Chapter 29 : The Things We Do For Love
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“Please, Ginevra. Tell me that you vill be my vife,” he asked her, almost pleadingly.
Still stunned, Ginny searched desperately for an answer. She knew that she had grown to care very much about Viktor. He mattered to her, he really did. But marriage? It had never even crossed her mind, not even for a moment. In that split second, she understood that the affection she felt for him was no more than that, and it never would be. Suddenly, unbidden and unexpected, she thought of Harry, and the strength of her love for him. She could not, would not, settle for anything less. Compared to that bright, elemental thing, her feelings for Viktor were pale and utterly insignificant. I knew this wasn’t right for me. Deep down, I always knew. I should have trusted myself.
She felt so foolish that she hadn’t seen this coming, hadn’t prepared herself. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it seemed so incredibly obvious what Viktor had been planning; the romantic weekend away, the way that his mood alternated between excitement and nervousness, his determination to take her to this beautiful, private place. And yet, the thought had never even entered her head. It led her to another realisation; during the whole of her relationship with Viktor, not once had she ever imagined herself as Mrs Krum.
Again, the comparison with Harry was stark. A long cherished image flashed through Ginny’s mind, one in which she stood in a beautiful dress, surrounded by everyone she cared about, becoming Mrs Potter. Even now, the thought made her heart beat faster. How can I possibly marry someone who doesn’t make me feel that way? And how can I possibly explain all this to Viktor?
She knew she had to find a way, regardless of how difficult it was. His expression was frozen, almost waxy, caught between hope and despair. Every moment that she remained silent must be torture for him, an unspoken clue that her answer would not be the one that he hoped for. Digging deep inside, she searched desperately for the strength and the words to be gentle with him.
Slowly, quietly, she dropped to her knees with him, and put her hand over the little velvet box, snapping the lid shut.
“Viktor. It’s so beautiful here. And the ring? It’s breathtaking. But I’m so sorry. I can’t be your wife. I can’t marry you.” She spoke calmly and quietly, never flinching from his gaze.
“But Ginevra, I…” Viktor tried to interrupt, but she wouldn’t let him.
“I’m so sorry, Viktor. It’s an honour that you want that from me. I wish I felt the same way about you. I truly do. I wish I could make you happy. But I know what being in love, really being in love, feels like. I know what it is to love someone so fiercely that you feel you might burn up from the force of it. I’ve felt that, I need that, and I don’t feel it for you. If that’s the way that you feel about me, then please believe me when I tell you that I know how much this must hurt.”
“But maybe in time...”
“No, Viktor. Time isn’t the problem. I can’t ever give you what you really want from me. I can’t love you like I... Like I know I would need to love you to make this work. And eventually, it would tear us apart.”
Viktor bent his head and looked down at the floor, not speaking, not meeting her eyes. Ginny watched as his shoulders moved up and down in time with his deep, ragged breathing. When he finally looked up again, his face was a mask of calm. “You vill not reconsider?” he asked her quietly.
Slowly, Viktor climbed to his feet. “I understand. You must do votever you think is best. But Ginevra, please know this. I do, and alvays vill, hold you in the highest regard.”
They stood there together for what felt like an eternity, but it could only have been a few minutes. Then, they made their way slowly, silently, back to civilisation. Ginny willed the journey to end as quickly as possible. She couldn’t ever remember feeling so guilty and so awkward. And yet she was absolutely certain of two things. The first was that when she turned Viktor down, she had done absolutely the right thing. The second was that she was more confused than ever about her feelings for Harry.
Ron sat with his back to the wall of the parlour in Skirtgill cottage, his wrists and ankles tightly bound with conjured cord. Next to him, Susan was similarly restrained. Lestrange had released her from the Imperius curse, and Ron thought she looked a bit pale, but she was otherwise unharmed and appeared defiant and determined.
