He’s late, whispered a little voice in Ginny’s head as she shifted for the tenth time in as many minutes, trying to get comfortable, which was not an easy task when you couldn't lie on your front and there was a fetus turning somersaults inside your uterus that had no compunction whatsoever about pressing on your bladder. Swearing under her breath, she heaved herself out of bed to the bathroom, trying to avoid disturbing James in the next room - she didn't need a wide-awake two year old running around in the middle of the night - and hoping that in the few minutes she was in there, Harry would return and she could stop worrying.
She returned to an empty bedroom just as the clock chimed midnight. No such luck, then.
At their wedding, the wife of one of Harry’s colleagues had warned her of the strife of being an Auror’s spouse. “A lot of long nights lying awake,” she'd said. Her next comment - “and not in the good way!”, accompanied by a lascivious wink - had scarred Ginny so badly at the time that she hadn't given any thought to the first part, but in the years since she'd had cause to think of it often, usually during those long sleepless nights (not in the good way). It hadn't been so bad when she'd been playing for the Harpies and for England and was frequently away herself, but since she'd retired and James had been born, her mind was often free to wander to her husband and whatever he was doing. Whether he was safe.
It wasn't quite the same tonight: she knew he was in the office in London, doing paperwork and preparing for an upcoming trial. But that trial was the result of the hardest months they'd both known in their married life; Harry described it as the worse case he'd ever seen, though he wouldn't disclose the details. Ginny knew that it had been fairly gruesome, involving complex Dark magic he'd had to bring curse breakers in for, and that the longer it went without being solved the harder Harry pushed himself, working multiple days and nights in a row, taking himself off around the country to interview witnesses and suspects, and growing wearier and wearier by the day. Even now he'd caught those responsible, his work wasn't done.
Ginny worried about him, and not just because he was dealing with dangerous Dark magic. She could tell that his heart wasn't quite in it anymore. He didn't talk about the thrill of tracing clues and solving puzzles, as he had done before, from the day he'd proudly donned the scarlet robes. It was getting to him, she reckoned, and she was aware of the guilt he felt from not being at home. He'd almost missed James’s birth, something he'd never forgiven himself for, and now they were expecting their second child he had confided that he often had dreams in which he didn't get there at all for the birth, and when he finally arrived, Ginny turned him away, telling him he wasn't fit to be a father. While she reassured him that she would never do such a thing - “I need your gold, remember?” - she knew he felt deeply uneasy about what he was missing of their family. She wasn't entirely sure it was worth it, either. The job seemed to be draining him. Ron’s departure a few years back had affected him, though he claimed otherwise. “I’m not meant to be having a laugh,” he pointed out, which might have fooled others, but didn't fool Ginny. Not much did when it came to Harry Potter. She could have written a book - nay, several books on Harry Potter, though she suspected he wouldn't want her to reveal much of it to the world, such as what kind of pants he wore - regardless of her insistence that his choice was directly linked to his mood.
No, as his boxers selection had told her over the last few months or so, he just wasn't happy anymore. Perhaps she'd talk to him about it over the weekend, see what he thought. Until then, she simply had to wait.
- - -
It was quarter past one when Harry arrived home to the little cottage, which sat in darkness on the hillside overlooking the Cornish coast. Upstairs, he nudged the bedroom door open and tried to avoid the squeaky floorboard as he crept in, wand tip alight so he didn't trip over the laundry basket.
The bedside lamps flickered on. Ginny sat up, not looking particularly sleepy: Harry guessed that she had been waiting for him.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” he said, pulling off his robes hurriedly, suddenly deeply exhausted. He crawled into bed, the weariness in his bones rejoicing as he sank into the mattress, and looked over at Ginny, who was watching him worriedly.
She knew better than to tell him that James had been asking for him, or that they both missed him; that would only make him feel worse. “Good. He wants a dragon, apparently.”
“Excellent.” Harry lay down properly, groaning as his aching head hit the pillow. The warmly lit bedroom seemed almost a dream after the hours trapped within grey cubicle walls.
