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To Live Nobly

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He storms in after another row with his wife. He means to limit himself to one drink, maybe two, and nothing too strong, but like everything in his life, it doesn’t go according to plan. He orders a third drink, then a fourth, followed by several shots, and then he waves over the bartender for a good old-fashioned martini.

Muggles really have the best alcohol, he thinks as he waits for her to stride down to his corner of the pub. His request is initially rejected, but he manages to get out through the slurs that he’ll tip extra well at the end of the night if she’ll only give him one more drink. She grudgingly agrees and says it had better be a damn good tip, as her boss might be coming in later to check up on things.

There is something about the bartender at work, a brisk efficiency and preciseness to the way she measures out the gin, the vermouth streaming directly into the jigger, never daring to spill so much as a drop. Even when she slides it across the worn oak counter, the drink risks only the barest of sloshing.

He graciously accepts the glass, but his thank-you gets mistranslated in the space between his brain and his mouth, and he spouts some gibberish instead. He hopes he got his meaning across, but by the time he drags his face away from his precious martini, she is already at the other end of the bar, attending to some other bloke. Oh well, he tells himself, he’ll just give her more money when he pays his bill.

Except when it comes time to cough up his money half an hour later, he finds he has considerably less cash on him than he’d previously thought. He barely has enough to cover his bill, much less leave her an extravagant tip. By dumping the money into a messy pile on the counter, he hopes to avoid her wrath, but before he can slip out of his seat, she is suddenly in front of him, hands deftly flipping through the muddle of paper and metal. In the future, he notes, he should make sure he has enough money. That, or get less smashed so that he can make a quick getaway.

Her eyes – a rare emerald, he sees – flash when she finishes adding it up, and they find his and narrow. She quietly – the dangerous kind of quiet, the kind that sends his heart racing – asks if he’s joking. He has to say he isn’t, but only because he can’t very well magic up some money.

Her hands dart out and grab hold of his collar, and she yanks his torso across the counter and tells him to get the fuck out of her pub. She shoves him back violently and snatches the pitiful payment off of the counter.

He stumbles out the entrance of the seedy pub and sinks into a seat at the bus station. His mind is blissfully empty for the ride, his neck jerking to and fro with each bump that the bus jostles over, and nary a thought crosses his mind until he slithers onto the couch at home, at which point he sleepily remembers to take off his hat.

- - -

The Muggle-borns have been disappearing. The Dark Lord has accomplished many of his goals, and though he knows he used to be so upset about this fact, somehow that passion that used to drive him, that fire in his gut that refused to be quashed, has simply… flickered out. Sure, he’s a part of the rebellion that doesn’t exist in theory, but that’s mostly in name only.

There had been a time when his friends would try to persuade him to take on a more active role, but his wife didn’t like the idea of him risking his life for those of the doomed. He has three small children at home, after all, and he can’t seem to rouse himself out of his apathy to do anything against the current regime. The rare meeting he does attend shows him how little they’ve achieved in his absence. He believes it to be one of the sorriest rebellion groups ever.

- - -

He goes back to the pub the next night. He’d woken up that morning with one of the worst hangovers in his life, and after the Sobering Charm, there had been not only the usual residual bitter tang in his mouth and the lingering sense of bleariness, but also a flicker of red and green in his mind. He would’ve thought he’d seen a Christmas show or something the night before in his drunken stupor, but the hues are not quite right for the holidays, the red too orange and the green too striking. Not to mention Christmas was almost a month ago.

He doesn’t know what to expect by revisiting the place. His wife will probably shout at him again, based on the telling-to he’d got as a wake-up, and he’ll no doubt spend a fair bit of his paycheck – the Muggle currency is tragically doing better than the Galleon, making anything he converts into a paltry showing of dirty coins and ragged bills – but he needs to go back to the squalid pub halfway across town, if only to figure out how big of a fool he’d been the night before.

The instant he crosses the threshold, he has to duck to avoid the grubby rag that’s been hurled his way. Whoever launched it, he thinks, should try Quidditch – they have excellent aim and speed.

