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Break Out by TenthWeasley

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Format: Novella
Chapters: 15
Word Count: 39,684
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong Language, Strong Violence, Scenes of a Mild Sexual Nature, Substance Use or Abuse, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme, Contains Spoilers

Genres: Horror/Dark, Action/Adventure, AU
Characters: Ron, Hermione, Arthur, Bill, Charlie, Percy, Bellatrix, Voldemort, Draco, Ginny
Pairings: Ron/Hermione, Arthur/Molly, Bill/Fleur, Harry/Ginny

First Published: 06/21/2012
Last Chapter: 01/09/2013
Last Updated: 01/09/2013

Summary:




"Hell is empty, and all the devils are here." - William Shakespeare

2012 Dobby Finalist: Best Novella, Best Action/Adventure. 2013 TGS Runner-Up: Most Believable AU. Absolutely amazing banner by Giola @ TDA!


Chapter 1: I.
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On.

It was an oddly tempting word, more so now than it had ever been before, when life had been something taken for granted. Harry could taste it on the tip of his tongue - cool and clear and cold, just like the room he stood in now, but much heavier, much more demanding. It was the hope of seeing his parents, after more than seventeen years. It was the promise of being reunited with Sirius, and Mad-Eye, and Lupin, and Tonks, and Fred, and Colin. All those people, dead because of him.

Could he disregard their sacrifice, though? Had they died in vain, if he chose to see their faces once more? How could you choose between the dead you missed, and the living, who would miss you?

He looked inquiringly at Dumbledore, as if he expected the old man to give him any hints as to which choice he was supposed to make. But his former headmaster said nothing and only looked back, hands clasped politely in front of him.

“If I do go on,” he said slowly, words forming thickly in his mouth, “I could never go back.”

Dumbledore inclined his head gently. “Correct.”

Harry took a deep breath and ran his hand through his hair, unintentionally copying the motion from the father he’d never known. His hand went automatically to shove his glasses a bit farther up his nose before he remembered that in this world-between-worlds, glasses had been deemed unnecessary. “Ron and Hermione know about the last Horcrux,” he said uncertainly. “And there is just one more?”

Dumbledore nodded and looked interestedly at a stray thread hanging from the sleeve of his robes, patiently waiting for Harry to make up his mind.

He paced up and down, pressing his fingers into his eyes so that the whiteness became even more glaring. “He could be finished for good, if I go back,” he burst out angrily, although he didn’t know where the anger was coming from. “But… if I don’t?”

“Chance is not something to be set down in ink, Harry,” Dumbledore answered. “I cannot tell you how the scales will tip. Although you might think I could, as I am - if I may put it bluntly - dead.” He beamed, blue eyes twinkling like small skies framed in the gold of his spectacles.

Harry glanced over his shoulder, down the tracks, but there was no train in sight. Guilt and indecision twisted the pit of his stomach, and he looked back at Dumbledore.

“Will they… think I’m weak?” he said, indicating with his head at the tiled floor of the station. He didn’t know why - perhaps he already imagined he had left a world below him.

“Harry, they will never know the difference.”

He craned his neck again and thought, just maybe, there was the outline of a scarlet steam engine in the distance. Or was the brightness playing tricks with his imagination?

“They can do it, Professor.” He turned back to Dumbledore, who was once again investigating the stray thread; he let his sleeve drop as Harry looked at him anew. “They can win this. I know they can.” He did not have to tell Dumbledore who he was talking about. The Order would keep fighting, because it was their nature. Hermione, and Ron - all the Weasleys - and Neville, and Luna, and everyone. “And the prophecy,” he added hesitantly. “I’ll fulfill that too, by – by doing this?”

Dumbledore blinked placidly at him, but offered no answer.

From behind him there was a sort of shuffling noise, and the Hogwarts Express rolled quietly into place, as though it had hovered on the brink all along. With a whoosh and a last burst of steam, looking gray against the brighter whiteness in comparison to it, a door midway along its cars opened silently.

“Have you decided, Harry?” Dumbledore asked.

His heart clenched painfully in his chest and tears pricked uncomfortably at the corners of his eyes. He could not go on.

He could never go back.

“Yeah. I have.”

I’m coming home, Mum.

With determined steps that made absolutely no sound, Harry strode down the length of the train and stood before the open door. The inside compartment was familiar, indistinguishable from those he’d sat in, riding to and from school for six years. The best years of his life had started on this train; it was fitting those years would end here, too.

He took a deep breath and clambered on. Dumbledore followed.

The Hogwarts Express moved out of the station.

*

Narcissa Malfoy could not bear to look at the boy on the ground. Harry was Draco’s age, young and immortal and full of all the vitality and possibility that youth signified.

And here was, before her, sprawled unnaturally on the detritus that littered the centuries-old forest. Distant conversation thrummed in her ears - she could hear her sister conferring with the Dark Lord - but the only thing her mind could process was how difficult it had suddenly become to breathe.

From behind her, Lucius suddenly nudged her shoulder as gently as he could. “Narcissa.” She started and blinked up at him, wide-eyed. He looked just as pained as she felt. “He has asked you to check if the boy is dead.”

Her eyes flicked briefly to the Dark Lord’s, red and glaring, and she gave an involuntary gasp of fright. How fitting, she knew, that the mother of such a young boy should be asked to confirm the mortality of another.

She walked over to the prone figure of Harry and knelt quietly next to him. Her hand scrabbled for the left side of his chest, half-expecting to feel a pulse, blood thrumming under the skin beneath her fingertips. There was nothing, nothing but a shell where a heart had once beat.

The words, when spoken, were tremulous. “Dead, my Lord.”

*

Lord Voldemort looked at the still figure of Harry Potter on the leaf-strewn forest floor, not quite believing that he was dead. Narcissa had claimed it, but he knew better than to trust a Malfoy anymore. His reddened eyes roved over to Lucius - that sniveling excuse for a man was proof enough of that.

He crossed silently to Potter and, almost gently, turned the boy’s jaw towards him with his foot. Potter’s head turned stiffly, in a position that in life would have been endlessly uncomfortable. He did not react, did not stir - not a flutter of a breath passed his lips, already growing cold in lifelessness. Almost as an afterthought, he noticed the boy’s glasses had become cracked in the blast from the Killing Curse.

Lord Voldemort did not notice the bead of blood, redder than his eyes, welling up on his index finger, seeping from a nonexistent cut, from the very pores of his skin.

As the Death Eaters shouted their victory, already preparing themselves for the resolution of their battle, the drop of blood grew slowly larger. It clung to the bone-white skin for a fragile moment, and then dropped to the ground, becoming instantly lost amongst the foliage.

No more followed.
 
A/N: I've been working on this story for a few months now, and the idea's been in my head even longer -- and now I'm finally at the point where I can start posting it! Updates on this are, I think, going to be a bit more sporadic and less straitlaced than on some of my past stories, but I really just want to take my time with this and make it the best it can be. I can't wait to write it!

Reviews are, as always, massively appreciated, and if you've made it this far I'd love to hear from you. This chapter was a bit more of a prologue than anything, but it's very much an AU Ron/Hermione. Thank you for reading!


Chapter 2: II.
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The world was on fire - hot ash and thick smoke and light, light everywhere, but none that promised respite or rest. Flames cast eerie orange shadows across the grounds and onto the silhouettes of the trees of the Forbidden Forest before sprinkling in hazy strips through the high, narrow windows of the Great Hall. It was as though dawn had come before the world was ready for it. The screams of the fallen and the grieving rose and fell in a high, wailing chorus, a backdrop to the symphony that was chaos.

The only thing that Ron could bring into focus was that he could not let go of Hermione’s hand, and so he gripped it tightly, his right in her left. Both were ignorant of the sweat and dirt and blood that clung to their skin, because they were both still alive, and that was really all that mattered. It did not matter that Fred was dead, only a few feet away from him. It did not matter that the bodies that littered the floor around his brother were, for the most part, faces he could place, voices he would have recognized, had they still possessed the ability to speak.

It did not matter, because it could not matter. If he thought about it now, he would go mad.

“Ron,” said a quiet voice in his ear. He turned his head a fraction to the right, and Hermione, concern etched all over her face, placed her other hand atop his. She did not need to say any more; anything else would have been too much, and he appreciated more than he could say the fact that she knew exactly what he needed.

There was a long pause, and from across the hall, someone groaned, a thousand agonies contained in a sound. Ron tried to pretend like he hadn’t heard it. “Do you know where Harry is?” he asked finally, working with the fingernail of his free hand at a spot on his jeans. It was dark; he didn’t want to know what it was.

Hermione chewed her bottom lip, brow creasing further. “No,” she admitted. “I figured he -“ She gave a great, shuddering gasp as someone cut her off midsentence, the speaker’s voice too loud and cold and cruel to be anyone worth hearing from. The bodiless words reverberated off the high, half-collapsed rafters, and in stunned silence, three people - the symbols of a cause - fractured and became two.

Hermione had gotten quickly to her feet as soon as Voldemort had started speaking, jerking her hand from Ron’s and clutching her throat as though it was her own voice. He tried to block this out, too, but the words were too loud, crawling into the corners of his mind and making his skin clammy and cold. He didn’t want any more bad news. He couldn’t handle any more grief. Not just yet.

But reality was already pooling in Hermione’s eyes, manifesting itself as tears. He felt a sick, welling sense of panic in his chest; already gasping for breath he’d not yet lost, he lurched to his feet.

“’Mione?”

At full tilt, Hermione pelted for the front doors to the castle, and Ron bolted after her before he could give it a second thought. Ahead of them was Professor McGonagall - irrelevantly, Ron wondered where she had come from - and from behind came the sound of dozens upon dozens of feet, dozens of people each fervently wishing that it was not true, that Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, was not dead…

There was a row of people ranged just beyond the line of trees, stretched out like an army of shadows, their hoods drawn up to hide their faces. One form was out of place, and as Ron shuddered to a stop beside Hermione, feverishly grabbing for her sleeve to hold onto, he placed it instantly. Hagrid stood in the very center of the line of Death Eaters, his body visibly shaking with sobs, even from this distance. And in his arms -

A scream tore from Hermione, rough and broken, and Ron jumped involuntarily.

HARRY!

She made as though to start for him, but Ron yanked her back, his throat closing up. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, but only fumbled to press her closer to him, so she wouldn’t have to be witness to that sort of pain. He needed to bear it for her, because it would crush her. Harry was limp and oddly still, cradled in Hagrid’s arms - the boy who was forced too soon to become a man, reverted back to a child at the time they needed him most.

To Ron’s left, separated by a sea of people he couldn’t even think to name at the moment, his eyes locked on his younger sister. In this distance, her shouts were muffled, distant and almost nonexistent; it was as though the entire world had, for a moment, been plunged into the sea, and everything was the sound of water, thick and silent and rushing. On Hermione’s other side, Neville grappled with Professor Slughorn, who was unsuccessfully restraining him. Hermione was trembling gently, her one anguished cry spent. Her silence was worse than that scream, Ron thought. He squeezed his eyes shut.

But almost immediately they flew open; the world rushed back into sound, rising in cacophonous shouts. Neville burst free from the line, the first move in the chess game they had foolishly ranged themselves into, the pawn in their war. He quivered with ill-suppressed anger.

From the other side, a tall, thin man - if, indeed, he still possessed enough human qualities to be called a man - stepped from the silhouettes of the Death Eaters. The stars reflected brightly in his blood-red eyes, and then the still-burning castle swallowed them; the world on fire still.

“You see?” He spoke clearly, his voice still magically magnified so that every man and woman and, regrettably, child could hear what he meant to say. “The boy you meant to be your savior -“

“He’s saved us still!” Neville roared, hands clutched into furious fists at his sides. Ron had never seen him this angry; his face was almost as red as their enemy’s eyes. Voldemort raised a slim, superior eyebrow in haughty amusement.

“Oh?”

“He died for us,” Neville said fiercely. Hermione raised a shaking hand to cover her mouth, pressing hard on her lips; Ron instinctively drew her closer, as though it might help.

“He died running away. He died leaving you to fend for yourselves,” Voldemort hissed, eyes narrowed. “Where does that leave him? Where does that leave you?”

“It leaves me fighting, and I’ll keep on fighting until I die - or you do,” Neville snarled. The man opposite him laughed, an action without any humor in it. He opened his mouth to say something else, but it was cut off as a voice hissed in Ron’s ear, making him jump.

“Ron - watch your sister.” Although she stood a good head or two shorter than her youngest son, Mrs. Weasley seemed to stand much taller in her defiance. Her hard eyes were turned on the row of cloaked figures ranged in front of the darker shapes of the trees; the hand that clenched her wand was shaking. She glanced quickly at Neville, and Ron understood - the intuitions that propelled his mother, the innate need to mother and comfort and protect, were drawing her towards Ron’s classmate.

Ron reached over roughly and yanked Ginny by the sleeve; she was still limp, grief-stricken so as to be past the point of sobbing, instead moving on to something like a near-dead numbness. But before Ron could warn his mother away, there was a violent scream, and the heads of the three Weasleys, as well as Hermione, snapped back to look at Neville.

Something was burning him, some formless brown shape atop his head - the Sorting Hat. Ron felt nausea well up within him as he tried not to watch while Neville burned alive… He did not know how it had happened, and somehow, guiltily, he didn’t want to…

“Ron.” Hermione’s hands scrabbled painfully across his chest, seeking purchase in the torn wool of his sweater; she seemed to want to fold into him, equally unable to watch, determinedly unable to look away. “Ron -“

And for a second time, whatever he had been about to hear was interrupted by a shout - not just one, but seemingly dozens upon dozens, layered in pitch and intensity and coming from everywhere at once. He turned his head the other direction just in time to see a horde of people swarming into Hogwarts, wands brandished. The thin wooden sticks looked impossibly small and frail, no weapons for war.

As if it was a cue, the Death Eaters surged forward as the newly-made army broke free; with a painful stab in his chest, Ron saw Hagrid hoist Harry’s limp body aloft, to keep it free from the destruction.

“Ron - Neville!” Hermione’s half-panicked, half-relieved voice broke through the outside world again, and he glanced down before seeking whatever it was she mentioned. The Hat had stopped burning, and from it, Neville drew a sword -

“’Mione, the sword!”

But she had already seen it; with a harsh cry that he suspected she had no conscious knowledge of having escaped her, her hand closed around his wrist, jerking him forward just as the enemy set upon them. Ron ducked as a jet of black light shot towards him; the acrid smell of burned hair filled his nose. The ground rushed to meet him as he stumbled, splay-legged, and pitched forward. His chin knocked into the back of one of Hermione’s legs, and she cried out again. Both rolled into the dirt, Ron’s mouth full of the taste of bitter earth. He spat it out hastily, gagging.

But it seemed, thankfully, they had been sprinting for nothing - by some mysterious magic (and Ron largely suspected Harry’s involvement, when he and Hermione were still in the Great Hall), Neville seemed to know exactly what the sword meant to their efforts. His eyes swung around, darting furiously; he didn’t seem to notice the shining red skin on his temples from the burning. They locked on the snake, free from its glittering sphere of a cage.

“Kill it, Neville, kill it!” Ron roared, still prone on the ground, trying to gather his arms and legs under him to push himself back up. With surprising speed, Neville lunged. The fire from the castle glinted off the sword as it swung.

Ron could just hear the high, icy cry of rage as he saw Nagini beheaded, the ground instantly coated in thick dark liquid. He tried not to gag again, and lurched to his feet.

“Hermione, get up!”

But she was still sitting on the ground, gasping for air - the breath had been knocked out of her when Ron had pitched into her. “My wrist -“ she said in a small, painful voice, clutching her left arm against her chest. It was the voice that scared him, even more than when he looked down and saw the odd angle at which her hand stuck out.

Ron swore, tears pricking his eyes, although he tried not to let her see. “Merlin, Hermione, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he muttered, more to himself than to her. “I’m sorry, ‘Mione, I didn’t mean to -“

“It’s not your fault,” she said harshly, tears thick in her own voice. She reached out and pulled hard on the shoulder of his jacket, as though steadying herself. “Can you - ?”

At precisely that moment, there was a noise like an explosion, and Ron felt himself rocked off his feet again, his jacket yanked away from Hermione’s grip. The world tilted violently, a blur of orange and brown and black, and his head collided with something hard, just enough so that he kept consciousness. He briefly wished he hadn’t; momentary escape would have been welcome.

He groaned and flipped quickly onto his back; the motion made his head throb painfully, and he groaned again without meaning to. The sky above him was oddly colored, streaked with yellow and black from the thick smoke. It was not a natural sky; it was a sky of battle. Of death.

He felt, more than heard, footsteps pounding in his direction, and sat up quickly, earning another throb from his battered temples. Somehow, by some miracle, he found his wand was still gripped in his right hand - fresh chips marring the wood, but otherwise unharmed. He jerked it around, prepared to battle whomever was storming his way.

He saw, with a slight jolt of surprise, Bill and Fleur, the latter just ahead of her husband. Ron’s sister-in-law somehow managed to look graceful even with hell unfolding behind her, sending a neat spell over her shoulder at a Death Eater, currently engaged in fighting with Oliver Wood, as she ran. The man crumpled instantly.

“Ron, get up,” Bill snapped hastily, the anger a poor mask for the fear that lay beneath it. He reached down and jerked his younger brother up unceremoniously.

“What’s going on?” Ron asked, bits of dirt, now turned to mud, still flecking the corners of his mouth. He scraped his sleeve hastily across his lips.

“We’re losing,” said Bill shortly; he reached down and laced his fingers tightly with his wife’s. “We need to get to the gates now. Kingsley’s orders.”

“Why - ?”

But Ron knew why Kingsley would be the one in charge, and the question died in his throat before he had time to ask it. Everyone else was dead, weren’t they?

There was another explosion, this one not close enough to knock down any of the Weasleys, although the ground shook beneath them. “Now,” Bill snapped, and, with the hand that held his wand, he shoved Ron in the small of the back, urging him forward. They ran, ducking spells, jumping debris…

Ron might have kept running, had he not seen Neville.

They were very near the castle gates with a Death Eater, hooded so they couldn’t see his face, darted into their path. Bright white light spun from his wand in a sort of spiral pattern, slipping right between Bill and Fleur. As Ron jumped to the side, his wand poised to retaliate, he trod on something - not wood or stone, some piece of the castle no longer intact, but something that gave slightly beneath the sole of his trainer.

Neville Longbottom was sprawled on the grass in a very unnatural position, his chin slumped forward onto his chest. His eyes were mercifully closed against the flecks of scarlet that dotted his unnaturally pale cheeks.

No,” Ron moaned, falling to his knees, both wanting to check to make sure his classmate was really dead - and not wanting to touch him at all. Just minutes ago, he had seen him, courage embodied - he had killed Nagini, and now…

This, said a very small voice in his brain, is what happens to people who think they are brave. This is what happened to Harry. It will happen to you.

Again, Bill shoved him back onto his feet. He did it out of love, but Ron somehow still found it within himself to be annoyed. “You can’t do anything for him,” he said roughly, but seeing Neville - being reminded of the last time he had seen him - forced Ron’s mind onto a different track. He jerked around.

“Where’s Hermione?” He glanced at Fleur; she shook her head mutely. “Did you get her to the gates? Is she safe?”

“I don’t know, Ron -“

And then he saw her, through a narrow gap in the throng of people milling across the grounds, her eyes roving, huge and dark and terrified. She still clutched her broken wrist. He ached suddenly with the longing to be near her, so quick and intense it washed away any other vestiges of pain.

“Ron, you can’t! We have to get away now!” Bill grabbed his brother’s arm and indicated that his wife should take the other; they began physically dragging him towards the gate, towards the point where they could safely Apparate away.

“No! No! Hermione!”

But she couldn’t hear him - how could she be able to? There was too much chaos, too much pandemonium - he was weak, weaker than weak, powerless to save her or to protect her or do anything but fling her name, raw and scratched, from his throat -

Let me go! Hermione! HERMIONE!” He was losing ground rapidly -

Ron saw someone start in her direction, and made one last pitiful tug, but his vision was blacking at the corners now, the knot on his head finally catching up with him.

Hermione!”

Bill and Fleur shoved Ron through the castle’s iron gate - little more than battered, twisted metal scraps now - and turned immediately on the spot. Hogwarts vanished from sight, wiped away as though by a giant’s hand, and as they entered the in-between realm that was Apparition, Ron passed out.

A/N: So I've got to start off this particular author's note with a massive thank-you to everyone who's read and reviewed this story so far -- I didn't ever anticipate the reaction this would garner, and honestly, it's been so fun just hearing what everyone's thoughts on the story are so far. Another thank-you goes out to Giola, of course, who made the spectacular banner you probably couldn't miss, and to WeasleyTwinMom, for looking this chapter over for me to make sure everything was compliant.

I said this to someone in a review response, and I thought it apt enough to relay here -- everything in this story is canon up until the point where Harry is killed by Voldemort in the forest. After that, anything's fair game, which is really the beauty of AU. Thanks again, guys, and if you've come this far and would like to leave me another review, that'd be awesome!

Chapter 3: III.
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He couldn’t breathe; something dense and powdery was filling his mouth, his nostrils, choking the air, and he couldn’t breathe.

Ron rolled onto his back with tremendous effort and spat out a mouthful of the stuff, gagging, his breath burning as he tried to force it out of his throat. His whole existence at that point in time was inhaling, exhaling, trying to come back to himself from wherever the hell he’d been.

Where was he? And how had he gotten there?

But they were fruitless questions – almost immediately the entirety of the night’s events came rushing back towards him, right as the knot on his head throbbed with pain. He brushed the powder from his eyes, his nose, his cheeks, and looked down at his fingers. They were cut up from the battle, and the sand was getting in his wounds, stinging them. Sand.

Ron looked about him wildly; some distance away, over a small, grass-covered sand dune, he could see the top of Shell Cottage. And behind him, making soft noises in the closely-packed sand as they, too, struggled to get their bearings, Bill was helping Fleur to his feet as gently as he could manage.

“No,” Ron said – or, rather, croaked; the inside of his mouth and throat was still rough with the sand he had inadvertently swallowed. It was the first word to enter his mind, and the only one his raging headache seemed to allow him to hold onto. Bill and Fleur turned in his direction; the moon was brighter here, reflecting off the tauntingly calm ocean, and he could see the blood and bruises that speckled their skin, too.

No,” he groaned, a bit more insistently, and he bent double and clenched his head in his gritty fingertips. From behind him, but sounding as though it came from a much greater distance, he heard footsteps padding across the expanse of sand, and a warm, firm hand was laid on his shoulder. Ron didn’t want it there, but he didn’t have the strength to brush it away.

“We have to go back,” he said thickly, both ashamed of and relieved by the tears that sprang to his eyes. He brushed the back of his hand across them roughly despite the fact that it only made the stinging feeling worse.

“We need to get you inside, Ron.” Bill’s voice was low and comforting, but the words somehow caused a bubble of panic to rise in the eighteen-year-old’s chest. He couldn’t go inside, safe and sound, not when Harry was dead, not when Hermione might be too…

“No!” The scream tore its way from his throat with vicious and minuscule claws, and he screamed again just because it hurt. He tried now to push away Bill’s hand, but spots swam in front of his eyes, and he ground the heels of his hands into them.

