The Purpose of Wings @charlennette
Chapter 7: May These Bruises Fade

Author's Note: Hello, thank you for reading my story. Please see my profile for information regarding canon compliance and a general timeline of my interconnected stories. While they are not necessary to read, my short stories add flavour and context.

Sincere gratitude must be given to Luq707, LTCMDR Michal Drápalík and all the other great people who gave up their time to edit my story in the Harry/Fleur discord.

I own none of the rights, nor make money, nor gain fame, or anything else from Harry Potter.

Cheers.

Chapter 7: May These Bruises Fade

Morning dawned bright. Swirls of pink and orange filtered through the curtains of Harry's bedroom window like ribbons of velvet sunlight. Distantly, the sound of birdsong filled the air, lilting nearly so quiet as to be disregarded for a musical breeze. For the most part, however, it was still dark. The sliver of light incapable of illuminating the furthest reaches of the shaded room.

Harry absently tracked the sun's trail from where he lay on his side in bed. The thin peak of light stretching out as the morning's herald rose higher above the horizon. The rise and fall of Fleur's chest against his back was comforting, as were the legs and arms that she had latched onto him with through the night as though scared she would wake up without him. Again.

With a resigned air, he had attempted sleep. The nightmares that had plagued him of blood-covered silver and cold, pale skin had been a constant companion every night since the attack. Tortured visions mocking him from behind eyelids.

At times he heard his mother. Her shouted protestation of "not Harry, please not Harry" melding into the beautifully broken voice of Fleur as she pleaded for their own daughter's life.

No. He had not slept well. Not for a long time.

The bruised skin under his eyes had caused looks of concern to be furtively snuck his way, which he ignored.

Last night had been better, relatively speaking. The conversation with Neville had not resolved the fear or the rage at his impotence, but it had dulled the ache of his indecision. Straddling the line of committing to one version of himself over the other had worn at him. He had never done well with indecision, preferring to act decisively and with conviction whenever possible. Once a decision was made he followed through, at times to disastrous ends. However, simply having a choice made and focusing on it was preferable to him than the poisonous second-guessing he'd been subjecting himself to.

Neville would probably never fully grasp the importance of the hand he reached out that day in the muck but Harry did. And damned if he didn't know if he could ever thank his friend as he deserved.

Idly, he wondered if his father had a similar friend. Someone to curb his worst impulses. Someone who stopped him from running blindly off a cliff, perhaps even saving his own marriage in the process.

Remus was the obvious choice, he thought. Level-headed, logical. For even though Sirius and James had been like brothers, sometimes you needed someone who wouldn't support you unquestioningly. Who would force you to face your follies.

A whimper from behind perked his ears to attention, wrenching his focus outward. The long fingers of his wife were fisted tightly in his nightshirt. A tremble passed through her arm as her soft snoring turned to shuddered gasps.

Terrors lurked in dreams. A fact he knew well.

Giving his wife a gentle shake, she stirred and stiffened against him. Loss, unwelcome and painful swamped him at the feeling. Their relationship had noticeably cooled and the gap was ever widening.

She had pulled away from him or perhaps she remained while he spun loose. No matter the cause, the effect remained the same. While she could not fight her body's natural inclinations to press against his at night, the morning brought recognition and rejection.

Fleur rolled to her side and the space between them seemed insurmountable.

Fear makes monsters of us all, he contemplated. He'd been a poor husband, a poor father. Had crumbled under the avalanche of anxiety for his daughter's safety. How had his parents done it? Neville's? He did not know.

A choice.

Now a consequence.

Without wasting words, Harry stirred from a marital bed gone cold. He padded softly out of the bedroom and downstairs, stopping at the landing to gaze at the closed door taunting him from the end of the hall.

An internal battle had been waged and lost. Though the embers of the conflict flickered still, bright and hot. Even so, Harry wrenched himself around and made his way to the kitchen instead of following the urge seeking to drag him down that long, dark hallway to the beckoning door.

Breakfast would not make itself.

The ghosts of great men had been roused in Harry's mind lately, ever since he'd first stepped into that office. They lingered just over his shoulder, testing him. They too had made choices. Choices that had rippled across the fabric of the world in roiling waves, tearing apart the seams of families and foes alike. It wasn't until Neville's words had Harry been able to make sense of the whispered rumblings that shivered their way through his mind. Warnings and condemnations.

Had Dumbledore ever understood the ramifications of his trust that November night when he left a baby on a doorstep? Did Snape's life ever feel free from a choice made as a young, foolish man?

Both had died before such questions could ever be answered, let alone asked. Harry had thought he'd found closure, standing atop that lonely hill a decade after their passing as he traced their names on a memorial made of marble and magic.

The men who had shaped Harry indelibly left their marks. They'd moulded him into an amalgamation of choices that had carried over into the next generation. He'd reacted with the same fearful paternalism practised against him, had threatened the sanctity of love by tempestuous reactions.

Choices and ghosts, he knew, were best left buried as memories. No good came of unearthing them either through a stone now lost or a door best closed.

He was nothing but a cracked mirror. A leaf washed down a river, following the movement of a stream determined long before.

His ponderous mood was broken by the flare of his fireplace, he put down the pastries he was making and peeked around the corner to the living room.

Hermione Granger-Weasley was siphoning soot from her sharp business attire and muttering to herself.

"Morning Hermione," Harry intoned. "Would you like some tea?"

The witch started, her shoulders jerking upwards but stilling quickly. She grinned sheepishly at him as she finished dusting herself off. "Good morning, Harry. No, I don't need tea, thank you for asking. I'm afraid I can't tarry long."

He nodded solemnly in response as he settled against the doorframe that demarcated the boundary between kitchen and living room. "So, what can I do for you?" He asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

Hermione chewed her bottom lip, eyes bouncing ponderously from side-to-side like a metronome. His own lips turned slightly upwards at the tips at the familiar sight of a vexed Hermione.

Seeming to come to some agreement with herself, the witch closed the distance between them. Her arms raised so that she could wrap them around Harry's waist. She burrowed her thickly plaited hair into his chest.

"I'm so sorry, Harry. I'm so, so sorry."

He let out a sigh, as he stroked his friend's head in acceptance of her sentiment. "She is alright, Hermione. That is what is important." He paused as he felt moisture soaking through his shirt and soft sniffling sounds coming from beneath his chin. "You know, it is thanks to your work creating a Portkey capable of being triggered by a ward that saved her life," he mused.

With great feeling, he kissed the top of his friend's head. "Thank you." His murmur was barely discernible through the tangled brown locks.

A greater sob passed through the diminutive witch's body before she schooled herself. Straightening, she unlocked her arms from around him before patting his chest in a motherly fashion.

"Yes, well, that is good," came her reply, her voice affecting nonchalance even as tears still trickled down her cheeks.

"I wish I could have come to see you all," Hermione continued, surreptitiously wiping away the stains on her face. "But right as word spread about the attack, Abbas from Azerbaijan and the Armenian delegation began to attack the Resolution's credibility."

Resentful poison rushed through his veins as Harry struggled to remain focused. "They used the school burning down?"

"Yes," Hermione confirmed. "They claimed it was indicative of… 'dark creatures' predilection towards wanton destruction. That they can't be trusted to retain the International Statute of Secrecy without firm regulation from Wizards."

"I see." Cold. He felt so very cold.

"That's why I couldn't leave, I needed to do as much damage control as possible. If I had let them control the narrative alone…" She trailed off.

"The Resolution would have stalled," he finished for her. He scrubbed his face with his hands, pressing against his eyes wearily. "Don't worry about it," he said through his fingers, "I knew you had a job to do. Besides, Ron was over here daily anyways."

"That is what I wanted to talk to you about… Ron mentioned that you were, uh, having difficulties." Her voice took on a beseeching tone, it was clear she didn't quite know how to broach the subject.

