The Show That Never Ends
- Story Summary:
- The Sequel to The Paradigm of Uncertainty``January 25, 2008...five months later...
HARRY POTTER AND THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS
Chapter 13: Pitseleh
I'll tell you why I don't want to know where you are I've got a
joke that I've been dying to tell you A silent kid is looking down
the barrel To make the noise that I kept so quiet
I kept it from you, pitseleh
I'm not what's missing from your life now I could never be the
They say that god makes problems
Just to see what you can stand
Before you do as the devil pleases
And give up the thing you love.
June 15th, 2008...one month later...
The huge expanse of rear lawn at Bailicroft Estate was decked out to the nines for the celebration of Sirius Black's 50th birthday. Justin had gone a bit overboard with the decorating, perhaps, but that was hardly a surprise considering it was, after all, Justin...a man who would have put on a parade when he got out of bed in the morning if he could.
The gazebo and the tent that had been put up for the party were draped with flower garlands, ivy and sparkling balloons. The tables were set with crisp white linens and strewn with flowers and elaborate place settings for the gala dinner party planned for the evening. An eightpiece Celtic combo was playing unobtrusive but lively music from the stage in the gazebo where a few people were dancing. In the west corner of the yard games had been set up for the children, and partygoers milled around the long trestle tables bearing snacks and drinks.
There were about 200 people in attendance, but the yard was big enough that they didn't seem crowded in. The large French doors leading into the house stood open and people wandered in and out, talking and laughing. Everyone was having a marvelous time, and everyone was doing very well pretending that they weren't really watching Harry Potter out of the corners of their eyes.
He was mingling, just like everyone else, and he was smiling, just like everyone else. If he was a little thinner than normal, no one mentioned it. If his smiles didn't reach his eyes, no one seemed to notice. If people carefully avoided bringing up Hermione's name around him, they made it seem natural.
Laura and Ginny sat on a wide porch swing on the shaded rear verandah, holding court as many friends and acquaintances passed by and congratulated them on the smashing party. The guest of honor and his family were out in the yard, surrounded by well-wishers and gladhanders. Harry was standing near Sirius, talking to Arthur Weasley. Laura and Ginny were both watching him without acknowledging it to each other.
"How is he today?" Ginny finally murmured.
"Seems okay," Laura said. "He helped us set up the party."
"Did he have a headache this morning?"
"I don't think so. He hasn't had one in a few days."
"Good." Ginny took a sip of her drink. "Sirius asked me if I thought Hermione might come back, for this party. It was mostly her idea...to have it here, I mean to say."
Laura sighed. "I don't know. She'll come back when she's ready, not just for some old party."
"I miss her."
"Me too." Laura finally met Ginny's eyes, forcing a smile.
The weeks since Hermione's departure had been difficult for everyone. The emotional whiplash had been unbelieveable. First, the news that not only had Hermione returned, but that she'd found a way to cure Harry...and then, directly on the heels of this news, that she had gone somewhere on some sort of personal vision quest. Laura had struggled with feelings of resentment that Hermione had left without a word to her or anyone else, but she'd come to understand a little that her friend hadn't trusted herself to keep her resolve through a series of goodbyes...and that this trip, whatever its impetus, was important enough to her that she was willing to sacrifice the niceties of her departure. All information was...well, sketchy was a charitable description, but Laura was certain that whatever had happened while Hermione had been away seeking Harry's cure, it had been traumatic enough to push her to the breaking point.
As for Harry, his convalescence had been difficult and slow. He had awoken not an hour after Hermione had left, half-mad with disorientation. He had suffered intense neurological pain for several days, and was still stricken by occasional headaches. Laura had been by his side when he'd regained consciousness, along with Sirius and Cordelia and Molly Weasley. Far worse then seeing him in pain had been seeing that awful lost look that had come over him when he comprehended that Hermione wasn't there, that she wasn't going to be there. He hadn't understood, and he'd been in no condition to hear an attempt at an explanation. Laura would never forget the sound of him crying out for Hermione in his troubled sleep, his voice like a little boy's, lost and pleading. It had been several days before he could sit and talk to Sirius about what had happened and what Hermione had said before leaving.
Laura wished she knew how he felt about it. Did he understand? Was he angry? Hurt? Sympathetic? She had no idea, because Harry wouldn't talk about it. He had nodded in all the right places as Sirius explained the situation as best he could, and his responses had been rational...a little too much so, to her mind. "Whatever she needs to do," he'd said, with averted eyes. "If she needs to be alone, that's okay," he said now...but too often, like a mantra. "She saved my life," he'd point out. He was right about that, of course. What was carefully not discussed was that no one, not Sirius, not anyone, knew what it had cost her to save his life, because she hadn't told anyone. Napoleon had no memory of how she had affected Harry's cure, or at least he claimed not to, and Hermione certainly wasn't talking.
That was what worried Harry the most, Laura suspected. The cost of his cure. She couldn't imagine how it felt to know that the woman you loved more than anything had saved your life by some unknown means that had driven her far away from you.
Whatever else he might be thinking, however else he might be feeling, Laura knew that Harry missed Hermione dreadfully. He seemed smaller somehow, less himself. She saw him sometimes glance over his shoulder, like he expected to see her at any moment. His laugh was fading into distant memory, and all the self-confidence he'd had to work hard to achieve as an adult seemed to evaporate off his shoulders like steam, leaving them slightly slumped. Even now, when he was smiling and surrounded by friends and loved ones, he seemed to stand a bit apart and isolated. At the very least, this experience was giving him a small taste of what it had been like for Hermione while he'd been gone.
Laura had fully expected this fugue to polarize emotions among Harry and Hermione's friends. She'd thought some would be angry at Hermione and others would be sympathetic. This schism had never materialized. Their common friends had never split into some sort of pro-Harry camp and another pro-Hermione camp, as Laura had feared they might. The consensus seemed to be that Hermione would not have done what she'd done without good reason, and the prevailing feeling towards her was standing at "concerned." Higher priority had been given to rallying around Harry and bolstering him as best they could during his recovery.
But this day wasn't for Harry, it was for Sirius. Laura lingered on the porch as the partygoers gathered near the large cake set up in the shade of the big cedar tree. Sirius and his wife and children stood around the four-tier monstrosity from George's kitchen, smiling and laughing as Remus lit the candles with a sweep of his wand. Harry stood nearby with Ginny, who had drifted away as the cake-lighting began; as Laura watched, Harry put a companionable arm around her. Draco, standing on Ginny's other side, dropped a wink at his former nemesis over her head. Fred and George were lighting off fireworks that spelled out "Happy Birthday Sirius," their own special concoction, and the entire ensemble burst into a round of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," accompanied by the Irish combo, who appeared amused by the entire spectacle.
No one noticed the spare figure of a woman standing alone under the sycamore tree near the corner of the house, her valise at her feet.
Hermione came around the corner of the house just in time to see Remus lighting the candles on the cake. Everyone was gathering around the cedar tree, and soon they began singing to Sirius, who grinned before blowing out his candles to applause and good-natured catcalls.
She felt quite as if she were floating, hovering somewhere above all this sunshine and warmth in a self-imposed exile that she hoped was now at an end.
She couldn't see Harry. She caught flashes of red Weasley hair everywhere. There was Fred, who was easy to distinguish from his twin now that he wore glasses while George did not. There was Bill, dashing as ever. She saw Arthur and Molly, looking comfortably distinguished in their still-new roles as the First Couple of the British wizarding community. She didn't see Ginny, but quite a few people were standing around Sirius and her field of view was largely blocked. Harry would be up there, near his godfather.
Hermione shut her eyes. In a strange way she almost didn't want to see him in the crowd. That would make it all too real. While she stood here unnoticed she could hold on to her long-held fantasy about returning home, the one where she ran into Harry's arms and he held her and kissed her and everything was perfect...but if she actually saw him she would have to face the reality of returning, which might not bear too much resemblance to her fantasy.
She opened her eyes again, determined to forge ahead...and as the fates would have it, when she did so she found herself looking directly into Harry's eyes. The crowd had shifted and there he was, standing next to Ginny, and he was staring up at her with a stunned expression on his face. Hermione felt something wound tight inside her loosen just a little at the sight of him. He looked so handsome and healthy and...whole. He looked whole.