He cast a glance at his captors, who were still debating what to do with their hostages. The three Death Eaters were gathered around the rickety table at the other side of the room, picking at a meal provided by a very skinny House Elf that was clearly terrified of them. It visibly cringed whenever one of the wizards moved too suddenly, and Ron knew that Hermione’s blood would have boiled at the sight, but for the time being at least, he had bigger problems than Elvish welfare.
Based on what Ron had heard of the three Death Eaters’ conversation up to this point, they weren’t aware that the cottage had been under constant observation. Morden Rosier, who came across as the most nervous of the three, thought the presence of the two Aurors in the vicinity was much too suspicious, suspecting a trap. Lestrange, however, was simply jubilant at taking such high profile captives, and was determined to dismiss his cohort’s concerns. Jonathan Selwyn said very little, just gazed intently at Ron and Susan.
“I don’t like it, Rabastan,” said Rosier. “I don’t like it at all. You can’t explain why the Bones witch was here any more than I can.”
“The Aurors are a bunch of blundering fools, Morden,” replied Lestrange, dismissively. “They’ve sniffed around some of our other boltholes in the past, but never found us. This is no different. It was simply our good fortune that this time, such a golden opportunity presented itself.”
“I still think we should have just walked away! It’s simply too...”
“But don’t you see, Morden?” exclaimed Lestrange, interrupting. “This is exactly what we’ve been waiting for! We had to do something, of course we did. The witch mentioned Potter in her message. Just imagine if we could take him too! How could we possibly slink away into the shadows again with such a prize so close at hand?”
Rosier grimaced. “It won’t be that easy, and you know it, Rabastan. Potter won’t just wander in here like a lamb to the slaughter!”
“The Weasley brat did,” pointed out Lestrange.
Ouch! thought Ron. Still, judging by the state Harry had been in last time Ron had seen him, there really wasn’t any risk that his friend would wander into Lestrange’s trap anytime soon. Like I did. What an idiot.
Rosier was still unconvinced. “But maybe she didn’t even mean Potter in her message? Maybe she was talking about someone else? This is too dangerous, Rabastan! We should get out of here now, while we still can.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Of course she meant Potter! Why else would this blood traitor have turned up in his stead? Typical Potter, still hiding behind his friends,” sneered Lestrange.
While the argument raged, Susan shifted slightly next to Ron, as though she was struggling to find a comfortable position. Ron could sympathise with that - the ropes were tight, and the floor was hard. He took hold of Susan’s hands and tried his best to rub some circulation back into them, despite the ropes holding his own wrists together.
“Are you okay?” he muttered, as quietly as he could.
She nodded, then whispered in reply. “I’m so sorry, Ron. I never saw them coming."
“I didn't want to risk giving away the observation post by sending a Patronus from there, so I went to the other side of the clearing to do it. They jumped me on my way back. I can’t remember anything else after that.”
“Don’t worry, it wasn’t your fault,” Ron consoled her. “It was just bad luck that they turned up tonight while you were outside. You shouldn’t have been there alone in the first place.”
They were both quiet again for a few minutes, before Susan voiced the question that had been bobbing about in Ron’s mind ever since he entered the cottage. “How the hell are we going to get out of this, Ron?” she asked, plaintively.
“Look, all we have to do is sit tight until the next shift arrives. It’s going to be fine,” he replied, with as much confidence as he could muster. He mentally crossed his fingers that Lestrange’s optimism held for at least that long.
“Be quiet!” snapped Lestrange, as their conversation finally drew his attention. “Don’t give me an excuse to let my friend Jonathan loose on you. I’m sure he would relish the chance to silence you permanently.” He indicated Selwyn, who grinned widely.
“It would be my pleasure, Rabastan,” said Selwyn, leering at them menacingly. His voice was strangely high-pitched and squeaky. It was totally at odds with his hulking appearance, and Ron thought it sounded like he was being threatened by his a bad tempered mouse. “A pair of Shacklebolt’s lackeys, and blood traitors to boot? They don’t deserve to live!”
