worn walking boots.

‘That’s terrific,’ Harry said. ‘What’s the spell?’

‘Trade secret,’ Malfoy replied primly.

‘Thank Merlin, I was dreading taking the two of you shopping,’ Justin muttered. ‘Come along, there’s no more time to waste.’

-----------------------


They changed on the side of the road, in the shelter of Justin’s car. Not that they really needed shelter, the road being entirely quiet save for a curious cow watching them between mouthfuls of grass.

Harry didn’t say anything, but the boots were surprisingly good. He had been relieved: new boots always took a few days to break in, so he had planned to Transfigure his Auror pair, and they never went back exactly the same.

The clothes Justin had packed for him were a strange assortment. The trousers were quite new, as were the several well-cut linen shirts, but the cardigan and jacket that went with them had seen better days, and the mackintosh was practically an antique. There was an assortment of gloves, scarves, caps, hats and socks that were all made out of soft and warm fabrics, but none seemed to match the other, save a few of the socks. Harry was convinced he presented an eccentric appearance, but Justin pronounced him perfect, and the similarly dressed Malfoy likewise.

‘I’ve told everyone you’re old chums from school. As far as my friends are concerned, I attended a small private Scottish school for prodigiously talented children, so if you could at least pretend to be brilliant, I’d appreciate it very much. I plan to pretend your minds are so highly trained that you’ve managed to miss every single popular culture reference for our generation. So as long as you try not to be too weird, I think we’ll be fine. My sisters are both safe – if things look grim, they’ll help you out. And, of course, we’ll go out for a ride as soon as we possibly can. If we’re lucky, we’ll find the centaurs straight away.’

‘Ride?’ said Malfoy. ‘How will we keep that quiet in the daylight? And Potter hasn’t brought a broom.’

‘On a horse,’ Justin clarified. At their blank expressions, his shoulders dropped. ‘Neither of you have any idea how to ride a horse, do you? Okay. That’s not a disaster. It’s not unlike riding a broom. Or, in your case, Harry, a hippogriff, a thestral or a dragon.’

‘Show-off,’ Malfoy muttered.

Justin ignored him. ‘Are either of you any good at Legilimency?’

‘Quite good,’ said Malfoy.

‘Passable,’ said Harry.

‘Right, Harry first. Look into my eyes and try to take it all in.’

Justin’s memories were surprisingly clear. Harry felt the muscles in his legs shift and contract in sympathy with Justin’s, and experienced how he knew his place in the saddle through his arse. It was true, the experience was not unlike flying. The hands were harder, but he gathered the salient points of how to hold the reins and communicate with the beast through hands, bum and legs.

‘It’s all about balance,’ said Justin. ‘And you’re good at that.’ With a wink he finished up the mental package with a private moment that had passed between the two of them several months ago, to underscore his point.

‘Why are you winking at him?’ Malfoy asked. He looked from Harry to Justin and back again. ‘Oh, Merlin! That’s disgusting!’

‘Relax,’ said Justin, unfazed. ‘You’re getting the edited version.’

Harry watched as Malfoy plucked the memories from Justin’s head, frowning and nodding as though he were studying for a particularly hard exam. At least he was taking the case seriously, Harry thought. Hermione was right, Malfoy did seem determined to do a good job with Creatures.

‘I think that’s everything I can do,’ said Justin after a minute. ‘From hereon in, it’s mostly going to be up to the two of you.’ He paused. ‘Try not to do anything too ghastly, I quite like these people.’

The car ride to the castle was more of an adventure than Harry was expecting. Justin did the driving, even though Harry had a licence now (‘It’s a manual,’ Justin had apologised. ‘I’m sure you’re very good, but these roads aren’t the best.’) and Harry had planned to sit back and enjoy the views, but the back of his seat was continually clutched by Malfoy, who seemed convinced that every bend in the road spelled their imminent demise.

Harry turned around. ‘We’re going at a very reasonable speed,’ he said. ‘This car is very safe, there’s no need to worry.’

‘I’m not the least bit worried,’ Malfoy lied, but he let go of the seat back and Harry no longer felt himself being shaken every time they took a corner.

They reached the castle quickly. As they drove down the private road it was situated on, they passed a grassy area opposite the gardens, with several horse trucks and temporary paddocks containing a number of good-looking horses.

‘They don’t offer riding here, so Xan always brings his up,’ Justin explained. ‘They have shooting, but luckily Ran’s new girlfriend is violently opposed. I can only imagine the horror of you two with guns.’

Harry felt there was no need to explain to Malfoy why this made Justin roar with laughter.

