Harry stormed down the corridor to Percy's office, steam almost coming out of his ears: he had told that bloody bunch of bureaucrats no more public appearances, no more smiles for 'the good of morale', no more pretending. Yet here it was, another summons from his personal assistant, the dependable Percy Weasley, bearer of all pleas from the great and cowardly Minister Fudge. How that man had retained his position since the exile, Harry didn't know, he had practically handed Britain over to Voldemort through his sheer ineptitude at running a war. If it hadn't been for people like Albus Dumbledore, Merlin rest his soul, and Amelia Bones, there wouldn't have been any hope of the resistance that was still fighting for freedom.
His old mentor's face in his mind, Harry cursed the disasters that had led to Albus' death and resolved, once more, to refuse whatever the Ministry in Exile had in mind for him this time. Propaganda was all very well, but there was only so far they could push the British wizarding community that had made it to the safety of America; Harry wondered what it would be this time: we need your galleons to fund another committee to sit down and discuss this exile problem. Discuss, discuss, discuss, it was all the Ministry did, that and try to placate the mighty Dark Lord who was destroying the Wizarding world in Britain as anyone had known it.
The young Auror stormed straight into Percy's office, brandishing aloft the note which had requested his presence, ready to yell his disgust at the only bureaucrat with the courage to face him.
"What the bloody hell do you want?!" he demanded as Percy leapt out of his seat like he'd been shot. He leant over the desk and fixed his anxious-looking friend to the spot as he complained some more; "I was in the middle of a training group with the new recruits: what's so bloody urgent that I have to abandon them to Perkins's incompetence?!"
Harry knew he was swearing at Percy too much these days, but anything to do with the Ministry made him mad. This was just how it was now: he would vent at his safe official, Percy would cajole and persuade and no-one bandied around words like 'suspension' or 'dismissal'. No-one else saw this face, the frustrated, opinionated young man, only Percy, and he was usually good at placating him, making deals, smoothing the waters, and not reporting Harry's expletives to his seniors. Harry was expecting Percy's normal long-suffering, nervous smile. Yet it wasn't there. Percy looked back at Harry, his eyes wider than normal, and his mouth a thin, unhappy line. Harry's temper faded immediately, and he asked with more concern, but no less suspicion, "Percy, what's wrong?"
There was silence for a moment, until Harry stood back from the desk, and then Percy began, "Auror Potter, Minister Fudge has asked me to speak with you on a matter of the gravest urgency."
The young man scowled again: if he was hiding behind formality, Percy was really upset about something.
"Cut the crap, Percy," Harry snarled, recognising the slight American twang in his voice he had picked up from the local Quidditch team he now played with.
"You are aware that the Ministry have been in negotiations with Lord Voldemort's regime?"
"They've been in talks for three years, so what?"
Percy sat down, a little too fast not to worry Harry some more: he didn't particularly like Percy, but in her letters, Molly had asked Harry to look after her son, and since they had both already lost her youngest son, he felt obliged to care about the only Weasley he had seen since the exile had begun. As he thought of Ron, the man with whom he had fought side by side in too many battles to count, he saw the shadow of buoyant red-head in his brother: his conscience piqued, and he backed off some more, sitting down as well.
"What's going on?" he asked with less hostility.
"The negotiations recently have been over the problem of the Muggle-borns in Azkaban," Percy brought up the Dark Lord's policy which had had Harry worrying about Hermione since the time it had been introduced.
"Hermione?" he worded his concern; Hermione had lived with the slim immunity of being a pure-blood's widow, and the mother of his children, since Voldemort's plans had been put into action in Britain. The idea that her protection had finally failed had been a worry to Harry since the day she had refused to leave Britain for the safety of America.
"Hermione and the girls are fine, as far as I know," his companion reassured him, at least in words, although Percy's face said otherwise as he continued, "This is about getting the Muggle-borns released and transported to us on the compound."
"They managed to close that kind of deal?" Harry was incredulous; the Ministry had had no such successes before, Voldemort had only afforded 'the runaways', as he had labelled them, his contempt.
