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.
November brought below-normal temperatures throughout the land, and the political climate matched the weather. Interim Minister Dolores Umbridge had imposed a strict curfew upon Great Britain. All witches and wizards not employed by the Ministry had to be in their homes by nightfall. Anyone wanting a special dispensation for work purposes had to request a waiver from the Ministry – in writing – in triplicate.
New laws and Ministry Decrees were issued daily, some directly contradicting others, although no one appeared to care. The wizarding public was desperate for someone to tell them what to do, no matter how inadequate those instructions might be. They were afraid, and the new Minister wasn’t above playing on that fact.
As Mr. Weasley had feared, the Daily Prophet had run a headline the morning after the murder of Rufus Scrimgeour with a full moving picture of the Dark Mark floating above the Minister’s handsome home. Although the details had been sketchy, the expected response had been exactly as Mr. Weasley had predicted. Witches and wizards took to the streets in mass hysteria. Some tried to flee the country, and the Ministry had to close its International Portkey office for several days after a riot had broken out in the lobby.
Despite Umbridge’s attempts to convince the public that Harry was merely an unqualified school boy and not critical to the defeat of Voldemort, the people held onto their hope that Harry would somehow stop the madness. Each day, the Daily Prophet ran a list of Harry-spottings and had several reporters assigned to the task of tracking his comings and goings. Every day that went by saw an increase in the public’s demand that he break his silence and make a statement about his efforts to stop the war.
Mr. Weasley told them that Interim Minister Umbridge was growing increasingly frustrated by her failed attempts to tamp down interest in Harry. The public appeared ready for her to organize things, but it was Harry they expected to finally end Voldemort’s reign of terror. Umbridge quickly realized that her renewed smear campaign wouldn’t succeed. She’d pulled back from her public attacks on Harry and instead concentrated on more covert attempts to dislodge him from the public’s favor.
The Order already felt the strain of Umbridge’s reign. Kingsley Shacklebolt, who had been working for the Muggle Prime Minister, was ordered to relinquish his assignment. According to Umbridge, the wizarding population was in far more danger than the Muggles, and she didn’t have the resources to spare at the moment. She’d refused to listen to any arguments against leaving the Muggles defenseless, and told the Prime Minister she’d be in touch if there was anything he needed to know.
She’d left him without the slightest recourse for contacting anyone in the wizarding world for help in a war he didn’t understand. When several high-ranking Ministry officials attempted to point this out, she argued that since the Dark Lord loathed the intermingling between the wizarding and Muggle worlds, distancing the two factions would actually help the Muggle population. When Mr. Weasley and several others had continued to argue, she’d threatened them with charges of treason.
Attacks on Muggles had been rising steadily, and several London landmarks had suffered damage, including Tower Bridge and Big Ben. The destruction had left the Muggles so preoccupied, they’d barely noticed the other strange occurrences throughout the city.
While Harry was worried about the damage Dolores Umbridge was wreaking, his main concern was Ron. Three weeks had passed since he’d been cursed, and he’d yet to regain consciousness. He remained confined to the Spell Damage ward at St. Mungo’s. Hermione had visited each day and returned – pale and weary – to report there had been no change. The Healers still suspected he’d eventually come out of it, but none of them were willing to target a date – or if he’d suffer any permanent brain trauma as a result.
Harry had wanted to rush straight to the hospital that first day, but Mr. Weasley had gently pointed out the danger to Ron if word leaked out that Harry Potter was a regular visitor. So far, they’d been able to keep Ron’s injuries from the press, but Harry’s appearance would change that. Harry knew it was the truth, but it didn’t make him feel any better. He’d clenched his teeth and nodded stoically, having to settle for Hermione and Ginny’s reports on Ron.
Harry sat in the kitchen one morning, moodily stirring a cup of coffee when Mr. Weasley and Remus Lupin entered, each wearing grim expressions.
Harry’s heart lurched. "What happened?" he asked.
Mr. Weasley sat down, and ran a hand through his thinning hair. "I think we need to remove Ron from St. Mungo’s, Harry," he said, sighing.
"Why? What’s happened?" Harry asked, a thrill of fear bubbling in his chest.
"You explain. I’ll Floo Poppy and ask her if she can tend him here," Remus said, squeezing Harry’s shoulder as he passed.
"Dolores Umbridge has obtained information that Ron is at St. Mungo’s, and she’s in the process of writing a Decree stating that any patient suffering spell damage from an Unforgiveable needs to be detained in a Ministry facility until the incident can be investigated," Mr. Weasley said, clenching his teeth and twisting his coffee cup around in his hands.
"Detained how? Ron isn’t even conscious," Harry said, jumping from his chair.
Mr. Weasley raised his hands, attempting to calm Harry. "I know that, Harry. She’s frustrated by her lack of ability to learn what you’re doing. She wants to make it appear that it’s the Ministry that’s in charge, and right now, the public is more enamored with you. Despite all her efforts, she hasn’t been able to convince them that you’re a dangerous threat to the peace that she’s trying to form. It’s infuriating her.
"She knows you, and she knows how close you are to Ron. I believe she’ll use him as a bargaining tool once he’s under her care. We need to get Ron out of St. Mungo’s before her Decree is passed."
"How do you know about this?" Harry asked.
Mr. Weasley rubbed the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. "Percy owled me early this morning. He’s dismayed by the Minister’s plans for Ron."
Harry bit his lip, not entirely convinced it wasn’t Percy who told Umbridge about Ron in the first place. He wasn’t about to say that to Mr. Weasley, however. Some of his feelings must have shown on his face, because Mr. Weasley sighed heavily.
