Happy belated New Year, FFnet.
Step 5: Victory
"Daddy, she's awake!"
"Quiet, now. Give her time."
When Daphne came to, she did so slowly and groggily. Her first sensation was one of discomfort, which grew to aching when she became more alert.
She opened hazy eyes, and slowly her vision came into focus. The faces of her family crowded her, in varying degrees of visible worry.
"Father?" she asked, her voice coming out raspy and wheezy. She coughed, feeling a scratching on her throat.
"Be at peace, daughter. All is well now."
Was it? It didn't feel like it. Daphne tried to move, to sit up on the headboard, but a wracking pain in her chest made her abandon the effort barely into the movement.
Her mother reacted to her grunt.
"Easy, sweetheart. Try not to move so much."
"I heard you kicked, like, enormous amounts of arse. Way to go."
"How are you feeling, Daphne?" her father asked, giving a quick glare to her sister, who grinned unashamedly down at her.
She took a few seconds of breathing steadily before replying. "My chest … It hurts. And my hand … my hand ..."
Her father's face screwed up in worry and powerless frustration. "The spells must be wearing off. I'll get a healer."
As Fabio left the room, Daphne turned her head to her mother and sister. "Where … Mungo's?"
Astoria shook her head. "Nuh-uh. We're in Bern."
"What … happened?"
"We only know what mister Potter told us," her mother admitted. "That you were attacked while on a picnic, and you were cursed. He brought you here and a healer firecalled us."
"Potter … he is here?"
"Probably off hunting down whoever did this to you," Astoria cut their mother off.
Karina nodded. "The Swiss Ministry has mobilised their entire Auror corps. British Aurors have also been called in. It's quite the spectacle, really."
Daphne would have snorted if the action wouldn't cause her severe pain. Spectacle indeed.
Her father returned then, followed by a female healer.
"You're awake," the healer noted. "How are you feeling?"
Daphne couldn't help the grimace on her face as the ache in her torso continued to intensify. "... hurts."
"I can help with that."
Daphne dutifully drank the offered potion phial, using her good hand to take hold of it. While she did, the healer was casting away at her. A couple of spells she recognized, most not.
Almost immediately, the pain started to fade.
"Better?" the healer asked as she stowed away her wand.
"You might feel sleepy quickly. This is normal."
"What … happened to me?"
"The curse you were hit with breaks up your ribcage and pushes bone fragments into your bloodstream, which quickly becomes fatal. Thankfully, Mister Potter brought you here in time and we were able to prevent most of the damage."
"And my … my hand?"
"Can you move it?"
Daphne tried, and the hand did obey her mental commands. It hurt to move, but move it did, and after a second Daphne was staring down at her open palm. It was surreal, she vividly recalled her fingers being torn away in a rather visceral manner. Now … they were still attached to her hand but … something didn't feel right. The scar where the curse had blown past her fingers was rough and wide, colored in a hideous, angry red. The fingers themselves looked … pale. Clunky. Moving them was painful and slow.
Daphne swallowed hard. "What-... what is wrong with me?"
"Nothing is wrong with you, dear. It's just that the spell that tore your fingers dealt damage that normally cannot be reversed by regular means. Dark magic wounds can't be healed, and limbs lost to it can't be reattached."
"How did you … fix me?"
"We stuck the fingers back in place and, though the cut itself is still there, magic holds them together and connects your nerves. It's not healed, but it should function properly and just like your normal fingers given time and care."
"So … my fingers are dead?"
"Well, if you want to get technical, I suppose so. But really, the difference will hardly be noticeable."
A cold feeling of dread settled down on Daphne's stomach as she stared at her reattached fingers. On closer inspection, the difference seemed exceedingly obvious to her. The fingers were pale, no doubt lacking actual blood, and her normally smooth skin looked hard and unwieldy.
She was marked; imperfect. Visibly so. And that could prove dangerous.
It took her a few seconds of being lost in her thoughts to realize that her father and the healer were talking.
"... regiment of spells. After a week of that, I think it's safe to say there will be no residual risk. Now, I'll go brew your next dose of potions. Again, if you suddenly feel sleepy, don't panic. It's normal."
WIth a bow of her head, the healer left. Daphne barely paid her any mind, gaze transfixed on her fingers.
"Father," she said.
"Father, my hand."
"It'll get better, I promise."
"It is ugly, Father."
She knew her father understood her meaning by the momentary hesitation in his reply.
"Nonsense." But she would not be placated.
"Do you think that this … might affect me?"
No one spoke for a few seconds, the air heavy with the question. It was her sister who broke it first.
"You were badly marked during the Battle, Sister," Astoria reminded her. "The contract did not act up then. I think you're safe."
Daphne could easily recall the weeks of dread following the Battle of Hogwarts and her injury, fearing that the markings on her flesh would breach the terms of the contract. She remembered the nights she spent wide awake, afraid that a piece of paper written by a dead man would at best ruin her life and, at worst, ruin her family.
She did not want to go through that again.
"How can we … be sure?"
"James' clauses did not specify anything about your skin being marred or scarred," her mother noted. "Some degree of caution is, of course, wise, but as long as you keep yourself within the proper numbers there should be no breach."
Despite herself, Daphne breathed a sigh of relief. She'd heard all this before, years ago, but still her mother's words brought her comfort.
As soon as she was old enough to understand, her parents had explained to her what she had to do. To become. That her body was not really her own. That she had to live her life and shape her form according to the wishes of a dead man that she'd never met, in accordance to a farce of a contract; a mistake that was never meant to be followed through but the terms of which still had to be obeyed.
She had been angry, at first. For years she seethed inwardly, chafing at her lack of choice, of say in matters of her own body. As time went by and her beauty became such an integral part of her identity, one that she enjoyed, she lost most of her fury but never forgot that the initial decision wasn't hers- could not have been hers.
"I will confirm with our lawyers," her father assured her, "but I think your mother has the right of it."
The energy the momentary surge of dread had granted her was leaving her, and suddenly Daphne felt very tired. Her thoughts became slow, and her eyelids drooped.
"I…" she tried to speak, but her words became slurred. "I…"
"Hush," her mother whispered, caressing her cheek as Daphne's eyes closed. "Sleep, dear."
When next she woke, there was no sunlight coming in from the window, and the lights had been dimmed. After blinking for a few seconds, she took stock of her surroundings. Hers was the only bed in the room; a pleasant thing, however expected. She was also alone.
She was sort of glad that her family hadn't decided to just stay in her room doing nothing while she slumbered, but she was surprised that no one was actually there.
Her thoughts turned to Harry Potter. Their last outing replayed itself in her mind. Pleasant thoughts, for the most part, even now sending tingles down her spine and making her lips curl into the ghost of a smile, but the last part of it was not so pleasant. They had been attacked. She'd fought.
And lost. Badly.
From the sheer fact that she was alive she surmised that Potter had managed to prevail and had saved her, which was fortunate. She wondered if he had sustained any injuries. For that matter, where was he? Too busy directing the Auror contingents? That wouldn't surprise her, and her parents did mention that he had only shown his face when he'd brought her to the hospital before vanishing.
Still, that didn't make too much sense. She'd have expected him to have at least dropped by to check up on her health by now. Potter liked her. That much was painfully obvious. And he was the sort of person that would feel responsible for her injury and feel guilt over it, so it didn't make sense that he would just drop her off and leave her to her own devices.
Her earlier thoughts, about finding it strange that she had been left alone in her room resurfaced. Would her family really leave her alone, even if it was night? Surely one of them would have conjured a bed and stayed with her. But no one was here.
Or was there? Potter hadn't visited her yet, and that seemed out of character, and Daphne refused to believe that she'd misjudged him. For that matter, hadn't he used an Invisibility Cloak during the Battle, years ago? Rumors of Potter owning such an item had been circulating for years.
She raised her head and looked around the room, trying to spot any irregularities. It might be that there wasn't enough light, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The room was completely empty.
"Potter?" she spoke into the empty room, her voice coming out unsure, and lower in volume than she'd meant it to.
She waited a few seconds. Nothing. "Potter, are you here?"
She felt her cheeks burn up with embarrassment. This was ridiculous. She was speaking to empty air, for magic's sake. Perhaps her brain had been addled by her injury.
"Potter," she said again, this time louder. "You had better be here, and you had better show up right now, because if I am talking to myself like an imbecile I will never forgive you."
She grew more and more irritated the longer nothing happened, and she resigned herself to the fact that she had just had a moment of sheer stupidity. Thankfully, no one had been here to witness it.
Then, she heard a sigh.
Her eyes immediately zeroed in on the corner of the room where the sound originated. She saw a shimmer in the air before that spot split, revealing first a head, then a hand, until Potter had completely removed the Cloak and bunched it up into a tight ball.
He was in a corner, covered in shadows, but she could recognize his form anywhere.
"That was completely unfair," he said as he walked closer to her bed, finally coming into the dim light. He looked haggard, but a quick inspection revealed no injuries. "If I had really not been here, would you have been angry with me for talking to yourself?"
"That, or I would have blamed the potions."
He breathed heavily. "I suppose it did."
She felt her energy dissipate, and had to lean back down on the pillow. She could not see Potter from this angle.
"Come closer. Sit," she said.
She heard him walk over, then the scraping of a chair before he set it down next to her bed and sat on it. She turned her head sideways and saw him. He looked terrible. Tired, worn. Then again, she certainly didn't present the best of images right now, either. This knowledge would have appalled her if she could muster up the energy to care.
"How are you feeling?" he asked her.
"Do you want me to lie to you?"
He flinched. "Sorry. Stupid question."
Neither spoke for a minute.
"Why did you not show yourself earlier?"
"I thought you wouldn't want to see me. Your father had strong words with me about seeing you again."
"He is shaken. It will pass."
"He blames me for what happened."
"He is not thinking clearly right now. Surely you understand this."
He shook his head once before pushing his glasses up to rub at his eyes.
"He's not wrong."
Daphne blinked. "Excuse me?"
"I said, he's not wrong to blame me."
"It is my fault we were attacked. At least partly."
"I get that you think that, Potter," she said annoyance coloring her tone. "Now tell me why."
"I sort of … let it spread, that we were leaving. Portkey records aren't meant to be public, but some of my acquaintances spread the rumor that we'd be travelling abroad that day."
Daphne processed this. "And this enabled the mercenaries to plan the attack?"
"Why did you do it?"
"I'm sorry," he said again. "I just wanted some people to find out that we'd be going out. I never stopped to think that some might consider this an open invitation, or that you'd be caught in the middle. I was stupid. I didn't think."
"I … I see." Daphne said, still processing this new information. So, Potter had discreetly let it spread that he was taking her abroad. She could believe that he didn't consider that some might use this as an opportunity to attack him, away from the safety of his Aurors. Potter was rash by nature. What did he hope to accomplish, though? Just to let people know that he had gotten into her bed? She didn't think he was that base. There must have been something else.
"Why did you do it?" she echoed. He shook his head.
"It doesn't matter now. It has occurred to me since that this … plan, of mine, is beyond madness."
"... Potter?" she asked, uncertain of what he meant.
He raised his gaze, looking her straight in the eye. He looked disgustingly ashamed.
"I'm sorry, Daphne," he said, voice positively dripping with sincerity. Daphne wished that she could slap him.
"I'm sorry for having put your through this; all of this," he continued. "For forcing you to go out with me, for being around you and putting your life at risk."
"It's over," he said, ignoring her attempt at getting a word in. "I can't take back the past, but I can at least do this much. I'll void the contract tomorrow, and you need not see me ever again after tonight."
She blinked a couple of times, fighting down a sudden, irrational burst of panic. He was feeling guilty; how sweet, however expected. And what a completely wrong way to go about it. Was this his idea of making things right?
"Do you truly think so little of my promises?"
"Shut up, Potter. I gave you my word, and I intend to keep it. Five dates you were promised, five dates you shall have."
Curse him for putting her in a position of actually defending this ridiculous agreement. It couldn't end. Not now; not like this.
"But nothing. I'm not so weak-willed that I would run for the hills over something like this. If, however, you insist on feeling obligated to me, I have a way for you to redeem yourself."
