Chapter 1 : Making It Count
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In moments like these, Ron felt every inch 'the youngest Weasley boy.' Fred and George would laugh at danger no matter how foolish that action was, and he was certain that Bill had felt this gnawing fear so many times that it wouldn't faze him. Percy would never have allowed himself to face such a situation, and Charlie...
It took all of his rather limited talents at self-control to prevent a gasp of pain from crossing his lips. Ron didn't want to think about Charlie, or Bill, or Tonks, or Dumbledore, or Sirius--but the only alternative was to focus on how he was barely eighteen years old, separated from his best friends, and doing his best to keep two Death Eaters of unknown identity from either finding his location or giving up to discover theirs. He felt hopelessly out of his depth, wondering for a manic moment if his brother really did get used to the constant fear when he'd worked as a curse-breaker, because he himself never got used to feeling inadequate.
The barely perceptible crunch of leaves not five feet from where he hid brought the real world sharply into focus. Ron gripped his wand tightly in his hand, glad that he'd thought of casting an amplifier charm on his ears in order to detect his pursuers' movements. He knew that there came moments like these, the sort of deadly game of hunter and hunted that he'd observed between Crookshanks and Scab--that Pettigrew man. The rat would hide, listening as the cat drew ever closer, until finally the danger of staying still outweighed the danger of detection, and out he would fly, hoping to distract with speed and agility--or face the consequences. Harry and Hermione hadn't been able to offer much in the way of suggestions for this ruse; the three of them had arrived far later than planned and it had cost them the few precious minutes of undisturbed searching they'd hoped for. All they'd done was look at each other gravely, nodding their unspoken agreement as to what roles each would play, and off Ron had gone, simulating the cracking sound of Apparition in the woods behind the two masked guards.
Ron huddled behind his rock, feeling dreadfully exposed even with the knowledge of how reliable Invisibility Cloaks were. The fabric was so precious and so fragile, stretched around his large frame, offering no protection against the harsh wind. He wished he hadn't grown so tall, he wished he'd paid more attention in class, he wished the Headmaster hadn't allowed such incompetent DADA professors as Umbridge so as to leave one of his students alone in the woods feeling as though if he'd only gotten a proper Fifth Year education, he wouldn't be--
A footfall landed nearby, heavy even to un-enhanced ears, too close for comfort. Ron steeled himself against his desperate fear and then stood up, fixating on a spot fifteen yards ahead of him; as he Apparated, he threw his wand out and spoke the words that would reflect the sound of his travels to a gully far to his right. The redhead dropped to a crouch the second he appeared, knowing his height meant that the cloak which masked his body from sight would only reach to his shins.
Ron hated feeling trapped, no matter how often he played decoy for Hermione's clue deciphering, or Harry's dreadful task of destroying what they searched so thoroughly for. The Boy Who Lived walked with a limp now, a consequence of being too close to the destruction of a Horcrux, and Hermione's voice was permanently damaged from a vicious hex intended to prevent her from being able to aid them with her talents in language and runic spells. He himself bore only a few minimal scars, more from scrambling around the countryside creating diversions and fighting in minor skirmishes than from anything else. The young man let that particular guilt pass over and through him, knowing that it did him no good. They hadn't thought to bring any Felix Felicis potions with them this time, sure that the obscure references to Helga Hufflepuff's long-since buried hometown were more myth than legend--but now he wasn't so sure. For a place so deserted and remote to be guarded by not one but two minions of their Dark Lord... perhaps their long search was finally over.
A racking cough some distance away pulled his eyes from scanning the nearby woods for the second Death Eater--his distraction technique had worked on the first, he saw. The man was hurriedly casting various charms at the small alcove of rock and brush that Ron had deflected the sound of his translocation spell into, though all the older man's actions accomplished so far was the creation of a huge cloud of dust and debris. Ron considered the option of casting a locator charm to find the missing Death Eater--it took all of his friend's power and concentration to destroy the bloody bits of soul that Voldemort had scattered throughout the realm, and often Hermione's complete attention was focused on protecting Harry with various spells and charms. They couldn't afford to lose Harry, and neither could they succeed if they were interrupted. His best friends would be as vulnerable as deaf garden gnomes if he hadn't managed to keep those guards busy. These thoughts stiffened his resolve, and the youngest male Weasley cast a softly spoken silencing charm on his feet and began to make his way back toward the last place he'd seen the second Death Eater.
