Title: Bed & Late Night Snack, Part 1/5
Pairing(s): Harry/Draco, implied Harry/Ginny and Ron/Hermione
Summary: Harry goes after his head, Draco has his own agenda, and something is lurking in the dark - same old. But there is a point when even history refuses to repeat itself.
Disclaimer: All Harry Potter characters herein are the property of J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury/Scholastic. No copyright infringement is intended. No financial profit is made off of this piece of fiction.
Warning(s): slash (duh), smut, vague resemblance of het, cross-dressing, voyeurism, fangirl!characters, first person POV, random tentacles…
Word Count: 49 900
Author's Notes: Dear confiteor_3, I hope I didn't fail too badly to do justice to your request. The fic is HBP-compliant, but not a 7th year fic. I realised too late that you might have meant that by HBP-compliant – and I have a hard time to create any Horcrux-finding scenario that wasn't done before. I'm afraid your dislikes got me going as much as your likes, I hope you forgive me for that, too. ;)
My special thanks go to my as of yet unnamed Beta, and another person for the last-minute corrections and putting up with my whining, and last but not least, to the mods of this community.
Target: Potter, Harry James: Auror; currently being under inquiry for having arrested the MoM and his staff of personal advisors for Dark magic use without sound proof. The ongoing disciplinary procedure places him on patrol duty in Knockturn Alley. This should make your job easier, as the target can be lured to a secure location for disposal with minimal trouble.
Your objectives are: observe him and people he has contact with; find out how much he knows and whom he confided in with sensitive information about the above mentioned case, or any kind of intelligence he has collected from the organisation. Most likely suspect is his occasional partner in investigations: Auror Weasley. Finally, eliminate him and everyone else you deem necessary, and collect and destroy any material that could be used as evidence.
As usual, included is a blood sample of the target to help with the tracking, taken from last week's medical examination, so it should be fresh enough.
We expect the assignment to be carried out to the finest detail. I believe it is unnecessary to remind you how imperative it is that you do not fail.
A body slammed into Harry's. For a second, he thought he was going to be bowled over and land on his arse, right there on the chipped and dirty cobblestones of Knockturn Alley. Not the best place to look clumsy. Especially not when one was wearing the sort of dark and inconspicuous robes that weren't a uniform by right, but were associated with Aurors everywhere in England.
Harry's hand shot out by reflex, grabbing the loose, heavy material of the other's robes. It was both to steady himself and to prevent the person who had bumped into him from getting away. The next second, he had already shoved him – it was unmistakably a 'him': the only detail he could tell unfailingly just from the minute bodily contact – against the wall of the nearest building. His wand pointed in the general direction of the face, ready to be used if necessary. All of this had happened so quickly that only then did Harry have an opportunity to get a glimpse of the attacker.
"Unhand me, Potter!" The command was delivered with an undertone of disgust and righteous indignation. It reached his ears the same time as his mind identified the person whose collar he had in his grip.
Harry let go with a huff and stepped back to remove the man from his personal space. There was a brief noise of shoes scraping on stone and Malfoy managed to regain his balance after Harry let him fall back on the ground. Harry was annoyed, but waited patiently until he had eye contact with Malfoy again.
"Whatever it is you have taken, give it back. Now."
Malfoy blinked in apparent surprise at the outstretched palm shoved under his nose. Harry resisted the urge to snort, wondering idly why Malfoy thought anyone would fall for that act any more. Then, as he had expected, Malfoy's face twisted into a disgusted grimace. He reached into his pocket and dropped a small, coppery object into Harry's extended hand.
"Can I go now?" The question was delivered in a low, bleak tone, which made it sound bored and defeated at the same time. Harry didn't know which of those emotions was real and which faked; after a moment, he decided he didn't really care either way. The need to try and solve the complicated puzzle that was Malfoy had ceased to be a necessity a long time ago. There were bigger riddles occupying Harry's mind nowadays; thus, Malfoy was allowed to keep his little secrets.
"You do know that I'll find you if you have taken anything else and failed to give it back, Malfoy," Harry warned him, purely out of habit.
Malfoy shrugged it off – out of habit as well. "Whatever, Potter."
Harry stood still for a couple of seconds, watching Malfoy's retreating back with one eye. The bigger part of his attention was directed at the shining metallic object in his hand. It was his Auror badge. He lifted his brows in puzzlement, then shrugged and pocketed it. He must have forgotten to take out his wallet from the robe he had been wearing the previous day, he realised, and thus he didn't have it with him. He reckoned it was a lucky coincidence. Had he not forgotten, he was certain it would be missing a couple of Galleons now, even if Malfoy would have eventually given it back. Tough luck, Malfoy, he thought, amused.
He used the movement of slipping the badge back to its place to surreptitiously feel his way around his pocket until he found the small piece of folded parchment that hadn't been there previously. Aware of his surroundings, he left it there for the time being. He would see later what Malfoy wanted from him.
Knockturn Alley seemed such a small, dingy place if one only ever saw it from the outside, standing in the well-lit, spacious exterior of Diagon Alley. In reality, it was neither small nor dingy. Harry wouldn't have been surprised if, had someone managed to measure it, the narrow, winding street turned out to be thrice the length of its socially accepted counterpart, with ten times as many shops and buildings surrounding it.
As for dingy: yes, the first thirty yards of the street that opened directly from Diagon Alley matched the attribute; it was to keep the common wizard and witch away by making it seem as unattractive a place as it could get. What followed after the first bend, which people sneaking wary glances from Diagon Alley weren't able to see past, was not even comparable. Doubtless, it was still dark, gloomy and harsh in its rigidity – sort of gothic, as far as Harry with his limited knowledge in the arts could tell – a strong contrast to the colourful diversity of Diagon Alley outside. However, the darkness had a feel to it, which said it had been carefully designed and cultivated to create a suitable environment for its inhabitants – because they had chosen to do so, and not as a result of decline and neglect.
