Harry didn’t come home that night. Ron, remembering Harry’s face as he stormed from the house, was immediately worried about him. Hermione tried to brush off his concern as they ate dinner together in the kitchen, but when Harry still hadn’t returned by midnight, she agreed to see if they could find any hint of where he might have gone.
“I really don’t like this, Ron,” whispered Hermione, as she pushed open the door to Harry’s bedroom. “It feels like such an intrusion.”
“I don’t feel brilliant about it either, but you didn’t see him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that angry.” Ron flicked on the light switch, and they stood together just inside the doorway. “Well? Can you see anything that might have upset him?”
“It’s a bit difficult to tell, really, isn’t it?” observed Hermione. Ron had to concede that she had a point. At first glance, everything looked normal, which was to say, it looked as though it had been ransacked by a herd of rampaging wildebeest; much as Ron’s own room had always been, in fact, before Hermione’s arrival.
“Well, I suppose we’d better have a closer look.” Ron stepped into the room, and started to examine the items on Harry’s bedside cabinet, while Hermione went towards the chest of drawers. Seconds later, she gasped sharply.
“Oh gods. I think I’ve found it!” Hermione was staring at Harry’s mirror in disbelief. Ron immediately began to cross the room towards her, but she turned and tried to stop him, placing her hand on his arm. “No, Ron, I don’t think you should...” but it was too late. What he saw made him feel nauseous.
It was as though the mirror was showing him two separate images, one superimposed over the other. Neither was one that Ron wanted to see. In the first, his baby sister was entwined with Draco Malfoy, deep in the throes of passion. In the second, she was sitting on the side of her bed, face swollen with tears almost past the point of recognition. Both images were distorted, split into badly aligned shards radiating from a dark spot in the centre, as though the mirror was broken.
Ron turned to his girlfriend in shock. “What the hell is that, Hermione?”
All the colour had drained from Hermione’s face and her eyes reflected his own horror. “I don’t know. It doesn't make any sense. When you pair enchanted mirrors together, each one should only show what the other is reflecting. This one somehow seems to be picking up two different reflections.”
“How is that possible?” Ron couldn’t tear his eyes away from the mirror, however much he wanted to.
“Something must have happened to the charms.” Hermione frowned then drew her wand, using it to examine the mirror. “The ones on Harry’s mirror are all intact as far as I can tell, so there must be something wrong with Ginny’s.”
“You mean it’s showing us something that isn’t real?”
“Yes. Only one of these things can actually be happening. I’ll try and get rid of the interference, so we can see which one.” She flicked her wand towards the mirror. “Deletrius Mendacium.”
Ron realised he was holding his breath as Hermione cast her spell. The images in the mirror both shimmered, and then the obscene one faded away, leaving them looking at Ginny, alone and distraught in her bedroom.
They stared at the image for a few seconds, and then Hermione’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh poor Ginny!” she said, sounding horrified. “We have to go to her, Ron. Now.” She half-walked half-ran out of the room.
“What’s happened? I don’t understand.” Ron trailed after her as she hurried back down the stairs. Whatever mental leap Hermione had just made eluded him. He was still battling between being relieved that his sister wasn’t really sleeping with Draco Malfoy and horrified that she was clearly so upset.
“I’ll explain when we get there,” said Hermione, over her shoulder, “but trust me; Ginny needs us.”
Once they reached the doorstep, he took her hand and together, they apparated to Holyhead, arriving on the path leading up to Ginny’s cottage. Ron pushed open the front door. He could hear his sister sobbing upstairs even as they crossed the threshold.
“Ginny?” called Hermione softly. “Ginny, it’s us, Ron and Hermione. Can we come upstairs?”
There was silence for a moment, then Ginny replied, her voice unsteady. “Go away! I don’t want to see anyone!”
Hermione’s face creased with concern as she pleaded with her friend. “Please, sweetheart. We know what happened, and we want to make sure you’re OK.”
Ron shot her a look. “I don’t have the faintest idea what happened! I wish you’d tell me what’s going on,” he whispered. Hermione hushed him, as Ginny spoke again.
“Go home! I don’t want to talk to you. Or Ron. Or any of his friends!” Ginny’s voice wobbled as she spoke.
“Ginny, I’m worried about you,” insisted Hermione. “We both are. Please, just let us come up for a bit.”
Ginny was quiet again. Finally, she spoke. “Will you go away if I talk to you?”
Hermione sighed with relief and started to climb the stairs. Ron followed close at her heels. “Yes, sweetheart, I promise. Just let us talk to you for a little while and we’ll leave you in peace.”
