|SIYE Time:4:26 on 23rd June 2018|
Genres: Drama, General, Romance
Warnings: Death, Extreme Language, Intimate Sexual Situations, Mild Language, Mild Sexual Situations, Sexual Situations, Violence
Summary: Things are not looking good for Harry Potter. Lord Voldemort has been defeated, but many of his Death Eaters are still on the loose, and Minister of Magic, Kingsley Shacklebolt, will not let Harry anywhere near them, insisting he needs time to recover from the trials of life on the run. And to top things off, he still canít manage to sort things out with his ex-girlfriend, Ginny.
Hitcount: Story Total: 7515; Chapter Total: 603
Jesus Christ. I should start by saying that I mapped out most of this fanfiction back in August, and knew that Chapter Seven was going to be quite the monster. I did not realize, however, that I would be writing twenty-three single-spaced pages of fic in less than a month. I hope that this is an enjoyable rather than daunting read. I greatly appreciate all of your wonderful comments and reviews. This chapter is titled after the song Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush, which I listened to over and over and over and over while writing this chapter, except I've listened to so much Kate Bush in the last week that I'm in a kate-hole and can't function. Whatever.
"Patil," Savage barked, rounding the corner of the rookie cubicle. Padma jumped in her seat before realizing who had called her. She caught Harry's eye and rolled her own gaze upward in a silent cry of annoyance. Harry grinned and looked back to the report he was reading, an alleged sighting of Thorfinn Rowle in Swansea, living in disguise as an old woman called Blodwen.
"Savage?" Padma replied stiffly.
Savage held a stack of cream-colored file folders in his arms. Harry slammed his own report shut, deciding the information was worthless. The attack on the Ministry had been over two months ago, and Harry had yet to receive one piece of useful information to suggest where the rogue Death Eaters may be hiding.
"A Muggle family of six in some arse-fuck nowhere village called Barrowden all turned up dead in their beds this morning. Muggle police are saying it looks like gas poisoning, but are investigating for signs of foul play because, for whatever reason, the pantry and kitchen were completely empty of all food. I need you to check for any unusual magical activity in the area," Savage directed, shifting his files from one arm to the other.
Padma nodded, turning in her chair to the wall behind them, which housed a massive map of all of Britain and Ireland. The map was color-coded, the swirling lines of the colors changing and shifting before their very eyes, ebbing and receding across cities, towns, and counties, their hues lightening and darkening gradually. London, Hogsmeade, Godric's Hollow, and other settlements with large populations of wizards were all a startling red. The hills beside Ottery St. Catchpole, where the Burrow stood, were a more orangey shade, the colors cooling down as the magical activity in the area decreased.
Harry watched from his desk as Padma dragged her finger across the tiny county of Rutland before tapping once on Barrowden. The village was green.
"Hmm," she said. "It does seem like there's been something cast here recently. Let me check the logs and see if it's consistent."
Savage tapped his foot impatiently as Padma waved her wand over a filing cabinet with a lazily-scribbled label reading "East Midlands". A file flew out at her and she thumbed through it quickly before looking back to Savage.
"No, the level of activity in that area hasn't changed in decades. A wizarding family lives near there, they're called Tuft," she said, a note of curiosity alighting her eyes.
"They ever messed with the Muggles before?" Savage asked. "Anything sinister?"
Padma held up the file, much flimsier than the ones Savage was carrying.
"The family's been on record as living there for over fifty years and there's not a single violation or citation in this thing. I'd guess they keep to themselves."
"Likely a gas leak, then. Arthur Weasley told me it sounded like carbon monoxide, though I've no bleeding clue what that gibberish means."
He stalked off to his own cubicle, slamming the files irritably on his desk. Padma flinched, but returned to her seat, swiveling around to view Harry and Ron.
"It is a bit odd," she said softly. "Muggles die in random ways all the time, and it can certainly seem like a Killing Curse when in reality it was a heart attack…. But six people? And an empty larder? It reminds me of the war."
She shuddered before turning back to her things.
Harry looked sharply to Ron, who had slammed shut the book of Wizarding law he had seemingly been idly perusing, though Harry knew the most recent edition of Which Broomstick? had been tucked amongst its pages.
As his best friend gazed at him in terror, Harry knew that they were thinking of their year in hiding; when food was so scarce that they had often resorted to the petty theft of Muggle goods. A Death Eater on the run could easily justify murdering a family of Muggles if it meant a pantry full of food, and it would be smart to hide in an area were there was enough magical activity to cover up a few rogue, especially Unforgivable, spells.
"D'you think it could be him?" Ron asked.
"I don't think it's a fucking gas leak," Harry replied sullenly. "I'm going to talk to Robards."
Ron nodded, and they both stood from their cubicles and made their way to the corner of the vast office, where Robards occupied a tiny enclosure. Harry cleared his throat in the doorway, and the middle-aged wizard looked up from the file he was reading. Harry could swear he caught a flit of annoyance cross his boss's pockmarked face.
"Potter, Weasley," he acknowledged curtly. "What can I do for you?"
"Sir," Harry began. "Sir, we've just heard about the Muggle deaths in Barrowden, and we, er, we had some suspicions."
"Suspicions?" Robards repeated. Beside Harry, Ron gave a small sigh.
"Only that we think it might be worth having some of our law enforcement take a look around. Since - since it's an entire family dead with no obvious cause, and there are wizards in the village, and…"
"Potter, let me interrupt. I take it, given that you hold a position in this office, that you've been through your training?" Robards asked.
Harry bit back a sarcastic response of, 'Obviously,' in favor of drily replying, "Yes, sir."
"And, in cases of Muggle deaths with 'no obvious cause', to borrow your phrasing, what is the official recommendation for how the Department of Magical Law Enforcement should handle such a case?"
"That the Auror office clears the physical area in question for any unusual magical activity," Harry replied flatly.
"And if none is found?" Robards prompted.
"The case is returned to Muggle authorities," Ron finished.
"Yes," Robards said. "Though I'm not sure how this case found its way to the both of you, since I'm quite positive Patil handles all tracking of unusual magical activities. However, I am aware that the three of you share a cubicle, do you not? So, is there anything else you wanted to discuss, or are you here simply to make me aware of your misguided eavesdropping?"
Ron shifted stiffly in his robes. Harry took a deep breath.
"Sir, I just think, what with the attacks last April, it would be prudent to-"
"As far as I'm aware, no Muggles were harmed in April's attacks."
"But if we could just get a team out there to see, I know Ron and I would be -"
"You are rushing into this," Robards said sagely, sitting back in his chair and crossing his arms. Harry huffed out a long breath, again willing himself not to risk insubordination. Robards continued. "I'm not willing to form some pell-mell offensive squad for what is likely the result of some faulty piece of Muggle craftsmanship. I've heard of these carbon momoxide killings before. Muggles being murdered by their own homes and automobiles; it's embarrassing."
Harry bit his tongue, trying for a different angle.
"What about a Taboo? They're bound to have protective enchantments in place, but if we had a taboo, any dark activity in Barrowden would become evident immediately," Harry projected desperately. "We could use anything, their first names, the Dark Lord, anything."
"Do you have any idea what a complicated bit of magic that is to perform?" Robards barked, turning bright red. "Not to mention entirely unethical."
Harry had struck a nerve. He had guessed, and now as good as confirmed, that Robards had been the wizard who had cast the Taboo over the name Voldemort nearly two years ago. Only someone high up in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement could have enchanted the use of a word over so vast a space, and it was this very Taboo that had resulted in their capture, extradition to Malfoy Manor, Hermione's torture, and the death of Dobby. Feeling himself seeth in anger, thinking of Dobby, and now convinced that these deaths in Barrowden were something "sinister", Harry stepped closer to Robards, who crossed his arms even more tightly across his chest.