At the end of the alley, the houses were something else altogether. They were more like miniaturised castles or downright fortresses – they looked nothing short of awe-inspiring. Unlike normal castles, these were built almost on top of each other, obscuring sunlight and casting weird shadows from their countless little turrets and gargoyles to the alley below. Harry felt like he was walking around in a gruesome version of Disneyland, with all the evil characters' headquarters congregated in one place and piled almost on top of each other. If Harry had no knowledge of wizard space and making buildings Unplottable and undetectable for Muggles, he would have wondered whether he had accidentally slipped through a rift to another universe, because it was hard to get his mind around the fact that these buildings were able to blend seamlessly into the ordinary London cityscape.
Their walls oozed a constant, strong aura of magic – each with a different tinge of danger – that seeped into the bones of wizards and witches wandering along. They seemed menacing, powerful and ageless. In reality, though, they were hardly older than a couple of years: shot up out of flat ground after the end of the last war to provide refuge to the few remaining Dark wizards whom the Ministry had tried to commit to Azkaban, in spite of not being able to prove whether or not they had connections to the Dark Lord or his Death Eaters. Or so the Ministry thought. They had no actual knowledge of how many of them were hiding behind those walls. It could have been the entirety of England's Dark wizard population collected in one critical mass ready to blow up at the smallest hint of trouble – or just a small, secluded coven. In Harry's opinion – in complete agreement with Moody, and wasn't that a scary thought – they were sitting on a gigantic Dungbomb that, if it went off, would be smelled all the way through to Ireland's furthest corners. One would think that this knowledge would inspire the Ministry to dispatch more of its Aurors to patrol the area.
The inhabitants of Knockturn Alley didn't like Aurors much. They tolerated the presence of one or two of them – especially if they looked young, freshly out of training - hardly a threat. Thus, instead of sending squadrons, the Ministry was resigned to send Aurors on their own, walking up and down aimlessly and looking as innocuous as lost tourists. Most of the time they were left alone. There was no point in alerting the authorities just to get rid of a lone Auror who couldn't do much on his own, anyhow.
In short, the job was boring – at least Harry thought so. Sometimes, there was the passing excitement of catching the odd thief or fake Dark talisman-merchant, but mostly it was just getting aching feet from being on foot for hours on end. The more seasoned (or more foolhardy) Aurors might have risked sitting down in a less suspect inn for a drink or two, but not the new recruits who usually got sent there.
After having walked around Knockturn Alley in the steadily receding sunlight and growing springtime cold for three hours, Harry thought he would take his chances with the nearest pub and get a warm Butterbeer to thaw him somewhat. He gave a wide berth to the ones near the crossing with Diagon Alley – those were the worst, matching the general deterring quality of the street around them. Instead he sought out one just scant minutes walking distance from where the gothic high-rises began. The inviting warmth of the yellow light spilling onto the rounded cobblestones through the inn's windows suddenly made Harry acutely aware of his own half-frozen limbs.
The establishment looked like any other inn from the inside. It reminded Harry of the Hog's Head, except with a different tall, burly and hairy bartender standing behind the counter. When he entered, gazes were sent his way but then were almost as quickly turned away from him again. The robes, and especially the scar that stood out like a warning label on his forehead, told them exactly what they wanted to know of him. A faint prickling on his nape indicated that eyes were watching him behind his back. The awareness kept him on edge, but his senses didn't pick up anything that could have pointed to danger, just the normal level of curiosity that his person usually received.
He ordered a pint and made his way to a small table near the door that had just been abandoned by its former occupant. He sat down and stretched out his legs through the narrow room that the densely placed tables allowed him. His stiff fingers curled around the heated jug, but he didn't drink. He wasn't sure he wanted to drink that. Not that he had expected first class service, but some of the establishments here were serving drinks even less suitable for human consumption than the fertiliser Neville was brewing in his basement, and that, if one knew his friend's Potions skills, was saying something.
He occupied himself with observing the other patrons. He tried to be not too obvious about it; he didn't want to make anyone feel like they were under scrutiny. At once, his sixth sense alerted him to something to his right. His body tensed momentarily and he retracted his legs, pulling them carefully under his body. He was ready to jump up at a moment's notice, should it be necessary. He refrained from turning his head while his gaze swept around lazily over the masses. There. He spotted it from the corner of his left eye: a dark figure, bald head gleaming in the candlelight.
The time was only enough to allow a flash of familiarity to register in his mind. In the next moment, he couldn't see anyone there. First, he thought it had been just the play of shadows and light, that his senses had deceived him. But then a sudden cold waft of outside air prickled his skin.
Harry abruptly straightened in his seat. He turned his head into the direction of the front door, just in time to see it swing closed with a barely audible 'clack'. His heart started beating to a heightened pace, and his nostrils flared.
His mind was made up in a fragment of a second - as expected. It hadn’t even been a fully conscious decision to go on the chase, more like an instinct, and thus, predictable. As useful his instincts proved at times, they were also his Achilles' heel. He really should be made more aware of this weakness of his before it is too late someday.
Apparently, none of the other patrons had noticed anything; Harry didn't see suspicious eyes riveted at the direction of the noise. There were several heads turning his way, though, when he pushed up from his chair and headed towards the exit.
