by Mad Maudlin
You cannot step in the same river twice, for there are other waters ever flowing in.
"Sorry I'm late," Harry said, dropping into a chair and tucking his bag under the table. The restaurant was all-Muggle, he was certain, but he still felt a niggling unease in such a public, exposed position, like an itching on the back of his neck. He told himself it was just a natural paranoia trained into all the Aurors, thought about that for a minute, then scolded himself; he was too young to be turning into Moody already.
Across the table, Hermione gave him a bit of a smile over the rim of her glass of water. "Honestly, Harry, you look like you just rolled out of bed," she said warmly.
"Did you just roll out of bed?"
"Kingsley has me on this mad schedule," Harry grumbled, burying his face in the menu. "All this week I'm on surveillance work until two o'clock in the morning, but I still had to be at a departmental meeting yesterday at eight am."
"Well, you're the most junior Auror they have," Hermione said. "I'm not surprised they're giving you the worst assignments, if only just because they can."
"Or because Kingsley is a sadist," Harry muttered, though without a great deal of feeling.
"Oh, stop it," she said. "It's not like he's Mad-Eye, telling everyone that being dismembered builds character."
"Give him time," Harry said darkly. "He probably just hasn't suffered enough blows to the head yet."
Hermione shook her head. "You spend far too much time complaining about Kingsley, you know. You could've done worse for a supervisor."
"I know, I know," he said. Harry knew he could've done a lot worse; Kingsley and Tonks were among the few people at the Ministry—hell, in all the wizarding world—who had treated him like a normal person after he took Voldemort down. A few of the other Aurors had been awed by him, but most had been resentfully hostile at first, and Rufus Scrimgeour had still been looming over his shoulder in search of a mascot. As the Auror overseeing his training, Kingsley had not only protected Harry from the Minister's plotting, he'd treated Harry like any other recruit—no better and certainly no worse. Harry was usually grateful for that, when he was better-rested.
The waiter came round and took their meal orders, and when he had gone Hermione said, "So, tell me something that doesn't have to do with work."
Harry's mind drew a blank. "Er...nothing much has been going on lately, to tell the truth," he said. "What about you, what's new?"
"Oh, nothing in particular," Hermione said airily. "The office has been quiet lately, nothing more serious than a few young goblins harassing a shopkeeper—he's pressing to have them fined, of course, but I spoke with their clan patriarch and he seems to have the situation well in hand. Crookshanks has been harassing all the village cats, and I'm terrified he's gone and impregnated Mrs. Toppington's mouser, because of course she'll complain until Christmas about it and then threaten to drown all the kittens if I don't take care of them, when really it's just as much her fault as mine if that nasty old mogget of hers isn't spayed. I've told her that Crookshanks is just too old to get snipped, but to listen to her I'm supposed to keep him locked up inside the house all day, and he so enjoys chasing the garden gnomes, it's the only exercise he gets these days. Oh, and Neville's Perambulating Cypress sapling arrived from America, he's quite pleased with it. I don't believe there's any practical point in having it, of course, because the only potions I've been able to find that require it are rather horrible, in fact they should probably be classified as Dark magic, but Neville seems to enjoy it—the tree, I mean—and I suppose it will be a bit of a novelty in the greenhouse once it stops running into the walls and things..."
She paused for a sip of water, and Harry pounced on the break in the conversation. "You're leaving something out," he said quickly. "The most important thing, aren't you?"
"Am I?" she asked with far too much surprise to be natural.
Harry bent down to fish the package and card out of his bag and pushed them across the table. "Happy birthday."
"Oh, you shouldn't have," she said, with a bit of a blush that meant she was pleased she hadn't had to remind him. "Thank you so much!"
"You and Neville doing anything special, then?" Harry asked, while she thoroughly perused the card.
She shrugged. "He told me not to stay late at work but he won't tell me why. I told him not to do anything fancy..."
"And he will ignore you," Harry said, "and you'll pretend to be cross about it but really secretly you'll be terribly pleased with whatever he comes up with."
"Am I that predictable?"
"Well, if the last two years running have been any indication..."
She snorted and turned her attention to the box. She showed far more care in removing the wrapping paper than Harry had taken in putting it on, and her eyebrows shot up when she finally opened the slim box. "A pen?"
