When it came to relationships, Harry couldn’t mark their passage as simply as being ‘before and after Ginny’. He couldn’t even think of his relationship with Ginny as a singular event, because there was so much in his life that changed who Harry was as a person during their years together. When he thought about it in retrospect, Harry supposed that he would mark his time with Ginny as a triptych: Beginning, Middle and End.
The Beginning started with Hogwarts. Friendship followed by discovery and the birth of the dark beast of jealousy; the bright, consuming love of a young man that flared and was banked by circumstance until it could be rekindled. When the war was over, their fledgling relationship seemed to begin over and over as they were drawn together and pulled apart, learning to navigate the waters of adulthood. Always lingering, but rarely fulfilled.
The start of the Middle was marked by the moment Harry had realized he wanted to marry Ginny. It was as though some assumption of that outcome had always been there, but it came upon Harry quite suddenly one day how much he truly wanted that. Wanted to be bound to her, to build a life with her. The transition was hardly perfect, filled with gentle bickering and the occasional real argument that hallmarked a life shared with someone. They learned their new roles as fiancées, then newlyweds and finally new parents, growing and learning and loving together. Harry unequivocally considered this period of time the best point in his life, the time when he was the best version of himself…and what came after, the worst.
The End began the instant James was stolen from their lives, a stark timestamp like that on the report filed away in the archives of the Ministry of Magic.
Harry lost himself in his work, as though by solving cases and making arrests he could somehow create enough of a counterbalance for all he’d lost to be made whole once more. He worked too hard, slept too little, and drank too much until Ron threatened to move back into Grimmauld Place if Harry didn’t start taking care of himself. So Harry started accepting invitations out into the world again, saving his drinking for the social rather than the solitary...until the night he kissed Zacharias Smith. Or rather, the night Zacharias had kissed him, but it amounted to the same thing.
It had been so long since he’d been kissed that the ache of loneliness had overwhelmed Harry’s better judgement and he’d ignored his instincts, because of course he’d always known Zacharias was a massive prat. When pictures from the photographers Zacharias had tipped off splashed themselves garishly across the front page of the Prophet the next morning, Harry had cursed himself a fool in every way he knew how. The shame burned at him, and Harry had to firmly remind himself that it was not because the wizarding world was now fully aware that his preferences were unhindered by gender, despite the whispers at the back of his mind that spat out words like ‘abnormal’ and ‘freak’ in the Dursleys’ tender tones. In truth, the root of his shame was that Harry didn’t want to be that person, the one who sought comfort in drink and the warmth of a near stranger in the wake of his shattered life.
For a brief time following his forced outing, Harry withdrew from social niceties with the magical and half-heartedly tried dating Muggles, but those relationships were doomed to fail before they even blossomed. There was simply no way for him to have a real connection with a Muggle, hiding the truth of himself and the world he belonged to. The world he loved despite all that had happened. Resigned that the best course of action was to remain on his own despite the growing ache of loneliness within him, Harry surprised himself when Ernie McMillan approached him some months later to apologize for the appalling actions of his housemate by asking the equally surprised former Hufflepuff out for coffee.
Ernie was comfortable and warm and rather boring, but Harry enjoyed being with him for the brief months they were together, allowing him to soothe away at least a little of his heartache. There wasn’t a real spark between them, but their relationship was fun and physical and when Harry admitted to Ernie that he was interested in Hannah, the wizard simply smiled, called Harry a tosspot, and kindly offered to set them up. Hannah, of course, ended up doing the very same thing to Harry a few months later, but Harry hadn’t called her any names. After Hannah there was only Spider and he didn’t even consider allowing anyone else into his life as the case consumed him until he was broken and bleeding in the Belizean jungle.
It wasn’t necessarily that he believed himself impotent after the attack, but the lasting, growing pain undeniably shaped his world in the aftermath and companionship was leagues away from what Harry wanted. Or told himself he wanted. Now this was ill-timed and ill-conceived and Harry was struggling to accept that he’d been turned on his head by Draco Malfoy, who by all accounts ought to be the very last person to do so. Try as he might, Harry could no longer ignore the spark of attraction his dreams had so plainly highlighted from the moment their lives had intersected once more and the very notion of it was terrifying.
In the wake of his dream, and the mounting agony in his arm, Harry had slept very little by the time a sharp, angry knock came to his door early the following morning. Harry would have guessed it was Draco even if his wards hadn’t already relayed the familiar tingle of his magic. Rubbing a tired hand over his face, Harry gave himself a cursory glance in the mirror to make sure he’d gotten his Transfiguration settled in, a precaution he’d taken in case of this very scenario, then went to open the door. Draco immediately shoved through it and grabbed Harry by the front of his dressing robe, slamming him against the wall.