"The Dark Lord expressed his wish to be rid of the burden of maintaining them. There is an over-crowding problem in Azkaban and he has other prisoners he wishes to house there;" Percy sounded like he was going to be sick and Harry's worry went up a few levels. "His people made some very specific demands, which the Ministry has deemed acceptable in view of the many lives it will save."
Percy paused and struggled to meet Harry's gaze. The young man did not want to ask, but there was a block in his companion's gaze which told him Percy was not going to continue unless prompted.
"What demands?" he asked flatly.
"The Dark Lord requested the return of an item to Britain which the Department of Mysteries brought with it. I don't know what it is, but as I said, the risk of returning it has been weighed against the lives that so doing will save," Percy looked away, his eyes dancing round the room, and he sighed as he finished, "The Ministry has also agreed to you delivering it."
Harry stood up very fast, his whole body going cold, but he just froze, glaring at Percy as all the implications of such an agreement hit him at once. Percy's gaze came back to him, and the look said that the man knew he was condemning his friend to death. Harry Potter, personal enemy of Voldemort, had an unspoken death sentence waiting for him if he set foot back on British soil. That was why the Ministry had worked so hard to make sure their propaganda weapon could not slip back and join the resistance fight.
"I have your orders here," Percy continued, laying his hand on a folded piece of parchment containing the official seal of the Ministry: his voice was wavering.
"Signed by Fudge, no doubt," Harry growled and his anger went straight for the coward who had ratified his sacrifice. "Didn't he even have the courage to tell me himself?"
Percy looked even sicker at that accusation, and for the first time, Harry thought he saw the up-and-coming official's adoration of the glorious Minister of Magic waver.
"What did he tell himself would happen? That I'd just pop this item, whatever it is, on old Voldie's desk, and then hop back here?"
"I don't know," his friend focused on the parchment as he picked it up. "He had it owled here."
Harry laughed: he couldn't quite believe the gall of the man. The compound the Americans had given the exiles to live on was not more than a mile across, and the administration buildings were all set around a small square. Fudge's office was two minutes from the lowlier one he had assigned his protégé and the fact that he had avoided even his own errand boy spoke volumes for the denial the man was so good at cultivating.
"So I'm supposed to just accept these orders?" Harry had to check.
Percy stood up and held out the paper, his tone agitated as he answered, "I'm meant to tell you that you are an Auror of the British people, and hence -"
"And hence, I must do what is best for my country," Harry scoffed, (it was a familiar old stick Fudge used to beat him with every time he dissented: his license to be an Auror was the only thing these bastards could hold over him, he didn't want to lose it, only now things had gone so much further than pompous threats).
Harry took the parchment: the equation was simple, his life for hundreds, maybe thousands (no-one knew quite how many wizards and witches had been thrown in Azkaban since the Death Eaters had taken over).
"I'm sorry, Harry," Percy was very white as he did what no-one else would.
"When do I leave?" the Auror gritted his teeth as he asked.
"It's all in the orders: you are to put on your dress robes and report to Meeting Room 4a for eleven hundred hours."
Harry turned on his heel and headed to the door. Yet Percy wasn't finished, and as he opened the door, his task-master told Harry, "And tell no-one."
The young man didn't look back, he was angry and scared and he wanted to scream, but the bastards had even made sure he couldn't do that. 'Tell no-one', meant 'don't tell Remus'. The head of the Order of the Phoenix since Albus' death, was on base during one of his regular clandestine trips, not to speak with the Ministry (they did not officially recognise the Order), but to organise support none-the-less. He was one of the few people from home with whom Harry had contact, and although their conversations stuck mainly to trivia due to the walls having ears, especially around Harry Potter, he was a confidant upon whom the much used, Boy Who Lived, relied. Denying him even that displayed the cold-blooded calculations that had to have gone behind his orders: they knew full well what they were doing and they wanted no dissention.
Once he was out of the administration building, Harry slowed a pace that had been inspired by the wish to put as much distance between himself and the bureaucrats as possible. Out in the open, away from the back-stabbing bastards, he took the time to look around at the place he had called home for three years. He hadn't wanted to stay here, in the early days he had fought hard to get away, but they had worn him down with their reasonable arguments, and his grief at the loss of his home and friends had had to take a different direction.