"'Sgot a permanent inking charm on it," he said, hoping that rise in her voice was the oh-goody kind and not the what-the-hell kind. "And the bloke in the shop says it's leak-proof."
"I've got plenty of quills, Harry," she said.
He shrugged. "I didn't know what else to get you."
Hermione looked for a moment at the pen—which was a good pen, in Harry's opinion, considering that most wizards were still deeply suspicious of any writing implements that didn't come off a bird—and then smiled gamely, the sort of smile he had learned meant she had chosen politeness over honesty. She patted his hand. "Well, thank you. It's very practical."
Harry sighed. He knew he should've just gotten her a book.
"Oh, before I forget—" Hermione quickly brushed the wrapping paper aside and slipped the pen and card into her purse. "Mrs. Weasley wanted me to remind you that she's making a special dinner tomorrow night, for Percy and Penelope."
"I remember," Harry said. She'd owled him about it a week ago and he hadn't been able to bring himself to throw the parchment away yet. "Took them how long to make it official?"
"Well, they're both so busy—perhaps they just now got around to putting it into both their schedules."
Harry snorted as their food arrived. "Yeah, I can see that conversation—'So when would you like to get married?' 'Hmm, looks like I've got a free weekend in March—' 'Oh, no, I'm scheduled to kiss Scrimgeour's arse all that month, how does your April look?'"
Hermione giggled even as she said, "Oh, Harry, don't, that's wicked."
"You started it."
"Well, I think we should be happy for them," she said, and her mood seemed to shift a bit. "I think it's wonderful that they're promising to share their lives with one another."
"They already do, though," Harry said. "I mean, they've lived together for years—and don't tell me you really believe the whole 'separate bedrooms' bit, even coming from Percy."
"Oh, you know what I mean," Hermione said, but nevertheless went on to say, "They're making a commitment now—formalizing it. It's really a large change in the relationship, don't you think?"
"Not really," Harry said, wondering what track she was taking this down.
She sighed. "It's just—isn't a statement, isn't it? 'I want to share my life with you.' That it's not just that they enjoy being around each other, they want to be together, and they're willing to make the effort...you don't understand it at all, do you?"
"No," Harry said, "and I'm wondering when you turned into the world's most hopeless romantic."
Hermione frowned at him, but played with her salad a bit. "I am not turning into a romantic," she said. "I've just...been thinking a bit lately."
"How's that unusual?"
She suddenly put down her fork and leaned in very close. "Harry," she said, "I'm considering asking Neville to marry me."
Harry blinked with his sandwich halfway to his mouth; it took a moment before he remembered to put it down. "You—er—I thought he was supposed to do that."
"Oh, don't be so old-fashioned," Hermione said. "Witches have been asking wizards for hundreds of years. And Neville and I have been together for two years now, and he's doing really well with the greenhouse, and I've finally got a stable position with regular hours ...and we're very happy together, he and I. We work well together. I think it may be time."
Harry stalled for a moment by thoroughly chewing his sandwich. It had taken him long enough to get used to Hermione and Neville dating in the first place, years ago; he wasn't certain what to think of them getting married. Of Hermione getting married. "Are you sure?" he asked, the first thought to come into his mind.
"Well, I'm sure of myself," she said, "and I think I've a good idea how he feels...but we did just move into the cottage, and I don't want him to feel pressured. Thought at the same time I don't see much point in waiting too much longer, because I'd so like a spring wedding, and we need all the time we can get to plan everything."
Harry shrugged. "Well, er...good luck, I guess. You're not going to do it today, are you?"
"Oh, heavens no!" she said. "I thought I'd wait a few weeks—this is the busiest time of the year at the greenhouse, you know, everything ripening. I want to be able to sit down and discuss it with him."
"Discuss? What, you're not going to get down on one knee?"
It was a feeble joke and Harry knew it; Hermione seemed to finally catch on to his discomfort and frowned. "Well, anyway, I was just wondering what you thought of it," she said. "What we were talking about before that?"
"Er...your birthday?" he suggested.
"Percy and Penny's dinner!" she said firmly. "So, do you think you'll be able to come? You do get a dinner break when you work those mad hours, don't you?"
Harry coughed again and prodded his half-eaten sandwich. "I don't think I'll make it," he said.