“What did you think you were doing?” Draco snarled at him and Harry realized he’d drawn his wand when he felt the point of it press up under his jaw.
“Good morning, Draco,” Harry replied wearily, feeling utterly exhausted. He tried not to think about the dream, hardly wanting to dwell on the awkwardness of such an occurrence while the Gamekeeper was so incensed.
“Don’t. Don’t you dare pretend that you aren’t fully aware why I’m here, Evans!” Draco roared, eyes flashing with anger.
Harry looked at Draco, seeing the lines of exhaustion written deep on his face after a full night of watching over Lavender Brown in the Forbidden Forest, pale hair dishevelled and falling about his face. His brow furrowed slightly as his mind caught on that detail, turning it over until recognition sparked.
“Your hair…” he said distractedly. “You cut it?”
Draco was briefly taken aback, then his lip curled in a sneer. “Became rather necessary after Acromantula web fell into it. Now how do you suppose that happened?” he asked cuttingly. Where before it had fallen well past his shoulders, usually bound up in a tail, Draco’s hair had been severed at the nape of his neck.
Swallowing thickly around a swell of guilt, Harry lowered his eyes in shame and defeat. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, his voice rough with the honesty of his words. “It was a mistake.”
“A mistake,” Draco repeated in disgust, lowering his wand at last and shoving away from Harry. “Lavender could have been injured. Her child could have been injured. And you…” He shook his head in frustration, shoving his wand back into his belt. “What were you doing out there?”
“Following you,” Harry admitted, abruptly exhausted by the mire of his falsehood. “I…I thought you were a werewolf.” At Draco’s incredulous look, he pressed on. “When we first met at St Mungo’s, you were coming from the first floor, where creature-induced injuries are treated. I’ve seen new werewolves treated in the Dai Llewellyn ward there before. That was the day after the full moon.”
“I teach Care of Magical Creatures,” Draco pointed out scathingly. “I’m a rather frequent guest of that particular floor.”
“You also published a book on werewolves,” Harry countered gently. “A book written with the intent to overturn myth and misconception on those afflicted. Then you were put on bedrest after the last full moon and with the way you were all but attacking breakfast yesterday…” Shaking his head in frustration, Harry sighed. “You told me to investigate while I was here and I did.”
“I didn’t mean me! If all that bothered you so much, why didn’t you simply ask me?” Draco demanded.
“It didn’t bother me. It doesn’t matter whether or not you are a werewolf, I just…I needed to know,” Harry finished lamely.
“Why?” Draco asked, his gaze sharp despite his exhaustion. “Why did you need to know so badly that you followed me?”
Harry’s mouth opened, then closed and he swallowed thickly, looking at him helplessly. The tense silence stretched between them for a long moment, then he said softly, pleadingly, “Draco.”
“No,” Draco said, shaking his head in denial. Darkness rippled over Harry’s vision briefly and he flinched, closing his eyes tightly a moment before opening them once more to find Draco looking at him intently. Anger burned a vivid red about him, sparked through with sour green bolts of hurt and betrayal. “A proper apology would be delivered on your knees, Potter.”
Cold prickled at the back of Harry’s neck and his breath stilled before escaping him in a rush. “W-what?”
His vision rippled again and Draco was looking at him strangely, no longer wreathed in his emotions. “I said, we’re done here. Stay away from me, Evans,” he said icily and turned on his heel to wrench the door open once more.
Flinching when it banged shut behind the Gamekeeper, Harry put his head in his undamaged hand, feeling unsettled. What had happened just now? Had he just experienced some kind of waking dream? It certainly felt more a dream than a hallucination, yet he was still struggling to assure himself of what had been real.
“What did you do?” Snape accused him from the painted meadow across the room and Harry sighed, glancing over at the small figure.
“Weren’t you listening?”
Snape’s dark eyes narrowed and he scowled at him. “Listening to what?”
“To whom, actually,” Harry corrected faintly, frowning in confusion. “What are you talking about, then?”
“Your Dark Detectors have been flashing on and off sporadically since night, but they came on again just now in spite of the fact that you are clearly awake,” Snape pointed out needlessly. “So I can only assume that you have done something wholly ill-advised and exacerbated your condition somehow. What is it you’ve done?”
Harry considered keeping the night’s events from the old spy just to be contrary, but his arm gave an icy throb and he gritted his teeth against the pain, more severe than it had been in months. “Something foolish,” he admitted, shrugging off his dressing gown to show Snape the sorry state of his bandages. “I might as well tell you now that I’m an Animagus.”