"Do it. Taboo the term 'Dark Lord' and I promise we will be notified that it's been used in Barrowden within the fortnight."
"What makes you so sure-"
"I was a fugitive, Robards," Harry interrupted. "I avoided detection for nearly eight months less than two years hiding outside tiny Muggle villages and raiding their chicken coops. And it was breaking a Taboo that finally got me caught, and weakened the enchantments around me to the point that I was defenseless. We've got the power of the Ministry behind us, and this is probably the only excusable thing to use it for."
Ron, beside him, looked away uncomfortably. Harry felt his friend's anguish; reverting to old Ministry tactics hardly painted the best picture for the new world they were trying to create. But Rowle had killed three people in April, and they had to find him before he could do more damage. It had been over a year since the final battle now, and Harry still felt, as he knew most of his friends did, that he was existing in a limbo, no longer under the threat of Voldemort but unable to work through the terrors of what they had been through. Perhaps they had underestimated the resolve of the Death Eaters; that some who were too cowardly to fight until the bitter end when their master lived would now evade arrest to wreak havoc and torment the country.
Robards uncrossed his arms and looked out of the window of his office.
"I'll Taboo 'Dark Lord' for a fortnight," he finally said. "And neither of you will mention it to anyone, specifically Proudfoot. And when it's been two weeks and we've seen no sign of Thorfinn Rowle in fucking Barrowden, I'm lifting the Taboo and we're never speaking of this again."
"Thank you, sir," Harry said, stepping back. Ron made an odd little shrug in his superior's direction before heading out of the door. Harry followed.
"Well, there's your career down the toilet if you're wrong," Ron said as they re-entered their cubicle.
"I won't be wrong," Harry said confidently.
"Maybe they'd just got back from abroad," Ron suggested. "Maybe they're fasting for one of those nutter Muggle holidays."
"I won't be wrong," Harry said again. "I can feel this, Ron, just like with the attack in April. Robards, Savage - they never really had to fight. They just had to capture the bad guys, whoever they were at the time. I know Robards was Confunded and Savage says he was Imperiused and whatever else but… they never had to live on the defensive during Voldemort. They're still trying to do the same things they did five years ago, and Kingsley's got to keep them in his good graces because he needs support to run the Ministry but…" Harry trailed off dejectedly. Ron said nothing.
"I won't be wrong," Harry repeated a final time.
He wasn't. Harry, Ron, and Padma were sitting in their cubicle not a week later when a high-pitched scream sounded around the office, causing Harry to jump with a start at the memory of the Caterwauling Charm he had triggered in Hogsmeade village the night before the Battle of Hogwarts.
But this was not a Caterwauling Charm; the scream did not subside after a drawn-out moment, but rather continued to permeate the room. A chill ran down Harry's spine.
Heads popped up over the edges of cubicles across the hall, and suddenly Harry knew what was happening. He looked to Ron, eyes wide, and Ron nodded minutely in understanding.
"What the hell is that?" Padma asked, just as Robards stuck his head out of his office and barked, "Potter, Weasley, now."
"Did someone trip a Taboo?" Harry heard Williamson call from around the corner.
Padma looked to the two of them questioningly, but Harry merely shook his head. She scowled and turned to her map, as if hoping the answer lay in some recent surge of magical activity, and as Harry and Ron were exiting the cubicle, they bumped into Neville and Ernie, who were heading in.
"What do you think it is?" Neville asked anxiously.
"I've never heard anything like it," Ernie spoke over him. "It's got to be some kind of alarm, but it's certainly nothing we've been briefed on before."
"We're going to talk to Robards now," Ron said smoothly, Padma rolling her eyes behind him. "We'll let you know when we figure out what it is."
Harry felt quite sure that Robards wanted to grab him by the scruff of the neck and throw him against the wall when they reached his partition, but instead he gestured moodily to the chairs in front of his desk, where the two novice Aurors sat, waiting expectantly for instructions from their superior.
Robards didn't say anything at first, but rather waved his wand in a grand sweeping gesture, which silenced the room. He then placed the short bit of wood to his neck and muttered "Sonorus", before looking Harry directly in the eye as he spoke curtly to the entirety of the office.
"Magical Maintenance has accidentally triggered a Taboo charm that had not been undone after Pius Thicknesse's term as Minister. There will be no need for Auror Office response. Thank you."
Harry dared not glance behind him to see the response of his coworkers. There was silence for a moment, but then the usual buzz of conversation and movement took up again, and he and Ron were left sitting before Robards, who was rifling through a stack of papers in front of him.
"The Taboo was set off outside of Barrowden," Robards said without looking up from his parchment. He used his hand to gesture to a map behind him, where a red pin stuck in Rutland was blinking like a marquee light. "Get a team together and go."
Harry hesitated. "Go, sir?" he asked.
"Go," Robards repeated. "I'm not risking my best Aurors on a suicide mission."
Ron snorted. "Yeah, why risk your best Aurors when you've got Harry Potter?" he wondered sarcastically.
Robards ignored him. "I want your team to scope out the village and report back to me with your findings. Then we'll decide whether or not to mount an offensive. And I'd prefer if you spoke of this to no one."
"Our findings?" Harry asked incredulously. "A Muggle family ends up dead with no signs of a struggle in a village of four-hundred people and a week later someone in the same village starts talking about the Dark Lord? What the hell do you think we're going to find?"
"Watch it, Potter," Robards growled. "I'm still head of this office and-"
"Sod this, Harry," Ron said. "Let's just go to Kingsley, we can-"
"Go to the Minister and tell him you collaborated on the extrajudicial use of a curse he's been trying for months to make illegal?" Robards sneered. "While he's worked so hard for the last year to make this new government just and fair, his poster-boy Potter limits free speech with the same curse that forced Shacklebolt himself to go into hiding a year ago?"
Harry gaped, shocked at how quickly sinister Robards had become, but beginning to fully understand his director's motives. Robards wasn't stupid; he knew his headship had an expiration date. If this mission was a failure, it had all been organized covertly, and he could paint Harry as the rookie-gone-rogue. If it succeeded, he could take credit for the capture of Rowle and the Lestranges under his leadership.
Harry's expression grew angry, but he nodded slowly at Robards. He knew now he could not fail.
"I'll get a team," he said, and took his leave.
Ron followed Harry into the cubicle where Neville, Ernie, and Padma were waiting expectantly.
"A forgotten Taboo?" Neville asked skeptically.
"Not exactly," Ron said, while Harry quickly and quietly filled them in on the events of the previous few days. The faces of his peers changed from confused, to shocked, to resigned as he spoke.
"Robards told me to choose a team and leave today," Harry said, and Padma nodded silently, while Ernie took a deep breath and straightened up.
"And you want us?" he asked.
Harry didn't say anything, but rather looked at each of them beseechingly. There was no one else in this office that he trusted as much as his friends from the D.A. With Rodolphus and Rabastan Lestrange still at large, Harry had hardly been surprised that Neville had joined the ranks of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, but when Padma and Ernie had responded to Kingsley's call, Harry had felt a camaraderie with the two, and now considered them amongst those of whom he relied upon the most.
They looked at him, their leader since they had all been fifteen, and one-by-one stepped forward in agreement.
"Right," Ernie said, clapping his hands together. "Let's get a move on."
Five loud cracks cut through the air of the open field on the outskirts of the small farming village. As Harry rematerialized with a gasp of thick, afternoon air, the only thought he could manage was "Here?".
