It begins at a party in Paris.
Decorum mandated your invitation, and likewise your acceptance, but the conversation is predominantly in French, and the canapés are pitched at a palate more sophisticated than that of a boy who grew up in Little Whinging.
'You probably won't remember me,' she says, with a nervous smile that puts the sun to shame.
'Of course I do,' you tell her. 'I once pulled you out of a lake.'
You spend a few minutes getting reacquainted; she's the aide to some pretentious title, she lives here in the city, and she found her happily ever after.
'You won't know him,' she says.
She dazzles you with a smile when you give your profession, and is polite enough not to mention that your robes gave it away. You talk about your wife, about Ron and Hermione, about Bill and Fleur and their children. She's sad that she doesn't visit enough. A sentiment you echo.
She asks your opinion of the Eiffel Tower, and you have to explain, awkwardly, that you've never been. Send her an owl, the next time you're in Paris, she urges, then she can show you the sights.
You promise that you will.
And then, as swiftly as she stepped back into your life, she's brushing her lips against your cheeks and bidding you 'Au revoir'.
You eat another canapé.
It tastes a little better.
Months pass, unhappy ones.
Time reveals three things: youthful infatuation abates, your wife wants a family of her own, and that you cannot have children. You, specifically, are the problem; the healer is emphatic on that point.
You go through the motions: you wake up, you get dressed, you head into the office, you write reports, you catch bad guys, you buy groceries, you do laundry, you scrub the bath, you lie on the grass and stare up at the Pole star.
Your wife begins to stay in bed for days at a time. Her hair, which had once burned like the sun, loses its lustre. Sometimes at night, you hear her sobbing into her pillow, but when you reach out to hold her, she shirks away. She often talks about how bored she is, how lonely. You suggest she finds a job, makes a friend, joins a book club. She shakes her head; it was just talk.
You begin to find bottles hidden beneath the contents of drawers and tucked into the backs of cabinets. You confront her, hypocritically, because more and more you need a little dutch courage to see yourself through the day.
Your assignments pile up. People keep asking you if you're tired. You stop seeing your friends. A suspect escapes you. Kingsley asks if you're okay. You turn up to work hungover. You hit some mouthy kid during an interrogation. You get suspended. Dawlish makes an appointment for you to see someone, and you don't go.
Sometimes, you smile and people look away.
One afternoon you walk into the library and find her weeping. Her tear stained expression shatters you like a mirror.
There's an assignment overseas; work, you reason, is not the same as running away.
First Cairo, then Rio, then Hong Kong. You apparate, you floo, you portkey. You greet, shake hands, and get to it. You work long hours, you negotiate with difficult locals, you pin index cards to a corkboard and link them together with lengths of red twine. You get your man, or woman. You shake hands, again, and pose for photographs.
In Egypt you eat koshari in the sunshine. In Brazil you play volleyball on the beach. In Hong Kong you take a sampan out onto Victoria Harbour and watch the fireworks burst overhead. A thousand of motes of light drift through the air like errant stars and their reflections are scattered by the ocean.
When you smile, people smile back.
She doesn't write. You hear from a colleague that she's seeing other men. You tear up the letter. You beat your hands on the wall. You throw the bedside table through the plate glass window of your hotel room. You apologise and pay the damages.
Three times you book, and subsequently cancel, the return trip home. The wastepaper basket of your new hotel room fills with half-penned letters. Dinner with a colleague ends with a steamy kiss in a hotel elevator, but you turn her down and sleep alone.
You take off your wedding ring.
By the time happenstance returns you to Paris, the city darkened beneath pregnant September clouds, you've forgotten all about the girl you pulled out of the lake.
You greet, shake hands, and get to it. You pin index cards to a corkboard and link them together with lengths of red twine. You sit on the banks of the Marne and drink espresso.
It isn't until after the culprit is apprehended that you remember to send the owl.
Her reply is swift and earnest: 'are you free tonight'?
As it happens, you are.
You meet for dinner in a small, trendy muggle bistro that's bathed in purple light. It's on the corner of two streets, and the tables spill out onto the pavement. You dress up as well as your suitcase will allow. She arrives in a simple blue dress, and the entire restaurant collectively skips a beat in time with your heart.
