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Little Deaths and How to Avoid Them (or Draco Malfoy's Guide to Stop Dying and Start Living Instead)

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Little Deaths and How to Avoid Them

or

Draco Malfoy’s Guide to Stop Dying and Start Living Instead

 

 

Part 1: 1001 Ways to Die

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Chapter 1: Death By Aging

“Was that the last box? Oh—thank you, George.” A large cardboard box came floating up the stairs, George following behind it. The box joined the large pile of boxes sitting in the middle of the living room. Ginny gave her brother a kiss on the cheek and ruffled his hair.

Harry was sitting in the middle of what looked like an exploded piece of furniture; pieces of wood, screws, and those little circular metal things that go around the screws were strewn around him in a circle. He was assembling a bookcase and had been at it for a while already, unable to wait any longer to get started. Two shelves were already complete and attached to one side of the bookcase to be.

“Thank you,” he said to George with a grateful smile. His fingers were dusty. “Did you want to stay for dinner? We’re ordering in.”

“That’s all right. I ought to be on my way or both Lee and Angelina will have my hide,” George answered, wiggling his eyebrows at Ginny. Ginny swatted him. “See you love birds later!” He ducked out of the door and was gone.

Ginny came over to sit beside Harry. “We don’t have any books.” She touched the half-finished bookcase. “Why do we need it?”

“So we can put books in it,” Harry said. “It’ll go over there.” He pointed with the screwdriver at the little wall divide jutting out between the fireplace and the front door. It was just wide enough that he could fit the bookcase there. Harry thought the wall was made for it; the fireplace was awkwardly situated, not quite centred and much closer to the windows on the opposite wall, so the bookcase should balance it out nicely.

“All right.” Ginny leaned against him. She watched him finish building the bookcase. She watched him test its stability and move it to the wall. She watched him shuffle it a few inches to the right and then just a half inch to the left, until it was perfect. “Come to bed,” she said when it was all done, “and let’s break in this home of ours.”

“Now?”

“Yeah.” She stood up, then held a hand out to him.

“What about dinner?”

“Mmh, after.”

Harry looked around the unfinished living room, and the bookcase he’d just assembled. It was completely empty. They didn’t have any books. Maybe he could put his Quidditch books in it? He had a battered copy about the Chudley Cannons Ron had given him somewhere. Which box were they in again?

“Harry.”

“Yes?” Harry didn’t look up from the box he was poking through. He set it aside and opened another.

“Are you coming to bed?” Ginny had withdrawn her hand, Harry now realised. She’d crossed her arms, and there was a small wrinkle on her forehead, the kind that usually meant she was concerned about something or was about to get upset about something—usually Harry and his reluctance to sleep with her.

“Yes, I was just…” He gestured at the bookcase, tamping down on the low dread in the pit of his belly. “I wanted to put something in it.”

“Can we do it tomorrow? I was hoping for some proper alone time. We don’t have roommates anymore.”

Harry looked at the empty bookcase again, trying to keep the dread from turning into an empty hollow, a growing dead zone. He didn’t really want to go through the entire ritual of pretending he wanted to have sex with Ginny, not today. Today he just wanted to start…fitting the pieces of their new life together. New year, new place, new life. But Ginny was looking at him like that, with that frown on her face, and Harry didn’t want their first night in the flat to end with a fight. That wasn’t how new beginnings should start, and it wasn’t what he wanted for their future.

“Okay,” he said, and followed Ginny into the bedroom.

~*~

Unpacking went slowly. Between Ginny’s long days with Quidditch practice and Harry’s two jobs, neither of them wanted to spend all their free time dealing with finding new places for everything. Boxes stayed piled up in the living room, and two weeks later were still largely untouched. Harry never uncovered his books and rather feared they’d ended up in the charity shop pile somewhere along the way.

Instead of dwelling on it, Harry resolved to buy a book as soon as the opportunity arose. Which kind of book it would be he hadn’t really figured out yet. Maybe it would be a book about Quidditch. Maybe non-fiction of a different kind; Neville was putting out a revised and updated book of some kind about herbs in some context or other. Maybe he’d read it. Maybe he would pick fiction, if only he knew what kind of fiction he’d like to read.

Maybe something about cowboys and Indians, he thought, recalling glimpses he’d managed to steal from Dudley’s comics in childhood. Maybe something about space.

“Mr Harry!”

Harry focused on what was happening in front of him. Charlie was having problems with his broom, it looked like. He had a lisp, which sometimes made it difficult for the broom to understand his commands.

He jogged over. “Show me.”

Charlie held his hand over the broom, which was no longer hovering a foot above the ground, but lying flat on the grass. “Up!”

The broom didn’t move.

“Hmm.” Harry nudged the broom with his foot. The problem was obviously not the lisp. “I think it’s frightened. It’s playing dead, see?” He nudged the broom again.

“It wasn’t me!” Charlie said, too quickly to be entirely innocent.

Harry raised an eyebrow.

“I promise!”

“All right.” Harry cast about until he found Avery, hovering nearby. The look of guilt on his face matched Charlie’s to the letter. “Avery.”

“We didn’t mean to,” Avery said.

Harry knelt by the broom, running his hand alongside the shaft. The broom was very much alive; he could feel the low thrum of magic when he focused on it. It was only playing dead. These brooms typically weren’t temperamental, and generally not prone to hysterics just because small children happened to say things around them; it was more likely that it was picking up on something in Charlie that he hadn’t communicated out loud.

“Charlie,” he said. “The broom is scared because it thinks you’re scared.”

Charlie shuffled.

“We really didn’t mean to,” Avery said. “We were just talking.”

“All right.” Harry resisted the temptation to rub his face. He’d learned the hard way not to show his frustration around small children. “You run off, now, Avery. I’m going to have a word with Charlie for a second.”

The rest of his tiny daycare were already practicing the task he’d set them: throwing Quaffles between them, while also moving in a circle. He’d get them zooming around soon enough, for now balancing on a broom, controlling the broom, and also keeping an eye on a Quaffle (not to mention catching the thing and sending it off again) was proving a challenge for them. They were only four and five years old; they were still developing their coordination skills.

Avery pointed his broom towards the other kids and went off, and Harry turned to Charlie. He was still kneeling by the broom, so he had Charlie at eye level.

“Do you want to tell me about it?” Harry asked him.

Charlie wouldn’t meet Harry’s eye. He shook his head minutely.

“Okay. Do you want to try again?” Harry silently reset the broom as he moved it to lie on the ground between them.

“It doesn’t like me,” Charlie said, eyes flickering towards the broom.

“Now that’s just not true,” Harry told him, using his best and most patient voice. This one usually worked. “This is just a bundle of twigs. It’s not alive like you and me, it just flies about and does whatever you want it to do.”

Charlie didn’t say anything to that.

“Let’s make a deal,” Harry then said, switching to a different tactic. “How about you just get it up? You don’t have to fly on it today if you don’t want to, just get it up.”

“Only to my hand!” Charlie declared, with somewhat more confidence than Harry was expecting.

“Okay,” Harry agreed. He stood up and stepped back, to give Charlie space. “You can try now.”

Charlie stepped up to the broom, held his hand out and looked at Harry, uncertainty in his eyes. Harry gave him a nod. Charlie drew in a deep breath and then: “Up!”

The broom raised itself up until it met Charlie’s hand. His fingers closed around the shaft automatically.

“Oh!” Charlie grinned. “It came!”

“Well done.” Harry smiled back. “You can sit on it now if you’d like and go join the others.”

Charlie bit his lip, but Harry could see the resolve in his face despite it. A moment later he nodded, and then he was sitting on the broom. Whatever had been wrong earlier seemed to have evaporated.

Excellent. Harry helped Charlie towards the other children and got him joining the little Quaffle circle almost seamlessly.

~*~

Somebody had—again—left a not inconsiderable amount of documents spread across two desks, instead of returning them to either the service desk or the return trolley. Harry inspected the documents carefully and compared them with his ex libris list; none were missing. One document flagged, however, and Harry found a dark stain on the lower right corner.

Coffee, he determined, after a quick sniff test. Never mind that that beverage and other liquids weren’t allowed in the reading hall; people would find ways to sneak them in past the magical barriers anyway.

Harry flagged the document for conservation to deal with, then piled them all onto the return trolley and wheeled it back behind the service desk. He’d have taken it downstairs to the strongrooms already, but a customer was waiting at the desk. Albert, who usually manned the desk along with Harry, wasn’t around—probably out back on a smoke break.

“Hullo,” Harry said, as he parked the trolley. “How can I help you?”

The customer, who Harry now realised was Draco Malfoy, said: “I’m interested in coroner reports or death certificates or other documents that would describe an individual’s cause of death. Do you keep that sort of thing here?”

He was impeccably dressed, though he had dark circles under his eyes and a sickly tint to his complexion. He’d changed his hairstyle since Harry had last seen him, what had possibly been three or four years prior, but his white-blond hair didn’t look the way it usually did, if Harry’s memory was anything to go by; it wasn’t as shiny as he remembered it to be.

Draco Malfoy looked like he hadn’t slept for at least two months, if not more.

Harry was aware he was staring, so he pulled himself together. Before he could respond to Malfoy’s inquiry, however, Malfoy’s face shuttered.

“My apologies for wasting your time,” Malfoy said, turning to go.

“No, wait, sorry, that was rude of me—let me look that up for you,” Harry scrambled to say, already flicking through the ledger, a large leather-bound volume which permanently resided on the desk. “Coroner reports, was it?”

Malfoy cleared his throat. “Ah, yes. Thank you.”

“There—” Harry paused, staring at the ledger. One and a half pages of it were dedicated to coroner reports, with several dozen cross references listed. “Were you looking for anything specific? We have a lot of those things. Sorry—a substantial collection, is what I should say.”

“Oh. What are my options?” Malfoy seemed to have come in unprepared.

“Well, we have coroner reports going back to the 12th century, though they weren’t called that, then, and,” Harry paused, examining the ledger, “they are tagged by natural causes, accidents, homicide, and unexplained. They are also sorted by region, so say you wanted to look at homicides in Leeds in the 17th century, I could fetch those for you.”

Malfoy had a far-away look in his eyes. “I don’t suppose you have anything recent?”

Harry checked the ledger. “Most recent reports on file are from 1899.”

