TITLE: A Different Kind of War
SUMMARY: Confronted with the daunting threat of war looming over Britain, Harry must prepare for the inevitable confrontation. But when an enigmatic French Beauty arrives to assist Hogwarts in preparation for the coming dangers, Harry soon learns that matters of the heart and battlefield are of equal difficulty.
CHAPTER TITLE: For These Hearts Awakened
A/N: Welcome to Chapter Fourteen, For These Hearts Awakened.
As always, a massive shout out to my Beta Readers, x102reddragon, NerdDragonVoid and Triage, who were forced to sift through this behemoth of a chapter.
Speaking on length, this is the longest chapter I've ever written, last chapter held the record for a brief moment, but this behemoth of sixteen-thousand words usurped it with ease. I felt a slower, more elongated pace was more appropriate and soon, it wrote its own tale.
I debated splitting it into two, but here's the entire piece.
Also, I haven't really advertised it, but alongside the Harry/Fleur discord myself and some authors run, I have an ADKOW specific discord, which can also be found in my profile. I post glimpses of new chapters and the likes over there, so check it out!
As always, enjoy and stay safe!
For the first time in over a week, Harry Potter awoke.
The first few conscious breaths were difficult, a laborious task for his aching lungs, but not a foreign sensation. His eyes flickered open to the sudden light, squeezing them tight once more to block the sudden brightness, opening again once he felt confident to try and gain familiarity in the well-lit surroundings.
The room smelt of all things foul, of burnt ozone and the metallic tang of blood scorched his nostrils with every breath of the acrid scent.
White curtains surrounded him, heavy sheets that obfuscated his view of the outside world. He had dreamt many dreams under the spell of slumber, far more pleasant than forcible submersion into vignettes of Voldemort's life.
He had dreamt of a shroud of snow, the very same that enveloped Hogwarts outside as he laid there. Those same curtains looked the dream turned real, pierced by the same lances of light that heralded a new day.
He had a hard time discerning whether or not this was simply another dream, another vision with incomprehensible intent that drew him in against his will.
He had made an attempt to push himself up onto the pillows behind him, only for a searing pain to arc through his chest, quelling his effort where it began.
Well, that hurt. Harry mused dryly. Maybe it's not a dream.
He hadn't dared to look to his body for fear of what he may find. Though, with a healthy dose of gallantry, he shifted his gaze downwards.
A white sheet had been placed upon his chest to ward off the cold. It obscured whatever laid beneath that could cause him such pain.
He steeled himself and lifted his sore hands to clutch the edge of the sheet and pulled it from his body quickly as if it was a bandage.
It was the cold he noticed first, without the sheet's protection, it encompassed him with ease. He lacked his glasses, but even with his blurred vision, he could see enough.
His chest was marred with a thick scar, coloured sable - standing as a stark contrast to the pale skin surrounding it. It was long and jagged but seemed recently healed and deterred him from racing a finger along its length.
Another scar wasn't significant amongst the litany of others he possessed, it might've been more prominent, but skin marred black and purple didn't concern him as much as it once might've.
I'd hate to have one on my forehead.
Beneath the scar was another matter entirely. Clad only in his underwear; his body was decorated in something that looked akin to tattoos. They hissed in pain with each movement, prickled at the provocation of him being awake once more.
They were foreign - markings like he'd never seen before. Motley colours, odd shapes and painful positions brought a single question to the forefront of his mind.
What happened to me?
His knowledge of what led him there was clear enough. No mist obscured his memories, no haze that had him furrow his brow in confusion.
He remembered, but that did not mean he understood.
Fighting the pain in his chest, he propelled himself backwards with a weak push, flopping unceremoniously against the pillow that laid across the steel headboard. The pain intensified tenfold for a brief moment, relegating him to heavy breathing while the white-hot knives of agony retreated back to their sheaths.
Muscle memory was quick to make itself known, his arm grasping for his glasses without consideration for his pain. The short lance of agony was harsh but bearable as his hand groped around the small bedside table in search of them. Grasping the frames between his fingers, he restored his vision with a gentle hand.
Beside his bed was a chair, beneath it a small stack of books and parchment. He couldn't make out the title of the book, but he recognised the bright silver quill that sat next to it.
Fleur was here.
But the chair was empty, though he could faintly smell her lingering scent in the air. Fighting a losing battle against the heavy, caustic scent already there.
And now she's not.
It was not the scar that pained his chest, but the heart beneath.
He returned for his wand to conjure himself some water. With the gift of sight, he stretched once more and his fingers tickled the holly shaft, sending it rolling from his grasp. It moved in an arc, the handle hanging off the edge, it teetered for a moment, as if unsure if it should fall.
Harry stretched his arm a little further, and the wand gave a jiggle as if to leap into his grasp. For a moment, it seemed possible, wanting to spring into his outstretched fingertips.
Then it fell, clattering towards the floor of the Hospital Wing with a noise louder than it had any right to make.
The rattling seemed to alert someone in the wing, for it immediately prompted footsteps from across the ward. The footfalls neared, closer and closer before the curtains split, allowing the sun an unadulterated glance behind them.
The stern countenance of Madam Pomfrey emerged afterwards, giving some relief from the unforgiving beams.
"Mister Potter?" Pomfrey gasped, her matron's headdress shaking as she reeled back. "How long have you been awake?"
The look on her face betrayed her continuous state of shock as if she hadn't expected him to be awake or rather, couldn't comprehend it.
Not very reassuring, Harry thought, but it's a piece of the puzzle.
"Too long." He tried, it was meant to be joking, a brief moment of levity while he sorted out his head, but it came out in the same hoarse tone as when he'd tried before. The words seemed to possess an identical effect on her ears as it did his throat.
"Very well." The matron declared with thin lips and soft eyes, drawing her wand, "Prepare yourself, I imagine this shall be quite uncomfortable."
Contrary to her words, it was a warning he could not prepare for other than sinking lower in the bed.
Her willow wand was alight with dull red magic, tracing elegant arcs in the air. A soft chant was at her lips, not melodic like Fleur's, but guttural, a language indiscernible to Harry with his lack of knowledge on the matter.
Each stroke imbued the barrier with a new colour, startling contrasts that left an afterimage in Harry's eyes. The barrier finally turned a dull green, then disappeared, fading from existence without the promised displeasure.
Then, there was a sudden heat.
There was no gradual ascent to the heat, no indication it would begin, it routed the cold around him with a single strike. It prickled against his skin as if he was standing too close to a fire for comfort.
It was overpowering. Before Harry knew it, his hair was slick with sweat, beads ran downwards against his forehead and below to sting his eyes, the acrid smell increased tenfold.
Then, it simply vanished, the stones of the ward sizzled with heat, but the energy lost the battle quickly.
Uncomfortable is the wrong word for it.
"I could go without doing that again." Harry swore, "What was that supposed to be?"
Each word still scratched his raw throat, but the cold air soothed it with each breath.
"That," She enunciated in an identical tone, "Was a runic circle, Mister Potter, a Circle of Merlin to be precise. It, alongside your injuries, was the reason you weren't supposed to wake for some time."
It's another piece of the puzzle, I suppose.
"Just leave me injured next time," Harry mumbled, pushing himself back onto the pillows again. "I'm sure I'll manage."
"If you're so inclined to see yourself in my care, you can at least brave the treatment." It was a jape from the ever-so stern matron, one that seemed almost out of place as it broke through her perpetually stern tone.
If I didn't know any better, I'd say she's happy to see me awake.
"I don't think I've ever willingly come here." He argued.
"You're usually carried if I remember correctly." She retorted, the back-and-forth returning a shred of normalcy to the odd situation. "I'm sure it's an honourable task."
"Who had the honour this time?" Harry queried, hoping to reunite with another piece of the puzzle.
"Professor Dumbledore." Pomfrey nodded, "You'd have sworn the man had forgotten magic existed, sprinted in here with you in his arms, a man possessed."
She doesn't know, he thought sorrowfully, The matron of Hogwarts doesn't even know the Headmaster is dying from a curse.
There was an irony there that he did not wish to explore.
At least the mystery unravels.
"I'm sure it was a sight." Harry's face morphed into a smile that did not reach his eyes, "I'm not as small as I once was."
"No, Potter, you've indeed grown over your years here." She smiled as he had, but hers was likely much more sincere.
Whatever pleasure Madam Pomfrey derived from seeing him awake once more was overridden by her matronage. Her wand was up again, and a flick floated a silver tray laden with vials and flasks of varying liquids to his lap.
They soon found a home, as all potions she demanded he drank, first in his hand, then his stomach, all assisted by her piercing glare. Heavy, viscous liquid coated his throat like ice-cold mucus, but at the very least the dull pain of talking disappeared.
"You'll be on potions for a few days." Pomfrey declared, moving forward to probe some of the runes with a soft finger, "The runes will disappear within the week, the scar will fade with time, but you'll likely carry it for the rest of your life."
"What happened to me?"
The night was clear, but the wounds had gone unnoticed in the Room of Requirement.
"To be honest, Potter, I'd hoped you would possess the knowledge of what exactly led you here." She said, a slight frown forming on her face.
"Not particularly." Harry said meekly, "Must have been the adrenaline."
"Adrenaline?" She pursed her lips, peering down at him, intently, "Dare I even ask what led you here?"
