This one’s for Wicked, for all the support he’s given me and all the fun we’ve had on in Discord!
If you prefer audiobooks, listen to the audio version created by Sam Gabriel below!
A long, steep hill stretched up into the sky. The sun set behind it in a wash of pink and orange light, sending dark shadows stretching from the hill’s crown to Harry’s feet. The light upon the horizon hung as distant as a full winter moon and a desperate yearning lanced through Harry’s heart.
Fleur. He took a step forward over cold, pale stones. A great weight hung upon him as if his limbs were made of lead, but he forced himself on. Just keep going. One step at a time. Whatever it takes.
Harry clawed his way over the smooth, cold surface on his hands and knees, hauling himself toward the summit.
The shadows faded away.
Dead, dull eyes gleamed beneath his feet and matted hair clung to his hands. His palms came away hot, daubed red, and dripping. White stone shifted to pale skin, cold limbs, and stiff fingers, a mound of corpses sprawled beneath his hands and feet. Red bubbled up between the bodies, trickling down to the foot of the mountain and spreading out like spilt ink across polished wood.
He stumbled over the top into the light of the sunset. She stood there, bathing in its glow, her silver hair fluttering over her bright blue eyes and small, precious smile. The shimmering dress she’d worn to the Yule Ball sparkled like spun silver in the sun.
Warmth flooded through Harry’s body and the weight faded from his limbs. ‘Fleur,’ he breathed.
‘Come to watch the sunset with me?’ She stared off into the distance where a slim curve of gold sank into the dark.
‘Of course.’ Harry staggered forward and reached out with one red-stained hand. ‘We–’
A chasm loomed between them.
He stood upon stiff corpses and stared at her through his crimson fingers. She hovered beyond the mountain’s edge, her feet upon the fading golden rays.
No… Harry’s heart sank down into the pit of his stomach and he closed his eyes. I know this sort of dream.
Fleur sighed. ‘You’re missing the sunset, mon Cœur.’
But you’re not gone yet. He forced open his eyes.
The dying rays bled crimson beyond Fleur’s cascade of silver hair. The sea of red spreading from beneath Harry’s mountain frothed, churned, then surged upward over the corpses.
Harry forced words past the thick, hot lump in his throat and the fistful of razors twisting in his chest. ‘I’m going to lose it in a moment. I always do.’
‘That’s the trouble with sunsets, mon Cœur.’ Fleur watched the blood bubble up beneath Harry’s toes with soft, blue eyes and the small smile faded from her lips. ‘They don’t last forever.’
The mountain trembled. Harry’s footing twisted out from beneath him and he slipped down to his waist in the pale, cold limbs. The red lapped at the summit, its heat creeping up to his knees. Despair smothered him, strangling his heart like the long dark weeds of the Black Lake.
‘Goodbye, mon Cœur.’ Fleur faded with the last of the light.
Harry closed his eyes and let the corpses drag him down into the hot dark with pale, stiff fingers, then awoke with a gasp into a faceful of silver hair. Fleur’s head rested on his shoulder, her warm arms and legs wrapped tight ‘round him beneath a tangle of covers.
Harry took a deep breath. Just a stupid dream.
He stretched for his wand. ‘Tempus.’
‘Fleur,’ he murmured, pressing his lips to her forehead. ‘I have to go.’
Her grip tightened. ‘Non.’
‘Fleur…’ He eased himself free. ‘I’ll be back soon.’
Her eyes slid open and she blew a stray lock of her hair off her face. ‘I suppose I need to shower.’ One of her hands slid down beneath the covers and a small smirk curved her lips. ‘I definitely need to shower.’
Harry glanced about the room. ‘I have no clothes…’
Fleur laughed. ‘Oops.’
He sighed. ‘I’m sure I can conjure some.’
‘Not in the bed you can’t,’ she whispered in his ear. ‘So at least I get a show before my shower…’
Harry chuckled. ‘Oh no you don’t.’ He kissed her on the cheek, then twisted the world back past him until he stepped into Salazar’s study with a soft snap.
Salazar cackled. ‘Where’re your clothes, Harry?’
He pulled on a fresh set from his trunk behind the desk and buried the memory of Fleur’s hands burning through his clothes and hers. ‘They had an accident.’
‘An accident.’ Salazar sniggered. ‘You might want to take a look at your neck. Had a close run in with a toothless vampire, did you?’
