Harry would never have imagined that it was possible to eat a cauldron cake mutinously, but he's doing quite a fine job of it, if he does say so himself.
Vikander is currently ignoring him, though she had allowed herself the luxury of one particularly energetic roll of the eyes when she saw Harry on his way back from the tea trolley. Vikander is very much of the opinion that the rightful order of things should be incident reports first, cauldron cakes later.
Harry disagrees, and he thinks his protest against her hidebound insistence on the importance of routine admin is particularly well-punctuated by the level of loud crunching he's achieving, considering that the cake is mostly sponge.
Vikander is a great partner for Harry in so many ways, but at times like this, Harry misses Ron ferociously. Ron had always been first in line when the trolley wix came around. But instead, Ron is probably up on the fourth floor, eating cucumber sandwiches and… and… something else posh, like petits fours, no doubt. Not cauldron cakes, anyway. Harry is fairly certain that Ron knows as little about petits fours as Harry himself does, but if he knows Ron, that isn't going to stop him from eating them.
And it isn't that Ron doesn't deserve petits fours, what ever the fuck they even are. It's just that, when Harry had imagined being an Auror (and if he's honest, he hadn't actually thought about it very hard before he went and did it), he had imagined that he and Ron would be eating petits fours together. Or rather, fighting crime and taking down dark wizards together—to be fair, if he'd put his mind to it, he could probably have predicted the sorry dearth of bite-sized confectionery in advance.
But he would never have imagined that Ron would streak through training with ease, while Harry spent the three years feeling as though he was mired in a seething morass of too-high expectations and too much paperwork. Because it turns out that skill in defence magic isn't actually the most important thing when it comes to being an Auror—tactical thinking, patience, and admin skills supersede a cool Patronus and a willingness to die, any day.
The former two Ron has in abundance, the lucky sod, and the latter just comes naturally for anyone who spends their evenings sitting across from Hermione and her ever-growing pile of books on Magical Law. And Harry is so happy for Ron—the look of disbelieving joy on Ron's face when he was named Graduate of the Year at their passing out ceremony is still Harry's Patronus memory—but he just misses Ron, that's all. Because obviously, as the department's stellar graduate, and with an Order of Merlin to boot, Ron wasn't ever going to spend long on the beat with the other new Aurors. Ron is a strategist, an organiser, and the possessor of a rare absolute clarity of vision. He was wasted patrolling Diagon and breaking up late-night wand fights, and everyone in the bloody Auror department knew it.
They let him put in a few months on the beat, just so no one could claim they were playing favourites with one of the heroes of the Second Wizarding War—and they were some of the happiest months of Harry's life, working side by side with Ron and really feeling like they were, finally, in charge of something important—but then Ron was moved out of the active Auror division and into the strategic planning department.
Five years down the line, he's heading up the Minister's DMLE Liaison Division, and in charge of conceiving and implementing tactical efficiency and safety strategies. Under his watch, solve rates have increased significantly year on year, and the Wizarding Resources department has reported a 120% increase in job satisfaction amongst DMLE personnel, due to Ron's initiative of streaming recruits according to their strengths and interests, and then deploying them into more focused roles upon graduation.
That was good news for Harry, of course, because it meant that he could be put where he was really needed. But it did mean moving even further away from Ron—because, while Harry is many things, a paper-pushing Ministry desk jockey he is not.
And Harry is dynamite in the field, everyone knows that. His instinct is bang on, and his offensive spellwork is exquisite—deliberate and subtle and totally uncompromising. His defence skills have become even more refined with time, and every Auror in the department knows that Potter is the one you want at your back in a wandfight.
Yes, Harry is blisteringly fast, his wandwork a riot of heat and fury and precision. It's why Ron has placed him in the Serious Crimes Division, and why he spends most of his time running down the really bad guys. It's worthy work, and Harry is pretty sure that it's a great thing to be able to do, to help people everyday.
It's just, it's a bit… tiring, sometimes. When he's fighting—his aim true, his spellwork ringing with clarity and precision, his hexes unfurling swift and brutal from his wand—it seems like the best job in the world. But after the fighting is done, he feels the crawl of exhaustion run through him and settle into his core. Because there's never any end to it—it seems to be just fighting, then paperwork, then more fighting. Harry sometimes feels like he's been doing this work his whole life—seeing the bad in the world, and having to master it, sometimes without even really knowing what he's doing.
He should be used to it, he knows that, should be inured to the despicable things human beings do to themselves and others, but every fresh badness hits him anew. Every horror is another crippling blow, every sting of tragedy hurts him as much as the last, every new crime reeks with the particular stench of its own tawdry filth.
Harry sometimes thinks that he has forgotten what goodness feels like.
But he's lucky, he tells himself, with his brilliant friends and the Weasleys, and he's even managed to land himself a… well, not a relationship as such, because that's entirely too neat a category to describe what is essentially just lots of glorious sex with somone he only sees sporadically and who appears to have commitment issues to rival those of Harry himself, but Harry will take what he can get and enjoy it when he can—even if he does have the niggling feeling that something more is just out of reach. And anyway, the prick can't even be arsed to owl half the time when he's away, so it's not as if Harry has someone he can go home to (someone he can make a home around, he thinks wistfully, before he shuts the whole thought down for fear of thoroughly depressing himself).