And without quite knowing how, Ron found that Bill’s entire arm was encircling his shoulders, and his face was pressed into the shirt of his oldest brother – it still smelled like smoke and death – and he was sobbing, in a way that almost ashamed him, for the fear that he had just lost everything.

“I’m sorry, Ron.” Was Bill crying too? It sounded like it – he couldn’t remember the last time he had heard his brother break down, if he had ever heard such a thing at all. The thought only made him cry harder, more fiercely, and it felt good to cry. In some absurd, abstract way, Ron thought that this, if nothing else, was something he could do at the moment to help her. If he cried, if he showed weakness, then he could build upon it, and be strong for her later.

It made no sense, but it was what he clung to anyway.

Hermione.

*

Shell Cottage was crammed with people; bodies were pressed in tightly against the kitchen counters, spilling out into the dining room where they clustered around the table there, and even more people squeezed into the living room. Everybody was searching for familiar faces, friends and loved ones they were hoping had made it out of the thick of the battle in time to escape.

Ron was moving solely by Bill’s guidance, a steady hand inflicting pressure on his right shoulder blade – Fleur had been detained in the garden by Luna, who was bleeding profusely from a cut on her arm. He ushered him through the kitchen without stopping to speak to anyone; from his perch next to the sink, Percy looked up as his brothers passed. His face was still etched with the traces of guilt and shame that had manifested themselves in the Room of Requirement. He got up wordlessly as the pair passed and followed them into the dining room.

Ron’s mum and dad were sitting around the table; Arthur was talking in a low, urgent voice to Kingsley Shacklebolt, who was pressing a hand to his forehead, staring unseeingly at the scrubbed wooden surface as he listened. Every so often he would nod, but he didn’t speak.

“Oh, Ron!” Molly stood up quickly from the table, her voice breaking as she said his name. Ron let her clasp her arms around him, but he couldn’t bring himself to hug her back. “Oh, we were so worried…” She ran a hand over his hair and then stood back, holding him at arm’s length. “You’re all right?”

“They have Hermione, Mum,” Bill said quietly, and their mother’s brown eyes flicked over to her eldest son before landing again on her youngest. Ron felt as though he’d been punched in the stomach, hearing the words – it seemed more real, more desperate, when someone said them aloud – and moved his hand to cover the ache without questioning it.

“And are you -?” Molly’s hands searched for something to occupy them, a wound to mend or a worry to smooth away, but there was nothing. “Is anyone else still outside?”

“Fleur and Luna.” Bill shoved his hands roughly into his pockets. “We were the last ones on the beach.” Molly pressed a hand to her mouth, and, after a moment, breathed in deeply, closing her eyes and nodding. She didn’t say anything else.

Bill walked over to the table and sat down beside his father in the seat his mother had just vacated; Ron scooted a few inches to the left, trying to get away from Molly’s worried looks. He didn’t need that right now – what he needed was a plan, action, for somebody to do something about all the people that had been left behind at Hogwarts…

“I know what you’re saying, Arthur.” Kingsley’s slow, deep voice faded into Ron’s consciousness, slowly growing clearer. “But even you will agree with me that it’s impractical to head right back into the grounds with You-Know-Who thinking he’s won –“

“Too many have died already in this war for us to discount those who didn’t make it out,” Arthur interrupted firmly. “If we can save one life, Kingsley, then it’s worth the risk.” Ron couldn’t remember the last time he had seen his father wearing that particular expression, if he’d ever seen it at all; his eyebrows were drawn low over his forehead, his mouth set in a hard, grim line of grief disguised as determination.

“We have to have a plan, Arthur,” Kingsley said, smacking the table with the palm of his hand for emphasis. Everyone in the room jumped; the atmosphere had thickened with tension as side conversations dwindled to listen to the two men speak.

“Kingsley’s right, Dad.” Bill leaned forward on his elbows, trying to command his father’s attention; he didn’t look any more pleased with the idea, Ron noticed.

“And do you have a plan?” Arthur said bitterly, sitting back and folding his arms tightly across his chest. “For every minute – for every second – we sit here and talk about plans and orders, it is costing us lives. Or have you not noticed the missing?”

“Arthur,” Molly hissed, but he paid her no heed.

“One of my sons is dead!” Ron’s father’s voice rose to a tremulous shout; no one dared breathe, fearing they would be the target of his anger next. “And another missing, more than likely captured, and I’m supposed to lose him as well?”

Ron felt as though he’d swallowed a stone, and stepped forward without thinking about it. “Who’s missing, Dad?” He could feel his throat closing up even as he asked the question, tears already gathering for the brother he didn’t yet know was gone. There was a horrible, painful silence in the room.

“Charlie, Ron,” his father sighed at last, running a weary hand over his equally weary eyes. He pushed back his chair and stood from the table. “And unless we do something about it,” he added, vitriolic anger lacing his words like bitter poison, “he’ll be dead, too.”

Molly let out a strangled-sounding sob, and Hestia Jones, who had been standing by the doorway leading into the kitchen nursing a long, narrow cut on her cheek, rushed forward to place an arm around her shoulders. Somehow, Ron thought, feeling rather hollow inside, it was harder to see his mother suppressing her tears than it was for him to see her cry.

Arthur moved quickly from the room, the crowd in the house parting wordlessly to let him through. There was the distant sound of the door opening and closing, and then the remaining crowd just looked at one another, not quite sure what else to say.

“He knows it’s true,” Bill muttered in an undertone. Kingsley sighed and nodded, rubbing his large hands over his face in a weary gesture. And at this, Ron felt a violent surge of boiling anger. His mouth snapped open before he could quite realize what he was doing.

“Do you want Charlie to die?” From somewhere behind him, he heard his mother gasp, and that only made him angrier. “It’s easy for you to make decisions, isn’t it, sitting here around a table while half the Order’s probably getting tortured out of their minds –“

“Ron,” Bill snapped, turning in his chair to face his brother, “grow up. You’re only eighteen, you wouldn’t –“

Ron had his wand out of the waistband of his jeans so fast, it even surprised him. “I wouldn’t what?” he snarled. “I wouldn’t understand?” Someone behind him spoke his name – a female voice, perhaps Fleur’s – but he jerked his head irritably, as though to rid his thoughts of it.

“You can’t even imagine how much I understand,” he said icily. “I’m not some little kid – I know a hell of a lot more than you’d ever give me credit for. And Dad’s right. The longer we sit here, the more people are going to die.” He pressed his lips together, clamping down hard on them, trying to stop himself from saying any more things he knew he’d regret later.

Bill’s mouth had dropped open slightly, and it would have almost looked comical if Ron hadn’t been so angry. Didn’t Bill and Kingsley, all of them – didn’t they care? He shoved past his brother’s chair roughly, not sure whether he was about to laugh or scream, or possibly both, and just kept moving, swimming through a sea of faces and finally reaching the door leading out of Shell Cottage.

Arthur was standing a little ways down the path, staring off towards the sea. The sky was lightening slightly; a fresh day was dawning. He crunched over the sand-strewn cobbles in the path and came to stop beside Arthur, mimicking his distant gaze.

“This war will go on forever.” His father spoke quietly, the dull roar of the sea nearly drowning his words, but Ron caught them well enough. “They are right, Ron – they are – but I’m so tired of fighting.”

Ron knew exactly what his father meant; he was tired, too. He let out a shaky sigh and tried to swallow against the lump in his throat, tried not to think about where Hermione and Charlie and all the rest of them might be at this very moment. If he thought about it, his mind wouldn’t be able to let his body do anything about it, and he couldn’t let that happen.

“Yeah,” he said at least, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his coat and hunching his back slightly, staring at the dirt on his shoes. There was a small, rust-colored splotch that stuck out on the leather, near the toe of the left one; he quickly averted his eyes and made another attempt to swallow.

He watched the sky gradually lighten from navy to blue, and touches of light purple appeared at the corners of the world. With the rising sun, he felt a small amount of determination blossoming within him. And – if it was possible – something infinitesimally small, something that might have been hope, grew along with it.

Arthur reached over and set a hand on his son’s shoulder, squeezing it none too gently, though it seemed to imbibe a bit of strength into the younger man. Ron glanced at his father, but Arthur was still looking out to a more distant place.

We will come up with a plan, Ron thought firmly. We will. And then we’ll get her out. And she will be all right.

He had to believe it; it was all he had.

A/N: Whoops -- I totally didn't mean for almost two weeks to pass before I updated this story! Time got away from me, I suppose, as time does tend to do. But the chapter's here now, and no harm done, so here we are. I love writing Ron, and I wanted to sort of pop into his head once more before switching back to what's going on with Hermione (that's what the fourth chapter will deal with), so I hope that's all right. This story sort of requires a bit of setting up before some of the action occurs, but we're getting there!

Thank you so much to everyone who's read and reviewed this story so far. 35 reviews as I write this, and for two chapters -- that's incredible! I really am so, so appreciative of all the feedback like you wouldn't believe. And if you liked this chapter, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it, too! Thank you again!


Chapter 4: IV.
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The entire world seemed to tilt violently to one side, and the sleeve of Ron’s jacket that Hermione had been clinging to was torn from her fingers with equal force. Everything she had ever known – the ground, beneath her feet; the sky, above her head – was yanked from consciousness, swapping places and whirling in a blend of sickeningly unnatural color.

And then, just as quickly, the earth seemed to fight back, and it righted itself, everything falling into place again. Sky above, ground below, a fiery horizon at all other cardinal points.

Hermione instinctively raised her arms to shield her face from the stone still left spinning long after she had stopped, forgetting until that moment, however briefly, about the break in her wrist; it was amazing, she thought absently, how it was so easy to forget something so large when the chaos of the world was even larger. She cried aloud in pain without quite meaning to, feeling the bits of rubble from the explosion pelt her face and her neck and her hands, any bit of skin they could reach, bruising the exposed parts mercilessly. There was dust and debris and it choked her, coated her throat, and she couldn’t see

She couldn’t lose Ron; not now, not when the sting of Harry’s loss was still so freshly seared in her mind. It had been mere minutes – though it felt like days – since she had seen the body, the lifeless form of the Boy Who Lived. Irony at its finest. Her throat was still raw from the screams at realizing it, her ears still buzzing with the numbness that quickly ensued. But Ron had been there then, and he was not here now, when she desperately needed him to be.

“Ron!” His name was a croak from her lips, more animalistic than anything else, and she clutched at the ground for purchase, trying to ignore the searing, splintering pain shooting from her roughly-broken wrist. If she had her wand, she could do something, mend it at least temporarily – but where had her wand gone?

Hermione sat up a bit straighter and looked around, panic slowly welling in her chest as someone gave a scream that raised the small hairs on the back of her neck. Her wand, her wand, where was –

And there it was, lying innocuously on the ground in front of her, maybe four or five paces away. That sort of a distance seemed infinite to her now. She made to lean forward, straining to reach it, but just as the handle nearly brushed her fingertips, her eyes wandered upward, further than the carved wood she reached for. And across the grounds, her eyes locked on Ron’s.

One of his older brothers – it had to be Bill, the woman by his side had hair too silvery to be anyone but Fleur – had Ron’s upper arm in his hand and seemed to be dragging him somewhere: Toward the gates leading out of the castle, toward the possibility of abandoning all this hell. Abandoning her.

Hermione’s breath caught in her throat, and she held her wrist closer to her chest, as though maybe that would bring him back to her. He’s not leaving you, the logical part of her brain whispered harshly. He’ll come back for you, or he’ll send someone else to come back for you. Hermione had always been one to listen to logic, reason, and sense, and why should this time be any different?

But she watched, with a dull, numbing sort of horror, as though she was an onlooker into a dream – no, a nightmare – as Fleur grabbed Ron’s other arm, and he screamed mutely (was it her name on his lips, or was it only the distance between them that made her see it?), and then he was gone.

“Ron,” she cried again, sounding both more human and more broken this time around. There were pounding footsteps, and mad, erratic jets of light, and death was so close that she thought she must know what it felt like. And still Hermione could only sit and wait for Ron to come back to her, clutching her wrist while her wand lay tantalizingly close, because he had to come back.

There was another scream, louder, more pained, although different from before, and Hermione felt a bit of her former self return to her, in cracked, jagged pieces. She folded her eyes shut tightly against the world and forced herself to take deep, calming breaths. Her mind began compiling a list of tasks, willing itself back into motion.

Grab your wand. Fix your wrist. Get to the gates. Go anywhere, get out of here. And find Ron. It seemed simple enough, at the moment. And it might have worked; but logic had one simple failing that always managed to elude her, and that was that sometimes, the world just simply wasn’t as logical as her brain wanted it to be.

“Potter’s Mudblood,” a voice above her sneered, and she turned so quickly her neck popped in protest, wondering just when this man had come to stand beside her, and why it had taken her so long to notice his arrival. “Can’t say I’m not pleased to see you again. You’re a right sight for sore eyes, you know that?”

It was the Snatcher – the one who had apprehended the three of them in the Forest of Dean. Scabior. He grinned down at Hermione with small, pointed teeth that somehow contrasted oddly with the ruthless, merciless demeanor he otherwise emanated. His wand was held almost loosely in his hand, as though it was an afterthought instead of a weapon.

His dark eyes flitted over to her wrist, and his tongue clucked in sympathy she could immediately tell he didn’t feel. “Dear, dear,” he murmured in an oily voice. “What have we done?” He reached out and, with the toe of his boot, prodded precisely the place he was searching for; Hermione gave a small scream, and immediately reached up to clasp her good hand over her mouth to stifle it. Appearing weak was a luxury she could no longer afford.

Scabior grinned nastily. “You know,” he said, stroking his chin as though pondering his next words, “I think there’s somebody who’d probably like to see you. Should I call her over?” He moved much more quickly than anticipated, stepping swiftly behind her and wrapping his fingers in her hair, pulling painfully to preempt any escape attempts. He craned his head, the tendons sticking out from the thin skin around his neck, and he lifted an arm towards someone Hermione couldn’t see.

But she could hear, and the voice sent chills even further up her spine; Scabior’s unwelcome appearance was nothing, nothing compared to this. Just the sound of it made her gasp and writhe, twisting fruitlessly away from his hold, even while she knew it was pointless.

Bellatrix Lestrange breathed a word in her ear, haughty and mocking. “Granger.”

Bellatrix cackled shrilly, evidently pleased with her victim’s knee-jerk reaction to the sound of her voice, and came around so that she was standing in front of where Hermione was awkwardly seated on the hard, wreckage-strewn ground, and tilted her head ponderingly to the side, tapping her cheek with the tip of her wand. “Well, isn’t this a lovely surprise? We’ve already got Potter, and he’s not around to protect you anymore… Then again,” she added, in a poorly concealed attempt at an afterthought, “the other one was always more interested in your safety, wasn’t he? The ginger blood traitor?”

Hermione made a noise deep in her throat and again struggled against Scabior’s deep-set hold on her hair, more to divert Bellatrix from talking about Ron than actually trying to get away from the pair of them. The tactic seemed to work; the tall woman’s lips popped closed, and her heavy-lidded eyes roamed over Hermione, drinking her in as a lioness would drink in a trapped piece of prey. They fell on the unnatural angle of Hermione’s left wrist, and a wicked, horrible smile spread over her face. Slowly, almost tentatively, she stretched forward and, with the toe of her boot, in a motion nearly identical to Scabior's, Bellatrix forced Hermione’s wrist back to the ground, in the opposite direction that it had broken.

White-hot pain seared up her arm, and she couldn’t help it; she screamed, high and wailing, tears springing to her eyes as the shout ripped from her soot-covered, smoke-roughened throat. Bellatrix only pressed hardly, her laughter mingling with Hermione’s voice until she finally let up. The break smarted and pulsed still with wave after wave of pain.

“Excellent,” Bellatrix cooed, stooping now so that her face was level with the girl on the ground. Hermione resisted the urge to spit in her face as her wrist ached at near-unbearable levels, and turned her face to the ground instead, willing her tears away, concentrating hard on a blade of grass that had, oddly enough, survived the ring of fire that had destroyed most of the rest of the grounds.

“The dungeons, then, Scabior,” Bellatrix Lestrange spoke at last, her tone laced with obvious and malignant dislike; she clearly was displeased by the fact that she couldn’t be the one to escort her there herself.

Hermione looked up angrily, her brows drawn low over her forehead. For a fleeting moment, any thoughts of worry, or panic, or fear fled from her mind; all she knew was anger. “You might as well just kill me,” she spat venomously, “and get it over with. Or are you as big a coward as Voldemort, hiding behind your –“

Her words were cut off in a violent gasp; there was a sharp sensation on her cheek, though nothing compared to the abnormal bending of her wrist a few moments ago, and something warm and wet trickled down it. Bellatrix towered above her, her wand still pointing at the girl’s face with a trembling hand.

“You will not speak the Dark Lord’s name aloud,” she hissed, the air eking from between her teeth like poison gas. Her dark eyes flitted back up to Scabior, and she jerked her head back in the direction of the castle. She felt the hand entangled in her hair pull hard, and began moving towards the doors leading into the entrance hall, back into the castle that had once been a home, and was now a hell.

The last thing she saw before Scabior wrenched her to face forward was Bellatrix’s boot, coming down hard on Hermione’s wand and snapping it cleanly in two.

*

Draco could not look away from his parents, much as he desperately wanted to. He knew he should be looking at the Dark Lord – proper etiquette and years of rules being firmly drilled into him demanded such – but he had never seen either Lucius or Narcissa Malfoy like this, not in all of his nearly eighteen years of life. Before his sixth year of school, they had been calm, self-assured, superior. Up until this point, they had been tremulous, cautious, hanging from gossamer thread that was only too willing to snap.

Now, they were scared, terrified, petrified. And they had given up.

His mother stared forward at nothing, wide-eyed and even trembling slightly; one of Draco’s hands was clutched between both of hers, and he didn’t know when it was that she had become so thin and frail. Lucius was clinging hard to the crumbling ledge of security among the Dark Lord’s followers, and was pressed as closely to Voldemort as he could manage, surveying the battle with sightless eyes. But every so often, he would look at Narcissa and Draco, and Draco knew that they were done. The Death Eaters had won this battle, but the Malfoys were finished.

From Narcissa’s other side, one of the Death Eaters shifted restlessly, his hands fisted and shoved into his pockets; his hood was drawn over his face in such a way that Draco had no idea who was under it. “C’mon, c’mon…” he muttered, as though nobody else was there. “Kill him, there’s no use in saving him…” From between the slits in his mask, his greedy little eyes flitted over the battle hungrily. Draco swallowed down the bile that rose in his throat at that.

Narcissa turned to look at the speaker with frightened eyes, but she wasn’t seeing him – not really. Draco couldn’t help but analyze her as she turned away, noticing every wrinkle, every imperfection she wouldn’t have dared to let show until recently. When had she gotten so old? Or was it just him who had grown older, his eyes losing the blindness that childhood provided?

Panic rose in his throat, and he yanked his hand from between his mother’s; she didn’t even seem to feel the gesture. He tore with soot-edged fingernails at the collar of his robes, but even doing that didn’t seem to be providing him with any air. That was it; he could see now the faults of his family, of the life they had chosen, and what was more, he could see that his mother and father saw it too. That was perhaps even worse: Knowing that much of how he had been raised was a lie…

He didn’t even register himself doing it, and was hardly aware of choosing to in the first place. But at the next moment, he had backed away and turned, and was walking briskly, as fast as he could without running full tilt, through the thin trees on the edge of the Forbidden Forest, away from his family and all they stood for. One or two voices called out his name in sharp, shrill cries, but they might as well have been whispers for all the attention he paid them.

There was something silvery through the trees ahead, caught on a low branch; he reached for it blindly, without thinking about it. It was fabric, watery and fluid while still retaining its solid properties, and he recognized it as Potter’s Invisibility Cloak. Potter, now dead, at the hands of the men Draco was supposed to revere… Potter was dead…

He took the Cloak unthinkingly and stuffed it into his pocket. And then he began to run.

Draco’s lungs burned with the sprint; his breath escaped his mouth loudly, but he had never been taught to be one to blend in among a crowd, had he? Tears burned in his eyes, though whether it was from the smoke or his own shame, he wasn’t quite sure. His arms pumped with the frenetic energy of running (one, two, one, two), and the great iron gates leading out of the castle loomed up before him –

And out of nowhere, a tree root lifted itself from the ground, just where his left foot had just sought to find footing. His balance lost, Draco twisted and crashed to the ground, skidding along his back, feeling pebbles grind into his shoulder blades and causing him to cry aloud. Miraculously, he managed to maintain a grip on his wand, though his mind had gone blank; he couldn’t remember even the simplest spell. For an idle moment, he wished the stolen Cloak might have broken his fall – but then all thoughts of it flew from his mind in an instant.

From somewhere near his feet, a figure loomed up, the face indistinct – though not from a hood, Draco noted internally, as though it was important that he register this man’s difference from the one who had stood beside his mother. A sagging face was framed on either side by lank grey hair, and he was smiling in a bitter, humorless sort of way. When he spoke, there was no triumph in the words – only coolly-masked vengeance and disgust.

“Got you.”

A/N: As slightly horrible as it might sound, I really, really loved writing this chapter! High-stakes, emotional chapters are ones I tend to eat up, and I wrote this very, very fast. Of course, it's rather a dark chapter (not that the rest of the story hasn't been a bit grim), so I am a little nervous about it. But the responses to this story already! I am seriously so blown away. You're incredible, all of you.

If you wouldn't mind letting me know your thoughts on this chapter, that would be so, so appreciated. Special thanks to Sarah, Mel, and Rin for being so supportive and inspirational where this is concerned, too!


Chapter 5: V.
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All Ron knew was that there were lots of people talking, and that they were in close proximity; other than that, the morning was dragging along in a slightly nauseous blur. Shell Cottage had apparently been the agreed-upon meeting place in the event of a retreat, and nobody could turn without jabbing somebody with his elbow or treading on someone’s foot. The oddest thing about it was that he couldn’t make out any of the conversations around him. It was a dull, droning sort of buzzing in his ears, even while he knew he should have been paying attention to the feeble outlines of plans being laid around Bill and Fleur’s kitchen table.

For some reason, his mind was focused on Harry this morning, because how were you supposed to get over seeing your best friend’s dead body, when all the rest of the time you’d known him he had been very much alive? For some reason the image of it was burned onto the backs on Ron’s eyelids this afternoon in a way he’d managed to escape until now. It was worse this way, he thought.

He had to believe that Harry had known what he was doing, walking into that forest. After all, Ron knew about the Horcruxes, and so did Hermione, even if she was – well, not with Ron. And yet Harry had been the Chosen One, hadn’t he? Were they even going to be able to stop Voldemort, now that Harry had sacrificed himself?

Well, they had to try, didn’t they? Harry was dead, and he wasn’t coming back. Just like Fred, just like Dumbledore, just like Tonks and Lupin and Mad-Eye – they were all gone. It was up to the ones left to keep fighting, not to sit around and mope. They owed it to those who’d already put themselves in danger, to make sure their children and loved ones didn’t meet them just yet.

And Hermione. Ron remembered anew her screams upon seeing Harry, the way she had clung to him for support. His insides twisted, and he knotted his hands together tightly, imagining he could still feel her fingers twisted in the fabric of his shirt. He had no idea how they were supposed to do this without her help. It had always been Hermione getting them out of scrapes, hadn’t it?

