Hey everyone, it's been a while.
First of all, I'd like to thank everyone that beta read this chapter; Taliesin19, x102reddragon and NerdDragonVoid. Their work, as always, helps shape the chapter into what you get—their assistance is invaluable.
It's been quite a long time since I last posted and sadly, I can't see that delay getting any shorter as I progress with university. I can promise, however, that I'll do my best to get something down (assuming I have the time and ability).
Virtually all of my writing in the interim was geared towards more light-hearted storylines, coming back to ADKOW felt very tonally dissonant from a personal perspective. Hopefully, I could do the next step of the story justice.
Also, be sure to read 'Grow Young With Me' by Taliesin19 on FFN and AO3. It's a masterful post-war story following Harry and his struggles, it's my favourite piece of work on the site and I highly suggest you read it.
That's all from me. Until next time, stay safe and enjoy!
Severus Snape was not a kind man.
In fact, no argument could be made that he was even a good man in any sense of the word. He was an abhorrent, twisted man wrought with old pain he chose not to mend.
But he was a man all the same.
A man was not what his line of work demanded. No, it wanted something far, far less—something worse.
It was a thought that arrived with harsh clarity every time a telltale crack sounded and the ostentatious exterior of Malfoy Manor came into view. It was the seat of power, so to speak, no matter how much countryside was trampled underfoot, Voldemort lingered in the home of the Malfoys.
It was a smart move; even Snape could grudgingly relent that much. In the halls of the Ministry, he was embroiled in a different world, tearing at the seams of a waning bureaucracy as the regime rose.
But while present at Malfoy Manor, he served as a constant reminder to all. He struck without regard. He stole the homes of his inner circle without worry. He was the hand that withered all it touched, the one that grasped the world as they knew it within pale, bone-white fingers.
And it was that thought that made resistance seem futile, that made the hope of a life without war seem too distant to grasp.
Voldemort knew that. Snape knew that. So did every Death Eater, young or old, fresh or veteran that walked through the tall doors.
Those same tall doors passed him by and beckoned him beyond into what was once a world of luxury—marbled pillars with gold accents, paintings and antiquities spanning long walls in a way that screamed garishly.
Now it was marred with something foul, not that the house was ever particularly pleasant. The air seemed stale, magic felt stagnant, and death's bitter taste hung in the air like a pestilence.
Regardless of how it felt or the thoughts that arose within him, he pressed onwards into the manor.
He had a duty.
A good man, he was not. But a dutiful one?
I suppose it's all I've got left, he thought, all I've had for a long time.
Listing to the side like a ship sinking at sea, his arm came to rest against one of the ornate pillars. A heaving cough followed, wracking his hunched form with pain. Snape tried a few tentative steps before he was forced to grapple with the wall again, his coughs inviting blood, metallic and foul, into his mouth.
His hand rose beneath the mask, cold to the touch, to run a gentle fingertip over the inside of his lips, coming away wet with confirmation.
It wasn't much further to his destination. He lifted the mask and spat the viscous blood to the ground. Stumbling past the rest of the decor, he fumbled with the door handle, ornate artistry painted with his dark lifeblood and fell inside.
The figure inside cradled her hands in her lap and was roused immediately at his sudden entrance.
"Severus," the figure said in a hushed whisper, a tentative step taking them from their chair as they stared at one another.
His response died at his lips. He stumbled left, then right. Soon, his descent began, uncontrolled and flecked with darkness as his eyelids fluttered and closed, unconsciousness taking him whole.
"Who was it this time?"
The figure caught his rousing as his eyes, blinded by even the lowlight, fluttered and cracked open. A hand automatically groped around for his wand beneath the sheet that was haphazardly tossed over his body. It yielded nothing.
But he knew the voice, after a slow moment of staring at the pale, white roof, he answered.
"Does it matter?"
Snape could hear the frown in her voice but didn't dare risk aggravating his injuries to turn towards her. "No," she said. "I don't suppose it does."
His hand reached for his tender side, tracing the edge of fresh scar tissue that disfigured his torso. The wound was still raw and open; despite the effort made to close it, the seam was still split open.
A finger that ran too close came away wet. Snape chose to ignore that for the moment.
"I did my best," the figure commented on his inspection. He assumed she leant forward as the voice sounded closer than before. "Whatever spell they used was beyond my knowledge, and capability to remedy."
A breath, hot and hoarse, left his mouth in a slow sigh. "You couldn't have found me a healer?"
"Was I not good enough?" she practically spat, indignant at the insinuation her care hadn't been sufficient.
He tapped his side gently to draw attention to it. "I'm bleeding from a hole in my side," he scoffed. "You're a poor healer."
"And the alternatives?" she posed angrily. "Carrying an Inner Circle member on the verge of death, through the manor, past those who'd want you dead for your seat." That same indignation was back, rising to a fever pitch. "I didn't come collapse in your quarters, bleeding all over your floor. I should've left you there."
The final few words left her mouth with biting vitriol, the chair she occupied squeaking harshly as she slumped back into it.
"You wouldn't," Snape said, sinking his head into the pillow. "You need me."
"I do and not a waking hour passes that doesn't stop to mock me of that," she said, shifting her eyes away. "I hate it."
Silence followed her admission, tense and abrupt. The room empty save for two breaths—hers laboured with emotion, his—pain.
"A Centaur," Snape admitted after several moments.
He gestured towards his wounds in an act he assumed she could see. "A Centaur did this." He said, "they knew the forest better than us—they knew we were coming. He sent us to die."
"The Centaurs?" she asked, her voice laden with confusion. "The herd of Hogwarts… why?"
"Because they see things we can't." Snape explained, "they find meaning in Mars, visions in Venus. They look to the stars and see futures we can't comprehend—see defeats they could inflict against him."
"Is he truly that paranoid?" she asked.
"He's of the mind that the prophecy was magic itself trying to manifest against him. That the world's natural order could not stomach him at the apex. He fears that the world might yet try and right itself before he conquers it, that someone might get a glimpse of the means to make him topple."
