Chapter 5

Chapter 5 – Riddles in the Dark

Harry withdrew the blade of Excalibur from the second Death Eaters’ chest with a deeply satisfying sschhinng. One of the main lessons he’d learned from the ZGD was not to be showy in battle, not to toy with his prey. Acquire your target, eliminate as quickly and efficiently as possible, don’t give them time to react or raise an alarm.

He’d also learned that while Disillusionment Charms were useful, his Invisibility Cloak was better.

As he surveyed the wreckage he’d caused, he accepted that he’d absorbed both these lessons well. He sheathed Excalibur and drew his wand, tapping it to the frame of his glasses. He didn’t often wear them anymore. Frankly, perched on top of his turban-like shawls, they made him look rather ridiculous. Contact lenses were far more sensible.

But glasses still had a use, and as Harry cancelled the Night Vision and Body Heat detection spells he’d cast on them, he was potently reminded of this fact. His Cloak had shielded him completely from the surveillance and scanning charms the Death Eater guards had been using. They hadn’t seen him coming, whereas his lone eye had been fixed on the glowing heat signatures of their bodies.

Bodies now turning cold at his feet.

Harry cast a defence diagnostic rune in the air, pushed his magic into it and shot it at the house. His wand was behaving in a peculiar manner. It was leaving behind a light trail every time he waved it. It looked pretty cool against the darkness of the night, but Harry was suspicious of the change. He thought he knew what was causing it though.

The magic of the Potter Legacy was still settling on him. Or, rather, unsettling him. It hadn’t yet been properly absorbed and the magical base of his being was tentatively resisting it. He would have to get into ritual soon to deal with it. He was shivery and shaky, as one is after being severely sick. It was distracting.

Though he half thought Hermione might have something to do with that.

He was a little mindless after their reunion, positively euphoric over the hug they’d shared. She wasn’t supposed to have reacted like that, or said the incredible things she did. Harry was rattled by it, his careful plan shattered into a thousand wondrous pieces. He needed a new plan, and this gift to her would form its foundation.

The rune returned to him and Harry grinned darkly in triumph as he absorbed it. Zabini’s guards hadn’t got the house wards up in time. He would be utterly unprepared. Harry stood and touched his wand to his temple.

“Angharad! Myfanwy! Rhian!” he whispered.

In a soft whoosh the two witches materialised next to him. They were dressed in identical floor-length, dragonhide battle robes, though they looked more like trenchcoats. Black for the most part, with patchy red scales all down the front, and rune-carved dragon teeth toggles. Both had their wands drawn and throbbing with their magic. A second later and Rhian joined them with a light pop.

“I want you to move the bodies,” Harry said lowly, addressing the witches. “Prepare a ritual circle. Nothing fancy.”

“Purpose?” Angharad queried.

“I’m going to rip the Dark Mark from Zabini when I’m done with him,” said Harry coldly. “Use it to send a little message to Riddle and all those he’s Marked. I want them to know what happens to people who get in the way of me completing a favour for Hermione. These two will increase the effectiveness of the rite.”

“The Power of Three,” said Myfanwy, nodding her approval.

Harry returned her nod, then turned to his Head Elf. “I need you to pack up Miss Bones’s things and take her to the Palace as soon as I have her. Let Lady Hermione know as soon as you get her settled.”

“Yes, Master Harry,” said Rhian stoutly.

Harry turned once again to the house. In two flicks of his wand he’d vanished the back door and cast a muffling charm on himself. The power of both caused a gentle breeze to swirl around the garden. It had another, more subtle note, too

“Is it just me, or is Harry’s magic just the hottest fucking thing?” asked Angharad, slightly breathily as Harry stalked into the house.

“No, love, my knickers have gone pretty wet, too,” Myfanwy replied, her eyes bright and flushed.

“We so have to learn how he does that,” said Angharad.

Myfanwy nodded enthusiastically. “That Hermione girl is one lucky witch!”

Harry heaved heavy, determined breaths as he crossed the threshold and into a kitchen. There was one, half discarded meal on the dining table. Harry snarled at it, anger stirring at its meaning. He didn’t pause. He headed down a hallway into the living room. The door was ajar and Harry spied Zabini, sprawled languidly and sipping from a large glass of claret, on a hearthrug clearly made of unicorn hide. Indeed, the horn was the base of a small, glass coffee table.

Zabini was watching a series of adverts on the Wizarding Broadcast Network. One advocated the benefits of signing up children to the Junior Death Eaters Club, a fun covenant dedicated to comradeship, Pureblood advancement and the joys of practising magic in reverence of the Lord Voldemort. A second advised on ways citizens could spot deviant, anti-Voldemort behaviour and the relevant authorities to report such incidents to.

Harry growled at the sight. It startled Zabini, but before he could even move Harry had hit him with a high level Stunner, levicorpus and a Body-Bind hex in a chain-cast, each spell drawing power from the last and increasing exponentially in potency as a result. Harry’s fury had infused the spell so fiercely he’d overpowered the Body-Bind, resulting in the crushing of most of Zabini’s sternum and collapsing a lung, so tight was the bind.

But Harry didn’t even blink as he heard the bones shatter. Nor as Zabini screamed out in agony and fainted from the pain. Satisfied Zabini was subdued, Harry searched the house for Susan. When he found her, his heart stopped. A second later his rage exploded out so forcefully it decimated an antique carriage clock on a side table nearby, shattering it into a thousand shards.

For Susan looked every inch her name. Bones – a very wounded bag of them was all she was. Clearly, Zabini had been starving her. She looked thin and frail, fragile to the point of breaking. But this wasn’t the worst part.

She was chained up to a wall, slumped on the bare wooden floor with her wrists in manacles that caused her arms to stretch above her head. It was as if she were being crucified. Her head had lolled where she’d been blatantly knocked out recently. She had two deep black eyes, her right cheek was angrily bruised and swollen, her lip sporting a fresh cut that was still bleeding.

An image flashed into Harry’s mind, one so terrifying that he was actually afraid of his own acute, focused anger as it ignited in him. Hermione…in this position…chained and beaten…Ron swilling expensive wine as if it was his reward for doing it…

And Harry let out a roar so loud, so full of uncontrolled fury, of intense, acidic hatred that it obliterated all the windows in the house and sent a crack racing through the brickwork right to the foundations. He wanted to push it into a ley line…follow each one till he found Ron…

And set him on fire where he stood.

But that wouldn’t be nearly satisfying enough. Ron deserved far more. Harry resolved that he would get it. He took several gulps of clean, cool air. There was plenty around now the windows had been busted out. The sudden gusts had roused Susan, who was staring up at him with confused, frightened eyes.

Harry knelt down, mindful not to stress Susan further by making any sudden movements. She looked incredibly timid, cowering away and backing towards the wall. Harry felt another surge of anger swell within him. Susan’s eyes were so puffed up and swollen she could barely see out of them.

“It’s alright, Susan, you’re safe now,” Harry whispered in what he hoped was a comforting voice. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Who are you?”

There was a sharp, urgent pop and Rhian appeared at Harry’s side.

“Master Harry!” Rhian admonished. “The windows! What yous be doing up here! Aww!”

The elf gasped as she saw Susan’s condition. Roiling fury sparked in her wide eyes.

“Release her, please, Rhian,” said Harry. “My hands are shaking too much. I don’t trust myself to not accidentally hurt her.”

“Yes, Master Harry.”

“Harry? Harry who?” asked Susan, as Rhian snapped her fingers and the binds on Susan’s wrists clicked open.

“It’s me, Susan. Harry Potter.”

Susan gasped in shock. “Never! Fuck off! I don’t believe you. Show me your face.”

“I know its a near impossibility, considering everything,” said Harry, “but I’m going to have to ask you to trust me. And I cant show you my face. I’m sorry, but I have legitimate reasons. Hermione will explain everything when you see her.”

“Minny! Is she alive! Tell me she is.”

“She is,” Harry repeated. “And I’m sending you to her, while I deal with that utter bastard husband of yours.”

Susan stiffened in front of him. “Harry – if that’s really you – please…I’d like to stay. I’d like to see what you do to him.”

“Sue – you’re badly injured and need help. You’re very weak.”

“I have strength enough for this.”