Finally, finally, after years of being a selfish prat and trying to pretend like he had felt nothing for her, he had kissed her. It was cruel – ironic, even – that mere hours after that kiss, he’d been ripped apart from her. Stupid, stupid, stupid. How had he let years slip past him, years when he could have had more than one kiss? How many kisses would she have given him now, if he’d only been able to tell her how much he loved her back then?

His fingers clenched each other so tightly they ached. He could not think like that. He might not have had a past dotted with those kisses, but he had to believe he had a lifetime of them stretching before him. She’ll be all right.

Ron.”

He started a bit; George had had to say his name three times before Ron had looked up, and was now looking at him in a rather cross fashion.

“Sorry?” he said, rubbing a hand over his eyes, wincing at the grit of the sand still folded into the creases of his palms. George tried his hardest not to look exasperated, although, Ron thought with something like wry amusement, it was an expression that his face did not naturally relax into; George’s face had always been one better suited for being carved into something like amusement.

George massaged his own eyes with sand-free hands. “Pay attention, please,” he said wearily. Ron knew he was just tired and grief-stricken – they all were, although perhaps George had a bit more reason. But innate resentment spoke over logic, and he slumped back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest.

“George.” Mr. Weasley’s voice carried a mild admonition behind it. “That’s enough.” He turned his gaze on his youngest son, and his eyes were so full of pity that Ron nearly felt physically ill; he wished his father wouldn’t look at him like that. “Ron, why don’t you go and lie down –“

“I don’t need to,” he snapped. “I want to help –“ Before he could finish his sentence, his mother had stepped forward from somewhere behind him, laying gentle hands on his shoulders, smelling of soap and yarn (how could she still smell the same, when the world was not?). He resisted the very strong temptation to shrug her off. Didn’t anyone else realize how badly he needed something to do?

“You will help,” said Mr. Weasley firmly. “I promise you that. But you are no help to us if you are” – he glanced briefly at George, who was staring moodily at his knuckles clenched atop the table – “upset.”

Ron pushed back from the table roughly, rocking onto his feet. Mrs. Weasley reached out to him, but he ignored her gesture, hating himself for doing it even while he strode past, into the kitchen. She needed her children now, in the same way she had always needed them, and yet somehow more – what kind of a son abandoned his mother at a time like that? But he did not care.

He could feel the eyes of his family on the back of his neck as he left, and almost immediately after the door shut behind him, he pressed his ear to it, unable to resist listening to what they were saying about him behind his back.

“He’s suffered a great blow,” Kingsley Shacklebolt was saying patiently. “You have to give him time. His best friend and his brother –“

“He needs rest,” Mrs. Weasley shot back waspishly. “He needs his family, not some stupid mission just to placate his need to feel important.” Her voice broke on the last word; there was a brief silence, in which Ron could almost see her, dabbing at her eyes with an already-soggy corner of her apron.

“He’s eighteen years old, Molly,” Arthur spoke up gently. “And he’s done more than either you or I know about – at least, not yet. Hermione’s back there, you know how he’s got to feel about that.” Ron felt the tips of his ears redden absurdly at that sentence, and found, quite suddenly, he didn’t want to hear the rest of the conversation.

He was so tense, so frustrated, he felt as though he would burst from the exhausting weight of it all. How much longer was he expected to sit here, listening to his family and his friends and goodness knew who else, arguing back and forth? How long were they supposed to wait before realizing a plan of action wasn’t just going to fall into their laps? They were the chosen ones now; sitting around would only kill them in a different way.

Dedalus Diggle was looking at him curiously from where he leaned against one of Fleur’s kitchen counters; Ron looked at his boots quickly, running a hand roughly through his hair. And it was from this vantage point, looking almost at the floor, but not quite, that he noticed his sister.

When they had been younger, and Ginny had had problems that had seemed colossal to her at the time, she had had a knack for hiding away in the smallest corners and nooks until she felt ready to deal with the world again. It had always been Ron that Mrs. Weasley had sent out looking for her, largely because he was the only one of her children still small enough to fit into the spaces she chose, having not hit his many growth spurts quite yet. It was a bit ironic now, then, that he had found her again, curled up in the slight soot of Bill and Fleur’s mostly-unused kitchen fireplace.

“Gin?” he said, as softly as he could manage while his throat still felt raw from that morning’s anguish. She didn’t look up, although he knew she had heard him. He crouched with difficulty – his muscles felt as though someone had stretched them in impossible positions – and knelt next to her, just outside the three-walled brick alcove that was the fireplace.

“Haven’t you sat in on a meeting yet?” he asked, not knowing if it was the right thing to say – Hermione had always been much better at talking his sister out of problems than he was, but then, that was quite natural.

“I’m sixteen,” Ginny said dully, and Ron was frightened by just how dim her eyes were; they had lost their normal snap.

“That doesn’t matter,” Ron protested firmly, easing himself into a sitting position that was no more comfortable than kneeling had been. “You’ve done loads –“ But the protest died in his throat, because he could see that that wasn’t what was bothering her. Not really. And with a sudden burst of clarity, or maybe just common sense, he realized that Ginny must be going through the same sort of tumult he was experiencing, gnawing away at his insides.

But it was worse for her. Because she couldn’t even hope.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked in a low voice, but she looked at him fiercely as soon as the words had left his lips; he was almost glad for it. Anything to get that dull look out of them, it did not belong there…

“Leave me alone,” she hissed. She folded her fingers, her fingernails curling into her palms and biting the tender skin there. “And stop pretending like you know what this feels like.”

Ron rocked back a bit, as though the force of her words had physically struck him. “Come off it –“ he began angrily, but she headed him off.

“Hermione’s still alive,” she said viciously, her eyes now sparking with tears, which made Ron feel infinitely worse. It was as though she’d seen what he had just been thinking, about how they weren’t that different. “And nobody cares about what he did for them, they’re all just – it’s like –“ But she couldn’t get the words out; her throat caught on the sentence like cloth on a nail. She buried her face in her knees.

Waves of guilt rolling over him, Ron scooted a bit closer and wrapped his arm across Ginny’s hunched shoulders as best as he could. “Who says nobody cares?” he said roughly, somewhat ashamed and somewhat relieved to find that he was near tears himself. “That’s a stupid way to think, Gin. Everyone knows we owe him our lives, no one’s daft enough to pretend differently.”

Ginny hiccupped, but said nothing. “He wouldn’t have done what he did if he didn’t trust in us,” Ron said, curving his own fingers and rubbing Ginny’s back. “You’ve got to believe that. We’ll pull through this.”

“But Harry’s still gone,” Ginny mumbled, her voice muffled by her jeans. She was no longer determined and brave when she spoke like that; she was Ron’s little sister, teased and taunted and loved for being her parents’ sole daughter. She was vulnerable, and he wanted to protect that vulnerability as he had wanted nothing else since leaving the castle.

“Yeah. He is.” Ron stilled his hand, staring at the flagstones. “I know, Ginny.” He could not think of anything more to say – what could he possibly say to her to relieve even of a fraction of what he knew was tearing her apart? – and so the siblings fell into, if not a comfortable silence, then an agreed-upon one.

Just as Ron was about to open his mouth and say something further – comfort or encouragement or something completely different, he wasn’t sure which – there was a loud bang near the back of the kitchen as the door leading outside flew open, slamming into the wall behind it. Ron jumped at the noise, smacking his head on the brick and causing bright stars to pop in front of his eyes.

Someone was shouting, an oddly familiar voice, though hoarse and terrified. “Let me go! You’ve no right to –“ The voice was cut off abruptly by a low grunt. Both Ginny and Ron leaped to their feet, and Ron unthinkingly drew out his wand.

Aberforth Dumbledore and Percy each held the arm of a man, who was struggling desperately against their hold on him. His head was bent toward the floor, the ridges of his spine sticking out oddly through the pale, thin skin of his neck, like reptilian ridges. But even though Ron couldn’t see the newcomer’s face clearly, he knew exactly who it was.

Malfoy,” he snarled, just as Percy, with tremendous effort, wrenched Draco Malfoy to the side, effectively pinning him against Fleur’s large wooden pantry. Malfoy snarled and struggled against the position, but thick black ropes sprang from the end of Aberforth’s wand and looped themselves about the pantry door, binding Malfoy there.

“Caught him trying to escape outside of the Forbidden Forest,” Aberforth said gruffly, though not without a note of pride in his voice. “Wasn’t easy getting him back here, though – had to make a little detour into my pub, I’ve only just arrived. Lucky he was outside,” he added, jerking his head at Ron’s brother.

“Get Kingsley,” Percy managed through gritted teeth just then; Draco, whose hand had still been clenched tightly about his wand, had just shot a jinx at the older Weasley, and had singed the right sleeve of Percy’s robes. And it was his wand, Ron realized, with a sick sort of feeling – he knew that wand, Harry had been using it ever since the three of them had escaped from Malfoy Manor… He didn’t want to think about how Malfoy had gotten it back…

Ginny turned, a whirl of long, fiery hair, and bustled into the other room to alert Kingsley Shacklebolt of Malfoy’s arrival. Aberforth took this moment to snatch Draco’s wand from him, chucking it unceremoniously behind him; it clattered onto the counter and rolled into the sink, still half-filled with dishwater. Ron held up his wand so that it was positioned just under Malfoy’s chin, and the blonde boy sneered derisively.

“What, going to kill me?” he drawled, though his eyes still sparked with fear. “You don’t have the guts, Weasley.”

“Believe me,” Ron said forcefully, inching the tip of his wand closer to Malfoy’s pointed chin, “there is absolutely nothing I want more than to see you drop dead.” He made a sudden jabbing motion toward Malfoy with his wand, smirking in satisfaction when his opponent instinctively flinched. “Why aren’t you hiding out with Mummy? Was she scared she was going to lose her baby boy, or did she run away too? Your family’s a load of stinking, filthy cowards, after all.”

Malfoy opened his mouth to retort, but Ginny chose that moment to return with Kingsley, as well as what looked to be the rest of the occupants of Shell Cottage: Arthur, Molly, Bill, and Fleur crowded just behind him, and the mass of people was about four or five deep beyond that. The Auror stepped forward calmly, pointing his wand at Malfoy as well, though with admittedly less hostility.

“Draco Malfoy,” he said in his slow, deep voice; there was a touch of amusement flickering behind it. “I must admit, you were one of the last people I thought I’d see here.”

“It’s not like I chose to come to this shack,” he spat ferociously, apparently unable to come up with a better retort. He struggled anew against Aberforth’s ropes, although they held tight; Ron smirked again, hating the way the expression felt on his face even while he did so. Draco’s eyes flicked over to him, and then looked back at Kingsley.

“My father knows what’s happened,” he said viciously. “You have no idea what he’ll do to you when –“

“Your father,” Arthur Weasley interrupted coolly, “knows nothing.” He had broken free from the crowd behind him and now stood beside Kingsley, arms folded over his chest. Malfoy’s eyes widened slightly. “You can help us, Draco,” he continued, “or you can stay tied up. It’s your choice.”

“Help?!” Ron and Malfoy cried together, and then glared at each other. “How’s he supposed to help us?” Ron added, gesturing wildly with his wand in his classmate’s direction. “He’s the biggest prat I’ve ever met! And his dad –”

“You’ll leave my father out of this, Weasley,” Malfoy spat.

“Draco’s right.”

Ron and Malfoy both turned to look at Mr. Weasley in shock. From somewhere behind Ron, close to their mother, Ginny emitted a sort of growling sound.

What?!” Ron roared, jabbing his wand at Draco, getting so close to actually stabbing him with it that Arthur reached forward and yanked his son’s arm away. “The best he’s going to do is get back to his – his kind, and we’ll all be murdered in our beds –“

“That is enough,” Ron’s father said firmly. “Draco.” He looked back up at the blonde boy, who had watched the entire exchange between father and son with the expression of one who really didn’t have clue as to what was going on. “We’re not going to hurt you. We can protect you here. If you help us, if you can get us back into that castle –“

“You think you’re different?” Malfoy said. “You think you’re the heroes? It’s war. Nobody wins in war.” He strained against the ropes a third time, this the most pitiful of any of the attempts he had yet made. “There’s nothing in it for me, joining your side.”

“We can protect your family too, Draco,” Kingsley said firmly, taking a step closer to him. Behind him, Aberforth flicked his wand in an almost imperceptible way; the ropes loosened ever so slightly. “If you help us, the repercussions for you after the war will be far less.”

Malfoy’s eyes flickered between the two men, and landed on Ron once more. Ron was still watching him, held back by his father’s restraining hand. This was the boy who had made his and Harry’s and Hermione’s lives hell, who had been the pawn in the move to kill Dumbledore… this was the boy whose left arm was branded with the Dark Mark before he was even of age… And yet, this boy was a coward. And safety, protection – Ron knew they would appeal to him.

He wasn’t wrong. Malfoy cursed loudly and slumped his shoulders against the unyielding wood behind him. “Fine,” he snapped coldly, studying the floor intently. “But you – you’ve got to promise.” His arrogant demeanor faltered slightly at that.

“We do,” said Kingsley firmly. He turned to Aberforth. “Untie him and put him in the spare bedroom upstairs. And make sure the door’s locked tight. When we need him, we’ll need to know where to find him.” Aberforth nodded once, curtly, and flicked his wand again at the ropes; they fell away and disappeared with soft puffing sounds as they landed on the kitchen floor.

Percy lunged forward immediately, quickly followed by Bill, who had come to stand in the kitchen at some point in the conversation. They held tightly to Malfoy’s upper arms and led him away through the throng, who parted as he passed as though wary of catching an infectious disease from him.

From the corner of his eye, Ron glanced at his father; he was still looking at the spot where Malfoy had been bound to the pantry door, his eyes faraway and distant. “I know, Ron,” he said at last. “You don’t trust him.”

“Yeah, well,” Ron said angrily, scowling, “in case you’ve forgotten, Dad, that’s Lucius Malfoy’s son.” His father sighed deeply and ran a hand over his face tiredly.

“I know,” he said wearily. “And you know, this could turn on us still.” He looked over at Ron now and swallowed hard. “Don’t think I’m not aware of that possibility, Ron. But it’s the best hope we’ve got.”

He turned and made his way back into the dining room. After a slight pause, the rest of the people watching followed suit, talking amongst themselves in low voices, discussing Malfoy and what his presence meant to whatever plans Arthur and Kingsley and Bill and the rest were trying to draft up.

Ron felt like lead; his whole body was heavy with exhaustion, and he almost envied Malfoy. He might have been locked up, but he was, at least, in a bedroom…

It’s the best hope we’ve got. That’s what his father had said. And hadn’t he had almost that exact same thought earlier, on the beach? He had resolved that they would make a plan to get Hermione out, and that was the hope he had resolved to cling to. Why shouldn’t Malfoy be that plan?

Because he’s a git, said a stubborn voice inside of him. Ron snorted aloud, earning him an odd look from Hannah Abbott, passing through the kitchen with Luna and heading for the back garden. He felt the tips of his ears burn red, and began to move to join the rest in the dining room.

Malfoy was a git – but he was a git who might be able to help them save Hermione. And right now, that was the only thing Ron really cared about.

A/N: Holy. Cow. You guys are seriously amazing! Four chapters and ninety reviews?! I cannot even begin to tell you how much such an incredible amount of support for this story means to me. I think writing something this dark would be so much more daunting if I didn't have it, and you're what keeps me writing. Readers are always, always what keeps me writing. School starts in a week, but I'm going to try to continue being as continuous with updates as I possibly can, hopefully keeping to something like a chapter every two weeks. Because you deserve that!

Special thanks to Mel (WitnesstoitAll) and Sarah (Toujours Padfoot), for sparking inspiration for bits of this chapter. Thank you everyone for reading, and I'd love to hear your opinions and predictions about where the story's going! 


Chapter 6: VI.
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Hermione had never much minded the dungeons before this. Sitting in front of Professors Snape and Slughorn, carefully measuring ingredients and reading instructions and, once, becoming increasingly frustrated over her ineptitude when compared to Harry and the spiky scribbles in his secondhand textbook – in doing all of these things, she had never had a chance to notice just how horrible they were, in reality. But she had been here for over twenty-four hours now, in this small and cramped space, a makeshift prison cell. And twenty-four hours was ample time to come to terms with the fact that, yes, the Death Eaters knew what they were doing; there would have been no worse place in Hogwarts for prisoners of war.

The ash-gray stone walls she was currently huddled against were feverishly damp; she couldn’t think where the moisture might have been coming from, and didn’t really want to know. Crowded in the close, dank corners were patches of mold and mildew that seemed to grow at almost visible rates of speed. The floor was hard and rocky; the walls and ceiling, equally so. Hermione was not even afforded a crudely-cut barred window, as would have been the case in any number of the novels she had read over the years. But this was not a novel; this was not a fantasy.

She leaned her forehead against the wall gingerly and sucked in a deep breath, closing her eyes and trying to calm her perpetually racing heart. More than twenty-four hours – and where was Ron? Where were Bill, and Fleur, and Mr. Weasley? Where was anyone – or was she the only one left? The air had been thick with screams and cries of protest for hours after Hermione herself had been unceremoniously dumped here; now the silence was almost worse. But surely… surely Ron was all right. He had left, had fled to safety, hadn’t he?

Yes. He most certainly had left.

The silence was perhaps the most unnerving part of it all. She could have dealt with the other horrors: The shouts of spells, the cries of pain as those spells found their intended targets. These were expected things in wartime; the silence was the in-between, the waiting, the suspended period between pain you already knew, and pain you had yet to know. In some ways, it was worse than the pain itself.

Hermione shifted a bit, drawing her knees up tightly to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. It felt like it had been years since she had impersonated Bellatrix Lestrange and broken into Gringotts, and had destroyed Hufflepuff’s cup in the Chamber of Secrets. Years since she had learned Harry was dead. It had felt so important, what they were doing, and somehow, she hadn’t even anticipated any ending other than a happy one. Wasn’t good always supposed to triumph over evil?

Just as she was about to twist in the opposite direction – another fruitless attempt at comfort, though she kept trying – there was a sort of shuffling, scraping sound from the wall behind her. She sat up at once, scrambling away from it, her trainers searching for purchase on a small patch of stone that had broken away from the rest of the wall; her wrist bent at an odd angle, and she cried out before registering it. The noise stopped rather abruptly as a bit of the stone went flying into the wall with a very solid-sounding thunk. There was more of that dense, terrible silence, and then –

“Hello?”

Her heart leaped into her throat; she knew that voice, had sat in classes alongside the boy whose voice it was for six years. Just as quickly as she had backed away in fear, Hermione scrambled back over to the wall, hands scurrying over the wall. There was a slight chink between two of the eye-level bricks, only big enough to slip a folded piece of parchment through, but it was enough for sound to travel.

“Dean?” she whispered groggily, her voice hoarse from screaming and, afterwards, disuse. There was the same sort of shuffling sound, rock scraping rock, as though he was sitting up higher, too.

Hermione.” Dean Thomas’s voice was weak with relief. It was a voice that Hermione had not heard since she, Harry, and Ron had left Shell Cottage, when Hermione had been disguised as the very woman who had played a large part in imprisoning her in the dungeon she now sat in. The fact that Dean, a Muggle-born like herself, was not yet dead, was nothing short of miraculous. Perhaps it was a miracle that she, Hermione, wasn’t dead either.

“How are you?” she asked gingerly, scooting closer to the wall and lowering her voice a fraction, desperate not to be overheard by whomever was keeping the pair of them within the rotting dungeon walls. Dean gave a hollow, humorless laugh.

“I’m all right,” he said, catching onto her change in tone and matching his accordingly. “I feel a lot better knowing you’re here, though. Being top of our class, you know – surely…” But he trailed off, and didn’t finish his sentence. Hermione could feel her cheeks heating, though it was a bit absurd to try and play at modesty in this situation.

“Oliver’s here, too,” Dean spoke up again. “He’s on the other side of me, we got brought in together – hang on –“ She could hear him moving away from her, across his own ridiculously tiny cell space, and when he next spoke again he sounded a bit more distant. “Oliver?”

“What?” Oliver Wood’s voice had never sounded so welcome. Hermione hadn’t ever had cause to really listen to it before – with his being obsessed with Quidditch, and her never being able to understand its attraction, it was rather obvious that they’d never had prodigious amounts of interaction – but he was here, and that meant he had fought. It brought her hope, however dim.

“Hermione Granger’s over here,” Dean said. He was trying very hard to be cheerful, Hermione could tell; nevertheless, something essentially natural was missing from the attempt. There was a pause, and then Oliver spoke again, low and heavy and dull.

“Fantastic. Can I go back to bed now?”

“But didn’t you hear what I said? Hermi –“

“I heard you,” Oliver said, annoyance laced in the words, dripping venomously. “So what? She’s just as stuck as the rest of us. No wand, no spells. No hope. Honestly, no offense, but I just don’t care, mate.” There was more scraping sounds of body on rock – someone moving somewhere, despite the fact there wasn’t much room to move at all – and the cells went silent again. Dean said nothing further, though whether it was from agreement or embarrassment, she didn’t know.

Hermione’s stomach had plummeted, coming to rest somewhere around her ankles. It was hard not to believe Oliver, to listen to his words and not want to give up as he had so obviously done. She inched away from the wall to the opposite corner, folding in on herself, burying her head in her folded arms and resting it on her bent knees. Her wrist seared with pain, but she paid it no heed. Her mouth was moving, almost of its own volition, and she found that they were forming a single word, over and over again. A pleading mantra, a hope to cling to. Ron.

She would not give up. She would not.

*

Bellatrix Lestrange could see the moon slowly rising over distant mountains from the window where she stood, its beams cutting thick, gossamer strips through the patches of stone and snow, visible even from this distance. The moon had already risen once on the remains of the battle – it had been nearly forty-eight hours since the siege, since the fall of those who had still clung to the hope that her master would not be victorious. It had previously shone upon hell: Bodies crushed and crumbled, half-trampled into the ground where they had fallen; thick splotches of crimson on the scorched grass; and the stone of the castle littering it all like oddly-placed tombstones. Now, it was peaceful, a twisted brand of heaven.

Bellatrix smirked, her eyes switching their focus, looking now not at the scene before her but at her own ghost-like reflection in the leaded window. How foolish they had been to think that the Dark Lord would do anything but triumph.

It was the Dark Lord she was waiting for now, though this wasn’t an uncommon thing in itself. She would have been walking alongside him now, were it not for the fact that he had required time to be alone. It was a dangerous request, to her ears – but, after all, the threat Harry Potter posed was now vanquished, and she had acquiesced his request. She had not spoken privately with him since before the battle, but no matter.

The ethereal Bellatrix in the window twisted her mouth into a gloating sort of leer, and at that moment, the equally ghostly reflection of the door behind her swung open. She turned breathlessly, her hands reaching forward to clasp each other across her abdomen in anticipation, as Lord Voldemort entered the room.

But there was something off about him. It was easy to see it, and even easier to see the pains he was going through to try and conceal it. Her lord was proud, he was powerful, and yet now – now he walked with the burden of the years he never wished to be reminded of. His head, though erect, looked at the same time bent with stiffness; the wand in his hand was clutched far, far too tightly. And Bellatrix said nothing about any of it. If her master was blind, then she must be also; this was how her world worked.

