Harry was the first to arrive. He hadn’t been near the old pub for years, but it didn’t matter; the place hadn’t changed a bit. The booths were the same dark color, the walls were covered with the same old portraits whose subjects could barely be discerned through the smoky glass, and the windows to the street were still smudged and dirty and warbled with age. He picked the old booth in the back, the one they had always sat in, far away from the rest of the crowd. It was good for private conversations.
He didn’t recognize the barman. The price of the beer was a bit steeper than he’d remembered, too, but that was to be expected. Times change, Harry, he reminded himself. He nodded to the barmaid as she placed the glass on the table; then, after taking a sip, then looked out the window and tried to make out the shapes of the people on the street through the murky glass.
Ten minutes later, a woman in a tweed pantsuit came through the door, her reddish-blonde hair cropped close to her head and hidden somewhat under a matching beret. She was a year or two behind the fashions, but she walked confidently with the air of someone to whom such trivialities didn’t matter. She spotted Harry almost immediatlely and waved, then signaled to the barman, who nodded and turned to start filling another glass.
“Goodness, Harry! You’re a bit early, aren’t you? I didn’t expect to see you for another half-hour or so.” She slid an enormous handbag onto the seat across from him and pushed it against the wall.
Harry smiled. “I’ve gotten a bit better at being on time over the years, Hermione,” he said, and stood up to give her a hug. Then, “Sit down! Sit down! Tell me all about how things are going in the real world these days.”
“Real world!” Hermione snorted as she sat down. Harry noticed she’d put on a bit of weight around the hips and middle, but her face was still the same. He idly wondered if she was wearing one of those girdle contraptions.
“The ‘real world’, indeed! My goodness, Harry, you should be telling me about the ‘real world’, living in LA like you do. How do you ever breathe in that place? I’ve seen the cable feeds. The air is all so yellow and foul.”
Harry grinned. “Oh, we like it that way. It keeps the tourists from taking all the parking spots.” She guffawed. “But it’s not like London’s doing any better.”
She nodded. “Yes, London has had its days, and that’s the truth. Seems like we saved the world only so it could go on trying to kill itself all over again.” She stopped and looked at Harry full in the face, studying him. “You’ve hardly changed, Harry. A bit of gray here and there, a few lines around your eyes, but you still look very much the same.”
“Even without the scar?” he asked, pointing to his forehead which was clear of any mark.
“Oh, you finally got that taken care of, did you?” she asked with an air of curiosity. “I was wondering how long it would take before you got tired of it.”
“Five years,” he admitted. “Must’ve been the hundredth time it came up in an interview – ‘Oh, you’re the famous Harry Potter!’ – when I realized that no one was ever going to take me seriously until I got rid of it.”
“And the glasses?”
“Contacts, of course.”
“I even thought about dying my hair once, but decided I didn’t want to be mistaken for a Weasley.”
She laughed. “Still, those of us who knew you best would always be able to spot you, wouldn’t we? After all we went through.”
Harry nodded. It had been many years, but most of the memories were still fresh. Some still hurt.
“Have you heard from him, then? Is he coming?”
He shook his head. “Haven’t heard a word. Hasn’t he talked to you?”
She sighed and looked down at her glass. “No. He didn’t even send a Christmas card this year. I still get one from Arthur and Molly, but that’s about it. I hear he’s very busy nowadays.”
“Yes, that’s probably true. He probably doesn’t get much rest in his line of work.”
She looked up at him. “It’s funny, you know. You were the one we thought would go on and get involved in politics. Everyone said you had a bit more ambition than most, that Riddle’s influence had left you unsatisfied with an ordinary life, yet there you are out in California, writing your plays and living the quiet life up there in the mountains, and he’s out here stumping and kissing babies.”
“Yeah, well, the life under the microscope got old very fast. Guess I had had enough for one or two lifetimes.”
“Yes, you had.”
