Disclaimer: I own nothing; it all belongs to J.K.Rowling. I’m just borrowing the characters to play with for a while. This is for pleasure only, no profit is being made, and no copyright infringement is intended.
< P>Harry and Ginny stood back to back, brandishing their wands at the Inferi that were closing in on all sides. The water in the lake around them bubbled and churned as countless white heads broke the surface. Dead, vacant eyes stared out of sunken sockets, as more and more of the Inferi dragged themselves from the water. Harry could feel Ginny’s legs trembling against his and wished he could offer her some kind of reassurance.
Ginny screamed as an Inferius clamped its claw-like hand around her wrist and began dragging her towards the water.
"Incendio," Harry shouted, causing a burst of flame to erupt from his wand. The Inferius immediately let go of Ginny and shrank from the flame. Ginny pulled her arm close to her body, backing up several steps as she did.
Harry waved his wand and created a ring of fire around Ginny and himself. The Inferi cowered and shuffled back towards the water, shielding their faces as they fled from the bright, hot flames.
"They’re afraid of the light," Harry shouted over the roar of the fire.
She nodded, warily watching the Inferi. "We can’t stay inside here forever though, Harry. How are we going to get rid of them?" she asked.
She was right. Harry’s ring of flame had already begun to flicker and burn out. Several of the bolder Inferi pivoted and moved back towards them. Harry began to inch closer to Ginny but slipped as an icy hand grabbed his ankle and began tugging him toward the edge of the rock. He landed hard on his side, dropping the Horcrux in the process. It skidded away from him, landing near the bottom of the chalice. He jerked his foot away and scrambled back from the edge.
"Harry!" Ginny called, grabbing his shoulder. "Incendio," she cried as another Inferius tried to grab him.
He could hear shouts and cries coming from the shore and knew the Inferi must have emerged from the water on that side of the lake, too. Judging from the sound of the screaming, the Inferi were indiscriminate in choosing their victims.
Harry stretched his arm and grabbed the locket just as a bony white hand reached out and grasped it, too. He felt a burst of icy cold energy emanate from the locket, traveling up his arm and momentarily freezing it. He dropped the locket in surprise, watching as the Inferius did the same. The Inferius’ arm hung uselessly by his side, dangling as if it was no longer part of his body. Without another glance towards Harry, he turned and crawled back into the water like a wounded animal.
"Harry, get up," Ginny screeched, her eyes wild. He turned to see her brandishing her wand like some sort of Muggle machine gun. Bursts of flame shot out of it, as she aimed at anything near her that so much as moved. If the situation hadn’t been so dire, he would have laughed at her Rambo imitation, knowing she’d have no clue who Rambo was.
"Ginny, start moving back toward the boat," Harry shouted, creating a wall of flame on the other side of the chalice. It at least cut the number of Inferi that could reach them in half.
"What about the locket?" Ginny asked.
"Trust me. We’ve got to get in the boat," Harry said, urging her back as he kicked away another hand.
"But the boat’s made of wood. We won’t be able to use fire to keep them away from us," Ginny said, glancing at him as if he’d gone mad.
Harry, who was desperately struggling to keep his limbs out of reach of the grasping Inferi, gritted his teeth. "Can we argue about this later, Ginny? Just get in the boat."
"Fine," Ginny snapped, sounding extremely put out. "Reducto," she said, sending a particularly bold Inferius flying through the air and back into the water with a splash.
Once she’d reached the boat, Harry snuffed the flame wall and bolted back towards her. He leaped over several of the Inferi and scrambled inside next to her.
"What now?" Ginny asked, crouching low as a long white arm reached for her. "Petrificus Totalis."
Once inside the boat, not only couldn’t they conjure fire, but they also couldn’t use any slicing or bludgeoning spells for fear of destroying the craft. The boat began to shift and rock as the Inferi returned to the water.
Harry could hear hands scraping along the bottom of the boat, and it began to tilt as several of the creatures tried to hoist themselves up on the side.
"Harry!" Ginny shouted, panicked. She grasped the side to try and steady it.
Harry removed the locket from his pocket, grasping the chain and holding it open like a noose. He’d only have one chance, and if he missed the locket would drop to the bottom of the lake. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to find it before being drowned by all the Inferi.
An Inferius gave the boat a nasty jolt, sending Ginny sprawling into Harry and nearly knocking him over the side. Harry tried to regain his balance and pull out from under Ginny but it was no use. There were too many of them, and the boat couldn’t support the weight. It leaned to the side and began to turn.
Both he and Ginny tried to push their bodies to the other side to rock it back, but it was hopeless. The Inferi kept pulling until the boat flipped over, sending both Harry and Ginny splashing into the black water.
Harry kicked hard, bringing his body back to the surface. He gripped the locket so tightly in his hand it made an imprint on his skin. The water felt slimy and alive. Harry didn’t even want to think about what else could be swimming in its depths. He gasped as he reached for the overturned boat.
A hand clutched his ankle beneath the cold water, pulling him down. He kicked, attempting to get away. He could see Ginny struggling not far from him.
"Ginny!" he gasped as her head went under. He reached out and grabbed her arm, tugging with all his strength. When she surfaced, he pulled her away from her captor and pushed her towards the boat.