“My lord,” she said, the words floating out on a delighted exhalation of breath. She watched with bright, rapt eyes as he crossed to the broad desk in the center of the room and sat himself behind it. It was only then he looked up at her, and Bellatrix swallowed her shock; she had never seen those eyes so sunken, so dead.

“Bellatrix,” he said. “Come closer.”

She took a few steps across the wooden floor, paying no heed as it creaked and groaned in protest, as though sensing exactly who walked upon it. “My lord,” she repeated, leaning upon the desk with the very tips of her fingers. “The entirety of the castle has been searched. Every prisoner is accounted for and secured.”

Bellatrix watched as the Dark Lord nodded slowly, turning his wand very slowly, almost painfully, in his fingers. “Malfoy has suggested using them,” she added nastily, though not without a bit of scorn welling up in her throat, saying the name of her brother-in-law. “He seems to think they can be used in the restoring of the castle as a stronghold –“

“Lucius Malfoy’s plans do not concern me,” Voldemort whispered; his eyes, which he had averted again, found hers once more. “Your prisoners, Bellatrix, do not concern me.”

She felt small slivers of ice slip into her veins; the words, though not dangerous in themselves, sounded terrifying through his lips. “Yes,” she said, casting her eyes to the floor in deference. “Yes, of course – I only meant to –“

“Are you aware, Bellatrix,” he interrupted her, as though she had not spoken at all, “who previously occupied the desk you now lean upon?”

Bellatrix retracted her hands so quickly, one might have thought the polished wood had seared her palms. Voldemort laughed bitterly. “For years,” he continued softly, as though to himself, “Albus Dumbledore sat here and plotted – against me, against the wizarding world. And now… here we are!” He laughed again; she could not see the humor in what her lord was saying, and so remained silent.

“Dumbledore knew much, however. He was not a fool. It cannot be denied.” The Dark Lord looked down at the wand in his hands, his long, white fingers opening and closing about it like the grotesque petals of dead flowers. Bellatrix swallowed against a slight panic, without understanding quite where it was coming from, and waited for him to elaborate. But he did not.

“You may go.”

“I – my l-“

“You may go,” the Dark Lord repeated. His voice was soft and deadly, velvet concealing poisonous barbs, and it sent cool, cloying chills skittering up Bellatrix’s arms. Goosebumps trailed up to the back of her neck, and she shuddered involuntarily.

She backed away from the desk, her shoulder scraping roughly on the curve of a stone wall, before turning about and scuttling through the door of the headmaster’s office. She did not want to find out what would happen if her master was required to make his request a third time.

*

Lord Voldemort watched Bellatrix slip through the narrow opening in the door, the corner of his mouth lifted in a scornful sneer. He did not relax as the sound of her boots faded from earshot; he was a man of contradictions, and as much as he had wanted to be alone at that very moment, Bellatrix had provided a measure of safety. As long as she was here, he, Voldemort, could be the same person he’d been (more or less) for the past thirty-odd years, and that was something he could not reassure himself of alone…

Albus Dumbledore’s desk. He laid his hands upon it, arching them across his wand; the wood was cooling on the inflamed tips of his fingers, if only for a moment.

Yes, Dumbledore had known much… But still, he had the Elder Wand now, didn’t he? Didn’t that make up for whatever was happening to him?

He looked at the wand on the table under his fingers, slowly moving his hands away, hoping – vainly, he knew – that this time would be different.

But it was not. Small spots of crimson patterned the desk in an abstract semi-circle. The same sorts of spots peppered his wand: Some were nearly brown with age; others appeared to act almost like mirrors, reflecting his own eyes back at him. Perhaps if he turned his wand just right…

Voldemort let it fall with a clatter onto the desktop, the chair grating harshly on the floor as he rose to his feet.

He, of all people, could not be dying.

A/N: I told you that drop of blood was important! I can't remember specifically at the moment, so I'm not sure if anyone's theorized right about specifically why it's important... I'm really interested in hearing your theories, though! It's probably getting tricky anyway, keeping things straight. So if your brain hurts (like mine), you can feel free to sit back and refuse to theorize. I won't hold it against you.

This chapter was just on the far side of being late, so I'll probably wait slightly under a two-week update the next time around, just to make things fair. Thank you all so, so much for all the reading and reviewing!


Chapter 7: VII.
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The idle conversations had cycled for what seemed to Ron like weeks, though it really must have only been a few days. Resolutions were far and few between, always edging away from being settled the moment the discussion neared closure. It seemed that the occupants of Shell Cottage were divided in two: Half of the assembled group wanted to charge right back into action, and half preferred to test the waters and regain their own footing first. And it seemed that neither party could reach an agreement on which way was the best to proceed.

How many days had it been since the battle? Ron wasn’t completely sure – the ensuing days were hard to count, and his brain was still a bit thick and hazy, as though some of the smoke of war still clung to the inside corners of his mind. And he had dreamed of the fire and smoke so often, too, reliving it in his sleeping hours, seeing Hermione’s terrified face one final time. He couldn’t be positive when the real event had occurred versus when he had woken up from it anew.

But it’s not the final time, he told himself sternly. He was sitting in a corner of Bill and Fleur’s sitting room, having at last managed to commandeer a chair for himself; standing room alone was hard to come by with so many people, much less unoccupied seats. There were no dim corners to be had in a home constantly filled with sand and sunshine, but he tried hard to find one; that was the atmosphere that best suited his mood. Professor Slughorn had made a brief appearance, staring out the window for some time, but eventually even he had turned to leave Ron to his own thoughts. Most everyone else was clustered into the dining room now anyway, listening to Ron’s dad and Kingsley talk in dizzying spirals again. Just now, Ron didn’t quite feel up to it.

There wasn’t any question as to which side of the argument Ron himself was on, of course. The sooner he could get back into the castle and start looking for Hermione, the sooner he knew he would feel like himself again.

It was strange; he wasn’t prone to sentimental feelings, and yet found himself thinking with increasing frequency that something very vital had been taken from him when Hermione was taken, as though a bit of him had stayed along with her there in Hogwarts. Since his first year at Hogwarts, he had never been away from her for more than, what, a few months? He hadn’t imagined she’d ever leave him; in a way, he had always known that, someday down the road, he would have asked her to be with him forever, because he couldn’t imagine how he’d ever got through life without her before.

Ron had always scoffed at the ideas his mum had spun with her bedtime stories, of the princes who’d had their hearts stolen away by their true loves, but he knew now what it was like. Part of him was missing; he would never get it back unless Hermione was with him, and she would always keep it with her. That was what love was.

He sucked in a deep breath and scrunched his fingers into his eyes, small lights popping into the darkness behind his eyelids, swallowing thickly against the lump that had cropped up in his throat in the midst of his sulking. This wasn’t doing her any good. Ron would know if something was terribly wrong; the part of him that rested within Hermione would have let him know it. Right now, he had to focus his energies on making sure things didn’t get worse until he found her.

There was a sound from the doorway leading into the small corridor that ran the length of the cottage. Ron lifted his head from his hands; George was standing there, both arms braced on the door frame, a funny expression twisting his face. “What?” Ron said dully, sitting back and letting his head fall against the chair.

There was a pause, and for a second, Ron had the idle thought that George might leave. He’d been very quiet since the battle, although he couldn’t be blamed for it. Nevertheless, it was unnerving; Fred and George had never been ones to keep silent, and even now, Ron might have at least expected a half-attempt at mischief. But his older brother only said, “You’re wanted in the other room.” He hitched a thumb behind him, in the direction of the dining room.

Ron’s stomach twisted slightly. “D’you know - ?” he started, but George cut him off with a terse shake of his head. Pressing his lips tightly together, Ron rose from the chair and padded silently after his brother in the direction of the dining room.

The first thing that he registered upon entering the room – and this, he felt, would be the most surprising part of whatever meeting he’d just been summoned into – was that Malfoy was sitting in a chair near the end of the table. He was wearing a poorly-concealed expression of disgust on his stupid pointed face, his hands convulsively clenching and unclenching his forearms uncomfortably. The veins were sticking out harshly under his pale skin, thin and blue and spidery. It couldn’t have been clearer that there were a thousand places Malfoy would like to be, and Shell Cottage was far from making that list.

“Sit down, Ron.” Ron shifted his gaze to look at his father, who was sitting across from Malfoy. To Arthur’s left was Percy, who was toying with his sleeve, and on the right was Bill, whose fingers had strayed to tapping the dangling fang on his earring. Fleur, Seamus Finnigan, Professor McGonagall, and Professor Slughorn had also taken places around the table, as well as George, who had evidently resumed the chair he’d left to fetch his younger brother. Ron slowly took the empty seat a couple of spots away from Malfoy, whose face had changed to indicate he smelled something rotten.

“What’s the matter, Dad?”

Mr. Weasley turned to look at Ron’s old Transfiguration professor; the woman gave a curt nod, pressing her lips into a thin line. “It would seem,” she said coldly, jerking her head in Malfoy’s direction, “that some useful information has come to light regarding the side Mr. Malfoy – ah – chose to abandon.”

Ron smirked; Malfoy looked very much as though he wanted to hit McGonagall. “What he has told us,” she continued on crisply, “is that the Death Eaters are planning, as far as we currently know, to extend their newfound ideas of power to regions outside the castle.” Ron must have looked rather blank at this statement, because she gave a sort of clucking noise and added, “They are looking to push into London.”

“To London?” said Ron stupidly. “What are they supposed to be doing in London?”

“The exact same stuff they’ve been doing elsewhere,” Bill spoke up bitterly. “Torturing Muggles like it’s a sport, making everybody dead terrified. The problem is that now there’s a heck of a lot less of us to stop them, especially since they’ve turned more and more of the Ministry into little better than serfs.”

“So what we’ve decided,” Arthur continued, leaning back in his chair and adjusting his glasses upon his nose, “is to head into London and see if we can pick up a bit more information. As quietly as we can, of course.” His eyes flicked to Draco.

A small bubble of hope welled within the center of Ron’s ribs. “Like a mission?” he said quickly. Bill and Percy nodded at the same time. “But that’s brilliant! That’s doing something, isn’t it? I want to go – I’ve –“

“We knew you’d want to go,” George interjected, and for the first time in almost a week, he smiled in a gesture that contained minute traces of his former self. That, Ron thought, was almost better than the announcement of a plan, however remote.

“You’ll be going with me,” said Arthur, “and Seamus, and Minerva.” Seamus gave Ron a thumbs-up gesture from down the table. “In a few days, mind, once we’ve had a bit more time to prepare. I know it’s not the plan you wanted…” Ron felt a bit guilty as Fleur looked at him sympathetically, and he wished she wouldn’t.

“You do realize that this is all a big waste of time, don’t you?” Ron turned his head so fast his neck cracked; Malfoy was still bent over his arms, staring down at the table, his mouth twisted sourly. “It’s not actually going to do anything.”

“If you’re going to be as big of a prat as you always are,” Ron said loudly, “then you can shut it, Malfoy.” Malfoy glared at him sideways, but said nothing further, picking at the skin near his elbow.

“Well, he’s right.” The entire room turned as one to look in the far corner; in surveying those assembled around the table, Ron had somehow completely missed the fact that his mother had been standing in the room the entire time. Her lips were pursed in a characteristic expression of displeasure, her arms folded tightly across her chest.

“You’ve no idea what you’re getting into, the lot of you,” she said heatedly, though she somehow managed to keep her tone even while she spoke – a feat Molly Weasley had always been accomplished at, though Ron had never heard anybody else able to do it. “There’s no guarantee you won’t all be murdered as soon as you set foot on the street.”

“Of course there’s no guarantee,” Arthur said evenly, his chair scratching a bit on the wooden floor as he turned it to look at his wife. “We’ll take precautions, of course. Molly, this is just something to keep us occupied, you understand –“

“No, I do not!” she snapped. “If you’re going to idle away the time by risking your lives, then I’ll give you something more worthwhile to do.”

“But even sitting here’s a risk!” Ron had risen angrily to his feet. “It’s not like they wouldn’t come and kill us all right now if they could, is it? We’ll be safe, Mum –“

Safe!” Mrs. Weasley interrupted, half-laughing despite the fact that there was really nothing very funny about the present situation. “You could be killed, cursed, jinxed –“

“Molly.” To Ron’s mild surprise, it was Professor McGonagall who spoke this time. She had risen from her chair, her hands clasped in front of her, her brows low over her eyes in a stern expression. “If I may talk to you in the kitchen for a moment, please.” It was not a request, but an order, and Ron’s mother seemed to have enough tact to recognize that fact. Still looking unhappy, but with lines of resignation creasing the corners of her mouth, she allowed the older woman to lead her out of the room. After a brief pause, Fleur, encouraged by a nod from her husband, rose and followed.

Mr. Weasley gave a great sigh as soon as his wife had left, taking time to carefully rub his eyes over the top of his spectacles in a wearying fashion. Percy continued to fiddle with his sleeves; of all the Weasleys, he had been the only one to remain silent during the exchange. Ron idly wondered if perhaps he would have liked to head into London, too, but something stopped him from voicing it aloud. Instead he looked again at Malfoy, who looked, as weird as it was to think it, very much as Mrs. Weasley had moments ago.

“So, when are we starting, then?” Seamus spoke into the silence, with the air of one trying to clear away something awkwardly unpleasant. Bill glanced over at him and grinned a bit.

“Couple of days or so.” His eyes switched over to Ron. “That’s okay?”

Ron nodded, balling his hands into fists in his lap without even being aware of the gesture. “Excellent.”

A/N: So, I think first on the agenda in this author's note is that I owe all of you a massive thank-you, and perhaps a round of applause or two. Thank you so much for getting this story into the voting rounds of both the Best Novella & Short Story and Best Action/Adventure categories for the Dobby Awards! That's seriously so incredible; six chapters in, one hundred and twenty-three reviews, and I'm still blown away. You all are fantastic!

And now the plot is - hopefully - picking up a bit more pace, and all that. Rest assured, a little ragtag band of Order members will indeed be making its way into London in chapter nine (which I finished last week!). And with this chapter... I do believe we're nearly halfway done! I've got fifteen chapters outlined, and I don't see it changing anytime soon, so there you have it. But anyway. Thank you so much for reading, and if you've got the time, reviews are very much appreciated!


Chapter 8: VIII.
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Hogwarts was no longer a home.

Charlie Weasley had never really realized before just how much stock, how much faith, he had held in his childhood school until it was reduced to its current state of rubble and ruin. He hadn’t held the same sorts of ideas that most of his fellow classmates had, that Hogwarts was better than home. It was nice, but its comforts – the beds, the food, the camaraderie – had all been things he’d grown up knowing at the Burrow. It wasn’t all that different, unless you counted the classes and homework, and those certainly weren’t always changes for the better.

But now he could see the skeleton of the castle, stripped bare and left to rot, and he understood what those others had meant when they said it was home. There was a physical, aching heaviness inside of him as he surveyed the entrance hall and the piles of stone and mortar that littered it, motes of dust still filtering slowly through the air as though the battle had happened only yesterday.

Charlie was one of the lucky ones, though – he knew that much. At least he was moving, working, doing something, even if it wasn’t necessarily something of his own volition. Others had been taken into the dungeons and locked up, cited as “dangerous” to the Death Eaters, and whatever sadistic cause they were now working for (did they even know, themselves?); he had, by a miracle that couldn’t be called small, escaped that particular punishment. Working as a laborer to restore the castle wasn’t great, but anything had to be better than the alternative.

It was, at least, what got him through the day; that, and a small mantra he had adopted, which grew weaker as the days stretched on.

I am a Weasley. Charlie Weasley. I am not one of them. I will get through this.

His family surely was working on a plan. He knew them well, his father and his mother and his brothers; they would come back for him. Just how soon, though, he had no way of knowing. And this, perhaps, was the worst – waiting on something he was no longer sure was inevitable.

An angry shout broke the relative silence at the precise moment, making him jump badly and jerking him clean out of his thoughts. The hall echoed oddly, not as it used to; noises bounced off the room’s obstacles and reached his ears in a slightly unpleasant way.

Charlie spun around guiltily before realizing he probably should have adopted his normal tactic of pretending to be invisible, hoping that whatever angry Death Eater was currently shouting wasn’t actively seeking him. A bit of loose stone clattered loudly to the floor, skittering away from him, but it went unnoticed by anyone else.

The voice wasn’t yelling at him, reprimanding him for something he didn’t do and yet was still his fault. This time it was directed at a rather familiar witch, across the hall, towards the door that had once led to the corridor where the entrance to the Hufflepuff common room was located. It was Professor Trelawney; Charlie quickly ducked behind one of the larger rubble heaps as the Death Eater strode past; faceless underneath the mask, he couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, but the anger in his or her body spoke past gender.

“What are you doing?” the voice snarled, and now Charlie could tell that it was a man. His gloved right hand was clenched tightly around the handle of a wand, which was now pointing straight into Trelawney’s face. She looked upon it with a sort of abject terror, her eyes crossing slightly behind her magnified spectacles.

“I – I was just…” she stammered in a feeble voice, of such frailness that Charlie again felt the sort of painful heaviness dragging down at his insides. He slumped down further against the rock, a piece of it jamming into his shoulder, though he dare not move to shift it into a more comfortable position.

“My hands… they’re bleeding…” Trelawney finally managed; it was somehow odd to hear her talk without her usual oral veils of mysticism, though he couldn’t say why this particular thought struck him at precisely that moment. Charlie glanced down at his own hands: They were cracked and cut, the palms pink with rawness. All the wands of the laborers had, not unexpectedly, been confiscated when they had been assigned to their work details. To the narrow minds of their captors, nothing could be more humiliating than for the conquered to work as Muggles, without magic to aid them; Charlie knew this. And if his hands were this sore, roughened from his work in Romania, he could only imagine how his old Divination professor was faring.

Romania. Charlie swallowed against a sudden lump in his throat just thinking about it, closing his eyes and breathing slowly out through his mouth. He never could have imagined that he would miss his work this much – who honestly missed their job when they were away from it? – but the familiarity of his coworkers, and the dragons, were something he sorely missed.

But again he was yanked away from his thoughts (they were all he had left to call his own now; it was cruel to be unable to spend time with them) by a flash of scarlet light, followed by a sickeningly loud crack, a sharp, short gasp of pain, and, finally, small and almost inaudible whimpering noises.

“Your hands should be the least of your concerns now,” the Death Eater said nastily; there was another small scattering of stones as he turned on his heel, making his way back towards whatever else had been occupying his time before he’d spotted Trelawney. Charlie hunched down further against the stone pile, waiting until the only thing left to hear was the older woman across the way, who more than surely was nursing a broken bone now. There was nothing else that could have made that sound; he himself had had his fair share of breaks to know that.

It was from this rather odd angle that he caught himself look up, towards the vast and cathedral-like ceiling that had once shone down sunshine onto the flagstones of the entrance hall. The sun still shone through, an ironic light in a darkness it did not fit, arguably in stronger amounts – all the glass from the windows that had once let it in had been shattered by the force of spells. But there was something else there, too, that dimmed what might have otherwise given Charlie hope.

There was someone up there.

Not standing on a landing, watching – someone floating, as absurd as it may have sounded. And he wouldn’t have believed it, had he not seen it himself, but Charlie was sure that his eyes were not playing tricks on him; the human mind was not so punishing. The someone was lying prostrate, their back towards the ground. And, as he watched, a beam of the betraying sunlight shining through the pane-less windows hit the silhouette in just such a way to make it clear to Charlie what was up there.

It was Harry.

There was something in the limp way Harry’s arms and legs dangled down, awkward extensions of a once-lively body, that made Charlie’s stomach turn over. His fingers reached blindly, wrapping themselves around the nearest piece of stone they could find; he gripped it with white-knuckled fingers, uncaring at how the rough edges cut into his palm. His insides churned; he fancied very much that he was about to be sick.

This more than anything else – more than the backbreaking work, the not knowing, the sight of those around him dropping from weakness or just poor luck, the wrong place at the wrong time – this was what caused the fissure inside of him that augmented the loss of courage. The sight of the boy who had once been the symbol of the cause, the hope in an otherwise-hopeless world, displayed like a marionette without a puppeteer, was very nearly too much.

Perhaps this really was the end.

*

It was inevitable, Hermione knew, that someone would come for her in the cell in the end. After her initial conversation with Dean, and the disheartening turnaround in defeatist words that Oliver had provided, neither of the three of them had spoken much. And indeed, what had there been to speak about? No one else had made any sort of noise, either, other than the expected sounds of bodies shifting restlessly and occasionally emitting low noises of pain. Hermione had no idea who else was in this dungeon, who else had been deemed of enough import to be sequestered away in this dank, dull place.

And so she had been alone with her speculations until now, which had nearly ceased to have meaning, such as words do when repeated in rapid succession. Ron, his family, the rest of the Order, life outside the dungeons – it was still present, but had faded into a soundtrack that played in the background of the more present urges to sleep, and eat, and stay alive. By the time new voices manifested themselves in the corridor running the length of the room, bordering the makeshift cells, the reprieve from monotony was almost welcome.

The snarl that reached her ears first was instantly recognizable. “I don’t want to wait,” Bellatrix Lestrange snapped, evidently in response to an unheard question. Hermione, who had been lying flat on her back, her head propped painfully against a wall, sat bolt upright, wincing at the stiffness in her muscles.

“What is the point in waiting?” interjected another voice, this one male, though it carried the same notes of derision and scorn. “We’ve been waiting, and so have they. We’re not waiting for anything, and if we’re sitting on valuable information, the Dark Lord –“

“I said all right,” snapped a third voice, and this one, too, Hermione was able to place almost instantly. The voice of Scabior, the Snatcher who’d broken her wrist, wasn’t one she was liable to forget in a hurry. Even as he spoke, her arm throbbed, as though sensing its tormenter; she wrapped her fingers around it, gritting her teeth. She would not cry out now.

Three pairs of feet marched down the corridor, towards the cell where Hermione was sitting. She cradled her useless arm against her abdomen, her heart beating a violent, near-painful tattoo somewhere between her throat and the place where it was supposed to rest. They stopped right outside her door; she stopped breathing.

There was a brief flash of blue-white light, and the door creaked slowly open.

The three figures Hermione had heard earlier were briefly silhouetted in the door frame, backlit by the slight flickering of the corridor’s low-burning torches. The figure at the head of the small group stepped forward first, the wild, tangled hair and arrogant stance of Bellatrix Lestrange quite unmistakable.

“Grab the Mudblood,” she said to those on either side of her, in a horrible sort of singsong voice. Scabior and another Death Eater Hermione didn’t recognize stepped forward at once, identical leers on their oddly-shadowed faces. As though moving in sync, they each wrapped a hand around her upper arm and yanked. Hermione felt her wrist bend in a way it could not go, and gave another gasp of pain, one that did not go unnoticed by Bellatrix.

“Ah,” she said happily, looking at it almost hungrily; Hermione’s throat had suddenly gone bone-dry. “It pains you. And yet –“ Hermione snatched her wrist back as Bellatrix made as though to examine it, even though it throbbed to move it so quickly.

“If you’re going to kill me,” she managed, in as calm a tone as she could, though it was impossible to keep her voice from trembling a little, “you’re acting like cowards about it. That’s all your kind are, cowards.” The taunt worked; the older woman’s eyes flashed dangerously, her teeth bared in a sudden, spiteful hiss.

