And Now...the Beginning of the End
The final pop landed her barely upright outside the back door. She gave a slight smile as Hedwig and Fidelity hooted from the tree behind her.
"I see you beat me home - "
"But not by much," Ginny smiled from the doorway. "'Ello Hermione! I just finished reading your letter."
A second pop heralded the arrival of the Headmistress.
"Ladies," she acknowledged. "Now that you are safely back, I'll be Appariting to Hogwarts. Do Floo if you need me."
"Thank you, ma'am," Hermione impulsively gave McGonagall a hug, delighted to find that the older Scottish witch held on just as tightly.
"I'm so very glad to see you are feeling better, my dear."
"Your friend, Professor Margarit, was wonderful. I cannot thank you enough."
Minerva pressed a grandmotherly kiss to Hermione's temple and took a step away.
"If you need anything, you Floo," she repeated, a tear in the corner of her eye.
Hermione nodded and watched as Minerva disappeared.
"We've missed you," Ginny spoke up, wrapping her arms around Hermione's neck. "Your husband is out with Remus at the Burrow. Mum Floo-called for them early this morning. I think they are helping her assemble the Order invites for this afternoon. She's got to leave for France."
"Why?" Hermione turned around, returning Ginny's hug before moving to towards the kitchen.
"Fleur is violently ill. Mum thinks she is already preggers and Bill wants to tell her in person. Either way, she's going to stay with Fleur so Bill can return here to fight. There's hot water if you want a cuppa."
"Oh that would be wonderful," she tried not to let her voice fall at the disappointment of Severus not being there to greet her.
"Welcome back," Draco greeted from his chair at the kitchen table. He watched her glance around the room and answered her unspoken question. "Potter and Weasley are upstairs, showering, possibly together. We escorted Dudley to his home yesterday evening and Potter even bought him his own owl to take messages back and forth so they could keep in touch. As for the rest, from what I understand, we've made contact via house-elves and confirmed that the Dark Lord will be attacking Hogwarts tonight at 7 p.m."
"So soon?" Hermione gasped. "I guess I just didn't think it would happen this fast. I thought Harry wanted a meeting with the Order and there would be more planning."
"More planning? Hermione! The packet you owled him has been gone over by everyone, and even the Professors and older Order members had only minor alterations. Combine that with the fact that we've all been training for years. We are as ready as we'll ever be!"
Hermione gave Ginny a weak smile and sank down beside Draco. She accepted the cup from Ginny and sighed.
"What are we going to do next week? When it's over?"
Draco let out a laugh so loud that Ginny jumped, knocking a glass off the counter.
"I can't believe that is what you are worried about!"
"Well," she rubbed an eye with her fist, "it's not like I've done anything else for the last how-many-years. It is a little hard to believe that it ends tonight."
"We have things to do," Ginny leaned her hip against the table and waved her wand to repair the broken glass on the floor. "Lots of things."
"Do you think we'll have any problems with your Mum gone? We always practiced with the four of us together."
"No, I imagine Ferret's mother can help us, as long as Tonks can still be there."
"What are you two babbling about?" Draco questioned.
"We need to get started," Hermione answered, ignoring Draco completely. "It will take five hours to prepare Grimmauld Place, not to mention everyone."
"I can start on the third floor, with the reception room."
"Great idea, how is Narcissa doing with stairs? Do you think she'll be able to climb up?"
"Seriously, what in the bloody hell are you two babbling about?" Draco growled.
Ginny looked at Draco, her serious expression shocking him into silence.
"Do you think Dumbledore meant for us to tell the Order now?"
"I imagine he must have, otherwise how can we distribute the Portkeys?" Hermione said, thinking aloud. "In fact, we really should begin gathering the supplies. If Draco can help, then it can only keep things moving faster. Ron and Luna would be useful, too."
"I think Harry is the most important. He needs to know what is going on back here, so he doesn't worry on the battlefield."
"Is your Mum awake, Draco?"
"I can go check. Do you need her now?"
"Yes," Ginny answered for Hermione. "Now and for the next five or six hours. I'm going to Floo the Headmistress and Tonks. Luna should be able to return, not to mention I might be able to get Fred and George over here. They have an idea, at least, of what needs to happen."
Draco stood and moved towards the door, his movement stopped by Ginny's hand on his arm.