They parked at the back, and Justin passed each of them a rucksack from the boot. He gave them a last, nervous, look-over.

‘We’ll be out of here by night,’ Harry said, trying to reassure him.

‘I hope so,’ Justin replied. ‘I’ve had to put you in the same room. There’s only one spare, and Gustav would raise merry hell if I put either of you in with me.’

Harry could feel his goodwill towards Justin evaporating as they walked in through the back of the keep.

‘I’ll sleep in the car,’ Malfoy whispered to Harry. ‘Or Apparate home. There are some privations one shouldn’t have to bear.’

Harry found himself smiling. It wouldn’t, he realised, hurt to do a little bridge-building himself. ‘Does this remind you of home?’ he whispered back.

He had meant it as a joke, but Malfoy weighed the question carefully. ‘Older, but less-coherent construction. There’s been serious remodelling here at some point.’

Harry couldn’t help himself. ‘It’s bigger than Malfoy Manor.’

‘No peacocks,’ Malfoy sniffed. Then winked.

Harry stopped in surprise, then dashed to catch up. ‘Was that a joke?’ he whispered.

‘Oh, Potter,’ Malfoy sighed exaggeratedly. ‘Who seriously misses peacocks?’

‘Milliners!’ said Jemima, appearing from around a corner. ‘I thought I heard a car. Hello, darling.’ She kissed Justin’s cheek loudly. ‘Harry, good to see you! And you’re Draco Malfoy, I’m Jemima Finch-Fletchley. Everyone calls me Mimy, here. Come on through, the others are all in the Dacre Tower telling ghost stories. We’ve put you in one of the rooms there, it’s a nice one.’

‘Malfoy, my sister,’ said Justin following the forms. ‘And ghost stories? It’s not even midday.’

‘Ran’s girl Phoebe swears she saw something last night, so Xan is teasing her about the White Lady and Fan is telling her that all the dead Dacre heirs haunt the place, too, thanks to the Curse.’

‘Curse?’ Harry pricked up his ears.

Jemima looped her arm through his and began leading them in the right direction. ‘Not your sort of Curse, old folk tales. The feudal lords who built this place were your standard bastard variety, so there’s all sorts of fabulous tales associated. Ran’s girl Phoebe is a little bit woolly headed, and the boys are taking terrible advantage of her. They’re very naughty!’

‘Is Phoebe a child?’ Malfoy asked politely.

‘No, Ran’s girlfriend. She met him at St Andrews, so she’s convinced she’s Kate to his Wills, but we’re not certain it was really worth learning her name yet. Though this is her second year here, so she may get him to the altar after all. Right, through here and up the stairs.’

Dacre Tower was an actual tower, which Harry felt quite at home in. About halfway up they left the winding stair for a large, comfortable room full of squishy armchairs and less-squishy young people.

Justin led them in and did the honours. ‘Everyone, this is Harry and Draco – they were at school with me, which means they’re tremendously clever and since none of you are, I suggest you avoid conversation on anything more complex than the weather. Harry, Draco, this is Xan, whose horses you admired on the way in; Ran, his younger and far more appalling brother; Ran’s girl Phoebe – sorry Phoebs, Mimy has me doing it now – Phoebe who has her own rich and fulfilling life aside from as a girlfriend; this is Fan, who’s really James Fanshawe but he was best friends with Xan at school, so Fan he became; and Bits, Fan’s cousin on his fathers’ side, and Reggie and Daphne Cavendish, Bits’s cousins on her mother’s side, though we’ve known Reggie and Daph since we were babies, haven’t we?’

‘Oh longer, surely,’ said Reggie with a laugh.

‘And finally, this is Emma, my youngest sister. Emma, Draco at last. The two of you always failed to be in the same place at the same time.’

A chorus of hellos and pleased to meet yous and how do you do’s was exchanged on all sides. Reggie in particular was full of bonhomie. ‘You’ll have to forgive Justin, he makes us sound like the dramatis personae out of something hideous by Noel Coward. We were all about to kill each other from boredom, so thank God you appeared. Trust Justin to go touristing and run into people! Come and sit down.’

‘Can’t,’ said Justin. ‘Promised the lads a ride before lunch. Can we borrow a few of your nags, Xan?’

‘Oh, do, Xan,’ said Jemima. ‘It’ll save us having to all pretend to have conversation before we’ve eaten.’

Xan was courtesy itself. ‘Of course. Give me ten minutes and I’ll come down with you.’

‘Take fifteen,’ said Justin. ‘I have to show these two to their room.’