Sirius now turned to Harry and started to say something to him, but noticed at once that Harry's attention was focused elsewhere. As soon as Sirius saw her, it was all over. The gathered friends, all of them watching Sirius, started looking about to see what was so interesting, and within moments they were *all* staring up at her. Murmurs ran through the crowd, but no one seemed to know how to react. She could see quite a few people smiling at her, which was a relief...she'd halfconvinced herself that she'd return to find that everyone hated her. She saw Ginny start forward, then she hesitated and looked around to see no one else moving.
Predictably, Laura broke the ice. She'd been standing apart from everyone else back near the verandah, and she of course didn't care if no one else moved, if Laura felt like doing something she did it...and what she did now was cry out "Hermione!" in a joyful voice and rush across the lawn to embrace her. "Oh, honey," she cried, knocking Hermione back a step with the force of her greeting. "Thank God you're back!"
Hermione hugged her friend back, the effusiveness of Laura's greeting bolstering her flagging spirits considerably. "Laura, how are you?" she said.
Laura didn't get a chance to answer, because her welcome triggered a free-for-all. Dozens of people hurried up the slope to surround Hermione, their excited voices blending into one nonstop burble that washed over her and blotted out everything else. By some mob-mentality agreement everyone ignored Harry's lack of reaction and proceeded to greet her as if they'd been expecting her back today. She was embraced by Ginny and Cordelia and Justin and a little too enthusiastically by Napoleon.
"So where the heck have you been?" Cho's question cut through the babble. Good-natured laughter followed it.
Hermione tried a casual smile. "I'll tell you about it sometime," she said. [Author's Note: Sometime I will, too.]
Sirius pushed his way through, his wide grin sending relief up Hermione's spine. Although he had seemed to understand when she'd left, she knew that much of the burden of Harry's recovery had probably fallen upon him...and if anyone had the right to be angry at her, it was Sirius. But he only seemed glad to see her. "Hermione, welcome back," he said and hugged her warmly. "Take it slow," he murmured in her ear.
He pulled back and deliberately turned and smiled at Harry, who was still standing down near the cake. The people gathered around parted like the Red Sea to clear a path between them. "Harry," Sirius said. "Look who's turned up."
Harry walked slowly forward. Hermione took a few steps towards him, managing to keep her lower lip from trembling. Harry stopped several feet shy of her, his eyes on the ground at her feet, and for a long moment no one said anything or moved. Finally Hermione couldn't stand it anymore. She started towards him, raising her arms as if to embrace him. "Harry..." she began. He made a small, subtle gesture that she wasn't quite able to describe...a tilt of his head, a slight shift in posture. She stopped where she was and lowered her arms. They were still surrounded by friends and family, silently looking on.
"Did you..." he began, his voice cracking slightly. He cleared his throat and started again. "Did you come back to get your things?" Only now did he meet her eyes.
Hermione gasped a little. "Wha...my things...no! No, Harry...I've come home!"
He nodded, a forced smile on his face. "How are you?"
"I'm fine," she heard herself say through wooden lips. "You?"
"Fine." He glanced down at her and back up to her face again. "You look good."
"Thanks." Numbness was spreading across her whole body. "You, too." Was she actually exchanging *small talk* with him? Unreality crowded at the edges of her vision.
Harry winced a little, and she saw that he found this exchange just as ridiculous as she did. It made her feel a little better. "Come inside," he said. He walked past her towards the house.
Hermione hesitated. "Harry...what..."
He stopped and turned around. "Come inside," he repeated. Hermione followed him, picking up her valise. She could hear the murmurs rising again behind them.
Harry walked through the house, ignoring anyone who spoke to him. Hermione trailed after him, drawing stares and comments from the guests who had been inside and missed her return. Harry led her, as she knew he would, to the Cloister. Their room.
She looked around. It was as if she hadn't been gone at all. She hadn't come back to Bailicroft when she'd left from the I.D., she'd been too upset and confused. The room felt like she'd left it only moments before. The book she'd been reading was still on the table on her side of the bed. One of her sweaters was draped across the back of a chair where she'd left it. The bed was neatly made...she could see a glass of water and a small vial of pills on the table on Harry's side.
She set down her suitcase. Harry turned around, raking his hands through his hair. He shook his head. "I don't know where to start," he said.
"Are you all right? Just tell me that."
He nodded. "I'm all right," he sighed. "I still get headaches now and then and I have some trouble sleeping, but I'm all right." He met her eyes then and she saw what he'd been through, too clearly.
"Harry, I know you must have many questions..."
"Just the one, actually."
"Why?" He took a step closer to her. "Why did you go?"
She took a deep breath. "I've had a lot of time to think about how I'd answer that when you asked."
"I'm not sure I can explain it."
"Try." She couldn't believe how closed-off he seemed. His emotions had always been so clear to her, and he'd never been shy about telling her how he felt. Now, it felt like he'd buttoned himself up tightly.
She nodded. "When I got back, I just found that I needed some time to sort out a few things." She sat down on the window seat. "Harry, there's just so much a person can take. Leaving aside the fact that I've been fixating on your well-being for my entire adult life, the last year has been very stressful for both of us, in good ways and in bad ones. Falling in love with you was the easiest thing I ever did, but loving you is turning out to be harder work. First the Allegra Thing, and then you disappeared. My whole career changed and it cost me a lot of emotional adjustment to make myself into a good agent. You came back and for such a short time it was so wonderful, and then you got sick, and was up to me to do something about it, as it always seems to be," she said, a trace of bitterness creeping into her voice in spite of herself. "Mostly because I wouldn't trust anyone else to do it."
"Never a dull moment around here," Harry muttered.
"No, there really isn't. Harry...after I found a way to help you and I sat there with you in Confinement, I was just overcome with this weariness. I couldn't think ahead to one more day, one more week. All I saw ahead of me were an endless series of days when something new and horrible might befall us. We made it through this one, but what about next time? And the next?"
"You know, I seem to recall having raised these objections myself in the not so distant past," he said. "You said..."
"I know what I said: that one day with you was worth more to me than a whole year with someone ordinary. I still feel that way." She sighed, staring down at her hands. "I just needed some time. Time to myself to think about the future, my future."
"Time away from me."
She shook her head. "This wasn't about you. I hope you can believe that. This was about *me.*" She looked up and met his eyes. "Harry, there are things I want out of life. I want a career, and a home and a good marriage and even a family someday. More than anything, I want those things with you. I had to take some time and seriously consider if those things were even possible for you and me, given who we are. You can't change who and what you are, and I wouldn't want you to even if you could. The things that make your life dangerous are just part of everything I love about you...but the truth is that just being in love isn't enough."
"We have more than that."
"Yes, we do." She shifted a little. "I just...I had to remind myself who I am as an individual, Harry. I've spent all my life as your appendage. I couldn't move forward with us until I had some time to rediscover who I am, apart from you. I know that probably sounds selfish, and maybe it is, but I can't help that. I think there are times you have to give yourself permission to be selfish. I hope you can understand."
He sat down on the edge of the bed facing her. "There are a lot of things I don't understand right now," he said. He was still so controlled, so cerebral. She could only hope once they talked this out he could open up to her again. "Such as why you didn't just talk to me about this before you left. If you'd just told me you needed some time alone I would have given it to you gladly."
She shook her head, not voicing her doubts about how gladly he would have given it if she had talked to him. "I didn't want you to *give* me time alone. I didn't want to go with your blessing, Harry. *I* had to do this, on my own...and I knew I wouldn't be able to if I talked to you. If I'd waited until you woke up I wouldn't have been able to bear to leave you, and it was very important for me to do it. It had to be right then or not at all. If I'd stayed I was afraid I'd start to resent it, to resent you. That's no way to move forward."
"Okay, I accept that this was a strike for independence..."
"Don't do that. Don't trivialize it."
He blinked. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to. What I meant was I can appreciate a person's need to establish their own identity, especially for you. But you're not telling me the truth."
She frowned. "What...what's that mean?"
"When are you going to be straight with me?"
"What are you talking about?"
His eyes bore into hers. "What did it cost, Hermione?"
"My cure. What did it cost you?"
"I don't understand..."
"Yes, you do. Look, everything you've told me makes sense. The trouble is, none of it was new. We've already covered most of this ground together. The risks of my life, your identity issues...these are things we've talked about before and will do so again. So why did it suddenly become so overwhelming that it made you run away?" He stood up. "There's only one explanation. You got me a cure, but to get it you must have had to do or give up something that was so traumatic it knocked the wind right out of you. The entire time I was recovering no one would tell me how you'd cured me. This hacked me off until I realized that they didn't know. No one knows, not even Napoleon and he was with you! So now, you tell me. What did it cost?"
