Chapter 1: in which a decision is made
"Ginny is dead."
She said it without emotion, without a hint of pain, and that was the way he took it. There were no tears, no shock on his face. The last time Hermione Granger had seen Ron Weasley cry was ten years ago, and she didn't expect to see such a reaction now, even at the sound of the terrible news she brought.
But something did change in Ron's face. It was subtle, almost unnoticeable. No one else would probably see it, she knew, only her, and only because by now she knew every line in his face, every scar, every freckle. Something had hardened in him at the news of the death of his sister, just like it had when his brothers died, and she could see it in him, reflecting back at her. Ginny was gone, his eyes said just for a second. Just like Fred, and Charlie, and Percy. And just like with Fred and Charlie, Ron couldn't even mourn her properly.
"How are my parents?" were his first words as he asked in a quiet, calm voice.
Hermione shook her head. This, she couldn't tell him. He had a right to know that his sister was no longer alive, but he was better off not knowing the way her death had affected the surviving members of his family.
He got up, pacing up and down the room. "We need some food," he said abruptly. He needed to get out of there, he was actually saying, but he didn't need to say it out loud. Hermione already knew. She felt the same, she wanted to say, but it was not the time to be irresponsible.
"Neville still hasn't managed to get any Boomslang skin," she reminded Ron. "We don't have any Polyjuice Potion left."
"I'll take the cloak then. We can't starve here, can we?"
Hermione looked outside the window. "It's dangerous out there," she said quietly. It was dangerous out there. It's been dangerous for a long, long time.
Outside, the skies were grey and cloudy, even now, at the end of July. There were no more summers out there, ever. Instead of the leisurely shopping of mid-summer, the way she remembered from her childhood, the few people outside were rushing from one place to the next, spending the smallest amount of time possible in the street, doing their necessary shopping in a hurry, their faces covered lest they be recognised by the wrong person.
Everything was darker now - both the people and the streets. The summer was colder, and autumn always came just a little bit earlier. Winter seemed harsher. These days, every Christmas was a white Christmas, but no one felt any happier over it. The Muggles called it 'global warming'. Climate changes all over the world were bringing colder winds, taking away warm streams from the ocean. It was, perhaps, one way to explain it. Maybe it was even true - Hermione wouldn't know. But like any other witch and wizard, she knew better. The changes were man-made, that much was true, but not in the way Muggle scientists argued over on telly.
Television! It had been eleven years since Hermione had seen a television set. Eleven long years since she had been to her childhood's home, since she had seen her parents. That house no longer existed, she knew, and if her parents were still alive, they had no idea it ever did.
But they might be dead. Her magic might not have protected them. She had no way of knowing. The wizard media had stopped reporting the deaths of Muggles a long time ago.
Was there ever a time when it was reported? There must have been, because Hermione could remember reading about the murders of Muggles by the Dark Lord's supporters before he had taken over. When it was still considered a crime, not a sport. But now, it seemed like a dream. The possibility that Muggles could be interesting enough for the wizarding community. The idea that it was once a crime. The fantasy that the Dark Lord had not always controlled their lives. Everything that happened before the war was over, before the bad guys won.
A bad dream, Ron once called those days. She looked at him then, surprised, confused, betrayed. Those were better times, she said harshly. Yeah, he agreed, they were better. But now, all this means is that we know what we could have had, we know what we lost.
She couldn't really argue with that.
That was Ron these days. His smiles and laughter and good mood were like the summer - becoming rarer and rarer. Sometimes she could still remember how he used to be before. She still remembered how he used to get stressed over Quidditch, look up to Fred and George, or complain about homework. He didn't complain these days at all, and sometimes she wondered how long the Ron in her memories would remain a memory, and when he, too, will become a dream.
She was afraid of that day. She didn't want to let go. No yet. Even when she knew Ron was right, that as long as she held on to those memories, this reality they were living was all the more harsher.
I'd rather know what I've lost, she told him defiantly. I'd rather have the hope of gaining it back. He answered that it was dangerous, dreaming like that. It was dangerous for her, for the both of them, walking outside the way they used to, the way they remembered, the way hope dictated they should. She replied that it was dangerous everywhere.
He agreed with her, of course. It's dangerous inside, too, he said.
Hermione stepped back from the window and sighed. She wasn't going to get into that argument again.
"I just think..." she said quietly, then her voice picked up. "I just think maybe it's best to wait until Neville returns. I don't think you should go out today."
"Why not?" he demanded.
"Because you'll want to do something foolish and heroic that will only end up with you getting killed, or worse, captured."
"I want to do something, Hermione. I can't sit down here when she's - "
"I don't think Ginny would have wanted you to risk your life for nothing. Remember what Luna said? The only thing that kept her going was the knowledge you were free."
"Freedom," he spat. "It's overrated."
"Not to them," Hermione said quietly. "And not to us, either."
He looked at her in silence. After a while, she went back to staring outside the window, looking at the gloomy Diagon Alley going past. The day grew darker. The streets became even more empty than they were before. And someone walked straight towards their door.
She didn't recognise Neville when he walked in, of course. They had a random set of hairs, and could never remember who looked like who when they left. It was an awful security breach, Neville pointed out. They won't be able to know they've been compromised until it was too late. But none of them had a better idea yet, so they continued with it anyway, hoping their protective spells were enough.
Still, she recognised Neville as soon as he walked through the door. She could recognise that expression everywhere. "Found Boomslang skin!" he said in a victorious voice, much deeper than his usual one, from a body taller than his own, and slightly balding on the top of his head. "Also - " he threw a sack at Hermione, and a second one at Ron - "potatoes and onions and peas in yours, leeks and turnips and mushrooms in yours, and Luna is bringing in the chicken."
Now Ron's smile was genuine. It sounded like a much better meal than anything they've had in weeks. "I'll go warm the oven," he dashed to the kitchen.
Neville's face turned serious as Ron left. It was almost comical - this face, with its too big ears and watery eyes. But Neville's expression was anything but comical. "I didn't want to say anything in front of Ron," he said almost in a whisper, "but I've heard this rumour about Ginny that - "
She shook her head. "It's not a rumour," she sighed. "I went scouting earlier and..." she couldn't complete the sentence.
"Did you tell him?"
She looked straight at him, daring him to contradict her, to say that she shouldn't have. But he said nothing. After several seconds, he shuddered and turned away - the Polyjuice Potion's effect was waning, and he was becoming plain old Neville again. For a moment, Hermione was worried - not about Neville, but about Luna, who hadn't entered the hideout yet. If she were lost, if she were caught, they would all be in danger. She sighed in relief as Luna finally entered the room a few moments later, her hair still jet black, her eyes still brown and bespectacled.
"I better put these chickens in the kitchen," she said gently.
"I'll join you," Hermione said, allowing Neville the time he needed to fish for his proper clothes.
Of course, it was only half-way to the kitchen when Luna started changing back to her old self, and Hermione finished carrying the chicken all by herself.
Ron was already labouring above the fire, aiming his wand at the self-peeling onions and potatoes while making sure to boil the water in the large pot.
"Is this the chicken?" he said in a voice that was almost delighted when she walked in.
"Yeah, all of it - there must be three whole chickens here!"
"Sounds like we're going to actually eat like human beings for the next two weeks," he said, and started taking out one of the chickens. As soon as he did, however, he stood staring at the thing.
"What is it?" she asked him.
"I was just trying to remember... Mum used to make this great soup. I'm sure we have everything here... d'you remember?
"I'm sorry, Ron. I don't remember."
"I should have paid more attention," he said, his voice no longer happy. He threw the onions into the pot in disgust - or perhaps in anger. Hermione wasn't sure. They hit the bottom of the pot and started bubbling merrily, the carrots soon following. In the meantime, she put the chicken in the oven. It was better not to let Ron start messing with it too, she thought as she saw the violence with which the turnips met the pot.
"This smells great," Neville announced as he walked into the kitchen.
"It's actual fresh food, of course it smells great," Ron answered, his bad temper evident from his voice.
Neville exchange a look with Hermione.
"Listen, Ron. We heard about - "
The knife came down on the potatoes hard, almost cutting Ron's finger together with the vegetables. Neville stopped talking, just stared at the knife.
"I won't talk about it if you don't want me to," Neville said quietly. Ron nodded briefly, and concentrated on cutting his vegetables and throwing them into the pot. Soon after he started thrashing about the small kitchen so loudly that Hermione started fearing they would be heard outside or by one of their overly-curious neighbours, even with all of the protective enchantments over their small flat.
"Ron," she said, but he ignored her, opening cupboard after cupboard, drawer after drawer, rattling every pot and frying pan in the kitchen. "Ron!" she said again, loudly, and he stopped.
"There's no salt anywhere," he said.
"Oh," Neville offered, slightly bashfully. "We forgot the salt."
"We need salt."
Hermione sighed. "Come on, Ron. It's too dangerous. We can live without salt. Next time someone goes out - "
"No," he cut across her, and she looked at him, worried and confused. "We've got all this food, we should eat like normal people. I'll go get some salt." Without another word, he grabbed the Invisibility Cloak, and was gone.
"Ron!" Hermione called after him, but Neville grabbed her hand, stopped her from going out as well.
"Let him go," he said. "He needs to leave this place for a bit. He needs a change of scenery."
"But he's not thinking straight," she answered, all the more angry because she knew Neville was right. "He's going out there to do something stupid and angry. He's going to get himself killed!"
"Nah," Neville said sagely - as always. "You know Ron. As long as he's angry, he's going to come back. To tell you the truth, it's when he's not angry that I'm worried."
He was right, of course. She knew that. As long as Ron was angry, there was still hope. It was his anger that had kept them alive in those crucial hours and days after the defeat, his anger that pushed them forward, to find Neville, to find Luna, to find the other survivors, the few who were free. It was his anger that pushed Neville to form this resistance, Neville once admitted to Hermione - he just couldn't see Ron so angry and not do anything. And it was his anger that had kept him alert and determined, and had got them out of several tight spots in the past. Neville was right, Hermione knew. She, too, was only really worried in those moments when Ron would stare at the wall, when there was nothing but pain and defeat left in him.
"I'm just scared for him, Neville," she sighed. "I couldn't bear to lose him too."
Neville nodded. He knew what she meant. "Hey," he said quietly, "remember when I took her to the Yule Ball?"
"How could I forget?" she laughed, remembering that disastrous dance from their time at Hogwarts. "Or that prank she pulled on Professor Flitwick? You know, with that awful frog..."
"That was her?" Neville asked in amazement, and they both started laughing, remembering Flitwick's face.
"There was also that time in Herbology when she convinced Hagrid to dedicate a whole class to Pygmy Puffs," Luna, who had entered the room in the meantime, joined in. "He kept on saying that he couldn't see the point because they don't even bite or anything, but it was the same year he insisted to teach us about Acromantulas all year long, so we all begged him until he agreed!"
They told one story after another, and all the while, time went by. Hermione could never have admitted it out loud, but it was a bit of a relief that Ron had left just then. She knew he couldn't handle being reminded of Ginny right now. That was Ron, and she didn't mind. But she wasn't the same. Ginny was her friend, and having the chance to simply reminisce about her, to simply remember her, was exactly what she needed to lift some of the pain away. They had lost so many people, so many friends, and for those precious few hours, they could remember them all.
But as the hours grew longer, and outside night had fallen, the laughter stopped and turned into fear. Ron should have been back by now, Hermione knew, and she knew that Neville and Luna knew that as well. None of them said as much - none of them was going to be the one to say it out loud, but they were all thinking it. Ron was late.
Locked in that room, Hermione only stopped pacing to stare out of the window. She couldn't get out to search for him, as much as she wanted to - he had taken the cloak and it would be a while before their Polyjuice Potion was ready. Hermione's real face was plastered on every Wanted poster, from there to Scotland, as was Ron's. Going out meant she'd be recognised, and being recognised meant certain death. So all she could do was stare out the window and pace back and forth, waiting for him to show up, dreading the possibility he was not coming back.
He staggered in just after midnight. She couldn't contain her anger.
"Ronald Weasley! Where have you been?" she almost shouted when she saw his face appearing from beneath the cloak.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled.
There was blood on his lip, and next to his nose. His cheek was cut, a new scar to add to the collection of those he already had. His hair was a mess. He had the general air of someone who'd had the wind knocked out of him. For a moment he only mumbled "I'm sorry" again, and then hugged her with so much need and desperation that she couldn't stay angry, not anymore. His anger had left him too, and only Ron remained, Ron who needed her more than anything else in the world.
She hugged him back tightly. Behind them, at the door, Neville and Luna showed up. Equally angry at first, their faces mellowed when they saw the expression on her face.
"So much for dinner," he mumbled when he finally let go and collapsed at the nearest armchair. He pulled three packages of salt out of his pocket, and a bottle of cheap wine.
"S'alright," Neville replied, sitting in front of him. "We can warm it up. What's happened to you?"
"I bought the groceries in Muggle London," Ron answered. "I wasn't stupid enough to try and get them in Diagon Alley, so I went to that Off-Licence near the Tube station. And then - well, I ran into Death Eaters. I don't know, either they have that place watched, or they're buying there as well. Anyway, time we found a new place."
"Did they recognise you?" Neville asked, leaving the discussion of their shopping habits for another time.
"'Course they recognised me, what d'you expect?" Ron pointed out. "I only have my face on every poster in this bloody country."
"It is a ten-year-old photograph, though," Neville pointed out, but Ron shrugged.
"They recognised me. As soon as they saw me, they said 'Weasley!' and pulled out their wands - just like that, in the middle of the street. They didn't care it was packed with Muggles and tourists and whatnot. They didn't care who saw them - or who they hit. They killed three Muggles trying to get to me and I didn't even get any one of them."
"What did you do?"
"What could I do? I cursed them back and ran for it! Anyway, they had their people watching all the entrances to Diagon Alley for hours. I couldn't risk sneaking back in even with the Invisibility Cloak."
"Are you sure they're gone now?" Neville asked sharply.
"'Course I'm sure."
"If you were followed..."
"I wasn't followed, Neville, give it a break."
"If you were followed, we're all dead," Neville insisted.
"Can we stop speculating on how we're all going to die and eat dinner instead?" Ron answered in irritation. "I'm starving."
"We could speculate how we're going to die while having dinner," Neville suggested jokingly, and even Ron gave a small smirk before wolfing down the chicken and soup. The tension was broken. Another disaster was averted. Another day passed with success - they were all alive, and that was the only criterion that mattered these days.
By 2 a.m., they were sitting in the small living room. There were half-empty glasses of cheap wine on the small table, the empty bottle reflecting the light of the fire. Hermione was sitting curled in an armchair, her book almost slipping out of her fingers. Neville was already snoring. She looked at him for a moment and smiled. Alcohol always made him sleepy. Luna was sitting on a pillow next to the fire, immersed in an old Muggle book. And Ron - she lifted her gaze. He was no longer sitting in his own chair. Instead, he got up and walked all the way to Hermione.
"Move over," he said quietly, and she made him some room in her own chair. It was uncomfortable, to sit like that, but she didn't mind. They were together, and that mattered more than sitting on the most comfortable chair in the world. She thought he had something in mind, but instead, he just stared at the fire, passing his fingers absently through her hair.
"Your hands are cold," she whispered when he accidentally touched her neck and sent shivers down her back.
"Sorry," he said and made to pull his hand back, and she stopped him with her own.
"Don't stop," she said. He smiled in response. For a moment, she thought he might kiss her, but instead, he just stared at the fire again.
"Maybe she's better off," he said after a while. "No more pain, no more fear... she's free."
Hermione wanted to tell him to stop it, that Ginny would have kicked him, or subjected him to a severe case of her famous Bat-Bogey hex. But she didn't have the heart to do it, not tonight. Not when Ron was finally talking.
"I managed to talk to her once, you know," he continued. "A couple of years ago. One of those coincidences. She kept on looking over her shoulder. She was terrified we'd get caught - that I'd get caught. The only thing that kept her going was knowing that I was out here, she said. That we're still fighting." His voice was full of bitterness. "I couldn't tell her the truth then."
"There was no point in telling her the truth," Hermione said gently. "Not if hope helped her go on."
"Yeah, well, she probably caught on by now that there was nothing we could do anymore. That we've given up." He stared at the fire for such a long time that Hermione thought he fell asleep. When he did spoke at last, she jumped. "We shouldn't have given up."
"There's nothing we can do. Every time we tried to fight, people got hurt. Got killed."
"So? We can sit here and hide like rats for the rest of our lives, or we can go out doing something."
By now, even Neville was awake, listening tentatively to Ron's words.
"I'm tired of hiding. I'm tired of being afraid. Let's do something crazy and ridiculous and get it over with."
"Funny you should say that now," Hermione muttered.
"How d'you mean?"
"Do you know what day is it today?"
Ron thought about it for a moment, and then something in his expression became hard. "Thursday," he said with such finality, that she didn't dare challenge him.
"I think Ron's right," Neville interrupted her thoughts. "Time we stopped hiding. Time we did something. For all the people we've lost." He grabbed his glass and raised it slightly, as if to give a toast to all those dead people, and the three of them did the same.
"For Hannah," he said, and drank in his late girlfriend's honour. Hermione, Ron and Luna drank, too.
"For Seamus," Luna mentioned their last fallen comrade, the last man who had shared the flat with them before he, too, fell to the Death Eaters, and they all drank in his honour, too.
"For Ginny," Ron said grimly, and they didn't need any incentive to drink.
"For Harry," Hermione said almost in a whisper, stealing a glance at the calendar. Only three of them drank this time. Ron had put down his glass in visible anger, still refusing to forgive. Hermione knew this would happen, but for just one day, for just this day, she didn't care.
"It's agreed, then," Neville said. "Tomorrow, we start fighting back."
"Tomorrow," they murmured in response, and each one went to sleep, their hearts set. All around them, the early hours of the 31st of July 2008 dawned on the world.
Chapter 2: in which circumstances dictate action
The biggest obstacle of any endeavour is starting it. It wasn't Neville who had come up with the idea of finding contacts in wizard pubs. It wasn't Neville who had even come up with the idea of contacting anyone in the first place. Six months after his release from the camps, more than a year after their terrible defeat at Hogwarts, Neville was living life day after day. He hated that life of his. It was everything they had dreaded, everything they fought against, and it had all happened, just as they feared. There was, of course, nothing he could do, he knew as he looked bitterly outside his window and saw the Death Eaters who were watching him and Hannah and Luna and Seamus, who were all assigned the same flat. He'd wake up, drink his coffee, go to work, get back home, go to sleep, and the next day it started all over again, for him as well as for his friends. And all that time, they were being watched.
It was Luna who came up with the solution, Luna who figured out how they could start fighting. He should have guessed it would be her, he thought later. At Hogwarts, none of them paid her much attention. She had a way of looking at things that was... different, he settled for the more diplomatic word. Oh, she was great fun, and just as dedicated as the rest of them, and he never regretted having her around. But dealing with Luna's reality needed a bit of strength, and in those days, he had none.
So he was completely impatient with her when she mentioned Ron and Hermione. "They got away," she said. "If we contacted them, maybe we could start fighting again."
"There is no fighting, Luna," Hannah said quietly. "It's over."
"Besides," he said, irritated, "no one knows where they are. They did the clever thing and got out before they were caught. We can't contact them."
"Well," Luna said, completely unfazed by the reaction, "if we start hanging out with other wizards, maybe we could contact them."
"Yeah, I can see it happening now. 'Excuse me, have you seen the two most wanted wizards in the world round here lately? One's a blood traitor whose family is one of the few that's not been released from the camps yet and the other's Muggleborn and they were both Harry Potter's best friends. If you see them, do get them to give us a call'." Seamus snorted. "Honestly, Luna, no one's ever going to see them again."
"Well, maybe not as themselves, but if they have Polyjuice Potion or Harry's old invisibility cloak, they could be going anywhere and no one would know."
As soon as she said that, Neville knew she was right. "We don't need to contact them," he said, excited, "all we need is to let them contact us!"
"Exactly," she smiled, and even Seamus couldn't say no to that.
So it fell on Neville, whose job had the most predictable hours - and at the most populated areas of wizard society - to start sitting in pubs and wait.
He drank a lot of butterbeer. Ate a lot of crisps. He got to know Anthony Goldstein, who was given work in the same department, very well indeed - possibly more than he ever meant to. The Death Eaters who were watching him tensed at first, watched him more closely, both in the pubs and at his day-to-day life - every change brought suspicion, he knew. He only hoped that if Ron and Hermione were going through pubs, that they weren't going to sit down next to him when the Death Eaters were watching, or it would all have been in vain.
They didn't show up. He waited for a long time, until he got bored drinking on his own. He slowly started talking - casual, friendly, harmless talk - with people who used to be in the Order, like Kingsley Shacklebolt, or other members of the DA, like Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown. Whenever they talked, the Death Eaters were close behind, watching them, listening in. Every once in a while, someone - Neville, usually - felt the need to make a point, to make a toast in Harry's memory or talk about the good ol' days, and then the Death Eaters would come in and usher them back home with a polite but firm, "I think you've had enough to drink," even if it was only his first drink. But they usually stayed clear of forbidden subjects - after all, this was the only time they were ever allowed to spend time together, and they couldn't risk having it taken away from them altogether. Even if they only talked about the weather or work. It was a piece of normal life they refused to give up. And in time, the dust of the war settled. The Death Eaters stopped watching them as closely, they managed to wake up in the morning feeling something other than emptiness inside, and life seemed almost bearable.
The first time Hermione made contact, Neville was completely surprised. He had stopped looking for Ron or Hermione or a resistance of any kind long before. That day, a rainy evening in January, he was just sitting in the Leaky Cauldron, drinking his butterbeer and trying to forget work, when a small, wispy witch sat next to him at the bar. "I'll have what he's having," she said to Tom the barman with a smile, and Neville raised an eyebrow.
"How are you?" she asked him in a friendly tone, and he shrugged and looked back at his drink. He had better things to do than get picked up by a random witch in a pub, even if he couldn't quite name them at the moment.
"I like your hair," she tried again. He ignored her again. "Looks much better than it did after a year in the Room of Requirement."
That caught his attention. He turned - not too fast, not to alert the bored Death Eater who was sitting, as always, several stools behind him - and took a good look at her. He was sure he had never met her. And, anyway, she was far too old to have been at Hogwarts at the time.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly, but with a smile that was meant more for the Death Eater's sake than for any other reason, "do I know you?"
She looked at him, amused. "If you're trying to look like you're getting picked up, you're doing a terrible job," she said. "That aught to make the show more interesting for our friend there, though," she continued, and all of a sudden, her mouth was next to his. "Hermione," she breathed in his ear before her lips met his.
He was glad she kissed him just then. The only reason the Death Eater didn't pick up on his shocked expression was because his face was buried deep in hers in a kiss that was a much better show than he could have ever given otherwise. When they emerged, he had gained control over his face and his expression showed no undesired emotion, only lust, which he managed to fake more convincingly this time.
She smiled at him again. For an outsider, this would have looked as a smug, seductive smile, the natural outcome of their interchange. But in her eyes, he could see the real affection, the relief, and the joy of seeing him again, a good friend.
"I think we can continue this somewhere else."
The biggest obstacle of any endeavour is starting it - or in this case, starting again. None of them ever thought they'd give up on their little rebellion. Giving up just crept up on them, without them ever noticing. Every new plan took a little longer to figure out, every time they failed they took a little longer to try again, until one day, they just stopped trying. They didn't talk about it, didn't think it, but inside they knew. After years and years of trying, the last resistance group had given up on their attempts to defeat the Dark Lord. Now, after years of laying low and trying to survive, it was up to Neville to start fighting again.
The problem was, as he had explained to the others on the morning of the 31st of July, that he had lost touch with all of his old contacts and resources. Ron clicked his tongue impatiently - as far as he was concerned, it was going to be a suicide run anyway, so in his eyes, the best course of action would have been to find the most spectacular last mission and go down fighting. But Neville disagreed. None of them had any idea how things really were anymore - not in the government, not with the wizarding society. The last time any of them had talked to another wizard was when Seamus was still alive, months before. They may have a chance to do something other than go down in a blaze of glory, he said.
In response, Ron started walking around the room, impatient. Neville didn't need him to talk to know what it was that bothered him. Long before Ginny's death, or Seamus's, long before they'd given up, they always hit the same brick wall, the same obstacle that could not be moved, could not be changed, could not be defeated.
Their Lord and Master, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Dark Lord himself, was immortal. They had the same discussion time and again - in the ten long years since Ron and Hermione helped destroy his Horcruxes - and failed - he had had plenty of times to create more of these foul objects. Dumbledore's original task was made of patchwork and guesswork and based on little more than rumours and conjunctions and intuition and hope. But it was still much, much more than they had to go on now. They didn't even know where to start.
"And as long as he is alive," Ron pointed out that morning, as he had done time and again before, "nothing we do will matter."
But that was one thing Neville refused to accept. "There has to be something we can do!" he argued. "It can't end like this."
"It already has. Time we accepted it," Ron said darkly and left the room. Neville wasn't too worried - he knew Ron. If he were acting alone, he would have probably gone and done something. But despite Ron's lack of faith, he wasn't going to act alone, not when it contradicted the wishes of the rest of his friends. So Neville was given a chance to find his old allies, to find someone who could help them - and even more importantly, dared to do so.
His first stop was the old pub, the Hog's Head. The Leaky Cauldron was out of the question - in its central location in Diagon Alley, it was too often frequented by Death Eaters and other government officials. Some of them may have tried the Leaky Cauldron - Luna, probably; Hermione, certainly. But their contacts were much less reliable, much less likely to come forward than Neville's. And Neville didn't dare go to the Leaky Cauldron. His plan hinged on being recognised, that much was true, because he had no other way of contacting the people who might offer him help. But it also hinged on being recognised by the right people. The Leaky Cauldron was too dangerous, it was too likely he'd be recognised by the wrong people there. For the same reason he had to give up the Three Broomsticks. No, it was Ab Dumbledore for him, and his small, stinking Inn at the end of Hogsmeade's main street.
The Hog's Head had proven itself in the past. Ab always had a good word for him, a good piece of advice. And he sympathised, even if he thought it was dangerous and foolish to try. At the Hog's Head, even if he didn't find anyone, someone would find him. Ab always made sure of that.
He Apparated to the edge of Hogsmeade, at the edge of the spell that would have revealed him to the Death Eaters, and walked all the way into the Hog's Head, without looking around, trying to rouse the least amount of attention, not to catch anyone's eye.
"Butterbeer," was the first word he had said to Ab, after years of absence. Not hello, no pleasantries, no sign of friendship. He valued Ab's friendship dearly, since that last year at Hogwarts, but he couldn't risk it. For all he knew, Ab was still being watched.
That was, of course, why he stopped coming to the Hog's Head three years before. The Death Eaters had caught on by then that the Hog's Head was not just the pub to go when they didn't want to be overheard or overseen, but also the pub to go when the members of the small resistance didn't want to be heard or seen - and that they were given every help possible from the bartender, who just happened to be Albus Dumbledore's brother. The last time Neville had been to that pub - or, in fact, to Hogsmeade - he had almost lost his life. And for what? A small piece of information that proved worthless in the long run.
Neville had already weighed all the options, together with Hermione and Luna. They all agreed that the Hog's Head was unlikely to still be watched, and even if it were, it was worth the risk. The safest way to regain some of their contacts went through that pub, and so, that was what Neville would do.
Ab himself didn't seem to recognise Neville - or, if he did, he pretended not to. He put a dirty glass in front of him, poured butterbeer, and went on his business, cleaning glasses - or as Neville used to tease him, moving the dirt around. He didn't give Neville a second glance, didn't seem interested at all. And so, Neville remained in his place around the bar, trying to be both as noticeable and as unnoticeable as possible.
"Oi," he called to Ab after five minutes or so, in which nothing had happened and, as far as he could tell, none of the residents of the pub gave him the least bit of attention. "What is there to eat round here?"
"Hold on," Ab muttered. "I'll get you a menu." He fetched an old piece of paper and shoved it in front of Neville. In a quieter voice he said, "You shouldn't have come."
"Are they still watching you?" Neville asked, worried.
"Nah. They gave up years ago. But it's dangerous for you to leave that hiding place of yours. Dangerous to all of you."
"We can't sit tight and do nothing."
Ab sniffled. "You've been doing just that for a while, from what I gathered."
"Yeah, well, we changed our minds."
Abe sighed. "How's Weasley doing? I heard the news. I'm assuming that's why you're here all of a sudden."
Neville gave a small smile. "I'm not here celebrating my birthday, if that's what you're asking."
"Or anyone else's?"
Neville shook his head and said nothing. Ab didn't press the subject further, but just shook his head again.
"Better you didn't stay here. Go to room seven - I may be able to send someone your way. But it will probably take a while."
"For you, I got all day," Neville said and abandoned his seat by the bar, climbing upstairs.
Ab wasn't wrong. It took a while - a long while - before one of Neville's old contacts showed up. And when someone finally did show up, Neville wasn't sure whether to be relieved or dismayed. There were several people he thought might show up - but Mundungus Fletcher wasn't any of them. And yet, here he was, assessing Neville coldly at the door.
"Hi, Dung," Neville said warily.
"S'you," was Dung's greeting.
"Ab sent you?"
This wasn't going well, not well at all. Neville had had these meetings a thousand times before. He could sketch the entire progress of a meeting based on the first words said alone. And this one was going to end with a resounding no.
"So, how've you been?" he asked casually, trying to mask his disappointment. After all, there was always the tiny chance that he was wrong.
"Alive," Dung's responses remained monosyllabic.
"And you'd like to stay that way," Neville sighed.
At least, Dung had warmed up a bit at that. "Don't take it the wrong way, Neville. I'd like to help you. I really would. No one hates what's going on more than I do. But everyone who's ever helped you ended up dead, y'know?"
"We're still alive," Neville pointed out, but it just made things worse.
"Yeah, you been hiding for years now, didn't you? Just my point. If we keep our heads down, at least we're alive. I shouldn't even be talking to you, if anyone found out..."
"Why are you talking to me, then, Dung?" Curiosity came over Neville. He didn't hold a grudge towards the man - he couldn't really blame him, and after all, Mundungus Fletcher had always first taken care of himself, then the cause. He never expected anything else from him, and couldn't be disappointed to see that Dung had remained Dung.
"Favour. To Ab. He had this way to communicate with us, but I'm the only one left anymore. They got Kingsley, you know. Two years back or so. An' Charlie Weasley's dead, too. An' wusshername - Penelope. She was the last one to go down. I'd say six months ago. Can't remember. So it's just me now. Had to come, didn't I? At least to say that there's no one coming."
Neville nodded. "I appreciate that," he said honestly.
"Knew you would. I'll be honest with you," Dung gave a nervous laughter, "I was worried when I got Ab's message. I thought it might be Weasley, you know? After what happened to his sister... I knew I won't be able to get out of it if it's him. He'd probably want to take Gringotts down or som'ing."
"Yeah, we had to talk him out of it. Well, not Gringotts, but - you know."
"Can't say I envy you, Neville, can't say I envy you one bit. But listen to me, whatever it is you wanna do, listen to me good and forget about it, right? It won't do any good. Just get you lot killed. You made it so far. Don't throw your lives away, Neville. And you tell Weasley that for me, too, eh?"