He sighs through a mouthful of fondant, takes a slurp of his tea, and gingerly eases the top file from the dangerously teetering pile that's rapidly taking over his desk. The paperwork is very nearly worse than dealing with the hateful, depraved, and dissolute elements of the job. It's never-ending, and sheer resentment renders Harry painfully slow, and sloppy to boot. He's trying to improve though—for one thing, Vikander's eyes are going to roll fully out of her skull someday if he doesn't, and Harry does not want that on his conscience.
And for another thing, Harry has always wanted to move into the training field, taking on new recruits and sharpening them up, gently guiding them into harnessing their own particular powers, allowing them the confidence and freedom to explore their own particular strengths. Like Remus had for him, he sometimes thinks, with a lancing stab of regret and guilt so finely-honed over the years that it never fails to leave him breathless and gritty-eyed. He had even applied for the training post (twice in fact, and got as far as interview stage the second time). The practical side of the interviews had gone brilliantly, Harry thought—the students were bright-eyed with delight and wonder at Harry's demonstrations, eager to learn from him and desperate to impress. The perfect combination, Harry had thought, relaxing into it and letting himself be led by the throb of adrenaline in his bloodstream and the narrowing of his focus down to the visceral act of calling up his magic and casting, casting, casting.
The students had been spellbound (literally, in some cases—they couldn't close their mouths long enough to cast the counterspells to Harry's barrage of jinxes, basking too long in the warmth of the spitting fire of his spellwork and getting burned in the process).
It was why it had been even more disappointing when Ron told Harry that he hadn't been selected as the new Auror-in-Charge of the Training Division. Ron had been as pragmatic as ever, though there was a definite tinge of regret to his tone when he broke the news.
"It's no use, mate—we can't go with you on this one. Not this time, anyway."
And as Harry gaped at him, he went on, "Oh, don't look at me like that, Harry. You know one of the most crucial parts of the training is teaching them the admin side of things. Like it or not, we're the visible arm of magical law enforcement, and I've spent the last five years working to make sure that we can never be accused of skirting any of the laws we're meant to uphold. That's why the paperwork is important—it keeps us accountable, means we're always conscious of how things are supposed to be done. I can't in good conscience hire someone who, under section 7a of his last eight major crime reports, scribbled a large question mark and a picture of a sad face under the part where you're supposed to list the measures used to detain the criminals!"
Harry's reply was as close to a disdainful scoff as he ever got with Ron.
"How am I supposed to remember what spells I use to take those evil pricks down, mate? Half the time I'm casting wandlessly with my left hand, anyway. I don't know what I used! It's a stupid question—as long as I got the bad guys, why does it matter how I did it?"
It was a testament to Ron's patience that he merely groaned at this, especially considering how many times they'd had this argument in the past.
"That's why you're supposed to check your Pensieve memories! And because without filling in that part of the form, you can't activate the VeriRecord Charm. And without the charm, we can't be sure that people are telling us the truth when they report the arrest procedures. And without knowing that people are following arrest procedures, we can't be sure that our Aurors aren't out there willy-nilly performing Cruciatus, or worse."
His voice softened, and when he leaned forward, with his elbows planted firmly on his desk and his blue eyes clear and unguarded, he looked impossibly young and sincere. "I trust you, Harry, you know that. I trust you to do the right thing, always. But that's not enough, not for this job. I need to be able to prove why I trust you. And I need to know that I'm keeping track of everyone, because I can't be sure that I can trust all of them to do what's right. It's not only about justice—it's about upholding the law. Harry, you told us in your interview that you see the Auror Code of Conduct as more of a guide than a requirement! In front of Robards! And the Minister! Have you considered that maybe you're just not very good at respecting authority? Toe the line for me next time, you fucking twat—just give me an excuse to give you the job instead of talking yourself out of it. And sort your fucking paperwork out before you apply the next time."
So that had all been fairly clear and unequivocal—the DMLE wanted Harry, but they wanted him harnessed, and they wanted him as a blunt instrument. Even Ron wasn't on his side on this one, and after yet another argument in the Leaky over too many Firewhiskies, Ron had snapped and properly shouted at him, asking him why Harry felt like he was above following the procedures that every single other bloody Auror in the place followed.
It's the creeping shame of that awful memory that has Harry scribbling details into all the correct places on his reports now, though it's slow and tedious work. Across from him, Vikander smiles smugly down at her outbox as she taps her wand smartly to send the crisp pile of neat forms off to the file room.
It's almost a relief when their wands go off with the furious, insistent buzz that indicates an emergency. Despite her overly-deferential attitude to the Ministry hierarchy, Vikander is razor-sharp, and downright dangerous when she wants to be, and she and Harry are first at the operations post for briefing and Apparition coordinates.
But there's no need for directions, because the white-faced wizard at the ops post is watching wide-eyed as a sinuous tabby cat Patronus prowls impatiently around him, and Harry only needs to recognise McGonagall's crisp Scottish accent, coloured with a controlled desperation Harry has only heard from her on a few horribly memorable occasions in the past, before he hauls Vikander into a reckless Side-Along to the gates of Hogwarts and then they're just running, running, running towards the castle.
By the time he reaches the castle, Harry has to bend over, hands on his knees, gasping for the breath that he had half-lost when he heard McGonagall calling for help at Hogwarts, and that he had finished losing in his reckless sprint from the gates of the castle to the front door. Even his hours on the Ministry sparring mats, and in the Muggle boxing club he's joined, haven't prepared him for running half a mile full-tilt, with his heart lodged in his throat from terror.
