I’m sitting with my family having some homemade butterbeer and thought, “Hey, I didn’t post chapter 10 yesterday.” Oops! Still, thanks to everyone who had read so far, even knowing that I’m going to leave you hanging.
Chapter 10–Give and Take
Mafalda Hopkirk rubbed her eyes across the table. “Harry,” her voice was hoarse, weary. “Is there anything else you can think of?”
Harry shook his head.
Beside Hopkirk, Dawlish sat leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest. His narrowed eyes stared at Harry as though looking for some inconsistency that would link him to the attempted bombing, some small shred of evidence that would allow him the opportunity to end Harry’s ambitions of becoming an Auror once and for all.
Hopkirk turned and looked at Dawlish. “Unless you can think of anything we might have missed, I think we can let Mr. Potter go.”
Dawlish took a long time in answering. His eyes never moved, still waiting for something that would allow him to detain Harry for further questioning.
“No,” he said at last, sounding as though Christmas had been cancelled. “I suppose not.”
Mafalda Hopkirk nodded. “Well, then, Mr. Potter. We thank you again for your bravery and quick thinking. If you remember anything else that might be of use to us, please come by the Ministry or send an owl.”
“I’ll do that.”
Harry scooted his chair back, the legs sliding along the hardwood floor obscenely loud in the small Harrods office. He passed Dawlish without looking at him and entered the ornately furnished hall. A few Harrods employees milled about, confused about the recent excitement, and they eyed Harry suspiciously as he made his way through the labyrinth of corridors. Fifteen minutes and several wrong turns later, he found himself facing the door leading back to the sales floor, but before he could go through, someone called his name.
“Harry.” It was Cecelia. She ran down the hall toward him, arriving flushed and out of breath. “I–I just wanted to say thank you.”
“It was nothing.” He tried to sound calm, but the words came out in a breathy whisper, as though all sound was being sucked into her luminous, brown eyes.
“You’re so modest,” she said.
Harry felt blood rushing to his cheeks and fought hard, without success, to diffuse it.
Cecelia raised a small green bag and handed it to Harry. “Father said you were here to get a gift for your . . . your girlfriend.” She forced smile. “Here you go. Compliments of Harrods.”
“Uh . . . thanks.”
She turned without another word, her long black hair waving behind her, and started back down the corridor. Harry took a quick glance into the bag and saw a small, black case. Reaching in, he pried it open and saw a brilliant twinkle from the diamond necklace within. He stifled a gasp, knowing the jewelry must be worth considerably more than anything he would have purchased there. Looking up again, he saw that Cecelia had nearly reached the end of the hall.
“Maybe,” Harry started without thinking, and before he could stop himself, the rest of it was out. “we could have lunch together some time.”
Cecelia did not turn, but glanced back at him over her shoulder. “I’d like that.”
Harry nodded and, before he could say anything else to embarrass himself, whirled and rushed out the door . . . into the waiting arms of Rita Skeeter.
“Harry,” Rita breathed as Harry squirmed out of her embrace. “Who is that lovely girl? New love interest?”
“No, she’s just an employee here,” Harry muttered, stepping around her. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Rita did not excuse him. Instead, she followed him as he walked in between displays of expensive wares, whispering in his ear with every step. “Come on, Harry. We’re old friends. Something happened here today, the Ministry isn’t talking, and here you are.”
“We’re not old friends and it’s only a coincidence that I’m here.”
“I don’t believe in coincidence,” Rita purred.
They had reached the large Egyptian-style escalator. Harry stepped on and Rita came right behind. Her perfume seemed to form a toxic cloud around her, nearly smothering Harry and leaving his thoughts sluggish. He shook his head and took a step down the escalator in hopes of finding fresh air.
“While we’re talking Harry,” Rita said, matching his step down and bringing her perfume cloud with her. “I think we should talk about the new book I’m writing.”
Harry turned and faced her. “What book?”
