Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction based on the Harry Potter universe. All recognizable characters, plots, and settings are the exclusive property of J.K Rowling. I make no claim to ownership.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to my editors Athena Hope and Fezzik, as well as my other betas 3CP, Luq707, Raven, Regress, and Yoshi89 for their incredible work on this story.

Dedication: This story is dedicated to Emily — a valiant teen who is exerting an otherworldly amount of strength and courage to conquer a great deal of adversity. I apologize for the fact that this is coming so late. It is also very far outside of my writing comfort zone, so I do hope it turns out well and that it can entertain you during your time of need. You are an inspiration to all and I hope you have enjoyed the works put forth in the collection.

Chamomile and Celandine

By ACI100

July 13, 1996

The Burrow

9:23 AM

Harry had found himself very confused within minutes of waking. He arrived at the Burrow early that morning alongside Professor Dumbledore after they visited the current residence of Horace Slughorn. It had been his current residence at the time, at least. After seeing how paranoid and pragmatic the old man had been, Harry would not have been at all surprised if he had already packed up, made a run for it, and sought refuge in the empty home of some other, unsuspecting muggle.

He had paused long enough only to eat before calling it a night upon his arrival at the Burrow. It scarcely felt like he had slept at all. It seemed to Harry that he had barely blinked before he was jolted awake by his two best friends barging through the bedroom door with reckless abandon.

Now they were arguing over the flaws of some woman whom Harry thought must have been Mrs. Weasley. He could think of no other whom Ron would defend so vehemently. Not that it made perfect sense. Ginny cursing out her mother seemed par for the course, but Hermione doing so — even in a less colourful fashion — seemed a bit out of place. Harry's brain was so bogged down with exhaustion that he just chalked it up to missing context and tuned most of the conversation out.

Until the door to the bedroom opened once more, that was, and he simultaneously became more and less confused.

The woman in the doorway was tall and willowy. Sunlight streamed freely through the window above the bed Harry occupied and reflected off this woman's hair. In the sun's radiance, her blonde locks shimmered and shone like platinum fire as beads of light danced and flickered like vibrant sparks. The room seemed strangely airless as she stepped across the threshold, but a sweet scent Harry couldn't quite identify wafted through the room like the steam rising from the tray in the woman's grasp. Harry thought it smelled vaguely like vanilla, but it wasn't quite the right description. Identifiable or not, mixed with the smell of the food the girl carried, Harry thought it the most intoxicating scent he'd ever breathed in.

The woman's eyes were a shade of blue not too dissimilar from the cloudless sky outside, and they seemed to be fixed entirely on Harry.

"There was no need to bring up the tray; I was just about to do it myself!"

Harry felt as though he had been submerged in deep water just a moment earlier and finally resurfaced, taking a deep, airy breath as he did so. He hadn't even noticed Mrs. Weasley bobbing along after the silver-haired girl with a tight expression that Harry couldn't quite place.

"It was no trouble," said Fleur Delacour, setting the tray across Harry's knees and then swooping down to kiss him on each cheek. He felt the places where her mouth had touched him burn. "I 'ave been longing to see 'im. You remember my seester, Gabrielle? She never stops talking about 'Arry Potter. She will be delighted to see you again."

"Oh… is she here too?" Harry hated the way his voice faltered as it escaped him. It was more a croak than a question and he felt the beginnings of a blush rise up to his cheeks. He contemplated trying to tell himself it was only because of her lips on his face just a moment earlier, but he was unsure whether or not that was really any better.

Fleur's laugh filled the air like the tinkling of bells. It reminded Harry of entering some of the shops in Diagon Alley. "Non, non, silly boy. I mean next summer when we… but do you not know?"

Mrs. Weasley shuffled in a way that made Harry think of Ron anytime Hermione would remind him of soon-overdue prep. "We hadn't gotten around to telling him yet."

The expression that flashed across Fleur's face made her look just a touch less beautiful, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. She turned back to Harry, swinging her silvery sheet of hair so that it whipped Mrs. Weasley across the face.

"Bill and I are going to be married!"

The air seemed to leave the room again, but it did so in a way less pleasant than when Fleur had entered. It was like that night all those years ago in the Great Hall when Harry had spoken to the snake during the one and only meeting of the Hogwarts Duelling Club. He couldn't quite understand why tension suddenly permeated the air like everyday precipitation, but he tried valiantly to ignore it. He had a great deal of practice with ignoring awkward tension over the years.

"Oh… er… wow, congratulations."

Her lips were on his cheeks again faster than he could move. If they had burned before, the very skin seemed to sizzle this time, but it did so with what felt like a pleasant sort of heat.

"Bill is very busy at ze moment, working very 'ard, and I only work part-time at Gringotts for my English, so he brought me 'ere to get to know 'is family properly. I was so pleased to 'ear you would be coming — zere isn't much to do 'ere, unless you like cooking and chickens! Well, enjoy your breakfast, 'Arry!"

Harry could only reflect that Fleur had a strange gift for befalling tense and awkward silences upon a room any time she came or left. It appeared this summer would be a touch more interesting than he had anticipated.

Ordinary Wizarding Level Results

Pass Grades:

Outstanding (O)

Exceeds Expectations (E)

Acceptable (A)

Fail Grades:

Poor (P)

Dreadful (D)

Troll (T)

Harry James Potter has achieved:

Astronomy – A

Care of Magical Creatures – E

Charms – E

Defense Against the Dark Arts – O

Divination – P

Herbology – E

History of Magic – D

Potions – E

Transfiguration – E

Harry was satisfied with his performance, all things told. He regretted the death of his desired career as an auror, but he had never had a chance at scoring an outstanding in Potions. Not so long as Snape lorded over the position of Potions Master, at the very least. He was surprised he hadn't scored a 'T' in History of Magic. He had only written about half of that exam before the horrible vision of Voldemort torturing Sirius had pulled him from the castle.

Thoughts of Sirius bubbled to the surface of his mind, but he forced them down as though they were some great beast trying to rise from the depths of a deep and treacherous lake. Those thoughts were better left alone. He had come a long way in a few weeks, but the emotional wound had been deeper than most rivers and vast as the widest of chasms. It was healing, but he had no interest in tearing the still-raw wound wide open yet again.

He swapped sheets of parchment with Ron. Their grades were virtually identical. The only key difference was that his red-headed friend had not been able to score the highest available grade in Defence Against the Dark Arts. It made sense, seeing as Harry had been the one to teach students both his junior and his senior all about defensive magic. If he hadn't outscored Ron in the subject, he would have been proven a fraud no better than Lockhart.

A small part of him twinged with something ugly and unfamiliar. Unfamiliar until he thought more about it. He realised in short order when he had felt this way before. It had been when Ron had been given the prefect's badge last summer when Harry thought it had been he who had deserved it most. It was similar now. Ron was a notorious slacker and put little effort into their lessons, yet he had almost matched Harry's grades to the letter. Harry hadn't slacked off that much, had he? Surely he hadn't been so lackadaisical with Lord Voldemort seemingly hot on his heels every time he took the time to glance over his shoulder at the metaphorical shadows that seemed to cling to him as persistently as his very skin.

He should have beaten Ron. He needed to be able to beat people like Ron. If he couldn't, what good would he be against the likes of Bellatrix Lestrange and Antonin Dolohov — let alone the Dark Lord himself? It was a startling revelation that made him blink rapidly as though suddenly blinded by a great onslaught of light, but he did his best to hide the sudden surge of discomfort and self-doubt.

He couldn't remember most of the conversation that followed between Ron, Hermione, and Mrs. Weasley. He was too lost in his own thoughts and revelations until a soft weight fell upon his shoulder.

"'Ow did you do, 'Arry?"

Harry looked up when he felt Fleur's hand on his shoulder. She had been much taller than him in his fourth year. He hadn't noticed it while sitting, but they were now close to the same height. A few more inches and Harry would be looking her straight in the eye. He smelled the same sweet scent from earlier, but he was prepared for it this time; just like he was prepared for the strange air around Fleur that seemed to follow the girl as closely as her shadow.

"Okay, I guess," he said, shuffling the parchment in his hands. He had not shared his grades as Ron had.

"Can I see?" Harry hesitated but gave her the parchment nevertheless.

She scanned it quickly and frowned. "You do not like Divination or 'Istory?"

He shrugged. "Was never good at either of them. I left the History exam early, too. That… that was when I went after Sirius."

Her eyes lifted from the parchment. "'Ow are you 'andling what 'appened at ze ministry?"

"I'm… handling it. It… was tough at first, but it's getting easier. You figure I'd be used to it now; what with Cedric in the tournament and all."

"It is not a ssing you should become used to," Fleur insisted. "I would be worried if it was. Emotions make us 'uman, 'Arry. It is not a bad ssing to feel zem."

Her words reminded him of Dumbledore's at the end of their fourth year when he spoke of the enmity that Voldemort spread with such ruthless efficiency. It reminded him of love; magic so powerful that — if the Headmaster was to be believed — it may have torn Harry from the arms of the Reaper on more than one occasion.

"I guess that makes sense. It is getting easier though. It was just… hard to accept he was gone."

The others were still lost in conversation about grades and future prospects. They seemed to be paying their conversation no heed as they talked aimlessly on. Harry envied them; he envied the ability to speak of a future and to not envision Voldemort looming at the end of some dark, treacherous path like some nightmarish monster waiting to trap its prey.

"What was 'e like?" asked Fleur, turning to face him head-on. "I never met 'im. I was busy at Gringotts and 'e was always locked up in zat 'ouse."

"I'm… not sure I ever really knew him." It had been a depressing thought, one that had come to Harry during a dark night of contemplations on Privet Drive. He remembered the gaunt and demented look in Sirius's eyes the night Pettigrew had been revealed to him as the true traitor. That look might have mostly left him in the years that followed, but Harry was unsure whether the deeper effects of spending twelve years in Azkaban prison had fled so willingly. "I'm not sure he was the same after Azkaban, and being locked up in that house drove him mad. He wanted to do all sorts of reckless things. He almost marched right up to the school when… a thing happened with Snape. Lupin and I had to talk him out of it."

"'E loved you," said Fleur. "'E was willing to risk zat prison again if it meant keeping you safe and 'appy." Harry knew it was true, but it only made his heart hurt all over again as great serpents seemed to coil tightly in the pit of his stomach.

"He did," Harry croaked, looking everywhere but at Fleur as he tried to ignore the stinging at the corners of his eyes.

"My grandmozer died when I was a leetle girl. I loved 'er more zan anyone ozer zan my mama, papa, and seester. I missed 'er 'orribly when she died, but Mama told me ze best way to move on was to make 'er proud. I ssink you should do zis. Just ssink about what would make 'im proud."

Harry knew at once what would do it. Sirius had always wanted him to be happy and successful. The proudest he had ever seen his godfather had been when they had spoken of the DA. It was the most full of life the man had been since being imprisoned all those years ago, Harry was sure of it.

"He would want me to be happy and to do my best," he muttered.

Fleur stuck her chin up in the air. "Oui, 'e would. You 'ave work to do, zen."

Harry blinked. "I do?"

"You 'ave ze highest grade in Defence but not in Charms? Zey use most of ze same magics. You 'aven't been putting enough effort into Charms."

Harry thought back to the way he had struggled with the Summoning Charm during the Triwizard Tournament and of how Hermione would complete every spell in Flitwick's class ages before him. "It's just never been my best subject."

"But being better at it would make you 'appier," said Fleur. "I saw ze way you looked down when you saw your grades and your friend's. It would make you better, too. 'E would be proud of zat, non?"

He would be, Harry thought, but it wasn't as though he could practice during the summer.

When he told Fleur this, she only laughed. "Silly boy, zis trace cannot tell you are casting magic. Only zat someone in ze house is. Just don't cast in front of 'er." She gestured towards Mrs. Weasley.

Harry ran a hand roughly through his hair. "I don't even know where I'd start," he admitted. "I've read all sorts of books on Defence, so I knew what I was doing and how to practice. I haven't done that for Charms and I don't have those kinds of books. Neither do the Weasleys."

"Books," scoffed Fleur, "books are not ze only way to learn." She raised a challenging eyebrow. "Do you not remember ze way I put ze dragon to sleep in ze tournament?" He nodded to show that he did indeed remember, but he didn't understand where this was going. "I was always best at Charms," she continued. "It is boring 'ere like I said. When I'm not at Gringotts working, I can teach you Charms."

Harry looked up, startled. "You'd teach me?"

Her eyebrow did not lower. "You saved my seester, 'Arry. I will help teach you anyssing I can to make sure you are 'appy and safe. It's ze least I can do."

October 23, 1996

The Hogwarts Library

8:56 PM

Torches hung in brackets around the perimeter of the Hogwarts library. They cast their pale light all about the room. Now that the sun had gone down, their brightness cast dark, creeping shadows here and there, giving the room a sinister sort of feel.

Harry sat in one of the room's darkest corners. Neither torchlight nor shadow would have reached him had he not brought his own lamp and set it ablaze so he could read in its light. He had been at it for hours, days even. His nose must have grown accustomed to the scent, for he had long ago forgotten the musty smell of ancient, weathered pages. He wished his head had forgotten too. He had been straining his eyes for so long that his head was pounding. Part of him wanted to stop this madness, but he had yet to find what he was looking for.

He felt like he had made great leaps over the summer. Not only had his time practising with Fleur helped him improve in Charms, but as she had said, the subject had a footing in other branches of magic as well. He noticed it in Defence Against the Dark Arts, in particular.

That first week back at Hogwarts had been the best he had ever felt in lessons. Between the relative proficiency he had found in Charms and the Halfblood Prince's book in Potions, Harry breezed through his lessons that first week with ease the likes of which he had never known. He had wondered whether it was how Hermione felt all the time. It was a good feeling, he had to admit. If it was one she constantly experienced, then he was beginning to understand how she might justify spending so many hours with her nose buried so deeply in books that she often resembled a niffler scrounging for gold.

Yet the feeling had not lasted long. Flitwick, McGonagall, and Snape had all quickly come to expect non-verbal spells in their classes. They had spent an infuriatingly short time practising them before moving onto other material. Harry was far from the only student to struggle. Only Hermione had really seemed to get a handle on them early on and even now, two months later, most of his yearmates still whispered the incantation during every class.

Just because others struggled with it didn't mean Harry was happy being among their number. He was becoming fed up with it. Just when he had felt for perhaps the first time in his Hogwarts years like he was making progress, it had been snatched away from him. All the growth he had achieved over the summer seemed now to be for not and it drove him mad. Mastering non-verbal spells had become his quiet obsession as of late.

Being close to the top of his classes was nice, but that wasn't what was driving Harry. What drove him on was the thought of Sirius and the gleam in his eye when his godson had taken charge of his situation the year previous. And the headlines, day in and day out. News of more attacks, break-ins, rapes, and murders seemed to come each and every day. It was like a never-ending torrent of water crashing vengefully against the castle walls, threatening to break through and drown all inside under an ocean of fear and despair at any moment.

Harry had to hold it at bay and this was his way of doing it. It seemed a better usage of his time than trying to find out whatever Malfoy was doing in the Room of Requirement, anyway. That endeavour seemed fruitless, as much as the reality infuriated him. He would learn, somehow, but he now doubted it would be by pacing in front of a blank wall for hours and thinking of so many different phrasings that his head felt like it had any time he had been near Voldemort and his scar had exploded with pain.

When the words on the parchment began to swim before his eyes, Harry realized it was probably best if he stopped for the night. The fire torch's flickered when he looked up. After seeing nothing but words on parchment for hours on end, its brightness threatened to hold his gaze captive, but Harry tore his eyes away from the glow of the torch.

What he needed wasn't to stare into a flickering flame-like some delusional seer hoping to catch the faintest glimpse of the future. What he needed was to find a solution to his problem and to master the magic that had been giving him so much trouble for so long.

His first thought was of Hermione, but he dismissed it quicker than it had come. She was the most brilliant witch he knew, but teaching had never been her strong suit. She sometimes became frustrated when dealing with those less talented than her. It was among the many reasons why it had been him who had taught the DA the previous year. She would no doubt try and help him if he asked, but he knew his muggleborn friend wasn't the solution he was looking for.

He could ask Professor Flitwick, or McGonagall, or maybe even Dumbledore during their next lesson — he would send a request for help to Voldemort before he went slinking off to Snape asking in vain for advice. McGonagall had always strangely intimidated Harry. He wasn't afraid of her, but she had never struck him as approachable. Flitwick was a better option, but Harry wasn't nearly as comfortable with the little man as he was with the Headmaster. As for Dumbledore himself, Merlin only knew when his next invitation would arrive. They seemed to come as scarcely and sporadically as shooting stars.

His thoughts went next to Lupin; the man who had taught him the Patronus Charm. That option was plagued by the same problem Harry felt when he considered asking Dumbledore. Lupin was off doing something for the Order of the Phoenix. Harry doubted he would be writing letters during that time and it was impossible to guess when he might next be free to receive post.

Which left him with one viable option; an option that had risen unbidden to the forefront of his thoughts and one that made his face feel strangely warm.

Fleur had been an excellent help during the summer and had aided him more than she knew. He had seen her cast magic without speaking before — both at the Burrow and during the Triwizard Tournament two years earlier. If she had known how to cast non-verbally for so long, surely she could be of some assistance.

He reached for his bag, intent on withdrawing a piece of parchment when something stopped him. Something seemed to be beating against the insides of his stomach. There was a strange fluttering sensation he had never quite experienced before and he wondered what it meant. He also felt… nervous? Why in Merlin's name did he feel nervous? He was writing to a friend, not going off to battle Death Eaters or any such nonsense.