Vikander still hasn't caught up with him, though he can see her approaching at a steady jog, and he's finally caught enough breath that he feels like he probably isn't going to fall over or be sick anytime soon.
He straightens, pulls his wand, and presses his hand to the dear, familiar castle door that still towers over him. Nothing happens. Because of course the school isn't open—it's shut for the summer holidays, and the honey-gold grain of the oak front door is body-warm from the oppressive heat of the August sun.
Harry growls in frustration, and uses his fist to hammer at the wood, and when his raft of Auror-strength opening charms don't work (because Hogwarts), he whips out a swift Patronus and tells it to find the Headmistress, as a matter of urgency.
Vikander is by his side now, barely out of breath because of course she had taken the run at a sensible pace, and he casts her one baleful glance before resuming his increasingly panicky thumping at the door. It's probably only a minute before they hear the slow grind of the ancient locks turning, and Harry's exhalation is almost a sob of relief when he sees Minerva there, hands outstretched towards him, looking mercifully healthy and unharmed, though perhaps a bit pale, and tighter around the lips than usual.
"Auror Potter, how good of you to join us," she says, and she sounds so much like herself, so like home, that before he can catch himself, Harry finds himself grinning at her with the warmth of his whole heart behind it. She permits herself the barest twinkle of a return smile before she straightens and steps aside. "As you can see, the rest of your team has already arrived. My apologies for the delay in answering the door, I was adjusting the Floo wards to admit the other Aurors."
Harry, sweat-licked and flushed and breathless from the running and the heat, allows himself an all-too-brief moment to close his eyes in mortification. Because obviously Hogwarts has a Floo connection to the Ministry. Harry wouldn't even have had to wait for Minerva to admit him—she's had him keyed into the wards ever since he left school. Minerva has never made a fuss about it, but Harry is still a frequent visitor (though he does usually Floo in to George in Hogsmeade first, then takes a leisurely fly up to the school). On the last day of Eighth Year, in her customary understated manner, and in a tone of stern admonishment that brooked no argument, Minerva made it clear that Hogwarts would always be a home for Harry. He doesn't visit too often—he definitely doesn't want to make her regret the statement—and he never overstays his welcome, but it is a rare month that doesn't see Harry visit at least twice, if only for a quick dinner and a stroll around the grounds with Nev and Hagrid.
When he opens his eyes to meet the bemused gazes of the other Aurors, Harry knows that there's simply no way to gloss over the fact that, instead of calmly Flooing to the crime scene, he had panicked in a way that you wouldn't even see in the greenest of new recruits. The cloying remnants of that panic are written all over him, scrawled in runnels of sweat and dust. He can't hope to hide it, and behind him he hears Vikander's soft snort of amusement, though she presses a hand to his shoulder in a gesture of support that lets him know that she's there for him, even if she thinks he's barmy. He firms his jaw, jerks his head at the team, and decides to brazen it out. Because even though Minerva is here, and unharmed, someone must still be in danger. And if someone in Hogwarts is in trouble, Harry needs to do something.
"Which way, Minerva?" He's pleased to hear that his voice is steady, measured.
She turns on her heel, still as upright and swift and inexorable as she had been when calling the statues of Hogwarts into battle seven years before, and still so much the Headmistress that when she bids them to follow, they all move in a rush behind her.
"This way, please. We need to get to the Duelling Room."
"But it doesn't make sense. We're the Aurors, for Merlin's sake!"
Harry almost stops pacing for long enough to take issue at Cahalane's petulant tone, because Cahalane may have been homeschooled, but doesn't he know how he should be speaking to Professor Minerva McGonagall, Headmistress of Hogwarts, Order of Merlin Class Two, general all-round legend and war hero?
But Vikander shakes her head at Harry in warning, accompanying the gesture with a flinty-eyed stare (because technically Cahalane is the commanding officer here), so Harry contents himself with a vigorous eye roll and continues to stride back and forth outside the double entrance doors to the new Hogwarts Duelling Room. The doors which, despite the application of every standard, Auror-issue unlocking spell in the manual (and a number of, shall we say, less official charms which Harry has surreptitiously been flicking at the doors when everyone else has their backs turned) are steadfastly refusing to open.
Cahalane continues, blithely unaware of Harry's glaring and Minerva's unimpressed gaze. "If you believe that a student is in danger inside that room, Headmistress, then we need to get inside. I can't even begin to imagine what negative entity is powerful enough to hold the doors against Minerva McGonagall, three Senior Aurors, and the Saviour of the Wizarding World, of course." Cahalane casts a sour look Harry's way—he's Seeker for the Tactical Ops' Quidditch team, and he still hasn't forgiven Harry and the Major Crimes team for storming to victory 180-20 in the last game of the Ministry Employee League. Harry smiles sweetly at him, then pointedly turns his back on Cahalane to address Minerva.
"Minerva, the wards didn't show any signs of a breach, is that correct? And you're confident that the doors have not been locked by magical means?"
"Correct, Auror Potter," Minerva replies. "We only noticed that the doors were locked by chance—the Duelling Room is not usually used on a Wednesday during the summer break. As you know, in recent years we have extended our accommodations to those students who, for various reasons, cannot or will not return home for the summer vacation. As Headmistress, I believe that Hogwarts should be a home for the students who need it all year round." She smiles at Harry then, briefly and meaningfully, before continuing.