And tomorrow … Tomorrow he would have to go back and do it all again. He blinked at the shadowy ceiling, feeling a sudden tightness in his chest.
Beneath the covers, a warm hand slipped into his and squeezed gently. Without turning his head, Harry knew that Ginny would be looking at him, bright brown eyes reading his every movement and fully aware that something was on his mind.
It was a funny thing: he had been feeling this for months - longer, perhaps - but until the words came spilling to the forefront of his mouth, he did not realise that they were true.
“Gin?” he said, emboldened by the warmth of her gaze. “I don't think I want to do this anymore.”
- - -
Hours earlier and nearly seven hundred miles away, Minerva McGonagall looked at the door closing on her Defence Against the Dark Arts professor - no, former professor - and pressed her lips together tightly. Professor Postlethwaite had been fine - dependable, fairly well-liked - a little uninspiring, perhaps, but still, better than nothing, and now the the final term nearing she was left with finding a suitable replacement swiftly.
The sun had just set over the great craggy mountains visible from her study’s tall windows, the sky a watered-down violet, cool now night was setting in. Minerva lit the lamps and started drafting a notice for a new teacher. It couldn't be just anyone. Since becoming Headmistress, she had worked hard to make Hogwarts the fine school she knew it to be today. Her esteemed deputy, Professor Devereaux, a sensible but kind witch in her fifties, came from a Muggle family and had taught in Muggle schools while caring for her parents. Drawing on their joint experiences they had put time and effort into tightening school procedures and rules, broadening the curriculum, appointing knowledgeable and responsible teachers - Minerva did not like to speak ill of her dear friend Albus, but that had perhaps not been at the forefront of his mind as often as it should have - and altogether creating a school that she was proud to be Headmistress of. The students and staff seemed happy, and so did parents (although she was not generally in the business of pleasing them).
So whoever took the vacant position would have to be right for the school. Not just anybody would do. Minerva wanted somebody who could inspire the students and bring out the best in them. Someone passionate, hard-working, reliable, conscientious … Quill pausing, she allowed her mind to wander back almost two years, when she had interviewed a palpably nervous but surprisingly articulate Neville Longbottom for the post of Herbology master. He had many qualities, but above all she knew that he cared about his subject and would care equally, if not more, about his students. One could not, she felt strongly, be a good teacher without a decent amount of compassion.
Yes, Longbottom had been a surprise, and perhaps a slight gamble, but he had more than proven himself and was much beloved by the school. His youth and harmless demeanour made him approachable, but his legendary part in the war earned him respect and authority before he'd even opened his mouth - or shown the class his ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ coin.
Dumbledore’s Army … Now, there was a thought. Perhaps … surely he would say no, but was it worth asking anyway? Certainly he fit all the criteria … Decisively, Minerva reached for a fresh sheet of parchment and began to write.
- - -
In the end, although Harry and Ginny had agreed to discuss his epiphany properly at the weekend - once the trial was out of the way - the letter beat them to it.
The arrival of the post on Saturday morning was helpfully signalled by James, who hooted loudly from his place at the table, making Harry jump and drop the mug of tea he’d been passing to Ginny. Ignoring her laughter - it had been a very loud and realistic hoot, he thought - he cleared up the mess while she went to let the post owls in, three of them: one bearing the newspapers, one rather bedraggled one - “Luna, probably,” Ginny remarked - and one, sleek and smart, proffering a letter with a very familiar seal.
Harry, repairing the mug with his wand, looked up and saw the distinctive purple wax. Bemused, he glanced over at James, who was making a porridge sculpture.
“Bit early, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s for you, so bit late actually,” said Ginny, grinning, as she handed it over. “Maybe they found out how little attention you paid in History of Magic and want you to retake it.”
“Ha, ha …”
He tore the envelope open: there was no book list, which had be a good sign, only a single page of Professor McGonagall’s firm, neat hand. “She wants to see me,” he deduced, scanning the few brief lines.
“‘At my earliest convenience’. Which I suppose is today.” He looked at Ginny. “I know we said we’d talk …”
“Better find out what she wants first,” Ginny said reasonably. “Oh! James! No! You are the messiest little monster …”
James looked very pleased to hear this. To him, there was no finer compliment.
