Rain thundered down onto the plastic bus shelter, pouring from the sagging corner to splash into the gutter. Water streamed over the tarmac past the chipped curb, gurgling down through the rusted drain cover.
‘This is a… muggle area,’ Vert said, staring into the swaying trees opposite the shelter. ‘We must be… careful.’
‘It’s pretty rural,’ Harry replied, glancing up and down the road.
‘There are… footpaths.’ She pointed a finger into the trees. ‘Their base is… in the woods… a little way… back from… the road. They’ve… warded the… whole area.’
‘Same as before.’
Vert nodded. ‘We have to… be careful… Belgium is… our ally.’
‘No collateral damage?’ Harry asked.
‘She shook her head. ‘Once we’ve… taken care of… this main base… We will make… a show of… helping allies.’
‘Ah, so it’s politics.’
Vert pulled out her wand. ‘Britain is… backing its… protectorates… and allies… to the… hilt. Their allies… are growing… bolder… They… expect… British… support.’
‘So we’re reminding them that France backs its allies as well.’ Harry slipped his wand from his sleeve and spun it. ‘I suppose that makes the others more likely to back off, until one of them doesn’t, then France has to get stuck in, too.’
‘We would… have no… choice,’ Vert rasped. ‘Have to… hope.’
‘Just hoping doesn’t tend to work out all that well in my experience.’
She stepped out into the deluge, rain bouncing off her shoulders as she glided across the tarmac. Harry trailed her, grimacing at the cold soaking into his clothes.
It’s very much like being back in Britain.
Vert vaulted the fence and padded through the damp leaves. Harry clambered after her, picking his way through the mud and roots to the edge of a broad clearing beyond a fallen tree.
‘Here.’ She stopped at the toppled trunk and held up her pale hand. ‘I will… throw up… wards over… this area… There’s… only… one wizard… here.’
‘I do the real work again,’ Harry joked. ‘Do they have any wards to watch out for?’
‘Just… concealment… ones.’ Vert thrust out her wand, throwing a shimmering bubble of magic over the clearing. ‘Keep… walking… and you’ll… see.’
Harry pulled himself over the dead tree, brushing lichen-marks off his hands. A wooden cabin wavered into view, its windows throwing gold light over the dead leaves. He disillusioned himself, prowling to the door.
A ring of runes circled the lock, glowing with soft white light.
Interesting. Harry squinted at them. A seal of some kind.
He touched the tip of his wand to the door and closed his eyes. Tight threads of magic balled around the lock, thrumming with quiet energy.
I have no idea what that does. Probably best not to touch it myself.
Harry stepped to the side and glanced back at Vert, conjuring a butterfly from the tip of his wand and sending it to land on the lock. A flash of white lanced from the runes, searing a fist-sized hole through the tree trunk beside Vert’s knee.
‘Reducto,’ he murmured, whipping his wand through the vee motion.
The side of the cabin exploded into splinters and bright, hot pain burst through his calf. A twisted piece of wood the length of his hand jutted from his leg.
‘What was wrong with knocking?’ a man hissed, clutching at his shoulder with a blood-smeared hand. The broken stub of a wand jutted from between his pale fingers. ‘I set up a nice little surprise for that.’
He’s too calm. There’re probably more little surprises here somewhere.
Harry bent and ripped the splinter out, tossing it into the flickering fireplace against the far wall. ‘Vulnera sanentur,’ he muttered, breathing out a sigh as the pain ebbed. ‘I saw the runes and didn’t fancy it.’
The man chortled into his grey-shot beard. ‘Shame. I think you’d look good with a hole in you.’
‘I prefer not to have too many holes in me.’ Harry flicked his wand at the debris, sweeping it across the floor and stripping the rug away.
A scatter of little rings of runes marked the floorboards.
‘Merde.’ The man sagged and dropped his broken wand, brushing bits of wood off his blue robes. ‘Smart bastard. Guess this is it for me.’
Harry nodded. ‘I’m going to ask you a question and you’re going to answer it honestly.’
‘And what if I decide I don’t want to answer it?’ The man laughed. ‘Can’t say I feel all that inclined to tell you anything.’