Her eyes seemed to deter any attempts to lie, even though he had to.
She'd never accept an answer like 'Quidditch Accident', He thought.
"Quidditch Accident." He decided after a brief few seconds, it wouldn't work, though it was fun to infuriate her.
The humour in his attempt didn't raise her lips; instead, they worsened into a frown.
"Perhaps it's better I don't possess the knowledge." She agreed, and Harry let out a soft sigh of relief, "But you were cursed, Harry."
I've never heard her call me by my first name.
"By what or who, I'll never know." Pomfrey continued, "But you were cursed, the muscles in your chest atrophied, your hand burnt to the bone. Professor Snape and the Headmaster worked for days to keep you alive; they surely know a secret that I do not. I healed what I could, but the curse was nasty business. Split your skin again, and it shan't be a pretty sight."
That doesn't sound healthy, though Snape working on me must've been a sight.
Her tone was terse - having someone in her ward that remained out of her full care perturbed her greatly.
Harry made to speak, to perhaps add some assurances for the older woman into the fray, but he was quickly cut off.
"In fact, the Headmaster wished to be notified immediately if you woke." She reminded herself.
She flicked her wand once again and conjured a small piece of parchment, another wave saw the paper fold at odd angles, morphing until it was unrecognisable as a page.
Instead, it was a small bird. Pomfrey summoned her quill and wrote something on the wing, folding the wing back into its original position; she tapped it once with her wand. As if caught upon a sudden gust, it drifted gracefully towards the doors of the Hospital wing, off towards its destination.
"How does your arm feel?" The matron turned to him and questioned.
The top of the wound had crossed over to the top shoulder of his left shoulder. Braving the pain once more, he rolled his shoulder, testing the joint. The agony, however, was all but absent.
Must've been a pain reliever in there somewhere.
The wave of medicinal draughts forgotten, his arm reached its apex, and the skin of his chest pulled taught, the wound felt as if something grasped either side and pulled it close, scared at the provocation of movement.
"A bit sore." He said after a moment of continuing to probe the wound, "But nothing terrible."
"Good." She agreed after probing it with her wand, "Be careful with it, lest it reopens. Sealing it once was difficult work, doing so again will be far more troublesome. I'll be sure to retrieve some salve for you before you leave."
"You're letting me leave?" Harry asked sceptically, "Are you sure it's me that's meant to be in this bed?"
I've never known her to release me without adding a few days onto my stay.
"Not of my own volition." She admitted bitterly, "The Headmaster has made it very clear your tenure here is subject to your health and not my personal misgivings on your condition."
"Thank you for everything then, Madam Pomfrey," Harry said sincerely, meeting the stern witch's eyes. "I'll try and stay out for a few more months this time."
"You needn't ever thank me for doing my duty." She said although a slight smile flashed on her face before disappearing. "If I may, Potter?"
It was phrased as a polite question, but her face made it clear she'd say whatever she wanted without his consent.
"Of course." Harry agreed, his words and the following nod all the consent the healer needed.
"You've been inside this ward for serious matters more than any student I can remember. Take all the bludgers to the head you want. I can knit wounds and mend cracked skulls, regrow bones and heal curses. But this was of an entirely different breed, Harry. If you persist with such a career in danger, it'll soon lead you to a destination one as young as you should never visit."
I'll likely end up there anyway.
It was a grim thought, but one he had not already entertained. Once upon a time, it had haunted him.
But not any longer.
He gave a nod of affirmation to placate her, and she returned with a calmer smile.
"Maybe I just need a partner," Harry suggested.
"I do believe you already have one." The Mediwitch's eyes flickered towards the empty chair and back to him.
That I do.
"I'll be in my office if you need anything, the Headmaster should be here shortly."
Her headdress fluttered as she walked away to her office, her shoes clicking against the stones in the same fashion as when she'd walked over.
There was an odd comfort in her bustling, one that he couldn't place as he settled in the bed. A subtlety that he couldn't describe - as if the noise of her shoes brought some degree of familiarity back to the world.
A feeling that at least, for the moment, it was all okay.
Seconds morphed into minutes, from minutes into near half an hour before the Headmaster finally arrived.
Dumbledore's wizened countenance held nothing that it once might have, the sage appearance to his old features, the wisdom that usually shimmered beneath his blue eyes were both conspicuously absent. Instead, it was replaced by a volatile mixture of emotions. Relief, guilt, pain and a plethora of other indecipherable emotions flickered across his face and eyes in a way Harry had seldom seen.
He seemed to still for a moment, struck by the full weight of his thoughts, enough to render him rooted in his position.
Until the corner of his lips curled ever so slightly upwards and he stepped to the foot of Harry's bed.
"Harry, my boy." He voiced wavered, the final few syllables did not seem as firm as their predecessors. "It is an excellent gift to see you returned to us."
"It's good to be here, Professor," Harry replied.
He blames himself, Harry thought. The look on his face made that fact more than apparent.
There was a tension that settled in the air with the man's arrival, it was not, however, one born of hostility. It was cut from a different cloth entirely, it was the bracing before a tidal wave, a promise that truths would soon be aired.
And not truths either would be particularly amicable with.
"I've come to offer my apologies." Dumbledore said, clutching his withered hand close to his body, "I'm so very sorry, Harry, your presence at the Room of Requirement was a danger I failed to comprehend, and for such, you suffered at my hands once again."
"I feel fine, Professor." Harry assured the old man, "Just confused with it all, I suppose. The diary didn't attack me, but this did. Why? Why did all this happen?"
"Your confusion is more than warranted." Dumbledore agreed, "And a state of mind, I shall do my utmost to rectify."
The Headmaster walked over and procured the chair from beside his bed, the one he'd assumed Fleur had once sat in.
"Your appearance here is, as I said, a failure cast at my own feet. That much I can admit." He nodded idly but did not meet Harry's eyes. "As I've explained many times, the connection between you and Voldemort is one far too complex to convey with mere words as an explanation. We needed first-hand knowledge to fully comprehend the dangers of such an encounter, to know best how to subvert it in the future."
He reached beneath his chair to pluck Harry's wand from the floor. Harry had long since forgotten about it, but the man seemed to cradle the holly in his hand for a moment.
"Magic itself is perhaps akin to a wand, and there exists no better example than your own." He held it between the fingers of his healthy hand, "How does a wand know who seeks to cast it? How can wands switch allegiance upon defeat? How does it know when it crosses its brother? Magic is many things, Harry, but above all, it is a gift we've long since hoped to understand, not unlike how we hope to understand the power of a wand."
He placed the wand on the bedside table and continued.
"Your connection, despite all my research and all our experience, remains little but a mystery, one that we cannot fully understand. One I could slave away for years and still gain no significant ground in, simply, because it is a case without equal. But, we have learned over the years that Horcruxes, to some degree, are sentient pieces of magic - able to defend themselves as their creator best sees fit. Part of me believed the Horcruxes' sentiency would be their downfall, that your connection might prove to be as ample protection as your mother's own. Perhaps, they'd be unwilling to strike against you while the connection remained."
"But it didn't?" Harry asked.
"I don't believe so. I erred in my judgement, and you paid the price for such a mistake. The Diadem was many things, but it remained a container for Tom's soul above all. Each Horcrux persists for a singular goal beyond prolonging Tom's existence - corruption. The Diary corrupted Ginny Weasly, the Ring, myself and the Diadem, Hogwarts. But when such a task failed, it turned to corrupt you instead."
"Do you think it succeeded?" Harry inquired softly, "In corrupting me, that is."
"No." The man shook his head, and Harry breathed all the easier for it, "It imposed upon you a sojourn into your mind, attempting to tear your magic asunder, but you triumphed, in the end. And your ability to triumph against such odds was the reason you truly needed to accomplish this task alone. You command much more power than you did previously for having accomplished such a feat."
"More power?" Harry furrowed his brow, "As in the Horcrux boosted my magic?"
Soul magic is a power I could do without.
"No." Dumbledore disagreed, "No magic imparted from a piece of Tom's soul would be worth possessing. But there are strengths outside of your ability to cast spells, strengths far greater. You fought, and you won, the importance of such should never be understated."
"So it's all over then?" Harry asked, "Whatever the Horcrux tried to do has failed?"
"You're awake and in good health." Dumbledore offered, "That is more than we could have ever hoped for, in such a short period. But only time shall tell us if the scars that linger are merely physical."
"So we can't be sure?" Harry pushed. "There has to be more to it than that."
"We cannot. Even in its simplest form, the magic is simply beyond us."
"Did we destroy it, at least?" Harry asked, "Is it completely gone?"
"You did." He confirmed to ease Harry, "The wards of Hogwarts alerted me to incredibly destructive magic being practised. By the time I arrived, both the room and the Diadem were little more than charred stone and ash. Which makes me wonder as to how you accomplished such a feat?"
"One from your journal." Harry explained, "Caelesti Perfuro."
"That is what I feared." Dumbledore frowned, despite it being only slight, it highlighted the creases in his wrinkled face. "I would caution against the use of such a spell."
"Yet it was in the book." Harry frowned, in turn, "Which means, at some point, you used it as well."
"I have, many times." The man nodded, "Though, my counsel is based on such experience. Perhaps you read the warning I provided?"
