Unlike a sister
CHAPTER 5: THE FOREST OF DEAN
Summary: Harry told Ron he saw Hermione as his sister. Is i true? Remember, Harry has no sister.
Harry woke later than usual. His insides felt like they were lined in barbed wire.
Yesterday flooded back.
He looked to his right and saw Ginny, asleep on her stomach with the sheets hugging her hips. Harry extricated himself and dressed quietly in the apricitic sunlight from the window.
Like lowering a gramophone needle, his mind picked up its fixation with Hermione. The events of the forest, their goodbye, last night with Ginny. A few fitful hours of sleep had done nothing to quell the maelstrom of anxiety in his chest that threatened to pull him under.
He shook his head sharply as he brushed his teeth. For someone in Harry’s position, in his line of work, distraction could not be his new M.O.
Treading out of the room, he glanced at Ginny. The sun was white on the flawless plane of her back. He turned away, disgusted with himself.
“Chief? Director Lakey for you.”
Harry’s brow furrowed. He didn’t remember an appointment with the MLE Director. “Send him in.”
Gwen stepped aside and Lakey barged in like a snowplough, even teeth incongruous with his grizzly-bear face.
“Morning,” he said brightly, taking Harry’s hand. “Wanted to catch you before lunch. Thought I’d give you an update on Callahan.”
“Right. Have a seat,” said Harry, gesturing to a straight-backed chair before his desk.
“Anne submitted her full report around six this morning. Can’t beat her turnaround times,” Lakey grinned. “Like she said, there was no evidence of an Imperious Curse. No evidence of enchantments, a mind-altered state, or even mental distress. Of course, she only looked back a few hours before the attack, so we’ll have to take her conclusions for what they are. There’s always the chance his actions were part of some grand conspiracy, but that seems highly unlikely given the circumstances. He was there on orders, after all.”
Harry pressed his lips into a hard line. It was a frequent point of contention among his Aurors that magical evaluations should be allowed to go back several months before a crime to find out whether multiple actors were involved or if the individual had committed offenses in the past. Lakey and his legal team had successfully appealed to the Wizengamot that such a proposal was a gross invasion of privacy.
“I guess that explains some things.”
“Well, it certainly suggests Callahan is and has been an anti-Muggle bigot for some time,” said Lakey smoothly. “Someone who was apparently very good at hiding it until a few days ago. We’ll have to develop that at trial, of course.”
Harry looked through the warped-glass of the windows in his office. It always made him feel like he was in a fish bowl. Or lobster tank. “They believe he was under the Imperious, the lot of them. When will Anne’s evaluation be made public?”
Lakey looked sympathetic. Magical evaluations were very rare in Britain these days, usually saved for the most heinous offenders. The subjection of Callahan to the procedure would not be well-received.
“Don’t worry,” said Lakey. “We’ll add the evaluation as an amendment to the arraignment on Saturday. The press never looks past the charge sheet. They’ll read the Ministry statement and be done with it. Your Aurors probably won’t hear about it until the trial begins. At that point, we’ll call in every favor we have at the Prophet to downplay the magical evaluation and emphasize the nastiness that is Theo Callahan.”
Harry gave Lakey a long look. Harry was not used to such candor regarding press manipulation. But Lakey was one of the best there ever was. His ability to influence public opinion, especially after Voldemort’s fall, was legend. Half of the Muggle and Muggle-born protection laws were on the books because of him.
Harry glanced out the window again. Several pairs of eyes flicked away. The Aurors were on edge. Callahan’s absence was a gaping hole. All Harry wanted was a few weeks of quiet. A few weeks of quiet so that everyone could forget about Callahan…and the woman who would prosecute him.
He looked at his hands and asked the question. “How’s Hermione?”
“Hermione?” Lakey chuckled. “Fine, fine. She was in the office even earlier than me marking up Anne’s report for review. She’s been especially focused and that’s saying something since this is Hermione we’re talking about.”
Harry smiled but the floor dropped out of his stomach. He swallowed.
Somehow he was disappointed Hermione was productive? Like she couldn’t be bothered by what happened yesterday? He glanced at the stacks of files on his desk laid out like a city grid, damning evidence of his own lack of productivity.
“It’s the case,” Lakey was saying. “She can feel how important it’s going to be. I was worried Callahan was getting to her before she even started. But whatever you said yesterday must have helped.”
He cleared his throat. “Right, well. I’m sure she’ll do great. She always does.”
An awkward silence followed and Lakey took it as his signal to leave. The Director looked out the window as he stood, noting the same wave of eyes flashing away. He grinned.