She snorted, though it lacked humour. "So he is truly that paranoid."
Snape shrugged, the action sending molten led down the nerves of his injured side. "He fashions himself far smarter than he was in the first war."
"And is he?" she asked.
"No," he said. "He's no smarter, just more dangerous."
Then the silence came again.
"Did what was ordered of us."
"Oh…" she whispered. "They're... gone?"
"Yes…" The emotions threatened to overwhelm even him.
Generations upon generations of Centaurs had settled in the Forbidden Forest for as far back as there'd been a school. They'd taught children, protected unicorns—they harmed nought, asking only for a clear, unadulterated view of the night sky. They'd fought against bigoted bureaucrats and kept the dark creatures at bay.
And he'd lead the raid that killed them all.
The arrow didn't feel recompense enough.
"Yes…" he echoed with a shaky, hoarse breath. "They're gone."
"And us?" She whispered, "Are we—"
"Mostly dead too," Snape answered and followed with the barest of breaths, "good riddance to them."
Snape shifted in his bed; it wouldn't be long before the world demanded he get up—injured or otherwise. He roused his limbs into action and tried to twist his legs towards the ground. His entire body screamed in pain at the notion.
A few more minutes then, he decided lamely.
"Someone is going to have to pay for it." She sighed, her words tentative as if she barely wished to say them. "And I think you and I both have a firm grasp on who that someone is."
"Yes," Snape deadpanned. "I think we both do."
There was that ever-persistent, fickle reminder of his mortality.
"You'll die if you go, you do know that, yes?"
He snorted mirthlessly, "I've got an inkling." He said, "The alternative is I flee and live a life with my eyes always cast to where I've left footprints. If I disobey, I die for certain. If I go, there's a chance of life."
"No," she disagreed fervently. "There'll be no life, you'll be dead or he'll ask something of you too great to give—something he has no right to. Even Bellatrix keeps more to herself than usual, especially after Rodo—"
"Tell me this," Snape interrupted, "would you have any care for my life, in the slightest had I not agreed to save your son?"
Narcissa took to her feet and crossed the room with light, languid steps to face him. Her face was enfeebled, wearing the dark, shallow lines of the constant barrage of stress and attrition of the man who occupied her home.
He remembered once thinking of her as the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, not that he thought much of her beyond skin deep. Such a claim, however, was unfounded now.
Composure had sat on Narcissa Malfoy's face like a second skin. He'd seen her during Lucius's trial after the first war, pale eyes the colour of morning mist a shroud for whatever happened behind them. The facade impenetrable, the flaws hidden.
Yet here, for the first time he could think of, Narcissa Malfoy looked truly horrified at what had become of the world.
"No." Narcissa admitted, "I'd sooner sell you to him if it could mean our freedom. I'd kill you myself if it meant he was safe." Her next breath was hoarse and shallow, the stubborn kind. "But you made the vow and now I do care. There needn't be anything beyond that—you're a good man to help me."
"And you're a terrible liar." Snape said, "Cygnus didn't deign to teach you much, did he?"
The jab was harsh and bitter, but it settled him into the natural tempo of things, even with the hole in his side.
Narcissa shook her head and gazed solemnly at the floor. "You're a terrible man, if it's the truth you seek." She said, "But you could be far worse. If there was ever such a thing as a good, terrible man it is you, Severus Snape."
The Malfoy matriarch rose to her feet and flattened out the creases sitting by his bedside had inflicted on her dress. Once the fabric was suitably unruffled she gestured towards the table, golden and ornate, against the far wall.
"There was an owl while you slept," she said. "Hogwarts business from what I could glean."
His lips thinned into a line. "You opened it," Snape accused.
She shrugged as if she couldn't see the problem. "Consider it a fee for services rendered." Narcissa smirked. "You ruined quite a good gown."
With that, Narcissa Malfoy glided gracefully from the room or as gracefully as she could muster in the situation. After a few seconds, the door closed behind her with an audible click, leaving him alone to his thoughts.
It took a few more moments for him to muster the courage for a second attempt to free himself from the confines of the bed. With a heave, a hiss of pain and another shot of molten lead, he took tentatively to his feet and shambled slowly to the desk.
Taking him far longer than it should have, he practically fell into the chair at the desk and groped for the letter. Snape tore at the Hogwarts seal haphazardly, procuring his prize from within.
Class schedules, that was all it was.
Until he drew the page closer to his mouth and whispered a phrase, shallow and rough.
Words began to morph.
Severus, the page read. His eyes trailed down the familiar hand he hadn't expected to see again.
He read each line once, then again for good measure. Taking in a full account of what the man had asked of him before his eyes lingered on the paragraph.
Hero, villain, traitor, spy.
You are all of these things. You are none.
Teach the world a kinder way.
Albus Dumbledore asked too much of him—atonement was a prospect too far gone for the likes of him. He sighed, placing the letter back on the desk.
Adapt or perish. That was nature's inexorable imperative.
But what if there was another option? he pondered, his finger tracing the final line.
The room was quiet for a moment, the silence given a duty far too great—saying all the things that words couldn't. Harry lingered towards the edge of the room with Fleur by his side. Dumbledore stopped to give them a small ghost of a smile before turning back to address the Order.
Albus Dumbledore did not look as he last knew him, not truly. Slightly sallow cheeks had filled out, weary eyes turned bright once more and the ever-present grandfatherly smile beamed.
Harry was unsure of what to do. Rather than seek a seat, he stood rooted to his spot on the fringe of the room.
"They've bloodied themselves in enough raids!" A voice called from the back of the room, "we need to seize the initiative while they're gathering their strength!"
"But where?" another echoed in response and, at the provocation, voices formed a sudden cacophony of ideas.
An unfamiliar face stood to the rear of the group, "they've got homes!" He slammed his fist on the table, "if they wanted to burn ours, I say we let them know we've got teeth too. Burn every manor we can find from Falmouth to Orkney."
Remus's hands rubbed wearily at his face from beside Albus. "What does that stand to gain us?" He asked, "burnt homes? Dead families? There are fa—"
A hand from Dumbledore on his shoulder silenced him, the older man stepping to the fore.
