Disclaimer: All characters belong to JK Rowling.
A/N: Thanks to all the readers who've patiently been waiting for this chapter! I cannot believe it's been almost a year since I posted the last chapter and Harry took Hermione to Finger-Bang Forest. I have no idea how a year got in the middle of all that. Also, first post since the Emma Watson interview with JKR. See my author's page for my thoughts. Anyway, on with the story!
As always please review and I'm happy to receive PMs as well. Thanks!
You hold your truth so purely,
And swerve not through the minds of man.
This lie is dead.
And this cup of yours tastes holy.
But a brush with the Devil can clear your mind,
Strengthen your spine.
- Whispers in the Dark, Mumford & Sons
Chapter 19: Saints and Martyrs
It was a rapid, steady beat. His heart drumming in his ears.
The air was freezing. It filled his lungs like ice and released like steaming tea. He had lost all feeling in his ears, yet he didn't mind. He couldn't keep the smile off his face. He barely felt the crunch of gravel beneath his trainers. The whole world felt wondrously weightless.
"Chief!" someone called out behind him. "Chief? How long are we going to keep this up?"
Harry turned and jogged backwards.
"What? Are you tired already?" he laughed.
Lucan Akerman, an Auror trainer in Poisons & Antidotes, suppressed a smile. There were over a dozen Auror trainees behind Akerman in varying states of exhaustion. Several were obviously struggling. Their sweats were soaked through even in the frigid January air. Their faces were red blurs in the distance.
"Never, Chief," said Akerman between heaving breaths.
"Well, good," Harry grinned, turning forward again. "I'm just getting started."
"We're almost at the six mile mark," Akerman couldn't help pointing out. "Might want to think of Morgan. He twisted an ankle three days ago."
Harry's grin fell somewhat. He slowed before coming to jog in place. Akerman looked relieved and the Auror trainees soon caught up with the two men. The trainees were made up of six women and eight men. All of them had been taken on over a year ago, meaning they were now in their second year of the mandatory three-year Auror training program. The Auror Department did not accept more than fifteen applicants each year—a six percent admission rate.
Harry and the trainees were currently in a forest thirty miles northwest of London. The running path sat atop a vast Auror training facility right below their feet. Like many vital wizarding institutions, the Alberic Pendragon Auror Training Centre (or simply ATC) was almost entirely underground. The only portion aboveground was this running track, which naturally did not attract much Muggle attention. Nevertheless, the entire area was Unplottable, a Restricted-Apparation zone, and Muggle-Repelling Charms were implanted into the ground every few feet.
The trainees—most around nineteen years of age—doubled over catching their breaths. Two simply collapsed onto the snow along the path.
"What's gotten into you, Chief?" asked Akerman ruefully, bracing his hands on his knees. "Calling up a training today of all days. New Year's was yesterday; these kids aren't even over their hangovers."
Harry finally stopped and stretched his arms over his head. "C'mon, Luke. What better way to ring in a new year than with a little physical exertion?"
Akerman gave him a look bordering on a glare.
Harry laughed. "All right. Message received."
He turned to the trainees, some doing their best to hide their fatigue in front of the Chief. "Let's take a break everyone. Good job."
The group exchanged relieved glances, too exhausted to say a word. Harry turned away from them and looked ahead.
He could just make out in the distance the bench where he and the others had left their kits. Underneath that bench was Harry's own duffel. And inside, resting atop his change of clothes, was a book.
A book Harry had not put down since yesterday morning.
A book he promised he would read…
There was one other item too.
Tucked into smallest corner of that bag, almost as if to avoid detection, was an inexplicable scrap of lavender lace…
Slowly, Harry raised a hand and pressed his middle finger to his lips. He let it graze the chapped skin there.
He released a short breath.
"All right!" said Harry, clapping his hands together. "Who's up for some dueling?"
"C'mon, Owen!" Harry shouted, lowering his wand. "I can see you moving your lips. Gives me an unfair advantage!"
Owen Lockwood, a handsome nineteen-year-old Auror trainee, nodded at the far end of the dueling chamber. He raised his wand again and cast a Stinging Hex that Harry narrowly dodged. The spell hit the wall hard behind him, causing the paint to bubble up.
"Ha!" Harry barked. "Good on. That's better!"
Owen threw a Stunning Spell next. Harry deflected with a flick of his wrist—a Shield Charm. Owen straightaway cast another spell. Harry never found out what it was because he disapparated four feet to his right. The second he reappeared, Harry cast a simple Ventus jinx.
Owen was thrown off his feet by a gust of wind, skidding into the far wall of the high-domed arena. Harry took the opportunity.
"Expelliarmus!" he cried, not bothering with non-verbal magic.
Owen's wand came flying through the air and landed squarely in Harry's palm.
"Good job," said Harry as Owen got to his feet. "You're getting better."
Owen shrugged, a little embarrassed as Harry handed him his wand.
"But listen," said Harry seriously, "you always need to have that Shield Charm waiting in the wings, all right? You've got to keep it in the back of your mind. You won't be able to dodge all spells. Besides," Harry grinned, "by the time you're my age you won't be able to dodge like you used to anyway."
"Right," Owen mumbled, ruffling the hair at back of his head. "I'll work on it. Thanks, Chief."
The two bowed to one another.
Owen walked towards the other trainees who were seated inside a caged area along the left wall. The cage was permanently enchanted with a Shield Charm to protect onlookers from wayward spells. After their nine-mile run, the trainees had been given a twenty-minute break to shower and change clothes. Harry was still in his running kit, too restless for a hot shower just then.
"Who's next?" Harry called out.
"I am, Chief. I'm the last one."
Harry smiled broadly. A remarkably tall young woman stepped forward. This was Aisha Kebede. Hogwarts class of 2015. Ravenclaw. Harry knew she was originally from Ethiopia, but her Muggle parents had emigrated when she was four. Aisha was also stunning—thick, straight black hair that she always kept in a low ponytail and sharp, hazel-bronze eyes.