The next sign that tells him he must have been extremely inebriated last night is the shriek for him to Get Out. He ignores it and sidles up to the bar, where he nabs the corner seat. He is fairly confident he sat here, but he might very well have been five seats down for all he can make out of the blurred images from the previous evening.

The bartender, a girl with deep red hair tied up in a knot, marches down to him and demands that he leave her establishment. He replies evenly that he would like to apologize for whatever he did the night before, and after a bit of a heated exchange, he manages to cotton on to the idea that he owes her money.

There is no surprise there, but he gladly opens up his wallet and hands her a hefty wad of cash. She perks up immediately and offers to get him a drink. He accepts and is soon sipping one of the best martinis he’s ever had. She deserves every bit of the money he just forked over.

An hour later, he supposes for the briefest of instants that perhaps he shouldn’t have had so much to drink. What started out an amicable conversation between himself and the very pretty bartender who has no nametag has gradually turned into him giving his crudest pick-up lines. He can’t help himself – they pop into his head like the bubbles in the soda water and float right to the tip of his tongue, where they burst into moments of complete idiocy.

When he’s thrown out of the pub this time, he concludes that it isn’t as bad as the previous night because he’s coherent enough to phone a cab and crawl into bed before passing out.

- - -

If he’s honest with himself, which is only when he’s had enough drinks to make a lesser man ill, it doesn’t feel like he’s living. He’s not dead; he knows that much, but what he has is far from the life he’d pictured in his youth.

He remembers having dreams and ambitions when he was in school, but he can’t for the life of him recall what they were. Everything since the Dark Lord triumphed has become all but meaningless. Most days are a blur, a never-ending loop of mind-numbing paperwork at the puppet Ministry, and the only relief he experiences comes in the form of a short glass filled with ice and whatever spirits happen to be laying around.

It has come to the point where he clings to anything that makes him feel, anything that breaks the monotony of his farce of an existence.

- - -

The next morning he only earns a minor rebuking for being out so late, which he takes as a sign of improvement. His drab job doesn’t seem so terrible because he is going to the pub again tonight. There is something about that place that makes him feel right at home, even more than his actual house, which he tends to avoid as much as possible.

When he strolls through the door that evening, it’s a sudden barrage of pens that he avoids on his way to his seat. He ignores them and asks if she might be so kind as to bring him a martini. She glares, but she still makes him a drink, and she isn’t petty enough to make it anything less than perfect. It’s a refreshing characteristic that brings a smile to his face.

He vows he won’t be a complete arse tonight, and he starts by asking her name. Luckily, there aren’t very many customers in tonight – it is a Tuesday, after all – so she doesn’t have the excuse that she needs to see to others’ needs, and she’s clearly forcing herself to be polite by staying and declining to give her name. He thinks she suffers through him for the money, which is understandable since he plans on giving her a generous tip, regardless of how she treats him. The martinis alone are worth it.

He continues the conversation by asking how long she’s worked here, where she’s from and if she’s seeing anyone. She tersely replies three months, Surrey, and mind your own damn business, before informing him she has to check her inventory. He refuses to give up, though, and when she tries to hurry by before he can talk to her, he catches her with another question: Do you work here every night? She tosses a yes over her shoulder and rushes into the back.

None of her answers strike him as lies, nor does she seem the type to lie about such things anyway.

On her way past him again, he inquires if she likes her work, and she shouts her reply from the far side of the pub that it’s okay.

He smiles and asks if he can get another martini.

By the end of the night, he’s discovered that she has an estranged sister and doesn’t remember the name of where she went to school. He deems the night a success and strolls home whistling. Only when he is halfway asleep does he realize he only had half as many drinks as usual.

- - -

He can’t remember how he met his wife. He’d never tell her that, of course; it’s one of his many secrets from her. She doesn’t understand him, but nor does he understand her, so it’s really a wonder they ever decided to get married. Sometimes he’ll see a glimmer of a person he might once have enjoyed the company of, but those are rarer than the days he goes home without a drop of alcohol in his system.

She was born to two rich purebloods, like himself, but somehow whatever core she once had, if she ever had one at all, rotted away by the time she was pregnant for the first time. Her voice is too high-pitched and screechy, her hair too crusty from years of Drying and Styling Charms applied twice a day. She demands the finest wizard-made clothing, the most expensive goblin-wrought jewelry and a half-blood to watch over the children so she can rest her poor, overworked mind.