Remus was a decent orator, such was true, but few compared to Albus Dumbledore. He was a presence, tangible and powerful as he addressed them. "We will not enact a senseless doctrine of retribution and revanchism," he declared, resting both hands, gloved and bare, on the table. "Burning them from their homes and sending them sprawling only does us a disservice. While ancestral homes stand, we know where they are—we know they won't expect us to strike where they believe their greatest strength to be. That's a boon to us, but not one to be exploited when we don't have the manpower."
There was the infamous question once again, the one at all of their lips. What do we do next?
Dumbledore rose back to his full height, looking confident in his plan before he even spoke it. "We continue on the course of action we agreed upon." He explained, "as we speak, Voldemort herds displaced magicals; Muggleborns, Aurors and Ministry Workers into camps before he plans to break their spirit in Azkaban. He won't risk magical blood, regardless of 'purity'. Not when there's so little left."
The air of finality in his voice bred the same silence as before. Dumbledore gently clasped his hands together.
"Very well," he said. "You all know your part in the plans yet to come. Return to your safehouses and wait for the next correspondence. Alastor will handle any questions you have."
With the dismissal clear, Order members began to file around him towards the exit. Some offered him congenial little smiles as he pushed against them towards the older man, Fleur on his tail.
Soon the crowd thinned, and his advance became unimpeded. Fleur leant down close to whisper in his ear.
"I'll leave you to it," she said, softly squeezing his hand. "I won't be far."
Harry nodded to her, and she drifted towards the exit, casting him a final glance before she left the room, and he found himself before the old, familiar face.
He looked better, that much Harry was certain of. But the charlatan's trick couldn't fool him, not even if he desperately wished with all his being that it could. Beneath the glove would still be rotted flesh, and beneath his chest, a heart soon destined to stop beating.
The reality was harsh, but it was reality. It cared for no man.
Then, there was that silence again as they stared at one another. The one that tried to say it all and never could. His eyes were still blue as they caught the low light, then stared down upon him. Blue but… different. Some small part of his brain wondered if it was still him in there.
They were greyer than when they'd last met—wrought from some deep, Atlantic trench far beneath the waves where they lived under terrible pressure. The sort born by the world bearing down upon you on all sides, where the only way was further down.
Nothing ever stayed the same for long. The world had a penchant for making sure of it.
But he was alive. Sometimes the clouds had silver linings, sometimes just rain.
"You're alive," Harry breathed, his first words subconscious and echoing his only thought. They stood alone in the air between the two, acclimating to the silence that preceded it, and followed again soon after.
It took a few moments for him to speak.
"I am," Dumbledore said, simple and succinct—not made to carry the enormous weight he forced it to.
Harry swallowed a mouthful of anxiety, "you told me you'd be dead by Christmas."
And Christmas had passed them by in a haze of snow, flames and loss. It made him naively wonder what else the man had been wrong about.
Albus brought his hand up between them, inspecting it with gentle turns of his wrist. His sleeve fell, allowing Harry to glimpse the malignancy that atrophied the skin of his arm and sent it black with rot. "And by all rights, I should have." He said, "sometimes fate has a hand in rescuing the wretched, no?"
"How long do you have?" Harry asked. "Do you know?"
"No." Dumbledore sighed and shook his head, "I don't. I fear no one does. That's a truth that, once learned, can never be unlearned." His arm had fallen back to his side, and, at being confronted with his own mortality, he subconsciously cradled his dead limb. "Whatever it is—whatever I've been given, it's far too little for what comes next."
Harry furrowed his brow. "And what does come next?"
"War, Harry," Dumbledore said, and that terrible pressure from his eyes became his words. "And all the terrible tidings it brings. Ours is a world alight."
"I'm aware," Harry mumbled, a hint of bitterness seeping into his voice. "I've been fighting in it. Now we're losing it, and badly." He toyed with the cloth of his robes for a second, trying to occupy his hand—and thoughts. "No one knows what to do next, they've been arguing about it for days. I—we all want to do something after—"
He let the words hang. He didn't think the man needed an explanation.
"—I guess we all just want to know what comes next. We need to know what to do."
Dumbledore looked pensive for a moment before he sought a seat and rested his deadened arm. "I have a question for you, Harry." His good hand gestured for him to take the seat adjacent.
Harry pulled the chair from beneath the table and furrowed his brow. "Alright then," he said.
"Tell me, when you attended Hogwarts, how many Purebloods were there?"
"Sir, I don't see how—"
A halting hand stopped Harry in his tracks, "humour me for just a moment, if you will."
He bit his lip as he thought, "I dunno," Harry shrugged. "A few a year, per house? More in Slytherin."
"And the rest?" Dumbledore prompted.
Having foreseen where the man planned to take the conversation, Harry bounded ahead of where they were. "You plan to find Muggleborns to fight with us?" he asked.
"Voldemort's doctrine of hatred alienates more than it allows. It wasn't sustainable in the first war, and the Pureblood cause has suffered even more since then. Their numbers will atrophy before he sees sense." Dumbledore gestured between himself and Harry. "People will fight if we give them reason to do so, and we need every fighting man and woman to win this war."
"How do you suppose we do that?" Harry questioned. "You said it yourself, the country is alight and I don't think many of us have a lot of reasons to share." He sighed and toyed with his fingers against the table. "They're tired, I don't know how we're supposed to persuade others when we can barely persuade ourselves sometimes."
Albus exhaled in humourless mirth; Harry thought it was woefully ill-fitting. "As we speak, Voldemort seeks to try and herd those who don't fit into his vision of the world en masse." He turned to him. The terrible pressure behind his eyes made him feel small and insignificant.
It made Harry remember this wasn't Albus Dumbledore's first war.
It would be his last, however.
"We take some of what we've lost. We find hope in the small victories. We rescue who we can, find those who will fight with us," Dumbledore said. "As terrible as it seems, you will find no better fighting spirit than in the man or woman that must fight, or perish."