He slowly shook his head and put in a great effort to clear his thoughts. His hand steadied and he reached for his bag once more.

October 29, 1996

The Great Hall

8:48 AM

Dear Harry,

It was lovely hearing from you. I was hoping you would write sooner, but I know you are busy with your more advanced classes. I am doing well, but I am often bored. Bill is still working most of the day and there isn't any more to do here in the autumn than in the summer. I am missing my mama, papa, and sister, but other than that, I am well.

Non-verbal magic is not easy to learn. It was one of the hardest things for me to master whilst at Beauxbatons. Learning it is tricky and explaining it is even harder over a letter. You need to really focus on the spell; every little bit of it. Work on it all you can while at school and I will help you learn over the winter break. It will give me something to do, like in the summer. I miss the summer sometimes. I do love magic. I considered teaching before I came to England to help in the war. I still may teach one day; we will see, I suppose.

Keep working hard and write more often. Writing letters is better than sitting here, bored, so write more so I can too.

Give your friends my greetings.

Au revoir,


Harry felt a strange feeling in his stomach when he read the part about writing more often. It was like the first second of a dive in Quidditch when it felt like one's stomach had simply fallen straight out of their body. This was less extreme but more fleeting, yet it was there and Harry had no idea what it meant.

"Oi," said Ron, "who's that from?"

"Never you mind," said Harry, stuffing the letter away in his bag before either Ron or Hermione could snatch it from him. When he poked his head back up, Hermione was watching him carefully.

"This isn't anything like that book, is it?"

He rolled his eyes. "Will you drop your bloody crusade against the Prince and his book, Hermione?"

"I will not!" she hissed, but Harry's exasperation did not so much as waver.

"How would this have anything to do with that, anyway? It's a letter."

She flushed. "Well, I can't think of anything else you'd hide from us."

"It's not hiding. I just don't think my mates need to see every letter I ever get. I don't read all of yours, do I?"

"Well, no, but I don't stuff mine away like they might explode."

"I did not…" he trailed off at the look on Ron's face. He was grinning ear to ear. The expression reminded Harry of Dudley and the look he got when he thought he had done something clever.

"I don't think it's got anything to do with the Prince, Hermione," said Ron.

Hermione opened her mouth, but then a look of dawning comprehension crossed her face before she could speak. That was strange, seeing as Harry had no idea what they thought they had figured out about him.

"So…" asked Ron with a goofy grin.

Harry felt a slight prick of annoyance. "So what?"

"What's her name?"

He spluttered, choked, and very nearly spewed his pumpkin juice all over the table; it had been a most inopportune time to take a drink. He coughed with such force that for a moment, he thought he might wretch. Ron was laughing uproariously from beside him. He was doubled over and clutching a stitch in his side, but he managed to summon up enough strength to reach over and thump Harry hard on the back several times.

"Oi, don't die on us, you git!" He grinned a sharp grin as a spark leapt into his eye. It was like how the twins sometimes grinned right before they did something grandiose. "Or maybe I should've said don't die on her."

Harry was less affronted this time, but he was still indignant. It was bold of Ron to call out anyone when he and "Lav-Lav" had been clinging off of one another like spider monkeys. He debated saying something about how the girl who had written him was Fleur, but he immediately thought better of it. Ron was so thick that he might actually think Harry was coming onto his eldest brother's fiancée. Hell, he might even let something about it slip. Mrs. Weasley would surely be all for that idea. It would free up her son to marry someone whom she viewed as more suitable.

So Harry said nothing. He just sat there and endured Ron's teasing and Hermione's piercing stares — somehow, they were so much worse than anything Ron could do. If he got worked up, he would only feed into his friend's delusions. He may have loved both Ron and Hermione dearly, but the two of them really could be dense sometimes.

December 22, 1996

The Burrow

2:58 PM

Winter break had come at a time of great need. The atmosphere at Hogwarts had grown more strained than Harry could ever remember. Even Umbridge in her darkest hour had failed to inspire such tension.

The attack on Katie Bell left the school reeling. The general student population had seen worrying things before: there had been the likes of the petrifications in Harry's second year, Sirius assaulting the portrait of the Fat Lady in his third, and the death of Cedric Diggory at the end of his fourth.

This was different though; never before had the castle felt so on edge. They had all been painfully aware of the threats from outside and the looming shadow that was Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Yet they had stayed strong and hopeful. Despite everything that had happened there since Harry's arrival, Hogwarts was still largely viewed as the safest place in Magical Britain.

Katie's misfortune had represented the shifting of that perception. it was now apparent that the threats came from more than just the outside. There was something nefarious going on inside the castle too, and everyone knew it. They all felt surrounded and trapped on all sides, like nothing they could do would allow them any reprieve from the crushing darkness closing in from all directions, threatening to snuff out all light and hope in the world like a dense swarm of dementors.

And still, that was not all, for Harry was no ordinary student. He had to deal with the suspicion he felt towards Draco Malfoy — which had only swelled upon hearing about the Unbreakable Vow Snape had sworn — learning about Lord Voldemort's past, preparing for the man's inevitable next attempt on his life, and dealing with the oppressive weight of the prophecy upon his shoulders. Not to mention all the stress the deteriorating relationship between Ron and Hermione had caused him, never mind Romilda Vane and her alleged attempts to seduce him with a love potion.

It was all too much for one person to deal with. As much as Harry loved the castle, he had never been so happy to escape from it. He had slept more soundly that first night back at the Burrow than he had in months. When he awoke that first morning of the break, he realized that he had forgotten what a good and refreshing night's sleep felt like.

It was a good day. Not only was he refreshed, but the sky was clear and the sun shone down upon them. Its rays gleamed off the snow so brightly that anyone looking directly at the thick layer of it carpeting the lands would need to shield their eyes. It was a windless day, which felt incredible after the turbulent weather in the Scottish highlands, and the air was frigid but bearable.

Harry found himself bundled up and outside that afternoon due to one of the other reasons he was quite happy with his day so far. When he had awoken, there had been a note on the dresser nearest to his bed. He recognized the slim, elegant handwriting at once as belonging to the woman he had been writing regularly for the past two months. He knew immediately that today he would take the first steps down the path to solving his most pressing problem.

She was waiting for him out near the orchard where he had once thrown gnomes with Fred, George, and Ron. She wore a large hood, but some strands of her long blonde hair tumbled free and stretched across her face. The strands shone as brightly as the snow when the sun's light reached them, but their owner looked much less regal than usual. She was shaking like a leaf caught in a strong autumn breeze and her perfect, white teeth were chattering so fiercely together that Harry feared she might chip one.

He could not help but laugh at her. He felt only the faintest chill clinging to his skin, but he shook it off as easily as he might a bit of dirt on his trainers.

She glared at him, though the shaking ruined the effect some. "What are you laughing at?"

"You," he answered, only partially succeeding in his efforts to keep a straight face. "Merlin, I thought you French lot were shaking the first day you showed up at Hogwarts. That was nothing, was it?"

"France does not get zis cold," she defended. "It is much nicer zere. Zis English weather is 'orrible!"

"Yet you chose to live here?"

She scowled. "Not for ze weather. If I 'ave my way, Bill will move wiss me back to France after ze war. My family is wealthy. We can live in a nice 'ouse and 'e can work in Paris."

Harry didn't know much about Bill, but he thought the eldest of Molly and Arthur's children might actually take that offer. The man had spent years in Egypt, so he clearly enjoyed travelling and wasn't too attached to home.

"You should not mock me," Fleur warned, "not when I am going to be teaching you."

Harry's amusement didn't falter. "Oh? What's the worst thing that could happen?"

Fleur's eyes danced with a light Harry had not seen there before. "'Ow about we duel and find out? Just a leetle bit of fun before I 'elp you wiss non-verbal spells, non?"

Harry's heart fluttered. The last time he had duelled anyone had been his attempts to torture Bellatrix Lestrange in the ministry's atrium just minutes after she had murdered his godfather.

He remembered that night. He remembered how helpless he had felt against the likes of Nott and Dolohov. He remembered how he had needed to hide behind Dumbledore while the Headmaster fended off Voldemort, and he remembered the sounds of Bellatrix's mocking laughter ringing through his ears. That laughter had haunted his nightmares for a time, and he knew he needed to be better at more than just casting without words if he wanted to never hear it again.

"You're on!" said Harry, drawing his wand like a sword as he took his stance with a determined expression.

December 25, 1996

The Burrow

6:24 PM

The sound of breaking glass seemed to ring through the room even as Mr. and Mrs. Weasley crowded the small kitchen window to look out into the front garden. Arthur had dropped his glass, but no one seemed to care. Their children were hot on their heels. The kitchen was so cramped that Harry didn't follow. He met Fleur's eyes across the table. She was the only other person still seated and her expression gave away very little.

"Merlin," said Fred, "it's actually him."

"And the Minister," added George, not looking sure if that surprised him more or less than the sight of his older brother strolling through their snow-covered garden.

Mrs. Weasley was practically vibrating on the threshold by the time the knock came. Whether her shaking was from worry, anger, or excitement, Harry was unsure.

Mrs. Weasley flung the door open before the knocking had ceased and dragged her son into a hug that looked tighter than any vice. Percy didn't react for a moment, but he eventually returned the gesture. He looked as awkward as the room felt. A painful silence had swept over the kitchen.

"Merry Christmas, Mother," Percy said stiffly.

"Oh, Percy!" said Mrs. Weasley, tightening her embrace even more — if such a thing was possible.

Rufus Scrimgeour paused in the doorway, leaning on his walking stick and smiling. "You must forgive this intrusion," he said when Mrs. Weasley looked around at him, beaming and wiping her eyes. "Percy and I were in the vicinity — working, you know — and he couldn't resist dropping in and seeing you all."

Percy didn't look like a man who fit the Minister's description, but Harry's attention wasn't on Percy. He had not missed the way Scrimgeour's eyes had found him at once upon stepping into the kitchen. He was under no delusion that this was a coincidence or even a normal courtesy call. He remembered Dumbledore telling him about his argument with Scrimgeour and Harry thought he could already guess where this was heading.

"Please, come in, sit down, Minister!" fluttered Mrs. Weasley, straightening her hat. "Have a little purkey or some tudding… I mean—"

"No, no, dear Molly," said Scrimgeour. Harry guessed that he had checked her name with Percy before they entered the house. "I don't want to intrude, wouldn't be here at all if Percy hadn't wanted to see you all so badly. We've only looked in for five minutes, so I'll have a stroll around the grounds while you catch up with Percy. No, no, I assure you I don't want to butt in! Well, if anybody cares to show me your charming garden… ah, that young man's almost finished, why doesn't he take a stroll with me?"

The atmosphere in the room grew suddenly reminiscent of Umbridge's classroom when a student had spoken up. Suspicious tension filled the room to bursting. It was a wonder the invisible force didn't blow out the windows, for Harry was sure the room could not contain it for long. The tension in the small room was a stark juxtaposition to the pleasant fumes drifting up from the heaps of still-hot food laid out across the table

Harry finished chewing the succulent bit of turkey, relishing the way it seemed to melt on his tongue, leaving behind the salty taste of gravy. He then opened his mouth to agree. He had no desire to speak with Scrimgeour, but he did not wish to leave the Weasley family with such a tense Christmas meal. The fastest and easiest way to defuse the situation was to give the Minister for Magic what he wanted. Harry was reasonably sure that whatever the man desired of him, it was nothing nefarious.

"I 'ave eaten my fill." Harry's head snapped around; Fleur had been the last person he had expected to speak. "Zis English food is 'eavy and I cannot eat too much. I would be 'appy to show you ze gardens, Minister."

Scrimgeour smiled, but Harry did not miss how tight the muscles in his jaw were stretched. "That is very kind of you, madam, but I wouldn't want to trouble you. Nor would I wish to take you away from your fiancé."

The man really had done his research; Harry would give Scrimgeour credit for that.

"It is no trouble," said Fleur, flashing a dazzling smile. "I could use ze stretch. I feel very 'eavy and would like to walk it off."

Harry knew Scrimgeour would never agree to anything short of talking with him, so he decided a compromise may well be best. "We'll both go then," he said. "I'm finished, like the Minister said, and if Fleur wants to take a walk anyway…" he shrugged.

He could tell Scrimgeour wasn't happy. His eyes had narrowed and he could see the beginnings of a vein beginning to pulse on his forehead. Uncle Vernon's put this man's to shame, but Harry had learned to look for such signs over the years on Privet Drive.

"Very well," said Scrimgeour, "lead the way, then."

It was colder than it had been the day Harry had unsuccessfully tried to duel Fleur, but not by much. The lack of wind had not helped him on that day. She had beaten him almost effortlessly. His spell selection was too predictable, she said, especially when all of his incantations were shouted aloud. He apparently overused the Disarming Charm, Stunning Spell, and the Impediment Jinx.

The air was sharper today. The wind was light but bitter. It seemed to slash deftly across the surface of Harry's skin like a freezing razor, though its chill ran deeper and seemed to ebb into his very bones. Fleur shivered beside him and he had to resist the urge to smirk as the three of them drew near to the gardens.

"Charming," said Scrimgeour, stopping at the garden fence and looking out over the snowy lawn and the indistinguishable plants. "Charming."

Harry said nothing, but he did steal a glance towards Fleur while the Minister was looking away. Her face was set as hard as stone. The look did not suit one as angelic as her.

"I've wanted to meet you for a very long time," said Scrimgeour after a few moments, finally looking at Harry. "Did you know that?"

"No," said Harry, and it was true.

"'E pestered Dumbledore for months," said Fleur. "Zey even argued over it. Dumbledore didn't ssink you should meet ze Minister after 'ow ze last one treated you."

Fleur's voice was perfectly polite, but her words, subtle as they might have been, cut every bit as deep as the cold. Scrimgeour held his composure well, but Harry could practically hear his teeth grinding together in frustration. This was not how he had planned for the meeting to go.

"Dumbledore has been very protective of you," he admitted. "Natural, of course, particularly after what you've been through. I wouldn't quite say I was pestering, but I can see how some things may have been mixed up and miscommunicated."

It was clear Scrimgeour was waiting for Harry to speak, but he didn't. He took a page from Fleur's book and stood as still and stiff as if a steel rod was holding his spine in line.

"The rumours that have flown around!" Scrimgeour went on. "Well, of course, we both know how these stories get distorted… all these whispers of a prophecy… of you being 'the Chosen One'…"

"Is that what you want, Minister?"

Scrimgeour blinked. "Pardon?"

"You want something; you obviously have for months. I believe Dumbledore and Fleur. If he argued with you, you wanted more than to talk. You have a goal and I think we're getting close to whatever it is. Is it about the prophecy? Are you here to ask me whether or not I'm the Chosen One?"

"Non," said Fleur before a visibly rattled Scrimgeour could speak. Harry wasn't sure he would have had the confidence to cut in so boldly had he been alone with the man. "'E doesn't care if you are ze Chosen One, 'Arry. 'E cares about whezer people ssink you are."

"Why would it matter what people think? Their opinions change more than the weather. One year, I'm the Heir of Slytherin, then, by summer, I'm the saviour and the greatest thing since Merlin. A few years later, I'm a cheater. Then I'm a champion, then a liar, and now the Chosen One. Their opinions always change and they don't matter."

"That's where you have it wrong," Scrimgeour said gruffly. "These are dark times. People are scared and panicking. The idea that there may be someone out there with the power to do the impossible… well, it rallies people and gives them hope. Hope is a valuable weapon against fear and we need all the help we can get. And why wouldn't the public believe? How many times now have you faced down He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and lived to tell the tale?"

The answer was far too many, but Harry wasn't going to say that. He thought he could see where this was going now, and clearly, Fleur could too.

"So you want to use 'Arry?"

"Well… use seems like a strong word." The Minister chuckled. Harry thought his laugh wavered, but perhaps it was only the cold. "I think it is important for the public to feel safe. I wouldn't say it would be using Harry. A generous aid to the community, I would call it. It wouldn't take much," Scrimgeour added. "A couple of quick visits to the ministry here, a couple of handshakes and photographs there…"

"So you want 'im to talk about how great a job ze ministry is doing." It was not a question.

Scrimgeour fidgeted nervously but did a good job of making it seem like it was an attempt to warm his cold bones. "Well, that would be helpful, yes. It would give everyone a lift to think you were more involved, Harry." Scrimgeour was talking faster now as if in a hurry to get his point across. Harry wondered whether he feared it would be deconstructed once again. "'The Chosen One,' you know… it's all about giving people hope, the feeling that exciting things are happening…"

"But if I keep running in and out of the ministry," said Harry, still endeavouring to keep his voice friendly, "won't that seem as though I approve of what the ministry's up to?"

"Well," said Scrimgeour, frowning slightly, "well, yes, that's partly why we'd like—"

"No, I don't think that'll work. You see, I don't like some of the things the ministry's doing. Locking up Stan Shunpike, for instance."

Harry could practically feel Fleur stiffen beside him, but her reaction was nothing compared to the Minister's.

Scrimgeour did not speak for a moment, but his expression hardened instantly. "I would not expect you to understand," he said, and he was not as successful at keeping anger out of his voice as Harry had been. "These are dangerous times, and certain measures need to be taken. You are sixteen-years-old—"

"I zought you didn't want to use 'im," cut in Fleur. "You don't get to ask for someone's 'elp zen lecture zem about how leetle zey know." She was getting flustered now, Harry could tell. Her accent was thickening just like it had when Celestine Warbeck's singing had grown unbearable to her.