Harry flushed and glanced in Sirius’s mirror. A vivid crimson mark sat under his jaw line and a scatter of similar, smaller ones trailed along his collarbone. A strange sense of pride welled up as he stared at them.
She did that deliberately. The glimmer of mischief in her eyes as her lips drifted to his neck flashed through his mind. I guess she didn’t like that marriage contract stuff.
Harry raised his wand to his neck, the incantation of the healing spell on his lips, then pursed his lips and conjured himself a scarf instead.
Salazar cackled again. ‘Fond of them, are you?’
‘Shut up, you poorly-drawn desk-graffiti.’
‘What did you learn at Gringotts?’ Salazar’s broad grin didn’t relent in the slightest. ‘I’m assuming there weren’t any nasty surprises, going by those marks and your lack of clothes.’
‘The fortune of my family was mostly spent by my father in the war with Voldemort,’ Harry said. ‘The vaults I might’ve been able to claim from connected families don’t exist, save for one under your name, but I received the impression it’s a meagre amount.’
‘Were there any alliances, agreements or such?’ Salazar asked. ‘Gold can be earnt, stolen, or won. Your word is more important. When given, it must be kept.’
Harry nodded. ‘None.’
Salazar patted the head of his serpent. ‘That’s good. You’re free to carve out your own path.’
‘Once Voldemort is dead,’ Harry muttered.
‘Well, yes. There’s no avoiding that, but you’ve come so far from the weak, skinny child who first came into my study and couldn’t even recognise his most famous ancestor.’
‘I’m still not strong enough.’ The fading sunset and the mountain of corpses flickered through his thoughts. In his mind’s eye, Fleur turned her back on him as the crimson light died. ‘I need more.’
A faint smile graced Salazar’s lips. ‘You will get stronger, Harry. In two years you’ve transitioned from a child to a wizard that almost any opponent would have to take seriously to survive. More will come if you need it.’
‘I will need it.’ Harry stared into the painting’s eyes. ‘Voldemort will not stop.’
‘No.’ Salazar bowed his head. ‘Voldemort will not stop. Tom did not stop. I could not stop.’ Shadows clustered in his eyes when he raised his gaze. ‘Now it’s your turn.’
Harry glanced toward the book on rituals, the time-turner and the stack of notes on horcruxes in Tom’s handwriting. ‘I can’t stop. I can’t lose.’
‘Fleur,’ Salazar murmured. ‘Of course.’
Harry turned away. ‘I can’t lose.’
‘I won’t tell you to lose, Harry. Just be careful what you sacrifice to win.’
‘I’ll sacrifice whatever it takes.’ Harry snatched the Marauder’s Map up from the desk. ‘Fudge is desperate. If I throw him something that looks like a lifeline, he’ll hurl himself after it.’
‘Fudge?’ Salazar blinked. ‘The Minister for Magic?’
‘Yes.’ Harry laughed. ‘I had to explain to Fleur’s sister, Gabby, that the Ministry of Magic was not, in fact, run by animated confectionery.’ He snorted. ‘Not that you’d notice the difference half the time.’
‘And?’ Salazar pressed.
‘Fudge is clinging to power by a thread, but seems determined not to let go if he can avoid it.’
‘And the moment this Umbridge woman gives him hope of a lifeline he will seize it with both hands.’ Salazar nodded. ‘Good. Hang him with it. Hang that woman, too. In my day we would’ve killed her for what she’s been trying to do to children.’
‘I don’t care what happens to Fudge.’ Harry shrugged. ‘But nobody will be looking very hard for an unpopular former undersecretary when Voldemort returns and war looms.’
And she deserves it. The moment she realises Voldemort has returned, she’ll trade that pink cardigan for a Death Eater’s mask. She’s a spiteful bigot just like the rest of them.
‘Marietta…’ He scanned the map, tracing his eyes across until he caught her name near the Owlery. ‘My first breadcrumb.’ Harry stuffed the map into his pocket and sprinted for the steps. ‘I’m leaving!’
‘I’m a painting, not blind,’ Salazar called after him.
Harry banished the water on the floor across the bathroom with a flick of his wand and cast the disillusionment charm over himself as he hurtled into the corridor. He sprinted down the hall and slid down the rail of the stairs to avoid a pair of students, then cast a cushioning charm on the next set of steps and leapt to the ground floor. Pain lanced up his legs and Harry staggered, clenching his jaw, forcing his feet on past the classrooms until he skidded to a halt inside the entrance to the Owlery.
