The autumn wind was just beginning to develop the bite of winter as Harry Potter stepped outside of the warm office he’d just claimed as one of the Aurors in the newly developed Ministry. Training hadn’t been nearly as hard for him as it had been for some of the other recent recruits. After all, a year spent looking for Horcruxes and on the run from Snatchers, plus a lifetime of surviving Lord Voldemort, had taught him more about defense than any one human being had a right to know.
It was the end of the day and he could walk down the street to have a pint at the Leaky Cauldron with Ron, who was helping George rebuild his business before he entered the Auror program, or he could Apparate to the flat he shared with his best friend. Undecided, he buttoned his cloak more securely and walked a few blocks to clear his mind as he lit a fag. He really only smoked at the end of the day ¾ especially the end of long, foggy, dreary days.
Most of his time thus far had been tied up in paperwork. Harry was resigned to spending the rest of his life with a writer’s bump from clenching a quill while he tried to write as fast as he could. He drew in a deep breath of the smoke and expelled it quickly. The nicotine was calming his headache and the slight tremor in his hand but not his frustration. All of the fully trained Aurors were out in the field, searching for and capturing known Death Eaters.
Harry crossed the street, moving at a brisk pace to keep his blood flowing while he tried not to notice all the stares he was getting. The reaction to his presence anywhere lately was usually one of shock and confusion. How did one react to the savior of the world? Especially one that had lost so much, and given so much. Harry did what he had done all his life – ignore the attention and pray for normalcy.
Diagon Alley was beginning to return to life. Slowly but surely, the wizarding world was rebuilding itself. Kingsley, Arthur, Harry and everyone at the Ministry worked nearly twenty-four hours a day to provide a sense of security that was real ¾ not the result of propaganda ¾ and it was working. With every Death Eater captured being given a full trial for all the crimes he or she was accused of, the public was slowly beginning to relax.
By the time Harry reached the storefront of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, he’d smoked most of the fag, so he cast it to the ground and crushed it with one heavy, black sole. He pushed the door open and somewhere a bell rang merrily.
The blast of heat Harry felt on his face was a welcome relief from the overwhelming dreariness outside. The interior was mostly wood – hardwood floors were a lot more durable and resisted explosions better than most people thought, Ron had explained to him. It was brightly lit inside. The walls were painted in alternating yellows and reds, and displays were set up almost haphazardly throughout the store from the floor to the ceiling.
Peruvian Darkness Powder! one such display announced, For instant darkness, wherever you may be! Another one touted the virtues of the Canary Cream, With improved birdsong!
Harry’s footsteps were conspicuously loud in the nearly silent store, but he wasn’t surprised. It was, of course, the end of the business day and Christmas was still a month and a half away. Hermione had reminded him of that fact just a few days ago. She, of course, had already completed her shopping.
The transition from Ron and Hermione, his friends, to Ron and Hermione, his friends who are dating and may be in love, was not as difficult as Harry thought it would be. It felt natural, another progression of their already complicated relationship. Harry thought, in the quiet moments when he allowed himself to think of personal things at all, his two best friends could finally truly be happy. He was not going to begrudge them even one moment of that all-too-rare emotion.
He walked towards the back. There was a swinging door marked Employees Only! If you don’t want your brains blown out, back away! Harry chuckled a bit as he pushed it open, as he had painted the sign himself.
“Back here!” Something in the back crashed to the floor and shattered. “Just a bloody… Oh hell! For the love of Merlin’s bleedin’ teats…”
Harry laughed, the sound still oddly foreign to him as he walked through the maze of shelving and workspace that was the workroom at Wheezes. Sure enough, he found his best friend in the middle of a pile of Never-Exhausted Jumping Beans. At least this batch seemed defective and didn’t leap the promised 6 meters in the air.
“Harry, will you help me grab these buggers, please? Instead of standing there like a great wanker,” Ron hissed and made a leap for a particularly large purple one.