Hermione straightened up. She'd been expecting this. "I'm sorry, I can't discuss it, Harry."
He just stared for a moment. "What?" he said, looking like he honestly thought he hadn't heard her correctly.
"I can't tell you."
He walked back and forth a few steps, gathering his composure. "You can't *tell* me?" he repeated. "Merlin's ghost. I was prepared for just about any answer except that one."
"It's the only answer I can give you."
"You're honestly going to sit there and expect me to accept that you left for an entire month and you can't even tell me why?"
Hermione frowned. "Harry...I did what I had to do. Part of that involved keeping it confidential." This wasn't precisely true...keeping it from him was her choice, not Theo's condition. She knew what it would do to him to know the price she'd paid. It would chip away at his mind until he couldn't stand it anymore...no one could nurse a guilt-complex like her Harry, and it would destroy him. She would protect his mental stability to her dying breath...she had to, she'd given up too much for it already.
"I don't accept that."
"You'll have to. You know where your cure came from, don't you?"
"The Guardian...although I'm a little unclear on who that is, precisely."
"Good, stay unclear. Let's just say the Guardian is a being beyond anything you or I can really comprehend, and I must honor what arrangements I have with it."
He took a step towards her, hands on his hips and his jaw set in a stubborn expression she recognized. "Hermione, I don't give a rat's ass about some mythical being you made a deal with. I care about *us.* This isn't about the Guardian, this is between you and me. You can tell me anything, you know you can."
"I can't tell you this, Harry. It hurts me to say that, but please, you'll just have to trust me that there's a good reason for it. It's not important. What is important is that I'm home now, and I'm anxious to talk to you about my experiences and what I've been thinking about. *That's* what I need to share with you. We've got lots of things to work through together. I want to talk about what you went through while I was gone, and I need you to help me through some of the things I'm feeling."
"How can we work through anything at all if you can't trust me with this secret? How can I help you if I don't understand the problem? Whatever you had to do, I need to know about it. I'm a big boy, I can handle it."
"It's not a matter of handling it, Harry. Please, please don't ask me again. I can't, I just can't. Try to understand that."
"Oh, I understand," he said, his voice taking on a slight edge. She was almost glad to hear it, at least it was *some* emotional expression. "Like I understand that you had to walk out on me right when I needed you the most!"
She jumped up. "Do *not* start in on me with the guilt now, I feel guilty enough as it is! I needed you quite a lot while you were gone too, you know, but I dealt with it. You're a grown man, Harry, isn't it about time you learned to function without me?"
He stared at her, amazed. "I'm sorry that being with me is such a chore for you!"
"Oh for God's sake it isn't a chore, but don't you think we ought to make sure we're healthy first as independent individuals if we want our marriage to be healthy?"
"How healthy can it ever be if you insist on keeping this huge secret from me?"
"Harry Potter, you kept much bigger secrets from me for *years!*" she exclaimed. "You never told me you were an agent or that you had a girlfriend named Allegra, you didn't even tell me you were a Mage until you couldn't avoid it any more!"
"I had to keep those secrets."
"And I have to keep this one."
"But I've told you everything *now.*"
"How do I know that? Don't stand there and pretend you don't still have secrets from me, Harry, because we both know you do. Everyone has secrets they never tell, but you more than most because you never tell anyone *anything!* How long did it take you to tell Ron and I that you were almost sorted into Slytherin? I know it's not your fault, it's how you were brought up, but your first instinct is always to keep things to yourself!"
"Not from you."
"I'd like to believe that." She sighed. "Harry, no one else could do anything to help you. I sought out...well, I guess you might say I sought out a higher power. I made an arrangement to cure you. There was a price, I paid it. Please believe me, that is all you need to know and all you should know about it."
He shook his head, his jaw set. "That's not good enough."
Hermione felt tears rising in her throat. Something was about to give way here, and the dread was palpable. "The Harry I know would trust me," she said in a shaky voice. "He would accept I had a good reason and move on from there." The Harry I know would be able to tell me how he was feeling instead of arguing logic, she added internally.
He stared past her out the window. "Maybe that Harry never had to wake up in awful pain, scared out of his mind, to find himself alone."
"You said you understood why I needed to leave, but you don't," she said, suddenly weary beyond all description. "You've taken more than your share of long sojourns to center yourself, Harry. You know me better than anyone. I can't believe you of all people can't understand why I might have needed some time to myself."
"Maybe I could if I knew what drove you away."
Silence fell in the Cloister, a silence that felt like death. "What a vicious little circle," Hermione whispered.
He turned away, his shoulders slumped. "This is no way to start a life," he said, the words spoken in a dead monotone. "We can't move forward with something this huge hanging there between us."
The numbness was back, spreading through her back and shoulders and down to her hips. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying I don't know how this can work if you don't feel you can trust me enough to tell me the truth."
"Or if you can't trust me enough to accept that I can't." He said nothing in response. Hermione stood there on numb legs. "Harry...do you want me to leave? Or stay, so we can work this out? I'm the one who started this, I'll do what you want." He stayed silent, his back still towards her. Hermione felt like her body was being ripped inside out by his silence. The thought that she could actually lose him over this was surfacing in her mind like a dark creature from some dank and boggy pit, but she couldn't bear to look at it, it was too horrible.
She turned as in a dream and drifted towards the door where her suitcase still sat. She picked it up, hardly feeling the handle with her insensible fingers. Oh please God, please God, please don't let this be happening, her mind yammered over and over again. Please God please God please God...
"Hermione?" came his voice just as she was turning to the door.
Relief hit her like a good punch to the side of the head. Thank goodness, he's calling me back. She turned and met his eyes. I knew he wouldn't let me just walk out...
For one awful moment Hermione was sure she was going to throw up, but with a superhuman effort she kept her composure. That one word, spoken so softly, laced with so much regret and sadness...two syllables that she knew she'd never be able to stop hearing in her head.
She watched herself as if from outside as she set down her suitcase and slowly reached up to remove her engagement ring from her left hand. She set it on the table by the door where it glittered in the afternoon sunlight coming in the windows. Her hand felt naked and incomplete without it. She met his eyes once more but she could hardly see him in them, dead and expressionless as they were. She picked up her suitcase again and went to the door, but once there she hesitated. She spoke without turning around. "I love you, Harry," she said. She heard his reply clearly as she shut the door behind her.
"I love you, too."
How she made it back out to the yard Hermione would never know. The daylight seemed far too bright when she emerged onto the verandah, her suitcase clamped in her fingers like a tether to the earth lest she float away and burn up in the sun.
The partygoers seemed to have been waiting for something to happen. Everyone was milling around, not doing much, the cake-cutting forgotten, the band silent for the time being. When she stepped off the verandah everyone stopped talking and turned to stare. No doubt they had been expecting two people to come out of the house.
She looked around until she saw who she sought and made a beeline across the yard to Ginny's side, looking neither right nor left. Ginny saw her coming and stepped away from Draco to meet her partway. Hermione kept her eyes lowered a little, not wanting to see the expression on Ginny's face. "Please take me home, Ginny," she said, quietly but clearly.
Ginny hesitated. "But, Hermione...you *are*..."
She cut her off, the nausea surging in her chest again. "Ginny, for God's sake get me out of here before I fall right down on the ground," she managed through clenched teeth. She glanced up at Ginny's eyes, only a brief glance, but it was all Ginny required. Her eyes widened a little, understanding everything.
"All right, let's go," she said, putting one arm around her. Blessedly calm and competent as Hermione had known she would be, Ginny led her away with a nod of understanding at Draco, who remained where he was. Ginny didn't talk to her as they walked around to the front of the house. She didn't ask questions, she didn't ask if she was all right. Hermione kept her eyes on the ground and let Ginny steer her as she would. She couldn't think about what had just happened, it was too huge. Soon, she wouldn't be able to avoid it, but for now she could just enjoy this numbness.
Laura watched all this happen from where she stood on the lawn near Sirius and the other roommates. They all saw Hermione come out of the house and blink into the sunlight. Her face was deathly pale and drawn as she walked across the lawn to Ginny. They saw her speak to Ginny and then they left together. "Oh my God," Sirius murmured. "What's going on?"
"Did you see?" Laura said, looking around at the others.
"She wasn't wearing her engagement ring."
No one spoke for a long moment. "No, uh-huh," Justin said at last. "It can't be." No one backed him up on this. "They couldn't have...they didn't..."