Who else is about? Harry checked the Marauder’s Map, but saw only Marietta’s name hovering over his. We’re the only two.
He prowled up the steps to the Owlery itself. Marietta’s red hair bounced along near the window as she hummed a soft, fast tune and her owl fluttered its wings, hopping along her wrist.
Focus and intent. Like the mind arts.
Harry slid his wand from his sleeve. ‘Imperio.’
His magic connected them and Harry felt his will seep through her thoughts. His intentions swirled into hers like blood into water until everything was red and only his will remained.
Marietta released her owl, then hurried past Harry and down the steps. He watched on the Marauder’s Map as she made a direct line for Umbridge’s office.
Perfect. And now to wait…
He removed the spells concealing himself and drifted back to Gryffindor Tower, smiling at the Fat Lady as she let him in.
Neville, Ron, and Seamus laboured at one of the tables, pestering Hermione for assistance. She answered their questions with a roll of her eyes, toying with a slim, silver chain about her neck.
Harry spied Katie, Alicia, Angelina, and the twins. He walked over and squeezed into the chair beside Katie. ‘Hi!’ He glanced at her Transfiguration essay. ‘That doesn’t look very interesting.’
Katie pouted. ‘It isn’t.’ She squirmed ‘round to drop her feet in Harry’s lap. ‘Do it for me?’
Angelina huffed under her breath and Alicia folded her arms. Fred and George gave Harry a pair of sharp nods.
‘Hush, you two,’ Katie said. ‘You’re leaving at the end of this year and Harry will be my closest friend.’
Harry wiped away an imaginary tear. ‘Am I not already your closest friend?’
‘No.’ Katie grinned and patted him on the cheek. ‘You’re not cute or female enough.’
‘Well that seems a bit sexist,’ Harry said. ‘Do you want help with your essay?’
Alicia smirked. ‘With NEWT level Transfiguration? That’s sweet of you, Harry, but Katie’s one of the best in our year.’
Harry rolled his eyes and conjured a single black butterfly. ‘Sure?’ He directed the butterfly to land on Katie’s face.
‘Get it off, Harry!’ She growled and swiped at it until it burst into a wisp of black smoke. ‘Did you conjure that from the air?’
‘Yes,’ Harry said. ‘Figured out how last year.’
‘I remember.’ Katie scowled. ‘You showered the table in them at lunch. They couldn’t fly properly.’
‘That was then.’ Harry smiled and conjured another pair. ‘What shall I turn them into?’
‘Earrings,’ Angelina suggested.
‘A boyfriend for Katie,’ Alicia jibed.
Katie twitched and shot Alicia a glower. Harry caught Alicia’s eye, then turned both butterflies into large spiders and dropped them into her lap. She shrieked and swatted them away onto the floor, and Ron swore from the far side of the common room.
Harry laughed, summoned the spiders, then transfigured them into a pair of glass earrings in the shape of broomsticks and deposited them in Angelina’s hand. ‘All yours.’
Angelina poked them with her wand. ‘Will you turn them into spiders if I put them on?
‘Not if you’re nice.’
Alicia edged back into her seat. ‘Sorry,’ she muttered.
Katie nudged his elbow and shot him a hopeful look.
Fine. Harry conjured another couple of pairs.
‘Now you can all have matching quidditch earrings,’ he said.
Katie plucked both pairs out of his palm and tossed one set to Alicia. ‘These are really good, Harry.’
‘Thanks, I made them my—’
A distinct, irritating cough cut through the hum of the common room.
Umbridge waved the DA list in one pale, stubby-fingered hand, flanked by a pair of aurors. ‘Mr Potter, Mr Longbottom, Miss Granger, and Mr Weasley.’ She simpered. ‘You will all be accompanying me to the Headmaster’s Office.’
‘What for?’ Ron shouted.
A broad, gleeful smile spread across her face. ‘We will be discussing your expulsion, Mr Weasley.’
Katie grabbed his arm. ‘Harry,’ she whispered.
Harry patted her on the cheek. ‘I suppose we’d better go and find out what this is actually about.’ He cast a long look at Hermione, who chewed her lip, then nodded.
They followed the clicking of Umbridge’s pink heels and the ringing of the aurors’ boots to Dumbledore’s office.
Harry’s stomach knotted and swirled, his heart pounded, and a cold thrill trickled through his veins. Nearly there…
‘Wait here.’ Umbridge disappeared upstairs with her escort.
