His marriage was already dying when the soulmarks came.
It wasn’t that he didn’t try. And they got on alright, he and Ginny; they were good friends, at least, and some days he really did think he was in love with her.
But it wasn’t all the days. And she wasn’t in love with him on any days, not anymore, there was no getting around that.
Still, they were comfortable. They hadn’t moved into separate bedrooms yet when the soulmarks came, but they were thinking about it: Harry kept odd hours for work, Ginny got up damned early for practice, and both of them had nightmares, although Harry’s were, they both agreed, worse. Ginny had mentioned it, tentatively, as something the very old-fashioned pureblood families did, and Harry hadn’t agreed yet because he liked it when he could smell her in his sleep, but he had already known he was going to.
And then one night, as he was changing into his pajamas, Ginny had asked, “What the bloody hell is that?!”
The mark had been on his left side, just beneath his collarbone. It was dark, not like skin is dark but like ink is, a blue so deep it was almost black. The handwriting was blocky, all caps, not like a child would write but like an adult would if something were very, very important, and it was an inch tall, maybe a handswidth long.
That was before they knew what the marks were, of course. Harry had gone in to the office early the next morning to get it tested for curses, but there were half a dozen other folks already there doing the same thing. It was quickly declared to be an Alarming Situation, and Harry was actually named as the Special Investigator in charge of discovering what on Earth the marks meant.
The muggles got there first, though. Dudley, of all people, was the one who clued Harry in. They met for lunch once a month, by that point, and Dudley had asked Harry, in the tone of one looking only for the latest gossip, whether he or anyone he knew had a mark.
Harry spilled his tea. “I’m sorry?! What--what do you mean?”
Dudley looked at him oddly. “Do the wizard folk not get them, then? The marks, Harry, like writing? Appear on people’s bodies? Generally the first words someone has said to them...?”
Harry’s pulse was pounding in his ears. “We get them, yes,” he answered. “Not... not all of us... Is it all muggles?” It had sounded like that, when Dudley said it.
“No, no--no one I know. Well, that I know of, anyway. I think they said one in twenty?”
Harry’s eyes widened. There were one hundred twenty-seven people in the entire MLE department; twenty-four, that he knew of, had marks. “It’s, er... It’s more than that--among wizards, anyway.”
Dudley’s eyes widened. “Well, it makes sense, doesn’t it? They say it’s most common in folks from small villages, folks who never intend to leave; and wizards are a bit like a small village, really. When you think about it.”
Harry felt the astonishment resting on his face. “Dudley,” he said, voice urgent, “are you telling me they’ve made statistics about this?!”
After that, Dudley had taken him to a library and shown him the information--the “Interwebs,” he called it, chortling at some private joke. The “website” for the NHS had a whole section about the marks.
The markings, or “soulmarks” as they have colloquially become known, are a new phenomenon that has appeared across the country as of the 13th of this month. There is little conclusive information on them, and those who have discovered such marks on their person should continue to exercise caution. Early interviews indicate that the marks are not self-inflicted; that, in fact, most wearers were unaware of their condition until they visually discovered the marks.
It went on.
The muggles had discovered, through a wide-spread research initiative that Harry was frankly envious of, that the marks were always the first thing someone had said to a person-- unless the bearer had no idea what they meant. In a couple of cases, someone had had no idea until the words had actually been spoken: one had even heard the words from a nurse when they called to report it!
And, overwhelmingly, the person whose words formed the mark was someone the bearer had loved.
The rumor that the marks are from a person’s “soulmate” is, of course, unsubstantiated; however, there is usually a loving relationship between Marker and Bearer, be it romantic, erotic, or, in rare cases, merely physical. One woman, an author of romance novels, reports, “Jack and I knew each other during the war-- that would be the Great War, World War II to you. He stayed at my family’s farm; I was maybe... sixteen? No, I must have been fifteen, because he was sent away early. We were together for seven months, and I have never forgotten them. Glorious months! He never loved me--I don’t think I really loved him, either. I didn’t really know him, you see. Not really. But oh, when he touched me...! I have never forgotten it. I have spent my whole life trying to define that feeling, and I have never truly succeeded.” The speaker, who remained anonymous, has a total of three marks on her.
