Brown, faux-brick tiles spread along the walls from Harry’s hip. Smudged, cream-painted plaster stretched up to a stark-white, cobweb-dusted ceiling.
It looks like some kitchen from Aunt Petunia’s childhood.
He followed his tiles, drawn by a strange echo of familiarity. The chipped tile. The one with the bubble. The almost-orange tile. The missing half-tile. Harry turned left through door number seven.
A small, worn bag hung from the scratched, rusted metal frame of the small bed wedged into the corner. A line of chalk nicks marked the window sill. Harry brushed the last of them away with his thumb. ‘Today’s the day,’ he murmured. His voice came out high, but cracked, like those silent days when Dudley was away with friends, and Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon forgot he existed.
Harry plucked the bag off the bed and started into the grimy window. He tugged at the collar of his blurred, faint reflection and swept his hair to the side.
‘Don’t dawdle.’ He pulled the door shut, then straightened the number seven on it back up. ‘She’s probably waiting.’
Harry paced the order of the tiles back toward the door. Who’s waiting? The brick-like tiles drifted past as he turned through corridors, breezing past the fleeting shadows of children. Aunt Petunia?
Pigeons strode the empty street beyond the iron gate. Stray newspaper pages stuck in the gutter, their pages fluttering.
Harry ground to a halt. A thick knot twisted in his gut. ‘Did she not want to come?’
A slim figure turned the corner at the end of the street. Sunlight flashed off thick, metal-framed glasses.
There she is.
A shimmering silver dress and hair shone as she strode down the hill. Her blue eyes and small, warm smile floated before the eye of Harry’s mind and his heart leapt into his mouth.
A loud step came from behind him. ‘Go on, Tom. Don’t keep a lady waiting, lad.’
Harry’s eyes snapped open. Clean, white wool hovered in front of him infused with the faint, citrus scent of hospital ward laundry. His heart’s pounding faded back to a gentle beat.
Legilimency’s a double-edged sword, even for a master. He took a deep breath and tried to picture room seven, but the brick-like tiles and ivory plaster had vanished.
‘Mr Potter.’ Madam Pomfrey’s heels clicked, ringing louder as she approached. ‘I heard you wake up, Mr Potter. You may as well pull the sheet back down off your head.’
‘I’m awake.’ Harry tugged the sheet down and caught sight of the steaming goblet in her hand. ‘And perfectly fine.’
‘You are not perfectly fine, Mr Potter,’ she snapped, placing the goblet next to his bed. ‘I am going to permanently label this bed as yours for next year.’
‘I feel fine?’ Harry eyed the thick, chalky-looking liquid steaming in the goblet. ‘Maybe a little sore?’
‘You are the second student I have had in this wing in the last week suffering from the effects of the Cruciatus Curse.’ Madam Pomfrey caught him looking at the goblet. ‘And yes, you will be drinking that down to the last drop!’
Fleur. Harry glanced down the length of the ward, but the curtains were all drawn back against the walls and the beds covered in neat-folded sheets and pillows. I’m the only one here…
‘What’s it for?’ He sniffed the steam coming off the potion, wincing and coughing. ‘Even the smell is awful.’
Madam Pomfrey sighed and crossed her arms. ‘It’s everything your body needed the last week it spent sleeping off the effects of bouncing off the anti-apparition wands.’
‘Will it taste as bad as it looks?’ Harry asked.
Her eyes glinted. He grabbed the goblet and gulped it down. Something like burning liquorice coated the inside of Harry’s throat and mouth and the fierce fumes stung his nose.
‘Yes.’ Madam Pomfrey pulled her wand from her uniform pocket and traced it over his torso. ‘I imagine that it will taste quite bad.’
‘Am I okay?’
‘You actually do seem to be perfectly fine, Mr Potter.’ Madam Pomfrey frowned. ‘Which has come a week or so sooner than I’d’ve expected, but save for another scar, you’ve come away unscathed.’ She handed him a miniature mirror.
A small triangular nick marked the edge of his cheekbone.
‘I couldn’t get rid of the deepest part of the cut,’ Madam Pomfrey said. ‘Whatever they used had some enchantment to seal the wound up. I wasn’t able to fully undo the effects.’
‘It’s barely noticeable.’ Harry shrugged. ‘It’s not exactly going to distract anyone from my other scar.’ He handed the mirror back to her. ‘I — er — I don’t suppose you’d tell me what’s happened since the tournament ended?’