"Hang on," he said, giving her a boost so she could cling to the capsized underbelly. The Inferi kept trying to pull him under, but he continued to fight. Finally, when an Inferius was close enough for Harry to reach, he slammed the chain of the locket around the creature’s neck.
The Inferius threw his head back, writhing in a silent scream, twisting his body as if in agony. The amulet glowed a sinister red reminiscent of Voldemort’s eyes. As the Inferius sank back beneath the water, Harry aimed his wand at the locket.
"Apertum," he cried. The locket sprang open. Suddenly, an unearthly scream filled the air as the inside of the locket exploded in a cacophony of color and light. Harry felt the wave of heat rushing towards him, and he flung his body over Ginny, feeling the blistering heat scorch his back.
For a moment, neither of them moved. They clung to the bottom of the upturned rowboat, breathing heavily and waiting for the next blow to fall.
"Are you all right?" Ginny asked, her voice muffled by Harry’s weight.
His back felt as if he’s spent too long in the sun, but otherwise was all right. He shifted his weight off Ginny and carefully raised his head. A sobering sight met his eyes: bodies lay everywhere. They were sprawled over the rock island, and floating aimlessly in the water. They were just that, however – bodies – no sign of animation remained.
"What happened?" Ginny whispered, horrorstruck. She shifted closer to Harry and buried her face in his shoulder so she was only half looking at the grotesque sight.
"I don’t know," Harry whispered, stunned. "I think the sliver of Voldemort’s soul reacted negatively with the cold death of the Inferi. I noticed it when one of them touched the locket. Voldemort does have an unnatural fear of death."
"What do we do now? We have to get back to the shore, but I’m not certain we can flip this boat back over – and I really don’t want to get back in that water," Ginny said, her voice cracking slightly.
Harry shuddered, his drenched clothing now suddenly feeling very heavy and cold.
The boat jerked and suddenly began traveling across the water, back in the direction they’d come. Harry and Ginny clung to the bottom, their fingers aching as they tried to wriggle out of the water as much as possible. As they moved, they hit many floating corpses, causing the boat to rock and tilt. Ginny buried her face in Harry’s chest and clung, as he held her close, keeping his gaze fixed firmly above the water. The darkness and silence of the shore where they’d left Ron and Hermione caused Harry’s chest to constrict tightly. He prayed his friends had managed to subdue any Death Eaters and still managed to escape the Inferi.
The boat moved at a good clip, but it felt torturously slow to Harry, whose only thought was to get to the edge and aid his friends. He strained his eyes to see what was happening, but it was useless. The darkness was impenetrable.
When they reached the edge of the lake, Harry slid off the boat into the knee-deep water and lifted Ginny onto the shore. They grasped hands and sprinted towards the archway.
As they moved closer, they slowed and crouched low so as not to be seen. Several corpses were sprawled on the beach, and Harry thought he recognized the unmoving form of Crabbe lying half in the water.
A mewling sound caught his attention, and he quickly moved towards the now-sealed archway. Ron stood towering above a crouching Wormtail, who huddled against the stone, his hands outstretched and pleading. The sleeve of Ron’s jacket was bloody and torn, and the expression on his face held such rage that Harry was surprised Wormtail was still alive.
Hermione knelt beside Wormtail, ensuring the ropes binding his hands were secure. She, too, appeared battered and bloodied but wore a hardened expression upon her face.
"Ron! Hermione!" Harry shouted, relief washing over him.
"Oh! You’re all right," Hermione cried, leaping up and flinging her arms around Harry’s neck. She let go and did the same to Ginny. "We were so worried. We couldn’t see what happened to you."
"The Inferi happened," Harry said grimly.
"Yeah. After you left, Crabbe and a few more of his goons burst through the archway," Ron replied, keeping his eyes fixed on the cowering Wormtail. "Fortunately, it sealed again after only a handful of them entered. Wormtail here tried to back away from the fighting and stepped right into the lake, unleashing the Inferi. He ran away, but his mates weren’t so lucky."
"It was awful," Hermione said, her lip quivering. "Those things just dragged the other two men right under the water. Ron and I managed to conceal ourselves behind the rocks, but they stood right on the shore."
"We reckoned we were done for when all of a sudden we saw that big explosion over the water, then they all just collapsed. What happened?" Ron asked.
"I destroyed the Horcrux, and it somehow destroyed the Inferi. They were connected to it somehow, like the dragon was to the cup. It makes me wonder if the Basilisk in the Chamber would have died if I’d just stabbed the diary first," Harry said, shrugging.
"We caught Wormtail trying to get the archway to reopen, so Hermione conjured the rope. I say we take him back to headquarters on the full moon and let Remus have a go," Ron said, nodding towards Wormtail.
"We’ve still got a problem though," Hermione said. "There are other Death Eaters outside, and I’m certain they’ll be waiting for us."
"Can we Apparate from right here?" Ginny asked.
Harry shook his head. "Don’t even try. I’m certain Voldemort would have thought of that and not wanted any victim to be able to get away from the Inferi. It either wouldn’t work, or you’d end up horribly splinched."
