The world was dark—an ever-expanding canvas swallowing the light from the empty expanse in front of him. He wasn't sure how long he'd been walking, but each step seemed to take him no further from the last.
It was cold, unnaturally so. He could feel its frozen grip sink deep into his bones.
Something was wrong, but he couldn't tell what. Peering out in the void, it appeared unchanged from before. Still though, he felt panic creep over him.
His chest was shaking, his breath coming quicker and quicker, puffs of smoky air fogging his glasses. He wiped them with his sleeve and once able to see again, everything around him had changed.
A thick white mist surrounded him, as though the steam from his breath had lingered in the air and expanded to fill the world. It parted in front of him like a strange, fluttering curtain, leading him into its hidden depths.
He stopped suddenly. Rising from the mist in front him was an ugly, black arch made of stone. It called to him; and no longer feeling as though he was alone, he listened keenly to the faint sound of whispering that followed.
The whispers surrounded him, coming from the void and the mist and, most clearly of all, the Veil.
"Sirius?" he said into the darkness.
There was no response.
A chill ran down his spine. I don't want to be here, he realized.
As though reading his thoughts, the whispers hissed violently at him and far in the distance he swore he could hear the echo of a high, cold laugh.
He started to run, the mist swirling around him in a vortex, swiping and tripping at his feet. The sound was overwhelming now, surging like great waves crashing against a cliff.
But with every swell, there came a moment of calm in between; and in those moments he could hear the faint trickle of something warm and familiar.
"…time did he get here…"
"…a few hours ago, I think…"
The voices grew stronger with each step, drowning out the whispers and beating away the mist.
"What do you think they were up to?"
He could feel light fill his vision.
"I'm not sure, your mum wouldn't say anything."
"You think… maybe it was about the prophecy?"
Harry shot awake, gasping desperately for air.
"Oh—Harry! Harry, mate, are you alright?"
Something soft was placed against his forehead.
"He's burning up, Ron, run and get him some water and a cold rag."
Someone propped his head up against a pillow. He could feel his shirt drenched in sweat and sticking to his back. He was used to it by now.
"Can you—" Harry stopped and let out a dry cough. He tried again. "Can you get me a new shirt?"
"A new shirt? Yes, of course you'd want one. How silly of me."
From his place on the bed, he could hear the shuffle and scrape of his trunk being opened.
Feeling less queasy, Harry tried to open his eyes. The light was blinding and everything around him was a blur. He fumbled along his sheets until he found his glasses.
With the world finally in focus, Harry could see Hermione standing at the foot of his bed, frizzle-haired and looking him over with wide, careful eyes.
"My shirt," Harry repeated, trying to ignore her stare.
Hermione handed it over, turning to look out the window as he changed. Moments later, footsteps pounded up the staircase and Ron came bursting into the room.
Harry gulped down the water he'd been given grateful but waved away the rag. "I don't need it," he said.
"You sure?" Ron glanced from Harry to Hermione and then back to Harry again.
"Put it on, Harry, you need it." Hermione's voice left little room to negotiate.
Harry listened reluctantly.
Both Hermione and Ron were looking down at him anxiously. He couldn't shake the feeling that he was some sort of sick patient they were pitying.
"Listen, I'm fine," he said snappishly.
"Was it another nightmare?" Hermione inquired.
"I'm not sure what it was…" Harry mumbled beneath his breath, staring out the window not meeting either of their eyes, "… but thanks," he added, feeling bad.
An awkward moment passed between them all.
Shaking off his annoyance, Harry finally said, "It's really nice to see you, honestly. I've been waiting the whole summer for this."
Whatever dark mood lingered from his dreams was washed away by the sight of his best friends smiles.
Without missing a beat, they sat themselves down on his mattress and were drawn into a discussion of their summer holidays. Hermione told them all about her family's trip to the south of France; while Ron complained about the extra housework he needed to do with the twins now finally moved out, Bill working in Germany on a Gringotts project, and Percy still not speaking to the family.
A knock on the door interrupted their conversation.
Ginny Weasley came in, looking particularly sour for some odd reason. "She's coming upstairs," she spat.
"Who?" Harry asked confused.
Ginny froze. "Oh! Hi, Harry… I didn't realize you were up yet." She ducked her head, trying to hide the color rising in her cheeks.
"Yeah—um, before Bill left for work, he got engaged," Ron explained, while glancing nervously in Hermione's direction.
Another knock on the door sounded.
