The Master of Life
By Mr. Intel
Chapter Eleven — The Grinder
Madam Pomfrey allowed Harry to leave the Hospital Wing the next day and he was faced with an immediate and pressing problem — he had no place to live. After a quick stop at his Gringott’s vault to deposit the Elder Wand, they deliberated on where they would stay. Ginny was adamant that they not live with her parents, pointing out that she had a hard enough time convincing them that she was no longer a baby and was ready for marriage. So instead of intruding on Arthur and Molly’s hospitality, Harry and Ginny headed for the only house that Harry owned — Grimmauld Place.
It was with a great deal of reluctance that Harry walked up the crumbling concrete path in a rundown section of Muggle London. He pushed open the rusty iron gate that only those who had been told the Fidelius-protected secret could see. In one hand, he held his magically lightened trunk and in the other, his Holly wand. Standing on the stoop, he stared remorsefully at the cracked and faded paint on the door. A thousand unpleasant memories paraded in front of his eyes and he suddenly felt nauseated. This was no place to begin a marriage. The dark magic and dark thoughts that had dwelt here for so long and seemed to have permeated every surface of every room were overwhelming. How could he expect anyone to be happy here?
Ginny squeezed his arm. "It’ll be okay, Harry. We’ve both stayed here before and we know what to expect. Besides, I’m up for the challenge of redecorating if you are." Her voice was light and its pleasantness calmed his nerves.
He wasn’t as sure as Ginny, but the thought that they would be working together on something gave him the resolve he needed. He tapped the doorknob with his wand and the door creaked open.
As he stepped across the threshold, he was stunned. The portrait of Walburga Black was gone. In its place, a small table stood against the wall supporting a heavy blue vase bulging with fresh chrysanthemums. The black and silver wallpaper had been replaced with a cream-coloured texture and the floor looked like it had been stripped of its ancient black finish and re-stained to show off the natural grain of the oak beneath. Even the air smelled brighter.
"Wow," was all that Ginny could say as she, too stared open-mouthed at the completely renovated interior. She set her trunk down and turned in a wide circle to see everything.
"Does Master and Missus like what Kreacher has done with his home?" The surly house elf’s gravelly voice was oddly out of place with their new, more pleasant surroundings.
"It’s fantastic," said a very impressed Harry. "You did this all by yourself?"
"The other Weasley and his mate helped me choose the colours, but I did all the work, Master." He puffed himself up proudly and Harry could tell by the gleam in his eye that it was as much for what he’d done to the house as it was that he hadn’t called Hermione a Mudblood in Harry’s presence.
Ginny smirked. "Ron and Hermione, eh? We’ll have to think of something very big for their wedding present. This is too much."
Harry nodded in agreement. They must have spent almost all of their free time over the past two weeks here and a good sum of money. Filing that away for later, he turned to his elf. "We’d like to live here for a while, Kreacher. Do you mind having some company?"
Kreacher bowed low, so that his squashed nose touched the floor. "It will be an honour to serve the Potter family, Master."
"Harry," said Ginny, who was excitedly taking out the beaded bag. "Kreacher and I are going to put away our things in the kitchen. Be a love and unpack our trunks?" She gave him a sweet smile and practically skipped to the kitchen, Kreacher in tow.
Shaking his head at his wife’s giddiness, Harry levitated the trunks up the stairs and into the master bedroom. Gone were the Troll legs, the elf-heads, and all semblance of the Black family in the dÃ©cor. The windows were cleaned, allowing a surfeit of light to fill the rooms. Every detail had been changed, down to the furniture, which had been reupholstered, refinished, and where necessary, replaced. Ron and Hermione were definitely going to have to answer for their expenses.
The master bedroom, which (as far as Harry knew) hadn’t been touched by anyone since the Order moved in three years ago, was as bright and cheery as the rest of the house. Its large footprint was tastefully filled with a king-sized poster bed, two high boy chests, and a large, matching wardrobe which sat in a nook that overlooked the courtyard. There were two reading chairs and a small table by another window that opened up to an obviously enhanced vista of London.
Harry unpacked their clothes with his wand and shrank their trunks to fit under the bed. Satisfied, he met Ginny downstairs.
