This is what happens when I hang out with Hal. Beta props and thanks to her as well.
Percy takes a Ministry job.
Sir Percy and the Dragon
"The villagers said the dragon wasn't far from here," Hermione said, shaking her head so that her white mane flew up, nearly blinding Percy. He sneezed and covered it up with a cough. He hadn't wanted to hurt Hermione's feelings, but he was rather allergic to horses.
"I suppose we should go on, then," he said doubtfully, settling the aged, rusty helm more firmly on his head. It didn't help that the late afternoon sun shone directly in his eyes. He could barely see the road in front of his feet. In front of Hermione's feet. Hooves. Bother.
Hermione shook her head again, nearly tumbling Percy to the ground. "It's almost sundown. We should make camp and rest before tomorrow's battle."
"Er, yes," said Percy. He pulled off his glasses and tried unsuccessfully to clean them on the grubby tail of his shirt. Dear god what he wouldn't do for a bath. He didn't think he was particularly cut out for this sort of thing. What if there were blood? He thought it quite likely that there would be blood.
But the villagers *had* been rather frightened and imploring. And Hermione seemed to think it was the gallant thing to do--though why he should care what a horse thought, particularly one that made him sneeze, he didn't know.
Thinking on it further, he wasn't sure how he'd gotten into this mess in the first place. When he'd applied for the position at the Ministry, he's assumed it would be, well, in an office. With safe, comfortable grey walls. Perhaps even his own desk where he might prop up a picture of dear Penelope. There had been no mention of dragons. Or horses, for that matter.
They found a place to camp on a bit of ground sheltered by rocks and few oak trees. He'd probably end up sleeping on roots. He untacked Hermione, politely looking away when she rolled luxuriously in a patch of grass, then unbuckled his sword and placed his spear beside it as he tried to get a fire going.
"Mmpfh," said the sword.
Beside it, the spear laughed evilly. "I say, Percy, that's an absolutely brilliant way to shut him up."
Percy looked over distractedly. "You shouldn't taunt him, Sirius."
"But you've made it so easy for me." The sword began to vibrate angrily in its sheath. "Look at him! He can barely contain himself."
The sword by this time was flinging itself recklessly back and forth on the ground, which didn't bring him any closer to Sirius, who just laughed. Percy could hear its muffled curses. With a sigh he grabbed it by the hilt, knocking himself in the chin in the process--hard enough to see stars--and pulled the scabbard off.
"---think you can ridicule *me*, Black," the sword said angrily, its metal gleaming an apoplectic purple.
"Be quiet, Snivellus," the spear said. "Or else I'll hit you with a rusting charm."
"You wouldn't dare!"
"Quiet!" Percy said. His head was beginning to ache. "Be quiet, both of you. I need to think."
To his surprise, the two of them retreated into muttered grumblings as Percy settled himself by the fire. He could hear Hermione grazing a few feet away. He didn't really need to think. In fact, what he would most like is to *not* think about what the morning would bring. What did he know about dragons? It was extremely unfair of the Ministry to place an unqualified person in such a hazardous position. At the very least, he would ask for a promotion if he did manage to survive this.
An owl hooted softly from a tree branch above him, and he looked up eagerly. "Harry!"
The owl flew down and settled on a fallen branch next to him. "I've scouted the area just ahead," Harry said. His glasses gleamed in the firelight. "There's a cave where I'm sure we'll find the dragon. If we leave now, we can catch him while he's sleeping."
"Harry, no," Hermione said firmly. Percy hadn't heard her approach. She lowered her head to glare at the owl. "That's the last thing we should do. We can barely see! And what if there's more than one dragon?"
Percy hadn't even considered that possibility. He felt slightly ill.
Harry shook off that concern. "Don't be ridiculous, Hermione. If there were more than one, we would've heard about it."
"But we don't *know* that, Harry. Besides, Percy needs his rest."
Harry ruffled his feathers disdainfully, and Hermione snorted out her breath in exasperation. "Anyway, we should wait for Ron. Where is he? Didn't he go out with you?"
Harry shrugged. "He was off stealing chickens, last I saw."
Percy cleared his throat. Ron would be fine; he knew his brother's abilities to get both in and out of trouble. Percy had far more pressing concerns. "Did you see any other signs of--it?" he asked Harry.
"Er." Harry ducked his head briefly into the fold of his wing. "A few maidenly corpses that were, um, rather charred, scattered around the front of the cave."
Percy wondered if his face was as green as he felt. "I see," he said faintly.
"All the more reason we need to kill the dragon," Hermione said. "In *daylight*. And for Percy to get his rest."
"We can't do anything without Remus," called the spear from across the fire. That elicited a rude remark from the sword, and Percy sighed as the two spent the next few minutes trading insults involving varying degrees of parentage and wand size.
