Disclaimer: All belongs to JKR.

A/N: Much longer note at the end. Thank you to every one who stuck around, and after a ridiculously long time, DAM is finally over.


Difference Always Matters

by: s. stewart

a.k.a.

carpetfibers


THIRTEEN

the ripples stretch, lingering


THE SILENCE THRUMMED angrily near the base of her skull. There were no distant sounds of chatter or laughter. The air teamed with sizzling hisses of remnant magic, the emotions used sending out constant aftershocks that sparked against the castle walls. It reminded her distantly of fireworks, of twilight sparklers and late summer heat lightning. She had stopped feeling the pain in her leg a hour earlier, when the last of the clean-up crew had decided to move to the dungeons, the front hall given up on.

It was stupid, she knew, to keep searching when so clearly everything worth saving had been destroyed. The floor hung littered with tiny pebbles, their numbers unending, of four varying colors. As the light faded, so did the pebbles' differences. In the gloom, they all looked black.

No one could remember seeing him in the hallway when the wall collapsed. It was far more logical that he was stunned and unconscious, or caught in a leg-locking curse, stranded in one of the dungeon classrooms. The castle ghosts and portraits were searching them now. Harry had been vanished away to the infirmary, Madame Pomfrey adamant that he be thoroughly examined. Which left Hermione behind, the shock of what had transpired in the office tower niggling and edging against her thoughts, demanding attention. She refused to grant it quarter, not yet, not when there was still work to do- not when there was the hall incomplete.

Hermione couldn't just leave it. She couldn't just move past it and declare it 'finished' when so many of the crumbled pieces of ramparts could be hiding an injured Ron. The speck of striped sweater, peaking out from beneath that tumble of stone and ruin there- yes, that piece there, it could belong to a larger piece, shaped in the form of a splayed arm or still breathing chest.

Hermione could not just leave and compose herself to an evening meal or recouping in the common room. This was her fault, after all. It was her fault for having failed- for having spent so much time and energy on an endeavor that had done nothing to help Harry. It was her fault for having not listened each of those times Harry had come to her, warm with warning and angry with suspicion about Snape. Why hadn't she stopped, just for a minute, and listened? Would it have been so difficult to focus on someone- something- else for once? Why did it have to be her plan that would save the day? Because she was the smart one? Because she was the one who had always just 'read it in a book somewhere'? Maybe, just maybe, if she had listened, really paid attention, then maybe she would have connected the dots where Harry hadn't. If she hadn't run off and lost two months on a goose chase with George Weas-

"Hermione, you're crying," he said, his shirt still singed where the curse had hit him. He winced as he slowly approached, left leg dragging slightly.

She lifted a shaking hand to her cheek. Grit and damp bore against her fingers; she inhaled deeply. "It's just nerves," she explained, grateful that her voice sounded even. "I haven't found anything yet."

"He's going to be fine, you know. It would take a whole lot more than a pack of Death Eaters and some broken walls to do in a Weasley, let alone Ron." The levity was painfully forced, and it took all of her remaining energy to not stumble the few steps separating them and fall into his arms, which stood awkwardly parted, as if waiting for her eventual surrender. Her stubbornness, a personality fault thrown in her face more than once, saved her from the weakness.

"There's only this part of the hall left to check." Resistant, she kept her back turned to him. She missed the way his lips trembled, or how the large bruise near his temple flexed in frustration. "I can't stop now." And she couldn't, not when Ron was missing and Harry so thin and worn, not when Headmaster Dumbledore- The rubble grew blurry, her vision overwhelmed by the flood of tears that gathered. "I can't."

"You can't fix this." His voice was nearer now, a quiet pause from behind her back. She felt her skin tingling from where her fingers grazed the smooth surface of her wand. She ignored him and levitated another of the larger pieces to a growing pile near an empty tapestry.

"This isn't your fault," he continued. A heavy heat soared through her when his hand settled over her shaking hand, her wand gently removed during the slight touch.

"I know it's not my fault." She crossed her arms over her chest and carefully separated herself from him. "I know it's not entirely my fault. But George-" Hermione couldn't reach his gaze, feeling, intractably, that if she did, this coursing something of feeling would overwhelm her entirely. "Some of it is. Some tiny part is my responsibility. If I had been around, if I hadn't been so distracted-"

"So I'm distracting, am I?" George interrupted, an undertone of hesitancy in his words missing her notice.