"Arry, are you in zhere?" A melodic voice slipped past the door as it creaked open. "Ronald came running downstairs earlier and I zhought you might be up."
Coming through the door in a light summer skirt and apron, was none other than Fleur Delacour.
Harry fixed his glasses which were slipping down his nose and blinked.
Sure enough, when he opened his eyes again, the former Triwizard Champion was still there. Her silvery blonde hair was placed into a high ponytail, and her pale blue eyes shined with excitement. Her presence alone seemed brighten the room.
"Fleur!" Harry greeted the witch. He hadn't seen her since the end of the Triwizard tournament. "What are you doing here?"
"I am 'ere to see you, non?" she said with a wink, laying a tray of food down next to him.
"Phlegm-Fleur is here because of Bill," Ginny cut in sharply.
"Ahh," Fleur sighed heavily, "eet seems zhat my cover is blown. Why must you always ruin my fun, Ginevra?" Fleur smiled pleasantly at the girl.
Harry's eyes widened in surprise.
"I am spending ze summer with ze family of my intended," Fleur explained. "After our engagement I wanted to see where William grew up. It eez such a…" she paused for a second as she looked around the room, "charming home."
"Yes, we all really appreciate Fleur getting to know us," Ginny's voice was sickly sweet. "I'm sure Bill will be thankful when he finally gets home."
"If you don't mind Fleur, we were hoping to have a private conversation with Harry," Hermione jumped in quickly.
"Oh, I see. I will respect your privacy." Smoothing out her skirt, she turned back to Harry. "I 'ope you enjoy your breakfast Arry. We will 'ave to catch up later."
With that, she gracefully made her exit and gently closed the door. The bedroom was silent as her footsteps disappeared down the stairs.
"You always ruin my fun, Ginevra," Ginny burst out in a surprisingly accurate imitation of Fleur. "I don't know how I can spend another day with her! Let alone two weeks!"
"I'm sure it will go by quickly," Hermione said unconvincingly.
Harry remained silent, not wanting to involve himself.
"I still think she used love potions on Bill or something," Ginny muttered darkly beneath her breath.
"Are you serious?" Ron spoke up for the first time in a while. "You think that a girl like Fleur would ever need to use love potions? I bet you Bill was jumping at the chance to marry her," he finished.
"What private conversation did you want to have?" Harry asked, before Hermione could respond to Ron.
Taking a second to compose herself, Hermione brushed back her hair and turned to Harry. He noticed his friends looked strangely nervous.
"We were wanting to know what happened with Professor Dumbledore last night? You don't have to tell us if you don't want to," she added hurriedly, "it is rather nosey of us, but we worried and thought something might have happened and—"
"Hermione," Harry interrupted, reaching out a hand to stop her, "I don't mind you asking me."
His three friends were now looking at him eagerly.
"Nothing really happened. Dumbledore came to escort me here, and on the way we stopped to convince a professor to return to Hogwarts."
"Which Professor?" Hermione asked.
"A man called Horace Slughorn," Harry answered. "He taught at Hogwarts back when my parents went to school. He's a bit odd, but I rather like him."
"Is that all?" Ron said slowly.
"Nothing about the prophecy or You-Know-Who or Sirius?" Hermione pressed on.
Harry sighed to himself.
For so long he'd shared nearly everything with his friends, involved them in every mystery he suspected and plot he concocted. It was only natural that now, when fear and danger in the world were only growing, they would come searching for answers as well.
Harry had known this, as had Dumbledore last night.
"Do not be surprised when your friends press you for what we have discussed tonight," Dumbledore had said from within the cramped shed where Arthur kept his collection of random Muggle things. "They care for you very deeply, Harry. Their love is unquestionable. Which is why it shames me to ask this of you…"
"You don't want them to know about the prophecy," Harry said evenly.
"Neither of our meetings, for one leads to another in what we are to learn," Dumbledore confirmed, looking sadly down his long, crooked nose at Harry. He'd laid a gloved hand on Harry's shoulder. "I understand the difficulty of what I am asking, but I hope you will come to understand the necessity of my secrecy."
Looking at his friends now, he could feel the guilt tearing at his heart.
He shook his head. "Nothing. The prophecy was destroyed the night in the Ministry—no one knows what it said." Harry gripped a fist-full of bedding as he lied.
"It's gone?" Hermione's eyes were as wide as dinner plates.
This is necessary, Harry reminded himself. "Forever," he said. "There are no second copies."
Ron let out an awkward chuckle. "At least that means You-Know-Who will never get it. That's what he wanted, right?"