“It’s a nice life, you know,” he said quietly, taking a deep breath. “No one looking over your shoulder. No one stopping you on the street. I can stroll through a crowded store and no one looks up. I can walk down the street like an ordinary person.”
Her eyes followed him sympathetically. “Is that why you moved away?”
He nodded. “There wasn’t anyplace around here I could go that would be safe. Not right away.” He looked around at the people sitting quietly in the pub, at the people walking past on the street outside. “Now, it probably doesn’t matter. I doubt anyone remembers anymore.”
“Everyone has such short memories,” she agreed. “They latch onto the next big thing, and you were the next big thing nearly twenty years ago. The earth has moved on.”
“I’ll drink to that,” he smiled, and clicked his glass against hers. They drank together.
“So,” he said as their glasses were being refilled by the attentive barmaid, “what about you? Last I heard, you were settled down and living in Epping. Is that right?”
“Yes. We’ve got a lovely little cottage there, just perfect for the three of us.”
“Well, five would be more accurate, I suppose. Me, John, Kitty and the two dogs, Wallace and Gromit.”
Harry laughed. “Wallace and Gromit! Too perfect. I suppose they both like cheese, do they?”
She giggled, the same giggle he’d heard nearly twenty years ago, only perhaps slightly deeper in pitch. For a moment, he could see her as she had been twenty years before, her eyes twinkling with some secret joke. “Of course. John and Kitty spoil them rotten, regardless of my instructions, and they have to be taken round to the vets on occasion when they’ve had too much, but they’re quite well-behaved.”
“And I thought you’d always been a cat person.”
“I was, I was,” she sighed again. “Crookshanks was a wonderful cat, but he went the way of all cats in the end, and had to be put down when it hurt too much to watch him stumbling around. And John had always fancied dogs. Well, Kitty was having a bad day when she was about five or six, and John brought home these two little drowned rats from the local shelter to try and cheer her up, so what was I to do? Of course, she fell in love with the little miscreants at once.”
“And named them?”
“Yes. She always adored those characters. And she loved having her own. Fed them cheese whenever she could. Played dress-up with them, putting them in pants and overalls. Hilarious. I knew it was all over the minute she named them.”
Harry laughed at the picture that had formed in his mind of a little girl dressing up her two dogs in fanciful costumes, complete with hats and overalls.
“What about you, Harry?” asked Hermione, her head tilting slightly to one side. “How are things going with your writing? Are you working on any new plays?”
“Not at the moment,” he said. “It had got to a point where there was nothing new coming out of the well, and I didn’t want to merely rehash the same old themes, so I decided to take a break for awhile. Only the break is taking longer than I expected.”
“How long now?”
“Two years! Oh, Harry –“
He held up his hand to the question forming behind her concerned brow. “No, I’m all right, Hermione. I’ve got enough contract work to keep me busy.”
“Screenplays. Rewrites. Hollywood stuff. They send round these drafts for rewrites on contract, just clean-up stuff, really. When I’m done with them, they get sent out again for a round or two of final polish before the shooting script gets approval. I’m sort of the middle-man in the process.”
“It is. But it pays the bills.”
“Well, that’s good, I suppose.” They sipped their drinks for a moment, looking out the window again at nothing in particular. Then Hermione turned back, looking down at her glass and tracing its rim with her finger. “Harry,” she started, then hesitated a moment before continuing. “I don’t mean to be nosy, but – are you seeing anyone these days?”
He looked at her and shook his head. “Not really, no. Occasional dates with people in the acting company, nothing serious. Usually just out for dinner or drinks.”
“I suppose you still miss her quite a bit, don’t you?”
“I remember your wedding like it was yesterday. She was so beautiful.”
“Yes, she certainly was. Beautiful face, beautiful mind. Beautiful heart.”
“I cried when your note came. It seemed so … wrong. Such a wonderful person, to have to lose her so soon. I thought you were awfully brave about it.”