He had been making do, like everyone else in exile, and he had accepted this little piece of officially British soil as his new home for however long it took to get the other one back. He'd been told so many times by this official and that bureaucrat that his presence in Britain would only put the resistance in danger that he had almost begun to believe it, and the fact that he was to be going home was a shock to his system in itself. The part of him that had not gone into denial about his homeland was causing his stomach to churn and the rest of him was in shock.
Harry came to a halt in the middle of Ministry Plaza, and caught out of the corner of his eye one of his regular shadows coming to a halt as well: he grimaced, he hated being followed by his paranoid employers. Did they think he was going to bolt when so much was at stake? He ignored his watcher rather than yelling: he really felt like yelling and it was very difficult to stop himself, especially when he looked up at the monument which listed the dead and those missing in action and thought about his name joining the ever changing role of honour. He tried not to read the name that appeared at the bottom as he watched, concentrating instead on the way the names rearranged and resized themselves to make room for their comrade. He failed, but it wasn't a name he knew: still, Harry spun on his heel and carried on his way before the chills running up and down his spine grew any worse.
He had trained people to go undercover for three years, the most he had been allowed to do for the war effort, and he was not scared of combat, he had spent two years fighting before the last battle at Hogwarts had been lost, but he was being asked to walk into the hands of his nemesis and the prophecy hung heavy in Harry's thought. It looked like Trelawney's prediction was about to come to fruition with himself as the loser. Harry didn't try to sort out the mess of thoughts and feelings in his head, worried what he might discover, instead he tried to ignore his thundering heart and get on with what needed to be done.
His room wasn't much, but Harry called it home. It was full of junk and the walls were covered in what communications he had managed with the survivors in Britain. Remus sometimes carried letters and parcels in both directions, and the postcards from Tonks and the drawings from the twins that Hermione had sent in her letters were all over the place: he had never met Aithne nor Imogen, the red-headed daughters of his best-friends, but he loved their colourful scribblings. Needing something warm, Harry went over and ran his fingers over one crumpled piece of paper that, according to Hermione's explanation, showed Grandpa Arthur in his rocking chair. It looked more like a mutant cow to Harry, but he smiled sadly as he realised he would now probably never get to meet Ron's legacy to the world.
Harry glanced up at the clock on the wall: he had half an hour to prepare himself for whatever fate Voldemort wished. Reluctantly, he dropped the orders on the bed, he didn't need to read them, gathered up his wash things and headed out into the corridor to the shower room. However, he had barely set foot in the hallway when he heard the caustic voice of Severus Snape call, "Potter, where have you been? How could you leave that incompetent, Perkins, in charge, he nearly decapitated one of the recruits?!"
Harry looked up at the only other Order member with whom he had had the misfortune to be exiled: Severus Snape had been revealed as a spy shortly before everything had come tumbling down, and he'd been grumpy about it and taken it out on his favourite whipping boy for the last three years.
"At least we agree on something," Harry muttered to himself as he thought about Perkins, the Ministry appointed sycophant, cocking up another practice. However, he was in no mood for a sparring match with Severus, so he replied at audible levels, "I don't have time for this, Severus, I have orders for eleven am, I have to get ready."
"What, another shop to open?" Snape asked with a sneer in his voice, but the rest of his tone said he'd read Harry's body language.
"No, can't talk about it," Harry snapped back, rather more sharply than he would have liked. He didn't want to open himself to any of Snape's quips; he was feeling too vulnerable not to snap.
Severus frowned, but thankfully did not go for the jugular. The respite made Harry risk something he would not normally have asked of his verbal sparring partner, but now was definitely not normal, and so he requested, "Can you say goodbye to Remus for me, please, I'm not going to get the chance."
That raised even more suspicions behind Snape's eyes. Harry turned away before he revealed more than he wanted to.
"Goodbye, Severus," he finished and headed to the shower.
