"Oh, Harry? If you die down there, you're welcome to share my toilet."
"Um... thanks, Myrtle."
Harry's palms are clammy with sweat. A nervous shiver runs through him. Unclenching his fists is a struggle. Despite it all, he takes a step, then another, and that's a struggle too. The fifth step becomes easier, and he keeps going: around that corner, through the doors, taking a lift onto another Ministry floor. His steps echo under the high marble ceilings.
This floor is not much different from the one with Harry's desk in the corner past Robards' personal office. The memos flock together overhead, the low hubbub of a busy space fills the aisles between the desks.
This isn't the Auror Department, but that one part, at last, is familiar.
Right, the loos.
The loos are right there, likely to be as crowded as the Muggle entrance to the Ministry of Magic, and far more stressful to enter because the concealment charms Harry uses in the presence of Muggles during his early morning trips will not work on Harry's magical co-workers.
It's Harry's second floor today looking for an available stall.
Taking a chance, he steps through the door labelled with a wizard's profile and immediately stares down, noticing the floor tiles, focusing on them instead of the sign, the space he's in right now. This is all wrong, screams his brain because years of habits cannot be broken overnight. He swats the bothersome thought aside. He observes. The floor tiles are chequered like a chessboard. They shine as the lanterns flicker. Black and white and no in-between, just like the signs on the doors, dividing up the world neatly into two sides and indicating who belongs where.
That's the trouble, isn't it? I'm here now. I belong.
Why doesn't it feel like it? What's wrong with me? Fuck. I'm Harry. I'm just Harry. I must keep it together.
Don't interact, don't be visible. Find a stall. Go in, go out, wash my hands, carry on for the afternoon. Such a routine act. Everyone's got this routine, but Harry's not like everyone. He can't help wishing for the Invisibility Cloak. Although sneaking around wearing it at work would be completely ridiculous, as ridiculous as looking up the vanishing charms apparently used back in the pre-plumbing days. He is done hiding. The loos on this floor are near the Official Gobstones Club and are supposedly the least used. Perhaps that would help.
It doesn't. Harry still has to count to three to calm his breath and still, such a mundane task is like taking a trip to a mirror universe where right is left and up is down and his breath is still shallow and panicked, constricting his chest in a death grip more than it already is.
A stall door nearby squeaks, flies open. Whew. Harry rushes past the long row of occupied urinals to claim it. It feels like the walk of shame even though he tells himself every second, his mind holding onto that one mantra: I belong. Here. Now.
It's just his luck, that, like a newfound Boggart, his supervisor steps out.
Fuck. Robards! Harry's heart takes a frantic leap. Despite the conversation they've had just last week:
"Look, I've got something that'll affect this team. I haven't told many yet."
"Do go on, Ms. Potter..."
Harry cringes, pushes forward, lifts his head enough to see a casual stare, then a tell-tale hint of widened eyes, and Robards looks away, sidesteps.
Facing anyone he knows here is the worst, facing someone who controls your pay cheque and daily assignments... well, it can't get any worse than that. At least there are fewer conversations in the men's, it's all very routine. Efficient. Yes, and as routine as it gets.
Harry gathers his wits and carries on, dashes in, presses the door closed, latches the ornate hook and only then releases a panicked breath of relief. Made it. For now. He sits and tries not to think of his feet facing the wrong way. No one, surely no one, checks for the feet under the stall doors.
Seriously, what kind of pervert would? Maybe people do, all the time. How would I know? Do people really glance and wonder? Or is it just me? Overthinking it all.
The surge of unease doesn't let go even as he empties his bladder. He dashes out just as quickly as he came in. At the sink, he splashes cold water over his face and catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror even though he's told himself a thousand times before not to dwell on looking.
An obvious sight greets him back.
She is short-haired and exhausted. Too young to wear the uniform, with that rounded jaw and round glasses, brows charmed to bristle thicker than they actually are. Above them, the messy fringe hides the lightning-shaped scar. Male Auror's robes, too tight at the hips, hang like an ill-fitting costume from the narrow shoulders to the rounded thighs.
Who the hell am I trying to fool? Should've used the loos on the other side, it won't be so crowded at least. The realisation stings. Stepping through the other of these twin doors feels far more familiar, but he can't. He can't do that anymore! It's a space no longer his to claim. It'd be unfair to everyone else there, his conscience calls out, bringing forth the image of a scared little boy hiding behind a witch's long skirts to avoid facing his own troublesome self. And still, the worry lingers: what kind of discomfort should he pick the next time he stands before the twin doors? Would a wounded conscience be easier than this?
