Hannah is gone. Susan hasn't heard from her since midway through sixth year, when Professor Sprout excused her from Transfiguration to tell her that her family was dead, murdered by currently unidentified attackers according to the Ministry, even though everyone knew it was Death Eaters that did it. (This she heard from Eddie Carmichael, who knew only because he was passing by and caught snatches of conversation that would later be confirmed by a small blurb in The Daily Prophet.) She didn't need the official version of events to read between the lines, to see what was coming ahead.
Hannah had left their dormitory by the time Susan returned after classes, her bed neatly made and empty, as though she had never been there. Susan wondered where she might have gone before remembering she had once said something about family in Northern Ireland. Why they thought it was better to pull Hannah out in the middle of the year Susan wasn't sure, but truth be told Hogwarts hadn't been the safest place in the world since she was a first year so she thought maybe the Abbotts were just being careful.
It is only the first week of the new term and Susan thinks they must have been right, must have known what was going to happen. Dumbledore is dead and Hogwarts, she hears, is surrounded by Death Eaters and Dementors. Ernie corners her into a compartment as soon as she steps into the Hogwarts Express.
"Wayne and Justin aren't coming back," he informs her, voice low and urgent. Zacharias Smith sits beside him, arms crossed and lips pursed. To her right Megan Jones is worrying at her lower lip and tapping her fingers against her knee. "We haven't seen Sally-Anne yet but considering she's Muggleborn we're assuming she's on the run as well."
"Have you heard from them at all?" she asks. Everyone knows by now that all Muggleborns are on the run because the alternative was Azkaban, or worse. Susan doesn't like thinking about that too much. She knows fleeing is likely on everyone's mind as well, but they all received the thinly veiled threat ordering all students to report to Hogwarts by September 1 or else.
Ernie shakes his head. He looks tired and worried and Susan knows he's always been a little bit more mature than everyone else but he looks so much older than his seventeen years (they all kind of do). "My family offered them help," he says, "but Justin's father said they would be fine."
Justin's father tried to pull his son out of school the year after he spent half a term Petrified, but Justin had somehow convinced his father that was a one-time incident. Mr Finch-Fletchley had never quite warmed up to the wizarding world since, however, and Susan wonders if maybe Ernie got the impression that they might never see Justin again.
If it's because Justin just chooses not to return, and not because he physically cannot, Susan thinks she could be okay with that.
"Excuse me," he says, and Susan knows very few people in the world who have the ability to retain propriety in a moment like this. Alecto Carrow doesn't even hear him at first, gleeful as she is at ordering a third year to Crucio her first year Housemate. Anyone else might have shrank back, had second thoughts. Susan would have. But Ernie just clears his throat before he reaches out to tap Carrow on the shoulder. "Excuse me."
No one says a word as Carrow slowly turns around, her eyes level with a formal Ernie. It might have just been the absurdity of the situation keeping her from cursing him then and there. "Yes, Mr Macmillan?"
"You can't do that," he says simply. Susan wants to pull him back, apologise on his behalf, tell Carrow he doesn't know what he's talking about. She wants to ask him what he thinks he's doing and she wants to stand beside him, just as sure and just as brave.
But he is on the ground in a second, howling in pain as Carrow grabs the third year's hand (Zeller, Rose -- the name comes to Susan all of a sudden) and forces her to Crucio her prefect. Rose is in tears and Ernie's telling her it's okay through gritted teeth, and Carrow laughs and laughs until it's the only sound that echoes through the halls.
"I'm fine," Megan tells her, although she obviously isn't. "Don't worry about me."
Susan worries anyway. Megan's mother is Muggleborn; she knows as much from the conversations Justin and Megan used to have about fillums or tellee, and how the Jones household usually forbids magic because of how much it tends to destroy their Muggle elektronics. From Megan's nightmares she knows her mum's gone into hiding; that, like Justin, Megan's not heard from her since she left.
During the day Megan's all forced smiles and nonstop chatter. The Hufflepuff table at the Great Hall is usually quiet until Megan comes over, cracking an inappropriate comment or teasing Zacharias until conversation picks up. She doesn't stop telling the younger students all kinds of stories, she won't let them stray too far from the common room after supper, she goes around to wake everyone up first thing in the morning. She's late in all of her classes but none of the professors ask her why once they realise it's because she's been walking the first years to all of theirs.
One day Susan catches her curled up in an alcove, hugging her knees close to her chest and shoulders shaking. Susan calls her name softly and Megan stops, still for what feels like forever, before she looks up and smiles brightly.
"Just tired, Suze, thanks for asking," she lies, eyes red and voice scratchy.
Later that night Megan sobs for her mother, again and again until Susan crawls into bed beside her, arms tight around her waist and face buried in her hair. It's okay, Susan says, and when Megan wakes up she doesn't have to tell Susan about the names that Potterwatch mentioned that afternoon because Susan knows, she doesn't have to ask. She just holds Megan closer and lets her cry until she falls asleep.
"Of course it isn't fair, and of course it isn't right," he hisses late at night, angrily dabbing at Ernie's arm with the salve Susan has been learning to make.