He is sorely tempted to tell her to get over herself.

- - -

Nothing is pitched at his head that night, and she doesn’t seem to be so jumpy. It must be because he unknowingly tipped her for the typical amount of drinks last night. He is unperturbed and decides to give both their lives some variety by asking for a drink with Campari. When he gives no further specification, she raises an eyebrow at the change, then busies herself fetching a strange assortment of bottles. He fails to recognize a surprising amount of them, but a minute later she produces a frothy red drink that tastes like joy. It has no name, she says, but it is her own creation. She, too, enjoys the bitter taste of the red liquor.

He gets her talking by asking how such a talented bartender gets stuck working in such a shit piece of town. A wry smile twists onto her lips and she explains that most pubs have a policy of not hiring people who aren’t afraid to force people to pay up. He tells her that she could simply stop doing that, but she responds that she’s switched locations so many times that she has built up quite a bad reputation.

He has to pester her for half an hour before she tells him that she moves around because she can never seem to settle into a community, that she always feels like an intruder. She doesn’t believe him when he says he knows exactly what she means.

His next attempt to get on her good side is to tell her a joke. She says it’s a stupid joke. He says he knows. She breaks into a smile but holds in a laugh.

That night, he gets home at the usual time, but he only had three drinks; he spent the rest of the time chatting with the bartender. He feels no guilt over tipping her what he has now set as the standard amount.

- - -

He and his other pureblood friend – or at least they used to be friends; he doesn’t really see anyone as a friend these days – are relatively well-off: They both work for the Ministry and have homes of their own. His friend who was unfortunate enough to be bitten by a werewolf in his childhood lives in a shabby flat on the other side of town. The Dark Lord had some sort of arrangement with the werewolves, but, predictably, he has gone back on many of his promises. The Dark Lord has yet to exterminate all those cursed with lycanthropy, but if it happened, no one would be surprised. His other good friend joined up with the Dark Lord early on. He doesn’t blame him – life as a Death Eater, at least one who joined at the right time, is filled with easy, well-paying jobs and elaborate celebrations once a month. The only strange part is that he’s fairly sure that friend isn’t a pureblood, a detail that normally has a sentence of second-class citizenship, but if the Dark Lord doesn’t mind, neither does he.

- - -

The next night he desperately wants to go to his pub, but his friends have decided he needs a night spent in the company of someone besides old Bailey. His protests that he doesn’t like the Irish cream fall on deaf ears and before he knows it, all four of them are at a mediocre restaurant, seated in the corner booth.

His friends jokingly tell him he has a three drink limit, and they are disbelieving when he insists that’s exactly how many he had last night. He backs up his story by telling them all about the bartender, every scrap he knows about her and even the things he’s deciphered on his own, and when he next looks at the clock, he’s been talking about her for nearly thirty minutes. His friends are bored stiff, now that he looks for it, so he shuts up and orders a martini that’s too dry for his liking. He longs for his own corner stool across the city.

On the way out of the restaurant, one of his friends asks where this pub is. He is in the middle of listening to his werewolf friend’s rant about registration laws, so he glibly tells him the address and turns back to sympathize about the unjustness of it all.

His smallest friend asks when the next rebel meeting is, and the other two give each other sideways looks and say they’re not sure; there might be one next week, and if there is, both he and the questioner are free to come.

His wife opens the door that night and is surprised to see him with company, but they politely turn down the offer of tea and wave their good-byes. She goes on about how he shouldn’t associate with Dark creatures, but he is in such a good mood, he happily tells her to shut it and saunters into the bedroom.

- - -

His job is with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. He is given a person’s profile and a list of “reported” activities he or she’s been involved in, and it’s his responsibility to fill out the arrest warrant and look up the specific laws the person has violated. For all the Dark Lord’s ambition, he’s made sure it at least looks like he hasn’t changed things around at the Ministry. There are plenty of new laws, but the Dark Lord makes decisions that he then forces the Wizengamot to codify. Many are only now discovering that while the Ministry looks much the same, it doesn’t take a lot to be arrested at all. He knows some of the charges he jots down are spurious, but his hand fills out the papers anyway. Some of the profiles require a bit of a creative flair, which, he is sad to say, he excels at.

