Well, it's been almost two years(? !), but as I said in my profile, the story isn't dead. I just need time to write it, which I don't have. Which, if you're picky (and I am) isn't the same as dead. Anyway, absymal update rate aside, here's a new chapter. I've actually been working on a new story that A) will be shorter, and B) will be finished before I start posting. That's really the only solution to my problem, but it doesn't help TFA.
Oh well. I hope you still enjoy, and maybe look for my new story (HP/DG) in a month or two. Thanks for your reviews (I responded where I could), and thanks to Andro/Melnivone for looking over the first part and getting me back on track. Before he looked at it, it was quite crappy. If it still is, it's my fault, not his.
NOTE: If you want more good stories, do take a look at our DLP C2, founded by enembee - it's collecting the highest rated stories of our Library. This story is in it too.
THE FRENCH AFFAIR
Episode Three: Strange Occurrences
The light of those little spot lamps in the bar were dimmed, gleaming low like tiny stars, reflecting and sparkling in the bottles and glasses. There was the hum of people's voices at his back, almost drowned by the melancholy solo of the saxophone from the band in the corner.
There was the smell of tobacco, spicy and smoky, and it blended with the taste of the Bordeaux red to something typically bar-tabac-like, wrapping him in a warm cocoon.
And then there was her.
It was sometime around midnight, he thought, lifting his glass and taking a deep swallow. She was sitting next some guy with a moustache, wearing a white dress, drinking, too, nodding at something he said at the same time; lowering her glass again, holding it easily just below the rim. Suddenly, she lifted her head, and their gazes met. She raised the glass once more, as to salute him.
The white dress made her skin seem olive, almost.
He watched her petite form as she bent forward to say something, brushing a strand of her behind her ears making a small earring sparkle, and speaking next to that man's ear in order be understood, while the band started a new song. She placed the glass on the table, upon which the man gaped and turned his head. She placed a hand on the man's shoulder, rising, and sauntered over to him, the man watching her with an expression torn between befuddlement and anger. He darted them a furious look, then snarled something and stood up and left.
He heard her laughter, playful and mischievous.
"It's not nice to lead those poor guys on, Inès."
She slid onto the barstool next to him and tossed her hair, in a movement full of high spirits. Her dark eyes flashed.
"He bought me a drink. He was most insistent."
He shook his head, seeing the mirth sparkling in eyes, drank in the smile on her lips, until she, not caring who was watching at all, was grabbing his collar and kissing him passionately right here; with the kind of passion only Southern European girls had.
Eventually, she leant against his side and sighed, an arm thrown loosely around him, but ready to grab possessively at a moment's notice; and for a second, he did nothing but breath in the scent of her hair and enjoying her hand on his arm.
"I haven't seen you in a while."
"Busy. You know how it is."
She grabbed his glass and downed the rest of wine, flicking the glass down the counter afterwards.
"You could always work less, you know."
Her eyes flared up.
"You know how I feel about my work."
And again, there was the passion, the fire in her eyes she always displayed when talking about things she loved, and one of the many things he loved about her. Everything she did she did with all she had, be it working or loving; and that meant a part of that fire was now exclusively reserved for him.
Barely reaching up to his chin, she was a bundle of her energy; he couldn't get enough of her, her laugh, her temperamental nature, her quicksilver sense of humour; she teased him, blew up at him, apologised profusely instants later and made up – and he did the same. Best friend, lover, love – all rolled in one, and she had more than enough energy to fill each role and more.
And whenever he held her close, just like now, there were the memories – how she was lying in his arms, naked, when he couldn't help but notice just how perfectly her smaller frame fit into his, curled against him, and how lucky he was to have found her.
"Whatcha thinking about?"
She let out a clear laugh. "I'm flattered, Mr. Potter."
He revelled in the mirth dancing in her eyes, the smile on her face that always managed to elicit one of his own.
"As you ought to be."
He treaded his finger through her hair, pausing as he saw her smile turning mischievous. "– but I do think that sounds rather shallow, hmm?"
"With you, I'm allowed to be."
And that neatly summed it up. He tossed a few coins onto the bar counter and looked at her.
"You have the night?"
Her dark eyes glowed, smouldering like embers, promising what was ahead.
"The entire night and the next day."
He abruptly woke from his dream by a hand brushing over his cheek.
"Morning," she said softly.
It took him a second to realise where he was. Ana, not Inès. No imaginary bar-tabac, but Ana's little cottage in Hogsmeade, back in England. There was a pang of regret in his chest, before her could push it away. But at least he could pretend it hadn't been there.
He regarded the bed-tousled hair that was light, not dark, and eventually, she pulled him close, kissing him softly and the dream faded, back into the far back of his mind where it belonged.
Ana sighed contentedly, her arm around him, and for a while he thought of nothing in particular, playing with her hair, gazing through dim grey light in the room, at the dark shadows that were the thick oaken beams on the ceiling, then at the green eyes that blinked at him, still a little sleepy. It was early; and they'd arrived rather late that night before, tired enough to fall straight into bed.
Harry stretched his arms and cracked his neck from side to side.
"Any plans for today? Do you still have holiday?" His voice was a little scratchy from the sleep.
Ana nodded against his chest.
"Some errands, but we should have most of the day to ourselves."
She yawned, slowly becoming wide-awake.
"Shouldn't take longer than an hour. Feel free to stay here, in any case."
"I rather thought I might be having a chat there too. I can't believe they kicked us out like that. I'll file a complaint with the French delegate, that's for damn certain."
He felt her head twist, suddenly, and she propped her head up with her arms on her pillow.
"No. Please don't, Harry. Leave it be. We got out fine, no one was harmed, so isn't it alright?"
He bit down on throwing Inès' name into her face. He didn't want to argue about her. He didn't want to argue at all, but she made that so damn hard.
"Why in Merlin's name wouldn't I, Ana? They threw me out of the country when for once I hadn't done a damn thing. They can't possibly think they'd get away with that. And don't give me that 'it doesn't involve you'-line. It stops being your matter the when I get kicked out of France for being a spy."
