Chapter One: Sympathetic Eyes
Ginny was crying again. Harry opened his eyes reluctantly, saw dust motes swirling in a shaft of golden sunlight. He rolled toward her on a sigh and rubbed a hand down her back. She only sobbed harder.
"Here." He sat up and pulled her to his chest. "S'alright, Gin. Alright, love." This was all he could do, really. All he could offer her. He heard commotion downstairs and knew other Weasley's were about. He hated the moment of walking into their midst like this – after he'd stayed the night in their daughter's bed. Even though nothing had happened, it felt like a grave disrespect just the same.
Not that the Weasleys resented him. Nor would they begrudge their daughter her wish to have Harry there, just like they wouldn't begrudge Ron's wish to have Hermione. But still…
He stared over the crying girl's bare shoulder at a mirror across the room. Her face was buried in her hands and he may as well have been absent, but Harry's eye settled on his own reflection. Bags beneath his eyes. Three days' scruff on his face. Unwashed hair. He looked like hell. He looked old…
He felt old, too.
Grunting, he swung his legs off the bed and sat beside his weeping girlfriend. She didn't look at him. "Right. I'm going to fetch us some breakfast. Shall I?" She shook her head. "Alright. D'you want to be alone?" She nodded. "Right." He stood and pulled his trousers over his briefs. "I'll check on you later, love." She continued sobbing, long ginger locks obscuring what he knew was a pretty face.
He buttoned his shirt as he descended the rickety stairs to the Burrow's kitchen. Ron was at the table with Hermione and looked past her to Harry – not really at Harry, but rather through Harry. "Morning, Ron. Hermione."
Ron grunted a greeting. Hermione turned with a tired smile. "Morning, Harry. Where's Ginny?" Harry grimaced and gestured up the stairs. "Oh." Hermione frowned. "I'll just go check on her, then."
Harry watched her go. Ron was reading the Prophet's Quidditch news with his recent expressionless face. "Any good news?"
"Your dad at work?"
Harry poured a cuppa. "Where's your mum?"
Harry stared at Ron for a moment. "I miss you, mate."
Ron looked up. "I'm right here, Harry. You're weird today." He re-immersed himself in the Quidditch pages, and Harry made a decision.
He didn't have much to pack. His knapsack was nearly full when Hermione appeared in the doorway. "You're leaving." She didn't sound surprised.
Harry sat at the end of the small guest bed. "Am I awful?"
She shook her head. "I'm surprised you've stayed this long. I know it's hard to be surrounded by all this grief when you still have your own."
"What about you, Hermione? How can you take it?"
She shrugged. "Honestly, I know my situation isn't as bad as theirs. Or yours. My parents are still alive. I didn't lose family. Friends, yes. But friends are with us always. I suppose losing a family member is hardest." She rubbed Harry's shoulder. "I need to be there for them because they are my family now."
"But Ginny –"
Hermione frowned. "Ginny is in a bad place. I know. And I think you feel lost to help her."
He nodded. "You always know, don't you?"
"She just lost her brother a month ago, Harry. This whole house coming to terms. But you've got to come to terms, too." She folded a shirt and handed it over to him. "Will you go to Grimmauld?"
"It's all I've got."
She handed over a jumper. "It'll be tough there, too, Harry. And you'll be alone."
She handed over a tee shirt. "I'll come visit. And Ginny. Ron."
Harry smiled. "I know that, too."
"I'm not folding your pants, Harry."
For the first time in weeks, Harry chuckled. "I'll finish up here. Thanks."
She hugged him. "Ginny's asleep. I'll tell her you left, Harry. She probably won't want any emotional partings right now."
"Will she hate me?"
In the doorway, Hermione melted. "Oh, Harry. Never. Ginny loves you more than you could ever know. Just give her some time. And yourself."
Ron didn't even notice him leaving.
Grimmauld Place was…well, grim. It was clean, but dark and smelled of its usual disuse. Kreacher stood atop the stairs, looking down at him. "Master is returned to his home?"
"Perhaps. For a while, at least." The portraits were all gone, as well as the elf heads and Black family bric-a-brac that had once been décor. Harry was relieved at the blank space abounding.
"Shall Kreacher prepare a meal?"
"Not now, no. Just…dinner, I guess. At…six?"
"Six." And the ancient elf was off, mumbling to itself.