Rosier nodded his head and banged his fist against the table in frustration. “Jonathan’s right, Rabastan! We should just kill them now! It’s too much of a risk to hold them here. It can’t just be coincidence that the Bones witch was here! Who knows how long the cursed Aurors have been watching this place?”
Ron cringed at how close Rosier was to the truth, but once again Lestrange dismissed his concerns. “There’s no evidence that anyone has been here since we last enjoyed my Aunt’s hospitality. Your caution has served us well over the years, Morden, but we can’t run forever. This is far too big an opportunity to ignore.”
“But Potter will either turn up or not, it doesn’t matter if these two are still breathing! And just think! Two Aurors, including the famous Ron Weasley, dead by our hands! Our fightback can begin here!” His eyes glittered with malice.
Fightback? wondered Ron. What on earth are they talking about?
Lestrange too was beginning to lose patience. “They can’t talk to us if they’re dead, you idiot! Think of the information we can get from them! These two know all the secrets of the Auror Office, and that den of blood filth, the Order of the Phoenix. While we have them, we have the means to strike at the heart of our most stubborn enemies!” He stood up and began to pace up and down the room, gesticulating wildly as he warmed to his theme. “This is it, gentlemen! The opportunity we’ve been waiting for! All those months in hiding, living like rats in the gutter! We can destroy Potter, and his friends, and show the world that the Dark Lord’s legacy lives on! You know there are countless others out there that think as we do! They will flock to our cause when they discover what we have done!”
Ron’s mind was spinning. Did these three fools really think they could resurrect the Death Eaters? They had been on the run, cut off from the magical community ever since the Battle of Hogwarts. Three years in the wilderness must have totally severed their collective grasp on reality. But that doesn’t make them any less dangerous, does it? The sooner me and Susan can get out of here, the better!
Just then, a bolt of silvery blue light flew into the room. The three Death Eaters all jumped and Rosier fired off several panicked hexes before the light took on a recognisable form. As soon as it did so, Ron’s heart sank; it was Hermione’s patronus. The translucent otter danced in circles around his immobile ankles before standing up on its hind legs in front of him to deliver its message.
“Ron, I’m really worried. Where are you? It’s been hours since you left, and Harry hasn’t come home either! Should I go to Gawain for help? Please - can you send me some sort of message? Let me know that you’re okay.”
Hermione’s words sparked panic in the three Death Eaters. “I know that voice! It’s Granger, the mud-blood!” said Rosier, eyes wide.
“Gawain? Did she mean Gawain Robards? The Head Auror?” squeaked Selwyn.
“Brilliant! That’s all we need, the Granger witch bringing the entire Auror Corps down on our heads. You! Weasley! Reply and tell her you’re fine!” Rosier made as though he was about to pick up Ron’s wand from where it lay next to Susan’s, on top of a chest of drawers below the window, but Lestrange immediately grabbed Rosier’s wrist in an iron grip.
“What, give him back his wand? Are you mad?” He took a deep breath, and the other two wizards turned to look at him expectantly. Ron could see that, for all Rosier’s arguments and Selwyn’s blood lust, Lestrange was still very much in control. “Calm down, both of you! Don’t you see that this is perfect! We can use this to our advantage! If we can take both of Potter’s little cronies, we’re sure to be able to draw him out.”
Ron felt sick. They were going after Hermione too?
“But how do we get her here?” asked Selwyn.
Lestrange’s mouth twisted into a broad smile. “We send her a message of our own, of course. Now, where’s that half-witted house elf hiding? I have a job for it.”
Hermione paced up and down in the drawing room, worrying about her boyfriend and her best friend. First, she learned that Harry hadn’t turned up for work. Then Ron dashed off to find him and never came home, without any sort of message to let her know what was happening. Harry seemed to go missing with alarming regularity these days, but with Ron going AWOL too, she couldn’t help imagining any number of terrible things that might have happened to them. Every fibre of her being longed to do something, take action, race to the rescue - but without the slightest clue where they could be, she had no idea where to start.