Harry looked at Rhian and they were of one mind, but Sue was determined. Harry conceded.

“Very well,” said Harry. “Be warned – I don’t intend to make this pretty.”

“I hope you make it as ugly as possible,” said Susan darkly.

“Come along then,” said Harry, standing. “Rhian, gather Miss Bones’s things and send them home. Anything you want from the house, Sue?”

“Just its’ ashes,” she replied dourly.

Harry smiled at her. A smile as twisted as he felt. “As you wish. Can you make it downstairs? I don’t want to offer you support if you’re uncomfortable with male touch.”

Susan looked up at him. “Sorry if I’m scowling. Gentlemanly conduct is pretty alien to me these days. Are you telling me Hermione has been enjoying this since she disappeared? That lucky little witch!”

Harry chuckled. “In fact, I only spoke to her this morning. I’m ashamed that I left her to the whims of that utter cunt Ron Weasley. My revenge on him will be worthy of song, you know. Hermione said you’ve become great friends. She asked me to rescue you.”

“And you just came?”

“Anything for Hermione.”

“I always knew you loved each other!” said Susan, wryly. “It was the worst kept secret when we were at Hogwarts.”

“Great Merlin! Am I that transparent?” Harry wondered aloud. “What makes you think that? And so quickly?”

Susan scoffed at him. “Ron was your best friend for years. You’ve just called him an ‘utter cunt’. And just for his treatment of Minny, I assume. You must know what he’s been doing to her?”

Harry shuddered. “I can’t think about that. I broke your house in half just by imagining a worst-case scenario. If I knew what really happened…”

“Exactly. Totally in love. Only love can be that destructive. I can hear it in your voice. She is a lucky little witch. I hope she knows it.”

“She doesn’t look lucky,” said Harry. “She can barely walk.”

“Poor Minny,” said Susan. “But, then again, neither can I. So, a shoulder, please.”

Harry stepped close, took Susan’s weight as she leaned on him. “Minny?”

“She doesn’t really like it,” Susan confessed. “But seriously…four syllables? There must be an easier way.”

Harry chortled at that. He’d always tried to fashion a nickname or abbreviation for Hermione, but nothing had ever quite seemed right. “Speaking of easier ways…lets forget about that. I’m all for the hard road with Blaise. Tell me now if you’re squeamish or harbour any emotion for your husband. I don’t intend to be gentle.”

Susan rounded on him. “I’ve been battered and starved to within an inch of my life. I don’t have Stockholm Syndrome. You do as you please, just make it painful.”

Harry smiled darkly. “Oh…I will.”

They moved slowly, gingerly down the stairs and into the living room. Susan halted at the sight of Blaise, suspended in mid-air, his chest distorted and unnaturally compressed.

“What did you do to him?” she breathed.

“Just a welcome gift,” said Harry. “He might not survive it. But he’ll survive long enough.”

Susan cocked her battered face to him. “When did you get so dark? It’s kind of sexy, you know.”

“I’ve been told,” said Harry simply. “Just have a seat. This is my arena now.”

Susan did as she was told. Harry threw off his cloak and Susan watched with bulging eyes. Harry’s head was covered with a balaclava of some kind of hide. It looked snake-like, scaly. Maybe basilisk. It was scored with strange symbols and markings which glowed and hummed as they caught the light. They coated Harry’s head with a sort of film of heaving magical energy that was so intense Susan could feel it from her seat several feet away. Then Harry flicked out his wand. A wave of magical power swept the room as wand and hand fused. It made Susan’s hair stick on end and the skin on her neck crept with sensation. She was a mix of wary and completely safe. It was jarring.

But Harry had mind only for the suspended Death Eater under his control. He knew if he brought Zabini round he would die from his injuries. That wasn’t on the cards just yet. He had several uses for him before that happened. The most pressing of which was closure for Hermione’s best friend. Reluctantly, he cast several healing runes which would stabilise him. They wouldn’t subdue all the pain, but they’d give him just enough to stay awake.

“Renervate!”

Zabini came around, then screamed sickeningly as the pain hit. Harry cast a bored Silencing Charm on him. He rather thought Susan was enjoying it, but it was at such an annoying pitch that it irritated Harry immensely. For a few moments they just watched Blaise screeching silently. It was a bizarre sight. Then Harry turned to his captive.

“Hello Blaise. You fucking cunt.”

He cancelled the Silence Charm as Zabini tried to respond.

“Potter! Is…is that you?”

“No, its my fucking brother,” said Harry, stalking around. “Don’t try and struggle. The more you move, the more it will hurt. Actually, with that in mind…move away.”

Harry flicked his wand and cast a Shaking Charm at Zabini. The idea behind the spell was defensive – make your enemy so uncoordinated they can’t aim a counter-spell at you. But in this case it made Zabini’s smashed body vibrate…with agonising effects. His pained shriek was so piercing even Harry winced at it. He cancelled the spell.

“Merlin, what a pussy. I would say you cry like a girl, but that would insult all the rock-hard girls I know. I could do this all night…but this isn’t my revenge.”

Harry flicked his wand again. Zabini’s robe fell away, leaving him naked and writhing in agony and embarrassment. Harry turned back to Susan.

“You know, back in the old days, the punishment for rape in the magical world was terrifyingly severe. Sue – how many times did this piece of shit rape you?”

“I never…I never did…Potter, please…”

“Shut the fuck up, Zabini,” said Harry. He flicked a Cutting Curse at him which brought a deep gash across his cheek from lip to ear. Blood flowed from it profusely. “Your mouth wants to be so big…I thought I’d help it out. Speak out of turn again and I’ll take your fat ugly tongue for good measure. Now, Sue…how many times did he rape you?”

Harry let his emphasis hang awhile before pressing Susan for an answer. She sighed deeply.

“I stopped counting. It was…w-weekly.”

Harry clenched his jaw, his stomach coiling and uncoiling in angry rhythm. “Weekly,” he repeated. “The punishment in the old world was castration. Testicular and penial castration. Now, Susan, I could teach you the Castration Hex that was the order of the day back then. Or, we could just use a good, old-fashioned Severing Curse. It’s more painful, mind you, so make your choice wisely.”

“Sue…please…”

Susan curled her face angrily. “Cut him, Harry…cut him to pieces.”

Harry nodded, then flicked his wand. Zabini screamed as his left testicle was sliced clean off. Harry watched it roll across the floor, as Zabini’s eyes rolled back into his head and he passed out.

“Stay with us, Blaise. You don’t want to miss this. Renervate.

Zabini woke again, tears poured from his eyes. Harry didn’t even see them. Another flick, another screech of agony, another testicle bounced across the floor. Harry slashed his wand again. The scream this time was louder than the others. Harry wasn’t surprised.

For he’d just sliced Zabini’s penis in half down the middle. That had to sting.

Two more swipes of Harry’s wand, light trail following behind, and Zabini was completely relieved of his genitals. The pain robbed him of consciousness again. The blood loss cant have helped either, and the black-red pool beneath Zabini was a sight to behold at this point. Harry woke him angrily.

“Don’t you dare pass out again,” Harry seethed. “How dare you? You brought this end on yourself! Now you will fucking watch it. Incendio!”

And Zabini whimpered as his severed genitalia went up in angry flames.

“You know I am a Parselmouth, yes?” Harry asked. “Well, there is an interesting spell in Parselmagic which prevents regrowth over magically-severed skin. You’d be amazed how many snakes can re-grow their bodies if not sliced at just the right point on the neck. So a clever Parselmouth developed this spell to prevent re-growth and the retribution which might follow. Here, let me show you.”

Harry arced his wand, hissed the spell in snake-language and Zabini’s bare groin glowed purple for a moment. The bleeding stopped instantly.

“There you go, all fixed,” said Harry icily. “Of course, it will mean you can never wield a penis again. But oh, silly me, what have I done? That will mean you cant have sex again, that you cant impregnate one of the skanky whores that Uncle Tom might have lined up for you. You cant have any more use to the Pureblood agenda! Oh dear, my bad, Blaise. What will Riddle do with you now?”

Susan scoffed nearby. She knew full well what would happen. Her revenge was complete.

“Harry,” she whispered. “I’ve seen enough. Can you help me?”

“Of course,” said Harry. He hissed in Parseltongue again and Rhian appeared. He didn’t want to give her name away in such a hostile environment. “You know what to do.”