When they arrived in Ginny’s bedroom, they found her huddled on the side of the bed, exactly like the second image from the mirror. Ron looked around the room and saw Ginny’s own mirror hanging lob-sided on the wall, but badly damaged, cracks radiating out from where something had obviously hit it.
Hermione rushed to Ginny’s side, throwing her arms about her friend. “Oh Ginny! I’m so sorry! You and Harry fought?”
Ginny was still sobbing. “Yes. He wouldn’t stop yelling. The things he was accusing me of, they were dreadful. I couldn’t believe he was being so vile to me.”
Ron felt a flicker of anger amidst his concern and confusion. Was Harry responsible for the state his sister was in? “What did he say to you?” he asked carefully.
“He said he knew that I’d been... that I’d been cheating on him.” Ginny looked up at Ron. The devastation and bewilderment in her eyes fuelled his growing fury. “But I haven’t, I swear!” She choked on the final words as more tears started to fall.
“No, it isn’t! It was horrible! He was so angry. I tried to talk to him but he wouldn’t listen. Nothing I said made any difference. He called me… called me so many dreadful, hateful things.”
Ron allowed his anger to really take hold, feeling it flood through his body. He thought back to that heated conversation at Grimmauld Place all those months ago, when Ron was struggling to come to terms with how serious Harry’s relationship with Ginny had become. He remembered how Harry had promised him faithfully he would never hurt Ginny. Ron looked at her now, so small and so fragile and so damaged, because of the way that Harry had treated her and his palms itched, demanding retribution. All he could think about was pinning Harry down and punching him, over and over again.
“It must have been awful, Ginny,” said Hermione, softly.
“It was! It really was! Why would he do that to me?” Ginny’s voice cracked again, and she was wracked by a fresh wave of sobs.
“I think I can explain why,” said Hermione, gently cradling Ginny’s head against her shoulder. “Someone altered the enchantments on your mirror. It showed Harry something that wasn’t really happening. Something bad.”
“Me and Malfoy?”
“Yes, you and Malfoy.” Hermione paused. “Draco must have done this. To get even.”
“Malfoy enchanted my mirror to show me and him in bed together? But that’s... Merlin, what a sick, sick bastard!” Ginny lifted her head and Ron caught a glimpse of her expression. She looked aghast. “But how? It never happened! I wouldn’t touch him with a bargepole!”
“I don’t think he needed it to have really happened. He just needed to have imagined it.” Hermione’s cheeks coloured a little. “If you think about something often enough, and in enough detail, it becomes real in your mind to the point that you can extract it, like a memory. It’s difficult stuff, but it’s certainly possible.”
Ginny shuddered. “Ugh, that’s revolting. It makes me feel so dirty. I knew he was a sleazeball, but I never thought he’d do anything this disgusting to get back at me.”
“And Harry,” pointed out Hermione. “This was meant to hurt him too. It wasn’t all about you, Ginny. It must have been a horrible thing for him to see.”
Ginny’s temper flared. She pulled away from Hermione and glared at her. “Don’t you dare make excuses for him! This is exactly why I didn’t want to see you! If you’re going to try and tell me what he did was okay you can leave right now!” Ron was almost glad to see her anger. It meant his baby sister was still in there somewhere, hidden behind the hurt and the tears.
“I’m sorry, Ginny.” Hermione looked stricken. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just thinking out loud. I’m still trying to work out exactly how Malfoy did it. Can I have a look around?”
“Do whatever you want. I don’t care.” Turning away from them, Ginny curled up on the bed, a picture of misery.
Ron, meanwhile, simply stood still in the middle of the room. The full reality of exactly what Malfoy had done was starting to dawn on him. To know that nasty little deviant had dared to think about Ginny in that way, and that he had used it to hurt her so badly, was horrific; a violation and a defilement. He was so angry that he could barely think.
Meanwhile, Hermione examined Ginny’s mirror, then walked carefully around the room, using her wand to probe various spots and looking increasingly concerned. “I thought so,” she muttered quietly, before raising her wand high. “Finite Incantatem!”
There was a tiny blue flash from the corners of the room, as some sort of spell abruptly ended. Ron jumped. “What the hell was that?” he asked.
“Monitoring spells. I think he was watching.”
“You’re kidding!” Ron was horrified. “Just when I thought he couldn’t get any more warped!” He met his sister’s eyes. She looked as though she might vomit.