If only I knew where that damn cottage is! she thought fiercely. But both Ron and Harry had been careful not to mention its location. It could be bloody anywhere!
Now that she knew the Auror’s target was Rabastan Lestrange, she reasoned that the cottage probably belonged to someone in the Lestrange family, but now, in the middle of the night, she had no means to research who that might be. For the first time, she regretted the wholesale destruction of the tapestry that had once lined the walls of the room where she now stood. The thing had read like a lexicon of dark wizardry and pureblood mania, and it had certainly featured the Lestrange family in several places. It might have offered her some clue now. But it was long gone, and all she had at her disposal now were the reference books in the small library on the ground floor. Perhaps there was a hint in one of those? It was a long shot, but she couldn’t bear to spend any longer just doing nothing.
As she reached the hallway outside the library, there was a loud clattering sound from downstairs, followed by a series of shouts, yelps, and what sounded like several pieces of furniture being overturned. What was wrong? Had her missing friends returned? Drawing her wand, she hurried on down the stairs and followed the noise into the kitchen.
“Ron? Harry? Is that you? What’s happening?” she called, as she entered. “Lumos!”
As the lights came on, there was no familiar mop of red hair anywhere in sight. The source of the noise was all too apparent, though. Kreacher was rolling around on the floor, grappling with another, unfamiliar house elf. They lurched left and right, amongst upturned chairs and a variety of kitchen paraphernalia that had been knocked from the table and counters.
Hermione’s eyes widened at the sight. “Stop it!” she shouted.
Both elves froze, and then Kreacher took advantage of the pause to haul the other elf to its feet. It was considerably smaller than Kreacher, and appeared to be much younger. Although it was difficult to tell, Hermione thought it was probably a girl, judging by the way the tattered piece of curtain that she wore was draped around her scrawny frame.
“Kreacher, what on earth is going on?” asked Hermione, bewildered.
“Kreacher caught this elf creeping in through the kitchen window! Kreacher knew at once that she was up to no good!” Kreacher shook the other elf by the shoulder. “What does you want?” he demanded. “What is you doing in Master Harry’s house? Who is sending you here?”
The other elf trembled and her eyes filled with tears. Hermione thought she looked terrified. “Do not hurt Goodly! Please! Goodly means no harm!”
“Let her go, Kreacher. I don’t think she’s going to hurt anyone,” said Hermione. Then she turned her attention back to the intruder. “What brings you here in the middle of the night, Goodly?”
“Goodly was sent by her master to find Hermione Granger. Is you Hermione Granger?”
“Yes, I’m Hermione. It’s nice to meet you, Goodly.”
The little elf looked at Hermione shyly. “Goodly is very pleased to meet Hermione Granger. Goodly has heard that Hermione Granger is a friend to house elves.”
“I certainly hope so!” Hermione smiled. “How can I help you, Goodly?”
“Goodly has a message.” She rooted around in the filthy folds of fabric that were draped around her tiny body, eventually fishing out a small scroll of parchment. As soon as Hermione’s fingers touched the scroll, the elf began to turn as if to disapparate, but Kreacher was far too quick for her, and held her firm.
Hermione opened the scroll and quickly read the message. Though she hadn’t imagined that a missive delivered in such a manner, in the middle of the night, could possibly be good news, what she read left her breathless.
If you wish to see Ronald Weasley alive again, you will bring the sum of one thousand galleons to Skirtgill Cottage, near the village of Shap, in Cumbria, before dawn tomorrow. Come alone. Do not discuss this matter with the Aurors. Comply with these instructions to the letter, or Weasley will die a rapid, but exceptionally painful death.
