Chapter One: Trust Issues
Harry Potter knew more than most that life was less than fair. With a childhood filled with contemptuous, unloving relatives, he had managed to escape into the magical world. The world in which he felt he belonged, but was alternately lauded as a hero or viewed with suspicion and jealousy. Add on top of that yearly attempts on his life and it was no wonder that he had been left with no misconceptions that life was in anyway fair.
Nobody could have blamed him for growing up to be a cynic. But instead the young wizard had, having won the war and gotten the girl, hoped that his life would finally balance out. He felt he deserved that much. Life, however, had different plans for him, because life wasn't fair.
He took off his glasses, rubbing his tired eyes before sliding the round-rimmed frames to their rightful position. A long time ago – or at least it felt that way – when he'd just been starting out, he had considered trying to find a mediwitch to fix his eyesight. There were treatments out there, muggle and magical, which could correct his vision. But he felt naked without his glasses, as he had grown up with them after all. They were as close to him as anything could be. Besides, not only did they have anti-summoning charms, they also had many other forensic capabilities that had helped him more than once at a crime scene.
"So, Harry, tell me, why are you here today?" Eliza Carnell, a patient smile on her pretty face. There was a calm confidence about her that he had only ever seen in people much older than either of them. He was forcibly reminded of the way Dumbledore used to talk to him, calm and confident, self-assured and always in control. A thick black notebook lay open on the table beside Eliza, a quill hovering just above it ready to take notes. Harry eyed the thing warily, remember all too well the last time a quill had been allowed to make notes on one of his discussions.
Eliza was a muggleborn healer who had worked exceptionally hard to get where she was. Along with several other healers, she started a program in St. Mungo's based off the work of muggle psychiatrists. It had taken years to persuade the more tradition-minded members of the board at the wizarding hospital. After the war, St. Mungo's had been flooded with patients with mental ailments which couldn't easily be fixed with a wave of a wand or noxious potion. Faced with such conditions, the hospital had finally agreed to accept more muggle-based therapies.
"You know why," Harry answered shortly. Everyone knew why. It had been in every paper and gossip magazine for a month, in the case of Witch Weekly even longer. Private lives were something other people got to have. Not him. Not once. Not ever.
"What do you hope to gain from these sessions?" she asked apparently unmoved by his short temper.
"My job," he said shortly. The head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Michael Davis refused to let Harry back into work if he didn't see someone. He didn't need to see someone. He needed to get back to work, back to what he was good at, as it was all he had left now. But apparently he didn't even have that. Not until he jumped through the hoops Ministry guidelines said he had to get through.
"That's a typical reaction to what you're going through, Harry. You feel out of control, alone, you're angry and hurt. You've got every right to be. But work isn't the answer. It's just a distraction."
"It's all I have left."
"It's a distraction." Eliza said again, fixing him with a dark eyed stare. "The longer you use it as that the harder this will be. You need to face up to what has happened, it's only then that you have a chance to move on. So, tell me, how do you feel about what happened?"
"How would you feel?"
"This isn't about me, Harry," Eliza smiled patiently. "This is about you. If you don't want to tell me how you feel, then how about you tell me what happened?"
Harry sighed before he leaned forward in his chair, letting his hands fall between his knees as he looked at the woman in front of him. She didn't say anything, the quill had stopped its scratching, posed instead, ready for him to continue. He could be out there, doing his job, catching people. No, not people. Villains. Criminals. Not because it was his job or because it helped people. Not anymore. He wanted to do it because it would make him feel good. Better than he'd felt in a long time.
He stared at Eliza for a long moment while inside his mind a battle raged. What should he admit to and how much did she already know? His battered and yet somehow still resilient sense of privacy was warning him against saying a damn thing. But the fact was everyone had heard the stories, even though it had only been Ginny's side of it. Once they had heard that no one wanted to listen to his version. The public's sympathy had gone to Ginny, not the monster she had made him out to be. Yet, here was his chance to have his side of the story heard but without the mass-frenzy and media attention.
