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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!