‘Don’t say anything,’ Harry hissed. ‘Not a word.’
‘She has the list,’ Nev squeaked.
‘Someone must’ve betrayed us,’ Ron muttered. ‘We’ll soon see who it was, Hermione’s jinx will make it pretty clear.’
Hermione gnawed her lower lip and rubbed at the dark rings beneath her eyes with the back of her hand. ‘We’re in so much trouble.’
‘The list is dated,’ Harry said. ‘At the moment there’s no proof we’ve done anything but sign up the day before joining became illegal.’
Ron gaped. ‘Clever.’
‘It might not be enough,’ Nev said. ‘There are aurors here, it must be more serious than just an illegal club.’
Much more serious. Harry hid a small smile. But hopefully they’re here for Dumbledore, not us.
‘Come up, children,’ Umbridge snapped from the top of the stairs.
Harry stepped into the Headmaster’s Office and glanced around. Silver instruments spun, twirled and swirled on the shelves, and Fawkes perched over the desk, his beady eyes on the bowl of sherbet lemons.
‘The Minister will be here shortly,’ Umbridge announced. ‘He will pass sentence on these miscreants and expel them from this institution for good.’
‘I’m here, Dolores.’ Fudge stepped from the flames. ‘Dumbledore.’
‘I’m afraid that you have me at a loss, Cornelius.’ Dumbledore stood up and slid his chair back beneath the desk.
‘Oh, I’m sure I do, Dumbledore,’ Fudge crowed. ‘We’ll deal with Potter and his co-conspirators after we get to the heart of the matter.’
A good sign. Harry smothered a small smile. If we’re not the heart of the matter, then Fudge thinks he’s found his lifeline.
‘Of course, Minister.’ Umbridge simpered. ‘At the suggestion of one of Hogwarts’s more conscientious students, I discovered this.’ She proffered the DA list to Fudge, but clung on to it when the minister tried to take it. ‘I’ve been aware of this group for some time, but I did not even begin to suspect what we were truly dealing with.’
‘Dumbledore’s Army?’ Fudge gasped. ‘Army?’
Dumbledore remained unmoved.
Harry held his breath. He won’t attack Fudge and the aurors. He can’t, not with Voldemort lurking in the shadows.
‘Exactly, Minister.’ Umbridge pulled a wide smile across her pale face. ‘It’s obvious what has been happening here. Potter and his friends have been recruiting to assist Albus Dumbledore in subverting the minds of young witches and wizards. He’s been filling their heads with his nonsense and lies while he schemes to steal your seat.’
‘Well,’ Fudge breathed, spinning his hat in his hands. ‘Well. You four will have to be expelled for your part in running a clearly illegal organisation.’
‘Illegal?’ Dumbledore shot Harry a quick glance. ‘This list is dated from before the relevant educational decree was passed; its existence is not proof of anything at all.’
‘I suppose that hardly matters.’ Fudge released the list. ‘Your crimes are far worse, Dumbledore.’
Umbridge snatched the list and tucked it away inside her cardigan.
Good. Harry smothered a flare of triumph. Marietta convinced her it was more important than just a list.
‘My crimes,’ Dumbledore mused. ‘My crimes, Cornelius?’
‘You’ve been plotting against me,’ Fudge cried. ‘Raising an army to overthrow the Ministry by manipulating the Boy-Who-Lived and your students.’
Oh, now I’m a victim rather than a villain. Wonderful.
‘I have indeed been plotting against you,’ Dumbledore said.
‘That’s a confession,’ Fudge blustered. ‘You will be taken into custody, formally charged, and then sent to Azkaban to await a trail.’
Well, that’s more than Sirius got. And it ought to keep Dumbledore away for long enough.
‘That sounds awfully tedious, Cornelius,’ Dumbledore said. ‘I can think of a very long list of things I would rather spend my time doing. Are you sure you want to insist on this foolishness?’
Fudge sputtered. ‘Foolishness? Foolishness?’
‘Dawlish,’ Umbridge snapped, a mottled, crimson flush rising up her neck.
One of the aurors, an average-looking man in a grey coat, shifted his footing and his hand drifted toward his chest.
‘Don’t be silly, Dawlish.’ Dumbledore smiled at the man as though he were an errant first year. ‘I remember you being an excellent student and I’m sure you are a fabulous auror, but raising your wand against me would not be wise.’