"Beware the toll." Harry recited, the words scribbled in ink a distant memory.
"Indeed, and such a warning wasn't crafted idly." Dumbledore's eyes seemed to bore a hole through him and far beyond him.
I've seen it before. Harry realised - the look wasn't challenging to place. He's reliving his failures.
"Power is not without its price, Harry," Dumbledore explained, his voice hardened with a tone he couldn't recognise. "To wield such a power, in the same vein as the magicks of blood or soul, is to be willing to pay such a price. Be it blood, magic, soul or something more; the toll is forever paid. It is addictive, beyond any single person to subvert, that is perhaps why the Dark Arts are truly so dangerous. Each spell cast withered at their minds, the price for such power was their psyche. Soon, their rational mind departs, and the power tastes sweet - the urge is all there is."
"This." He took Harry's wand once again and wielded it as if the spell was still contained within, "Is a corruption of the same stitch, yet so very different. Hidden behind the need for pleasant memories, it too tears something away. The memory used is irrevocably dampened, deadened. Such a memory will cease to contain the joy it once did until it is but a wisp, one that you can scarcely recall."
And I used my memories of Fleur, he thought grimly.
"I've only used it once." Harry returned, "Will I feel the effects?"
"After a single-use? No. But continued use invites the rot; persistence allows it to settle and to fall to the urge sees it reign."
Harry merely nodded in return.
"My intention was never to chide you on the matter." The man assured, "Outside of my apology, my purpose here was to explain my plans for the coming weeks."
"Is the Order planning something?" Harry asked eagerly. "Have we decided how to find the rest of the Horcruxes?"
"We've determined the most likely avenues to pursue in such a goal."
So have I, he thought, the vision still fresh in his mind.
"But I shall not be offering my assistance." He finished, and the thoughts of such a vision were foregone in favour of deciphering his meaning.
"Sir?" Harry's confused voice followed shortly after.
"I shall head to the continent for the duration of the Christmas Holidays. There is much to be done. You shall head to the Burrow to spend your Christmas amongst family and friends."
There's a war going on, and he's leaving.
The people look to him, and he's fleeing the country.
"How can you leave?" Harry was quick to bombard the man with his thoughts, "There's a war. If you leave, Voldemort knows there's nobody left that can repel him."
"My journey is not a pleasurable one, Harry." Dumbledore said, "There are strings that remain untied, such strings would benefit Tom greatly should he choose to pull them."
"Do you not think Hogwarts will be attacked in your absence?" Harry posed the question, but the man seemed poised to answer it quickly.
"For all his power, Tom understands that he is outmatched, for now." Dumbledore explained, "He holds Azkaban, that is true, but he is also well aware of the dangers. Attacking Hogwarts would be a costly endeavour, one that would leave him open for the Ministry to advance on lost ground."
I suppose there's some logic in that, even if I don't like it.
"How long will you be gone?" Harry asked.
"You need not worry, Harry. I shall return in good time."
"I take it our lessons are over then?" Harry frowned.
He's taught me all he can and yet; it still feels too little. I still feel like a child.
"They shall conclude, for the moment. I have given you the tools for you to craft your a own path, as have many others. But there is one more lesson I've yet to teach you, Harry. Our tale has not yet finished weaving."
"I suppose it's goodbye then?" Harry couldn't shield the glimmer of pain that came out in his words.
Before him was a man, one he'd worshipped for years. Who sat there, wasting away for months as he tried desperately to keep the legacy of a better world living on within him.
And there's a chance I might not see him again.
That, despite all he had faced, stung.
"We shall part ways for the moment, but not forever," Dumbledore assured, although his words did not have the soothing effect that once had. "I've no doubt my absence will go unnoticed. You appear to have much on your hands, Harry. Miss Delacour, for instance, was quite the persistent visitor."
The sly smile that followed seemed out of place on the man.
"I suppose I'll see her at the Burrow," Harry responded lamely.
"Oh. You mistake my words, Harry. She remains at Hogwarts."
"She's still here?"
Bill is at the Burrow and yet, she stayed here.
"Indeed," The older man confirmed with a sly smile, "She remained by your side the majority of your stay here, so did Mister Weasley and Miss Granger until Molly was adamant they depart."
"Do you know why she stayed?" Harry asked with a hope-saturated voice.
"That is a question that will no doubt have to be posed to Miss Delacour herself." Dumbledore said, "Who I have no doubt will follow my visit shortly."
Dumbledore stood up, brushing off his robes and placing Harry's wand back onto the bedside table.
"Sir," Harry said - the man was getting ready to depart.
"Yes, Harry?" The Headmaster turned to regard him, already risen to his full height.
The words were swirling in his mind, spoken by a man well-regarded for uttering only half-truths and manipulating children.
"Is something bothering you?" Dumbledore prompted, clearly taking his silence as reluctance.
So, he leapt.
"It's just…" Harry struggled for words to phrase his coming question, "Were you ever in love, sir?"
His brow furrowed and he cocked his head, but Dumbledore's face did not betray any emotions beyond the surface, lost in the blue mist of his old eyes and the wrinkled creases of his face.
The reaction was nothing like Slughorn would've led him to believe, nothing to betray there was deceit soon to be hidden behind the Headmaster's words.
"That's an odd question, Harry."
"It's just…" Harry began again.
"Just curiosity, I take it?" Dumbledore smiled.
Maybe Slughorn tried to deceive me again, tried to drive a wedge between us.
"That sounds right, just curiosity, sir." Harry agreed.
"I did." Dumbledore confirmed, "Many years ago, in simpler times when I was yet a man grown."
"Did you…" He didn't have to finish the question, although he knew it would've sounded callous anyways, but the Headmaster seemed to have made his peace.
"Did I lose them?" He finished, and Harry nodded, "I did. Lost to a war, we never should've been in."
"I'm sorry." Harry offered meekly.
The man continued smiling, "They are memories long since past, Harry, you need not apologise for raising ghosts already set to rest."
"Was it worth it, sir? Knowing how it ended, knowing it wasn't going to end well?"
That was perhaps the question he had yearned to ask.
"It was." The man confirmed and his smile widened, "Despite it all, despite the end. To love and be loved in turn is perhaps the greatest magic of all, Harry - you need only seek your mother's protection for evidence of such."
Silver-hair and ocean eyes were in his mind at the man's words. He had leapt once already. He was unsure if he could leap again.
"You were happy?"
"I was." The man nodded, once again trapped in his thoughts.
"Are you still happy, Professor?"
That seemed to send the Headmaster reeling from his thoughts, off to confront Harry's words.
"I am." Dumbledore said, highlighted by an idle stroke of his beard, "Happiness, however fleeting, should be grasped. It is not something to be gifted to you. Happiness, Harry, is a duty to oneself."
He can't be, could he?
"It is truly an egregious sin to live without such a feeling." The man finished, "Though, I imagine you know what I speak of well enough, Harry."
"I'm not sure I understand your meaning."
The blush, he managed to hide, it was his words that betrayed him.
"Everything and nothing, Harry." The man smiled once more, "However, the pieces fall, I wish you a truly Merry Christmas."
With a final look, the man departed towards the exit of the Hospital Wing. With him, he took the tension that had slowly abated and the fear of harsher truths yet to come, replaced instead by counsel he wasn't sure he could heed.
And the wonder of whether he could make such a leap once more.
The one visitor Harry anticipated had yet to arrive.
Madam Pomfrey had supplied him with the aforementioned salve, and he tried diligently to apply it to the wound, all to little avail.
His probing fingers were knocked away by a sudden sound, the massive doors of the Hospital wing were thrown open, fast footfalls followed until the heavy curtains were tossed asunder with little decorum.
And there she stood.
His breath was bated, momentarily unable to tear his eyes away from her. She was dishevelled. Her perpetually elegant hairstyle was shed in favour of a more ruffled look. Bags marred her beautiful features, with the dark skin beneath her eyes and the red that surrounded her iris.
She'd throw a fit if she ever saw herself like this.
It was the flaws in her features that endeared her beauty to him, as it had that day in the snow. The imperfections served only to amplify the perfections they tried to obscure.
There was but a brief moment of silence between the pair, a desperate battle between ocean-blue and emerald-green, one he was unsure who would emerge victorious from.
Without warning, she bounded across the short distance with longer strides, and her arms found their mark, wrapping themselves around him tightly. His chest stung despite the potions he had taken, but it was ignored in favour of the silver-hair that overtook his vision and the face that fit into the crook of his neck.
He threw his arms around her and pulled her towards him that little bit tighter. It was a prolonged contact that was less than strictly appropriate with an engaged woman.
But of all the times to care, Harry seldom thought this was one of them.
They sat there in an embrace for an age before they separated, though too soon for Harry not to lament the loss of contact.
"You're awake." Her voice was breathless, filled with persistent disbelief.
"I'm awake." Harry repeated, grounding his state in reality.
"I can't believe it." She continued. It was a far cry from the cocksure Fleur Delacour he'd once seen. "They told me you wouldn't awaken for some time."
She was forever impervious; she was Fleur Delacour. Yet, she was speechless.
"I didn't like the solitude." He laughed lightly, his voice seemed to set her at ease, "I'd much prefer it out here."
With you, He wanted to say.
"I stayed." Fleur said.