The room was nearly at the top of the tower, very much like Harry’s old dormitory at school, but fancier and with only the one double bed. He exchanged a quick look with Malfoy.

‘Car,’ said Malfoy determinedly.

‘Right,’ said Justin. ‘You’re both dressed for riding, and those boots will do, but you’ll probably want gloves – I stuffed a pair in each of your bags, the leather ones. That’s them. You only need to stay on and look good long enough for us to be out of sight of the castle and then we can tie the horses up and continue on foot if we need to.’

‘Why do all your friends have such odd names?’ Malfoy asked.

‘You’re named after a plant,’ Justin told him.

Malfoy sniffed. ‘I’m named after a constellation. And a dragon!’

‘And a plant. Bathroom and loo are both through here, there are extra towels, toiletries are supplied if you want them. I’ve asked the catering team to put some lunch aside for us and told them there’ll be two more for dinner. Let me know if you think you’ll want something special for breakfast. That black phone is for calls outside, the white one is for housekeeping if you need anything. Any questions?’

‘How do you keep up so many Muggle friendships when you spend so much time in our world?’ asked Harry, who had been wondering.

‘My sisters have a genius for social organisation.’

‘What’s a phone?’ asked Malfoy.

‘Harry will fill you in later. Come on, can’t keep Xan waiting.’

Harry was nervous about this part of the plan. He and Malfoy had managed surprisingly well since they arrived by dint of smiling pleasantly and saying practically nothing for a full five minutes. Now here they were walking across slightly damp grass towards paddocks full of half-tonne, slightly neurotic beasts that neither of them had any real experience with.

He had tucked his wand firmly into his waistband when he had changed into his Muggle clothes, as had Malfoy, which gave him some comfort, but the whinnying and stamping that met their approach took it away again.

Xan led the way, and called out reassuringly to the horses. ‘Shut up, you silly beasts. You lot have had your exercise this morning, you can go back to sluggery. We’re taking these lazybums out.’

He walked towards the four horses in the furthest enclosure. ‘I brought down extras for everyone who’s arriving on the weekend. Really, it’s just as well Justin found you because I was going to have to find volunteers to go out on three of this lot this afternoon before they turn into complete slugs. Milly’s just along so I can keep an eye on her, the silly old dear. Wait here for a mo.’

Xan stopped them beside one of the horse trucks and emerged with three bridles and a saddle and blanket. ‘Here you go,’ he said to Justin, passing the saddle and one of the bridles to him. Harry and Draco took the other two bridles and threaded their arms through them in what they hoped was an authentic manner. Xan loaded each of them with a saddle and blanket, then took them to the temporary paddock and held the gate open for them.

‘I’m putting you on Rummy,’ he told Harry, indicating a pleasant-faced chestnut in the far corner. ‘He’s easy to catch and a very good boy. A bit overly keen on jumping, keep an eye on him or you’ll find yourself flying over any ditches or fences in the vicinity.’

Harry nodded, and then realised that Xan expected him to go over and catch and saddle the horse. He froze for a moment, then realised that he remembered how to do it, or at least how Justin did it. Nonchalantly, as though it were nothing to do with the horses, he balanced his saddle on the heavy mesh fence, then went to pat Rummy’s neck.

Clearly this was approved, because Rummy dropped his head, and Harry shortly found that he had managed to secure the bridle, lead him over to the fence, position the blanket and saddle, and even do up the girth without mishap.

He turned around with a satisfied grin on his face, to find that Justin and Malfoy were already leading their mounts out of the paddock ahead of him. Xan was nodding approvingly.

‘You must have had a good riding teacher at that school of yours, Jus. These two have that nice, quiet manner you have. And look at that,’ he turned back to grin at Harry who had stopped to tighten the saddle girth. ‘Nice walking around and checking. Not like Fan who always wants to just go an elbow to the ribs to get them to breathe out. That’s lovely. Right, you three take good care of them. Got phones?’

‘Yep,’ said Justin. ‘We shouldn’t be long. Back by two at the latest, and we’ll come in earlier if the rain returns.’

Xan waved them off until they disappeared from view. For the first few minutes after that, Harry and Malfoy let Justin lead the way, concerning themselves mostly with allowing Justin’s memories of how to ride to cancel out their own bodies’ insistence that they had no idea how to do this.

‘Xan seems nice,’ Harry said at last. ‘Really concerned about the animals.’

Justin nodded. ‘Xan is keener on horses than practically anything else. Jemima might be the possible exception. Come on, I saw them over this way this morning, they can’t have gone too far in four hours of daylight.’