“Harry. Should we need to consult about this case in the future, feel free to come to my office. You’ll always have a warm reception there.”
Harry grimaced apologetically. The Department of Magical Law Enforcement did not have many friends among the Aurors these days.
“Take care, John.”
As Lakey bounded out, Gwen slipped inside. “Your wife owled, sir. She wanted to remind you about your dinner with the Weasleys tonight. She wants you to pick up beer and meat and she’ll be done at the Prophet around six.”
“Thanks,” he said, distracted.
He’d completely forgotten about Wednesday dinner. He was supposed to be at the Auror Training Centre today but he had canceled to finish going through his files. Now he had to visit Ron at work, pick up food, and then prepare to see Hermione again. In comparison to the latter, everything else seemed rather manageable.
Down the narrow aisles of Dwendell’s Market Hall, a small grocery in the heart of Diagon Alley, Harry plodded towards the butchery in the back. A six-pack of Redstone’s Enchanted Ale was balanced on his hip.
A few people were staring at him. Hardly unusual. Ron once told him people found it disconcerting to see Harry Potter doing normal things. Like seeing a teacher in public or a pig on a unicycle. It just wasn’t right.
Head down, Harry got in line behind two witches. Enchanted knives and cleavers hacked and filleted slabs of meat behind the glass display.
Harry barely took in his surroundings. He would see Ron in a few minutes and Harry was going to figure out what was wrong with himself before then.
Sometimes when feeling overwhelmed Harry spoke his thoughts aloud. It helped him marshal them into some kind of order. He couldn’t very well do that now. The last thing he needed was a tabloid headline that read “The Boy Who Raved: Auror Chief mumbles to himself amidst mutton.”
Thankfully, the queue was slow so he could focus on the internal monologue.
First point of business: He’d kissed Hermione.
Inevitable question: Why?
Expand on that.
Well, like she said, we never had. I was curious, wasn’t I?
Why were you curious?
Is it a crime to be curious? I’ve known her for twenty-six years. In all that time, we’d never kissed.
And that didn’t seem right?
Well, it seemed…odd.
Well, we know everything about each other, don’t we? Shouldn’t I know what kissing her is like?
But she’s your friend. Your sister-in-law, remember? Not to mention your best friend’s wife.
Oh, yes. I’d completely forgotten, thanks.
So why’d do it?
He paused, fingers numb against the perspiring beers in his hand.
Her lips. They were beautiful. In that moment, she was beautiful.
So you did it because you were attracted to her?
Well, yes. But for that moment.
So you’d never do it again?
Never? I mean…I doubt it’ll come up.
So you’d do it again, if it came up?
No. Of course not. It was a mistake. An innocent mistake. We took things too far. The kiss itself wasn’t unpleasant, of course. It was…
It was what?
Look. Just because we kissed doesn’t mean I want to sleep with her. She’s always been beautiful. I’ve always known that. You’d have to be blind not to see it. But she’s my best friend. I can certainly be her best friend and find her attractive, can’t I? Surely that’s how many men are about their female friends?
Why did you have sex with Ginny last night?
Well, she started it, didn’t she?
But you didn’t want to do it.
I can’t very well say ‘no’ when she gets going like that. She’s my wife.
There was another reason though. Something about Hermione.
What? That sleeping with Ginny helped me forget about Hermione? Yes, okay. That’s the answer you’re looking for. And it worked for a while. I don’t regret it.
But you do, though. Why?
Because, for a moment…I thought of her. I thought of Hermione. I thought…I wanted for a moment, for it to be her.
What does that tell you?
That I’m fucked? That that kiss fucked me up. I haven’t begun to resolve what happened in that damn forest. Until I do, I won’t be able to focus. I can’t work. I can’t be with Gin. I’ve got to get over it or I’m going to do something stupid.
What are you worried about right now?
Worried about? Where to start…Ginny finding out about the kiss, of course. Seeing Ron after I’ve kissed his wife. My work. That fucking Callahan case…
But what are you really worried about?
That Hermione won’t speak to me.
Harry looked up. He was at the front of the queue without noticing how his feet got him there. He handed the butcher his number and his order was ready in less than a minute.
Harry walked dazedly out of the shop, just as confused as he’d entered.
Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes drew close like a storm cloud. Harry sidestepped shoppers and street merchants. He tried to string together his thoughts like flobberworms on a clothesline.
