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.
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!