"Hurry up and come down before breakfast gets cold!"
Mrs. Weasley's voice boomed from downstairs, saving Harry from further questioning.
Not wanting to be called on twice and risk their mother's wrath, Ron and Ginny quickly got to their feet and left the room. Hermione followed shortly after, while Harry picked up his half-eaten tray from Fleur and carried it down.
Fleur was waiting in the kitchen when they arrived, with Mrs. Weasley busy at the stove behind her. "Arry, I 'ope you enjoyed your breakfast, I thought you might like to try something a leetle bit lighter. I find zat English food eez a bit 'eavy at times," she commented.
"Harry dear, are you sure you don't want any more to eat. You're a growing boy, and I've certainly made enough food this morning," Mrs. Weasley suggested earnestly, already preparing him a plate.
Not wanting to cause any problems, Harry took a few slices of toast and some tea from Mrs. Weasley.
"Do you know when our book lists are coming in?" Harry asked, taking a seat in one of the many chairs scattered across the Weasley's kitchen.
"I'm surprised we haven't gotten them yet. It's only a week until the new term starts, and they haven't sent them out. They certainly haven't given us enough time to prepare ourselves. What if we forget to pick something up?" Hermione complained from the table.
"Why don't you make a list?" Ron commented between bites of scrambled egg.
"Oh, Ron that's brilliant! Why didn't I think of that," she said to herself as she pushed away from the table and raced upstairs, completely forgetting about her breakfast.
"Mental that one," Ron said, a touch red faced, "I don't think I've ever met another person who's been so excited about making a list."
"Eez that 'er perception of fun?" Fleur asked quizzically.
"More or less," Harry shrugged. "Her idea of some 'light reading' in our first year was a tome on famous alchemists that must have been at least a couple thousand pages long."
"Eet eez painfully obvious 'ow badly she needs a boyfriend," Fleur stated.
Ron choked, sounding as though he'd swallowed a sausage whole.
Fleur hummed to herself and went back to cleaning the remaining dishes in the sink.
"You don't think she actually needs a boyfriend, do you?" Ron whispered to Harry across the table. "Just imagine if one of those tossers at Hogwarts got their grubby hands on her, like Seamus or Zacharias Smith."
"And who are you to dictate what I do and who I can see in my private life," Hermione cut in as she descended the stairs with parchment and a quill in hand.
"Post is coming, dears!" Mrs. Weasley called from the small kitchen window. "That's odd… those look like Ministry owls."
In a flash, Hermione was leaning out the window and squinting at the sky. "OWLs!" she screeched.
Ron looked at her strangely. "Yeah… of course they're owls, Hermione."
"Not owl's, Ron. I'm talking about O.W.L.s!"
It felt as though his stomach had dropped out from under him. Harry turned to Ron who looked green in the face.
"I've failed! I just know I did! I knew I should have revised at least a few more times—there were definitely a few runes I mixed the meaning of and I got the texture of that transfiguration completely wrong. I could have studied harder, spent more time in the library. This is the wor-"
"Hermione!" Ron shouted, cutting off her ramble. "Can you please stop! Just think about us normal blokes for one second, if you somehow failed just think about how poorly we did," he pointed at himself and Harry.
Hermione flushed just as four sets of envelopes came flying through the window. Immediately, she ran over and picked them up.
"It's really them…" Hermione stated reverently as she made her way back to the kitchen table, "Ginny, they attached your school list as well," she added, distributing them.
Turning it over in his hands, Harry felt the thickness of the parchment and played with the lip of the wax seal.
A moment of silence was held over the Weasley kitchen, the air filled with a mix of curiosity, fear and anticipation.
Harry tore open his envelope first.
ORDINARY WIZARDING LEVEL RESULTS
Pass Grades Fail Grades
Outstanding (O) Poor (P)
Exceeds Expectations (E) Dreadful (D)
Acceptable (A) Troll (T)
Harry James Potter has achieved:
Care of Magical Creatures E
Defense Against the Dark Arts O
History of Magic D
After reading through the parchment a couple more times, Harry took a deep breath and smiled.
"Harry, mate! You won't believe it," Ron yelled with childlike glee. "Transfiguration! I did it—I got an E! And an O in Defence!"
"Oh Ronald, I'm so proud of you!" Mrs. Weasley rushed towards her son and enveloped him in a crushing embrace. "Bill and Charlie both got an 'E' in Transfiguration and look at what they've accomplished!"