‘You won,’ Madam Pomfrey said. ‘It was a bit of a mess after Ludo Bagman’s involvement came to light, but you did apparate into the wards while holding the trophy. Not that we’ve mentioned your illegal apparition to anyone, of course.’
‘ Ludo Bagman?’ Harry kept his tone even.
‘He was the one who put your name in. The whole tournament was rigged so you’d get there first and disappear off to You-Know-Who. He confessed to everything immediately once the Imperius Curse was lifted and spouted the whole story to the headmaster and the minister.’
‘Where is he?’
‘The minister carted him off to Azkaban immediately.’ Madam Pomfrey shook her head. ‘No trial, no nothing, just gone. And all for things done under the Imperius Curse! If that was the done thing, half of British wizarding society would be there after the last war.’
Azkaban’s a bit much, even if he did help get Fleur tortured and Viktor killed, it wasn’t really him doing it. Harry felt a small flicker of pity for Ludo Bagman. No doubt Lucius Malfoy was advising Fudge.
‘He took the blame, then?’ Harry asked. ‘What about the other champions?’
‘He took the blame for everything, Mr Potter.’ Madam Pomfrey sniffed and plucked the goblet from Harry’s bedside. ‘The minister didn’t seem very interested in his version of events at all, even when it was obvious he had been under the Imperius Curse. At least the students know what happened. Dumbledore announced everything at the end of the year feast.’
Harry blinked. The end of year feast?
‘Exactly what is the date, Madam Pomfrey?’
‘Oh.’ She pressed her fingertips to her lips. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Potter. It’s the second of July, everyone has gone home except for the permanent staff and yourself. You should write to Mr Longbottom and Miss Bell, they were often in here to see you over the last week and will be grateful to know you’ve recovered.’
They didn’t just forget me when I disappeared. Harry felt a rush of affection for the pair. Wait. His heart plummeted. Everyone…
‘What about the other schools?’ he murmured.
‘They’ve gone back to their own institutions and have probably gone home from there.’ Madam Pomfrey strode into her office.
She went back to France. A cold sick feeling bubbled up in his stomach. And she didn’t come to visit me, either. Of course.
‘Are you ok, Mr Potter?’ Madam Pomfrey poked her head back out of her office. ‘You’re looking a little pale.’
‘I’m perfectly fine.’
‘If you insist.’ She sighed. ‘The headmaster wants to speak with you before you leave, he’s probably on his way down to the ward now. He always seems to know when people wake up.’
Harry swung himself out of bed and pulled on the rather loose, worn robes he’d been provided, transfiguring them into something a bit better fitting. I suppose it’s my own fault for leaving everything in the chamber. He stared into the window, straightened the collar of his robes and swept his hair off his face.
‘Harry.’ Dumbledore strode through the doors into the hospital wing. ‘Are you feeling well?’
‘Yes,’ Harry lied.
Something fluttered among his thoughts when he met the headmaster’s bright blue eyes. He dragged the image of the circle of dark ink before his mind’s eye and raised his wand.
‘Ah.’ A little guilt flickered through Dumbledore’s eyes. ‘You’ve been learning the Mind Arts. I apologise, Harry, occasionally I feel it’s worthwhile for me to take a peek using passive legilimency. Reprehensible, I know, but sometimes necessary for the greater good.’
Harry buried his distaste at the idea Dumbledore had been picking through his thoughts for the first few years. ‘How does it work?’
Voldemort tore out most of my childhood and shared a good deal of his in just the instant before I apparated. That can’t happen again.
‘It’s a complicated and obscure branch of magic, one Tom has mastered. It allows a wizard to create a connection to the mind of another and, from there, experience his thoughts, feelings, and memories. Passive legilimency does little more than skim the surface and let me glimpse very strong reactions or thoughts, Harry, it’s as much as I feel comfortable using with students even for a greater good. A more active approach would allow me to follow those thoughts and feelings as far back as they run and even create visions of my own in your head.’
‘I think I’d like to learn to defend myself against it,’ Harry said.
‘It is often a good idea, especially for you, Harry, whom Tom has taken a keen interest in. The easiest way to defeat it is to break eye contact with the caster, all but the most skilled practitioners require eye contact to maintain the magic and it is far easier to do with it.’
That’s how I broke the connection. I apparated away.
