Harry has retreated behind the walls of his occlumency and gets a rude awakening from those who love him.
Harry carefully placed the last block in place; he was safe behind his walls again. Then he carefully crafted an outward persona, one that would hide the bunker he'd built for his emotions, a facade that would stand up to even Hermione's scrutiny.
He could act like someone who could be her friend, but never anything more.
Part of him coolly congratulated himself for building such an elaborate emotional bomb shelter.
Part of him was clawing with bloodied, broken fingernails, howling to be let out.
It's all about clarity. I can focus now on what's important - finding who killed my wife and my best friend.
Upton Stebbins was on pins and needles. His boss, the most difficult and demanding mage he'd ever worked for was, well, off somehow.
In the months leading up to what Upton would later refer to as 'the change', Lef' tenant Potter had been himself, that is to say, a right bastard.
If his erk did something right, Harry would chastise him for not doing it better.
Upton came in early and made sure he was the last of the Auror Basics to leave - and the Lef' tenant asked him why he was such a poor time manager that he couldn't finish his assigned duties within the confines of a normal working shift.
In the annual AB tournament, Upton had won four of the five combat spellcasting competitions outright, and come in a close second on the fifth.
"Stebbins," Harry had asked, "do you know what we call the guy who comes in second in the real world?"
"The dearly departed."
Then it all stopped.
Upton didn't mind at first, glad of the break, but after a few days he started to see a disturbingly predictable pattern.
Lef' tenant Potter would have Coffee and a croissant at a quarter to seven. Walk through the day's assignments; say something uplifting to at least three people, always different people, post a copy of a political cartoon from the Sun or the Mirror, strategically placed to offer the page three girl a modicum of modesty.
Assign patrols for the day; finish the brief by telling everyone to "Be careful out there."
Retire to his office to review clues in the Weasley-Potter case.
Upton Stebbins felt he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. He reviewed the facts, stared at the small, inscribed stone on his desk, and chuckled.
The stone was a flat, river rock upon which someone had emblazoned, "Eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
Either the Lef' tenant was a polyjuiced imposter or he'd fallen back into his addiction.
By early Monday morning, three weeks after 'the change', Upton had had enough. He was reviewing Harry's calendar and saw yet another anomaly. Every Monday, since forever it seemed, Lef'tenant Potter would share lunch with his bushy-haired best friend. Only this Monday's lunch date was over-written. For an interview in Cheswick that couldn't be pertinent to the case.
"Sir, aren't you taking tea with Mrs. Granger-Weasley today?"
The Lef' tenant smiled and said, "Bugger all, I did forget. Stebbins, would you please tell Hermione that I'm going to be out of the office today."
Upton Stebbins steeled himself, "No, sir."
Harry just kept leafing through interviews.
"I said, no, sir."
"I heard you, Stebbins, okay, it's not fair to have you make excuses for me, is it?"
At that moment Upton knew what he had to do. "I believe I'll just pop over to the Muggle Liaison Office for a moment, sir. If I see Mrs. Granger-Weasley I'll be sure to pass on your message."
Harry didn't look up from his research, "Um hum, thank you Stebbins, good man."
The Auror Basic practically ran to the lift.
"Hello, Elaine, is the Deputy Director in?"
"Of course, is this urgent?"
"I think so."
Stebbins looked around, then whispered furtively, "So who is it?"
Margaret Elaine Roos looked puzzled.
"You said you fancied someone in the office and I thought I might see if the bloke is good enough for my old classmate."
"You're the detective, Upton, detect."
"I'll have a go after my meeting with Mrs. Granger-Weasley."
"This way, then."
A double-knock on the door got afriendly "Come in."
"Oh, hullo, Auror Stebbins, isn't it?"
"Yes, Deputy Director, thank you for seeing me on such short notice." He took his seat as directed. Not one to mince words he said, "I'm concerned about Lef' tenant Potter, Madam Deputy Director."
