Back to the World
The gloom was starting to descend upon Grimmauld Place, the time when Kreacher would do his house elf thing and all the lights would come on, but thanks to Hermione's pleadings he'd given Kreacher the weekend off and things just got darker. It had taken the combined efforts of him and Hermione, well, mostly Hermione, to persuade the elderly elf that he'd earned a holiday and surprisingly Kreacher had taken them up on it. The fact, rightfully noted, that the old elf had spent the last year doing nothing but improving Grimmauld Place into not only a habitable house but a rather nice place was pointed out in detail, so eventually the elf gave up and agreed to spend the weekend at his daughter's house. That led to a series of awkward, stammering statements from all involved, as nobody knew that Kreacher had married, had children, was widowed and was in contact with his daughter, a house elf for a minor Ministry official that lived in Leicester.
Harry sat in the library, his wand over on the other table, and for some reason he couldn't gather the energy to get up out of the chair, take the three or four steps required to pick up the wand and turn on some form of illumination. As he sat there, his eyes slowly adjusting to the low levels of light, he realized that there was a definite reason that he was totally unmotivated to do anything; he, Harry James Potter, the Boy Who Lived, Vanquisher of Voldemort, the Chosen One, was totally, utterly and sometimes painfully obviously horrible at dating.
As he watched the Muggle street lights kick on and the light began to slowly filter through the drapes, casting shadows in the room, he decided to recount all the failures, maybe to see if there was a pattern to why everything had gone wrong. For a moment he even thought that he'd see the ghost of Sirius, walking around the corner, ready to give him advice, telling him what he'd done wrong. What he wouldn't give for that right now, because a lot of things had gone wrong. Where to start?
Ginny. Well, that seemed to be the best place to start since that was where he started after Voldemort snuffed it. They had tried picking up the pieces again, but she had returned to Hogwarts for her seventh year, along with Hermione and a few of the other students in his year who received 'substandard educations' that horrible year he'd spent camping in the gloom with Ron and Hermione. At first they wrote letters, lots of letters, but as she became busier with school and he was busier with Auror training things just seemed to stretch out until they both realized that they had changed too much. They did have one wonderful weekend in Hull, of all places, though since they didn't leave the hotel room it could have been anywhere in the world. For some reason, when they checked out of the hotel, they both knew it was over; she was going to play for Harpies and he was busy with the Aurors. She'd kissed him, on the cheek, and told him that she would always love him and then started to say something else when he'd put his finger on her lips, stopping her. There wasn't any need to say anything more.
The press picked up on things very quickly, rushing out a new edition of Witch Weekly calling Harry the most eligible wizard in the world. That was the official signal for every witch, and some wizards, to try their hand at being Harry's partner. Initially Harry had been reticent, staying out of the limelight, but eventually, after a long night of drinking with Seamus Finnegan, he decided that there really was no point in living if he didn't live, leading to a long string of witches that didn't last long. The press ate it up, though.
Harry stood up, stretched, went over to the bookcase and took out a large book. There, stuck between the pages, were pictures of the women he'd dated, mostly from magazine and newspaper clippings, but interspersed were a few actual photographs. He took the photos and clippings from the book and arranged them in a stack, shuffled through them, until they were all in chronological order. He sat down on the Persian rug, cross-legged, and laid out the first clipping.
Angelina Johnson. That had been a mistake. She was still in love with Fred Weasley when they dated, and he was still hurting from Ginny. The picture of the two of them, in each other's arms, was taken outside Harpies stadium, Angelina in her Harpies kit. It had gone great until one night, in his sleep, he'd accidentally called Angelina another woman's name. She'd slapped him, told him it was over, and in no uncertain terms told him she'd never reveal the woman's name he'd said.
The next picture was a small photo from one of the more lurid gossip magazines, a glossy picture of him and Lavender Brown. That relationship lasted for two weeks, as Harry quickly realized that Lavender was mostly interested in being in photographs and famous for dating Harry. It also took Harry two weeks to realize that by kissing Lavender he was kissing the woman who had tried to inhale Ron Weasley's face back at Hogwarts, which meant he was kissing by proxy his best mate. He broke up with her at a restaurant, hoping the public venue would make it easier. Instead she made a giant scene, made the papers and parlayed that into somehow being a chat show host.
The next picture made Harry smile, remembering those sweaty nights. And sweaty afternoons. Some mornings, as well. He sat the photo from the Ministry event, some ceremony for some foreign dignitary, he sat it on the floor and ran a hand through his hair. Hestia Jones was certainly a witch who taught him a thing or two or ten or twenty, that was for sure. They never did officially 'date' in the sense of the other women; they never went out to eat, to the cinema or to Quidditch matches. Instead of those things she would come over to Grimmauld or he would go to her place. Or to her office. An empty office in the Ministry. It was quite a bit of fun, but eventually it got old, just being her boy-toy. She had sensed it as well and broke it off with him. It had been fun while it lasted, though.
The next five pictures were witches from different countries, well, two of them were from Australia, but they were witches he met during Ministry things. He was still an Auror then, so they'd trotted him out on all sorts of things, and things fell into place. It never really worked, with any of them, since he was in the UK and they weren't. Long distance wasn't his thing, especially not after Hestia.
The next piece of parchment wasn't actually a news clipping, it was the results from that magical dating service. Horrible, unmitigated disaster. He'd gone on the three dates that he'd paid for with the service, but it was too weird. The first date was Luna Lovegood, of all people. They'd both laughed when they met, realized that it would never work, and got blindingly drunk. That was the date that started him thinking about leaving the Aurors, as Luna said things in Luna-logic that made sense. The second match made him realize that he hadn't really paid attention to the paperwork, since when he got to the restaurant it was obvious that his date was Minerva McGonagall. Neither of them admitted it, of course, and after an exceedingly awkward dinner they both left as fast as they could in separate directions.
The third date, well, that took him by surprise. He thought that after McGonagall that nothing would surprise him but then he showed up at the museum, wearing that ridiculous flower in his jacket lapel, but the moment he saw her it all clicked. Hermione! She and Ron were in one of their 'off' times, and she thankfully laughed it off. As they stood in front of the Muggle paintings Harry realized that he was tired of the magical world, since he had so much history with everybody. Especially Hermione. There was no way he could date her, she was his sister in everything but blood. Plus, he'd already dated one of Ron's ex-girlfriends, that was plenty. He and Hermione had laughed about the paltry wizarding dating options, commiserated about their dissatisfaction with the Ministry and the Aurors, and above all determined that the magical dating service was a complete and utter waste of time and Galleons.
The last picture he put on the rug didn't move. The Muggle snap was from one of those photo booths, one that did several pictures. He'd kept the last picture, tearing it off from the others, and she'd kept the other three. He'd met her in a coffee shop, she'd taken his order and he'd shamelessly flirted with her. It did him good to know that he was more than his fame, more than his name and scar, since he secured her mobile number. They'd dated for a month, but it was too hard, trying to keep his magical life separate from his Muggle life, and they'd drifted apart. She broke up with him via text message.
Suddenly the lights flicked on, causing Harry to jump up, wand in his hand. "Who's there?"
The form of a slight house elf edged around the corner of the bookcase. "Mipsy is sorry, Master Harry. Father Kreacher asked Mipsy to make sure Master Harry is ok, he did, so Mipsy does. Dark and gloomy here, it is." She looked at the items on the rug. "Mipsy can make a book for Master Harry's..."
Harry shook his head. "Mipsy, you don't work for me, don't worry about it." He flicked his wand, causing all the photos, clippings and parchment into a stack on the nearby table. After a few moments he took a deep breath. "Mipsy, I might be doing some traveling since I'm not with the Aurors anymore. Would it be too much trouble if Kreacher stayed with you?"
The house elf shook her head rapidly, causing her ears to wobble. "Oh no, no trouble if Father Kreacher stays with Mipsy."
"Great. Thanks. I appreciate it." He stayed there in the room and after the little elf left his house he took his wand and flicked it. Much happier in the gloom.
For the first year he stayed in almost regular contact with Hermione and Ron. They had, thankfully, decided to be 'on' instead of 'off' in a more permanent basis. He received Hermione's letter while sitting on a mountain in Colorado, of all places. He hadn't meant to go to Colorado, not to mention the United States, but after going to the portkey station and getting somewhat mobbed he asked the woman working the ticket centre for the next available portkey and, well, Colorado. It was rather nice, if a bit cold up in the higher elevation. After purchasing the correct gear, and outfitting himself accordingly, he decided to do some hiking. Hiking turned into a bit of very small mountain climbing, so it was while he was up on one of the mountains, his tent pitched into a very small ledge, that he sat on the rocks, drinking coffee from a tin cup, and read about how Ron had finally asked Hermione to marry him and she'd accepted.
He attended the wedding ceremony, of course, but the reception was a bloody minefield. Not only was Ginny there, with her new boyfriend, some Quidditch player, but Lavender, Angelina...almost everyone he'd dated except the Muggle woman, thank Merlin. It was while standing out of the way of everyone, drinking a lager with Charlie Weasley, that he got it into his head; Charlie didn't stay around the UK, nothing said that he had to either.
He stayed in England long enough to have dinner with Ron and Hermione, telling them of his plans. He was going to travel, just see where the wind took him. After everything he'd done, surely they could understand he needed time. Thankfully, they did. He promised to write.
He did, mostly that first year. At the beginning of the second year, though, the letters became less and less frequent, not only from him but from Hermione. Halfway through the second year, when he found himself sitting out in the Patagonian desert with wizards, coming up with a plan to find the magical predator killing their cattle, he realised that he hadn't heard from Hermione in ages. Something had reminded him of that, but he couldn't place it. Instead he brushed the thought aside, worked with the local wizard ranchers and found a basilisk responsible for the incidents. Merlin knows how a basilisk got in the Patagonian Desert, but it did and eventually they got rid of it. Much easier than the one in the Chamber of Secrets, that was for sure, Harry thought, as he sat out in the cooling night air, watching the stars. That made him think of Ginny, which led him back down the list of all his romantic failures.
He didn't hear from Hermione until the year was almost over, a letter that found him in Mexico. The little house on the beach in one of the only wizarding-only areas was cheap, for him at least, and he liked the fact that it was set away from the other houses. It wasn't much, just a simple house with a kitchen, combination dining room/living room and a small bedroom and bath, but he liked it. The wood floors were smooth and worn, showing their age, but at night he could open the windows and let the sea air come in.
He had just started a small breakfast when the owl arrived and dropped off the letter, and he knew from the moment he held it in his hands she felt as guilty for not writing as he did at that very moment; it was a very thick envelope. He sat down at the little table, flicked his wand at the stove and stopped everything except for the coffee and began to read.
It was obvious to him that even though his life hadn't really progressed to what he thought it would the rest of the world had moved on. Rose Alexandra Weasley was a happy baby, and from the enclosed picture looked like she had inherited the Weasley complexion with Hermione's hair. Poor kid.
After apologising a bunch of times for neglecting to write Hermione gave him the news regarding his former housemates, Hogwarts classmates, and other people he knew. Dean Thomas had finally convinced Ginny Weasley that he was the true love of her life and she'd married him not too long ago. Lavender Brown had been sacked from her chat show for some reason or other, Hermione couldn't remember, but apparently she was suing and it was quite the scandal. Seamus was doing well as an Auror, something that surprised Harry, but even more surprising was the fact that Neville Longbottom and Hannah Abbott were married.
Harry sat there, his dark hair messy and unkempt, looking down at the letter and felt something odd. He knew all those people, was friends with them, sometimes more than friends, but he just felt...nothing, really. Detached. As if they were characters in a Muggle movie that he saw and remembered but that was about it. Realising that fact bothered him, making him get up from the table and go to the front of the house, sit out on the small porch and look out at the ocean.
As the ocean beat ceaselessly against the shore he sat there, wind playing with his hair, moving it about across his forehead, sometimes hiding the famous scar. Did he really go through everything to end up with...nothing? Why didn't he feel anything? He had wanted to be an Auror, and then he was an Auror and it was...not what he wanted. He wanted to be with Ginny, wanted to be with her so badly as he laid there in the tent while hunting for horcruxes, watching her on the Marauders' Map, and then once it was over he was with her and it was...not what he wanted.