In other cases, there is no physical element to the relationship behind the markings at all. Jackie from London describes her relationship with Julia: “We were always best friends, of course. Then Julia’s husband began to beat her, and she would come to me. We would sit on my couch and eat ice cream, and I would hold her while she cried. I realized I was in love with her, but of course I was married, and she was, too, even if he was pond scum. But she was my whole world, really-- people say that, and you think they’re exaggerating, but I’m not. She died the next year-- car crash. I’ve always wondered what would have happened, you know?”
In the majority of cases, however, both romantic and physical relationships are present between bearer and speaker.
Harry sat back from the computer, astonished. He felt himself having two different reactions at once.
On the one hand, as the Special Investigator In Charge, he was excited about the first solid lead in the case since they had run dry three wees ago. They had tested the mark for every kind of curse there was-- tested multiple marks, the Curse Experts at the Department had been thorough-- but they had definitely found they weren’t that. They had also tested the marks for magical residue and found a little, but they weren’t enchantments, and there was no artifact or transfiguration spell which could possible have hit all of them at the same time.
That left only charms, and there were millions of charms, but their international contacts had informed them that the phenomenon was world-wide. There were only a few charms that could be cast on that kind of a scale, and this wasn’t one of them, which meant someone must have created a spell. But again, that was easiest with curses, and the marks weren’t curses...
But love spells were a wholly unexplored category. This was a lead!
On the other hand, though, Harry also had the perspective of a man with a mark.
He touched the place under his collarbone where his shirt covered the two words. The marks didn’t seem to care whether you were married or not, and he didn’t have one from Ginny. But all the same, it seemed like there was someone out there for him...
His heart started to pound crazily in his chest, and he curled his fingers into a fist.
Someone out there for him.
He felt like he had been looking down a long, featureless hallway, stretching into forever, and now, for the first time...
...he had spotted a door.
Their investigation went much more quickly, after that. Harry learned far more than he had ever wanted to about love spells--and he also learned that Madam Pomfrey had known what this was from the beginning, since apparently it was a spell that was used about once every couple of years on a student, inevitably cast by a fifth or sixth year girl. Whoever had set the global version had just magnified the spell, that was all--difficult, and requiring incredible power, but not impossible. Harry forwarded his report to the international law community, got his new assignment, and moved on.
Infuriatingly, the muggles had had it right: the damn things really were soulmarks. Your Marker was someone whose life would change your soul, the spellbooks said, and then hastily clarified, for the better. Not always a lover, but if not, then a beloved; not always a beloved, but if not, then a lover. And usually, both.
Harry touched his mark, again and again, but he had only had one lover in his life, and he knew it wasn’t from her.
That was the other element of the spell, the bit that made it tricky: it wasn’t purely a charm. There was also a hefty dose of divination in the spell, which meant Harry would have never found the answer on his own. (He was not overly knowledgeable about divination. Trelawney, after all.) So if it wasn’t someone who had changed your soul, then your mark came from someone who was going to change your soul.
Harry touched his mark, again and again and again.
He made an official report to the Daily Prophet, and endured the swarm of owls which resulted. He also convinced Percy to convince the Minister to start looking into occurrence rates, since he still found it fascinating that muggles had the marks much less often than wizards did. And he told Dudley about the spell, too, when they met up at the end of April; he apologized, since he knew Dudley didn’t like it when magic affected his life.
“Oh, it’s not so bad. I’m not like Mum and Dad, I don’t mind it. You saved my life with magic, once; never forgot that.” Dudley toyed with his pint for a second, then looked up at Harry hopefully. “So, does it--I mean. I actually... You know.”
Harry couldn’t quite believe it, but he did know, actually. “You have a mark?” he asked.
“Yeah!” Dudley nodded, only a little too fast. “Yeah, I wasn’t--you know. I wasn’t quite ready to say, last time. But it’s--yeah. On my ankle.”
