Chapter 8

Chapter 8 – The Dark King Moves

The Wizarding media quickly dubbed it ‘The Sacking of Glastonbury‘. The story, in various blood-curdling forms, was covered extensively for the next week. Indeed, as far as The Daily Prophet was concerned, the rest of the world and all the people in it had ceased to exist. The various arms of the Wizarding Wireless Network, both audio and visual formats, ran expose after expose on the events, and turned its propaganda wheels to demonise the culprits.

So, thus it came to be, that Harry Potter’s name was making headline news again.

And he had never been more evil. Nor more happy to be so. The Prophet had dubbed him with such imaginative monikers as Potter the Putrid and Heartless Harry. For what other sort of person would kill defenceless monks simply pursuing the worship of the One True Lord? The small detail of ritual child sacrifice had failed to make any of the harrowing news reports. Funny that.

The girl in question hadn’t spoken at all. She was in a state of shock so deep she was practically catatonic. None of the healing witches had managed to get a peep out of her. She’d relented without resistance to be bathed and cleaned and dressed, and numbly accepted soup that was hand-fed to her. But she hadn’t said a word or moved at all, other than to close her eyes to sleep, and open them again with lifeless reluctance when the time came.

Hermione was deeply worried about her. She sat with the girl as much as anyone, helping to feed her and trying to coax some sort of response, but to no avail. They guessed the girl was around six or seven years old, but there was no way to be certain. Hermione suggested using a ritual to try and help her, but Harry felt that such magic might have been responsible for her condition, and might only cause her greater distress if she were exposed to it again.

Secretly, Harry felt the girl might be better off in her broken mind, where she might have found a safe place. For if the horrors she’d witnessed came back to her, the effect would be devastating. If nearly getting burned alive wasn’t bad enough, Myfanwy had found a ritual altar nearby…with two adult sacrifices still bleeding into a ceremonial chalice. The blonde-haired woman might have been the girl’s mother…but there wasn’t enough left of her face to make a positive connection.

So the girl had simply become another of Voldemort’s orphans. She was in elite company in that group, along with Harry, of course. But he didn’t want to think about that. It caused his mind to drift to Teddy Lupin. Harry had no idea what had happened to his Godson, he had never been able to trace him. He shuddered to think what Remus and Tonks would think of him for not looking harder.

It wasn’t as if he hadn’t tried. But Riddle had been oddly keen to absorb parentless toddlers into the New World Order, as if he saw them as kindred wretches. They were treated preciously. If Teddy was lucky, Harry thought, he was dead. If he was still alive, he would be one of the generation of brainwashed children who had been taught to believe Tom Riddle was some sort of universal father, whose word was law and gospel, and who had been trained from birth to defend their One True Lord even at the cost of their own lives.

Apparently, even Hogwarts had twice daily prayer sessions devoted to worshipping the Dark King these days.

Harry knew the fanaticism this inspired all too well. It had accounted for the first life had taken outside of a combat situation.

He and Neville had been meeting with Narcissa Malfoy, but Harry had been on edge for the entire time. He was sure their privacy wards had been breached, but he couldn’t find the source. And it was too late to cancel. So he met with Narcissa, conducted the usual exchange of intelligence, then returned quickly to Neville, who had been watching proceedings like a sniper from a nearby rooftop.

But Neville hadn’t been alone. A young wizard had snuck up on him, and was about to curse him from behind. Harry responded with his Chain Incendio Charm, which he’d been itching to try out. The wizard gasped in shock as the fireballs passed through his skinny body, then Harry gasped as he watched him fall to the floor, quite dead.

For the wizard was no more than a boy…and still wearing his Hogwarts Hufflepuff Robes. Harry would later learn he was only fourteen.

He swatted the memory away. It was turning the air of the sitting room so cold he could see his breath as steam rising before him. Sir David Pincott and Patrick O’Brien were exchanging worried glances. They knew better than to press Harry on his moods, but both were dressed for Summer…and Harry was causing ice crystals to form on their eyebrows.

Hermione frowned at him from the other end of the couch. “Harry…stop whatever it is you’re doing this instant!”

Harry stared at her, confused. “Eh?”

“It’s freezing in here!” she said. “And I know it’s your doing. What’s wrong? What are you thinking about?”

Harry looked down shamefully and commanded the air of the house to return to normal. “Sorry…I didn’t realise…”

Hermione tossed aside the copy of the Prophet she’d been scowling at, and slid along the couch to Harry’s side. She moved so close that when she spoke only Harry could hear her.

“What is it?” she asked gently, snaking a soothing hand up his arm to his shoulder.

She couldn’t be this close. Harry would have to stop her doing it. He lost the power to think clearly when she was. But he couldn’t imagine a more repugnant idea than pushing her away. She was making him weak and silly.

“It’s nothing, forget it,” Harry returned avoidantly. He added, in a queerly strained voice, “I’m sorry. Look, the temperature is back to normal.”

Hermione scrutinised him. “But you’re not. Do you want to take a walk?”

Yes he did. Very much. Because Hermione’s idea of a walk these days was to get lost somewhere in the grounds, quite out of sight, where she could strip him of his shawl and kiss him senseless till they were both out of breath and shivery with passion. Harry was mindless at the very suggestion. But he was going to have to resist on this occasion. They were accumulating intelligence and, unfortunately, going off for a quick roll in the haystacks would just have to wait. 

Seriously, Tom Riddle was such a cunt.

Harry took a calming breath. “No. I’m fine. We need to carry on looking.”

And they really did. Days had passed since the venture to Glastonbury, since the discovery of Luna’s abduction, along with who knew how many others. Harry could barely keep a cap on his insistent urge to race out and scour Britain for the culprits, and enact swift justice on them. He knew, without doubt, that if Hermione hadn’t been here to reign him in he would have done just that. He could almost convince himself that it was the sole reason she was so keen to lock her lips to his so often, so as to keep him from leaving.

It was easier to believe than the other reason…that she actually wanted to kiss him. That was still pretty much nonsense in Harry’s mind.

But he also knew he was lucky to just have her here. And not just for those mammoth kissing sessions he was growing so addicted to. She had always been his voice of reason, even in his wildest times. He had missed that without her. He looked back on his time with the ZGD, and the reckless dangers he undertook in Africa and the bleak recesses of Eastern Europe, and shifted uncomfortably with the memories.

Hermione would never have allowed any of it. The irony wasn’t lost on Harry, the dichotomy of it. It had made him who he was, the man finally good enough to protect her…but she would have killed him herself if he’d even suggested any of the things he’d done. He smirked at the notion. Harry was strong, powerful, fiercely independent. He owned the responsibility of taking care of everyone. He was covetous of it.

But he just loved the way Hermione wanted to protect him. It was his new favourite thing.

And it made him feel even more powerful. More determined to stay alive, so that Hermione might continue to care for him. This was, by far, the best thing about his life right now. He wouldn’t give it up for anything. He’d found power in runes and ritual, opened himself up to the natural magic of the world in alchemy and crystals, but nothing empowered him quite so much as his restless necessity to be good enough for Hermione. To have her worry about him, to soothe and salve him…it made him feel like someone special. It was like being blessed.

Harry wasn’t used to that. Hurt and pain were his bedfellows. His domain was more death than life, more ugliness than beauty. But Hermione was aggressively determined to reverse that. He wondered at her passion for it, looked himself in the mirror, which was a new marvel in itself, and questioned what he’d done to deserve it. It dispelled some of his inherent darkness.

But Hermione reprising her role as Voice of Reason in his head was probably keeping him alive right now. If the reports he was listening to from Patrick and Sir David were anything to go by. Without Hermione to guide him, Harry would have just charged off into the world to hunt for Luna, and straight into the waiting arms of his enemies.

For Tom Riddle, it seemed, had finally woken to Harry’s threat.

“Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, Avebury, all in total lockdown,” Sir David continued saying, now his lips had unfrozen.

“Death Eaters have been posted to every magical street from Kent to Country Antrim,” Patrick added. “We’ve had reports from our insiders with the Department of Magical Transport that every Floo is being monitored, tracking spells have gone up to record Apparition, and broomstick flight has been restricted to pre-determined corridors and heavily enforced, even tracked using satellites by wizards who have infiltrated Muggle Security Forces.”

“In short, Harry,” said Hermione, seriously. “Don’t even think about leaving the palace wards.”

Harry frowned at her. “I’m not just going to leave Luna to her fate. Surely, you can’t expect me to.”

“What I expect is for you to stay alive,” Hermione returned firmly. “It’s what Luna expects of you, too. She predicted this.”

“So Tom Riddle enforces Martial Law on Magical Britain and I’m supposed to sit here and watch him do it?” Harry retorted angrily.

“Yes, that’s exactly what you are going to do!” Hermione replied, facing down Harry’s ire. “He wants to lure you out. He’s playing on your goodness, your desire to help everyone. Don’t let him play you so easily.”

Harry huffed in frustration. He knew Hermione was right. It didn’t make things any better. He felt so useless, a ball of potential energy with nowhere to go for release. He wanted to cry out, to rant and rage. But Hermione stared at him crossly, so he mastered his anger and pushed it further into the well inside. She nodded her approval with a smile and he felt a little calmer.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I don’t want to row with you.”

“Oh, Harry!” she smirked. “That wasn’t a row. We have that to come. But at least making up will be interesting. I know what you want to do; you wouldn’t be you without that thoughtlessly reckless side. It’s part of your charm, really. But you have to know when to pick your fights and when to stay put. This is one of those times.

“I know how you feel – I want to run and rescue Luna, too. But we have no idea where she is, or even if she’s still alive. Tom Riddle knows you will surface to help your friends. He has this power over you to draw you out. I have to exert my power over you to keep you in. And if you think I’m going to concede in a power struggle to that snake-botherer, then you really don’t know me at all.”

Patrick O’Brien laughed at that. “Merlin, Harry, she will make you a proper Queen. I think I might need to forge you a pair of crowns quite soon.”

Harry couldn’t help but exchange a grin with Hermione. He was going to offer a suitably witty retort when suddenly the door to the sitting room opened and Neville and Frank Longbottom came hurrying in. Curiously, they were carrying a Wizarding Wireless box, which they placed on the table in front of Harry.

Neville looked down gravely at Harry. “You might want to watch this. You too, Hermione.”

“What is it?” Harry asked, frowning

“I’ve been monitoring the communication channels,” said Frank. “Its just the standard crap about you for the most part, preparing the population for the worst. But then, a few minutes ago, the news network announced a press conference. I thought you might be interested to hear what the speaker has to say.”