Once outside, he looked around, his wand already in hand and ready for action. There was no one in sight, which was decidedly odd, since Knockturn Alley was always busy with something or other, no matter the time of the day. Right now, it seemed he was the only one in that particular section of the street.
The echoes of steps coming from nearby drew Harry's attention and he started moving in their direction without hesitation. His feet brought him nearer to his target, as far as he could tell from the noises.
He couldn't see anything or anyone moving there – only shadows dancing on the dark stones like silhouettes of branches being moved by wind. There were no trees growing along Knockturn Alley. Harry didn't know what those shadows really were, but he was already used to their presence, and they didn't scare him as they had on his first encounter with them.
His target was successfully hiding among the shadows. Harry had no other choice but to rely fully on his hearing, which meant he had to run as silently as he was capable of. Fortunately, years spent sneaking around Death Eaters and blending into the darkness had not gone by without his skills in this area being honed to precision.
The crooked shape of the alley casting echoes in all directions would have rendered his task more difficult if not for the fact that the street had no forks. The only way to escape from there was to disappear into one of the gaping gateways along the houses, which would have been clearly audible. For now, Harry suspected that he was being led in a specific direction.
At once, Harry noticed the change in the rhythm of the steps; they were deliberately slowing down. Little alarm bells went off in his head and he stopped dead in his tracks before he ran straight into the trap laid out for him. A minor setback. In an Auror's line of work it wasn't uncommon to rely almost fully on one's instincts. Logic and reasoning sometimes proved too slow to effectively avoid being killed. Deceiving the instincts of a seasoned Auror was often harder, but infinitely more rewarding.
The click-clack of steps was now gone and the night was suddenly still. It was not a comfortable stillness. The air was heavy with tension, even more tangible than the strange wafts of magic meandering at random in the forest of small gothic fortresses where Harry was standing now. He could tell he was not alone.
There were no lights in this part of the alley. He turned his head left and right, seeing only the dark, motionless silhouettes in front of him. A barely there feeling began to draw him forward; he started walking almost without conscious thought. His senses were focussed on catching something out of the ordinary, but he couldn't see anything but the darkness surrounding him until he found himself standing in front of a wrought iron gate.
There were no visible guards, but he could feel he was under observation and he didn't like it. It wasn't threatening, but that could change from one moment to the next if he only made a wrong move. There was a sudden shift in the shadows to his right. He twisted around reflexively, wand at the ready.
He finally spotted the door he had failed to notice before; it would blend into the smooth stone wall seamlessly, hiding it from his eyes until it was opened a crack. What he saw then was a tall and sturdy figure standing in the gap, a very distinctive golden hoop pierced through one earlobe glistening in the sparse light, contrasting with skin almost as dark as the night. The shadows on the face shifted and the flash of teeth revealed a crooked smile. Then in the blink of an eye – just as in the inn – Harry stood alone once again. The door was closed as if it had never been open.
After the slow surfacing from light sleep into the waking world, Harry felt the soreness all through his body. While having been assigned to patrolling Knockturn Alley for a week explained pain in certain muscle groups, it explained nothing whatsoever in others. Particularly the small, stinging pain beneath his tail bone if he just so much as moved. At least he had all his limbs intact and he wasn't spurting feathers or thick, strange-coloured hair in odd patches as Ron had last night. That alone was a bloody miracle considering that he had also eaten food that the twins had had more than ample access to, he thought with a chuckle when he was somewhat more awake.
He tried shifting into a more comfortable position again, then groaned when the move caused something hard to dig into his belly. He grabbed it with one hand and wrenched it out from beneath crumpled layers of bed-linen, frowning at the stickiness it left on his fingers. The bright aquamarine L-shaped object curled obediently into his palm, its latex touch both silky and rubbery.
Ginny chose that moment to walk in from the kitchen, wearing a loose tank top and boxer shorts which Harry had become quite accustomed to seeing on her by now. What caught Harry's attention was the steaming mug in her hand. Harry realised that the smell of fresh coffee in the air must have been what had woken him from his slumber.
Ginny flopped down into the armchair she typically used to store her freshly laundered clothes in. Since now it stood almost empty, Harry concluded that it must be close to laundry day.
"You're up?" Ginny sipped her coffee with a contented sigh. With her short, mussed hair and arms more defined than the average witch's, she could have passed for an adolescent Ron, except that her face didn't resemble any of her brothers' much. Which was fortunate, since Harry shuddered at the mere thought of thinking about Ron in any sort of sexual way. "Sorry, I didn't realise. I'd have brought you some."
Harry grunted in reply and made an attempt to get up.
He heard Ginny snickering while she was undoubtedly eyeing him with that smug smirk of hers. Harry knew he wouldn't be able to get it off of her face for at least a day. Finally, he gave up and slumped back on the rumpled sheets with a heartfelt groan.
"All you need to do is to ask – if you think you can't walk," Ginny offered gamely.
Harry briefly contemplated the alternative of taking it like a man just to show her, but then he realised that it wasn't worth the trouble. She was already laughing her arse off at his cost, so giving her a bit more ammunition on him wouldn't change anything. He opened one eyelid and blinked up at her with his best puppy-dog expression until she snorted, put down her own mug and got up from her chair to bring him his elixir of life.
Alone once again, Harry forced himself up on his elbows and then turned to his back. He tugged on the sheets in a half-hearted attempt to make himself decent but, after a few seconds of wrestling with the hopelessly tangled bedding, he admitted defeat. It wasn't as though Ginny hadn't already seen the goods. The air was nice and balmy on his sleep-warmed skin, if a bit stuffy. He listened to the noises of metal clinking on porcelain and felt a small surge of gratitude that Ginny still remembered how he liked his coffee: thin, hot, with some sugar and milk, and most importantly: without a spoon. He supposed asking her to serve it in an actual Styrofoam cup would be going a bit overboard.
