Chapter 45: The Dark Lord Strikes Back
The blood splattered further than Ron expected as his Severing Hex hit its mark on the Death Eater's neck. Jets of sticky liquid squirted outwards, painting the world briefly red in Ron's vision as he took in the fact that he had killed someone for the first time. But the adrenaline poured through his veins and the self-reflection that might have normally occurred after such a momentous event was shoved to the back of his mind as he ducked another curse and bodily shoved Hermione out of the path of a second.
Hermione's wand was moving at a seemingly supernatural rate as she cast curse after hex after jinx at every enemy in their path. She seemingly didn't repeat a single spell, keeping her opponents uneasy and unable to predict what she was doing. Ron cast another Severing Hex and briefly wondered, not for the first time in their six years of friendship, how anyone's brain could work as fast or as well as the witch's in front of him.
Ron slashed through with none of the elegance or creativity that Hermione's style incorporated. He was a strategist but at the moment, when there was no plan to be made, he settled for blunt but brutal efficiency. He had a single minded goal at the moment and there was nothing in this world that was going to keep him from it- he had to get to Harry. He had to protect his best friend so that Harry could do what needed to be done. Ron turned his head away from his classmates that were fighting ruthless killers, kids that only that morning had been worried about whether or not it was too early to start revising for their finals and were now fighting for their lives. He didn't have time to worry about them he couldn't focus on anything other than his goal.
And suddenly he saw the person that he had been looking for, Harry strode forward, confidence and power exuding from him even from the distance across the battlefield. The chaos and noise seemed to dim when one's eye travelled from Harry to his sworn enemy. Ron had never seen Voldemort in person before and for a second he was frozen in horror at the realization that he was seeing the man that his parents had always refused to speak the name of. The horror story that was real and the great specter of his life since he had come to Hogwarts and decided it would just be a brilliant idea to become best friends with the bloody Boy-Who-Lived. Ron breath accelerated but for a moment there seemed to be a strange stillness in the center of the battle. He was not the only person that had been halted by the sight of the Dark Lord and the Chosen One meeting on the battlefield. One could almost believe that Harry and Voldemort were the only people present, everything else merely background noise.
But that did not stop the reality of Ron's best friend going into combat against the most powerful and deadly wizard to exist in the last century. Ron started forward, desperation blotting out logic in his attempt to help Harry before he was caught in the back by an Impediment Jinx, slowing his movements to the point that he tripped and fell, and therefore preventing him from rushing forward to help. He turned automatically onto his back, wand poised to retaliate against his attacker, when he saw not a Death Eater but Malfoy striding towards him, hands raised in surrender but face twisted in determination. "Trust me Weasley you want to stay the hell away from that. Let Potter...be Potter. There's nothing you can do."
"We shouldn't just be standing here!" Ron shouted out scrambling to his feet and glaring that the Slytherin furiously. "We're supposed to be bloody helping!"
"We already have plenty to do!" Malfoy shouted back, slashing his wand against another opponent even as Hermione came up on his other side to help take him down. "What the hell are you supposed to do? You think you can go up against the Dark Lord and survive?"
"I think Harry shouldn't have to do it alone!" Ron shouted, even as he was forced to raise a shield against another stray curse. The numbers were thick and it seemed as though you could not move without running into an enemy or a stray spell. It took several more minutes before either of them were prepared to speak again and from the corner of his eye, Ron saw Harry raise the sword even as he raised his wand in the other. Standing across from him, the sun seemed to gleam off the silver Shield in front of the snake-like man that wielded it as more weapon than defense.
"Potter's the only one that can do it!" Malfoy finally shouted back, panting with exertion but there was also a tone of exasperation mixed with frustration. "Trust me Weasel, no one is more put off by the fact that Harry Bloody Potter is actually going to be the one to save all our asses than me, but if you get in the middle, you're just a distraction and since I've hitched my broom to Potter's wand, I'm going to bloody well make sure that he wins. Even if that means knocking you the fuck out!"
Ron snarled, the temptation to strike down Malfoy even in the middle of the battle palpable for him but the decision was taken from his hands when a flash of golden/greenish light flashed outward like a bomb.
The fighters closest to the center froze in shock at the blinding flash and then in the next moment there was an inhuman shriek of pain. Ron felt his heart leap into his throat, before he realized that the scream of agony had not come from Harry but from the man opposite him.
Voldemort was twisting in what appeared to be agony for the space of a long, petrified minute before he suddenly seemed to regain possession of himself. Harry had frozen, a blank expression on his face that resolved in the same instant that Voldemort came back to himself.
Harry straightened, his rather short stature suddenly seeming strangely formidable, though Ron supposed that it had less to do with his size and everything to do with his eyes. After six years of friendship, Ron had thought that he had seen every possible expression on Harry's face. He had seen him happy, he had seen him bored, he had seen him scared and he yes on many occasions he had seen him angry. And Harry angry was always rather scary, but until that moment he had never fully realized that seeing Harry enraged was downright terrifying. The battle closest to the lead fighters had still not resumed and Ron heard a few sharp intakes of breath from those around them. The Slytherin Shield flew from Voldemort's grip as though it had been summoned and landed in front of Harry, who retrieved it with a flick of wand to hover in front of him.
And then, of all possible expressions, Harry smiled. It was terrifying.
"You really should think things through once in a while," Harry taunted. "You can't use the Shield of Slytherin to attack at Hogwarts- especially not its students."
"You think a few tokens can stop me? Stop my power? I am the greatest sorcerer the world has ever known, little baubles will not stop me for long!"
Harry lifted the sword, "Are you sure you want to test that theory? Seems that your own ancestor disagrees...doesn't seem that you were that worthy of it after all."
And suddenly there was flash of red and Harry was raising the Shield against a spell that positively radiated pain and malevolence, even from the distance that Ron was standing. The silver in the Shield seemed to dazzle, shining brightly against the now falling sun so that for a brief moment it seemed to cast a strange halo of power around Harry- and then threw the spell back at its caster with redoubled force.
The man's face twisted with pain combined with rage and scorn. Ron knew in that moment he was looking into the face of true hatred. Raw and unadulterated, it seem to burn him as though it was a physical entity before he was able to tear his eyes away. In that gaze was a promise, one of pain and retribution and with a strange clarity of thought, Ron knew that he was going to remember that glare in his nightmares for a long time to come. Voldemort was going to bring down suffering like the wrath of a fearful god and Ron felt a shiver down his back.
And suddenly, without another word, they were retreating. Voldemort vanished in a swirl of smoke that Ron had never seen from another wizard disapparating. However, after the retreat of the Dark Lord his followers were close on his heels and the sounds of disapparation and the flash of emergency portkeys signaled the end of the battle. Weary students and the reinforcements that had come to help them let out a tired by jubilant cheer as they realized that it was over. They had survived. However, Ron could only think of Voldemort's expression as he looked at Harry to know it was far from the end of the war.
Ron came forward, ready to greet Harry and make their way back to the castle but before he could fully get there, Harry threw his head back and let loose an earth-shattering scream of absolute agony. He fell to his knees, shaking and trembling, sweat pouring from his forehead and his hands were scratching desperately at his forehead so sharply that Ron could already see blood leaking through his fingers as his nails dug into the flesh.