“Yes, Master Harry,” said Rhian. She took Susan by the hand and disappeared.

Harry span back to Zabini as he groaned in anguish again. He was still naked, hanging upside down. Harry had an idea. He holstered his wand and drew Excalibur again. It positively pulsed with its own power. Harry moved close to Zabini, carefully slashing three shallow cuts across his chest. Each one shone with a deep orange glow, holding the swirling blood inside the ridges of the wounds. When looked at from this angle, they created an angry, lightening-shaped cut.

Harry thought he might have just started a trend.

Harry switched from sword to wand again and cancelled the levicorpus spell. Zabini fell in a heap to the ground with a dull thud. Harry flicked a binding spell at him and began to slowly pull his broken body behind him as he left the house. He wasn’t careful to avoid obstacles. Or the rutted gravel driveway of the garden outside. Harry dragged Zabini away from the house, a short distance into the hills beyond, where Angharad and Myfanwy were waiting.

Angharad eyed the mark on Zabini’s chest. “What’s with the branding?”

Harry chuckled. “Spur of the moment idea, I suppose.”

“I approve,” Angharad replied, nodding.

“What’s the ritual we are doing?” asked Myfanwy. She motioned at the circle and pentagram she had drawn, glowing white-hot on the ground and singeing the dry grasses nearby.

“I’m going to pull the Dark Mark from this cunt,” said Harry, kicking Zabini into the ritual circle. “Then I’m going to hijack the connection all three of these bastards have to Tom Riddles’ collective. I’m going to use it to send them a message they’ll not soon forget.”

“I hope it will be painful,” said Myfanwy, acidly. She toed the corpse of the dead Death Eater nearest her. He and his partner had been placed at key points around the circle. When Zabini had been rolled into place under Harry’s boot, the grid lines connecting them flared up in angry greens and purples. Nothing, not even a whole coven of powerful sorcerers, could have moved them now without Harry’s consent.

“It will burn like Fiendfyre in their veins,” said Harry grimly. “Then I’m going to dispel their disgusting magic from me. Should be quite the display. I hope Ron Weasley gets to hear about it. He will wish for this fate compared to what I’m going to do to him.”

Harry stepped into the middle of the circle and threw his cloak onto the ground nearby. Without prompting, Angharad and Myfanwy moved into well practiced positions around the circle. They angled their wands towards Harry at the centre.

“May our purpose be just and magic favour us,” Harry began. “Do I have your will?”

“You have our will, and our power,” the girls recited in chorus. The lines of the ritual circle shot upwards in sheets of brilliant light, before retreating and covering them in a dome of shimmering silver.

Harry nodded his thanks. Then he aimed his wand at Zabini, focusing on the coiled snake tattooed on his forearm.

“I draw this profanity, as poison from a wound. Let the spirit of the North winds, cut and slice.”

Zabini shrieked again, perhaps for the last time in his life. The skin of his forearm was flayed off and soared to Harry, who trapped it inside a rune he cast deftly into the air in front of him. It shone a brilliant yellow as it revolved in place. Zabini passed out. Harry left him this time.

“Let the Water of the West cleanse and clean this abomination, if She sees fit,” said Harry, pointing his wand at one of the Death Eaters. His own Dark Mark melted from his arm and joined Zabini’s in the rune. “Let the Earth of the East take back the corrupt into the soil, if He sees fit.”

The second Death Eater was relieved of his Dark Mark. The rune span in the air and glowed fiercely red and blood-orange. Harry watched it curiously, assessing it, pushing his own power into it. The ritual circle was, by now, in the throes of a potent whirlwind of air and magic. It whipped Myfanwy’s long hair into a frenzy and the trailing end of Harry’s shawl was threatening escape. Swift, swirling clouds had gathered in the previously clear skies above them. Dark, black, crackling with energy and power. Harry coaxed the rune high into the air at the apex of the circle.

“May the Fire of the South burn our enemies…burn our very intent into the sky itself!”

Harry shot the rune, now burning a fiery white-gold, into the night sky at breathtaking speed. It snapped away from view with a clap of thunder so forceful that it shook the trees nearby. Harry looked up. There, high above the circle, the Sowilo rune he’d cast was firmly implanted into the clouds. If Tom Riddle and his followers used a skull to create fear after a murder, he would use a bolt of lightening to strike fright into them.

“Your anger is artistry itself,” Angharad commented complimentarily.

“It is,” Myfanwy agreed. “I hope they are all burning in agony right about now. Bastards.”

“Come along ladies,” said Harry. “As much as I’d like to stay around for the Death Eaters to come and investigate, I have other tasks for the night. Get yourselves home.”

“Are you not coming?” asked Myfanwy.

“I’ll be along,” said Harry, holstering his wand and collecting his cloak as the light of the ritual circle finally faded away.

“What shall we tell Hermione?” asked Angharad. “She’s bound to ask after you.”

“Just tell her I’ve completed her favour, as she asked. Now, I’m going to get her a present.”

“You know what, I might just reconsider being a lesbian,” said Angharad thoughtfully. “Am I in with any sort of chance, Harry, before I renounce my sexuality?”

Harry grinned beneath his shawl. “As fit as you are, Ann, nope. No chance at all. Sorry.”

“Ah well, didn’t hurt to ask,” said Angharad, smirking. “Just remember, I’m always up for a threesome. Just saying.”

“Or a foursome,” Myfanwy added. “The more the merrier.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Harry. “Now go.”

And with that, all three Disapparated away.

* * *

Enola emerged from the bedroom looking exhausted. Hermione felt a shock of pity for her. She was a hell of a state. She’d been helping to work on Susan for at least thirty-six hours with barely any break and the effort involved was taking its toll.

For Susan’s condition had been far more severe than anyone could have imagined. Her internal injuries were so terrible…Alice Longbottom was seriously concerned that they might lose her altogether. Enola’s mother, Arianwen, had been called in to stabilise her. Arianwen had unique gifts, not just with ancient runic magic – in which she mentored Harry – but also with crystal-based magic. It had taken a few false tries, but they’d eventually found a configuration of healing stones that worked. Susan was now held within a field of vibrational frequencies from the crystals that were keeping her alive.

But only just.

Hermione choked back her sickness at the thought as Enola practically stumbled into her arms. Her eyes were dull, glazed, her usually immaculate features taut and strained. The poor girl was in dire need of rest. But Hermione had needs of her own, namely finding out the condition of her best friend.

“Enola! Are you alright?” Hermione yelped, as Neville’s wife clutched at her robes to keep her balance. Hermione curled an arm around Enola and guided her to the chair she had been using as a vigil-stool, ever since Susan had arrived at the Blue Palace. Enola slumped into it and took several heavy breaths.

“I’ll be okay,” said Enola, waving a hand to ward off any more overbearing attention. “As for your friend…that’s not so cut and dried. She was so damaged, so much hurt beneath the surface. If she’d stayed there more than a couple of days longer…I think she might have actually died.”

Hermione felt her throat constrict at the news. “Will she recover?”

“We’ve had to sedate her for now,” said Enola, trying to sit up. “Magically-induced coma. It buys us some time. We will have to remove and regrow the bones in both her arms, one leg and much of her ribcage. As her for jaw and face…that will need cosmetic reconstruction once all that swelling goes down. She’s been broken, and re-broken, without being allowed to heal and re-set properly. She lives in constant danger of puncturing an organ. Her bones are all at odd angles inside.”

“Merlin forbid!” Hermione exclaimed. “Poor Sue…I knew she had it worse than me. But she never said it was quite so bad!”

Hermione clenched her fists and sat down with her back against the wall. She was too concerned to be angry. That would come later. She closed her eyes and took a lungful of air. How could things have come to this?

“At the risk of sounding funny…why the fuck didn’t you girls fight back?!” Enola asked firmly. “You shouldn’t have allowed this.”

“I know…I know,” said Hermione, ruefully. “We had nowhere to run to. But, looking back, maybe death would have been a blessing by comparison.”

“And at least you could have taken some of them with you,” said Enola. “What a bunch of cunts! Rhian!”

The Head Elf popped into the air next to Enola. She immediately handed over a vial of pinkish liquid.