Hermione knelt down in front of Ginny and took her hands. “There’s something else, Ginny. In order to apply these enchantments, Malfoy must have been here.”
“Here? In my bedroom?” Ginny was horrified.
Hermione nodded. “I’m sorry. We’ll set some additional security on the place tonight. Make it much harder to get in.”
Ginny let out a bitter laugh. “I thought we were past all that when the war ended. I can’t believe this is happening.” Then another thought occurred to her. “Hermione, how did you know? About the mirror?”
Hermione hesitated. “Ron was worried about Harry when he didn’t come home. We checked in his room to see if we could work out what had happened, and we saw his mirror. We could still see Malfoy’s enchantment.”
Ginny looked up at Ron in horror. “You saw me? With him?”
Ron felt very uncomfortable. “Yeah. I wish I hadn’t, it was very… realistic. I’m not surprised it fooled Harry.” He would concede that much, even if he wasn’t about to let Harry off the hook for his treatment of Ginny.
Hermione backed him up. “Yes, Ginny – we would have seen the same thing, except your mirror was broken. It meant that we could see what was really happening too, not just Malfoy’s twisted little fantasy. Don’t worry, we’ll talk to Harry for you. When we explain about the spell, he’ll come round. Please don’t think too badly of him.”
But Ginny was already shaking her head by the time her friend had finished speaking. “It doesn’t matter, Hermione. The things he said to me – you didn’t hear him! He really thinks I would do that to him. He never once stopped to consider that it might not be true. You know, he once promised me he’d never doubt me again, but he thinks I’d cheat on him with slime like Malfoy? All the crap he fed me about loving me and trusting me? Everything he said to me is just a load of bullshit!”
She looked from Ron to Hermione. Her face was stained with tears, but there was a familiar, stubborn set to her jawline.
“So thank you,” she continued. “I’m glad you told me about the mirror, and I’m glad I understand. But I won’t take him back, not now, not ever. He could beg, he could crawl, he could grovel and it wouldn’t make any difference. I won’t be with someone who treats me like that. Me and Harry Potter? It’s finished.”
Hermione sat with Ginny for another half an hour, comforting her, and trying to persuade her to come back to Grimmauld Place.
“I don’t want to leave you alone, not like this,” she said, over and over again.
Ginny refused to even consider the idea. “I will not go anywhere that he might be. I will not be under the same roof as him.”
Eventually, Hermione was forced to concede defeat. Instead, she managed to wrestle an agreement from Ginny that Hermione could go and get Ginny’s friends from the Harpies, Valmai and Cosima.
“I don’t see why we can’t just stay here,” said Ron, irritably, following her down the stairs and into the lounge.
Hermione cast a worried glance at the stairs in case Ginny could hear, then whispered her response. “Because we need to be at home in case Harry comes back.”
Ron just snorted at that, and Hermione wisely let it pass as she headed out to fetch Ginny’s friends. In truth, she wasn’t impressed with Harry’s behaviour either, but she could only imagine what he must be going through. He was going to need her, regardless of the circumstances.
Quite understandably, Valmai and Cosima weren’t pleased to be woken up in the middle of the night by a total stranger hammering on the door, but once she explained who she was and why she was there, they immediately accompanied her to Ginny’s cottage. Once they arrived, Cosima sat with Ginny while Ron, Hermione and Valmai set about casting some powerful protective enchantments on the building. Ron muttered constantly under his breath throughout the entire process. Most of the time, it was on the theme of stable doors and horses, but occasionally, he seemed to be trying to decide who to dismember first; Draco Malfoy or Harry Potter.
Finally the job was finished. Hermione was still uncomfortable about leaving Ginny, but seeing her raise a weak smile as Valmai and Cosima bickered good-naturedly over which of them would share Ginny’s bed, and who would be consigned to the sofa relieved her guilt a little. It was good to know that Ginny had such close friends around her. Just before leaving Holyhead, Hermione slipped the broken mirror into her bag. She didn’t want Ginny to dwell on it any more than she had to.
It was almost three o’clock before Hermione and Ron finally made it home and dropped into bed. Neither of them really slept. There was still no sign of Harry. Hermione awoke at the tiniest sound, hoping it might be him returning, but it was nothing more than the creaks and rattles of an old house at night. She could feel Ron stirring beside her, and it pained her to know that he was probably also listening for Harry, but to give him a very different reception.