“In that case I’d like to see whatever you’ve got from the 19th century.”

Harry drew his wand over the ledger and compiled a request form: coroner reports, all-inclusive, the British Isles, 19th century. The form filled itself out and Harry went over it to check that the parameters he’d set were right. “Uh, Malfoy, that’s over three thousand documents…are you sure you don’t want to narrow it down further?”

Malfoy focused his gaze on Harry. He looked neither surprised nor upset, or even overwhelmed. In fact, he’d barely shown any kind of emotion on his face since Harry had first seen him that day. “I’m sure.”

“All right. I’ll bring those up for you. The reading hall is down that way; grab a vacant desk and make yourself comfortable, and I’ll come to you. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”

“Thank you.” Malfoy pulled his gloves off and headed off the direction Harry had indicated.

Harry took a moment to himself to process the fact that Malfoy had just asked to see three thousand coroner reports. It would take him days to look through them all, if not weeks.

That wasn’t even the weirdest thing: he hadn’t reacted to seeing Harry at all.

Shaking himself out of it, Harry took the return trolley and the newly filled out request form down to the strongrooms. The documents in the return trolley returned themselves to their correct places, bar the flagged document which took itself to the conservation inbox tray. The ex libris list wiped itself and returned to a slot in the trolley.

Harry fed the request form into a different slot in the trolley and waited while three thousand coroner reports made their way to him, floating out of boxes and folders through the air to stack themselves neatly in the trolley. As he waited, the request form copied itself, the copy wandering off to file itself in the archive’s request history ledger.

When the reports had all slotted themselves into the trolley’s shelves (now slightly bulging), a fresh ex libris list popped out of the trolley and into Harry’s waiting hand.

The whole machinery had taken four minutes and thirty-six seconds, Harry noted, and took the trolley upstairs to find Malfoy.

Malfoy had chosen a desk in the far corner of the reading hall, below a painting of a meadow. The painting reflected the outside weather, so today it was sunny and a bit hazy, as if the cold of the morning was still lingering. Malfoy wasn’t looking at the painting; he didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular.

The vacant, dead look in Malfoy’s eyes was slightly unnerving, so Harry cleared his throat. Malfoy’s eyes brightened and he turned his attention to Harry, though his face remained expressionless. “Here’s the documents you requested. We close at five. No beverages or any other liquids are allowed in here. Don’t write on the documents. Any questions?”

“No, thank you.” Malfoy had out a single black notebook and a pencil on the desk—no ink, which was also not allowed in the reading hall.

“Okay. If you have questions later, I’ll be at the service desk out front. If nobody is there, you can ring the bell and either I or one of my colleagues will come.” Harry didn’t receive a reply to this—aside from a perfunctory nod—so he left Malfoy to his documents and went back to the service desk.

He didn’t see Malfoy again until closing; Harry had few errands in the reading hall that day and when he did, he noted that Malfoy kept his head down and went through the reports methodically, occasionally writing something in his notebook.

Malfoy didn’t even pause in his work to get a bite of food or a drink from the small café that was attached to the Archive’s western wing. Harry headed down there himself around three to fetch a sticky bun and a cuppa.

Five minutes before closing, Harry made his way to the reading hall to chase out stragglers and discovered that only Malfoy had remained. Harry sorted the 5th century seafaring maps left by an enthusiast from Cork—fine fellow, but incapable of following instructions—into their trolley, and then went to Malfoy.

The painting of the meadow showed a sun low in the sky and a bunny peeking out of the grass. A tree in the distance swayed gently in the wind.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you, but we’re closing,” Harry said.

Malfoy looked up from the report he was pouring over. There was a thin wrinkle in his forehead. “It is that hour, is it?” He sounded distracted. “My apologies.” He glanced at the report, then at the trolley. “I haven’t finished.”

“We are also open tomorrow,” Harry informed him. “You can come back.”

“Yes, I suppose I can.” Malfoy carefully closed the report he’d been looking at, then put it back in the trolley. He then tore a page out of his notebook and wedged it in between the report he’d just returned and the one before it, taking care that it stuck out visibly.

“Er, Malfoy, what are you doing?”

“Marking my spot?” Malfoy looked at Harry again. “Is that not okay? I would like to return tomorrow and resume my work.”

“I have to return these to the strongroom they came from,” Harry said. “I can check them out for you again tomorrow.”

It would be wrong to say that Malfoy made a distressed sound, for he didn’t make a sound at all, yet Harry could feel the distress radiate from his body. “I see.”

Harry picked up the ex libris list. “I can make a note of which ones you’ve already looked at and fix you up a new request form, and then all you have to do is submit it to the front desk tomorrow and you’ll get,” Harry gestured at the trolley, “this, but just the stuff you haven’t looked at yet.”

“Oh.” Malfoy blinked. “I would like that, thank you.”

“Right on. Come with me.” Harry checked that the contents of the trolley matched the ex libris list, then pushed it out of the hall. Malfoy pocketed his pencil and notebook, picked up his cloak—which he’d draped over the back of his chair—and followed Harry out.

At the front desk, Harry tapped the ex libris list with his wand and flagged the documents that’d been taken out of the trolley during the day and saw that Malfoy had made his way through three hundred and sixty-four of the reports. Impressive. Harry then transferred the information to a new request form, deleted the flagged items, and gave Malfoy the form.

“Give this to Albert or Janie when you come in tomorrow,” Harry said. “They’ll sort you out.”

“Not you?”

“I won’t be in until after lunch.”

Malfoy nodded. Then he turned on his heel and left.

Strange, thought Harry, watching him go. Both Malfoy’s choice of reading material and the detached way he’d spoken to Harry, as if they were...strangers. Interacting with Malfoy in the past had usually been coloured by annoyance and alcohol, even when they’d been civil—and on rare occasions, even friendly—and this had been anything but.

It’d been a long time since Harry had last seen Malfoy, though he’d heard a little about him through the grapevine over the years; apparently he’d been keeping himself busy by restoring Malfoy properties and selling them off. Last Harry had heard, Malfoy had spent the previous winter in Cornwall, fixing up a neglected Manor House and doing repairs on the local inn. It seemed they’d held historical value to Muggles in the area. Something about smuggling alcohol from (or was it to?) France during the Jacobean era (or something, Harry didn’t know who Jacob was or why he had an era named after him), Harry thought. Pansy had said something about it.

Harry shook it off. If Malfoy had no more properties left to restore, he was more than welcome at the archive to study coroner reports.

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Chapter 2: Death By Drowning

The selection in Flourish and Blotts was overwhelming. Harry only vaguely recalled it having been so in general; he hadn’t stepped foot in there since last time he’d had to get textbooks and that had always been during the back-to-school rush, so it’d been overwhelming for different reasons. Now the school season was in full swing, so the store wasn’t actually chock full of students and parents trying to get copies of The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 5 or Defensive Magical Theory, or anything else off the Hogwarts curriculum. This time around, Harry could actually see the store’s contents for what they were.

Harry had never known that Flourish and Blotts had a section for fiction before, or that the fiction section had so many subsections. Large labels proclaimed that these shelves were CRIME, a smaller label divvied them up into Muggle and Magical. Another set of shelves were all YOUNG ADULT, and yet another was HISTORICAL FICTION. Harry was in the middle of it all, staring down between tightly stacked shelves, trying to decide which section of the section of the section he should look at first, wondering if maybe he should flip a coin, or just close his eyes and spin in a circle and buy whatever he happened to grab first.

He stood there for so long that an employee had to politely tell him that they were closing soon, Mr Potter, and would he like to make a purchase, or…?

“No, no, that’s all right. I’ll come back later. I wouldn’t want to hold you up.” Harry left the store and Apparated home, conscious of the fact he was late. Flourish and Blotts closed at seven on Wednesdays. It was Wednesday. Harry had just spent almost two hours in there, unable to make a simple decision about what to buy, not least read.

It wasn’t until Harry materialised just inside the front door and saw Ginny’s shoes that he remembered that he’d promised to make dinner. “Ginny?”

The shower was on.

Harry quietly put his shoes and cloak away, found the take-out menus, and put in an order for their usual at the Vietnamese place.

She came out of the shower, towel-wrapped and vibrant, just after the food arrived. “Hello, handsome,” she said, and kissed his cheek. The scent of her shampoo, floral and sweet, wafted over him. “When did you get home?”

“Just now.” Harry dished out the food. “Sorry,” he said, gesturing at the food. “I forgot.”

“Hmmm.” Ginny didn’t bother getting dressed, just sat at the table in her towel, her damp hair cascading down her shoulders. “What happened?”

Harry joined her at the table. Should he tell her that Malfoy had come to the Archive? It wasn’t technically the reason why he’d been home late. Being rooted to the floor in Flourish and Blotts, incapable of making simple decisions, was the cause of that, but Harry didn’t want to tell Ginny that either…but telling her about Malfoy didn’t seem quite right.

There was also the option of not telling her anything at all, but how then would Harry account for being home late? Nothing wasn’t an adequate explanation and lying was not an option at all.

He dipped a spring roll into the peanut-soy sauce that’d come with their order. He took good care to dunk it so he could get as much peanut crunch as possible. “Malfoy came to the Archive,” he said, inspecting the spring roll. He took a bite.

Ginny paused. She had a fork stuck in her noodles, wound tight. “Malfoy?” Her voice had an odd quality to it. “What was he doing there?”

“Utilising our services.” Harry shrugged.

“But he made you leave work late?”

“No, not at all, he was a model citizen and all that. I barely noticed he was there.” That wasn’t a lie, technically; Malfoy had been very quiet and made no fuss. If Harry hadn’t known he was there, he might not have noticed him at all.

Ginny’s eyes bored into him. Harry dunked his half-eaten spring roll into the sauce again.

When he’d finished the roll and made his way through half of another one, he spoke again. “What kind of books do you like to read?”

“Quidditch analysis articles,” Ginny said, shrugging. The tension around her eyes leached away. “I don’t have time for much else.”

Harry’s heart sank. This wasn’t new information, not by far—and he’d known her long enough to know that. It’d just…never disappointed him before.

They finished eating in silence, each of them seemingly deep in thought about some matter or other. Harry found his thoughts straying to Malfoy and his odd choice in reading materials. What would one want to read three thousand coroner reports for? He resolved to ask Malfoy about it if he were to see him again.