"I understand your mistrust of Percy, Harry, and I can’t say that I blame you, but I do believe that he loves his family. I think Percy had a rude awakening at Bill’s wedding, and he’s trying to make amends. I have to believe that," he said.
His eyes looked so sad and almost pleading that Harry had to swallow a lump in his throat. If it turned out that Percy wasn’t on the right side of all this, Harry would make certain he paid for it.
"I’m going with you," he said, not about to be swayed by any argument.
"I’ve stayed away so as not to draw attention to Ron’s being there. He’s leaving now, anyway, and his connection to me might actually work in his favor for once. My presence at St. Mungo’s should cause enough of a distraction to get him out. I’ll bring my Invisibility Cloak, as well," Harry said, his jaw set.
Mr. Weasley sat back in his chair, watching Harry closely. Finally, he nodded. "All right, Harry. You’ve done a lot of growing up this past year, haven’t you, son?"
Startled, Harry jerked his head toward Mr. Weasley.
The older man smiled fondly. "You were such a scrawny little thing when Ron first brought you home. Molly used to say that if you turned sideways you’d disappear, you were so thin. You were always polite and soft-spoken, but even then I could sense an underlying strength of character. You’ve grown into a remarkable young man, Harry. Your parents would be proud."
Harry wasn’t certain how to respond, so he merely nodded, feeling a warm glow of pleasure flush his cheeks. When Remus returned, the three of them left Grimmauld Place and Apparated to an alley near St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.
London’s streets were being decorated for Christmas, and Harry was stunned to realize he’d been so caught up in the war that he hadn’t even been aware of the season. Boughs of holly and evergreens were wrapped upon the streetlights, and Harry could hear the distant clang of a bell from a department store Father Christmas. The streets were already packed with shoppers carrying bundles of brightly wrapped packages.
They’d managed to enter the apparently deserted department store that hid St. Mungo’s without attracting any attention. The reception area was filled with various witches and wizard seeking medical attention. Healers in lime green robes moved from person to person, assessing who was in the direst need of attention.
The witch sitting at the Inquiry desk was young with a pockmarked face and platinum blonde hair. She cracked her gum repeatedly and looked up with a bored expression on her face as they approached the desk. Her eyes zeroed in on Harry’s scar, and her jaw hung open, dropping her gum on the desk with a thump.
"Blimey, it’s Harry Potter," she said, an annoying nasal twang to her voice.
All activity in the waiting area halted for a brief moment and a heavy silence filled the air. It lasted only a moment before whispering broke out amongst the people. They began pointing and moving closer toward Harry in order to hear him. Several of the Healers began elbowing each other and nodding in his direction.
Annoyed with the reception witch, Mr. Weasley grabbed the register and signed his name, handing the quill to Harry. "We know where we’re going," he said coldly.
Grabbing Harry’s elbow, he moved quickly towards the lift. Remus followed behind them as the hum of voices in the lobby grew louder. They rode the lift to the fourth floor where the Spell Damage ward was located as quickly as possible, but news of Harry’s presence preceded them for the corridors filled with witches and wizards eager to catch a glimpse of the Chosen One. Several people asked him questions, but Harry kept his eyes focused firmly ahead of him and didn’t slow his stride.
The nurse sitting at the desk in front of the Spell Damage ward was a young, rather plump, star-struck girl who repeatedly fluttered her eyelashes at Harry.
"We’re here to see Ron Weasley," he said, nodding pleasantly.
"I’m sorry, Mr. Potter," the witch replied nervously, her eyes fixed on his face. "We’ve had a direct order from the Ministry that no one is allowed in the ward until further notice. We’ve got two visitors inside now, and we’re waiting to clear them out."
Harry leaned over the desk, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "Aw, come on. Certainly if there are already visitors inside a few more won’t hurt. I promise we’ll be in and out so quick that no one will know," he said.
The witch opened and closed her mouth several times like a fish, apparently wanting to object but unable to find the words.
"I’d consider this a great personal favor," Harry said, briefly scanning her nametag, "Sandy. Do you think you could let me see my friend?" He’d learned from experience that Ginny always tended to give him his way when he used that sappy, puppy-dog expression, and he only hoped it would work with the nurse, as well.
"All right, Mr. Potter," Sandy said breathlessly, "but you’ll have to be quick. I’ll be in so much trouble if anyone finds out I let you in here."
"Thank you, Sandy," Harry said, feeling very pleased. He quickly hurried through the door to the closed ward. Remus and Mr. Weasley followed him, each wearing wide grins.
"I think I’ve seen both your father and Sirius pulling stunts like that, Harry. Well done," Remus said, chuckling.
Harry’s face colored. "I hope I don’t get her sacked like the witch at the Apparation Testing Center," he said. There was nothing to be done for it, however. They had to get Ron out of here.
"His room is this way," Mr. Weasley said, leading Harry around the corner.
When they entered, they discovered the room wasn’t empty. A stout man sat in the chair by Ron’s bed, his back to the door. Harry drew his wand in a flash and aimed it at the man. "Move away from his bed and keep your hands where I can see them," he said.
The man started and turned around, revealing the surprised face of Harry’s classmate, Neville Longbottom.
Harry felt his body deflate as the air and the tension left his lungs through his nose. "Neville. What are you doing here?"
"Hi, Harry," Neville said brightly. His round face beamed as he recognized Harry. "Hello, Professor Lupin. How have you been? And you must be Mr. Weasley."