“Kill you?” she breathed. “That’s much too good for you, girl. No, we have a long, long way to go before we even begin to dream of getting rid of you…” As she spoke, she drew a wand from the pocket of her robes, pointing it in front of her at Hermione and breathing heavily.

“You know where the Weasleys are.”

Ron. Hermione swallowed, though her throat burned with dryness. “I – I don’t –“

It had been the complete wrong thing to say. Another light flickered in Bellatrix’s dark eyes, something more sinister and fiery, and she brought her wand down with a swift silence. Red-hot pain seared through Hermione’s bones, making that of her hurt wrist seem tame in comparison. The hands on her upper arms clenched, fingers digging through the fabric, as she screamed, hating herself for showing weakness even as she did so.

Just as quickly as it had come, the pain ceased; the hands released. Hermione dropped heavily onto the floor, her limbs trembling in resistance to the Cruciatus Curse. There was a click of heels on the stone floor, and Bellatrix moved closer to her. “Ready to break yet, Mudblood?” she whispered, a maddeningly merciless giggle underscoring the words.

“I don’t know where they are!” Hermione scrunched her eyes close and gritted her teeth, this time prepared for the curse when it hit. It was as though every part of her had been twisted, seemingly pliant as rubber, but she would be strong, she could be strong… Hermione could taste a familiar, coppery tang from where her teeth had pressed against her bottom lip, but she would not cry out…

The curse lifted once more; she felt the toe of Scabior’s boot prodded her shoulder, and was too weak to bother resisting. Her breath was coming in short, shallow gasps, clammy sweat beading on her brow and trickling unpleasantly down her temples. There was a rustling of cloth, and Bellatrix’s voice spoke suddenly, low and close to her ear. She was too tired to be startled by it.

This is your death,” she hissed. “You thought it would be quick? Virtually painless? It is this. Slow and laborious and completely out of your control. And your blood traitor boyfriend can do nothing to save you from it.”

Bellatrix stood up; Hermione didn’t dare to open her eyes. “Out,” she snapped, and Scabior and the other Death Eater made quickly for the door, almost as though they were afraid that, should they choose not to act on her commands quick enough, they would be next.

It was only after the door had shut behind the three of them that Hermione dared to open her eyes again at all. The wall of her prison, indistinct enough in the unwavering gloom that was life here, was thickly blurred with the tears of pain in her eyes she refused to let spill. She listened with horrible listlessness as they moved next door, to Dean’s cell, and voices floated thickly, indistinctly through the walls, as though they came from deep beneath water. There was a shout and a large thump, and something basic and instinctual called to Hermione to do something, save him, as she listened to them drag him out and away.

She did not move.

*

Dean never came back.

A/N: Whew. Okay. So this chapter was... a bit dark, but I hope that's all right with everybody. I don't mean for this story to be so depressing, and I do promise you that it does end happily! I think this is the lowest point in the story, if you imagine it as a sort of curve; this is the defeatist point. The next chapter is the Shell Cottage foray into London, and after that things should get better. I hope you'll stick with me through it!

As always, I'm so incredibly grateful for the responses this story's got, and for everyone who's been supporting me in the Dobbys. Even if I don't win, just making it through to the voting round in two categories really is spectacular! Thank you so much!


Chapter 9: IX.
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For the most part, London had in no way changed – not, at least, since Ron had last been there, under the bold, stupid premise of sneaking into the Ministry of Magic. There was the same sooty air, tasting slightly of something both metallic and ash-like; there was the same interminable press of people in a hurry to be somewhere other than where they currently were. And, yet again, he was there under the appearance of a person he wasn’t.

It had been McGonagall’s idea to use most of their Polyjuice Potion stores for this. Mad-Eye Moody had taken a leaf from the book of the man who’d imprisoned him in Ron's fourth year, and before he died had made sure to have a large stock of it, tucked safely away in his home, which Bill had found upon searching the place. It was this potion that had changed the four of them – Ron, McGonagall, Arthur, and Seamus – into seemingly oblivious Muggles, straight from Ottery St. Catchpole.

Seamus had been set against it from the start, and even now, as Ron glanced sideways at him, he looked distinctly uncomfortable, fiddling with the rough hem of his right sleeve and scowling. For a moment, Ron had wondered at the wisdom of the decision in letting him tag along – but he had volunteered to do it, and that was a fact that simply couldn’t be ignored. There was not enough wisdom of the elders to shoulder the burden in this stage of the war; most of that wisdom was now dead.

Seamus had, though, made the rather compelling argument that changing into Muggles these days was, for all intents and purposes, as stupid a thing to do as keeping their own identities. “If I’m going to die,” he’d grumbled, shortly before the four of them set out to put their plan into action, “I’d like to have my own face, thanks.”

“No one is going to die, Finnigan,” the former deputy headmistress had snapped grimly. Seamus hadn’t argued further – even if Hogwarts wasn’t their school anymore, there were some things you just didn’t do, and arguing with Minerva McGonagall was high on this list.

It was distinctly odd for Ron to see her outside the Hogwarts scope, too, in the faded calico dress she’d lifted from the farmer’s wife she’d taken the appearance of. Despite the fact she’d lost her customary robes, her square spectacles, and her severe bun, her mouth was set into its customary thin line of intense disapproval. It was almost a welcome thing.

But there was one aspect of London that had changed, Ron thought now, turning his attention from his companions at last and surveying the city once more (with difficulty, as the brown curls of the Muggle boy he was supposed to be kept falling into his eyes). Every couple of blocks, something was destroyed, severely so. And every Shell Cottage inhabitant present knew what had caused that destruction.

Just across the street from where the four of them were now clustered, the stonework of a bank building – very old, by the look of it – had crumbled away, granite dust still swirling slightly in the air, as though it had happened very recently. Great clumps of rock littered the street, and tangles of wires and plaster, oddly deformed or fused by the blast, poked out at strange angles from where the stone had covered it. Passersby were clustered en masse along the edge of the pavement, talking animatedly to their neighbors and jostling for a better view.

“We know they’re here, then,” Ron’s father said at last; he was the first one to speak since they had come across the site. Ron glanced down and saw that some of the stone had made it across the street, too. Seamus seemed to notice the same thing, and started kicking around a bit of it. Ron wished he wouldn’t.

“They’re here,” McGonagall confirmed in the low, slow voice of the farmer’s wife. “What are we going to do, Arthur?”

Mr. Weasley sighed deeply and ran a hand over his face. He had changed into a businessman in a pinstriped suit, though why a person like that had been in Ottery St. Catchpole hadn’t been apparent to any of them. He didn’t answer the question, however; Ron spoke up.

“We’ve got to find them, haven’t we?” He wiggled his shoulders, the tightness of the unfamiliar checked shirt straining against his shoulder blades – couldn’t this boy afford proper clothes? – as he leaned around Seamus to examine his father’s expression.

Mr. Weasley nodded. “We have no plan, remember,” he said bleakly. “This is just to keep us –“

“Occupied, yeah,” Ron finished, scowling. This suddenly felt so stupid, the lot of it, as though they were playing games while the rest of the war went on around them. What good was supposed to come of assuming the identities of complete and total strangers, prancing about London, when Hermione might be…?

But she wasn’t. Ron would surely know if she was. And yet, even as he thought that, he could feel a sort of iciness sliding through his veins.

“Well,” Seamus drawled, exaggerated sarcasm fairly dripping from him. “We could at least try and figure out what happened here.” Ron shot him a filthy look, and suddenly remembered just why he hadn’t been particularly fond of Seamus in previous circumstances.

“Yes. All right.” Ron’s father’s voice still sounded tired, and somehow, nearly bemused. He didn’t know what he was doing any more than the other three of them did; that was perhaps one of the most unnerving parts of this day. There was no leader, no plan, no semblance of order. 

Thinking’s been a right downer of late, Ron thought, smirking, and instantly feeling horrible guilty at his flippancy. Clearing his throat a bit, he cast a glance around, making sure no cars were approaching, and stepped off the pavement, crossing quickly to stand in front of the half-destroyed bank.

There was a woman standing in front of a large, black box as he passed by – he’d seen his dad looking at a diagram of something like it before, though he couldn’t remember its name. It looked a little bit like Colin Creevey’s old camera, the one he’d carried around so often it was like it’d been fused to him, and the woman was talking to it like it was a person.

“The police continue to tell us they have no leads as to where the bomb originated, or where it is located now. The work is thought to be that of an as-yet unknown bomber. Anyone with leads or information that could lead to the bomber’s arrest is encouraged to come forward or to call the toll-free number at the bottom of your screen –“

It took rather a tremendous effort not to roll his eyes as Ron sidled past, trying to avoid treading on the toes of the bystanders still gawking at the building, pointing inquisitive fingers and speculating amongst themselves. The crowd was pressed clear around the building, and even a few blocks down. Ron couldn’t help mild feelings of shock; was this such a site to these Muggles that they felt the need to press in to see it, as though it were a parade? Didn’t they realize what is was, or were they that thick –

He stopped walking, so abruptly that Seamus walked directly into the back of him; he cursed instantly, rubbing his nose where he’d knocked it against the first boy’s back.

How could he ever, ever let himself think like that?

“Ron,” said Mr. Weasley in a low, urgent voice, laying a hand on his son’s shoulder, but Ron shrugged it off brusquely. He surged forward with renewed vigor, trying to vie for a position among the Muggles, and he glanced down an alleyway, trying to see if there was a way through it to get a better vantage point –

And for the second time, he stopped dead in his tracks. Seamus appeared to have seen it coming this time, and sidestepped him just in time. “You have got to stop doing that,” he snapped. “I’ll –“

“Shut up, Seamus.” Ron looked back wildly over his shoulder; Professor McGonagall was looking at him warily, as though he’d gone mad. Just behind her, looking at him over the older woman’s shoulder, Mr. Weasley wore a rather similar expression. “Dad, there are Death Eaters. Here.”

Seamus was pushed to the brick wall of the building across from the bank as Mr. Weasley made his way forward with unusual quickness; he braced either hand on the walls beside him, tensing them so he balanced only by the tips of his fingers, and looked in the direction Ron was pointing. His insides were twisting, numbing him; it had suddenly become rather difficult to breathe.

There was no mistake that the men Ron had spotted down the adjoining street were, in fact, Death Eaters. The half-masks and robes they wore were ones he would have recognized from a much farther distance; those people wouldn’t have been caught dead in Muggle clothing, despite the fact that what they did wore made them appear ostentatiously obvious to anyone with half a brain. There were about three or four of them, clustered together in a tight group, laughing loudly at something one in the group of them had just said.

“They’re not even trying to hide…” Mr. Weasley was muttering from somewhere above Ron’s head. He cast a cursory glance upward at his father, and realized he’d sunk into a half-crouch without quite realizing it. “What their plan is, I haven’t the slightest…”

“Are we going to apprehend them?” Professor McGonagall’s voice was still distinctive, even through the layers of the woman’s voice she’d temporarily adopted. And yet there was something unfamiliar about it; it was fear. Ron had never heard her – normally so stoic, so immovable – sound anything close to scared, and that realization scared him.

“We can’t,” said Seamus, of all people, and he sounded equally fearful, though this didn’t surprise Ron nearly as much as hearing McGonagall break briefly. He blew one of the village boy’s curls up out of his face in annoyance and squinted, trying to see the tiny cluster of robed wizards better. There was something off about them, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on…

There was someone else with them. Someone who shouldn’t be there.

“Dad,” Ron forced out harshly; he was suddenly taken with an inability to speak, as though the words were being forced up from a deep and unutterably painful place inside of him. “Dad… Charlie…”

“What?” Mr. Weasley looked down at Ron, and then back up at the Death Eaters. The businessman’s pockmarked face drained of color. “No…”

But there wasn’t any denying it; the time for denials and second-guessing had passed quick enough for the pair of them to miss it. Once it was voiced, it could be seen twice as clearly that standing on the fringes of the group was a familiar stocky, freckled redhead… Ron’s second-oldest brother, Charlie.

“He’s alive,” said Seamus, poking a forefinger into Ron’s shoulder blade, which was apparently supposed to be a gesture resembling comfort. Ron was closer to hitting him – why couldn’t he shut up? – and felt his whole body tense as one of the Death Eaters said something to his brother, a smirk evident even from this distance. Charlie shook his head.

And fell beneath the blast of an orange jet of light from one of the Death Eaters’ wands.

“No!” The cry escaped Ron’s lips before he could stop himself; he felt two sets of hands grab his shoulders and jerk him back roughly. Thrown off balance, he tumbled onto the ground, small bits of worn-away concrete digging into his back, though he knew better than to cry out again.

“Are you mad?!” Seamus said angrily, but Ron brushed him away, sitting up quickly and looking at Mr. Weasley. He immediately wished he hadn’t; the pain he found in the lines of his father’s face was more pronounced than usual, and it made is, Ron’s, gut twist again.

“Dad, what are they doing to him?” He didn’t feel like a solider in a war anymore; he felt like a kid again, lost and frightened, once he’d realized the world he’d been brought up in was nothing more than rose-colored paint to hide the ugliness underneath. He staggered to his feet, brushing dust from the seat of his pants, and looked to Mr. Weasley imploringly.

“They’re smart,” he answered grimly, pressing his back against the wall and looking down at his youngest son, an expression of something almost resembling pity quickly masking the pain that was nevertheless still there. “They’ve got their prisoners out doing their dirty work, it looks like.”

“Did they hear him?” Seamus asked, jerking a thumb in an irritated fashion at Ron.

“I thought I told you to shut up,” Ron retorted hotly. Seamus opened his mouth, but Professor McGonagall laid a warning hand on his shoulder before he had a chance to answer back.

"Boys," she snapped, sounding for a moment very much like her former self, and then added, “The potion will wear off soon enough.” She said this as though that settled the matter, and indeed Ron thought he could hear a bit more of her normal, clipped voice underneath the strong Northern accent the farmer’s wife normally spoke with. “We’d best be off, Arthur.”

Mr. Weasley had been staring at his shoes while his son argued; he looked up now, and nodded tiredly. “Yes, you’re right.” He chanced a brief glance around the corner where Ron had first spotted Charlie; apparently, no Death Eaters had heard Ron’s shout, which he was more grateful for than he was willing to admit within earshot of Seamus. “Back the way we came, then, and quickly.”

As they turned back in that direction, preparing again to battle the hordes of Muggles still clustered around the damage to the bank, all the while not having a clue as to what caused it, Ron’s mind found it prudent to replay a few of Seamus’s words in his head.

They’ve got their prisoners out doing their dirty work, it looks like.”

Wherever Hermione was – wherever she was being kept – he hoped, with as much hope as he’d ever put into anything, that she was all right.

A/N: So, what did you think of the rather fruitless London mission? I do understand that it was perhaps lacking in more action than is generally desirable, but it's really a sort of Shell Cottage time-waster, and a few important things did happen here. Charlie out parading with the Death Eaters! That poor boy; I really am not liking having to put so many of my favorite characters through this kind of turmoil.

Also. 150 reviews in 8 chapters?! You guys are seriously awesome! I still don't know just how to convey my appreciation properly. I cannot even hope to begin to tell you what that means to me. Thank you so, so much for reading and reviewing and favoriting and just being a fantastic support system, all of you!


Chapter 10: X.
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Shell Cottage seemed somehow different by the time the small band of mission-goers arrived back on the beach path leading up to it. It wasn’t, Ron supposed, that the house itself had changed, or the land around the house; in those respects, it looked as normal as it ever had. Perhaps it was Ron’s eyes, his way of looking at things, and not the house that had been altered.

Their Polyjuice Potion had worn off on the way home, mere minutes after Professor McGonagall had suggested they leave, and Ron knew it was for the best that they had left. But a larger, more stubborn part of him resented the fact that they had. Who knew what had happened to Charlie after they had left? Was he being tortured right now, even as they wearily climbed up toward the front door, their shoes slipping and scraping on the sand-covered cobbles?

He chanced a glance at his father, walking just behind him. Arthur was staring intently at the ground, his eyes very far away, his face lined with fear and resignation. It was this second emotion that startled Ron more than the first. They were all scared – fear was a given in these circumstances – but they could not give up, or everything they had been working for would collapse.

Had it only been a few weeks since Hogwarts had been taken?

Ron dropped back a bit, letting Seamus move off the path through the beach grass to get around him, and fell into step beside his father. If Mr. Weasley noticed that his son now walked alongside him, he gave no indication of it, unless it was to slip his hands into his pockets and blink a few times.

“Dad?” he ventured cautiously. He was still drastically unused to this; throughout everything, his entire life, it had been his parents to comfort him, to soothe away the fears and mend the scrapes. Ron wasn’t entirely sure he liked it when the roles were reversed. “Dad, are you okay?”

His father said nothing, continuing to walk along the path without looking where he was going. “It’ll be all right,” Ron continued awkwardly, the promise feeling stale and false in his mouth even as the lips formed the words. “We’ll get Charlie back somehow –“

“Ron,” Arthur cut in at last, removing his hands from his pockets and rubbing his eyes tiredly behind his spectacles. There was a long, pregnant silence, and Ron chewed his bottom lip absently, waiting for whatever his father would say. But there was nothing for a long moment, and then only –

“Don’t tell your mother about Charlie.”

*

It seemed that the rest of the Shell Cottage group had assembled in the dining room and the living room (either of the rooms by themselves being too small in their own right), people sitting on chairs and standing along walls, conversing mildly and mostly staring into empty space. From the kitchen came the sound of clattering dishes, Fleur washing the plates and forks that were already spotless, but were being washed again to keep her mind from idling. At the sound of the front door opening, all heads turned in their direction, eyes immediately asking silent questions.

Ron stood self-consciously just on the other side of the threshold, sensing the same amount of change in here as he had walking up from the beach outside the cottage. The four of them who had been into London stood in a row, as though lined up for inspection; Seamus was biting distractedly at his thumbnail, while Professor McGonagall was standing as though an iron rod were pressed against her spine.

There was a soft murmur, and then a break in the crowd. Ron’s mum pushed between Luna and Flitwick, her eyes bright with unshed tears that for some reason made him feel embarrassed. “Oh, you’re all right,” she whispered, dabbing at her face with the hem of her ever-present apron, already suspiciously soggy.

“We’re all right, Molly,” Ron’s father affirmed; though it wasn’t entirely the truth, the half-lie seemed to come naturally to his lips. He placed a hand on either of his wife’s shoulders and planted a brief, chaste kiss on her forehead. She sniffed loudly.

Ron caught Luna’s eye in a desperate attempt to avert his own from his mother’s crying, and she gave him a brilliant smile, somewhat at odds with the present situation. But he couldn’t find another place to look. Horace Slughorn was watching him with an oddly pitying expression; Bill was watching him warily, as though he might faint, and George was giving him a similar look; even Seamus, next to him, was trying to catch his eye, wanting to say something about the experience the pair of them had just shared, most likely.

But all he wanted, right now, was to be alone. Couldn’t anybody give him space to think for five minutes?

From just in front of him, his father was still murmuring to his mother in low, reassuring tones, more than likely still trying to convince her that yes, they were safe, and no, she didn’t need to worry about them. But just as Ron was about to move toward them, to do his part to contribute the lie Arthur had already set into motion, there was another rush of murmuring, like a breeze through the room, and the crowd pressing toward the front hall parted again to let someone else through.

“Arthur.” Kingsley Shacklebolt’s deep voice seemed to electrify the room, and Ron’s father briefly clasped hands with him; it was an oddly formal gesture.

“Any news?” Arthur asked brusquely. And, to Ron’s incredulity, something like the ghost of a pleased smile crossed the older man’s face. He gave a noncommittal shrug that fooled nobody.

“Reckon we’ve got something worked out with Mr. Malfoy,” he said, and the rest of those gathered around the mission-goers, who had been talking amongst themselves, fell into immediate silence. “Coming into the dining room?” He swept a broad hand in that direction.

“Of course,” the eldest Weasley said quickly, and Kingsley ushered him in that direction. There was a brief pause, and then Ron charged after the pair of them, his heart suddenly beating three times faster than it had been only moments earlier. The rest of the Shell Cottage group pressed hungrily after him.

Ron was less surprised than he figured he ought to have been to see, upon entering the dining room with the crush of people behind him, that Draco Malfoy was already sitting at one end of the long table in the dining area. It was, in fact, the same seat he had been sitting in during the discussion of the London mission. If he didn’t know better, Ron might have said he hadn’t left the spot since.

Draco shot him a rather filthy look upon his entrance, however, and Ron stopped short. “What’s your –“ he began, and then stopped abruptly. Something had caught his eye: A silvery, fluid-like material, pooled in the middle of the table. For an absurd moment, he thought it was unicorn blood – but no, it had a shadow from the fixture overhead…

And, just as suddenly, he realized what it was.

“Ron?” Luna’s voice, just behind his shoulder, filtered foggily through his brain. “Your face is all pale. Are you all right?”

He jerked forward and snatched up the object on the table; Malfoy scooted his chair back from the table a few inches, sneering slightly. “Where did this come from?” the former asked, shaking the thing in his hand a bit, so that it seemed to ripple. “How did it get here?”

How on earth had Harry’s Invisibility Cloak just materialized out of thin air?

“Draco had that on his person.” Kingsley, who had moved around to stand at the head of the table, to Malfoy’s left, crossed his arms over his broad chest. “He says he found it in the Forbidden Forest.”

“Like hell,” Ron said savagely, yanking his wand from the back pocket of his jeans with his free hand. There were a few gasps from the crowd behind him as he pointed it straight between Malfoy’s eyes, which widened in fear as he did so.

Ron.” Ron shrugged away his father’s anger, concentrating solely on the tip of his wand and where it was pointed.

“How’d you get it?” He was yelling now; he didn’t care. “Did you even wait before he’d hit the ground, Malfoy, or did you just rip it off him when –“

“That is enough!” This voice succeeded where Arthur’s had failed; he turned in mild shock, and even a bit of guilt, to see his mother, standing at the base of the stairs that led to the second floor. Her hands were planted firmly on her hips, her nostrils flaring.

“Mum,” he started angrily, but she pointed an imperious forefinger at the chair in front of her. Scowling, but rational thought now slowly catching up to him anyway, Ron slammed it out from the table and threw himself into it. Malfoy smirked slightly.

“Ah,” Kingsley said then. “Right. Erm, if most of you lot would clear out, then.” He gestured awkwardly toward those still standing in the doorway, mouths still open at Ron’s display. He felt his ears redden from their staring. “Bill, you stay – Minerva, Horace, Arthur, Fleur, George.” He beckoned them forward, and the rest moved away, some with airs of mild dejection.

“Right, then –“ Bill said, moving to sit on Malfoy’s other side. “What we’ve been talking about –“

“I’m staying, too.”

Everyone in the room turned to look at the doorway leading back to the front hall. Percy stood in it, cutting a mildly impressive figure, one hand braced on each of the supports. Ron raised his eyebrows slightly; George, who had taken the chair next to him (though rather more gently) reacted similarly.

“Percy,” Molly started gently, in a tone that signified a let-down – Ron had heard it often, through the years – but this time it was her husband whose voice overrode hers.

“Yes,” he said firmly, ushering his son into the room. “Percy stays.” No more was said about the matter; Percy sat on George’s other side, the tops of his cheeks slightly pink, and that was that.

