For the most part, London had in no way changed – not, at least, since Ron had last been there, under the bold, stupid premise of sneaking into the Ministry of Magic. There was the same sooty air, tasting slightly of something both metallic and ash-like; there was the same interminable press of people in a hurry to be somewhere other than where they currently were. And, yet again, he was there under the appearance of a person he wasn’t.
It had been McGonagall’s idea to use most of their Polyjuice Potion stores for this. Mad-Eye Moody had taken a leaf from the book of the man who’d imprisoned him in Ron's fourth year, and before he died had made sure to have a large stock of it, tucked safely away in his home, which Bill had found upon searching the place. It was this potion that had changed the four of them – Ron, McGonagall, Arthur, and Seamus – into seemingly oblivious Muggles, straight from Ottery St. Catchpole.
Seamus had been set against it from the start, and even now, as Ron glanced sideways at him, he looked distinctly uncomfortable, fiddling with the rough hem of his right sleeve and scowling. For a moment, Ron had wondered at the wisdom of the decision in letting him tag along – but he had volunteered to do it, and that was a fact that simply couldn’t be ignored. There was not enough wisdom of the elders to shoulder the burden in this stage of the war; most of that wisdom was now dead.
Seamus had, though, made the rather compelling argument that changing into Muggles these days was, for all intents and purposes, as stupid a thing to do as keeping their own identities. “If I’m going to die,” he’d grumbled, shortly before the four of them set out to put their plan into action, “I’d like to have my own face, thanks.”
“No one is going to die, Finnigan,” the former deputy headmistress had snapped grimly. Seamus hadn’t argued further – even if Hogwarts wasn’t their school anymore, there were some things you just didn’t do, and arguing with Minerva McGonagall was high on this list.
It was distinctly odd for Ron to see her outside the Hogwarts scope, too, in the faded calico dress she’d lifted from the farmer’s wife she’d taken the appearance of. Despite the fact she’d lost her customary robes, her square spectacles, and her severe bun, her mouth was set into its customary thin line of intense disapproval. It was almost a welcome thing.
But there was one aspect of London that had changed, Ron thought now, turning his attention from his companions at last and surveying the city once more (with difficulty, as the brown curls of the Muggle boy he was supposed to be kept falling into his eyes). Every couple of blocks, something was destroyed, severely so. And every Shell Cottage inhabitant present knew what had caused that destruction.
Just across the street from where the four of them were now clustered, the stonework of a bank building – very old, by the look of it – had crumbled away, granite dust still swirling slightly in the air, as though it had happened very recently. Great clumps of rock littered the street, and tangles of wires and plaster, oddly deformed or fused by the blast, poked out at strange angles from where the stone had covered it. Passersby were clustered en masse along the edge of the pavement, talking animatedly to their neighbors and jostling for a better view.
“We know they’re here, then,” Ron’s father said at last; he was the first one to speak since they had come across the site. Ron glanced down and saw that some of the stone had made it across the street, too. Seamus seemed to notice the same thing, and started kicking around a bit of it. Ron wished he wouldn’t.
“They’re here,” McGonagall confirmed in the low, slow voice of the farmer’s wife. “What are we going to do, Arthur?”
Mr. Weasley sighed deeply and ran a hand over his face. He had changed into a businessman in a pinstriped suit, though why a person like that had been in Ottery St. Catchpole hadn’t been apparent to any of them. He didn’t answer the question, however; Ron spoke up.
“We’ve got to find them, haven’t we?” He wiggled his shoulders, the tightness of the unfamiliar checked shirt straining against his shoulder blades – couldn’t this boy afford proper clothes? – as he leaned around Seamus to examine his father’s expression.
Mr. Weasley nodded. “We have no plan, remember,” he said bleakly. “This is just to keep us –“
“Occupied, yeah,” Ron finished, scowling. This suddenly felt so stupid, the lot of it, as though they were playing games while the rest of the war went on around them. What good was supposed to come of assuming the identities of complete and total strangers, prancing about London, when Hermione might be…?
But she wasn’t. Ron would surely know if she was. And yet, even as he thought that, he could feel a sort of iciness sliding through his veins.
