This story is set in the same post-Hogwarts universe as "A Life Well Lived" and "Domestic Disharmony", http://www.phoenixsong.net/symphony/stories.php?psid=48. Though you need not have read either of them to enjoy this, there are a few details scattered throughout that may not make sense if you haven't.
Infinite thanks to Portkey, for encouraging me to write this and reading a rough draft, and to Jen, my ever-faithful Phoenix Song beta.
Harry awoke to the familiar sound of ancient pipes groaning in protest as someone turned on the shower in the lavatory adjacent to his bedroom. Judging from the still-warm depression next to him, Ginny was in there; if he moved quickly, he could steal a few moments of precious intimacy before the chaos of their daily lives took control. With that thought in mind to tempt him out of the cozy sanctum of his bed he threw back the covers, sucking in his breath when the blast of crisp late-spring air hit his bare skin, and crossed the room in four long strides.
Ginny had just started to shampoo her hair when he climbed into the bath behind her. As was his custom, he stepped closer and lifted his hands to her head, massaging the soap into her scalp. Ginny said nothing, instead tilting her head up and leaning back against him. Harry loved these moments of quiet closeness with her; what with the demands of his job and the seemingly endless parade of children (and adult Weasleys) trooping through their home, times like these were all he and Ginny had the time and energy to be together as man and wife.
He guided her under the jet of warm water, closing his eyes as it cascaded over his face. His hand trailed down Ginny's arm to her waist and down even further, slipping gently between her legs.
A loud banging on the door startled him so badly he almost lost his footing and fell. Ginny caught him just in time.
"Mum! Dad!" came the muffled voice of their son Owain. "An owl's come!"
Harry groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose. Ginny just shook her head and stepped back under the shower spray to rinse the shampoo from her hair. "You could've waited until we came down to breakfast," Harry called.
"But it's from Hogwarts," Owain said. Harry detected a note of urgency in his voice and exchanged a look with Ginny. "And it's in a blue envelope."
It took them only minutes to dry, dress and fly downstairs, nearly tripping over each other in the process. A blue envelope from Hogwarts meant a medical emergency involving one of their children. They'd got two before, the first when Jim, their eldest son, had tried to climb the Whomping Willow on a dare, and the second when a gang of Slytherin bullies had thrown little Alfred into the lake and he'd been nearly drowned by rapacious grindylows. Merlin only knew what new dangers their children had got into now.
Ginny snatched the envelope from Owain without bothering to say good morning to him or the two younger children who stared in wide-eyed silence from the kitchen table. Her face paled as she studied the envelope, then she thrust it at Harry with shaking hands. "You open it," she said. "I'm afraid to."
Harry tore open the envelope and pulled out the letter, unfolding it to reveal Professor McGonagall's neat cursive script. His gaze scanned over the letter's contents as quickly as his brain could absorb the information provided.
Each word drove a dagger through his heart. By the time he reached the end he felt as though all his blood had frozen in place. Dizzy, he dropped into the nearest chair, heedless of the letter as it slipped from his fingers and fluttered to the floor.
"Sweet Merlin," Ginny gasped. Harry looked up to see tears brimming in her eyes. "What is it? Harry, what's happened?"
His voice husky, he said, "Owain, take Dickie and Lucy upstairs, please."
The boy knew better than to question him. "Okay, Dad." He ushered the younger children out of the kitchen in silence.
Harry waited until he knew they were out of earshot, then held out his arms to Ginny. "It's Jim," he croaked, barely able to contain the maelstrom of emotions boiling within him. "He's been attacked by a werewolf."
"What?" Ginny bent down to retrieve the letter from the floor. "'Dear Mr. and Mrs. Potter, Do not be alarmed but your son, James, has sustained several serious injuries, including a --'" Her hand flew up to her mouth. "Oh, Harry," she wailed. "He's been bitten. They found bite marks that penetrated his skin and-and...drew blood."
Harry looked up at her through eyes blurred with unshed tears. "McGonagall wants us to come immediately."
She swiped away her own tears. "I'll Floo Mum at once and see if she can mind the children."
"Good idea. No point in alarming them until we know how seriously he's been hurt." He struggled to concentrate on the immediate danger, and not to think about the long-term implications of what had happened. There'd be time enough to think about that later.
Ginny, however, was--not surprisingly--already thinking ahead. "We should also get in touch with Hermione once we know more. We'll be needing her expertise."
"We can worry about that later," Harry said, rising. "For now let's just focus on helping Jim."
She gave him an odd look. "What do you think I'm doing?"
He recognized the tone in her voice only too well. "Now isn't the time," he said quietly. "Just see how soon your mum can get here and get ready to Apparate to Hogsmeade. If she can manage it, I'd like to leave within the hour."
* * * * *
Just over an hour later Harry and Ginny Apparated on the outskirts of Hogsmeade, as close as they could get to Hogwarts without setting off its protective wards. Hand in hand they raced up the hill and past the gates as fast as Ginny's shorter legs allowed them to go. Harry was grateful Ginny had had the foresight not to tell her mother exactly what had happened to Jim, only that he'd been injured. As the mother of six wizards herself--including the infamous twins--Molly Weasley understood only too well the dangerous situations boys often found themselves in, and simply wished the best for her grandson as she hustled Harry and Ginny out of the house.
