Harry didn't know how long they had been sitting there. He barely remembered how he had even gotten into this room. Nothing of the world around him was sinking into his head because he couldn't think past the fact that Cattie was gone. He knew he was in Hogwarts, he knew this chair and the distant sound of magical instruments and trinkets clinking away, and he knew the wizard sitting across from him. He was in Dumbledore's office, slumped in a chair across from the older wizard and staring blankly at Fawkes as he preened his feathers. His eyes hadn't moved since he was brought into the office, however long ago that had been he wasn't sure. The only thing Harry felt was the blood roaring in his ears and his heart throbbing with pain and calling out for his little girl.
After the last Death Eater disappeared with Cattie in his arms several members of the Order had apparted into the destroyed home. Dumbledore came right along with them. They had appeared on both floors of the house; McGonagall, Bill Weasley, and two wizards Harry didn't know were downstairs while Dumbledore and Moody apparted in the bedroom. There were more people scattered around the house but Harry hadn't seen them—even now the sequence of events after that was a blur to him. All he remembered was Hermione's voice screaming for Cattie and a broken Andromeda rocking the cold body of her husband and even that memory felt watery and insubstantial. Everyone in the house had been taken to Hogwarts—Hermione having to be dragged to the infirmary and sedated from sheer hysteria at her daughter being gone. Dumbledore had taken Harry gently by the arm and led him to his office. In that moment the younger man was too far in shock to realize he was essentially in the grasp of the man he hated. Since then the two of them had been sitting in these exact positions, in silence. Harry's wounds had been healed some time ago but he had yet to notice, his mind was a thousand miles away while the older wizard studied him from across his desk.
"Harry." Dumbledore's voice was soft and slowly Harry slid his eyes to the wizard's face. He blinked blankly. Why was he here? "My boy, you mustn't give up hope. This isn't a wholly terribly situation. There is no doubt that your Catherine is still alive. Voldemort would not have taken her unless he was planning to draw you out and to do that he would need to keep her alive."
That was the first time since Cattie was taken that Harry felt anything other than shock and pain. He felt the spark of anger and he grabbed hold to it, thankful to feel anything other than pain and helplessness. In seconds that anger had flared to rage and his eyes snapped to Dumbledore's face. He glared at the older man with emerald eyes alight with fury as he slammed his palms down onto the desk. "Not 'wholly terrible'? My daughter is as good as dead." No matter what he did in the end Voldemort would kill Cattie. He knew that without a doubt. There was no cause for any kind of hope.
Dumbledore affected an expression of weary sadness and he reached out to pat Harry's hand but it was too late. Harry's emotions were in turmoil and they were beginning to get the best of him and he didn't care. "Harry-"
"No! I don't want to hear a word. I don't even know-why am I here? There is not a fucking thing you can do for me and not a fucking thing I want to hear you say." Harry surged to his feet. He wanted nothing more than to get out of this room and as far away from Dumbledore as possible. He didn't want to be having this conversation. He didn't want to be in this school. What he wanted was to go back to four hours ago when he was home with Hermione and his daughter, where they were happy and safe. He wanted someone to jump out and tell him this was all a terrible joke, or better yet to wake up and have everything that had happened be nothing more than a nightmare. No matter how much he wished though, he was in too much pain to think this was anything less than real.
Dumbledore only sighed again as Harry whirled around and strode away from the desk. He barely made it three steps before his legs began to weaken on him. His breath was coming out in short, panicked pants and his vision was swimming by the time he reached the door to the office. He stumbled, hands flying out to the frame to steady himself. Dumbledore was calling his name and asking him if he was alright but he wasn't hearing him, he was too busy praying for the numbness to return. His short burst of anger had quickly faded into pain—a bone deep pain that took his breath away and made him want to curl up into a ball and scream and scream until every bit of breath had been stolen from his body.
What had he been thinking? How had he imagined for even a moment that he could raise a child with Voldemort on his tail? He had failed to protect her. He was a fool and because of his arrogance Cattie was going to die. He couldn't imagine Voldemort going easy on her because she was a child, if anything Harry would think he would do worse. His daughter could very well be tortured to death, surrounded by evil men and crying out for her parents. Harry felt himself choking back a scream. He would never ever forgive himself.
It was only after he felt Dumbledore's weathered hands on his shoulders did Harry regain enough control of himself to move. Growling like an injured animal he shook away the man's grip and continued, shaky hands scrambling for the doorknob. Hermione…he needed to find Hermione. She would know what to do. She always knew what to do. He pushed open the door and headed out without a backwards glance. This time Dumbledore didn't stop him.
As soon as the door closed behind him Harry dropped his head into his hands, carding his fingers through his hair and gripping so hard he thought he might tear it out. His mind was in chaos. Pain, loss, and the near overwhelming feeling of failure was warring with the part of him that wanted to charge out into the night and save his daughter, as vain an act as that might be. When the stairs reached the entrance he was blinking back tears, biting his lips to stop a sob from escaping. That's where Ron and Luna found him.