Frank flicked the box on. A three-dimensional image rose from the top of the box, as if from a Pensieve. There was a podium, a large crowd, and a familiar face standing as if about to orate a great speech. Hermione jumped into Harry’s arms on terrified reflex. She was practically in his lap, shivering with fear. Harry slipped his arms around her and held her as tight as he could, threading his fingers through her hair and trying his best to offset Hermione’s terror. He relaxed his mind and opened up his magic to her.

“Give me your fear,” he commanded in whisper.

“No, you have enough of your own,” she stammered back.

“That wasn’t a request,” Harry replied firmly. “Quieten your mind…open up to me. I don’t want to violate you, but you are not being afraid of him in my presence.”

Harry felt Hermione concede, Slowly, tentatively, he edged his energy towards hers, then touched it gently. Outside of ritual this was ridiculously intimate. It was almost too tender to touch like this. Hermione made the briefest move to recoil, but Harry held her firm. She turned fully into his body and embrace, burrowed her head into the crook of his neck and just gave in to him. For a moment, it was the most wonderful feeling. Harry narrowed his perception of the world to just them, the space they inhabited. A narrow envelope of bliss.

Then he felt the absolute panic on her surface.

And Harry was unrelenting in his response. He took it with his mind and ripped it from her, as though tearing away a plaster. The shock would be minimised that way. Hermione inhaled sharply as her fear went, then swooned and rubbed her body to Harry’s, as he pushed his most positive healing power into her. Her fingers were dancing at his throat and she seemed to be nibbling his ear.

But Harry was too busy compartmentalising the fear he’d absorbed from Hermione to truly notice, or enjoy it. He’d been afraid in his life, too many times to be healthy. He’d heard fear, seen it in others. But never, not once in his myriad of macabre experiences, had he felt anything quite as complete and horrifying as this. It punched him all over, permeated every pore and piece of sense he possessed like a virus. But, in opposition to this, rose his own anger, his fury. More than a match, a destructive defender. He stared at the source of Hermione’s mind-numbing fear, let that anger course through him, as he focused on the head he would one day tear off.

And the red hair he would set on fire first.

For the image of Ron Weasley was now before them, enlarged and prominent as the camera focused on him. What that meant, that he could inspire such intense fright in Hermione just by being there, stirred something so corrosively ugly in Harry’s heart that he felt tainted a moment. Harry held his connection to Hermione steady, channelled new waves of fear from her into himself, feeding that constant battle inside him. It gave his anger focus, stopped it exploding out and breaking things.

Ron looked different. He hadn’t aged well. There was something unspeakably dark in the lines of his face, a dull tint to his hair, which was slicked back and held in a ruler-straight pony tail to his waist by an onyx hair clasp. Without feeling it, Harry couldn’t be sure, but there was something senselessly cold about Ron’s expression. He would have easily believed him to be missing part of his soul.

But he shrugged it off. Harry wouldn’t allow that to be an excuse for his abuse of Hermione. After all, Ron had never needed one before. He had callously and fragrantly insulted her, belittled her, reduced her to tears with only the barest of effort. He was a master at it. He didn’t need to have split his soul to become even worse.

He was just that big a cunt.

Then he started speaking. And his voice was just as cold as his eyes.

“This is an appeal,” he began theatrically. “On behalf of a worried and grieving husband to a lost wife.”

Hermione sat up angrily. And spat at the image.

“As has been reported in the press in the last few days,” Ron went on. “My loving wife, Hermione, has been missing for several weeks. I have, as you can imagine, been beside myself with worry. I feared the worst. Now, thanks to the efforts of our exalted Lord Voldemort, I know that even my worst fears were not terrible enough to encompass the truth.

“The rumours, the whispers…I’m sure you’ve heard them all. Harry Potter, the Great Traitor…has returned.”

Ron waited dramatically as his audience broke out in hushed voices.

“Well, friends, I can tell you now…this is true,” said Ron. The crowd erupted in angry cacophony. He held his hands up for silence. “But this truth is not the whole story. For Harry Potter has not returned as a man, but as an abomination. Raised from the dead by archaic and illegal ritual rites, obsessed with what fragments of his old life his warped brain can remember. His fruitless fight against our dear Lord…his infatuation with my own wife. That’s why he resorted to kidnapping her, holding her hostage, exposing her to his unnatural brutality. Brutality, friends, demonstrated in his savage attack on the good people of Glastonbury this past week.”

Ron waited for the angry mob to crow again, milking it a minute. Then Ron resumed. “I am here before you to make a vow, and a plea. On behalf of our exalted One True Lord – know you are safe. But also know that to take up arms against Harry Potter is the duty of every good citizen. Information on him, his whereabouts, or his followers will be greatly rewarded by our Lord Voldemort himself.

“As for my plea, I direct this to Harry himself. Please, do not harm my loving wife. Hand her back to me in one piece and you will be spared, and returned to damnation in a respectful ceremony. To his supporters – if you join us, and bring my wife back to me, you will be welcomed back into civilisation as heroes, and made as rich as you can dream. I have on my wrist a watch, made by a prestigious Muggle company called Casio. It has a little calculator on it, enabling you to do maths in your palm! Priceless item in the Muggle world. I also have a jar of air from the top of Ben Nevis – I couldn’t possibly put a price on that, either. For the return of my wife, you may have one of those things.”

At that point, Hermione leapt up and kicked the Wireless set over. Harry gasped in shock as their connection was abruptly broken. But Hermione was fuming, flushed with roiling fury. Her eyes were flashing dangerously, her lips pursed and a throb was pulsing at her temple.

“A fucking Casio watch!” Hermione yelled. “A jar of fucking air…that’s my value is it?…oh my God, Harry…I am going to rip his cock off and shove it up his arse!”

Harry fought very hard not to laugh as Hermione shrieked and stomped around. “You know, Casio watches aren’t all that bad…”

Hermione bulged her eyes dangerously at him. “Don’t you…don’t… just, just don’t!”

Harry stifled a chortle in his throat. Thankfully, Hermione was spitting in her fury and didn’t catch it. “Sorry, that was just the kind of humour us zombies go in for.”

Hermione turned to him, a smirk tugging at the corners of her mouth. She visibly calmed under Harry’s gaze and soon, she too struggled against a grin. “A Casio calculator watch, though…”

“When I cut his arm off, I’ll give it to you for a birthday present,” said Harry, lightly. Then he turned to the rest of the room. “Anyone here considering turning me in?”

“I’ve never been to Ben Nevis,” said Patrick, thoughtfully. “I’ll stay loyal for the jar of air.”

Harry chuckled. “I’ll give you the fucking mountain when I win, if that’s what it takes.”

“Ah, Harry lad, now that’s my sort of deal!” said Patrick. “Consider me bribed.”

Harry turned to Neville. “Any ideas of going rogue on me?”

Neville hummed as he considered it. “Enola might enact the revenge on me that Hermione has in store for Ron. Nah, I think I’ll give it a miss. I like my cock where it is, thanks.”

“And so do I,” said Enola, entering the room with Alison on her shoulder. “What are you boys talking about in here?”

“Nothing serious, hun,” said Neville, smoothing his daughter’s wispy hair. “Only Harry being a murderous zombie and Hermione having the monetary value of an eighties wristwatch.”

Enola grinned. “The usual, I see. How much are you worth then, Min?”

Hermione smiled fully now. Harry felt it take his breath away. She was stupidly beautiful. “Oh, about thirty-three percent of fuck all, in today’s money.”

Harry laughed as Hermione flopped down beside him in a huff. “Don’t let him get to you. He’s trying to get a rise out of you, that’s all.”

“Well its working!” she shrieked in reply. “Harry…I’m going to have to take something from you…the role of killing Ron. I’m taking ownership of it, right here, right now.”

Harry looked at her seriously. “Don’t make a vow like that, Hermione. In this place, the way the magic is, it will be an actual bond.”

Hermione’s expression went stony. “Then I say it again. I, Hermione Jane Granger, am going to kill Ronald Bilius Weasley. I will permit Harry James Potter to hurt, maim, de-limb and otherwise royally fuck up said Ronald Bilius Weasley, but the final act of killing that fucking wanker will fall to me. I swear it, in front of all these witnesses.”

Harry inclined his head and conceded to her. He took her hand in his own and looked up pointedly at Neville and Enola, who each placed a hand over Harry and Hermione’s interlocked fingers and drew their wands.

“I, Neville Longbottom, do bear first witness to, and seal, this vow.”

He drew a silver line around their hands with his wand. He nodded at his wife.

“I, Enola Longbottom, do bear second witness to, and seal, this vow.”

Enola’s whitewood wand traced Neville’s silver line in the opposite direction to which he’d drawn, turning it gold. The magic settled over them like a spring mist. Harry saw Hermione close her eyes and breath deeply as she accepted the spell into herself, and the responsibility she’d avowed to. Neville and Enola withdrew their hands as the golden line of magic faded into their respective skins. Hermione opened her eyes, steely and determined and brown as freshly tilled earth.

Harry leaned in. And he whispered. “I hope the next vow we make like this isn’t quite so morbid.”

Hermione smiled warmly at him. “It wont be…but I’ll mean it just as much.”

Harry held her gaze and shuddered. His mind drifted to that cluster of silver nuggets in his alchemy closet. Maybe he’d sneak out to his forge tonight. He had something he needed to craft.

* * *

Hermione was sat on the toilet for at least half an hour. She was so afraid to look at the little Muggle device in her hand that she was frozen in place, unable to move. The cubicle of the restroom of Leaky Cauldron was frightfully small, but it encapsulated her feelings of being trapped almost callously well. She felt enclosed on all sides, the world heaving in on her as she sat stock still, with her knickers round her ankles.

And it was no better outside.

“If that strip turns blue, I’ll kick you in the stomach myself.”

“You’re so not helping, Sue,” Hermione retorted angrily.

“You’ll thank me for it later,” said Susan, tapping her foot on the stall door. “Come on. If we don’t hurry up, people will think we’re going down on each other in here.”

“What?!”

“Don’t sound so scandalised,” said Susan. “I’ll have you know I’m a very good shag, when I want to be. Before Blaise forced me down the aisle, I was fighting the wizards off. Witches, too, if you must know.”

“Really?” asked Hermione. She’d always suspected Sue was partial to a bit of fanny. She stood just a little too close when they shared communal showers after the gym or swimming club. This just confirmed it.

“Merlin, yes,” said Sue, her tone dreamy. “Before Jenny made an honest witch out of Sally-Anne, me and Miss Perks used to have some very intimate girls nights in at our flat, if you know what I mean. She was a part time rep for Ann Summers, did you know?”

“Of course,” said Hermione, still marvelling at the revelations. “Where do you think I got my Rampant Rabbit from? Not exactly two-a-knut on Diagon, are they?”