Meeting Room 4a was one of the conference rooms in the main Ministerial building, and Harry stood in front of its impressive double doors while he straightened his dress robes. He'd only worn these once before, the passing out parade from the accelerated Auror training he and Ron had undergone after leaving Hogwarts, and they felt heavy and stuffy compared to the simple grey work robes they had him wear when teaching non-physical classes or making minor public appearances. The showiness of the situation had not passed Harry by, and it annoyed him. He was going to deliver some unknown item to a madman, it was no time for dressing like he was going to a Ministerial cocktail party. He'd read his orders in the end, a mixture of official bluster about duty and the greater good and an attempt at ego-stroking, but they had at least divulged that there was some kind of grand presentation ceremony organised where the New Order could show off their prizes.
Being paraded round like a trophy hit all the wrong buttons in Harry, and the only thing with which he could cover his fear was the rage he had been cultivating at the injustice of it all. He was therefore scowling heavily when, after a sharp rap, he was called into the room. The place was, unsurprisingly, occupied by several gaggles of officials he recognised. They were dotted around the room in twos and threes, all except for a larger group which stood at the far end of a long, highly-polished conference table; every eye was on Harry.
Some of them looked like they felt sorry for him: Harry ignored them. Others just looked scared, and those, the young man paused upon, one by one, making them feel every nuance of the ire he held silently inside. Finally, Harry's gaze came to rest upon the man he despised the most; Fudge was stood in the middle of his protectors, and his face was white. He tried to smile, the same sickly politician's grin that he always wore, but it failed him, coming off only half-formed as he greeted, "Thank you for coming, Auror Potter."
The officiousness of the address broke every restraint Harry possessed, and he saw red. Imminent death could be very liberating, and no license could now hold Harry back from the storm that had taken three years to build.
"Don't 'Auror Potter' me, Fudge," he growled, stalking up the length of the table in the wake of scattering bureaucrats, "you only do that when you're scared I'll say no, and we're beyond that now, don't you think?"
None of the Minister's cronies showed any courage when faced with the enraged Auror, and Fudge was left undefended, opening and closing his mouth as if he didn't know whether to answer Harry's question. The young man bore down on his quarry, who took some rapid steps backwards and he just kept on going, forcing their confrontation into the fireplace. If Fudge had not reached out and hung onto the high mantel shelf, he would have ended up in the ashes.
"You're pathetic. You get everyone else to do your dirty work," Harry loomed over his cowering adversary and began a tirade from which he had always backed off before. "You are as evil as Voldemort, and twice as dangerous, because you seem to think you're doing things for the greater good. If it hadn't been for your sheer incompetence and cowardice, we would not have lost England, let alone Scotland and we would still be on home soil. That role of honour out there is down to you, just you. If I survive this suicide attempt you've organised for me, I will personally see to it that your only mention in history will read, 'A pompous little man who brought our world to ruin'!"
Harry pinned his subjugate down with his glare for a while longer, but looking at the quivering little man was just making him feel sick, so once his point was made, he turned away from his condemner and picked the nearest official. That man froze as well, like a deer caught in headlights, and at least pleased with the impression he had made, Harry decided to get on with what was required.
"Right then, where's this mysterious package you have me delivering?" he demanded, trying to hide any quavers in his voice as he thought about his deadly errand.
The tall, thin man, whom Harry thought was called Tibias, seemed more than a little relieved not to have been attacked, but, still openly nervous, turned to the end of the table and pointed out a wooden box. It wasn't a very impressive box, only about fifteen centimetres square and the same again tall, tatty at the edges and pitted all over, from what Harry supposed was age, but it had been polished recently.
"What's in it?" he asked, walking up to it and running his fingers over the surface that closer inspection revealed had to be ancient.
"We have been instructed not to tell you," Tibias shrank a few inches as Harry glared at him for that little revelation.
"Another part of the deal?" Harry snarled at him, disliking the conditions of the exchange less and less.