Harry wondered, for a brief, hysterical, horrifying second, whether Dudley had ever told him to GET OUT. “What... What does it say?” He was almost too scared to ask.
“It says, ‘Excuse me, you great lout, me an’ my girl is tryin’ to get a drink, here,’“ Dudley reported proudly.
Harry blinked a lot, trying not to let the relief show. “Oh,” he managed. “That’s--gosh, Dudley, she sounds like a--” Winner--no. Tramp--I can’t say that. Lush? Fuck, no-- “--a real sparker!”
He winced, mentally. Still, he could have done a lot worse.
And Dudley was beaming at him, pleased by his take on it. “Yeah,” Dudley said, “that’s why we’re here, right?” They usually met in a tea and coffee shop near Dudley’s work. “Because it sounds like that’s in a bar, and I want to meet her, so...”
“That’s great, D. I’m really happy for you.”
He was, too, he realized. It was good to see Dudley looking so... so hopeful.
“So what about you?” Dudley asked. “You got a mark from that pretty redhead you married?”
Harry felt his face shutter. “Not--exactly.”
Ginny did have a mark, it turned out. She had already met the man, and she and Harry both knew who it was. She swore that there was nothing there, nothing between them, and Harry even believed her. (She had been too pissed off when he said it was a love spell to have been lying.) But she and Harry were, very definitely, sleeping in separate rooms, now.
And they didn’t talk anymore. That bothered him. The wizarding world didn’t have divorce, though. They were stuck.
“I, uh... I don’t think I’ve met her,” Harry told Dudley. “It’s pretty--I mean. Ambiguous? It could be a few different people.”
“Oh,” Dudley said, and then immediately looked embarrassed. “Sorry. I, uh... How are your kids!”
Harry relaxed immediately. “Great! They’re great. Lily starts school next fall, she’s very excited--”
Ron and Hermione had each other’s marks on them, Ron on his arm, Hermione on her calf. They both looked devastated when Harry admitted, haltingly, that he didn’t know whose mark he had. Ron shouted at Ginny over it; Ginny shouted back. Then everybody else shouted at Ginny, too, until finally Harry shouted at them. Hermione, uncharacteristically, didn’t say anything; she just looked desperately sad for both of them.
Family dinner that week was incredibly tense.
Ginny’s soulmate was married. With a child. His wife was beautiful.
Ginny refused to even talk to the man.
Harry tried not to be relieved. Mostly failed.
Tried not to be jealous, either. Humiliatingly, he mostly failed at that, too.
They spent a lot of time with the children, and when they weren’t with the children, they watched Quidditch matches together. That turned out to be a little bit easier; they could talk about the game, about the Beaters and the Snitch and the absolutely abysmal form of the Puddlemere Keeper. It was a topic they mutually enjoyed.
Slowly, they regained their friendship. Their topics of conversation spread back out again, to Harry’s investigations and the pranks the Aurors played on each other. (The Aurors played abominable pranks on each other, and no departmental memos would put a stop to it, because they could always write them off as “training exercises,” which, after all, were useful. Even if it was a little hard to see how enchanting beans to throw themselves at Milton was training for anything.)
And then, one day, as Harry was telling her about the new trainee, it happened.
“She’s not bad, actually,” he was saying as they watched the Wasps absolutely trounce the Cannons. “She’s got a knack for keeping her eye on everyone. She’s not young, not like Ron and I were; I think she was a couple years ahead of us in school--Ravenclaw. She used to be a foreman at Sleekeazy’s, and she’s a dab hand with potions, of course. But she said she wanted something different, something that would matter, so sure, we let her join the training; worst that happened was she dropped out, right? But wouldn’t you know? She’s the top of her class.”
Ginny leaned towards him. Her voice was light, almost hopeful as she asked, “Is she pretty?”
Harry thought about it. “Ehn? She has good hair, I guess. Well, she would, wouldn’t she? And her eyes are pretty--brown, like yours, but with really thick lashes.”
She bit her lip. “You should go for it,” she said.