Hermione’s throat seemed to contract and her chest suddenly felt far too small to hold her lungs. Lestrange has got him! Terror threatened to overwhelm her, and she fought to remain calm, at least on the outside. For all the elegant words and not-so-veiled threats, she saw the note for exactly what it was - it might as well have read simply ‘THIS IS A TRAP!’ - but knowing that didn’t really change anything. With Harry off doing Merlin knew what with Merlin knew who, it was down to her to do whatever she had to to save Ron, and that started with getting as much information as she possibly could. If Goodly was Lestrange’s elf, she might know something that could save Ron’s life - if only she could persuade the elf to trust her.
But Goodly was struggling and wriggling against Kreacher’s grasp, insisting that he let her go. “Goodly must return now! Goodly was instructed! Please! Goodly must obey!
Aware that her voice was unsteady and her hands were shaking, Hermione turned to Goodly and knelt down, so that her face was level with the little elf’s. Taking in just how scrawny Goodly was, Hermione decided to try a little bribery.
“Thank you for the message Goodly. Do you have to hurry away?” she asked. “Perhaps you would like something to eat? I think we have some bread and jam.”
Goodly nodded cautiously. “Goodly is very hungry. Perhaps Goodly could have just one piece. Then Goodly can go home?” Her her dark eyes still held the dull sheen of fear, but Hermione could see temptation there too.
Hermione knew that “Kreacher, you can let Goodly go. I’ll slice some bread for all of us, if you can fetch the jam, please?”
Kreacher released his grip on Goodly, who rubbed at her wrist but didn’t attempt to leave. “Yes, Miss Hermione. Kreacher will attend to it,” he croaked, never taking his eyes off the other elf.
Once Hermione had filled a plate with bread and jam, she placed it on the table, and signalled for both elves to take chairs with her. Kreacher muttered darkly under his breath, but did as she asked. Goodly shyly followed suit, her nose barely rising above the level of the table. She regarded the plate with longing in her eyes, and when Hermione pushed the it towards her, she was unable to resist, snatching up a slice of bread and rapidly devouring it.
“Do you get much to eat at home, Goodly?” Hermione asked softly.
Goodly shook her head, spraying the table with crumbs “Food is for master and his friends. Scraps is for Goodly. But Goodly likes bread,” she explained, her voice muffled as she chewed.
I bet they practically starve her! thought Hermione, feeling her temper rise. Instead, she simply said, “I thought we could have a little chat while you eat, Goodly.”
Goodly looked up at Hermione apprehensively. “Goodly can talk. Then Goodly can go?”
“Yes, of course! You’re not a prisoner here. You can leave whenever you want to. I hope you can help me before you do, that’s all.”
“Hermione Granger gave Goodly food to eat. Goodly will help, if she can.”
Hermione took a deep breath. “Your master is Rabastan Lestrange, isn’t he?” she asked.
The fear immediately returned to Goodly’s eyes. She looked wildly around the room, as though searching for an escape route. “Goodly cannot disobey her master! Master will punish Goodly horribly if Goodly disobeys!” She slipped off her chair.
Oh no! thought Hermione, I can’t lose her! She’s might be the only thing I have to help me save Ron! Hating herself for doing it, Hermione darted around the table and grabbed hold of the elf’s wrist. It felt as thin and brittle as an autumn twig in her grasp. “I know that Goodly!” she said, working hard to keep the panic out of her voice. “You’ve delivered the message, exactly as you were asked to, haven’t you?”
“Goodly is a good elf!” Goodly’s tiny chest puffed out a little as she spoke, and her chin took on a slightly defiant tilt.
“Yes, a very good elf! And I don’t want you to disobey your master, Goodly. Did he instruct you not to talk to me?”
“No.” Goodly stretched the word out, almost feeling her way through it, considering the implications.
Hermione nodded, but she had been almost certain of that answer. A wizard of Rabastan Lestrange’s heritage would barely consider his house elf to be sentient, let alone capable of passing on information. He wouldn’t have wasted his breath on such an instruction. She relaxed a little, sure that she was on safe ground. “And did he tell you not to answer my questions?”