"Speaking of small victories," Harry said. "Mad—" he stopped to correct himself, "—Moody took me to Nagini. He told me you said I'd know what to do with it, or I would eventually."
"And did you figure it out?"
"It's one of them?" Harry asked.
Dumbledore nodded grimly. "It is," he said. "I believe we could use it to discern the knowledge of other such… artefacts."
The room was empty, though Harry still ensured he looked over both shoulders throughout the conversation. Though he was sure the other man wouldn't allow any listening ears.
"You really think we could use it—her?" Harry prompted. "I… it just sounds too good to be true, I suppose."
"We deal in the sort of magic no man ever should," Dumbledore said. "Whether or not my suspicion yields results is beyond my capacity to say. We lose nothing by trying, however."
Harry leant forward, "What do I need to do?"
Dumbledore smiled. "I appreciate your willingness to help, Harry," he said. "But without a knowledge of arithmancy or ancient and modern runes, I'm afraid your skills are best utilised elsewhere." The man weighed his options for a moment, "Perhaps Miss Delacour could be of great assistance, possibly even Miss Granger."
Looking at the man with confusion, "Hermione?" Harry said. "You want me to tell her?"
"She needn't know the subject matter to help with the work." Albus said, "Though this can be a discussion for another time, I'm sure."
Pushing himself from his seat with his healthy hand, Dumbledore put his back between them. "Our plans will soon be ready and we'll find our victories, Harry. I promise you. For now, however, I must bid you goodbye."
It was abrupt like the man wanted to avoid something. Harry just didn't know what.
But he didn't have his answers yet, and he wasn't so keen to let the man go without them.
Dumbledore stood tall and made for the door quickly as if he didn't want to confront something. Though he stilled halfway in his journey asHarry's voice made a sudden call to his retreating form.
"Sir!" Harry yelled, though he had no words to follow.
Just tell him it was nothing, Harry's voice urged.
How he sorely wished it was nothing.
"I—Sir…" Harry tried again, still not having the capacity to put what his mind urged and fled from into words. Eventually, with enough time, it overcame its deficit. "About the Weasleys…"
A haunting thought that had made its way to live in the air between them—sullen and biting. It wore at the old man's face, sending it falling more than he'd ever seen it. It made Harry regret ever trying to bring it up, had it not gnawed at him during every waking hour he'd have let it pass.
But it did. It was a wound in his gut that wouldn't mend.
If the man had an answer for everything, maybe he had an answer to this too—to the feeling he wasn't sure he'd ever shake.
Dumbledore's voice was hoarse as it left his lips. Whatever tranquillity resettled in the air in the sullen silence was torn to pieces and replaced with pain. "Another mistake of mine," he half-whispered. "I wept when I heard of their loss. There could be no better people and the world is so irrevocably darkened for their loss."
Yes, Harry rationalised it stood to reason that the man with an answer to everything would have an answer to this. Even if it was destined to never be so, Harry pushed for them.
"Was it worth it?" Harry prompted. "Whatever you had to go to Europe for, was it worth what happened?"
There was that bitterness again, the sort he couldn't stop or perhaps didn't want to.
Albus shook his head. "No," he said. "Nothing ever could be."
Perhaps it was vindication he felt following the answer, he couldn't be sure. Whatever it was didn't heal that wound as he hoped. Instead, Harry was left wondering if the answer did more harm than good.
"Are...are we doing enough?" Harry whispered. "Because it doesn't feel like it's enough for them. It feels like we got them killed and just... forgot."
Dumbledore sighed a soft, grandfatherly sigh. It seemed almost parental. "Sometimes you can't do much more than seek solace in the knowledge that it has to be enough, whatever you can muster." His eyes fell on Harry, softer and saddened. "The words are far easier to hear than to put to action. Grief is a terrible thing, Harry. It'll make you focus on all that could've been and never on what is, or will be."
Harry turned his head towards the man, sharp and swift. "I want to do more," h said, his voice filled with tired, grim determination. "I want to find who did it. I want to find them all."
There was another sigh, but it lacked the parental softness—it was coarse as it confronted the inevitable. "And you will, in time," Dumbledore promised. "It's not what you want to hear, but it will take time. Some things must be of greater priority if we wish to survive—it wouldn't be of any service to search for a justice of our own and leave the world without it."
"I've stood through all your lectures this year," Harry bit back. "But I don't think I can stand to listen to this one. You weren't there, I had to watch the house I stayed in, where my friends lived, get burnt to ashes with them inside."
Turning his head to the side, Dumbledore looked contemplative for a long moment before he turned back.
"Some months ago, I told you something in my office," he said. "Something I told you in preparation for a moment like this. Do you remember what it was?"
Harry shook his head.
"Once upon a time, I stood where you stood," Albus began. "I fought wars too, I felt everything you do. At the time, I didn't have the good sense to stop myself—didn't possess the ability to know where right met wrong."
"Sir—" Harry tried to interrupt.
"—I told you that war makes monsters of us all. I meant that—I lived that." Dumbledore continued, though softer. "You'll live your entire life wanting to change the past. You'll feel like vengeance will give you what you lost, that it'll give you control. That you could've made it different if you could do it all again."
Harry remained in his seat, his eyes unsure whether to be on the man or the ground.
His voice was no longer soft now; it was pleading—begging. "Instead, you'll find that one day, you blurred those lines and you start wondering why you even began fighting in the first place. Don't become that monster, Harry. Don't meet their hate with your own. Meet it with purpose."
With that, the man left.
Fleur stole a final look towards the room as she crossed the threshold of the door and stepped into Grimmauld Place proper. She surveyed the room and the few lingering faces that hadn't yet vacated the Headquarters.
There was one face in particular she sought, a journey that dragged her further in, searching for familiar features.
"Fleur?" Charlie called from behind her, leaning against the back of one of the lounge chairs.
She swivelled on her back foot to face him—he was a bit dirtier, certainly more tired when she'd last seen him, however long ago that was. It was easy to lose count.
"Charlie," Fleur breathed, "I was just looking for you."
His eyebrow raised, "I'm the messenger again, I suppose?"