Sirius nodded towards the verandah. "I think they did. Look." Harry had just come out of the house, immediately drawing the attention of everyone at the party. He just stood there on the verandah for a moment, looking positively green around the gills. Finally he walked down onto the lawn and with purposeful strides joined their small group.
"Well, is this a birthday party or isn't it?" he said, loudly. "Let's cut this cake, Sirius."
Night had fallen in London when the knock came at Ginny's door. She got up from where she'd been quietly reading and opened it to find Draco, Laura, Justin and Napoleon on her doorstep. "Come in," she said. "But be quiet, she's sleeping." They filed inside, an unusually somber group. Draco paused to kiss her as he entered; she grasped his hand, very glad to see him.
They sat down in the tastefully decorated living room. Laura spoke first. "All right, do we know what happened?" she said. "Harry isn't talking."
Ginny took a deep breath. "Well, they broke up." Stunned silence greeted her statement. "I don't know the details. Hermione was in a state, she didn't say much. She just went into the guest room and curled up on the bed. I gave her a sleeping charm, she needs the rest. She...she looked like death warmed over." She looked around at them. "How's Harry?"
"About the same," Justin said. "Except he's still walking around, but he's like a zombie. He put on a pretty convincing show of being a functioning person but I think he was mostly comatose all day."
Draco shook his head. "What a bloody mess," he said.
"Well, what are we going to do about it?" Laura said, that familiar can-do fire coming into her eyes.
"I'm not sure it's our place to do anything," Ginny said.
"Of course it's our place, we're their friends!"
"There are many ways to help friends, and sometimes the best way is to leave them alone." She sighed. "Hermione can stay here as long as she wants, I've got plenty of room. Laura, can you send her things round in the morning?"
Laura nodded, sagging against the sofa cushions. "I can't believe this is happening," she murmured.
"I know," Ginny said. "My God...what chance do any of us have in a relationship if *they* can't make it work?" She looked around at their uncertain faces. "Come on, we all looked to them as having this perfect relationship between two perfect people who were perfectly in love."
"I guess no one's that perfect after all," Napoleon said, staring at the ceiling.
"Good!" Laura exclaimed with sudden vehemence, making everyone jump a little. "It's about time they learned they're *not* perfect! Too much idealization is a *bad* thing when you're in love! Look, I'm a veteran of a ten-year relationship based on deep affection and mutual respect, so I can speak about this with some authority and I'm telling you that if you go into a relationship thinking you'll never hurt each other and no one will ever do the wrong thing for the wrong reason then you're only setting yourself up for an even bigger fall!" The others looked amazed at this tirade. Laura blinked, blushing a little. "Not that I don't think they haven't overdone it a bit, you understand..."
"Still, Ginny's right," Justin said. "Does take the wind out of my sails a bit."
"We'll just all have to really be there for both of them," Ginny said. "They'll both need lots of support. It's not our place to take sides or choose camps. We're their friends, it's our job to stand with them in a time of crisis."
"But let's not forget our other, far more important job," Justin said. The others looked at him quizzically. "To plan, plot and scheme how we're gonna get them back together."
A beat of silence followed. "We're going to need flowcharts," Napoleon said.
"An organizational diagram."
"Who's got a parchpad and a few high-liter quills?"
Napoleon sat down at one of the round butcher-block tables in the I.D. cafeteria, setting his tray before him. Harry was already sitting there, silently eating curry take-away. "Hey, boss," he said.
Napoleon cast a nonchalant glance over Harry's shoulder and spotted Hermione across the room, sitting with her friend Shay Daley. Harry, of course, would be aware of her presence...that was why he was sitting where he was. In any situation where they were both present, Harry always situated himself so he didn't have to look at her. Napoleon paid quite a bit of discreet attention to both Harry and Hermione's behavior at work. It was one of his assigned duties as a member of Operation Wombat, and their sole representative at the I.D.
Operation Wombat was the codename referring to the ongoing conspiracy amongst Harry and Hermione's friends to effect a reconciliation. The ad hoc Team Wombat consisted of the other four Bailicroft roommates plus Napoleon, Ginny and Draco. The nominative "Wombat," which had absolutely nothing to do with anything, had been Justin's stellar contribution. At their earliest meeting, George had half-whimsically proposed referring to their covert plans as Operation Something-orother, at which time Justin had blurted out "Wombat," the first word that popped into his head. Attempts had been made to think of a more appropriate codename, but of course after Justin's pronouncement all they could think of was Wombat, so they were ultimately doomed to use it. As far as Napoleon was concerned, Wombat was just fine...considering the source it could have been worse. They might have been stuck with Operation Dingleberry or Operation Pecs-a-Poppin' or Operation Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
It was all very hush-hush. No one wanted Harry and Hermione to suspect that their friends were poking their noses in where they might not be welcome. The team met in secret, usually at Napoleon's apartment or Malfoy Manor, which Draco now owned outright. Napoleon, the only one of the group who was an actual spy, was sometimes amused by the gymnastics the others would go through to avoid detection, but he had to admire the results. Neither of their subjects were aware of their plans.
It had only been a week since The Breakup, but the team's machinations were well underway. Napoleon was under strict orders to closely observe them at work...between him, Ginny and the Bailicroft contingent both of The Subjects (their preferred term when in Wombat-mode) were under surveillance almost around the clock. Laura, their de factor leader by sheer decibel superiority, kept actual records of their observations, separated into "Encouraging" and "Troublesome" categories. So far her pages were about equally full. Under "Encouraging," they had a number of behavioral clues...neither of The Subjects were sleeping or eating well, both seemed distant and preoccupied, both had been seen looking abjectly miserable when they believed themselves alone. There was also the fact that nothing had been done to halt or reverse any wedding plans. The invitations still sat in boxes on Hermione's old desk, and their perky wedding organizer had not been notified.
Under "Troublesome" were an almost equal number of behavioral clues. Both subjects seemed determined to ignore the other's existence and resisted being drawn into any discussion of their split. Both had made what could be considered symbolic gestures...Harry had taken down the copy of their engagement photo that hung in the living room at Bailicroft, and Hermione had left behind several significant items when she relocated her things to Ginny's, most notably the necklace he'd given her for Christmas and the gold-framed photo of him she'd kept on her desk. Most disturbing for some reason was that both had, in the past few days, been overheard referring to the other as their "ex." In both instances the word had been nearly choked out, but it had been spoken. All this was reported and discussed at the team's informal meetings. Laura had set up schedules, assigned individual tasks, and led a brainstorm session to come up with strategies.
Napoleon had the idea that Laura was taking all this a little too seriously.
"How's the curry?" he asked Harry now, sitting down to his daily tunafish sandwich.
"Ehh. Needs garlic." Harry casually held up a hand and a shaker of garlic salt flew off the condiment cart and slapped into his palm, neat as you please. "Did you finish the report on the..."
"Yeah. It's on your desk."
"Good. What was your recommendation?"
"I think we ought to send a team right away. We don't want Circle splinter factions popping up all over the Pacific Rim now, do we?"
"Indeed not. Who'd you have in mind to send?"
"Murdoch. He's got the best team for deep intel." Napoleon hesitated. "Might want to consider a joint operation with SIR. Couldn't hurt to have a couple-odd surveillance agents on board, as well as an experienced interrogator."
Harry nodded. "That could work. I'll speak to Isobel after lunch."
"Getting agents might be tough. They're all busy with prepwork for the big takedown in Florence they're starting up at the end of the month." Napoleon didn't need to remind Harry that Hermione was scheduled to take a significant role in this Florence operation, soon to be launched by her division. Harry might not talk about her or look her in the face but that didn't mean he didn't still take an interest.
"Oh, right. Well, it can't hurt to ask."
They ate in silence for a moment more. "Did you hear Disraeli Taylor is transferring here to the home office?"
"Sure, I approved her transfer."
"Oh, too right." This was a subject that had been causing Napoleon some stress of late. Disraeli Taylor was in charge of the CCO field office in New York City and was the most decorated agent serving in Harry's division, which was really saying something given that the CCO division included almost seven hundred agents worldwide. She was almost as famous in I.D. circles as Harry was to the wizarding world at large. There was much talk that she was the frontrunner for Harry's job, if and when he was promoted himself, which was bound to happen eventually. She was a plain, deadpan sort of person who lived, breathed and slept intelligence work and also happened to be eerily good at it...almost as much so as Harry was.
"With Galino gone, we're short on senior staff," Harry was saying. "The last few incoming classes have been light on CCO recruits. I was glad when she put in her request."
