The willow tree’s green leaves cascaded over sparkling waters and the summer sun’s reflection. Green grass rustled from the far bank to the swaying copse of trees upon the hilltop, and the scent of soft, sweet marzipan drifted to Harry’s nose.
‘Fleur?’ He swivelled.
Bare, pale branches clawed at the sky. Green leaves crumbled away from dead bark. The sun faded to an orb of crimson haze, the blue sky turned dark and grey as steel, and distant thunder rumbled. Shadows clustered beneath the dead roots of the willow, swirling ‘round Harry’s feet like a whirl of dark pitch and seeping into the blue of the river.
‘Harry.’ Fleur stood on the far bank, hand in hand with a tall shadow. The hot wind tossed her silver hair across her face. ‘I’m leaving.’
Harry’s heart shrank and seized like she’d twisted a knife in it. ‘Why?’ Liquid heat prickled at his lashes and knotted in his throat. ‘You promised.’
The grass died ‘round Fleur’s feet. Brown crept across the field until the distant copse of trees shed dead leaves into the searing gale. Lifeless fronds withered into the mud and the river of shadows yawned open between them into an abyss. A thousand faces flitted through the water, pale and faint as wisps of morning mist. Rita Skeeter’s flickered through the centre of the current and lightning flashed, a faint flicker of bright green across the grim sky.
I would’ve done anything for you. Anything.
‘Perfect wishes don’t come true, Harry.’ Fleur leant her head onto the shoulder of the shadow beside her and the thunder crashed. ‘Did you forget? You know you shouldn’t forget.’
‘You just repeat your mistakes if you forget,’ he whispered. ‘But you promised you were different.’
‘Nobody’s ever really different, mon Cœur.’ She offered her small, soft, warm smile to the shadow by her side, then the pair wavered and vanished.
The heat ebbed from his eyes and the lump melted from his throat. Cold crept in, a hollow, numb fist curling ‘round his heart. All hint of feeling faded away, and the shadows of the abyss danced before Harry’s feet like thick, dark smoke in the wind. He edged to the precipice and stared down. A thousand thousand faces stared back; their whispers drowned the crashing of the thunder and their wide, pale eyes shone brighter than the green flashing of the lightning.
‘If there’re no dreams left,’ he murmured. ‘Then what’s the point?’ He dipped a toe into the darkness. It clung to his skin like tar, cold as ice. ‘I may as well just disappear after all.’
The endless faces whispered back, a thousand quiet mutters swelling over him like a great dark wave, and the tattered shadows of fingers reached for him from the swirling black.
‘But then they win.’ Harry dragged his heart back from the dark. ‘I vanish. I become nothing.’ He stepped away from the abyss and turned his back on it. ‘And I won’t go back to that. Never.’
Bright green seared across Harry’s eyes.
He jolted upright into a lance of sunlight. ‘Fuck. Right. Off.’ He wrenched the gap in the hangings closed and buried the fading impressions of his dream somewhere down in the void. ‘I’m going to put a sticking charm on these tonight. I swear they come open every night.’
‘Who were you talking to?’ Nev called.
Harry sighed. ‘Just myself.’
Nev yawned. ‘First sign of madness, that.’
Harry pulled on his robes and batted the hangings aside. ‘Seen any hairs on the palms of your hands?’
Nev snorted. ‘I suppose I should get up and go for breakfast.’
Bed clothes rustled on the far side of the room and the red and gold hangings rattled open. Nev stepped off his bed, tangled one foot in the hangings, and plummeted to the floor.
‘Morning, Nev.’ Harry stepped over the top of him and continued toward the door. ‘Breakfast?’
‘Yes.’ Nev freed himself from the hangings and stumbled to his feet. ‘I’ve got loads of stuff to tell you. My gran found out a whole bunch of things in an emergency Wizengamot session last night.’
Harry hid a small, thin smile. ‘Oh?’