‘Oof – this is not like riding a broomstick, Justin,’ Malfoy complained. ‘Banjo is much wider, for a start.’

‘Stop whining, there’s a clearing up ahead, we can dismount and – oh!’

The clearing opened up ahead of them, revealing three shining centaur foals dozing in the sun. The black one closest to them opened his eyes suddenly, took one look, cried ‘RUN!’ and wheeled off into the dense surrounding trees, followed by a smaller palomino and bay roan.

Harry did not stop to think, but instead moved forward in his saddle and brought his thighs in at the same time as giving his horse more rein. Rummy required no more encouragement and was quickly galloping after the escapees.

Xan’s warnings about Rummy were entirely accurate. Harry found himself being taken over fallen trees and small streams, all the time gaining in the chase. Behind him he could hear two sets of hooves, then one, then none. Typical. Harry pulled his wand and sent a stream of sparks ahead of the fleeing foals. ‘We’re wizards!’ he shouted. ‘We’re here to help you!’

This was apparently not encouraging news to the foals, as they ran directly under the low-hanging branches of a sprawling yew, which allowed just enough room for Rummy, but, alas, not for Harry, too.

Seconds before being scraped off, Harry watched in surprise as the canopy lifted, allowing him safe passage.

‘We’re wizards,’ Malfoy shouted at him as he caught up. ‘We can also help ourselves.’

Harry stared at him, then down, then back up. ‘Your horse …’

‘Flying Charm. Seemed safer since we don’t know the terrain. Faster, too. Shall I?’

‘Thanks.’

Harry felt the sudden loss of contact with the ground, and Rummy’s momentary bewilderment, then the horse’s glee as he realised that gravity was no longer the inflexible thing it had previously been.

Ahead of them, the foals realised that they could no longer hear pounding hooves following, and slowed a little. Rummy, encouraged by the fact that one leap now encompassed thirty feet upward and sixty forward, bounded ahead of them and sent them wheeling about, to where Malfoy and his rather large Banjo were already blocking the retreat.

Cornered, the black foal plunged his hands into the bag strung across his chest, and pulled them out holding a bow and nocked arrow, along which he sighted Harry mercilessly. ‘My name is Bassano, and you do not know the trouble you will be in if you do not let us go now.’

Harry did not blink. ‘My name is Harry Potter, and I know exactly how much trouble you’re already in.’

Bassano lowered the bow. ‘Harry Potter? Really?’

‘Of course it’s him,’ said Malfoy. ‘Stupid glasses, scar, dreadful hair, superior and yet thick …’

The three foals all turned around and stared at Malfoy, who stopped listing Harry’s faults for a moment. ‘Draco Malfoy, head of the Department of Co-operation with Magical Creatures, Beings and non-Wizarding Part-Humans,’ he introduced himself. ‘At your service. We’ve come to find out how you three got here, and do what we can to get you home again.’

The smallest foal, the little roan, clapped her hands prettily. ‘Home, Bassano! They can take us home!’

‘Hush, Domena, we’re doing perfectly fine on our own.’

‘We’re not,’ said the third foal. ‘We don’t even know where we are.’

‘We do!’ insisted Bassano. ‘We’re south of some mountains and a river or two, and near a castle. And we’re in a forest.’

‘Can’t you tell where you are by the stars at night?’ Harry asked.

Domena shook her head sadly. ‘They don’t let you do navigation until you’re ten. We’re only allowed to do predictions.’

‘What did the stars tell you?’ Draco asked gently.

‘That we’d be all right, and people would help us, and that we are going to be in awful trouble when we get home. Though that’s mostly Bassano, because Allegaro and I are littler than he is.’

Harry managed not to laugh. ‘How did you end up so far away from where you were meant to be? And how did you not get caught?’

‘We run very fast,’ said Bassano.

‘Away from the people who were trying to help you,’ Draco pointed out.

‘We can take care of ourselves,’ Bassano sulked.

‘We can’t,’ Allegaro corrected him. ‘Could you please help us get home?’

‘Of course,’ said Harry. ‘I’m just going to have a quick word with my colleague and work out how.’

He rode over to Malfoy, aware that Rummy had not bothered to put his hooves back on the ground yet and was instead happily practising a sort of horsey skate. ‘What do you think,’ Harry asked. ‘Could we Apparate them?’

Malfoy gave the foals an appraising glance. ‘If we can find Justin, that’s just one each, but I have to say, I’m not convinced we could get them back without Splinching.’