"We run a variety of summer clubs—not lessons of course, but activities and pastimes for the handful of students who are with us for the summer break. Duelling Club takes place on Fridays, ordinarily, but this week Professor Proudfoot has been called away so I agreed to take the duellers myself today instead.
"When I arrived to find the door locked, I immediately became concerned. Never before has the Headmaster of Hogwarts encountered a door that cannot be opened. It was an unusual enough occurrence that I immediately called an emergency assembly of all remaining students and personnel, and we found that Betsy Clifford was missing. We had another incident, just a few weeks ago, in which a student was injured. So I thought it prudent to contact the Auror department."
Cahalane begins another blustering round of ostentatious unlocking charms, but Harry remains silent, sifting through Minerva's statement.
"Minerva, you said that another student had been injured recently? Were the circumstances suspicious? Do you have reason to believe that this is a similar situation?"
"Unfortunately, yes. Last month, a student was found semi-conscious and injured in one of the Fifth Year classrooms. There was no sign of any attacker, but it seems quite certain that someone harmed her. She had no real memory of the event, but she had a minor injury when we found her, and is still in the hospital wing four weeks later, suffering from exhaustion and lethargy. Despite Madam Pomfrey's best efforts, she isn't responding to either magical or Muggle treatment, and remains incapacitated. You can see why I was concerned to find a door inexplicably locked today, and a student missing under similar circumstances."
Minerva sighs, a small, defeated sound.
"I'm worried that Hogwarts is somehow trapping the students. The student who was hurt last month remembers very little, but her last conscious memory of the event is that she was practicing her Patronus Charm—she was very nearly there with it too—and at lunchtime when she tried to leave, the door wouldn't open."
The silence that follows Minerva's words is profound. Even Cahalane is stunned into muteness.
Harry is struggling to grasp what Minerva is saying, and she looks drained and exhausted as she continues.
"A locked door that no one can open, here at Hogwarts? It shouldn't be possible. If someone spelled the door shut, then I am very confident that I would be able to undo their spellwork—not to mention when we include the contribution of such an accomplished Auror team. And all of our Checking Charms and your diagnostic spells come up with nothing. This door is not spelled shut against us. It is, quite simply, that Hogwarts does not want us to get inside. Hogwarts is standing against us. Have you noticed the portraits are missing their occupants?"
The team looks around. Harry had already noticed that the twin portraits that flank the entrance were empty, but even Minerva rapping smartly on the wooden frames with her wand and demanding by the order of the Headmistress that the subjects return has no effect. "Another unprecedented occurrence. The portraits are hiding."
At this, Cahalane stirs. "It's no use," he says decisively. "If you're certain there's a student trapped in there, and the doors won't admit us, then we need to take assertive action."
He shoulders Harry out of the way, then summons his partner with a jerk of his chin.
"Stand back, Headmistress, we're taking this section of the wall down. This might get messy."
Minerva is as agitated as Harry has ever seen her, but she's still indomitable-seeming as she steps between the Aurors and the wall of the duelling room.
"I'm afraid I cannot allow that, Auror Cahalane. Hogwarts is an ancient building, which has spent centuries absorbing the magic of its founders, and of every student and teacher to walk its halls since. One does not, cannot, wilfully destroy any part of Hogwarts. We must think of another way."
Cahalane's face is stern. "I appreciate your concern for your school, Headmistress. But my primary focus is on liberating a student in danger. I'm the Special Ops lead on this case, which means I have the authority to overrule even you in the interests of preservation of life. Now I tell you again, Headmistress, step aside."
Harry moves before he's even aware of it, the force of his rage powering through his bloodstream in a savage rush. To imply that Minerva McGonagall would place more value on bricks and mortar than on the life of a student—how did an idiot like Cahalane even get through training? Surely he knows that Hogwarts is far, far more than just a building. Harry stands close enough to Minerva that their shoulders touch.
"If you try a Bombarda Maxima on that wall, Cahalane, you could take us all down. Hogwarts suffered so much trauma in the Battle, it took us months to convince it to let us rebuild. Do you know how long it took us to cleanse it of all the Dark Magic it absorbed? Well, you wouldn't I suppose, you took your NEWTs in Beauxbatons in the end, didn't you? You don't destroy things in Hogwarts. If it's locking itself up, then it's trying to tell us something. We just need to find out what it is."
Behind him, Harry feels a shift, the merest tremble in the air, as though the very walls are sighing. He reaches behind him, puts a palm flat to the wall. There, there, he thinks.
Minerva's voice is crisp and unimpressed. "Auror Potter is entirely correct. Hogwarts itself is a magical construction, and as such has spent centuries absorbing the magical essence of generations. We do not interfere in its workings; rather, we work with it to provide a safe haven and home for our many students. An aggressive approach is only likely to further endanger the student, and ourselves."
Cahalane looks truly enraged, and his voice quavers with fury when he addresses Harry.
"I hope I don't have to remind you, Auror Potter, that Ops have the lead on this case. So I outrank you here. Step away."
Cahalane moves as he speaks, and he places a firm hand on Minerva's upper arm, as if to steer her away. That's as far as he gets, though, because Harry has him at wandpoint against the wall before he takes another step. Harry is in a rage, his blood hammering in his ears, so hard that he barely hears the gasp of shock from the other Aurors, or the strangled choke of rage that Cahalane makes around the press of the wand in the softest part of his throat.