He looked at her for a few seconds, lips pursed. She almost thought that he would refuse her despite how guilty he felt, but his expression grew resigned after a while and Daphne knew she had him. "And what is that?"
"Answer me, honestly, why you did all this. Why you chose me, of all people. The truth, this time."
Potter hesitated, deliberating with himself for a minute. Daphne didn't look at him, didn't say anything, didn't move. It was all up to him. He would come clean with her now, or he would never get another opportunity to earn her trust. She found herself quite anxious over which of the two would happen.
"I plan on making my move for Director soon," he admitted. "Everything is in place. I am almost ready."
"And where do I fit into your schemes?"
"You were necessary because you fit several unique criteria. With you at my side, visibly so, I could finally gain support among some pureblood families that were undecided about me, several members of which have key roles within the Ministry."
Daphne considered his words for a while. "My family was never involved with Voldemort," she noted.
Harry nodded. "Indeed. The Greengrass family is also one of the oldest and most respected, in regards to lineage. You have managed to save both your fortune and your reputation intact after both wars. If I dated you, not only would I show the purebloods that I am not playing favorites, but I would also not lose any of my existing allies."
"There are others that fit this criteria, Potter."
He grimaced. "A few, yes, but none that I am particularly inclined to approach or could believably do so without making my intentions obvious. Select information about the contract has been leaked by people I know, and I am quite publicly and enthusiastically courting you. We're the same age, went to the same school at the same year, it all fits."
Daphne took in his explanation, not moving at all in her bed. Eventually, she spoke.
"Is that the truth?"
He grimaced. "It is as close to the truth as I can offer that you will accept."
"So … you are using me?"
Potter flinched, as if physically hurt. "I'm sorry. I know how-"
"Why are you apologising?" She cut him off. "This is great news."
He blinked at her. "It-... it is?"
"Of course. I was worried for a while, I will readily admit. I was uncertain that my faith in you was not misplaced. But now I am … relieved. I was not wrong about you."
The look of utter bafflement on his face would fuel mirthful thoughts for months, she just knew.
"Think no more on this, Potter, lest you hurt that brain of yours."
"Now, tell me what you did to our attackers. Did any survive?"
He pursed his lips, looking angry and a little bit embarrassed at the same time. "None. After you went down, I couldn't take any risks with trying to take them alive. I had to end the fight quickly."
She looked at him, examining his face. He had killed them; all of them. "Is that what you tell yourself?"
He offered no reply.
"And how will you go about finding their employer, now that they are dead and can no longer speak?"
His brow furrowed, as if troubled by a sudden thought. She couldn't imagine what. Was it something she said?
He shook his head once, clearing it of whatever wayward thought had distracted him.
"There are leads to follow," he said. "There always are. Money, for one. People, for another. Someone from the ITA let someone else get a sense of our destination, and told them of the other Portkey I bought. I will find this person. And I will find who was behind this."
She was almost surprised by the steel in his voice. Even unkempt and tired as he was, at this moment, Potter looked honestly scary.
"And how will you do that from over here?"
"My people are working on it."
"People that will get the job done. People I trust."
She smiled. "Good. Make them suffer before they die."
His expression cleared, before he turned frowning eyes her way.
"Do not look at me like that," she said, narrowing her eyes at him. She clenched her hands to hide their trembling. "They scarred me, Potter. They must pay."
"You are the prettiest woman I know, Daphne."
She took in a deep breath, calming herself. Potter could not possibly have thought of why this was such a big deal to her. He hadn't lived her life, hadn't had to deal with the same fears. Beauty was not just an option for her, it was a condition for her continued well-being and the prosperity of her family.
"I … I do not like being scarred, Potter."
He expression positively melted at her words. "I love your scars," he whispered. "They are an expression of who you are, of what you have done and stood for. They make you more beautiful than ever before. Never be ashamed of them."
Daphne could not help the color that rushed to her cheeks, or the small smile that curled her lips. Curse the love-struck fool, and thrice curse her for letting his nonsense affect her. This was getting out of hand.
She cleared her throat, making sure her voice wouldn't come out high pitched. "Let us speak no more of this," she said as she laid her head back. "I am tired. We still have plans to make, so I expect to see you tomorrow at some point. Is that clear?"
"When is your endgame?"
"When do you set this plan of yours in motion?"
"New Year's Eve. Our final date will be on the Ministry's New Year celebration."
"Good, that gives me a few days to shape up."
"Don't push yourself."
She ignored him. "It is time for me to rest, Potter," she said, closing her eyes for good measure.
"You want me to go?" she heard him say.
"I care not. But speak no more."
He didn't. As her breathing slowed and her tiredness caught up to her, she heard nothing from the rest of the room. As she drifted off to sleep, she considered the fact that Potter might have left, or he might have stayed with her the rest of the night, probably not getting much sleep, himself.
The thought was not unpleasant.
She did not, in fact, see him the next day. Instead she awoke to a note, apologising and telling her that Potter had to leave on urgent business. What that entailed she did not know, but she could make a few guesses, and thus was not angered.
She was feeling palpably better in the morning. The aches on her chest were fading, thanks to the diligent work of the Swiss healers, and her hand felt more natural, the spellwork slowly settling and her body growing accustomed to the new feeling.
Her family was there again, coming in around noon. Dutifully, Daphne told them about Potter's visit, and most of what he'd said.
"He really offered to let you off?" Astoria asked her, surprise in her voice. Daphne nodded.
"Good," her father said, pleased. "Then you need not worry any longer. Much as I respect Mister Potter, it cannot be denied that trouble seems to brew around him."
Daphne frowned at her father. "I could not accept, Father. You know this."
"Nothing has changed. Our agreement stands."
Her father's face grew angry. Once, this would have made Daphne back down. "Even after this? After what happened to you because of him?"
"He came clean," she noted. "He admitted to his mistake. I respect that." Please, let that be enough.
"Not only that," Daphne cut him off, rushing to offer more. "I have already given my word. Five dates, I promised him. I will not break my word."
Her father pursed his lips. She levelled a hard stare at him. It was him that had made her like this. From early in her life, he had hammered in the need for one's word to be solid. For people to believe that when you say you would do something, you would. A businessman who wasn't trusted to keep his end of the bargain was one with no future.
"Daphne," he started, speaking slowly. "I understand how you feel, but consider the risks."
"I have," she said, staring down at her dead fingers. "And I do not find them severe enough to break my word. Potter has proven that, if nothing else, he can protect me."
"You did nearly die," Astoria pointed out, face unusually solemn. Daphne did not like that look on her face. Astoria should not be troubled; ever. Least of all because of her.
Even this, knowing that her sister was siding with their parents on the matter, was not enough to shake her.
"But I survived," she pointed out. "Besides, if I know him even a little, he will never allow us to be caught unawares again."
Karina spoke up for the first time in that conversation. "You speak about you and Mister Potter as if there's more to your future together beyond one more outing."
Daphne glared at her mother, feeling blood rush to her cheeks. Was she trying to mock her? "You know what it is that I mean." That would be impossible, anyway. "I am confident that I am not at risk anymore."
"You're being quite insistent," her mother said. "Is it truly because of the value of your word? Nothing else?"
"I do not know what you are insinuating, but I do value my word. I will not break it, and that is final."
She felt rather tired after that conversation, but at least her family relented. Whether she convinced them or they chose not to press her because of her condition, she did not know. In the end, her family trooped out of the room to let her rest.
The next morning, she amused herself by reading the Daily Prophet her parents had left behind. Potter and she had made front page. A picture taken from their date to the Ciel, arm-locked and smiling, was being displayed, beneath it a recounting of whatever was made public regarding the attack. Little was known about the attackers, but people knew that Harry Potter and Daphne Greengrass had gone for a picnic to Switzerland and were ambushed.
Everything from a Death Eater resurgence to an inferi outbreak was being thrown around. It was amusing to Daphne, especially as the articles painted her in the guise of the damsel and Potter as the gallant knight who had managed to rescue her but, tragically, not before she had suffered serious injuries.
Well, Potter had wanted to make it known that they were dating. That, if nothing else, had worked splendidly.
Around noon, she was feeling well enough to receive visitors. Astoria helped her with her appearance, keeping some of the haggard look of someone recently injured but making sure her beauty shone even through that.
Many people came to visit her. Acquaintances of the family, business partners, even some emboldened young men, though she made sure to get rid of those quickly. Still, being hospitalized actually turned out to be quite profitable. Everyone had a good word and a smile to give, and generally acted much softer than they would in any other setting.
Ironically, a few of the people who came to her, she'd met through Potter at the Ciel.
Everyone, of course, questioned her on the attack, some in more subtle ways than others. Thankfully, as her cursing was still recent, the visits were kept brief. Long enough for Daphne to assure good relations, but short enough that she could believably dodge any needling by diverting the subject or playing up her discomfort.
Visiting hours closed some time in the afternoon, though of course that did not count for her family members. Astoria waltzed in, an opened letter in her hands and a grin on her face.
"This just came for you," she said when she sat on the chair next to her bed.
"Who sent it?"
While technically true, however temporarily, Daphne still sent a cross look to her sister, who ignored it.
"Give it here."
"You are cordially invited to a soiree-" Astoria began to read before the letter flew out of her hands, Summoned by Daphne.
Still ignoring her grinning sister, she read the letter quickly but carefully. When she was done, she put it down on her lap and hummed in thought.
"So, what is it?"
"Potter invited me to accompany him to a gathering of friends," she replied. "A small thing, he says. Casual clothing. No more than thirty people. He wants to introduce me to some of his associates."
"Will you be alright?"
"I was walking fine today. By tomorrow I should be able to leave."
Astoria nodded. For a few seconds no one spoke, Daphne still looking down at the letter in thought. "Does this count as your fifth date, then?"
She shook her head. "Potter has made clear when the fifth date will be. This is up to me, whether to attend or not."
"Uh-huh," Astoria said. "You know," she continued after a short pause "that gathering will just be a bunch of Potter's flunkies all in one place."
"Who will probably be torn between distrusting you and sucking up to you for being his current bed-warmer."
Daphne pursed her lips. "Crudely put, but accurate."
Astoria nodded again. "Perhaps it would be better for you to sit this one out."
Astoria said nothing for a few second and neither did she, before her sister's lips stretched into a wide grin.
"So," Astoria started, "what are you going to wear?"
Daphne smiled back at her. "I shall need some clothes from home."
"Leave it to me."
She was released from the hospital the next day. Astoria was there with her, their parents busy back in England. After she got dressed, she used the Floo to go directly to the address Potter had directed her towards in his letter.
She came out of the Floo in a cozy, small living room, empty but for Potter himself, waiting for her. He smiled as soon as she walked out of the fireplace, his whole face brightening with the wide grin.
He looked good. Clean-shaven, wearing a dark pair of pants and a white shirt. Daphne almost scoffed as she saw the top button undone. Classy.
He approached her, and she him. She offered him her hand, and he took it, giving it a quick kiss but not breaking eye contact.
"Welcome," he said, "to Grimmauld Place."
"I am not late, am I?" she asked, for the sake of appearance. Potter winked at her.
"No more than is fashionable. Then again, you knew that. You look utterly beautiful. How are you feeling?"
"Perfectly healthy, thank you for your concern."
"Great, everyone is inside waiting for us. They can be a bit raucous, so don't be overwhelmed."
The notion of being overwhelmed by Potter's flunkies was outright funny in its absurdity. "I shall endeavour not to."
Potter was still holding her hand, staring at her with an intensity that was beginning to unsettle her a little.
"Is there something on my face?"
He shook his head quickly. "No, uh, sorry. I just-... I'm just not sure if, after all that's happened, we're still on kissing terms. Are we?"
She arched an eyebrow, taken aback by his forwardness, but not showing it in any way.
"Why do you ask?" she question, buying some seconds to calm her thoughts.
"Because I really, really want to kiss you right now. May I?"
She could not help the slight widening of her eyes, but she recovered quickly. After waiting a few seconds, partly to set her thoughts in order and partly because she really liked the anxious look on his face, she nodded.