‘It’d probably just be a bit of mane or tail, though, wouldn’t it?’

Malfoy frowned. ‘What if it was a hoof? Anyway, do you want to have to explain to any of the adult centaurs why their foal is missing half his or her tail?’ He thought for a moment, then offered, ‘I could put a flying charm on each of them.’

‘That’s a brilliant idea!’ Harry exclaimed. Then he thought again. ‘How would we keep three centaur foals going in the one direction at the one speed all the way from here to Hogwarts, in the course of one night, without being seen?’

‘Ride … no. Tie them … no, that won’t work, either. Damn. It was a really good plan!’

‘Even I’ll admit it was,’ said Harry. ‘Okay, we need to think along different lines. Do you know anywhere nearby with a really big Floo connection? Malfoy? Malfoy …’

Malfoy raised a finger and sat, looking thoughtful. After a minute, he spoke. ‘I think I’ve got it. You turned up at school in a flying car once, right?’

Harry nodded. ‘But what’s that got to do with anything?’

‘Did it really belong to Weasley?’

‘Yeah, well – his father’s.’

‘Okay. Okay, I am quite good at Flying Charms, but only on living objects. But if you can get Mr Weasley to come up here and help, I think he and I could probably make the black horse truck fly, and then we could drive them all up to Hogwarts tonight and be back well before anyone wakes up in the morning. It should only take about four hours from go to whoa, pardon the pun, and there’ll be at least six hours of good darkness.’

Harry stared at Malfoy.

‘It’s worth a try,’ Malfoy said.

‘It’s genius!’ Harry replied.

‘No need to look so stunned.’

‘According to you it’s my default expression. Anyway, it is pretty astonishing that we’re in agreement.’

Malfoy gave a small smile. ‘We haven’t tried to kill each other all day.’ He unbuttoned his jacket and cardigan and took them off.

Harry watched in growing consternation. ‘What are you doing?’

‘It’s hot,’ Malfoy said, tying the sleeves around his waist. ‘I am cooling down. This is not some garment-based preamble to a homicidal attack.’

‘I didn’t think it was. Who kills people with cardigans, anyway? I was just wondering how you were going to hide your wand without a jacket on.’

‘I’ll think of something before we leave the forest. So, should we tell the foals?’

‘Yes, and then find Justin. I hope he’s not lost …’

With admirable timing, Justin appeared at that moment. The plan was explained in detail, and the foals committed to staying in the one part of the forest, close to the castle, in readiness for moving once night fell.

‘Should I send an owl?’ Justin asked. ‘I can use my phone to call the village nearby they have an owlery at the back of their post office.’

‘No need,’ said Harry. He held his wand and thought of flying. ‘Expecto patronum!’ As the silvery stag materialised, Harry spoke to it. ‘Find Arthur Weasley, we need him to come to Naworth Castle tonight, after sunset, and bring any specialist equipment he needs to make a truck fly.’

The stag bounded away, with the foals looking after it.

‘So much subtler than an owl,’ muttered Malfoy.

‘Harry,’ said Justin. ‘Did you know your horse is floating?’

‘Yes, Malfoy made them fly so we could catch the foals.’

‘Right. Shouldn’t you put them back on the ground now?’

‘But they’re so happy,’ Malfoy protested.

It was true. Banjo and Rummy were taking the opportunity to hover merrily while their riders spoke. They were nickering cheerfully to each other, and taking it in turns to ascend and descend by a few inches. In contrast, Justin’s horse was looking considerably peeved.

‘You should make the grey fly, too,’ said Domena. ‘And us!’

Malfoy grinned at her. ‘You’re right about the grey, but I think your parents would raise several kinds of official fuss if I were to cast any spells on you. And since I would have to do the paperwork for that fuss, let’s just stick to the horses.’

As the foal stuck out her tongue at him, Malfoy muttered the spell and Justin found his horse leaving the ground, too.

‘Come on,’ said Malfoy. ‘Back to that clearing where you were having a nap. It’s the perfect place to meet up again tonight.’

The ride back was more fun. For one thing, thought Harry, flying horses were decidedly less jerky than galloping ones. Rummy was competing with the other horses for both highest and longest leap, and the foals were amusing themselves running beneath the horses. It was astonishing how little the centaurs bothered the horses, though, given they were seemingly both horse and human, Harry supposed it made sense.

Justin pretended to be cross for all of a minute, then showed off a few of his dressage skills to send his mare pirouetting into the air.

‘I used to think that being Muggleborn had no advantages,’ Malfoy said to him. ‘But you actually do have some very worthwhile things in the Muggle world.’