She whirled around stiffly, her eyes sticky with tired tears. "You think now is the time to joke? You really think this is the appropriate time and place to have a laugh? My god, George, your brother may very well be buried somewhere in this castle, barely alive or-" she stuttered over the words, refusing to give voice to them. Anger was slowly replacing the numb hurt and guilt she'd been clinging to, and George was so close and so very convenient. She gave not mind to the fairness of her accusation or ire.

"You think I don't know that?" He was quick to return the tone, something plainly snapping. "But you standing here digging around a bunch of debris is hardly being useful. You're helping no one."

"Then just leave me alone!" She snatched back her wand and then made the dangerous mistake of glancing upward. He'd made no attempt to change his clothes or clean his face. Soil from their dash through the tunnel still caked in his hair, the pale red overcome by the dirt and gore of the day. The right side of his face stretched in a dark purple that would surely swell if left untreated. Her eyes fell to his chest, to the spot of blistered flesh that flashed through the fabric's many tears.

Her vehemence left her. "You're still hurt."

George side-stepped her lifted fingers. "I'm fine."

"You're not fine," Hermione insisted. The rubble still required her attention, but George's needs were more immediate, more concrete. "I don't know that I'd trust myself with the spells right now, but I'm sure we can borrow some essence of dittany from the infirmary. I can be right back-"

"Hermione, stop."

She made the mistake a second time and lifted her eyes to meet his gaze. His weak smile caught her sharply, a tenderness to it that made her step forward, lips trembling. There was still so much that needed to be done, duties and responsibilities and a literal world of concerns that required her attention, and yet she forgot it all with that one look. The spark of spontaneity George managed to inspire in her struck out destructively, and with a brash callousness she didn't realize herself capable of, she pushed aside her thoughts of Ron and Harry and the school, and just let herself be.

"Geroge, I think-" But a sound drew away her attention, the tenuous line of thought lost as she whirled around and saw a small group of bedraggled students picking their way up from the dungeons. Neville and Ernie, a few younger Slytherins whose names escaped her at present, and then there, in the midst of them, being carried on a makeshift stretcher, a shock of red hair. She heard nothing of George's words as she dashed the short distance separating her from the group, missing as his hand grabbed into the empty air for her.

The Slytherins paused as she reached them, and Neville tried to warn her before she saw too clearly. "Hermione, it looks bad, but he's okay-" But Hermione could only stare, a sharp horror caught in her throat. Ron was too pale, too still, and his clothes, his hair- even his hands were coated in dark stains, the color a stagnant red. She felt her knees buckle, and it was only Neville's hand on her back that prevented her from stumbling to the ground.

"He's not- Neville, Ron's not-" Her lips shook, the whole of her body trembling. Oh god, Ron wasn't- he couldn't be!

"He's fine, Hermione. Well, he's not fine, but he's alive. He was awake a little earlier, apparently had a run in with a Death Eater, someone he called Wormtail. But he's okay- the professors said he was well enough for us to take him up to Pomfrey, so you see there's no need to worry." Neville's hand changed to grip her shoulders, the touch barely registering. Hermione felt numb.

"He's okay? But there's so much blood. . ." She felt like throwing up, relief and shock warring with her stomach. She shuddered.

"Fine. I'm fine." Ron's voice echoed weakly, hoarse and broken. "Blood's not mine. Malfoy. . ."

"Malfoy was the one who killed Wormtail," Neville supplied hurriedly, voice lacking none of its normal hesistancy. "It's his blood on Ron. The whole classroom was coated with it." He gestured to Ernie to continue on, the Slytherins following behind him.

"I told you, Granger, it would take more than a Death Eater to kill our ickle Ronnikins." George's use of the hated nickname held none of its normal taunt, only a relieved affection. "We're a hardy lot, Weasleys. It would take at least an army or three to make a real dent."

Ron coughed as the laugh petered out and choked in his throat. "No jokes yet."

Hermione felt her eyes fill, the wet gathering and threatening to overcome her. "Oh Ron, I'm so sorry. I should have been there. I'm so, so sorry-"

"No apologies either," he managed after another spasm of coughing. Ron smiled up at her weakly, and gestured to a tidy pile of wooden fragments cradled across his lap. "Broke my wand."

She lost her battle against the tears, overwhelmed. "Your poor wand."

Ron coughed again, his words lost in the heavy sputtering. Hermione wiped at her cheeks. "Okay, enough chatting here. Let's get you up to the infirmary. Harry will want to talk to you."

Neville stumbled beside her, and it was her turn to steady him. He batted away her concern. "Just tired. Can you take care of the locomotoring? I need to take care of something." Neville didn't wait for her immediate reply, pushing off on the charm and making for the nearest hallway.

