There was an ominous lack of movement about Hogwarts. Ron didn’t think he could ever remember a time when it had been this still and silent: No students swarming about, walking down to the lake or lying about on the grounds and trying not to think about exams or homework. The castle was never dull, never quiet, and the fact that all seemed calm within now scared the hell out of him.
“Isn’t he back yet?” he hissed to George, who was standing beside him. He had whispered into the bad ear, however, and his older brother turned his head to look at Ron and hear him better.
“Malfoy,” Ron spat exasperatedly, rubbing his upper arms vigorously with his hands, though he didn’t feel all that cold. “He should be back by now, shouldn’t he?” He didn’t want to articulate what his absence might mean, because he didn’t want to think about it himself.
George sighed and ran a hand through his hair; he had allowed his mother to cut it the night before, and something about it made the lines at the corners of his mouth deepen. Ron thought, with a hollow pang in his stomach, that it was the first time George had received a haircut that Fred hadn’t also gotten alongside him, and quickly shifted his mind elsewhere. There was so much he couldn’t think about, in these past few weeks.
“He’ll come back,” the older Weasley said at last. “Kingsley trusted him to.”
“You talk about Kingsley like he’s – like he’s a new Dumbledore,” Ron burst out in frustration, though taking care to keep his voice low still, lest the pair of them should be overheard. “What, we should just trust whatever he says, pipe down, keep our mouths shut about it?”
George turned to frown at his little brother. “What else are you going to do, Ron?” he asked. His voice was strange – Ron wasn’t at all used to either of the twins sounding quiet and serious. The question shamed him into silence, and he turned back to watch the gates, not saying any more.
The Shell Cottage refugees were all there, ranged out in a loose formation behind where Ron and George stood. He was almost surprised at how many of them were willing to return to the castle – didn’t they remember what they had just lost there, only a few weeks previously? But there was not a soul left at the house now. The Weasleys were all lined up at the front, anxiously watching the gates; Kingsley, Fleur, and McGonagall were the three odd spots amidst a mass of flaming orange hair. Arthur was conferring in an undertone with Molly, whose arm was wrapped around Ginny; Bill was standing next to his wife, his hand tightly entwined in hers, not saying anything; Kingsley and McGonagall were also silent. And at the end was Percy, a bit apart from everyone, turning his wand over and over in his hands. And behind the group was Slughorn, and Seamus, and Dedalus Diggle, and Hestia Jones, and people Ron didn’t even know by name.
This was all they could offer Hogwarts: The remnants of an army. They could only hope that, along with Malfoy and whoever he managed to bring back from the castle, it would be enough.
There was a sudden shifting down the line, and Ron craned his neck. His father had stepped forward. “Someone is coming,” he said, and his voice traveled well, despite the quietness of its tone. He was not the only one to have seen it, either. Ron could sense the wizards and witches behind him, tensing up, ready for a fight, should it come to them.
Three dark figures had left the castle doors, heading down the long path towards the gates, where Ron stood. The one in front had pale, white-blonde hair, and the youngest Weasley son wasn’t sure whether he was relieved to see that it was Malfoy and not a Death Eater, or disgust at knowing that he had, once again, placed himself before those he had managed to get back.
But who was with him?
“Ron, ow.” He had been gripping George’s sleeve, and had not even realized it; his other hand was wrapped tightly around the handle of his wand. The figures ran closer; the middle one passed into a strip of moonlight, for a bare second, but that was all he needed.
“Oh my God…” Ron breathed, and then he had shoved himself forward just as Malfoy had reached the gate, yanking it open for the two behind him to slip through, his face a mask of terror and anxiety.
And then Hermione was through, and she was standing in front of Ron, and she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen in the entire world. Bodies surged around them: Kingsley and Arthur reached forward together to grab Malfoy, and others absorbed the other boy (who was it?) into the crowd, but Ron could not get his arms around Hermione fast enough.
“Hermione… oh my God…” He couldn’t seem to stop his mouth from moving; her name on his lips was something he had denied himself for too long. Hot tears burned at the corner of his eyes, and when he finally pulled himself away enough to look at her face, he saw her cheeks were wet and shining. “I thought I would never see you again.”
“Ron,” she said timidly, and more tears spilled over her eyes. He wiped them away for her as carefully as possible, wanting to laugh and cry, all at once. Now that she was here, in front of him, physical and real – he almost believed that she wasn’t.