So, all right. He’d lusted after Hermione in the forest and in bed that same night. But what of it? The kiss was a shock and he wasn’t thinking clearly. And, yes. He’d been obsessing over their kiss for the past twenty-four hours, but that was only because it was so shocking, so new. It didn’t change anything. At the core, he and Hermione were fantastic friends. And that was all. It had always been like that. And that meant any attraction he had for her was not only inappropriate but dangerous given their personal relationships and present circumstances.
Harry nodded reassuringly to himself, almost smiling. Steps from the display windows, however, he heard his own name. From a voice he could have placed anywhere.
Harry turned and found her instantly. Like he was a compass and she was due north.
He wasn’t remotely ready for this shit. Alarm bells clanged in the back of his skull. Fight. Flight. Freeze. He went with freeze.
She looked amazing. Hair loose and free. Cheeks pink in the crisp wind barreling down the alleyways. She wore a navy coat and leather gloves.
Had she been waiting for him? Harry wasn’t sure if this thought filled him with more dread or exhilaration.
She was very direct. “I wanted to talk to you. Do you have a moment? We could step into a café or something.”
“Er,” he stammered. He looked at the bags in his hands and Weasley Wizard Wheezes. He could think of no other answer. “Yes, of course,” he said. “Were you waiting for me?”
She smiled with some embarrassment. “I guess I was. How about Fortescue’s? It’s around the corner.”
He nodded like his opinion held weight. He’d do whatever she said, of course. Like a cow to the slaughterhouse. Like a puppy into a burlap sack. So he followed, staring after her.
They found an outdoor table far from the street. The hostess quickly seated them once she realized who they were. A waitress placed a menu in Harry’s stiff hands and he looked, unseeingly, at the list of sundaes, hot drinks, and pastries. He did recognize the name at the top of the menu, of course. Florean Fortescue. He was killed during Voldemort’s second rise. Harry had a brief flash to his third year when the kindly old man gave him free sundaes every half hour.
The waitress took their orders (two macchiatos). When she left, Hermione spoke like a magistrate reading out a sentence.
“Harry,” she said. “I don’t know if you’ve thought much about what happened yesterday. I’ve thought of it a lot. I thought we had better talk before things became awkward…”
Harry nodded straightaway. He felt a flicker of hope at her words. It was just like Hermione to confront a difficult situation head-on and as painlessly as possible.
“I’m not sure what came over us in the forest. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a good idea.” Her fingers were twisting under the wrought-iron table. “I’ve been under a lot of stress at work. And the kids just left, of course. I wasn’t thinking clearly. Sometimes you make dumb decisions in the heat of the moment. I’m sure you’ve thought something similar?”
Harry nodded again. But his stomach writhed like he’d swallowed a handful of asp larvae.
Kids, work, stress. These were the reasons she’d kissed him.
Her lips, attraction, lust. Those were his.
He remembered how she felt in his hands. The way her head fell back when she opened her mouth under his lips. Her soft moans that had him painfully hard in seconds. He kissed her because it felt good, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to stop. But Hermione—who’d just lost her firstborn to Hogwarts, who was starting the most important case of her career—she’d been overwhelmed and vulnerable. Intentionally or not, he’d taken advantage of that.
Before he could slip further into the patented Harry Potter shame-spiral, the waitress appeared with their order. Once she’d gone, Hermione continued.
“I hold none of this against you, Harry,” she said, adamant. “You’re my best friend. I would never do anything to harm that. I’d do anything to…” she halted. “You know how important you are to me, how much I need you with me. I’d hate to think what happened yesterday would make you question that. And from a more practical and selfish standpoint,” she smiled slowly, “I need you now more than ever. We have the Callahan case, after all.”
He nodded again like the bobble-head outside Weasley Wizard Wheezes. But his heart was lodged somewhere around his larynx.
She cleared her throat and took a steadying breath. “So, what happened yesterday,” she finally said, “was a mistake. A one-time thing. I’m so sorry and I’m sorry if it caused you any worry…”
The din of the café thrummed in his ears. He could feel heat prickling up the back of his neck. He tried to think of anything to say in response.
“There’s no reason you should apologize,” he eventually grunted. “You weren’t exactly the only guilty party.”
Hermione smiled grimly and looked at her drink. She stirred the coffee uselessly. The milk had already been thoroughly emulsified.
“Can I ask you something else?” she said without raising her head.
“Did you…have you told Ginny what happened?”
Harry blanched. “No, I haven’t. Why? Have you told Ron?”
He hoped he didn’t sound as panicky as he did in his head.