"I know." Harry replied, "But you didn't have to."
"But I did. I always will. Because that's what I promised."
"You might have to wait beside me a few more times before this is all over." He joked, but it did not raise her lips as he might've hoped.
"Is this what we have to expect if you try and do everything by yourself? Is this what I have to expect?" Her voice was soft, but the fire beneath her words was plain. "That you'll only ever be destined to live in a hospital bed?"
"You know I didn't want or mean to end up here." He defended.
"Is that insinuating you ever purposefully end up injured?"
"Well, not strictly speaking, no." He offered meekly.
"You weren't smart about it, Harry." Fleur said, "You could have found me, we could have done this together."
"I needed to do this alone, Fleur." Harry returned.
"No." She shook her head, "Dumbledore said you needed to do it alone. Just because he said, it doesn't make it so."
"I'm capable of fighting my own battles. I don't need to be coddled."
"I waited a week by your bedside, not knowing if you'd make another night. Don't talk to me as if I've coddled you. There has not been a single year where you haven't ended up here at the hands of Albus Dumbledore. It does not beggar the imagination that he may not be as infallible as you believe him to be."
Her voice was strong, implacable. Harry was unsure if the words at his lips would do anything.
There's little love lost between them.
"He's not a bad man." Harry defended, "I'm not going to defend the fact he's made a good portion of my life terrible, but if he truly cared so little he would've left me in that room."
"He may not be evil, that does not make him righteous, nor does it mean he has your best interests at heart."
The situation itself was odd. Here, her distaste for the man was on full display yet; she unknowingly echoed some of his wisdom.
"You don't need to remind me." Harry stressed, "I lived it, Fleur, I'm well aware."
"And yet, I find you here." She retorted, "You lived it, but didn't learn anything from it."
He had thought of a hundred ways their reunion could go, and somehow, it had circumvented all of them.
"I destroyed it, at least." He sighed, "The Diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw, another one is gone. We can be thankful for that."
"A scant mercy, Harry." She whispered, "You're worth more to us, more to me than any artefact, Horcrux or not."
"What do you want me to say?"
"I don't want you to say anything." Fleur said, "I want to not have to fear for your life. I want to not wonder if I won't see you again should you choose to pursue something alone."
"I promise you won't." He offered, "I'll carry you along with me next time, once we find the next Horcrux."
"This is the last time." She demanded.
"This is the last time." He echoed, and with his promise, her assault finally relented.
"Well, I do have some better news." Fleur offered, "I've done some investigating, we've got a lead."
"On Horcruxes?" Harry shot up in his bed, "You found something? How?"
"The Headmaster and I had an interesting conversation after you were admitted." Fleur began. "We had quite a few, in fact."
He has a penchant for that.
"I'm sure that was fun." Harry laughed.
"Maybe not." She smiled, "You're looking at Fleur Delacour, the newest member to the Order of the Phoenix."
He sat up straighter in an attempt to see if he misheard her. She had only just finished a tirade about how the man's judgements were ill-made.
"You joined the Order?" His brow furrowed, "Why now, of all times?"
"Because I'd prefer not to waste away doing little and less while I could be making a difference." Her voice was alight with a ferocious tenacity, and her blue eyes glimmered. "They have the information we'll need, they hoard it, but they've given enough."
If anyone was deserving of the title, it's her. He thought, at that moment she looked a firebird herself.
I suppose she is a Phoenix, in a way.
"So they had you following leads for the Horcruxes?" Harry asked, "Did you find anything noteworthy?"
I have some leads of my own.
The names were still in his mind. He'd been able to forget some of his fever dreams, but not the vision. They always remained ingrained in his mind.
"I did, but we can discuss that later." She answered, "Suffice to say, armed with our knowledge, we'll make quite a formidable duo."
"Will we now?" He raised an eyebrow.
"Yep." She chirped back, almost bird-like.
"Don't I get a say in this?"
"Do you believe you deserve one?" The arching of an elegant eyebrow seemed challenging.
"That's a loaded question." Harry remarked dryly, "I suppose the position of Team Leader is off the table too?"
"I might allow you to earn in." Her lips curled into a half-smile. "With time and obedience, of course."
"So we're an official team now?" He joked. "It's us versus the world?"
"It's beginning to seem that way."
"Let's win this time." Harry said, "I'm starting to dislike hospital beds."
Fleur reached beneath her seat to procure her books and parchment, filling her arms with the objects that held her attention, in only briefly, for the past week.
"You were reading?" Harry smirked, "Was I not interesting company?"
"Not particularly." She laughed, "Quite dull, in truth."
"I'll try and be more engaging next time," Harry said, catching sight of the book she cradled in her arms. "What were you reading?"
"Nothing," Fleur said quickly, too quickly, and Harry instantly knew where to push.
"Secrets with Sirens." He recited, spying the title through her arms, "An Unforgivable Romance."
She moved her arm quickly to cover the title, a cross look appearing on her face.
"Reading romance now are we?" He could feel the corners of his lips tug progressively higher as she attempted to feign nonchalance, though it had quickly given way to annoyance.
She had always been quick to detest such concepts. To her, romance could never be so simple as to be written.
"I was not reading it." She scowled, anger evident in her tone.
He shot the book a look, then sent another in her direction.
Then, he laughed.
He couldn't help himself - no matter how terribly he ached, no matter how the outlook seemed, he simply laughed.
And so did she.
Despite it all, they laughed - together. There truly was nothing like the struggle to breathe as they laughed, nothing like a sore stomach in the right company.
And there was no one like her.
With her, it was natural. With her, he could find both the normalcy he yearned for and the excitement he craved.
Soon, the laughter died off, and he was relegated to nursing a chest sore from their joke. The laughter had been at nothing, and yet together, it was everything - it was intoxicating.
The tension that had been in the air carried in by Dumbledore and then strengthened by Fleur when she had arrived had completely thawed. It was normal again, or at least, as normal as it would be for now.
"I hope you've completed your Christmas shopping." Fleur said, "You've lost your opportunity to do any more."
Despite Dumbledore bringing it up more than once, his thoughts had been anywhere but Christmas.
"How far away is it?" He groaned, putting his head back into the pillow.
"It's Christmas Eve, Harry. You have impeccable timing." He couldn't see her face, but the smugness in her voice made it clear enough she'd be grinning.
At least I can give her my present on time.
"Well, I've got your present, I suppose." He shrugged.
"I hope it's quite good, recompense for having to sit here for a week."
"Here I thought you said you were happy to do it?" Harry said, faux-pain lacing his words.
"I said that I promised." She amended, "Not that I enjoyed such an activity."
I'll concede that.
"I suppose it's back to the Burrow then?"
"Soon." She nodded, "But you might want to fix that first."
The salve on his chest remained unapplied, and he sat up once more, procuring the small container from beside him.
He broke contact with her eyes, as much as he yearned for the ocean within it seemed almost unbearable to him. To have what he sought so close to him, only to remain forever out of reach. It was a thought he didn't wish to entertain at that moment.
He instead found a sudden interest in laying the paste over the scar tissue of his chest. Sadly, however, with the way the scar ran upwards, he couldn't crane his neck adequately to apply the viscous paste, he probed gently around the tender area as Fleur watched on, amused.
It took a moment of watching him aimlessly attempt to tend to the wound before she chimed in.
"Give it here." She offered, snatching the glass jar from his hands before he could muster any form of argument.
She retrieved a generous amount of the balm with two fingers, reaching across his body to slather it on blackened skin. Gentle fingers ran to and fro, leaving a soft layer of the translucent paste behind.
He had tried to convince himself that the gesture was chaste, although part of him quickly warred against the judgement. Unsure if anything she did was intentional, purposefully crafted to communicate something beyond her words and actions, or if it was just a desperate overanalysis of her.
He yearned for something beyond platonic, though he was unsure if he would find it.
Every touch of her hands seemed to linger far longer than it should have, their eyes made tentative contact throughout the ordeal, and once the salve had fully been applied, her open palm remained upon his skin, idly resting just above his heart. It remained for a few moments before she retracted it, returning it to her side.
It's all so confusing.
The manner in which she had mounted the side of the bed had left little to the imagination. Pressed tight against him alongside the work of her hands elicited a reaction within him he didn't much care for at that moment.
Thankfully protected by the thin sheet that covered his navel and below, such a reaction remained inconspicuous, if it had drawn attention, she didn't acknowledge it.
She placed the lid on the container and descended back to the ground.
"Did Madam Pomfrey know how long you have to stay before you're discharged?" Fleur questioned. Perhaps it was a trick of the glittering sunlight, casting a glow against her, but her cheeks seemed to carry the slightest of red tinges.
"I'm not too sure," Harry said, glancing through the gap in the curtain to see if Madam Pomfrey was present. "Professor Dumbledore was meant to decide if I was ready to leave, but he's been gone for some time."
"Shall I go speak to her?" She asked.
"Nah," He waved her off, "I should be alright, not the first time I've snuck out of here."
"More stories to tell me, no doubt," Fleur said.
"I've kept a few of the good ones to myself."
A lot of them.
"The Headmaster had some elves send your trunk along to the Burrow." Fleur explained, "Are you ready to leave?"