“Well,” Seamus drawled, exaggerated sarcasm fairly dripping from him. “We could at least try and figure out what happened here.” Ron shot him a filthy look, and suddenly remembered just why he hadn’t been particularly fond of Seamus in previous circumstances.
“Yes. All right.” Ron’s father’s voice still sounded tired, and somehow, nearly bemused. He didn’t know what he was doing any more than the other three of them did; that was perhaps one of the most unnerving parts of this day. There was no leader, no plan, no semblance of order.
Thinking’s been a right downer of late, Ron thought, smirking, and instantly feeling horrible guilty at his flippancy. Clearing his throat a bit, he cast a glance around, making sure no cars were approaching, and stepped off the pavement, crossing quickly to stand in front of the half-destroyed bank.
There was a woman standing in front of a large, black box as he passed by – he’d seen his dad looking at a diagram of something like it before, though he couldn’t remember its name. It looked a little bit like Colin Creevey’s old camera, the one he’d carried around so often it was like it’d been fused to him, and the woman was talking to it like it was a person.
“The police continue to tell us they have no leads as to where the bomb originated, or where it is located now. The work is thought to be that of an as-yet unknown bomber. Anyone with leads or information that could lead to the bomber’s arrest is encouraged to come forward or to call the toll-free number at the bottom of your screen –“
It took rather a tremendous effort not to roll his eyes as Ron sidled past, trying to avoid treading on the toes of the bystanders still gawking at the building, pointing inquisitive fingers and speculating amongst themselves. The crowd was pressed clear around the building, and even a few blocks down. Ron couldn’t help mild feelings of shock; was this such a site to these Muggles that they felt the need to press in to see it, as though it were a parade? Didn’t they realize what is was, or were they that thick –
He stopped walking, so abruptly that Seamus walked directly into the back of him; he cursed instantly, rubbing his nose where he’d knocked it against the first boy’s back.
How could he ever, ever let himself think like that?
“Ron,” said Mr. Weasley in a low, urgent voice, laying a hand on his son’s shoulder, but Ron shrugged it off brusquely. He surged forward with renewed vigor, trying to vie for a position among the Muggles, and he glanced down an alleyway, trying to see if there was a way through it to get a better vantage point –
And for the second time, he stopped dead in his tracks. Seamus appeared to have seen it coming this time, and sidestepped him just in time. “You have got to stop doing that,” he snapped. “I’ll –“
“Shut up, Seamus.” Ron looked back wildly over his shoulder; Professor McGonagall was looking at him warily, as though he’d gone mad. Just behind her, looking at him over the older woman’s shoulder, Mr. Weasley wore a rather similar expression. “Dad, there are Death Eaters. Here.”
Seamus was pushed to the brick wall of the building across from the bank as Mr. Weasley made his way forward with unusual quickness; he braced either hand on the walls beside him, tensing them so he balanced only by the tips of his fingers, and looked in the direction Ron was pointing. His insides were twisting, numbing him; it had suddenly become rather difficult to breathe.
There was no mistake that the men Ron had spotted down the adjoining street were, in fact, Death Eaters. The half-masks and robes they wore were ones he would have recognized from a much farther distance; those people wouldn’t have been caught dead in Muggle clothing, despite the fact that what they did wore made them appear ostentatiously obvious to anyone with half a brain. There were about three or four of them, clustered together in a tight group, laughing loudly at something one in the group of them had just said.
“They’re not even trying to hide…” Mr. Weasley was muttering from somewhere above Ron’s head. He cast a cursory glance upward at his father, and realized he’d sunk into a half-crouch without quite realizing it. “What their plan is, I haven’t the slightest…”
“Are we going to apprehend them?” Professor McGonagall’s voice was still distinctive, even through the layers of the woman’s voice she’d temporarily adopted. And yet there was something unfamiliar about it; it was fear. Ron had never heard her – normally so stoic, so immovable – sound anything close to scared, and that realization scared him.
“We can’t,” said Seamus, of all people, and he sounded equally fearful, though this didn’t surprise Ron nearly as much as hearing McGonagall break briefly. He blew one of the village boy’s curls up out of his face in annoyance and squinted, trying to see the tiny cluster of robed wizards better. There was something off about them, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on…
There was someone else with them. Someone who shouldn’t be there.
