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Harry should have worn his travelling cloak.

His thirteen-year-old Firebolt, a tangled knot of twigs at one end and a gnarled stump of a handle at the other, shivered beneath him as he sank through one layer of cloud and into another. He leaned forward and dipped the broom down, lowering further still. He emerged from the base of the cloud, his glasses misted over and fine ice crystals clinging to the tips of his wild, jet-black hair.

He took out his wand and tapped the Firebolt twice, soothing it. For the past few weeks, the only thing keeping the broom together had been the superglue that Harry had found at the back of a cupboard in his one-bedroomed flat. And willpower.

Mainly willpower.

He had lost track of time some hours ago, having set off shortly before nightfall. Mid-December, that was around four o’clock. For all Harry knew, the time now could have been anywhere between six o’clock and midnight.

The River Avon, glassy and still, meandered through snowy embankments below. To the left, withered forestry hurled grotesque shapes across a football field, and farther than that, the ruins of a housing estate rotted by civil unrest in the Muggle world.

Harry sighed, gritting his teeth. This was the third time this week he had flown over Bristol. The first night, he had landed on the outskirts of the city, near an industrial estate, and had ventured on foot towards the city centre.

Reports of magical crime had been on the rise in recent weeks. Initially, Harry had come here on the orders of Ron, his deputy and the man who Harry had nominated to lead the investigation.

The only lead the Auror Office had was that major cities across the United Kingdom had seen crime increase at the same alarming rate almost concurrently. Harry had been one of a dozen Aurors dispatched to various locations, ranging from Glasgow to Middlesbrough to Bristol. None of the other Aurors had reported unusual activity when performing their sweeps, and the investigation had come to a grinding halt.

After obtaining Ron’s approval, Harry had come to Bristol a second time and circled the air a few times, hoping to hear someone cry out for help. Instead, silence.

His third visit, tonight’s visit, was nothing more than a coincidence. Three nights a week, he would set off from his suburban London flat, his destination decided by his Firebolt and the bitter winds of winter. Flying gave him time to clear his head of all the dust and detritus that congealed like mud during the day.

As the new Head of the Auror Office at the Ministry, Harry had been expected to reduce his activities in the field and instead work more as a ‘logistician’ – in other words, become a pen-pushing salaryman the moment his predecessor, a prim-and-proper woman with an eye for detail, had resigned, apparently without reason. Flying was a distraction from the daily hustle, from all the people whose names and faces Harry rarely matched correctly.

Some nameless bureaucrat from higher up in the Ministry had been the one to inform Harry of his promotion. The ancient-looking man had blustered like a horse upon Harry’s immediate, staunch refusal to stifle himself amongst mountains of paperwork that never seemed to shrink no matter how much he completed – and he would never surrender his duties in the wider world anyway.

So, Harry had proposed a deal: he would hire an assistant to help with the basic paperwork while he fulfilled his active duties, and the more important reports and investigation summaries would be dealt with by him upon returning to the office. Should the need arise, he would finish his work at home.

He had failed that last part; on the coffee table in his living room, there was a haphazard pile of parchment and notes and clipboards that hadn’t been touched in two weeks.

The Firebolt jolted him from his thoughts; it spluttered like a car engine, shuddered, and died. Before he plummeted the few-hundred metres to the ground, he gripped the handle and Disapparated to the first location he could think of.

*

A foot-deep puddle of slush greeted him first, on a cobbled path nestled on either side by refurbished shops – Diagon Alley never changed, even in the years succeeding the war. The brickwork of Ollivanders remained as dark as when Harry had first set foot here fifteen years ago, only the graceful curls comprising its name were brighter, as if recently painted. Several doors down, the Magical Menagerie’s windows shimmered in the dull glow of the streetlamp outside.

Harry caught a startled yelp in his throat – a small hole in his right shoe had torn into a gash across the sole, and now his socks were soaked through and his toes were freezing.

“Just bloody fantastic,” Harry grunted, shaking the Firebolt in frustration. A few jagged twigs snapped loose and were lost in the snow. Harry couldn’t really complain; the broom had lasted longer than his marriage, at least.

Childhood romances lasted for everyone but him. Ron and Hermione were still happily married, as were Neville and Luna. Hell, even Draco bloody Malfoy and Astoria Greengrass had something of a functional marriage. As for him and Ginny – well – things hadn’t been quite right for over a year.

Three months ago, Ginny had decided to sleep on the sofa one night and didn’t return to bed. Since childhood, Harry had never stopped running long enough to look behind or around him, or even within himself. It had been five years after Voldemort’s final defeat, when the world’s war wounds had scabbed over, that he’d had time to breathe – had had time to live. A further three years passed, and he was still married to Ginny. Or was Ginny still married to him?

That was the part he couldn’t quite work out. That one night on the sofa had extended to a week, and then to a month. Two weeks into the second month, at breakfast, Ginny had been the one to acknowledge the problem.

“What the hell are we doing?” she had sighed, stirring a bowl of cornflakes with steady, measured movements. “Come on, Harry, we’ve not done anything as a couple in months.”

Harry had stared at her, caught somewhere between vague understanding and outright confusion. She was right – their last activity had been lacklustre sex, and even that had gone wrong because Harry had found himself unable to perform for reasons unknown. He had been too ashamed to speak to Ron about it, but he supposed that was a small price to pay for marrying his best friend’s sister.

The conversation with Ginny had been brief and blunt. So brief, in fact, that it ended before Harry had had chance to respond.

“Look,” she had said, laying down her cutlery and tucking her fiery hair behind one ear as she fixed him with a penetrating gaze, “ever since that night, you’ve not looked at me the same way. And when you do, I don’t see the love a husband has for his wife in there – not anymore. You see me as a friend, Harry, even if you don’t realise it yet.”

Shortly after, Ginny had gathered her essential items from around the house and left for The Burrow. Harry had watched her leave, knowing a strange emptiness that wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. Maybe Ginny had been right. Maybe it would be better for the both of them if they saw other people.

Harry had tried to find some semblance of sadness – had spent days wallowing around their suburban house in search of some hidden purpose, some way of distracting himself from the failure of his own marriage without having to face Ron at work.

Ginny had returned on the fourth day, subdued and foreboding. She had handed divorce papers to him, already signed.

“Do you really want to go through with this?” Harry had asked, guarding his voice. He had rifled through the papers and noticed a few damp spots on each. “Do you really want to throw away five years of marriage?”

“Sometimes,” she had said, sniffling, “we need to do what’s right even if it harms us. You don’t love me, Harry. It’s unfair for me to remain your wife when you could find happiness somewhere else – with someone you love as much as they love you.”

“But I do love you, Ginny!” he had insisted, louder than he had intended, and he hadn’t known whether it had been from anger or distress.

Ginny had merely shaken her head, gesturing towards the divorce papers. “Just sign them.” Her voice had quivered as she spoke. “Do this one last favour for me – as a friend.”

Harry, brought back to reality by the fresh snowflakes blooming on his glasses, gave himself a little shake. He pulled the zip of his jacket closer to his neck and dipped his chin into the collar in the same motion. He cast a forlorn glance at the Firebolt. His Firebolt. The Legacy series had been superseded twice by now, and he could realistically afford several of the brand-new Firestorm models quite comfortably. But he didn’t want to replace it; without it, he would never have been able to win the Quidditch Cup for Gryffindor back in third-year. Oliver Wood’s glee had rung over Gryffindor Tower in a melody of unfaltering, overflowing joy.

Harry allowed himself a small smile. The last time he and Oliver had seen each other was with desperate haste during the Battle of Hogwarts. So much had likely changed in the past eight years that they might find the other unrecognisable now. Still, it would be good to see him again – to catch up, maybe share a few drinks over a friendly meal and bid the past farewell with a toast.

There was no point in reminiscing out here, in the stifling cold.

Gringotts Bank towered over the rest of the buildings to the left, its snowy marble stark against the starless sky above. Harry drew himself further inwards and kept moving, the only sound on the street being the quiet squelch of slush underfoot.

Returning to his flat was a daunting prospect – his cupboards were bare, his fridge functioning solely due to magic, and the worn-leather sofa on which he regularly slept had recently started emitting a sweaty, mouldy stench. So, tucking his sorrows to the back of his head for the time being, he picked up his pace and headed for The Leaky Cauldron.

*

In a neglected corner, where the dust and cockroaches fused to become some grotesque manifestation of evil itself, Harry took cautious sips from his chipped glass of Firewhiskey. Cigarette smoke and alcohol hung amongst the rumbling babble of the other patrons. Harry had deliberately placed himself away from the centre and chose the one corner not illuminated by the rusted chandelier dangling from a loose screw in the ceiling.

He let his eyes track the room – a gaggle of elderly women chatted between themselves next to the fire exit to the left, and in the middle of the room, in front of the bar, a celebration of some sort appeared to be underway. Cheering erupted from the three tables around which a dozen or so men had clustered. Glasses of beer shot skyward, sloshing their contents about, and chinked. The racket drew a few filthy glares from the elderly women, but Harry kept on scanning.

His eyes narrowed on a woman whose legs were crossed, her lips pursed. A peculiar sapphire tattoo curled from the centre of her forehead down the right side of her face, coiling into a point on her cheek. Ornate, decorative wings expanded to her ear and were lost in the violet hair she had folded into the belt at her waist. She noticed him staring at her. He looked away when she winked at him.

Something stirred inside him, a toxic concoction of revulsion and confusion, nibbling at his stomach like a parasite. He removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose; the woman was beautiful. ‘Beautiful’ did not equate attraction.

Harry downed the remainder of his Firewhiskey. It was dull, flavourless, and almost like drinking nail polish. He pushed away from the table, his chair scraping against the floor. The back of his throat burned, more from the suffocating cigarette smoke than the Firewhiskey. He pegged his nose shut as he waded through a sea of rickety tables and chairs, and brought his empty glass down on the bar.

“One more,” he said.

The bartender had his back to him, scribbling something down on a rectangular piece of parchment hastily torn from a larger sheet. He replied, “Just a second, we’re about to switch shifts.”

Harry rolled his eyes. The bartender moved to the right and through a door painted the same black as the walls. His replacement emerged and stopped in the doorway, leaning against the frame, the upper half of his face shaded in the candlelight.

It was the lean, well-built torso snugly fit into a black turtleneck that Harry recognised first, and then the accent.

“Bloody hell,” Oliver said, in the same manner one would greet an old friend. His Scottish baritone thundered from his throat and drowned out the rest of the world. “Harry – mate! How long has it been?”

The corners of Harry’s mouth turned up in a genuine, warm smile, and he had no idea why. Oliver shuffled over to him, seemingly oblivious of the varnished claws of a woman several seats away as she swiped for his attention. He took Harry’s glass and promptly filled it with Ogden’s Old Firewhiskey. “About eight years, I reckon,” Harry said, and he would not stop smiling. “How have things been with you?”

“Oh, you know, here and there – just searching for myself, really.”

Harry took a sip of his Firewhiskey, crisper and sharper than before. Between finishing the other glass and starting this one, some secret aspect of him had gained clarity. The alcohol trickled down the back of his throat and warmed the base of his stomach. “That makes two of us,” he said grimly, setting his glass back down. Oliver moved away from him to deal with other customers.

“You can keep talking, Harry,” Oliver said brightly. He passed a bottle of cider to a rotund beast of a man and accepted three Galleons in payment. “We’re busy, but I’ve always got ears for a friend.”

There was that warmth again – except Harry hadn’t taken a drink this time. It brought sweat to his forehead and he felt his cheeks reddening; he unzipped his jacket and slung it over his arm. Seconds later, his teeth were chattering and the skin on his arms had risen in tiny bumps. He put the jacket back on.

Oliver raised an amused eyebrow at him. “You all right there?” he laughed.

He cleared his throat.

Harry took that as a reminder that he had yet to pay for his drink. He fished around in his pocket for a handful of gold and left it on the bar, but Oliver pushed it back towards him.

He flashed a set of straight, white teeth at Harry, smiling kindly. “Your money’s no good here tonight, mate. I’ve got it.”

“Oh, no, Oliver – I can’t accept that. We’ve not seen each other in eight years and you’re already buying me drinks?”

Oliver chuckled. “Don’t read too much into it, boyo. If I were making a pass at you, trust me, you’d know.”

Harry frowned, cocking his head to one side. “What makes you think I thought you were making a pass at me?”

“Are you trying to tell me the thought hadn’t crossed your mind?” The only answer Harry had to that question was a lie. Oliver chuckled again. He added, “I’m just pulling your leg, Harry. What’s going on with you?”

“I’d rather not say,” Harry said, despondent. He tipped the contents of his glass into his mouth and swallowed it in one gulp. “At least not here.”

Oliver took some money from another wizard beside Harry and slid a pint of lager along the bar. “Hey, no need to reveal anything you don’t want to.”

Harry thanked Oliver for not pushing the matter further.

Harry had already spent far too much time out of the flat tonight; if he didn’t return home and sleep soon, he’d be late for work in the morning.  “Don’t want to keep your customers waiting. I should get going. Thank you for the drink.”

Oliver leaned over the bar and ruffled Harry’s hair. Beaming, he said, “Don’t sweat it, pal. Before you go, hold on a sec.”

He turned his back to Harry and ripped off some parchment from a sheet displaying today’s special cocktails. He grabbed a quill from under the bar and jotted something down. Turning back to Harry, he handed over the shred of parchment.

“An address?” Harry said. “I don’t understand.”

Oliver grinned and rolled his eyes. “Not just any address – my address. Send me a letter sometime, and try not to be a stranger.”

Harry returned the grin, nodding once. “All right,” he said, pocketing the note. “I’ll send you a letter as soon as I’ve got time away from work.”

“Sounds great! See you, then!”

“Yeah, see you later, Oliver.”

Harry moved back to his seat and gathered the Firebolt together, prodding it with his wand in some futile attempt at resuscitating it. His spirits were high enough now to support the nuisance of the broom, so instead of snapping it in half as he had been close to doing a short while ago, he carried it under one arm and left The Leaky Cauldron via the door leading onto Charing Cross Road.

He headed straight for a few minutes, passing restaurants and clothing stores and nightclubs overrun by university students celebrating the end of their first semester by swimming in alcohol.

He took a left turn onto a quiet side street. Neon lights danced in the shape of a mug, bolted into a sign above a small café, and illuminated the first six feet on the alleyway beside it. An empty skip was half-shrouded in darkness there, and would make Disapparition easier.

Patting his pockets to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, Harry jogged behind the skip, ignored the rotten, damp odour, and Disapparated.

*

With a groan like an old man, Harry laid his head against a lumpy armrest. He had placed the Firebolt on the floor beside the sofa, now only a ghost of its former glory. It would be best to put it out of its misery and dispose of it, but Harry couldn’t bring himself to do so.

Harry dangled one arm lazily above the laminated flooring, while the other covered his eyes. The clock on the wall had ticked past one in the morning when he arrived home, and he needed to be up again at five. Sleep was a distant hope – a pipe dream – and had been for at least an hour.

“Just another sleepless night, then,” he sighed.

He wondered what kind of happiness Ginny might have enjoyed in the five weeks since they had last seen each other, and realised that he didn’t quite care as much as he should have; for a man who had been in a ten-year relationship and married for five, he was taking it all alarmingly well. In fact, he had only cried for the first two nights. After that, he had resigned himself to the cold fact that his marriage was over.

He brought himself upright and folded his arms, brow creased in thought. Why did being single leave a more bitter taste in his mouth than losing his wife? And why was he only coming to this realisation now?

Harry glanced around the living room, sparsely decorated with a coffee table, the sofa, his trunk, and some miscellaneous boxes of possessions he had yet to unpack. The kitchen was slapdash construction of cracked tiling surrounding a single wooden cabinet, and large enough to fit an oven and refrigerator and barely anything else. The clock above the kitchen counter told him it was half-past-two.

His gut rolled over twice and he winced, placing a hand over his stomach. Perhaps he should have stayed longer at The Leaky Cauldron – the food there was hardly gourmet, but it was serviceable. A steaming bowl of pumpkin soup was exactly what he needed. If only wizarding food was available at the Tesco Express around the corner. Harry laid back down, deciding to wait the hunger out. He could leave for work early and grab something to eat on his way there.

Chapter Text

Dozens of fireplaces marched either side of the entrance hall, belching out emerald flames which writhed and coiled to form the thousands of witches and wizards employed by the Ministry. Overhead, the gold-flecked, navy ceiling was barely visible through the swarm of paper birds soaring and swooping between departments. Harry whipped his wand around once and at least twenty birds dislodged themselves from the rest and circled him as he ducked under the flash of a reporter’s camera several feet to his right.

Someone appeared at Harry’s left, beaming, blonde hair tied into a long ponytail, fuchsia robes flapping around her ankles. “Mr. Potter!” she exclaimed, skipping like a baby goat. With her wand, she tapped a pair of pink, fluffy earmuffs. There was a pop, and they warped into a headband. Affixing it, she said, “Good morning!”

“Hullo, Charlene,” Harry said, mustering up something of a smile for her. If he didn’t, she would have badgered him all day to try one of her homemade energy drinks (refused classification by the Department of Food Administration no less than three times for containing ‘essence of abomination’, as the reports had consistently remarked). She pulled one of said energy drinks out from her pocket and offered it to him regardless, grey sludge wobbling horribly like jelly in a crystal phial.

“Go on!” she insisted.

Harry shook his head rapidly, raising a hand in defence of the personal space Charlene had begun to invade. “No, thank you,” he said hurriedly, glancing around. He caught sight of a dumpy man with no hair and far too much torso. “Hello, Archibald! How’s the wife?”

But Archibald had neither seen nor heard him, because he had already shuffled over to the pressing mob of reporters Harry and Charlene had passed moments prior.

“Oh!” Charlene said suddenly. “I figured I’d help you out, so before you left yesterday, I put a bunch of completed forms and stuff in the bottom drawer of your desk. You just need to give them a once over and then send them off.”

They passed the last pair of fireplaces and went under the archway leading into the Ministry’s main hall, as high and wide as a cathedral and busier than ever. Halfway down it was the Fountain of Magical Brethren. In the centre of a circular pool, with his wand pointing to the ceiling, a statue of a wizard stood with glittering robes billowing around him, frozen in solid gold, and around him, and much shorter than him, sparkling jets of water tinkled from a centaur’s arrow and both of a house-elf’s ears. The wizard’s wand, and that belonging to the beautiful witch gazing adoringly up from his side, had become clogged with the papier-mâché of the messenger birds that had either flown too close or been pushed out of formation by newer, more urgent messages and become caught up in the falling water.

Hundreds of witches and wizards added their pops of Apparition to the fountain’s hiss, wearing the same solemn, early-morning look that made Harry’s face sag as he joined their ranks, pacing in-step towards a set of golden gates at the other end of the hall.

Charlene plucked a paper bird out from the air around Harry and unfurled it. Her eyes flicked over the message like a typewriter, slowing down as boredom set in. Eventually, she crumpled it up and thrust it at Harry, who raised an annoyed eyebrow at her.

The golden gates squealed open for them. Beyond, silver railings lined a platform similar in size to Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters and shaped like a half-moon. About a hundred carriages trundled along invisible cables above and below and around the platform, some occupied, others empty, and a further twenty crested the platform’s edge, swaying in the cool breeze whistling up from a cavern lost in darkness.

Harry poked the note with his wand: it jumped, as if startled, and smoothed the creases out as it levitated in front of him. Harry recognised the untidy scrawl; he had seen it almost every day for the last fifteen years. “Push my morning appointments back by two hours.”

“Rightio. Should I take care of the rest of your messages or do you want them leaving until later?”

The responsible thing to do would be the latter. On the other hand, if one of them were truly important or confidential, whoever had sent it would never be as stupid as to clump it in with the rest of the public memos. Harry said, “I’ll let you deal with them. If you do come across anything super-important, leave it on my desk and I’ll get around to it.”

Harry waved his wand and the birds flew over to Charlene. She entered the eighth carriage along with a frail witch who immediately engaged her in lively conversation as they headed away from the platform.

The latticed, sliding door of carriage number seven grinded open. Harry stepped aside; the only occupant was an amorphous blob of black fur with too many unblinking eyes.

“Morning, Bill,” Harry said, finding it impossible, even after years of working in the Auror Office, to work out which eye he was supposed to be smiling at, as the ball of fur rolled out of this carriage and over to the third, which led to the Department of Mysteries.

Harry pegged his nose shut before stepping into the carriage. Not that it helped much. Bill was an Amoeboid, and Amoeboid fur was thinly coated with a wax that emitted a nauseating stench of burnt rubber and horse manure. In all the time Harry had worked in the Auror Office, ‘Billy Odour’ as his colleagues had dubbed it, had remained as unpalatable as the first time he had met Bill.

The carriage and Harry’s stomach both lurched in the same motion, as the platform at first inched steadily away, like the beginning of a rollercoaster, and then picked up speed. Metal gears screeched overhead.

Harry glanced out the side of the carriage, down at the infinite blackness, and then back to the platform. Everything moved on as normal, the witches and wizards shuffling amongst each other like ants.

The carriage grinded to a slow, stopped for a moment, and then its angle shifted – it took him down and below the platform and now all he could see were the half-dozen stalagmites erupting from the chasm around him.

Harry checked his watch, tapping his foot. The whistling breeze eased up the lower he went, and a numbing chill took over in its stead. He travelled in total darkness for another minute or so until the carriage jolted again and fed into a torchlit passageway barely able to accommodate it. At long last, the carriage came to a final, stuttering end at a one-man-wide walkway, which led down a short corridor, splitting into a fork at the end. More torches lined the walls up ahead, flickering in the heavy sighs coming from the underground cavern.

Harry stepped out of the carriage and patted it like one would a horse after a show-stopping performance. The sound of rattling followed Harry down the corridor as the carriage trundled back to the platform for its next quarry.

Harry took the right path, half of which was enveloped in darkness. He backtracked a couple of feet, hoisted a torch out of its bracket, returned to the dead corridor and swung the flickering flame out in front of him like an offering. Halfway towards an iron gate, an entire section of wall had eroded away and taken a chunk of the flooring with it.

“That explains the missing torches…” Harry mumbled to himself. He raised his torch a couple of inches and watched as the dim light fell through a hole almost as wide as one of those lifts.