She was also likely the best trainee in her cohort. Harry did not doubt she would easily pass the Auror induction exam in another year's time. As it was, her best skill was dueling…
"All right there, Aisha?" Harry asked as she joined him in the center of the arena. "Haven't dueled with you in a while. As I recall, I had to go to the medical wing the last time. What was that spell you used?"
"Entomorphis hex," she laughed. "You still won out in the end, Chief."
"Only because my Levicorpus hit you at the same time," Harry smiled ruefully. "A second later and I wouldn't have managed, you know, with pincers for hands and all."
That's the thing he liked about Aisha. She was a marvel when it came to dueling but she was always very self-effacing.
"Anyway, enough talk," said Harry, shaking his wrists in preparation. "Your friends are waiting for you to hand me my arse."
Two of the female trainees tittered in anticipation.
"As you like, Chief," Aisha replied, suppressing a smile.
Harry and Aisha bowed deeply to one another and the duel began.
Harry barely noticed the time pass. He was too busy dodging a volley of Stunning Spells, Disarming Charms, and a range of obscure hexes that Harry was pretty sure some of his own Aurors would not be familiar with. When Aisha dueled, she was like a dam bursting open. The onslaught of spells running through her mind was diverse and unending—the mark of a great dueler.
Her one flaw was that she was often so busy casting offensive spells she would neglect her defenses. And, unluckily for her, Harry's best dueling skill was timing. The moment she forgot to throw in a Shield Charm every few seconds was when Harry would strike, casting a Stunning Spell or Disarming Charm right at her blind spot.
After nearly ten minutes, Harry was finally successful. He dodged a fiendish jet of yellow light and fell to his elbows. From the ground, he cast a "Petrificus Totalus!" that hit her hard in the stomach. Her arms immediately snapped to her sides and she fell backwards onto the cushioned floor with a thud.
Harry rolled onto his back, exhausted.
But a second later another jet of light—red this time—flew in his direction.
Harry looked up, startled.
"Shit," he mumbled. Aisha's wand was still clasped in her now frozen hand. She was casting spells even in her petrified state. What's more was Harry would not be able to disarm her unless he first performed the counter-spell to the Full Body-Bind Curse. There was no way to yank a wand out of a petrified hand.
It was a tricky situation. Aisha could only aim her wand straight, so Harry moved out of her line of fire and approached her from the side. The other trainees were standing in their seats, trying to see what would happen next.
Harry stood over Aisha, who had now stopped casting spells. If it was possible, she seemed to have a quietly smug look on her frozen face.
"Still not ready to give up, Miss Kebede?"
She shot out an innocuous Hurling Hex in response.
Harry laughed. He knelt down and grasped her wand. He pointed his own at her chest.
Aisha's wand finally fell loose but in that same moment Harry felt a blinding pain shoot up his arm. Aisha had gotten in one last spell—a Stinging Jinx—even as she was disarmed.
Harry fell onto his back, holding the two wands to his chest like he had possession of the Quaffle at the Quidditch World Cup.
"Fucking hell!" Harry cried. He could hear the other trainees laughing and clapping at the edge of the arena. "You just don't give up, do you?"
Aisha rolled onto her side, severely winded.
"You wouldn't want that, would you?" she huffed, though she was smiling.
Harry grinned and stood up gingerly. He held out his uninjured arm to Aisha.
"No," he said, as she pulled herself up. "I wouldn't want that."
The two bowed and Harry finally got a look at his arm.
A violent burn ran across the entire length of his forearm from wrist to elbow, one and a half inches wide. He grimaced, feeling suddenly nauseous realizing it would need medical attention. The skin was already starting to bubble up grotesquely. Harry absolutely hated burns. He would gladly take a broken leg or a concussion over the relentless throb of a severe burn. There was nothing worse because there really was no relief.
Aisha limped back to the others, throwing a concerned look at Harry over her shoulder. He shrugged and cast a quick numbing charm that hardly lessened the pain. As Harry replaced his wand, the doors at the far end of the dueling chamber swung open and a man strode inside.
Harry recognized him instantly.
It was Benjamin Starkey or "Backfire Ben" as everyone at the ATC knew him. He was one of the four dueling trainers at the centre. In fact, he had been one of Harry's trainers eighteen years ago during Harry's "accelerated" induction into the Auror Department. Ben was rumored to have a Backfiring Jinx so powerful that it struck seven Death Eaters permanently deaf during one of the battles after Voldemort's fall. Needless to say, he was somewhat of a legend at the ATC.
"All right, you lot!" Backfire Ben said in his booming voice. "Head on home now! We're shutting the chamber down for the day. Come back when it's not actually a holiday!"
The trainees gathered their equipment, looking considerably more cheerful since their run but ready to leave all the same. They waved goodbye to Harry.
As Owen closed the door behind the other trainees, Ben turned to Harry. He shook his head slowly, looking amused. "Is this one of your jokes, Chief? Calling us in on one of our few holidays?"
"I'm sorry," mumbled Harry. "Felt like they needed a session. It just seemed right…"
Ben sighed. "Well, you are the Chief. What would be the point if you couldn't call unscheduled sessions…" He noticed Harry's arm. "What happened there?"
"Stinging Jinx. Good one, I reckon."
Ben nodded. "Too good, I'd say."
He watched as Harry picked up his duffel with a grimace.
"Chief," said Ben, "why don't you hit the showers? The medical wing is closed, but I reckon I've got some burn-healing paste. Bet I could scrounge up some dittany too. Locker-room in fifteen?"
Harry smiled gratefully. "Thanks."
Ten minutes later, Harry stepped out of the shower, arm still throbbing.
Ben was waiting for him, sitting on a bench between two long rows of lockers. Blue lockers were for instructors, beige for trainees. A large section of green lockers were for inducted Aurors. Practicing Aurors were required to put in a minimum number of hours of physical training to keep their badges.