She came into the room and handed him the beaker, rewarding the strained expression on Harry's face while he was trying to sit up with a smug grin. Harry gave her a dark look before sipping the vaguely coffee-smelling liquid: it had the colour and consistency of Polyjuice potion in a one-to-thousand dilution and the matching taste.
"Don't look at me like that!" Ginny lifted her palms in a mock-defensive gesture, throwing herself back into the chair. She grabbed her abandoned mug again and, after a first gulp of the now tepid liquid, she knocked back the remains with a grimace. "It wasn’t my idea this time."
"I knew I shouldn’t have drunk that last shot…" Or possibly the last four.
"Don't worry, partner. I won't tell Ron or Hermione…"
Harry rolled his eyes at that. Of course, he knew she wouldn't tell her brother. Not if she wanted to take advantage of Harry again in the future, because Harry could just imagine how Ron would react to the 'news'. After their break-up, it had taken years to make Ginny's family understand that they were no longer together and didn't intend to go down that road ever again. In their eyes, as long as Harry and Ginny still got along, there was still hope. They just couldn't grasp the concept of an amicable parting.
If Mrs Weasley ever got wind that they routinely engaged in random, no-strings-attached sexual acts, she would immediately begin to plan their wedding – after giving them a lecture for being irresponsible. He could still remember the… let's call it an argument... between Ginny and her mother regarding the uncertain state of affairs between them.
It had been during yet another Weasley family wedding – some distant cousin's this time. Harry and Ginny had just returned from Dublin a few days previously, from an unsuccessful raid on a former Dark wizard hide-out. They had been assigned to each other's partners on that particular investigation because the Head Auror thought that the place was already abandoned and he couldn't do without one of his more experienced Aurors to partner either Ginny or Harry. As the two youngest among them, they were still regarded as rookies by the other Aurors, despite having been on the force for almost seven years already.
When they had been dispatched to the location, it had turned out that one of the suspects had still been hiding there. Thanks to the insufficient time for preparation they had been permitted, he had got away and Harry had got caught in the crossfire – literally. Ginny had spent the next five days at his bedside in the hospital, holding onto his hand and studiously avoiding his requests for a mirror until the magical grafts had fully healed. No wonder she was already a bit on edge when her mother started nagging her about marriage plans with Harry, which manifested in an outburst when she finally reached the end of her rope.
"Sorry, Mum, but Harry and I won't be another Frank and Alice Longbottom."
"And thank Merlin for that!" Harry remembered Molly's admonishing tone acutely, even from the distance of several months.
"Geez! I meant the 'marrying and setting up house together'-part, not the 'getting Crucio-ed until we get permanent residence in St. Mungo's'-part," Ginny snipped at her. "That might still happen." Harry could see hackles rising on both sides.
"Now listen here, young lady…!" Thank Merlin, one of the twins came to the rescue.
"Oh, come on, Mum. She might be our little sister, but even you cannot deny that she has the job that requires the most balls among us – even if she doesn't have the corresponding equipment…"
"George!" Harry winced at the last vulgar remark but knew that it had been added on purpose, to divert Mrs Weasley's attention from the topic. Unfortunately, Fred, who didn't have his eyes on the conversation, noticed his momentary slip and immediately jumped to conclusions.
"Though I'm sure you wouldn't be opposed if she did, right Harry, mate?" he whispered conspiratorially into Harry's ear.
"Fred!" This time it was Harry who hissed, face reddening. At least he was leaning close enough to him that Harry could be certain no one else had heard him.
Meanwhile, Ginny took pity on poor Mrs Weasley – perhaps she was more tired than Harry had thought – and launched into an explanation, without the snide comments this time. Harry only heard the end of it.
"… is what I meant, Mum. We work well as friends and work partners, but there is nothing more to our relationship. We don't feel the need for it to become something more. That relationship was a bad idea from the beginning." Harry knew she wasn't talking about their sixth year but their second time together when they had started Auror training. Neither of them had really wanted it; they had resumed where they had left off more out of some misguided sense of obligation towards the other than anything else, and thank Merlin they had realised it in time.
"Ginny, dear…" Mrs Weasley threw Harry an apologetic glance. Harry couldn't decide whether she was disappointed in Ginny's proclamation or the fact that Harry didn't deny any of it.
"No, Mum. You have to stop wishing for this… dream of yours. It just won't happen like that."
And, surprisingly, that was the end of that. Well, if they just managed to not stir the waters again.
The sound of the shower being started made Harry realise that despite having just imbibed some diluted caffeine and having a half-full mug still in his grip, he had nodded off. He finished his morning drink and looked around in the room for his clothes. He found them slung over the armrest of Ginny's chair, which meant that they were now a bit wrinkled from Ginny having sat on them. Harry gave a little sigh and was doubly glad that he really wasn't considering her as a potential life partner. Oh well, he had been planning to change into fresh robes once he was home, anyhow.
As for the thing with Ginny… they did understand each other – Harry wouldn't have thought he would ever find someone who understood him better than his two best friends, but there it was. They were sometimes like two halves of the same mind. Possibly because they were now working at the same place, while Ron and Hermione had chosen different paths in their lives.
They did work well with each other – that was why they were still unofficially partners even when it wasn’t strictly needed anymore. They complemented each other – in more than one way. They had discovered early on in their three months of giving it a try how a relationship not weighed down by the treat of an evil madman would work between them, that they were compatible in bed – very much so. Harry was glad no one else knew half of what they got up to, or he was sure his ears would be constantly burning, having to listen to the twins' never-ending jibes. But they also discovered that they were both of one mind about where they wanted to carry this relationship and that was not marriage – or even love. They were friends and partners, and nothing else was needed or wanted.
