Diagon Alley’s heaving crowd bustled past the front of Ollivander’s shop. Red umbrellas fluttered to Harry’s right in a faint, cool breeze.
Fleur squeezed his fingers. ‘Mon Cœur?’ she whispered.
‘This way,’ Harry murmured. ‘Skeeter’s smart. She lives in the middle of London where nobody can openly retaliate against her articles without getting into a lot of trouble for messing with muggles.’
Fleur huffed against his neck. ‘She’s not smart. She’s a bitter little girl with a crayon, a column and a grudge.’
He laughed, leading her from Ollivander’s out of Diagon Alley and into muggle London. ‘Well, she’s going to get her just desserts soon.’
They weaved through the gaggles of muggles on the pavement. Harry tracked the street names on his right as they went.
‘She won’t be there when we arrive, will she?’ Fleur whispered.
‘I’m not sure.’ Harry ducked an enthusiastic tourist’s arm and tugged Fleur down out of the way. ‘Have you seen the street?’
‘There,’ Fleur hissed. ‘Where I’m pointing.’
Harry snickered. ‘We’re invisible, Fleur.’
‘Eleven o’clock. And stop laughing at me, I forgot.’
Harry pressed his free hand over his mouth to stifle his chuckles and started toward Rita Skeeter’s street. Now, where’s number five?
The number five hung on the lime-green door of a modest house a few down the identical row. A neat lawn surrounded a small, stone birdbath, and potted shrubs and flowers bloomed beneath the white-painted window sills.
Harry pulled his cloak out and covered the two of them, then opened the gate and crept along the path to the door. He hopped over the step and paused before the threshold. ‘Diffindo,’ he muttered, running the tip of his wand along the edge of the frame.
The lock gave with a soft metallic click.
Harry pushed the door open and cast a quick revealing charm. ‘Nobody’s home, but stay under the cloak just in case, mon Rêve.’
Soft, thick carpet spread across small neat rooms decorated with comfortable, colourful furniture and piled with stacks of magazines and papers. Framed articles hung on all the walls.
‘I will go this way.’ Fleur’s footsteps drifted off to the left and upstairs.
Harry dispelled his disillusionment and explored the lower rooms. A chipped, worn set of china lay behind the kitchen cupboards and a tub of cake sat beside the sink.
‘Harry,’ Fleur hissed in his ear.
A cold rush coursed through his veins. Harry glowered at the source of Fleur’s quiet laughter.
‘I found a whole cabinet of files upstairs, come see.’
Harry followed the sound of her steps up the stairs to a short corridor with a small, crackling fireplace between a well-lit office and Skeeter’s bedroom.
Fleur’s foot impressions paused beside a towering cabinet. ‘It was well-warded, but not well enough warded to keep me out.’
Harry skimmed through the drawers, flicking through an endless list of names and thick folders. He pulled Lucius Malfoy’s out and thumbed through it. ‘Perfect…’
‘Make her write an article about all the Death Eaters in here,’ Fleur suggested.
‘She’d never agree,’ he said. ‘Not if she thought it’d ever see the light of day.’
But if she didn’t, then she might. Harry weighed things up. And if the article was found under dramatic circumstances…
He turned to Fleur. ‘I’ll have to–’
The light from the flames in the corridor flared green. The floo. She’s coming back. A fist of panic clamped ‘round Harry’s heart. Nobody must know about Fleur.
‘Go!’ Harry hissed. ‘Go, Fleur. I’ll see you in a few minutes in France. Go now, please.’
The cloak whispered to the floor. Harry picked it up, folded it away beneath his robes, and stepped out into the corridor to lean against the wall. He smothered his fading panic, dragging up the memory of Katie’s tears and letting the little ball of ice tighten in his chest.
Rita Skeeter stepped out of the flames, dusting off her lime-green jacket and cream blouse.
‘Rita.’ Harry offered her a small smile. ‘Welcome home.’
She quirked an eyebrow. ‘Mr Potter, this is most unexpected. Illegal, too.’