All of a sudden, her eyes flashed angrily.
"You wanted to come. I asked you not to, Harry. You went anyway. No, you don't get to complain when you decided not to listen."
The moment she had said it, she looked already guilty, but it passed quickly enough and she looked at him defiantly. He stared at her open-mouthed, before he realised what she had said.
"Oh, how nice. So you knew what would happen. Which means if I hadn't insisted to come along, you would have happily visited your dear uncle with a one-way ticket and left me behind in France without as much as a good-bye. Wonderful, Ana. Was that your plan too?"
Her head jerked up and her eyes widened. He saw genuine hurt and felt bad at once, cursing himself alternately for saying it out loud, and for allowing her to make him feel bad, when it was nothing but the truth.
"No! Harry, that wasn't – it wasn't like that at all. Please." She grabbed his hand. "I thought something like this could happen – you know how serious the situation between Britain and France is right now. But I wouldn't have left you – us like that. Not like that. I'd have come back. You know I would have. It's a different matter entirely."
Except it wasn't, and that was the problem.
"I'll get to the bottom of this, Ana. First stop is Rousselier. Except if there is something you would want to tell me?"
She didn't answer.
"Please don't?" she said. Her green eyes stared at him pleadingly.
Harry shook his head.
"Not good enough, Ana. Not this time. Give me one good reason, just one, and I promise to leave it be."
The pleading look was gone. The green was now looking at him frostily and a little annoyed. He wondered if he would ever see that look again. He wondered if Ana realised where this was heading.
"You know I can't tell you."
Each refusal dealt a blow for their relationship. Each new argument made it crumble a little more. Maybe he shouldn't have pressed the point. Perhaps. Not talking about it didn't make it go away. It was still there. Now, in five minutes, in an hour. Still there, still standing between them, still pushing them apart.
On the ceiling, the dusky light had changed and the shadows now seemed to hide the solid oak beams, wrapped around them, swallowed them. Outside, beyond the grey rectangle that was the window, it was autumn.
He felt melancholic.
It wasn't just some interesting mystery, exciting to unravel because he'd been a little bored. It moved her into one direction, and him into the opposite. It broke them apart, and he didn't know if he had the will to fix it.
She pushed the blanket back and rose, her voice now decidedly cooler.
"And even if I could, I wouldn't, just so that we're clear."
That was Ana. Never hiding behind others or bringing up excuses, straightforward and to the point. He appreciated it, and was attracted to it, her directness; she never left you guessing, if she wasn't in the mood for something she told you so quite clearly. Now, however, it made him angry.
He watched how she stood in the room, her lean, athletic form with her back towards him, naked and stubborn. Nothing but the flip side of her good qualities. She didn't grace him with a look and started to march towards the bathroom.
"Then the Ministry it is," he called after her.
Ana stopped and turned around.
"Do whatever the hell you want, Harry. You're doing it all the time, anyway. I don't even know why I bothered to ask."
She tossed her hair off her shoulder with a flick of her head, and a minute later her heard the shower running.
"Just like you," he told the door through which she'd left. "Just like you."
# # #
Eventually, Harry rose as well. Staring at the shadowy beams on the ceiling changed neither Ana's stubborn mind and fixed their relationship, nor did it bring him any answers regarding Inès.
So he now stared out of the window.
Outside, it was dreary, but at least dry. The grey, soft light of dawn crept tentatively through the village, as if not yet sure that it might be allowed to stay. Autumn was well and truly there. The wind ruffled the trees, and they sighed and parted with their leaves. Inside, the shower stopped, and Ana went down into the kitchen. He remained at the window. The leaves floated to the ground.
The bedroom was on the first floor, looking out over the front lawn towards the road that was winding itself through the village. It was a still sandy-brown band, partly hidden in banks of autumn fog that drifted past and obscured Honeydukes a little further down the road. Nothing moved, only a few crows in the large elm next to the fence disturbed the early morning's calmness with their hoarse cawwing.
The front door opened and closed. Ana walked out. Her feet kicked up the leaves on the path to the gate. The crows scattered, cawwing mournfully. Suddenly she stopped, turning back around, staring up, as if she knew he'd be there. He thought she looked sad.
Perhaps it was the window glass.
He'd stopped wondering why she did what she did. Whatever it was, it had appealed to her sense of duty, and nothing was stronger than that. She would finish what she set out to do.
Even if it meant arguing with him. Even if it brought her to her breaking point, like it had after Inès death. Even if it made her cold and standoffish. Ana hadn't always been like this.
Got out alright indeed.
She was gone, now. He stared at the street, foggy and cold. That he understood her didn't mean he didn't resent it and that he wasn't angry. And that he hadn't wanted to leave France was just the smallest point.
He had liked the Côte just fine. The weather was better, the girls were nicer, and he was just enough known there to be interesting, and not enough known to be bothered by overzealous fans and reporters. He'd have preferred to stay there.
Well, now that hadn't been an option at all.
Harry scowled, annoyed.
They had been led straight from the entry of the mines across the grounds to the flat white buildings on the other side, three or four separate, almost windowless structures which all looked the same, apart from the chimney that topped the leftmost one and emitted a thin wisp of nearly translucent smoke into the overcast sky.
Protests had fallen on deaf ears, and so he'd slowly reached for his wand, which of course they hadn't taken away – they couldn't, not unless they actually were able to accuse them of something – he'd reached for his wand, reasonably certain that he could take on the two Aurors, as could Ana, for that matter, so together they had a good chance at demanding answers, when he felt her fingers on his hand, pressing it slightly down. She shook her head fractionally.
"It's alright, Harry," she said loftily, obviously more for the benefit of the Aurors than for him. "We did nothing wrong, and those two gentlemen will realise that soon enough."
He stared at her incredulously, wondering what she was playing at, and if she was actually serious. It appeared she was. His fingers hesitated over his wand, but in the end, he gave in.
He felt the stares of the other visitors at his back while they were shoved through the double door into the middle building, which he suspected was the administrative one, if only for the fact that it alone bore a small golden plate next to the doors with the same lettering Poudre de Cheminette Manufacture Française Nationale as on the fence.