Napoleon set down his half-eaten sandwich. "Boss, should I be looking around for someplace to transfer?"
Harry blinked at him. "Why?"
"Well, she's so...you know, so Disraeli and all...I know how you feel about me, I just thought that when she got here..."
"That she'd be my new second?" Harry chuckled a little. "Jones, Captain Taylor is coming to take over Galino's job. She'll be supervising all the field teams, that's all. Besides, I already have a second."
Napoleon smiled, absurdly touched by this statement. "Thanks, Harry."
"Don't mention it. I mean that literally."
"So. Who's first tonight?" Laura said briskly, her big Wombat Notebook open before her. "Ginny, why don't you go first?"
"What do you want to know?"
"Is she sleeping?"
"Some. She's restless, though. I heard her get up twice last night."
"Have you seen her cry?"
"No, I haven't seen or heard her crying at all. It worries me a bit, honestly...after a trauma like that you *ought* to cry. I think she might be afraid if she starts she won't be able to stop. She walks around here in a half-daze and pretends everything is fine...but it's just not. The other day she was sitting on the couch reading a book and she didn't turn a page for half an hour.'
"He's the same," Napoleon said. "He acts like she doesn't even exist, but all he does is watch her when he thinks no one's looking."
Laura sighed. "This must be like torture. They still have to interact at work, don't they?"
"Not as much as you might think. They're in different divisions, they can avoid much contact if they try. But there have been a few...uncomfortable moments."
Justin spoke up. "Are either of them going to the Ministry Day party?" This annual event commemorating the anniversary of the founding of the British Ministry was celebrated with a huge, elaborate party at Ministry Headquarters. Held on the weekend closest to the calendar Ministry Day, June 30th, each year's party had a different theme. Last year's had been Latin-themed, and Harry and Hermione had made a big splash by dancing an energetic and very sexy tango while the gathered partygoers watched and clapped. A picture of him dipping her onehanded almost to the floor had made the front page of the Prophet, and people still talked about it.
"I don't know," Ginny said. "Hermione hasn't mentioned it."
"Harry's more or less obligated to put in an appearance," Napoleon said. "I think I heard him making plans to go with Sirius."
"Most of the Enforcement Corps officers are strongly urged to go," Justin said. "That'll include Hermione."
"That could be...awkward," Draco said.
"Especially after the spectacle they made of themselves last year. People will sort of expect a repeat performance."
"What's this year's theme?"
"1950's. You know, martinis, plastic on the furniture, big band music. I heard one of the organizers talking about serving cocktail weenies and setting up a fake bomb shelter."
"Oh, great," Laura moaned. "So everyone will be swing dancing. Couldn't they just hang up a sign reading 'Everyone Stare At Harry and Hermione' and save us all the trouble?"
The Ministry Day party was typically lavish. The Grand Concourse at Ministry Headquarters, a cavernous space large enough to hold two thousand people, was hung with 50's-deco style silver stars that spun and glittered. The floor was mosaic terrazzo, the groupings of furniture were upholstered in colorful chintz covered in yes, protective plastic slipcovers. The dishes were Depression glass and pastel kitchenware, the food was post-war efficiency, and the music was a steady stream of early rock-n-roll and big band tunes.
Ginny and Draco circulated, meeting and greeting...although Ginny did most of the talking. Draco was predictably quiet, though no one expected any less from him. Ginny was distracted, though she did her best to hide it. She was watching Harry with one eye and Hermione with the other. Harry was sitting at a table near the buffet, sometimes with Sirius or Napoleon and sometimes alone, nursing a gin-and-tonic while Hermione moved in careful circles around the room, keeping a minimum safe distance from his perch.
Hermione had come with her friend Shay and a few of the other new agents from her training class, most notably the tall and lanky American Lloyd Llewellyn, who was paying her quite a bit of attention...attention she wasn't precisely ignoring. Lloyd had signed on with the Strategy division, and Ginny had it on good authority he had gotten a bit of gleam in his eyes upon hearing of the Great Breakup. He was being smart about it, as far as Ginny could tell. He hadn't asked her outright to accompany him to the party, nor was he acting as if she were his date.
Neither Harry or Hermione had set foot on the dance floor. As they'd all anticipated, the music had included a fair portion of swing, and Ginny had seen a lot of people looking at both of them curiously, as if waiting for one of them to make the first move. Ginny wasn't holding her breath. They were, as usual, grimly ignoring each other.
Ginny led Draco to a table next to the dance floor where the Wombats had set up informal camp. Laura and Justin were already there along with Justin's boyfriend Stephen, who although not an official member was a sort of auxiliary informant. Justin was drinking a martini and Laura was working her way through a pile of cocktail weenies, a small graveyard of toothpicks building up next to her plate.
"This is loads of fun," Justin said, sounding exasperated. He drained his martini glass and slurped the olive off its swizzle stick, which had a radiation symbol on the end of it. "Welcome to Scenes From My Parents' Marriage. I don't know what we expect to happen."
"Probably nothing," Ginny said with a sigh. "I've had it. I'm just waiting for one of them to leave so the pressure's off. Maybe then I can have a good time myself."
"What does a girl have to do to get invited to dance around here?" Laura grumbled.
"Honey, stuffing your face with cocktail weenies doesn't exactly scream 'Dancing Fool.'"
"Oh, shove it, NancyPants."
"That's Mr. NancyPants to you."
"Grand," Stephen said. "That makes me Mrs. NancyPants. Terribly dignified, that is."
Hermione walked up then, giving them a smile that was a touch too wide. "Evening, all. Having fun, are we?"
"I love cocktail weenies," Laura said.
"I can see that," Hermione said, casting an amused eye to the pile of toothpicks by Laura's plate. "Nice party," she said, looking around. "I think I liked last year's theme better."
"Oh, I dunno. Plastic couch-covers really do it for me," Justin smirked, elbowing Stephen.
"I'll keep that in mind," Stephen rejoined with a wink.
The band launched into another swing song. Hermione showed no visible reaction, though the music must have reminded her of so many things. Ginny watched her face for a moment but detected nothing. They kept chatting of this and that, the music rattling on in the background as other couples danced.
Everyone was a little taken aback when a good-looking man, strongly built, came up to Hermione's side. "Hello, Hermione," he said.
She smiled at him. "Hello, Sasha." He was a stranger to Ginny, but Hermione seemed to know him. Hermione motioned to the table. "Everyone, this is Sasha Smith, he's Isobel's second...sort of my boss, in a way. Sasha, these are my friends. Ginny Weasley, Draco Malfoy..." Sasha shook their hands one at a time. "And my housemates Laura Chant and Justin Finch-Fletchley, and Justin's partner Stephen Eastman."
Hermione's friend seemed a pleasant enough fellow. The introductions over, he turned again to Hermione. "I hear you're quite the expert swing dancer, Hermione."
Ginny saw Hermione stiffen just a little. "It's a hobby of mine, yes," she said.
"I daresay I'm rather good at it myself."
Hermione smiled politely. "Is that so?"
"Yes. I took some classes and I used to go to the clubs often when I lived in America." His smile broadened. "Would you care to take a turn with me? Show these amateurs how it's done?"
"That's very nice, but I..."
"Come on. You haven't danced at all tonight. The band is smashing, it's a shame to waste good music." He held out his hand.
Hermione relented. "All right, then. Thank you." She took Sasha's hand and he led her to the dance floor. Ginny leaned forward, as did the entire table. Her midsection was fluttering slightly, and for no good reason. What difference did it make if Hermione danced once with some guy she knew from work?
The band began a new tune and Sasha led Hermione into a few turns of basic Lindy. Within thirty seconds, the entire table was wincing. Despite his words, Sasha was no swing dancer. He had a rudimentary knowledge of the basic steps, but he was clumsy and inexperienced. Even Ginny, who wasn't a dance expert, could see that it was almost inappropriate for him to attempt to partner someone as skilled as Hermione. It didn't help that everyone else who was dancing was watching them out of the corners of their eyes. Ginny felt embarrassed for Hermione, who kept trying to subtly guide Sasha back into rhythm and kept not being able to manage it. Sasha seemed oblivious to his own shortcomings, enthusiastically extending his steps far beyond his skill level.
Ginny felt like she was watching a train wreck. She didn't want to look, but she couldn't tear her eyes away. A tug at her sleeve distracted her. It was Laura. "Look," she whispered, pointing away. Ginny followed her finger and saw what she was indicating.
