The four apparated onto a dark and deserted country lane, Harry could just make out the twinkling lights of a distant village on the horizon. The air was crisp, and the dirt road was hard and dry beneath their feet. Harry had cast disillusionment charms on them all before they left so only bodyless footprints followed them as they walked. Harry thought about the words on the parchment Snape had given him and as if waiting to be called forward a large manor home began to materialise out of thin air.
The house was huge, three stores and was almost twice as wide, painted a pale blue with white trimmings around the pillars and window sills. The front garden was lush and thriving, obviously someone spent a great deal of time and energy keeping it blooming, this was someone's pride and joy. This was not a home one would expect to find the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, though, neither was Grimmauld Place. A gentle rustle of leaves was the only warning he had, Harry threw himself to the ground and yelled 'Down!' just as a crimson stunner passed over them.
"Show yourself!" A voice bellowed from behind the tree.
Harry quickly released his own disillusionment and stood up. "Charlie, it's me, Harry Potter."
Charlie's wand waivered a little but did not lower. "Prove it!"
Harry was expecting this and had prepared a vast array of answers. "My name is Harry James Potter, I was born to James and Lily Potter on July 31st, 1980. I am your youngest brother's best friend and in my first year you helped us to smuggle a Norwegian Ridgeback by the name of Norbert out of Hogwarts.
"I knew it." Draco hissed behind him.
Charlie broke into a dazzling smile and hugged Harry tight. "Oh it's so good to see you. Where's Ron and Hermione?"
Harry waved his wand and one by one Ron, Hermione and Draco appeared before them. Ron rushed forward and pulled Charlie against him tightly. "Charlie, seriously, you have no idea how brilliant it is to see you." Ron pulled away and said. "Where's everyone else?"
Charlie embraced Hermione and said, "An owl came from mum a few hours ago, Bill went to check up on her but one of us needed to stay to make sure you got here." Charlie turned to face Draco. "You must be Malfoy Junior. It took a long time to convince some of us around here that you were really on our side."
Draco held his head high and stuck out his chin. "It took a long time to convince myself that not all Weasley's were insufferable twats."
Charlie laughed easily and shook Draco's hand enthusiastically. "We should get inside, Bill should be back soon I swear, and the lady of the house is going spare waiting for you."
Charlie led them through the solid oak front door, through a room that seemed to serve as an entrance hall, sitting room and Floo entry, and into a large kitchen that overlooked another set of gorgeous gardens. Standing at the stove was the tall, dark and bald Kingsley Shacklebolt wearing the most horrendous pink and frilly apron. Harry thought that it could have very well been owned by Dolores Umbridge.
"Looking stunning Kingsley." Harry chuckled as they walked into the kitchen.
Kingsley turned away from the boiling pot with a smile that said he was genuinely glad and relieved to see Harry standing there. He walked over and hugged him like a long-lost friend, or even, Harry thought, a brother. "Harry it is wonderful to see you."
Harry couldn't help but feel calmed by Kingsley's deep baritone. "It's good to see you too."
"Kingsley Shacklebolt! What do you think you're doing?!" A female's heavily accented voice yelled, Harry thought it could possibly be Jamaican. "What did I tell you about that pot? That sauce needs to be stirred constantly, seriously I ask you to do one thing!" Harry turned to see a short, stout and dark-skinned woman. She was wearing a Mumu in more colours than Harry could count, and her hands were placed firmly on her hips. This was a woman Harry wouldn't even attempt to cross.
"Harry, please let me introduce my mother." Kingsley said as he returned to the stove. "This is her home."
"Harry? Harry Potter?" She stared at him sternly, staring him up and down. If Harry was waiting for the usual hero worship that accompanied his name, it was clear that this woman was not going to oblige.
"Hello Mrs Shacklebolt, it's a pleasure to meet you." Harry tried to be as polite as possible.
The woman merely scowled at him. "You're a right mess you are. You all are. You'll go and shower before we eat, and a proper shower mind you, no freshening charms." She clicked her fingers at Charlie. "You there, go and show them where they're sleeping."
Charlie jumped off his stool so fast Harry suspected a stinging hex to his behind. Charlie led them up a wide set of staircases, up to the top floor and pushed open a set of wide double doors. "Mrs Shacklebolt wanted you to be comfortable, apparently you've slept outside for too long and a decent bed does wonders for the soul. She's full on but she cares, a lot like mum really."
The room was actually more akin to a studio apartment. There were four beds placed throughout the room, almost like the Hogwarts dormitories. The room was furnished with large wardrobes, bookshelves and a large desk. There was a bathroom off on the opposite side of the room and it was immaculately decorated in porcelain white with black accents. Harry thought that he would have needed to shower for a week before he would feel clean enough to get into the large clawed bathtub in the centre of the room.
Charlie left to wait for Bill and the four set about making themselves look for presentable. Draco ended up in a heated argument with the mirror when it started to count all of his split ends and Hermione blushed ferociously red when Harry walked out of the bathroom, without his towel, forgetting that it wasn't just him and Draco anymore.