The Burn-Healing Paste was in a shallow bowl next to Ben. Dittany was precious so there was only a small vial with an eyedropper.
"Thanks again," Harry said as he opened his locker and removed his duffel. There was a brass plaque on Harry's green locker that read simply: CHIEF.
"No problem, Harry."
They had known each other a long time. Harry insisted Ben use his first name, though Ben refused to do so in front of the trainees. But the familiarity went deeper than that. Harry could count the number of people he truly trusted on two hands, and Ben was one of them. Maybe it had started when Ben was Harry's instructor—after all, he was the man who had finally helped Harry master non-verbal spells and multiplied Harry's store of hexes and curses by tenfold. Even after Harry became Chief, he still consulted with Ben on a regular basis—checking in on the trainees and discussing changes to the training process and selection.
Ben was forty-five with light brown hair that was thinning near the top and a face that was hardly ever clean-shaven. Scars from old spells ran along his burly arms and the ATC seal was tattooed on his neck. He had the body and face of a man who had borne the brunt of the Second Wizarding War. It was hard to believe he had only been twenty-seven when he and Harry first faced each other in the dueling chamber…
"No, not just for the burn but for coming in," Harry went on, lowering himself onto the bench facing Ben. "I guess I wasn't thinking. I don't know why I'm so impatient…"
"You're a busy man," Ben chuckled, picking up the paste. "Busy man with big plans. I always knew that about you. Besides, not like I had much else to do today."
Ben wasn't being sarcastic. Harry stayed silent as the older man liberally spread the paste along his arm.
"How was your holiday?" asked Harry quietly. "Were you able to see Katie and Sam?"
"Have Sam over the New Year," Ben grunted. "Their mum kept them for Christmas."
"Katie didn't come for New Year's?"
"Nah," said Ben offhandedly, though Harry saw—for the briefest moment—a flicker of pain shoot through his eyes. "Wanted to be with her friends, I reckon. Not like a sixteen-year-old girl to want to spend New Year's with her ol' dad."
Harry nodded. "Teenagers."
Ben chuckled, but there was something forced in it. "You'll know soon enough, don't you worry. How old is James now?"
"Thirteen," replied Harry, inadvertently smiling. "Merlin, he and his brother were a fright at Christmas. Had to keep them separated the entire time or just about."
Ben nodded knowingly. "That's how brothers are. At least that's how I was with mine until we both grew the fuck up and got over ourselves. Brothers and sisters, that's different though. Katie and Sam don't have that problem. They've kept pretty close."
"Good to hear."
The two men fell silent as Ben checked the evenness of the paste on Harry's burn. Once the paste started cracking, Ben could sweep it away and apply the dittany.
Harry glanced Ben.
Ben would never say it aloud, but Harry knew he was hurt Katie had chosen not to see her father over the holidays.
Ben and his ex-wife, Mae, had divorced some eight years ago. The two parents shared custody of the children. When they weren't at Hogwarts, Katie and Sam primarily lived with their mother. The holidays were meant to be shared, though Ben was not the type of father to force contact if one of his children chose differently. In another year, when Katie turned of age, she wouldn't even be under legal obligation to visit her father.
As Ben removed his wand and cast a spell to dry the paste, Harry found himself thinking about something he rarely considered.
It was remarkably rare in the wizarding world.
There were many theories about why that might be the case. And, of course, those theories tended to fall along political fault lines. Certain purebloods believed that when magic is involved, the bond of marriage becomes exceedingly hard to break. Marriage among the magical, the argument goes, is of a higher order than Muggle marriage. You are combining more than just hearts and minds, but the very expression of the soul: magic.
The whole "union of two faithful souls" thing.
Harry was by no means doctrinaire. He actually believed there might be some merit in the idea. Marriage is a big step. If it helped a wary witch and wizard to believe their union would be fortified by magic, then all the better. Society depended on young people arriving at such conclusions.
But in those instances when Harry did think about it, he sometimes thought the lack of divorce in the magical world might have to do with something far less romantic.
Harry could only speak about what he knew and he knew Muggles outnumbered wizards in Britain by at least forty-to-one. The ratio was always changing thanks to Muggle immigration and the slow uptick in Muggle life expectancy, so Harry had to admit it could actually be much higher. It was ironic that as outnumbered as wizards were in this country, Britain was believed to have one of the largest magical communities in the world.
Ultimately though, there was no denying the fact that sometime around the Industrial Revolution, wizards found themselves living in world run by Muggles. They owned the vast majority of the land, controlled nearly all the resources, possessed weapons that could demolish entire cities, and had even figured out how to leave the Earth entirely. Of course, Muggles never accomplished these feats with wizards in mind. Thanks to the Statute of Secrecy and the Age of Enlightenment, Muggles in the more "modernized" nations had stopped believing in magic. Most of them anyway.
Considering all this, was it any wonder that magical existence revolved around avoiding Muggle detection? As much as purebloods believed they were superior to Muggles, they certainly spent a lot of their time worrying about them…
Harry jumped slightly. Ben was using his wand to siphon away the paste. The older man was going on about two first-year trainees who were in danger of failing out of the program.
What do Muggles have to do with magical divorce, though? Harry thought.
Well, like any small, embattled population, wizarding society puts a great deal of pressure on its young people to have children. Without ever hearing it said aloud, young witches and wizards got the message that they were meant to have kids. A lot of them.
Children meant fortifying the ranks of the magical, so to speak.
The result was witches and wizards who married early and had children as soon as possible.
Their education ended with Hogwarts. Their careers started the day after. There was really no reason to wait to begin a family. Maybe you could scrounge up a couple of years of unattached freedom. But by the time you were twenty-four or twenty-five, it was time to do what everyone else was doing.
The more the better.
Most couples had at least three kids. Ron and Hermione were actually a bit of an anomaly for only having two. Surrogacy and insemination were also common for same sex couples, which Harry understood to be less taboo in the wizarding world than among the Muggles, though he supposed even that was changing quickly.