"Did you say Harry?" Ron attempted to sit up in the stretcher, the movement sending an obvious spasm of pain through him. He gasped audibly, and Hermione sent George a worried glance.

"He's in the infirmary, too. I didn't have time- well, there are things we'll need to talk about." So many things, Hermione realized. A swarm of things that involved Dumbledore and Snape, Voldemort and Harry, and a very near future that she felt certain would lead toward the final confrontation Harry refused to talk about.

Somehow, she felt that he would no longer refuse that conversation now.

George remained silent as they made their way up the staircases and hallways to the infirmary, his wand steadied to augment her spell. Hermione attempted to fill in the quiet with a breakdown of her activities during the attack, stumbling over the Shrieking Shack and avoiding explaining George's presence altogether. Halfway through, Ron took her hand, holding it awkwardly and yet with a carefulness she wouldn't have expected from him. He squeezed once, gently, just beyond the infirmary door, a cacophony of voices and Madame Pomfrey's shouted directions escaping from the room and flooding into the hall.

"I can walk in, if you'll help." George stepped in to offer his shoulder, gingerly sliding his brother's arm over his shoulders and lifting him to his feet. Hermione stepped to follow behind them, and then stopped, Ron having slipped out of his brother's hold. He stood on his own, but barely, looking very much as if a slight breeze would topple him.

"I thought I was going to die," Ron said simply, and stricken, Hermione's eyes sought out George's, unconsciously looking for support. George stared back at her, his expression caught in a passive sadness that confused her. "I thought I was going to die, and at the end of those thoughts, there was you, Hermione. And I knew it, I love you."

That breeze came, and Ron stumbled heavily back into George's arms, this time taking the proffered shoulder willingly. Ron smiled, unembarrassed, and let himself be led into the infirmary. Hermione could only stare, fingers pressed to her lips, and cheeks aflame. Ron loved her; the thought warmed her and sent her skin tingling. And yet-

Her gaze shifted. It was George she saw through the doorway; it was George and not her best friend of six years that she saw and found herself unwilling to look away.


II


HARRY STOOD IN the office and forced himself to consider the landing, the wide expanse of the window beckoning for a closer glance, a sharper incline to view. He stood still and told himself to remember this room exactly as it was, remember what it meant for a place to be incomplete- to be adrift. The office was just any other place without its owner, without the tall, thin frame of Albus Dumbledore to fill its space, corral its circular walls, and provide it with name and designation.

"Mr. Potter, if you'll follow me." Professor McGonagall's brusque voice pulled him away from the window and the desk still littered with unopened sweets. She led him into a back room, toward a large boudoir, its upper panels pushed aside to display what looked like an over-sized goblet, the liquid in a constant state of movement: Dumbledore's pensieve.

"Professor?" Harry looked to his Head of House for guidance.

McGonagall sighed, the sound lacking her typical feeling of bustle and energy. "The Headmaster left instructions that you were to brought here, that you would know what to look for. He wrote that you would understand the task that waited for you."

Her normally sharp voice softened into one of sympathy. "This responsibility of yours, Mr. Potter, do know that you needn't do it on your own. You have many here who would help."

Harry felt the temptation physically, his throat thickening as he swayed heavily toward the great relief it would give him to not have to play at being an adult- to ask for the help that was being so readily offered to him. He opened his mouth, longing for the words to come and then quailing. This was his to bear; the prophecy was exact. The Order, the Professors- they would all try to convince him otherwise, look for alternatives that would spare him, that would prevent a direct confrontation. "Thank you, but I know what I need to do."

McGonagall nodded and sighed again, evidently disappointed. With a click of her heels, she turned to leave. "Professor McGonagall?" She paused, waiting.

"Can you ask for Ron and Hermione to meet me when I'm done? I'll need to talk to them." He thought briefly of including Ginny, remembering how she had cried and clung to him when he was finally released from the infirmary. Her delicate features, caught distinctly in his mind's eye, would surely darken when he told her that he was to leave again. She would want to come, she would beg to. He could bring her, but-

He bent toward the pensieve, lips drawn tightly. For this, he needed Ron and Hermione. No one else. The cloudstuff that made-up the pensieve twisted and contorted, all the pieces of a storm minus the sound and lightning. He took a deep breath and lowered his face; he wrapped his thoughts on a single name:

Tom Riddle.