Rita offered him a smug grin. “Why, your biography, of course. After the record-breaking performance of my book on Dumbledore, how could I not follow it up by describing your life? A classic tale of triumph from tragedy that–“
Harry pulled his wand out. “If you harass any of my friends–“
“No need to get violent.” Her voice remained calm, but she took a step back. “I have a right to report the truth, Harry, and you can’t stop me.”
They reached the bottom of the escalator and Harry almost fell over backward. Regaining his balance, he kept his gaze leveled on Rita Skeeter.
“I can stop you,” Harry said. “You don’t want the Ministry to find out that you’ve been ‘bugging’ me.”
Rita smiled, an almost reptilian look that made Harry’s heart sink. Reaching into her handbag, she pulled out a laminated card and held it out toward him.
“Tsk, tsk, Harry. While you were out saving the world, I registered as an animagus with the Ministry.”
Harry felt as if he had just been checkmated in a game of wizard’s chess. He mustered what fire he had left and said, “Stay away from me and my friends.” Turning, he walked away before he gave in to his urge to hex Rita.
“I’ll be seeing you, Harry,” Rita called as Harry reached the door to the outside.
By the time Harry arrived at the Burrow, night had fallen. Sitting through hours of questioning by officials from the Ministry had widdled away his patience to a splinter and he wanted nothing more than to go home and climb into bed. He knew that such was not an option, however. He had amends to make with Ginny.
Ron and Hermione were standing near the fence when he appeared just outside the boundaries of the Weasley residence. They both jumped as he popped into being before them, both their faces showing a mixture of relief and annoyance in the moonlight.
“Where the hell have you been?” Ron said, opening the gate for him to enter.
Hermione slapped Ron on the shoulder, then turned her attention to Harry. “We went to Grimmauld Place and you weren’t there. We’ve been so worried.”
Harry walked past them without looking up. “I don’t want to tell it twice, so you’ll just have to hear it inside.”
The three of them made their way into the house. Once inside, Harry plopped down into a kitchen chair and was greeted immediately by a plate of steaming food placed in front of him. He placed the Harrods bag on the table and saw Hermione’s eyebrow raise in interest.
“There you are, Harry, dear,” Mrs. Weasley said. Her voice did not carry the relief that Ron’s and Hermione’s had. Instead, Harry thought he heard a sour note of disapproval that stole his appetite from him. She added a glass of pumpkin juice, then left the kitchen without another word.
Ron and Hermione sat down across from him and for a long time no one spoke. Harry nibbled at his food, mindful of the sets of eyes watching him.
“Well?” Ron asked finally.
Harry stared down at his plate and began to recount his day at Harrods. He had barely begun, however, when Hermione interrupted him.
“Harry, is that . . . blood?” She pointed at Harry’s face and he raised his hand up involuntarily to the spot. When he drew his fingers away, they were smudged with red. He wiped his lips, seeing more of the red substance coming off.
“Lipstick,” he answered, and before he could explain further Hermione had whipped out her wand. Harry fell backward, nearly tumbling out of his chair, thoughts of his own birthday flashing in his mind.
“Hold still so I can clean it off before Mrs. Weasley sees,” Hermione whispered, her voice frantic.
Harry moved toward her, wary of any treachery that might leave him stunned once again. Hermione flicked her wand and Harry felt a slight tingle from his lips as Cecelia’s lipstick was siphoned away. When the job was done, she did not put away her wand and her face eased into a scowl that Harry could feel from across the table. Beside her, Ron’s eyes were also narrowed, his freckles lost in the angry flush that had risen from his neck and now threatened to set his ears ablaze.
“Will you let me explain before you two hex me?” Harry said, irritated. “I’ve had a very long, very bad day and the last thing I need is you lot giving me a hard time.”
A long moment of silence passed before Ron and Hermione both nodded. Their faces, though, still spoke loudly of their skepticism.
Harry finished his retelling of the day’s events, the words spilling out in a fast monotone from his weariness. By the time he had finished, the hostility had faded from Ron’s and Hermione’s faces, replaced this time by shocked disbelief. He left out any mention of his encounter with Rita Skeeter, deciding that nearly being blown up was more important.