You sit outside and listen to the whispers of traffic. She orders from the menu, in French, for the both of you, because you don't understand a word. You worry, half-heartedly, about canapés and frog's legs. But she's evidently taken pity on the poor English boy: spinach soufflés, mushroom risotto, and finally a cinnamon and pear tart so fine that you might swear off treacle for good.
'I'm a vegetarian,' she explains in a tone that sounds like an apology.
'It must be difficult, living here.'
Your capacity for small talk has atrophied, or perhaps never existed, so you mostly listen. She tells you about her job— she's been promoted; about Fleur— she spent a wonderful Christmas at Shell Cottage; and about the political division on the mainland— the usual strife of blood.
She tires of talking and asks about your work. You tell her about the pyramids of Egypt, and about the casino you visited in Macau that's filled with replicas of the Venetian canals. Complete with gondolas crewed by real gondoliers.
She doesn't believe you when you explain that it was made by muggles.
You tell her that you got to visit Castelobruxo in Brazil, and describe its golden stone walls with such fondness that you surprise even yourself. But loyalty dictates that you compare it unfavourably with Hogwarts.
She pulls an ugly face, and you hasten to reassure her.
'I'm sure Beauxbatons is lovely too.'
'I did not care for it,' she replies, and although you know there's a story there you drop the subject.
After dinner, someone, it doesn't matter who, orders another bottle of wine. You sit and coax reluctant truths out of each other for hours.
'I wanted to be a novelist,' she confides in you.
Her smile doesn't reach her eyes, and she swishes the Merlot around her glass before she answers.
'Sometimes there are chapters in your life that you must end.'
You finish the bottle, and buy coffees. The restaurant is emptying, you talk in hushed voices about plans and dreams and other childish things. Neither of you mention your spouses. Not once.
You pick up the cheque, and the pair of you alight into the night. You stroll, arm in arm, along the banks of the Seine, like the dozens of other couples. Periodically the overhead lights render her golden hair and pale skin into chiaroscuro relief.
She pauses beside a tourist information sign she must have walked by a thousand times, and reads to you about the history of the buildings by the river. You take the opportunity to stand a little too close and smell her scent. The breeze carries her fly away hairs to tickle your face.
She turns to face you; another radiant smile.
'You will write to me?' she asks.
A terrible thrill passes through you. The future stretches out as though it were already set in stone: You're leaning forward and she's meeting you half-way. Your lips pressing together, your tongues desperately seeking each other's. You're seizing her in an embrace, and whisking her off to your hotel room to spend frantic, passionate moments ensconced between crisp white linens.
But before you can pluck up the courage to kiss her, she bids you 'adieu'. She grasps your arm, leans in to peck at your cheeks, and leaves you standing on the bank of the river alone.
A dark, yawning chasm opens up before you; a night spent alone in a foreign hotel room, vicious memories playing over and over in your mind's eye like a skipping record. So instead you spend the long night strolling down leafy boulevards until, eventually, the sky breaks and you are soaked by the torrential downpour.
Only then, when the tears will be obscured by beads of rain, do you allow yourself to weep.
You return to England the following morning. The divorce is quiet and simple. All correspondence goes through your lawyers and the goblins. You see her only once, at the very brief hearing. She doesn't ask for anything from you. You still give her half.
Afterwards, Ron and Hermione help you pick up the pieces. At first they come over every afternoon after work, and Hermione cooks for you, even though she could burn pasta. After a while, their visits tail off, first every other day, and then only once a week.
One blustery November day they announce, beaming smiles, that they are expecting.
You congratulate them and break out the champagne you'd long ago set aside. And once they depart, you drink the better part of a quart of Firewhiskey.
You write to France, and accidentally commit to parchment all your angst and rage. You send it before you are sober enough to think better. The distance from London to Paris is not so far, so the return letter comes a day later. You consider it from a distance for many hours before you dare to open it.
Her words are sweet, and reassuring. She commiserates with you. She sympathises. She doesn't judge. She doesn't offer advice. She invites you to write again, so you do.
The next morning you decide to be positive. You start running once a day. You've never done it before, and progress is faltering, but after a few weeks you're running miles a day. It helps you comport your thoughts. Sometimes you can almost outrun the pain.
