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Draco felt as if he was about to be sick. The candy-floss pink draperies and the porcelain plates depicting absurdly cute kittens added to the eeriness of the place. Dolores Umbridge herself hadn’t shown up yet but in a way, this was further fuelling his sense of dread by exacerbating his anticipation.

His brain was now doing somersaults. He could not be sure if Potter had been right when he vehemently maintained that he knew the Ministry and the Dark Lord were now collaborating. Malfoy half-heartedly hoped that this was not the case, but in any event, the fact that he had been captured on Umbridge’s orders proved that she was foe, no friend. It looked as if his improvisation skills were going to have to be absolutely up to scratch if he were to have the slimmest chance of getting out of this alive, never mind unharmed. Time was ticking faster than his own heartbeat and now his priority was to anticipate the Minister’s motives and to figure out how to circumvent them.

He could hardly believe he had landed in such mess for the sake of helping Potter. In a feeble attempt to make sense of his very regrettable decision, he reasoned that he had needed the Order’s protection and that helping The Boy Who Lived had provided an opportunity to prove himself to them. He should have known better, though. It even crossed his mind that the Order itself could have set up the trap. Yet, if this was the case, Potter had pulled out an incredibly convincing stage performance. He doubted very much he was really that talented. The odds were that at that moment in time, The Chosen One and his friends were in fact his true allies. If this assumption was sound, giving them away wouldn’t be his best plan.

Harry wished he had had the opportunity to talk with Hermione before jumping in with both feet by asking to speak to the Order. He very much wondered what it was that she also had to say that was evidently important. Their eyes met. He hoped that they would not end up revealing too much due to this lack of communication. This was one of these instances when he regretted never having been able to master Legilimency.

Kingsley Shaklebolt’s voice sounded relaxed as he re-addressed the assembly but his body language told a different tale. Harry had been the first one to express the need to have an urgent discussion, so the Order leader made a gesture with his hand giving him the platform to do so.

Harry then started to relate what had happened since he left London for Hogwarts. In order for the whole story to make sense, he had no choice but mentioning that he needed to retrieve something from the castle. Incidentally, it was Lupin who asked him what that was. Harry decided to casually brush the question aside and continued to explain how he had managed to gain access to the school. He wasn’t particularly keen on having to remind his friends about Malfoy’s input into Dumbledore’s death but he knew that there was no other way.

“Look, as you all know, I was there with Dumbledore at the Astronomy Tower, when, well…” he gulped, “ when … he died. I happen to know how the Death Eaters got in. Draco Malfoy got a cabinet into the Room of Requirement which had a twin at “Borges & Burkes,” he started.

At the mention of Malfoy, Hermione twitched.

Harry noticed this and flinched but decided to continue. He went on to explain how the cabinets worked and how, to his surprise, he had found Professor Trelawney already inside of the room. He then added that neither of them could get out and that they appeared to have been trapped. He did reveal his suspicions in terms of a member of staff at Borgin & Burkes possibly having heard noises coming from the cellar. His guess was that someone could have put a stop to the cabinets’ connection but admitted that this did not clarify why the door wouldn’t budge.

Hermione now felt that it was her turn to intervene. The last thing she wanted was to get Hagrid into trouble but then again, it wasn’t right to keep quiet whilst the Order racked their brains for answers. “Harry, I know why that was,” she said sternly.

He looked at her incredulously. “You do?”

Everyone listened attentively.

“Well, Hagrid confided in me that he thinks Trelawney is in danger at the castle but that she won’t leave the school, so he did something to the room to keep her there until he got back to get her.” 

Several hushed voices could be heard at once.

“Okay, where is Hagrid? Kingsley asked.

I just saw him and Ron in the kitchen. We may as well ask him about it personally,” Harry suggested.

“I’ll go and fetch him,” volunteered Mrs Weasley.

“Also, Draco went to Malfoy Manor ages ago and hasn’t come back yet. That was what I wanted to talk to you all about. Something must have happened to him,” Hermione concluded sounding agitated.

“Malfoy’s gone where?” Moody asked in a panicked tone. Everyone knew that he didn’t trust the youngster and that this just came to confirm his suspicions.