He leaned over to whisper to Hermione, "Where do I find Remus?"
She stared back at him, equally mystified. "I have no idea. Perhaps he'll show up on the way."
"Well in the meantime, I'm going to sleep," he said, loud enough to catch the attention of Sirius and Snape. They subsided resentfully and only gradually, but were eventually silent. He stared up at the gnarled boughs above him. He could hear the wind rustling through the leaves.
Dragons! He shivered. It was most uncivilized.
Deep in his night-black cave, the dragon slept.
It was much to the annoyance of Draco Malfoy, who flew restlessly around the dragon's head in an effort to wake him. He'd tried squawking in his ear. He'd waved his wing feathers in front of half-closed eyes. He'd even tried pecking the long, smoking snout. Still, the dragon slept on.
He wondered--for the fortieth time, it seemed--why he had ever thrown his lot in with a dragon as stupid as Marcus Flint.
"Draco!" he heard, spoken in a loud whisper. Not that it would make much difference to this useless lump of lizard. "Where are you?"
Draco glided to the ground in irritation. "Here, you idiot. Where'd you think I'd be?"
"Oh." The hedgehog digested that slowly. "I'm not sure."
Draco rolled his eyes. "Where's Goyle? Don't tell me he got lost again."
"I'm here, Draco," said Goyle, puffing as he jogged up to join Crabbe.
Draco glared at the two hedgehogs. He felt he deserved far better minions than these, but sometimes life persisted in placing blocks in front of his destined path. His father would say it built character. *He* thought it was a bloody nuisance.
"What have you got for me? And I *don't* mean any more of those revolting beetles, thank you very much."
Crabbe and Goyle shared a wary glance. "See, Draco--" Crabbe stopped.
Draco shifted impatiently. "Get on with it already. I haven't got all night to listen to you two snuffle around."
"Well, there's a man--"
"--on a horse--"
"--and he's coming this way!" blurted out Goyle.
Draco narrowed his eyes in consideration. He supposed it was only a matter of time, after all. "So those Ministry idiots have finally sent someone to try to kill me."
"Er, Draco--" Crabbe's ears turned slowly pink.
Draco thought about pecking out his eyes, but he might need the two of them for a little while longer. "Yes?"
"I think he's after the dragon," Crabbe whispered, his eyes round with fright.
"I see." Draco dipped his beak in a casual gesture; both the hedgehogs took a wary step back. "Tell me," he said, "who do you find more dangerous, me or the dragon?"
Two heads bobbed back and forth between Draco and Marcus, who slept on, oblivious.
"Well, he *is* able to breathe fire…."
Draco could practically hear them trembling in their thin, spiny feet. Good. "Yes, he is. And who tells the dragon when and where to do that?"
"You do," they chorused.
"Then whom do you suppose is the more dangerous one?"
"The dra--" Goyle squealed as Crabbe kicked him. "Er, you are."
"Yes. I am." Draco glared at them again for good measure. "And now I have another job for you."
"--and we haven't eaten in hours--"
"Quiet." They fell silent, except for Goyle's muffled snort of alarm. "Don't worry," Draco said. If his beak had allowed it, he would have grinned. "You'll enjoy this."
Percy's entire body ached. The morning had dawned cold and damp, and the expected roots were digging into his back, which now felt as if he'd been placed in a vise and slowly twisted by some crazed, torture-loving madman. He was sure he'd never be able to walk properly again.
Unfortunately, lying any longer in the wet, cold grass was an even less pleasant prospect--made doubly so by Hermione's helpful attempts to wake him, which included rather a lot more horse muzzle (which was scratchy, he discovered) to his face than he'd ever expected or wanted to experience in a lifetime.
He sat up quickly, wincing at the new pain this invoked, and managed a weak grin. "Thank you, Hermione. I think I'm quite awake now." He ran his hand through his hair, sure that it was now sticking up at all angles. He wished he'd thought to bring a comb, though he supposed the helm resting over by the fire would forestall that need. He looked around. "Where's Harry?"
"He's gone to find breakfast. He said he'd catch us up along the way." Hermione paused "Something to do with wood mice, I think." Percy's stomach's did a long, queasy roll. "But there's food for you in the saddlebags, if you want it."
Percy did. He rooted around in the bags and came up with something that strongly resembled tree bark and a box of wrapped sweets that he suspected had been planted there by Fred and George. He put that back without opening it, and tried a cautious bite of the other--which tasted like tree bark, as well. Next time he took a Ministry job he was bringing his own packed lunch.
There were faint snores coming from both the spear and sword, so he nudged the closest--Sirius--with the toe of his shoe. Sirius woke with a start.
"--miserable excuse for a potions master! I'll do more than curse you with a rusting charm, I'll put fire ants in your scabbard and see how *that*--oh. Sorry, Percy," Sirius said, not sounding particularly sorry. He glared at Snape, who was now also awake, his dew-splashed steel winking sleepily. "I must have been having a nightmare," Sirius said darkly.
