Word Count: 29,000
Summary: Five years after the war, an assassin is after Draco Malfoy, and it's up to Harry Potter to protect him.
DISCLAIMER: All characters, situations, etc. belong to J.K. Rowling. Some spells in this fic come from the movies, not the books, but all come from the Lexicon.
Author's Notes: Written for emeraldpen, whose full request can be found here. Thanks to the marvelous actriz_k for the beta.
The Daily Prophet
September 22, 2003
LONDON—A spokeswoman for the Ministry's Departmental Usefulness Commission was able neither to confirm nor deny rumors that the Committee is to be dissolved, and its resources returned to the Auror Bureau.
"The Committee has been invaluable to the wizarding public in the five years since the end of the Second War," said spokeswoman Lisa MacDonegal, reading from a prepared statement. "Because of the Committee, all eighteen of the Death Eaters on the Ministry's Most Wanted list are accounted for, and there has been no reported activity from anyone with suspected Death Eater connections in the past eleven months.
"The Committee was created as a temporary branch of the Auror Bureau whose sole purpose was to track down and bring to justice Death Eaters and their accomplices. Under the leadership of chief Harry Potter, it has quickly and efficiently completed that objective.
"While I cannot yet comment on the DUC's decision as regards the fate of the Committee, the DUC would like to remind the public the Committee was always meant to be a temporary organization, and that its dissolution would only mean good things: that the public is safe from further threats from Death Eaters and those who support them."
MacDonegal was unable to say when the DUC would officially announce its decision.
Committee chief Harry Potter was unavailable for comment at press time, but he has been a vehement opponent of all Ministry plans to reabsorb the Committee into the Auror Bureau since the idea was first proposed two years ago. Potter was able to justify his reluctance at the time with the subsequent capture of Amycus Carrow, wanted for the torture and murder of Penelope Clearwater and for various crimes against humanity. There has been no sign of Death Eater activity since Carrow's capture in November 2001, however, and Minister of Magic Katherine Deschellain has made it clear that, without proof of continued Death Eater activity, the Ministry will no longer maintain its support of the Committee . . .
Harry had been at work for less than thirty seconds before the first memo of the day accosted him. Almost a new record, he thought grumpily. He swatted at it with the hand that wasn't holding his briefcase, which should have been enough to buy him a few moments of peace, but this particular memo was not to be discouraged. The instant Harry turned his back on it, it dive-bombed his head and bit him firmly on the ear.
"Hey!" Harry yelled. The memo backed off and hovered menacingly in the doorway. Harry didn't take his eyes off of it. "Cheeky bastard. See if I ever read you now."
A chuckle came from the general direction of the doorway, and for a moment Harry actually thought that the memo was laughing at him. But then Ron poked his head through the door and grinned. "Talking to the memos again, eh, Harry? Are you really sure St. Mungo's should have released you so soon?"
"Since when do the memos bite?"
"Moody figured out a charm to make them act like owls," Ron said. "He'll have them hooting and shitting again before you can say 'damned nuisance.'"
"I thought the whole point of replacing the owls was to stop the hooting and shitting," Harry said.
"Yeah, well, apparently Moody thought memos were too easy to ignore."
The memo chose that particular moment to dive-bomb Harry again, but he was ready for it this time. He snatched it out of the air and crumpled it viciously. "See what he wants, I guess," he said, unfolding it and smoothing it out on his desk.
Potter and Weasley,
Report to my office as soon as you get this. There's some new intelligence you should see.
"I like how he didn't even bother to sign it," Ron said, peering over Harry's shoulder.
"Not like he needed to," Harry said, rubbing his ear. "Best go find out what he wants before the couriers arrive."
Right on cue, Harry's fireplace sputtered and flared up. "Too late," Ron said.
"Committee Chief Potter, sir?" The Floo courier stuck out his arm. A parchment case was attached to his wrist with a magical blue thread.
"Take whatever it is to my secretary," Harry said, finally remembering to set down his briefcase.
"It's an urgent message for you, sir. It's charmed so I can't leave your office until you take it, sir." The courier didn't look any more pleased with the arrangement than Harry was, which made Harry feel only slightly better about it. He tapped his wand against the thread, and the case released a piece of parchment.
The letter was uncharacteristically short and to the point.
Committee Chief Potter,
There will be a meeting of the Departmental Usefulness Commission tomorrow morning at nine to discuss the reallocation of Committee resources. The meeting will take place in the DUC offices in the New Building.
Ron peered over his shoulder at the letter. "Since when are they shutting down the Committee?"
"You can go now," Harry reminded the courier.
"Thank you, sir." The flames flared up again as he left.
"They might not actually mean it, you know," Ron said, rereading the letter. "Maybe they're just trying to figure out how best to reallocate everything when they shut down the Committee—many, many years from now," he added hastily.
Harry didn't much want to continue the conversation. "Let's see what Moody wants," Harry said.
Moody's office was located, predictably, right next to the emergency stairs. When Harry and Ron walked in, Moody was leaning back in his chair, his peg leg on the desk, smoking a pipe and studying a file in his lap. His magical eye was in a glass of water on the desk; both it and the ordinary eye still in Moody's head fixed on them as they entered the office.
Moody had been pulled out of retirement on a permanent basis by the onslaught of the Second War, and showed no signs of slowing down after the war ended, even though it had cost him his right ear and a hefty chunk out of his left arm. He'd been offered the position of Committee chief first, but had declined it, claiming he wasn't cut out for administration. Harry had days when he wished he'd been that smart. Moody had taken over as head of Intelligence and it was generally accepted that the only way he was going to retire now was in a body bag.
"Take a seat," Moody said by way of greeting. He didn't wait for them to sit before he continued, "What's got your knickers in a knot?"
"Harry just got a letter from the DUC," Ron said. "He's to meet with them tomorrow to discuss reallocation of Committee resources."
"Since when are they shutting down the Committee?" Moody said.
"That's what I said," Ron said.
"Since forever," Harry said.
"He's always pessimistic in the morning," Ron said to Moody.
"Get over yourself, Potter. The DUC isn't going to shut us down, especially considering the intelligence that just came in."
That made Harry sit up straight.