He shifted his legs over the side of the bed, they screamed in protest as he provoked the numb limbs, but they yielded to his commands. He momentarily forgot he was clad only in his underwear and covered in runes. Procuring his wand from where the Headmaster had left it, he balled the bedsheet up with one hand and waved his wand around it. It soon became a robe decent enough to wear, and he draped it over his shoulders.
I'll have to return the sheet. Harry mused Madam Pomfrey won't be pleased.
It was an oddly daunting prospect, walking after being in bed for so long. The distance to the ground seemed far larger than it had any right to. Fighting back a brief sensation of vertigo, he crossed the distance to the floor. His feet met cold stones, and the limbs relished the restored blood flow.
The salve did much to stamp out the discomfort in his chest, but as for the rest of his body, the pain relief potion struggled to beat back the ache. The runes prickled with discomfort as his legs took the weight of his body for the first time in a long while. He took his first step forward tentatively, possessing all the grace of a toddler, the second was more refined, and the third was normal.
He peered out of the curtains, the coast was clear for the moment, gesturing Fleur to follow him, he slipped out of the cordoned-off area and made for the door quietly with her in tow. Their espionage endeavour worked well enough, and soon they slipped the door open and squeezed through the small gap.
Hogwarts was as he remembered, the morning light shone through the windows in a way that produced a familiar warmth only the Castle could boast. The sun's beams were a gentle caress; the snow had long since stopped. It was a welcome change from the perpetual coldness the Hospital Wing had permeated.
It was his turn to follow her; she led him through the halls until they arrived at a familiar destination - Professor McGonagall's Office. Their belongings were already at the Burrow, and it was now their turn to follow suit.
The journey, however, had begun to perturb him. On the other side of the floo awaited Bill and with him, a truth he did not want to face.
There was the briefest moment of hesitation from him. He could stay at Hogwarts, feign he wasn't feeling well, that perhaps the curse pained him still. It'd hurt the Weasleys, but he wondered if that'd be preferable to seeing Bill and Fleur together.
He had dreaded the arrival of the eldest Weasley since the night Ginny had told him, though up until now it had always seemed peripheral. He hadn't seen them together, so their relationship was inherently incomprehensible to Harry, as if it didn't exist because he hadn't seen it.
His optimism was childish, as was his desire to cause pain because he was being hurt.
Because I was a fool.
There was a turmoil within him before he could reach a conclusion.
I'll need to confront the truth somewhere along the line. He rationalised, It's better I do it sooner, rather than later.
Professor McGonagall's office was empty, likely already having relocated to the Headmaster's office for the tenure of her position as Headmistress. Fleur was the first to go through, throwing her powder into the flames and ascending in a plume of fire.
Harry stepped up to the mark to follow her, grasping the ornate urn from the mantle and pouring a generous amount of glittering green powder into his hands.
He weighed the sand-like grains within his hand, letting some slip through his fingers as he stepped into the clutches of the tall fireplace.
His voice was clear, though it lacked the resolve it might've possessed earlier. The flickering flames were pleasantly warm until the powder fell from his hands and turned a deep emerald.
Within the shortest of moments, he was sucked through the chimney and beyond into the floo network.
He closed his eyes to shield himself from the motley colours that flashed beyond his eyelids and steeled himself against the air that shot past his ears.
As green flames faded around him and Harry stepped into the familiar surroundings of the Burrow, Harry had hope, if only for the briefest of moments.
Fleur stood only a few feet ahead of him, conveying all the signs of someone thoroughly annoyed. Her arms were crossed in front of her, as he advanced, he could see her narrowed eyes and tense shoulders.
Following her eyes had not been a difficult task, the lounge room of the Weasleys wasn't small, and the line forming dominated most of the space available.
The Weasleys and Hermione had soon formed their ranks in full and at the Vanguard was the one Weasley he had hoped to avoid. Bill Weasley stood at the forefront, awaiting their arrival from the fireplace.
He wore a cocky smile, one levelled at the pair. He was tall, but not overly so. Long red-hair fell behind him, and his ears were adorned with jewellery he couldn't make out from this distance.
If Harry was vain, he might've argued that he was better looking than him.
But he was not.
Instead, he was engrossed in the tension that sat between both him and Fleur and the Weasleys.
He felt selfish, hoping that perhaps that the gap between them had grown too great, the rift too large to surmount with a single meeting alone.
Despite the tension, despite the rift - imagined or not, Fleur crossed the gap with a few belated steps and met Bill in the middle with a hug.
It was not the chaste kiss that he'd seen in Gringotts all those months ago, nor was it the outlandish head-over-heels reinvigoration of passion he feared. But they were together, and with their union, the truth of the matter had become apparent enough, punching the air from his lungs in a single, swift motion.
He hadn't the time to ponder where it had gone wrong, for he was met with an embrace of his own. A brown-haired figure hit him in the chest; it didn't possess enough force to stagger him but enough to shoot a flare of white-hot pain through his chest - courtesy of the provoked scar tissue and runes.
Harry, however, did not have the courage to dishearten Hermione; instead, he wrapped his uninjured arm around her.
"I'm okay." He whispered in her ear to assure her, a gesture he was sure to repeat many times before the affair was over.
Hermione pulled away from him, her eyes shimmering with water and joy. But despite the same visible delight, there was the hardy glint of determination. He'd seen such a look in her brown orbs countless times, though, there was no exam to finish, no spell to learn - no riddle to crack.
Except for me. Harry thought. I'm the enigma.
They certainly hadn't spoken a word of why Harry had been in the Hospital Wing, for reasons that were abundantly clear. That, more than anything, perturbed Hermione Granger. Her methods, austere, her intentions, less so.
But she seldom came across a problem she couldn't solve.
And when she looks at me, she sees a problem.
That was how she dealt with such issues, wielding rationality rather than empathy. From the education of grieving methods to the look in her eyes at that very moment, she never failed to push such a point.
A conversation would ensue - that much was certain.
Could I tell them the truth?
The conversation would come, but not now.
Ron shuffled forward and embraced him. Their gesture didn't last nearly as long as Hermione's, a quick hug and a short pat on the back, careful not to disturb the sensitive skin.
"You alright mate?" He asked, concern lacing his voice although in a way as if he was unsure how to express it aptly.
"I feel as good as I look." Harry joked.
Ron, for all the mocking of his teaspoon-sized emotional depth and their fair-weather friendship, held an emotional tact that Hermione did not. He sensed the insincerity within Harry's words but relented at the banter. Assured that if he could still joke, the wound wasn't mortal.
"Best not let mum hear you say that one." He japed in return, "She's likely to cart you off to St. Mungo's if she knows you feel that badly."
With Ron's departure, the rest of the Weasley's flooded in earnest.
Ginny was first, following with a short embrace and some quick pleasantries. After her, followed the persistently exhilarated forms of Fred and George, who animatedly shook his hand and congratulated him on another lengthy stay in the Hospital Wing.
Such a gesture earned the ire of Mrs Weasley, who dispersed them quickly with a harsh glare, followed by her infamous bone-crushing hug, despite his injuries. Mister Weasley was sure to swing past, incapable of not ensuring he had Harry's assistance with some muggle gadgets he'd reverse-engineered.
Then, the last Weasley present emerged.
Bill stood before him, with the close proximity Harry could get the measure of him. Harry's head came just above his mouth, and the glittering jewellery seemed to be earrings, small fangs that pierced his ears.
He looked, despite Harry's feelings, good-natured, wearing the same grin on his face as when they'd arrived.
I detest someone I've barely met.
He hid the contempt he felt for him under the veneer of a well-meaning greeting.
He abandoned Fleur, left her here at the Weasleys where they hated her. Harry rationalised.
Though it did not make him feel any better.
"Good to see you again, Harry." The redhead said, extending his hand.
"Likewise." He replied tersely, grasping his hand and giving it a solid shake.
With the final shake of Bill's hand, which he might've been squeezing too tightly, the pleasantries concluded and the haphazard reunion ended.
The fanfare of Harry's arrival dispersed into the air as quickly as it had manifested, he was then ushered further into the confined of the Burrow as everyone dispersed - presumably to whatever task they had before his arrival.
He made his way further into the lounge room. The Weasley Christmas tree rose tall into the ceiling of the Burrow. Adorned with a variety of baubles and ornaments that lit the room brightly, some displayed each of the Weasley children. Others merely whistled a festive tune at sporadic intervals. It's thick branches danced to the same music - it wasn't the prettiest of sights, but it was far from garish.
In some ways, it was reminiscent of the Weasleys - It was unrefined, yet it was a display of family as much as it was festivities, rough-edged but warm.
At Ron's direction, they sought out the corner table for a game of Wizard's Chess, which, if nothing else, would provide a meaningless distraction for the moment.
They set the board up, and within the first few moves, Ron's superior game sense had manoeuvred him into an equally superior position. If it wasn't already a futile endeavour battling Ron in chess, Bill and Fleur had also sought out a corner, talking in whispers that could've been harsh, though he didn't turn to see. Between that and his already inferior skills, Ron made short work of him.
They set the board up for another game and had begun in earnest, or at least earnest for Ron, for Harry it was more akin to prevarication, desperately trying to prolong the game. He started this round in a much better position, although still nowhere near Ron.
"Take his pawn, the leftmost one." A voice whispered behind him, acting the coach.