“Your Pepper-Up potion, Lady Longbottom,” said Rhian. “Drink, now.”

Enola uncorked the vial and swallowed the liquid. She sagged back into the chair as the effects kicked in quickly.

“Thank you, Rhian. How’s my baby?”

“You be meaning Baby Ally or Master Neville? Yous be calling him ‘baby’ nearly as much.”

Hermione bit the inside of her cheek to hold in a giggle.

“The baby who poops itself,” said Enola, somewhat crossly.

Rhian looked back, swarthy and affronted at Enola’s tone. “Master Neville often poop himself. Especially when him and Master Harry get into the elfish ale…he not have the stomach for it. He drink like little pixie girl. If Rhian had a galleon for every time she have to clean him up…”

Hermione couldn’t hold back a laugh this time. Enola looked mortified.

“Well, yes…but…”

“Now, Master Harry…he be knocking back beer like a mountain troll. I say he learned from the Germans…their ale be exceptional, even for elves’s standards.”

“It must be the beer purity laws,” said Hermione, trying not to rock with the giggles flooding her.

“Must be, Lady Hermione,” said Rhian, nodding sagely.

“Is there any news on where Harry is, anyway?” Hermione proffered quickly. “Has he returned yet?”

“He’s only been gone three days, Min,” said Enola, quirking an eyebrow at her. “That’s nothing for him, really. You should get used to him being away like this. Aww, are you missing him?”

“Yes, terribly,” said Hermione, simply and without ceremony. Enola looked taken aback. “Did Susan give you that nickname for me? People are always trying to shorten my name. I’ll never know why.”

“Hermione is just so long,” said Enola. “Its either Minny or Hermy, from when I thought your name was Hermy-Own. Pick one. That spelling really doesn’t help, you know.”

“A giant once called me Hermy,” said Hermione thoughtfully.

“A giant! Now that sounds like a story I’d like to hear.”

“It’s not all that dramatic,” said Hermione dismissively. “Unless you count me and Harry being made his surrogate parents for a while. I don’t think it was a great introduction to parenthood for us.”

“Master Harry be much better now,” said Rhian, proudly. “Just ask baby Ally.”

“He is great with her,” Enola agreed. “Speaking of which, its time for her feed. And I’m sure she needs a change. Which of your elves are with her, Rhian?”

“No elf be with baby Ally right now, Lady Longbottom,” said Rhian calmly.

“Dont tell me you’ve left her alone!”

The elf huffed and crossed her arms. “Rhian be insulted that yous be suggesting such a thing, Lady Longbottom! We’s never leave baby Ally unattended.”

“I’m sorry, Rhian, of course you wouldn’t,” said Enola placatingly. “But who’s with her then?”

“Why, Master Harry, of course.”

She said it so matter-of-factly that Hermione gasped aloud. Enola smirked at her. Hermione scrunched up her face in return.

“Harry’s…I mean, Master Harry…he’s home?” asked Hermione, astonished. “For how long?”

“Not long, Lady Hermione,” said Rhian. “Master Harry often go to see baby Ally first after long time away. But, Lady Hermione, you not need to call Master Harry ‘master’. He be not liking it.”

“Why not?”

“Why would?” Rhian countered. “Lady Hermione be Master Harry’s Lady…if she not be really dumb. Be Lady of the House one day, Mistress of the elves. Unless she be really, really dumb. All elves be hoping she not. All be loving Lady Hermione, look forward to having her as Mistress. Master Harry not be her Master…be her equal. But really, Lady Hermione be the Boss…men folk be needing hand-holding and guidance. Same for elves, same for witches and wizards.”

Hermione felt her jaw fall open. Enola just hooted with laughter.

“Worst. Kept. Secret. Ever,” said Enola, vibrating with giggles. “Come on, lets reunite these unrequited lovers, Rhian.”

The Head Elf held out her hands. Hermione and Enola took one each and they were Apparated right up to the nursery. Rhian popped away again almost instantly. Hermione turned to Enola with an amused grin.

“Unrequited lovers? Really?”

“I could have gone the whole hog and plumped for Ringless Betrothed,” said Enola fairly. “Honestly, the change in the air of the place since you’ve arrived…you know the estate pretty much reflects Harry’s mood, yeah? That’s how he configured the nursery to respond to Alison and not him, once he worked out that’s what was going on. The ritual took twenty-six hours. Harry didn’t falter once. But now the rest of the palace is practically rocking with happiness. His happiness. And that’s all down to you. I’ve never known it like this. Its pretty fucking awesome, to tell the truth. Just do us all one favour.”

“What’s that?” asked Hermione. She was blushing all sorts of scarlet.

“Please give us advanced notice before you shag him,” said Enola simply. “It’ll probably be so intense for him it’ll have everyone in the palace coming simultaneously. It might cause a localised earthquake!”

“Ennie!” Hermione admonished playfully. Her blush heated her from toes to earlobes at this point.

Enola simply shrugged. She wasn’t joking.

Hermione tingled all over at the prospect. It excited her. She’d had sex plenty of times, most of it under duress, but she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been aroused sexually. She felt it now. She considered it with a sense of embarrassment, bordering on shame. Sex had always been a chore, an extension of household tasks. To be frank, something to keep her alive, to keep her out of the Avada Chambers of the death camps. It had been the same for Sue, for Luna, for every other woman she knew. To even suggest enjoying sex was functionally equivalent to admitting treason in their world.

But now, Hermione was stirred. Her loins were waking up after a slumber. The rampantly flowing sexual ideas of Harry quickly pooled a wetness in Hermione’s knickers. It was utterly inappropriate and she flushed with the mortification of it. Hermione felt the dampness with slight self-disdain. What if anyone found out? Or picked up on the scent, the aroma of her arousal. The shame would be unbearable.

So she halted just as they were about to enter the nursery, to compose herself. The sight which greeted them made her heart stop…then beat furiously as it kicked back to life. She actually threw a hand to her chest as she surveyed the scene before her.

For it was unspeakably beautiful.

Harry was in the nursery, quite alone, apart from little Alison cwtched into his shoulder. He was rocking her gently, humming softly into her downy-haired head. One hand supported her, the other smoothed her back in rhythmic circles. Alison’s tiny hands were curled fists in Harry’s robes, as she purred in comfort. Hermione’s breath caught in her lungs. It looked such a perfect scene. Harry was more content than she had ever seen him, untroubled, just dancing there with a babe in his arms. And, for just a moment, Hermione felt the most intense sense of longing and loss she’d ever known.

That could have been him…with OUR baby….with our daughter…

And, in that few seconds, she realised she’d never known herself quite as completely as she did right then. Known quite so succinctly what she wanted in life. But also what she could have had…what she’d lost. What Ron Weasley and Lord Voldemort had cost her. Hermione slumped against the frame of the door with the enormity of the revelations. It was as if all she’d ever fleetingly considered, ever cautiously desired in her life, suddenly pounded into her in an epic collision. It took her breath away.

Enola looked fondly at her, smiled knowingly. She had an innate gift for understanding. She slid a comforting arm around Hermione as Harry turned away from them.

“He’s a natural at that, isn’t he?” she whispered, motioning at Harry, cradling little Alison. Hermione could only nod. She had lost the power of coherent speech. “Alison was the first baby born to our little community here. Harry was insanely protective of her from the word Go. But she used to tug at his scarves and shawls all the time. It was the cutest thing.

“He doesn’t know I know this…but he started casting cosmetic enchantments on his face so he could see the baby without wearing any coverings. He was convinced he’d frighten her with his scar. And he just couldn’t bear not to be able to see her. I was so heartbroken when I found out…I just couldn’t tell him he didn’t need to do it. Alison would love him as he was. He’d never accept that, of course, but one day, when Nev and I were exhausted after being part of a ritual, Ally woke up with terrible teething pains. Harry raced right to her, soothed her with a dummy and some light healing runes.

“Anyway, when I eventually dragged myself up, she was too busy giggling and trying to play with Harry’s face to notice me. You see, in his haste to get to her, he’d forgotten to cast the cosmetic spells. But Alison didn’t care. She didn’t see him as the monster he’d convinced himself he was. His face was just funny to her, and she laughed hysterically at him like he was a beautifully ugly gargoyle. And Harry laughed back. I’d never heard him laugh before that. Not once. Not ever.