"Don't make me Body-Bind you," Harry whispers. "Keep your hands off her, and keep your wand off Hogwarts."
Cahalane twists away then, lithe and muscular as a snake, and Harry has to slam a forearm across his chest to keep him pinned to the wall. He can feel the warning surge of his power from his core, the dangerous crackle of it electric in the palm of his hand. He breathes into it, feels the urgent press of it flowing through him, and Cahalane seems to sense it, because he stops struggling, though his voice is low and bitter when speaks.
"You're going to regret this, Auror Potter. Get your hands off me or I'll have you out on your ear before you can blink, and then I'm coming back with a blasting team and that wall is coming down whether you and McGonagall like it or not."
And that's it, really, because Harry can feel Hogwarts shivering and creaking in protest, and Minerva is rigid with anger at his side, and before he knows it his magic is fizzing from him in a rush of protective, instinctive action. Cahalane curls in on himself, crumpling like a wet sack under the crush of Harry's wandless Body-Bind. When Harry steps away, Cahalane slides slowly to the floor. There's something in the air, an expectant, approving sort of hum, and Minerva nods at Harry as he looks helplessly from her down to Cahalane, and back again. He's shaking from the aftershock of the rage and adrenaline, and he steadies himself against the carved lintel lest he stumble under the weight of what he's gone and done. Because he's got away with skipping out on paperwork before, but he doesn't think Ron or Robards is going to be particularly forgiving of him folding a technically-superior Auror into a little ball.
As he touches the wood, leans his forehead against the wall, he whispers under his breath, "Please." And as easily as that, at just one word from him, there's a click—the shockingly mundane sound of a lock turning.
In the heavy silence that follows, the creak of the door swinging open on its hinges sounds like a scream.
The student is indeed inside, and she's sitting propped up against the very wall that Cahalane would have happily sent an Auror-strength Bombarda Maxima through. Harry spares one vicious glance of satisfaction back to where Rooney is performing the counterspell to Harry's Bind on Cahalane (with little effect so far, Harry thinks spitefully).
Betsy Clifford is so pale and still that for one heartstopping moment, Harry thinks she might be dead, but then he sees the tentative rise and fall of her chest and he and Vikander move like clockwork to start emergency first aid. Betsy has an injury on her wrist, the wet slide of still-fresh blood gleaming livid and obscene in the sunlight. Her head lolls heavily, and her mouth looks red and swollen against the blanched pallor of her skin. Her breathing is shallow as Harry and Vikander place her under Stasis, and the syrupy-slow blink of the Heart Monitor Charm casts an uncanny glow as they rush her through the corridors to the hospital wing.
She wakes, briefly, as they transfer her into the bed, her hands fluttering and releasing like the wings of an injured bird. She tries to speak, coughs, gasps a shallow, terrified breath, and then tries again. "Where is he?" she asks. "Where did he go?" But before Harry and Vikander can ask her more, Madam Pomfrey is there with a steely look in her eye and her wand already out, casting a Calming Charm, and Betsy's breath stutters into something deeper as she closes her eyes back into sleep.
They return to the Duelling Room, finding a baleful Rooney securing the scene, and Cahalane gone (presumably back to the Ministry to get Harry fired, but Harry will deal with that when he has to, and for now there's investigating to be done).
At the far end of the room, clustered in a huge frame over the fireplace, are a number of portraits. And if Harry isn't mistaken, the severe-looking woman in the black dress, and doughy man in opulent furs, are the two portraits that should have been guarding the doors to the Duelling Room. They're standing in the teeming, chattering group, but when Harry approaches the frame, they all fall silent.
"Have you lot been here the whole time?" he asks, unease making him brusque. "You two—you're supposed to be on the door here. Where were you? Did you see what happened?"
The female portrait sniffs haughtily.
"My husband and I were just enjoying a stroll around the portraits to visit some of our friends," she says icily. "We're perfectly entitled to take a break from time to time. We're not at the beck and call of some rude little Auror."
The voice that rings out from beside Harry is cool and authoritative. "But you are beholden to the Headmistress of Hogwarts," Minerva rejoinders. "All of the magic of Hogwarts is bound to the head of the school. When I call for aid, you are supposed to answer. Now I insist that you tell me what took place inside this room."
A low murmur begins from all the portraits, barely a susurration of sound, but bringing with it an anxious buzz.
A beautifully-painted centaur steps to the foreground of the painting, and drops into a low bow.
"Headmistress, we have pledged our allegiance to you and your predecessors since the first brushstroke that created us. But we are profoundly tethered to the magic of Hogwarts—we are part of the same magic that pulses through the very walls, and the stones at your feet. We cannot act against the very power that hails us into being. When the castle calls us forth, we go. We answer to you, but we are Hogwarts, and if we have to choose between answering your call, or the call of the castle, then I think you will find yourself disappointed in the outcome."
Minerva looks shocked, and the naked fear on her face forces Harry to be gentle where he would not be otherwise, as he thanks the portraits for their help and turns away in consternation.
It's a two cauldron cakes sort of day, Harry thinks, and even Vikander seems to agree, because she goes with Harry to the tea trolley and her eyes don't even so much as flicker when he places his order. In fact, she gets one for herself too, and with their mugs of tea and them both ignoring the pile of unfiled reports on Harry's desk, things are almost cosy in their office.