He thought he saw Snape’s eyebrow twitch and wondered if it was the admittance or haphazard bandages that caused it. “Of course you are. And I suppose that you, in your infinite wisdom, decided that the full moon was a good time to remove your bandages and change form?”
“That about sums it up, yes,” Harry agreed in soft defeat and started to unwind the nearly useless strip of cloth. “Will you help me? Please.”
“I’m not sure why I ought to bother, given your complete disregard for your own continued health and well-being,” Snape told him caustically. He drew in a sharp breath through his hooked nose as Harry’s arm was revealed. “You stupid boy.”
Looking at the ruin of his arm, Harry couldn’t find it within him to even feel slighted at the insult. Where they had managed to before contain the infection to his forearm, it had now spread once more over the entirety of his hand and clear up his shoulder. The scars over his wand shrapnel still stood out in pale relief against the blackness, but they were not shot through with angry lines of violet as they had been when he’d first arrived at Hogwarts.
“I’m guessing we’re beyond Donum Vitae, then,” Harry lamented, too tired to be angry at himself.
Fortunately, Snape was plenty angry enough for the both of them. “Yes,” he said tightly, his voice low and seething. “You can use what little remains at the shoulder to try and drive it back, but I doubt we’ll see much success. At this point I believe we should start considering amputation.”
“Amputation,” Harry repeated in horror, flinching back from the painting as though he’d been struck. “It’s my wand arm!”
“And you can live without an arm,” Snape reminded him coldly. “I very much doubt your chances should the infection reach your heart or brain, however. What little of it exists, at any rate.”
“No, I…no. I’m sorry, but I can’t accept that,” Harry denied adamantly. He turned to play the Evans Gambit on Snape’s chessboard, roughly moving the white queen to the mantle so as to pop open the hidden compartment and the figure stabbed at his fingers reproachfully with her small sword. Not bothering to apologize, Harry pulled out the small vial of golden liquid and forced himself to set it carefully on the mantle before unstopping it.
“Harry,” Snape said softly and the sound of his given name was so startling that Harry froze, looking up at the painted figure. His sallow expression was drawn and Harry was horrified to see a glimmer of empathy for him there. “We need to be realistic.”
“I…I can’t, Severus,” Harry whispered in denial. “I can’t.”
“Then we need help,” he told him flatly, folding his arms. “Because you’re running out of time.”
“Ha- Jameson!” Hermione greeted him in surprise as she opened the door to her office. Despite the early hour, she was already in her robes, though her hair was still in some disarray. “Come in, I was actually just about to see if you were up to join me for breakfast.”
Caught a bit off guard at this, Harry looked at her in wary surprise. “You were?” he asked doubtfully. He’d foregone his Draught of Peace this morning and could feel the prickle of suspicion set its claws into his psyche. Was Hermione bugging his rooms? His arm almost seemed to itch beneath clean and freshly spelled bandages at the thought.
Closing the door behind him, Hermione wrung her hands together, biting her lip. “Yes, I…I wanted to apologize, Harry. I’ve been such a terrible friend.”
Her eyes were bright with tears as she swallowed thickly. “Hallowe’en,” she lamented and wrapped her arms about herself. “I had completely forgotten until Minerva mentioned it. That was why you came to my office last week, wasn’t it? To ask me to stand in and instead I…Merlin’s pants I’m always crying these days!” She used the sleeves of her robes to scrub at her eyes in frustration. “I promised myself I wouldn’t!”
The buzz of paranoid suspicion melted as quickly as it had come, chased off by an ache in his heart at the reminder. “Hermione…it’s alright, really. Draco covered for me, it wasn’t an issue at all,” he assured her gently. Putting his good arm about her, he squeezed her shoulders gently. “You can’t take on the burden of the world, you know.”
“L-look who’s talking,” Hermione chided with a sniffle, giving him a watery smile. “How are you, Harry? Really.”
Shrugging, Harry tried for a smile and managed a grimace. “I’ve certainly been better,” he admitted. “But Hallowe’en was actually…good. Ginny and I spent the day catching up.”
“Ginny?” Hermione asked in surprised, a guilty look coming to her face.
“Yes, I know about the baby,” Harry confided wryly. “Don’t fuss, it wasn’t your secret to tell.”
If anything, this caused Hermione to look even guiltier, but she nodded and drew away from him, smoothing back her bushy hair. “Still, I wish you hadn’t found out then, of all days.” Searching his face, Hermione bit her lip again and reached up to touch his cheek. “You don’t look as though you’ve slept.”
Grimacing, Harry ran his hand through the wild tangle of his hair. “I…did a foolish thing last night.”
Pursing her lips at him, Hermione folded her arms. “Of course you did. Do I want to know what it was?”