Ron caught his wrists, struggling to hold them back from his head so that the slightly smaller teen wouldn't hurt himself but despite his smaller size, Ron found it difficult to contain Harry. He wasn't sure if the strength came from the possession of magic or it was just his best friend's signature determination but he could not hold on as the boy writhed and twisted in demented agitation. He didn't know what he was going to do to stop him from hurting himself until Malfoy of all people jumped in and helped him drag Harry further to ground, keeping him still by pinning his arms even as Ron sat on his legs. Harry was still writhing in pain, screaming to a point where his throat seemed likely to tear and for several minutes he seemed to have gone completely insane. Ron caught Malfoy's eyes and saw that the Slytherin was terrified by what he was seeing and Ron realized that the blond had never seen Harry in such a state. But then-neither had he. He had seen Harry suffer from his scar but nothing like this had ever happened before.
"What the bloody hell is going on?"
"V-V-Voldemort is...he attacks Harry's scar."
"What do we do?"
Ron blinked, feeling rather shocked by the question, though he supposed it made it sense. Ron shook his head and tried to sound more nonchalant than he really felt at the moment at seeing his best friend in such a state. "Nothing for it for at the moment but to wait for him to pull out of it."
Malfoy's pale features looked ashen and his muscles seemed to stiffen slightly even as he continued to pin Harry down to the ground. After another minute or so Harry arched his back high off the ground, letting out one last wail of pain before falling limply to the ground, unconscious.
It was only after he was still that he noticed Hermione hovering by his shoulder looking anxiously at Harry. "Is he alright?"
Ron nodded shakily, "I reckon so. Not sure what happened, I thought they had gone..."
Hermione nodded, her face white and he suddenly noticed how overly large her eyes seemed at the moment. "They're gone...leaving I guess is better to say I can still hear some of them in the castle..."
Ron looked back and grimaced, the front facade of the ancient building was crumbled and broken. The windows that peered into the Great Hall were shattered and he knew there would be only more damage once they got inside. "Do you reckon we should move him to the hospital wing or wait till we know they're gone?"
"Wait," Malfoy answered even as a few more of their current classmates moved towards them, Greengrass and Nott in the front followed by a limping and rather disheveled Tracy Davis. "If there are any more Death Eaters in there and they see an unconscious Potter then it's going to turn into open season."
Ron scowled, not enjoying this sudden and completely unexpected camaraderie that he and Malfoy seemed to have struck up out of nowhere but when Hermione shook her head, he knew she was warning him not to argue and to go along with what the Slytherin said. He let out a ragged breath, releasing some of the tension from the battle that was still coiling his muscles. It was a feeling he had experienced before, the strange release of tension and anxiety that came after a near death experience that was at once euphoric and exhausting. He had felt it before but he did not think that anyone could ever grow accustomed to such a feeling. However, he seemed to be doing better than some of the others, who were alternately fidgeting with anxiety or else looking dazed with shock.
"You alright Davis?" Ron heard himself asking before he had time to think about the fact that he had never before spoken to the Slytherin girl.
She looked up at him with rather bemused eyes, "oh just living the Gryffindor dream," she replied back with kind of dry cheek that seemed to be an almost automatic response, given the fact that she still looked rather dazed. "So sad now that I've been missing all the fun you and your mates have been having every year. Next time though I much rather just take regular exams in peace."
"No worries there," Ron shot back, "we even did it all a bit early this year so it doesn't mess with Hermione's exam schedule...though I imagine that this clean-up will really cut into revision time, what do you reckon, new study timetable?"
Greengrass and Davis blinked as Hermione swatted his shoulder before both of them started laughing rather nervously, as though they half thought that if they dared to laugh after such a battle then they were triggering some sort of curse.
It wasn't until they saw a group of people emerge from the castle looking for the injured that they knew that it was safe to go back. Hermione flicked her wand and Harry levitated upwards, reminding Ron of the time that Sirius had done the same to Snape in their Third Year, though it was clear that Hermione was taking a great deal more care with her charge than Sirius had done. Ron took a deep breath as he realized there was yet another challenge awaiting him- seeing who had survived the battle and hoping that his family was safe.
Ron staggered into the Hospital Wing, exhaustion weighing him down like a physical weight. He was still slightly astonished to find himself uninjured after the chaos and violence of the battle but the long walk back to the castle had made him nearly sick with anxiety as all the pushed aside worries for his family, that had seemed so abstract while he had been fighting, suddenly seemed to crash down around him. There were nine of them and with the Ministry on board there was no guarantee that even Percy had stayed away from the fighting. The chances of them all making it out unscathed seemed slim. And that wasn't even counting his classmates. He had caught sight of Lavender earlier and had wanted to stay by her side but had been distracted by the task he had already set himself of guarding Harry's side while he challenged Voldemort.
He was anxious to see Lavender, to have her make some sort of joke and lighten the mood as she was known to do even in the most serious of situations. He had gotten together with her for a lot of the wrong reasons and looking back he did not think he had treated her very well in the beginning but as time had worn on, she had surprised him. She was different from his other friends and challenged him in ways he hadn't expected to need challenging in. He had grown to respect her and the way she saw the world and felt guilty for assuming that simply because she had certain shallow interests, she was not a person of substance. He didn't think that he loved her, not really, but he had grown to care about her in a way that he had not expected when they had first started dating when he had been far more interested in snogging than talking.
But he didn't find Lavender or really anyone at first. Ron entered the infirmary to an entirely new kind of chaos. People were running in and out, some yelling for help, other screaming out in pain as several people tried their best help without running into each other or forgetting to check on the patients that were too weak even to cry out.
Pomfrey was running the ward as though she was the true commander of the war. She had assembled a team of assistants and workers from a few of the students that Ron recognized as top of the Seventh and Sixth Years and was directing them back and forth even as her wand twisted and turned through a variety of familiar patterns.
She had apparently also called in reinforcements of her own as the floo heralded the arrival of extra Healers and Medi-wizards. Hermione deposited Harry onto an empty bed where he was almost instantly inspected by a rather harried looking Healer that seemed overwhelmed but determined to give priority to the Chosen One. Ron realized that now her task had been complete and there was nothing to distract her from her own emotions, Hermione had started to shake slightly beside him, apparently feeling the full weight of the day's events for the first time. A surge of protective warmth struck him at the way she cared for others before her own well-being and without real conscious thought of the action he wrapped his arm around her. "It's alright...we made it and Harry is going to be fine," he whispered to her because he could think of nothing else to say. Not with the crowded hospital wing, full of their classmates and family. He had never been very good at dealing with other people's emotions but he felt that if his relationship with Lavender had given anything it was a better ability to express himself and care for those around him without reservation.
"Ron!" his mother was on him in a flash, squeezing him tightly in a hug that seemed to at once to assure her that he was alive and promptly kill him from asphyxiation.
"I'm alright Mum, I'm fine," he assured her and he noticed that his voice was calmer, gentler than it had ever been with her. In the past he would have been annoyed with her, embarrassed by her fussing at him in public, but now he only felt compelled to assure that he was alright.
She was crying but was struggling to sound as calm as possible as she told him, "It's Bill, Ron, Bill's...his spine was crushed by a dark curse and they're...they can't know if he'll recover fully...he might not walk again!" Ron felt his breath catch at this news. Bill- who he had admired and looked up to his entire life might be permanently and irrevocably damaged. Bill had been the one that had helped teach him how to ride a broomstick and used to purposefully lose footraces to him when he was trying to get Ron to go back into the house when he had been a kid. It seemed utterly inconceivable to him. Ron swallowed and numbly patted her on the back, unsure what he could possibly say in the face of such devastating news. Bill was a cursebreaker by trade, he had told Ron more than once that he hated the idea of being trapped behind a desk. His transfer back to Britain had always been meant to be temporary, and he had gotten the agreement that he would work primarily within the vaults themselves, deep in the underground cave where he could still be active. How would he remain active now?
