A/N: The last chapter, at last.
Thanks to each and every one of you who took the time to read this story and gave it so much love. I would have loved to give a shout-out to each one of you, but standing at 198 favourites, 278 followers, 4 community additions, and a whopping 1003 reviews and, it will be a gigantic task. I still can't believe the numbers.
Quite a few portions of this and the next chapter take paragraphs from the books to keep the storyline tied to canon.
For each one of you who read through this enormous piece of story, and stuck with it till the end- these last two chapters are dedicated to you. Thank you for keeping me motivated to write for a year now and finish the one story that makes me proud.
Additionally, I am embarrassed to read through the initial chapters and see those horrible typos and errors. I am working on editing the entire work one chapter at a time. So hopefully, if you ever read it again( and those new readers I hope to get), you will have a much more pleasant read.
Chapter 58: And It All Comes to This: Part I
That was what they had been doing for the past seven days and six nights since Hermione had burnt that bitch's home down. Seven fucking days of Apparating to different locations and setting up tent only to wrap up the next morning and flee again. Six sleepless nights between three tired and perturbed teenagers, who by silent agreement, refused to let one person take the watch. Instead, they sat together outside the tent pretending to be calm and in control, when in reality, they were barely holding on to the frayed edges of their nerves, wands at the ready and exhausted body all alert. They made up for the lost sleep during the day, but the anxiety crept into their sleep morphing images into nightmares.
The kettle whistled, a shrill and loud cry that broke through the quiet of the seventh night, and Ron promptly took it off the stove and poured the piping hot tea into three mugs. Harry's had a nipped rim after he had hit it against a rock by mistake, and his showed deep tea stains left behind by not having cleaned it thoroughly the previous time. Only Hermione's cup was totally intact and perfect, quite in contrast to her mental health. He pulled out the tin of biscuits, dug out three pieces from its depth and magiked them to double their original size. Placing them in a small bowl and balancing the whole thing on one of the mugs, he picked them up together. Finally, he walked out of the small kitchen and beyond their compact living area to the ground outside.
Harry was sitting on a boulder by the fire, turning Draco Malfoy's wand in his hand. He did that quite often, perhaps even without conscious thought. Ron reckoned the guy knew that, in the end, it would all come to this piece of wood against the most powerful wand, in the hands of the vilest wizard on the planet. He thought of it too, more times than he cared to admit.
"Here," he called, and Hermione looked up from the book she was reading by her wand-light. Dropping the huge volume by her side, she stood up promptly to take the biscuits off his hands. Handing Harry his cup, she took hers with a soft smile as their fingers brushed against each other. But the moment was short and she looked away just as quickly. He sat down on a large boulder while she resumed her position on the ground, the book back on her lap.
The three of them munched on the biscuit and sipped on the tea silently for a while. Harry was the first to break the silence.
"When will she tell him?" he asked no one in particular and placed his now empty cup on the hard ground roughly; a clear sign of frustration. Another chip off, Ron thought to himself silently.
"She will, mate," he responded automatically and glanced at Hermione who had paused for a brief minute; the mug an inch away from her lips. At Harry's words, she brought the mug down and wrapped the fingers around it.
"What if it was all for nothing?" she asked, words unsure and guilt etched across her beautiful features.
He didn't hesitate to drop his mug and wrap an arm around her shoulder, keeping it supportive but nothing more than friendly for Harry's sake.
"It was not all for nothing. Everything we know proves that the Horcrux was there," he stated convincingly. She gave him a meek smile, understanding perhaps that he was being more optimistic than he felt. Thankfully, she chose to leave it at that.
"She will tell him, eventually." He addressed the next words to his best mate. "She is shit scared of him, and you know that, Harry."
"Are we prepared?" the bloke asked Hermione instead.
"Yes," she replied bravely. "It will take us precisely three minutes to pack up and Apparate out. I've timed it."
Harry nodded and went back to his tea.
