'Come, there's no use in crying like that!' said Alice to herself, rather sharply; 'I advise you to leave off this minute!' She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it), and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears into her eyes; and once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet she was playing against herself, for this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people. 'But it's no use now,' thought poor Alice, 'to pretend to be two people! Why, there's hardly enough of me left to make ONE respectable person!'
Walking into Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour is like coming home. A blast of air scented with freshly baked waffle cones and coffee brewing washes over Harry's face, tantalising his senses with a friendly warmth.
"I want chocolate with rainbow sprinkles!" James says, tugging on Harry's trouser leg from under where he's got Lily propped on his hip.
"That sounds brilliant. What do you want, Albus?" he asks, craning his neck to locate his other son while being held in place by Lily and James.
Albus stands off a ways, staring at the glass display case that houses the bins of colourful flavours. He's not looking at the ice cream, but at his reflection, and doesn't seem to hear Harry.
Harry orders for James and Lily, then sets Lily down, and she and James toddle over to a table with their cones. Freed of his burden, Harry squats beside Albus and studies him a moment. The past year and a half – since Lily was born, really – Al's closed off more and more. He doesn't laugh and play like he used to; he stopped using the toilet regularly and talks a lot less. Harry and Ginny have spent many a long night worrying together, speculating about what they are doing wrong, devising strategies to help him grow beyond this phase, but it's becoming apparent that they need outside help.
"Al?" Harry asks again.
Albus looks over at him; his green eyes large in his small face, fringed with the long black lashes that Ginny has always said she'd kill to have. Al shrugs, the weight of the world too heavy for his four year old shoulders. "Plain."
Harry frowns, but catches himself. The latest strategy is to encourage, to promote happy times. He smiles instead, though it feels forced. Parenting is hard. He stands back up and orders a vanilla scoop in a dish for Albus and coffee for himself, then pays and leads Albus to the table, a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
Al tries to climb onto his chair holding his dish, and the chair moves one way, his body the other, and the ice cream hits the floor in a smear of dripping white. Al bursts into tears while Harry shifts into problem-solving mode. He sets the chair upright, helps Al into it, and Vanishes the mess before ordering a replacement.
James and Lily chatter at each other in what Harry can only describe as a secret language intended to confuse their parents. He glances at his middle child from behind his newspaper. Al's stopped crying, but isn't eating his ice cream so much as he's turning it into ice cream soup with his spoon.
The Daily Prophet's headlines are as sensationalised as ever.
Last Orphan Finds a Home!
The War Orphan League announces the adoption of the final child left parentless in the great war. 7 Year Anniversary Gala announced to celebrate!
Harry frowns. There's something about showcasing this child as Orphan in the paper that rubs him up the wrong way. The child in the photograph doesn't look very pleased with the attention. He guesses she's about twelve, maybe fourteen tops. He scrubs his hand over his face, displacing his glasses. There's no excuse for there to have been any children left unadopted seven years later. The baby boom that happened after Voldemort's defeat seems counterproductive to Harry when there were children that still needed homes, but who is he to judge? He's as guilty as the next person at falling into line with the urge to marry and reproduce, playing on the mass hysteria that the magical community could become extinct if the losses the war brought weren't replenished. Maybe if he had fought harder with Ginny on the idea of adopting he wouldn't feel so bound up reading this headline.
He looks again at his children, hit as always with the pleasurable flurry in his heart at seeing them. He doesn't regret them at all, never will.
The sound of another customer ordering at the front brings him out of his introspection. The overly excited voice of a child fawning over all the colours – unable to make up his mind which he wants – makes Harry's lips turn up. He keeps his eyes on his paper – never very comfortable in public – always afraid he'll create a scene from simply being who he is. Though the sound of another man's voice, joining in on the heels of the child's father, draws his eyes upwards. They settle on a perfectly rounded arse filling a pair of slate grey trousers, and then the other man's hand slips down to cup a firm cheek with his palm.
Harry swallows hard and tries to look away, but his Auror instinct picks up dodgy behaviour when the first man shifts out of the other man's reach and huffs in annoyance. Harry looks at his face. The perfect arse belongs to Draco Malfoy. Of course it does.
Harry deliberately turns back to his children, pleased to see that Al is enjoying his ice cream soup, slurping it from his spoon and even chatting a bit with his siblings.