“I cried for a full half hour after hearing it. It was the purest thing I’ve ever seen. And Harry fell in love with my daughter that night. I’m so lucky he did. I can’t tell you how soundly I sleep knowing that someone like Harry is protecting her so fiercely in such a horrible world. He wont let anything happen to her. I’m beyond lucky. And so are you, despite all those horrors that have happened to you. Harry only ever lets Ally see him without his shawls…but now he’s letting you.

“And you really don’t appreciate how big a thing that is for him, Min. You honestly can’t. Not yet, anyway.”

“It is?” said Hermione, hastily wiping at her wet cheeks and puffy eyes. She felt so humbled she thought she might melt into the carpet.

Enola nodded. “Harry comes across as all tough and hard – which he is – but he’s also incredibly vulnerable under that granite exterior of his. The scar is his biggest reminder, his coverings the permanent shield. But he’s let you in beyond that. Just do something for me…be gentle with him.”

“I will, I promise,” said Hermione faithfully.

“And, I know what you’re probably thinking,” Enola went on with a wry smile. “Why am I so concerned about Harry? So close to him. Maybe I’m a bit of a threat?”

Hermione scoffed. “What gave you that idea? Your flawless face, hourglass figure and perky tits?”

Enola laughed. “You forgot sparkling intelligence and ready wit!” Hermione laughed back. Enola looked at her seriously. “Just know this – Harry and I have a closeness that goes beyond friendship, maybe beyond family. Perhaps one day he’ll explain it to you. But the one thing we aren’t is romantic. Harry has eyes and a heart only for you, and I’m ridiculously in love with Neville. Its been the same since I first met him. All Harry does is for you. Whether you want him or not doesn’t matter, not even to him, really. It wouldn’t change him. He’d still be the same even if you did, bizarrely, love that weasel you married.”

Hermione scowled, genuinely offended. “I never loved him. Not like that. Ever.”

“And Harry?”

“I never let myself completely fall, but I think I’ve always hoped a bit for Harry. More than a friend should, you know? It just never seemed to get started. But I’d never have objected if it did.”

“Then maybe now’s the time to get it started,” said Enola. “Merlin, I know Harry is obsessed with you. Not in a stalker-type way. Well, maybe a little bit stalker-ish. But in its purest form. I’ve never known a man so in love. And to think you never gave it a try together…its baffling, really. What were you afraid of? Rejection?”

Hermione thought a moment. “No, not rejection. Not really. That was a worry, of course, but it was more a case of…what if… what if he actually felt the same? What would I do then? He would be a bit terrifying to have as a boyfriend. He’s such a massive personality. So intense, too. But I would have been totally willing to take the risk if it was offered. That was scary in itself. I thought I was far too young to consider myself in love. And with my best friend, no less. So I suppressed that part of it. But he was so sexy on top of all that. I often dreamt of him being on top of me. It was ridiculously distracting. I only ever had one boy in those sorts of fantasies…”

Hermione blushed furiously. Her heart was threatening to punch its way out of her chest as she ruefully reminisced. She turned to look at Harry again. Baby Alison had woken up and Harry had sat her on the floor. He was using his wand to conjure light animals for her to chase with her chubby little hands; here a stag, then an otter, now a hippogriff. Hermione was almost dizzy from the flutterings in her chest as she watched the delightful little display. That longing smothered her again. It seemed almost indecent to desire something like this, after all she’d been through, but so right at the same time. It was as if the past five years had been nothing more than a dark pause in reality.

“Well, look at you two,” said Enola, leaving Hermione to her light-headed musings and crossing to her daughter and Harry. “Room for a couple more?”

Harry snapped his head at Hermione. In the same movement he re-coiled his shawl around his head by magic. Hermione felt sorry to see his face hide behind the linen. She was growing used to his lop-sided smiles. She would miss them. So too, apparently, would little Alison. She whinnied as Harry’s scar became obscured by the shawl.

“I did my best,” said Harry, sadly. “Looks like nothing quite beats a mother’s touch.”

“That’s right,” Enola agreed with a grin. “But this little one just prefers her Godfather unfettered.”

Harry shifted awkwardly. “She’ll grow out of that.” He turned to Hermione. “How’s Susan?”

“Alive, thanks to you,” Hermione replied, smiling warmly.

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Harry. He seemed to struggle for words. He bothered a loose thread in the hearthrug.

“Now, I understand, from Angharad, that you’ve been missing for days because you were getting me a present,” said Hermione, smirking. “Well? I’m waiting.”

Harry chortled at her. “Oh yeah, I nearly forgot. I should tell you I was viciously maimed getting this gift for you. I hope you appreciate it.”

Harry rose and opened a door just off to the left side of the nursery. Hermione looked over curiously, but only for a second. For as soon as the door opened she was under attack. The culprit was a great, bandy legged ball of bright orange fur.

“Crookshanks!” Hermione squealed, hugging the cat to her breast. “I was sure you’d be dead!”

“I have to say I agree,” said Harry. “But he’s got your survival spirit. He’d burrowed behind some loose boards in your basement wall. That’s where I found him.”

Hermione looked over, wide-eyed. “You…you went to my house?”

“I’m glad you didn’t call it your home,” said Harry sourly. “But yeah, I went there. I had half a mind to skin Ron if I found him. But the Commandant wasn’t in. Pity. Must have been overseeing more Squib torture. I hear he considers it a spectator sport these days. Still, it made recovering this little guy a bit easier.”

Hermione smoothed Crookshanks behind his ears and looked at Harry shyly. “But…why did you go and rescue him, Harry?”

Harry looked confused, even a little hurt. “Aren’t you happy to have him back?”

“Of course I am!” Hermione squeaked quickly. “But the risk you took was phenomenal…and all for poor Crookshanks…”

Harry sighed. “I’m not afraid of Ron, Riddle or the entire Death Eater army. But, you’re wrong Hermione. I didn’t do it for Crookshanks…much as I like him, this was all for you.

Hermione had no reply. She was fitfully embarrassed, but restless at being unable to articulate her immense gratitude. She wanted to hug Harry again, to kiss him until his lips swelled up. But she was mindful of his boundaries. A muffled ‘thank you’ was all she could manage. Enola came to the rescue.

“I think I have a baby that needs a new nappy,” she said. “Come on, Minny. Its high time you learned how to do this. It might…er…come in useful one day.”

Hermione flushed crimson. Even Harry was sensible of the inference. He cocked an eyebrow at Hermione.

“Minny?”

“Oh, don’t you start!” she said crossly. Harry bellowed a laugh at her, and she blushed back, and they left Harry shaking a head as both ladies left the room, one smelly baby in tow.

* * *

Neville was sharpening the Sword of Gryffindor when he felt the disturbance. He was running a notched rock along the edge of the blade when a ripple swelled through the air. His father, who had been deeply meditating nearby, flew alert in a flash. His wand was in his hand before Neville even noticed his eyelids snap open. He’d never admit it, but his father would have been a bit of a hero of his even if they hadn’t been related.

He was just hard as fuck.

In less than a heartbeat, both Longbottoms were on their feet and sprinting towards the door. Neville felt his pulse quicken at his neck. A disturbance at the ward edge always meant intruders, accidental ones, usually, but if they were unfortunate supporters of Riddle they would get such a pasting that even their mothers wouldn’t be able to recognise them.

Neville hoped they were some of the bad guys. Harry had started a war last week when he sliced Blaise Zabini’s manhood off, and Neville was itching to get in on the action. The propaganda tool that was the Daily Prophet had covered the story extensively. Inaccurately, but extensively. An unnamed, faceless fresh enemy of the New World Order. One that just happened to use Harry Potter’s famous scar-shape as a calling card. It was their brand identifier.

Surely, even the oft-moronic wizarding public couldn’t be so dense to not see what was really going on.

But then again, maybe not. Neville sighed with the realisation. When he and Harry finally saved this world, a programme of modernisation was in dire order. And deeply needed. But first things first. Scores were lined up to be settled. And Neville hoped this would be the first one. 

He knew it would fall to him to deal with whatever issue had suddenly arisen. Harry had left abruptly that morning, leaving Neville in charge of the Estate. Neville couldn’t begin to guess where he might have gone. Harry rarely told him such trifling details. After all, he hadn’t told him he was going off to de-bollock Zabini, or to rescue Hermione’s maniac cat.