Fleur winced and closed her eyes, shielding his face from view. "I'm sorry about this," she said. "He just… I haven't seen him in I don't know how long and—"
Christmas. It had been Christmas. Though she wasn't sure a single day in the sea of many was balm enough to heal the wound of a year left alone.
No, she amended. Not alone.
"It's fine, really," Charlie said, holding up a hand to stop her mid-sentence. "He's still away."
Biting her lip, Fleur quelled whatever it was she felt at that revelation. The motley mixture of emotions that rose at his words—relief, guilt, anger, sadness. It was hard to figure it all out.
It was hard to figure any of it out.
In place of saying what she felt, Fleur opted for, "Where has he been sent now?" she asked, "and for how long?"
Charlie shrugged, which definitely wasn't the reaction she'd hoped for. "I'm not sure, last I heard he was on the Belgian border, searching for anyone that had a wand and wanted some gold when it was all over."
Fleur furrowed her brow, "Do we have gold to give?"
"Oh, we're broke alright," Charlie laughed. "But either we win and can worry about paying debts later, or we die and it never mattered."
"Well, do you know how long he'll be?"
Do I want him back sooner or later?
Or maybe not at all.
Fleur pondered the thought that had settled on her slender shoulders, it was just another excuse to feel terrible.
He blew a breath out that fluttered his lips, "Two or three days? Maybe?" he said. "It's not like it's that far to travel, I just can't imagine he'll be getting back in the magical way."
"You…" The words lived and died on her tongue as she searched for better ones. "You did tell him he could talk to me, didn't you?"
That put a tension in his shoulders, more than there was already. His hands drummed on the back of the lounge in indecision.
"You're his fiancee, Fleur," Charlie broached tentatively. "If he doesn't know that by now, I don't know that whatever I'll tell him will be worth the ink."
She wrung her hands together over her lap; the anxiety felt like anathema. "I… I need to tell him something. It's important. If you could… let him know?"
The colour in his face vanished. "O-of course," Charlie stuttered before his eyes flickered down to her stomach. "You're not…."
"What?" Fleur cocked her head as he stumbled through his words.
"You're not… you know…." He looked her up and down. She arched an elegant eyebrow. "Pregnant."
"No! No!" Fleur practically cried out at the word. "Merlin, Charlie, nothing like that. Like I said, we haven't really… seen one another all that often."
No. It was never destined to be something as beautiful as bringing life into the world, even in such a terrible time.
Instead, it was the burrowing feeling in her gut. She'd kissed another man, she wasn't sure she was still in love with the one she'd sworn to marry. No matter how many miles Bill put between them, or the number of times she fled and hoped to never see him, the issue remained at her heels.
Her mental battle warred for what felt like an age but didn't seem to escape to her face if Charlie's relief over her words was any indicator.
He nodded and the tension residing in his shoulders ebbed slightly, "Oh good, I was scared that, well—" Charlie's eyes flickered up to her to give a quick survey of her features before darting away. "—Err, nevermind."
"You can say it, Charlie." Fleur pushed, the small gnawing in her gut desperately wanted to know if endorsement would spring from his lips.
Perhaps that was the part that stung worst of all—not knowing if what she did, what she was doing was right.
Charlie nodded again and made to speak, "I… I know it can't be worth much but I'm sorry about him."
Fleur's voice was soft and withdrawn, "I know, Charlie. I promise I do," she said. "I try to understand what I—"
His voice was louder, more dominant than her near whisper. "You shouldn't have to, though. I guess that's what I'm trying to say." He breathed coarsely. "I'm sure it hasn't been easy on you either. You're away from home for him, you stayed here for him. Mum would belt him around the ears if she knew what he was doing."
When his mouth spoke mum, the words wavered and came out choked. Even if Charlie wore it better than the others it still hurt more than words could ever do justice.
"Charlie—" Fleur tried to stop him in the hopes she could stop the boiling pot from spilling.
He closed his eyes and shook his head, "Merlin," Charlie swore. "I don't mean to ramble or… or say something that might upset you. I just want you to know, whatever happens, I understand. And…"
Whatever he chose to say next clearly tore him at the seams. He swallowed his anxiety, his eyes darted anywhere but her and his hands seemed unsure on what they should do.
"And," Charlie continued in a pace far more sedate and soft. "You'll still be our sister—all of us, if you want. Mum couldn't help but try and get more, like the seven of us weren't enough already."
It was pleading, and despite everything she had done, Fleur couldn't help the tear that escaped and ran wet down her cheek. Her arms outstretched and encircled Charlie in a gentle hug.
"Sister." Fleur nodded into his shoulder. "I could do that."
Fleur frowned, pacing the opposite side of the room. Her soft footfalls rebounding off the old, threadbare carpet—each step threatening to break her from her rumination.
"You're sure this is a good idea?"
Harry shrugged and leant back into her bed, a soft sigh fell from his lips as weary muscles met the soft bed, "No," he said. "For the record, I really think it's a terrible one."
Even from across the room he could see her arched, elegant brow, "so we're going through with it because?"
"Because Professor Dumbledore thinks it'd be the most beneficial course of action," Harry said. "I don't like it either, but all we've got are terrible options. We have to choose something."
Her frown deepened as she edged closer to the bed, "I don't know if it'll work," she said. "She could figure something out she shouldn't… or refuse to work with me."
"You're just looking for excuses," Harry pointed out, turning on the bed to face her properly.
Fleur scoffed, "can you blame me?" she asked. "To consider this, I'm not even sure what to make of it."
Finally, Harry threw his legs over the bed and edged his way towards her. With her back to him, he wrapped his arms around her midriff and settled his chin into her collarbone. Fleur bristled at the sudden contact, caught in her own thoughts. She leapt but calmed in the span of a few short seconds, settling into his arms with a cursory glance towards the door.
"I know it sounds like the worst plan," Harry admitted. "I see what you're saying just… for me, try?"
His hot breath scattered strands of platinum across her cheek, caressing the soft skin in a way that made her shiver. There was a long pause before she spoke again, contemplating the path forward.