"Scorpius, why don't we order one scoop rainbow sherbet and one scoop vanilla, then you can have both of your favourites at the same time?" Malfoy's voice is edged with annoyance, though his fondness for his child is evident.
"You just want to steal my rainbow!" Scorpius accuses and manages to convince his father he needs two rainbow scoops and one vanilla.
There's a rumble of laughter from the other man as the three of them find a table towards the back and take a seat. Malfoy's eyes meet Harry's, and he feels like his skin is peeling back and he's naked before his former nemesis. Malfoy's lips turn up at the corners and he offers Harry a small wave, nearly a salute, that Harry takes to mean, Just having some ice cream, Auror Potter. There's no funny business going on here.
How does he do that? Harry wonders if somehow Malfoy and he have unwittingly developed their own secret language in order to avoid confrontation. Harry nods at him and turns back to his children, urging them to finish up so they can head home, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling.
Harry opens the new book James convinced him to buy at Flourish and Blotts because – There's a smiling cat on it – and according to James, anything with a cat on it has to be good.
They're piled on James's twin bed, the children in their pyjamas, teeth freshly brushed and faces scrubbed. Harry's in the middle with James on his left, Lily propped in his right arm, and Albus scooped up along his side behind her. "Down the Rabbit Hole," Harry reads, and then begins the tale of Alice's long fall, during which she has a long conversation with herself and devours a cake labeled eat me.
By the end of the chapter, James and Lily are fast asleep as they always are when Harry does the bedtime story. He's not sure if his reading voice is just too boring to hold their interest or if it's as Ginny claims, that the sound of his voice is comforting and they love falling asleep to it. Whatever it is doesn't work for her and whenever she finishes a chapter, they're awake and begging for more, and the whole bedtime routine takes ages. Albus, however, is still awake this time. Harry looks down at him, meeting his wide eyes. "But what happened?" Albus asks in a whisper. "She's two people at the same time?"
Harry's right arm is going numb, but this is more than Al has spoken in one go than he has in a long time.
"I dunno. We'll have to wait for tomorrow to find out what the cake did."
Albus nods and climbs backward off the bed. "Okay." He crawls into his own twin bed on the other side of the room. Harry puts the book on James's bedside table and gets to his feet, propping Lily on his shoulder. "I like Alice," Al tells him. "That's my name."
Harry ruffles Albus's hair and tucks him in with his free hand. "It is very similar. Sleep well, son."
Albus sighs and turns on his side towards the wall. He's done talking for the night.
Once he's put Lily into her cot and covered her with a blanket, Harry heads downstairs. Each step he takes feels like he's coming closer and closer to a ticking bomb. He shakes himself. He needs to stop thinking that way. Just because he and Ginny haven't been close for a while doesn't mean it's a gap they can't cross. It happens with all couples, Molly had said in the past. When you're meant to be together you face a lot of rifts and divides, but eventually they even out and become easier to traverse. Young children tend to put a strain on even the most solid relationships.
That all sounded well and good to him at the time, but now … This feels different. The skin crawling sensation – like his insides are too big for him – keeps cropping up. Now that Gin's gone back to work after having Lily and is engrossed with Quidditch and her colleagues, it seems like they just take turns watching the children and aren't ever together in the same head space anymore. He wonders if they ever were.
He reaches the bottom of the stairs and pokes his head into the living room. Ginny's curled up on the sofa; her hair is piled in a loose bun, a pencil sticking out of it, and she's engrossed in a playbook propped on the armrest.
"Hey," he says. She looks up, slightly dazed, then to the hallway behind him.
He nods. "Yeah. I'm going to turn in, too. I've got work in the morning and …" He clears his throat. "I've got a session with Rolf after that."
Ginny nods and glances back at the playbook. "That's fine. I'll meet the Magpies for an interview when you get home from Rolf's. Shouldn't take long."
"G'night." Harry pauses a moment, then breathes. Apparently the playbook is more interesting than he is. He turns back towards the stairs.
"Night, Harry. I'll be up in a few minutes. I just want to finish this section."
Harry nods at the stairs and makes his way back up. She'll be up in about an hour. He should be able to fall asleep by then.