They both know they're just waiting, though—they have been ever since first thing that morning when a red paper airplane memo flew into their office and stabbed Harry repeatedly in the head with its pointy nose. He's been summoned to meet with the top brass—even Kingsley's in on this one—and he's pretty sure it's not to commend him on his measured tactical approach to dealing with Cahalane.
Cahalane has definitely already reported the incident at Hogwarts—in fact, when Harry and Vikander Flooed back into the office the previous evening once they'd finished taking all the statements at Hogwarts, Cahalane was still sequestered with his union rep in the Wizarding Resources department.
The trouble is, Harry thinks, he wouldn't do anything differently if he had the chance. Okay, so perhaps he could have been less thorough with the bind part of his Body-Bind, but he knows deep down, like he knows he'd walk in front of an Avada for Hermione or Ron, that he could never knowingly stand by while someone harmed Hogwarts.
He wonders how often things like this are going to happen before someone starts to think that maybe Harry Potter isn't cut out for the Aurors. It's only what he's thought about himself a hundred times before, blinking into shocked wakefulness out of yet another anxiety dream, lying heavy with dread at the thought of the day ahead. And where will that leave him? Fighting is the only thing he's ever been good at—the only thing he's ever been trained for. He was tempered for so long, shaped into a weapon before he could talk, and he's not sure he would know how to function if he was decommissioned now.
His wand alarm buzzes, and he takes a minute to wash down the last of the cake with tepid tea, before slinging on his uniform robes (and if he pinned on his Order of Merlin medal before he left the house that morning… well, it can't hurt to remind them who they're dealing with, can it? Harry needs all the help he can get today).
The journey up to the Fourth Floor feels like a slog. It's not quite up there with walking into the Forbidden Forest to meet Voldemort, a load of Death Eaters, and certain doom, but it's certainly on a par with the Triwizard champions' opening dance at the Yule Ball.
Kingley's office doesn't seem to be supplied with petit fours, but there's a pot of strong coffee on a table in the anteroom, and Ron's welcome handshake is solid and reassuring as Harry enters the room. Kingsley is also present, of course, along with Robards, but Harry is surprised to see that the conference table also hosts a sharp-eyed woman in throat-to-toe black robes, and none other than Professor McGonagall.
Kingsley looks grave, but that's not unusual, and Minerva's gaze is definitely softer than usual when she inclines her head in greeting. Robards looks enraged and a bit purple around the jowls (though again, not unusual), but Ron is the one who's really making Harry nervous. Ron has his chess face on, and his gaze is detached, almost speculative, as he glances from Harry to the black-robed woman. Harry doesn't think Ron looks quite as calculating as his eleven-year-old self did the night he sacrificed himself on the giant chessboard, but it's a close-run thing, and means he's plotting something big. It bodes ill for Harry, and he's had quite enough of that for one lifetime.
"Let's get started then," Ron suggests. He doesn't quite rub his hands together maniacally, but the sense of it is there. "Harry, this is Ash Dearraid—she's a department head within the DMLE and she'll be sitting in on the meeting today." The severe-looking woman nods at Harry, briefly but appraisingly.
"I hear there was a bit of trouble at Hogwarts yesterday," Kingsley begins, and Harry winces (internally, he's not quite at the outward wince stage yet).
Robards is mottled with the high colour of spreading rage, and when he speaks, it's almost a hiss. "An understatement if ever I heard one, Minister. Auror Potter has always been lawless, but if he thinks he can get away with assaulting a senior Auror while on official duty just because he's the Chosen One, he can think again."
And that's not fair, is it? Because Harry has never asked for special treatment, never wanted the attention and expectations that came with his name and his scar. But Robards has always been small-minded and short-sighted when it came to Harry, and it looks as though that's not going to change any time soon. They're barely three minutes into the meeting, and Harry is already quivering in his chair, a large part of him wanting to rage and storm and smash and shout at the injustice of it all, but he feels Derraid's cool gaze upon him, and he pushes the urge down.
Instead, he opens his mouth, ready to defend himself (yet again, and isn't it exhausting?), when Minerva interjects.
"As I have explained in detail to the Minister, Auror Potter was simply responding to Auror Cahalane's aggressive approach to the situation, and trying to contain what would have become a dangerous and volatile situation for all concerned. As you well know, Gawain, Hogwarts is tremendously magically sensitive, and all the more so since the impact of the Battle. If Auror Potter hadn't intervened when he did, there was a very good chance that the castle would have responded defensively to the threat of attack. And why your Special Ops team hasn't had adequate training in respect of magical buildings, I do not know. It seems an astonishing oversight."
Derraid speaks for the first time, and though her voice is low and even, everyone around the table snaps to attention.
"I believe, Minerva, that you had the Duelling Room constructed especially to provide a safe space for training the students in offensive spells and hexes? How fascinating. I should love to see it some time."
For the first time since the meeting began, Minerva smiles properly.
"You would be welcome to visit anytime, my dear Ashling," she says, her voice warm. "I should certainly love to show you around. The use of the Duelling Room is precautionary more than anything—luckily, the castle seems to recognise the students' magic, and we haven't had any incidents with it responding to hexes in the halls, thank Merlin." She rolls her eyes, managing to encompass such a familiar wealth of mingled affection and exasperation that Harry laughs out loud, though he manages to turn it into an entirely convincing cough when Robards flicks a poisonous glare his way.
