Shell Cottage seemed somehow different by the time the small band of mission-goers arrived back on the beach path leading up to it. It wasn’t, Ron supposed, that the house itself had changed, or the land around the house; in those respects, it looked as normal as it ever had. Perhaps it was Ron’s eyes, his way of looking at things, and not the house that had been altered.
Their Polyjuice Potion had worn off on the way home, mere minutes after Professor McGonagall had suggested they leave, and Ron knew it was for the best that they had left. But a larger, more stubborn part of him resented the fact that they had. Who knew what had happened to Charlie after they had left? Was he being tortured right now, even as they wearily climbed up toward the front door, their shoes slipping and scraping on the sand-covered cobbles?
He chanced a glance at his father, walking just behind him. Arthur was staring intently at the ground, his eyes very far away, his face lined with fear and resignation. It was this second emotion that startled Ron more than the first. They were all scared – fear was a given in these circumstances – but they could not give up, or everything they had been working for would collapse.
Had it only been a few weeks since Hogwarts had been taken?
Ron dropped back a bit, letting Seamus move off the path through the beach grass to get around him, and fell into step beside his father. If Mr. Weasley noticed that his son now walked alongside him, he gave no indication of it, unless it was to slip his hands into his pockets and blink a few times.
“Dad?” he ventured cautiously. He was still drastically unused to this; throughout everything, his entire life, it had been his parents to comfort him, to soothe away the fears and mend the scrapes. Ron wasn’t entirely sure he liked it when the roles were reversed. “Dad, are you okay?”
His father said nothing, continuing to walk along the path without looking where he was going. “It’ll be all right,” Ron continued awkwardly, the promise feeling stale and false in his mouth even as the lips formed the words. “We’ll get Charlie back somehow –“
“Ron,” Arthur cut in at last, removing his hands from his pockets and rubbing his eyes tiredly behind his spectacles. There was a long, pregnant silence, and Ron chewed his bottom lip absently, waiting for whatever his father would say. But there was nothing for a long moment, and then only –
“Don’t tell your mother about Charlie.”
It seemed that the rest of the Shell Cottage group had assembled in the dining room and the living room (either of the rooms by themselves being too small in their own right), people sitting on chairs and standing along walls, conversing mildly and mostly staring into empty space. From the kitchen came the sound of clattering dishes, Fleur washing the plates and forks that were already spotless, but were being washed again to keep her mind from idling. At the sound of the front door opening, all heads turned in their direction, eyes immediately asking silent questions.
Ron stood self-consciously just on the other side of the threshold, sensing the same amount of change in here as he had walking up from the beach outside the cottage. The four of them who had been into London stood in a row, as though lined up for inspection; Seamus was biting distractedly at his thumbnail, while Professor McGonagall was standing as though an iron rod were pressed against her spine.
There was a soft murmur, and then a break in the crowd. Ron’s mum pushed between Luna and Flitwick, her eyes bright with unshed tears that for some reason made him feel embarrassed. “Oh, you’re all right,” she whispered, dabbing at her face with the hem of her ever-present apron, already suspiciously soggy.
“We’re all right, Molly,” Ron’s father affirmed; though it wasn’t entirely the truth, the half-lie seemed to come naturally to his lips. He placed a hand on either of his wife’s shoulders and planted a brief, chaste kiss on her forehead. She sniffed loudly.
Ron caught Luna’s eye in a desperate attempt to avert his own from his mother’s crying, and she gave him a brilliant smile, somewhat at odds with the present situation. But he couldn’t find another place to look. Horace Slughorn was watching him with an oddly pitying expression; Bill was watching him warily, as though he might faint, and George was giving him a similar look; even Seamus, next to him, was trying to catch his eye, wanting to say something about the experience the pair of them had just shared, most likely.
But all he wanted, right now, was to be alone. Couldn’t anybody give him space to think for five minutes?
From just in front of him, his father was still murmuring to his mother in low, reassuring tones, more than likely still trying to convince her that yes, they were safe, and no, she didn’t need to worry about them. But just as Ron was about to move toward them, to do his part to contribute the lie Arthur had already set into motion, there was another rush of murmuring, like a breeze through the room, and the crowd pressing toward the front hall parted again to let someone else through.