They entered the school and were met in the entrance hall by Professor McGonagall and Professor Longbottom. Poor Neville looked as though he'd seen a ghost, Harry thought grimly as McGonagall swept toward them. Harry couldn't remember the last time he'd seen his old classmate, though he didn't recall Neville having quite so much gray in his beard.
"Mr. Potter, Mrs. Potter, thank you for coming so quickly," McGonagall was saying. Her face looked pinched, as though she, too, had seen a ghost.
"Thank you, Minerva, for letting us know about Jim's injury," Ginny said. Harry and Neville fell into step behind the two women as they led the way to the infirmary. "Is there anything more you can tell us about what happened?"
"Not much, I'm afraid," McGonagall said. "He was still unconscious when he was brought in, and I haven't had the chance to look in on him this morning. From what Hortense Longbottom told me --"
"Hortense Longbottom?" Harry interrupted. He stopped and looked at Neville. "Not your little girl?"
"She's hardly little anymore, Harry," Ginny said, turning around. "She's Jim's age." She reached a hand out to Neville. "Merlin's beard, she wasn't with him when this happened?"
Neville nodded, though it seemed doing so required an extraordinary amount of effort. "They were in the Forbidden Forest together. As I understand it, Jim distracted the werewolf long enough for Hortense to climb a tree to safety. After the attack, she climbed back down and managed to get your son to the infirmary."
"She wasn't hurt, was she?"
"A few scrapes and bruises and she's terribly shaken up, but she --" He swallowed and looked at Harry. "Thanks to Jim's quick thinking, she wasn't bitten."
"Mr. and Mrs. Potter, Professor Longbottom, if you would please?" McGonagall said, motioning for them to resume walking.
Harry hung back for a moment and stared at their retreating backs. His world had been turned violently upside down that morning, and with each passing hour he felt more and more off-balance. He despised nothing more than the loss of control, yet here he was, completely adrift and safe harbor slipping further beyond his reach.
"Harry? You coming?"
Harry blinked rapidly to clear the fog of confusion from his eyes and saw Neville looking at him anxiously. Ginny and McGonagall had already disappeared around the corner.
"Are you okay, Harry? Can I get you a Calming Draught? My office isn't far."
Harry tried his best to smile. "Thanks, mate, but I'm fine. It's been a long day, and it isn't even mid-morning yet." He noticed the circles under Neville's eyes. "I reckon you were up all night."
"Most of it, yes."
"Tell me, what were Hortense and Jim doing in the Forbidden Forest anyway?"
Neville gave him an odd look. "You're joking, right?"
"No. Why would I be joking?"
"You don't know?"
"Know what?" Harry asked, his exasperation mounting. "What am I supposed to know?"
The beard hid most, but not all, of Neville's flush. "Well, it's just that they...er...they've fancied each other for some time now. I thought you knew that."
Harry backed away from Neville until he ran up against the wall. A good thing he did, too, because he was desperately in need of something solid to hold him up. "Jim and-and Hortense?"
"Harry, are you sure you're okay?" Neville peered at him, his brow furrowed in concentration. "You look positively green."
Harry leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. "No, Neville, I'm not okay," he said with a sigh. "Last night my seventeen-year-old son was attacked by a werewolf, and this morning I find out he's got a girlfriend." He sighed again and shook his head. "I don't think I can take any more nasty surprises."
He felt Neville's gentle tug at his arm and stepped reluctantly away from the wall. "C'mon, Harry," Neville said soothingly. "Let's get you to the infirmary. I know Jim's anxious to see you, and Madame Pomfrey keeps a supply of Calming Draught on hand."
Harry allowed Neville to lead him through the corridors to the infirmary; he was far too numb at this point to put up much resistance. For the first time in many, many years he found himself thinking about Remus Lupin. In the six years he'd known Lupin, Harry had never known him to fancy anyone, though there had been speculation amongst his friends of a mutual attraction between Lupin and Tonks; though Ron hadn't cared one way or the other, Ginny and Hermione had been particularly enchanted with the idea. Had Lupin ever felt optimistic enough to develop feelings for someone, or had he resisted the temptation his entire life, fearful of what he might do in an unguarded moment? Would Jim, in love for what Harry assumed was the first time in his life, feel obliged to break things off with Hortense Longbottom and spend the rest of his life--however long that might turn out to be--a lonely bachelor? What other challenges and sacrifices lay ahead for his son that Harry, never once thinking he'd someday have a werewolf in his own family, had never thought to ask Lupin about?
Harry and Neville ascended a flight of stairs and rounded one last corner, where they spotted a tall girl with dark brown hair pulled back into a tight bun and glasses perched on the end of her freckled nose. "Dad!" she cried as soon as she saw them and ran forward into Harry's arms. "Oh, Dad, I'm so glad you're here!"
Harry embraced his eldest child tightly, then released her and took a step back to look at her. He didn't miss the deep lines around her mouth, or the Head Girl badge hanging askew beneath her Ravenclaw crest. She was usually the epitome of prim neatness. "Meg, what're you doing here? Shouldn't you be in lessons by now?"
