"Susan, you're nodding off again. Come to bed."
She blinked, straightening in her chair, her fingers tightening over the quill threatening to slip from her fingers. "Thanks, Megan. I think I will, at that. I'll join you in a few minutes."
Megan nodded and left, while Susan stuffed books, parchment, quills and ink back into her satchel. The fire in the common room had burned down to glimmering red embers, leaving just enough light to reveal she was the only one left studying. Everyone else had already gone to bed.
The girls' dormitories were quiet as Susan dressed for bed and unbraided her hair so she could give it her customary one hundred brush strokes. Megan, she noted with wry amusement, was already snoring. She must have fallen asleep the moment her head hit the pillow.
Running the hairbrush through her wheat-blonde hair, fingers loosening tangles along the way, Susan let her mind wander toward her uncompleted Transfiguration assignment. She was this close to understanding the theorem. Once she figured it out, the rest of the assignment would fall into place. Not for the first time, she wished Hannah was still here. Transfiguration had always been her best subject; Susan would never have received her OWL without her friend's assistance.
The missing piece slid into place in her mind at the sixty-third stroke of her brush. Eager to copy it down lest she forget before morning, Susan set down the hairbrush and reached for her bookbag. Naturally, all the quills had fallen to the bottom. She rooted around, hunting, and her fingers touched something metallic, round…and hot to the touch.
"What--?" Susan muttered under her breath as she retrieved the object, recognising it as the enchanted Galleon every DA member had received the previous year. It had warmed every time a meeting time had been established. However, there had been no DA meetings this year, now that horrid Umbridge woman was gone; and it was nearly midnight, if not past. Why now, and why so late, not just in time but so late in the year?
Turning the spelled coin face-up, she squinted in the dim light, trying to read the print naming the time of the next meeting. It had today's date, and apparently they were supposed to be meeting now.
Susan swore, glancing hastily toward Megan's bed, but the other girl continued snoring. Quietly, trying not to wake her, Susan pulled on the clothes she'd just taken off less than half an hour ago, shoving her feet back into her trainers. She was going to have words with Ernie and Justin the next time she saw them, she promised herself. They were probably already in the Room of Requirement now, and they'd never bothered to come back to fetch her or anything…
Still grumbling, she seized her wand and hurried from the dormitory. Once she was outside the Hufflepuff common room she started through the corridors, taking as many shortcuts as possible and keeping to the shadows, hoping not to attract the attentions of either Mr Filch or his tattletale cat, Mrs Norris. She still couldn't figure why Harry would schedule a meeting now, especially past curfew, when discovery would lead to quick prevaricating and possible detention.
She finally emerged into the seventh floor corridor, pressing back into an alcove as several black-robed figures rushed past, followed soon after by Ron and Ginny Weasley, accompanied by Neville Longbottom. No one saw her, her call drowned out by Ron's loud swearing and Neville's puffing breaths. She waited a moment longer, but no one else ran past, so she emerged from the alcove and ran after the Gryffindors.
Tried to, anyway. She could hear footsteps and hear shouting, but couldn't find them. Straightening her shoulders, she followed the shouting, pulling out her wand as she did and telling herself she wasn't afraid.
This wasn't an after-hours meeting. This was the real thing. This was the reason why Defence Against the Dark Arts was a required course in the school curriculum, why Potter had formed the DA in the first place last year.
She wondered suddenly whether or not her housemates were truly aware of what was happening, or if they were still sleeping. She didn't have time to go back and warn them. She was needed now. Taking a deep, steadying breath, Susan moved forward.
The source came from the foot of Astronomy Tower. Susan peered around a corner and jerked back as a hex sizzled past her ear. Crouching down, she looked again in time to see Neville run toward the steps and get thrown back by some invisible barrier. He crashed against the opposite wall and rose stiffly, holding his side and barely evading madly ricocheting hexes fired by an enormous black-robed figure.
Neville wasn't alone. Ron and Ginny were there too, as were Granger and that odd Lovegood girl among others. The rest were either too cloaked in shadows to recognise, or wearing black cloaks, the better to blend into those shadows. Susan closed her eyes, whispered a prayer, and joined the battle.
She was immediately immersed in chaos. Jets of multi-coloured light flashed around her as she ducked and spun and fired spells whenever she caught sight of anything wearing a black hood. The air was acrid with smoke and dust and fear. Everything came in glimpses and moments frozen in time: Hermione striking down a Death Eater whose wand had been pointed toward Ron's exposed back, shattered glass from a misfired jinx showering a mousy-haired woman with glittering fragments, glowing sparks as spells missed flesh and bone to scrape against stone instead.
The gigantic Death Eater fired a spell at Susan. It missed badly, striking the ceiling. A horrific grinding noise filled the air as the ceiling collapsed, sending broken stones and choking clouds of dust everywhere. Susan joined the other defenders still standing and rushed the staircase.
This time, they were repelled not by an invisible barrier, but by the appearance of Professor Snape, sprinting down the steps, slowed only slightly by his vise-like grip on the collar of a white-faced Draco Malfoy. He passed them without a single word or any other acknowledgment, pushing Malfoy before him as they ran.