"Nice to see you again, Neville," Remus said warmly.
"Gran and I are here to visit my parents, but there’s something strange happening. They gave us a really hard time about getting in, and they tried to have us fill out all this extra paperwork. Gran went upstairs to give the Head Healer a piece of her mind. I don’t envy that bloke," Neville replied, grimacing.
"How’s Ron?" Harry asked.
He moved cautiously toward the bed and got the first look at his friend in weeks. Ron’s skin was pale, making the freckles on his face stand out starkly. He looked peaceful, however, as if he was only sleeping. Somehow, Harry had expected him to look as if he was in pain. He was relieved that wasn’t the case. Still, it was strange and rather eerie to see Ron this way. He was used to a Ron who was lively and full of energy. He wanted his friend back.
"Gran told me he was here, so I cut of a sprig of my Mimbulus mimbletonia and planted it for him. It’s supposed to have healing properties, so I thought it might help," Neville mumbled, kicking his foot against the bed.
Harry glanced at the small green plant resting on Ron’s bedside table and found it hard to swallow around the lump that had grown in his throat.
"It’s a lovely thought, Neville," Hermione said, entering the room. Harry suddenly realized that Hermione’s coat was lying on the chair beside Ron’s bed.
"Hermione! When did you get here?" Harry asked, his eyes widening. He’d assumed she’d still been asleep when he’d left with Remus and Mr. Weasley.
"I’ve been here for a few hours. I couldn’t sleep," she replied, not meeting his eyes. Her eyes had dark shadows beneath them, making them appear almost bruised. She moved towards Ron and gently brushed the hair on his forehead. "There hasn’t been any change. What are you all doing here? What’s happened?"
"Umbridge is making life difficult, and she’s about to try and take Ron into Ministry custody," Harry replied, a tic working in his cheek.
"What? That’s ridiculous," Hermione cried, her eyes seeking confirmation from the older two men in the room.
"So is Umbridge," Harry replied.
"What are we going to do? We can’t let her do this, Harry. Mr. Weasley? She can’t just take him," Hermione said, her voice growing shriller with each syllable.
"Calm down, Hermione," Remus said, grasping her shoulders. "No one is going to take Ron anywhere."
"We’re here to break him out. Even unconscious, Ron’s a rebel," Harry said, smirking.
"How? They’re watching all the doors. How do you propose to get an unconscious body by them without anyone noticing? They’re counting who goes in and who goes out. They know Neville and I were the only two left in here," Hermione said without taking a breath.
"Take Ron," Neville said suddenly, a fierce, determined expression crossing his face. "You take Ron, and I’ll stay in his bed. It won’t fool them for long, but long enough to get you out of here."
"Neville-" Hermione said.
"Do it. I can handle this," Neville said, sticking out his chin.
"The Ministry will be all over you, asking you all sorts of questions," Harry said. "It’s me they want, and they’re going to try and use Ron to get to me. They’ll use you, too."
"It won’t matter," Neville replied, squaring his shoulders. "I don’t know where you’re taking him and as long as you don’t tell me, even with Veritaserum there’s nothing I can give them."
"Thank you, Neville," said Mr. Weasley quietly, extending his hand to Neville.
"I want to help, in any way I can. If you need anything, Harry, you know where to find me," Neville said, shaking each of the other men’s hands.
"Thanks, Neville," Harry said, feeling extraordinarily proud to call Neville a friend.
When Neville reached Hermione, he pulled her into a hug rather than shaking her hand. He handed her the potted plant that resembled a pulsating cactus. "Take this, maybe it’ll help."
"Thanks, Neville," Hermione said, her eyes glistening.
Mr. Weasley removed his wand from his pocket and aimed it as his son. "Petrificus Totalis," he said, causing Ron’s entire body to stiffen. "Levicorpus."
Ron’s body rose in the air and hung eerily still, slightly in front of Mr. Weasley.
Remus moved next to him, attempting to block him from view. He turned to Harry, his eyes twinkling. "Now, Harry, if you can just work your charm on Sandy as we leave, hopefully she won’t give the rest of us a second glance."
Hermione kissed Neville on the cheek before he climbed into Ron’s bed. She took her place in front of Ron, and they moved toward the door.
Harry hurried to the front desk, attempting to block the nurse’s view of the others. "Thank you for letting me see my friend, Sandy. I really appreciate it. We’ll all be leaving, now."
Sandy blinked, staring dreamily at Harry. "Okay, Mr. Eyes…er... Potter….Mr. Potter. You...er…have very nice eyes... the color I mean. It’s striking."
Harry felt his face flush. "Thank you, Sandy."
"I have faith in you, Harry. I know you’ll beat him," Sandy said, grabbing his hand.
Harry fervently hoped what he was doing wouldn’t get Sandy into trouble. "I’m going to try," he told her sincerely, feeling his words were incredibly inadequate.
The rest of the group had made their way onto the lift. Harry joined them just as the door closed. Removing his Invisibility Cloak from his pocket, he shook it out and swung it over Ron’s head.
"I’m certain the reporters will be aware of my presence here by now. If we get held up, let me deal with them while you get Ron out of here," he said to Remus and Mr. Weasley.
Neither of the two men looked particularly happy with the idea, but they both nodded their agreement, knowing he was probably right.
They emerged from the lift and rounded the corner into the lobby before all hell broke loose. Cameras flashed and a swarm of reporters swarmed toward them, firing questions so rapidly Harry couldn’t distinguish anything being said.