The door opened and closed on their own, and inside was more white; a bare, long corridor, with a window on the left side behind which a sullen-looking gateman sat, and no obvious door that led into that room. There was no waiting area, no elegant reception, no chairs or benches to sit. It didn't look as if the Française Nationale had visitors regularly. It didn't look like they made a habit of receiving visitors at all.
The Aurors led them past the gateman and past the corridor, deeper into the building that was still white, but now had lots of doors on either side. All of them were closed, until the taller of the two Aurors, a rough-looking wizard with a square jaw and small eyes, opened a door on their right.
"Inside," he grunted. Harry stepped inside, as the tall Auror threatened to shove him. Ana stopped, looking at them questioningly. The other Auror moved for her to go on. Harry whirled around.
"Hey! Where are you go-"
"Shut up," snapped the first Auror. He looked at Harry hostilely. "Shut up. English traitors don't get to ask anything. Not in my presence."
"I'll do exactly as I like."
Harry moved back out of the room he'd already entered, towards the door. The square-jawed Auror stood in the doorway, blocking it. Harry advanced on him. The man didn't back away. They stood a few inches apart. He could see Ana behind the Auror.
"Move," Harry said softly.
"I don't think so."
The wand was in Harry's hand in a flash, but the Auror had already drawn as well.
"Try it," hissed Square-Jaw.
Harry eyes drilled themselves into the man only a few inches away.
"Voldemort's words before he lost. Badly. Move, or I'll move you."
He lifted his wand.
"No, Harry!" cried Ana. "Stop! Put the wand away!"
The small dark eyes stared at him hatefully. They held naked desire to attack, just waiting for a reason. Harry wanted to oblige. He wanted to blast him out of the doorway and through the next wall, and then wipe the floor with him.
To hell with being responsible and the consequences.
He didn't know why he didn't. The Auror likewise made no move. A tense second passed. And then another one, and another one.
Ana looked at him past the Aurors, desperately, almost.
"It will be alright, I promise. Just lower your wand and answer his questions as well as you can. I'll clear this up and get us out."
Harry stared at her. She stood next to the second, black-haired Auror. Her eyes were pleading and her look seemed to be trying to tell him something. He had no idea what.
He slowly lowered his wand and tucked it away.
"Your lucky day," Harry told the square-jawed Auror across of him. "And now tell me what the hell your bloody problem is."
He jabbed Harry inside the room whose door he'd opened, while Ana and the other Auror walked away. The room looked like any ordinary anteroom in the world might. It had a desk with memo-quills lying ready, next to a stack of fresh parchment, cabinets on the wall from which files could be summoned, a window where there couldn't be one normally, and few chairs to sit and wait. Only a secretary was absent.
The one thing that didn't fit the image was golden device on the desk that looked a little like a crooked, bent car antenna. The Auror picked it up and Harry relaxed a little. Checking for hidden magical objects was standard procedure with international Portkey travels. Only, of course, that he had no intention of going anywhere.
He wondered if the Auror knew.
"Probity Probe," grunted the man, handling the device that vibrated and gave off odd little noises.
Harry also wondered why they had led them here, then, into the off-limits corporative buildings, instead of using the detectors they had at the terminal; and could not find an answer. He put his watch on the table, and then he was poked and prodded with wands and detectors in various places. It was a mixture of Madam Malkin's and Filch in their sixth year. A few more things ended up on the desk. Things he carried in his pocket, that set the detector off – a chocolate frog card of Grindelwald ('Leader of the Greater German Reich'), an old Ton-Tongue Toffee, a couple of Galleons, a little dragon figure he'd transfigured from a pebble on the beach one time he was bored that he had completely forgotten about, and from the very bottom, a broken amulet and a silver dagger.
Mementos of the War.
For a second, he was back in Britain, five years ago, hunting for Voldemort.
The hand clenched around a dagger – the blade, not the hilt. Red seeped through his fingers, slowly dripping to the ground. He pressed harder. The burning pain was almost ignorable, now … There was a bright flash – A bright flash – and the amulet broke …
He wrest his mind from the past, unclenching his fingers that he closed painfully tight around the two halves. They left his hand, tumbling down onto the table. He didn't want to think about it. Not again. Not anymore. The past was the past.
Too many memories.
Square-Jaw took no notice of them or him. His eyes had lit up as they saw the tiny transfigured dragon figurine, immediately jumping at it, his wand pointed at it in a flash.
He used the standard spell to re-transfigure the model dragon into what it was before, wanting to find out how it reverted back. And it reverted back – into a small round pebble.
He stared at the pebble on his desk. His face showed utter disbelief. Then he roared and flung the innocent grey stone at the wall. "Where is it? Where is it, Potter?"
His hand swiped the items off the desk, enraged. "It's not here!"
He was shouting, his face a mask of rage; and he advanced on Harry, who backed away slowly, warily lifting his wand. He bumped into the wall and could get back no further. This was not good.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Harry wasn't presumptuous enough to assume the Auror hated him specifically. It was more a global hate of foreigners in general and Englishmen in particular, and he was an obvious target. Fuck knows he was trying his best to diffuse the situation. Ana would be proud. The Auror looked like he didn't appreciate his efforts. His face was flushed, an unflattering shade of red.
Then, all of a sudden, he turned away.
"I see. I think I'll be so nice and offer you time to think, then. Perhaps that'll help you remember."
Harry let out a breath, putting away his wand, and found himself pushed onwards across the room, towards a door beyond the desk, and now the real difference between this anteroom and an ordinary one became clear. Where the office of some head of department would have been, there was a completely white room with nothing but a metal desk and two chairs on either side of it.
An interrogation room.
"I'll come by, sometime."
Square-Jaw sneered again, and the door clicked shut behind them.
Harry frowned. They still wouldn't take away his wand, true, but now they left him alone as well. Didn't they fear he might escape? The door had no handle on this side, but that was no problem.
Nothing happened. Harry frowned again.