Harry smiled. “Well, you know me. Got to put on the brave face when things are going poorly. I’d rather gotten in the habit that last year at Hogwarts when we felt like we were fighting uphill against such ridiculous odds, so it wasn’t very hard to keep up appearances.”
“I never asked you before, Harrry, because it just didn’t seem like the right time. But now it’s been so long … I hope you don’t mind …”
“Why didn’t I use magic?”
The question hung in the air like a thick, black cloud. Hermione gazed at him with mixed anxiety and compassion, unable to do anything but nod her head slowly. Harry leaned back in the booth and sighed.
“Because she wouldn’t have wanted it that way.”
“I met her only a year or so after Jenny and I broke up. She was such a nice, ordinary girl, Lucy was. Working in a bookshop. Reminded me of you a bit, with her head always in a book. She kept her hair up, though, so it wouldn’t get in her eyes. She had the prettiest green eyes.
“She didn’t fancy the idea of magic, you know. She thought it was dreadfully unfair that some people had the ability to use it and some didn’t, but she didn’t harbor any ill will against magical folk. Just wished things could’ve been on an even keel. We used to argue about it a lot in the beginning. To me, it was no different than a man born crippled comparing himself with a man born whole. It’s just his lot in life. Roll of the cosmic dice. With extra gifts comes extra responsibility, that kind of thing. She didn’t see it quite the same way, though. Thought it was a bit unfair on God’s side, giving magical abilities to one lot and not the other. She was all for going right up to the gates of heaven and giving Him a piece of her mind.
“She was a feisty girl. And I loved her for it.
“It was five of the best years of my life, being married to her. We were all for having kids and not caring one way or the other if they were magical or not, but it didn’t happen. And then she started getting sick, and the doctors found out she was dying. I tried to convince her to see the Healers, but she would have none of it. ‘I’ll live and die a Muggle, Harry!’, she said to me, and I respected her for that. She fought it hard, but in the end, she lost the fight, and I lost the best friend I’d ever had.
“’I’ll see you on the other side,’” was the last thing she ever said, and I know it’s true. I imagine she’s over there now, having a wonderful time with Sirious and Remus and Tonks and Dumbledore ... and my parents.”
Hermione reached out and wiped a tear off his cheek. A similar tear was rolling down her own cheek, but she ignored it.
“I’m so sorry, Harry. I hadn’t realized.”
“No, no one realized,” he said quietly. “I didn’t want anyone to realize. I wanted to live in a non-magical world with a non-magical wife and pretend that there was nothing I could’ve done to save her. And I have gone on living like this because it was the way she wanted us to live.”
“And that’s why you sit on your mountaintop and write your plays? Because she wanted you to live this way? Even after she was gone?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know. I look at it like this: For the first few years of my life, I wasn’t even aware of the world of magic. For the next few years, it ruled and nearly ruined my life. Then for five glorious years, I did without it, and was happy, mostly. Ever since, I’ve been content. I’ve come to realize that I have everything I need, and I’m all right with it.”
Now it was his turn to look down at his glass. His voice dropped a bit as he continued, almost as though he were praying quietly to himself.
“You and I are a bit different from the rest of them because we grew up in the Muggle world. We knew how to get by without it. Maybe it’s just a way for me to return to that world again, to that time before I was aware of the wizarding world. Back when things were simple.”
“Simple! Simply awful, you mean. As I recall, you were treated very cruelly in those ‘first few years’.”
“Yes, I was,” he admitted. “But I think things might’ve been too easy for me if I hadn’t. With magic, there is a strong temptation to fix the symptoms rather than the problems, to make things feel better without actually addressing the core issue.”
“Well, no one put a hex on the Dursleys to make them treat you better!”
“No, and I’m glad they didn’t. I didn’t want to force them to do something against their nature; I wanted the Dursleys to treat me well because they wanted to, not because I made them.”
“Have they ever?”