He knows he’s condemned people who are in all likelihood innocent, but so long as he doesn’t resist the changes of the new government, nothing bad happens to him. In fact, he actively attempts to not disturb the routine of his life so well that he has been promoted twice. In a sea of disgruntled employees essentially forced into jobs they despise, any person who doesn’t complain can climb the ranks quickly. He doesn’t seek a higher position, but if it happens, it happens.

- - -

She doesn’t ask where he was last night. Logically, he knows no one can go to the same place every night of his life, but he wants to be here. He likes the pub, and his brain has stopped registering the cockroach trap next to the broken jukebox, or the windows that are grimy enough to filter out most of the evening light. She merely brings him a martini, flawlessly made as always, and leans her forearms on the counter that separates them.

The response is in his mouth, waiting to escape, but it doesn’t come out. Her elegant neck bends so that her face is level with his, and a silly idea springs into his mind.

He kisses her, and her lips are as familiar as the smell of the house-elves’ cooking at Hogwarts. When he pulls back, blinking rapidly, she takes the opportunity to slap him soundly across the face. It is not, however, effective enough to act as a deterrent, and he swoops in again for another kiss because there is something so right about the faint tugging at the corners of her mouth that he can’t help himself. And he thinks that he should be telling himself what a horrible a person he is, cheating on his wife, but the words flutter right out of his head as quickly as they appeared, and he loses himself in the rich, deep laugh that starts in the bottom of her throat and works its way up.

She’s laughing, and it’s the best sound he’s ever heard.

He probably should be wondering why she is laughing as she pulls away, but he finds himself joining in, small chuckles that grow into full-blown guffaws. There is something about the image of the drunk wizard kissing the Muggle bartender that seems comical in his mind, and as it’s the first thing he’s truly laughed at in months, he loves that image. He loves that she can laugh for no reason at all, that she takes an inordinate of time to make a martini so that it’s made precisely as was intended. He loves her, even though he still doesn’t know her name or where she lives.

He leaves her the biggest tip yet that night and practically skips home and into bed, where he falls asleep grinning beatifically.

- - -

Wizards are not allowed to marry Muggles, nor are they allowed to see them romantically or even sleep with them. He knows this, and he’s charged more than his fair share of suspected criminals for that particular violation. Some of the people he knew in school have had their names cross his desk, and every time he sees them, the smallest twinge of regret springs from his chest. He suppresses those pangs, like everything else, and moves the papers to the appropriate slot on his desk.

- - -

He goes to her almost every night. His wife isn’t best pleased, but he says nothing to her in response, just that he’s tired and wants to go to sleep. Ordinarily, he can’t close his eyes for more than a minute without a certain amount – a very large amount, in most cases – of alcohol. But ever since he started attending the pub and sneaking brief kisses with her, wherever he slumbers is as comfortable as the four-posters at Hogwarts.

His alcohol intake has dropped significantly, and his liver is no doubt thankful, but there is none of the usual depression associated with his new level of sobriety. All he has to do to get through the day is think of red and green, and a grin stretches across his face. She is so untainted by her surroundings and life experiences, the juxtaposition of her fair skin and effervescent persona against the dusty shelves behind her boggles his mind. She deserves so much better, but he is limited in his capacity to help her.

He tries to slip her as much extra money as he can, and after several weeks of his quadruple tips, she says she was able to buy new shoes for the first time in a year. She seems embarrassed when she tells him this, but it fills him with warmth to think that he can help her out as much as she’s helped him. The issue of him giving her so much money is never addressed, but neither of them is bothered by it. She knows he has only the best of intentions.

Interestingly, she never asks why he spends so much time getting drunk, but he concludes that she must have seen enough intoxicated men in her life to know instinctively what their problems are. He wonders if she knows he’s married, but if she does, she hasn’t made it known. He thinks she must know because they know exactly what the other means without a word passing between them.