"If it included spending the entire night next to an insufferable, ignorant wizard--and I use that last term lightly--then I believe I shared in that particular nightmare. And Percy, despite your unfortunate Weasley heritage, I had hoped that *something* of what I taught you of chemical reactions had managed to sink in, such as the adverse effects of wet grass on tempered steel. Luckily, I was able to cast a protection spell in time."
"Oh," said Percy. "Sorry about that, Professor." He gingerly picked Snape up by his hilt and tried to wipe off the damp steel with the tails of his shirt. It was a clumsy process, and not made any easier by Sirius snickering in the background. He quickly sheathed Snape, strapping the scabbard to his waist, and picked up the spear. "I hope there's nothing I should be doing for *you*," he said to Sirius.
"Now that you mention it, I *could* do with a good oiling--but, er, no," Sirius said, catching the look on Percy's face. "I think I should be quite well this morning. Just put me as far away from that smarmy git as possible."
Hermione was waiting for them. Percy tacked her up slowly, trying to remember how all of it went together and wishing he'd paid more attention when he'd taken it off the night before. He listened patiently to Hermione's instructions--"tighten that up, Percy," and "not so far back, Percy," and, "haven't wizards any experience with horses at *all*?"--until it was finally done to her satisfaction. He stepped back and surveyed his work. It didn't look quite the way it had yesterday, but at least nothing seemed in danger of falling apart. He found a large rock and mounted up, gasping a little as he settled into the seat of the saddle.
He strapped Sirius to the right side of the saddle, as far from Snape as he could manage and high enough not to trip up Hermione. "Where to?"
Hermione swung her nose east. "That way. We should be there in less than a day."
Percy didn't share her optimism. Not that he didn't believe that they would reach the dragon before the end of the day; he did. That was precisely the problem. He'd never fought a dragon before. He knew Bill would have loved it. Charlie, too, though of course Charlie would have brought the dragon back alive to the Ministry on a gold-trimmed leash. Even the twins would have found some way to defeat the dragon--chocolate ice bombs to neutralize the dragon's fire, or exploding pepper spray to send it into a fatal bout of sneezing. And Ron---
"Ron!" Hermione exclaimed.
A large red fox bounded up and over a boulder, halting in the middle of the path ahead of them. "'Allo," Ron said, his voice a little muffled.
Hermione stopped abruptly. Percy had to grab at her mane to keep from going over her shoulder. "Ron, there are *chicken feathers* all over your mouth," she said, flattening her ears back reproachfully.
"Oh." Ron ducked his head in embarrassment and swiped with his paw at the offending feathers. "Sorry." Then he looked up with a scowl. "I *am* a fox, you know."
"That's no excuse, Ron," Hermione began, but Percy forestalled her.
"Anything to report?" he asked, trying to project a little brotherly authority into his voice.
"Hullo, Percy," Ron said; somewhat grudgingly, Percy thought. "Harry and I found the dragon's lair last night." His ears pricked up. "And you'll never guess who's with him!"
Percy raised an impatient eyebrow.
"Draco Malfoy," he finished with a flourish. "Got his two goons with him, too." He grinned. "I gave 'em quite a scare last night."
"Harry didn't say anything about Draco," Hermione said.
"Oh." Ron looked uncomfortable. "Well, you know Harry---"
"Yes," she said. "That's what worries me. What if he's decided to take Draco on by himself? Oh Percy, we should hurry." She was already moving into a trot, Ron jumping out of her way with an affronted yip before he followed, running smoothly at her heels.
Percy quickly realized that "hurry" meant bouncing along at an ungodly rate. He grasped the pommel of the saddle in a desperate grip, closing his eyes tightly and praying to his wizard ancestors when she splashed down into a streambed then scrambled back up, the straps of the saddle creaking and straining alarmingly.
An eternity of time later, she halted. Percy opened his eyes, his relief that the madcap ride was over eclipsed by the dread that now intensified in the pit of his stomach. Because if Hermione had stopped, that meant they were at the dragon's lair, and if they were at the dragon's lair, then that meant….
He looked around. They were in a brightly lit clearing fenced in by ancient oak trees. There was no sign at all of either a dragon or a lair. He did, however, see a round, rather tired-looking and rusty shield propped up against one of the trees.
"Remus!" Sirius said happily, straining at the straps that bound him to the saddle. Percy dismounted, a little shakily, and walked over to where the shield lay. He knelt beside it.
"Good morning, Percy," said Remus cheerfully. "I was beginning to wonder if you'd ever get here."
Percy picked him up carefully, and awkwardly threaded his arm through the shield's straps until it rested lightly on his forearm. He imagined he looked quite silly. He certainly felt it. "I suppose I'm all ready, now," he said glumly.