“What we were discussing while you lot were out,” Bill forged on, as though he hadn’t been interrupted at all, “was how to get back into Hogwarts without… well.” He gave a sort of jerk of his shoulders, and all those present in the room could tell what the gesture signified.

“And what we came up with,” he forged on, “actually has a lot to do with that Cloak, Ron.” Bill nodded toward his youngest brother, and Ron found that he was still holding the Invisibility Cloak in his hands – and his wand, too, now that he was looking. He shoved it away under the table, feeling a bit abashed, and next to him, George smiled.

“What about the Cloak?” Minerva said, pressing the tips of her fingers into the edge of the table and leaning forward slightly.

“We’ve got to have a way to get into Hogwarts to get people out from within it,” said Kingsley, pacing back and forth slightly in his limited amount of space. “And it’s a pretty sure bet that we’re not getting in by ourselves – or with Polyjuice,” he added, as though sensing someone might have brought it up. “That was all right for London. It more than likely will not work the same way again.

“Furthermore,” he continued, “the Death Eaters aren’t stupid. They’ll have set up some way to prevent us from getting back into the castle and doing the very thing we’re setting out to do. Only Death Eaters will be able to move in and out of those grounds, if they have anything to say about it.”

Ron knew where this was heading, and didn’t like it one bit. He threw a sour look at Malfoy across the table; he was staring down at the surface of it, the pads of his fingers tracing small patterns in the grain of the wood. “So we’re sending him in,” he interjected dully, jabbing his thumb at the former Slytherin.

“Precisely,” said Bill neatly. “He’s got the Mark – he’s got clearance – so why shouldn’t we use it to our advantage? Have him sneak in with the Cloak, find out where everyone’s being kept –”

“And how do you know he won’t turn tails the moment he’s back inside?” It was Percy who spoke now, a bit uncomfortably, leaning down to catch Kingsley’s eye more clearly. “He’s got ‘coward’ written all over him – he’ll make off with the Cloak –“

“Because,” Kingsley said firmly, over a small snort of approving laughter from George, “the stakes are high for his family right now. And he knows we know it.”

“You could talk to my face,” Malfoy said, speaking for the first time in a condescending drawl, “rather than act as though I’m not here, or like I’m a dog.” Surprised faces turned to him as he added, “You’re missing a rather large piece of information, I’ll have you know.”

“And what’s zat, zen?” piped up Fleur hotly; until that moment, Ron had nearly forgotten she was there. She had chosen to stand near the stairs, where Mrs. Weasley was, rather than take a seat at the dining table with the others.

“The Invisibility Cloak can come off,” Malfoy said, so sarcastically that Ron had to resist getting his wand out again. “One slight breeze and we’re all dead.”

“Cheerful,” George snapped, and received a sneer in return.

“He’s right,” spoke up Horace Slughorn helpfully, in a dubious sort of tone. “Not to mention that it would be rather tricky to fit even two people under that Cloak without being seen…” He paused to stroke his mustache thoughtfully.

“There is another way it could be done.” Everyone turned again to Malfoy as he spoke, looking rather reluctant to do so even still, continuing to trace minute patterns on the tabletop. “They have – they make Polyjuice stores. I could get in there and use a bit of them. I know you said it’s stupid to do it going in, but they won’t be expecting it coming out, will they?”

Kingsley’s face brightened, as though clouds had been wiped from it to let the sun in. “I don’t know,” he said slowly, though it was rather clear that the words were only stopgaps to preclude any undue excitement. “That could work… And you think you could do it, Draco?”

Ron’s mouth had fallen open at some point, a fact he realized as Draco nodded stiffly at the older Auror. Nobody else seemed to share his qualms still. How was anyone supposed to know if they could trust Malfoy? Didn’t anyone remember the things he’d done? Wasn’t that Mark on his arm proof enough that he should be locked away?

But perhaps this was what happened in war. It wasn’t so much the battling, and the fighting. It was the willingness and ability to adapt that meant you had a chance to make it.

And so, for the first time he could remember, he did not speak out against Draco Malfoy.

*

Hermione was wakened with a jerk, her cheek slipping off her hand and pressing into the cold stone floor. She couldn’t have been sleeping for more than an hour – anything more than brief fits of sleep had eluded her all the time she had been imprisoned down here – but still, something had to have roused her…

It didn’t take long for her to realize what it was. Two sets of slow-moving footsteps were moving down the dungeon aisle, between the makeshift jail cells, taking slow and almost ponderous steps. Low voices spoke back and forth to each other in as-yet indistinguishable words, though she didn’t think she knew either of the men they belonged to. Slowly, their conversation started to make sense to her ears.

“… to Azkaban,” one man was saying, his words just audible over the sound of his shoes on the stone.

“There aren’t many left,” said his companion nastily; there was an unexpected, harsh sound, like one of them was rattling metal, and Hermione’s heart jumped into her throat. A cell door, she realized suddenly, and shrank instinctively against the far wall of her own.

“True,” the first replied, pleasure evident even though she had no way of seeing his face. “Just a couple of them, though.”

“Potter’s girlfriend, she’s still here?” the second asked. Hermione slapped a hand flat against her mouth, as though to smother the sound of her breathing, as the voices stopped right outside her door.

“That’s why she mentioned Azkaban,” the first man said in a voice of thinly-veiled exasperation. “The dementors are on our side, aren’t they? She’ll just slowly rot away in there.”

“We could kill her.” Hermione’s heart stopped beating; they were still standing outside her cell. There was a long silence.

“You know we couldn’t. She’s dead terrified to touch her, and I think the Dark Lord is, too.”

Terrified?

His companion must have not understood what the first man was talking about, because he pressed on. “Haven’t you heard what’s going on? He’s keeping it all quiet, you understand, but word’s gotten round. Mind, you can’t tell anyone I told you this…”

Hermione scooted a bit closer in spite of herself, not wanting to miss the rest of this conversation. “… blood everywhere,” she just managed to overhear. “On his wand, wherever he walks – it follows him, little spots of it. Like it’s leaking out of him.”

“One too many Unforgivable Curses?” the second man asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Maybe,” said the first. “But look, I didn’t tell you, all right?”

“You’ve already said –“

“Yeah, well, it needs repeating. If I’m caught spreading that around, I’m dead.” There was a very small shuffling sound, fabric on fabric. “Come on, then. Let’s head back upstairs. I hate it down here.” Hermione couldn’t help but breathe a small, nearly inaudible sigh of relief as the men’s footsteps retreated back down the dungeon corridor; there was the sound of a heavy door opening, and then the hollow sound of it closing, and silence once more.

Her brain had sped into overdrive; she pressed the tips of her cold, grimy fingertips to her temples, trying to think. Spots of blood, wherever Voldemort went – and why? Surely this wasn’t something that had always been happening, they’d been talking about it like it was a recent occurrence… But why blood? The answer was right there, on the tip of her tongue, if only she could get at it…

“Oliver?” she whispered hesitatingly, looking in the direction of his cell, though there was nothing to see. As expected, there was no reply from where he was being held. Hermione gave a frustrated sort of sigh, curling her knees up to her chest and gingerly wrapping her arms around them so as not to further hurt her wrist.

Blood… blood… what was significant about blood? But then, all at once, she remembered.

Harry and Voldemort had had a blood tie. Harry’s blood had been used to bring him back to power in her fourth year. It was in Voldemort.

Harry was now dead.

And so was his blood.

Which meant the blood in Voldemort… was dead too.

A/N: Wow, okay! There is a lot of information in this chapter, and my goodness, do I hope that made sense to everyone. Draco's sneaking into the castle (in the next chapter!) under the Invisibility Cloak, the rest of Shell Cottage is going to assemble in front of the gates... and all that blood. Voldemort's blood is Harry's blood, and now that Harry's dead, it's dead, too -- which means it's leaving him to fall to earth as naturally as it thinks it needs to. Voldemort really is his own worst enemy.

We're getting into the climactic chapters of this story, though -- and after this one, there are only five more to go! From here on out it's Hogwarts stuff, which is really very exciting. Thank you guys so much for all the reviews and reads you've given me thus far, and if you're inclined, I'd love to see what you thought of this chapter, too! 


Chapter 11: XI.
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Draco could feel his heart in his throat, a violent, pulsing thing beating against the thin skin there in a way that was almost, but not quite, painful. He pressed an unconscious hand to the spot, as though to will it to slow down, but it was a fruitless effort. He might have never been willing to admit it aloud, but he was scared; his heart would slow for nothing.

The path leading from Hogsmeade Station was narrow and twisting, and his feet ached from constantly tripping over tree roots that had grown into it – and that was after he had had to Apparate several miles outside of Hogsmeade in the first place. It had been a precautionary measure, in case the Death Eaters had replaced their Caterwauling Charm on the village, and Shacklebolt had probably been right to suggest that course of action. But still – Draco felt he was somewhat entitled to complain.

How had he allowed himself to be dragged into this mess in the first place? He could have refused, could he not? He could have allowed himself to remain shut up in the old Weasley bedroom, smelling of sand and saltwater and something he thought might have been mothballs. But his parents were still here, and in some way borne of hearing all his life that blood was important, he knew he needed to do something to try and save them. Even if it failed in the process.

There was something momentous about this night, and having a part in it, even just being alive to witness it at all. After several more days of extensive planning and even more extensive arguing among the residents of Shell Cottage (those both voluntary and otherwise), their plan was in action, and if everything went right, tonight could very well end the war. Draco could hardly remember a time when he could have said that with any degree of seriousness; even before the Dark Lord’s return, war had still permeated the air in thin, whispered wisps.

From a nearby fir, some sort of bird let out a loud cry that sounded a bit like a cackle, and Draco jumped. The Invisibility Cloak slipped a bit over his head, and he carefully used the hand not gripping his wand to reposition it a bit. It was another thing Shacklebolt had insisted on, although slightly more questionable, and Draco wasn’t entirely uncomfortable wearing it, especially knowing as he did that its original owner was dead…

He didn’t want to think about it. He might have hated Potter, might have done everything in his power to beat him in every scholastic aspect, but it was still weird to think of someone so young – someone who, in essence, he had grown up with – dead.

Quite suddenly, he rounded the last familiar bend (it seemed to take so much longer when he wasn’t riding in a carriage from the train station), the great iron gates leading into Hogwarts rose up before him. He stopped walking, even though the rational part of his brain told Draco that nobody could see him, even if they were looking; it was, after all, an Invisibility Cloak.

Then again, he didn’t want to underestimate the power of any of the people behind those gates.

Something moved in the thick shadows nearest the edge of the iron rails, and Draco’s heart started to thump, if possible, with even more pressing urgency. The shadows manifested themselves into the shape of a person as he squinted.

“Who’s there?” It was Goyle – Goyle, of all people, still sounding thick and slow, even now. Goyle lifted a massive hand and scratched the side of his nose absently, his wand held loosely at his side, a thin shape in the rapidly-falling twilight.

“What did you hear?” Draco faintly recognized this other voice, too, although he couldn’t place a face to it at the moment; no doubt it was one of the many, many Death Eaters his father had allowed under the roof of Malfoy Manor at one time or another in the past year, begging scraps of news from whoever he could glean them from in his exile.

“Footsteps,” Goyle managed at last, the words sounding as though it had taken some amount of effort to produce them in the first place. Draco had to fight hard against rolling his eyes, though he didn’t really know what was stopping him from doing so.

“Doesn’t matter anyway, does it?” the second voice said, the condescension of the words leading the concealed boy to suspect that Goyle’s companion was rolling his eyes, too. “No one can get through that gate, not unless the Dark Lord’s marked ‘em.”

A small bell seemed to ring in Draco’s head: This is your moment, it pealed. Steeling his nerve somewhat, he crept closer to the iron, Goyle’s retort somewhat lost in the rush of blood pounding through his eardrums. As quietly as he could manage without being seen, he freed his left arm from the folds of the Cloak and slowly pressed his arm to the cold metal.

With a great creak, the gates began to swing out toward him.

“What did you go and open the gates for?” Goyle’s companion cried out in a panic, rounding on him, still not seeing Draco tucked away in a particular thick shadow made from one of the stone boar-topped pillars.

“I didn’t –“

This seemed to Draco to be as good an opportunity to act as any; the small warning bell between his ears was making itself known again, perhaps. In a flash, he yanked the Cloak off his person, stuffing it down the front of his robes, and pointed his wand at the second, less-distinct figure standing next to his old school friend.

Expelliarmus!”

The man’s wand flew through the air, a darker shape against the already-dark sky, and was lost to the trees lining the path leading back towards Hogsmeade; Draco made no move to catch it. Both Goyle and the man Draco had disarmed whirled on him. Goyle’s lips began to form Draco’s name, but the other man spoke first.

“HEY! What the devil –“

Stupefy!” The nameless man, still enraptured in the anger of having his wand yanked from him, was not prepared for the Stunning Spell. The red jet of light hit him square in the chest, and he paused for a few moments, mouth hanging wide, before collapsing in an undignified heap to the ground.

“M-Malfoy?” Draco hated the fear in Goyle’s voice as he turned to him next. His mouth was set in a firm, resigned line. “But… where have you been? Your mum’s been worried sick –“

“There’s something I’ve got to do,” the blonde boy interrupted, flicking his eyes once to the ground before glancing back up at the hulking boy, confused-looking as ever. “Sorry, Goyle.”

But he wasn’t sorry – not really. Draco pointed his wand at his old friend’s chest and repeated, “Stupefy.” In an even less graceful fashion, Goyle slumped onto the hard-packed dirt, unconscious before his head collided with the ground.

Without looking back, Draco began his march up towards the castle.

*

George groaned as Ron’s trainer squeaked on the old, sandy floorboards of the sitting room of Shell Cottage for the umpteenth time. “Merlin’s beard,” he hissed through gritted teeth. “If you’ve got to pace like that, could you at least be quiet about it?”

Ron shot his older brother a filthy look, but quit his movements all the same. George doesn’t understand, he thought sourly, shoving his hands in the pockets of his faded jeans only to remove them again seconds later, wiggling them impatiently. He just doesn’t get it…

But whatever else was wrong with George (and Ron was on his way to thinking up a few prime examples) was lost for the time being; Kingsley Shacklebolt poked his head into the room. George stood up from the armchair he’d been occupying at once; across the room, Percy, who had been watching his brothers squabble silently, rose to his feet as well.

“It’s been an hour,” said the tall, dark wizard shortly. “That’s how long we were supposed to give Draco. Let’s go.”

*

Once in sight of the castle, under the Invisibility Cloak once more, Draco was almost surprised at how easy it was to slip by people unnoticed. There wasn’t a lot of activity at this time of night, anyway, and he wondered, for an idle moment, where everyone was. In London, probably, or at least not here – surely the victorious didn’t sleep amongst the rubble and ruin, did they?

From gaining entrance to the castle, he had found the stores of Polyjuice Potion quite easily, something that surprised even him. Off the entrance hall was a small cupboard that had once held brooms and half-empty bottles of Mrs. Skower’s All-Purpose Magical Mess Remover, presumably for Filch’s use, although the old caretaker had seemed to spend more time yelling at students than cleaning in Draco’s days at school.

In any case, someone had had the bright idea (or possibly the not-so-bright idea) to turn the supply cupboard into the potion stores, and the shelves had been lined with dozens of small bottles of varying colors, all resembling thick sludge behind the glass.

Draco didn’t really want to think about why the potions where there, and what use the old potions stores in the dungeons were now being used for. He had grabbed two of the bottles without looking at their disturbingly fresh-written labels, slipped them into one of the inner pockets of his robes, and was now pressing on across the rock-strewn entrance hall once more. He would start in the dungeons; that was where the Slytherin common room was, and he was familiar enough with the corridors there. Perhaps he would be lucky.

The emptiness made the noise of his shoes on the badly-cracked flagstones sound like small explosions. He winced a bit as he brushed up against a small pile of stone, sending loose pebbles clattering to the floor, and instinctively clutched his wand tighter in his hand. His palms were slick and sticky with sweat, but it somehow didn’t feel right to wipe them on the Cloak; and, anyway, he wasn’t sure it would help.

The archway leading onto the stone steps to the dungeons was a gaping, blackened mouth in the dim hall; Draco had never seen it this dark in the cavernous room before. The torches along the walls were cold in their sockets, little more than twisted hunks of metal. He chanced a glance around the deserted space, nerves creeping coldly into the pit of his stomach, and decided to take the risk.

Lumos.” The tip of his wand flared, blue-white light nearly blinding him. He wondered if the light was invisible, concealed by the Cloak as it still was, but Draco didn’t at that moment feel like performing the necessary minor experiment to check. Holding his breath without quite realizing he was doing so, he started down the stone steps.

*

The air was cold – not quite cold enough for Ron to be able to see his breath in front of him, but getting there. Thinking idly that it really shouldn’t be this cold in late June, even after the sun went down, he thrust his hands into the pocket of his jacket, the backs of his knuckles scraping uncomfortably on the zippers that held them closed.

The rest of the Shell Cottage group was fanned out behind a small row of people at the front. Ron stood between his father and Kingsley; on Arthur Weasley’s other side was Bill, with George next to him. Percy stood on Kingsley’s other side, followed by Ginny. Only Fleur and Molly Weasley were absent from the line.

A row of Weasleys, prepared to fight.

“We’ll not make any moves until Draco’s returned,” Kingsley murmured suddenly; it was an unnecessary proclamation, as they all knew the plan by heart now. From the light cast by an unknown wand, Ron saw his father swallow once, and nod. Kingsley turned over his shoulder to repeat the order, in slightly louder tones, to the rest of the group at large. It was unnervingly quiet, to have so many people there and for them to be saying almost nothing.

Ron’s breath hitched in his throat. Draco will bring her back, he thought desperately, swiping furtively at the hot tears that sprang to his eyes without his wanting for them to.

He’ll bring her back to me.

*

Draco’s instinct had not failed him before, and they did not fail him now. The further he wound into the damp, narrow dungeon corridors, the more certain he felt that something was down here, only it didn’t occur to him until it was too late to retreat that he didn’t quite know what that something was.

He rounded the corner that led into the corridor where Potions classes had once been held, and the familiar smell – water and stone and a faint undercurrent of something unpleasant that was probably mould – made him shiver involuntarily. Something once as innocent as attending classes had now turned into a search for Granger, and anyone else who might be alive. It was a sobering thought.

The light from the illuminated tip of the wand in his hand bounced oddly off the walls, and then, quite distinctly, Draco heard a person cough – a sick, wheezing cough. His heart stuttered, and he froze where he walked, one hand splayed against the wall as though to keep him upright. “Who’s there?” his voice ventured bravely into the dark.

The cough came again, somewhat more restrained this time, as though whoever was sick was trying hard to hide it.

“I’m not playing.” The fear in his voice was masked with bravery that he very much did not feel. “Tell me your name.” He held his wand higher, and a gasp escaped from his throat. Where doors had once studded the stone walls, entrances into progressively creepier dungeons, were now thick stone bars with minute cutaways. Prison bars.

“Malfoy?”

A female voice, further down the corridor; Draco moved toward it instinctively, wand held in front of him, the tiny light at its tips shaking only slightly. Whether the movement of his hands was natural or fear-induced, he couldn’t say, and even now he berated himself for having to feel fear at all.

Draco stopped in front of the cell where the voice had come from, and, wondering even as he did it if it was a bad idea, drew the Invisibility Cloak from his head. The fabric slithered to the ground, more fluid than solid material, and between the bars, the face of a figure swam into view.

“Granger,” Draco said dully. Hermione blinked back at him, and then lowered her chin onto her arms, propped on her knees, a posture she adopted so readily it was evident she had adopted it often these past few weeks. He saw, with a sick thud of horror he wished he didn’t feel, that her wrist looked oddly bent and broken.

“What do you want?”

Draco made a little sound of impatience in his throat and did not answer; he offered up a silent wish (though he wasn’t sure who or what he was wishing to) that what he was about to do would work. He raised his forearm and, once more, pressed it to the bars; with a rusty-sounding creak, the door popped open, and he seized the tiny rectangular section and pushed it the rest of the way, widening the opening.

“Get up,” he said, not really caring that he sounded a bit rude. He wasn’t all that surprised when she didn’t acquiesce his request; she had no reason to trust him. “I’m getting you out,” he snapped, and, reaching deep into his pocket, he pulled out one of the tiny bottles of Polyjuice Potion. “Drink this.”

“What -?” Hermione made as though she was about to climb to her feet – a step in the right direction – but stopped. “What are you doing?”

“There’s no time to explain, all right?” Draco hissed; he imagined he could hear footsteps, in some far distant part of the dungeon, even while he knew that he was imagining it. “Look, just –“ He made a noise of frustration deep in his throat. “You have to believe me.”

He didn’t think it would work. But somehow, in a strange, somewhat convoluted way, Draco saw a shift in her eyes, dully lit by the Lumos charm; she stretched out a hand for the bottle, and he tipped it into her palm. Breaking the wax seal and lifting the cork from the stopper with a small pop, she tipped her head back and drained the contents.

Draco closed his eyes; he hated seeing the transformation those who had taken Polyjuice underwent. And when he opened his eyes, Lavender Brown, another Gryffindor who had been in Draco’s year at school, stood before him. The last time he had seen her, she had been small and frail in death, a white sheet being pulled over her face.

Hermione – or Lavender, rather – wore a slight expression of shock on her face, as though she, too, knew the significance of having been given that particular face to wear for the evening. Her hands (the wrists attached to them whole and unbroken) shook slightly as she pushed a strand of hair away from her face. Wordlessly, the pair of them made to exit the cell, Draco stooping to pick up the fallen Invisibility Cloak.

“Wait,” Hermione said suddenly, laying Lavender’s slim, pale hand on his shoulder to stop him. “Oliver. He’s in the next cell over.” There was a pause; Draco just looked at her a bit helplessly, unsure what it was that she was asking him to do. “We can’t leave him,” she added desperately.

Draco groaned as loud as he dared; the thick silence down here made him feel as though any noise could be heard by the entirety of the castle. “Fine,” he spat savagely. He knew, somewhere within him, that his mission had been to save anyone else he could find, too. But now that he’d found Granger, all he wanted to do was get the hell out of Hogwarts and back to the Shell Cottage group, who were, he hoped, now assembled near the castle gates.

Rummaging in his pocket, he thrust the second phial of Polyjuice at Hermione, who barely caught it. “Hold that,” he ordered, and yanked the left sleeve of his robes up, preparing to lay his Mark on the bars again. As he did so, his lit wand shone on the bottle in Hermione’s hands, so that, for the first time, he could read the label.

Dean Thomas.

A/N: Oops. I completely and fully intended to post this chapter yesterday... and then, for one reason or another, it completely slipped my mind until Wednesday had almost turned into Thursday. I feel really bad for missing my two-week window (and I keep pushing that window back!), but I've decided to post the next chapter in just under two weeks, to make up for it. Sorry, everyone!

So, what did you think of this chapter, yeah? This is the first in a series of four chapters (eleven through fourteen) that focus on the climax of the story! Yeah, we're there! And then fifteen is a denouement of sorts. I'm very excited for you guys to read them all, though! And thank you, as always, for all the reviews and reads and favorites this story's garnered so far. 178 reviews for 10 chapters, as it sits right now, is just so, so incredible. You all are fantastic!