Harry wandered up to the master suite. It was dust-free and sunny. He stared out the window into an empty, but green courtyard below. Everything about Grimmauld Place seemed empty. Perhaps he preferred that. He wandered again. At Sirius' old room, he paused and placed a hand flat on the closed door. "I'm home," he whispered. "Thank you."
Downstairs, he saw that the piano in the drawing room had been cleaned and restored. He tapped the keys randomly. It seemed to have been tuned, as well. The worn and faded faces of Blacks long dead or at least dead to Harry stared on in silence from the family tree. Harry had long since learned how to ignore them. Beside a frayed chaise lounge was a stack of wooden boxes. Kreacher was obviously still in the process of clearing out and organizing.
Bored and curious, Harry flicked the lid from the top box. There were pictures inside – moving wizarding photos either yellowed with age or grayed by fading, but still flickering with a faint life. Harry took up a handful of them and flipped aimlessly. People he didn't know, mainly. Every once in a while, he recognized Sirius' laughing face, or a glimpse of his mother or father.
Strange, but they were just images now to him. Even after his encounter with them before his 'death' at Voldemort's wand, they were little more than these flitting images from a past he wasn't a part of.
An image from the Great Hall caught his eye. A laughing Sirius, grinning James and shyly smiling Lily clustered before the photographer. Lily shifted to brush a shank of hair from James' face, and behind her was another trio. Harry couldn't have mistaken the tall, regal Lucius Malfoy, straight white hair spilling down a velvet-robed back; and looking up at the slightly older student with an unfortunate hint of hero worship was Severus Snape.
That same odd sharpness hit the back of Harry's eyes. Every time he saw – or thought – of his old potions master, the heat that comes before tears crept into his throat. He swallowed it down, again, and focused on the third figure in the background.
Straight and prim, willowy and gothic in her too-mature for a schoolgirl beauty was Narcissa Malfoy. She must have been 15 or 16 here. Fifth or sixth year. Already destined to become the wife of a Death Eater. Aside from her beauty, the thing that struck Harry about this image was her smile. It was huge, devouring her face and laughing. It was an expression he couldn't seem to imagine on the adult version of this person – the one who'd threatened him with death once in Madam Malkin's and who'd in turn lied to the Dark Lord to save Harry's bloody life.
Sighing, Harry tossed the photos back into their box. His head lolled on the lounge. He closed his eyes, and dreamed of a warm hand scrambling against his bare chest, hot breath panting against his ear when she asked after her son…
"Master. Dinner in ten minutes."
"Gah!" Harry bolted upright. His fingers hastily wiped at the drool on his chin. His neck ached from the odd angle he'd held it at while he slept. Kreacher stood in the doorway, framed by silver light from the hall. "Right." Harry muttered. "Thanks, Kreacher." The elf grunted and moved on.
Harry found dinner to be lonely. At the Burrow, there was always at least some company – if not the entire family. Kreacher was a fair enough cook, and the stew was good. But the silence was deafening. The scraping of his spoon against his bowl grated his nerves. He pushed away from the extensive table, and the chair's scraping echoed in the dining room.
In the Black library, he found several boxes of muggle books. Kreacher had no doubt collected them from various rooms and deposited them here for organizing. Harry picked through the top box. Don Quixote. The Prince. Fathers and Sons. Madame Bovary. A motley assortment.
Harry smirked, imagining his miscreant and muggle-fascinated godfather nicking these tomes from various bookstores. He plucked out Anna Karenina and headed off to bed.
Sleep came surprisingly easy at Grimmauld. The tomb-like quality of the house helped, along with the lack of a crying and/or screaming bedmate jolting him awake at any hour. In fact, he slept well through breakfast.
His first days at Grimmauld were spent this way. Sleeping much. Eating little. He read ravenously, as if throwing himself into muggle fictions would save him from his own non-fiction. And it worked, to a degree. Until Ginny's or Hermione's owl arrived, reminding him he was still a part of a healing, broken world.
He told them he was well, reassured them of his love. He hadn't yet invited any visitors and hoped they wouldn't come. But it seemed they well enough understood his need for solitude and honoured it. So he spent his time between reading organizing alongside Kreacher. They made a quite strange duo, really.
"What shall Kreacher do with old faces, Master?"