After a while he tried to think about when it was he felt alive, felt like he was doing what he was supposed to, what he wanted to, and suddenly he got an image in his head and laughed. He remembered a town in Nebraska, in America, that he'd visited and helped the ranchers drive off a bunch of rustlers trying to steal their thestral herd. Or back in Patagonia, or in Colorado, or down in Florida...
He laughed. "I feel like a bloody superhero. Maybe that Indiana Jones bloke." He laughed as he thought about sitting in a hotel room in Buenos Aires as the rain pelted down outside and he watched one of the Indiana Jones movies, in Spanish, on an ancient Muggle television. "Maybe that's what I'll do. Help out. Hermione said I have this 'helping people' thing, so why not?" He looked over at a bird that hovered nearby, hoping for a crust of bread. "Why not, bird?"
The bird didn't answer, but it was enough. After two years of aimlessly wandering he had a plan. A very vague, ill-paying plan, but a plan. And that was better than the usual nothing.
2010, Alaskan Wilderness
The wind howled, rippling across the tent, making Harry glad that he'd put the reinforcing charms on the fabric earlier that week. He reached into the rucksack and fished around for a moment, eventually finding what he was looking for and brought it out, setting it on the small, almost legless table in front of him. Sitting cross-legged, a somewhat difficult proposition in the extreme weather gear, he reached into his coat and brought out his wand. With a flick the glass jar on the little table burst into blue flames, light billowing through the tent even though it generated only a faint sense of warmth. He knew it wouldn't do much to warm the tent, not much could do that, but he did like the sight of the flames as they made him somewhat nostalgic. Not for the reason to have the flames, but the company.
He shivered and with more flicks of his wand the fabric of the tent became more rigid, less noisy, and then the heat began to finally seep into his bones. After a few moments he felt something wet on his lips and reached up, realising that the ice that had formed in his beard was finally melting. He broke the ice off, used it to wash his hands, something to get the endless grime away from his skin. It was cold, obviously, but it felt good to have his hands out of the gloves and bulky mittens. As he sat there, rubbing his hands, the heat continued to rise, making his glasses fog momentarily, until eventually he sloughed off the outer layer of protective gear like a snake shedding its skin, slowly, tentatively at first and then all at once.
With his boots off, sitting across from him near the door flap, he luxuriated in being warm, in only wearing two layers of clothing, the insulated silk acromantula long johns and socks along with the insulated canvas trousers and woolen jumper. He hadn't been this warm in...days. Wanting to make the most of the opportunity he reached into his rucksack and brought out a battered notebook; it's black cover was beaten in places, ripped in another, and held together by what seemed to be a leather thong. He undid the clasp, flipped the pages and finally found the page he was looking for. After pulling out a Muggle pencil from the pocket of his trousers and sharpening the end with a rather large knife, he began writing.
Day 20. Found a trail in the morning, bad result. Polar bear was dead and eviscerated just like the others. Obvious ritual markings in the area as there was no snow and the eyes, lungs, heart and paws were taken. No trail away from the site. Sent word to my contact and then the storm came in. Made camp and might have to wait a few days until it blows over.
He looked over at his watch. It was the 4th of November. It had been towards the end of October when the Iñupiat wizard who'd contacted him about the bears helped him with provisions and wished him luck. Luck. He'd need luck, with the way the weather was shaping up and the fact that he didn't have anything to really go on except yet another horrible scene with a dead polar bear. Harry put away his notebook and began the process of settling in, doing what he usually did when he was in a place for more than a night. The way the wind was blowing he figured he was definitely going to be there for more than a day and was glad for the rest; he needed it.
He started his little cookstove, using the purified water for tea. It was odd, he knew, but as everyone liked to tell him 'the English must have their tea.' He didn't tell them that he really liked a good double espresso with a bit of sugar, instead he let them all have their fun. He'd heard it from South America to South Africa to Greenland; as soon as they heard his accent they started in on the tea bit. That made him chuckle as he reached into his bag and brought out the last letter he'd had from Hermione. It had reached him when he was in Seattle, right before heading north. He'd read it several times, but since it was his last letter he couldn't help himself.
Hermione and Ron were, well, Hermione and Ron. Some things, thank Merlin, never changed. Rosie was growing like a weed and loved to colour on everything; Hermione had even enclosed a picture from Rosie of a Sunday dinner out at the Burrow. He smiled at the crude images and could tell, for the most part, who was who. Thankfully Hermione had written on the back to make sure he knew, but there was no mistaking Rosie's Mummy and Daddy, not as large as they were and with Hermione's hair. He sat the picture aside and continued reading, a sense of fond detachment settling over him like an ache in the bones. Everyone was doing well. Ginny was pregnant. Charlie was even getting married, and Hermione even made some very subtle, for her, insinuations that Harry should think about doing that some day.
He sat the letter down on the tent floor and straightened his back. The water was ready so he began the process of making tea. While one of his last sachets of tea steeped in the little pot he'd picked up in the Andes Harry took off his glasses and rubbed his hairy face. Who in Merlin's name would marry him? Even more than that, who would he even think about marrying? Nobody came to mind. Nobody would ever think about wanting to join him in places like this, especially in a little tent in the Alaskan wilderness. Besides, the last time he'd looked in the mirror he definitely knew that looking like Hagrid was probably not putting his best foot forward. He didn't have to worry about money, not with the gold in Gringotts that he hadn't touched in ages. Well, not that often. Most of the gold he received for his efforts out and about amongst the magical people of the world he gave to charity, keeping only a little for himself, usually to kit himself out for the next place.
"Like I'm good company anyway. I haven't spoken to another person in almost a month!" He laughed to himself as the sound bounced around the tent.
Giving it up as a bad job he silently drank his tea, only pausing to wrap the small gifts he'd purchased for Rosie from the Iñupiat trader. He knew he spoiled the girl, but it was Hermione and Ron's daughter.
Later that night, after the tea things were put away and the little jar of blue flames was extinguished, he lay there in the sleeping bag and started the layers of warming charms. Once they were all completed he put his wand away, took off his glasses and laid his head down. Maybe tomorrow would be better.
The noise shot through the tent, waking him up instantly. Harry fumbled for his glasses, haphazardly put them on his face and reached over to his rucksack, the origination of the alarm.
"Dammit, I'm getting there!" He pulled out a red tin the size of a piece of parchment, flipped open the top and breathed easier as the alarm stopped going off. Focusing his eyes on the top of the tin he saw the words scroll across in glowing green letters.
***BEGIN USMMS EMERGENCY MESSAGE***
MUGGLE SCIENCE VESSEL FLOUNDERING OFF ALASKAN SHORE NEAR BEAUFORT SEA
RECEIVED DISTRESS MESSAGE FROM UNKNOWN WITCH
ANY MAGICALS IN AREA PLEASE RESPOND. THIS MESSAGE WILL REPEAT UNTIL RESPONCE RECEIVED.
***END USMMS EMERGENCY MESSAGE***
"Bloody hell." Harry braced himself and sure enough the alarm went off again. After search for a bit he finally found his wand and tapped the bottom part of the red tin. Almost as soon as he tapped the bottom part of the tin the alarm ceased and a face appeared in the bottom part of the tin as the message kept repeating up top.
A rather cross-looking man with a bald head and an imposing mustache looked at Harry from the bottom of the tin. "This is Colonel Eustace Withers, US Magical Marine Services. Please identify."
"Uh, hello there, Colonel. Harry Potter."
"Mister Potter?" Withers looked surprised. "You've got one of our communication tins?"
"Yeah, don't remember when, precisely." Harry shoved his hair back from his face. "I take it I'm close?"
"Possibly the closest, let's see." Withers' face moved from the bottom of the tin and appeared to be looking at something to his right. "I believe you are, Mr. Potter. I know your official status is rather vague, but if you're willing I know we'd appreciate it. Statutes of Secrecy take a back seat on this one, understand? We'll take care of it later."
"Yeah, I got it." Harry was scooting into the bottom of his protective gear as he spoke, leaning back somewhat to stay in view of the tin. "Any ideas?"
"Get them out of the water and away from any debris. We have a team on its way but you're the closest. Contact us when you can. Good luck, Mister Potter."
"Thanks." As Harry watched Withers' face disappear he stood up as far as he could in the tent and shrugged on his boots. "I'll need it."
As quickly as he could Harry had everything on and ready, charms started, anti-freeze and anti-fog enchantments renewed on his thick goggles, everything he'd need to brave the elements. He put the stocking cap on his head, put the goggles over his glasses and then put up the hood on the outer layer of his coat, feeling that the fur on the outer edge of the hood wasn't quite dry but he couldn't wait. With a last look back at his little tent, and specifically the picture that Rosie had drawn which had fallen out of the envelope near the rucksack, with one last look at the warmth he took a deep breath and wandlessly opened the tent flap.
The cold was a living, evil thing that wanted nothing more than to strangle him and leave him gasping for air whilst his blood gradually thickened. Maybe not exactly that, but that was what it felt like to Harry as he slowly trudged through the snow, the heavily packed and dense whiteness pushing in against him like trying to walk in the sea. So different than the beaches of Mexico. With another wandless wave of his thick mitten he rose in the air, the bottoms of his boots transfigured into snowshoes, once again glad he'd taken up that old woman in Estonia's suggestion of learning wandless magic. Made things much easier in the bitter cold.
He leaned down and took a handful of snow, patting it between his mittens, forming it into a long, thin strip of snow and then threw it in the air.
The snow snapped together, immediately crystallised into an arrow-looking shape and turned a bright red colour that pulsed softly, making it easy to see in the wind and still-blowing snow. He couldn't decide if it was actually snowing or if it was just the wind blowing the snow from the previous night, but it didn't matter. It still hit the same, it still bit into his cheeks despite the protection, it still slammed into his goggles for a millisecond before evaporating against the enchantments.
"How far?" He looked over to the arrow but it just hovered in the air, pointing away from the tent. "Bloody hell. Let me see, dammit, what was that spell?" After walking for a while, struggling against the wind, thankful that his snowshoe spell worked fine, he remembered. "Quamlonge!" He watched as the numbers began to spin in front of him, finally stopping at a number much higher than he wanted to see.
He started walking again, this time casting featherweight and other spells on himself, making it easier for him to move through the wind and the snow, but it wasn't enough. A quick tempus spell told him that he'd been out there struggling for about a half hour and had gone nowhere near as far as he needed to be, especially if people were out in the water during weather like this. He didn't stop, that would be pointless, but his mind kept racing as he tried to think of something, anything that would get him there quicker.
He felt it bumping against his skin, eventually. It was on the leather thong around his neck, a gift from a rather young and quite pretty witch in China, of all places. Nobody ever gave it a second look, something that he was grateful for, but right now he was just grateful he had it. She had told him that it would only work once, that her ancestors had granted her the gift after Harry's help, and he had assured her that he would never take the gift lightly.
He stopped. "I don't have any more options, Qiaolian."
He pulled his mitten off using his teeth and then, with his gloved hand working furiously against the wind, reached in and pulled and pushed against the layers of fabric until he found the stone, warm against his skin. It had never been warm before, but it was now. Probably a sign. Not caring about the heat he tightly gripped the stone and pulled, feeling the thong give way against the back of his neck.
With a breath that hurt due to the cold he held the stone in the palm of his hand. "I call upon the ancestors of Qiaolian for aid in time of need."
In front of him the snow began to swirl, coalescing into the rough shape of a woman, but the wind blew the snow around not giving her body true form. Her face, though, was fully realised. "You ask for aid, Harry Potter."
"I do." He hesitated and then bowed awkwardly. "I need to get to the ship that's...it's sinking. The arrow knows the way." He pointed to the arrow. "I have to help them."
"Very well." The show-shaped woman seemed to melt into the snow but almost as soon as she disappeared others began to take form, first a few but then it seemed to Harry as if there were thirty, forty shapes in the snow. One shape looked to hold an arm out to another shape and then other shape took the arm, meeting the other shape and growing in size.
The process repeated itself over and over until, undulating over the snow, shining white and as real as his hand, was an icy bearded Chinese dragon. It glided over to him, large and grinning.
Harry took several large, snowshoe steps and was almost towards the head of the dragon when he felt himself picked up, instantly cold as if he'd stuck his head in the ocean, but almost as soon as it had happened it was over and he found himself straddling a dragon made of ice and snow. The dragon moved as if breathing, but he couldn't concentrate on that now. He pointed ahead towards the red arrow.