His mother was sobbing, clinging to him as though she was a small child and Ron realized through a dull haze of shock as he tried to offer rather clumsy comfort that his mother's head now fit neatly under his chin, a height he had never quite achieved with her in the past. It seemed such a strange thing to note, that after fighting for his life and the lives of his friends in an actual battle; that the fact that he had grown taller than his mother seemed to be the thing that drove home the reality that his childhood truly was at an end. Just another thing that would be different from this moment on with no chance of going back in time. Hermione had often told him he was rather slow to notice the obvious things.
Ginny came in supporting a bleeding but conscious and seemingly stable Luna with her arm around the Ravenclaw's waist. After depositing her on the bed she turned to join their parents and Ron, embracing her father and letting tears run down her cheeks. Ron couldn't really remember the last time he had seen Ginny actually cry, he couldn't even remember her shedding actual tears over Harry when they had broken up, or if she had, she had not allowed anyone to see her so vulnerable. Now she seemed wholly unconcerned with who looked at her as she fell into her mother's arms, wanting her own comfort even as she tried to offer the same in the turn.
The lists of the injured and dead were long and Ron kept hearing an increasingly familiar wail of pain and grief as more and more friends and family members were informed of their loved ones' fate. The Healers were still working on Bill, trying to minimize as much damage as possible. George had suffered a deep cut to his shoulder and Fred had a head wound that was currently keeping him unusually quiet, the Healers had diagnosed concussion and insisted that he rest the muggle way before they would consider administering a potion the next day if his symptoms didn't clear.
Harry had been checked over and declared physically fit but the Healers were confused and unsure what to make of his persistent unconscious state. Hermione had tried to explain, with as little detail as possible to a group of strangers, that Harry was affected by 'You-Know-Who' but the two different Healers that were available to examine him were unable to offer them any answers. Ron shook his head wryly, Harry had always insisted that the Healers wouldn't be able to help him and the git always seemed to be right at the most inconvenient of times.
Ron sat with his family and Hermione around Fred's sickbed, George sat closest to his head, his shoulder in bandages and his own face pale, as they awaited news on Bill's condition. The adrenaline had finally passed and a kind of numb disbelief was settling over him. He kept thinking that he should be doing more- helping the Healers or trying to clean up the castle or even talking to his classmates and finding out who else had been hurt, but he found himself unable to move. This was Hogwarts. His school that, as McGonagall was fond of reminding them all, had a tradition that stretched back a thousand years and yet the corridor had been smashed and broken. The portraits he had passed on the way into the infirmary were in tatters, the ghosts strangely quiet. This had been his home for six years in spite of all of the adventures and trouble that he had found here in the past, he had always had this illusion of safety in the castle. That illusion was now as shattered as the windows to the Great Hall. Dumbledore was dead. Bill might never walk again. And for the first time in over a decade Ron wanted nothing more than to crawl into his mother's lap and have her stroke his hair as she had done when he had been a young boy and come to her after he had nightmare or one of the twins had teased him until he had cried.
Ron wasn't sure how much time passed, it probably hadn't been as long as it felt, but he was shaken harshly from his grief-filled stupor as Parvati fell into his lap with hysterical tears, speaking incoherently into his chest.
Hermione looked at him with horror in her expression but Ron's mind couldn't fathom why Parvati would be there. Why would she seek him out of all people? "Parvati...calm down, calm down, what's happened? Where's..."
And suddenly his brain caught up with the one reason why Parvati would seek him out without Lavender at time like this. "Severing Curse...got her in the chest...I thought she would be alright, I didn't think it was that deep and she was talking! She said that it hurt! I-I always thought that was supposed to be a good sign! That as long as you were feeling pain you weren't...that you couldn't..."
"She's dead?" he heard himself ask weakly but his voice sounded different to his ears. He didn't recognize the tone or emotion that he was feeling. This wasn't anger or surprise or even grief...this was incomprehension was the closest he could come to describing it but it still seemed inadequate.
Parvati nodded, fresh tears running freely down her face, her breath coming in short, gasping spurts. His arms raised in a kind of automatic fashion to comfort her but the gesture seemed foreign and it occurred to him that before his relationship with Lavender he would have been too gormless and insensitive to even recognize that he should do it. Fred and George were both looking at him with a horror that for once hadn't been caused by a prank that had gone wrong. Uncharacteristic sympathy filling their expressions as he vaguely heard Hermione quietly explaining to his family that he and Lavender had been dating for several months.
His mother's tears renewed and she made a motion to come forward to comfort him but Ron's father held her back for the moment, allowing Ron a moment to process what had happened and make the first move. Part of him was grateful for the action as it showed that his father respected the fact that Ron was an adult, but in that moment Ron had never wanted the acknowledgement of his own independence less. He wanted to go back- back to when his mother had all the answers and he didn't have to decide or do anything. When she could tell him that everything would be alright and he would believe her.
The night dragged on and slowly the cries and distress of the hospital wing died down. The patients that had been most critical were stabilized as much as possible, Bill included for the time being. They wouldn't know the full extent of his injuries or the likelihood of recovery for some time but they had contacted Fleur, who had been out of the country at the time and told her what had happened. Ron noted dully that his mother had been too upset at the time to be cold towards the quarter veela as she normally was and wondered if the other woman had noticed the change in demeanor at all. For his part though, Ron had been quiet after learning the news about Lavender even after Hermione and Ginny had both tried to get him to talk. A few of the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws had come into the ward and Ernie had come straight towards Ron and wrapped him in a hug after he learned about the death of the Gryffindor. If you were to ask him later, Ron would have been surprised to realize that it wasn't until that moment that he actually allowed himself to cry.
Eventually people left to different rooms so that they could get some sleep or else grieve in private. Hermione seemed unable to sit still and instead was trying to help Madame Pomfrey after many of her assistants had all but collapsed from exhaustion. Ron vaguely noticed the Slytherins whispering to one another, seeming agitated about something but he couldn't care about it at the moment and when, in the early hours of Monday morning, Ernie quietly asked if Ron wanted to leave so that he could get some rest. he was happy to follow anyone's suggestion, glad not to have think any longer.
Lucius Malfoy knew every inch of Malfoy Manor. He had grown up there and as a young boy he had liked to explore the place's secrets, determined to find them all, hoping that one day he would be able to show something new to his father, to be able to prove to him that he had not been 'wasting his time'. Father had always disapproved of him doing anything as frivolous and unstructured as 'exploring' as a child.
As an adult he had learned that he had set himself an impossible task because the master of the house was privy to information regarding the structure of the house that no one else could possibly know. Malfoy Manor had been constructed and reconstructed for centuries with the intentions of keeping the family secrets, at times even from other family members. When he became the head of the family after his father's death, Lucius had learned all of the secrets the place held. He knew every alcove, every passageway, and every concealed and warded rom. And – though he would never admit to their existence- every flaw of the Malfoy ancestral home, few and far between they might be. And it was with this knowledge that Lucius Malfoy was currently a hiding fugitive in his own home.