"He told you about the tiff we got into, you mean?" Harry smirked as colour rose up her neck. "Don't fret, your husband straightened me out. Made it clear that I was being a dunderhead in your place." He looked away, his joking tone fading. "He was right. I'm not trying to solve the case myself anymore."

A small hand rubbed his arm soothingly. "I understand how hard that must be for you, Harry. Truly, I do. And I'm proud of you."

"I appreciate that but pride won't keep my family safe. Nor, I fear, can the Aurors."

"They aren't the same Department any more. They've been modernized extensively, both during and after your involvement."

"Magical Law Enforcement has greatly improved under your leadership," he admitted, "but there are still problems."

"I suspect there always will be," she replied, not unkindly. "But you can trust Kingsley and Neville, surely."

He nodded, attempting a show of conviction.

Hermione seemed to sense he needed a change of conversation

"There is something else we need to talk about," she muttered, her face betraying trepidation.

"The ICW?"

"Unfortunately." She nibbled upon her bottom lip again. "News will break today so I thought I'd tell you in person. The Resolution passed."

Harry blinked. "Uh, that's great?" Hermione's downcast face caused confusion to run rampant. Had the provisions been watered down? What concessions did she have to make? Did any of this even matter any more?

"Well, yes, it is." She brightened marginally. "But, well, many Member States are unhappy about it. The ones that supported us are angry that it isn't as effective as they'd hoped and the ones that were against it are, of course, upset that it passed at all."

"Colour me surprised."

"Mhm."

He rolled his eyes. "Out with it, Hermione."

The words tumbled out so quickly he had to take a moment to sort out what she'd said. "Most of the provisions have certain caveats, they are either optional or unenforceable." Her face crumpled. "I'm so sorry, Harry. We failed."

A few weeks ago, he might have commiserated with her, even shared in her crushed spirit. But his world had changed along with his priorities.

He heaved a sigh before reaching out to ruffle Hermione's head of hair. She batted his arm away irritably, which caused him to chuckle.

"Don't apologize. You did great. The foundation has been laid for the future, which is all we could have hoped for."

"I wanted more."

"So did I," he confessed. "But this was important too. At least it is on record. What is that phrase you used when you first roped me into this? 'Rome wasn't built in a day?'"

"Don't use my words against me, Harry." She squinted at him amusedly. "You make them sound dumber than they are."

"You wound me," he responded dryly.

His ploy had the intended effect. He watched as the timidity leached out of Hermione slowly, her jaw set and spine straightened.

"Right," she spoke to herself, "this is good. This is workable." Her eyes steeled. "We need to start an education campaign to combat the disinformation being spread. If we get more public support we can push for more at the next ICW conference."

Harry nodded resolutely. "That's the spirit." He didn't voice his own opinion, she did not need bitterness and spite. Hermione operated on hope and tended to not appreciate his pessimism.

Instead, he decided to urge her differently. "Go wake Lili before you leave, Hermione. She will want to see her godmother."

The witch smiled with genuine fondness. "Yes, I'd like that," she said as she turned towards the stairs.

He watched as she made her way up to his daughter's room before ambling back into the kitchen.

Between chocolate croissants and Lili's insistence, the Potters would likely have a guest for breakfast this morning.

Hermione did indeed stay. Her presence a welcome respite, filling the dining table with chatter that had been sorely missed. Her presence was sunshine, bright and revitalizing.

When Fleur had come down to see breakfast made, she'd quirked an eyebrow but said nothing. Her eyes trailed over him as he placed food on the table before engaging Hermione in conversation.

The two witches spoke of Fleur's work at the Spellweaving magic was fascinating and went mostly over Harry's head as the brilliant women discussed the intricacies of magical theory across from him.

Regardless, he listened contentedly as Fleur discussed her work and to Hermione's inquisitive questions.

Ernst had figured out an arithmantic expression that resolved one of the quandaries causing problems with the project's ward line. Due to the magic-nullification nature of the ward, it tended to slowly erase itself from the inside out. Fleur's deft charmwork had fixed that problem but the ward lines had been too unstable, causing strange properties to manifest when anyone entered the boundary. Supposedly, such quirks had now been settled.

The cool air between the Potters did not go amiss. Hermione had flashed him numerous worried looks throughout breakfast before pulling him aside during the dishwashing.

"Are you two alright?" She questioned bluntly.

Harry grimaced. He moved to scratch his jaw only to blanch at the sudsy contact from soap-slicked fingers. Hermione tutted at him as she swiped at the bubbles on his cheek with the drying rag clutched in her hands.

"We got into an argument," he disclosed. It seemed a gross understatement to him, a falsity that his friend easily saw through.

"Fleur tends to say her piece and be done with it, not become distant." Hermione glanced at him from the corner of her eyes. "What happened?"

Harry debated divulging details about the wall erected between him and Fleur before resolving himself resignedly. He'd dug himself a hole, mind as well ask for a rope.

"She wants Lili to go to school and I don't." He coughed awkwardly. "And she's…displeased that I've been investigating Dolohov."

Hermione glowered at him. "I imagine she is. Oh, you insufferable man." She waggled her finger at him, a habit picked up from her mother-in-law. Her furious state was somewhat undone by the flowery tea-towel in her hand.

"You know even better than I how terrified Fleur is of her daughters growing up friendless and alone. I also assume you did this 'investigating' behind her back," she accused.

"I confess nothing," Harry's attempted humour died in the face of Hermione's ire.

She whipped him with the tea-towel. "Teaspoons! You and Ron are utter teaspoons!"

"I like to think Ron, at least, has grown a bit," Harry said while holding up his hands to defend himself from the offending scrap of fabric.

"He gave me a boxing telescope for our anniversary this year!"

Harry barked out a laugh. "Now that's just funny-," his grin soured at Hermione's thunderous expression, "er, I mean romantic."

"Yes, because I wanted to reminisce about my black eye from sixth year while celebrating the day of my wedding."

Unable to help himself, he slyly smiled at her. "So, did you look through it?"

Hermione shoved him playfully with her shoulders. "Cad," she grumbled.

Familiar camaraderie calmed the unrest that still skittered insect-like within his belly. Hermione had been a constant in his life, an unwavering source of support, love and friendship. She was a presence that re-centred him, a sister in everything but blood.

She represented a safety and security he was in desperate need of.

It was only her that he could broach the question surging up his throat. He finally spat it out like bile, immediately feeling better for having dislodged it. "How do you and Ron do it?"

She smiled softly as she continued drying the plates, her eyes intent on the task. His worry over offending her petering out at the tender expression upon her face.

"It is easier than you think," she answered. "You and Fleur are typically so in sync that you both tend to lack experience when dealing with disagreements." She chuckled. "I've always been in awe of you two's relationship, who would have thought such concurrence would become problematic?"

He grunted, failing to see the humour in the situation.

Hermione easily grasped his mood. "You move on," she lectured. "Some things are more important than a disagreement, no matter how big. The children, for instance. You are a couple, yes, but parents first."

He finished washing the last plate, handing it off to Hermione, while his mind turned over her words. Hot water prickled his skin as he plunged his hands into the sink to unplug it. "So, what? You move past it?"

She shook her head. "It isn't good to act like the disagreement didn't happen or not resolve it. But sometimes people need time to figure things out." She gave him a significant look. "You especially."

Harry huffed. "Mr Weasley gave me advice when I asked for Fleur's hand. He said to never sleep on an argument. That if you go to bed angry, you let the negativity fester."

"He gave the same wisdom to Ron and me. It's good advice," Hermione conceded. "I think it is true for the majority of spats but some problems are too large to be dealt with in a single night, don't you think?"

Were there? He was unsure. Perhaps, even the seemingly insurmountable could be rectified if you worked with your partner instead of against them, as he had done. He'd allowed panic to set him against his wife, facing her as a foe rather than an ally; reverting to his past, when he believed himself to be right against the face of reason. Visions of Sirius falling through the veil and Malfoy's blood in a bathroom caressed his thoughts tauntingly.