“No! Not at all,” she said immediately, looking relieved. “I had this thought last night. We…er…did you realize that where it happened…was the same place Ron imagined us doing the exact same thing twenty years ago?” She shook her head. “I can’t possibly tell him something like that.”
Harry wasn’t sure why he found this funny. Maybe it was because he was already under so much pressure. Maybe it was because he needed something else to latch onto, apart from the mental pummeling he was giving himself. Apart from the way Hermione’s lips looked as they closed around the rim of her glass. A bit of foam was clinging to the lower corner. He had trouble looking away.
For whatever reason, he couldn’t stop the bark of laughter that tore out of his chest.
“Fucking Christ, we did,” he said, trying to control himself. “That’s just… Fuck. That’s got to be the stuff emotional trauma’s made of.”
Hermione’s eyes shone, hysteria jumping from him to her. “I know. We couldn’t have picked a more horrible spot. Even if we’d planned it.”
“Could’ve been the Cannons’ pitch. Then he’d probably murder us.”
Hermione sputtered into her drink. And finally they both laughed aloud, a hint of the manic laced underneath. A few café-goers turned in their direction.
Hermione wiped at her eyes. Harry smiled at her. And for some reason, he could breathe again. Like her laughter had dislodged the vise around his chest.
The two of them had reached some sort of rapprochement. He’d process his odd feeling of disappointment later. For now—by acknowledging their joint culpability and appalling lack of judgment—they’d somehow emerged on the other side. Still friends. If slightly traumatized by what they’d been capable of together.
They quieted and fell into a much more companionable silence. Hermione studied his face, her eyes lingering on his smile. She took another sip of coffee and the foam was wiped away.
“Lakey visited me today,” said Harry. “No Imperious.”
“Seems so,” she sighed. “I talked to Callahan’s counselor this afternoon. Callahan will plead guilty to all charges apparently.”
Harry was almost lightheaded with relief. This day was certainly taking a turn. “That’s great,” he breathed. “That’s fantastic news.”
She only shrugged. A lawyer’s ability to find a negative angle to anything was rather astounding.
“He’ll be looking for a plea bargain, in that case. Let’s see what Bruton suggests. Community service? A letter of apology?” she mocked. Her spoon clattered down onto her plate.
“This Bruton is Callahan’s counselor? Didn’t you say he hates Muggle-borns?”
“Hates? Maybe I should’ve said a strong disposition against them. On purely philosophical grounds, of course. He’d never admit to something so common as old-fashioned bigotry,” she grinned. She pushed her hair off her shoulder and, for a brief moment, Harry caught a glimpse of the woman he’d seen commandeer countless courtrooms. The only thing he could liken it to was a hawk bearing down on a snake.
“His name is Edward Bruton,” she went on. “God, he must be upwards of ninety. From an old pureblood family, surprise surprise. He never joined Voldemort, but I believe he was fairly supportive of the anti-Muggle legislation passed during that time.”
Harry nodded and tugged at his lower lip a moment. He wanted to say something reassuring, something she wouldn’t interpret as condescension. Before he could think of anything, a disturbingly familiar voice called out their names.
They jumped like two teenagers in the backseat of a Ford Anglia.
Ron was on the other side of the café’s enclosure. Two large boxes were wedged beneath his chin. Harry watched as his other best friend weaved between the tables towards them. Harry’s heart picked up its frenzied pace. He felt certain the word GUILTY must be glowing on his forehead.
Hermione looked similarly rattled.
“Well, what’re you two doing here?” asked Ron brightly, setting down the boxes.
“Just a late lunch,” she lied briskly. “We’ve been discussing a case.”
“Oh.” Ron glanced at the table. “You only had coffee for lunch?”
Hermione laughed. A little too forcibly but still believable. “No, we just finished. We were wrapping up with some coffee. I’m going back to the office before dinner. I’ll need the caffeine.”
“Oh, shit.” Ron looked apologetically at Harry. “I was supposed to meet you a half hour ago, wasn’t I? The man who delivers our Peruvian Darkness Powder couldn’t find our address. Had to track him down all over Diagon Alley. Got it though,” he said, tapping a box with his boot.
“Yeah, no problem,” said Harry, having trouble looking up at Ron’s handsome, angular face.
“Well, I should get back,” Hermione said. She gulped her lukewarm coffee and stood. She placed a hand on her husband’s upper arm. “See you at dinner?”
Ron nodded and bent low to kiss her cheek. Harry studied the clasp of her briefcase.