“I am a great wanker, Ron,” Harry said with a grin, “and I don’t work for you anymore.”
“I said please. And I don’t want to know about your wanking, all right? Bad enough you and my sister are always giving each other those meaningful looks, if you know what I mean. Least I don’t have to walk in on it anymore, I guess.”
Harry coughed. “I don’t think you have any room to talk. Lavender Brown?”
“I am very much looking forward to the day when the bloody world forgets about Lavender Brown,” Ron said with fervor as he caught his target with his right hand. “Listen, mate. I will owe you a very large favor if you will please use your Seeker instincts and help me catch these. Please.”
“All right.” Harry tossed off his cloak and selected one of the smaller turquoise ones for his quarry. “I was going to ask if you wanted to go out for a pint when you’re done here.”
“Sounds fine,” Ron said through clenched teeth as he stuffed one of the beans into a replacement jar. “Be a good way to blow some time, anyway. And we can catch George when he comes in and keep an eye on him.”
“Did he show today?” Harry asked, vaguely concerned. He caught three green ones and stuffed them in Ron’s jar.
“There was something on the wireless about a new lead on Rookwood,” Ron said, making a heroic leap for a pink one that had bounced under one of the large tables. “He came in, but he was shite. I told him to get his arse home. Before he left he made a crack about me working for him, though. So at least he’s coming out of the fog a bit.”
“Yeah,” Harry said softly. “Do you think that’s the last of ‘em?”
“Hope so. These are the defective bunch. We were testing them to see what exactly went wrong, so I’m not sure how they’ll react, you know… being unpackaged for so long.” Ron sealed the jar with one of his giant hands and pushed himself to his feet. “Let me just throw these up somewhere and we’ll go get that pint at the Leaky.”
Harry took that opportunity to walk outside again and light another cigarette. As he smoked, he watched the hustle and bustle of wizards closing their shops, heading out to restaurants and carrying baskets of groceries to the various Floo points throughout Diagon Alley. Things were getting back to normal, he told himself fiercely.
“Shite. Cold as a bitch out here tonight,” Ron said as he stepped down out onto the Alley and locked the door to Wheezes. “Why didn’t you warn me?”
“Figured you’d whine either way,” Harry said with a grin. “Might as well enjoy the element of surprise.”
“Auror training’s made you mean,” Ron said, but he shoved Harry’s shoulder to let him know he wasn’t really serious. “Speaking of which, can I bum a smoke?”
“Sure, all I’ve got is Bonds, though. Will that work?” Harry began to search inside his cloak for the pocket with his package.
“Sure. It’s got nicotine, doesn’t it?” Ron asked. “That’s all that matters. Have to get it out of my system anyway, since Hermione doesn’t like the smell.”
Silently, Harry handed Ron one of the slim cigarettes and they smoked together outside the shop for a few moments. Ron rubbed a tired hand over his eyes.
“I need a break, mate. Between George and the shop, I’ve got, like, two full-time jobs. I’ve been counting down the hours to that first Hogsmeade weekend, and now I’m not sure I’m going to be able to swing going.”
“What?” Harry almost dropped his cigarette in shock. “You don’t think you’re going to make it?”
Ron shrugged his wide shoulders. “George is a fucking mess. I mean, yeah, he’s usually all right during business hours, but sometimes he doesn’t come in to open when he’s supposed to. That sort of stuff. Can’t really blame him.”
Harry drew in a long breath of the noxious smoke and puffed it out again. “You all lost a brother, though, Ron. And it’s his business, you know. That Hogsmeade weekend’s still a couple of weeks away, yeah? That’ll be months you’ve worked without a day off. Just tell George that you need to be able to count on him. He’ll come through.”
“We can’t afford the lost revenue if he doesn’t,” Ron said, and tapped the embers out of the end of his cigarette. “I mean, the cost of setting up again alone…”
“Yeah. Bugger it all to hell,” Harry said, without heat. Every Diagon Alley business owner was going through the same thing. He’d offered to help, but George and Ron had pushed away his money. They wanted to set the store up on their own.