"Regardless," she continued at his silence, "it does no good to ruminate on issues. Even when Ron and I butt heads we still clear the air so it doesn't affect Hugo or Rose. That helps to remind us that we are a unit and that disagreements can be temporary."

"Thank you for the suggestion," Harry said truthfully, "but I don't know if Fleur is ready to forgive me enough for even that."

Hermione gave him a stern look. "She doesn't need to forgive you, Harry. She only needs to love you. We all make mistakes. Forgiveness takes time but a marriage doesn't wait for it. Neither should your children."

Harry stored the wisdom away to consider later. The pain was too private to share even with Hermione. He wore a feigned smile. "When did you get so smart?" He teased weakly.

She flicked her hair over her shoulder snootily. "Since I was born," came her jesting reply. "But Ron has put my theory into practice, admittedly."

"He's lucky to have you."

Hermione gently smiled, eyes glowing just as they did when she wore a white dress and professed her love. "We are lucky to have each other."

"And I'm lucky to have you both." The friendship of Ron and Hermione had saved him in more ways than either knew. Nothing had changed in the nearly two decades since he'd met them and he firmly believed it never would.

"Ron suggested that I drop a hint to you about him meeting Neville later tonight at the Leaky Cauldron," Hermione mentioned offhandedly as she finished putting the now dry dishes away into cupboards.

"Subtly done."

"Boys are dumb and I tired of being your messenger-owl back in fourth year."

"Dumb is a strong word," Harry cautioned. He affixed an expression of shocked recognition on his face. "I'm sorry, how rude of me." He rummaged about his kitchen counter before drawing out an owl treat. "Here," he said, moving to offer it to his friend. "Thanks for the message."

Harry was still rubbing his arse from a viciously given stinging hex when Hermione left the Potter home.

XXXXXXXX

He walked through the front area of the bar, passing clustered tables, benches and people. Some patrons waved, others looked away, and some scowled.

Harry swung by the bar and greeted the barmaid warmly, "Hey, Hannah, how're you?"

"Fine, just fine," the pretty lass replied, blowing an errant lock of dirty blonde hair out of her face. "How're you?" Her sympathetic tone kind.

"I'm… I suppose there isn't any use lying, is there?" Hannah shook her head, a knowing smile on her face. "I'm not doing well but I am getting better." Harry grinned at her. "Your husband helped a good deal with that. He's a good man."

The pretty barmaid grinned. "It's why I married him."

"And here I thought it was because he killed a snake."

"Eh, I've heard him yelp when a garden snake sneaks into his greenhouse too often to be impressed by that any longer."

Harry nodded sagely. "An enchanted sword will do wonders for a man's confidence."

Snorting, Hannah promptly thrust a pint into his hand with the assurance that Ron had already forked coin over for it before shooing him off to the table his friends had commandeered.

Scowling, Harry nodded before taking a gulp. Scanning the room, and pointedly not meeting the eyes of a few witches over in the corner, he spotted his quarry. He strolled over to the dark corner at the back of the establishment, situated in a corner where those seated could see the entirety of the place, especially the two openings out into Muggle London and Diagon Alley. Old habits died hard for Aurors.

Ron had a packet of crisps open before him as he lounged in the booth, the red-head smirked at him knowingly, "how's the drink, you specky git? To your satisfaction?"

Harry had to stifle his knee-jerk rebuke of his best mate's ancestry, reminding himself that Molly and Arthur were truly lovely people and had very little to do with the troll their son had become.

Sliding into the booth, he pushed his glasses higher onto his nose with a grimace before speaking, "what the bloody hell are you poisoning me with now?"

His companion's smirk split into a self-satisfied grin, "Hannah called it an Oyster Stout, I believe."

Actively fighting the urge to spit up the mouthful he'd just choked down, he glared at the smiling man before him. "You utter arse, making me drink this… this briny bivalve bitter."

The freckled man tossed his head back while he guffawed, "took you a while to think of that one, didn't it?" He said after settling.

"I'll get you for this."

"That's what you said last time."

Harry blinked. "I can't believe your grudge has lasted so long. You'll never forgive me will you?"

"Never."

Pausing, Harry stared across the table in contemplation before responding, "can you at least admit it was funny?"

Ron's lips betrayed him briefly before they thinned in a stern expression. "You gave me spiced pepper beer at your wedding. I sprayed it all over myself after giving the best man toast."

Scratching the side of his cheek, the bespectacled man smiled fondly, "blimey, it was hilarious."

He received an unimpressed look as a return but both men looked up as their party expanded. Neville Longbottom, still in his work robes came striding up to meet them.

"Have you two eaten, yet?" The newcomer asked eagerly.

The two men waved him off, the red-head deciding to tell his compatriots that he'd already ordered dinner for everyone.

"Thanks, mate, I've not had a proper meal all day, been right peckish," the brown-haired man said as he slid next to Ron who budged over. "The whole department's in an uproar…" the man wisely read the crowd and trailed off.

Fighting the dark mood threatening to overtake him, Harry greeted Neville with a smile before turning to Ron, "so what'd you order?"

"Don't worry, it'll pair nicely with your crustacean swill."

Their friend interrupted before Harry could say his rejoinder. "You two still having a battle of libations, are you?"

"Yes, unfortunately. I owe dear Ronald two-fold after tonight."

"A benefit of marrying Hermione is I'm always early now. Good luck beating me here to order my drink. What is it your cousin-in-law, Angèle, is so fond of saying, mate? 'The early bird gets the worm?'"

"I never should have introduced you two."

"It's been a punning disaster ever since," Neville agreed.

Ron took a swig of his pint, "bugger, that's bitter." He took another drink and pulled a face. "Someone needs to tell ol' Tom to watch his batches. He seems to be getting heavy-handed in his advanced age."

"Hannah's taken over the brewing."

"And a deft hand she is."

Smirking at his old friend's backpedalling, Harry momentarily forgot what his drink contained and took a large gulp. His mates across the table laughed heartily as his eyes bulged and his neck veins popped out in his struggle to keep it down.

At that moment, Hannah arrived, arms laden with cottage pie.

Harry rose to help pass out the pies, motioning Neville to stay seated in the process. The man wore a wearied look about him, looking as if he'd been just as sleepless as Harry in the weeks since the attack.

Hannah bent down to brush a kiss against Neville's head before whisking away.

"How're the kiddos?" Harry asked Ron, settling back down across from the red-head.

Ron's face turned dreamy. "Rosie is the smartest witch of her age, I just know it," he gloated.

Neville smirked at Harry. "Hasn't Hermione and Ginny been trying to get her to call you 'Ronald' instead of 'Dad?'"

Ron scowled. "They're trying to get me back for painting Rosie's bedroom orange."

"I didn't know Rose liked the Chudley Cannons?" Neville asked befuddled.

Harry barked out a laugh. "She couldn't care less about Quidditch. Just like her mum. Ron's in denial."

Ron shot him a peeved look before turning sly. "Who is your daughter rooting for this season again?"

"You're a right bastard, Ronald."

Neville guffawed. "Seems Ginny is behind in converting her nieces and nephews to Harpies fans."

"Not really," Harry said. "She has Angelina and Audrey's brood firmly for her old team."

"And the little imps love to rub it in their Uncle's face every time the Harpies eke out a win against the Cannons," Ron muttered mutinously.

"Often then," Neville interjected as Harry chuckled.

The men tucked into their dinner then and conversation lulled. The cottage pie was delectable; a comfort food of hearty potatoes, carrots, and meat that warmed Harry's mouth, stomach and heart.

"You're a lucky bastard," he mentioned to Neville as they finished scraping their plates.

Ron agreed enthusiastically while Neville grinned proudly. "She's a fine cook," he agreed. "And a better woman."

"Speaking of women," Ron remarked, "I've got a question for you, mate." He pointed his fork in Harry's direction.

Hermione had likely suggested the meddling about to enfold. Harry gave a defeated shrug. "Sure, what's on your mind?"

"Do you ever regret it?"