Potter did not grab her, make any jerky moves or ram his tongue down her throat. Instead, his hand went to her shoulders, then to her neck, sliding upwards until he held her cheeks and sending pleasant tingles down Daphne's spine all the while. Finally, he reached his lips to hers, giving her a slow, tender kiss quite unlike any they had shared until now. She went along with it, not finding the experience uncomfortable.
He let her go after a few seconds, pulling back and letting go of her head. He was still smiling but it was a softer, more subdued thing. He looked like a weight had left his shoulders.
"I'm really glad you came today," he said, offering her his arm. "Shall we?"
She took it, and together they stepped through the doors which opened of their own accord.
Immediately, loud cheering washed over her. The spacious common area they entered was full of people, all of the clapping, cheering, some of them even whistling. She recognized most, some from her Hogwarts years, some from her jaunts at social events or the Ministry. Right off the bat, she realized just how many high ranking ministry employees Potter had in his immediate acquaintance.
The crowd had parted, letting her go to the middle of the room and by the time they'd reached the open space, the cheers slowly died down and the clapping stopped.
"Thank you, everyone," Potter called out, not having to raise his voice particularly much to be heard by all, "for coming here tonight. And thank you for giving Daphne here the appreciation she deserves, as without her I probably wouldn't be standing here right now." This was followed by another round of loud cheering, which Potter patiently waited out with a wide smile. "Enjoy the drinks, have fun, and please be mindful, as Daphne was released from the hospital just today. We're all here for a good time, yeah?"
At the crowd's nods or words of assent Potter summoned a pair of glasses from a nearby floating tray, passing one off to her before raising his glass.
"To Daphne Greengrass," he toasted, which the crowd dutifully echoed before drinking.
As soon as the hubbub had died down and the people were returning to their previous conversation, Daphne turned to Potter.
"You failed to mention that the party was being held in my honor," she all but hissed at him.
"Did I?" he asked, still smiling that damnable smirk of his. "My mistake."
"What would you have done if I had decided not to show up?"
"Looked really, really dumb in front of a lot of people, probably."
She snorted in amusement at that. Dumb, indeed.
The next hour or two passed in this sort of easy transition from one conversation to the other. Holding onto Potter's arm the whole while, he introduced her to many of his colleagues or acquaintances. Many she knew, but not all. Knowing as she did that all these people held Potter's trust, it was good insights into just how far his reach extended.
It did feel like a school reunion, in a way, as a good chunk of the crowd was comprised of their old classmates, though she recognized several that had been a few years above or below them at Hogwarts. But some, like the Assistant Editor of the Daily Prophet, were neither schoolmates nor ministry coworkers.
"You may recall Oliver Wood?" Harry asked her when he introduced to the tall, burly brunet. She did, vaguely, remember him from Hogwarts, but she had more memories of him from recent news. "He's the assistant manager of Puddlemere United."
"How do you do?" Wood asked her, offering her his hand for a handshake and a pleasant smile that really betrayed nothing at all. She smiled back.
"Good, thank you. I admire your work on the team."
"And this here," Potter said, waving to the older man with a similar build but hair that was whitening at the temples, next to Wood, "Is Shelly Crawford, Head of the Department of Magical Games and Sports."
"Good to see you again, Miss Greengrass," Crawford said as he shook her hand.
"You as well, sir."
"I was surprised to hear that you and Harry here were, uh, acquainted," the man said. "A good boy, he is. Lucky you are, I say, yes, yes. And uh…" he turned to Harry, pursing his lips momentarily, as if unsure of what to say.
"Speak freely, Shelly. We're all friends here."
"I just wanted to say, uh … thank you, Harry. That healer you sent us, he did wonders for Molly's hand."
Potter laughed. "It's no problem. Just tell Helen to keep some of that roast for me next time I come over, yeah?"
Crawford laughed too, a short, loud thing. "That I can do, my boy. We'd be glad to have you."
Next, she was introduced to Dayne Short, an ironically tall man with a severe look, who she knew was very high up in the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes. He and Potter had a hushed conversation, during which Dayne whispered something in Potter's ear and he laughed, clapping the older man on the back and thanking him. After that, Short gave them both a nod and walked off.
"Anne?" Potter said suddenly, looking to the right. Daphne followed his look to a rather small form. "Is that Anne skulking in the corner? Daphne, come with me for a second would you?"
They waded through the crowd until the stood next to the woman.
"As I live and breathe," Potter exclaimed, "Anne Dench. I thought you'd declined my invitation. Again. And where's your cloak and hood? I thought you loved perpetuating the stereotype."
Dench was a very short, very petite woman. Almost childlike, really. She had long, slick black hair, pronounced cheekbones, and a very dull pair of brown eyes. She was drinking with a straw from a cup which she held with both hands, pausing on her sucking to reply, giving Potter quite the disapproving look.
"I do not appreciate your humor."
Potter ignored her. "Great, thanks for joining us. Having fun?"
"It's not like I wanted to come or anything."
Potter ignored her antics, chuckling again. "Let me introduce you. Anne, this is Daphne Greengrass."
"Daphne, this is Anne Dench, Head Unspeakable."
Daphne blinked. Surely … surely he was joking. This? This was the Head of the Department of Mysteries? Renowned among those in the know as the one to salvage the Department after Voldemort's rampage through the ranks of the Unspeakables? The notoriously elusive leader that hadn't shown her face in public for years?
"A pleasure," she said, giving no indication as to her thoughts. Dench gave her a nod of recognition.
"Anne is an old friend," Potter supplied. "Don't go telling anyone this, but she likes to borrow Hermione for little projects here and there."
Dench threw Potter a truly murderous glare, surprisingly compounded by her small stature. "Potter," she hissed, "these are state secrets that you're-"
"Oh, lay off," he cut her off with a dismissive wave of his hand. "We're all friends here." He turned to her. "Right, Daphne?"
She smiled sweetly back at him. "Of course."
Dench was still glaring at Potter. "Go away," she said. "You're bothering me."
"Magic forbid," he replied with another chuckle. "I'll see you later, yeah?"
She grunted, and that was their cue to turn around and leave her in her corner.
They didn't get far, as they were intercepted by the Weasley couple. Potter let go of her hand to engulf his two friends in a wide hug, full of exclamations and laughter and other such unbecoming expressions of affection.
"Where have you two been?" he asked then once their hug was broken. "I've been looking everywhere for you."
"Just making a firecall from the kitchen. We missed your big entrance," Ron Weasley said with a wide grin.
"Guys, you know Daphne already, but let me introduce you again. Daphne, these are my good friends Ron and Hermione Weasley. You know them, of course."
"Of course," Daphne replied, keeping her polite smile in place with practised ease, making sure to curl her arms around Potter's left so they wouldn't think of trying to shake.
"Hello," Granger greeted her cordially, before turning to Potter. "Harry, can I have a word? It's for … Ministry work."
Potter made a face. "Must we? Tonight is supposed to be fun."
Granger frowned at him, and Potter swallowed hard. "Alright, alright, sheesh. I'm coming. Daphne, I'm leaving you in Ron's capable hands, okay? I'll be back in a second."
She was rather shocked at how quickly Granger had managed to make him relent, so she could only nod before he was whisked from her side.
She was left on her own, with Weasley's stupid face in front of her. He looked rather uncomfortable, his face gaining color.
"Do not feel the need to speak, Weasley," she said, barely holding back a sigh. "As a matter of fact, why do you not scurry along? I think I saw Thomas over there, talking to Longbottom. You are friends, right? Go on, I will be fine on my own."
Weasley looked like he really, really wanted to follow her advice.
"Err, Harry said-"
"Oh, come on Ron," a voice interrupted him. Daphne turned her head and saw Bones walking up to them, dressed in a shirt and jeans combo. "She's a big girl, and the worst that can happen is that she gets lost on the way to the loo."
"Well, um, still-"
"I'll stay with her. You can go."
Weasley looked incredibly relieved, trying and failing not to show it.
"Right. I will just … I'll see you in a bit, yeah?"
And he was gone. Daphne snorted at his hasty retreat. Next to her, Bones chuckled.
"Ron is a good guy," she said. "He just doesn't know how to talk to you. Give him time."
Time might not be necessary, but she didn't feel the need to mention that to Bones.
They made idle chit-chat for a bit, exchanging pleasantries about their attire, or commenting on the drinks. Daphne kept expecting Bones to excuse herself and go, but she did not.
"Did you want to talk about something in particular?" she asked her eventually.
Bones gave her a sideways glance, hesitating for a second. "I did, actually."
She already knew that. "Well?"
"It's about Harry."
"What about him?"
"You two seem to get along very well."
"That sounded painful to say," Daphne said, barely containing a smirk. "Bitter, much?"
"No!" Bones quickly denied, but seemed to deflate after a second. "Well, maybe a little."
"Is this the part where you tell me I am not meant for him?"
She shook her head, red hair gently flowing with the motion. "No," she said. "Harry does as Harry wants, and he seems to want you … for now. I respect that."
"If not that, what seems to be the issue?"
"I … I wanted to thank you, actually."
Daphne's eyebrows rose in surprise. "You did?"
Bones nodded, looking determined. "Yes. You helped Harry in a tight spot. As someone who has done the same and has had the same done for her, I can appreciate how serious it was."
Daphne shook her head. "I did not do it for Potter."
Bones looked startled. "What?"
"If I had left Potter to his fate, and he had been overcome, I would not have gotten very far."
That didn't seem to shake her. "It doesn't matter," she replied. "You still did it, and I am grateful. A lot of people are. Harry is … important."
Such disgusting loyalty. "Certainly."
"Tell me," Bones began "when you were fighting alongside him … did you feel the excitement? The rush of watching him do battle?"
Daphne's brow creased. She knew what Bones was talking about. She had felt a certain degree of awe on witnessing Potter in combat, his efficiency far outstripping anything she personally was capable of. She had no reason to admit as much to her, though.
"I do not know what you mean."
Bones snorted. "Suit yourself, it doesn't really matter. The thing is, you have entered a very particular group of people now. You have fought and bled alongside one of us. In the Battle and again now, you risked your life against impossible odds. In my book, that makes you a sister-in-arms."
What simplistic logic. "I have one sibling, and she is more than enough, thank you."
"Regardless of how you feel about it, you have my gratitude and respect. For that, I want to give you some advice, if you would have it."
"Harry is important," Bones repeated, adding more emphasis on the phrase this time. "He has done great things. Will do great things. If you have any sense, and I know you do, you have seen it. You have felt it. He will be Director soon, and then-"
"Then?" Daphne asked, raising an eyebrow. Bones snorted.
"You think he'll stop there?"
"That is what he has told me."
She shook her head once. "Maybe he actually believes it, it doesn't matter. I know Harry, and trust me, he is going places. Whether he wants to or not."
"That piece of advice better be coming soon, Bones."
The redhead frowned at her, the first hints of anger showing in her expression.
"My advice, Greengrass, is this. Get onboard, or you'll be left behind."
The words shook her despite herself, and it took her a few seconds to organize her thoughts.
"I'm going for another drink," Bones muttered and walked away before she could reply, not sparing her another look. Daphne pursed her lips, inwardly seething at … something. Something about this whole conversation felt off.
She sat on a couch and observed the party going on around her, mulling over Bones' words, occasionally giving a smile and a word to someone walking up to her to say hello. It was in that position that Granger and Potter found her, when they returned.
"Sorry to leave you alone," Potter said, rubbing the back of his head. He frowned then, and looked around. "Where's Ron?"
"I do not know where Weasley went."
"Hermione, can you-"
"You go look for Ron," she cut him off gently. "I'll stay here with Daphne."
Daphne would have sighed if it wouldn't have been undignified. Magic help her, but apparently it was time for round two.
Potter was looking between them with an uncertain look.
"Um, are you sure that-"
"Go, Harry," Granger said, more firmly this time.
"Err, okay. I'll be by the drinks, Daphne."
She waved him off, and he left. Granger took a seat next to her, slowly and gingerly. For a few seconds, neither spoke.
"That was impressive," she admitted. She saw, out of the corner of her eye, Granger smile.