Blinking to clear the spots from his eyes, he shot a meaningful glance at Remus. Harry moved slightly away from the others to give them a chance to get away and raised his arms in the air, trying to quiet the crowd with a gesture. When that failed, he stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled shrilly.
He saw Remus and Mr. Weasley slip through the entrance unhindered, and breathed a sigh of relief. He was dismayed to realize Hermione had stayed with him, however.
"Mr. Potter, what is your opinion of our Interim Minister? I understand you were at odds with her when she briefly took charge at Hogwarts," a male reporter with narrowed eyes and an oily face asked, shoving a recording quill and parchment beneath Harry’s nose.
"Yes. Dolores and I have had our differences in the past," Harry replied, refusing to acknowledge her title, "but I hope she can leave all that behind us and concentrate on the situation at hand. Stopping Voldemort’s reign of terror should be everyone’s first priority."
He rolled his eyes at the gasps and shrieks of dismay the name caused, finding them ridiculous. How could they report on Voldemort’s activities if they couldn’t even stand to hear his name?
"Do you think she’s capable of leading us?" a female reporter asked, her bright red nails caressing her quill.
Harry shrugged. "I don’t think Voldemort or his followers care much about any Decree the Ministry might issue. They’re not going to stop him."
"What is going to stop him, Mr. Potter?" the witch asked eagerly.
Harry had to control a grin as he wondered if she might actually start drooling. "I am," he replied, locking his eyes with hers.
The reporters’ quills scribbled madly as the buzz of conversation once again reached fever pitch.
"What are you doing at St. Mungo’s today?" another reporter shouted, quieting the crowd.
"I was visiting a good friend of mine who was hurt recently in a battle with some of Voldemort’s Death Eaters. During that battle, one of the Death Eaters was captured and is now in custody at the Ministry. That man’s name is Peter Pettigrew," Harry said, clearly enunciating each word.
The room erupted into chaos yet again. Hermione glanced at Harry with wide eyes, but nodded for him to continue.
"As I told the Quibbler when I did my interview after Voldemort’s rebirth, Pettigrew was instrumental in his return. I haven’t seen much reported about his capture, but perhaps you can ask the Ministry if he’s revealed anything," Harry said, ignoring their continued reactions to hearing Voldemort’s name.
News of Wormtail’s capture had been kept extremely quiet, and Mr. Weasley had learned that the rat still wasn’t being held in Azkaban, but was instead in the Ministry’s Holding Facility. Access to him had been given only to those Aurors hand-selected by Dolores Umbridge. Harry thought it was about time the public was given the full story. Hopefully, it would put some pressure on the Ministry.
"Where is Pettigrew now?" a reporter with a thin mustache asked.
"As far as I know, he’s at the Ministry, but I’d assume they’re preparing to send him to Azkaban" Harry replied, shrugging. "Maybe they’ve learned where Voldemort is hiding."
"You think the Dark Lord is in hiding?" another reporter asked eagerly.
Harry shrugged again, holding his hands in the air. "Haven’t seen him lately."
Questions about Pettigrew and his capture were flying fast and furious, and Harry couldn’t suppress the bubble of pleasure that gurgled in his chest. Dolores was going to be mightily hacked off about this.
"Look, there’s Interim Minister Umbridge, now," Hermione said, grasping Harry’s arm so tightly that her nails dug into his skin. "Why don’t you ask her about Pettigrew’s fate?"
The crowd of reporters swarmed around a surprised Dolores Umbridge, her toad-like face growing red with fury when she realized what all the questions were about. She glared across the room at Harry, desperately trying to make her way toward him. He could hear her simpering voice trying to get the reporters out of her way. Hermione grabbed Harry’s hand, and they made their escape as quickly as they could.
Alth ough Christmas was rapidly approaching, the mood inside headquarters remained tense and somber. One of the guest rooms had been converted into a makeshift infirmary, and Madam Pomfrey had moved into the adjoining room. Despite her diligent care, Ron remained unresponsive. Hermione had set the plant Neville had given her on Ron’s bedside table, and as the little sprig grew, Ron’s coloring had also improved. Still, that slight change hadn’t brought him out of the coma, and everyone’s hopes were dwindling.
Harry refused to believe his best mate would spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state. It simply couldn’t end up this way.
Harry’s statement to the press about Wormtail’s capture had forced the Ministry to admit that they indeed had him in custody. Any other details were sketchy, and the Daily Prophet had soon printed an article questioning Umbridge’s leadership ability. After two such articles appeared in rapid succession, they’d suddenly stopped. The Order’s attempts to locate the reporter who’d written the articles had, so far, fallen short. It appeared the reporter had fallen off the face of the earth.
Neville had sent an owl informing them that with all the commotion Harry’s announcement about Wormtail had caused, he was able to leave St. Mungo’s without being detained by the Ministry. When they’d come to his home to question him, his grandmother’s intimidating presence had quelled the two Aurors. It appeared that Dolores Umbridge was unprepared to go up against a respected pureblood family.
At headquarters, Harry, Hermione and Ginny were in the library comparing their notes on where each of the Horcruxes had been found, and how it was destroyed. None of them had the heart to suggest continuing their search without Ron, although Harry feared it might come to just that sooner rather than later. He’d decided to hold off through the holidays and simply try and enjoy this time with the Weasleys while they all had the chance.
Unexpectedly, loud voices in the entrance hall caused the three teens to stick their heads outside the door to see what was happening. Tonks, Mad-Eye Moody, Bill, and Mr. Weasley were all standing around, and they appeared to be having a row with Remus.