"I've been with Jim," she said, reaching up to brush back a stray hair. "Hortense came and got me as soon as Madame Pomfrey released her from the infirmary."
"Do your brothers know what's happened to Jim yet?"
Meg shook her head. "Professor McGonagall thought it would be best to wait until you and Mum got here and we could get a better idea of Jim's condition."
"Why don't we go inside," Neville said. Harry saw he'd moved away to stand by the doors to the infirmary. "I reckon you have loads of questions for Madame Pomfrey." He opened the doors and ushered Harry and Meg inside.
Jim lay on a bed at the far end of the infirmary, surrounded by Madame Pomfrey, Professor McGonagall, Ginny and a round-faced girl with long blonde hair Harry presumed must be Hortense Longbottom. Ginny looked up when she heard them come in and hurried over.
"Oh, thank Merlin you found them!" she said to Meg, embracing the girl. Over Meg's shoulder she scowled at Harry and Neville. "Where'd you two wander off to?"
"We didn't wander off," Harry protested petulantly. "We just stopped to chat for a bit."
"Stopped for a chat? After what your son's just been through? This is hardly the time to be catching up on old times, Harry."
"It's my fault, Ginny," Neville said, stepping in before Harry could let his frayed nerves get the best of him. "Harry didn't know about Hortense and Jim. It took him by surprise."
"Hmph," Ginny said, her hands planted on her hips. "I don't see how he couldn't have known. Hortense is just about all Jim talks about in his letters home these days." She took Harry by the hand. "Come on then, he's waiting for you. He's been asking for you ever since we got here."
Harry cautiously followed Ginny over to where Jim lay. He'd been haunted by visions of what he might see--he'd once witnessed Lupin transforming, and the sight had been enough to give him nightmares for weeks--that he was completely unprepared for the bland reality of it. The gashes on his son's face, upper chest and arms stood out starkly against the pallor of his skin, but otherwise he looked as though he had a mild case of the flu.
"I-I --" Harry began.
"Hey, Dad," Jim said, giving him a weak grin. "Guess I've made a cock up of things, haven't I?"
"I don't understand." Harry looked at Madame Pomfrey in confusion. "I thought-the letter said he'd been bitten."
"He was bitten, Mr. Potter," McGonagall said. "On his leg."
"Want to see?" Jim asked, raising the sheet a little bit to reveal his heavily bandaged leg. "It's wicked cool." A soft gasp from the end of the bed stilled his hand. "Sorry," he said, blushing.
Harry turned to look at Hortense Longbottom. Except for the shape of her face, she was her mother's spitting image. He couldn't blame Jim for falling for her; once he'd got past her eccentricity, he'd briefly fancied Luna Lovegood himself. "I understand you brought Jim in last night?"
"Yes, sir," she said. "From the Forbidden Forest."
"What were the two of you doing there after dark?" he asked. "Surely you knew it was dangerous."
"I'd like to know that myself," McGonagall said tartly.
"It's my fault," Jim said. Harry didn't miss the way he reached out a hand to Hortense, or that she took it. "There's this old car that someone abandoned there years ago, and we went to check it out."
Harry and Ginny exchanged a look. "An old car?" he said. Jim nodded. "A blue Ford?"
Jim tried to push himself into a sitting position. "Yeah. D'you know it?"
"Yeah, I know it. It belonged to your grandfather," Harry said with a short laugh. "Your mother and I used to --" He raised his eyebrows as he realized what must have been taking place last night. "Don't tell me you were --"
"No, Dad!" Jim jerked his head in Neville's direction. "It was nothing like that!"
"Then what was it like?" Ginny asked, her arms crossed over her chest. "D'you think your dad and I are stupid?"
"Mum, please," Jim said through clenched teeth. "Not now?"
"We just went to look at the stars and snog for a bit," Hortense said. "Jim's a nice kisser."
Neville erupted into a fit of coughing. Ginny and Meg both had their hands up against their mouths, the former to stifle a laugh, the latter to cover her shock. Jim looked as though he wanted to crawl into a hole and die.
"Thank you, Miss Longbottom, that will be all," McGonagall said with a sniff. "Why don't you return to your dormitory. You've had quite a night."
"You should go too, Meg," Ginny said. "Find your brothers and have them all gather in one place. I'm not keen on having to tell this story any more often than necessary."
"They can use my office," McGonagall said. "The password is 'Macbeth'."
Harry watched his daughter and Hortense go. It hadn't hit him until Neville told him about Jim and Hortense that his children were growing up right under his nose. Meg, in her final year at Hogwarts, had her heart set on an internship at Gringotts where she would work under the supervision of her uncle Bill. Of her seven younger siblings, only three remained at home, and Owain would begin at Hogwarts in September. How long, Harry wondered, before he became a grandfather?
"Right," he said, shaking himself out of his reverie and turning back to his son, "I want to know exactly what happened last night."