After breakfast, Harry combed his hair - it couldn’t hurt - and Apparated up to Scotland. The village of Hogsmeade looked pretty in early summer, hanging baskets of sweet-smelling petunias and calibrachoa blooming outside shops; happy shrieks of small children grew louder as he headed off the high street and towards the castle, where the shops were replaced by attractive well-kept cottages and some larger houses.
The grounds had clusters of students milling about, enjoying the rare milder weather. Keen to make this visit as short as possible so he could get back to Ginny and James, he ducked under his Invisibility Cloak before making his way up to the castle.
He gave the password (Irn-Bru, somewhat confusingly) to the gargoyle and ascended the spiral staircase. His hand hovered in the air momentarily as he raised it to knock - he couldn't help feeling nervous, even though he was fairly sure he hadn't done anything wrong.
Well, not that McGonagall would know about, anyway.
Brushing aside his doubts, he rapped on the door.
It wasn't the headmistress that Harry's eyes went to first: he hadn't set foot in this office for years, and for a moment he took in how little had changed in the handsome, oak-panelled room. Out of old habit, he looked straight at Dumbledore’s portrait, so clear in his mind still was the association between this place and that unyielding blue-eyed gaze; but the old man’s painted eyes were closed. Harry wasn't sure if he felt disappointment or relief. A mixture of both, maybe?
“Peeves?” McGonagall said sharply, drawing Harry from his musings. He looked at her in confusion, but she wasn't looking at him: her beady eyes were sweeping the room, clearly searching for something amiss.
It took longer than it should have done, really, for the penny to drop, and when it did Harry’s face flamed as he hastened to pull the Invisibility Cloak off.
If McGonagall was startled by his sudden appearance, she hid it remarkably well.
“Sorry,” Harry said awkwardly. “Er - I forgot I had it on.”
“No desire to sign autographs today, then?” she asked drily, gesturing at the chair in front of the desk. Harry sat. “Well, I was going to say it's good to see you …”
This remark had the welcome effect of making Harry feel significantly less like a schoolboy in trouble, so he stopped staring at his knees and sat up straight.
“May I offer you tea?” A steaming pot appeared on the desk. “Or coffee?”
“Er … yeah, tea, please. Thanks.” He took the cup that floated towards him, went to take a sip, realised it was too hot, and clumsily set it back down, splashing some on the wooden surface. Aaaand he was back to stammering schoolboy. Excellent. He tried not to look at his knees again and instead meet McGonagall’s eyes. Her expression was amused.
“Do relax,” she said, sipping her own tea (was the woman’s tongue made of steel?) without flinching. “This isn't a detention. In truth, I asked you here today because I am rather in need of some advice.”
“Advice? What - about security?” Harry asked absently. He was distracted by the fact that he wasn't drinking his tea when she was drinking hers. She might think it rude, when he'd asked for it. Tentatively, he picked it up again and tried it.
And nearly scalded his tongue. Son of a -
“Staffing, actually,” said McGonagall, seemingly oblivious to Harry’s plight. “Professor Postlethwaite, our Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, is leaving at the end of term, and so I am in search of his replacement.”
“Oh, right.” Harry was in a quandary. He very much wanted to stick his blistered tongue out to cool it, but couldn't help feeling this wouldn't be well received. He settled for adopting an expression akin to that of one sucking a lemon.
He was so focused on his dilemma that he almost missed McGonagall’s next words: “I was wondering if you might be interested in taking the position.”
Harry was positive he'd misheard; the scalding of his tongue must have damaged his eardrums. (A voice in his head, probably Ron’s or Ginny’s, reminded him that he was possibly overreacting especially when considering that he had once actually, you know, died). But there was no way the headmistress of Hogwarts had just offered him a job. As a teacher. Of humans.
“Are you interested,” McGonagall repeated slowly, as if talking to a very small, slow child, “in becoming the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher?”
“But …” Harry was lost for words. He searched for some, found a few, then lost them again.