“Arthur.” Kingsley Shacklebolt’s deep voice seemed to electrify the room, and Ron’s father briefly clasped hands with him; it was an oddly formal gesture.
“Any news?” Arthur asked brusquely. And, to Ron’s incredulity, something like the ghost of a pleased smile crossed the older man’s face. He gave a noncommittal shrug that fooled nobody.
“Reckon we’ve got something worked out with Mr. Malfoy,” he said, and the rest of those gathered around the mission-goers, who had been talking amongst themselves, fell into immediate silence. “Coming into the dining room?” He swept a broad hand in that direction.
“Of course,” the eldest Weasley said quickly, and Kingsley ushered him in that direction. There was a brief pause, and then Ron charged after the pair of them, his heart suddenly beating three times faster than it had been only moments earlier. The rest of the Shell Cottage group pressed hungrily after him.
Ron was less surprised than he figured he ought to have been to see, upon entering the dining room with the crush of people behind him, that Draco Malfoy was already sitting at one end of the long table in the dining area. It was, in fact, the same seat he had been sitting in during the discussion of the London mission. If he didn’t know better, Ron might have said he hadn’t left the spot since.
Draco shot him a rather filthy look upon his entrance, however, and Ron stopped short. “What’s your –“ he began, and then stopped abruptly. Something had caught his eye: A silvery, fluid-like material, pooled in the middle of the table. For an absurd moment, he thought it was unicorn blood – but no, it had a shadow from the fixture overhead…
And, just as suddenly, he realized what it was.
“Ron?” Luna’s voice, just behind his shoulder, filtered foggily through his brain. “Your face is all pale. Are you all right?”
He jerked forward and snatched up the object on the table; Malfoy scooted his chair back from the table a few inches, sneering slightly. “Where did this come from?” the former asked, shaking the thing in his hand a bit, so that it seemed to ripple. “How did it get here?”
How on earth had Harry’s Invisibility Cloak just materialized out of thin air?
“Draco had that on his person.” Kingsley, who had moved around to stand at the head of the table, to Malfoy’s left, crossed his arms over his broad chest. “He says he found it in the Forbidden Forest.”
“Like hell,” Ron said savagely, yanking his wand from the back pocket of his jeans with his free hand. There were a few gasps from the crowd behind him as he pointed it straight between Malfoy’s eyes, which widened in fear as he did so.
“Ron.” Ron shrugged away his father’s anger, concentrating solely on the tip of his wand and where it was pointed.
“How’d you get it?” He was yelling now; he didn’t care. “Did you even wait before he’d hit the ground, Malfoy, or did you just rip it off him when –“
“That is enough!” This voice succeeded where Arthur’s had failed; he turned in mild shock, and even a bit of guilt, to see his mother, standing at the base of the stairs that led to the second floor. Her hands were planted firmly on her hips, her nostrils flaring.
“Mum,” he started angrily, but she pointed an imperious forefinger at the chair in front of her. Scowling, but rational thought now slowly catching up to him anyway, Ron slammed it out from the table and threw himself into it. Malfoy smirked slightly.
“Ah,” Kingsley said then. “Right. Erm, if most of you lot would clear out, then.” He gestured awkwardly toward those still standing in the doorway, mouths still open at Ron’s display. He felt his ears redden from their staring. “Bill, you stay – Minerva, Horace, Arthur, Fleur, George.” He beckoned them forward, and the rest moved away, some with airs of mild dejection.
“Right, then –“ Bill said, moving to sit on Malfoy’s other side. “What we’ve been talking about –“
“I’m staying, too.”
Everyone in the room turned to look at the doorway leading back to the front hall. Percy stood in it, cutting a mildly impressive figure, one hand braced on each of the supports. Ron raised his eyebrows slightly; George, who had taken the chair next to him (though rather more gently) reacted similarly.
“Percy,” Molly started gently, in a tone that signified a let-down – Ron had heard it often, through the years – but this time it was her husband whose voice overrode hers.
“Yes,” he said firmly, ushering his son into the room. “Percy stays.” No more was said about the matter; Percy sat on George’s other side, the tops of his cheeks slightly pink, and that was that.