Susan chuckled. “I probably test ran that one. Sally and me used to have some seriously steamy sessions with her merchandise. Quality control, you know? Did you get one with an anal attachment?”

“Susan! Honestly!”

“What?” Sue replied, unabashed. “Gotta have a little bum play for it to be any fun. Not even a little tickler on the underside?”

“I am not having this conversation with you right now,” said Hermione, blushing despite the cubicle door between them.

“If you insist. But Min, really, you’re missing out…”

“I’m having a slight panic attack here,” said Hermione, shrilly. “This really isn’t helping.”

“Maybe, if you’d played Ron a little better, this minor mishap might not have happened.”

Hermione scoffed. “I can just about not top myself, having to endure the two-and-a-half minutes of missionary, and two inches of Ron, I have to put up with every month,” she spat. “I am not encouraging more positions, definitely not offering more holes. For fucks sake, Sue. You’re supposed to be supporting me here!”

“I am,” said Sue. “I’m just saying. I never let Blaise finish in any part of me that might lead to babies. I think I’d rather slit my throat than bear his spawn.”

“That attitude will get you killed,” said Hermione, warningly.

Sue huffed outside the door. “Well, its not as if you’re exactly thrilled that Ron might have knocked you up.”

Hermione shuddered at the notion. I’m not pregnant, I’m not pregnant. I cast the Contraceptive Charm soon enough…

“Anyway,” Sue went on. “I though your Bedding Rite was only carried out last week. Why the fuck did you sleep with him again before you had to?”

Hermione sucked in a breath, and swallowed at the memory. She reached into her bag on instinct to touch up the make-up covering her black eye. Susan was three sheets to the wind from pre-drinks before they’d even met that night. She hadn’t noticed so far…

“It wasn’t by choice.”

Susan stopped her foot tapping. Hermione could hear the tone of her breathing change. It was rapid, angry now.

“Min…did he…did he hurt you?”

Hermione gave a mirthless chuckle. “He isn’t big enough to hurt me, Sue. My Rabbit has helped me with that.”

“But he did force you?” Susan asked, gently.

Hermione sighed. “You know he pretty much always forces me, if I haven’t just given in first.”

“Min…open the door.”

Hermione stood, reluctantly. She raised a shaking hand, and looked at the pregnancy test she was holding..and took a happy, relieved breath. It was negative. She smiled broadly, then pulled her underwear and jeans up. Then she unlocked the door.

And screamed in terror. For Ron was standing before her, holding Susan’s severed head in his hand.

“Bitch! You think I’ve forced you before…get over that cistern!”

Hermione screamed again and woke, kicking and screaming against the confines of her quilt, which were pinning her in. She was stupefied by sleep, still held by the potency of the nightmare. Her nightie was soaked in sweat. Her mind was so shaken she couldn’t get her bearings. She was lost, afraid, and shaking from the cold engulfing her.

There was a swirl of air nearby, then she was being scooped up into strong, protective arms. And hugged so tightly, so lovingly, she couldn’t breathe for it. Waves of adoring energy were flowing into her, making her giddy with happiness…and turning her rumbling fear into animalistic lust. She turned her head and bit wantonly into the flesh she found there, nibbled at a downy-haired nipple, grazed her teeth against the solid muscle of a chest so familiarly scented…

“Harry!”

“It’s alright…sshhh…I’m here….ssshhh, now…it’s alright…”

Damned fucking Merlin it was alright! Harry was naked to the waist, cradling her in his surprisingly strong arms. Hermione played up being still in the throes of anguish, nuzzling her head against the exposed skin of his torso. He was astonishingly solid, built far more powerfully than she had imagined. She thrilled at that. For some reason, she’d figured all his power was in his magic alone. How wrong she was! Harry was not athlete-muscle, but he was toned, defined. Hermione’s lust threatened to overwhelm her.

“I know you’re feeling better,” Harry teased sultrily. “You’re a terrible actress.”

Hermione sat up and blushed. “Harry…you’re so fit.”

Harry frowned at her. “No need to sound so surprised…”

“Sorry,” said Hermione, quickly. “I just didn’t think…”

“That I took care of myself?” asked Harry. “I got into the habit in Germany. Dietmar was an Olympic-level demon on the gymnastic rings. Built like a brick shithouse. I’m too sinewy for that. But I get my wiry ass as trim as I can. I cheat, obviously. Through mediation and yoga rituals. But it works.”

“Fuck me, does it! And then some!” Hermione swooned. She traced a finger down Harry’s chest, grinning at the trail of goosebumps she caused. She looked up lustily. “Ticklish?”

“Hermione, just touching your hair gives me a semi-on,” Harry breathed back. “You don’t even want to know what that’s doing!”

“Then let’s do something about it…”

Her fingers traced the drawstring of Harry’s pyjama bottoms. The air was thrumming with dense energy. It caused the petals of Hermione’s flowers to wilt. Then Harry snatched out, grabbing her hand firmly, stopping her.

“No…not after something like this,” he said, strongly but breathily. Hermione’s loins mewled in frustration, a sound that reached her throat. She tried to reach lower again. But Harry was determined. He eased her hand back up, firmly but gently. “I said no. Now, tell me what happened? Why did you scream?”

Hermione huffed, slightly angrily. Why would Harry come to her rescue like this, in the middle of the night, in her bed, if he wasn’t going to see it through? He sensed the rise in her ire, and backed away, easing his grip on her.

“I’m sorry, Hermione,” he said quietly. “I just don’t want it like this. It feels wrong…you’ve had it wrong so much…”

Hermione felt her heart bleed, it took her anger with it. Her heart pulsed with such love for Harry in that moment…she couldn’t have articulated it if she’d tried. “Oh, Harry…is that what this is?”

Harry looked down shyly, and picked at the corner of the quilt. “Yeah, it is. I want you so badly, Hermione…you have to believe that. But I don’t want any part of it to be bad…for you…when it happens. Not during, not after… and certainly not before. I’m not going to do this to cheer you up, or make you forget a nightmare about Ron. ‘Cause that’s what this was, isn’t it?”

Hermione sighed. “It wasn’t a real nightmare, not like the last one. But Ron was in it, yes. He’s just on my mind, or my nerves, after what we saw today, that’s all.”

Harry looked at her, dark rage stirring behind his eye. “I felt how much he frightens you. Is it always like that? Has it been that way for years?”

Hermione nodded sadly. “Ever since my wedding night.”

Harry snatched out at her, drawing her so close, so emotionally close, that their magic collided. Then, something really odd happened.

Every nuance of their individual magic seemed to reach out for the others’.

They both felt it, looking at each other in utter astonishment. And both reflected a breathless shiver that passed through them. They were powerless against what was happening. Harry gave to it first, somehow Hermione felt that. As though the subconscious part of her mind, connected to her magic, felt Harry’s submission. Hermione gave in as instantly as she could in response.

And then their magic touched, entwined, practically fused them in the moment.

Hermione had forgotten how to breathe. Her heart was racing, her entire body fluttering. Her stomach was doing cartwheels and her knickers were so damp there was a trickle of moisture tickling down her inner thigh. And she could feel something very firm and solid, quite different from Harry’s solid body elsewhere, lodged against the side of her leg. Her eyes widened as she assessed the dimensions, only partially pressed into her thigh. And an astonished thought hit her.

She was going to need a bigger boat.

Harry was looking guilty and ashamed. He tried to move away. Hermione snatched him back.

“Dont you even dare!” Hermione breathed. “We wont do anything, Harry…but you can still hold me. You can let me feel that.

Harry glanced awkwardy at her. He seemed scared, lost in a new and frightening world. He looked unspeakably vulnerable. Hermione couldn’t qualify his look with the new, powerful man she was falling so deeply, so badly, in love with. His body tensed, his eye fluttered with fear.

“I…I can do that…I think.”

And he did, warm and firm. Hermione was half mindless at the embrace. She’d never felt as close to Harry, as though broken through his most delicate of boundaries, as she did now. She was fiercely keen not to spook him, having got this close, this intimate. She was shyly astonished at the situation. She’d been abused, been raped, been exposed to the sexual deviancy of a Death Eater in Ron Weasley. But Harry was the reticent one, the one fearful in the face of her. It was so fundamentally backward. Hermione struggled to process it.

“Harry…I love you.”

It was all she could think to say, to make him feel better.

But Harry had stopped breathing at her words. His body had tensed as if under curse. But he was so close she could see his pulse hammering in his neck, his throat full from dry shock. He just didn’t know how to respond to Hermione’s oddly-timed declaration. She watched him, waiting for a response, then understanding immediately that he was utterly incapable of anything of the sort.

Because, as Hermione realised with a sob, Harry had never been told he was loved before.

She caught him before he broke down, dragging him into the most loving hug she could muster. Harry just fell into her shoulder and cried. And cried. Hermione held him close and let him. Feeling each heave of his chest, each wave of unbridled emotion, as if Harry had made them just for her. They weren’t tears of sadness, but of joy. Joy Harry didn’t think he was owed, but for which Hermione couldn’t imagine anyone more worthy.

And she hugged him with everything she had just to tell him so. Harry just throbbed in her arms, responding physically, as words had failed him. Hermione felt her essence melt into Harry’s. He need never return her words, for she knew unequivocally that he felt the same. But Harry was nothing if not a master of his weaknesses.

“I love you, too.”

Hermione was sent so light-headed she might have fainted. She had never heard any words spoken with more sincerity. And Harry was saying them to her. She began to cry, too. For she had forgotten what it was to feel loved, herself. She was overwhelmed by the sensation, the immense joy it inspired, something she’d believed was long lost to the world. But here it was, flowing back and forth between Harry’s heart and her own, warm and renewing and just the most intensely lovely thing in existence.

Hermione smiled through her tears. “Will you shag me now?”

Harry laughed and pulled her close. “Hermione…I’d last about twelve seconds! You deserve so much more.”

“But what a twelve seconds they’d be!” Hermione giggled, clutching so hard at Harry’s chest she might have been trying to crush him. “Seriously, Harry…you cant keep me waiting like this. I might explode.”

Harry chortled. “You can still do transfiguration, can’t you? Be imaginative.”

Hermione scoffed in response. “If I wanted a dildo, Harry, I’d knock on Ann’s door. She has loads, apparently. I’m holding out for the real thing.”

“Tonight’s not the night,” said Harry. “It’s not just your nightmare…the palace has a weird air about it tonight…”

Just then, Sally popped into view. She looked curiously at Hermione, and Harry half-naked next to her. She covered her eyes.

“Ah, Lady Hermione, you awake, good,” said Sally. “You friend, Miss Sue, be waking. Lady Longbottom thought you should know. Master Harry…put some clothes on!”