"I guess, it all started one night after work." He told Eliza, ignoring the scratching as the quill started its dictation. As the words began to tumble out of his mouth, Harry thoughts were on the long hours he had spent on the Raymond Nott case. All of the aurors assigned to it had pulled long shifts due to the horrific nature of the crimes. He'd killed six women and then left them displayed like trophies. He couldn't be allowed to just keep walking free a second longer than he already had. But after weeks and weeks it had finally been over. Nott had been arrested and Harry sent home early for some well-earned rest with his fiancée.
He remembered opening the door and seeing fallen clothes abandoned on the stair case. A white shirt, black trousers and a green skirt. He remembered staring. Not breathing. Not moving. Nothing. Just staring. A sense of disbelief overcame him. Washed over him and made everything else distant. His whole world seemed to crumble before him. His mind had gone blank. Even the steady heartbeat that hammered in his chest day upon day seemed to have died out. Gone that instant. Silence pressed on his ears, deafening him.
But the silence had been broken, shattered by a loud moan from the top of the stairs. Harry had found himself running up the stairs; his body moving before the sudden dread in the pit of his stomach had fully registered. The noise stopped. Panicked voices had taken their place. He remembered slamming open a door. Seeing them. Seeing him, one of the only men that could have made the situation worse. Harry's anger had kicked into overdrive. He hadn't even been aware of the punch until Ginny was screaming. The world had gone numb, hands wrapped around him. But he hadn't stopped. He ploughed on. Harder and harder with each punch. It was only after that he had been aware of the mess he had made of his hand and the man's face. There had been another shout. A different voice. One that filled the room, bellowed louder than the cries of Ginny or the man on the floor.
"And that's when you were stunned?" Eliza asked dragging Harry from the memory of the man's bloodied face; his pleas for mercy. He nodded. "You weren't charged?"
"No," Harry answered with a sigh. "If I'd been anyone else that would have been it. No one would have known but the aurors who arrived at the house. Instead the Prophet got hold of everything. I haven't been allowed back since."
"And when was that?"
"Three months ago."
Eliza nodded. "So, just to sum up, three months ago your long-term girlfriend cheated on you, you were then exposed to national humiliation and are only now just coming for help. But not for yourself. Instead you're here because you want your job back, not to move on. The simple fact of the matter, Harry, is that I can't do anything for you unless you actually want my help."
"I've dealt with worse," Harry said darkly. The truth was he had, the Dursley's had seen to that. Despite being there throughout so much of their time during Hogwarts, there were still so many things he had been unable to tell Ron and Hermione. Things he was never going to tell them. Things like the guilt he felt for all the people who had died buying him time to defeat Voldemort. He had even hidden the nightmares that had come after. Harry hadn't been able to bring himself to tell them his role in Dumbledore's plan and about the Horcrux that had been latched onto him. But that hadn't stopped him pushing on and moving forwards. The truth was he had come out the other side mostly intact. Why would this be any different?
But he couldn't shake the nagging feeling that this was different.
After the incident, Ginny had left and after that all Harry had wanted was to be left alone. Instead he had to deal with reporters camping out on the doorstep of his flat, the many worried glances Hermione would send his way when she saw him to say nothing of the constant whispers everywhere he went.
If that hadn't been enough, then there were the Weasleys themselves.
Molly refused to even look at him while Ron was at a loss of how to deal with the situation. He was obviously torn between protecting his little sister and defending his best mate. This crisis of conscience had resulted in a decision to support neither of them, which had made Harry feel even more alone. Not only had the woman he loved betrayed him, but his best mate had been unable to support him. At least George, Bill and Arthur had been more understanding. They often defended him against Molly when circumstances forced him to the Burrow, but Harry could tell all of them just wished the problem would just go away. It wasn't their fight and going away had suited Harry completely.
But being alone, trapped in Grimmauld Place away from the gossip, soon proved unbearable. There was no company for him there. All the old house gave him was a place where Harry could do nothing but brood. That was why he wanted to go back to work, back to what he was good at. At least there he wouldn't have to think about things. Ginny. The Quidditch playing git she had slept with. Ginny. His suspension. Ginny. To say he had a one track mind over the past few months was understatement. He closed his eyes, trying to block out the memory that forced itself to the surface of his mind.