At the beginning, right after they had agreed to just remain friends, Harry had regrets. But those only lasted until he made it clear to himself that not being in love with Ginny was not necessarily less than having her as a friend. In fact, he felt closer to her now than when they had this awkward manoeuvring in the minefield of feelings in the way. She knew things about him he would have considered too demeaning to share with her if she remained his romantic interest and vice versa. So he couldn’t say he regretted that they were not building a family together right now. He knew Ginny didn’t either. The only ones who did were her mother and perhaps Ron.
The sleek, L-shaped object that had played an essential part in last night's events was still lying innocently among the sheets, catching Harry's attention once again while he was fighting with his shirt buttons. Ginny's friends had given it to her on her birthday as a joke after she had made it through her Auror exam. At the same time, she had cut her hair and had started wearing trousers under her robes because they were more convenient for work. Harry doubted her friends ever dreamed that their present would get any actual use. He hadn't either, Harry thought somewhat guiltily.
If he discounted that the object was definitely larger both in thickness and length, the penile-shaped end of it was remarkably similar to his own 'equipment', as Fred was in the habit of putting it. Even the jagged line of a protrusion imitating a vein on the underside ran in a similar pattern. It was somewhat disturbing how this likeness could affect his hormones: just the thought of experiencing… knowing exactly what other people were feeling while he was having sex with them caused his blood to pool in his neither regions.
That reminded Harry of the fact that, unfortunately, Fred hadn’t been wrong with his observation, though the first time had only happened months later. Even right now, Harry had several pleasantly sore muscles in a body part of his that wasn’t mentioned in polite conversation to attest to it. He was planning a nice, relaxing hot bath as soon as he got home, and then perhaps calling over some friends to do something fun over the weekend, when he remembered the little note Malfoy had slipped into his pocket.
After putting up an admirable pretence of arguing with him, Ginny agreed to accompany Harry to the abandoned warehouse near the docks. It was a Muggle location, as far from Knockturn Alley or, indeed, any kind of wizarding dwelling as one could get while still inside London. Malfoy was always peculiar in choosing the places of their meetings. It gave Harry the impression that he was watching too many Muggle action movies, which, considering how different Malfoy seemed to be now from his school-persona, wouldn't be that surprising if it turned out to be true.
"Always so dramatic," Ginny remarked wryly, looking around in the huge, empty space; then she cast a couple of subtle Detection Charms. Harry only grunted in reply; the comment hadn't been meant for him. Instead he was looking out for Malfoy. He could acutely feel the presence of another wizard within the building, so he knew that Malfoy had been already waiting for them, even if he was not yet showing himself. That changed in the next instant.
"You haven't contacted me for months, Potter."
The exclamation was amplified by the echoes created by the empty walls. It was hard to tell where it had come from originally – or would have been, had Harry only used his ears and eyes to determine it.
"I thought we had a deal," Malfoy said, stepping closer.
That was true, by the way. Still, it seemed strange for Malfoy to bring that up or to arrange a meeting to rectify it after all the noisy objections he had voiced at the beginning of this arrangement of theirs. 'Because Slytherin didn't necessarily mean sneak' had been his exact wording. Harry had shrugged and told Malfoy that he only needed an informant and if he didn't like it, Harry could just stop ignoring his illegal brewing practice and send him for a couple of years to Azkaban. And it wasn't as though Malfoy wouldn't be benefiting from it.
"Need the money?" Harry didn't shout. He rather liked the fact that his voice had become deep enough to carry even if he chose to speak quietly.
Malfoy stepped out of the deep shadows into the small, uneven circle of moonlight filtered though rifts on the roof near the spot where Harry was standing. Ginny was lurking somewhere at his side, keeping an eye out for trouble while Harry was occupied with Malfoy.
"I have an ailing mother to take care of," Malfoy said in a volume closer to normal, trying to appear noncommittal.
Harry lifted a brow but didn't comment on that. After all, for all he knew, it could be true.
Malfoy crossed his arms in front of his chest. He looked displeased as his gaze wandered from Harry to the general direction of Ginny and back. Then he sighed, as if giving in, and curled his mouth in disdain.
"You aren't taking me seriously," he complained with the lift of a brow. "I told you to come alone and you're bringing your girlfriend with you. Very unprofessional, Potter."
Harry didn't answer to what he knew was just bantering with the aim to lessen the accumulated tension in the air. Ginny, though, didn't seem to know Malfoy that well, or for some reason, Malfoy was able to get under her skin a lot quicker than anyone else – her twin brothers included. The memory of a well-placed Bat-Bogey Hex still made Harry smile occasionally.
"I'm not his girlfriend," she snapped. "For your information, I came as backup; to fry your skinny arse in case you had some twisted little scheme on your mind."
Harry winced. He didn't like the fact that her professionalism tended to slip if she was pissed off. That seemed to be a mite hypocritical; had he been alone with Malfoy, it might have been he who flew off the handle at the slightest provocation. The only reason the comment hadn't come from him was that having someone who, at times, was even more hot-headed than Harry was, helped to keep himself in check. Especially in the face of the tantrum Ron would throw if he failed to protect his baby sister. That threat hanging over his head worked way better than the stupid anger-management courses Robards insisted on enrolling him in now and then after an investigation had gone awry.
Malfoy gave Ginny a wary glance, as if he had only just noticed that what he had thought to be a bug crawling on the floor was actually a pissed-off Blast-Ended Skrewt, then turned back to Harry.