As she sat at the breakfast table the following morning, her mind was racing. In his sleep-deprived state, Ron was doing a fair impersonation of a zombie but Hermione knew that it wouldn’t be long before Kreacher’s exceptionally strong coffee kick-started his cold, righteous anger from the previous night. For Hermione, the overriding emotion was still worry. She had double checked that Harry was not in his room as soon as she got up, and her anxiety was only compounded when she checked the tiny backyard and found that his motorbike was gone. When he had taken it, she didn’t know; it could have been while they were in Holyhead, or while they were sleeping.
“Earth to Hermione? Is anyone in there?” Ron jogged her elbow, and she nearly spilled her tea.
“I said, why aren’t you dressed for work?” asked Ron, indicating her jeans and sweatshirt.
“I’m not going in today,” she explained. “I’m really worried about Harry, so I’m taking the day off to see if I can find him. Will you come with me?”
“No bloody chance!” Ron’s lips twisted into an unpleasant sneer. “He can rot in whatever ditch he landed in for all I care.”
Hermione hadn’t thought Ron would agree to accompany her, but his response was far more vicious than she had been expecting. “Ron! That’s a horrible thing to say!” she remonstrated. “I know you’re angry with him, but come on! You saw the mirror! I know she’s your sister, but imagine if you had seen me with Malfoy in that mirror. You would have reacted exactly like Harry did.”
“I would at least have had to decency to ask some questions before I started laying into you!”
“And Harry probably would have done too, but you know he hasn’t been at his best recently. He took Ben’s death really badly.”
“And you think I didn’t?” Ron looked hurt.
“That wasn’t what I meant Ron, and you know it.”
“No, I know you didn’t, but Ben dying doesn’t excuse what Harry did. I still think he’s got a lot of explaining to do.”
“I don’t disagree with you about that, but he must be in a real state to disappear like this. Will you at least let me know if he turns up at work?”
“He won’t do that. Not if he knows what’s good for him,” muttered Ron, darkly.
“Ronald!” Hermione stopped and took a deep breath. Fighting with Ron wasn’t going to help. She poured another cup of tea from the pot on the table, giving herself time to calm down a little before she said anything else. “Look, I know you’re angry with him, Ron, but promise me you won’t make it any worse. Just cover for him today, please? For me?”
Ron sighed and rolled his eyes. “Okay, okay. Yes, I’ll do my best, but this is for you, not for him.” He stuffed a forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth. By the time he had chewed and swallowed it, he seemed a bit more reasonable. “Why don’t you just send Kreacher to get him?”
“Kreacher doesn’t have to do what we say, Ron. He’s only bound to obey Harry,” she reminded him, working hard to keep her distaste out of her voice. And besides, she thought to herself, it isn’t fair to put him in the line of fire.
“Any bright ideas what rock he might have crawled under, then?”
“There are a few places I can think of. I just hope I can find him quickly. And that he hasn’t done anything stupid. I’m really scared for him.” Hermione couldn’t keep the tremor out of her voice. She found she was suddenly fighting back tears.
Ron stood up and walked around the table, dropping into the chair next to hers. He pulled it close to her, and put her arm around her, kissing her on the cheek as he did so. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s just that I can’t help being angry with him and I’m not sure how I’m going to forgive him for what he did to Ginny last night,” he sighed. “That said, I do know why you’re worried about him. I’m sure you’ll find him. If anyone can, it’s you. I love you.”
Hermione turned her head and returned his kiss. “Me too. You’re amazing, Ron, you know that?”
“I try.” He inclined his head with mock modesty.
Smiling, she nudged him affectionately with her shoulder. “I’ll see you when you get home from work. Hopefully I’ll have Harry with me.”
Ron shook his head. “I probably won’t be home until late this evening, so don’t wait up for me. There’s something else I need to sort out.”
“Oh yes? What’s that?”
Ron’s expression darkened. “Malfoy.”
Hermione paused for a few seconds, as her concern about what Ron might be planning battled with her desire to know that Malfoy had been dealt with. Finally, she decided that a course of plausible deniability was her best option, but she couldn’t resist a final plea. “Okay. But you won’t do anything foolish, will you Ron?”
“Don’t you worry about that, love. I promise I’ve thought this through. Very, very carefully.”
After Ron left for work, Hermione summoned a notebook from the study, and made a list of everywhere she thought that Harry might have gone. She had a strong hunch about where he might be, but she wanted to make sure she hadn’t overlooked anywhere else first. Reviewing the list over the dregs from the pot of tea, she decided she was satisfied with her choice. Nowhere else seemed as likely to draw him when he was trying to cope with such an enormous emotional blow. After pulling on a jacket, she left the house and disapparated on the top step.