Tibias just nodded and backed away hurriedly. The condemned wizard ignored the rest of the room then and went back to looking at the box: where his fingers stroked the pock-marked surface. He could feel magic running through the wood, it had to be powerful magic for his meagre sensitivities to pick it up, and he wondered what kind of risk Fudge had decided the wizarding world could afford this time. The man seemed to have no concept that Voldemort was not going to be content with Wizarding Britain for much longer: it was his power base, but soon he would be confident enough to go after the Muggles who had no idea of his threat, and then the world would be next. This concealed item was obviously important to the Dark Lord, or he would never have agreed to release the Muggle-borns, against whom his vendetta had been very personal. Yet Harry's tirade had run dry in only a few words, replaced by the worries and fears he could not hold back, and so he remained silent, letting the room settle down and await whatever was to come next.
Harry was not so interested in the box that he failed to notice when the double doors swung in once more. He saw the purple and black of the New Order's robes before he took in the hard faces of two Death Eaters. They clearly knew who he was, because their attentions ran him up and down, and two sides looked at each other from either end of the table.
"Gentlemen," Fudge had recovered himself and he greeted the two new arrivals like he was meeting people at a state banquet.
He moved down the room and held out his hand to the nearest man.
"Is everything ready?" was the only reply, and Fudge came to a halt not really knowing what to the do with his offered hand as it was not taken.
"Yes, everything is ready," one of Fudge's lackies rescued the Minister and led the two men towards Harry as he continued, "the box has been protected as requested, it may only be passed from Auror Potter to Governor General Malfoy."
Harry gritted his teeth at the mention of his second-best nemesis: Lucius Malfoy was the public face of Voldemort's regime, as the Dark Lord had proven reclusive, and he had never forgotten the night when the running battle at the Ministry of Mysteries had seen him locked up in Azkaban for the following three years until a breakout that had killed half the prison staff.
The second Death Eater, who did not seem to have the authority to speak, was still eyeing Harry suspiciously, and Harry glared back at him, resting his hand protectively on the box: he may have been heading, at best, for the very prison from which he was releasing others, but for now he had a job to do, and he was damned if he was going to show weakness to his enemies.
"The Department of Corrections will be in touch as regards the Mudbloods," the next disclosure was delivered with relish and caused a gasp to run through the room: the Death Eater glanced round at shocked faces, not even batting an eyelid at the insult and the man's indifference hammered home to Harry the dramatic changes to which he would be returning.
In defence of what courage he had left, Harry picked up the box and drew his escorts' attention with, "Shall we go?"
The senior man smiled superiorly at him, and Harry raised his chin defying the inevitable control this enemy was going to have over him. His defiance was rewarded with the smile disappearing and eyes narrowing on him, and Harry ticked off one minor victory, since he didn't think he was going to get many of them.
"Very well," came the agreement and Harry found himself flanked by the two Death Eaters.
They drew their wands and a few cowering bureaucrats took steps backwards. Harry just held the box in front of him and concentrated on it, trying not to think about the surrender he was making by just letting his adversaries take him where they wanted. The leader placed something plain and dark on the end of the table where the box had been and tapped it with his wand, but Harry kept staring at his charge and held in the instinct to fight. He steeled his shoulders as a hand either side took hold of his arms and then he did watch as each escort reached out for the shapeless thing that was quite clearly a port key. Everything slowed down as the young man's last look at exile was a reflection of the state room in the patina of the long table. Then the world began to fade.
Harry struggled with instincts that told him to hit out, to draw his wand and fight as he remembered another time he had been dragged to his enemy with a port key. He was an Auror, he had fought for freedom, and now he was just giving it up on the say so of a group of incompetent, corrupt officials: he couldn't quite believe what he was doing. Yet, as he held his feelings back, the disappearing world sent Harry a message. His gaze snapped up from the table as he heard the doors slam open and an enraged cry came at him, "No!"
Remus and Severus were stood in the doorway, wands draw and magic came directly at Harry, but it was too late, the magic passed through his dissolving presence, and the image of his friend's aghast face was the last thing the young man saw before the world disappeared completely. That look was enough to upset any equilibrium in Harry, and as another, darker world came into focus, he shoved away his escorts and took a step backwards. They spun on him, and levelled their already drawn wands.