Harry was watching Hermione dance with Sasha, an expression of discomfort on his face. His lips were curled into a moue of distaste, and after a near-disastrous attempt at a flip on Sasha's part that almost landed Hermione on her backside, she saw Harry roll his eyes heavenward.
Ginny gradually became aware that almost everyone near the dance floor was glancing surreptitiously from Hermione, trapped on the dance floor, to Harry, watching the spectacle with annoyance. The entire situation was excruciating. Ginny couldn't imagine what was going through Hermione's head.
To everyone's great relief, the song wound to a close...but their relief was short lived as the band swung into another one and Sasha, incredibly, kept Hermione on the dance floor despite a rather transparent attempt on her part to escape. Ginny saw a wave of murmurs pass over the partygoers...and then stop abruptly when Harry got to his feet.
Everyone's attention snapped over to him, except of course Sasha's; he only kept dancing in a determined fashion. Harry stood up, knocked back the remainder of his drink, and slammed the glass down on the table with enough force that ice jumped out of it onto the tablecloth. He strode out onto the dance floor and tapped Sasha on the shoulder. Sasha stopped dancing and looked about, startled.
"May I cut in?" Harry said. Everyone heard him clearly, even over the band. Sasha looked puzzled. Hermione was staring at Harry with an amazed expression on her face...and not a little bit of apprehension.
"What?" Sasha said.
"Cut in. I'd like to cut in."
"Well, I daresay..." Sasha trailed off, his righteousness withering under Harry's flat, implacable gaze. "I suppose...if you..." He stepped aside.
"I don't believe this," Laura whispered. Ginny was speechless. Everyone around had given up the attempt at pretense and were staring openly. No one else was dancing anymore. They all just stared as Harry took Hermione's hand and they were off.
Ginny couldn't help smiling as she watched them dance. It was as if they had just been dancing together the day before, when in actuality it had been months. They moved as if they were one person, quick and sure-footed and so skilled, going through the most difficult steps and making them look easy and casual. Everyone gasped as Harry tossed Hermione into the air, catching her about the waist and flipping her around his shoulders to land back on her feet and swing right back into the steps. The onlookers clapped and cheered as they spun and twirled.
Ginny wished she could be as enthusiastic. While it was good to see them dance together again, she would have felt better about it if either of them would crack a smile. There was something rather perfunctory about the whole thing...then it came to her in a flash. What had always made it so special to watch them dance had been that feeling they exuded, that sense that while they were on the dance floor the rest of the world ceased to exist. They would look into each other's eyes and whatever was between them enveloped them like an invisible cloud.
That sense was gone now. They didn't look into each other's eyes, and they weren't enveloped in anything. It was like watching two strangers dance.
When the band finished the song they merely stopped playing without starting a new tune, as if they too were curious about what was going on. Harry and Hermione stepped away from each other when the music stopped. Sasha, still hanging about, looked from one to the other and appeared quite flummoxed. Harry looked over at him. "That's what it's supposed to look like," he said, his tone clipped. He looked over at Hermione. Though his flat expression didn't change, Ginny saw him give her a tiny nod of acknowledgement. He walked away quickly, every eye in the room following him. He went to the table where he'd been sitting, picked up his coat, and walked out of the room without a backward glance.
Hermione watched him go with wide, shocked eyes. The nakedness of her expression was strange to Ginny, having grown accustomed to seeing her friend rather guarded. After a few beats of silence Hermione turned on her heel and hurried from the dance floor in the other direction. Ginny started to rise but Draco put a hand on her arm.
"Don't," he said, his first comment since they'd sat down here. "Leave her in peace."
Ginny sat back down. The party resumed, and no one discussed the odd dance they'd just witnessed. Ginny found herself wondering whether this incident would go into Laura's notebook under "Troublesome" or "Encouraging."
one week later...
When Harry got home he knew the house was empty. Cho was out of town, Laura was in New Zealand for the weekend reporting to her home Ministry, Justin and Stephen had gone up to Sheffield to visit Stephen's parents and George was visiting Fred. He wondered if they hadn't coordinated their absences on purpose to give him some time to himself.
He hung his cloak on his customary peg, his eyes lingering for a moment as they always did on the empty peg where her cloak had always rested. He set down his briefcase, full of work he wouldn't touch as he didn't any other night.
He went into the kitchen, thinking vague sandwich-y thoughts, and stopped short just inside the doorway.
Allegra was sitting at the kitchen table, munching on a plate of cookies George had left behind for him.
Harry stared at her for a moment, unable to process what he was seeing. That's it, he thought. I've gone mad. Snapped. He blinked and shook his head. She was still there, looking up at him with a bemused smile on her face.
She looked different. She was wearing jeans and a plain heather-gray jumper, her black-coffee-colored hair lying in a thick plait over one shoulder. Her face was clean of makeup, her bangs curling over her forehead. She looked, Harry realized with a jolt, as she had when he'd first known her.
"Evening, Harry," she said calmly. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
His first impulse was to launch himself at her and pummel her senseless, but that hardly seemed sporting when she was only eating cookies. Conflicting thoughts and reactions battled each other back and forth across the inside of his head. Finally he decided just to go along, for now, and find out what the hell she wanted. He sat down next to her, carefully keeping his wand handy. "Mind telling me how you got in here?" he said, quietly.
"Front door was open."
"This house is protected with wards from here to Christmas."
"Wards are meant to keep out anything with hostile intent. I didn't come here to hurt anyone, Harry."
He pondered this a moment. She was absolutely correct, the wards were tuned only to keep out unfriendly people. If she'd been able to walk through them, she must not intend any harm. "Then why did you come here?" he said, keeping his eyes on the tabletop.
She picked up another cookie. "Do I need a reason to pay a visit to an old friend?"
"We're not friends. We were never friends."
She stuck out her lower lip. "Aww. Now that hurts, it does."
He just looked at her. "If you came here to pull the Sarcastic Villain act again, I swear I'll..."
She held up a hand. "I didn't." She pushed the cookie plate away and folded her hands on the tabletop, her expression uncharacteristically serious. "I came to ask for your help."
For a moment Harry wondered if he'd gone mad after all. "Sorry," he said. "I could have sworn you said you came here to ask for my help."
"Yes." She met his eyes then, and the other sarcastic comebacks that rose to Harry's lips dried up. If he didn't know better, he could have sworn she was terrified. "There's no one else whose opinion I trust."
Harry snorted brief laughter. "You *trust?* If you trusted my opinion you wouldn't have aligned yourself against everything I stand for!"
She shut her eyes for a second. "Will you listen to me, please? I'm surrounded by like-minded people, but there's no one in the Circle I respect. They're all too busy sucking up to me and bowing and scraping their way into the inner core to offer much honest conversation." She shook her head. "I find myself in unfamiliar territory, Harry. I'm struggling with..." She took a deep breath. "With a moral dilemma."
That did it. Harry burst into loud, bitter laughter, unable to stop himself. Allegra just sat there, fidgeting in her chair. "A moral dilemma!" he cried. "Oh, I think I may rupture something." He forced himself to calm down. "A moral dilemma, indeed. This coming from you I think falls under the category of 'ironic.'"
"Hey, you think this makes my day? I didn't ask for this, you know. I was quite happily going about my business..."
"Your business of blackmail, destruction and murder."
"Precisely, yes. When suddenly...well, there it was."
"There what was, exactly?"
She hesitated and seemed reluctant to continue. Harry peered at her a little more closely. She was pale and looked tired, which was unusual...he'd never known Allegra to present anything other than the picture of vibrant good health. He was beginning to get an odd feeling about this unexpected visit. He scarcely dared hope that she was becoming a little ambiguous about her villainy. The possibility of losing her as an enemy via some sort of change of heart was the most he'd had to hope for in awhile. She was a very powerful witch, maybe the most powerful one he'd ever met. The idea of getting her onto the side of the good was very appealing.
"I...I..." she stuttered.
He leaned a little closer. "Tell me." She suddenly shook her head, violently.
"Is it him? The Master? Are you afraid of him?"
"You would be, too. He could kill me with a thought. He would if he knew I was here."
Harry frowned. Whatever had brought her here, it must have been important enough for her to justify such a risk. "What's going on? Come on, Ali. Spill it." With a jolt he realized he'd just called her 'Ali,' which was how he had always addressed her when they'd been together.
She took a deep breath and thrust her chin forward, defiant. "I'm here because of something the Master has asked me...well, more like commanded me...to do. Something so awful even *I* can't justify it."