"Bring your Mum down and we'll talk to everyone together. Okay?"
He nodded his head sharply, still annoyed at being left out of the conversation.
"Please?" She added softly, squeezing his upper arm gently.
"Only for you," he replied.
Hermione stared, unabashedly shocked at the tenderness in Draco's eyes as he looked at Ginny. She sat unnoticed by the pair and waited for Draco to leave the kitchen.
"You love him."
It was a statement, not a question, and she said it with such conviction that Ginny swung her head round and stared at her friend.
"I do," the red-head answered. "I truly do."
Hermione stood silently for a few moments, surprising Ginny with a giant hug and a teary whisper in her ear.
"I love you, Ginevra and I wish you only the best, forever – no matter what – you two have to make it out alive and love each other."
It spoke to the level of thrust-upon maturity that the teens had to embrace, that instead of arguing or giving platitudes of how everything would be okay, Ginny simply tightened her grip on her friend and stood in the kitchen. Together shedding the only tears they would for innocence lost.
"What on earth are you having us wear?"
"Shut up, Ronald, and get dressed. They are called cargo pants. Robes will trip you up, especially on the flights of stairs and in the dark."
"They look so...militaristic..." Harry held his hands out and waited for Ginny to set a pair in his upturned palms.
"There is a reason the Muggle military wears them," Hermione answered, from the sofa she was sitting on, piles of clothes all around her. "You'll need a black shirt, tight and long-sleeved, also, so you don't snag anything. And boots. Everything is black so you blend into the dark better."
"Why not jeans?" Ron whined.
Ginny huffed and pointed down the hallway, throwing a shirt at his head.
"I'm going," he muttered, carrying the bundle under his arm.
"What do you need me to do now, dear?" Narcissa leaned on the doorframe, tucking her wand back into a ponytail.
"The upstairs beds are complete?"
"Yes, just as you instructed. Luna and I prepared the two separate rooms with sterile linens and first aid supplies. I understand Madam Pompfrey will be here to help us?"
"Luna will be able to assist both of you in caring for the injured. We have extra food and potions coming, they should arrive any moment."
"And how will the injured arrive?"
"Portkeys," Luna said, slipping into the room.
"What kind?" Draco asked, sliding in behind her. He unabashedly moved in front of Ginny, turning slowly so she could admire his outfit. "I could use a beret with this."
"Place your index finger here," Ginny responded, rolling her eyes at her boyfriend's antics.
"What is this?"
"It's how we are keeping in touch. It is similar to an Extendable Ear, but based on Muggle cellular phone technologies," Hermione answered for Ginny, her head bent down over a small box. "You'll place that over your ear, so you can hear and speak to everyone on the field. When necessary, you can reach up and place your index finger back in the same place you just did – it's now registered to your fingerprint – and you'll be transported here. It becomes a Portkey when you are in distress."
"Does it require a trigger word?" Harry asked, entering the room as he was still pulling his shirt over his head. He gave a grin and adjusted his glasses before tucking the shirt into his pants. "Great transfiguration, by the way, 'Mione – this stuff fits perfectly!"
"No, it will detect when you are in physical distress, and can distinguish between adrenaline and actual injury-induced stress levels," Hermione answered, her mouth quirking up as Harry effortlessly caught the earpiece Ginny tossed at his head. "You go on, Gins – I can finish passing these out."
Ginny nodded and grabbed the pile of clothes closest to where she was kneeling. Luna had already picked up a stack and followed her friend through the doorway, passing Ron as they exited.
Hermione remained where she was, directing the traffic as it flowed in and out of the room, handing out stacks of black clothes, making sure everyone had an earpiece and even managed to laugh when Luna returned with her cargo pants transfigured into a dark blue camouflage and a modified vest with pockets already filled to the brim with tiny clinking potions vials.
Ginny's shirt only had one minor change, a deep garnet colored script across her chest that read "I'm not afraid to die, but it's not exactly Plan A".
Hermione rose to change her own clothes, and returned as McGonagall was tucking her silver hair into a snood.
Minerva stood in the center of the room, a sigh passed through her lips, as she surveyed the young people in front of her.
"Mr. Weasley, go gather the rest of the Order that are here, we need to discuss the final battle."