Ron finished his drink and in the silence that ensued, and once he was done, he took to watching his companions. The two of them had dark circles around their eyes. Hermione's skin was lacklustre and pale while Harry looked like he was barely holding on to his sanity. He must look the same, he thought, possibly even worse with all those scars on his face. But he didn't care about himself as much as he did for the two next to him. Harry was the hope of this fight, the bloke needed to be fit enough to deal with the monster when the time came. And Hermione, Ron let out a shaky breath. She had endangered herself even more now, he thought as panic intensified. She had her death sentence written and signed with the last act.
The lack of activity was getting to their nerves. As far as he was concerned, confusion was all he felt. On one hand, he was glad of this time of relative peace because he didn't really know when again they would get to sit together like this once Bellatrix made that confession. He didn't know if all three of them would make out alive at all. But on the other hand, he was tired of this war and wanted it over with despite knowing that the end would certainly be pricey, to put it very lightly, that is.
Hermione had gone back to her book and was currently moving her wand in strange patterns as small wisps of light emitted out of it. It took her two more tries to get it right, post which, the wand left a strip of golden mist that floated in the space between them.
"What is this?" he asked in awe as Harry too watched the mesmerising light with a small hint of a smile on his face.
"It's a healing spell," she told them, and waved her wand to shape it like a bandage that could be wrapped around a fully grown man's torso.
"It will prevent blood loss when wound around an injury. It will also keep organs that might be injured from failing. It won't last forever though, but provide enough time for other healing spells to be cast."
"Bloody brilliant!" he exclaimed, impressed.
"Yeah, it sure is," intoned Harry.
She turned at him, and he saw sadness floating in those eyes before she looked away.
"I felt so hopeless when I saw you after our escape. I didn't know if we'd be able to take you to safety before-" she heaved, leaving the rest unsaid and he placed his hand covering her much smaller ones. "I don't ever want to feel that helpless again," she added in a quiet voice.
"You know, Hermione, you'll do fantastic as a Healer."
Hermione smiled softly as she looked at Harry at his words.
"You think?" she asked slowly, a hint of hopeful longing ringing in her words.
"Of course! You brought me back from dead," he stated and then cringed at his stupidity as her face lost whatever little colour it had. The faint hint of smile died. Ron could have kicked himself.
"What Ron means is that you did a fabulous job of getting him back on his feet. You did, Hermione. You'll be brilliant as a Healer," provided Harry and Ron was grateful to him for framing a better sentence than he had.
"Yeah, that's exactly what I meant," he mumbled apologetically, scratching the back of his neck. She returned a weak smile at him. Once again, she allowed her eyes to linger on his face, and even with no words, Ron knew, she was watching the scars that had still not dissolved.
"You'll be great, one of the best Healers ever," he told her, not breaking eye contact. "And our world will be very grateful to you for it." He wrapped an arm around her shoulder, pulling herself to him ever so slightly.
"And you can patch us up when we get back from our Auror missions."
They both turned at Harry, happy to note the smile on the boy's face. Ron grinned back too.
"Yeah, that'll be cool!"
"You guys want to be Aurors?" she asked looking between them and they replied in affirmative in unison. She shook her head exasperatedly.
"What else did I even expect?" she stated to no one in particular but Ron noticed the lingering smile.
"Ginny wants to try out for the Holyhead Harpies." Harry's voice was light but he looked away as he spoke. "She'll be brilliant," he added.
Hermione nudged him a little.
"And if she gets through, I'll get VIP tickets for the Chudley Canon matches!" he added cheerfully. Hermione rolled her eyes but smiled and Harry scoffed.
"Just wait and watch, mate. They'll definitely win the next League," he added. They all knew it was a pretend conversation; they had death to conquer before they got to that part in their future, after all. But still, it helped cheer them up and he was holding on to that. So they spent hours casually talking of other things that would happen, steering away from anything dark and gloomy, and it was the laughter that acted as their shield keeping them safe from the gloom that night.
Two nights later, however, all hell broke loose.
It began with the shattering of china and a scream from Harry. Ron and Hermione, both of whom were seated outside the tent, rushed inside at the sound to find a familiar yet frightening sight before them.