Eliza nodded, "Indeed. I think there are few who would deny how much you've suffered." She looked at her notes while tapping a finger on the side of her chair. The room fell into a long, drawn out silence broken only by the sound of Eliza's tapping finger. Then she looked up with a piercing look, "Would you say that you find it difficult to trust, Harry?"
Even as the blunt denial left his lips, Harry realized just how utterly untrue it was. He did find it difficult to trust. And why not? The Dursleys had treated him like the Malfoys had treated Dobby. His status among the students at Hogwarts had been at best fluid, shifting along with whatever the Prophet was writing at the time. The same was true for practically everyone else in the wizarding world. Even his best friend had turned his back on him more than once. Only Hermione had truly stood by him, through thick and thin. One by one every other person who he had trusted had either left or failed him.
His eyes flicked to Eliza's and found her looking at him knowingly but with compassion. It was obvious she could see through his quick denial. The fact that these sessions could be used as more than a way for him to get his job back was slowly dawning on him.
Harry sighed and shook his head. "No you're right. Actually I do find it difficult to trust."
"Why is that, do you think?" Eliza asked gently. When he didn't answer she continued. "Harry, the point of these sessions is that you open up to me. Keeping your feelings trapped inside isn't going to help you. Everything in this room stays purely confidential."
His eyes darted to the quill that was still noting down everything that was said. "Prove it."
"Okay, if that's what you want." Eliza smiled reaching out and taking the quill away from the paper. As soon as the nib left the surface the quill froze, returning to its normal, lifeless state.
It was a simple interrogation tactic, one he had learnt at the start of his auror training and had used more than once. It worked on two levels. The first, quid pro quo. You give them something they feel obliged to give you something back. The second, and perhaps more insidious, was that by giving them something they thought you were on their side, sympathetic and understanding to whatever plight they were going through. Whether it was true or not it didn't matter, so long as they thought you did. People, Harry had learned, heard what they wanted to hear. Even if what they wanted to hear was a downright lie.
Had she done that earlier he would probably have seen it as a tactic, one used by a member of the system that he needed to use to get his job back. But the more they had talked, the more he had begun to realise Eliza wasn't just a part of the barrier he needed to overcome to get back to work. If there was one thing his job had helped him develop it was the ability to read people. She wasn't just going through the motions and it was clear that she didn't care whether he got his job back or not. Eliza had, if anything, deliberately avoided the topic of being an auror. She was doing her job, being a consummate professional and attempting to help him tackle whatever problems and emotions that had been stored up inside him. Maybe Eliza didn't have to just be a means to an end.
"Alright, what do you want to know?"
"What I want to know is why do you, Harry, think you have trust issues," Eliza asked.
Later, Harry would wonder how it happened. When he had sat down with Eliza, he had already been committed to saying the bare minimum to get by. In. Out. Get a doctor's note so Harry could finally get back to work. But then the words came bubbling out of him. Slow at first but then pouring out in a rush.
Harry found himself talking about all the chores his Aunt and Uncle had forced on him from a young age. The darkness of his cupboard as the Dursleys sat as a family and watched the telly. The terror of being chased by Dudley and his gang during the long days of Harry Hunting season. A fear that hadn't faded even when he had managed to get to the point of outsmarting them. He even told her how his name might as well have been "freak" considering how often he'd been called it by his supposed family.
Harry had long since dismissed the idea that his relatives had been abusive given they rarely hit him. Dudley had only really been the one to punch him and even that had stopped when Harry had figured out all the best ways to avoid his whale of a cousin. Yet as the recollections coursed out of him like blood from a gaping wound, Harry began to realise that abuse didn't always have to be physical. For all the scars on his body, Harry had avoided thinking about the mental ones he bore.
Harry found himself admitting to all the times as a child of dreaming how someone, anyone, would come and rescue him. How over the years this hope had all but died until Hagrid came to take him to Hogwarts. Although, it had become all too apparent the world he had escaped to wasn't the dream he had created. It may have provided him with only place he had ever called home and the friends he had spent so much of his childhood yearning for. But he had also encountered a darkness and pain far worse than much of what the Durselys had forced him to endure.