Ginny was shaking out her hair and Harry’s attention snapped to her. She was drying her hair with magic, and soon it fell about her face in a soft cloud.

“See something you like?” she asked.

“Your hair.”

“Anything else?” Ginny loosened the towel, letting half of it fall away to reveal a pert breast and a pink nipple. Her eyes sought Harry’s, and then she let the other end of the towel fall.

Harry tried to locate a spark of desire within him and came up empty. All he found was love, burning bright and strong in his heart. He’d have to use that. Make do. “I love you.”

Ginny stood up and came over to kiss him, her hair falling over his face like a curtain. “Want to show me just how much you love me?”

~*~

At precisely one minute past one o’clock, Malfoy came to the Archive. Harry had checked with Albert when he’d come in earlier, but nobody had requested coroner reports that morning, so Harry had concluded that Malfoy hadn’t come back after all. But there was, standing in front of Harry, clutching the request slip Harry had given him the previous day.

“Hello,” Harry said.

Malfoy nodded in greeting and handed Harry the slip.

It was short work to fetch Malfoy his coroner reports and see him installed in the reading hall. The spot below the meadow painting was vacant, so Malfoy chose it for himself again and set to work quietly.

Harry forgot he meant to ask what Malfoy wanted with all those reports and only remembered when five o’clock came around and he had to politely chase Malfoy out.

“You’ve made headway with these,” Harry commented as he prepared the new request form. He’d deducted a considerable number of reports from the pile.

“Thank you?” Malfoy’s tone indicated surprise, but his face remained as impassive as ever.

“What are you doing with them anyway? If you don’t mind me asking.” Harry gave him the new form.

“It’s for a project.” Malfoy accepted the form, peering down at it. “When will you, ah, be in again?”

“All day tomorrow,” Harry replied. “We close early on Fridays.”

Malfoy nodded. “Thank you,” he said.

This was starting to get unnerving. “You know, you can come in any time. The other staff can also help you.”

“That’s quite all right, thank you.” Malfoy cleared his throat. “Have a lovely evening.”

He left.

Harry stared. Have a lovely evening? Was this the real Draco Malfoy or had he been replaced with a replica that looked like him, but was otherwise completely unrecognisable?

What the hell was going on with him?

~*~

Malfoy came back the following day as soon as the Archive opened. Harry politely processed his request form and Malfoy took his place below the painting once again.

The meadow was bathed in sunlight and the grass swayed in the wind, the bunnies that lived in it running hither and thither. Malfoy didn’t pay attention to any of it.

When Harry went for his lunch break, Malfoy was still sitting at the desk going through the files. He was still there when Harry came back, showing no signs of having taken a break himself.

Harry let him be.

A quarter of an hour before closing, Malfoy came to the front desk. He was pushing the trolley ahead of him. Harry eyed the trolley, then Malfoy, who was fidgeting.

“How can I help you?” Harry asked.

“The usual.” Malfoy gestured at the trolley. “I also wanted to ask…” He hesitated.

“Yes?” Harry was reaching for the ex libris list, but paused.

Malfoy didn’t say anything, only glanced to the side. He was doing something odd with his lips that Harry had never seen him do before—belatedly he realised that Malfoy was chewing on his bottom lip. It was a strange look on him.

“What did you want to ask?” Harry prodded.

“Ahh…actually, never mind.” Malfoy shook his head, taking a step back.

“All right.” Harry tried not to frown at him; he’d been told it was unprofessional. “Did you want a new request form for the reports you haven’t looked at yet?”

“Yes, thank you.”

Harry took the ex libris list and quickly sorted Malfoy out. As soon as the new form was in Malfoy’s hand, he shoved it in his pocket and walked out.

He certainly wasn’t getting any less weird, Harry thought, and took the trolley downstairs to the strongroom.

~*~

The pub was uncharacteristically quiet, a fact that could largely be attributed to the fact Ginny wasn’t there. She had a rule of not drinking or going out the night before a game, a rule Harry was not beholden to. He’d show up to her game with a hangover more often than not.

Not many had come out this Friday either. Lee was there, as was Angelina (but no George in sight). Hermione and Ron hadn’t come, but Padma and Pansy were there, and Parvati had shown up single again.

“Are you entering the Little League?” Lee asked, leaning across the table.

Harry frowned. “The what?” He had almost finished his pint and was considering getting another round for the table, or maybe something to eat.

“Quidditch Little League,” Lee explained. “It’s a new thing, not terribly official. I hear the grand prize is a trophy made out of chocolate. Oliver is setting it up with a couple of lads he knows, all professional players. It’s a charity thing.” He grinned. “Don’t you have a little team?”

“Kind of.” Harry had five little players, if one could call them players. That seemed a mite generous. And it wasn’t a team, it was a daycare. “I don’t have a full team.”

“Well, think about it? You can pick which charity to support, the kids would love it, and everyone would love you. And give me a heads up, I’ll do a spot for you on the wireless.” Lee winked.

Harry grimaced.

“You don’t think Harry gets enough publicity as is?” Pansy commented, in that sharp tone of hers. Harry had learned by now that this was Pansy’s normal state of being; this was a casual remark, not criticism or tart commentary.

“Thank you, Pansy,” Harry said. “I’d think the public had got enough of my dumb mug at Ginny’s games. Excellent photos, every time.”

Lee shrugged. The girls smiled.

“It does sound fun,” Padma commented, a thoughtful look on her face. “Low stakes, adorable children, proceeds go to honourable causes…will you be commentating, Lee?”

The truth was, it didn’t sound all that terrible. The kids would love the idea of a chocolate trophy, and they were enrolled in a Quidditch-themed daycare, after all. Of course everybody and their second aunt thrice removed would get wind of it faster than Harry could get a broom off the ground, but… Harry finished his pint. It could be something to look forward to. He didn’t have a lot of that in his life at the moment, or so it felt like.

“I’ll look into it,” he said, putting down his empty pint glass.

Lee whooped. “Get me all the exclusives, yeah?”

Harry cracked a smile. “Sure, Lee.” He shrugged with one shoulder. “I still don’t have a team so don’t get your hopes up.”

There was also the fact that he wouldn’t actually be able to get a full team, even if he somehow had kids lined up to join; he ran a Quidditch-themed part-time daycare, not a sports team or a Quidditch class. As a registered childminder he could only be responsible for the care of up to five children. If he wanted to enter the daycare into the league, he’d have to sort out what could only be a terrifying load of paperwork, and then find two more players. Maybe even extras, to rotate… it wasn’t impossible, but it was a change, and a challenge, and Harry had been walking in the same groove for a long time now.

It was comfortable in the groove.

All the same, the whole thing appealed to every fibre of Harry’s being—training a little team from the ground up, seeing them through a couple of games, helping them win a trophy, and at the same time raise money for a charity of his own choosing? Harry could think of more than a few causes he wouldn’t mind putting his support behind.

Pansy was giving Harry a knowing look over her own pint glass. Harry ignored it and decided to change the subject. “What’s Malfoy been up to lately?” he asked her. “You haven’t mentioned him in a while.”

She put down her glass. “I don’t know,” she said, frowning. “He’s been elusive of late. Impossible to get hold of. For all I know he’s finally effed off to the Continent.” She shrugged, but it didn’t look half as casual as she probably meant for it to be. “Why?”

“No reason.” He could tell her that Malfoy had not, in fact, effed off to the Continent, but it didn’t feel right. Harry shrugged it off, then lifted his own glass only to realise it was empty. He stood up. “Another round?”

This was met by cheers all around, so Harry went to the bar. When he came back, it was to find Parvati in deep conversation with Angelina and Lee, while Padma’s hand seemed to have found its way up Pansy’s skirt. That didn’t stop Pansy from giving Harry a searching look, a perfectly sculpted eyebrow raised in question.

Harry set the drinks on the table, ignoring all of Pansy’s unspoken questions.

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Chapter 3: Death by Fire

Charlie and his mum were at the game, just two seats over from Harry’s. The game hadn’t started yet; they’d arrived early—Harry did indeed have a hangover, but he’d dragged himself out anyway—and Charlie was bouncing in his seat, waving frantically.

“Hi, Mr Harry!”

“Hello, Charlie,” Harry said, making his way over. “Ms Baxter.” He shook hands with Charlie’s mum and gave Charlie a high-five. “How’re you today?”

“I’m going to see Andrew Crocker play!” Charlie said. “He’s my favourite. Who’s yours?”

Harry smiled. “Ginny Weasley, of course. She’s on the other team.”

Charlie considered this. “She is very good,” he allowed. “But she’s not a Keeper.”

“Do you want to be a Keeper?”

“Yes!”

Ms Baxter gave Harry a long-suffering smile. “He’s been practicing with apples at home,” she confided with a whisper. “He managed to charm them himself.”

Harry whistled. “That’s impressive.” His head was starting to hurt, what with the noise levels rising; people were pouring into the stadium. All the same, Lee’s suggestion dropped into his head unbidden, and for the moment, unwelcome. “Do you think he’d like to play on a real team?” He asked Ms Baxter.

“A real team?” She frowned, then glanced at her son. Charlie was watching the pitch; the players had started filing out. “What do you mean?”

“There’s a Little League tournament starting up. It’s a charity fundraising thing, only a few games, and the prize is a,” Harry leaned in to whisper, “chocolate trophy.”

“Good grief,” Ms Baxter said, hiding her amused chuckle behind her hand. “You’re putting together a team for this?”

Harry shrugged. “Maybe. I—” A whistle sounded. “I should find my seat. Let’s talk later? Enjoy the game.”

They exchanged hasty of-course-see-you-later smiles, and Harry left them to enjoy the game. He was the only one who’d come out today; everyone else was nursing hangovers and Ron was manning the shop. Hermione had some prior commitment as well, though Harry couldn’t recall what it was, or even when he’d last seen her. He made a note to book her for lunch soon.

It’d been a while since he’d seen her without Ron, Harry realised. That was a sobering thought. It wasn’t that he didn’t like his friends, but since they’d decided to let nature run its course on the matter of children, there was no end to how affectionate they were with each other, and Harry found he had difficulties sitting through it. He and Ginny weren’t like that. He and Ginny weren’t like anybody, actually, not like Padma and Pansy, who weren’t shy about their love, or George, Lee and Angelina, who didn’t care that the rest of the world knew how much they all three loved one another, or Percy and Oliver—there was a couple Harry hadn’t seen coming—or Dean and Seamus, or Neville and Hannah…the only people Harry knew who weren’t all up in their partner’s space were Parvati (single), Blaise (single), and himself and Ginny.

