A/N: I'm so sorry about the delay, as always. But I will finish this, no matter how long it takes. If any of you are still reading, I'd love to hear from you – it might motivate me to update soon again as the next chapter is already half-written...
Now, as for this chapter. Finally, the battle is starting! We left off right when Neville went to get the trio through Ariana's portrait. Everyone is hiding in The Room of Requirement after Terry got tortured for shouting about the Gringotts break-in in the Great Hall during dinner, and he's just recovering. Now, let's get on with the story!
Seventh Year. Part XVII.
"HARRY!" One of the younger Gryffindor girls looked like she was about to burst into tears – whether from fear of the approaching battle or from shock at seeing the hero of her fantasies again, Padma couldn't tell.
"It's Potter, it's POTTER!" Her friend squealed.
"Ron!" Seamus called, stepping forward to shake his hand.
"Hermione!" Lavender, who never had been on very friendly terms with Hermione, was beaming with relief at seeing her alive now.
In seconds, the room was in chaos. Everyone wanted to hug the three of them, shake their hands, clap their backs.
Everything went so fast. Neville was announcing that it was actually true that the three of them had broken into Gringotts. People cheered, but as Seamus asked what they had been after, Harry seemed to almost faint, and Ron had to catch him. Padma's heart jumped. Was he ill? That didn't bode well. Or was he having those visions again – that couldn't be good either. What if You-Know-Who knew he was here, if he was coming?
Harry came around after only a beat, looking even more flustered as Seamus asked what the plan was. He started saying there wasn't a plan, that the three of them needed to do something and that he couldn't tell them what.
As he said that, the whole room filled with mutterings. Terry, beside her, frowned. "He doesn't trust us now, or what? What the hell's he playing at?"
Someone stood up, saying that whatever it was, they would all help. As Harry continued to protest, both Michael and Terry glared at him. Padma, however, looked at Harry. He had never seemed like the kind of person who would leave them out just to have all the glory for himself. Padma felt cold. Whatever it was, if Harry was this unwilling to tell them, perhaps they were better off not knowing, not getting involved.
In that moment, the passage opened again and Padma felt a flash of comfort and familiarity at seeing Luna Lovegood climb into the room, waving brightly at them. She had never been close with Luna, but seeing her again, alive, as unaffected as ever, made her feel slightly calmer.
Then Padma saw the person who followed Luna. She almost felt her own heart skip a beat as she saw Dean Thomas join them, looking unharmed and well. Immediately, she turned to Parvati, who was staring at the doorway, looking like a million emotions were running through her at once.
Before Parvati could gather herself, Seamus was shouting something incomprehensible, and almost flew across the room to envelop his best friend in a fierce bear hug. Padma felt warm at this unashamed display of friendship, knowing for herself how much Seamus had needed this for so long. She felt even better as she saw Dean glance over Seamus's shoulder, seeking out Parvati's eye, grinning broadly at her.
Padma had been paying attention to the Gryffindors' reunion, and nothing else, and only started listening to the general conversation again when Michael spoke up, sounding furious. "You're going to leave us in this mess?"
This time, it was Ron who attempted an explanation. Padma listened, trying to read between the lines, but all she heard was that it was about getting rid of You-Know-Who. As if they hadn't all figured that much. Neville protested, again telling them they were all prepared to help. Padma couldn't help but glance at Terry, who was sitting up, glaring at Harry too, wishing that the three of them would just do their thing and leave the rest of them out of it.
They weren't prepared. They'd just reached safety, and Terry was hurt and -
And then Ginny was walking through the door, looking slightly less underfed than the last time Padma had seen her. She still had dark shadows under her eyes, but none of that seemed to matter as she smiled at Harry – she was radiating pure happiness. Especially as she saw his reaction to her appearance. Even Padma couldn't help grinning back at Ginny as she met her gaze briefly. To have a guy ogling at you like that...
With Ginny came her brothers and their friend, Lee Jordan. Just as Padma turned to see Michael's reaction at Ginny's arrival, she saw his chin drop, his gaze at the doorway. She wheeled around. Cho was now walking over to them, taking a seat next to Michael, grabbing his hand as he merely gaped at her.
"You came," he muttered, staring at Cho as if she were a ghost at the very least, as Harry and the others whispered amongst themselves.
She gave a small smile. "Of course I did." Her eyes pierced his, searching his face. "Are you okay?"
Padma understood. Michael did not look like the same at ease guy Cho had known a year ago. She wondered from the concern behind Cho's eyes whether she had heard about his parents. Maybe she hadn't, though, as her fingertip found the almost healed cut on Michael's chin.