Ron knew Harry usually tried to control the pain when it came, or at least tried to hide it from them. But he also knew that there were times and situations when the fury of the Dark Lord was way too intense for him to hold it all in. This surely was one of those instances and it solidified his belief that Hermione had been right all along.
Harry was hunched low on the floor, gripping his head and yelling loudly. The two of them hurried to his side but took to sitting on their heels close to him, fearful of approaching further. Ron took Hermione's hand and grasped it. She held him back without taking her eyes away from Harry. They could really do nothing but wait.
After what felt like hours, Harry finally collapsed on the floor, his shirt soaking with sweat.
"Harry?" he called carefully and Hermione conjured a goblet and filled it with water next to him.
Harry looked up at him, panting and still breathing heavy.
"You got it, Hermione," he managed within his tired huffs. "We got the Horcrux." he finished and taking the goblet from her drank to his fill. "It's at Hogwarts, guys. He's going to check the cave first," he added while Ron helped him up on his feet.
It took them under five minutes to pack everything and a few more to come up with a quick plan. As Hermione stuffed the tiny beaded bag inside her sock, Harry pulled out the invisibility cloak and Ron dropped it over them. He gripped both their hands hard waiting for Hermione to Apparate them out. Harry's words were still ringing loudly in his ears and he squeezed her hands further, almost pulling her to his chest before they disappeared into the darkness.
"He's furious. He'll target Hermione, Ron."
Their feet touched the cobbled ground, and before the relief of finding themselves safe (at least whole and not splinched) fully registered, however, multiple things happened simultaneously. Loud wailing erupted from somewhere close causing all three of them to grasp each other again. Hermione squeezed between the boys, glanced at each of them frightfully. They looked shaken but prepared. Just like her, they had their wands at the ready.
Dark shadows materialised around them with loud cracks. With mounting horror, she realised that they had walked right where the Dark Lord wanted them to- into his trap.
"HARRY POTTER!" yelled one of them, and she glanced at Harry while making a quick decision.
"We've got to leave!" she announced urgently and grabbing hold of the two, turned on the spot. Only, nothing happened.
"UNDER THAT CLOAK ARE YOU, POTTER?" screamed a Death Eater again, and on instinct, the three of them grabbed hold of the silky material just as the man screamed 'Accio cloak!' Thankfully the cloak made no attempt to leave them. She tried Apparating again but the air seemed to be frozen around them.
"Show yourself, Potter! What makes you think you can escape?" sneered an ugly voice before the others joined him. In the darkness, Hermione could figure out around ten shapes. There could easily be more.
"How far can you go with that crippled best mate in tow, Potter? The Dark Lord will get to you-"
"- and that bitch who accompanies you. Bet you brought her along, didn't you?" finished the first, and Hermione just about grabbed Ron who had raised his wand.
"No, Ron! You'll give out our positions!" she admonished in a whisper as Harry pulled them sideways. She grabbed and pulled Ron along with her as they attempted to get behind a row of closed shops. She didn't know how far they could go as the Death Eaters had surrounded them but standing in one place would guarantee capture. The men couldn't see them, thankfully, but she guessed they knew the approximate point where they had Apparated to. A little ahead to their left, an ugly, bodiless head of a hog hung from a plank.
"GRANGER!" called one now, and she gripped Ron harder as Harry pulled them towards the pub. She hoped he knew what he was doing.
"COME TO US, GRANGER! WE CAN GIVE YOU BETTER COMPANY THAN YOUR BOYFRIENDS!" laughed one and the others joined him. She knew they were only trying to instigate them to retaliate, and she tried yet made a fruitless attempt at Apparating them out with Ron struggling and fuming under his breath next to her. The men were closing in on them, still wary of shooting spells for some reason but blocking their escape at the same time.
"We are wasting time, call them," announced a grim voice, and although she didn't know what they meant, the fine hair on her arms rose in the foreboding of something dreadful. Sure enough, a chill began to descend on them. Letting go of her holds on the boys, she placed her hands on her ears just as the darkness rose a notch denser and the stars disappeared. But the screams that tortured her at nights got only louder in her ears while the image of a writhing, bleeding form of Ron got sharper. She pressed her knuckles to her mouth to cut out her cries as yells of her dying parents joined the cacophony. The coldness began to press in further and so did the pain- all hopes that she held on to seemed to seep out of her as the darker than darkness masses crept closer to their prey.