“Don’t know what I thought it’d be like, you know,” Ron said, his eyes far away, “when it was all over. It sure as hell wasn’t this.”
“Yeah, well.” Harry crushed his cigarette out. “It’s not been pleasant for anyone.”
Ron laughed harshly. “That’s the understatement of the entire fucking century.” They both laughed at that, and then let that laughter fade away to nothing. “I need to see Hermione. Guess you know what it’s like. Letters aren’t enough. I need to remember that she’s real.”
Harry’s chest squeezed and swallowed past the pain. “Yeah, I know what that’s like. Some days…” He shrugged, unable to complete the thought. “It was hard enough to get through last year. But now this year…”
“You know, they say it’s only a year. Pretty sure I’ve spent half my life waiting on Hermione Granger.”
Harry chuckled. “Pretty sure she feels the same way.”
“Well, that’s enough of that depressing shite,” Ron said, putting his cigarette out as well. “What do you say we go get pissed in their honor?”
“I could raise a pint to that.”
The Leaky Cauldron was crowded and loud that evening. Ron and Harry, by virtue of who they were, had little problem securing a table. They settled down in one of the booths, Ron stretching his long legs out the side and slouching in a way that would have made Hermione scoff. Harry was just folding his cloak with great care – he and Ginny had bought that particular item together when it became apparent he had no clothing to wear for anything, let alone memorial services – when Hannah Abbott made her way over.
“Welcome to the Leaky Cauldron. Our specials tonight are… Harry! Ron!” She grinned, her wide face glowing with happiness. She was pretty, soft, and curved in ways Harry had forgotten about. But then, she’d been in Hufflepuff and he in Gryffindor. Their only regular contact had been through the DA, so it wasn’t surprising that she would look a bit different than he recalled. “It’s good to see you two out and about. It’s been a while!”
“I don’t think I’ve seen you since April,” Ron said, and drew himself to his full height to give her an easy hug. “How have you been?”
Hannah blushed, her fair skin giving away her pleasure in Ron’s observation. “I’ve been doing well, actually. Decided to work here instead of going back to school. I’ve a fair hand at waiting tables, so Tom might sell me the place if he ever wants to give it up.”
“Pretty ambitious,” Harry said, but he softened the words with a grin and a hug. “Especially for a Hufflepuff.”
“Oh, well.” She brought her apron up to dry her hands in what was obviously a nervous habit. “It’s not so very ambitious. I just want to take care of people, you know? And if you’re in charge then you can make sure people are comfortable, I guess.”
“I think it’s great!” Ron said enthusiastically. “You’ll be really good at that.”
“Did Hermione and Ginny return to school?” Hannah asked, pulling her notebook from her apron.
“Yeah,” Harry said, a slow smile taking over his face. “They did. Molly wanted Ginny to go, and you know how Hermione is.”
“Of course. Well! Tom is sending me the evil eye. You can’t take too long to chat up the customers, not even the famous and good-looking ones. What will it be?”
Harry wasn’t sure how it happened, but Hannah gently convinced both he and Ron to have a meal with their pint, so several minutes later he found himself munching on a basket of very delicious fish and chips.
“Sure beats the hell out of mushrooms and bark,” Ron said as he paused momentarily to take a swig of the ale. “Don’t tell Hermione I said that, though.”
“I think she knows,” Harry said, dipping one of the pieces of breaded fish in tartar sauce. “I will never get over being thankful for hot food. Sweet Merlin, this is good.”
Ron flashed a fishy grin, then chewed and swallowed gamely before answering him. “You bet. And hey, this way neither one of us has to try and cook back at the flat.”
“Small favors,” Harry muttered.