‘I can point you in the direction of some good books on the subject, Harry, but first I must press you on what happened after you touched the cup and were whisked away. Ludo Bagman, who altered the portkey, knew only that he was sending you to Little Hangleton, presumably to Tom, and that the Dark Lord would be returning on the night.’ Dumbledore ushered Harry out of the door and into the corridor, beginning the route towards his office.
‘He’s back,’ Harry said. ‘There was a ritual in the graveyard using my blood. He has a body now.’
‘What else do you remember, Harry?’ Dumbledore’s blue eyes were sharp as a rapier.
Harry focused on the circle of dark ink on its white page. ‘He was angry with the Death Eaters. We duelled.’ Harry dragged his words out, scrambling for a safe version of events. ‘Bertha Jorkins was the one who Imperiused Bagman. She killed Crouch when he found Pettigrew and Pettigrew for getting caught and risking his master. We can’t prove Sirius’ innocence now, can we?’
I’m sorry, Sirius. We’ll find another way. I needed to be free.
‘I’m afraid not, Harry.’ Dumbledore shook his head. ‘That does explain the body that was found on the edge of the Forbidden Forest, though I suspect Cornelius will not accept its true identity.’
‘There was more.’ Harry feigned embarrassment and stared at his shoes to hide a small smile. ‘Voldemort beat me, he was way too strong. I only just managed to apparate away when the wards trapping me failed.’
‘Surviving a duel with Tom is something to be proud of, Harry,’ Dumbledore murmured. ‘At your age, you should not have even had a chance. Did something inexplicable happen that allowed you to escape?’
‘No. He apparated to dodge my spell, so I tried to apparate back here and succeeded.’ Harry grinned. ‘Sort of. Madam Pomfrey mentioned bouncing… Should something inexplicable have happened?’
‘As I’m sure you remember, your first wand shared a brother core with Tom’s. It is possible for that to cause an extraordinary effect known as priori incantatem.’ Dumbledore paused before the gargoyle. ‘Sugar quills, old friend.’
The gargoyle stepped aside.
‘My new wand must be too different,’ Harry said.
‘I suspect so.’ Dumbledore strode up the steps with a bounce in his stride. ‘It’s a good thing, I think. Tom would’ve been displeased in the failure of his wand and likely gone seeking another. There are few wandmakers of great stature these days, Harry, losing any of them would be an awful blow to the country and, indeed, the wider world.’
‘What happens now, headmaster?’ Harry asked.
‘I believe, Harry, that Tom will seek to keep his return a secret while he regains strength. I will do everything I can to expose him, but there’s nothing you can or should be doing at your age to stop him. In a few years, perhaps, but not yet.’
A few years. Harry fixed his smile in place. As if you plan to let me live that long.
Dumbledore took a seat behind his desk and proffered a small bowl of bright, striped sweets. ‘Take a seat, Harry, and help yourself to a humbug, if you want. I find they help me think.’
‘I’m okay thanks.’ Harry wrinkled his nose at the bowl. ‘I’m not really one for sweets. Cake perhaps, but not sweets. My cousin serves as a pretty sizeable warning about how good they are for you.’
‘All things are best in moderation.’ Dumbledore set the bowl aside and pushed a bag in front of Harry. ‘Your winnings, Harry, from the Triwizard Tournament. You did, despite everything, manage to return with the cup.’
I won. A soft hollow feeling crept upon him. But nobody cares that I won, only that they didn’t win. Guess the boggart had a point after all.
‘I do have a few questions for you, Harry.’ Dumbledore adjusted his half-moon spectacles and leant forward.
‘Of course, professor.’ Harry kept his face calm and still, even as his heart began to race.
‘What happened within the maze, Harry?’
‘Viktor was killed,’ Harry murmured. ‘I came across the end of the fight.’
‘You stunned, Mr Diggory,’ Dumbledore said. ‘And broke his wand, I assume?’
He knows. Harry snuck a long, deep breath in. How does he know? Did he see the Fiendfyre, too?
‘I obliviated Cedric. He was under the imperius, too. I’m glad I did, given what I heard happened to Ludo Bagman.’
‘That was very noble of you, Harry.’ Dumbledore smiled. ‘Mr Diggory is distraught over what has happened, but given the position Cornelius has taken and your risky act, he will never suspect the part he played or have to bear the guilt. I’m very proud of you.’
‘Thank you,’ Harry muttered.