The elf asked after the photos in the drawing room. Harry shrugged. "I'll go through them. If there are any worth keeping, I'll set them aside. The others we can destroy." Kreacher cringed, and Harry softened. "Or…you can keep them in your quarters. If you like."
"Kreacher will be honoured to accept the gift of the memories of the Noble and Ancient House – "
"Right," Harry overrode him. "Just dump a box on the couch and I'll get started."
He didn't keep many photos at all, really. Nor did he devote much time to the sorting. A few of his godfather, a few of his parents. But he did spend a great deal of time staring at some of the more notable ones. A young Bellatrix Lestrange holding up a bird's skull necklace – obviously a Yule gift from some family member or other. A surreal image – her smiling without madness. He tossed the photo directly into the fire after a moment.
Bellatrix Black had gone mad and murdered and died the way she deserved. He glared at the discarded photos. Most of these people were dead and forgotten already. His thumb fanned them, and they moved like an animated story. "Kreacher."
The elf popped in like a wraith. "Master?"
"These boxes are yours." Harry took up the only small box he'd kept for himself and retired to his room. He'd finished Anna Karenina and started The Picture of Dorian Gray. But he couldn't focus on the story tonight. He closed the book and reached into the box he'd placed on the bedside table. The picture he produced was of Narcissa Malfoy. She was alone in the image, standing before a full-length mirror in an elaborate sparkling wedding dress. Her bouquet was unsurprisingly comprised of white narcissi, and she clutched it tightly to her abdomen. In the mirror, her smile was bright and bridely. But when she turned to glance at the photographer, it was simply resigned.
The next morning he perused the Daily Prophet for the first time in days, leaning shirtless against a kitchen counter sipping his tea. Hogwarts to rebuild! Minerva McGonagall named Headmistress. Minister of Magic Kingsley Shacklebolt announces plans to start a fund for wizarding children orphaned by war. He flipped the page, barely reading. He already knew all this.
One headline caught his attention and held it. St. Mungo's still in need of volunteers. Intrigued, Harry read the article.
St. Mungo's Hospital is still asking for volunteers in the wake of our last wizarding war. "We're simply overwhelmed," Hospital Director Kitt Ashton explains. "We're full to the brim with long term patients of all ages, and running out of places to put them. We've got staff fainting away on their feet from over-exhaustion, and the orphanages are filling, as well. Supplies aren't a problem, but they're coming in faster than we can distribute them." The facility asks for volunteers for hospital work, and available space to convert to treatment centers. The facility offers modest but convenient quartering for all volunteers if desired, and will include meals. If you feel you can help in any way, please report to St. Mungo's reception and ask for the corresponding volunteer coordinator. A list follows. Adult Long Term Care: Honora DeLeigle. Trauma Ward: Phillip Wintraub. Mortuary Services: Neil Kurtz. Nursery Ward: Narcissa Malfoy.
There were more names and departments, but Harry had already dropped the Prophet. "Kreacher."
"Master?" The elf was already in the doorway.
"I'm going to St. Mungo's. To volunteer for a time. And I intend to open Grimmauld Place up for patients and Healers from the hospital. You'll help see to them?"
The elf blinked its big, tired eyes. It could hardly be surprised by its new master's odd behaviour any longer. "Yes, Master."
"Good. Um…" Harry paused on the steps and looked back. "Thank you." The elf shook its head, cleaning up the cup and saucer Harry had left behind.
The receptionist was nearly at her wit's end. "Can I help you?"
"I'm here to volunteer."
She barely looked at him. "You'll need to find a coordinator and speak to them. Do you know which ward you're going to?"
Now she shot him a glance, obviously surprised a wizard was volunteering for the nursery ward. "Oh, Merlin! Harry Potter!" At her exclamation, heads turned toward him.
Harry breathed deeply. "Please," he said. "Just tell me where to find Narcissa Malfoy."
The witch stood, shaking her brown curls. "Eighth floor. Follow the signs to the volunteers' wing. She has an office there."
Harry whisked away, clutching his knapsack tightly over his shoulder and lowering his head. He didn't want the attention that followed him from the lobby. But even in the elevator were the whispers: "That's Potter! What's he doing here? He's volunteering?" The whispers increased in volume, excitement and curiosity when he swept off the magical lift at the eighth floor.