"All done?" she asked as she bustled around the basement kitchen, placing dishes, silverware, and other cooking implements in the precise spot she wanted them. "When I’ve finished here, can you show me the bedroom?"
"Oh," said Kreacher. "Would Missus like Kreacher to show you the rest of the house? The bedroom was the place that Kreacher worked the hardest. Mean, nasty curses in there," he finished under his breath.
Ginny’s pink cheeks could have been from the effort of organizing, but Harry knew by the way she was looking at him from the corner of her eyes that she preferred a very private tour of the bedroom.
Harry cleared his throat a little. "That won’t be necessary, Kreacher. Mrs. Potter looks a little tired from unpacking and might need a lie-down."
Ginny’s confirming smirk sent a little thrill running up his spine. Kreacher seemed a bit put out, however.
"Don’t worry, Kreacher," soothed Ginny with a grateful look at Harry. "We’ll take the grand tour as soon as we’ve... rested."
Her cheeks were much redder now, as she levitated the cooking pots to their places on the hooks dangling over the stove and Harry found himself finishing the unpacking with her at top speed.
After their tour of the bedroom, they spent the rest of the morning following Kreacher through the rest of the house. Harry had to be at the Auror Training Centre after lunch for his orientation, so they allowed Kreacher to take as much time as he wanted to detail everything that was new and different. By the time they sat down for lunch, Harry was feeling much better about their choice to stay in Grimmauld Place.
"We need to give it a new name," said Ginny, who had magicked a plate of sandwiches to the scrubbed wooden table. "Grimmauld Place just sounds so dreary. It certainly fit the old dÃ©cor, but now... it needs a more cheerful name, don’t you think?"
"Potter’s Haven?" offered Harry, who considered it very much a refuge from the storm of reporters and other people that would be certain to seek his family out no matter what the fate of the Elder Wand.
"Hmm," said Ginny, tapping her finger to her lips. "That’s definitely the right direction. How about Potter’s Palace?" she said with a twinkle in her eye.
"No chance," Harry deadpanned, making a sick face that wasn’t wholly fabricated and they both laughed.
"Okay," said Ginny, sitting back in her chair, her eyes serious. "The Hermitage."
Harry mock scowled. "Are you calling me a hermit?"
Ginny’s eyes softened the unintentional jab. "Not exactly. I was thinking more of the museum in Russia."
"Oh," said Harry, but he didn’t really know what to think about their home being named after a museum.
She must have sensed the hesitation in his voice. "It’s because there are no more Blacks left, unless you count Draco’s mum. So we could maybe make a room dedicated to the memory of them — the good ones at any rate."
Harry warmed to the idea immediately. "Yeah. Although I think you secretly like the idea of staying locked up at home."
"It all depends on who’s locked in with me."
The entrance to the Auror Headquarters loomed in front of Harry as he approached it. For some odd reason it was much more intimidating to be there because he was now one of them. He was an Auror and this was where he would go every weekday to work. It was a very alien concept, considering the only examples of full time employment he’d had were from his uncle’s job at Grunnings, the teachers at Hogwarts, and various other Ministry positions. It was such an adult thing to do that Harry found his heart was racing and his forehead sweaty just from checking in with the receptionist.
She processed his vitals and generated a badge that had a magically rotating picture of his head and a sample of his blood for identification purposes. She explained that the badge would automatically allow him entrance into the Ministry and into Headquarters whenever he needed.
"Chief Auror Shaklebolt will collect you in a few minutes," the raven-haired witch said and pointed at an empty room filled with stiff looking armchairs. "You can wait there."
He didn’t wait long before the smiling eyes of Kingsley greeted him. "It’s good to see you, Harry," he said with an air of familiarity. Harry tried to reconcile that with the fact that he was now his superior. That notion was dispelled instantly, however, when Kingsley barked an order.
"Attention Auror Potter!"
Harry snapped his feet together and his fisted hands shot to the sides of his thighs. He kept his eyes on a neutral part of the wall — exactly like he’d been trained to do.