You work long hours, you negotiate with difficult locals, you pin index cards to a corkboard and link them together with lengths of red twine. You get your man, or woman. You shake hands and pose for photographs.
You clear your assignments. People remark on your perky, can-do attitude. You watch Hermione's belly swell. You pour Firewhiskey down the drain. Kingsley tells you that the foreign exchanges were good for you. You turn up to work twenty minutes early each morning. You get double the average number of convictions in a six month period. You get commended. Dawlish makes an appointment for you to take the officer's exam, and you ace it.
The letters wing back and forth across the channel.
A fresh wave of recruits is taken on, and you volunteer to train them. You vow to be hard, but fairer than Dawlish had been to you. They respond well to your methods and you rediscover a passion for teaching that had laid dormant since the DA. Some days, when your best students shine their brightest, you can almost forget.
Christmas comes and goes and you start dating again; purely casual. It turns out that there's a list of women queuing up around the corner to go out for dinner with you. But you move on from each after only a few dates. Friends and colleagues make jokes about notches in your broomstick. You don't explain that you couldn't bring yourself to sleep with any of them.
Each time a nascent relationship falls apart Ron and Hermione shoot pitying expressions at your back. You don't tell them that it isn't your ex-wife that occupies your thoughts.
Eventually, you abandon the dating, but take French lessons, instead. Your teacher is short and wears a lopsided toupée, and slowly, together, you open up an entirely new world. By the time Christmas rolls around again, you're reading Dumas in French, and snickering through the writings of Voltaire.
You start to write to her in French, and you can all but feel the beaming smile in her replies.
'Tres Bien. Ou as-tu été toute ma vie?'
Spring rolls around and Kingsley encourages you to take some of the leave you've accrued. You spend two weeks touring the Riviera and testing your hard won language skills.
You apparate, you floo, you portkey. In Nice you eat socca in the sunshine. In Saint-Tropez you drink martinis on the beach. In Marseilles you sit on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean and watch as the sun sets, staining the sky orange, and pink and the sweetest blue, in turn.
She meets you in Montpellier on the last weekend of your holiday. You spend two glorious days sitting outside cafés on the Place de la Comédie, eating glaces in the shade of the Three Graces, and sunning yourselves in the leafy parks.
On the final night, you order for her from the menu, in French, and she treats you to a smile that all but stops your heart.
You make love that night for the first time in two years. It is indescribably perfect. The way that you understand her, and her body, is comparable only to riding a broomstick for the first time at eleven years old. Feeling the rush of flight roaring, like fire, through your veins, and knowing that you were made to do this.
Afterwards, with the wan moonlight falling through the bay window to caress her pale curves, she cries.
'I have loved you,' she says. 'Since the day you pulled me from that lake.'
You wipe away her tears with your thumb, and apologise for being late to the party.
But her next words run you through: 'I want to be with you, Harry, but I love my husband too. I can't leave him.'
When you turn thirty, you book an appointment to see a Healer; you don't look a day over seventeen.
'I fail to see the issue, Mr Potter,' he says, with a cheery smile. 'You're in perfect health, you'll outlive the lot of us.'
Later that week you receive a letter by owl: Minerva needs a Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, and she'd consider it a great personal favour if you'd accept the position. You deliberate for days before penning a response.
'Just one year,' you write. 'Because it wouldn't do to break with tradition.'
You inform Kingsley in person, and Dawlish in writing. They tell you that they're loathe to lose you, but you assure them a year's sabbatical is not so long. It might even be good for you.
You take the remainder of August to walk through Grimmauld Place, room by room, systematically gutting the house. Every agony that you and your ex-wife suffered here, every memory of the horcrux hunt, every clue that this was once the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, every last remnant of the Noble House of Black; all of it goes up in smoke.
Walburga's portrait proves insurmountable, so you remove the entire wall and commit it all to the cleansing flames.
Once finished, you donate the house, and a sizeable amount of gold, to a struggling orphanage. You pack up your meagre possessions into your old, battered suitcase, and take the Hogwart's Express, for old time's sake.
On the train, you share a compartment with Teddy Lupin and Victoire Weasley. She is the spitting image of her aunt. Perhaps it should hurt to see her excited, happy face, but their youthful exuberance is infectious, and they listen spellbound as you tell the old stories for the hundredth time.