III


GEORGE REMAINED SEATED, even after the funeral had finished. He kept waiting for the hopelessness that clung like a stone in his stomach to change to another form: anger, grief, loss- anything other than the heavy, intractable sense of being left behind, of no longer having a purpose. He recognized a selfishness in his feelings, and he wished to discuss them with someone. But Fred had been sniffling and pretending at allergies all morning, and his mother kept reaching for his hand, her tears more honestly evident. And whenever George allowed his gaze to go any place but the white marble tomb that still crackled with white bursts of flame, he saw the two of them, hands entwined. It was only during those brief seconds of wandering attention that he felt something other than the stone in his stomach.

Something other than abysmal pessimism.

He watched as Harry leaned forward to speak into Ginny's ear, watched as her expression turned from white-washed sadness to patent dejection. George could well imagine what was being said, what sort of excuse Harry was dreaming up to explain why he had to leave. Hermione had done the same with him, in hesitating words, uncomfortable with the half-truths she had offered and lingering over promises of seeing him during the summer, at the wedding, at the Burrow.

George knew, though, knew that she was leaving. The three of them, united once again in concerted effort, were going on a journey, and just like his sister, he was not to be included. He closed his eyes and turned his face skyward, the light warmth of the unconscionable beautiful summer day cloaking his pale features in a welcomed dousing of sunlight. His black dragonskin suit, worn in solidarity with Fred, in blanket appeasement of whatever wounds or betrayals might still linger there in his twin's mind, rejected the warmth, and George longed to be free of it. The melancholic strands of the merpeople's song sifted through the air still, and he wondered, briefly and distantly, what the bereaved might think of him stripping then and there and throwing himself to the lake, where the water and the song might disguise the ugliness of his feelings from view.

He felt, somehow, that Dumbledore would have liked that, a sudden mob of spontaneous swimming resulting from his funeral. He imagined the old wizard tossing his cap and launching into the water, the giant squid joining in for the play. George felt like laughing, and the tears that gathered beneath his eyelids, the stone finally loosening, were not born purely of sadness. He felt a strange sort of relief in it, an incongruent hopefulness.

"George?"

He straightened in his seat, palms quick to his eyes, and forced a smile. "Granger, there you are." Black did not suit her, the color washing her into a paleness and plainness he disliked immediately. The only part of her that felt real was her hair, bothered and disheveled by the breeze.

She tried to smile in return, her eyes trained toward the left, obviously searching for something she had previously memorized. "George, I-"

"We made a pretty good team there for a while, Granger. Who'd have thought?" George interrupted, purposely. He had no wish to revisit the memory that hung in the back of his mind, of the Shrieking Shack and the way she had smelled when pressed up close.

"I did, from the very beginning. You never give yourself enough credit." Her smile stretched, the gesture heavy and awkward.

"Yeah, well," he shoved his hands in his pockets, unable to block the redness that warmed his throat. "You've always been a champion for the underdog."

Her lips twisted unhappily. "George, listen, there are things I need to tell you, things that ought to be said. About you, now- I feel, well, I don't rightly know what it is I feel."

He ignored the way his heart jumped at her words; he ignored the way he began to hope for things he hadn't fully realized even existed until that very second. Distantly, he remember their kiss, the way her lips had wilted beneath his, soft and tasting, inexplicably, of expectation. "Sure you do. Ron loves you, and you love Ron."

"Well, yes, I love Ron, but-" she broke off, her brown eyes confused. "There's a difference, and George, when we kissed-"

"I was thinking. . . we should really forget that happened." He kept his voice light and tried for that teasing tone she so disliked. "It was in the heat of the moment, we had just gone through a big disappointment. I took a lesson from you and read it up in a book. We were reacting to the situation and apparently went the hormonal route for it."

His stomach sank as her face contorted first in hurt and then into a faded embarrassment.

"Of course, I should have known better. Right." The sunlight caught the swell of her cheek, a faint pattern of sun-born freckles layered there.

"Right." His fingers cramped painfully in their grip on his thighs, the fists hidden from view deep in his pockets. That pain thickened as he saw his younger brother approach from the aisle, bandages recently removed. "Listen, I need to go. Fred's expecting me back at the shop and there's inventory waiting for me, so. . ."

"Oh, sure, of course. Er, I guess," she bit her lip before lifting her chin. "I guess it's good-bye then."

George nodded and watched as she trailed away, her eyes staying on his intentionally carefree smile. He continued smiling even as he saw her hand slide into the waiting one of his brother. He even managed a generous wave of his arm when Ron turned to salute. He watched as the two walked to the edge of the gathering and with a simultaneous pop, the two disappeared from view. The smile vanished with them and weakly, he fell back into his lawn seat, his arms lifting to cradle his suddenly aching head. He barely registered the friction of air across from him.