Moody continued, "Thirty-six hours ago, one of our Recording Charms in Kent picked up chatter that was tagged as potentially interesting. The speaker or speakers were using some sort of voice-masking devices, making them virtually impossible to identify, but the content of the conversation the charm recorded was certainly enough to draw our attention."
He tapped his wand against a piece of parchment on his desk, and nonsensical garbling filled the room.
"Finite Incantatem," Moody said. "That's what the Recording Charm heard. The Auror techies cleaned it up somewhat."
He tapped the parchment again.
The conversation was short, no more than thirty seconds and, as Moody had said, contained nothing that could be used to identify the speakers. The speakers talked about the breaching of wards in what seemed to be entirely generic terms; mentioned something about "the first of the month"; spoke of a "contract," which was the known Death Eater word for an assassination, but there was nothing to identify the target until the very end, when the conversation lapsed into French.
"La maison jaune, non?"
"La maison jaune?" Harry repeated. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It's French," Moody said, "for 'the yellow house'."
"So we're looking for someone who lives in a yellow house," Harry said. "In France. Great."
"La maison jaune," Ron said with a thoughtful expression on his face. "That sounds really—give me a second." He got up and left the room.
"Okay," Harry said, baffled.
He and Moody sat without talking. Moody wasn't much of one for small talk. He pulled his magical eye out of the glass of water and popped it back into the empty socket.
Harry did his best not to wince audibly.
After a few minutes, Ron came back into the room holding a thick file, which he handed to Harry. "I knew I'd heard something about la maison jaune before," he said. "There was a wizarding mansion in Bedfordshire that sold for a freaking fortune a few years ago. There was an article in the Prophet, even; my mum told me all about it. Place used to be called the Fenwick Estate, but the new owner was renaming it la maison jaune. I remember wondering what kind of poncy git would name his house that."
The phrase poncy git jarred Harry's memory. "Oh God. Please tell me you're joking." He didn't even have to open the file to know that the owner of la maison jaune was Draco Sodding Malfoy.
Since they had no way of knowing which month 'the first of the month' was referring to, and October first was a week and a half away, Harry decided that they'd best contact Malfoy as soon as possible. He figured he'd brief the rest of the Committee on the Malfoy situation after he'd actually talked to Malfoy. He had his secretary, Marie, owl him just before noon. Malfoy's reply came half an hour later:
Committee Chief Potter,
I'll be expecting you at one this afternoon. Apparition coordinates are enclosed.
Harry left the office shortly before one. In addition to Ron, he'd elected to bring along Daphne Greengrass and Terry Boot, in the hopes that their presence might make the meeting go more smoothly. There was really no reason why the meeting shouldn't go smoothly, other than Harry and Malfoy's six years of unbridled enmity at Hogwarts, their volatile coexistence during the war and the fact that they hadn't seen each other once in the past five years.
The four of them Apparated just outside of Malfoy's gated drive at five till one. Harry tapped his wand against the call box to the right of the gate. After the four of them had held their wands against the box and declared their names and business, the gate vanished long enough for them to enter, reappearing behind them as soon as they were on the grounds.
They were standing on the drive, which was made of stone and looked more like the floor of someone's ballroom than a driveway. Both the drive and the walls that surrounded the estate were lined with fruit trees and from the look of the lawn Harry suspected that Malfoy spent more money maintaining it than Harry made in a year.
The house wasn't visible at first, but then the drive curved to the right and it rose ahead of them, imposing and wide and brilliantly yellow. La maison jaune.
Harry marched up the front steps and rang the doorbell, flanked by the other three. The door opened promptly to reveal a tiny house elf.
"Master Malfoy is being expecting you," the elf said. "Please be coming in." It held the door wide for them and took their cloaks. "Master Malfoy is being in the drawing room, if you is following me, please?"
They followed the elf down the foyer, which couldn't have been less than three stories high, past rows and rows of oil paintings. The floor was made of different shades of wood laid in an intricate geometric pattern. Harry found himself stepping carefully, trying to avoid scuffing the floor. He was so busy watching his feet that he only noticed they'd turned down a hallway by the way the pattern on the floor changed. He was being an idiot. This was Malfoy's house; what was he doing trying to keep it nice? He should be purposefully scuffing the floors or something.
They stopped outside a closed door on the left side of the hallway. The house elf knocked twice then opened it. "Master Draco, your guests are being here."
"Thank you, Posie," Malfoy said. "Please, come in."
Harry let Daphne and Terry go in first. He and Ron followed.
And there, sitting in a leather wingback chair with one leg crossed over the other, was Malfoy. He was wearing expensive-looking tan robes and a green jumper, drinking tea, while a fire blazed in the grate.
He looked every bit the country gentleman. And Harry knew he looked presentable, he knew it, and yet he couldn't help feeling completely like a poorly dressed member of the help compared to Malfoy. To his enormous relief, Ron and Terry looked similarly uncomfortable. Daphne, of course, appeared completely at ease, but then she'd known Malfoy better than the rest of them, having been a Slytherin. She was a pureblood, too, and not badly off. She'd probably grown up in a house just like this one.
"Draco," she said warmly.
"Daphne." He turned to the rest of them. "Davies, Weasley." He paused, then nodded. "Potter."
"Please, take a seat." He waved at the couches. Harry sat directly opposite Malfoy, the better to stare him down. "Posie!"
The house elf reappeared.
"Bring some tea for our guests, if you would."
"Right away, Master Draco," the elf said, disappearing before Harry had the chance to say that they weren't thirsty.
"So," Malfoy said as the elf reappeared with the beverages, "what can I do for the Committee?"
"Er," Harry said, silently congratulating himself on his excellent grasp of the English language, "it's not so much that as what we need to do for you."
Malfoy put his tea down and leaned forward. "Yes?"
Harry glanced at Ron, who must have seen something in Harry's face, because Ron was the one who continued, "Yesterday we received intelligence suggesting an assassination attempt to take place on the first of the month. We were unable to identify the speakers, but their voices fell into known Death Eater speech patterns, and they clearly mentioned breaching of wards." He paused. "They also spoke a single phrase in French. La maison jaune."