Perhaps the worst of it, worse than the attacks of Voldemort or any of his followers, was the crushing realization that his supposed saviour, Dumbledore, had merely squirreled him away till he had needed him to die. Harry even spoke of his time after he'd been hit with the Killing Curse which he'd never told anyone. How even as he accepted Dumbledore's apology, inside he seethed at how the Headmaster could dare to ask forgiveness for what Harry had been put through.
As he talked, Harry began to realize how much anger he had kept inside. Anger which Ginny's unfortunate lover had simply been a target. An escape for all the pent up fury caused by a life which had been far from fair.
All through this, Eliza merely sat and listened. She would only speak up when Harry was being vague or was obliviously leaving out an important detail. Never once did he feel she was judging him but sat and let his words wash over her like a long denied tide.
"Why didn't you tell anyone?" Eliza asked when he had finished.
"Because if I did they would have won," Harry answered, he was on his feet, staring out the window at the old tree in the garden outside her office. "I wasn't going to let them know they got to me."
Eliza was about to reply but a knock at the door interrupted whatever she was going to say. A man with light brown hair wearing expensive look robes stepped into the room. He had been standing at the desk when Harry had walked into the waiting room.
"I'm sorry to interrupt Miss Carnell. But the Madison's are here for their appointment and it's ten minutes past time already," the man said smiling shyly.
"Yes, of course, tell them I'll be right there, Sean. Thank you." Eliza said with a pretty smile. The man, although he didn't look much older than eighteen or nineteen, nodded blushing slightly as he shut the door behind him. "We seem to have run out of time, Harry. But, I'll see you soon, I've got a free slot on Thursday if you're available."
"I'm not doing anything else." Harry said, a hint of bitterness lacing the edge of his voice. He picked up his jacket from the seat, slipping into it as he walked towards the door. Unlike the Sean the secretory or Eliza, he wasn't wearing robes. Blending into muggle London wasn't too difficult, but robes always attracted attention and he didn't like being in Diagon Alley anymore. There were only so many insults and pointed stares he could take.
"Ten o'clock, I'll let Sean know to expect you."
"See you then," Harry said as he opened the door. But before he had stepped through he turned back to her. "How much did you know about all this? You never said."
"No I didn't," Eliza said with a slight smile. "In my profession you rapidly learn that little is as it first appears. Life is rarely so black and white so it pays not to give into preconceptions. I shall see you on Thursday then."
"Yeah, see you then," Harry said with a grin. As he stepped out of the office, Harry realised he was feeling better than he had felt in weeks.
His mood soon changed, however. Instead of heading straight home he had found himself wandering the streets of London, the memories that had resurfaced in his meeting preoccupying his mind. It felt as if his body was on autopilot, an all too familiar feeling from his time spent idly walking around Little Whinging when he had managed to occasionally escape the confines of the Dursley's. The cold wind and driving rain did little to improve his mood. Everything he had tried so hard over the last few years to bury at the back of his mind came flooding back to him. Even when he apparated home, landing perfectly on the doorstep of Number Twelve Grimmauld Place, he was forcibly reminded of the terror that had filled him when Yaxley had followed them there.
With a shake of his head to clear his thoughts, Harry opened the door only to have the harsh wind pull it out his hand and slam it shut behind him. Yet even before the echo faded, the sound of the storm cut off as if by a switch. The silence was almost deafening. Long gone were there ravings of Walpurga Black's portrait who would no doubt have been awoken by such a loud entrance. For all the changes he had made to the old house in terms of redecorating the place could still feel like a tomb. Bereft of any life but his own.
Of course, the missing portrait had little to do with the changes in the décor and was instead the result of a temper fuelled by too much Ogden's Firewhiskey. One drunken night of brooding over his ex-fiancée had ended with a shouting match between wizard and portrait. The frame might still be permanently stuck to the wall but the tattered scraps of fabric remained as a mute testament to whom had won the battle.
Making his way to the kitchen, Harry set about cooking his lunch a little later than anticipated. Kreacher had passed on a few years earlier and while Winky had wanted to bond with him, Harry convinced the earnest little elf that there were plenty of his former school mates who would be starting families soon and as a result would be a better fit. As much as he had come to care for Kreacher the idea of owning an elf made him uncomfortable. Harry didn't like the idea of being anyone's master if he could help it.