Harry felt flat-footed at the question, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. This was not what he was expecting whatsoever. Hermione would not have had a hand in such a brutish line of questioning. He glanced over at Ron. "Regret what?

Ron pursed his lips with an oddly curious look before continuing, "well... marrying so young?"

At Harry's dark expression Ron moved to clarify. "Don't get me wrong, mate. We all know how good Fleur is for you. Bloody hell, I saw exactly what she meant during and after the war. I've no doubt she's what kept you alive."

Ron's expression grew pensive, ghosts flitting across his face before his eyes switched to Neville who was sitting quietly, listening. "I just wonder... shite, even Neville got his hands under a number of skirts before settling down with Hannah."

The red-head kept talking over the Auror's embarrassed mutterings into his cup of ale. "I had Lavender, which wasn't much of anything but, well… it was at least an experience before Hermione." Ron's eyes felt hot on Harry as he continued to stare at the wall away from him pointedly. "You didn't have anyone before falling into a relationship with the witch you ended up marrying. Seems sorta limited."

Harry's hand clenched around his cup. He wanted to lash out at Ron, disabuse him of the notion of his supposed 'limitation,' whatever that tripe meant. But he couldn't. He understood Ron's position, could tell what his friend was trying to say through good-intentioned fumbling.

Ron's eyes were pleading and slightly cautious when Harry's met them. It cooled the irritation a bit more. "Not for a single moment," his tone final.

Softening his gaze he continued, "I see your point of view, mate. Honestly, I do. It's certainly uncommon. But I like to think my dad felt the same way for my mum. He knew she was it."

Harry skimmed the rim of his glass with a fingertip. "I flatter myself by believing that my pursuit of her, the love I feel for her, made me a better man. If for no other reason than to feel deserving of the gift she'd given me in return." Harry took a drink to hide his trembling lips.

Ron nodded contemplatively before taking a swig of his firewhiskey. "Well, Merlin only knows how much of a sullen ponce you would've been without her all these years." His grin turned serious. "I'm glad you have each other mate, you've truly been good for each other." His earnest words were undercut slightly by the steam coming from his ears.

Neville chimed his agreement. "Plus," he began, until a boyish smile of appreciation swept over his face as Hannah Longbottom dropped off another round at their table, effectively interrupting him. Harry noticed Neville's gaze lingering on his wife's swinging hips as she walked away. Shaking himself slightly, Neville looked at them, quailing minutely at their smirks. "What?" He muttered indignantly to himself. "A man has a right to appreciate his woman."

Harry and Ron laughed as Neville tried to bring the conversation back into focus.

"Any idiot can tell how happy Fleur makes you," he stated, leaning towards Harry. "Those who went through the war aged quickly. It was either that, give in, or be killed." Neville shook his head, "and you went through more than anyone else. It makes sense you matured more too."

Harry didn't know if he quite agreed that he had gone through more than anyone else. After all, Andromeda had lost everyone she cared about and George was still healing from half of himself being ripped away.

Aside from his initial uncomfortable reaction to Neville's statement, Harry tacitly agreed with the observation regarding the growth he'd gone through. He had certainly felt ancient after the war, like a dry husk barely alive. Some days he still felt that way. He expected he always would.

Running a hand through his hair, Harry blew out a loud breath. Affixing a grin to his face he looked over at Neville. "So… what's this I hear about a certain Auror being offered a Defense position at Hogwarts?"

Neville blushed crimson before attempting — but failing — to affect a stern countenance. "Damn gossiping wives," he griped in mock-outrage, "can't keep a single secret between the lot of 'em."

Ron laughed, sharing a sly smirk with Harry from the corner of his eye as he faced Neville. "Speaking of secrets," he began, humour evident in his voice. "What's this I hear about Mrs Longbottom and fertility potions?"

Spluttering, Neville knocked over his cup, sending frothy ale spilling about the table. Shooting a worried look about the bar, and a betrayed one at Ron, Neville flicked his wand to banish his former drink. "Hermione told you about that?" He asked frantically.

"No," Run chortled, "but why else would Hannah be coming over every couple weeks and head straight to Hermione's potion room in the back? Even through the closed door, I can hear giggling." Ron's smirk turned malicious. "Besides, I think Hannah's been walking a tad ginger- ouch!" Neville stinging hex drilled Ron in the centre of his forehead.

Harry watched in bemusement as Neville polished his wand, feigning disinterest. "You've gotten slow Mr Private Sector," Harry remarked to Ron, who was ruefully rubbing his head.

The stung man chuckled good-naturedly. "Leaving the bloody Aurors was the best decision I ever made, aside from pulling my head outta my arse about Hermione." Ron scratched the red beard starting to grow on his jaw. "Now that Nev's leaving, the only Auror from our year left is Terry Boot."

Neville nodded. "He's been my partner since you left. Solid man with a good head on his shoulders. I imagine he'll lead the department eventually. We got some fresh recruits this year, more of the Potter-wave. I imagine half will either drop or get ousted by the training."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Can you stop using that ridiculous term? It makes me cringe."

Ron made a noise of disagreement while Neville shook his head. "Blame the Prophet for coining it," the redhead said.

Harry's mood instantly soured. "I do," he whispered venomously.

He missed the distressed look Ron and Neville shared.

"We heard you tried to become the majority owner," Neville said tentatively, treading cautiously into an obviously sore subject.

Harry's jaw clenched. "Got close," he forced out. "Bought every share I could till I hit sixty percent. Turns out when the owner died he willed the rag to his grandson who made sure that when he went public the stock he retained was Class A, giving him extra votes even with less stock. Inbred bastard," he snarled.

"Class A?"

"Means that my stock, Class B, gets one vote per share, while his Class A stock gets a hundred votes a share. So, he can outvote me even with less stock overall."

"Tough mate," Ron said. "At least the Quibbler's starting to take away a good chunk of the Prophet's readership. The only two interviews you've done being their exclusives have helped."

Harry nodded as his temper cooled. "Xenophilius retiring after the war seemed to make the writing less… bizarre."

"Still see pretty hilarious articles about Stubby Boardman occasionally though," Neville chimed in.

"Yeah," Harry remembered fondly.

"Maybe that is why the Prophet is always after you? They're miffed they had to print a second-hand story citing the Quibbler," Ron pointed out.

Harry grunted. "Well, they can go bugger themselves."

"You got that Barnabas guy chucked though, right?" Neville asked.

"Yeah, him and the writer of the article for me to pull back my lawsuit."

"So how did the rag print all this shite about Lili burning a muggle school down?"

"The owner is peeved I tried to take over the Prophet, I'm sure he was delighted to drag my family through the mud. Besides, it isn't like they have to come to me before each edition."

"Bloody hell. I'm sorry, mate. Even Gin said she liked the person they had to take over. It was the sports column's department head apparently." Ron added.

"Well, she apparently didn't learn to stay out of my family's business," Harry muttered harshly.

"Sounds like she didn't have much choice in the matter. Everyone has a boss, even Harry Potter did... when he was working."

Harry rolled his eyes, his clashes over regulations with his Auror Head were legendary.

"Anyways, what's her name — Joanna something — apparently stormed the Editor-in-Chief's office with Ginny to protest the article they printed about Lili awhile back but I doubt she could do the same against the owner."

"Actually," Neville interjected, "I heard from Hannah that she resigned in protest yesterday. Came by the Leaky Cauldron for a pint midday." The man's face turned serious. "Also, you should know, we found Barnabas's body today. All it really does is confirm the link we already suspected with the Ministry worker."

Smothering the guilt that pinpricked him, Harry turned to Neville. "Tell me about what you've found so far."

Neville rubbed his jaw while surreptitiously casting a Muffliato spell. "Look, I'm not supposed to say anything, even to a former Auror."

"You're leaving the force."

"It's the principle of the thing."

Harry glared.