* * * * *
The sun was well past its zenith when Harry and Ginny were finally able to Apparate home. Ginny, her face pale, remained uncharacteristically silent as she took his hand and they walked up the path to their house. Harry felt as though the life had been drained out of him. He thought his brain might explode from all the information that had been packed into it in such a short time. Nothing had been more difficult to bear, however, than the sight of his son lying in that hospital bed listening to everything Madame Pomfrey and Neville had to say about what lay ahead for him, asking thoughtful questions when appropriate, his expression never once showing any sign of real fear or trepidation. Harry wished he could say the same for himself. He was terrified, and listening to the resident experts go on at length about transformations, blood fever, the side effects of Wolfsbane and so on had only made matters worse. He wouldn't be surprised if his fear was noticeable from five miles away.
"We should tell Mum before she leaves," Ginny said, breaking the silence. "We can tell her and the children at the same time. She'll want to know what happened anyway, and there's no point in delaying the inevitable."
"S'pose so," Harry said. He'd let Ginny tell her mother and the younger children, just as he'd let her tell Ned, Guy and Alfred. He wasn't ready to admit out loud what had happened to his son. The longer he put it off, the longer he could forestall accepting its brutal reality. Taking a deep breath, Harry followed Ginny up the front steps.
They opened the door to find their home in a state of barely controlled chaos. The children were nowhere in sight, but Mrs. Weasley, Ron and Hermione were in the throes of a blazing row.
"Bloody hell," Harry muttered. The squeeze from Ginny's hand assured him she was in complete agreement. "What the hell is going on here?" he demanded.
"Harry! Ginny!" cried Hermione, rushing over to embrace them each in turn. "Is it true about Jim?"
"Is-is what true?" Harry asked, confused.
"Is it true Jim was bitten by a werewolf last night?"
"Er...er --" Desperate, he looked to Ginny for support, an explanation, anything, but she seemed as lost as he. "How d'you know?" he finally blurted.
Mrs. Weasley, who'd been gaping at them in ill-concealed horror, collapsed into a nearby easy chair. "Merlin preserve us," she wailed. "That poor boy!"
Harry was so utterly confused he barely noticed Ron's hand on his shoulder. "Sorry to hear the bad news, mate," he said softly. "You know where to find me if you need me."
"I don't understand," Harry said, looking at the three of them. "How did you find out?"
"It's policy, Harry," Hermione explained. She crossed to the table where a leather briefcase stood upright on one of the chairs and rummaged around in it. "Whenever someone is infected by a werewolf bite, the attending Healer is required to contact my office. The owl was waiting for me when I came in to work this morning."
Harry's knees were trembling so badly he barely made it to a chair. "You-Hogwarts sent you an owl?" He reached out and grabbed Ginny's hand, begging her to anchor him, to keep him from being washed out to sea.
Hermione gave him a smile that was probably meant to be reassuring. "Of course," she said. "As I told you, it's policy. It's what the Department for Creatures' Rights is there for, to provide an advocate for all magical creatures and ensure their rights aren't trampled on by the ill-informed." Her hand emerged from the briefcase with a sheaf of papers. "I've brought all the available literature on werewolves, as well as brochures on support groups, resource centers, that sort of thing. You're in luck: there's a support group in Salisbury. I did some checking, and there are already three werewolves living in Wiltshire. None so young as Jim, but he's such an outgoing lad I can't see him having any trouble making friends." She waved the papers at Harry, urging him to take them. He just stared at her blankly.
"There's also a lunar calendar, so he'll know when the next full moon is coming up. You'll need to fill out some forms to make sure he's properly registered," she said. When Harry showed no inclination to take them, she lay the papers on the end of the table. "The sooner you complete the paperwork and get Jim registered, the sooner my office can start working on his behalf, making sure he has a safe place to undergo transformation, providing him with medical treatment if necessary, a solicitor in case he kills or infects someone, a list of apothecaries who stock Wolfsbane ingredients...it's all right here." She patted the stack of papers for emphasis. "I just want you and Ginny to know that I'm here for you, day or night, if you have any questions or concerns. Being a werewolf doesn't have quite the same stigma it did when Remus Lupin was still alive. We've made loads of progress on creatures' rights since then."
The pressure that had been building inside of Harry exploded as he leaped to his feet. Across the room, a ceramic lamp shattered and sent shards flying. "GET OUT!" he bellowed, grabbing the papers and thrusting them at Hermione. "Take your registration forms and your calendar and your support group brochures and get the bloody hell out of my house now!"
"Harry," Ginny said softly, her hand on his arm. "Harry, she's only trying to help."
"Really, Harry, what's wrong with you?" Hermione said.
"What's wrong with me? I'll tell you what's wrong with me: as of last night, my son is no longer human, that's what's wrong with me!" Ginny gasped, but he wasn't about to stop now. "For the rest of his life he's going to be defined by every person he meets as a monster, and if they're not afraid of him they'll want to kill him. He's an animal now, not a seventeen-year-old boy. You said it yourself," he spat in anguished fury at Hermione, "he's a creature."
No one moved. They all just stared at him in horror. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw a blur of movement a second before he felt the hot, stinging slap of Ginny's hand across his face.