Almost instantly, she appeared in the familiar square at the centre of Godric’s Hollow. She had been there only once before, but it was a visit she would never forget, since she had barely escaped alive. She used the shop, pub and post office to get her bearings, then crossed the square and headed down a little lane on the far side of the war memorial.
On balance, she was glad Ron wasn’t with her. She would have appreciated some moral support, but he was still too angry with Harry to be any help if and when she found him. She also wasn’t sure how pleased Harry would be to see Ron. Until she could explain Malfoy’s role in the events of the previous night, Ron was probably too close to Ginny for comfort. It was an explosive situation, and she hoped desperately she could find the strength to deal with it. Of course, that was all supposing Harry was even here. Oh Merlin, please let him be here.
It took only a couple of minutes to reach her destination; the broken down cottage at the end of the lane that had once been the Potter family home. She scanned the ruins and the overgrown garden for any sign that Harry might have been there. Her heart lurched when she saw a deep furrow that had been ripped through the undergrowth. At the end of the furrow, she could see the wreckage of something pale blue and chrome, crumpled against the base of a large tree. Harry’s motorbike!
She scrambled over the wall as quickly as possible, not caring as she scraped her hands on the rough stone, and hurried towards the bike. As soon as she could see that Harry’s body was not curled among the broken metal, her pulse began to slow. So, whatever happened, he walked away from it. She made another, less frantic check. No blood. Thank Merlin.
Standing, she made her way through the long grass to the front door, and pushed. It swung open easily at her touch. Okay, looks like he came inside. I hope to hell he’s still here.
“Harry?” she called, softly at first. No-one replied. She peered first into one room, then the next, each one dusty and empty. The only occupants were several large spiders and the tendrils of ivy that had forced their way in through the rotten window frames.
“Harry?” Hermione’s voice was stronger now, hoping desperately that he would reply, but still all was quiet. Maybe he hurt his head in the accident? Maybe he’s lying in here unconscious somewhere! What if I’m too late after all?
Finding it increasingly difficult to keep her rising panic under control, she hurried up the stairs, oblivious to the way the boards creaked and bowed under her feet. When there was no sign of Harry in the first room she checked, she moved quickly along the landing to the next door and pushed it open.
In this part of the house, most of the roof was missing, exposing the room to the elements. Creepers tumbled down the inside of the wall and over the rubble. Hermione could just about make out the decor behind it, which was pale blue; a baby boy’s room. But the colour of the paintwork wasn’t the most notable thing about the room. Harry was sitting on the floor opposite her, with his back to the wall and his knees pulled up towards his chest.
“Oh, thank god!” Relief washed over her, and she felt her shoulders begin to relax. It wasn’t until then that she realised how tense she had been.
“I might’ve known it would be you.” he said flatly. He looked dreadful; face haggard through stress and lack of sleep, with dark smudges under his eyes. The mostly-empty bottle of firewhisky on the floor next to him probably hadn’t helped him to look any better.
“Are you okay?” Harry just stared at her, as though she was incredibly stupid. “I mean, physically? I saw the bike, and I was so worried...”
“Oh. That. Turns out that Arthur’s a dab hand with those cushioning charms, so I’m fine. Well, apart from a few bruises. And I’m pretty sure my wrist isn’t meant to look like this.” He held up his right hand for her to see. It was at least twice the size it should have been, and dark purple.
“Oh gods! We need to get you to St Mungo’s, Harry! That looks really nasty.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” He took another pull from the whisky bottle. “And it pretty much stopped hurting when I got half-way through this anyway.”
“Is that why you crashed?”
“You mean was I pissed when I got on the bike? No. I’m just not very good at parking.” Harry started to laugh, a bitter, hollow laugh that made Hermione’s heart ache for him. “So did she tell you what she did? Or did she try and feed you a load of bollocks excuses too?”
“Oh, Harry.” Hermione’s voice cracked with compassion. “I’m so sorry.”
“Are you? I’m not. I’m just glad I found out what she’s really like before it was too late.”
“Harry, it isn’t what you think...” Hermione sat down next to Harry and realised how cold he was. His hands were icy and he seemed to be shivering. With a flick of her wand, she conjured a blanket and draped it across his knees. He didn’t seem to notice.
“How did I miss it?” he continued, as though he hadn’t heard her. “How could I possibly have been so stupid not to realise what was going on? I thought I knew her.”