Perhaps he was going for a massage with some Veela. He was immune to them after all. It would keep him pure for Hermione whilst being nice and relaxing at the same time. Neville drooled at the thought of a multi-Veela massage…

Then he slapped himself. Enola would de-bollock him if she caught him thinking like that. She had never shown overt Seer ability, but Neville was cautiously convinced that his wife could read minds. Or, more specifically, read his. He was way too transparent, he knew that. And Occlumency was just far too hard. Harry was a Master at the old art. Neville, try as he might, just didn’t have the patience for it.

He was more a fighter, and pretty pleased at his proficiency in the field. He secretly felt that, of all the wizards in the Enclave, only Harry could out-duel him. This was nothing to be ashamed of, either. Harry could out-duel anyone. He had beaten the top four duellers in the world in one session not so long ago. At the same time. Harry had the irritating skill of being able to not be hit. He thought and moved so fast he might as well have been on a different plane of existence. Neville couldn’t wait to see the work he’d make of Tom Riddle when the time was right…

Just so long as he didn’t make it quick.

But that was Harry’s job. Neville had his own, and as he reached the boundary of the Estate he quickly quietened his mind into combat mode. He focused on Enola, his stunningly beautiful wife and his perfect little daughter…he wouldn’t die for them. What would be the point? He would kill for them. Ruthlessly and relentlessly. Just to enjoy one more day with them. Merlin pity the fool who dared threaten them.

Neville halted at the boundary line. His father skidded into place alongside him. Moments later the other four members of Harry’s Inner Circle were ranged in a line beside them. All their wands were drawn and throbbing with anxious energy. Neville stepped forwards and cast a rune into the air. He filled it with his magic and sent it at the boundary line. When it returned he would know if it was friend or foe, encroaching on the other side of the ward, trying to get in.

Friend

The rune couldn’t lie. Neville trusted it as much as he would a promise from his mother. He lowered his wand and walked forward again, crossing the boundary and leaving the estate. He was greeted by a small, squat sort of man and a skinny, shockingly frightened girl tucked under his arm. Neville frowned at them.

“You endured the repelling charms of our outer wards,” said Neville bluntly. “Your commitment to whatever cause you have is concerning. State your name and purpose before I kill you for trespassing.”

“Please, we mean no harm or disrespect,” said the man, bowing lowly. “I seek an audience with Lord Potter.”

“There is no Lord Potter here,” said Neville angrily. “Leave now, or face the consequences.”

“Please…I beg you,” said the man. “I am Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed. This is my daughter, Branwen. We know Lord Harry Potter lives. His ascension to Lord of Avalon has activated all the old Seals of Power in Wales. The Old Kingdom is renewed. We have been waiting centuries for this. We come only to pay homage.”

“Say I believe you,” said Neville. “What do you want?”

“Nothing more than a brief audience, to swear our allegiance to the Once and Future King, as custom dictates,” said Pwyll. “If he is not home, we will wait. We consent to submit to any tests of truth and honour you wish to conduct.”

Branwen, who was a young girl no older than fourteen, squeaked at her father’s side. Neville frowned. He doubted she was a willing party in any of this…whatever it might be. But he was inclined to believe them.

“You will submit your wands, and any other weapons you might be carrying,” said Neville. “Understand, if I find you to be lying I will cut out your heart, and your lying tongue, and feed them to you. Clear?”

“Very clear, my Lord,” said Pwyll. He handed over a plain wand and a curved-tipped sceptre. His badge of office. His daughter was clean of any such affectations. Neville opened a gap in the ward and led them inside. After resealing it he turned to the other members of the Enclave

“Reinforce the ward, just in case. I’m taking these two to the palace.”

“Who are they, Nev?” asked Frank Longbottom, eyeing the newcomers suspiciously.

“The guy claims to be a local Prince. Dyfed…its one of the old counties nearby. Says Harry channelling King Arthur’s spirit has reignited some sort of ancient power Seals. Harry expected something like this, I’m sure he’ll know what to do. Don’t worry. I’ll get Fan and Ann to screen them thoroughly when I get to the house. Will you lead the reinforcement ritual? I know Harry favours O’Brien, but I’d be more comfortable with you.”

“I’ll do it,” said Frank. “And if Patrick has a problem with it, I’ll kick him right up his Irish arse.”

“Dad! That’s racist!”

“No, calling him a leprechaun would be racist. And heightist. And a whole host of other pseudo-crimes. But he’s the least politically-correct wizard I know, so I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Neville chuckled. “I’ll leave it with you then. Let me know when its done.”

“Yes, Boss!” said Frank sardonically, as Neville turned and led Pwyll and Branwen towards the large manor house. When they reached it, he turned to them before opening the door.

“You will submit to a series of tests and scans by our two Chiefs of Security, a pair of witches called Angharad and Myfanwy,” said Neville. “If you resist at all, they are under strict edict from Lord Potter himself to take your lives as swiftly as possible. Don’t test them. They are highly experienced at this. Many have died in the Inspection Suite. If you are genuine, you needn’t worry. If you are not…well, say any prayers, to whatever God you believe in, before I open the doors.”

Pwyll gulped, Branwen whimpered and clutched at her father. Neville took their silence as compliance and stroked his finger along the centre parting of the large oak doors. They faded away slowly. Neville led the way inside and pointed to a small antechamber off to the right of the main courtyard. Pwyll and Branwen were herded inside just as Angharad and Myfanwy Apparated next to Neville and stalked purposefully into the room, wands drawn and pulsing…

* * *

Hermione was beside herself with fury, incandescent with rage. She couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. Poor Neville, who had endured a good five minutes of her tirade, was cowering away finally.

“You let them across the ward without any sort of checks?!” Hermione cried in angry disbelief.

“I trusted them,” said Neville, meekly. “Besides, the girls have screened them. They are harmless.”

“But they could have been carrying anything!” Hermione went on furiously. “Tracking charms, detection enchantments, fucking Muggle BOMBS! Are you actually insane?”

Neville mumbled something that sounded like bididyboodily. Behind him, Enola was shaking with laughter. Hermione scowled at her.

don’t think this is funny!” Hermione shrieked. She wished she could stomp around to emphasis her roiling frustration, but her hips were still being treacherous to her. So she just pinned her hands to them angrily instead. “It’s an unacceptable security breech! I’m sure Harry will agree. Why are you still laughing?”

Enola wiped her eyes. “Oh…I’m sorry, Hermione. You’re quite right. And I completely agree with you. Neville, what were you thinking, honey? Take your telling off like a man. But Min…its just that…you’re so fierce! You are so Harry’s perfect queen, I can’t tell you.”

Hermione went to argue but her head spun and her words caught. She had to stop being embarrassed like this. Real Queens didn’t get so flustered at the mere mention of their Kings…

“And I can just imagine how hot Harry would find this,” Enola continued. “He’d probably have to go and hide in a corner to beat one off.”

“And there was me trying to be discreet. I have to work on my Silencing Charms!”

Assorted gasps and cries filled the air. It was Hermione who regained her senses first.

“Harry! How long have you been hiding there?”

“Sorry, Hermione,” said Harry, throwing off his Invisibility Cloak and striding into the centre of the room. “I was just enjoying the show. And, for the record, Ennie was quite right…about everything. Hotter than a nuclear reactor. But Nev…what the actual fuck, mate? Letting strangers into our little haven so easily?”

“They are quite safe, Harry,” said Neville, sheepishly. “Fan and Ann have vetted them and we’ve reinforced the wards.”

“I know, I felt like I was being squeezed through a sausage machine when I came back in,” said Harry, crossly. “Your Dad did a good job. I think he was showing off.”

Neville grinned. “Sorry, Harry.”

“Don’t worry. Just try to inspect newcomers outside our little shields, okay? Hermione is totally correct in what she said.”

“Sorry, Lady Potter,” said Neville, grinning slyly at her. Hermione blushed madly.

“Shut up, LongBum,” Harry teased. “Now – where are our guests?”

“The Reception Room on the second floor…recuperating,” said Neville. “Fanny was a bit…vigorous with her testing.”