"Harry trusts me to know best in some situations."
Daphne furrowed her brow. "... trust," she said, drawing out the word a bit. "I see." She wasn't sure if she did. She trusted people, herself, but not to the degree that she would accept commands of this nature. Not even from her family.
"You'll learn how to handle him, I've no doubt."
"Plus, it helps if they know that you're pregnant. No one wants to cross me right now."
That, Daphne did not know. Granger wasn't showing yet, so it must have been recent. "Congratulations."
"Tell me what it is you want to tell me, Granger."
The brunette turned to give her a look. "It's Weasley, now."
"I assume you've heard it a lot tonight, but thank you for helping Harry fight. He's quite reckless; he needs good people by his side."
She hadn't heard it put quite that way, yet. "You're welcome," she said, unwilling to repeat what she'd said to Bones. "Is this where you tell me what you think about him being with me?"
Granger furrowed her brow. "Would you like me to?"
Daphne refrained from rolling her eyes. "Would it stop you if I said no?"
"Oh," Daphne said without thought, before inwardly chastising herself. Being caught off-guard here was inexcusable.
Granger didn't feel the need to fill the silence, simply sitting next to her and observing the people, humming a tune under her breath.
Daphne sat there for a minute, unsure what to think or say. The conversation she'd had with Potter was fresh in her memory, and she was well aware that offending Granger right now, in this place, was a terrible idea.
The best option would, perhaps, be to follow Granger's example and ignore the other woman, in turn.
"I know how different we are," she said, surprising even herself with the fact that she spoke. She frowned. Hadn't she just decided to not say anything?
Granger turned to her, abandoning her tune. "You are," she agreed.
Daphne felt a strong surge of irritation wash through her, though the other woman was only confirming her own statement.
"Is that a problem?" she replied, perhaps with more venom than she'd intended.
Granger shrugged, turning her gaze away from her, towards a tall redhead on the far side of the room, before smiling. "Only if you let it."
Daphne repressed the urge to snort. If Granger thought their situations were similar, she was hilariously mistaken. She didn't voice that thought.
"While that is an interesting perspective," she started, "I fail to see the relevance. Potter and I will be through soon enough."
"Your last date is coming up, huh?"
Daphne gave her a sharp look. "He told you?"
Granger nodded. "He came clean with us when he came back from Switzerland. I hope that's okay with you."
"It matters not to me what Potter says to you."
"Fair enough. So … is that what you want? For you two to be over?"
Why was she asking a question with such an obvious answer? What else could she possibly expect to hear? "Yes, it is."
Granger looked like she had something to say, but she bit her lower lip and refrained, turning her gaze forward again.
"You are important to him," Granger broke the silence after a while. "For many reasons. As such, I would like for us to get along. To be … friends." She said the word as if it were some foreign concept, but her jaw was squared in a look of determination.
Friends with Granger? She'd sooner tattoo Mudblood across her back. Daphne could have snorted, if not outright laughed, but she was keenly aware of where she was, and amongst who. She refrained.
"Certainly," she said. Granger instantly looked relieved.
"Is that what these people are to you?" Daphne asked, making a wide gesture with her hand, encompassing the whole room and the people milling around in it. "To Potter?"
"In a way."
"There is something I do not quite understand," Daphne admitted. "Explain to me, as a friend?"
Granger looked slightly uncomfortable now, which brought a smile to her face. "If I can," the brunette replied.
"Half of these people seem to owe Potter favors. The others are either in his employ, or are old classmates, or are otherwise indebted to him in some way or another," Daphne said, making a pause to wet her lips. "How do you … classify them? Friends, flunkies, or allies?"
Granger was silent for a second, before she let out a chuckle, then another. And another.
"Did I say something funny?" Daphne asked, beginning to feel annoyed with getting laughed at.
"I'm sorry," Granger said, making an effort to contain herself. "Really, I'm sorry, it's just that … Well, that's the good thing about Harry Potter."
At her blank look of confusion, Granger went on. "Don't you see, Daphne? Isn't it great that, when it comes to him, it's so difficult to tell the difference?"
Daphne said nothing, turning her gaze instead to stare at Potter where he was talking to a group of people a few couches over, thoughts going a mile a minute.
Daphne awoke suddenly, with a start. She went from unconsciousness to awareness in a second, propping herself in her elbows and looking around in alarm.
It took another second for her eyes to adjust and when they did, she took in her surroundings. A second later, she relaxed, allowing herself a yawn. She groped with her right hand for her wand, firing a barrage of freshening charms at her face and mouth. After that, she put her wand back on the nightstand and lowered herself back on Potter's chest. Light was coming in through the balcony, but it didn't seem to be long after dawn.
They'd left the party sometime in the night, going for another drink in a more private setting. Naturally, they had ended up back at Potter's apartment.
Though he was asleep, Potter's hand unconsciously curled around her waist again, pulling him closer to her. Daphne smiled into his chest, letting herself relax.
She must have fallen asleep again, as when she opened her eyes again, the light was brighter and at a different angle. Potter was still asleep under her, his head turned to his right side, away from her. She stayed there for a minute, as strangely fascinated by the rise and fall of his chest as she'd been the first time.
Eventually, she gingerly pulled first his arm off of her, then the sheets, before getting up, naked as the day she was born. At a guess, she picked one of the two doors that she didn't know where they led. It seemed she guessed wrong, as the door led only to a wardrobe room.
The other one was, indeed, the bathroom. Spacious and sparkly clean, eliciting a nod of approval from her. Both a shower and a large tub were present and while she'd love to have a long soak, it was too early in the day for that kind of indulgence.
After a thorough shower, she wrapped a towel around her torso, dried and softened her hair with a pair of charms, and headed back into the bedroom.
Potter was awake, propped up against the headboard, reading a newspaper with a mug of tea floating next to him. He raised his head to look at her when she walked in.
"Hey," he said.
"Not going to run off today, are you?"
Daphne considered the merits of this. "In a bit. Where is my tea?"
"Assuming I made you some, eh?"
Daphne raised an eyebrow at him as she made her way back to her side of the bed. With a chuckled, Potter floated another mug, taken from a disk on his nightstand, towards her. She accepted it and took a sip.
"I want no milk in my tea, Potter."
She noticed another newspaper, lying unopened next to Potter. The subscription must have brought them while she was having a shower. She picked up the newspaper. It was that day's Daily Prophet. She looked up at Potter, who was still engrossed in his paper.
"What are you reading?"
"You are holding it upside down."
Daphne considered whether pursuing the line of questioning was worth it. After a second, she decided that no, it wasn't. She leaned back against the headboard, adjusted her towel, and opened the Prophet.
Front page was, as expected, news about New Year's celebrations throughout the country. The Ministry Ball was mentioned as the grandest event of the year, along with others set up at various locations.
The second page was more interesting.
"Potter, have you read this?"
"Not yet. Anything interesting?"
"Apparently, Director Baker is sick? A variation of dragon pox?"
He looked up from his paper and gave her a nod. "I know of his illness. It's been eating away at his left hand for years."
"Apparently, it has gotten a lot worse in the last few months. Or so a Mungo's Healer says. Did you know this?"
"No," Potter replied. "That's terrible. I hope he gets better soon."
Daphne didn't buy the nonchalant way he said it.
"Is it fatal?" he asked. Daphne returned her eyes to the article.
"Apparently not. But it is quite crippling."
Daphne furrowed her brow. "I saw you talk to the Assistant Editor last night," she said after a minute of silence. "What was his name?"
"And what did you talk about?"
He shrugged, not raising his eyes from the Quibbler. "Can't remember."
Such a bold-faced lie. Daphne decided not to press him on it, but did note it in her mind.
She perused the rest of the paper, quickly growing bored with it. After finishing her tea, she set the paper down and got up, taking off her towel and beginning to dress.
"You're going?" she heard Potter ask.
"Tonight is the big night, is it not?" she replied. "I need to get ready."
"It's early. You have time."
Now fully dressed, sans shoes, she turned back to look at him. He had a hopeful look on his face. Daphne smiled.
"Hm … I wonder if I should."
As if merely asking nicely would sway her. "What do I stand to gain?"
He furrowed his brow. "What would you like?" His tone was cautious, more rhetorical than indulging.
"How about this? I shall stay for as long as you keep me entertained." Upon seeing the grin begin to form on his face, she was fast to correct him. "Not like that, you pig."
"Oh. What, then?"
She sat back down on the edge of the bed. "Tell me something about you. Something nobody knows."
He raised an eyebrow. "Nobody?"
"Not even your two bootlickers."
"I don't know who you mean by that."
Daphne clicked her tongue in irritation. "The Weasley couple." She realized that this could refer to several people, as the blood traitors' brood was quite large. "Well, the two Weasleys you're closest to."
"I see. Something about me, is it?"
She nodded. He stayed silent for a couple of seconds.
"I have just the biggest fear of mosquitoes."
She looked at him incredulously for a second.
"Seriously," he said. "They carry diseases, come when you sleep and suck your-"
Daphne scoffed and made to stand. Instantly, she felt a pressure of her wrist, where Potter had grabbed her.
"Let go. I am leaving."
"Wait," he said, and he sounded resigned. Daphne didn't try to get up again, only glaring at him with pursed lips. If he dared try to waste her time again, she would leave. If he tried to stop her, she would hex him.
Potter turned away from her, staring ahead, before turning his gaze outside through the balcony. He was silent for a long time, and Daphne let him. Despite what she told him, she had time. Especially if she was about to hear something interesting.
"Some days ..." he began eventually. "Some days I get up in the morning and I wish I wasn't working at the Ministry. That I hadn't decided to go there in the first place. Wish that I didn't have to."
Ridiculous. Potter was Britain's poster child. "No one is forcing you to do anything, Potter." No one could.
He chuckled, but there was no humor to it. His smile was a bitter thing. Daphne stared in fascination.
"No, I suppose they aren't. Maybe I brought it upon myself, but I never really had a choice, did I? Not really."
She said nothing, as she didn't quite follow.
"There are days," he kept speaking, "that I wish I'd taken more than single year to travel the world. That I wish I'd never stopped. Other times, I miss my teaching days."
"As an Auror instructor?"
"That, and even earlier. Did you know, we had a little club in fifth year that I used to teach in?"
Interesting choice of words for his Ministry resistance group. "I heard."
"Teaching is an amazing feeling. I wish I'd recognized that earlier."
That was just silly. Give up a promising and advancing Ministry career just to teach? She didn't get it. Still … it had nothing to do with her. "It is never too late for a change of profession."
He shook his head. "No … that is just a silly thought. There are too many things that need to be done. Too many things I did that cannot be undone. I just …" he paused, as if lost for words. He turned to her, locking eyes as she looked at him expectantly.
"Some days, I just have these thoughts about what could have been, you know?"
"I see," she replied. There wasn't much else she could say, as these were Potter's inner thoughts, and not much she could say to him would affect anything. "And you have not discussed this with those two?"
He waved a dismissive hand. "There's no need to worry them with my stupid thoughts, is there?"
"Is it not a bit early for your mid-life crisis, Potter?"
He chuckled, this time genuinely. "You said it."
"Focus on what it is you are aiming for," she cautioned. He looked at her again, surprised. She kept going. "What you are doing is not easy, nor will it be accomplished with half-hearted efforts. It is unfair to you and those working with you for you to be regretting your choices this far in."
He let out a sigh. "I suppose you're right."
"And remember, half the teachers at Hogwarts are people that retired from other professions."
He smiled again. "That's an encouraging thought."
She got up, and this time he didn't stop her.
"I shall take my leave. When do we meet up?"
"What, don't I get a turn at your inner thoughts?"
Daphne smiled at him. "No."
He chuckled. "Figures. Seven works, so just Apparate here and we'll head out."
"You have keyed me into your apartment?"
He nodded. "You're free to come and go."
"I will use the Floo, like a civilized person."
With one last look at Potter over her shoulder, she left the bedroom and a few seconds later, the apartment.
Her home was empty when she arrived, her parents gone on business and her sister either locked up in her room or outside doing magic knew what. That was fine with her. She'd rather avoid another awkward silence with her parents or Astoria's weedling.
