Harry cupped the soft glow of his silver wedding band in his hands and stared through the cluster of white-thorned, bulbous cacti at the sparkling, azure sea.
You would like it here, mon Amour. A faint smile flitted across his face and he pushed a little magic into the silver acorn hanging through his fingers. It’s very warm.
The pendant flared hot twice.
I miss you too. I love you.
He slipped his wedding ring and the acorn down the front of his robes beneath the silver fleur-des-lis and watched the waves crash onto the white sand.
‘Vio… lette.’ Liliana’s voice drifted along the path past the cacti. ‘They are… here. On the… small island.’
‘Good.’ Harry stood up and made his way back along the narrow track. ‘Then we can get this done and go back.’
Liliana lingered in the shade of a tall cluster of cacti, wand in hand. ‘We’re not… getting help… from any of… the locals… here. None… of them are… willing… to fight… I spoke… with their… mayor and… he refused… outright.’
‘Doesn’t surprise me.’ He glanced up as a shimmer of magic fell over the island. ‘They’re afraid what happened to those villages in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Haiti will happen to Sint-Maarten.’
‘We’re warded in,’ Liliana murmured. ‘Anti-apparition and likely portkeys, too.’
‘Ginny’s probably found your wards. She’ll know that means someone’s here, even if Sint-Maarten has officially accepted Britain’s protection over France’s.’
‘What do… you expect… from her?’
Harry shrugged. ‘I don’t know her anymore. She seemed… angry but confident.’
Liliana stepped out of the shade of the cactus, her dark eyes on the small island poking through the gentle waves. ‘Will she talk… or attack?’
‘She talked before,’ he replied. ‘I guess we’ll see.’
A second shimmer fell over the small island and a bright red light rose up over Sint-Maarten, shining bright as the sun and bursting into crimson sparks.
‘That looks… like a… signal.’
Harry slipped the Elder Wand from his sleeve.
A scorched scrap of parchment floated down toward them as if guided by an invisible hand.
Liliana caught it on her palm. ‘They want… to talk… on the… beach here.’ She caught his gaze from the shade of her hood. ‘Are we… going to… talk or… to fight?’
Whichever gets me home fastest. He spun his wand in his fingers, sending silver sparks fountaining over the path. Maybe we can strike some kind of deal that lets me go home.
‘Let’s talk first.’ Harry slid his wand into his sleeve. ‘If it doesn’t help, we’ll just get started fighting.’
Liliana nodded and stabbed her wand up. ‘I have… lowered the… apparition… wards.’
‘And the Unyielding Shield?’ he asked.
‘Covers only… the town it… is less tiring… that way.’
Harry shrugged. ‘Beach it is, then.’ He picked his way through the cacti down onto the white sand, stopping where the sun-bleached driftwood marked the high tide line. ‘Don’t lower your guard, Liliana.’
‘I won’t,’ she rasped.
A loud crack rang out. A cluster of red-robed and hooded aurors appeared on the beach, wands in hands, bronze sun-shaped badges and mirrored-glass visors flashing in the sunlight.
Those are new. He scanned the mouths and chins beneath the reflective masks. I don’t recognise any of them.
Ginny stepped out from behind the group, tossing her hair over her shoulder. Her brown eyes flicked from Harry to Liliana and back. ‘Violette.’ She held up her fist and the aurors behind her spread out into a thin line. ‘I should have expected you, I guess.’
‘You’re lucky,’ Harry replied. ‘Any other nation would have taken this brazen attempt as a declaration of war.’
‘It’s not luck,’ she retorted. ‘We knew you’d be too cowardly to fight.’
‘And yet…’ He gestured at their two groups with his left hand. ‘Here we are.’
‘You should leave.’ Ginny thrust her wand at the town. ‘Sint-Maarten has chosen British protection. This is British-protected land now.’
‘Officially.’ Harry spun his wand in his hand. ‘Unofficially…’
Another auror stepped forward. ‘If you weren’t brave enough to fight for it before, you won’t now. You’re too much of a coward to even show your face.’