“M-me? A – a teacher?” Shut up, he told himself, aware that he was stammering like an idiot. He went to run a hand through his hair, but it was the hand holding the teacup, so he stopped.
“Would you like me to write it down?” McGonagall enquired.
“I don't understand.”
“Well, I would take my quill, and some parchment -”
Wondering if headmistresses were meant to be this sarcastic, Harry shook his head. “No, I mean - why?”
“Why?” said McGonagall. “Why offer the job to a highly trained Auror, who taught advanced level defensive magic to other students at the age of fifteen and was largely responsible for the defeat of the most dangerous Dark wizard our world has ever seen?” She raised her eyebrows, rested her clasped hands on the desk. “Why, indeed.”
“Yes, but …”
“I have given this a great deal of thought, and your credentials are not in question,” said McGonagall. “I have no doubts whatsoever that you are more than capable. The only obstacle I anticipated was convincing you to leave the Aurors.”
Fate, some might call it, or kismet, or perhaps, with a sceptical Hermione-ish snort, pure coincidence. Whatever it was, Harry marvelled at the timing.
“I don't think I want to do this anymore,” he'd said to Ginny the other night, and those words had played on his mind ever since, but the key word was think. He didn't think he wanted to be an Auror anymore, but what did that really mean? Maybe this was just a rough patch.
But you haven't really been happy since Ron left.
Ron won't be at Hogwarts, either, he argued with the voice in his head.
You wouldn't have to work weekends or nights.
That was true, and extremely appealing. Coming home at five burdened with nothing but marking - not the weariness of the horrible things he'd seen that day, knowing he wouldn't be called back at any moment …
As he considered this, an image appeared in his mind, of himself at the front of a classroom full of students, talking animatedly. It was so vivid it surprised him. The Harry in the image, he realised, reminded him starkly of Lupin.
McGonagall's voice broke into his thoughts.
“I realise this is a big decision to make, but you understand that I will require an answer soon. Within the week, really.”
“I … er … OK,” said Harry, feeling slightly dazed. Could he really be considering this? He was an Auror, it was what he'd dreamt of …
But he'd once lain on the floor of this very office having learnt that his fate was sealed, and that he wouldn't be having a future. That was no longer true, and while he'd wanted to be an Auror once, he had always - always - wanted a family. He had a perfect little family now, but it was one he rarely saw. Somewhere along the way, he realised, he'd forgotten what the Mirror of Erised had shown him.
He still needed something to do, something that challenged him and made him feel useful, and - well, could teaching be that thing? You loved Dumbledore’s Army, the voice in his head reminded him.
He risked another sip of tea, and found that it was now just right.
Hermione would no doubt have snorted again, but Harry couldn’t help feeling like it was a sign.
- - -
Ginny had been preparing salad for dinner, but the knife she’d had chopping vegetables was now precariously hovering point-down in mid-air as she listened to Harry’s recount of his meeting with McGonagall.
“Wow,” she said, when he finished. “That’s … wow.”
“I know,” said Harry, spotting the knife and quickly setting it down on the worksurface. “Funny timing, huh?”
“You’re really thinking about it, then? Leaving the Aurors?”
“I …” Harry sat down at the table, next to James, who was noisily clattering his toy dragons across its surface. “I’m definitely thinking about it, yeah. But -”
“There’s a lot to consider,” Ginny said reasonably, passing him the salad bowl and leaning against the sideboard, arms folded across the top of her bump. “Gawain, for example …”
And the press, thought Harry, who would no doubt have a field day spinning this one. Trying to take his mind off the inevitable Rita Skeeter headline, he picked a piece of cucumber from the bowl and held it out to James.
“No tanks,” said James, giving it only a courtesy glance before turning back to his dragons. “I don’t really honka that.”
“It’s his new all-purpose word,” Ginny explained at Harry’s questioning look. “I’m honka too, apparently.”
“Daddy honka,” said James cheerfully, feeding a piece of cucumber to a Welsh Green.
“I hope that’s a good thing,” said Harry.