Hermione blushed, but Harry just shrugged at her. “Sally, can you take Hermione to the infirmary to see Susan? I’ll just get dressed and join you there.”

“Getting dressed be for the best, Master Harry,” said Sally. “Your boobies be showing!”

Harry laughed. “I’m not ashamed of my baby A’s, Sally. But, you’re right. I’ll make myself decent.”

And with that, he Apparated away. Sally took her hand from her eyes, and looked at Hermione with a scandalised expression.

“Lady Hermione!” she admonished. “It not be your wedding night, or anything!”

Hermione giggled. “I don’t think I can wait that long, Sally. But nothing happened tonight, I promise.”

“Didn’t look like nothing…”

“I’d just had a nightmare,” said Hermione. “Harry was trying to make me feel better. He loves me, do you know?”

“World and his dog be knowing that, Lady Hermione,” said Sally off-handedly. “Yous must be the last to know.”

“But isn’t it wonderful?” said Hermione, dreamily.

“Lady Hermione make Master Harry smile,” said Sally. “That not be wonder…it be miracle. But Lady Hermione be needed downstairs. Up, now, and we go.”

Hermione obeyed the command, rising from bed and grabbing her dressing gown, before Sally spirited them to the infirmary.

The scene inside was something of chaos. Enola’s mother, Arianwen, was trying to calm Susan, who was thrashing about in something of a panic. There were two other, older witches, who Hermione had never met, standing with their wands ready nearby, in case Sue got so bad she needed sedating. Enola was on the other side of the bed with Cassie, who was holding a potion vial in her hand.

“Get it out! Get it out of me!”

Susan was screeching in angry torment. Hermione was shocked at the vitriol of her tone. She caught Enola’s eye, and Neville’s wife coaxed her forward with a look.

“Sue! Sue! It’s me! It’s Minny.”

Susan froze instantly as Hermione reached her, looking at her in utter disbelief.

“M-Min…is that really you?” Susan stammered.

“Does it feel like me?” asked Hermione, darting in and giving Susan a bone-crunching bear hug, only matched in terms of intensity by the one she received in return.

“It is you! I’d know those perky tits anywhere!”

“For fucks sake, Sue!” Hermione laughed.

“Harry told me you were alive…I didn’t believe it,” said Sue. Then she gasped out loud. “Fuck me, Min…Harry Potter is alive!! Do you know? Have you seen him? You must have, he said you were here…wherever this is…”

“I have seen him. Only really close up,” said Hermione, smirking as she drew away.

Susan gaped at her shrewdly. “What exactly does that mean?”

“It means that she knows the texture of his tongue just as well as the contours of his forehead,” said Enola, grinning.

Hermione blushed and glowered at her. “How do you know? Harry and I are always really discreet…”

“Oh come on, Min,” said Enola. “Do you really think that Harry goes anywhere in the house or grounds where he isn’t monitored? We take it in turns watching the soft-core porn shows you two put on. Hot as fuck, by the way. Just saying. If you ever fancy a third wheel…

“In any case, the house practically ignites when you two go for one of your walks…seriously, Cassie, here, came the other day just from being too dense to run outside when you two vanished into Harry’s secret copse…”

Cassie blushed. “Guilty as charged. Fuck me, I need to get laid. More than Ennie here…and that’s saying something.”

Enola frowned at her. “Nev’s just having some stresses right now…being a Daddy affects men differently…”

Hermione cocked her head curiously at Enola, who looked away with a deep flush. Hermione shook the inference off for now, but she knew good potion that might help…

Speaking of potions, Cassie was tying to offer one to Susan. “This is just a Calming Draught. It will help, I promise.”

Susan looked questioningly to Hermione for guidance. Hermione nodded at her to accept the potion, which she then took and downed. Then she turned back to Hermione.

“So…Harry Potter is back from the dead…and you’re fucking him already? Good work, Min!”

“Harry and I aren’t sleeping together,” Hermione corrected.

“Yet,” Enola quipped. “But the wedding night cant be far off.”

Susan’s eyebrows nearly took off. “Wedding night?”

Hermione shook her head. “Enola, here, likes to exaggerate.”

“I do not,” Enola returned, mildly affronted. “But if you want to suggest a different explanation for Harry disappearing off to his forge earlier – with only enough metal in his pockets to make a little object like, oh, I don’t know…a ring – then I’m all ears.”

Hermione’s eyebrows joined Sue’s on the ceiling. Enola just hooted a laugh at her. Hermione couldn’t right her racing mind at that. It was crazy, it was nuts…it was…it was…what was it? She couldn’t focus. The image was just too insane, but so wonderful at the same time. Her heart wanted to take flight. The thought of Harry, out in the middle of the grounds, forging a wedding ring for her, loving her with every chink of his hammer, promising her his love in the band he was making….it swept her breath away.

She tugged hard at the infernal piece of ugly copper that was on her finger already. It was so in the way. There had to be some way to remove it. For if, in some mental reality, Harry proposed, got down on one knee and offered her the ring he had so caringly made, then she would accept so readily, so joyously that she would implode with the frustration at not being able to wear the piece of jewellery that announced it to the world. But the other ring would make that exact thing happen.

And she had never hated Ron more acidically than she did right then. She was quite convinced no human being had ever hated another quite as much as she hated Ronald Weasley in that instant.

But she was about to be given stiff competition.

For Sue was talking again, quite lucid under the influence of Cassie’s powerful calming draught.

“So…you’re saying its too late to stop it? I’m stuck with it? You cant get it out?”

“No. You’re too far gone,” said Arianwen, stepping forward to field the question.

Sue huffed and nodded. “I see.”

“What’s going on?” asked Hermione.

“We’ve conducted extensive tests on your friend,” said Arianwen. “And its quite certain…she is with child.”

Hermione gasped. Sue had lost all colour from her face. She looked the grey of day-old porridge.

“Oh…Sue!”

I don’t want it, Min,” she breathed. “But its too late to stop, apparently. I have that fuckers’ spawn kicking me as we speak. Like father, like son.”

She laughed heartlessly.

“Sue…I…we can…oh, Sue…I don’t know what to say!” Hermione stuttered.

“We should be thankful,” said Arianwen. “If it wasn’t for the amniotic fluid from the womb…we may never have a forged a potion potent enough to heal your wounds.”

“Yeah, I’m really grateful,” Susan replied, bitterly. She stood, and tried to walk away. Arianwen moved to stop her, protesting that she needed rest. Susan shrugged her off. “I’m stiff as a board…I just need to stretch my legs…”

Hermione saw what happened next in horrifying slow motion, but was unable to react to stop it. Susan limped to a table nearby, where a probe-wand was sat on a silver dish. In a quick movement, which defied her injuries, Susan pulled Cassie’s wand from her waistband, and transfigured the probe into a deadly, serrated-blade knife.

A knife she began angrily driving in and out of her belly.

The place descended into anarchy. Blood sprouted like a furious fountain from Susan’s vigorous stabbing. Hermione was frozen at the sight, held fast through shock and the assorted screams and cries issuing forth from everyone else. Cassie yelled, and tried to retrieve her wand, but that blade was very sharp. Enola pulled her friend back, then cried out for Susan to stop, as the other healers tried to move around behind her.

But Susan wouldn’t stop. Her eyes were manic, her ugly determination to destroy the life growing inside her was her only imperative. She was looking woozy. She had lost so much blood. It was everywhere. It was on Hermione. She tried to rub it off. But Sue just kept thrusting that huge blade into her womb. Someone had to stop her…

“Stupefy!

Harry’s spell knocked Sue clean off her feet and the knife fell to the floor with a clatter. He rushed forward and lifted her up, carrying her back to the bed. He cast healing spells so fast and so powerful that they caused a breeze in the room. It made Hermione’s hair stand on end. Enola joined him and soon their wands were almost like duelling chopsticks, doing all they could to repair the damage. After a few minutes, they stopped and drew breath.

Hermione edged forward, pressing close to Harry. “Is she…”

“She’ll live,” said Harry.

“But…the baby…the baby’s dead…” said Enola heavily. “There’s nothing we could do…”

Harry roared in frustration. Hermione wrapped her arms around him, pulling his back into her chest. Harry heaved in her arms, roiling in…something…Hermione couldn’t pick apart his emotions just then.

“It isn’t your fault, Harry,” Enola cooed soothingly. “You did your best…”

Don’t talk to him in that tone, Hermione thought jealously. It was her job to calm him. Enola needed to back off just now.

“Come on, Harry,” said Hermione, turning him. “Let’s get out of here.”

“I’m sorry, Hermione,” Harry breathed. “I tried…”

“I know, and you were brilliant,” said Hermione. “As always. You saved Sue’s life.”

“But the baby’s…”

She took it,” said Hermione. “She didn’t want it, but she will have to deal with what she’s done. You just gave her the chance to do that.”

“If that had been you…with Ron…if you had tried…”

Harry tailed off, couldn’t finish the sentence. The images were just too distressing for him.

Hermione shuddered. “Have you been watching my dreams?”

“Don’t hate me…I just want to protect you,” said Harry lowly. “Ron can get in that way, I think. Its one of the spells we cant remove from you…I felt him invade you tonight.”

Hermione’s jaw fell open. Ron could invade her dreams? She felt dirty, violated. But at the same time, the idea that Harry was in her dreams too – in ways he wasn’t already – was insanely comforting.

“Harry – can you stop him?” Hermione asked. “Stop him doing that?”

“I could, in ritual,” said Harry. “But I kind of want to catch him in your mind…and fuck him up when I do. Besides, the ritual would be very…intimate.”

Hermione coiled her arms around him. She felt an ugly hope settle on her – she hoped Enola, and all the other bitches in the room – were watching their embrace.

“Harry – I want to be as intimate with you as I can possibly be,” said Hermione. “In every way that exists. I’m not afraid.”

“Are you sure? Its an intense rite. It takes 22 hours just to prepare the ritual space.”

“I’m absolutely certain,” said Hermione. “Set it up. Oh, Ennie…that’ll be the heads up you’ve been waiting for.”

Enola whooped. Cassie just swore, then sighed in defeat. “Fine…I’ll fetch my purse.”

* * *

Harry sat in front of the headstone and tried to bring order to his fractured mind. He might have been there for hours, days even. He’d lost any concept of time, could no longer track the passage of seconds and minutes as they ticked by. All he could focus on was the scene – the blood, the chaos…

…and the screams of the baby he couldn’t save.

They were haunting him, plaguing his mind, both waking and in sleep. At least, what little sleep he had managed in the past five days. He was listless, dazed, unable to snap himself out of this stupor.