"I don't want to be used, Minister," Harry said coolly.

"Some would say it is your duty to be used by the ministry."

"And some would say it's yours to make sure the people you chuck in Azkaban actually deserve to be there. You never get it right, you people, do you? Either we've got Fudge, pretending everything's lovely while people get murdered right under his nose, or we've got you, chucking the wrong people into jail and trying to pretend you've got 'the Chosen One' working for you!"

Harry and Scrimgeour stared intently at one another as thick, white snowflakes began falling all around them. Above, the sky was a deep grey with lighter clouds drifting across it as they let the snow fall onto the Earth below. It looked vaguely like the churning sea, with the sky as the water and the clouds as white ripples flowing across its turbulent surface.

Harry was growing cold, tired, and impatient; he was ready for this charade to end. "Why would I help you, Minister? After everything last year and now what you're doing. Why would I pose for the cameras, look pretty, and pretend I agree with everything that's going on?"

Scrimgeour's expression was as tight as a coiled chain. "What is it you want?"

Harry shrugged. "Nothing in particular."

"I've heard you want to be an auror… if you could pop by every now and then, I would be happy to arrange—"

"'Arry doesn't need your 'elp to become an auror. 'E will be one if 'e chooses and 'e will be one of ze best. 'E 'as already faced your Dark Lord and lived as you said."

Scrimgeour glared at the both of them. "So your answer is no?"

Harry raised his fist and showed Scrimgeour the back of his hand where the scars he had earned whilst in detention with Umbridge still stood out. "I'd love to tell you otherwise, Minister, but I must not tell lies."

March 1, 1997

The Hospital Wing

11:14 PM

The corridor just outside the hospital wing was as dark as the moods of those who sat in the chairs that had been conjured there. The dull light of several torches spaced throughout the corridor was the only reprieve from the darkness, but the light did nothing to lift the moods of any gathered in the cluster of seats.

Harry sat in the chair closest to the hospital wing itself. Fred, George, Ginny, Hagrid, Hermione, Bill, and Fleur sat in chairs on his left. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had gone into the hospital wing to see their youngest son some time ago and they had yet to return. A steady stream of conversation had persisted for most of the day, though it had not been pleasant. It could accurately and succinctly be summarized as a herd of people asking Harry one after the other what had happened in Slughorn's office earlier that morning when Ron had drunk the poisoned mead.

The conversation had died not long ago. Harry had been looking at his feet since before even that, but he assumed the others had just caught on to the fact he no longer wished to retell the same dark tale over and over again. He did not feel scared anymore, not like he had in the minutes following his best friend's collapse. Madam Pomfrey had assured them all that Ron would make a full recovery; it would just take some time.

Harry just felt numb and tired. Something like this just seemed par for the course nowadays. What with the attack on Katie, his suspicions about Draco, and people vanishing in the outside world every night without so much as a trace. Really, the most depressing thing was that this fiasco didn't surprise him more. He just felt tired; this year had taken its toll on him. He wasn't sure what he had expected when Voldemort had returned, but the constant anxiety, oppressive worry, and despair hadn't been it. The invisible weight constantly bearing down upon him was slowly becoming too much. Harry was beginning to worry he might not be able to endure for as long as he must.

The doors to the hospital wing opened and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley stepped out. Ron was only seeing family, for now, so just Bill, Fred, George, and Ginny stood.

Bill offered Fleur a hand, but she shook her head. "Non," she told him, "I am not family."

"You are," he argued. "We'll be married in August and we're already engaged. You've got every bit as much a right to see him as I do."

Fleur reached up and pulled his head down. The kiss she planted on his lips seemed featherlight but softer than the finest of silks. "Non," she said again, more quietly this time. "Go and see 'im. I will be 'ere when you are done."

Bill went with Ron's other siblings as Mr. and Mrs. Weasley excused themselves after thanking Harry one last time. He nodded along, but Arthur's words about how much the family owed him for his heroism over the years did nothing to lift his spirits. He felt hollow and the words washed over him and were gone faster than rain streaming down a window in a heavy storm.

Mr. Weasley could say all he liked that if it wasn't for Harry then Ron, Ginny, and the man himself would be dead. Maybe that was true for Ginny, and perhaps even for Arthur, but Harry thought Ron would never have found himself in so many dangerous situations had the two of them not been friends. Harry was not at all certain that on that front, he had not done more damage than he had prevented.

The scraping of his chair against the floor seemed unnaturally loud as he took to his feet. It seemed to echo off the walls like a great cry atop a mountain bouncing and reverberating off of nearby peaks.

"Where ya goin', 'Arry?" asked Hagrid, his dark eyes as alert as ever.

"I just… need a walk. I'll be back, don't worry."

His footsteps echoed too, though not as loudly as his chair had. The castle was so deathly quiet at this time of night one would hardly believe it was occupied by several-hundred teenagers. Harry knew he should not feel so safe walking these halls — not after everything that had happened this year — but Hogwarts had always been, and would always be, special. It was where he felt safest, even in the darkest of times, and he felt no threat as he strolled down the corridors lost in thought, naive as the notion might have been.

He thought for a moment that his footfalls must have become heavier, or the stone under his feet had changed somehow because he felt as though their sound had grown louder. He realized within a moment's pause that the increase in noise meant he was no longer alone. His wand was drawn in a blur of motion and he spun faster than a speeding bludger.

Fleur just raised a perfect eyebrow. "Were you planning to curse me, 'Arry?"

"I wasn't 'planning' to do anything, but I was ready to do whatever I had to."

"Smart boy," she complimented, lengthening her stride so that she fell in step beside him.

Her hair was the brightest thing in the lowly-lit halls. Its silvery glow reminded him of the ghosts as they walked, though the light did strangely entrancing things to it whenever they passed by a low-hanging torch.

"What are you ssinking?" He almost missed her words, quiet as they were, but he just managed to catch and decipher the soft whisper of her voice.

"I'm not," he answered. His hands twitched as he walked and he resisted the urge to run them through his already messy hair. "I don't know what to think. First Katie, now Ron. I think Malfoy's up to something, but no one else believes me, and everyone seems to be dying or disappearing outside the castle. I just… I don't know what to do."

"Improve," said Fleur. "Zere is nozing you can do now. You 'ave to trust ze Order. You are still young and learning. If you want to do somessing, you need to get better. It is ze only way."

Harry hated hearing it, but he knew it to be the truth after how the fight at the ministry had gone last June. "What about now?" he asked. "What about while my friends are being attacked here?"

"Be safe," said Fleur. "Do your best to stay safe and help ozer people do ze same."

His expression twisted into something ugly. "How am I supposed to keep people safe when just being near me puts them in danger?"

She met his eyes with a stare so intense that he almost let his gaze fall. "Get better."

April 12, 1997

The Great Hall

8:52 AM

Dear Harry,

After what happened to Ron, Bill and I started working on a project. It has taken a long time because Bill was doing most of the Ancient Runes work for it and he is very busy, but we've finished!

The rings in the envelope will heat up on your finger if there is any poison in your drink. Just hold the glass for a few moments and let the magic do its scan. We thought this was a good idea after what happened and I know you always seem to get yourself into trouble. After what you said about dragging your friends into danger, I thought I would send one for Ron and Hermione too. They were hard to make, but I thought it might help you relax a little bit if they had one.

I'm glad to hear you are doing so well at mastering non-verbal spells! You should have no trouble with them at all by the end of the year.

Study hard and stay safe.

Au revoir,


Harry looked upon the rings with awe. They were slim and elaborately done, coloured the same silver as Fleur's hair. It was not the craftsmanship that Harry admired most, but the enchantment. He had never heard of anything like it, yet he had the utmost belief it would work just as she said. Bill was a talented curse breaker and Fleur a former Triwizard champion. Harry had no doubt that the two of them could do wonders when they put their heads together. He absently wondered whether or not they might do more of this sort of thing after the war. Judging by how successful Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes had been with their combat-oriented items, Harry suspected they could make a fortune from these things if they were mass-produced and sold.

Ron and Hermione were looking at him strangely. They always did any time he got these letters. He had never shown them any. It felt… wrong somehow, and he didn't really want to explain how he and Fleur had begun writing to one another all those months ago. It just seemed like it would be an awkward conversation, especially when thinking back to how Ron had made an utter fool of himself when madness had seized him and he'd gone as far as to ask Fleur to be his date for the Yule Ball back in fourth year. It just seemed easier to let Ron taunt him and allow Hermione to be suspicious.

Though now, that might no longer be an option. These rings were priceless and they really could be lifesavers. There was no way Harry wasn't going to give them to his friends, but he wanted to do so without admitting Fleur had sent them. It took several minutes of intense thought, but he eventually decided a half-truth was his best option.

"Hey, guys," he told them, "Bill sent me something to pass onto you two. He's been working on it for a while, but the work with Ancient Runes took ages…"

May 11, 1997

The Library

7:57 PM

Harry tried to focus on the book lying in front of him, but his eyes kept passing over the words as if they were under a Disillusionment Charm and simply fading into the background. It was like his brain couldn't process what he was reading, but he knew the truth was simpler, yet less pleasant.

He was distracted, much as he had been for the better part of a week. Ever since his run-in with Malfoy in Moaning Myrtle's bathroom, Harry had found that his mind wandered a great deal. It seemed like his thoughts were as fluid as water but as coherent as a toddler's attempt at written English. He wondered if something like this resembled how Luna felt all the time. Merlin knew Harry had never understood how that girl's brain worked. If it was anything like this, he pitied her, or applauded her for managing to stay something marginally close to sane — he wasn't sure which.

Every time he tried to focus on the words in front of him, he would think of that day in the bathroom, or of the letter he had received that very morning at breakfast. He wasn't sure which one was worse. Part of him wasn't sure whether the ferocity with which he had thrown himself into studying that day had been born from a desire to distract himself from the dark thoughts pertaining to his attack on Malfoy, or the strange pain that had arisen in his chest when he had read Fleur's letter that morning.

It had been the first time all year her correspondence had been anything but pleasant. It had been eerily similar to the way Hermione had ranted at him for his carelessness, but it was done more brutally and more systematically. It was also clear that Fleur had been upset. It was hard to tell in writing, but Harry thought this was the least composed she had ever been while communicating with him — barring the day he had pulled her sister from the Black Lake back during the Triwizard Tournament.

She might have been hundreds of miles away, but Harry fancied he could see her expression. The way he imagined it, it was somewhat reminiscent of the veela at the Quidditch World Cup right before their faces had twisted and elongated into the avian features he had come to remember. The intense expressions of raw and overwhelming fury that had spread across their faces had not suited them, but it was an image he remembered well. He remembered something about how Fleur's grandmother had been a veela, too. He wasn't sure how quickly she put things like this behind her, but he thought that perhaps he should be grateful she had not inherited the ability to throw fire.

His mind's eye kept showing him images of Fleur, of the letter she had written, and of Draco's blood flowing swiftly across the bathroom floor like the stream of a crimson river; splattering against the tiles like the juice of some kind of ruptured melon.

The terrifying thing was, he wasn't entirely certain the latter image bothered him more than the others…

When he had read her letter that morning, it had invoked a strange feeling that he had not often felt. It was a tightness in his chest that was difficult to explain, as though all of his muscles were attempting to tie themselves in the tightest knot they could manage. It felt extremely uncomfortable and the uneasiness spread throughout his body and even seemed to invade his thoughts. It lurked at the corners of his mind, stalking his more productive thoughts like a stealthy predator on the hunt. It had struck several times that day, pulling him from whatever task he had been attending to on each occasion and causing that same strange feeling to make itself known once more.

Harry didn't know exactly what had caused it, but he knew it had something to do with the letter. He had scarcely felt anything like it before. The first time he could remember even coming close had been when he had fallen off his broom in third year and woken up in the hospital wing — only to find out that Cedric Diggory had caught the snitch and Gryffindor had lost the match. The next time had been when Voldemort had risen once more and killed Cedric. He had felt it weeks after Sirius's death, too, but only when the raw grief and fury had somewhat subsided. The last time he'd felt it had been after Ron had been poisoned.

He closed the book with a snap and pressed his fingers to his temples. Trying to think through this madness was giving him a splitting headache and he realized that he needed to figure out what this feeling was. He had been feeling too many things this year that he was unable to identify already and he really didn't need this right now.

It took a surprisingly short period of time to come up with an answer that made sense, though it was an answer he wasn't sure how to feel about.

It was guilt.

But why? He didn't feel guilty for defending himself. Malfoy had been planning to use the Cruciatus Curse and he had clearly sought twice to become a murderer that year, even if he had failed on both occasions through strokes of dumb luck that had graced his victims. Harry was a bit annoyed with himself for using a spell he hadn't known, but there was no way he could have anticipated what it did. He felt more betrayed by the Halfblood Prince than anything.

So where was this guilt coming from?

He slammed his head lightly into the surface of the table. Astonishingly, it did his headache no favours…

As if the year had not been complicated enough — what with raging dark lords, disappearances, and Draco's deceptions and dastardly deeds? Now, it appeared he had to solve internal mysteries as well…

May 17, 1997

The Seventh Floor

3:44 PM

Blood roared in Harry's ears as he moved one foot in front of the other, coming closer to the Gryffindor common room one step at a time. Whether the sound of blood in his ears was due to his heart beating a million miles an hour — due to the uncertainty of not knowing whether Gryffindor had won — or whether it was due to his rage and desire to kill Snape, he wasn't sure.

The portrait of the Fat Lady loomed ahead and Harry felt like he could scarcely breathe by the time he reached her. It was like the feeling brought on by apparition; like he was being forced through a tube so tight that chords seemed to wrap around his chest and constrict his breathing with the force of a coiled boa constrictor.

The Fat Lady only gave a cryptic reply to his questioning look before swinging open.

Harry felt like he should have been blasted off his feet by the wall of noise that slammed into him as hard as any Banishing Hex ever would. The room was clustered chaos, but Harry knew the game's outcome before he saw the spoils. Euphoria seemed to waft through the air like thick, billowing steam, infecting everyone who breathed it in. He swore he was grinning ear to ear by the time he had crossed the threshold; all traces of his poor mood and murderous fantasies had been swept away like a fast-moving tide.

Ron was standing in the centre of the common room. Hermione seemed to be hanging off his arm as he held the Quidditch Cup aloft. His eyes found Harry's and they glowed with a light the raven-haired boy had never seen in them before. He remembered what Ron had seen in the Mirror of Erised all the way back in his first year and he could not help but feel happier for him than ever before.

The crowd was swarming towards him now. He might not have played, but he was the captain and he had done more for Gryffindor Quidditch than anyone since Charlie Weasley. He found himself hoisted aloft much like the cup just moments later and was marched towards the room's centre where the rest of the Quidditch team was congregated.

From his vantage point high on his housemates' shoulders, Harry could see Ginny and Dean off in a corner. Ginny had him pressed against the wall and was on her tiptoes. She was pressed so tightly against him that there scarcely seemed to be any space between them; it was hard to see where Dean's body ended and Ginny's began. Her red hair was tousled and her body seemed to swell as it tried to hold all the oxygen it could. It was the most passionate kiss Harry had ever seen, and it was also what made him come to a startling yet liberating realization.

Seeing Ginny Weasley snog Dean Thomas half to death no longer bothered him… not even a little bit.

When he and Ron had come upon them snogging in a corridor earlier in the year, something inside of him had stirred. Something feral and vicious, coiling and clawing at his innards in a bid to fly free and strike Dean down for daring to touch what was rightfully his.

There was no trace of it now.

He felt detached as he watched, held aloft by his friends and admirers. There was no anger, nor disappointment, nor even any jealousy or desire to be in Dean's place. There was only apathy, mixed with a tinge of happiness for Ginny. She had bounced between boyfriends a great deal over the past year and a half, and Harry found himself happy she finally seemed to have found the one that would stick.

He had no idea what had inspired this kind of change in him, but he was glad of it; glad for Ginny and glad that everything seemed to be going so well. Perhaps, at last, the tide had finally swept back out to sea, taking with it the despair and hopelessness which had sought to drown them all in its depths for many months. Harry certainly hoped so. He was enjoying this reprieve more than he had enjoyed anything in a very long time.

July 1, 1997

Hogwarts Castle

12:58 AM

It was odd to cry but to feel no pain; to feel the tears stream down his face like a salted waterfall but to be unable to feel the storming torrent of emotion that was bringing them forth.

Harry knew he was crying. He had known tears were falling the moment he gently placed Dumbledore's spectacles back over his eyes after closing them… it was easier that way; easier to see him as if he was asleep than to look at the lifeless pools that had once shone and twinkled with such a magical light.

Hands had pulled him to his feet. They were soft and warm, and Harry thought they belonged to Ginny. He wondered whether that would have excited him once. It did nothing now, but he could feel nothing, so it was hardly a surprise.

He did not feel like he was walking with her. He did not feel like he had just watched Dumbledore die, nor did he feel the sting of Snape's spells from where they had slammed into him. He felt… nothing.

It was as though he was detached, gliding behind Ginny and himself as he watched from the perspective of an observer. He was aware of everything going on, but he could not feel.

It took a meaningful amount of time before he realized where they were heading. He might normally have protested a trip to the hospital wing — Madam Pomfrey had never let him off easily before and he had no reason to believe she might start now — but he could not will himself to care or bring forth the energy required to protest or argue.

He allowed himself to be led and felt nothing until the hospital wing doors opened and admitted him and Ginny, at which point he froze as his mind failed to comprehend yet another of the night's horrors.