The wand remained unlit. And suddenly, the white room felt oppressive. It was weighing down on him, cancelling all and any magic, leaving him feeling naked and vulnerable. He pushed the thoughts away and returned to the desk, sitting down on one side. Well. At least that mystery was cleared up.
His fingers drummed on the metal, producing small, rapid pling noises. Where was Ana? Harry stared at the door that remained closed, and around the magic-less room that felt uncomfortable because of it and was white and nothing else. No dirty spots or perhaps a cobweb or anything that made a shred of difference in the shade. The floor was white and the ceiling and the walls. He was getting restless. Why was he here?
He wondered if it had anything to do with the St Tropez incident. He had been seen. He had waited for a call from the French Ministry, truthfully. Perhaps this was it. Then again, why would they hold him in a corporative building, instead of the French Auror headquarters?
It all didn't make sense. And it seemed to be in a rather high demand. The one man that talked to him in St Tropez had asked about it as well. On the other hand, that one could have easily meant the bag he'd pursued at that time. Apparently, they thought he was carrying something. Trying to get it out of France, even. Whatever it was. Everyone seemed to know more than he did.
If there was one thing he hated, it was not knowing what was going on.
He jumped up, annoyed, pacing the room. Would it be too much to ask to get someone in here and start doing whatever the hell they wanted to do, and then leave him in peace for his dinner? It wasn't as if he had done anything! For once, he actually was innocent.
Almost three exhausting hours later, he was cursing himself for wanting someone to come. He was just starting to give a detailed account of the bygone week for the third time.
They had eventually deigned it time to come in, and started questioning him. It had been the two Aurors that had led them inside that asked questions; they took turns. The smaller, dark-haired one sat opposite of him, the table in-between them. Square-Jaw breathed down his neck.
It had taken Harry five minutes into the interrogation to realise the important thing.
They did not know a damn thing.
They had nothing. They were fishing in the dark. He carefully omitted the evening in St Tropez, and neither Auror pressed the point. For whatever reason, they knew nothing – beyond an odd general suspicion he had no clue where it came from.
He only hoped Ana had realised that as well, but considering that she was the one who had prevented him from pulling his wand on them, she might even have known.
As a general rule, they talked English. Even when they talked with each other.
The dark-haired Auror folded his legs and a sheet of paper
"Please give us a full account on your whereabouts this last week."
He was the nice Auror. They'd played good Auror, bad Auror for the last two hours. Harry rolled his eyes.
"As I might have mentioned, I was staying at home. I took a walk on the beach on Monday morning, right after breakfast, which was around ten –"
"He isn't talking," snarled Square-Jaw suddenly. He jumped up from his chair and slapped at the metal desk. His partner looked at him impassively.
"She is dead. He isn't talking. We aren't getting anywhere. Did you meet her? How was the exchange supposed to happen? Eh?"
The last part was aimed at Harry. He shook his head.
"I don't know what –"
"The hell you do!"
Square-Jaw was shouting again. He kicked the chair out under Harry, sending it flying, and Harry nearly tumbling down. He only just managed to hold onto the table. Even so, the backrest hit him painfully in the back. The Auror sneered at him.
"Let's get some Veritaserum and force the answers out of him, I say."
He shot Harry a hateful glare and walked towards the door, ripping it open, only to reveal a third man standing behind it, who now stepped inside.
Harry's first impression was that he was absolutely punctilious. He could have given old Crouch a run for his money. He stood rigid, as if he'd swallowed a broomstick, in a crisp black suit, with blond hair that was combed into an accurate side parting, light blue eyes, and he carried an equally black suite case. He would have passed as a Muggle, anytime, anywhere.
The man pushed past Square-Jaw, whose glare had shifted onto the newcomer and multiplied.
"I have a message from the director." He had an accent as well, but it was a different one. German, perhaps. "Release them. They are to be deported to England. At once."
Square-Jaw looked like a violent eruption was imminent.
"Feel free to read. I suppose you can."
He put a memo-type of paper onto the table. Square-Jaw didn't even glance at it. He spat onto the ground bitterly and marched out of the room, banging the door shut behind him. His partner looked at the message and then shrugged.
"As he says. You missed your original Portkey, so we'll provide an alternative one."
Harry stared at him.
"Now wait a moment, I didn't want to –"
"To England. As he says."
The other Auror left, and Harry was alone with the man with suitcase. He wondered if Ana had sent him, or somehow arranged it. He didn't appear to be French. Well, one could at least be polite, and Harry was genuinely grateful. He didn't at all fancy swallowing some Veritaserum.
"Harry Potter," Harry said. "Thanks for getting me out."
"Heinrich Schmidt," said the man absentmindedly. He seemed rather taciturn. Harry sighed.
"Mr. Schmidt, not that I want to be ungrateful, but my girlfriend was the one wanting to leave for England. Not I. I tried to tell that to the gentlemen, but they were busy being Aurors. If you don't mind, I'd simply like to leave the estate and return to my home here in France."
"Come now, Mr. Potter, surely you want to return to your home country."
He finally looked at Harry and smiled. It was thin like paper and didn't reach his eyes.
It didn't sound so much like an invitation as an order. Perhaps it was a German thing. Harry stared at the advancing man's back and resolved to get some answers. Schmidt was getting him out, therefore he had to know how he got in. Or more precisely, why. It sounded reasonable enough to him.
"Would you mind telling me what this just was, sir? What was the big idea?"
His rescuer didn't pause in his steps. Harry became annoyed.
"Hey!" he nearly shouted. "What the bloody hell is this? Why am I here? Why am I going to England, when all I wanted was to visit the mines?"
The man that called himself Schmidt made no indication that he had heard anything. He smiled his thin smile and beckoned him through the door, back into the anteroom.
"Your Portkey will be here in a moment."
Ana was already waiting in a chair. She rose as she saw Harry, looking at him apprehensively and the same time relieved.
"Everything – everything alright, Harry?"