Even his wand felt quiet. Usually, he was pointedly aware of his magical tool. It thrummed gently at his side, then ignited when he had need of it. But now, it felt dormant.

As though it, too, were guilty of failing the murdered infant. Its powerful carved runes silenced by the blood of the lost innocent.

Even Hermione’s soothing words had failed to soften the blow. She had tried so hard, bless her, to free him from his dark mood. To tell him that Susan didn’t want the baby, that her hatred of Zabini was so great that she, herself, should have seen the extreme reaction coming. She told him, over and over, it wasn’t his fault, there was nothing more he could have done.

But she couldn’t hear the screams…

For Harry had done something he never did in healing. He tried to use his own magic to save the child’s life. It was more intimate than simply using spells or runic casting. It used his own life-force to try and save another. It failed…but the brief connection he’d had to the little boy was so harrowing, Harry felt mentally damaged from the experience.

For the child had called out, in fear, in anguish, in intense pain. Begged for help, to be allowed to live. And Harry had tried with everything he had to provide that chance. But he hadn’t been good enough.

And when the child expired, Harry felt a little piece of himself die with it.

Or, at least, that was how it felt. Like having a hole in the heart. One no amount of cajoling from Hermione, or trying to see things from Sue’s perspective, seemed to touch for comfort. Harry felt wounded, broken, and desperate for any kind of respite from this restless misery.

Movement drew Harry’s attention just then and he reached for his wand on instinct.

“Don’t shoot…its just me.”

Hermione was trying to be light-hearted, but her heart wasn’t in it. Her tone betrayed that. Or maybe Harry’s bleak state of mind was radiating off him like a bad smell, infecting her, too.

Harry looked up as Hermione tentatively approached. “Hey.”

“Hey,” she repeated, sitting slowly at his side. “Still thinking about it?”

Harry breathed in heavily. “Yeah.”

Hermione nodded sadly. “Me too.”

“Suppose I’m just looking to my mother for guidance,” said Harry, his eye fixed on the headstone again. “For a way to deal with the loss of such an innocent life. But was it really so innocent, when it was made out of such hatred? From an act forced and negative? How have things come to this state?”

“Its the world Tom Riddle wants to cultivate, Harry,” said Hermione, gently. “One where fear and hate are the norm. One you and I are going to tear down and burn.”

Harry’s heart stirred at that. “How’s Sue? I hear she came round this morning.”

“Oddly, she seems fine,” said Hermione. “She doesn’t have one ounce of remorse. Its chilling, in a way. But she might still be in shock over everything. It will sink in one day.”

“I’ve arranged for her to have a room in the North Wing, near the roundtower. Its quiet in that part of the palace. I think she might need that while she comes to terms and tries to adjust. I’ve assigned Phebos, Rhian’s daughter, to look after her. She’ll be good with her fragility.”

“Thanks, Harry. That’s really kind of you.”

Harry nodded, but continued to just stare at the headstone. He might as well have been looking through it. His gaze was distant, his mind unable to focus on any one point. He sighed again.

“This has really cut to you, hasn’t it?” asked Hermione. She quested her hand towards his forearm. She seemed nervous again, as though not sure if she was still allowed to touch him. Harry wanted to assure her she still had permission.

Her touch was the only thing that calmed him right now.

Harry reached out and took her hands, threading their fingers together, hoping to communicate the message he didn’t have the words to convey. “It’s just…I came back to make this place a haven, to preserve life. This was the first death here. I don’t know…I suppose its just rocked me a little. The nature of it…the victim. I’m supposed to prevent things like this. Maybe I’m a little in shock…”

“Maybe you are,” said Hermione, smoothing the back of Harry’s palm with her thumb. “But you couldn’t have prevented what happened. Sue was determined…if she hadn’t done it then, it would have happened later. And at least you were able to save her life, Enola too.”

Harry turned his head to look in her face. “You were jealous of her.”

He framed the words half-questioningly, as though genuinely astonished at them.

“How could you tell?” Hermione asked.

“You mood swung like a pendulum,” said Harry. “It was like a rancid spear passing through me. Why are you jealous of Enola?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Hermione huffed. “Aside from the fact that she’s goddess-level beautiful and sexy as fuck, she has this personal connection to you that I know little about, nor share my own version of with you. I know you have your secrets, Harry, and that she’s married to Neville. But there’s a way she looks at you, and the way you look back. You have a past together that I know nothing about…and I don’t like it.”

“Enola and I are beyond friends,” said Harry tiredly. “I’ve explained that to you. You’re just going to have to trust that while, yes, she’s important to me, nobody in the whole damned world is more important to me than you. I don’t know how else to say it.”

“Will you ever explain why you’re so close to her?”

“One day,” Harry promised. “But my own issues are wrapped up in the story. It will be a hard one for me to tell. My darknesses go deep, Hermione. Just know that, without Enola’s help, I may never have taken the first steps to climb out of the well they created, and that she made personal sacrifices of her own as part of that assistance. We bonded through them. But, seriously, she isn’t a threat to you.”

Hermione scoffed. “A woman that gorgeous will be a threat to anyone.”

Harry chuckled. “There’s probably just as much of a chance of her sleeping with you as there is with me.”

“I wouldn’t be entirely against that idea,” Hermione teased sultrily, making Harry break out in goosebumps. “And she did offer…”

Harry frowned. “Its tempting, but I’m not having a foursome. Neville can keep his cock quite to himself, thank you very much!”

Hermione burst out laughing. It was the sweetest sound. It improved Harry’s mood no end.

“At the risk of steering the conversation back to the the morbid,” Hermione said, once she calmed down. “But I’ve been thinking…I was wondering if you’d be prepared to do me quite a weird favour. As I’m the love of your life, and everything.”

“You can bribe me with that anytime you like,” Harry grinned to her. “What do you need?”

“It’s not so much a need…” Hermione began. “Its just…my parents. I dont know what happened to them, where their remains ended up. I’d like to find them…maybe bring them here. Give them a proper burial? But if this is just for your family…”

“Your parents are my family,” said Harry firmly. “Or maybe, when I’m quite sure you aren’t going to realise the collossal mistake you’re making in being with me, I will make then my family. Posthumous parents-in-law, if you will”

Hermione gasped and simply stared at him, smiling. “Planning on making this arrangement permanent then, are you?”

“Hermione – I’m a King. I need a Queen. There’s only one woman who I want in that role, if she’s silly enough to consider me.”

Hermione leaned in and hugged Harry tightly. “In that case, your Queen would like you to find the ones who murdered her parents, kill them if they aren’t already dead, then find their bones and bring them here so we can bury them properly. Please.”

“Consider it done, my Lady,” said Harry. “I think a plot next to mum and dad would be nice.”

“How will you even find them?” asked Hermione.

“The round-ups had to have been organised, co-ordinated,” said Harry. “Your parents’ names must have been on a list somewhere. I assume they were deposited into one of the mass graves?”

Hermione paled, and nodded.

“There aren’t that many of them,” said Harry. “Each one must have been assigned an executioner, and someone to bury the bodies. Either way, we’ll find the culprits. And they’ll take your parents place in the ground.”

“If I ever forget to tell you, I really love your dark side,” Hermione swooned. “Well, I love all your sides, actually. But your dark one might be my favourite. Its easily the hottest.”

“Really?” Harry smirked. “Well, in that case, I’m feeling rather dark right now. Let’s take a walk…somewhere my parents wont see!”

Hermione giggled, then allowed Harry to lead her into the wilderness of the grounds, were he had every intention of leading her astray.

***

Harry disappeared for three whole days, which made Hermione very cross. He didn’t tell her specifically where he had gone, but she pretty much knew his intent. She’d asked him for something, and he was so insanely lovely that he wouldn’t rest until he’d delivered for her. She swooned at the very thought, until her intense misery at missing him kicked him and she started calling him names.

Enola started avoiding her after the second day. She had been a bit wary of her in any case, and Hermione wondered if Harry had told Neville’s wife about her rabid jealousy of her. Enola was a little cautious around her, careful to not provoke her rage about Harry being AWOL. But after Hermione started her ranting monologues about Harry, Enola stayed away lest she be the next target of Hermione’s ire.

So she became lonely very quickly. She helped Sue to settle into her new suite, and filled her in on all things Harry, but the touchy issue of Sue’s actions put an unspoken barrier between them. Sue seemed keen to steer the conversation towards Hermione and Harry’s sex life – which she refused to believe was confined to heavy petting at best – but it was all a fairly obvious front, an avoiding tactic to prevent confronting the horrors that had taken place in the infirmary.

Susan needed time, to be left alone, to properly process what had happened. Hermione gave her that space, but with Enola giving her space in return it left Hermione in something of a social black hole. But then, on the evening of the third day of Harry’s absence, Rhian popped into view in her bedroom with a new dress and a message.

“What’s that?” asked Hermione, pointing at the dress. It looked to be made of some sort of scaly leather.

“A battle-dress for yous,” said Rhian, proffering it to her. “Dragonhide for protection, chameleon skin to blend in.”

Hermione was suddenly taut. “And why would I need either of those things?”

“For yous be going out into the world tonight, Mistress Hermione,” said Rhian. “Master Harry be waiting for you. And he wants you to be safe.”

Hermione’s breathing changed. Harry was home? Since when? She didn’t feel the wards shift as she usually did when he returned.

“I didn’t notice Harry coming in,” said Hermione. “When did that happen?”

“Half an hour back, maybe less,” said Rhian. “He be very serious tonight. He keep his emotions under check. Come along, Mistress, best not leave Master Harry waiting.”

Hermione stood and allowed Rhian to help her change into the battle dress. She had noticed how the Head Elf had stopped calling her Lady, in favour of Mistress. That spoke quietly to her heart, but she barely heard it over the nervous way it was suddenly beating. The air of the house was very serious, Hermione only noticed it now. Perhaps she’d been in such a funk of a mood that she’d switched off her new perceptive ability.

But it was back on now, and Hermione shuddered as the low throb of energy settled on her. Harry was worried, she could sense that. She was attuning more and more to the feel of the house when he was around. It was wildly thrilling to tap into these energies so easily now. She didn’t think she could possibly get any closer to Harry, in any way bar physical, but every time she thought that, a new way cropped up. That was giddyingly thrilling, too.

And this was the latest one. But, tonight, Hermione was unsettled by it. Harry had never felt this serious, this alert. It was a sobering sensation. It was like he was mentally prepared for a fight, rather than the explosive anger that had spewed from him in Glastonbury. That night, Harry knew there was a possibility they’d run into trouble.

This time, he was absolutely certain they would.