It was an almost tantalising tone from Fleur, who had abandoned her conversation to assist him. He did as he was bid, manoeuvring his pieces at her behest, a move that had Ron furrow his brow in confusion.
She began to offer prudent advice to Harry, telling him where to move and what to take. It developed an ebb and flow that saw Harry almost tie with Ron. Though his close game mattered little to him, he played only to hear the whisper, to send the pleasurable shiver down his spine.
The game finished too quickly for Harry; her coaching was both a blessing he wished to keep and a curse that haunted him. Soon, she returned to the lounge and Harry feigned tiredness, setting off towards Ron's room.
The Ghoul in the attic beat a sorrowful tune on the pipes above, the clangorous clash of steel echoing through the house as it wailed in grief.
The next day rose and with it, Christmas.
It rolled around with all the decorum of the flying bludger Fred and George managed to arc through one of the windows. The Weasley Household bustled with an energy more befitting a rowdy pub than any mundane family. Shouting rang through the walls, and the smell of an early breakfast wafted up the tall stairs, filling the house with its delicious aroma.
Ron slipped on a pair of worn slippers once the smell of food awoke him from his loud slumber, he tore down the steps at a speed rivalling any decent racing broom. Whoever was left asleep was surely woken up by his furious pounding down the wooden steps.
Harry followed him down, carting his hastily wrapped presents in his arms. He had initially planned to wrap them before he left Hogwarts, but that plan had been forgotten in favour of his duty. With a quick hand from Mrs Weasley, they covered them promptly; it wasn't the prettiest affair, but for a decoration that was going to be torn off, it would do.
He descended to the lounge room where everyone was assembled around the tree, where he was forced to raise the facade that everything was pleasant. Bill and Fleur sat on the worn lounge, that was almost enough to spoil Christmas morning for him.
"Merry Christmas," Harry announced, forcing himself to sound cheery from the bottom of the stairs.
He was met with a resounding echo of returning wishes. He took a seat on the floor next to Hermione. The entirety of the Weasley Clan was present, sans Charlie and Percy and the room was packed to the brim, almost bursting at the seams as indicated by how he was thoroughly sandwiched between Hermione and Fred.
Then, the sudden exchange of gifts began.
From Mr and Mrs Weasley and surprisingly Ginny, he received the annual sweater, the same maroon and gold as last year, although a fair bit bigger than last year and this time had an animated snitch that flew around the midsection.
In return, Ginny got a broom polishing kit and Mrs Weasley, a new skillet he had mail-ordered from Diagon Alley. Mr Weasley received a plethora of ballpoint pens that he had stolen from Uncle Vernon with that exact intent.
Hermione came next, and a wand care kit found its way into his hand after she cited that 'Broom Polish was no way to take care of a wand.'
He had gifted her various disquisitions about wizarding theory, it was too convoluted and specific for Harry even to make it through the first page, but Fleur assured him it'd be an exciting read.
If anyone was ever going to get any use out of them, it's Hermione.
Ron followed, from Harry he received the Terror Transceiver and a Chudley Cannons jersey of his new favourite player, Bailey. In return, he got the various weird sweets, Liquorice Locust, Amber Amphibians and various other novel foods. Ron seemed thoroughly pleased with his present, swinging the jersey over his head without a second thought.
Fred and George gave him a plethora of experimental products that he was assured that he'd have quite a bit of fun with, in return he offered to endorse a few of their products for them and pay for some adverts. He remained unsure of their present for an age and decided to cater to their only true passion in life.
Harry hadn't bought anything for Bill, given the fact he didn't know he was coming until it was too late and the fact that he didn't really want to - but the man seemed to understand.
Then, the main event had arrived.
Hers was wrapped far better than his, each gift found its way into its intended's hands, and he was delegated to opening it first. He tore carefully at the surrounding paper, forming a tear large enough to pull the present from its confines.
It was a photo frame - ornate, burnished wood that smelt strongly of lavender. Within the frame was an animated photo, from one of Slughorn's parties from the looks of it. Both of them held a drink in their hands, appearing to laugh good-naturedly before she leant down to rest her head on his shoulders.
The gift meant much to him; he shielded it from the view of the others as they continued opening presents.
He likely didn't give it the due it deserved, instead trying to find meaning in aromatic wood and the animated memory.
"Thank you." Harry raised his head to make eye contact, his voice thick but drowned out by the boisterousness of the room.
"It took forever to find someone to take a picture who wasn't already drunk." She smiled softly, "I enjoyed your company that night."
He returned the smile and nodded towards the present within her hands.
It was her turn now, the gift he'd spent hours deciding on and many galleons in pursuit of.
But she meant more to him than stamped gold coins or the tedious writing of letters. He'd liaised with Gabrielle and Fleur's mother for the better part of a month and a half, which took courage in and of itself. But in good time, their plan had worked.
Fleur tore the paper open with the same respect for the item inside that he displayed, eventually freeing it to appraise it with a keen eye.
It was a book or more aptly, a journal of her own.
On the face was an illustration, one he had struggled to remember, but the craftsmanship seemed masterful. It was Fleur and Gabrielle when they were both younger, on the stuffed Griffin that she had said was her favourite memory, in-flight around a willow tree in their yard.
She had often reminisced about moments with her sister, and now, it was immortalised in a book of her own.
Gabrielle had provided the memory, and her mother sought a man in Lyon to charm and paint the journal. It had taken much effort to convince the stalwart Apolline Delacour to assist him, and for some time, he thought the plan was destined to fail.
Though, the look in her eyes justified it all.
She turned it over, observing the other cover, the adjacent picture was of them the first time he had won a duel. Worn from spells and bad news, they laid side-by-side on the cold ground, a moment he remembered fondly.
Inside the covers were decorated with artistry of a different kind. He breathed life into some of the pages with Dumbledore's spells, or at least, the ones he had tested and known well enough to detail.
He had spent most of his time perfecting his quillmanship to ensure it was neat enough to be legible.
"How?" She questioned, looking up to meet his eyes.
"Gabrielle helped me." Harry explained with a smile that threatened to split his face, "She got your Mother on board too, they provided the memories, I just paid for it."
"Dare I even ask what Gabrielle made you do for this?"
"Not too much." Harry assured, "Just a few galleons."
And the command to come to France in the near future.
"Thank you." She spoke softly, gazing upon him with ocean blue eyes that he blinked rapidly to be free from.
She moved from the lounge, crossing the crowded distance between them before kneeling to embrace him tightly as she had the day before.
She held him longer than she should have if only to reignite the wick of hope within him once more.
It felt as if they were the only pair in the room, thought of redheads long since forgotten.
She separated from him and returned to the lounge to gaze at the present once more. Harry, on the other hand, bathed in their close contact, foolishly allowing that same wick to burn unimpeded instead of snuffing it out.
With the final presents dispensed, the gift-giving ceremony concluded, and they all retreated outside in the pursuit of breakfast.
The picnic table soon filled to capacity, so another was conjured. The tables soon became filled with boisterous laughter and the clanking of silverware. Fred and George had brought balls of confetti that danced around and formed into various creatures. Mrs Weasley had sourced enormous crackers that spilt out various magical novelties, glasses that gave the wearers a bushy moustache or made their ears huge.
The legion of Weasley's present had slowly devoured the large, hearty breakfast. Progressing through bowls of food with practised ease before a noise from inside the Burrow drew the table's attention.
A flare of green light against the windows and the roar of flickering flames sent Mister Weasley into the house, wand drawn to discern the source of the noise.
He had entered as one and returned as two.
"Hope you lot are still taking late additions." A voice announced from behind Mister Weasley that sent the Weasley's into a fervour.
"Charlie!" Ron called out, rushing to give his brother a hug. Soon all the assembled Weasleys followed suit and were up to greet him.
He was as tall as Bill, taller even, but clearly carried the evidence of his employment much worse. His hands were discoloured, a leathery, dull scarlet, highlighting burnt tissue. His red hair was likely short for the same reason for the burns, barely making it an inch from his scalp.
Charlie Weasley - the dragon handler.
"Don't start swarming." The man swore with a grin, "I couldn't take presents through the portkey, no need to start looking so interested in me."
Harry came over to meet the man; he'd never met Charlie properly before, the only Weasley with that distinction now.
"Harry Potter." Charlie announced, "I've heard a lot about you." He made to shake his hand, which was understandably hardened with callouses, reminiscent of Hagrid's behemoth fists
"If Ron told you anything about me, I wouldn't believe it," Harry explained to a smattering of laughs. "Can't trust that bloke."
"Oi!" Ron cried, "Get out of it!"
"He reckoned you were a good mate and a bloody decent wizard." Charlie returned.
"Most trustworthy one among the lot." Harry amended quickly, "Best mate you've ever seen, believe it all."
"That's more like it," Ron muttered, and Charlie laughed once more, off to greet Hermione.
Breakfast resumed with the newest addition, as the morning progressed, Harry found he quite liked the second Weasley son. He seemed very jovial, not cut from the same cloth as the twins, but enough to have the table laughing more often than not. Regaling them with tales of his work in Romania, the majority seeing Mrs Weasley launch into a bout of scolding, but he took it in his stride.
With the excitement over for the morning, everyone retired inside to take stock of their presents. Harry followed their example and retreated to Ron's Room, desperate to combat the section of Christmas Day that always seemed tedious.