There had to be something wrong with that. All right, Percy tended to be embarrassed about public displays of affection, but he engaged in them all the same. But he and Ginny…they’d always been private, though even in private Harry had never gone for cuddling when he could just look at her instead. Surely that was fine? Not everyone had to be like…a Valentine’s Day postcard, right?

These old doubts were really starting to get tiresome. Harry tried to clear his mind and focus on the game instead, on Ginny’s flying—she really was a phenomenal player—but he couldn’t get rid of the coil of anxiety in his belly.

The game passed almost without Harry’s noticing, and before he knew of it, it was over and the Harpies had lost.

“Looks like your Keeper did an excellent job,” Harry said to Charlie on his way out, gently bumping their fists together.

“I’m sorry your girlfriend lost,” Charlie said, sincerely.

Ms Baxter ruffled Charlie’s hair. Whispering to Harry she said: “I’ve been teaching him what good sportsmanship is about.”

“Thanks buddy.” Harry smiled. “I’ll see you next week, we’ll practice some goalkeeping, yeah?”

“Yeah!”

“What was that you said before about a Little League?” Ms Baxter asked.

“Oh, that—I haven’t got any…I’m still looking into that.” Harry shrugged, trying not to look as awkward as he felt. He hadn’t technically decided he wanted to do this—he’d only been aware it was a thing for about twelve hours—but it was nagging at his brain and his gut, and Charlie’s enthusiasm was only stoking that fire, even as he balked at the paperwork. Harry had no idea where to even start with this thing. “I’ll owl you once I know more about it?” he offered.

“Sure,” Ms Baxter said, giving him one of her rare soft smiles.

They said their goodbyes and Harry went to find Ginny.

He didn’t have to wait long; she’d showered quickly by the looks of it and her eyes had that determined look that usually followed a defeat.

“Hey,” Harry said, offering to take her bag. She let him. “Let’s take the tube home? I want to talk to you about something.”

“What?” Ginny’s head jerked up. “Is today really the day you’re going to break up with me?”

Harry blinked, his gut twisting. “No! Why’d you think—I’m not going to break up with you! I just like to talk on the train,” he tried to explain.

“You only want to talk on the train about serious stuff,” she said, her voice shaky. She shook her head, looking skywards, and Harry thought maybe she was trying to blink back tears.

“Hey,” he said. “I love you. I’m not breaking up with you.” He didn’t really understand why she’d think that—sure they had their problems, but breaking up? It had never even registered as an option.

“Okay,” Ginny said. “Let’s go then.”

They walked the short distance to the tube in silence, and got to the platform just as the train pulled in. The only other people in their carriage were an elderly lady with a small dog, and a man in a suit.

“What is it, then?” Ginny asked as the doors closed.

“Have you heard about the Quidditch Little League?”

Ginny stared at him. “Do you mean that charity thing Oliver is putting together with Faulkner and Pomeroy?”

“Yeah, that thing. Lee told me about it.”

“Are you thinking of doing it?” Ginny leaned against the seat, relaxing a little in the shoulders.

Harry let out a breath. “I don’t know. I’m thinking about it…what do you think?”

“You were a terrible captain at Hogwarts,” she said, but her eyes were twinkling. “But you’re not on the team this time. I hear you’re great with the kids on your little hobby team.”

“Not a team,” Harry corrected. “Who told you I’m great?”

“Betty’s mum. She’s on my team?”

“Oh. Yeah, of course. I knew that.”

Ginny rolled her eyes. “No, you didn’t. Anyway, so, this daycare of yours…you want to lead them to victory and overdose the lot on chocolate?”

“Maybe. I…” Harry rubbed his eyes. “I’m not sure I can do it alone. I don’t know where to start, or where to get two more players, or uniforms, or—” He cut himself off with a wave of his hand. “Or the paperwork.”

“Do you want me to talk you into it or out of it?”

“What?” Harry looked up. Ginny was giving him one of those steady uncompromising looks of hers, the kind that she usually exhibited in the air, or when it came to taking the trash out. She hated taking the trash out. Harry usually did it for her.

“You have two modes, Harry,” Ginny said. “Either you decide you’re going to do something and nothing on earth can change your mind about it, or,” she lifted a finger and drew circles in the air, “you waffle about for half an eternity until somebody makes a decision for you. Lately, it’s more of that and not so much the first.”

Harry was quiet, staring at Ginny and her unyielding gaze. She was right. And unlike him, she usually didn’t have any scruples about letting the truth out.

“I have made decisions,” he said, but it was pointless. “I got that bookcase.”

“It’s still empty,” she said. “Because you still don’t know what to put in it.”

Yeah. That was true. “Yeah okay,” Harry agreed.

Another thing that was true was this: something had to change. He knew this, but—as Ginny had observed—he was waffling about that too.

“I don’t need you talk to me into it,” Harry said, deciding to just do it. Take the leap. “I’m going to do it.”

“Excellent.” Ginny grinned. “I’ll help you with the paperwork.”

“Thank you.” Harry leaned in to kiss her. “Do you know more people with five-year-olds who would like to play for chocolate?”

“Mmmmmaybe.” Ginny slipped her hand into his. “We’ll get you up and running in no time.”

They spent the rest of the ride home going over the drills and practices Harry was giving his kids and discussing possible uniform colours for the team to be. He was letting the kids name the team, he decided, once he had a team—they might not all want to join.

“You probably don’t have to convert your daycare,” Ginny said as they got off the train. “You could probably register the team independently of the daycare. That way they don’t all have to join the team if they don’t want to, and you can schedule team practice at normal team practice hours in the early evening which opens the team up for more kids.”

Harry had to agree with that. “It makes sense. But if I’m opening the team up like that, couldn’t I choose to only take the less well-off kids?”

“You could.” Ginny bumped his shoulder. “For this kind of thing the parents usually bring the money, so you’ll have to rely on donations for uniforms and equipment. You can’t keep funding everything yourself.”

“I’m not!” Harry protested.

“Really?” Ginny raised an eyebrow. “You mean to tell me you haven’t actually been running a non-profit daycare for the past three years? I happen to know that Betty isn’t the only one whose parents aren’t paying for you minding her.”

“…Bill helped me set up some investments or something at Gringotts, I don’t really know what, but the profits of that is what’s keeping the daycare running,” Harry admitted. “I was thinking I could ask him for help with the funds for the team.”

“Mm.” Ginny gave him one of her rare, dazzling smiles. “Soooo…how does it feel? Knowing you’re about to become a bona fide Quidditch coach?”

Harry thought about it. Scary, he thought. Nerve-wracking. “Exhilarating,” he said, his mouth turning up into a smile.

~*~

Harry had Quidditch Daycare on Monday mornings, so he wasn’t at the Archive until after lunch. He inquired with Albert, but Malfoy hadn’t come by—yet. Malfoy hadn’t said when he’d come in again or asked when Harry would be in, for the matter of it, so Harry didn’t know if he’d come at all. He took over front desk duty from Mildred, checked the visitor logs and made a quick round of the reading hall, and settled back behind the desk.

His colleagues, being trained archivists, usually had a number of tasks they could do to while away the time at the front desk on slow days, but Harry wasn’t a trained archivist. He had no formal qualifications to speak of, but he could retrieve documents and shelve them again, and he was semi-officially in charge of dealing with incoming owls. Sometimes they brought research questions, sometimes stacks of papers some kind soul wanted to donate to the Archive for posterity (according to Mildred and Laura, most of the time donated documents were actually worthless and thus wound up in the incinerator instead of in the archives), sometimes fanmail to Harry. Sometimes he got to help catalogue small collections, but most of the time he was here, helping patrons.

Harry was sorting through the stack of mail the owls had brought when the clock chimed one and Malfoy walked in. He entered cautiously, as if he wasn’t quite certain he was allowed into the building, but then he caught sight of Harry and straightened up, coming toward the desk at a brisk pace. Harry put the mail aside.

“Good afternoon,” Harry said, offering him his best customer service smile. Ron claimed it made Harry look absolutely frightening, but Hermione had given it one look and said you look like mum and dad’s receptionist at the dental clinic, which Harry decided was ultimately a good thing. Those receptionists were supposed to be friendly, welcoming, and able to make the patients feel calm. At least that’s what Harry thought, only rarely having actually been to the dentist. “How can I help you today?”

Malfoy stared at him. Then he blinked, slowly, not in that way cats do when they’re all snug somewhere outside one’s field of vision, but in that way where one keeps one’s eyes closed for several seconds, as if reciting a quiet prayer. When he opened his eyes again to look at Harry, he paused. Then he shook his head.

“Er,” Harry said. He dropped the customer service smile. “Did you bring the slip I gave you last week or did you want something else today?”

“I have it,” Malfoy said, fishing the folded piece of paper out from a hidden pocket and handing it over.

Harry gave it a cursory glance to check that it was indeed a request form. “All right, a ludicrous amount of deaths coming your way. I’ll be a moment.” He rolled his chair out from under the desk and headed for the levitating platform. (Why they didn’t simply install ordinary elevators was completely beyond Harry.)

He thought he heard Malfoy snort behind him and smiled to himself.

The documents didn’t take long to sort, and Malfoy had settled beneath the meadow painting in less time than it took to prepare a cup of tea. The meadow was sunny, snowdrops and purple crocuses peeking out of the grass, and a few birds were flittering about the tree. As usual, Malfoy didn’t notice.

“That’s you all set,” Harry said. “I’ll be at the front desk if you need anything.”

Malfoy gave him a nod, and then started digging into the reports. Harry saw that his little black notebook was halfway to filled out, Malfoy’s hand neat and tidy. He leaned in a little to have a closer look, but was thwarted in his efforts when Malfoy put his hand over the notebook.

“Yes, Potter?”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t snooping—I mean—I was just…curious,” Harry said, retreating to a professional distance. His ears were burning. “I guess that actually means I was snooping.”

“Er,” Malfoy said. He glanced at the notebook, then at Harry. “You could just ask?”