Remus had his arms folded resolutely across his chest, and a resigned yet determined expression upon his face. The others appeared agitated, and Tonks looked as if she was holding back tears. Bill wore that angry, frustrated expression on his face once again, making the hairs on the back of Harry’s neck stand on end.
"What’s wrong?" Harry asked, striding into the middle of the floor and looking at each of them in turn.
"Umbridge strikes again," George said, scowling.
Harry started, not realizing George was there. He was hidden in the doorframe to the kitchen with Fred behind him wearing an identically sour expression.
"What has she done now?" Hermione asked, groaning.
"She’s issued a Decree stating that all persons suffering from Lycanthropy are to be confined to Ministry-approved Holding Facilities until the current crisis is over," Remus said softly.
"What?" Harry asked, whirling to face his father’s old friend. "You must be joking."
"Afraid not," Remus replied, grimacing.
Harry looked briefly at Bill, who scowled. "It doesn’t mean me, since I’m not officially diagnosed with Lycanthropy…yet. I merely display some of the symptoms, but you’ve seen firsthand how my temper can become…irrational. Just give her some time. It won’t be long before she reclassifies the restrictions."
"We’re not going to let it come to that, Bill," Mr. Weasley said, grimacing. Harry knew it was a father’s promise to his son, one he desperately wanted to keep, but not necessarily one he could control.
"What do you mean? Confined for every full moon?" Hermione asked, her brow knitting. "They’re going to lock you up each month?"
"No. Confined as in permanently for an undetermined amount of time, regardless of whether it’s a full moon or not," Mr. Weasley said, casting an anxious glance in Remus’s direction. Remus averted his eyes. "The penalty for disobeying the Decree is immediate termination."
"She can’t do that," Ginny cried, glancing desperately between her father and Remus. "You’re just like everyone else except at the full moon. She can’t just put you down like an animal."
"Umbridge has always had a prejudice against ‘dangerous half-breeds’. Look at the anti-werewolf Legislation she passed four years ago," Tonks said, her face twisting into an ugly scowl. She turned towards Remus, tugging on his arm imploringly. "This is her own personal and misguided campaign."
"How does she propose to manage this facility?" Hermione asked, her arms crossed indignantly.
"She doesn’t, and quite frankly, people don’t care right now," Remus said tiredly, taking a step away from Tonks. "Even those that might ordinarily take up the plight are too concerned with the war, right now. The vast number of those afflicted with Lycanthropy have already sided with Voldemort. People are afraid, and in desperate times, they’ll take desperate measures."
"How does she propose to supply Wolfsbane to all those people?" Hermione asked, glaring at Mad-Eye as if it were all his fault.
"Who says she will?" Mad-Eye asked gruffly.
"She can’t just lock you all up together," Hermione cried, staring at Remus scandalized.
"Why not? I don’t think the fate of anyone afflicted as I am is one of her concerns," Remus said wearily. "Honestly, the only ones who are going to turn themselves in are the ones attempting to live a normal life amongst wizards. The majority of Voldemort’s followers won’t pay any heed to this Decree. The ones who do turn themselves in will most likely kill each other off during the full moons. By the time this is over, there won’t be anyone left to complain."
"And Umbridge won’t stop there," Bill said, firmly squaring his jaw. "She has it in for Centaurs, Merpeople and the Goblins, too. This is going to get ugly."
"This is barbaric," Ginny cried, her eyes glittering.
"This is war," Moody snapped. "The sodding bint is using that to her advantage."
"What do you plan on doing?" Fred asked Remus.
It was then that Harry noticed Remus had a small bag at his feet. Hermione must have noticed it at the same time.
"You’re not going to turn yourself over to them," she said, panicked.
"Not bloody likely," Harry said, feeling his anger beginning to boil. The thought of losing Remus now was clawing at his insides with fevered intensity. First Sirius, then Dumbledore, and now Remus…
"No. I’m not," Remus said, squaring his shoulders. His eyes were very sad, and he looked at Harry as if there was no one else in the room. "I’m going to go underground like I did for Dumbledore. Perhaps I can learn something about what the others are planning. If anything, this gives me an excellent cover for why I’m turning my back on wizarding society."
"No," Harry said, his breathing hard. He felt Ginny slip her hand into his and thread her fingers with his own. "There has to be another way."
Remus placed his hands on Harry’s shoulders and squeezed them gently. "Harry, there is no choice."
"It’s suicide, Remus," Tonks said, her watery eyes finally starting to spill her tears. They rolled down her face in fat drops as her hair lost its pink color and turned a mousy brown. "They’ll kill you if they even suspect what you’re doing."
"I’ll be all right, Nym," he replied, gently brushing her cheek with the back on his hand. "We all have to do what we have to do."
"No," Harry said again, determined to Stun Remus if he had to in order to keep him from walking out that door.
"It’s my way to fight in this war. Certainly you, of all people, can understand that, Harry," Remus said gently.
Harry looked away, desperately trying to think of an alternative. Vaguely, he wondered if this was how Ginny felt when he’d tried to leave her behind. Unable to come up with an answer, he briefly nodded, his throat closing.
Remus patted him on the shoulder, his voice choking. "Good boy. I’m very proud of everything you’ve accomplished, Harry. I’ve always been extraordinarily proud of you. Sirius and your father would be, too. I’ll be in touch as often as I can."
Remus’s glanced at the others standing in the entrance hall and gave them all a brief nod. He took Tonks by the hand and led her towards the door to say his farewell in private. As he stepped by Ginny, he leaned down and whispered to her, loud enough for Harry to hear, "Take care of him."
