Chapter One: Water Under The Bridge
Harry Potter brushed soot off his shoulders as he stepped out of the Floo into the cavernous atrium of the International Floo Headquarters, and looked around with a decidedly cool gaze.
There was no fanfare. Indeed, he hadn't expected any, seeing that it had been nearly a dozen years since he had been in England. There was a window across the way, and it showed a slate gray sky, pierced by slashing, fine-needle rain. He wasn't sure if the window were charmed or not, but he felt the sight of the weather drag his mood down further, as he thought longingly of the welcome warmth of an Australian February.
Instinctively, he felt for his wand, securely tucked into the pockets of his Auror Robes, and began to thread his way into the flow of traffic, moving with the other exiting travelers.
"Harry," the voice was surreptitious, trying not to call attention to itself, and when the man in question turned, he saw a flash of ginger. His green eyes widened with some surprise.
"Ron!" An unreadable look flickered briefly across his face, and a smile tugged at his lips, albeit somewhat unwillingly.
There was the briefest of awkward moments, as two close friends can have when re-assessing each other after a long separation. Harry cleared his throat awkwardly, and stuck his hand out. Ron shook it heartily, adding to the gesture a comradely clap on the shoulder.
"I didn't think they'd told anyone I was coming," Harry said, after another interlude of silence.
"They told me," Ron said laconically. "Tonks wants us watching each other's backs on this one."
Harry cast a sidelong look, mixing bitterness and confusion, at his erstwhile best mate. I was never going to come back.
"What's the big deal anyway?" he asked. "Not enough Aurors to go round up here?"
Ron's fair brows lifted in surprise at Harry's tone.
"You have gotten jaded, haven't you?" he asked, rhetorically, clearing not expecting an answer. "It's an assault case, little girl, about eleven years old. Parents were killed during the attack."
"Death Eaters?" Harry's voice was low, and Ron's chin jerked downward once in an affirmative, even though it was not really a question. He had expected as much. "You'd know more about the recent activity here than I would. It still doesn't explain why they called me in. I couldn't even get McKinney to give me a straight answer about whether or not this assignment was temporary," he added, referring to his boss in Australia. He did not say that he had fought tooth and nail against coming at all.
The two men moved toward a local Floo conduit, and stood in line for access.
"You'll understand when you see her," Ron said softly. "It was … rather bad. Lucky she's alive, really."
Harry's lips thinned at the thought of grown wizards who would hurt a child, and he decided to abandon the line of questioning until he had seen what had happened that was so appalling that he had been forced from his self-imposed exile on the other side of the globe.
Ron was watching him covertly, but Harry was well aware of the weight of his friend's gaze.
Don't ask, don't ask, don't ask… he pleaded inwardly.
"Are you planning on seeing Hermione?" Ron asked, oblivious to Harry's unspoken wishes. Harry opted for a withering look, instead of speech. "Harry, come on! It's been twelve years!"
Harry closed his eyes in mock weariness.
"Don't start this, Ron. Your post owls from halfway round the world were bad enough."
"I just… you were friends - best friends - for eight years! I don't know what happened, but - but could it really be that bad?" It was a familiar litany; they shuffled forward in line, and Harry ignored him, shoving aside the pang of guilt over what Ron must be going through, incessantly caught in the middle.
"Does she ever say anything?" he finally asked.
Harry nodded. Ron looked almost disappointed, as if he wished he could tell Harry that Hermione ceaselessly queried him on all things Potter. Instead, the redhead shoved his hands into his pockets, and shook his head.
"Never says a word. Gets right mad if I bring it up too. I reckon I haven't mentioned you in … oh, about five years."
The silence between them grew strained again, as the line moved once more. Harry had opened his mouth to speak… How is she? But then the party in front of them disappeared into the green flames, and it was their turn. With a sweep of his hand, Harry indicated that Ron should do the honors.
The youngest Weasley son tossed in the Floo powder.