“I suppose that depends on whether or not you know why Lavender Brown comes back to Hogwarts during the full moon.”
Eyes widening, her breath caught in surprise. “Oh Harry, you didn’t.” His expression must have made it plain that he had, so she covered her face in her hands. “You could have been killed! Please tell me you at least went out as a stag.”
“For all the good it did me. I certainly wasn’t expecting there to be a pack. Honestly I’m not sure what I expected.”
Sighing, Hermione walked back over to her desk and tapped the teapot she’d abandoned there when he’d knocked at her door, warming it back up. “I suppose I should explain,” she admitted softly.
“That would be nice, thanks,” Harry said dryly, lips twitching when Hermione shot him a look. “I’d like to point out that I wouldn’t have had reason to go looking for trouble had I known it was there.”
“And I suppose it’s too much to ask that you not stick your nose in other people’s business,” she chastised, taking her seat. “You remember that Lavender was attacked by Fenrir Greyback in the final battle, of course.”
“I do…but I also remember that he was human at the time, same as Lupin.”
“Hers was an unusual case. Greyback was human when he attacked, but only because he couldn’t force the transformation outside the full moon. It should left her in a situation similar to Bill’s, where she had been infected with the virus, but it wasn’t fully active. There’s several theories as to why that didn’t happen, but I believe that the fact that he savaged her in the heat of battle with his teeth to the point where she very nearly died is what turned her. It’s hardly as though such a thing has been extensively tested…most werewolves aren’t like Greyback,” she explained, Transfiguring a piece of parchment into a second teacup and filling it with hot brew for him.
“She had a hard time of it, of course. Lavender comes from a pureblood family and despite that she was a war hero, they wanted her to cover it up,” she said, old anger in her voice. “They even tried to keep her coming back for that Eighth Year, but she was of age and they really didn’t have any say. I helped brew her Wolfsbane potions while we were at school that year, but she drew away from the magical world for a time afterward and we fell out of touch. I think she felt betrayed that her own family would turn on her so quickly.”
“Draco mentioned that she’d married a Muggle,” Harry remembered, taking up his tea simply to hold the warmth against his pained right hand.
“She did, but she’s never mentioned anything more about him. I think the Patil twins were the only magical persons she invited to the wedding. Lavender had already married by the time I started working here at Hogwarts.”
“Hang on, you weren’t the one who got her the job?” Harry asked in surprise.
Shaking her head, Hermione gave him a wry smile. “No…that was Draco.”
“Draco?” Harry repeated, perplexed.
“From what I understand, he interviewed Lavender when he was writing his book on werewolves. I suppose they must have hit it off, because Draco recommended her to Minerva when they lost her predecessor, Edgar Mulligan.”
Harry’s brow furrowed as he processed that, staring down into his cup. “So if you made her Wolfsbane potions back during that Eighth Year, why aren’t you doing that now?”
Raising an eyebrow, Hermione gave him a patient look. “Because she’s pregnant, obviously. Wolfsbane is poisonous to humans and her unborn child is, of course, human. Lycanthropy is only passed from mother to child if said child is conceived during a full moon. Though of course, the father would have to be a werewolf as well. Those children are, however, born as wolves with human intelligence, as you surely saw last night.”
Remembering how the wolves had worked together with a higher understanding than should have been capable for mere beasts, Harry nodded. “So the pack in the Forbidden Forest is made up of werewolf children…”
“Which you would have already known, had you ever bothered to read Hogwarts: A History,” Hermione pointed out primly, sipping at her tea while Harry scowled at her. “The first pregnancy was easier… I had just arrived at Hogwarts and I offered to be her surrogate during the full moon so that she could ingest Wolfsbane safely. She was able to spend her full moon nights with the pack in the forest while still in control of her faculties. In fact, she only had to miss the back half of second term.”
“Her surrogate? How did that work?” Harry wondered.
“It’s an old spell that I reworked slightly to suit our needs. Essentially, it allows a foetus to be tied to multiple wombs simultaneously, so that a mother may shift her child to the safety of her surrogate should she feel herself in danger. A sort of…internal Portkey, if you will.”
Understanding dawned in Harry and he looked at her closely. “That’s why Lavender had to leave this time…why she has to go through the full moon without the use of Wolfsbane. You weren’t a safe option.”
Hermione looked pained and lowered her gaze. “A child would be just as much at risk with me now, given the circumstances. Unfortunately it takes a witch of a certain…ability to manage such a spell. There simply wasn’t anyone else suitable.”
“So Draco and Neville go out on full moon nights to make sure the pack keeps her away from the castle. And the Acromantula colony,” Harry surmised with a sigh.