‘It may leave you in a very tenuous position, though, Harry.’ Dumbledore steepled his fingers. ‘You’re the only living, loyal wizard who can claim to have seen Tom in the flesh since that tragic night all those years ago. There will be those at the ministry who seek to taint your reputation to discredit you and Viktor Krum’s mysterious death will be an opportunity for them.’
‘I know, professor.’ Harry offered him a faint smile. ‘But my friends would never believe that, and I don’t care too much about anyone’s opinion if they take Rita Skeeter seriously.’
‘That may be very wise of you, my boy.’ Dumbledore bounced his fingertips together. ‘I doubt the ministry will put you on trial without any evidence. It will only give you a platform from which they’ll fear you speak about Tom.’ He paused and lowered his hands to the desk. ‘And now, Harry, I’m afraid I must ask you what Tom said to you in the graveyard.’
‘He didn’t really speak to me much,’ Harry lied. ‘Just some insults and the Cruciatus Curse, really.’
‘I see.’ The lines on Dumbledore’s face turned deep and old. ‘I’m very sorry, Harry. I don’t seem to be able to keep you from harm for a single year, do I?’
‘I’m sure you aren’t to blame, sir.’ A little ice slipped into Harry’s tone despite his best efforts.
Dumbledore winced. ‘I have only one more thing I need you to speak about before I can let you apparate home, though I must ask you to refrain from using your excellent ability except when in the direst need. It is still illegal, if harmless, but Tom’s supporters in the ministry will be waiting for any excuse they can get.’
Harry weighed his words with great care. ‘I will only use it when I have no other choice, professor.’
‘Thank you, Harry. I appreciate that it must be a bit of a blow for you. I’m sure you’re dying to be able to use your magic whenever you can.’ Dumbledore cracked a wide smile. ‘Why, when I was young, I used to use my magic at every chance I got for the silliest of things.’
‘What did you want to ask me about?’
It won’t be horcruxes. It won’t be that prophecy Voldemort mentioned. And it won’t be how, in the back of your head, I’m already dead.
Dumbledore’s expression shifted into something grim and his blue eyes fixed themselves on a point just behind the back of Harry’s head. ‘We found Miss Delacour quite a long way from where she remembered falling unconscious when we apprehended Ludo Bagman. It was very lucky that we stopped him, since if he had touched her like he intended, he would’ve suffered quite a horrible fate.’
Good. The shred of pity he’d felt evaporated. If he tried to hurt her, he’d’ve deserved it.
Harry pictured the circle of dark ink on the white page and met Dumbledore’s stare. ‘I carried Fleur out of harm’s way. It was either her or Cedric. I figured he was needed alive to take the blame, but Fleur wasn’t. I had to make sure she was safe.’
‘That does not, Harry, excuse the use of such a horrible piece of magic. That was a particularly dark curse you used.’ Disappointment seeped from Dumbledore’s expression. ‘There are any number of ways you might’ve warded her that wouldn’t have harmed Ludo.’
‘But it was the only one I was sure would work, professor.’ Harry studied the floor between his feet. ‘It wouldn’t have done anything to anyone not intending harm. I didn’t think any other wards would last long if they didn’t do something to whomever tripped them.’
‘I understand, Harry.’ Dumbledore sighed and leant back on his chair. ‘Far worse things have and will be done for a greater good. Try not to let it burden your conscience, nobody came to harm, but please, don’t use that curse again.’
Worse things like raising a child to die. Or trying to arrange his death every year from the age of eleven.
‘I won’t, sir.’
‘I’ll let you go back to your home, Harry,’ Dumbledore said. ‘Professor McGonagall and the house elves were unable to locate your things, so I’d remind you not to forget anything and collect your trunk from wherever you’ve hidden it before you leave.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ Harry picked up his bag of galleons and rested it on his hip. ‘I hope you have a good summer.’ He leapt down the spiral stairs and out past the gargoyle, taking off in the direction of the Chamber of Secrets under his disillusionment charm.
Salazar’s going to be rather cross. He probably thinks I got eaten by something.
‘Oh! You are alive. Thank you, sole remaining family member, for being so considerate as to visit and let me know.’ Salazar’s tone dripped sarcasm. ‘I do appreciate your consideration.’
Harry grinned. ‘I was sleeping off my encounter with Voldemort, you huge piece of desk graffiti.’
‘What happened?’ Salazar demanded.
