Disclaimer: Everything belongs to J.K.R.
Author's notes: Many thanks for Shygui for his invaluable help while plotting this story and editing it. You rock!
The Rectory, May 8th 2008
Daphne fiddled with the clasp of the diamond necklace as she sat in front of the mirror of her vanity. Tonight's Veterans Ball was the perfect occasion to wear Harry's present for their fifth wedding anniversary - if the stubborn clasp of that dratted thing wouldn't drive her into insanity beforehand. Why did Harry have to insist on having safety runes inscribed on it that made it impervious to any kind of magic? It was impossible to put it on by magic this way.
She let out a frustrated hiss.
She looked up at the chuckle behind her. Blue eyes met emerald green in the mirror, and her treacherous heart skipped a beat.
His untameable black hair, still damp from the shower, stood up in all directions, and added to his boyish charm he still hadn't lost. He had a towel wrapped around his narrow hips, and a few droplets ran down his tanned, well-defined chest.
Her gaze followed the way of the droplets, and her breath caught. Daphne lowered her eyes to hide their hungry expression from him. She schooled her face into a composed mask and looked up. Their eyes met in the mirror. 'I can't put it on alone.' She held the necklace out to him.
He took the glittering jewelry out of her hands and stepped behind her. His body, fresh out of the shower, radiated warmth, and she caught a wisp of his light cologne. His hands fumbled with the clasp on the skin of her neck. 'There, done,' he said, but didn't step back. His hands came to rest on her bare shoulders, and his warmth permeated her. She leaned back against him and closed her eyes.
'Tired?' he asked.
She shook her head. Truth be told, she was exhausted. Harry had been in France and Italy most of the week, where he had looked after the Muggle part of Crystal Fairy Beauty Products, the company they both owned in equal shares. As the second in command, she had to hold the fort in the company's headquarters in London, from where all parts of their multi-corporated, world wide operating company were coordinated, Muggle as well as magical. However, she'd done that many times before, so that was no explanation for the leaden tiredness that had made her want to fall asleep at the drop of a hat during the last couple of days.
There was no way to let Harry know how she felt. Being Harry, he would insist they stayed at home so she could get the rest she needed. At any other ball night she would have been tempted to let him see her exhaustion. But not tonight: magical Britain celebrated the tenth anniversary of the victory of the Battle of Hogwarts. As the hero who had won the war single-handedly, Harry couldn't stay away from the event that was also meant to celebrate him.
She had to be by his side on this occasion, vibrant and sparkling, her blonde beauty the perfect background for the dark, handsome hero. If only that ball was already over, then she would be allowed to curl up in her favourite chair in the conservatory of The Rectory and sleep for the rest of the weekend. A wistful sigh escaped her lips. She cursed herself and opened her eyes. Had he noticed?
Of course he had; his eyes searched her face in the mirror, one brow raised. She suppressed another sigh: he knew her too well.
'I'm alright, Harry. A little low blood pressure, maybe. Nothing a glass of elven champagne can't cure,' she said, and picked up a thick, soft brush to perfect her make-up. Was it enough to lead him off track? She glanced at him from under her eyelashes.
Her words seemed to appease him: he gave her shoulders an affectionate squeeze and then walked to his walk-in closet that bordered their bedroom to get dressed.
Daphne let the hand with the brush sink onto the dressing table and watched in the mirror how Harry's back disappeared into the closet.
"Affectionately." That word described best their relationship. He cared for her, and his level of activity in their bedroom was amazing, a sure indication he felt attracted to her. Not that he ever had a hard time to persuade her.
Her face grew warm. She raised the brush and went back to work on her makeup in the soft light of the two chandeliers to the left and the right of her dressing table. A dull ache spread in her chest. Would he ever look at her the way he used to look at her?
Daphne let out a sigh in the solitude of the lavish bedroom she shared with Harry. Had she been right to marry him? He didn't love her: he had been blackmailed into this marriage by Father. Father had done the same to her, but she had already fallen in love with Harry.
So, when she accepted Harry's proposal, she had also created her own very private hell on earth. The first months of their marriage hadn't been easy, nevertheless in the end they had become friends, and lovers soon after. Maybe everything would be different if they had the children they both longed for. It would give them a deep connection to bond over.
But ever since that miscarriage five years ago she had failed to conceive. Her mouth curled into a wry smile. She couldn't blame that on a lack of trying on Harry's and her part. Would she ever become a mother? She posed the silent question at her face in the mirror. Her own sad eyes stared back at her and confirmed her doubt.