The first thing to hit him was the smell of blood. It was thick in the air, scenting the room with its metallic, iron-like odour. He did not linger on the stench for long, for there was more going on in the room that caught his attention.

It was deathly quiet but for a single, heart-wrenching sound coming from near where the horror lay.

Harry had never quite known how to deal with crying girls. It hadn't happened often, but anytime it had, he had been flummoxed. That feeling of being completely and totally lost was amplified now as he watched Fleur clutching her fiancé's hand as he lay prone on the once-white sheets of his hospital bed. He had mocked her for shivering in the cold winter air all those months ago, but it was nothing to how she shook now. Yet this time, Harry had no desire to mock her, for it was no cold that made her shake.

From the man's position in the bed, Harry could see all that had happened to Bill Weasley. His once-handsome face now resembled a length of cloth that had been battered, torn, and stained beyond recognition. Blood flowed freely from cuts that seemed to expose the very bone itself. It streamed from them as it had from Malfoy's wounds all those weeks ago, though it stood out more starkly on the white bedsheets than it had on the tiled, bathroom floor. It seemed to cling to them as it flowed across their surface, staining them like a dark summer wine might a fine linen cloth.

Harry felt for the first time in minutes when he looked upon the broken form of Ron's eldest brother. He felt shock, pain, fury, and sadness all at once. It slammed into him like a bolt of concussive force. He staggered back, bumping the shelf behind him and sending vials tumbling to the floor. Glass sprayed everywhere as they shattered and their contents flowed as freely as the blood rushing from the man on the bed. Harry vaguely felt the glass sting his ankle, but he paid it no mind.

The woman clutching Bill's hand looked up at the sound. Her eyes had always been a blue so deep they reminded Harry of the sea or the sky. Now, watery as they were, they reminded him even more of the ocean; it was like he could actually see the water flowing now.

They held him captive long enough for her to take to her feet and cross the room. He never knew what was happening before she was upon him. Her arms went around his neck as her head tucked into his shoulder.

That had been when he'd known how bad it was.

He had not yet assumed Bill was gone when he had walked through the hospital's doors. There was logically no way one should be able to recover from such wounds, but Snape had healed Malfoy. He had naively clung to the hope that there may have been a chance until Fleur left her fiancé's side at the first opportunity for comfort.

She was fiercer than anyone he knew. He remembered the way she had fought against her massive headmistress to try and run after her sister when Harry had pulled her from the lake. He remembered the fire in her eyes then and he remembered the determination with which she had navigated the year as a whole.

If there was even the slightest chance Bill would survive, she would never have left him. She would have clung to him until he awoke, encouraging him every step of the way as she resolutely told everyone he would survive.

But she hadn't, and that could only mean one thing.

Harry's arms felt like lead as he lifted them and wrapped them awkwardly around her shaking body. He felt numb again now. Something was stirring within him, but he was incapable of doing anything more than sensing its presence.

He had only one, ludicrous thought as he stood there with one of his best friends and mentors sobbing in his arms while the rest of the room stared intently at the pair of them.

This time, he had been unable to save the Weasley in harm's way.

Then, another thought crossed his mind and dots connected in his mind with the suddenness and force of colliding asteroids.

There was a small part of him that wondered what might have happened had he given the Felix Felicis to Bill, or to Fleur. He was gone by the time they had arrived, but he had known the Order of the Phoenix had been on their way. Dumbledore had said he was stationing more guards that night. It would have been so easy to ask Ron or Hermione to slip some liquid luck to Fleur. Maybe then it would have protected Bill by proxy and they wouldn't have been in this mess.

It was a depressing revelation, Harry knew, but it was not the one that captured his imagination and made his heart beat so fiercely it had felt for a moment like he was back in the cave with the inferi swarming all around him.

The feeling he experienced was guilt — the same guilt that had torn at him the day Fleur had sent her letter chastising him for his carelessness with the unknown spell. He had found it odd at the time that he felt guilty. He did not think then that he had a reason to and he knew it was every bit as foolish a thought now as it had been then.

The difference was that now, he understood; it caused him to tense for a moment, but Fleur was mercifully past the point of being able to pick up on such things.

He had not felt guilty all that time ago for attacking Draco Malfoy with a spell most would vilify and deem as evil. Nor did he feel guilty now for hoarding his precious potion for those he cared for above all others. What he felt guilty for, on both occasions, was hurting Fleur.

Harry felt every bit as shell-shocked as he had while watching Ron convulse on the floor and uncertainty gripped him the likes of which he had seldom felt before. Now, standing in the hospital wing with a girl whom he cared for more than he had realized crying onto his shoulder, he suddenly felt every bit as lost as he had the moment he had first stared into Dumbledore's lifeless eyes.

July 25, 1997

Number 4 Privet Drive

9:06 PM

Harry did his best to mimic Draco Malfoy's trademark sneer as he dropped a lock of his hair into the thick, mud-like potion that was forced upon him. Did they not understand how sick he was of people being caught in the crossfire on his behalf? Sirius, Cedric, Ron, Bill… when did it end?

The potion bubbled and a tinge of brightness caressed the dark depths of the murky liquid before it slowly caught like a spark and spread outwards, like an open flame consuming the mud, devouring it, and taking its place in all its flickering glory. The potion now shone gold; as bright as the electrical lighting of the home they stood in.

"Ooh, you look much tastier than Crabbe and Goyle, Harry," said Hermione before catching sight of Ron's raised eyebrows, blushing slightly, and saying, "Oh, you know what I mean — Goyle's potion looked like bogies."

Moody's voice sliced through the awkward silence like a hot knife through butter. Harry had never known anyone as efficient at immediately transforming the atmosphere in a room as Mad-Eye Moody. None of them so much as hesitated to obey his orders to stand in line against the wall and drink from their respective vials of golden potion.

Harry watched as Hermione and Mundungus's limbs seemed to stretch and elongate like elastic bands pulled to their breaking point. It was a disturbing image to watch. Their muscles rippled visibly under their skin and expanded. He thought he heard the cracking of bones rearranging themselves, but he might only have imagined it. Every one of his senses were on high alert as he hyper-focused, ready to catch any signs of a trap or an ambush being launched upon the house.

Ron experienced the opposite of what Hermione and Mundungus were going through. He had always been long and lanky and he was a good deal taller than Harry. His muscles seemed to compress and collapse in on themselves. They appeared to fold of their own accord, like the times the laundry did itself at the Burrow thanks to Mrs. Weasley's collection of household charms.

Fred and George were roughly the same height as Harry, so he had only to watch the unpleasant rippling of their skin. It bubbled like the liquid in a simmering cauldron but it came to rest in its new state soon enough, as was the case with all the others.

Moody's voice rang through the house once again. It was not too dissimilar to Uncle Vernon's every time he had shouted at his nephew over the many years Harry had spent in his care. It even inspired many of the same feelings deep within him. All the times his uncle had shouted at Harry when he was young, impending dread would often wash over him like the droplets of a great waterfall flowing down upon him. He felt something similar when Moody spoke now.

Crickets had begun to chirp outside. It seemed to Harry as though they knew something the rest of them didn't; like they were singing the sombre tales of what was to come. Something about the night just felt off. The plan seemed well-constructed, but if Harry had learned anything over the years, it was that plans tended to fall apart when faced with the reality that was Lord Voldemort.

Moody had begun partnering them off with one another — each imposter being paired with a guard. Kingsley was partnered with Hermione; Ron with Tonks; Fred with Arthur; Charlie with Professor McGonagall, of all people; and George with Lupin.

"Which leaves you and Delacour," said Moody. Both his magical and mundane eyes had found Harry now and they were watching him intently. "You'll be on a thestral. He'll expect you to be on a broom, see, and he'll think you'll be with Kingsley or I; not with the pretty little recruit hardly two years out of school."

Fleur stuck her chin up at the insinuation, but not even she dared to cut across the crazed ex-auror in his current mood.

Harry looked sideways at her as Moody walked away. He realized they were the same height now. He had grown some over the summer and now looked her directly in the eye without needing to tilt his chin at all.

"How are you doing?" Harry asked her, realizing with a jolt that their roles had reversed completely since this time last year. It had been her asking him about Sirius at the Burrow back then, and now it was her dealing with the loss of one she had loved so dearly. Sometimes, the symmetry that seemed to come so naturally with life was a beautiful thing that made Harry marvel at how the world worked. Other times, it was cruel, not to mention a complete and total bitch.

She offered him a smile that did not quite reach her eyes. "What did you say last summer? It was 'ard at first, but it gets easier? Yes, I ssink zat was it. It is ze same for me. I… I miss 'im dearly, but zere is nozing I can do to bring 'im back. Only move on and make 'im proud." Her expression hardened and her eyes flashed like bluebell flames. The summer was dry and one of the warmest Harry had ever known, but he felt an involuntary shiver run up his spine despite the fact. "More zan anyssing, I am not losing anyone else… ever. Zey were going to 'ave 'Agrid escort you, but I demanded to be ze one to do it. I am not letting anyone else I care for get 'urt."

Warmth flooded back to Harry swiftly as a lightning strike. A flush rose up his arms and past his neck as colour rushed into his cheeks.

"I get that," he said, and Merlin did he ever. "Doesn't mean you should take dumb chances though. Voldemort is going to be out there tonight, we both know it—"

"Some chances are worth taking."

Her words were hard as steel and her tone as stubborn as any mule. He had known talking her out of such folly would be impossible. She had committed now and would not turn back, but he had hoped. He knew that he was doing the same thing as her; trying to ensure the safety of those he cared for most. It was something they shared now, for better or for worse. Perhaps it would be what got them through the night…

Harry's hair whipped hard across his face. He was seated behind Fleur, so she shielded him somewhat from the wind, but there was no lack of it to go around. The night air was dry and the temperature warm. There was a vague hint of humidity in the air, but it had not yet arrived. Harry could smell a storm brewing and was sure one would arrive in Surrey soon enough, but all was peaceful outside of that.

It had been, anyway, until the seven Potters and their escorts had taken to the sky.

Lights flashed rapidly and from all directions like the sky had become the backdrop of some muggle nightclub. Harry felt three spells speed past his head in quick succession within seconds of taking to the sky. He wondered all at once whether thestrals had been such a clever idea. Was there wisdom in flying supported by something that could fall out of the sky at the gentlest touch of green light?

He wasn't sure, but he could not afford to think about it for long. His wand had already drawn, and it was moving through the air like quicksilver in no time. Between the lights flashing so brightly and frequently that he could barely see three feet ahead of him and the cacophony of screams that seemed to come from everywhere, it was complete and total chaos. Harry did not know if his companions lived or died. He did not know whether Voldemort was present or whether these were merely his Death Eaters, or perhaps even ministry workers coerced into joining the Dark Lord's cause, whether it be through magic or mere manipulations.

He knew nothing but the howling wind, the piercing screams, the blinding light, and the frantic thumping of his own heartbeat.

Then they were free as quickly as they had been surrounded. Their thestral had broken loose from the gaggle of death and destruction and glided freely through the sky. Fleur was doing her best to guide it as they flew, but there was little to do. Remarkable as it might have been, the creature seemed hardly fazed by the firefight it had just flown through. Harry wondered if its calmness in the face of its own demise had anything to do with the fact that thestrals were, at their core, incarnations of death itself.

Harry had thought the two of them to be free of the danger for nearly five minutes before he saw them. From a distance, they were like bats flying through the night sky; no larger and no more discernible. It became clear as they approached that they were no bats, nor any other winged animal. Their cloaks may have been every bit as dark as the night sky around them, but their masks were as pale as bleached bone with hollow eye sockets resembling those of a human's skull.

Spells flew once more. Harry had never been more grateful for the fact he had learned to cast non-verbally some time ago. It would have been hard to speak with the wind slamming against him and tearing the air from his lungs. He imagined that Fleur, who was taking the brunt of its vengeful force, must have felt like the thestral was constantly flying against a brick wall, trying but never quite succeeding to push through.

One of the figures swooped near on a broomstick and raised his wand. He was not aiming at Harry, but at Fleur. His heart stopped as swiftly as if he had been struck down by one of the bolts of green light that had nearly taken him earlier in the night. Fleur was facing forward, taking aim at another of their assailants who flew alongside them, targeting the beast that carried the pair of them gracefully through the night sky. The thestral still remained unphased, but Fleur was fighting for the creature's life and would be unable to turn her wand in time to defend herself from this man's onslaught.

An incantation formed in Harry's thoughts and he could feel the red bolt of energy begin to build on the tip of his wand, but he hesitated. He remembered his duel with Fleur back in the Burrow's snowy yard during the winter holidays. He remembered the way she had mocked his spell selection after the fact, making jibes about there being more to duelling than disarming, stunning, and slowing down your opponent.


If Harry thought the force of the wind was great, it paled in comparison to the shockwave that exploded from the tip of his wand and slammed into the oncoming Death Eater like a speeding battering ram. The man went sailing through the air like a child's carelessly discarded toy, his broomstick spinning and plummeting towards the ground far below like the fallen branch of a towering tree.

He heard another cry from nearby and looked up. Fleur had wounded their other assailant and he was falling back as blood streamed from a gash on his shoulder, adding a thin line of crimson to the otherwise black canvas that was the sky all around them.

Harry looked back but saw no others approaching. It appeared, for now, that they were free once more.

August 1, 1997

The Burrow

9:34 PM

It had been a bright summer's day. A thin canopy of clouds veiled the sky far above, but they were scarcely enough to block the sun's rays from streaming down and they parted completely every now and then. The breeze whistled softly across the lands, more of a tickle against the skin than any true wind. It was hot but not humid; perfectly bearable if one avoided standing directly in the pools of warm sunlight cast down from the heavens far above.

The weather was perfect… and Harry hated it. It should not have been so on such a day. It was the first day of August. This day was supposed to have been Bill and Fleur's wedding, but it turned out to be the funeral for the eldest son of Molly and Arthur Weasley. The sun shining so brightly, the wind blowing so pleasantly, and the air being so perfect all seemed like a mockery. It was as though the very forces of nature were projecting their laughter through the soft whistling of the wind, mocking not only Bill's memory but all who gathered to mourn for it.

The procession was large. Many of the would-be wedding guests had arrived as planned. Their arrangements for the summer had already been made; it would have been more difficult for many of them to cancel than to come and pay their respects to the man who was supposed to have been married that afternoon.

Bill's coffin was plain and unremarkable. Made of a dark wood and sporting no visible decor, it was lowered into the Earth that afternoon in the very centre of the orchard that Harry often used during the summers to play Quidditch with Ron, Ginny, and the twins.

Harry was happy for the closed coffin. He did not think he could bear to see Bill's face. Not with it being as shredded and marred as it had been after Fenrir Greyback's vicious assault. It would only have served the once-handsome man's memory a disservice for those gathered to see him broken.

The birds sang as Bill's body was lowered into the Earth. Harry might have thought that to be mocking, too, but it sounded to him more like Fawkes's final lament for his fallen master than any sort of tranquil song sung for happiness or promise. It was like the birds knew. Harry didn't know how long birds lived. Perhaps some of them had even seen Bill grow up in this orchard, playing Quidditch with Charlie and the twins just like Harry did with the current brood of Weasley children. Perhaps they really were singing for one they considered a fallen friend.

Fleur was more composed today than she had been that night in the hospital wing. She wore a stunning gown that Harry thought might have originally been purposed as her wedding attire. Her hair flowed down her back like molten silver and her eyes shone like the sky far above. It was almost painful to see her so composed. It was a reminder to Harry how normal death and disarray had become during the heat of war. He knew she was putting on a show — he had seen her in less than ideal states as of late and even thought he had heard her crying that previous night — but it was her outward appearance that was important today.

The guests all congregated after the formal ceremony had been completed. Charlie had given a eulogy for his brother and others had spoken too. Mr. Weasley had gone on about what a great son Bill had been and what it had been like raising one so talented and so kind.

Fleur had spoken, too. Spoken of how she had so looked forward to marrying Bill, of how he had been the one to help her most while she adapted to England. Her mask of collected calm had fractured several times, but she had held it together right up to the end. When she spoke of how her would-be husband had died a hero while fighting for all that was right and for what he believed in, she finally cracked and her father led her gently away, his face a mask of anguish as well.

There were tables clustered in the orchard where many took their seats and stayed for hours to follow. Harry saw more alcohol consumed in those few hours than he thought he had in the rest of his life. It seemed that many wanted to drink their sorrows away. Not just about Bill either, he thought. Many of them probably wanted an escape from the war and all it entailed, and Harry found that he couldn't blame them.

Most of the conversations he took part in were of no real note. The exception had been when he had wound up at a table with Ron's Aunt Muriel and a wispy old man named Elphias Doge. Harry had heard Ron talk about his great aunt before and the woman lived up to her reputation almost at once. The frail-looking woman seemed to be made up of more personality than skin and bones, though it was Doge who interested Harry the most.

He had written an obituary on Dumbledore in the Daily Prophet and the two of them had supposedly been friends for more than a century. Doge had spoken glowingly of Dumbledore, though Harry wished he could have asked him more. He was disguised as Ron's distant cousin, so displaying too much knowledge about Dumbledore would have been unnatural and suspicious. Muriel had made her own insinuations about the former headmaster, but Harry didn't believe most of them. They seemed too outrageous, much like Krum accusing Luna's father of marching around with Grindelwald's symbol draped around his neck.