He would need to tread carefully, lest he plummet into whatever waited in the looming abyss. There was a three-foot-wide ledge across which Harry could walk without needing to hug the wall. With his torch extended for balance and a hand against the rock face for support, Harry stepped cautiously onwards, lungs tight. He trained his eyes on the ominous maw below as he moved, and breathed again when he reached the other side.

He swung the torch around again, aiming ahead. There was a wooden door at the end of the pathway, hidden until now because the torches bracketed to the walls leading up to it had burnt out long ago. Harry took out his wand and flicked it. A whoosh of air swept down the corridor, breathing new life into the torches. Harry set his torch down and sighed.

About a week ago, there had been a minor earthquake caused in no small part by the Norwegian Ridgeback the Ministry used as security. As far as Harry was aware, the higher-ups had been unable to determine the reason for its outburst – although Hermione was adamant that restraining such a beast could only ever end in tragedy. The dragon’s rampage had sent shockwaves through the damp, rocky passage, culminating in the hole in the wall. Harry had arranged for repairmen to tend to it three days ago – the estimated time until completion was another two days, but they were supposed to have started yesterday.

Harry walked to the wooden door, grabbed the metal handle and heaved it open.

Ron waited on the other side, in freshly-pressed navy robes, tapping a polished shoe against the floor with his eyes on his watch. Harry stepped forward and shut the door behind him, the dull click drawing Ron’s attention.

“You look like you just went seven rounds with a troll and lost,” Ron said, visibly struggling to suppress a laugh.

Harry removed his glasses and rubbed one of his bleary eyes. He was running on no more than three hours of sleep over the past two days. “I’ve barely slept,” he said, agitated. “Can we make this quick?”

Ron scoffed. He moved aside. Three rows of twelve desks were lined neatly down the middle of a pearl-white chamber almost as large as the Hogwarts entrance hall, each of them piled high with paperwork. This was the main section of the Auror Office – Ron’s office lay behind the silver mesh gate to the left of a noticeboard bolted into the farthest wall, and that was where they were headed.

Situated behind all of the desks was an easel which supported a large corkboard. Various maps and criminal and victim profiles had been pinned to it, colour-coded threads of string weaving between them, connecting them via a great spider’s web of confusion.

“This meeting was all Hermione’s idea,” Ron said conversationally, following Harry down one of the aisles. He had his eyes on the corkboard, concentrating on a photo of a blonde girl with a mole on one cheek and half her teeth missing.

Harry traced his fingertips lazily over the surface of each desk as he passed. In thirty minutes, they would all be occupied by faceless heads whose names Harry hadn’t even tried to remember. His index finger caught on the corner of a stack of paper on a particularly neat desk, and he hissed. His arm snapped back and he glanced at his finger; a single red bead peered out from a papercut.

“For the love of…” he grunted, biting back the urge to swear. To distract himself from the stinging pain, and before the filter in his head had had chance to catch up with his early-morning thoughts, he said to Ron, “How’s Ginny?”

Ron stopped in his tracks. His shoulders and biceps tensed, and he bunched his hands into fists. He let out a deep breath, and responded with a simple but impactful, “Don’t.”

Harry gulped, saying nothing else. Ron was still trying to be his best friend despite the divorce. Harry could thank him for that, but he wasn’t sure if Ron would accept his gratitude; in all likelihood, Ron remained his friend solely because it was convenient. The head and deputy of the Auror Office at each other’s throat? That would be a scandal heard throughout the Ministry and the rest of the wizarding world – especially because the name Harry Potter was involved.

“If you need to know,” Ron said eventually, “she’s a broken mess. She’s thinking of selling the house you both lived in and splitting the money with you.”

“She can keep the money,” Harry said immediately, and realised that he had spoken too fast and too coldly. He amended, “I don’t need it.”

Neither of them dared look at the other. Harry struggled against the tension, like wading through waist-high mud at the heady heights of summer.

Harry already knew the answer, but he needed to ask. “Why is she selling it?”

“Oh, come off it, Harry!” Ron shouted. He slammed a fist on one of the desks. Metal legs clattered against marble flooring, the noise hollow and shrill as it resounded off the walls and ceiling. The tall, glass windows quivered. They were enchanted to provide a view of the nondescript high street miles above – a bus whizzed by, headlights cutting through the mid-winter’s night. “Do you really think she’s gonna want to stay there? Bloody hell, I knew you were dense but I’d hoped you’d at least think before asking such a stupid question!”

Harry clenched his jaw, not from malice or anger, but from an instinctual urge to berate himself.

Ron swept his hands through his short, Weasley-red hair, and turned to regard Harry with stern warning. “I want us to be proper mates, Harry,” he said. He gave a heavy sigh, and continued, “It’s hard – trying to wrap my head around you and Ginny – I mean, you were married – and now it’s just, I dunno. I see her the way she is, and she’s my sister, you know? So, I have to defend her, but at the same time, you’ve been like a brother to me for fifteen years and I don’t want to just throw that out of the window.”

Harry kept his mouth closed and his ears open, waiting for an inevitable ‘but’.

One didn’t come.

“Say something,” Ron murmured.

“Like what? Do you want me to tell you whose side to choose?”

“I want you to tell me that we’ve still got a friendship.”

Harry frowned at Ron, whose eyes fell to the floor. He said, “You’ve just given me a whole speech – shouldn’t I be the one asking you that question?”

“Just answer me, please.”

“Does it even need saying?”

The tension flushed away like raw sewage.

Standing there, moonlight beaming in through the windows, one half of Ron’s face was bathed in relief. Smiling, he offered a hand to Harry, who accepted and pulled him into a hug. They parted with a mutual clap on the back.

Someone cleared their throat, quiet but deliberate – a woman, as Harry turned and saw her, clad in grey business attire, a red, silken bow tied around her neck, and a familiar warmth in her bookish face. Hermione’s bushy hair had at last been tamed, fastened into a bun on top of her head. She beamed at Harry and walked briskly across the chamber to embrace him like a long-lost sibling, a faux-leather handbag rattling by her side like a cargo hold as she ran. Archibald, who had been standing behind her, remained in place, watching with beady, unblinking eyes.

Hermione pulled away from the hug and pecked Harry on the cheek. She said, “Harry, it’s so good to see you again! Are you all right? Have you been sleeping and eating properly? Eight hours a night, remember! You look exhausted – let me see if I have something in here for you.” And as if she had just remembered that he was there, she added, “You may go now, Archibald. Thank you for the escort.”

Archibald gave her a curt nod. With his all-black eyes, ivory skin, a body that was at least sixty percent cylindrical torso, and as pointed teeth were unsheathed from behind thin, grey lips, Harry thought with a terrible sense of dread that he resembled a ghost bat. Harry had never paid much attention to him because he clung to Hermione like a shadow, as silent and shady as such and moved with such inconsequence, despite his considerable mass, that one would never know he was coming until he had already arrived.

Archibald turned on his heels: his black robes fluttered around his ankles like a cape as he swooped from the chamber.

Hermione faced Harry and Ron, and shuddered. “Archibald is a fantastic assistant,” she said, “but he can be somewhat unsettling.”

“Somewhat?” Harry retorted. “Stick him in front of a mirror, Hermione, and I doubt you’d see a reflection.”

Hermione gave him a reproving stare, brows knitted in disapproval.

Then, she unclipped her handbag, stuck an arm inside, right to the shoulder, and with her eyes turned up to the ceiling in concentration, she rummaged around; metallic clinging and clanging echoed from within like tin cans tumbling down a tunnel. Hermione nodded to herself, as if in confirmation, and pulled out a pentagonal box the size of her palm, royal purple at its topmost point and gold around the outside.

The box ribbited.

“A Chocolate Frog?” Harry said, holding a hand out as Hermione gave it to him.

“That’s right. Come now, Harry, it doesn’t require a NEWT in Divination to see that you’ve not been sleeping properly. Your eyes are dark, your skin is ghastly pale and you’ve begun to slouch. Eat – you need the energy.”

Harry stiffened, more from shame than indignation. He thumbed the stray hem of his shirt back into his trousers and rolled his shoulders in some attempt at ironing out his robes – whether they were creased or not, he didn’t know.

He tore into the box. The Chocolate Frog leapt up immediately but he snatched it. With all the ferocity of the twenty-four hours since he had last eaten, he shovelled it into his mouth, chewed once, twice, thrice, and swallowed. Barely tasted it. His stomach groaned, and it left him feeling hungrier than before, but it was something.

“Thanks,” he said. He was about to put the box in his pocket for later disposal when he remembered the Famous Witches and Wizards card he had yet to look at. He took the card out but didn’t look at it.

Ron eyed the card as Harry slid it into his breast pocket – even now, Ron’s collection was incomplete. Agrippa and Ptolemy continued to evade him despite the boxes of Chocolate Frogs he requested for Christmas each year, most of which were larger than his head. Currently, and if Harry’s memory served him correctly, the trunk in Ron and Hermione’s attic contained roughly four thousand Famous Witches and Wizards cards. Of them, several hundred were copies of Harry, Ron and Hermione.

Hermione gazed around the chamber. It was rare for her to venture anywhere beyond the cramped four walls of her cushy Ministerial office. Rarer still, she had taken time out of her busy schedule to travel the length and breadth of the Ministry and meet Harry and Ron here, miles away from the suffocating bureaucracy of reports, official complaints and laws redrafted more times than she cared to count. Harry had barely seen her in two weeks, even outside of work; her hours were far longer than either Harry or her husband, and yet she seemed to be coping well.

Eventually, she turned to Harry and Ron and said, “We should make this quick. The other Aurors will arrive soon, I expect, and I have other duties to attend.”

Ron gestured up a short flight of steps leading to his office door. Hermione made sure that her bag was clipped shut as she walked past the remaining desks and the corkboard, and up to Ron’s office. She threw back the metal lattice, Harry and Ron following closely behind, and entered.

Atop a beige carpet, a narrow desk staggered under the weight of countless books, papers, rusty artefacts and a recently-polished, gold confectionery jar, the lid of which no longer fit because of the Every-Flavour Beans spilling over. Tall bookshelves lined the walls, the books so dusty they couldn’t have been touched in years.

Apart from one.

Harry pointed it out. “Been catching up on your reading?”

Moving over to the bookshelf, Ron plucked the leather-bound book in question out from the rest amid a billowing cloud of dust. He coughed once, and then said, “Do I look like the reading sort? Nah, this is where I keep the really important notes and stuff.”

He took up the chair obscured by the nest of paper on his desk, laid the book down, and pried it open. Harry and Hermione joined him. Aligned perfectly with the centre crease were three sheets of parchment, brand-new and immaculate when compared with the yellow, dogeared pages which had enclosed them. Ron pulled them out, closed the book and nudged it to one side with his elbow as he scrutinised the scribblings on the first sheet. He swept a few intrusive scraps of paper onto the floor before laying all three on the desk in single file.

“So,” Hermione said, after a few moments of scanning Ron’s notes. “Has there been any progress at all with the case? Or will I need to become more hands-on with helping?”

Ron balked. The concerned look he fixed Hermione with had never worked before, and there was no reason it would work now. Hermione’s involvement with the case so far had been strictly office-based, and only when her Ministerial duties had laxed enough to give her time to come all the way down here. That last part was vital; every time she had come to the Auror Office, it had always been with Archibald, and had always been under the pretence of a friendly visit. If the Wizengamot were to find out that the Minister for Magic, their Chief Witch, had become embroiled in an Auror investigation, heads would spin, curses would fly, and Hermione Granger just might find herself without a job.

“Hermione,” Ron said warningly, “you need to keep your head down. It’s bad enough that you’re doing clerical work for us – you’re not doing field work. I won’t let you, it’s too dangerous.”

Hermione glared at him. “Let me? Ronald Bilius Weasley, you don’t have a choice. There’s something more to this recent spate of crime – a missing link – they’re all connected. From petty thievery to murder, there’s a pattern, and neither of you appear to be making much progress. Since when did numerous cities and boroughs around the country all succumb to the same crime wave at the same time – and how is it possible that, out of all the Aurors on this case, none of them have noted anything of import?”

Harry shifted uncomfortably, made to feel worthless by Hermione’s remark despite it not being intended as a personal slight. His eyes trailed away from Hermione’s contemplative frown and landed on the middle sheet of notes on the desk, on a rough sketch of the United Kingdom and Ireland. From Scotland to Plymouth, Ron had drawn circles of varying sizes according to the severity and frequency of the reports coming in from those locations. The largest circles surrounded Essex, Middlesbrough, Liverpool and Bristol.

Before he realised he had opened his mouth, Harry said, “I flew over Bristol last night.”

Two pairs of expectant eyes scrutinised him, from the dust on his clothes to the day-old dirt under his fingernails. Thoughts of last night shuffled forward, through the waist-high pile of detritus steadily building up at the forefront of his mind. The Firebolt lay on the living room floor at home, cold and dead and not worth much of anything to anyone, and not discarded but not paid much of any kind of attention either. It was just… there.

Like a trowel through parched clay, the utterance of his name burrowed into his skull. “Harry?” Hermione said, and the look she gave him was disgustingly patronising, as if she were a mother comforting a child. “Are you okay?”

“Er – what – yeah, I’m fine,” Harry lied.

In the ten seconds Ron and Hermione had spent watching him, he realised he had forgotten to shower – had forgotten to wash his clothes. Neither of them had mentioned anything to him, nor had anyone else. When he thought about it, would he tell a reputable employee of the Ministry of Magic that their shirt was inside-out, that they stank of stale sweat, that their hair, in all its wild and untameable glory, had become sodden with grease so thick it practically sizzled in the sun? Of course not.

Hermione didn’t seem convinced.

Ron, perhaps rescuing Harry from the lecture visibly swelling in Hermione’s throat, asked, “What were you doing in Bristol last night? I didn’t order any fieldwork.”

Something clunked in Harry’s head: a deluge of lies and excuses had all barged ahead of one another and become lodged in his sinuses as they marched towards his mouth. All that escaped him was a noise like static.

He cleared his throat, and tried again. “We needed new leads and I was getting all stuffy cooped up in the flat. Figured I might get lucky this time, you know? But once I got there, my broom died and I ended up cutting the trip short.”

Hermione’s face relaxed in sympathy, and she offered her condolences with, “Oh, no. How old was it?”

“Thirteen,” Harry replied quickly. He had hoped neither of them would draw attention to the fact that he was now without a broom. Essentially, this was akin to hoping they wouldn’t notice one of his limbs falling off. “Anyway – Ron – it’s not a problem, is it?”

Ron merely blinked at him. “Huh? What’re you on about?”

“The unauthorised fieldwork.”

“Oh. No, it’s not a problem. Good job, actually. You should give the others a pep talk on motivation.”

As if on cue, the world beyond Ron’s office door began to hum, lively with early-morning greetings and chatter of last night’s Quidditch game.

Quidditch.

The match between Puddlemere United and the Wimbourne Wasps – Harry had meant to listen to live coverage on the radio.

A cog turned once in his head with a rusty squeak and fired off a couple of quick calculations. Professional Quidditch divided by Puddlemere United equalled Oliver Wood. Likewise, Oliver Wood plus Puddlemere United equalled professional Quidditch. Puddlemere United and professional Quidditch minus Oliver Wood equalled… what? And, then, where did employment at The Leaky Cauldron factor into said equation?

Ron and Hermione were whispering to one another, both with their eyes fixed on Harry.

“He’s staring again,” Hermione said. Harry could still hear her, and Ron for that matter. Her eyes flicked from his hair to his feet to his somewhat pudgy stomach and back again. “Should I recommend some time off for him to recuperate? He doesn’t appear to be taking things very well right now.”

“Nah, he’ll be all right,” Ron said, shaking his head. “The man’s a fighter. He’ll come out the other side stronger than before. Always has.”

“I’ll be fine,” Harry said insistently. “I’ve made it over a month without a wife, and I can make it through another. Now, can we get back to the more important problems? We’ve been in here for half an hour and all we’ve established is that the investigation is a farce so far and that I appear to be crumbling under the weight of my recent divorce.”

“Harry…” Hermione said cautiously. “It’s okay to-”

But Harry didn’t get chance to find out what was okay; on the other side of door, rapping against it with a desperate urgency, someone – a recent Hogwarts graduate by the name of Demira Labronte, judging by her tell-tale, foghorn-like voice – called Ron’s name.

“Mr. Weasley! Mr. Weasley!” she boomed. With each heavy pound on the door, particles of dust coughed away from the old wood and cascaded to the floor like ancient snow. “We got a new lead!”

Before Harry and Ron could move, Hermione barrelled across the office and hurled the door open. Almost immediately, Demira’s chocolatey complexion grew pallid and her eyes popped out of her skull, her jaw hitting the floor.

“Minister!” she stammered, and in her hurry to conduct herself appropriately for such company, she became stuck somewhere between a courteous bow and a curtsy. For a minute she lingered there, cheeks tinted with pink, barely moving save for the subtle tremors in her hands. “I’m sorry, but – can I ask – oh my God – what are you doing here?”

Hermione chuckled at her. “You know, Demira,” she said amicably. “I had a name before my career. Use it, please.”

Gulping, Demira’s head tilted to the floor. She wouldn’t look at Hermione, remaining in place as the trio paced past her and down the short flight of steps.

A huddle of Aurors had gathered around the corkboard at the front of the chamber. One of them had broken away from the rest, a box of tacks bobbing in the air beside her candy floss hair as she dismantled the previous display. Worn threads of string littered the floor at her feet and she drew the old pins from the corkboard using the tip of her wand, which she flicked once. The pins vanished.

All the Aurors apart from this one woman had focussed their collective gaze on Hermione, who appeared unfazed by the attention. Hermione unzipped her handbag and felt around for a few seconds. There was no rattling now, no raucous echoes of distant clutter banging together. Only the muffled scratching of nondescript items being rummaged through.

“Ah,” Hermione said, finally and with simple delight. In her hand, as she removed it from the bag, she held a small mound of red, yellow, blue and white powdery sweets. Harry recognised them immediately: bonbons were one of the many sweets Dudley Dursley overindulged in as a child, so much so that he would leave himself in a sugar-induced stupor and make them easy pickings for Harry.

Hermione tossed one to each of the Aurors, who each showed their thanks through their own unique gestures. Ron had never understood why Hermione would offer confectionery to the Ministry’s employees. Not that he needed to; there hadn’t been a person yet who had spoken ill of Hermione, and Harry put that down to her staunch refusal to work by other people’s standards – handing out sweets and treats was one of her more unorthodox methods, but she was popular because of it.

“Minister?” said one of the Aurors, a giant of a man whose uniform had to be tailor-made due to his hulking muscles. He had yet to eat his bonbon. “Might I ask – what reason do you have to be here?”

Hermione folded her arms and regarded him with a casual smile. She said, “My husband happens to be leading this investigation, Mr. Sazlak. As there appears to be little in the way of progress as of late, I offered assistance.”

Ron stepped forward and passed Hermione. He gestured towards her without looking at her. The woman with candy floss hair approached him, handing him a single sheet of paper, which he considered. Assuming an air of authority, he announced to the crowd, “Hermione is an unofficial member of the Auror Office for the duration of this investigation. For security reasons, her involvement needs to stay strictly confidential. Until now, she’s given me and Harry advice and that’s it.”

There was a hushed murmuring among the gathered, rippling over them like a quiet breeze. Harry watched the two men closest to him whisper between themselves, both of them apparently coming to the same conclusion. The quieter of the two, no older than twenty, raised his hand. Ron placed a finger to his lips before raising a hand and pointing two fingers at this young Auror. “What is it?” Ron asked him.

“Sir, does that mean the Minister will be helping with fieldwork, too?”

Whatever Ron had been about to say, it didn’t matter; Hermione had thrown the Auror another sweet and started speaking. She said, “On a trial basis, yes,” and when she noticed the cold stare Ron was giving her, she added, “and only with Mr. Potter and Mr. Weasley. I will still have Ministerial duties to attend to, which, of course, must take priority. As Mr. Weasley rightly said, my involvement must remain a complete secret to everyone beyond these four walls – and we mean everyone.

“I understand how daunting a prospect it may be to work alongside your Minister for Magic. Please, if it makes you more comfortable, treat me like you would a colleague and address me by my first name.”

This short speech was met with lukewarm applause. Hermione raised a hand to silence it, adding, with a light-hearted chuckle, “There’ll be none of that, thank you. Whilst working with the Auror Office, I’m simply another employee.” She was apparently pleased with the lack of reaction to that. She made a motion as if handing the conversation over to Ron.

“Right,” Ron said. The way he carried himself had shifted; he seemed uncomfortable, swaying from foot-to-foot with one hand in his pocket and the sheet of paper in the other. “First things first. Demira mentioned a new lead – am I to take it that this is it?” he flipped the page over to face the Aurors. “Just a drawing?”

Not just any drawing, Harry thought, as his gut seized and the clutter in his head scattered; a beautiful woman, whose cheek was graced by a sapphire tattoo curling down from the centre of her forehead, and the ornate wings expanding from a point on her cheek were lost in a curtain of violet hair, all immortalised in chalk.

Loudly, and before anyone else could say anything, he shouted, “Her! Last night! She was at The Leaky Cauldron!”

Ron and Hermione (and all the other Aurors) stared at him, wide-eyed. They didn’t need to ask him for more information, because he was already stumbling over his words as everything from the past twenty-four hours flooded out of him. Everything except for his reunion with Oliver. When he finished speaking, he drew in a long breath and adjusted his robes.

“Wow, we might actually have a breakthrough here!” Ron said in surprised excitement. “Okay, Harry, you’ve got new orders: no more reconnaissance for you. The Leaky Cauldron is your new second home. Search the surrounding streets every once in a while, too, and keep an eye out for our lady friend here. Just don’t fit in with the punters too much. Don’t want you coming in with a hangover, yeah?” Low laughter rumbled throughout the chamber. Harry, in some hollow attempt at fitting in, puffed through his nostrils.

He was distracted by a baffling warmth in his stomach. The only thing his new assignment meant was that he would spend much more time near his flat. That gave him fewer chances to escape from the drab reality of unmarried life in London – now, the only escape he could really count on were regular visits to The Leaky Cauldron. As far as he was concerned, the last thing he wanted was to swelter in amongst the sweat and burnt air seeping from those whose lives decayed around them. If anything, the only mite of hope in all this was that he would be around Oliver a lot more, and right now, he needed an impartial ear. More specifically, he needed a friend.