'Are you ready?' Harry's voice interrupted her thoughts.
She nodded, stood up, and grabbed for her evening purse. The folds of her strapless, floor length, silver coloured taffeta ball gown gave a soft rustle with every move she made.
Harry regarded her appearance, and his eyes lit up. 'You look beautiful, darling.'
Heat shot into her cheeks. Great, now she reacted like her fourteen year old self at the Yule Ball. She had attended the ball with a boy from Beauxbatons, Raoul Something; she had forgotten his name. However, she hadn't forgotten the exaggerated compliments he had paid her, no doubt in the hope to get into her knickers later that night. Many men had paid her more tasteful compliments after that twerp. They didn't matter. Only a compliment from Harry was special to her.
'Thank you. You also clean up nicely, Mr Potter.' She let her eyes sweep over him.
He would break hearts tonight, no doubt, and not only female ones. His black dinner-jacket-style robe fitted him like a second skin, and the silver and emerald green waistcoat over black trousers emphasised his narrow hips, and his incredible emerald eyes that had become even more prominent since he had taken that potion... She shuddered. Why thought she of that dark moment of their past right now? It was better not to to take that trip down memory lane.
A few moments later, they walked down the marble staircase. Harry took some Floo Powder out of the jar on the mantle of the huge, ornate fireplace in the formal sitting room and threw it into the fire.
'Silver Phoenix Resort,' he said.
Daphne stepped into the green flames on Harry's arm. The fireplace was high enough for her that at five feet three she didn't have to bow her head. Harry, however, had to duck. Even though he wasn't as tall as his best friend, he had reached a respectable six feet when he finally stopped growing.
She supported him during the dizzying ride through the Floo system. No matter how often Harry had to travel by Floo - and he had to travel quite a lot these days - he still hadn't mastered the art of not stepping out of a fireplace face first about ninety percent of the time.
Today, however, he had to steady her. She almost landed on her posterior, if he hadn't kept his arm around her and held her tight. His emerald green eyes were the only firm spot in a spinning world. Her stomach had a hard time making up its mind whether to continue to turn or not. She wasn't going to let it win: The Daily Prophet would have a field day if the wife of the Chosen One threw up all over her husband the moment they stepped out of the Floo.
As always when they made a public appearance the press swarmed around them, a bevy of pesky insects. Flashes of cameras blinded her, and the smell of burnt magnesium assaulted her nostrils. She swayed, and the bile raised in her throat yet another time.
Harry tightened his grip around her waist and gave her a quick scrutinising side glance, his brow furrowed. She leaned against him like a deadweight. Thank Merlin he had developed some muscles after the war and held her upright with one arm without effort. She forced a charming smile on her lips - at least she hoped it was charming. She was a Slytherin, after all, and they all were accomplished actors. She'd learned in her first year at Hogwarts to show the world an unconcerned face while she felt downright miserable, and had even more practise over the following six years until it had become second nature to her.
Harry ignored the questions of at least two dozen reporters. He wasted no time and led her over the red carpet to the entrance of the reception area. As soon as they were in the comparatively calm reception line and waited for their turn to be greeted by the Minister for Magic and his wife, he took her chin in his hand and examined her face.
'You're as white as a ghost,' he said. His index finger caressed her jawbone, and his eyes searched her face. 'Do you want to return home?'
'Don't be ridiculous, Harry,' she said. She cast a quick glance around. Drat, every eye in the room was turned on them, and no doubt the elegant couples around them strained their ears to catch every word they spoke. She lowered her voice. 'You're the guest of honour, so we can't turn around right now. I'm fine; the Floo just made me nauseous tonight. It'll be gone soon.' The noise of the excited chatter of over a hundred people in the brightly lit room masked their conversation.
He didn't look convinced, and he opened his mouth as if to contradict her.
She put a finger on his lips. 'I'm alright, honey, really.'
He gave her another long look. His other arm still encircled her waist and held her close to him. His body was tense against hers. 'If you insist.' He relaxed and leaned forward to give her a butterfly kiss. He raised his head and let go of her chin.
Daphne's stomach made a little flip-flop, but this time it wasn't due to the Floo. From under her eyelashes she cast a glance at her husband. Had he any idea what he did to her whenever he touched her?