And that irrefutable truth settled on Hermione like a lead apron. She took a rattling breath to calm her speeding nerves. She steeled herself as she considered her reflection in the mirror. This was war…this was what it was all about, how it felt. And she was Harry’s Queen….Queen’s didn’t show fear. She would hold her head up, hold her wand firm, and stand at Harry’s side. Stand at her man’s side, at her King’s side.

And they would fuck up any fool who dared threaten then.

She grinned at her reflection for comfort. Actually, she looked good. No, she looked better than good. The battle-dress was fit to form, and form had never been a problem for Hermione, since she’d filled out in her late teens. The dress needed to be able to move, but to protect her at the same time. She looked like Ann or Fan…a bad-ass bitch. She was pleased with herself.

“Good, it fits,” said Rhian. “Come Mistress, time be short.”

Rhian offered Hermione a hand and Apparated her to Harry, was who pacing around his Secret Copse. The fountain was softly sprinkling water, and moonlight tinted one side of the space. Harry was moving in and out of the shadows it threw. Hermione hurried to him, as Rhian popped away.

“Well, you’ve been gone way too long,” said Hermione as she reached him. She tugged up his shawl abrasively and planted a deep, full mouth kiss on him. Harry thrust his tongue forward first, before snatching his arms around her and smothering her in a passionate embrace. Hermione moaned into his mouth. He always left her senseless with the intensity of his kisses.

They broke apart for breath, which came in panting huffs to them both. Harry drew Hermione close to him. “You look fucking gorgeous tonight. That dress…oh my word…sex on a fucking stick!”

“I’ve missed you, too!” Hermione giggled into his shoulder, hugging him close. “Where have you been! And why have you got me all dressed up?”

Harry pulled her away, and dragged his eye up and down her frame several times. Hermione shivered pleasantly, despite the humid night. “Its getting you dressed down I’m thinking about! Seriously…I was in such a foul mood when I got home…but, this…phew! I haven’t got the words, hun.”

Hermione beamed, then pulled Harry back to her lips. He went without the barest of resistance.

“I don’t think I will ever kiss you enough,” she said breathily, as they eventually broke apart.

“As long as you don’t stop trying,” Harry grinned back. “But we do have some serious business to attend to tonight.”

Hermione took another steadying gulp of air. “Where are we going?”

“I’ve met with Narcissa Malfoy,” said Harry, guiding Hermione to one of the stone benches by the fountain. “She’s set up a meeting with the person who can help us find your parents. Tonight. Hermione…I don’t think I can be any more blatant about this…going out of the wards is going to be extremely dangerous. I…I took two more lives in the past few days. It was self-defence, but it is what it is. We are being hunted. You need to be prepared for that.”

Hermione scowled crossly. “You were attacked?”

“Yeah.”

“And you killed them?”

“I had no choice,” said Harry lowly. He looked cautiously in Hermione’s direction.

“I hope you mutilated the fuckers,” she said angrily. “How dare they attack you! Were you man or lion?”

“One of each,” Harry replied.

“Good. I hope whoever it was suffered.”

“Oh…that much is certain.”

“And, if we run into trouble tonight, don’t hold back on my account,” said Hermione forcefully. Then she aired a shame she’d been carrying for days. “I was rubbish in Glastonbury. I will be better for you, Harry, I promise.”

Harry looked at her, confused and startled. “Er…you saved my life by crushing someone’s entire bone structure! If that’s your idea of rubbish then I can’t wait for you to be good!”

“Oh, it will be a masterpiece of pain,” said Hermione. “Seriously, Harry, the idea of someone threatening you…it makes me crazed…worse than that…demonic.”

Harry laughed. “Then come, my little demon, we don’t want to be late.”

Harry stood, offered Hermione his hand, and they walked together to the edge of the wards and out into the world.

And Hermione felt like she’d been soaked by a bucket of ice. She sucked in a breath.

“They know we’re out, don’t they?”

Harry nodded. “Yes. But I’ve reconfigured the exit portal to deposit us miles away from the palace. They’ll never zero in on the place. Come on.”

“Where are we going?” asked Hermione, scurrying behind in Harry’s wake.

“A little country pub,” said Harry. “Its secluded, off the beaten track. We will have an hour at best till Riddle’s tracking teams locate us. Neville and Owain have been working on disrupting the charms on Magical Movement, but the spells are dense. Its a shot in the dark if we can be effective against them.”

“So that’s why we’re running cross country on foot?” Hermione smirked at him.

“Something like that,” Harry volleyed back with a grin.

Hermione continued to follow Harry. She didn’t feel at all afraid any more, despite the risk. Harry’s mere presence was just immensely protective. She was sure nothing could hurt her if Harry was nearby. It was a little exhilarating, to be defying the oppression she knew so well. She could almost bounce for the restless energy flowing through her. She didn’t think resistance would feel this good. If she had, she considered rationally, she might have butchered Ron in his sleep years ago.

That brought a dark smile to her lips.

They hurried on through the night for ten minutes or so. This really was an out of the way pub, wherever it was. Rural didn’t even touch the sides of the definition. Just as Hermione was about to question Harry’s judgement on their location, they came over the rise of a shallow hill and the pub emerged before them.

It was called The Skirrid Inn. It was an old coaching inn, complete with ancient stonework and a rusty sign, which swung in a light breeze with a satisfyingly atmospheric squeak. The courtyard looked like something from a ghost story. Hermione loved it, with its deep shadows and original cobblestone driveway. Inside, the inn was quaint and cosy. Warm, reddish light spread out from a faux-log-fire, which dominated a wall on the far side of a compact little lounge-bar. A handful of drinkers clustered around the bar and the small, circular tables crammed into the place.

Harry went to the bar and ordered an ale. He hadn’t had a decent pint in a while, and When in Rome, as they say. Hermione opted for a pink gin and lemonade. Her and Sue were practically connoisseurs when it came to Mother’s Ruin. They drank deeply, shamelessly. If Voldemort was coming for them, that was something to toast to. Harry turned to Hermione, smiling.

“This is good beer. One day, I’m going to take you out properly, without any of this crap hanging over us. And we’re going to get rat-arsed pissed! We’ll drag Nev and Ennie with us. It’ll be the biggest laugh! Honestly, they cant drink for shit. It’ll be so funny.”

Hermione laughed. “Consider it a date. Our first one.”

“That’s weird, isn’t it?” said Harry pensively. “Us…on a date. Would you ever have thought?”

“Only in dreams I’d never have dared tell you about,” Hermione confessed. “I proper fancied you back at Hogwarts.”

“Really?” Harry grinned, taking a swig of ale and leaning on the bar. “Why didn’t you ever say?”

“Same reason you never told me you liked me,” said Hermione confidently. Harry roared with laughter. Hermione felt the sound spill into her like an elixir. “I knew…but I was scared of it. How do you rock up to your crush at thirteen and tell them you’re obsessed with them?”

“A kiss? A cheeky bum pinch?” Harry offered. “I often thought about that.”

Hermione blushed and giggled. “You thought about me pinching your bum?”

“No! Me doing that to you!” Harry corrected. “Have you seen your arse? Its like a bloody peach. But you pinching mine would have been a nice gesture.”

Hermione hooted with laughter. This was weird…almost like a real date night. The most comfy one she could imagine. If she’d closed her eyes, she might have been able to block out the reality, to forget why they were really here. To think this was just a normal night out with her…whatever Harry was. What was he? It was a curious question. Boyfriend was too weak a definition, partner too vague.

Soulmate perhaps a little too idealistic. Or maybe not.

In any case, they were here together, in every sense, and that was all that mattered. But the reason for their being there had reared its head, and wouldn’t go away now it had.

“Who are we meeting, Harry?” Hermione asked in a whisper.

“That’s her, over in the corner,” said Harry, with a nod.

Hermione gasped. She knew the bespectacled woman staring at them. She was stunned to see her.

“Irma Pince? Madam Irma Pince?”

“It’s nice to see you also, Miss Granger,” said Madam Pince, as they sidled up to her table. “I’m glad you have managed to survive in these dark and insane times.”

“Harry,” said Hermione, looking confused. “I thought you said we were meeting with someone who knew where my parents’ remains ended up? How can the Hogwarts librarian do that?”

“Madam Pince was not just the librarian,” said Harry.

“No, indeed,” said Madam Pince. “I was also the Registrar of Hogwarts. I worked closely with Minerva McGonagall to locate and track magic-users who were eligible for scholarships to the school.”

“And so, there is no greater authority on magical background than Irma, here,” said Harry.

“Which is what led to my coercion by Lord Voldemort into his service,” said Madam Pince, her tone one of deep shame and sadness. “He threatened my family, tortured them, forced me to help him.”

“By doing what?” asked Hermione.

“By providing details of all non-Pureblood students and their families as far back as records were relevant,” said Madam Pince. She took a long slug of wine in her shaking hands. “I was weak, and selfish. Thinking only of my own. I do not ask for forgiveness, Miss Granger. I deserve none.”

Then she burst into tears, burrowing her head into her folded arms. Harry moved to comfort her. But Irma was beyond consolation.

“I-I’m responsible,” she hiccuped. “For so many deaths! I live every day in utter shame. I will have no afterlife. I will rot for eternity.”

And fresh tears flowed. Hermione’s heart broke at the sight. She smoothed the old librarian’s shoulder.

“It isn’t your fault,” she whispered. “Voldemort is an evil man. You could not have resisted him. None of us could.”

“But you can still do a little good,” said Harry. “Help us. Tell us how to find the ones who murdered Hermione’s parents.”

Madam Pince nodded, drying her eyes. She reached into her handbag and drew out a piece of crumpled parchment.

“I was able to find the death warrant for your parents, Miss Granger,” said Madam Pince. “Section Seven carried out the assassinations. They have always been keen on explicit record-keeping for their recruits. Death Count is actually part of the candidate specification on their job application form.”

Hermione felt a sliver of cold prickle over her skin. It was so callous, so calculated. Her parents had gone through this. She couldn’t envisage it. Anger pumped through her veins.

“They were murdered at the Abingdon Pit, just outside Oxford,” Madam Pince went on. “Agent Terry Boot was assigned the gruesome task. But…”

“But?” Harry asked.

Madam Pince swallowed hard. “A witness was always needed…for a positive identification. They were also required to check the bodies to make sure death was certain. They…they were offered all the wealth and assets of the deceased…as a form of compensation for their stresses.”

Hermione felt disgusted. A putrid sickness swirled in her belly. She tried to shrug off the nagging piece of knowledge she was trying to ignore…as if she knew what was coming.

“Let me see the warrant,” said Harry coldly. Hermione noticed his own anger flickering over his skin. He was flirting with turning golden, in matted fur. It was as if he already knew.