Harry blinked, confused. “Go for what?”
Ginny rolled her eyes and tilted her head to the side, waiting for him to catch up.
It still took him a minute. “OH! For that? No, thank you!”
Down the row, someone looked over in alarm, and Harry realized how loud he had just gotten. He lowered his voice. “Gin--I can’t. Couldn’t possibly, you know that--and besides, she’s not that pretty.”
Then he realized what he had just said, and flushed. “Not that--I mean--I don’t think--oh, bugger.”
Ginny laughed, her eyebrows drawing up in the center like it hurt to do it. “It’s alright, Harry. I’ve known--you know. That’s I’m... not the one. For you. For a while.”
Harry swallowed, and tried to fight down the shame. He slumped in his seat, grateful that the game was sparsely enough attended that they wouldn't be overheard. “I’m so sorry,” he muttered. “Gin--I’m so, so sorry.”
“It’s alright,” she repeated. “It... did hurt. For a long time. But I don’t think you’ve ever loved me the way I loved you, and by now I’ve had some time to get used to it.”
His head snapped up. “I do love you,” he insisted.
She smiled again, sad as anything. “I know,” she agreed. But then she repeated herself: “But not the way I loved you.”
And there really wasn’t any arguing with that, because it was true.
The sex used to be pretty nice. Harry remembered that; he knew he hadn’t just made it up. Ginny used to light up under his hands, eyes crossing and moans pouring out of her throat. It was like a magic trick, the way magic had been back before it became everyday: Ginny was a proud woman, and strong, independent... but then he took her in his arms, and she melted. She used to go really crazy for him. But them those days got rarer, and rarer, and then just... stopped.
He wondered sometimes if he could have held it off by going a little crazy for her, too.
He never had managed to turn off the little voice in his head, though. The one that wondered if he was doing it right, if she were going to think badly of the noises he was making, or the knobbiness of his knees. It was hard to go crazy when he was wondering how to angle things to keep from having to change the sheets.
The sex thing might have been mostly his fault.
It was November, now, almost a year since the marks had appeared. Harry was on a new case, a Special Investigation into a series of portals appearing throughout Manchester. Portals were doors like the entrance to Diagon Alley, hidden until they were opened, and the space they opened into wasn’t quite here. But these portals were baffling, because when you opened them, they didn’t open into anywhere. Most of them were blank walls which shifted and turned and rearranged to reveal... more blank walls.
So Harry was looking into it.
There was one at the back of an alley not far from Maine Road. The alley was near a few different restaurants, and they all opened into it; there were three different dumpsters in with him, and the smell was astonishing. Harry had wondered, maybe, if the number of other doors near the portal had anything to do with it; all the others, he thought now, had also been near at least two actual, physical doors. So he was “opening” the portal--the graffiti there rearranged in fascinating, kaleidoscopic ways--and trying the back doors of the restaurants, but nothing about the facilities was changing when he “opened” the portal.
And then a man ran into the alley.
He was actually running, too; his feet made little skid-stops as he came to an abrupt halt in front of Harry. He looked terrible, his hair lank, his clothes dirty and scuffed. He reminded Harry, quite viscerally, of Sirius, and after a second, Harry put his finger on the resemblance (beyond general dishevelment): the man looked hunted.
He was young, younger than Harry at a guess, maybe in his late twenties, early thirties, assuming he was a muggle. He was dressed like a muggle, anyway, but so was Harry--the better to go unobserved.
The man was also, Harry couldn’t help but notice, extremely handsome, with high cheekbones and poetic mouth. His eyes were wide and pale, and when he saw Harry, they widened further.
“Damn it!” the man said. He looked back the way he had come, and then around the alley, his eyes pausing for a moment on each of the dumpsters. Large, metallic--good cover, Harry thought.
The man turned back to Harry, his face and back making an urgent line. “Get out!” he ordered.
His voice was urgent, too. It was the tone of someone who saw a potentially casualty in the fight to come, and was trying to get that casualty out of the way.
Harry narrowed his eyes, and set his feet. He didn’t draw his wand, but he loosened it in its scabbard, letting it fall down inside of his oversized sleeve.