She removed several galleons from her coat pocket. Considerably more money than was necessary for coffee, but they were supposedly paying for a full meal. She said goodbye and, a moment later, disapparated. Harry matched Hermione’s amount with his own, picked up one of Ron’s boxes, and followed him back to the street. Their waitress stared at the small pile of galleons.
Harry shook his head briefly. Their act of deception should benefit someone.
By some grace of god, Ron was chatty that night. He took no notice of Harry’s unusual reticence and filled the void with familiar talk of Quidditch, the shop, and kids. All Harry had to do was nod and grunt at odd intervals. Bless his beautiful ginger head.
Hermione and Ginny hadn’t arrived yet. Lily and Hugo were upstairs doing homework (read: playing). Harry and Ron were in the kitchen. Ron peeled boiled potatoes with a fork, the skins trailing down the counter and onto the floor. There was a spell for it but neither of them was very good at it. Harry was preparing the oven for pork loin. He’d already snipped a few sprigs of rosemary from the pot above the sink.
Harry was testing the heat of the flames when they heard the front door slam.
“Hey, hey,” Ron called, catching sight of his sister. She gave him a one armed hug before turning to Harry.
“Sorry I’m late, darling,” she grumbled, burrowing into his shoulder. “Had to re-write an article from one of the new correspondents. Merlin, I hope he improves. This is the second time.”
Ron chuckled. “I hope you get the byline at least.”
“Too right,” she groaned.
Her small, warm hand rubbed his side and he stiffened as a flash of moonstruck memory scorched his mind. He gently broke away from her.
“Pepper,” he mumbled, reaching for the spice rack.
Ginny breathed deeply through her nose. “Smells fantastic. You two have been working hard, have you?” She glanced at the oven. “Is there some theme tonight?”
“Only the finest Anglo-Saxon fare for you sister,” said Ron, wiping starchy hands on a dishtowel. “Meat and potatoes.”
Their Wednesday dinners had started out of necessity. When Ginny and Hermione left Hogwarts and joined Harry and Ron in London, they quickly discovered that of the four of them only Ginny and Harry knew how to cook. Ginny from helping her mum. Harry from self-preservation. Vernon was less likely to beat him if his Beef Wellington was cooked through.
In those early months Ginny and Harry cooked for Ron and Hermione (and often George and Angelina) at their small apartment in Whitechapel. Hermione learned quickly and Ron stumbled along, picking up essentials like frying eggs and boiling pasta. He still forgot to salt the water sometimes, though.
Once Hermione mastered a few recipes, she and Ron started returning the favor. To be honest, Harry preferred when he and Ginny cooked. Hermione followed recipes so exactly she often became irrationally angry when Ron tried to make substitutions or threw in a few spices “just to see what would happen.” The end result wasn’t always appetizing. And that’s when they discovered Muggle carryout. But man cannot live by butter chicken alone.
The front door slammed a second time as Harry was sliding the roast into the oven. Hermione tramped inside looking exhausted but happy.
“Hi,” she greeted them, dropping her briefcase with a definitive thud. “Smells good.”
“Don’t get excited,” Ron drawled, carrying six plates to the table. “Meat and potatoes.”
She collapsed onto a chair. “I’d eat anything, to be honest.” Her finger ran along the edge of the plate Ron put before her. “Where are the kids?”
“Upstairs studying,” said Harry.
“Of course they are,” she said, not believing a word. “I’ll check on them, then. How much longer do you think?”
“C’mon, Hermione,” groaned Ron as she turned to leave. “Let them alone, will you?”
Hermione didn’t bother turning around.
“Tell them twenty minutes,” Ginny called.
She returned five minutes later looking pleased.
“Were they working?” Ginny asked, rinsing lettuce under the tap.
“They are now,” she answered. “I put an Anti-Procrastination Charm on the door.”
“Merlin. I’m so glad mum wasn’t like you,” said Ron, grabbing a handful of silverware in his left hand. “You’ll suck all the joy out of their childhood, do you know that?”
Harry knew Ron’s joke stung because she didn’t answer right away.
“It’s a Wednesday night,” she said coolly. “They weren’t given much. They can play after.”
He ignored her. “What else do we need?” he asked Harry. “Bread?”
“Yeah, check the pantry.”
From the corner of his eye, Harry watched Hermione rub the tendons in her ankles. Content the boys had it under control, Ginny sat down across from Hermione.
“How’s the Callahan case coming?” she asked. “Harry told me you’ve been busy.”
“It’s all right,” Hermione replied. “He’ll be arraigned on Saturday.”