Paperwork. Harry hates it. Why didn't anybody mention the amount of paperwork that was involved in being an Auror before he signed up?
His arse is asleep in his chair and his chair is too hard. He signs his name at the bottom of the last report and stands up – arms over his head – and stretches.
"Hey there, partner." McLaggen's voice makes him jump and fuck, now he's got a kink in his back. He turns. Cormac McLaggen is standing in the doorway, leaning against the jamb, too tall to be allowed and shirtsleeves fit to burst over his biceps.
"Hey," Harry says. He feels like he's shrunk in size in Cormac's presence. Sort of like Alice in the chapter from last night. I must be shutting up like a telescope. Still, as far as partners go, Cormac and he seem to work well together. Cormac's muscle and schmoozing charm when talking with people complement Harry's agility and quick thinking, but he's never really liked his partner's personality.
"We've got a new case. Dealer of potions, dark stuff. Got a tip from our man on the ground. Specs are in here." He hands Harry a folder full of scrolls. Great. Just what he needs. More paperwork and a bit of light reading before bed. "The plan is to go in undercover tomorrow, take the whole thing down from the inside."
Harry grunts, nods, rolls his shoulder.
"Got a sore muscle?" Cormac asks. "There's a place on Diagon Alley. I've heard the massages are killer, but I've never been in."
Harry closes his eyes, opens them. "Yeah? Well, I'm not much of one for that. I'll soak in the tub tonight. It'll be fine by tomorrow."
"Right you are. All right, I'm off now. Sluggy is having a get together later on. Just a few close people … Gawain, Dawlish, Kingsley … play some poker. You want to come along? I'm sure you'd be welcome."
Harry grimaces and swallows the bitter taste filling his mouth. Cormac knows how much he loathes the back slapping sessions 'everybody who's anybody' attends. He's actually curious why Kingsley would be playing poker with those losers when the gala is being organised. "Nah, thanks anyway." He rubs at his shoulder, the folder tucked under his arm. "I'm a family man. I've got nappies to change and dinner to fix. Have a good time and say hi for me."
Cormac booms a laugh. "Will do. See you tomorrow."
Rolf Scamander's office sits across the street from the Leaky Cauldron on the Diagon Alley side. Luna and he live in the flat above it and Luna's personality is present in the decor, from the squashy purple and orange poufs, to the bright yellow sun painted on the wall opposite the windows.
Rolf is a short man – about Harry's height – slightly on the heavier side. But his short grey-flecked goatee, smiling blue eyes bespectacled with small round wire-rims – his head bearing a crazy mop of hair dyed with streaks of purple, green, and orange on top of the original black – makes him very easy to get on with.
"Have a seat, Harry." Rolf gestures to the poufs and the Victorian style pink sofa in front of the sun painting. Harry takes the sofa. His back isn't in a pouf sort of mood. Rolf sits in his office chair, a leather number on wheels, covered with a sheepskin.
"How's Luna?" Harry asks, feeling awkward despite Rolf's comforting presence.
"Oh, she's great! The babies will be here any day. We're over the moon."
"Brilliant." Harry had somehow entirely forgotten they were expecting twins. "You know what they're going to be? Have names picked out and such?" He's so fucking pants at talking to people lately. He feels like cringing and yes, closing up like a telescope.
"Never can tell until they get here and tell us who they are." Rolf strokes his goatee thoughtfully, then smiles. "I can't wait to meet them though. We'll call them Lorcan and Lysander."
Harry frowns, pensive. "What if they're girls?"
Rolf shakes his head, smiling. "Luna and I think those names will work either way. We're not fussed. But let's talk about you, Harry. What's on your mind?"
Harry shifts in his seat. He's tired. Tired and stretched thin, but Rolf is waiting for him to talk and they've only got an hour. "I hate my job. I'm tired of dealing with stuck up prigs every day. My partner dropped a case on me at the last minute; I swear he always does that. He gets the information and hides away in his office, studying it all day, and only after he's got it all figured out does he bother to share it with me, so I'm the one who looks underprepared. But when I suggest that we might do well to switch partners, he gets chummy and repentant, goes on and on about how well we work together, how disappointed everybody would be to split up the 'dream team.’ It's maddening."