Madam Pince smoothed out the parchment with trembling fingers and slid it over to Harry. His eye dilated in unmitigated fury as it flashed over the words. Hermione edged around to read over his shoulder.

And her heart stopped.

Then she collapsed into her seat, as her worst horrors were confirmed. For there, at the bottom of the document, was a very familiar signature. One her own had once been forced next to on a very different piece of parchment…

The Rt. Hon Lord R. B. Weasley.

Hermione fought to control her incensed, unrelenting anger. It was coming in violent waves that she felt powerless to stop.

“H-h…he-he…Ron…he signed my parent’s death warrant!”” Hermione croaked out. “He claimed their assets…their wealth…”

“And their only daughter,” Madam Pince pointed out.

Two lightbulbs smashed overhead, showering them with glass. Hermione’s hatred, her fury, was surging out of her. She had no ability to control it. Harry reached over and touched her just then. Not with his hands, or his fingers. But with his own magic. It searched deep into her very being and enveloped it, caressed and soothed it. Harry pulled Hermione’s destructive rage into himself, and she erupted. He absorbed it, casting runes on his forehead when his own body became overloaded. They glowed furiously, and Harry cast them into the coin at his throat. Even that didn’t seem enough.

“Come on, Hermione,” said Harry, urgently. He stood up. “We have to get outside before you bring the roof down on us!”

So they did. Harry hurried them to the pub exit and into the courtyard. Then he just abruptly stopped.

Something was very wrong.

It was utterly, palpably dark. It was unnatural. There wasn’t even the briefest sliver of light. The wind was whispering on the air, light and breathy, a mere shadow of sound. Harry was gripping Hermione’s hand so hard it hurt. And she was suddenly so afraid of whatever it was facing them she had no breath to tell Harry to ease up. Blood was thumping and hammering hard in her ears. There were people ahead of them. Dozens of people. Hermione couldn’t say how she knew, she just did.

Then a multitude of pinpricks of light fractured the complete blackness. They flickered against golden masks of wand-touting Death Eaters. Hermione couldn’t believe how many there were, but they surrounded them in a massive semi-circle, boxing them in. They were three, four, maybe five deep in places. A growl escaped Harry’s throat. It was so deep, so guttural, so immensely dangerous that Hermione was as afraid of that as she was the enemies arranged against them.

And Harry struck first.

His spell was the most incredibly powerful piece of magic Hermione had ever felt. It even pushed her back into the wall of the little pub, as the shockwave passed over her. It’s light trail arced away from them and struck so many Death Eaters at once that Hermione had a wild thought that it would be over before it even started.

And then, it actually started.

Spells flew from everywhere, all angles, all at once, all aimed at Harry. And the yells and screams that accompanied them were deafening. Harry conjured a dome of pure energy that deflected all of them, then he was off, casting counter-curses and jinxes so fast that Hermione thought he would beat them all on his own. Then she heard a piercing scream, in his voice, as he was pinioned by two curses at once.

Then Hermione sprang to action. She flew forward, firing off every curse and spell she knew until she reached Harry’s side. Several spells hit her, but the dress did its job and lessened the impact of them. Harry was getting hit more often, so Hermione could woman-up and deal with the blows she was receiving. Harry was duelling with six Death Eaters at once. So Hermione pinned her back to his, and took on the one’s encroaching from the other side.

“Are you alright?” she cried through the din.

“Yeah, its just my pride that was wounded…” said Harry, his tone bizarrely light. “Bat-Bogey Hex….I mean…the shame!”

“Harry we have to get out of this…there are too many of them,” said Hermione.

“On three I’m going to cut us a path out,” Harry yelled. “Just run!”

Harry counted to three. Hermione felt his wand slash the heavy night air. A chain of fireballs, scores of them, flew out and sped at the Death Eaters. Agonised screams rent the sky in two. Hermione watched several bodies stumble away, covered in angry flames, flailing hands dabbing at the fire, futilely trying to save their doomed lives. It was totally surreal. The acrid smell of burning flesh would linger in Hermione’s nostrils for the longest time.

But now Harry was pulling her forward. He had dragged her in front of him, his wand over her shoulder and those furious fireballs cutting a swath through the crowding enemies. They were almost free, then Hermione turned to cast more spells at the attackers coming at them from behind.

And then she saw it.

***

“Harry!” Hermione breathed. She had lost every shade of colour from her face.

“What?” Harry yelled back. Now hardly seemed the time for her to start being shocked by his callousness in a fight.

“It’s D-d-d-d,” she stuttered. “Its Du-du…”

“What is it?”

Hermione could only stare in awestruck terror at something over Harry’s shoulder. So he turned…and saw, quite clearly, what.

And all breath left his body in one go. He had just enough left to say the word Hermione had been trying to tell him. Or, rather, the name.

Dumbledore!”

Harry’s old mentor was advancing on them, wand drawn, power so crazily potent pounding out from it that Harry’s stomach churned as it hit him. It was all he could do to keep control of his bowels. Dumbledore’s skin was sunken, his eyes nothing more than black holes. But he moved, lithe and springy, as if he were in his prime. But he wasn’t in his prime, far from it.

For in that moment, Harry realised, with a jolt of shame at his own stupidity, that Dumbledore was still dead. Nothing could revive the deceased. But Tom Riddle had obviously found a way to reanimate the old wizard…the only man he ever truly feared. And then Harry saw how he had done it.

For there, at his throat, a medallion hung. It was embossed with the coat of arms of Godric Gryffindor. And Tom Riddle’s stinking, acidic, putrid essence was oozing out of every atom of the golden disc. Harry could think of no more fearsome defender for such a precious object. It was a stroke of genius. 

And Harry’s scar suddenly split open with the fiercest, most burning pain imaginable. He fell to a knee screaming, clutching at Hermione’s battle dress for support. The pain was blinding, Harry’s eye was streaming. He couldn’t see, couldn’t sort his mind to react. Panic set in, he was eleven years old again, weak and frightened and about to die at Tom Riddle’s stolen hands. He knew it.

Then he knew something else. He felt a build-up of energy, a forewarning. Something so forceful Harry had no idea how he was supposed to stop something so irresistible. Luckily, he wasn’t the only one there who was able to think.

Protego!”

Hermione’s Shield Charm was immense. It deflected Dumbledore’s ferocious spell, but the strength of it still pushed them back several feet. Her voice woke Harry from his stunned torpor, her protective intent infusing him, her terror inspiring his imperative to defend her. The pain in his scar fell away to background burning. Cogency rushed back to his senses. But there was anther build up on the air, another spell was coming. Harry wasn’t sure the Shield would hold this time.

“Go…I’ll hold him off!” Harry cried.

“No, Harry! I’m not leaving you!”

“Please, Hermione, go!” Harry screeched, standing and gripping his wand. “Run, hide, get the others! Anything! Just go! I’ll buy you some time…”

“Harry! I’m not…”

But whatever she might not have been, Harry didn’t get to hear. Dumbledore’s spell pieced the Shield Charm and hit them both. Hermione span away like a top and hit the floor ten yards away, while Harry roly-poly’d in a tangent direction. The sound of Hermione hitting the ground – a dull, lifeless thud – stirred feral rage in Harry’s heart. He forcefully pushed it back along the connection Riddle’s Horcrux was making with him, then flicked his wand at Dumbledore. The spell hit the walking corpse so hard he was flung back himself, and slammed into the amassed Death Eaters crowded behind.

Harry was on his feet. Battle form was coming to him. His mind was racing, but he had to remember one thing – he was fighting Riddle’s Horcrux, not his old Headmaster. It didn’t make the fight any easier, but if he could just focus on that…

But then a spear of magic hit him hard in the shoulder, splitting it in two. Harry cried out at the pain, watching in surreal disbelief as his left arm just hung there, limp and useless. And the pain was mind-numbing. He recovered just quickly enough to spring away from another power bolt from Dumbledore, who seemed unharmed from Harry’s lone attack.

He saw Hermione, still strewn on the floor. She hadn’t moved. Harry dodged another jet of light and reached Hermione’s side, just in time to cast another Shield Charm. It held, but shattered seconds later. Harry wanted to flee, to Apparate them away. But he couldn’t concentrate. He’d never make it.

“Lily!”

The phoenix arrived in an eruption of air and flame. It seemed to distract Dumbledore, who held his wand but didn’t continue his assault.

“Get her out of here!”

Lily mewled in defiance.

“Don’t argue!” Harry screamed angrily. “Go!”

Lily hopped to Harry and in one movement, dripped a tear to his broken shoulder, then spirited Hermione away in another flash of fire.

Harry felt the power of renewal flow through him. Lily had healed him, and Hermione was safe. Harry took up his wand again. He slashed it through the air, sending a spell into a rocketing collision with Dumbledore’s own. The resulting explosion was like a clap of thunder that could have caused a rent in existence itself. Harry slashed and flicked again. A deep gouge opened up on Dumbledore’s face, but he seemed unaffected by it, as though he felt no physical wound at all. Harry would have to change strategy.

But then, Dumbledore out-thought him. In wand movement faster that Harry could imagine possible, Dumbledore conjured a vat of water, doused it over Harry…and turned it to ice the moment it touched him. He was covered in a freezing cocoon, unable to move. His breath stuck in his lungs, his energy drained out of him. Dumbledore was pulling it by force. The battle had taken enough of it own, he didn’t have much left to spare.

So he used what little he did have to push his very magic to the surface of his skin, hoping the heat would melt the ice. It did, but whatever this draining spell was that Dumbledore was using, it now no longer had the ice barrier to Harry’s actual body. It hit him, hard. Squarely in the chest, smashing his ribs to pieces. He shrieked in mind-breaking agony. The spell was sucking the last breath from him, and some of his life, too.

Harry crumpled to the floor, weak and beaten, and felt the last of his energy get ripped out of him. Shock and fear had robbed him of the ability to think. He heaved his broken lungs for one good gulp of air, but the spell seemed to have hit him in his magic itself. He felt it bleeding out of him. The noise coming from the triumphant Death Eaters was chaotic terror in his ears. His sight was swimming…his wand a mile away. And where the fuck was Hermione…he prayed she could find somewhere safe…for he had failed to protect her again…

“Avada Kedavra!”

The evil words…in that once friendly tone…and Harry prepared to face Death again, only permanently this time. 

Then a flash of fire exploded in front of him.

Lily re-emerged and swallowed the jet of green light, falling helplessly to the floor. Then the air came alive. Two, five, ten, a hundred swirls of breezing Apparition. Harry couldn’t tell. He looked up to see Neville and Enola, Angharad and Myfanwy dart forward and take up the fight to Dumbledore. Harry’s heart soared as he saw them, ranged alongside one another for him, a line of ferocious defenders. But they weren’t alone. Sir David, and Patrick and, Kelvin Angus, Frank and Alice Longbottom, Owain Jones, Cassie and Susan Bones and who knew how many others had arrived and their wands were firing off spell after spell, screaming and roaring and sending the Death Eaters scattering away in surprised panic.