Some nights, after the bar has closed, they sneak out the back door, pulling each other forward by the hand as they weave through the empty streets. In the shadows he draws her close, savoring the warmth of her body and the soft texture of her hair that she only lets down after-hours.

He never would have thought he would be capable of having an affair, and he knows that’s the term for this, but an affair is a dirty, sordid thing. This is anything but – this is picking up his wand for the first time, and mastering his Animagus form, and winning the Quidditch Cup for the fifth year in a row all rolled into one wonderful, glorious night after another.

If his wife found out, she would leave him.

If the Ministry found out, he’d be thrown in jail. Or worse.

But when he leans over the counter to whisper in her ear that he thinks she’s beautiful, and sees the way her cheeks gain just a dusting of pink as she turns away, all the risks fly right out of his mind like a Snitch on the loose.

- - -

His three children are spoiled brats. He isn’t overly fond of them, but they’re his children, and on some level he supposes he does love them. They take after his wife, though, and he definitely doesn’t like her. Sometimes he wonders why he bothers wandering home after a long night, and he usually comes to the realization that he has nowhere else to go.

- - -

His boss gives him a raise, saying something about a vast improvement in attitude that sets an example for others. She says he’s in one of his Good Moods, and it’s about damn time, too. The reason is unimportant to him, and he dismisses it because she doesn’t seem to make much sense, but he does relish the fact that he might be able to give the bartender a little more money each night.

He wants to tell someone about this, but the only person who will be home right now is his wife, who, upon learning the news, insists they go out to celebrate their good fortune. He hesitates before saying perhaps it’s not such a good idea.

Apparently he’s gone too far this time. She launches into her worst diatribe yet, criticizing his parenting skills, his alcoholism, his sulkiness. She says she doesn’t know why she bothers sticking around, and he silently responds that he doesn’t know why either. She threatens to kick him out of the house and refuse to let him see the kids.

At this point, he snaps. He nastily tells her she’s a lazy, good-for-nothing materialist, and it’s his damn house, but she’s free to take the stupid children and go to hell for all he cares.

He yanks his head out of the Floo and stalks out of his office, then tells his secretary he’s taking the rest of the day off.

On the way to the pub, his mood lightens at the mere thought of her. The anger dissipates quickly and he instead becomes energized at the prospect of spending extra time in her presence. Vague plans of running off into the Muggle world with her take shape in his mind, and he senses that all he has to do is ask and she’ll come.

There is no one in the bar when he takes his seat, not even the bartender. He loudly clears his throat and a short man with a comb-over ambles out of the back room. The chubby little man asks if he can get him something, and he asks where the normal bartender is.

The first form of a response he gets is a sharp glare from the man, and the second is an explanation of how she was fired for ignoring most of the customers on the job. And no, she has not left any contact information.

The alien bartender offers a drink again, but he can’t hear anything beyond the white noise in his ears because she is gone and he has no way on earth of finding her.

She’s been fired and it’s entirely his fault, he thinks as he downs another sip of his drink, the first drink she hasn’t prepared for him in a month, and he can tell because there is not enough Cointreau and the gin overwhelms his tongue. It’s an hour later, and he’s downed more drinks than he’s had in the past week combined; the glasses form a multi-tiered wall in front of him, but none of their contents were particularly memorable. Her drinks were always perfect, made with a steady hands and a mind precise enough to make a Potions Master turn green with envy.

Green like her eyes.

He takes another swig and collapses onto the cool wooden bar that has to have an imprint of his face on it somewhere. He likes that idea, the fact that maybe he has made his mark on this slab of wood that is most likely teeming with bacteria. It’s a stupid notion, but he grasps onto it as the alcohol courses through his veins. He can almost feel himself drifting off into oblivion, into his mind where it’s only him and her and a nice, well-made cocktail that he drinks at a social gathering, not alone in a damp corner to escape from his dreary life.

He groans when a muscled arm slips around his torso and drags him back into a sitting position.

“Prongs, my friend, I have news for you,” a voice whispers into his ear. “You’re a bit of an alcoholic.” He knows that voice, well enough to not resist when his arm is slung around the man’s shoulder to help him stumble out of the pub and into the streets.

It’s snowing.