As they walked down the stairs, Harry's nose was assaulted by an aroma he hadn't experienced since his Hogwarts days. Walking into the kitchen, his mouth filled with saliva as he set his eyes on the spread on the table. Steaming bowls of roast vegetables, mounds of freshly baked rolls, four different sauces and sitting pride and place was a giant piece of roast pork, complete with a perfect crackle. The high protein, high calorie diet that they had been living on now seemed horribly inadequate.
The seven dined in loud, overbearing conversations. Charlie was filling Ron in on what each Weasley was doing, Draco and Hermione were discussing something to do with Ancient Runes or Arithmancy or it could have been Potions, Harry really didn't know. Harry himself was fascinated by what Kingsley and his mother had to say. Kingsley's father, as it turned out, was murdered in the first war which is what drove Kingsley to joining the Aurors. Mrs Shacklebolt had dedicated her life to helping muggle-borns to adjust to the wizarding world post Hogwarts. Her dream was to begin a preparatory school for kids to learn about the world from when they first started displaying magical abilities. Harry loved the idea.
After dinner Kingsley served mulled wine with treacle tart, Harry was pretty sure he had just eaten his favourite meal. As conversation lulled, the tension at the end of the table grew to tangible levels. Charlies leg was shaking under the table and Ron looked as if he was pulling out his hair, hunks at a time. Bill had been gone far too long, something was wrong.
Hermione and Draco cleared the table, Mrs Shacklebolt excused herself for bed and Kingsley had just brought down a stack of the most recent order reports when Bill finally walked in. The look on his face made Hermione drop a plate and Ron's face lose all colour.
"What's happened?" Charlie demanded. "Is it mum? Is dad ok? Where are George and Fred?"
"They're fine." Bill collapsed into a chair. "It's Gin, she's in St Mungo's." Bill dragged a weary hand down his face and downed the Firewhiskey that Harry handed him. "Her and some friends were caught trying to smuggle some kids out the school. Apparently, these kids were being tortured in the dungeons. One of them, the Lovegood girl she had a leg and an arm cut off. The Longbottom boy, he, he didn't make it, he's dead. And Ginny, she's, she's been put under some charm that the healers can't reverse. She seems to be living in her own worst fears, she's literally stuck in her own head. They're transferring her to permanent spell damage tomorrow, she hasn't stopped screaming.
Harry felt the air leave his lungs. Luna, the erratic free spirit, forever mutilated. Ginny, the ferocious warrior, trapped forever in her mind. Neville, gone, Harry would never again see his round joyful face or be inspired by how deep his courage went. Harry couldn't stay there, his world was crumbling around him. He needs to run, he needs to scream, he needs to fight, he needs to end this.
He feels panic begin to rise in him, like an unwatched cauldron. They had come so far and they were so close, it was almost over. Why couldn't they have waited just two more days to do something so irresponsible? Why did they have to do something so reckless and obviously stupid? The answer came to him so quickly, the answer was obvious. They were doing what they assumed Harry would have done. A year ago, that's exactly what he would have done, run blindly into danger and deal with the consequences afterwards.
He had already calculated the time it would take to get to the apparition point and was about to walk away when he felt a strong hand in his own. That's when he understood. He didn't need to react in stupidly erratic and irrationally heroic way. He couldn't keep holding himself responsible for what everyone else did in this war. It wasn't his fault that Ginny, Luna and Neville had done this and if he tried to avenge them now, what would it actually accomplish? It wouldn't bring them back and it would only end up taking the focus away from everyone else's grief. Harry took a deep breath and squeezed Draco's hand, because who else's would it be?
"Charlie, Bill, go and be with her, tell your parents that I'll be there when this is over. That I'm coming as fast as I can." Harry turned to Ron and saw the battle raging fighting between strength and grief. "It's up to you, go with them or stay. No judgement."
A weaker man than Harry would have faltered under the look Ron shot him. "I know my duty, if I leave now the last year will be for nothing." He turned to face his brothers. "If I go with you, they'll just come finish the job." He walked out of the door, mumbling something about going to bed.
Harry was about to follow him out, but Draco pulled on his hand and Hermione said, "I'll go."
After the watched Hermione ascend the stairs, Charlie looking lost for words, Bill pulled Harry into a tight hug and said, "We'll be back Harry. Don't you dare leave without me." He pulled away hands firmly on Harry's shoulders. "I've got a score to settle."
Harry pulled him back and hugged him tight, trying to say so much with so little. "I'll get Kingsley to send word, I promise." Harry watched the Weasleys leave and willed himself not to cry.
"Harry are you ok?" Kingsley asked.
"No, I'm really not. But I will be." Harry said honestly, he moved to stare out the kitchen door for a long moment. "I think I need some air."
Harry walked down the small garden path, Mrs Shacklebolt had obviously put a lot of love into this yard. There were beautiful lilies, perfectly trimmed hedges and perfect roses in pinks, yellows and the purest of whites. The yard was bright and colourful, and it was horrendously wrong. The world had no business being this beautiful, he should have been surrounded by reds and blacks. The angel sculptures placed carefully around him should be screaming in agony, not smiling serenely. He watched the wind rustle leaves and listened to an owl hoot merrily. How was it that the world was continuing to spin?