While Harry shrivelled into his reverie, the world carried on as normal around and without him.

Ron issued orders to a handful of Aurors and accepted completed reports and paperwork from others, while Hermione busied herself with helping Demira set up the corkboard. All of the string and notes were connected in much the same way as before they had been dismantled, only now they were each tethered to the drawing of the Auror Office’s new person of interest, pinned to the centre of the corkboard.

“One more thing!” Ron shouted. “We’re operating under a new name. From now until we get to the bottom of this, we’re the Blue Swan Unit.”

*

It was ten-past-three by the time Harry found time to pull his head away from the reports Ron had given him. Conveniently enough, Ron had waited until Hermione had returned to her duties as Minister for Magic before slamming the pile of papers on the desk in Harry’s office.

“Here,” he had grunted. Harry’s desk, neatly arranged until that point, creaked under the sudden weight. “This lead is getting us further than I thought it would – I’m already reading through some brief reports from Jenkins, Garamont, and Tully and I could really use the help. Apparently, you’re not the only one who's seen people with that weird tattoo.”

Harry hadn’t had much to do at that point, and by extension, neither had Charlene. He dismissed her three hours before she was due to finish work, promising that she would still be paid for those missed hours – what he hadn’t told her was that the money would come from his personal funds at Gringotts instead of the Ministry’s payroll.

Now, he regretted that decision. He had spent the last two hours trawling through the pile without any notion of what was expected of him, and had done so without coffee or food or any kind of sustenance. He could hear the gears in his head chugging with each arduous thought, and the words on the page in front of him were more like runes.

With a defeated exhale, Harry got up from his desk and circled his office, a room roughly the same shape as a storage container and about as cold. His desk had been tucked into one corner along with one of those muggle office chairs, and was the only remarkable bit of décor to be seen. The walls and ceiling were slate grey and empty, and the uncarpeted floor was as smooth and shiny as glass.

His calves ached and his buttocks had become numb during all that time sitting down. He glanced at the shabby little clock on his desk, functional only because magic decreed it. His working hours ended ten minutes ago, which meant he wasn’t getting paid for sticking around like this.

The reports could wait until tomorrow. He was running close to seventy-two hours with only three hours of sleep. Earlier, his head had struggled to keep up with his thoughts. Now, it had all but given up. Thoughts and emotions pressed against his ears and the back of his skull, ceaselessly pushing and shoving and heading absolutely nowhere – they screamed for Harry to acknowledge them, to address them, but he was unable to hear them.

Harry’s legs dragged him out of his office and down the steps to the chamber where the other Aurors were working. Half of them were still on-shift from this morning, while the other half were entirely unfamiliar. None of them paid him much heed as he sidled past the desks, shouldering between three colleagues barricading the path with idle chatter ahead of him.

“See you tomorrow, Harry!” Ron called from across the chamber. Harry gave him a lazy wave in response, but otherwise ignored him.

Food could wait. Drink could wait. The Blue Swan Unit could wait. Everything Harry needed right then lay at home, in his dingy, ramshackle flat – in the threadbare living room, where the sofa waited, sultry and seductive, with its knobs and gobs and old leather worn by exposure to the elements in the middle of a field.

Harry had passed the Fountain of Magical Brethren again by the time he thought of anything else, and moved down the alleyway formed by the Ministry’s Floo network with only the Disapparition point, a black pole groping from floor to ceiling, in mind.

*

A manila envelope waited for Harry in the passageway, on the floor by the door. He slouched forward and picked it up, wondering why it was so light and why, out of all possible packaging, the sender had decided to use an envelope infinitely larger than the circular object stuffed at the bottom. His eyes drooping, he brought himself and the package into the living room, and laid down on the sofa.

Then he shot up, alert.

The once-haphazard pile of papers on his coffee table had been tidied into a neat stack and his fridge was making a funny buzzing noise – someone had turned it on. There was a square scrap of paper on the counter. Harry hauled himself back to his feet and moved over to the kitchen. The paper turned out to be a note from someone, but he didn’t recognise the handwriting. It read:

Harry

Look after yourself, please. You can’t mope about like this forever.

One of the cupboard doors was ajar, just beside Harry’s head. He pulled it open.

Cereal, biscuits, crisps, tins of soup, packets of instant dessert, tinned vegetables, gravy; whoever had been here, they had done a thorough search of his kitchen, found nothing, and decided to take pity on him by stocking his cupboards up. He dashed to his fridge and found milk, eggs, other dairy products, fresh fruit and vegetables, sandwich fillings, meat, anything and everything he could ever think of during a weekly grocery shop and then triple that. The freezer told the same story.

He moved back over to the sofa and slumped, letting his head fall into his hands. Now was not the time to worry over who could have entered his flat – and it certainly wasn’t the time to worry over the plethora of ways Harry could thank them.

Harry grabbed the manila envelope and glared at it as if it was somehow responsible for this dubious miracle. He tore it in half across the middle and tipped it upside-down.

The lump had felt like a token of some description, or a coin. Perhaps a gift or favour of which he had recently asked someone and then completely forgotten about.

What he had not expected to come tumbling out was Ginny’s golden, glittering wedding ring.

Chapter Text

Harry’s knuckles were white around his wand, the veins in his temple pulsing with each thunderous footfall as he paced tight, seething circles in the six-foot-wide space between his sofa and the window in the living room. Ginny’s wedding ring jutted out of the wall, from which chipped plaster cascaded amidst clouds of powdered concrete.

Harry had hurled it across the room as soon as he had realised what had been in the package. First, the house, and now this. The divorce had only been finalised five weeks ago. Was there nothing that woman held sacred about their marriage?

In the toxic sludge dragging Harry’s thoughts away from sense, something bitter reared its warped head and shrieked, the noise so shrill and loud that Harry’s mouth echoed it. He booted the back of the sofa. Leather split and wood cracked, but Harry was realms beyond caring.

He made a slashing movement with his wand: scarlet sparks fired out in a furious light show and left searing, black scorch marks where they grazed the wall. Ginny’s ring, impacted by a stray spark, glowed white and ignited.

Red-yellow tongues licked upward and outward, and in seconds the wall was gripped by a searing fist of fire that singed Harry’s brows. His eyes went wide and, for a moment, he forgot about his fury; he dived to the floor as a slab of charred plaster shivered loose from the wall, toppled towards him, and brought with it the smouldering planks of timber supporting it. He rolled to the left, and another chunk of wall crashed to the floor.

Harry hauled himself to his knees and grasped his wand with both hands: unsteady, he aimed it at the conflagration devouring the wall and now part of the ceiling, screamed, “Aguamenti!”, and skidded halfway across the room, propelled backwards by the gush of water which sprung forth. The force of the spell knocked Harry’s aim off by miles: his arm swung upwards and the jet soon followed. The lightbulb screamed. There was a lethal crackling followed by a loud pop, and Harry’s world became nothing but burning darkness. Glass and blue sparks cascaded from the socket in the ceiling as Harry redoubled his grip on his wand, and pointed it at the heart of the inferno, at the molten blob from which everything originated. Ginny’s ring, forever sealed in plaster and currently oozing halfway down the wall, released an anguished squeal; steam and black smoke coiled in the air like dragons and Harry’s lungs tightened.

He spluttered, his wand shuddering in his hand as he guided the jet over the rest of the wall, his hand, his wrist, his arm all shuddering in the process. More sizzling erupted over the fire’s great roar and the air became rank with the stench of smouldering cinders. The wall, now a jagged mess of stripped plaster, blackened posts and frayed wiring, emitted an incredible heat. Harry’s glasses, matted by wet soot, were heavy enough to dig into the bridge of his nose.

Harry sighed in frustration, letting his aching arm flop into the warm water pooling around him. He removed his glasses and stared long and hard at the wall, at the shining trail of gold that had once been Ginny’s wedding ring.

“Suppose that’s one way of getting over your wife,” Harry laughed darkly, and the darkened living room laughed back at him.

The Firebolt lay beside him, more withered-looking than ever. Its handle was black in places, as if it had been dipped in the ash lying several feet away. Considering it for a moment, Harry lifted the broom by its knotted twigs and admired how flawless its paintwork had once been; chestnut brown, glistening, and quivering with all the power contained within it. Now, with its naked oak handle and splintered body, Harry might well have been looking at a hand-me-down Comet Two-Sixty. But throwing the Firebolt away wasn’t an option, and it never would be.

Tomorrow, he would take the day off work to catch up on all the sleep he had missed over the past three days. Then, he would pay a visit to the new broomcare store situated on the residential street just behind Diagon Alley. It would take more than a broomstick servicing kit to return the Firebolt to its former glory.

Letting the broom hit the floor with an empty thud, Harry picked himself up and tapped his sodden clothes with his wand. “Exaresco!” he said. A fine, grey mist trailed between his trousers and the tip of his wand as he drew his hand away. He patted himself a couple of times, content that he was adequately dry.

No amount of magic could revive the wall’s naked skeleton. Harry thought for a moment, wondering how he might explain the fire to his landlord. He could call in a favour from Hermione, if only there wasn’t a one-hundred-and-ten-percent chance of an ear-busting lecture about personal safety. He was pretty sure she would be obliged, as Minister for Magic, to reprimand him for a potential breach of the International Statue of Wizarding Secrecy, too.

Tempus!” he said. Though faint, almost ghostly, his wand projected the face of a clock onto the ceiling. At half-past-five in the evening, as the clock hand ticked over, the likelihood that a Muggle had smelled the fire was incredibly high. They would neither see nor hear it; Harry’s security charms would see to that.  

He lived on a terrace of four buildings in a Muggle neighbourhood, renovated numerous times over the centuries since they were first constructed. Or, at least, that was what the landlord had told Harry upon first visiting the flat. Each building held two flats on an upper floor, while the lower floor (usually unmaintained) could be used for storage, loitering or illicit activity. Most of the time, the lower floor of Harry’s building was littered with empty cider bottles, cigarette packets, used condoms and discarded matchboxes. On more than one occasion, Harry had caught a whiff of some awful substance – musky, like week-old body odour, so harsh it burnt the back of his throat and, if he breathed it long enough, made his head spin.

That smell often accompanied the late-twenties man living in the flat directly opposite Harry’s, along with an entourage of toothless, brutish thugs tattooed from head-to-foot. None of them had paid any attention to Harry beyond a passing twitch the day after he had moved in. Harry seriously doubted said twitch was in greeting; one of them had had a peculiar white powder surrounding his nostrils. Law enforcement in the wizarding world was one thing – Harry had no business involving himself in Muggle affairs. As long as they (and the drugs) maintained their distance, he would maintain his.

He sluggishly got to his feet, cast another drying charm at the floor, and gave the wall another look. The plaster sagged at the bottom, near the skirting board, where it had somehow escaped the fire’s wrath with only minor browning but where the water had funnelled into the planks behind it. One slight knock and it would split, and the living room would flood. Harry cast a drying charm at that, too, and then used a severing charm to clean up that portion of wall. He did the same to an overlying plank of timber running the coving where the wall and ceiling met, carefully detaching it at either end before catching it with a levitation charm as it fell.

Removing the structural supports like this was hardly the best idea. Leaving them as they were, burnt near to cinders and less stable than toothpicks, was an even worse idea. Tonight, Harry would keep his living room somewhat intact with magic and then get in touch with a wizarding carpenter tomorrow. With the stench so powerful, the couch had been ruled out as a potential bed. That left only his real bed, a rickety, less-than-life-sized lattice of warped steel supported by hollow legs and rusted bolts. Even a park bench would be more comfortable than the springy slab that called itself a mattress.

Harry had been in the flat, only a few streets away from Charing Cross Road, for a little over a month. His trunk remained unpacked. His focus at first had been to furnish his living room as much as he could – the fridge-freezer and sofa were ‘donations’ from the ‘local community’, and by that, he meant broken-down houseware fly-tipped in a waterlogged field several miles away. Harry had thought the sofa was made of emerald fabric at first – until the moss suffocating the leather had cracked, and a gust of wind peeled it back like a scab. Cleaning it was a simple task, requiring nothing more than basic magic. The refrigerator had been a slightly different story, as someone had smashed it up and scattered the pieces in the thicket of bare trees ringing in the field. It had only taken a couple of hours of work in total to fetch both the sofa and the Reparo’d refrigerator back home.

Harry glanced at the sofa. He knew he wouldn’t be able to handle the burning smell for very long even if he tried. He huffed, and headed down the short hallway towards his bedroom door. As he passed the bathroom door, on the right-hand wall, he considered showering for a moment. Insidious odours wafted up from his body and lingered around his nostrils. At the same time, his gut pinched and mumbled obscenities at him. Surviving the night was simply a matter of priorities. Should he shower first, then eat, and then sleep knowing the warmth of satisfaction, or should he sleep, then shower and feast in the morning?

He had already set one foot in his bedroom before he decided.

Corralled in here by grimy, naked brick walls, Harry’s worldly belongings amounted to a bed, a bedside cabinet, and two trunks.

One of them was ancient, owned since his eleventh birthday. Hagrid had helped him pick it out. It had been made of handsome brown leather, with the initials H.P. engraved in fanciful letters. Fifteen years later and barely any of that had changed; the only signs of wear and tear were a few scuff marks on the body and the once-shining bronze rims now glimmering dully as a beam of moonlight fell in through the window. The other was brand-new, red, and still carried that peculiar musky fragrance. It was the wider and taller of the two, and so it had been placed on the bottom of the stack beside Harry’s bed.

Harry slipped his shoes and socks off, immediately regretting the decision once his feet hit the bare, stone floor. Biting back the cold, he strode across the room, around the bed and perched himself on the duvet, the only reliable source of warmth. He had put off sleeping for so long that his eyelids absolutely refused to open past halfway and his jaw lolled stupidly open.

With nothing but sleep in mind, he unbuckled his belt and wriggled backwards, leaving his trousers to fall over the edge of the bed. Then, he shrugged free from his shirt and robes, threw them across the room, pulled back the duvet, and climbed inside, laying his glasses on the bedside cabinet.

The mattress was like concrete beneath him, unyielding, unforgiving.

He was asleep before his head the pillow.

*

Harry had been staring at the ceiling for ages, trapped in that state of limbo between sleep and wakefulness.

He threw his arm out blindly to the right and scrabbled about for his wand on the bedside cabinet. Swore to himself when his knuckle scraped on a sharp corner.

“What has my life become?” he grumbled to the darkness.

Blinking through half-lidded eyes, and using his not-currently-smarting hand to bring himself upright, he smacked his lips a few times and shivered. The cold in here was numbing, even through the thick duvet sprawled over him. The hairs on his bare back stood on-end and he felt his arms raise in tiny bumps.

He let his fingers dance over the bedside cabinet some more; they hit something long and wooden, which promptly rolled out of reach. Said wooden object clattered to the floor. Harry slapped his palm to his forehead, swearing again.

With his palm extended, he cast a non-verbal summoning charm. His wand erupted from the dark. He snatched it, drawing in a deep breath and exhaling his frustration.

Lumos!” he murmured.

Blazing light burnt through the dark, through his snapped-shut eyelids. He pointed his wand at the wall opposite, and peeled his eyes open carefully. The world around him was little more than a blur. He grabbed his glasses and put them on.

First, a shower. Then clothes and, finally, breakfast.

*

Harry emerged from the bathroom with a towel draped around his waist. Like a phantom, steam curled around the door frame and followed him as he dragged his feet down the hallway, and headed back into his room.

He made haste in drying himself. His slightly chubby body had become used to the heat of the shower, and now it was as if he had walked willingly into a freezer. If he remained naked much longer, a certain part of him just might end up an icicle.

It hadn’t seen much use recently, so what did it matter anyway?

He let the towel drop to the floor in a coiled heap, moved over to the stack of trunks, unclipped the lid on the topmost one, and heaved it open.

Inside were some of his more ancient possessions, reminders of his schooldays more than anything and serving very little purpose beyond fleeting nostalgia. He picked up a gold ball the size of a walnut, impossibly cold and, Harry noted, lacking the gentle vibrations it had held the first time he had caught it. The Golden Snitch was still split along the middle, where the Resurrection Stone had been stored, and the words ‘I open at the close’ remained just as indelible as that night in the Forbidden Forest eight years ago. By now, the Stone had surely become lose beneath dead foliage and animal carcasses. That was the best thing for it, and for the wizarding community at large.

The corners of Harry’s mouth turned up in a warm smile; the Snitch had been placed upon a black, unmarked hardback – his photo album, the one he had spent the better part of a year putting together following the end of the war, rifling through all the photos he, Ron and Hermione had taken during their first years at school, when it had just been the three of them. Over time, Neville, Luna and Ginny had joined them, and just-the-three-of-them became The Big Six in two short years.

The urge was almost overpowering, to get back into bed and submerge in the warmth of both his duvet and the decade-old memories of love and friendship. He paused for a moment, seriously considering it, but the cold down there was a stark enough reminder that he needed to get dressed.

He placed the photo album back in the trunk, and tucked the Golden Snitch in a pocket of the velvet lining underneath the lid. Next to the other items from his youth – ranging from his Sneakoscope to his very first wizard’s chess set – a neatly-folded pile of clothes he’d had since third-year: a navy jacket, light-blue t-shirt and olive jeans, stacked in that order. Living with the Dursleys had taught him to treasure what he had , and that extended to clothes.

Especially these.

The final adventure Harry, Ron and Hermione had enjoyed together as a trio had been at the end of their third year, and these clothes symbolised that – they were a symbol of everything, including not just the battle with the Whomping Willow and almost being eaten by Lupin, but the laughter and joy during their visits down to Hogsmeade, and in particular, watching with smug giddiness as Malfoy and his brood had scurried away from the invisible assailant hurling snowballs at them.

He sighed wistfully as he pulled them (and a pair of socks) out of the trunk. Roughly twice the size they had been when he had first obtained them, Harry privately thanked Mrs. Weasley for showing him that handy resizing charm.

He got dressed, slid his wand into his pocket, and zipped up his jacket. Then, after closing the trunk and clipping it shut, he left the bedroom.

*

He didn’t spend any more time in the living room than he absolutely had to; the back of his throat stung with the stench of charred wood. It dispersed with a quick flick of his wand.

Grabbing a couple of random snack bars from the cupboard near his stove, Harry tore one open with his teeth and stuffed half of it in his mouth as he put his wand back.

The note from last night remained on the worktop, strange-looking and yet somehow familiar. Through all the unforgiving murk of fatigue, the handwriting had seemed alien. But as Harry narrowed his eyes slightly and leaned over it, he noticed a certain cadence to the words – from a time long ago, in a world so far beyond the one Harry was trapped inside: a time when just-the-three-of-them had been all that mattered; when the most pressing problem had been the Potions homework due in two days; when time had slowed down enough for Harry to enjoy being thirteen, practically smothered by love and friendship and Quidditch and Honeydukes’ sweets.

Reading the note a few times over, something twisted at the back of Harry’s skull. Like a long-dormant memory gradually waking.

He pinched his lower lip between his teeth, and frowned. Where had he seen that handwriting before?

He folded the note up and pocketed it, before walking over to the fridge and pulling it open. Two apples, one for now, and one for later.

As early as it was – the city outside was still gripped by night – Harry could venture towards Diagon Alley at as leisurely a place as he pleased and still get there before the morning rush. Diurn Alley, his destination, was an extension of Diagon Alley, and had been constructed shortly after the war as temporary accommodation for the refugees who had lost their homes. A couple of years ago, it became simply another residential terrace interspersed with a few specialist shops, one of which provided a much more comprehensive broomcare service than Quality Quidditch Supplies.

Patting himself down to check he had everything he needed (including some spare gold found in a drawer of his bedside cabinet), Harry was about to leave when he spotted the Firebolt, forlorn and decrepit, on the floor next to the sofa. He turned the hem of his jacket up as he moved over to it. He picked the Firebolt up and cradled it in the makeshift pocket he had created, as if it were a child dying from some longstanding condition. One particularly nasty split ran from the handle all the way down to the bristles like an artery, exposing a core of fine crystal dust, some of which spilled out, just above the seat, and sizzled against the fibres of Harry’s jacket. A tingling heat emanated from it, bringing the faint smell of petrol with it.

Harry’s heart cramped. If he focussed hard enough, he was certain the Firebolt was humming. But it wasn’t. He knew it wasn’t. And if he didn’t move soon, it never would.

Stuffing one apple in his pocket, he bit into the other and held it between his teeth as he paced to the living room door and unlocked it with a tap of his wand.

Ginny’s melted wedding ring, gleaming in the moonlight flooding in through the window, caught his eye. Harry flicked his wand once. White light filled every corner of the room: the sofa and coffee table were thrown against the walls as shadow, and the portion of burnt plaster which had encased the ring fell away to crumble upon impact with the floor, releasing the warped gold with a dull clunk.

He would clean it up later.

*

Diagon Alley was busier than Harry expected. A lot busier. Movement was limited to a shuffling urgency as he waded through a throng of people milling around Flourish & Blotts. Giant, emerald banners spanned the length and breadth of the street and wove between buildings, suspended over their heads like bunting, and fluttered in the winter morning’s blustering winds.

“Oi!” someone shouted, most likely the woman whom Harry had rather rudely shouldered past.

He had seen crowds and clamouring of this magnitude before, shortly before his second year at Hogwarts. That one time had been more than enough and he wasn’t about to fall prey to another hackneyed writer lumping him in with the rest of his trophies.

Five men and women clustered in front of Harry, garbed in glittering robes of scarlet and jade and bundled so tightly together they reminded him of rubber-bound Christmas wrapping paper. He mumbled an obscenity, and then tapped his wand in his pocket with his finger, and as if an invisible elastic band holding them at their waist had snapped, they sprung apart and bowled into the crowd, creating a domino effect as people toppled around them.

Harry bit back an unintended snigger; he had only meant to separate them by a few feet.

With the path ahead clear enough, Harry marched away from Flourish & Blotts. He passed a mountainous wire mesh of discarded owl cages outside the Magical Menagerie, and braced for an olfactory onslaught as Mister Mulpepper’s Apothecary loomed up on his left; today was Friday, and that meant Amortentia ingredients were half-price. As expected, the shop door was open, and out drifted tendrils of pink mist. One of them lurched over the cobbles and formed some ghastly halo above Harry as he put on a spurt of speed, narrowly avoiding it seeping into his nostrils.