Harry's patience for people seemed to diminish while the daylight waned as the sun retreated over the horizon, retracting its ethereal fingers of light with it as it went. It was one thing to pretend to be social. It was another thing altogether while wearing the skin of a person who didn't even exist. Harry enjoyed not being stared at due to fame born from his parents' murder, but he wasn't sure he would trade it for needing to maintain a facade twenty-four hours a day. It was as exhausting as any adventure he had ever stumbled his way through.

He found himself out in the middle of the orchard a little over an hour after the sun's rays had finished shining. He had been unable to get close to the grave earlier in the day; too many people had swarmed around it like feral bees around a mound of honey. His feet had carried him there without him realizing and now that he stood looking down on the place where Bill Weasley was buried, he found that he had no words nor thoughts appropriate for the situation at hand.

"I wondered if you would come."

Harry's feet left the ground as he whirled to face the voice. His wand was out in a blur of motion, but it was lowered just as quickly. "Don't do that!"

Fleur had shimmered into existence from nowhere, though Harry knew she must have been under the effects of a Disillusionment Charm. She had told him about that spell some time ago — it had been all the way back in December when she had criticized him for his predictable arsenal of overused spells.

"I would've come earlier, but I didn't want to deal with people."

Her face scrunched up into an expression that did a wonderful job at conveying her discomfort. "I 'aven't wanted to deal wiss people all day."

"Was that why you just lurked here?" She nodded.

Harry turned back to the grave and looked down, not knowing what he expected to see. The mere sight of plain earth was somehow just as crushing as watching Bill's body lowered into the ground. It was a reminder of how quickly they would have to move on from the tragedy. It felt callous and cruel, but Harry knew all too well it was necessary.

"How are you dealing with all this? Other than the people, obviously. Not dealing with them at all was probably the best choice you made all day."

Fleur looked more lost than Harry had ever seen her. Her eyes seemed to shine less vibrantly than usual. He was sure it was just his imagination, but even her hair seemed to lack its usual glow.

She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. She tried again and had no more success. It was so strange seeing her like this. Fleur was one of the most naturally confident people he had ever met. To see her fumble so uselessly for words and thoughts illustrated to Harry just how serious everything really was.

What she would have eventually come up with, he would never know, for something large and bright surged from the sky, drawing the attention of all of the guests at once. His wand was raised again, as was Fleur's, but what stood before them was no threat, nor could it be fought.

The message it delivered was a different matter altogether.

The silvery lynx seemed to straighten to its fullest height and take in each and every figure's face before it spoke in the deep, booming voice of Kingsley Shacklebolt.

"The ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming"

Screams tore through the night air like Godric Gryffindor's sword had once torn through the skull of Slytherin's great basilisk. They were everywhere. It was as though they were echoing, pinballing off of walls or mountains and reverberating, colliding with one another and conjoining into one horrific cacophony of blood-curdling pain and terror, but Harry knew this was nonsense. They were in an orchard with nothing for the sounds to echo off of. They were just everywhere; everyone seemed to be screaming all at once.

Harry spun on his heel and sprinted back towards the central cluster of tables. He had to find Ron and Hermione; they had to go. They had planned to leave for the horcrux hunt the day after the funeral, but he could only hope Hermione had things in order — that woman usually did, thank Merlin. Hedwig had already been sent off into the orchard behind the Burrow so she wouldn't be seen during the funeral, so at least Harry didn't have to worry about her.

The trouble was going to be finding Hermione and Ron. The torches that had been lit during the gathering had all been extinguished as soon as the lynx patronus had delivered its ominous message. The orchard had been plunged into complete and total darkness. The moon was veiled by clouds, its light trapped behind their airy curtain as they drifted this way and that, seeming to do their best to impede any light from reaching the mortals far below. Bodies were everywhere, bouncing around like chaotic pinballs and slamming hard into one another in their haste to escape.

Two men collided a mere metre in front of Harry and were sent sprawling in opposite directions. He leapt over both of them and kept running. Cracks sharp as gunshots could be heard throughout the orchard now and Harry couldn't be sure whether the sound came from fleeing friends or descending foes. Panic gripped him tighter than the inferi in the cave and his heart began to beat faster than he had ever flown on a broomstick.

A bolt of green light rocketed past his head and he tensed for but a moment. Fleur had been hot on his heels and he glanced over his shoulder to make sure she was still there and to ensure she had not fallen prey to the haphazardly fired Killing Curse. She was and she had not, so he turned his back around again and kept running. When he was by himself, Death Eaters usually avoided firing that curse anywhere near him. Voldemort wanted to be the one to deal with him, which afforded him a certain deal of protection against that particular bit of magic. Now that he was wearing the skin of another, he was afforded no such respite.


He honed in on the sound as soon as it reached his ears. It was Hermione's cry, he knew. He raced towards it with desperation pumping through his veins like blood; which incidentally seemed to have rushed to his head. Or at least it seemed so for how loudly he was able to hear its rushing and his heart's pounding.

A group of men had swooped down upon two figures whom Harry knew through instinct alone to be Ron and Hermione. They must have heard the bushy-haired girl call his name and flocked to her at once. Ron was locked in a duel with a balding man whose hood had fallen and Hermione was trying to hold two off on her own. A fourth raised his wand and took aim at her while a fifth was rushing towards Ron.

Harry's eyes darted back and forth between them with the intensity of a rapidly ticking metronome. He pondered for a split second before deciding it was Hermione whose need was greater. The first spell that came to mind was the Disarming Charm, but he dismissed it at once. Overused and predictable, not to mention that Lupin had said after the battle high above the English countryside that the Death Eaters seemed to be expecting him to use it. They had supposedly swooped down on him like preying vultures the second George had deployed it.


He supposed it must have been the thought of George and his missing ear that brought forth Snape's most dastardly creation, but it seemed apt. The time for disarming was over, like Lupin had said. This was war and sometimes, fire had to be fought with fire.

The man's agonized wail was worse than anything Harry had heard that night. Screaming born out of fear was one thing, but true cries of unimaginable pain curdled the blood in a way that nothing else could quite manage to replicate.

There was a horrible sound as Harry's spell tore through skin, muscle, and bone alike as if it had all been nothing but flimsy styrofoam. The dull thud of the man's arm falling to the ground was muffled by his screaming and by the sounds of battle all around them.

Harry lunged forward and stunned one of Hermione's assailants from behind. The other turned to face him, surprised, but Hermione capitalized on the opening and he slumped motionlessly into the grass. Harry couldn't hear the footfalls of the man who had been rushing towards Ron and wondered where he had gone, but there was no time for such thoughts.

"My hand!" yelled Hermione, reaching for Harry and Ron in the dark, her bag half slung over one shoulder.

It was a miracle she found them, but as she began to turn on the spot, a different sort of cry pierced Harry's heart like a dagger dripping with the most venomous of poisons.

The only reason he could make out Fleur's face at all was because of her halo of silvery blonde hair. It was eye-catching and it drew his attention. She was surging towards them — no, she was flying towards them, she must have leapt through the air at some point — hand grasping like a freehand climber desperately searching for a handhold to save him.

They were gone before she ever reached them, pulled through the tight tube-like nothingness between one place and another and Harry could only wonder why this bout of apparition seemed to cause his chest to constrict so much tighter than usual.

September 2, 1997

Number 12, Grimmauld Place

7:13 AM

The old home of the Ancient and Most Noble House of Black seemed to be completely void of noise at this time of the morning. Harry had awoken some time ago, but both Ron and Hermione remained fast asleep. Ron wasn't even snoring, which was odd. If he had been, it would at least have broken the eerie silence that had befallen the house. It made Harry uneasy. His nerves were already frayed, for today was the day that he, Ron, and Hermione would be attempting to infiltrate the Ministry of Magic.

The lack of sound or stimulation had become too much, so Harry retreated upstairs and into Regulus Black's old bedroom. He eyed the portrait of the Slytherin Quidditch team much like he had that first day. Regulus had been a Death Eater once, but he had just been a boy before that and had come to his senses. Harry knew it was madness, but he felt as though he could actually see the innocent naivety sparkle in the young boy's eyes in that portrait. It was a strange thought after having seen Sirius's eyes. They were so very like his brother's, but in life, Harry had only ever seen them as haunted and gaunt; a parting gift to his godfather courtesy of the dementors and Azkaban prison.

Anger bubbled in the pit of his stomach as he stared at the image. Regulus had been one of many whose lives had been ruined by Voldemort. He had gone from the innocent boy in this portrait, to a tortured servant, and finally to a rotting corpse. Harry wondered aimlessly whether any of the inferi that had swarmed towards him and Dumbledore back in June had actually been the reanimated corpse of Regulus Black. Harry was happy he hadn't known about the man at the time. He might have looked for him in the sea of the undead and he wasn't sure how he might have reacted had his eyes found him.

It was a painful representation of what he was fighting for. Not that he had forgotten since Bill's funeral, but it was just more fuel on an already blazing fire. He had to beat Voldemort. He was the only one who could do it and he could no longer allow Tom Riddle to destroy the lives and families of so many. It was the first time Harry realized he would give anything for the cause, and the revelation scared him more than any of his death-defying adventures ever had.

His thoughts wandered to those who weren't with him now. Ginny, Neville, Luna, and all the others back at Hogwarts. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley at the Burrow. Lupin and Tonks were Merlin only knew where and expecting a child. Kingsley, Charlie, the twins, and everyone else in the Order of the Phoenix.

And Fleur.

His thoughts had gone to her more in the last month than he was comfortable with and he had no idea why that could be. They were friends, yes, but no closer than he had been with people like Neville. Well, maybe a little bit closer, but surely he shouldn't have been thinking about her as much as he had been as of late?

He didn't know, just like he didn't know where she was now. Back with her parents in France, if she had any common sense. This war was not one the Order could fight out in the open. She would be better served to gather allies in her homeland, Harry thought. Or perhaps he only hoped that was true and that someone else had pointed it out to her.

He regretted not writing to her since the funeral, but he had written to no one. They had taken no chances, especially not when they saw the Death Eaters lurking out in the square each and every day. Just because the house was under the protection of a Fidellius Charm did not mean they should be careless. It all made sense, but none of the logic stopped Harry from wishing he had written to her. Even knowing that she was okay would have been better than just… silence. The uncertainty was so dark and all-consuming that he might as well have been a photon of light and it a great black hole with him trapped in its all-powerful grasp.

He looked out Regulus's old window with a thoughtful air about him. His fingers tapped rhythmically on the windowsill. There had been one time during his stay when he had managed a form of outside communication, unconventional as it might have been, when Mundungus had been brought to Number 12. Ginny, Neville, and all the others might have been at Hogwarts and difficult to get to, but Harry could at least send word of his exploits to the girl whom he had missed so much in the last month.


The elf popped into being before its master with a CRACK that rang through the house in its current state of quiet. Harry wondered whether Hermione heard it downstairs — Ron slept like the dead, so he probably had not so much as flinched.

"Master called for Kreacher?" the elf asked.

"I did. Kreacher, I have a message for you to send."

Kreacher looked up at him with an adoring stare Harry thought he had once reserved for the master whom Voldemort had so cruelly taken from him. "What message does Master wish for Kreacher to send?"

"That I'm going on a mission today with Ron and Hermione and that… depending on how it goes, I might not be able to send another one. Just… let her know what's happening and stay with her. Even if she doesn't want you to, just stay out of sight."

Kreacher blinked several times. "Is Master not coming back home?"

"I hope I am, but I don't know. We'll manage here fine, just… go."

He wasn't sure what was making him do it. He had only wanted to send a message, but dispatching the elf to Fleur's service had been a sudden stroke of inspiration that he found himself unable to ignore.

Kreacher looked more perplexed than Harry had ever seen him look before, but he was a well-practised elf of many years who did not question his master's orders. "Who is Kreacher going to, Master?"

Harry took a deep breath as he heard footsteps on the landing outside the door. He needed to wrap this up before whoever had woken entered the room. "Fleur Delacour."

Kreacher was gone with another loud CRACK before Hermione's first knock sounded against the door.

November 7, 1997

Shropshire Hills

7:59 PM

Raindrops fell fast and hard against the tent and the ground outside. They sounded to Harry like dozens and hundreds of hurried footsteps in the otherwise quiet evening camped out on an out-of-the-way hill somewhere in the English countryside.

Harry focused on the rhythmic sound of rain as he tried to pull his emotions under control.

It had all happened so fast. One minute, they had all been happy to hear that Ginny, Neville, and the others were relatively safe inside Hogwarts. The next, Ron had snapped as suddenly as a twig that had been roughly trodden on but with the force of a miniature supernova. Harry had not expected it; it blindsided him like an unseen bludger.

"Ron," Hermione pleaded, "take off the locket! This isn't you, you wouldn't be saying this—"

"Don't make excuses for him." Harry's voice had a bite to it he was not used to hearing. A shiver ran up his spine when he remembered the last time he had heard anything similar. It had been one of the dreams back in his fifth year when Voldemort had addressed and tortured one of his followers. It had been Rookwood if Harry remembered correctly. He tried to ignore the revelation as he fixed Ron with a hard expression. "I thought you knew what you were signing up for."

"So did I."

"What's different, then? Food not to your liking?"

The redhead's face twisted into an ugly sneer the likes of which Snape might have admired. "I thought you knew what you were doing — we both did."

Harry's head snapped around like he had been slapped as his gaze fell upon Hermione. She was shaking her head so fiercely that she reminded him of Winky at the Quidditch World Cup right before Crouch had given her clothes and set her free.

"No, Harry, it wasn't like that… I didn't—"

"Don't lie!" yelled Ron. "You said the same thing when we talked about it!" He rounded on Harry. "We thought you had a plan—"

"Pretty stupid of you seeing as I've told it to you straight the whole time."

Ron's cheeks reddened. "Can you blame us? You were gonna rush off on this dangerous mission after spending months with Dumbledore. But no, it was stupid of me to assume you knew what the hell you were doing!"

"It was stupid of you to ignore me," said Harry. "Ron, it's been like this from the beginning. I told you I had no idea what was going on and this whole trip should have proven it. We've been living day to day this whole time and working as we go. If this is such a problem, why is it only coming up now? What's changed?"

"Oh, I don't know," snarked Ron. "Could never tell you; I'm having the time of my life. Just sitting here enjoying my mangled arm and scraps of fish while my sister is probably being tortured by that greasy-haired git. Don't mind me or anything."

The smell of damp earth outside the tent had grown stronger and Harry could now hear the rushing of the nearby stream. It must have started overflowing because of the sudden downpour of rain. His eyes were as cold and unmoved as the clouds in the sky as he stared at Ron, unblinking and unfeeling. It was like back in the hospital wing when he had stared at Bill's broken body, too mentally overloaded to think.

"Go then," said Harry. "Go home to your mother and pretend you've recovered from your spattergroit."

"Maybe I will!" Ron bellowed. "And maybe I'll see my sister if they haven't already killed her by the time I'm home."

"Ron… I'm sure she's—"

"Fine, yeah, I know. It's only the Forbidden Forest like you said. Nothing Harry 'I've-Done-Worse' Potter can't handle, so she'll be fine."

"I never said that, only that—"

"That you don't care; yeah, I get it."

Neither of them spoke nor moved as they stared daggers at one another. Harry could see the veins pulsing in Ron's neck and he wondered whether or not his best friend of more than six years might actually try and strike him. His hand was already in his pocket, coiled in a tight fist around the handle of his wand, but he hoped he wouldn't have to use it.

Ron made a sudden move and Harry's wand came out, but the taller boy had only taken off the locket and thrown it down at Harry's feet. He did not so much as flinch as the horcrux clattered to the floor in front of him, nor was he at all moved when Ron spun on his heel and marched straight out of the tent.

Hermione went after him, calling desperately for his return, but Harry knew she might as well call for the wind to cease its gusting for all the good it would do. He wondered for a few moments whether she might abandon him too, but she didn't. She returned ten or so minutes later to find him standing in the same place, unmoved, his eyes still staring blankly at the spot his oldest friend had stood just minutes earlier.

Her crying was just excess noise to him, little more than the rushing water and falling rain outside. It meant nothing — none of this meant anything. The only things that mattered were him and Voldemort and all that stood between them.

Merlin, did he wish that wasn't true.

He wished for any reprieve from this madness. He wished for anything that might lighten his mood or give him hope. The twisting, treacherous path ahead seemed too perilous and steeped in looming, deathly shadows. There were times when Harry was unsure whether or not he could go on. It was times like this when he wished he had some form of light to guide him down the path, some sort of sustenance to fuel him on his journey.

That was how he found himself wishing that Fleur was with him as he stared at the spot Ron had only just occupied. He did not know why he wished for her, but he did. He thought that talking to her would make him feel better or give him some sort of hope that he might be able to see this fight through to the end. Her casual confidence had always been so uplifting and her council had been invaluable. He wished he had either of those things now more than ever, but he didn't. It was just him and Voldemort, and all that stood between them.

December 27, 1997

The Forest of Dean

1:24 AM

Harry looked on the silvery doe with eyes as wide and full of life as those belonging to a small and curious child. It shimmered in front of him so brightly that he had to squint his eyes against its light. All around them was blackness so absolute that he could barely make out the outline of the forest's many trees. The patronus, on the other hand, shone as brightly as the star his godfather had been named for. It was a beautiful creature. Harry wanted to stretch out his hand and touch it, but something held him back. Something about this whole thing felt entirely too suspicious. He could not help but expect some kind of trap.

He cast his eyes around once more. It was hard to make out anything that lurked outside the doe's ethereal light, but Harry thought he saw… something near a tree not far away.