"That does seem fairly convincing, doesn't it," Malfoy murmured. He glanced at Ron. "But Weasley? Your French is atrocious."
"Oh, shut up, Malfoy," Harry said.
Malfoy rolled his eyes. "Right. So the four of you came out here this afternoon—interrupting very important business, might I add—just to tell me that my life might be in danger from some unknown person or people at some unknown time?"
Harry couldn't help responding to that, though he did his best to keep his tone level. "Like Ron said, the intelligence we collected contained Death Eater speech patterns." But he found himself forced to add, grudgingly, "But we have no way of proving whether the speakers themselves are planning on carrying out the assassination attempt or whether it is someone else."
"And you don't know which month, exactly, these people are planning on trying to kill me, either."
"'The first of the month' was all they said, Malfoy, so it's really not our fault that we haven't been able to read into it a bit—" Ron was saying angrily, but Malfoy interrupted him by bursting out laughing.
"What's so fucking funny?" Harry said, but Malfoy couldn't even recover enough to speak for a moment.
"Oy, Potter," he said finally, a bit of a wheeze remaining on the word Potter, "my life has actively been in danger since I was sixteen, from Death Eaters and your people and Salazar knows who else. And you came all the way here just to tell me that? You're wasting your time, and, more importantly, mine."
"When you say 'my people,' aren't you forgetting that you're one of them?" Harry snapped.
Malfoy waved a hand in a gesture that communicated his utter boredom with the conversation and with Harry himself. "I'm also a Death Eater, if you want to get technical, Potter, but that isn't the point. Since you seem to have missed it the first time through, the point is that I've done a perfectly good job of preventing myself from dying for the past seven years without any assistance from you lot, and I can certainly continue to manage it without your help. Good day, Potter." He stood and gestured at the door. "Posie will show you out."
The house elf appeared in the doorway. "If you would please be following me?" it said.
"No," Harry said, standing up. "I'm not leaving."
"I'm afraid you misunderstood me, Potter. That wasn't a request."
"Don't misunderstand me, either, Malfoy. I don't care if you think you handle it yourself or not, your life is in danger, and from Death Eaters, and that makes it my job to protect you from them, whether you like it or not."
"Potter," Malfoy said calmly, "if you don't follow Posie out of the room before I count to three, you will find yourself ejected from my grounds."
"Harry," Ron said in a warning tone, but Harry was not going to back down on this one.
"One," Malfoy said.
Harry met his gaze defiantly.
For a moment nothing happened and Harry was certain he'd been bluffing. But then Malfoy smirked and snapped his fingers and Harry found himself flat on his back outside Malfoy's gate.
"Fuck," he said.
If he were perfectly honest about it, Harry was well aware that he'd behaved like an adolescent. He wasn't used to being perfectly honest with himself, though, particularly where Malfoy was concerned. There was just something about Malfoy that made Harry act like he'd never made it out of third year. There was no use trying to explain that to Hermione, though.
"Wait. You actually got yourself thrown out of his house?" she said. He was at Ron and Hermione's house for dinner that night, which had turned out to be carry-out curry, as Hermione was nearly too pregnant to move and the last time Ron had tried to cook he'd set Hermione's hair on fire.
"For the third time, yes, he did," Ron said.
"Malfoy was making us sound like idiots," Harry said. "It was just—we already knew there were problems with the intelligence. He didn't need to go calling us on it."
"But you still got yourself thrown out of his house," Hermione said.
"I might have . . . not acted as maturely as I could have," Harry admitted. "But, Hermione? Give it a rest."
Hermione smirked and took a bite of curry. "I'm going to play devil's advocate for a minute. How certain are you that the intelligence isn't fake?"
Harry frowned. "I don't think it's fake."
"Looking at this from Malfoy's point of view, though, the DUC's in deliberations over whether or not to shut the Committee down. If I were on the Committee and wanted to make sure I kept my job, what might I consider doing?"
"No one on the Committee would fabricate intelligence just to keep the job," Harry said.
"We know that," Hermione said, "but—hypothetically speaking—it could be a possibility. You're meeting with the DUC in the morning, aren't you, Harry? I just want you to keep in mind that they don't trust everyone on the Committee the way that you do."
"No one on the Committee would fabricate intelligence," Harry repeated.
"And I don't really see who else would be trying to make us believe there was going to be an attack on Malfoy's life," Ron said through a bite of curry.
"If there were someone who wanted to make sure that the Committee wasn't shut down . . ." Hermione mused. "I don't know. I'm just speculating now. Where did Moody say the intelligence came from?"
"A Recording Charm in Kent," Ron said. "In a pub called The Brown Badger. Very popular hang-out for Death Eaters planning assassinations."
Hermione smacked him good-naturedly.
They sat in companionable silence as Harry and Hermione finished their curries, Ron having finished his long ago, and then Hermione sent Ron off to do the dishes. As soon as Ron was in the kitchen and the water was running, Hermione turned to Harry and said, "So. Malfoy. I take it you didn't succeed in convincing him to go under Committee protection, did you?"
" Er," Harry said. "No, not as such."
"And I also take it that you're planning on going back, most likely by yourself, and trying to convince Malfoy that he made the wrong decision?"
Harry did his best to not look shifty. He didn't think he was succeeding, because Hermione continued, "Right. Well. When you talk to Malfoy, it might be good to remember that you don't need to make his windows explode or anything, because you have a trump card."
Harry sat up straight. "Which is?"
"Honestly, the minute there stopped being so many Death Eaters around anymore, I swear you started forgetting everything you knew about how the Committee worked, legally speaking. Malfoy can't refuse Committee protection, if doing so would mean that he was getting in the way of the Committee potentially capturing Death Eaters."
Harry smiled. "That's the best news I've heard all day."
"You'll want to try to convince Malfoy to go under Committee protection voluntarily, though, if you can," Hermione said. "It'll make things easier."
"I know," Harry said. "But don't keep your hopes up."
"I'm not. Harry . . ." She hesitated. "You aren't going to have any problems dealing with Malfoy, are you?"
"That was five years ago, Hermione."
"Yeah. But I mean—"
Harry knew exactly what she meant, but the tap water had stopped running. "I'm over it, Hermione. I'll be fine."