Gringotts waited further down, as snowy as Diagon Alley and the rest of London beyond. It was like a beacon beneath the winter night’s sky, thrice as tall as the rest of the comparably ramshackle buildings all slanting towards one another in their cramped space. Gringotts was the only building not connected to any other; to either side was a wall half-entangled in the vines snaking up through the chipped stonework. Between the bank and a shop with a roof domed like a helmet, a wooden gate and a sign had been bolted into the wall.

‘Diurn Alley’, the sign read, in a weathered, sans-serif font.

Harry lifted the Firebolt gingerly out of pocket he had made with his jacket and swept himself down. A few puffs of dust sparkled like fairies and were lost in the snow.

Halfway through opening the gate, one of the four vertical planks comprising it snagged on a fragmented cobble. Frustration seethed behind Harry’s teeth, boiling in the space between his mouth and lungs. He gave a sharp yank: something cracked, snapped, came free, and the gate swung the rest of the way, taking Harry and the Firebolt with it. His ribs and head slammed into the freezing marble of Gringotts and all sense of self left him: he felt the Firebolt shiver free from his fingers and his lungs shrivelled up.

For a moment, trying to breathe resulted only in a meagre squeak. Harry splayed a hand against the wall and placed the other to his chest, closing his eyes and focussing coaxing his lungs open again. Through his nose, he drew a shuddering, arduous breath. His chest heaved, suddenly overcome by an icy sensation akin to being dunked in a lake as the muscles around his lungs screamed. He did it a couple more times, each inhale more bearable than the last. After another minute or so, he stood upright and twisted his torso to the right, keeping his lower body rigid, and relished the popping staccato of his spine.

Collating his thoughts, and ignoring the sharp stares of the witches and wizards watching him from outside The Leaky Cauldron, he bent down, picked up his Firebolt, carefully brushed flecks of snow out of the gash in its body, and ventured into Diurn Alley.

Compared to Diagon Alley, with its cloistered buildings and charmingly rustic design, Diurn Alley seemed almost lifeless, sterile even, and were it not for the swathes of patchworked cloth hanging from a window of one of the Victorian houses sloping up the street, Harry would have thought it derelict. None of the houses had a garden, he noted as he passed the first couple, and they were all made of the same dirt-brown brickwork and pointed, slate roofs.

The houses ended abruptly as the cobbled road reached a plateau, at a cul-de-sac of sorts. All the buildings here were roughly the same size. One of them stood out, darker than the rest and with a bronze broomstick clasped into the plaque spanning the width of the exterior.

“See?” Harry said, more to the Firebolt in his arms than to himself. “We made it.”

There was a feather banner outside, dancing like a scarlet flame in the wind. Harry tilted his head to the left so he could read it:

Broxley & Wood

Wood?

Harry’s brow dipped slightly as he entered the shop.

He was first greeted by the smell: musky, of oak and polish, of magic and sawdust and alive with the hum of all the power coursing through the brand-new brooms bracketed to the walls. Harry recognised one of the brooms – longer, darker and much sleeker than his Firebolt, its bristles impossibly straight, the Firestorm was by far the most powerful one in the shop; while the others made the air ripple around them, this one rattled quietly in its bracket.

Nobody else was around, which meant that one of the owners was likely in the back, behind the bead curtain swaying as if recently used. Harry took this as an opportunity to inspect the glass cabinet doubling up as the service counter, at either end of which two candelabra had been placed, their warm light simmering up the walls.

Harry wasn’t exactly a broomcare expert; most of the knickknacks and doodads in the cabinet were unfamiliar, some quite knobby while others surprisingly round, or smooth, or slim, or any combination of such, or in the case of one particular oddity, sharp as a pocket knife at one end and flat as hammer at the other. His eyes fell over a broomcare set, hidden amongst the other riffraff. He made a mental note to stock up on them once the Firebolt had been repaired.

Quidditch paraphernalia smothered the wall above a bench behind the counter – from Puddlemere United robes to triple-packs of Quaffles, Golden Snitches and Bludgers, posters and figurines of various players.

Not Oliver, though.

Harry was hardly surprised; Oliver had been a rising star in the Quidditch world, promoted from reserve keeper to permanent with Puddlemere United, and had been in every newspaper, every magazine (Quidditch-related or not), in the minds and bedrooms of every teenaged girl across the country. And then, one day, nothing. Forgotten. All because of a slanderous Daily Prophet article.

From the back of the shop, footsteps, evenly-paced, leisurely. Then, the light clacking of the bead curtain as Oliver Wood dawdled in, wearing a worn apron smeared with brown in places, his face buried in a book. An actual, not-Quidditch book. Romantic fiction, if the two faces sealed at the mouth on the cover were anything to go by. Two male faces, Harry realised.

Oliver’s eyes stopped scanning the page he was on, and craned over the top of the book. He saw Harry watching him, his lips pursed, and he appeared rather confused for a moment as they both stood there in awkward silence.

Oliver blinked. “How’d you get in?” he said.

“Funny thing, actually,” Harry said, gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb as he glanced back at the door. “There’s this weird slab of wood just over there. It kind of swung open when I pushed that handle-looking thing down.”

Oliver blinked again. And then, as if he had realised what he was carrying, he snapped the book shut and laid it on the bench behind the counter, facedown. Frowning, he turned to face Harry again and leaned over the tempered glass using the heels of his hands. A faint whiff of paint came from his apron, from the brown smears glittered in silver, with undertones of a masculine spiciness. Aftershave.

“Did I forget to lock up last night?” Oliver asked him. As if Harry knew the answer. “Crap. Not again. We ain’t due to open for another hour. Mrs Broxley’s gonna kill me if she finds out.”

Harry checked his watch. Five o’clock. He would need to be quick here if he were to avoid a scolding from Hermione for not reporting in sick at work.

“I can come back later, if you want?” Harry offered. As the words left his mouth, a single drop of black liquid oozed from the Firebolt like a teardrop and splashed to the floor, where it congealed into tar.

“Well,” Oliver said slowly. He made a show of consideration, stroking his chin with his thumb and forefinger. “You could do that. Or you could be my first customer of the day. Really, all I’d be doing between now and opening is reading – wait a second, is that your Firebolt from third-year?”

He pointed at the broom’s bristles. The last time Harry had seen Oliver’s eyes glint like they were, it had been just as Harry caught the Snitch to win the Hogwarts Quidditch Cup. They took in the gnarled handle, the cracked, bare body and the inscription of the broom’s name which had long since peeled away, and shimmered in the candlelight as nostalgia sloughed towards melancholy.

“Oh…” he uttered, as another drop of liquid dripped from the Firebolt. Gently, he said, “Harry, buddy, pass her here. Easy now, don’t let her move about too much.” Harry handed the Firebolt to Oliver, the exchange incredibly reminiscent of entrusting a surgeon with the care of one’s child. “She’s already lost a lot of her core. How long has she been like this?”

“A few days,” Harry said. He folded his arms, watching as Oliver laid the Firebolt on the counter and grabbed a couple of tools from the bench. One of them was a monocle of sorts, only fatter and with more twisty bits. Oliver placed it to his right eye and closed the other, and the monocle remained in place as he lifted up the Firebolt and brought it closer to him. Harry tapped his foot against the floor, nipping at his lower lip with his teeth. “I was on work business on Wednesday night when she gave out on me. If I hadn’t Disapparated to Diagon Alley we’d both be a bloody streak on a road somewhere in Bristol.” And because the question had been burning at the back of his throat since he woke up, he added, “Is she fixable?”

Oliver, parting the Firebolt’s bristles with some three-pronged instrument, made a noise of confirmation. He cleared his throat. “I mean, she’s not irreparable. But it’ll take a lot of work and time, mate.”

“Can you fix her?”

 Oliver removed the monocle and placed it down. “’Course I can,” he said brightly. “She’s an original model – we don’t really see many of these through the door – so it’ll take a bit of specialist knowledge to make her right as rain. Luckily for you,” and he put particular stress on ‘you’, “I happen to be pretty good at this repair malarkey.”

“Do you have an estimate on how long it could take?”

This was another important question. Being without a broom for an indeterminate amount of time would put a huge strain on Harry’s ability to perform fieldwork efficiently. He voiced this concern to Oliver, who waved it off.

“Could be a few weeks, could be a couple of months,” he said. “Don’t worry too much about it. We lend out our own-brand courtesy brooms as standard when you bring yours in for repair.” Oliver thumbed over his shoulder, pointing to the back room. “Come with me, I’ll give you the honour of choosing the broom yourself. We normally give them out randomly, but you’re a special case.”

Harry smirked. “Let me guess,” he said. “It has everything to do with me being the youngest seeker in a century, right?”

Oliver raised an eyebrow at him, returning the smirk. “Something like that,” he chuckled. He moved from behind the counter, over to the bead curtain and pulled it back, and paused, glancing back at Harry with an air of casual patience. “You coming or what?”

*

The back room, as it turned out, was an old, dusty workshop. A heap of sawdust rose from a nest of wood shavings on the floor like a particularly large anthill, and beside it, a workbench carried a vice at one end, clutching a half-painted broom. An empty toolbox stood open at the other end, its contents scattered over the bench. Harry had never seen these kinds of tool before – some of them looked more appropriate for tooth-pulling than whatever their intended purpose was.

“You’ll excuse the mess, won’t you?” Oliver said, voice full of humour. He picked up a paintbrush, the kind one usually used to paint garden fences, and dunked it into a tin of brown, glittering paint behind the broom. He faced Harry, gesturing around the room – at the gleaming brooms lined up like soldiers along a cracked wall, and then turned around, took the brush out of the tin and continued painting. “Take your pick.”

None of the brooms were particularly appealing, Harry thought privately. Some glittered, others shined, others had a matte finish – they were all of varying lengths and widths, and a couple of them didn’t even have bristles. They carried a unique beauty, a handcrafted delicacy deftly bestowed upon each of them by expert hands and hearts.

That was when Harry noticed, as his eyes roved over the handles of them in turn, that they had all been named.

He approached them and bent forward, narrowing his eyes in scrutiny: Leixia, a graceful, smooth piece of work with a narrow handle and elongated body; Demetrius, broad and bulky and built especially for beaters; Zephu, a simple broom made for speed and dexterity, with a shorter, slimmer body than the rest and finished with sapphire gloss. For another while Harry kept looking, while Oliver finished painting.

Oliver took his wand out of his pocket and twirled his wrist thrice over this new broom. The paint, blobby around the handle and tacky on the rest of the body, smoothed out and dried into a brilliant shine specked with silver glitter. The vice squealed as Oliver loosened it and lifted the broom up and over his head, checking the underside for imperfections.

Harry pulled away from the other brooms. Other customers were never given this choice, so he should at least be grateful to Oliver for making the exception, even if the selection on offer wasn’t particularly appealing. Zephu would suffice. The corners of Harry’s lips pulled up into a contented smile, and he grasped Zephu by its handle, hot like the bonnet of a car in motion and tingling as such. “This one,” he said, twisting round to find Oliver, tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth in some daft expression of concentration, unaware that his tanned waistline had become exposed by his raised arms drawing his shirt and apron upwards.

Hold on.

Harry mentally slapped himself.

“Whuzzat?” Oliver said, fluttering his eyelids and staring at Harry as if he had forgotten that he was there. “Oh! Yeah! Okay – er – great choice – very fast – just give me one sec.” Pocketing his wand again for some reason, he tapped twice on the hind of the broom, the handle of which reared skyward with a sort of neighing sound, and then it galloped through the air, disappearing through the bead curtain as Harry gawped after it. “Right then, give us good old Zephu here and wait out front while I package him for you.”

Harry did as he was told, giving Oliver a courteous nod.

Dawn was breaking, the sky like waxen flame over the frozen wasteland of London.

“Crap!” Harry grunted to himself. Hermione’s head would be rolling by now. “Expecto Patronum!” A white and translucent something burst from the tip of his wand, coiling and shifting to form hooves, antlers, unseeing eyes. A stag. His stag. “I’m taking your advice, Hermione,” he told it. “These last few weeks have taken their toll. Expect me back at the office by Monday.”

It was crude and to-the-point – efficient, Hermione would say, and it was exactly how she liked it. This would keep her happy for now, Harry thought, as he watched it faze through the shop windows and canter into the world beyond. Ron would have to cope on his own until Monday; with or without help, Harry certainly couldn’t.

Half of his living room could cave in at any moment; his choice of comfort was either a rigid mattress or a sofa with more lumps than month-old milk; his ex-wife’s wedding ring lay warped and disfigured on his living room floor; his Firebolt neared death; and to top it all off, someone had entered his flat without permission and, good intentions aside, left a note in distant but familiar handwriting that gnawed at the front of his brain, where joy and sadness and the memories they held dear were prisoners of the despair heaving ever-onwards, shrieking between his ears and swelling with the enormity of it all. Something bulged behind Harry’s eyes and the pressure forced a solitary tear from his left eye. Next up, a quiet sob brought forth by a shallow hiccough.

The voice which addressed him had never been so full of concern, so soft it would have been impossible to hear had Oliver not been standing behind him, a cautious hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Do you need to talk?”

Harry, using the back of his wrist to wipe the tear away, gave a small nod. “Not here,” he said, throat tight, and he sniffled. “Not now.”

“Hey, there’s no rush,” Oliver said. Harry appreciated the gentleness to it, like cotton wool wrapped around his aching head. “What are you doing tomorrow night? I’m not needed at The Leaky Cauldron for another week or so and we close here at five – we could go somewhere around seven, slide off into the muggle world and forget ourselves for a little while.”

“That sounds nice,” Harry said, trying to work out why, of all people, Oliver sounded like the best person to distract him, and where his heart’s new life had come from. “We can catch up on all that we’ve missed – like old friends.”

The smile Oliver flashed was full of heart; beneath all of Harry’s despair, a memory unlocked. He returned Oliver’s smile.

As if remembering something very important, Oliver perked up, handed Harry a velvet, broom-shaped case, and moved over to a thick tome laid open on the counter. At the top of the page was the word ‘Orders’, and a list of names and addresses had been scrawled beneath it. Oliver snatched up the quill beside it and scratched Harry’s name down. Before Oliver asked, Harry gave him his address.

“Right,” Oliver said casually. “The total for your order,” he gave the Firebolt another once-over, “is thirty galleons. The old Firebolts take specialist work so they’re a tad more expensive to repair than your bog-standard Firestorm model.”

“Bog-standard?”

“Well, yeah. Everyone and their mother has a Firestorm. First-gen Firebolts fetch sky-high prices at auction – I rarely see them nowadays. That’s why it’d be such a shame to lose yours.”

Harry dug deep in his pockets and withdrew a few galleons, some sickles and far too many knuts. “Do you take deposits?” he asked sheepishly. He opened his hand and allowed the coins to spill over the glass with a hollow clattering.

Oliver folded his arms and gave Harry a look of forced exasperation. Then, grinning, he said, “I suppose I can make another exception.” He counted out the money (just under six galleons in total), and said, “All right, if I round that up – oh, don’t give me that look, it’s just a couple of knuts – you still owe twenty-four. Just pay the rest once I’ve repaired your Firebolt, mate; I’m great at repairs, but she’s in bad shape. No point in taking full payment if I end up refunding you anyway.”

Harry smiled in thanks and made a mental note to withdraw funds from his Gringotts vault. He bade Oliver farewell.

As Harry made to leave the shop, Oliver called to him with a solemn warning. He said, “Be careful out there. Something weird’s going on – people with markings I’ve never seen before, loitering in the dark. It could be nothing, but ‘nothing’ usually surmounts to something. Watch your back.”

“Noted,” Harry replied. He took a step over the threshold and hesitated. Glancing back, he added, “Stay safe, Oliver.”

Chapter Text

Harry descended the steps of Gringotts with a mildly uplifted spirit, springing on the balls of his feet, pockets heavy. The metallic jangling of the galleons, sickles and knuts he had detoured to collect, and the promise of a day spent shopping in Diagon Alley, was a satisfying reminder that he had a whole two days before returning to work.

Thoughts of his burnt living room and the potential hiccups that could cause had been safely tucked away for now. What had happened at the broomcare store ought to remain a secret – Harry had never made it a point to be emotional to himself, let alone around others, and certainly not around someone he hadn’t seen in almost a decade. But dwelling on his emotional outburst and the inappropriateness of it all was counterproductive so, as he moved away from the bank and joined a line of witches and wizards leading up Diagon Alley, he allowed that memory to be washed away by the incomprehensible babble of lively shoppers.

With so much work piling up at the office and at home, and having spent so much time locked away in his own misery, he’d not been able to do much Christmas shopping.

Jostling between an elderly wizard and a harassed-looking young witch, the line led him past the Magical Menagerie, Ollivanders and Gambol & Jape’s.

Flourish & Blotts appeared even more packed than before, with dozens of witches and wizards spilling out into the street and down the adjoining flight of steps sloughing towards a handful of miscellaneous shops. Harry was taken past all the hubbub and deposited outside of a building that seemed newer than the rest. Its shape was familiar, from the high windows gleaming in the sun to the red-and-white awning fluttering over four sets of metal tables and chairs. The fanciful, brass sign on the shop front had been recently polished.

In the summer of 1993, most of Harry’s days had been spent sitting here, his pockets sufficiently light and his stomach heavy with ice cream. Although Florean Fortescue was long gone, and the parlour had been renovated almost beyond recognition, the open service window off to the left still heralded the saccharine strawberry sundaes Harry could never quite forget.

His stomach rolled, yearning for the weight of Irish dairy cream, tangy sauces and those funny little rainbow sprinkles. But this wasn’t the weather for ice cream – enveloped in the stiff air of an oncoming blizzard – and he needed something far more substantial than that.

He headed for The Leaky Cauldron.

*

An hour and one hearty meal of pie and peas later, Diagon Alley had quietened. The flood of shoppers had dwindled to a mere trickle. Most of those still wandering the alley possessed more bags than they could carry, their shopping bobbing lazily in the air behind them.

Harry zipped up his jacket and quickly checked his watch.

Noon.

Plenty of time to finish all of his Christmas shopping.

He stood for a moment and thought. Ron, Hermione and the rest of the Weasleys didn’t compose much of a list. That wasn’t a problem. It was whether it would seem inappropriate for him to buy Ginny anything – worse, would it be inappropriate to buy Oliver anything?

For the time being, he would have to scratch that last thought.

Giving Ginny a gift would be less awkward than pretending he had forgotten, but not as awkward as pretending they hadn’t just emerged from a divorce. Sitting comfortably in the middle of all of that was the prospect of facing her on Christmas Day, amongst all of their (no, her, he was forcefully reminded) family and friends, without so much as a token of recognition. No ‘thanks for being my wife for the last half-decade’. No passive-aggressive symbol that declared ‘you’re the one who threw this away, not me’. Not even a silent exchange of Twisted Sister records hastily purchased on the last day of shopping before Christmas.

There was no solution buried there, nor any possible restitution.

Harry sighed. Knowing Ginny, she would still give him a gift no matter how small or insignificant it may be. A Quidditch figurine, probably, or pyjamas, or socks. Best to pre-empt that and get her something equally mundane. A peace offering, at the very least.

A boy no older than six waddled by, giggling, a model broom tucked between his legs as he went. Hurrying behind him, and with shopping bags extending to either side of her like a pair of expensive, gold wings, a middle-aged woman fumbled over the cobbles. Winded, she breathed in a Scottish accent, “Robbie! Get back here!”. She took a misstep: her arms flung outwards and her shopping clattered to the floor. One of the bags toppled. A river of opalescent jewels spilled in all directions as she hit the floor with a grunt.

Harry’s thoughts left him.

The little boy stopped outside Mister Mulpepper’s Apothecary and watched as Harry waved his wand. The woman’s shopping took skyward once more, while the jewels soared back into the bag. Harry jogged over to the woman, bent down, and, with eyes full of calm concern, offered her his hand.

“Oh!” she said delightedly, accepting. For a woman as dainty as she, her grip reminded Harry of a seasoned Quidditch player – a Chaser, if he was not mistaken. She brushed herself down, checked her rather elegant robes for signs of distress, and when she was satisfied that they had sustained no damage (except, perhaps, for patches of dampness caused by the snow), she added, “Thank you, young ‘un.”

And that was the extent of her interaction with Harry; she pulled her wand out of her pocket and jabbed it towards the other end of Diagon Alley. Her belongings lifted off the ground and, in single file, marched through the air towards her son. She followed in silence.

Harry stared after her. She took her son by the hand, raised her own at Harry in a final display of thanks, and Disapparated.

Harry blinked.

*

An hour later and Harry was perusing the glass cabinets inside a high-end jewellery shop, hidden away in the shaded junction between Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley.

His fingers traced lazily over priceless-looking bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and it was the dark glimmer of an onyx-encrusted ring, in the dim light of the chandeliers rotating silently overhead, that reminded him why he had come here in the first place.

For nearly five-hundred years, Miss Andry’s Jewel Emporium had been Diagon Alley’s number-one purveyor of tailor-made jewellery, offering the finest selection of bespoke diamond and burnished gold this side of the Atlantic, all nestled in amongst crimsons carpets and lavish, Roman tapestries.

Its current owner, a slender woman whose youthful appearance belied her true age, could often be found roaming between the aisles on the lower floor of the shop like a wraith, grey eyes vacant, the hem of her silk dress flowing several feet behind her. Right now, she was hovering a few aisles to the right, bent over an open cabinet with that same monocle-like device Oliver had used pressed against her eye, inches away from a gorgeous bangle of tribal design. There was a light clicking as she twisted the monocle about the centre, and it was followed by a sound like that of a camera shutter. One tiny, black wisp curled up from the lens.

“Hm,” the woman sighed. She removed the monocle and laid it beside her, then lifted the bangle out of the cabinet. She inspected it more closely now, bringing it within an inch of her face. Sniffed it.

Licked it.

She grimaced, placing the bangle next to the monocle and shutting the cabinet.

“Luina!” she called over her shoulder, at the bespectacled, violet-haired woman working on a piece of jewellery at the back of the shop. An early-twenties girl, half her face hidden by her silver bangs, paused above her work, holding a pair of tweezers.