"Don't you EVER let me hear you talk about any child of ours that way again!" she cried, angry tears streaming down her face. "You would never have said such despicable things about Remus. He was your friend, Harry. What the hell gives you the right to speak this way about your own son?"
"Because it's true," Harry croaked, his hand pressed against his smarting cheek. "Merlin help us, but it's true, Ginny. It was true about Remus, and it's true about Jim." Tears flowed from his eyes. "Our son isn't human anymore. He'll be an outcast his entire life."
"Harry, mate," Ron said, "you're going about this the wrong way."
Harry turned on Ron. "Oh really? And what would you, in your infinite experience as a father, suggest is the right way?" He knew he was pouring salt in an open wound, but at this point he didn't care who he hurt.
Ron seemed unfazed, however, but then it had never been easy to rile him. "Look, we're not the enemy. We're your friends. We're here to help. We want to be here for you."
"Uh-huh. And who's going to be there for Jim when he has to transform for the first time next month?"
Ron gave him a baffled look. "Sorry? What d'you mean?"
"What?" Harry said, looking back and forth between Ron and Hermione. "Hasn't your wife the expert told you what happens when someone gets bitten by a werewolf?" Ron shook his head. "Nice. Y'see, when someone gets bitten, they don't transform right away. No. They have to wait until the next full moon. Not only that, Jim can't take Wolfsbane until after transforming that first time. Wolfsbane has to be mixed specifically for each werewolf, so someone's going to have to strap him down and draw his blood while he's in werewolf form in order to determine the right balance of ingredients."
Mrs. Weasley, sitting forgotten on the other side of the room, made an inarticulate sound. Ron looked as though all the blood had drained out of his face. "Is this true?" he whispered hoarsely to Hermione. She nodded.
"Did you know the agony of undergoing transformation is so great some victims go mad the first time?" Ron shook his head. "Do you know what they have to go through--and twice in the space of twenty-four hours? Ron? Hermione? Mrs. Weasley?" The three of them just stared at him in mute shock. "I have to live with the foreknowledge that, in twenty-seven days, that's exactly what's going to happen to my son."
He felt Ginny's hand slip into his and her cheek press against his shoulder. "Harry, please. I need you. You're not the only one who's hurting. I need you to be strong, for Jim, for the other children, and...for me."
He looked down at the blotchy, tear-stained face of the woman who had given him his son and felt a small part of his heart shrivel up and die. "I-I'm sorry, Ginny," he said, pulling away from her. "I can't."
Then, without looking back, he walked out of the house.
* * * * *
It had been several months since he last flew and his broom was sluggish from age and disuse, but soon it carried him high above the treetops where a brisk late afternoon breeze whipped at his face and hair. Even after thirty years the feeling of exhilaration and freedom on first taking flight had never passed. He'd never felt more at ease with himself than on a broom. Not really aware of where he was going he soared over the fields and meadows that surrounded his home, dipping down at one point to dive into the midst of a flock of sheep, then pulling up as they scattered, bleating, in all directions.
After a while he turned his broom southward to follow a meandering ribbon of water. The megaliths of Stonehenge soon loomed above the countryside and he practiced his turns and stops while weaving in between the massive trilithons and uprights. Growing tired of that--yet not ready to return home--he flew further south, until he saw the slender Gothic spire of Salisbury Cathedral rise up in the distance.
Harry angled his broom downward and came to a soft landing in the cloister garth. He understood now what compulsion had brought him this far from home. The one person who might understand what he was feeling and have some insight on how to come to terms with Jim's…condition was both dean of the cathedral and the Muggle father of a fourth-year Hufflepuff. Harry had got to know Father Myghal Borland a couple of years before when a case he'd been investigating for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement brought him to the cathedral; he'd been astonished to discover one of its officials not only knew of the existence of the wizarding world, but even had a daughter at Hogwarts.
He dismounted and crossed the garth to the nearest walk, mindful to keep to the lengthening shadows lest a stray tourist or priest happen by. At the sound of footsteps and the rustle of cloth he pulled out his wand and pressed himself into a corner where the cloister walk took a turn. A familiar voice in a Cornish accent called out warily but not unkindly, "Who's there?"
"Father Myghal, is that you?"
"Yes. Who wants to know?"
Harry pocketed his wand and stepped into the light. "It's me, Father. Harry Potter."
"Good heavens, Harry, you gave me quite a shock." A short, portly man with apple cheeks and a tonsure created by premature baldness appeared in the colonnade. "We've had trouble with thieves of late."
Harry saw that the priest was dressed in his clerical robes. "Have I come at a bad time?"
"Oh no," he said, plucking at a thread of loose embroidery on his chasuble. "Evensong just finished. I was enjoying a stroll around the cloister before returning to the deanery. Would you care to join me?"
Harry picked up his broom from the ground and climbed through the colonnade. "I'd like that very much, Father. I need your advice on a sensitive subject."
The little priest smiled up at him and indicated to Harry which way to go. "You're needing my advice then? That's a turn of the tables."
"I suppose so," he said, falling into step beside Father Myghal.
"Well, unless you've come for spiritual counseling, you needn't call me 'Father.' Myghal is fine." When Harry didn't respond he continued in a more casual vein, "I got a letter from Melloney yesterday. She's enrolled in...what d'you call it? Something to do with animals?"