Neville nodded, unconvinced. Dung, of course, knew he wasn't buying it, and just shrugged before leaving the room. Neville watched him go, saying nothing. It didn't take five minutes for Ab to walk in.
"Decided to throw all caution into the wind, Ab?" Neville asked, not unpleasantly. Ab had done more for them than Neville had ever expected. If he wanted to make sure he talked to Neville before he left, he was allowed to throw away any protocol they ever had to prevent them from getting caught. It wasn't like there was something to be caught doing anyway, Neville thought darkly.
"I take it Dung wasn't the help you were looking for?" Ab muttered.
"Yeah. S'alright, though. I never expected Mundungus Fletcher to be the great saviour of us all. If he would have said anything but 'no', then I'd have to start worrying," Neville said, making sure his tone was as light as possible. He knew what Ab was going to say, and he didn't want to encourage him, to give any hint that Neville shared his desperation.
But Ab wasn't fooled. Of course he wasn't fooled. He was never fooled, and now even less than ever. "Listen to your heart, kid, listen to reason - and for once, listen to Mundungus Fletcher. He's a coward and a thief, but his heart is in the right place, and he doesn't want to see you guys dead any more than I do. Give it up."
"We can't," Neville insisted.
"Stop being so noble! Nobility never got any of you anywhere! Need I remind you how nobility got us all into this mess in the first place?"
"Look, Ab - "
"No, you listen to me. I know you don't want to hear it, but you're going to hear it anyway."
"Ab, I know what you're going to say and - "
"And you're going to hear it, anyway. Being all noble is what got Potter killed. I know you don't like hearing thinking about him or that night, but that's the truth if there ever was one. We lost the only chance we ever had at defeating that monster when we lost Potter, because he decided to be all noble and save all of our lives."
"I know," Neville said miserably.
"Then cherish his sacrifice and don't throw it away. There, that's what I had to say, and I said it. Now, if you don't mind, I have a bar to tend to," and with that, Ab huffed down the stairs.
Neville didn't leave the Hog's Head at once. He wouldn't admit it, even to himself, but he was waiting for Ab to come back, to say something else. He'd done that more than once - had his final word, and then returned for another. It wasn't that Neville expected Ab to change his mind all of a sudden about what they were doing. He had known Ab long enough, and that was one thing that never changed. Ab always thought them fools for continuing the fight long after the war was over. But sometimes he came to offer words of support, of encouragement. Or just of friendship.
It didn't happen today. Neville could imagine why, of course - after years of taking care of themselves, of abandoning this dangerous path, they went back to fighting. Ab would do whatever he could to discourage them. But still, it was a disappointment. He had enjoyed his friendship with the old, bitter, sarcastic man. He always enjoyed talking to him, even when they disagreed.
And besides, he was reluctant to go back home. What would he tell the others? 'Yeah, I've made contact, the only person left is Dung?' Their disappointment would be unbearable. But he had no choice. If he didn't come back, they would be worried. And eventually he would have to tell them anyway. Better do it now and get it over with. It wasn't the end, he kept on telling himself as he walked down the stairs and out the the pub. It wasn't the end. They used to have other contacts. There were other venues they could pursue, other people they could talk to. Other things to do. This wasn't the end. But his heart was heavy when he Apparated back to Diagon Alley, back to their little flat.
"No good," were the first words Neville said when he walked inside. Hermione's lips became narrower. Luna seemed downcast at the news. And Ron - well, Ron was Ron.
"Did you manage to talk to anyone?" Hermione asked, the disappointment clear in her voice.
"Dung. He's the only one left."
"And obviously, we can't count on him for anything," Ron interrupted.
"More or less, yeah," Neville admitted.
"So now what?"
"There are other people," Neville repeated the rationalisation he had given to himself only moments before in Hogsmeade. But somehow, when he spoke them out loud, they were far less convincing. "There are other places to turn to."
"Yeah? Like what? Like who?"
"Anthony Goldstein," Luna said before Neville could even open his mouth.
"Goldstein? Isn't that too dangerous?"
From her seat by the door, Luna aimed her wand at the bookshop next door. The shopkeeper always kept bargain books outside, in neat boxes on a small table. And on the table was the tablecloth, usually a bright green one. But after Luna's spell, the tablecloth turned a deep shade of violet. It was the perfect sign - Anthony Goldstein walked by that shop every day, from his work at the Ministry and into the Leaky Cauldron, where he continued to sit every day after work for ten years. He had joked once he had become a part of the scenery, so much that if he stopped showing up, people would get worried.
He never did stop showing up, even after the urgent, whispered conversations, the panic, and the realisation that he was being watched more closely than he thought. Even after they stopped coming because they just couldn't ask him to take the risk anymore. Every day, after work, he would leave the Ministry and take the same path through the bookshop on his way to the Leaky Cauldron, and if the map was ever violet instead of green, he would turn it blue - come, or yellow - don't. And then go on his way, and no one would ever notice, except for the members of little resistance who resided nearby.
When Luna next looked outside the window, a cup of tea in her hand, the map was blue.
It wasn't such an easy task to volunteer to. Meeting Anthony Goldstein was even more dangerous than Neville's foray into the Hog's Head. The Leaky Cauldron was not the Hog's Head, and even though they would meet him under the Invisibility Cloak or, at times, the Polyjuice Potion, it was still a much more public place than they were happy with. But if, after four years' silence, Anthony Goldstein agreed to a meeting, they were going to take that chance.
Luna went outside under the cloak. Unlike Neville, she didn't need to be seen. No, Anthony was going to sit and drink and pretend to just go to the Leaky Cauldron after a hard day's work, and it was Luna who would be contacting him.
She walked into the Leaky Cauldron, for the first time in years. The Leaky Cauldron, of course, stayed the same. During peace, during the war, and under the Dark Lord's rule, it was always warm, always slightly dark, always crammed with people. Tom, the old barman, had been tending his costumers since before Luna was born, and he still stood there to this day, even if these days most of his costumers were Death Eaters and other Ministry employees, and he disliked them all.
She stood outside of the old pub until costumers walked in, an old witch in a red hat and her husband, equally old and with long, white hair, and then followed them quietly. She got inside well before the door slammed shut, and smiled. She may not have done that for four years, at least - but she still had the skill needed to sneak into places she did not belong.
She scanned the room quietly, looking for her target. Some of the people there she knew - Draco Malfoy, the newly appointed Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic himself, even if the position wasn't as coveted these days as it was when being the Minister actually meant something. Personally, she didn't see any point in being the Minister for Magic even when they could do something other than follow the Dark Lord's words to the letter - it always seemed too much responsibility and not enough fun. But, she thought, apparently there were people who are interested in being called 'Minister', and Draco Malfoy was probably one of those people. Who knows, maybe the Dark Lord would, one day, reward him, if he gets too tired of the current Minister. She supposed it could happen, after all, there were only so many times one could hear the words 'Yes, my Lord' spoken by the same person, no?
And there was Zacharias Smith, drinking and laughing with Pansy Parkinson and Blaise Zabini. They, too, were both Ministry employees now. She knew she couldn't blame all those who were working in the Ministry - after all, people like Anthony Goldstein had helped them for years - but Zacharias Smith had always been so rude at Hogwarts, and had never shown any attempt to help them. Besides, he was sitting together with Pansy Parkinson and Blaise Zabini, and that was always enough to put someone in her bad books.
Finally, she spotted Anthony. He was sitting next to the bar all by himself, doing his best impression of a rude drunk. She had seen him drunk in earnest, and knew this was a rather bad charade by him, but he had to do something to discourage people like Malfoy or Smith or Parkinson from insisting he joined them, so she couldn't complain. They couldn't pick their allies based on their acting abilities, Neville always used to say, and she couldn't help it - he had a point.
She walked quietly towards him, and when she was sure she wasn't noticed by any unwanted eyes or ears, she whispered to him. "I'm here."
She had to give him credit - he didn't jump. Under the invisibility cloak, she was smiling.
"Luna," he muttered into his drink. "Good to hear your voice."
"Good to see you," she answered. "Haven't seen you in a while."
"Yeah," he said, and sneaked a look around. "They've stopped watching me a while ago, but I didn't want to take the chance. Actually... I wasn't sure if you're still alive. I'm glad you are. And it's funny you should contact me today of all days."
"Why is it funny?" she asked.
"Because I need your help, too."
Somehow, that wasn't what she had hoped for. Of course, they had helped Anthony in the past, just as he had helped them. But she could hear Ron's voice now - the point was that they would get help, not the other way round. Still, better to hear him out before turning him down, she figured. "What can we do for you?"
"I need a safe place for a couple of people. Two friends. One's a Mudb - Muggleborn. The other's Pureblood, but she's wanted by the Ministry for other stuff. The Ministry's still tracking Apparition from where I live, so they can't leave from my flat. They need somewhere safe to go to first."
Luna nodded. The Ministry had devised some extremely effective surveillance methods in the years the resistance was active, in the years their little group was somewhat larger and at constant risk of being detected by the Ministry. The result was that there were too many places people couldn't Apparate in and out of without the Ministry knowing about it. Hogsmeade was one. Diagon Alley was another. It had made their lives that much more difficult - and made avoiding the Ministry nigh impossible for everyone else. It wasn't the first time Anthony had asked them to perform this favour, and they were always happy to comply.
"Do you have any Polyjuice Potion for them?" she asked him.
"Just a bit," he said. "Should be enough for ten, fifteen minutes, at most."
"That's all we need. How fast could you bring them here?" There was no need, of course, to ask any of the others. They were all well versed in this routine, even if it had not been performed for years. In fact, they could probably still give Anthony's friends advice on where to go from there.
Anthony looked at his watch. "Today's too dangerous already. Tomorrow, same time?"
"Sure. Give them your hairs, will you? So we could do this faster."
"No problem," he smiled into his glass. "Thanks, Luna. Now - what did you guys want?"
"We need information. We're going to start fighting again."
"Are you mad?" was his urgent whisper. "Luna, you guys finally stopped being the Ministry's top priority!"
"We're probably going to need information about the Ministry to make this work," she ignored him and continued talking. "We're not quite sure what we want our target to be, so I guess anything would be good, to help us decide."
"I'll... write everything down." He sounded a bit evasive, but she didn't mind. There was only so much they could ask of him, and she knew he wouldn't let them down. "Everything I can think of."
"No matter how small," she said.
She couldn't really begrudge him the look of relief when she said goodbye, even if she did feel a pang of annoyance.
The next 24 hours were spent mainly in waiting. Unlike Ron or Hermione, Luna never minded the waiting. These were the times Ron would pace up and down the room and get on everyone's nerves, while Hermione would try to distract herself but still look at the clock every 5 minutes, thus not only failing her original intentions, but distracting Ron and Neville too. Luna never had that problem. She could sit and read one of the old Muggle books Hermione and Ron fetched years ago, or play Exploding Snap with herself - because, of course, no one was in the right mind to play with her - or simply stare out the window at the people passing by. She was busy trying to figure out whether the man who had stopped at the shop next door was carrying geranium in his potted plant, or was it a rare herb from the black sea, when Ron snapped at her. "Will you stop doing that?"
"Doing what?" she looked at him, confused.
"... Staring," he said, not sounding very convinced. "I dunno. It's distracting, anyway."
Hermione rolled her yes. "Honestly, Ron, it's not like you're trying to concentrate in anything, is it?"
"It's alright," Luna said, mainly wishing to avoid another long-drawn argument between the two. "I'll just go back to my book, it's not a problem."
"You really don't have to, Luna," Hermione said testily, sounding just as angry with Luna for trying to avoid an argument as she was with Ron for starting it.
"What?" he retorted. "She doesn't mind."
Hermione might have answered. Luna didn't know. She stopped following their ridiculous argument and went back to reading a book about Muggles who journeyed to the moon. It didn't make much sense and there didn't seem to be anything interesting for the Muggles to do on the moon, but it was better than listening to the arguments. When finally evening came, and with it the time for Luna to put on the cloak and disappear into the Leaky Cauldron, both Ron and Hermione were long past arguing, and simply looked at her, pale and nervous.
"It would be alright," she reassured them. "We've done this loads of times, remember?"
"Good luck," Hermione offered.
"Make sure to come back," Neville added.
Luna smiled, and made her way past the door and its protective enchantments and into the street, and from there, straight to the Leaky Cauldron. If the day before the pub was full, now it was completely and utterly packed. It was Friday evening, and it seemed that the entire wizarding world was celebrating another week ending in the same place.
In his stool, still next to the bar, she could see Anthony, drinking alone again. But this time, the next person was much closer - Draco Malfoy, alone for the moment, but with every possibility of attracting attention at any time. That may be a problem, she knew, but she didn't have the luxury of calling the whole thing off. There were people who needed their help, people wanted by the Ministry, and they couldn't make them wait even a day longer.
"I'm here," she whispered to Anthony as soon as she made it next to him.
"Good," he whispered back. Malfoy raised his head, looking at them, but returned to his drink soon after.
"I'll go to the toilet," Anthony started again, even quieter than the previous whisper. "Then they'll come out - one will use my hair for the Polyjuice potion, the other my sister's. They also have the information you requested."
"I'll take them with me outside," she whispered back, and he nodded and got up.
The whole thing took less than three minutes. He walk in, and then he - or, rather, someone who looked like him - came out, accompanied by a short woman. They walked straight towards Luna, but the man impersonating Anthony didn't sit down on the chair.
"I fancy going outside," he said loudly, and the woman next to him nodded.
"I'm here," Luna whispered. He nodded to signal that he heard her, and the three of them made their way outside.
They almost made it, too. It was at the last table that they were stopped, by none other than Blaise Zabini. "Goldstein," he grabbed the man by his hand. "I wanted a word."
"Later, Blaise," he said, and Luna groaned inside. Blaise Zabini, the head of the Magical Law Enforcement office, was not on first-name basis with Anthony Goldstein, who had been subjected to at least one Ministry investigation on suspicion of harbouring unwanted elements.
That fact didn't escape Zabini. He narrowed his eyes at the impostor. "Stay," he half-said, half-commanded.
The man who pretended to be Anthony Goldstein looked at the door in panic, as did the woman with him. They didn't have long before the Polyjuice Potion stopped working, Luna knew, and when that happened - all hell would break loose. Luckily, her new friend wasn't a fool. "I need to throw up," he said and made small retching noises.
Zabini immediately let go of his sleeve in disgust. That was all the needed - both the man and the woman started running towards the door, Luna following closely behind under the cloak. "Hey!" someone shouted, probably Zabini. "Stop them! Don't let them get away!"
But they were out.
"Where to?" the woman asked, breathing heavily.
"Follow me," Luna said and took off the cloak. This was no time for carefully given instructions. The three of them ran, Luna in front, the other two right behind her. It didn't take long until they reached the door that was completely hidden from most of the wizarding world and Luna said the words only she and three others knew to temporarily reveal the door. "Come on," she urged the two, and they, not confused by the sudden appearance of a door that was not there a moment ago, walked in. She followed them and locked the door behind her, taking comfort in the knowledge that no one else could follow.
Only now, inside the house, she had the chance to give her two guests a good look. The effect of the Polyjuice Potion had already waned, and so she discovered that the two strangers were not strangers at all. They were both classmates of Neville, Ron and Hermione's - the Muggle-born man was none other than Dean Thomas, while the girl was Padma Patil's sister, Parvati.
"Hi," she said, catching her breath, a big smile on her face. Dean and Parvati looked at each other for a moment, said 'Hi' together, and burst into a relieved laughter. They made it.
The voices alerted the other three. "Dean!" Hermione called in surprise mixed with joy. "Parvati!"
"Hermione!" they both called together, and then, "Ron! Neville!" the little entrance became a flurry of hugs and smiles.
"Come on, let's get you inside," Neville urged them in. "Get you some tea or something - it's so great to see you! I was sure you must be dead..."
"Eh. No Death Eater was born yet who could capture me," Dean bragged, but Parvati's smile waned a little.
"They almost got me," she said quietly. "A couple of months ago. They got Padma."
"I'm sorry," Neville said quietly. They all turned quiet, the good mood at the unexpected reunion turned sour at the news of another dead friend.
"And now they've probably got Anthony," Dean added. "They'll know now he helped us."
"What will they do to him?" Parvati asked.
"They'll send him to one of the camps," Ron said darkly.
"Or give him to the Dementors," Neville pointed out, and they all shuddered.
"Do you think they'll - that they'll execute him?"
"I don't know," Neville said quietly.
"Well," Dean looked up, "we can't let that happen."
"It's too late, Dean. There's no point getting us all killed. He knew the risks."
"To hell with the risks. He only got into this because he wanted to help. And I don't think we've got anything to lose."
"Just our lives," Hermione said.
"Like he said - I don't think we've got anything to lose," Ron said stubbornly.
"Dean's right," Neville said - and that was the end of that. Neville had rarely been willing to take unneeded risks. The rest had long learned to trust his judgement. And when he was willing to take such a risk, so were they. "We owe this to Anthony."
"Me and Dean certainly do," Parvati agreed.
"It's Friday," Hermione said thoughtfully, her mind already working on the next problem. "Which means that wherever it is they're going to take him, it's probably not going to happen before Monday."
"And we have a lot of information from Anthony, too, should be with Dean," Luna pointed out, remembering Anthony's promise.
"Yeah, I got it here," Dean pulled up a rather large bundle of parchments, all full with Anthony's small, meticulous handwriting.
"And I may have one other thing to use," Hermione said thoughtfully. "My old source in the Ministry. I'll need the cloak."
Ron looked her anxiously. "He's not reliable. And it isn't safe."
"And it's the best we've got," she said shortly, picked up the cloak and was gone.
The Leaky Cauldron didn't look as if there was a chase just a moment ago. It didn't look disturbed at all. The same old dark, shabby pub, full of the regular bunch of people on a Friday evening. Hermione had no problem finding her source between the people around her - and luckily, he sat just next to the toilets. She dashed in, took off the cloak, and walked out, as if she had every right in the world to be there. After a few seconds, she drew up a chair and sat next to him, assured that at least for the moment she was safe. Refuge in audacity, he called it once, and really, no one could imagine that such a loyal Death Eater, a man as high-up in the Ministry as he was, would sit down in public with the wizarding world's most wanted criminal.
He didn't seem surprised to see her there. In fact, he had expected her to come, that much was certain, since he pushed a glass of untouched wine towards her with a smirk. She took a sip without a word. Delicious. And then, she raised her eyes and looked directly at him.
"Imagine seeing you here, Granger," Draco Malfoy said.
Chapter 3: in which information exchanges hands
Not in a million years would Hermione Granger have ever believed she would owe her life to Draco Malfoy. But when he came into her cell and offered his help, she accepted it. She was in no position to turn him down.
After three days of being interrogated by the Death Eaters, locked in the small, smelly cell, all she wanted was for it to be over. She hoped they would kill her - kill her before she broke down, before she told them where to find the others - Ron, Neville, Luna, Seamus, Hannah... they were out there, somewhere, she knew, worried about her. But not as much as she was worried about them, worried about the moment she couldn’t take it anymore and would tell the Death Eaters what they wanted to know. She hoped they had the sense to get away from their hideout, to find someplace else.
She hoped beyond hope they would come in and break her out of her cell. And that they would do it soon.
When the door to the cell opened, she automatically flinched. Who was it this time? What will they do now? She dreaded the answer, but not as much as she dreaded not knowing. The wait, she’d told Ron later. That was the worst bit. Waiting for them to come up with something new.
“My, my. We are in trouble.” The Death Eater who entered her cell waved his wand, and the darkness turned into light. She closed her eyes, blinded with the sudden illumination after three days in the dark. When she finally got used to the light again, she opened her eyes and looked, blinking, at the man standing above her.
She didn’t know him. She thought she did, for a moment, when he talked. Something in his tone sounded familiar. But now she was looking at him and knew that she didn’t know him. He was just another Death Eater, one amongst many.
“What d’you want?” she spat, summoning her last powers to be defiant, defiant to the end.
“Wrong question, Granger,” he said, and once again she was struck by the feeling she had met him before. “The right question would be, what can I do for you.”
He pulled something out of his pocket, and she eyed it gingerly. A wand. But not his wand - no, his wand was in his other hand, aimed at her. The second wand was medium-length, in a pleasant, light brown wood. Everything about it felt pleasant, and suddenly she realised - it was her wand.
“See, here’s the thing.” The man was playing with her wand, rolling it in his hand. “I could let you rot here. Or die. Or talk all about where your friends are. But I got better plans for you. I think you’re going to like them.”
He gave her a smile that felt more like a shark, opening its mouth for the kill. “I’m going to break you out of here.”
She didn’t say a word.
“Aren’t you going to ask why?” he looked at her questioningly. She stared back at him, keeping her gaze straight on his, saying nothing. “You’re no fun at all, Granger.”
“I know why,” she said hoarsely. “So I could lead you to everyone else.”
“Wrong again, Granger.” He had now taken to examining his - manicured, clean - fingernails in boredom. “I’m not interested in apprehending your group. In fact, I’m interested in helping you.”
“Why? Why should I believe you? What can a Death Eater possibly gain from betting on the losing side?”
“Revenge.” He said it coldly, haughtily, without a hint of passion. And suddenly she knew who he was and why his arrogance, his haughtiness, his sneers were so familiar to her, even on the wrong face.
“Now we’re getting somewhere. Very good, Granger.”
For a moment, his condescension and arrogance angered her, and she entertained the thought of telling him, in very exact words, where he could shove his suggestion as well as his attitude. But that was the old Hermione. The Hermione that lived five years ago, the Hermione that went to Hogwarts in a world where ‘Mudblood’ was still a very foul word and not an every-day expression, and hearing it was the worst that could happen to someone like her. That Hermione was long gone, and this Hermione couldn’t afford doing that now.
In the end, she settled for asking what will happen to the man who Malfoy was impersonating.
He shrugged. “He’ll deny ever releasing you, no one will believe him, he’ll probably get executed. The Dark Lord doesn’t like traitors very much. What do you care what happens to a Death Eater?”
“I just thought you might,” she said coldly, and didn’t like the smile he gave her at all.
“At the moment, I care for your well being much more than I do for his. You should consider this a compliment, by the way.”
For just a moment, she allowed herself to think about turning him down again.
Not in a million years would Hermione Granger have ever believed she would owe her life to Draco Malfoy. But by now he had managed to get her out of sticky situations at least three times in the past five years, and the information he had given them during that period turned out to be invaluable. It didn’t make her like him any more, and of course, there was always the nagging doubt that this would be the time that Draco Malfoy would sell them out. But so far, it didn’t happen. At least, not yet, as Ron pointed out time and again.
“Imagine seeing you here, Granger,” Draco Malfoy said, and she sighed and took another sip from the wine he had ordered - just for her, as it was her favourite.
“You knew I’d come,” she stated, rather than questioned.
“I needed to talk to you. In fact, I’ve been needing to talk to you for the past six months, but you were nowhere to be found.”
“We were busy.”
“You gave up.” There was something accusatory in his voice. She raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t think - “
“Get this, Granger. I didn’t make sure you stayed alive and free all these years just because I like your pretty brown eyes. We had a deal. You live, you try to get rid of him. And you gave up.”
“Is that what you wanted to talk to - hold on,” she finally registered what he said. He didn’t say, ‘of course you’d come’. He didn’t say, ‘I knew you’ll need me’. He said, ‘I needed to talk to you’. She narrowed her eyes at him in anger. “You told Zabini about Anthony.”
He smirked, and she wanted to slap him - and would have, had it not included drawing far too much attention to herself.
“I noticed he was talking to someone last night. But there was no one there. And then I thought, who has an invisibility cloak? I figured you must have arranged something. But even I didn’t expect that bloke to use Goldstein for his Polyjuice Potion. You got sloppy, don’t blame that on me.”
“Blame it on you?” she almost shouted, then lowered her voice, exchanging volume for cold fury. “You - sold - him - out.”
“Would you forget about Goldstein?”
“No, I am not going to forget about him. We need to get him out - can you look any more condescending?!”
He smirked. “You need to sort out your priorities, Granger. Forget about Goldstein - for the moment. He isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“No, he’s just another victim of your schemes, there for you to use and cast away,” she said scathingly. He didn’t seem to object. If anything, he seemed to take pride in the accusation. Trust a Death Eater and this is what you get, she could hear Ron’s voice clearly now in her mind. Ron was right. Ron was right all along.
“Two years ago, you asked me for information. Top secret information. Information that’s nowhere to be found anywhere in the Ministry. Information I could have lost my life trying to get. Well, guess what, Granger, I finally have an answer for you. And had you bothered staying in touch, you would have got it sooner, except I decided I can’t wait for you to come to me any longer.” Malfoy’s nostrils flared. “If you want to blame someone for Goldstein, blame yourself. You should have come to me sooner.”
Her cold anger became warm for a moment again, but then subsided. She remembered what information she had asked him to provide that time, the one thing he was never able to get her. It was a wild shot in the dark then, and it looked even more improbable now. She had asked him about Horcruxes.
His smug smile broadened. “Yes,” he said. “As Senior Undersecretary to the Minister, you get to hear pretty interesting stuff. For example, the entire Department of Mysteries is working on Horcruxes these days.”
“What are they researching?”
“Believe it or not, but transfer of Horcruxes from one soul to the other.”
She looked at him, dumbfounded. “That’s impossible. Surely he knows - “
“He is too scared to create new Horcruxes,” Malfoy’s smile now had reached new levels of smugness, but for once, Hermione didn’t mind. If what he was saying was true - the implications -
They could win this. The realisation hit her without warning. For a moment, her arm shook, and she took another sip of the wine, just to regain her strength.
None of them believed anymore. Not even Neville. Maybe Neville. She wasn’t sure. It wasn’t something you asked. But she knew that even though she still insisted there was a point to fighting back, she didn’t believe it. She hadn’t for a long time. Neither did Luna. And Ron’s faith died long before that, long before either of them had given up hope. But if the Dark Lord had not created any new Horcruxes, if it was only the snake, the snake and him...
They could win this. They actually stood a chance.
Her shock must have shown on her face, for Malfoy started nodding. “Yes,” he whispered. “He’s got it into his mind that there’s something really dangerous in creating new Horcruxes. I don’t know why, but who cares. And he’s got it into his mind that Horcruxes could switch from one person to the other. Again - don’t know why, don’t really care. But the thing is, that instead of looking for other ways to gain immortality, or other Horcruxes, all he’s doing is sitting on his snaky arse and shout at the people at the Department of Mysteries that they’re incompetent. Now’s your chance to finally live up to your end of the deal.”
“I’ll have to talk to the others,” she said.
“And we’ll have to get Anthony out first.”
“Aren’t you listening? I said - “
“I know what you said,” she cut across him. “And this is going to need careful planning, Malfoy. And careful planning requires time. And Anthony doesn’t have that time. We’re getting him out first, then taking care of You-Know-Who.”
He snorted. “You never learn,” he said, shaking his head. “If you mess this up - “
“Don’t worry. We won’t.”
“Make sure that you don’t,” he snapped, and after a second, smiled again. “That’s what I like about you lot. You’re so... honourable.”
She didn’t like the sound of that one bit.
She walked home in the drizzle, her mind deep in thought. To Malfoy, of course, she talked without a shadow of a doubt. First Anthony, then the Dark Lord. She wasn’t going to say anything else - after all, she had just asked him to meet again tomorrow, to supply them with the information needed to free Anthony from his prison. Any sign of doubt, any hint of a different priority, and Malfoy would have become unreliable. Would have preferred pushing them in that direction rather than give them any help in saving Anthony, and postponing that rescue attempt would probably mean the death of him. So she told him there was no question about it, none at all. But there was. Of course there was.
Now, on her own, on her way home - and when did that place ever become home? - waving her wand at the protective enchantments in front of the door, without which they’d have all been dead a long time ago, she realised she just didn’t know. It wasn’t just her -when she delivered Malfoy’s wonderful news, she could see the same uncertainty and doubt reflected from the faces of her friends.
“What would he do if we got Anthony out?” Hermione finally spoke aloud the thought that bothered her the most, the one they were all thinking. None of them dared look her in the eye. Dean and Parvati looked at one another, shocked. Neville examined his fingernails. Luna seemed to forget they were there, deep in thought.
It was Ron who protested in the end. “We can’t. We can’t let them kill Anthony. We don’t know this information is worth anything. The danger to Anthony is real.”
“And if we break into what he considers the safest place outside of Azkaban, he’ll know we’re around and he’ll panic. And then who knows what’ll happen,” she retorted.
“So, what, we should let Anthony rot because we might have some information we don’t even know what to do with yet? He doesn’t have a lot of time!”
“What do you think, Neville?” Luna asked gently. But Neville, who usually was the first to offer words of wisdom, shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said quietly.
That was exactly what Hermione was afraid of. They had come to rely on Neville’s judgement in almost everything in the past few years. Ron was too hot-headed, too angry; Luna didn’t always pay attention, and even when she did, her suggestions were not always realistic; and Hermione... Hermione didn’t always trust herself. Ron used to say it was nonsense, that he trusted her judgement and would follow her in a heartbeat, and she knew he meant it but laughed at him for a bit, and said he wouldn’t have said that had she not been the one to share his bed every night. He huffed at her and she appreciated it, but still, she doubted herself.
No, it was Neville they had come to rely on. Neville, who always kept a cool head, who was resourceful, and could always come with the most sensible solution. And most importantly, Neville, whose faith had never shown signs of wavering, not even after ten years, not even after Harry died, or after Hannah died.
But when it came to taking a risk on Anthony, he was compromised, and he knew it himself. “I don’t know,” he repeated. “I think we should save Anthony first, but - well, I don’t know how much I should be trusted with that judgement.”
“Do we get a vote?” Parvati asked impatiently, and Hermione jumped. She had forgotten they were there.
“It’s not a vote, Parvati,” Neville said, still pleasantly. “We’re all discussing it together.”
“Well, as long as we’re all discussing it together, Anthony’s in trouble because he helped me and Dean, and we’d like to repay the favour.”
“The plan was for us to go somewhere where the Death Eaters can’t find us,” Dean interrupted, “but I think we both have no intention to disappear into safety while he’s in the hands of the Death Eaters.”
Parvati nodded. “I’m as much for taking down You-Know-Who as the rest of you guys, and I’m going to stay and help anyway, but we can’t sacrifice Anthony for that. Otherwise we’re just like the Death Eaters.”
Just like Malfoy. That was it, wasn’t it. That was why he knew that putting Anthony in such a terrible danger would bring Hermione to him. Because they couldn’t just cut their losses and move on, like the Death Eaters did. Like he said - they actually cared about people.
“Besides,” Dean offered, “it’s like what Ron said. We don’t even know this information will give us anything of substance.”
“Yes, but Ron only said that because he doesn’t believe You-Know-Who could ever be defeated,” Hermione said in a tired voice.
Ron didn’t answer. She didn’t mention it again as the group kept on talking about the possibilities, and Ron kept on pushing for a decision, until they decided that they would continue with the original plan. She didn’t say anything when Dean proposed a toast, ‘for the success of this mission - and the next one’. She didn’t say anything when everyone retired to their bedrooms. Only when she was brushing her teeth, back in their room, did she talk about it again. “You really don’t believe, do you?”
“I really don’t believe what, Hermione?” he asked, slightly irritated.
“That he can be defeated.”
“I used to. A long time ago. You know that.” She turned from the small sink to look at him. He was sitting on the bed, looking at her and thinking.