Without the elf to help him, Harry had made do. He had installed a non-electric gas stove since he felt far more at ease cooking the muggle way. As much as he had detested cooking for his relatives and living on the bread crumbs, he found the actual process to be rather soothing.
It struck him as he pulled a few items from the cool box just how extensive his changes to the kitchen had been. Gone was all the old crockery and battered furniture. Now there was a long, stylish table with comfortable chairs surrounding it. More nights than he cared to remember he and the others had enjoyed food that Kreacher had so lovingly prepared. Those nights had been filled with Ron and Ginny talking about Quidditch while Hermione rolled her eyes and kept them up to date with changes at the Ministry.
Now it was just him.
His quiet solitude was soon shattered as the kitchen fireplace flared green and a familiar voice called out, "Harry? Are you there?"
"Yes, come on through," Harry said without turning from the food he was preparing.
The chrome of the stove reflected the sight of Hermione ungracefully exiting the floo. Harry did his best to hide his smile. Like him, Hermione never seemed to be able to pick up the knack for graceful floo travel. The bushy-haired teenager he once knew maybe gone, but there would always be some things that stayed the same.
"I'm glad I caught you here. I was going to come by leave a note if you weren't but you know how much I hate showing up when you're not here," Hermione said as she took a chair.
Harry chuckled while he sliced up some tomatoes, "You know both you and Andromeda are welcome to come over anytime. I didn't key you into the wards for nothing."
Hermione snorted, "Yes I know but it still creeps me out how so many wizards are okay with just allowing people to floo into their homes even when they're not there. Yes, I know you've basically given me the equivalent to a key but still…this is your house."
"Are you still hungry?" Harry asked gesturing to the food he was preparing, "I've only just started, I can make more if you want?"
"No, thank you, I'm good. I wouldn't say no to some tea though," Hermione replied as she began to dust off some of the dirt that had come off on her crisp Ministry robes, one of what Harry viewed as the many problems with fireplace travel. "Where were you earlier? I flooed but you weren't in. I thought maybe you'd gone to see Andromeda but she said she wasn't expecting you until later."
Harry nodded. Every evening at seven o'clock he went to Andromeda's. No excuses. No delays. At seven o'clock, no matter what he was doing, he went up to see his godson. Yes, he could probably afford to be a little late. But if he was five minutes late once, there was no telling how late his next visit would be. Then the next. Then the next, until he didn't see Teddy at all. He knew what that was like. Even when Ginny had left him he had made a point of visiting. It was the least he could do. He owed that to Teddy.
After the War, Harry had initially felt guilty about all the deaths. Deaths he somehow felt he could have prevented. He had convinced himself that maybe if he had fought harder or prevented Voldemort sooner, they might still be alive. Yet, while at Hogwarts for his last year, Harry heard so many heroic stories of what had been going one while he, Ron and Hermione had been looking for the horcruxes. Quite a few of his year-mates repeated the year given how the previous year was long on terror and short on learning. The tales they told had changed how he saw his place in the scheme of things.
Harry quickly realised how everyone had been doing their part while he was looking for horcruxes. The truth was that everyone who had died had done so fighting for a cause they believed in. Neville for one had stepped up and in his own way had been just as much a "Chosen One" as Harry. Even Luna had done much with Ginny before being caught and sent off to the Malfoys. Everyone had a story. They all knew the risks but kept fighting anyway. They had risked their lives rather than submit to Voldemort. Unlike so many others in Britain, they hadn't waited in hopes that Harry would come to save them.
Even Tonks and Remus had come back to fight, risking not only their lives but the future of their son. If anyone had a reason to avoid the firefight, to leave things to others, it was them. But instead they had risked it all to stand up to Voldemort. On some of his darker days Harry had been unable to see their sacrifice as right; their son had lost his family, a pain Harry knew all too well. But instead of trying to protect their son like his parents had, they had run off into battle and left their son alone.