Returning to Hogwarts is equal parts like coming home, and the start of something new, and wonderful. Minerva meets you from the carriage, her weathered features break into a smile. It's strange, but pleasant, to greet her as a colleague. She holds you at arm's length.
'Mr. Potter,' she says. 'You haven't aged a day.'
Your smile falters; just for a moment.
After the sorting feast, as the students sing the school song, you close your eyes and lean back in your chair and, just for a moment, you understand what Dumbledore meant when he said that 'music is a magic beyond all we do here'.
You wipe your eyes on a napkin when nobody else is looking.
The term passes, and the days roll into one. The year passes, and the terms roll into one. You find a joy in teaching you scarcely imagined possible. You take all of the best parts of all the defence teachers you ever had, even Lockhart, and amalgamate them into your own particular style.
You're strict, and work the students hard, and so will never be the most loved professor, but each of them, even the worst, makes good progress.
Ron and Hermione write weekly and tell you of all the happenings in London. Through their missives you learn of Rosie's first words, that they are expecting another child, and that your ex-wife has married again. You consider this for a long time, staring out across the lake.
Eventually, you decide to be happy for her, and it is as though a vice that had been gripping your heart, unnoticed, all these years, has suddenly relaxed.
A week before the summer holidays, an urgent missive arrives from Paris. A dark witch is finding prominence on the continent and amassing followers, it claims. Your expertise would be appreciated. There's a hint of desperation to the letter's tone.
You pack your things back into your battered trunk and run your fingers over the bare stone walls. This is it, you decide. If you survive this, you're done with fighting the dark arts. You'll retire to teach at Hogwarts.
First Krakow, then Istanbul, then Bucharest. You apparate, you floo, you portkey. You greet, shake hands, and get to it. You work long hours, you negotiate with difficult locals, you pin index cards to a corkboard and link them together with lengths of red twine.
In Krakow you duel in the sunshine. In Istanbul you kill a man on the beach. In Bucharest you finally corner her in a tangled maze of twisted alleys and blind corners.
The duel is sharp and swift. She is no Voldemort, but then you are no Dumbledore. At the end of it, you are bleeding, but she is broken. Your wand is poised, levelled at her chest. Her wand lies on the ground, at the tips of her fingers.
'The world is unjust,' she snarls between gritted, bloodstained teeth. 'The powerful prey upon the weak, the rich steal from the poor, the unwanted are tossed into the gutter. You perpetuate a system that compounds misery.'
'The system is broken,' you agree. 'But it is improved by increments, not revolution.'
Everything hinges on these next few seconds. One thing, or the other:
She'll spit blood in your face, snatch for her wand, you'll be forced to kill her; the green light of the curse painting her lifeless eyes the same shade as yours.
She'll sigh, and move her fingers away from the wand. Her body will relax, and she'll sink into the bloodstained dust and debris. The aurors will arrive and lead her away.
You stare at each other for a long moment, and then she sighs.
You do too.
It ends with a party in Paris.
They hold it in your honour, and decorum mandates your acceptance. You play at being Dumbledore, even though it doesn't suit you. You chat politely, in French, to each well-wisher that shakes you by the hand. You pose for photographs.
The canapés are dreadful.
The night is an endless stream of happy, pleasant people, but you keep trying to spot one person in particular amongst the throng.
'You probably won't remember me,' she says.
Your breath catches in your throat just for a few moments, before your heart sinks; you have no idea who this young woman is. She tells you that you once pulled her from a burning building in Antigua. You don't recall ever visiting Antigua.
After many hours of tedium you extricate yourself and make your way, falteringly, to your quarters. The door is open, the lights are on. Caution would be prudent, but you know that if the intruder was of any threat, they wouldn't advertise their presence.
There's a woman sitting on your bed, her eyes as blue as the waters of Rio and her hair the colour of the moon. You remember her; you pulled her out of a lake, once.
She comes to you and your bodies fold together like the most intricate origami forms. Her kisses are like a thunderstorm in august, and your emotions all roll into one, until you are not sure if she is crying and you are laughing, or vice versa, or whether it even really matters.
'I thought I could live without you,' she says, the features of her face thrown into sharp relief by the light of the moon. 'I came as soon as I heard you were in Paris.'