Hermione looked distinctly like she wanted to say something more, but Ron walked into the room just then. "What do you want to do now, mate? See what's on the telly?"
Harry and Hermione had introduced Ron to television after the end of the war, and he was hooked. Usually Harry would have stuck around and watched T.V. with them for a while, but he wasn't particularly interested in continuing the conversation with Hermione. "I'm pretty tired, actually," he told Ron. "And I've got to meet with the DUC first thing in the morning. I'll see you after I get back from that."
Ron nodded and they said good night.
It was hard to pinpoint exactly when it had happened. Sometime a few months into the war, November or so, maybe. Harry, Ron and Hermione were busy searching for the horcruxes, based out of Grimmauld Place. Harry had wanted search out of Godric's Hollow, but that hadn't proved practical: Grimmauld Place was under the protection of a new Secret Keeper and the inn at Godric's Hollow was not. Moody, the new head of the Order, had decided to live by the decidedly un-Tom Riddle-like philosophy that the best place to hide a needle was in a stack of needles, and so had chosen someone completely unconnected to the Order to be the Secret Keeper of its headquarters: a Squib in Essex named Mary Jane Malarkey who lived as a Muggle. Most of the Order saw the inside of Grimmauld Place at some point, and sometimes others connected with the Order saw it, too.
For instance, Draco Malfoy.
Malfoy defected in early July of 1997. He'd been in hiding after Dumbledore's death, waiting to see if he might be able to return to the Death Eaters, and somehow make up for his failure to kill Dumbledore in the Astronomy Tower and save his family. The Death Eaters' capture and murder of his mother at the end of June had proved to him that it was not going to be possible. Lucius was more or less safe in Azkaban now that the Dementors were gone, and Malfoy decided that if he wanted to save his own hide, he'd best get join the side that might not actually kill him on sight. Harry was under no delusions that Malfoy had defected for any reason other than a great fear of death, and out of revenge for what the Death Eaters had done to his mother: Narcissa's death, as Harry understood it, had been messy, prolonged, and painful, and had necessitated the use of a number of paring knives.
But Malfoy hadn't killed Dumbledore, which was something, and he answered all of the Order's questions about Death Eater plans and whereabouts as best he could from the start, which was something else. He wasn't a member of the Order, and he wasn't trusted to leave 12 Grimmauld Place at any time during the course of the war until all hell broke loose in the Final Battle, but he was not entirely unhelpful.
And at some point a few months after Malfoy arrived at Grimmauld Place, Harry Potter walked in on him wanking in one of the upstairs bathrooms. It was a hideously embarrassing experience for all involved, and it became more so for Harry when, half an hour later, he still hadn't rid himself of a hard-on, and was forced to wank to the image of Malfoy wanking.
A week later, it had gotten worse. Instead of just remembering Malfoy wanking every time he saw him, Harry started imagining Malfoy writhing on the floor beneath him as he punched him and then kissed him, imagining Malfoy's lips around his cock, imagining pounding him into a bed, grinding him into a wall. He couldn't stop it, and it was awful, and this was Malfoy, Malfoy of all people. He had so many other things he needed to be thinking about, and yet his brain hated him. He would be crouched in a dark place, terrified of what might attack him, and out of nowhere he would think of Malfoy naked, spread-eagled on a bed, bound to the bedposts. It was a wonder he hadn't gotten himself killed because of it, being distracted when he shouldn't be. But then, he'd always been lucky.
Not long after the war Harry, Ron and Hermione had gone to too many bars and Harry had gotten too drunk and told Hermione everything while Ron lay sprawled on the couch in Harry's new flat. In the morning Hermione promised not to tell anyone. She was still the only one who knew.
Harry made a point of arriving at the DUC offices ten minutes early for the meeting the next morning. He was not entirely surprised to find that the entire DUC was already assembled and waiting for him in the conference room.
"Ah, Committee Chief Potter!" Ernie MacMillan stood up from his seat opposite the door. "Thank you for coming, and early, too! We'll just go ahead and get started right away, then. Oh, if you'd like anything to drink, there's tea, coffee, water . . ." He gestured at the sideboard.
"Thanks, Ernie." Harry poured himself a cup of tea and added cream and two sugars.
"I go by Ernest now, actually, Committee Chief Potter." He puffed up his chest even higher than before, if that was possible.
"Um, right. You can call me Harry, you know. We were in the same class at school."
"That won't be necessary, Committee Chief Potter." He waved at the table. "If you don't mind taking a seat so we can go ahead and get started?"
Harry took the only empty seat at the table, the one nearest the door. Everyone else was already seated with quills and parchment ready in front of them. They all looked quite happy to be there at 8:54 in the morning.
Dear Lord, Harry thought. I'm surrounded by Hufflepuffs.
Ernie—Ernest—cleared his throat. "I have called this meeting of the Departmental Usefulness Commission to discuss the reallocation of Committee resources upon its disbandment. Said disbandment will be effective the fifteenth of November 2003. I have called Committee Chief Potter here today to serve in an advisory capacity in—yes, Committee Chief Potter?"
"I'm sorry, but what was that you just said about November fifteenth?"
"That it is the date on which the disbandment of the Committee will be effective," Ernie said coolly. "As I was saying, Committee Chief Potter—"
"I was under the impression," Harry said tightly, "that this meeting was for theoretical purposes rather than practical ones. When exactly were you planning on informing me that the Committee was going to be disbanded?"
"I sent a courier to your office first thing this morning, Committee Chief Potter."
"I haven't been to my office yet this morning, Ernie."
One of the Hufflepuffs gasped—Harry assumed in horror that he hadn't been to the office yet, and it was already sometime past nine in the morning—and began to scribble furiously on her parchment.
Harry resisted the urge to hex her. "What time exactly is 'first thing in the morning' for you people, anyway? Seven-thirty?"
"Seven," another Hufflepuff said. Harry didn't think he was actually kidding.
"Right," Harry said. "Right. So you're actually shutting down the Committee, is what you're telling me. Just to make sure I've got this clear."
"That is what the message said, yes," Ernie said. "I wanted to make sure you knew about it before I alerted the media."