And then it happened.
A bright stag burst out of Harry's wand and stormed at the darkness, dissipating the Dementors and bringing the stars back. But although Harry had saved their souls, she realised with horror that the Death Eaters had finally tricked them into revealing their location. Ten spells shot at them simultaneously as Harry instinctively cast a shield charm and Ron pulled them sideways into a small alley.
Quite a few things happened within the span of a few heartbeats. One moment they were struggling to find a way out of the dead-end alley, the very next, Harry was pulling them inside a room after being urged by a new voice. Before she could wrap her brain around the thought that it could as well be another trap, the three of them were up the steps inside a dimly lit room, and someone was arguing downstairs with the Death Eaters stating that the Patronus was a goat and not a stag. They stood huddled inside the cloak listening with their hearts thudding away as their rescuer challenged with rising temper that the Caterwauling Charm (the one that apparently stopped them from Apparating) had been triggered by his cat. It was only after many long minutes that the men seemed to accept rather reluctantly that they were inches away from summoning the Dark Lord on a false alarm. She guessed it was only the unforgiving wrath of the Dark Lord that saved them this time. It was a little ironic in fact.
Minutes past and they heard heavy footsteps of someone climbing up. Finally, their saviour appeared from the dark corner and placed whatever he was carrying on the table. He then pulled the heavy curtains shut before lighting up the candles, and Hermione finally saw his old bearded face. He looked strangely familiar and it was Harry who broke the silence after pulling the cloak away from over them.
"You are Aberforth, Professor Dumbledore's brother!"
"And you should seem to be a big fool coming here when you should definitely keep out of this place!" he grumbled before indicating the loaf of bread, a block of cheese and the pitcher of mead and asking them to help themselves.
Hermione still couldn't believe that they had escaped the Death Eaters by an inch of their lives, again. She drank deeply from the goblet which Aberforth had provided them and looked up to see the hazy eyes of the old man who reminded her so closely of Dumbledore. Just like his brother, he too had pulled her out of a terrible fate.
"Thank you, Mr Dumbledore," she said on all their behalf, "for everything," she added after a glance at her companions.
Both Ron and Harry looked sombre and she pushed their goblets in front of them. Harry took it after giving her a faint hint of a smile but Ron just chose to look straight at her. She saw the apology and the hurt and placed her hand gently on his much larger ones.
"It's okay, Ron," she murmured.
"No, it's anything but okay, Hermione," he replied grimly and took the goblet of mead. What did she expect? The taunts and jeers the Death Eaters had been making to get them out were still ringing in her ears; it couldn't have been easy for Ron. The Dark Lord had been expecting them and had placed a force ready at Hogsmead. And this band of Death Eaters knew she would be with Harry. But she wondered if the words they threw directly at her were part of the plan too. Surely they had heard something if not everything about their dramatic escape from the Manor. She finally turned her attention back to Harry and Aberforth.
"They have activated the Caterwauling Charm. Are you barking idiots to come here?" he bellowed in Harry's direction.
"Thank you for saving our skins there, but we need to get inside Hogwarts," replied Harry without a preamble. She could see the leader in him shine through; his conviction giving her hope.
Ron did not interrupt while Abberforth narrated the truth about Professor Dumbledore's dark past, the one that had been twisted by Rita Skeeter's vicious quill, but noticed Hermione wipe the corner of her eyes as the horrifying truth about Ariana Dumbledore was revealed. His thoughts, however, were elsewhere. Their narrow escape only further solidified his belief that they were up against a deadly man who expected and put in place defences to counter all their moves. It made getting inside Hogwarts and retrieving the Horcrux a daunting and nearly impossible task. With the Headmaster of the school himself being the trusted legionary of Voldemort, entering Hogwarts was like walking into a death trap inside the enemy's den. Snape hadn't shied away from killing Dumbledore, the very man who had trusted him and saved his arse for seventeen long years. The chances of him sparing them or anyone from the Order, was less than Umbridge becoming genuinely kind and nice.