Harry frowned. “She’s been a bit like that lately. It’s coming up to Alwyn’s anniversary, isn’t it? I’ll have a chat with her later, see if she needs to talk about it. In the meantime, I’d better go and meet this Prince. Um…Queen…would you care to join me?”

Harry looked pointedly at Hermione, who was now so flushed she looked close to having a stroke.

“I’d better not,” said Hermione. “I’m not sure I can walk all that way without support. I wouldn’t want to slow you up.”

“I have a pretty sturdy shoulder just begging for employment,” said Harry, offering his arm. “Come on, I’d really appreciate your eyes on whoever these strange folk are downstairs.”

Harry looked at Hermione warmly. She melted under his gaze. It was hypnotic. There was no way she could refuse him. She limped the short few steps to close the space between them and practically fell into his arms. She tensed, sure he would flinch from her invading his space. But, on the contrary, he hoisted her arm around his neck, slid his around her dainty waist and guided her from the room. They didn’t leave each others gaze the entire time. Neville turned to Enola as soon as they were gone.

“I hope when they fuck I am away from the house. The air is practically sub-Saharan in here over just one embrace!”

“I know,” Enola agreed. “I’ve already told Minny to give me a heads up. It will set the place on fire!”

Harry helped Hermione slowly down the main staircase of the house. He moved gently, wary of her injuries, but he was in no rush. She was pinned to his side, her breath warm against his neck. He was in no hurry to break this position. She seemed equally as content. She was in acute discomfort; Harry could feel that physically. But she was also grinning, inside and out. It made Harry’s own insides do the sorts of flips and turns that grown men shouldn’t be partial to.

But Harry loved each and every one.

He pulled Hermione closer with almost imperceptible movements. She smelled like apricots and daisies. He wished he could feel her skin. Her face was close to his, but she was purposely holding her head in place away from his scarf-covered cheek, mindful of his own tender injuries. A few times she made to place her head on his shoulder, but seemed to lose courage at the last second. Harry winced at the discomfort.

This was so alien for them both, he was sensible of that. For his own part, he didn’t share his personal space with anyone but Neville’s daughter. And even that would diminish as she got older. Neville only placed hands on him during ritual. Enola healed with magic but never touched him. Harry’s aura was a shield, his own unpowered ward. Nobody crossed that boundary.

But here was Hermione, invading his space. Harry submitted to the intrusion willingly, urging his invisible ward to cover her, too. For she was also in need of healing, and as vulnerable as he. Touch had become something to recoil from; the tortures she’d endured had conditioned her mind to automatically decide that physical contact was bound to hurt. Harry was pointedly aware of these particular scars. Hermione was suffering with intense residual pain in her body, and Harry knew he was crossing fortified defensive lines with her emotionally, too.

But then they’d always been comfortable with a level of physical intimacy that was unusual between friends. It may have been five years, but that aspect of their relationship appeared unchanged. Despite all the myriad of negative things that both had endured in that time. Still, nevertheless, Harry was cautious.

“Is this…okay?” he asked quietly.

“It’s more than okay,” Hermione whispered back. She seemed to realise his concerns, and moved to dispel them quickly by curling in closer without any pretence that she meant to do anything else. “I’ve not felt as safe and protected, as I do when I’m around you, in the longest time. And being in your arms…I could stay here forever and be happier for it.”

Harry’s mind whirled at that. His skin positively crackled with electricity. Words failed him again. He reflected her happiness but found it near impossible to tell her so. He realised this walk had been as much for him as it had for her. To test the waters, the boundaries. Well, it was fair to say that the latter had been smashed to pieces.

“I’m sorry if that sounded a bit forward,” said Hermione, quickly. “But we’ve lost out on so much time already. I don’t see the point in pretending…if we’re both on the same page?”

It was a cautious question, one Harry was too afraid to answer right away. He would have rather faced a room full of Riddle’s with no wand than look at Hermione right now. The promise was almost too much to hope for. But he knew he had to reply. Hermione never was one for lingering silences.

“I know what page I’m on,” Harry said quietly. “I’ve been on it for years. But you’ve been through such a terrible ordeal…I can’t wrap my head around how much you must have suffered. I might never forgive myself for not acting sooner. You’d have to accept that…if you ever joined me on that page. But I have no expectation of that. You need so much fixing, I know. I can feel it. I’ll spend my life helping you do that, without hoping for anything else.”

Hermione huffed. “Harry – you can be so dense sometimes. Chivalrous to the point of frustration. Haven’t you ever considered what I might want? Hasn’t it occurred to you that I might want the same thing you want, and that it might actually help in fixing me, as you put it?”

“No. I mean – how could you? I left you to -“

“If you blame yourself for that one more time I’m going to hex you silent for a month,” said Hermione curtly. “Enough of the self-loathing, okay? Ron hurt me, Riddle and his New World Order hurt me, you never did. But you’re going to revenge for me, right the world for me. Win…for me. And the first victory is going to be against yourself. Today. Got it?”

“Yes ma’am,” Harry grinned.

“And as for my being so damaged, to be so severely wounded that I’ve forgotten the joys of love and sex and all the rest of it, as Ennie is convinced I am, let me just educate you on that. I’m not some precious little flower, you know. I was at your side for seven years. I picked up a few things. I survived, I endured. I stayed sane and never lost hope. And do you know how?”

“How?”

“By hoping for you,” said Hermione softly. “By believing in you. Every year…on the anniversary of…of -,” she stumbled at the words. “…I held a party. I hoped you’d come. As a ghost, as a reincarnation, anything. It gave me courage to stay alive. Part of me always knew you weren’t really gone. I could feel it, though I could never describe it. I never gave up on you. Sue thought I was mental – but I kept on believing. And now I’m rewarded. Not only with your life…but with…whatever this might be. What it could be. What I hope it will be.”

“It’ll be whatever you want,” said Harry. His voice was on the verge of cracking.

“No…it’ll be whatever we want it to be,” said Hermione, turning to him. “We’ve waited long enough to come to this conclusion without worrying about anyone else. You want something, I want something. And I’m rather keen to believe its the same thing.”

Harry looked at her so fiercely Hermione was taken aback, her breath shuddered at the intensity of the scrutiny she was suddenly under. His one eye darted between her two, hunting for any sign of deception or dishonesty. There was none, but he continued to study her deeply, unable to easily accept this simple truth. Hermione waited for him. She knew she had to be patient. Slowly, in a moment she saw arrive with juddering force, as the meaning in his eye shifted fundamentally, he allowed himself to believe, if only a little. Hermione knew it was too much to expect a complete acceptance right away, but even this little alteration was earth-shattering for him.

It made the walls of the hallway glow with brilliant light for several seconds.

“Okay,” Harry said after a moment. He smiled at her, a wonky, dopey, punch-drunk grin at the mouth-gap in his shawls. Hermione couldn’t think of anything more beautiful in that moment. She tucked back into his side, saying nothing. Both were silent, letting their shared understanding settle on them as they headed for the Reception Room. They’d long negated the need for words to communicate between each other. Hermione realised just how much she’d missed that about their connection.

They entered the Reception Room together. It was a well-furnished room, with tapestries and paintings and comfortable sofas flanking the walls. On one of these sofas sat the two visitors. They looked flustered and flushed, as if they’d just stepped in from a gale. Hermione couldn’t help but glance out of one of the large windows. It was a calm, sunny day outside.

What had Myfanwy put them through?

Hermione had little time to consider that. The short, middle-aged man had risen from the sofa as Harry approached. He hauled the bedraggled girl next to him to her feet, too. The poor thing looked petrified. She was actually trembling as she was dragged forwards and pulled into a bow at Harry’s feet.

Harry considered the strangers carefully. The man was a simpering sort, the girl nothing more than a bundle of nerves.

“Arise, Prince Puth,” said Harry. “You must forgive my pronunciation…its all those consonants, you see.”

“There is nothing to forgive, my Lord,” said Pwyll, standing.

“Why are you here?” asked Hermione, limping to Harry’s side.

Pwyll eyed her warily. Harry scowled. “The Lady asked you a question. Answer it.”