"Now?" questioned Harry, as the red-head left the sitting room to round up the others in the home.
"The confrontation must begin quickly, or else we lose our advantageous position."
"I agree, has everyone else been given assignments?" Severus asked from his place next to the fireplace, his arms reaching out to wrap around his wife. Hermione leaned into him, resting her head on his chest.
"Remus and Nymphadora will lead the Stealth Guard, Alastor and Kingsley will lead the Forward Guard," Minerva turned to look at the younger Order members. Ginny slid down onto the couch, her brother following, while Draco stood back leaning against the doorframe.
"I don't need five bodyguards, Professor," objected Harry, from his seat.
"No, you don't," she replied, "three of you will be in the Hogwarts Ward Room."
"Minerva!" Severus interjected, "you can't be serious!"
"It's a necessary change in Hermione's plan," the Headmistress replied stubbornly.
"But –" he tried to continue.
"I'm not a man, dear boy, and I won't let them go into this without understanding the consequences."
"Headmistress, what are the consequences of entering the Ward Room?" asked Hermione. After her experience with the Room of Acceptance, she had given up thinking that A History of Hogwarts held all the secrets of the school.
"The school will take a portion of your magic, to strengthen it's wards and protection on those within the grounds. It's permanent, but not constant. As long as you remain bound to Hogwarts as a Professor you can wield not only your power, but also manipulate the wards at will."
"So, if whomever enters the room must either lose a large portion of their magical ability or teach?"
"Yes, Madam Snape, that is basically the idea. However, the magic is only as strong as the love of the people in the walls. Therefore, it is vital that to protect Mr. Potter, and the others, on the battlefield, those who love them must be inside that room."
"Well, that's easy then," Hermione answered, "I love everyone in this room, and I will be remaining at Hogwarts with Agapi, anyway, studying. So, I should be one of the ones locked inside."
Severus pulled her even closer before speaking.
"The Ward Room shows all of the grounds in miniature, along with visuals of all living creatures. We need a strategist in the room, someone who can see the battle four moves ahead."
"Decision made then," Ron spoke up, "Ginny and I will go with Hermione inside. You and Malfoy will protect Harry."
"Don't make choices for me!" said Ginny, turning to her brother, "I have spent the last six years perfecting my dueling, and if Tonks can fight, I sure as hell can!"
"Mum would never have let you on the battlefield!"
"MUM'S not here, I'M here, and I would do more good next to Harry than sitting in some room watching from afar."
"We would all worry about you! Be a good girl, Gin – "
"I'M NOT A GOOD GIRL!"
"Weasel's right," came Draco's voice from the doorway, causing the siblings to turn from being at each other's throats to stare at the blond. "You can't go to face the Dark Lord."
"Might I remind both of you that I will make my own decisions here!" Ginny growled and crossed her arms over her chest, obscuring the words on her long-sleeved shirt.
"Miss Weasley," Minerva said, her voice pitched, "surely you understand that you can best help the cause and Mr. Potter by being safe."
Ginny gripped her wand tightly in her hand, fighting tears, when a most unlikely sentence was uttered.
"Gin is right."
"Harry? Bloody hell, what did you say?" asked Ron.
"Snape and Ginny will accompany me to the battlefield; you, Mione and the Ferret have to protect us with the wards."
"Mr. Potter?" Minerva asked, trying to ignore the sputtering coming from Ron's direction.
"Hermione loves Ginny, Snape, and myself. Ron loves Ginny and myself and respects Severus. And –" he paused with a choke, "Malfoy loves Ginny and Severus and respects Hermione. It's the best combination. Not to mention, Ginny is the only other person in this room to have survived a long-term mental connection with Voldemort."
He looked up to lock eyes with the girl, no, he had missed when she became a woman, the woman that should have, could have been his. With a sad smile, gave her his blessing.
"Hermione and Malfoy can work the charmed speakers to talk to us, while Ron maps out and directs the Aurors throughout the castle. Plus," Harry added, ruefully, "Ron will make an outstanding Quidditch coach, and Malfoy is just itching to teach Ancient Runes. And if Severus is correct in his assessment, Ginny will become an exceptional Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor with a bit more practice. She'll break the one year cycle just to stay with Ferret."
"And me?" Hermione asked, moving towards him and playfully trying to avert his mind just a bit.