"Great, I suppose we could just use him as a hostage," Ron said, nodding towards Wormtail.
"They won’t care," Harry replied, shaking his head. "We’re going to have to fight our way out. We just have to reach the opening of the cave and get back on the rocks. We can Apparate right from there. That’s what I did with Professor Dumbledore."
"It’s getting there that’ll be the hard part," Ginny said, taking a deep breath as if steeling herself for what was to come.
"How many of them are there?" Harry asked. "Did you get a good look?"
Hermione shook her head. "I didn’t get a chance to count, but I’d say maybe half a dozen." She bit her lip while looking directly at Harry. "Harry, there’s one more thing."
"What’s that?" Harry asked, knowing he wouldn’t like the answer.
"Snape was leading them," Ron spat.
Harry set his mouth in a grim line. A cold fury clenched at his heart whenever he heard the name of his former Potions Professor mentioned. The idea that he was here now – just outside the archway – filled Harry with a burning desire for revenge.
"Harry," Hermione said, holding up her arms. "Don’t do anything stupid. You’ve destroyed the Horcrux, but there is still one more to find. We need to get out of here as quickly as possible. It’s the other Horcrux that matters now, not Professor Snape."
Harry remembered the night he’d chased Snape across the Hogwarts’ grounds, feeling such rage and fury. He’d wanted nothing more than to take Snape’s life in return for the life Snape had just taken from Harry. He hadn’t cared about anything else, not the prophecy, not Voldemort, not anything; he’d only wanted revenge.
Now that some time had passed, he still felt that boiling anger toward his former Potions master, but he was calm enough to realize that he did have a job to do. Still, he wasn’t about to let Snape get away again if he could help it.
"I’m not going to do anything stupid, Hermione," Harry said, his voice deadly calm. "But if I can get him, I’m going to do it."
"Never mind Snape," Ginny snapped, grabbing his arm and spinning him towards her. "There’s no guarantee that Voldemort isn’t out there by now."
Harry’s eyes widened. Ginny was right. The reason Voldemort had assigned Wormtail, Crabbe, and the others to this task was because they weren’t bright enough to ask questions. Why, then, was Snape here at all? Voldemort would want to deal with anyone near his precious Horcruxes, personally.
Even if it weren’t for the fact one Horcrux remained unaccounted for, Harry didn’t feel ready to face Voldemort. He’d thought there would be more time – time to plan and strategize and to get his things in order – time to say goodbye.
"Ginny’s right," Hermione said, her eyes widening. "Harry, what if Voldemort is out there?"
"Did you see him before the archway closed?" Harry asked, his eyes scanning the solid wall covering the arch.
"I don’t know," Ron said, beginning to sound panicked. "I was focused on Snape. I didn’t pay attention to any of the others."
Harry shook his head. "If Voldemort was there, you’d know. He’s unmistakable," he said grimly.
"It doesn’t mean he couldn’t have arrived since the arch closed," Hermione said.
"This is what we’re going to do. When I open that arch, I want everyone to stand clear just in case they cast spells first. If they do, we at least have better cover here. If not, we need to stick together and get out as fast as possible. Once you’re outside the perimeter of the cave, Apparate to headquarters. I’ll take Wormtail with me," Harry replied.
Wormtail looked up at him fearfully. "Harry, what do you need with me? You know how this has to end. You’re both going to die," he said, his voice dripping with false sorrow.
"Not until I’m ready," Harry replied, "and you’re going to be my shield when I walk out that door."
"What?" Wormtail asked, his face blanching.
"What’s the matter, Wormtail? You don’t trust your new friends not to sacrifice you? You should have stuck with your old ones, then. They never would have betrayed you," Harry said, roughly dragging Wormtail to his feet.
He quickly cast a Silencing Charm so that Wormtail wouldn’t get the opportunity to give them away. He was about to slice his arm in order to open the archway when Ron stopped him.
"Harry, don’t! Crabbe got me with a Slicing Curse when they first entered, and my arm’s still bleeding. I’ll do it."
Harry nodded. Pulling Wormtail to one side, he watched as Ron smeared his blood onto the stone. The white light around the archway shimmered for a moment before illuminating fully. The solid stone once again disappeared, leaving the arch open.
They weren’t immediately ambushed, although Harry could hear voices arguing ahead. He was startled when water began rushing through the now open archway. The tide was rising, and the floor of the outer cave was filling.
Shoving Wormtail ahead of him and holding his wand firmly, Harry moved through the arch. The moonlight outside illuminated the front of the cave where Snape stood with at least four other Death Eaters. The back of the cave was darker and allowed Harry and the others to remain hidden in the shadows.
Unmasked, Snape was arguing contemptuously with another Death Eater. Although the smaller figure remained hidden beneath her mask, the voice of Bellatrix Lestrange was unmistakable.
Harry felt a boiling anger rise in his heart. This was his chance to finally battle two of the people who’d each taken someone precious to him. He clenched his wand so tightly that his knuckles turned white. He took a deep breath and tried to remain calm. Although the rage was still there, he knew he had to be careful this time. He needed to plan this and not simply react to it, or all hope would be lost.