"Very good," remarked Kingsley — now Head Auror Shacklebolt, remembered Harry. "From now on, you will be part of a team. This team is composed of individuals who depend on each other for their lives." Kingsley circled him, eyes appraising his stance. "The most important thing an Auror can do is not to be the best spell caster, not be the fastest, or the most powerful. The most important thing you can do to preserve the lives of your teammates and the citizens that you are sworn to protect is to follow orders."
Harry was recording everything in his mind, not knowing how much he’d be asked to regurgitate later on.
"Orders save lives. Repeat that."
"Order save lives!" yelled Harry.
"Good," said Kingsley. "At ease."
Harry relaxed, widening his stance and letting his arms come together behind his back.
"There," said Kingsley. "That was the standard speech that every recruit gets." His eyes were crinkled at the corners, indicating that something was amusing. "Now I can collect on that bet with Arthur and you can get your butt over to the training grounds to pass the last test."
Kingsley sucked in his breath and in the loudest voice he’d heard the man use, yelled, "DISMISSED!"
Harry fairly ran from Kingsley through the corridor and down the tunnel to the expansive room where Kingsley had let him train.
When he entered, the sky was the same bright blue with a spate of fluffy clouds drifting peacefully in an imagined breeze. The dojo he and Kingsley had destroyed together stood rebuilt among the other small training rooms along the side. In the field, an entirely new set of small structures caught his attention.
Rolling metal balls, a six-inch beam stretching across a vat of boiling tar, and a half-dozen enchanted duelling dummies were just a few of the things Harry saw arrayed on the field. It was an obstacle course. At one end, a few wizards and witches stood looking tense, but determined. At the other, a gaggle of mediwitches hovered around the men and women emerging from the end of the course covered in burns, slashes of black tar, and minor cuts and bruises.
As he looked, several Aurors were engaged in various stages of the course. One was battling with a Dementor that seemed somehow constrained to a designated square of grass. Another was being attacked by random jets of flame in the middle of the course, his robes singed and smoking.
"Are you Auror candidate Potter?" said a new voice from behind him.
Harry whirled around and met a pair of steel grey eyes. His thin silver hair was closely cropped to his head. He wore the orange robes of a master Auror and his serious face instilled discipline if not intimidation. "Yes, sir," replied Harry briskly.
"Very well," he said, appraising him in much the same manner as Kingsley had. "Every Auror has to complete an annual review." He smirked. "A sort of benchmark that qualifies us for duty. If you don’t pass, you don’t see the field, understand?"
"Yes, sir," said Harry again, wondering what passing meant. Did he just have to survive, or was walking away under his own power required?
"Good. Report to the witch at the entrance to the course and she’ll assign you a slot. Once you begin, you can’t exit until you complete it or you forfeit."
Harry gulped and there was a shriek as the man battling the fire was hit in the legs, his robes erupting with flames.
The blonde witch was waiting for him at the entrance. She smiled brightly at him as if he was there to book a reservation for a holiday cruise. "Wand please," she said and held out her hand. Harry handed it over and she placed it in the same sort of balance that was at the entrance of the Ministry Atrium. Instead of a slip of paper sliding out, it hummed and buzzed until a puff of smoke blew out the bottom.
"Place your wand hand in the smoke, please," the witch said.
Harry did as he was told and the smoke solidified into a number.
The witch’s eyebrows rose. "Fifty-six it is then." She handed his wand back and stared unabashedly at him as he walked toward the entrance. "Wait for the signal."
He began to fidget. It was like the Triwizard tournament all over again, except this time, he had a lot less information about what was expected. All he knew was that he had to get to the end of the course and there was a lot of magic trying to stop him.
Somewhere a bell tolled and Harry took that as his signal. He stepped through the archway, his wand out, his eyes scanning left to right and back again. For the first twenty metres there was nothing, then without warning a hole opened up in front of him. At first Harry backpedalled, but the hole just grew larger, swallowing turf and rocks. At the far end of the hole stood his next objective, the steel beam over the boiling tar. Knowing that waiting would only make it more difficult, Harry pointed his wand at himself and muttered a Featherweight Charm and then directed his wand at the ground before propelling himself through the air.
The Featherweight Charm was too much and Harry was sent thirty metres above the hole, which had stopped growing as soon as he left the ground. He cancelled the charm and his trajectory instantly levelled out as he nosed back toward the ground. Just before he hit, he said another Banishing Hex and it counteracted the majority of his speed, but he still had to duck and roll to avoid breaking his ankles.