Harry offered the man a bright smile. ‘You can answer honestly and I’ll kill you quickly, or… I’ll rip through your mind to see for myself and leave you to die very slowly and painfully.’
‘Urgh.’ The man glowered. ‘As bad as Julien. Fine, ask your questions. Julien only ever told me what I needed to know anyway.’
Harry brushed at the man’s thoughts, letting faint impressions wash through their shared minds. ‘The other little bases, where are they?’
‘There’s a map somewhere here under what’s left of my home,’ he said. ‘Use that. I can’t remember without it.’
‘What do you know about Julien?’ Harry asked.
A broad grin spread across the man’s face. ‘He was one of you. The Man in the Iron Mask. Everything you can do, he can do better. Sharp and fast as a needle, but hits like a hammer.’
Also true. Burning amber rose from the well of Harry’s mind like flames from glowing embers and unease tightened in his chest. A mask… Julien’s the one I saw.
‘Well, I’ll find out when I eventually manage to hunt him down,’ he replied. ‘When was this base set up?’
‘A few weeks back.’
A small smile spread across Harry’s lips. ‘That’s good. I’m getting closer.’
‘Good?’ The man chortled. ‘When you catch him, he’ll kill you. You got lucky against me, breaking my wand like that; Julien’s the best duellist I’ve seen in twenty years.’
‘You live in a tiny cabin in the woods, how many duels do you even see?’ Harry raised his wand. ‘Unless he’s Voldemort again, he’s not going to be able to match me.’
‘Again?’ The man froze. ‘What—?’
Harry put a piercing hex through his chest, punching through the man’s ribs and spattering blood up the wall. He thumped to the floor.
‘We’re done,’ Harry called, conjuring a stream of butterflies and triggering the runes upon the floor in a series of white flashes. ‘Be careful what you touch, there are traps all over the place.’
Vert strode to the edge of the cabin, surveying the mess. ‘What… happened… to careful?’ She folded her arms. ‘Did we… learn…anything?’
‘Somewhere there’s a map.’ He picked his way through the ruined cabin, placing his feet on bared boards, scanning the wreckage until he found the corner of a map. ‘Here.’
‘Bien,’ Vert rasped, pulling the map out and rolling it up. ‘The Dufort… sisters… will clear… them, but… you will… go too.’
‘Why them?’ Harry asked.
‘They are… our best… and the… most famous,’ she replied. ‘It will… make the… Dutch think… twice about… retaking… Belgium.’
‘I see.’ He tucked his wand back into his sleeve. ‘Was Le Cancrelat one of us?’
‘Why do… you ask?’ Vert’s eyebrows drew together into a sharp frown. ‘What did… he say?’
‘The Man in the Iron Mask,’ Harry said.
Vert’s lips pursed. ‘Julien… Aguillard… was once… Noire. He… betrayed… us.’
‘Were you going to mention that at any point?’ Harry asked. ‘Or just wait until I found him?’
‘Grise said… wait for… us to… get closer,’ she said. ‘No need… for you… to know… until then.’
Harry sighed and levelled Vert with a long look. ‘I don’t like being directed around blindly. I will find Le Cancrelat and I will kill him, but if I think you’re keeping important secrets from me, I’ll walk away and I’ll take Cramoisi and Sarcelle with me.’
Vert stiffened. ‘Under…stood—’ she broke into a raw, wet cough ‘—pardon… I… must—’ She disapparated with a loud crack.
‘I’ll take that to mean we’re done,’ he muttered. ‘Although…’ Harry glanced at the ruined cabin. ‘Should probably tidy up, just in case.’ He slid his wand back out and vanished the wreckage, transfiguring the standing parts of the cabin and the body into heaps of dead leaves.
‘There, nice and tidy.’ He shivered as the cold seeped in through his robes. ‘But definitely time to head home.’
Harry wrenched the world back past him and stepped into the hall, vanishing mud and stray leaves with a flick of his wand. ‘Reparo,’ he murmured, fixing the hole over his calf. ‘And it’s like I never had a hole in my leg. Fleur will never—’ he turned around at a quiet creak ‘—merde.’