The first time she'd come back from Potter's place, tail between her legs, hair in disarray, she'd burst in on a full breakfast table. She'd turned completely red and rushed to her room, ignoring everything and everyone. When she'd come down for lunch, her parents had pointedly not said anything, but she could feel their thoughts and speculations. Her sister had no such reservations and, as soon as their parents had gone, had began drilling her on details.
All sorts of details.
Daphne still didn't know which of the two was worse.
All in all, having no-one to witness her return was a small blessing. She took some time to pick out her clothing for the evening and, once that was done, she set about some work. There was a lot of mail to reply to, with several days' worth of letters that hadn't been redirected to Switzerland. Many owls flew away from her room that day, even the enchanted stuffed-toy owl had done its adorable duty.
To her surprise, her father had redirected several of his business partners to her, citing his own busy state and delegating his duties to her. That wasn't uncommon, but she had thought that with her recent hospitalization he would have refrained.
She came down for lunch quite a bit late, and all three members of her family were there, in various states of eating. Astoria had just finished and was getting up when she walked in. Her parents, not done yet, looked up and greeted her.
"Hey Daphne," Astoria greeted her as Daphne walked over to her customary seat next to her. "Had fun last night?"
Astoria's lewd grin made some color rise to Daphne's cheeks, but she had expected something like this. "Begone, pest," she ordered as she sat down.
Her sister chuckled and gave her a wink; a wink, of all the undignified things.
"Mom, dad, I'm going. Lots to do."
"Have fun, dear."
"Behave yourself, Astoria."
Her sister waved over her shoulder as she left the room, leaving her alone with her parents. That was a mixed blessing. Astoria would have perhaps drilled her a bit regarding Potter, but it was perhaps better than this ironically loud silence, in which everyone knew what the other was thinking but didn't want to be the first to say something.
After a few minutes of awkward eating, her mother broke the silence.
"All ready for tonight, honey?"
Daphne looked up at her and nodded. "I have selected my attire, and looked up the appropriate charms for my hair. Do you want me to help you with yours, Mother?"
Karina shook her head. "That won't be necessary, dear. Your father and I won't be coming to the Ball tonight."
Daphne's eyes widened, her eyebrows rising to her hairline. That was … unprecedented. The New Year's Ball was the Ministry's biggest social event of the year. Everyone who was someone would be in attendance. It was a great opportunity for making business and cultivating connections. Her father, in particular, had never missed the Ball since his sixteenth birthday.
"I do not understand."
"We have been invited to a similar gathering in Athens," her Father said, "by master Trismegistus himself, no less. Such an opportunity to integrate with the United Greek States is unprecedented and can not be missed. This could be our chance to extend our trading company to some of the materially richest areas of the world."
Which was true, of course, but it would not matter if they let the situation at home slip. Many would look for the Greengrass family in the Ball, and when they learned that they were not to be found, some would be insulted. Expanding was useful, but they needed to keep their core clientele happy.
"Father," she began, "representation in the Ministry Ball is paramount."
A ghost of a smile passed by her father's lips. "True enough, daughter. And represented we shall be."
Daphne blinked. "You do not mean… surely…"
"You have grown, Daphne," her father said with a tone of finality, and pride. Despite herself, Daphne felt something swell in her chest and had to fight back a smile, "you and your sister both. It is time you stepped up to your role as I know you are capable of doing."
This was a huge opportunity her father presented her with.
"I will not fail you, Father."
Fabio smiled again. It was a twitch of his lips, but Daphne caught it. "See that you do not. You are capable, but still inexperienced. Caution is needed, but boldness is also necessary."
"I will do my best."
Her mother spoke then, having no reservation about showing her a wide smile. "Then all will be well."
They parted not long after that, the house elves taking care of the table as her parents went to do their own preparations. Daphne killed some time by familiarising herself with several financial reports that might prove useful for the evening, until it was time to get ready.
Her dress was a dark purple work of art, which was what she had paid for. It would gleam slightly, but not when stared at directly. It would draw attention of people who had her in the periphery of their vision, but not needlessly tire their eyes when focused on. Getting into it required a bit of maneuvering and some magic, but she managed without issue. Her hair took quite a bit longer to get right, but she was rather adept at managing it, so she was satisfied with the elegant result without any redos.
"You look lovelier than usual, mistress," her mirror complimented her as she was doing a final examination in front of it. She paid it no mind beyond a vague sense of annoyance at the thing's habit of stating the obvious.
She used the Floo to appear in Potter's living room. Looking around the surprisingly tasteful area, she couldn't spot Potter himself anywhere. He must have heard her arrive though, for he called out to her from another room, telling to wait for a minute.
She passed that waiting period by taking in everything around her. She'd passed through on her way out before, but never had she taken the time to properly look around. Beyond the comfortable, classy feel of the decor -the result of hired work, most likely- there were precious few of Potter's personal touches. The most numerous were, of course, framed photos. Many of Potter's friends and extended family, though curiously Potter himself was rarely in them.
She stared for a while at a frayed photo of James and Lily Potter hung over the fireplace, pictured younger than she herself was. Such a happy couple, arms wrapped around each other and grinning widely. There must have been some recognition in the echo of their spirits encapsulated in the frame, for their expressions changed when she stood in front of them. From the wide grins, they became simpler, smaller smiles, but still their faces betrayed an excitement and pride that she could not understand.
She did not reciprocate their polite waves in any way. Conversing or communicating with a portrait was pointless and even if it wasn't, she didn't trust herself not to burn the frame or tear it to pieces or both, and that wouldn't go well with their still very much alive son.
In the end she moved on, putting the frame and its inhabitants out of her mind. There were some artefacts laid around, a couple interesting ones set up in glass cases on small stands, others stuck to the wall. Curious they were, weird in shape and useful for things she couldn't guess at. Probably loot from Potter's time touring the world, as she could recognize the flair of different cultures on some of them.
Left alone in a corner, such that Daphne's eyes nearly passed it over, lay a broomstick, carelessly propped against the wall. From its dusty appearance she nearly thought it was a simple broom, meant for cleaning, but a closer inspection revealed it to be Potter's old Firebolt, the same one he'd evaded the Hungarian Horntail with. While no longer considered the best broom in the world, the Firebolt still maintained its place amongst the best, a testament to the ingenuity of its original creators.
And Potter just left his own to collect dust in his living room.
"Sorry I kept you," she heard his voice behind her and turned. Potter looked … good, she had to admit. He wore a long, black robe with dark red lining. He'd exchanged his usual pair of glasses with a smaller, square set that made him look a lot smarter and classier than she knew he was. Moreover, he had done …something to his hair, to make it look, if still untamed, then at least stylishly so.
He must have noticed her perusal of his attire. "How do I look?" he asked, perhaps with a touch of insecurity?
"Your sleeve is creased," she told him, voice dripping with disapproval, making sure to give her face just the slightest hint of disgust.
He spent a whole thirty seconds looking around his sleeves, searching for the ever elusive crease. When he gave up and turned back to look at her with suspicious eyes, Daphne made sure she only had a blank stare for him.
He still must have seen through her.
"I get it," he said with a sigh. "This is your idea of humour."
Daphne allowed herself to smile. "I am hilarious, Potter."
"Not on purpose, though."
"This is the part where you tell me how good I look."
He gave an obvious once-over for a couple of seconds, eyes lingering on the elaborate strings of her dress.
"You look absolutely stunning," he said, with the same tone he used whenever he complimented her. No stranger to compliments, Daphne still felt a thrill whenever she heard him say such words. Being aware of her beauty didn't diminish the joy she got when others noticed it.
"So I do," she said. "Are we sufficiently late?"
"About an hour."
She nodded in approval. "Shall we go?"
Potter offered her his arm, which she wrapped hers around, and together they walked through the green-lit fireplace and into the Floo network.
Of course, they were not deposited on the Atrium, as was usual. Rather, special accommodations had been made, as always at this time of year, and they arrived at the Floo Hall, a spacious room full of fireplaces, connected to the Ministry's event hall through a set of double doors. Two employees stood by the doors, checking invitations. They instantly straightened when they saw her and Potter emerge from the green flames.
"Head Auror, sir," they greeted him as he arrived.
"Hello fellas," Potter said with a dip of his head as the two of them reached the doors. "Let me fetch my invitation."
"No need, sir," said one of the attendants. "Just dip your finger here, if you would." He proffered a simple bowl of clear liquid.
Potter did as bid, dipping his index inside the water all the way to the second knuckle. Daphne knew that any concealing magic would have been undone by the exotic, magical water. But really, to have an entire bowl of such precious liquid in the care of these two dunderheads? Clearly the organiser for the night was out of his mind.
"Please go in, sir."
"Thank you boys."
The attendants dutifully opened the doors, letting them through into a blazing sea of flashing lights and a sudden cacophony of noises. Daphne's footing was sure as she walked next to Potter, not letting the sudden change affect her, but she did grip his arm a little tighter.
There was a walkway formed in front of the door, with a carpet lain on it and people on the left and right side. As soon as the two of them walked, the crowd exploded into a cacophony of incoherent cheering.
Daphne was used to flashy entrances and cheering, but not to this extend, and never had she been at the receiving end of something like this. For sure, she always turned heads when she was announced, but this was different. This wasn't for her.
She turned her head away from the flashes of the cameras, to look discreetly at Potter as they slowly walked into the room. He had a smile on his face and was using his free hand to wave at the crowd, but Daphne could spot the slight set of his jaw. The tension in his posture.
"I have the suspicion that the party was waiting for you, Potter."
He turned to look at her. "Surely not."
"Potter, we were one hour late and everyone was waiting for you for the party to begin."
She scoffed. He hadn't even tried to make it sound convincing.
Someone was saying something from the podium in the middle of the hall as they approached, so she returned her attention to them. The Minister was on the stage, speaking in front of a floating microphone, no doubt charmed with a Sonorous. Another person stood next to him, a short woman that was the head of the department of Magical Disasters. Her first name escaped Daphne at the moment, but she was a Stein, she remembered.
"Yes, yes, welcome, Mister Potter," Shacklebolt said. "Our guest of honor for tonight!"
A massive cheer went up from the crowd at that. The Minister smiled as she and Potter reached the front line of the guests.
"Of course, a big welcome to Miss Greengrass as well. We are all pleased to see you recovered and as radiant as always after your unfortunate encounter in Switzerland."
Unfortunate, he called it. Daphne could have snorted.
As if on cue, the Minister's expression darkened.
"For those of you who do not know, our very own Head Auror was attacked by an outnumbering force during a leisure picnic."
Murmurs of surprise and affront went through the crowd. Liars, hypocrites and sycophants, the lot of them. If there was one person that wasn't already aware, Daphne would eat every single thread of her dress.
"... their safe return," the Minister was saying when she turned her attention back to him. "So forgive the suddenness of the decision, but tonight's party is dedicated to our very own Head Auror, for his handling of the situation, but also for his leadership of the international Auror squad targeting a specific cadre of organized crime in Europe!"
Another cheer from the crowd. Next to her, Potter was bashfully accepting the praise. Daphne could not tell how much of his humble and embarrassed expression was an act and how much of it was natural. Curious.
"Now, I'd much rather attend to the proceedings much closer to the drinks, so I will leave the rest of the evening to our event master, Madam Stein." The Minister motioned to her, standing next to him, to the polite tittering of the crowd. "From me, and from the Ministry of Magic, happy New Year to all."
With a final round of applause, the Minister stepped down from the podium, replaced by Stein. Daphne was intrigued. From what she knew, Stein wasn't Potter's greatest fan. If she were running the party, how was he planning to effect his plan?
"Thank you, Minister," the woman began, sounding exasperated. Turning to the rest of the crowd, she addressed them. "As the Minister said, and now with Mister Potter's arrival, we can officially commence the celebration. Welcome, one and all, to the Ministry of Magic's annual new year party!" She paused to let the applause die down. "Have a good time, talk, dance and drink; if our esteemed Minister leaves anything for the rest of us, that is."