After catching his breath, Harry stood and approached the start of the next obstacle. Stepping onto the beam, Harry wrinkled his nose at the smell of the bubbling tar. He did not want to fall into that mess. The steel was polished smooth so that his trainers slipped slightly as he walked. Knowing that it wouldn’t be simple enough to have to walk across unmolested, Harry lifted each foot in turn and cast a light Sticking Charm on the soles of his trainers. Satisfied that they held better, he set off.
Harry’s instincts were right. He wasn’t a metre down the beam, when tar shot out of the vat in a sticky stream that just missed his head. Harry ducked unsteadily and was instantly grateful for his grip-enhanced shoes. He sprang forward, dodging another one, and now that he knew what to expect, deflected the spurts of black goo. As he progressed slowly down the beam, the jets grew more and more intense and he longed for the Elder Wand so he could cast simultaneous Banishing Hexes. Without it, he was barely able to keep up with them and he spent less and less time checking his footing.
Three came at him at once. He was able to deflect one, then another, but the third caught him on the shoulder as he dove forward to dodge it. The force of the tar twisted his body so he landed awkwardly on his right shoulder forcing his hand open and his wand fell down into the tar. Harry watched horror-struck as it impaled itself in the viscous tar and floated tip-down amid the bubbling muck.
He reached down with his left arm, hanging precariously on the smooth steel of the beam, heedless of the continued assault from the spurts of tar. It was no use, his wand was still several inches below his outstretched fingers and if he lowered himself any more, he was certain of being pitched into the tar himself. But at the rate the tar was assaulting him, being covered in tar was inevitable if he didn’t get his wand back.
He stretched his fingers toward his wand, reaching with his body and his mind. "Come on," he grunted. "Accio!" he yelled and to his utter amazement, the wand moved, rising up from the tar almost wholly before sinking back to its former depth. "ACCIO!" he bellowed, narrowing his focus even more, bending his whole will to retrieving his wand and... it shot into his hand.
Not hesitating a moment, Harry righted himself and shoved hard on the beam, pulling his feet under him as he rose. He was halfway across the pit and abandoning all attempts to deflect the tar, he ran pell-mell toward the end of the pit. Leaping off the end of the beam, he rolled in the grass and came to a stop on his back.
Breathing hard, Harry spelled most of the tar from his robes. He contemplated his predicament and wondered for a brief second if being an Auror was worth the punishment of The Grinder. All it took to cement his resolve was the smirking face of Stanley Crackshot hovering tauntingly in his dreams.
After catching his breath, Harry got back to his feet and surveyed his surroundings. The field opened up again and Harry was wary of another hole or something more sinister appearing in the middle of the clearing. He stepped tentatively forward and stopped when he heard a clicking noise.
Out of nowhere, two dozen duelling dummies appeared and without pause or fanfare, began to fling simulated spells at Harry. He knew from experience with them at the beginning of his training with Kingsley that he would be rated on how many and which type of curses hit him — not to mention the highly distracting sting each spell left when it made contact.
With so many attackers, Harry immediately erected a shield between him and the dummies and pumped a lot of power into it. The jets of light rebounded off his shield and took out a sizeable chunk of his assailants. He used the chaos to pick off a few more as he ran around their right flank. The dummies were anything but dumb, Harry observed, as they regrouped and used their numbers to divide his attention. He decided to try a new tactic.
Harry used his wand as a scoop — while his failing shield held the dummies at bay — to dig a trench in the green grass. He heaped the extra soil around the lip of the trench and transfigured it into steel, diving into the dugout just as his shield flickered and died.
The dummies adjusted again, dividing themselves into two groups; one on each side of the trench to catch him in their crossfire. Harry used his vantage point to pick off dummies one at a time as they manoeuvred, but there were too many of them and as he spent more and more time defending himself, he wondered if he was being timed as well.
Using Kingsley’s advice to think differently, Harry reached his wand over the steel lip of the trench, braced it with his other hand and fired a stream of pure magic. He swept his arm around in a quick circle, obliterating every dummy the stream contacted. When it was over, Harry dizzily fell into the ditch and took several steadying breaths.