“No,” was James’s blunt ruling, as Ginny, looking thoughtful, said, “You know who I reckon you should talk to?”
- - -
Ron and Hermione lived in a small but neat mews house in Reading, which had been the source of much amusement (at Hermione’s expense) when they’d moved in. Following Ron into the kitchen the next morning, Harry couldn’t help but marvel at the difference between a house with a toddler (toys everywhere; general chaos) and one without (books everywhere; general calm). The kitchen smelled strongly of freshly-baked bread and good coffee, making Harry’s stomach rumble loudly.
“Hungry?” said Ron, grinning. “I was going to make some sandwiches. Hermione’s working upstairs and she’ll forget to eat if I don’t take her something up.”
“Wouldn’t say no,” said Harry. He sniffed appreciatively. “Did you … make bread?”
He sat down and watched, slightly bemused, as Ron, with apparent ease, brewed fresh coffee and sliced bread (homemade!) and assembled sandwiches. One flick of his wand and the cafetiere was in front of Harry, pouring coffee into a mug; another, and a large bag of crisps was emptying itself into a wooden bowl which settled itself in the centre of the round kitchen table. Ron whistled as he worked, and Harry himself felt remarkably content watching him. He thought of this time last week, Sunday morning. Where had he been? Squatting on the ground under his Invisibility Cloak somewhere on the outskirts of Hull, following up on reports of suspicious activity.
“I’ll just take this up to Hermione,” said Ron. “I’ll tell her you’re here, but she’s pretty stuck into this new legislation so don’t be offended if she doesn’t come down straight away -”
“It’s fine, I know she’s busy. And - it’s really you I wanted to talk to, anyway.”
Ron looked surprised, but pleased. “All right, then. Back in two ticks.”
When he returned he passed Harry a sandwich and took a seat across from him.
“So.” Harry tried to think of how to begin, and took a bite of his sandwich to give himself longer to think. “This is really good,” he said, trying to hide his surprise, and Ron’s ears reddened at the compliment. Harry put down his sandwich and started again. “I got a job offer yesterday.”
“Hogwarts. The Defence teacher's leaving, and ... McGonagall asked me.” Harry pulled a face. “Can you believe that?”
“Er - yeah,” said Ron, the duh implicit. “You’re a great teacher, and who has more experience than you? So what did you say?”
“Well, that's the thing.” Harry looked into his mug, then back up at his friend. “How did you know you could leave the Aurors? I mean - how did you know it was the right thing to do?”
He remembered his astonishment when Ron had told him he was leaving. Now, seeing him happy and relaxed, he could see why, and God, he wanted that himself.
Ron seemed to be thinking about it.
“I hadn't been happy for a while, I s’pose,” he said eventually. “But I kind of felt too ashamed to admit it, you know? Like it meant I couldn’t hack it.”
“Yeah,” said Harry. “I get that.”
“Ginny’s been worried about you,” said Ron. Harry hadn’t been expecting that. “She hasn’t said much, but I can tell. Look, mate, there's nothing wrong with admitting that your heart's not in it anymore and you'd rather do something else.”
Harry struggled to voice the thoughts swirling around in his head.
“I feel … I feel like,” he said, “I should do it even if I don't enjoy it, 'cause it's what I'm meant to do, y'know?”
“Because you're Harry Potter,” Ron surmised, shrewdly.
“People have these expectations -”
“But you know what I -”
“Course I do,” said Ron, and he did know - growing up with five older brothers, all brilliant in some way, and being the best friend of the Chosen One. If anyone knew about expectations, it was Ron.
“It took me ages to admit that I wanted a change because I was so worried about what everyone would think, but now I've done it, and I'm happy … I don't give a toss what anyone else thinks about it. You don't owe anyone anything. Do what makes you happy.”
- - -
James was asleep, having worn himself out getting out of bed every time one of his parents tried to get him in, and the cottage was now quiet and still. Harry sat at the small desk in the lounge, a blank sheet of parchment in front of him, and felt a curious warmth spread through his chest even as he picked up a quill.
I would like to accept your offer …