“And then what happened?” she asked playfully, but he wasn’t in the mood for games.
“And then the bastard we believed in decided to make things easier for him and harder for us.”
She spat the toothpaste in her mouth and came to sit next to him. “Maybe he cared more about saving our lives?” she suggested quietly. “Maybe he didn’t want to allow us to die just to save his own. Kinda like what we’re doing now. The clever thing would be to let Anthony die, Ron. But you’re making the same choice as he did. Can’t you see that.”
Ron turned his face away from her, staring at the wall for a moment. She took his chin in her hand and gently pulled his face back towards her. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he repeated, then allowed himself a small smile.
“Forget about all that,” she said. “Maybe it’s time you started being a bit of an optimist?”
He shrugged. “Maybe,” he said, but didn’t sound convinced.
Hermione must have got her idea while sleeping, because when she woke up, she knew exactly what she should do.
Ron was still sleeping. Good, she thought, and got quietly out of bed, trying her best not to wake him up. She almost succeeded, too - only when she was about to leave the room, she heard a voice behind her. “And where do you think you’re going?” he asked sleepily.
“The Ministry of Magic.”
“What?!” He was now fully awake, and she sighed. She could have lied to him, of course, but he probably wouldn’t have believed her anyway.
“I’m going to the Ministry of Magic. To talk to Malfoy.”
“I thought you set up the meeting with him at his place, this evening.”
“Yes, I did,” she nodded. “But I thought about it, and I think trying to get into the Ministry makes more sense.”
He got out of bed now. “In what world,” he asked, “is walking straight into the Ministry of Magic makes any bloody sense at all?”
“In the world where all of us are going to have to do it tomorrow anyway,” she pointed out. “I’m checking to see if it can be done. If it can’t... well, it’s easier to get away when you’re one person than it is when you’re six. Besides, that way we could analyse what went wrong and avoid it.”
“And if they catch you?”
“Well,” she said, a lot more flippant than she felt, “in that case, there’s already one rescue mission in the planning, you’ll just have to include me there as well.”
“Hermione...” Ron looked at her, tense, pale, worried.
“I’ll be fine, Ron.”
He looked at the door, then back at her. She knew what he must have been thinking - was there any way he could prevent her from following what he undoubtedly considered her foolish idea - and sighed. “You can’t change my mind,” she said aloud, to make her point clearer. He nodded.
“Don’t get caught,” he said instead of wishing her ‘good luck’.
“I’m not planning to,” she answered.
She could feel his eyes following her all the way to the street.
Saturday morning meant the streets around her were mostly empty, that she was mostly safe from curious eyes. She would have preferred to take the invisibility cloak, or better yet, a sip of Polyjuice Potion, but she could rely on neither of these luxuries today. The Ministry of Magic had long ago implemented extra measures of security in its gateway, making the entrance of any concealed witch or wizard completely impossible. Any effect of the Polyjuice Potion would be washed away, the invisibility cloak would be rendered useless. No, she had to resort back to her refuge in audacity - and trust that no security wizard at the gates of the Ministry would ever believe that Hermione Granger was walking openly into the Ministry.
Once she made it there, she turned to the gate reserved to the half-bloods who wished to enter the Ministry. There was nothing she would have liked better at that point than go through the gate that was reserved for purebloods, but she decided not to test her luck that much - the old pureblood families all knew each other, and she would be much more likely to be spotted there.
“Name?” the bored security wizard asked her.
“Penelope Clearwater,” was the first name that came to her mind. He didn’t even raise his eyes.
“Wand, please,” he said, and after the smallest hesitation, she gave her wand. He weighed it in, and gave her the wand back. She only dared breathing again when she was holding it firmly in her hand. And then the security wizard waved her through the barrier.
She did it. She got through.
The more sarcastic part of her thought that two years ago, this would not have been possible. The Ministry had slackened security because they, Hermione, Ron and the rest, had stopped fighting back. But now, it was working in their favour. Until tomorrow, that is, she thought.
It didn’t take her long to find Malfoy’s office. As Senior Undersecretary to the Minister, his office was at the edge of the first floor - close by to the office of the Minister himself. He said he’d be working that Saturday, which was why they had originally set their next meeting to the evening, but luckily, it was only Malfoy who had to catch up on work that weekend. The rest of the corridor was abandoned.
When she found the right door, she opened it without knocking and walked inside, making sure to close the door behind her. Malfoy was deep into paperwork, and didn’t even bother lifting his gaze to see who the newcomer was. “Cup of coffee,” he said, clearly mistaking Hermione for one of the Ministry’s assistants.
Well, she thought, too bad for him. “I know this wonderful place, not far from here,” she said and he jumped at the sound of her voice. “Unfortunately, they only accept Muggle currency.”
“Granger!” He almost choked on the word.
She gave him a cold smile. “That’s me,” she said.
“What the - what are you doing here?” he demanded.
“I’ve decided to have our little meeting slightly earlier than we agreed.”
“You can’t do that! You can’t - walking straight into - do you realise - “ She enjoyed to see him all flushed and spluttering in indignation. There was something so immensely rewarding about it. “You can’t do that!” he settled for in the end and she just laughed.
“Obviously, I did. I think you need to test your security - just not before Monday. Do you have what I asked you?”
He stared at her for a while longer, but she could see how the annoyance was slowly turning into something that wasn’t quite admiration, but close enough - much closer than to his original reaction, and that was more than she had ever expected.
“You know, for a jumped-up Mudblood, you’re quite - “
“Yes, yes, I know. Do you have it or not?”
He threw a bundle of parchments at her. “Everything you need to know, security, the layout, everything. He’s held in the Department of Mysteries, in the cells there. Along with a couple of others - oh, yeah, What’s-Her-Name is there, too, the twins... Patil. That’s it. She’s also there.”
Her eyes left the papers he had given her and focused on him, instead. “Parvati said Padma’s dead.”
“Yeah, that’s what she’d think,” he shrugged. “That’s definitely the impression the Ministry wanted to give. But I took a look at the prisoner list - it’s all there, by the way - and she’s here. Very much alive. Although, after being locked up here for three months, I’m not sure she’s worth saving.”
“We’ll decided that,” Hermione snapped, and he just shrugged again.
“You know,” she said testily, “if you think we shouldn’t be doing this, you could do it yourself. Take some more Polyjuice Potion and get them out. You’ve done it before.”
He smirked. “Like the time I got you out, you mean? I’m disappointed, Granger. Back then you were worried about the fate of the innocent owners of hairs and other Polyjuice Potion ingredients.”
“There are no innocent people in this building,” she snapped at him.
He shrugged. “Whatever you want to tell yourself. And don’t think I haven’t thought of that, but unfortunately, that’s not an option. They’ve extended the anti-concealment charms to those floors, too. It wouldn’t work.”
“Well then, looks like it’s up to us again to clean up after you.” She picked up the papers and turned to leave.
“What, you’re not going to say ‘thanks’?” he asked behind her, and she made a point to turn around and look straight at him as she said, “No.”
“Granger. Before you leave. Got something else for you.”
“What now, Malfoy?” if her impatience could be heard in her voice, she didn’t care. But her impatience left her when she saw him holding a small vile, and in it, a silvery blue substance. A memory.
“Yes, I know that. What’s in it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Alright, whose is it?”
“I don’t know.”
She sighed in exasperation once again. This was ridiculous, even for Malfoy. “Then why are you giving it to me, Malfoy?” she said slowly, as if talking to a small child.
“They got this out of the Pensieve in Snape’s office. Ten years ago.”
“That’s Snape’s memories,” Hermione gasped, remembering that fateful day all those years ago.
“Snape?” Malfoy looked at the vial in interest. “I thought this may be Dumbledore’s, but Snape - “
“He gave them to Harry,” she said quietly.
“Yeah,” he said. “And after Potter saw that, he went and let the Dark Lord kill him.” Malfoy played with the vial for a little longer, and all of a sudden said, “I don’t want to see what’s in there. It probably says there’s no way to defeat him. I don’t want to know.”
She looked at him with curiosity. She couldn’t even remember a time he had let go of his swagger, of his arrogance, let go enough to sound like this. Enough to sound - honest. “Then why are you giving this to us?” she asked, not unkindly.
“On the off chance that Potter learned something that could destroy the Dark Lord from this, and was just too incompetent to finish him.”
She took the vial from him without another word. She put it deep in her pockets. She may not have looked at the small vial again, but it stayed on her mind all the way back home. She passed the security wizard without giving him another thought, walked the street openly, as if she did it on a regular basis, and finally walked inside, and all that time she was thinking of those memories.
She hardly even noticed the worried looks that greeted her when she got inside. Ron jumped when he saw her, relief clearly written all over his face. “You’re back,” he managed, quietly, and she hugged him. Even in this state of mind, even so preoccupied, she didn’t need him to say anything else - those two words were everything she needed to hear.
“Yeah,” she said after she let go of him, still distracted, still thinking of the little vial in her pocket. She didn’t even realise they were all looking at her expectantly until Neville finally asked, “Well?”
“Oh!” she said and took out Malfoy’s papers. None of them showed any sign she was behaving strangely. They all jumped over the parchments, going over them and looking for the best way inside, the most likely place Anthony will be held, and anything else that could help them.
“ - probably won’t be in the best shape, but six people with one prisoner shouldn’t be - “
“Two prisoners,” Hermione interrupted, as Dean’s words reminded her of the information Malfoy had given her.
“Two prisoners?” they looked at her, confused.
“Parvati... Padma - she’s alive.”
Parvati stared at Hermione for a moment. No one said anything.
“Are you sure?” she asked, her voice quiet all of a sudden.
“That’s what Malfoy said. He said - “ she looked for the list of prisoners and compared it to the sketch that was given them. “There. Cell eight. Right next to Anthony. He said sometimes the Ministry makes people think they’ve killed their prisoners when in fact they -“
“They haven’t,” Parvati whispered and sat down.
Dean knelt next to her, pressing his hand into hers. “She’s alive,” he told her. “That’s all that matters. We’ll get her out. Just like we’re getting Anthony out. It’s gonna be alright.”
Parvati stared at him for a while, speechless. It took them all a while to get settled again and continue planning their way in, but now Parvati was just as distracted as Hermione was. In the end, it took them all day long. Every part of the plan had to be perfect, every obstacle thought of and accounted for. Every time someone had an objection, they would shout at each other for long minutes at a time, until an agreement could be reached. When evening came and with it the time to sleep, they were all exhausted. Exhausted, but excited - that very next morning they were going to release the Ministry’s prisoners, and afterwards - well, afterwards, they were going to gain their freedom.
Even Ron had caught up some of the excitement. Even Ron joined in with the others’ enthusiasm. For the first time in such a long time, he looked like he could feel hope again. That alone made Hermione feel better, and by the time everyone started going to their rooms, to try and sleep until morning, she could almost go to sleep herself. Almost - except for one thing.
“Well, what is it?” Ron asked her as he put a cup of tea in front of her, when they were the only two left in the kitchen.
“What’s what?” she asked, distracted, thinking of the vial again.
“Whatever it is that got you so preoccupied today.”
“Was it this obvious?” she laughed.
“Hermione, it took you more than three seconds to tell Parvati that Padma is alive. That makes it obvious, yes. And then all day long you’re looking at your pocket - yeah, I’d say something’s got you thinking.”
She wondered for a moment, but just for a moment. This was Ron, he had a right to know. She took out the vial.
Ron froze. He looked from her, to the vial, to her again.
“That’s what made Harry give himself up, all those years ago.”
Ron made to grab for the vial, but she held it firmly. “I don’t know if we should watch it now. I thought maybe... maybe it’s best later. After we’re back.”
“Why, so we’d think we have a chance?” Ron asked, his good mood all gone.
“So that’s what you think? You think this says he can’t be beaten? You think Harry saw this and just gave up?”
“I think I want to see this,” he answered stubbornly.
With a sigh, she fetched a pot, filled it with water, then cast a simple spell. The water transformed - the pot was full now of transparent liquid, thicker than water, slightly brighter. The aluminium of the pot shone in a strange blue colour. For all intents and purposes, it was a Pensieve. She uncorked the vial gently, and poured its contents into the water.
“Let’s do this together,” she said, and he nodded. Without a word, they plunged themselves into the makeshift Pensieve.
In the memories, a young boy was telling a Muggle-born girl that she was a witch.
When Hermione got down to the kitchen the next morning, Ron was still sitting in the same place, staring at the wall, his face pale.
“Did you get any sleep at all?” she asked gently.
“No,” he said. His voice didn’t sound like it belonged to him. It was all spiky and rough and hoarse.
“Me neither,” she admitted.
He kept on staring at the wall. She put her hand on his. “You know,” he stirred suddenly, “all that time I thought - I was certain - I hated him.”
“I know,” she said.
“I was so angry. But if he’s - “
Ron stopped abruptly. Neville had come down to the kitchen. He looked at them for a moment, obviously sensing he was intruding on a private moment. Ron bit his lip. There weren’t many secrets between the four of them, there weren’t many things he didn’t tell Neville or Luna, but Hermione knew he wasn’t ready to confess that bit. Not yet.
“Are you ready?” Neville asked, maybe mistaking their expressions as tension about their upcoming rescue attempt, or perhaps, just being diplomatic.
Ron nodded. He didn’t look like he trusted his voice, Hermione reflected.
“We’re ready to go when you are,” she said instead.
“You might want to change from your bathrobe then,” Neville commented. She gave a short laughter - there was little else to do just then.
“Let’s go get them.”
Chapter 4: in which a prisonbreak takes place
Every time Parvati thought life would become simpler, everything ended up being even more complicated. Ever since the Dark Lord had won, there were no more easy solutions, it seemed.
It started simple enough. They lived near Diagon Alley. They had lived there for years, even though the work they were assigned was in Hogsmeade. Most Purebloods didn’t get assigned work, of course. They were allowed to choose their own line of employment. But Parvati and Padma had fought in the Battle of Hogwarts - on the losing side. That made them blood traitors - and that made them in the group of people who got assigned work and a place to live. The most they could do about it was fill in form 74/5a in three copies and request a change of assignment from the Ministry of Magic.
It wasn’t just the job, or their flat. They couldn’t Apparate to Hogsmeade every day in order to go to work, either. As Supervised Persons, they were barred from Apparating and Disapprating in places that had a high population of wizards. The Ministry called this a necessary precaution, and cited Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger’s little resistance as the excuse. But that resistance was so quiet in recent times, that Padma said more than once that they’re probably already dead, and the Ministry didn’t publicise that fact. After all, not publicising it made it possible to implement exactly such restrictions. Parvati hoped she was wrong, that Ron and Hermione were still alive - but taking the pessimistic view on things had proven the wise course of actions too many times. No, both Parvati and Padma agreed - the restrictions were put in place to make it difficult for people like them, for Supervised Persons, for blood-traitors.
Still, they were tired of the train rides, of waking up in the middle of the night, not long enough after they had gone to sleep, of the entire ridiculous situation. “Honestly,” Padma complained one night, “either they give us a place in Hogsmeade or work in London!” So the next day they went to the Ministry and filled in their forms, in all copies required.
To their complete and utter surprised, the response came positive. So when the next weekend came, they packed up their stuff - a couple of suitcases and 3 cardboard boxes, not much for nine years in the same flat - and took the train to Hogsmeade for what they hoped was the last time in the near future.
But when they got to their new flat, they wanted nothing but to move back into their old one.
It was a small place, two-bedrooms-no-living-room, out on the outskirts of Hogsmeade. That in itself did not bother them. They preferred to have their privacy, they didn’t entertain a lot, the size of the flat wasn’t a problem, and neither was the fact it wasn’t in a central location. They were even grateful that they were assigned a flat just for the two of them, with no unwanted flatmates. No, the problem was the fact that there, at the very edge of wizard civilisation, whenever they had looked outside the windows they saw the Hogsmeade Camp down below.
The Purebloods, even the half-bloods, were long ago released. Parvati and Padma were in such a camp after the war, for perhaps six months, no more. Padma still had nightmares every once in a while, when she woke up screaming and Parvati rushed to her to calm her down and tell her that it was alright, it was long over. It was long over - for them. Some camps still remained - for the Ministry’s political prisoners, for those they held as hostages, such are Ron Weasley’s family, and for the Mudbloods.
And now they had one of those camps right under their window.
“Don’t look,” Parvati kept on telling Padma, and Padma kept on looking. There was no point in looking, Parvati said. There was nothing they could do. They had no power to stop it. Any attempt to do so would just end up with them joining the ranks of the imprisoned. Padma shuddered and turned from the window when she said that, overcome with memories. But soon after, she’d go to the window again.
That was how she recognised Dean Thomas.
“Look,” she called Parvati one day.
Parvati raised her head in interest, and then sighed when she saw where Padma was - at the window. “There’s no point,” she answered.
“No, really,” Padma said, and there was an urgency in her voice, an urgency Parvati hadn’t heard in a long time. “Come and see this.”
Despite her better judgement, she got up and joined her sister at the window.
“Look,” Padma whispered, and pointed her finger.
He was another prisoner, working near the fence at whatever it is they made them work. He was thin, too thin - maybe that was why Parvati had a hard time recognising him at first. But then he stopped working to wipe the sweat from his brow and she caught a glimpse of his face. It was a long decade since she had last seen Dean Thomas’s face - and definitely never like that - but she still recognised her old classmate.
“He was in Gryffindor,” she said quietly and wanted to cry. Padma just kept on looking through the window.
She wasn’t sure which one of the two of them got the idea first. Maybe they had it at the same time. But by the next morning, they were both in agreement. They needed to get Dean Thomas out of there.
So, their plan to simplify their lives had become much more complicated. First, they had to contact Dean, let him know they were there. The both of them kept on watching from the window, looking for a pattern in the working schedule, a way to predict when Dean will show up. When that strategy failed, they started watching down towards the camp just hoping to get a glimpse of him. As soon as that happened, they decided, they would go down under some pretence.
It took them a week and a half to contact Dean. But it took them longer to get him to cooperate. He didn’t recognise Parvati at first. He didn’t even look at her - Parvati was worried that perhaps he had been punished in the past, punished badly enough to avoid any contact with anyone on the other side of the fence. She would go down, walk as innocently as she could towards the fence, and - after making sure there were no guards in sight - whisper his name. But he didn’t answer.
She went up again, helpless, and consulted Padma. But Padma didn’t have a better idea, either. All they could say to each other was that they will try again. She went down there twice more, and twice more, she was ignored. Twice she stood next to the fence, as close as she could risk it, for as long as she could risk it, and called his name, and twice he failed to answer.
But on the third time, he did.
“Dean,” she hissed at him, and all of a sudden he stopped, wiped his brow, and looked directly at her.
“Parvati,” he whispered back, and she smiled. He didn’t smile back. “Go away,” he said urgently. “Too dangerous. Just go.”
“No,” she said. “We’re breaking you out.”
He didn’t look like he believed her.
In the end, they were both right. They broke him out of there - but it was far too dangerous. They got caught.
They would have liked to do it in the middle of the night, in the darkness, and with a much better chance of tired guards who didn’t notice what was going on around them. But there was no way to trust that Dean would be able to get any closer to the fence during night, and Parvati and Padma couldn’t risk going inside the camp themselves. So they settled for a late afternoon, when they saw Dean working alone again next to the fence. They had debated before about the various spells they could use to break the fence, Transfigure it, or just make a part of it disappear. They didn’t know how much of the fence would be resistant to magic - after all, while the prisoners themselves didn’t have wands, plenty of the people who would want to free them had. But they had to try.
So they sneaked in when they saw Dean, performed their well-practiced magic - and a part of the fence was gone, at the same time as a high-pitch scream was heard. The alarm.
“Dean!” Parvati shouted. “Now!”
He looked right, left, hesitant and doubtful. the fence was broken, but he still didn’t believe he could go out.
“Dean!” Parvati shouted again. Padma looked nervously at all directions. Every minute now, they would see the security wizards coming their way. They looked at each other, helpless. There was nothing else to do. Parvati rushed through the gap in the fence and into the camp, and grabbed Dean’s arm, pulling him with her towards the gap. Three steps after they were outside. He seemed to regain some of his confidence then, and followed her with shaky steps instead of being dragged.
“C’mon, Padma,” Parvati shouted now, but Padma was too busy - sending one spell after the other at the guards. They had arrived.
Parvati drew her own wand, ready to join the fight. One Killing Curse after the other, she targeted the guards, but seemed to miss more than hit. Padma wasn’t doing much better, and the guards kept on advancing.
“Leave them!” Parvati shouted at her. “Get here, we need to go!” Their goal wasn’t far off - 3 metres to the east of the camp was the border of the Apparition spell. 3 metres to the east of the camp, they’d be able to grab Dean and Apparate without being detected or followed. She would have told him to Apparate himself before them, but without a wand that was impossible. He would have to stand there and wait until they all managed to get away from the Death Eaters. She started advancing towards Padma, to help her sister’s retreat.
It was then that the worst happened. Parvati could see it all - the green light leaving the tip of a Death Eater’s wand, just as another’s wand shot a shower of red sparks. Padma tried to avoid the red, didn’t notice the green - and then she was falling, falling towards the ground, and once she hit the ground she stayed there, unmoving.
The Death Eaters now diverted their attention to Parvati. She didn’t even have time to scream, didn’t have time to think. Some of them were already near Padma, prodding her with their wands, and the others were advancing, dodging her red and green sparks and sending their own.
There was nothing to it. They had to run. She grabbed Dean’s hand and started running blindly towards that point to the east, not even stopping to send more curses down the Death Eaters’ way. No time. It was a race, she knew, and whoever got to that point first won.
Parvati and Dean beat the Dark Lord’s servants to it with about half a second, but that was all they needed. Parvati spun on the spot, hand holding tight to Dean, and they were gone, out of the Ministry’s reach.
Every time Parvati thought life would become simpler, everything ended up being even more complicated. Finding Anthony should have been the easy part, the way to get out of this mess and into safety. But instead, she found herself now going straight back into the lion’s den, the Ministry of Magic, without Polyjuice Potion, without an invisibility cloak, without any other camouflage, trying to get Padma - and Anthony - out.
She didn’t really see the streets of Muggle London in front of her. She didn’t see the Muggles trying to hide from the drizzle. She used to love walking in Muggle London, where no one was aware of the Dark Lord. She used to take long walks with Padma that would take them away from wizard society, when they still lived in London. Now nothing would register, only the fact that Padma was alive. She couldn’t sleep the night before. She had been awake and alert ever since Hermione said her sister was still alive. She couldn’t concentrate. She couldn’t think. She’d look around now at the faces, and all she could see was Padma - Padma, who was still alive, even though she and Dean both read in the Daily Prophet that she was dead.
Someone touched her hand. She jumped in surprise. “Sorry,” she heard a mumble, and when she looked, she saw it was Dean. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said.
“No, it’s alright. I was just - “ thinking of Padma. Thinking of her spending months in that prison, in the Ministry, interrogated by the Death Eaters.
“We’re getting her out,” he said to her in encouragement. “We’re almost there.”
He also looked guilty. He always looked guilty when Padma came up - in the rare times she did, because Parvati’s memories of her sister were private, not to be shared with anyone, not even with Dean. But now they weren’t going to be memories, now Padma was alive, things could go back to the way they were and they won’t be memories, just every day life, life with Padma being there again, only Padma had been imprisoned for months and... Parvati shuddered, not willing to think the end of that thought.
She couldn’t afford thinking that, she told herself. She had to focus. For Padma.
“It will be alright,” Dean said again, and oh, how she wanted to believe him!
And then, suddenly and way too early, they had reached the Ministry’s entrance. This was it.
They had gone over their course of action the day before. They would all walk in separately, give the name they had agreed upon to the guard, just like Hermione did, and meet again near the lifts. It was all-so-simple when Hermione described it yesterday. Now, sneaking a glance at her, Parvati saw that her face was unusually pale and her jaw tight. Still, that was nothing compared to the look on Ron’s face, who seemed almost as much in a shock as she, Parvati, felt.
Hermione gave them a small, encouraging smile, and all of a sudden Parvati knew she couldn’t walk in all on her own. Not when Padma was in there. She wanted to say something to Hermione or Neville, but when she opened her mouth, her voice refused to come out. Hermione said, “Well, good luck,” and walked towards the women’s toilets, and Parvati watched her go and wanted to shout after he that she wasn’t ready. But she couldn’t say a word.
Three minutes after Hermione, Ron’s moment came, and they saw him disappear in the men’s toilets. Three minutes more, too soon and not soon enough, and it was Parvati’s turn. She stared at her watch, at the door of the toilet, and couldn’t move.
“Come on, Parvati,” Dean said gently behind her, and she took a deep breath and walked into the toilets and from there to the Ministry of Magic.
The Atrium was completely empty. Most wizards, of course, didn’t come to the office on Sunday, and even Ron and Hermione were nowhere to be seen. She breathed deep for a second, trying to hide the horror she knew was written all over her face, and walked towards the entrance barrier.
They had agreed on an answer, in case the guard started asking some questions. She was all ready to talk about how the wizard responsible for magical cooperation had got an urgent owl from the French Ministry, and called up on some of the members in his department to fix a mess that apparently included owls, dragons, and rabbit bones. She almost started saying it, when she realised the wizard at the gate didn’t even bother to ask.
“Name?” he said lazily, reading the Sunday Prophet.
“Lakshmi Kumar,” she repeated the name of a half-blood witch who, as far as they knew, still worked in the Ministry.
“Wand, please,” the guard sounded even more bored. She gave him her wand, and he put it through his little device and returned it to her, together with a receipt.
She took the wand, went through the barrier, and turned left, outside the guard’s view. The lifts were to the right, but she needed a moment to lean against the wall and simply breathe. Relax, she told herself. The hard part’s over. Soon, you’ll be able to see Padma again!
That thought gave her joy enough to go on, to join Hermione and Ron at the Atrium, where Dean was already standing with them, all three pretending to be waiting for the next lift.
“We thought you got lost,” he said, but she could see his wink. He himself was still shaking a bit. Like her, entering the Ministry of Magic was no small feat for him. More than her, she realised. She may have been an enemy of the wizarding world, but she was still Pureblood. He was a Mudblood.
“We’ll be out of here in no time,” she tried to encourage him, and he tried to smile back, but his smile faltered. He was too nervous to be reassuring, too nervous to smile. Ron and Hermione were the same - Hermione fretting, pale, and Ron just staring at the wall, looking almost green.
Another two minutes, and Neville and Luna showed up together. They were all there. Time to go. Hermione caught the next lift and they all walked in and started their slow descent into the Ministry’s inner-most layer, the Department of Mysteries.
It was torture. It was ridiculous to get frustrated at the lift, because their destination was only two floors down. But the lift stopped at both these floors, raising the chance of wizards and witches walking in, recognising that they didn’t belong there, or worse - recognising them. It was even worse that no one did walk in. It felt like a waste of time. Every second it took them to get to the Department of Mysteries was another second Padma was imprisoned, Parvati thought in despair that was fast becoming anger.
Finally, even this slow torture was over. They walked out and into the Department of Mysteries, and through it towards the courtrooms, and from there, just as Malfoy told them, down towards the cells where the prisoners still being interrogated were kept by the Ministry.
They all drew their wands. She could see Dean looking with doubt at his. He had lost his own wand ten years ago, and was now using Seamus’s wand, given to him by Neville. But it was better than nothing. She thought that with any luck, they won’t have to do a lot of fighting.
But would they really be lucky? she wondered as they took their one step after the other towards the cells, each step feeling heavier and slower than the previous one. It was just as safe to assume that even though Padma had survived her initial capture, this imprisonment would have killed her. That almost happened in the time they spent in the camps, and then Padma had Parvati on her side. In the past few months, she had no one. Down here, Parvati couldn’t remember her sister’s face anymore, even though it was so similar to her own. She couldn’t remember how she looked like when she laughed, she couldn’t remember all the fun they had together, their time at Hogwarts, all she remembered was that day, when she saw Padma going down.
Next to her, Dean had stopped moving. At first, she thought he was remembering the same thing. But when she turned around, she realised he was shaking, shaking so much stronger than before, and his face turned into a sick shade of grey. She wanted to ask him whether he was okay, but of course he wasn’t okay, nothing was okay, they were going to be caught there, they were all going to be caught, they were -
“Expecto Patronum,” Luna called all of a sudden as their steps took them into the corridor in front of them. A silvery hare burst out of the wand and charged the corridor, and all of a sudden, everything became better. There was hope again in the world.
“Dementors!” she breathed, and Luna nodded. “It didn’t make sense to be more scared down here,” she said reasonable, and Parvati felt like she could laugh. Next to them, Hermione and Ron caught themselves, while Neville rushed to help her support Dean.
“Are you okay?” she asked Dean, now slowly returning to normal, and he, after a second, nodded. “Do you need - “
“No,” he said. “I’m fine.” And that was the end of that.
Hermione and Neville cast their Patronus forms towards the corridor as well. Ron flicked his wand and said the incantation, but only white vapour came out, even though the effect of the Dementors was already diminished. Parvati and Dean did not even try. She doubted that, no matter how much she tried, even vapour would come out of her wand. Not unless her sister was safe, not before she saw her with her own eyes. One more step, she thought, one more moment...
The smell was unbelievable. It was as if no one had cleaned the cells for a decade. Well, Hermione thought darkly, no one had, probably. Death Eaters weren’t known to care enough about their prisoners. It wasn’t just the smell, though - it was the darkness, the dampness, the claustrophobic feel of it all. Even though the Dementors had been chased away by the spells, their essence remained in this place. It was just as scary, just as threatening, even without them.
“Lumos,” she whispered to her wand, hoping the little light from its tip would make things feel a little bit better. She knew they had agreed not to use the wand light at all - in fact, she was the one who suggested they continued in the dark. She didn’t care. Being in that cellar, advancing on the cells in the cold, damp dark changed things. Now she didn’t care enough about any Death Eater that may enter the corridor, any danger of being detected, any possibility of getting caught. All she cared about was shedding a little light at this terrible place, making it just a tad bit more hospitable.
Behind her, someone else felt the same. Another wand had cast its small light forward. Her shadow stretched on the floor, became unnaturally long. Other shadows were cast on the dimly-lit walls, looking alien and creepy, as if they did not belong to humans at all. After a moment’s staring, she took her eyes of them, and planted them straight ahead. There was no need to stare at shadows, she told herself. Nothing good would come out of it. She needed to press forward.
They had memorised Malfoy’s maps by heart. Here, there was a right turn. There, a left one. The corridor forked - left, right, left, right, until the dampness grew, until the chill was in her bones. They must be deep underground, she thought to herself. Only that deep underneath the Ministry could the corridors be so cold.
And then - the heavy metal gate Malfoy had told her about. She tapped it with her wand, whispered the incantation. Let’s see how good you really are, Malfoy, she thought instead of praying for the success of the spell.
The gate opened.
She felt familiar despair creeping up on her. For a brief moment, she was sure they were going to fail. And then something else kicked in - Luna’s reasoning only moments before, and she wondered why now, after Malfoy’s spell turned out to be true, after they were actually there, she’d feel that helpless.
She spun around, thought of that precious piece of information Malfoy had given her and all that it promised to be, and shouted “Expecto Patronum!” On a corridor far down to the right, she could hear her otter charging at the creatures, and the desperate feeling retreated. Ron looked at her for a moment, as if studying her face, and then said the incantation as well. “Expecto Patronum,” he said, almost softly - and his familiar silvery dog left the tip of his wand and charged together with the otter. The despair was truly gone. The Dementors were gone.