“Yes, and Witherwings makes sure they steer clear of any centaur hunting parties. It’s hardly ideal…but it was the best we could think up, given the circumstances,” Hermione finished tiredly. They were both quiet a moment, but before Harry could ask her anything further, there came a soft knock at the door. Startling a little, Hermione frowned before her eyes lit knowingly. “That’ll be Lavender now. Come in!”
Lavender looked ashen with pained fatigue as she pushed open the door, her tired smile faltering when she caught sight of Harry. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you had company. I don’t want to intrude.”
“Not at all, it’s only Jameson,” Hermione assured her, ignoring Harry’s indignant sound of protest. “Can I get you some tea?”
Shaking her head, Lavender smoothed a hand over her messy plait self-consciously as she joined them at the desk. “No, I must be getting back. I only came to pick up my jewellery.”
“Yes, of course, I’d nearly forgotten.” Taking out her wand, Hermione tapped the top drawer of her desk to unlock it, then out a wedding ring and the pendant of swirling gold that Harry had noticed Lavender wearing the day prior.
“Thank you for keeping it safe for me,” Lavender said gratefully, taking them from Hermione. She immediately slipped the ring back on her finger and looked rather relieved by its presence there as she turned her attention to the pendant. Watching her idly as she put it on, Harry realized that the golden lines actually formed a stylized letter ‘D’ in a formal script.
“Big D…” he murmured to himself, hardly realizing that he’d spoken aloud except that Lavender froze. They stared at one another in shock for a long moment and suddenly, despite how seemingly impossible it was, Harry just knew. “Lavender…you…didn’t marry Dudley Dursley…did you?”
Trumpington was lovelier than Little Whinging by far, at least from what Harry could see from the road as he was Apparated in via Lavender’s Side-Along. He had, of course, offered to Apparate on his own or travel there by Floo to make it easier on her, but Lavender was understandably wary of giving him her address. Harry could hardly blame her, but despite this he had frequented Cambridge enough over the years that he thought he recognized the village. They had landed under cover of a large tree across from a lovely detached period house of brick and timber and Harry could feel the protective charms woven over the home and walled-in garden even at this distance.
“Dudley wanted something a bit more modern,” Lavender said nervously as she released Harry’s arm, fiddling with the end of her plait. “But it’s just so hard to lay proper spellwork on anything constructed in the last two centuries. And most modern houses here are attached besides, which-”
“It’s a beautiful home,” Harry assured her honestly, cutting off her anxious chatter. “We don’t have to do this if it’s too much.”
It honestly pained him to say the words, for Harry thought he might not actually be able to draw himself away if she denied him now. With the revelation of Lavender’s marriage, all sense and reason had utterly flown his mind. Gone were all thoughts of Draco and his arm and werewolves and everything beyond the knowledge that Lavender Brown had apparently gone and married Dudley Dursley and they had started a family. The very concept was likely to drive him mad if he didn’t drill it down to the source.
“It’s just that…well he never talks about you, Jameson. He’s never even told me your name and always changes the subject if it’s brought up. If it weren’t for Hermione vouching for you…” Shaking her head with fierce determination, she took a breath and marched forward with all the stubborn Gryffindor bravery he would have expected of his former housemate. “Let’s be done with it, the anticipation has me all woolly.”
Sagging slightly in relief, Harry followed closely behind Lavender, careful not to outpace her in his eagerness. She fished out her keys from a pocket to unlock the door and they stepped in past the silencing charm on the threshold, a cacophony of sound rising to greet them.
“Now we don’t turn the bunnies blue, dear and-ouch!” A child squealed with laughter as a rhythmic thudding came, as though someone were hopping on one foot.
Lavender gave him a shy, embarrassed smile and then cleared her throat to call out. “Duddy Darling, I’m home!”
“Mama!” the child cried happily and came toddling in from the adjoining room excitedly, dressed in a yellow romper and preceded by three rabbits in varying shades of blue. They darted about Lavender’s feet, then dashed off past them, making a hard right at the end of the hall that had them slipping about on the polished wood floors as they made for the dining room.
Scooping up the little girl, Lavender smiled and heaved her up over the swell of her belly, planting kisses on her cheek. “Hello, Daisy Dear. Were you a good girl for Daddy?”
“We played babbits!” she reported happily, her lopsided red pigtails bobbing.
“That’s rabbits, dearest and oh!“ Dudley said in surprise as he came through the doorway and caught sight of Harry. “Who’s this then?”
Harry quickly held up his hands, the right arm protesting the movement more than a little, when Lavender stiffened and whirled on him. Clutching her daughter protectively to her, she drew her wand and Harry quickly said, “I can explain.”