“No, I didn’t. I couldn’t have. I trusted her and she was... she was... all that time, god knows how many of them there were! And I made it so easy! Sent her trotting off to Holyhead. What an idiot!”
“You’re not an idiot, Harry.”
“Yes I am!” Harry’s voice rose, distorted by pain and fury. “I must be to let myself fall in love with a deceitful slapper like her! I would have done anything for her! Anything at all! Turns out, she was doing anything that moved! Including Malfoy of all people! She’s twisted! What a bitch!”
Hermione sat and listened as he continued to insult Ginny, becoming steadily more vitriolic. His words pierced her like shards of glass, as though the broken pieces of his soul were being unleashed upon her. She knew she needed to tell him what had really happened, what Malfoy did, but she was afraid of what his reaction would be, afraid of taking this dreadful situation and making it so much worse. He was already so unstable and so fragile, like a grenade with the pin on the verge of falling out. The thought that she would be the one to pull it free was almost physically painful, but it had to be done.
She shifted around so she was facing him. “Harry, I have to tell you something, and I know it’s going to be very difficult for you to hear.”
She felt a puff of air on her cheek, as Harry breathed out a silent, caustic laugh. “There is nothing you could say to me now that would make me feel any worse than I do already.”
Hermione wished, more than anything in the world, that what Harry had just said was true, but she knew that whatever abyss he was languishing in now, she was about to consign him to a far darker place. That terrible knowledge weighed heavily on her heart, even though she knew there was no avoiding it. He had to know and she had to be the one to tell him.
“Harry, it didn’t happen,” she told him softly. “What you think Ginny did? She didn’t do it. She never cheated on you.”
Harry looked at her incredulously. “Yes, she did. I saw her! I saw them! Together! They were... Well, you know what they were doing.”
“No, Harry” she said, as gently as possible. “You saw what Malfoy wanted you to see. He broke into Ginny’s cottage and tampered with her mirror. When you saw them... in bed together, that was just something that Malfoy imagined. It never really happened. He was just trying to hurt you. Both of you.”
“No. No, that can’t be right! Is that even possible?” He turned to look at her, green eyes begging her to deny it.
Hermione placed her hand over his. “I’m afraid so. He did a really good job. Impressively good, actually, I’m not sure I could have done it that well without lots of practice.”
“You mean I... But all those things I said to her! And she never... Oh no. No, no no!” Barely coherent, Harry scrambled to his feet.
“Where are you going?” she asked, alarmed.
“I have to see her!” He seemed almost feral in his desperation.
“No, Harry, I don’t...” But Harry wasn’t listening. He turned on the spot and disapparated. “...think that’s a very good idea,” finished Hermione, shoulders sagging as she spoke to thin air. Still, she thought, at least I’m sure where he’s gone this time.
She sighed, got to her feet, and disapparated, appearing moments later in Holyhead, near to where Ginny’s cottage stood. Harry was only a few feet away, looking up and down the road in utter confusion. The cottage was gone. There wasn’t even a space for it anywhere on the street.
“Where the hell is it, Hermione? What’s going on?”
Hermione walked to her friend and took both his hands in hers.
“I’m sorry, Harry, but she doesn’t want to see you.”
“She’s put a Fidelius charm on the sodding cottage?” he asked in disbelief. Hermione nodded. “Then tell me where it is! I need to see her!”
Hermione looked stricken. He sounded so desperate, and she hated herself for the answer she had to give him. “I can’t. I’m sorry Harry, but I’m not a secret keeper. I can’t tell you.”
“She didn’t trust you?”
“No, it isn’t that... it’s just that she knows how close we are and... Oh I’m so sorry Harry, I really am. Just give her some time. I’m sure she’ll come round.” Hermione tried her hardest to sound more convinced about that than she really felt.
“This can’t be happening! This seriously cannot be happening!” Harry whirled away from her and started shouting in the general direction of where the cottage must be. “Ginny? Ginny! Please come out and talk to me! I didn’t know, Ginny, I’m so sorry! Please!”
Hermione moved closer to her best friend once again. She put herself in front of him and grabbed hold of his upper arms. He tried to shake her away, but she held on tightly, forcing him to look at her.
“Harry? She isn’t going to come out. I’m so, so sorry.”
Finally, his eyes met hers, and the mixture of pain, confusion, hope and fear that she saw reflected in the emerald green broke her heart. Then, gradually, the hope faded away and was replaced by comprehension, and a terrible, creeping emptiness.