Hannah kept the drinks flowing and the rest of the pub mirrored their mood, for the atmosphere became louder and friendlier as the night wore on. Whenever Ron and Harry would gesture for another mug of the ale they were drinking, Hannah would rush over and replace the empty ones so they swiftly lost track how much they were drinking.
Harry was feeling pleasantly buzzed when Ron tugged not-too-gently on his jumper sleeve. “Harry! ‘S George! ‘S my boss. ‘S gonna fire me.”
The world wasn’t too steady, but Harry risked leaning forward to whisper as quietly as he could, which turned out to be not very quietly, “No, ‘s not! Know why? ‘Cause you’re the best fucking wizard in the whole of Britain, mate. ‘S why. And I’ll fucking take out anyone who says any different.”
Ron blinked blearily at him. “Love you, Harry. Not in a queer way. You’re my fucking brother, mate.”
“Not fucking any Weasleys. Mores the pity, ‘cause, I have to tell you, mate, your sister is hot. And she’s nice…” Harry burped, not very delicately, “…to me. Which is more than I de… de… Oh fuck it…. I was a real wanker and she still likes me.”
“Girls, they’re fucking insane,” Ron said solemnly. “Whoopsy, here comes George. Maybe I can throw up all over his shoes this time.”
Harry looked up and blinked his eyes several times before the world came into focus. Sure enough, there was George Weasley, his hands on his hips peering down at them. “’Lo, George. Fancy… oh Merlin… seeing you here!”
George looked for all the world like he was trying not to laugh, which was a bit irritating because Harry was perfectly serious. “Was just talking about you! Ron thinks you’re going to knock him on his arse because he’s pissed out of his mind.”
“Oh, is he now?” George asked, running a hand through his hair and gesturing to Hannah.
“You going to have a drink with us, Georgie?” Ron asked, slurring his words. “Come have a drink with us! It’ll be the Weasley table. Well, the Weasley and Potter table, ‘cause Harry’s only an…” Ron hiccupped, “honorary Weasley. Which is a bit of a damn shame, if you ask me.”
“I’m a Weasley at heart!” Harry shouted.
George threw back his head and laughed, but both Ron and Harry were too drunk to notice its significance. “I think that I should probably get you two blokes home.”
A worried Hannah appeared behind George. “Are you going to need any help, Mr. Weasley? I’m sorry, normally I wouldn’t let them drink this much, but I…”
“They were having fun,” George said with a wave of his hand. “Didn’t get to have any last year, so it only seems…” he paused, in that awkward way he did when he was still expecting someone to finish his sentence, “… fair, I guess, that they get to be a little pissed on a Friday evening, don’t you think? And don’t call me Mr. Weasley. Mr. Weasley’s my dad.”
“You don’t need to help us home,” Harry said insistently and pushed himself shakily to his feet. “I’ll just stand here until the world levels out like it’s supposed to. For some reason everything’s on an angle. I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff, but I’ve never seen the whole world on a bloody angle.”
“That’s because you’ve never been this drunk,” Hannah told him patiently. “Come here, Harry. I’ll help you to the Floo.”
“Wait. Don’t I have to pay for the drinks?” Harry turned to look at her and got a little too close. She blinked her eyes rapidly, and Harry thought he should probably apologize but he couldn’t remember for what.
“Nope. They’re on the house, Harry.” Harry started to refute that, but Hannah had a gentle and firm hold on his forearm. “Why don’t you just go home and get some rest, okay? Do you think you can say the name of your flat clearly enough?”
George stepped up. “I know a really good temporary sobering charm. It’ll get them home. Then I’ll go through with them to make sure they get home okay. Thanks for calling me.”
Hannah flushed. “I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t think calling Mrs. Weasley would be a good idea. And since you’re here a lot ...”
“Yeah, I owe Ron one,” George said, pulling out his wand and casting the spell on Harry quickly.
“Merlin! George, that hurt!” Harry clutched his head and his stomach at the same time. “Oh, man. The room’s spinning.”