"That's . . . thoughtful of you, Ernie," Harry said.
"Well, you know what, Ernie?" Harry said deliberately. "I'd like to have a chance to talk to you about the fact that you're trying to shut down the Committee at all before you call me in to discuss divvying up its resources, thanks."
"The place for that sort of discussion is in your quarterly reviews," said Ernie. "You had plenty of opportunities to prove the Committee's continued usefulness to the wizarding public at those times, Committee Chief Potter. In the past three quarters, however, our records show that the Committee had made progress on not a single case, new or old. That's a testament to the effectiveness and efficiency of the Committee in the past five years, and shows just how much you have accomplished, but we feel thoroughly justified in sending our recommendation to Minister Deschellain that the Committee be dissolved. It has served its purpose."
"You're wrong," Harry said. "There are still Death Eaters out there. There's been new intelligence—"
"Within the past forty-eight hours?" Ernie said skeptically.
The Hufflepuff secretary looked like she could barely move her quill fast enough to record everything she was hearing.
"Yes, within the past forty-eight hours," Harry snapped.
"Would you mind sharing just what this intelligence entailed?"
"You know I can't do that," Harry said. A number of the Hufflepuffs in the room weren't cleared for anything higher than basic intelligence; their sole purpose in the meeting seemed to be to up the DUC's numbers, Harry assumed for reasons of intimidation.
"I may not yet know what this intelligence entails, Committee Chief Potter, but considering its timing, have you thought about the fact that it might have been artificially manufactured?"
"I'm afraid I don't understand just what you're getting at," Harry said coldly, though he thought he had a very good idea indeed. He just wanted to hear Ernie say it plainly.
Ernie did not disappoint. "The dissolution of the Committee will mean anywhere from a change of duties to, in some cases, unemployment for certain Committee members. Surely it had occurred to you that someone in your office might have manufactured the intelligence of which you speak?"
Harry was momentarily glad that Hermione had already mentioned that people might think this. "My staff has yet to receive the news that the Committee is to be shut down, and you accuse them of manufacturing intelligence? Even if I didn't have the utmost confidence that none of my staff members would do such a thing, doesn't it seem strange to be creating false intelligence to keep your job before you ever know that your job is in danger?"
"There have been rumors of the Committee's dissolution for far longer than forty hours, Committee Chief Potter. Is it so very incredible that someone in the Committee might have correctly read the political climate and put a plan to falsify intelligence into motion at just the right time?"
"Your paranoia is inspiring, Ernie. Truly."
Ernie and the rest of the table just looked at him.
"Contact my secretary after you've seen the intelligence, Ernie. You can even put the technicians who recovered and analyzed it under Veritaserum, if you'd like."
"That shouldn't be necessary, thank you," Ernie said stiffly. "Expect an owl within the hour."
"I'll be looking forward to it," Harry lied, beating an exit before it occurred to Ernie that they hadn't discussed reallocation of Committee resources at all.
It was irresponsible of Ernie to try to call him in for a meeting like that. He hadn't even had a chance to consult with the rest of the Committee, see what their ideas were . . . No, he wasn't thinking about that anymore, because after Ernie had seen the intelligence, he wasn't going to shut the Committee down. He couldn't.
Harry didn't want to go back to the office and wait for Ernie's owl. He didn't much feel like reading Ernie's first missive of the morning, either. No. Instead, he was going to go have another talk with Malfoy.
He Apparated to Malfoy's front gate and placed his wand on the call box pad. "Harry Potter, Committee chief," he said before it even prompted him. "I'd like to speak with Mr. Malfoy."
"Do you have an appointment?"
"One moment, please."
"Master Malfoy isn't in at the moment. Would you like to leave a message or would you prefer to wait until he returns?"
"I'll wait, thanks," Harry said.
The call box buzzed him through, onto the drive that was every bit as immaculate as it had been the day before. It was mid-September and the trees were brilliant shades of red and gold, but there wasn't a single fallen leaf to be seen on the ground. It was kind of creepy, really. He wondered if Malfoy had charms in place that incinerated leaves as they fell.
The same house elf as before opened the door at Harry's knock and showed him into the drawing room.
"Is Committee Chief Potter wanting anything to drink?"
Harry almost said no, but then remembered that he didn't know just how long it was going to be before Malfoy showed up. "Tea would be good, thanks," he said.
The elf reappeared almost instantaneously with a tea tray. "Is Committee Chief Potter needing anything else?"
"No, thanks," Harry said.
"Master Malfoy is arriving shortly," the elf said, and left the room.
Harry meant to figure out how he meant to go about convincing Malfoy to change his mind about Committee protection, really he did. It would be easier for all involved if Malfoy would go along with the Committee's plan voluntarily. But now that Harry was sitting down with nothing to distract him, he found himself incapable of thinking about anything other than the DUC meeting. Ernie and the Hufflepuffs were actually going to shut them down. He couldn't get his mind around it. He'd always known they were going to shut down the Committee eventually . . . but that was just it. Eventually. Many years down the road, not two or three or five. People like Ernie thought the Death Eaters were gone because they hadn't been heard from in eleven months, because the highest-ranking ones were all in Azkaban or dead. They didn't understand that that didn't mean that they might not find new leadership, or that someone might escape from Azkaban—because that had never happened before. But no, they wanted to move on with their lives, and keeping the Committee around would be a reminder that there still might be Death Eaters out there . . .
There was a knock on the door. "Master Malfoy is arriving, Committee Chief Potter," the house elf announced.
All right, Harry told himself. You will be nice to Malfoy, or at least civil. You are going to say hello, maybe even good morning, and then you are going to explain, calmly, why he should reconsider your offer of Committee protection. You will not raise your voice. You will not let Malfoy goad you.
But then Malfoy stepped into the room. "I'd say I was surprised to see you, Potter," he said, "except that I'm not."
Malfoy was wearing a dark gray Muggle business suit that looked like it had been made for him. He looked surprisingly good in it.
Harry hated his brain. Concentrate, Potter. "I'm glad we don't have to bother with pleasantries," he said.
"Right," Malfoy said. "What do you want?"
"For you to reconsider the Committee's offer."