“Are you all right?” It was a stupid question; even as he looked at her, knowing she was alive, he could still see how bruised and battered she was. She was still holding her wrist gingerly, and a sour taste crept up his throat. Was that still hurt, all these weeks later? But she nodded her head vigorously, and she was so brave that Ron wrapped his arms around her again, pressing his face into the top of her hair. This was still his Hermione, his Hermione, and somehow they were going to make it through this.
Kingsley was talking in a loud voice now – from the tone of it, he was giving orders, though Ron wasn’t really listening to what these were. He appeared to be directing people into formation, though; the mass suddenly seemed a bit more organized that it had a few moments earlier. Ron looked down again at Hermione.
“Ron,” she said, and new tears joined the tracks of the old ones on her cheeks. “I – I have to tell you something.” His stomach seemed to suddenly plummet earthward; she seemed to be taking a moment to find the right words, but he didn’t want to press her. Hermione drew in a shaking breath and clamped her bottom lip hard between her teeth for a few seconds.
“It’s Charlie,” she said thickly, swiping futilely at her eyes. “I’m so, so sorry – I saw it, I couldn’t do anything –“ She didn’t seem able to say anything more, but then again, she didn’t need to. Ron had known as soon as she had said his brother’s name; perhaps he had known even before then. He felt like fire, and ice, something burning and freezing all at once – but said nothing.
There was no time to grieve now. Fred was dead; Charlie was dead. But Ron had to concentrate on now, on getting through this before anyone else had to give their lives for whatever cause the Order was working towards; at the moment, Ron had lost sight of it.
“Where are you going to be?” he asked at last. Hermione frowned up at him; these words clearly weren’t the first she had been expecting from him, after delivering her news.
“What do you mean?”
“You and Oliver. Where are we going to collect you after all this” – he jerked his head back at the dark castle; lights were flickering on in distant windows – “is over?”
Hermione frowned again, shaking her head briefly. “I’m fighting with you.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Ron protested at once. “You’re hurt, ‘Mione –“
“I’m all right,” she interrupted, frowning still, and despite the fact that the words coming out of her mouth didn’t necessarily make him happy, Ron was relieved to hear how stubborn she still was. Some things just don’t change. “Someone will have a wand for me,” Hermione continued. “I’ll be okay.”
“But –“ he tried to argue again, and she shook her head.
“I deserve this just as much as any of you,” she told him plaintively. And he knew she was right.
“Okay,” Ron said at long last, swallowing against a lump that had risen in his throat. “Okay, well – well, we’ll find you a wand.” His eyes traveled down to her wrist, clutched protectively against her abdomen, and that sour taste crept again into the back of his throat. “Mum?” he called, his voice cracking slightly on the word. Mrs. Weasley, standing only a few feet away, turned at the sound of her son’s voice.
“Ron?” And then her eyes found Hermione, who smiled weakly at her; the word brave reverberated again through Ron’s head. Mrs. Weasley bustled over, wrapping Hermione in her arms.
“Oh, my dear, I can’t tell you how relieved I am to see you’re all right,” she breathed. Hermione’s face crumpled for a moment, and she seemed to be internally debating over whether to tell Ron’s mum about Charlie. He interceded hastily; there would be plenty of time later for the announcement that she had lost another son.
“Mum,” he said quickly, “can you do something about Hermione’s wrist? It’s been hurt for ages.” Both women drew back and looked down at it, and the lines around Mrs. Weasley’s mouth deepened slightly. Wordlessly, she drew her wand from the pocket of her robes and gently laid the tip against the younger woman’s skin.
There was a slight pop, and a sharp gasp of pain from Hermione, and Ron fought the sudden, stupid urge to push his mother away from her. But then both women stepped back slightly, and Hermione was holding her wrist up, a look of slight awe on her face – she still did not seem used to the instantaneous fixes that magic could provide. She turned her eyes to Ron’s.
“Thanks,” she said, because there didn’t seem anything else to say, and he quirked half a smile in response. A few yards away, Bill called his mother’s name, and Mrs. Weasley hastened over to where he and Fleur were, leaving Ron and Hermione to themselves.
“You’re still fighting with us, then.” It wasn’t a question, and he didn’t pretend to be genuinely curious about the response, but she nodded anyway. He let out a long breath and stepped closer to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders (was she always that thin?).