No, not alone. Teddy might not have his parents but every fibre of Harry's being was committed to showing the little metamorphmagus he still had a family. Harry was going to be the godfather Teddy deserved and the one the Ministry had robbed Harry of for all those years. He wasn't ever going to let Teddy down. He had promised himself that.
"I was at my therapy session," Harry answered as he poured water into the kettle. "You ever heard of Eliza Carnell?"
"Yeah, that's the one. Well, I had my first session today."
"How'd it go? I've heard she's done some excellent work. She was nominated for the Jefferson prize last year. The youngest ever to be nominated. It's a shame she didn't win it though, Healer Thomas Flint got it. It's generally given to older healers for their contribution to medicine but she's had a far more important impact than he ever did. No-one before has managed to successfully promote and apply muggle methods and treatments at St. Mungo's. I'd love to meet her, I was supposed to last year but we were so busy I didn't have chance. Penelope Clearwater went instead."
"Breathe, Hermione. It's okay. You won't lose any House points," Harry chided teasingly. That Hermione hadn't lost the ability to spew out lots of info all at once was another enduring thing which hadn't changed.
Hermione made a face, "Prat!"
"So kind," Harry said dryly, "and to answer your actual question at the start of that, it went fine," He grinned at her playful scowl as he fetched a mug from the cupboard for Hermione's tea. The kettle had long since boiled but his cooking had taken precedence, primarily because it would burn if it did not.
"I've got another session booked for Thursday and since when were you that interested in healers? You were pretty adamant that after so much time in bed due to the Basilisk and that curse from Dolohov that you'd rather take Divinations rather than go back to the infirmary."
"It's my job to be interested," Hermione replied in a slightly affronted tone as she accepted her tea from him.
Unlike Harry and Ron – before Ron dropped out and took his brother's place in Weasley's Wizard Wheezes - Hermione had never once given a thought to become an auror. She wanted to ensure the new Ministry of Magic wouldn't fall back into the old, pureblood ways. The Department of Magical Transportation had been her entrance into the Ministry, due to her natural aptitude and skill in arithmancy and runes. A talent like hers, as Harry had always suspected, hadn't gone unnoticed. It hadn't been long before she switched departments to something that more suited her interests.
Although Hermione would grudgingly admit how S.P.E.W. wasn't her best work, her heart had always been in fighting for rights. This had led her to the Department of International Cooperation where she had breathed new life into the old moribund organization. To say that the rest of the magical world had shunned Britain was an understatement. After all, there was a reason that nobody came to the aid of Britain during Voldemort's rise to power. However, with Hermione leading the way due to her promotion to Head of Department, the British were being taken far more seriously abroad. Although, there were still those who had their doubts.
Harry was glad of his friend's success. Occasionally he had done his best to help her out or dealt with international auror issues but he didn't have the patience Hermione had to deal with a lot of the bureaucratic maneuvering. The only reason his efforts bore any fruit was the fact that he had the right name.
Hermione took sip from her tea, "How long do you think you'll be seeing her for? I know you're there so you can get your job back but I think you'd do well to continue a bit further than that."
Harry frowned at this. As much as it was in Hermione's nature to nag, it didn't mean he had to like it, even if she was only trying to help.
Hermione saw the look on his face and hastily spoke up, "I didn't mean it that way Harry. Merlin knows all of us probably should be in therapy after all we've been through. I mean Ron still has nightmares from that time you two went to see Aragog."
Harry nodded. Left unsaid was how often he himself had woken Hermione out of a Bellatrix torture nightmare. For some reason they often hit when she was merely dozing on the couch. He sometimes wondered if it was Grimmauld Place that did it since Ron had mentioned she did pretty well back at her own flat. Given how much he had confessed to Eliza, Hermione probably was right as usual.
He wasn't about to tell her that though. He'd enough of her "Honestly Harry; I told you so!" back at Hogwarts to last him for another decade or so.
"I don't know," Harry shrugged. The truth was he didn't. Sure, he'd opened up to her but she had also said that he was using work as a distraction, a crutch. Would she want him to go back soon? Somehow he doubted it. That was the trouble with these things, they took time. No one, Harry had noticed, ever quantified just how much time it took. "As long as she wants me to I guess."