He could not return to the Dark Lord's side. Not after the spectacular loss they had suffered in the battle and the knowledge that the man had just lost the Shield of his forefathers. Cries of pain and fear could be heard from where he privately spied on the locked drawing room. The Dark Lord was in a towering rage and was currently taking it out on his remaining faithful followers. Lucius would not go back only to be struck down for a failure that was not of his making. Truth be told, if he had been at fault he would have blamed some else anyway so it came to the same thing. Lucius had decided long ago that he would never be a casualty in a war- any war. He would profit or at the very least he would survive, but he would not cast his own life aside for other wizards' gain.
Lucius had once believed whole heartedly in the doctrine that Lord Voldemort had been trying to force onto the world. He had always believed that wizards were superior to muggles and should be treated as such. Rather than coddled and protected while wizards were forced into secrecy, muggles should be put in their proper place- as subservient in every way to wizards. Magical Creatures should be used for what they could offer the magical community and then caged, the idea that they needed to be respected and even protected was absurd and degrading to the standing his blood should command. Following the Dark Lord had not merely been a means to an end, it had been the closest he had ever seen their world come to achieving the vision he had always wanted for it.
However, Lucius had always survived through his pragmatism, not idealism. Under veritaserum he would have been forced to confess that he would like to see the Dark Lord win the war- but only if Lucius was at the man's right hand side and was as handsomely rewarded as he deserved. Without the benefits the man had once sworn to provide him and with the increasing certainty that he would never receive the kind of respect and compensation he had anticipated when he had taken the mark, it had been time to change sides.
To change sides to Harry Bloody Potter.
He could not say it had been an enticing prospect. Potter was an idealist and muggle sympathizer. He had no respect or even use for Pureblood tradition and he courted the company of creatures that Lucius would sooner put down than engage in a civil conversation with. He was reckless and overly sympathetic. He was morally incorruptible and expected others to behave in the same manner. He was very last person Lucius would have wanted to shape and guide their world.
But the fact remained- the boy had bloody done it. He had managed to defend the castle and had had taken possession of the Shield. What was more, Lucius had learned, the boy had even been the one that had truly orchestrated Dumbledore's murder. Lucius didn't know whether to laugh or cry. His son, his brilliant, wonderful son, had been right with the suggestion that he come to him with weeks earlier, the suggestion to change sides and work with the Gryffindor who would protect those that followed him until his dying breath. Lucius had been skeptical at best. It was true there was something decidedly strange about the boy when it came to his connection to the Dark Lord, but aside from the fact that Potter seemed to get himself out of sticky situations, how was he qualified to lead? The boy was a Half-Blood. He had been raised by muggles and if all of the recent reports were to be believed, the very worst of an already sad race. Muggles that had apparently managed to beat and humiliate him, which proved the boy's weakness. Both Severus and Draco had told him many times that aside from an affinity for flying and the admittedly unique talent of Parseltongue the boy was upsettingly average. He wasn't particularly intelligent and displayed no extraordinary magical talent. Lucius may have despised Dumbledore but at least there had been no denying the fact that the man was powerful and deserved the station he had achieved. Potter had gotten lucky with a bit of fluke lucky as an infant and had been cashing in on it ever since.
But Draco's opinion of the other boy had changed during the course of the year. He had explained how he had witnessed the short duel between the boy and Dark Lord and the fact that the Potter had not only survived but had shattered the borrowed wand in the man's hands- a feat that Lucius had never heard of another wizard accomplishing. Draco had further told him how Potter had been gaining respect and allies within Slytherin House even while maintaining his standing with the other Houses- not a simple matter in any regard. He had heard himself about the impressive deal that Potter had managed to strike between the Ministry and the Dark Creatures, the biggest winner of all seeming to be Potter. That was a kind of leader that Lucius could get behind. And so he had given his blessing to Draco to do what needed to be done.
And now he was hiding in a concealed room off of the east parlor, a room that no one that did not have Malfoy Blood could enter but still allowed him to see any other room in the manor. He was completely safe within the confines of the room but there was also no means of contacting the outside world through any known magical means. The Dark Lord had already taken control of his home and Lucius knew that he would never be able to force the man out. But Lucius had learned early that information was the most powerful weapon that he could have and he intended to use his time in seclusion wisely.
"Bellatrix you swore to me you were my most faithful and devoted servant, is that not true?" the Dark Lord was hissing to a distressed Bellatrix. The woman had broken away after being captured and subdued by Potter and friends. Even the fact that she had managed to kill about a dozen fighters on her way out had not satisfied her master after hearing about her initial failure.
"My Lord, I am your most faithful, your most devoted and trusted! It was I that exposed the treachery that was going on before you! It was I that has set the trap that they will soon walk into when they are least prepared! I never trusted him, Master, I had warned you-"
Lucius shook his head at the woman's blatant stupidity. Her insanity and desperation lent no censure to her words at any time and she was so desperate to prove her loyalty that she had just committed the unforgivable sin of pointing out a time when someone (anyone) that wasn't the Dark Lord was right about something. The Cruciatus she received was expected and rather deserved.
"I will handle the traitor in due time," The Dark Lord hissed angrily. "I trust that your incompetent mistakes of the past will rectified and there is no chance of another escape?" The question was deceptively soft when spoken, Lucius knew full well the suffering that had taken place after Potter had managed to escape the dungeons right under the noses of the Death Eaters- Bellatrix among them.
"It is time that we took a different approach with Potter. For too long I have allowed that boy to run around with the arrogant assumption that he has the right to challenge and defy me. Potter was never worthy of being my true adversary but now that the old fool is dead at last...I believe it time to focus our full and complete efforts on destroying Potter. Destroying his reputation, his friends, his life.
"Avery! I believe that you had a task to perform?"
A nervous, reedy looking man stepped forward, shaking with a combination of terror and pain from the last curse he had suffered. "Yes my Lord, it is set, just as we discussed. The Ministry officials that we need are all under control. I had not realized..."
"I underestimated Potter," Voldemort hissed quietly and even when admitting fault the man still sounded intimidating and arrogant. "I had not counted on him reaching out for help so quickly and had thought that we would be attacking Hogwarts when it was at its most vulnerable. But Potter has played his hand and now...his faithful little allies will soon learn what it means to be on the wrong side of a war. I believe that we should start with Potter's little pets. The vampires and werewolves will pay for their disloyalty and when they turn on Potter, the Wizarding World will see quickly why placing so much trust in dark creatures without properly controlling them first is a dangerous idea. Potter is going to die but I am no longer satisfied with simply killing him. I will break Harry Potter. I will have him begging at my feet for the world to see before I slaughter him as the fools that trusted in him- those that I have still allowed to live that long- watch."
The Death Eaters were nodding, morale building with each word of vengeance spoken against the boy that had defeated and humiliated them. Such an insult could not be allowed to stand and Lucius knew that the people standing in front of their master would go to any lengths to satisfy their need for revenge.
"From this moment on the rules of engagement will change. We have become too predictable. Too slow to change tactics, but I will not allow this any longer. Potter best enjoy his next birthday- I swear it will be his last!"
Harry moaned quietly and regretted even expending that much energy or making that much noise. His head felt as though it was splitting along the seams. "Potter?" Harry grimaced and moaned again, flinching away from whomever had been speaking next to him.
He felt a hand on the back of his neck and he wanted to pull away but it was too hard. He struggled weakly and received a sharp, "drink this, you'll feel better in a minute," from a voice that didn't sound as close as the hands on his neck should have indicated.
He recognized the voice but...it couldn't be...why would he of all people...oh that's right. He and Malfoy had made some sort of devil's bargain and two of them were allies now.