Of course, some witches and wizards never married. They were looked upon with a certain cloying pity that was usually reserved for Squibs. Maybe that's why so many unmarried wizards ended up teaching at Hogwarts where they could be far removed from the sanctimonious judgment of broader society.
But divorce. That was something different.
"All right," Ben was saying. "That's looking much better."
Harry looked at his arm. A shiny, red welt had replaced the burn giving off the appearance of new skin. The pain had completely vanished.
"Aisha has a knack for stinging spells, doesn't she?" said Ben with just a hint of pride. "I paired her against Barbary a few days back. He took a mean one to the buttock, poor bloke."
Harry laughed. He felt exceptionally grateful he was not Barbary and Ben wasn't doing this same treatment to Harry's arse.
Ben was now carefully measuring out the dittany.
Being an Auror is hard on families, Harry thought, watching his friend. Perhaps that's what happened with Ben and Mae. It never felt right to ask.
Harry knew at least two dozen of his Aurors were divorced, which was a small percentage of the force but a much higher number than a typical office in the Ministry. Unfortunately, he also knew that several of those divorced Aurors were not welcome among their own families. They weren't invited to Christmas dinners, weddings, even funerals. That's how deep the stigma of divorce went.
Why was it so dishonorable?
Because, for the most part, purebloods still defined magical culture. Even with their dwindling numbers and the rise of reform-minded politics since the second fall of Voldemort, as a group they still wielded tremendous social importance.
Along with their distrust of all things Muggle—from their strange religions to their popular culture to their drug use—perhaps what the pureblood establishment feared most of all were Muggle social mores: Hyper-individualism. Free expression. Scientific rationalism. The retreat of tradition.
Whether correctly or incorrectly, divorce was seen as yet another Muggle evil invading a "pristine" magical culture. (Incidentally, this was the same logic behind discrimination against Muggle-borns. Even though Muggle-borns were effectively forced to cast off their parents and their society at age eleven, they were still too often viewed as vectors of Muggle influence).
Obviously Harry did not prescribe to this worldview. But he, unlike Hermione, could appreciate just how far it had penetrated the magical world. The fear of subjection to the Muggles—who already outnumbered them all so greatly—held enormous sway over witches and wizards, whether they could admit it openly or not.
As a result, the existence of divorced wizards represented a rejection of magical values. A blow to an already besieged civilization…Not to mention it undermined the belief in the higher nature of magical marriages and the critical duty to raise children.
Ben was taking out a clean bandage as Harry felt a slight tingling in his skin that meant the dittany had been fully absorbed.
Perhaps Harry wouldn't have been thinking all this if he hadn't started reading the book Hermione gave him for Christmas—Reflections on Wizard-Muggle Relations: From Antiquity to the Present Day by Gretchen Ohlen.
Professor Ohlen briefly discussed the differences between magical and Muggle marriage traditions in the book. Harry was fifty pages from the end but he knew the author had forgotten to mention one thing about magical relationships:
They were not always happy.
Is it really possible to know who you are in your early twenties? What you really believe in? The kind of life you want to lead? When married witches and wizards reached their forties or fifties (once the children were grown) they found themselves alone with someone they had married twenty odd years ago…when they had been a different person. It was inevitable that not every witch or wizard was going to like what he or she saw.
But with the stigma against divorce so great, unhappy witches and wizards had to truly consider if they wanted to go through with a divorce. Did they really want to spend the next hundred years of their life alone? For some, the answer is actually "yes." But for many more, they learn to grow accustomed to their partner. Their love becomes companionate, less passionate. Or if they cannot manage that, they avoid one another. Two strangers who share the same home. No longer under the obligation of pretense for the children. Perhaps that's why there was more than one magical brothel in London. Harry also knew some of his Aurors were not above visiting a Muggle prostitute now and again…
But perhaps a loveless marriage was infinitely preferable to the wreckage of a divorce and the real possibility of abandonment…from both wife and children…
"There you go!"
Ben was slapping Harry's arm, which was now wrapped in a crisp, white cloth.
"Keep it on overnight if you want it too heal faster."
"Thanks, mate," Harry said appreciatively, flexing his arm.
Ben stood up, checking his watch. "Not a problem. I better head home. Sam will be done playing Quidditch with his friends soon."
"Tell him I say 'hi.'"
Ben smiled. "Oh, he'll love that. I need to get him clearance one of these days and show him this place," said Ben, looking around the locker room.
"Think he wants to be an Auror?" Harry asked, unzipping his duffle and pulling on a clean shirt. "If he has any of your skill, he'll be a shoo-in."
"We'll see, won't we?" Ben grunted, though he looked pleased. "Where are you off to now?"
The older Auror laughed again. This time it reached his eyes. "Always a busy man. Like I said."
Ben then said "goodbye," clapped Harry on the shoulder, and hurriedly made his way down the long row of lockers, humming to himself.
Harry reached his office in the late afternoon. Thirty Aurors were on duty but otherwise the AD was empty like the rest of the Ministry. Employees usually saved up vacation days around this time. The Ministry would not be at full capacity until the middle of the week.
By seven o'clock, Harry had done as much work as he could manage. He slung his duffel over his shoulder and locked his office door. He lingered near the lifts a minute or so reading the bulletins tacked up between the golden gates.
His hands tightened around the strap of his bag before he turned to the left. Down the wide, marble hallway that led to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement – Head Office.
Moments later, Harry was in front of the heavy mahogany doors. He leaned against one of them and another empty room greeted him. The cubicles for the fifty junior attorneys who worked in Magical Law Enforcement were vacant, files neatly stacked on desks waiting for their owners' return. It was quiet except for the muffled flapping of a few departmental memos that had never reached their intended recipients and were now circling around a wrought-iron chandelier.
Harry's eyes searched for the light he knew would be there. A light fighting through the fogged glass of an office at the far end of the department.