“You can use my wand, Hermione.”
Both of them jumped simultaneously, turning in one movement; Luna stood behind them, smiling placidly, her wand folded beneath her clasped hands. She looked as immovable as she always did, and Ron was hit, not for the first time in his life, by a surge of affection for her. The mere fact that Luna was still Luna, even when the rest of the world had been turned inside-out, was unutterably comforting.
“Really?” Hermione’s voice was a mixture of relief and hesitance. “Oh, but I –“
“You need it more than I do,” Luna told her, beaming. “I think you’re more important to this than I am, anyway. And Ron needs you.”
Ron felt his ears redden, and for the first time in what felt like a long, long time, Hermione giggled; his insides soared at the sound.
“Thank you,” she told Luna gratefully, and held out her hand palm up; the thin wooden stick was tipped into it. She gave it an experimental tap; bright white sparks shot from its end, filtering down to the dark grass at their feet and fading as they lit upon the long blades.
“Feel all right?” Ron asked, a bit nervously – he didn’t know why he was nervous, but there it was, all the same. She nodded, not looking at him, but at the wand in her hand.
“Everyone,” Kingsley boomed; those who had been talking behind where Ron and Hermione and Luna stood fell quiet almost at once. Kingsley surveyed them all from the front of the crowd, his expression decidedly neutral. “It’s time.”
Molly was the first to pass through the gates, once Draco Malfoy had opened them again; she did not know why she had volunteered for the job before Kingsley, before Arthur, before Professor McGonagall or even Bill.
But then, on the other hand, it was natural, wasn’t it? She had lost so much in this war, and had risked even more. Percy had abandoned the family; Arthur had nearly been killed while standing watch outside the Department of Mysteries; Fred had been killed; Harry, as good as a son to her, dead not long after.
It was like penetrating a thick bubble, almost as soon as she had slipped between the iron bars, her wand held out in front of her at chest height. Before this, she had only been able the voices of friends and family and colleagues, all murmuring to each other in close quarters, ranged in front of the path to the castle. Now she could hear unseen noises of enemies: You-Know-Who’s forces clearly knew what was coming.
The grass under her feet still bore scars of the last fiery battle that had taken place there only a few weeks before. The thick tang of smoke and fire and burning still clung to the air, detectable only if one was looking for it. The Order of the Phoenix – what remained of it – was going in just as they had before, and they had lost. What was to stop them from losing this time?
Nothing. And that was why they were here.
She rounded a bend in the path, and the vista of Hogwarts was spread out before her, half-ruined still: Stone towers stood half-felled, chunks littering the once-green sweeping lawns; shattering windows, their diamond-jagged edges falling out of their frames, were dark gaps in the castle walls; and the great oak doors were thrown wide, dark figures streaming out of them and onto the lawn. Molly was hit with a sudden sense of inversion, that roles had been reversed. They were the invaders now.
Arthur came up behind her; she didn’t realize she had stopped walking. She felt her husband’s strong, sure hand come to rest on her shoulder. “You all right?” he said reassuringly; she nodded, not trusting herself to speak past the sudden lump in her throat, cursing her easy nature to cry at the slightest provocation.
“You know what to do!” Kingsley was shouting behind them, in his loud and authoritative voice, all confidence and sureness. “Make for the castle!” The dark figures at the top of the sloping lawn were beginning to filter down towards the intruders; Molly sucked in a deep breath, closed her eyes briefly, and laid her hand atop Arthur’s for a few bare seconds. She moved forward.
She got a glimpse of Bill moving forward determinedly – Bill, her firstborn – with Fleur close behind him, near-identical expressions of determination on their faces, and her heart contracted with fear. But she kept moving, because there was nothing else to do. The figures she could now clearly see as Death Eaters were drawing closer, and their intent could not have been clearer. Wasn’t it the same intent they, the Order of the Phoenix and their allies, had held the first time around? Protect. Defend. Kill.
There was a high pitched, obsessed scream of rage from somewhere, and Molly whipped her head around; Arthur was no longer behind her, and for a moment she had a wild, absurd thought that he had fallen in the course of the battle, brief as the actual fighting already was. But no, he was there, alongside George, casting a Shield Charm –
Molly whipped her head back around, and the source of the wrathful noise was clear at once. Bellatrix Lestrange had joined the fray; her mouth was twisted into a humorless, maniacal smile, and her eyes were bright with hatred.