With a short exhale he only heard by being so close, Fleur acquiesced, "for you."
"Thank you," was Harry's succinct reply.
"But I reserve the right to stop any time I want," she demanded. "And I mean it, Harry."
He chose to be placating rather than push the issue any further, "Of course," Harry agreed. "But give her a chance, she's so incredibly bright. You really are more alike than you know." His soft voice in her ear turned to a sharp sigh, "what's the time?"
Fleur cast her eyes to the dresser for a moment, eyeing the small, artisan-crafted clock that sat upon the bench, "Half-six," she announced.
"I need to go."
The revelation wasn't an easy one; Fleur turned in his arms, their noses brushing on the pass.
"I'll come with you."
Harry laughed gently, "I need you to find those runes," he said. "The sooner we figure out how to use Nagini, the sooner this—" he gestured around them, "—all ends. I'll be fine for a night."
She leant in closer, "I don't trust them."
Rolling his eyes, Harry pushed closer too, "I'll have Moody with me. It'll be quick, I'll be back before you even know I'm gone."
"I always know you're gone."
"Well, I am quite a presence."
With the cocky smile that followed his words, Fleur pressed her lips to his. Sweet and succinct, she pulled away before the taste had the chance to live on his lips.
It was her turn for a small smile, "you'll get another if you make it back."
"I've never wanted to win this war more," Harry joked to her tinkling laughter.
"Be safe," she said. "Come back to me."
"Always," was the simple reply.
If she had been smarter, she might've lightened the books before she gathered the pile and trekked silently across the house.
But she hadn't. There was this sort of pervasive nervousness in the air, one she assumed she would've shed in school.
As it so happened, she so clearly hadn't.
Eventually, she came across the door, similar to all the others save for the knowledge of what lay behind. With her hands full she kicked the toe of her shoe into the door to knock, hoping it'd open so as to rest her burning arms.
After a short moment of readjusting her hands to keep them from toppling from her arms, the door pulled open, and Fleur stumbled quickly inside. Not taking heed of the occupant in favour of placing the books on the chest of drawers.
Then, Fleur pivoted on her foot and faced the music.
Or rather, faced Hermione Granger.
Her hair was perhaps a bit more dishevelled than Fleur last remembered, not that she ever paid particular attention to the girl's features beyond glances. In fact, she could remember ever being alone with the other girl. There had always been another party.
There was a schoolgirl awkwardness between them she didn't really know how to break—she never cared enough to try.
But now Fleur supposed she had someone to try for.
"Did Professor Dumbledore speak to you?" Fleur asked, turning around to rifle through the books she'd brought.
"He… did," Hermione replied; Fleur could hear her step closer to her turned back. "What's this all about?"
"Did Professor Dumbledore tell you?"
Fleur made a hmm'ing sound beneath her breath, "Well, I suppose you've got your answer then."
She didn't seem to take too well to that proposition, a huff came from behind her. "If I'm going to be spending time on this, don't you think I should get some idea?"
She huffed again.
Fleur bit back a sigh as she toyed with a page. It had nothing of interest on it save her own indecision.
Try, echoed in her mind. Just try.
A year ago she wouldn't have even bothered. Maybe time truly did change her. Maybe she'd grown up a little along the way.
Maybe, it was the people.
"Listen… Hermione," Fleur couldn't even remember addressing her by her name. She winced at the thought. "I know I'm not being the most personable at the moment."
"You don't say," Hermione muttered beneath her breath.
Blowing out a hot breath and continuing as if she hadn't heard, Fleur closed the book and passed it across to Hermione, "Some things are just too delicate—too… large to be understood from where we're standing. Sometimes things get worse the more people know."
Well, that sounded melodramatic.
"I suppose this is one of those things?"
"Yeah," Fleur nodded. "This is one of those things."
Hermione took the proffered book in her hands; the cover was leather-bound and aged, cracking at the corners. Lithe, silver artistry spanned the cover in broken patches. The title scrawled across the front like a distant afterthought in what she'd been told was Ancient Greek.
"Μοιραίο." Hermione whispered, her best attempt to test the foreign words on her tongue. "It's… Greek?"
"What am I supposed to do with it?" She opened the dusty cover, the pungent smell of water-stained paper wafting into the air. "I hope I'm allowed to know that?"
Fleur turned and procured a book of her own, "they're translated, vaguely." She said, "We're looking for specific mentions of objects, concepts or individuals through them."
Hermione flicked ahead a few pages, taking stock of the translated words. "What phrases in particular?" Her voice trailed away, enraptured by the old page.
"Mentions of death, life, artefacts or…." Fleur paused for a moment, unsure of whether or not the final few words were worth speaking.
The other girl looked up, eyes large and inquisitive. "Yes?" Hermione prompted.
Chewing on the inside of her cheek in the hopes it'd give her some guidance, "Herpo," Fleur whispered.
"Herpo the Foul," Fleur pronounced louder; Hermione's eyes widened further, her lips opened and bared her questions within.
A hand stopped her, Fleur's gaze that perhaps felt a little harsh given the situation. "Whatever connection you just made, keep it to yourself," she demanded. "This isn't the sort of thing to barter around to ensure everyone knows you're smartest of your age. It's the sort born from years of people practicing magics so foul they've been remembered for centuries. They put trust in you not to tell anyone whatever you think you know, and I have to trust you too. Don't make us regret that."
With that, her lips closed, and suddenly, the book seemed even more interesting than it once had. Hermione shuffled over to her bed, and Fleur breathed a soft sigh of release.
Hermione read along in silence; Fleur could barely muster the willpower to make it past the first few pages.
Was I too rude?
She wanted to beat the thought out of her head with the book. Am I really doing this now?
The indecision already in her life had decided it wanted company and extended to such trivial matters as if she'd been too rude in her dismissal.
It really is like I'm back in school.
It took her some time to muster the courage to break the academic silence, even turn of the page. Every scraping of paper against paper was an opportunity she let pass by.
Finally, there was a brief burst of bravery, "Hermione?" Fleur called across to her.