Voldemort had been dead for nearly three weeks, before Harry could actually get his mind around that fact. He, Hermione, and Ron were shunted to several awards ceremonies and lavish banquets, during which he remembered a lot of blank staring, blinking into flashbulbs, and clumsily muttered sound bites.
But mostly he remembered a feeling of panic, one that started out faint and subtle, but grew, like a cresting tidal wave, as the weeks passed. When all the debriefing and glamorizing and hobnobbing had been completed, the Trio returned to the Burrow, exhausted and at a loss. It was then that Harry grew seriously concerned that the wave was going to consume him.
He wasn't sure exactly of what he was afraid, but it was as if he'd been suddenly abandoned in a strange place, and had his map rudely snatched from his clutching hands. The future was a giant dark vacuum. He wasn't sure where to go, what to do, or even who he was… and he was very nearly paralyzed with fear that Ron and Hermione might drift away, racing with alacrity toward their individual lives, put on hold because of him for the last eleven years.
He was afraid of solitude,and more than oncefound himself sprinting full-tilt down the Burrow's ramshackle stairs in search of someone,anyone, so that he wouldn't have to face himself and the giant interrogative that hovered over him. Hermione and Ron seemed somewhat subdued and withdrawn,quiet, but attempting to maintain normalcy,while Harry felt nearly manic in contrast.
Must do, must move, must be, must speak…
If I stand still, I'll drown.
Sometimes, he thought he was going mad.
Inexplicably, Hermione seemed to sense this. She said nothing about it, but had suddenly come by the habit of just being around whenever he felt worst, not fixing him with undue attention, but just sitting companionably in the same room, with a book in her lap or a quill in her hand.
He had never been so grateful for her mere presence… felt foolishly enraptured, as a matter of fact, as if he ought to be groveling at her feet for just beingHermione.
Ironically, it was Ginny who set the whole impending implosion into motion in the first place.
Harry did his best to ignore the double-takes and open glances of surprise, as he and Ron strode down the bustling corridors of the premiere British wizarding hospital. He supposed that his blue Australian Auror robes were drawing additional unwanted attention - as if just being himself wasn't bad enough - and he wished he'd changed out of them before departing Down Under.
"Damn," Ron said, noting the looks and murmured whispers. "We were hoping to keep your arrival as quiet as possible for as long as we could."
"Then you should have Owled me some Polyjuice potion," Harry replied sarcastically. They rounded a corner, and Harry saw two Aurors on duty, flanking either side of a closed door.
"Here we are," Ron said, nodding in recognition to the two Aurors. Harry didn't know either of them. "Her name's Annemarie Ludlow," he added. "She's ten. Supposed to be starting at Hogwarts in September."
Harry nodded, trying to pull together his professionalism that seemed to be so easily dashed away when he thought about Hermione. Ten years old, he thought, and in his mind's eye saw the littered bodies of Hogwarts' students, the ones caught in the initial attack, before the younger years had been evacuated to safety. It was those deaths, more than any others, that still haunted him, even after so many years.
In response to his nod, Ron reached for the handle and swung open the door.
The room was sterile and white, appearing starkly bright, even without windows. It smelled peculiarly of that hospital-smell that seemed to permeate all places of sickness and healing, whether magical or Muggle. Several hovering monitors beeped or glowed or whirred softly above the slight form in the bed. Harry stepped closer.
The little girl lay prone, her arms pinning the sheet tightly to her sides, her right cheek turned into the pillow as she rested in a potion-induced slumber. Even before he reached the bedside, Harry could see the purple-black marbled texture of her arms, where they were bruised and swollen. Several of her fingernails were partially or totally missing, and a seared portion of skin ran down behind her ear into the neckline of her hospital gown. Her hair had been cut hastily and without precision; Harry guessed that a mediwitch had trimmed off the blackened portions. Her lower lip was split all the way through, and one eye was so badly swollen that Harry felt sure she would have lasting damage to her vision in it.
"What happened, exactly?" he asked, looking at Ron. There was a strained quality to his voice that he could not eliminate entirely.