‘Apparently Rita Skeeter was killed in her home and the Dark Mark conjured over the top.’ Nev tripped on the end of Ron’s trunk. ‘Which is awful, of course, but they found all sorts of interesting stuff in her house.’
‘What did they find?’ Harry asked.
‘Some article about Lucius Malfoy and Death Eaters that she was going to put in her column.’
Harry glanced up and down the stairs, but saw nobody. ‘So Malfoy was the one who did it then?’
‘His associates, Gran reckons,’ Nev said as they headed downstairs toward the passage out. ‘Malfoy’s got an alibi, but he probably just asked some of his friends to cloak up and do it for him.’
‘So he escapes justice once again,’ Harry said.
‘Yeah.’ Nev gritted his teeth and balled his fists. ‘But that’s not the end of it. Gran said Amelia Bones, Head of the Department for Magical Law Enforcement, has been working her office round-the-clock since the aurors got through the wards on Skeeter’s home. Almost a hundred Ministry officials resigned or were fired this morning. There were a lot of former Death Eaters among them.’
They found the filing cabinet. It’s a shame I swore not to mess with her stuff or I would’ve been able to take it.
Harry shrugged and ducked out through the Fat Lady’s passageway. ‘Good riddance to them, then. Best they aren’t somewhere they can cause trouble.’
‘Does mean they’re probably all off kissing Voldemort’s arse, though,’ Nev said.
‘What’s the Prophet saying?’ Harry stepped over the trick step.
Nev stuck his foot right into it. ‘Damn…’
‘Every time.’ Harry slipped his wand out and freed him. ‘I’m honestly not even sure why we have these trick steps. Someone must have broken an ankle in one before.’
‘Cheers.’ Nev poked a toe at the next few steps before putting any weight down. ‘The Prophet tried to make it look like it was Sirius Black and his band of rogue Death Eaters, but that excuse is wearing thin. Half of London saw the Dark Mark. Gran said their emergency Wizengamot session was largely an attempt by Fudge and the few people stupid enough not to jump ship to convince everyone that Voldemort hadn’t returned. His days as Minister are numbered, apparently.’
‘Does you Gran tell you everything that happens in these sessions?’
‘Yes.’ Nev groaned. ‘The Wizengamot seat is hereditary and she’s just my proxy, which means that once I’m seventeen I have to go myself. Gran wants to be sure I know what I’m doing, so she spends an hour talking to me after every meeting.’
Harry laughed. ‘That sounds wonderful.’
‘I don’t know why you’re laughing,’ Nev said. ‘I’m fairly sure you have at least one seat yourself.’
‘At least one?’ Harry raised an eyebrow. ‘How is that democratic?’
Nev shrugged. ‘It’s not. The Ministry is meant to make the rules now we have the Statute of Secrecy. The Wizengamot are the bunch of powerful families that ran things before, and they get to veto stuff they think isn’t ok.’
And they passed Umbridge’s decrees?
‘So how do I have more than one seat? Harry asked.
‘Your family absorbed a few other prominent names and accrued a lot of political weight. Gran mentioned that once you’re of age you’ll be one of the most politically powerful wizards or witches in Britain, especially with your fame. Dumbledore’s the same.’
‘That sounds fun,’ Harry muttered. ‘A lifetime of exchanging barbed compliments with the likes of Lucius Malfoy.’
‘Hopefully he’ll be in Azkaban by then,’ Nev said.
‘Or I’ll be dead,’ Harry quipped.
Nev laughed. ‘Probably preferable, that.’
Harry constructed a bacon sandwich from the nearby platters of breakfast, cramming bacon between his slices of toast.
‘I’m not sure you’ll be able to bite that.’ Nev measured the height of the sandwich with both hands. ‘Not without unhinging your jaw and terrifying Ernie Macmillan with the idea that you’re actually half magical snake creature.’
‘I can certainly try.’ Harry stretched his jaw to encompass the sandwich. ‘Damn…’ He picked up a knife and fork. ‘Oh well. Plan B.’