“What we were discussing while you lot were out,” Bill forged on, as though he hadn’t been interrupted at all, “was how to get back into Hogwarts without… well.” He gave a sort of jerk of his shoulders, and all those present in the room could tell what the gesture signified.
“And what we came up with,” he forged on, “actually has a lot to do with that Cloak, Ron.” Bill nodded toward his youngest brother, and Ron found that he was still holding the Invisibility Cloak in his hands – and his wand, too, now that he was looking. He shoved it away under the table, feeling a bit abashed, and next to him, George smiled.
“What about the Cloak?” Minerva said, pressing the tips of her fingers into the edge of the table and leaning forward slightly.
“We’ve got to have a way to get into Hogwarts to get people out from within it,” said Kingsley, pacing back and forth slightly in his limited amount of space. “And it’s a pretty sure bet that we’re not getting in by ourselves – or with Polyjuice,” he added, as though sensing someone might have brought it up. “That was all right for London. It more than likely will not work the same way again.
“Furthermore,” he continued, “the Death Eaters aren’t stupid. They’ll have set up some way to prevent us from getting back into the castle and doing the very thing we’re setting out to do. Only Death Eaters will be able to move in and out of those grounds, if they have anything to say about it.”
Ron knew where this was heading, and didn’t like it one bit. He threw a sour look at Malfoy across the table; he was staring down at the surface of it, the pads of his fingers tracing small patterns in the grain of the wood. “So we’re sending him in,” he interjected dully, jabbing his thumb at the former Slytherin.
“Precisely,” said Bill neatly. “He’s got the Mark – he’s got clearance – so why shouldn’t we use it to our advantage? Have him sneak in with the Cloak, find out where everyone’s being kept –”
“And how do you know he won’t turn tails the moment he’s back inside?” It was Percy who spoke now, a bit uncomfortably, leaning down to catch Kingsley’s eye more clearly. “He’s got ‘coward’ written all over him – he’ll make off with the Cloak –“
“Because,” Kingsley said firmly, over a small snort of approving laughter from George, “the stakes are high for his family right now. And he knows we know it.”
“You could talk to my face,” Malfoy said, speaking for the first time in a condescending drawl, “rather than act as though I’m not here, or like I’m a dog.” Surprised faces turned to him as he added, “You’re missing a rather large piece of information, I’ll have you know.”
“And what’s zat, zen?” piped up Fleur hotly; until that moment, Ron had nearly forgotten she was there. She had chosen to stand near the stairs, where Mrs. Weasley was, rather than take a seat at the dining table with the others.
“The Invisibility Cloak can come off,” Malfoy said, so sarcastically that Ron had to resist getting his wand out again. “One slight breeze and we’re all dead.”
“Cheerful,” George snapped, and received a sneer in return.
“He’s right,” spoke up Horace Slughorn helpfully, in a dubious sort of tone. “Not to mention that it would be rather tricky to fit even two people under that Cloak without being seen…” He paused to stroke his mustache thoughtfully.
“There is another way it could be done.” Everyone turned again to Malfoy as he spoke, looking rather reluctant to do so even still, continuing to trace minute patterns on the tabletop. “They have – they make Polyjuice stores. I could get in there and use a bit of them. I know you said it’s stupid to do it going in, but they won’t be expecting it coming out, will they?”
Kingsley’s face brightened, as though clouds had been wiped from it to let the sun in. “I don’t know,” he said slowly, though it was rather clear that the words were only stopgaps to preclude any undue excitement. “That could work… And you think you could do it, Draco?”
Ron’s mouth had fallen open at some point, a fact he realized as Draco nodded stiffly at the older Auror. Nobody else seemed to share his qualms still. How was anyone supposed to know if they could trust Malfoy? Didn’t anyone remember the things he’d done? Wasn’t that Mark on his arm proof enough that he should be locked away?
But perhaps this was what happened in war. It wasn’t so much the battling, and the fighting. It was the willingness and ability to adapt that meant you had a chance to make it.
And so, for the first time he could remember, he did not speak out against Draco Malfoy.