Harry moved into the interior of the cave, pushing Wormtail ahead of him with his wand. The floor was damp and slippery as rivulets of water rushed over his feet, pushed by the incoming tide. He could feel the water quickly soak through his trainers and hoped the squelching sound wouldn’t give them all away. He didn’t want to chance voicing a drying spell.
There was no way to get past Snape and the others unnoticed, but Harry hoped the element of surprise would be on their side.
Wormtail ruined that chance by stomping his foot, causing a loud splash that echoed throughout the chamber. The Death Eaters turned, surprised, before they began firing an assortment of spells.
Harry yanked Wormtail in front of him and slammed him into the wall. He aimed his wand at the nearest Death Eater, who was striding towards him with a malevolent expression on his haggard face, and fired a Stinging Hex straight at the man’s eyes. The Death Eater yelped, slapping his hand over his eye as he began to hop around madly. Harry quickly cast a Stunning spell, dropping him to the ground.
He scanned the cave, taking note of their escape route. He could now count a total of five Death Eaters, including the one he’d just Stunned. Ginny and Hermione were each engaged with other Death Eaters and from what Harry could see, they were doing a fair job of it. His eyes stopped moving when they locked on Snape’s cold black ones.
Snape scowled as he strode into the cave, his cape billowing behind him. "Potter," he said, sneering. "I might have known it would be you. You’ve always tended to stick your nose where it didn’t belong."
"And I might have known it’d be you that Voldemort sent to do his dirty work. How does it feel to still be the lackey, Snivellus?" Harry asked through gritted teeth.
Snape’s face screwed up with hate and rage. Raising his wand, he fired several curses in rapid succession. Thanks to his quick Quidditch reflexes, Harry managed to dodge most of them, and he raised a shield in time to block the last one. Wormtail tried to move away from him during this distraction, but Harry’s arm shot out and forced the cowering little man against the cave wall.
"Petrificus Totalis," Harry snarled, freezing Wormtail where he stood.
"It appears that you’ve yet to learn your lesson about snooping into other people’s private affairs, Potter," Snape said, his eyes glittering maliciously. "You’re no better than your poor excuse for a father. He never managed to learn his place, either. Of course, we all know where that left him."
Snarling, Harry allowed his hatred to build as he cast the strongest Bludgeoning Hex he could master. Snape ducked and rolled to the side, but the spell hit another Death Eater who had just entered the cave behind them. The man screamed in agony as his body was hurled through the air and plunged into the sea below.
Ignoring the interruption, Harry again tried to curse Snape. He first fired a Stunner and then a Cutting Spell as his anger grew. Snape continued to evade Harry’s curses, easily anticipating Harry’s every move.
"Sectumsempra," Harry bellowed, but still Snape cast his shield in time.
"You’ll never be a true match for me until you learn to close off your mind, Potter. Obviously you’re not disciplined enough to do this," Snape said, sneering. "Diffindo."
Harry rolled to the side. His frustration mounted as his curses continued to be deflected. He heard a yelp and turned to see Ginny casting her Bat Bogey Hex at the Death Eater who’d cornered her. In that brief moment of distraction, Snape cast a spell that left a deep gash on Harry’s shoulder. It felt like an invisible whip coiling around his arm, pulling his wand hand forward.
Harry quickly grabbed his wand in his other hand and moved behind a rock, taking cover. Panting with exertion, he could hear the sound of spells being cast around him and knew the others were still on their feet.
He rounded the rock in time to see Snape attempting to move towards him.
"Relashio," he shouted, sending an array of sparks towards Snape and forcing him to retreat. Harry fired a volley of spells as he slowly began to move forward. Snape managed to deflect the curses, but he was forced to take cover himself.
In the meantime, Hermione had managed to subdue her assailant. She ran towards Harry and crouched beside him, quickly casting a Healing Charm on his shoulder.
"Hermione, take Wormtail. There’s enough of an opening that you can get past if I keep Snape busy," Harry said in a hushed whisper.
"Just do it, Hermione," he snapped, determined that they were taking Wormtail with them. "Sirius is going to finally be cleared for what Wormtail did, so help me."
"Okay, Harry," she said, nodding resolutely.
Hermione removed the spell from Wormtail and, using her wand, made him walk in front of her as a shield. Snape had no problem firing at Wormtail, however, and he Stunned him before aiming at Hermione.
"Stupefy," Harry shouted, diverting Snape’s attention.
"Always playing the hero, aren’t you, Potter? You’re just as arrogant as your father, and you’re bound to meet the same end," Snape said silkily. The contempt shone from his black eyes as he advanced on Harry.
"You’re not half the man my father was, and never will be. That’s where all this bitterness really comes from, isn’t it, Snape? You know you’ll never be as good. You’ve got a bit of an inferiority complex, I think," Harry said, pleased with the flash of anger that showed on Snape’s face.
"Sectumsempra," Snape hissed. The intensity of curses Snape fired at Harry intensified, and Harry knew he’d struck a nerve.
"Your inability to shield your mind will be your downfall, Potter. Your frustration is making you sloppy, and the Dark Lord will have an easy time of it with you," Snape said, sneering. Harry could tell that Snape was enjoying the anticipation of that final confrontation.