A slight smile played at his lips. “You’d be surprised. Actually, they were the first ones to comfort me when Lucy died. Aunt Petunia really softened up when I got married; she seemed to take it as vindication of her own status that I’d married a Muggle. We had a nice, long chat about it. And Uncle Vernon really appreciated that time I went over and helped out after his heart attack, especially since I did it without any magic. And then there was Dudley, of course.”
Hermione looked surprised. “Dudley? Your cousin, Dudley?”
“Yes. Cousin Dudley. He was the one who introduced me to Lucy. She was his tutor, back when he was trying to brush up on his reading skills so he could get a job.”
“What? Dudley? You’re kidding. He had a tutor?”
He laughed. “Oh, yes. After getting out of the Reform Center, he found it difficult to get a job without some remedial reading studies. So he went down to the College and signed up for a reading tutor, and Lucy was assigned to his case. Something about her made him think of me, so one day he rings up and asks me to come down to the pub to meet her, and the rest … well, you know the rest.”
His eyes glistened. Hermione nodded sympathetically.
“I’d never met anyone like her.”
“She seemed very nice. At the wedding.”
“I wish you could’ve gotten to know her.”
“I do, too.”
“After we got married, we lived as ordinary people. Muggles. For five glorious years. And then she was gone.”
Hermione leaned in closer, her voice soft, compassionate. “We all wondered what had happened. We hadn’t heard from you in so long, we wondered if perhaps you’d taken Orders or something like that. And then it seemed that you just dropped out of sight.”
“I did,” Harry said in a tired voice. “Dropped out of life, the universe, and everything. Ran away and hid inside my books.”
“Luna was the one who told us, you know,” she said.
“Luna,” he said, and grinned in spite of himself.
“She keeps her finger on the pulse of the Muggle world, our Luna does,” remarked Hermione, and there was a twinge of pride in her voice as she said it. “Sure, some of the stuff she comes up with is outlandish and crazy, but she doesn’t miss a trick. She caught the obit in one of the Muggle papers and saw your name and wondered if this was the Harry Potter she’d known as a kid, so she did some checking around, in her own way. When she’d confirmed it, she sent copies round to us all, even though none of us had spoken with her in a dog’s age.”
“I appreciated the card you all sent,” Harry said. “It was quite nice. I … I just wasn’t ready to go back into the wizarding world again. Not yet.”
Hermione sat back in the booth and looked out the window. “Ron was quite angry, I recall. He thought you were turning your back on us. On him. But then he was having a rough go of things himself at the time. The job wasn’t turning out like he’d expected. His father was starting to show signs of that blood disease again. And of course his wife was struggling with depression.”
“Oh, yes. What was her name again?”
“Toby. Tobit Mallory Weasley, née Hodgkins.” She said it with an odd turn of her mouth. Harry noticed but didn’t change his expression, asking his next question in a lightly joking tone.
“You know, I never did understand why you two didn’t hook up. You were all over each other that last year, as I recall.”
Hermione laughed shortly. “You’re changing the subject, Harry! Subtle, very subtle.”
He smiled, glad she hadn’t overreacted to the jibe.
“But, yes,” she continued, “We were quite the item for awhile. How often I look back on those days and think of how simple we were, how naive. We bonded because of the constant danger we were in, and the years we’d had together in school. But when school was done and the danger passed, there really wasn’t much there to hold on to. I can’t believe we lasted nearly two years. By the end of that two years, we were ready to kill each other. If there’s anything in my life I’m grateful for, it’s that I didn’t marry Ron.”
“Was he really that bad?”
“No, not really; but he was a different kind of man than the one I needed. You remember how insensitive he could be sometimes. His head was either wrapped around a Quidditch pitch or a dinner plate, or both. There really wasn’t room for anyone like me, who needed to be constantly reminded of how much she was loved.” She smiled wistfully, remembering.