"Nothing is alright! No one tells me anything, unless you count the accusation of espionage of all things, and now I'm getting deported to Britain. I don't want to visit your uncle, thanks very much. I'm just fine in France, and I like the nice weather and –"
Ana seemed more miserable the longer he went on. Harry stopped, cursing mentally.
A little more calmly, he asked: "Is it true, then? What he says?"
"I'm afraid it seems that way, Harry."
She rose, straightening herself.
"They showed me the order and it's valid. We have to leave. Sleep at my place?"
There was hope in her voice, now.
Suddenly, all Harry felt was tired and fed up
"Whatever. I've had enough."
He slid down onto a chair and stared listlessly across the room. The nicer of the two Aurors was standing near the door, moving away to let Schmidt pass, who left without a goodbye. Then the Auror left too. The building was silent. Ana's red bag was missing.
"And you didn't even get your bag back. They kept it?"
She started, looking furious for a moment, and then nodded absentmindedly; she finally seemed to have discovered her nerves. She now constantly darted nervous looks around and breathed a sigh of relief when the taller Auror arrived with the Portkey, which, to add to the ongoing insult, was a dirty sock.
He sneered at them.
"And don't bother to return, English scum."
Harry couldn't muster the energy to respond, and Ana didn't seem to care either. The Auror sneered one last time, and a few seconds later, they fell through screaming whirlwind of colours, as the Portkey activated.
# # #
Harry opened the window a crack to let in fresh air, already walking towards the bedroom door, when the crows all of a sudden were disturbed and cawwed angrily. He turned around, looking out over the lawn and frowned as he saw a wizard in a large, bulky robe and hat standing near the gate on the road. Him again.
# # #
It was almost nine p.m. by the time they finally were back in Britain. Their Portkey-sock dumped them roughly in the far end of Knockturn Alley, between the Dancing Dragon, a seedy bar, and a large building that was looking rundown on the outside and housing the largest gambling parlour in magical Britain inside. Harry would have fumed, if he hadn't been so tired.
Their abrupt presence caused the shady characters to scatter, and a few people, a couple and a bulky-looking man, actually Apparated away. A hag started nagging shrilly. Harry blinked, trying to get this eyes to adapt from a brightly lit building to a street whose sole lights were the crown glass windows of the pub, and the blinking and flashing Light Charms of the gambling parlour on his right that cut through the night with their glaring stroboscopic shine.
From the inside of the Dancing Dragon sounded raucous laughter, muted. The door opened, and a man staggered out, spilling the sound and the smell of smoke and Firewhisky onto the street. Then the doors closed again, abruptly cutting off the sound once more.
The people on the street cautiously looked around, and when no clear danger seemed to radiate from the two of them, eventually resumed their activities. The hag scuttled back to her little wagon and haggled with a wizard in a black cloak over something Harry didn't want to know. The drunk staggered past them. Somewhere someone shouted, in pleasure or pain, he couldn't tell.
Harry shivered. The night was cold.
"Let's go home."
Ana nodded, and both vanished from the street.
# # #
He reappeared next to Ana on the High Street in Hogsmeade, leading up from the station to the castle that was looming over the village like a massive, crouching beast. The stores were all closed, but the windows of the two pubs were still lit, spilling their warm yellow shine into the night. A shadow moved along the way a few yards further up the road, turning into a side street, and for a moment, when it passed one of the windows, it revealed a man in a dark robe. He seemed bulky, or perhaps it was the cloak he wore.
Harry stopped walking at the junction and stared down the direction of the Hog's Head. The man passed beyond the sharply defined cone of light from the window and returned to his existence as a mere shadow. For some reason, he stood out to him – perhaps it was the way he moved, somehow furtively, or the fact that he just looked – looked like the one he'd glimpsed in Knockturn Alley, even if Harry wasn't sure why that would matter.
Ana paused in her steps when she realised Harry had remained standing on the middle of the road, looking back at him from the gate she'd already opened.
"Something the matter, Harry?"
Her call drifted softly through the night. Harry shook his head and walked over to her, leaving the High Street and Abe's pub behind.
The shadow was gone. Somewhere whoo-hooted an eagle owl.
He'd seen him for all of a second. Most likely, it wasn't the same man. And even if it was, it was the Hog's Head, after all; Abe attracted this sort of customers. He followed her through the gate, and inside the cottage, putting it out of his mind.
# # #
Throughout his quick breakfast, he looked out of the kitchen window. In the absence of the darkness of night to hinder his senses, he now felt sure that it had been the man he first saw in Knockturn Alley. He remained on the street. In fact, as Harry swallowed the last bit of toast, he now even walked towards the gate –
Harry rose, sending the dishes into the sink with a quick charm where they started washing themselves, and walked out into the corridor, ripping open the front door. The man, passing by the gate, started, and left in a hurry when Harry stepped out of the door abruptly, Disapparating before Harry could get a good look.
Harry frowned, half annoyed at himself for being so on edge, half still sure the man had meant to walk up to the house, grabbing his cloak and pulled the door close behind him, making sure it was really locked and all security charms properly in place. Then he Disapparated as well.
# # #
The ministry was surprisingly busy. Everywhere ran frazzled-looking wizards and witches as he stepped out into the Atrium from the Apparition point, and he noticed that most looked like Aurors. There was shouting and general mayhem. It was utter chaos.
What on earth?
He walked around the Fountain of Magical Brethren that was the only object around still bubbling happily, across the polished floor that reflected the powder blue ceiling, towards the gates and the desk of the watchwizard, where someone was in a tizzy.
"No one goes in and out!" bellowed an Auror with sparse brown hair. "I don't care if it's Merlin himself –"
Harry pushed past a few wizards who looked liked regular employees, chatting rapidly and looking nervously at the Aurors.
"That goes for you as well. Hey, you!"
Harry looked at the Auror.
The Auror jerked his head. "Yeah, you alri- Oh. Mr. Potter." He narrowed his eyes. "Well, not you exactly, perhaps, but we have to make certain, don't we? Inconvenient time to arrive."
His wand was out, and a few second later a dozen charms had been performed to check if he was himself. Before he had enough time to voice his annoyance, he was already being dragged past the golden gate.