After a minute, his heart rate slowed and his vision stopped swirling. Harry smirked to himself as Madam Pomfrey’s voice echoed in his head. "Don’t overdo it these next few days, young man or you’ll be back here with a case of magical exhaustion." Harry forced himself to his feet and crawled out of the trench. He only took a few steps before he was faced with a field of giant rolling balls. Each ball was the size of Hagrid and from the way the ground vibrated under his feet, Harry guessed they were quite heavy. On the other side of the field, stood the exit — it was the last obstacle.
He took his time watching the balls for a pattern. They seemed to move randomly, but after a minute, one or two rows would line up and Harry could see all the way to the exit. He approached the field and crouched in a ready stance, balancing his weight on the balls of his feet. Just when they began to align, Harry sprang forward and bellowed a Banishing Hex behind him that propelled him forward.
Gravity pulled him down to the ground, but he was going to fast to land on his feet, so he tucked into a ball and rolled head over bum until he finally stopped in the dead centre of the giant balls. They continued to shift until the exit was again obscured. One of the balls came close to Harry’s side and before it could make contact, Harry leapt into the air with another magically enhanced jump that sent him sailing over the ball in front of him. As he reached the apex of his jump, a burst of flame shot at him from nowhere and he barely had time to deflect it before he was heading back down to the grass in the middle of three converging balls.
He jumped again, but with more interest in escaping entombment as a pile of goo between three large metal spheres than with a clear destination in mind. Again as he topped the ball in front of him, flames erupted from three different angles and he had to create a hasty shield to keep from being burned alive. He was so focused on the fire and the spheres that he didn’t see where his trajectory was taking him. He landed in a heap, and heard his ankle twist with a painful snap. Gritting his teeth in pain, Harry stood on his good foot. A sphere was coming right at him. He began to hop to one side, but the sphere seemed to match his movements. He didn’t have time to dodge and his ruined ankle prevented him from jumping again.
"Reducto!" he yelled and the sphere exploded into a million pieces that scattered across the field behind it. Another sphere turned his direction. "Reducto!" he bellowed again and it to was reduced to rubble. Every sphere that turned toward him was obliterated until there was so much debris that the spheres couldn’t come any closer. He Summoned one of the larger pieces and transfigured it into a crutch.
As Harry hobbled out through the exit, the Master Auror that directed the Grinder and Kingsley were waiting for him. Kingsley had a gleam in his eye. "Well, done, Harry Potter," he said. "Well done indeed."
Grimacing, Harry nodded, worried about only one thing. "Does that mean I passed?"
Kingsley’s smile only grew larger. "You passed with the highest score since Alastor Moody."
Some of the other Aurors were looking over at him muttering things that Harry only heard bits and snatches of. "Fifty-six," said one witch that looked to be as old Lupin and had a patch over one eye. "I heard Kingsley only rated a thirty-two," said the wizard next to her.
Harry felt his good leg start to wobble. "Can I...?"
Kingsley snapped his fingers and one of the mediwitches was immediately at his side. "Take care of Mr. Potter. When he’s recovered, have him meet me in my office."
"Yes, sir!" she said and conjured a cot for Harry to lie in.
As she ran her wand over Harry’s leg, he watched Kingsley walk away, wondering why he had to be the stand out yet again. Would he every just be able to be normal?
Ginny was finishing dinner when someone Apparated onto the stoop. She placed the pan of Yorkshire Pudding and Roast Pork on a trivet by the oven and walked to the kitchen door. "Is that you Harry?" she called.
There was an answering grumble and the door closed. Harry appeared dishevelled and worried at the top of the stairs and winced as he slowly walked down, favouring his left leg. When he made it to the door, he grimaced. "Honey, I’m home."
Ginny narrowed her eyes. "What happened to you?"
Harry ignored her and sniffed hopefully over her shoulder. "Dinner ready?"
"In a minute," she said and poked him in the shoulder. "Tell me what happened first."
Harry shrugged. "I had to qualify before they’d let me take an assignment."
She pursed her lips and tapped her foot. "And?"
"And... they call it â€˜The Grinder’."