Harry closed his eyes for a brief moment and opened them with a jerk. “What’s he gone there for?”
“Okay,” Hermione replied, “Ginny told us that she had sensed that you were stuck inside the castle. We figured that a house-elf could Apparate to and from Hogwarts. We tried using Kreacher but well, you made him promise not to talk to Malfoy. He wouldn’t speak to me either and then Draco suggested going to the manor and using one of his own. I warned him it could be dangerous, though.”

This left an opening for Moody to further voice his thoughts. His magical eye pierced Hermione’s and Harry’s simultaneously. “ Miss Granger, you took it upon yourself to just trust him, then? How do we know that this is not a trick of his?”

Hermione glanced at Harry as if searching for an answer.

“It was my idea.” Harry knew that this admission would not be well received but his voice didn’t falter. “I know that you all think I’m mad to trust him but c’mon, Voldemort killed his mother and, for what I’ve seen, he needs us more than we need him. Also, he has lived with Death Eaters all his life and he could have useful information. Merlin knows he spent enough time in the Room of Requirement last academic year. I just thought he seemed the best person for me to ask.”

There was a general outcry.

This time it was Bill who took the lead. “Harry, for crying out loud, you are trusting him with stuff you won’t even trust the Order with? Who do you think is more competent and more likely to have your best interest at heart?”

Harry now felt a little defeated and retorted defensively: “Okay, maybe I’ve made a mistake, although I doubt it. Now, where do we go from here? How long has he been gone?”

“Quite a few hours, Harry,” Hermione replied in a very quiet voice, looking down.

At that precise moment, Ron and Hagrid, accompanied by Molly, entered the drawing room.

Shakelbolt began to question Hagrid about the Trelawney business. Hagrid, once again, related that he had got a secret tip. They were all ears. Harry glanced at him surreptitiously remembering how he had been tricked in a pub on his first year at Hogwarts.

“Alright,” said Arthur in a firm manner, “what tip is this exactly? It could be important.”

Hagrid went red. “Erm… umn… an unsigned message tha’ came by owl ter me hut.”

“A secret message…” Harry repeated scowling. “Do you have it with you by any chance?”

Hagrid shook his head and look down seemingly embarrassed.

Various people asked where the Divination Professor was now.

“She was in a right state and I left her with Aberforth Dumbledore. I think she better come here,” Harry proposed. “Well, it’s hardly a secret that she made the prophecy and we must bear in mind that Snape knows about this.”

Hermione sighed at the mention of Snape. It had been him, of all people, who had advised Draco to use a house elf. She knew also that not many members would be particularly impressed with the fact that they had consulted him. Hermione thought she better tell Harry and Ron when they were on their own and try to put the case to them. She had deducted from her conversations with both Petunia and Malfoy that he wasn’t on the side of the Death Eaters. Also, the fact that he had been made aware that Harry was trapped and that he had come to no harm almost proved in her mind that she had been correct. She didn’t expect, however, that persuading Harry and the others would ever be easy.

Harry spoke again. “Okay, one thing at a time, let’s worry about this message once we have decided what to do about Malfoy. So, he’s not back. Could he have gone to Hogwarts, you reckon?”

“He shouldn’t have done. I told him to get back here first,” Hermione answered.

Harry gave a slight twitch and pursed his lips. “So, he has either done a runner or he’s been captured.”

Mad Eye made his feelings known in favour of the first theory. 

“But, Alastor, he’s got nowhere safe to go,” Harry argued.

Hermione contributed that he had known that it was urgent for him to get back with the elf.

“Harry, I’m still in awe that you decided to trust him,” Hestia Jones pointed out concerned.

“I must say, it occurred to me that he might have decided to hand me over to Voldemort to try to redeem himself but, then again, nobody came to attack us, which they would have had time to do and also, no; Voldemort pushed it too much by killing Narcissa.”

A few people gazed at him looking unsure.

Harry shook his head again, “Remember? I know how it feels; I’ve been there!”

Arthur now spoke, “Harry, aren’t you identifying yourself with him too much because of this? Yes, his mother got killed, so did your parents, but you are very different people.”

“Okay, what I’m saying is: what’s he got to gain by rejoining the Death Eaters? After all, he came here voluntarily. I saw what he was like all last year, terrified, ill looking… My instincts are telling me that something’s gone very wrong,” Harry concluded.