Harry hadn't heard the sound of footsteps running down the hall so when the gangly red head and his wide-eyed companion drew close to him, they took him by surprise. His eyes flew to Ron's face, blinking up at him for a moment as his mind attempted to focus on his friend and not the grief clawing at his chest.
"Harry!" The corridor was empty so Ron's voiced echoed off the walls, loud enough that even Luna jumped at the sound. Ron was too panicked to be embarrassed. He was so pale that his freckles were standing out in stark relief and his eyes were wide with panic and confusion. "What's going on? It's all over the school that you're here and Hermione's in the hospital wing. We were down there a few minutes ago but they wouldn't let us see her, they wouldn't tell us anything! Mate, something bad happened didn't it?"
Harry began to laugh, a choked and hollow sound that had Ron looking at him like he was mad. "Something bad? Try everything bad." He suddenly began to feel very tired and he leaned back against the gargoyle, his body starting to sink towards the floor. Ron reached out and caught his forearms, easing him to a sitting position on the cold stone as Harry turned red-rimmed eyes to him.
"We were just having supper, you know? Everyone was so happy and…then Death Eaters. I started to think we were winning, that everyone would get out alive but no. Ted's gone. Cattie…they took her. She was right there and I couldn't save her. I couldn't save anyone." The tears were coming hot and fast now; he squeezed his eyelids as tightly closed as he could and he kept trying to swallow past the burning in his throat but nothing stopped them. He wasn't sobbing but he was gasping for air, being crushed by the weight of his own guilt and grief. Even though Ron's grip on now only one of his arms had turned almost crushing, he couldn't feel anything besides the ache in his chest. Then a hand came in contact with his cheek and the sharp sound echoed down the hall, then silence.
Emerald eyes flew open in shock and instead of Ron as he had expected, it was Luna crouched in front of him. Her hand was still upraised but there was no anger in her face, only compassion and a sad little smile. Slowly she lowered her hand and patted him gently on the shoulder. "You need to get a hold of yourself, Harry." There was still that dreamy quality in her voice but below it was a firm line, firm enough to keep his eyes glued to her face. "I would say that you know Voldemort better than just about anyone else so you should also know that now is not the time to give up hope. Now is the time to be strong and to take action."
She was saying roughly the same thing as Dumbledore had but instead of the anger he had felt then, he felt a new stirring of hope. Maybe it was because when he looked into her eyes, he could see that she believed everything she was saying and that made him believe too. He swallowed hard and nodded once, shakily as he gave her a weak attempt at a watery smile. "You're right. Thank you…really." He croaked.
"No need for thank you. You're my friend." That soft, dreamy smile was back and she reached out to casually wipe away the lingering moisture on his cheeks. She stood up and Ron—who had moved off to the side—helped Harry to his feet. When they were standing face to face the redhead clasped him on the shoulder. All his color had returned with anger and protectiveness, furious at the thought of someone laying a hand on Cattie. He may have only seen the little girl a few times but it didn't take long to love her and knowing she was in the hands of Voldemort made him sick to his stomach.
"Don't worry. We'll get her back and the D.A. will give you any backup you need. Even if they don't, I'll sure as bloody hell be right there."
"I didn't doubt it for a moment, mate."
Ron slapped him on the shoulder once more before releasing him and taking a step back. "Right, so when do we go get Cattie?"
Pain lanced through Harry at hearing his daughter's name and he flinched. Harshly shoving back any feeling of hopelessness, he drew himself up straight and let out a shaky breath. "I need you two to gather up the D.A and meet me in the Room of Requirement."
"Everyone's at dinner now." Luna interjected, fiddling with the sparkling beads on the end of an earring.
"Then after dinner." He was already starting to move away from them, turning down the hallway toward the hospital wing. He needed to see Hermione. Ron had already turned on his heel to head to the Great Hall but Luna was still lingering in front of Dumbledore's office, faraway eyes set on Harry's back. Ron sighed loudly and reached back to grip the arm of the girl's robes, towing her after him.
It was strange to be walking through Hogwarts again, hearing his footsteps echoing off the walls and seeing the portraits and suits of armor that were so familiar but now so distant. He had never planned to come back here. He hadn't even missed the place with a family and a mission to distract him and now that he was here, he felt like he had stepped back into some screwed up version of his past. Being here made him feel out of place on top of feeling broken and anxious and all he wanted to do was find Cattie and go back home.