“You had damned well better!” she snarled at him and Harry could see that she was not fully unaffected by the moon as of yet.
“Mama?” the child asked uncertainly, curling up against her mother as Dudley approached warily from behind.
Closing his eyes, Harry took a deep breath and let his disguise fall, scrubbing his left hand across the Muggle make-up concealing his scar for good measure. Hearing Lavender’s surprised intake of breath, he opened his eyes once more and looked past her to Dudley, who was stood stock still behind his wife.
“Ha…Harry?” he breathed in surprise, floored at the sight of him.
“Hi, Dudley,” Harry replied with an awkward nod.
He barely recognized the man as the same pudgy boy he’d known in his youth. Dudley had the broad bulk of a man who had been an athlete for years before letting his body go soft and one of his ears was misshapen so that it now resembled a cauliflower. Harry thought that given the evidence, Dudley must have continued boxing well into university. His hair was still blonde as it had been when they were boys, but his moustache was red and both were kept short and neat with a fastidiousness that spoke to his mother’s near mania with cleanliness.
“Harry Potter,” Lavender said, stunned. She stared at Harry uncomprehendingly, then rounded on her husband. “Your cousin is Harry Potter?”
“Er…well, Lav…that is…yes?” Dudley hedged nervously, face flushing a ruddy shade.
“Why is your cousin Harry Potter?” she demanded, then shook her head. “No, I mean, why didn’t you tell me? And you!” She turned on Harry again. “You’re at Hogwarts! And…Dumbledore’s beard if the press finds out…”
“Breathe, Lovey,” Dudley said with some concern, scooping their daughter out of her arms easily with one arm while he put the other about her. “Let’s sit you down. You know that stress isn’t good for the baby.”
“I’m a werewolf, Duddy. I’m made to be stressed round this time,” Lavender grumbled, but let herself be led to the sitting room.
Shifting awkwardly on the landing, Harry followed them wordlessly, helpless but to continue down this path now he’d started it. “I’ve no intention of letting anyone get wind of me at Hogwarts, Lavender,” he assured her, watching in bewilderment as Dudley helped her into a soft, squashy armchair. “And the press has never managed to catch wind of my Muggle relations before, so I don’t see why that should change. I had my records sealed years ago.” He didn’t feel it appropriate to mention that he’d done so out of embarrassment to be associated with the Dursleys, rather than a desire to protect them.
“Does Hermione know? Yes, of course she does, that’s why she vouched for you…but Neville thinks you’re awful!” she exclaimed, then winced. “Sorry, but it’s true.”
Harry sighed and folded his arms with a scowl. “I’ve no doubt.”
“I can’t believe you haven’t told him…I thought you were friends!” Lavender scolded him.
Standing awkwardly beside his wife with the toddler still in his arms, Dudley looked back and forth between them uncertainly. “So…I take it you know each other,” he said rather glumly and Harry suddenly realized that Dudley was jealous. Of Harry.
Utterly bewildered by the situation he found himself in now, Harry explained, “We were in the same year at Hogwarts.”
“Harry was in the same House as Pavarti and I, but…you must have known that, Duddy,” Lavender said, frowning up at him.
“We never talked about school,” Harry offered, which was kinder than saying that they’d never spoken much at all except to insult one another.
Dudley shot him a grateful look and stooped to set his daughter down in the chair with Lavender as the child started to squirm and fuss. “You know what my parents are like, Lovey… No one was allowed to talk about magic at home. Dad told everyone Harry went to St Brutus’s Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys.”
Lavender’s face darkened at the mention of Vernon and Petunia and she gathered her daughter protectively to her. “But still, you must have guessed,” she pressed on. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
It was something Harry wanted to know as well, though at least part of him thought it must have been that Dudley didn’t want to be shown up. It was clear in the way that he hovered how Dudley adored Lavender and Harry could understand that it might be difficult for a Muggle to mention that he had a wizard cousin. A famous wizard cousin, no less and one he’d treated abominably.
“Well, it’s just…it wasn’t safe, was it?” Dudley said sheepishly, looking between them. “We went into hiding in ’97 because that Moldywart fellow and his lot were after Harry. When they said it was all over and we could go home, Mister Diggle warned us that there were still plenty of your kind out there who would use us against Harry if we went flapping our mouths. Mum and Dad had no problem pretending Harry didn’t exist, of course, and everyone I knew was Muggle anyway. That is, until I met you and...well…I didn’t want to put you in danger, Lovey. Or my Daisy Dear.”
Looking up at her husband lovingly, Lavender’s expression melted and she took Dudley’s hand, squeezing it tightly. “Oh darling, you’re such a good man.”