Pwyll gulped. “Forgive me. I am Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, and I come to swear fealty to the Once and Future King, our Lord of Avalon. We offer our lives and lands into your service. As tradition dictates, we come with a gift to honour our oath.” Pwyll prodded his terrified daughter forwards. “May I present my eldest daughter, Branwen. I humbly offer her as a potential bride to the Lord of Avalon, and pray you favour us with your consideration of my daughter as a suitable match.”

Hermione actually gasped. Harry seethed with bubbling rage. Poor Branwen was simply white with fear. It was no wonder she was so afraid, if that was the reason she’d been dragged here. Harry felt so sincerely sorry for this girl’s anguish. He breathed steadily to master his rage, to bring his swirling sea of emotions under his sway, as they skimmed the surface of his control enchantments.

“Step forward, Princess Branwen.”

The girl did as she was told, stumbling nervously over the hem of her dress until she was barely a foot away from Harry. She was a wiry, slight little thing. Harry wanted to wrap her in cotton wool in case she broke. Branwen made to bow, but Harry reached out and tucked a hand gently under her chin, easing her head up.

“A Princess never bows,” said Harry softly. He knelt down and was nearly as tall as her, even though he was on his knees. “Always hold your head high. Now, tell me, Princess, do you believe in love?”

Branwen gave a tiny, nervous nod.

“And do you hope to marry some day?”

She nodded again, but it was so cautious Harry almost missed it.

“And do you intend to marry for love?” Harry pressed.

Branwen cast a swift glance at her father. Harry seethed again, and ground his jaw.

“Don’t look at him. I asked the question,” said Harry firmly, making it clear his ire wasn’t intended for Branwen Then he cast a very different look at Pwyll, who paled in the face of it. “Now, do you intend to marry for love?”

Branwen nodded again, though much more vigorously than before.

Harry smiled at her. “So do I. Which is why I’m going to have to respectfully decline this offer of marriage to you. This is no slight against you, Princess. And I hope that I don’t hurt your feelings or your honour in refusing you. But, you see, I’m already in love with someone else. And I would only be a true and proper husband to her. And her alone. I hope you can understand that, and accept this rejection as best you can.”

For the first time, Princess Branwen smiled. The relief which flooded her was palpable. Her eyes relaxed and colour suffused her skin. She was actually quite cute, when she wasn’t so inconsolably terrified.

“I take no offence, Lord Potter,” she said timidly. “And I thank you for your honesty.”

Harry smiled back at her. “Only marry for love, Branwen. It is the only reason you will ever need.”

“I will, my Lord.”

Harry smiled at her and stood again. He turned to Pwyll, his smile turning to a growling grimace. “As for you, I want you to take a message back to the other Princes of the Old Kingdom – the next man who comes here with the intention of pimping their daughters to me will be garotted on sight…by me personally.”

Pwyll quailed under the ferocity of Harry’s one-eyed stare. He backed away from him.

Then Hermione limped forwards and addressed the Prince. “You said you had a gift for us,” she said. She flashed a quick, questioning look at Harry, who beamed back with a racing heart and a small, encouraging nod. “I assume it wasn’t this beautiful little girl of yours, as you proffered her up like a sacrificial offering. So, what was it?”

Pwyll looked at Hermione, and respect followed understanding in his eyes as he looked between her and Harry. He realised his error immediately and was keen to atone.

“Forgive me, my Lady,” he simpered. “But we do have a gift. My daughter is carrying it. Branwen…”

The girl, who was looking more comfortable by the minute, reached into a pocket of her dress and drew out a small mahogany box.

And the atmosphere of the room changed in a instant.

It was as if someone had poured poison into the air. It thickened and congealed with it. Harry shot forwards and positioned himself instinctively between Hermione and the box. Branwen was holding it out like it might explode at any moment. Harry gathered himself, letting the initial burst of shock pass. He mastered his concern and drew his wand, casting it over the box. Then he shot a dangerous look at Pwyll.

“What is this?” he hissed lowly. “What evil have you brought to my sanctuary?”

“Just knowledge, my Lord,” said Pwyll.

“This box is drenched in Dark Magic,” Harry went on. “What is it?”

“Evidence of just how far Lord Voldemort has gone to pervert life itself,” said Pwyll. Harry’s attention piqued. “Inside is an object, and trapped within it is a soul fragment.”

“A Horcrux?” Hermione breathed. “Harry…be careful. A piece of Voldemort is in there!”

“No…no it isn’t,” said Harry quietly. He cast a series of diagnostic runes at the box, cast so fast his wand was a mere blur. “There’s a Horcrux in there all right, but somethings not right.”

“How so?”

“It has his signature, I can feel that,” said Harry, taking the box in his free hand. “But I also know what that Dark bastards’ soul feels like. We both do. This isn’t part of it.”

Harry conjured a containment ward around himself, ignoring Hermione’s cries of objection, then continued with his casting, silencing his mind swiftly and delving into the deep, dark layers of the magical item before him. Then Harry grabbed his throat as he began to understand. He blinked as he came out of his casting trance. He looked at Pwyll, his eye wide and angry.

“Made…by him…but not from him?”

Pwyll nodded.

“Harry…I’m not sure I follow,” said Hermione. She didn’t like being slow on the uptake.

“Hermione…it makes perfect sense…how could I be so fucking stupid not to see…” said Harry, clapping a hand to his forehead. He sat down, shaking.

“See what?” Hermione pushed. She hobbled to him and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. He didn’t shrug her off. She knew he wouldn’t. He welcomed her support.

“Hermione, we suspect that Riddle went through with his plan to split his soul in seven pieces,” said Harry. “We can chalk off six of the Horcruxes he made – ring, diary, locket, diadem, goblet, snake – then there’s whatever is left in Tom, himself. But we are working on the assumption that he actually made a seventh Horcrux after he regained his body. It was his life’s work. It made sense that he’d finish it first chance he got.”

“But didn’t Dumbledore always say he needed a significant death for Horcrux creation?” asked Hermione. “Who did he kill that was prominent enough?”

“We reckon it was Grindelwald,” said Harry flatly, still rubbing his temples.   

“Okay,” said Hermione, processing that slowly. “So that’s where you keep disappearing to all the time. Trying to find the seventh Horcrux?”

“Precisely. I’ll never get anything past you, will I?”

“No, and don’t think I’m ignoring the fact that you do this by yourself,” she said crossly. “I’m just letting it slide for now. But I’m going to severely tell you off for that later. But why is this a problem? The seventh Horcrux is in that box. Just destroy it.”

Harry looked at her and sighed. “That’s the point…its a Horcrux…but not the Horcrux.”

“I’m confused.”

“Tom knew that we threatened him before by taking out the other six of his Horcruxes,” Harry explained. “He can’t let anyone get so close again. So we can guess that his last one is under massive protection. That’s why its proving so hard to find. There’s no point in going for him, if he can be resurrected every time using the last Horcrux. He daren’t make any more. So he’s created decoys, fakes, but he’s carried out the ritual of Horcrux creation…only he’s used other people’s souls to fill them, but made them look like they are his.”

Hermione let out a shocked gasp. “Made by him…but not from him. My God Harry! That could mean…”

“That there are dozens of decoys out there…hundreds maybe,” said Harry. “He might have made every one of his subjects submit. Even Ron might have had his soul spilt. I can’t tell you how much I’m starting to hate him, you know.”

“But Harry…that would mean that none of them could be killed without destroying the Horcrux related to them! It would make them unbeatable.”

Harry sighed heavily. “I know, Hermione. I know.”

“For fucks sake!” she cried angrily. Hot, furious tears spilt from her eyes.

Pwyll coughed nearby. “You aren’t alone in this fight, my Lord. You have allies everywhere. They will rally to your banner.”

“And I will call on that support when the time is right,” said Harry. “Thank you, Prince of Dyfed. You should leave now. I will take the Horcrux into ritual, understand and then destroy it.” Harry turned to Hermione. “How’s your strength? I might have to borrow your power for this. Its been a long time since I faced a Horcrux. I need you.”

“I’m right here with you,” said Hermione staunchly. She dried her eyes and set her shoulders. “Come on, lets kick the living fuck out of this thing.”

Harry grinned. He hated Tom Riddle fiercely as he stood up. Not for all his catalogue of crimes, but for simply slashing his lips in half, for he wanted nothing more than to plant them on Hermione’s at that moment. He would make that snake-raping son of a bitch pay for that one day.

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