"I will," Ginny murmured, a single tear making a silent track down her cheek.
Unmoving, Harry watched Remus lead Tonks out the front door, an aching hole growing in his chest. Rage bubbled inside, making his stomach roil. Voldemort had to be stopped before any more lives were ripped apart. He had to find the remaining Horcrux; and then he had to end this once and for all, regardless of what that meant for him.
Harry sat in a chair beside Ron’s bed, staring out the window at the lightly falling snow. It had begun only minutes earlier, and he watched, lost in his own thoughts, as the swirling flakes appeared to dance on the windowpane. He’d fled the entrance hall after Remus’s departure, unable to face everyone’s concerned stares, or Hermione’s desire to discuss the decree in detail.
He wished Ron would get on with it and wake up, but his friend remained unresponsive. Harry idly kicked his foot against the leg of the bed, watching the rubber of his trainer as it peeled back each time his foot made contact.
"I wish you’d stop this and wake up, Ron. The girls are driving me mad with only me here to hassle," he said, lightly snorting. "If you’re so bored with our company, maybe I’ll ask Lavender Brown to come and stay awhile. I’ll bet you’d love that."
Harry grinned as he imagined the horrified expression on Ron’s face had he been awake to hear that comment. He absently wondered what Lavender and the others were doing now, without Hogwarts to occupy their time.
"We’ve been waiting for you to wake up before doing anything about finding the next Horcrux, but I can’t wait any longer, mate. Too much is happening. Umbridge is trying to take control and fix everything. I’m certain you can remember how well that worked the last time," Harry said, rolling his eyes.
"Hermione is going to look through the Pensieve again. I don’t know what she’s hoping to find, but I suppose it gives her something to do.
"You’re going to have to wake up soon, mate. If I manage to find this last Horcrux in a reasonable amount of time, I’m not waiting to confront Voldemort. He has to be stopped, Ron, and I’m the only one who can do it. Ginny and Hermione don’t want to hear it, but I know you understand. I need you to keep them out of the way, so I can do what I have to do. When are you going to wake up, Ron?"
Harry’s throat was sore, and he had to stop talking to ease it. He continued absently kicking at the bed, staring at Ron’s pale face.
"Remus left," he said, his voice sounding strange in the stillness of the room.
He watched the steady rise and fall of Ron’s chest. "He could have stayed hidden here, I suppose. He would have been trapped here like Sirius, though."
Harry blinked, staring out the window again.
"We all know how badly that turned out, and I don’t think Remus wanted to be reminded of how miserable Sirius was at the end," Harry said, his breath hitching. "I didn’t like it when they did it to me, so I suppose it wouldn’t have been right to try it with him.
"I need for it to end differently this time, Ron," he whispered, dropping his head.
He was startled when a warm arm wrapped around his shoulders. "It will be different this time, Harry," Ginny said gently.
He looked up into her warm brown eyes and opened his arms, shifting over and allowing her to snuggle onto the chair with him. He wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her hair, feeling his heart rate slow as his breathing evened.
"How is he?" Ginny asked, nodding at Ron.
"The same," Harry replied, shrugging. "I don’t know, I just felt I should keep him in the loop on stuff, you know?"
"Yeah, well, even when he’s conscious, Ron’s not usually aware he’s in the loop, anyway," Ginny said, tucking the blanket over Ron’s shoulder.
Harry felt his lips start to twitch and although he tried to suppress it, he couldn’t help the chuckle in the pit of his belly that grew until he couldn’t contain it. Somehow, she always made him feel better.
"I miss him," he said, his smile faltering.
"I know you do. I do, too. He’s certainly taking his own sweet time about waking up, isn’t he?" Ginny asked, a slight catch in her voice.
Harry pulled her closer. "Sorry," he whispered. "You came in here to make me feel better, and now I’ve gone and made you sad."
"Yeah. You’re a bit of wet blanket," Ginny replied, nuzzling her nose into his cheek.
Harry snorted, slouching back on the chair and resting his feet on top of Ron’s bed.
"Here," Ginny said, pulling a Chocolate Frog from her pocket. "I nicked this from Bill, and I think it’s the last bit of chocolate in this house. Remus always says it makes you feel better."
Harry smiled, remembering how Remus would always have a supply of chocolate in his desk when he taught at Hogwarts. He took the frog from Ginny and snapped it in half.
"Share?" he asked.
"Thanks," Ginny replied, popping the sweet into her mouth. She leaned back and placed her legs on top of Harry’s outstretched ones.
"I wish he could have stayed here, but I know he would have been miserable. I would be. I suppose it’s easier to feel as if you’re doing something rather than just sitting back and waiting for someone else to do it," Harry replied, chewing his chocolate while not quite meeting her eyes.
"I know that’s how I feel," Ginny said softly.
Harry nodded. "I’m sorry, Ginny."
"Don’t be. It’s not your fault, it’s not Remus’s fault. It’s not anyone but bloody Tom Riddle’s fault," Ginny said, grabbing his chin and forcing him to look at her. "Remus doesn’t want to hurt you any more than you wanted to hurt me. These circumstances are beyond our control, and everyone is doing what they have to do in order to survive it."
"I know that. He’s doing exactly what I would do in his place," Harry said, gritting his teeth. "But that doesn’t make me worry about him any less."
"I know," Ginny said, stroking his hair.
"We need to find that last Horcrux," Harry said, throwing his back against the chair.