His wand was out in an instant but just as quickly, the doe was gone, taking with it all the light, hope, and confidence it had blessed him with. It was all gone as quickly as turning off a light switch and Harry was suddenly alone, cold, and nervous. It reminded him of nights in his cupboard back on Privet Drive, or the time he, Neville, Hermione, and Malfoy had all been sent into the Forbidden Forest. Or of him and Ron's trip into the lair of Aragog and his kin.

No! He shouldn't think of Ron — not here, not now. This place was dark and dreary enough without thoughts of his former best friend and their dissension almost seven weeks ago. It still made Harry's heart pang every time he thought about it and he did not need feelings of anxiety right now. Not when he was already resisting the impulse to shake or quiver at what he told himself was the cold.

A light blazed on the tip of his wand. It was depressingly dim after the halo of silver that the patronus had brought with it, but it was enough to at least light the ground at Harry's feet. He crept forward as quietly as he could, ready to spring out of the way of any incoming spells at a moments' notice as he crept towards the tree he thought he'd seen movement take place beside.

There was nothing when he reached it, nothing but a pool of icy water just feet in front of him. Water that seemed to shine strangely in the light of Harry's wand…

His attention shifted as quick as a lightning strike. He stepped forward and held his wand aloft. It allowed the light to spread further and give him a more clear view of what he was sure he must have imagined.

Yet it was there.

Shining at the bottom of this pool of water, with its rubies gleaming in the light of Harry's wand like crimson stars, was the very sword Harry had once used to topple the famed monster of Salazar Slytherin. His wand light sparkled off its hilt like some kind of otherworldly glitter. The water was so still that he could see straight to the pool's bottom as though the liquid at its surface was nothing more than a sheet of glass.

How had the sword gotten here? It made no sense. It had eluded so many this year, it seemed, so why was it now turning up in some little-known English forest? None of this added up at all; it was completely and totally illogical. Harry doubted even the authors of the Quibbler in their finest hour could have come up with any sort of explanation for something as wild and nonsensical as this.

Yet it was most definitely there. He had not imagined it as he had first suspected — at least not unless he was much more sleep-deprived than he realized.

He glanced back over his shoulder once again. The sword had not been the only thing he had seen. He was convinced he had seen movement near the tree just behind him, but no one appeared to be there. Perhaps they had fled completely or they may have just taken refuge somewhere else near the water and out of the reach of his magical light.

He looked from the sword to the trees on the far side of the pool and back again. If he went after the sword, he put himself at risk of being ambushed by someone who may or may not be watching him. If he tried to find the assailant who might not even exist, he ran the risk of the sword being stolen in his absence. Slim a chance as that might have been, it was not one he could take. The sword was vital; it was the final piece they needed to begin eliminating Riddle's abominations and start down the path of making him mortal once again.

He was out of his shirt before he knew what he was doing and his pants and trainers were lying in the snow not long after. There was not much wind, but it was a late December night. The air's bite would have made the Horntail Harry flew against in his fourth year blush. It was so cold it felt hot; like a hundred flaming needles piercing his skin and burrowing deep into him — filling his very blood with a substance every bit as cold as liquid nitrogen.

Dread closed around his heart and clamped down like a vice. Its hold grew tighter with every step towards the freezing water he took. For however cold he felt now, he knew it was about to be several times worse. If he felt like burning needles had pierced him now, he imagined he would feel like he was bathed in freezing fire by the time he submerged himself in the water's icy depths.

He was at its edge faster than he would have liked and he stared down at the shimmering sword. His heart was beating faster than falling raindrops in the midst of a vengeful thunderstorm. It was Fleur his thoughts went to as he prepared to do something so foolish, strange as that fact was. He had often mocked her for how she hated the cold, but he knew he was shaking more violently now than she had ever done at the Burrow or Hogwarts all that time ago.

He stopped thinking and dove. Thoughts would only slow the process down. Gryffindor or not, Harry was sure he would manage to talk himself out of such idiocy if he allowed the doubts to wash over him so freely and unchecked.

He reached the bottom of the pool easily enough. The water was so frigid that its chill had not yet taken hold of him, but something else had and its grip was like that of an ironclad fist.

His hands fumbled to his throat where something seemed to be choking the life out of him and his fingers froze when they felt the cold metal chain.

He had forgotten to remove the horcrux.

He thrashed in the water, kicking the ground hard and sending mud spraying everywhere. That only made it worse. Now he was not only drowning, but he couldn't see which way was down and which way was up. He had no concept of left or right and black spots were dancing in his eyes, flickering like well-stoked flames as Harry tried to gasp for air even as he knew he was dying.

His vision began to recede and he knew the end had come, but sight returned to him a moment later. He was not looking at the swirl of mud all around him, nor was he looking at the sword, the pool of water, or even the dark trees surrounding the body on all sides. He was looking up onto a brighter shore and into familiar eyes as blue as any water he had ever seen.

Seeing her face after so many months was like seeing the sun after weeks of dark and rainy skies. It filled him with energy and resolve he hadn't known to be in him. Warmth spread through him as though a spark had caught in his very chest and birthed a roaring fire that seemed to melt away the wariness and the cold. She extended a hand forth and he reached up and took it…

He was back in the pool of water and he was rising. It made no sense because he wasn't kicking, nor was he moving his limbs at all. He fumbled for the sword but it didn't seem to be beneath him anymore and before he could decipher what was happening, a splash shattered the night's silence as if it was a broken pane of glass.

Cold air assaulted his lungs, stabbing at his chest like a poisoned dagger. He coughed, spluttered, and spat up mud and water alike.

There was another sound now, though there had been nothing but his own breathing and footsteps before he had slid into the water. A horrible, rattling sound that he realized moments later to be the rasping coughs of another who was every bit as out of breath as Harry.

He looked up, blinking away spots and saw him. His clothes were dripping and must have weighed twice their usual mass and his hair was a tangled mess of sopping red locks.

Harry had never been so confused in all his life. It had been Fleur whom he had seen while drowning in the icy waters. She had appeared before him and pulled him ashore, but it was Ron he was seeing now.

As he stood shakily to his feet, Harry could only wonder whether any of this was real, or whether he was simply imagining it all and seeing those whom he wanted back the most.

March 26, 1997

Malfoy Manor

9:12 PM

He was soaring high above the lands below. He felt weightless, like riding a broom, but there was no implement holding him aloft. He had no need for such devices, not when he had pushed the boundaries of magic further than any who had come before him.

He cleared the peak of the tallest mountain and would have paused at the image of natural beauty laid out before him had he been any other man. The mountains loomed high, forming an imposing ring of impenetrable rock around a large and beautiful lake. The sun had set some time ago here, and the moon's spotlight glared down upon the world. It cast its luminescent light everywhere, but it seemed to shimmer on the water's surface like molten silver and sparkle like fine diamonds.

Atop one of the mountains was a black castle. It was plain-looking on the outside, but he knew that there was much more to this fortress.

He gained altitude with but a thought, riding the wind as easily as a cluster of clouds or plumes of smoke. The mountains grew less pronounced the higher he rose, but he could see more and more of the landscape sprawling out all around him.

He had eyes for none of it. He gazed only upon the highest window facing the side of the outmost tower that overlooked the lake. He was getting closer and closer and he could soon see inside. A wave of his hand was all it took for the barred window to fold inwards and he glided noiselessly into the cell, though its occupant seemed not at all taken aback by his arrival.

He sat perfectly awake and alert upon an ancient-looking cot that had been battered by years of use and neglect. It was the only thing in the room except for a chamber pot in its far corner. The man had the look of one who had once been very handsome but who had not aged well. He had a few wisps of white hair remaining, but he was mostly bald. Once, luscious, platinum-blond locks had rested atop his head. His face was as weathered as battered boot leather and the teeth he had left were more yellow than white. His eyes shone with the same startling intellect they had decades earlier though he had no fear for this man.

"Where is it?" he asked, his voice leaving him as more a hiss than a question. It was as high and soft as the whispering wind outside. "Where is it?"

"Gone," said the man on the cot with a twisted smile. "I do not have it. I have not had it for many years."

Rage erupted inside him with the force of a supervolcano. The waves of murderous fury poured from him like fiery lava, threatening to burn and consume everything in range. His wand was in his hand, though he did not remember arming himself. It looked even paler in this dark cell, as did he, but he paid the fact no heed.

"Where?" he asked again. "Who has it, where is it?"

The man on the cot only laughed. He was shaking with mirth now just as his assailant shook with rage. He had never been laughed at so openly, not since that horrid place all those years ago before he had taught the worms their lesson…

"You will never have them," the man managed to force out. "Not the wand, not any of them. You will never truly possess them and they will fail you." He smiled as the rage swirled and coalesced behind his visitor's crimson eyes. "Kill me then, Voldemort."

The last word was spoken with venomous contempt. He could picture poison in the man's mouth instead of saliva, so bitter his final word had been. It was a mockery the likes of which he had not known for decades.

A scream tore itself free from his lungs and his wand lashed out. Green light flashed and the cell was suddenly brighter than it had been in many years. And then the man on the cot slumped limp and lifeless like a puppet whose strings had been cut as his assailant's arm burned…

Harry's legs shook as his vision regained focus. He had known pain all night. His face, swollen so badly one might think he had been attacked by a hundred feral bees, was a stinging reminder of that. His scar had also pulsed all night as though someone was sending electric shocks through his skull. This had been different though. The second Bellatrix had touched her finger to the Dark Mark on her arm, Harry's scar had exploded. It had been like somebody trying to cut it open with a pair of iron scissors that had come straight out of the fire. Yet even that wasn't apt, for it burned deeper than the skin like someone had constructed a pyre inside his skull and set it ablaze with reckless abandon.

But he was back in Malfoy Manor now and he had to refocus. Just like he had needed to refocus after being thrown into the basement, and again after Dobby had arrived — sent by Kreacher — and for a final time after Wormtail's silvery hand had strangled him with the sort of merciless cruelty its creator would have been proud of.

He had been furious upon hearing Wormtail's voice again. The traitor had started all of this all those years ago. Harry had not seen him since the graveyard, but he had lost much in the three years since. From Cedric, to Sirius, to Bill. He had gone through trauma and watched those around him age by what seemed to be decades and it was all the rat's fault.

He had needed to keep his composure then just as he needed to keep his composure now. Ron had rushed forward into the room with Wormtail's wand clutched firmly in his hand. He had moved the second Bellatrix had insinuated that Hermione had become expendable. Harry would have done the same, but he did wish very much that Ron would have warned him.

He sprinted after Ron and was rewarded for his efforts when Bellatrix's wand soared high into the air. He lunged and caught it with well-practised precision honed by years of drills out on the pitch with the rest of the Gryffindor Quidditch team. He spun to disarm Greyback, but he never got the chance, for their coup came to an abrupt end with the force and suddenness of a well-disguised land mine.

"Drop your wands," Bellatrix whispered. "Drop them, or we'll see exactly how filthy her blood is!" Ron stood rigid, clutching Wormtail's wand. Harry straightened up, still holding Bellatrix's. "I said, drop them!" she screeched, pressing the blade into Hermione's throat: Harry saw beads of blood appear there.

"All right!" he shouted, and he dropped Bellatrix's wand onto the floor at his feet. Ron did the same with Wormtail's. Both raised their hands to shoulder height.

"Good!" she leered. "Draco, pick them up! The Dark Lord is coming, Harry Potter! Your death approaches!"

Harry knew it; his scar was bursting with the pain of it, and he could feel Voldemort flying through the sky from far away, over a dark and stormy sea. He would soon be close enough to apparate to them. Harry could see no way out. He was becoming as desperate as Ron had been in the basement when he had screamed himself hoarse and thrown his body uselessly against the stone walls as though he was an ill-constructed battering ram.

"Now," said Bellatrix softly, as Draco hurried back to her with the wands, "Cissy, I think we ought to tie these little heroes up again while Greyback takes care of Miss Mudblood. I am sure the Dark Lord will not begrudge you the girl, Greyback, after what you have done tonight."

Harry saw Ron's mouth opening and knew he would cry out. He wanted to do likewise, but he knew Hermione would die for his insolence and Voldemort was coming. He knew they were doomed whether he moved or stayed still. His luck had finally run out…

Or so he thought.

A strange sound came from above and drew the attention of all in the room. Harry looked up with the others just in time to see the crystal chandelier that had practically screamed of ostentatious wealth detach itself from the ceiling and come crashing down to the manor's hardwood floor.

Chaos erupted all at once. Broken shards of glass and crystal sprayed everywhere with the force of a muggle fire hydrant. Blood sprayed from Lucius — who had been hit with some of the shards — with similar intensity and Narcissa was pulling Draco out of the way even as Harry snatched up Bellatrix's wand once more and blasted the blond's from his hand before he could get a clear shot around his mother's arms. After the years of pent-up loathing the two of them had shared, Harry was taking no chances. He was sure Draco would have happily taken the opportunity to curse him into oblivion.

Dobby was there then, chastising Bellatrix and the Malfoys as if it had once been him who had lorded over them and not the other way around. Bellatrix's face was growing less and less pale the more the creature spoke. The red tinge of fury was beginning to touch her cheeks and it was growing more and more apparent that she would snap at any moment.

She did, just as Dobby took hold of Harry, Ron, and Hermione — whom the redhead had dragged from the wreckage just seconds earlier. Bellatrix's silver knife flashed through the air like another piece of the chandelier, but they were gone and pulled into nothingness before it could ever find its mark.

Or so Harry thought.

Dobby collapsed as soon as their feet hit solid ground. Neither Ron nor Hermione were in a better state and Harry could see black spots beginning to tease the corners of his vision. Blood flowed from the elf's heaving chest much as it had from Bill and Malfoy. Harry knew at once this would end like the former. Why was it so, he thought, as he wrenched the still blood-soaked dagger from Dobby's chest. Why was it that people like Malfoy were lucky enough to be saved, yet those as good as Bill and Dobby had to meet their untimely demise? It wasn't fair — none of it was fair and it was all Voldemort's fault. He would pay for this… he had to pay.

Tears flowed from Harry's eyes like the blood from Dobby's chest when the creature had breathed his final breath. He had been so brave and so selfless, yet he had been taken away. Harry was shaking; shaking like he had not shaken since emerging from the icy depths with Ron, the locket, and the sword of Godric Gryffindor. He felt frozen, though the salty-tasting air was warmer than he was accustomed to. The breeze was soft and gentle; it seemed to caress Harry's skin as though it was trying to calm him.

It failed, but another had apparently decided to try.

Warmth enveloped him then, and he tensed for a moment before he realized who it was that had wrapped their soft and slender arms around him. He smelled her before he saw her. The same sweet vanilla scent he had come to remember without realizing it. He turned into her arms as the black spots in his eyes grew larger and moved inwards. He only wanted one look at her face before he fell to unconsciousness, or death, or whatever awaited him once he closed his eyes.

Her angelic features did not disappoint and as he allowed his eyelids to fall shut, Harry reflected that he had been right all those times he had wished to see Fleur over the months that had passed. The second before he fell asleep was the first in all that time he had truly felt happy and hopeful despite all that had just transpired.

April 14, 1998

Château Delacour

11:23 AM

The sound of waves gently lapping against the shore put Harry more at ease than most things he had ever heard in his life. The entire scene was one of peace and tranquillity. The air was pleasant. It smelled of summer and tasted of salt. The wind was constantly blowing, but it was more a whisper than a gale. It was forever gentle, it seemed; the swift-moving air passing over one's skin with a touch as light as a feather. The water was as blue as the cloudless sky above, slowly churning and sending vast ripples emanating out this way and that.

The change of setting had been exactly what Harry, Ron, and Hermione had needed after all those months on the run. Harry had awoken after succumbing to sleep on the beach in a bright, well-furnished room and in a bed more comfortable than any he had laid in before. A balcony extended out from his place of residence and overlooked the sea, which spread out further than the eye could see in all directions at the château's front. He had spent many days out on that balcony. It was where much of his planning had taken place with his two friends and the goblin, Griphook.

Harry had needed something different today. The planning was growing more and more complicated the closer they got to the day itself. Griphook kept introducing new variables into the mix. It seemed there were a hundred different ways their plan could fail, but only one somewhat plausible solution to most of the problems. Some of the barriers seemed downright impenetrable, but Harry knew it was a must.

Hallows or horcruxes, he had thought that first day at one of the Delacour family homes. He had chosen horcruxes at the price of allowing Voldemort to claim the Elder Wand. He needed to destroy all of them quickly, else he had chosen wrong. He still wondered if that might be the case sometimes.

"And the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives…"

Harry had wondered all too often as of late whether the Hallows had been the answer. An unbeatable wand certainly seemed to qualify as a power the Dark Lord knew not, though Dumbledore had been so sure that power was love. Even if the old man was right, Harry would have fancied his chances much more had he been armed with such a weapon. The choice had been made though, as he told himself frequently, and he now had to live with it and see it through to the end.

"Beautiful, isn't it?"

He turned his head slowly at the sound of her voice. He had not spoken quite as much with Fleur as he would have liked. Planning an assault on one of the most well-protected buildings in the world was incredibly time-consuming, it turned out. The time he had spent with her had been among the most pleasant hours he had lived since the fall of the ministry back at the beginning of August, but those hours had been as scarce as a hot meal while the trio were on the run.

"All of it is," he answered. "This whole place… it's the best I've felt. I can't ever remember a time when I felt better."