‘Probably for the best,’ Nev said. ‘You don’t need to substitute for Ron’s table manners when he’s away.’
‘My sincerest apologies,’ Harry said. ‘So, what’re you doing today? Nobody comes back until tomorrow.’
‘Professor Sprout offered to let me help her in the greenhouses. I brought Hannah in to show to her.’
‘Hannah?’ Harry blinked, then grinned. ‘That’s not really how you’re meant to introduce your girlfriend to people Nev, but congratulations for finally asking her out, everyone knows you like Miss Abbott.’
Neville let out an undignified squeak and turned the colour of an overripe pomegranate. ‘I named my Mimbulus Mimbletonia Hannah,’ he muttered.
‘Oh?’ Harry’s grin widened. ‘Well, if you want my advice, I’d make sure Hannah, the girl, that is, knows how much you love your cactus, before she finds out you named a slimy, spiky, stinky sap shooting monster of a plant after her and takes it badly.’
Nev gulped. ‘You think she won’t like it?’
‘I think she’ll like it once she knows how much you love the plant,’ Harry said. ‘If she doesn’t know that, though, then you’re going to be spending a whole lot more time with the less attractive, green version of Hannah than with the pretty, pig-tailed one.’
‘And when you said everyone knows?’
‘I meant that literally every person in the school knows that you like her.’ Harry bifurcated his sandwich. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if Professor Dumbledore’s end of year speech mentions it.
If he’s still here.
‘So Hannah knows?’ Neville squeaked.
‘I think she was one of the first to notice, Nev,’ Harry teased. ‘You spend a lot of time staring at her, then you start getting really dreamy-eyed and go all red. What do you start thinking about?’ He did his best to copy Gabby’s suggestive, mischievous glance.
Nev crammed the last of his breakfast into his mouth and gulped it down. ‘I think I need to go see Professor Sprout.’
‘You could just ask Hannah to Hogsmeade,’ Harry suggested. ‘She might say yes, you know.’
Nev shot him a glare, then scurried away between the tables.
Harry finished his sandwich. I suppose I should check on Dobby and then go and speak to Sirius. See if he’s ready to tell me things now.
He swung himself off the bench and began to wander in the direction of the Chamber of Secrets.
‘Dobby,’ Harry called.
A loud crack echoed down the corridor and Dobby appeared, bobbing his head back and forth.
‘How have you been, Dobby?’ Harry walked up the stairs and along the corridor toward Myrtle’s bathroom. ‘Well?’
‘Dobby is good, Master Harry Potter.’ The elf glanced around. ‘Dobby is happy that his master has managed to strike back against that family. Dobby knows the nasty green lady. She’s a friend of Dobby’s old master.’
‘She wasn’t a very nice person,’ Harry said. ‘But what happened was about making sure your former master’s master doesn’t win.’
‘Dobby understands.’ Dobby bounced along in Harry’s wake. ‘Master Harry Potter is very noble, he tries to protect everyone however he can.’
Harry stifled a grimace. Because that’s what heroes do, isn’t it?
‘Thank you, Dobby,’ he said. ‘Have you been watching Professor Umbridge for me?’
‘Dobby has. The nasty pink lady has tried to harm students over and over again, but Dobby has been making sure she can’t.’ His whole body quivered. ‘But she is getting suspicious of Dobby now, there is much more magic around her office than there used to be.’
‘Can you still get in?’
‘Dobby won’t fail Master Harry Potter. Master Harry Potter risked his life to save all the students from the monster of the Chamber when Dobby only tried to save one. Dobby knows better now. He will do what Master Harry Potter would’ve done and save them all.’
‘Thank you, Dobby,’ Harry knelt in front of the entrance to the bathroom to clasp the house elf’s hand between his. ‘Your assistance is invaluable in keeping everyone safe.’