A hand pushed him further, beyond the desk of the watchwizard, on which the Auror rounded once more.
"You got that now? No one goes in and out –"
Harry shook his head and marched towards the elevators. Here, less people were walking about, and most of them Aurors.
In the little hall beyond, there finally were no people at all, and blissful silence after the hectic noise of the entrance. Only two more pairs of Aurors guarded the lifts at the back. They looked at him sharply, but made no movement to stop him as he pressed the 'up' button.
Almost immediately after, the lift rattled to a halt from below, and the golden grilles slid open. However, it was already occupied. A tall form, red haired and –
A large hand thumped him on the back.
"You didn't say you were coming back! Great to see you, mate."
Ron looked as he always had, lanky, red-haired and blue-eyed, and excited to see him. He pulled him into the lift enthusiastically, then he grinned, a little awkwardly. Five years had passed, no matter what. The lattices closed with a clank behind his back and the lift started to move up.
"'Bout time too that you returned, if you ask me," Ron said. "Ruddy French are up to no good. Wouldn't want to be there, when we show them, eh?"
He hammered at a button, and the lift moved as fast as always.
"Bit of a spot of trouble down in the DoM, but what else is new. Apparently, something was stolen, but if you ask me, someone botched one of their new forget-me-charms. Hermione told me about them." He grimaced. "Have to brief Scrimgeour."
Suddenly, he darted Harry a furtive glance.
"Ginny will be ecstatic when I tell her. As will Mum. Drop by anytime, Harry."
Harry let him ramble on, thankful that his friend with his innate carefreeness to which he'd held onto would never wonder if it had been five years or five minutes, and never expect any response as long as he didn't ask a question. Harry's own thoughts were stuck at the offhand comment about France. Had it really become that bad in his absence? What happened to the spirit of the Tri-Wizard Tournament? He couldn't recall any such comments from Ron, at all. Things sure had changed.
"Level Five, Department of International Magical Cooperation," the cool female voice rang out. "Incorporating the International Magical Trading Standards Body, the International magical Office of Law and the International Confederation of Wizards, British seats."
"This is me, Ron," Harry said as the doors opened, still in thoughts. "See you later."
"Yeah, later Harry." He waved at him, past some memos that fluttered into the cabin, and then the grilles closed and the elevator moved on.
The corridor of the International Department was all thick wine red carpets, panelled wall and large sunny windows, with club chairs dotted in corners. Only the Minister had better. Here, in a long side corridor to his right, delegates from all over the world had their offices, behind neat, polished oak doors with shining brass nameplates, and the British Ministry wanted to make an impression on them. It worked out well enough.
Harry turned right and passed the Danish-Norwegian Union, Transylvania and Egypt. The offices weren't sorted at all. Or if they were, he had no clue how.
Annoyed, he stared at the door with the plate 'Ahmed Abdul, Egypt', then down the long corridor that looked endless. How on earth was he supposed to find anything in here? How many members did the ICW even have, anyway?
Behind him, the door of Krissa Norgaard, DNU, opened. Out stepped a cool Nordic blonde with stunning blue eyes and an expression that meant business. Her robes were snug over her chest without appearing too small and the same colour as her eyes, a shade of ultramarine. Harry stared.
A smile ghosted over her face and addressed him
"Iz there anything I can help you with?"
She sounded a little condescending, which was a pity, because she had a nice voice otherwise; which a slight accent that made her English sound a little sharper than it had to be.
Harry pulled himself together.
"Uh … yes. How does one find anything in here at all?"
She looked at him, a little derisive, he thought.
"It'z the next door."
Harry stared at her. Again.
She shook her flaxen head, irritated.
"You think of vhere you want to go, and it'z the next door. Would be inconvenient otherwise. Didn't you know it?"
He supposed he still looked dumbfounded, because she paused and sighed. "Vell. Apparently you did not. I thought you vere making fun of me."
Her expression softened, and just like that, she looked one magnitude less politician and the same order of magnitude more friendly. "I apologise."
Then she regarded him questioningly and her look was even a little mischievous.
"Vhere did you want to go, then? Not visit me, I think?"
Now there was a smile on her face that said she wouldn't mind. Harry finally shook his head.
"I'm sorry. I truly didn't know how it worked. And yeah, not you, sorry. Mr. Rousselier. The French delegate."
"Some other time perhaps then. Now that you know how it workz. There you go."
Harry spun around and sure enough, the second door, where until now Ahmed Abdul had been, was now open and French voices drifted out, evidently unbothered by the fact that they had been just been transported from Merlin knew where to him.
Or had he moved? Or …
I really should stop wondering about magic he thought ruefully, and turned to thank Krissa, but she was already gone. He shook his head a last time and knocked on the frame, poking his head inside.
There was only one person in the room. The French delegate, an averagely-sized man around forty, with maroon robes and frizzy brown hair that was balding at his temples, was talking through the Floo.
"– non – mais oui, évidemment j'ai le colis – non, Marcel. En personne. Vingt minutes. Dites-le-lui. And I have a visitor. "
He rose, terminating the connection without saying good-bye.
"Do come in, please."
Harry entered the room and caught a hint of something. He paused in his steps for a split second, before he moved on.
Mr. Rousselier had had a lady visitor, it seemed.
The delegate had by now returned to his large desk, which occupied the middle of the room, and carefully placed a flat brown parcel, a little larger than his hand, in a small black bag. Then he looked up and smiled, although it looked tired.
"Now, what can I do for you, Mr. Potter?"
Harry sat down on the chair on across from him.
"I want to protest how I and my girlfriend were handled yesterday by your Aurors. Your Ministry will get an official complaint, as soon as I can fill out the forms."
Mr. Rousselier gaped at him, then he started to laugh.
Harry was not amused. The French delegate stopped chortling and finally started to talk.
"Dear Mr. Potter. Not to sound disrespectful, but I think under the current circumstances, nobody will care. At all. Neither my Ministry, nor yours – or well, let's rather say, it wouldn't change anything at all in the relationships between our two countries, so everyone has more important things to do."