"I don’t know," Harry replied, panting. "He’s certainly made the effort, but hasn’t had much luck, yet."
"Don’t mistake your good fortune for any measure of skill or talent," Snape spat.
"Dumbledore gave you everything. He gave you a chance and believed in you when no one else ever thought you were worth the effort, and you betrayed him," Harry said, sending a Blasting Hex Snape’s way.
Snape blocked it. "I gave him the best years of my life," he said, snarling. "He wasted my talents by leaving me to child mind a bunch of sniveling idiots. I should have been so much more. I was the hero of the first war, but you got all the glory, and then I was expected to protect you. The Chosen One! If you are the only hope of the wizarding world, Potter, it wasn’t difficult to see which side would win. There’s no one left to protect you now."
Overwhelmed with rage and frustration, Harry let loose a series of curses at the advancing Snape, but Snape remained one step ahead of him, able to deftly read Harry’s thoughts and plan his counter curses.
Harry stumbled and fell backwards, watching as Snape advanced toward him. His face was screwed up in an expression of intense loathing, and Harry was left without a doubt that Snape wanted to humiliate him and make him suffer simply for who he was. But Harry also realized his advantage. Snape wouldn’t truly do anything to harm him – he was still following Voldemort’s orders.
"That’s right, Potter. The Dark Lord wants the pleasure of killing you himself, but that doesn’t mean he’ll mind if I toy with you beforehand," Snape said, answering Harry’s unspoken thoughts. "That’s the way your dear dead father liked to do things, after all. He never fought without his little gang backing him up and doing the dirty work for him. Never once did he face me in a fair fight. Oh, no, he was much too cowardly for that."
Harry had heard enough. He’d had to fight his way away from bullies long before he’d ever learned to use a wand. In one smooth motion, he leaped to his feet, lunged forward, and delivered a strong right hook to his former Potion master’s jaw. He felt several of Snape’s teeth loosen on impact.
Barely registering the surprise on Snape’s face, Harry let his fists fly. He may have been born a half-blood himself, but Snape obviously had forgotten his Muggle roots, as he was unprepared for the physical attack. Harry had repressed six years of insults and abuse from this man, and he now had an outlet for that anger.
Blood flew from Snape’s split lip as he crumpled against the wall.
"Not so smart-mouthed when it comes to Muggle dueling, are you, Snape?" Harry snarled. "You’re not so glib when your students can actually fight back."
He was interrupted when a piercing cry ripped the still air. He jerked his head in time to see Bellatrix Lestrange holding a writhing Ron under the Cruciatus curse. Ron screams cleared the rage-induced fog from Harry’s brain. He moved away from Snape and rounded his wand on Lestrange. She managed to dodge several curses, all the while keeping Ron under the intense agony of her spell.
Hermione turned from the opening at the front of the cave and began moving back towards Ron.
"No!" Harry shouted. "Just go while you can."
Ginny, who had joined Hermione at the cave’s opening, grasped the older girl firmly round the arm and pulled her away. She shoved a still-Stunned Wormtail into the water, and jumped in after him, holding firmly to Hermione.
Harry aimed his wand and put all his energy into a Stunning Spell. The red light hit Bellatrix squarely in the chest, and she crumpled to the ground in a heap.
Using his wand, Harry levitated an unconscious Ron in the air and hovered his limp body towards the opening. He released the spell and watched as his friend plummeted into the cold water below.
Snape stirred and from the corner of his eye, Harry saw him reach for his wand. Swearing, Harry kicked Snape’s hand hard, sending the wand clattering. He desperately wanted to grab Snape and bring him into custody, too, but he was more concerned about Ron drowning while still unconscious. He leapt over Snape while the man was still trying to retrieve his wand. Taking a running head start, he dove into the icy water, feeling all the breath leave his lungs with the shock of cold.
He resurfaced quickly and frantically searched for Ron. The redhead was lying face down in the water. Harry grasped his shoulder and pulled with all his might until they’d reached the rocks. He saw Snape emerge from the cave – his face bruised and bloodied yet still livid with rage – a moment before he side-along Apparated Ron away.
He reappeared outside Grimmauld Place in time to see Remus and Mr. Weasley hurrying down the stairs behind Ginny. Hermione held her wand pointed steadily at a still-Stunned Wormtail.
"Ron!" she screamed, dropping her wand and scrambling towards them.
Harry gently lowered Ron to the ground, feeling panicked and short of breath. Ron had been under the Cruciatus for a very long time. He shook his head, attempting to dislodge the images of Neville’s parents that had crept into his thoughts.
"What happened to him?" Mr. Weasley asked, dropping to his knees beside his son and aiming his wand at Ron’s temple. "Ennervate."
Ron didn’t respond.
"Bellatrix Lestrange held him under the Cruciatus. He lost consciousness before I could get her away from him," Harry replied, his voice cracking.
"Ginny, go inside and have someone Floo Madam Pomfrey. Don’t wake your mother if you can avoid it; I’ll tell her myself," Mr. Weasley said.
Ginny, pale and wide-eyed, nodded before sprinting inside.