He moved soundlessly forward. His tongue ran over his chapped lips.
But he stopped short a foot before the door. Harry heard laughter inside her office. Voices were overlapping, fighting for attention. Hers was mingled in with the rest, voices he only vaguely recognized.
He paused. And reaching into his duffel, he removed Reflections on Wizard-Muggle Relations and knocked.
"Come in!" she called, voice tinged with laughter.
He opened the door.
Hermione was at her desk, four lawyers seated around her. Boxes of scrolls and reference books littered the room. Days-old takeout containers occupied the spaces atop filing cabinets and on the edges of bookshelves.
Hermione was scribbling on parchment, a smile lingering on her lips from an inside joke someone had just finished.
She looked up to see who had entered.
Their eyes locked.
For a limitless moment—though it was probably only a second or two—it was just them.
Harry and Hermione.
Harry and Hermione. And the secret of what took place forty-one hours ago.
She became very still. Like she had stopped breathing.
In those infinite seconds, Harry felt strange. Almost as if he were more alive. Like his whole life was meant to be lived in such moments of peculiar bliss and awareness. He watched her face, the face of the woman who meant so much.
In her eyes he thought he saw that same awareness reflected back at him. But he also saw something else. Something very much like…hunger.
Her expression changed as the other counselors turned in their seats, looking to see who had joined them.
She called out to him.
"Oh, there you are, Harry," she said briskly. "Is it seven already?"
He looked at her blankly. She arched a brow.
"'Fraid so," he said, clearing his throat. "Sorry to interrupt your meeting."
"Not a problem." She turned to her staff. "Would you give us a few minutes? Harry needs to fill me in on an unrelated case. If you need to go to the canteen for a bite, that's fine. I could really use some coffee though…"
One of the younger lawyers volunteered to bring her the caffeine boost. The rest pushed back their chairs and stretched their legs, looking grateful.
It seemed Harry wasn't the only one making his underlings work on a holiday. But like the Auror trainees, Hermione's staff seemed to take their boss' impulsive nature in stride.
The counselors greeted Harry as they passed him at the door.
One woman kissed his cheek.
This was Emilia Edelman, or just Emi, as Harry knew her.
Other than Lakey, she was Hermione's closest confidant within Magical Law Enforcement. Hermione and Emi had started at the Department at around the same time. They had worked numerous cases together. Over the past decade, Harry had gotten used to stopping by Hermione's office late at night only to find Hermione passed out at her desk, a stack of papers glued to her face, and Emi curled up on the sofa, snoring softly.
"All right there, Emi?" Harry asked, giving her a hug.
"Can't complain," she shrugged. She was tired. Her olive skin was paler than usual, exaggerating the dark circles below her eyes.
"It looks like you could," said Harry, only half-joking.
Emi didn't say anything. She glanced at the three counselors waiting for her beyond the door.
"And how is that one doing?" asked Harry so only Emi could hear.
She knew he meant Hermione.
"Happier than I've seen her in weeks," Emi smirked. "She always gets this odd energy before a big case."
Harry smiled. "Go get some coffee then. I'll see you soon."
Emi eyed the book in Harry's hand and grinned. "Yeah. You will."
Harry shut the door behind her.
As he released the doorknob, a rush of air pressed against his ears. Almost like he had apparated to a higher altitude and his ears were adjusting.
He turned sharply. Hermione was standing, straightening her clothes…like she had just tucked something away.
"Hmm?" she asked.
"Did you just cast one?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Harry suppressed a grin and shrugged. "Well, if you think you're going to be making sounds that need covering up, that's your business."
She might have rolled her eyes. Harry couldn't tell since she abruptly became absorbed in shuffling papers on her desk.
"And what business do you have with me, Harry Potter?"
"I'm returning something of yours," he said slowly—almost a drawl—as he walked to her desk.
"Oh, and what's that?" she asked with mocking patience.
Stopping before her desk, he reached into his pocket and removed the violet lace with his middle finger. He held it out to her.
The symbol of their transgression and transcendence dangled in the air between them.
Hermione stared for a moment, mouth parted. Her eyes flashed to the door.
"Ah, yes," she said, clearing her throat. "Thank you."
He dropped it on the desk and strolled to the far wall of the office. Hermione promptly snatched it up and stuffed it into a drawer.
"And what, may I ask, were you doing with it these past two days?" she demanded as Harry stopped in front of a large, magical map of London.
"The usual. Took it to Diagon Alley for a show. Grabbed some coffee," he answered over his shoulder.
When she didn't respond, Harry turned. She was eyeing him impatiently, one brow arched.
How had he never noticed how fucking sexy that was?
He smirked. "C'mon, Hermione. What do you think I did with it?"
She stared at him for a beat, brow still raised. Then she shook her head, smiling slightly.
"I don't care what you did with it. It's back now."
"Yes, that is what's important here," said Harry easily, leaning against the wall. "Should you ever lose something again while we're in each other's company, you can rest assured it will always find its way back to you."
Harry looked straight into her eyes as he said this so she couldn't miss his meaning. She did not disappoint. Her cheeks flushed deep pink.
She tried to remain cool. Like someone who actually knew what she was doing.
"That is a relief," she said with oozing sarcasm. "Sets my mind at ease to know you're watching over my knickers."
"I will be now. Every chance you give me."
The flirt inside Hermione sputtered out and died.
She looked back at the papers on her desk unseeingly, too overcome by the strange timbre in Harry's voice to supply a proper comeback or even think properly at all. A rare and dangerous state for Hermione Granger.
Perhaps Harry detected her discomfort. A second later he was walking back to her desk and slid Reflections on Wizard-Muggle Relations across the surface.
"Nearly done, by the way."
She glanced at the cover and her eyes lit up, back to herself even if her cheeks were still flushed.
"Oh right, of course!" she said excitedly. Her fingers touched the book fondly before she looked at him eagerly. "And what did you think?"