“Look who it is,” Bellatrix spat, shoving a matted hank of twisted black hair out of her eyes. She flicked her wand upward, and Molly raised hers in turn, an automatic gesture. “Back again to fight for your sons? Haven’t you lost enough of them?”
There was a crack; something indigo and whip-like barreled from the end of Molly’s wand. Bellatrix deflected it easily. “What are you talking about?” she hissed in a dangerous whisper.
But she knew. There was little in the world more powerful than a mother’s instincts.
Bellatrix cackled; her instantaneous grief must have been evident on her face. “Poor, dear little Molly Weasley,” she said in sing-song. “Her entire family, ripped away… piece – by – piece.” She punctuated the last three words with short jabs of her wand; small balls of spinning fire hurled toward the older woman. She dodged them, panting.
Charlie. “You – will – never – touch – our – children – again!” she snarled, before she could properly think through the words. Fred was gone, and Charlie was gone, but there were still so many left to fight for. And Molly Weasley wasn’t done fighting yet.
Bellatrix laughed, and raised her wand again. Molly saw her opportunity. She struck with the same indigo whip of light, and it caught Bellatrix right in the middle of her stomach. She froze, a look of pain crossing her face, the first genuine emotion Molly had ever seen out of the madwoman.
Bellatrix crumbled to the ground, broken and still, and did not move again.
The sound of pounding footsteps, following by an equal pounding of fists on the door, sounded outside the headmaster’s office. Voldemort dropped the scrap of fabric he was holding quickly, as though it had burned him; it was spotted with stains, ranging from fresh crimson to a deep, dry brown. He swept it to the side carelessly.
The door flew open, smacking the stone wall behind it, and Amycus Carrow burst through it. His eyes were wide and popping. “My Lord,” he said, stumbling over his words, as though there were too many for his mouth to fit. “They’ve come. They’re here.”
He didn’t have to ask whom Carrow meant; he knew exactly who could have made that amount of fear creep into a voice. But the fear did not carry over into him.
“And?” Voldemort said lazily, tracing idle patterns on Dumbledore’s desk with his fingertips, as though untroubled – as though he had no problems, and certainly not problems emanating from those exact fingertips.
“And I just – well, I thought –“
“Take care of them,” Voldemort commanded softly. Carrow said nothing more, but did a sort of stumbling bow, tripping out of the room just as hastily as he had rushed in. Voldemort continued to run his fingers over the desk, however, after he had gone. When he was sure the coast was clear, he leaned over and took the fabric into his hands again.
It had not gotten better, the bleeding; if anything it had become worse each day. Did his Death Eaters think he wasn’t aware of what they said about him behind his back? That he was old, or that he was weak? They were all fools. They would be punished for their disloyalty, surely, but now, there were more important things to think about…
So the Order of the Phoenix had gotten into the gates of Hogwarts. Well, that wasn’t much of a surprise; it was only a matter of time. Admittedly, they had worked quickly, far more quickly than he had anticipated…
But they could not kill him. They could not kill him. It had to be Potter; that was what Albus had said. He, Voldemort, had killed Potter, he had won… He was master of death. He had the Elder Wand. He could not be destroyed.
Trying to ignore the pain in his fingers (more blood, always more blood), he rose from behind the desk, drawing that very wand from an inner pocket of his robes. They would see. He would destroy them now as he had not managed to decimate their numbers in the first battle. And then no one would ever try and cross him again.
Smiling slightly to himself, Voldemort crossed to the door, and began to descend the spiral staircase.
A/N: Cliffhangers! I'm excited beyond belief right now -- it's quite sad. But this is it, guys! Two more chapters after this one, and very soon, I'll be able to mark this story as completed! I should make a mention, too, of what's happening: Given that the queue is going to be closed to trusted authors this Christmas, as well as regular members, you won't see another chapter of this story until 2013. I debated updating again next week, but I didn't want to have to wait the entire break for only one chapter. And, as another bit of housekeeping, the line "You will never touch our children again!" is taken from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling; I do not claim ownership for it.
So! All your thoughts and comments are completely welcome, as they always are. I'm very much looking forward to what everyone thinks of this chapter in particular! Thank you so much for helping me hit 200 reviews (and beyond), everyone!