"Don't worry," Remus said, his voice kind. "You'll do fine."
Draco Malfoy was not pleased.
He'd finally managed to wake Marcus when the sun angled just enough to pierce the recesses of the cave, and apparently Marcus's thick skull, as well. The dragon was predictably grouchy and ill-mannered and not at all happy to be awake. He was also hungry. He'd developed a fondness for the wildflowers that grew in a clearing a half-mile from the cave, and was thus far unpersuaded by Draco's attempts to keep him from flying off for an afternoon snack.
"If you'd just wait an hour or so, you'll have all the food you can possibly eat," Draco said, hiding his impatience. Dragons, he'd found, were much nastier when hungry--which was to his benefit, as long he could deflect it until the Ministry oaf arrived.
"A human, you said. And a horse." Marcus's eyes narrowed. "I don't like horses."
"You liked those maidens the villagers sent us last week well enough," Draco pointed out.
Marcus cocked his head, considering. "They were all right."
"This will be nearly as good. I promise."
Marcus still appeared unconvinced, but he finally agreed to wait until the would-be dragon killer arrived. But if he wasn't there in the next hour, he told Draco, he'd have to settle for whatever was immediately available. He bared his teeth to show exactly what he meant, then curled up in the back of the cave to sleep again.
Draco wasn't worried. He was fully confident in his abilities to stave off the dragon's fluctuating moods, not to mention his teeth. He was, however, a bit worried about Crabbe and Goyle--enough to make him cranky at the thought of having to recruit new minions, and perhaps even a little sorry at whatever fate the hedgehogs might have met.
No matter. Soon there'd be a very dead Ministry official--and then they'd *have* to take him seriously. He was looking forward to it. He flew to an outcropping of rock at the mouth of the cave to wait.
Across the clearing, hidden behind thick leaves and the shadows cast by the sun, an owl perched on the twisted branch of a maple tree. He stared hungrily at the crow that was Draco Malfoy. He shouldn't have been surprised that Malfoy was involved--on its own, the dragon was unlikely to have caused this level of alarm on the part of the Ministry. They were just as happy to pretend such unpleasant things didn't exist.
He should wait for Percy and the others. He knew that in the logical, rational part of his brain; the other, more persistent part told him that this was his opportunity to be rid of Malfoy as he'd been itching to for years. The others would probably thank him. He was sure of it.
The crow, unaware that he was the target of such scrutiny, shifted on his perch of rock and dipped his beak to scratch under one wing. To Harry, the beady eyes were even more small and mean than usual, and blood roared in his ears. He didn't think he could wait for Percy after all.
"Malfoy!" he screeched, lifting off from the branch in a flurry of leaves. The crow looked up from his rock, wings flapping back in panicked startlement, as Harry arrowed his way across the clearing and straight for Draco Malfoy's throat.
On an ordinary day, Vincent Crabbe would have been just as pleased to spend his afternoon on the bank of the river, sniffing out various beetles and earthworms before rolling up into a tight, warm ball in the shade of an oak tree to dream about even tastier beetles and earthworms. There were, in fact, beetles in full supply in the rich earth of the river bank, but he was almost too anxious to enjoy them. Certainly too anxious for his customary afternoon nap.
He blamed it on that fox from the night before. He shivered at the memory--he and Goyle forced to roll up in the damp, mossy roots of a fallen tree for hours before the creature finally let up its taunting and left them alone. He didn't much care for foxes. He also didn't like this feeling of prickly nervousness that wouldn't go away, no matter how hard he wished it to. It made his nose twitch.
"Crabbe!" he heard; he looked up to see Goyle coming into sight around a bend in the river. He waited until Goyle puffed up to him, his nose covered in black dirt. "I've found tracks!"
Crabbe followed dutifully as Goyle led the way back around the river where he'd disappeared to earlier while Crabbe had been digging up lunch. When they reached a shallow bank, Goyle poked eagerly at the ground.
If Crabbe squinted just so, he could make out the edge of what could perhaps be construed as a mark left by a horse's hoof. Or, he reasoned, it could be a purely natural indentation. Or a bear. He paused, considering. He'd never met a bear.
He studied the mark intently. Beside him, Goyle twitched with impatience. "But what should we *do*?"
"Well," Crabbe said slowly. "I suppose it *could* be a horse's hoof."
Goyle looked around them nervously, as if he expected a horse to burst from the brush any second. "It's that man who's come to kill the dra--er, Draco!"
"Well," Crabbe said again. "Draco did tell us to go up the riverbank and follow the man on the horse."
"Yes," Goyle agreed.
"So if this *is* a mark left by a horse--"
Goyle nodded enthusiastically.
"--then we should follow it," Crabbe finished, pleased with his reasoning. He glanced down the track where the hoof indentation pointed. "That way." He set off in that direction at a respectable trot, Goyle following closely behind him.