Then, he saw it: an odd black glow that was expanding slowly over the small rise separating himself from his friends. Ron's heart leapt with impossible joy--he recognized this sickly cloud from past successful missions, missions during which Harry had managed to destroy a Horcrux. He could scarcely believe that their long and arduous quest was nearly over! Even as he quickened his pace to return to his friends, perhaps to witness the completion of the painful task, Ron remembered to throw a befuddlement charm in the direction of the distracted Death Eater. He wanted to Apparate, wanted to get there as quickly as possible, but the thought of Harry's bad leg and the question of whether any magic used in proximity might strengthen the charms protecting the Horcrux made him pause. He plunged into the growing gloom, eyes burning and throat closing up from the effects of the acrid cloud he knew had to be an after-effect of powerful dark magic.
'Not far, now,' he chanted to himself, partly to calm his fear of getting lost and partly to contain his excitement. A dark shadow moved, far in front of him, and the redhead felt rather than heard Hermione's scratchy cry of surprise. Throwing off the protection of the Invisibility Cloak, Ron bolted in the direction of the sound, a boiling anger firing in his veins. He was angry at Voldemort, at the idea of faceless, innumerable villains in masks who killed and maimed with no conscience and for no just cause. He was furious at having to lose friends to death and despair (he was closer now; the sound of Hermione's once commanding voice calling out defensive spells was punctuated by Harry's steady incantations), at the thought of how Dumbledore must have felt as he died, whether Bill thought of Fleur as he battled again with the werewolf that had scarred him--battled to the death--and won.
The tears flew from his cheeks as quickly as they fell, he was moving so fast. A dull roar--probably the rushing of blood, perhaps the fullness of his fury--echoed in his ears as he stumbled and slid down the hillside to where his friends battled their respective evils. The sight of fire--a spell deflected from Harry by Hermione's steady hand and whispered spellcast--reminded him again of Charlie. Ronald Weasley shook his head, sweat, tears, and desperation falling like rain from his body and his heart. Not Charlie, he chanted again, the words familiar and worn from frequent use but no less cruel to his inner ear. His brother had died like a champion; ambushed with his dragons by a cadre of Death Eaters, Charlie Weasley had fought with spells and taunts, talons and fire. Cedric Diggory had deserved such a death. Sirius Black had deserved such a death. Albus Dumbledore had deserved such a death.
Another fireball, and this time Ron was close enough to aid Hermione's weakening spells with his own. Her blouse was scorched, her leg bloody, her body on the verge of crumpling from defeat--but Harry was still protected, encased in a shield charm that Remus Lupin, Minerva McGonagall, and Hermione Granger had come up with together. Just as he reached his fragile friend, a rope of fire (Must it be fire? his inner self asked, still childlike in its remembrance of one of his biggest youthful fears) flew from the wand of the battling Death Eater, not aimed at Harry, but Hermione. In the blink of an eye, the youngest Weasley boy saw the possible future... a weakened Voldemort, a victorious Harry, the weary but joyous faces of his friends and family as the greatest battle of their time was fought and won. All things that might be made impossible if the twisting, menacing fire met its target.
'Who am I?' Ronald asked himself, in that suspended flicker of time and space. 'What do I stand for?' In the few milliseconds before the spell landed, he met Harry's eyes. In them he saw determination and an overwhelming respect. Harry Potter nodded at him, a sign of recognition rather than agreement, and turned back to his task. It was everything he'd always wanted but could never ask for, a distillation of all the fights and fun times of their friendship into one look. Ron reached out and squeezed Hermione's hand, hoping that she could feel the weight of his caring and respect just as he'd felt Harry's.
"I stand for the Order, you bloody bastard!" Ronald Weasley screamed as he threw his leg over his broom and flew directly into the offensive spell's path. As he did so, he cast one of the non-verbal spells that Lupin had taught them at Grimmauld Place, the one Tonks had used to kill Bellatrix. It felt strangely exhilarating, pulling the power of the spell into himself as he hurtled toward the hapless Death Eater. 'This is for YOU, Cedric,' he thought to himself, feeling his hair stand on end and his fingertips start to smolder. 'This is for YOU, Sirius;' he felt as though his skin were the only thing keeping him from blowing in all directions. He only hoped he could make it to the git that had cast the spell before he...
This is for YOU--