She turned to him, surprised but very pleased. “I think I decided to try this optimism thing after all,” he said - and almost laughed. She hugged him, but only for a second, because they had better things to do. They turned left, towards the cells.
Malfoy had told them that only Anthony and Padma were prisoners. The interrogation of all others had been completed, he said. Any other prisoner of the Ministry was now in Azkaban, not in the Department of Mysteries. Hermione still decided to check for herself. Taking Malfoy’s word would be more trust than she was willing to invest in him. She shone the light of her wand at any cell they passed. The first cell was empty; the second as well. The third, however, had someone - something - in it. The stench was unbelievable. She tapped her wand to the cell’s door, wanting to go in, but Ron stopped her. “Whoever’s there,” he said quietly, “we can’t help them.”
She nodded. She knew he was right.
The next cells were also empty, all empty, until cell number 8 - Anthony’s.
Someone was huddled on the floor. His face was buried deep in his knees. He didn’t lift it up at the noise, to see who his unexpected visitors were. In fact, he acted as if he wasn’t aware of them at all. For a moment, Hermione and Ron exchanged looks. The same question that was burning in her mind was shared by him - was something wrong with Anthony? Were two days in the care of the Death Eaters enough?
She stepped closer to the door, ready to tap her wand to it. Anthony seemed to hide his head tighter, try to look a bit smaller. It was a terrible sight. Hermione could remember the time she had felt like that herself, once upon a time, five years ago, when she, too, was a prisoner of the Death Eaters and thought it was all over. But the feeling that overcame her now was relief. Relief, because it meant Anthony was well aware something had been going around him - and had just assumed the worst.
Better warn him, she thought, and opened her mouth. “Anthony,” she said gently. He didn’t respond. “Anthony,” she said again, slightly louder. “It’s alright. we’ve come to get you out.”
Slowly, hesitantly, he lifted his head, focusing on her.
Hermione, he mouthed her name, and no sound came out.
“Yeah,” she said, and tapped her wand to the door. It opened. For a moment she tensed - would an alarm start now? Malfoy said there were no alarms, but he might be wrong. But after a moment, when everything remained quiet around them, she knew they were going to be alright.
Anthony looked wildly at them - all of them, from Ron and Hermione to Parvati and Dean to Neville and Luna. “You came,” he said, first in shock and disbelief, then with a smile slowly forming on his face. “You came.”
“Sure we did,” Ron said, trying to sound as cool as possible.
“Dean, you idiot,” Anthony let out quietly. “You should have just gone on.”
“And miss the chance to be a hero?” Dean let out a joke for the first time since they left the flat, and even Anthony laughed a bit. The joke did wonders for their tempers. Anthony now got up on wobbly feet, and limped to the door. “Can you walk?” Ron asked, worried, but Anthony nodded.
“Yeah,” he said. “I won’t be running a marathon any time soon, but I reckon I can walk out of here.”
“Good,” Hermione said, and continued to the next cell.
She wasn’t the first one there. Parvati had been quicker. The door was already open, and the girl was crouching next to a small, dirty person on the floor - her twin sister, Padma.
“Padma,” Parvati said, again and again. “Padma. Padma.”
After what seemed like forever, Padma opened her mouth. “You’re a dream,” she said with broken lips and a dry throat.
“No,” Parvati answered. “No. Real. I’m real. It’s over. We’ve come to get you out of here. Padma.”
Padma didn’t seem convinced, but got on her feet just as well, slowly, carefully, almost falling. Parvati rushed to help her up, to support her. On the other side, Luna did the same.
They had done what they came there to do, Hermione knew. They had succeeded - and so far, no one was after them. No one even knew they were there. Time to get out.
But as they were starting to leave, a doubt planted itself in her head, nagging her and stopping her from leaving. She looked again at the right-hand corridor, where her otter disappeared to charge the Dementors. The corridor which, according to Malfoy, was completely empty.
“Hermione!” Ron called out loud, throwing caution to the wind. “Time to go.”
“No,” she said, and then tried to express that nagging doubt. “The Dementors.”
“Forget about the Dementors. We need to get out of here. Death Eaters could come here any minute.”
“But the Dementors!”
“What about them? They’re just Dementors, and I’d rather leave before they came back, too!”
“They were on the other corridor,” she said, almost dreamily. She was almost there, she knew. She almost realised what was wrong. That was it, wasn’t it. The other corridor. Why would the Dementors be guarding that corridor, rather than this one? she thought, and then expressed it in words.
“It doesn’t make any sense. These are the important prisoners. There’s nothing down that corridor. Only empty cells. Why are the Dementors centred around empty cells instead of the top-security prisoners?”
“Who cares, maybe they wanted to go to sleep, maybe they like the atmosphere - we need to go!”
She ignored him, and instead started walking down to the other corridor. The Dementors had been guarding something there, and she was going to find out what.
She walks down the corridor, doubt growing in her heart. He can hear her steps echo through the corridor from his cell. She checks one cell after the other but they’re all empty. He wonders whether she will stop before she reaches his. She thinks she should stop, that she’s being foolish, that she’s wrong, and still decides to try one more. He doesn’t know how lucky he is, because he sits in that last cell, waiting.
He doesn’t know what he’s waiting for.
She can see something, someone, sitting there, just like her friends. He doesn’t know about them, and keeps on sitting. She taps the lock on his door and that, finally, trips an alarm. He can hear her friends shouting to her in the distance that they should go, now. She can hear them too, but chooses to walk through the door and into the cell, and stops in front of him, uncertain. He realises she’s waiting and on a whim he decides to meet her eyes, because he doesn’t think he has anything to lose.
She can still recognise his eyes, after all this time.
She gasps in shock or even in mourning, and he knows that he knows her even though he doesn’t know from where; she just looks at him in horror, unable to say a word, and he can’t remember her name and he’s not even sure that he remembers her face; she finally plucks up the courage to say his name, if only in a whisper.
Chapter 5: Interlude/ For Want of a Nail
Curses were flying all around. Red, green, golden streams of light, all were hitting wizards and witches indiscriminately, on both sides. People were falling all around him. Dead or alive, he had no way of knowing.
Neville was down; Ron had seen his body when he retreated back through the stairs, but couldn’t even stop to check for a pulse, because Yaxley started sending one red jet of sparks after the other in his direction. That person down on the floor could have been Lavender - the colour of her hair and the way it spread around her looked familiar. But he was still retreating. Everywhere he looked for red hair, or bushy brown. He kept on calling names behind him - Ginny! George! Mum! Hermione!... but so far, no one answered.
They could probably retreat back to somewhere in the castle, he thought desperately. Retreat and regroup. He was too busy fighting to think, ‘and then what?’. His mouth was too busy shouting one curse after the other, his brain concentrating on aiming his wand at the right people, at the Death Eaters.
If he stopped, the words of Lord Voldemort would echo again in his mind. Harry Potter is dead! They could hear those words all through the castle. But they would worry about that later. Right now he needed to find a way, any way, to find the people he cared about who still survived, to make sure no one else had died, no one but Fred...
A part of the castle crashed right behind him. He had almost walked into the debris, but at the last minute changed his direction and fled into a flight of stairs that would lead to the sixth floor. There was debris all over the stairs, too - some of the debris was the stairs, but he ignored it all, and rushed upwards.
And there - was that bushy brown hair? He thought he had seen her, just for a moment, and started running up the stairs in earnest. “Hermione,” he shouted. “Hermione!” By the time he reached the top of the stairs he was breathless, unable to shout. Still, he took a deep breath and tried again. “Hermione! Where are you!”
All of a sudden - he could see her. She was cornered by a Death Eater, who sending one spell at her after the other, never able to penetrate her Shield charm, never able to hurt her.
“Leave her alone, you bastard!” Ron shouted and aimed a curse at him. The Death Eater fell, and Hermione looked up, relieved.
“Ron!” She rushed to him to hug him. “You’re alive, I thought - you must have - I couldn’t find you - I didn’t know - “
“It’s okay,” he said, holding on to her as if holding on to dear life. “It’s okay. I’m here. We’re okay.”
But they weren’t okay. All around them, Death Eaters started materialising. Apparating. But they couldn’t! Ron looked at them in desperation, him and Hermione still holding one another, the Death Eaters getting closer and closer. There was Rowle, a nasty smile on his face. Another one was Avery, Ron recognised him. And Bellatrix Lestrange, looking more deranged than usual.
“Well well well,” Bellatrix said. “The blood traitor - and the Mudblood.” She advanced towards them, and Ron look desperately for a way out, any way out, before his eyes had grown wide and he realised that if the Death Eaters could Apparate in, they could Apparate out and he grabbed Hermione’s hand and turned on the spot.
The Apparition seemed to go on forever. Destination, Determination, Deliberation, they were taught so long ago; but while Ron definitely did not lack in Determination and Deliberation, he had no Destination in mind. They could go on like this forever. He wondered what happened to wizards who Apparated into nowhere, but decided not to find out. There were plenty of destinations he could choose, but the one that stuck out the most was the same one he was led to by his Deluminator - the Forest of Dean.
Crash! they landed on wet ground, between trees. Hermione needed a second to catch her breath. He just held to her tight, all that time, he said nothing.
“We should have stayed and fought. To the end.” That was how Hermione broke the silence between them, half an hour later. He knew she wasn’t blaming him. She was probably blaming herself, even though he was the one who Apparated out. But still she chose to say it.
“They weren’t trying to kill us anymore,” he answered shortly.
“Are you sure?”
The silence that followed this statement of his went on forever. “Do you think - what do you think they would have done to us? Had we stayed?” she asked gently.
“I don’t know, Hermione, but you’re Muggleborn. I didn’t want to stay and find out.” And that was the truth. He didn’t mind dying. He had made up his mind about that, a long time ago. Perhaps on that fateful day on the train, when all the other compartments were full, so he sat next to the dark-haired boy who turned out to be Harry Potter. Perhaps later. But he didn’t mind dying for the cause.
Living was a completely different story.
Hermione remained silent for another short eternity, thinking about the same thing he did, most likely. “Thank you,” she said. Eventually. He didn’t reply.
They didn’t have a tent this time. They didn’t have Hermione’s incredible bag. They were cold and wet and hungry and just couldn’t stay there. Hermione suggested they went into a Muggle village, get some food, a place to stay. He asked her if she had any Muggle money, and she just shook her head and didn’t offer again. Instead she cast some spells - spells to dry the earth they would sleep on, to Transfigure the tree leaves on the ground to sleeping bags, to provide them with shelter from the rain. They were both tired, tired and shaken, and even though Ron didn’t think it was possible, he found his eyes closing by themselves after a while of staring at the merry fire.
The sun came up all around them, brilliant and strong. He felt like it was mocking him with its cheerfulness. But he was too tired to say anything. All he wanted to do was crawl into his sleeping bag, go to sleep and never wake up again.
“Do you think he lied?” Hermione asked in a broken voice next to him. He didn’t need to ask her what she meant - who lied, about what. He had been thinking about the same thing all the time. Harry Potter is dead, Voldemort said. They never saw a body, never saw Voldemort declaring so, but - did he have any reason to lie? “He could still be alive,” Hermione continued. “We didn’t see the body. Maybe he’s alive. Maybe he’s out there, right now, finding a way to kill the snake and then - “
“They weren’t trying to kill us, Hermione,” Ron said, his voice sounding so alien to his own ears. “As far as they were concerned, the war is over.”
She didn’t answer. After a while, he thought she had gone to sleep. He himself didn’t seem able to do so. As much as he wanted the oblivion of sleep to come, his mind kept on playing those last moments, anything they could have done differently. They could have run away as soon as they destroyed the diadem - no, they couldn’t, there was still the snake. They could have found another way into Gringotts, one that wouldn’t alert the Dark Lord - no, they couldn’t, it was impossible as it was. They could have stopped Harry from going out to meet him.
Hermione wasn’t asleep after all. Next to him, he could hear movement, and then the zipper of his sleeping bag opened and all of a sudden he could feel her hand on his back. For a second he hesitated, and then he turned around.
She wasn’t crying. She looked too shocked to cry. But she was shaking. Whether it was with the cold outside or with fear or mourning, he didn’t know. The sun was shining, but they couldn’t feel any of its warmth down there in the forest, only its unwelcome light. He just covered her with his sleeping bag, and pressed her closer to him. By the time she stopped shivering, they were both asleep.
He wasn’t sure what woke him up, hours later, only that something did and he sat up in alarm. The sky was almost dark. Somewhere, outside of the forest, the last rays of the sun were disappearing over the horizon, but here there was no sun left, only the growing darkness. He wasn’t quite sure where he was - if he was in a forest, why was he outside the warm bed in the tent? After all, Harry -
Now he realised Hermione was gone, too. He jumped out of the sleeping bag, and the full chill of the forest hit him. “Hermione!” he shouted, but no one had answered. Don’t panic, he told himself. They couldn’t have found her - they wouldn’t have taken her and left him free. He refused to consider the possibility Hermione had heard them coming and lured them away to protect them. “Hermione!” he called again.
It was getting too dark to see. He went down on all four, looking for his wand inside the sleeping bag, and grabbed the small piece of wood when he found it. “Lumus,” he said, and the tip of his wand shone a light around him. There were the remains of the fire, his sleeping bag and Hermione’s, and that’s about it. His stomach grumbled in anger - it must have been more than 24 hours since he had last eaten, but he had more important things to worry about. Like Hermione.
He tried to find footsteps on the ground, but couldn’t find anything. He could see the point they had Apparated to the the night before, and tracks going back and forth around the fire, but that was it. After that, it was complete darkness.
He was so busy searching for footprints that he didn’t hear Hermione Apparating right behind him. He only realised she was there when she spoke.
“What are you doing?” she asked, and he jumped.
“Blimey, Hermione! You almost gave me a heart attack!”
“Sorry. I thought you must have heard me Apparating back.”
“S’alright,” he mumbled.
She had a big paper bag in one hand, a loaf of broad on another. “I brought some stuff,” she said. “Food.”
“Hermione, you’re a genius!”
It almost looked like a smile. But it was only a fleeting impression - her face turned back to seriousness immediately. The food was mainly prepared in silence. He didn’t quite ask where she got it from - neither did he ask where she got the copy of the Daily Prophet from.
He didn’t want to read it, either.
He could see the headline when Hermione was reading it, her brow furrowed in growing anger. BATTLE AT HOGWARTS, it said. TRAITORS APPREHENDED. And the next headline, the worst of all. THE TRAITOR POTTER DEAD, WIZARDING WORLD REJOICES.
They didn’t speak again until they went to sleep.
Ron and Hermione didn’t stay long in the Forest of Dean. It was a good hiding place, yes, good because no one would have thought of looking for them there. It was a terrible hiding place because it gave them no shelter, no contact with the outside world, no information. They needed to go somewhere closer to wizarding society, Hermione argued, they needed to find a way to stay in the loop.
Ron didn’t argue. He didn’t have the energy needed to argue. Anxiety was eating away in him - the paper had said that all survivors of the battle had been arrested by the Death Eaters, but it didn’t say who those survivors were. How many of the Weasley family had been among them, he had no way of knowing. Not unless they got closer. In a way, he preferred not knowing. He was too afraid of the answer. But he couldn’t explain it to Hermione, so he said nothing.
They had settled in a cave near Hogsmeade. The same cave Sirius Black had stayed in four years before, what seemed like so long ago. Ron had expected them to go to London, to try and get to Diagon Alley, but Hermione first shot that idea down. Civilisation was just too dangerous at the moment, she said sensibly. He had to admit she was right. When they got to Hogsmeade, he thought that perhaps they should go to the Hog’s Head, talk to Aberforth Dumbledore and hear the news - any news - from a friendly source. But the Hog’s Head Inn was closed. Ron remembered then - of course, by the end of the battle, even Aberforth had joined in. He would be dead now, dead or arrested, just like everyone else. The Hog’s Head would offer them no respite, no hiding place, no sanctuary.
They learned to steal food from the bins behind the Three Broomsticks, from people in the streets. Every once in a while, Hermione tried to use a Disillusionment charm, which worked well enough to steal food and a newspaper in the darkness, but proved a disaster in the daylight. Then, Hermione was gone one day for a full day and didn’t say where. When she got back, she had something with her - a silvery cloak. Harry’s invisibility cloak. She said she found it in the Forbidden Forest.
“He must have left it there when he turned himself over to - “ she faltered at the end of the sentence.
From that day, they ate a little bit better. It was amazing, what a person could steal with an invisibility cloak. Not just food or newspapers - but money, clothes, even a spare wand. Hermione believed they should take everything they could. Ron didn’t argue.
He didn’t say much at all.
Most of the time, Hermione did the talking. She’d share scarps of news, things that the Daily Prophet didn’t publish. She told him of the camps. Through her, he learned that his family was alive - she had seen them, Molly and Ginny and Arthur and George and Percy and Bill. She had seen others as well - Luna, Neville, other classmates. They had all been imprisoned by the Death Eaters. She had also told him who managed to escape - Charlie, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Mundungus Fletcher. They needed to find a way to contact them, she said and he agreed, but said nothing in return. She had told him Hogwarts was being rebuilt, that it looked like You-Know-Who’s regime was going to re-open the school - in his image. He just nodded. She had told him Pius Thicknesse had mysteriously left his job as Minister for Magic, and that the job was now Lucius Malfoy’s. He didn’t have the energy to call the Death Eater names. He said nothing when she tried to cheer him up, but she still tried, because there was nothing else for her to do. Every once in a while, she tried to say that perhaps Harry wasn’t killed by the Dark Lord, but then he’d finally speak up, to tell her the same thing he had told her that first time. “The Death Eaters didn’t try to kill us,” he said, time and again. “The war was already over as far as they were concerned.”
They repeated that conversation so often in the next months that it had become an argument. Hermione brought up Harry, said that as long as they didn’t see a body, they couldn’t assume the worst. That Harry had gone out of worst situations - which? Ron would ask. When? - and that he wouldn’t go there anyway. She found a thousand different reasons for the Death Eaters’ behaviour - they were afraid of the damage to wizarding society, they were afraid Harry had used Polyjuice Potion, they were afraid of Harry’s wrath if more of his friends would die.
They had another one of those conversations on the first of September. Hermione talked about how Harry must still be alive, fighting somewhere. Ron took a look at the copy of the Prophet that Hermione stole earlier that day, and noticed the date. He wrinkled his eyebrows, then pulled out an old piece of parchment he’d had on him since the battle. It was given to him by Harry, and he never let it go.
Now he opened the Marauder’s Map, and muttered the words. I solemnly swear that I am up to no good. Not like anything else was good, either, he thought bitterly and looked at the parchment. The map came to life, showing the castle, and in it - people. No Ginny Weasley. No Luna Lovegood, either. But Romilda Vane was there, and Felicity Eastchurch, and Graham Pritchard, and Jimmy Peakes, and Demelza Robins, and many many other names. And here were the teachers - the Carrows were still at Hogwarts, he noticed, and in the Headmaster’s office - Dolores Umbridge.
“... And anyway, I really think that if Harry was really dead then - “
“He is dead,” Ron said coldly, almost angrily. This was how he felt, he realised with mild surprise, shaking as his hands clenched the map. He was furious. “He’s dead. He chose the easy way out. He chose to die and be done with it, which is a hell of a lot easier than the mess he left behind for us. It’s over. The war’s over. The bad guys won.”
Hermione fell silent, tears in her eyes. “But it can’t be,” she mumbled. “It can’t be.”
She’s shouting for someone to help her, just help, but all she gets in return are Ron’s shouts to leave it be and that they’d run out of time. I need help here, she shouts again, and finally he comes and gives her a hand and they help Harry to his feet and Ron doesn’t even realise who it is until he accidentally sees the scar and then he’s shocked, just shocked, for a moment or two. There’s no time to be shocked, though, because the Death Eaters are coming and Hermione is already wriggling her wand at them an shouting Avada Kedavra at the nearest one. Ron finally joins in with some well aimed Killing Curses and they can hear Dean’s voice behind them shouting Crucio, Crucio, Crucio.
There’s a trail of bodies that they leave in their wake, all the way up to the Atrium, which is only two floors up. Along the way Anthony and Padma pick up wands from some of the bodies without caring whose they are, and join in the fight. There aren’t a lot of wizards in the Atrium as they’re all on their way down to the vaults and disarming the security wizard proves no problem at all.
Hermione leads them to the fireplaces, spread all over the Atrium, not before she picks up some of the tokens from the security wizard because without those tokens the Floo network would never go online. They all go to the Leaky Cauldron because it’s early enough in the day that there won’t be a lot of people there and besides, it’s close to their hiding place and all they really need right now is just a few more minutes, enough to disappear undetected into the flat. Before they leave the pub Hermione takes a moment to cast a Disillusionment charm on all of them and hope that the cloudy morning will not betray them.
There are already people after them when they face the small blue door but Hermione hopes that they still have a chance. She repeats one incantation after the other and the door is there - but just for them. The Fidelius Charm that had been cast on the place had long ago lost its potency, when the original Keeper died, but there’s still some power to the spell. Still she turns to the door as soon as everyone is inside and starts whispering incantations in earnest, one after the other, throwing at the door everything she knows. Ron is beside her and doing the same thing and all that time they’re still holding on to Harry and not letting him go.
He came, the foolish boy. Narcissa didn’t believe he would come. But the Dark Lord was right. The Dark Lord was always right.
After the mayhem had died down, the Dark Lord studied the Potter boy for a moment, tilting his head. “Harry Potter,” he said at last. “The boy who lived.” And then he raised his wand, and Potter closed his eyes, and the Dark Lord cast his Killing Curse at the boy.
There was no pity in Narcissa Malfoy’s heart when she saw the teenager, the same age as her son, going down in a flash of light.
But something had gone wrong. She was so busy staring at the boy that she had turned her eyes away from the Dark Lord, and now she could see him, blown to the floor by the power of his own spell. Did it rebound? Was the Dark Lord dead? Her heart turned cold. If the Dark Lord died and Potter lived, she would never see her son again. The Dark Lord must be alive! She rushed to his side, but not fast enough. Bella got there first.
He was up as soon as she got there. “My Lord,” Bella kept on saying, “my Lord,” and Narcissa wanted to shout at her, to tell her to shut up, she was risking herself, she was risking all of them, but Bella, fool that she was, kept on repeating the call.
Finally, the Dark Lord answered coldly. “That will do,” he said, and Narcissa allowed herself a sigh of relief. They will not all die there, in that godforsaken forest - not for the moment, at least. But was the Potter boy alive as well? Did the Dark Lord’s curse fail once more? She was not the only one to wonder that. The Dark Lord had asked the same thing just as she was thinking it. Narcissa turned her head from the Dark Lord to the boy, lying, unmoving, on the ground. She took a hesitant step forward. The fate of the boy will determine whether she would see her son, she knew. If Potter was dead, they would all march in, victorious, and she could learn of Draco’s fate. That gnawing fear inside her that something had happened to him pushed her one more step, and another, and another until -
Someone cried in pain. Bella. She stopped and turned around to look at her sister. “You,” the Dark Lord snarled at Bella. “Examine him. Tell me whether he is dead.”
Narcissa stopped, disappointed. If only it was her - if only she could approach the boy - if only she could make sure, for Draco, all for Draco... Bella did not think like that. No, the fool approached the body in front of them without fear or doubt. Let him be dead, Narcissa thought to herself in desperation. Let him be dead, let the Potter boy die, let this war end - let Draco be alive and well, out there in Hogwarts, so close and yet so far away.
Bella knelt near the body. Still unmoving. He is dead, Narcissa rejoiced as she saw her sister’s hand looking for pulse in the boy’s neck, his arm, and then -
She knew. She probably knew even before the Dark Lord. He was an all powerful sorcerer, an expert Legilimens, true - but she was her sister. She could read Bella’s shock, disbelief, anger, even from there.
The Potter boy was alive.
Don’t say anything, she ordered her sister quietly, hoping beyond hope that for once, she would have some sense in her. Don’t say a word. The Dark Lord had failed, and all those who witness that failure would surely pay for it, surely they will not live to see the next day. If Bella said the wrong word - alive - then Narcissa would never know the fate of her son, would never be able to hold him in her arms again. Stay quiet, Bella! she begged silently.
She wasn’t sure whether it was her sister’s rage, panic, or a rare exhibition of common sense, but Bella recoiled from the body without a word. She had saved their lives. By now, the Dark Lord also realised something was amiss, and he got up with shaky feet - Narcissa could see him trembling, but averted her eyes as he passed, hoping she still had a chance, if she didn’t acknowledge that moment of weakness, if she pretended she didn’t know, perhaps he will not kill her in his rage. And then the Dark Lord stood above Potter.
If Potter tried getting up, she had no clue. She could see a small movement in the Dark Lord’s wand. Nothing that killed, but then he lifted Potter’s body and called “Dead!”. And they all cheered, including her. How many of them knew? Narcissa wondered. How many of them realised? Now that she knew what she looked for, she could see it - Potter had closed his eyes when he faced the Dark Lord, but now his eyes were open. His body was unmoving, true, but he seemed unnaturally frozen, nothing of the softness of recent death.
Potter was still alive, but as long as the Dark Lord wanted his Death Eaters to believe he was dead, Narcissa would pretend.
“I now need to attend to some matters,” the Dark Lord said. “Do not charge the school until I am back.” And then he disappeared, the body still in his arms. Where he took the boy, Narcissa didn’t know, and neither did she care. All she cared about was that they would enter the school as victors, that there was still a chance to be reunited with Draco. Draco was all that mattered. The rest could wait for later.
Chapter 6: in which people talk in the kitchen
Anthony Goldstein sat and wondered, not for the first time, whether the choices he was making were the right ones.
It used to be easy to decide, a long time ago. Death Eaters were bad; the people who fought them were good. And then the Death Eaters won and everything became oh-so-complicated.
He had his time in the camps, just like everyone else who fought that night. He was lucky - both his parents were magic. They let him out after six months or so, him and his family. And then it was back to routine - a job as a minor secretary in the Ministry, which, apparently, he only got because his mother’s estranged brother was in with the Dark Lord. He wasn’t even a Death Eater, apparently - Anthony’s mum said so angrily one day, when she realised how they ended up a bit more well-off than most others who opposed the Dark Lord. ‘He’s too much of a coward to be a Death Eater’, she nearly spat. It was after her brother had left. Making a social visit, he called it, making sure they were alright. Showing off, she shouted at him when she kicked him out. He called her ungrateful and said that he was going to be bigger than that, and let them keep the jobs and the house. She said that they didn’t want that treatment, not from him, and slammed the door, her brother still standing at the entrance. But Anthony didn’t lose his job, and six months later, he was given a flat of his own, right there in central London, and even his mum said it would be foolish to say no.
Just keep your head low, she said. Keep your head low and hope.
He kept his head low - most of the time. Sometimes, he’d join Neville Longbottom for a drink in the Hog’s Head in Hogsmeade. He could Apparate in and out of the village, so it wasn’t much of a hassle, and he enjoyed the company, being with people like Neville. Being with Neville. When Neville got in a particularly bad mood and started toasting Harry Potter loud enough for all of the people in the pub to hear, Anthony just looked at him admiringly. His mum might have said it was foolish, but he didn’t care. He admired Neville, admired that he wasn’t keeping his head low and staying out of trouble, admired that Neville was making a stand.
And then Neville and his friends, Luna Lovegood, Hannah Abbot and Seamus Finnigan disappeared and everyone said they had now started a resistance, and for a moment there Anthony was disappointed that he wasn’t chosen to join them. But only for a moment. After all, he told himself, looking at the mirror, what have you done lately to show them you’re good enough to be one of them, Anthony Goldstein? He didn’t do anything. That was the choice he made. Not to make any choice at all. At that point, he decided to make a different choice. To dare make a choice. If only he’d get the opportunity.
Opportunity presented itself about three months later. He stopped for a drink at the Leaky Cauldron on his way from work, when he saw through the window the Ministry’s security wizards chasing someone, accompanied by Dementors.
He wasn’t the only one of the pub’s patrons who jumped out of his chair and got out to watch. But he was the only one who looked at the running figure, looked at its apparent destination, took a short-cut through one of the darker, more unpleasant alleys near the pub, and whispered at the right moment, “Follow me! Hurry.”
He managed to get Hannah to safety that evening. And when he sent her on her way, two night later when the patrols subsided enough for them to find a way out, he sent with her a message to her friends, even though she insisted she was working alone, even to him. He was willing to help.
He wasn’t very surprised when Neville showed up a day later, a smile plastered on his face. “So,” Neville asked. “Heard you felt like helping us.”
“I want to join in,” he said. “I want to do something.”
Neville shook his head. “Too dangerous, joining in with us. For us and for you.”
“I want to help,” he insisted.
Neville gave him a calculating look. “You could still help us,” he said. “We could really use you here. Our man on the inside.”
So Anthony Goldstein made another choice. He chose to trust Neville Longbottom.
Anthony Goldstein sat and wondered, not for the first time, whether the choices he was making were the right ones. The problem was that he there weren’t any other choices anymore. Just like now, as he was sat drinking coffee next to a small table located in a small kitchen of a small flat (that was becoming more and more populated as more time went by) and, through no fault of his own, found himself turning in the eyes of the Ministry from a relatively-wanted-but-generally-a-nuisance wizard into a most-wanted wizard.
“At least we have enough coffee for months,” he said to no one in particular, as other than him, the room was empty. Everyone was rushing about. He was looking at the door every few minutes, hoping someone - Neville - would show up, and drinking some more coffee.
There weren’t any biscuits. He looked.
The door opened. Anthony raised his eyes with hope, but it wasn’t Neville. It was Hermione. She was carrying an empty glass bottle, with the remains of something green and nasty-smelling.
“How’s he doing?” he asked.
“Still sleeping,” she answered. She sounded so, so tired. And for a good reason - it had been about 48 hours since Hermione Granger had last slept. “I woke him up to drink the potion, and he went straight back to sleep afterwards.”
“Maybe it also works as a sleeping draught,” Anthony suggested.
“Maybe,” she said. “It does look like he’s getting better, though. The book was right, the potion really does improve things. I just wish - nevermind,” she sighed and sat down in front of Anthony, and he had a chance to see just how exhausted she looked.
“I’ll make you a cup of tea,” he said, and got up to boil some water.
“Thanks,” she mumbled.
“Just a heads-up - there’s no milk left.”
She looked at the window. It was unusually dark, especially for this time of the year. “Well, we can’t exactly go out to get some,” she sighed again. “I’ll just drink it black.”
“One black tea, coming right up. With sugar.”
The water was merrily boiling in the kettle. Anthony stared at the kettle, and from the kettle at Hermione, who didn’t say a word. She didn’t look like she needed tea, or any other kind of caffeine for that matter. What she needed most of all was sleep.
“Why don’t you go to sleep?” Anthony suggested pleasantly. He had a feeling he knew what her answer’s going to be, but it needed to be suggested anyway. “Who’s with him now, Ron?”
“Yeah. And he hasn’t slept as well, so it’s not really fair,” she said, but didn’t sound too convinced. She sounded like what she wanted most of all was to follow Anthony’s suggestion.
“You could probably both go to sleep. I think all of us need sleep. If Harry’s gone back to sleep, too, then he doesn’t need to be constantly watched. I doubt he’s going to wake up anytime soon.”