"She knows what she's doing," Hermione pointed out. "There isn't anyone else at St. Mungo's better qualified."
Shame for her office is the other side of London, Harry mused to himself. Eliza was the best in her field, so where did the hospital place her? As far from the actual hospital as they could. He managed to stop himself saying any of this to Hermione. Knowing her it would only spark a ten minute and incredibly one sided argument about equality and acceptance, an argument that Harry always thought was slightly flawed as she failed to accept people's bigoted prejudices herself and tried to force her views on them. She really could be a control freak sometimes.
"True," Harry agreed. "But no offense, Hermione, I've spent all morning there. I don't really want to spend my afternoon talking about it as well. How about we talk why you're here in the middle of the day and not at work?"
She flushed. The mug stopped halfway to her lips as she looked at him. He could almost see her brain trying to come up with the excuse as he dished up his meal. "It's lunchtime?" she tried.
"You take your lunch to work every day and eat your lunch at twelve like clockwork. It's half-past one," Harry said with a slight smirk.
Hermione open her mouth to reply but Harry held up his hand, "I'm an auror remember, Hermione? I'm trained to see through excuses. What's this really about?"
She sighed as she put her mug down. "Fine. I need to ask a favour."
"Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like this?" Harry asked dryly as he started on his food. Hermione rarely ever asked for anything and when she did there was always a good reason. Not that he would turn her down. He stuck by his friends, even if that meant doing something he didn't like.
"You don't even know what it is!" Hermione chastised him missing the sarcasm in his voice.
Harry just grinned. Even after all these years he could still push her buttons when he wanted to. It was her own fault really. She shouldn't be so easy to rile.
"Okay. Yes, you probably won't like it, but I can't take anyone else."
"Take? Take me where?" Harry asked but as he spoke he realised just where she wanted him to go. "No. Hermione. No way. You know I hate those things."
"Please? It's George and Angelica's anniversary so Ron can't take me," Hermione said.
"Why can't you go on your own? I would."
"I can't, you know how old-fashioned some magical customs are. A witch in my position can't just go alone, especially when they are going to be so many high level ICW diplomats there."
"That and you hate everyone there just as much as I do."
Every year, the Ministry would hold a ball that wasn't so much about dancing and enjoying the fine food and wine but more about rubbing shoulders with those who thought they were superior. People that made Harry's fists itch and made Draco Malfoy look humble. Hermione hated going because she knew that probably more than half of the room believed in 'their humble opinion' that she didn't deserve the job she had because she wasn't 'the right sort'. If Ron wasn't in the room there was no-one she could latch onto when the smug, self-righteous nature of almost everyone in the room got too much. Ron, Harry knew, just stood somewhere near the buffet table and ate as much free food as he could, even if it wasn't socially acceptable.
"More, you've only been to one!"
"One too many," Harry muttered darkly. He remembered all too well the half an hour tirade he had been forced to endure from Lord Montague about the shocking rise of Muggleborns in the Ministry.
He sighed as the memory also revealed who had saved him from the pompous lord. Hermione, a false smile plastered on her face, had whisked him away claiming her head of department at the time wanted to speak to him. Deep down he knew she wasn't asking him to anything she wouldn't do if the situation was reversed. More in fact. After all, she had done. There weren't many people who would refuse to break under the torture curse of Bellatrix LeStrange.
He sighed. Hermione was his best friend. He knew he had no choice but to agree to what was really a fair request. But that didn't mean he had to like it.
"Alright. Fine. I'll do it. But I'm not wearing dress robes." Harry told her with a voice that made it clear there was no room for compromise.
"Any reason?" Hermione asked curiously as she tried to hide the grin that was spreading across her face.
"I threw my only set away." Harry answered. Ginny had given them to him, which automatically meant he would be damned if he was going to wear them ever again. The only other robes he owned were the ones he wore to work, definitely not suitable for the event. They were far too practical, partly armoured and enchanted to defend against curses. Not the sort of thing you went dancing in. Not that he was using them for work either, he mentally added.
"I'm sure you'll find something," Hermione said quickly, not dwelling on just why Harry didn't have anything suitable. "It's at eight, tonight. That won't be a problem will it?"