Harry narrowed his eyes.
"I know Francois Lambard, the deputy head of your Aurors. He struck me as a decent sort. I can assure you that he will not be pleased. Neither about this, not about how his boys behaved."
"So you do. I know him as well, and he told me of you, yes. It doesn't change a thing, but I will give him your regards when I see him the next time."
Harry stared at him.
"I was kicked out of France, most rudely, I might add. Do I need to point out that I did not wish to leave? If you would be so kind as to arrange for my return, I would be most obliged. I have a house there, after all. Should anything have happened to my property upon my return, because I was not able to lock it down properly, I will be most displeased."
The other man shook his head.
"I don't think you understand, Monsieur Potter. But out of interest, were your Aurors in blue, or did they have red stripes on their cuffs?"
Harry looked at him oddly.
"The latter. Why?"
"Because then it wasn't any Aurors, but wizards from the Department of National Integrity. Lambard is in no position to do anything regarding that. Not that it matters, since I wouldn't be able to address your complaint."
He looked at Harry.
"I am no longer in any official position with your Ministry, and thus neither in mine."
"Well, then who is? I –"
"No one is. There is no longer a French delegate in Britain. And as of midnight, there is an order for every British Wizard in France to leave the country, and I wouldn't be surprised if by this hour the British Ministry had uttered the same order in reverse. So you understand why it might be somewhat impossible for you to return. I am packing myself, as you can see."
He made a sweeping gesture, and suddenly Harry noticed that the room was empty.
There was the furniture and a potted Flitterbloom, but there were no books in the bookcases, the filing cabinets were open and cleaned, and two large trunks occupied the left corner, next to the desk, which was void of all and any papers.
Harry shook his head.
"I don't understand. What is the meaning of this?"
Mr. Rousselier looked at him thoughtfully.
"Haven't you heard about the current tensions?"
Harry shrugged. "Yeah, but it's not that serious, is it? I mean, there are always squabbles – silly regulations, import bans …"
Now the delegate shook his head.
"Quite in the contrary, Monsieur Potter. The last time it was this deadly serious, in 1815, France declared war on England."
Harry stared at him flabbergasted.
Rousselier smiled, but it lacked humour. With a flick of his wand, he summoned a paper that was rolled up on top of the trunks.
"If your press had their way, it would be time, already."
He turned it around, and pushed it towards Harry.
WAR screamed the headline. Below that – Scrimgeour: "No Death Eater will get away, France does not cooperate, we will react" Harry pushed it back, aghast.
"This can't be – still, it's only the Prophet."
Rousselier smiled thinly.
"Only the Prophet? From everyone, but not from you, Monsieur Potter."
And Harry knew far too well what he meant. His thoughts were racing at the implications at what this meant. Ana had to have known something. That was why she had been so anxious to leave so abruptly. Conversely, finding Inès killer had just become all but impossible. And on top of that, he still was Auror of the reserve. He could be in France in a few weeks alright, and not at all in the way he wanted. That couldn't be real.
Just how far had it gotten out of hand? He suddenly remembered Ron's words and felt an icy hand in his neck. He, too. The meaning of his words was now all too clear. Had the world gone mad? He knew he'd been living in relative isolation in France, but not in his wildest dreams would he have expected this.
They just had a war, damn it all.
And with Ron and the Prophet as good indications about the general mood of the people, it seemed they were hungering for another one. It boggled his mind. Agitated, he looked at Rousselier.
"Why don't you hand over the damn Death Eaters, then?"
"You know as well as I do that there are no such wizards in France, so we couldn't hand anyone over if we wanted to – which by now, understandably, we don't. But all that is secondary anyway, since of course your Minister never cared about fugitive Death Eaters. The way he almost actively sabotaged the talks I lead in the last forty-eight hours makes me think he actively plans for a war. In whatever way that would be fought. And now …"
His hands made another wide gesture, encompassing all of his room and perhaps the Ministry.
"Now I'll leave. Your Minister and half of the Department heads have informed me personally of his decision to expel me. You're lucky that you came when you did; ten minutes later and I would have been gone."
Harry stared at the desk, trying to work out what he had to do.
"I need to go back to France. Before I get sent there." He looked up. "If need be, I'll come with Muggle transports."
Rousselier smiled sardonically.
"If you try, you will find the Border as bothersome as everyone before you, I'll imagine. Why do you want to go back so badly, if I might ask? France won't be any nicer a place than England in the coming days. We, too, have our fair share of regrettable short-sighed individuals."
He steepled his fingers, thoughtfully. First alternating, then a tent.
"If it's about your house, I doubt anyone will touch it – or be able to, for that matter. Still, I'll talk to Monsieur Lambard and see that no one does, if that assuages your concerns."
Harry stared angrily at the man.
"It's not that! Why has this to happen now, of all times? After all that – you know, Rousselier, that is bollocks. Who in their right mind would want another war? Is Scrimgeour crazy?"
The French delegate stared at him. Then he snorted loudly.
"You will find, Monsieur Potter, that war always is. I do not want it, but neither is it within my influence to stop it. I fear that if there is no miracle, that headline there will be true in three weeks at most. It is out of my hands, the time of diplomats is over. Once it has reached this point, it means that we – I – have failed. That is not a nice feeling, I can assure you."
"I still don't see what he would have to gain," Harry muttered. "It makes no goddamn sense!"
Rousselier pulled a round golden watch on a chain out of his pocket and opened the lid.
"You know, of course, what is in Normandy, where the Death Eaters are supposed to hide?" he said casually, studying the clockhands. "You were there yesterday."
Harry's eyes widened.
"The Floo Powder mines! You think that that is –"
The other man snapped the watch shut again with a click, rising abruptly.
"My Portkey should be ready any moment."
He dumped the watch back into his pocket, and busied himself on the trunks assuring they were closed, clearly intent on leaving. That brought Harry back to the hope he secretly had linked with this visit, and which now seemed to be deceived, as his time was running out. Desperately, he threw all caution overboard.