‘Now, now, Rita. Don’t go throwing stones from your glass house.’
‘Muggle phrases. I’m afraid I don’t understand.’
Harry’s smile spread a little wider. ‘I believe they sentence unregistered animagi to Azkaban, don’t they?’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘You must have proof to make an open allegation like that and not fear being laughed at even more than you already are.’
‘I wouldn’t be here if I thought it might go wrong,’ Harry lied. ‘I was hoping we might come to an arrangement.’
Rita’s lips thinned. ‘What sort?’
‘The sort where you write a highly controversial article and I keep your secret,’ Harry replied. ‘The article will even have the benefit of being true, for once. The novelty may amuse you, Rita.’
‘Who would you like me to enlighten my readers about, Mr Potter?’
‘There’s a whole list of very interesting files in that cabinet. I had a brief read through and I think Mr Malfoy would make a very nice subject for you.’
‘No. Definitely not.’ Rita shook her head. ‘Not worth the risk to me.’
Of course not. Harry forced himself to frown. So now some bait. Good bait.
‘How about you write the article, then I will swear an oath, an Unbreakable Vow, to never mention your little secret again before I leave. Would that assurance be worthwhile?’
Rita Skeeter’s eyes gleamed and she stepped across to catch his hand in between hers. ‘We have a deal. I don’t particularly want to spend any time in Azkaban.’
‘I’ve heard it’s an unpleasant place,’ Harry said. ‘Now, the article?’
‘Of course.’ Rita’s smile turned into a wolfish grin, and her acid-green quill rose from the pocket of her jacket with her note-pad and began to scribble away. ‘Perhaps you’d like some cake while I write?’
‘That would be lovely.’ Harry trailed her to the kitchen. ‘I fear I’m slowly developing a sweet tooth.’
‘Pound cake.’ Rita cut a generous slice and passed it across on a small plate. ‘A personal favourite of mine, actually.’
Harry took a bite and let the sweet sponge dissolve on his tongue. ‘It’s very good. Is it homemade?’
Fleur would like this.
‘Yes.’ A touch of genuine pride coloured Rita’s tone. ‘I always wanted to be a baker, you know, but there’s not much of a market for simple cakes in the magical world.’
‘I’m impressed.’ Harry laughed. ‘There’s a hidden side to Britain’s most feared journalist.’
‘To you as well it seems, Harry.’ She watched him finish his cake with a curious gleam in her eyes. ‘How did you get in undetected?’
‘Now that would be telling. Rest assured your wards aren’t flawed, I simply found a way to bypass them. There aren’t many wards that can keep me out if I really need to get in.’
‘How fascinating,’ Rita murmured. Her quill drifted to write upon paper headed with the Daily Prophet’s title. ‘Almost done, Harry.’
‘May I see?’
‘Of course.’ Rita watched her quill finish its line, then passed him the sheet.
Harry skimmed the piece. Death Eater. Imperius Curse. Murder. Rape. Torture. He put it down and brushed the crumbs back onto the plate. This will do just fine.
‘How scathing. It’s perfect.’
‘And now for your side of our deal, Harry.’ Rita’s eyes glittered. ‘You owe me a vow.’
Harry finished his cake and set the plate down. ‘My house elf will suffice as an intelligent magical witness. He’ll be indirectly bound by my oath, too, that way.’
Rita’s grin broadened. ‘An excellent idea.’
‘Dobby,’ he called.
Dobby materialised with a loud crack. ‘Master Harry Potter, sir?’
‘I need you to witness an oath for me, Dobby,’ Harry said. ‘It’s very important.’
‘Dobby will not disappoint Master Harry Potter.’
Harry drew his wand and passed it to Dobby. ‘Just hold it there, Dobby, I’ll do the rest. Now, what are your terms, Rita?’
Rita reached forward and clasped his right hand with hers. ‘Will you, Harry Potter, agree to never speak of my animagus abilities again?’