"I'm impressed, Potter," he said. "I wouldn't have expected you to possess enough brains to circumvent our little Vow."
Harry shrugged. That Unbreakable Vow in question sealing their agreement had been something of a joke; a mockery of mutual good intentions. Harry didn't doubt that Malfoy had found his own back doors in it and he couldn't fathom why he thought only Slytherins would think of exploiting flaws. He noted that though Malfoy seemed genuinely taken aback, he was more frustrated than afraid. Good. That meant that he didn't have reason to fear Ginny's presence; the suddenly orchestrated meeting wasn't a ruse to cause Harry harm. He still wished Ginny hadn't given away his game, though.
"So is there something… you need information on?" Malfoy worded his question carefully, not naming anything he might have had knowledge of. That would have been the sensible way to go for it, had he called this meeting because he needed the money for the information he was able to provide. Something in Malfoy's body language, though, gave Harry a feeling in his guts that he was skirting around a different issue and just trying to find a way to broach it.
Fact was that Harry was in the middle of an investigation. Or would be, he thought angrily, had someone not put a stop to his efforts when he had obviously come too close to the bubbling cauldron. He wasn't really in the mood to play games. If Malfoy wanted something from him, then he was going to have to speak plainly and not waste his time.
"Do you know of something in the works?" he asked, to the point.
"I heard there is an assassin after you. That would surely be interesting enough."
Harry tilted his head and then just looked thoughtfully at Malfoy. Because it was one thing hearing it from Moody that someone was after his hide again, and another one when the old man's paranoia was being proven true by street gossip. The latter was always the more reliable source of the two.
"What do you know about it?"
"There is a rumour going around that you made a blunder with some higher-ups, Potter. Never heard of subtlety, have you?" Malfoy poked. Ginny, of course, instantly leaped to Harry's defence.
"The sharing of information goes the other way, Malfoy," she barked. "Why are you so curious, anyhow?" She didn't move in Malfoy's direction, but her eyes were gleaming with a dangerous light. Malfoy knew body language well enough to correctly interpret hers because he lifted his empty hands in a defensive position and took a half step backwards. He didn't look intimidated, though.
"I am interested in keeping my milk-cow alive. What did you think?" Malfoy snorted. Ginny mustn’t have liked his tone because her grip suddenly firmed around her wand and she took a warning step forward.
"You're not making me not want to strangle you, Malfoy," she spat. "If you know something, I suggest you spit it out and now."
"What's this going to be? The good cop-bad cop routine again? You don't seriously think I still fall for that, right?"
Ginny gave him a nasty look until he relented, or just humoured her, Harry couldn't tell.
"All right, all right. I don't know much, but I could find out some things for you. It wouldn't be cheap because, I heard, it's some big shot after you. You did manage to get into the face of someone important this time, right?"
Harry shook his head and put up a hand to prevent Ginny from dishing out another verbal retort he knew was coming. The assassin wasn't really a matter of consideration to him; he was too used to people being after him. Malfoy's last slip only confirmed that he had been on the right track in his investigation before it had been put to a halt, if it warranted someone sending an assassin after him. And this was still not why Malfoy had asked him here.
"What is it that you really want from me, Malfoy?" he demanded, forestalling any further verbal games. Malfoy and Ginny could indulge in that particular pastime some other time when he wasn't there.
Malfoy's face transformed within an instant, the previous mask of flippancy falling away like a dead leaf in the autumn, giving way to an expression of tightly controlled anger.
"I have information about a known Death Eater collaborator," Malfoy said, his tone low and bitter. "I have seen Kingsley Shacklebolt wandering around Knockturn Alley, consorting with Castor Dilato's crowd."
Harry blinked. That wasn't what he had been expecting, but at least now he knew that the odd sighting at the beginning of his week-long patrol hadn't been just a play of lights or something mixed into his beer, which he hadn't even drunk. He had felt so bloody stupid after that chase when, upon returning to the inn and making a sweep for the magical signature he had once been closely acquainted with, he hadn't been able to find anything. It had been just easier to believe that he had fallen victim to someone's sick sense of humour that hadn't liked an Auror sniffling around their haunt. Wouldn't have been the first time it happened.
He reckoned that a couple of years ago, when the hurt of betrayal had still been fresh, Harry would have given his arm to be able to exact revenge. Judging from the dangerous glint in Malfoy's eyes, that same desire was still alive in him...
Oh, right. Now Harry remembered: Malfoy didn't have an ailing mother at home to take care of anymore.
"I saw someone who looked like him at the beginning of the week – just after you bumped into me," he found himself telling Malfoy. "Then I saw him disappearing in one of those cosy horror-mansions near the end of Knockturn Alley. You think he is working for Dilato now?"
Malfoy nodded. "I think so."
Harry didn't need Malfoy to spell him out who that was. People – and other beings – lurking in the shadows of Knockturn Alley went largely unidentified, but there was no hiding the identity of the wizard who, at present, was practically running the place. Not that he wanted to hide, Harry thought. Castor Dilato had had no proven affiliations with Voldemort and, of course, if there was something fishy, it could never be followed back to him. He was also smarter than to declare himself a candidate for the next Dark Lord.
Rumour had it that he even had connections in the Ministry, and though once Harry had hoped that the rumours were not founded, after his last case, he was more of a realist than to believe that. Especially since he had encountered the aforementioned name on what seemed to be a private message he had managed to confiscate, which had then suspiciously gone missing from the evidence depository.