The stranger picked up on his obstinance and made a noise of disgust. He took one of the dumpsters by the side--what good was that going to do, Harry wondered--and moved it sideways, perpendicular to the direction of the alley.
He hauled a second dumpster across on the other side, so that anyone entering had to pass through the narrow column between them.
Maybe the dumpsters were empty? But, no, there were bags poking out of the top of the third one...
And then the other men started to arrive, diving through the opening and rolling immediately to the side. And they were all men; all muggles, too, dressed in dark colors and tac gear, wielding appalling large guns.
The stranger raised his left arm defensively between himself and the guns; he was wearing some kind of metal glove, which would likely not be enough to save him. Harry snapped out a spell under his breath and counted.
There were seventeen of the attackers.
No, Harry decided. No, this was not going to be happening. He wasn’t sure what was going on--some kind of muggle hit, from the looks of things--but the stranger seemed to know he was hunted, and that was an awful lot of men to go after one target.
And they were muggles. Didn’t have any kind of defenses at all, really. Well, maybe the guns, but those didn’t count.
There was a particular kind of spell that was very useful if you ever had to do crowd suppression. It wasn’t perfect--it was particularly vulnerable to shield charms, so it was rarely used outside of crowds. Wasn’t worth it. But if you knew your target couldn’t cast a shield for whatever reason... They were called chain lightning spells because of how they looked, and there were a whole set of them. Basically, they would knock out one target, and then use them as a base to seek out the next target, and then they would take out him.
Harry had the whole set of attackers on the ground, unconscious, in less than three seconds.
The stranger’s back stiffened in shock. He pivoted away from the attackers, turning towards Harry, his movements slow with dread.
Belatedly, Harry tucked his wand away, spreading his arms to calm the stranger.
The man shook his head, looking baffled. “Why?” he asked. "You could have just left. Why would you interfere?"
His accent was American. His hands twitched at his sides.
Harry thought about it, about how to explain the near-instinctive assessment he had made. How to explain the way he knew the attackers had been up to no good. Was it the way the man had told him to run? The way any of the players had been dressed? The number of guns the bad men had had, or the lack of guns on the stranger?
Harry sighed, and phrased it as simply as he could:
“I don’t like bullies.”
He took in the trail of men on the ground and sigh, shaking his head. He used another chain lightning spell without taking his wand out of his sleeve--one for memory, this time, instead of a knockout; none of the men would remember the last half hour of time. He crossed past the stranger, kneeling next to one of the unconscious thugs and checking his pupils to make sure he hadn't gone too far; Harry's power had grown as he had gotten older, and sometimes it was stronger than others.
"It says that." The stranger's voice was bottled up, as if he hadn't wanted to speak but hadn't quite been able to help himself.
"Says what?" The thugs were fine; now, what could Harry say that would keep him from having to Obliviate the stranger, too?
"'I don't like bullies.' Says it in red. On my chest."
Harry froze, his head swinging slowly, reluctantly up to the--the stranger.
He hadn't even learned the man's name.
"Yeah," the man said softly. His mouth twisted into a smirk, or at least something pretending to be a smirk. "Apparently, we're supposed to be soulmates."
"Show me." It came out halfway between an order and dare.
Without breaking eye contact, the man reached down with his metal-gloved hand, hauling upward on the three or four layers of clothing to reveal bare skin. Quite a lot of bare skin, actually, over an equally shocking quantity of muscle. And then the man's chest was revealed, or at least his right side pec, and a single, wide brown nipple. At the base of the pec and following the curve of the muscle, in a small, sharp handwriting that Harry knew--ha, like the back of his hand, ha, ha, ha--were the words:
I don't like bullies.
It wasn't red, Harry thought distantly. It was darker than red, almost maroon. The color of dried blood.
Any wizard would have called the color "Gryffindor red."
He swallowed, once, and jerked his chin at the closest restaurant door. "Come on," he said. He got to his feet with more aches and pops than he really felt entitled to. "We should talk."