"No," Harry said dryly, "I'm sure I can you into my busy schedule with a little work."
Hermione smiled at the joke even though it really hadn't been that good of one. Then again Harry had to admit he hadn't been in a joking mood for a long time so Hermione was probably just happy to see his humour was returning.
Harry was surprised when Hermione started to talk to him about the trade talks she had been involved in over the past few weeks. He had just expected her to leave as soon as she got what she wanted from him. Lately it was all most people tended to do, come in and get what they needed and leave all too quickly. Their desperation to leave had no doubt been spurred on by his foul mood.
As he listened to her talk about how the Dutch's new minister had completely upset the trade talks set up by his predecessor meaning that they had had to start from scratch, Harry realised just how many of his friends he had let fall by the wayside. Whether it was Neville, who he had lost touch with since he had started teaching at Hogwarts, or Luna who he rarely saw as she was constantly taking trips to looking for exotic animals, he rarely saw any of his old friends anymore.
Maybe Hermione was right, maybe he really did need his sessions to Eliza more than he thought.
It didn't take him long to notice that as Hermione spoke and sipped at her tea, that she was making an effort to avoid talking about the Weasleys. There was far too much pain there for him to go down that path and he was happy to follow her lead. Instead, the two reminisced about Hogwarts. It felt strange talking to Hermione again as if nothing had happened. It made him realise just how much he had cut himself off from the rest of the world.
It jolted him to realise just how small his circle of friends really was. He had just excused it as a result of people growing apart due to them having their own lives, moving away and getting preoccupied with work. But he certainly hadn't made much of an effort to keep in touch. Now he just interacted with his fellow aurors, many of whom he hadn't seen since he had been suspended, and Andromeda and Teddy.
Other aurors were the only people who could fully understand what he had seen. They were the only people who truly knew his world. Everyone else was just looking in.
Harry quickly banished such thoughts and just basked in the conversation with Hermione. Maybe Hermione had needed this uncharacteristic and unscheduled half-day more than she realised.
"Well," Hermione said glancing at her watch, "I'd better get going, it's getting late and I've still got to get ready."
"It's going to take you three hours to get ready?" Harry asked. He never had been able to understand what took so long. "It takes me half an hour at most."
"I've still got some work to catch up on as well," Hermione told him.
"Surely you can just have one afternoon off and do nothing?" Harry asked incredulously. Even as auror he hadn't had to work as hard as Hermione did. She seemed to constantly be working, doing reports, sending letters to her counterparts in other ministries across the world and Merlin knew what else. "Would it kill you?"
"You know I have to work harder than everyone else," Hermione said the frustration clear in her voice. He knew exactly what she meant, muggleborns weren't given the same opportunities as everyone else. She had to work twice as hard just to be treated almost equally. "I'm not saying this hasn't been nice, it has and I'm sorry I haven't been able to see you as much lately. It's just-"
"Work, I know. It's okay, Hermione, really. I get it."
She gave him a sad smile as she got to her feet. "Thanks, Harry. It should all settle down a bit soon. It hasn't been easy trying to deal with the Dutch since Alice had to go on maternity leave."
"You ever thought about all that?" Harry asked, "Starting a family with kids and everything?"
"Eventually maybe," Hermione admitted, "I don't know. I haven't really thought about it. I've just been so focused on work and actually making a difference. We've never talked about it, I'm not sure I'm for that just yet. Besides, this job is hard enough without having to look after someone else as well."
"You'd want to do it properly if you did do it," Harry nodded. He knew just what she meant. Being an auror he had to sacrifice more than just a few meals and birthday parties. It had been hard enough seeing Teddy for a few hours every evening. There was no way he could have managed juggling work and being a father. It wasn't as if Ginny had ever complained, even when she had been with Teddy she hadn't been what he would call the maternal type.
"Anyway, like I say I'd better go. I'll see you later then, Harry."
"Yeah, see you."
She smiled and gave him a quick hug before she turned and headed towards the fireplace. There was a flash of green flame and then she was gone, leaving Harry with an empty mug and a smile on his face.