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. She knew there would be a possibility of something like a shipwreck, but the Muggles assured her that it hadn't happened in ages. The sound had been enough to ensure that it actually did happen, a sound like someone had taken a thousand pianos and dropped them off the top of a Quidditch pitch at the same time.
As the crew radioed for help she sat there, against the wall of the main research cabin, and stared at the maps. It had been hard for her to get approval to come on the trip, harder to pretend to be a Muggle, but it was even harder for her to admit that all her research was for naught; she'd never find what she was looking for, not now. She'd drown with the Muggles in the frigid waters and nobody would ever know it was her. She was using an assumed identity, had covered her tracks well, and they would never find her body. Her poor mother would be inconsolable.
As the reports came in from the captain that it would be hours, too many hours, before the Muggles were there to rescue them in the storm that she made her decision. She might be incarcerated for the rest of her life, or have to personally obliviate every single Muggle on the boat, but she couldn't just give up. She had to do something.
Decision made she ran from the research room, down through the levels of the ship, hurried footfalls echoing metallically along the narrow corridors until she finally made it to her berth. Frantically throwing things aside she reached down for the little box, pressed her thumb against the corner and felt the small prick of the needles. The charm took forever to verify her identity, but once it did the top of the box slid forward revealing her wand.
Her wand. She took the thin tool out of the box and held it lightly in her hand, the magic thrumming along as it seemed to seep into her very bloodstream. The secrecy agreements could go fuck themselves, this was life or death. She held up her wand and with all of her energy focused on sending out some sort of distress signal.
It worked. A beam of light shot out from her wand and up through the ship. She somehow recognised that she was successful, right before her eyes closed and everything went black.
The dragon ended almost as abruptly as it began. Harry could see the ship coming closer in the distance, off in the water, listing horribly to one side. It was while trying to determine how far it had gone into the water when the dragon stopped, simply breaking apart and dissolving into the snow, sending him tumbling forward.
He rolled over, sat up and hurriedly wiped the snow out of his face. The ship wasn't under; he still had time. Tapping the goggles once he muttered Vergroot, an Afrikaans spell he'd learned to magnify his goggles like a pair of Omnioculars. He could see that the Muggles on the ship were doing what they could, orange lifeboats were out there, but with the choppiness of the sea and the ice and the cold there wasn't much hope those little boats would survive.
With a deep breath, and remembering what that Colonel had said about the secrecy statutes, Harry turned as quickly as possible, not an easy proposition in all of the snow and bulky clothing, but eventually though it caught and with a pop of Apparition he was gone from the snow, appearing almost instantaneously on the deck of the ship.
"What the hell!?" A crewman trying to drag a lifeboat away from the wind and back to the center of their escape efforts stood up suddenly and let go of the lifeboat. The wind caught it like a sail, sending the boat whipping over the top cabin of the ship, inflated orange fabric straining against the cold metal, until finally the wind won out and sent the lifeboat hurtling into the air like a child's balloon.
Harry held up his hands in what was the almost universal symbol of 'I mean you no harm.' "I'm here to help."
"Great, thanks!" The man nodded, somewhat in shock. "I'll take a cheeseburger." He shook his head. "You aren't real, this is bullshit. I'm freezing to death and going crazy!"
"Fuck." Harry muttered it under his breath, shook his hand violently to make the mitten come off and reached into his sleeve with his gloved fingers, happy to come out with his wand on the first try. "Stupefy." The man hit the deck and Harry went over, grabbed him by the collar of his coat and drug him into a semblance of shelter. "Sorry. I'll apologise later."
After doing a quick Accio for his mitten he made his way into the main part of the ship, listening intently, trying to get an idea of where everyone was. Since the sounds were echoing all over the place he once again took out his wand and cast a hominum revelio spell, watching as the blobs of light began to form into human shapes, all of them upright except for one blob down towards the bottom of the ship, a blob that looked prone. Prone. Prone wasn't good.
"HEY! Who the hell are you?"
Harry turned to see a man about his age walking quickly over to him, holding what looked like some sort of Muggle communication device. Once again he held up his hands in a hope that it would go better than the last time, but hiding his wand behind his thick sleeves. "I'm here to help, we need to get everyone off the ship."
"Like hell!" The man moved forward, reaching back in his trousers and pulled out what was unmistakably a Muggle pistol. "I'm not losing my ship to pirates!"
"Pirates? Pirates?" Harry put his hands down and took off his goggles, lowering his hood at the same time. "Do I look like a bloody pirate?"
The man pointed the gun at Harry, steadying it with his other hand. "Just keep your hands where I can see 'em, Blackbeard. Now we're gonna do this real slow, and you can tell the Russians or whoever it is you're working for that they're not getting my data. I'm sure your friends out there will..."
The man holding the gun paused and then just seemed to tip over slowly, falling against the corridor, his head banging loudly. With an irritated breath Harry reached down, picked up the Muggle pistol and emptied it of bullets. He had some experience with Muggle weapons, not that he enjoyed it, but it did come in handy every now and then. Once the pistol was empty he put it in his pocket and stepped over the man. He thought about just walking away but something made him stop, perhaps the tone of authority the man used and how he called it 'his' data. Whatever that meant. He levitated the man up, recalled his Auror days and bound the man and then leaned him against the wall.
"What the...who...what the hell..." The man looked down and saw his situation. "What did..."
"Shut up and listen. I'm your only hope if you want to survive until the real rescue team gets here. I'm not a pirate, I'm not here to steal your data, whatever the hell that is, I've been sent by the USMMS to keep you lot alive..."
"United States Magical Marine Service." Harry watched as the man looked at him like most Muggles do when confronted with the magical. "Here." He lifted up his wand and ceased the Auror apprehension spell. "See? I'm a wizard. I'll save you and your crew but you have to stop trying to attack me, for the love of Merlin."
"You don't care about my data?" The man looked at him oddly.
"I don't give a flying fuck about your data, mate."
The man stood there, tongue rolling around in his cheek but eventually he pursed his lips and nodded. "You know what? I don't care if you tell me you're Jesus Christ, John Lennon or John Elway, if you can get me and everyone on board off safely then you can call yourself Harry Houdini and you won't get any shit from me."
"Close." Harry stuck out his hand. "Harry, that's my name. Not the Houdini part, though."
"Sure. Why not." The man shook Harry's hand. "And I'm Walt Disney."
"Right." Harry nodded. "Well, come on then, Walt. Let's get everyone together. Where's the best place?"
"The galley, it's the only place big enough that's not outside or taking water."
"The galley it is then." Harry nodded. "Oh, here's this. Sorry about that." He handed the man the pistol. "I removed the bullets."
The man looked at the gun and stuck it in his jeans. "Sure. Fine. Whatever." He started towards the corridor and looked back to Harry. "So Houdini, when I go tell everyone to meet in the galley, what am I telling them?"
"Say that a short-term rescue effort is here and they need to take only the essentials with them. Time is of the essence."
"No shit. Ok, then." He stopped and looked at Harry suspiciously. "And where are you going?"
"I saw someone down lower in the ship. The weren't sitting or standing so they might be hurt."
"Fuck, nobody's supposed to be below the...ok, you're on your own. How long?"
Harry flicked his wand for a tempus spell, ignoring the gaping expression of the Muggle. "Ten minutes. Go." As he watched the man disappear Harry quickly pulled out the red tin and opened the lid. Almost instantly the face of the colonel appeared.
"Potter! Thought we lost you. Status?"
"I'm on board, they're not making it easy. It's going quickly, might be one injured. Haven't found the magical yet."
The colonel shook his head. "The hell with that just get them off that ship. Weather's getting worse, if you can believe it. Muggles have called off their rescue team but we've got two units heading your way. You've got about three hours before we can get there."
"All right, three hours." Harry nodded and tapped the tin.
As the lid closed he hurriedly stuck it in the outer pocket of his great coat and cast the hominum revelio spell again, happy to see that a large number of the human-shaped blobs were all moving towards the same direction in the ship. Unfortunately, though, the one prone blob towards the bottom of the ship hadn't moved.
Harry flicked his wand and a blue blob of light winked into existence in front of him. Another wave of the wand, this time with a verbal spell, and the words 'point me' echoed through the groaning metal corridor, followed soon by hurried footsteps. Footsteps following a blob of light heading down, further into the ship, further into the cold, and closer to the gashed metal leaking water. Heavy, cold water.
At first she thought she was dead. That was the logical explanation, as she was warm, the light was bright even though she couldn't actually see anything. Instead it felt like she was looking through the sheets like she did when she was small, trying to watch her mother and determine if she was in trouble for pretending to be asleep; hazy, but not completely indistinct.
Then she moved her leg and felt the pain shoot through her chest as if it was a centaur's arrow, direct and too fast to follow. Her response was immediate and involuntary. "Aaaaah!"
"Move over, give her some room."
She heard the somewhat muffled sounds above her, recognising the voices as members of the crew. Still not trusting her eyes she began to move parts of her body individually at first. She ignored the left leg as that had hurt the first time, but the right leg was fine. Her fingers, arms, everything else seemed fine, but then she just ever-so-slightly moved her neck and pain blossomed like fireworks behind her eyes. This time, though, she didn't cry out, instead she gripped whatever fabric was in her hands, tight as she could, hoping that if she didn't let her pain out she could master it. If not that, at least she might be able to pretend that she was ok and avoid a medical examination; a full Muggle examination would reveal things best hidden.
Slowly her pain receded and she felt several sets of hands gently take her by the arms and lift her into a somewhat prone seating position. Her eyes were still covered, though, which worried her.
"Margot, you're safe."
She recognised the voice, one of her roommates on the voyage. Penny. "Penny, what happened?" She heard muttering. "Penny?"
"We're safe, Margot. And...you're gonna think I'm crazy, but some guy named Houdini saved us. He's a fucking wizard. It's real."
"Oh." Margot felt her chest heave with thick, heavy breaths. She'd done it. Her distress signal was successful. And she'd broken the statute of secrecy for at least five countries, based on the nationalities of the crew. "That's interesting."
"Interesting? Are you nuts? Here, hold on."
She felt the wrapping come off of her eyes and blinked rapidly, adjusting to the light. Penny knelt in front of her, hair pulled back and her cats' eye glasses somewhat askew. She did like the Muggle woman, although their goals for the voyage were somewhat different, and felt pained that her friendship would end so soon. She'd saved them, but lost them as well.
"There, how's that?" Penny sat back for a moment. "You had us worried. How'd you hit your head like that? Ship move or something?"
"I'm not sure." She held her hand up to her head and felt a large bump right above her left temple. "What happened?"
"Ask Houdini. Damned if I know." Penny stood up and looked off in the distance. "HEY! HOUDINI! SHE WOKE UP!" She turned back to Margot. "He'll be right here. Just be careful, he looks weird. Nothing like the wizards from the movies. Does have a big beard, though. Maybe that's a requirement." She looked nervous and glanced towards the direction where the wizard must be coming from. "I'll talk to you later, ok? Be careful."
As she left it gave Margot time to take in her surroundings. It looked as if it was a tent, but there's no way a Muggle tent could possibly stretch to those dimensions and hold over fifty people. A laugh came to her, soft and low. Of course; he was a wizard. Their rescuer was a wizard.
"How are you feeling?" He knelt down next to her, a mass of black hair and a giant beard. Somewhere in there green eyes examined her closely. "You gave us a scare."
"Fine, I think. My leg hurts."
He nodded. "I did the best I could. You have a broken leg. When you...sent the message the best I can figure is that you, well, exhausted yourself and passed out. That's when I think you hit your head. We think the boat shifted sometime after that and a bookcase fell on your leg. I did a quick field healer spell but you really need Skel-e-gro to take care of it."
She looked at him oddly. Something seemed familiar about him. "You're British? What are you doing in Alaska?"
He looked at her a little oddly. "That sounds like a French accent to me, but you have excellent English. I could ask you the same thing." Before she could answer he nodded. "Ah. Almost forgot. Here."
She felt something against her hand and then knew immediately what it was; her wand. "Thank you."
"Not a problem." He sighed and then sat down cross-legged next to her. "So, Miss..."
"Deschamps. Margot Deschamps."
He looked at her oddly and then chuckled. "If you say so."
"What?" She tilted her head at him and batted her eyes. "You do not believe me?"
