Disclaimer: All J.K. Rowling's

Chapter 1: Stalemate

Stalemate: A position in which the player whose turn it is to move has no legal move and his king is not in check. A stalemate results in an immediate draw.

Friday, June 13, 2003

A weary and disheartened company, weighed down by years of trouble, tension, and toil, sat in the shadowy kitchen of Number 12 Grimmauld Place. The customary sit-down dinners where everyone tucked in at the worn wooden table, when the room would fill with voices and laughter, had long disappeared. Now everyone sat where he or she wished, whether at the table, by the fireplace, or in a dark corner. The only person not sitting was standing at the kitchen counter, close to a cauldron of stew hanging over the fireplace. She was methodically cutting vegetables for tonight's supper.

"Voldemort's waiting," said Harry, staring pensively at the rim of his mug as he slouched at the head of the table. His words were directed to those seated haphazardly around him. "He's waiting for us to make the first move."

"And why shouldn't we?" demanded Ron, sitting at Harry's left. He had been reclining with his feet up on the table, but they flew down as soon as Harry finished talking. "For seven years, we've waited for Voldemort to make the first move. Why not make the first move now? Give him a taste of his own medicine?"

Tiredly, as if he had pointed this out dozens of times before (which he had), Lupin, sitting directly across from Ron, said, "Because we can't just rush headlong into things, Ron."

"Because that's exactly what he wants us to do, laddie," Mad-Eye Moody added from his place by the kitchen fire, wooden leg propped up against the stone wall.

"Then what should we do?" asked Tonks, now pacing back and forth behind Lupin. She still had energy left to pace.

Lupin stared long and hard at the fire. "Well," he began slowly, "taking the defensive has gotten us this far—"

"Not all of us," Ron interrupted harshly. "And some only part way."

Silence fell. The methodical thud of a knife hitting a cutting board filled the room as it sliced through carrot after carrot. After a long while, Harry spoke again.

"No one ever said it was going to be easy, Ron," he said quietly.

"But that certainly doesn't mean we're going to give up now, not after all we've been through," said Ginny, sitting between Harry and Ron. There was feeling behind her words, something little heard these days.

"I agree with Remus and Mad-Eye," Harry said finally, seeming to draw strength from Ginny's words. "We wait. For now."

"I go with what Harry says," Ginny said simply.

"I agree. It's the wisest move, though I wish it were for a reason as sentimental as Ginny's," Tonks said with an almost teasing glance at Lupin. Almost.

"Waiting would give us time to gather our resources, assess the situation, and think of a strategy if we want to prepare for an offensive move in the future," Kingsley Shacklebolt voiced from his place at the other end of the table.

"So you're all content to stay holed up here in Grimmauld, waiting for Voldemort to take out the nearest thousand or so Muggles in the next county?" Ron said bitterly.

No one answered Ron. His gaze traveled from person to person, from the back of the one making supper to the silent shadowy form in the corner of the room. Of those whose faces he could see, no one could look him straight in the eye.

"So we do nothing," he said in disbelief, throwing up his arms. "This is the decision of the only remaining members of the glorious Order of the Phoenix, last defenders of the wizarding world. Unanimous vote, too!" He slapped his hand palm-side down on the table to emphasize the derision in his voice.

Nearly everyone flinched. The vegetable cutting did not waver and neither did the continuous creaking of a chair in the darkest corner, farthest away from the fireplace. Its occupant kept the furniture propped on its back legs, swaying ever-so-slightly back and forth, to the same time as the knife hitting the cutting board.

"Not all of us have spoken," Lupin said calmly. He half-turned and spoke over his shoulder. "Hermione?"

They all waited patiently for the last carrot to be sliced with the utmost precision. This was unhurriedly followed by the cutting board being swept up from the counter, then a scraping noise as the carrots were pushed into the pot of stew with the aid of the knife. Finally, both knife and cutting board were set aside, hands were wiped neatly on a nearby washcloth, and Hermione Granger faced the others' expectant faces.

Her eyes fell first on Harry, the only hope of the wizarding world. The tiredness in his face, the slump of his shoulders—all were evidence of this weight taking its toll on a man only 22. The beautiful green eyes never sparkled anymore. She would not be surprised if one of these days the jet black hair began to turn grey. There were lines on his face that should not have appeared for another 20 years. Yet, despite his youth, he had led them this far. He was a true leader, a true Gryffindor, and she would remain loyal to him to whatever end.

Ron, too, was no longer a boy. Taller than Harry, as he had always been, the gangly limbs had thickened out into muscle. Goofy grins were never seen on his face now. There was a constant frown line on his forehead, and his eyes were almost always narrowed in concentration as he tried to figure out battle strategies. He had always been able to look at the war as one would view a chessboard. The loss of his mother and father had brought out a wily yet bitter side in him. But he, too, would also stick by Harry to the very end.

Ginny was very much behind the power of the throne. She may have resented such a post under different circumstances, but personal ambitions had been laid aside for the war. She was Harry's rock, his support in the most hopeless of times, when he would bend under the weight of everyone's hopes and expectations. She brought him out of despair when he sank to its deepest depths.

Lupin, as always, was the wise uncle whom everyone went to for counsel when it was needed. He was greyer than ever, with the weary air of a man who had been through too much, and his robes were bare threads held together by sheer will. Tonks was as devoted to him as Ginny was to Harry. Though perhaps her hair color choices were not as vibrant as they once had been, she had given the older man a spark of life. Lupin had been slow to show affection, as life had made him cautious, but it was apparent he returned her feelings to the same degree. It almost made Hermione smile to think that love could bloom in such hostile conditions. Almost.