But more than that, what bothered Ron was Hermione's safety. It was now, with the prospect of breaking or sneaking inside Horcrux looming large that he realised, she was the one who was in grave danger, from both sides of the war.
A gasp from Hermione caused him to look up. She was staring at the empty canvas that had held a picture of Ariana; the girl seemed to have walked away. It took him a moment longer to notice what had surprised her. The girl was now coming back, walking like a long pathway extended behind her, but she was not alone.
A scarred Neville came jogging along the portrait, and when he was close enough, the frame opened sideways to reveal a door out of which the blonde boy jumped out.
"HARRY! RON!" he beamed and clasped them both with open arms excitedly.
"Blimey mate! What happened to you?!" Ron asked looking at the black eye and the other scratches on the boy's face, and Neville just shrugged.
"Carrows," he replied, "though, I am sure I look better than you, Ron. You took Bellatrix, we heard." he added solemnly and Ron was inexplicably reminded of the day they had seen Neville with his parents at St Mungo's. Neville, however, had moved towards Hermione and extended his hand, giving her a toothy grin.
"Hermione Granger! Great to see you, and with these two, nonetheless!"
"Neville, mate, she-" he began urgently but was stopped by the bloke with a wave of his hand.
"We know she is with the Order, guys. Fred and George disclosed it in their podcast a couple of days back. We were shocked, of course," he turned at her apologetically, "I mean, we knew you to be dead for two years now, but more the people on our side the better it is, especially with a brain like yours!" he added cheerfully. It was a relief how easily Neville accepted Hermione in their midst, but Ron was not naive. It wouldn't be the same with everyone.
"There will be a few more, Abberforth," informed Neville, and the aged barman grumbled under his breath as he ushered them out of the secret door. Ron entered behind Hermione who was following Neville into the narrow, damp tunnel that was lit at regular intervals with torches.
"Where does this lead to?" inquired Harry from behind him. The passage was too constricted and they walked in a file with Neville right in front, walking backwards.
"The Room of Requirements, of course! It has outdone itself this time."
They listened with rapt attention as Neville explained all about the Carrows and the new system of 'education' that was prevailing in the school, their indignation mounting at every description of cruelty Neville told them about.
Finally, they reached the other end of the tunnel; Neville pushed open the oak door and jumped into the room, and helped Hermione down. The cheer that greeted Harry and his appearance was deafening. Ron looked around in surprise at the room they had been to so very often and grinned at all the familiar faces they hadn't seen in almost a year. Soon, however, they were being pulled into hugs and thumped on the back.
"Okay, alright, give the boys some space people!" yelled Neville cheerfully, and the enormous group of people moved slightly back leaving the three of them standing in the middle next to him.
"So what's the plan?" he asked eagerly and the three of them looked at each other.
"Plan?" inquired Harry, sceptically and the crowd that seemed pumped up and ready for action seemed to deflate a little. Ron scanned the faces around them noticing several of them glancing at Hermione. He placed his hand gently on hers without looking at her.
"You are here to help us throw out Snape and the Carrows, aren't you?" The desperate hope in Neville's voice tore through him and he hoped Harry would be able to soften the blow with a well thought out reply. He hoped in vain.
"Actually, we are here to find something and destroy it," he explained. "And then we've got to leave."
"So you are not here to help us fight them?"
"Look, guys, this... 'thing' we need to find is going to help us defeat You-Know-Who, so in a way we are helping you fight them," he added quickly.
"What is this 'thing'?" inquired Seamus.
"Yeah, tell us, we can help you find it," added a Hufflepuff sixth year whose name he didn't quite remember.
He turned to Harry and Hermione.
"We... We don't really know what it is." Hermione's voice was low, and she held on to his hand firmly. The muttering in crowd intensified. They were watching her sceptically. Irrespective of what Neville had said, Ron could clearly see not everyone was comfortable with her presence.
"Hermione is right, we don't know what it is, but we've got to find it," intoned Harry pointing at the three of them.