"Please, call me Hermione. 'Madam Deputy Director' sounds too much of a mouthful."
Stebbins grinned, "Only if you'll call me Upton, ma'am."
"Fair enough, Upton, now, what about Harry?"
"When was the last time you spoke with him?"
She looked thoughtful, "We speak almost every day, passing in the hallways, the occasional lunch or tea. . ."
"You don't really talk though, do you?"
Hermione, obviously surprised, said, "No, not really, not about anything of any consequence. He's become quite the expert on fog and the weather lately, seems all our conversations revolve around trivia."
"Lef' tenant Potter has been missing lunch and tea more often than not lately, hasn't he?"
Hermione felt a lead weight settle in her stomach.
"I-I'm sure he's very busy."
"When he does see you, he doesn't talk about whatever case he's working on, does he?"
"No, I know he's working on, well, our case, but I just assumed he had no new developments to report."
He didn't tell you about his old house elf?
"Kreacher? No, what about him?"
"He's dead, apparently killed himself, in some kind of house elf ritual."
Hermione was horrified, "Oh no, Harry hasn't said a word, he must be devastated!"
"That's part of the problem, ma'am, he's not. And he hasn't said a word to you or anyone else about Kreacher, he was - upset- when he first found the old elf, he even let me go with him to the cottage by the sea where we buried the little guy."
Hermione nodded, "Shell Cottage, on the coast."
Upton soldiered on, "He didn't tell you about the cognivores?"
"Those floating brains in the Department of Mysteries? No."
"Or that your neighbor, Mister Kemp, is dead."
All the blood drained from her face.
"Or that Kemp appears to have been attacked by one or more cognivores before he died?"
In a very small voice she said, "No."
"Madam Deputy Director, I may find myself in need of a job very shortly, but if I am sacked, I'll know it's for a good cause."
Upton took a deep breath, and then let it out. On the one hand he was about to betray his superior, on the other hand it was necessary, necessary for Lef' tenant Potter, for Potter's career, for his family and his friends. Upton just hoped that one day, in spite of all this, the Lef' tenant would remember his 'erk' was trying to do what was right, and not what was easy.
The young auror summed up, "He's crawled back into his occlumency armor again; he's just been a bit cleverer about it this time. It took me a few weeks to see it, but he's a good teacher, and I started to see a pattern."
"He got predictable, didn't he?"
"Yes ma'am. Very unlike himself, that is."
"What can I do?"
"Do? You can do what I can't, Hermione. You can go into Harry Potter's office, his inner sanctum, and rant and scream and slap the shite out of him if that's what it takes! He's not doing himself, the department, or his family any favors by locking up the best part of himself."
Hermione looked puzzled.
"His passion. His passion for justice, his passion for his family and, begging your pardon, ma'am, his great longing for you."
Without even realizing it, Upton had risen to his feet and placed both hands on the Deputy Director's desk.
"My Lef' tenant has shut us all out: you, me, his children, everyone."
Hermione's face morphed from 'little girl lost' to curious to 'puzzled, but pensive' to irritated to angry in the course of ten seconds. She was just about to the point of 'charge the blockhouse!' when Upton lifted his hand.
"Keep that mad going for just a little while, Hermione. I need to see the Lef' tenant for ten seconds before you do."
Hermione continued a slow burn as she nodded her acquiescence.
Stebbins exited the Deputy Director's office and Elaine Grabbed him and kissed him, hard.
"Thank you, Upton; she's been lost without him these past few weeks."
Stebbins grinned and said, "Anytime, Elaine." Then, looking back toward Hermione's office, he added, "And I know who you fancy."
She looked ready to panic, "You won't say anything, will you, especially not to her?"
"No, I won't. But I don't blame you. She's easy to love."
Margaret Elaine Roos sighed, and looked longingly at Hermione's office. "Yes she is."
"If you ever decide you like blokes, or if you just need a friend with no agenda, you know where to find me."