‘The third task was going to plan. I used fiendfyre once I was far enough into the maze to be unseen and nobody seems to suspect me for the razing of the hedges, but the other champions were taken out by one of Voldemort’s servants so I could get to the cup and be abducted. Voldemort was also responsible for my name ending up in the goblet. His followers arranged events so that I ended up with him, using the trophy as a portkey, and he resurrected himself using my blood before I escaped.’
‘Your blood?’ Salazar’s eyes sharpened. ‘That’s unlikely to be good.’
‘I received a very similar impression at the time,’ Harry muttered.
‘Don’t mumble, brat,’ Salazar snapped, tapping his wand against his chin. ‘The protection of your mother’s sacrifice is not lost to you. Magic like that can’t be erased. It’s possible that this has formed a bond of sorts between you. He cannot undo the blood magic your parents used, but he has stolen its protection for himself by using your blood as his own. He’s protected just as you were, though I’m unsure of the specifics. He may be protected from your actions or from the results of his own against you. I do not know.’
‘There’s some prophecy, too. Voldemort mentioned it.’
‘You must find it and learn what it says,’ Salazar ordered. ‘If Voldemort knows what it is, then that may dictate every action he takes against you. We can’t afford to be left in the dark.’
‘I know nothing about it.’ Harry shrugged. ‘Only that it exists and mentions me.’
‘Find out about it,’ Salazar snapped. ‘Someone must know something. A prophecy cannot be made without a witness.’
‘I’ll search as soon as I can, but I’ll be out of contact with the wizarding world until term starts after summer.’
‘Why?’ Salazar stared at him. ‘What could you possibly be doing for that long? Some kind of crusade?’
Harry grimaced. ‘That’s how it is every summer. I can apparate here, but going anywhere else will attract suspicion and I don’t really want to be attracting any adverse attention with Voldemort back.’
Dumbledore was right about that much.
‘So you can’t even use magic for the summer.’ Salazar threw his hands up in the air, hurling his serpent to the floor. ‘This is why I wanted the school to take on muggle-born students full time, they get left behind and cut out of the world they rightfully should be part of by their own families.’ Salazar’s wand fountained silver sparks. ‘But oh no, Godric the Righteous couldn’t separate families. That wasn’t right. Much better to let them go home and be burnt or ostracised.’
‘Like Tom.’ A brief flash of brown tiles passed before Harry’s eyes.
Don’t keep a lady waiting, lad. He shuddered. I imagine that little love story ended about as well Romeo and Juliet. He scowled. Or me and Fleur.
‘Did you still win?’ Salazar asked. ‘You’re scowling like you lost.’
‘I didn’t lose.’
‘Then at least you have proved that girl from the other school wrong.’ Salazar gathered his snake up and arranged it round his shoulders. ‘I hope you went to speak to her.’
‘She went back to France before I woke up.’ Harry studied the bookshelves on either side of the door. ‘I should probably go back to Privet Drive.’
‘I take it that means you’re about to leave?’
‘Yes, my aunt and uncle have probably got their hopes up that I’ve died, so I should probably put an appearance in before they burn all my things.’ Harry grinned. ‘They’re going to be so disappointed when I apparate in.’
And furious. His grin spread a little wider. It’s going to be fantastic.
Salazar’s green eyes softened. ‘If it becomes unbearable, you can just return here through the chamber.’
‘This is going to be the best summer yet. I have to catch up on everything I missed in my classes because of the tournament and Ollivander was kind enough not to apply the trace that prevents me from using magic in the summer without being detected.’
Salazar’s laugh had a touch of ice to it. ‘I hope your muggle relatives realise how different things are going to be because of that.’
Harry smirked. ‘I think they’ll come to realise it soon enough.’
‘Now?’ Salazar asked. ‘What about your things?’
‘I only need my wand. Hedwig can find her own way to me, she’s a smart owl, and I have every book I could need in here. I’ll just apparate back when I need something.’
‘It’s a long way to apparate just for a book,’ Salazar chided with a soft gleam in his eye. ‘You might splinch yourself again.’
Harry shrugged. ‘It’ll be good practice for me. And someone has to come back and make sure you’ve not tried to kill that snake.’
Salazar locked eyes with the reptile. ‘I can’t kill it. I have tried.’ The snake stuck its tongue out, tickling Salazar’s nose. ‘Irritating creature.’ He turned back to Harry. ‘Just remember you’re cleaning up that giant mess you made on your first visit sometime soon.’