You could just ask. Harry was struggling to remember the last time he’d had a civil conversation with Malfoy…that was to say, before he started coming to the Archive. Was it at the trials? Harry recalled sharing a few words with an exhausted Draco Malfoy in the halls at the ministry—Harry had been utterly wrung out at the time as well, testifying for and against so many people, standing trial himself, testifying, testifying, watching friends and enemies and everyone in between go from court room to holding cells to court rooms to freedom, or to jail.

No, there had been instances other than that, later. A few words at a party or other, those Pansy had put on after the trials (and after she got out of prison), the ones that started out as blind drinking and dancing to forget, that turned into drinking to talk, that turned into canapés and Muggle movies and friends. Malfoy had been there, but now Harry didn’t know if he’d spoken to him at length, if at all, or if all their interactions had been filtered through alcohol and semi-annoyed tolerance. Pansy had stopped throwing those get-togethers a long time ago.

“What are you looking at coroner reports for?” Harry finally asked.

Malfoy regarded him cautiously. “I’ve been dead for two hundred years. I’m trying to solve my own murder, so that I may finally pass to the other side.” He paused. “Pass into the light? That sounds better, doesn’t it.”

Harry stared. Was that a joke? Was Malfoy trying to joke with him? “Well, let me know when you’ve figured it out,” he said. “Can’t have people just disappear on me, you know, I need to check people out of the reading hall properly.”

“Right, of course. Can’t have that.” Malfoy cracked the tiniest smile Harry had ever seen, and then very pointedly turned to the reports.

Harry took the cue and let him be, returning to the front desk and the stack of mail. There was an odd ringing in his head, like adrenaline barrelling into old walls. Malfoy had just tried to joke with him. And Harry had tried to joke back, and Malfoy had smiled.

The ringing faded eventually, replaced with a small tendril of something else, whispering against his diaphragm whenever Harry thought about that smile, so small, so brief, but so infinitely significant.

Harry sorted out the mail—there was an inquiry in there about the introduction of oranges to Britain, which Harry looked up and found to be the early 17th century, date unknown—and helped the few other patrons who came in.

Ten minutes before closing time, Malfoy returned the trolley, and the tendril in Harry’s belly nearly knocked the breath out of him.

“Same as usual?” he asked, fumbling with the ex libris list. Malfoy was very close to finishing the stack, one more visit to the archive and he’d be done, Harry reckoned.

“Yes, thank you.” Malfoy waited patiently while Harry sorted him a new request form. “When will you be in tomorrow?”

“Oh—I won’t be,” Harry said.

Malfoy had been reaching for the new request slip, but his hand hung frozen in the air. “Oh,” he said, finally taking the slip. He folded it carefully and put it in his pocket. His face was carefully neutral; that was to say, a different kind of disinterested, neutral face, void of emotion.

“I’m at my other job on Tuesdays,” Harry elaborated. “I’ll be in on Wednesday again, after lunch. Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons, and all day on Friday,” he added. “That’s…my schedule.”

“Right,” Malfoy said.

“I think Mildred is on front desk duty on Tuesdays,” Harry said.

“Right,” Malfoy said, again.

“Uhm,” Harry said.

Malfoy stood there, uncertain, looking like he wanted to say something, or maybe like he didn’t want to want to say something but wanted to say it anyway—which was a sentence Harry thought would sound crazy if he said it out loud—and didn’t say anything at all. Then he turned and walked out and was gone within seconds.

“Okay,” Harry said, to no one in particular. He leaned back in the chair. Nobody was in the Archive but him—correction: nobody was in the public areas of the Archive; the archivists were at work in their offices and work rooms and down in the strongrooms, cataloguing collections or conserving documents or whatever it was that real archivists did, and that Harry didn’t.

Harry finished up his duties and returned Malfoy’s morbid documents to the strongrooms. He locked the front doors as he left, heading towards the cross where Diagon Alley and Direction Alley met—Flourish and Blotts was still open, and this time Harry wanted to actually go in, pick a book, pay for it, and bring it home.

He turned left at the crossroads, past Gringotts, and towards the bookshop. Malfoy looked like a person who liked to read, maybe. He was very quick about those reports, and the only other person Harry knew who could go through a pile of documents that large as quickly, was Hermione. What kind of books would Malfoy enjoy? Non-fiction? Too easy a guess, Harry decided, just because he liked to spend hours reading about grisly deaths, that didn’t necessarily mean he liked non-fiction in general.

Stories about pirates, maybe? Or dragons and damsels in distress? Muggles liked to read about magic and dragons and villain-defying heroes, Harry knew, but he’d lived through what would probably be several books’ worth of magic and dragons and defeating villains, so he, at least, did not want to read about that sort of thing. Maybe Malfoy didn’t either.

Maybe Malfoy liked to read about…love stories? Love stories would probably be nice to read about so long as they didn’t have any dragons in them. The ringing surfaced again inside Harry’s skull, and he stopped in his tracks. He was just outside the shop.

He could go in, pick a book, and take it home, wondering all the while if maybe Malfoy would’ve liked it, or he could just go home. Ginny was at home.

Malfoy had no place inside Harry’s skull.

The light from Flourish and Blotts spilled onto the street, catching on flecks of mica in the cobblestones. Harry stared at the sparkles, recalling that he only knew it was called mica because the countertop in his and Ginny’s apartment was stone, and had those flecks, and it was called mica because Ginny had told him so.

Harry turned around, left Diagon Alley, and headed instead for his favourite Muggle shop. He wasn’t running low on bath bombs exactly, but there were none left of the kind Ginny liked. She was a shower person, but sometimes Harry could persuade her to join him for a soak.

He walked out of the store with Ginny’s favourite, a pink thing with jasmine and rose, as well as a cheerfully yellow and citrusy one he liked to use on the rare mornings he started with a bath instead of a shower.

Clutching the paper bag, he went home.

~*~

Charlie was still having problems with his broomstick, and now the malaise had spread to Alice’s broomstick as well. Which was odd, because there’d been no problem in the morning, but now that the kids had had lunch and an hour indoors with colouring pencils, two broomsticks refused to comply.

“Hmmm,” Harry said, seriously. They were all standing in a circle around the grounded broomsticks, Charlie and Alice fidgeting, while Avery, Betty and Hugh were trading looks. “I see the problem,” he said. “Yes, it’s very serious indeed.”

“What is it?” Betty piped up.

“I think,” Harry said, dropping into a crouch so he could get on eye level with the kids, “that somebody has been teasing these broomsticks, and now they’re too embarrassed to fly.”

Avery and Hugh both looked down. Charlie and Alice weren’t saying anything either, though Alice was glaring at Avery, and Betty looked like she was gearing up for a spectacular round of shouting.

“When it comes to teasing, it’s very important to apologise,” Harry said, looking at each of them. “Teasing isn’t a very nice thing to do, now is it?” He waited for the kids to acknowledge this, then continued. “Who wants to go first?”

Feet shuffled. Eventually Avery spoke. “I’ll go first,” he said, stealing glances at Charlie and Alice. “I’m sorry.”

“Me, too,” Hugh said.

“That’s very good of you.” Harry was impressed; his knowledge of children didn’t reach far, but he was certain none of his own childhood bullies would’ve done this. Perhaps that was the difference—he’d had bullies, not friends who occasionally messed up. “Is that all, do you think?”

The kids all nodded, one after the other.

“Do you think the brooms will want to fly now?” Harry had already reset the brooms, but maybe he should see a technician about an inspection. This was the third time in two weeks that his toy brooms had picked up on a child’s feelings, which was an uncommon problem for him to have.

Or maybe the kids were just getting bigger and as a result having bigger emotions. He’d had Charlie, Avery and Alice in his care since they were two, Betty had joined six months later, and Hugh a few months after that. He’d have the lot until the end of spring, and then Charlie, Avery, and Alice would be off to school full time and Harry would have to take on three new kids, or…let them all go and find another line of work.

He wasn’t sure he really wanted new kids. This lot were his and he’d grown attached to them.

“Go on, try it.” Harry nodded at Alice, who’d been poking her broomstick with the tip of her shoe. Charlie, he knew, didn’t like an audience, so if he could get Alice up and running, the bunch of them would disperse and remove all attention from Charlie.

Alice glanced at Hugh, who had the decency to look shamefaced, and held out her hand. Her broom zipped up without her even saying a single word.

Hugh’s eyes widened.

So did Harry’s. Non-verbal magic wasn’t uncommon for children, but it usually took on more…accidental forms. Curtains catching fire when a child was angry, for example, or a bad haircut growing out after a night of fear and wishful thinking. “Well done,” he said to Alice, and made a note to talk to her parents later.

He sent her off, and while Betty, Hugh and Avery were occupied with either watching Alice zooming between the apple and pear trees at the edge of the field, Charlie got his own broom to obey.

Harry picked up the Quaffle. This afternoon he was playing pretend Keeper, which really only meant levitating the Quaffle back into the air for somebody to try to grab it, because so far all they were good at was dropping it.

Little League Quidditch was going to be…interesting, if it took off the ground. There were two age brackets, five to six and seven to eight, and so far, there were four teams registered to the lower bracket while the upper bracket had ten teams. Harry trusted the seven and eight-year-olds to be able to play Quidditch semi-competently, but if the other four teams were anything like his kids…

It would be fun, probably. Something for the parents to ooh and ahh over, and the kids to feel accomplished about.

The rest of the week passed by in a flurry and a blur. Between parents and registration forms and team uniforms and Ginny and temperamental brooms and Malfoy wanting ever more macabre documents to read, Harry was all but breathless.

He felt strangely alive, and in love, and excited, for the first time in a long time.

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Chapter 4: Death by Murder

Percy had lost his voice entirely, alternating between cheering on his sister’s team and his boyfriend’s team, but that didn’t stop him from yelling—soundlessly—when the game ended, and the Holyhead Harpies won. Harry grinned, thumping him on the back, and hollered at Ginny as she flew past on a celebratory loop, hair wild and cheeks flushed from exertion.

She was at her most beautiful like this, Harry thought, watching her as she somersaulted on the broom, then zoomed towards the ground. Her teammates followed. She was at her most beautiful like this: full of life and excitement and determination.