He laughed a bit. "No, I don't. But it doesn't matter. So, Miss...Deschamps, let me tell you the situation. I came here as a favour to the USMMS..." He saw her look of confusion. "The United States Magical Marine Service. I came as a favour to them in answer to your distress call, everyone is off the boat which is a good thing because right now I don't know if pixies could stand in there without getting their hair wet. If pixies have hair..."
"They do. Very fine hair."
"Ok." Harry nodded. "I'll take your word for it. Anyway, the boat's about gone, I've setup a temporary camp in an ice cave I've made and engorgio'd the hell out my spare Muggle tent. For Merlin's sake don't touch the walls, there are so many warming charms on the fabric I'm afraid it'll burst. Everybody here is convinced that they're hallucinating, they've died or they're crazy. Nobody believes that I'm really a wizard except for maybe the captain." He shook his head. "He keeps calling me Houdini and it suck, believe it or not. So that's the situation. We've got about an hour or so until the USMMS rescue squads get here, the weather's too bad for the Muggles to try and rescue their lot, so we said the hell with the statues. Any other questions?"
She looked at him oddly. "Who are you? Really?"
"Tck tck tck." He made a clucking noise with his tongue against his teeth and shook his head. "Why should I tell you without a secret in trade? Why are you out here with a bunch of Muggles, Miss Deschamps?"
She looked at him and decided to throw caution to the wind. After all, she was going to be locked up forever for breaking all the secrecy agreements. "Whales."
"Wales? What's good ol' Crymu got to do with Alaska?"
She shook her head. "No, you idiot. Whales. W-h-a-..."
"Oh, whales whales. Right. Got it. What about them?"
She took a breath. "They are not Muggle beasts, they are magical."
"Really?" He sat back and pondered for a bit. "Ok, they're magical. So what? So are Thestrals. Your point?
"I'm trying to protect them." She looked at him crossly. "If word gets out they are magical, just imagine what would happen. Every potion master..."
"Ah." He nodded solemnly. "I understand. Like what happened to the Gaulois Worms."
"Uh!" She let out a snort of disgust. "Ancient French dragons, hunted to extinction for the body parts. Horrible." She shivered in anger. "I had almost finished my research when..." She shrugged. "Now it is all lost."
"Mmmm..." Harry smirked. "Maybe, maybe not." He reached into his light jacket and pulled out a very small box, holding it between his fingers as if it was a Bertie Botts' bean. "I did a quick scan and found this..."
She went to grab it but he pulled his hand back. Unfortunately the motion made her leg move just a little too much and she winced. He was over to her leg, waving his wand over it. The leg glowed a little bit brighter in one spot, making him frown.
"Sorry about that." He tapped the small box and after it resumed its normal size he handed it to her. "That wasn't very nice of me, I apologise."
"You saved them." She hugged the box to her chest. "You saved them, all my work..." She looked over at him. "What are you doing?"
He looked at her, ran a hand through his hair and put on a pair of glasses. "It appears that I'm going to have to try and play Healer. The leg's not doing so well."
"Are you sure you can do that?"
"Well..." Harry pushed back his sleeves. "I had the standard Auror course, but that was years ago."
"Auror?" She looked at him, hard. It was hard to tell, with all the hair, but there was something about him...
"Yeah, I was an Auror for a while. Gave it up, though, so I could spend exciting times like this. Hold still. Um, this may sting a bit." He cast the numbing spell and was surprised that she didn't respond. "You're doing well. Ok, don't look at me, I can't do this while you're watching me. I know, it doesn't make any sense, just humour me, ok?"
Turning away from him Margot looked over and saw that everyone, absolutely everyone was on the other side of the tent, as far away from them as possible, watching 'Houdini' work on her leg. She locked eyes with Penny, aware of how her Muggle friend was afraid for her. Penny tried to get her to look towards Houdini, but she wouldn't do it. Instead she focused on the top of the tent, how the plastic cables and cords looped over one another, large as tree trunks.
"There." He sat back and wiped sweat from his face. "I think that should hold until they get here."
"What did you do?" She looked down at her leg and couldn't see any difference. For a second she thought about moving it but didn't; instead she looked up to him. "Is it..."
"I've re-set the bone. It's not St. Mungo's level quality, that's for sure, but it'll do until...it'll do. Numbing spells unfortunately won't last long enough to keep any real pain away. Sorry, that's pretty much the extent of my skills for broken legs. Knew a witch in Kenya that was brilliant at it, though." He fished in his jacket and eventually pulled out a very small vial. "So, Miss Deschamps, I've got the last bit of my Dreamless Sleep draughts here. I can make things go much easier for you. It won't kill the pain but it'll make it easier to endure. Tell you what, I'll give it to you if you tell me your real name."
"You're blackmailing an injured witch? You are horrible, sir."
"Mmmm, yeah, I've heard that." He shook the vial gently. "So?"
"Fine. Give me the vial first."
"Deal." He handed her the vial.
Without a second's hesitation she popped the cork on the vial, smelled it and then, realising that he had been truthful, drank the potion. Almost instantly she felt sleepy, but more than that she felt the pain recede. With wide eyes she looked at him.
"Oh, right." He snapped his fingers. "Forgot that has a pain reliever in there as well. Nighty-night Miss..."
"Delacour. Gabrielle Delacour."
He sat there for a moment until she fell asleep. "Bloody fucking hell, I did not expect that."
He sat on the side of the bed, feet propped up on a table that he'd scooted over from the side of the room. The American Healers came in every now and then, checked on Gabrielle, noted things on their clipboards and then walked off, leaving him alone. At first they had been rather insistent that he stay outside, but the combination of Harry's stubbornness and the colonel's gratitude eased any restrictions on visitors.
"Gabrielle Delacour. Huh. Funny."
It was funny three rooms away, as it was approximately the fortieth time he'd said the same thing, causing the Healer back in the observation room to laugh yet again. The colonel, from his vantage point, watched as Harry sat there on the screen, twirling his wand occasionally with his fingers, and every now and then glanced over at the French girl lying in bed.
"Colonel?" The Head Healer looked at him. "Based on the tests Miss Delacour can be released within the next hour. Her vitals are responding well and Mr. Potter's field repair was surprisingly well done. We believe she should suffer no ill effect from the slight head trauma, especially with her unique...physiology."
"Very well. Thank you, Healer." Colonel Withers nodded and stepped away into the other room, touching a small object on the wall. The door to the room where the Healer remained closed almost instantly and another door, on the opposite side of the room opened, revealing an older man in a dark, official looking robe. "Sir." Withers saluted.
"At ease, Withers." The man scratched his head and looked as if someone had just told him that down was, actually, up. "There any coffee? Gonna need some, this isn't going to be over anytime soon."
"Shit." Withers shook his head. "How bad, Bill?"
"Goddamn it, Eustace! I may be your brother-in-law but I'm your commanding officer. Try and remember that every now and then, will ya?"
The colonel swallowed a smirk. "Fine, General. But I saluted, that should count for something."
"Ok, fine. Cindy'd have my hide if she thought..." He turned and tapped his wand on one of the walls, making a screen come up on Gabrielle's room, showing Harry still in his chair. "This has turned into a Grade A, all-hands clusterfuck."
"What?" The colonel looked at him oddly. "What do you mean? We followed international law set down by the ICW. Obliviation was carried out, we did everything by the book..."
"We're fine, the ICW's good with us, but it's the Muggles. Do you know what that ship was actually doing, Eustace? Looking for oil, that's their cover story, but they found a map to some old ship stuck up here under the ice, supposedly filled with gold, and they were going to blow up the ice and either wait for the ship to come loose and float out of there or try and salvage what they could."
"Nah, you're joking."
"Wish I was. They were going to blow up part of the...we found tons of explosives. Tons."
"Are you sure they just don't want to blow up the planet? They are Muggles, you know. Maybe there's something else." The colonel pointed towards the screen. "Maybe you should ask her, she was on the boat with them."
"Perhaps. And what was he doing out there?" The general tapped on the screen, right over Harry's position. "Did you ever get a straight answer?"
"You know Potter. Nobody ever gets a straight answer from him. He's got quite the reputation, though. I admit it, I kind of admire him. Like Robin Hood, without..."
"Yes, I know about Potter." The general sighed. "I think we'll have to bring in the Muggles on this. I don't think we can sit on it."
"Are you sure?" The colonel looked at him oddly. "Bill, you know what that means."
"I know, but it can't be helped." He turned back to the screen. "Cut 'em loose in an hour, but make sure they know if anybody has questions they have to answer."
She took his arm, somewhat uncertain and unsteady, but after a few steps her confidence returned and she walked out of the Healer's room and followed their guide to a small conference room. They were both briefed by a witch who seemed as if talking to either of them was the last thing she wanted to do; she didn't mention them by name, she didn't ask them to sign anything, she just told them that the Muggles had been obliviated, the respective magical governments involved had been contacted, and they were to respond immediately to any requests for interviews by the ICW in the next six to twelve months. With that she threw a picture frame on the desk, told them that it was a portkey and they would arrive in Anchorage in ten minutes. She waited, with her wand out, until both of them touched the portkey.
As soon as the portkey deposited them in what, to Harry's memory, was the Anchorage portkey station he turned to Gabrielle. It was so hard to see her standing there, as it had been hard to see her lying in that bed; in his mind's eye she was still that little girl he'd pulled from the lake during the second task of the Tri-Wizard tournament. He'd seen her at Bill and Fleur's wedding, of course, but that had descended into chaos and...well, he didn't remember her from that event.
"So, Mister Houdini..." She turned to him. "I think maybe we should have a chat."
"Um, sure." He nodded. "And then I need to go back to work."
"Work?" She tossed the picture frame into the portkey recycling bin. "What do you mean?"
"I was out there working when I got the distress call. Need to finish my job." He glanced over at her and tried to read the signs ahead; unfortunately everything was a bit blurry. Cursing internally, as he knew that his glasses were a bit of a giveaway, he reached into his coat and pulled out his spectacles, propping them on his nose and fastening them around his ears. "Looks like there's a restaurant up ahead. Hungry?"
She stopped and looked at him. Tilting her head from side to side she squinted and then, lifting up her hand, she pushed aside the long, dark hair from his face.
"Dammit." He sighed.
"Harry? Harry Potter?" She stepped back, and his hair fell down, but that couldn't hide what she'd seen. She'd seen it, just as she'd seen it long ago. The famous, lightning-shaped scar. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"Honestly?" He scratched his beard. "I didn't recognise you. You were, what, the last time I saw you, eight? Nine?"
"Hmmmph." She shook her head. "I was eleven when Fleur and Bill were married."
"Yeah, well, sorry, but I remember a lot of things from that night, and I'm afraid you aren't one of them." He gave her an apologetic smile. "You remember what happened, of course."
"Of course." She put her arm through his and pulled him gently towards the restaurant. "But yet again you are there to save me in freezing water."
"Um...ok, you have a point." He let her drag him towards the restaurant.
They were seated quickly, as there wasn't much of a crowd, and when Harry slipped the waitress an extra bill or two she gladly moved them to a quiet table in the back. He explained that it was always his way, as before he'd always get mobbed, back then by well-wishers and then by those who wanted something from him. She understood.
She understood. The simple phrase kept rolling around in Harry's head. She understood. After so many years it was nice to have someone understand, even if it was such a small, simple thing as where to sit in a restaurant.
They ordered and while they waited for their food he found himself looking at her, trying to mentally compare her to his memory of her younger self. She'd changed her hair, it was no longer the pure, silvery-blonde from before, probably to throw off the Muggles or look more inconspicuous. The light brown colour suited her, though. She seemed shorter than Fleur, though he couldn't remember exactly how tall Fleur was since he hadn't seen her in...years. Something about Fleur was more...voluptuous, that was the word that came to mind. Gabrielle was...pretty, that was obvious, but she seemed more athletic. Earthy.
He shook his head slightly. "Sorry. Drifted there for a moment."
"When was the last time you slept?"
"Not that long ago, I mean..." He took a quick look at his watch. "Oh. Longer than I thought."
She looked at him as if he was a schoolboy who'd just admitted to stealing biscuits from the tin. "After we eat you are going to bed. No arguments."
He held up his hands. "Fine, fine. I'm not arguing."