Percy knew immediately when they came upon the dragon's lair. The clearing was eerily silent. Even the wind seemed to have abandoned it; the leaves of trees drooped limply as they passed through them into the open. Belatedly, Percy wondered if they should have tried a more stealthy approach, but then the dark mouth of the cave was before them, and all manner of thought left his head.
Hermione stamped one foot, and to Percy's ears the sound was ten times louder than it should have been. "What do we do now?" he whispered.
"We kill the dragon," Hermione said.
Easy for her to say, Percy thought darkly, though he supposed Hermione was putting herself in just as much danger as he was; more so, probably. He wondered whether he should charge into the cave, hoping to kill the dragon through sheer blind luck, or perhaps shout a challenge to lure the dragon out.
He was trying to think of an appropriate challenge--everything that passed through his head sounded hopelessly cliched--when there was a loud clanking noise from inside the cave, as if several tons of dragon was crawling and dragging its way over loose rock and stone, and then the dragon itself emerged to blink at them in the glare of the afternoon sun.
Percy stared. The dragon was even larger than he'd imagined. Its underbelly and legs were lined with green scales, and great grey wings, nearly translucent, were folded up on its sides. A long snout ended in wide, flared nostrils of a darker grey. Its expression was that of one recently woken from sleep and none too pleased about it.
"Go away," it said.
The voice was unexpectedly familiar. "Flint!" Percy said, with more surprise than anything else.
The dragon's eyes narrowed, and he stared back at Percy. "Oh, it's you, Weasley," he finally said, with apparent disinterest. A faint puff of steam drifted from his nostrils. "Go away."
"I'm afraid I can't," Percy said, sitting up straight in the saddle.
Flint's eyes narrowed even further. "I'm hungry, and you're in my way." He eyed Hermione. "I don't suppose horse would be *too* bad, if it were properly charred first."
Hermione just tossed her head defiantly. With serious misgivings, but not knowing what else to do, Percy reached down to unstrap Sirius. He held him aloft before the dragon, thankful that Sirius was keeping his mouth shut for once, and hoping the steel tip of the spear would help him look moderately heroic, at least.
"I've been sent here by the Ministry," Percy said. "According to the reports of local villagers, not to mention evidence that you have not even bothered to hide," he gestured to the black, sooty piles scattered in front of the cave, what he could only imagine were the unfortunate maidens Harry had mentioned, "you have been terrorizing the outlying villages for several months. On behalf of the Ministry, I must now instruct you to immediately cease the aforesaid actions, or face the necessary consequences."
Flint spent some time thinking that over. Then he yawned, a large, cavernous yawn that revealed many sharp and yellowed teeth. "You always were such a bore, Weasley."
Percy's hand tightened on the spear. He could feel Sirius quivering in his grasp. "Let me at him, Percy," Sirius whispered with bright intensity. Percy ignored him.
"Very well," he said grimly to the dragon. Reason had never been Marcus's strong suit. He raised Sirius up, but before Percy could stop him, Sirius shot from his hand in a burst of speed, aiming directly for a soft patch of skin beneath the dragon's jaw.
With far quicker reflexes than Percy thought a creature so ponderous should have, the dragon raised one scaly foreleg and batted the spear away. Sirius soared through the air and clattered harmlessly to the stony ground.
"Sirius!" Remus cried, shaking with shock and rage. Percy lifted up the shield even as his heart sank. He certainly never thought it would be easy, but he'd fooled himself into thinking he at least had a chance. Now it seemed he didn't even have that. The dragon grinned evilly at him.
"Last chance, Weasley," it said. "I'm really very hungry."
Percy had never been very good at issuing threats that held any weight. Even when he was head boy, he suspected the students spent more time laughing at him than showing any fear of his authority. Still, he drew his sword, knowing Snape, at least, would be less impatient. Hermione was strong and sure beneath him, and even Ron was still there, backing him up--at a fair distance from the dragon, he noticed, though Percy couldn't exactly blame him.
"You'll have to do better than that, Flint," he said, hoping he sounded brave rather than ridiculous. He put his heels to Hermione and charged.
The crow was faster, but Harry had the stamina of an owl and pent-up rage to drive him. After his first start of panic, Draco had lofted himself into the air, speeding over the trees at a blinding pace, wings beating to gain the air above and hopefully lose his pursuer. But already Harry could see the crow was tiring. The black dot in the distance grew progressively larger.
The crow dipped suddenly down to brush the tops of the trees, and Harry slowed his flight. His owlish senses were far better than the crow's; if Draco thought he could lose him the forest, then Harry would be only so happy to demonstrate otherwise.