"Potter, I know this might not have gotten through your skull, thick as it is, but I really did mean it when I said I wasn't interested. Does the part where I kicked you out of my house yesterday mean anything to you?"
I will not let Malfoy get to me. I will maintain a cool facade. I will—fuck it. "Malfoy, I don't give a shit if you think your protection is better than ours. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. I don't care. This isn't about you. If you want to get yourself killed, that's your business, but tracking down Death Eaters is mine, and I intend to do it, and legally you can't get in my way. You have two options, Malfoy. Option Number One: you go under Committee protection. We stop the Death Eaters from killing you, capture them, everyone goes on with their lives. Or Option Number Two: you refuse Committee protection, we get a Wizengamot order that forces you to go under said protection for the purposes of capturing the Death Eaters, and after we've captured them you spend the better part of a decade in Azkaban for attempting to obstruct a Committee case. So, which is it going to be?"
Malfoy's eyes narrowed. "Fuck you, Potter."
"Sorry, that's not the right answer. Which is it going to be?"
"You're a bastard. I just want to make sure you know that."
Malfoy gritted his teeth. "You already know what the answer is. I'm not going to Azkaban over this."
Harry grinned. "It's been a pleasure, Malfoy. I'll be in touch."
Malfoy just pointed at the door.
Marie looked like she was about to have an aneurism when Harry stepped out of the Floo. "Chief! Where have you been?"
"What happened?" Harry asked.
"Don't you know? Ernie MacMillan went on the WWN and said the DUC's decided to shut the Committee down!"
Damn you, Ernie, Harry thought viciously. "When?"
"No, I mean, when did he announce it?"
"About an hour ago. It's been insane, Chief. There are reporters here from every paper I've ever heard of and some I haven't, all wanting to talk to you . . . I've been saying you were in a meeting, but they aren't going to buy that for much longer. Where were you?"
"In a meeting, actually," Harry said, thinking of his discussion with Malfoy.
Marie looked a bit skeptical, but he did not elaborate. She'd long since accepted that there were things Harry wasn't going to tell her, and she was going to have to deal with the fact that this was one of them.
"Chief," Marie said, "are they really going to shut down the Committee?"
"It sounds like they want to," Harry said. "Listen, could you tell the press I'll be there in fifteen minutes? I need to meet with the rest of the Committee."
"Of course, sir."
Harry went into the main office. The whole Committee was assembled there: Daphne, Terry, Marie, Moody, and Ron. Six people, including himself. All of them, save Hermione, who was on semi-permanent maternity leave. The Committee had been much larger those first two years, when they'd been tracking dozens of Death Eaters, making captures practically by the week; but as they'd captured more and more of them, the amount of times between captures had lengthened, and the amount of danger posed to the public had lessened. The Committee's budget had been cut, Committee members' salaries had decreased, and many had left for better-paying jobs elsewhere. The Amycus Carrow capture had halted that trend for a time, but it had been two years since then, and there were beginning to be rumors that there were no more Death Eaters.
But the people in this room knew better than that.
Harry spent fifteen minutes briefing the Committee on the Malfoy situation, and then another fifteen dealing with the press. He'd been saying the same thing to the papers for more than two years, ever since the first rumors that the Committee might be shut down arose: he was thoroughly opposed to the idea, and he believed that the Committee continued to serve a necessary role in wizarding Britain. It had been his stance from the start.
After he'd done as much as he could with the press, he went back to the Committee and talked the Malfoy situation out thoroughly. It hadn't gone well. In the early days after the war, one captured Death Eater generally led to two or three more, and they'd been able to follow that trail to the proverbial snake pit. That strategy had stopped working after a while, though, and now, two years after the Amycus Carrow capture, all they had to work with was the one conversation they'd recorded in Kent, and Harry didn't like that there wasn't any more to work with than that.
The problem was that the Death Eaters had done some nasty things in the five years since the war had ended, but assassinations had never really been their style. Every other time that the Committee had advance warning of Death Eater plans, which inevitably involved large scale death and destruction, they had been able to clear the targeted area of people before the Death Eaters ever arrived, then swoop in and capture the Death Eaters. But that wouldn't work here.
"I don't see why we can't just put Malfoy under a Secret Keeper or something," Daphne said.
"Because keeping Malfoy safe isn't the whole goal," Harry said. "We also need to catch whoever's behind this."
"These people were stupid enough to get themselves caught on one of our Recording Charms," Moody said, "but that doesn't mean we can assume they're complete idiots. We have to assume they've got Malfoy under some sort of surveillance. Since the recorded conversation specifically mentioned breaching his wards, we can't assume these people are going to come after him if we remove him from his house. We need to keep him visible."
"We can't just camp out at his house and wait to grab the Death Eaters when they attack, then," Terry said. "If they've got it under surveillance."
There was another good reason why they couldn't do that, arguably an even better one: the Committee's budget had shrunk so much over the past year that Harry could barely afford to pay everyone, let alone afford the massive expense of keeping a task force on alert at all times. The only think that had kept him from having to lay off anyone was that they were already technically part of the Auror Bureau, and as such they shared an intelligence system. If the Committee had had to maintain its own intelligence network, he would have had to fire someone—and he was already working with a bare-bones force as it was. This was no secret to anyone in the Committee.
"We don't need to, anyway," Ron said. "We could just have one person stay with Malfoy—as a bodyguard, if you will—and they could sound the alarm when the attack came. We could get Malfoy to drop the wards, and the rest of us could be there in an instant."
"Or set them to just let in Committee members," said Terry, the resident wards expert.
"That should work." There wasn't anything Harry could think of that would work better. Now all they needed to do was figure out who was going to be Malfoy's bodyguard.
Everyone in the Committee was there for a reason: Terry was good with wards; Daphne was a genius with strategy; Moody knew everything there was to know about intelligence; Hermione knew everything there was to know about everything; Harry trusted Ron utterly: he knew Ron would fight to the death for him. Harry had one major talent, other than stubbornly refusing to die, and that was doing what needed to be done.
Harry was back at Ron and Hermione's for dinner. Tonight was Chinese carryout.
"In case you're wondering, Harry, we do eat things other than carryout," Hermione said.