"Good." She stared at him, trying to figure him out. He was so odd, this Harry Potter, so different than the Harry Potter of her memories. She had rather the crush on him, and part of her, still that little part of her that remained eleven, was hurt that he hadn't remembered her at Fleur and Bill's wedding, but she knew the reason. Voldemort, the fall of the British Ministry, the war, all of it. And the man across from her, with his wild hair and beard, the man across from her had ended that war.
She watched as he accepted the plate from the waitress gratefully, dumped a large amount of ketchup on his plate and attacked the burger and chips as if he hadn't eaten in days. Perhaps he hadn't eaten in days. What kind of life was it for him, living out in the fringes of magical society, doing...whatever it was he did. She'd heard the rumours, of course, that he was a modern Robin Hood, but instead of stealing from the rich he broke up dark cults, working against dark magic all over the world. He deserved better. The world owed him more than they would ever know. He deserved better.
"Something wrong with your burger?" Harry pointed a chip at her plate.
"Sorry. My turn to drift."
"Maybe you should sleep a bit, too."
"It's good advice." She lifted up her burger and took a bite. It was slightly overcooked, the lettuce was partially wilted and the cheese was over-processed American garbage. It tasted wonderful.
The knocking woke him, not the alarm clock which was buzzing from the nightstand. He rolled over, tapped it off and then sat up. After locating his glasses he slipped out of bed, grabbed his jeans and put them on, half-hopping on his way to the door. "I'm coming, I'm coming."
He peered through the peephole and then reached over and found his t-shirt, throwing it on quickly. "Just a minute." After a deep breath he opened the door.
Gabrielle stood there, but not the Gabrielle that he'd eaten a burger with yesterday; no, this was Gabrielle as he remembered her, albeit much more grown up and...blonde. She'd changed her hair back, now it was cascading over her shoulders. He noticed her smiling and then followed her eyes to the large duffel bag on the floor next to her.
"My things. Are you going to let me in?"
"Huh? Sure." He stepped back and opened the door wide, leaving he room to walk in, dragging the duffel bag behind her. Once she'd tossed that onto the bed he closed the door. "So..."
"Going back. You said your job isn't done, and I'm almost done, and..."
"Nope, nope." He shook his head. "Oh no, not gonna happen."
"And why not?"
"Well..." He stood there, barefoot, and realised that his fly was unzipped. As it is hard to be authoritative with an unzipped fly he walked off and went into the loo. "Give me a minute, will you? Please?"
Once the door was shut Harry stood there, gripping the sides of the sink and stared at his reflection in the mirror. Should he do it, take her along? What was the worst thing that could happen? As his mind instantly went to the worst possible scenarios he shook his head and looked back at his face and thought of Hagrid, which made him think of being a little kid going to Hogwarts for the first time, and that made him think of Hermione and Ron, and that made him think of little Rosie Weasley, who he hadn't seen in years, only sending gifts from all over the world.
Gabrielle's muffled voice came through the loo door. "Harry? All right in there?"
"Fine. Just a minute." He turned back to his reflection and realised that even though he'd been with Gabrielle only a short time, less than a few days, something was different. Something he couldn't put his finger on. He blinked several times, finally remembered to zip up his fly and then flushed the toilet and washed his hands for good measure. A few moments later he opened the door to find her sitting in the only chair in the hotel room, leafing through a catalogue. "What's that?"
"This?" She flipped the catalogue over so he could see the front. "It's from France, one of the outfitters for skiing and being in the Alps. You could use a few of these things."
"I'm sure I could." He sat down on the bed and looked at her. "You sure you want to go?"
"I am. I still want to make sure, for the whales."
"Right." He nodded his head. "Tell you what, we get back to my camp and we'll talk then, ok? It's not going to be easy out there, and if...you know how to protect yourself?"
"Harry." She shook her head. "You know of my heritage, but you don't know..." She laughed. "Harry, before I left I worked for the Ministère de la Magie, they would not let anyone become a zoologiste magie without knowing how to protect oneself from dangerous beasts."
He shook his head. "If Hagrid looked like you I'm sure the Creatures class would always be full."
"Funny." She shook her head at him right back. "Because right now you look like Hagrid from what I remember. Much shorter, but still as hairy."
"Right." He stroked the big, bushy beard. "Keeps me warm plus nobody expects, well, me to have a beard like this. You didn't recognise me at first, did you?"
"No, I didn't." She turned away and began to look through the duffel bag.
Harry started to say something, as he'd obviously struck a nerve, but decided against it and started getting dressed the rest of the way. Once he was done, and had gone in and splashed some water over his face and done a tooth cleansing charm, he turned back to find Gabrielle sitting on his bed, looking through a notebook. "Your research?"
"Yes, it is." She closed the notebook. "Based on my data I might have to wait another month or so for them to return."
"Oh." Harry nodded and then turned to pack the rest of his things, not that there was much to pack since pretty much everything was back at his impromptu base camp. A month?
She stood inside the small tent, almost hunched over, as he came behind her and closed the flap with a wandless and wordless spell. That was impressive, she'd seen that done only a few times, but the quality of his magic was overshadowed by the smallness of his life within the fabric of the tent. It was sparsely filled, giving her a feeling of...loss. A letter sat on the side of a little box, covered with frost. The entire tent was covered with frost.
"Let me start up the warming spells." He huffed and a cloud of condensation seemed to erupt from his mouth, hovering around his beard. "Can you do a spell that will draw out the moisture? I'm afraid if I just start heating things up we'll get wet."
"Oui." She pulled off a glove and took out her wand, remembering one of the spells they used to dry skins for preservation. Preparing exhibits for one of the wizarding museums in Belgium was part of her final exam at university, but that had been so long ago.
"Why the French?"
"What?" She turned and saw him starting the spells very slowly layering the base at the bottom of the tent.
"You haven't slipped into French very much, if at all. Why now?" He watched as she pushed her hair back from her face and began the spell. He could feel the moisture start to leave the tent, starting with the drops of water in his beard. "Thoughts?"
"Not now." She waved him off with her free hand and continued to concentrate.
"Okey dokey." He continued with his spells.
After what seemed like an eternity for both of them they were finished; the tent was warm and dry, warm enough to shed the protective outer layers. That led to a few nervous glances, on both their parts, but in some unspoken agreement they both settled on the layer above the magical, insulated long johns. Two sets of boots sat by the door and once again Harry started the little cookstove, hoping against hope that there was still another sachet of tea left. When it was apparent that yes, one precious packet still remained, Harry pumped his arm in victory.
"Happy?" Gabrielle looked at him oddly, only feet away as the waves of warmth emanated from the little stove. "Harry?"
He held out the tea sachet. "Last one left!"
"English and their tea." She clucked and rolled her eyes. "What I wouldn't give for a good latte..."
"Oh, you'll survive." Harry put the kettle on and settled in across the stove from her. Unsure of what to do, he sat there, trying to remember the last time he'd had tea with a woman who he could possibly be interested in...shit. He looked over at her, briefly, and watched as she leaned down and paged through her notebook. It wasn't the Veela thing, he had never been bothered by that before and certainly wasn't now. She wasn't that much younger than he was, not really, not now that they were no longer in school, besides, she'd gone to university in France, so she had to be in her twenties at least. Maybe mid-twenties. He'd just turned thirty, so that wasn't too bad. But what could he offer her? Life in a tent?
"Huh?" He looked at her and then heard it, the whistle of the kettle. "Right." He took the kettle off the stove, dropped the sachet of tea in the little teapot and poured the water, unable to look at anything but the rising steam. It had to be his imagination, there was no way she'd be interested in him. All the others gave up eventually and chucked him. Why should this be any different than those times?
"Do you have a pot?" Gabrielle looked at him strangely. There was something off with him. Something was wrong. "Harry?"
"Huh? A pot? Um, I think so. Hold on." He scooted away from her and reached into a box, pulled out a smaller box and then tapped it with his wand, making the box grow until it was about the size for a medium cooking pot. "This work?"
She took the box from him, opened it up and nodded. "Oui." Without another word she moved the pot onto the little cook stove, reached into her rucksack and pulled out a little jar of something, and then opened the lid and dumped the contents into the pot. After stowing the jar she began stirring the contents of the pot with her wand, very slowly at first, and then, when it seemed like she was going to stir forever, a few quick flicks of her wand sent the aroma through the tent.
Harry inhaled deeply. "Beef stew?"
"A poor boeuf aux carottes, I'm afraid. I could not find many supplies in Anchorage for what I needed."
"Smells wonderful. Thanks."
"You're welcome." She looked at him. "Thank you for letting me come."
He nodded and motioned with his head towards her notebook. "So, the whales...close or..."
"Not." She shook her head. "I was right. A month, maybe more, maybe less. At least three weeks from my data."
"Uh-huh." Harry leaned over and smelled the stew, letting the steam rise up through his beard.
"Get back!" She thumped him a little on his shoulder. "I do not want your beard hairs in the pot!"
"Sorry." He gave her an apologetic look. "Not used to being with anyone else, not really. Especially not in the tent."
"Hhhm." She looked at him, her blue eyes narrow. "And why not? What about you and Bill's sister? I thought you two..." She stopped as his expression had changed to an almost impassive look, as if he no longer had any emotions. "Harry?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Very well. No stew for you." She reached forward and pulled the little cook stove over to her side, amused when he tried to stop her.
"Hey, not fair!"
"Who held medicine hostage to a woman with a broken leg and a head injury? Hmmm?"
He pointed a finger at her. "Ok, that's absolutely true and not fair."
She leaned forward and inhaled the stew. "Maybe a touch more pepper..."
"Fine. Fine." Harry leaned back on his hands and looked at her. "You win."
That night, over a beef stew served in tea mugs as he didn't have any bowls, Harry told her everything. After so long of holding it in, of ignoring it, of pushing it down and hoping that things would get better one day he just couldn't take it and it came spilling out like a burst dam. How the thought of Ginny kept him going while hunting horcruxes, only to find the reality of him and Ginny together just didn't work. The mistakes that followed, Angelina, Lavender, he recounted it all and she sat there and listened. She didn't judge, she didn't comment, not much, but she sat there and listened. She did smirk rather broadly when he recounted his 'dating' with Hestia, though, and he found himself looking away from her.
Somehow, though, as he kept telling her things, things he hadn't told anyone, he found himself closer and closer to her, physically. At one point he had shivered a bit so she reinforced the warming charms on the tent, cast another warming charm on a blanket from her rucksack and covered him with it. She didn't sit right next to him, though, but she was close. He didn't mind.
He told her about Rosie, all the pictures that Hermione sent when she wrote to him, the presents he sent her from all over the world. Even though it wasn't official, he didn't think it was, anyway, he treated Rosie like she was his god-daughter. He was lying on his side when he pulled Rosie's last picture out from the envelope, the crayon illustration of a Sunday dinner at the Burrow. At that point Gabrielle was lying on her stomach, listening to him, so she simply crawled over and laid next to him while he pointed out all the different people, laughing at how Rosie had drawn Hermione's hair.
He fell silent for a moment, and Gabrielle had thought that he was out of words, but then he started in on his travels. It seemed amazing, how he had been all over the world, helping rid the magical communities of dark magic, or sometimes just a troublesome magical beast, but he somehow found his way all over the globe. She laid there as he described the sun coming up on the Mexican beach, night falling in Africa as the stars seemed to be close enough you could catch them, thick as fireflies. South America, India, Russia, so many countries, almost every continent.
"And now I'm here, in Alaska. With you." He leaned forward. "I shouldn't have brought you here. It's dangerous."
"Harry..." She leaned up, close to him. "I told you..."
"But this is different." He shook his head. "They're doing rituals with polar bears."
"Mon Dieu!" She covered her mouth with her hand, eyes wide. "When you say..."
"It's like the whales, Gabrielle. Just like the whales."
She put her head down on her arm and closed her eyes tightly. Her emotions were so fraught, thinking about the polar bears, and everything that Harry had gone through, that she almost didn't feel his hand softly stroking her hair.
"Shhh...it's ok. It'll be ok, I'll catch them."
She turned her head over slowly. "Promise me you'll catch them?"
"I will." He nodded softly, his eyes catching hers. "I will."
"Good." She leaned up and wiped her nose slightly. "Good."
"You're cold." He took out his wand and cast another warming charm. "Shit, I don't know if the tent can take much more. Wonder how cold it is outside?" He cast a quick spell and watched as the number floated in front of him. "That explains it."