Ron was elbowing him, commenting something or other, and Percy had pulled out his wand—probably to fix his throat—but Harry didn’t pay attention to either of them, so focused was he on Ginny and the blush in her cheeks. The other team had come down as well, and they were shaking hands. He spotted Oliver, who—despite having lost—was grinning at Ginny as she shook his hand.

“Perce, you and Oliver coming to the pub with us?” Ron was asking, leaning over Harry.

“Yes, come,” Harry agreed. He hadn’t spoken to Oliver in a while. He seemed to be doing well on the not drowning himself in the shower after a lost game front, if the display on the lawn was anything to go by, but Harry wanted to talk to him about the Little League.

“I don’t know.” Percy frowned. He clearly looked like he wanted to. “I’ll ask Oliver—oh, sod it, I’ll come alone if I have to—”

“That’s the spirit!” George, sitting on the other side of Percy, bumped his shoulder. “His consolation prize can wait, honestly.” He waggled his eyebrows and Percy rolled his eyes at him, cheeks slightly pink.

They filtered out with the crowd, and Harry went to wait for Ginny outside the changing rooms while the others went to the pub to hog tables.

Ginny was still flushed when she came out, and Harry greeted her with a deep kiss. “You were amazing,” he said.

She kissed him back. “Thank you, handsome.” Some of Ginny’s teammates walked out behind her, and she took a moment to engage in some mutual positive reinforcement, which included a chorused yell of the team motto and complicated high-fives. Ginny’s captain paused for long enough to give Ginny a hug and a whispered something or other which had Ginny’s cheeks flushed with pride.

“The others went ahead to the pub,” Harry said, when she was done, and kissed her again. “We’re going to celebrate your win.”

“Yeah?” Ginny got into his space, arms slinking around him. “Want to skip home from the pub early? Or skip the pub entirely?”

“No, I want to celebrate in the pub,” Harry said. “Everybody is there. And I want to talk to Oliver.”

She leaned in to whisper. “We could go home first. I’m in the mood for some insanely celebratory shagging.”

Harry threaded his fingers through her damp hair. “Can’t we go to the pub first? We can leave early.” He put his nose into her hair, partially to hide his face and partially because he knew Ginny liked when he did that. Her hair smelled lovely, floral and sweet.

It wasn’t lying when one was being evasive, right? Leave early meant different things to different people, and if Harry left it late enough he’d be too soused to get up to anything with Ginny, which saved him the embarrassment of plain turning her down. He just…wasn’t in the mood.

He was never in the mood, if he had to be entirely honest with himself, but he didn’t want to be—because then he’d have to think about how odd that was, how wrong, and how maybe, that part of him had died in the forest—

Ginny, however, seemed to have caught on, because she pulled away. “If you don’t want to have sex with me you can just say it,” she said, hard lines all over her face. “Instead of doing this avoidance ritual every time.”

“I’m not—” Harry bit down on his tongue. “I just wanted to have a couple of pints first,” he said, pushing down the niggling fear and sense of wrongness, to somewhere deep enough that it couldn’t, wouldn’t, come back and bother him.

Everything was fine. He just wasn’t in the mood. That didn’t mean he didn’t love her.

She snorted. Her arms were crossed now. “Really.”

“Yeah?”

“No.” She shook her head. Her voice had taken on a sharp, angry tone. “It’s the same bullshit every time,” she snapped. “What’s the problem? What the fuck is the problem? Why is it you never fucking want to fuck me?”

“That’s not true,” Harry said, taking a step away. He was acutely aware of how loud Ginny was, and that there were people outside and some still in the changing rooms, and this really wasn’t the place to have this fight, or any fight at all. “It’s not never—”

“Bloody feels like it!”

“Maybe if you didn’t always want it it wouldn’t be a problem!” The words slipped out before Harry knew he was going to say them, and then it was too late to take them back.

Ginny’s face crumpled. She turned away, holding herself stiffly—too stiffly, and Harry wanted nothing more than to turn seven seconds back in time and stop himself from ever saying those words.

“Gin,” he said, rubbing his face. “Let’s just go home.”

“No.” Ginny turned on him. “You can go to the fucking pub if you want to, but I’m going home.” She didn’t wait for him to respond, only slid her wand out of her sleeve, picked up her gear bag, and Disapparated, leaving Harry alone in the foyer of the club.

Great. Perfect. Just…fucking dandy.

Harry Apparated home.

Ginny wasn’t there. There was actually no sign she’d come home at all; her bag wasn’t there, and her shoes weren’t in the hall. Harry called out anyway, but got no response. She’d gone…home. Home.

It’d been a while since Ginny had gone home to the Burrow after a fight, and Harry had honestly thought…thought what? That they were past that kind of difficulties? If anything, the difficulties they’d been having had only become more pronounced now they didn’t have other people to hide behind.

It was just the two of them now, had been just the two of them for four short weeks, and all the ways in which they didn’t quite fit had become glaringly obvious. Harry had stubbornly ignored it.

He loved her. It was enough, wasn’t it? It had to be enough. He needed it to be enough.

Harry stood in the middle of the empty living room, staring at the bookcase in the corner—still empty—and felt utterly and completely dejected. He went to bed.

Their friends could make whatever assumptions about his and Ginny’s conspicuous absence that they wanted.

~*~

Ginny didn’t come home the following day and wasn’t responding to owls (Hilde returned increasingly antsy and aggressive every time Harry sent her out with another letter), so Harry took the opportunity to unpack the rest of the boxes and search for his books. They were meant to have a housewarming party, but boxes were still stacked in the living room (what was even in those boxes, Harry wondered, he couldn’t recall seriously missing any items), and they just hadn’t got around to it.

By all accounts it was normal to have unpacked boxes for a long time—George used to joke that he dealt with so many boxes at work that he just couldn’t be arsed to deal with those at home—but the boxes made Harry uneasy. Like they hadn’t finished moving in together, like the process could be interrupted, reversed, made undone.

The fact that he and Ginny currently weren’t on speaking terms didn’t help at all to dispel that feeling.

Harry discovered a mismatched set of spatulas and stirring spoons in a box with a stuffed animal and a broken lamp. He didn’t recognise the stuffed animal, but it looked old and well loved—Ginny’s? Or did it belong to one of his kids? He set the animal aside, threw out the lamp, and put the cooking utensils in the kitchen. Ginny had already purchased a brand-new set to replace this one, when they hadn’t been able to find it, but Harry liked the blue spoon. They’d picked it out together in a second-hand shop on Direction Alley, the same week Harry had officially moved out from Ron and Hermione’s and in with Ginny and her flat share.

They hadn’t bought any new things together for this flat, not really. Harry had bought the bookcase all on his own, had seen it in the window of a Muggle shop near the Quidditch Daycare.

He went through several boxes, systematically finding places for his and Ginny’s shared stuff, throwing out things that were either broken or that they’d clearly not been missing (including several of Uncle Vernon’s cast-off socks that Harry was mystified as to why they were still around—he took great pleasure in setting them on fire) and moving onwards with the process.

Maybe, if Harry could complete the moving in process, it would make a difference. As if by unpacking some boxes he could…magically fix what was wrong between him and Ginny. Or fill up that hole inside that should be all for Ginny, that strange, unalive mass at his core that did nothing but cause him anxiety whenever he tried to wake it up.

He eventually uncovered his books in the very last box in the living room. There weren’t many, but they were his. The photo book Hagrid had given him, the battered book about the Chudley Cannons Ron had given him, Handbook of Do-It-Yourself Broomcare (from Hermione), Quidditch Teams of Britain and Ireland (also from Hermione), Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches (from Ron, and Harry paused at it, wondering if he’d ever actually opened it) and the set of Practical Defense Magic books that Sirius and Remus had given him. Harry placed the books in the bookcase: they all fit neatly into the topmost shelf, with room to spare.

It was a small collection, but it was all his—gifts from people who cared about him. Harry regarded the books, battered and worn, several spines showing cracks. Only one appeared new. He rearranged them, first alphabetically by author or editor, then by topic, then by gifter, then by size, then by colour, then again by gifter. He placed the photo book on the shelf below, because it was a different type of book, and the Practical Defense Magic on the shelf below that one and kept the Quidditch books on the top shelf. The copy of Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches was technically a self-help book and probably the same type as the Broomcare Handbook, but Harry didn’t like putting them together. Broomcare stayed with Quidditch. Twelve Ways… Harry weighed the book in his palm. It was a ridiculous book, but it had been a gift from his best friend. He couldn’t dream of throwing it away. In the end, he placed it on the same shelf as the photo book, but leaning against the opposite wall.

The bookcase didn’t look any more filled out now, with his meagre collection spread over three different shelves (with three empty shelves still), but it looked nicer, in that way where Harry’s heart was feeling less like an echo chamber and more like a small storage closet.

He’d go to Flourish and Blotts tomorrow, Harry decided. He’d pick out a book all by himself and read it and keep it in the bookcase.

Satisfied with this resolve, Harry tidied up.

When he finished and was about to order food and maybe write Ginny another owl, Mrs Weasley’s owl arrived with a letter from Ginny.

Harry,

I’m staying at the Burrow for a week. I need some space and to spend time with my mum and think about what I really want out of this relationship. I need you to do the same. Please. I’ll see you on Sunday. We’ll talk then.

I love you.

Ginny

~*~

It was ending. That was what was happening.

It wasn’t like the first time either, when Harry had broken up with Ginny during the War to protect her. It’d been temporary—they loved each other, they were going to see each other again, when the War was over, when everything was over. They were going to be together again.

It was over now, and it was ending.

Harry arrived for his shift at the Archive with wind-blown hair and mud on his robes because he’d been too distracted to pay attention and had been bowled over by an overly enthusiastic Betty. He arrived late, and hungry, but in that way where the hunger didn’t feel real, like it was a separate entity from his body. He collided with Malfoy on the way in.

“Sorry,” Harry said automatically, but then his senses caught up with him. “Oh, Malfoy, hi. Were you…leaving?”

Malfoy’s cheeks were pink. “I thought you weren’t in,” he said. He wasn’t looking at Harry; he was patting down the front of his robes, as if to put them back in order, but they were pristine as far as Harry could see. Suddenly he frowned. “You have mud on your cloak.”

“Yes,” Harry said, glancing down at himself. He should probably do something about that. “I’m. Uhm.”

“Yes, evidently,” said Malfoy. He hovered uncertainly inside the door.