Harry had expected a smile at that. Fleur did enjoy being right, especially about things she took great pride in — like her family. Instead, she frowned. Harry noticed the way her bottom lip seemed to protrude when she did. It wasn't overly noticeable unless one was looking, but it was there. He couldn't decide whether it was a conscious mannerism or an imperfection, but he thought he liked it either way, even though he couldn't understand why she was frowning at him.

"You are distracted."

Ah… so that was it. She was annoyingly good at reading him. It was off-putting, at times. It wasn't the first time she had accurately read his mood. She had done it back at Hogwarts when she had gone after him following Ron's poisoning. It had happened after he had received his OWL grades, too. Both times had gone favourably for him, he remembered, but that didn't mean he wanted to walk into such an uncomfortable topic of conversation.

"War tends to do that," he said vaguely, his eyes drifting back out over the sea.

He didn't hear her move. Her feet glided through the sand as swift and soundless as a butterfly's softly beating wings. When her hand landed on his shoulder, he felt as though his skin burned even through his robes. She turned him to face her and he realized with a slight jolt that he had now grown taller than her. It was the first time they had stood so closely together since his arrival at her family home.

"What is it you are planning?"

He tried to mask the widening of his eyes, but Harry was unsure how successful he had been. He really ought not to be surprised, he supposed. It wasn't all that difficult to piece together — what with the countless hours he spent alone with his friends and the goblin.

Fleur was alone at this property. Her parents supposedly stayed at another, but they had sent a letter to their daughter and had been less than pleased to have a goblin in their home. Her father didn't trust them, and nor did Fleur. Her time working at Gringotts had made her wary of them, but Harry had been insistent that Griphook needed to remain there. Fleur had not argued, but he could tell it had displeased her. Now was the moment she was going to use it against him, he knew.

"I… shouldn't tell you."

She straightened to her full height and jutted out her chin. He thought he could see it in her eyes that being the shorter of the two of them bothered her now. It meant that in this argument, her posturing was less effective. "Do you ssink I would betray you?"

"I don't think anything like that, but you saw what they did to Griphook and Hermione. Lestrange tortured her for ages at Malfoy Manor and she would have happily killed her."

"Zat woman will never get a 'old of me," Fleur said defiantly. "She will never take me 'ostage."

"It wasn't exactly part of our plan either, but this is war, Fleur. Things happen in war."

So much remained unsaid in that statement. If not for the war, Harry would have had parents and been attending Hogwarts. He would not have been an orphan and on the run from the most dangerous Dark Lord in history and his group of psychotic, inbred sycophants. If not for the war, Fleur would have been a married woman and working to further her career. She and Bill might even have created more artifacts like the ring Harry still wore upon his finger.

The wind picked up a bit then. A few strands of her silvery hair blew across her face, but she did not so much as flinch, nor did she reach up and brush them back. Her hand remained on him while her other went to his unoccupied shoulder. Her eyes somehow seemed a shade darker, but he was sure he must be imagining it.

"Do you ssink you are invincible, 'Arry? Do you ssink ze war cannot touch you? Why would it be somessing I need to 'ide from when you are planning somessing to do wiss 'im."

There was no need to ask whom Fleur was referring to. Only one 'him' could be spoken of with such resoluteness and intensity.

He was stuck now, he knew. If he answered in the negative, it was as good as admitting he needed her help. It would provide her with the opening to jump in, which was something he would never allow to happen. He hated it every day. He hated that Ron and Hermione had gone with him, much as he enjoyed their company and would have died a dozen times had it not been for each of them. He hated their courage and he hated their kindness; hated the way they put their lives at risk each and every day they spent with him. It was like Sirius all over again, or Bill, or Cedric, or his parents, or the countless number of other nameless, faceless people who had died for him or his cause.

Fleur felt… different somehow. There had been no way to keep Ron and Hermione from the fray. Not once Dumbledore had instructed him to tell them of their lessons and speak to them Sybil Trelawney's fated words. The future had been sealed as soon as that had happened, but Fleur was different.

It scared him a great deal to realize that her life was every bit as precious to him as either Ron's or Hermione's. He remembered her in his fourth year. The beautiful but haughty girl from Beauxbatons whose presence was enchanting yet infuriating all at the same time. He remembered her calling him a 'leetle boy' in the antechamber off the Great Hall the night the champions had been chosen. He remembered her pitying gaze inside the tent just minutes before he had been set to face the Hungarian Horntail and he remembered hating her for it.

He did not know what had changed, but something had. How she had gone from that to one he treasured as much as any other, Harry did not know, and it terrified him. He had no idea what it meant, nor how it would end. People he cared for seemed destined for terrible fates, and his stomach contracted like an overstimulated muscle at the very thought of losing her.

"I'll tell you," he said at last, raising a hand when a gleam of victory entered her eyes, "but only if you make me a promise."

The frown returned and the light in her eyes receded, replaced by something more wary and suspicious. "What is it?"

"When I tell you what we're planning, I want you to promise me that you won't try and stop us and that you won't try and get involved in any way, no matter what." He could see the anger rising within her but he spoke before it could explode outwards. "I'm never going to let you come with us either way. I'm sorry, Fleur, but I'm not, and I'm not going to pretend that I am. You deserve better than being lied to. This way, you get to know what we're doing and I get to know that you're safe. It's the best of both worlds."

They stared intensely at one another, waiting for the other to break. Harry knew he would win the game. He had stared down Lord Voldemort on more than one occasion and even bested the man in a battle of wills. Fierce as Fleur was, he knew she would wilt before him.

"Fine," she agreed, "I will not stop you and I will not be involved."

It was the most childish she had ever sounded, like a primary schooler who had been grounded and had their favourite toy taken away, yet not quite. There was something… darker in her voice. Something that Harry knew without ever having heard it aloud before. It had been echoed in his own thoughts enough times over the past several years for him to recognize it.

It was a blend of fear and frustration. Fear for one that was held so dear and frustration that there was nothing that could be done for them. A crushing feeling of helplessness that was like a ton of bricks being stacked atop one's prone body one by one.

Harry felt the guilt threaten to grip him, but he pushed against it with the force he had exerted against Voldemort's will in the graveyard all that time ago. He was doing the right thing; that was all that mattered.

"Sometimes we have to choose between what is right and what is easy."

Albus Dumbledore had said many things in his long life. Harry had heard a great number of them, and some had stuck with him. He felt immense frustration towards Dumbledore often nowadays, but he still recognized the values in a lot of what the old man had said.

This was the quote he thought of now. What he was doing was certainly not easy. He could see how badly it hurt Fleur to agree and Harry thought he would rather have been back in Godric's Hollow, or Malfoy Manor, or the freezing pool of water, or any number of other places than here — seeing the expression on Fleur's face and hearing the helpless frustration in her voice.

Yet it was right, and he knew it. It was what Dumbledore would have done, he was sure of it. It was what his parents would have done, too, and Sirius, and any number of other, great people who had helped him along the way. They had all risked their lives so he could stand here. Now, it was his time to pay their kindness forward.

He met her eyes as his tongue formed the words; he owed her at least that much. "We're planning to break into Gringotts. There's… something in Bellatrix Lestrange's vault that we need. If we don't get it, it will never be possible to beat Voldemort."

"You want to do what?" Her voice was so soft, yet it lashed at him like a barbed whip and cut him like a sharpened dagger dripping with basilisk venom.

"You heard me." Harry's voice didn't waver and his stare did not fall. He needed to do this… he had to.

"What could possibly be in zat woman's vault!" She was shouting now, yet still he did not budge. "Zere is nossing in ze world worth zis… zis madness!"

"There is," Harry argued, "but I can't tell you what it is. Fleur, I'm sorry, but I can't. I promised Dumbledore I wouldn't tell anyone. This is his doing. This is about why I've been gone for so long. I haven't been hiding, I've been fighting him, just not in the way you think. It was Dumbledore's plan until the end… I need to see it through. Nothing in the world is more important to me."

Something snapped inside of her when he uttered the last sentence. He could see it in her eyes and in every perfect line of her face.

She spun so fast that her hair whipped him so hard it felt as though he had been slapped. He did not call after her as she marched away. She would understand. One day, when it was over, he would make her understand. He swore it… he needed it to be true.

May 1, 1998

Château Delacour

8:56 AM

Seeing Bellatrix Lestrange standing before him called forth an untold number of emotions. Hatred and fury bubbled so hot that Harry was sure the walls of his stomach and chest must surely be melting. After Malfoy Manor, he thought that if he ever came face to face with Bellatrix again he would have no trouble at all in casting the Cruciatus Curse and driving her every bit as insane as she had driven Frank and Alice Longbottom.

Even knowing that it was really Hermione wearing Bellatrix's skin only dulled the sensations so much. His hand twitched subconsciously towards his wand when she stepped toward Ron, her own wand raised. Yet he did nothing, for he knew this was part of the plan. The boy's features began to shift. They didn't bubble as though they were hot wax like when they had taken polyjuice potion, they just shifted with Hermione's wand movements. They changed in unison with the movements of Hermione's wand. From this angle, it almost seemed like every time she moved her hand, Ron's face changed, as if she was moulding soft and malleable clay.

The goblin stood beside Harry, his face expressionless and never changing as he watched the whole affair. Harry wondered if the goblin was bitter. He had wanted to hold Gryffindor's sword throughout the day to ensure his prize was not taken from him, but the trio had been steadfast in their opposition to that proposal. Harry would heed Fleur's words from before they had argued. He did not doubt that goblins were deceitful creatures.

The thought only rang more true when he remembered how someone had betrayed them all the way back in the summer. A betrayal that had led to the death of Mad-Eye Moody. The man was sorely missed, especially now, in the country's time of great need. Trusting too easily was not something Harry would be doing. Not after that; it had been a brutal lesson he was unlikely to ever forget.

The sky was as blue as ever and the water as tranquil as one could possibly wish for. The weather over the past week or so had soured. It seemed that the world was now repaying them for the days of bleakness, but it only made Harry remember the last time he had stood out on this beach and the pain that Fleur's retreat had caused him. He wished she had just slapped him, or cursed him, or did any number of awful things. Any of them would have been better than leaving him on that beach and ignoring him for the better part of three weeks.

"Are we ready?"

A shiver went up Harry's spine when he heard Bellatrix's voice. It was almost scarier now to hear it so modulated instead of crazed and full of blood-thirsty madness. He thought that if Bellatrix was ever half as calculating as Hermione made her sound, he might actually fear her like he never had Voldemort.

"Ready," he said, pulling the cloak of invisibility from his pocket. He began crouching for Griphook to climb atop his shoulders but paused. He heard something behind him and turned, hand itching to draw his wand as he moved.

He had not expected to see her this morning and the sight hit him like a double-bladed axe. Fleur walked down the beach with the poise and grace Harry would have expected from royalty. Her hair hung loosely down her back, swaying in a nonexistent wind as she moved. Her eyes had been on him before he had turned and they seemed to devour every inch of him. He shivered again — something about that stare scared him far more than anything Bellatrix Lestrange could ever do.

He smelled her when she drew near. It was the same scent as always, but it was sweeter than summer, more tantalizing than any dessert. He felt his heart quicken as his breath seemed to freeze and solidify in his throat despite the warm air flooding his lungs.

And then, he couldn't breathe for a different reason.

She had reached him quickly, lengthening her strides as she drew ever closer. She had not spoken nor warned him before lurching forward and slamming her lips into his.

It was so much different than when he had kissed Cho in the Room of Requirement. That had been chased and clumsy; more like they were trying to manoeuvre around each other's lips than do anything remotely pleasurable. There had also been the fact that she had been crying a river at the time. That had made it… awkward.

This was different in so many ways. Fleur moved with none of Cho's clumsiness. Every movement was deft and precise — well-calculated and well-executed. It was clear she had planned this, though Harry had known nothing of it. What surprised him most about the whole thing wasn't even that it was happening at all. It wasn't the sudden jolt he received when her tongue seemed to ask for passage, nor was it how soft and smooth her lips felt against his own. What surprised him most was that she tasted exactly how she smelled.

It was over as swiftly as it had begun and Harry was as unmoving as he had been the day they had argued, just for vastly different reasons. He was transfixed by what had happened, frozen in place and gaping at her like she was some sort of mythical goddess who had appeared before him and made some Earth-shattering revelation he could never hope to comprehend.

She looked completely nonplussed and entirely unabashed. She reached forward and gently closed his mouth. He thought he saw the hints of a smile tugging at her lips, but her face stayed otherwise impassive.

"Be safe, 'Arry," she told him, her voice every bit as soft as her lips had been a moment earlier.

He opened his mouth to respond, but no words came out and she was walking away and back up towards the house before he considered pursuing her. His final thought before disapparating was that at least his friends would be much too preoccupied with the day's events to question what in Merlin's name had just happened.

May 1, 1998

The Room of Requirement

10:42 PM

Adrenaline coursed through Harry's body as he re-entered the Room of Requirement. Fighting the Carrows had awoken a silent beast within him and seeing McGonagall and the other professors raise the castle's archaic defences had seemed to light a fire inside of him. It burnt so hot that even his blood seemed full of it.

Bodies were everywhere when he stepped back into the room. Confusion gripped him, for there had been only a couple dozen when he had last stood here before his ascent up to Ravenclaw Tower. Now there were too many to count and more were stepping in through the secret entrance with every second that passed. The room had expanded to accommodate more users, and Harry swore he saw the walls inch outwards every time a larger group filed inside.

The twins were there, as were Lupin and Kingsley. Dedalus Diggle and Hestia Jones were conversing with Neville, while Mr. and Mrs. Weasley appeared to be arguing with Ginny. Harry even saw Angelina Johnson, Alicia Spinnet, Katie Bell, and Oliver Wood along with so many others he only knew by sight or had never known at all.

"What's going on?" asked Lupin, spotting Harry and crossing the room with swift and powerful strides. It was the first time Harry had seen him since he had named him his son's godfather.

"We're fighting," said Harry, resolute as ever. "McGonagall is evacuating the school. Anyone over age not in Slytherin has been given the choice to stay and fight."

Lupin nodded grimly as Kingsley made his way over. "Harry," the werewolf said, "what are you doing here? This is madness to trap yourself like this."

"I needed to come. It's about the thing we discussed at Grimmauld Place. Remus, I'm sorry. I wish I could tell you, but I can't now for the same reasons I couldn't then."

Remus nodded. "I understand."

Harry appreciated the man in that moment. He appreciated him more than just about anyone else alive. It would have been so easy for Lupin to call him a fool or a child. So easy to question him on his reasoning or condemn him for risking so many others' lives with his boldness. But he did none of those things. He accepted it at face value; it showed an amount of trust that left Harry humbled and confused. He had never done anything worthy of that much faith or confidence.

"We should go," he said, "McGonagall wants everyone who's fighting to meet in the Great Hall."

"We'll see you there," said Kingsley. The man looked so eerily calm that one might think he was off to run an errand instead of fighting the most crucial battle the country had seen in centuries.

Harry saw the others off — even Percy Weasley, whom he had most certainly not expected to see — while he waited for the room to thin. He would go with Ron and Hermione once he found them, but where the hell were they? He had been scanning the crowd for them this whole time, but he had failed to catch so much as a glimpse of them.

"You should not 'ave come 'ere."

He somehow wasn't surprised to hear her; he would have been more shocked had she not come. "I had to… it's the only way."

Fleur studied him carefully. "You were not lying to me all zose weeks ago, were you?"

"I don't think I've ever lied to you."

It was a startling realization, but it was true. Harry could not think of a time when he had looked Fleur in the eye and told her a bold-faced lie. Nor could he remember the guilt scribbling one down onto a bit of parchment would have caused him. Fleur was weird that way. Any time he did anything she would disapprove of… it made him feel uncomfortable and he just didn't quite understand why.

"Can you tell me what you took from Gringotts now?"

"Soon. He'll be dead soon and then I can tell you everything."

Her eyes widened, but only for a second. Whether it was at his willingness to speak freely with her so soon or whether it was at the confidence with which he spoke of slaying Voldemort, Harry didn't know.

"You made me promise I would be safe," she reminded him. Technically, those had not been the words he had used, but they both knew it had been their meaning. He nodded warily and she continued. "I want you to promise me you will be safe tonight."

"I can't promise that, Fleur. Not with Voldemort wanting me dead now more than ever. I have to fight him… I have to beat him. It's the only way. But… I promise I'll do everything I can to stay safe."

She did not look pleased but nodded anyway; sliding her wand gracefully from her sleeve and leaving him for the exit. As she walked away, he found himself wishing that she had kissed him again. It had been nice having that to think of the last time he had willingly strode into such a deadly predicament.

Later that night…

Death seemed to hang in the very air as Harry peered invisibly into the Great Hall. The Weasleys were clustered around Fred's lifeless body, and Harry saw that Remus was among those who had fallen. There were others, too. Colin Creevey, Lavender Brown, and many more whom he did not know or could not see from his current vantage point. He knew the bodies were too fresh to give off a scent, but he swore he could smell death. It smelled like Bathilda's corpse and the thought brought forth the image of Nagini slithering from her ruined throat, fangs dripping with blood like crimson poison.

He could not stand it. Not after seeing what he had seen in the pensieve, not after knowing what must come next.

He had to die.

It was the only way this madness could end. It was the only way to protect those he had left, few as they were. Their small numbers only made them all the more valuable to him. He treasured them more than he could ever express and he would do anything to keep them safe.

It just so happened that 'anything' was dying for them. He would die for Ron, for Hermione, for Fleur, and for all of the others the same way his mother had died for him. He would give himself willingly and without complaint, even if it would be the hardest thing he had ever done.