"But we can tell you that it probably belonged to Rowena Ravenclaw," he declared.
"Ron!" hissed Harry.
"Really, mate! They can help us find it. No one needs to know what it is. How do you expect the three of us to search the entire castle all by ourselves? For all we know, that slimy git is already expecting us here!" he whispered back urgently.
"Ron is right." Hermione looked uncomfortable. Ron couldn't blame her. It was hard to miss the mistrust in many of those faces.
He looked at her and then turned to the assembled crowd.
"But before everything else, you all need to know that Hermione is with us. Harry and I trust her with our life," he declared determinedly. Scanning through the crowd his eyes briefly met Lavender's before he looked away.
"Ron's right," added Harry.
"It's just a little of a shock, mate. After all, her family-" interjected Ernie McMillan but left his words hanging as Ron glared at him, hard. He felt Harry's fingers press on his shoulder.
"Her home along with her parents was razed to the ground by Bellatrix Lestrange, Ernie," he stared at the Hufflepuff challengingly and swept his eyes over the rest of the crowd to get his message across clearly. "She has been in this fight with us for close to two years now. And she has saved our skins innumerable times in this last one year itself."
"And she was the one who burnt down Bellatrix Lestrange's Manor a week back."
Harry's words were met with a loud gasp that soon turned into a cheer.
"Look everyone. If Harry and Ron say she is to be trusted, she is to be trusted. Clear?" announced Neville and the group agreed in unison.
"However, I can't figure out how she escaped from the Granger Mansion? Where was she all this time?" inquired Neville and suddenly there eager ears waiting for their response. Ron looked at his best friends and Harry signalled for him to explain. Hermione nodded a little as well.
"She was pulled out of the Granger Mansions by Dumbledore and few others from the Order. Post that, she was put up in one of the Order's safehouses." He faltered for a second as he could almost feel Lavender watching him. "She was at school with us during our Sixth year," he stated and another collective gasp sounded before the group quietened quickly, undoubtedly to know the rest, so he continued.
"Dumbledore provided a secret chamber for her to stay and study in. The teachers knew but only Harry and I could access the chamber. She was there till- till the night Dumbledore passed away. The chamber collapsed upon his death, and she was moved into one of the Order's safehouses again. She has been on the run with us since last August," he finished quickly.
"Wasn't she also captured along with you?" asked someone from the crowd and he nodded in affirmative. "Yeah, and it was just her brains that kept me alive till Harry came to our rescue."
Whatever question Cormac was going to ask was left hanging as the door to the tunnel opened again and Fred and George entered followed by Ginny, Luna and Dean. Amidst the fresh cheers, his brothers and sister ran to him and pulled him into a bone-crushing hug. They pulled Harry and Hermione in too.
"We thought we almost lost you!" cried Ginny pushing the twins and getting a firm hold on him.
"Mum was a wreck when Bill came down. Kept swearing she saw your needle in the clock hover between 'Mortal Peril' and 'Dead'," provide George sombrely.
"We just had to tell her that she was imagining it," added Fred.
"Thank goodness, she never saw it stick to 'Dead' for a solid few minutes while she was busy getting the potion Bill had come to fetch for you." Ron realised he had never seen his siblings so terrified ever before.
"Yeah... it was a little nasty, but-" he scratched the back of his neck, his ears uncomfortably warm, and pulled Hermione closer, "-Hermione, and Fleur, of course got me out of that shit."
Ginny literally flew past him and grabbed Hermione. If he didn't know better he would say the two girls would soon be sobbing. But, both he knew, were ferociously strong women, and any tears they wanted to spill remembering the horrors of that night would be shelved away for later.
The door opened again and Lee Jordan and Oliver Wood joined them followed by the rest of the old Quidditch team and the cheers got louder and fiercer.
"So where were we?" screamed Neville to get the attention of everyone as Harry briefly explained what they were looking for. Surprisingly it was Luna who answered. As Harry and Luna left under the cloak soon after to see what this 'diadem' thing actually was (and hopefully find it hidden in the Ravenclaw Towers, perhaps?), Ron and the rest of the gang got together planning as more and more members came through the door. He was amazed at his Mum's eyesight when she entered the room and after scanning the room only once, met his eyes and rushed up to him. He looked around for Hermione, but she had disappeared into the crowd.