"Bad?" She looked at him.
She rolled her eyes. "You have a horrible accent."
"Hey, I was told I have a passable French accent." He itched his beard for a moment. "Let me see...what was that phrase...oh. Yeah." He cleared his throat. "Je voudrais, uh, manger vos...ongles. Yeah that's it."
Gabrielle looked at him for a moment and then burst out into laughter. "You want to eat my toenails?"
"What? That's not what I said." He exhaled deeply and sat back, bringing his knees up to his chest. "They lied to me, didn't they?"
"They did. Who told you..."
He shook his head. "Doesn't matter. It's cold as...well, it's cold out there. Why don't you get in your sleeping bag and I'll..."
"Harry." She shook her head at him. "Really?"
He gulped. It had been a very, very long time since he had shared any type of bed with a woman. There had been the one woman in New Zealand, but there wasn't much sleeping in that, plus it had been...two years ago?
"Harry...don't be shy. It is only logical." Gabrielle held open her large sleeping bag, casting a warming charm on it and then flicking her wand to make the spell infinitely repeatable until she ceased it. "But you must keep that beard away from me!"
"Fine." Somewhat less nervous he crawled into the sleeping bag with her, making sure to keep his back to her. He knew the beard was a good idea.
The lights were lowered until they were only a glimmer and Gabrielle breathed easier. She understood his hesitance and, if it had been a few years ago in France, she would have thrown herself at him. But that was then. She was not interested in just sex with Harry Potter. There was too much going on with him, too much unsettled. She knew how much he ached for something that he had never had, and now he missed it more than anything, even if he would never speak the words out loud. Perhaps he didn't even realise it. She felt his breath steady, his back against her back, and closed her eyes. Thankfully he had not asked her about her past, as that was a subject she did not want to discuss.
Gabrielle stood just outside the snowless perimeter and swallowed hard. She'd seen many an animal in pieces, mostly from dissection in her classes or in one of the veterinary healers shops, but this was decidedly different. The polar bear was just as Harry described, just like the others, and it was all she could do to keep herself from taking out her wand and destroying something, anything with the anger that coursed through her.
Harry stood opposite of her, making notes in his little notebook, glancing at her occasionally. He knew that when they found the ritual site it would be hard for her but he expected her to be, well, sad about the situation. Anger, that was something he understood, but it still surprised him. She was made of tougher stuff than she looked, the pretty blonde French girl he'd spent the night with in the sleeping bag. As that thought sped through his brain he had to bite his lip and look away from her as mad as she was right now there was no way she would ever understand why he would be smiling right now. He knew he shouldn't as the scene in front of them was horrible. Beyond horrible. But something was different, and he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Things just felt different. Hell, he even thought for some reason the bloody snow looked different.
Gabrielle's voice brought him out of his reverie, especially as her tone was harsh. "Where's the liver?"
"Huh?" He stood up and looked over the remains of the bear. "It's not there?"
"No. It's not." She glared at him from across the snowless circle. "That's different, isn't it?"
"Let me see." He hurriedly flipped through his notebook. "You're right. It is." He took a breath and then trudged through the snow to stand next to her. "Here." He handed her the notebook. "You know anatomy better than me. There's pictures of all the other...sites."
"You never said anything about pictures!" Gabrielle took the notebook from him and began flipping though, scanning the pictures with her finger. When she got to the last page she looked up at him. "You missed things."
"Really? Shit." He took the notebook back from her. "What'd I miss?"
"Different things are missing from each site, but there are constants. The eyes, lungs, heart and paws. Those are always missing, but others..." She turned to him. "I think I need to talk to your contact."
"Really." She glared at him. "Unless you have a better idea or another zoologist around here somewhere."
"Ok. I'll send a message."
Harry sent the message. He made Gabrielle go over, away from him, down a slight dip in the snow by a series of rocks so she couldn't watch what he did to signal his contact. It made her nervous, wondering if there was something dark about the process, but she shook her head. It was Harry Potter, for Merlin's sake. He was probably just trying to protect her, she thought, as she stood there, icicles forming in her nose as she hopped up and down to keep warm.
He was trying to protect her. That became evident when he called to her and walked around the rock to see a man or what might be a man fused with a giant bird. She wasn't sure, as it spoke to Harry in what sounded like a normal, human voice, but she remembered to keep a professional opinion. As she came closer she took in the details, the hair that seemed to turn into feathers, the especially bright eyes in a peculiar shade of yellow, the lack of, well, clothing. He simply looked like a man not wearing a shirt up top on his torso, but the chest soon gave way to feathers that seemed to extend along the arms to wings. She couldn't see his feet, as they were buried in snow, but in an effort not to offend the...man, she set her features, trudged through the snow and stood by Harry's side.
"Gabrielle, this is..." Harry paused. "Um, this is Nigel."
"Nigel?" She gave Harry a very odd look and then turned to the bird-man. "Very nice to meet you, Nigel."
With a laugh the man shook his head, dark feathers rustling then settling. "My name is not Nigel, but that will do for now." He looked at her oddly, craning his head to one side. "Harry says you have information."
"Ah, yes." She turned to Harry. "Can I see your notebook, please?" Once Harry gave her the notebook she moved over closer to 'Nigel.' "There are some constants but I've noticed very minor inconsistencies. Harry isn't as familiar with anatomy as I am due to..." She paused, unable to look up at 'Nigel.' I have experience in other areas."
Nigel the bird-man listened as Gabrielle went through the differences and after she finished he stayed silent for a moment. "Thank you, sister." He watched her face look at him questioningly. "Your flock is far from here, but you cannot hide your heritage. It is not as strong as it used to be, but do not be ashamed." He turned to Harry. "Thank you. I have what I need. Your payment will await your return."
Harry nodded, took the notebook from Gabrielle and handed it to Nigel. "Here. You can do what you want with it, I'd rather not think about it any more."
"Thank you, Harry Potter. Thank you, sister Gabrielle." With out another word Nigel coiled at the knees and then shot up into the air, wings beating against the stiff cold air until he was high in the clouds and then...gone.
Gabrielle reached out and hit Harry in the arm. "Why'd you do that?"
"What?" Harry rubbed his arm and started walking away from the remains of the Polar Bear. "The notebook? Because I promised him that whatever I found it would never go further than us. I promised him, Gabrielle." He looked at her intently. "And no, I'm not sure exactly what he is except he treated me honestly, something that doesn't always happen in my...it doesn't always happen, right?" He turned and started walking. "And what's with the sister thing?"
"Veela." She said it softly, coming out almost as a curse. "Because I'm part Veela. He recognised that somehow. Must be a bird thing." She started walking across the snow, not paying attention to where she was going, only determined to walk as far away from meeting 'Nigel' as possible.
"Gabrielle?" Harry called to her as she walked away, wondering when he should tell her. He let her go for a bit longer and then couldn't help himself. With a slow, deliberate flick of his wand he sent a ball of orange light over to her, making it pulse and pop in front of her.
Gabrielle stood up straight and glared back at him. "What?"
"Wrong way." Harry pointed back behind his shoulder. "Camp's that way."
He watched as she turned and trudged towards him, head down, soft French curses echoing on the wind.
This time she was the quiet one in the tent. She sat there, huddled over the last of Harry's coffee and occasionally took a sip, her blonde hair cascading over her shoulders and somewhat hiding her face, but he could tell that it was bothering her. It had bothered him, the first time one of his 'jobs' ended without anything resembling a resolution, but eventually he got used to it. Part of the territory. He knew that it would take longer for her to get over it because, well, she'd said it. Veela. There was something more to it that just the fact that his contact was more bird than man, though. Something she wasn't telling him.
Initially he left her to her own devices, as it was late and there was no way they could possibly break camp. He watched as she ate almost mechanically, drank the last of his coffee and then climbed into the sleeping bag with him without saying a word. He thought about just letting it go, but for some reason he simply couldn't.
She felt him roll over in the sleeping bag, felt his bushy beard against the back of her neck. "Quoi?"
"Shit, French." His voice was low and soft. "What's wrong? Is it that we didn't get answers from..."
She snorted. "If his name is Nigel I am a hippogriff. I almost am anyway, so perhaps his name is Nigel."
"What?" Harry leaned up on his arm and pulled her shoulder towards him. "You are not a hippogriff, trust me, I've been around hippogriffs and you are no hippogriff. And you're nothing like him, either, if that's what you're thinking."
"Oh sure, you say that..." She rolled over to face him, eyes flashing. "But you are not a half-breed to be studied at university. That was such a fun lesson for everyone."
"You're kidding me..."
"Je ne suis pas." She flopped her head down on the pillow. "I wish I was."
Harry stayed there, head resting on his elbow, while she recounted the horrible story. He could tell from her voice, as it quavered occasionally, how much it hurt her to tell him. She had been dating a man seriously at university, he was a year older than her, also in her program, and treated her very well. She had been in love before, of course, but this man, she would not say his name, this man seemed to be perfect for her. They fought occasionally, as all couples do, but everything seemed to be going perfectly. Almost too perfectly, she laughed, as she recounted the lesson.
Somehow she had blocked it from her mind, even though there was a chapter in the book, a reference in the appendix; her heritage was in her textbook. She sat in the chair and squirmed as the professor went on and on about how Veela were some of nature's most perfect predators, luring men with their seductive skills, leaving little behind but an empty husk. She knew it was false, she knew her Maman and Grand-Mere were nothing like that, not to mention her sister. The man sat next to her, enraptured by his textbook, greedily devouring the details, the descriptions, the physical characteristics of a Veela until he turned and looked at her.
She knew. She knew at that moment that things would never be the same. More than anything she wanted to pick up her book, slap the man across the face and run back to her rooms but she couldn't. Instead she sat there, knowing that while her relationship was over she still had to think of her career. There were so many others categorised as beasts, as creatures, and she couldn't let that happen. She wanted to protect them all, even the animals without true magic like Thestrals. They were beautiful, misunderstood animals, with magic, even though they were not as intelligent as centaurs, house elves, humans and...her.
At the end of the lesson, after the man had left, after everyone had left she closed her book and went over to the desk where her professor was tidying up his notes. He looked at her and she fixed him with a very penetrating glare. She asked him what he would call the child of a wizard and a Veela, hoping he wouldn't answer as she, unfortunately, knew he would.
She wasn't able to control her emotions. He wasn't able to comprehend what happened. The result was she was ejected from the class and the professor took an immediate sabbatical.
Harry reached over and stroked her hair. "I'm sorry."
"No." She shook her head. "Do not be sorry. I am not. It has made me stronger."
"I'm not sure stubborn equals stronger..." Harry looked at her from above and watched as she rolled her eyes. "So every now and then you go full Veela. Big deal. I can talk to snakes. Hey, worse than that, I had a part of Voldemort in my head." He tapped his scar. "I think I win."
"You do not understand." She laid her head back on the pillow and stared at the top of the tent. "I am a half-breed. You know what that means in our worlds."
"Pfffft." Harry made a noise with his lips. "That's changing. Hermione's working on that. You're stubborn, yeah, but that's nothing on Hermione. She's...well, she's really stubborn." He watched as she didn't respond, instead she kept staring at the tent ceiling. "That's probably why the whales will love you. You won't give up on them."
"No. I don't give up on things." She locked eyes with him for a moment. "Even though sometimes I should."
"Stubborn, determined...eh." Harry glanced away. "Depends on your point of view."
"Precisely." She hesitated and then, before she could change her mind, snuggled in close to him. "You need to shave that thing off."
Still in shock at her closeness, not only physically, Harry draped an arm over her waist. "We'll see. I like it." They laid there for a long time before he cleared his throat. "Still awake?"
"What happens after the whales?" He laid there, not sure he wanted to hear the answer. "After you get your data, then what?" He felt her breathing rise and fall somewhat dramatically.
"Then back to the world."
He laid there long into the night, long after he was sure she was asleep, arms still wrapped around her.
Monday, 20 December, London
He stood there in his house, shocked that everything wasn't covered with a thick layer of dust. He dropped his bags on the floor, brushed the Floo powder off and took a look around. Grimmauld Place hadn't changed, not really. Everything still looked the same, but for some reason it was different. Sure, the sofa across the room was somewhat lumpy and dark and the fabric wasn't the most comfortable but he actually was happy to see the bloody thing.
After taking a deep breath he swallowed hard, wondering what his reception would be. "Kreacher?"