"Mum's been coming by and cooking for us tomorrow," Ron explained. "She says Hermione needs her strength."
Harry, having been a frequent recipient of Molly Weasley's charity, knew that the refrigerator would be full with enough food to feed a small country. Luckily Ron's appetite was large enough to accommodate that.
"I'm pretty sure I don't need any more food," Hermione said. "What I need is to be deflated. Look at me! I'm a blimp!"
Hermione was sensible enough to know that she didn't look fat, per se. She just looked like the most pregnant woman Harry had ever seen. "When's the baby due?"
"The fifteenth," Ron said. "Three weeks."
"I don't think I'm going to last until the day after tomorrow, let alone three weeks."
"Maybe it'll come early," Harry said. He hoped it did, for her sake. Three more weeks . . . If it was three weeks until the fifteenth of October, the first was in just a little more than a week. That didn't seem like enough time to prepare for a Death Eater assassination attempt, not nearly enough. It was more than they'd gotten during the months after the war, of course, a lot more, but it had been the better part of five years since then, and Harry was a little worried they might've gotten out of practice.
Hermione seemed to be able to read his mind. "The attack on Malfoy's meant to happen in eight days, isn't it."
Harry took a bite of General Tsao chicken. "Yes."
"Ron was telling me about the bodyguard plan. Are you sure that's a good idea?"
"We don't want to scare the attackers off, and we don't want to just dangle Malfoy out there as bait. So, yeah."
"No, I meant you being Malfoy's bodyguard."
Harry looked at her. "Who else was going to do it?"
Ron couldn't guarantee that he wouldn't hex Malfoy in the face; Daphne was a Slytherin, too, and Harry didn't want to leave the two of them to their own devices; Terry was great with wards, but combat had never been his strongest suit; Marie was a secretary; Moody didn't do field work anymore . . . Harry looked at Hermione and could actually see her going through the same thought process he'd used. "Couldn't you have, I don't know, called in someone from the outside, someone who's trained as a bodyguard?"
"They wouldn't know how to take down a Death Eater alive," Ron said. "And we haven't the time to teach them."
"Look, Hermione, I've more experience with Death Eaters and Malfoy both than anyone save you two, and I'm not going to let him get to me. I'm not twelve."
"I know," she said, "but—well. Malfoy gets to you like no one else does, Harry."
"It's Malfoy," said Ron. "He just has that effect on people."
But from the weight of Hermione's gaze on him Harry knew she wasn't just talking about his maturity level. "It'll be fine, Hermione. I can keep him under control."
Hermione was still looking at him. Of course: keeping Malfoy under control wasn't the problem. Keeping himself under control was.
"It'll be fine, Hermione," he added.
"For the record, I still don't think this is a good idea," she said.
Malfoy took the news that Harry was going to be moving in with him for an indefinite period surprisingly well. Which was to say, he didn't actually hex Harry unconscious on the spot. All he said was, "Please tell me you're joking."
Harry scowled. "I'm not exactly looking forward to it, either, if that makes you feel any better."
"The rest of the Committee will be coming by this afternoon to learn the layout of your house and grounds," Harry said. "So they'll know what the place looks like when—if the attack comes."
"Because the whole Committee showing up definitely won't tip anyone off that you know the attack is coming."
"They'll be Polyjuiced," Harry said. "And posing as a wards repair team."
"Cute," Malfoy said.
Harry had taken his time arriving at Malfoy's house that morning, so by the time Malfoy's house elf showed him to his room—a spacious guest room on the same wing as Malfoy's bedroom, a fact that he was utterly ignoring—and he had unpacked, it was already time for lunch.
Lunch was quiet. Malfoy seemed to have decided that the best way to deal with Harry was to pretend he wasn't there, which was a strange but not entirely unwelcome development. Harry was pretty sure he could keep himself from wanting to strangle Malfoy, but as Hermione had said, Malfoy did get under his skin in a way no one else did. It was hard to want to hex someone for something they'd said when they weren't actually saying anything, though.
The food was tasty enough, some sort of fish in sauce, and before Harry knew it the Committee had arrived, traveling by a Portkey whose magical signature, if traced, would go back to the owner of Wimbledon Wards Services. The Committee members had arrived in their uniforms as well, for the benefit of anyone who might have Malfoy's front gate under surveillance.
Ron pulled Harry aside as soon as he got into the house. "You haven't killed him off yet?"
Harry smiled. "No. But I've only been here for a couple of hours."
"You're doing better than I would, mate."
The Committee spent the afternoon looking around Malfoy's grounds and making detailed maps. Daphne was best at this, though Ron was helping her. Terry was examining the wards.
"They're good wards, Harry," he said. "They wouldn't be easy to breach."
"But you could do it."
"Of course I could do it. But not quickly."
"Every time you try to breach them, these wards get harder to undo . . . so a day, maybe? Assuming I could work uninterrupted, that is, which I wouldn't bet on, since Malfoy's got them set so an alarm goes off if you so much as flick them hard enough, let alone start unraveling them. There's no way anyone's going to undo these wards without Malfoy noticing."
Terry was one of the best wards specialists out there. He did some freelance work for Wimbledon Wards on the side, which was how they'd gotten the Portkey and the uniforms. If Terry said the wards were near impossible to break, they were. But that didn't mean they couldn't be broken.
"Keep looking," Harry said, even though he knew Terry had examined them thoroughly already. Maybe if the recorded conversation hadn't specifically mentioned the wards, he would have let it go, but if there was something he and Terry had missed the first time through that allowed the attackers onto Malfoy's grounds, he would be pissed.
Daphne wandered over. "The thing that's bothering me," she said, "is that even if these people get through the wards, which they seem unlikely to do, they haven't got anywhere to hide before they get to the house."
The wards that protected the grounds and the wards that protected the house were not connected, Terry explained, so that even if the attackers managed to get onto the grounds without Malfoy's notice, they would still have to break the wards protecting the house before they could get to Malfoy.
"Look at this place," Daphne said. "I would hate to try to attack this house. The only cover on the grounds is along the drive, but the trees are way too spaced out to be useful. There's no good way to attack this place."