“He’s been sleeping for almost two days now,” she said sharply, just as he put the cup in front of her. He rolled his eyes and added another teaspoon full of sugar - “I think you need this one extra-sweet,” he said and then sat down in front of her.
“Hermione, he’s had ten years of... well, he probably didn’t have a good sleep in a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised if he slept for a week.” I wouldn’t be surprised if he stayed sleeping for the rest of his life, Anthony thought quietly, but kept that thought to himself. He could sympathise with the wish never to wake up again from his own stint in the Ministry’s cells, and that was only for two days. And he had never had to deal with the Dark Lord himself. Ten years... was unthinkable.
Hermione could see him shuddering. The harshness left her eyes and she touched Anthony’s hand softly. “How are you doing?” she asked him.
He shrugged. “Fine, I guess. Getting more sleep than you,” he tried making an unsuccessful joke. “But I really miss biscuits with my coffee.”
“Start drinking tea,” she advised with a dry tone, but her eyes sparkled with humour. He laughed, too. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Tea will do the trick.”
She opened her mouth to say something more, but thought better of it. Anthony thought he had a pretty good idea of what she wanted to say. “How much noise did I make last night?” he asked diplomatically.
“Oh - it’s not about - I don’t think - “ she stumbled on her own words. “I’ve been there too, in those cells. D’you remember? About five years ago. I know the nightmares you get afterwards, even if it’s just two days.”
“Imagine ten years,” Anthony said softly. Hermione shuddered and got up to the counter, started to take out a pot and looked at the potions cupboard they had kept in the kitchen. “I better make another bottle of that thing, for when Harry wakes up later,” she said.
Anthony didn’t know how to answer that one, so he went back to staring at his coffee. But only for a few moments - the door opened again, and it still wasn’t Neville. Instead, it was Parvati and Padma.
“How is he?” was their first questions when they saw Hermione there, mixing the potion.
“Sleeping,” she answered. Then she turned around to look at the twins. “Forget about Harry, how are you doing?” she asked Padma.
Padma smiled. “Better. That potion you made me yesterday really helped,” she said.
“That’s great!” Hermione said. genuinely happy.
With great care and exaggeration, Anthony slurped the last of his coffee and got up. “Well, ladies, it’s been a pleasure, but I think I’ll go now to stare at the window in the living room and count Dementors. If you’ll excuse me...” he went out through the door.
Parvati looked at him with eyebrows raised. “What’s with him?” she asked finally, when she was sure Anthony couldn’t hear her.
Hermione shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe he’s not used to being cooped up in one place like the rest of us. He was pretty much free to go wherever he pleased until this mess.”
“Yeah, and now we can’t even go beyond the garden. Not that you’d want to,” Parvati hurried to add. “There’s Dementors everywhere in the street. You can still feel them through the spell, of course. I’d rather keep Padma as far away from them as possible,” she added and threw a glance at her sister. Padma wasn’t really listening, but instead played with the wand in her hands - her wand now, probably, as she had taken it from a dead Death Eater. “I hope this will end soon.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Hermione said darkly.
“Looks like we moved her from one prison to another. All of them.”
“Except that here there are people who can take care of me. And no Death Eaters. And the Dementors stay outside.” They didn’t notice when Padma started paying attention until she spoke. “I really don’t mind staying here. It’s nice. There’s the garden at the back. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a garden,” she mused. Even before her imprisonment by the Death Eaters, Padma didn’t have a garden. As Supervised Persons, the flats she and Parvati were assigned didn’t have any luxuries in them, and a garden was considered a luxury. “I just wish there were less Dementors outside. I would have enjoyed sitting in the garden more.”
“You will,” said Hermione with sudden passion. “You’ll see. The Dementors will eventually be gone. And we could all sit there outside and drink tea.” She thought for a moment about Anthony. “And eat biscuits,” she added.
Padma laughed. “It’s a shame we didn’t join you guys sooner,” she said all of a sudden, her face turning serious. “It’s nicer here.”
“How d’you mean?” Hermione asked, but she had a feeling she knew the answer.
“It feels more like a family. Nicer. Parvati and me, we’ve been alone too long. And we didn’t do anything. And then when we did, we didn’t know how to do it. So it all went wrong. If we would have joined you, things would have been better.”
“Not necessarily,” Hermione said, full of sadness. “Seamus died only a few months ago... and over the stupidest thing, too. We’re far from perfect.”
“But you didn’t just sit down and let this happen.”
“Well, now we all got the chance to try again, don’t we?” Hermione answered, and took the bottle with the freshly-brewed potion. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get this upstairs.”
“You haven’t touched your tea,” Parvati called after Hermione, but she was already gone. Parvati sat down, disappointed, in the chair Hermione occupied a couple of minutes ago, and took a sip of the untouched tea - only to put it down in disgust. “Just how much sugar is there in this thing?!” she demanded.
Padma took the cup from her and tested the tea. “It’s not that bad,” she said. “Although the tea could be hotter.”
“Yeah, it could be,” Parvati said, thinking of other things entirely. “Padma?”
“Yeah?” Padma asked, in between another sip of the tea. After all, she reasoned, it was a shame to let it go to waste, even if it wasn’t as warm as she would have liked.
“Do you want me to go after him?”
“The Dark Lord. That’s what they’re planning - we’re planning, I should say. Sooner or later, we’re going to try to kill him. I wouldn’t if you don’t want me to, if you’d rather I stayed with you...”
Padma looked at her sharply. It was a weird expression on Padma’s face. Parvati didn’t think she’d seen her sister wear such an expression for years. “What makes you think I wouldn’t want to join in if you’re going after him?” Padma asked.
“But what if they catch you? I just found out you’re alive! I couldn’t... I’m not going to go through that again.”
“I’m not going to stay behind,” Padma insisted. “I want to fight. To do something this time.”
“We did do something, we helped Dean, and - “
“And there were plenty of others we didn’t help,” Padma cut across her. “No. This time, I’m fighting.”
Parvati was on the verge of saying something, but just then they were interrupted. The door opened, and Neville’s head showed up in the room. “Oh,” he said in disappointment. “I thought Anthony’s here.”
“He was here earlier,” Padma said. “I think he went to count Dementors through the living room window.”
“That kind of mood, huh?” Neville asked, and walked into the kitchen. “Better let him do his thing, then.”
“How is he?” Padma asked, and it took Neville only a moment to figure out she was no longer talking about Anthony.
“Still asleep, last time I checked. I tried to talk Hermione into going to sleep herself, but I don’t think it’ll happen any time soon. Anyway, I didn’t want to walk in, she was talking to Ron. Say, is there any coffee left?”
“Yeah, sure. But I think you should put the kettle on.”
“Figures,” Neville muttered and approached the kettle, only to discover there were no water left in it at all. He started filling it with water.
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Padma said quietly. Neville knew what she meant - out of all the rooms in the flat, the kitchen was the most homely. It should probably have been the living room - after all, it made sense that the four of them - the six of them, before Seamus and Hannah died - would spend their time together in the living room. But it was the kitchen where they made their plans, the kitchen where they encouraged each other during hard times and comforted each other during the worst. It became the centre of their lives here, in this confined space. So one day, when Luna was bored and Neville was depressed after Hannah’s death, they sat together and painted the walls and added wallpapers and decorations and everything they could think of to make the place look more less like a flat and more like a home.
“It was mainly Luna. You should tell her that - she’d be flattered. Well, I did the swans there - “ he pointed at the space above the fridge, where white swans swam in the moving wallpaper - “and a couple of other things, but most of it was Luna.”
“I like the swans,” Padma said, and Neville smiled.
“They are pretty good, aren’t they? I guess you should thank Luna for them, too. She inspired me to do them.”
Parvati looked at him with curiosity. “Are you and Luna - “
“What? No!” A second later, Neville started laughing. “I shouldn’t say it like that, should I? She’s probably my best friend in the whole world. But it’s nothing like that. Not with Luna.”
Parvati shrugged. “I don’t know, I remember in school I always expected you guys to end up together.”
“Did you?” Padma looked at her in surprise. “I thought she’d be dating Harry!”
“Harry?!” Parvati and Neville repeated in unison and with matching shocked expressions. “I don’t think they would have worked out,” Neville said then, his voice full of doubt.
Padma shrugged. “I always thought they’re kinda cute together.” This only earned her another doubtful expression from Neville. “And anyway, don’t tell me you’ve lived here for ten years and watched Ron and Hermione together all that time and didn’t feel a bit lonely.”
The kettle whistled at that point and saved Neville from responding to that statement. He turned his back on the twins and started roaming through the cupboards, looking for coffee and sugar. “Oh, yeah,” Parvati remembered. “There’s no milk, I think.”
“It’s alright, I drink it black anyway,” he said, his back still turned to them.
Parvati gave her sister an annoyed look, as if blaming her for Neville’s reluctance to participate in the conversation further. Padma didn’t mind, though, and neither did she mind putting her emotions into words, even though Neville was still in the room. “What?” she asked her sister. “Look, we’ve been out of contact with everyone for ten years. And I shouldn’t tell you how I spent the last couple of months. It’s nice to catch up with people a bit. About non-depressing matters. I’ve had enough of the real world for a while. Enough. I want to have some fun,” she concluded. “Even if fun is just hearing ten year old gossip.”
Neville sat down to the table, his cup of coffee in his hand. “No, I get what you’re saying, Padma,” he said. “Don’t be mad, Parvati, it’s not her fault - not yours, either. It’s just - well, for a while I was together with Hannah.”
“And then what happened?” Parvati asked, curious again, curious enough to ignore tact and Neville’s quiet voice.
“And then she died.” He drank a bit of coffee as the three of them sat there in silence, thrown back into the real world.
“I’m sorry,” Padma said. “I didn’t mean to bring up old wounds.”
“No, it’s okay,” he answered her kindly. “You didn’t know. And I guess I can see what you mean - a little bit of harmless gossiping is, erm, harmless.”
Parvati rolled her eyes at Neville’s ineloquent response. But Padma was encouraged by his willingness to share. “Have you been with anyone since?” she asked.
Neville started answering, “Well, there was - “ but then the door opened and he stopped abruptly. Ron walked into the kitchen, dark bags under his eyes.
“How is he?” Neville, Padma and Parvati asked together.
“Sleeping,” Ron said in obvious frustration, and collapsed on one of the chairs near the table. “I don’t get it. Hermione said that after all her potions he should be physically fine now, but he’s been sleeping ever since he got here.”
“Well, not quite ever since,” Neville pointed out in an amused voice, “he did take the longest shower in history before getting into bed.”
Ron didn’t seem to think that was worthy of a reply.
“C’mon, cheer up. He’s here, he’s alive, he’ll wake up eventually.”
“We hope,” Ron said darkly.
“He will. Give him time. Maybe sleeping is his way of coping with it all,” Neville gently offered his words of wisdom.
“I guess,” Ron said, but didn’t stop sounding worried.
Padma and Parvati looked at each other, and then got up from their chairs at the same time. “I think I’m getting tired myself,” Padma said.
“Yeah, me too,” Parvati added.
“It is getting late,” Neville agreed.
Ron just stared at the wall.
“G’night, boys,” the twins said, and walked out of the room. Neville waited until the door closed before turning back to Ron.
“He didn’t wake up at all?” he asked, his voice much more urgent than the casual tone he adopted while the twins were in the room.
“No. Not even when Hermione gave him the last potion. I mean, he sat up and even opened his eyes, but...” Ron’s voice trailed.
“But it’s like he’s not really there, you know?” Neville nodded, but Ron kept on talking. “All this time I was so sure he’s dead. That he was gone. And now he’s here, we can look at him, we can touch him, but it’s like he’s still gone.”
Neville stared at his coffee for a moment, not speaking. When he talked, he didn’t look Ron in the eye. “See, here’s the thing I don’t get. All this time you thought he was dead, you weren’t really... I mean, you...”
“You mean I hated his guts.”
“Well, yeah,” Neville said apologetically.
But Neville wasn’t going to let Ron get away with it so easily. “You mean it’s complicated because you thought he was dead and now it’s different when he’s alive? Or it’s complicated for another reason?”
“It wasn’t because I thought he was dead. Not exactly.”
“Then what?” Neville pressed on, but Ron didn’t answer. And then Neville got mad. It wasn’t often that he got angry, especially at something so personal - after all, the four of them had lived together in the same house of years. Without a measure of privacy, they would have probably killed each other long ago. They had learned many years ago to give each other their own space, to give each other the choice of what to say and when to say it. Perhaps it was Neville’s own frustration, perhaps it was his excitement at seeing Harry alive again - or perhaps it was his anger with Ron’s behaviour all those years that had made him disregard that unspoken rule, that agreement that what they didn’t share willingly, they were not pressured to share by the group. “What, Ron?” he asked. “What is it? What is it that after all these years of hating him for sacrificing himself - for us! - all of a sudden you just want your best friend back? ‘Cause I’m not buying it. I’ve seen you here acting like a spoilt brat over this for years and years, and Hermione made me not say anything even though there were times I just wanted to slap you. And it was worse because it was real, you weren’t just mourning him like the rest of us. You really did blame him. That’s not just going to go away. So what is it?”
For a moment, the look Ron gave Neville suggested that slapping might not be out of the question after all. But then his anger left him.
“Malfoy gave Hermione Snape’s memories. That was what made Harry give himself up to You-Know-Who all those years ago. The information in those memories. I didn’t know what was in there, not until a couple of days ago. It... changed things.”
Neville didn’t ask what Ron saw in Severus Snape’s memories. He had pushed his friend as far as he dared, pushed him as far as he could without risking their friendship. If Ron wanted Neville to know what it was in those memories, he would tell him. Of that, Neville was certain. If Ron did not say, it must have been something he was still trying to understand. But he couldn’t drop the topic, not quite yet.
“I take it there was an explanation in the memories?” he asked gently.
Ron nodded. “Harry didn’t just turn himself in. He had to - “ he coughed, his voice becoming slightly choked. “He had to give himself in, sooner or later. There was no other way. I didn’t know!” he said loudly all of a sudden. Trying to absolve himself. “I couldn’t know.”
“You couldn’t know,” Neville agreed.
“I should have guessed.”
“You couldn’t know,” Neville repeated.
“No, but I was his best friend. I should have believed in him. You did. Hermione did. Luna did. You figured out he had a good reason to turn himself over. And all that time, I just blamed him.” He said those words bitterly, angrily. He couldn’t be angry with Harry anymore. All Ron had left was being angry with himself.
“No, I also thought the only reason he turned himself in was to save our lives,” Neville said quietly, looking for a way to ease Ron’s guilt. “I agreed with you. I just thought - well... I’m glad to be alive, Ron. Even with everything that’s happened. I don’t know what made him turn himself over and I would have gladly died to protect him from You-Know-Who that day, but the thing is... I’m kinda glad I didn’t.”
Ron didn’t answer. Neville didn’t continue talking, just sat there, next to Ron, drinking his coffee.
They remained quiet until the door opened again. “How is he?” Ron and Neville asked automatically when they saw the newcomer - Hermione. She walked toward the sink, put the empty glass bottle there, and only then joined the two of them at the table.
“Well, that was the last of the potions, according to the book,” she said. “He should be fine. He actually woke up for a couple of minutes - he’s back to sleep now,” she added when Ron jumped out of his chair at the news. Disappointed, he sat down again.
“You should have called for me,” he said.
“I would have, but he fell asleep again after two minutes or so.”
“What did he say?”
“Mainly asked where he was. He asked that a couple of times, I don’t think he understood the answer.”
Ron shifted in his chair. “You don’t think... I mean... what if...”
“He’s fine physically,” she said, understanding his unspoken fear. “Those are very complex potions, Ron. They’re complex for a reason. Any physical damage that my have happened should be fixed now. I think he’s just confused.”
“Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t be,” Neville said, and Hermione nodded. “Exactly,” she agreed.
At that, Neville finished his coffee and got up. “I think I’ll go look for Anthony,” he said. “Ron, listen to Hermione, she’s way more clever than you are.”
“And don’t I know it,” said Ron.There was no grudge in his voice, though. In fact, an understanding passed between the two of them for a moment, the result of their talk. Neville smiled and walked out.
Hermione sagged in her chair, showing, for the first time, just how tired she really felt. Ron got up and started massaging her shoulders. “Oooh,” she said, “Yeah, right there. Brilliant.” He smiled, and kept on working on her tense shoulders.
“Ronald Weasley, I do believe you give the best massages in this side of Diagon Alley. It was worth keeping you all these years just for that,” she said playfully.
“You know, that’s what I’ve been thinking,” he answered in the same tone, and she laughed. “I’ve also been thinking about something else.”
“What?” she asked in a dreamy voice. Her eyes were already closed.
“I’ve been thinking, maybe when this is over, we could get married.”
Her eyes flew open. She held his hand for a moment, as if thinking about stopping his hands and forcing him to sit down next to her, but as he dropped his hands to that spot and kissed her neck at that moment, she thought better of it. In the end, she settled for talking. “You never talked about getting married before.”
She had to wait until he finished kissing her neck for an answer. “Yeah, well, it was never a realistic thought, wasn’t it?” he said at last. “I mean, we can hardly even leave this place, and the Ministry’s got my parents, and your parents are in Australia - “
“ - If they’re still there,” she whispered, to herself more than to him. Ron heard her, of course, and leaned on to look at her.
“Of course they are,” he said quietly. “You’d know if the Death Eaters had got them. Just like my family. They’d have made sure of that. Your parents are in Australia,” he gave her a quick kiss, “and they’re fine.”
She grabbed him for a long, passionate kiss, that left a rather hazy look on his face. “Go back to my shoulders and stopp mucking about,” she said once she released him, and he smirked and did as she asked.
“So, anyway, I was thinking, once this is all over, and your parents are back, and my parents are free and alright, we could get married. My mum would love that. It’d be just the thing they’d need to get on their feet again, you know? She loves organising weddings, don’t you remember that whole nightmare before Bill and Fleur got married? It’s just her thing. And it would be the perfect way to celebrate.”
She sat there without talking for a while, her eyes still closed. For a moment, she thought of asking him what had got into him, but she realised she probably knew the answer. And as much as - oh, right there! - as much as she wanted to share his enthusiasm, as much as she enjoyed this new, hopeful Ron, the one she hadn’t seen for a decade, she couldn’t quite let him go on like that.
She took his hand again, stopping him from going lower - a feat which required quite the power of will - and gave him a serious look. He knew that look well enough, of course. Immediately he stopped, and sat down next to her. “What?” he asked.
“We’ve got a really good chance now,” she said gently. “A really good chance. Better than we had since we started this.”
“I know! Hermione, we’ve got just the information we need to get rid of You-Know-Who once and for all. Don’t tell me you’re not excited.”
“I am. But you’re not excited over this information, and you and I both know it.”
He didn’t answer.
“It doesn’t mean anything for the fight, Ron. He’s been there for ten years. He’s probably going to stay in that bed for a long time. You can’t expect him to wake up tomorrow and, I don’t know, start leading a rebellion or something. It’s not fair, it’s not fair to him and it’s not fair to you. Don’t put too much faith in Harry.”
Ron didn’t answer.
“Put it in yourself.”
He sniffled, and looked at her. “I’ve got someone much better to put my faith in,” he answered. “I’m going to put it in you.”
“Oh?” she said, and there was a genuine smile on her face. They got out of their chairs and left the kitchen together.
The kitchen stood empty for a while. Outside, in the street, Dementors patrolled back and forth at the word of their master, looking for the fugitives, looking for their escaped prisoner. Instead of the warmth of August, there was a chill in the air outside, a chill that entered the brightly-lit kitchen, even though all the windows had been shut close. A rhythmic noise could be heard - the tap had not been shut properly by the last person who used it, and the water was dripping into a used cup in the sink, one drop at a time. Had anyone been in the kitchen, the noise could probably have driven them mad, but it was empty, and the drops kept on falling. Tap - tap - tap.
After a while, the door opened again, and Dean entered the room. He put a piece of wood - Seamus Finnigan’s wand, given to him by Neville - on the table, and turned to the cupboards. He opened one cupboard, then another, looking in. The first had plates and bowls. The other, pots and frying pans. He hummed to himself and opened a third, then furrowed his brow in confusion when it turned out to have dried rice and pasta.
“Who organised this kitchen?” he asked himself, as there was no one else to answer the question.
After opening a fourth cupboard and sighing in defeat, he turned to the sink. He picked up one big mug, fading purple and with the shape of a tail with a nail at its end. He smiled, and wondered to himself whether this was Hermione’s joke that none of the other three, all pure-blood, got. He shrugged and started rinsing the mug.
“Oh, don’t do that,” he heard Luna’s voice and turned around. She had just entered the kitchen. “You don’t need to do the dishes.”
“No, I just couldn’t find any clean cups in here,” he explained. “Are you coming from upstairs?”
Luna nodded. “He’s still asleep. I don’t blame him. Why aren’t you cleaning it with magic then?”
Dean looked at her for a moment, and then at his wand. “Oh,” he said. She smiled and flicked her wand at the cups in the sink. They all started rinsing themselves, then settled nicely to dry. He sat down at the table, playing with the wand he had put there.
“I forgot I could do magic,” he said at last. “I forgot what this was for. It’s been so long, you get used to doing everything by hand again.”
She tapped the kettle, and when it whistled, she poured tea for the both of them.
“It must have been very hard,” she said, coming to the table.
“Hogwarts felt a bit like a dream, you know? I never knew I was magic until I was eleven, and then I had six years at Hogwarts, one year on the run, and then... I was longer in there than I’d ever been a wizard. If it weren’t for the Death Eaters who guarded the camps, I probably would have thought I dreamt all this.”
He didn’t touch his tea. Instead, he turned the wand over and over in his hand. “Even now,” he said quietly. “I can’t quite get used to the fact it’s real. I’ve been out for a couple of months, first hiding in the forests with Parvati, then we found Anthony, and she used magic all that time and then he did, but it still didn’t feel real.” He laughed, a hollow, bitter laughter. “I think I’m still waiting to wake up. To get out of bed and realise it’s not a comfortable bed with clean sheets and that there’s no breakfast waiting for me downstairs. Every morning, I wake up, I keep my eyes shut, to keep the dream just a little bit longer.”
He sniffed. “But enough about that. How about you? What have you been up to for ten years?”
“Oh, you know,” she answered, even though he didn’t. “This and that.”
“Well, as long as there was ‘that’ as well as ‘this’,” he commented drily, and then explained when he saw her confused look, “Ron and Hermione are kinda noisy upstairs.”
“Oh, yeah, they sometimes are. Usually you can tell in advance, either when something very good has happened, or something very bad. I guess we should have warned you.”
“Oh? Is this considered the something good or something bad?” he asked.
She pondered the question. “You know, I’m not really sure. Maybe both. Or maybe my theory is all wrong.”
“How about you? You and Neville never - ?”
She didn’t seem surprised with the question. “Not really,” she answered. “He was with Hannah before she died.”
“More dead people,” he said darkly. “I’ve seen plenty of those. You remember Dennis Creevey? He was in Gryffindor. Also Muggle-born, his brother died in the battle all those years ago. Anyway, he was there with me, in the beginning. Must have been, what, fifteen? Don’t think he was older than that. Anyway, he’s always had these plans. He’d steal a wand from one of the guards, he said, and open the gates and we could all run away. Or we could start a rebellion. He always talked like that. Starting a rebellion. He was really young when Harry started his DA thing, I think he was really impressed by it all. I mean, both of them were, him and Colin, but he was just such a kid...”
“And then what happened?” Luna asked gently.
“He stole a wand and started a rebellion. Except everyone was too afraid, too hungry, too tired to join in. It’s hard to rebel when you’ve been worked out all day on two potatoes and some murky water they called soup. But he still had the energies of a teenager, must have been the first year we were there, maybe the second. After you guys were released, but not a long time afterwards. Such a long time ago.”
He stared at his Eeyore mug for a while before continuing. “So he gets this wand, and all the guards are after him, and no one would take a stand against them, because he only had that one wand and there’s only so much you can do when the other side can just shout Avada Kedavra at you and you’re dead. It’s not like killing us required an effort. Finally, he Disapparated - I didn’t even know he knew how to do that, but apparently he did. Maybe someone told him how.
“They brought his body back two hours later. Put it at the middle of the camp, right where we’d get our food. So we’d see. There’s no point in escaping. That’s how we learned they had a way of tracing the people who Apparated.
“That’s how we learned there’s no point in escape.”
“I don’t remember him,” she said quietly, more to herself than to Dean.
“Yeah,” he said bitterly. “I’m having a hard time remembering his face, too.”
He opened his mouth, maybe to say something more, but at that moment Hermione walked into the kitchen in a fluffy pink robe.
“Hey guys. Don’t mind me, just getting a glass of water.”
“S’alright. I think I’ve had enough to drink anyway,” Dean said and left the room, his tea untouched.
Hermione took her glass of water, and sat down in Dean’s vacated place. “Is he alright?” she asked Luna.
“He will be. I hope. Maybe when this is over, we’ll all have a chance to be alright,” Luna shrugged.
“When this is over. Yeah...” Hermione answered. “Ron just said the same thing. Well - he suggested we get married, but all the same. I think he meant the same thing.”
“That’d be great, the two of you finally getting married,” Luna smiled. “You could get a nice house, somewhere in the country.”
“Yeah, we could, couldn’t we? Imagine that, not having to live here anymore, Dementors outside the window...”
Luna glanced through the window. “Well,” she said carefully, “I imagine they’d be gone from here, too. That would be fun, having sunshine all day long again, I remember it used to still be light at this hour during the summer.”
Hermione nodded. “I remember,” she said quietly. “The sun wouldn’t set until nine, nine thirty... I think that’s the first thing I’ll do, if we win this. Even before getting married. Just take a walk in the daylight.” She laughed. “Listen to me,” she said. “I sound so ridiculous.”
“No, you don’t,” Luna said in earnest.
“Oh? Well, what about you then? What will you do?”
“I think I’ll go to the mountains. There was this loch my dad always thought may have a yet-undiscovered colony of Crumple-Horned Snorcacks.”
Hermione stared at her for a moment, then started laughing. “You know,” she said once her laughter died down a bit, “I don’t think I’ve heard you talking about these creatures for... oh, I don’t know. A decade.”
“There were more important things to think about,” Luna shrugged. “Even though it is nice to think about unimportant things every once in a while.”
“Yeah,” Hermione agreed. “It is.” She thought about it some more. “I kind of missed that. It used to drive me mad, all your creatures and conspiracy theories and things. But - I miss them. They were also a lot of fun.”
“I think a decade’s about right,” Luna said now, deep in thought, and didn’t seem to hear Hermione’s last sentence at all. “That’s when I realised the war was real. That day I stepped off the train and the Death Eaters grabbed me - do you remember? The three of you found me then in Malfoy Manor.”
“Yeah. I remember.”
“That was when the war became real. I didn’t know whether I’d live or die, there in the cellar.” Luna thought about the cellar for a moment before asking Hermione, “when did it become real to you?”
Hermione opened her mouth, stopped, opened her mouth again, stopped again, and bit her lip, concentrating. “I never thought about that,” she said. “I don’t know.”
“You’ve forgotten,” Luna pointed out, thinking of Dean’s words.
“Yeah, I imagine I did.” Hermione sighed and got out of the chair. “Well, on this cheerful note, I think it’s time for me to go to sleep. Good night, Luna.”
“Good night,” they heard another voice, and Neville walked into the room.
“What are you doing up?” she asked Neville.
“Couldn’t sleep. Thought I’d have a nice cup of milk or something.”
“We’re out of milk,” Luna and Hermione said in one breath.
“Right,” Neville said, disappointed, and sat on a chair.
Hermione shook her head. “Night, folks,” she said and left the room.
“Goodnight,” Neville repeated, even though she was already gone. “What are you drinking?” he turned to Luna.
“Tea. Do you want some?”
“Nah,” he said. He got up, walked to the sink, opened the fridge, looked inside, then sat back on the chair, but still restless. After a few moments, he got up again, opened another cupboard, grabbed a bottle of wine that had the words ‘Do not open! Reserved’ written on its label in Hermione’s meticulous handwriting, and poured himself a glass into a regular cup. Luna observed him with a doubtful look, but said nothing until he sat down again.
“What’s on your mind, Neville?” Luna finally asked. “You seem a bit... unhappy.”
“It’s just this day.”
“What about it?”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the day. Actually, you could claim it’s a much better day than we’ve had in a long time,” she said reasonably.
“Yeah, well, not better enough.”
Luna nodded knowingly, but didn’t say anything.
“You know,” Neville started again after a moment’s silence, “Padma and Parvati said the weirdest thing today. They said they thought we’d end up together.”
“Why is that so weird?” Luna mused. “And Dean said the same thing, actually.”
“Dean?” Neville looked taken aback for a moment. “Really?”
“Is that so hard to imagine?” she asked.
“Yes! I mean, no. I mean... I don’t know what I mean. I just didn’t think Dean would start playing matchmaker. I mean, you and I are just friends, right? That’s what we are. Just friends.” He said all of that in one breath, and drank half of his wine in one sip. “You’re not offended, are you?” He thought to ask suddenly.
“Don’t get me wrong, Luna, you’re one of my best friends in the whole world. That’s all a part of it. We’re friends.”
He opened his mouth to say something more, then seemed to realise that whatever it was, it probably lacked tact or common sense - or both - and closed it again, settling on drinking his wine instead.
“Hermione would kill you, you know,” she commented. “She was saving this wine for when we defeated You-Know-Who.”
“I know,” he answered guiltily. “I’ll buy her a new one.”
“It won’t be the same.”
“No, it won’t,” he admitted with a sigh.
“It’s okay that we’re friends,” Luna answered his earlier query, as if the conversation kept on flowing from one topic to another, as if there was nothing awkward in this topic. “I like it. That we’re friends. It’s comfortable.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “Exactly. I can always count on you. Unlike other people. Unlike - Anthony!” he said, surprised, his voice going up and becoming somewhat funny. Anthony greeted him back, and fetched some wine for himself.
“I think I’ll go to sleep,” Luna winked at Neville, but to Anthony presented a serious face. “Night, Anthony, Neville.”
“G’night,” Neville said.
“Night, Luna,” Anthony added his own reply, and sat next to Neville. “Aren’t you going to sleep too?”
“Not yet,” Neville shrugged.
“Everyone else’s is off to bed.”
“Yeah, they go to sleep early.”
“And of course, Harry’s still sleeping. How long d’you think he’s going to stay asleep?”
Neville considered the question for a moment or two. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “A lot, I guess.”
“It takes a lot of sleep to get over that place,” Anthony said, shuddering. “I never said thanks.”
“For coming to get me,” he stared into Neville’s face, not allowing him to avert his eyes somewhere else, somewhere safe. “For not letting me rot in there. I know - you have that information. About the Dark Lord. You could have decided that was more important than coming to get me. Thanks for not doing that.”
“You welcome,” Neville smiled. “Of course, maybe we should thank you. After all, we never would have found Harry if we haven’t gone after you, so in the end, you helped us quite a lot in the end, even if now You-Know-Who is employing just about every dark creature in the country to get us. It was still worth it.”
But Anthony didn’t seem happy with the words, or flattered by them. Rather than that, he just sighed. “I guess this answers the question,” he said, with a hint of bitterness to his voice.