“Well, you two seem to have been sharing some secret business, have you not?” Molly Weasley said gazing intently at Harry, hoping to pull his tongue.

“Molly, sorry, but that business is very private to him and I can assure you it has no bearing on our activities or Voldemort’s,” Harry replied assertively.

“Is that about his mother ghost?” Ron whispered into Hermione’s ear in a tone loud enough for anyone to hear.

Hermione looked at him exasperated, as if about to hit him hard in the head. Harry blushed. Several Order members glanced at various others.

“How are we going to find him, though?” Hermione interjected, changing the subject. “I thought of sending him an owl, but then again, this could give away his position if he happens to be hiding,” she reasoned. “I suspect that Voldemort may have put someone up there in case he turns up, which is worrying to say the least.”

“Look,” said Harry now impatiently, “we better think of something. I hate having to tell you but he has in his possession two items that I don’t want in the wrong hands; the Invisibility Cloak and my phone. The first is something I need, the second, well, has stored in it the Durleys’ number, the Muggle bank’s… so, whether you like the guy or not, it’s now imperative that he comes back to us before too much information is given away.

They all agreed on this but had to admit not having any leads. Turning up at the manor didn’t seem a sensible thing to do, but what else could be done?

Kingsley argued that it was unlikely that, if he had been captured, they were keeping him there. Voldemort surely must have pretty secure Headquarters of his own, and if Umbridge was to blame and hadn’t handed him over to the Death Eaters, she would probably hold him at the Ministry for interrogation.

Harry now began pacing up and down the room. “Well? Are we just going to stay here debating and doing nothing?”

“What if the boy has set up a trap to lurk you to Malfoy Manor?” Mad Eye argued.

Shacklebolt now took command. “Harry, you stay here, just in case.”

Harry shook his head rather forcefully. “Is there any point at all in me being in the Order? Yeah, wrap me up in cotton wool! What kind of a life is this? I feel as if I’m in prison!

“Potter,” Kingsley said sternly, “compose yourself and think rationally. As I said, it is doubtful, if it’s true that he’s been captured, that anyone remains there in which case, just to double check, two or three of us will suffice. However, if it’s a trap, it will be you who they’re after. Why are you always so eager to play into their hands?”

“Haven’t you had enough excitement for one day, young man?” Molly went on.

Harry looked frustrated but didn’t reply. In the end it was agreed that Mad Eye, Shacklebolt and Tonks were to go to Malfoy Manor and report back as soon as possible.

The magical restraints placed upon Draco’s body seemed tighter and tighter as the minutes went by; minutes that felt like hours. Umbridge’s office felt very cold indeed and the absolute stillness was debilitating. Not even the painted cats were making a sound. His custodian looked as if he was staring into empty air. Malfoy’s mind continued to race. Before long, he heard footsteps, the noisiest of which seemed to come from a pair of heeled shoes. It was time to put on his poker-face mask.

Umbridge was the first one through the door. She was accompanied by Percy Weasley and by a couple of tall and muscular wizards who were in all probability part of her guard.

“Good evening, Mr Malfoy,” she saluted with a very false grin.

“Minister,” he replied in an almost military fashion.

She made one of her customary little coughing sounds and sat down behind her desk. She beckoned Percy to sit beside her. He promptly obeyed, parchment and quill at the ready.

“No need to be alarmed, dear. The Ministry just wanted to umm… clarify a few details about Dumbledore’s death, that’s all. This is just mere procedure, nothing at all to worry about… as long as you are willing to co-operate,” she added softly with an almost inaudible giggle.

Draco’s grey eyes locked into hers momentarily but his expression was subdued. He started to bite his lower lip slightly and was trying his utmost to prevent his hands from shaking.

His silence was making her feel uncomfortable. She began. “Well, Mr Malfoy, you were a key witness in the unfortunate events that unfolded at the Astronomy Tower. I can give you my word that your help with our investigation will be rewarded,” she tried to persuade him.

He had almost forgotten her excessively girlish voice, a voice that didn’t sit right with someone of her age and status.

“Well, you know I was always co-operative when you were Headmistress at Hogwarts. You can be sure of my loyalty, so, would it be possible for you to get me untied and to get your staff to give me back my wand?” he tentatively suggested.