The thought slides across his lacquered mind like an ice skate across a frozen pond. He wishes he were ice skating with her because she must know how to do it, being a Muggle and all. He learned about it in his Muggle Studies class, and in his mind there is a wisp of an old desire to try it, but he never has, making this thought all the more interesting to his hazy mind.

“You have an uncanny ability for this sort of thing, you know.” The words, no longer in hushed tones, bleat sharply into his mind. He mumbles a response – unintelligible, since it feels like his mouth has developed a cotton lining. “I know, I know,” says the voice, sending him into another round of groaning and brow-furrowing, “you can’t help it. You have no idea, after all, but that, my dearest Prongs, is the point.”

They stop their lopsided motion at the street corner, where the man pulls his wand out of his pocket and waves it up into the air.

There is an ungodly loud BANG, which just about sends him into catatonic shock, but somehow he recovers and the next thing he knows, he is seated on the colorful bus that has just appeared out of nowhere, slumped against his rescuer.

“You remember how much I hate doing this, right?” The man is whispering again, and his ears are more than gracious. “I liked you two. You were – are – my brother, and I didn’t want to have this job, if you remember correctly.” He can feel the man’s eyes sweeping over him. “Which, of course, you don’t.” A sigh. “I never liked this plan. I told him it wouldn’t work because you can never forget something like magic.” A pause. “Or love. And yes, I think you did love her. Maybe you still do, somewhere deep down, but you have to at least try to remember that this was for her own good. What we’re doing is for all of their collective good.”

The murmurs are at an acceptable level, but there is something about the words themselves that are making his chest ache.

“If the Dark Lord is unable to find them, he is also unable to harm them.” The man seems to be quoting someone he dislikes, if his mocking tone and contemptuous laugh are anything to go by. “Sound in theory, poor in execution. As always.”

He has been sliding down on the seat ever so slowly, and the man drags him back up by his arms.

“Whenever you do find her, do you have any idea how tempting it is to just let you two stay together? I can’t stand this part of our agreement. Every time I’m shocked anew that despite your claims that you don’t want to waste your life chasing after her, you go ahead and do it anyway.” The man sighs. “Sometimes it is tempting to let you find happiness, even if that means I’ll die the instant I let it happen.”

As the man has been giving his little speech, he has been hovering on the brink of unconsciousness, and he can tell from experience that he will lose the battle within a few minutes.

“But you knew I would try that, didn’t you? And you just had to go and make back-up plans with Moony. You’ve trapped me in, Prongs,” the man says, and he can hear a slight break in the man’s voice toward the end. “All our hard work was for nothing. You’re miserable, I’m miserable, I’m going to guess she’s miserable, and it doesn’t even matter…” the man struggles to finish his thought, “because we lost. We can ‘deport’ the Muggle-borns all we like, but it doesn’t make you feel any better. I wish you could understand, but you were adamant that you couldn’t know or you would endanger her.” The man reflects for a moment and adds, “She’s a lot easier to take care of, though. No questions or resistance on her part. Only problem is she always comes back to London, even though she has no ties here. Sometimes I hate doing her more than you because it kills me when she doesn’t look over at the sound of my voice.”

The bus lurches to a halt, sending him flying forward, but he’s caught by the man sitting next to him. “Easy there, Prongs. This isn’t our stop.”

He leans forward to vomit, but the man prods his wand at his stomach and suddenly the bubbles disperse, and he crumples back against the man.

“It’s better to live and fight than to die for selfish reasons. That’s what you told me, Prongs.” The man’s arm tightens around his shoulders. “But to me… you don’t seem to be doing much living, much less fighting. I have to keep saving your pitiful arse, but by doing so, I condemn you to… well, being you.”

They’re both tossed forward when the bus slams to a halt again.

“We’re here, but I wanted to tell you something before I drop you off on your doorstep to patch things up.” The man uses one arm to pull him to his wobbly feet and whispers, “I wish it didn’t have to be like this.”

Just as he finally gains some semblance of balance, he reaches it – the edge of the pit in his mind. He’s just about to go careening over it, thoughts of red and green swirling in his mind, when he hears the quietest whisper yet.

“I’m sorry, James.” A gulp. “Obliviate.”