He slowed even more when the crow vanished beneath the treetops, letting air currents carry him down to the leafy branches below. The forest was still and silent around him, except for the faint creak of wood as his claws gripped a sturdy branch. He held still and listened. He couldn't hear the crow, but he could sense him, still close; he imagined he could smell Malfoy's fear.
His first burst of rage had faded. He could afford to be more calculating.
For what felt like hours, Crabbe and Goyle had followed the horse's tracks through the forest, not even stopping for the tempting sight of a colony of earthworms busying themselves in a damp patch of ground. After the first few minutes, Goyle had gone strangely quiet. If Crabbe hadn't known better, he would have said Goyle was deep in thought.
"Crabbe?" Goyle finally ventured, the word coming out short and breathless with their forced march. "What do you suppose will happen when the dragon sees the man from the Ministry?"
"I expect he'll eat him," Crabbe said. "Or set him on fire, and then eat him."
"Oh," said Goyle. They trotted along in silence for a little while longer. "If the dragon breathes fire on the Ministry man and his horse," Goyle said, "and we're *behind* the Ministry man and his horse, then what will happen to us?"
Crabbe thought about that. It was possible that the dragon wouldn't notice them, being so much larger than they. Even if Marcus *did* notice them, Crabbe wasn't entirely sure that he wouldn't just scorch them anyway. Marcus often had strange ideas about such things.
He slowed to a walk. "I suppose we don't have to go *quite* so quickly," he said. "Draco just told us to follow the man. It's not as if he specifically mentioned that we should keep him in sight."
"And that might not have been a horse's hoof at all," Goyle said, swallowing heavily at having to mar the glory of his earlier achievement. "I could have been mistaken. I quite often am."
"Yes," Crabbe agreed.
They walked on slowly in silence. Crabbe began to regret leaving the earthworms behind.
"Once the Ministry man has been eaten, and Draco begins his plans to take over England, what do you suppose will happen then?"
Crabbe thought about that. "We'll move into a larger cave, probably."
Goyle shuddered. "I'd much rather live in a garden. With tomato plants and caterpillars."
"Don't be daft," Crabbe snorted. "What would we do in a garden? Besides, the dragon would never fit."
"I like gardens," Goyle said. He was silent for a while, then yawned. "I'm sleepy. Can't we stop and rest?"
Crabbe was rather sleepy himself. They'd been walking for hours, and it was the perfect time of day for a nap; the ground was warm from the sun shining brightly down through the trees, but there was still plenty of shade to guarantee a long uninterrupted nap. In fact, not three feet away was an overturned log that would make a marvelous spot to rest under. The tracks, if that's even what they were, would still be there when they woke up.
"Just for a bit," he agreed.
Marcus Flint rather liked being a dragon. It meant that most every other creature was afraid of him, which meant that by and large they left him alone. Marcus liked being alone. It made everything so much easier. No one ever stole the last slice of cake or woke him right in the middle of a good Quidditch dream, or insisted that he share all of his waking thoughts and feelings, as if he even had any.
Malfoy was a nuisance, but the crow seemed to have disappeared at the moment, which was just fine by Marcus. His nagging had been wearing thin. Marcus himself had no particular desire to take over the country; he was just as happy sleeping in his cave and eating wildflowers.
This thing with the Ministry was a bother, though. He watched as Weasley's horse leaped forward, and Weasley attempted a pathetic jab with his sword to Marcus's underbelly. The sword bounced off his scales with a muffled clank, and Weasley looked rattled when he turned his horse to face Marcus again.
Marcus cocked his head curiously. "I thought you were meant to kill me."
Weasley didn't seem amused. The hand that gripped his sword was white-knuckled. "I am," he said, and leaped forward into the attack again.
This time Marcus let loose a warning flame. He didn't really want to kill Percy--killing was more work than most people realized, and there were always friends and relatives who would show up days later wanting revenge, and then Marcus would have to kill them, too. But he was hungry, and despite what he'd said earlier, he didn't even want even charred horse. As long as Percy was galloping around the clearing like a crazed leprechaun, there wasn't enough room to take off to look for something more palatable.
Percy managed to duck his flame, but almost came off his horse in the process. The sword in his hand seemed to be shouting out acerbic instructions that Marcus couldn't quite catch; an argument then ensued between the sword and shield, too far away and rapid for Marcus to hear, though it sounded fierce, and Weasley was momentarily distracted as the horse came to a halt on the other side of the clearing.
"Look, Weasley," Marcus said, when he had his attention again. Percy sat his horse warily. "Can we finish this later?"
Weasley shook his head. "Not until I kill you. Or--" Marcus detected a slight change in his voice, as if Weasley had just thought of something. "Or you could promise never to harass or kill anyone again." Weasley sounded almost hopeful.
Marcus thought about that. Promises were always a bad idea--they were inevitably broken, and that led to hurt feelings on both parties, not to mention more killing. And it wasn't as if Weasley posed any real threat. "What would I get out of it?"