On cue, chuckles were heard from the crowd. At that time, the music started playing, and the crowd dispersed from before the podium, breaking up into smaller groups of socializing people. Occasionally, this or the other person would climb up to the podium and say a word or two, mostly wishes.
She and Potter did not lack for company. Though too composed to outright mob him, it was obvious that everyone wanted to talk to him. Potter fielded them with mastery that spoke of years of experience, giving as much of his attention to however many people he could, promising that he would get back at those he couldn't in due time.
For the first hour, Daphne stayed glued to his side, fully aware that it was still early, that every eye was still on them and that the cameras were still flashing. As the evening went on, however, things died down a little, and Daphne felt safe enough to disentangle herself.
"I cannot be by your side all evening, Potter," she told him. He turned to her and raised an eyebrow.
"I have my own business to conduct. Your understand, I am certain. I believe we have sold our part well."
"It's fine. Don't be gone too long though, or I might get lonely."
Daphne scoffed. "With all the people salivating for your attention? Unlikely."
Potter gave her a winning smile. "None can replace you."
She slapped him on the arm. "It does not count as flattery if it is true, Potter."
She pushed him away lightly, always within the limits of propriety, with a snort to mask her laughter. "Go away, you buffoon. I shall find you in due time."
"As the lady commands."
With a dip of his head, Potter slunk off to join a group of his lackies, in which the Minister himself was also present.
Daphne looked around, seeing several people she wanted to talk to. First order of business, though, was Kendra, one of her family's chief financial advisors. She'd need her by her side during most of the talks she planned to have.
She found her quickly. Kendra was a woman on the twilight of her golden years, and smartly did not try to ignore that fact, instead choosing a more conservative dress and hairstyle that nevertheless paid homage to the woman's fading beauty.
"Miss Daphne," she was greeted as she approached the brunette.
"Madam Chaiv. Good evening."
"To you as well. I hear your father won't be joining us tonight."
"He is otherwise engaged."
"You attend in his stead, I take it?"
"There are several things I wanted to discuss with him at this venue."
"I am here for such."
"Then, you are aware of the situation with the gorgon eye supplier?"
She nodded. That business had been going for a few months. She'd re-read the file earlier that day, in preparation for this. Kendra smiled.
"Good. Then let us find that moron Kevin and give him a talking-to, shall we?"
"Nothing would give me more pleasure."
For the next while, Daphne drifted from person to person, discussing business, or exchanging news that had to do with such. Kendra was by her side for a good part, but she wasn't involved in everything.
Well over an hour after she'd parted with Potter, she was moving among a small group of socialites when she halted, blinking in surprise at the radiant blond couple in front of her.
"Astoria," she greeted her sister. "I had not expected to see you here."
Her sister gave her a smile, arm-locked with Malfoy who, at the very least, had a rather capable tailor.
"Yet here I am. Did you think Father had sent only you?"
She had, actually, and it did sting her pride a little, but she squashed the feeling. With Astoria here, everything would go much smoother.
"Good evening to you too," deadpanned Malfoy. Daphne turned her head to look at him, not stopping her face from forming a slight grimace.
"Malfoy. I feared I would see you here."
The blond scoffed. "Of course I was invited."
"Of course," she repeated. "I suggest you go spread your particular brand of fungus somewhere out of my sight."
Malfoy scoffed, going a little red in the face and opening his mouth to say something. A sudden grip from Astoria stopped him, and Daphne saw her lean in with a sweet smile and whisper in his ear. Malfoy still looked incensed, but mollified, and left without so much as another glance at her.
"Well done, little sister," Daphne commended with an approving nod, looking at Malfoy's retreating back.
"We have a lot of ground to cover."
"I'll leave Schruman to you. I still don't quite understand the terms Father agreed to."
"Then you go deal with the Italians."
"Must I?" Astoria asked with a grimace. "They insist on drinking such a horrid cocktail."
"Yes," Daphne replied, glaring at her sister, who let out a sigh.
"How many more after those?"
"Not a lot. With you helping, we should have talked to most everyone before the change."
"You think Malfoy will try to kiss me?" Astoria said, looking amused.
"He has not attempted to, already?"
"He did when when we were alone after the first conversation with Father. Acted like it was expected, or something. Like he owned me already. I kneed him in the groin. Hasn't so much as looked at my tits since."
"He always was a cowardly little ferret."
Astoria raised an eyebrow. "That sounds like something Potter would say. Speaking of Potter, I don't think he'll be afraid to kiss you tonight."
Daphne's lips curled into a smile. "No, I do not think he will be."
Astoria let out another dramatic sigh. "This is so unfair."
"Cease bemoaning your fate and get to work. And remember, Father said to ease them off-"
"I know, sister," Astoria cut her off with a scoff. "Get off my case. I read the file."
"Get to it."
"Geez, you are absolutely no fun at all. I wonder how Potter puts up with you."
"You shall learn when you are older."
With one final snort, Astoria left, heading back into the throng of people. Taking a sip of her drink and a deep breath, Daphne followed suit.
It kept going like that for a while. She put on an excellent performance, as always, all radiant smiles and keen conversation, keeping people both fascinated and interested.
All the while, she kept an ear open and her eyes wandering, taking in who was talking to who, and what those close to her were saying.
She saw Potter, still discussing with the Minister, a couple of department heads and some foreigners that she did not know.
She also saw Director Baker. He was standing close to her and her small group of business associates, having a conversation with four others, including Malfoy himself. Their conversation appeared to be about the upcoming Triwizard Tournament and the Ministry's preparations, so Daphne put them out of her immediate concern.
That is, until one particular line.
"So, Director," Malfoy said, making a decent attempt at an honest expression. Daphne had to admit, he could get mildly charismatic when he wasn't being a total ass, "a friend of mine at Mungo's told me about your arm. Terribly sorry to hear that. How have those Phoenix extracts been working?"
Baker obviously looked taken aback at the sudden switch to his illness. "Err, well, the treatment is working well enough to contain it to my hand, but it doesn't come cheap, so … well, I'm being handled by the best."
Malfoy nodded, face all fake concern. "I see. That's good to hear. Terribly thing, Dragon Pox. My grandfather himself was lost to it."
Baker looked quite uncomfortable. "That is sad to hear, of course."
"Of course, of course. Still, I'm sure the treatment will keep you safe. Hearing about your retirement was saddening, but it looks like you have selected the best possible candidate for your successor."
Baker's eyes went wide, as did his mouth. For a second, he was too surprised to speak.
Malfoy let out a laugh. "I know, I know, that's rich coming from me, right? The Head Auror and I haven't always had the best relations, but I appreciate his efforts to make our country safer. You made a great choice, no doubt about it."
Daphne could have snorted. Malfoy completely missed the source of Baker's uncertainty. That, or he chose to ignore it.
The immediate area around them all seemed to take in a breath at once. Daphne was obviously not the only one listening in.
This turn of events was … interesting. She hadn't seen that coming. Using Malfoy, of all people … how masterful.
She turned her head to find Potter, looking at him just when he was laughing heartily at something someone said. He looked … so carefree. So earnest. Like he didn't know what was going on around him right now, in this hall. Like it was all coincidence, or fated to happen, rather than meticulously engineered.
The more Daphne thought about it, the more convenient everything seemed. The worsening of Baker's condition, right after Potter got enough international accolades to make him viable for the position.
Could Potter have been the one behind Baker's condition? It sounded like him, to remove an obstacle without the use of lethal force.
At that moment, Potter laughed again, his face lighting up as he fought to catch his breath and talk at the same time.
Daphne's thoughts paused. Surely … surely this was just convenient coincidence. Potter wouldn't do that.
… would he?
With a start, Daphne realized that she didn't know. Couldn't be sure. Too much was pointing in either direction.
How … exhilarating.
Before long, she found herself approaching a small group of familiar people, forming a loose circle and engaged in quiet conversation. She recognized all of them. Malfoy's hair would have given him away even if he had used a mask, and her sister's presence next to him even more was Tracy Davis and her father, John, along with Munich Mulciber and Marcy Crabbe, who had taken the reins of her remaining family after her brother's passing during the Battle, in which the departed Crabbe senior had fought for the losing side.
"Miss Greengrass," Mulciber welcomed her, having noticed her approach. She was a shrewd woman, all thin smiles and veiled words. Daphne stood to learn a lot from her. "Nice of you to join us."
"I trust you are well?" Crabbe asked her. Daphne nodded.
"We heard you were injured," Tracy asked her, making her turn her eyes to the woman. They'd been amicable during their Hogwarts years, but had grown apart since, meeting only on occasions such as this. The stench of magical corrective creams was heavy about her.
"I am well. Soon, I shall be fully healed." But never the same.
"We were just talking to Draco here," Mulciber told her, "regarding his most curious conversation with Director Baker. You're just the person we'd like to talk to, if I'm honest."
Daphne adopted a slightly surprised air. "I am?"
She received a nod from the older woman. "Indeed. It appears that rumors of your … closeness to Mister Potter, of late, were not unfounded. Perhaps you have some insights for us. Are the rumours true? Is he going to be our next Director?"
This was dangerous ground. She'd expected this, but she'd still have to tread carefully. Out of the corner of her, she saw Astoria purse her lips.
"It would appear so," Daphne said, safe in at least that much. The faces around her grew somber, all of them digesting this information and its implications. There was silence for a few seconds.
"I do wonder," Crabbe said then, "how far your insights go. You've been closer to mister Potter than most in recent times. Can you tell us … what kind of man is he?"
"I would have thought that your niece, Madam Mulciber, who works as one of his very own Aurors, would be better served to answer that question. After all, she has been working with or for him for the last several years."
Munich waved a dismissive hand. "Mister Potter is an exemplary Auror and an inspiring Head Auror. He is charming and friendly with his coworkers. Him being good at his work is not the answers we seek, miss Greengrass. What we would like to know is, what kind of person is he, in his own time? How does he think? What drives him forward?"
A heavy question. Bold of the woman to ask her, bolder still would she be to give any sort of definite answer. She looked around again as she thought on her answer, taking in the expectant eyes of these people from families with little direct contact with Potter himself. The response she gave could shape the political landscape to some degree for the foreseeable future. At the very least, it would create an impression that would be hard to shake off.
Get onboard, or get left behind, Bones had said. Sensible advice, however grudgingly given. She'd seen enough of Potter until now to know that he did a lot more to his enemies that simply leaving them behind.
"Potter is … a visionary," she settled on, after some moments of thought. "Moreover," she continued after a brief pause, "he has the ability, mettle and temperament to bring about its realization."
Silence followed her words once again, as each person took in her words, cross-referenced with how trustworthy they found her and their own observations of Potter's actions, and considered what that would mean for each of them.
It was Tracy's father who voiced everyone's thoughts.
"And where do we factor in in this … vision, of his?"
"He is not an unreasonable man," she replied. "Potter understands his faults more than most, and is open to advice and suggestions from people he recognizes are more knowledgeable than him in certain matters. He is firm, but not unbendable. We could do, and certainly have done, a lot worse."
"Strong words," Crabbe said, eyes slightly wider than normal. "Is this your personal opinion on the matter, or the stance of the Greengrass family as a whole?"
She was asking if Daphne was just a love-sick fool, and whether her father would confirm her words, if asked about it later. Daphne would have sneered at the old hag, instead she just smiled at her. A side-glance at her sister showed no disapproval from Astoria.
"At this juncture, they are one and the same," she replied, which was true. The fact that she and Potter would part ways soon need not be spread. She would do him the courtesy of giving him a period during which she'd not be seen with other men, to let the media slowly die down and not give them something explosive to gossip about. He could spin whatever tale he wanted. If he preferred, perhaps they could have a fight in public; Daphne knew she'd enjoy that.
But, all in good time.
"Men like Potter…" she began again, voice steady and firm, "they do not let the world change them. It is he that will change it." She paused again, partly for dramatic effect, partly to wet her lips. "Potter … is magical Britain's future. It is better to help forge that future at his side than be trampled underfoot."
Daphne found no trace of deception in her worlds. She truly believed that what she said was true; she just wasn't sure if what she had said was something she felt good about.
Get onboard, or get left behind.