"S'nothing." Padma thought she'd seen him shiver at her touch. "But you – what about you?"
Suddenly, her expression darkened. "Fine, obviously. I've done nothing, just being shut up all this - "
Their conversation was interrupted as Harry spoke to the room at large again, asking seemingly completely irrelevant questions about the Lost Diadem of Ravenclaw.
Padma was sure only she could hear the tension in Michael's voice as he snapped at Luna, telling her the Diadem is lost and that that's kind of the point. She looked at him, and saw that it was becoming a bit too much, with Cho, Harry, Terry.
Then, out of the blue, Cho was offering to show Harry the Rowena statue in their common room. Padma caught Michael's hurt expression, even if it was gone the second Ginny stood up, giving Cho an icy look. "No, Luna will take Harry, won't you, Luna?"
As Harry and Luna left and Cho sat back down again, looking disappointed, Michael raised his eyebrows at her in an attempt to appear casual.
But Cho simply took his hand again. "Oh, it's not about that, silly. I was just – I wanted to help, to do something, you know. I've spent a year doing nothing, just hearing about everyone getting hurt, risking their lives. It's been awful, knowing you've been in the middle of this mess, and I've just..."
"Not your fault you graduated last year, though, isn't it?" He frowned at her miserable expression.
"Guess not." She didn't look convinced. "But I could've helped, somehow, like others have been. I just – I actually can't wait to do something, now."
As Padma looked away from Cho and Michael's now silent communication, she saw Ron and Hermione whispering urgently to each other, before telling Ginny something quickly, and then they left the room, looking determined. For a second, Padma envied them. Of course, they'd had a horrible year and so on, but the three of them had always had each other, and they seemed to always, always know what to do, have a plan. Padma hated not having plans, not having control, but in situations like these – people like Harry and his friends seemed like a good twenty years older and wiser than herself.
Next moment, her thoughts were interrupted by two girlish squeals and one deeper shout. "Justin!" In seconds, all three Hufflepuffs had turned over the fourth, who had apparently just arrived. As Ernie laughingly helped him to his feet, Padma recognized Justin. After he had spent a minute being hugged by both girls, being asked a million questions at once, he suddenly spotted her, said something to the others and walked over to her.
"She told you, right?" he questioned urgently, though sounding slightly hesitant (the two of them had never actually had a conversation before). Padma simply nodded. "Good. Is she okay?"
"As far as I know. I saw her at dinner. She seemed fine."
Justin looked relieved. "That's good. She's still laying low with Mandy, then."
"I guess. But if it's about to be a fight here, she's going to join us, right?"
He sighed. "She says so, yes. I've tried to talk her out of it. Told her to stay with Mandy, stay out of it. She won't listen, though. I guess I can't stop her."
Padma shook her head. "She seemed pretty decided. Plus, I think we could use as many as we can get." She glanced around the room, counting a few more people. Thankfully, a few adults that looked like they might know what they were doing, a few people she knew had graduated a couple of years earlier, and even one younger student, that she recognized as Colin Creevey, the boy who'd been petrified in her second year. Padma saw him running over to Demelza, giving her a deep kiss, and had to look away.
As she turned around, she spotted Michael and Cho being engaged in a similar activity. And then she saw Terry, grimacing slightly as he flexed his newly healed wrist, thinking she wasn't looking. As he noticed her gaze, he immediately set his face straight. "It feels fine now," he hurriedly assured her. "Really. I'm fine. You did great."
She didn't believe him, at all. "You're not fine. It's your wand hand. And it won't be okay for a couple of more hours. Plus, you were tortured. You're not fine, Terr." She pleaded him with her eyes, but he remained stony-faced.
"As good as," he huffed. "Listen," he said, lowering his voice. "I know you're worried, but nothing you can say will make me stay out of this."
"But – you could go home."
He looked at her incredulously. "Really? You think I'll leave you guys here and just go hide away somewhere? No way in hell!"
Padma could feel her eyes filling. "But, Terr, you're not fine, and you – you can't. I can't lose you..."
He pressed his lips fiercely against hers. A tear spilled down her cheek, as she knew this mirrored the other goodbye kisses around the room. And she didn't want to say goodbye.
"You won't," he mumbled gruffly in her ear. "But I'm not leaving."
"But..." she protested, another tear escaping. He caught it with his finger, but didn't say anything.
She pleaded with him silently for a moment, then had to look away. He didn't budge. He just looked more and more determined. Feeling more hot tears forming rivers down her cheeks, she turned around for someone to help her. Michael was still very occupied with Cho, but Anthony was right there, meeting her gaze with concern, apparently having been listening. Obviously having depended on her to handle this, he hadn't stepped in. But now she was desperate, and he saw that, so he cleared his throat.