Hermione had, however, known him far too long. "Because you'll be working or because you just won't come?" she prompted. Harry took the largest bite out of his sandwich he could manage without choking, which seemed to serve as her answer. "Honestly, if this is about Ginny, I've told you again and again that you're being unreasonable. She's tried to apologize—"
"Thi ha nuyun—" Harry swallowed a painfully large lump of roast beef on rye. "This has nothing to do with her. I'd just rather not go."
Hermione's eyes narrowed. "I see."
She speared her salad with decisive force, but lowered her voice. "Harry, you can't go on living like this forever."
"Like what?" he asked, glaring at her.
But Hermione never could take a hint. "Like a hermit," she hissed. "Or a martyr. Or...damn it, the war is over!"
"I know that," he said, "I was the one who ended it."
"Then why don't you act like it?" she said. "You live in that horrible little flat, you only come out to work, you barely even talk to anyone who really cares about you—"
"What's it look like I'm doing here?"
"And how much did I have to twist your arm to talk you into coming?"
Harry shoved his plate away, appetite gone. "I didn't come here to get a lecture, Hermione, so if you're just going to scold me for—for not living up to your standards of sociability—"
"Harry Potter!" she said, loud enough that a couple of nearby diners turned their heads. Reining in her voice, she continued, "I'm only saying it because I'm worried about you. You don't do anything but work and you spend so much time alone—"
"I've been in training," he said. "That doesn't exactly allow for a full social calendar."
"Your training is over," she said. "Isn't it time to move on?"
Something hot and tight and ugly leapt in Harry's chest. "Oh, and you're quite the expert on that, aren't you?" he snapped. "Look how quickly you moved on from Ron."
Hermione's eyes went very round, and for a moment she seemed to stop breathing. "How dare you," she said as soft as snow.
Harry cringed. "That was out of line," he admitted.
"Yes," she snapped, "it was."
"I have never forgotten Ron," she said, ignoring him, "no more than you have. I loved him, Harry, but that doesn't mean—that is, I don't—I find it more productive to attend to the living than obsess over the dead!"
"I don't—" Harry protested.
But Hermione had pushed her plate away, too, and was gathering her purse and coat. "Thank you for the pen," she said with a distinct wobble in her voice. "Don't forget that dinner's at seven. If you can take time out of your busy schedule to come."
She threw a few bills down onto the table and stalked out of the restaurant, head held unnaturally stiff and high. Harry slumped down in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment, wondering how he'd managed to bring the card and not his brain to the restaurant. Though why she'd even brought it up—why she couldn't just leave well enough alone for once in her life, instead of sticking her nose in his business when he clearly didn't want her help, didn't even need it—
"Sir?" The waiter had appeared at the table as if from thin air. "Is everything all right?"
"Grand," Harry said. "Can I get the check, please?"
The argument left him in a grumpy mood for most of the afternoon, with no one to take it out on. He stared at transcripts of firecalls made by a suspected necromancer, but his concentration flickered between the parchment and Hermione's accusations—no, they weren't accusations, she was just saying—but did have to be so blunt about it? Isn't it time to move on? What was that supposed to mean, anyway?
As far as Harry was concerned, he had moved on—if he moved any further on he'd be in China. He'd left Voldemort and the prophecy behind, and now he was just another junior Auror with a crappy schedule, killing time between real assignments, and he liked it that way. He liked his flat—so what if it wasn't the biggest or the fanciest? So what if the toilet backed up twice a month and the windows let in a draft? At least it was a Muggle building, and his neighbors left him well enough alone.
Harry liked being left alone.
Hermione just didn't understand—as usual, she'd decided on the best course of action with no reference to the facts on the ground. Like the way she kept bringing up Ginny. Harry wasn't going to let Ginny apologize because Ginny had nothing to apologize for. Everything Ginny had said after Ron's death had been true—well, most of it—and Harry had no intention of forgetting it. Ron had let himself be captured by Death Eaters so that Harry could get away with the Ravenclaw Horcrux; without that sacrifice, Harry might never have been able to kill Voldemort. It seemed unfair, a bit dishonorable even, not to remember that. But to listen to Hermione talk, that made him some kind of guilt-wracked obsessive—she didn't understand that he just feared forgetting the past, in case he had to repeat it...
He started when Tonks knocked on the edge of his cubical; she smirked at him. "Wotcher, Harry," she said. "Thinking deep thoughts?"
"Sort of," he said, shuffling the transcripts so it would look more like he'd been productive. He glanced at the clock and winced; it was nearly teatime. "What's up?"