Her voice was as dreamy as Luna Lovegood’s, Harry thought, as she responded with, “Yes, Floretta?”

Floretta held up the bangle at arm’s length, her face screwed up in an expression of disgust. “The contact details for the previous owner of this, ah, delightful little trinket… We made sure to record them, yes?”

“I believe so. Let me check.”

With that, Luina moved through an open door and disappeared into what Harry assumed was the administration office.

Eavesdropping had become a vice of Harry’s lately, so he drew away from the two ladies’ conversation and drifted to a neighbouring aisle.

In recent years, Hermione had attained quite the collection of rings and other jewellery – earrings in particular, and though she maintained a professional image by not wearing them at work, her private life was a different story. On many occasions she had expressed an interest in visiting this store, but being such a high-profile figure and having so many responsibilities left her with very little opportunity to do so.

A few steps down and Harry’s attention was drawn to a pair of small, silver hoops, elegant in design and distinctly perfect. He raised an arm and was about to call Floretta over when he realised she was no longer on the shop floor. He sighed in frustration, pacing over to the service counter and reaching behind the till to slam his hand on the bell.

“Excuse me,” he said loudly. He didn’t even try to hide his annoyance.

Luina’s head popped around the corner, levitating there in the doorframe. She fixed an innocent gaze upon Harry, before speaking. “Yes, how can I help?”

Harry, feeling rather guilty for his rudeness, pointed over his shoulder. Politely, he said, “There’s a pair of earrings over there that I’d like to buy. Could you take them out of the cabinet for me, please?”

“Certainly.” Luina removed her wand from her robes and smiled at Harry as she gestured towards the cabinets, moving past the counter and back onto the shop floor. Harry followed her, and together they came to a stop at a cabinet a few feet away from the earrings Harry had had in mind. Luina’s index fingernail tapped hollowly against the class, and she raised an inquisitive brow at Harry, as she indicated towards an ornate tiara of sorts – gleaming gold twirls and swirls coiling amongst one another and merging to nest a walnut-sized ruby in the centre of the band. “Half-price for you, Mr Potter.” She added, though Harry wished she had not, “An excellent gift for your wife, I’m sure.”

Harry gulped. He replied shortly, “Just the earrings.”

Luina nodded. Her nails scraped over the glass as she moved away from that cabinet and headed for the one containing the earrings.

Harry hoped Luina had simply missed the plethora of Daily Prophet articles declaring his divorce. He needed that mite of hope, however small, because right now it was all that was keeping his heart pieced together.

He made haste in paying for the earrings, and left the shop.

*

That musky odour lingered in the foyer again, stronger than ever and this time accompanied by something that smelt awfully like burnt dirt. A brute of a man lingered by the crumbling banister, leaning against the wall. Bulky, silent, eyes closed, nostrils flaring. White powder dotted his septum.

Harry rolled his eyes and shuffled past; he had collected more bags than he could realistically carry on his own, and he had almost needed reminding that he was living amongst Muggles. Years of living in a magical neighbourhood with Ginny had made public displays of magic second nature. That was just another facet of life that had yet to change, but would need to quickly.

Something snagged on one of the bags. Harry stopped, turning around.

The man’s eyes were staring wildly around the room, though they would fix on Harry for a moment before rolling around their sockets again. His thick jaw slackened and his mouth opened. It was like looking into a cavern – a vast, moist expanse of blackened gums, and a tongue rolling around inside like a wounded python.

“Let go, please,” Harry said firmly. With both his hands full, grabbing his wand was nothing but a fantasy.

“’Scuse me, mate,” the brute slurred. He did a great, heaving snort that echoed off the bare walls, threw his head to the side, and spat. Harry fought not to grimace. “You got cash on you?”

Not for you, Harry thought darkly. There was resistance as Harry tugged the bag free from the other man’s grip; the paper tore, and out tumbled the case containing the wizard’s chess set Harry had picked up for Ron. It spiralled as it bounced off each step on the way down, and came to a final, fragile clatter upon the dusty floor.

The other man paid it no heed, instead eyeing Harry up with an intent not quite malicious in nature but nowhere near innocent either.

“I said, let go,” Harry demanded.

More eye-rolling. More wet smacking of swollen lips. And something else: the shredded vest the thug was wearing had risen at the waist, and there was an ornate, yellow tattoo curling around the navel of his distended gut. He let go of Harry’s bag, grunted. His shoulders bunched up, his chest puffed out, and he started stalking up the stairs.

The man’s breath tore from him in deep wheezes with each footfall. Harry could hear the strain in his throat as he managed, “Don’t reckon much to stingy fucks, like.”

He was so far beyond rational thought that Harry seriously doubted he would remember being hit with a stunning spell. A part of Harry wished that the other man would draw a weapon of some kind just so that he would have justification for using magic on a Muggle.

Even though this behemoth of a man, nearly twice as bulky, was prowling towards him, Harry calmly gathered his bags and moved up a step, keeping his eyes trained ahead. He had faced dark wizards far more threatening (and great deal more intelligent) than a thug. There was only one spell Harry had learned to cast without a wand. It had taken months of practice to perform it consistently, and the only reason he had learned it in the first place was because he had found himself in the middle of a duel without his wand one time too many. He glanced over the banister for a second, at the wizard’s chess set lying dormant upon the floor.

Accio!” he uttered.

The thug stopped mid-step, rolling his shoulders, his jaw hanging loose as he cocked his head to the side, eyes vacant. Then, he flopped forward, because the leather case had soared over the banister to impact the back of his skull.

Harry snatched the chess set up and took the rest of the stairs as the thug, unconscious, rolled back to his damp corner of the floor.

*

Hours passed and Harry had yet to open the case containing Zephu; evening had arrived by the time all of the gifts had been wrapped. Where the wall had been burnt, there were gaps in the timber and the asbestos behind it that allowed a bitter draught into the room, more pervasive than the cramp in Harry’s gut that reminded him he had yet to eat a hot meal. With a levitation charm, he hefted the mound of gifts off the floor in one go and positioned them into a neat stack beside the fridge.

“That’s one job down,” he said, sighing contentedly. Then he eyed the burnt wall again – in particular, the wooden beam that shivered free as a gale blustered in from outside. Harry caught it with another charm before it could hit the floor and must have caught Ginny’s former wedding ring because that lifted into the air in the same motion. Harry frowned, contemplating. There really was no other way around the issue: he conjured a Patronus and issued it with a message to Hermione. He would have to endure her lecture.

As the ghostly stag cantered through the window and into the frigid night, Harry took up the metallic strand that had once been a fine piece of jewellery, unsure of what to do with it. He couldn’t simply bin it. Or could he? Ginny had given him the ring back to do as he pleased.

He tossed it onto the sofa, where it rolled into the seam between the seat and the frame. He would deal with it later. Whatever he decided, it wouldn’t change what the ring’s new shape, and how it had come to assume it, symbolised.

Inspecting Zephu was more of a priority than the ring, but food came first.

*

Chili con carne had never been one of Harry’s favourite meals to cook, but at least the pungent spices drifting over from the kitchen were strong enough to overpower the ashen stench coming from the wall. And the food wasn’t altogether inedible either, so that was a plus in Harry’s book. He laid his empty plate on the coffee table, next to the mountain of paperwork he still hadn’t touched (and likely wouldn’t get around to for another couple of days).

If there was room, he might have even laid his feet to rest upon the table. Instead, he settled for leaning into the back of the sofa and splaying out as much as he could. That was when his arm brushed up against one of the metal clips on Zephu’s case. The coldness of it startled him, while the sharpness made him yelp – he now sported a thin scratch just below his elbow.

“If this is a sign of things to come,” he murmured grumpily, “you and I are going to have some serious problems, Zephu.”

He grabbed the case and lifted onto his lap, unclipped it, slowly opened the lid, and considered the contents – the broom, in all its shimmering, sapphire glory, along with a tube of gold pain and accompanying brush. Only the brush and paint weren’t in any dedicated recess in the foam padding holding Zephu, meaning Oliver had included them as a last-minute addition not usually afforded to regular customers.

Harry hummed. “What games are you playing, Wood?”

Urgent footsteps outside the living room door. The unmistakable clacking of high-heeled shoes on a stone floor. And the terrified voice calling after them. “Let me in.”

Harry snapped the case shut and leapt from the sofa, dashing across the room. He threw the door open to find Hermione standing there, bedraggled, three long slashes splitting the front of her blood-stained skirt. And the wound on her cheek – raw and bloody enough to warrant immediate attention, with the skin surrounding it torn up like paper.

“What the hell happened to-”

Harry didn’t get chance to finish; Hermione shouldered past him, slammed the door shut, darted across the living room, down the adjoining hallway and then paused. Realising.

“The bathroom is to your left,” Harry said quickly. He was about to try asking again when she disappeared through the doorway and locked him out. He stared after her, utterly baffled.

Figuring that being a helpful friend was a better option than standing around like an idiot, Harry hurried into his bedroom, grabbed a few handtowels, and returned to the bathroom door, where he knocked thrice.

“Hermione, I’ve got some towels for you. Are you all right?”

Whether she had heard him over the rapid-flowing water was a mystery. He knocked again. This time, the water stopped. Heavy breathing erupted just behind the door, and something heavy thumped against it.

“Hermione?”

The handle creaked, shaking as it pushed slowly down. Hermione, clad only in her underwear, emerged from the bathroom as the door crept open. Her business blouse and skirt lay in a heap on the floor, and the heels of her shoes had snapped. She staggered forward and stumbled, crumpling into Harry’s arms as he caught her.

“Harry, I don’t…” she managed. “Need to lay down…”

Harry took her into a bridal lift and carried her into his bedroom, placing her onto the bed. As uncomfortable as it was, it would have to do. He had never seen her so vulnerable, lying semi-naked with a gash on her cheek and unbridled fear in her vacant, unseeing eyes. She assumed a foetal position and continued to stare, trembling not from the ungodly chill in the air but from the adrenaline coursing through her veins. This was so far beyond a conscious reaction to whatever horrors she had faced. This was primal instinct – flight, in its purest form. Harry could only watch helplessly on as she spilled tears onto his pillow and sobbed, each wracking convulsion growing weaker still, until the only sounds issuing from her were incomprehensible babble and traumatised hiccoughing.

“Hermione… What happened to you? Where’s Ron?”

Hermione’s head snapped in Harry’s direction. The glare she fixed upon him could turn any man to stone. It softened when she realised who she was addressing.

“Harry,” she uttered. “The Wizengamot found out about… I’ve been fired.”

“What?!”

Hermione pressed a finger to her lips. Though her every movement was as unsteady as the last, and the horror in her eyes glinted darker than ever before, she had regained some semblance of lucidity. She said through gritted teeth, “Archibald, he – he was spying on me. Spying on all of us. He was the one who reported my involvement with the Auror Office to the Wizengamot. Your Patronus – it arrived just as they fired me.”

Harry wasn’t sure what he should worry about first: Hermione’s wound or the newly-created power vacuum at the Ministry. He went with the former, because he knew that dwelling on the Ministry right now would drag him right back into a world of incomplete paperwork and nameless faces.

“We need to get that wound seen to,” he announced firmly, drawing his wand. So far, the only light in the room had been a silvery sliver of moonlight filtering in through the window, beaming over Hermione’s bare torso; he illuminated the room with a single, glowing globe, and then moved around the bed to perch himself on the edge of the mattress, hovering his wand over Hermione’s cheek.

“You won’t be able to heal it,” Hermione said flatly. “Nobody can. Dark magic cannot be healed, remember? It will have to heal naturally.”

“That’s not my biggest concern,” Harry lied. “What caused this? Sectumsempra?”

Hermione shook her head, though Harry wished she hadn’t; her cheek had started bleeding again, and now his bedsheets were flecked with red. Her eyes darkened further still.

Under any other circumstances, if it were coming from anyone else, and because everything Harry thought he had ever known and understood about nature and magic and the laws of the universe was being thrown into disarray, he would never have believed her – but he did, because it was Hermione Jean Granger, and she was the most vulnerable she had ever been.

She said, “How familiar are you with the works of George Romero?”

Chapter Text

“Romero, as in the Hollywood director?”

Hermione nodded. “I understand how this must sound. I can hardly believe it myself, and trust me, I wish I didn’t. But this is real, horrifically so, and the only reason I’m not incomprehensible with fear right now is that I don’t know where Ron is or what could be happening to him. I was on my way here to see what your Patronus was about when I was ambushed.”

Harry frowned. He stood from the bed and moved over to the trunk containing his clothes. Hermione would need more than a clean towel for that wound on her cheek, but it was all he could offer. It was soft, woollen, and vividly purple, but at least it would save his bedsheets from becoming any bloodier.

“Here,” he said, passing the towel to her. She hissed as she tended to the gaping hole, and from this angle, leaning over her, he saw that the muscles in her cheek had been torn through to the gum and teeth underneath. His stomach rolled. “Jesus, Hermione, what the hell happened to you?”

“I told you,” she said. Her breathing had shallowed somewhat, but she was still lucid. And, for now, the bleeding seemed to have stopped. Harry’s prime concern was to patch her up somehow, whether with clean sheets or a first aid kid. All that mattered was preventing infection. And with a wound like that, infection was almost guaranteed. “I Apparated to the end of your street and walked the rest of the way. There was this – how would I describe him – a thug, I suppose? Loitering a few doors down, limbs all loose and with this awful sound rumbling out of his throat. He was covered in tattoos. One of them was yellow, and not that different to the woman you said you saw in The Leaky Cauldron the other night. I stopped to check on him, to see if he needed any assistance.”

“You’re too helpful for your own good, Hermione,” Harry said, sighing. And he told her about the run-in he’d had earlier in the day. He knew the situation was dire when she didn’t even flinch at his use of magic against a Muggle.

“Yes, well,” she replied indignantly, pointing to her cheek, “I understand that now, don’t I? As I was saying…”

And she relayed her story…

*

Strong women did not have their emotions dictated by men in white robes. Hermione repeated this to herself as she gathered up the items at her desk and dumped them unceremoniously into the cardboard box a smug-smiling Archibald had given her. Among them were a two-way mirror, a set of encyclopaedias, a fantasy novel, and a photo of her and Ron on their wedding day, framed in luxurious silver. She would have thrown her favourite potted plant in there as well, but it had been a gift from Archibald after her first day as Minister and so, instead of sitting comfortably on a stack of books, its leafy greens and luscious reds were now hidden beneath a mound of dirt and fragmented porcelain on the carpet.

Ron would find out later, when he would arrive home to the first meal Hermione had cooked him in years. Telling him now would only cause more trouble, because eight years had done little to reduce his temper or improve his patience. For the time being, Hermione would leave her office and the Ministry for the last time, with her dignity intact. If there was one thing of which she was certain, it was that her involvement with the Blue Swan investigation was far from over. One of the more senior members of the Wizengamot, an octogenarian man with a false eye and a voice like a buffalo, had said something quite at odds with his position.

“A Minister for Magic should not be concerning themselves with matters of criminal prosecution or investigation,” he had said. And that had been perfectly reasonable, Hermione had thought. What peaked suspicion, however, had been his justification: “Especially when there are already members of the Wizengamot overseeing the investigation’s progress.”

Neither Harry nor Ron were aware of that fact, and it had brought Archibald’s role as Hermione’s supposed assistant into a whole new light. The thought of him reporting back to someone every day, knowing that his purpose had been much less about helping her and more about furthering whatever agenda the Wizengamot possessed, made her sick and at the same time, her newfound unemployment provided her with the much-needed free time to join the Blue Swan investigation permanently. Without that responsibility tying her down, she could finally make a difference. Impact change.

With that reassurance, she turned on the spot, scanning the office and its pristine walls and the bookshelves scraping the ceiling. Aside from the shattered plant pot on the floor, there was not a spot of dirt or dust to be seen. And that wasn’t because this was a Minister for Magic’s office – it was because it was Hermione’s office.

Had been her office.

“I suppose I’ll take my leave, then,” she said to no one in particular. With a quiet huff, she hoisted her box of belongings into her arms and left.

The journey to the Disapparition point was as lively as any other. Greet colleagues, stop for photographs for the press, all the usual hustle and bustle drowned out by the buzz of memos fluttering overhead and late-evening chatter. There was a freezing hollowness in Hermione’s gut as she passed the Fountain of Magical Brethren – half of the witch’s face was plastered in papier-mâché, and the wizard towering over her had his head lost behind a swarm of paper aeroplanes. The fountain’s tinkling hiss was barely audible over the business of it all.

Hermione pressed on at an uneven pace. She tried to avoid meeting anyone else as she waded through the crowds and was successful in that endeavour even as more of her now-former colleagues spewed out from the emerald-flame fireplaces. One or two tried to catch her eye while another called her name. But something else had drawn her attention: in the centre of the aisle, developing an audience of its own, was that familiar stag. Everyone knew who that Patronus belonged to – they had all seen it in the paper after Harry dealt with a Dementor infestation at a village up in West Yorkshire – and that was precisely why Hermione cursed Harry for the timing.

Ethereal eyes locked onto her and sent chills down her spine. No matter how many times she and Harry communicated like this, she could never get used to such an awesome, elegant creature. She moved past it, past the throng of passers-by awestruck by its presence, and gestured for it to follow her. Silently, it did so, and when she had reached the Disapparition point, once she was certain that nobody would eavesdrop, she listened to its message.

“I need a hand with some accidental magic,” Harry’s voice whispered. “Do you know how to repair a wall burned by magic?”

There was an unsteadiness to the message that told her Harry was already expecting an ear-busting lecture. Rightly so. She rolled her eyes, smiling.

Redoubling her grip on the box, she closed her eyes, pictured the junction at the end of Harry’s street, and Disapparated.

Sharp, piercing air stole the breath from her lungs as the smooth vinyl floor of the Ministry’s atrium slid out from under her and became cold, hard granite. The incandescent burn of the lampposts lining one side of the road threw the other half of the street into empty shadow. From the darkness over there and the houses and shrubbery veiled beyond it, the only visible shapes were the blocky haze of windows bathed in the artificial light of the television sets inside.

Hermione swivelled her neck, getting her bearings. She was standing in the middle of the road, but the junction she had pictured was on the other side of the half-illuminated valley in front of her. Harry’s need for security since the divorce had gotten out-of-hand. With his anti-Apparition charms placed further out from his flat than normal, Hermione had been lucky to not suffer a splinching. But she had to wonder when he had made the change, and what could have incited him to do so in the first place.

At least the walk will do me some good, she thought, though she wasn’t particularly convinced that unnecessary exercise was the solution to her problems. She hugged the box closer to her body. This wasn’t the first time she had been in this area, nor was it the first time she had been here after dark. But there was something about the mist beginning to settle over the tarmac that told her not to stay in the same spot for too long, or to leave precious belongings unprotected. She hurried on, keeping to the side of the road the light could still touch.

There couldn’t have been more than seven houses between Hermione and the junction, and yet the silence encroaching as she walked had made it feel like a mile. She reached the turn in the road and cast an uncertain glance over her shoulder. Why, of all times, did Harry need to ask for help right now?

She followed the pavement round until Harry’s block of flats came into view, nestled between two others which themselves formed part of a larger complex of residential buildings. Noticeably, there was greater lighting here than the street just past. Both sides of the road were home to newer, brighter lampposts that could give one a healthy tan should they stand underneath one long enough. And as if someone had opted to test that theory, Hermione spotted a silhouette leaning against a brick wall, back hunched, limbs seemingly hanging loose from their sockets. They were still a fair distance away, but Hermione would have to pass them in order to reach Harry’s flat.

The figure slumped further down the wall, and let out a shallow, wheezing cough as it did so.

“Of course,” Hermione sighed, exasperated. She held the box with one hand while taking her wand out of her pocket with the other. Muggle or not, this person appeared drunk enough to need a rejuvenation spell of some sort. One of her own invention would do the trick, more potent than its widely-known siblings but more volatile as a result. Harry and Ron had barely managed to learn the incantation, let alone the complex movements, but with a lot of nagging on Hermione’s part, they had mastered it, and it had come in handy on too many occasions for them to count.

Hermione marched forwards, shrugging off the wintry cold creeping into her blouse. She held her wand by her side as she approached the other person, apparently a man if his hulking muscles and bald head were anything to go by. The noise coming from him amplified into a rattling breath as she neared, and his head twitched against the bricks. With the air rapidly growing colder still and an inexplicable dread rising in her throat, she found she had started trembling. And, forgetting that she was here to provide medical help, she prepared herself for the Dementor these signs heralded.

But no Dementor came. No screams of those lost during the Battle of Hogwarts. None of the consuming terror that instilled the most primal fear in her bones. The only sound was of the man’s vocal folds flapping through the sheer effort of lifting himself off the floor, and Hermione had never heard another person make a sound quite like it – like a lawnmower stuttering as it revved up.

“Excuse me, sir,” Hermione, voice quavering, offered. Her mind tried reining in control of her body but was unable to; her arm rose in front of her and pointed her wand at the back of the man’s head, shuddering under the weight of her own fear. “Are you all right?”

The only response she received was an inhuman crack as the man’s head spun round to face her directly. His body and head were facing in opposite directions, and the sight sent her stomach into convulsions. White, cloudy eyes stared right through her as the man’s body followed his head round, but the bones in his neck had been obliterated in the sudden movement; he put one leg forward as his head flopped onto his shoulder, and he lumbered forward, mouth agape, eyes still fixed on Hermione, with a gangling limb outstretched in an image she had only ever seen on late-night television. She would have taken a step (or ten) backwards had the man’s other arm not swung out and grabbed her at the elbow.

She dug her heels, hauling back, but the man had a grip like a vulture and the motion made his nails weal down her arm like four hot knives. Hermione felt a wet warmth trickle over her wrist as she screamed, and she knew he had drawn blood – a lot of it.

Stupefy!

The jet of red light hit the man square in the face and had no effect. He took another clumsy step forward and tripped over a raised slab of pavement: he tumbled into Hermione and, together, they collapsed to the floor. Her box and its contents flew several feet to the right and were lost in the grass of an overgrown garden.

Now, his jaws had started moving – chewing – what few teeth he had left were clacking against one another as he drew closer to Hermione’s face, his breath an omen of death and decay. His weight pinned both of her arms to her stomach and herself to the floor.