He nodded and winced both at the pain and his own stupidity, nodding was ridiculously painful. A vial was brought to his lips and he swallowed the rather sickly sweet taste.
Moments later the pain receded enough for Harry to open his eyes and the sight that greeted him made him feel as though whatever had happened to his head had addled his brain.
"Is this is some sort of strange alternate reality where I got sorted into Slytherin and now I'm stuck with the two of you as friends?" he muttered.
Malfoy snorted, "you wish we were friends, Potter. You're welcome for the pain potion by the way, next time you get yourself in some sort of Gryffindor calamity we'll just leave you to it then."
"Alternate reality?" Daphne asked with her brow wrinkled, "I've never heard of that kind of magic."
"More like muggle science fiction," Harry answered with a groan as struggled to sit up. "And sorry. I do appreciate the potion, I just wasn't really expecting the two of you here. Where are Ron and Hermione?"
Daphne winced but Malfoy shook his head and muttered, "Of course, can't be bloody separated from each other." He cleared his throat and explained, "Weasley left the morning after the battle, but he's been checking in to see you and his brother. One of the older ones was hurt I think, but before you ask," he added as Harry opened his mouth prepared to ask after the Weasleys, "I don't know any details. Merlin knows keeping track of the whole lot of the Weasleys would be a full time job. But last I saw Ron he was with Macmillian," Malfoy gave a rather awkward pause even as Daphne looked down with a flush to her face. "He was pretty upset, Brown- er Lavender Brown," he corrected more respectfully than the rest of his speech, "died in the battle. Macmillian's been keeping an eye on him."
Harry's eyes widened and he swore under his breath. This had been his idea, his trap for Voldemort and now a 17 year girl, his best friend's girlfriend, was dead.
"This wasn't your fault Harry. You were brilliant," Daphne said fiercely, her voice suddenly more passionate than he could remember hearing it. "You did it, you got the Shield away from Him. And reports have been pouring in, your plan worked! The vampires and werewolves liberated the towns that were being controlled by Death Eaters. This was a victory."
Harry blinked, unsure how to feel when such good news came on heels of such tragic loss.
He settled for clearing his throat, "and Hermione? You said that Ernie and Ron went off together, did she go as well?"
Draco scowled, seeming irritated and impatient with Harry's questions but Daphne seemed to be almost strangely patient with him at the moment. "She's with Professor McGonagall in her office, well her new office as the Headmistress that is. The Ministry's been round, trying to take control, and since you weren't really up for any important meetings I suppose Granger thought she would try and get as much information as possible."
Harry nodded, relieved that someone he trusted would be there but slightly surprised that they had allowed a student other than himself to be present. Though he supposed that Hermione was technically 17, an adult in their world, and McGonagall would certainly vouch her maturity and knowledge. Honestly he felt Hermione was better suited to read the suit dynamics in the room much better than he ever was, he had always felt as though he was two steps behind in all of those Ministry and International meetings and simply soldiered on to look as competent as possible. Hermione, on the other hand, had more patience for double speak and found it almost a challenge to decipher each person's key motivations for doing anything. He had a feeling that someday Hermione was going to take the Ministry by storm and the Wizarding World might never be the same again.
"How long was I out for?" He asked, it was rather quiet in the Infirmary at the moment and he couldn't imagine it would have been that way if he had only been unconscious for a few hours. It also sounded as though quiet a lot had happened since he had been there.
"About a day and a half. It's Tuesday, late morning now. They were talking about moving you St. Mungo's if didn't wake up in the next," Malfoy glanced down at his watch, "14 hours or so."
Harry's eyes widened in surprise. He remembered, rather hazily but remembered, the confrontation between himself and Voldemort. The way their spells had clashed, the fact that he had been right about the Shield coming to him if Voldemort were to use it on Hogwarts grounds. And then the mind-splitting pain of Voldemort' mental attack. It had been as bad as it had been during the Department of Mysteries- the terrible feeling of total submission that came with being forcibly possessed. The absolute agony mixed with terrifying helplessness. But even then he had not been unconscious for so long.
He cleared his throat and tried to look more nonchalant about the situation than he felt in front of Malfoy. Allies they might be, but they were hardly friends and he wasn't about to show the blond that he was feeling vulnerable and rather disconcerted about being so affected by Voldemort's latest attack on his mind. It certainly seemed to him that the connection was getting worse over time. "Right, well much as I appreciate the, er...bedside vigil you were maintaining, why are the two of you here?"
Daphne gave a nervous shift and looked down, a faint blush tinging her cheeks but it was Malfoy that answered. "About time you started asking the right questions, I was starting to get worried you about to ask after the whereabouts of your entire fan club and then we'd be here all night," he groused. Harry gave him an unimpressed look but didn't bother to argue. He suspected sarcasm and distain were pretty much established preconditions to working with Malfoy on a consistent basis.
At any rate, Malfoy's next words blocked out any annoyance he might have felt for the Slytherin from his mind. "Snape's gone."
"What?" Harry asked, startled. "He's dead?"
Malfoy shook his head, biting his lip anxiously, Harry didn't think he had ever seen the Slytherin look so disconcerted and shaken before. "No...or I don't think so, not yet at least. After we took out the Death Eaters in Dumbledore's office, Snape's...true loyalties were obvious," Draco said it as though the revelation of Snape's true loyalties still had him slightly reeling. Harry knew that to Malfoy and perhaps most of the students, or at least the Slytherin students, it had always seemed obvious that the man's 'true loyalty' had been to the Dark Lord. To learn otherwise must have come as quite the shock.
"He was fighting, fighting for us I mean, but... I don't know, I wasn't there so I didn't see, but I heard afterwards that he killed like...a lot of them," he swallowed. "He's an excellent dueler, he really should have been Defense teacher all this time...but there were too many and they overwhelmed him. Once the order came through for the Death Eaters to retreat, instead of killing him, they grabbed him and apparated out. The werewolf, Lupin that is, he saw it and he was the one that told me what happened."
Harry felt as though he had missed a stair going down. Snape was kidnapped, captured and held prisoner and Harry more than most people could appreciate what that truly meant. The loneliness that seemed almost as bad as the fear; the pain and hunger that were a constant drain on you until you started to worry it would never end, or if it did end...it would mean the end of you. It was a terrible place to be. And that was assuming that Snape was not already dead already.
"Do they have any idea where he might be?" he asked.
Malfoy shook his head but paused after a moment, "the best guess is my h- my family's Manor," he corrected himself, seeming to want to distance himself from claiming ownership over the dungeons that would most likely be keeping their professor. "I've been waiting to hear from my dad but...he hasn't contacted me and I don't know what's happened..." Malfoy let out a shaky breath, obviously trying to keep hold of fraying nerves.
"If there's one thing I know about your dad, he's a survivor," Harry said quietly, "If he survived the battle, I reckon he's gotten himself somewhere safe."
Malfoy nodded, looking as though he was trying to appear more confident than he probably felt at the moment. "He knew that I was changing sides and the last message I got to him was that I was going after Dumbledore on your orders," Malfoy was pale as he said it and his wand hand twitched subtly.
"I didn't get a chance to tell you before but what you did took a lot of guts Malfoy. I don't know if I could have done it. I know Ron or Hermione or Neville couldn't have. I know that you didn't want to, but I promise you that Dumbledore would have understood."
Malfoy swallowed and nodded tightly, "he did understand. He knew...he knew what I was going to do. And Snape did as well, I think he was about to do it himself before I got there. I think he had the same plan as you."