"I just might, but don't hold your breath, Up Townne."
"Ungh, I will pay you money to not say that again, bad enough I had to put up with it in school."
She kissed his cheek, "Go on, tiger."
As he walked toward the exit she said, "I'll be at the Leaky Cauldron after work today."
"I just might, but don't hold your breath, Maggie!"
Stebbins walked, uninvited, into Potter's office and placed his badge on the lieutenant's desk.
"What's this, Stebbins?"
"You might want this after you see your next visitor."
Stebbins exited and Hermione, full of righteous fury, entered.
"Harry James Potter, you've gone and built your bloody occlumency stockade around y'self again, haven't you, HAVEN'T YOU!"
Very calmly, Harry rose and said, "Please, have a seat, Hermione."
"No I don't want to have a bloody seat, what I want is for my best friend, the father of my sons from another mother, to come out of his God dammed hidey hole!"
"I'm sure you're mistaken, Hermione. I'm fine, the boys are fine."
"No, you're not fine, Mister Potter."
She placed both hands on his desk and leaned forward, "I never thought I'd say this, Harry Potter - you are a coward."
"That's a bit harsh, don't you think?"
"COWARD! You're afraid to feel, because it hurts. Well guess what, Harry, life hurts! Bad things happen to good people for no good reason. People we love don't stay with us forever and we have to hurt, and go on hurting because that's what we have to do day after bloody day."
She sat in the chair facing his desk, then fell forward onto her crossed arms, sobbing.
Harry walked around to put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but she cringed away.
"Don't you dare. Don't you DARE! Coward!"
"I'm not. . ."
"Are you trying to emulate Dumbledore? He was an occlumens too, aloof, ice-water in his veins. Oh he appeared grandfatherly and benign, but more than once he sent a teenage boy into battle against a dark wizard with over fifty years experience on him. When you shut yourself away from your emotions, your passions, you become what you hate, someone who is convinced he knows what's best for everyone else in his life. Christ, Potter, don't you know what that makes you?"
Harry shook his head, "No."
"A God damned manipulator, just like Dumbledore was."
"But I'm not. . ."
"You can try to convince yourself that you're doing something good and stupidly noble by shutting us all out, but I tell you this, as of right now. We're through."
Hermione stood and turned to leave. She didn't turn around as she added, "Someday I hope to God you'll remember that you left us first!"
Harry took a deep cleansing breath, checked his walls, noticed a few cracks but otherwise okay, then said, "I'm sorry, Hermione."
Hermione still didn't look at Harry, "You may call me Deputy Directory Granger-Weasley. Only my friends call me Hermione."
He bowed his head, "But, what about Albie and Jimmy and Rosie and . . . us."
She spun to face him and could almost see the cracks widening in his defenses.
"Us? There is no 'us.' Bloody few of us are cursed with the ability to do occlumency, Potter. The vast majority of us have to walk through life naked, with all our hurt and pain and suffering on display for all the world to see. Maybe someday you'll see that's the only way to live, really live in this world. When you can walk down these halls naked, like the rest of the human race, there might be an us, but not until."
Hermione dabbed tear-filled eyes with the end of her sleeve then, with chilling calm, said, "Goodbye, Lieutenant."
Screaming he could take, but the cold finality of that 'goodbye' shook Harry to his foundations.
"Goodbye, Deputy Director."
Upton stepped into Harry's office and asked, "Sir?"
Harry stared at the door for several long minutes before he shook himself, then regarded his erk.
"Nothing happened that I didn't know would happen, Stebbins, here." he said, returning the brass Auror Basic badge,"You'll need this."
"Fine, Lef' tenant, time for our PT." In a sotto voice he added, "And Plan 'B'."
Harry looked at his watch, "So it is, see you downstairs."
When Harry entered the gym he was surprised to see Neville Longbottom in his Aikido costume. He was deep in conversation with Stebbins, who wore DMLE sweats.