“Get off me!” she shrieked. And yet, she knew it was hopeless. Knew that whoever this man had once been, he was no longer there. The wall of muscle on top of her was nothing more than a shell running on base instinct alone. Her feet kicked out, thrashing wildly.

Its head came down like a boulder, knocking all semblance of sense from her head as it rebounded off the pavement, and its teeth punctured the skin a mere inch away from her eye. She roared in pain, unable to move as it shredded the flesh and muscle underneath and tore her skin back like an overpulled hangnail.

But the pain dissipated not long thereafter, because her veins were afire and the only thought in her head now was to just survive. The adrenaline coursing through her sent a surge of power to her arms and, with a mighty heave and a lot of distressed screaming, she rolled the brute off of her and scrambled to her feet. All thoughts of collecting her belongings left her: she gripped her wand, pointed it at the thing slowly rising from the floor, and, in a flash of madness, bellowed, “Reducto!

She hadn’t known what effect to expect, if any. But if she had not been expecting anything, it was the resulting explosion of flesh, skull fragments and brain matter that splattered over the pavement and up her dress like some macabre, abstract painting.

As the corpse slumped to its knees, and then forward with a dull finality, Hermione noticed that it had no blood to spill. Among the wads of dark gore clinging to her clothes and matting the pavement, there was only bone. Fighting to untie the knot in her stomach, Hermione approached the body cautiously at first, and brought herself down to inspect it once she had ascertained that it truly was dead. She lifted her wand high and illuminated the tip, pointing it down at the fractured bone protruding from its obliterated neck. It was like checking a joint of meat for maggots, she thought, stopping short of poking it with her wand. And then the smell hit her: rotten and sickly sweet, with an overpowering coppery tang that made her throw her head to one side and eject the contents of her stomach.

She couldn’t simply leave the body here. She gathered herself, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and uttered a quick cleaning spell at the mess around her. Only the vomit vanished.

“Why isn’t the rest – Oh… I see…”

If she couldn’t clean it up directly with magic, she would have to find a workaround. She conjured a large, black bin bag and while levitating it in place, used the minor freehand magic she knew to peel the gore off the ground like day-old chewing gum. The wet slapping sounds as she filled up the bag nearly made her throw up again, but she soldiered on until all that was left was the body itself, and that could be collected in five minutes by an Auror – she perished the thought. If the Blue Swan Unit had been infiltrated in spite of its heightened security, then it could be guaranteed that the Aurors not involved with the investigation had been compromised. That left her with only one option: hide the body, inform Harry and come back to finish the job as soon as possible. His half-burnt living room would have to wait; where there were Inferi, there was also death. A lot of it. And if the tattoo on the corpse’s body was anything to go by, with its signature grace and effortless artistry, the Blue Swan investigation was about to enter much deeper – and more frightening – territory.

First, and most importantly, she would search for a secluded spot nearby where she could stow the body bag. Then, she would find Harry, see to the bite on her cheek, and work out how in the hell they were going to get themselves out of trouble this time.

*

That was how Harry, now garbed in the darkest clothes and robes he could find, found himself crawling through a thicket of bushes three streets away from his flat. Hermione was ahead of him by a couple of feet, with a clean bandage wrapped over her head, tied under her chin. Harry had found a first aid kit stowed away in one of his trunks and spent the few minutes afterward removing dirt and debris from Hermione’s cheek, not without protest. But he had completed the task, and now she seemed relatively relaxed.

The dirt under them had been frozen solid by the late-evening chill, cold enough to make Harry’s knees numb. He groped out at the dark – the only light came from Hermione’s wand in front, casting an elongated silhouette through the breaks between the twigs and leaves hugging in from all sides. Harry was thankful Hermione hadn’t decided to drag him through a thorn bush, because he could feel the fabric of his jeans wearing down with every inch forward.

It was another short while later that they emerged at a section of waist-high grass closed-off by more shrubbery on all sides, no wider and much less pretty than any other garden in a London suburb. The house to which this belonged had long since been abandoned: vines slithered up and into the walls, and the kitchen window, at the corner furthest from where the moss groping up from the razed earth had yet to consume it, was little more than a colony for inch-thick, luminous algae.

Icy moonlight filtered down through the clouds, falling upon a cobblestone well situated in the middle of the garden and the bulky bin bag propped up against it.

With a grunt, Harry hefted to his feet, taking his wand out and illuminating it as Hermione brought the bag into the air once more. The light from Harry’s wand scanned the grass and hedges like a searchlight, before settling on the bag.

“That’s the body, right?” Harry whispered.

“Yes. We need to find a way of getting rid of it,” she said, though the bandage on her head was so tight that her words slurred. The clothes she was wearing had belonged to Harry aeons ago, but married life had ensured enough weight gain to make his past scrawny nothing but a memory. The old red-and-blue chequered shirt hung from her limbs like rags, and the pair of jeans she wore were smothered in dirt-and-grass stains. “Before we do, though – Harry, what could an Inferius possibly be doing in a London suburb? And, more is the point, who could have killed this man and known the very complex and so very dark art of Necromancy to reanimate him in the first place?”

Harry was at a loss. Shrugging would have been trite in this situation, but it was also the perfect way to summarise the thoughts (or lack thereof) in his head. Instead, he gave a meagre “Hmmm,” and left it at that.

“There’s something else,” she continued, letting the bag drift across the garden to settle at Harry’s feet. He leaned over it. “That man, he had a tattoo – don’t open the bag, for goodness sake – and even though it was a different colour to the one belonging to that suspect you identified-”

“Its design was similar,” Harry ended politely. “You already said. Do you think this concerns the BSU?”

Hermione looked at him. The bandage strapped a lock of hair over her left eye, but he could still sense her determination. “Almost certainly,” she said. “And, given that the Wizengamot is covertly involved with the investigation, we have to assume that the higher-ups in the Ministry know something that we, as a team, do not.”

Harry smirked, raising an eyebrow at her. Amused, he repeated, “We?”

Hermione rested a hand on her hip and she assumed a new, confident attitude. “The Wizengamot may be without its Chief Witch, but the Blue Swan Unit just gained a permanent member. There’s one other thing, as well.”

“Oh?”

“No matter how old we get, Harry, you, Ron and I will always be the Golden Trio.”

And the way she said that, standing there in the most Hermione-ish of ways, brought a new kind of yearning to Harry’s heart – refreshing, exciting and gleaming with hope.

They laughed quietly.

When the moment had passed, Harry returned to the problem at hand, serious once more. “We need to work out what we’re to do with the Inferius. We can’t just throw it away, can we?”

“We’re not going to,” Hermione said, jerking her head towards the well. “This house has been derelict for quite some time, judging by the state of it. Inferi take centuries to decompose, meaning we can place a few warding charms around and never be discovered by anyone not specifically searching for us or the body. It’s the perfect hiding spot.”

“That’s not just it,” Harry said, the idea birthing in him like a star. “If we clean the house up a bit and expand the well into a sort of Bat Cave underground, we might have the ideal place for some new headquarters.”

There was one flaw with that plan, Harry knew, and Hermione was quick to point it out: “Then we’ll need the Fidelius Charm. We can no longer trust anyone in the BSU, thanks to the Wizengamot’s interference. You, Ron and I will have to become Secret Keepers, and under no circumstances are we to bring anyone back here without absolute assurance that we can trust them – and by that, I mean we must all make a unanimous decision.”

Harry nodded, aware that he was about to throw away what remained of his free time. The Ministry was still not expecting him back at work until Monday, which offered him a window of two more days before well and truly bidding his leisure activities farewell.

“The body,” Hermione continued, as she levitated the bag again and watched it float through the air, “will remain in the well until we return, at which point we shall repair the house and move it into the attic for closer inspection and investigation.”

Until now, her wand had been permanently fixed on the bag: she pocketed it, and the bag rolled over once before plummeting into the depths of the well. The resulting splash sent stale water and rotten foliage sloshing up and out and onto the grass near Harry’s feet.

“We’re really doing this, then, Hermione?”

“Yes, it does seem that way. Listen closely, Harry: this never happened – forget about the Inferius and Blue Swan for the time being – act as you usually would once you return to work and follow the investigation’s progress as naturally as you can. Carry on with your life as normal. Over the coming days and weeks, I’ll scout the area in a five-mile radius from here to determine just how safe this place could be as potential headquarters.”

The knot keeping Hermione’s bandage together had come loose; she had to use one hand to hold it against her cheek as Harry paced over to help.

Tying it back into place, this time with a doubled-up knot and a bow for good measure, Harry said, “There has to be something we can do about your cheek. Stop the bleeding, at least. Don’t you have any dittany at home?”

“I do, but its effect is going to be very limited. Inferi bites are innately imbued with dark magic. While dittany would certainly help for a short time, I expect I’d have to periodically reapply it – and therefore redress the wound. Still, I suppose it’s better than nothing.”

Harry finished his work and took a step back, checking that the bandage was firmly in place.

“That comfortable enough for you?” he asked her. She nodded.

By now, a second cover of cloud had descended to smother the first, and the moon was little more than a milky blot in the sky. Harry extinguished his wand. Then, he took one last look at the surrounding houses. One of the gardens further down the terrace was bathed in artificial light, but he couldn’t see anyone. Not even a shadow. He could hear movement, though, and hushed voices that were incomprehensible from this far away but growing steadily closer.

“We should leave,” Hermione said lowly. “I’ll return come morning and begin scouting the area. I’m sorry, Harry, but your living room will have to wait. This is more important right now.”

“I understand,” Harry replied. “Is this where we go our separate ways?”

“For now, yes. I’ll send Ron over in the morning before work to collect my clothes. In the meantime, I’ll send Zeus over with a notebook that might be useful to you. There’s some information in it pertinent to the current state of your living room.”

Harry and Hermione bade each other a quick farewell. The hole Hermione had made in the bushes was sealed over now, leaving no other option but to Disapparate.

“Stay safe, Hermione.”

“You, too.”

There was a potent glimmer of fear in Hermione’s eyes that was all too telling in the late-evening haze, and her words sounded anything but confident as she Disapparated with a crack like a whip.

Harry could relate. Voldemort’s army of Inferi had left him with seven months’ worth of nightmares; nightmares of brittle bones and greying flesh pulled taut like leather over them; of clouded eyes that would never see the sun again; of the gaunt faces of all Voldemort’s victims committed not to the earth upon death but to an eternity of empty existence; of all the pitiable creatures and sights Harry had been forced to endure throughout the Second Wizarding War, the Inferi were, perhaps, the most sorrowful and most terrifying of all.

As he, too, Disapparated, he couldn’t help but wonder if Hermione had experienced – or was experiencing – the same inexorable flood of conflicted emotions that had plagued him in the aftermath of his encounter. Maybe they would be worse for her this time around because she had been the one to put the Inferi down.

Hermione Jean Granger was the most level-headed of the Golden Trio, but she was also the most human.

Chapter Text

For once, Harry had somehow managed to wriggle his way into a semi-comfortable position in bed. Waking this late on a morning felt like a crime; though the sunlight flooding into his room was devoid of any tingling warmth, it marked a stark contrast to the days and weeks prior and was bright enough to burn through his eyelids.

There was also that insistent rapping at the window.

Harry grabbed his glasses from the bedside cabinet and slid them on, then scurried out of bed, got dressed, and paced across the room to unlatch the window and push it open, regretting it when that familiar winter’s chill bit at his hand. But the thought was pushed swiftly to the back of his head as a black-feathered body bulleted in through the opening.

Zeus, Ron and Hermione’s owl, was built for battle with mean yellow eyes and a head as flat as a table, all stuffed into an unkempt package of onyx plumage. Harry had never seen eye-to-eye with Zeus, mainly because the darn bird would nip his finger when he wasn’t looking – and not in the affectionate manner that had once been Hedwig’s trademark. Zeus circled overhead like a fighter jet as Harry closed the window.

Harry flinched; the little parcel tied to Zeus’ leg had clipped him around the ear with pinpoint precision. If owls couldn’t hold grudges, then why did Harry have an awful feeling that this one could?

Zeus settled on Harry’s bed and ruffled his feathers, glaring. He stuck one leg out, razor talons flexing, and when Harry didn’t immediately approach him to remove the parcel so obviously inconveniencing him, he shook it insistently. Harry had never felt judged by an owl before Zeus came along, and now, as he took cautious steps toward his own bed in his own bedroom, he felt as though Zeus was judging him far more than anyone, human or otherwise, ever had in his life.

Untying the parcel took only a second, but with those fearsome eyes scrutinising every movement Harry made, it felt more like minutes. Zeus squawked rudely and beat Harry around the head once with his wing. Harry swiped out – and swore; his payment for such rudeness was a hard scratch on his left hand.

“Oh, get out, you pain in the arse,” Harry grunted. He grabbed his wand from the bedside cabinet and flicked it at the window, which swung open in time for Zeus to sail out of the room.

Healing the scratch was as simple as tracing the tip of his wand over the back of his hand. Tally one more for the dozens of times Zeus had tried murdering him.

Harry perched on the edge of his bed and began unwrapping the parcel, just about long and wide enough to sit comfortably in his palm. The brown paper contained a notebook, as Hermione had promised, though it was smaller than Harry had been anticipating and very scruffy considering who it had come from; some of the pages were dogeared, and some had been torn out only to be folded up and tucked back inside. Most, Harry noted as he flicked through it, contained diagrams and blueprints and sketches of wand movements – he recognised an incantation jotted down on the back page.

Vivifico

The hand movement for the spell was one of the most complex Harry had ever had to learn, and he put that down to it being Hermione’s invention. Though its purpose was near-identical to the standard reviving spell, Hermione had designed this one with anti-Dark Arts implementations specifically in mind, and it far surpassed the limitations of its general-use sister. Hermione had yet to officially announce the existence of the spell, and so she, Harry and Ron were the only ones aware of it. As it stood, its only limit seemed to be death itself, because it had worked on every occasion they had needed it, though the last time was several years ago.

Harry gripped his wand. He brought it swishing upwards, paused for a moment, thinking, and continued on with the motion as purple mist belched from the tip. With its reassurance, he drew three concentric circles in the air, starting with the largest and ending at the centre with the smallest. Finally, with the image of a hook in his head, he jerked his wand backwards: there was a soft pop, and the purple mist swirled to form a vortex, pulsed once, and dissipated.

At least he hadn’t forgotten how to cast it. He wondered if Ron could say the same, but with Hermione as his wife there was absolutely no chance she would ever let him forget. Harry chuckled; she had probably subjected him to random exams during the course of teaching him the spell.

A piece of paper was poking out of a corner of the notebook, with Harry’s name scrawled on. He plucked it out and unfurled it. Hermione had provided a note, an incantation and a brief sketch denoting the hand movement. The note read:

I invented this shortly after Ron accidentally ignited our shed by using his wand as a fireworks display. It will reverse the magical damage done to your wall. A quick reparo ought to take care of the rest. Be careful next time!

That was the closest he would receive to a lecture.

The hand movement wasn’t all that complicated – at least, not as complicated as Harry had been expecting. A swish-and-flick would hardly do the trick but it was simple enough that it would fit very comfortably into a fourth-year Hogwarts student’s Charms textbook.

Harry’s stomach lurched. He would make breakfast after sorting out that mess of a living room.

*

“Let’s see now…” Harry muttered, the incantation repeating in his head.

His left hand held the sketch at arm’s length in front of him, with his wand pinched between his teeth and his right hand mimicking the vigorous scrubbing motion Hermione’s sketch described. He felt rather foolish standing like this, attempting a brand-new piece of magic without Hermione’s instruction. But he was alone. Nobody else was expected until later that night and even then, he had yet to confirm with Oliver whether they would be meeting here or elsewhere. He made a mental note to find the paper with Oliver’s address on and send him a Patronus; it was times like this that made not owning an owl one hell of a chore.

Hedwig’s cage remained in the attic of his and Ginny’s house – their old house. Funny, he thought, that referring to it as a memory was no longer quite as painful. Instead of a stab in the gut, the sensation was more similar to an agitated twist that accompanied prolonged hunger. And maybe that was it. Maybe it was hunger.

He would need to collect the cage at some point if he was to finally buy another owl.

The reminders he kept setting himself had begun to pile up in his head just like the office work on his coffee table. He glanced over his shoulder at the forlorn pile, about as neat and tidy as one would expect for a mid-twenties slob who had developed an intimate relationship with coffee and grown far too detached from life to care about the circular stains on the paper.

He turned back to the task at hand. An inch-tall mound of soot had collected on the floor, etched out of an overhanging timber beam by the inadvertently wandless magic Harry had cast while acquainting himself with the spell. This seemed like a brute force piece of magic with almost none of the finesse of Hermione’s other inventions. Harry chuckled again. Hermione must have poured her frustration at Ron into the spell’s execution.

He went through the motions once again, this time with his wand: the whole wall shuddered in place, screeching with a noise like a whetstone – Harry recoiled with gritted teeth – and the grime coating it liquified and slithered from the bare framework as great, black slugs that slapped wetly on the floor. Shortly after, the remaining grey residue shifted: it peeled away like a scab and fluttered down to the floor, crumbling to dust the moment it and the cold laminate met. Jagged wood and fractured masonry were all that was left behind, and through the gaps between them, wind and drizzle spluttered into the living room.

Dark cloud loomed at the horizon.

Harry waved his wand. The holes sealed over while the masonry healed. With an enormous creak, the loose timber beams wove back together and flashed golden. There was a crack, and the wall appeared as rigid as it had prior to the burning, only without the plaster covering it. It would have to do for now, Harry decided, as he cast a drying charm on the floor. Then, he pocketed his wand again and headed for the refrigerator, intent on sating the grumbling beast in his stomach.

*

Magic opened up new avenues of laziness. With a simple flick of his wand, Harry could clean the living room, repair any object in an instant, unlock doors, fend off wraiths, even defeat the greatest dark wizard of modern times. And yet, he couldn’t bring himself to make the dishes clean themselves because that felt too much like cheating. Besides, it was one of the few times during the day when he could forget his problems, when his most pressing concern was preventing soggy food scraps from becoming lodged in the U-bend. So, that was his current situation, vigorously scrubbing at scrambled eggs burnt onto the base of a pan.

Water had splashed up his arms and into the pink kitchen gloves he was wearing, slicked with the grease oozing from the frying pan he’d used for bacon. That did little to dampen his spirit.

With plenty of rest behind him, and now a repaired wall and satisfied stomach, there was little to prevent him enjoying a non-work-related night out for the first time in longer than he could remember. His bed had left him with an aching back, as it always did, but not even that perturbed him as he removed the rubber gloves, laid them on the kitchen worktop, pulled the plug out of the sink and began hand-drying the dishes with a towel from an adjacent drawer.

He even smiled as he worked.

For now, fears of the Inferi had been pushed to the back of his head and covered with a moth-eaten tarp for good measure. Opportunities to freely enjoy life rarely ever showed up lately, and that was exactly what tonight would provide: a chance to stoke the fires of memories long since extinguished by a decade fraught with tension and uncertainty. Oliver had always been a friend, never more than that – the kind of person one kept comfortably within reach but far enough away that they would never get to see one’s uglier side. Maybe tonight would change that. Harry was no longer The Boy Who Lived; Oliver should be allowed to see that.

Harry would need to verify the meeting time and location soon. With the dishes now dry, he tapped each of them in turn with his wand. They seemingly danced in the air as one of the cupboards swung open to greet them, clacking into a neat stack on the shelf before the door shut behind them.

Now, to find that scrap of paper Oliver had written his address on…

Harry placed his hands on his hips for a moment, thinking. The last place Harry had had the note was shortly before falling asleep on the sofa the other night. He moved over to it and began rummaging in the crease between the two cushions. His fingers found purchase on a crumpled ball, which he then lifted out along with a cluster of dust and dirt.

“Lovely,” he grumbled, grimacing. He swatted a few specks of muck from the note as he opened it and read.

Oliver Wood

192 Diurn Alley

London

Harry already had his message in mind. He gave his wand a quick flick, summoning his Patronus.

“You know what to do,” he said as he showed the address to the stag, which bowed its head, turned on the spot and cantered through the window and off into the distance.

Once it had disappeared from view, Harry headed from the living room and into his bedroom, searching for clothes.

*

It had taken almost thirty minutes to decide on something appropriate to wear – mainly because all of Harry’s good clothes had somehow burrowed themselves underneath years of detritus in his trunk and needed hauling back out – but he had at last settled on a smart-but-casual polo shirt and a pair of denim jeans that was just a tad snug around his thighs.

He was in the bathroom, combing his hair (to no avail) and adjusting his collar while looking in the mirror above the sink, when light scrapes whispered in from the living room. The kind of sound a beak or talons make against glass. One side of Harry’s mouth crept up into a smile; Oliver’s owl was just as quiet as Hedwig had been.

Harry left the bathroom and returned to the living room – and froze.

Perched on the windowsill outside, deathly silent and stark as a ghost against the encroaching darkness, and with one white wing raised at its side as it groomed itself, was a snowy owl. Had Harry not known better, he would have sworn he was looking directly at Hedwig. The owl lowered its wing and fixed a pair of soft, amber eyes on him. It lifted off the sill. A note had been tied to its leg.

Hurrying over to the window, Harry undid the latch and opened it. Not-Hedwig soared in, bringing a gentle but biting breeze in with it. The owl landed on the sofa with a soft whoosh, its leg held out patiently. It watched Harry’s cautious approach – didn’t flinch when he untied the note from its leg. Harry froze again when Not-Hedwig gave his index finger an affectionate nip.

A crystal pendant dangled from its neck, held on a chain made from a mineral Harry couldn’t quite recall. It was exquisite, shaped like a teardrop. Inside, a milky, glittery substance swirled calmly like a galaxy.

He felt rather foolish standing there, staring at the owl with eyes as wide as dinner plates. It was like being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Harry scratched his head. Then he remembered the note he had just detached.

But as he went to break the seal on the envelope, it leapt into the air, rustled open and flapped at him: Oliver’s words came forth in his enthusiastic, Scottish accent.

“Seven o’clock, The Leaky Cauldron. I hope you like aquariums.”