"Care of Magical Creatures." He winced at the memory of the things he'd said earlier. Would Jim be turned into a class research project?
"Ah, yes. She's really enjoying it, it seems. She told me she got to pet a baby unicorn not long ago." He chuckled. "I gather the instructor's quite popular with the girls at school. Is it true he used to tame dragons?"
Harry gave a short laugh of his own. "Charlie Weasley's my brother-in-law, and yes, he worked on a dragon preserve in Romania for many years. He's also always been a ladies' man."
"I can see how that might be a rather alluring occupation," Father Myghal said as he led Harry out of the cloister on to a gravel path that led to a row of houses where the cathedral canons and staff resided. "Dragons in Romania. How fascinating. Sometimes I hear about things like that and wonder why I couldn't have been born a wizard." He gave a wistful sigh.
"It's not all it's cracked up to be sometimes."
The priest turned and gave him a penetrating look. "Indeed?"
Harry said nothing, merely resumed walking. Father Myghal had to trot to catch up to him. They walked in silence up to a trim white Georgian-style building where the priest opened the door with a brass key he retrieved from beneath his chasuble and turned on the light just inside. He directed Harry to a room at the far end of the foyer, brushing past him to turn on several table lamps. Harry recognized it as a study, where Father Myghal probably conducted his business as cathedral dean. It was a comfortable room, outfitted in leather and walnut. Harry took a seat on a nearby settee while Father Myghal disappeared through a narrow door on the opposite side of the room. When he returned a few minutes later he was clad in a simple black cassock and had a bottle of Glenlivet and two whiskey glasses in his hands.
"I save this for special guests," he said almost apologetically, indicating the bottle. He poured two glasses, cutting the Scotch with water and handed one to Harry before sitting in the chair opposite him. "Cheers," he said, raising his glass. Harry mimicked his action, but still said nothing. After several minutes of studying Harry over his glass, the little priest set it down on the table next to him and leaned forward. "Care to tell me what this is all about?"
Harry drained the rest of his drink in a single swallow and grimaced as it slowly burned its way down his throat. Rather than set aside his glass he rolled it back and forth between his palms as he sought the words he needed.
"Father-Myghal," he began, "how did you feel when you first found out Melloney was a witch?"
Father Myghal coughed. "My," he said. "I hadn't expected that question. I wonder why you're asking me, though. Doesn't one of your close friends come from...people like me?"
"Muggles, you mean? Yeah," Harry said. "But your situation is different."
"You're a priest. You've been taught to look at magical folk as deviants, as-as --" He couldn't quite find the word he wanted and settled on the first one that came to mind. "As demonic."
"We've moved a bit forward in our thinking since the Middle Ages," Father Myghal said gently. "We're not quite as reflexively judgmental as you think. Still," he added, interrupting Harry's rebuttal, "I understand what you're saying."
"My friend's parents weren't religious," Harry explained. "My aunt and uncle thought I was a freak, but they hated anything that didn't fit into their narrow view of what was 'normal'."
"I'm very sorry to hear that," Father Myghal said, and Harry sensed that his sympathy was genuine. "But what about your parents?"
"Well, my mum and dad were magical themselves, but it wouldn't've mattered because they died when I was a baby. My aunt and uncle took me in and raised me until I finished school."
"How awful it must've been for you, to grow up in that sort of environment."
Harry shrugged. "It was all long ago."
"Not long enough if you're here asking me how I reacted when I first learned about Melloney." He leaned back and crossed his legs. "It was a terrible shock at first. I didn't know what to think. The...wizard who came to explain things to us was very kind and answered all our questions without hesitation, but I could tell he didn't really understand what it meant to discover that our only child was so different from us and would have to spend the rest of her life living outside of the mainstream."
"Us?" Harry asked.
A shadow fell over the priest's face. "My wife. Cordelia tried valiantly, but in the end she couldn't accept it. As you say, she thought Melloney was a deviant and that she in turn was tainted by association. Cordelia left that summer and moved to Plymouth, where she drinks to excess, plays whist every Thursday night, and pretends we don't exist."
"That's terrible," Harry said. "How did that affect Melloney?"
He looked down and smoothed the placket on his cassock. "It was very hard on her at first, but eventually she came to realize there wasn't anything she could do about it but move on with her life and accept that she was extraordinary in ways none of us had ever dreamed of. It helped her to get to know other children at school who'd also come from non-magical families, some of whom were less than accepting of the situation."
"Does anyone else know about your daughter? I can't imagine the Church looking on this too kindly."
Father Myghal nodded. "I felt obliged to tell my bishop, because he had assumed she would continue her schooling here at the cathedral."
"How did he take it?"
"He was as baffled as I was. He was also a bit concerned that if word got out the more narrow-minded people in the community--and the Church--might take offense that a ranking official had a witch for a daughter, but he agreed to wait to cross that bridge only if we come to it." He picked up his glass and took a sip before setting it back down. "Lord willing, we won't have to before Melloney finishes school and is on her own."