“What question?” Neville asked in confusion.
“Well...” Anthony looked as if he was regretting ever saying that in the first place. But then he took a deep breath and talked anyway. “Well, I know you always had a thing for Harry.”
“A thing for Harry?” Neville raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” Anthony snorted. “It’s hard not to know when you called his name that time - “
“Yeah,” Neville cut him off. “I remember.”
“Anyway. Now that Harry’s alive.”
But Neville didn’t let him finish that sentence. “Here’s the thing. First, Harry’s not interested. Trust me. Yeah, we were teenagers last time I saw him, but no one can be interested and that oblivious. And second... even if he were interested, he’s not really in any shape or state of mind for anything. It’s not an option, Anthony.”
“Oh,” Anthony said. “Right.”
“Look, I know I kinda ruined it the last time. I was a bit of an idiot.”
“C’mon, it wasn’t long after Hannah died, I didn’t expect you to...” Anthony’s voice trailed. He didn’t finish the sentence, but Neville seemed to understand.
“I never meant to hurt you, Anthony. I really do care about you. Sure, maybe not in that crazy-way thing, or the Ron-and-Hermione way, I mean, you should see these two, well, not in bed, although I did walk in on them once - by mistake! - and it was all very awkward afterwards, especially as I couldn’t forget that bunny suit, and I think - “
“Neville,” Anthony cut him off. “You’re ruining it.”
“Oh,” Neville said bashfully. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“Oh, shut up,” Anthony said, but with a lot of affection, and leaned to kiss him.
Ron wasn’t sure what woke him up at first. He wasn’t even sure he was awake in the darkness that surrounded him. But there it was again - noise. Something - someone - was moving downstairs, in the darkness.
The first thought that came to his mind was Death Eaters. They were found at last. But Death Eaters wouldn’t have entered the house alone, came reason. They’d be accompanied with Dementors. He didn’t feel despair, or overpowering fear - well, no more than he was used to, at least.
His next thought was that perhaps it wasn’t Death Eaters - it was him. Would the Dark Lord enter the house so quietly? If so, none of them stood a chance.
But Ron wasn’t one for dying in his bed.
He reached for his wand, and climbed out of the bed. Better not wake Hermione up, he thought, just in case he was being paranoid and it was a cat downstairs. If he thought about it reasonably, it probably didn’t make much sense it was the Dark Lord, either. He was being paranoid. And if it was, she will be woken up by the noise. He’d make sure of that. He didn’t light the tip of his wand even when he was well outside the bedroom and down the stairs, though. If it wasn’t a cat - if it was Death Eaters - or worse - better not give up his only advantage by announcing himself.
Finally downstairs, he stopped and strained to hear the noise again, to hear its origin, the location of the movement. He started to think he imagined it when he finally heard it - in the kitchen. And right after the movement, he could hear the sound of water, hitting a surface, a match being lit, and one piece of metal banged unceremoniously on another.
Someone broke in and was... making tea?
“Lumos,” he whispered.
It wasn’t a Death Eater. It wasn’t the Dark Lord. It wasn’t anyone sent by him. Even before the man in the kitchen turned around, Ron already realised who it was, with his mess of jet-black hair, wearing Ron’s too-large clothes that only made him look even more painfully thin than he already was.
Harry didn’t acknowledge Ron’s presence, and first finished fixing his tea before turning around and looking at him. “Fancied a cup of tea,” he said quietly. As if he didn’t spend the past 48 hours sleeping. As if this wasn’t the very first time he had seen Ron for ten long, long years. As if he was guest, coming up for a day or so of fun. “Sorry I woke you up.”
“S’alright,” Ron mumbled. Harry wobbled on his feet, grimaced, and sat down at the table. “Is there any tea left there?” Ron asked him, and Harry nodded.
Ron grabbed a cup, even though he wasn’t thirsty and didn’t really feel like drinking tea - especially without milk - and sat down next to Harry. Harry drank his tea in silence.
“D’you want a biscuit?” Ron asked, mostly because the silence was getting to him. “Hermione keeps something here, I think.”
“I’m good,” Harry replied, and as an afterthought added, “thanks.”
“Sorry we don’t have any milk.”
“Milk?” Harry looked confused for a moment, and then - “Ah, right. I forgot.”
Ron raised an eyebrow. “You forgot milk?”
“No, I forgot... I don’t think this tea is very good,” Harry concluded.
Ron laughed. “I’m sure we could get you a better one.” It was just surreal. It wasn’t what he thought it’d be, because he never thought he’d talk to Harry again, but if he was ever given the chance to imagine their first conversation, tea-discussion was never an option.
If he were honest with himself, whenever he had an imaginary conversation with an imaginary Harry, it was to accuse him of abandoning them. This was not an option, either. Nothing was an option, really.
“I’ll look for those biscuits,” he mumbled and jumped up from the chair. He opened one cupboard, then another, stretched to the secret place behind the jars that were behind the sugar... Finally, he found a few rather stale and somewhat green chocolate biscuits behind an empty jar of jam, a reminder of a time they found it easier to go outside and come back with not only food, but what was obvious luxuries.
“I don’t think you’d want those,” he mumbled and threw the biscuits into the bin.
“Couldn’t you... magic them better?” Harry suggested.
“Hmm,” Ron responded, and picked them up again, aiming his wand at the biscuits. The first spell he tried turned them from green to blue. The second seemed to give them a bit of yellow along the edges. The third already made them look like chocolate, but it made the chocolate all lumpy and... strange. The fourth spell, the green - and the blue - was gone, the yellowing edges returned to biscuit brown, and the chocolate looked shiny and brown.
“Success!” he declared proudly, and put the biscuits down on the table.
Harry looked at them with suspicion.
“I, uh, better try a bit and see they’re not poisonous,” Ron conceded. He broke the edge of one of them and - rather carefully - put it in his mouth. It was... a chocolate biscuit. Still tasted a bit of dust, and jam, and something else Ron wasn’t quite willing to guess just yet, but it felt edible. Even tasty. He took the rest of the biscuit, and Harry sent a tentative hand to take another.
“Well? How is it?”
“I don’t think these are my favourite,” Harry concluded.
“No,” Ron agreed. “I don’t think they are.” The awkward silence descended upon them again.
“So, um, who won the Quidditch cup this year?” Harry asked out of the blue.
“No idea,” Ron answered automatically.
“You’re not following Quidditch anymore?”
Ron stared at Harry, incredulous. Quidditch? They’re hiding there, hiding for their lives from the Dark Lord, and he expects them to look at the sports page? “Not really,” he mumbled in the end.
Harry nodded. “Must be a stupid question,” he said.
“Nah. As good a question as any.”
“You mean they’re all stupid,” Harry remarked, and Ron was relieved to see him smiling. “I know they’re stupid. I’m looking at you and the only thing I can think of is, ‘was his hair always this colour?!’.”
“What’s wrong with my hair?”
“I dunno. It’s more... red than I remember.”
Ron grabbed a bit of hair and look at it critically. “Same colour as always,” he mumbled.
“See? Stupid question.”
“Nah. Not stupid. Really. You haven’t seen my hair in ten years, makes sense you wouldn’t remember what colour it is.”
“Maybe I’m remembering Ginny hair’s,” Harry said wistfully. “Say, where’s Ginny? She’s also living with you guys?”
Ginny. Ron didn’t know what to answer to that - he didn’t know what to think. Her name still brought up too much pain. How could he tell Harry what had happened to her? He couldn’t.
“Ron?” Harry said, and he jumped. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s just...” he mumbled. He couldn’t say. He shook his head, trying to fight his grief, the tears he felt were coming.
He hadn’t shed tears for Ginny, not since he heard she was dead. He hadn’t shed tears for Percy, either, or for Charlie. He couldn’t. He couldn’t let go. If he let go, he’d never be able to pick himself up again.
Harry, meanwhile, kept on talking. Oblivious. “I remember her playing Quidditch. It’s funny, I spent quite a lot of time with her, didn’t I? I think I did. But there’s this one time I remember, we were playing Quidditch, maybe practice, I don’t know, and she was on her broom and rushing towards me. We’ll have to go and see her tomorrow, alright?”
“She’s not...” He couldn’t say that. He just couldn’t.
“Is she living far away?” Harry asked, and Ron shook his head, words completely lost. “Well, then, shouldn’t be a problem,” Harry said brightly. “Maybe we could play a little Quidditch, I bet that’ll get you excited about the game again. I wonder if she’ll be excited to see me...” he looked worried for a moment. “Hey, Ron, is she seeing someone these days?”
“Dead,” the word came out of Ron’s mouth. Harry looked at him sharply. “She’s dead.” There. He said it. He finally let the words out. Ginny’s dead. She’s dead and she’s not coming back. Unlike Harry, there was no cheating death when it came to his family. And he finally said it, made it real, real for the both of them. All of a sudden, Ron started to wonder. Could she have made it? Had she known Harry was still alive? If they only got Harry out a week before, or two weeks before, could she have gone on?
Next to him, Harry got up, started pacing up and down the small kitchen, the tea and biscuits forgotten. “I need some air,” he said abruptly, and started walking towards the door.
Ron jumped up in a second, grabbed his arm, tried to push him back into the chair. “Sit down - sit - down! You can’t go out! None of us can, and you least of all! Don’t you get it? He’s looking for you! You-Know-Who is looking for you! There’s Dementors out there! He’s not going to give up until he found you again! You want to go back to that cell? Just - sit - down, you’re risking all of us just as much!”
Harry recoiled from him as if from fire. He didn’t sit down again, but neither did he try and walk to the door. He just stood there, leaning on the sink, breathing heavily. Maybe it was because Ron mentioned his imprisonment, or the news about Ginny, or anything, really, but he seemed even more pale to Ron than he did before. His face stood in stark contradiction to his hair, still jet black, still untidy. But the face beneath it had not seen sunlight in ten years. His green eyes were bright and wide, wearing the glasses Hermione conjured up for him and left on his bedside yesterday, but Ron wasn’t sure they were even seeing him. Then Harry started pacing up and down again, and Ron was worried he’d go for the door again, despite the danger, despite his warning, but eventually Harry sat down. He didn’t calm down, though - Ron could see him twitching in place, could hear his leg tapping on the floor. A few moments later and Harry was on his feet again, going up and down the room. And then sat down, once more. He was still agitated - he put his hand through his hair, then started playing with his knuckles, and his leg kept on tapping on the floor fast, probably not even consciously. But he remained seated.
Ron didn’t dare say a word.
Finally, Harry spoke. “D’you remember Sirius Black?” he asked.
“He was in Azkaban for a long time, you know.”
“Yeah,” Ron confirmed. “I know.”
Harry’s eyes darted from Ron to the door to Ron again, to the sink, finally settling on Ron. “I think he told me once, he said he didn’t go mad like the rest there because he... because his memories... not memories, his innocence, that he knew he was innocent, y’know? The Dementors, they couldn’t take that away because it wasn’t happy. They take happy memories. If it’s not happy they’re not interested, you can keep that. And it didn’t help him that he was innocent, no one would believe him anyway, no one cared, so they let him keep that, but he didn’t go mad because he remembered that.”
“Yeah. I remember.”
“I remember Sirius. And I remember you and Hermione and Ginny and Neville and Luna.” He laughed without mirth. “Do you think I’m crazy?”
Ron couldn’t even begin to answer that. He wanted to apologise to Harry, apologise for not coming for him sooner, and for blaming him all those years. He wanted to tell him everything they’ve been through, for ten whole years, to catch up. He wanted to tell him about those first few months, before he got angry, how he felt helpless, so helpless, because Harry was gone. He wanted to tell him how Ginny mentioned him the last time he talked to her, how she just said, ‘Wouldn’t it have been better if Harry was still alive?’. He wanted to say so many things.
In the end, he settled for just one. “I don’t give a damn if you’re crazy or not. I’m just glad you’re here.”
They kept on sitting in silence, just the two of them, alone in the kitchen.
Chapter 7: in which the plan is formed
Draco Malfoy stood in the rain and waited for the other shoe to drop. If it were up to him, he would not be there, getting wet and waiting for metaphorical shoes. When he heard about the funeral, his first reaction was 'good riddance'. He didn't want to come. But when the Minister for Magic dies, the entire Ministry has to attend the funeral, and 'the entire Ministry' included one junior secretary, Draco Malfoy. Who happened to be the (dead) Minister's son.
He could see his mother, clad all in black, watching him from the other side of the grave. He didn't have anything to say to her, either. She stood there two years ago, watching just like she did now, watching his life taken away from him.
Had he been told only two years before that his father would kick him out of the house, disown him, and interfere with his promotion in the Ministry, he would have laughed at the face of whoever was stupid enough to make such predictions. And then go to his father and point out that this must be a traitor and that steps should be taken. But it did happen, even though Draco still didn't understand why. Every time he went in his head over the events that led to his father's outburst, over the days and weeks before his father's derisive words, his mockery, his reaction that seemed geared at one thing only - making Draco feel unwanted - he couldn't make any sense of it. One day, they were one - small - happy family. The next... they weren't.
He knew that it started, somehow, with the death of his aunt, Bellatrix. His father had taken her death hard, much harder than Draco expected. After all, it was an accident - and Lucius Malfoy had never liked his sister-in-law. But Lucius lost it, threatened to sack half the Ministry over it, and instead of calming him down, his mother just stood there, watching. And she kept on watching, even when Lucius's anger was aimed at her, and then at their son, and all of a sudden, Draco's birth and upbringing counted for nothing and he was just another small Ministry secretary, with no useful connections.
And now she was watching Draco. He wasn't about to come and say hello. He stood there, because it was expected of him, and when the ceremony would be over, he would leave there, and won't come back. Except that Narcissa Malfoy didn't seem to think in the same vein, and when the ceremony was finally over, and Draco turned to leave, he found his path blocked by the grieving widow.
"Draco," she said.
"Hello, Mother," he answered coldly.
"You look well," she said. Not thanks to you, he wanted to answer, but kept his mouth shut. It was... uncivilised, to start a scene at a funeral.
"I really should be going," he said shortly. "I'm expected back at the office."
"Surely they will give you the time to mourn your father?" she asked sharply, and he answered, "I didn't ask for it."
Narcissa looked taken aback, but only for a moment, and then she regained her composure and her haughtiness. "Very well," she said. "Then I will let you go on to your business."
Draco almost allowed himself a sigh of relief, but then it became clear that his mother expected a hug. He wrapped his arms around her stiffly, but she drew him closer. And in his ear, she whispered. "Your father loved you, Draco. Remember that. What he did, he had to do, to protect you. Don't mourn me when I'm gone."
He let go almost immediately and looked at her in surprise. But Narcissa acted as if nothing was said. Her expression was made of cold haughtiness, her body stiff. When she said goodbye, there was no warmth in her voice.
Three months later, when she was buried, he did not even come to the funeral.
He did, however, start looking at the files and memos kept in the Ministry's records room, haunted all the time by his mother's words, her reassurance that his father had tried to protect him. He couldn't let go of the hint that his death - that was ruled as a terrible accident by the Ministry healer - and that hers - that was considered the result of a heartbreak - might not be what they appeared to be.
When he found the proof he had been looking for, two years later, he was furious. Not because there it was, the conclusive proof that his parents' death, and the death of his aunt before that, had been ordered by the Dark Lord himself. Not even because his own name was mentioned there, with a note that he was to be watched, watched for signs of whatever it was that had sealed his family's fate. No, he was furious because there the note was, properly filed, out in the open - it wasn't even a proper conspiracy! The Minister for Magic had been murdered, his murder covered up for the sake of the public, but his murderer did not even think someone would go there and look, or that the information would prove a problem.
In a way, he was right. Draco may have been robbed of his family, his inheritance, his birthright, but he was not foolish enough to go out against the Dark Lord. Well, not foolish enough to do so openly...
Draco Malfoy stood in the rain and waited for the other shoe to drop. He wasn't quite sure what he was doing there. He wasn't even sure that there was a shoe capable of dropping in the equation. All he knew was that this place - probably, likely, hopefully - had something to do with the signals the small resistance used with its contacts and that - maybe, unlikely, impossibly - they'll be able to see him past the rain, past the Dementors, past the turmoil of the last three days. And that they'd be interested in meeting with him. They would still be interested in destroying the Dark Lord all the same - actually, even more so, he reasoned. Because, after this, he will not stop hunting them down. Not until he had recovered his prey.
Potter! Alive! It was unthinkable. It was impossible. It had to be true.
No one said a word about the prisoner. The public didn't know who it was that escaped the cellars of the Ministry of Magic on Sunday. They weren't even supposed to know that there was a break-out. The official story claimed that there was a terrorist attack on the Ministry, that was all. Although, if he were to judge based on the number of questions directed towards him by everyone, from Zacharias Smith to Penelope Clearwater, that specific rumour was definitely out there. Everyone knew an important prisoner had escaped the Ministry. But the name Potter had not been said even once - at least, not anywhere near Draco.
Draco himself was only supposed to know that a top priority prisoner had escaped the cellars of the Ministry of Magic. What his superiors did not know, however, was that Draco had his own way of getting information in the Ministry. It made him extremely effective for the Minister, of course - it always seemed as if Draco was just the right man at just the right time, and always with the right solution. It helped that he had the full picture, a picture no one else had, either because they did not have the clearance, or - like the Minister - did not go through the entire paperwork thoroughly enough to see it. But, as Draco reminded himself time and again, he shouldn't begrudge the Minister for being too lazy to connect the bloody dots. It was the Minister's stupidity that he could exploit. There was no one else in the Ministry who knew as much as Draco Malfoy about its inner works, about its goals, about the Dark Lord's plans.
Despite all that, even he wasn't sure what had occurred on Sunday. Even the Minister didn't have access to the identity of the prisoner in cell three, the special prisoner of the Dark Lord himself. In fact, Draco didn't even know that there was a prisoner there, not until the breakout. Nowhere, not even in Draco's own web of resources, was the name Potter even mentioned. In theory, it could have been anyone. Except that it couldn't be, because all of the Dark Lord's enemies were long dead or in hiding. He had gone over the list of possible candidates in his head, alone in the dark of his small flat. Those enemies that were important enough in the eyes of the Dark Lord, and yet so... terrifying? After all, the prisoner was kept at the Ministry, at safe distance from the Dark Lord, and not at Malfoy Manor, where the Dark Lord kept his residence these days. Draco Malfoy came up with only two possibilities, only two people the Dark Lord had ever feared. Albus Dumbledore, who was dead, gone and buried, years ago. Draco had seen the old man hit by Snape's curse, thrown from the tower. He had seen the body. Dumbledore was dead. There could be no doubt about that one.
The other, of course, was Harry Potter. Potter, who had been declared dead by the Dark Lord ten years ago. But who saw the body? There were stories - that great oaf, Hagrid, said he had seen the dead Potter, the Dark Lord's curse hitting him. But why wasn't his body displayed? Why didn't the Dark Lord use it to crush the spirit of those fools who had followed Potter? Then, at the middle of the night, Draco came up with an explanation. An explanation that was improbable, but had to be the truth, because it explained everything, unlike all the other, impossible explanations. And in the end, improbable was still better than impossible. If Potter was alive, the Dark Lord would not have dared shown a body, lest the deception be detected. He did not kill him, because - because Potter could not be killed. The Dark Lord had not made any other Horcruxes, he remembered all of a sudden. That piece of information, so crucial and yet he ignored its real significance all along. The Dark Lord was obsessed with the idea that Horcruxes could be transferred from one person to the other.
The Dark Lord was looking for an explanation why he had failed to kill Potter, time and again.
It had to be it. It had to be true. It had to be Potter.
So he took his chance and went to stand there, in the cold, in the rain, between the Dementors, hoping beyond hope that those ridiculous revolutionists would come to get him. The answers were probably in their hideout right now, and he had to know.
The fire was burning merrily in the fireplace, at the far wall of the living room. Usually, they wouldn't get the fire going in August - it was never cold enough, even in recent years. But the Dementors outside changed all that. The chill went through the spells and the walls and settled on the room and in the bones of the small group, huddled together. Trying to bring back some summer joy, Hermione suggested they light up the fire, and the rest gladly agreed.
They were now all sitting there. An outsider would have seen nothing but a picture-perfect group of friends, each doing their own thing - reading, talking, or staring out the window. But someone who knew them would have felt the tension that filled the entire room.
Padma and Parvati Patil were sitting on the floor, trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle. They didn't much care for it, and were warned in advance that there was a very good chance some pieces were missing, but they didn't care. It allowed them to do something, to feel busy, and that was all they needed for the moment. They hardly talked, except when they looked for the right piece of sky or the weirdly-shaped frame piece.
Dean Thomas had just gone out of the kitchen, carrying a tray of assorted mugs and cups with the help of Luna Lovegood. Dean commented that what the day really needed was some hot chocolate, but the flat only had coffee and tea - and they were in the risk of running out of both soon - so that was what they settled for. It took quite a while to match cup for person, but Dean and Luna did it gladly, and joked all the way in the kitchen. It must have been the least tense place in the whole flat at the moment.
Neville Longbottom and Anthony Goldstein were sat in front of the window, looking outside at the street. 'Counting Dementors', Anthony called it in jest, but in truth, they were staring at the people outside, and at one person in particular. "He's still out there," Neville said, for the third time in half an hour. Ron Weasley got up from his place near on the sofa, in front of the fire, and threw a look outside at the man who was standing at the rain, curled in his well-tailored coat. "Good," he half-said, half-snarled, and went back to his seat. He, too, had done the same thing more than once since the man was first spotted. At least he wasn't shouting anymore, more than one person thought.
On the sofa, next to Ron, Hermione Granger was sitting, looking nervously from the window, to the fire, to the nearby armchair. On the armchair sat Harry Potter - thin, pale, staring with wide green eyes at the fire and at nothing else in particular. He hardly said a word all day, and while all the rest sneaked glances every once in a while, no one started a conversation. He seemed to be so far away, and even though they all felt he would appreciate being brought back to reality, none of them was sure how to do so.
"You should have been more careful," Hermione said quietly to Ron. He had, of course, told her of his conversation with Harry, and of the way he unintentionally explained the past decade to his friend. Or dropped, as she had put it. With no preparation and no planning, Ron could see now how the news could have affected his friend.
"I know," he answered miserably and stole another glance. Harry was just given his tea by Luna. He said thanks and returned to staring at the fire, the cup forgotten on the floor. "I didn't expect - I didn't expect having to do it on my own. I just didn't think at the time. But you should have heard him, he was talking about Quidditch and dating and stuff, he didn't really understand what's going on! He needed to be told."
"Yes, Ron, but not like that," she answered testily. "Not all at once. Just a bit at a time, get him used to the idea. Look at him now, he - "
"Can still hear you," Harry said. Hermione jumped, spilling hot coffee all around her. Harry wasn't looking at her at all. His eyes were still glued to the fire, almost hypnotised by it. But it was obvious from that comment he was a lot less oblivious to the room around him than Hermione had suspected before.
"I'm sorry, Harry," she said. "I didn't mean to - "
"It's alright. I get what you're trying to do. But Ron's right, I would have found out sooner or later. At least now I know."
Hermione drank what was left of her coffee. Ron shrugged. The rest of the people in the room, who had stopped whatever they were doing when the exchange started, slowly went back each to their own business, until Neville jumped up from his place near the window. "Enough," he said, "I can't see him like that any more. He's been there for what, three hours?"
"Maybe he'll go away soon," Ron said hopefully.
"Unlikely, why would he risk himself by standing there all this time? No, I'm pretty sure he's going to stay there until we let him in."
"Let him in?" six people spoke at once.
"You can't be serious!"
"He - can't - be - trusted!"
And Ron just said, quietly but with an edge to his voice, "You're not letting that slimy git in here."
It was Ron that Neville faced now. "Maybe he's got some more important information," he said. "We need to make certain."
"There's nowhere else. Or do you want to risk going outside now? Keep in mind that since Hannah died, we're all Secret Keepers, and if you get caught..."
Ron didn't answer. He kept on staring at Neville in defiance, but didn't take any steps towards stopping him when Neville grabbed a coat and walked to the door. He watched sullenly through the window as Neville walked towards the waiting man, and his face twisted in anger when he saw the welcoming smile on Neville's face. Oh, he had no doubt, Neville hated Malfoy, if not as much as Ron did, then near enough. But Neville had always known how to be reasonable and put aside his real feelings, and it wasn't different with Malfoy, even if Ron would have preferred them to make it obvious to the little ferret from the first second that he was there on their good grace and his fate completely depended on their good humour.
Well, if Neville wasn't going to do that, he certainly was. Especially now, as he had a new bone to pick with Malfoy. A big bone. He stood next to the door, and when it opened and Neville showed Malfoy inside, the first thing that greeted him was Ron's punch, connecting with his lip.
"Ron!" Hermione said shocked, while Neville swore.
"Could have been me, mate," he said reproachfully.
"Nah, I was looking out the window. Waiting just for Malfoy."
"Are you insane?" Malfoy, who had been thrown on the floor from the strength of the punch, slowly got to his feet and checked for blood on his face. "What was that for?"
"You knew, didn't you? And you did nothing! And you told no one! All that time! Did - you - know?"
"Know what, you ridiculous buffoon?"
"That Harry's alive!"
"What? 'Course I didn't know! What are you talking about? How could i know?"
Ron glared at Malfoy. Malfoy, who had managed by now to take a couple of steps back to a - relatively - safe distance from Ron, checked his lip again for blood and tried to look past Ron and into the room - an unlikely feat, as the commotion got everyone else on their feet and blocking the view. "It really is him then?" he asked, his voice full of excitement. "He's really alive?"
"I need to talk to him."
"You don't need anything - " Ron started, but Hermione put her hand on his shoulder and he stopped abruptly. To Malfoy, she said, "I'm not sure this is the best time."
"There's something I have to know, Granger, and only Potter can tell me that."
"Is this why you came here? Just to talk to Harry?"
"Yes - no - sort of. I also came to offer you an opportunity to take the Dark Lord down, if you're still interested in trivialities like that."
Eight faces turned towards him as one. "An opportunity?" Neville asked. "And what would that be?"
Malfoy looked at him defiantly. "Your word that I get to speak to Potter," he said.
Neville nodded. "You'll get to talk to him, if he wants to talk to you."
Malfoy looked displeased for a moment, but then nodded. "There's a meeting of the top Ministry officials with the Dark Lord once a month. They fill him in, he lets them know he's displeased, they outline what they're going to do, he makes sure they know how bored he is with all that... you catch the drift. He needs to make sure they know what his wishes are and that they're not starting to think on their own. It's at my parents' old house, in a couple of days. I can give you instructions and help come up with a plan."
"Aren't you going to be there?" Ron asked.
"No. I'm not important enough. Haven't seen the inside of the Manor for years now."
Ron, Hermione and Neville all exchanged looks. They didn't like the sound of that, but they couldn't deny that it made sense. "And you'll sit with us now and give us all the information we need?"
His lips curled. "After I speak to Potter," he said.
Ron wanted to leap on him and give him a bloody nose to go with his bloody lip, but Neville just nodded. "Alright," he said, "come with me," and led Malfoy into the living room. Harry was the only one who hadn't followed Ron to the door when Neville and Malfoy entered. They weren't sure how much of the exchange he had heard, and even less, how much he had listened. He kept on watching the fire, not turning around.
"Potter," Malfoy said, his voice somewhere between excited and sneering. Harry didn't turn to look at him. "Potter!" Malfoy repeated, quite loudly.
"No need to shout," Harry said quietly, and only then looked up from the fire. He didn't get up.
"Potter, I got some questions to ask you," Malfoy stood up in front of him, blocking his view of the fire. Harry didn't answer. "I need to know what happened that night, when you turned yourself over to the Dark Lord."
"I don't remember," Harry answered after a moment's silence.
"Like hell you don't. Think, Potter! I need to know."
"I don't know. I don't really remember - Dumbledore was there."
Ron and Hermione exchanged looks, while the frustration grew on Malfoy's face. "What are you talking about? Dumbledore's dead, he was dead a year before that!"
"Yeah, I know," Harry said quietly. "But he was there. It was in King's Cross, I think. Ha," he let out a small laughter, "it was so much cleaner."
"Stop messing around with me!" Malfoy shouted and grabbed Harry's shoulder, shaking him back and forth. Ron leapt to peel Malfoy off of Harry, and next to him, Neville did the same - but they weren't quick enough. Even before they got there, Harry had somehow pushed the unprepared Malfoy to the floor, grabbed Seamus's forgotten wand, the wand Dean had left on the table without thought, and aimed it at Malfoy's heart while crouching over him. "I'm not sure I remember how to use this," he snarled, "but I can try."
And then, just as suddenly, he let go of Malfoy and curled back on his armchair. But before Malfoy could get up, another strong hand grabbed him - this time Ron's. He pushed Malfoy to the wall and aimed his well-practiced wand at his neck. "I definitely remember how to use this," he said quietly, "and I promise you, if you lay a finger on him, you won't see the light of day ever again."
Malfoy, breathing hard, peered over Ron's head to Neville, who was standing behind him. "Let me guess," his words came out in short intervals after rasped breaths, "you're here to tell me you won't stop him."
"Not at all," Neville said pleasantly. "I'm here to tell you I'll join him."
Malfoy looked from one face to the other, asserting their seriousness. Once he had convinced himself they were not bluffing, he gave out a deep breath, tried to relax his muscles and slow down his heartbeats, and said in a meek voice, "Alright. I'm sorry. I won't do this again."
Ron and Neville exchanged looks. They still needed Malfoy on their side, after all, and they both knew it. With an expression of absolute loathing, Ron let Malfoy go, and the later went back to Harry, this time crouching two inches from him, at what he hoped would be considered by the rest as a safe distance.
"Potter?" he asked. Harry turned his face towards him. It seemed the short scuffle had helped focus his mind - while his eyes were just as wide and wild as they were before, there was more recognition in them, less of the dreamy quality that had accompanied Harry all day long.
"The curse.. it didn't kill me," he told Malfoy. "It's too complicated why. I'm not going to start explaining now. Erm, he was hit too, though. I think. He was hit. Someone asked him if he was alright. He must have been hit. Until he snapped at her and told her to check me. See whether I was alive. Bellatrix. It was Bellatrix. He told Bellatrix to do it. He was too afraid, I think. To check by himself. So she went."
"And she told him you were alive," Malfoy completed the story. Was it that simple? Was this it? Was this the reason his aunt and parents had died? Because they'd been there, in the wrong place and at the wrong time? Because they knew Potter was alive?
"Does this change anything?" Neville asked him, after whispering for a moment with Ron.
Malfoy looked at Harry for a moment longer, then shook his head. "No," he said. "No. Doesn't change a thing. Well - not when it comes to our plan."
"Plan?" Harry asked, looking from Malfoy to Neville.
"We're going to stop him, Harry," Hermione said gently. "Malfoy found out that there aren't any more Horcruxes. We're still at the same place we were ten years ago. The snake - then him." He didn't say a word. "We can finish this, Harry. We can finish him. Make things better again."
She wasn't quite prepared for what happened next. She didn't know what Harry would do - in the old days, of course, he would have jumped on the opportunity, insist on becoming a part of it. She didn't expect him to do it now, even though she would have found it so encouraging if he did. But neither did she expect him to simply get out of the chair - and leave the room. She watched him go, torn - she wanted to follow him, to check up on him, to make him talk; but at the same time, she needed to stay there, to hear the information Malfoy had to give them, to plan. She caught Ron's face - he was facing the same dilemma, she knew. She looked at him for a moment, then shook her head. This was more important. He nodded, if in a somewhat disappointed face, and they both turned to Malfoy, who was also looking at where Harry had gone, only a moment ago.