"It's fine," he answered honestly. "I mean, it's well written. Don't know why you wanted me to read it so badly."
"It's to put you in the right frame of mind…" said Hermione cryptically.
"Right frame of mind for what?"
She smiled at him.
The same smile he had been on the receiving end of for years.
The smile that made him Secretary of S.P.E.W. at age fourteen.
The smile that told him to form Dumbledore's Army.
The smile that got him to leave during the middle of his one and only date with the biggest crush of his young life and spill his guts to Rita Skeeter.
"Hermione," he said warningly. "The right frame of mind for what?"
"For when you testify in the most important case in wizard-Muggle relations in over twenty years. A case that will determine how Muggles are treated under magical law for decades to come."
Harry stared at her blankly.
"Not in the slightest," she beamed.
"What are you talking about? I can't testify in the Callahan case—"
His brows drew together and he eyed her distrustfully, hurt and betrayal suppressed beneath suspicion. Unconsciously, he took a step away from her.
"Everything that's happened the past few months…what happened at the New Year's Ball…that wasn't so you could get me to testify, right?"
It sounded horrible to say aloud. But he couldn't stop the thought from forming and coming to his lips. Sometimes Hermione could be so demanding, so strident, so utterly impassioned that even Harry had to occasionally wonder what she was capable of…
Instead, he watched as Hermione's face fell into an expression of consummate pain.
"Oh Harry, no!" she cried, her hand coming to her throat. "I would never—I could never do something like that! Oh, please don't ever think that!"
He watched her doubtfully, reflexively crossing his arms.
Hesitating slightly, she took a step towards him and reached for his hands.
"Harry," she explained, "it's been my intention to have you testify from the beginning. From the moment I read the details of the case, I knew I wanted the Wizengamot to hear your take. Why do you think I bought you the book? Why do you think I insisted on paying for Duncan's expenses at St. Mungo's? It was so you wouldn't be compromised as a witness. Paying for the upkeep of one of Callahan's victims would have called into question your suitability to testify. It was my plan to call you to the stand before anything had remotely happened between us!"
Harry relaxed slightly. Her words made sense.
"Fine," he said coolly. "But I can't testify. No one's going to fucking believe I'm an impartial witness even if I didn't pay for Duncan's upkeep. The lead Ministry prosecutor is you. I'm pretty sure the entire wizarding world knows we've been pretty chummy for twenty-six years now. No one is going to believe a word I say if it's supporting your side. Besides, there isn't enough time to prepare. Opening arguments are in five days, for Christ's sake."
Hermione was smiling again.
"Don't worry about your impartiality, darling. I never once thought the jurors were going to take you seriously …"
"Um, I'm sorry. Explain."
"I'm doing it for show."
It was Harry's turn to impatiently raise a brow. She sighed as if disappointed his mind couldn't keep up with hers. Yet again.
"Over Christmas you told me this case wouldn't be decided on facts alone. It also depends on my delivery of those facts. Right?"
"And like it or not, you are part of this case. Harry Potter's best friend prosecuting one of his prized Aurors? It's a titillating detail, the elephant in the room. By bringing you to the stand, I'm acknowledging it. I'm confronting it. I'm giving the people what they want. First, I'm giving them Harry Potter's take, which everyone has been dying to hear even if they assume it's going to be biased." She hesitated before continuing more slowly. "And second, when I question you on the stand I'll be giving them a glimpse into how we—you and me—interact. Our 'trio dynamic' has always been a huge fascination to the public, which includes the jurors. If you and I are smart about it, they'll subconsciously reward my side because I played into that obsession. And besides, the Wizengamot needs to hear from the Auror Chief. Theo Callahan was at the Camerons' home on your orders. Is it really plausible to expect I wouldn't call you to testify just because you are you and I am me?"
For a third time, Harry stared at her blankly.
Then he reached out and grabbed her wrist. He twisted it easily behind her back. Before she could cry out, Harry pulled her body hard against his chest so she couldn't move an inch.
"Manipulative little witch!"
"I'm not manipulative!" Hermione laughed, squirming as she tried to free herself. "I'm just a good lawyer!"
"Same thing," Harry chuckled.
He held her a second longer before releasing her.
She flexed her wrist and grinned. "Is anything I said wrong?"
"No," he answered reluctantly, "but we'll have to do this right. We'll have to prepare. Don't try to make me your little champion of Muggle rights on the stand. No one is going to believe that. They know I'm a moderate politically and I want it to stay that way. People need to believe the Chief is unbiased. Politicizing me and my office is the last thing we need."
Hermione nodded like she expected him to say that.
"No one is asking you to do that," she said. "We want you to tell your story, what you know. Of course, if you tell your story in a way that helps our side and helps the Camerons, well then…we won't complain."
He rolled his eyes. "Of course."
Harry uncrossed his arms and Hermione took his hand loosely, swinging it in the space between them.
"I can make a revolutionary out of you yet, Harry Potter," she said sweetly. "I remain the unapologetic idealist."
"Some would call you a militant idealist."
Hermione laughed. She stopped their hands and stepped towards him.
"Thank you," she said. "I know this will work."
"I know you think that. Don't pin all your hopes on me though…"
They were close now.
Harry realized he was standing against a short chest of drawers. He could feel the edge pressing into the back of his thighs. They were both silent as Hermione moved her hands to the front of his jacket. Harry wrapped his arms around her waist. She didn't resist.
"I've missed you these past two days," he told her softly.
"I know. Me too."
"It's all I've been thinking about…"
"I know… Me too."
Harry was glad their foreheads were touching now. She wouldn't see the color on his cheekbones. She wouldn't know how relieved he was to hear her say that.
He listened as their breathing slowly came together. He closed his eyes—the sound of her breath, the smell of her hair, the warmth of her body…
He nudged her face with his own.
"I keep thinking about if I could just kiss you again—"
He couldn't say anything else. Hermione had taken his face in her hands and pressed her lips to his.