Hermione was wakened with a jerk, her cheek slipping off her hand and pressing into the cold stone floor. She couldn’t have been sleeping for more than an hour – anything more than brief fits of sleep had eluded her all the time she had been imprisoned down here – but still, something had to have roused her…
It didn’t take long for her to realize what it was. Two sets of slow-moving footsteps were moving down the dungeon aisle, between the makeshift jail cells, taking slow and almost ponderous steps. Low voices spoke back and forth to each other in as-yet indistinguishable words, though she didn’t think she knew either of the men they belonged to. Slowly, their conversation started to make sense to her ears.
“… to Azkaban,” one man was saying, his words just audible over the sound of his shoes on the stone.
“There aren’t many left,” said his companion nastily; there was an unexpected, harsh sound, like one of them was rattling metal, and Hermione’s heart jumped into her throat. A cell door, she realized suddenly, and shrank instinctively against the far wall of her own.
“True,” the first replied, pleasure evident even though she had no way of seeing his face. “Just a couple of them, though.”
“Potter’s girlfriend, she’s still here?” the second asked. Hermione slapped a hand flat against her mouth, as though to smother the sound of her breathing, as the voices stopped right outside her door.
“That’s why she mentioned Azkaban,” the first man said in a voice of thinly-veiled exasperation. “The dementors are on our side, aren’t they? She’ll just slowly rot away in there.”
“We could kill her.” Hermione’s heart stopped beating; they were still standing outside her cell. There was a long silence.
“You know we couldn’t. She’s dead terrified to touch her, and I think the Dark Lord is, too.”
His companion must have not understood what the first man was talking about, because he pressed on. “Haven’t you heard what’s going on? He’s keeping it all quiet, you understand, but word’s gotten round. Mind, you can’t tell anyone I told you this…”
Hermione scooted a bit closer in spite of herself, not wanting to miss the rest of this conversation. “… blood everywhere,” she just managed to overhear. “On his wand, wherever he walks – it follows him, little spots of it. Like it’s leaking out of him.”
“One too many Unforgivable Curses?” the second man asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Maybe,” said the first. “But look, I didn’t tell you, all right?”
“You’ve already said –“
“Yeah, well, it needs repeating. If I’m caught spreading that around, I’m dead.” There was a very small shuffling sound, fabric on fabric. “Come on, then. Let’s head back upstairs. I hate it down here.” Hermione couldn’t help but breathe a small, nearly inaudible sigh of relief as the men’s footsteps retreated back down the dungeon corridor; there was the sound of a heavy door opening, and then the hollow sound of it closing, and silence once more.
Her brain had sped into overdrive; she pressed the tips of her cold, grimy fingertips to her temples, trying to think. Spots of blood, wherever Voldemort went – and why? Surely this wasn’t something that had always been happening, they’d been talking about it like it was a recent occurrence… But why blood? The answer was right there, on the tip of her tongue, if only she could get at it…
“Oliver?” she whispered hesitatingly, looking in the direction of his cell, though there was nothing to see. As expected, there was no reply from where he was being held. Hermione gave a frustrated sort of sigh, curling her knees up to her chest and gingerly wrapping her arms around them so as not to further hurt her wrist.
Blood… blood… what was significant about blood? But then, all at once, she remembered.
Harry and Voldemort had had a blood tie. Harry’s blood had been used to bring him back to power in her fourth year. It was in Voldemort.
Harry was now dead.
And so was his blood.
Which meant the blood in Voldemort… was dead too.
A/N: Wow, okay! There is a lot of information in this chapter, and my goodness, do I hope that made sense to everyone. Draco's sneaking into the castle (in the next chapter!) under the Invisibility Cloak, the rest of Shell Cottage is going to assemble in front of the gates... and all that blood. Voldemort's blood is Harry's blood, and now that Harry's dead, it's dead, too -- which means it's leaving him to fall to earth as naturally as it thinks it needs to. Voldemort really is his own worst enemy.
We're getting into the climactic chapters of this story, though -- and after this one, there are only five more to go! From here on out it's Hogwarts stuff, which is really very exciting. Thank you guys so much for all the reviews and reads you've given me thus far, and if you're inclined, I'd love to see what you thought of this chapter, too!