Then, his fingers steepled beneath his chin, Father Myghal asked, "Now, Harry, do you want to tell me why you're really here?"
Harry studied his fingers and wiggled them. He could feel the alcohol working its way to his extremities like a potent surge of magical energy. If he held his hand just so, he believed he could see it rippling just beneath the surface of his skin. What would Jim see in similar circumstances? Would he look at his skin and see the werewolf's venom coursing through his veins, poisoning all that it touched? Harry fisted his hand and dropped it against the arm of the settee.
"It's Jim," he finally said. "Last night he was --" He stopped. How would a Muggle still so ignorant of the wizarding world respond to such news? Being a witch or a wizard was one thing; being a werewolf, another matter entirely. Harry began to wonder if maybe he'd made a terrible mistake coming here.
"Last night he was what?" the priest prompted him.
Harry took a deep breath and plunged in. "Last night he was bitten by a werewolf."
"Dear God." Father Myghal paused and took a deep breath of his own. "Dear God. Is he all right?"
Harry pinched the creases in his trousers. "Yes and no. He wasn't killed, thank Merlin, but he was infected."
"Infected?" Father Myghal looked horrified. "You mean-he's a werewolf now?"
"Yes." Harry nodded, then clapped his hand to his mouth to keep the sob that hovered in his chest from escaping. "Yes, yes he is."
"Dear God." He dropped his hands to his lap. "Is there a cure?"
"I gather werewolves are not accepted among your kind," Father Myghal said. Harry shook his head. "What will happen to him?"
"I don't really know. He'll have to register with our Ministry or else face imprisonment. There are people at the Ministry whose jobs are to protect his rights, but the fact is he'll be an outcast the rest of his life--and he could live for a very long time, provided someone doesn't kill him first, for sport or out of fear."
"What about-is there anything that can be done to keep him from-from --"
"From turning into a werewolf?"
"Is that the correct way to put it?"
"There's Wolfsbane, but he can't take it until he's transformed at least once, and it'll take several full moons before the dosage can be perfected." Harry gazed beseechingly at Father Myghal. "The pain he'll have to endure will be unbearable. He won't know who he is. He won't even know who I am; he'd kill me, if given the opportunity."
"If he was at school when this happened...my God, he'll be at home when the next full moon comes!" Harry nodded. "What will you do? You can't let him transform at home, can you?"
"No," Harry said. "We'll have to take him to St. Mungo's. They have special cells for werewolf transformations." He dragged his fingers through his hair. "I'm just-I'm lost, Myghal. I don't know what to do, what to think, what to say.... It's too much. Yesterday Jim was --"
Harry nodded. "Yeah, and today he's --"
Harry stared at him. "Well, I don't know. I hadn't thought of it that way."
Father Myghal took another sip of his Scotch before continuing. "Look, Harry, I don't think my area of expertise will bring you much comfort. Anything I may have to say will just sound like empty platitudes or a weak attempt at evangelism. But Melloney told me something she learned at school that might provide some insight." He folded his hands over his round belly. "Is it true you had to overcome an evil wizard when you were a young man?"
The question stunned Harry. He hadn't though about Voldemort in years. "Er, yes," he finally said, biting back the tremor of hatred in his voice. "Voldemort. Some say he was the most powerful dark wizard ever. I don't know; all I know is that he was the one who killed my parents and many other good people as well. And he gave me this." He lifted his fringe to show Father Myghal the scar that zigzagged across his brow. It had faded with the passing of the years, but those who knew where to look could easily spot it.
"Intriguing," the priest said. "You know, there are many stories about people who were 'marked' as a sign that they had been chosen for a particular purpose. One of my favorites is about a man who went into the wilderness, where he met a stranger who challenged him. They wrestled all night, neither one gaining any significant advantage over the other, until the stranger broke the man's hip just before dawn. The stranger then told the man he had been wrestling with none other than God, and would be blessed for his perseverance but walk with a limp the rest of his life.
"Many years later, that same man had to face the terrible tragedy of believing his favorite son had been murdered, when in fact the boy had been sold into slavery. In time, despite many challenges, the boy rose to a position of great power and authority and was able to help his family when their lives were threatened."
"And how is this supposed to give me any insight?" Harry asked.
"Simply to show you that grace can seem a terrible burden for those who have been chosen."
"Grace. Right," Harry snorted.
"Believe, don't believe, it makes no difference to me," Father Myghal said evenly, apparently unruffled by Harry's derision. "But I have faith that you and Jim are never alone, and that, as terrible as it may seem on the surface, the challenges that you had to face--and that Jim will have to face--are not without purpose. I believe the same is true about Melloney: that she is a witch is not, no matter what my wife might think, a random aberration brought on by evil."
"You believe that she's a blessing? From God?" Harry was dumbfounded.
"Despite the fact that your wife left you. Despite the fact that you might be hounded out of your job. Despite the fact that there are people all around you who think our kind are freakish monsters."
"You'll understand if I don't quite share your optimism."
The little priest smiled. "Of course. But I hope you can find a way to see that Jim's…affliction is not the end of the world, and that, in time, good may come of it. What he needs most of all now is your unconditional love and support. These next few months will be very trying for him, so any hint of weakness or wavering on your part could set him down the path into darkness and despair. He needs you to be strong for him."