I won't have to worry about it anymore today. I'll get through the afternoon, Apparate out straight from the Muggle stall, use the loo at home, then sort it out tomorrow.
There, all settled.
Harry takes a deep breath and carries on, through the door with the animated sign of a wizard's profile he no longer has to face today, at least, following the corridors to the lifts, then, all the way up to his desk.
Four hours of relief, then home. I need a cuppa. Thirst won't help me focus and the reports are due tomorrow.
Tea or not, he has no clue how he's going to concentrate on getting any work done. The focus just isn't there. Frantic, he rubs his forehead then obsessively brushes his fringe over the faded scar (and the round hairline, and the too-thin brows) - all three making him self-conscious.
What's wrong with me? It hasn't been any better for weeks now. I must keep it together. I'm Harry. Just Harry. Breathe.
His mind is in disarray. He's been trying to make it to Friday for a few months now but the weeks aren't getting any shorter. I'm a complete bloody fraud, his thoughts suggest. I should not have ever confessed. Ever. At all. Maybe just to George, we could've worked it out together. But I definitely never should have said anything to Snape. Snape, of all people!
If I wouldn't have confessed, it wouldn't be real. I could have held it together and never had to go through with it. Is it too late to take it back? Is it possible to Obliviate people and start all over, maybe wait for a decade or two for a decision this important? For George's sake.
Harry's feet carry him to his desk and he sits down, slouching, painfully aware of his thighs far too round as his backside meets his seat, his boots are too loose to compensate the view of feet far too small, and there's always that annoying indentation in the fabric of his robes stretched over his chest, never as flat as it should be. (At least the robes are dark enough to hide the worst of the shadows. I hope they are!)
This is humiliating. I have to find a way to fight this. I wasn't this afraid to face Voldemort, for fuck's sake. But this isn't Voldemort. These are dozens of daily physical stings to his true self, triggered by words or visuals or awareness of his own body.
I didn't know, once, and didn't notice any of this, how can I go back to not knowing again?
The answer is so simple, he doesn't even have to search for it. Obliviate. Point a wand to his own temple, say the spell, hope it won't leave this body a gibbering wreck. But he'd never do that. He can't. It would feel too much like the suicide of his true self.
Harry slumps and stares at his empty hands until a flock of memos flying overhead startles him out of his stupor. Ron's desk is empty. Ron's been out on patrol rather often these days, and everyone else is too busy with their own reports to pay attention. There's the scratching of quills against parchment, the rustle of memorandums. Bloody hell, I never wanted a desk job. Aurors were never supposed to be like that! What have we trained for?
Harry releases a breath. It never used to feel this sweltering hot in the office before... not until the first shot. Now his entire back is coated with sweat, probably the only sure proof right now that his body is changing. (He had to tighten his belt another notch, but he isn't sure whether that's the recent stress that's caused it, or a handful of weekly testosterone shots.) Why can't the changes brought by them be simple and quick, like the Polyjuice Potion, but permanent? Wham and all is done, everything is over, but no, instead Harry's stuck like this, with months, maybe years to go, hoping things change faster, waiting people's reactions out day by day, having to face himself in the mirror, having to face his co-workers, face Robards, in the loo.
He's suspended in between and the in-betweenness just won't stop, and he hates every second.
How did I get here? I was content once... It's not a question he should dwell on but he can't help himself. Because once upon a time, his former self was at least content, may have had a future and a life. Harriet Euphemia Potter, the Girl Who Lived, sorted Gryffindor, but now that school's over, now that his mind has opened this personal Pandora's Box and accepted the contents, Harry feels nothing common with that given name inside him, any more than there's anything left of his youthful courage. It seeped away in the daily grind of his current job. Sliced away as soon as his plait tumbled to the floor like a cursed snake, with one snip of a spell. Perhaps every emotion he knows nowadays is dulled with dehydration, every drink rationed to postpone facing the daily inevitable. As simple and as basic as it gets. A dilemma: either the mirror in the public loos shows a lie of a body or Harry's mind has been trapped in a profound delusion. But which is it?