They had landed in the middle of nowhere. The others were looking around skeptically as well. The Taboo was meant to weaken protective enchantments amongst the users of the Tabooed words, so that, ideally, Harry and his team would be Apparating almost on top of the missing Death Eaters. But there was nothing here, save for high grasses and a narrow road leading towards the village. The tops of tiny houses could be seen over the crest of a hill. Harry's heart sank. Had they been too late? Were the Lestranges and Rowle somehow tipped off that the team of Aurors would be arriving?
"Are we in the wrong spot?" Ernie said hesitantly.
"This was the Apparition point," Ron said surely, looking at the bit of parchment they had collected from Robards. "The Taboo registered that this is the exact latitudinal and longitudinal location that the words 'Dark Lord' were said in conjunction."
"Maybe they left," Padma suggested hopefully, and Harry felt a pang of remorse for dragging the others along on this mission. They were going in blind to a highly dangerous situation, and it all felt completely antithetical in light of the months of training that they had just undergone.
They all looked to Harry, whose mind again flashed back to the old days of the D.A. They had trusted him then, when no one had believed him, when facets of the Ministry wanted to see him fail. They trusted him still. Like it or not, he was their leader.
"Let's head towards the village," Harry commanded, silently promising himself that he would not lower his guard despite that their immediate expectation of confronting the fugitive Death Eaters had been rendered false. The air was too still, the road too quiet, and Harry gripped his wand tightly in his right hand.
They set off down the path, Harry and Neville at the front, Ernie and Padma flanking their left and right, while Ron covered the rear. It was an odd formation, moving down the road in a crooked group, and Harry couldn't help but wish the team was larger.
"While we're here, we may as well scope out that Muggle house where those deaths took place the other day," Padma said from behind him.
"We don't have clearance to do that," Ernie reminded her. "It never made it past Muggle investigation into our jurisdiction."
"We hardly have clearance to be doing any of this, and I'd like to take a look at the fucking reason we're here," was her tempestuous reply. Harry grinned for a moment.
As they neared the village, signs of life began to make themselves known, and Harry trained himself to take note of haystack, every fencepost, trying to look for signs of magical activity; the telltale traces left behind by Concealment Charms, Disillusionment Charms, and other sparse signs of life. He saw nothing.
The conversation was negligible as they moved closer and closer towards the town, but when the reached the limits of the village, the silence grew oppressive and Ernie, Padma, and Ron began debating the merits of visiting the Tuft family to question them about the triggered Taboo.
Harry and Neville continued to remain silent on their quiet trek. Harry privately thought Neville seemed even more tense than Harry felt. Even with the demise of Bellatrix, the fact that there will still Lestranges running free weighed heavily on Neville, certainly more than the rest of the group. Neville's ambitions to be an Auror were motivated purely by the desire to bring down the Lestranges with finality, not by any actual career goals. He turned to Harry sharply.
"We should cast an Anti-Disapparition Jinx," he said firmly. Harry was taken aback by his conviction.
"You think?" he asked.
"We could cast one over the village from here," Neville said seriously, gesturing down the hill towards Barrowden. "I think the five of us could make it hold."
"You've never cast an Anti-Disapparition Jinx before," Harry said dubiously. They had stopped walking, and the others behind them were catching up now. "You think we can place one over the entire village on your first go?"
"I just think it makes sense," Neville replied earnestly. "If they haven't left already and we cast it well, we'd be able to hold them here if we found them."
"It didn't work in April," Harry reminded him. "And we'd be trapping ourselves here as well. They may even be able to lift it themselves and there would be no point in the first place."
"It's harder to undo someone else's jinx," Neville argued. "Why don't we ask the others?"
They turned to see that Ron, Ernie, and Padma staring at them, clearly having picked up on the end of the conversation.
"I'm for it," Ernie said. Padma shrugged, and Ron looked to Harry. The idea of not having a quick escape discomfited Harry significantly, but if they reached the Lestranges he'd prefer to have them not again vanish into nothingness.
He raised his wand in consent. His partners followed suit, pointing them at the village as they softly spoke the incantation in unison. Harry was sure it had worked; even as they spoke the air around them, already dense and sticky from the summer head, thickened further, and Harry knew that his very being had become more attached to the surroundings.
They continued on, the others continuing to chat and argue amongst themselves as they grew closer and closer to the village. Harry remained silent, wondering if it was really worth such an expedition if the Taboo had been tripped nearly five kilometers from the village itself. Were they walking in entirely the wrong direction?
"Ernie's needing a piss!" Ron shouted from the rear of their pack. Harry turned to see Ernie shaking his head, clearly displeased at such vulgar terms being applied to his basic bodily functions. He wandered off the trail, towards a nearby grove of trees to relieve himself.
Harry turned back to the road ahead and ensured that the area ahead was still free of disturbance before walking over to Ron.
"The others don't want to be here," he said to his friend. It wasn't a question.
"They're just nervous, is all," Ron said casually, gazing over Harry's shoulder towards the village again. "They know what's at stake."
Harry grimaced, glancing behind him again as Ernie buttoned his trousers and came to rejoin the group; Harry opened his mouth to speak to them all, but stopped suddenly as he realized what he'd seen, turning back to the road ahead of them.
A small roof jutted above the thicket of trees past where Ernie had relieved himself. Harry had not noticed it on their approach, though it blended in well with the leaves that surrounded it. Harry couldn't see the base of the structure through the dense trunks, and felt a sudden sense of overexposure, standing in a group on an empty road, surrounded by little more than tall grasses.
"Do you see that?" he asked Ron, gesturing to the eaves before them.
"Yeah," Ron said, unfazed. "I expect we're getting quite near the village, Harry, it'll be normal to see some houses."
"I didn't notice it on the approach," Harry said quietly.
"I can barely see it now, Harry," Ron said, a subtle attempt to reassure him. "It's not like it just appeared."
Harry threw him a skeptical glance, silently daring him to think about Seamus' house, or Grimmauld Place. It was actually quite typical of Wizarding settlements to appear seemingly out of thin air, Harry determined.
"Could that be the Tuft place?" Harry asked Padma.
"It could be," she said thoughtfully. "I'd think there'd be more signs of magic around it, though. That place looks abandoned."
Harry took a step closer, so he could see through the trees to the front door and windows. There was nothing around the house that would signify someone living there, Muggle nor magical. The windows were coated in dust, the grasses surrounding the house overgrown and beginning to cover the doorway. None of this made Harry feel better.
"Let's continue on to the Muggle house," Neville said.
The others regrouped and began again towards the village. Harry considered following them on down the road for just a moment before shaking his head and wordlessly taking several steps towards the house. One of the upstairs windows was open, the curtain eerily still.
"Look," Padma groaned. Harry didn't have to look back to know that she was referring to him.
"What's he doing?!" Neville exclaimed.
"Brilliant," Ernie deadpanned.
"Bloody fucking hell," Ron breathed, and Harry heard the crunch of earth as his best friend followed him off the path, towards the cottage.
"Is this in the area we shut off?" Harry asked, not tearing his eyes from the upstairs window nestled in the building's crumbling roof.
Beside him, Ron squeezed his eyes shut and gripped his wand. Nothing happened.
"Yeah, I'd guess so," Ron quipped. Harry allowed himself to smirk before finding his hand flying towards Ron's wrist as the curtain twitched.
But Ron had either seen or sensed the movement alongside him, and had dropped to the ground with a shout before Harry had a chance to drag him down. They crashed together into the cool ground as a jet of white light soared over their heads into the place where they had been standing moments earlier.
Auror instincts kicking in, Harry rolled away from the spot again, not willing to be a sitting target. Ron had done the same but in the opposite direction, now springing to his feet from his position on the ground and sending a quick Stunning spell back up to the window above.