His stomach growled and Ginny’s desire to get every detail out of him lost to her need to feed him. "Come on to the table," she said, taking his hand. "But I want you to tell me everything that happened."
She led him slowly to his seat at the head of the small table. "Kreacher’s a bit put out that I made dinner tonight, but he doesn’t know how to cook your favourites yet." She levitated the pudding and pork together with the trivet until it landed on the scrubbed wood by Harry’s plate. Milk and water pitchers were next and finally, a bowl of boiled peas and a loaf of fresh bread.
Harry huffed. "I’m used to elf food," he said and took a bite of pudding directly from the dish. His eyes rolled back in pleasure as he chewed. "But I prefer your cooking by far," he said after swallowing.
Ginny allowed herself a smile. "Thank you." She scooped him more pudding onto his plate and added a slice of pork, peas, and some bread. He dug in with gusto and Ginny contented herself to watch as she served herself.
It wasn’t until he had started on his second plate that she spoke again. "Is that tar in your hair?" she asked, fingering something hard a black hanging from his messy locks.
"Probably," he said and took a long drink of milk. He sat back in his chair, looking much happier than when he sat down. "Kingsley had me take a test, sort of an obstacle course that everyone has to do each year. It’s something they do to make sure we’re all fit to be Aurors."
Ginny chewed her pork slowly, not liking where this was headed, but nodded for him to continue.
"The course reacts to each person differently based on your magical power. They measure your wand and wand hand and assign the difficulty level of the test to match you."
"Oh," said Ginny, suddenly understanding where Harry was taking the conversation. "Let me guess... they didn’t go easy on you because you’re a new recruit."
Harry laughed sardonically. "No they didn’t." He began to push his peas around his plate. "I don’t want to go through it blow by blow with you tonight — you can see it in the Pensieve later if you want though. Let’s just say that I made a scene yet again." He speared several peas viciously with his fork.
Ginny put her hand on his thigh and gave it a squeeze.
He ate his peas and sighed, dropping his fork on his plate with a clatter. "It’d be nice to be normal once in a while."
Ginny made a face. "Where’s the fun in that?" she asked and slapped his thigh. "Everyone wishes they were Harry Potter." Now it was his turn to make a face. "But it’s not for the reasons you think. They want to be you because you have so much potential." He looked up with hopeful eyes. "They do! They see you and think, â€˜I could do anything if I was like him’."
He made a rude noise with his lips. "They don’t know anything. They can’t understand the expectations everyone places on me. I can’t do anything because I’m Harry bleeding Potter."
Ginny frowned. This wasn’t going like she planned and Harry was spiralling more and more into the well worn circles of depression and anxiety. Quietly, she Banished the plates to the sink and the leftovers to the cold cupboard. She took his hand and stood. "Come on," she said with a smile. "I want to talk about something with you."
Harry’s brow furrowed. "Yeah? What about?" He let her lift him from the table and up the stairs. His limp worried her, but she put it out of her mind for now. She had half a mind to send a howler to Kingsley in the morning.
"Well," she said when they were in the living room and seated on a very comfortable love seat. "Since all the redecorating is done here, I was wondering if we might take on a different project together."
Harry’s eyes rose, a small twinkle rekindled in them. He urged her on with a look.
"Well," she began hesitantly. She didn’t know how he would react to her request because he was very sensitive about his fame and his family and this involved both. "I was wondering if you’d take me to Godric’s Hollow tonight."
The twinkle vanished and his eyes became guarded. "What for?"
She cleared her throat nervously. "I was thinking that it would be good to... rebuild your old house."
His eyes fell to their entwined hands. She hated when he closed her out like this. As complex as it was to sort out his emotions on a normal day, she always found his eyes communicated far more than his voice or anything else.
"It’s a monument, you know," he said thickly. "They made a plaque that rises out of the ground and everything."
Ginny kissed his knuckles. "Please?"
His eyes finally found hers and she was shocked at their depth. It was as if the whole universe had been swallowed up in the blackness of his pupils. "I don’t even know if it can be rebuilt. That kind of spell might leave permanent damage."
For the first time in her life, Ginny glanced up at his scar, knowing exactly what he meant. Her resolve settled. "There’s only one way to find out."