"Ron, wake up," Hermione said, tears causing clean streaks to cut through the grime on her face. "Are you listening to me, Ron? I need you to do this."
Mr. Weasley patted Hermione on the back. "Move aside for a moment, Hermione, so I can take him inside."
Harry moved to help Mr. Weasley lift Ron’s comatose body, but it proved unnecessary. Mr. Weasley gently levitated Ron inside. Hermione remained in the same spot, staring numbly at the ground where Ron had just been laying.
Harry wrapped his arm around her and tugged her to her feet. "Come on, Hermione. He’s going to be okay," he whispered into her hair. The color and texture of her wig still surprised him at times.
Hermione turned and buried her face into Harry’s chest. "He has to be, Harry. I didn’t see it happen. I was so focused on getting Wormtail outside."
"You caught him," Remus said, speaking for the first time. His voice had a deadened, hollow quality to it that made the hair on Harry’s forearms stand on end.
Remus stood motionless above his former friend, an expression of mingled scorn, rage, and disgust displayed on his face. Using his foot, he pushed the unconscious figure onto his back and continued to stare.
"What are we going to do with him?" Harry asked nervously. Remus’s demeanor alarmed him, and he didn’t trust what his former professor might do.
"Take Hermione inside and check on Ron. I’ll keep an eye on him until we can get someone to take him to the Ministry. I’m not exactly welcomed there," Remus said. The bitterness he usually hid so well sounded clearly in his voice.
"Remus," Harry said, staring between his father’s old friend and the front door. He was saved having to make the choice between Remus and Ron when Mad-Eye Moody limped toward them.
"You got one. Good work, boy," he said, gruffly.
"It’s Peter Pettigrew," Harry said. "He needs to be taken into custody to prove Sirius’s innocence once and for all."
Although Fudge had conceded that Sirius was innocent, he’d never made a formal declaration about the Ministry’s mistake. It had all been shoved under the rug when the news that Voldemort had, indeed, returned had come to light.
Sirius deserved better than that.
"I need to check on Ron," Hermione said, sniffling. She began tugging on Harry’s arm to move him inside.
"Go on. Madam Pomfrey is with Ron now. It’ll be my pleasure to take care of him," Moody said, roughly grabbing Wormtail by the collar of his robes.
Inside headquarters, Harry and Hermione found Ginny pacing outside a closed door off the entrance hall. She sprinted towards them and threw her arms about them both. Harry could feel her trembling and wrapped his arm tightly around her slight frame.
"How is he?" Hermione asked.
"I don’t know. Madam Pomfrey is checking him over now, but she kicked Dad and me out. Dad went upstairs to get Mum," Ginny replied.
"Alastor took Peter to the Ministry," Remus said quietly as he entered the room behind them. Harry thought he looked older than he’d ever seen him, even after a full moon. "How’s Ron?"
"We don’t know yet," Ginny said, pulling closer to Harry.
"At least come and sit down," Remus said, guiding Harry towards some chairs. Harry kept his arms wrapped around both girls as he led them away from the door. They had just sat down when Mrs. Weasley ran down the stairs, Mr. Weasley right on her heels.
"Ron! Where is he?" she demanded frantically. She wore a dressing gown that she hadn’t bothered to fasten, and her hair was tousled from sleep. She had a frantic expression in her eyes that reminded Harry of a wild animal.
Mr. Weasley led her to the closed door, and the two of them slipped inside. Hermione stood as if to follow, but instead began wringing her hands as she sat back down. Ginny reached across Harry and took one of Hermione’s hands in her own, squeezing it tightly.
Hermione turned her watery gaze on the younger girl and smiled tremulously. She took a deep breath, and Harry felt her relax beneath his arm.
"He’ll be okay," she whispered. "He has to be; he’s Ron."
They waited in silence for several moments, the air laden with tension. Remus sat in a chair across from the three teens, his eyes scanning each of them.
"Did you destroy it?" he asked, keeping his voice low.
"Yeah," Harry said, nodding. "It’s done. We were ambushed though…by Snape and some others."
"Severus was there?" Remus asked, looking up sharply.
"Yeah. It was curious though. Crabbe obviously called for back up when he realized we were there, but I would have expected Voldemort to be the one to show up. I can’t help but wonder why he didn’t," Harry said, feeling that sense of uneasiness return.
"That is odd," Remus said, rubbing his chin. "We haven’t had a report of any Death Eater activity so far this evening, although we rarely know anything in advance these days. How did Severus react when he saw you?"
"Sneered a lot, then started throwing curses," Harry replied.
"He tried to curse you?" Remus asked, color rising to his cheeks.
"Yeah. I tried to curse him, too, but I didn’t do so well. He can read me like a book," Harry said, clenching his fists. It was galling how easily Snape could predict him. If he couldn’t manage against Snape, how was he ever going to battle Voldemort?
"One step at a time, Harry," Remus said, as if reading his thoughts.
"I can’t master Occlumency, Remus. If I can’t clear my mind, they’ll both always know which curse I’m about to use. How can I beat that?" he asked. "Even when I tried to shield my eyes, he still blocked me."
"Then how did you get away?" Remus asked mildly.