"Stand still, Potter," the order came.
Harry considered dropping the box and going for his own weapon, but it was a nonsense notion, and the thought lasted only a moment: he was outnumbered, in an unknown location, and, as much as he would have liked to take on his adversaries and blast some respect into them, the item he was holding was more precious to more people than his life. Harry relaxed, and the confident smile was back on his escort's face.
"Good, now, put the box on the table, there," his opponent ordered, indicating sideways with the end of his wand.
Harry did as he was told, the fight seeping out of him as Remus' face was replaced with this new reality.
"Excutio!" came at him before he could turn fully back to his guards, and the surprise of the search-magic made the young man complain as he felt his wand slip from the safety of his sleeve.
Yet the whine in his throat was all he allowed himself as the carefully tended holly fell to the floor and rolled away.
"Is this all you have?" the Death Eater was resisting no urges and taunted Harry openly.
"It's all I need," the Auror quipped back and lifted his chin again.
"Not anymore," his escort laughed this time, as the subordinate picked up the wand. "You will wait here until we are ready for you."
With that, the two men, confident in their victory, turned their backs on their prisoner and walked out of the door. The sound of the key turning in the lock finalised the deal that had been made for him, and Harry stuck his nails into his palms to try and stop the shiver that ran down his spine.
Pacing was not the most productive of pastimes, but it stopped Harry from going stir crazy. They'd left him in the isolated ante-chamber what had to have been hours ago, and his illogical brain was beginning to wonder if this was an oubliette. Without his wand, Harry was trying to stem feelings of complete vulnerability. He was beyond the point of no return; his life was now forfeit, but at least with a wand, Harry mourned, he might have been able to influence the way in which he exited this world. As if in reminder of the danger he was now in, Harry's scar throbbed mercilessly: this whole place was infused with Voldemort and it made the young man feel sick. Yet, the only thing he could now do was to deliver the package to Lucius with dignity, and he was even being hampered in that by a different breed of bureaucrats to those who had condemned him in the first place. Hence, he was wearing a hole in the floor, and had been doing so for an indeterminate amount of time.
Harry had been pacing for so long, that when his routine was interrupted, it startled him. The wizard spun round towards the sound of the door opening, and rapidly placed his hand protectively on the box, which was still sat on the table. He was not expecting the face which appeared around the door panel; Hermione Weasley, tall, elegant, but thinner than she should have been, and her lovely hair was drawn severely into a bun at the back of her head. Harry couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. He'd known she was working for the New Order, Remus had not held that back, but actually looking at his one time confidante wearing the black and purple robes made less sense than things had minutes before.
The young woman closed the door behind her, but hovered close to it, disquiet showing in her grey features. Harry knew his stance must have appeared hostile, but his own nerves, coupled with the shock of a friend in wolf's clothing froze him in position.
"Hello, Harry," at last Hermione broke the awkward silence.
"Hermione," he answered quietly, and then had to ask, "I..."
"It's a shock isn't it, I didn't quite believe it myself for a while," the subdued woman finished, and Harry felt grief for the once proud personality reduced to serving the enemy. "It was the safest way of staying alive, I made myself too useful to be disappeared."
"But why?" the young man couldn't help himself, his aversion to the idea came through his tone.
"I work for the Minister of Information," his companion replied, "he listens to what I have to say, and at least here I can possibly do some good."
The answer didn't ring with much conviction. The Minister of Information was known in the free world as Propaganda Persius, and Harry wondered how his honourable friend could sleep at night knowing some of the lies that she must help to concoct. He kept that thought to himself, and asked more practically, "Why are you here?"
"Oh, Harry!" emotion suddenly appeared in Hermione's deep eyes, and she took a rapid few steps forward; Harry tensed, anxiety making him jumpy, and then regretted it, as his companion halted her approach, grief coming out in clenched fists, as she continued, "Harry, has three years changed us so much? We used to be friends. I couldn't not come."