"Got a live one," Tonks said. "Thought you might like to help question him."
That caught Harry's attention. Interrogation wasn't an official part of the training program, though Kingsley had insisted he observe more than a few of them; still, observation was all he'd ever done, up to now. "Who is it?"
"Theodore Nott the Younger, remember him?"
"Somewhat. I know his father was a Death Eater."
"Right," Tonks said, holding up a very fat file folder. "Got Kissed in '98 and we never even proved half the things he was implicated in. No such evidence on the son, officially, but it's hard to believe he didn't know what the old man was up to, which means aid and abet, at the very least."
"Where'd we catch him?" Harry asked.
"Dover." Tonks beckoned him into the corridor, and he followed her through the winding aisles of cubicles. "He was trying to skip the country by boat, but a local saw him Confund a couple of dock workers and reported it to Improper Use."
Tonks led Harry to the lifts and punched the button for Level Nine. "So what are we holding him for?" Harry asked. "Just aid and abet?"
Her mouth twisted. "Right now, yeah, we haven't got proof of anything else. But Kingsley seems to think he'd be willing to take a deal."
Harry frowned, too. It made strategic sense—if Nott really had been living the virtuous life, they couldn't charge him with anything more severe than aiding and abetting his father's crimes, and if he hadn't, he might be willing to turn informant in order to avoid a harsher sentence. Harry just didn't particularly like the idea of letting anyone off the hook for their crimes, no matter how cooperative they were. Still, if it got them more information than a stack of firecall transcripts... "Do you think he'll talk?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Personally, I'm not convinced he's got anything to say. But Kingsley has a hunch..."
They journeyed down to the lowest cellar of the Ministry. Level Ten housed high-security detainment cells for the most dangerous prisoners; Harry assumed that Kingsley was just trying to intimidate Nott by bringing him down here. From the outside, each cell was a rounded cage made of iron bars as thick as Harry's wrist, and only one was occupied. Nott was still about as scrawny and rabbit-faced as he'd been in school, but his hair hung in his eyes and he had a faint five o'clock shadow over his weak chin. His face was expressionless as he stared straight ahead, but Harry noted that Nott's fingers were drumming against his knee, fast and relentless, jingling the sturdy chains that bound his wrists to a peg in the floor.
Kingsley was standing outside the cell, reading a thin scroll that he rolled up as soon as they approached. "Ready?" he asked softly.
"As ever," Tonks said, all mischief gone.
"What exactly am I here for?" Harry asked.
"Make friends with him," Kingsley said.
"Excuse me?" he said, a bit too loud.
"Be nice," Tonks said. "Go easy on him. I'm going to scare him a bit, you've got to reassure him. If he thinks you'll protect him, he'll talk to you."
"You really think that'll work?" Harry asked. He'd had little to do with Nott in school, but he'd never gotten the impression that he was particularly friendly, nor particularly stupid.
"Not all at once," Kingsley said. "Odds are he won't say anything useful today. But this lays the groundwork—if you think you can manage it."
"Of course I can," Harry said quickly.
"Then let's do this." Kingsley lifted the stout iron bar that barred the door.
Tonks hesitated for a moment, then crossed her eyes and turned her hair an ominous shade of jet-black. Harry thought it made her look a bit too much like Bellatrix Lestrange, then realized that was probably the point. "Just follow my lead," she said, before she entered the cell. Harry was only a step behind her.
The cells looked completely different on the inside, so much so that Harry might've thought he'd been transported somewhere else. They seemed to be standing at the bottom of a deep well, with the pool of light emerging from impossibly high above them. The walls were dead to all sound, and when Harry glanced back over his shoulder he saw no sign of the door they'd just entered through, just smooth stone with hardly any space between the blocks.
"Theodore Nott," Tonks said in a commanding, contemptuous voice. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
Nott looked up at her, glanced quickly at Harry, then met Tonks' eyes again. "Nothing in particular," he said mildly.
Tonks snorted. "Think keeping quiet will keep you out of Azkaban?"
"I don't remember when Confunding Muggles became an imprisonable offense," Nott said. Harry noted that his fists were tight around the bottom of his dirty, ill-fitting jumper.
"That's why you were trying to leave the country, was it?" she asked. "A habit of Confunding Muggles?"
Nott's jaw clenched, but he stayed silent.