The Ministry had gone to great lengths just to alleviate the damage to their public image, even going as far as to invent a ridiculous tale of the actual arrest having been made by an impersonator with the purpose to target the Minister's person with unfounded accusations scant months before the re-election. It would have been funny if it hadn't been so bloody infuriating that it had actually worked.
Harry remembered wanting to corner Gawain Robards, shake him by his shoulders and ask him why he would believe such obvious rubbish. By now he knew Robards hadn't believed in it for one second; he just didn't have any other choice than to act as if he did. And, in his defence, he had as good as given permission to Harry to continue his investigation in his private time, under wraps. He wouldn't help him, but he wouldn't hinder him in it either. In fact, if he did something less than professional in order to do it, Harry was sure Robards would just pretend not to see.
That thought gave him an idea, which was followed by the sort of quick decision he was always getting reprimanded for. But he knew, however long he spent thinking it through, he would arrive at the same conclusion.
"How much do you know about what happened with the Minister of Magic?" he asked Malfoy as the cogwheels in his mind suddenly started turning into this new direction.
He got a contemplatively pursed mouth for his effort. Malfoy was most likely thinking that Harry had already discarded the information that had obviously been his main incentive for arranging the meeting. The expression changed into a more neutral one as carefully sorted and packed information started pouring past those lips, generous with the ridiculous assumptions the papers had been full of and sparse with details only someone mingling in Malfoy's circles would know. Harry waved him off impatiently; these were not the things he wanted to hear.
"How much do they know about how the Ministry covered the scandal?" he asked directly, not needing to point out who 'they' were. Malfoy's eyebrows jumped up into speculating bows in the middle of his forehead.
"You mean that ridiculous excuse about you having been impersonated by a doppelganger?"
Harry nodded, keeping his expression neutral and pretending not to notice the amused glint that appeared in the other's eyes. Malfoy looked thoughtful again.
"Most of the people are just laughing at it. I mean, someone looking exactly like you taking your place to arrest the Minister? How absurd does that sound? They could have just said it was Glamours or Polyjuice…"
"There are detectors for Glamour Charms in the Ministry, and everyone has to undergo a test for being Polyjuiced before being allowed to enter the Minister's office," Ginny interjected, but this time she didn't sound mocking.
"Right… That makes sense." Malfoy shrugged, not overly bothered by the fact he was forced to concede to her. "At any rate, even if it does sound ridiculous, there are no accounts right out refuting it, so I guess it could be true…" He fixed Harry with a calculating glance. "Is it? True, I mean."
"No," Harry said without delay. He got an amused snort in return.
"Way to go, Potter!" Malfoy gave him a mock-appreciative look, but then a crease appeared between his pale brows and his expression became serious again. It seemed, now that the cat was out of the sac, he wasn't bothering to downplay the importance of getting what he wanted.
"What about Shacklebolt?"
Harry gave him a nod and a determined grin to forestall Malfoy's likely protests against his plan. If he wanted it so bad, he would have to give something in exchange.
"It seems our dear Ministry just provided me with the means to insinuate myself into the circles he is moving in – that is, if you're willing to contribute to the cause."
"The means?" The question, this time, came from Ginny. She must not have liked the feral glint in Harry's eyes because she joined Malfoy in their little frowning contest.
"I'm going undercover."
"What? You didn't say anything about this, Harry!" Ginny hissed harshly. She covered the distance between them rather quickly and poked him in the ribs with what Harry thought could be either the tip of her wand or her finger. He hoped it was the latter.
"Decided it just now," Harry told her truthfully, already in motion. He could see her ire rising, but Malfoy cut off her indignant objection with his own.
"No way is this going to be what I think it's going to be, Potter!" he spat. "I'm not operating a homeless shelter."
"No, you're operating an illegal brewing laboratory," Harry told him matter-of-factly. "Besides, do you want him caught or not?"
"You don't think much of planning, do you, Potter?" Malfoy snapped at him while he was unlocking the door to his flat. "Wouldn't you've had to pack or something?"
"My doppelganger is supposed to be on the run. I doubt I'd have had time to pack if it were me in his place," Harry answered calmly. He deposited the duffel bag he had bought on their way together with the change of casual clothes and the shaving kit in it, on Malfoy's hardwood floor.
"Right." Malfoy grimaced and went straight for the stove, picking up a kettle and putting on water.
"As for planning: we need to find a good explanation as to why you're willing to hide me," Harry said.
He let his gaze sweep around Malfoy's place. It was a dingy little flat with old furniture, peeling paint and barely a hint of an entrance hall. At least it looked clean. The kitchen and the living room were only separated by different floor coverings. Three closed doors lead to other rooms: one from the kitchen and two from the other part. Harry hadn't waited for permission from Malfoy before he started looking around the flat, trying to get a feel for the environment.
"It's easy: gives me a good reputation."
Malfoy looked at him above his shoulder, his gaze following Harry silently as he made his round through the flat.
"To hide a wanted man who tried to get the Minister compromised?" Harry asked, just to make it sure. Malfoy nodded as if it was self-explanatory. Thinking about it some more while casually opening and closing doors to see what they were hiding, Harry realised that it was.
There was a snort coming from behind his back, and when Harry turned back from the open door leading to the bedroom, he noticed the amused expression on Malfoy's face.
"Just imagining how it's going to look when I turn up in my usual haunts with Harry Potter, Auror Extraordinaire walking by my side. You'll at least have to get rid of those glasses," Malfoy told him, frowning, as if he had already expected Harry to disagree.