“Well, well, one step at a time... You see, I may be Minister dear,” she pronounced the word Minister with obvious exultation, “but the way in which murder investigations are carried out was set up way before I got to where I am today.  You have to understand that you are a key witness. The wizarding community likes to see that I’m doing my job but you were always a bright lad and I’m sure you understand perfectly.”

“Okay, what exactly do you want me to tell you? I’m sure you know who killed Dumbledore. After all, that fool Potter shouted it to the whole world.”

Draco quickly remembered that Greyback and the Carrows had witnessed the scene. If she was in fact on the Death Eaters’s side, it was very likely that she had heard their account. He decided to go for the truth. He trusted Snape’s resourcefulness to keep himself out of harm’s way and he couldn’t see how lying about this could aid anyone.

“Yes, dear, we have heard those rumours, indeed,” she continued as she pretended to clear her throat yet again. “However, well… that boy is hardly a reliable source of information, is he? Such an attention seeking young man, such a shame,” she droned on, rolling her eyes. "Personally, I have always suspected that he got more than a scar the night his parents died; in fact, I’m pretty positive that his brain got addled up in the process. One can’t but pity him.”

Draco made a quiet sound to indicate that he was sort of in agreement but decided that the less he disclosed the better it would be. So far, the woman had spoken at length and conveyed nothing, but wasn’t that after all a politician’s skill?

“Now, just as a warm up and before we delve into the horrors of that night, where have you been since then? You seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. Your poor mother must have been worried sick about you up to the day she died.”

This was a low blow and she knew it. Draco now felt ashamed to have sided up with her in his fifth year for the childish sake of getting to Potter. The woman was sick! Externally, however, he remained impassive.

“Sorry, Mr Malfoy, I take that you were aware of this very sad news?” she said feigning consternation with very little talent.

She was beginning to close on him. This was most certainly a leading question. Depending on what story he was going to concoct regarding his recent whereabouts, he should or should not know about his mother’s passing. He had to react quickly. To his advantage, the Malfoy family had never been known for wearing their heart on their sleeve. He looked down and briefly closed his eyes in a calculated and seemingly well-rehearsed move. He simply responded:

“If you don’t awfully mind, Minister, I rather not talk about that.”

“Well, not that I am insensitive, of course, but sometimes one has to talk about painful subjects,” she stated in a singsong tone. “It is for your own good after all. Last time you were seen, you were with Snape, the alleged murderer, running away from the school grounds. This is your chance to clear your name, don’t you see?”

“The version you were given is correct.”

“And what would that version be, by the way?” She was now playing with the bulky rings on her oversized fingers in a manner that showed that she was rapidly losing patience. “Alright, I will refresh you memory, young fellow. My predecessor, Mr Scrimegeour prior to his resignation,” she began, chortling a little, “ well, he wrote on the file that yourself, dear, and the Potter boy were there when it all happened. I’m sure you will be able to explain why this was.”

He had good reason to fear that whether or not her ulterior motive was handing him over to the Dark Lord, Umbridge wasn’t going to be content with his very succinct answers. She had not given any indication in terms of her allegiance or otherwise to the Dark Lord’s, so revealing to her the task that was once assigned to him didn’t seem prudent. The problem was that he didn’t really know how long he could hold her off before she found some means of loosening his tongue. Where the hell were Potter and the Order? What about Granger though, she surely must have realised by now that something was very amiss. Of course, even if they decided to come to his rescue, they had no clues as to where he was. What could they really do, especially now without Dumbledore? It was ironic to think that the death of the very wizard whose life he had once been intent on taking was working against him.

“I didn’t kill the Headmaster. You already know that. I don’t quite understand why you are keeping me here, and tied up! I cannot tell you anything that you don’t already know,” he protested.

“I think you’ll find that you are rather mistaken. You have still not explained to me what you and Potter were doing at the scene of the murder, and what’s more why you ran away,” she continued, clasping her hands as if saying “I’m waiting.”

“I just happened to be there doing my homework. It can be a relaxing place,” he told her unconvincingly.

Dolores blinked in obvious disbelief and ordered casually: “Percival, would you please fetch us some Veritaserum. It seems that Mr Malfoy needs to refresh his memory.”

Percy Weasley nodded deferentially and left the room. Umbridge grimaced with obvious satisfaction.