They kissed deep and slow.
Harry could feel his heart revving up in his ears, like it had on his run that morning. He remained still, moving only his lips. He did not want to do anything that could break their connection. Like they could be torn apart at any moment…
After a minute, Hermione pulled away.
She whispered something. Something Harry couldn't quite hear but sounded oddly like "I'm a child."
It didn't make sense, so he dismissed it.
"They'll be back any moment," she said.
She ran her hands down his arms.
"I don't know what we're doing," she said.
"I know. Me too."
Hermione smiled slightly. But after a moment, she released his hands.
"We're not thinking. We're not thinking this through at all…" she said quickly. The fear was back in her voice.
Harry gripped her hands. "I feel like I'm thinking for the first time, like I'm really understanding." He smiled at her. "We're going to figure this out."
"Are we?" she asked. "Have you really thought about what you're gambling with? What we both are…"
"Hermione," he said, entwining his fingers with hers, "did you ever think—did you ever think that when we kissed each other in the forest that day, that first time…that maybe we had always wanted to do that? At some level, even if it wasn't a conscious one, we had always wanted to know what it was like to kiss the other?"
She watched him warily.
"I don't know," she said finally. "Maybe. But now we know what it's like and we're…I just…this could turn out really badly, Harry. Really badly."
He wanted to contradict her, to tell her she was wrong. But for some reason Benjamin Starkey's face flashed before his mind. His face and the lonesome sound of his humming down a long corridor of lockers.
Before he could respond, Hermione pulled away; she touched her lips as she turned to her desk.
He took a step towards her but he could hear laughter now. Hermione could hear it too judging by the line between her brows.
They watched each other for the five or so seconds they had before Emi opened the door, the other lawyers trailing in behind her.
"You two finished?" she asked cheerfully. She was carrying two cups of coffee.
"Yeah. Those for me?" asked Hermione brightly.
"Don't be ridiculous. They're both for me. Thompson has yours."
Hermione laughed as the group picked their way over to her desk.
"I'll let you get back to it," said Harry as the counselors gathered around him and Hermione. "Good luck with everything."
Emi's eyes darted between him and Hermione.
"Did you tell him?" she directed lowly at Hermione.
She smiled tightly.
"Ah," said Emi, looking satisfied. "Then we'll see you for witness prep soon, I reckon?" When Harry nodded, she clapped her hands. "Wonderful! Tell Ginny 'hello' for me. It was an amazing party you two threw. Sorry I could only stay for an hour or so."
"It was our pleasure," Harry replied automatically.
The staff waved their goodbyes as they tucked into their makeshift dinner. Harry edged around the stacks of books, accordion files, and parchment rolls careful not to disturb anything.
He turned back at the door. Hermione was still at her desk watching him. The others were too interested in unwrapping their food to notice. Harry tried to give her an assuring smile but he was afraid he only managed to look resigned.
It was then he noticed the large, magical painting behind Hermione's desk.
The landscape was darker, like a storm was rapidly approaching. The river was flowing faster, churning out whitewater. The young woman who usually dangled her feet in the current had pulled back her legs. She was looking over her shoulder.
For the first time in his memory, the painting had changed.
It was then Harry closed the door.
When he arrived home at a quarter to eight, the house was silent. Harry threw down his running kit at the door and shrugged out of his jacket. His throat felt dry so he went into the kitchen. He had just taken a few gulps of icy water from the tap when Ginny appeared.
"Oh, you're here," she started. She was carrying a few newspaper editions in her hands. "Where were you today? You were gone when I woke up."
He shut off the tap. "ATC. Then the office. Where are the kids?"
She watched him as he dried his hands on a dishtowel.
A moment later, Harry was excusing himself. "I've got some work to do. I'll be in the study. There are leftovers from the Ball, right?"
"Great." He strode past her into the foyer. He had almost reached the stairs when she called out to him.
"Wait, Harry!" she said, emerging from the kitchen. "I wanted to ask you something."
She must have left her papers on the kitchen table because she was now twisting one of the rings on her fingers.
She hesitated. "I went into the Prophet after lunch. There was this story going around that you threw out four Prophet reporters from the ball the other night. Is that true?"
Harry exhaled through his nose. Ginny watched his posture change—shoulders tense, fingers curled into loose fists.
Ginny made an exasperated sound. "Why would you do something like that?"
"You don't want to know," he said curtly. He turned back to the steps.
"I do want to know," Ginny pressed, voice rising. "Everyone is talking about it. Not so much in front of me, but I know they are. What did they do?"
Harry pursed his lips before answering.
"They insulted Hermione."
Ginny's eyes widened slightly, but not for the reason Harry expected.
"Oh, so if they insult darling Hermione it's the worst thing in the world?" she asked heatedly. "It warrants mortal violence, does it? Did you ever think there were better ways—"
He rolled his eyes. "Please, Ginny. It'd be the same if someone insulted you."
Ginny crossed her arms before replying. "You know, somehow I doubt that."
There was silence as Harry glared at her.
"Yeah, maybe I doubt it too."
"I'm sorry?" she asked scathingly.
"No one insults you, Ginny," he said bitingly. "No one is going to insult you. You know why? Because you have it all lined up. You always play it safe, don't you?"
"And what's that supposed to mean?" she sputtered.
"It means you're Ginny Potter," he said sardonically. "The toast of magical society. You've got the sought-after job, the adulation of everyone around you. You've never been required to take a stand on anything difficult. No one throws bricks at your head if you fuck up the Tornadoes starting line-up!"
Ginny started at him in shock.