“No.” Goodly was visibly calmer now. Her expressions was reflective.
“Then there isn’t any reason why you shouldn’t help me, is there?”
“No.” Goodly took a few moments to consider, then a shy smile spread across her face. “Hermione Granger is right. Goodly can help. What would Hermione Granger like to know?”
Hermione returned the smile, and then sat down cross legged on the floor. “That’s great, Goodly. Please can you tell me everything you know about your master, and the cottage where he is?”
Twenty minutes later, her lower half still numb from sitting on the flagstones of the kitchen floor, Hermione strode purposefully from the kitchen. She collected her bag and cloak from the stand in the hallway, opened the front door of number 12 Grimmauld Place, and disapparated smartly on the top step.
Ron leaned back against the wall of the parlour and banged his head against the wall in frustration. He’d been struggling against the ropes around his wrists and ankles for the past hour, and all he had succeeded in doing was making the skin raw and angry. But he had to get free! He had to do something! He’d been so stupid to blunder into the cottage, and now he had put Hermione in danger. Every moment he wasted just sitting here was another moment closer to her walking through that door and maybe into a hail of curse fire.
“Try and keep calm, Ron,” muttered Susan. “Getting angry won’t help.
“I have to get out of here!” he hissed in reply. “I can’t let Hermione walk into a trap.”
“She won’t do that, Ron,” Susan reassured him. “Hermione’s far too clever! You know her, she’ll smell a rat as soon as she gets that message.”
Deep down, Ron knew that Susan was right. But there was no way he was going to take that risk. The engagement ring that he had bought for Hermione still lay in his pocket, and he was damned if he wasn’t going to get out of here and put it on her finger. His mind raced as he considered any course of action that could get him out of his predicament and ensure his girlfriend’s safety.
Then, there was a loud crack from outside, and moments later, a voice boomed through the cottage, unnaturally loud and made somehow eerie by an amplification spell. Every vein in Ron’s body seemed to freeze as he recognised Hermione’s voice despite the distortion.
“Rabastan Lestrange? I’m Hermione Granger. I’m outside with your money. Come out and join me and we’ll discuss terms for releasing your hostage.”
“NO!” Ron couldn’t stop himself shouting out. She was here! She really was going to walk into the middle of all this! Ron knew he had to do something, stop her. If only he could somehow slip out of the ropes and get his hands on his wand! The ropes were so tight around his wrists, there was no way to pull his hands free - the welts from his earlier struggle were a testament to that. If only he was smaller, he thought desperately, he could just slip away.
Of course! That’s it! Suddenly, Ron realised that he could be smaller, in an instant. Silently, he began to repeat the wandless, non-verbal incantation in his head.
Animalis Permutia. Animalis Permutia.
Immediately, he felt his limbs begin to shrink and his teeth sharpen as he took on his animagus form. The bonds that held him dropped loose, and within seconds, he scampered away from them as a small ginger and white terrier.
The reaction was swift and violent. “Where the hell did that dog come from?” shouted Lestrange.
Rosier was the first to work out what had happened. “It’s Weasley! He’s an animagus!”
“I want him alive!”
The parlour of the cottage lit up with a barrage of curse fire. Ron had to dodge through a hail of unfriendly spells, but he made it to the chest of drawers and scooped up both Susan’s wand and his own in his jaw. As he jumped from the table, he silently began to recite the counter-charm to return to his human form.
Homenum Permutia. Homenum Permutia.
By the time he hit the ground, he was back to being a human again, rolling away from the continued curse fire. As he regained his feet, he held his own wand in his right hand, and Susan’s in his left. The first thing he did was to cast the most powerful shield charm he could muster, but the weight of curses against it was immense. Lestrange, Rosier and Selwyn might be hopelessly disconnected from reality, but they had an arsenal of dark spells at their disposal weren’t lacking in either the skill and conviction to use them. He came to the horrible realisation that he was completely outgunned.