Draco had expected something like that to happen but couldn’t fathom a way to get out of it. The Order had tried to use that very same potion when he first arrived to Grimmauld Place and, funnily enough, it had been Potter who had let him off the hook. This reminded him of something else which the Order had tried to make him do. He had to repress a grin.

In a matter of minutes, Percy was back holding a phial containing a clear liquid. Draco now spoke: “Well, there is a problem with this. I cannot answer your questions because I was forced to make an Unbreakable Vow. Obviously, you are aware that if I break it, I will die, which also means that I will no longer be able to help you with your investigation.”

The Minister hadn’t counted on that. She glanced at her Personal Assistant as if for enlightenment. He gazed back. His expression indicated that he was advising caution. She conceded to herself that, if the boy was telling the truth and he was forcefully made to disclose information covered by the Vow, he would no longer be of any use to her.

“Who made you make the Vow, and what exactly does it cover?” she asked angrily.

Draco shook his head and simpered. “I’m afraid, Minister, that information is also part of the Vow. The people who made me make it were sure to cover themselves in this way.”

Dolores couldn't contain a snarl and made a motion for one of her guards to come nearer. “Oh, just a preliminary measure, one that I should have taken a while back… Foster, could you please strip this young fellow of his clothing. Let’s see what clues we find.”

Out of his cloak pockets came out a peculiar looking small rectangular metallic object with numbers on it. Once Dolores had been able to ascertain that the item in question was not so cursed as to cause harm to the person holding it, she asked that it be passed onto her. To say that she looked puzzled was an understatement. Her next move was to ask Percy Weasley to take a look at it. Draco, on his part, had completely forgotten about Harry’s phone. If they did manage to work it out, it would give away the fact that him and Potter were in touch, that they were in fact allies.

He didn’t need to examine it for very long. “It’s a Muggle device, ma’am.”

“Well, what does it do? she eagerly queried. “Percival, your father tinkers enough with Muggle stuff for you to know, I am sure.”

Percy raised an eyebrow and look at the artefact in more detail. “It’s part of a communication system, I believe, Minister. Muggles do not use owls; they use feliphones. The Department of Muggle Liaison should be able to tell us more about it.” 

Umbridge hesitated. She was not entirely sure if this was the best course of action. There were many people still employed by the Ministry she didn’t trust at all but was keeping on staff because she rather have them where they could be watched. She decided to ask Malfoy about it first.

“Well, Mr Malfoy, it seems pretty obvious that you have been living in the Muggle world. I’m pretty sure that this isn’t part of any obscure vow you may have entered into, so I would strongly advise you to tell us what it is exactly and how it came to be in your possession.”

Draco sighed involuntarily. He was most certainly not prepared to disclose having lived with the Muggle priest or in the Muggle world but even less so to link this object to Potter. There was a chance that they would not figure out his workings well enough to discover the identity of its owner and, in the event that they did, he could always say that it was the Chosen One who made him enter into this potentially lethal contract.

“I’m not sure what it is. I found it on a Muggle street,” he volunteered.

Dolores smirked. “I’m sure you did.”

She motioned everyone in the room apart from Percy to leave and suggested to the latter that there wasn’t any need to take notes for the time being.

“I think I may have found a way, more effective this time, of getting to the bottom of things.”

Draco could feel a cold shiver running through his spine. Whatever she might have had in mind, it didn’t sound very pleasant. He had often resented the many opportunities Potter had been given to be branded a hero, what he thought had been greatly exaggerated adventures. He was now getting a taste of what it really was like being in imminent danger and was coming to accept that this was not indeed an enviable position.

Meanwhile, Harry, Ron and Hermione had gone upstairs to brief Ginny on the various developments. It had got really late and they were all frankly exhausted. Most of the adults remained scattered through the main living areas of Grimmauld Place waiting for the Malfoy Manor investigation party to return. Molly was so overwhelmed by it all that she hadn’t even bothered to check on the kids, having been contented with sending them to bed.

There seem to be little point at that stage on discussing in any great detail plans for Malfoy’s rescue. They were all far too tired and there was an absolute absence of leads. They agreed to do some serious brainstorming on the matter the following morning. Similarly, Hermione thought that it would be better if she put to them her theories concerning Snape at a time when they were all more alert.