“I remember the final straw like it was yesterday. He hadn’t gotten me anything for my birthday, but happened to have tickets to the local match. And he thought it would be all right to go out with the lads instead of taking me out for a birthday dinner. I told him that, if he went, it would be the last time he’d see me. He went.”
“But that wasn’t the last time you saw him, surely?”
“No, but it was the end of us. I soothed my aching heart in my books, in my graduate studies, and he spent a few months drowning his sorrows in Stout Ale until he met up with Toby, and the rest is history.”
“I seem to recall something in the news a few years back that she had been in the hospital about the time he took the City Council post. But then she was out again by the time he moved up to District.”
“Yes. Clinical depression. Post-partum. Two kids, four years. Not surprising. But as I mentioned, he wasn’t the most sensitive soul on the planet. She wasn’t getting any sympathy from his end, so she took to the trying home-made magical remedies. But she wasn’t very good at it. Ended up in St. Mungo’s for a time, as I recall. Molly had to step in for awhile to help out with the children. That didn’t help with her husband’s issues.”
“But they’re still together?”
“So far as I know. As I said, I haven’t heard from him lately, and that was all a few years ago. I think he’s going to run for a Regional post soon, though. There was some mention of it in the paper a week or so ago.”
The door of the bar opened with a jingle, but Harry, with his back to it, hardly noticed. Hermione looked up at the sound and smiled broadly, raising her hand and waving happily. Harry turned around.
It was Draco Malfoy.
He reminds me of Narcissa, thought Harry as he stared at Draco’s face. The chin was still somewhat narrow, but the eyes and forehead were unmistakedly Narcissa’s features rather than those of Lucius. And the years had added a bit of padding to his cheeks, giving him almost a Father Christmas kind of expression. It gave Draco a much friendlier visage than Harry recalled. And the broad smile on his face was so unexpected that Harry couldn’t help but smile back.
“Harry! Good to see you, mate!” Draco said, holding out his hand. Too surprised to do anything but respond automatically, Harry held out his own, and Draco shook it firmly before turning to give Hermione a hug. “And you, Hermione!” He turned and gestured at the barmaid for a glass, and then nodded towards the table. They all sat down, Draco sliding in next to Hermione and looking across to Harry, who was still a bit startled.
“Well, now, Harry, how’ve you been? I haven’t seen you in a dog’s age. How long is it now? Nearly twenty? Hard to believe.” He turned to Hermione. “Been getting him up to date on all the latest news, have you? I suppose we’ve all got a bit of catching up to do.”
His bright white teeth gleamed as the barmaid brought his drink, and he winked at her. “Thank you kindly, dearie,” he intoned, and she blushed as walked away from the table. “She’s new, but quite good,” he said in a conspiratorial voice. “Used to be down at the Mortar and Pestle, but she likes it better here. Old Vic takes good care of her.” He nodded towards the barman, who smiled and nodded in return. Harry felt a flush of embarrassment. He hadn’t even bothered to ask the man his name.
“We’ve been doing a bit of Q&A, Draco,” Hermione said, in answer to his question. “We were just talking about Toby.”
Draco shook his head mournfully. “She had it rough, she did,” he said. “I was getting a bit worried about her, you know. Things were touch and go for awhile, but she managed to pull through. Did you know Pansy was working with her, down at St. Mungo’s? She’s really good with those depression cases. Went though so much herself, she was a natural to help others.”
“Pansy?” Harry echoed. “Pansy Parkinson?”
“Pansy Dawson now, Harry,” said Draco. “Married Peter Dawson, a Healer with quite a bit of talent. They met at St. Mungo’s, in fact, when she was doing her Practicals. Oh, they’ve been there nearly fifteen years now. He’s head of the De-Poisoning Department, and she runs Emotional Aspects of Unavoidable Illnesses. Toby came in not too long after young Freddie was born, and it wasn’t but a month or so before Pansy had her back up and running again.”