Fleur leant against the wall, bundled in her silver blanket, one hand resting on the curve of her belly. Stray silver strands escaped the loose knot of her hair, shining in the light of the hall chandelier, and her pink cheeks glowed.
Harry’s heart lurched. She’s so perfect.
‘Bonjour, mon Amour.’ Fleur folded her arms, a small smirk on her lips. ‘Ca va bien?’
‘Why are you always behind me when this happens?’ He showed off his unmarked leg. ‘I caught a splinter to the leg, but I’m all fine now.’
‘Because you have terrible luck, mon Amour,’ she murmured. ‘How’d it go?’
‘The good news is Pansy isn’t a problem anymore and we’re getting closer to Le Cancrelat,’ Harry replied.
Fleur narrowed her eyes. ‘And the bad news?’
‘Le Cancrelat was one of us.’ He waggled Violette’s ring at her. ‘And apparently a good duellist, so he might be trouble.’
The amber-masked figure hovered among his thoughts. Should I tell her? He bit his lip. I should.
‘Take no risks,’ she murmured. ‘When you find him, don’t duel him, just curse him in the back.’
‘And… there’s another thing.’ Harry studied his fingers, bracing himself for her fury. ‘I took something from my vault in London, a very old artifact, I’m fairly sure it’s a very powerful foe-glass.’
Fleur’s irises darkened. ‘Let me guess, mon Cœur, you’ve been staring into it for the last few months?’
He offered a weak smile. ‘Sorry?’
‘Not as sorry as you will be when you realise what we’re not doing later,’ she snapped, small white tufts prickling along her arms. ‘What happened to no more secrets?!’
‘It’s not really a secret,’ Harry said. ‘It showed me an amber-masked figure come to steal our sunset. I’m fairly sure it’s Le Cancrelat, who we already knew about.’
Fleur hummed, a little of the dark draining from her eyes. ‘So, it’s half a secret.’
‘Something like that.’ He gave her a rueful grin and crept a step closer to stroke the little feathers on her arms. ‘I didn’t want you to worry, especially not at the moment.’ Harry’s hand slipped to rest on the swell of her stomach. ‘Isn’t that meant to be bad?’
‘Stress is bad, yes.’ Fleur nestled into the crook of his neck with a soft sigh. ‘But I am not stressed, I am cross. You kept it to yourself and didn’t show it to me so I could play with it.’
Harry wrapped his arms around her and rocked her back and forth. ‘Unfortunately, my ancestors worked some blood magic into the enchantments, so you won’t be able to play with it.’
‘Vraiment?’ She pouted. ‘Your ancestors are stupid.’
‘Did you look at all the shiny toys you own by virtue of marrying your amazing husband and his most ancient and noble family?’ he asked.
‘I didn’t stay long,’ Fleur said. ‘I just wanted to sell the place and get out. The goblins kept asking me questions about whether or not I’d seen you.’
‘I assume you said no?’
She huffed. ‘I replied by demanding to know why I’d inherited anything after you died and telling them it was jeopardising my marriage to Henri.’
‘We should probably practice calling me Henri,’ Harry mused. ‘In case Neville gets tired of writing endless letters and turns up, or someone else comes.’
‘Non.’ Fleur leant back and wrinkled her nose. ‘He’s not invited.’
‘That might not stop him from coming, though.’
‘The wards will.’
‘I guess I’ll just hide in the wine cellar with Gabby,’ Harry said.
‘Gabby doesn’t need to hide,’ Fleur murmured.
‘Someone has to keep me company in the wine cellar,’ he said, running his fingers through her hair. ‘It’s boring down there. It’s just wine and all your necromancy stuff.’
She laughed. ‘I probably should tidy that up, given you came back of your own accord.’
‘The prodigal boyfriend returned,’ Harry said. ‘And yes, you probably should. Or the next time your father shows someone around he’s not going to be able to convince them to drink the wine.’
‘More for us.’ Fleur shrugged and rested her head on his shoulder. ‘Are you busy, mon Amour?’
‘I probably should do some research on time-turners, but I’m getting more and more certain that Vert is going at it the wrong way. It feels too rigid to work.’ He kissed her on the top of her head. ‘And you seem less ball-of-pout-and-fire-Fleur and more happy-devour-avocados-with-chocolate-Fleur, so maybe we could do something?’