Harry snorted. ‘You’re all wearing masks.’
The auror tapped her wand on the mirrored visor and it shrank back into the crimson hood. ‘There.’ She glared at him with pale-green eyes. ‘So you can see who it is that will kill you if you don’t run.’
‘Tracey,’ Ginny snapped.
The other aurors vanished their masks one by one.
Familiar faces. A faint little smile tugged at Harry’s lips as he swept his eyes across them. ‘It’s not a secret, captain,’ Tracey said. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
The trio of masked aurors on Ginny’s right glanced at each other. The leftmost retracted theirs, spilling long dark hair over her shoulders.
Anxiety twisted in the pit of Harry’s stomach. Romilda.
He glanced at the last two. ‘I know everyone but this shy pair.’
Ginny’s eyes narrowed. ‘And how do you know that? A couple of us haven’t been here long…’
‘There are only so many British aurors,’ Harry replied. ‘Angelina Johnson, Ernie Macmillan, Cormac MacLaggen, Justin Finch-Fletchley, Tracey Davis, Seamus Finnegan, Lee Jordan, Leanne… something, Romilda Vane, and you two.’
‘Tell us your name and we’ll tell you ours,’ the rightmost said.
‘Violette,’ Harry replied.
‘Vert,’ Liliana rasped.
Ginny snorted. ‘Don’t waste the time, Mottham. You’ll get nothing out of them. They’re Unspeakables.’
‘You know what I’m capable of.’ Harry threw a long look at the small island. ‘I gave you your one warning last time you were here…’
‘And?’ Ginny raised her chin. ‘Our squad’s twice the size of Tarbeck’s.’
Speaking of Tarbeck…
‘You can’t even afford to fight here,’ he said. ‘If you do, the Americans will be free to attack elsewhere. Go fight them. Leave Sint-Maarten be, it’s no threat to you.’
‘We’re not leaving an open door at our back,’ Ginny said. ‘Not a chance.’
‘There is… a thousand… miles of… US allied… coastline… south of… here still,’ Liliana said. ‘What difference… does Sint… Maarten… make?’
‘We’re not telling you anything,’ Tracey spat.
Ginny raised her wand. ‘If you’re not going to leave…’
‘Then you’ll die.’ Harry shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet and took a deep breath, pouring his magic into the air around them. ‘Each and every one of you who chooses to be an obstacle. I… I have so many other places I would rather be right now.’ Hot, dark mist trickled down the inside of his forearm. ‘I’m not going to waste time here. You’ll die if you don’t leave.’
‘James, Alice, Romilda, take Vert.’ Ginny levelled her wand at Harry. ‘We’ll handle Violette.’
Harry swept his wand forward, hammering the air into the group of aurors facing him. Red-robed figures flew down the beach, rolling and bouncing across the sand into the surf.
He twisted on his heel and unleashed a hail of hexes at three remaining, swatting their spells back at them or at the aurors scrambling to their feet in the sea and scrabbling for their wands. Romilda threw up a shield over the trio.
‘Vert, put the wards back up,’ Harry said.
She thrust her wand into the air and a shimmer fell over them.
‘Pull back,’ Ginny cried, plucking her wand from the waves and vanishing with a loud crack.
The aurors in the sea vanished in a series of deafening pops.
‘Lacero,’ Harry murmured, slipping the spell into the storm of curses bursting on Romilda’s shield.
The flash of purple punched through the bubble of white magic and tore into James’s side, spraying red over the pale sand.
‘Fuck,’ Romilda hissed. ‘Alice, help him!’
Harry wrenched the world a few steps past him as Alice clapped her hand over James’s spurting wound, appearing behind them and unleashing a volley of piercing hexes.
They ripped through Alice’s back, tossing her body over the bloodstained sand.
Vert buried Romilda in bright, blue spells, sending sparks showering over the beach. He turned his wand on Alice, forcing his magic into her corpse, burrowing into it. An eerie yellow glow flickered around her and she twitched, jerking to her feet and lunging at James.
‘Fuck.’ Romilda dropped her shield and dived across the sand, sprinting for the sea.