A tendril of white magic flared from the tip of his wand to encircle their hands. A cold chill crept down his spine as the magic tightened about him like a noose. He closed his eyes and pictured their magic weaving together like threads to form the rope about his neck.
‘Will you, Harry Potter, agree never to break into any property I own, or into anything that contains my belongings?’ Rita asked.
A second tendril joined the first.
She released his hand. ‘That’s sufficient. You have your article written and I have my assurance.’
‘I’ll be leaving, then,’ Harry said. ‘It was nice doing business with you.’
Rita’s grin spread from ear to ear. ‘Bye, Harry. Keep an eye on the paper tomorrow. I think the article will be a fantastic read.’
Harry chuckled. ‘Yes, I suspect it will be, Rita.’ He slipped his wand out. ‘However, there is one last thing… Morsmordre.’
The serpent and skull tore the top storey and roof from the house. Tiles, wood, and stone hailed down onto the kitchen floor, and dust clouded the air.
Harry swept it all away with a flick of his wand.
A smoke serpent writhed through the empty sockets of the skull and eerie green light flickered across the sky above them.
Rita gasped. ‘The Dark Mark…’ Her eyes darted to the article then back to him, her face draining of all colour. ‘Wait!’
‘Wait?’ Harry asked.
‘Will bind me so long as Dobby lives. Perhaps you ought to have chosen your words more carefully, Rita.’ He gave her a thin, cold smile. ‘But then again, that’s why I’m here in the first place, isn’t it?’
You shouldn’t have written such horrible things about Fleur or Katie.
She scrambled for her wand.
One perfect wish. Harry pictured the sunset beyond the leaves of the willow tree and embraced the ice within. Pettigrew’s blank eyes drifted through thoughts of French sun and his wand turned hot in his hand. Whatever it takes.
‘Avada kedavra,’ he whispered.
A bright green flash lit the kitchen. Rita slumped to the floor and her lime-feathered quill drifted down onto the tiles.
Harry stared down at her blank eyes and waited for something to rise up inside. His stomach remained still and his heart’s pounding slowed to its usual beat. She hurt countless people. Like Fleur said, she deserves everything she gets.
He closed his eyes and listened.
Whispers rose up around him. The subtle susurration of soft screams. A handful of pairs of cold green eyes stared back from within and the reflection of a crimson sun sank down below the world’s edge in every pair.
My perfect wish. Harry released a deep sigh. And my soul’s healing, so I can’t be a horcrux any longer.
‘Fleur’s going to be angry.’ He glanced ‘round the kitchen, then summoned the plate of pound cake. ‘Maybe the cake will buy me a head start.’
Loud cracks echoed from the street below.
Aurors. Harry pictured the willow tree and twisted the world back past him until he stood beneath its branches.
Fleur swung her feet from their branch.
He glanced up into her pitch-black eyes. ‘Merde.’
‘Merde indeed,’ she hissed.
Harry winced and held up the plate. ‘I brought you cake?’
Fleur’s eyes narrowed, then she held out her hand. ‘Give.’
Harry levitated the plate up to her.
She vanished the plastic, then took a huge bite out of the remaining thick slice of pound cake. Crumbs spilt down her chest and showered onto the willow roots. ‘It’s good.’ Fleur’s eyes shifted to dark blue as she finished it in small, swift bites. ‘But you’re not forgiven, mon Cœur.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I panicked.’
Fleur huffed and dusted crumbs from her fingers. ‘You panicked.’ She dropped from the branch with a soft thud. ‘I faced a dragon. You think some spiteful bitch of a reporter scares me?’
‘No. I know she doesn’t.’ Harry sighed. ‘I just don’t want anything to happen to you. I couldn’t stand it.’ His stomach churned and a thick, hot lump caught in his throat. ‘I’d cut off an arm or more if it meant everything else would go away and I could stay here with you now forever.’
Fleur scowled. ‘You will need both your hands to beg me for forgiveness, mon Cœur.’
A chuckle slipped through Harry’s lips. ‘I daresay I will need to carry a lot of cake.’