Ginny, however, remembered how she had felt that Harry was experiencing a certain sense of elation prior to her finding the secret entry to the Room of Requirement. She asked him about that.

Harry smiled really widely. “Well, guys, I think I have found the next clue for our quest,” and he went on to tell them how he had seen himself holding a quill in the colours of Ravenclaw in the Mirror of Erised.

“Wow! His friends exclaimed all at once, cheering.

Harry then proceeded to explain that, unfortunately, although he had found the Half Blood Prince’s book easily enough, there appeared to be no clue whatsoever in it with regard to the Wolfsbane potion. Hermione promised to examine it from top to cover the following day just be certain.

“I found a cryptic message written on it, though,” Harry continued as he showed them the handwriting that seemed to match that of Snape’s and which he assured them it was not there when he had used the book at school.

“Two are dealt with, one the seeker was after, three had been replaced. The seeker holds the key to the error, in a clue from a long time ago, an error which may lead to success. In the far right corner, some answers might be found." 

“Oh, Harry, this is really obscure… “ commented Hermione looking somehow discomfited. “I think that it refers to the Horcruxes, though. It must do…” she muttered.

“Also, here,” Harry said pointing at the final phrase in the annotation they were discussing, “here it gives the clue about where in the Room I could find more information.”

“Is there any way of checking that this is Snape’s true handwriting that it is not a fake?” asked Ginny pursing her lips.

“Well, it really looks like his, I must say,” Hermione assented.

“We have seen it enough times, especially in red ink, when he marked our essays,” agreed Harry.

“There must be a spell that will tell us for sure,” contributed Ron.

“I’ll look into it tomorrow,” Hermione reassured them.

“Could he be trying to help us? I mean, you have been trying to defend him for some time?” Harry asked Hermione.

“I think so, Harry, but as we said let’s leave that for tomorrow. We’ll talk about it at length then, I promise,” she concluded unable to avoid a yawn.

“Percival, what is this?” asked Umbridge holding in her hands a silver coloured slippery and water-like piece which appeared to be made of the strangest of fabrics.

“An Invisibility Cloak. No doubt about it,” he replied acting smug and efficient.

“Oh, I heard those are very rare,” she mumbled in a low voice, her eyes ogling the thing in a covetous manner.

Draco’s heartbeat was now even further accelerated. Something else yet that connected him with Potter!

“My brothers sell products like that in their shop,” Percy said casually. “May I take it with me to examine? Of course no member of my family will be involved, rest assured.”

Dolores played with her podgy fingers for a moment, mulling it over. “Very well, Weasley, if you think that is best,” she conceded.  “And now young man, the truth!” she commanded Malfoy.

“I told you all I can’t without causing my own death!”

“We shall see about that. Inferno Sine Incendio!” 

As these words left the Minister’s wide mouth, every inch of flesh in Draco’s body begun to burn with an intensity he would not have believed possible beforehand. He felt as if about to suffocate, as if his heart would stop at once. That was torture beyond the realm of imagination.

“Well… shall we start all over again?” she asked him, her girlish tone more pronounced than ever. “And, do not worry, this will not leave any marks, will not burn your skin but the sensation is just the very same.”

Without further ado, she gave him another dose. Malfoy’s body stopped twitching altogether. He was now unconscious.

Percy Weasley intervened at that point.

“Minister, not that I would ever doubt your judgement but… I think you may have overdone the spell, not that I’m trying to criticise your methods…”

She frowned. “I do beg your pardon? We need to extract whatever information he may have and well, the boy is clearly not talking much.”

“Yes, but if we kill him we will not be able to hand him over to the Dark Lord. He won’t be pleased. Needless to say, neither of us would like to have to endure his wrath,” he reasoned.

“The Dark Lord can have him when I am done with him,” she said arrogantly.

“I couldn’t agree more, Minister, but if we go too far and he dies, for one, he won’t be able to tell us anything and what is more, if the Dark Lord kills him is up to his father to take the matter up with him. I know that Lucius Malfoy is currently in Azkaban, that his Master hasn’t bothered to release him, however, this could change at anytime, depending on the services that the Dark Lord may need of him. Let’s not tempt fate, shall we?”

Umbridge shrugged and replied, “Right, slow but painfully effective then.”

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