Auror Longbottom raised his hands in a placating gesture. "What I can tell you honestly isn't much anyway. The two you snagged were low-level. Actually, weirdly low-level considering the crime." Neville took a sip of his ale. "Weren't even on Auror radar, Magical Law Enforcement Patrol officers were the ones to identify them."

"What were they on for?" Ron asked curiously.

"Mostly illegal potions, some extortion here and there. Apparently, they ran with a darker crew during the war - Muggle head sellers and the like - but no one had anything definitive to stick them with."

"That's supposed to be low-level?" Harry sniped angrily.

Neville rolled his eyes. "Not my call, mate."

Ron took up the conversation as Harry mumbled peevishly into his glass. "Any idea what caused them to graduate to attempted kidnapping?"

"None. Other than greed from an undoubtedly large ransom. Aside from the cloaks and Death Eater masks, the clothes they had on underneath had certainly seen better days."

"You really think desperation from poverty caused them to attack the Potters of all people?" Ron questioned.

"Hell, I don't know. All of England seems to be up in arms. The Sentient Being Act might have passed the reformed Wizengamot but it didn't change the minds of the people."

"Try the whole world," Harry interjected, re-joining the conversation. "The ICW has been dragging their heels and some nations have already publicly drawn lines in the sand. All the while, idiots are getting riled up by street hawkers selling amulets to ward off the 'Dark Creatures' that will undoubtedly be coming for blood."

"Listen, Harry, I know it is a ruddy mess, but did you really expect a millennium of bigotry to disappear with a couple of laws?" Ron responded.

"Muggles have even less cause to be divisive yet they still manage it," Neville added.

"No offence, but I don't think you two get it. You were raised as wizards, you were read the tales of terrible Giants, scheming Merpeople, and greedy Goblins as children."

Ron looked slightly abashed but perked up with a grin. "I preferred the temptress Veela stories myself."

Harry kicked him under the table as Neville laughed.

"That is one angle I've been thinking about though," Ron said, rubbing his shin. "The Potters are known the world over, making Fleur the most prominent Veela in the public eye and by extension her daughters. Think the Equalist agenda inspired some fanatics to make a point?"

Neville shrugged. "Good catch, we started ferreting out those leads just a day ago. Boot's idea, actually."

"The force may not be doomed after all," Ron joked.

"Any info about the spell that killed them," Harry asked intently.

"It isn't like anything that any of us have ever seen. It was the damndest thing, it acted like a twisted form of a magical oath. In that respect, it wasn't too dissimilar from the Dark Mark. But it seemed designed to kill the bearer at some sort of unknown trigger."

"It activated as soon as I caught them with a stunning spell."

"An oath shouldn't extract payment from an involuntary act though, like becoming paralyzed or divulging a secret under veritaserum. It's one of the tenets of spelled vows." Neville squinted, straining to remember, "number three or some shite, couldn't tell you for sure."

"I know what I saw Neville," Harry whispered, willing his friend to hear him.

Neville locked eyes with Harry, "and I believe you. I'm just explaining where we are and what we know. We're actually talking about requesting analysis from the Curses and Oaths team over at your wife's spellweaving institute."

Harry brightened, "Matilda is great, she'd be a lot of help."

"Yeah, well, don't get your hopes up. You remember how long Aurors talking about something had to happen before the bureaucracy would act on it."

Ron sighed, "too much red tape to get anything done."

"We make due," Neville defended. But his lacklustre tone left little doubt regarding his true thoughts on the matter.

"Any idea why now?" Harry quietly questioned.

"Not particularly, least nothing that stands out." Neville took another swig. "I mean, the obvious answer is the ICW proposal, but why wouldn't they have tried something before it gained momentum in England? Cut it off at the source?"

"Maybe they just couldn't get to their negotiation piece," Ron said gravely, "it's no secret that Harry's home is practically impregnable. If you can even find it. And only a handful of people know where it is and they can't reveal it voluntarily or involuntarily due to the tweaks Fleur did to the Fidelus Charm."

Ron's mouth twisted in distaste, "maybe they couldn't get to you till a routine formed out in the open, where you were vulnerable. It isn't like you and Fleur make a habit of spending time in public, especially wizarding spots."

Harry's blood ran cold at Ron's suggestion, it's accuracy sharp and obvious when spoken aloud.

Neville nodded and turned a speculative eye towards Harry before voicing his thoughts. "Anyone you can think of from the ICW that stands out to you?"

"Abbas, the Azerbaijan delegate wasn't a fan of ours. Or his Armenian lackey, Hayk, I think his name was. He was a shorter man, stout, bald, looked sort of like a human-ish barrel?"

Neville grinned and shook his head while raising his hands placatingly, "I'll look into them both. Anyone else?"

"Well, I wasn't all that well-liked, honestly. Quite a few ambassadors were unhappy or uninterested in me, which I didn't mind so much at the time." Harry chewed on the inside of his cheek. A stray thought wriggling like worms in the recesses of his memory. "Actually, there is someone that has been… well, slightly odd? But she isn't from the ICW. Her name's Olivia Ansley. I thought she was a muggle. Her son attended Hogsthorpe, but something just always seemed off about her."

"Off how?" Ron interrogated, forgetting he wasn't an Auror anymore. Neville rolled his eyes amicably.

"She seemed, this sounds dumb really, too interested in me and my family." He raised his shoulders. "Just odd, I suppose."

"Sure she wasn't just into you?" Ron asked roguishly.

Harry scoffed in reply, shooting his friend the bird.

"Well, we will look into it. I leafed through the attendance list of the muggle families at Hogsthorpe the day of the attack but don't remember ever seeing an Ansley. But I'll take another gander," Neville supplied.

The Auror's eyes hardened before continuing. "And don't worry mate," he said, "nothing and no one will harm a single hair on your girls' heads."

Harry felt the first flicker of relief at the expression on the Auror's face. A smile that showed his teeth.

He trusted the two men across from him with his life. But his witches were a different matter altogether. How was he supposed to be a good father, a good husband, when he was the very reason they were constantly put in danger?

XXXXXXXX

Harry walked through the front door quietly. It was late and he didn't wish to startle either of his daughters. He'd stayed out far later than he had expected. In fact, he couldn't remember staying out so long since his daughters had been born.

He wondered if Fleur was still awake and if she would acknowledge his return. She'd said nothing to him when he'd told her of his intention to meet Ron and Neville tonight. A part of him realized she did not trust that he'd be where he claimed. That shame had singed even as her silence bludgeoned him.

A light was on in the living room, which surprised him out of his stupor. Movement in the room made him lurch forward, stepping into the glow of the lamps.

Blonde hair swished to the side as the woman on the couch turned to look at him.

"Hello, Harry." The voice was dulcet and gentle, uttered by a woman of surpassing beauty. Brilliant viridian eyes shone in an angular face framed by golden locks.

"Gabrielle?"

The young woman beamed, shifting to stand and face him fully. She wore a silver sheath dress that wove around her body artfully, undoubtedly one of her own creations.

"Fleur didn't mention you were coming by," he continued. His mind was having trouble catching up with his sister-in-law's unexpected presence.

"I imagine she has mentioned little to you lately." Suddenly, he recognized the light that shone in her blue eyes and the too-wide smile.

His back stiffened instinctively. "No. I suppose she hasn't."

The Veela rounded the couch and stood on her tiptoes so she could kiss his cheek in greeting, her hands resting on his shoulders. "It is good to see you," she uttered the pleasantry in a brittle fashion, her fingers pressing slightly too hard into his flesh.

"You are, of course, a welcome surprise."

"Hmm."

"To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Instead of answering, Gabrielle walked away from him. Her hips swaying in the inducing way that came effortlessly to her kind. She came to a stop before the fireplace mantle, long fingers tracing the happy memories embedded in picture frames.

When she spoke, her voice was confident and assured. "I love my sister."

He waited but nothing else was forthcoming. "As do I."

She whirled on him, the glass of cordiality shattering in her impassioned fury. "Then show it!"

"Gabby—"

"Shut it, Harry."