‘That’s all right,’ said Justin. ‘I used to think you were a class-obsessed lunatic snake-molester, but you turned out all right in the end.’

Malfoy bowed formally, and Justin returned the gesture, before they both began to laugh.

Harry moved Rummy to the rear of the group, wand drawn in case of any prying eyes. It was nice to see Justin laughing so cheerfully. Gustav had been a very good influence on him.

And as for Malfoy, Harry had never seen him like this. The light that reached between the trees made his hair shine, and his white shirt showed that his skin actually had a little colour to it these days. He supposed that it was only natural he’d thought him handsome at the club the other week. If you overlooked the fact that it was Malfoy, he was all right.

Too soon they were back in the clearing.

‘We promise we’ll wait here until night,’ said Bassano. ‘We have food, and there is a stream on the other side of the clearing. When we hear you calling, we’ll come straight away.’

‘And if you hear anyone else?’ Malfoy asked.

‘We’ll hide in the shadows.’

‘Very good. Right.’ He looked down at Banjo. ‘Now, sadly, to take the Charms off you three lovely things.’

Banjo looked up at him meaningly.

‘They’ve had such a nice time,’ said Domena. ‘You could leave them on.’

‘They’ll wear off in a year or two anyway,’ Malfoy admitted.

‘Not if you make them self-sustaining,’ Harry suggested. ‘I always just use the permanency part of the perpetually self-inking quill spell. And you could add a caveat that restricted the magic to times when they were unobserved by Muggles.’

‘Isn’t that all a little close to the edge when it comes to the Statute of Secrecy?’ Malfoy asked.

Harry shrugged and smiled. ‘They’re horses. Who are they going to tell?’

Justin made his way to Harry’s side while Malfoy worked out the necessary spellcraft. ‘That was kind,’ he whispered.

‘Hermione wants me to be nice to Malfoy,’ Harry whispered back.

‘Ah, I see.’

Harry felt Rummy touch down just as the other two descended, also. Rummy turned and glared at him. ‘It’s not permanent!’ Harry insisted, patting the horse’s neck gingerly.

‘They don’t speak human,’ Allegaro told Harry. ‘But I can tell him, if you like.’

‘That would be great. Thank you.’

Allegaro stamped a few times until the three horses were looking at him, then whinnied out a short message. It seemed to work, though Rummy did take one experimental leap, just to be sure.

‘Good work!’ said Harry. ‘Do you speak Horse, or do they speak Centaur?’

‘That was obviously Horse,’ said Malfoy quickly, before any of the foals could be offended. ‘Aurors aren’t famous for their language skills. Come along, Potter, let’s leave these young ones to get some sleep. Big night tonight.’

Harry waited until they were nearly at the edge of the forest before he poked his tongue out at Malfoy’s back.

‘I can feel that,’ Malfoy sang out.

Harry was startled. ‘How did you know?’

‘Guessed, but that’s about when I would have done it. It was for your own good, you were essentially listening to baby talk and asking if it was the greatest poetry in the language, from a Centaur’s point of view.’

‘You’ve put me in a difficult position,’ Harry said.

Malfoy turned in his saddle to look back at him. ‘How so?’

‘On the one hand, I want to be angry with you, but on the other hand that makes perfect sense and I am very much aware that if Hermione were here, she would be congratulating you.’

A smile crept across Malfoy’s face, and Harry was surprised to realise it was even broader than the one he had worn when dancing with Wood.

‘Thank you,’ said Malfoy. ‘And you are welcome.’

Xan was down at the trucks when they returned. ‘These three look as though they’ve been having the time of their lives,’ he said with a laugh as the horses trotted towards him. ‘Nothing I like better than happy horses. Except for happy clean horses. Brushes are in the same truck the saddles go back into.’

Harry was pleased to find that his memories extended to grooming and watering, and even more pleased that Malfoy struggled with the hoof pick. Rummy, on the other hand, held each of his feet up as nicely as could be and let Harry give them a thorough clean.

‘Look at you,’ said Xan, ‘rubbing his frogs. You’re as big a softie as Justin. You can ride with me whenever you’d like, you two. And these big lupins agree. I’ve rarely seen them take to people as quickly as to you.’

‘Harry and Draco were always good with animals,’ said Justin. ‘You should ask Draco about his peacocks sometime.’

Xan turned, laughing, to Draco, but was distracted. ‘That’s a very impressive scar,’ he said, looking at Draco’s open collar. Then he frowned and turned to Harry and took in the scar on his forehead and the less discernable ones on his arms and hands.