Harry sat on a low concrete bench and let himself cry. He cried for everyone he had lost in this war and the last. His parents, Cedric, Sirius, Dumbledore, Moody, Tonks, Neville and even Draco's mother. Voldemort keeps winning battle after battle, but he would not win the war. With that powerful though Harry pulled himself up and walked back inside. At some point Kingsley had gone to bed and left Draco to peruse the latest Order reports alone.
Draco didn't say a word when Harry walked in, he merely kicked out the chair beside him and slid half of the parchment across. When Harry sat, Draco hooked an ankle around his own. The gesture meant more than any embrace, how was it that Draco always knew exactly what he needed?
The reports were tedious reading. Full of dates, times and technical wording. They detailed at length what the Order either knew or suspected about Death Eater plans and locations. Harry was impressed with how organised they had managed to maintain. Kingsley had even given over his ideas on how the final battle should happen with contingency plans for almost every possible scenario. Harry wondered whether every Auror mission was this planned, he decided then that he never wanted to find out.
Hermione walked in just after one AM looking dishevelled. Draco had said he was going to be twenty minutes earlier, Harry had the suspicion that he actually had the intention of taking over 'Ron watch.'
"Tea?" She asked as she set a pot to boil and summoned mugs, tea bags and milk, Harry gave her an appreciative smile. "Ron's understandably a mess. He's asleep now but it was a right job getting him that way."
"Is he going to be alright?" Harry didn't only mean emotionally. If Ron was distracted during the final battle, he wouldn't just be putting his own life in danger. Too much relied on them, too much rested on their shoulders.
"Oh Harry, I honestly don't know." She handed him a mug and sat down at the table across from him. "I want to be able to say that he'll be able to focus this energy into something productive, but you know how hot headed he is. I don't think even he knows what he's doing. The question I have though is, are you going to be ok?"
Harry took a long sip of his tea. "I can't think about it right now. I've got a job to do."
Hermione gave him a look of marvel. "How is it that you can be so calm? The Harry from school would have tried to leave already, screaming curses at anyone who tried to stop him."
Harry put the report he was reading down and stared directly into Hermione's eyes. "That Harry got people killed." Hermione opened her mouth to argue but Harry held up a hand to stop her. "No Hermione it's true, I did. If I was more like you and thought things through, Sirius would still be here. I can't afford to be angry yet, we've come too far to screw it all up now. Neville deserves so much more than that."
Hermione smiled slyly at him. "Draco's been good for you."
"Yeah I guess he has." Harry suddenly had no desire to talk about the war and plans and death, he had his Hermione back. "So, have you and Ron finally figured out that your stupid fights were just pent up sexual tension? Or are you still in denial?"
Hermione raised her eyebrows with a smile. "Have you and Draco?"
Harry chuckled. "Touché"
Hermione actually started to blush slightly. "We did sleep together, once, that first night after we left you two. It was great, amazing really, lots of fun and exactly what we both needed. The next morning however, everything was different and not in a good way, it was awkward. After skirting around each other for a few days I got fed up and sat him down and we actually had a conversation. Did you know that after being friends for seven years that was the first time we had a real heart to heart? We both decided it would be silly and irresponsible to let it happen again. We needed to stay focussed, logical. We'll talk again when this is all over, but for right now he's just a dear friend." Harry loved that Hermione felt comfortable enough to tell him everything. "What about you and Draco? And don't say nothing, neither of you are as subtle as you think you are."
"Well I can't say that we came to the same conclusion as you and Ron. We've had sex pretty much every day since New Year's." Harry laughed when Hermione choked on her tea. "No need to worry though, it's not a relationship. We're both just so angry at the world, it keeps us grounded, focussed. Plus, it really pisses of Snape so that's an added little bonus."
Hermione laughed, loud, clear and easily. In that moment Harry realised just how much he missed that sound. It was so free and easy, never failing to lift up into a great mood. He stood up, kissed her temple and left the kitchen. When he was lying in bed an hour later, closing his eyes and listening to Ron's snores, he realised that if life was kinder, she was the woman that he'd choose to be with. She was easy comfort and constant support. She challenged him in the best of ways and never once wavered in her belief in him. True the intense physical attraction he had for Draco wasn't there, but he could eventually grow to love her if he tried.
Hermione wasn't his destiny though, she never was. His destiny began, and very well may end, with Voldemort. Anything that comes after that fight will be a wonderful bonus. Hermione deserved so much more that what Harry had to give, he was damaged and there was a piece of him that was very dark and twisted. Hermione deserved someone light, capable of an epic love, willing to put her above anyone and everyone else, she deserved Ron.
Harry heard soft footsteps coming closer and didn't need to open his eyes. He pulled the blanket down and let Draco slid in front of him. That night Harry didn't dream of the horrors to come, but of what his life could have been if so much else was different.