“Use the Floo powder to go home, Harry. We’ll fix you right up, okay?” George said, handing him a handful of the powder. Harry nodded and was gone
Ron followed, still a bit unsteady on his feet even after the charm. George was the last to leave, and after the departure of the three war heroes, business slowed down but Hannah and Tom still kept the pub open an extra hour. Seeing Harry Potter relaxing enough to show himself in public, have a drink with his best mate and then be pissed enough to be carted home by a good friend did more to relax the wizarding population than he would probably ever know.
Ron and Harry’s flat was a disaster, as such places inhabited by young men on their own often were. When they’d spent the year on the run with Hermione, she’d always quietly and efficiently taken care of picking up the greatest of their messes. The boys would help, of course, but it just didn’t occur to them to do anything about the dishes that stacked up on the sink or the clothes that piled on the floor without Hermione there to point out that they were civilized people.
George was able to get both boys sober enough that they could lie in bed with trashcans strategically placed near their heads. He took the Weasley family key and locked the door, so when morning came, Harry and Ron woke up by themselves with pounding headaches.
Harry’s alarm rang shrilly at eight o’clock in the morning. “Up, up, up!” it shouted. “Get out of bed, you lazy arse!” He flailed a hand around until he managed to hit the off button with more luck than skill. When he opened his eyes it took a minute to remember where he was, and then the headache hit.
“Oh, shite,” he whispered and rolled over on his side. Even talking made sounds that were much too loud. He mentally vowed never to drink again. After a few minutes of just dealing with the pain, he reached for his glasses and let the world come back into focus.
His feet hit the carpet next and he wearily pulled himself out of bed. Without much interest, he pulled a shirt he hoped was clean from his drawers, yanked it over his head and padded out to the kitchen in his boxer shorts.
He was settling down with toast and tea when an owl tapped anxiously at his kitchen window. With a sigh of impatience, he opened the window and let the owl in. It was a Hogwarts owl, he noted, and suddenly, all of his impatience vanished.
“Thank you,” he whispered to the owl, still afraid to make too much noise or any sudden movements. He fetched the owl treats they kept stocked in the kitchen and sent the bird on its merry way. The reply would have to be sent by a public owl, since he doubted that he would have time to reply to everything Ginny would say in just one day.
Their reconciliation hadn’t been easy, and in a lot of ways, it still wasn’t complete, but they were both taking steps to fix what they had broken. Ginny knew why he had left her but still had to deal with the reality that he had, and Harry had to forgive himself and realize that she had spent a year without him. Ginny had always been strong – that had been one of the reasons he’d been attracted to her, after all, but Harry had to fight his tendencies to want to step in and fix everything. From time to time, Ginny needed to handle problems on her own.
And yet, in spite of all their difficulties, when they wrote to each other or saw each other in person, there was always a moment when everything in the world seemed all right, as though something that had been turned over had suddenly been righted.
He opened the seal on the letter and, since Ron wasn’t around, let himself sniff the paper lightly. Sure enough, it smelled like Ginny. She hadn’t doused the thing in her perfume, so maybe it was his imagination… but there was a yellow, summery, citrus scent to Ginny and it was on the paper she wrote on. He ran careful hands over the parchment before he at last began to read.
It is way too late to be up. It is certainly way too late to be sitting in Gryffindor Tower writing a letter to my boyfriend, but I cannot sleep because I can’t stop thinking about you. So I thought I’d just collapse in that squashy armchair… you know the one? Right by the fireplace, the one that we used to sit in together. You’d be so careful about where you’d put your hands because we’d be sitting with Ron and Hermione and I would wish that we were by ourselves so that you could put your hands anywhere you wished.
I had a feeling you’d remember which one. And now I’ve got you smiling. Aren’t I the perfect girlfriend?