Ginny nodded. “Does it…does it look he did what they’re saying?”
“Factually, it’s all there in the Priori Incantatem. The magical evaluation showed no Imperious, so…” She opened her palms as if to say “case closed.”
“But he was such a good Auror, wasn’t he? That’s what Harry told me. If he did it, it must have been for a really good reason, right?”
“There’s a good reason for the Cruciatus?”
Harry felt the temperature in the room plummet several degrees.
“Of course not.” She waved a hand. “But why would he do it? Aurors don’t typically use force without reason. I haven’t heard any justification of…”
“Muggle hatred isn’t enough of a justification?”
Hermione’s eyes were sharper than diamond drill bits. Harry didn’t know how Ginny stayed in her chair. But his wife gave Hermione a smile of patient skepticism. Like when James told her he didn’t know why a Bludger had crashed through the window of her study.
“I’m only saying maybe there’s more to the story than we know right now,” said Ginny. “I suppose it’s possible it has something to do with their being Muggles, but that seems unlikely. To me anyway. Veteran Aurors just don’t start cursing Muggles.”
“Funny. Since that’s exactly what happened.”
Ginny held up a placating hand, laughing a little uneasily under Hermione’s intense gaze.
“Okay, okay,” she surrendered. She’d learned years ago not to debate Hermione on certain things, but she still found herself doing it from time to time. It was the journalist in her. There were conversations over house-elf liberation Harry wished he could forget.
“It just seems a shame that he should lose his whole career, have his wand snapped, and possibly spend years in Azkaban over…”
“Over a couple of Muggles. That’s what you mean, isn’t it?”
Ginny gave a long-suffering sigh. “I just mean he was a very good Auror.”
She stood from the table, conversation over. Thankfully, Ron chose that moment to return.
“I can’t find the bread.”
Harry cleared his throat. “Gin, would you show him?” he asked, busying himself with the onions. “Got my hands full…”
Ginny shrugged and followed Ron into the pantry.
Harry looked at Hermione. She was staring at nothing but she looked up when she felt his eyes. She gave him a half-smile. Can’t help myself, can I? it seemed to say.
He smiled back. No, you can’t.
He thought of going to her. Saying that reassuring something he hadn’t been able to think of at the café. But he turned back to the chopping board when Ron and Ginny reappeared.
Fifteen minutes later, the food was ready. Lily sat between her parents on one side of the table. Hermione took the seat opposite Harry with Hugo to her right.
Dinner passed pleasantly enough. The kids requisitioned all conversation for the first ten minutes with stories of petty injustices and small triumphs at school. Ginny and Ron invariably slipped into Quidditch talk and Hermione grilled Lily and Hugo for an upcoming history exam. Harry sat listening to both conversations, trying to ignore the strange churning in his stomach that had nothing to do with the potatoes.
He was looking at her too much. He was sure of it.
He’d never considered how much he looked at Hermione before. It seemed he couldn’t go three seconds without his eyes landing on the arc of her face. He felt it must be incredibly obvious to everyone at the table what he was doing, yet no one seemed to notice a thing. He timed himself between glances. But counting the seconds only heightened his need to look at her.
He couldn’t explain what he was trying to find in that face, a face he knew as well as his own.
Were they fine now? Were they back to normal? Were they going to pretend yesterday never happened? Or would it be secret knowledge? A shared memory of brief and blissful insanity in the Forest of Dean.
He stared at her, as if the lines around her eyes or the grooves bracketing her mouth would contort and spell out the answers to all his questions.
A foot ran against his leg under the table. Harry jumped, fork clattering onto his plate. He looked up into Hermione’s penetrating eyes.
“Sorry,” she mouthed.
Harry nodded, ever her bobble-head, and attempted a smile.
A mistake. Just a mistake.
“Daddy!” Lily said in her high, clear voice.
“I was saying,” she said, as if her father were particularly slow-witted tonight (hell, she wasn’t wrong), “me and Hugo have to come up with a hero for the Christmas Pageant.”
“Yes! And I wanted to pick you, daddy,” she said, though it looked like she was regretting her choice.
“Oh,” said Harry, not liking the sound of this. “Are you supposed to pick someone you know or anyone will do?”
“Anyone,” Lily answered. “I think most everyone in the class is picking Quidditch players and famous wizards…”
“Oh, then sweetie…” Harry hesitated. He’d been to several of the Christmas pageants at Lily’s school before. There were always a few kids who chose him, much to his embarrassment. Lily choosing him touched him, of course, but he’d always been thankful James and Albus had never suggested something similar.