"So," Ron said, "now that you've talked to him, tell us your plan."
Malfoy smirked. "I see you enjoy working with me after all, Weasley."
Ron narrowed his eyes. "I prefer you over You-Know-Who, if that's what you mean. You are much easier to kill."
There are three ways to get into Malfoy Manor.
The first is through the front door - completely out of the question, especially on the day the Dark Lord meets his most trusted aides. They haven't survived ten years' service with the Dark Lord by being neglectful.
The second is through the back door. Unlike the front door, it is much less known by the newer occupants of the Ministry, and is not usually well-guarded. However, that door opens straight into the kitchens. While it is true that the Dark Lord's staff meets for the purpose of business and policy-making, a dinner is usually a part of the deal. And while they are unlikely to even set foot in the kitchen, it has more than house-elf staff on such days. The kitchen, in short, is likely to be crowded by enough people who will sound the alarm.
The last path into Malfoy Manor is through the cellars. The noble and most ancient house of Malfoy, if somewhat diminished these past years, has made the Manor its home for centuries, if not more. As such - and like any other self-respecting pure-blood wizarding family - they made sure to have a secret passage in and out of their home, if the need shall arise. One may argue, what need will there be for a family of wizards to have a secret passageway into their abode, but one will be mistaken. The old families survived because of one rule - there is always room for back-up.
It is through the cellars, then, that the small band of rebels enters the house formerly known as Malfoy Manor. From there, they split up.
Four of them leave for the meeting room and await the Dark Lord's unceremonious exit. It is their job to make sure none of the Dark Lord's aides are aware of the small-scale invasion, that none of them is alerted by the events around them. This is not too difficult - after all, the staff brings in the feast as soon as the meeting is over, and they are all busy stuffing themselves with the best food available. Usually, these meetings go on until midnight, while the puppet Minister and his various employees drink themselves silly with the best wine the Malfoy family has collected over the years.
Two more go to fetch Gryffindor's sword. It is hung on the wall of the upper floor, the spoils of war and the Dark Lord's trophy as much as it is a relic of the old age of wizardry and the famous heirloom of an even more famous pure-blood wizard. It is not guarded - after all, who would be foolish enough to even think of taking the Sword from its rightful place? Once they get the sword, though, their job becomes much more difficult - they must locate the snake, Nagini, and kill her with it. Until they have done so, the Dark Lord cannot be killed. There are three possible locations to find the snake - the first is in a specially-dedicated room; the second is the garden; the third is with the Dark Lord. But, seeing as he is just after a long and doubtlessly tiresome meeting, the chances of him tending to his nefarious pet are slim. And so, the two tip-toe to the special room down on the first floor, an unfortunate distance from the Sword. There, they corner the beast and cut of its head before it has the time to alert its Master.
The other two are already waiting at the entrance to the Dark Lord's room, under the Invisibility Cloak. They do not wait for their two comrades - as the Dark Lord lodges in the East Wing, on the fourth floor, he is too far away from the snake's room. It is too dangerous. The longer they wait, the more likely it is something will go wrong. No, instead they use the old DA coins Hermione had devised all those years ago. As soon as they notice the coin change in their hands, they burst in to the room, facing the now mortal, yet still evil Overlord, and...
"... And then he kills us without a second thought," Ron pointed out.
"Pretty much, yeah," Hermione agreed.
"Can we go in through the window?" Neville asked, but Malfoy shook his head.
"It's usually closed," he said. "By the time you open it, he'll have already noticed you're there."
"And kill us without a second thought," Ron seemed pretty single-minded at that point, but Hermione had to accept that his single-mindedness was not unjustified. It wasn't that the plan was bad - it certainly was much better than everything they had come up with so far. It just wasn't going to work.
"So that's our problem. You-Know-Who is in his room. Any noise will alert him. Anyone walking in will need more time to get oriented and find You-Know-Who than You-Know-Who will need to kill them first."
"It's simple, isn't it?" Luna asked. "What we need is a way to lure You-Know-Who out of the room."
"And how do we do that?" Malfoy asked.
"The snake!" Dean offered enthusiastically, but Neville shook his head.
"Won't work. In order to get the snake there, we'll have to climb four flights of stairs and cross the entire house. We're bound to be seen. Now, that will get him out of his room, alright, but not quite in the way we'd want. No, what we need is a distraction."
Eight pairs of eyes turned to Malfoy.
"It makes sense, Malfoy," Dean said. "You can find an excuse to call him out. He won't be surprised by you being there, he's unlikely to attack you."
"We're taking an awful risk here, Malfoy," Hermione said testily. "You'll hardly be at risk just calling him out."
"Don't you get it?" Ron said bitterly. "Malfoy can't even be suspected in helping us. Even if things go according to plan, that will sort of ruin his plans, wouldn't it."
Malfoy turned a pale face towards Ron, but without confirming or denying, simply said again, "No."
"That's it, then. That's the end of the plan," Neville said. "It's no good without a distraction. We can't get a distraction without you."
"How about Polyjuice Potion?" Malfoy tried, looking anxious.
"What, of one of the other participants? Well, we won't have Polyjuice Potion ready for at least another month. Do you have anything ready? Do you have access to hairs of some high-ranking official?"
"No," Malfoy mumbled.
"No Polyjuice Potion then."
"The Invisibility Cloak."
This time, Ron shook his head darkly. "Won't work. That's how Hannah died."
"Oh, right," Malfoy said uncertainly.
"It's you or nothing, Malfoy," Hermione said.
"I cant. I'm sorry. I can't."
"You'd rather You-Know-Who lived than risk your skin to kill him?" Ron demanded.
"I'd rather be alive, Weasley, yes. I'm not like you, I'm not wanted, I'm not in hiding. I don't need this as much as you do."
"Yeah. You treacherous piece of shit, that's what you are. You'll have us risk our lives, oh yeah, but when it comes for you to do your part, you fail every time. I knew we couldn't trust you."
"Maybe we could do it next month," Malfoy mumbled, feeling the hostility all around him. "When your Polyjuice Potion is ready." Ron gave a hollow laughter in response.
"It won't work, Malfoy, and you know it," Neville said quietly. "We won't survive here for another month, not with him looking for Harry everywhere."
"Yeah, Malfoy. It's now or never."
Malfoy looked at them for a moment longer. "I can't be your distraction. This is your show. Not mine. I can't be a part of it. I won't be."
Ron and Malfoy stared at each other silently. Ron looked as if he was about to start shouting at Malfoy, or, perhaps, curse him. But all of a sudden, a new voice entered the conversation.
"I'll do it," said Harry. He was sitting on the stairs, still far away from the group. They didn't even realised he'd come back, that he'd been listening in. He was breathing hard, and his eyes darted in all directions, but finally fell on Ron.
"No, Harry," Ron said, "you don't have to... we'll find another way."
"You just said. There isn't any other way. And I reckon I'll be quite the distraction."
Chapter 8: in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong
Luna’s Dad always said that belief is the key to success, and Luna believed him - why shouldn’t she? Her Dad was one of the cleverest people in the whole world. He told her that, again, on the first of September, just as she was about to board the Hogwarts Express for the first time. “Remember, Luna, my love. Believe! Then you’ll succeed in everything.” She still took the charm her mother had made her before she died, just in case.
So, armed with her Dad’s wise words and the charm - just in case - she got on the train. The first compartment was full. The second one was full as well. The third wasn’t full, but the kids looked much older than she was, and she didn’t think they will have much to say to each other. She continued down the train. There were plenty of other compartments. The fourth only had boys in it, and Luna didn’t feel like being the only girl; the fifth and sixth had, again, only older kids; the seventh was full; the eighth wasn’t full, but the kids in it said they were waiting for someone else and that there was no room for her; the ninth had people playing Exploding Snap in it, and she didn’t like the constant bangs; the tenth was full, with older kids; the eleventh had a boy with a snake, and she disliked snakes. On and on she went down the train, looking at all the different compartments. She didn’t fail, of course - there were still plenty of compartments to go, and if she believed enough, she would find the right one. She just wished she’d find it soon.
Finally, there was a near-empty compartment, right at the end of the train. Luna smiled to herself - her Dad was right, after all, of course he was right. This was just the compartment for her. She succeeded. And who knows? Maybe the charm helped, too.
There was only one other person in the compartment - a red-headed girl. “Anyone sitting here?” Luna asked her, and she looked through the compartment’s door in disappointment. “I guess not,” the girl said. “I thought my brother and his friends will come, but they’re probably sitting somewhere else.”
“You don’t look very happy that they’re not here,” Luna commented. The red-headed girl shrugged.
“I just don’t know anyone else except for my brothers and their friends,” she said.
“Well, now you know me,” Luna said happily and sat down. She quickly took out a copy of the latest issue of the Quibbler and started reading her Dad’s interesting article about Nargles. They were a new creature he had discovered, and from what he had told her before publishing the article, they were very dangerous. She looked forward to learn more about them. Luna liked learning new things.
“Ahem,” the girl next to her coughed.
Luna raised her eyes from the article and saw that the girl was looking at her in confusion. “I’m Ginny, by the way,” the girl said. “Ginny Weasley.”
“Oh, that’s a nice name,” Luna said, and then her eye was caught by a diagram of the Nargle and she started studying it. Ginny coughed again, and Luna wondered whether it was possible that her throat was infested with Nargles. The article didn’t specify how large Nargles were. Luna wondered whether they were small enough to fit in a human throat. Did it say how people caught Nargles? Did it say whether they could be caught?
Ginny coughed again. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Luna,” said Luna. “Luna Lovegood.”
“Nice to meet you, Luna Lovegood,” Ginny Weasley said.
“It is, isn’t it? Nice to meet new people. They’re always full of surprises,” Luna mused.
“You sure are,” Ginny said, and Luna was happy - she just made a friend, and she was only on the train for twenty minutes!
“What are you reading?” Ginny asked her.
“Oh, it’s a story about Nargles,” Luna showed her the magazine. “Dad wrote it. He knows a lot about these things. Would you like to read it?”
Ginny nodded and took the offered magazine. Luna was sorry she didn’t bring another copy - she should have thought about it! Of course her friends will want to read the paper. Well, she’d just have to send Dad an owl and ask him to send her more copies. Maybe she could get some of her classmates to subscribe.
On the seat next to her, Ginny’s brow was getting more and more furrowed as she read the article. Every once in a while, when she read what Luna figured must have been an incredibly engaging paragraph, she threw at Luna looks that became more and more incredulous. “Oh, you’ve reached the bit about the water-skiing!” Luna said, delighted, when Ginny turned the page, opened her mouth to form a perfect O, and shot her an amazed look. “I know, they’re such incredible creatures, aren’t they?”
“Er, Luna,” Ginny started, but for some reason she didn’t finish the sentence.
“What?” Luna asked, but Ginny just shrugged and smiled. “Nevermind,” she said. “It’s not important. Which house do you think you’ll be in?”
“Ravenclaw,” Luna said without a doubt. “Both Mum and Dad have been in Ravenclaw, and Dad says I’m the perfect Ravenclaw.”
Ginny raised and eyebrow at that. “I’ll probably be in Gryffindor,” she said. “Everyone in my family is a Gryffindor.”
“That’s a shame,” Luna said to herself.
“Why?” Ginny asked.
“I was just thinking it would be nice if you were in Ravenclaw, too. Since we already know each other.”
“Well, my brother Percy says there are classes with every house, we’ll probably see each other then,” Ginny said with a smile on her face. “There’s no reason we can’t be friends just because we’re on different houses.”
“That would be nice,” Luna said, or thought out loud, and she smiled too.
Luna’s Dad always said that belief is the key to success. She knew he was right. It may take a long time, she told Hermione once when they were sitting in the kitchen, but in the end, if you believe hard enough, you will succeed. She didn’t mention that a charm or two could go a long way, too, because Hermione didn’t seem in the mood. She didn’t like what Luna had already said, either. She just sighed and told luna she wished it were true, but that their current predicament was proving rather the opposite.
“But you’re not really believing, are you?” Luna pointed out.
“But, Luna,” Hermione sighed, “you believe, and you’re in just the same situation as the rest of us.”
“You have to have patience, too,” Luna said gently.
And patience proved itself. After belief came success, eventually, even if Luna’s Dad would never see the day coming - this day coming. She smiled at the thought of her Dad, the last time she had seen him, when she climbed through the doorway and into the cellars of Malfoy Manor. “Lumos,” she also whispered, because luck and belief could always be helped with a good dose of common sense, and she couldn’t see that well in the dark.
“It’s alright, guys,” she called behind her. “It’s safe - oh,” she said when she realised she was looking not just at potato sacks and old furniture, but also straight into the face of an old witch. “Hello,” she said uncertainly.
The old witch looked at her in confusion.
In the meantime, the others climbed in, because Luna didn’t tell them to stop or wait or that there was an old witch in the cellar. First came Neville, then Dean, then Anthony, then Padma and right after her Parvati, then Hermione and finally Ron and Harry. All of them did the same thing - they climbed out of the door, looked around, had a double-take when they spotted the old witch, and then stood there in amazed silence while the person next in line crashed into them.
“Oh, no,” Hermione was the first to speak. The old woman’s eye opened in surprise. She seemed to recognise Hermione. “Stupify!” Hermione called, and the old woman slumped in her place.
“She wasn’t doing anything,” Luna objected, but Hermione shook her head. “We can’t take the risk,” she insisted.
“Well, if we can’t take the risk - Petrificus Totalus!” Ron hit the witch with another curse. “That way, she won’t be able to rat us out when she recovers,” he said. “Now, if you don’t mind...” he pushed past Luna and walked to the door.
Luna peered behind his shoulder into the stairs. They were dark, and more importantly - empty. “C’mon,” she said. Ron looked slightly annoyed, but repeated her invitation, and left the cellar. They climbed the stairs in a row, one after the other. There was another door at the end of the stairs. Luna wanted to open it, but Ron stopped her. “Listen,” he said, and she listened - and heard human voices, gossip and laughter.
“Well I don’t know where Hetty’s gone to,” someone was saying behind the door. “She said she was just going to fetch some potatoes. Surely she should have been back by now?”
“Maybe you should go and check for her,” another voice suggested, and Ron raised his wand, aiming it at the door.
“Maybe I should,” said the voice and became louder - closer. Behind her, Luna could hear other people drawing their wands as well. Maybe it was a good reason to, she thought to herself. They didn’t know who was in that kitchen or what they were doing.
When the door opened, the curses were sent flying everywhere. She almost got hit by one herself - one of the others didn’t aim very well, or perhaps, she was in their line of sight. At any rate, she ducked just in time, and the witch in front of her crumpled to the floor, hit by another Body-Bind curse.
It took them little more than 30 seconds to curse everyone in the room and then walk in. It turned out it was the cooking staff - and that they were cooking what looked like cabbage soup. Ron wrinkled his nose in disgust. “What is this?!” he asked.
“Well, cabbage soup is very good for your digestion,” Luna pointed out. She always thought people didn’t give enough credit to cabbage soup. Perhaps it was the smell. Or the taste. Or the gas. “A lot of people don’t know that, but - “
She didn’t get to tell them about the cabbage’s healing properties, though, because Ron - rather rudely, to be honest - hissed at her to be quiet. She shrugged. She’ll tell him about that another day. Now, she followed him, stepping over the various bodies on the floor and walking towards the door, where she wanted to go out, but Hermione grabbed her arm, then Ron’s.
“They weren’t cooking dinner,” she whispered. “I don’t think Malfoy’s information is as good as he thinks it is. Cabbage soup? It can’t be the feast for the Minister.”
Ron scratched his nose. “Maybe they’re already eating,” he said.
“Maybe,” Hermione repeated, her voice full of doubt. Luna wanted to tell her to believe, but she didn’t want Ron shouting at her again to be quiet, even if he did it without shouting, so she stayed quiet anyway.
When they left the kitchens, they split up. Luna went with Dean, Parvati and Anthony towards the big meeting room. “Be careful,” Hermione whispered. “They might not be eating after all.” Luna nodded, and led the others in the path Malfoy had told them to taken. They had three floors to climb, and no way to hide themselves while they were climbing. They had to tiptoe up the stairs of the west wing, hoping not to wake up any portrait, house-elf or some other creature.
They failed already on the first floor, where they had woken a portrait of an ancient wizard. The wizard looked at them, narrowing his eyes. “Who are you?” he asked in an angry voice. “What are you doing here?”
They looked desperately at each other. If the portrait started shouting...
“Well?” he - it - demanded.
“We’re here to kill the Dark Lord,” Luna said suddenly. Believe, she thought.
The portrait gave her a piercing look, then nodded silently. “You want to avoid the second floor,” he said. “The portraits there will not be as understanding as I am. Take the dumbwaiter.” He pointed at the cupboard near him.
Dean breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks,” he said. The portrait surveyed him with less than happy eyes. “Let it not be said that Phineas Nigellus Black stood by cowardly,” it said.
“Thank you, sir. We won’t say that,” Luna said, and opened the cupboard. It was, indeed, a dumbwaiter, just wide enough for all of them to enter, even if it was somewhat of a tight fit. “Come on, guys,” she urged the rest and climbed into it. Dean gave it a doubtful look, but climbed in all the same. Anthony took a deep breath, and stepped in. But Parvati stayed outside, her feet firmly planted on the ground.
“I don’t know, guys,” she said. “This could be a trap. We can’t really get out of there.”
“The portrait could go and shout if it wanted us out of the way,” Anthony noted. “Or just go through the other portraits.”
“We have to take the chance,” Dean said. “It’s worth it.” She looked at him, full of doubt, but after a moment relented and stepped into the dumbwaiter. Anthony flicked his wand and the old device started rising. The ride seemed to take forever, in the small, confined space: dark, smelly, small. Next to Luna, someone was breathing heavily. Dean, she thought, and sent a hand to seek his. She could feel him jump, ever so quietly, but then he must have realised it was her because he found her hand and squeezed it. She gave it her own squeeze, a reassuring one. The ride will end soon, she wanted to say with the squeeze, because it would have been foolish to say it out loud, in case anyone heard her. It will be over soon and then they will be on their way.
The dumbwaiter stopped all of a sudden. Dean’s hand left hers in doubt. Were they going out? Were they staying to listen in silence, just in case they could hear what was going on in the corridor? No one knew - they forgot to plan it before. After a few seconds, someone pushed open the door - Parvati, Luna could see now with the light that came through the crack. But it was difficult to open the door - she could see that it was stuck, that Parvati was struggling with it. She was too far and couldn’t help, but Anthony gave Parvati a hand and together they managed to get it opened, if more noisily than they first intended.
A quick look at the floor showed them what was blocking the door - a body. A dead body. The Minister for Magic’s dead body. They looked at each other in shock.
Parvati jumped out of the dumbwaiter, and the rest followed her. Luna looked around - and spotted another dead body. She didn’t know who it was, but he must have been an important person, as he wore fancy robes. She pointed, showing Dean the body, and he nodded. He looked sick.
“There’s more bodies in here,” Parvati called. She was looking through the door of the great meeting room.
“And here,” they heard Anthony’s voice - who was looking at the other room. “It’s not the Killing Curse, it was the - “ he said in a shaky voice, and then they could hear retching noises. Dean approached him, but Anthony, who had regained control over himself, stopped him. “You don’t want to go in there,” he said. Dean nodded.
“What was it then? What killed them?”
Anthony shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said.
Luna wondered what it looked like in the room. Were there body parts there? Internal organs? Was it something worse? And more important - what were they supposed to do now? What did it mean?
She opened her mouth to ask these questions, but then closed it. She couldn’t find her voice. She couldn’t even look at the others. Her eyes were planted firmly at the creature that slithered quietly on the floor, leaving the meeting room and going towards the stairs. The snake.
It was going directly in Parvati’s direction. In a couple of seconds it would - but before she finished the thought, she jumped and got Parvati out of the way. The snake didn’t seem to mind. It continued slithering down towards the stairs. Parvati, on the other hand, stared at it, frozen.
“The snake,” she said.
“But it can’t be,” Dean said.
“It is,” Anthony replied.
“What are we going to do?”
Silently, Padma tapped on Neville’s shoulder, and pointed at the wall. The Sword of Gryffindor was there, exactly where Malfoy said it would be. She could see the letters now, inscribed on the base of the sword. Godric Gryffindor. The hilt was studded with huge rubies, and the sword itself shone brightly. She looked at Neville and sent her hand towards the sword, in order to take it, then changed her mind. It was the sword of Gryffindor, after all. She was a Ravenclaw. Perhaps it was Neville who should take it.
He seemed to understand what she was thinking, even though she didn’t say a word. He nodded, then stretched his own hand, slowly, carefully. Another second, and another, and his palm closed on the sword.
She allowed herself a sigh of relief, before Neville tried to pull the sword away and an alarm sounded all around them.
They both jumped. Panicked, he grabbed the sword and pulled it away from the wall. It didn’t budge. He tried again, but no luck. It must have been bewitched, and now the people inside the house knew they were there. They could expect their enemies to run into the corridor any moment now.
“Neville!” she called. “We have to go!”
“We can’t,” he said in gritted teeth, trying again and again to pull the sword free. “We won’t get another chance, Padma! We’ve got to do this.”
“They’ll be here any second!” she tried again, but he just shook his head. She looked at the wall, at the sword, and at the pushing Neville, and an idea came to her mind.
“Wait,” she told him, “get back. I’ve got an idea,” she added impatiently when she saw he was ignoring her.
He gave another push, then nodded and stood back. She raised her wand, the wand that she picked up at the Ministry. It didn’t resist her - it seemed to like her. That was good, she thought, from what she knew of wands. Good chance. Now if only she remembered... oh, yes. “Reducto!” she called the spell and saw the jet of light leaving the wand and hitting the wall.
The whole house shook. There was dust everywhere. She coughed, breathing only dust and old paint and fabric. She told Neville to stand back but forgot to do so herself, and got the full brunt of the destroyed wall flown in her direction. But no matter, no matter, she could feel someone pulling her away in one hand, and, crashing into her thigh very unceremoniously, something cold and metallic and sharp on the other.
She stopped coughing as the dust settled. The wall had disappeared, crumbled into dust. She wasn’t quite sure how the house didn’t fall down upon itself. Maybe it was held by magic. But no matter, she thought, no matter. They had the sword. And they had alerted the entire house. Hell, they’ve probably alerted all of Wiltshire, she thought, still slightly light-headed and oxygen-deprived, as Neville dragged her to a place of safety, a hiding place inside a small and claustrophobic cupboard.
They waited there, a second, two, ten... The seconds became minutes. No one was coming. They looked at each other, confused. Could Parvati and the others have done such a good job that the people in the meeting room were not even aware of the alarm? Of the destruction? She suggested it, but Neville shook his head. “The whole house felt that,” he said. “No chance. Not unless they’ve all been knocked unconscious.”
“Maybe they have,” she suggested. “Maybe they just put everyone under the Body-Bind curse.”
“Maybe,” he said, but sounded doubtful, and then - footsteps! Someone was running towards them. “Here they come,” she said darkly, but it wasn’t any Ministry wizards - it was Luna Lovegood!
Neville got out of the cupboard, confused. “Luna!” he called.
“You seem to have made quite a mess,” Luna stated the obvious, as always.
“There was an alarm on the sword,” Neville said apologetically.
“We’ve heard,” Luna confirmed.
“And then it wouldn’t come off,” Padma explained further, so that they wouldn’t look ridiculous in her eyes. Well, not completely ridiculous.
“That’s strange,” Luna commented, but Neville said, “Not very. We should have seen it coming. He knows what can be done with the sword... makes sense he wouldn’t want anyone to be able to use it.”
“Oh, yeah, the snake! That’s what I came to tell you! It’s actually on the west wing! It - it killed them. All of them. All of the Ministry wizards. They’re all dead.”
“Then let’s go and get it,” Neville said.
But Padma stopped them. “Why are they dead?” she insisted. It didn’t make any sense. Why would the Dark Lord kill all of his staff? Why would he destroy his own organisation? He didn’t want to do the manual work, the boring tasks of ruling. And he needed someone to follow him - and all of his followers had been in that room. She tried to express this to the others, but Neville shook his head.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Not right now, anyway. We have to kill the snake, no matter what. Everything else has to wait.”
“But - “
“I know it could be important. But killing the snake is more important. This is not the day for long-term plans.”
Padma opened her mouth to say something, but changed her mind, and they followed Luna back towards the snake.
They climbed the stairs in silence. They were too nervous to speak. Ron certainly was, and from Hermione’s expression, she was as well. As for Harry, well... it was hard to tell what Harry was feeling or thinking. it definitely looked like he understood what it was they were doing, at least. The initial confusion was gone. It was clear Harry now fully grasped the severity of the situation they were in. Ron wondered, at first, whether Harry had only volunteered because he didn’t understand what it would require of him, and had rather expected him to back down - or, more likely, freak out - when he did understand. But that didn’t happen. If anything, Harry looked more focused now, more determined than he did since they first broke him out. For the first time, he looked really alive.
“You okay?” Ron whispered to Harry.
“Yeah,” Harry nodded. “I thought I’d be too scared to breathe, but... it feels good. Doing something.”
“S’called denial, mate.”
“Probably,” Harry said dismissively, “but as long as it’s working, I’m not complaining.” Neither was Ron, really.
Ron shot a glance now at Hermione, on his other side. She was walking up the stairs, pale as a ghost. He knew this paleness, the determined expression on her face, the way she was biting her lip and her eyes were jumping from one point to the other, focusing on everything and nothing. He reached for her, squeezing her hand. She smiled in return, her eyes just as troubled as they were before, but something of her warmth coming back to them. They climbed the stairs like that, the two of them, hand in hand.
And then there were no more stairs.
They couldn’t storm the room yet, of course. They were still waiting for Neville’s signal, waiting for the cold fake galleon in Hermione’s palm to become hot suddenly, to change. The he would be mortal again, and they could go in and kill him. It sounded so simple. But in the meantime, until that had happened, they were standing in front of the door, unsure.
“I don’t think we want to be standing here,” Hermione whispered nervously. Ron nodded, and started looking for somewhere else for them to stand - not too close, so that they won’t be detected, but not too far, either.
There was a corridor, right next to the Dark Lord’s door. Ron gestured towards it, and Hermione nodded. They already took the first three steps when they realised Harry wasn’t with them. He was standing right in front of the door, clutching the wand he was given by Neville, Hannah’s old wand, and his knuckles were all white. Ron and Hermione exchanged looks again. He couldn’t be losing his cool now... Ron was going to go back to Harry and pull him over, but Hermione got there first. She stepped next to him, and slowly, gently, put a hand on his shoulder. Harry jumped, but only slightly. He tore his eyes from the door and looked now at Hermione, who was smiling at him. He didn’t smile back. But after a second, he looked back at the door, nodded, and retreated with Hermione. Ron joined them, and they went to hide in the opposite corridor. And then, they waited.
And waited, and waited, and waited. It looked like it was taking forever. Ron started pacing in place. Three steps to the right, turn back, three steps to the left. And start all over again. He concentrated on the rhythm - it gave him something to do, something that wasn’t thinking that something must have gone terribly wrong, that any moment now Yaxley would show up holding Neville or Luna or any of the others. That the Dark Lord would step out of his room in rage suddenly and curse them all. Three steps to the right, turn back, three steps to the left... Hermione grabbed his arm and stared at him. He didn’t need her to speak. He knew what she was thinking - he was getting on her nerves, he was making too much noise, he should stop. He sighed and settled down next to her, this time tapping his finger on the wall. He couldn’t help it - the wait was wrecking his nerves. She gave him an annoyed look, but didn’t try to stop him. In fact, he noticed, she was tapping her fingers on the wall as well. He would have said something, made a sarcastic comment, but he didn’t feel like sarcasm or telling her off or anything else. He just wanted her to jump with the heat of the fake galleon and that it would all be over already. But time stretched on, and there was no signal in sight.
Ron started getting worried. It was getting late. What if the Dark Lord left the room? What if he wanted dinner? Did he even eat dinner? Was there human enough left in him to have such mundane things as dinner? Or what if he went to sleep? Of course, the Dark Lord going to sleep would have made the whole thing so much simpler for the three of them - killing a sleeping Dark Lord would be so much easier than killing one who is completely awake. But Ron was just afraid of the complications. What if, what if, what if... where were Neville and Luna and the others?!
He was just going to suggest to Hermione they went somewhere to check, when a loud alarm was sounded, somewhere below them. He looked at Hermione, confused, worried, and saw the exact same emotions reflected from her face. Something must have gone wrong. And before he had the time to say so, the entire house shook.
“So far for secret infiltration,” he said - almost shouted, really, to get himself heard over the noise. The house felt almost as if it was going to come crashing down on them. “Do we go in?!”
“We can’t!” Hermione said desperately. “We didn’t get the signal yet!”
“Maybe Neville’s caught up in whatever’s going on and can’t give the signal? Maybe the alarm is because they killed the snake?”
“Neville knows how important the signal is! They all do! We - can’t - gamble - on - this!” she insisted.
The alarm died down. The house shook again, and then stopped. Everything was quiet. Ron looked at Hermione in confusion. Why was everything quiet? Where were the shouts? The Death Eaters? What was going on?!
Hermione seemed to think the same. Tentatively, she stepped from the corridor back to the door, back to the room Draco Malfoy had told them was the Dark Lord’s office. There was no sound from beyond the closed door. No one opened it, no one asked what was going on - no one even shouted in frustration. Looking again at Ron, she took a deep breath, and then took another step forward and - opened the door.
And then she breathed, in relief mixed with disappointment. Ron didn’t need to go into the room to know what she had seen there, but he went anyway. The room was empty. The Dark Lord wasn’t there.
“Where is he?” he whispered. Hermione shook her head. “Let’s go back to the others,” she said. “Harry?”
Harry, who had been staying behind the two of the, unsure, walked forward to look at the empty room for a moment himself.
“Yeah, let’s go,” he said after a second or two. His voice was full of fear, but he still looked determined as he started going down the stairs, not waiting for them. Something to do, Ron thought, something to do. Even if it was walking into their deaths. Or the unknown.
“It’s here! It’s here!”
“Cut off its head!”
“Where’s the bloody sword?!”
In the general chaos, as Neville and his friends chased the snake, the last curse that was sent at them sounded relaxed - almost lazy. Neville almost didn’t register the words, but when he did - at the very last moment - he grabbed Luna on his left, Anthony on his right, and pushed them down. Just in time, too - the green jet of light exploded above them, where they stood only seconds ago. Neville looked up at the origin of the curse.
He looked like a nightmare. He was a nightmare - Neville’s worst nightmare, even more terrible than the days he’d see Hannah’s body in his dreams. His eyes were red - not a warm, friendly red, but the kind that was more likely to be called Hellfire. There was nothing human reflected out of them - how could it, when they looked so snake-like? And his nose, his nose was non-existent, only two small slits, like a reptile. His face looked like white marble. There was no human colour in them, just coldness. And his lips - thin, wide, and stretched in what looked like the mockery of a smile.
The Dark Lord wasn’t even angry. They were this unimportant. He just mocked them.