Weasley was silent for a moment. "Well, er--what do you want?"
It was an interesting question. Marcus had pretty much everything he needed, except for peace and quiet. Whatever he didn't have he was more than capable of getting on his own. "Let me eat first, and then I'll decide."
"Not *you*," Marcus said scornfully. "Humans are almost as bad as horses. Tough on the digestion, you see."
"I'm afraid I can't let you leave."
Marcus let out a small puff of flame in irritation; not large enough to reach Weasley, but the horse backed up several steps nonetheless. His stomach was rumbling its hunger, and he felt pinched and tired and annoyed. "Very well," he said. "If you promise to leave me alone, and tell the Ministry not to send any more people to try to kill me, I'll promise not to harass the villagers or eat their maidens any more."
Weasley still looked suspicious. "What guarantee do I have that you'll keep your promise?"
Marcus glared at him. "You brought it up, you know. What, a dragon's word isn't good enough for you?"
Percy's expression revealed just how little he thought of a dragon's word. If Marcus hadn't been so hungry, he might even have been offended--not *all* dragons were bad, just most of them. He'd been quite willing to honor his promise. For a short time, anyway.
"What do you suggest?" Marcus said.
Percy's horse turned her head to say something to him; Marcus strained his ears, but he couldn't make out the words. After a moment, Percy straightened in the saddle, confident in a way that Marcus found a little worrisome. He'd never been much for verbal wrangling. Brute force was far more effective.
"I propose a contract," Percy said.
Only a few yards ahead of him, Harry could hear the faint whisper of leaves, though there wasn't any wind. Malfoy. He'd tracked him silently through the forest trees, alert for any sign that the crow might take to the air again; the fact that he hadn't meant that Malfoy was very tired indeed. Harry didn't feel tired at all. He felt exhilirated.
He caught a slight movement in the tree right in front of him, like the flash of a dark wing. Harry edged around his branch, careful not to disturb any of the leaves. Another flash, and the bright gleam of a crow's eye--he launched himself forward, crossing the space between them in a heartbeat, and pinned the struggling bird to the wide branch it had been hiding on.
"Potter, get off me!" the crow yelped.
Harry tightened his claws for a brief, happy moment, but then loosened them to let the crow inch his way out from under him, until Draco stood upright on the branch. Draco ruffled his feathers, trying to straighten them. "You had *better* not have broken a wing feather," Draco said, running his beak through several of them to check.
"If I did, it's only what you deserve, Malfoy," Harry retorted.
"What would you know about that, Potter? I don't suppose any of your precious friends would let one feather on your head be harmed. I can't believe they've let you this far out on your leash."
Harry could feel his blood rise again; they never could manage to have a civil conversation. "As you can see, none of them are around--it's just you and me, Malfoy."
"Oh, lovely," Draco said. "Just what I need--a showdown with a has-been owl with delusions of his own importance."
"Would you rather I just tear out your throat? Because I could, you know."
Draco looked him over speculatively. "I don't suppose you'd want to go in on taking over England with me."
Harry gave him a disgusted look. "What makes you think I'd go in on anything with you?"
The crow dipped his head; it was an almost seductive motion, Harry thought. "I could make it worth your while," Malfoy said, inching forward a little on the branch. He was so close that Harry could make out every gleam of the crow's sleek feathers, smell the crow's peculiar scent; any moment now, Harry thought, he might just lean forward enough to--
Harry jumped back on the branch. "If you think *that's* going to work--"
"Isn't it?" Malfoy said, hopping forward once again. Before Harry could stop him, Draco ran his beak in a soft, slow movement down the edge of Harry's neck. Harry could feel the reverberation of his feathers all the way down to the tips of his claws. Damn Malfoy, anyway. He tried to hold still and unresponsive when Draco caressed the sensitive spot just above his chest feathers; he could feel the caress as if it was beneath his skin, like scratching a long-standing itch--
Harry pulled back with a hoot. He hated when Malfoy did this; it was so--so *underhanded*. "Oh, get out of here, already," he said crossly. Malfoy just cocked his head at him with a knowing look. Harry hated that, too. "I'd better not catch you going near that dragon again," he added.
"Whatever you say, Potter," Malfoy said silkily.
Harry launched himself from the branch, leaving Malfoy behind, the cool air of the open sky a welcome relief to the burning of his face. He barely noticed which direction he was flying. He needed a long, cold night up in the mountain pines somewhere.
Next time he wouldn't allow himself to be so distracted, Harry swore to himself. Next time he'd kill Malfoy once and for all.
Percy dismounted, keeping a careful eye on the dragon across the clearing. He opened up a narrow flap in one of the saddlebags, and right where Hermione had said it would be was a long roll of parchment, a quill, and a clear bottle of black ink--not just any ordinary ink, Percy realized, but the unbreakable kind. Any contract signed by the dragon with this would be permanently binding.