“That must be what your Dad was called out for,” Hermione said to Ron. She turned back to Harry, her voice dropping so as not to be heard outside the kitchen. “Someone from the Ministry came this afternoon and asked to see Ron’s dad. He seemed awfully excited about something, but we couldn’t hear what. Then, they both left, right in the middle of the part, and haven’t been back since. Now, I guess we know why.”
Harry did not remember seeing Mr. Weasley at Harrods, but he did not doubt that the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister would be present at such a near-catastrophe. A virtual army of officials from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement had asked him questions in the small room where Mr. Fahad had taken him after his battle with Stan Shunpike. Several Aurors besides Dawlish had also come, but had pointedly avoided any contact with Harry as though he was suffering from spattergroit. When he had finally been allowed to leave, he saw the store and all its merchandise had been restored to their former grandeur, leaving no mark of the wizard he had killed.
“So, you’re telling me that Stan Shunpike was the criminal mastermind behind all the bombings?” Ron asked. “I’d have figured he have a hard time masterminding his way out of a paper sack.”
“I don’t think he’s behind it,” Harry said. For the first time, he was able to think about the days events without some Ministry official asking him the same question a dozen times. “He seemed to be just an agent for someone else.”
“‘Not for long,'” Hermione mused. She leaned back in her chair, her eyes sliding out of focus as she analyzed the details of Harry’s story. “What do you think he meant by that?”
“No idea,” Harry answered. Now that he had a moment to think without having to rescue elderly ladies from being hurled over balconies, he found Stan’s cryptic words very disturbing. They implied that someone knew of a way to bring the Dark Lord back to life, even after his fall at Hogwarts. That thought, the idea of Voldemort rising yet again, made him feel sick. If only Stan could have been questioned before . . . before he died, Harry thought.
Above everything else, the fact that he had slain another person weighed heavily upon Harry. He had slain Voldemort, yes, but he considered the Dark Lord barely human, more of a magical construct than anything of true flesh and blood. Besides, had it not been his destiny to defeat Voldemort? To kill him? Even in the cool aftermath of the Battle of Hogwarts, he felt no guilt over emerging triumphant over the Dark Lord. Having slain Stan Shunpike, though, regardless of his initial misconceptions about the former Knight Bus conductor, made him feel as though a shadow had crawled inside him and would not be evicted from his tired body. He recognized that, as an Auror, he would likely be called upon to slay dark wizards, but he was not an Auror yet and had received no training in how to cope with the results of a fatal battle. Not sure of what he should be feeling, he decided the best thing he could do was to feel nothing.
“Where’s Ginny?” Harry asked, trying to push thoughts of Stan Shunpike from his mind.
Ron and Hermione shared an uncomfortable glance.
“Well, you have to understand,” Hermione began, “that we didn’t know about all that happened to you and–“
“Where is she?” Harry repeated, dreading the answer.
They exchanged another troubled look, then Ron spoke. “She’s at Bill’s. She waited for you until everyone else had left, then she went back with Bill and Fleur.”
“To Shell Cottage?”
Harry stood up. “Then I guess I’ll go there and then go back to Grimmauld Place. I need to explain to her–“
“Don’t go there,” Hermione said.
Harry looked confused. “Why not?”
Ron shook his head and wrapped his arm around Hermione. “Trust us, mate. You don’t want to see her right now.”
Anger flared in Harry again and he leaned over the table toward them. “Why not?” he repeated.
“Go then,” Hermione said, exasperated. “But don’t say we didn’t warn you.”
Harry, pressed now as much by curiosity as by his desire to set things right with Ginny, picked up the Harrods bag and stormed out of the kitchen into the garden. He made his way to the gate, threw it open with more force than was necessary, and Disapparated.
When Harry popped into existence, he found himself just beyond the bounds of Shell Cottage. The moon was high overhead, casting a silver glow on the many trees surrounding the house and he could hear the sea crashing upon the rocks just beyond his line of sight. Opening the gate, he walked into the garden and a sight to his left caught his eyes.