And why wouldn’t he? The sword was thrown away, far from Neville’s reach, the snake just as far. His friends were just as helpless - Luna and Anthony here, Parvati and Dean there, and Padma behind them. None of them could get past the Dark Lord to the sword, to the snake. They had failed.
“Fools!” the Dark Lord said, triumphantly. “You think there was no security on that sword? That it would just hang there, waiting for you?” He laughed, and his laughter sounded like Death incarnate. “It is cursed! And so are you!” He raised his wand again, doubtlessly to finish them off. Neville thought desperately about getting his wand, and trying to fight back, but he knew it was hopeless, useless, impossible. The Dark Lord was right. And after he finished them, he’d go on and kill Ron and Hermione and Harry, and it would be all over. The last resistance, destroyed.
At least, he thought, he would not have to see what would become of his world afterwards.
He closed his eyes and waited for the words. Avada Kedavra. Just say them, he thought. Stop playing with us. End this. But the words didn’t come. And when the Dark Lord’s voice was heard again, it was a scream - full of fury, full of fear, and then it stopped, just as it started. Neville opened one eye, then the other.
The snake was lying on the floor, dead. Its head had been cut off with the sword. And the wielder of that sword now stood in front of the Dark Lord, unmoving. Harry Potter. The Chosen One. In one hand he was still clutching the Sword of Gryffindor, in the other, Hannah’s wand. And in front of him stood the Dark Lord, frozen, unmoving, terrified. Mortal. And they both just stood there.
Do something! Neville thought urgently at Harry, but Harry didn’t move. His eyes didn’t leave the Dark Lord. And the Dark Lord’s didn’t leave him. Whoever gathered himself first, Neville knew, would be the winner. But neither of them seemed to be capable of that, not just yet.
And then -
Slowly, the Dark Lord’s - Voldemort’s - body arched slightly and started falling, falling, leisurely, quietly, until it hit the ground with a resounding thump. An unremarkable end as they came, but Neville wasn’t capable of thinking in those terms just yet. All he knew was that the Dark Lord was dead. It was over, at last.
Harry stood above the body, looking at it, confused and disoriented. It had not been him who had spoken the curse. The Dark Lord was dead - but not by the Chosen One’s hand. No, now Neville raised his head and he could see them, their saviours - Ron Weasley, his wand still aimed at the fallen body, determination on his face, and Hermione Granger, her determination already replaced by relief. They had both cried out the word, the curse, at the same time. They couldn’t know which one of the two had hit the Dark Lord - or perhaps, they both did. But it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they did it. It was over, at last.
Harry looked from Voldemort to Ron, to Voldemort again. Then, he stepped closer to the body. Voldemort did not move, just stared at the ceiling, his face fixed forever in an expression of terrified realisation. He looked smaller now, Neville thought. Less terrifying. Almost human.
Only now did Neville allow himself to get off the floor. Anthony had got up before him, and now offered him a hand, which Neville took gladly. Next to him, Luna was also getting up slowly, helped by Dean. Parvati and Padma were already standing close to Harry, peering at the monster on the floor - or perhaps, just a man, after all. A dead man. And lastly, Ron and Hermione walked closer, hand in hand, walking towards the group, looking at the body without passion.
They all looked at each other. None of them was sure what to do. Harry kicked the body with the tip of his shoe, once, twice, making sure he wasn’t coming up. Voldemort didn’t stir. His eyes remained fixed and unseeing. Satisfied, Harry leaned at the body, and pried the wand out of the still warm hands. “I do believe this is mine,” he said. No one bothered to argue. They just looked at each other some more.
“So,” Ron said, almost lightly. “Now what?!”
Chapter 9: The Rewards of Perseverance...
Some days, Ron couldn’t care enough to get out of bed. Today was one of those days. Was there a particular reason? No, he had to admit as he opened his eyes a crack, then closed them again. Not really. It was just another day.
Maybe that was reason enough. Maybe he’d feel like getting up again when the days changed a bit. When there was something to look forward to. Now he just wanted to turn over and fall asleep again. And maybe, just maybe, if he was lucky, never wake up.
Much later, in the darkness, he’d think to himself that maybe he could feel it coming, maybe he somehow could guess. Or maybe he’d just come to expect those terrible days and terrible things happening. But at the time, he didn’t make any kind of rationalisation, none of the explanations and trying to make sense. No, all he thought at that morning was that he didn’t want to wake up. Even though his dreams had stopped being a refuge a long time ago.
He wasn’t sure when he opened his eyes. He wasn’t sure when he didn’t close them again. He was staring at the ceiling for a long time, not even thinking of anything, just staring. For a very long time. Eventually even this was becoming too much. Time to get up.
He put his clothes on slowly. Trousers, shirt, jumper... it was supposed to be summer. It was supposed to be hot and sunny. But it was cold outside, and the chill got into the house. So he put the jumper on before going downstairs.
Hermione wasn’t in the kitchen, and she wasn’t in the living room, either. Neither were Neville and Luna. It looked like everyone was gone. The house was completely quiet. Too quiet. He thought of turning on the radio, maybe listen to some music. Sometimes they still played music - after all, even Death Eaters needed entertainment. So when he got downstairs, he tapped the small radio.
They were playing music, alright. Celestina Warbeck. Ron almost broke the radio as he turned it off. He couldn’t listen to Celestina Warbeck anymore. He never liked her - he used to wish his mum just turned off the radio whenever she was playing. But now he couldn’t listen to her because of the memories. That’s what came to his mind when he heard her songs these days - the image of his mother, singing happily with the radio.
Surrounded by silence again, he raided the kitchen for some food. There wasn’t a lot of it. They’d have to go and look for something to eat soon. For a moment, he stopped to stare outside the window at the misty, cold day. He longed to go out, but not to this weather. Not to this Diagon Alley. His curiosity satisfied - or unsatisfied - he went back to the kitchen and found a bit of bread - going stale - and some cheese, or, more likely, the remnant of cheese, the way Luna used to call it. Wonderful. He made himself a sandwich, which he tried to transfigure into something more edible - or at least, less stale - and sat down to chew in silence. He’d have thrown it away had he not been so hungry - it was downright disgusting.
For the second time in five minutes, he thought of his mother. She would have been able to make something good out of it, he knew. Something tasty. He wondered if he’d ever get the chance to taste her cooking again. He didn’t believe it, not anymore. He wasn’t sure whether he ever believed.
The sandwich was soon finished; now Ron had nothing to do. He longed to go outside, but one of the others had taken the invisibility cloak with them, and whatever was left of the Polyjuice Potion. For one wild, impossible moment, he thought of going out as he was, and responsibility be damned. He knew his face was plastered on every Wanted poster on every wall, everywhere around them. Together with Hermione and Neville and Luna, he was Public Enemy Number One. Everyone knew his face. And for just one moment, he didn’t care. But he couldn’t. Not for himself - Ron Weasley had stopped caring a long time ago whether he lived or died for the cause. But he couldn’t do it to Hermione.
So he stayed.
He tried reading a book, but couldn’t concentrate. He tried bewitching his old set of Wizard’s Chess into playing against him, but that didn’t last much longer. He looked around the kitchen once more, maybe there was something there - perhaps he could surprise Hermione, make sure she had a hot lunch when she came home, even if she didn’t come back until dinner. But the cupboards were empty. There was nothing to make lunch with. He sighed and threw himself back on the sofa, picking up his book again. But he didn’t really read the story. His eyes didn’t move. He just stared at the book, eyes unfocused. He could just as well stare at the wall. He wasn’t sure how long he stayed that way. He knew he didn’t fall asleep. But time did pass.
He jumped when he heard the door open. It was Hermione. He let out a sigh of relief, and it surprised him - he didn’t even realise he was tense until now. But of course he was. He always was. Every time Hermione went out, there was a chance she wouldn’t get back.
There was something in her face. He could tell, just by looking at her, just for that second. Something was wrong. She didn’t want to look him in the eye - she must have been afraid he’d be able to see it in hers. But it was too late. He could already tell.
He didn’t start with it, though. He had learned a long time ago that if there was something he needed to be told, something Hermione wanted to tell him, she would. He just needed to give her the time. “Hey,” he said instead, as casual as possible. She didn’t buy it, of course. She could hear the tension in his voice, the way he prepared himself for whatever disaster it was she was going to share with him. But she answered the same way: “Hey”. Maintaining the illusion for just a bit longer. They were very good at that.
Slowly, she took off her red jacket and put it on the coat hanger at the entrance.
“Want a cup of tea?” he asked her, buying her time, buying himself time.
“Sure,” she nodded. He followed her to the kitchen, where she sat on the chair, almost defeated. He pretended he didn’t see as he put water in the kettle. “Sugar?”
“Do we have any sugar left?” she asked.
“Erm. I think so.”
“I think we’re out of milk, though.”
“Never mind that. I’m used to drinking it black.”
He nodded at that last one, and soon she had a cup of warm tea, his best effort. She didn’t smile at him, didn’t say thanks. He didn’t ask what was going on. Wordlessly, she got up and went to the living room. He followed her. She sat on the armchair, in front of the empty fireplace, but he remained standing, looking at her. Preparing, stalling, he wasn’t sure. Just being with her.
Finally, Hermione raised her head - and he knew. She opened her mouth, she was about to tell him, but just a split second before the words left her mouth, he already knew what she will say.
“Ginny is dead.”
Some days, Ron couldn’t care enough to get out of bed. Hermione could already tell that this would be one of them. After his almost light hearted question, ‘Now what’, they just left Malfoy Manor and went back to their hiding place. As if nothing had happened. As if the Dark Lord - no, she corrected herself. Time to call him by his name. As if Voldemort was still alive.
She couldn’t understand it. She couldn’t imagine it. The Dark Lo - Voldemort - gone. The nightmare was over. It just didn’t make sense. When they got home, someone offered halfheartedly to drink that bottle of wine she’d been keeping all that time, but then Neville confessed half of it was already gone. She didn’t mind. For some reason, she didn’t feel like celebrating. She was too exhausted.
It didn’t feel right. She should feel like celebrating, she knew. Maybe tomorrow, she thought. Maybe after she had slept and had a good meal and went outside for a bit. Maybe when there’s sunshine. Right now, she didn’t want to celebrate. She just wanted to go to sleep.
Ron still poured her half a glass of wine. They didn’t sit in the kitchen with the rest. Actually, the rest didn’t seem to be sitting in the kitchen, either. They all went somewhere else. She thought they’d be together, whenever she imagined that day, in her wildest dreams, she imagined them all together. Celebrating, definitely. Laughing, maybe. But in the end, reality disappointed, as it always did. Everyone, it seemed, was like her. They didn’t feel like spending that time together. She didn’t know why.
In her bed, she took the glass from Ron’s hand. “Cheers,” she said, tired. Cheers, he mouthed, but no voice came out, and then he drank his entire glass in one gulp. She was slower - one sip, then another, but soon, her wine was gone, too.
“Do you feel like going to sleep?” she asked him. “I guess,” he answered, but didn’t sound very convinced. He’d sleep and everything will be better, she thought, but she still felt that she was probably wrong. She had a feeling that when Ron woke up, he wouldn’t feel any better.
She took a long bath before going to sleep. For a moment, she entertained herself with the thought of asking Ron to join in, but she could see he wasn’t in the mood. Neither was she, when she thought of it. So she just took an extra long bath, sinking into the blessed hot water and thinking. When she finally got out to hide under the blankets, Ron entered the shower. She turned off the lights, not waiting for him. She really wanted to close her eyes, and besides, it was three steps - maybe - between the shower and bed. Ron would be able to do it in the dark.
He seemed to have the same idea she had about the shower. She wasn’t sure how long he’d been there, but she was already drifting, half asleep, when she felt his weight on the bed. He didn’t go under the blankets. Instead, he sat outside, on the tip of the bed, unmoving. She waited for a long time - and maybe just a couple of seconds. With her eyes closed and her mind all fuzzy, it was hard to judge the time passing by. She wanted to call his name, but was too sleepy. Her mouth didn’t seem to want to move.
She thought she fell asleep - she wasn’t sure. Maybe just for a moment. She definitely was awake again, if somewhat fuzzy, when she felt the covers rising, and Ron slipping in next to her. He drew himself closer to her, putting his hand on her shoulder, then her arm. It was cold as ice - how long had he been sitting outside the blankets, the fool? she thought. And it wasn’t just his hand - he was shivering. She could feel it from his grip. His hand was shivering with the rest of him. She moved her hand over his, trying to warm him up, but it didn’t do any good.
“You’re freezing,” she whispered. He didn’t answer. In fact, he didn’t say anything at all. He was completely quiet. She opened her eyes and turned on her back. Now she could see. He wasn’t shivering at all. He was shaking, overcome - at last, after all these years - by silent tears and grief. “Hey,” she said softly, and raised his chin. He could keep it quiet, under control, at least somewhat - until that moment. When his eyes met hers, he could no longer keep the pain at bay. He buried his face in her chest, his entire body shaking violently, his silent sobs becoming louder and louder. She held him tight, burying her face in his hair, and could feel the tears in her own eyes, too.
Ron was still sleeping when she woke up. She didn’t remember when he fell asleep last night - she thought he must have fallen asleep after her. She didn’t remember his breaths become regular, the tense muscles unclenching. He fell asleep hugging her, and she now moved around, careful not to wake him up, and got out of his embrace and the bed. He looked so peaceful when she watched him sleeping. She wanted to kiss him, but was afraid it would wake him up. So she didn’t. She just went downstairs, as quietly as she could.
She expected the living room to be empty. It couldn’t have been long after sunrise. But Harry was already there, already awake. Or maybe he never went to bed, she thought.
“You’re not sleeping?” she asked him, half whispering.
He gave her a non-committal shrug. “I think I slept enough for a lifetime,” he answered in the same kind of half-whisper.
She sat next to him on the sofa. “How are you feeling?” she asked carefully.
He considered this for a moment. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “I should be feeling something, shouldn’t I?”
“It’ll come to you,” she said, and was surprised to see a smile on his face.
“What do you want to do, Hermione?” he asked her all of a sudden.
She looked at him in confusion. “How d’you mean?” she asked. “When, now?”
“I don’t know. Eat breakfast?”
He laughed. It sounded strange - unnatural. Maybe he wasn’t used to laughing anymore, or maybe she just wasn’t used to hearing him laugh.
“No, I meant - now. You know. No longer hiding from Voldemort.”
“Oh,” she said, getting red and feeling extremely silly. “Of course. Er, I don’t know. Find my parents, I guess. And then - oh. Ron proposed the other day.”
“That would be brilliant,” Harry concluded.
“Yeah,” she said, thoughtful. “It would, wouldn’t it.” She was quiet for a bit. “It would be weird,” she said at last.
“Weird? You are practically married already!”
She smiled then. “I know. That’s why it would be weird.” They laughed for a moment again, the both of them. His laughter started to sound more natural to her ears - or perhaps, she was just getting used to it. He kept on looking at her long after his smile was gone. Longer than was comfortable for her, she realised, and looked for a way to start the conversation again.
“And then I don’t know,” she returned to the conversation, very late indeed. “Maybe give survival lessons. Maybe work in the Ministry. There’s probably going to be a lot of need for people like us now,” she said in a dreamy voice, dreaming of a future that all of a sudden had become relevant once more. “I never thought of it before... What about you?” she asked. “What are you going to do?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. The answer was obvious. He didn’t know. Neither did she. The silence descended between them.
“I had plans once, didn’t I?” he asked her all of a sudden.
She nodded. “You and Ron were going to become Aurors. Back when there still were Aurors. Feels like a different lifetime now, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t remember,” he said shortly. And then seemed to reconsider. “I mean... maybe I do. It sounds familiar, but...” that ‘but’ hung in the air between them. She had heard him say that he didn’t remember so often in the days he’d been with them, and he never reconsidered. Perhaps he was making an effort, she hoped. An effort for himself, or perhaps even for her. She wondered for a moment whether she should ask him further, probe his memory. Did he remember Hogwarts? Did he remember the way they used to be? All their adventures, all those ridiculous things they did? He must remember something. Too many of his reactions were the right ones; too much of his trust was in her and Ron. That couldn’t be if he didn’t remember. What went on in that head of his, she wondered, but she wasn’t sure whether she should ask him. She wasn’t sure whether he would even hear her. He looked so lost, sitting there next to her.
She touched his hand slowly, carefully. It didn’t work - he still jumped, tension written all over his face and in his hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said hurriedly.
“No, it’s alright, I shouldn’t... it’s just...” He didn’t seem able to finish that sentence.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated. He just shrugged in response. Then he sniffled. “You know what, maybe I should learn how to cook. I always wanted to learn to cook.”
“No, you didn’t!” she said, slightly louder than she intended, but still with a smile on her lips.
“No, I didn’t,” he agreed, but also light heartedly. “But I can decide that now, can’t I?”
“Sure you can. You can decide to do whatever you want,” she said. It was a lie; she know it and so did he. But it was good to maintain the illusion, just for a little longer. As long as they were allowed to. “Want me to give you some tips?” she asked, and jumped off the sofa. It looked as if he was only looking for an excuse to do it, too. “Come on, let’s see what we can find in the kitchen,” she said. He followed her.
It was a wonderful dream. On some level, Neville knew it was a dream, but still he hoped it would never end. He was fighting a lost battle, he knew, but he was used to fighting lost battles. And this one was worth it. Still he could feel it slipping away. He was already not sure what the dream was about, even though he had that feeling, that absolute knowledge, that if he just managed to go back to sleep, he could drop right back into it.
Falling asleep again was becoming harder and harder, though. Someone was shouting in the kitchen. Ordinarily, Neville would assume that shouting downstairs meant something bad and they all had to jump and grab their wands and go downstairs and fight Death Eaters and die horrible, painful deaths, but at the moment, he just didn’t care. Let the Death Eaters come to him, he thought as he took his pillow and threw it above his head.
His clever strategy failed. He could still hear the voices downstairs - albeit somewhat muffled - but now they were joined with an awful smell. Something was burning. Maybe the house was on fire. He didn’t care.
“Neville,” he heard a voice beside him. Great. Will no one let him go back to sleep? He knew it was already too late - even if he did fall asleep now, the dream was gone, gone forever and would never return. He didn’t even know what it was about anymore, although he had the vague impression he had spent some of it teaching Herbology. He didn’t care. Not getting up was now a matter of principle.
“Neville,” Anthony said again.
“Mmpf,” Neville gave his most coherent response and buried his head deeper under the pillow.
“Neville,” Anthony tried for a third time.
With a sigh, Neville removed the pillow from his head and sat up. “What?” he asked.
“How can you sleep with all that noise?”
Neville stared at Anthony in amazement. “This is what you woke me up for?”
“You were already awake - hey!” Anthony got out of bed and tried to dodge the shower of pillows that was thrown his way. “Anyway, sounds like people are having fun downstairs. Thought we might as well join them.”
“We could have fun upstairs,” Neville pointed out. He got hit with the same pillows he had thrown at Anthony a moment ago. “Fine, fine,” he muttered, “I’m getting up.”
He dressed up slowly. Anthony, he noticed, was already all dressed. Great, he thought. Just what I needed. A morning person.
“Hey, Neville?” Anthony started casually, in that tone of voice that said the discussion was about to turn serious.
“Yeah?” Neville said.
“Did you think... What are you going to do now?”
Ah. One of those conversations. Neville sat down on the bed, officially to put on socks, but really he needed the time to think.
“Bury my Gran,” he said at last. Properly, he wanted to add, but he didn’t have to - Anthony understood.
“And then?” Anthony was losing patience. Neville chuckled, and the annoyance on Anthony’s face subsided.
“And then... I don’t know.” He remembered the dream, all of a sudden. “Maybe teach Herbology.”
“Yeah. I got an O in my Herbology O.W.L.s, I reckon I could have got the same in the N.E.W.T.s. I liked it. It would be fun to do something like that. You know, something I like.”
Anthony seemed to think this over. His expression was too serious for Neville’s liking. “Oh, come on, let’s go downstairs. It sounds like they’re having too much fun on their own.” He gave him a quick kiss and was up on his feet.
It was fun downstairs - once Hermione stopped Harry from burning down the house, that was. He was all red and embarrassed, and Neville just had to laugh at the way he concentrated in front of the frying pan. Hermione hit him with a towel in response, and gave him a look that could kill much braver men. He smiled at her sheepishly and she glared at him some more but then relented. Making sure Harry wasn’t going to burn down the house was more important than scolding Neville, apparently.
“What’s that smell?” Padma showed up, too.
“Burnt bacon. It’s a delicacy - ouch! Okay, okay, I’m quiet, I’m stopping, not a word,” Neville had to retreat in response to Hermione’s recent towel attack.
“D’you think it will go well with parsley?” Harry asked vaguely.
“I don’t think we have any parsley,” Hermione hurried to say. Neville wasn’t quite sure that bit was true, but he appreciated the sentiment nonetheless - and, of course, was not going to open his mouth again.
“Something’s burning,” Luna announced to the world as she walked in, and before Neville had the chance to tell her to shut up shut up. Hermione, however, did not attack her with a towel. Neville thought of complaining about biases, but decided against it.
It took Harry two more minutes in front of the frying pan before he admitted defeat. “I don’t think I’m very good with that,” he said.
“It’ll come back to you,” Hermione said kindly. “There’s only so many ways to mess up bacon.”
“Or burn down a house,” Neville added in an audible whisper. Hermione glared at him again, but Harry didn’t seem to mind. He cracked a smile - the first Neville had seen on his face for so, so long.
“Yeah,” he said. “That would be appropriate, wouldn’t it. Me burning down the house on us the day after Voldemort dies.”
Something changed in the room when the name was spoken. They were all so used to not saying it, not even thinking it, not for years. It was too dangerous. The name had been Tabooed, and the only way to make sure not to say it was to never think it. It had an eerie quality now, as if it wasn’t really a name anymore.
Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was a state of mind.
“I’m sorry,” Harry said in the silence.
“Don’t be,” Luna was the first to recover. “Isn’t that the point? We can say the name now. It’s over.”
She was right. She was right. It hit Neville so hard that he felt his legs wobble, he had to sit down. They could say the name now. It was over. Voldemort was dead. They stared at each other silently for a moment, then two, marvelling in that piece of news, in that knowledge. It was all over. Then Hermione, a smile plastered on her face so big that it seemed almost unnatural, said, “We need a cake!”
“Where are we going to get a cake?” someone asked, but Hermione ignored them. She pulled out an old, stale loaf of bread and bit her lip. “If I do that just right...” she said, then looked at it critically. “We need stuff.”
“Stuff! Anything. Edible stuff. Stuff to transfigure. Go check the fridge - go!”
Luna went to the fridge, while Neville had a look at the cupboards. “We’ve got sugar,” he suggested and Hermione quickly said, “Good, bring it over. All of it.”
Luna, in the meanwhile, pulled up some carrots, potatoes, and parsley and put it in front of Hermione. “Excellent,” Hermione said.
“There’s some more bread here,” Anthony offered, at the same time as Padma started to put some onions on the table. “I still don’t understand how this is going to end up being a cake.”
“Anthony, when did you ever know Hermione’s Transfiguration to fail?” Neville asked, and Anthony had to concede that he had a point.
Hermione kept on looking at the ingredients critically. “Do we have chocolate anywhere?” she asked, but Luna and Neville snorted at the same time. The day chocolate would survive in that kitchen... was unlikely.
“Hold on,” Harry said, and fetched some old biscuits from a drawer. They were covered in chocolate. “Ron tried to make them edible a couple of days ago,” he said. He sounded apologetic, but Hermione’s face lit up in excitement. “Brilliant!” she said and threw them on top of the onions. And then she flicked her wand.
There was a boom. And smoke again. Neville coughed some of it out, but the smoke kept on coming. “Oh, no,” he thought he heard Hermione say, but he wasn’t sure. Maybe it was just his ears, full of smoke. But suddenly it disappeared, and the room was bright again, and on the table stood - a cake. They all stared at it suspiciously. It looked like a cake, all chocolate covered and round, but - “Did it work?” Luna asked.
“Only one way to find out!” Hermione said brightly and fetched a knife. She cut a slice - not too large, Neville noticed, and assumed it was just in case the cake did not come out as planned - but when the time came to take a bite, she hesitated. “Anyone wants to try?” she asked the room.
No one volunteered.
“Cowards,” she said, and tried the cake herself. She didn’t spit it right out. That in itself was a good sign. Instead, she chewed on it thoughtfully for a moment or too. “Slightly too oniony,” she admitted. “But it’s definitely cake.”
Laughter filled the room. Everyone queued to take a piece. Neville tried the cake - Hermione was definitely right, there was a strong sense of onions in the cake, but it fit the overall taste and wasn’t that bad at all.
Now the noise truly filled the house - Parvati showed up, and after a few moments, so did Dean. Everyone was awake and in the kitchen and eating cake, except for Ron. “You think we should go and wake him up?” Neville asked Hermione, but she shrugged.
“Nah,” she said. “Let him sleep. He’ll come down when he feels like it.”
Neville nodded and went back to chatting happily with Padma.
The kitchen was still full of laughter and party spirit when Ron walked in. He felt empty. Almost dead. He couldn’t figure out why the rest of them were laughing, dancing, partying. At the centre of the room Hermione took Parvati for a little dance, and Ron just stared at them. They didn’t know, they didn’t realise. He had to tell them, but he couldn’t find the words. Outside the window, he could see the Dementors gliding past in the street. Did they know they were there, he wondered. He had to draw everyone’s attention to them, but couldn’t get his mouth to work. Neville walked up to him, looked at him critically. Ron knew what he must look like - he didn’t even finish dressing when he rushed downstairs. He was still wearing his slightly-too-short pyjama trousers, he didn’t have the time to put a shirt on, or even shoes, and his hair was sticking in all directions. But Neville didn’t comment, just raised his palm, offering the cake he was holding. “Want some cake?” he asked Ron. “It tastes a bit like onions, but other than that it’s your perfect chocolate cake.”
Ron shook his head. Cake. They were eating cake.
“Everything alright?” Neville asked him. He must have seen something in his expression, or realised finally something was wrong. Ron shook his head again, but couldn’t get the words out of his mouth. “What is it? Ron?” By now, the rest had noticed him as well. The laughter died out slowly, and they all looked at him, uncertain. Ron still didn’t open his mouth to speak - but he didn’t need to. Instead, he aimed his wand at the radio, turning it on. Let them hear what he had heard, he thought. It will save him the need for words.
From the radio, Draco Malfoy’s voice filled the room. “... These terrible crimes will be punished. Nor will we wait for the murderers to be caught. I have personally ordered the destruction of the camps in retaliation to these cowardly attacks. And after the families and friends of the murderers are punished, so will they. The Ministry urges our people to be patient, but most of all, to have faith in us. We have lost a lot today, our esteemed leaders, our spiritual leaders, our Minister, and our Lord. And we will not rest until the murderers are caught! We will not rest until those who are responsible to the heinous crimes that have happened tonight are dealt with. We will not stop until our society is united once more, united under the Ministry, and all those who would come to destroy us - from within and without! - are given a striking blow. I take this new appointment as Minister with all the respect and seriousness that it brings, and I promise you, my citizens - your dedication will not be in vain! Your perseverance will be rewarded!”
They stared at each other in shock and silent horror.
Then, finally, Ron found his voice. “They said on the news earlier. They’ve started murdering everyone still in the camps,” he said. Dean sat down heavily on a chair, stunned and full of fear. Hermione shot a look outside the window - Neville’s gaze followed hers, and they could see them, too. Dementors. All that time, the Dementors gathered around their house, around their window, and they were all paralysed with fear, paralysed with shock...
It was Harry who first returned to his senses. Perhaps it was ironic. Perhaps not so much. “Luna! Do you have any emergency backpack or anything? Luna?”
She blinked and looked at him for a moment, as if trying to understand the meaning of his words, then nodded slowly. “But just for the four of us,” she said. “We didn’t expect there to be so many...”
“Okay. Get up there and bring it down, and try to pack another one. Dean, help her. Hermione! I remember you guys said they can trace us if we Apparate out of Diagon Alley.”
Hermione snapped out of the shock and started thinking. “Yeah. We can’t Apparate. We have to get to Muggle London, first. They didn’t cover all of London, just Diagon Alley and its surroundings and a couple of other places.”
“Okay, is there any way out of here other than the front door?”
“No,” she shook her head.
“Only through the Dementors, okay. Not good. Erm, can you come up with a couple of defensive strategies?”
“You mean, other than casting the Patronus charm and hoping it would work?”
“Yeah, that’s against the Dementors, but we need to take Malfoy into account as well. He may be here any minute.” She nodded, and he rubbed his forehead for a moment. “Neville, did you guys come up with any back up plan?”
“Back up plan?”
“Another safe house. Hiding place. Anything. Malfoy knows where we are! We need to get somewhere safe.”
“Yeah - I know - well, not really, we never thought... because of the Fidelius charm...”
“Not good. Okay. Where did you guys hang out before this place?”
Neville thought for a moment. “Well, our old place is out of the question, it’s Ministry property...”
“... But there’s the cave Hermione and me used to live in,” Ron offered. “Near Hogsmeade.”
“Hogsmeade! That’s brilliant,” Harry held on to that piece of new and encouraging information. “Hogsmeade it is then.”
“We can’t Apparate into Hogsmeade, there’s a trace there as well. We’ll have to get to the cave from the other side...” Neville started planning.
But Ron wasn’t planning. He looked at Harry for a moment, somewhat confused, slightly amused, and more than a bit in awe. It probably wasn’t the right reaction in the middle of a crisis, but he couldn’t quite help it. Harry, of course, was too busy taking charge and coordinating everything, and he didn’t notice him. He went up to help Luna find everything, asked Hermione which ways were best out of Diagon Alley, asked Neville everything he could about the cave, trying to determine whether it was still safe, whether, perhaps, they should go to Ab Dumbledore first. And when he did that, his green eyes were shining and aware and in focus, the nervous mannerisms he had shown all through the last several days disappeared, and he sounded composed, self assured - and mostly, in control. Even the lines in his face seemed to fade a bit. If Ron ignored the paleness, he thought he could see the 17-year-old boy again, the best friend he had lost so many years ago.
Five minutes later Harry settled down, because all of the preparations had been made, and the only thing left was to wait for Hermione to finish her spell work. And then they’d storm out and try to get past the Dementors. There was so much at stake - this could end up with all of them killed or captured; and even if it didn’t, there was Ron’s family they would have to save, and the Muggle-borns in the camps, and a never-ending rebellion to restart. It should have made Ron despair - but it didn’t. Looking at Harry, so much in control, had calmed him down. And it should have made Harry tense again, return to his wild-eyed nervousness. That’s what Ron was expecting of him. But he didn’t. Instead, the worse the situation turned out to be, the calmer he became. And despite all the danger, and everything that was at stake, Ron smiled.
“What?” Harry asked, confused at the smile.
“Nothing,” he said. “I was just thinking... you could do it, you know. Lead a rebellion. Get people to do things.” Because after all this time, we can still believe in you.
“You know that whole Chosen One thing? How I was supposed to be the one who killed Voldemort?” Ron nodded. “Well, you and Hermione ended up killing him, not me. And I figure - “ Harry laughed all of a sudden, a small laugh, but one that sounded absolutely free. “I figure there may still be a destiny for me to fulfil.”