"I nearly forgot!"

He looked up, unable to resist himself, when he heard her voice. "Her-mione?" he stuttered, her name slipping from his lips.

She dug into her cloak, wrestling with the fabric, until victory brought her hands back into view with a small silver package. "It's nothing special, and it's late by almost two months, but still, I wanted to give it to you before I left. So, here," she shoved the box into his lap. "Happy belated Birthday."

Wordlessly, he stared down at the gift before slowly undoing the paper. Beneath the silver covering, rested an amulet, its design wrought in a coarse black metal. His silence prompted her explanation.

"I know it's not very neat, but the books all said protection runes are more potent in iron, so . . . promise me you'll wear it?" He heard the worry in her voice, and still wordless, he nodded. "Good. I should get back now, Harry and Ron are waiting for me to pack- um, that is-"

George couldn't place the source of the wretchedness that tugged at his stomach. Hermione was so predictably herself. She was about to take off on a hunt to try and find a way to destroy Voldemort, and yet she still couldn't manage a proper lie to her friends. "It's okay, I won't ask you. Go on then."

She stepped back hesitantly, her eyes still clouded. "George, I'll miss you."

"I'll-"

He paused, unsure of what he wanted to return with. He would miss her single-minded determination that so easily translated into stubbornness. He would miss how poorly she responded to his teasing; he would miss the undeserved faith she put in his abilities. He would miss the way she looked at him, with such confidence and that touch of exasperation. He would miss the scent her skin gave off, her hair thick with it, of soap and earth and a comforting familiarity. He would miss her, and worry, and in the end, he would still be forced to wait. His place was not at her side- not this time, not this adventure, and if he were to be completely honest, a habit he had avoided until he began to know her, he would probably never take that position by her side again.

He closed his eyes, swallowed once, and then lifted his gaze, eyes clear from all that he felt. "I'll see you later then."

George did not watch as she disapparated a second time. Instead, he picked up his wand, and two brief words later, the amulet was snug against his chest, the metal warm on his skin. He tucked his wand away, gathered his discarded robes, and soon, too, vanished into a new destination.

There was a future waiting, somewhere there in the distance, and no one knew what it might bring.


the ripples stretch, lingering

THIRTEEN

by: s. stewart

a.k.a.

carpetfibers

Difference Always Matters

END


A/N: So, once upon a time, I started this story with the intent to finish it off in a few short months. I had a neat and nice outline, loved the idea- in fact, fell prey to that typical writer's folly of liking an idea a bit too much- and dedicated myself to prompt updates. Which quickly failed. I veered off of the outline, got caught up in the ideas and revelations shared in the HBP, and found myself discouraged. I think I went two years without updating, maybe it was longer, before finally giving it another go.

Admittedly, I had the full and total intention of resurrecting Sirius. But after HBP, I no longer liked that idea. I thought, perhaps, what would happen if all that work and effort resulted in a failure? What would that mean? And finally decided to go with that. There were subplots that I had wanted to incorporate, smaller characters that I planned on playing a larger part. I even had intended to have this encompass the seventh year as well. I soon realized, upon my second attempt to finish DAM, that those subplots and ideas were better served for a more mature, older crew of HP characters. And so I have a sequel, of sorts, that I plan on writing.

(Incidentally, if you have any questions regarding the evolution of DAM, let me know! I'll be happy to answer/explain/point to the eventual sequel in response.)

For those of you who might feel disappointed by this ending, by the lack of firm romance, I apologize. I realized upon picking DAM back up, that as I had grown older, the type of romance I would want to write needed older characters. In a large way, DAM became a prequel to what I really wanted to write, a story that I've been far more excited about writing than finishing DAM to be honest. As both a teaser/summary for the upcoming story- whose title I've yet to decide on- here you go:

"Take one part controversial election, two parts unwilling bridesmaid, 1/2 part dangerous serial killer, and mix in far too many parts George Weasley, and Hermione Granger finds that returning to the Veil might be the easiest part of her week yet."

I intend on writing at least half of this sequel before posting anything and would love the help of a beta, both in terms of content/grammar. If you're interested or willing, please pm me, and I'll be in touch.

In closing, I owe a huge amount of thanks and gratitude to the many reviewers and readers who've supported me through the years. Your thoughts, feedback, and numerous alert reminders have encouraged me immensely, and it's probably in large part to this sort of support that I did not leave DAM in permanent suspension. It finally got an ending, and that's because of all of you. Thanks again!

-carpetfibers