"Shit!" Harry yelled, before remembering his role as the captain of their mission. "Find cover!" he shouted behind him, jumping to his own feet and making for the nearest tree trunk. Spells were flying from the window like bullets, whizzing past each of them, bringing up bits of grass and rocks in their wake. Harry noted the tell-tale green flashes of light, the mark of a Death Eater anywhere, but could not tell how many wizards they were dealing with, how many wands were pointed at the five of them from the old cottage.
He reached the base of the old ash tree and threw a Reductor Curse towards the window, hearing it crash behind him as he took the moment to account for the rest of his friends.
Ron held a fairly decent position behind the trunk of a tree not too far to his left, while Ernie and Padma had jumped into a ditch in the grass near the path. Neville had charged towards the house upon the initial attack and was now sheltering behind a small boulder.
"WE HAVE TO MOVE FORWARD!" Harry shouted as a jet of light whizzed past his left side.
"IT'S TOO OPEN," Ernie's voice replied. Harry looked to Ron, who caught his eye quickly before sending another jinx towards the window.
Harry grimaced, unable to think of a way to communicate with Ron without their attackers overhearing. Settling on the decidedly unmagical route of hand gestures, he motioned for Ron to approach the right side of the house while he took the left. He turned back to Neville, who nodded in understanding, knowing that he would cover them from behind.
Harry had to admire Neville's skill under fire as bursts of light began to shoot over their heads towards the house from the rear. A few other bolts supported he and Ron occasionally, indicating that Ernie and Padma were close enough to keep the house within range.
Harry and Ron looked at each other briefly for a second time, each nodding at the other, before dashing wildly towards their respective sides of the cottage. The volley of spells continued to whizz over their heads, scorching the earth around them.
Harry slammed into the hard wall, looking up to make sure no wizard could take aim at him from any of the upstairs windows. He was lucky; this wall of the cottage bore no openings, though he doubted he had more than a minute or two before those upstairs would confront him here, or vice-versa.
A great weight slammed into him suddenly, throwing him off balance. He straightened himself to see Neville standing beside him, looking up furtively towards the window.
"You followed me?" Harry said.
"You're not seriously trying to go in alone, are you?" asked Neville.
"Why not Ron?"
"In case you hadn't noticed," Neville whispered, "they've stopped firing spells at us. Ernie and Padma are going to regroup with Ron."
"Right," Harry said. "Right, let's move in."
They crept around the corner of the building, hoping to find a back entrance that could lead them in. They were rewarded in short, and Harry tried the door, surprised to see that it was unlocked. He looked at Neville, who grasped his wand more securely in his hand and aimed it ahead of them. Harry pushed through the entrance, into a tiny scullery.
The room was devoid of human presence. Dishes were piled upon every surface, and a thick coating of dust covered the room.
"The plates don't have dust on them," Neville noted in a hushed voice.
"So?" Harry asked.
"So, someone's been here to use them. For awhile, I'd guess," Neville gestured at the absurd amount of used china in the room.
"Well, we know that, don't we?" Harry whispered dramatically. "They were just trying to kill us a minute ago!"
"I meant that they've been here awhile."
"Yeah, yeah. Let's see if we can figure out how many there are," Harry suggested, raising his wand and murmuring "Homenum Revelio".
A wisp of smoke emitted from his wand, raveling itself into a number five, which hung in the air for a minute before dissipating.
"Five?" Neville mouthed, looking to Harry in horror.
Harry heard a creak from the floor above. He looked to Neville, and they both raised their wands again, as the door to the scullery burst open and a trio of figures darted in.
"Alright?" Ron said quietly. "They must all be upstairs, we didn't see anyone on our way in from the front."
"What the hell are they doing?" Padma wondered anxiously.
"They can't have Disapparated?" Ernie asked. Neville shook his head.
"We need to confront them," Harry said. "I'm not playing hide-and-seek. There are five of them and five of us."
"So what do we do? Root them out one-by-one?" Ron asked.
Harry looked to his best friend. "We'll go upstairs with Neville. Padma, you and Ernie cover this part of the place. Let us know if you need anything."
Harry boldly pushed open the door to the scullery.
"Staircase is over there," Ron said, gesturing. "We saw it coming in."
Harry nodded, and Neville led them to the left, where the rickety staircase began. Every instinct in Harry's body was screaming for him to turn back, screaming that if their attackers weren't willing to engage in an open fight, they should pack up and go. But he knew he had to press on, and so he went up first, wand held aloft, reaching a narrow hallway with several shut doors on either side.
Just as he was attempting to decide which entrance to try first, the door nearest him burst open with a great crash, and a scruffy man jumped out, sending a purple beam of light heading towards them. Harry had been expecting this, deflecting it easily with a Shield Charm while Neville threw a Stunning Spell in the man's direction.
He clearly wasn't a Death Eater; he was unkempt, with ragged robes, and even from here Harry could see that his forearms did not bear the image of the Dark Mark.
"Snatcher!" Ron shouted, waving his wand so that an Impediment Curse smashed into the man, who stopped dead on the landing.
Harry's mind was racing. Was this place simply a hide-out for Snatchers attempting to avoid Azkaban in the wake of Voldemort's defeat? He'd been so sure that he had discovered the hidden location of the Lestranges and Rowle. Ron gave him a bracing look.
"Let's round them up," he said, knowing exactly where Harry's mind was. "No one knows about the Taboo, we can come up with some excuse as to why we're here and, come on, it'll be fantastic to see this lot shut up for good."
Harry nodded, and Neville pointed his wand at the next door, Harry and Ron raising their wands beside him.
The door swung open to reveal a small, windowless room. It was completely dark, and in the moment it took for their eyes to adjust to the darkness, Harry made the mistake of assuming it was unoccupied.
"Lumos," Ron whispered, stepping forward.
Light poured into the room, revealing a tall, muscular man, his blonde head gleaming in the low light as he raised his wand and aimed it directly at them.
And with a sickening realization, Harry knew what was going to happen before it did, and, even as he was shouting "Protego!", knew his Shield Charm was not fast enough, knew with the familiarity of only a caster the exact speed and color of that terrible bolt of light that surged from Rowle's outstretched wand into the side of Ron's body.
Harry could swore that Ron's blue eyes looked pleadingly into his own for a moment before the blood began to pour out of the massive gashes opening over his torso, but perhaps it happened too quickly for that. Before Harry could get any closer to Rowle or his best friend, Ron, entire body wet and sticky with red, collapsed forwards onto the floor of the dingy room, a pool of blood beginning to spread out from beneath him.
Terror and rage began to seethe through his body as he raised his wand at Rowle, who, like Harry just two years prior, seemed to not have realized the effects that the Sectumsempra curse could bring about. He jumped back for a moment from the wave-like spurt of blood, and it was in this moment that Harry threw his arm forward, immobilizing the Death Eater as Neville crashed into the room behind him.
Harry fell to his knees beside Ron as another Snatcher ran towards the room. Neville deflected him easily, sending him flying into a bookcase.
"Ron!" Harry cried, flipping his friend over and grabbing onto the front of his robes. "Ron, can you hear me?"
Ron writhed and gasped wetly beneath his touch, and Harry jammed his hand into his robes, where he kept the kit that he'd been given on his last day of training, full of useful things to have in the field. He found the tiny vial of dittany and uncorked it with his teeth, desperately trying to remember the song-like countercurse he'd heard Snape recite over Malfoy in that bathroom years ago. It was to no avail; Harry knew that he hadn't heard the actual incantation Snape had voiced.
He turned Ron on his side and looked at the terrible, gaping wound. He could see something pulsing underneath the sea of red and felt a wave of nausea as he realized it was Ron's heart. His entire left side had been sliced open; Harry could see splinters of bone and cleaved muscle as he attempted to evenly administer his insufficient bottle of plant essence. He settled for pouring the entirety over the areas that he believed to be most essential to sustaining Ron's life; his chest and back. A puff of green smoke shot up from Ron's body, and when it cleared Harry looked back at the hole. Blood still oozed from the gash in his hips and over his neck, but the rush from his chest seemed to slow. How much longer could Ron bleed like this and still survive?