Harry grinned. The only time he had ever come anywhere near an aquarium was during the Dursleys’ trip to the zoo for Dudley’s eleventh birthday – one pool about half the size of a football pitch, except it was moss-green and the only moisture that remained had been left to fester between cracks in the stonework. And Ginny had an aversion to fish. It was the eyes, according to her – too vacant and unblinking.

‘Soulless’, she called them.

Not-Hedwig shuffled towards him and gave his finger another affectionate nip.

“You remind me of an old friend,” he said, casually stroking through the feathers on its head.

Not-Hedwig hooted. With flawless grace, it lifted off the sofa once more and did a circuit of the room before approaching the window. Harry let it out, still smiling as its defined feathers became a white haze and was eventually lost behind a parade of dimly-lit houses.

Now that the owl had left, an empty sense of longing gripped Harry, tightening in his throat. His mind cast over to the chests in his bedroom – to the very first photo he had taken with Hedwig, in Gryffindor Tower during his first year. It was unmoving, having been taken by Dean Thomas with one of those old-fashioned cameras similar to that which Colin Creevey had brought the year after. Harry hadn’t realised he was in the frame until the flash went off, and so the photo consisted of him staring half-baffled at the lens while Hedwig fed from the mound of seeds he had held out for her. That was one photo Harry didn’t like other people seeing. He kept it entirely because it was one of the few photos taken of her over the six years they’d had together.

Harry wiped a spot of dampness from his eye.

He looked at his watch.

Ninety minutes to go.

*

Harry tapped random parts of his jacket and jeans with his wand as he paced briskly down the road away from his flat; that awful odour had been lingering in the corridor and foyer again and he could smell it wafting off of him once he had closed the front door behind him. This was a routine he was fast becoming too acquainted with – magic was good for a lot of things but using it to deodorise himself could come across as sloppy, especially when travelling to meet an old friend he hadn’t seen in eight years.

He turned a corner, pocketing his wand, and carried on for another few minutes down the adjoining street. The houses here were nothing like those opposite his flat; these were dilapidated, with patchy roofs, boarded-up windows and gardens that had been left to grow higher than the walls corralling them in, as if the tenants had simply up and moved and allowed nature to reclaim its territory. In one garden, a water fountain looked to have once been made of impeccable marble – but now it was cracked, half-eroded either through exposure to the elements or forced apart by the moss and algae colonising it all the way up to the basin. If there were any fragments remaining, they had long been lost in the surrounding jungle. Perhaps Hermione had been onto something. Houses like this could make for a handy headquarters.

After the turn of another corner, the road narrowed, now wide enough for one car and with a brick wall creating a dead-end about half-a-dozen derelict houses down. Harry took one last glance around. Content that nobody else was around, he Disapparated.

*

 

 

Harry Apparated directly outside The Leaky Cauldron, next to the chained-off area used for outdoor seating during the summer months. Diagon Alley was unusually quiet tonight, save for the low voices rumbling from the pub.

Oliver would be waiting inside.

There was an awkward coldness in Harry’s shoe but water had yet to invade. He bent down and tapped it with his wand, flexing his toes as the rubber sole sealed up beneath his foot.

He grabbed the handle and entered.

His first sight was of a group of elderly wizards mumbling between themselves, clustered around a table too small to accommodate the six of them. A newspaper had been left open in front of them, stained brown by whatever liquid had been in the glass which lay shattered on the table top. Harry looked at the other tables: everyone else was fixated on whatever book or magazine they were reading.

One man had positioned himself strategically away from the other patrons, stowed in a far corner with his feet resting on a pouffe while a fireplace burned merrily beside his armchair. He, too, was invested in a book – a romance novel, it would seem. An LGBT one at that. The half of Oliver’s face illuminated by the firelight appeared entirely at peace. His mouth quirked into a smile as he scanned the page.

Harry meandered through the tables and chairs, apologising to one woman who had seemingly taken offence to him stumbling over the handbag she had callously left on the floor. As Harry steadied himself and nudged the bag away with his foot, he heard the sound of a book slapping shut and the groan of a chair older than its occupant. He scratched the back of his head and left the witch to grumble amongst her equally-disgruntled coven.

“I see you had a pleasant trip,” Oliver said, pocketing his book.

His attire of a business jacket, beige trousers and brown loafers made Harry feel rather underdressed. But he had to admit – the other man was strikingly handsome in this outfit.

Harry rolled his eyes and couldn’t help but smirk. “You didn’t tell me this friendship thing would involve having to suffer terrible jokes,” he said.

Oliver grinned widely, cheekily. His eyes sparkled in the grim light of The Leaky Cauldron. “You never asked.”

“You never gave me an opportunity,” Harry retorted.

“Well, maybe you’ll get one in the future,” Oliver said with a wink. “If you’re lucky.”

It was as though Harry had been lifted above the burning smog in the air, his lungs clear. Standing here with Oliver, even with the gloom of the patrons around them, chipped ever-carefully at the cement forcing his mind into lockdown. The last time he felt like this had been so long ago, in a time of unbridled innocence oblivious to the horrors the future would bring – Ron and Hermione had been his best friends for fifteen years now and always would be, but here stood a man, about a head taller and considerably fitter, who had experienced all the same horrors of war as most and yet, in spite of it all, he could still find the energy within himself to smile. Those were rare these days. Even the forced ones. Rarer still was the kind of genuine smile Oliver bore as he offered Harry a friendly embrace.

They headed for the exit, Oliver’s smile fading but not quite disappearing altogether; it was still there, now a glimmer in his eyes as they left The Leaky Cauldron and joined muggle-inhabited London.

Chapter Text

Charing Cross Road was one of those areas that never seemed to slow down: hordes of women dressed all in acid pink (and carrying very suggestive inflatables of various shapes and sizes) flooded out of the three-way junction opposite them. They converged in the centre to form a solid, heaving mass that bulged in all directions for a moment before dividing into their separate parties again and heading their own ways.

“Hen parties,” Harry said, smirking as one of the groups headed towards him and Oliver; one of the women at the front was brazenly waving a cigarette in the air. The balloon belonging to the woman beside her floated too close and popped, causing the entire party to leap in fright. “I’m surprised they’re starting this early in the evening.”

Oliver raised an eyebrow, his eyes flitting from Harry to the penis balloons and back again. He looked lost in thought for a few seconds. Then his face dropped in abject horror. “Hens? What exactly do they plan on doing with those balloons?!”

Harry fought back laughter. He and Oliver passed one of the groups and turned a corner. Whether he had meant to or not, he was leading Oliver towards the alleyway he had used for shelter while he Disapparated a couple of nights prior.

“Nothing, nothing!” he insisted. “Hen parties are a muggle tradition for brides-to-be. They’re a sort of last hurrah – to celebrate single life one final time before settling down and getting married. Grooms-to-be do the same thing, except they’re called stag parties. Where their names come from, I never asked.”

“Muggles are a funny lot,” Oliver said. He eyed up the neon sign of the café creeping up ahead, and then the skip. “I know what you’re thinking, by the way. But we’re not Disapparating tonight.”

Harry turned to Oliver, brow furrowed. “Have you been to this aquarium before?”

There was a very brief silence, as if in hesitation. It belied Oliver’s chirpy response of “I have indeed! Once, about a year back. I’d just moved into Diurn Alley and needed a distraction from some difficult times – figured I’d grab my broom and let fate take me wherever, you know what I mean?”

Harry glanced into the café as they passed it. There was nothing particularly remarkable about it but it allowed him to pause and stop himself from telling Oliver about all that had happened recently.

He could tell that Oliver was waiting for a reply; there was a note of discomfort in the silence befalling them. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “I’ve fallen into that habit myself.”

“Divorce can do that,” Oliver said quietly. “That and everything else that comes with it. They make us question what we see in the mirror every morning – wondering whether the life we’d led before had just been a lie – wondering, although the face staring back at us hasn’t changed, if the person behind it all could ever be the same as it once was.”

Harry scoffed. “Oliver Wood, the philosopher. I never took you to be the intellectual type at school.”

Oliver took Harry at the wrist and led him around another corner. In which direction they were headed, Harry wasn’t sure.

“Very few people ever tried getting to know me back then,” Oliver said. There was neither sorrow nor anger in that – merely acceptance of the past and an indelible determination. “Not that I can blame them; I made Quidditch my identity. But look where that obsession landed me – I’m the co-owner of a struggling broomcare shop who moonlights as a waiter in one of the dankest places of wizarding London.”

“It could be a lot worse,” Harry offered.

Oliver interjected before Harry could continue. “Nah, mate,” he said, sighing. The sight of Oliver deflating was like watching the defeat of hope itself. “It could be a lot better. There’s a reason I try not to dwell on the negatives too much. If I keep my sights on how I can improve my situation, how I can better myself as a person – hell, if I keep believing that there’s a future in which I contribute to some greater cause, then maybe, somehow, it’ll come true.”

Harry’s mind rolled back to the Battle of Hogwarts – to how instrumental Oliver had been in keeping the younger students safe while coordinating the flyers’ aerial assault. He couldn’t simply have forgotten that. Nobody could.

Another few minutes of silence went by, but they kept walking. Four turns and a zebra crossing later and Oliver was first to speak again.

“Let’s not think about all the awful shit in the world tonight,” he said, and Harry could see that his smile had returned. “It’s been eight long years since we last saw each other and it’s about time we enjoyed ourselves. You were raised by muggles, right?”

Harry nodded. He didn’t say anything about the Dursleys because that would be falling at the first hurdle – and he wasn’t about to break any of Oliver’s rules.

“Lucky! You must’ve been to loads of aquariums! The one we’re going to – just after this left turn – has everything from jellyfish to squid to sharks!”

It was difficult for Harry to stop himself grinning; Oliver had an air of youthful enthusiasm about him, practically springing on the balls of his feet as they passed under a broken streetlight. There was something about the innocent obliviousness wizards had for the muggle world that Harry wished he could feel, if only for a day. Fifteen years in the wizarding world had dulled the effect of some of its relatively outlandish creatures and artefacts. Seeing Oliver excited for something as mundane as an aquarium was refreshing, and at least Harry now had the opportunity for a new experience in the world in which he’d grown up.

They took one final turn.

The sky sparkled like diamonds above an ocean of heads meandering between one another on the black, glossy tarmac. Further along, facing them directly, a four-storey building towered blue and bright, with great glass domes hugging in from either side and glimmering in the moonlight.

“There she is,” Oliver announced, marvelling at the enormous steel dolphin bolted into a billboard on the roof. “Aquarium Park’s one hell of a place.”

“I can tell,” Harry said, awestruck.

The dolphin illuminated: all heads craned up to see sapphire smoke belching out of the guttering. An awful stench came with it – of seaweed thrown against the beach and left to bake in the sun.

Oliver drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “You smell that, Harry?” he said, his nose crinkling. They joined the backmost ranks of people flooding into the aquarium and were quickly engulfed by the crowd. The aquarium itself was still a good fifty metres away but the queue was diminishing rapidly.

“You mean the seaweed? A bit too strongly, yeah.”

Oliver laughed. “It’s certainly something. At least it adds to the aquatic vibe.”

Harry couldn’t argue with that. Changing subject, he said “You said you came here shortly after moving – did you come alone?”

And as if he had detected the implied sympathy in Harry’s question, Oliver replied with: “Proudly so. I was newly single and enjoying life. Might as well make the most of it, right?”

Maybe Oliver had a point. Then again, maybe Oliver hadn’t pinned his entire future on his relationship like Harry had. In the face of adversity, flipswitch mindsets like his weren’t particularly easy to come by unless one surrounded themselves with children or naïve fools. Oliver wasn’t naïve; his high spirits and grounded wisdom were meted out in measured doses, and only as-and-when they were required – a man of impeccable self-awareness, unashamedly in tune with his emotions and all that stronger because of it.

Whatever more there was to Oliver’s post-war story, Harry could afford to wait. He could learn a thing or two from Oliver, starting with how to push himself beyond the murk in his head and see a wider, brighter future instead of living a day at a time.

In all the time Harry spent contemplating this, he had spent longer than was acceptable gazing at Oliver. Realising this, he knew a very hot, confusing, unwelcome sensation in his cheeks. In the gaps between the people shuffling about ahead of them, he saw the ticket booth.

And the young woman attending it; Weasley-red hair and freckles dotting almost every inch of her ivory skin.

Harry stalled like a faulty computer.

The resemblance was uncanny but her tone of voice, physique and attitude were as far from Ginny-like as it was possible to be. Harry’s words congealed in his throat as he and Oliver were ushered to the front by the onrushing crowd behind them.

“Guess we’re up next,” Oliver chirruped. He dipped his hand in his pocket, approaching the booth, and that was when Harry realised the only money he had brought with him was wizarding gold. “Two adult tickets, please.”

He brandished a crisp fifty-pound note at the woman. Judging by the relieved smirk that split his face as she accepted it, he still hadn’t quite got to grips with muggle money. She returned two tickets and a twenty-pound note, to Oliver’s bemusement.

Before Oliver could ask one of those trademarked clueless-pureblood questions, Harry thanked the ticket attendant and herded Oliver through the doorway to the left.

Harry had been expecting a narrow corridor. Maybe a painting of a whale or penguins. Perhaps even a child-friendly marine life diorama starring plastic dolphins and those weird mechanical fish that spazzed through the water as if it were suffering an epileptic seizure.

The reality was stark: the cylindrical chamber they entered had been painted with foamy, sapphire waves that lightened the higher up the walls they went, culminating in a briny sky and white clouds at the very top and along the ceiling. The ocean mural was interrupted in places by glass panels as wide as cinema screens, and inside those were all manner of aquatic life – from pufferfish to seahorses, sharks to stingrays. The concrete pillar in the centre of the room doubled as a spiral staircase to each of the steel grate platforms staggering the four-storeys up.

Aquarium Park was deluged with visitors.

“The seal dome is to the left,” Oliver said, steaming onward as Harry was sent flying by yet more people surging into the aquarium. “And the big one – the Orcasphere – is to the right. We’ll head there last.

“Oh! Are we at that stage already?”

Harry, having fallen onto one knee (which now smarted from the impact), frowned at a laughing Oliver, completely nonplussed. “What are you-?”

But the question died in his throat. In the immediate area, at least two dozen eyes had zoned in on him and Oliver. Harry blushed so furiously that he could see the glow of his face at the edge of his vision.

A hand extended in front of him, offering reprieve. He accepted.

“Come on,” Oliver said. The smile he offered Harry as he pulled him to his feet was brilliant, bright and comfortingly gentle. “We’ll take a look at the minor exhibits first and then move deeper into the aquarium for the more exciting stuff.”

Harry looked at Oliver. “There are more exciting creatures on display than sharks and whales?”

“Those are larger exhibits,” Oliver said coyly. “I never mentioned anything about size. Walk with me, you’ll see.”

And so, Harry did. They meandered through the hundred or so people dispersed across the ground floor and went up to the staircase to the first platform.

“Watch where you walk,” Oliver said as they reached the last step. “The grate up here can be a bit slippery from kids messing about in those ponds during the day.”

Several eight-feet-wide, octagonal pools stood at waist-height up ahead, all made of glass. Most of them, Harry saw as he and Oliver approached, contained creatures small enough to fit in his palm. One, though, was home to a shoal of red-and-white-flecked fish weaving between the waving reeds as a beautiful, colourful mass. Harry leaned over, gripping the edge of the pool, breathless.

“I recognise these,” he said. “They’re koi.”

“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Oliver’s words were nested by placid warmth. He joined Harry in watching the koi swim laps in the water. “Simple, perhaps a bit boring to most, but beautiful.”

“What do you mean, ‘to most’?”

Oliver didn’t take his eyes off the fish, but Harry looked at him. There was a quiet yearning in his words.

“It’s embarrassing, you know,” Oliver continued, keeping his voice low. “To know nothing of the muggle world. As a pureblood, you never get excited over goblins or house elves. Doxies are never frightening the first time you see them – they’re just household pests, getting rid of them is just like swatting a fly. What might seem novel to half-bloods or Muggleborns is plain to us. We lose whimsy and fantasy to the expectations of day-to-day life – so something as simple as fish in a bowl in the middle of muggle London becomes something magical to us – to me. I thought I’d achieved something back at the ticket booth, like I’d proven that I could handle living in the muggle world, until she handed me the change and I locked up. I’ve got to admit, Harry, I’ve always envied you a bit.”

Harry was taken aback. “There’s nothing to envy, believe me. There never was.”

“You were raised by muggles, weren’t you? That’s enviable in itself.”

Silence.

“Sorry,” Oliver said quickly. “I spoke out of turn.”

“No, it’s fine,” Harry said. And it was. “I was ‘raised’ – if that’s the right word for it – by my aunt on my mother’s side, and her husband.”

Oliver must have sensed how difficult a subject this was for Harry, because he said, “You don’t need to tell me anything you don’t want to. Or anything you can’t.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry, but this isn’t something I make a habit of telling people. If I hadn’t known Ginny for years before getting married, there’s no telling how long it would have taken for me to tell her about my past.”

“I’m sorry.”

The koi’s movements had slowed. Now, they drifted near the surface of the water like a fleet of particularly ornate sailboats. Some of them had bodies of black or a colour closely approaching that, tinted with blue. Odd, Harry thought, that of all the possible ways to bring peace to himself, staring at fish would be the most effective.

“Percy told me about the divorce,” said Oliver. “Not the circumstances surrounding it, in case you’re wondering – just that it happened. I’m here if you need to talk, Harry.”

“Thank you. But I’ll be fine,” Harry said, amending that with a mental “I hope”.

“There are plenty more exhibits to see before we head home,” Oliver announced, his grin returning. He gestured forward and then around them, to the corridors leading away at each point of a compass. “Shall we?”

*

“Not much has changed here since I came,” Oliver remarked.

He and Harry had been swept away by a flood of overexcited tourists. Their original destination had been a turtle tank on the north side of the third floor, but now they found themselves wandering down a corridor hugged on either side by glass walls and shark-infested water.

Waxen light rippled in waves over the granite floor and the people in the corridor. Regardless of how intimidating Harry found the sharks crisscrossing overhead, he regretted not coming here much sooner. The hard edge of their bodies was sleek but powerful – machines of war honed by nature to become the apex predator of the ocean.

“To think I’m finally seeing all these creatures in person,” Harry said wistfully.

That caught Oliver’s attention. “You’ve never been to an aquarium before?”

“Nope.” And when he spotted Oliver’s stunned expression, he added, “My guardians weren’t really fond of water. They thought that they would fall into a shark tank and be eaten alive. It would have been a stroke of luck for me, though.”

Oliver snorted. “I take it you didn’t really see eye-to-eye with them?”

“They despised me and everything I was – they still do – but the feeling is mutual. I’ve not spoken to them in almost a decade.”

“Does that not bother you? I apologise if this is rude of me to say… but I thought you would’ve kept your only family as close to you as possible.”

Something hot and bitter rose in Harry’s throat. He grumbled, perhaps harsher than he had intended, “They’re not my family.”

Oliver turned his gaze to the floor – to the sharks – anywhere except for Harry. He rolled his shoulders in discomfort.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

“It’s okay, you – you didn’t know.” Harry exhaled; the anger mounting in his chest blew out with it. Then, he turned to Oliver and smiled. “I’m having a great time with you, Oliver. There’s no need to fret over the little things.”

One of Oliver’s strong arms hooked around Harry’s torso and pulled him into a sideways hug.

“Me? Fret? Harry, my man, you’ve got much to learn.”

Their eyes met as they broke the hug, smirking. There was something more that Oliver wasn’t telling, Harry was sure of it.

The overjoyed twinkle in his eyes was unforgettable.

*

“The Orcasphere is open all the time if you just want to take a look,” Oliver said. He was staring down at a pamphlet about killer. The ten-feet-tall pod in front of him appeared to be of no interest to him, not even with its cycling colours of the rainbow nor the jellyfish drifting mindlessly in the water like discarded carrier bags. Harry found their translucence fascinating, and oddly beautiful as they transitioned through each of the colours beaming into the pod. “Whale shows start on the hour, every hour, and usually last between fifteen and twenty minutes. The time is currently,” Oliver checked his watch, “quarter-to-ten. We could start heading over now and get there with ten minutes to spare. They usually sell refreshments before each show, giving us a bit of time eat.”

“What are we waiting for?” Harry said brightly, turning to Oliver.

Oliver looked up from the pamphlet and smiled.

*

The Orcasphere was cold. So cold, in fact, that a cushion of steam had come to settle over the whale tank and cascade down the sides like some enormous cauldron. Harry and Oliver had picked seats on the backmost row (Oliver wouldn’t explain why sitting at the front was a bad idea) and were subsequently higher than the thousands currently occupying the stands. The twenty-foot-wide walkway ringing in the tank was apparently still not enough to accommodate all the people who continued to surge into the Orcasphere. It was a small miracle that a stampede had yet to occur.

Oliver appeared oblivious to the potential problem; he had a portion of chips in the paper basket sitting in his lap and a jumbo hotdog jammed a quarter of the way in his mouth. Harry raised an eyebrow as he watched him scarf his food with a speed that Ron would be proud of.

“You’re going to get hiccups if you don’t slow down, you know?”

Oliver gulped the mouthful he was eating and gave Harry a bashful look, cheeks tinted pink. He turned the hotdog in Harry’s direction. “Want a bite?”

“I’m all right, thanks,” Harry said. Before Oliver could react, he snatched up the basket and grabbed a handful of fries. The scandal on Oliver’s face made Harry laugh. “What? You only asked about the hotdog.”

“There aren’t many men still alive who can say they’ve stolen food from me,” Oliver grumbled. “In fact, you’re the only one.”

Harry stuck his tongue out. Then he stuffed a few fries into his mouth and said, “Shall I take that as a warning for the future?”

Oliver grabbed the basket and pulled it back to his side, exclaiming “Yoink!”

He tipped some of the fries directly into his mouth from the basket itself, glaring dramatically at Harry as he did so. The commotion drew the reproving stares of a couple sitting in front, who regarded Oliver with the kind of indignity reserved for farm animals and petty thieves.

Fighting off yet more laughter, Harry turned his attention back to the whale tank. The walkway was unobstructed apart from a few stray children who had pressed themselves up against the glass, and the fraught parents attempting fruitlessly to wrangle them back to their seats. There was still a murmur in the audience, too loud and distracting for anyone else to notice that three people in black outfits had emerged from a door in the concrete wall. It was hard to tell from such a distance but Harry could distinguish them just enough to surmise that they would be the whale’s trainers for the show.