"There's more!" Luna shouted, not sounding dreamy or odd at all.
Susan glanced up in time to see several more Death Eaters running down the stairs and firing hexes, one of which struck Neville, who was standing at the forefront of the small group of defenders. He fell, and this time didn't get up again. Susan fired at the retreating Death Eater's back. Her jinx missed, but the hooded figure turned around, and for several long moments she could think of nothing but avoiding or repelling every spell the black-clad man threw at her, while throwing just as many in his direction.
A well-placed 'Stupefy!' finally felled the man and Susan spun, searching for another target. She caught sight of a filthy Death Eater with matted hair and pointed teeth wrestling someone else, pinning his victim to the ground and leering.
She aimed her wand at him without a second thought and shouted, "Petrificus totalus!" The filthy man stiffened as the spell took hold, binding his limbs, and the second figure wriggled out from beneath him. She caught a glimpse of round glasses and a legendary scar before Potter tore off in the same direction Professor Snape and Malfoy had taken.
The battle was finally drawing to a close as the others chased after fleeing Death Eaters. Ron, Ginny and Professor Lupin--Professor Lupin? What is he doing here? Susan wondered--were bending over a prone form. Ginny looked very scared.
Turning away, Susan stumbled over the rock-strewn floor until she found the place where Neville had fallen. He was still breathing, eyes closed, his round face ashen and shining with sweat.
"Neville? Can you hear me?" He nodded, eyes still closed, and Susan knelt beside him. "We need to get you to Madam Pomfrey. Can you stand?"
"My wand…" Neville mumbled. "I can't find my wand…"
Susan looked around, spotting his wand lying a few feet away. "Here it is."
He opened his eyes. "Is it broken?"
"It's fine. Can you stand?"
Neville nodded, managing to rise onto his knees before swaying alarmingly, his hands clutching his stomach.
Susan moved closer, tugging him onto his feet and wrapping an arm around him. "Lean on me," she said. "Ready? All right, one foot in front of the other, that's it. Come on."
Together they made a slow, painful journey to the hospital wing, Neville leaning on her more and more heavily with each step until Susan feared he'd lose consciousness before they reached their destination. He didn't faint, though, despite eyes glassy with pain and his increasingly faltering steps.
They were intercepted by Madam Pomfrey at the infirmary doors. The older woman hustled Neville into the nearest empty bed, where he promptly collapsed with a low groan, before turning back toward Susan.
"Is it true?" Madam Pomfrey asked. "I heard there were Death Eaters in the school!"
"It's true," Susan replied, feeling numb. "Will Neville be all right? I have his wand."
"Nothing a few spells and potions won't cure," she said crisply, taking the wand and looking Susan up and down with a critical eye. "You weren't hexed, were you?"
"No." Susan turned and left before Madam Pomfrey could question her further and wandered outside, feeling the cool night air brush against her heated cheeks. She tilted her head back, and gasped when she caught sight of the Dark Mark in the sky directly above Astronomy Tower, glowing an evil green against the starry sky.
Death, Susan thought, remembering another Dark Mark not even a year ago, shining over her Aunt Amelia's home. There's been another death. I won't cry. I won't.
There was a growing crowd gathering at the foot of the tower. Susan walked toward them, hearing gasps and cries and growing sobs as she drew nearer. She looked up when someone grabbed her arm, her wand arm coming up and a hex on her lips before she recognised Ernie, his eyes wide.
"Where have you been?" he asked frantically, giving her a small shake. "We've been looking for you everywhere…"
"Who died?" she asked. She still felt numb. "What's at the foot of the tower?"
Ernie swallowed, choking back sudden tears. "It's Dumbledore, Susan. Professor Dumbledore fell from the tower, and he died."
Shaking off Ernie's grasping hand, Susan continued walking, pushing past other students until she could see the truth for herself, staring at the headmaster's broken body until her eyes blurred.
"Susan, there's nothing we can do." Ernie laid a hand on her shoulder. He sounded lost, close to tears. "He's gone."
"Leave me alone, Ernie."
Something in her tone must have warned him not to argue, because he actually did as asked. Susan swallowed, and kept her own vigil over Dumbledore's body, until Hagrid came to fetch him away and Professor Sprout appeared to shoo everyone away.
She didn't cry as she looked at her head of house. "Was it Professor Snape?" she asked. "Or was it Malfoy? They were at the tower, you see."
"Hush now, Miss Bones," Professor Sprout said softly. "We'll talk about what you saw tomorrow. Return to your common room now, please."
Susan went. She returned to the common room, ignoring the press of students and Megan's frantic questions. She returned to her dorm and dressed for bed once more. She wondered if Professor Sprout would see her after breakfast tomorrow. She wondered if Neville would truly be all right. She wondered what would happen to the school now that Dumbledore was gone.
She didn't speak any of these thoughts aloud. Instead, she picked up her hairbrush.
"Sixty-four," she counted. "Sixty-five, sixty-six…"