'I will leave him,' she promises.
You spend the evening interposing passionate lovemaking with shared fantasies of what your new, shared life will look like. You will return to London, you mutually decide, rent a hotel room, look for a new place to live. Something posh, and modern, and in the city. She will go back to her husband for the last time, and join you there.
Eventually you fall asleep, her body in your arms and her name on your lips.
In the morning you awake to her smiling face. You make love again, on the floor, beneath the window. Then, in the afternoon, she orders room service while you book your journey back to London. You part in the evening with kisses and promises that she will settle her affairs and join you soon.
'A happy ever after,' you promise.
Her smile falters, just for a moment.
A week later, a letter arrives from France.
'Sometimes there are chapters in our lives that we must end.'
You read it a hundred times. Three times you book, and subsequently cancel, a trip to Paris. The wastepaper basket of your hotel room fills with half-penned letters. Eventually you feed the missive, unanswered, to the candle's flame.
You write, instead, to Kingsley; your letter of resignation. And to McGonagall; 'to hell with tradition.'
Before you leave London, you make your way to Grimmauld Place. The wards and charms are long since gone, and number 12 stands resplendent, returned to its former place. Light from the summer sun falls between the boughs of the trees and dapples the asphalt in green light.
Children, under a stern, but kindly eye, play hopscotch in front the old Black ancestral home. Their gap toothed smiles are wide and genuine.
It doesn't erase the hurt, exactly, but you share their smiles, despite the pain.
The year passes, and the terms roll into one. The decade passes, and the years roll into one. You find a rhythm at Hogwarts, the castle providing an anchor to your life. It's not that you lose touch with the outside word, exactly, so much as you allow it to drift by you. Real life becomes something that happens to other people.
When you turn forty, you book an appointment to see an Unspeakable; you still don't look a day over seventeen.
'It might just be a manifestation of your magical prowess,' he tells you, looking as stumped as you feel. 'Albus Dumbledore, before his death, always seemed remarkably vigorous for a man of his age.'
You ask if he has any suggestions.
'Grow a beard, perhaps?'
You thank him, in your most sardonic voice, and leave. After some reflection you decide you will grow a beard after all. It had worked for Dumbledore.
The Elder Wand is still ensconced in the tomb where you'd left it two decades earlier. Though you were never in the same caliber of wizards as the Professor, you both did share one thing in common. Perhaps being Master of Death came with some other unforeseen side effects.
You begin to experiment.
At the end of each term you pack away all your things, and send them to the Burrow, where Molly and Arthur Weasely carefully stow them in the garden shed. Then you spend six weeks travelling the world.
You eat pizza in a plaza in Rome. You drink vodka in a small hut in Siberia. You rub suntan lotion into your nose on a sunny beach in Cancun. And then at the end of the summer, each year, you travel to the worst place on earth with a suitcase full of chocolate.
The effect of the Dementors have gotten no better with time. The chocolate would probably help, but they're not for you.
Sometimes when you visit, she doesn't meet your eyes, and doesn't say a thing. Sometimes you talk for the entire time and the guards have to come and escort you from her cell. Sometimes you stare at each other, not a word being spoken, but entire volumes of information passing from one to the other of you.
This year she is quiet, her eyes averted, and, as ever, you try to make conversation, without much success.
'You're up for parole soon,' you tell her.
She says nothing.
'They've asked me to give testimony.'
This draws her gaze, but still no words.
'I'm going to recommend that they release you.'
Her voice is hoarse through underuse, her expression dull, her mouth left agape at the end of her sentence, but behind her eyes you can see her intelligence stalking through her mind, like a tiger at the bars of its cage.
'Because you never killed. Because you wanted something good. Because you can give the world so much more.'
'I hope so.'
They rule against her, despite your testimony. And you retain the best legal representation on her behalf. They wear skinny ties, and tell you, kindly, that it is a hopeless case. They don't seem to understand that it is the work itself that matters.
A letter arrives from France, in a hand you have not seen in ten years. She reminds you that she did not enjoy her time at Beauxbatons, and hopes to send her son to Hogwarts instead. Of course, she writes, I would not wish to open old wounds, and Durmstrang is also a fine school.