He spared a brief thought of thanks to the Ministry, who had clearly planned for any contingency; why they hadn't suggested this to him in the *first* place--well, Percy didn't want to dwell on the Ministry's many and acknowledged failings. It was enough to know that he didn't have to kill the dragon after all.
He found a rock that was somewhat flat and still far enough away from the dragon to be comfortable. Marcus looked on curiously.
This, at least, was something at which he could excel. Percy chewed on the end of the quill for a moment, then began to write, putting in as many official-sounding words as he could think of.
After a while, he sensed Ron peering over his shoulder. "I've checked on Sirius," Ron said. "He's all right, but none too pleased at being left there."
Percy mumbled something he hoped was reassuring, too focused on his work to really pay attention. Hermione came to stand over his shoulder as well, offering a few changes in phrasing that Percy found more annoying than helpful, but he made some of the changes until they were both satisfied with the result. Percy blew on the ink to dry it, then carried the newly-formed contract and bottle of ink over to Marcus.
Marcus peered at the paper suspiciously. "I don't understand a word of this," he complained. "What on earth does 'abrogate' mean?"
"It means that the Ministry reserves the right to revoke or withdraw any of the conditions of this contract."
"Oh, whatever," Marcus said, clearly bored. "Where do I sign this thing?"
Percy pointed to a spot just below Percy's own signature; he'd marked it out carefully with Marcus's name printed below. He held out the bottle of ink, and Marcus awkwardly dipped the tip of one claw into it, nearly spilling half the ink. He scrawled his signature on the parchment, tearing the paper in several places. Percy hoped that wouldn't interfere with the contract's validity.
"May I go now?" the dragon asked, spreading his wings impatiently.
Percy and Hermione backed up nearly to the edge of the clearing to give enough room for Marcus to take off. The dragon lofted to the air clumsily, and Percy watched the green and grey form until it was only a dot in the sky, hoping he'd done the right thing in letting Marcus go.
He folded up the contract and placed it along with the quill and ink back into Hermione's saddlebag, then went over to where Sirius lay and picked him up carefully. The spear seemed to be intact, if a little scratched and bruised in places. "About time," Sirius muttered. "Why'd you let him go, anyway? We could have taken him out."
Percy ignored him, strapping the spear to the saddle, making sure Snape and Remus were also present--and silent, for once--before he mounted.
"I suppose that's it," he said, wondering why he felt so let down. He'd accomplished his mission, hadn't he? He'd be riding back to the Ministry knowing he was successful on his very first job. He should be glowing with pride. "I don't imagine they have any more dragons needing to be killed," he asked Hermione as they rode out. To his surprise, he felt almost eager for that prospect.
"I don't think so," Hermione said uncertainly. "Though there's been talk of a giant in the north who's been indiscriminately felling trees in Yorkshire Dales. Perhaps that will be our next mission."
Percy thought about that. He wondered if a contract would work with a giant; they were notoriously stupid, even more so than dragons.
Suddenly he felt better. Dealing with dragons wasn't such hard work after all. He could hardly wait to tell Penelope about it.
It was dark by the time the two hedgehogs reached the clearing. The dragon's cave was a large black mouth that seemed to swallow all the light, and Crabbe had to squint to even make out its edges. It was strangely quiet. He wondered where the dragon was. Usually there were lighted torches in the cave as Marcus stayed up late reading Quidditch Monthly, but there was no sign of any light. There was no sign of Draco, either.
"Are we lost again?" Goyle asked, looking around them.
Crabbe thought about that. He didn't think they were lost, though they'd made several detours for dinner on their way back. But it looked like the dragon's cave, just without the dragon. It was all very strange.
"Perhaps we should wait a bit," he suggested, and Goyle agreed.
Neither of them liked the idea of going into the dark cave by themselves, so they settled in under a rock to wait. It was cold, so they huddled together. After a while, Goyle said, "I don't think they're coming back."
Crabbe had been thinking the same thing. He couldn't quite wrap his mind around it. If Draco and the dragon were never coming back, where did that leave them? Without Draco to tell them, he wasn't sure what they should do.
"Perhaps they're at the village," Goyle said. "We could meet them there. Perhaps in a nice garden?" he added hopefully.
Goyle always wanted to go to the village. He said the villagers were nice. Sometimes they put out nuts for them, which weren't as good as beetles, but Crabbe supposed it was the thought that counted.
"All right," he decided. He crawled out from under the rock. They'd slept most of the day and weren't at all tired as Crabbe led the way down the path leading back into the woods, Goyle trotting happily next to him. Goyle's good mood was infectious; Crabbe felt light and almost carefree as they made their way through the forest. Perhaps this was all for the best.
He would never tell Goyle, of course, but he always wanted to live in a garden.