"Luck," Harry spat, disgusted. "I got so frustrated that I hauled off and punched him in the mouth. He wasn’t expecting that, and I don’t think he ever learned to fight the Muggle way."
"So, you didn’t think about it, you simply reacted," Remus said, rubbing his temple.
Harry shrugged. "I suppose."
"That’s what you need against Voldemort then, isn’t it? The element of surprise," Hermione said. Her eyes remained fixed on the closed door where Ron had been taken, but she’d obviously been paying close attention.
"How can I surprise him when he can read my thoughts?" Harry asked, exasperated.
"You just did it with Severus," Remus replied.
"So…you’re saying I have to go up against Voldemort without a plan. Oh, that’s just great. At least it takes awhile to say Avada Kedavra, because that’s about how long I’ll last," Harry said, flinging his back against the couch.
"No. We’re saying the plan has to be adaptable," Hermione replied patiently.
"Besides, we still have to find the oth-"
"The next Horcrux," Harry said, interrupting Ginny. He still didn’t want Remus to know that there was only one remaining to find.
Ginny’s eyes were wide and round. "Right. We don’t even have a place to begin looking for the next one," she said, her voice wavering.
Remus’s eyebrows had risen slightly, but he remained silent.
"That doesn’t mean we can’t start making some plans," Hermione said, immediately switching into revising mode. Images of her pre-OWL hysteria flashed through Harry’s mind. She was interrupted mid-stride when the door opened, and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley exited. Madam Pomfrey, who was levitating an unconscious Ron, followed them closely.
"How is he?" Hermione asked, rushing over to lift Ron’s limp hand into her own.
"We’re taking him to St. Mungo’s," Mrs. Weasley said, sniffling into a handkerchief.
Mr. Weasley wrapped his arm around her. "We’ll send word as soon as we know anything."
"I want to go with you," Hermione said, her eyes wild.
"We do, too," Ginny added, while Harry nodded. They’d jumped up off the couch and stood behind Hermione. All three looked into Mr. Weasley’s face with pleading eyes.
"We’re wasting time," Madam Pomfrey said briskly, disengaging Ron’s hand from Hermione’s grip. "He has some severe spell damage that needs immediate attention, and it’s more than I can do here. Let the Healers do their work, and you can see him afterwards."
Using her wand, she levitated Ron toward the front door with Mrs. Weasley scurrying behind her.
"I give you my word that we’ll Floo you as soon as we know anything," Mr. Weasley said, locking his eyes on each of the teens. He then raised his gaze to Remus.
Remus put his hands on Hermione’s and Ginny’s shoulders. "Why don’t I make some tea while we wait," he said calmly. "We’re all worried, but we don’t want to create any distractions at St. Mungo’s. We want their attention focused on Ron."
Harry knew Remus was right. Harry’s appearance at St. Mungo’s was bound to create a scene – just look what had happened when he’d been spotted in Diagon Alley. Helping Remus, he tugged both girls’ hands.
"Come on, Remus is right. We can visit St. Mungo’s as soon as they’ve got Ron awake," he said, leading the girls away while Remus went to start a pot of tea.
The night dragged unmercifully slowly. Harry, Ginny, and Hermione sat with Remus in the drawing room drinking their tea. They each dozed on occasion, but mostly just stared at the clock on the mantle that seemed to tick abnormally loudly in the still house. Harry absently wondered what happened when Mad-Eye had arrived at the Ministry with Wormtail, but the ex-Auror hadn’t yet returned, and Harry’s thoughts were too focused on Ron to ask Remus to check.
Remus had given Hermione a large, steaming cup of tea, and Harry suspected he’d laced it with some sort of Calming Draught because Hermione had been far more relaxed after drinking it. She sat curled on a chair with a hand-knit afghan across her legs, staring at the rapidly dwindling wick of the candle in front of her.
Remus sat in the chair beside her, holding a book in his hand that he had yet to open. He tried several times to initiate a conversation, but after receiving only grunts and one-word answers in reply, he’d finally given up and lapsed into the tense silence.
Harry and Ginny sat side by side on the couch, their hands tightly clasped. Ginny was white-faced as she stared into the fire, chewing on her lip. Harry desperately tried not to think about the possibility of Ron suffering permanent spell damage. He knew he was doing a shoddy job of it by the way his hands shook, rattling his cup against the saucer when he’d tried to take a sip of tea.
He must have finally dozed at some point, because he was startled awake when Mrs. Weasley entered the drawing room and tried to disentangle him and Ginny.
Ginny groggily pushed at her mother’s hands and tried to burrow her face back into Harry’s jumper.
"Mrs. Weasley!" Harry said, becoming fully alert. "What happened? How’s Ron?"
Ginny, too, jumped up, her eyes opening wide while Hermione and Remus sat bolt upright in their chairs.
"He hasn’t regained consciousness yet. They’ve got him in the Spell Damage ward at St. Mungo’s," Mrs. Weasley replied, worry lines heavy around her eyes and mouth. "I left Fred with him while I came back to check on you. I want you all upstairs and in bed, right now. None of you are going to St. Mungo’s until you have a kip. Has your father returned?"
"Dad? I thought he was with you," Ginny said, furrowing her brow.