He takes a breath and lets it out. It feels good to get it off his chest. To just tell it like it is instead of having to tiptoe on eggshells to avoid narking people off.
Rolf nods and offers him a cup of tea, then takes one himself. He rocks back in his chair, replaces the teapot, and wheels back in front of Harry. "Go on. Anything else about work? How are things at home?"
Harry sips his tea. It's good. Something herbal, natural, a bit slick. "This is good. What's in it?" He's stalling and he knows it. And he knows Rolf knows he knows it, too.
"Bit of slippery elm. Tell me about home, Harry."
Harry sighs and starts talking, knowing that if he just starts it will all come out. It always does with Rolf. He'll feel better afterwards.
"James is great. He's starting primary school in a couple of weeks. He's excited about it, already showing off all he knows as far as his letters and numbers, naming colours and shapes, doing simple maths. He's insisting that he'll be so well prepared that he'll be the top kid in the class. We've tried to tell him that there's really not a 'top' kid in the early years, but he's got his goal in sight and won't hear otherwise. He's great with Lily. Those two … They speak their own language. It's amazing how close they are. I guess I always thought the boys would be closer, you know, and that Lily would be the hanger-on and trying to get their attention. It used to be like that, back before she was born. Albus …" Harry sighs. He doesn't know how else to say it, but feels horrible for even thinking it. "Albus is more our problem child right now. He doesn't talk as much as he used to. He just seems unhappy all the time. I mean, not all the time, but still … I was a miserable child growing up, I know misery when I see it. And I'm arsed to know how to make it better." He rakes his hand through his hair, sloshing tea down the side of his cup onto his lap.
Rolf pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and hands it over. Still quiet. Still waiting for Harry to get it all out. Not judging. Harry's beyond thankful for the lack of judgment he feels here.
"I started a new book last night. I read to them before bed. Alice in Wonderland … It's a Muggle book." Rolf nods. Of course he's heard of it. It's popular in the Muggle world, but apparently Flourish and Blotts stocks it, so it's not unfamiliar to the wizarding public. "He seems to be interested in it. More than I've seen him interested in anything lately."
His thoughts swim to the ice cream mishap, and then the ice cream soup, and then, inevitably, to Draco sodding Malfoy. He grips his teacup harder, hoping his hand doesn't start to shake. Malfoy's arse in those trousers … Where is it coming from? Why now? After all the years he's tamped it down, shouldn't he have moved on with his life? Grown out of the phase? Grown up?
Rolf clears his throat, and Harry looks up, realising he's gone silent. Damn. "When we first started, Harry, you told me that you were seeking therapy to help you improve your marriage. You told me you felt you should be happy and were ashamed that you weren't. We've met for several sessions now, and each time – now I'm not judging, please understand that." Harry nods. He feels like Rolf has called him out. He must be so fucking obvious. "When I ask about home, you talk of your children. You seem to be a very loving and attentive father. I just wonder, why the avoidance of talking about your wife, your marriage?"
Harry sets his teacup on the coffee table and sits back. He puts his face in his hands. He's hot, uncomfortable, on the spot. "I don't know what to do. I feel so buried I can't breathe …" The words come unbidden. He hears himself say them, hears the unrepentant truth in them. "Fuck…" He looks up. "I've got to deal with this, haven't I?"
Rolf nods, lips turned down at the corners, concern written clearly across his face. "I really think you ought to, yes. Unfortunately our time's up for today. Are you going to be okay to wait a week before we speak again?"
Harry shrugs, his eyes burning. He's still got Rolf's handkerchief in his lap, and discreetly dabs at his eyes when Rolf wheels to the desk to check his schedule. Way to go to pieces at the tail end of the session. "Yeah." He's lying. But what else can he say? He thinks longingly of the take-down tomorrow. A bit of real heart-racing danger will take his mind off of his problems.
"All right," Rolf says kindly. "Let's meet next Wednesday. And you agree to talk about your marriage at the start? We'll get right down to the heart of the matter?"
Harry nods numbly. "Yeah. Okay." He stands up when Rolf does and shakes his hand.
"I'm proud of you, Harry. It takes a brave man to face his fears."
Harry feels so phony when he accepts the praise. But he does it. It's expected. He's used to doing what's expected. His eyes ache. There are tears that want to spill out. He doesn't let them.