Luckily Ron overheard their conversation and stepped in.
“Oh, can’t you be a bit more original, Lily?” said Ron teasingly. “Your Uncle Ron is a very famous wizard.” He puffed out his chest and jutted out his jaw for his niece’s consideration. “Your Aunt Hermione has her own Chocolate Frog card,” he threw in.
“You all have Chocolate Frog cards!” Hugo giggled.
“Yes, all except your Aunt Ginny,” said Ginny, jokingly. “Which I’ve never understood! I was there at the Battle of Hogwarts. Don’t I deserve a card too?”
“Not everyone at the Battle can have their own card,” Ron returned. “Harry, Hermione, and I are the ones who actually destroyed stuff. You just stayed in school…”
“Stayed in school,” Ginny repeated, indignant. “School was no picnic that year, as you well know, Ron Weasley. If we hadn’t been there to save your arse when you finally showed up…”
“Ginny,” Harry warned, looking at Lily.
They quieted. Harry and Hermione shared a look. She nodded.
“There’s no need to rehash the past, you two,” Hermione said. She turned to Lily. “Your father’s a great choice for a hero, Lily. But don’t let that stop you from considering who you really want your project to be for the Pageant. It doesn’t have to be daddy. You can pick anyone you like.”
Harry looked at Hermione gratefully.
Lily considered her words. “Okay,” she said slowly. “We do have to dress up as our hero. I’m not sure I want to dress up as daddy,” she giggled.
“Maybe I’ll pick you, Aunt Hermione?” Lily offered.
It was Hermione’s turn to look uncomfortable. Harry laughed aloud at the look on her face before falling silent at the look on Ginny’s.
“Well, you’ve got a while until Christmas,” Harry said. “Just take your time to think about it.”
“Who are you going to pick, Hugo?” Ron asked.
Hugo looked at his father and said quite plainly: “Damien Donovan.”
The table laughed. Donovan was a Seeker for the Falmouth Falcons who’d recently retired with one of the best records in the League.
“Oh,” said Ginny, returning to herself. “I didn’t know you liked Damien so much. Let me know when you start your project and I’ll arrange a get-together for you both. How does that sound?”
Hugo absolutely beamed, his little eyes rounding out like galleons. “Thanks Aunt Ginny!”
By the time they finished dinner it was nearly nine o’clock. Harry went upstairs to open Albus’ room. Hugo would sleep there until his parents were ready to leave. Ginny took Lily to her own room.
Harry was coming down the stairs when he heard Ron and Hermione in heated conversation. He slowed his steps, listening hard. They were in the library, just right of the stairway.
“I’m handling everything, Hermione. Everything. I’ve made dinner the past six nights and you know I can’t keep Hugo on top of his work…” His whisper was sharp, like ice falling off trees.
“Oh,” she breathed, “so all the years I fixed dinner were never a problem until you had to do it yourself.”
Ron sighed heavily. “That’s not what I meant. Hugo asks where you are all the time. What am I supposed to keep telling him?”
They were silent.
“Tell him his mum is working hard on a case.” She sounded drained, like birdsong at night. “She wants to be with him but sometimes…it isn’t easy. Sometimes she has to make sacrifices.”
“And how do you reckon I make a nine-year-old understand that?” Ron grumbled, but the steel edge was gone from his voice.
Harry could hear nothing for several seconds.
When Hermione spoke, her voice was breaking in that fine, high resonance he’d known too well as a younger man. Echoes of heartache and panic and grief. He had not heard it for several years and it stopped his heart cold in his chest.
“Please. Please don’t do this. Don’t make it worse…you know I don’t have a choice.”
“There’s always a choice.”
Soundlessly, Harry descended the last few steps and turned towards the kitchen just as the door to the library opened behind him. They started upon seeing him. Hermione’s eyes were red, but otherwise her face looked unchanged.
“Oh, Harry,” she said as Ron stuffed his hands in his pockets. “What were you and Ginny thinking for the rest of the night?”
Harry shrugged uneasily. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask if she had anything planned.”
At that moment, Ginny appeared at the top of the stairs and lightly padded down to join them. “Were we going to listen to the match? I have the Wireless set up in the other room…”
Ron looked considerably more cheerful at this suggestion and the three of them followed Ginny to the back of the house. In its own dedicated room, the Wireless was a large contraption. Originally a three spectrum dial Muggle radio from the 1940s, it had been modified to pick up magical frequencies protected with Muggle-Repelling charms. The three-foot apparatus stood on a sturdy table with amplifying speakers on each side. Ginny kept a small writing desk nearby where she took notes for the matches she couldn’t attend in person.