Wisely, he closed his mouth. The youngest Delacour was a hellion when roused, any interjection on his part would only deepen her wrath.

"You've really cocked this up," she muttered ruthlessly, pacing back and forth in front of the hearth. "When you asked Fleur to marry you, do you remember what I said to you then?"

"Yes—"

"I told you that if you ever hurt my sister I'd break your foolish English head."

"I rememb—"

"Yet here you are, in all your glory. I've not seen my sister so heartbroken since Beauxbatons."

The words sliced him open like a scalpel. A truth made brutal by its blunt delivery. He had known it, in his heart, but to hear the words openly spoken pained him all the same.

"I made a mistake," he spoke quietly. And I'm paying for it, he added to himself miserably.

"More than one."

"Yes, more than one," he agreed.

"You've put me in a tough position," Gabrielle said as though she didn't hear him. "I made a promise to beat you black and blue years ago but now I'm the godmother to your daughter. She'd never forgive me if I put her papa into the hospital."

This time, Harry kept quiet, letting her tirade wash over him. It mixed with the self-recrimination that had been eroding his gut since he sat in the mud outside of a Death Eater's abandoned home.

"So instead, I'll give you a chance. Tell me how you are going to fix this and if I'm satisfied I'll let you off lightly." The cold gleam in her eyes did not assure him of her definition of 'lightly.'

Regardless, he soldiered on. "I'll apologize for my actions and keep my promise to her."

A promise that was already broken but hopefully not irreparably so. He had no illusion that Gabrielle was uninformed regarding the strife in the Potter household. Fleur and her sister shared a bond that transcended mere sisterhood. They told each other everything.

"Too little," was the fiery girl's reply.

"It is what I can offer. Everything else will have to come after through my actions." He held out his hands pleadingly. "I admit that I've behaved wrongly but I still believe I'm in the right regarding my daughter's safety."

An explosion of French curses erupted from the statuesque blonde. "Even after hearing Fleur and I's history, you'd intern your daughter to the same fate?"

"It won't be forever," he scathingly replied, his own frustration roused.

"It will be long enough." She glared at him hotly from across the room. All of a sudden the Veela deflated. Her forceful presence shrinking was shocking enough that he started forward to embrace his sister-in-law. He paused instead, arms half-raised awkwardly.

Like a sail losing the wind, she stood limply by the fire. Gabrielle Delacour was a strong woman. Rarely showing her vulnerability, yet now she wilted. A woman who had fought and clawed her way into an industry that detested her very species. In the name of 'unfair advantages' she'd had doors slammed shut against her. Even so, she worked herself to the bone to see her dream to fruition.

Some would see the rose. Harry saw the roots.

"You've heard the stories but I don't think you understand. Not really," she whispered. Her eyes drifted towards his face, her blank look exposing how lost she was in memories.

"When I went through Beauxbatons I was the 'Failed Champion's sister,' an infamous Delacour, but most of all, a creature. Fleur was lucky that she found fellow misfits to befriend. I had no one. None bothered to reach a hand out to me until fourth year when older boys took notice of my 'developments,'" the word was spat hatefully. "And I, naive and lonely, thought their extended hand to be genuine."

This was a story he'd never heard. His bones chilled to the marrow and unease prickled underneath his skin. He felt itchy and rebelled against his still state. He wanted to move, wanted to do something, but there was nothing to be done. Not now, years after the fact.

"Do you know why I could not recognize their fake friendship? Why I fell so gullibly for those who cared nothing for me? You already know the answer, Harry. Would you have Lili or Fayette be so blind?"

He latched onto a question rather than think about the offered tragedy to consider. "Fleur attended muggle school, why didn't you?"

"A war started when I was eight. You remember the fight father put up when Fleur returned to England. You really believe he'd allow his youngest daughter out of his sight?"

Silence stretched like a ravine between them. He had always loved Gabrielle, the fierce, protective, strong-willed woman that she had become and the shy, too-quiet girl she had been.

Choices and consequences.

He didn't want to know, not truly. Yet even so the question attempted to flee his mouth. "Did they… are you…" he floundered ineffectually. His mind refused the words that came to him, his tongue felt too clumsy to form them.

"All they received for their efforts were charred clothes and singed pride." She sniffed disdainfully. "But their damage was felt regardless."

"I never knew. I'm sorry."

"I'm stronger now," she stated bluntly. Her fists were balled tightly at her side as she stood with her feet firmly planted to the floor. "I'm better for it."

He couldn't help worry that she was trying to convince herself rather than him. Even so, he remained unconvinced. Surely, his daughters would have the benefit of having peers whose parents had fought alongside their own. Family friends, and pseudo-cousins alike. Would that be enough, he wondered? Would he be willing to take that gamble?

A louder voice shouted from a corner of his mind that his daughter's safety was paramount, that a few years meant nothing in the grand scheme of things.

Yet memories of watching Dudley play outside with his friends through the glass of a window he was cleaning rose unbidden in his mind. He had never been allowed friends before Hogwarts and even there he made few. Truthfully, he never knew how. Never trusted himself enough to try. He'd all but bumbled his way into a friendship with Ron and Hermione. It had been as simple as falling. As picking the right compartment.

Similarities and hard truths were evident yet he pushed them aside.

Harry took a few steps forward so that he could wrap the rigid form of Gabrielle Delacour in his arms. He pressed a kiss to the crown of her head. "I am sorry, truly," he said. "That shouldn't have happened to you."

She relaxed slightly in his arms, some of the fight leaving her body. "I know you are, Harry. Please understand that Fleur and I just want the best for them. You do too, I am not blind to that. But surely there is a middle ground that can be reached? I hate to see you two fight. So do Lili and Fayette."

"I'll try," he promised as they held one another.

"You better," she retorted, squeezing the skin on his side in a painful twist before giggling madly.

XXXXXXXX

Harry trudged his way upstairs after saying goodnight to Gabrielle. He felt worn to the bone, his mind was sluggish and his bed called to him siren-like.

Even so, he opened the door slowly, hoping to not disturb Fleur, who he assumed was sound asleep.

He was wrong.

She sat in a curled position, her back leaning against the headrest with her legs drawn up to her chest.

They stared at one another.

Harry broke the motionless regard first by slipping fully into the room and shutting the door behind him.

The silence was next to shatter.

"I don't want to fight anymore." The words came easily but the anxiety for her response remained. Would she forgive him? Would she understand? And if she didn't, how would he regain equilibrium? Without realizing it his identity had slowly but surely become rooted in his devotion to Fleur Delacour. He was her husband and the father to her children. Without the stability of their relationship, he felt unmoored and listless.

Luckily her words seemed to come equally as freely.

"Nor do I."

Her tone was cold and the truth, he knew, would undoubtedly thaw her current state. He'd prefer the heat of her anger to the chilly distance that had come between them. Deciding he preferred being brave and foolish to dishonest, he spoke. "I've been following the case, trying to track Dolohov."

She rose from the bed like a phantom from a grave. Her silver hair and white dress appearing spectre-like in the muted light of their bedroom. Without looking at him she busied herself with the menial task of putting away clothes from a full laundry basket near her dresser.

Finally, she spoke. "I know."

Her tone was still emotionless. A bad sign. "It was wrong of me, I broke my promise to you."

"Yes, you did."

Feeling a smidge of irritation as she continued to put her laundry away so nonchalantly, Harry spoke. "Can we please talk about this?"

She turned to him. "I tried to talk to you, I told you how I felt and what I wanted. Even reminded you of a promise you gave me. You disregarded it all and went after a man who wants you dead. What more do you want? You put yourself at risk against my wishes and in doing so you disappointed and hurt me. What? Did you expect me to scream and rage? I know you, 'Arry. I knew the moment Lili was put in danger this was how you'd react."

His wife took a shuddering breath. Harry's heart turned inside out at the emotionless look in her eyes. It was something he had never seen before. There was no doubt in his mind that it would haunt him.

"Maybe I don't want to talk to you, 'Arry. I'm tired of talking, it seems to do me little good."