‘I didn’t make a mess!’
‘Tell that to the seventy foot corpse you’ve left here all these years,’ Salazar muttered. ‘Fiendfyre will get rid of it. Now, get out. I want to take a nap.’
Harry rolled his eyes, pictured the Dursley’s back garden, and twisted the world back past him. A loud shriek of surprise rang in his ears and something glass smashed on the small patio.
‘Hello, Aunt Petunia.’ Harry grinned and gave them a cheerful wave. ‘Hello, Uncle Vernon, Dudley… I’m back.’
Uncle Vernon’s face shifted through every shade of red known to man, then moved onto purple.
Harry’s grin widened. I’m going to enjoy this.
‘Where have you been, boy?!’ Vernon’s bellow echoed across the garden.
‘The neighbours, Vernon,’ Aunt Petunia hissed. ‘Keep your voice down!’
Vernon swallowed and turned an odd shade of puce. ‘And how dare you appear like that.’
‘I was in hospital.’ Harry let a little chill creep into his voice. ‘I appreciated all your visits and kind words, by the way.’ He pressed his hand over his heart. ‘They touched me right here.’
‘Don’t take that tone with me!’ Vernon staggered to his feet. ‘You can’t do anything freakish now, boy! Go to your room and change into normal clothes and then we’ll talk about your behaviour! I won’t tolerate—’
Harry pressed the tip of his wand into Vernon’s jowled cheek just below his right eye. A bright, cold, green light flickered about the slim piece of ebony. ‘Oh, please do carry on, uncle. Don’t let me interrupt you. You were saying something about intolerable behaviour, I think?’
Aunt Petunia went still as stone, her mouth gaping like a goldfish. Half a sandwich flopped out of Dudley’s mouth. A strangled whimper emanated from somewhere under Uncle Vernon’s moustache and he gulped.
‘I shall assume you’ve finished, then,’ Harry said. ‘Now, if an underage wizard performs illegal magic, a letter arrives to inform them what they’ve done and what will happen next. Observe.’
He transfigured the rest of Dudley’s sandwich into a cobra. Aunt Petunia and Dudley screamed and scrambled off the patio onto the lawn as the Egyptian cobra flared its hood and hissed at them. Harry spread his hands, pointing at the skies.
Several minutes crawled past as the snake made a mess of the table, scattering the neat triangular sandwiches and spilling the salad slathered with Aunt Petunia’s famous homemade coleslaw.
Harry grinned. ‘Oh look! No letter… ‘
Vernon turned white as a sheet.
Harry banished the snake. ‘I’m going to my room to change, please remember that demonstration for the future.’ He let the ice creep into his eyes and voice. ‘I’d hate to have to make this point a second time. Cobras are rather venomous, something might go terribly wrong…’
He strode inside and upstairs, pulled open his wardrobe, and transfigured the first pair of Dudley’s cast offs. There, now they look like something a human being might choose to wear.
Hedwig perched on his desk. A folded, manila envelope lay beneath her talons.
Fuck. Harry’s blood froze. Did Ollivander lie to me?
He took a deep breath and crushed the cold fear. ‘No. Hedwig wouldn’t deliver warnings from the ministry. They have their own owls.’
Harry unfolded the envelope. A single line of writing captioned an animated pencil sketch. A willow tree leant over a bend in the rippling river, its branches caught in a slight breeze.
Eleven o’clock on the day you receive this, or the first afterward. Harry re-read the caption. The word is argent. He swallowed. That sounds French, even in my head. He flipped over the picture, but it was blank. Fleur? He wrestled with his hope, but it refused to be smothered.
‘Or Voldemort’s decided to adopt a green agenda and changed the Dark Mark into a tree, I suppose.’ Harry folded the letter back up. ‘It’s probably a trap.’
An odd yearning bubbled up in his chest as Fleur’s face swam through his thoughts. And yet, I’m probably going. Harry sighed. She definitely did something to me with her allure. Definitely.
He tapped the envelope against his palm and cast a quick tempus. ‘Well, go on. Don’t keep a lady waiting, Harry.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Argent.’
The walls of Harry’s bedroom remained in place.
‘Argent.’ Harry put a little more effort into the French accent.
A soft jolt pushed him against something warm and rough. The leaves of a willow tree cascaded down around him and the river bend rippled over small pebbles at his feet.
So far, so good. Harry tucked the envelope into his pocket and kept his wand ready.