He did not regret having to do it. If his life was the cost for his friends' freedom, then so be it. He would give much more than his life for their safety. He did resent it though, in part. There was much he wanted that he would never have. He had always wanted a family. After having his so ruthlessly torn apart and bearing witness to the excuse of a family that called themselves the Dursleys, he had always wanted one of his own — but one so much better than the one he had grown up with.

Now, he would never have it. He had always known that outcome to be possible, especially since hearing that he was fated to either kill or be killed by Voldemort — neither shall live while the other survives — but now that it was happening, he found himself bitter. His chest muscles were tight like elastic bands pulled to their breaking point and his heart was pumping so very fast that Harry wondered whether the muscle was trying to make up for the time it would lose, or whether it might be silently protesting against the cruelty of fate. His throat felt like the locket was around it and trying to strangle him again. He could hardly breathe and he could imagine the searing pain of the metal again, feel its shadow on his very skin as he took one slow step after another towards the large oak doors that would take him out of the castle and onto the grounds.

It was deceptively quiet outside, but the signs of battle were everywhere. Bits of the castle's wall had fallen and the fractured slabs of stone were strewn across the lawn like the remnants of some long-lost ruin. Splinters of wood longer than Harry's arm lay scattered here and there, some intact and others far from it. They must have come from the massive clubs wielded by the giants. The shredded remains of various species of vicious, man-eating plants seemed to be sprinkled upon the grass like some sort of green and grotesque snowfall.

And there were bodies, of course. Too many to name, too many to count. Most were dead, but others groaned feebly and more still prowled around to retrieve the dead and the dying and bring them into the Great Hall to live or to die amongst friends and companions.

Harry tried to ignore all of it as he slowly moved towards the Forbidden Forest. Harder to ignore was the smell of blood. It was everywhere and it seemed to cling to the very air like metallic-smelling petrichor. Harder still was ignoring Ginny as he passed her. His childish crush had faded long ago, but he still cared for her. She was Ron's sister and had been a close friend for many years. He would have given a great deal to say goodbye to her, to speak with her one more time, but he didn't.

Though he did stop to whisper to Neville as a bout of last-minute inspiration struck him. Dumbledore had left three of them to complete the mission he himself had been unable to finish. It was only right Harry did the same. It was even poetic, in a sense.

He had almost reached the forest before he saw her.

She was lurking at its entrance with her wand drawn and eyes fixed on the castle doors in the distance. The night was dark, but her hair shone like its own miniature moon, giving her face its very own kind of light and making the intensity in her eyes stand out as vividly as a bright paint splatter on a black canvas.

His heart broke in that one moment. She was watching for him. She knew he would come and present himself to Voldemort to save the rest of them and she planned to stop him.

Pain assaulted his chest like he had never known before. He had thought the Cruciatus Curse unbearable, his scar at its worst unimaginable, but this… this was something new and all its own. His heartstrings had pulled tight many times, but now it seemed like they tore straight from their bindings and grew barbed tips, only to be lashed over and over again into the soft tissues of his heart itself. He actually clutched at his chest and did everything he could not to gasp.

Talented as Fleur might have been, Harry knew she had no hope of seeing through the cloak fabled to have once belonged to Death himself. If he made so much as a sound though… he had no doubt she had a Supersensory Charm in place as she waited for him.

He wanted to stop. He wanted to end this madness here and now or at the very least say something to her, but he couldn't. He would not be able to go on if he spoke to her, even if he managed to force his way past. He had no idea how the strength he possessed had found him, but he was certain it would flee faster than it had come if he spoke but a single word to her.

It all made sense to him all at once.

He remembered the moment he had first realized he had a crush on Ginny Weasley back in his sixth year. It had been as though time slowed down as the revelation struck him with the force of a hundred thunderbolts.

This was so much more impactful.

Time stopped completely as his brain seemed to short circuit and his body convulsed all at once, if only for a second.

That was what it had all meant.

All the times he had felt guilty without knowing why, all the times he had feared how close they were growing, all the times hurting her had been so much more painful than any curse Voldemort could possibly throw at him… all of it. It all came down to one, single revelation that struck Harry more forcefully than Death could ever be capable of striking him.

He loved Fleur like he had never loved any other.

He had to walk then. His legs shook as his feet began to move, one in front of the other. Tears were stinging at the corners of his eyes, but he ignored them. If he didn't leave her… well, he wasn't sure what he would do, but it most certainly would not be what needed to be done.

Sometime later, in the Great Hall…

Hogwarts' grandest room had descended into complete and total disarray. Harry was sprinting into the room, invisible, while Neville unknowingly trailed him. The sword of Gryffindor was still in his hand, its rubies flickering like fire, Nagini's blood flowing down the blade like crimson polish. Spells flew as fast as bullets and in directions so haphazardly it seemed as though nobody cared whom their curses impacted. Bodies fell like rocks down a mountain in an avalanche. It began slowly but sped up almost at once and continued until there was hardly anyone left standing. Harry saw Dolohov fall to Flitwick; Mrs. Weasley, of all people, best Bellatrix; and he saw the Malfoys flee.

Voldemort was in the centre of it all and Harry was trying to push towards him, still under the impenetrable guise of Ignotus Peverell's dying gift to his descendants. Riddle was duelling McGonagall, Slughorn, and Kingsley all at once. The second he saw Bellatrix fall, he let out a terrible cry and swept his wand before him. The professors and auror sailed across the room like casually swatted insects. Voldemort wheeled around to face Mrs. Weasley but instead was met with another. Harry's heart stopped.

The torchlight in the hall gleamed off of Fleur's hair. It seemed to glow and reflect in all directions, making it look at times as though her head was wreathed in silver and fire. Spells streaked from her wand, which moved swift as quicksilver, but it was no good and Harry knew it.

Fleur over-extended and Riddle knocked her back with a flick of his wand. Its tip was glowing with a terrible light as it rose into the air. Harry could see Voldemort's lips twisting, his tongue forming the words that would spell Fleur's demise… he would never reach her in time.


It was a cry born from desperation, but Harry thought Riddle just spiteful enough to take the bait.

He was proven correct at once.

Voldemort's head snapped around just as Harry let the cloak slide from his shoulders and pool around him on the floor. He watched Riddle's eyes closely as they widened. He thought for a moment he saw fear in them, but the idea seemed ludicrous. Why would Riddle fear him? Well, perhaps surviving the Killing Curse for a second time might have had something to do with it, but he knew Voldemort to be ignorant of the real reason he should be afraid.

The room was deathly quiet as Harry marched forward to take his stance opposite Voldemort. His wand hung loosely at his side as he moved and he thought he must have resembled Dumbledore from the night at the ministry when he had so casually strode forward to meet Voldemort in combat.

Harry could feel the tension build in the room, feel the crowd move towards their wands. He raised a hand and it was enough to silence them. Not one person in his field of vision so much as moved.

"It's down to you and me now," Harry said calmly. "Neither can live while the other survives, Tom. One of us is about to die—"

"One of us?" jeered Voldemort, and his whole body was taut and his red eyes stared, he was a snake that was about to strike. "You think it will be you, Potter? The boy who has survived through an old man's manipulations and accident after accident—"

"Accident, was it, when my mother died to save me?" He was glaring at Riddle with a hatred he had never known, still moving in a perfect circle, the grip on his wand now tight as a vice. "Accident when I decided to fight in that graveyard? Accident that I didn't defend myself tonight, and still survived, and returned to fight again?"

"Accidents!" screamed Voldemort, but still he did not strike. "Accident and chance and the fact that you crouched and snivelled behind the skirts of greater men and women and permitted me to kill them for you!"

"You won't be killing anyone else tonight." Harry did his best to mimic the voice Dumbledore had used while confronting Voldemort. "Haven't you realized it? You can't touch them! I died to save them, the same way my mother—"

"But you failed!" Voldemort cried. "You did not die, you still—"

"I meant to, and that's all that matters." He sneered at Voldemort. "You speak of power and of knowledge. You speak of pushing the boundaries of magic but you understand nothing. You don't learn from your mistakes, do you, Riddle?"

"You dare—"

"Yes, I dare. I know things you don't know, Tom Riddle. Want to hear some before you make another mistake? The next one might be fatal."

Voldemort's eyes watched Harry like an apex predator's, yet he made no move to strike. Harry knew he was held back by the faintest possibility that he might truly know something that Voldemort did not. Harry wondered faintly whether this was the power the Dark Lord knew not. Love had helped him along the way, but this was surely what would win him everything…

"Is it love again?" asked Voldemort mockingly, his snake-like face jeering. "Dumbledore's favourite solution, love, which he claimed conquered death." His lips curved upwards into a vicious smirk. "Yet love did not stop him falling from the tower and breaking like an old waxwork! Love, which did not prevent me stamping out your mudblood mother like a cockroach, Potter — and nobody seems to love you enough to run forward this time and take my curse. So what will stop you dying now when I strike?"

"Just one thing," said Harry, and still they circled each other, wrapped in each other, held apart by nothing but the final secret.

"If it is not love that will save you this time, you must believe that you have magic that I do not, or else a weapon more powerful than mine?"

"I believe both," said Harry, and he saw shock flit across the snake-like face, though it was instantly dispelled.

Voldemort began to laugh, and the sound was more frightening than his screams; humourless and insane, it echoed around the silent Hall. "You believe you know more magic than I? A spell that will be the undoing of a man who has performed feats of brilliance Albus Dumbledore never dreamed of—"

"Oh, he dreamed of it, Riddle. That's another problem. You don't understand anything. You don't understand what it is you're fighting—"

"Dumbledore is dead! I am fighting him no longer…"

But Harry was shaking his head. "You know nothing, Tom Riddle. He's fighting you even now, you just don't realize it." Harry's eyes found the wand in Voldemort's hand for the first time. It was of a dark wood where his true wand had been pale as the hand that held it, resembling a construct of bone more than wood.

"Was that what he told you?" Voldemort's voice was a hissing whisper. He had noticed Harry's gaze on the wand. "Did Dumbledore tell you his grand plan, Potter?" He spat on the floor at his feet. "Fool! You accuse me of ignorance yet you know nothing of how these things work—"

"I know more than you," said Harry, still deathly calm.

"Dumbledore's plan failed!" hissed Riddle. "He tried to keep the wand from me, but he failed! Severus Snape killed Albus Dumbledore and I took the wand from his cold, dead hands. I got there before you, Potter, it's over—"

"It is over, yes. Dumbledore's plan backfired, but not in the way you think. Snape was never yours, Riddle. He was Dumbledore's the second you came after my mother. His patronus was a doe, I've seen it. Dumbledore let—"

"It doesn't matter what Dumbledore did or did not do! Severus Snape killed Dumbledore and I took the wand from him—"

"That wand still isn't working properly for you because you murdered the wrong person. Severus Snape was never the true master of the Elder Wand. He never defeated Dumbledore."

"He killed—"

"Aren't you listening? Snape never beat Dumbledore! Dumbledore's death was planned between them! Dumbledore intended to die undefeated, the wand's last true master! If all had gone as planned, the wand's power would have died with him, because it had never been won from him!"

"But then, Potter, Dumbledore as good as gave me the wand!" Voldemort's voice shook with malicious pleasure. "I stole the wand from its last master's tomb! I removed it against its last master's wishes! Its power is mine!"

"You still don't get it, do you? Possessing the wand isn't enough! Holding it and using it doesn't make it yours. Didn't you listen to Ollivander? Wasn't that the point of torturing him for all those months? The wand chooses the wizard… the Elder Wand recognized a new master before Dumbledore died. The new master never even laid a hand on it. He removed the wand from Dumbledore against his will, never realizing exactly what he had done, or that the world's most dangerous wand had given him its allegiance…" Voldemort's chest rose and fell rapidly, and Harry could feel the curse coming, feel it building inside the wand pointed at his face. "The true master of the Elder Wand was Draco Malfoy."

Harry did not think the hall could grow quieter, but it did, if only for a second. Whispers spread across its vast expanse seconds later, spreading and building like hissing wildfires before they were silenced at once by Riddle's next words.

"But what does it matter? Even if you are right, Potter, it makes no difference. You no longer have the phoenix wand; we duel on skill alone… and after I have killed you, I can attend to Draco Malfoy—"

"But you're too late," said Harry. "You've missed your chance. I got there first. I overpowered Draco weeks ago. I took this wand from him."

Harry twitched the hawthorn wand, and he felt the eyes of everyone in the Hall fall upon it.

"So it all comes down to this, doesn't it?" whispered Harry. "Does the wand in your hand know its last master was disarmed? Because if it does… I am the true master of the Elder Wand and you are about to die." He looked Riddle square in the eyes, fearing no Legilimency attack. There was nothing the man could take from him now that would matter. "This is your last chance, Riddle. Try for some remorse before I kill you. Be a man one last time."

A red-gold glow burst suddenly across the enchanted sky above them as an edge of dazzling sun appeared over the sill of the nearest window. The light hit both of their faces at the same time so that Voldemort's was suddenly a flaming blur. Harry almost wished the sun had not distorted his final view of the man he had fought against for so long. He wanted to see the unadulterated fury cross his face in the seconds before he killed him.

Harry heard the high voice shriek as he too yelled his best hope to the heavens, pointing Draco's wand:



A halo of red light met a jet of green with such force that some might have thought planets had collided. The hall shook as glass sprayed from the windows as they shattered all at once. Nobody so much as moved, transfixed by the two battling spells in the hall's centre.

A plume of golden fire stretching almost as high as the ceiling far above had erupted as soon as the spells met. It burst into being in the dead centre of the hall, exactly at the point where Harry's spell had met Voldemort's. It billowed away just as quickly, leaving the green and red light to push aimlessly against one another. It was like Priori Incantatem all over again, but the spells had not conjoined.

Harry's hand shook as his confidence began to waver. This had not been how it was supposed to happen. The wand in Riddle's hand was supposed to have betrayed him, but perhaps this was the Elder Wand's idea of betrayal. It would not aid Riddle in killing him, but it wouldn't stand in the way, either. Perhaps it thought that if Voldemort was capable of killing Harry, he had never been the wand's true master.

Sparks flew in every direction as though giant swordsmen had sought to do battle and clashed steel against steel. Riddle's spell inched closer and Harry fancied he could feel the Reaper reaching for him, ready to strike him down for his arrogance. It was ironic, really. He had fallen into the same trap he had accused Riddle of being vulnerable to not a minute earlier. He had put all of his eggs in one basket and seen no way he could lose. Now, he was certain he would die…

Until something changed.

Harry saw Voldemort's face — pale as ever and shining like a malevolent ghost in the light of his final spell — contort. His eyes widened with what appeared to be shock and horror as his mouth fell open, spewing forth a stream of blood every bit as crimson as the spell he was doing battle with.

He was wounded, but not dead, though the latter fact mattered not.

His concentration had wavered for a second too long and Harry's spell rocketed forward just as the green light emanating from the Death Stick faltered and gave in to the push of Harry's spell. Green and red raced each other to Voldemort; Harry would never know which one reached him first.

The flash of both colours was so blinding that nobody in the hall saw the Dark Lord fall. They saw only his body, splayed and broken upon the now blood-soaked floor like any other man's. The wand rolled from limp fingers, but Harry made no move to claim the ultimate prize.

His eyes were not fixed on the most powerful wand the world had ever known, nor even on the Dark Lord whom he had just slain.

His eyes were instead on the girl standing just behind where Voldemort had stood. Her hair was more dishevelled than Harry had ever seen it and there were two bloody gashes upon her face, but she had never looked so beautiful to him in all of their time together.

He was moving towards her before he knew what he was doing. His victory was all but forgotten as he took the final few steps at a run and reached for her, sweeping her up and off her feet as everyone watched in transfixed shock. It was he who led their kiss this time. It was faster, rougher, and less deft, but it lit a fire in Harry the likes of which he had never felt before. The heat of the golden fire which had erupted between him and Voldemort suddenly seemed insignificant. As did the once-feared Dark Lord, the war, and everybody else in the hall. None of it mattered now.

Nothing that had ever happened mattered anymore. All that was important was what was happening now and what all was to come.

Author's Endnote:

This was very far from what I normally write. I tend to write long-form epics that centre around drama and mystery. Writing short-ish-form romance is pretty much the opposite of my normal style and there were some scenes I might have done differently had I been writing this for a different purpose. I also followed canon quite closely and also paraphrased a number of passages. This was mostly because if I would have deviated from canon, this would have ended up being a proper novel and it was only supposed to be a short story. The point is, I hope it turned out well and that the quality did not degrade because of these factors. Please do leave me feedback in the reviews, they are very much appreciated.

Most importantly, I hope that when Emily reads this, it provides some reprieve from her current circumstances. It ended up being way longer than I had planned, so it should kill some time if nothing else.

There is a collection of these stories all dedicated to Emily called the Emily Collection. There is a community of them on FFN that can be found through a generic Google search. I would recommend everyone reading this to go and read all of those stories and show the ones you like the support that they deserve. A lot of authors stepped outside their comfort zones to do this and I know they would all like support and feedback on their work just as much as I would.

If you would like to show me some support, I have a Discord server where you can discuss this, my other works, and any number of topics with myself and about 2,000 other people. Joining that and following me on social media to keep up with my work would be very much appreciated, as well as leaving a follow, favourite, and/or review on this story, of course.

Take care, everyone, and stay safe. I do hope this provided a brief reprieve from everything going on in the world.

Thank you as always to my lovely Discord Editors Asmodeus Stahl, rawmeat898, and Thobeobo for their corrections/contributions on this story.