"The family was at Diagon Alley, evidently just for a day out. Mrs. Ludlow was reportedly carrying only one small shopping bag. They had been to Fortescue's, and dropped Annemarie off at the bookshop, while they ran an errand at the apothecary. They filled an order there at about 11:30. Witnesses reported the parents exiting Flourish and Blott's, shouting her name close to half-twelve. One woman heard screams coming from Knockturn Alley at a little after twelve, and several emergency owls were dispatched to the MLE around that time. Peter Ludlow sent one himself at 12:42, before giving chase. Several people went with him, but Peter and his wife were AK'd as they reached the mouth of the alley where we found Annemarie's body."
"So we're looking at two hours at the most? You were with the team called in?" Harry asked, sympathetically, and Ron nodded. "Any evidence left?"
"The attackers were long gone. All we had were the Ludlows' bodies at the entrance, not a mark on `em, and Annemarie further in. We'd initially thought she was dead too, but somehow, she's managed to survive. Some wandfire residue on the walls, but the - the people that frequent Knockturn Alley call that particular side street Execution Alley. No way to tell how many murders have been carried out there."
"Why would she still be alive?" Harry wondered aloud, his eyes traveling over the girl again. "D'you reckon they panicked and left her for dead?"
"'Swhat we thought… at first," Ron said, and Harry caught the note of hesitancy in his voice.
"What changed your mind?"
"We think she was deliberately left to send a message."
"A message? To whom?"
Ron's face was pinched and pale, as he reached for Annemarie's chin and gently turned her head, so that the hidden side of her face was exposed.
"To you," he replied softly, no hint of accusation in his voice. Harry found himself instinctively groping for the metal railing on the side of the bed for support.
Barely missing her eye, a Cutting charm had been cast with much raw force, proceeding in a jagged line to end near the curve of her jaw. The skin around the cut was puckered and swollen, and glowed with multiple Healing and Numbing charms. The blood had been cleaned away, but the area was still badly discolored. Even so, it was easy to tell with what the girl had been deliberately marked.
A lightning bolt.
He had not been unaware of Ginny's contemplative gaze on him, during their stay at the Burrow. He had, however,pretendedthat he was, and strove to avoid being left alone with her, knowing the topic that was likely to arise, and feeling unable or unwilling to deal with it. He could see her thoughts as clearly as if they were hovering over her head in living color.
He broke it off, he left me behind, but now it's over, she was thinking, he knew, Now it's over, and he's free. He's free to come back to me, like I know he wants to, like we were meant to be. I've waited so long for my happy ending, and now it's finally here.
The only problem with that was, Harry mused, that he no longer felt like himself. The Harry Potter that Ginny had been in love with had died the day Voldemort was defeated, and someone new had been left in his place. Would Ginny accept a Harry that still had nightmares, that sometimes had to take potions to cope, that had incomplete schooling, training for little, no ideas for the future, and wanted nothing more than to shun the spotlight with religious fervor?
Ginny wanted him, wanted to be Mrs. Harry Potter, and probably did love him on some level, but was it enough? Was it enough for him? Did he want to rekindle things with her?
Nothing was the same anymore. The picture appeared to be similar, but all the colors had been altered. We can't go back.
I can't go back.
Ron and Hermione had been with him at the end. Only Ron and Hermione could understand what he'd been through. Not Ginny…never Ginny.
She had finally cornered him in the Weasleys' back garden, and he knew, with a sinking feeling in his gut, that the moment had come.
"Harry?" she asked, twirling one long strand of red hair around her finger, studiously looking at her trainers. She lifted her eyes, and met his for a brief instant, before her gaze dropped again. "I - I was wondering… I've - I've tried to be patient, and … but - is - is there a chance - are we … ever - ?" She looked at him again, her eyes pleading for him to help her out. He was struck again with how beautiful she was, the low-setting sun setting her hair afire. A beautiful stranger…
"I - I wanted there to be … someday," Harry began feebly, watched her eyes sparkle with hope, and then dim in recognition of the past tense. "I didn't think I - it's - it's all different now.I'm different now, and I - I don't know if- I don't thinkit would work."