“Showtime!” Harry announced to Oliver, pointing them out.

Oliver was halfway between shovelling more food into his mouth when he locked his gaze up ahead. “Three of them?” he said. “There were five the last time I came. The other two must be waiting in the wings for some big finale at the end. That’s what I’d assume, at any rate.”

It wasn’t long after that a stifled silence enveloped the Orcasphere, brimming with an unspoken anticipation that boiled just below the surface, waiting for a moment’s notice to finally erupt. That moment came when the water in the whale tank became disturbed: huge bubbles surged up to the surface and were quickly followed by a jet of water that shot twenty feet high and arced over the first few rows of the awaiting crowd. The spray had managed to reach even this far back, and now Harry could hardly see for the droplets clinging to the lenses of his glasses; he removed them.

High-pitched shrieks of delight echoed around the arena. Harry didn’t need his glasses to glimpse the whale – an awesome creature whose majesty transcended the limits of Harry’s vision: its black-and-white body torpedoed into the air amid a chorus of triumphant cheering from the audience. It was as if time had slowed, as Harry hurriedly slid his glasses back on and could truly behold the sight in front of him. The whale flipped once in the air before plunging back into the tank with the force of a double-decker bus. Harry pitied the people engulfed by the resulting tide.

Each of the trainers took up a point around the tank, spreading out like a triangle, and began circling as they addressed the audience. Harry pulled out of his awe-inspired reverie long enough to realise that the whale had not been in the tank prior to its appearance.

“That whale,” he shouted to Oliver over the roars filling the air, “Where did it come from?”

Oliver leaned in and brought his lips close to Harry’s ear. He said, “There’s a containment tank underneath the dome, bigger than the one we see here. That’s where they keep Big Mona.”

Big Mona?” Harry exclaimed, unable to stop himself laughing.

“That’s her name, honest!”

Two of the trainers had moved from their positions on the walkway. They occupied opposing sides of the tank, both pressed right up against the glass with their arms stretched out to either side, as if they were trying to hug Big Mona.

“Watch,” Oliver said, beaming as Big Mona swam over to the left and extended her fins in a motion mimicking that of the trainers. A resounding coo echoed off the dome of the Orcasphere. Oliver appeared wistful in the moonlight breaking down through the clouds and dome, as Big Mona’s tricks became more complex. “She’s a grand lass. I’ve never seen a critter so well-trained.”

The trainers threw three giant hoops into the tank in succession: Big Mona leapt up again and soared through each, splashing back down to yet more enthusiastic applause, which only amplified once the baying crowds stood. Oliver bolted to his feet, clapping along with them. Seeing that he was the only one in the immediate area left sitting down, Harry joined in. He even began chanting “Big Mona!”. The chant ignited the hearts of those around and spread over the Orcasphere like a raging inferno.

Harry caught Oliver watching him out of the corner of his eye: there was that twinkle again, brighter than before, with unspoken meaning hidden beneath the surface. Harry was beginning to understand what that might possibly be.

He would have been remiss to not return it.

*

Time had fallen away at some point shortly after leaving Aquarium Park. Harry’s clearest memory was of walking arm-over-shoulder with Oliver away from the aquarium, laughing even as the heavens opened.

Rain poured in sweeping cascades across London, the distant lights of the London Eye haloing through the darkness like a beacon to the lost. Amidst it all, stowed safely away in plain sight of the muggle world, The Leaky Cauldron stood dark and broody on the right-hand side of Charing Cross Road. The few homeless muggles stuffed less-than-snugly in their sleeping bags were blissfully unaware of the black door held ajar between them, and the burnt glow of the lamp held by the hunched man standing there.

“Ah,” Oliver said, reminiscent of a man marching to the gallows. “I told Tom I’d only be gone for a couple of hours.”

Harry checked his watch. They had been gone longer than that. Much longer. It was almost midnight.

Wordlessly, Tom raised the lamp until his walnut-sized head was illuminated. His face almost cracked under the strain of the scowl he was wearing. He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder, gesturing inside.

“We’d best head inside,” Oliver told Harry. They were both soaked through to the bone.

Tom ushered them into the pub. If Harry could have seen the positions of anything in that moment, he would have scarpered for the nearest exit; Oliver yelped and was hauled from Harry’s side to somewhere lost within the forbidding gloom.

“Should sack you right now, I should,” Tom grumbled. There was a great whoosh: the candles hanging loose from the ceiling were engulfed in flame. “Not had a single customer through them doors in four hours!”

Oliver scratched the back of his head, affording Tom a sheepish grin perhaps in hopes of charming him out of his foul mood. “Were they unlocked?”

There was a roll of newspaper lying on the counter behind which Tom and Oliver were standing. Tom raised it high and smacked Oliver thrice about the head.

“Oi! That’s assault, that is!” Oliver shouted. He vaulted the counter, knocking several ashtrays and glasses onto the floor in the process, landed flat-footed and launched for the door to Diagon Alley. “Don’t just stand there, Harry, you mug! Come on!”

Harry could barely process what had just happened. His head was too busy dwelling on what Tom had said, and how Harry could very well be to blame for Oliver losing his job tonight. It took a freezing wind blustering in through the open door for him to realise what was happening. That, and the disgruntled innkeeper shuffling towards him while muttering obscenities. With Tom’s bony hands digging into his back like daggers, Harry hurried for the exit.

“Barred!” Tom spat, his stout figure like a ghastly-thin marionette in the dim doorway. Whether that applied to Harry as well as Oliver remained unclear. Regardless, Harry wasn’t particularly hopeful of his odds should he attempt to return.

The rain was coming down heavier now and became lost in the fog creeping down from Diagon Alley’s slanted rooftops. Faint, orange light peered through it like a cat’s eyes; memory told Harry that Gringotts was close by down there, but he couldn’t see the tell-tale white marble at all.

Something akin to pity and shame rose rapid and revolting in his throat. He blurted “I’m so sorry.”

Oliver, who had been leaning against a brick wall, arms folded, thoughts hidden in the clouds, came swiftly back to reality and knitted his brow not in the rigid façade of frustration or even confusion that Harry could have expected, but of calm concern. He approached Harry there in the warm haze under The Leaky Cauldron’s sole porch light – extended his arms – cupped his hands – and briefly hesitated. In that moment, Harry thought Oliver might try to kiss him, but then he saw the cogs in Oliver’s mind whirl into life and those hands instead grasped him firmly on the shoulders, accompanied by a reassuring smile.

“I’ve been wanting to leave for a while,” he said, brightness never fading. Perhaps that was what Harry found most intriguing about Oliver Wood. Intriguing, and a tad scary – that no matter the circumstances, the man was always capable of smiling. “Besides, it’s my own bloody fault for forgetting I had a shift until an hour before coming to meet you.”

“But your job…” said Harry. “What will you do about survival?”

“Quidditch players receive a ‘modest’ fee with each game they play, you know? Even the reserves. I’ve got plenty of money left, don’t you worry – enough to last me a year or two, maybe even three if I’m careful. I’ll be fine.”

Worrying was all that Harry seemed to be good at. Worrying and dwelling. The two had ganged-up on him as of late as if to add insult to injury; he worried about the dwelling, and then dwelled on all the worrying. Tonight’s visit to the aquarium had been a welcome break until he ended up becoming the final nail in Oliver’s coffin – and, either through coincidence or a cruel twist of irony, that just so happened to be the final one in his own.

“I can see it in your eyes,” Oliver continued. The only other person who had analysed Harry with the same scrutiny as Oliver did now had been Dumbledore. Harry’s mastery of Occlumency left only one option: Oliver was reading him just like that novel of his, right down to the fine print copyright notices on the back cover. “The worrying’s already started. Don’t let it get hold of you. Once it’s there, it’s a bastard to shake off.”

“How do you know all of this?” Harry said abruptly. “The divorce – the struggle I’m going through – what is there left that you don’t know or understand about me?”

“Plenty,” Oliver said simply. Harry noted that as a non-verbal refusal to answer the other part of his question. Oliver did a little showman’s twirl in place, gesturing at everything and nothing in particular. “For example, I don’t understand how you could ever drink so much pumpkin juice back in school. The stuff’s rancid. But that’s what all this is about, isn’t it? Getting to know each other again?” He wasn’t wrong. “Look, it’s like I said. Percy told me about the divorce during a chance meeting at the pub a few weeks ago, said I might end up seeing you in there at some point.” The sky flashed. Shortly after, the rumbles of a thunderstorm growled deep and true overhead. “We can’t stay out here for much longer, not when the weather’s only going to get worse. Do you have Pepper-Up Potion at home, or the ingredients to make some?”

Harry shook his head. Medicinal potions and ingredients were simply another item in the long list of stuff missing from his flat. And so was a cauldron.

“Come back to mine, then,” Oliver offered. “I’ll fix us some grub while we’re at it.”

“What about clothes?” Harry said. He tugged at his sodden shirt, which pulled away from his body with a wet sucking sound. The fabric exposed his gut, which he hastily covered once he realised. Oliver had watched this – all of it – and now there was a dark glint in Oliver’s eyes that left Harry breathless and befuddled.  “In case you’ve not noticed, it’s pissing down right now.”

“All right, we’ll head to yours first so you can grab a towel and some clothes. Agreed?”

“Agreed.”

*

Hermione was the only other person to have the luxury of entering Harry’s flat. Calling it a luxury was a bit of a stretch, though; Harry severely doubted anyone would want to visit another person’s home dripping blood whether it was their first time or their hundredth. And he certainly didn’t want to keep Oliver around here long enough that he would notice the flat’s decrepit state.

“I see you’re in the middle of redecorating,” Oliver mused, glancing around. He had made himself quite at home, with his feet resting on the coffee table (at least he had the decency to shift the paperwork to the side first) and his arms behind his head as he leaned into the back of the sofa.

“Er, yeah,” Harry said slowly. He put his hand on his bedroom doorknob. Twisted it. “Let’s go with that.”

He entered his room and closed the door behind him to drown out Oliver’s following questions.

“You realise it’s rude to leave your guests unattended, right?” he heard Oliver shout.

“Yeah, yeah,” Harry called back. He was already rummaging through one of his trunks, shuffling miscellaneous bits and bobs around but not finding any clothes or towels. “You’ll get your attention in a minute, just hang on.”

He used a levitation charm on the top trunk and placed it beside the other.

The second trunk threw up better results: a shirt, trousers and underwear, but still no towel. He must have used up all the ones he owned while tending to Hermione’s bite wound. He clipped both of the trunks shut, levitated them into a neat stack again, and left the bedroom with his clothes hanging over his arm.

“About time!” Oliver drawled in his best impression of a guest at a five-star hotel. He scanned the trousers Harry was carrying. “And the clothes aren’t even my size. Ugh! Why I bother staying here is beyond me! How has this hotel not been shut down yet – it baffles the mind, truly.”

Harry stood there with a smile on his face, arms crossed, foot tapping against the floor, brow raised. “Finished?” he said eventually, once Oliver had finished laughing at himself.

“Not quite,” Oliver said, and the sudden seriousness caught Harry off-guard. He pointed to a few drops on the floor, crimson and fresh, and the spotty trail that led through the living room and back to the bedroom. “Is that blood?”

“Oh!” Harry exclaimed. That was one task he had forgotten to complete before leaving earlier. His brain had started chugging from tiredness, so he allowed his mouth to spout the first excuse it could think of that was as far from the awful truth as possible. “It must have been from when I cut my thumb while cooking earlier today. I ran to the bedroom to grab a towel, which is why I don’t have any ready to bring to yours.”

Oliver’s eyes flicked to Harry’s undamaged thumb and back again. “I see…” he said. With a grunt, he hoisted himself off of the sofa and bounced once on the balls of his feet. He pulled his wand out and flicked it at the blood, which disappeared with a pop. “That’s that sorted. I have plenty of towels that you can use at mine. Ready?”

Harry nodded.

*

“Here we are,” Oliver said. He stepped aside as he pushed the door open, waving Harry inside. There didn’t appear to be anything resembling a foyer, just a narrow, lifeless corridor feeding towards a flight of stairs veiled in darkness.  “It’s a tad cosy on the way up to the flat but I’m sure you’ll manage.”

‘Cosy’ was an understatement. The exterior of the buildings in Diurn Alley appeared cramped and uncaring enough as it was; the interior took that to an entirely different level of personal space invasion. There was barely any space free between Harry’s shoulders and the walls as he ascended the first few steps, so deep that his thighs started to ache from the effort of lifting each foot over. It was like climbing a fence. Such a closed space as this left so little room for light fixtures that Harry found himself using the halo of light breaking through a doorway at the top as a guide, and not even that was able to prevent him from tripping up each step.

He heard the front door close behind him and then quick, heavy footfalls as Oliver followed him. Living here must have been easy once you’d grown accustomed to the impromptu exercise every time you wanted to go anywhere.

“Head left,” Oliver said once Harry was on the landing. “My front door will be right ahead.”

Three steps later and Harry hit a solid surface with both a pained grunt and a terrible thud. The tip of his nose throbbed, ached, and the shock of the impact had made him drop his clothes. But he couldn’t pick them up, because Oliver was immediately behind him.

“Are you okay?” Oliver said. Harry noted the concern.

“I’m fine,” he replied. “But I’ve dropped my clothes.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll pick them up after you. Just hurry on in so I can pop the kettle on and make us something to eat.”

“Er, right, yes.”

Harry opened the door.

For a man trying to shed the Quidditch-obsessed reputation preceding him, Oliver certainly enjoyed decorating his flat with team merchandise and colour schemes. Harry should have predicted that his living room would be primarily scarlet-and-gold – there was even a moving, gold lion embroidered into the rug occupying the centre space.

Oliver bent down and gathered Harry’s clothes up in a heap. “Excuse the mess,” he said. “If I’d known I’d be having a guest tonight, I would have tidied up some.”

Harry couldn’t fathom what possible mess Oliver was referring to; Oliver may have been a Gryffindor through-and-through, but he kept his flat in as orderly a state as any of the finest Ravenclaws in Hogwarts history. He owned about as many books, organised by colour on the giant bookcase built into the back wall.

“Blimey,” was all Harry could say.

And that was before his eye was caught by the locked cabinet tucked away in a corner. He knew what the dancing, milky-silver light behind the door was, the kind of magical artefact that could cause them, because he had seen the exact same thing in Dumbledore’s office so many years ago and had the dubious fortune of experiencing it for himself more times than he cared to count.

“Oh, don’t mind that,” said Oliver. He walked over to the cabinet and patted it lightly. “This is where I go if I’m feeling… nostalgic. Have you ever used a Pensieve?”

“A handful of times. I can’t say the experience was all that thrilling, though.”

Oliver simply shrugged. “To each his own, I suppose. Anyway, that door at the back there leads to a little corridor with four doors along the left-hand wall – in order, they’ll take you to the kitchen, the bathroom, a storage cupboard, and my bedroom.”

Harry blushed furiously. None of those options were spare bedrooms. He cleared his throat.

“Where will I be sleeping?” he asked.

“In my bed, of course.” Oliver appeared not to realise the implications of what he had said until he noticed the abject horror on Harry’s face, at which point he turned as brilliant a shade of red as his curtains. He rapidly amended, “That sofa pulls out and becomes a bed. That’s where I’ll be – unless you have a preference?”

“I’d feel terrible for displacing you,” Harry said. “Let me take the sofa bed.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yep. Completely.”

Oliver gave him a funny look, smirking. He was calculating what he would say next: “You’re the first person to refuse an invite into my bed.”

Harry’s knees were trembling. Oliver kept looking at him like that, and Harry wasn’t altogether certain that the implication of it repulsed him. Nor was he sure of how he should respond. He tried, “Think of it as a postponement,” and then realised that he had fed directly into whatever game Oliver was playing.

Oliver chuckled. “I like you, Harry,” he said. “You’re always up for a laugh.”

A laugh? Some small part of Harry was disappointed at that. The disappointment didn’t last; it was swiftly overshadowed by the looming memory of his ex-wife and what kind of molten fury she might rain down upon him should she find out about these new thoughts of his – thoughts which were, in truth, neither new nor familiar.

“Earth to Harry?” Oliver’s hand waved in front of Harry’s face. “Are you still in there?”

Harry grabbed Oliver’s wrist and held it there as he drew out of his reverie.

Silence had never been so absolute.

“Harry, let me go.”

Oliver’s words had no force behind them, merely a polite instruction. Harry obliged him, giving himself a little shake in the process.

“Sorry,” he said hurriedly. “You said you were going to make food?”

“That’s right, I am.”

Harry felt Oliver reading him again, this time with a hard focus intended to delve much deeper than before. Oliver was searching for the answer to something. As it stood, Harry didn’t know what the answer could be. He didn’t know what the question could be, either.

Why were his knees still shaking?

*

The air had shifted, like it had been rudely shoved aside to make way for something crude, cold and unwelcome.

Harry and Oliver had been sitting at either end of the sofa for the better part of a half-hour without speaking, their plates empty on the floor beside them. They had yet to change out of their wet clothes, which were now a slightly uncomfortable degree of damp. The muteness might not have seemed so unusual for Harry, who rarely spoke unless spoken to in recent weeks, but Oliver had spent the majority of their time together talking about anything and everything that crossed his mind.

Thoughts didn’t halt like that.

Harry gulped. Cleared his throat. They couldn’t sit there in silence for much longer. He opened his mouth to speak and paused when Oliver turned wordlessly to face him.

After another while of silence, Oliver said, “Go on.” There was only kindness in his voice. “Whatever it is, you can say it. You know I won’t judge.”

“What are you talking about?”

Oliver turned red again and turned his gaze to the floor. “I thought you were – never mind.”

“I was just going to thank you for the food.”

“Oh. I see. You’re welcome.”

And that was all they said for an eternity more.

Harry rolled his eyes at the situation.

He turned to Oliver and shuffled a few inches closer, tentative. This was starting to resemble one of those awful, D-grade romantic comedies Petunia Dursley would spent her midweek afternoons watching on TV.

“Thank you for tonight,” he said, and he meant it more than Oliver could have possibly realised. “Really. I’ve had such a great time – it’s exactly what I needed.”

Oliver leaned forward, his hands clasped in his lap. He didn’t take his eyes off of Harry even for a moment, and his expression was almost unreadable.

Almost.

“Harry…” Oliver said softly. “You don’t have to suffer through this alone.”

Harry let that statement settle for a couple of seconds. He said, “There’s nobody I can suffer it with.”

“That’s not strictly true. I’ve had to endure divorce as well… and all the other little things that come – or go, as the case may be – with it.”

“You had a wife?”

Harry regretted saying that as soon as the words left his mouth. He tried to quell the guilt in his gut but was unable to; though Oliver was now downtrodden, he still had not let his gaze wander away from Harry.

“Surely you know by now,” Oliver said. “The book, the Prophet articles, the rumours – hell, I was kicked off the Puddlemere United squad for God’s sake.”

“I didn’t want to assume…”

“Assume? Harry, the entire wizarding world knows. There are no assumptions to be made anymore.
“But yes, I had a husband. Divorce is hard – impossibly so. Whether you’re the divorcer or the divorcee, it’s never easy. I know because I had to end that relationship myself, or I would never have escaped it.”

Harry recoiled. “Escaped?

“Yes. But I’d rather not dwell on that – not now, not ever. That’s in the past. What matters now is you, and how you intend to deal with these issues.” At least the tension was gone, Harry thought. But this deep a level of personal intrusion made him shift uncomfortably in his seat. Oliver saw this and dialled his probing back, lightening the subject. “Sorry,” he continued. “I have a habit of offering help when it’s neither asked for nor wanted. I’m glad you enjoyed yourself. It’s been a great change of pace for me as well – a marked difference to my usual Sunday nights spent with a glass of Ogden’s Old and a big ol’ pizza. Maybe a handful of owl treats for Alabaster.”

“Alabaster?”

“My snowy owl!” Oliver said brightly. He hopped up in his seat and tucked his legs underneath him. “He’s about seven years-old now. He’s the owl that delivered my note to you earlier. A cracker of a tracker, that one; he can sniff a Patronus’ trail out from miles away.”

Owls were not naturally capable of spell-tracking – not to such a thorough extent. Alabaster must have been trained for it. But what reason would Oliver have to track Patronuses?

Harry would have asked were his eyes not beginning to sag. He pulled out his wand, pointed it at the floor, and said, “Tempus.”

The ethereal clock beamed onto the rug: at two o’clock in the morning, Harry would be lucky to catch four hours of sleep before heading into work. He moaned.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got a Time Turner in that cabinet, have you?” he said to Oliver, rolling his left shoulder and stretching his neck. “I could use another four or five hours to get some sleep.”

Oliver laughed. “I’m afraid not. I can give you some of my homemade Stamina Serum when you wake up later – that ought to give you enough energy to last twelve hours.”

“Oliver, how in the hell are you so well-prepared?”

“I’m in the habit of brewing curatives and restoratives on a weekly basis. Really, Harry, potions ingredients should be a part of every witch or wizard’s grocery shop.”

Harry couldn’t argue with that. Until he bought a cauldron, he could do nothing about it either.

Oliver unfurled his legs and stood. He arched backwards slightly, grunting when that motion yielded a soft pop from his spine. “We should call it a night,” he said, and he added a yawn as if to confirm it. “Will you be okay on your own in here? I don’t much like the thought of you being stuck with the Pensieve lights in the corner, not when you need as much sleep as you can get.”

The same concern, time and time again, never faltering. Oliver didn’t owe Harry anything of the sort and yet he exuberated love and hope as if he were the source of all things right with the world. Harry stood and moved closer to him, closer than he had felt comfortable being before. Now, he could smell Oliver’s aftershave – tangy, with a masculine, spicy undertone.

Shivers trickled down Harry’s spine.

“I’ll be fine,” he said, and his voice came out in a gruff husk. Oliver looked at him, eyes widening.

An indescribable need overrode Harry’s conscious reasoning – maybe it was the tiredness, maybe it was finally having found a pillar of support, or maybe it was down to the unrelenting desperation and loneliness having eroded his common sense – one thought repeated in his head to the rhythm of his heart, to grab Oliver and kiss him. It was mad, nonsensical even!

But it’s exactly what he did.