He sensed her gaze and looked down on her with that devastating smile.
She averted her eyes; her heart pounded. Merlin, at the ripe age of twenty-seven she still felt like a teenager when he smiled at her. She lowered her eyes to the ground and fought back the sudden urge to drag him back home and spend some quality time with him. At least that made her forget the queasy feeling that still lingered in her stomach after she had overcome her dizziness.
The reception line moved forward with agonising slowness. It seemed like hours until it was their turn to greet the Minister.
Kingsley Shacklebolt kissed her knuckles. 'Daphne! As radiant as always, I see.'
She answered as it was expected, and then hugged Hestia, Kingsley's wife.
'Minister, Mr Potter, one photo, please.'
From the corner of her eyes she recognized Bozo, the photographer of the Daily Prophet. Where Bozo was, Rita Skeeter wasn't far. Daphne curled her lips. Ugh! Was it possible to turn around and walk away? Probably not. Age hadn't mellowed the self-proclaimed star reporter of magical Britain's biggest newspaper one bit: if anything, the poison she spread with her articles had become more deadly. Though there was no denying that her articles about Harry were outright flattering since the end of the war - even Rita Skeeter knew that it was professional suicide to slander the Saviour-of-the-Magical-World like she had slandered The-Boy-Who-Lived - it was better not to provoke her.
She plastered a smile on her face and angled towards Harry. He drew her closer to pose for the photo with the Minister for Magic and his wife, and she melted into him.
'Harry, dear -' Rita Skeeter turned up by their side. Where had she come from? A poison-green Quick-Quotes-Quill hovered over a sheet of parchment that levitated by her side.
Harry held up his hand, palm outwards. 'Not now, Rita. Tonight's neither the time, nor the place. You know how to set up an appointment with my assistant if you want an interview.' He smiled, yet there was a hint of steel in his gentle voice.
Skeeter twisted her thin, scarlet red lips into a pout. It would have looked adorable on the face of a seventeen year old. On Skeeter's elderly face that was forced to a youthful appearance by a copious use of Glamour Charms and too much makeup it looked downright disturbing. Daphne suppressed a shudder.
'Aw, come on, Harry, you know how difficult it is to get past that dragon,' Skeeter said. She stepped closer and put a hand on his arm.
Harry flinched and retreated a step. Skeeter's hand slipped off his arm. 'That's why I pay her such an exceptionally high wage,' he said, and smiled at the obnoxious reporter.
Skeeter kept on his tail.
There was no way she would let this woman torment Harry. Harry hadn't let go of her when he recoiled from Skeeter. Daphne angled towards him; she almost shielded him from Skeeter with her back. She raised her hand to touch his chin, and turned his head towards her with two fingers.
She batted her eyelashes at Harry. 'Honey, I believe Hermione just waved at us. She's been in Berlin last week. I can't wait to talk to her.'
She was rewarded by a smirk that flashed across his face and was gone in the blink of an eye. He schooled his face into a polite mask. 'Of course, my dear.' He smiled down at her, every inch the perfect husband. 'Excuse us, Rita. Another time, maybe.'
Skeeter shot Daphne a dirty look. Her eyes scrutinised her from head to toe, as if she examined every detail of the strapless evening gown that clung to Daphne's curves and flared out into a mermaid skirt at her knees. They came to rest on her flat stomach.
'You wouldn't happen to have any interesting news to tell, would you, Mrs Potter?' she asked. There was a malicious gleam in her eyes.
The polite smile on Daphne's face froze. A dull ache spread in her chest, and her mouth in vain tried to form the adequate words to put Skeeter into her place.
'Rita, you know we never discuss personal matters at public events.' Harry's voice seemed to come from far away. The soft pressure of his hand on the small of her back propelled her forward, away from Skeeter and her cruel barbs. His arm slipped around her waist, and Daphne leaned against him. She revelled in the comfort of the warmth of his body and smell. She'd recognise that smell anywhere: a mix of his favourite cologne, broomwax and leather.
The wall of ball guests closed behind them and obscured them from Skeeter's curious eyes.
Harry kissed the top of her head. 'Just ignore her,' he said next to her ear in a whisper.
Daphne nodded. If only it were that easy!
'I'm such a failure of a wife.'
She must have uttered that thought aloud, for Harry gave her a sharp glance.
'Now who's being ridiculous?' he asked, and softened his rhetorical question with a kiss.