The idea of he and Snape coming up with the same plans seemed so strange that Harry decided not to allow himself to think on it for the moment. Things had certainly changed a lot from last summer when the idea of staying with Snape for a few weeks had seemed little better than torture. Somehow things had evolved to a point where he could not only support Snape's ideas but they were linked to his own. Harry wasn't sure who had influenced who, or if they had influenced each other but as strange as the concept still seemed to him, he couldn't say that he regretted any decisions that he had made.
"Do they have a plan to get him back?" Harry asked, barely daring to hope.
Malfoy blinked and in the next second his shoulders sagged slightly, "I knew telling you was the right thing, you're the first person that even suggested it. I asked, but everyone I've spoken to has either put me off or flat out told me it would be a suicide mission."
Harry frowned, hating to hear that the people that he was fighting with were so willing to abandon one of their own. They were supposed to be better than that. "Is there any way of finding out if someone is inside the wards of your manor?"
Draco shook his head, "I would have to be considered the master of the house and even then I would either have to be inside the wards myself or have set up an object to warn me about it beforehand. I think my father is actually hiding himself somewhere in the house. I know there are a few warded rooms that make magical travel or even communication impossible but he would still maintain the safety of the house but I don't know much else about them. Its tradition not to learn anything about them until the Heir is of age and event then the full secrets aren't revealed until the will is read for the last Malfoy in charge of the family. Which means that there's no way of finding out if Snape is there or not, or even if my father is there for that matter, and even if we did find out we still couldn't talk to him."
Harry nodded, taking in this information and trying to think of what to do next. "How do we break in?"
Malfoy rolled his eyes, "honestly Potter, you really do your muggle upbringing justice sometimes. You can't just break into the manor. There's a reason why the Dark Lord chose my family home above any of his other followers. That place hasn't been breached in over four centuries. The fastest way would be to break through the wards but my ancestors have been adding to them for generations, with our reputation it was usually rather important to concern ourselves with safety. Became a bit of a family obsession really, others might call it paranoia."
Harry raised an eyebrow, it was the closest thing Malfoy had ever come to a disparaging remark about himself or his family. "However," the Slytherin continued, "it would take a full frontal assault to take down the wards and at the moment we don't know for certain that Snape is even there and if he isn't, we are throwing up a huge red flag for another battle that I don't think we're ready for at the moment."
Harry frowned again as he hesitated to voice the rather callous observation he had in mind. In the end though his pragmatism for once outweighed his compassion. "I think that we're in a bit better condition for another fight than Voldemort and the Death Eaters are at the moment."
Malfoy shook his head looking agitated, "don't underestimate the Dark Lord's ability to bounce back Potter, and this time we'll be fighting on his home turf. He's essentially taken over all but the most basic and essential control of the manor. My father still maintains a few key advantages but when up against the power of the Dark Lord it won't be enough."
"Even with all those defenses your ancestors created?"
This time even Daphne shook her head in exasperation as both Slytherins looked at him as though he had just made the most ridiculous statement they had ever heard. "Just how do you think wards actually work, Potter? They aren't infallible and they certainly aren't impenetrable," Malfoy scoffed.
"This is what happens when you take Divination instead of Ancient Runes-"
"Or spend your life living in the muggle world where they think little bits of metal in a door is enough to stop anyone from coming in. Honestly if that was what he considered an impenetrable defense before, no wonder he's confused."
"Enough Draco, you're not helping anything," Daphne snapped. She turned back to Harry as she explained in a voice of forced calm, "the Dark Lord entered as an invited guest. He didn't force his way in, so there was no initial breech. That's where most of the power of protective enchantments lie- in keeping someone out entirely. Once someone get in, it's very hard to use the wards to force them out. Especially with the amount of time the Dark Lord has already spent there and the fact that even though he's not a Malfoy nor the owner of the house, he is still the most magically powerful being in the manor, and power always counts for a lot when it comes to making another wizard do anything."
Harry nodded again using considerable effort to hold back a yawn. The conversation was important he was trying to devote his full attention to coming up with a viable plan to save Snape but he was still fatigued from whatever Voldemort had done to him.
Daphne shot him a sympathetic glance as she noticed what must have been his strained expression. "Alright," Harry sighed, "we'll have to figure something out. If Voldemort hasn't killed Snape yet then he wants information from him. Snape's managed to spy on him for years and get away with it so angry as Voldemort is, he's also curious," he was thinking out loud. He had spent enough time in Voldemort's mind to know a bit of how the man thought. He knew that man had a vicious temper and hated failure but the thing that he couldn't stand above anything else was the feeling that he didn't know something. Voldemort considered himself to be the most powerful and most knowledgeable sorcerer in the world. It had galled him that Dumbledore had been at least as powerful if not more so than him but the man had always comforted himself with the idea that Dumbledore had once been his teacher. Snape was less than half the man's age. He never should have been able to fool him for as long as he did.
"The Dark Lord knows how to get information out of people," Daphne warned quietly as Malfoy nodded beside her.
Harry nodded but he was distracted as he tried to picture what Voldemort would do first. He had broken Bertha Jonkins before the start of his Fourth Year just to find out what she might know and had wound up tearing through a memory charm. But Snape's defenses were much greater and the man would know how to protect anything vital from the man for a much longer period of time. Harry wasn't sure if anyone was a better Occlumens than the Potions Master and he wasn't even sure if it was possible to tear down such solid shields through brute force alone and still be able to guarantee that the information the person was trying to protect hadn't been tampered with by the supposed victim.
"It's going to take time. If he wants to get information from Snape, Voldemort will have to go slowly. And as much as he wants the information from Snape, he has other problems to worry about first. You said that the vampires and werewolves were successful, that means he's lost his base and he'll have to work to recover that as quickly as possible."
Malfoy was nodding. "That's true. He'll keep Snape isolated. Snape is strong but everyone's mental defenses have weaknesses and the Dark Lord will know how to exploit them."
"So we wait, for now. Snape is strong, he'll be able to hold out, but we can't risk doing this wrong. We need to make sure that whatever we do, works the first time."
Malfoy nodded but he looked unhappy with the situation. Harry couldn't blame him, he hated inaction and the idea of waiting while someone that he knew...and as much as he once thought he would never say this...cared about, was in danger was driving him mad. But he had learned a few things from Snape and even Dumbledore this past year and one of things was the value of caution and planning when necessary.
He only hoped that what he was calling caution at the moment wasn't merely excuses and hesitation because if he waited too long, it was Snape that would pay the price.
Malfoy left rather quickly after that, satisfied that Harry was not going to abandon the Slytherin Head of House as most people seemed willing to do but Daphne edged closer, looking uncharacteristically unsure of herself. Harry looked at the normally self-assured girl with concern. "Are you alright Daphne? I know you've probably never seen anything like that battle..." He wasn't sure what to say. Unlike the rest of his classmates, Harry was not a novice at dangerous and even deadly situations. He had seen someone murdered at the age 14 and for the past two years, he had lived with an almost constant fear of the war and its consequences. The time of shock had passed him.
Daphne smiled weakly at him. "Better than I thought I would be after everything that happened. I never thought...it was better and worse than I ever expected it to be. It was more terrible but it..." she shook her head.
"The world still goes on," Harry said quietly and her head shot up in surprise. He smiled sadly at her. "It's a common saying isn't it? 'I couldn't survive if...' or 'I've never be able to live with myself...'. People say things like that all time because we can't really picture the world any different than we've always known it. And then something happens and its awful and it feels like the world is ending...and then the next day you're still there and its alright. And sometimes that's the worst part of it."