"So it was you."
It was not a question, merely a declaration. Hermione looked at the curvy girl remembering the hatred she had felt for the Gryffindor once. It felt like a lifetime away.
Lavender was slightly taller than her, had a fuller figure and silky straight hair that reached her waist. Hermione realised that if she and Ron hadn't gone through so much together, she would perhaps be still a little wary about this woman. Even with the hard year at Hogwarts and the dark circle around her eyes, the woman was still a beauty.
"I-" she began, not quite sure what her answer should be; if Lavender expected any response at all.
Brown simply shook her head and laughed a little softly.
"I would have never guessed it was you, Granger," she said as Hermione shifted her weight from one leg to the other uncomfortably.
"I don't wish to make you uncomfortable, Hermione. It's just that- " she turned and Hermione followed her gaze to notice Ron's tall form next to Molly's. The plump witch was patting her son's cheeks and wiping her eyes alternating as Arthur stood next to them watching his son. Even from this distance, Hermione could see the immense pride on his features. She smiled at the sight before turning back at Lavender.
"-never mind," Lavender added after a pause. "You look different, though," she observed. "Very different from how we remember you. He does too."
"Hermione!" Ginny called from somewhere and Hermione silently blessed the girl.
"See you, Lavender," she said, forcing an uncomfortable smile.
"See you too, Hermione," she replied but called her back once more.
"Hermione?" Hermione turned to find Lavender look at her with a strange sort of an expression. It wasn't exactly jealousy; defeat perhaps was more accurate, and she felt guilty again, on behalf of both Ron and herself. The poor girl had been caught between the mess that was Ron and her life at that point.
"When he came to me, he was searching for something. I figured it soon enough that whatever he was looking for, I wasn't the answer." She let out a bitter chuckle. "Did it hurt? Heck, it did," she sighed. "But now I know he was searching for you."
"Lavender, look...," she began realising that they owed this girl some sort of an explanation. "We were in a very bad place around that time. But, if it's any kind of solace, we weren't seeing each other." Hermione paused. How strange was it to say that she was seeing Ron now? Their relationship seemed so very different from that of a normal couple. But if anything, it seemed way stronger.
The two young women looked at each other for a while before Lavender smiled, a genuine one this time.
"This is uncomfortable, isn't it?"
"Yes," Hermione replied honestly and let out a chuckle.
The next hour was a blur. All Hermione remembered was the shouts of 'Hermione Granger!' and 'Oh my God, is that Ron Weasley?' as she made her way towards the Great Hall. She supposed it would be terrifying to see someone they all knew to be dead for a couple of years now.
"Ignore them," Ron muttered in her ears and pulled her along as they made their way along with the others.
The enchanted ceiling of the Great Hall was dark and scattered with stars, and below it, the four long House tables were lined with dishevelled students, some in travelling cloaks, others in dressing gowns. Here and there shone the pearly white figures of the school ghosts. Every eye, living and dead was fixed upon Professor McGonagall, who was speaking from the raised platform at the top of the Hall. Behind her stood the remaining teachers, including the palomino centaur, Firenze, and the members of the Order of the Phoenix who had arrived to fight.
"...evacuation will be overseen by Mr Filch and Madame Pomfrey. Prefects, when I give the word, you will organise your House and take your charges in an orderly fashion to the evacuation point."
Many of the students looked petrified. Hermione couldn't blame them. She remembered the night at the Grimmauld Place when she had almost had a panic attack realising she was in the heart of the war.
The guy called Ernie Macmillan stood up at the Hufflepuff table and shouted; "And what if we want to stay and fight?"
There was a smattering of applause.
"If you are of age, you may stay." said Professor McGonagall.
"What about our things?" called a girl at the Ravenclaw table. "Our trunks, our owls?"
"We have no time to collect possessions," said Professor McGonagall. "The important thing is to get you out of here safely."