"I'm happy to hear it," Malfoy said, walking up to them.
"These are good wards, Malfoy," Terry said. "Who designed them?"
"I did," Malfoy said. "Arithmancy was my best subject in school."
Arithmancy had never appealed to Harry at Hogwarts, but during the war and after it, as he'd heard of its practical applications, he wished he'd learned at least the basics of it. Luckily, Hermione had, and it had saved his life on a number of occasions.
Terry and Malfoy were talking technicalities of the wards. It seemed that the wards were very complex, and Terry was impressed: he looked like Hermione when she was confronted with a particularly tricky logic problem, and Malfoy was lapping up the attention. It was making Harry feel a little ill.
Before too long it was dark and the Committee was going home for the night, leaving Harry alone with Malfoy.
"Firecall me if you kill him," Ron said just before he took the Portkey back to the office with the rest of them. Harry wasn't entirely sure he was joking.
It wasn't that he was actually planning on killing Malfoy, but he was acutely aware that this would be the first time he'd been alone with Malfoy for more than an hour or two since . . . well, ever. He wasn't worried about his hormones getting the best of him. He knew what true horniness felt like—he had been a seventeen year old boy, after all—and he wasn't anywhere close to that.
When he was seventeen he'd wanted to jump Malfoy every hour of the day and night, but that was five years ago, and except for the past week he hadn't seen Malfoy once in those five years. After his war crimes trial Malfoy had pretty much dropped off the face of the wizarding world. He'd made the papers with the purchase of his French-named mansion, which was rumored to have cost in the range of two hundred thousand Galleons, and his name had popped up in the society pages from time to time—he'd done a bit of philanthropy a few years ago, Harry remembered—but since the end of the war Malfoy had become more or less a recluse.
It hadn't really hit Harry when he'd first seen Malfoy again a week ago, because Malfoy had looked just the way he'd expected him to look, rich and sneering, but five years was a long time to go without seeing someone at all. Harry hadn't been treating him as if he'd changed but he surely he must have, at least a little. Suddenly Harry found that he was a bit nervous to be moving in here. This wasn't the Malfoy he'd fought with at school or the Malfoy he'd wanted during the war. This was a different person entirely, someone Harry didn't know at all.
Malfoy spent the week leading up to October first doing his best to ignore Harry entirely. It was infuriating. He didn't often go out of Harry's sight, for which Harry was grateful—he wanted to know where Malfoy was, in case the attack came early—but he didn't say anything to Harry at all other than the occasional "Good morning" or "Good night."
Malfoy seemed to live by a strict routine, and Harry found himself falling into it easily enough. Malfoy was awake each morning around dawn, and ate breakfast at seven. He then went into the library and read three newspapers cover to cover: the Prophet, an international wizarding daily called the Warlock Post, and, incongruously, the London Times. Harry received papers from Marie through the Floo around ten each morning, and would read those until lunch, which was served promptly at twelve. Malfoy read for most of the afternoon, or listened to shows on the Wizarding Wireless. Harry read Quidditch through the Ages cover-to-cover four times in three days. They ate dinner at seven, Malfoy read more after dinner, and went to bed by eleven.
Harry wondered if this was actually what Malfoy's life was like. There was no way a person could live like this, doing nothing but sitting in one's house and reading for hours on end each day. He wondered if Malfoy was purposefully being boring for his benefit, or if Malfoy was, in fact, actually the most boring person alive.
Malfoy's silence was also driving him insane. At first Harry told himself he wasn't going to be the first one to talk, based on some sort of twelve-year-old's logic that the first one to speak would lose. But this wasn't a game Harry had agreed to play, and it was driving him up the wall, no less due to the fact that when Malfoy wasn't talking to him, there was nothing to distract him from the fact that he still wanted Malfoy, now more than ever.
It was hideously inconvenient. He'd more or less managed to avoid thinking about Malfoy as anything other than the boy who'd been an utter git at school when he was trying to convince Malfoy to go under Committee protection, and when he'd been moving in. But now that he was alone with Malfoy for days on end . . . He'd been glad that he hadn't seen Malfoy for five years. He'd thought that being away from Malfoy for so long would kill these urges in him. He'd almost thought it had. He'd gone out with women, a few of them more than once, slept with them, but now that he was here, near Malfoy again, he knew that he wanted him.
The week leading up to it was torture, and the first of October was the dullest, most nerve-wracking day of Harry's life. He didn't even consider going to sleep the night before, for fear that the attack might take place at midnight. All day he was on alert, jumping at any sound, thinking it might be the sound of the wards being breached. He was ready to drop the wards at any instant and allow the Committee through. He had an additional dozen Aurors on alert, ready to be called in at any moment. He firecalled the office every hour to make sure they were still there—why they wouldn't be, he didn't know. They too were on edge, but none of them as much as Harry. He was responsible for all of them, but most of all for Malfoy, whose calm on this never-ending day was imperturbable. Harry was trying to appear calm, for Malfoy's sake, but Malfoy seemed to actually feel calm. Harry didn't know how he was doing it. Harry couldn't hate him for it. Much as Harry envied his icy exterior, Malfoy might die today, in spite of the best efforts of Harry and the Committee. They would do their best, he would make sure of it, but things couldn't always work out, no matter how much you wanted them to . . . No, they would be good enough. They had to be.
When darkness fell, Harry's fear rose thick in his throat. He'd studied Malfoy's grounds as well as the rest of them had, better even; he knew them to be regular and not wooded; he knew they would be difficult for an attacker to move through undetected. But defense was more difficult than offense, and he hated this ordeal of trying-to-anticipate, this waiting. He wanted the attack to come and be over, so that they could capture the Death Eaters and Malfoy could be safe.
But still the attack did not come. It was nearly midnight . . . It was one o'clock. It was three. Malfoy had dozed off, but Harry did not end his vigil. Only when the sun was fully up on the morning of October second did he realize that the attack was not going to happen, not this month, for the first of October was past. He firecalled the office and then the Auror Bureau, told them to stand down, and checked in on Malfoy to make sure he hadn't died in his sleep. He hadn't. And then, after nearly forty-eight nerve-wracking hours, Harry lay down on a couch and fell asleep.