Harry thought Malfoy had maybe got a new haircut. It looked slightly different from before. It made his face look softer. Or maybe it was just the light. Or the fact Malfoy was looking at Harry like he wanted to say a lot of things but didn’t know which thing to say. “Did you want to research some murders or something?” Harry eventually said. “Didn’t you just get started on the 18th century Ireland collection last week?”

“Yes.” Malfoy drew out the little black notebook from some invisible pocket or other and extracted a folded request form. He unfolded it slowly, then held it in his hand as if he wasn’t sure whether to give it to Harry or not.

Harry realised they were both still standing in the open doorway when a gust of wind nudged at the door, making it creak. “Go on, then,” he said.

Malfoy seemed to realise this also, because he took a step backwards, cheeks pinking again, and turned towards the front desk. Harry rushed in, catching up with him and giving Albert a frazzled greeting as he slid around Malfoy and to his spot behind the desk.

“Right, so,” Harry said. He hadn’t taken his muddy cloak off yet. “Let’s see that form.”

It didn’t take long to get Malfoy’s documents. They did their thing, floating out of the boxes of their own accord as Harry waited, but Harry had to pause. Take a breath. Two breaths. Three.

Everything was off kilter. Ginny was going to break up with him. Harry knew it as surely as he knew the colour of the sky.

The knowledge threatened to steal all his breath.

Harry closed his eyes, focused his breathing, and thought about the next steps. The ex libris list. The trolley. The levitating platform that wasn’t an elevator. The hallway. The reading hall. The painting with the meadow. Malfoy sitting below the painting, waiting.

When he finally emerged from the strongroom with Malfoy’s documents, he felt calmer. He’d spelled the mud off his cloak while the platform transported him back upstairs and paused to drop it off behind the desk. His hair was a lost cause, as usual.

Ginny was going to break up with him, but he could handle it. Would handle it. Had to handle it.

The meadow in the painting was flattened by wind and dark clouds filled the sky. The bunnies that lived in the painting didn’t show themselves.

“You all set?” Harry parked the trolley by Malfoy’s desk.

“Yes, thank you.” Malfoy looked like himself again, all collected and polite and distant.

Harry had the sudden urge to tell him about Ginny. My girlfriend is leaving me. No—he couldn’t do that. Saying it aloud would make it real. No. But he wanted to say something, so what came out of his mouth was: “Do you read books?”

Malfoy froze in the middle of reaching for a folder. “Excuse me?”

“Sorry,” Harry said, already retreating. It’d been a stupid question. Stupid to think he could talk to Malfoy, of all people. “Forget I asked.” He fled the reading hall.

The rest of the day passed in a haze. He retrieved documents for other patrons, helped Fraunces catalogue a collection of letters from an apothecary, and thought about Ginny every second he wasn’t thinking about shorthand, or which order the letters should go in.

A few minutes before closing time, Malfoy dutifully brought the trolley of documents back to the front desk, and Harry sorted him out a new request form.

“I do read books,” Malfoy said, as he was folding the new form in two. He did it very carefully, and very neatly, so that the crease lined up perfectly with the column divide in the middle of the form. He didn’t look at Harry as he said it, he was looking at the form, placing it with great care inside the black notebook.

Harry had the feeling that Malfoy was being shy. Under normal circumstances that would be an intriguing idea, something to be investigated and be curious about, but as it were, Harry didn’t have any space in his head for it. He just wanted to go home. “Oh,” he said.

“Did you…want a recommendation?” Malfoy asked, looking at Harry at last.

“Yes,” Harry found himself saying.

“Oh.” Malfoy paused. “Well. What kind of books do you like to read?”

There was no answer to that. Harry abruptly did not want to have this conversation. He wanted to go home. Talk to Ginny, try to convince her not to leave, that they could…work through it. They could. They had to.

“Potter?”

“I don’t know,” Harry managed to tell him. “I don’t know where to start or what to do or what I like.”

“Oh.” There was an odd quality to Malfoy’s voice now, and Harry tried not to notice. “Have you…forgive me for asking, but have you read books before?”

“I know how to read, Malfoy,” Harry snapped. He instantly regretted it—Malfoy’s face shuttered, and he’d taken a small step back. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for it to come out like that.”

“That’s quite all right,” Malfoy said, but he had that formal, polite tone back in his voice. He hovered there for just a moment too long, as if he didn’t know what to do next.

Harry didn’t blame him; he didn’t know what to do either.

Malfoy turned and left. The door closed behind him with a snick, and Harry stared at it resentfully.

“If you’re trying to make friends with our resident murder boy, you’re not being very good at it,” Albert said from somewhere behind Harry, almost startling him off his chair.

Trying to be friends? Harry stared at Malfoy’s overflowing trolley, all the differently coloured binders and folders containing meticulously written coroner reports. He stood up, deciding to just get on with it and take it back to the strongroom.

He said something to Albert and then left. All the patrons had left, and all Harry had to do was the little closing up things, and then he could go home, only nobody was home.

I need some space and to spend time with my mum and think about what I really want out of this relationship.

Think about what I really want out of this relationship. What I really want. Out of this relationship. The words had burned themselves into Harry’s brain and wouldn’t leave. Had Ginny really been that unhappy with him that…it’d come to this?

What was worse than the fact Ginny was breaking up with him, was the fact Harry was irrationally jealous that she could choose to just go home for a break. Harry was stuck in their shared apartment, in the interrupted next stage of their life together, with no parent to talk to.

I need you to do the same.

He’d almost told Malfoy about this all. There was nobody he knew who was wholly in his corner, the way a parent would be, or an older sibling, or even a cousin. Malfoy arguably wasn’t in his corner at all, but he was kind of nobody, which was better than…than Ron.

Please.

Harry slammed the door so hard it rattled in the frame. The flat was empty, the living room was empty, the kitchen was empty, and Ginny’s note sat on the table. Please. He didn’t need a week to think about what he wanted out of this relationship, he already bloody knew what he wanted.

He wanted Ginny to love him. He wanted to…to get to love her back freely, without expectations, without constantly having to navigate around a black hole of nothing.

I’ll see you on Sunday. We’ll talk then.

I love you.

5.jpg

Chapter 5: Death by Life

Harry threw himself into work. When he wasn’t teaching five-year-olds basic flying and Quaffle handling (they were not ready for Bludgers yet), or at the Archive alternating between fetching patrons documents and cataloguing the odd little collection, he was working tirelessly on putting together a Little League team.

He had meetings with Faulkner and Pomeroy, he put a notice in the Prophet for team try-outs (and then took it out already the following day when he’d received more sign ups than he could handle), he finally secured a sponsor for brooms and another for uniforms, he held try-outs, he formally signed the team up for the League, he chose a charity (well, three charities) to support, found a venue to train the team at, he did…everything. And he did it without Ginny’s help, even if she was supposed to help him. She was supposed to be there, and she wasn’t.

Come Friday, he was exhausted. He’d cancelled lunch with Hermione—actually, he’d cancelled and declined every single social commitment that week—so he could spend his lunch break owling parents the training schedule and the tentative dates for the first games he’d received from Pomeroy. The cut-off for joining the League wasn’t for another week, and the real schedule wouldn’t be drawn up and revealed until after that.

Malfoy hadn’t come to the Archive that morning, which was both a disappointment and a relief. They didn’t really speak to one another—that communicative mishap Harry had committed on Monday had rather put a dampener on whatever friendship there might’ve been growing between them—but Harry had grown accustomed to Malfoy’s presence in the Archive and had been looking forward to seeing how he’d progress with his research today.

He’d also become keenly aware that every day he had been looking forward to a few minutes of awkward conversation with Malfoy, and that he probably shouldn’t have been.

Still, Harry had expected Malfoy to come in. Was he ill? He hadn’t looked chronically sleep deprived of late, but anyone could be felled by illness unexpectedly…

“Harry?” Mildred appeared in the doorway to the break room. “There you are, love. I think your friend is waiting for you.”

“My friend?” Harry put the stopper in the ink bottle; he’d finished the letters anyway.

“Yes, our murder boy,” she said. “He’s loitering out front. He’s not doing a very good job at pretending to be casual. He keeps looking in the windows.”

Malfoy had come. Harry pushed the chair back and nearly toppled it over in his haste to get to the front desk.

The moment he reached his usual chair the front door opened and Malfoy came in. Harry tried to suppress a grin; he’d have to ask him sometime what this all was about, but for now he was just pleased to see him.

“Hullo, Malfoy,” he said. “How is our favourite murder boy doing today?”

Harry could’ve sunk into the ground the moment he realised what he’d just said. Malfoy was staring at him, a faint crease between his eyebrows, and then—suddenly—his cheeks turned a bright red.

That was an interesting development. It was also the first sign of blatant emotion Harry could remember seeing on Malfoy’s face since…well, since he’d first stepped into the archive.

“Sorry about that,” Harry said. “It’s, uh, we shouldn’t really give patrons nicknames, but you’re…because of the coroner reports,” he tried to explain, “not because of, uhm, the War. I mean, you didn’t kill anyone. Directly.”

“Right,” Malfoy said. The crease deepened and his eyebrows did a funny thing that made him look uncertain. That, paired with the still flaming red cheeks, made him look…cute.

Mystified, and not altogether unaffected by his admission that Malfoy was looking cute, Harry tried to pull himself together. “So…more of those for you today, then?”

“Actually—yes, thank you—but actually, I have something for you,” he said, reaching inside his cloak. He drew out the little black notebook, and then also four books of differing sizes, all with brightly decorated covers. “Here.” He kept the notebook, but handed the books to Harry.

Harry stared at the small stack. The topmost book had a black star strewn cover, with a large non-earth like planet on it and a space ship in front, and the title printed in large silvery letters.

“Those are some books I’ve enjoyed,” Malfoy said. If possible, his cheeks were even redder. “You asked, the other day. I thought maybe you’d like to try them.”

“Oh,” said Harry. Something in his belly roared up and whispered, tickling his diaphragm. Excitement, and curiosity, and something deeply pleased that Malfoy had thought of him.