"I contacted Mr. Longbottom shortly after my little, um, training demonstration at St. Mungo's." Stebbins explained.
Neville, continued, "I've been offering classes in unarmed combat to the Department. Stebbins here has been instrumental in making it happen.
Ten aurors joined the impromptu class, ranging in age and experience from probationary, like Stebbins, to veterans.
"Care to be my sparring partner, Harry?"
"Sure." Harry went to change.
"Are your sure about this, Upton, he seems fine."
"/Very/ sure, Mister Longbottom."
Six minutes later Neville sighed as Harry stepped up to the mat.
"Should I bow?" Harry asked.
As Harry bowed from the waist Neville took a handful of Harry's sweatshirt, spun about and dropped to one knee, taking a startled Harry down to the mat in the process.
"That's the 'three foot rule,' ladies and gentlemen. If your opponent gets within three feet of you, his arse is yours."
He helped Harry up.
"How many of you keep your wands in a wrist holster?"
Several hands went up.
"Harry, are you wearing yours?"
He nodded warily.
"Go for it."
Harry did and was amazed at how quickly Neville had his wrist in an excruciating grip that prevented him from grasping it. The wand fell to the floor. While still holding Harry's wrist, Neville gave it a half-twist, bringing Harry to his knees.
"Oh, sorry, Harry."
"If you take your opponent's weapons away they will usually not give you any trouble, even if you don't have your wand on you. I happen to know of one Auror Lef' tenant who favors a muggle firearm when in the field. Harry, do you have your revolver with you?"
He started to say "No" when Stebbins handed him the pistol.
"Apparently I do."
"Please remove the ammunition, even the boy-who-lived isn't faster than a speeding bullet."
"You know I don't like that name, Neville."
"Oh, sorry. Forgot. All empty then? Good. It's a large caliber weapon so you have to extend your arm to fire it, don't you."
"Pretend that I'm a threat, draw your pistol."
Harry stepped back a pace and brought his Colt Forty-five to bear on Neville's forehead.
At least, that was the plan.
As the pistol came up Neville bobbed left and grabbed the barrel of the pistol, turning it away from Harry's palm, then all the way around til it pointed in Harry's direction. The motion overextended the finger in the trigger guard. Everyone heard the unmistakable sound of the hammer falling, fortunately, on an empty chamber, while the barrel was poking Harry's chest.
Those closest to Harry and Neville also heard the sound of several finger bones being dislocated.
"Ahhh! Shite, Neville!"
"Oh, sorry, Harry. Is there a healer in the house?"
As a DMLE medic healed Harry's finger, one of the veteran aurors asked, "Can you teach us that? I can see where it would be right useful against a wand as well as a pistol."
"Sure, everyone, pick a partner."
"Upton, you're with Harry."
As Neville described the techniques for disarming an armed opponent Harry whispered, "I know what you're trying to do, Stebbins, and it won't work."
"You're deliberately trying to get me angry, to lose control. It won't work."
Neville shouted "Go! Hey, Harry?"
Harry looked at Neville and Upton bitch-slapped his superior officer, spinning him on the spot.
"You alright, sir?"
"Cheap shot, auror, want to try that while I'm looking?"
Neville shouted, "Go!"
Harry prepared to block another strike, but Stebbins stomped hard on his foot, then brought his knee up into Harry's groin. While Harry was bent forward, the Auror Basic, back-handed him, spinning him one-hundred-eighty degrees.
Harry roared and charged Upton only to be taken down by Neville.
Harry was screaming obscenities and literally foaming at the mouth.
"Stebbins!" he raged, "You are so fucking sacked!"
The rest of the aurors stared slack-jawed at the drama unfolding before them. Upton raised his hands and told the group, "All part of the demonstration. Mr. Longbottom is just demonstrating methods for controlling a, ah, difficult assailant without the use of magic. The Lef' tenant is just getting into character."