A small pop in front of him startled him, but not as much as the condition of his house elf. "Master Harry?" Kreacher's eyes looked up at him, rheumy and somewhat glazed over. "Is that you, Master Harry, come home?"
He knelt down next to the old elf and nodded. "It is, it's me, Kreacher." He reached forward to touch the elf on the shoulders and noticed immediately how Kreacher startled at the touch. "I'm sorry I've been gone so long. You must have been so lonely."
"Oh no." Kreacher's voice drawled over the syllables. "Kreacher has not been lonely. Daughter Mipsy helps Kreacher, she does."
"That's great, I'm glad." Harry stood up. "I'd like to visit with her. Mipsy, are you here?"
With a pop the younger, female house elf looked nervously at Harry. "Master Harry?"
Harry shook his head and bent down close to the elf, his voice barely above a whisper. "I'm not your master, Mipsy. Can you get your father settled for the night? I'd like to speak to you about his health."
Shortly thereafter, once Mipsy had helped Kreacher put away Harry's things, the master of Grimmauld Place sat on his wonderfully lumpy sofa and wondered what the hell he was going to do with Kreacher. It was obvious that his health was fading, and he was almost blind and deaf.
A small pop happened off to the left and then Mipsy came into the room, wringing her hands. "I's sorry about Father Kreacher..."
"Nonsense!" Harry gave her a sigh. "He's blind, isn't he? Deaf, mostly?" He watched her nod. "Shit. What do I do?"
"Father Kreacher was hoping to join the others."
"The others, what do you...oh bloody hell." He'd hidden the row of mounted house elf heads almost the moment he took full possession of Grimmauld Place after the war, putting it up in the attic where Kreacher stayed along with the portrait of Walburga Black. "I can't do that to him."
"It is what he wants, Master Harry."
He waved it off. "I'm not your master, Mipsy. Don't you have a family?" She seemed to shrink, rubbing a thumb in the palm of the opposite hand. He'd seen enough house elves to know there was more going on. "Mipsy?"
"Mipsy asked for her freedom so she could help Father Kreacher."
"Really? Wow. I'm...thank you." He took off his glasses and sat them on the side table. "Thank you. It's been a long trip, why don't we discuss this in the morning."
The bedroom was the same; the same duvet, the same sheets, the same pillows, the same empty space next to him. As Harry laid there he kept thinking back to the sleeping bag in that tiny tent with Gabrielle. He knew that last night, right after she'd got her data on the whales, proving that they were magical beyond a shadow of a doubt, he knew that the next morning it would all be over. That he would go his way, she would go her way and that would be that. As he laid there now, staring up at the ceiling of Grimmauld Place, he knew that he should have said something to her, done something, but instead he stood there, let her kiss him on the cheek and walk away to her portkey, leaving him standing there in the Anchorage station holding a horseshoe and full of regret.
He rolled over. Maybe things would be better in the morning.
Things were not better in the morning. Kreacher, happy that his master had come home, died in the night. Mipsy found him, smiling, holding that fake Slytherin locket that Harry had given him years ago. Even though he wanted absolutely nothing to do with it he told Mipsy that she could honour her father's wishes as long as he didn't have to see it. She came down later, telling him that Father Kreacher's head joined the other Black house elves, permanently staring down at Walburga Black's portrait.
That morning he sat there, drinking tea, thinking about everything and nothing. Memories floated up, flitted around for a bit and then disappeared. Things he tried hard to remember, things that should have been important he couldn't quite catch, only fleeting little glimpses of half-remembrances and then things that he hadn't thought about in ages seemed to rise up and take control. For some reason he kept thinking about his mother, his father, and all of the Potter family he had never known. He could have taken the time to go through all the vaults and books and everything but instead he'd run off. He'd saved the world. Again and again, in tiny slices, over and over.
In a fit of melancholy he took out a piece of parchment, rummaged around and finally found an inkwell that hadn't dried solid and one quill that wasn't broken. The note to Hermione and Ron was short, succinct and hopefully not as mournful as he knew it had to sound. He was home, he was alone and he missed them.
He should have known better, obviously, as he'd just sat down for another cup of tea when the Floo roared to life. Her head bounced in the green flames, hair pulled back but nothing could deny that smile. "Hi Hermione."
"Harry! Let me through!"
He waggled his wand at the fireplace and almost instantly thereafter with a whoosh she appeared on his oriental rug, not bothering to dust off the Floo powder and enveloped him in a massive hug.
"You pillock, you utter pillock!" She held him out at arm's length. "Not a letter from you in weeks, months even, and then you tell me you're home right before Christmas? What did you expect?"
"This, really." He smiled at her and then watched as she gave him one of those famous, disapproving shakes of the head. "What? I sent you an owl the day after I got here."
"You look...you look like Hagrid's son." She reached over and lifted up his long, hair and then pulled on his beard. "If you were white I would say you were trying to be Father Christmas. What..."
"I like it." Rubbed his chin, smoothing down the hair. "It kept me warm in the snow, that's for sure." He couldn't help but think of Gabrielle also keeping him warm, and hoped Hermione had missed it.
She hadn't. "Harry Potter, I haven't seen you look like that..." She took a giant breath. "I have so much to tell you."
"I'm sure, I'm sure. Where's Rosie?"
"Oh." She lowered her chin and once again gave him a disapproving glare. "We need to discuss the gifts you send her, Harry. It's too much, especially for a girl her age. She's going to be five, Harry. Five. No five year old little witch needs goblin-wrought earrings. She doesn't even have her ears pierced yet, for Godric's sake!"
"Ok, ok." He held up his hands. "I had to buy something from the goblins in Madagascar and it was my best option. Not like I could send them to my girlfriend, and if I sent them to you then Ron..."
"Would blow his stack." She seemed to deflate a bit. "Ok, I understand, but try to take it easy, please?"
"Sure, I'll try. Doubt I'll be anywhere for a while anyway."
"You're staying here?" She looked at him oddly. "In London?"
"For now." He turned and looked towards the staircase. "Mipsy?" He ignored Hermione and spoke to the house elf. "We'll take tea in the kitchen, please."
For the next two hours Harry and Hermione played catch up on a grand scale. He informed her about Kreacher and Mipsy, hoping she wouldn't put his head next to Kreacher's when she found out, but surprisingly she went along with it as it was the old house elf's last wish. She filled him in on Ron and George and the Triple-W, how they were expanding to different countries, and then she filled him in on all his former housemates as well as former girlfriends. Angelina Johnson had married Oliver Wood, but it hadn't lasted. Lavender was dating a much older wizard, apparently her solicitor in her court case against her former employers, but that was about all Hermione knew of that. Other than that, Dean and Ginny were fine, they had a girl, Neville and Hannah had a son and everyone else seemed to be fine.
"How about Bill and Fleur?" Harry poured some more tea for Hermione and slid it over to her. "You see them much?"
"Only at Molly's dinners, they keep to themselves mostly. Their children are beautiful, hard not to be with those genetics, though Louis can be a handful. I think it's the Weasley. Reminds me of Fred and George."
"Huh." Harry took a sip of tea. "You know I've travelled a bit, all over, actually. In some countries Bill an' Fleur's kids would be considered creatures, half-breeds."
"Well, thank Merlin they live in Britain." Hermione sat her tea cup down rather forcefully. "That law was one of the first to go, I saw to that myself. No witch or wizard is going to call my nieces creatures." She looked over at Harry's smile. "What?"
"What about your nephew?"
"Oh, well, Louis isn't a creature, either. He is a little shit, if you ask me. Only boy, they spoil him horribly." She sat up with a start as a buzzing noise came from her robe. "So sorry, sorry." She took out the little mirror and listened. "Yes, yes, sorry Miranda, I'll be right there." She closed the pocket mirror, reached over and took Harry's hand. "I have to go back to the office, something about Muggle blowing up ships in the Arctic, but promise me you'll come to Rosie's Christmas pageant. She's a hedgehog. Don't ask, I don't have time to explain, it's Thursday. Can you make it?"
"Uh, sure, why not."
"Perfect, and what are you doing for Christmas? No, no, don't, you're having Christmas with us, it's not up for debate." She stepped away from the table and walked into the drawing room, almost to the fireplace and then she stopped, turned and launched herself at Harry. "I'm so glad you're back."
"Me too, Hermione. Me too."
After another tight squeeze she left him, went over to the Floo and with one drop of powder and the words 'Ministry of Magic' she was gone. He stood there, laughed for a moment, realising how much he'd missed her, missed that manic ability to cram so much information into so many sentences. He laughed, as he hadn't seen Ron in ages, even a picture, and wondered if over the years that manic Hermione bit hadn't made him pull out his hair. Or maybe go bald like Arthur.
He also had, quite successfully, figured out exactly what the law in Britain said about Bill and Fleur's kids. He hadn't planned on asking it, really, but it just kind of forced its way to the front of his thoughts, along with Gabrielle.
Gabrielle. She probably didn't want anything to do with him, not now, not since she'd told him everything. He stopped, though, and took off his glasses. It shouldn't matter. It really shouldn't matter, not at all. Isn't that what they all fought for, what he fought for, for everyone to be given a chance regardless of blood status or any of that shite? It didn't matter to him. It shouldn't matter to her. He took a look at the calendar. Rosie's pageant was in two days. He could do it.
The chairs were uncomfortable, it was hot as blazes and it was only the fact that Hermione's mum sat next to him that kept Ron Weasley from taking out his wand and hitting himself with a cooling charm. The little Muggle school that Rosie attended was full, up to the brim, with parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles, most of them Muggles, but every now and then he'd look and catch someone's eye, they recognised him. One of the blokes from Magical Games and Sports sat down there with his wife, looking as uncomfortable as possible. Percy and his wife Helen were over there, with her parents. Of all the Weasleys it shocked Ron most of all that Percy was the one who married a Muggle, him being part of the Ministry and all, but she seemed like a decent sort, even made Perce fun to be around every now and then.
He heard voices to his right and looked over to see Hermione apologising for going in front of the other people as she made her way to him, still pleased to see that had saved two seats, one for her and one for Harry. She sat down next to him and placed her programme in the empty seat, drawing a glare from the woman next to her, a look that was promptly ignored.
"He'll be here, Ron. He promised."
Ron sighed and put his arm around his wife. "I know, love, but it's Harry. I know, I feel the same way about 'im but it isn't like he's been the most reliable bloke on the planet."
Hermione looked at her watch. "He should be here by now, they'll start soon." Before she could lift her head up she felt something hit her hair, something familiar. She reached up and took it out of her hair, growling to Ron under her breath "if George did this he's dead."
She turned around and looked back over the crowd but it wasn't George; instead, standing by the wall taking off his coat was a waving, clean-shaven Harry Potter. His hair was short as well, reminding her of when he was much younger. She waved and then turned to Ron. "He's here, he's standing by the wall. Oh and he shaved off that awful beard."
"Huh." Ron turned and looked back, smiling as he caught Harry's eye and waved. He nodded his head towards Harry's companion but Harry waved him off; Ron gave him a thumb's up. He understood, he'd get the details later. He turned back and took Hermione's hand. "Yeah, it's him. Dunno who the girl is, though."
"Girl?" Hermione almost turned around in her seat but before she could get a good look the lights went down, signalling the start of the pageant.
Back in the far reaches of the auditorium Harry stood there, coat folded over his arm, and watched. It was something, really, to see all those little kids. Of course they flubbed their lines, the singing was dreadful and one little boy began to cry and had to be taken offstage by his mum, but it was...brilliant. There was no mistaking Rosie Weasley, no other hedgehogs had those freckles and that hair. He did have to chuckle, though, as he couldn't help but spot the little bracelets he'd sent Rosie from that small village in the Andes, the same place he'd picked up the teapot. The bracelets clinked along as she walked along with the other animals of the forest to go see Father Christmas and the Baby Jesus.
Gabrielle leaned into him, whispering softly. "That's her, right, the one with the freckles?"
"That's her." Harry took advantage of the closeness and put his arm around her. "I'm glad you came."
"We'll see." She gave him a look. "We'll see."
Eventually all the songs were sung, Father Christmas and Baby Jesus put in appearances and everyone joined in to sing the final Christmas Carol. Harry wasn't surprised that Gabrielle had a beautiful singing voice and only hoped that there were enough people around that she couldn't distinguish his croaking from the rest of the attendees. They all clapped once the song was done and then, instead of queuing up and going in order it seemed as if every child just couldn't stand one more moment of organisation and simply ran off stage to their parents, grandparents or other concerned adults.