‘It will take more than cake.’ Fleur’s eyes smouldered. ‘A lot more.’
‘Marzipan?’ Harry watched the blue in her eyes lighten. ‘Jurançon?’
Fleur turned her nose up. ‘You’ll have to find out.’ Her face crumbled. ‘But not for a little while. My suspension ends soon so I can take my exams. I will be busy. I won’t fail. Fleur Delacour doesn’t fail.’
‘She’s perfect.’ Harry pressed his lips to Fleur’s forehead. ‘As always, non?’
‘As. Always.’ Fleur buried her smile in the crook of his neck. ‘I forgive you,’ she whispered. ‘But I will not keep forgiving you. You’re my dream, too, mon Cœur, and I refuse to be a mere bystander in it.’
Harry’s heart lurched and heat prickled in his eyes. ‘I will try to stop doing it. I will.’
‘You better.’ Her fingers slid into his hair and tightened to the point of pain. ‘Or I will have to think of some cruel and unusual punishment for you.’
‘Cake-bearer?’ Harry suggested.
‘Human torch.’ Fleur released his hair. ‘Now, what did you do after you sent me away?’
She’ll find out as soon as she sees the paper tomorrow. He swallowed and took a deep breath. I have to tell her, or she’ll just be more angry then.
Harry tried to smother churning in his gut, but a tight fist of fear clamped itself about his heart. ‘I promised her an Unbreakable Vow to keep her secrets if she wrote the article.’ He forced the words out, staring away into the blue sky above her head. ‘Rita took the deal, because I didn’t ask her to publish it, then I killed her and cast the Dark Mark over her house. Everyone will see it and know Voldemort is returned, especially with the article and that filing cabinet.’
‘It’s a long way from arm twisting to murder, mon Cœur,’ Fleur murmured. ‘You said nothing about killing her.’
He stared down at his feet. ‘She deserved it. You said so yourself.’
She slid a finger under his chin and tilted his face up toward hers. ‘I do not care what happens to selfish little girls who poke at dragons, I care about you keeping secrets from me. Why didn’t you tell me? Did you think I wouldn’t like it? That I’d run away and leave?’
‘I didn’t have time to tell you,’ he whispered. ‘I only thought of it as she arrived, and then I panicked.’
Fleur’s blue eyes bored into his, then a small smile crept across her lips. ‘But you tried to tell me, non?’
He nodded. ‘I did. I did.’
‘Bonne.’ She kissed him. ‘Now then, since I must go back to Carcassonne before Beauxbatons, is there anything you want from Maman’s shop?’
‘I assume I still have to pay?’ Harry teased.
‘Maman is more fond of you than she was before Christmas, but not that fond of you.’
Harry ran through a mental checklist of the potions he knew for ones that might be useful. I can probably get most of the ones I need for patching me up post-ritual from Madam Pomfrey, though.
‘Polyjuice Potion?’ he asked.
‘What are you going to do with it?’
Harry grinned. ‘I’m going to steal one of your sister’s hairs and pretend to be her evil twin for as long as I can.’
Fleur laughed. ‘Gabby will be the more evil twin. Seriously?’
‘It might be useful,’ Harry said. ‘I might need to pretend to be someone else at some point.’
‘I’ll send it to you,’ she said. ‘Now, we have an hour or so of the evening left before I need to be back at the chateau…’
‘Paris?’ Harry suggested. ‘Gabby seemed lonely…’
A soft, warm smile spread across Fleur’s lips. ‘That’s a very good idea.’ She brushed the crumbs of her cake off her front and picked one out of her cleavage. ‘You can pay for us, cake-bearer.’
Harry feigned a groan. ‘Poverty beckons.’
‘What good will gold do you, mon Cœur?’ Fleur smirked and slipped her fingers through his. ‘I am all you will ever need.’
Harry cast a glance through Fleur’s cascade of silver hair at the setting sun. ‘You’re all I’ll ever want, mon Rêve.’