"My poor Hogwarts has been through a lot in recent years. It's had its loyalties tested, with so many of its former students turning on it, so much familiar magic attacking it. Hogwarts has a long memory, and I think after the trauma of the Battle it needed to grieve. It means no harm, but we had a rather unpleasant incident three years ago when a minor follower of Mr Riddle managed to get into the building and launched an attack on me as I exited my office. Hogwarts responded instantly—and some might say excessively. Auror Potter here will attest to the fact that it took us three days to convince the castle to release the man from the corridor that had blocked itself off from us, with him trapped in it. And after being restrained by the gargoyles for that whole time, I believe he needed an extended stay in St Mungo's before he went to Azkaban."
Harry can't help it, he shivers a bit. He was first on the scene again that day, but only because he had been dining there that lunchtime, and he and Nev had been summoned by the horrified shrieking of the portraits alerting them to an attack on the Headmistress. Minerva's account is admirably calm, but Harry remembers her white-faced and bleeding hard all over the flagstones, while the castle shuddered and groaned as its walls swung in on themselves, and that one last glimpse of the stone gargoyles descending, horrifying and inexorable, on the terrified man.
Harry had worked alongside Minerva for those three days, conjuring his Patronus over and over to dance light-footed up and down the corridor, performing Tickling Charms and Orchideous again and again, sending gentle Abertos at the impassive blankness of the new wall. And when those gentle spells didn't coax it around,he just sat quietly with his back to the stones, letting his body heat bleed into the sandstone, one hand stroking gently against the smooth grain. It hadn't occurred to him to just ask Hogwarts to admit him, but that had been the thing that worked, in the end. Just another gentle touch to the wall, an impassioned, self-conscious whisper into the mellow gold of the stones, and the wall had swung inwards to let him in. He'd never admitted to anyone how it had happened that time—how he had spoken to Hogwarts and it had listened—but he wonders if Minerva knows, somehow.
To think of Cahalane wilfully attempting to destroy part of Hogwarts, after all it had been through—well, Harry couldn't have allowed that, could he?
And oddly, everyone around the table seems to agree with him as they listen to Minerva's words—well, everyone except Robards, but you can't win ‘em all, Harry thinks philosophically. Considering that he had been certain this meeting had been called for the express purpose of giving him an almighty bollocking, followed by his marching orders, things are really not proceeding as he had imagined they would.
"Well, Harry, it certainly sounds as though your actions yesterday prevented what could have been a greater catastrophe," Kingsley says thoughtfully. "However"—and he lifts a finger towards Robards, cutting him off before he can begin to object—"it is not acceptable to perform offensive spells on a superior officer, particularly not ones that entail forty minutes of unspelling to lift. And it strikes me that perhaps your… well, let's not use the word flagrant but shall we say, notable disregard for protocol and procedure may have had a hand in the situation escalating?"
Ron interjects here, and Harry casts him a look of studied betrayal while mentally composing a list of all the terrible payback he's going to wreak upon the Granger-Weasley household for this. Never more will he get up early and cook them a full English when he stays over with them! Not another minute of free babysitting shall they receive! And Ron can do one if he thinks he's ever getting another of Harry's homemade apple turnovers.
"Harry, it's like I was telling you in your last review. People expect you to be difficult, and you do nothing to mitigate their expectations. You're a self-fulfilling prophecy, mate. If Cahalane had looked on you as a trustworthy member of the team, you would have been able to talk him down. As it was, things went from zero to Body-Bind in no time."
And just like that, the cold feeling is back, and Harry has to swallow around the lump in his throat. Because that's what it's always been like, hasn't it? He doesn't feel like he belongs on the team, not really. He's not as careful as everyone else—the worst has already happened, in a way, after all, so it seems a bit silly to be too worried about watching his back and proceeding with caution. And he doesn't really feel like people particularly like working with him. They all seem to think he's a bit odd—too fast, too intense, too Saviour-y maybe.
Kingsley spreads his hands, and his voice is gentle. "Harry, we have to move you out of active duty for the time-being. No, no—this isn't you being fired. But we have to take the concerns of our other Aurors seriously, and we think we can find a more suitable place for you than Serious Crimes. Ron, why don't you run through the plan for Harry?"
Harry looks disbelievingly from Kingsley to Ron, who's surveying him with that same speculative look, and wonders how he's going to catch enough of a breath to tell them that they can't do it, they can't take him off Serious Crimes. Are they going to filter him into some PR-driven, public-facing role, like they tried before? Because that would be worse than being fired—all the grind of admin and dealing with people, without the freeing release of the chase, without the fierce rush of combat.
Ron leans forward.
"Harry. Mate. Listen to me. We're very concerned with what's happening at Hogwarts. It's been acting up for a while now, and if things there go tits up—apologies, Minerva— then we're well and truly stuck. But now we've got two attacks on students, and Nev and Hagrid've told you about the weird things that have been happening in the grounds, yeah? I think—we think—we need someone on site, someone to investigate properly but without drawing attention to it. The last thing we need is to cause a widespread panic or have people pulling their kids out. We're thinking of sending you in undercover, mate. How would you feel about that?"
Harry looks at Ron across the table, hope stirring into a roar through him, and sees for one blinding moment those blue eyes grinning at him through a locked bedroom window, as the wrench and tug of a battered Ford Anglia tears the bars away.