You read it a hundred times. Three times you begin, and then destroy, a scathing reply. You lie awake at night, your heart aching with the question— ten years old?
But it is a fool's hope. He cannot be yours. You have since learned that the Hallows afford their owner mastery over death, but that they take life in return. Those old wounds, which had long ago scabbed over, are opened afresh. The pain, for some perilous nights, all but kills you.
When you write back, it is measured and polite. The transgressions of the parent ought not to be visited upon the child, you write, your son is always welcome at Hogwarts. Dumbledore was not the only Headmaster to teach you valuable lessons.
When the boy arrives in September, you find, to your blessed relief, that he doesn't bear the resemblance of his mother. Henri, he is called, and he is a charming and studious young man, with a penchant for mischief you find appealing. Occasionally, when he takes notes in your class, you are reminded of his mother, and her literary ambitions.
Sometimes there are chapters of our lives we must end. Each time you remember the words the hurt is graduated; a long off rumble of thunder echoing into silence.
When you turn fifty, nobody remarks on your appearance, but beneath the layers of charms and potions, you don't look a day over seventeen.
In early August, Minerva announces her retirement. She is the last of the old guard, other than Hagrid, but somehow you are still surprised. Ensconced in her office, eating ginger biscuits and sipping tea, she offers you the post.
'Don't look so astonished, Potter. You're an excellent teacher.'
Will she still call you by your surname when you're the headmaster? Probably. You promise that you will consider it, she takes that as an agreement.
'Dumbledore would be proud,' she says.
You hope so, too.
Later that same year you receive a black envelope borne by a sombre eagle owl, it is an invitation to Arthur Weasley's funeral. Three times you arrange a fitting at Madame Malkin's, and subsequently cancel. The wastepaper basket of your office fills with half-penned letters of sympathy.
Eventually, you pick out a set of modest black dress robes from an owl-in catalogue and apparate south.
The event is restricted to only friends and family, and you wonder which you are. After the ceremony, your ex-wife extricates herself from her gaggle of children, and the pair of you embrace for the first time in decades. You offer your commiserations, which are gracefully accepted, and then give her a long overdue apology.
'For wasting your youth,' you explain.
'Nonsense, Harry. I am a better person for having loved you, and for having been loved by you. I'm glad that you found your way to teaching. You deserve to be happy.'
It takes a moment for these words to sink in, and then you both smile.
Terms pass, and all the years roll into one. Years pass, and all the decades roll into one. Each year, as the September rains fall, and you welcome a new batch of students to Hogwarts, you are reminded of the last, unspoken lesson that Dumbledore taught you:
Just because the children are not yours, it does not mean that you cannot love them.
Some prove harder to love than others, of course, but each year, every nervous face that disappears beneath the brim of the sorting hat is a small testament to what you, and McGonagall, and Dumbledore have built here. A tiny validation of all the lives sacrificed. Sometimes, when you lead the children through the school song, you hear their voices echoing from the ancient stones.
Early one June, you interview a hopeful candidate for the position of Defence Against the Dark Arts professor in the smallest bedroom of the Three Broomsticks.
'You probably don't remember me.'
'Of course I do,' you tell her. 'I heard you'd been released. I'd hoped you'd write.'
'You told me, once, that I could give the world so much more.'
'And that the world is improved by increments.'
She isn't the easiest employee you've ever had. She's strict, and hard headed, and, when she scowls, she reminds you of another Defence professor you once knew, long ago. But she knows the subject well, and sometimes, when she doesn't know that you're watching, you see her smile with the same exuberance you've found while teaching.
In the December of that year, while the trees of the Forbidden Forest are bare, and the snow is still crisp underfoot, you receive another black envelope, born by a sombre owl. Such letters are becoming increasingly common, but the gilded name within freezes your blood.
Your modest black suit, long since showing the wear, is pinned to your body by a sharp sideways rain. The service is short, but beautiful, like the nights spent in a French hotel room. When the service is done, and the coffin lowered, Henri approaches you.
'It was good of you to come, Professor,' he says, in spite of his graduation being nearly thirty years ago. 'Did you know my mother well?'
'I did,' you say. 'I once pulled her out of a lake.'
Down the bank from the cemetery, last night's moon, rendered intangible by the early morning sun, lies like a shattered mirror upon the Seine.