"Could you at least tell me what resulted from of the investigations of the incident in St Tropez?"
Rousselier stopped at what he had been doing and his eyebrows shot up in surprise.
"You're are remarkably well informed, Monsieur Potter."
Harry jumped up, speaking fast and walking back and forth on the carpet.
"I was on board. I knew Inès; I was deeply saddened to hear of death later on."
The other man watched him carefully.
"By rights, you should have been questioned. But I suppose, they couldn't get you out of France fast enough, yes?"
Rousselier stared off into space. Then he shrugged.
"Ah, not my problem. Very well, Monsieur Potter. I will tell you what I know, as you knew her."
He bent down, opened one of the trunks again and pulled a slim folder from the inside.
"This went out to every department. Someone high up there is very interested in that case."
Harry almost ripped it out his grasp, but just in time remembered to ask.
"Could I …?"
Rousselier shook his head.
"Confidential. I couldn't give it to you if I wanted to."
He needed this file. While he still thought about ways to convince Rousselier to circumvent the vow and give it to him anyway, the latter had already opened the file.
"Let's see. Inès Martinez, Twenty-Two, died September twenty-eight. The findings of the Healer concluded that she was killed by a Killing Curse. At the crime scene, the traces of three persons were found. Two walked away, into an unknown direction –" Harry tried not to wince at that "– one Apparated away, the trace lost itself somewhere within the Massive Central; he or she is presumed the murderer, a professional, because he or she used every means possible to cover the tracks, and seemingly Apparated all over the country to lose his or her pursuers – with success. About the other two, no one knows anything. No other trace was found."
Rousselier made the tiniest pause, but Harry picked up on it. Years of dealing with the Old Man, may he rest in peace, had thought him to recognise when someone knew more, yet wasn't sure whether or not to disclose it.
"Yes? There's more?"
He looked at him.
"I only tell you this because you are a friend of Monsieur Lambard. The information is kept secret. There was an anomaly aboard the Sabuha. The owner, Monsieur Abdul Nasser al-Khayat – you knew him as well?"
"I had dinner with him."
"Yes, he died before he could he could be interrogated. The cause of death that was found was highly unusual – a subarachnoid hemorrhage."
He looked at him, piercingly.
"Glassy eyes …" Harry mumbled. "He did seem off – and blood in his brain …?"
His gaze snapped up.
"There was more than one at the same time?"
Rousselier smiled, but it lacked any real emotion.
"Bravo, Monsieur Potter. You do your reputation justice. You came to the right conclusion in about two seconds, when the experts tasked with the case needed almost a day. Indeed, it is suspected there were two. He was held under two Imperius Curses at the same time, which slowly caused his brain to deteriorate every time he was given two conflicting orders. The curse would have never been detected otherwise, if it simply had been lifted. But no one could guess what he was used for, because Mademoiselle Martinez is dead, everyone else were Muggles who of course noticed nothing, and no one knew about your presence."
Harry opened his mouth to bring up the clearly French wizards he had fought, but then thought better of it. No need to point him to something apparently no one knew. For whatever reason.
A clerk poked his head around the doorframe.
"Mister Rousselier? The Portkey is ready."
"I'm coming, Simon. One minute."
He pressed his lips together.
"Given what you told me just now, your testimony would be most valuable for the case, but as things are going right now …"
He sighed wearily, and suddenly looked much older than forty. Harry imagined that he had to have been in meetings constantly, if things were as bad as he made them out to be. No wonder he looked tired, especially if it had been useless in the end.
"I don't hold out much hope that anyone is going to question you anytime soon. Perhaps … perhaps when all this is over. Hopefully."
He rose, and straightened his robe.
"Well, Monsieur Potter, it has been a pleasure. If only everyone in your country was as … ah, never mind. Let's hope that I am dead wrong, and my worries won't be yours and everyone's anytime soon."
He stuck out his hand, and Harry shook it.
The clerk was back.
"Could you help me with my luggage?"
"Of course, Mister Rousselier. The trunks and the bag?"
"No, I'll take the bag myself. Please see to the trunks."
The clerk nodded towards Harry as he passed and flicked his wand, to levitate the two items, and again as he left the room.
He walked out of the door, with the French delegate and his luggage in tow.
The latter lingered.
"Under better circumstances the next time?"
"I certainly hope so."
"Then I wish you luck in – finding – what you're looking for. Au revoir, Monsieur Potter."
"Good-bye, Monsieur Rousselier."
He walked quickly down the corridor, to catch up with the clerk, while Harry remained behind, frowning. What had he meant with that? His eyes roamed the office absentmindedly, suddenly coming to a halt on the desk, where he had sat only moments before. The file he had taken from his trunk was still lying on it.
That old fox.
Harry began to smile.
# # #
His good mood lasted for the exact amount of time it took to leave the Ministry and Apparate back to Hogsmeade.
As he walked up the road to Ana's house, an uneasy feeling crept up on him. It was noon; the fog in the streets of Hogwarts nearly gone, retreated further down the hillside, towards the lake, though the air remained cold and clammy. However, that wasn't what made his hairs stand on edge. He tucked Rousselier's folder under his arm and hurried towards the door of the cottage.
"Ana? Are you home?"
He had stepped inside and looked around the small hall. Her cloak was there.
"In the living room, Harry."
Closing the front door behind him, he entered the living room and stopped short. The place was a mess. Couch and chairs were upturned. Things from various cabinets were strewn across the floor, their drawers open and empty. Bits of paper trailed through the air, raised by his entrance.
Ana was currently standing in the middle of the chaos, surrounded by books cleared off the bookcase, her blonde hair in a ponytail and hands on hips, with the wand in her left. Her red bag stood on the table. Harry stared in bewilderment as the wand described a wide arch and the couch righted itself, tipping from the backrest back onto its legs.
"What are you doing?"
The papers re-stacked themselves and vanished in a drawer. She turned around. There was an odd expression on her face he couldn't place.
"Tidying up. Apparently, someone broke into the house."
A/N: Status updates are in my profile.