Ron was flushed with embarrassment, but Harry could see the pride glowing in his eyes.
Turning around, Harry looked over to Hermione who had remained suspiciously silent so far. "How did you do, Hermione?" he asked, but she didn't respond.
"Hermione?" he called again, louder this time.
"Oh—sorry, Harry," she answered, shaking her head as if to clear whatever errant thoughts were left in there. "What were you saying?"
"I was just asking how your OWLs went? Did you fail them all?" he asked cheekily.
"No, no, I didn't fail any. I actually got Outstanding in all of my course… except for one… I only got Exceeds Expectations in Defense," she finished, her attention focused on the floor.
"Blimey, Hermione! That's brilliant!" Ron exclaimed, dropping the parchment with his own results and rushing over to see Hermione's.
As the Weasley's and Hermione continued to discuss their results, Harry silently slipped outside in the hopes of catching some fresh air.
The late summer heat washed over him in a wave. It was a beautiful day, certainly one of the last they would be having before the seasons turned. Closing his eyes, Harry let a pleasant breeze rush through his hair, enjoying the bit of peace he'd managed to find.
I didn't last long, however, as the sound of a door closing and approaching footsteps caught his attention.
The scent of lavender rapidly filled the air.
"'Ello, Arry," Fleur said, stepping beside him. "I noticed you left before speaking about your grades, eez eet because you are ashamed of your marks? Or deed you do so well that you don't want to shame your friends?"
Harry chuckled, staring out to the patch of trees where they'd frequently play Quidditch. "It was neither. I just felt like going outside," he replied.
Passing the parchment into Fleur's hands, he added, "You can take a look at my grades if you want?"
"I do not need a piece of paper to tell me about your talents. I competed against you, non?" She raised an eyebrow at him, as if daring him to challenge her assessment. "Besides, I think zat your British way of doing things eez foolish."
"How so? Is it different in France?" Harry asked, genuinely curious.
"Of course, in France eet is much better," she said proudly. "I do not see ze point of taking two tests. In France we only take one test at ze end of our sixth year. Based off zose marks, we spend our seventh year finding apprenticeships, internships, or working part time in our chosen field while finishing our studies."
"But weren't you at Hogwarts for your seventh year?"
"Oui I was, but I was a Triwizard Champion. I think zat chasing eternal glory eez a good enough excuse for many," she joked with a teasing smile. "Besides, I was right where my employers wanted me to be."
"Gringotts wanted you at Hogwarts?"
"Eet eez a bit more complicated zan that," she said, not elaborating any further.
A lull settled between them as they stood, enjoying each other's company. "It's beautiful, non?" Fleur said, breaking the hush.
"I never thought I'd live to see you compliment anything British, especially our weather." Harry pretended to be shocked. "I recall you only complaining while at Hogwarts."
"You are not as funny as you zhink," Fleur huffed. Though Harry was certain he saw the corner of her lip curl upwards.
"How is your sister?" Harry asked.
"Still in love wiz you," she said cheekily.
Harry rolled his eyes.
"She eez bored at home—school cannot come soon enough for 'er." Fleur paused, her eyes staring off into the distance. "Letters are not enough…"
"You miss her?" Harry said.
"I do," she answered simply. "I never 'ad ze opportunity to say goodbye to Gabrielle. I started work almost immediately out of school and zen I was sent over 'ere."
"Was there no way for you to stay in France?"
"Zer was no other option, I am needed 'ere in Britain."
Before his very eyes, he watched as Fleur crossed her arms and closed herself off from him.
"Oi, Harry! Come back in and get dressed, we're heading out to Diagon Alley to pick up all of our stuff!" Ron called from the house, his head sticking out of the second-floor window.
"Are you joining us?" Harry asked Fleur.
"Why not," she supplied, "there eez not much else for me to do 'ere."
In typical Weasley fashion, the five minutes it should have taken everyone to get ready, turned into an hour of chaos.
Sitting in the chair by the fireplace, Harry listened as Mrs. Weasley stomped up and down the stairs chasing after Ginny, who was looking for her new pair of jeans, and Ron, who was busy wrestling the family ghoul back into the attic. Finally, when they'd made it down, Ginny blamed Ron for losing her jeans, Ron blamed the garden gnomes, and somehow their argument dissolved into a fight over whether Holyhead or Chudley had the better keeper.
Amidst it all, Harry wore the biggest grin across his face. The warmth of the Burrow and his excitement to be returning to Hogwarts was more than enough to wash away the memory of the cold void in his nightmares.