And then, one more flash. And Hermione was at Harry’s side. She cast a protective wall of magic around them that nothing could ever penetrate. It was just that powerful and even Harry, in his broken state, was in awe of it. Where had that magic come from? How would he even describe it? He would have to ask her later. If there was a later. He was so tired. Maybe just a little nap…

“Open your eye!” Hermione commanded forcefully. “You are not dying on me today. That’s an order!”

“Yes…my Queen…” Harry croaked out.

“Rhian!” Hermione cried. The little elf popped into view, took each of them by the hand and prepared to whisk them away.

“Hermione!” Harry breathed weakly. “Lily…”

Hermione reached over and gently scooped up up the phoenix, now a wrinkled little hatchling, mewling for firewhiskey. Then she nodded at Rhian, and all three of them were swept away in a whirl of air and colour.

***

Harry sat in front of the roaring fire, shivering to the very marrow of his tender bones. The healing had been excruciating, the recovery not much better. He was shivery, his breath rattled in his bruised lungs. He couldn’t stop shaking, that was the most alarming thing. Even in those snatched moments where he held his mind steady, his body trembled and tingled, with no way, it seemed, to stop it.

Harry was terrifyingly afraid he’d really broken something this time. Something properly inside, something that couldn’t be fixed.

Hermione came up to him just then. She hadn’t left his side in twenty-four hours. Hadn’t slept, either. Her eyes were dark bags, her expression lined and pained. Worry was etched into every look she gave Harry, which was where her eyes were almost constantly fixed. She refused to let anyone take her watch, not even Neville, who was sat with them now, cradling his own injured arm in a Muggle-style sling. Harry needed care, and Hermione was the only one capable of giving it to him. Everyone else could just piss off.

She delicately placed another blanket around his haunched shoulders. He tensed at her touch, but it was through surprise rather than discomfort. His overwrought mind was miles away.

“You can touch me, Hermione,” Harry offered reassuringly. “I’m fragile…but I trust you to be careful.”

Hermione required no second invitation. She slipped an arm around Harry’s neck and drew his shattered body to her own. She needed this so badly. She had been restless not being able to touch him, to soothe him. She tensed her throat, held still the tears building behind her eyes. She had to feel Harry alive, breathing, moving despite his pain. She was mindless at how close she’d come to losing him for good. She couldn’t keep the thought still in her head for any more than a few seconds. The grief it inspired was overwhelming.

But, equally, she couldn’t let it go. Couldn’t not face what had happened, what they’d seen. Harry didn’t want to confront the reality, the visceral horror that had been unleashed upon them. Hermione wanted to let him rest. But she couldn’t, not this time.

“What was that, Harry?” she asked gently. “What are your thoughts?”

There was no need to qualify the nature of that in the question. It was the only topic on all of their minds.

“Was it really him? Really Dumbledore? Did you feel it?”

Harry sighed heavily, his head bowing. Hermione smoothed his shoulders comfortingly. “It was him, and yet not. It was an abhorration, an abomination. And what I think he actually was hardly bares thinking about…its a reality fundamentally terrifying.”

“What do you mean, Harry?” asked Neville.

“It was Dumbledore,” said Harry. “No question. Reanimated, a zombie, whatever you want to call it. I felt him. I know that presence, that power. But I also felt Riddle…in the Horcrux and in Dumbledore. And those spells that hit me…they had such force, such immense potency, but also a dual signature. They were full of such malice, such dark rage. As if they’d cast them as one person. It got me thinking…I think Riddle has reanimated Dumbledore using his Horcrux, so its part of him. A truly scary part. For aside from being the Dumbledore we knew, with all his frightening power, its also the vision of Dumbledore from Riddle’s mind…the only man he truly feared…somehow, made flesh. Super-powered…charged with all of Riddle’s evil and cruelty and, more worryingly, his fear. And under his complete control.”

Hermione gasped. Neville swore, and curled his good first around the armrest of his chair.

“So pretty much unstoppable,” said Neville, bitterly. “And if Dumbledore has Riddle’s lost Horcrux around his neck…”

“Then its a new problem, but not necessarily an insurmountable one, is it Harry?” asked Hermione, more in hope than belief. She’d seen this nightmarish vision of Dumbledore in battle. She knew what it meant. It was horrifying.

Harry didn’t look at her. Hermione had her answer in the way his already stunted breathing hitched and held in his lungs.

He took a while to consider his reply. “It was Dumbledore in body. That means he can still be stopped.”

“But Harry,” Neville cried vehemently. “You hit Dumbledore with spells, Ennie and I did too. They just seemed to bounce off, or not do enough damage to slow him down. He just kept coming. How do you stop something like that?”

“He still has a body,” Harry repeated. “There are rules that come with that.”

“Like, if you smash his legs, he wont be able to walk,” said Hermione, thoughtfully.

“Precisely,” said Harry. “Stopping his enhanced magic is the biggest issue. And that’s going to require some serious thought…if my mind ever returns to my own control.”

“And on the plus side, at least we know where the last Horcrux is,” said Hermione. “Finding them was always a difficult problem.”

“Getting this one from around the neck of an indestructible, ultra-powered-up, Inferi-Dumbledore is going to be a little more than a difficult problem, Hermione,” said Neville glumly.

“I think there’s more to that, too,” said Harry, quietly. He didn’t want to tell them this. Hermione could hear that in his cracked voice.

“What is it?”

“I could feel something about the energy of the Horcrux when it tried to connect to me,” said Harry. “It felt like it was being fed power externally. It was like the Horcrux was the centre of a spiders-web, with other energy lines flowing to it, making it stronger. That’s the best way I can describe it. One was definitely Riddle’s, but there were others.”

“How many others?” asked Hermione cautiously.

“At least four,” said Harry. “But there could have been more. I didn’t have much chance to focus on them. I was too busy getting my arse handed to me by Dumbledore.”

Hermione tightened her hug on Harry. The vision of him, broken and defenceless on the ground as she rejoined him, Dumbledore moving menacingly close, was pounding at her temples. Seconds…she’d been seconds away from…suddenly, taking a month to admit she loved him might have been a lifetime by comparison. It was more than long enough…if it had been mere seconds from being separated from him forever. She just couldn’t get control of her mind. She shook in terror at her own rampaging thoughts. 

“What does that mean, Harry?” asked Neville.

“It means, brother, we have a long task ahead…if I’m right.”

“You think they’re providing some sort of protection,” said Hermione, forcing calm into herself. “Four other people, or more, maybe with elite fake Horcruxes, defending the Master Horcrux somehow.”

Harry looked at her ardently, reverently. “You know, sometimes your guesses are more reliable than my facts.”

Hermione smiled shyly at him.

“So, four others are channelling power into Dumbledore and Riddle’s lost Horcrux?” Neville summarised. “So its simple…we take out the other four, first. Them we can handle…if we can find out who they are.”

“But they know we are coming, they will have redoubled any protection they have,” Harry pointed out. “It looks like old Tom has finally learned from his mistakes. He’s ultra cautious with this last piece of his evil fucking soul. I think Dumbledore is actually part of the Horcrux. They are one. Plus, there’s an army aligned against us out there.”

“Then, by Merlin, we tear them all down, one by one if necessary. And burn what’s left,” said Hermione firmly. “More pity them, I say. Fucking twats.”

Harry just stared at her, disbelieving that she was prepared to stand beside him so fiercely. She couldn’t have put a name to the look in his eye just then. It wasn’t love. It was something so fundamentally more potent, more raw, it had no name. It took her breath away to have it fixed on her.

Luckily, the door opened then, breaking the throbbing energy Harry was pulsing Hermione’s way. Unluckily, Enola came in, looking fitful. She had a nasty bruise on her cheek, and a slight limp. But she was chipper about that. The news she was carrying was an infinitely more terrible burden.

“Harry…you have to see this…you all do.”

“What is it, love?” asked Neville.

Enola placed a laptop computer in front of them and pulled up a tab on the screen. “This is a live stream, from a site called YouTube,” said Enola. “Its shows videos and things.”

“I know what YouTube is,” said Harry impatiently. “What are we watching?”

Enola looked at him darkly. “Its what we’re about to see that we need to worry about. This video stream is currently being broadcast on every screen in the country. Look.”

Harry did. And Hermione felt his soul drop. For there, on the screen, was a familiar face…in a very unfamiliar pose.

“Elizabeth!” Harry breathed in utter astonishment. He was beyond terror and anger now. All Hermione could sense was numbness.

And she couldn’t blame him.

For the Queen of England was in a bland, darkened room. On her knees. Her hands were tied behind her back, a heavy black blindfold over her eyes. And towering at her shoulder, looming over her, the flowing robes of Lord Voldemort hung and swayed like wispy thunder clouds. His snake-distorted face was contorted into a rabid smile, his slits for eyes, with their blood-red pupils, looked menacingly into the camera.

“People of Great Britain,” Voldemort hissed. “This is your Queen, your champion, on her knees…defeated. She has been derelict in her duty, allowed corrupt Government to replace the rule of Kingly Law. And made our great nation weak and comical in the eyes of the world. In time honoured fashion I, Lord Voldemort, do claim the throne to the Realm of Britain, and all her territories, following victory in battle.

“I intend to be a strong and powerful leader. To make Britain truly Great again. A leader on the world stage. No longer will we play second fiddle to the crassness of America, the covertness of China, the subtle manipulation of the Germans. Britain will lead the world again…and I am the man who will put us back where we belong.

“And, to prove to you that I will be a just and respectful ruler, I offer your fallen monarch a chance at last words, to swear fealty to me, in return for a swift and painless death.”

Hermione cried out, flinging her hands to her mouth. She looked at Harry. He was frozen, motionless, too wounded to even consider aid. But he looked white, his expression astonished and shocked. He couldn’t move to do a single thing.

“I will swear fealty,” said Elizabeth, her cracked voice betraying her own wounds. She had been hurt, tortured, who could guess what else. Hermione couldn’t even begin to point her thoughts at that.

“Ah, a sensible decision,” said Voldemort, turning the camera to her theatrically.

“I swear fealty…” Elizabeth croaked. “To the king…to the Once and Future King! Lord Harry Potter! May his vengeance on you, Lord Voldemort, be swift and violent.”

Voldemort turned his furious face back to the Elizabeth. Then slashed his wand angrily.

And slit the Queen of England’s throat.

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