‘You two don’t just ramble, do you?’ he asked.

Harry looked over to Malfoy, whose hand went to the wand he had managed to wedge underneath the clothing tied at his waist. Malfoy waited for a signal, which Harry supposed he would have to give, despite Justin …

‘They can’t talk about their jobs,’ Justin said quickly. ‘However I know enough to be able to say that they got those scars in circumstances not unlike you got yours.’

‘I thought so,’ said Xan quietly. He pulled up his left trouser leg to show a jagged red line that followed the line of the bone at the front. ‘Helmand Province, but I was RAF, so I can talk about it freely. You intelligence boys did miracles for us.’

‘We didn’t …’ Malfoy began.

Xan raised his hand. ‘I know, you can’t talk about it, you were never there. But I would like to shake your hand.’

Malfoy looked over to Harry in what seemed like panic. ‘Shake Potter’s, he’s the one you should thank. I was completely …’

‘Malfoy saved my life,’ Harry interrupted. ‘We both just did what needed to be done. Real courage came from those who were there all day every day for months and years on end, like you.’

Malfoy stared at Harry, even as Xan shook his hand. Harry made a better fist of it, patting Xan’s shoulder manfully with his left hand. Then he shook his head at Justin. ‘You are a dreadful person,’ he said.

‘I am,’ Justin agreed, looking at him thoughtfully. ‘Come on, there’s just enough time to wash before lunch.’

-----------------------


The caterers had not even begun to serve up lunch, so it was no bother for Harry, Justin and Malfoy to join the others at table. A genteel older couple walked through the dining room and wished everyone well.

‘Having a good day?’ asked the man.

‘Absolutely lovely,’ said Justin. ‘Everything’s perfect.’

‘Marvellous,’ said the woman, before they disappeared again.

‘The Howards,’ Justin explained. ‘Perfect hosts. If you have any problems, they’ll sort them out immediately, otherwise they check in once a day and pretend you’re not here the rest of the time. It’s lovely!’

Conversation went well, with riding, the weather, and the countryside dominating topics. Harry had forgotten how wonderful it was to have a meal where no one expected anything of you. Since the war, he had been mostly the boss, or the honoured guest. Here he was just one of Justin’s weird friends, and someone who Xan liked.

Malfoy was unusually quiet, Reggie tried to draw him out of his shell by asking how he’d found his mount.

‘Good,’ said Malfoy. ‘Banjo’s a lovely horse, very sweet. I’m a bit sore, though, it’s been ages since I was in the saddle.’

‘We’ll soon fix that!’ Reggie declared with an eyebrow waggle.

Justin threw a bread-roll, hitting Reggie neatly between the eyes. ‘Sorry, Draco. We don’t normally let him out around strangers. It’s all gone to his head.’

Xan and Harry carried the conversation for a bit with discussion on the best ways for staying warm outdoors in the winter, and how to avoid death from boredom after the first week on a bivouac, Xan being very careful to say ‘Scouting’ every few sentences to cover his tracks. Harry carefully filed the entire conversation away so he could relay it to Hermione later. She would very much appreciate it.

There was one awkward moment when Phoebe asked Harry his opinion on the GFC, which Harry vaguely knew of, having mostly paid attention to Kingsley’s monthly briefings on the state of Muggle politics, but whether it was an economic disaster or something involving livestock, he couldn’t immediately recall …

Xan came to his rescue. ‘Harry can’t talk about politics,’ he said meaningly. Several of the others widened their eyes and nodded in understanding, though Phoebe didn’t. ‘Because it’s hideously dull,’ Xan continued. ‘Bits, tell him and Draco about the time you tied Fan and I to a tree and didn’t let us loose until after you’d eaten half our Easter egg haul.’

At the end of a repast that would have passed muster at Hogwarts, Harry looked to Justin to see what they should do next.

‘Weren’t you two talking about a nap?’ Justin asked. ‘You were saying that after all that walking, the ride had fairly done you in, and thought a few hours postprandial snooze would set you up for the evening.’

‘There’s no need to make it sound like a euphemism, Justin,’ said Malfoy, who was somehow able to speak while Harry was busy gaping in horror. ‘We were talking about an actual nap.’

‘The two of you?’ asked Reggie, sadly.

‘Are both equally tired,’ Malfoy replied calmly. ‘Potter? Nap time?’

‘Anything to escape this conversation,’ Harry agreed. ‘I’ll catch you in a few hours, Xan. Make sure we don’t sleep through dinner, Justin.’