‘You are early.’ A soft, French-accented voice drifted down from above.
Harry’s heart lurched. Definitely Fleur.
A quiet thud reverberated behind him.
‘I said eleven.’ Her voice came over his shoulder. ‘You are lucky I come here often, else you would have had to wait.’
‘I think I could’ve survived. It’s a beautiful spot.’ Harry forced his head to turn as she stepped round the trunk.
Fleur’s bright, blue eyes pierced through him. ‘You owe me an explanation, Harry Potter. I did not burn all those hedges, I did not walk myself all the way to the centre of the maze, and I certainly did not place a curse capable of killing anyone who tried to touch me intending harm on myself.’
The tree-trunk pressed against Harry’s back; its bark dug into his shoulders. ‘That may have been me. I didn’t like the idea of leaving you for whichever of Voldemort’s followers was lurking around.’
‘So you carried me all the way across the maze to the wards instead?’ Fleur’s eyes sparkled and she took a step closer. ‘Gabby has a theory as to why you might have carried me all that way instead of simply sending up red sparks as you must have done for Cedric Diggory.’
Harry gulped. His stomach knotted itself, then coiled into a tight, hot ball for good measure. Maybe it would’ve been better if it had been Voldemort lying in wait for me. At least I know he’s just going to try and kill me.
‘Is it an interesting theory?’ His voice cracked.
Something almost predatory gleamed in Fleur’s blue eyes. ‘I think I would very much like to know if she is right.’ She placed a hand either side of him on the willow’s trunk. ‘So why did you?’
The words nearly tumbled from his tongue. Her magic. Harry dragged his circle of dark ink into the midst of his thoughts. Don’t let her win.
‘You made a portkey.’ He let the ink blot swell and swallow the memories of the last time she’d been so close to him, let the feelings fade into stark, dark ink and pale parchment.
‘They are easy to make.’ Fleur shrugged and tilted her chin into the air. ‘It will take you back, but that requires a different word to the one that brought you here.’
‘You’ve trapped me.’ Harry laughed. ‘I did think it might be a trap, but I didn’t really expect to be trapped by you.’
‘I will give you the word once you answer my questions,’ Fleur said.
‘Questions? I thought there was only one?’
‘You are avoiding it.’ The small, warm smile crept onto Fleur’s lips. ‘So I thought we might as well start with the easy ones and work our way up to it.’
Harry swallowed hard and wiped the sweat off his palms onto his jeans. His pulse raced and his heart hammered against his ribs. ‘Sounds like a good idea, I suppose.’
‘Why did you not try to speak to me after the Yule Ball?’
‘You avoided me.’ Harry drew himself up. ‘You used your magic on me, kissed me, then refused to speak to me for almost two months. I thought you wanted to be my friend, but you just wanted to know how to beat me.’
A small flicker of emotion passed through Fleur’s eyes. ‘It was not my magic.’
A touch of ice tightened in Harry’s chest. ‘Yes it was. After the Yule Ball in the Room of Requirement, when you wanted to test my resistance. I felt it, Fleur.’
‘You called me beautiful.’ Fleur’s lips drew a little closer to his. Her eyes shone with mirth just a finger’s length from his. ‘I remember.’
Why do I get the feeling she knows something I don’t? Harry tried to take a deep breath, got a mouthful of sweet, sharp marzipan and burnt holly, and closed his lips and held his breath.
‘You used your charm on me,’ he said. ‘It worked, then you kissed me and left.’
‘I had drunk more wine than I should have. I was feeling reckless and I had never kissed anyone before.’ Her smile never wavered. ‘I could not use my magic to make you think I was beautiful, Harry, not even if I tried. It’s a compulsion to impress, to desire, to want, nothing more.’
I didn’t feel any sudden compulsion to impress you.
Harry saw the next question looming in Fleur’s eyes. ‘Why did you avoid me?’ he blurted.
‘I had a lot of things to think about. Most of them were to do with you.’ A hint of a pout touched her lips. ‘You are very difficult. You do not chase after me like all the other boys. Not even when I wanted you to chase after me so you would actually speak to me.’
‘Sorry.’ Harry wrestled with the knot in his chest, shoving it down before it strangled him. ‘I thought you just wanted to win. I thought what I feel was because of your magic.
‘What do you feel?’ Fleur leant closer. Her silver hair cascaded over her blue irises like shimmering silk; it spilt over Harry’s collarbone, tickling his skin, and the scent of sharp, sweet marzipan drifted to his nose from it.