Dobby’s grave, fully illuminated in a gap between two trees, lay in a near corner of the grounds. He walked to it, remembering with a dull sense of loss how it came to be there, how he had dug it himself without magic in honor of his friend’s sacrifice. The mound of earth had settled since he had last seen it, evidenced only by a slight roll in the earth that, now fully cloaked in grass, would be easy to miss on a darker night. Dotting the blanket of green, several small yellow flowers weaved in amongst the grass and seemed to twinkle in the moonlight. The headstone still bore the words he had carved the night of Dobby’s death.
Here Lies Dobby, A Free Elf
Harry stared down at the grave and particularly at one word on the headstone. To him, it seemed to grow, almost drowning out the others until it was all he could see. Free. He had thought that ridding the world of Voldemort would free him from the troubles and fear he had lived with since he had reentered the wizarding world, but they seemed greater now than ever before. While he waited anxiously for N.E.W.T. scores to determine if he could become an Auror, worried about what the Death Eaters were planning, felt confused over the death of Stan Shunpike, and fretted over his relationship with Ginny, he felt weary of the world. Dobby had died a hero, had done his work and was now more free than even he could have imagined. Bearing the weights of his past, his present, and his future, Harry found himself, for a moment, envying the liberated house elf.
The muffled sound of voices, a male and a female, drifted to him, borne on the salty breeze coming in from the sea. He pulled his wand and ducked into the shadows beneath the trees next to Dobby’s grave. Working his way quietly through the underbrush, hoping that the slapping waves would mask his footsteps, he made his way to the rocky shore and saw two figures sitting with their backs to him. In the well-lit night, he could make out Ginny’s red hair. Sitting next to her, he saw a thin body with short, dark hair and Harry’s hopes that Ginny was sitting with her brother were dashed at once. When the dark-haired head turned toward him, he saw the familiar face of Dean Thomas. He was smiling, his white teeth luminous in the semi-darkness. Then, he leaned toward Ginny, kissing her on the ear.
Anger flared in Harry as he stepped from the shadows. In a far corner of his mind, he recalled Ron and Hermione warning him not to come here, but his growing fury pushed their voices away.
Ginny and Dean both turned at his approach, surprise evident on both their faces. Harry saw both of them reach for their wands, then relax as they recognized him. His own hand, still holding his wand, however, did not relax. He did not point it at them, but he raised it in a manner that made them both flinch as though they expected him to hex them at any moment.
“Moving on, are we?” Harry asked Ginny, stopping a few feet away from her. “Going back to recycle your old boyfriends?” A tiny voice inside him told Harry that he was jumping to conclusions, but again his anger pushed it away, banishing it to the same corner as Ron’s and Hermione’s warnings.
Ginny stood quickly and when she turned to face him, he could see her face had gone scarlet. “What’s it to you? Dean came to my birthday party and you didn’t? Who do you think makes me feel more important right now?”
Rather than withering beneath her stern gaze, Harry took a step closer to her. “I guess you don’t even want to hear why I didn’t make it, how I’ve been tied up in London all day after nearly getting blown up finding your birthday present?”
“It’s always something, isn’t it?” she asked, equally standing her ground. “That’s the way it is with Famous Harry Potter. Everything–” he saw a tear fall from each eye, glistening on her cheek, “everything is more important than me.”
Dean moved around Ginny, aligning himself between her and Harry with his hands held up before him. “Harry, we’re just talking. That’s all.”
Harry blinked at him. “Talking? I guess you were whispering in her ear a moment ago.”
“Save it,” Harry said. He took a step back and rummaged in the mokeskin bag. He pulled out Ginny’s gift, the small box he had received at Harrods. He could imagine the diamond necklace inside glittering like a string of stars as he fastened it around her neck, standing right where they now stood, with no Dean. Instead, he saw only himself and Ginny, alone on one perfect, romantic night.
He threw the box in the grass at Ginny’s feet.
“Happy Birthday.” Turning, he walked back across the garden toward the gate and let himself out, Disapparating as soon as he was beyond Shell Cottage’s boundaries.