Harry took his position in his bed, placing his gift from Fleur on the bedside table. Ron followed soon behind him into the room.
He didn't say anything as he entered the room, but Harry had known him long enough to know something lingered beneath the surface. If his face wasn't any indicator, his drooped posture was.
He's sulking. Harry noted he'd seen him do it countless times over the years, from championship debacles to breakfasts cut short.
Pushing him won't get me anywhere.
"Harry?" Ron spoke after a short while in the room, clearly having to gain the courage to speak.
"Yeah, mate?" Harry returned, turning his eyes from the roof to the Redhead across the room.
"Do you…" He paused for a moment as if to gather his thoughts, or more courage even, "Do you think the Chudley Cannons are really that bad?"
Harry paused for a moment before he let out a loud chuckle.
"You're terrible at lying. You do know that, yeah?"
"Absolutely no clue what you mean." He murmured in response.
"What's really eating you today?' Harry asked, about to feign knowledge on a subject he was no doubt just as inept at as Ron.
"It's nothing, just, you know?"
"Would you believe me if I said I didn't?"
"Sod off." Ron blew a breath of hot air past his lips. "You know, Hermione and me?"
"I think I could've seen you once or twice." Harry teased, "Why's that?"
"Do you reckon we could ever really work together?"
His question hung in the air for a moment, catching Harry unaware.
Wasn't what I thought he'd ask, or at least, not in so many words.
"I reckon you could." Harry assured him after a moment, "What's brought this on?"
"She's been on me since Slughorn's party about the Prince's spells," Ron explained.
"Did you stop practising them?"
"No." Ron admitted, "How could I?"
"So you're on the outs now I take it?"
"That's one way to put it." Ron nodded, "It's just… how would we ever work when all we do is argue?"
"You'll never know unless you try, I suppose." Harry counselled, "You could always ask her."
If only I could take my own advice.
"No, thanks." Ron let out a forced chuckle.
"I'm serious." Harry pushed, "Remember what I said at Slughorn's Party?"
"You're never going to be happy if you waste away thinking about it. Either it works, or it doesn't, but there's not much use in agonising about it."
More sage advice spilt from his lips that he didn't have the confidence to follow himself. His words seemed to give Ron something to think on, the conversation fading as he immersed himself in his thoughts once again.
"How do you reckon I should do it?"
Harry shrugged, "I'll be honest mate, I've never given plans to ask Hermione out much thought.
"Oh, you don't say?" Ron returned sarcastically, "Seriously, I'm going to need something."
"I don't really know Ron. Why not ask Bill or Charlie?"
"Definitely not." Ron snorted, "Charlie prefers dragons over birds and Bill? He's not that down-to-earth, you know? Romance isn't his style, adventure and glamour are, won't get much use out of that here."
"I thought you told me Bill was a casanova?"
"Yeah, he is." Ron nodded, "But she's worth more than one of Bill's lines."
So is Fleur, he thought.
"I doubt curse-breaking will help you." Harry said.
"What do you reckon about mistletoe?"
"Yes." Harry drawled, "I'm sure we'll love being taken advantage of because of a plant, sounds exactly like Hermione."
"Then what?" Ron asked, frustrated, tossing his pillow about.
"I don't know." Harry said, "Why not try and do something after dinner? Like a walk in the garden or something - something she'd appreciate."
Ron seemed to consider it for a while. "Brilliant mate, bloody brilliant." He exclaimed, "You know for a bloke who's only girlfriend was a disaster, you're pretty flashy with this romance business."
"So the Apprentice becomes the Master," Harry spoke, his tone imitating something Dumbledore would wield.
His words seemed to set Ron at ease, anxiety abated from his form, and he landed against his pillow with a content sigh.
Maybe that's what I needed, someone to talk to.
Someone to assure him as he had Ron, that perhaps Fleur felt the same, offer some wisdom where he felt he had none.
But that was wishful thinking.
"Just for the record and all, I do think the Chudley Cannons are that bad." Ron let out a little chuckle at his words.
"I know mate, I know. It's not my fault you're too daft to see it."
"That's us, isn't it mate? A pair of daft wankers."
"Trust me. You've got absolutely no idea."
"I've got some idea," Harry responded jokingly.
They returned their gaze to the roof, the beams offered little comfort, but there was no harm in trying.
Lunch passed as a comparatively dull affair, highlighted by a quidditch game he neglected to join out of respect for his injuries.
Dinner, however, was not content with being outdone, within hours the Burrow was back in full force, eager to embark into the further festivities of the evening.
The picnic tables were transfigured into a single, larger table that housed the entirety of the family and their guests, alive with chatter and laughter as always.
The twins had charmed the turkey to dance an Irish Jig in a valiant attempt to evade capture from Mrs Weasley's wand, Ginny and Ron tried their best to destroy the table with a game of exploding snap, one that had already cracked the wood beneath them.
Charlie embarked on another tale to Mr Weasley and Hermione engaged Bill in conversation about curses. The Christmas tree whirled and whistled a festive tune. Even the Ghoul did it's best to supplement the festivities with his orchestra of pipes.
It was very much the spirit of Christmas.
Fleur sat opposite to him, engaged as far in the festivities as she dared, bouncing through conversation in an attempt to find common ground. She was currently entertained by Charlie, whose story happened to contain the same dragon she had charmed in the tournament.
"A fang?" He could hear Mrs Weasley sigh as conversation switched once more, "Really? Bill, what would they think at the bank?"
"Surprisingly, the Goblin's aren't interested in my appearance, Mum." Bill tried to placate her, "I could wear whatever I want, as long as I ensure there's gold for them to pilfer."
Fleur had overheard that conversation if the sudden frown that marred her face was any indication. Mrs Weasley joined her with such a scowl and instead, began fretting over Bill's long hair.
They had feasted yet again on well-cooked food, but it wouldn't have been Christmas with Harry Potter if it wasn't ripe with interruptions.
A bright-white figure had emerged from the treeline in the distance, illuminating the grass beneath it. It contained its approach until the entire household was peering intently at its advancing form.
It was a Patronus - a cat.
No, a Lynx. He'd seen it before.
"Arthur, bring Bill and report to Headquarters as soon as possible."
It was the thick, accented baritone of Kingsley Shacklebolt that came from the Patronus's mouth, distorted by the magic that carried it. Its appearance alongside its message seemed to sedate the atmosphere of the table before it disappeared into a silver wisp.
Bill and Arthur rose and gave their farewells, bound for the floo while Charlie took off after them, offering his assistance.
The joyous spirit The Burrow possessed mere moments ago had fallen silent, disappearing with Kingsley's Patronus. Lively chatter turned to mutters as festivities were forgotten in favour acknowledging the truth that everyone had strived to ignore.
There's still a war going on.
He felt guilt rise within him, surging to the forefront of his mind. The entire time he'd wished for nothing more than Bill to be gone, to try and restore something he once had.
Now, he was gone. Off to help the Order while he remained at the Burrow. No amount of anger, righteous or petty, could stop him from feeling that guilt.
I'm a coward.
It suddenly seemed bleak; the griseous-hue of the moon seemed overbearing. The twins, true to their form, attempted to restore the festive mood, but despite their efforts, the sombre silence still lorded its dominance.
Mrs Weasley seemed disinterested in her cooking; Hermione had forgone eating entirely. Ron had continued to eat.
Though I doubt anything would tear him away from a plate.
Though, to his credit, he also looked worried. Ginny, however, replaced her worry with anger, her fist wrapped tightly around the stem of her fork as she skewered potatoes.
"Do you think they'll be okay?" Hermione asked gently.
Her voice was scarcely above a whisper, scared of disturbing that uneasy equilibrium that was the silence of the table - unsure if her words might shift the balance from silence to panic.
No one seemed sure of how to answer, and Harry was going to try and contribute something though Fleur beat him to it.
"You needn't be worried, Hermione," Fleur told her, though it appeared her words didn't have the placating effect she seemed to intend.
Molly looked aghast, Ginny tightened her grip, choking the fork with a white-knuckled grip as she skewered another potato with a vicious and violent swing, even Ron looked up from his roast beef.
"Excuse me?" Ginny asked, her voice daring Fleur to speak against them.
"Do you truly think so little of them?" Fleur posed a question, pushing the idea that they'd return in good health. "Bill is a talented Curse Breaker, Charlie, a Dragon Handler. Kingsley, a veteran Auror and Arthur, a respectable wizard in his own right. I've little concern for their martial might should the need arise and all the concern for any who should try and interdict their plans."
Molly's face seemed to return to worry, as opposed to furious and Ginny's fist opened slightly, letting her fork down but not her scowl, though, if nothing else, it saved another potato from a vicious death at the hands of Ginny Weasley.
The twins gave a final attempt to lighten the mood, they charmed Ron's shoes to tickle his feet, but no one was under the impression that the dinner could be salvaged.
Harry excused himself from the table, all the while, Fleur watched him intently.
I think some time to myself might do me some good.
He made his way to the Burrow's orchard bordering the small creek. It was peaceful there, somewhere he could leave it all behind.
The stream trickled down the slight incline with a serene melody, the trees were coated with a thin layer of sleet, caught up in the branches, the ground too was cold, but at the very least not wet.