"I’ve been thinking about that," Hermione said, entering the room. She moved to the opposite side of Ron’s bed and leaned over to kiss his forehead before sitting down.
"Great! Where is it?" Ginny asked brightly.
"Ho, ho, very funny. Professor Dumbledore suspected that the other Horcrux would have some connection to either Ravenclaw or Gryffindor, so we need to begin researching the Founders," Hermione said.
"Well, that shouldn’t be too hard. There’s loads printed about them," Ginny said.
"Do you think we should go back and look at Hogwarts?" Harry asked.
"I don’t think so," Hermione said, rubbing her chin. "I’ve already read everything about them in the library there, and I don’t remember seeing anything that couldn’t be bought at Flourish and Blotts. We need to find more random information, I think. Writing about just them and not their Hogwarts connections. Rowena Ravenclaw was born in England, while Godric Gryffindor came from Wales. I think we need to start in the libraries in the towns where they were born."
"Gryffindor was Welsh?" Harry asked curiously.
"Of course he was Harry. You went to Godric’s Hollow," Hermione said, rolling her eyes as if he was daft.
Maybe he was, because he hadn’t made the connection. "That’s where Godric Gryffindor was born?" he asked.
"Of course. Didn’t you know?" Hermione asked, sounding scandalizing that he’d even gone to Godric’s Hollow without knowing that information.
"No," Harry replied, shaking his head. He did feel rather slow, now that he thought about it. Godric Gryffindor. Godric’s Hollow. It made perfect sense.
Hermione’s voice drew his attention back to the conversation. "Helga Hufflepuff was Irish, while Salazar Slytherin came from Scotland. Therefore, each of the Founders represented the four quarters of Great Britain."
"How do you know all this stuff?" Harry asked.
Hermione threw her arms in the air, exasperated. "Simple. I read, Harry. You ought to try it sometime. If you’d ever taken the time to read Hogwarts: A History, you’d know this, too. It was all detailed in the first few chapters."
Harry rolled his eyes this time and ignored Hermione completely. "So, where should we start? I’m not too keen to return to Godric’s Hollow, but I’ll be glad to get out of this house for a while."
Hermione shrewdly narrowed her eyes. "What about your Occlumency lessons?" she asked.
"I haven’t really had any recently," Harry replied, shrugging. "I think we all agree that they aren’t doing any good. I haven’t made any progress on blocking Malfoy, and I’m tired of his sneering over memories of Dudley chasing me around Little Whinging."
"Have you been trying to clear your head at night?" Hermione asked, frowning.
Harry clenched his teeth. "I’ve done everything they’ve asked of me, Hermione. I can’t do Occlumency. I told them I’d try again, but if I thought it was still pointless I’d end it. It’s not working."
Hermione opened her mouth as if to argue when Ginny interrupted. "Professor Dumbledore didn’t think it was imperative for you to learn, anyway. He said so last year. I can’t imagine it’s pleasant having Malfoy in your head and sneering about your childhood memories," she said, rubbing Harry’s arm.
"No. The tosser can get really shirty about it, actually," Harry said.
"I don’t know how you can stand even being civil to him," Ginny said.
Harry shrugged. "I dunno. When I watched how Lucius treated him when we were at Azkaban, I felt kind of bad for him. It didn’t last long – he went right back to his normal git of a self quickly enough, but still…I don’t understand how a father can treat his son that way. I mean, I don’t like him, either, but he’s not related to me."
"So, you’re not planning on getting the sod a Christmas gift, then?" Ginny asked, smirking.
Hermione huffed at the language, although Harry noticed her lip twitching as if she was fighting a grin.
"Heh, it’d be worth getting Malfoy a present just to see the expression on Ron’s face," Harry said, envisioning the scene. "What are you supposed to get for a walking, talking ferret, though?"
"How about a lead?" Hermione said, snorting. "We could get a pink one with a little rhinestone collar and Pansy could parade him around like a show dog."
"That’s not what she does already?" Ginny asked, and both girls shrieked with laughter.
Harry shook his head, grinning. He was still thinking about Draco’s and Lucius’s row, and it led him back to thoughts of his own so-called family. "D’you suppose that Cheering Charm is still working on Dudley?" he asked.
Hermione shifted her eyes to stare at the window. The snow had begun to pile against the glass.
"You did do one, right?" he asked, watching her closely.
"I did," Hermione said, nodding.
Harry knew there was something she still wasn’t saying, but didn’t feel he needed to press the issue. If she and Ron had done something to torment the Dursleys after they’d all left, well, it couldn’t be more than they deserved. Harry’s thoughts often turned to Dudley, however. He wondered if Dudley had been thinking about his suppressed magical ability, and if he were at all curious. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia might have succeeded in making the idea so abhorrent to Dudley that he truly didn’t want to know any more. If it were Harry, though – he’d be curious.
He decided he was going to send Dudley a Christmas present this year. He still has his copy of First Year Spells. Dudley might just toss it in the bin, but he might be curious…
At the moment, there were more pressing matters, however.
"Where in England did Ravenclaw come from?" he asked.
"Canterbury," Ginny answered promptly.
Both Harry and Hermione stared at her, surprised.
"How’d you know that?" Harry asked.
"What? I read, too, Harry," Ginny said with a straight face. When Harry cocked his eyebrow, she giggled and said, "Well, Canterbury isn’t too far from Ottery St. Catchpole, is it? Some of my ancestors were around back then, too. In fact, Auntie Muriel’s tiara – the one Fleur wore at her wedding – is a replica of one Rowena Ravenclaw wore."