“All this time you…were protecting me?” Harry asked him carefully, his chest oddly tight.
“You never came home, so I…I thought it was the least I could do,” Dudley said uncomfortably. “Harry, I’m s-“
“We were kids, Dudley,” Harry cut him off firmly. Despite all that had happened between them, he knew that Dudley had been a product of his environment and he had no desire now to shame the man in front of his family. “Besides...I’d much rather talk about how you came to be married to Lavender Brown.”
While Harry was off hunting Horcruxes, the Dursleys had lived under guard in the civil parish of Fordwich, northeast of Canterbury and about as far removed from Surrey as anything Dudley had ever experienced. Gone were the cinemas and shopping centres and modern amenities that had so distracted his childhood, replaced by sleepy Kentish countryside and 16th century architecture. The cottage they lived in was old and damp and magic, much to the Dursley’s horror. As such, it did not have the electricity required to power Dudley’s television or computer or game consoles.
It was, in a word, boring.
There were few children living in Fordwich then, and none of Dudley’s age, so he spent a great deal of time on his own for the first time in his life, wandering about the countryside when the restlessness of being stuck indoors outgrew his fear of getting snatched up by some dark wizard. He found and joined a local rowing club and though he was easily the youngest person by a number of years he found that the physical activity helped make up for the fact that he had nothing in common with them. It was some months before he realized that either Hestia Jones or Dedalus Diggle would always follow after him to ensure his safety, concealed or disguised as they were. Though the witch and wizard assigned to their protection made him nervous, Dudley had cautiously began speaking with them simply because he was desperate to converse with anyone other than his parents and the men of the rowing club.
Though they were hesitant at first, both Hestia and Dedalus proved more than happy to answer all the questions Dudley had always wondered about the magical world, but been utterly unwilling to ask of Harry. They were especially enthusiastic in telling him about Harry specifically most of all, finding it intolerable that his own family knew little to nothing about his importance in the war against Voldemort. In turn, they started asking him their own queries about the mundane world and Dudley was relieved to find some way to be impressive. He eagerly started taking apart his various electronics to show them the inner workings, not realizing that he was teaching himself as much as them in his desire to feel important.
When the war was over and they were free to return to their lives, Dudley found himself at a loss. His parents wanted very much for everything to go right back to the way it was before, to ‘normal’, but his eyes had been opened to the wider world. Rather than join the workforce, Dudley managed to convince his father to help him into the University of Surrey. He’d needed tutors in every subject to make up for the years he’d neglected his schooling, but Dudley managed to scrape by while maintaining scholarships for his performance in the rowing and boxing clubs. His performance was just good enough that he managed to get into a graduate program at Cambridge after completing his undergrad in Electronics Engineering, though it was a very close thing.
“That’s where I met Lav,” Dudley told Harry, giving his wife a fond look. They had moved into the kitchen for tea and set around the table with a plate of turkey sandwiches. “Caught her hexing a computer in the library.”
“I thought working as a librarian would be easy enough,” she complained, but smiled a little. “I was terrified at first of being found out, but Duddy was just falling all over himself to try and explain it all to me.”
Dudley flushed and played with the end of his moustache rather bashfully. “Well a very pretty witch was in distress.”
“To be honest I didn’t really believe him when he mentioned that he had a cousin who was a wizard,” Lavender confided. “Thought it was a line, but that’s me shown. I was extremely hesitant to get involved with anyone, of course…but when I finally admitted to him that I was a werewolf, all Duddy asked was whether it was anything like being a Dementor. Well, he said ‘demented’, but I guessed what he meant.”
“I already had some idea of werewolves from telly and the like, so I figured it wasn’t so bad. Most girls turn into monsters once a month as it is.”
“No hitting, Mama!” Daisy chided from her high chair as Lavender slapped her husband’s arm in retaliation.
Harry hid a smile behind his mug as Lavender stifled a laugh and reached over to smooth a hand over her daughter’s lopsided pigtails. “You’re right, Daisy Dear, I’m sorry. Mama was a bad girl.”
“How did your parents take it?” Harry wondered, though regretted it almost immediately as Dudley’s expression fell.
“You remember how Mum and Dad are, I’m sure… Lav didn’t want much to do with your lot, so we didn’t tell them for a long time. After we got married, Lav met up with a bloke who wanted to write about werewolves and she decided to give it all another chance. She started working at the school, Hogwarts, I mean, but still…we waited until she was pregnant with Daisy before bringing it up with my parents. I suppose I thought…well she’s their grandchild,” he said angrily, his hands fisting on the table.
Lavender laid her own hand over Dudley’s and he relaxed it to hold hers. “They said that I’d tricked him…used my magic to ensnare him into marriage.”