Comforted, Daphne allowed him to lead her deeper into the reception area. It was crowded with even more people, all clad in festive ball gowns and evening robes. The smell of expensive perfume and cologne hung in the air and mixed with the fragrance of hundreds of candles that burned in the glittering glass chandeliers. The queasy feeling in her stomach raised its head again.
They made slow progress across the floor: every few yards they had to stop and exchange greetings. Thanks to Harry's position as the Vanquisher-of-Voldemort, and the business connections and wealth of the House of Greengrass and the House of Potter combined, among the two of them they were at least acquainted, if not friends, with everyone on the Who's Who of magical Britain.
They reached a quiet spot, and Daphne let out a deep breath. Finally! Her face hurt from the polite smile she had forced on her lips while they greeted their acquaintances. There was a tightness in her skull, a first sign of a developing headache. What in Morgana's name was wrong with her? Maybe she should have listened to Harry and returned back home.
A house elf in a miniature waiter's uniform approached them and offered them elven champagne. Harry picked two glasses from the tray and handed one to her. She smiled at him and took the glass out of his hand; there was nothing to be gained from letting Harry know that she still wasn't feeling well.
At the smell of the alcohol her stomach began to squirm - again. She held her breath to avoid the smell and pretended to take a sip. She cast a glance from under her eyelids at Harry. Had he noticed her sudden aversion? Merlin knew he was much more observant than anyone gave him credit for. Otherwise, he wouldn't have survived everything he had to go through. He returned her glance with a scrutinising one of his own. Busted!
A brown-haired missile prevented her from having to answer any questions from Harry.
'Harry! Daphne!' Hermione Granger-Weasley beamed at them. She threw her arms around Harry, and Daphne took the opportunity when Harry wasn't watching to put her glass on one of the bar tables that were decorated with floor length white table cloths and a long stemmed, pink rose in a crystal vase. The next moment she was engulfed in one of Hermione's trademark hugs.
'How are you? We haven't seen each other in ages, have we? You really need to come over for dinner soon.' She held Daphne at arm's length. 'You look better than ever,' she said, smiling warmly, 'although a little pale. You work too much.'
'Thank you.' Daphne laughed and returned the hug. 'That's the pot calling the kettle black, Hermione. You're also looking gorgeous. Where's Ron?'
'Right behind you,' said Hermione's husband of five years. He wrapped his arms around Daphne from behind and gave her a small hug. 'How are you, Daphne?'
'Fine.' She smiled at him over her shoulder. 'How's the the hunting of the bad guys going?'
'Splendidly.' Newly promoted Head Auror Ronald Bilius Weasley grinned. He let go of her to exchange slaps on the back with Harry, put his hand on Harry's shoulder and drew him aside. His mouth near Harry's ear, he told him something in a low voice. Over all the noise in the room she couldn't even understand a faint murmur. However, his uncharacteristic secretiveness and the rapid movements of Ron's lips made it clear that the topic of their conversation was of importance.
Harry's head was bowed in polite attention as he listened to his best friend. Suddenly, his head jerked around to Ron, and his posture became rigid. His eyes, alight with anticipation of an evening of socialising with their friends only seconds before, became guarded, and he took a deep breath. His shoulders sagged, and the tension left his body.
Daphne's eyes widened and she drew in a sharp breath. What was that about? Was it about Malfoy? The papers had been buzzing with the news about his petition for clemency this week. Harry had been concerned about the threat to their safety a Malfoy out of prison might pose for them and the safety of their friends. Or - had Ron come across new evidence about the death of her parents and sister? She scrutinised Harry's face, but it didn't give anything away.
Of course not; he had come a long way from the boy who wore his heart on his sleeve during their Hogwarts days. The war, and years of training as the successor to her father at Crystal Fairy Beauty Products, had seen to that, not to mention the last two years once the fate of the company had been in his hands.
He had learned to guard his emotions and expressions until his bland, polite façade hardly gave any of his thoughts away when he negotiated with business partners on behalf of their company, or had to suffer through a distinguished, yet boring party where they had to be seen. It had been much easier for her to deal with him in those early days. Nowadays, though, even she had problems to guess what he was thinking.
Harry gave Ron a nod and murmured something to him. His eyes scanned the mingling crowds. Had he found who he was looking for? There was no telling; his face didn't let on. He took a sip of his champagne, turned back to Ron and said something that made the lanky redhead laugh.