Chapter 12: XII.
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Hermione kept her eyes fixed on the back of Draco Malfoy’s head as he led her and Oliver up the narrow, almost claustrophobic staircase leading up from the Hogwarts dungeons. She wasn’t sure what to make of his sudden appearance, nor the claims he had made when he had appeared. A part of her wanted to believe that he was leading her away from the castle, but years of negative feelings toward him told her he couldn’t be trusted at all. He had a Dark Mark on his forearm, after all; that alone should have sent her running in the other direction.

But why shouldn’t he be the help she had so desperately wished for, alone and afraid in her tiny makeshift prison, for all these weeks? She glanced down at the wrist that was no longer her wrist – Lavender’s wrist, the nails on the hand attached to it painted an absurd shade of pink. Surely, she thought, Malfoy wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble to smuggle Polyjuice Potion down to her and Oliver if there wasn’t a measure of sincerity behind his actions.

Hermione felt a small, unpleasant squirm in the pit of her stomach as she examined her rose-colored nails. It wasn’t hard to guess why her bottle had been made from a bit of Lavender; she had last seen her former roommate lying prone on the floor of the Great Hall, ominously still beneath a white sheet. That she had turned into her, although shocking, was less surprising than Oliver’s having taken on the appearance of Dean Thomas.

She had found within herself, up until this point, a small manifestation of hope, clinging to the thought that, though she hadn’t heard from him since the Death Eaters had yanked him from the adjoining cell, he might still be alive. Logic and reasoning now spoke otherwise.

Malfoy paused at the final landing of the staircase, bracing a hand on the wall beside him and craning his neck up to where the entrance hall sat above the three of them. Hermione, who had been walking in a straight line between him and Oliver behind her, nearly ran her nose into his shoulder blade in the poor lighting. Harry’s Invisibility Cloak lay draped over his arm; she resisted the odd urge to snatch it from him, as though by right it belonged to her now.

“When we get up there,” the Slytherin boy said in a low voice, tipping his head in the direction of the staircase, “you act like absolutely nothing is amiss. Act as though I’ve been ordered to take you somewhere, whatever you like, but if you see anyone, act as though you’ve seen” – he paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts – “Goyle. Or… or my dad. Someone.”

From behind Hermione, Oliver spoke in Dean’s ever-cheerful voice; her heart seemed to physically wince at the sound. “Why Goyle?”

Malfoy shot him a nasty look. “Anyone, all right?” he said impatiently, his voice rising slightly. He turned around again, and the lit tip of his wand bounced off the damp stone walls, casting thick, strange shadows. “Do not make yourselves noticed, have you got that?”

Hermione looked down again at Lavender’s pink-painted fingernails, having to once more remind herself that it was not her body she occupied. Her shirt, torn and ragged from its continued use over the past few weeks, fit Lavender oddly. “Yes,” she said at last; she couldn’t get over the strange sensation of having someone else’s voice come out of her own mouth, though she was, for a brief instant, glad it wasn’t Bellatrix’s, in this case.

There was a short pause, and at long last, Draco nodded, turning himself around so that his back was to them once again. “All right,” he said. It sounded as though he were speaking to himself, instead of the prisoners behind him. With deliberate motions, he placed one foot on the bottom stair of this final flight and began to ascend, wand held tremulously over his head, as a crusader would lift his sword, riding into battle.

Hermione’s legs felt weak and quivery as she started up the steps after him, though she didn’t know whether that was from fear, or for simply not being able to walk more than a step at a time for goodness really knew how long. She could hear Oliver’s breathing behind her; it had increased, and she could tell that he, too, was scared of what the pair of them might find once they arrived in the entrance hall. She thought it might be nighttime (though there was no definitive way to mark the passing of a day in the dungeons; she wondered, for an absurd moment, how Professor Snape had survived it), but for all she knew, Death Eaters patrolled the castle continuously. Her heart climbed into her throat, choking what little breath she had left; for a moment, Hermione thought that fainting was a very real possibility.

And then they were there, clustered in the small archway, looking out onto Hogwarts for, in Hermione’s case, the first time in weeks. It was still badly battered with battle scars – heaps of stone and wood, scorches where spells had met resistance and glanced off – but it was Hogwarts.

“Blimey,” she heard Oliver mutter behind her. Malfoy glanced back at the pair of them, a sour expression only minimally masking the anxiety beneath it. A light sheen of sweat glistened on his high, pale forehead in the light from his wand.

“Not a sound,” he reminded them tightly. He bit down hard on his bottom lip, turned, and walked into the open with a confidence it was painfully evident he did not truly feel. Hermione glanced back at Oliver, who raised Dean’s slight shoulders in a half-shrug. She sucked in a quick breath and followed after him, head down: A demure prisoner, to anyone looking on who didn’t know any better.

There didn’t seem to be any sign of anyone in the entrance hall, as yet, as the trio slowly and carefully made their away across the hall, heading for the massive oak double doors at the end of it, leading back onto the grounds. Despite Malfoy’s admonishments to remain absolutely quiet, the breathing of the boy behind Hermione had, if anything, increased in loudness and rapidity. She turned around to warn him to stay quiet, and as she did so, her eyes traveled unconsciously upwards.

Hermione stopped walking at once. Her mouth gaped in horror; she lifted a tremulous hand to press against her lips, whispering against her skin, “Oh my God…”

She had not seen Harry since Hagrid had emerged from the forest, carrying his lifeless body. And now here that body was, still devoid of everything that life had given him, dangling above the hall like a grotesquely displayed trophy.

For a moment, Oliver didn’t seem to have noticed why Hermione had stopped; his feet moved impatiently over the floor, urging her own, the bottoms of his shoes scraping on loose bits of stone. But soon enough his eyes lifted to hers, and then traveled naturally upwards, to whatever it was that had caught her attention. He swore out loud, an instinctive and uninhibited reaction.

“It doesn’t matter –“ Malfoy was hissing, having realized that the pair of them no longer followed behind him. He started back towards them, as though to herd them onwards, when a small pinprick of light flared into existence on the grand staircase, on the first landing, just before it curved out of sight.

“Malfoy?”

Hermione recognized the voice as being one of the men who had frequently patrolled the small dungeon corridor, though she still had no idea what his name was. Like Draco, he held his wand high above his head, trying to cast as much light on the scene as possible. Oliver swore again, though more softly, and bowed his head deferentially. Hermione did the same; her heart was beating with painful speed.

“What’re you doing here?” said the stranger suspiciously. “I haven’t seen you around much since the victory.” His voice grew louder as he stepped nearer and nearer. “Are those prisoners?”

“My business has nothing to do with your patrols, Jugson,” Malfoy said venomously; he was doing a very good impression of lying, if indeed he had been missing in action from the scene around Hogwarts. Somehow, the fact that he had turned up outside her cell with Harry’s Invisibility Cloak, of all things, indicated to her that he hadn’t been in the vicinity of the castle.

She chanced a quick glance upwards; Jugson’s brow was low over his forehead, casting dark shadows into the spaces beneath his eyes. He’s one of the men from the Department of Mysteries two years ago, she thought wildly, the thought popping unbidden into her head; now that she had seen his face, his voice was instantly recognizable.

“Well, then,” he was saying now, lowering his wand in infinitesimal increments, “where are they headed?” Jugson jerked his thumb carelessly at Hermione and Oliver. “Need any help with ‘em?”

“No,” Malfoy said coolly. He hesitated for a fraction of a second, and then added, “There’s a labor job beside the lake. Father instructed me to bring them there.”

Hermione held her breath, but the answer seemed to satisfy Jugson. He turned to head back up the staircase, back to whatever he had been ordered to guard before his attention had been caught by Malfoy, Hermione, and Oliver, standing transfixed by the sight of Harry’s dead body. Letting out his own breath in one relieved rush, Malfoy turned to head back toward the doors, as well.

And at that exact moment, there was a shout from the archway they had just used to escape the dungeons; a shriek of rage that made the hairs on the back of Hermione’s neck stand straight up. Bellatrix Lestrange was standing there, her eyes wide and terrified at the sight of the three people standing in front of her.

Stop them!” she shrieked. As she moved forward, something in her hand caught the light: A small glass phial, identical to the ones Malfoy had brought the Polyjuice Potion in. Oliver’s eyes widened in horror at it. She felt as though her feet had been cemented to the spot; she couldn’t have moved for the world.

And Bellatrix shot a spell at them. The Killing Curse, Hermione thought at once, her thoughts almost detached from the rest of her – but the jet of light was icy blue. It hit them like a wave of solid water, and then it was water.

And, dripping wet, Hermione looked down and saw her own hands, her own unpainted fingernails. She looked at Oliver; he looked as he always had at school, no trace of Dean Thomas left on him. Somehow Bellatrix had torn away the potion’s front, through something like the Thief’s Downfall, in Gringotts –

“RUN!” bellowed Malfoy, and she didn’t stop to question it anymore. Feet skidding on loose rock and plaster, Hermione hurled herself at the doors leading out of the castle, Oliver pounding along behind her. She was terribly conscious of the fact that neither of them held wands as, from seeming nowhere, two faceless Death Eaters loomed up before them. The one on the right raised his wand, aiming it straight at her heart - she squeezed her eyes shut without thinking –

“STUPEFY!”

From behind a massive pile of stone, Charlie Weasley emerged, his wand pointed at the offending Death Eater. He slammed into the door, his head making a sickening cracking sound as he did so, and he slumped to the floor, quite unconscious.

“Hermione!” Charlie called over to her. “Get out! NO! STUPEFY!” The second Death Eater had been making for Oliver; with another Stunning Spell, he was rendered as helpless as his friend. In the dull, clanging background, she could hear Malfoy and Bellatrix, hurling spells at each other.

“But –“

She had so many questions, all at once. What had he been doing, hiding out in the Great Hall? How had he gotten away in the first place? Did he know anything about what the rest of his family was up to? But there was no way she could ask him any of these questions, and she didn’t think she would ever know the answer to them. Malfoy was backing toward the double doors, and he made a sort of shooing motion at her with his hand.

With a desperate last look at Charlie that she hoped was enough to convey her thanks, Hermione ran for the doors. Oliver had one of them halfway open, and she rammed her shoulder against it alongside him, trying to force it further open.

“Behind the backs of your own family, Draco?” Bellatrix was panting, accusation lacing the hysterical laughter in her voice. “We have raised you better –“ Her words were drowned out as she ducked one of Malfoy’s spells; it cracked a newly-repaired banister.

“Malfoy, go!” It was Charlie again; Hermione spat out a mouthful of hair as she twisted herself around, watching without being able to help it. He had clambered up from his hiding place and had trained his wand on the older woman, surprisingly calm. “I’ll hold her off.”

Malfoy didn’t need to be told twice; as his aunt cackled again with laughter, this time disbelieving, he scrambled for the doors. With a final push, it had cracked open enough for a person to squeeze through, and Malfoy dived through it first.

Oliver stood back to let Hermione go through, but she was still watching Charlie. Bellatrix had ducked his last spell and slashed at the air in front of her; thick, black coils of rope sprang into existence, lunging themselves at Charlie.

“Move! Move!” Oliver shouted, his voice high-pitched and panicky. The ropes wrapped themselves around Charlie’s legs, and he crumbled, hitting the stone hard –

She felt her shoulder being roughly shoved, and then she was through the door, and Oliver was squeezing through behind her. The last glimpse she had of the second-oldest Weasley brother was that of him lying prone on the ground, Bellatrix triumphant over him, and then she was off and running blindly, because there was nothing else that could be done.

A/N: I told you that the action would increase with these last few chapters! I kind of wish I could just post everything right now, and just let everyone read what happens -- I had a lot of fun writing these climactic bits at the end. There are only three more chapters to go after this, too -- roughly six weeks before I can mark this story as completed!

I know I say this a lot, and it'll sound a bit like a broken record -- but seriously. The amount of support this story's gotten overwhelms me, and I'm so, so grateful to everyone who's taken the time even to read this story. If I didn't have readers, I wouldn't be writing now, and I know that. You all are fantastic!


Chapter 13: XIII.
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There was an ominous lack of movement about Hogwarts. Ron didn’t think he could ever remember a time when it had been this still and silent: No students swarming about, walking down to the lake or lying about on the grounds and trying not to think about exams or homework. The castle was never dull, never quiet, and the fact that all seemed calm within now scared the hell out of him.

“Isn’t he back yet?” he hissed to George, who was standing beside him. He had whispered into the bad ear, however, and his older brother turned his head to look at Ron and hear him better.

“Eh?”

Malfoy,” Ron spat exasperatedly, rubbing his upper arms vigorously with his hands, though he didn’t feel all that cold. “He should be back by now, shouldn’t he?” He didn’t want to articulate what his absence might mean, because he didn’t want to think about it himself.

George sighed and ran a hand through his hair; he had allowed his mother to cut it the night before, and something about it made the lines at the corners of his mouth deepen. Ron thought, with a hollow pang in his stomach, that it was the first time George had received a haircut that Fred hadn’t also gotten alongside him, and quickly shifted his mind elsewhere. There was so much he couldn’t think about, in these past few weeks.

“He’ll come back,” the older Weasley said at last. “Kingsley trusted him to.”

“You talk about Kingsley like he’s – like he’s a new Dumbledore,” Ron burst out in frustration, though taking care to keep his voice low still, lest the pair of them should be overheard. “What, we should just trust whatever he says, pipe down, keep our mouths shut about it?”

George turned to frown at his little brother. “What else are you going to do, Ron?” he asked. His voice was strange – Ron wasn’t at all used to either of the twins sounding quiet and serious. The question shamed him into silence, and he turned back to watch the gates, not saying any more.

The Shell Cottage refugees were all there, ranged out in a loose formation behind where Ron and George stood. He was almost surprised at how many of them were willing to return to the castle – didn’t they remember what they had just lost there, only a few weeks previously? But there was not a soul left at the house now. The Weasleys were all lined up at the front, anxiously watching the gates; Kingsley, Fleur, and McGonagall were the three odd spots amidst a mass of flaming orange hair. Arthur was conferring in an undertone with Molly, whose arm was wrapped around Ginny; Bill was standing next to his wife, his hand tightly entwined in hers, not saying anything; Kingsley and McGonagall were also silent. And at the end was Percy, a bit apart from everyone, turning his wand over and over in his hands. And behind the group was Slughorn, and Seamus, and Dedalus Diggle, and Hestia Jones, and people Ron didn’t even know by name.

This was all they could offer Hogwarts: The remnants of an army. They could only hope that, along with Malfoy and whoever he managed to bring back from the castle, it would be enough.

There was a sudden shifting down the line, and Ron craned his neck. His father had stepped forward. “Someone is coming,” he said, and his voice traveled well, despite the quietness of its tone. He was not the only one to have seen it, either. Ron could sense the wizards and witches behind him, tensing up, ready for a fight, should it come to them.

Three dark figures had left the castle doors, heading down the long path towards the gates, where Ron stood. The one in front had pale, white-blonde hair, and the youngest Weasley son wasn’t sure whether he was relieved to see that it was Malfoy and not a Death Eater, or disgust at knowing that he had, once again, placed himself before those he had managed to get back.

But who was with him?

“Ron, ow.” He had been gripping George’s sleeve, and had not even realized it; his other hand was wrapped tightly around the handle of his wand. The figures ran closer; the middle one passed into a strip of moonlight, for a bare second, but that was all he needed.

“Oh my God…” Ron breathed, and then he had shoved himself forward just as Malfoy had reached the gate, yanking it open for the two behind him to slip through, his face a mask of terror and anxiety.

And then Hermione was through, and she was standing in front of Ron, and she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen in the entire world. Bodies surged around them: Kingsley and Arthur reached forward together to grab Malfoy, and others absorbed the other boy (who was it?) into the crowd, but Ron could not get his arms around Hermione fast enough.

“Hermione… oh my God…” He couldn’t seem to stop his mouth from moving; her name on his lips was something he had denied himself for too long. Hot tears burned at the corner of his eyes, and when he finally pulled himself away enough to look at her face, he saw her cheeks were wet and shining. “I thought I would never see you again.”

“Ron,” she said timidly, and more tears spilled over her eyes. He wiped them away for her as carefully as possible, wanting to laugh and cry, all at once. Now that she was here, in front of him, physical and real – he almost believed that she wasn’t.

“Are you all right?” It was a stupid question; even as he looked at her, knowing she was alive, he could still see how bruised and battered she was. She was still holding her wrist gingerly, and a sour taste crept up his throat. Was that still hurt, all these weeks later? But she nodded her head vigorously, and she was so brave that Ron wrapped his arms around her again, pressing his face into the top of her hair. This was still his Hermione, his Hermione, and somehow they were going to make it through this.

Kingsley was talking in a loud voice now – from the tone of it, he was giving orders, though Ron wasn’t really listening to what these were. He appeared to be directing people into formation, though; the mass suddenly seemed a bit more organized that it had a few moments earlier. Ron looked down again at Hermione.

“Ron,” she said, and new tears joined the tracks of the old ones on her cheeks. “I – I have to tell you something.” His stomach seemed to suddenly plummet earthward; she seemed to be taking a moment to find the right words, but he didn’t want to press her. Hermione drew in a shaking breath and clamped her bottom lip hard between her teeth for a few seconds.

“It’s Charlie,” she said thickly, swiping futilely at her eyes. “I’m so, so sorry – I saw it, I couldn’t do anything –“ She didn’t seem able to say anything more, but then again, she didn’t need to. Ron had known as soon as she had said his brother’s name; perhaps he had known even before then. He felt like fire, and ice, something burning and freezing all at once – but said nothing.

There was no time to grieve now. Fred was dead; Charlie was dead. But Ron had to concentrate on now, on getting through this before anyone else had to give their lives for whatever cause the Order was working towards; at the moment, Ron had lost sight of it.

“Where are you going to be?” he asked at last. Hermione frowned up at him; these words clearly weren’t the first she had been expecting from him, after delivering her news.

“What do you mean?”

“You and Oliver. Where are we going to collect you after all this” – he jerked his head back at the dark castle; lights were flickering on in distant windows – “is over?”

Hermione frowned again, shaking her head briefly. “I’m fighting with you.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Ron protested at once. “You’re hurt, ‘Mione –“

“I’m all right,” she interrupted, frowning still, and despite the fact that the words coming out of her mouth didn’t necessarily make him happy, Ron was relieved to hear how stubborn she still was. Some things just don’t change. “Someone will have a wand for me,” Hermione continued. “I’ll be okay.”

“But –“ he tried to argue again, and she shook her head.

“I deserve this just as much as any of you,” she told him plaintively. And he knew she was right.

“Okay,” Ron said at long last, swallowing against a lump that had risen in his throat. “Okay, well – well, we’ll find you a wand.” His eyes traveled down to her wrist, clutched protectively against her abdomen, and that sour taste crept again into the back of his throat. “Mum?” he called, his voice cracking slightly on the word. Mrs. Weasley, standing only a few feet away, turned at the sound of her son’s voice.

“Ron?” And then her eyes found Hermione, who smiled weakly at her; the word brave reverberated again through Ron’s head. Mrs. Weasley bustled over, wrapping Hermione in her arms.

“Oh, my dear, I can’t tell you how relieved I am to see you’re all right,” she breathed. Hermione’s face crumpled for a moment, and she seemed to be internally debating over whether to tell Ron’s mum about Charlie. He interceded hastily; there would be plenty of time later for the announcement that she had lost another son.

“Mum,” he said quickly, “can you do something about Hermione’s wrist? It’s been hurt for ages.” Both women drew back and looked down at it, and the lines around Mrs. Weasley’s mouth deepened slightly. Wordlessly, she drew her wand from the pocket of her robes and gently laid the tip against the younger woman’s skin.

There was a slight pop, and a sharp gasp of pain from Hermione, and Ron fought the sudden, stupid urge to push his mother away from her. But then both women stepped back slightly, and Hermione was holding her wrist up, a look of slight awe on her face – she still did not seem used to the instantaneous fixes that magic could provide. She turned her eyes to Ron’s.

“Thanks,” she said, because there didn’t seem anything else to say, and he quirked half a smile in response. A few yards away, Bill called his mother’s name, and Mrs. Weasley hastened over to where he and Fleur were, leaving Ron and Hermione to themselves.

“You’re still fighting with us, then.” It wasn’t a question, and he didn’t pretend to be genuinely curious about the response, but she nodded anyway. He let out a long breath and stepped closer to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders (was she always that thin?).

“You can use my wand, Hermione.”

Both of them jumped simultaneously, turning in one movement; Luna stood behind them, smiling placidly, her wand folded beneath her clasped hands. She looked as immovable as she always did, and Ron was hit, not for the first time in his life, by a surge of affection for her. The mere fact that Luna was still Luna, even when the rest of the world had been turned inside-out, was unutterably comforting.

“Really?” Hermione’s voice was a mixture of relief and hesitance. “Oh, but I –“

“You need it more than I do,” Luna told her, beaming. “I think you’re more important to this than I am, anyway. And Ron needs you.”

Ron felt his ears redden, and for the first time in what felt like a long, long time, Hermione giggled; his insides soared at the sound.

“Thank you,” she told Luna gratefully, and held out her hand palm up; the thin wooden stick was tipped into it. She gave it an experimental tap; bright white sparks shot from its end, filtering down to the dark grass at their feet and fading as they lit upon the long blades.

“Feel all right?” Ron asked, a bit nervously – he didn’t know why he was nervous, but there it was, all the same. She nodded, not looking at him, but at the wand in her hand.

“Everyone,” Kingsley boomed; those who had been talking behind where Ron and Hermione and Luna stood fell quiet almost at once. Kingsley surveyed them all from the front of the crowd, his expression decidedly neutral. “It’s time.”

*

Molly was the first to pass through the gates, once Draco Malfoy had opened them again; she did not know why she had volunteered for the job before Kingsley, before Arthur, before Professor McGonagall or even Bill.

But then, on the other hand, it was natural, wasn’t it? She had lost so much in this war, and had risked even more. Percy had abandoned the family; Arthur had nearly been killed while standing watch outside the Department of Mysteries; Fred had been killed; Harry, as good as a son to her, dead not long after.

It was like penetrating a thick bubble, almost as soon as she had slipped between the iron bars, her wand held out in front of her at chest height. Before this, she had only been able the voices of friends and family and colleagues, all murmuring to each other in close quarters, ranged in front of the path to the castle. Now she could hear unseen noises of enemies: You-Know-Who’s forces clearly knew what was coming.

The grass under her feet still bore scars of the last fiery battle that had taken place there only a few weeks before. The thick tang of smoke and fire and burning still clung to the air, detectable only if one was looking for it. The Order of the Phoenix – what remained of it – was going in just as they had before, and they had lost. What was to stop them from losing this time?

Nothing. And that was why they were here.

She rounded a bend in the path, and the vista of Hogwarts was spread out before her, half-ruined still: Stone towers stood half-felled, chunks littering the once-green sweeping lawns; shattering windows, their diamond-jagged edges falling out of their frames, were dark gaps in the castle walls; and the great oak doors were thrown wide, dark figures streaming out of them and onto the lawn. Molly was hit with a sudden sense of inversion, that roles had been reversed. They were the invaders now.