"The details aren't important. Let's just say...I might be what some would call a villain, but I'm not a monster."
Harry looked at her sadly. "Allegra, you murdered a innocent person disguised as Hermione to make me believe that the woman I love was dead."
"So you're saying I *am* a monster."
He gave a noncommittal shrug. "I've never been too comfortable with labels."
"Maybe you're right. You're entitled to call me a monster if anyone is. But...there are some things even I can't stomach. I'm not a sadist, Harry, or a psychopath. What I do, I do for a reason. It's part of the job."
He shook his head. "How casually you justify your complicity in more murders than I can count."
"My point is that I do things as part of a plan, designed to bring about an objective." She met his eyes. "I can't justify causing suffering and death for no apparent reason."
"Are you saying that's what the Master is asking you to do?"
She nodded, her eyes on the tabletop. "I don't know what's wrong with me."
He gave her a wry smile. "You're having an ethical crisis."
"Oh. Is that what it is?"
"I can see how you might not recognize it."
"So...what do I do?"
"You want me to tell you what to do? Easy! Leave the Circle, stop killing people, knock off all the evil and come back to the I.D. with me. We can talk about asylum. We can talk about all sorts of things."
She sniffed. "Be serious."
"Don't I sound serious?"
"Harry, I'm not in the market for a life-altering experience here. I just need a little guidance. Look, I've been at this so long, I don't even have a conscience any more. You're the most moral person I know."
"I told you what to do."
"Don't ask for my advice if you're not going to listen to it."
She stood up abruptly, shoving her chair back from the table. "I can't leave the Circle, Harry. I don't *want* to! It's *mine,* it's my place! It's what I do, it's who I am!"
"Look, I'm not telling you a damn thing that might make it the tiniest bit easier for you to go carry on business as usual." He stood up and faced her. "The only words I will ever have for you will be chosen to try and convince you to stop." There didn't seem to be anything else to say. Allegra turned partially away. "You want to tell me why you really came here now?"
She looked at him, surprised. "What are you talking about?"
"You didn't come all the way here just to ask my advice about some dilemma you're sitting on the horns of. You knew I'd never help you with anything, not even this. So what's the what, here?"
She sighed, her face curiously unguarded. "I heard about you...and Hermione."
Harry cut his eyes away, suddenly and intensely uncomfortable. "Yeah," he said, fiddling with the hem of his sweater. "What's it got to do with you?"
"I guess I wanted to say...I'm sorry about that." He looked up then, incredulous. "Yes, you heard right. Don't look so shocked. I may not have had many nice things to say about Hermione, but...well, even I could see that you two were well together. I'm not above human emotions, you know. You were all wrong before you were with her, and so was she. To see a wrong like that set right makes me think there might be some hope for our miserable species after all. Now...well, it's disheartening. For everyone. Even jaded old bitches like me."
"You expect me to believe that my personal life has given you a moment's pause?"
"You believe what you want," she snapped. "I came here under a flag of truce, Harry. I might be your arch-nemesis and all, but we have more in common than you might think. Even Holmes and Moriarty respected each other's intellect."
"I respect no one who threatens the people I care about," Harry said flatly. He was so tired, just remaining upright was starting to feel like a real job.
"You cared about me once," she said, quietly.
"You were good once." He met her eyes. "Or were you?"
"I was never on your side, Harry. You know that, don't you? I had a job to do from the day we met, and I did it. For what it's worth...if there had been a better way to achieve my objective I would have taken it. It wasn't personal."
"Yes, it was."
Silence hung in the air for a moment. Harry was suddenly struck by the surreality of standing here in the kitchen of his own house having what passed for a civilized conversation with a woman who was dedicated to destroying him. She gave a little start and seemed to come back to the present. "Anyway, I just wanted to say...sorry about everything. It's a rotten deal." She smiled suddenly, as it struck by an idea. "And hey, if you're feeling bitter and need a few thugs to go rough her up or something..."
Harry cut her off. "You stay away from her," he said, his tone deadly.
She shrugged. "Just a thought." She picked up her cloak where she'd draped it over the back of a chair. "All right, Harry. Truce over. I'll just be off, then."
"What about your moral dilemma?"
"Don't give it another thought. I'll find a way through it, I always do." She cocked an eyebrow. "Next time we meet we can try to kill each other again."
He chuckled in spite of himself. "I'll look forward to it."
"It's certainly less confusing." She walked toward the door but paused as she drew near him. When she spoke again it was in a quiet, hesitant tone that sounded strange coming from her. "I lied earlier," she said.
"When?" he said, keeping his eyes averted.
"When I said it wasn't personal," she replied, her voice husky. Before he could even open his mouth to respond she angled her head towards him and kissed him full on the lips, turning his head towards her with one hand on his jaw.
At first, Harry was too stunned to react. Before his tired, confused brain could process this sudden turn of events, all he was conscious of was that a woman was kissing him and it felt good. Hermione, he thought. Oh, Hermione, how I've missed you...how I've missed *this*...
It was a mere second or two before Harry's mind reminded him of the fact that it was Allegra who was kissing him, but he was already responding, his mouth returning her kisses and his arms rising to encircle her.
With a grunt of surprise and distaste, Harry shoved her away as hard as he could. She stumbled back a step and fell against the kitchen countertop. "What are you playing at?" he said, scrubbing at his lips with the back of his hand.
"You didn't seem to mind," she said. "Maybe you're not as heartbroken as you'd have the world believe."
Rage burst in Harry's vision like bright fireworks. Without a moment's hesitation he hauled back and punched her in the mouth. Her head snapped to one side but she kept her footing, and when he reached back for another blow she blocked it quickly and struck him backhand across the face. They both staggered back a few steps, facing each other in the warm evening dimness of George's kitchen. Harry felt sick to his stomach, his skin crawling with revulsion at the memory of her touch and how he had responded blindly, like an animal trapped in a corner. "Get the hell out of my house," he growled.
Allegra raised her hand to her mouth and wiped blood from the corner of her shapely lips, staring at it there on her fingertips. She looked up at him and her usual sarcastic smirk fell over her face. It was a familiar expression that he recognized for what it was...a mask. "I'll bet this little incident will haunt your dreams for a few nights, Potter," she said.
"Nightmares, more like."
"Have it your way." She swept past him, pausing in the doorway. "You always were a helluva kisser, Harry. Pity there's no one to enjoy it at the moment. Ring me up if you feel like practicing." She winked at him and left, her laughter trailing behind her and gradually fading away.
Harry reached for the back of one of the kitchen chairs and managed to get himself onto it before he lost his footing, his knees shaking and shudders sliding up and down his spine. He rubbed his hands over his face and sighed, too freaked out to do much but sit there and regain his composure.
He opened his eyes to see the plate of cookies still there on the table, one of them with a single bite taken from it. Abruptly, his left arm shot out and swept the plate off the table. It crashed against the wall, cookies and shards of broken ceramic flying everywhere and falling to the floor in an untidy heap. Harry let his head fall to the tabletop and for a long time he just sat there, listening to his stomach churn and wishing he could disappear, if only so he'd never have to look at himself in the mirror ever again.
Harry stared at the blank parchment before him as he had done for several days running now, debating with himself. At length, he came to a decision.
He locked the door to his office and then unsealed a small drawer containing an oblong box. Inside the box was an intricate blown-glass pen, a pen containing no ink at all.
Harry put the pen to the parchment and wrote, letters flowing from the empty pen. "Potter calling in," he wrote.
After a brief pause the answer appeared below his words, written by a invisible hand. "North here."
He put the pen to parchment again. "Why haven't I been contacted?"
"What do you want, Harry?"
"You know what I want."
"I'm in no humor for guessing games. State your business."
"Are you going to tell me what went on between Hermione and the Guardian?"
"I don't think 'no' is a strong enough word."
"I need to know. I need to know how I was cured."
"It is up to Hermione to tell you or not as she sees fit. It's not for me to discuss the Guardian's business."
"Something happened, I know it."
"Do you know what's been going on down here?"
"The Guardian sees all, Harry. You know that."
"So you know that we've broken up over this."
"That is a shame."
"Someone in the network must have helped her reach you. At least tell me who."
"Come now, Harry. As a network member you know the rules. I can't divulge the names of any other members. You must work in isolation."
"I think I know who it was."
"Don't bother telling me your theory. I can't confirm or deny anything."
"Do you have to go to school to learn to be this infuriating?" Harry's handwriting was becoming hurried and agitated, but North seemed to understand all right.