"Neville!" Harry shouted, surprised at how weak his voice sounded as such panic seared through him. "Neville, we've got to lift the jinx!"
"I know," Neville cried desperately. "But Harry, there are too many of them, if you lift the jinx the three of us won't be able to hold them here!"
"It doesn't matter!" Harry cried as Ron coughed in his arms, flecks of blood hitting Harry in the face. "Please, help me!"
"Incarcerous!" Neville cried, and the Snatcher was bound and gagged, and then Harry and Neville pointed their wands in the air in unison, murmuring the counter-jinx. Harry felt the stiff air, smokey and hot from the fight, loosen slightly, and he bent over and grabbed onto both of Ron's wrists, picturing the St. Mungo's reception area as vividly as he could.
"Neville," he said for the final time. "Take Ernie and Padma and go! Get help and come back!"
But he knew as he squeezed his eyes shut and prepared for the sensation of Apparition that they had lost, again, and suddenly he was forced through that terrible tube into a bright space, landing awkwardly on the hard floor as Ron's weight dragged him down again, and he heard his own voice shouting for help again and again as the sounds of what seemed like hundreds of feet surrounded him.
"Merlin, what's this?" someone shouted.
"Is that Harry Potter?" another called.
"The bleeding one?! It can't be!"
"Out of my way!" a voice cried, and Harry opened his eyes to see a Healer in lime green robes towering over himself and Ron. Harry slackened his grip on his friend just slightly, as the witch leaned over Ron, pushing back her sleeves and prying her fingers over his wounds.
"Christ," she muttered. "What's happened to him?"
"A curse," Harry said quickly. "He's an Auror, a Death Eater's just hit him with a curse called Sectumsempra, not three minutes ago. I've applied dittany but I don't know-"
"Nevermind any of that," the Healer barked, clearly alarmed by what she'd discovered upon her quick examination. "We'll sort that out once we've got him stable, he's about to bleed out!"
She waved her wand and a stretcher appeared, and she waved it again and Ron was lifted onto it.
Harry made to follow, but the Healer looked back and shook her head. "Go to the fourth floor waiting room and when we know what's going on a Healer will see to you. You said Sectumsempra?"
Harry nodded, stopping miserably in his tracks.
"Sectumsempra," he confirmed.
The Healer shook her head for a moment before following the stretcher around the corner.
Harry wanted to collapse, but he couldn't keep his head from spinning. Moments ago Ron had been fine. How could things have deteriorated so rapidly? He had woken up this morning to the sound of his two best friends squabbling over a Daily Prophet horoscope, blissfully unaware of the horrors that today would bring.
Harry felt his heart sink, wanting nothing more than to Apparate back to Barrowden and tear Thorfinn Rowle limb from limb, but he knew that he had to tell Hermione, so she could be here, in case…
But Harry shook his head, unwilling to let that particular thought form. He yanked off his blood-soaked robes, revealing a stained sweater and jeans beneath. He found the nearest bin and threw the robes in, consideration for sanitation nonexistent by this point.
He closed his eyes and, after the now-familiar sensation, opened them to find himself in front of his flat. He knew Hermione would be home; just returned a week earlier from her final term at Hogwarts, gearing up to start her new job in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. These few weeks were meant to be a well-deserved break for her, a time for her and Ron to catch up after their year apart.
Harry entered the flat slowly, still unsure if the events of the last minutes were real. He kept checking Fabian Prewett's old watch, spacing the time between the current moment and the last he had seen Ron unhurt. They had landed in Barrowden not two hours ago. He looked out the window, seeing the early evening sun beginning to set over the London skyline.
Hermione was curled up on the settee with a book on her lap, clearly in the midst of a very pleasant nap.
Harry placed one hand on her shoulder.
"Hermione," he said quietly. Her eyes were instantly open, her expression of alarm changing to one of comfort as she recognized who was standing above her.
"Harry," Hermione said. "Are you coming from work?"
Harry cleared his throat, giving Hermione a moment to take in his disheveled appearance.
"Harry, what's happened?" she said, her eyes widening again. "Harry, is that blood?"
Harry couldn't say anything, but took another deep breath, which rattled treacherously on its way out.
"Are you hurt? Where's Ron?" the panic in Hermione's voice grew as realization dawned on her. "Harry, where's Ron?"
Harry couldn't meet her gaze. He wanted to throw himself out the window for suggesting the stupid Taboo. How had he been outsmarted by the Death Eaters yet again?
"He got hit," he said quietly.
Hermione was silent.
"Where is he?" she asked, her voice eerily calm.
"St. Mungo's," Harry answered, finally looking back at her. She gazed at him frankly, then bent down and picked up her wand and beaded bag. "It was - Hermione, it was Sectumsempra. Snape, or Voldemort, I don't know… they must've showed the others how to use it."
"I'm going now," Hermione said, and her strange calm was starting to unnerve Harry. Had she not heard what'd he'd said? The only person who knew the countercurse for the terrible spell had been dead over a year. The potions book where he'd recorded his spells and curses had been destroyed in a cursed fire the same night.
Hermione walked to the door before surveying him again. "You'll need to tell the others," she said, before opening the door and walking out.
Harry's stomach suddenly churned, and he attempted to make it to the loo before being violently sick, but could only get as far as the hallway. He Vanished the vomit quickly, sinking down the floor as his stomach heaved again.
He couldn't do it. He couldn't look Mr. and Mrs. Weasley in the eye and tell them that another of his foolish actions had lost them another son in this war that was meant to be over. And he'd have to face Ginny, really face her, for the first time in nearly a year. He couldn't do it.
But he had to do it, and he hadn't been a Gryffindor for nothing. He stood slowly from the floor and gathered his things around him before following Hermione's path back into the hall and Disapparating for what felt like the tenth time in an hour.
He appeared at the garden gate of the Burrow, the sunset behind the hills casting the house and lawn in a beautiful golden light. A war raged within Harry as he tried to decide which Weasley he least-wished would answer the door. He had finally settled on Molly when he reached the stoop and, for the first time in his life, knocked on the door to the home.
It was silent for a moment, and Harry looked again at his watch. It was going on seven o'clock, surely they'd all be at home. But then the door swung open and Ginny was in front of him, already wearing a nightdress despite the early hour, her hair wet and tangled from the shower.
"Harry?" she asked, paling considerably as she took in his appearance. There had been no moment of confusion for Ginny as there had been for Hermione; one look at Harry was all it took for her to realize that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.
"What's happened?" she asked.
"Ron's been hurt," the words fell out of him effortlessly here, so unlike the coaxing they'd required with Hermione. "Really badly hurt, we were on a mission-"
"Fuck," Ginny breathed, looking back into the house. "Oh, fuck, alright. Come inside. He's at St. Mungo's? Fuck."
If the situation was any less dire, Harry might've laughed about how Ginny's immediate response to stress was to begin swearing like a sailor. However, he barely registered what she was saying as he followed her into the house.
"Wait here," she said. "It's just me, Mum, and Dad. I'll get them and we'll go."
Harry followed her instructions unthinkingly, sitting himself down at the gleaming wooden table as she quickly ascended the stairs.
His looked around the room quietly, trying to remember the last time he'd been there. Just before he and Ron had moved to London, he realized. Without realizing what exactly he had been looking for, he found himself suddenly facing Mrs. Weasley's wooden clock. Most of the hands of the clock were pointing to "Home", as Harry assumed the majority of Molly and Arthur's children were settling in for the weekend. Ron's hand, however, was firmly fixed over "Hospital". He wondered if Mrs. Weasley had left her room recently enough to see the moments where it had hovered over "Mortal Peril". He thought it unlikely.