I really didn’t think this through well enough!
Automatically, he raised Susan’s wand too, and began to parry whatever spells he could. Susan’s wand felt awkward and unfamiliar but definitely friendly, like it wanted to help him, but wasn’t sure exactly how.
“Give me my wand, Ron!” shouted Susan.
But Ron simply didn’t dare break his concentration for long enough to let go of Susan’s wand. “Can’t! Get behind me!” he gasped. He had no idea how long he could hold out, but he had an awful feeling it wouldn’t be very long. He was going to die here, and then Hermione would be a sitting duck for the three dark wizards. But what else could he do?
As he parried another volley of curses from Rosier, a germ of an idea took seed in his mind. It was the sort of totally mad plan that he’d been encouraged to try by Professor Peabody, as he and Harry ranged through the grounds back at Hogwarts. But did he have the nerve to try it now, in the heat of battle? And could he really rely on Susan’s wand? It certainly felt friendly enough, but it was such a risk.
Then, echoing through his bones over the noise of the firefight, came Hermione’s amplified voice once more, horribly shrill with rising panic. “Ron! What’s happening in there? I’m coming in!”
The idea of his girlfriend walking into the cottage pushed all other conscious thoughts aside. He stopped thinking of anything at all apart from protecting her, and acted on instinct alone.
“Hermione! STAY OUT!” he yelled.
Then, he dropped the shield, and rapidly arced both wands out in a circle*, crossing them over above his head, before pushing them down towards the ground. He could feel the magic from the two wands crackling as they competed with one another, and he forced the power to channel out and down.
A column of red light formed around him and he whipped his arms wide once more, pushing the column outwards. It raced away from him across the floor, buckling the floorboards as it went. It caught all three Death Eaters in the face, sweeping them away along with every meagre piece of furniture in the room. Finally, it hurled everything against the walls, dark wizards, rugs, chairs and tables alike. As the spell hit the wall, there was a loud bang, like a crack of thunder. Every window in the parlour shattered. Then it was gone.
For a moment, the only sound in the cottage was Ron’s own breathing, hard and ragged. The only light came glow of moonlight on the floor. All three dark wizards lay still at the far end of the parlour. The room was a mess of broken furniture and glass and Ron stood in the middle of the chaos, stunned that it had actually worked. Then, a shard of glass from one of the windows dropped to the floor with a loud crash, and the noise snapped Ron back into the present. He spun around to check on Susan. She was curled up against the wall behind him in a foetal position, not moving. Ron hurried to her side, then pressed his fingers into her neck and sighed with relief when he found a strong pulse.
Then, suddenly, the cottage was in chaos once more. People streamed in through the ruined door, there were bright lights everywhere, a succession of loud pops as more people apparated in the parlour, and the heavy thump of boots on the stairs. Then came the voices, shouting and hollering, all familiar, and all welcome.
“Ron? Are you okay?” asked Hestia, appearing at his shoulder.
“What happened in in here? It looks like someone drove a heard of dragons through this place!” said Jeremy, hands on hips, surveying the carnage.
“Did you take down all three of them Ron? On your own?” asked Gawain, kneeling next to the prone form of Rabastan Lestrange.
Ron looked around the room. With the exception of Harry, every single Auror from the London office was there, along with several others that Ron recognised from field offices across the country. Someone, it seemed had called in the cavalry.
“Sweet heavens above, Ron! What the hell was that?” murmured Susan, still lying on the floor at his feet, but now gazing up at him in awe.
“Modified stunning spell,” Ron mumbled.
“I’ve never heard of that!”
“No, because I just made it up.”
“Wait a minute,” said Jeremy, in disbelief. “The spell that we all just saw rip this place apart? You made it up? On the spot?”
"Um. Yeah. I did.”