Healers and training healers bustled here and there. This ward was bright, with windows comprising a whole lobby wall. Harry looked to the right. An obviously temporary quill-drawn sign read "Volunteers Wing," and animatedly pointed him down a long corridor. He passed various offices, storage closets and such, and at the end of the corridor, followed another arrow to the left.
This area was quiet and dim, sporting decorated numbered doors that he took to be personal quarters. He wondered if he would be staying here. At the end of this hall was a door pasted with another handmade sign in elegant script:Nursery Volunteer Coordinator.
He took a deep breath, attempted to smooth his o'er shaggy dark hair, gave up and knocked.
"Yes! In!" The reply was brisk and impatient, clear if a little frustrated. He pushed open the ashen door and was greeted by legs, hips and a rather lovely arse encased in white with black pinstripes. The witch was bent over a desk scribbling hastily on a parchment. Harry's mouth went quite dry. "Constance. If this is about those new linens, I haven't the time. You may march right back to laundry and inform your coordinator that I don't make empty requests. I have babies sleeping in soiled blankets and I haven't seen a delivery in two days. I don't have the extra hands to send –"
She'd turned at last, and her rant slowed before stopping altogether as she took Harry in.
And Harry quite took her in, not completely aware his eyes were currently lingering on the modest shadow between her firm breasts. "Mr. Potter?" He finally met her eyes.
They were wide and as blue as he remembered them. The same high cheekbones and bowed red lips. The same elegantly curving brows. Her bangs swept darkly over her forehead, the rest of her striking blonde and black locks tucked beneath a rather mugglish nurse's cap. He hadn't expected a uniform, and he might have stumbled upon his first fetish. "Mrs. Malfoy," he mumbled.
"What the devil are you doing here?" Not the response he'd expected, and certainly not one he'd hoped for.
"I'm here to volunteer. To help out."
"On this ward?" Her elegant hands were fussing at her midriff, drawing his eyes again down her body. "They must be joking." She turned and rounded her desk. "I'll just call down to –"
"I requested this ward, Mrs. Malfoy."
Brought up short again, her eyes narrowed at him and her lips pursed. "Why?"
He shrugged. Honestly, in the hours since he'd read the article in the Prophet and left for St. Mungo's, he still hadn't given one thought to why he was doing this. Although there was a terrible truth lurking just at the base of his brain… "I thought perhaps the nursery ward could use a pair of masculine hands. I imagine you've plenty of young ladies. I may not be help with the babies and such, but I can fetch your linens for you…and I don't mind getting dirty."
Her Patrician nostrils flared slightly, and perhaps a light blush spread across her face. "Indeed." Her voice was low, considering. She wasn't quite convinced. "I don't play, Mr. Potter. If you're here for some sort of press or –"
"I'd rather avoid it, actually. At all costs." He hitched his knapsack higher on his shoulder. "As I imagine you would, as well. Why are you here, Mrs. Malfoy?"
She stiffened. "Don't presume to know me, Mr. Potter. And don't interrupt me when I'm speaking. I abhor such ill behaviours."
He didn't back down. "Forgive me. But if I'm to respect you as my coordinator, please respect me as a volunteer. Why question my work before you give me a chance?"
She sighed and looked down guiltily. "You're right. Allow me to apologize, as well, Mr. Potter. I stay very busy here and…it can be overwhelming. I should not have been so rude. I do appreciate your willingness to work – more than you could know." She extended a hand. "I know we know each other, but…I look forward to having you as a part of my team."
Her hand was dry and warm. He didn't so much shake it as hold it for a moment, stroking the backs of her fingers with his thumb. He watched her face as she looked down at their hands and drew hers back slowly. He remembered those fingers as they slipped through his, remembered them pressing over his heart.
She cleared her throat nervously. "Um…I'll show you to your quarters. Let you settle in." He nodded and opened the door for her to lead them out. She ducked beneath his arm, lithe and petite. "Thank you." He followed her attentively, focusing on the sway of her hips and the shape of her calves. She wore opaque hosiery and simple white heels, probably designed to add a few inches of height.
But the effect on Potter's libido was startling and sudden. She glanced back over her shoulder a few times to see him still following, and he couldn't help imagining she could feel his stare.