Damn Bones. And damn Potter, for being who he was.
"I enjoyed talking to you all," Daphne said with a pleasant smile directed at everyone. "But I think I require another drink. Astoria, Draco, would you accompany me?"
"Certainly, Sister," Astoria replied. She and Malfoy said their goodbyes to the group and fell in behind her, leaving the other purebloods behind them to mull over her words and warnings.
"Nice show, Greengrass," Malfoy told her once they were relatively isolated and with a drink in hand. She looked at him, to see a dissatisfied expression on his face, poorly hidden behind a fake smile. "Potter must be really giving it to you, to inspire such loyalty."
"Crass as ever, Malfoy," she replied icily. "I would have thought that close proximity to someone like Astoria would have granted you at least some measure of class or finesse," she gave her sister a disapproving look. "But apparently not."
"Not for lack of trying," her sister mumbled, making Malfoy's face heat up. He opened his mouth to no doubt exclaim something, but Daphne cut him off.
"Besides, " she said, "do not presume to play innocent in regards to membership on the Potter club of supporters. I heard that conversation you had with Baker. Half the hall did, in fact. I never would have figured you to be working for him."
"I'm not," Malfoy was quick to correct. He still looked uncomfortable. "Potter and I have … talked. We have an understanding. I would hate to, what was it you said? Be trampled underfoot."
"Then judge me not if you share my views of the situation."
That seemed like a sour thing for Malfoy to swallow, but at least he did not object or contradict her. He'd had some sense beaten into him since their Hogwarts years, apparently. For all she knew, Potter might have done the beating, himself. That was a nice scenario to imagine.
She left the two to their own devices, confident that Astoria could see to their family's matter's while keeping Malfoy and his ego entertained. They'd cover more ground separately. She continued mingling, talking with acquaintances and clients and rivals, all with the same polite smile and confident air about her.
She turned with a start, seeing Potter next to her. She frowned; clearly she'd overindulged if she hadn't noticed him walk up to her.
"Mind if I join you?"
Daphne shook her head. "I have done most of what needed done."
"Good, because there's not too much time left."
Daphne nodded, linking her free arm to his and bringing her drink up for another sip.
"Had a productive evening?"
He nodded. "Unlike most Ministry events, the New Year party tends to actually be fun."
"That is not what I asked."
"I don't know what you mean."
Daphne snorted. "Of course."
They drifted towards a side of the hall, where people were more sparse, eventually taking a seat. There they stayed for a while, exchanging gossip and impressions of people present in the hall that they both knew. Potter's accounts were mostly humorous in nature, but there was actual information layered into them.
After a lull in the discussion, she noticed Potter give her a long look, a weird smile on his face.
"What?" she asked, feeling slightly uncertain.
"Nothing," he said with a shake of his head. "It's just, I'm glad you came today. I'm glad I got to know you, at least to the amount that I have."
Daphne raised an eyebrow. "We have gotten quite intimate with each other."
He laughed. "I suppose we have, but not just that. You're someone I couldn't understand. Still can't, not really. But spending this time with you has been really helpful."
"Helpful?" she asked, furrowing her brow.
Potter nodded. "Remember when you asked me why I did this?"
"Another aspect of my answer is this. Getting to know you, trying to understand you."
"You represent something, at least to my eyes. You are the ... how to put this … the opposite end of the spectrum, at least until wands need to be drawn. And I knew that. And it got me thinking, what if I really can't get along with you?"
Daphne frowned. "You are not making much sense, Potter."
"I guess I'm not, am I? Look at it this way. For better or for worse, my actions have an impact. And I plan to use that. It might sound arrogant to say, but I want to make our world a better place. For everyone. And that includes you, and others like you. How then, can I trust myself to do right by you, if I can't manage five civil evenings with you?"
Daphne listened, and processed, and followed his reasoning. Was he joking? No, he didn't seem like he was joking. Maybe he was just intoxicated. She said nothing for a while, and Potter seemed to have said his piece.
"I have been wondering, regarding that," Daphne admitted at some point. Potter raised an eyebrow at her.
Potter nodded, expression losing its previous mirth. "What about it?"
"I remember the reason you gave, regarding why you dragged me into this mess."
He nodded. "Is something the matter?"
"I do not know," she asked, giving him a stare. "Is it?"
"You doubt my truthfulness?"
She shook her head. "No, I do not believe you lied to me."
"I am uncertain that you were giving a, shall we say, full account."
"What makes you say that?"
She gave him a look. "I am not dumb, Potter, nor do I have a weak memory. I remember you repeating my father's words to me. Was that just you stroking your ego, or was there some deeper meaning to it? If the answer you gave is not the whole truth, what else is there to it?"
He moved, settling differently in his seat.
"I'm not sure what you want me to say."
"The way I see it, you have given me three different explanations for your actions."
He frowned. "I know that my plan, as I said in Vern, was one. I guess this just now is the second. What's the third?"
"You feeling trapped by your current life and wanting to try something new."
Potter's eyes widened, and he chuckled. "You took that seriously?"
Daphne was not amused. "I did."
That sobered him up real quick. "Oh."
"I do not think that was entirely false, either."
"What are you trying to say?"
"I wanted to ask, because I do not get it. Mid-life crisis, scheme, or familiarity? Which one is the real reason?"
Potter pursed his lips, not speaking for a few seconds. Eventually, he let out a sigh.
"Does it have to be one or the other?"
Daphne blinked. "Come again?"
"Why does it have to be just one? Can't it be all three, or more? Honestly, I couldn't really tell you if any one of them drove me more than the other. I'm not that meticulous in my thoughts. I just … do things."
Daphne said nothing, processing his response, and deciding to accept it, at least the first part of it. Multiple reasons were not an unacceptable answer, though it did not make figuring him out any easier.
Movement at the podium drew her attention. "What is this?" she wondered aloud. Potter followed her gaze.
Short had walked up to Stein and was whispering in her ear. As we went on, Stein blanched. A few seconds later, Stein left as quickly as she could without being improper, vanishing inside the fireplace room.
Short took her place, looking at the crowd with the same dour look.
"Madam Stein had to depart at all haste due to her presence being required at Saint Mungo's. Apologies for the inconvenience. I will replace her for the duration of the party."
Daphne turned to look at Potter, instead. "What happened to Stein?"
"How should I know?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I know you do."
"Well, I don't. And all this suspicion is really disheartening, you know."
Daphne gave up on getting him to admitting it, at least for now. Curiosity was burning away at her. Stein was called away to the hospital; that meant someone she knew was admitted or some condition of her own had development. Would Potter arrange something of that nature?
The same unanswerable question again. How far would he go? Was she just overthinking things?
She turned her attention back to Short.
"-... this opportunity, half an hour before the change, to say a few words. Please welcome, Madam Weasley!"
Granger walked up to the podium, radiating as much as a woman as mediocre could make herself to, smiling widely.
"Thank you, secretary. Forgive me these few moments, for I wanted to say a few words about the man of honor for tonight. My very good friend and colleague, Harry Potter."
She paused to let the polite applause die down.
"I have known Harry most of my life. Never does life get boring around him, never does he stop trying to give me heart attacks by getting himself into mortal risk. Was it any wonder, then, that he joined the Auror Office and excelled in it?"
Most of the crowd, comprising of ministry workers, laughed at the inside joke.
"Truthfully, I have put my life in his hands on several occasions; as have we all. He always comes through, time and time again. There is no one more trustworthy, no one more capable. I know that under his leadership, the Department of Magical Law Enforcement will thrive like never before!"
The applause was thunderous this time, and Granger was forced to stop or risk not being heard, even through the Sonorous charm.
"I would ask that you excuse me this impromptu speech. The news have taken all of us by surprise, none moreso than Harry's very close friends. All of us are proud, all of us happy and relieved. However, I'm quite sure you'd rather hear from the man himself than me."
Again the crowd surged up in assent, beginning a chant of 'Speech, speech!', no doubt incited by Potter's flunkies, scattered among them.
Potter himself looked relatively bashful, and made quite the show of being unwilling to get up to the stage, before several sets of hands pushed him forward among laughter. His hand slipped from hers as he was pushed away.
He appeared on the dais, a wide, shining smile on his face and just the right amount of color on his cheeks.
He stood in front of the charmed microphone, continuing to smile while the crowd clapped widely. He opened his mouth several times to say something, but instead closed it again and chuckled when the applause still hadn't died down.
It was just the right show of embarrassed pride. Daphne was impressed; he was proving to be quite the actor.
"Thank you, everyone," Potter began finally, "but it's hard to give this speech you speak of without you settling down."
The crowd did so with some final chuckles at his jape.
Potter looked around again. "Wow," he said with a chuckle. "I hadn't planned to say anything today, so this is, uh, quite uncomfortable to be honest." His wide smile bellied his words, and the crowd took his words in the jesting manner they were meant for.
"Honestly, while I am proud of my accomplishments, I feel like too much of the praise is heaped upon me. Most of the actual work is done by the good men and women of the Auror office, as well other departments of our hard-working ministry."
The crowd exploded again, the cheers championed by the Aurors in attendance and backed by other ministry workers.
"As such, I accept all this honor in place of our entire Office, and thank you all for appreciating our efforts. Much of the responsibility, of course, belongs to Director Baker, who has taught me much in my time in the Ministry. Without him, we would not have achieved half of the results we have today. A toast, I say, not to me, but to Director Baker, and the good Aurors who tirelessly work so we are all safe in our homes."
Everyone raised their glasses as one, and Daphne took a look at the Director. He was going red in the face, the involuntary reaction to the attention and the praise making him want to preen, but the encroaching feeling of dread fighting against that. No doubt, he must have began to feel the vice closing around him. Surely, he was smart enough to understand that this was a game with the rules were stacked against him.
"As for me being the successor of the department, I'm flattered by the faith you all put in me, but I caution you against hasty judgement. I, too, have read the papers and been hearing the news lately, but I have not heard any word on it from the Director himself, nor has any paperwork reached my desk. As a man who has been on the receiving end of inaccurate rumors several times, I refuse to believe anything until I hear it from the source. As such, mister Baker, if you could step up and shed some truth?"
That conniving, manipulative, magnificent son of a bitch.
Baker looked like he was about to faint, with every single eye in the room set on him, staring expectantly. Eventually, when he did not move, murmurs started.
Baker was sweating, and he brought up a finger to loosen his tie. No doubt, he was feeling slightly nauseated, maybe even faint. Now, Daphne was certain that he was feeling the trap Potter had so masterfully lead him to.
He took shaky steps before managing to control himself, the weight of magical Britain's eyes and expectations heavy on his neck.
Potter gracefully stepped aside, welcoming Baker to the microphone's position with open arms and a wide smile.
Like a snake, Daphne thought.
Potter stood next to Baker as the older man turned to face the crowd, his face losing its bright color and paling rapidly now that he had reached the elevated position.
"Um, greetings, good guests of the Ministry's New Year celebration," he started, using that time to try and collect himself. "It is indeed a great night, and a great party. My congratulations to Madam Stein for arranging everything so beautifully."
Stony faces met him from the crowd, and Baker was not immune to the effects. One of his hands came up to wipe the sweat from his brow. A disgusting sight.
"Err, but I suppose that's not what you want to hear, is it?"
No one answered his question, and after a few moments he carried on.
"I suppose I should address these … rumors, then. The truth … the truth is …" Baker balked, swallowing his words, his ears no doubt still echoing with the applause in Potter's honor from earlier. If he shut down such a beloved man in front of such an important crowd, what would become of him? Daphne would bet half her gold that was exactly what he was thinking.
"As things stand … well, I suppose that if and when I do retire, Mister Potter would indeed present the most qualified-"
His words were drowned by the resurgence of the crowd's applause, mixed in with clapping and whistling. Daphne looked around amid her own polite clapping, seeing all of her pureblood acquaintances also following along. The power of a crowd was strong; no one wanted to be the one to stand out.
"... no plans for immediate retirement-" Baker was trying to say, but it was futile. He had said just enough, enough to sign his own metaphorical death warrant. Everyone had witnessed it. Ministry workers, aristocrats, foreign dignitaries, the Minister himself. Potter had dug the hole, taken Baker by the hand, led him to the edge, letting him decide between jumping and ruining his reputation.