“This is impressive Ron,” Gawain told him. “Very impressive indeed. You appear to have captured three wanted Death Eaters, all exceptionally dangerous dark wizards, single handed.”
“Oh. Well. I mean, I just did what I needed to do. That’s all. Nothing special.”
“Nothing special? I think I’d be tempted to recommend you for an Order of Merlin, if you didn’t have one already.” Then Gawain frowned, and looked around the room. “Although there is one thing that puzzles me. Why is it that I’m having this conversation with you, and not Harry? I thought he was meant to be on shift here tonight.”
Ron’s mind went blank. Shit. What am I going to tell him about Harry? “Ah. Well. You see, it’s like this...” He fumbled desperately for something to say that wouldn’t completely torpedo Harry’s career, and was saved by another voice, the most welcome one of them all.
“Ron! Ron! Are you okay?” Hermione barrelled in through the front door and threw herself into his arms. “I was so worried about you!”
“Miss Granger, what are you doing in here?” said Gawain sternly. “Our express agreement was that you were to wait outside until the operation was completed!”
Hermione stepped away from Ron and looked intently at Gawain, but still held tightly onto Ron’s hand. “Yes, I know! I’m sorry! But I saw that awful spell, and you all came running in and no-one came out, and I was just so worried!”
“Hang on - you went to Gawain?” asked Ron.
“Yes, of course. You didn’t think I was just going to blunder straight in here without any back-up like some sort of rank amateur did you?” replied Hermione, incredulously. “I knew Lestrange had you at the cottage, and that he had some friends with him, but I didn’t know where. Gawain seemed like the obvious person to talk to. And I certainly wasn’t going to sit at home, waiting for them to carry you home, wringing my hands like the useless heroine in one of those dreadful romance novels your mother reads!”
She shot Gawain a pointed look, but Ron didn’t notice, just gazed at her, feeling the relief flood through him. She was here, and she was safe. Almost without thinking, he reached into his pocket with his free hand and pulled out the little velvet box. It wasn’t exactly how he had expected to propose to her, in the wreckage of the cottage and surrounded by almost all his co-workers but he was damned if he was going to wait another second.
“Hermione? There’s something I need to ask you.” He tugged on her hands, and she turned back to face him. As soon as their eyes met, he dropped down onto one knee. There were tiny fragments of broken glass all over the floor, and he felt them crunch and grind beneath him, but he didn’t care. Hermione just stared at him in confusion as he held out the box and opened it. “I’ve been trying to find a way to say this to you for days. Please - will you marry me?”
And the cottage fell silent again. Every eye was on Ron and Hermione. No one even dared to breathe. Hermione gasped and her eyes widened with shock. Her hands flew to her face, covering her mouth. Then, slowly, she let them drop away.
“Yes,” she breathed. “Yes. Of course I’ll marry you.”
The room erupted in cheers and congratulations, but for a long moment, neither Ron nor Hermione moved. Slowly, Ron took the ring out of the box and slipped it reverentially onto her finger. Then, he jumped to his feet and he folded her into his arms, kissing her long and hard. He knew that everyone was watching, but frankly, he couldn’t have cared less. All he knew was that today, in this most unexpected of places, he was the happiest man alive.
A/N - Oh dear. Really long delay, huh? Did anyone think I’d given up? Don’t worry, I promise I won’t - I just don’t have as much time to write at the moment. But stick with me, we’ll get there in the end!
I hope you enjoyed Ron’s proposal - and congratulations to those of you that correctly guessed what Ginny’s answer would be. To be honest, it was never really in any doubt, was it?
Thanks as ever go to CambAngst, my patient and truly inspiring beta reader. Which reminds me:
*This spell is inspired by one that Ron uses in Calculated Risks, which is Chapter 27 of his novel Harry Potter and the Conspiracy of Blood. If you haven’t read it - why on earth not? You should definitely check out his awesome novel, Detox, a treat for any Draco Malfoy fans out there.
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