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.
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.
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!