Moody still labored under the delusion he was the Auror he had been 25 years ago and refused to be convinced he would be more useful staying at Grimmauld and watching the fire for messages, rare as they were these days. Hermione understood why Moody's pride suffered under such degradation, but it could not be helped or denied. His reflexes were slow, his eyesight failing, and sometimes he drifted off in the middle of their meetings, but his tongue were as sharp as ever.

Kingsley had been promoted to Head of the Auror Office at the Ministry of Magic, whatever that meant these days. The Ministry was merely a puppet organization that existed for the sake of existing, with Voldemort pulling the strings. Many of the wizards and witches who worked there were no more loyal to Voldemort than the Order was, but they didn't dare resist. Government was dead in the wizarding world.

It had been dead ever since the Battle at the Department of Mysteries seven years ago, but it had managed to keep up a facade of normalcy for a couple more years. After Dumbledore's death, she, Harry, and Ron had gone looking for the Horcruxes instead of returning to school and had found and destroyed a few of them before they had been captured and taken to Malfoy Manor. Though they had been saved by Dobby, they had been forced to retreat back to Grimmauld to recover and had stayed there ever since, no closer to finding the last Horcruxes than they had been five years ago.

By that time, news of attacks across the country had been pouring in every day. First, the rest of the Bones had been eliminated, including Susan Bones of Hufflepuff. The Longbottoms followed, grandmother and grandson. The evidence at Neville's home told a tale of a great and brave fight. He had been a promising wizard, the blood of Aurors strong in his veins, and when Neville fell, he took two Death Eaters with him. Seamus Finnegan disappeared the day before his initiation into the Order, his body later found in the Thames. Lee Jordan followed Seamus, and Dean Thomas followed Lee. The Patil twins fled to India, Lavender Brown to the United States. Rumors floated back of other classmates scattered across the globe, biding their time and hoping Voldemort didn't reach beyond the shores of the United Kingdom.

Muggle attacks were rampant yet sporadic. Sometimes, the Order had no way of knowing when and where the next attack would be. Buildings collapsed, bridges fell. Muggle London turned into a ghost town as its inhabitants, Muggle and wizarding alike, rushed overseas. King's Cross Station was obliterated on a September 1, killing many of the students who were waiting to board the Hogwarts Express.

Hermione had been the one on guard duty at the train station that day, and she had been distracted by a glimpse of her mother and father in the station. They were supposed to be in Australia, safe and sound and far away, completely ignorant to the fact that they had a daughter. She'd left her post by the barrier to Platform 9 3/4 for a moment to try to catch up with them, and that little slip was all the Death Eaters had needed. Someone closed the barrier, trapping in those who had already gone through, injuring or killing nearly everyone there. And they hadn't limited their attack to just the wizarding part of King's Cross. They brought down the famed roof, raining glass and steel down on everyone. The Order later found Hermione, miraculously alive beneath the rubble, lying lying 20 feet away from the bodies of her parents.

That had been three years ago, and she hadn't set foot outside Grimmauld Place ever since. It had taken her awhile to recover from her injuries, both mental and physical. For months afterward, she had been tortured by the memory of the screams of her mother, the shouts of her father as the roof collapsed and curses were flung left and right, through chaos and debris. But most of all, she could still hear the cries of the children, sobbing for their parents and crying out for help as the roof of the famed old station collapsed on top of them. It was all her fault. The clever, ever-reliable Hermione Granger had made a mistake, and though the Order had never blamed her, they'd never really looked at her the same again.

When it seemed things couldn't get any worse, tragedy struck again. The Weasleys had been targets ever since the first war, and they knew it. But that had not stopped Molly and Arthur Weasley, with their four eldest sons, excluding Percy, from making a trip to the countryside to help evacuate the Muggles from Ottery St. Catchpole, the town near the Burrow. Molly and Arthur died side by side on the town's Main Street in the subsequent attack. Their sons had managed to escape with their lives, but George had been subjected to a Cruciatus Curse that had lasted too long. He now lay upstairs, very much out of his mind.

In their grief, the Weasley family had fractured. Charlie went to go help the resistance in Romania, Bill and Fleur with their young family to France, and Fred and his then newly married, newly pregnant wife Angelina Johnson to America. Quietly, because it was necessary, Hermione had taken Molly Weasley's place, and the others had let her.

Hermione blinked, remembering that she had been asked something.

"It's been seven years since the Battle in the Department of Mysteries," she said softly, "seven years of war. Today is the day Harry, Ron, and I would have had our five-year reunion. Even if Hogwarts were still open, hardly any of our classmates are in the country or even alive."

"It's all very well thinking about all this, Granger," Moody growled impatiently. "But that doesn't help us!"

"What are driving at, Hermione?" Harry asked quietly, patiently.

"I'm tired, Harry." She stated it so simply and matter-of-factly that anyone who did not know her would have doubted her sincerity. Indeed, the body in the creaking chair gave a derisive snort at her words, but she continued. "I don't want to wait anymore. I'm at the point where I'm willing to do anything for it to end."

As if to punctuate the end of this moving speech, the chair in the corner came down on all four legs with a decisive thud.

"I'm glad to hear you say that," the figure proclaimed as he emerged from the shadows, one almost delicate hand brushing imaginary lint off an immaculate sleeve.

"And why would that be, Malfoy?" she inquired.

He hitched on a smirk, charm on for the maximum effect.

"Because, Granger, your desperation just might be our salvation if you accept my proposal..." he paused for dramatic effect, "... and consent to be my wife."