"Terr... Are you really sure you...?"
He stopped himself at Terry's fierce glare. "Hell yeah I am."
"But – how would you feel, if it was one of us, mate? You should think about..."
"And how would you feel, leaving the three of you to fight while you just - "
But in that moment, Harry returned. They all silenced. Padma hurriedly wiped her cheeks as he told them that they were really fighting, and were all assembling in the Great Hall to organize themselves.
Michael turned to Terry, frowning, but offering him a hand to help him up. Terry however, shook his head curtly. Michael, not having been aware of the preceding conversation, turned to Padma, as if she'd be able to make Terry see reason. That he couldn't fight when it took him half a minute of grimaces to just get up from a hammock. But Padma simply shook her head, taking a deep breath. She would not start crying again.
She focused on that all the way to the Great Hall. Half-way there, however, she was awoken from her concentration by a familiar shriek. She looked up in time to see Lisa knocking people over, her eyes glittering and fixed on one person. In seconds, she was in the air, caught by Justin's scrawny but surprisingly strong arms. Lisa hid her face in his shirt. Padma saw that he was biting his lip, overcome by emotions as well.
The Great Hall was filled with half-dressed students, all sporting expressions somewhere on the scale between between confused and terrified. As everyone had arrived, McGonagall started organizing the evacuation. Padma swallowed, closing her eyes, forcing the words to blur together. She couldn't listen to how easy it would be to just walk out of here, to leave this mess behind. To escape. To survive. To live.
It wasn't that she hadn't been prepared to fight. She'd thought she was ready. But not – not like this. It had been such a long day, and she'd thought it was over. Another day, she could do this. Even in a few hours, she could be prepared. Maybe if she could sleep a little. Maybe talk to someone, get some perspective on the situation, talk herself into this. Definitely take a moment to just curl up and weep her eyes out. She needed that. She wasn't ready, not like this.
That was when Lisa caught her eye. Lisa was looking just as terrified as she felt, white as a sheet, her lip actually trembling slightly. But she was holding Justin's hand, and when she met Padma's gaze, she bit her lip fiercely to keep it steady. And she gave a short nod. She was doing this. She was scared, but she was doing this. Because she couldn't leave.
Padma looked from the pale Parvati to her boys beside her, and felt her heart constrict at the thought of leaving them, even if it meant a life, even if it meant safety and comfort and the opportunity to just take a moment and breathe. Because she couldn't. Not without them.
When Ernie Macmillan shouted "What if we want to stay and fight?", she wasn't one of the people who cheered (Michael and Terry were), but she clapped her hands together one or two times at least. Because "want to" was taking it a bit far. But she was staying.
Just when she almost started to feel that this was going to work, starting to breathe properly, it caught in her throat. She had never heard that voice before, yet she instantly knew to whom it belonged. By instinct, she gripped Terry's and Anthony's hands. The voice was cold, so cold that at first, she almost couldn't take in the words. The fact that this voice was speaking to them was worse than anything he could say. All of her scraped-up bravery escaped her as the voice told them he knew they were preparing to fight. He knew. He was coming.
As the Slytherins began evacuating, Blaise found Mandy. As she stood up to follow him, she extended her hand to Lisa. Who didn't take it. Padma saw Mandy turn around, almost annoyed, probably telling Lisa that they needed to get a move on. She couldn't hear the words, but she saw Lisa's shake of the head, her nod in the direction of Justin. She watched comprehension dawning on Mandy's face, the shock, the hurt, followed by desperation as she obviously tried to convince Lisa to change her mind. But Lisa continued to shake her head, and soon, still gaping after her friend, Mandy and Blaise were being pulled away by the herd of people. As Mandy was lost out of sight, Padma saw Lisa's face crumble, and Justin putting his arm around her.
As it was the Gryffindors' turn, Padma noticed Anthony craning his neck to make sure Nathalie was joining them. As she passed their table, her eyes wide, he pulled her to him for a moment. "You're going with them, you hear me? No matter what ideas your friends might get, you do as the Prefects say and you get out of here. Promise me that, okay?"
"But what about you, Tony? You're staying, aren't you?" Her voice broke.
He hesitated, then nodded. "Yeah, I'm staying. But I'm of age. It's not a choice for you. Now, promise!"
She nodded, though unwillingly. He gave her a tight but fleeting hug. "You have to go now. Just – do what they tell you to do. I'll be there soon."
He hesitated again, then nodded. "Yeah. Promise."
Padma had to look away, knowing how much he hated lying to her. Chances were none of them would be following her.