“I’ve really fucked it up this time, haven’t I?” he said. She knew he didn’t need her to answer. His shoulders began to tremble and his breathing became ragged. In that moment, he seemed younger and more vulnerable than he had in years, and seeing him like that made her feel as though someone had stuck a knife into her chest. She folded Harry into her arms, and he dropped his head to her shoulder, crumbling at her touch.
“Come on,” whispered Hermione, into his hair. “I think it’s time for us to go home.”
Harry didn’t move for a few heartbeats. Then, very slowly, he nodded. Stepping away from him, Hermione gripped his hand very tightly, turned on the spot, and disapparated.
Late that evening, Ron stood deep in the shadows of the Knockturn Alley, carefully watching the entrance to the pub opposite. It was past eleven o’clock at night, and any respectable place would be asking the patrons inside to drink up. However, the pub that Ron was watching was the Ragged Fang, which didn’t class as ‘respectable’ in his book or anyone else’s.
Some carefully phrased questions in the office during the day had given him a good idea where he might track down Malfoy and his ex-Death Eater cronies. A few silver sickles in the right palms once he arrived provided confirmation that his quarry was definitely inside. All he had to do was wait for the bastard to show himself.
Ron remained quite still, obscured by both the darkness and a powerful disillusionment charm. For a long time, no one entered or left, and he passed the time by mentally running through his plan over and over again. Eventually, people began to leave, on their own or in small groups. All looked furtively up and down the street as they did so, but no one saw him. Malfoy was not among them. Ron was starting to wonder whether he might have slipped away unseen when there was another movement across the street. Ron smiled grimly as he recognised Malfoy’s blond hair glinting in what little moonlight penetrated the gloom of Knockturn Alley. Even better, he was alone. That would make things so much easier.
Ron stepped forward and drew his wand, striking hard and fast with a combination of spells intended to hurt and disorientate. “Aculeum. Fulmenio. Stupefy.” Stinging jinx. Thunderbolt hex. Stunning spell. All delivered with power, accuracy and real venom. He gave Malfoy no warning, no chance to draw his wand, because he had no interest in turning this into a street brawl. He wasn’t looking for a fight. No, this was about teaching Draco Malfoy what happened when you messed with Ron Weasley’s little sister. He knew Ginny might not thank him for what she would undoubtedly consider as fighting her own battles for her, but there was no way he could let it slide; not something like this.
The force of the final stunner threw Malfoy off his feet sent him crashing into the wall behind, crumpling into an unconscious heap on the dirty cobblestones. But, as gratifying as unleashing a burst of violence on Malfoy had been, it was only the first part of what Ron had planned.
“Incarcerous.” Thin ropes shot from Ron’s wand, binding Malfoy’s arms to his sides and wrapping his legs together from his waist to his feet. Once he was sure Malfoy was securely restrained, Ron reached down and took hold of his arm, focused clearly on a particular open headland on the East Sussex coast, and then disapparated. Moments later, the two men reappeared, high on a cliff top and miles from the nearest home, magical or otherwise.
There was a different quality to the night so far from the city. A heavy sprinkling of starlight punctuated the inky blackness, and the waxing moon seemed to glow so much brighter than it ever did in London. The only sound was the distant roar of waves breaking against the rocks at the foot of the cliff, five hundred feet below. Without another living soul in miles, there was little chance of being disturbed.
Ron sat on a nearby rock, looking out to sea as he waited calmly for Malfoy to recover his senses. Over the course of the previous nineteen hours, the blind rage he had experienced at Ginny’s cottage had hardened into a steel trap of composed fury. Once, he would have attacked blindly, flailing aimlessly with fists or words or magic. Now, older and wiser, he could channel that burning, unbridled rage and turn it to his advantage. He had thought carefully about exactly how to punish Draco Malfoy. There would be no mistakes, and no hesitation.
As Malfoy lay helpless at his feet, Ron took a moment to reflect that once upon a time, this situation would have turned out very differently. He knew that, for most of their schooldays, he could never have taken on Malfoy like this and come out on top. It wasn’t because Malfoy was inherently any more powerful or skillful than Ron, simply that Malfoy had always had the one thing that eluded Ron when he was younger: Confidence. Malfoy had a sense of superiority that had been bred into him, while Ron had always doubted himself, haunted by the shred of uncertainty in the back of his mind that maybe, just maybe, Malfoy was somehow better. Not any more, though. If Ron had gained anything in the past few years, it was self-assurance. He might have got his foot in the door of the Auror office on reputation, but he had secured his future there on talent and results. Draco Malfoy was about to learn that the hard way.