Arthur came up behind her; she didn’t realize she had stopped walking. She felt her husband’s strong, sure hand come to rest on her shoulder. “You all right?” he said reassuringly; she nodded, not trusting herself to speak past the sudden lump in her throat, cursing her easy nature to cry at the slightest provocation.

“You know what to do!” Kingsley was shouting behind them, in his loud and authoritative voice, all confidence and sureness. “Make for the castle!” The dark figures at the top of the sloping lawn were beginning to filter down towards the intruders; Molly sucked in a deep breath, closed her eyes briefly, and laid her hand atop Arthur’s for a few bare seconds. She moved forward.

She got a glimpse of Bill moving forward determinedly – Bill, her firstborn – with Fleur close behind him, near-identical expressions of determination on their faces, and her heart contracted with fear. But she kept moving, because there was nothing else to do. The figures she could now clearly see as Death Eaters were drawing closer, and their intent could not have been clearer. Wasn’t it the same intent they, the Order of the Phoenix and their allies, had held the first time around? Protect. Defend. Kill.

There was a high pitched, obsessed scream of rage from somewhere, and Molly whipped her head around; Arthur was no longer behind her, and for a moment she had a wild, absurd thought that he had fallen in the course of the battle, brief as the actual fighting already was. But no, he was there, alongside George, casting a Shield Charm –

“Well, well!”

Molly whipped her head back around, and the source of the wrathful noise was clear at once. Bellatrix Lestrange had joined the fray; her mouth was twisted into a humorless, maniacal smile, and her eyes were bright with hatred.

“Look who it is,” Bellatrix spat, shoving a matted hank of twisted black hair out of her eyes. She flicked her wand upward, and Molly raised hers in turn, an automatic gesture. “Back again to fight for your sons? Haven’t you lost enough of them?”

There was a crack; something indigo and whip-like barreled from the end of Molly’s wand. Bellatrix deflected it easily. “What are you talking about?” she hissed in a dangerous whisper.

But she knew. There was little in the world more powerful than a mother’s instincts.

Bellatrix cackled; her instantaneous grief must have been evident on her face. “Poor, dear little Molly Weasley,” she said in sing-song. “Her entire family, ripped away… piece – by – piece.” She punctuated the last three words with short jabs of her wand; small balls of spinning fire hurled toward the older woman. She dodged them, panting.

Charlie. “You – will – never – touch – our – children – again!” she snarled, before she could properly think through the words. Fred was gone, and Charlie was gone, but there were still so many left to fight for. And Molly Weasley wasn’t done fighting yet.

Bellatrix laughed, and raised her wand again. Molly saw her opportunity. She struck with the same indigo whip of light, and it caught Bellatrix right in the middle of her stomach. She froze, a look of pain crossing her face, the first genuine emotion Molly had ever seen out of the madwoman.

Bellatrix crumbled to the ground, broken and still, and did not move again.

*

The sound of pounding footsteps, following by an equal pounding of fists on the door, sounded outside the headmaster’s office. Voldemort dropped the scrap of fabric he was holding quickly, as though it had burned him; it was spotted with stains, ranging from fresh crimson to a deep, dry brown. He swept it to the side carelessly.

“Come in.”

The door flew open, smacking the stone wall behind it, and Amycus Carrow burst through it. His eyes were wide and popping. “My Lord,” he said, stumbling over his words, as though there were too many for his mouth to fit. “They’ve come. They’re here.”

He didn’t have to ask whom Carrow meant; he knew exactly who could have made that amount of fear creep into a voice. But the fear did not carry over into him.

“And?” Voldemort said lazily, tracing idle patterns on Dumbledore’s desk with his fingertips, as though untroubled – as though he had no problems, and certainly not problems emanating from those exact fingertips.

“And I just – well, I thought –“

“Take care of them,” Voldemort commanded softly. Carrow said nothing more, but did a sort of stumbling bow, tripping out of the room just as hastily as he had rushed in. Voldemort continued to run his fingers over the desk, however, after he had gone. When he was sure the coast was clear, he leaned over and took the fabric into his hands again.

It had not gotten better, the bleeding; if anything it had become worse each day. Did his Death Eaters think he wasn’t aware of what they said about him behind his back? That he was old, or that he was weak? They were all fools. They would be punished for their disloyalty, surely, but now, there were more important things to think about…

So the Order of the Phoenix had gotten into the gates of Hogwarts. Well, that wasn’t much of a surprise; it was only a matter of time. Admittedly, they had worked quickly, far more quickly than he had anticipated…

But they could not kill him. They could not kill him. It had to be Potter; that was what Albus had said. He, Voldemort, had killed Potter, he had won… He was master of death. He had the Elder Wand. He could not be destroyed.

Trying to ignore the pain in his fingers (more blood, always more blood), he rose from behind the desk, drawing that very wand from an inner pocket of his robes. They would see. He would destroy them now as he had not managed to decimate their numbers in the first battle. And then no one would ever try and cross him again.

Smiling slightly to himself, Voldemort crossed to the door, and began to descend the spiral staircase.

A/N: Cliffhangers! I'm excited beyond belief right now -- it's quite sad. But this is it, guys! Two more chapters after this one, and very soon, I'll be able to mark this story as completed! I should make a mention, too, of what's happening: Given that the queue is going to be closed to trusted authors this Christmas, as well as regular members, you won't see another chapter of this story until 2013. I debated updating again next week, but I didn't want to have to wait the entire break for only one chapter. And, as another bit of housekeeping, the line "You will never touch our children again!" is taken from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling; I do not claim ownership for it.

So! All your thoughts and comments are completely welcome, as they always are. I'm very much looking forward to what everyone thinks of this chapter in particular! Thank you so much for helping me hit 200 reviews (and beyond), everyone!


Chapter 14: XIV.
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Ron’s hand, grimy and slick with sweat, slipped from Hermione’s yet again, and she wrapped her fingers even more securely about his own. It was like living one of the horrible nightmares that had recurred so frequently over the past few weeks: Spells were hurled across space with reckless abandon, voices rising and falling in painful cadence. But this time would be different, because she would keep him by her side. She was determined.

“All right, ‘Mione?” His voice crashed against her eardrum, close enough to rattle her teeth; Hermione hadn’t realized until joining in the second battle for Hogwarts that one could become unaccustomed to loud noises. She nodded, clamping her lips together, and, with a circular motion of Luna’s wand, raised a Shield Charm around the pair of them just as Rookwood sent a streak of crimson light their way. But Luna’s wand – although it didn’t feel nearly as wrong as Bellatrix’s had – was nothing like Hermione’s own, wherever it was now, and the barrier was weaker than she had hoped.

She had not anticipated her life would be like this. Would she always be fighting battles that couldn’t ever be truly won? Was this a glimpse of her remaining years – or did she even have years left? Was it only months, or weeks, or days, or even minutes? The thought made Hermione squeeze Ron’s hand even more tightly; seeming to think it was a plea for reassurance, he squeezed back.

Another dark-hooded figure advanced on the pair of them just as the last vestiges of the Shield Charm trickled away, like unseen drops of water. Hermione caught Jugson’s eye; he instantly recognized her as the prey he had let slip through his hands only half an hour before. With an indistinguishable noise of rage, he lunged for them.

“NO!” Ron jerked Hermione to the side, and Jugson’s spell missed by mere inches. “Don’t touch her!” He shot a Stunning Spell at the Death Eater, but it was easily blocked. They stood, two on one, all of them panting slightly, and for an eerie stretch, nobody made any moves at all. Then Jugson’s eyes flicked downward, to where Ron and Hermione’s hands were still tightly intertwined.

“Touching,” he sneered, and raised his wand again. Hermione shut her eyes tightly without being able to help it; she felt calm. It was an unnerving thing to feel in battle.

She waited to die.

But nothing happened.

Hermione peered through her closed eyelids; Jugson had knelt to the ground, his wand at his feet. He was clutching his left forearm in his right hand, his mouth ajar, as though he had completely lost all interest in Ron and her. It was Ron’s turn to squeeze her hand.

“Hermione… look.”

The dark skull on Jugson’s forearm was wriggling, as though the ink under the pale skin was alive; a snake curled in and out of the skull, darting through its blank, gaping eye sockets, staring at the star-strewn sky, and out of its leering mouth. Jugson raised his head.

“He is coming.”

And just as the last word had left his mouth, the entire battlefield seemed to shift, parted by an unseen hand. Opposing forces drew back from one another, and in the blank center column, newly created, strode Lord Voldemort himself, coming down from the ruins of the castle at last.

Nobody seemed to breathe, Death Eater or Order member; all eyes were fixed on the imposing figure of the most terrible wizard in existence. And yet for all that, there was something odd about him, something that Hermione couldn’t quite place: He looked broken and worn, somehow, and very different from the impression he’d cut at the previous battle.

“My friends,” he laughed harshly, and a palpable tension rippled through the onlookers. “You have returned, I see. I must say that I have expected you.” He placed his palms together, neatly overlapping his fingers one over the other.

Hermione cast a glance up at Ron; a muscle was working fiercely in his jaw, as though he were clenching and unclenching his teeth to an unheard rhythm. Lord Voldemort was mere yards away from them now, slowly pacing down the line of those assembled in front of him. Somehow, in the brief few minutes since his appearance, everyone had turned to face him, so that it looked more like he was addressing a gathered crowd than anything else.

Lord Voldemort stopped and looked down at a crumpled Death Eater at his feet, and Hermione saw, with a thrill that was equal parts elation and horror, that it was –

“Bellatrix,” she breathed, but only Ron seemed to hear her. He shifted a fraction of an inch closer, the rough material of his jacket scraping her upper arm, and wrapped the fingers of his left hand around her healed wrist.

Voldemort made a tsk sort of noise. “The loyal will always fall,” he said, but there was no sadness or anger in his voice. And in an absurd moment, Hermione almost felt sorry for Bellatrix, despite the hell she had caused when alive: Torturing Neville’s parents, torturing Hermione herself, killing countless others. All she had done had been for nothing if her beloved master did not even mourn her.

Still no one spoke, and the fragile-looking man in front of Hermione raised his head. The stars shone brightly off his skull-like head, and for a shining moment, he looked skeletal and deathlike. What is it about him? she wondered, though knowing better than to speak aloud again. Her mind ticked again over the conclusions she had reached in her cell.

Harry’s blood, killing Voldemort by seeking to rejoin the person from whence it had come. Was it her imagine, or the light playing tricks on her – or did he truly look more pale than normal? With great effort, she squinted at his hands as moved a step closer to the rest of the crowd. Was she only inventing the reddish tint on the white skin?

“Yes, they always fall,” Voldemort repeated, his mouth twisting into a humorless, leering grin. “And you, who are so loyal to your cause – you will fall, too. Your losses are too great –“

“We won’t!” Hermione jumped as, from next to her, Ron let out the words indignantly; his ears had reddened again, this time in anger. He wrenched his hand from hers to step forward, the other hand raising the wand almost unthinkingly at the man (could he still be called a man?) in front of him. “You’re not going to win, Tom –“

Hermione reacted before she knew what she was doing, almost without thinking; Voldemort’s wand moved a hair, and she only had time to shriek, “Protego!” before thick, snaking black ropes sprung from the end of the Elder Wand in Voldemort’s hand. They bounced off the invisible shield, falling to the ground and disappearing in small puffs of black smoke.

“Clever girl,” he snarled, mouth twisting dangerously. “Tell me,” he continued, his blood-red eyes flicking back to Ron, “how it feels to be protected by someone of her status?”

“Don’t say a word against her!” Ron took a step closer, and there was a small cry from behind where e and Hermione stood, quickly muffled. She spared a fleeting glance over her shoulder; Mrs. Weasley’s mouth was covered from behind by her husband’s hand. Mr. Weasley’s head was turned away, as though he couldn’t bear to watch.

Voldemort laughed again, high-pitched and cruel. “Oh, certainly not,” he sneered. “Have you forgotten, Ronald Weasley? Your dreams, your fears…” He let his voice trail away. “And now Potter –“

Ron brought his wand through the air so fast it whistled, bright gold and orange sparks whizzing from its end; Voldemort deflected the spell almost lazily. “Potter is gone!” Voldemort screamed, all traces of mirth he did not feel wiped now from his face. “And what did his death do? Nothing.” He turned his head and spat on the ground.

“He died for us!” Ron roared. Hermione was struck with a sudden sense of déjà vu – Neville, speaking those very words, only weeks earlier, still alive… She swallowed against a sudden thick feeling in her throat. “He died so that we could have a chance at defeating you! Your Horcruxes are all gone – you’ve got nothing left –“

“Idiot boy,” Voldemort sneered. “I don’t need my Horcruxes anymore. Potter is dead; I have done exactly as the prophecy said. I killed him. And I have the Elder Wand.”

“But you’re weak.”

Hermione did not know where she had gotten the courage to speak; she did not remember making the conscious decision to open her mouth. But all at once, she had found herself beside Ron, speaking as levelly as ever she had.

“Your blood is dying,” she said firmly, and was gratified to see Voldemort’s eyes dart briefly to the hand holding his wand. “It’s leaving you – it’s Harry’s blood, it’s not yours. It’s died along with him.” She did not know how she was continuing to speak so calmly. “And you will die, too.”

There was a fraction of a pause, crackling with unseen electricity, and then Voldemort laughed; it was even more forced. “You know nothing of the ancient magic of which you speak, Mudblood,” he hissed. “The Elder Wand –“

“Isn’t even yours, is it?” she interjected, raising her own wand to be level with her shoulder. “You didn’t win it from Dumbledore – and neither did Professor Snape.”

“What are you talking about?” Voldemort’s voice was almost nonexistent in its pitch, low and slithering, much like the snake to which he had entrusted a piece of his soul. Hermione glanced sideways at Ron, whose face had changed from red to white in a brief span of time.

“It’s Harry’s,” she said quietly. “The wand belonged to Draco Malfoy, until Harry won Malfoy’s wand from him.”

“But I’ve killed Potter!” Her opponent’s voice had risen again to a scream, but she shook her head, still near-scared at how calm she was. What was happening to her? All her time in that makeshift dungeon cell, all the pieces of the puzzle that had clicked into place… She was revealing them all.

“Harry gave himself up to you,” she told him. Her voice broke only slightly on her best friend’s name, but she would not break down – not here, not now. “You didn’t conquer or overpower him. The power of the Elder Wand died with Harry Potter.”

There was another silence; this one seemed to stretch for much, much longer, as though it might never be broken. There was only the soft noise of humanity to bridge the gap between Hermione and Ron and Voldemort.

“You’re wrong,” he snapped at last, and she felt a small surge of bitter triumph. Stubborn as ever. He wheeled around to face the assembled masses, pointing his wand over their heads, and several people ducked on instinct. “I’ll kill Draco myself –“

“You will not.” And to everyone’s surprise, but no one’s more than the man himself, Percy Weasley extricated himself from the front of the gathering to stand beside his brother in front of Lord Voldemort.

“If Hermione’s right – and I’ve never before known her to be wrong,” said Percy firmly, “then you’re nothing, V-Voldemort.” The name was slow coming through his lips, but he said it bravely; for one of the first times in her life, Hermione felt genuine affection for this most stoic of the Weasley brothers.

“You cannot stop me,” Voldemort whispered. He raised his wand, and the blood on his palms shone, clearly visible now. It seemed to pulse with vibrant life, sensing that it was about to be avenged, that it would soon join Harry…

“Oh yeah?” Ron taunted, newfound bravery cloaking him at the appearance of his brother at his side. “I think Harry would have something to say about that, too.”

It was not prearranged, but all three of them knew what to do, without looking at each other, or speaking, or moving in the slightest. They raised their wands in one swift, unified motion, and the same spell was uttered by all three pairs of lips in a single breath, a miracle.

EXPELLIARMUS!”

And three identical jets of light hurled themselves through space, all converging on a single spot on Voldemort’s chest, where his utterly inhuman heart still managed to beat with foreign blood. For a moment, he looked only shocked. And then the Elder Wand slipped through his fingers, falling onto the dark grass and instantly becoming lost in the shadows.

With painful slowness, he crumbled to the ground, broken and defeated. And at last – at last, at last - the war was over. Voldemort was defeated.

A/N: They did it!! The war is over at last, Ron and Hermione are together again -- it's so weird to be this far along in this story. I always feel a bit funny, coming to conclusions like this. But there's one small epilogue to go, and then I'll be able to mark this story as completed, and let me tell you, that is strange. What are your thoughts?

It almost feels like it's time for farewells and thank-yous, and maybe that's because I've got a sad-sounding song playing in the background right now. But I hope to see everyone back here for the finale -- that would be fantastic! You all have made this story something I never imagined it would be. Thank you so, so much. I can't wait to come to the end of this road with all of you!


Chapter 15: XV.
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It had been a long time, it seemed, since Hogwarts had seen the sun – or maybe it had been a long time since Ron had seen it in the sun. Missing a year of school was liable to bring on waves of nostalgia after all, it appeared, and it didn’t help that his most recent memories of the castle seemed to have been tainted with night and battle.

But now that the sun was high in its arc over the castle, he could see the life under the ruins: The lawn was starting to grow again, covering the scorched scars from the battles that had been fought on it; people were scattered about, using their wands to repair windows and re-affix stone ramparts and sills. At a distant point, other were clustered underneath the massive tree that stood beside the path leading to the lake, a makeshift meeting place and hospital wing for those that had been rescued from inside the castle after Voldemort’s defeat.

Ron leaned against the broad stone stretch of wall that rounded out one of the castle’s towers – Gryffindor Tower, in fact. The common room and dormitories stood at the very top. It felt like decades since he had been a student here, sleeping in those four-poster beds, studying (or, more often than not, not studying) in that common room. He had been forced to grow up quickly in their search for the Horcruxes; that was never more evident than it was now.

Charlie’s body had been recovered in the entrance hall; Harry’s, too, though Ron didn’t want to think about what Voldemort and his followers had done to it. There would be a massive memorial service later in the week for all who had fallen in the two battles. Fred would have enjoyed that; he and George had always enjoyed being the center of attention.

What Death Eaters remained had quickly been rounded up and carted off to the Ministry, under Kingsley’s extremely close and watchful eye. They would be held in high-security cells there before being tried by the Wizengamot, after which they would, no doubt, be carted off to Azkaban. All except for Lucius Malfoy, that is – Draco had done his part.

Ron wrinkled his nose. Well, he thought, a bit grudgingly, you can’t have everything.

But even as he thought it, someone rounded the corner, and he felt the corners of his mouth turn up into a smile before he could stop himself. Hermione, as though sensing him looking at her, turned her head in his direction, and grinned back, brushing a stray strand of bushy hair off her cheek.

“I’ve been looking for you,” she told him, and just the words, the fact that she had specifically been looking for him, were enough to send butterflies erupting through his stomach. Wordlessly, he stretched out his hand; she closed the space between them and took it, and then came to stand beside him, laying her head on his shoulder and closing her eyes. Ron breathed in the smell of her, and pressed his lips to the top of her head.

“You’re all right, Hermione?” he asked at last, when she still didn’t say anything after several minutes of just standing beside him. She nodded against his shoulder, but then looked up at him.

“I just keep thinking about Harry,” she admitted, swallowing hard, and Ron felt as though something had kicked him in the stomach. There hadn’t been too many free moment to grieve for his best friend in the past weeks – he had been much, much too busy for that – but the funny thing about the end of a war was how quickly the problems you had been running from could catch up to you.

But he didn’t say any of that. “What about them?” he asked instead, trying to force his voice to sound as normal as possible.

“Just… everything.” Hermione breathed out a long sigh and wiggled her fingers in Ron’s, though she didn’t let go of his hand. “I mean, he was one of my best friends in the entire world…you being the other one,” she informed Ron, as though he might have been worried, and he smiled down at her. “And now… I don’t know. He’s just gone.”

Ron nodded mutely, leaning his head back against the tower wall behind him. He knew exactly what she was feeling; it was difficult for him to comprehend, too. What were you supposed to say about the person who had entirely changed the course of your life, now that that person wasn’t there to see the rest of it unfold? And so he didn’t say anything.

“Have you seen Percy around?” he asked instead; if Hermione was surprised by the abrupt change in the direction of the conversation, she didn’t show it.

“He was with your dad and George down by the lake earlier, I think,” she said, gesturing in the indicated direction. And then, after a small pause, Hermione added, “He was very brave last night, stepping out like that.”

Ron nodded again. That had, arguably, been one of the evening’s larger surprises: Perfect Percy, standing up to the man in charge. But his youngest brother could guess at why he had done it. It was a way of apologizing for everything he had done in the past few years; it was a way of apologizing for not stopping the explosion that had killed Fred. Percy had always been bound by duty and obligations, and last night had been no different. Although he wouldn’t have believed it a year earlier, even to himself, Ron was proud of him.

Hermione and Ron fell silent again, their backs pressed against the tower wall, and watched the Order members hurrying to and from various points around the castle, busy hands helping make right the things that had been wrong. She wiggled her fingers in his again, and he looked down at her.

“What do we do now?” she asked, and he was pleased, in an absurd sort of way, to see a dark pink blush creeping high into her cheeks. It was a voluminous question, and he didn’t know if she was talking about only the two of them. Maybe she was thinking of the entire Order of the Phoenix. Maybe she meant the entire world.

“We keep going,” he found himself saying, instead of the dozen other half-formed phrases of wisdom his brain had already been in the process of formulating. “Harry’s not died in vain, has he? He’s secured us a whole other life. Our future.” He stressed the first word, hoping Hermione would understand what he meant. Now that he had her again, he would give his whole life to keep her by his side forever.

She understood. Delicately, with an uncharacteristic hesitance, Hermione raised herself up on her toes and pressed her lips to Ron’s. He wrapped his arms around her waist, responding in full, and almost dizzy with the prospect that he would get to do his every day for the rest of his natural life…

Hermione drew back, and laughed at the expression on Ron’s face; he realized that his mouth had curved into a rather stupid grin. “Come on,” she giggled, and tugged at his hand again. “We’re supposed to be helping.”

He let her lead him away from the sun-baked wall, over the lawn, towards the rest of the war’s victors. Ron’s hand was in Hermione’s, and it would always be there, and that, to him, was the best feeling in the world: Knowing that, from this day forward, they would be moving side by side.

On.

A/N: I've been mentally counting down to the posting of this chapter for a long time, but it feels very different, now that I'm actually doing it. I think it's always going to be that way for me and my stories -- it's happened with the others I've posted like this, too. Maybe I just don't like endings! But I do, really, and especially when they end like this story did. I'm very pleased with this chapter; it felt like a fitting end to everything, after all.

And as has become customary, a few people need to be thanked in this note, because the story wouldn't exist without them! Firstly, and as always, for Sarah (Toujours Padfoot), because she is the greatest and kindest support system I could ever have wished for, listening to me think out loud, getting so enthusiastic over even the smallest things -- doing everything! For Mel (WitnesstoitAll), for inspiring bits through her reviews, and reviewing in the first place. For Ardeith, who is another invaluable support system and always makes my day. And for others: Ron The King, RosieQueen, EverDiggory, PhoenixPulse, George, and anyone else who's ever read, reviewed, or favorited this story. It's got this far because of all of you! And, of course, again thanks to Giola, who made the gorgeous banner.

Thank you so much, and I really hope you enjoyed reading Break Out as much as I did writing it. I hope to see you all back soon!


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