‘Dobby will not fail Master Harry Potter.’ Dobby nodded so hard his long ears slapped against his cheeks, then vanished with a loud crack.
Poor Dobby. Heroes aren’t real. A small stab of pity lanced through his gut and he released a long sigh. I’ll make sure loyal Dobby’s well looked-after.
Harry stepped over the puddle on the floor of Myrtle’s bathroom. ‘Open.’ He hurried down the steps and past the serpent effigies. ‘I’m back.’
‘Alone? Or have you brought your French muse with you?’
‘Alone.’ Harry smothered the brief recollection of her head upon the shoulder of that tall shadow of a man.
I won’t see Fleur for a while now. She has exams and I shouldn’t distract her from them with my problems.
‘Have you come to learn something?’ Salazar asked. ‘Or are you going to tell me what happened yesterday?’
‘I came to speak to my godfather,’ Harry said. ‘He’s been shut up in that house he hates, watching people get sent to Azkaban or killed over whatever’s down there. And now Rita Skeeter’s been killed under the Dark Mark and the Ministry’s in turmoil.’
‘You killed her?’ Salazar pursed his lips. ‘Was it worth it? Are they starting to believe?’
‘I don’t know,’ Harry mused. ‘I do know that a lot of wizards and witches who might have been Voldemort supporters, or become ones, no longer work for the Ministry after aurors discovered all the material Skeeter dug up.’
Salazar nodded. ‘Then it was worth it.’
Harry picked up the mirror from the desk and breathed his godfather’s name onto it, pressing a finger to his lips.
‘Harry!’ Sirius cracked a broad grin. ‘How are you? How was your Christmas? I have your present, but I can’t seem to convince Dumbledore to give it to you.’
‘It was good.’ Harry clenched his jaw. ‘Except for what happened to Mr Weasley. Dumbledore sent him down there into danger.’
‘Yes.’ Sirius’s grin vanished. ‘Arthur is dearly missed. Things have been subdued here.’
‘He shouldn’t have had to die,’ Harry muttered.
‘He died on duty for the Order.’ Shadows crept into Sirius’s grey eyes. ‘Which is better than what I’m doing, rotting in here, not helping anyone. It’s just like last time, but Dumbledore won’t listen to anyone.’
‘Nobody should be guarding things in the Department of Mysteries,’ Harry said.
Sirius grimaced. ‘How do you know about the prophecy?’
So it’s the prophecy they’re all after. Harry ground his teeth. They won’t tell me anything, but they’ll send Mr Weasley to die.
‘I assume there was a good reason for me not being told and everyone being sent down where Voldemort would obviously attack them?’ Harry raised both his eyebrows. ‘It seemed like Mrs Weasley felt it was somehow my fault, as if it wasn’t Dumbledore’s plan…’
‘Molly is just very upset.’ Sirius sighed. ‘How much do you know about this, then?’
‘I’ve gathered that it’s about me, that it’s in the Department of Mysteries, and that Voldemort is clearly after it.’
‘That’s pretty much all there is to it,’ Sirius said. ‘We’ve been guarding it.’
‘I want to know why you haven’t just broken, moved, or stolen it?’
‘Only the person the prophecy is about can remove it,’ Sirius said. ‘There’re some very old and nasty protections on them. Prophecies cause a lot of trouble, so the wards are quite strong.’
‘So only Voldemort or I can take it?’ Harry glanced at Salazar.
Salazar wound his serpent ‘round his arm and peered down with a deep frown. ‘Keep going,’ he whispered.
‘So either I take it, or people keep dying,’ Harry said. ‘Surely the smart thing to do would be to just sneak in and grab it.’
Sirius grimaced. ‘This is why Dumbledore insisted we not tell you, he was afraid you’d insist on coming to get it.’
‘Because that makes perfect sense,’ Harry jibed. ‘It’s fine for you all to repeatedly risk sneaking in and possibly dying to guard it, but way too risky for me to sneak in once and just sort it for good.’