On the ground in front of him, Malfoy began to stir; time for the real business of the evening to begin. “Levicorpus.” Once Malfoy’s helpless body was lifted high by his ankles, Ron levitated him out over the cliff edge, flicking his wand to shake the floating body a little as he did so.
“What the...” Malfoy mumbled, as he came round. The sudden realisation he was floating upside down several hundred feet off the ground seemed to speed up the process considerably. “Holy shit!” He wriggled furiously against the bindings, but they held firm.
Ron didn’t bother to hide his amusement. “Back with us? Excellent.” He flicked his wand again and rotated Malfoy’s body so that they were facing one another. “Welcome to Beachy Head, Malfoy.”
“Weasley? Seriously? What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I thought you and me could have a bit of a chat, Malfoy. Man to man.”
“Okay, okay. Let me down and we’ll talk.”
“What’s the matter, Malfoy? Uncomfortable? I don’t think you’re really in any position to object.” Ron used his wand to shake Malfoy’s body just a little. Malfoy shrieked. “Specifically, I want to discuss what you did to my sister yesterday.”
“I didn’t do anything to your sister. I haven’t seen her for months,” spluttered Malfoy. His breathing seemed rapid and shallow.
“Really? You’re going to try and tell me that? I saw it, Malfoy. I saw your pathetic little trick with the mirror.”
Ron thought Malfoy might continue to deny it, but for all his terror, Malfoy was unable to resist boasting about what had happened. “Potter didn’t seem to think it was so pathetic. I reckon I did him a favour. From what I could tell, he finally realised just what a cheap little trollop your sister actually is.”
Ron momentarily relaxed the hover jinx and let Malfoy drop a few feet over the cliff edge, eliciting a scream from his victim. “Watch your mouth, Malfoy,” he snarled, standing up and moving closer to the edge. “The idea of you thinking about my little sister like that makes me sick. And those monitoring charms you had so you could enjoy watching her suffer like it was some sort of peep show? The whole thing’s just perverted. You’re just perverted! You need to learn that sort of thing has consequences.”
“It’s all just words, Weasley! Big talk, nothing more.” For all his bravado, Ron could hear the fear behind Malfoy’s words.
“You think so?” Ron looked around and gestured expansively across the cliffs. “You know, this is where Muggles come when they want to end it all. Apparently, it’s the third most popular suicide spot in the entire world. That’s handy, because when they find your body at the bottom of the cliffs, no one will ask any questions.”
There was no mistaking the terror in Malfoy’s voice now. “Wait! Come on, Weasley! You’ve made your point. I’m sorry, okay? Really sorry!”
Ron allowed the anger to flood through him once again, feeling it coursing through his veins and roaring for revenge. “You know what, Malfoy? I really don’t think you are. Liberacorpus.”
As Ron said the counter-jinx, he made sure that he was looking straight into Malfoy’s cold, grey eyes. He had a momentary glimpse of the abject terror reflected there as Malfoy began his plummet towards the rocks five hundred feet below. As Malfoy fell, Ron could hear him screaming, and in that moment, it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. Sadly, he could only take a couple of seconds to enjoy it, since he wanted to avoid actually becoming a murderer. Sighing, he turned on the spot and apparated to the foot of the cliffs, where he cast a cushioning charm to safely break Malfoy’s fall four feet above the ground. Cancelling the charm, Ron allowed Malfoy to drop to the floor, and then vanished the bindings.
Malfoy lay whimpering on the rocks, shaking violently, looking as though he might pass out any second. Ron stooped down and hissed into his ear. “I’m going to make this really easy for you to understand. Mess with my sister again and I will kill you.”
Then, taking one last look at Malfoy sprawled on the floor and convulsing in terror, Ron turned and disapparated.
A/N - As you may have guessed, the title for this chapter is taken from the song of the same name by Bill Withers. It’s about being offering your friends support in times of hardship, and it felt totally appropriate for this chapter.
Thanks as ever go to my superb beta-reader, CambAngst. I have a little more to thank him for this time round than usual, because the idea of Ron's cliff-top revenge came from him, and is borrowed from his awesome story, Harry Potter and the Conspiracy of Blood. I never get tired of plugging it, for the very good reason that it’s totally gripping and I promise you will love it!
Also, apologies for the slow update once again. Life has thrown me a few curve-balls lately, but I promise I’m still writing, and Evolution will get finished! Those same curve-balls are why I have so many unanswered reviews, but I promise I will fix that, I read every one of them, and it means so much if you are kind enough to let me know what you think.