‘I will!’ Justin sang out after them.

Harry walked quickly through the castle. When he decided there was no danger of being overheard, he stopped, and leaned against the wall, giggling wildly. Malfoy watched him, bemused.

‘Sorry,’ Harry managed after a few minutes. ‘It’s just that this day has gone from odd to bizarre, with few pauses along the way.’

Malfoy nodded. ‘You think it’s weird for you: I’ve ended up a war hero, and a good few Muggles think I’m going out with the Saviour of the Wizarding World. Here I was, thinking that my best story of the year was the time I nearly got to snog Oliver Wood.’

‘Yeah, sorry about that.’

‘Eh, I’d have been just another notch on his broomstick. While I’d have been pining my heart out over the most magical eleven minutes of my life.’

It was at this point that Malfoy had to take Harry’s arm and help him walk towards their room, or leave him collapsed with laughter in the hall. Luckily for Harry, Malfoy chose the more dignified option.

They were nearly at their room by the time Harry had returned to seriousness. ‘I really am sorry about the Wood thing. I wasn’t being intentionally malicious, but I think I was subconsciously trying … well …’

‘To ruin my life?’ Malfoy finished for him. ‘Don’t worry, I’m used to it from you. Apparently it’s not intentional. Here we are.’

Malfoy let go of his arm and Harry let them in. Malfoy stayed at the door, though. ‘I should go and sleep in the car …’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said Harry. ‘You take the bed. I’ll take a chair.’

They both looked at the chairs. They were spindly cane things with wickerwork seats and backs. ‘Now who’s being ridiculous?’ Malfoy asked. ‘Look, it’s fine. We can just kick our shoes off and leave our clothes on. We can even stay on top of the covers. We’ve been getting along famously all day, we can keep it up.’

Harry was pleasantly surprised. ‘Of course we can. We’re adults.’

‘You can tell your Granger and I’ll tell Pansy and they’ll both be amazed and tell us we’ve done very well.’

Harry bit his lip so he wouldn’t start laughing again. ‘Hermione and Parkinson are nothing alike.’

‘They would be if Pans used the brains in her head or Granger was more obsessed with her cleavage. Now do you want to wash first or can I?’

‘After you.’

When Harry came out from brushing his teeth, Malfoy had already chosen a side of the bed and was sprawled on it, conscientiously taking up slightly less than half the available space.

‘Should I set an alarm?’ Harry asked, plonking himself down.

‘Justin promised,’ Malfoy reminded him.

Harry had just started to drift off when Malfoy spoke again.

‘Why did you tell Xan I saved your life?’

‘You did,’ Harry yawned. ‘At your house, you told your father you weren’t sure it was me. Gave Dobby time to come and rescue us. Then you stopped Crabbe from killing me back at school. Was bossy rather than heroic, but it counts.’

Malfoy said nothing, so Harry closed his eyes again.

‘You saved my life.’

Harry gave up and sat up. Malfoy was staring at the ceiling.

‘In the Room of Lost Things, you came back and saved me. I never knew why.’

Harry shrugged. ‘I suppose it was because you refused to leave Goyle.’

‘What?’ Malfoy looked at him.

‘You wouldn’t leave him. He was unconscious and so fat you could barely lift him, and he’d told you to piss off not five minutes earlier, and still you risked your life to save his. If you could do that, I couldn’t do less.’

A smile twitched at the corner of Malfoy’s mouth. ‘You’re telling me it was competitive lifesaving?’

‘Absolutely.’ Harry dropped back to his pillow. ‘Now shut up and get some sleep. We’re going to be up all night and dealing with centaurs for some of it. Between us we’ll need one functional brain.’

‘You’re right to prioritise mine, in that case.’

Harry would have said something cutting, but sleep was the more attractive option.

-----------------------



Part three

 
 
 
Azure Jane Lunaticazurelunatic on January 23rd, 2011 02:42 am (UTC)
Oh, hooray, flying horses!
blamebramptonblamebrampton on January 25th, 2011 04:15 pm (UTC)
A good half the horses I have known would love to do this. Of the remainder, most would not notice, because they are convinced they already can, and the small remainder would stand very still, wide eyed and nervous, until someone reinitiated their contact with the ground, at which point they would run off and glare accusingly at you from a distance ;-)
Azure Jane Lunaticazurelunatic on January 25th, 2011 05:07 pm (UTC)
I am not sure what my sister's would have done. She might at first not notice, and then pretend she knew all along.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on January 25th, 2011 05:07 pm (UTC)
LOL! Yes, a very definite probability!