The Auror's heart broke at the first honest, unguarded admission. Releasing his charge for just a minute, Harry closed the remaining distance between them, and wrapped Hermione in his arms. He couldn't find anything to say, he just breathed away a sigh as an almost desperate embrace was returned. They held like that, in sincere silence, until Hermione moved. Harry relaxed a little and stepped away, looking for her gaze once more. He found it, tired, and damp, but no tears were flowing. He admired the strength he now recognised in it, and smiled weakly in reassurance.
"How are you?" he began again, pushing aside the future for the moment.
"Surviving," came back, matter-of-factly, "Living with Arthur and Molly works out for all of us, they take care of the twins for me, and they need the rent since Arthur was excluded from the New Ministry."
Harry just nodded, he wasn't supposed to comment; he had heard those facts from Remus as well. Arthur Weasley had never struck him as the type to tow the line, even of a dangerously vindictive regime, and his love of Muggles must have made him many enemies. Still, he was glad that Hermione had her Parents-In-Law for support: she had not been able to talk to her own parents since the war had been lost, for fear of endangering them. No-one had known that the newly married couple were pregnant until after Ron had been pronounced missing in action, and Harry could only imagine what it must have been like for his friend in those dark days. He regretted not having been there: it was one more thing he could blame 'the good guys' for, and now he had little time to make up for it.
"Do you hear from the others much?" he asked, carefully avoiding names as he realised he didn't necessarily know who was still alive.
Hermione nodded, with the ghost of a smile and replied, "Fred and George are doing well with the joke shop. They're both married now, did you know?"
"I see Neville sometimes, he works at the hospital, he's a good healer. And you?"
Harry shrugged and turned away, his fingers running back over the dark wood of his mission.
"Percy is doing well," he began with the easy information, "if he'd known I was going to see you I'm sure he would have sent a message. Remus and Severus are the only two other contacts I have with the old group."
"How do you put up with old Snape?" Hermione thought she picked the path with the least thorns as well.
Harry laughed haltingly, trying to hide the pang of anger he still harboured for his ex-teacher, and admitted, "We don't get on much. We tolerate each other's company for the sake of a little touch with the old world," he gestured around. "It's been frustrating just sitting on our arses and having to watch. I think he wants to join Remus on his daring dos, but Fudge won't hear of it. One of these days he's going to just stop listening to those bloody bureaucrats."
"Some things never change," the young woman sighed, and Harry glanced back at her; her face showed a mixture of wistful remembrance and anxiety. Impulsively he reached out and rubbed her arm supportively. She blinked up at him, as though she had forgotten he was there for a moment. Her sincerity hit him like a wall as she told him, "It is good to see you, Harry."
"I'm glad you're here," he returned with equal depth, unable to stifle the pangs of regret any more.
His companion's eyes misted again as she stared directly into his, and her next disclosure came in a fervent whisper. "Run Harry, get out of here while you still can. I can get you to the door."
Sadly, the young wizard shook his head, and backed off again in defence of his own resolve. Hermione followed him, almost pleading as she objected, "You've done as they asked, you've delivered that thing, whatever it is, now go!"
"That's not what Voldemort wants," Harry countered quietly, and he saw all the fight evaporate from his friend.
The unspoken truth hung in the air between them and at that moment, the vulnerability in the condemned man wished things could have been different. Then he wanted to take Hermione in his arms and tell her it was alright, that things would be better soon, but they wouldn't. He'd never told anyone about the Prophecy, only old Dumbledore had shared his secret, but now it looked like it was coming true with him as the victim.
"You'd better leave," he advised with a calm on the outside that he didn't feel within; it was the old separateness he experienced when he thought of that horrendous night when Sirius had died and he had been told everything. Pushing that thought aside, he continued, "They'll be back soon."
He stamped on his emotions as his companion merely nodded acknowledgement.
"Goodbye," her words came out in a thin murmur.
Harry just stared, and hoped his eyes said what he couldn't bring himself to say. Hermione nodded at him again, and he hoped that meant she understood, and then she fled. As the door closed, Harry turned resolutely back to the innocuous wooden casket on the desk and picked it up.