"Comes with the job. Anything else?"
"Yeah. I want to speak to the Guardian."
"No one speaks to the Guardian."
"Piss off. If this is going to cost me the only woman I ever loved then I think I'm entitled to a straight answer from someone up there."
"Whatever you may think you're entitled to is irrelevant. You are a member of the Guardian's network. Remember your place. You may be the Boy Who Lived down there, but to us you are but one of millions who help us. Your association with us can be terminated at any time. Remember that...and remember your oath of secrecy. We're watching you. North out."
Harry stared at the parchment until all the letters had faded away, then in a sudden burst of rage threw the glass pen against the wall where it shattered...not that it made the slightest difference. There would be another one in the oblong box the next time he needed it.
Hermione kept her mind focused tightly on the task at hand, namely, the bundle of parchment rolls she was carrying. She watched her Bubble, bobbing before her and occasionally doing a little loop-the-loop just to alleviate its own boredom.
Finally she stood there before the door to his office, that lightningbolt symbol mounted on it glaring at her. She took a deep breath, put on a casual, composed expression, and knocked.
She opened the door and walked in. He was sitting at his desk, writing on a parchpad. He glanced up just long enough to register her presence, and then bent over the parchpad again with no discernible change of expression. "What can I do for you, Lieutenant?" he said.
"I have the surveillance reports you requested from SIR, Chief," she said.
He looked up then. "Good." He held out his hand and she gave him the parchments. "Anything to add to the official record?"
She shrugged. "Not so much. It's just the standard bunch of brainless Circle stooges blabbing their damned fool heads off."
He nodded and set the parchments aside. "Thank you."
She just stood there for a moment, wearing her best mask of professionalism while her mind was screaming as hard as it could. Harry, look at me. *See* me, and for God's sake let me see you. Let me see you're just as miserable as I am. Look up and see that I'm exhausted and I'm sick and I'm lost without you. Show me you still have a heart...because the only way that I know *I* still have one is that every time I think about you I can feel it breaking.
Harry spoke again without looking up. "You're dismissed, Agent."
She nodded once, curtly, and turned to leave. She hesitated at the door. "I'm leaving tomorrow morning," she said quietly, her back to him. He said nothing, but she did not hear the scratching of his quill. "For Florence. The operation starts at the end of the week."
"I know," he finally replied. He spoke softly, but at least that detached edge was gone from his voice. She turned around, staying where she was. He was looking up at her; his face was still carefully composed, but his eyes were concerned.
"I'm a little nervous. It's my first big assignment."
He smiled. "You'll do fine."
"I'll...be gone for almost a month." Say something more, she chided herself. Tell him you don't want to go on this mission and leave things the way they are between you. At the same time, she knew she could never say such a thing to him, not now. Too much time had gone by. They were getting used to it...and based on his professional, almost cold treatment of her these last weeks she had begun to suspect he honestly no longer felt about her the way he once had.
Now, he only nodded. "I know."
His detachment was defeating her. She sighed. "Wish me luck?"
He came around the desk then, moving carefully and not coming too close. "Good luck." He held out his hand. Hermione extended her own and clasped his fingers in hers for a brief handshake.
"Thanks," she whispered, and bolted out of the office as fast as she could.
"Hermione? Is that you?"
"Yes, Mum." Hermione hung her cloak on the coatrack. Claire Granger came out of the living room and embraced her warmly. Hermione hugged her mother tight, feeling the comfort of home quietly steal over her.
Claire installed her on the couch with tea and sat next to her. "Darling, I worry so about your being away for a whole month. And this mission...it sounds so dangerous."
"You know I can't discuss the details, Mum...but I won't be right in the thick of the heavy action."
"If you say so. But do try and send me notes as often as you can, just so I know you're all right."
"I will." Hermione sipped her tea. "I spoke to Harry today," she added, quietly.
Claire looked at her closely. "And?"
Hermione shook her head. "Oh, Mum...it's like we're strangers. Barely acquaintances. I've never felt so uncomfortable in my life. I didn't think it was possible for me to be uncomfortable around Harry. He's like a robot...so cold and unfeeling, detached."
"Maybe he's afraid. Like you."
"What am I afraid of?"
"You're afraid it might be too much."
Hermione nodded, running one finger around and around the rim of her coffee cup. "You're right. And it is too much. Whenever I feel like I start to think about it I have to quick concentrate on something else."
"Why are you pushing it away?"
"Because..." She sighed. "Because if I let myself feel it it'll just hurt so much I won't be able to do anything but curl up in a ball and sob for days."
"Maybe that's what you need."
Hermione's jaw worked. "I think...I think maybe he doesn't love me anymore."
Claire reached out and took her hand. "Oh, sweetie. I'm sure that's not so."
Now that she'd voiced her deepest fear, Hermione's tongue seemed to have come magically loose in her mouth and she began speaking rapidly, spilling everything she'd been holding in for a month. "I touched his hand today, Mum...just a handshake but it made me feel like dying. And when he looks at me there's nothing there, nothing at all and I don't know what to do." She felt tears rising in her throat, a huge backlog of tears for all the ones she hadn't let herself shed. She met her mother's sympathetic eyes. "What if this is it, Mum? What if it's really over? I can't, I can't think about it, it's too awful. It's worse than just losing him as my fiance, it's so much worse not even having him as my best friend. Not to have him in my life at all is to have this huge gaping black hole that sucks up everything until I can't feel anything but his absence." Her words dried up then and she looked up at her mother, her eyes welling up. For the first time since she'd left Bailicroft, she didn't try to stop it. "I miss him so much, Mum. I'm...I'm broken in half..."
"I know," Claire whispered, smoothing Hermione's hair back from her forehead. "It's okay."
Hermione sagged into her mother's embrace and wept, a free and unchecked outpouring of the sorrow and grief that had poisoned her for weeks, unexpressed and tightly corked. Claire held her, stroking her back and soothing her with the nonsense syllables and words that only mothers can manage in these situations. Hermione let herself go with it, surrendering to this pain that she'd feared was too large to bear.
The Chancery was only accessible to those in the know. As headquarters of the International Federation of Wizards, security was tight. The building itself was Unplottable and you could only enter via Apparating, and only then if you knew the correct directional spell.
Harry, of course, was one of those cleared to come and go as he pleased, so when he showed up there the following afternoon no one thought it strange. He walked to the wing of the building taken up by the Deputy's Office, mounting the stairs up to where he knew he'd find Sirius.
His godfather came right out of his office as soon as his assistant alerted him that Harry was there. His face was concerned, for Harry rarely just showed up without owling first. "Harry, what's wrong?" he said.
Harry shifted his weight from foot to foot, uncomfortable. "I, uh...I need to talk."
Sirius sagged, sighing in relief. "Thank God. It's about damned time. Will you come in here, please?" He pushed Harry ahead of him into his office. "Nicholas, I'm not to be disturbed," he said to his assistant as they passed his desk.
Sirius guided Harry into a chair and sat down next to him, leaning forward expectantly. For several moments Harry just sat there, wondering how on earth to put all this into words. "Tell me the truth," he finally said.
"Of course I will."
He raised his head then and met Sirius' eyes, seeing only compassion there. "Have we screwed this up beyond all hope of repair?"
"Well, I don't know. I'd like to think that nothing is beyond all hope of repair." He sighed. "Harry, I don't know what you've been feeling. No one does, you've been so...buttoned up. Shut off."
"You know why?"
"I think so, but I'd like to hear you say it."
"Because if I don't shut it off it'll swallow me whole. I'm bloody petrified, of everything. Of her, of me, of what happened and what might happen next...or what might *not* happen next. So I walk around like a robot, which is what I feel like most of the time, by the way, and pretend nothing affects me. Sometimes it even works." He stood up abruptly. "God, how did I let this happen? I should never have let her leave Bailicroft."
"I think there's enough blame to go around."
"I was just so confused and hurt and...I didn't know what to do or what to think. But I should never have let her leave like that. She didn't want to go, I know that now. She wanted to stay and work things out. It's my fault."
"And what if it is? Does that mean you have to punish yourself forever?"
Harry sat down again, letting his head fall into his hands. "Everything hurts, Sirius. It hurts to move, it hurts to breathe, it hurts to think or speak or feel."
Sirius reached out and took one of Harry's hands, grasping it tightly. "I know."
"She left for Florence this morning."
"I'm afraid it may already be too late."
"Do you still love her?"
Harry looked up, the question like an arrow right to his heart. "Yes."
"Then it's never too late."