"Ron, are you telling me I get to go…" and he catches himself—only just in time—just before he says the humiliating word "home", the word that would tell everyone in this room far too much about Harry's own pathetic heart.
"Are you telling me I get to go back to Hogwarts?"
It all seems so easy after that. Harry doesn't quite understand how something this good could be happening, but it seems that he's going to be a proper undercover agent. The department is going to make a public statement about him going on extended leave after a workplace incident—just to appease Cahalane, and Harry can deal with that—and then Minerva is going to speak out in his support and conveniently offer him a post at Hogwarts. And it does seem a bit serendipitous that Proudfoot has genuinely been offered a position at the Duelling Academy in Budapest, and Minerva really is in need of a DADA professor. She's confident that she can get Harry up to speed on the curriculum before term starts again, and there's a room available for him right away in the teachers' wing, if he wants it.
It seems like a dream, and Harry doesn't want to draw attention to himself by asking outright why Minerva thinks this is a good idea, or how she could possibly trust someone so war-ravaged and inexperienced to teach children, but she seems to understand what Harry isn't saying. She explains to everyone how intuitive Harry is when it comes to passing on knowledge, how gentle he is when he helps Neville out in the greenhouses, how patient he is with the starstruck First Years who clamour to talk to him when he stays for dinner at Hogwarts. Maybe it's not deliberate on her part, but it certainly injects a bit of steel into his spine about the teaching side of things.
"And don't forget, Auror Potter—or should I call you Professor Potter?—no one did more than you to help with the restoration of Hogwarts after the war." Harry remembers it, with a pain of nostalgia that's almost tangible—that long summer of 1998. Spending his eighteenth birthday rearranging shards of stained glass into their pattern by hand, because the pieces shivered in fear if a wand was so much as raised near them. Days and days of heavy lifting, clearing rubble and coaxing order from wreckage. The painstaking, exhausting task of cleansing the building of dark spell residue, murmuring healing and restoration spells even when his voice cracked and broke from dust and the horror of memories. Each day, another corridor. Each evening, a gentle hand to the wall, a pat, a word of encouragement to the castle that had withstood so much. Harry hadn't ever thought anyone had noticed that.
Minerva smiles at him. "Hogwarts remembers, Harry. Hogwarts keeps something from everyone who makes their home there, but I think you've given more of yourself to it than most. We would be most pleased to have you back."
And that seems to be that. Until Harry sees Ron and Kingsley exchange a quick glance, and then Derraid speaks up and says, "There is just one more thing, Mr Potter. You're not going alone."
She gestures with her wand, and a sparrowhawk Patronus speeds from the room.
Ron takes over again—and when did he start being so… commanding?
"Harry, these problems at Hogwarts recently—what you don't know is, we've been looking into them for a few months now."
He raises a hand at Harry's look of outrage.
"Don't give me that look, Harry. I decided to keep it quiet for a while. Minerva wanted you in on it from the start but, well…"—he looks a touch guilty at this point—"you know what you're like about Hogwarts, mate. I thought it was best to get someone a bit more neutral involved."
Derraid takes over, eyes alight.
"Mr Weasley quite rightly approached the Mysteries team when preliminary investigations turned up some strange results. Initially, our real interest lay in the fact that a number of Magical Creatures seemed to have been attacked by someone or something. However, none of them seemed to be improving or recovering from the attacks. Every creature seems to be cursed with some sort of profound lethargy and exhaustion. It's not pleasant. And it wasn't confined to one species, either—we examined a Thestral, some Kneazles, a few owls—we even spoke to Aragog who told us that some of his great grandchildren barely made it back to the nest one night, and they haven't left it since." (Harry can feel the effort it's taking Ron not to shudder).
"We have had some of our team examine the victims, and it seems quite clear to us that they are suffering from some sort of blood curse. And now we believe that the students who were attacked have been infected with the same sort of thing. Why it's happening, or how it's connected to Hogwarts itself, we don't know. But we want to send in one of my team members, an expert in blood magic. He can look into the origins of the curse, and do some further tests on the blood samples from the victims, while you work on tracking down the attacker. My man is already undercover, so we can redirect him onto the Hogwarts project, and we believe he's the best person for the job of discovering the root and purpose of the curse."
And Harry realises with a sinking heart why he only vaguely recognises Derraid—because of course she's sequestered down in the Department of Mysteries most of the time, and it begins to dawn on him that he's dealing with the Head of the Unspeakable Department.
And then her Patronus returns, heralding the sound of the office door opening, and of course it's Malfoy there; Malfoy with his wicked smile, and his robes billowing like smoke around his stupidly long legs, and the bloody stain of his Mark bared in confrontation from under the rolled up sleeves of his pristine white shirt. Malfoy who is supposed to be in Hong Kong investigating some dragon blood smugglers, very far away from Harry and his unexpectedly lovely new job, and not here in Kingsley's office, complicating everything with the sharp intelligent gleam of his grey eyes, and the distracting smell of his warm skin, and telling Harry to budge over before sitting right next to him, almost in his bloody lap for fuck's sake .
"Started without me, I see." He smiles around the room, drops a flicker of a wink Harry's way, and then shoves his elbows onto the table and looks around expectantly.
"Now, why doesn't someone kindly tell me why I'm here?"