‘Do you intend to duel the Minister, myself, and two aurors?’ Umbridge demanded.
Dumbledore’s eyes hardened. ‘Only if you are insistent upon continuing with this madness.’
‘We’re not intimidated,’ Umbridge spluttered.
Fudge’s knuckles whitened around the brim of his hat. ‘Now, see here—’
Dawlish’s hand shifted another inch and Dumbledore’s wand appeared, releasing a series of blinding white flashes. Harry slipped his wand into his hand as Dawlish went flying, then tucked it away and held his breath, blinking away the bright, green spots swirling in his vision. Glass shattered and pieces of silver instruments clattered to the ground. Dawlish, the other auror, Umbridge, and Fudge sprawled across the wooden floor. Fawkes trilled and poked his head over the edge of the desk to peer down at them.
Dumbledore tucked away his pale wand. ‘They will wake soon.’
‘Will you go back to the headquarters?’ Ron blurted.
Grimmauld Place. Harry smothered a grimace. He better not, or I’ll have to find a way around him again.
‘No.’ Dumbledore shook his head. ‘I will use this chance to take a little holiday. I might go visit the countryside or perhaps catch some sea air.’
‘What do we do?’ Hermione asked.
‘You stay here, Miss Granger,’ Dumbledore said. ‘Even if I am not headmaster, the castle’s wards make it one of the safest places in Britain. Besides…’ He stepped over Fudge’s limp form. ‘I have little doubt that I will return to being headmaster soon enough.’
‘Harry.’ Dumbledore’s bright, electric-blue eyes fixed on Harry’s own.
A faint connection formed between their thoughts. Harry batted it away.
‘You have made good progress.’ Dumbledore nodded. ‘Continue practicing, please, it is more important than you can imagine.’
Fawkes trilled, leapt from his perch into the air, and clasped Dumbledore’s left hand in his talons. Dawlish began to stir.
‘One moment, Fawkes.’ Dumbledore retrieved the bowl of sherbet lemons on his desk with a wink.
The phoenix warbled, then they both vanished in a flash of red fire.
And now I wait. Harry pulled one of the chairs across next to the wall and took a seat amongst the shattered glass and debris. A quiet, soft satisfaction coiled beneath his ribs, but he kept the smile from his face. But not for long; trying and failing to capture Dumbledore means Fudge probably isn’t going to last the week.
‘Where is he?!’ Dawlish staggered to his feet and drew his wand. ‘Proudfoot!’ He cast a gentle white spell on his partner.
Proudfoot stirred with a groan, dragging himself upright on the ruined bookshelf. ‘He couldn’t have apparated. Check the stairs.’
Dawlish sprinted from the room, wand in hand. Proudfoot helped Fudge to his feet and retrieved his dented bowler hat. Umbridge dusted her cardigan off, clutching at the list, then snatched her wand from the floor.
‘Return these children to their dormitories, Dolores,’ Fudge instructed. ‘We will discuss the situation at length in your office when you return.’
Umbridge tittered. ‘I’m sure they can make it back on their own, Minister.’
‘Very well then.’ Fudge shooed them toward the door. ‘Off to bed with you four. Let this be a lesson that not all figures of authority are to be blindly believed in.’
Harry uncurled from his seat and picked his way through the broken glass.
Fudge caught his arm. ‘I’m sorry about all that nonsense in the Prophet, my boy. Dolores has mentioned you haven’t corroborated any of Dumbledore’s absurd claims, but the papers tend to get carried away. Rita Skeeter made up all sorts of rubbish, it cost my friends their careers in some cases.’
‘Thank you, Minister.’ Harry eased his arm free and paused at the door. ‘I appreciate your apology. All is forgiven.’
‘Water under the bridge, my boy.’ Fudge beamed. ‘Hopefully, you can have a nice quiet year without any more of this nonsense.’
‘Yes, Minister.’ Harry hid a smile. ‘Good luck with the Wizengamot.’
Fudge’s face crumbled and he fiddled with the rim of his bowler hat. ‘Yes. Well. I fear Dumbledore has managed to turn them against me. Still, the fight’s not over yet. Dolores will do her best to discover what he’s been up to here before it’s too late.’
Perfect. A small smile spread across Harry’s lips. I’d probably be top of her hit list anyway, but let’s make sure.
‘I wish Professor Umbridge luck, then.’ He caught her eye and shot her his best imitation of Fleur’s small smirk. ‘She’ll need it, knowing Dumbledore.’