At a bare door near the corridor's end, she paused and gestured. "This will be you. Number 20." She touched at a strand of hair that had escaped her bun. "Your closest neighbour is um…me." She gestured at the door across the way nearest the office they'd left. "But you'll meet the others at tomorrow's daily meeting. 8 am sharp in the conservatory. I'll show you there after you drop your things." She pulled her wand from a pocket of her trim skirt and tapped the door handle. "You'll key your own wards, of course, once you're settled in. It's small, but you'll find you're not in it much."
It was indeed small. And spartan. A twin-size bed with a bland tan duvet. A desk with ink pot and parchment. A basic wooden chair. A full-length mirror adorned one wall and across from it was a slender door. "Your lavatory." Narcissa slid the door open. It rested in a track – designed no doubt to save space. Inside was a shower, toilet and sink. "I'm afraid my quarters are the only ones with a bath. Er…" She cleared her throat. The expression on her face read, 'Why the hell did I just say that?'
Harry found her fluster to be entirely charming. She smelled spicy, and he lingered close to her to catch an occasional whiff. This isn't at all healthy, he thought. Her hands worked at her sides occasionally, an odd little shake. This was a woman who was not accustomed to being nervous.
"I'll show you to the conservatory, if you're ready?" He nodded, dropped his knapsack on the bed, and followed her again. She spoke as they traversed the carpeted corridor. "We meet in the conservatory. And often the volunteers lounge there in their time off. Meals can be taken there, in your room or in the dining hall on the first floor."
The conservatory was a glassed in room adjoining the Eighth floor lobby. It was bright and decorated to offer cheer. There were moving pictures posted along one wall – staff and volunteers with patients and each other, smiling and waving. There was a large table, a modern refrigerating unit (odd to see in most wizarding establishments) and, most surprisingly, a muggle stereo on a counter. Narcissa noticed Harry smiling at it.
"The staff and my girls…they often listen to music. I'm sure you'll enjoy it." He looked back at her. Her tone, bearing and verbiage all suggested she did not mingle much with 'the staff.'
"Do you enjoy it?"
She blinked at him. "It's…loud."
"Lunch soon, Mr. Potter. Here, if you'd like to wait. Volunteers all take their lunches at the same time. Hospital staff staggers theirs for floor coverage. Not all of the girls will luncheon together, but you'll meet a few, at least. And perhaps even some you know."
"All girls, then?"
She nodded. "Yes. Except for you, now." She chuffed a soft laugh. "They'll be thrilled to work with a young handsome wizard, especially you." A throat clearing and her mouth moved awkwardly. "Anyway. I'll fetch a schedule for you. I have lists ready each day for the volunteers. Keeps them busy. I imagine yours will take you off the ward a bit more. It will be nice to have strong arms to fetch and deliver." A quick blush and a pseudo-cough. "Just…keep your wand handy."
An awkward moment of silence landed. Her hands fidgeted, and Harry realized she was twisting her wedding ring around her finger. A simple band with a simple diamond. Probably something she donned just for work as he recalled her having quite elaborate jewellery the times he'd seen her before. Nothing fancy, but a reminder nonetheless.
When he looked back to her face, he saw she'd noticed him looking. Her eyes downcast. "You can wait here if you like. The girls will be along soon. Or you can come to my office for your schedule."
He shrugged. "I'll go with you."
"Right." She backed toward the door to the conservatory. "I should have something drawn up already, so we should only be a moment." They were in the lobby when the lift doors parted and the sounds of giggling and chattering erupted. "Ah!" Narcissa gestured. "The girls."
Harry smiled at the six or so young women who were approaching. They looked to Narcissa with smiles, and to him with curiosity…save for one who rushed forward from the group. "Harry?"
He was taken quite by surprise. "Cho?"
"Harry Potter!" Chang threw her arms around his neck. "Oh my gods! What are you doing here?" The others erupted into a gust of whispers and titters at his name. "Surely you're not volunteering."
"I am, Cho. It's…good to see you." He looked to see Narcissa stepping away slowly.
"I'll just fetch that schedule for you, Mr. Potter. You should catch up with your friend." Then she was gone, her brisk gait and straight back disappearing down the corridor. Harry was absorbed by hand-shakes and excited introductions.
His escape, it seemed, was a success.
AN: A far cry from my usual fare, I know. But it's been inspired. A huge note of thanks to my fantastic Britpicker intoxicatedminds. And if any of you recognize the chapter title, kudos to you. You have an idea where this is going.