“Dad,” Ron forced out harshly; he was suddenly taken with an inability to speak, as though the words were being forced up from a deep and unutterably painful place inside of him. “Dad… Charlie…”
“What?” Mr. Weasley looked down at Ron, and then back up at the Death Eaters. The businessman’s pockmarked face drained of color. “No…”
But there wasn’t any denying it; the time for denials and second-guessing had passed quick enough for the pair of them to miss it. Once it was voiced, it could be seen twice as clearly that standing on the fringes of the group was a familiar stocky, freckled redhead… Ron’s second-oldest brother, Charlie.
“He’s alive,” said Seamus, poking a forefinger into Ron’s shoulder blade, which was apparently supposed to be a gesture resembling comfort. Ron was closer to hitting him – why couldn’t he shut up? – and felt his whole body tense as one of the Death Eaters said something to his brother, a smirk evident even from this distance. Charlie shook his head.
And fell beneath the blast of an orange jet of light from one of the Death Eaters’ wands.
“No!” The cry escaped Ron’s lips before he could stop himself; he felt two sets of hands grab his shoulders and jerk him back roughly. Thrown off balance, he tumbled onto the ground, small bits of worn-away concrete digging into his back, though he knew better than to cry out again.
“Are you mad?!” Seamus said angrily, but Ron brushed him away, sitting up quickly and looking at Mr. Weasley. He immediately wished he hadn’t; the pain he found in the lines of his father’s face was more pronounced than usual, and it made is, Ron’s, gut twist again.
“Dad, what are they doing to him?” He didn’t feel like a solider in a war anymore; he felt like a kid again, lost and frightened, once he’d realized the world he’d been brought up in was nothing more than rose-colored paint to hide the ugliness underneath. He staggered to his feet, brushing dust from the seat of his pants, and looked to Mr. Weasley imploringly.
“They’re smart,” he answered grimly, pressing his back against the wall and looking down at his youngest son, an expression of something almost resembling pity quickly masking the pain that was nevertheless still there. “They’ve got their prisoners out doing their dirty work, it looks like.”
“Did they hear him?” Seamus asked, jerking a thumb in an irritated fashion at Ron.
“I thought I told you to shut up,” Ron retorted hotly. Seamus opened his mouth, but Professor McGonagall laid a warning hand on his shoulder before he had a chance to answer back.
"Boys," she snapped, sounding for a moment very much like her former self, and then added, “The potion will wear off soon enough.” She said this as though that settled the matter, and indeed Ron thought he could hear a bit more of her normal, clipped voice underneath the strong Northern accent the farmer’s wife normally spoke with. “We’d best be off, Arthur.”
Mr. Weasley had been staring at his shoes while his son argued; he looked up now, and nodded tiredly. “Yes, you’re right.” He chanced a brief glance around the corner where Ron had first spotted Charlie; apparently, no Death Eaters had heard Ron’s shout, which he was more grateful for than he was willing to admit within earshot of Seamus. “Back the way we came, then, and quickly.”
As they turned back in that direction, preparing again to battle the hordes of Muggles still clustered around the damage to the bank, all the while not having a clue as to what caused it, Ron’s mind found it prudent to replay a few of Seamus’s words in his head.
“They’ve got their prisoners out doing their dirty work, it looks like.”
Wherever Hermione was – wherever she was being kept – he hoped, with as much hope as he’d ever put into anything, that she was all right.
A/N: So, what did you think of the rather fruitless London mission? I do understand that it was perhaps lacking in more action than is generally desirable, but it's really a sort of Shell Cottage time-waster, and a few important things did happen here. Charlie out parading with the Death Eaters! That poor boy; I really am not liking having to put so many of my favorite characters through this kind of turmoil.
Also. 150 reviews in 8 chapters?! You guys are seriously awesome! I still don't know just how to convey my appreciation properly. I cannot even hope to begin to tell you what that means to me. Thank you so, so much for reading and reviewing and favoriting and just being a fantastic support system, all of you!