Neville kept Harry in a rather painful take-down hold, such that whenever Harry tried to get up, or roll over, or indeed, move at all, something would press a nerve center or twist, causing a searing pain like an electric shock.
Rather than try to calm Harry down, Neville urged him on, "That's right, that's the ticket, don't hold back, don't hold it in. Let it out, let it all out!"
Harry was reduced to a blubbering, cursing mass within seconds. Whatever emotional shields he'd had were well and truly gone.
By the time Harry had regained control the gym was empty except for Neville and Upton.
Very calmly, Harry told his Auror Basic, "My office, one hour."
Stebbins nodded and left.
"All right, Harry?" Neville asked.
Harry wiped the sweat and tears from his face with both hands and said, "No, mate, I'm anything but all right." He looked at the best friend he had left in the world, "It hurts so fucking much I just want to chuck it all, y'know?"
Harry's eyes narrowed as he said, "You're a right bastard - you know that?"
Neville smiled and nodded again.
"Stebbins, get your sorry arse in here!"
Upton Stebbins, Auror Basic, stood at his lieutenant's desk at attention.
"Your badge, auror."
Stebbins sighed, but handed over his 'AB' brassard.
"You can't wear two badges at the same time, erk, it looks pretentious."
Harry handed him the silver badge of afully vetted auror, then held out his hand, "You're a good man, Upton."
Shocked, the newly promoted Auror grasped Harry's hand.
Harry's face lost its scowl.
"The last thing I need is some sycophantic 'yes man' hanging around me. You had the guts to stand up to me when no one else did, and you saw how much I was screwing up my own life, personal and professional and you did something about it. Thank you, and congratulations, Auror Detective Stebbins."
"Yes, sir, I mean, thank you, sir!"
"Hey, you earned it."
"We're just glad to have you back, sir."
"Yeah, well, now I have the really hard task before me."
"I have to face Hermione."
"Ah. Sorry, Lef' tenant. Can't help you there, sir."
"You've done quite enough for one day, Detective."
The Muggle Liaison Offices were set up very much like the DMLE, a large open area with rows of desks for the admin staff and offices for the senior staff. It was nearly the end of the day, but everyone was still working away at the seemingly endless stacks of paperwork. On the other side of this great expanse of desks was the office of the Deputy Director of Muggle Affairs.
Harry sighed, there was nothing for it. He knew what he had to do.
He removed his forearm holster and placed it, with his wand on a small table.
He shrugged off his cloak, then his tie, shirt and undervest. Followed by his shoes and socks.
Bare-chested, he neatly folded the clothing and placed it next to his wand.
About this time a nervous tittering started from the nearest desks.
When he dropped his pants there were gasps and some laughter.
When he stepped out of his boxers there was applause, whistles, catcalls and cheering.
Hermione Jane Granger-Weasley, Deputy Director of Muggle Affairs was not having a good day. She was an emotional wreck following her confrontation with Harry and now someone was in her offices creating a commotion - disrupting her well-ordered domain.
Well, she would see about that.
She slammed her office door open and yelled, "What the bloody hell . . ."
Harry was walking toward her, shoulders back, head high, tears streaming down both scarlet cheeks.
Completely, from top to bottom, starkers.
He stopped in front of her, fell to his knees his arms outstretched, and said, "For all the world to see, Hermione."
He's gone completely round the twist, she thought, and then remembered what she'd said earlier that same day, When you can walk down these halls naked, like the rest of the human race, there might be an us, but not until.
"Someone lend us a cloak," she huffed, then, staring at his 'endowment', added, "a long cloak!"
Three cloaks sailed through the air in her general direction, she grabbed the first one she could and threw it over his shoulders.
"C'mere you!" she said as she dropped to her knees, pulling him into a tight embrace, to the delighted cheers, applause and catcalls of her entire department. Tears flowed freely as she allowed Harry to help her to her feet.
Stupidly brave and noble, magnificently tender Gryffindor that he was, he was back.
And she'd be damned if she was going to let him go, ever again.