"Yes?" Hermione returned, her voice breaking free from the page long before her eyes.
Suddenly, all the words she'd thought to say vanished, vanquished in the same rush of indecision. She'd never been good with apologies.
Fleur cleared her throat, and in lieu of what she planned to say, she opted for, "have you found anything of interest yet?"
The other girl shook her head, "not particularly, no." It took a few seconds before a shrug followed, it seemed out of place on her small form. "Vague mentions I suppose, the symbolics of death—nothing more."
"Just make sure you mark them down," Fleur offered and turned back to her book.
What am I? Five? Fleur lamented.
As the opportunity vanished and the detente of pages began anew, she decided the next that arose would be the one. The rehearsing in her head rather than reading would be sure of it.
There were a few more idle turns of the pages as the clock in the corner droned ever onwards before her next chance rose, and she leapt.
Hermione coughed and threw her legs from the side of her bed, "I think I've found something."
That caught Fleur's attention in an instant. She peered up and crossed the distance in a few, quick strides.
"Theta," Hermione pointed out. "I'm not sure I recognise the rune, the passage says something about death though. It's all a bit too difficult to make out through the translation."
Fleur seized the book and turned it towards herself. It was a butterfly drawing—crude but effective enough to recognise and on its wings, theta.
She nodded, "it could be something, excellent work," she congratulated, and the younger girl beamed and blushed, marking the page for later review. She turned to her own seat before she stopped, turning back to the girl who hadn't yet engrossed herself in the pages ago.
"Hermione… I…" Fleur began, stumbling through the apology. "I wanted to apologise for before, if I was a little too direct with what I said. It wasn't my intention."
The apology was for more than just harsh words to put the fear of telling others into her. It was for a year's worth of glares and words that, in hindsight, were harsher than she intended.
"It's alright," Hermione offered in return. "No harm done."
The returning remark was just as weak as the apology. It erased nothing, but, at the very least, it gave Fleur the confidence to push for more. She returned to her chair and took a seat, mulling over a new page, her eyes darting over the cover to the other girl.
Closing the book a fraction to give Hermione her utmost attention, Fleur tried again, "I… I hope I'm not being too forward when I ask this." Hermione's eyes rose in confusion, far quicker than before, her finger marking her page. "But...how are you?"
It wasn't the response she'd expected and left her struggling to push for more.
Try, his ever-persistent voice sounded in her mind. Try.
"How are you?"
"Oh," Hermione blinked. One, twice, thrice before an answer came, "Alright, I suppose."
Fleur sighed gustily. If any of this could go to plan, I'd appreciate it.
"Well," Fleur returned in a rounder tone. "It's okay to not feel alright, contrary to popular belief."
She could feel the glare against her cheek, "Did Harry put you up to this?"
"No," Fleur shook her head. "Just thought I'd ask, the hard times don't often leave someone untouched."
"I'm fine," Hermione brushed off with a sudden turn of her page, reopening her book to avoid the conversation. "The Weasleys need your concern far more than I do."
That made the Veela laugh softly under her breath, "I don't have a finite amount of concern, Hermione," Fleur said. "They're going through a terrible time, we all know that. But just because someone else is feeling something doesn't mean you can feel it too."
If only I could take my own advice.
"Of course, I know that," Hermione replied quickly, her voice alight with indignation.
With a subtle shrug of her shoulders and a dramatic return to her page, "just making sure," Fleur offered.
Now, her trying was at the end of its tether. She wasn't sure she should or even could push any further.
Time continued to pass, though she could devour the pages with a greater fervour now that her task had been completed.
Her platinum hair was brushed out of her view as she looked up.
Maybe it's not quite at its tether yet.
An early twilight fell over Ipswich, frigid flakes of snow ushered in on the wings of the seaswept air, buffeting skin that couldn't be covered by his cloak.
They'd crept along the River Orwell until the call of the channel was close, and salt spray didn't seem so distant. The rousing crack of apparition had Harry stand at the ready, clutching his wand for the warmth it gave him.
"Spotted 'em," the new figure said, kneeling in the dirt next to them.
Graham, Harry recognised. He'd been a Junior Auror, or so Harry thought, his crimson robes turned a faded black with a colour changing charm that didn't quite seem to be as masterful as the man assumed.
Graham's cheeks were windburnt, his breath streams of hot air as he panted and waited for a reply.
Moody's bark back was quick and biting, "Where, lad? How many of them?"
Chewing on his tongue, Graham began to recall, "Couldn't get too close, counted around ten, maybe a couple more out on watch," he said. "They seemed like they were following scent charms, looks like the wind was fucking with 'em though."
The grizzled Auror nodded, his electric-blue eye whirled on its axis as it scanned the near horizon. "How far?"
"Dunno the exact distance," Graham said. "Didn't want to risk being too close for too long, it was right on the coast, looked like they're hiding the muggleborns in some cove."
Harry furrowed his brow, the skin prickling with cold pain, "why so far out of the way?"
"I'd wager they're tracking another group trying to flee across the channel," Moody said. "Sticking the rest of them on the coast, in the open, just keeps them cold and weak. They can divert their power elsewhere while they're sure the rest won't get away."
Ten, Harry thought, We've got six.
He didn't want to ponder the dubious quality of outcasts tracking down defenceless Muggleborns across the country. The numbers were against them. Despite the disparity in skill, it was a deficit in their foe's favour.
"Right then," Moody shouted and roused the rest of the party. "Make for the horizon!"
With a sudden crack, the cold world vanished, and he propelled himself forward towards the coast.
Ten was closer to fifteen.
That was the only thought Harry could muster as he threw himself behind an old, forgotten rowboat, shielding himself from an incoming curse.
Moody billowed and cried spells from the centre of the beach, sending dirty, gritty sand skywards as a shroud before his curses crossed the distance and found purchase in flesh. Sans the moon and spellfire, his eye was the only luminous glow on the beach—it drew in foe's like a siren's song and repelled them just as easily.
A second spell shattered the other side of the boat, sending splinters across the sand. Harry rose before a third could strike, parrying it across to his right into the dark waves.