Harry was still trying to deal with this new image of Draco, this talkative, congenial man with the twinkling eyes and narrow chin who looked a bit like the old Draco but sounded like a completely different person. He couldn’t help staring, even though he knew it was a bit rude.
“Freddie?” he said quizzically.
“Yes, Freddie. That would be Ron’s son, the one who wouldn’t take breast or bottle and cried incessantly, which nearly drove his mother round the bend. After all the trauma of dealing with Angeline, it was a miracle Toby didn’t go completely bonkers, but Pansy is certainly a miracle-worker, with a solid talent in the Healing Arts. I hear from Ron that Toby still gets together with her now and again for tea.”
Hermione looked up sharply at this. “You’ve been talking to Ron? Do you know if he’s coming?”
Draco nodded. “Saw him just the other day, down at the Happy Hypogriff. Said he was looking forward to it. He’s been a bit run down at the office, you know, needs to take a break, and here’s a golden opportunity to kick back, see some of the old crowd again.”
“Pardon me, Draco,” Harry said carefully. “I don’t mean to be rude, but … do you actually hang out with Ron Weasley nowadays?”
Draco looked at Harry blankly for a moment, then smiled apologetically. “Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry, Harry. I’d gotten so used to things these past few years, I’d quite forgotten you’d not been round.”
“It may be a bit of a shock,” he continued. “But Ron and I have rather become … good friends. It’s all very natural, of course, as we’re both in the same racket.”
Draco laughed. “I know, it’s not quite P.C. these days, but it’s a bit more accurate than saying we’re in the same ‘business’, truthfully. Politics is a racket, you know. We politicians row in strange waters, and, as they say, ‘the pirates mix with the merchants’. Hermione probably already told you, but Ron is up for SouthEastern Regional this year, and I’m up for SouthWestern. We’ve both gotten too big for our trousers, as it were, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we don’t end up going head to head for Minister sometime in the future. But for now, we share a lot of the same concerns and interests, so we end up spending quite a bit of time together.”
This was all quite a bit to take in one sitting, but Harry struggled to maintain his composure.
“Does he ever … does he ever mention me?” he asked weakly, and then almost immediately regretted it. It sounded so trite, so self-serving. But Draco didn’t even hesitate.
“Of course he does, Harry!” he said brightly.
“He’s a simple soul, Ron is,” he explained. “He’s not complicated like you and I … or Hermione, for that matter,” he said, smiling at her. “He’s dog-loyal, but he’s a bit of a child in the way he thinks. That’s why he has done so well in the Southeast end, where people’s concerns are focused on the basics: food, family, job. He is well-liked, one of the gang, the kind of man you always want to stand beside you. And he always speaks of you in particular with great fondness. You were always his best mate.”
Draco sipped at his drink for a moment before going on.
“But you have to admit, your disappearance from his life left a rather large hole to be filled. Toby tried to fill it, but a wife can only do so much. A man needs his mates. He feels lost without them.”
“And when I … left,” Harry interjected, “you … stepped in?”
Draco nodded, a bit sheepishly.
“Like I said, Harry,” he said. “We are both in the same racket. Even the worst of enemies can find common ground when put in close quarters for long periods of time. We worked together on many committees for many years. We matured. We learned to put our personal issues aside for the common good. And we discovered after not too long, that we had much more in common than not.”
“Really.” Harry sounded skeptical. Draco laughed in a light, casual tone.
“Yes, Harry, we really did. We both want to be well-liked; we both want to do great things for people so that they will remember us. I lived in my father’s shadow for many years; Ron lived in his brothers’. We understood each other.”
Harry thought about it for a few minutes, considering the truth of Draco’s words. Ron had always been jealous of Harry’s fame, and his own brothers’ abilities and accomplishments. There had always been an undercurrent of competition between them, although it was always unspoken. And the same could be said of Draco, who had sought the admiration and respect of his parents, even going so far as to undertake a very dangerous task for the Dark Lord.
It all made sense.