True, to an outside observer, Potter's plan might seem simple enough, but she knew enough to guess at all the months of setup that must have gone into it. A perfectly executed plan never looked dramatic.
Baker was turning red again, seeing that his words weren't being heard. His hand had began to shake. Suddenly the Director let out a wince, pulling his arm closer to himself, missed by none.
Immediately Potter was there, pulling him slightly away from the microphone and leaning in to whisper to Baker, though still just barely within the range of the Sonorous.
"Are you alright, Mark? Is it your hand?" Potter asked, voice dripping with concern.
"I-, I'm fine, thank you. I can certainly-"
"You're not fine. You're shaking."
No doubt, he was shaking by the feeling of his career crushing and burning around him.
Potter put a gentle hand on the older man's shoulder.
"Look, why don't you go check with your Healer? We can wrap things up here, no problem. Honestly, you need to take better care of yourself."
Two office workers came and helped a stuttering Baker down from the podium and out a nearby door. Baker's shoulders were sagged, his crestfallen expression speaking of befuddlement, as if he could not understand how everything had turned out like this.
Daphne knew, and it had been beautiful to watch.
Potter returned to the microphone, putting a polite smile on his face.
"Don't worry, everyone. Director Baker had to go because he had a bit too much of that Firewhiskey; it's nothing to worry about."
Was he really pretending to not have known that their hushed conversation could still be heard? Classy.
"That being said, wow," Potter continued, making a show of widening his eyes and putting on a surprised expression. "I am astounded by the faith you all seem to share with Mister Baker. All I can say in return is that, if and when the time does come and I am in charge of our Department of Magical Law Enforcement, I will do my utmost to prove true to your expectations."
Potter accepted the cheering with a smile and a wave to the crowd. This went on for several seconds. Daphne was beginning to feel a tingling in her ear from the noise created around her.
Eventually, Potter pulled out his wand. "Magical Britain, are you ready for a new year?"
A roar of assent went off, and Daphne really considered muting the sound around her.
A small stream of fire left the tip of Potter's wand, forming itself into the number thirty seven.
"I'm sorry to say that I won't stay up here for the countdown," Potter continued, his eyes roving the crowd with a pleasant smile as the floating, fiery timer trickled down. "I have somewhere I want to be when the year changes."
And then he shot her with such an intense and unexpected look that Daphne felt her cheeks burning with color.
As the timer reached ten and the crowd began shouting out the countdown, Potter jumped off the stage, all but running his way towards her, the people jerking instinctively out of his way.
Daphne would forever deny standing frozen, rooted to the spot and unable to exactly process what was going on as Potter reached her and threw his arms around her, outright pulling her off the floor and spinning them around as the very loud countdown reached zero.
Daphne thought she might have squeaked in surprise, but the undignified sound was muffled by Potter's mouth, suddenly glued to her own.
The world went silent and dark around her for a few seconds, her whole perception focused entirely on him and her, and how the two connected. Hypersensitive and frozen at the same time, she felt her arms move around his shoulders as she responded to the kiss with equal fervor. His touch was fire on body, and his lips tasted like victory.
She came back to her senses only after Potter had put her down and she opened her eyes with a start, not having realized that she'd closed them at some point. The deafening sound of the celebration around her just reached her suddenly working ears. Potter was looking down at her, expression intense, satisfied but at the same time hungry and dominant and more alive than she'd ever seen him, to the point where Daphne was as aroused as she was intimidated.
The whole evening- nay, months and months of careful work- coalescing into this one, single moment of success.
"Happy New Year, Daphne," she heard his voice by her ear, and failed to repress a shudder.
When Harry returned to his bedroom, he was greeted by quite the sight. Daphne was laying on his bed, alone, slightly tangled in the white sheets, morning sunlight illuminating her naked figure from the open balcony door. A scene to be immortalized, surely. As it happened, his hands were full, holding the breakfast tray, so he couldn't summon a camera.
Regardless, he did still have his Pensieve.
"Good morning, princess," he said as he closed the door behind him with his foot, using a tone louder than usual. Daphne stirred, her eyes slowly fluttering open as she awakened.
She pulled herself further up, leaning against the headboard, accidentally causing the sheets to be pulled down, fully exposing herself. She seemed not to particularly mind as she rubbed at her right eye.
"...Potter?" she half-said, half-yawned as Harry walked closer, a smile still on his face.
"What is this?"
"Breakfast in bed?"
She finally seemed to notice the tray he was carrying, blinking several times to focus her eyesight. Her right hand, wand held in a loose grip, was casting freshening charms towards her face, seemingly out of habit.
"How thoughtful," she said as Harry set the tray down, the specialized tray fitting just over her lap without weighing her down.
"Enjoy. I've had some already."
"I suppose it would be rude to refuse," Daphne replied, but Harry wasn't fooled. He caught the slight growl of her stomach at the sight of food, and only chuckled. Daphne ate delicately, but with surprising swiftness. He leaned his back against the bedpost and crossed his arms, waiting as she ate.
Not long after, she seemed to have had enough, waving her wand at the small tea kettle, which began to pour its contents into a mug.
Daphne took a sip, before making a grimace. "I told you, Potter, no milk."
Then, her eyes finally landed on the contents of the tray, previously half-hidden by the kettle of tea on top of them. Daphne reached out and pulled the small stack of papers.
"What is this?" she asked, confusion evident in her voice.
"I think you'll recognize the papers. You left a copy of them in my office, after all."
Half a minute of perusal later, Harry saw the realization on her face.
"Those are…" she started, seeming to hesitate for a second before continuing, "those are the contract voiding requirement forms."
Harry nodded. "Yup. I've signed them."
She was speechless for all of a second. "If this is one of your tricks, Potter-"
"No tricks," Harry cut her off with a shake of his head. "It's the truth."
Daphne's face did this weird thing where her eyes went back and forth between the papers and him, her lips moving ever so slight but making no sound.
"You … you signed it? It is … it is done?" she asked, in seeming disbelief. Her hands pulled out different papers for her eyes to examine.
"Yes. We're all set."
Harry cocked his head to the side, not quite catching her murmured words. "What was that?"
"What do you mean, all set?" she asked, ignoring his question.
"I did promise you, didn't I? Go out with me five times, and you're free. Well, we have had some eventful times along the way, but the fifth date was last night. Your obligation to me is done. You're free to go."
She turned to look at him, eyes slightly wide. "You wish for me to leave?"
Harry shrugged. "You can stay for a while, I guess. I have some work to do, but-"
"No," she cut him, rather forcefully. She coughed once, as if to clear her throat, then seemed to take a deep breath.
"No," she repeated. "I will go."
She pushed the tray to the side and threw the sheet off of her, not caring that she was completely undressed. As she got up, a wave of her wand brought all her various items of clothing flying towards her, and she got dressed with quick, jerky moves. Harry watched her from his spot by the bedpost.
"Don't forget your copies of the papers," he said when was done dressing and was picking up her bag. Without a word, the signed papers flew up from the bed and wormed their way inside her charmed handpurse.
She made to leave but Harry spoke before she reached the door.
"Before you go, I wanted to ask-"
"I care not," she cut him, her hand pulling at the door knob. "I have nothing else to say to you."
Harry reached her before she went through the door, his hand closing around her wrist, stopping her from going further.
"Would you wait a second?" he asked again, irritation coloring his tone.
"Let go of me!" Daphne all but tore her hand from his grasp, but made no move to leave, so Harry cautiously backed away a couple of steps, giving her some space. Had her lower lip been trembling? Surely he hadn't seen right. Or maybe she was just that mad?
"What more do you want?" she asked, hands clenched into fists. Harry wondered if she did that unconsciously. "Have you not humiliated me enough?"
"I honestly don't know what you're talking about. I just wanted to ask, since we're both here now, if you're free tonight. I know it's supposed to be a day for family, but I was hoping-"
"Excuse me?" she cut him off, voice bewildered. Harry stopped his sentence, halting that thought. "What are you talking about, Potter?"
"Well, our sixth date. Though I suppose, it technically counts as eighth?" I haven't exactly-"
"There will be no sixth date!" she cut him off again turning towards him. Her expression was one of barely restrained anger. "You said so yourself. We are done."
"Did I?" Harry wondered, scratching his chin. "I recall saying your obligation to me was done, nothing more."
That seemed to catch her by surprise, if Harry could judge by the way her mouth opened slightly, something that she didn't seem to notice.
"What?" she asked, uncharacteristically eloquent. Harry could have snorted.
"I mean sure, you can just walk out now and never see me again, but I was hoping we could keep this thing going, at least until one of us grows sick of the other."
Upon hearing his words she seemed to finally understand him. She recovered from her shocked look, her jaw clenching, which drew her gaunt features even tighter. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at him and didn't speak for several seconds.
"Do you really think-" she began. "Do you honestly have the nerve to ask that, after everything you have done-"
"Hey," Harry cut her off, brow furrowing. "I'll admit that I could have handled this whole situation a bit better, but you haven't exactly been a peach about it either, you know? Besides, it turned out for the better, didn't it? We had some good times."
"The contract is done," she pointed out, "and our agreement is finished. Why would I still go out with you?"
Harry shrugged. "Certainly you don't have to. Nor do you need to. As I said, you're free to walk away, now or at any point in the future. You have no obligation, no duty influencing you to do anything. You're completely, utterly free."
Harry paused, taking another step back and resuming leaning against the bedpost. He returned his gaze to Daphne.
She shook her head once. "My father-"
Harry snorted, which made her stop her sentence barely two words in to throw him an annoyed glare. "You know I can match whoever your father throws at you. I'm sure you two have talked about it. I don't think he will have too much to say if you decide to keep going out with me."
He paused, letting his words sink in. Daphne, judging by her expression, seemed to be doing some furious calculations in her head. Harry gave her a few seconds before he spoke again.
"The real question now is, what do you want to do?"
That seemed to throw her. She blinked at him, her furious expression melting to one of uncertainty.
"I-... what do you-"
"How does it feel?" Harry asked, cutting off her mumbling. "To have the choice of what to do with yourself be entirely up to you? To be the only one with a say in what happens next?"
And Harry could see his words affect her. In the slight widening of her eyes, in the deep intake of air in her chest, in the unconscious relaxation of her tight grip on her wand.
He knew, then, that his words hit home. That Daphne, in this matter, was like him. She, too, wanted to create her own destiny. To forge her path in life with her own two hands, and a touch of magic.
She was staring at him with a sincerely troubled expression.
"Potter … I get what you are trying to do but … we are … so different. With no agreement or contract to bring us together, do you really think this could work?Would it even be worth it?"
"We are different," Harry agreed, making Daphne's gaze snap up to him, meeting his eyes with her own. Harry tilted his head to the side, a smile making its way to his face. "But then, isn't that what makes this so interesting?"
Daphne stared at him for a few seconds, as if searching for something.
"The choice is yours."
She said nothing, and he didn't either, and the silence stretched, the quandary heavy in the air. Harry didn't break the silence, and he fought hard to maintain his nonchalant appearance. He had been quite confident, but every moment the silence stretched, he grew more and more doubtful. He wouldn't be surprised if she snorted at his suggestion, turned without a word and left. There was still so much he didn't know about her. He couldn't exactly predict what she-
His mental ramble was interrupted by Daphne's voice, more frustrated than he had ever heard her.
"... damn it, Potter."
Was that … resignation in her expression?
Harry felt his heart skip a beat.
"You are insane," she said. "Utterly, completely insane."
He chuckled, feeling a thrilling rush go down his spine, his body reacting in the same way as it did after a steep broomstick dive, or a combat situation. "Perhaps," he admitted, not bothering to say that maybe that wasn't such a terrible thing. "So, what do you think?"
She let out a sigh, her previously tense shoulders relaxing, a free hand making its way up to rub at her closed eyes. Her voice, when she spoke, sounded defeated. "I think you would have done great things in Slytherin, Harry."
Harry's lips pulled back to form a wide grin. "Funny story about that…"