"What do you want me to say? That you were right and I was wrong?"

"It isn't about who is right or wrong. There isn't some tally or an awarding of points. This is a relationship and how we act towards one another is what matters, not victories and follies."

"I'm sorry."

"Are you no longer going to follow Dolohov?"

"I won't."

"What of Lili, will she be allowed to go back to school next year?"

His blood pressure spiked, "no."

She cocked her head to the side, "I'm tired of sparring with you, 'Arry." Fleur breathed in and out slowly and reached up to knead the back of her neck wearily. "Lili is distraught enough without her parents putting strain on her. We have Angèle's gathering this weekend, let us get through that first."

"Can we be normal around each other? Put this off for a while yet?"

"We need to be a united front for our family and ourselves. We both want what is best for our daughter, I see little point in fighting tooth and nail over what will happen in the future." She gave a strained but soft smile. "Besides, we both know you will come around to my point of view."

He weakly grinned, latching on to the hope of compromise. "I suppose empirics are on your side."

"We will get through this, mon cœur. Together. Eventually, even this will be overcome."

"Time heals all wounds," he replied absently, waving a hand in the air with little energy.

Fleur gave him an eerie look that raised the hairs on the nape of his neck. "Perhaps. But scars remain."

XXXXXXXX

The days leading up to Fleur's cousin Angèle's baby-shower were the best in a long while. The relationship had remained stilted at first but the earnest joy brought about through proximity with one another smoothed the awkward edges away.

They had not buried the problem nor had they forgotten it. But a compromise had been formed in order to help their children find normalcy, even when it eluded their parents.

Lili had slowly been brightening, her smile coming easier and fuller. Although, she still asked after Jasmine often. Harry had not yet found a way to tell her the truth, only insisting that it wasn't safe yet to see her muggle friend.

Harsh retribution awaited him for the lie, he could feel it hanging overhead.

Even so, the Potters returned to a more familiar routine. Harry and Fleur laughed and joked with their daughters and the home seemed to regain the warmth it had lost.

That ended abruptly when Fleur's boss Almeida arrived through their floo a scant three days later.

She was an elderly woman who had known both the Flamels and Dumbledore, she had even undergone a Transfiguration apprenticeship with Headmistress McGonagall when they were young. Rumor had it that the two women had even loved and lost the same man in the war against Grindlewald more than half-a-century ago. Now they drank tea together every sunday.

The Spanish woman had a timeless grace to her that had always drawn strangers into her orbit. She had a scathing wit and a sharp tongue that she used judiciously. All those attributes were now missing.

She looked ancient, weary, and drawn. The wrinkled skin of her face seemed sunken and her eyes dull. Gray hair was cut short atop her head and her robes had the rumpled look of being hastily donned.

Almeida had been the youngest to ever run the Edrith Spellweaving Institute, a veritable genius of Transfiguration and Alchemy. She had fought in three wars both Muggle and Magical. Had buried three sons and two husbands.

Now she just looked old.

Harry beckoned her into their home and out of the fog. The mist clung to her limbs as she passed over the door's threshold, like spectre's fighting to keep her in their grasp. She sat heavily upon the couch cushion as Fleur and Harry exchanged bewildered looks.

"Ophenna is dead," she said without ceremony, her tone oddly blank.

Fleur gasped, her look of shock making Harry question why the name was so unfamiliar to him.

"What happened?" His wife interrogated as she moved to sit beside her mentor and employer.

"She was found dead today in the Ward Department. Ernst is missing."

That name was familiar and it turned Harry's stomach. The German man had always been particularly interested in Fleur, his vile comments about her promiscuity and heritage had caused numerous clashes. They had not been allowed to work together until the most recent project when both their expertise had been too important to keep separate. Even so, Ernst's superior, Desmond, had always been required to play buffer between them.

"He's missing? What do you mean?"

"Ophenna was found by Cordia when she came into work this morning, there were signs of a struggle. She notified the authorities and me. We've spent all morning checking on all the Institute's employees. Ernst is the only one unaccounted for. His flat is completely empty in Berlin."

"But why would he…" Fleur trailed off, confusion evident.

Almeida shook her head. "It isn't my place to speculate. I'll leave that to the detectives. We need you to come in and make a statement, the Polish authorities want to speak with you." The woman's voice was flat and monotone. She rattled off the information in a sort of robotic way. Shock. Disbelief. Harry had seen such reactions often.

"The matter crosses Ministry lines, has the ICW been notified?" He asked.

She nodded wearily. "They are there too. I said I'd come to collect you both since I'm the only one who knew how to contact you."

Harry met Fleur's eyes and she gave a shaky nod.

"Alright," he said, pulling out his wand. He moved to send a Patronus message to Gabrielle who had taken the children down to the river to collect stones.

Meanwhile, Fleur helped Almeida rise and amble to the door so that the three could set off for the property's ward line where they could apparate freely.

The day was bright but cold. Autumn had well and truly come, her arrival heralded by leaves, which had completed their annual metamorphosis from green to the Gryffindor colours of red, gold, and yellow.

The rambling hills and forested grounds were beautiful, a small paradise away from the dangers and hardships of a world rapidly closing in on them. He had fallen in love with the land as soon as he'd seen it. Had imagined children laughing and playing across the forested grounds. So much room, so very free. Now he felt boxed in.

Harry couldn't help but speculate what had caused the sudden escalation of events, had it really been his idealistic attempt to create a better world for his daughters? To become involved in the very society he'd secluded himself away from?

What was the recourse then? Was he supposed to stay sequestered away, never voicing an opinion or advocating for what was right for fear of retribution?

Is that the lesson he wanted to impart to his daughters? To take a stand meant risking everything. He wasn't sure he was strong enough.

Just because he wanted no part in politics or fame did not mean they had no interest in him. Perhaps he'd been a fool to believe otherwise.

XXXXXXXX

Poland was cold. Snow had fallen heavy and thick about the country for weeks now, a blizzard of unusual strength showcasing its formidable tyranny against Magical and Muggle alike.

Toruń was a gorgeous city, even submerged in layers of clogging snow. The red-brick was eye-catching as it glowered from beneath its frozen adornment.

The city was a gorgeous treasure of Europe and a hotbed of magical exchange ever since the Fifteenth Century when the Edrith Institute was founded. Spellweavers around the world would travel here to unveil their latest achievements or attend theoretical lectures. Many of the most commonly used spells had been made here and dispersed throughout wizarding kind.

Harry preferred coming to visit his wife and partake in the pierniki, a treat made artform by the 'gingerbread city.'

It was a rare day indeed that Fleur did not manage to bring back the cinnamon treats home or at least the detritus of them. He'd often teased her for the gingerbread crumbs littering her work robes or flavouring her lips.

They had apparated directly to the Institute's courtyard, which sprawled grandly, unblemished by the snow that covered the muggle buildings surrounding it. Edrith Augustyn, a Polish Sorceress credited with creating the Muggle-Repelling charm, had first exhibited its effect in this very location centuries ago. It was in her honour that the Spellweaving Institute had initially been formed.

The building itself was imposing, standing tall as a majestic testament to the skill of ancient stonemasons. It was formed in a sort of c-shape, with a tower on each end and a central one standing high and proud; each tower representing a different grouping of disciplines.

However, he was not here to bask in the sights. Reality came knocking as soon as he regained his equilibrium from the apparition as ICW and Polish authorities closed in around his group.

"Agent Maja," a no-nonsense Law Enforcement agent stated as her form of introduction, flashing her badge briefly. The woman had honey-blonde hair that was wrapped in a severe bun and hidden beneath her uniform's hat. "And this is Mal-Chin from the ICW." She gestured irritably at a handsome young man who looked barely old enough to be out of school.

"Hey," he said informally, stuffing his hands in his pockets and rising up on the balls of his feet. His ICW badge was pinned on the right side of his chest denoted his rank and country of origin.