Ginny settled herself at the desk and Ron took out his wand. He tapped the top of the machine and said “Arrows at Cannons.”
The machine hummed into life and filled the dimly lit room with the warm rumble of excitable commentators, cheering fans, and the crack of Beaters’ bats.
“Drinks?” Harry offered.
“Butterbeer if you’ve got it,” Ron said over his shoulder, staring at the Wireless as though willing it to be a television. He winced at the sound of a sickening crunch. The commentator announced the Cannons’ keeper had been hit in the gut with a superbly aimed Bludger.
“Same,” Ginny called, scribbling furiously.
Harry looked at Hermione.
“I’ll help you,” she said.
They moved out the room, neither speaking. In the kitchen, Harry removed two Butterbeers from the icebox and set them dripping on the countertop. Then, he took a bottle of wine from the rack above the pantry and uncorked it with a flick of his wand.
“What’s that?” Hermione asked.
“It’s claret. 2011.”
“Vintage,” she smiled. “I’ll have some.”
Harry summoned a pair of long-stemmed glasses and poured until the ruby liquid resembled two large Remembralls.
He set hers in front of her. “Are you all right?”
She smiled a little ruefully. “And here I thought we were being quiet.”
Harry took a swallow of wine, eyes never leaving her. She wasn’t embarrassed. He had heard them fight for years, after all. Arguing seemed to be their preferred mode of communication. Whether it was proper wand movements or balancing work and home, that had never changed for them.
“It’s the job offer,” Hermione supplied, not looking at him. The wine swilled in her glass, an ichorous whirlpool.
“He’s not keen, then…”
She shrugged noncommittally. “I’m not surprised.”
“Ginny and I were like that,” Harry offered, resting his elbows on the countertop. It was harder for her to avoid his gaze when he approached her height. “When I was made Chief, she worried about that. That I wouldn’t be around any more.”
She glanced at him. “Ginny always wanted you to become Chief, Harry.”
“I suppose she did,” he admitted, absently running his tongue over his lips. “But that doesn’t mean she liked the hours I pulled or my disappearing for days. She was glad for me, of course, but I was still constantly reminded of what I was missing and how I’d disappointed them. Two things can be true at the same time.”
Hermione lifted her glass. “Amen.”
Harry smiled and took another sip, watching as Hermione gathered her thoughts like scattered leaves.
“I want to feel like someone is on my side,” she said haltingly. “This is what I do. The job offer doesn’t change anything. I’m needed at the Department and I’m needed at home. Making me feel guilty about it doesn’t make it easier. I’d never ask Ron to give up his work for the children and I know he’s not asking me to do that but…I don’t know.”
“He doesn’t have to make me feel like I’m abandoning Hugo. Like I take joy in it.” The wine trembled like the surface of a pond in a strong breeze. “Sometimes, when I get home very late, I sneak into Hugo’s room just to hear him breathing. Like I did when he was a baby. How each second he stayed alive seemed like a small miracle. To say goodbye to him every morning knowing he’ll be asleep when I come home…how could anyone think that’s easy?”
She set down her glass and her arms wrapped around her stomach like guarding an old wound. A telltale sign.
“But Ron’s right,” she said, voice rising like before. “I made a choice.”
Without a word, Harry opened his arms. She came willingly as though surrendering to gravitational pull. She didn’t start crying but Harry pressed her head to his chest anyway. Her breath hitched and released and he lifted her hair and brushed his fingers against delicate skin of her neck.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” he whispered to her.
She stayed silent, steadying her breath, her arms locked tight behind his back. He moved his hand lower and pressed his thumb into the tense muscles between her shoulder blades. After a minute, her body relaxed against him and her forehead nuzzled the indented plane below his collarbone. Harry’s pulse quickened. He could feel her breath through the material of his shirt and it sent a dark wave of heat ramming into his spine. His hands halted on her back.
Finally, she released a sigh with a note of finality to it.
“Thanks,” she murmured, pulling away and taking up her glass. She didn’t quite meet his eyes. “I know it’ll be all right. Sometimes I just need to hear it.”
He cleared his throat. “Anytime.”
“Should we…?” She gestured to the Butterbeers, which now sat in small puddles on the countertop.
“Right.” Harry grabbed the necks of the bottles in his left hand, his other balancing the wine.
They passed back into the hallway of the darkened house, the distant cadence of the Wireless guiding them forward.