‘If you can secretly guard it, then I can secretly sneak in and destroy it.’
After I’ve listened to it, of course.
Sirius twisted his lips about, then sighed. ‘I’ll talk to the Order.’
‘No.’ Harry shook his head. ‘Dumbledore will never agree. If he hasn’t changed his mind after Mr Weasley died, he’s never going to listen to us. We can sneak in together under the invisibility cloak and tell him afterward. It’ll be fine.’
A weak grin spread over Sirius’s lips. ‘You make it sound like I’m back sneaking out after curfew at Hogwarts.’
‘I don’t know how to get in,’ Harry said.
‘Oh, that’s easy,’ Sirius said. ‘We’ll go when Mundungus is on watch. He’s had his eye on all sorts of bits and pieces from this house. I’ll give him a bunch of stuff and that’ll be that. I’m sure nobody else will be about in that part of the Ministry after hours.’
‘How do I get to the Ministry?’ Harry asked.
‘Once you’re here, I can apparate you. Everyone else already knows the secret, the Weasley’s and Hermione were here over Christmas and in the summer to help clear the place up.’ He looked down and rustled through his pockets. ‘I kept this when Dumbledore gave it to me.’
Harry studied the tattered piece of parchment and the smudged, elegant, slanted script upon it. The headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix may be found at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, London.
‘You kept the note he gave you?’ he asked.
‘I haven’t left the house, so if someone finds the note, then they’re already inside and it doesn’t matter. When are we going to go?’
I need to oust Dumbledore, then get rid of Umbridge.
‘I don’t know for sure.’ Harry said. ‘I need to find a way to sneak out without Umbridge or Dumbledore realising.’
‘I’ll be waiting.’ Sirius grinned. The corners of his eyes crinkled and the shadows lifted from his face. ‘I feel younger just thinking about doing this. It’ll be good to have some excitement again.’
‘And to destroy that prophecy,’ Harry said.
‘That too,’ Sirius said. ‘Have you heard about what’s happening at the Ministry today?’
‘Not really.’ Harry shook his head. ‘Nev said the Wizengamot’s not happy with Fudge.’
‘Yeah, old Augusta’s just a proxy, so she’d’ve had to tell him.’ Sirius rubbed his eyes. ‘Guess I’d better explain some boring stuff to you about wizarding politics. The Wizengamot’s just the collection of noble families that ran this country’s magical side for nearly a millennium. The Ministry got set up to uphold the Statute of Secrecy and has kind of turned into government on the back of it. A lot of the old families didn’t like that, but it’s done and probably for the better.’
‘So that’s why purebloods hate muggles?’
‘Part of it.’ Sirius shrugged. ‘Muggles and wizards have been killing each other for a lot of different reasons for a long time. Anyway, the Ministry makes and upholds all the laws these days, but they can’t just toss the Wizengamot out, because the families are still influential and powerful, and they have a right of veto over anything that’s passed. That right of veto is very important for stopping anything stupid being made into law.’
Dots began to connect in Harry’s head. ‘So the Ministry tries to push its agenda through the Wizengamot all the time.’
‘Right, but most often the Wizengamot’s too split to ever pass anything major. Just how the balance of votes works.’ Sirius squinted through the mirror. ‘I can’t remember the exact details. Regulus loved this stuff, but I’d rather chew my own leg off than listen to it. Right now, it boils down to the fact that Fudge just about had the Wizengamot on side, but all this recent stuff is losing him that. My cousin, Tonks, said Amelia Bones has turfed out a whole load of Ministry people on the back of the Rita Skeeter murder. A good swathe of them were key people for Fudge.’
‘So he’s screwed.’
‘Won’t last more than a month if he doesn’t get some kind of miracle.’
He’ll be looking for one, then. Harry hid a smile and swallowed down a heady rush of triumph. He’ll leap at the chance to catch Dumbledore up to no good. This is perfect.’