There was a cacophony of sound from the staircase and Harry turned to see Ginny, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Weasley hurrying from the floors above. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley looked a combination of stunned and frazzled, and Mrs. Weasley took in the sight of him before silently closing her eyes. Ginny made for the door, not having bothered to change out of her night things, but merely throwing a robe on over them.
Harry stood up and followed her, with Mr. and Mrs. Weasley just behind them.
"What's happened?" Mr. Weasley asked urgently. "I've just gotten back from work - I'd not heard anything about a mission in your office."
"It was secret," Harry said, and explained to them the circumstances of the afternoon as they reached the gate. Mrs. Weasley gasped when Harry described Ron's injury.
"But, Sectumsempra!" she said breathlessly. "When George lost his ear, all I used was a great deal of dittany on the wound and it closed up fairly quickly."
This was the most Harry thought he'd heard Mrs. Weasley talk since Fred had died, and the hope in her voice nearly broke Harry's heart. They'd yet to reach the Apparition point, but thankfully Mr. Weasley answered for Harry.
"George's ear was severed clean off, Molly," he said, putting on a show of remaining calm for her sake. "It seems from Harry's perspective that whatever has happened to Ron has done damage to his insides, as well."
Mrs. Weasley groaned in response to this, but they had finally reached the perimeter of the Burrow, and before Harry could realize what she was doing, Ginny had grabbed his hand and twisted on the spot.
The four of them appeared in the reception area of St. Mungo's. Harry glanced at the bin to see that someone had removed his bloody robe.
"What floor?" Arthur asked.
"Fourth," Harry answered, and they made their way.
The fourth floor had a separate reception area, and Ginny quickly hurried to the Welcome Witch's desk.
"Excuse me, my brother was brought to this floor earlier, his name's-"
Harry and Ginny turned sharply to see Hermione walking out of the waiting area. She looked far worse than she had at the flat.
"Thank goodness you're here. They won't tell me anything about him."
"What do you mean?"
"They just keep saying he's critical right now, and they'll let us know if things change."
"Who's they?" Ginny asked.
"The Healers, the Welcome Witch, anyone I can speak to!" Hermione cried, wringing her hands together.
"Well, they have to speak with us," Arthur said steadfastly. "We're his parents."
Hermione turned back to the waiting room, choking back a sob, while Arthur and Molly went to speak to the witch behind the desk. Harry and Ginny followed Hermione.
"I told them everything I knew about Sectumsempra," Hermione said thickly. "I told them that it was invented by Snape who was a master at both potions and the Dark Arts. They didn't seem to care, though."
Harry knew not what to say, and for the first time in an hour wondered what had become of Rowle and the Snatchers that they had discovered outside of Barrowden. Had Neville been able to capture any of them. He knew he should reach out to his friend for information, but dreaded whatever he was to hear.
Mr. and Mrs. Weasley rejoined them, looking even more stricken now than before.
"We can't see him," Mr. Weasley said. "They said there's no visitors for injuries as critical as his."
The five of them lapsed into silence for a few moments. Ginny, rubbing at her eyes, decided to send Patronuses to the rest of the family, and as the hours passed by they were soon joined in their silent vigil by Bill and Fleur, Percy. They only spoke to quietly ask one another the time.
Shortly before midnight, George arrived with Angelina Johnson in tow, taking up places in the corner of the room nearest Bill and Fleur. Ginny eyed them suspiciously, her gaze narrowing in a way that was so Mrs. Weasley-ish it made Harry momentarily uncomfortable. Tired of the silence, and not being able to think of anything better to say, Harry leaned towards her.
"Why're you wearing a nightgown?" he asked. She jumped, startled, but then smiled slowly.
"I was trying to go to bed early," she admitted. "I've got a Quidditch clinic in the morning, though it's starting to seem pretty likely I'll miss it."
"Yeah," Harry said, settling back.
For whatever reason, it felt as though the shock of what had happened had stripped away at least some of the awkwardness surrounding them. Panic had Harry's throat nearly stuck together, but he felt able to speak to Ginny properly for the first time in months. He leaned forward, his hands on his knees, exhaling deeply.
Ginny had gone back to staring intently at Angelina and George.
"Did you know that Angelina used to date Fred?" she asked innocently.
Harry scratched the back of his head. "Er- they went to the Yule Ball together, didn't they?"
"Yeah," Ginny replied. "Yeah, and then they used to see each other a couple years ago, when they both left school. It ended before Voldemort took over, though."
Harry counted the months. "That wasn't too long, then," he said. "A year?"
"It's longer than we were ever together," she snapped. Harry recoiled.
"What does it matter, anyways?" he pressed, trying to keep his tone casual.
Ginny's look softened a bit. "I just can't figure out why George won't talk to any of us about her," she admitted. "I think they must be serious, if she's here now, but she's never been to the house, or anything like that, and she wasn't there in April for the Order of Merlin."
"Hmm," Harry noncommittally voiced. He hadn't been much apprised of Weasley happenings since he had started his career at the Ministry. He knew George spent most of his time with Angelina in London, and that Verity was effectively running Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, which was barely breaking even without its owner on the premises. He wasn't sure what brought George and Angelina together, but was saved from having to make further comment on the situation by the emergence of the same Healer that had admitted Ron hours before, her lime green robes smeared with rust-colored stains and her expression grim.
"You're the family of Ronald Weasley?" she asked, gazing around the waiting room at each of them.
Mr. Weasley nodded and stepped forward. "You have news for us?"
"Hardly," the Healer said briskly. "His condition hasn't much improved. Whatever curse this was, it was clearly designed to inflict major harm on the human body. The damage to his left side remains extensive, and we cannot begin to even think about closing the wound until we deal with the internal bleeding. He's unconscious now, and we're sustaining life with a Blood Replenishing potion, but really, at this point, we have very little idea of how to move forward. The concern, however, is that if we don't move quickly enough, the damage to his lungs, spleen, and pancreas will be irreversible. Curses this dark tend to become more severe the longer they remain uncontained."
"So the effects of the curse are worsening?" Ginny asked, her voice a squeak.
"Yes," the Healer said simply. "As I said, I simply wanted to update you. We will notify you all immediately if his condition changes. My name is Healer Ainsworth."
"Thank you," Mr. Weasley said. Healer Ainsworth retreated back down the corridor, and Harry sank back in his chair, hardly daring to look at the others. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley hadn't moved, and Hermione had covered her mouth with her hand.
Harry didn't know what to say or do. A quick motion beside him made him look up in time to see Ginny's long hair flying down the corridor as she rushed from the waiting room.
Without really thinking about what he was doing, or how it would look, Harry stood, following her down the long hall. She ducked into an empty private room, and when Harry reached the doorway, he saw her pacing in front of the small window, her silhouette illuminated by the moonlight.
He walked in and crossed the short distance between them easily. She turned to look at him, running a hand impulsively through her hair.
"I've been so fucking stupid," she gasped, and the desperation in her voice cut through Harry like a knife. "After Fred I told myself I'd never take anyone for granted again and I - I just can't believe I ended things with you - it could've been you. I can't even remember the last time I told Ron that I, you know, loved him or anything like that, you know - or said anything to him that wasn't taking the piss out of him and now it's too late…"
She was hyperventilating now, and looked quite mad. Harry had never seen Ginny so out of control; she normally was so composed, the master of her own emotions. His mouth opened and closed several times before he took a step closer to her.
"It's not too late," Harry said quietly. "We don't know what's-"
"He's going to die!" Ginny cried. "You saw him, didn't you? The healers have no clue what to do! Did you see her face? He's going to die."