‘You love both. Non?’
‘I do,’ he murmured. ‘I’m not sure which makes me want to kiss her the most.’
‘Ball-of-pout-and-fire-Fleur,’ she said. ‘You’ve not managed to resist kissing me when I’m pouting once and I don’t think you liked the taste of avocados and chocolate together.’
‘You’re probably right.’ Harry chuckled. ‘Slightly pouty is a very good look on you.’
‘What do you want to do, mon Cœur?’ Fleur kissed the side of his neck and smirked up at him through her silver hair. ‘Remember you’ve forfeited our fun for today for keeping silly secrets.’
Harry sucked in a deep breath and looked upstairs.
Fleur put a finger to his lips. ‘Non. Do not summon the harpy.’
He laughed. ‘Has she been teasing you, mon Trésor?’
‘Always,’ she groused. ‘This morning it has been a constant stream of would I prefer our baby to have a half-brother or a half-sister and veela sister harem tips.’
‘Which did you choose?’ Harry asked.
Fleur rolled her eyes. ‘Our baby isn’t getting a half anything.’
‘Gabby will be so disappointed.’ He grinned. ‘I wonder if at some point she’ll actually fancy having a baby herself and realise she needs another person involved.’
‘I don’t think she’ll do it, she can’t find the same feeling we have.’ Fleur lowered her voice. ‘She’s going to be a part of our family forever if she gets her way.’
‘So we should find a home with at least four bedrooms,’ Harry said.
‘We could not let her live with us?’ she suggested. ‘Two bedrooms. One for us. And one for the baby. No nest for the harpy.’
He chuckled and kissed her on the forehead. ‘She’ll come anyway, we both know it, and I’d rather she had her own bed rather than try to share ours with us…’
Fleur hummed. ‘That would be very annoying. Gabby snores.’
‘Non. She would definitely try and pretend to be me at least once, though, and I don’t think I would like that.’ Fleur’s eyes darkened a fraction. ‘I don’t know if she would actually stop if she got a taste of what you feel for me.’
‘You make her sound like some kind of love vampire,’ Harry replied, grinning. ‘Does she bite?’
‘Gabby likes feeling loved,’ Fleur murmured. ‘And she’s clearly not good with temptation when it comes to chasing that feeling with us.’ Her irises bled black. ‘If she slipped into my place, she might not be able to resist the chance to have that feeling directed at her for real.’
‘She’d never get between us like that.’ He held her eye. ‘Never. You know she wouldn’t. She teases and meddles when she worries, but she always wants to help us.’
‘Non.’ Fleur sighed. ‘But if she found herself there by accident, if there was some way it wouldn’t be her fault…’
‘I can’t imagine that happens by accident,’ he said. ‘You’re being silly again.’
A pout crept onto her lips. ‘Probably.’
Harry drew her into a soft kiss. ‘Sneaky bird-girl.’
Fleur smiled against his lips. ‘I need my kisses, mon Cœur. The little harpy is very smug about being prettier now I am a ball.’
‘You’re still prettier, mon Rêve,’ he murmured in her ear. ‘And I’m not just saying that, I promise.’
She hummed into his kisses, a small, warm smile on her lips. ‘Want to help me make something?’
‘What are we making?’ Harry asked. ‘Is it a new clock so you can actually read the time from it?’
‘Doesn’t matter. You choose something. Anything. I’d just like to make something with you.’
‘You know what we should do is have a look at the things from my family vault.’
‘What’s in there?’ Fleur asked.
‘I’ll bring it back and surprise you,’ Harry promised. ‘Something for us to play with.’
‘And now?’ She straightened his robes, brushing a few stray splinters to the floor. ‘Is there anything you particularly want for our new home?’
‘A shower that doesn’t scald me?’
Fleur huffed. ‘I mean something nice we can also use.’
‘I thought I had terrible taste?’ he quipped.
‘In everything but girls,’ she said, slipping her fingers through his and leading him toward the stairs. ‘You are right, mon Amour. I will choose and tell you what to do.’
‘Works for me.’ Harry gave her hair a light tug and chuckled. ‘You know I like it when you tell me what to do.’