"I've not been to Korea before," Harry said, filing away the man's high-rank away for later. "But I've heard lovely stories." He glanced down at Fleur and Almeida, hoping his small-talk would give them a chance to regain their footing. Both still looked rather lost.

"They are true, I assure you," Mal-Chin replied cheerily, "and don't worry, I've not been to England either." The Translation charm buzzed harshly in Harry's ears.

"Yet here you are in Poland."

"Yes," the man looked around curiously at Toruń's architecture, "here I am."

"Enough of this nonsense," Maja interrupted crossly. "There is a woman dead and a man missing. Tell me what you know of Ernst."

Fleur stepped forward dutifully and began to speak. "I've known Ernst for around six years now, he joined from a German research team called, well I'm not entirely sure, but I believe it was 'something-Gedanke.'" She paused to collect her thoughts. "He was an eager man who wanted to prove himself but disliked no longer being the smartest person in the room. There were a number of complaints filed initially against him but he seemed to even out after awhile."

"Did you ever file a complaint?" Maja interjected.

Fleur gave her a hard look. "I imagine you already know the answer to that. Yes, I did. He seemed particularly interested in me over the years and Almeida eventually thought it prudent to separate us as much as possible."

"What was the cause of the conflict?"

"He wanted to test out theories he'd heard regarding Veela."

"I'm sure he did," the Polish Officer muttered. Fleur's eyes tightened. "Any violent outbursts?"

"None that I'm aware of."

"And Ophenna? What do you know of her?"

Fleur's face crumpled. "A sweet girl, she joined the Warding division just last year. She was quiet and typically kept to herself but… has her wife been notified?"

"Mrs. Ishmey was told earlier this morning of her wife's passing."

"They were in the process of adopting… Ophenna was so excited," Fleur said softly to herself, her eyes downcast.

Almeida gripped Fleur's hand tightly for support. Harry reached over to pull her against his side. She sniffled and nuzzled into his chest briefly before straightening. Her chin raised while her spine became strong and straight.

Unbent. Unbroken. Her resiliency had always dazzled him.

"Did you ever notice bad blood between Ophenna and Ernst?" Maja continued the line of questioning but her eyes seemed less harsh.

"Not that I knew of. He was part of the Arithmancy department and she was under Desmond's Ward team, they had only started working together for the new project." Fleur blinked before turning to Almeida, " Oh no, Desmond! He was the one to recommend Ophenna to the program. Is he alright?"

The Institute Head nodded, patting Fleur's hand. "He was the first one I told." The woman's face became despondent. "I'm not sure he'll come back. He blames himself."

"If you ladies don't mind, I have a few questions," Mal-Chin commented with a polite smile.

Fleur motioned for him to continue. Harry watched interestedly, the young man was hardly old enough to have passed any Ministry's Auror exams, let alone be recommended and trained to join the ICW Investigation Team.

"You mentioned a project that Ophenna and Ernst were working on. I've been told it was some sort of ward designed to operate like the Goblin's waterfall, an erasure of magical properties, is that correct?"

Fleur glanced at Almeida who nodded.

Mal-Chin's boyish grin faded. "So, what would have caused Ernst to kill Ophenna and flee? Was there something wrong with the project?"

"No, we were making good progress. Actually, Ernst had just recently solved one of our dilemmas with the lines and I had fixed the charmwork for stability. We were just waiting for the Ward team to figure out the correct establishment pattern."

Harry understood Mal-Chin's conclusion when he saw the flicker of confirmation in the man's eyes. His heart thudded into the pit that opened in his ribcage."So, say Ophenna figured out the establishment pattern issue and the new Ward was completed. How much would such a thing be worth?"

Fleur looked taken-aback while Almeida looked downright confused. Harry cursed internally. Obvious. Stupid and obvious. The German man had always been unhappy with his lot, he was an ambitious sort that didn't like being a cog in a greater machine. Greener pastures were sure to have been calling him.

"I'm not sure I understand," Fleur said haltingly. "The Ward was nominated for the International Spell Creation Achievement awards but the Edrith Institute doesn't sell our work. The information gets distributed freely, we are a non-profit."

Mal-Chin tapped his chin as his eyes slid between the two women before locking with Harry's furious gaze. When he spoke, it was addressed to the women but his stare remained unwavering. "What was the Ward's purpose?"

Almeida jumped in, her voice slightly defensive. "The Goblin's waterfall is a genius invention but confined to running water they specifically enchant through their own inherent magic. It loses potency rapidly as well. They call it the Thief's Downfall but a Ward could be placed indefinitely at the entrance to a Ministry so that all Imperiused or Polyjuiced individuals would be reverted to their natural states. Additionally, the ward could be placed to control magical catastrophes. It could save many lives."

"A worthy endeavour indeed," the ICW Officer replied, a mocking tone barely hinted at in his voice. "But did no one stop to consider the other possibilities of such a Ward? What certain groups would pay to have a mobile enchantment capable of 'muggle-fying' any wizard or witch that steps in it?"

Fleur's eyes widened and her hand found Harry's which was tightly clasped. She trembled at his side, recognizing the implication before Almeida did.

"In fact," Mal-Chin continued, "any wannabe Dark Lord could use the Ward to bring down the defenses of an entire Ministry. A magical war could be won instantaneously." His eyes snapped back to Harry's. "Or a Death Eater could use it to break into even the most protected estates."

"You believe Ernst was working with Dolohov," Harry ground out. His own suspicions rising to the fore.

"Perhaps," the man replied, shrugging. "It is my job to investigate all possibilities. But considering recent events, this seems rather likely."

"So because they couldn't get to my daughter the first time, this is their recourse?"

Mal-Chin's gaze swept to Fleur. "Or they changed targets."

Her hand turned vice-like, making the cartilage of his own joints pop. "You think they killed Ophenna trying to get to me?"

"It is possible Ernst wasn't involved at all. I don't share the ICW's theory," Maja stated. "I think it more likely that this Dolohov fellow was waiting for Mrs Potter to come into work today and killed the first person to walk through the door."

"I called in to take a leave of absence late last night because my sister is visiting… I'm usually the first one to arrive in the mornings," Fleur whispered heavily.

Harry stroked her hand with his thumb. "This isn't your fault. We can't be sure yet what happened."

Regardless of what had occurred, however, Harry was completely sure of but one thing - his family was in greater danger than ever. Whether the target was Fleur or a Ward-turned-weapon, the threat to the Potters was only growing.

Ghosts and choices, consequences and nightmares. Would his family ever be free of them?

Would he?


Author's Note: Marriage is a difficult thing to write properly. We all make choices that affect ourselves easily enough but when you are a husband or wife your choices affect far more than just you. Parenthood doubly so. Try as we might, bad choices will inevitably be made. It is easy to love and be loved when times are easy but it is so much more powerful when you choose to continue onward together when times are hard. I've always found beauty in a union's resiliency and I desire to illustrate that through this story.

We may not always like the choices of other people, or in this case Harry or Fleur, but we should endeavour to understand them. My struggle as a writer is to properly communicate the why behind a character's decisions in an organic enough way that makes sense to the reader, even if they disagree with the outcome. I can only hope I've been successful.

Anonymous reviews have been disabled. Login to review. 1. Chapter 1 8789 0 0 2. Chapter 2: Muggle Relations 11496 0 0 3. Interlude: Love, One Size Fits All 1325 0 0 4. Chapter 3: Growing Pains 9690 0 0 5. Chapter 4: Life of the Party 13183 0 0 6. Chapter 5: A Matter of Masks 14463 0 0 7. Chapter 6: Riptide 12075 0 0 8. Chapter 7: May These Bruises Fade 12581 0 0 9. Chapter 8: Price of Circumstance 13201 0 0 10. Interlude: A Roost and Flock 7462 0 0 11. Chapter 9: Snowdrift 12498 0 0 12. Chapter 10: Obsessions and Answers 14963 0 0 13. Final Author's Note 1165 0 0 14. Final Author's Note 1232 0 0