"What's wrong with you?" Harry shouted. "Stop saying that!"
"It's the truth!" she screamed. "None of us are ever going to be okay again!"
Harry threw up his hands in anger, unable to get through to her. "I'm done, okay?! I'm done with this!" he roared, making to leave the room.
But she had stopped moving as he had shouted and for the briefest moment she gazed openly into him, and he could see in her eyes all the confusion, and fear, and anger, and hurt, but then she ran forward and grabbed his face with both hands, pressing her lips to his.
Surprised, he pushed her away, but only for a moment; Ginny looked at him again, so vulnerable, and before he realized what he was doing he kissed her back, grabbing her by the shoulders and pushing her across the room and into the wall.
Still locked at the lips, he shrugged hurriedly out of his jacket, and she her cardigan, and suddenly she was dragging him by the neck of his shirt downwards, sliding to the floor and pulling him on top of her as he broke away, drawing ragged breaths. She spread her legs so that her nightgown rode up around her knees and gazed at him expectantly, and he found his hands flying to the button on his jeans, tearing them down and leaning over her, hesitating for only a moment.
"Do it," she whispered, a frenetic edge to her voice.
He entered her quickly, kissing her neck as he thrust once, twice, and again. It had been too long; it had all been too much; it was over as soon as it began, and as he finished she inhaled deeply as if being awakened from the dead.
He pushed himself up on one arm and looked at her, using the other hand to caress her face. She was staring at him opened-mouthed. A wave of realization crashed over him.
"Fuck," Harry said, rolling off of her and pulling his trousers up. "Oh, fuck, Ginny, I'm sorry, I-"
"No," Ginny said, sitting up, her chest rising and falling rapidly and a blush beginning to creep across her face, "No, please don't apologize. Harry - Merlin, stop looking all guilty, it's okay!"
Harry put his head in his hands. When he had awoken this morning it had been a day like any other; now his entire world had been turned upside down. He wiped at his eyes with his sleeve; when he pulled it away he caught sight of a rust-colored stain; Ron's blood, caked in and dried. He was covered in it, never taking the time to change or magic it off.
What was wrong with him? His best mate lay dying down the corridor and Harry's reaction was to shag the man's sister? He couldn't stomach the idea of going back to the waiting room with Mrs. Weasley and the lot of them.
"Harry?" Ginny's touch was gentle on his shoulder. He shook her off, and she sighed loudly.
"Fuck this," she huffed, and grabbing him by the wrist, she turned on the spot, and Harry was sucked into the terrible, dark, tube, the air forced from his lungs, until light washed over him, and he found himself gasping for breath in front of his own flat.
"Let us in," Ginny commanded, and Harry obliged, without really thinking. She pulled him into the tiny lodging, dragging him nearly halfway across the sitting room until she stopped and faced him squarely.
"I'm sorry," she said in a rush. "I'm so sorry for what I did last summer. Not a day goes by that I don't regret it; that I don't wish I hadn't done it. And now, every time I see you, it seems like you're doing so well, and I don't want to bring you down, or demand attention that you can't make time for… but I can't stand this, and I need you to know, really, really know, Harry, that I love you. I've loved you since you asked fucking Luna to that fucking Christmas party my fifth year, and I'm so sorry I waited until I was breaking things off with you to tell you, because that wasn't fair, because I knew saying it would hurt you more and I was so hurt that you weren't going back to Hogwarts that I just wanted to make you feel terrible and I don't know why I did that. It was cruel. And I understand if you hate me for not trying harder to make things work with you and I think I hate myself a bit for that too but I just want to make absolutely fucking sure that you know how much I love you."
She took a deep breath and stared at him sadly. Harry felt like he had been deflated. How could she be saying these things to him now, after he'd been craving to hear them for months? They hardly seemed to matter now, with Ron mere miles away, bleeding out because of Harry's stupid actions. Harry couldn't think of one right decision he'd made since the war ended, if he was being honest with himself.
And yet, Ginny loved him. He looked at her, and she stared back at him with the blazing look that he loved so much. But it wasn't really the look, he realized, it was her that he loved so much. The world around him seemed to be crumbling, but here, in his tiny flat, with Ginny by his side, all the pains and fears of what was happening to Ron were muted softly, and his thoughts were clear. She had always been, and would likely always be his best source of comfort.
"Damn it, Ginny," he said weakly, his voice breaking. She gave him a wretched grin before taking a long, shuddering breath, and sinking slowly down to the floor. Harry's heart thudded mercilessly as he took a long stride towards her and ducked down to sit beside her on the wooden planks.
"Sorry," she said.
"It's alright," he murmured, raising a hand to push some of her hair from her face. She sighed and brought his own face to hers. He felt her warm breath near his ear, and drew her closer.
"I love you," he said. "I'm sorry, too. For not trying harder. For not asking about your feelings more. I've thought a lot about it, these last few months."
She was gazing at him with a strange look, and Harry worried that his words had fallen flat in face of her impassioned speech. But then she nodded quickly, and Harry knew they had reached another silent understanding together. They sat there for a moment, hands wound in the other's hair, foreheads touching, staring at the floor. Finally, Harry broke away so that he could sit propped up beside her, their heads resting on the windowsill.
"Can I ask you something?" he began.
"Sure," she said softly, head lolling onto his shoulder.
"What makes you think that I'm doing so well?" he wondered.
"Oh, come on, Neville writes all the old D.A. crowd to tell them that you're practically leading the hunt for the Lestranges single-handedly."
"Yeah, that's turned out great," Harry mumbled sarcastically. "My best mate slashed through by the biggest oaf imaginable, who we still can't seem to manage to capture." He didn't mean to be so abrupt, and looked quickly down at Ginny, her head still lightly touching his arm.
Ginny had paled again at the mention of Ron. "We should go back, shouldn't we?" she asked.
"Yeah," Harry said, picking up the lace of his trainer and fiddling with it idly in his hand. He couldn't even bear to think about Ron, doped up on Sleeping Draught while Blood-Replenishing Potion was flowing through his veins. He glanced back at Ginny for a second time. She looked positively nauseous now. Was this really what they had suffered through the war for, Harry couldn't help but wonder bleakly. To lose more friends, more brothers?
"Maybe you should sleep," Harry suggested. "It'll be daylight in a few hours and we can go back then."
"Will you stay with me?" Ginny asked him softly, and Harry felt his heart swell with both tenderness and sadness.
"Of course," he said, before clambering to his feet and offering her a hand. He pulled her up and led her to his bedroom, feeling remarkably self-conscious of its sparse furnishings and decorations, but she didn't seem to notice, instead directly honing in on the bed.
She collapsed on top of the blankets, rolling over onto her back. Harry sank down next to her and leaned over her prone figure, pressing his lips to hers chastely.
"Sleep," he said gently, pulling back the blankets and removing his own glasses. They both climbed under the sheets, he still in his blood-stained clothes, she in her nightgown, and curled up against one another.
Ginny reached up and touched the side of his face.
"I'm scared to sleep," she said softly.
"I know," Harry said.
"I want this all to be a nightmare," she continued. "But when I wake up tomorrow it'll still be real."
"I'll be here," Harry said softly. "Everything will be alright, Ginny."
"You can't know that," Ginny said with a yawn.
Harry didn't reply, but a few moments later her breathing evened out, and he knew she'd drifted off.
He wound his hand again through her hair and clung to her softly as he let the guilt of Ron's injury wash over him. Ron was dying because of him, and he lay here in the arms of the woman he loved. Hermione would probably give everything she had for another night with Ron, but because of Harry's terrible rashness, his impulsivity, she was sitting in a stiff wooden hospital chair. The shame engulfed Harry completely.
The hours of night dragged on, Harry clinging to sanity by listening to the slow, repetitive rhythm of Ginny's breathing beside him.