She took three steps toward him, reached out, and enfolded one of his hands in both of hers.
"Of course it would work! I know you've been through a lot, and - and of course, you've been… affected by what's happened. But I don't intend to abandon you now. I can help you. We can get through this together."
Halfway into her speech, Harry was shaking his head.
"You don't understand."
"I could understand, if you'd just talk to me," she whispered. "Harry, please. I've waited for you. I love you."
Harry backed away from her, pulling his hand free from her grip.
"I can't do this. I'm sorry, Ginny. I didn't want this to happen, I - if it had been another time, or another place, maybe…"
Her face drooped, the muscles around her mouth going slack and her eyes shining with unshed tears.
"Tell me one thing," she asked. "Did you love me? Did you ever?"
He opened his mouth. He was going to say, `I thought I did' - something soothing, innocuous, not exactly a lie, but not the harshness of the truth either. But Hermione floated into his mind, for some reason, and he felt the balm of her presence as if she'd physically been there in the garden with them.
Hermione understood. Hermione knew. But not Ginny, never Ginny.
Ginny gasped, and looked at him with abject horror and hurt. He realized belatedly that he had whispered one word aloud.
Her face suffused a bright Weasley red, and before he could explain that that was not what he'd meant, she disappeared back inside the Burrow, the panes in the window rattling with the force of her slam.
His eyes wide with horror and regret, Harry reached out, almost instinctively, to touch the cruel brand left on Annemarie Ludlow's face. Just as his fingers brushed her skin, he jerked his hand back as if he'd been burned.
"Why?" he murmured, half to himself. Ron's lips were pressed together in sympathy, but he voiced no reply.
The burden of guilt that Harry had carried for as long as he'd been aware of his wizarding heritage seemed to crash with renewed weight back onto his shoulders. It's never been gone, he corrected himself bitterly, I've just gotten handier at ignoring it. He had run from it, run from her, and thought he'd left it behind. But it had not vanished or dwindled during his absence; instead, it had merely waited, biding its time, until he returned and had to face it again.
And now this child, this little girl, who had neither been born, nor probably even thought of when he vanquished the Dark Lord … now she bore the marks of that irrational hatred that had not - unfortunately - died when Voldemort did.
"Why her?" he asked, looking at Ron this time, his voice more forceful in the nearly silent room. "Is there some kind of connection? Other than - I mean, other than - " he broke off, and gestured despairingly at the injury on her face.
"There probably isn't one," Ron told him quietly. "She was picked at random, because she was young and she was by herself. She was easy." A sort of tremor washed convulsively over Harry's face. "That," he added, referring to the lightning bolt, "tells us more about the attackers than anything else. They've got to be connected to you, a Death Eater, a family member of someone who was killed or put in Azkaban during or after the Final Battle… we've just got to figure out who."
"What do you need me to do?" Harry's voice was hushed, but decisive. His eyes roamed over the little girl's battered body with a desperate sorrow that Ron remembered all too clearly from their years at Hogwarts.
"We're heading up the investigation," Ron told him, gesturing from Harry to himself with both hands. "All the evidence from Execution Alley has been photographed and catalogued down at the Ministry. We'll need to review it personally. And we're going to find out everything we can about the Ludlow family, circumstances of their marriage, her birth, their neighbors, extended family - just in case someone picked her for a reason other than convenience. The Ministry wants every contingency covered; no one wants a repeat of the years between the Wars."
Harry backed away from the bed, parting his robes in order to shove both hands in the pockets of his pants. He cleared his throat noisily, and looked at Ron with a clear, businesslike gaze, detachedly avoiding looking at Annemarie Ludlow again.
"Let's get started then."
** Posting this oldish story here for the first time. Hope you enjoy.
***Flashbacks are in italics.