"You, my favorite know it all," he answered rising from his chair to hug her. "You are going to prove the Head of Gryffindor can be a Transfiguration Professor and be married to the greasy bat of the dungeon."
"It is only because we go to our certain death, Potter, that I allow you to speak of me that way," came the wry retort from the taller man.
"Professor McGonagall, surely you'll stop this?" asked Ron.
"You're a little late, Mr. Weasley, on the conversation. If Mr. Potter believes this is our best chance, I am inclined to allow him to make the decision. Now, get into the kitchen and have a bite, we leave for Hogwarts in less than an hour," and with those final instructions she picked up a pinch of floo powder and sent herself back to her Headmistress Offices.
Hermione turned to grab Severus' hand and drag him out, bypassing Draco, who had moved out of the doorway. Ron followed behind, shaking his head, and casting an angry glance back at the best friend and sister who had betrayed him by daring to disagree with his very sensible protective stance.
Ginny tentatively rose from the couch, staring at Harry, who was looking past her to Draco. She watched with trepidation as the two wizards advanced on one another until they were less than two meters apart.
"I would have died for you, Potter, to make her happy."
"I think she'll be happier if we all manage to stay alive."
Staring at each other in the way men do, to convey unspoken words and hidden meanings, Ginny felt oddly out of place, yet touched by the two who were lost in this scuffle for her heart. At last, the childhood crush spoke.
"She loves you."
"I love her."
"I just wanted her to be safe."
"I trust her, and I trust her to protect you."
"She's an amazing witch."
"She's going to make your life interesting."
"What is life worth living, if you don't actually live? Am I alive if I cannot describe the taste of a strawberry as the juice drips on my tongue, or the feel of pride when my child walks for the first time? Am I alive if my worth is counted in monetary terms? If I live and never touch anyone else, am I alive? Is there anyone to remember me? Does life come from the breathes we take? Or is life the memories we store deep inside, so that when we are old and alone we can live our lives for a second and third time, truly enjoying the moments that were spent with the ones we love?"
"She taught you that?"
"I regret it took me so long to learn."
With a nod of relinquishment, Harry exited, leaving the victor behind.
"Do you want to live?" Ginny asked, with as much shyness as a Gryffindor could muster.
"And taste strawberries off your lips until I die," Draco answered, grasping her waist and drawing her close.
"I love you."
"Before we leave, you have to promise me something – promise me you'll live."
She took a hand off his chest and pressed her palm into her eye, scrubbing away the tears that welled up.
"I can't make those promises. I can only try to return. I know what he was planning years ago, and for him to be ready to take over Hogwarts – it's only gotten worse."
"I want to marry you."
"I want to be with you, forever, too," Ginny replied, tilting her chin up to kiss Draco. She wrinkled her forehead in confusion as he pulled slightly away.
"No, I mean – Ginny, will you marry me?"
He didn't release her hands as he knelt down on one knee, his head cocked to the side, and the goofiest smile she had ever seen on his face.
She blinked a few times, hesitating almost long enough to make Draco nervous, before flinging her arms around his neck and whispering "yes" over and over into his ear.
"WAIT!" He pushed her away again, and fumbled into his pocket, pulling out a dark black platinum ring, a shimmering peridot inlaid in the center. He took her hand and slid the ring on her finger, kissing the tip as he finished. "It's not an heirloom, I thought you would want something new, something to symbolize a new beginning...our beginning."
"I still can't promise I'll live," Ginny nuzzled his neck as he stood to hold her again. "Just let me touch you right now."
"Oh Princess," he sighed, "you've been caressing my heart for weeks." He lowered his head slightly, catching her mouth with his own.
His fleeting thought before he gave himself over to what could be their last moment of pleasure was that her lips hinted of blackberries.
Blackberries and full-bodied elfin summer wines.
Author's Note: I have nothing to say...I love this story and write parts of it in my head over and over every day. I especially want to thank those of you who asked for me to finish this story at Valentine's Day this year. That meant so much to me to know you are still caring about characters that have almost finished their lives on the big screen (and have already "finished" their book lives). I KNOW where this is going - and how it will end. I continually read your reviews to gather encouragement, so please drop me a line - and let me know if you want a response. I'll answer any questions you have. Much love - Lone Butterfly )i(