“What? Why?” Harry asked, baffled and unnerved the thought that his aunt and uncle believed that their son could be caught up in a scenario similar to that which had born Tom Riddle.
“For Muggle money, of course. They’re rather obsessed with it and Dudley had started working for the Aurora Corporation in Silicon Fen by that time. He’s an Engine Rear,” she told Harry proudly.
“Engineer,” Dudley corrected her fondly and they smiled at one another as though it were an old joke, the tension brought about by the Dursleys easing out of them. Looking back at Harry, his expression was firm with determination. “Haven’t spoken to them since. I thought Mum at least might come round, but…” He shook his head, sharing a look with his wife. “I don’t want Daisy to grow up hearing their vitriol if they can’t keep a civil tongue.”
Looking at Daisy, Harry watched as she dismantled her sandwich into separate parts, then started to eat each layer on its own, a pang of longing in his heart. “They’re fools to miss out on this. She’s beautiful.”
Dudley’s expression softened with such loving warmth that he looked a total stranger as he smiled at his daughter proudly. “She favours Mum’s family with that colouring, but the eyes are all Lav, to be sure. Your mum was a redhead too, wasn’t she?”
Swallowing thickly, Harry nodded and tried to ignore the way his vision wavered briefly, surrounding the three of them with a buttery yellow glow of happiness and love. “Yes,” he managed gruffly, closing his eyes until the feeling past. “She was.”
Harry’s footsteps seemed leaden when he returned to Hogwarts that afternoon, and at least a little of it was due to exhaustion and the pain now radiating along his arm in waves. Snape had warned him against magical travel months ago, yet Harry had Apparated five times in the past three days in addition to his foray in the forest the night previous. Despite that, Harry regretted exactly none of it, because whatever the damage he’d caused, both to his arm and his burgeoning friendship with Draco, he’d gained something he thought impossible in the day’s unexpected reunion.
Harry had family. Family bound by blood that actually…wanted him. Had invited him round for Christmas, even.
In a daze, he wound his way down to his corner of the dungeons, trying to wrap his mind around the concept so that he could figure out how he was going to explain to Snape that he’d not spent the day seeking help from Hermione, as had been his intention that morning. In fact, given the magical strain he’d put his body through, Harry was even worse off than he’d started, but…he simply could not bring himself to care just then.
The portrait was, fortunately, empty when Harry entered his office and he let out a soft sigh of relief. He wasn’t sure where it was Snape went when not in his frame, but he guessed that it wasn’t to play bridge or drink with the monks in the East Wing. Smiling a little at the thought, Harry went to his desk and considered writing something to Teddy, remembering his letter from earlier in the week. No sooner had he sat down than his office door banged open, causing Harry to lurch back to his feet in surprise and alarm.
Wand out, he stared down the length of it at Neville, who stiffened and grabbed his own with an Auror’s ingrained reflexes, though he kept it at his side. Slowly, Harry lowered the Hawthorn wand and tried to calm his racing heart, his right hand twitching slightly from the adrenaline.
“All right, Longbottom?” Harry asked him cautiously.
If Neville, like Draco, had somehow managed to come to the same conclusion about his presence in the forest last night, then he wasn’t sure how this was going to go. He clung to the fact that Neville hadn’t had his wand out when bursting in here and hoped that he wasn’t going to have to defend himself against the man. Harry was the better duellist between them, but he was also dead tired and sorely in need of his potions.
Shutting the door with more care than he’d opened it, Neville stared at Harry closely, as though searching for something. It was unnerving and Harry had the distinct urge to check a mirror, but he knew he’d been careful to re-establish his disguise before leaving Trumpington. As though deciding something, Neville put up his wand and crossed the room in only a few long strides. Tensing, Harry had just enough time to wonder if Neville was going to hit him before the Herbologist suddenly pulled him into his arms and held him fiercely.
“Harry,” he said and there was so much emotion packed into that single utterance of his name that Harry thought he felt something break inside him.
Holding tight to Neville with his left arm, Harry was surprised to find himself swallowing back tears and closed his eyes. “I...I’m sorry, Nev. I’m so sorry,” he whispered, not wholly sure what he was even apologizing for as the weight of the past two years all came crashing in on him at once. Just as Harry had done the night Neville had realized he couldn’t continue as an Auror, Neville held him tightly in the warm circle of his arms, until Harry’s breath no longer shuddered with silent sobs.
Drawing back, Harry scrubbed at his face self-consciously, though Neville’s eyes were bright with tears of his own. “Sorry,” Harry said again and managed a real smile. “It’s been a hell of a day.”