'Contusio!' Harry cried internally as he crouched suddenly beneath a wayward spell.
The shockwave scattered the broken bits of timber, sand and air and battered his foe, sending him sprawling. There was barely a moment of reprieve before the second came, launching more bright beams of light.
A spell from Moody bisected him before Harry could even muster a counterattack.
"Advance!" Moody cried and apparated forward, getting within feet of his next foe.
As it so happened, they realised they could apparate too.
The beam of purple light couldn't be dodged from this distance, his foe made sure of that. Harry's own spell flung from his wand with a sharp upwards motion, the first spell that came to mind.
Sometimes, the greatest strategy was reverting to what you knew best.
Spells met in the air and formed a connection, scarlet met violet, and the beam cackled with volatile electricity.
His enemy pulled up to break the connection. Harry mirrored his movement as his spell slowly pushed towards the other man.
With a sudden flash of light, the scarlet reached the opposing wand, drawing it from his grip. The spells collided at their apex and blasted the man across the beach, allowing Harry a chance to breathe and turn back to the battle still raging.
A glance towards the waves convinced him of what was next.
Harry gripped his wand tightly, the muscles rippling at the exertion; he calmed and breathed a soft incantation.
Magic was there again, rippling through his tendons and begging for use. He could taste it on his lips, sweet and moreish—that bittersweet promise of power at the cost of self.
The tempest rose from the water, vortexes of sea and salt formed a serpent that stood across the waves like a damning effigy. His forearm stung with the pain of forcing the magic into the air between them as he orchestrated the dangerous symphony.
Then, with a vicious arcing of his wand, the serpent swallowed the beach whole.
Harry crept down the halls of Grimmauld Place, careful not to rouse the house by thumping against the worn floorboards.
He could hear the running footsteps from within before the door was thrown open and he was dragged inside.
"You're here," Fleur breathed as if she hadn't expected him to return.
Harry laughed, "I told you I'd—"
His reply was cut off by her lips as he kicked the door closed behind him, the passion was warm and fervent, claiming his lips as her own.
He was home. It didn't taste of fruit or exotics, she didn't leave vanilla on his tongue or holly in his nose.
Home tasted of her; the uniqueness of warm flesh, the feeling of hope in chest.
Harry found he rather liked home if it was with Fleur Delacour.
The struggle to breathe soon necessitated breaking apart. Their foreheads naturally came to rest against one another—hot breaths caressing the skin of the other as she smiled.
"So you won?" Fleur spoke through her smile.
Harry nodded as best as he could against her own forehead, "Yeah," he said. "It was harder than we thought but it's over."
"And the muggleborns?"
"About a quarter came with us," Harry said. "The rest we helped across the channel."
He couldn't help the little, dejected tone that his words were steeped in.
"It's better than zero," Fleur said.
"It's better than zero," Harry agreed. "I should go shower."
Fleur held him just the slightest bit tighter. "No."
"I stink," was Harry's deadpan response.
"I'll survive," she promised. "Besides, I missed you."
His breath scattered platinum tresses, "I missed you, too," Harry whispered. "How'd it go with Hermione?"
"About as well as could be expected," she shrugged. "It wasn't ground-breaking by any means, but we got somewhere—I tried."
"I'm proud of you," Harry said before separating from their embrace. Fleur wasn't so quick to let him go. "We'll get something out of it, I promise."
"I don't know where you think you're going," she scoffed and dragged him back.
"To have a shower?"
"Nope," Fleur declared. "Stay here, with me."
Harry laughed again, "I've got things I need to check on first."
"They can wait."
He shook his head, "they can't."
"Well, they're going to have to," Fleur said as she pecked his lips gently.
Smiling against her lips, "Alright, you've convinced me."
"Dance with me."
Her request was sudden, catching him off-guard. Harry cocked his head back, looking at her inquisitively as she peered up at him, hope in her eyes.
"I can't really—" Harry began, her eyes still wide and pleading and she nuzzled her body against hers. "—I suppose I could try."
"Everyone can dance," Fleur refuted his half-statement. "You danced well enough at Slughorn's party, I certainly didn't hear any complaints then."
Harry scoffed, "dancing drunk amongst a bunch of old men is definitely different."
"I suppose it's lucky you've still got the same gifted teacher, no?"
Harry looked around the room as she adjusted her hands to his shoulders, "What are we supposed to do for music?"
She giggled. It was endearing and child-like—she was enjoying herself. "Am I not harmony enough?"
"You're an idiot, that's what you are."
"Your idiot." She corrected and adjusted his hands for him.
The carpet, threadbare as it was, was soft on their feet as she began to spin them in circles. Her head found his shoulder as they turned, she let out a soft exhale of pleasure. He could feel her constant smile through the fabric of his shirt.
Fleur Delacour loved to dance.
They'd never really talked about it, not that he could remember.
It was a revelation that seemed almost childish as they spun in the old room, but he would not have traded it for anything.
They were happy.
They spun around on the carpet, trying to make sense of victory and defeat—to try and figure out the world around them.
They danced to try and feel all the things they shouldn't, all the things they were too afraid of. At that moment, it all seemed just that little bit easier.
The war, the love, the world seemed more bearable in the arms of the other. The right company just had that effect.
Fleur leant back and captured his lips once more; the kiss was deeper and laden with the ardour of passion. Her tongue swept across his lips and met his own, duelling with hers, and the spinning stopped, and they swayed idly in the arms of the other.
The kiss deepened, his hands lowered past the curve of her hips to her arse, she moaned softly into his mouth.
Harry couldn't savour the moment for what it was worth. A noise sprang to the right and drew him from their coupling.
"Fleur," Hermione cried as she opened the door, "I think I might have—"
Eternities lived and died in the time it took Hermione Granger to raise her eyesight to the pair of them, embraced and in love.
There was no dramatic dropping of her book, no screaming or tears. She backed slowly out of the room, not breaking eye contact with them as she fled.
The last thing Harry heard was her footsteps bounding down the corridor.