The air disappeared. Words went with it, evaporating off his tongue every time he tried to say something.
‘I will not give you the word to go back until you answer.’ Fleur’s voice trembled.
And I don’t have an answer. He clutched for one, but it vanished on his lips and stuck in his throat. I don’t know any words to describe it.
The bright glint in Fleur’s eyes began to fade, tears welling up in its place. She drew back a fraction. Harry wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her across the gap between them. The heat of her warmed his skin like summer sunshine.
‘Is that your answer?’ she whispered, brushing her hair from between their faces. Her hands slipped to his shoulders.
Harry shook his head. ‘No.’
Just do it. He buried the knot in his stomach. She did it. You can do it. Harry leant forward.
Fleur’s lips curved into a smile, her hands sweeping up into his hair as she crushed herself against him. Every curve of her body pushed into his, pressing his back into the tree, and the tip of her tongue left a sweet tang along his upper lip.
His lungs ached. ‘I – er – I need to breathe.’
Fleur’s laughter sent his heart lurching again. ‘That was a good answer,’ she murmured.
‘Was Gabby right?’
Fleur managed half a scowl before her smile slid back onto her face. ‘She will not let me ever forget it.’
‘Good,’ Harry said. ‘I don’t want you to.’
She kissed him again, nipping his lower lip with her teeth. ‘You are not getting the word for the portkey, not until I am satisfied.’
The bottom dropped out of Harry’s stomach. ‘What happened to me only being fourteen?’
‘Almost fifteen.’ Fleur laughed and kissed him again. ‘It does not matter, I stopped thinking about your age a while ago, but this is not where we are having our first time. It looks uncomfortable.’ She cocked her head. ‘I am not sure I want to rush into that anyway.’
Right. Harry’s eyes slid down Fleur’s neck. A whole host of images flitted through his mind. Not a single seashell bra to be seen.
Fleur arched an eyebrow. ‘You know, normally, I do not like the boys all staring, but yours feels rather good.’
Harry dragged his eyes back up to her face. ‘Sorry.’
‘Do not be.’ She rested her cheek against his. ‘You are different to them.’
Harry kissed her forehead and leant his head back against the tree trunk. ‘How is this going to work? You’ll be in France. I’ll be in Britain.’ Voldemort’s crimson eyes, Dumbledore’s blue ones, horcruxes, prophecies, and Death Eaters flooded through his head.
I wish all of that could just disappear. He swallowed a brief, bitter moment of heat. Wishes like that just don’t come true.
‘You can come visit me,’ Fleur murmured into his neck. Her eyes were closed. ‘Use the portkey. I will make one for myself and then we can both come here, whenever we can.’
‘For the rest of our lives?’ Harry asked.
A slight pout curved her lips. ‘Until we think of something better. Or maybe I will just not tell you the word to send you back to Britain and keep you here with me. Gabby would like that, she would find it very romantic.’
‘You’d kidnap the Boy-Who-Lived?’ Harry asked.
‘Nobody would ever look for you here in France. If you wanted, you could disappear and stay with me.’ Fleur opened her eyes. ‘But it’s okay. It is just wishful thinking. I know you cannot.’
‘I have to finish school and that’s the least of my worries.’
‘Voldemort,’ Fleur muttered. ‘We heard the rumours, even if your ministry denies them.’
‘I’ll make a plan.’ He kissed her cheek and grinned. ‘He’ll be defeated, I’ll get wonderful exam results, win the house cup, and be in complete control of my life for the first time.’
There’s no plan. Harry smoothed out his thoughts. Just Fleur. And a prophecy, some horcruxes, Dumbledore, the Ministry, Voldemort, and whatever else tries to get in our way.
‘I will help,’ Fleur declared. ‘I have only six more months at Beauxbatons left if my exams go well, then I am applying for a job with Les Inconnus. It will not be easy to get in, it takes years sometimes, but, hopefully, I will be able to work with the most complicated enchanted things in existence. Other things do not interest me yet and my family is wealthy enough. In the meantime, I shall help you however I can, and you will come and visit me.’
Fleur placed her finger on his lips and shook her head. ‘Non.’
It’s not the time to worry, I suppose. Harry kissed her fingertip and let the French sun and Fleur’s warmth soak into him. I freed myself for this. I mustn’t waste it. Or lose it.