"But Hermione? Her job actually saves people's lives. Somehow she still seems to give a damn about fixing a world that's treated her like shit more often than not. She may be naïve sometimes but she believes what she says and backs it up, which is more than I can say for 99 percent of the population," Harry growled. "And she does it at the expense of her reputation, her popularity, and yes, her personal safety. So, yeah. She gets herself into trouble. A lot. She's constantly insulted and ridiculed. But guess what? That's where I come in. She is my best friend and if she is ever harmed—verbally or physically—you had better fucking believe I'm going to defend her! She'd do exactly the same for me! So if defending her means throwing out a couple of assholes from a party, do you really think I give a fuck?"
He had never been more angry with her in his life.
Ginny's expression was frozen in shock, indignation and...somehow fear.
Harry turned and stormed up the stairs.
"We can't all be saints and martyrs, Harry!" she suddenly shouted.
He came to a halt at the top of stairs.
"Hermione's not the final arbiter of truth and justice you seem to think she is!" Ginny cried. "My being a reporter doesn't make me any less of a witch than her! It doesn't make me any less worthy of respect! And that's exactly what you did today. You disrespected me. You threw my colleagues out of a party without even consulting me. Without even warning me before I went to work. I am your wife, Harry Potter, and you made me look like a fool today," she spat. "Where's the truth and honor in that?"
"You don't know what they said," said lowly, but he could be heard.
"Well, by all means, enlighten me."
Harry's upper lip curled in revulsion. "I won't waste my breath repeating it. I'll just say the Prophet is a more fucked up place than I ever imagined if those are the kind of bastards they're employing."
"Harry, just tell me," she said, her voice exasperated but gentler. "I could actually help with this. I could make sure they're reprimanded at the Prophet."
Harry stared at her.
"Would you?" he asked, his voice dangerously soft. "Somehow I don't think you would, Ginny. I don't think you give a fuck about what's said about Hermione."
"That's not true!" Ginny protested.
"Ah, okay. Let's examine the evidence then," he said, voice dripping with disdain. "You didn't care about that editorial about her. You didn't care about inviting Howard Banbury to the ball. And now you want me to believe you are going to personally have those fuckers reprimanded?"
"Harry, I—" she started, eyes hurt.
"No. I don't need any more proof than today," he said, his voice almost resigned now. "What were you told when you got to the office today, Ginny? That your husband had thrown out some reporters because they insulted Hermione?"
She said nothing.
"Well, tell me," Harry demanded. "Is that true? I'm curious."
"Okay. So, your first thought was not 'what did those bastards say about my sister-in-law?' but 'how could Harry have embarrassed me like this?'"
"Hermione is our family," he said with a quiet ferocity. "If you don't stand by her, who's going to? Tell me."
Ginny was silent.
Harry's lip curled again.
"Don't fucking tell me I'm overreacting when I'm carrying the weight for both of us."
He turned without another word.
Ginny did not stop him.
Harry made it to the third floor and about twenty feet down the corridor before he stopped abruptly. As if on instinct, his fingers dug themselves into his hair.
What did I just do?
He remained completely still for a few seconds. Then he paced, debating whether he should go back. Apologize. Make amends. Tell her he was out of line.
He started to walk back. He stopped again. He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes, listening to his rapid breath come in and out. In and out. Then, he punched the wall.
Stifling a cry, he sank down onto the floor.
He couldn't go back. Not just now.
Harry leaned his head against the wall and waited for the pain in his hand to recede. The same arm he had injured that morning.
He wondered if Ginny would come find him. He wasn't sure if he wanted her to.
She's wrong, he thought bitterly.
A voice very much like Hermione's whispered back, So are you.
Harry was not sure how long he sat in the third floor corridor. At some point, he stood and walked unsteadily towards the study. He climbed the hidden staircase and reached the landing that had consumed his thoughts for the past two days.
He placed one hand on the doorknob, the other at the center of the door. He hissed.
The empty, elegant room spread out before him. The blizzard had left a shroud of snow over the glass ceiling, giving the sense of even greater privacy even while it was the most private room in all of Clymene Court.
Harry walked towards a cabinet set into one of the many bookshelves. Pulling back the doors, Harry looked down at his Pensieve.
It was not Dumbledore's. Harry had commissioned one made a year after being named Auror Chief. It was not cheap but he needed it. Harry found his mind could not contain the onslaught of new information—briefings, case files, trainings. He needed a more accurate record of his thoughts.
This Pensieve was smaller than the one Dumbledore used at Hogwarts. But it was still the same shallow, stone basin with runes carved into the edges.
Harry removed it carefully and carried it to his desk. He sat down and studied the Pensieve for some time, the basin glowing innocently before him.
Then he whispered, "Hermione Granger."
The Pensieve erupted. Argent wisps shot up to the ceiling, twisted around one another and blurred into the snow. Still more sloshed over the brim of the Pensieve and slid across the breadth of his desk before tipping over the ledge and pooling at the floor. A lifetime of memories of the girl on the train…
Harry waved his wand and the memories vanished.
He sat up in his chair and edged closer to the Pensieve.
I need to go back. The words felt right.
How exactly did it all happen? This change? He and his wife were on very shaky ground. He could barely holding onto sanity thanks to his best friend.
What explained the sudden shift? Or was it sudden?
Because if Harry was honest with himself, the way he felt about Hermione now…Well, it felt both new and old.
Like a long dormant tree showing new life. Had it arisen from the tree or was there an external source? Roots of vines running along the branches, blooming like blisters and endangering its host...
And to understand that, he needed to go back. To the beginning.
Not the very beginning, he corrected as the memories inside the Pensieve swirled rapidly, anticipating his request. Back to the moment when my life really began. After the War. After Voldemort.
The surface of the Pensieve grew less cloudy, coming to resemble delicate pane of clearest crystal.
Harry looked into the basin but did not see stone. He was looking down from a great height at a dark, grassy lawn. The lawn spread out before an enormous castle. A figure stood at the gates that separated the castle from a village glimmering in the twilight.
Harry placed his hands on either side of the Pensieve. He lowered his head. Lowered it until he felt like he was falling. Falling towards the grassy lawn and the figure at the gates.
Falling into a past he prayed had the answers.