I do miss you terribly. It’s different than last year, when I wasn’t sure you were alive, or where you were. It isn’t worse… it’s just different. It’s hard, knowing exactly where you are and not being able to rush over there and snog you silly. Also talk. But mostly just snog you silly.
Hermione spends most of her time pining over Ron and I spend most of mine pining over you. We are quite the despondent pair.
Are you going to the Quidditch match next Saturday? I’m playing Seeker, but I long to go back to Chaser. Say what you will, Harry, but I’d rather have the consistent action of Chasing than the one moment of glory you get from Seeking.
Are you still mostly doing paperwork? How’s Ron? Is he keeping an eye on George? I’ve got a few letters from him lately. He seems to be doing better, but I just don’t think he’ll ever be the same. None of us will.
Now I’ve gone and made myself cry. Ignore the waterstains, Harry. I’ll try and get them out with a Charm. I miss you so much. Every minute of every day. When you come out for Hogsmeade weekend after the match, will you promise to snog me? For a couple of years, at least. Maybe that will make up for the way I’ve been lately. You owe it to my classmates to snog me for a couple of years.
I love you,
Ginny M. Weasley
Harry put the parchment down. His heart twisted in his chest. That was his Ginny – funny, strong and vulnerable all at once. He read it through again and traced some of the words with his index finger, particularly her signature. She loved him and wasn’t that just the miracle of the century?
He got up from the table to find parchment so he could respond, but before he could make it to the office that he and Ron had put together in the second bedroom, he heard a voice in his fireplace.
“Auror Potter!” It was Kingsley’s voice, and Harry dropped the letter onto the table to run to the living room.
“Minister, what’s going on? What’s wrong?” Harry dropped to his knees to stare at the concerned face of the Minister of Magic.
“You’re going out on your first job, Potter. The first team we sent out has been neutralized. We have a positive identification on one Augustus Rookwood, wanted for several cases of murder and heinous acts. He’s making his way into the Forbidden Forest. We know you have extensive experience in the terrain of that area. If he gets lost in there, it may be decades before we find him to bring him to trial. Pack your bags, Potter. You’ll be spending a few weeks in Hogsmeade.”
Harry nodded. “Let me tell Ron where I’m going so he can let the rest of the Weasleys know.” Kingsley grunted an affirmation and was about to step away when Harry crouched down again. “Kingsley. Thank you for this opportunity.”
Kingsley swallowed. “It was the least I could do, Harry.”
With that, Harry ran into the bedroom he and Ron shared and began to throw the necessary belongings into a duffel bag. With more of an eye towards comfort than fashion, he tossed on jeans and belted them before he pulled his work robes on and zipped the bag shut.
As gently as he could, he nudged Ron out of sleep. When Ron blinked enough to focus blue eyes on him, Harry smiled grimly. “I have to go, Ron. They’ve got a positive ID on Rookwood near the Forbidden Forest. They’re sending my team in. We’re going to get him.”
Ron sat up all the way and pushed at his hair with his hands. “Yes! I’ll have to tell George.”
Harry looked concerned. “Don’t tell George where we’ll be, Ron. Let us handle this, okay? If we’re going to take him to trial and get the bastard, then everything has to be legally airtight.”
“Yeah, of course. So, you’re on your way?” Ron threw his legs over the side and tossed on a Chudley Cannons t-shirt.
“Yeah, I am. Aren’t you hung over?” Harry asked as he grabbed his Invisibility Cloak.
“Nope. Took a Sobering Potion when I woke up in the middle of the night. I keep them on hand for George.”
“All right. I’m out the door. Oh… buggering hell. Ron. You have to owl Ginny. Tell her what I’m doing and that I’ll owl her back just as soon as I possibly can, okay?”
“Okay.” Ron followed Harry out the hallway to the front door and stopped him before he left. “Look. Don’t be an idiot, all right? If somebody needs to be a hero, it doesn’t have to be you.”
Harry flashed a grin at him. “I’ll try not to get killed. “