Malfoy pointed. “That one is a classic, a coming of age novel about a wizard, not personally my favourite but it’s not bad. It’s, ah, a cultural corner stone? The saying to be as stubborn as a cabbage comes from there. And that one is a Muggle romance novel, that is to say, it’s not written by a Muggle, but it’s about a wizard who falls in love with one. It came out last year. That one is a collection of poetry, which I don’t know if you like, but I thought it amusing and clever. Critics hated it, though. And that one on top is a Muggle novel.” Malfoy leaned closer. “It’s a science fiction novel,” he whispered, as if imparting some great, wondrous secret, “about Muggles in space. It’s very exciting.”

And then, before Harry could react—he was certain Malfoy had never said as many words to him before as just now—Malfoy’s face drew together into a more blank mask, and he fidgeted with his notebook instead of looking at Harry.

“Of course I suppose you know all about Muggles and science,” he said. “So it must seem silly to you.”

“Not at all.” Harry looked at the cover of the science fiction novel again. “Thank you.” He opened the cover to look inside and found a neat little piece of ornate parchment stuck to the reverse. The decorative band along the edge looked drawn by hand, depicting rows of planets and space ships and little people in space suits tethered to them. In the centre it had two lines, ex libris followed by Draco Malfoy, and then there was a tiny number 137 scribbled at the very bottom.

“That’s a lovely bookplate,” Harry said, hoping against hope that his voice didn’t sound as unsteady as he felt.

“You can borrow them for as long as you’d like,” Malfoy said quietly, almost inaudibly.

Harry closed the book carefully and put the stack down on the desk. “Thank you,” he said, again, keenly aware that he’d been given a tremendous gift. He still felt breathless. “Now. Let’s see about those murders, shall we?”

The meadow painting was sunny and a few butterflies Harry was certain he’d never seen before fluttered over the grass. They were a bright blue, bluer than the sky and brighter than the sun, and too early in the season to exist.

~*~

Harry should’ve gone back to the front desk, but he’d wanted to steal a look at the books Malfoy had brought so he skipped into the break room. He’d put them there, out of harm’s way, and had just opened the science fiction novel again to look at the bookplate Malfoy had made, when Mildred came back.

“We’ve a staff meeting on Monday before you come in and we need to rearrange some things,” she said, showing him a neatly filled out form. “Your murder boy friend sent this in last night. It’s a request for two things, a private research room and a designated research assistant, and it says here,” she indicated a rubric near the bottom, “that he wants you.”

“I don’t do that sort of thing,” Harry said automatically. “I just fetch things and put them in order.” He eyed the form. Malfoy had requested him specifically?

“Same thing,” Mildred said. “Would you mind?”

“No,” Harry said. “So long as my schedule won’t change. But I like being at the front desk.”

“Geoffrey just got handed a massive collection, an entire estate’s worth, down in Kent, so he’ll be doing that for the foreseeable future,” she said. “It’s months of work, and he’s taking two trainees with him. We need somebody to cover the private research. That’s your murder boy friend here, and three other rooms. I can get Annie to cover the mornings and Tuesdays, but we need the extra help.”

“All right,” Harry agreed. He could do that. Maybe he’d even learn more about Malfoy’s research and what he was doing it for. “Do I still get to help cataloguing sometimes?”

Mildred made a sound somewhere between assent and dissent. “We’ll probably need that help more than ever with Geoffrey and two trainees gone.” She levelled a look at him. “You know, you could take the course and get certified, become a proper trainee and full-time archivist down the line.”

Harry hesitated. He’d taken this job only to have something to do, and greeting people and fetching documents and occasionally helping with the cataloguing seemed as good a job as any other. Learning the actual ropes? He’d never considered it. On the other hand, he might need something to do after spring, if he ended up closing the daycare (not that he wanted to close the daycare).

“You’ve got the head for it,” Mildred added. “And I believe there’s a course starting in a few weeks at the College.”

“There is?” Harry asked, interested despite himself. “But…” He had his days full, with both the daycare and his regular archive shifts and now also the Little League. “Do I get my own office?”

“Maybe,” she said. “If you get the certification.”

Harry wavered. He and the volunteers were the only ones who didn’t have their own offices. Whatever cataloguing work he did was always done with somebody else, in their office, or in one of the work rooms where they had the space to deal with large amounts of files. “But I have the daycare also,” he said.

“It’s an evening course,” Mildred said, smiling triumphantly. “Anyway, I need to get back to this. I’ll put you down for research duty, then?”

“Yeah, okay,” Harry said, wondering what the hell was happening with his life.

“Brilliant. See you on Monday, Harry. Have a good weekend.” She vanished down the corridor.

“Yes. You too!” Harry called after her. He looked at the books Malfoy had brought, but instead of examining them he put them away. Then he went to the front desk and went over the collection of pamphlets and brochures they had displayed beneath the clock until he found the one about the archivist course.

There was a course starting up the week after next, and it was an evening course. There was a full time and part time option, a manageable enrolment fee, and Harry surprised himself with how interested he was. There was a course module called Record-keeping Theory and Practice, and another called Medieval Palaeography, and another called Managing Services, Access and Preservation. All in all, there were about twelve modules, six core modules, the rest optional, to be taken over the course of two years if part time. He pocketed the pamphlet and went back to the desk, deep in thought.

~*~

Ginny came back Sunday morning, and the moment Harry laid eyes on her he knew it was over.

She hadn’t brought her bag.

She looked like she’d been crying.

She sat on the sofa next to him, slowly, gingerly, like she didn’t really want to, like any sudden movement from her would shatter the earth.

Harry put the course pamphlet, which he’d been using as a bookmark, between the pages of the book he was reading, and closed it. He’d started with the science fiction novel. “Hi,” he said.

“Hi.” Ginny looked at the book in his hands, then at the other three books sitting on the coffee table. “You got books.”

“Malfoy lent them to me,” Harry said, putting the book on the table.

Ginny’s eyes followed the book, then flicked up to meet Harry’s. Her eyes were clear, even if red from crying, and there was a strange light in them, a kind of resolve and wonder. “You’re friends now, then?”

“No, not really. He just lent me some books.” Harry shrugged, like it was nothing, but he felt like he was lying. “I have a Little League team,” he said, changing the topic. “I sent in the formal registration. We’re having our first training session tomorrow afternoon. More like, I’ll get the team together and we’ll all get to know each other, but there will be brooms involved.”

“You’ve been busy,” Ginny said, hint of surprise in her voice. “You got all that done this week?”

“Yeah.” Harry shrugged again. He didn’t say what he was thinking; that he’d needed to keep himself busy and distracted so he wouldn’t have to think about how they were breaking up.

Beside him, Ginny drew in a deep breath. “Harry,” she started, then stopped.

“You’re not staying,” Harry said. He looked at her. “I—” What was there to say? What he wanted, she wouldn’t—couldn’t?—give him, and what she wanted…Harry couldn’t give her either.

“Can I ask you something?” Ginny’s voice was small, unsteady.

“Of course.”

“I’ve been wondering,” she said, picking at a loose thread in her jeans, “if…if the reason you don’t want me is because you’re gay. Because I think I could live with that. Because…then it’s not me.”

Harry’s chest tightened. “I’m not,” he said, “I don’t think so, anyway. But it’s not you, I swear. I love you. I just…” he trailed off, trying to find the words.

“I don’t doubt that you love me,” she said, after a while. “But you don’t want me. You…having sex with me, it’s like a chore, for you. And I deserve better, you know? I want more than…that.” Her lip was wobbling, now, but she wasn’t crying.

Maybe it was sheer force of will. Maybe she’d just already done the crying, so she wouldn’t have to do it again in front of him.

It was unfair, because Harry’s throat had tied itself into a knot, and his eyes were burning. “I know,” he said. It was unfair, because he wanted things too, and here Ginny was making it out like he was the only one who couldn’t, didn’t, wouldn’t—

“I met someone,” Ginny then said. “It’s a girl, if you’ll believe it. I don’t know if I like her because I’m not as straight as I thought I was, or if it’s because she looks at me like—like I’m the hottest woman in the entire world, but she makes me feel wanted. And I want that. I need that.”

The right thing to do would be to say something like you should go for it or I’m happy for you, but Harry actually just wanted to scream.

“I’m sorry I can’t be what you want,” he said, forcing the words out through the knot in his throat. “I wanted to be enough for you. I wanted it to be enough that I love you, that nothing else mattered, or…”

“To be perfectly honest, Harry, I don’t think I’m what you want me to be, either, and I don’t want to change who I am for you, or anyone else.” Ginny gave him an imploring look. “Are you absolutely certain you’re not gay? It would explain the…lack of interest.”

“I’m pretty sure. I love you, don’t I?”

“You had a crush on Cedric.”

“I had a crush on Cho,” Harry corrected, annoyance rising up in him. His eyes were no longer burning, but his throat still felt rotten and now he was arguing about…what? His sexual orientation? As far as he was concerned, he probably didn’t actually have one, because it’d likely died when he’d died. Back in the forest, all those years ago now. Only he’d come back, and it hadn’t.

Ginny was still looking at him. “You were weird about him.”

“I don’t fucking know what I feel—felt—for Cedric,” Harry snapped. “It was bloody complicated. And it didn’t matter anyway. He died.”

“All right,” she said, eventually. She stood up. “I’ll…just grab some of my stuff and come back for the rest later.”

“The rest?” Harry gestured around the living room. “Most of this stuff is ours.”

“Keep it, toss it, I don’t care,” Ginny said. “What do you want to do about the flat? I think I can withdraw from the lease if you want to stay, but I don’t want to just leave you hanging with the rent all by yourself…”

Harry rubbed his face. All his conflicted emotions were gathering in his belly and threatening to turn into rage.

He needed this to be over.

“I don’t bloody know,” he said. “Just…take your things and go.”

Ginny didn’t hesitate.

Harry dropped his face into his hands, trying to will his emotions to calm, to keep his breathing even, to not feel like he wanted to walk out the door and never come back. From the bedroom came the sounds of drawers and wardrobe doors opening and closing, clinks of bottles from the bathroom: the sounds of Ginny packing herself up and out and away from his life.

She came out eventually, trunk floating after her. Harry did the decent thing and stood up to see her out.

“I’m sorry,” he said, suddenly just exhausted. The lump was back.

“Me too, Harry.” She pulled him into a crushing hug. “Take care of yourself, okay?”

“Yeah,” he croaked, breathing in the scent of her hair. Floral and sweet. “You too.”

She let go, so he let go, and then she was out the door.