Hermione's hand on her arm demanded her attention. Daphne averted her eyes from her husband and looked at her friend.
She worried her lower lip between her teeth: a typical Hermione gesture that betrayed she had something on her mind that disturbed her. They had been friends for almost ten years, and she knew all of Hermione's mannerisms by now.
'Ginny's back,' Hermione said in a low voice.
The dizziness returned in a heartbeat. Daphne closed her eyes for a split second to keep her outward calm. Who would've thought she'd ever be thankful for all the hard times her governess had given her? Miss Ogden had been a Squib, but she came from a Pureblood family, and she had drilled into her that a lady always kept her countenance, no matter whether the cook spoiled the dinner or she just learned that her husband's first love had returned.
Ginny Weasley was the highest paid Quidditch player in the world, a dazzling beauty, model, and darling to the press. She had gone to the USA and joined the Taos Tornados right after the war. She'd become their star chaser during her first season and had catapulted the team to the top of the league. She'd not once looked back after she'd left England.
Not many people now remembered that she had been Harry's first girlfriend. Even fewer people knew that she and Harry hadn't broken up of their own free will.
'Since when?' she asked, and looked for her glass of champagne. She needed something to hold on to right now.
'Since yesterday, apparently. Ron and I didn't find out until we arrived at the Weasleys tonight and met her and her date.' Hermione grimaced. 'Molly had no idea that she planned on returning home. She couldn't make up her mind whether she was delighted, or annoyed at Ginny that yet another of her marriages failed. This time, she and Arthur didn't even get to meet the groom once.'
Daphne suppressed a snort. Over the last decade, Ginny had been one of the hottest topics of wizarding news all over the world. The minority of articles had been about her prowess as a chaser. The majority had dealt with the path of destruction she had left in the hearts of the male part of the American magical societie's upper class.
'Well, I can't blame Mrs Weasley. It's hard to keep track, isn't it? Remind me again, how many times she's been married and divorced a short time later?'
Hermione sighed. 'It was her fourth divorce, not to mention the two engagements that she broke up.'
'She has quite the record,' Daphne said.
Her friend flicked her tongue over her lips and gave her a quick glance. 'You're taking it remarkably well.'
Daphne almost rolled her eyes at Hermione. What did Hermione expect? That she would throw a temper tantrum on the night every eye of the magical world was turned on her and Harry? That she would let on how much she feared that Harry still harboured feelings for his ex? She wouldn't do any of that, nor would she quietly roll to the side, should Ginny decide to force herself back into Harry's life. Drat, as close as the Potters and the Weasleys were, it was going to be impossible to avoid her. The tightness in her skull intensified.
All of a sudden, Harry's untypical reaction made only too much sense.
Aloud she said, 'Hermione, Harry broke up with Ginny ten years ago. I trust my husband.'
Who was she fooling?
A warm smile appeared on Hermione's face, and she gave Daphne a quick hug. 'Of course you do: Harry worships the very ground you walk on.'
A sharp pain flashed through Daphne. Her eyes stung, and she bit hard on her lower lip. She was not going to burst out into tears about Hermione's words. Her friend had no idea what she was talking about.
But how to answer to that? Her stomach balled into a tight knot when she thought of Ginny's return, and what it might imply. The doors to the ballroom opened and relieved her of an answer. Hermione gave her a last glance and an encouraging smile that indicated that they would talk about this again later, and turned around to look for her husband.
'I think it's time to go into the ballroom,' Harry said into her ear. He had materialised beside her and put his arm around her waist.
Daphne melted once more into his side. She would never get tired of him holding her close. She took a look around. The guests had begun to amble towards the ballroom. Minister Shacklebolt and his wife left their post at the entrance and came over to them.
Together, the three couples strolled to the ballroom. Daphne pretended to listen to Kingsley and Harry's conversation about the latest bill pertaining to equal rights for Muggleborns which Kingsley had tried to introduce with Harry's help. Her mind still reeled with Hermione's revelations.
Last month's Prophet had been full with the news about Ginny's latest divorce, and speculated in screaming headlines about who would be her next victim. They had linked her name to a number of powerful and rich American wizards. Nobody had known that Ginny was planning a return back home. What could the still backward British magical society have to offer to her after her many exciting years in the USA?
The breath caught in her throat. The answer was obvious, wasn't it?
The hairs on her arms stood up. Why did she feel as if somebody walked over the space where her grave would be?