Harry smiled sardonically. "You sound like my wife."
"She sounds like a wise woman. You should listen to her. She needs you too, you know. She's just as afraid and unsure as you are. Don't let her get away the same way my wife did." Father Myghal's normally cheerful expression turned melancholy. "Don't ignore her fears and doubts the same way I did Cordelia's."
* * * * *
The house was dark and quiet when Harry returned nearly an hour after Father Myghal had bid him goodnight. Harry was glad to see that Ginny hadn't waited up for him; he'd been a prat earlier, he knew, and he didn't relish facing her temper when his emotions were still so raw. He put away his broom and let himself inside quietly, removing his shoes just inside the front door so he wouldn't wake the children with his heavy tread on the creaky wooden stairs. In stocking feet he crept upstairs and slipped inside the bedroom he and Ginny had shared for twenty years.
She was turned toward the window when he entered, but rolled over when he shut the door behind him. She was bathed in moonlight, and in its spiteful brilliance he saw tear tracks on her cheeks. "Oh, Harry, I'm so glad you're home," she sniffled, stretching her arms out to him.
He undressed as quickly and quietly as he could and slid into bed beside her, taking her in his arms. For a long time they lay entwined together in silence, each drawing comfort from the other's presence. Harry stared at the moon as it shone through the window, realizing he would never be able to look at it as a distant, neutral object again; henceforth it would always be a harbinger of pain and devastation.
After a while he felt Ginny stir against him. He thought she'd gone to sleep; she'd cried quietly against his chest at first, until the silence overtook them. She slowly raised her head to look at him. The sight of her lovely face, radiant in the moonlight, with those bright brown eyes adorned with crows' feet and that tousled mass of red hair liberally streaked with grey, overwhelmed him, and Harry grasped her arms and pulled her closer to kiss her.
They came together with urgency and desperation, clutching at each other like shipwreck survivors without a lifeboat. There was no time or desire for the familiar and comforting rhytms they'd developed after so many years together, only a yearning to be as close to each other as Nature would permit. With each driving thrust she arched up to meet him, pulling him deeper inside her until he thought he might just crawl inside her skin. Sweat ran in rivulets between his shoulder blades, stinging and burning the gouge marks her nails left in his back as she urged him on wantonly.
He gave one final sobbing surge forward and collapsed, spent, over her, supporting his weight on his forearms. He felt himself slacken and grow soft inside her but didn't withdraw. Slowly the trembling subsided and his senses returned to normal levels.
"I'm sorry if I hurt you," he whispered, bending his neck to press his forehead against hers.
Ginny tilted her chin up to kiss him tenderly. "Just don't ask me to ride a broom for a few days," she said, one corner of her mouth quirking up. "If you let me, I can put some essence of murtlap on those scratches."
"Leave them," he said. "I'll be fine." With a slight wince from both of them he pulled out of her and rolled on to his back. "When did Ron and Hermione and your mum leave?"
"Not long after you did." She rolled on to her side and ran her fingers through the sparse hairs on his chest. "You should apologize to Hermione."
He sighed. "I know. But she-she should've known not to ambush us like that."
"She's Hermione, Harry. Sensitivity has never been her first instinct."
"It's probably why she's such an effective advocate."
"All the more reason why we need to stay in her good graces."
Harry turned his head to look at her. "Y'know, Myghal talked to me about grace tonight."
Ginny propped herself up on an elbow. "Myghal? Father Myghal? You flew all the way to Salisbury Cathedral?"
"I hadn't planned on it. I just sort of ended up there, I reckon. He'd probably tell me God brought me there."
She chuckled before rolling over to prop her chin on Harry's chest. "Did it help to talk to him?"
Harry lay silent for a while as he thought about what Father Myghal had told him. "In a manner of speaking." He reached over with his free arm to run his fingers through her hair. "It's going to take time to get used to this, Ginny."
"It's going to take time for all of us. Especially Jim."
"Especially Jim." He closed his eyes and sighed. "I wish Remus were still alive."
"I know you do. I do as well. But we can find a way through this on our own." She reached up and pinched the tip of his nose. "You can't go tearing off every time something bad happens, y'know. Mum was an bloody nightmare after you left."
He cleared his throat to disguise a laugh. "Sorry."
He felt Ginny's head shake back and forth beneath his hand, then she pushed herself forward to kiss him again. "Harry, I love you, but sometimes I don't know what to do with you."
Harry felt his mouth curve upward in a smile. "Reckon you'll just have to find a way to put up with me."
She smiled back. "Reckon I will."
Their love-making this time was more tender, measured, and intimate. When Harry felt Ginny climax around him he remembered the glow of joy on her face when she pulled back a corner of the blanket and he looked upon the face of his newborn son for the first time. They'd decided to name the boy James Arthur, in honor and recognition of the courage and generosity of their own fathers. It was a name he wore well; a name he would continue to wear well, despite the adversity that lay before him. And as he felt his own climax flow through him, Harry understood what Father Myghal had meant about the terrible burden of grace.