In Spring, the trees were filled with apples and other assorted fruits, the wind swung a delicate song through their branches, and the Weasleys liked to swim where the water was deeper.
But in the depths of winter, it was barren, almost skeletal.
The sky, however, was incredibly beautiful tonight, the full moon cast a luminous glow on everything beneath it. The trees cast soft shadows, it made it a little less cold somehow, though he was less concerned with the temperature, he just stared skywards.
The stars shone brightly, seeking out his favourite almost instantaneously, the Dog Star - Sirius. It twinkled a light purple in the sky, almost as if it was winking at him. Sirius had shown it to him, from the window of Grimmauld Place one night. It was the only astronomy lesson Harry had ever loved, and it certainly wasn't from Hogwarts.
It felt like there was almost an inherent connection between Harry and the Star, it felt like one of the last tangible links between him and Sirius. He liked to gaze upon it whenever he could as if Sirius could still hear him.
He was up there, in Orion's Belt. He talked about his father very little, but he got the idea that he was a good man, like Sirius.
His mother, on the other hand, held the whip in the House of Black. Every time she cracked it, Sirius was driven further from them until he found James Potter.
Maybe you're happy up there, with your father and your family. Harry thought. Hopefully, you've found that peace that you couldn't find down here.
He continued gazing at the violet star.
A bit of advice wouldn't go amiss, you know? I'm in a bit of a predicament, you see.
"So this is where you've gotten off to?" A voice questioned from behind him approaching from the Burrow.
A voice he cared for.
Fleur was bundled tightly in her winter robe, the one that had been laden with snow and blood the day Katie had been attacked.
"I like it here." He responded, breaking his gaze from Sirius, the moonlight highlighted her silver hair, giving her an almost ethereal glow, it shone down her cascading hair and blue robes.
"Even in this cold?" She asked, "You'll catch your death out here, Harry. Who shall save the people should you die to the winter?
It was a light joke, but the last thing he needed was the reminder that there was far more trouble beyond his heart.
He merely shrugged.
She took a spot beside him, laying down and too, looking up at the stars,
"What are you looking at?" She questioned.
"Sirius." He answered. "The star."
"Show it to me." She asked gently.
"See that there?" He directed her gaze with a finger to the purple glow that shined brightest.
"It's beautiful." She said, "Your Godfather's name?"
He merely nodded his head.
"Do you like it out here?" Fleur asked, "Watching the stars that is?"
"It's nice," He clarified, "Makes you realise how small all our problems are." He turned on his side, looking to her. His tone was terse, even pained if he was honest. However, he couldn't help but let it escape.
"You're being moody." She said bluntly, misinterpreting his pain for brooding.
I like to think of myself being above moping. He thought sourly.
Even if he wasn't.
"No, I'm not." He defended himself.
"You are." She reiterated strongly. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." He tried lamely.
She didn't believe him for a moment.
"You're lying." She said, "Don't make me get it out of you." She threatened.
"Oh yeah?" He scoffed. "I'm sure I'd love to see that."
Her fingers probed his side, at first he thought she was just poking him, but the fingers wriggled in his side, and he squirmed to avoid them, letting out an uncharacteristic giggle.
She was tickling him.
"You tickled me." He said, confounded at the sudden contact.
"I warned you." She said and reached for him once more, tickling his side, he tried to roll away, but she was ready.
Like a beast stalking its prey, she pounced on him, straddling him just above his waist to pin him. Harry was more shocked than anything, but soon her fingers found his side, and she kept him in place.
It was child-like, but she had the unique ability to make him forget the war, forget everything that troubled him.
"Going to tell me yet?" She asked. "Or shall I be forced to interrogate you further?"
He was ready this time, she tried again, but he threw her off and began to tickle her sides in return. It was a short tussle, but with a few graceful moves, she was back on top of him. He was fearful of testing the limits of the scar tissue or healing salve, and hence, she overpowered and mounted him with ease.
"Do you yield?" She offered. Her face was only inches away as she mocked him, close enough, her breath tickled his face.
"Alright, Alright." He relented, "You win."
"So what's wrong?" She asked again.
Ocean met Emerald as they had so many times before. Every piece of counsel he'd had was in his mind at that moment, each thought a contribution to the maelstrom, from Dumbledore's advice to Helena's lament in death.
He felt both a man tall and a boy before her.
He looked past her for a moment, Sirius was shining brighter than before, twinkling greater than any other star in the sky, as if beckoning him to confess.
"You." He said hoarsely, "You're the problem."
The words were said - the barrier burst.
Happiness is a duty to oneself. Harry recited, I owe it to myself to try.
It felt like a betrayal; in some ways, it was. He could've held his mouth closed, refrained from speaking any further, saved himself from further betrayals.
But he wouldn't - couldn't.
"Me?" She asked, confused, "I'm the problem?"
"It's you. It's always been you."
"What do you mean Harry?"
It seemed little but a dream, a star beyond his grasp, silver-hued as the hair that enshrouded his vision. He could not reach out, for fear he would fall.
And yet, he reached.
"I love you."
They were simple words, ones he'd imagine speaking half-a-hundred times.
So he did, he leapt, as he'd always feared to do.
But their impact was anything but simple.
His heart thumped harder than ever, warring against his head until the former came out dominant.
His words felt scary, exhilarating, intoxicating. He could've spoken them again and again, relishing the feeling of such a weight being lifted off his chest.
It was what came after, however, that replaced the weight that discouraged him from that - the same knife of sorrow that pierced his breast.
She seemed stunned, remaining straddled against his midriff.
And remained silent.
The heart that had leapt at the opportunity had sunk back into his chest, every second that past was merely a step closer to the inevitable confirmation that he had failed.
He had played his hand and come up short, his lips dried and his throat constricted. Now, he desperately wished to be anywhere else.
"Harry, I'm engaged." She offered weakly, her first words and ones he had dreaded to hear.
"Don't," He pleaded. "Please, just don't. We've shared magic, we've learned, we've plotted, we've drank, we've laughed. Don't use Bill as an excuse as if it erases everything - it doesn't, it can't."
There was the briefest of pauses. Fleur's eyes shone in the light moonlight. Her breath quickened; he could feel the short bursts of hot air on his cheeks.
"I love you." He announced again, "I can't pretend like I don't - like I never felt anything. I won't pretend, please don't ask me to try."
"Harry..." She said in a breathless voice.
The gap between his lips and hers was far from insurmountable. If he was gallant, he could reach up and capture them with his own.
If only he dared.
But he wouldn't.
"Please, just… don't." He didn't want the words to leave her lips, that the feelings were unrequited, he shifted his head to break their gaze, hopeful that he found the solution.
He didn't dare look at her now, for fear he might fall again.
"Look at me."
Her voice was soft, yet hoarse, wavering with unspoken emotion. Whatever courage he had left was spent on meeting her gaze once more.
Then, Fleur moved.
She closed the distance between their faces with a swift motion and met his lips with hers.
His face erupted with the heat of passion akin to the warmth he had from holding his wand, amplified tenfold.
She wrapped her arms around his neck to deepen their kiss. There was no taste of fruit as he'd been led to believe, save the brief glimmer of wine at her lips. She tasted of Fleur Delacour. She tasted unique - like no one ever would.
It was addictive, and when she pushed for more, he obliged. Her tongue peeking from her lips into his own, a delicate dance that sparked something within the pair. Their bodies ground together in an almost desperate fashion, trying to nurse the flame in their lips to beat back the freezing cold.
She was fire made flesh, beauty made ethereal and love made magic, and in that moment, she was a goddess to be worshipped.
They soon broke for air, leaning their foreheads against the other; their heavy breath made his heart race all the faster.
Her body and soul enraptured him, every so often he'd reach up to steal her lips once more, or she'd press down upon him, reigniting the flame - the duel of desire.
Then, they'd return to staring into the eyes of the other. He finally allowed himself to be fully submerged in the ocean depths to see her heart and soul beyond.
She was not Fleur Delacour. She was not the Veela, nor the Triwizard Tournament Competitor. She was not the woman of wit that had been a godsend to him, nor the enigma that he could never decipher.
She was his.
And he was hers.
Even if it was just for a night, it was enough. Even if the war would strip him of whatever he had left, he had this.
They stayed that way for some time as the moon above them continued its path. No words passed between them, as they held each other. There would be time for words later, but for now, the silence was pure bliss.
Their tangled limbs and beating hearts provided a hearty buffer against the cold, enough so that he wished he could have stayed there as long as he lived.
The slow thump of her heart was melodic, an artisan's piece that signified everything that had arisen between them and everything that had promised to come.
But soon, the beat of her heart was conquered by another noise, sending their passion in full route.
The noise resounded through the orchard, a hellish screeching that pierced through the air, making it seem far colder than it was - a noteworthy feat amidst the winter night.
Ping, it sounded again.
Fleur was roused from his chest, breaking their embrace to peer around inquisitively. There was a bright light that radiated across the landscape, though dawn was not yet set to rise.
The moonlight crowned her hair as she rose, silver glittering into his eyes as he broke from her beauty to stare past her.
Just as the moon crowned her hair, a sickly scarlet glow crowned the Burrow.
END OF ACT I - NEWFOUND BEAUTY
BEGIN ACT II - RESISTANCE RISING.