"So, d’you think you’re a descendent of Ravenclaw?" Harry asked.
"No," Ginny replied, shaking her head and making her hair swish around her shoulders. "Weasleys have been Gryffindors for as far back as I can remember. The Prewetts, too, on Mum’s side. I had a great-uncle several generations back who married someone from Ravenclaw, and she had the tiara made. It’s only a replica, not the real thing, but its Auntie Muriel’s pride and joy. Fred and George used to tease Ron with it when we were little by making him wear it whenever we visited."
Both Harry and Hermione snorted. It always fascinated Harry to hear stories about the Weasleys’ childhoods.
"Ron thought the pattern of the gems looked liked spiders, and he’d throw a wobbly whenever they started chasing him with it," Ginny said, laughing. "He used to scowl and get all grumpy and say something like, ‘The ruddy thing looks like it’s got spiders all over it.’"
"Well, since it’s not too far, why don’t we start in Canterbury, then?" Harry asked, feeling pleased with having made a decision.
Hermione had wrinkled her brow and appeared in deep thought. "Ginny, that tiara…" she began, but was interrupted by a groggy voice that sounded scratchy and raw.
"I’m hungry," Ron said, attempting to pull himself into a seated position.
"Ron!" Hermione squealed, jumping up and assisting him to straighten. She arranged the pillows behind his head, and threw her arms around his neck. "Oh, Ron! You’re awake. You’re finally awake."
Ron’s eyes had widened in surprise, and he used his tongue to try and remove some of Hermione’s red hair from his mouth. "H’mione," he said, grunting.
"Oh!" she cried, pulling back and pouring him some water from the bedside table.
Ginny had grasped Harry’s hand when Ron first spoke, and she now gave it a small squeeze before turning and running from the room.
Harry remained frozen on the spot, staring at Ron and resisting the urge to fling his arms around his mate the same way Hermione had done.
"Ron," he said hoarsely.
"Hey," Ron said, glancing around the room as if trying to make sense of his surroundings. "We’re back at headquarters, yeah?"
Harry nodded, not trusting his voice. Hermione clung to Ron’s hand, sniffling. She appeared unable to speak. Ron was confused by the reactions of the two of them.
"What day is it?" he asked.
The question was enough to push Hermione over the edge. She burst into tears, ranting incoherently in between great gulps of air. Ron’s expression became alarmed.
"Is it after Christmas? Have I missed presents?" he asked, horrified.
"No," Harry replied, grinning – his amusement finally snapping him out of his daze. "You haven’t missed presents. Of course, now I’m going to have to go shopping again to get you something. Thanks, mate."
Ron grinned sleepily. "We got out of Azkaban all right, then. What happened?" he asked.
"Azkaban? Ron…do you remember the Inferi? And getting cursed by Bellatrix Lestrange?" Harry asked, hoping Ron’s memories were just confused.
"Oh! Right…We got Wormtail, right?" Ron asked, although he appeared rather uncertain.
The door burst open and Mrs. Weasley came rushing through, followed closely by Ginny, Bill, and Fleur.
"Oh, Ron," Mrs. Weasley said, throwing her arms around him. "When Ginny said you were awake, I felt as if all my Christmas prayers had been answered. Don’t you ever do anything like that to me again!"
Ron’s eyes widened as he was crushed within his mother’s tearful embrace.
"It’s good to see you back among the living, little brother," Bill said, patting Ron’s arm affectionately. "I’ll Floo Dad and the twins. They’ll want to know."
"Oui, and I will zend owls to Charlie and Percy," Fleur said, smiling brilliantly at Ron before following Bill from the room.
Ron blinked dazedly before trying to extricate himself from Mrs. Weasley’s arm. "Erg, Mum, gerroff me. Are you trying to put me back into unconsciousness?"
Mrs. Weasley promptly burst into tears.
"Nice one, Ron," Ginny said, scowling as she began patting her mother’s back. Harry could see amusement glistening in her eyes however, and he knew she was thrilled to have Ron back, whether she’d admit it or not. She stood there, rubbing her mother’s back while beaming at her brother. Harry stood and wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
"It’s good to have you back, mate," Harry said. "Are you all right, Hermione?"
Hermione remained in her chair, watching all the Weasleys with wide, tear-filled eyes and still sniffling on occasion.
"I think we should all give Ron and Hermione an early Christmas present by clearing out of here and giving them some privacy," Ginny said, her eyes sparkling knowingly.
"I’ll go make you some soup, Ron. You must be starving. Poppy should return soon, and I’m going to send her right up here to take a look at you," Mrs. Weasley said, bustling about the room as she shooed Harry and Ginny towards the door. A thoughtful expression crossed her face as she turned back to Ron and Hermione, who were staring silently into one another’s eyes. "I’ll be right downstairs…and I’d like you to leave this door open, just so I can hear if you call, mind."
Harry and Ginny tried to cover their sniggers as they hurried down the corridor and away from Mrs. Weasley. They burst into the library and collapsed on the couch, laughing madly. Suddenly, everything seemed much brighter in the world. Ron’s recovery had brought some hope back when it had been desperately needed.
A/N: Big thanks to my beta, Sherylyn for all her help and her amazingly fast turnaround. She did this one so fast that I couldn’t keep up with her. I also want to thanks KEDme, Dianne, and GhostWriter for all their comments and feedback on these chapters. You guys have kept me so motivated.
The reaction to the return of Dolores Umbridge delighted me. So many moans and groans, lol. Honestly, did you think the final year would be easy for Harry? We’d all think it was boring if it was! ;)