"Where's Professor Snape?" shouted a girl from the Slytherin table, Mariana Picket, Hermione recalled.
"He has, to use the common phrase, done a bunk." replied Professor McGonagall and a great cheer erupted from the Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs, and Ravenclaws.
"Where the fuck is Harry?" mumbled Ron next to her and craned his neck to look towards the entrance. "Finally!" he called and pointed towards their friend who moved up the Hall alongside the Gryffindor table.
"He is looking for us, Ron," she said and Ron waved. It was hard to say if Harry noticed because as he passed, faces turned in his direction, and a great deal of whispering broke out in his wake.
"We have already placed protection around the castle," Professor McGonagall was saying, "but it is unlikely to hold for very long unless we reinforce it. I must ask you, therefore, to move quickly and calmly, and do as your prefects -"
But her final words were drowned as a different voice echoed throughout the Hall. It was high, cold, and clear. There was no telling from where it came. It seemed to issue from the walls themselves. Like the monster it had once commanded, it might have lain dormant there for centuries.
"I know that you are preparing to fight."
There were screams amongst the students, some of whom clutched each other, looking around in terror for the source of the sound.
"Your efforts are futile. You cannot fight me. I do not want to kill you. I have great respect for the teachers of Hogwarts. I do not want to spill magical blood."
There was silence in the Hall now, the kind of silence that presses against the eardrums, that seems too huge to be contained by walls.
"Give me Harry Potter," said the Dark Lord's voice, "and they shall not be harmed. Give me Harry Potter and I shall leave the school untouched. Give me Harry Potter and you will be rewarded. You have until midnight."
The silence swallowed them all again. Every head turned, every eye in the place seemed to have found Harry. Then a figure rose from the Slytherin table and she recognised Pansy Parkinson. The girl Hermione never liked much raised a shaking arm and screamed, "But he's there! Potter's there. Someone grab him!"
Before Harry could speak, there was a massive movement. The Gryffindors around them and herself had risen and stood to face, the Slytherins. Ron looked mutinous. Then the Hufflepuffs stood, and almost at the same moment, the Ravenclaws, all of them with their backs to Harry, all of them looking toward Pansy instead. It seemed like almost a well choreographed moved as wands emerging everywhere, pulled from beneath cloaks and from under sleeves.
"Thank you, Miss Parkinson," said Professor McGonagall in a clipped voice. "You will leave the Hall first with Mr Filch. If the rest of your House could follow-"
Slowly the four tables emptied. The Slytherin table was completely deserted, but for one girl who stood behind. A younger version of the girl pulled at her arms, but that familiar pair of grey eyes was locked on Hermione's face. Hermione moved away from the Gryffindor table and walked almost in a trance towards her house table. Tears pricked her eyes. She got closer to Daphne who smiled despite the steady stream of moisture that ran down her cheeks.
"Herms?" she whispered softly and that was all it took. Hermione ran towards her best friend and the girls enveloped each other in an embrace, both sobbing uncontrollably.
The students were still filing away and Hermione knew she had barely a few precious minutes before Daphne had to leave too.
"I never... I couldn't believe they-" Daphne was trying her best to put words but her tears were making the task very difficult.
As much as Hermione wanted to share everything with her oldest best friend, she knew this wasn't the time or place.
"I never thought I'd see you either," she replied clutching her friend's hand. "But Daph, you've got to get out of here now." She looked at Astoria, the younger girl and addressed the next words to her. "Make sure you girls leave quickly."
"But, Herms! What about you?" countered Daphne incredulously.
"Me?" she smiled a little sadly. "I can't run from this, Daph." She indicated the commotion-filled hall. "This is my battle too."
Hermione turned to Ron as Harry joined them. "They must leave. The Order is making battle plans. We've got to go," he said extending his hand. She took it before turning around to face her friend again. Daphne looked surprised but let out a small chuckle.
"I see you found your place, Herms," she said and turned to Ron. The hall was almost empty, the last of the Ravenclaws filing out.
"Take care of her, Weasley, won't you?" she added before joining her sister and running out of the hall.