She grabs Zacharias by the wrist. "Careful," she reminds him, and Zacharias' touch gentles a shade.
"There's a time and place for everything and just because the others are following Longbottom's lead does not mean you offer yourself up as Carrow bait at every single opportunity."
"It's me or the younger students," Ernie says with an even tone. "Boot and Corner--"
"Are idiots like the rest of them. The more attention they call to themselves, the more attention you call to yourself, the less likely the Carrows will want to keep you alive. And then what? Do you think just because we stop being around to hurt the students they'll stop getting hurt?" He is furious now, made even more so by Ernie's own stubborn refusal to cave in.
"It's the right thing to do," Ernie argues. Susan wonders how many times this has come up between them, because this certainly isn't the first time Ernie's sporting some kind of welt or bruise that one of them has to clean up. "How long are we supposed to quietly do what they want until the younger students get severely hurt?"
"As long as it takes, because otherwise no one will be around to be the buffer. Because our Crucios are nothing compared to theirs. Because we don't know how long this is going to go on."
"It isn't fair," Ernie says.
"No, it isn't."
It's about the only thing both of them can agree on-- Ernie doesn't stop telling the Carrows what they shouldn't be doing, Zacharias does his half-hearted best to do as he's told, and one day in the middle of an Amycus Carrow demonstration of what happens to subversive Hufflepuff prefects, Zacharias steps in front of Ernie to take the brunt of the Crucio.
"You were supposed to stay under their radar," Ernie is saying, a touch accusatory. Megan's run out of cracks to make about how girls dig scars and she's just being very careful about treating the bright purple bruising around Ernie's eye.
"Most of the time," Zacharias replies through gritted teeth. Susan eases up on the bandage she's tying around his arm. Her eyes catch Megan's for the briefest of moments. "It was me or you and you didn't look like you were gonna last much longer."
Ernie says nothing for a while; it looks like he wants to frown, but instead he shakes his head. "Piss off," he mumbles, but there is little anger in his voice.
She tries hard to remember, at least. With every desperate hex, every sudden shout or cry, she runs through a dozen lists of things that she needs to remember. Where the younger students are hiding, what Ginny showed them about wordless spells, how to duck a curse and cast one at the same time. To be careful, not to worry, to clench her jaws and keep going even as she stumbles over Wayne's lifeless body -- oh, Merlin, since when did he return does this mean --
"Susan, watch out!"
And then Hannah is right beside her, casting her own spells and shoving Susan out of the way. Her cheeks are sallow, her gaze is hard, there's a hint of sharp-edged determination to the way she brandishes her wand.
"The dungeons are blocked," is all she says, never letting up, never taking her eyes off the Death Eaters swarming their crumbling, falling school. "That's how we got back, and that's how we're trying to get the children out, but it's blocked now. We need to open it up."
"I got it!" Zacharias comes out of nowhere, breathless and bruised and a little bloody. "Finnigan gave me something to help -- where's Ernie?"
"East hall with Megan," Susan tells him, because she also tries to remember who she's seen and where just in case -- just because. "We'll take care of things here."
He gives them a small nod before sprinting towards the dungeons, pushing past the students so he can clear their way. From the corner of her eye she sees Megan stumbling a bit, Ernie moving closer to support her weight. A stray red light grazes past her skin and it burns furiously, suddenly. She bites down on the inside of her lips, ignores the sting, and carries on.
When she looks up he is there, all dirt-streaked cheeks and tousled hair as he Banishes some of the debris from the Great Hall. He stops to wipe the sweat from his brow with the hem of his shirt, looking up at her and grinning for a moment when she Levitates a clean cloth his way.
"Justin!" Megan runs up to hug him hard, ignoring Madam Pomfrey's warnings about her freshly-bandaged leg. As far as Megan is concerned if you're alive you deserve a hug, and that includes even Michael Corner, whom she hasn't spoken to since they broke up a year ago. Justin laughs in response, careful not to press against where she carries herself gingerly. Zacharias walks by, assisting a limping Ernie, and punches him lightly on the arm.
"Boys," Hannah sighs beside her. They share a look and laugh.
Later, when the last of the sun dips below the horizon and most of the students are reunited with tearful parents and relieved relatives, when the professors are allowed to talk quietly amongst themselves and most of the work is done (Susan marvels at how much all together they've accomplished, how much more they've left to do) she finds them all again, sat in a circle out by the greenhouses with a jug of pumpkin juice and a couple of cups.
Hannah talks about how she hid among family in Northern Ireland, then Justin tells them about the American cities his family visited. No one knows what happened to Sally-Anne. Ernie saw the Death Eater who killed Wayne. Someone mentions Cedric and they're quiet for a moment. Zacharias raises his cup of pumpkin juice in a small toast and Megan asks why they didn't have something stronger. Susan laughs when Ernie tries to put his prefect face on, and she doesn't know how it happens but the conversation doesn't get a chance to die down before the sun's coming up again.
It doesn't feel like an ending.