Daphne's lips were slightly parted and a single tear ran down her cheek. "Y-yes, that's the problem. So many people died, dozens of them when you count both sides and..."
"And you know some of the people from the other side," Harry supplied gently.
Daphne nodded. "My family...we've always been neutral. We have friends with a lot of the Pureblood families a few of them..." she took a deep breath, "but it wasn't just the adults, 4 students died and yesterday I was talking to Tracy and she said something funny and I laughed and...that's awful, isn't it?" she asked looking incredibly guilty.
Harry shook his head, "no. You're alive Daphne, part of being alive is enjoying your life and laughing when something is funny. Of course you're going to miss the people that died, and we're all going to mourn them, but if I died I wouldn't want people to stop living their own lives and doubt they want you to either. As long as you remember how lucky you are every time you laugh or get to do something you enjoy, I don't think you're hurting or disrespecting anyone. I think you're celebrating what they were willing to die for, because that's what the war is really about Daphne. It's not about beating Voldemort, it about proving that your life matters and you should be free to live it the way you want with the people that you love."
Daphne grabbed his face and pulled him forward into a deep and passionate kiss. Harry was so surprised that for a moment he didn't react but after a second instinct kicked in and his hands came up to pulled her down onto his hospital bed. She pulled back after a second, her face slightly flushed and her breath a little quicker.
Harry swallowed and forced himself to control his own breathing as blood pounded in his veins. "Well that's one way of enjoying life I suppose."
Daphne scoff was more of a genuine laugh and hit him on the shoulder, her face flushing even brighter than before. "I've wanted to do that for a long time...especially right before the battle started but I couldn't bring myself to act so impulsively but...if I want to enjoy my life, I think I would really like to spend a lot more time with you."
Harry felt a slow smile spread across his face. "That sounds like a fantastic idea."
Hogwarts was closing. There was no choice at the moment. With the stone walls collapsing and the very fabric of the magic that were meant to hold together the enchantments throughout the castle disrupted or broken, there was no way the students could return safely.
But there was another problem, one that Harry knew was far worse for the future of the war and one that he didn't know how to fix at the moment. Harry was released from the hospital wing late Tuesday afternoon after he had woken up from the short but very refreshing nap that he had needed to take shortly after Daphne had gone back to the dungeons. It seemed he had only made it outside the door when he had been nearly accosted by an agitated Hermione who had started speaking to him at a mile a minute.
"Harry we can't trust them! The ideas they're proposing are more ridiculous by the minute, they must either be compromised by the Imperious or else they've been working with him all along, you can't do what they want Harry. It would be suicide!"
Naturally Harry had followed none of this but as the story had come out Hermione had explained that she had sat in with what should have been newly-appointed Headmistress, the meeting had taken a few very strange turns. The Ministry had wanted to instantly appoint a new Headmaster, citing that the Ministry needed to take firmer control over the school for the sake of safety. The man they had wanted to appoint, a Leonard Brown, hadn't seemed to have any spectacular qualifications outside of being a notorious Ministry sympathizer the like of which made it seem as though Dolores Umbridge might very well have found her soul mate him.
They had then wanted to ensure that all of the transport to bring the students back to the school would be handled by Ministry personnel. An offer that at first glance might seem innocent enough, but McGonagall had been quick to point out in the meeting that the school charter that had been set up long ago was designed so that the protective wards around private student's homes could not be breached by the Ministry unless the occupants of the residence were directly involved in a criminal investigation or crime. It had no doubt been one of those statues that had been designed by Purebloods to ensure that they were able to avoid close Ministry scrutiny but over the years had worked just as well to protect Muggleborns and other vulnerable populations from persecution. The directive ensured that only a direct representative from Hogwarts could pass through any protective enchantments set around a student's home and only for reasons directly related to their education. The fact that the Ministry had suddenly become insistent that Hogwarts surrender this role to the Ministry rang several alarm bells.
Finally, according to Hermione there had been several none-to-subtle hints that despite the help that the vampires and werewolves had supplied them, they had evidence that the Dark Creatures were looking to turn on the alliance that they had formed with wizards and that they would be wise to make a pre-emptive strike against them. Harry would have liked to tell Hermione that she was being paranoid and that they had created a good enough alliance with the Ministry that they could count on their support, if no other reason than the fact that the Ministry had placed their entire publicity campaign to the public around working with Harry.
Martin Tisdale had told him several months earlier, when Harry had been reluctant to get so entangled in Ministry politics in the first place, that even though Harry would be working with them and conceding a certain amount of autonomy, it was the Ministry that was one dependent on the survival of their working relationship rather than Harry, and that gave Harry power. Harry could admit that he had not considered the full implications of such a statement when it had been said but he had learned a lot about how politics and favors worked and had realized that for the Ministry to turn on the person that they had invested so much time and energy into building up as the hero of the war could damage their image irreparably in the eyes of the public. But as much as knew how much it would hurt the Ministry to change its agenda, he also knew never to underestimate Hermione when she was certain about something.
"You think that the Ministry is trying to get information on the students and turn the magical creatures against us?" he had asked her and Hermione had nodded nervously.
The next two days had been extremely busy. Harry had spent most of his time meeting with the international delegates that had sent help for the battle. They were all very pleased with the victory that they had helped to support but every one of them had been none too subtle in the reminder that they had done Britain a great service and they would be collecting in the future. Harry found himself carefully avoiding agreeing anything other the proffered beverage that he was given at the start of each meeting and smiling as politely as possible while still making his own position- or really lack thereof- in his government clear, while still making it sound as though the fact that he could really promise them nothing concrete was irrelevant to their continued support. The result had left his cheeks aching from fake smiles and a feeling of being absolutely drained of all energy.
The feeling of emotional exhaustion was not at all helped by the fact that amidst in the increasing political chaos that was falling on his shoulders with the absence of both Dumbledore and Snape, he had had to offer a seemingly endless stream of condolences to the family members of those that had been killed in the battle. Many had been to family of strangers that Harry had never met and that had been awkward enough to try and find positive things to say about people he had never known, but he had also been forced to speak to far too many family members of people that he had known and liked personally. Classmates and Order members that had fought for Harry because he had asked and would now never see their families again. It was a humbling experience and one drove home the point that the illusion of safety that Harry had always had at Hogwarts, the feeling that the war couldn't reach the kids inside the castle walls, was now shattered forever.
While Harry struggled to juggle as many people as he could, the Dark Creatures were busy navigating the ups and downs of their fifteen minutes of fame. The vampires and werewolves had been celebrated in the hours after the victory and from what little Harry had gotten a chance to see, many of them seemed to be enjoying the after-effects of their heroic rescue of the imprisoned town but Harry had heard a enough disgruntled whispers to show that Hermione had been right about the Ministry agenda. Harry knew that he needed to warn Raymond and Dimitri but at present it was Thursday night and it was very late and for the first time since he had woken up properly from the battle he had a moment alone with best friend and that was the only person he wanted to speak to.
Ron had seemed to disappear for nearly a day before Harry had even managed to catch sight of him and even then it had only been a quick, rather distracted exchange as several people pulled his attention away. Harry had felt guilty ever since and he wasn't sure who had spoken to for the next hour, though he was fairly certain that he had expressed his condolences to one of the representatives from Sweden rather than a grieving family member. For his part, Ron had been quiet and seemingly distracted himself, distancing himself from both Harry and Hermione and preferring to sit alone with his own thoughts. Harry had given him some space as much from necessity of lack of time as out of respect but at long last they had the Common Room to themselves and were sitting by the fire. They had been quiet for some time when at last it was Harry that felt that the obvious needed to be said- or at least Ron needed to hear it.