Tonks started pacing leisurely circles around the cell; Harry elected for the moment to stay where he was, in the background. "We've got a fair bit of information on you, you know," she said; it was a very smooth bluff. "More than you probably think."
Both of Nott's hands were now clenched in this jumper.
"You've lead a very interesting life, haven't you, Mr. Nott?" she drawled. "Well, actually, your father did most of the really interesting stuff...sort of a tradition, was it? Enjoy a bit of Muggle torture with dear old Daddy?
Nott's breath had sped up.
"There's some other things you could share with him, you know...same cell in Azkaban, for instance...maybe even the same Dementor..."
"Tonks," Harry said sharply. "That's unnecessary."
She looked down at Nott, who was practically shaking on the spot. Harry briefly wondered why the comments affected him so deeply, and how long she would've carried on if he hadn't interrupted. Tonks squatted in front of Nott, who wouldn't look at her. "What make you so eager to leave the country, Nott? Pressing engagement abroad?"
"Go to hell," Nott hissed.
Harry took a deep breath and stepped into the circle of light, behind Tonks and a little to her left. "You're only hurting yourself," he said, trying to sound earnest. "If you keep quiet, it just looks like you've got something to hide."
"Who doesn't?" Nott asked.
Tonks grabbed Nott's face and forced it up so she could look at him. "You're only hurting yourself," she said, aping Harry's tone of voice. "We can make sure you're put away for a very long time."
"You can't prove anything," Nott spat, twisting away from her grasp.
"Are you quite certain about that?"
Tonks went back to her pacing, and Harry knelt down and took her place. "Look," he said softly, "If you cooperate with us, it'll look very good to the Wizengamot. They might reduce your sentence—maybe let you get away with a lighter charge."
"You can't prove anything," Nott said again, stony-faced.
Tonks clucked her tongue. "We can prove your father was a murdering son of a bitch," she said, "and that you lived under his roof without reporting him. That's aiding and abetting a criminal act, that is."
"It's not a severe charge," Harry added quickly. "A few years in prison, a fine..."
Tonks stopped and stood right behind Nott. "Of course, it's just a short step from aiding and abetting to collusion...maybe even conspiracy," she said. "And your dear old dad did some pretty horrible things for you to be colluding in."
"You can't prove it," Nott said for the third time, but Harry noted that sweat had broken out on his forehead, and his voice seemed to have abruptly gotten higher.
"We can't," Harry said, and Tonks' eyebrows rose behind Nott's back. "Not right now, anyway."
"Not yet," she said.
"And maybe not ever," Harry said. "Frankly, there's a lot of people I'd rather see in Azkaban than you. People who deserve it a whole lot more."
Tonks stayed silent while Nott stared at Harry, pale eyes wide and gleaming. Harry wondered if Kingsley had been right.
"Since when has the Chosen One lowered himself to working with Slytherins?" Nott asked acidly.
Since he had a job to do, Harry thought, but couldn't come up with a way to make it sound friendly. Luckily Tonks stepped in, coming around Nott's other side and grabbing Harry's arm. "Come on, Potter. Mr. Nott obviously isn't in a talkative mood. Let's hope he comes around by the time the Wizengamot hears his case."
Tonks started to pull Harry towards the hidden exit, and Harry dragged his feet a bit, glancing over his shoulder. Nott was watching them go with feverish eyes, and suddenly he flung himself as far forward as his chains allowed. "Wait!" he blurted. "I can—I'll—listen, I know some stuff!"
"So do I," Tonks said cheerfully. "I can make macaroons, for instance."
"I know where you can find a Dark wizard," Nott said, sounding desperate. "More than one—loads! I know where they're hiding, I know who's with them—"
Tonks knocked on the stone wall as if this were the most boring thing she'd heard all day. "Are you telling the truth?"
"Yes," Nott said, staring up from the floor with feverish eyes.
Tonks shook her head. "Then it's nothing you can't tell us tomorrow."
"Potter, wait!" Nott said as Tonks pulled Harry back towards the door, "wait, please—I can tell you everything, all sorts of things—"
Harry turned away from him with what he hoped looked like a helpless shrug—Tonks had a loose grip on his robe, giving all the appearance that she was dragging him out against his will.
Nott made a small, helpless sort of sound, and then shouted:
"I can tell you where to find Ron Weasley!"