It was just past six when the shimmery silver otter flew in through Harry's bedroom window.
"Ginny," Harry said, and she was instantly wide awake and sitting up beside him, as the otter opened it's petite mouth and asked, with the voice of Hermione, "Where are you two? The Healers are coming to speak with us."
Ginny looked to Harry, terrified, and he knew it was not because she worried of what Hermione and her family would say of them for their hours-long disappearance, but rather what they were about to learn of Ron's injury.
They hurried out of bed silently, Harry finally pulling out a fresh t-shirt and new pair of jeans. Ginny looked down at her nightdress sadly, and Harry reached into his chest of drawers and unearthed a faded sweater and second pair of pants, which she quickly slipped into, rolling up the legs of the trousers several times to keep them from dragging on the floor.
"You must be a foot taller than me," she observed quietly, and Harry flashed her a wry smile.
They collected their wands and rushed from the flat, Apparating from the hall directly into the hospital.
Gaining speed the closer they got to Ron's room, Harry and Ginny dashed through the reception area and caught the lifts to the fourth floor. Bursting into the waiting room they were immediately faced with entire Weasley family and Hermione.
Charlie had arrived in their absence and was standing awkwardly in one corner, looking bleary-eyed. Fleur was leaning quietly on Bill's shoulder, while George and Angelina were talking quietly beside them. Hermione was pacing the tiny antechamber, while Mr. and Mrs. Weasley sat stock-still behind her, Percy beside them, rubbing his hands together as though trying to warm them. It was a picture of misery, Harry thought.
Ginny stepped forward, and Hermione turned towards her. Harry expected her to be accusatory, but her worry was clearly to great to fault them for disappearing for several hours.
"Where have you been?" she asked sadly.
"I got overwhelmed and needed a sleep," Ginny replied smoothly, her statement hardly an untruth. "Harry let me use his flat so I didn't have to leave London."
Hermione nodded, apparently satisfied, and resumed her march.
"What did the Healers say?" Harry asked hesitantly.
"A Mediwitch came about half-an-hour ago and told us that the Head of Spell Damage was going to come discuss Ron's outlook with us presently," Percy said, clearing the smudges off of his horn-rimmed glasses with the edge of his robe. "We've heard nothing since."
"Why don't you seet?" Fleur asked groggily, lifting her head up from Bill's shoulder and gesturing to the hard, wooden chairs beside her.
Harry and Ginny nodded in turn and took up their designated spaces. They watched Hermione stalk back and forth across the cramped space, each silently bracing to hear the very worst.
It wasn't until nearly eight that a Healer finally entered, drawing his robes around him securely and crossing his arms over his chest.
"We're sorry for the wait, but Mr. Weasley's health has been touch and go since being admitted last night. Unfortunately, we were unable to apply any kind of countercurse that would help his wounds heal."
Standing in front of Harry, Hermione closed her eyes.
"He was being administered a regular Blood-Replenishing Potion but the wound remained open-"
"I don't understand," Mr. Weasley interrupted. "I had a nasty snake bite years ago and the wound wouldn't close, but my condition wasn't nearly half as critical as my son's after this many hours."
The Healer cleared his throat pompously before continuing. "Yes, well, though snake bites are often grave, and can obviously cause severe blood loss, their fangs typically cannot sink as deep as did whatever curse struck your son. You may be looking at a punctured lung or a few broken bones if the snake is large enough, but every organ on the left side of the younger Mr. Weasley's body, from his longs to his bladder, looked as though they had been severed in half, accounting for his increasingly critical state, and presenting us with our second problem."
Fleur gave a small whimper. Bill had put his head in his hands, and Harry worried that he may be sick on the floor.
"We couldn't begin to assess the damage to the internal organs until we got the bleeding under control. It was a mess of severed veins and arteries, and whatever curse this was seemed to resisted any Sealing or Suturing Charm that we attempted. Ultimately, we decided that we would have to remove the cursed flesh and blood vessels completely in order to graft the healthy body back together. We Severed a quarter-inch of flesh each way around the wound and on each severed vessel, which we were then able to seal back together with dittany."
"So - so the bleeding has stopped, then?" Ginny said.
"Yes," the healer replied evenly. "Though the wound remains open as we attempt to determine how best to repair the organs."
"Because you can't just lop off the dead tissue of organs?" Charlie wondered, and Harry heard a sarcastic edge in his voice before remembering Ron's opinions about medical professionals that "cut people up". Harry had to admit that the Healer's words all felt rather medieval.
"It may be possible," the Healer said with a shrug, not catching Charlie's tone. "It will likely be a process of elimination to determine how to best approach Mr. Weasley's internal injuries. But he is stable now, and with the bleeding stopped and our treatment for whatever curse this 'Sectumsempra' is, I can now say with confidence that, though it will be a long road, I'm optimistic that Mr. Weasley will make a near-complete recovery."
Mrs. Weasley burst into a wave of fresh sobs, while Hermione looked as though she had been suddenly punctured and all of the air let out of her, falling over herself and breathing deeply with her hands on her knees. When she arose Harry could see tears streaming down her face.
His own relief was a great, palpable thing; it stretched over his entire being, and lightened him so considerably he felt as if he could float away. It was then, however, that he became aware of the pressure keeping him tethered there, and when he looked down he saw that it was Ginny's hand in his own, their fingers intertwined. He glanced up to her face and saw that she was beaming up at him, her bright eyes dancing.
The early afternoon found Harry and Ginny still together, sitting side-by-side in the same miserable chairs of the St. Mungo's waiting room. Ron had regained consciousness nearly half an hour prior and had first asked to see Hermione. The rest of the family was surrounding Harry and Ginny, who were doing their best to keep their positions casual; to keep from slipping too close to one another, to keep their hands firmly in their own pockets.
"When do you start training?" Harry asked quietly.
"August 15th," Ginny replied.
"And you're moving to Holyhead?" he questioned.
"All rookies have to live on-site," Ginny said, stretching.
"There's always weekends, I suppose," Harry said sadly.
"Shhh!" Ginny hushed, turning to look behind them, where Bill and Fleur still sat, waiting for their turn to visit Ron's bedside.
"What's so wrong with everyone knowing?" Harry asked.
"Nothing," Ginny said emphatically. "Just… not now."
"When?" Harry pushed.
"Before I leave, I suppose," Ginny said.
"Are you embarrassed of me?" Harry muttered playfully, though he did feel a bit genuinely hurt.
"No!" Ginny hissed, turning around again to make sure that no one in her family was paying them any attention.
"No," she repeated, looking back to Harry tenderly. "Look, being the youngest, I've never had many things that were mine. Even when we were together my fifth year, I felt a bit like I was just being allowed time with Ron's best mate, not my own boyfriend. And you being, well, you, it's just nice to not have everyone so wrapped up in our business."
"I suppose that makes sense," Harry said softly, leaning back into the wall.
Suddenly the door to Ron's room burst open and Hermione pelted out. Harry could tell that she had been crying. She took one look at the mass of Weasleys sitting before her, let out a long breath, and ran down the hall.
"Has something happened?" Mrs. Weasley said, panic rising in her voice. "Arthur!"
But Mr. Weasley had already made his way to Ron's room and entered, quickly followed by his wife. Harry looked to Ginny and gestured that they should follow Hermione.
It didn't take long to find her, hidden in a stairwell, drawing long, shaky breathes. Harry braced himself for the worst; perhaps Ron had had some kind of relapse and the Healers were wrong; rather than him recuperating fully in the coming weeks, his days were limited and recovery impossible.
But as Hermione turned to face them she gave a somewhat-crazed laugh, standing tall and wrapping her arms around herself.
"We're getting married," she said.
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