Harry shrugged. Like it or not, the glasses were a part of his public persona… what did Malfoy just call it? 'Auror Extraordinaire'. Of course he hadn't planned to wear them while trying to blend in. He had his seldom used contacts stowed away in their little case in the bottom of his coat pocket and… well, there were other things he could do about his appearance. Not that he was planning to alter his looks excessively; only to the degree it would make sense if he weren't Harry Potter, just trying to look like it, and due to some freak accident of nature, succeeded better than anyone else. There were no two people exactly alike after all: even identical twins had their dissimilarities.
He found the concealed door behind the pantry leading to the 'secret' laboratory on the first try: he only needed to follow his nose – though the fruit jar full of bad eggs on one shelf had almost managed to deceive him. Malfoy was most likely keeping it there to stave off searchers. Harry had to admit that it was an effective method, if slightly disgusting.
He went back to the kitchen and joined Malfoy, who was already pouring the water into the pot. Harry threw a glance at the lone mug standing on the table and went to rummage the cupboard until he found another one for himself.
"Don't make yourself at home, Potter," Malfoy grumbled under his breath.
He seemed to be already regretting having agreed to house Harry during the next couple of weeks and had been making noises all the way through to his flat, trying to prod Harry into asking his permission again. Harry knew better than to bring up the topic and give him an opening to weasel out of the arrangement. Malfoy was generally all right with giving out information, but he usually avoided being dragged into the thick of it. Harry had expected him to change his mind after he had some more time to think; it was akin to a small wonder he had not decided that he didn't want to do it after all, even before he had allowed Harry to pass through the front door.
Once the tea had steeped enough, Harry took the initiative to pour for both himself and Malfoy, without asking. He hoped that his actions would either mollify Malfoy somewhat or keep him off his guard long enough to forget his intentions of throwing Harry out and cancelling their deal.
"So, what's your plan?" Harry asked after sipping some of the hot liquid. Then he frowned and heaped some more sugar into his mug. That only made it taste worse. Harry resolved to ask Malfoy which putrid potion ingredient of his he had mistaken for tea, once he had stopped fidgeting at Harry's presence invading his personal space.
"Shouldn't I be asking you that question, Potter?" Malfoy frowned and drank from his tea with a perfectly straight face. Harry concluded that he was either a good actor or his taste buds had already been exterminated by the long-term practice of sampling his own brews.
"You're the one acquainted with the neighbourhood. Where do you think Shacklebolt would be likely to show up?"
"That depends." Having been reminded of his personal vendetta, Malfoy sat up straight in his chair, suddenly more alert, which Harry thought to be a good sign for his future cooperation. "Where did you see him the first time?"
Harry thought about it, making a mistake of forgetting what was in his mug and taking another sip reflexively, then coughing and pushing the mug far away from himself so he wouldn't accidentally do it again.
"I don't know the name of the inn, but the Butterbeer they served tasted like your tea." Malfoy shrugged noncommittally, as if saying 'they all do'. "Then I followed him to one of those estates at the back of the alley."
Malfoy seemed to be contemplating something for a couple of seconds, then looked back at Harry.
"You're not giving me much to work with, but all right. I'll take you with me to one of my usual hangouts to implement your cover story. You will show me the inn you saw but we aren't going in. There is no way somebody wouldn't get suspicious of you showing up there twice in a week, and no one would believe us if we tried to feed them the doppelganger story. Then we are going to walk down to the north end and find that house you were talking about, see whether it's Dilato's place or not. But only if we can come up with a good enough excuse so that we won't be killed for snooping around."
Harry was not surprised how easily control had been taken away from him, once offered to Malfoy. He fought down the urge to gain back some of it by starting an argument about small details and nodded. He might cringe at the tone and the thought that he would have to defer in his decisions to Malfoy, but this was his world and Harry was just a near clueless infiltrator.
Whether Malfoy was pleased with his surrender of control or still pissed off about him intruding on his life, he didn't let it show. He went back to sipping his tea, most likely pondering about what kind of reception they could expect later that night while Harry stood up and made for the bathroom.
By the time he returned – he doubted it had taken more than a couple of minutes – Malfoy was wearing a different robe and waiting for him, sitting on the kitchen table, swinging one leg back and forth impatiently.
"At last!" He slipped off the table and took a quick step towards Harry, arm extended and holding out a long black robe, similar to his own, for Harry to put on.
Then he stopped at once, his usual mask of sneering haughtiness slipping and his expression suddenly turning blank from shock.
"Damn! I almost didn't recognise you, Potter."
Malfoy lowered the wand he had lifted in an unconscious reaction to possible danger and took a step back, looking at Harry with a strange, wide-eyed expression. "That's wicked!" he whispered. "What's with the eyes?"
"Contacts," Harry informed him. They were normal Muggle contact lenses: initially coloured blue, but with a simple, well-practiced trick in front of Malfoy's ridiculously large mirror Harry had changed them to a more greenish hue. It was close to his own but someone who knew him personally – or just looked at his pictures in the papers – wouldn't fail to either consciously or subconsciously recognise the difference. The cold, calculating eyes of a killer, Ginny had said once, only half-joking. Right now, that suited Harry better than his prominent glasses.
"Is that a Glamour Charm on your scar? And what's with the hair? Aren't you going to do anything about it?" Malfoy seemed to have shaken off his surprise, but Harry didn't think that Malfoy taking an interest in his looks was such a good thing.
"No. It's not uncommon for people to have this hair colour. Besides, I can't change too much in my appearance. I'm supposed to be a doppelganger."
He slipped past Malfoy; this sudden change in his attitude from wanting to attack him to becoming nosy both intrigued and distressed him. Harry wasn't used to this level of familiarity from Malfoy.
Malfoy seemed to understand the unspoken request to back off. He stopped speaking and just handed Harry the robe, then waited until he had slipped it over his Muggle clothes and opened the door.