As the throng ebbed and flowed around them Harry took the opportunity to take Gabrielle's hand and lead her outside a bit. It was cold, obviously, but it was nowhere near the cold they had experienced in Alaska. He stood there near one of the gateposts and pulled her in close to him. "So what did you think?"
"Adorable. They were so cute." She smiled. "Rosie knew all her lines."
"You mean her line." Harry laughed. "I'm sure that apple didn't fall far from the tree."
"Perhaps." Gabrielle reached up, took her hand and traced the bare skin along Harry's jawline. "You look so much better without the beard."
"Great, I'm glad, but it's cold."
"Poor baby." Gabrielle leaned up and gave him a kiss.
A tiny, shrill voice broke through the murmurs of the crowd. "UNCLE HARRY!"
"Oh boy." Harry moved Gabrielle aside as Rosie came hurtling through the crowd as fast as her hedgehog costume allowed. He knelt down and soon she crashed into him. "Hiya, Rosie."
"Mummy said you'd be here but I didn't know cuz you're always gone. I wore my bracelets!" She held up her arm.
"I saw that, they looked good. You were very good, Rosie."
"Thank you very much." She looked up at Gabrielle. "Who are you?"
Harry cleared his throat. "Rosie, this is Gabrielle."
"Very nice to meet you." Rosie stuck out her hand and shook Gabrielle's hand only for a second before turning back to Harry. "Is she your wife?"
"Rose Alexandra!" Hermione came over quickly, seemingly the entire mass of Weasleys, Grangers and everyone else behind her. "That was not a polite thing to ask..." She looked up and did a slight double-take. "Gabrielle?"
"Hello, Hermione." Gabrielle smiled. "It is good to see you. Is my sister here?"
Hermione shook her head. "No, Dominique is ill tonight." She started to laugh, stopped herself and then turned to her husband. "It's Gabrielle, Ron."
He nodded. "I can see that, love. Good to see you Gabby, Harry. Glad you're back." He poked Hermione in the ribs. "Time to drive home with your parents and put the hedgehog to bed."
That was the scene for a bunch of surprised hello's, goodbye's and promises to see each other on Christmas or, at minimum, Boxing Day. It was all Arthur Weasley could do to keep Molly from kissing Harry yet again, and after they left Harry stood there, with Gabrielle next to him, and ran his hand through his hair.
"I'd forgotten how much I missed that." He looked over to her. "Do you want to go see Fleur?"
"Tomorrow." She took his arm and started him walking along the pavement outside the Muggle school. "We still have much to talk about."
"I guess we do."
"Harry." She looked up at him. "You show up at my little apartment in Brux, no beard and flowers in your hand. How did you find me? You never told me, just that we had a very important cultural event to attend."
"Easy, I have contacts all over the world. Wasn't that hard."
She bumped him as they walked along, knocking him off step for a stride or so. "Harry?"
He winced slightly. "So I might have owled a witch I know in the French Ministry to pull some records, and then I took a portkey over and met with a wizard I met in Algiers who told me where your father likes to have drinks after work."
"You saw Papa?"
"Yeah, sure. I mean, it isn't like I haven't met him before. So we had a glass of wine or two and after I told him, well, I told him enough he wrote out your address on a napkin and, well, you know the rest."
"No." She shook her head. "When did you become human again? Hmmmm?"
He stopped walking. "That's not funny."
"Why because I am not?"
"Listen." He took a hold of her shoulders, forcing him to look at her. "You're as human as everybody else. More human than a lot of the pureblooded wizard arseholes that I helped put in Azkaban or did worse things to out there in the...don't ever let me hear you say that again. You are Gabrielle Delacour and...and...well, that's all I care about." He turned and started walking down the street, hands jammed into his coat pockets, hoping that she would either say something really soon or do something because he was pretty sure he was walking in the wrong direction, walking back towards Rosie's school.
"Harry?" Her voice was soft but it was loud enough to make him stop. "Harry?"
He turned and headed back to her. "Listen, I'm sorry, but..."
"No." She put her finger against his lips. "Thank you."
"Well it's the bloody truth." The words came out a little oddly, mostly because her finger was still against his lips. He reached up and took her hand, gently. "So, feel like coffee? Tea?"
"Tea. You still have that wonderful little teapot, don't you?"
"Yeah." He nodded. "It's back at my place."
"Lead the way." She wrapped her fingers with his. "We have a lot to talk about."
Rosie Weasley was a very happy girl. Not only had her Uncle Harry come home to see her be a hedgehog in the Christmas pageant he was there on Christmas and Boxing Day, too. Gabrielle was with him, and she was ok, even if she didn't have a present for her. She was better at colouring than Uncle Harry, and she helped draw some animals that Daddy said sounded like Aunt Luna's animals.
Rosie Weasley was a happy girl on her fifth birthday, when Uncle Harry and Gabrielle gave her a present. She liked the jumper, it was so soft and pink.
Rosie Weasley was a happy girl on her sixth birthday, even though she had a stinky little brother who did nothing but cry and eat and make horrible nappies. Uncle Harry and Gabrielle made sure that she knew that even though Mummy and Daddy had to spend time with stupid Hugo that she would always be special.
On her seventh birthday Rosie Weasley wasn't very happy, as Uncle Harry and Gabrielle were away somewhere, but they sent her a very special present. Mum said that it was too much, and Daddy laughed, but Rosie thought it was wonderful that there was a whale up near the very tip-top of the earth named Freckles, even though she knew whales couldn't really have freckles. Gabrielle's letter said it was a magical whale and would always be there because now the whales were protected.
On her eighth birthday Rosie Weasley was a happy girl because Uncle Harry and Gabrielle asked if she would like to be in their wedding. She hugged them both, and kissed Uncle Harry, because she was old enough now to understand how hard things were for her Uncle Harry. She'd read some of the books and heard some of the bigger kids talking, she knew what had happened and how her Uncle Harry had gone off afterwards and helped witches and wizards and animals all over. Gabrielle even helped the whales and polar bears.
On her ninth birthday Rosie Weasley wasn't happy because it seemed like everyone had forgotten about her birthday because Uncle Harry and Gabrielle were in St. Mungo's because Gabrielle was having a baby. Oh, sure, she was at Percy and Helen's house which was fun because she could watch telly and eat anything she wanted, but it just wasn't the same. She had almost fallen asleep when Uncle Harry came through the Floo and took her to St. Mungo's, telling her happy birthday and giving her a present. She opened the box and found the camera she saw in Diagon Alley weeks ago but didn't even want to think about asking her parents for as a Christmas present, it was so expensive. But Uncle Harry didn't care. He hugged her and told her that she would always be his little freckled hedgehog, something she pretended to hate but really loved, but she had to share him a bit because he had a daughter now. She went in with him, even though she wasn't really old enough to be there in the room, and watched as Gabrielle held little Aimee. She took the very first picture with her camera of Uncle Harry, Gabrielle and Aimee.
On her tenth birthday Rosie Weasley was a very happy girl as she sat in Uncle Harry and Gabrielle's house and used a practice wand even though Mum and Dad were horrible parents and wouldn't let her try even though Millie Finnegan got to use a practice wand all the time and it was so unfair.
Rosie Weasley was a very happy girl on her eleventh birthday as her Uncle Harry sat her down and gave her the best present he'd ever given her. He told her things. Things she'd always wanted to know, things that she was certain her mum was keeping from her. He told her about his first year at Hogwarts, how it was only her mum and dad that kept him sane, that it was the beginning of the dark war. He told her about things that had happened, things she knew about from her History of Magic textbook but she didn't interrupt him, she let him talk. She listened as he told her about what happened after the war, only hesitating a few times so she knew that there was more there, things that he would tell her when she was older. She caught him out on it, and he laughed, telling her he wasn't surprised, and promised to tell her when she'd left Hogwarts.
And then he told her the story she'd always wanted to know. The story of Gabrielle. She never had a straight answer from anyone on that topic, they were always so evasive, treating her like she was six, for Merlin's sake. Everyone just told her that Harry and Gabrielle met out in Alaska, way up in one of the cold parts of America, and they started dating. That didn't seem like her Uncle Harry. She knew he travelled all over the world, she still had all the things he'd ever sent her including the goblin-wrought earrings she'd worn when she talked her Aunt Ginny into getting her ears pierced a few months ago. She knew he did more than travel. She wasn't that thick.
So she asked. And he told her, what he could. She had never been more proud of him, thinking him like one of those superheroes in the Muggle movies she watched with her Muggle friends or over and Grandma and Grandpa Granger's house. But he told her it came at a price, a price he didn't know he was paying until he met Gabrielle. He laughed and said it was ok, that Gabrielle was paying her own price, that they helped each other. Then he got a funny look on his face, one that she knew meant that he was done talking for a while, so she hugged him, told him she loved him and that he was the best uncle ever, even better than George.
On her seventeenth birthday Rosie Weasley was a happy girl, albeit with a few qualifications. After her party at the house with her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles she waited until the crowd thinned out and found him and Gabrielle, sitting out in the garden. She knew that Harry had promised to tell her everything, but now, older and hopefully a bit wiser than her firstie self back then, she couldn't ask the question. Instead she went over to them, stood before them and put her arms around both of them, trying to hug them as tightly as possible.
"Thank you, both of you, for everything." She stepped back and wiped a tear from her cheek. "You don't know..."
"Ah, Rosie." Harry stood up and hugged her. "I know, Freckles, I know."
"Dammit." Rosie wiped her eyes and then turned up to Harry. "Can you do me a favor?"
"You name it."
"Can you go make Mum and Dad drink some firewhiskey? I'm making an announcement."
"Oh shit." Harry looked at her and ran a hand through his hair. "You're not...what exactly are you doing?"
"I'm not going into the Ministry or the Triple-W or...I just don't know. I thought I'd take a year off, a gap year. You know how that'll go over."
"Ok, ok, I'll take one for the team." He hugged her again. "I'm proud of you, you brainy Ravenclaw."
"Stop it." She pushed him off. "If not wine maybe some firewhiskey?"
After Harry left Gabrielle looked at her, motioned towards the bench and patted the seat. Rosie sat down; somehow Gabrielle always said something to make things better. She didn't say anything for a moment, but suddenly she reached out and hugged Rosie, hard.
"You were his lifeline, you know."
"His what?" Rosie looked over to her. "What do you mean?"
And there, in the garden, with Harry plying her parents with alcohol, Rosie finally learned the last mystery of her Uncle Harry. How he had disappeared from the face of the earth for all intents and purposes, how he had become a crusader for all that was good and right and just, against dark magic and other horrible things, but more than anything how it was the simple things from Rosie that kept him from losing himself. Crayon pictures, photos, notes about her from her mum, all those things. In slow, halting words Gabrielle told her how she and Harry really met again, how he'd saved her from drowning and how, figuratively, she'd reciprocated. She learned that they had huddled together in a little tent in the frigid Alaska winter, hoping to find her data to save the whales and in turn they had saved each other. Once they had found the data, and Gabrielle had returned to France, it was Rosie's Christmas pageant, the year she was the hedgehog, that brought them together.
"So you see, Rosie..." Gabrielle smiled at her. "Aimee will always be our daughter, but you will always be..."
"Oh Merlin, don't even say it." Rose wrapped Gabrielle in a hug. "I know. I know. I've always known."
Gabrielle patted Rosie on the back, stood up and offered her a handkerchief. After wiping away the tears she took out her wand and helped fix Rosie's makeup, ensuring that nobody would notice that she'd been crying. She told her that she'd make sure that Hermione had a glass of wine in her hand as soon as she could, but not to stay out there too long. And, Merlin forbid, anything happened she could always stay at Grimmauld Place. Mipsy loved her, after all.
As Rose stood there in the garden she watched through the plate glass window as Gabrielle joined Harry, putting an arm around his waist, as another bottle of wine was opened for them and her parents. She laughed, because with Harry and Gabrielle in her corner how could she lose? She started to walk in but stopped, unsure of exactly why, and watched her Uncle Harry. He was happy. Truly and utterly happy. And if anyone in this world deserved to be happy it was her Uncle Harry. And Aunt Gabrielle.