"Ron mate...I'm sorry about Lavender, I know that you cared about her," Harry said quietly. "She was a great girl and I know that I probably didn't always give the two of you enough support..." he coughed uncomfortably as he remembered how he had not been thrilled about his best mate's dating choices when he had first started snogging the Gryffindor girl as though the two of them had just invented the idea.
"I'm not really sure how I felt about Lavender," Ron admitted quietly. "She was...I really didn't deserve her, Harry and now it's too late to let her know it."
Harry frowned at the guilt in his friend's voice. "You never hurt Lavender Ron, and what happened isn't your fault, if anyone's to blame it's me-"
"Shut it Harry, it's not your fault. The war isn't your fault and you can't go around claiming that anyone that dies only does for it you. That's rubbish, Lavender never did a damn thing she didn't want to do," he said with a slight grin. He let out a long sigh. "But I don't think I can say I never hurt her, Harry. Lav was really great to me- great for me. She taught me a lot about how relationships work. She made me a better person and I don't think I ever really showed her how much I appreciate her outside of snogging. I know that I treated her like shite in the beginning. I was... it's was about..." Ron swallowed and looked away his face heating and Harry knew that there was a lot more bubbling beneath the surface for Ron than he was willing to share at the moment. "I feel like I took her granted, I didn't mean to...I just..."
"You couldn't have known what was going to happen Ron," Harry said bracingly but he felt that the words fell a bit flat. He let out a slow breath of his own and said the only thing he could think of at the moment, "Lavender taught you a lot about relationships...maybe this is the last thing she can teach you. That you should never take anyone that care about for granted because you never know what will happen. If you remember that, I think you'll always honor her memory."
Ron looked up at him in surprise before a slow smile spread across his face. "Yeah...yeah I reckon I can try to do that."
Harry nodded and winced as he asked, "how's Bill doing?"
Ron's face fell and his posture looked tired. "He's not fully paralyzed but its close. They don't think he'll ever fully recover and he'll never be able to run or ride a broom again, but with a lot of spells and something they're calling 'physiotherapy' he'll probably walk again. That's all the Healers will say at this point- probably."
Harry shook his head, "how's he taking the news?"
Ron rolled his eyes, "Bill is...Bill. He's calm, he's in control. He's trying to make everyone else feel better. I just hope that he really is as fine as he likes to pretend he is in front of everyone else."
"What about Fleur? How did she take the news?"
"Like a bloody champ. Woman didn't bat an eyelash and said that they would make it through together, that marriage was about one person carrying the weight when the other person couldn't bear the load alone. Mum's decided that she loves Fleur now and she and Bill are moving back to the Burrow. So...that's the good news I guess."
Harry grinned tired, stifling a yawn. "So," Ron said stretching out a bit on the sofa, "tomorrow, after the funeral, they're closing Hogwarts. You reckon that's a good idea?"
Harry shrugged, "not sure. From what I've heard over the last couple of days, I don't think we have much a choice and even if they did reopen the school...which I think the Ministry might wind up doing anyway, I don't think it would be safe for us to go to. The war...it's here and it's only going to get worse. I have to be ready..."
"Not by yourself you don't," Ron said suddenly fierce. "Hermione and I will won't let you just run off on your own!"
Harry gave his first genuine smile as he said, "never thought you would, mate. And besides, I'm too far in this to run off on my own anyway. I have the Dark Creatures depending on me and I'm the only thing keeping the international delegates still interested in helping us and if Hermione's is right and the Ministry is as bad off as we think...we'll need all the help we can get."
"So what's the plan?"
Harry sighed again, "go back to the Dursleys for now. I think...I'm closer to my aunt and my cousin and even my uncle than I've ever been before. I know that's not really saying much since up until this point we've most shared mutual distain for one another but I think that the wards will be stronger now than they were. The Order helped fix up the house and if I stay there, even for a little awhile, it should be safer."
"Are you sure mate? The last time you were there Death Eaters attacked!"
"Death Eaters that had never killed anyone, there aren't too many of those that exist anymore and even if Voldemort finds some new recruits, they attacked when the Dursleys and I weren't getting along. According to Dumbledore, the wards are fueled by the blood sacrifice. In the past it was in name only...I think it will be stronger this time. The Dursleys never took care of me the way that they should have but I've been thinking about something Martin Tisdale wrote to me a while back, about how I'm taking care of them as though I was a guardian. I think that should change things. Make the wards feel as though we're a real family instead of me just staying on with them."
Ron shook his head, "it's a lot to risk on a theory mate."
Harry shrugged even as he gave a sheepish smile, "that's how most of my plans work, haven't you noticed? Hoping something no one else would even try will work. Besides..." Harry shook his head. "Malfoy needs a place to stay and I reckon Privet Drive might be the best place for him at the moment."
Ron goggled at him. "Malfoy...and your relatives...oh Merlin that's going to be hilarious."
Harry snorted, "trust me the irony is not lost. I can't decide if I'm dreading it with every fiber of my being or I want to make sure that I have some popcorn for when Vernon and Draco get into over who truly is part of the master race."
"Only you mate," Ron said with a shake of his head. "You and Malfoy going to work on your rescue Snape mission?"
Harry nodded but didn't elaborate, thus far the only time Ron had shown an emotion other than numb grief had been the moment when Hermione had mentioned that Harry intended to go after the abducted Potions Master and Ron had been livid that Harry would put his life on the line for the man that had strived to make their lives miserable for years.
Ron paused a moment before saying, "be sure to work me into your plans."
"Really? I thought you felt that the 'greasy git should be able to fend for himself since he's made sure that no one could possibly give a damn about him.'"
Ron winced at the words he had thrown out in anger. "I don't like the idea of you risking your life for him, I'm not going to say I'm sorry for choosing you over him but...I reckon I can't have you and Malfoy run off together without me so if you're set on doing something to help, make sure you bring me with you. And best make sure Hermione is there too, that one is scary when she wants to be. Might as well aim her towards the Death Eaters and away from us."
Harry gave a tired laugh and in that moment he felt a swell of hope. Things were more uncertain now than they had ever been before, but as long as he had Ron and Hermione, he wasn't too worried about the future after all.
A/N: End of Harry Potter and the Awakening Power...to be continued in the sequel: tentatively named Harry Potter and The Wrath of the Dark Lord. So after a year and four months, half a million words and roughly 800 words doc pags, my first fanfic is officially over. I know it leaves off a bit unresolved but I felt that was true for Book 6 in canon as well. The sequel will be shorter than this one as it won't have as much set up of characters but the stakes are going to higher. Voldemort is out for blood and is going to be more unpredictable and more aggressive than we've seen. Much like in the Deathly Hallows, the sequel will take place at the height of the war, but unlike DH, Harry, Ron and Hermione will be much more center action. The Order will be more involved and we will see what has happened to poor Snape.
Unfortunately, I will be taking a bit of a break before I actually start posting the sequel. I have another story that I want to dedicate my time to first and I need to work out a few things about the next story first...like a cohesive plot frame.
Thank you all so much for all the reviews and advice I've gotten. I hope you all liked the story, typos and all. I hope many of you share how you felt about the ending and will pick up reading the sequel when it's ready. Until then, I wish you all the very best :)