Harry banished her feet out from under her, sending her sprawling onto her front, and the inferius smashed both fists into James’s head, pounding his face into the beach until his skull caved into a smear of red and grey fluid and bright, pale shards of bone.
‘The town,’ Vert rasped. ‘They might—’
‘Go,’ he said, ripping his magic out of the inferius. ‘I’ll be fine.’
Alice’s corpse flopped over James’s. Blood trickled through the sand, staining the white rush of the tide red as it swept up the beach. Romilda rolled over with a groan and scrambled to her feet, eyeing the sea beyond the shimmer of the wards and the slim, dark shape of her wand a few yards up the beach.
She’s just a silly little girl. Harry sighed and raised his wand.
Romilda dived up the beach and snatched her wand from the sand, twisting around. ‘Avada kedavra!’
A flash of green hissed past his cheek.
She nearly killed me. A little chill trickled down his spine and the panic bubbled up from his gut. She’s not a silly little girl anymore. None of them are. He sucked in a deep breath. No more risks.
Romilda bared her teeth. ‘Avada kedavra.’
A black butterfly curled together in the air and swerved into the curse, bursting into a wisp of dark mist.
Harry ripped her wand from her grasp and snapped it in his hand; the pieces slipped through his fingers into the sand.
‘I’m not scared,’ she spat, balling her fists. ‘I’m not scared of anything anymore. Not even you.’
‘You look scared,’ he said.
‘Kill me,’ she hissed. ‘Kill me or let me go, Harry.’
I have to kill you now. He frowned and caught her eye. But maybe I should see what you know first.
‘No!’ Romilda’s lip trembled. ‘Don’t do it again,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t send me there again. Not the empty place.’
The spell died on his tongue and a sad little smile crept onto his lips. ‘It really isn’t a nice place, is it?’
‘Perfect wishes,’ she murmured, a shudder rippling through her. ‘It wasn’t me, Harry. He made me. I hated her, but I tried not to do it.’
Not hard enough.
‘Then why?’ Romilda squeezed her eyes shut; tears trickled down her cheeks. ‘Why did you do that to me? You were supposed to be a hero. I thought I loved you.’
‘I didn’t really mean to,’ Harry murmured. ‘I lost Katie and I just wasn’t too bothered by what happened to you after you gave her that necklace.’
‘You did that to me by accident.’ Horror blossomed in her brown eyes. ‘ It took a year to claw my way far enough out of that emptiness to feel anything again. I still dream of roses and the dark place under the stairs.’
Old memories welled up. Bright red flowers and neat green hedges drifting into the distance like a leaf snatched away on the wind.
‘What’s so special about roses?’ Harry whispered.
Romilda flinched. ‘They’re just flowers,’ she muttered, taking deep gulps of air and staring at the red smeared on her fingertips. ‘I’m here. I’m real. They’re just flowers. And I’m here.’
My words. Curiosity nibbled at him. Were you nothing? I was nothing once too.
‘What other dreams do you have, Romilda?’ he asked.
She balled her fists. ‘Kill me or let me go, Harry.’ A raw smile twisted her lips. ‘I’m not afraid of dying anymore. It’s all the same. There are no—’
Harry put a piercing hex between her eyes. ‘There are no dreams left.’
Romilda crumpled onto the white sand; blood trickled from the galleon-sized hole in her forehead.
Perfect wishes. Her whisper carried from the memory of the ruined quidditch pitch and Katie’s still body as the tide tugged at her long, dark hair, foaming up past her pale cheeks, soaking into the half-buttoned auror robes. Perfect wishes.
A strange sense of wrongness twisted in his chest. ‘I’m sorry, Romilda,’ he murmured, bending and brushing her eyes shut with his fingers. ‘I shouldn’t have taken all your dreams away for nothing.’ Harry smothered a stab of guilt. ‘I wish I could have let you live and given them back somehow, but wishes like that… Fleur’s right about dreams. It’s yours or ours. It’s always been that way. No matter how much we want to hope. And it’s no choice at all. Not for any of us.’