"He was until we got an urgent owl from Percy that he needed to return to the Ministry," Mrs. Weasley replied, wringing her hands.
"Sit down, Molly," Remus said, guiding her to the chair he’d just vacated. "Let me pour you a cup of herbal tea. You need to have a rest before returning to St. Mungo’s, as well."
"Oh, Remus," Mrs. Weasley cried tearfully. "He’s just so still. I can’t bear the thought that my Ronnie might never return to me."
"He will, Molly. You have to believe that," Remus said, pouring her some tea.
Hermione had visibly paled at Mrs. Weasley’s words and silently sank back onto the couch. Harry moved to sit next to her while Ginny walked over to her mum.
"Percy sent an Owl? What’s so important that he had to drag Dad away from the hospital?" she demanded hotly.
"You don’t want to know," Mr. Weasley replied, entering the drawing room with Mad-Eye following. Both had tired, grim expressions on their faces that caused Harry’s stomach to churn with dread. He’d seen that look too many times in the past, and knew it didn’t bode well.
Mr. Weasley walked across the room and planted a kiss on Mrs. Weasley’s head. He sank down on the chair next to her and smiled weakly as Remus offered him a cup of tea.
"Thanks, Remus. How’s Ron?" he asked.
"There hasn’t been any change since you left. Fred is with him, and he said he’d call if Ron wakes. The Healers don’t expect him to for quite some time yet because of all the potions in his system. We won’t know anything for certain until he’s awake," Mrs. Weasley said, her lower lip trembling.
Mr. Weasley shut his eyes tightly as he patted her on the shoulder.
"What happened at the Ministry, Dad? What did Percy say?" Ginny asked. Her face was exceedingly pale, making her freckles stand out starkly. She sounded young and frightened, despite the determined cast of her chin.
Mr. Weasley sighed heavily and lifted his other arm, allowing his daughter to slide under. He pulled Ginny in close and kissed the crown of her head.
"The Ministry is in chaos," he sighed wearily.
"Why? What happened?" Harry asked, his eyes volleying between Mr. Weasley and Moody, who remained with his back in the doorway. He had his arms folded across his chest as he stood scowling at everyone in general.
"Rufus Scrimgeour is dead," Mr. Weasley said quietly.
"What?" Ginny asked, blinking.
"Murdered," Moody said gruffly. "The Dark Mark was seen hanging above his home late last night. Rumor has it that You-Know-Who himself was the one who did it."
Harry and Remus exchanged a meaningful glance.
"The Ministry is in chaos. They’re trying to keep it quiet at the moment so as not to create a panic, but I fear the Prophet already knows. I suspect it will be the morning’s headline," Mr. Weasley said.
"Panic?" Ginny repeated numbly.
"If You-Know-Who can get to the Minister of Magic that easily, no one is safe, and nothing the Ministry can say will convince them that they are," Mr. Weasley said, gently running his hand along Ginny’s cheek.
"Well, they aren’t," Harry replied.
"I know that, Harry, and anyone who has been following this situation reasonably knows that, as well, but people like to fool themselves into believing someone else is in charge. That someone else is handling things. Now, the person they’d hoped was handling it has been murdered. I fear this is going to put more pressure on you, Harry," Mr. Weasley said.
"I don’t care about that," Harry replied.
"You should," Moody said harshly. "You don’t need any additional attention right now."
That was true; he certainly didn’t want to be under any more of a microscope than he usually was while he searched for the remaining Horcrux.
"There’s more," Mr. Weasley said, rubbing the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. "And you’re really not going to like it."
"What’s that?" Remus asked, his grip on Harry’s shoulder tightening.
"The Wizengamot had to appoint an acting Minister until we can arrange an election," Mr. Weasley said, his body stiffening.
"Yes," Remus replied. "That’s standard protocol."
"The atmosphere at the Ministry right now is tense and fearful. Everyone is looking over their shoulders. No one trusts anyone else," Mr. Weasley said.
"Much the same as it was during Voldemort’s last reign of terror," Remus replied, glancing at Harry.
"Indeed. The Wizengamot felt they had to appoint someone who could reinstate order – to enforce the rules during this dark time. They needed someone to provide a systemized organized approach – someone who craves order and thrives on the rules."
"Who did they appoint, Mr. Weasley?" Harry asked, his stomach knotting. He could feel a trickle of sweat rolling down his back despite the chill in the room.
"They felt they needed a determined bureaucrat," Mr. Weasley replied, appearing apologetic.
"Who did they appoint?" Harry said again, more forcefully this time.
Mr. Weasley sighed heavily and glanced at the room. It was obvious he dreaded the answer.
A/N: Heh, okay, that one doesn’t really count as a cliff hanger – more of just a shock, right? Or did you see it coming?
Thanks so much to Sherylyn for her beta work. I appear to have had a brain freeze on this chapter and forgot to capitalize any of the spells. Oops. Thanks also to KEDme, Dianne, and GhostWriter for their invaluable feedback and suggestions.
To any of you who are worried about Harry’s fate in canon, I have a cool new website for you to check out. It’s called www.LetHarryLive.com. It won’t influence JKR one way or another, but it’s a nice way to bear the tension together.