Bloody hell, I'm a mess. He thinks back on the morning of the first shot. George had stood there with him, squeezing his shoulder, as Harry sat on his side of the bed trying to divide up the width of his thigh into visual thirds. Molly Weasley's crocheted bed cover was crumpled in a multicolored heap by the bedside, George's old shirt all but hidden underneath. Harry cast a disinfecting charm on his thigh, and the thinner needle went in, as if on its own. That part turned out to be easy. A sense of relief flooded him as he pressed the plunger of the syringe until he could no longer force it down. At that moment, he knew, somehow, that everything would be all right.
Ha! Everything isn't all right! The mirrors haunt him. His own doubts cripple his determination, born of naivete. Turned out there is no magic switch, no spell. All that's left to him is a painfully slow process, months and years worth. Oh, fucking hell, what did I sign up for? How sure am I about going through with this? Sure, there are days when it is simple when Harry flexes his arms and feels strong, stronger than before, and as sure of himself as Ron or George or any bloke he knows. He can see the outline of a growing bicep, and doesn't know whether to allow foolish excitement or admit that he's scared - scared shitless - because how is he supposed to figure out he wants this for good when he's never existed like this, not fully, not even in his daydreams. He holds onto the thought of relief of thinking of himself as Harry - Harry, dammit - and not the name which strikes him with an awkward shame (of a delicate, ugly bow lowered over his head, lacy and pink as if it had just been plucked from Umbridge's collection of Frolicsome Feline plates.) I'm Harry, he reminds himself and exhales in relief. No one else but Harry.
No one he knows has gone through an experience like this. He's an oddity, an ultimate freak. No wonder it had to be Snape who had heard one of Harry's first panicked confessions. George was the first to know, but it was Snape, to Harry's utter surprise and horror, who was the second. Then, Ron and Hermione. Robards. Molly and Arthur. Then there were many frantic letters, written over the course of two sleepless nights and duplicated by a spell, to Headmistress McGonagall, to his classmates, to the Dursleys. Damn it, the order of people he's confessed his deepest secret to was all wrong. Snape wasn't supposed to know at all, not yet, but he did, and that forced Harry to confront his friends and family and co-workers. The awkward obligation to say something first hand before the rumours reach the people he cared about certainly set the tone for the rest of the process and now it was all a big mess.
Three hours until he can go home. Harry clenches his sweaty palms into fists and forces them open once more. His heart is a clock that can't stop measuring time in frantic seconds.
Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
His fingers search out the beginning of stubble on his upper lip. His thighs press together around a dull throb at his crotch. He doesn't know how to call that sensation yet. Growth? Transformation? It's almost like magic. His nostrils are filled with an unfamiliar, stronger scent of his own sweat. His skin feels thicker, oilier. He doesn't know if the hair on his arms is any darker but there's a patch of it right over his knees and on the backs of his thighs that definitely has darkened and turned coarse. Oh bloody hell, this is overwhelmingly slow and not happening fast enough! He is ecstatic, yes, but also scared as fuck for the next change to be a nightmare instead of a guilty giddiness of a free fall.
His throat hurts once in a while and then his voice turns slightly hoarser. The corners of his hairline feel softer, with fine hair shedding when he runs his fingers through it. Such odd, specific changes, not at all what one would expect. Random. Consistent only in surprising him day by day with a new discovery.
What if the clock strikes midnight, and it all turns back, a carriage for his mind shrinking back into a shattered pumpkin on the roadside? After all, waking up at three a.m. in their dark bedroom, to George's soft snores, he still has to coax his frazzled mind into a reminder: this is me. The real me. Am I real enough? Am I man enough?
He wants to keep this. He wants to continue. He wants to see it through. Apparently, this is exactly what he needs right now (maybe always) to navigate the world. The next shot is on Monday, and there's enough testosterone left in the phial for two more weeks. Then, he has to go back to the Muggle doctor and confound her into thinking she's seen Harry for several months already as a regular patient, to fill the script and continue on with the unknown. He can't fathom how the Muggles he saw in the waiting room handle the long journey of counting days, weeks, months for the prescription. He's well aware that magic saved him years of living in between, years of this. He's the lucky one.
No other way to go but onward, his mind calls, and that gives Harry the strength to continue on with his day.
Harry will leave work soon, apparating out of the loos in Whitehall as soon as he exits the Ministry of Magic Headquarters through the official entrance (right after unlocking the stall door for the next guy that might need to use it). He will come home to the Chinese takeout waiting for him in the charmed icebox and George's quiet company. But wait, where did this story begin? Surely not today. One day in the middle of a long journey is no proper beginning. Where do all the good stories start? Some start with the right book finding its reader. Yes, we should start there. Let us begin properly then, at Hogwarts.