Soon he reached the hospital wing, easing open the door so he could poke his head inside the room. There wasn't a sound in the hospital wing when he moved fully into the room, closing the door gently behind him. A set of candles floating at either end of the room and the evening light from a window were the only things lending any kind of light inside. Harry had to blink several times before his eyes adjusted to the dimness and that was why he didn't immediately notice Remus; slumped in a chair between two beds. He was holding Jack to his chest, rocking the squirming baby gently back and forth, attempting to soothe him into sleep. If it wasn't for the soother in his mouth, Harry was sure the baby's fussing would be disturbing the silence of the room. Two people were lying on the bed to his right, the twin halos of distinctive pale hair was the immediate thing Harry recognized. Andromeda was lying on her side with her body trembling every few seconds even through the potion induced sleep. Curled over her was Tonks, fingers wrapped tightly in the blanket that covered her mother and drying tracks of tears visible on her face even from where Harry was standing. On the other bed was Hermione. She was on her back with a blanket tucked tightly around her midsection, her arms lying flat across her stomach and her eyes closed in a semblance of tranquil sleep. Harry knew it was only a spell or a potion that could have her looking like that; there was no other way she would be able to sleep with Cattie in the hands of Death Eaters. He didn't know if he was relieved she could at least get some type of rest or disturbed that it was against her will.
There was no doubt that Remus knew he was there but the man didn't look away from the sleeping form of his wife while Harry moved from the door to Hermione's bedside. He didn't blame him, not when he could understand the feeling. Harry was trailing his eyes over Hermione's face, wanting to touch her but finding himself too worried that he would rouse her out of the shell of peace she was in, as false as it might be. He might have been too caught up in his own shock and distress to really see how Hermione had reacted after realizing what had happened but even so, he could remember the sound of her screaming for Cattie. He didn't want to ever hear that kind of anguish in her voice again but he knew that once she awoke, it would all come rushing back. He'd rather she have these few moments of peace.
Gingerly he sat on the edge of Hermione's bed, allowing himself a fleeting caress to the back of her hand. How had everything gone so wrong?
"You don't have to worry. She's alright." Remus's voice sounded hoarse and distant and Harry wondered if he was even paying attention to what he was saying. "She's just sleeping. She hasn't woken up since Pomfrey gave her the potion."
Harry nodded slowly though Remus still wasn't looking at him. He cleared his throat before answering, looking away from Hermione to watch as the older man ran his fingers through the soft strands of Jack's hair. The baby was close to sleep now, amber eyes slipping closed for longer and longer periods of time.
"What about Andromeda? How is she doing?"
"Potions are keeping her asleep for now and keeping away the after affects of the Crucio. They had her under for awhile and the residuals of the curse are still causing her pain." They both knew that it was more than the curse that was causing her pain but neither could bring themselves to mention it. Still Harry couldn't believe that Ted was dead, killed saving Draco's life. He didn't want to think about it himself so it must be so much worse for Remus who knew the man and absolutely excruciating for Andromeda and Tonks. Tonks who let out a small whimper just then, a fresh tear rolling from beneath a closed lid and Remus reached out his hand to squeeze her arm. Harry's throat tightened.
"Remus…I'm so sor-"
"Don't." Remus hissed, snapping his head around to glare at him, the heat of the anger and frustration in his eyes enough to have Harry's words catching in his throat. "I don't need to hear an apology right now, especially not from you. We're in a war Harry, that's why this happened. It doesn't matter if the attack was aimed at you or not, all that matters is that it happened and what we need to focus on now is getting Cattie back. Then we try to heal our family." The fire in Remus's eyes kept Harry pinned to his chair, not speaking but also not taking his eyes off the other man's face. Silence settled heavy between them and after a moment Remus dropped his eyes, sighing as he sunk down in his chair. The fight drained out of his body.
Harry didn't know what to say or if there even was even something for him to say. Remus's anger didn't hurt him, if anything it chipped away just a bit of the guilt that seemed to have a constant residence at the back of his mind. He could only breathe in a fortifying breath, grateful for his second reality check in ten minutes, and nod despite the fact that Remus had turned his eyes back to his wife.
They continued to sit without speaking for a few more moments, the silence loosing the lingering tendrils of tension as the seconds passed and finally Remus spoke again. "What are you planning now?"
Harry had turned his attention back to Hermione in the lapse of conversation before so he had to look away from the gentle rise and fall of her chest to Remus. His brows furrowed in confusion at the question.
Remus frowned at him and he started to rub absentmindedly on Jack's back. "Cattie is in the hands of Death Eaters, I know you're planning something to get her back."
Harry looked away again, running a tired hand over his face and feeling the tense muscles underneath his skin. Did he have a plan? At the moment all he really had was a loose idea of preparing himself and the D.A for a confrontation with Death Eaters. Other than that his mind was doing nothing but revolving around the fact that Cattie was gone and that he needed to get her back. The problem was that he couldn't imagine where to even start. There was no doubt that the Death Eaters would have taken Cattie to wherever it was that Voldemort was hiding out but he had no idea where that was. If he did he would've ended all of this already. So what kind of plan could he make? Everything in him wanted to just rush out and find her but he couldn't and that hurt like hell.
"Dumbledore said something that I guess made a bit of sense." He began slowly. He didn't even have to look at Remus to know the man was scowling at the mention of the Headmaster. "Voldemort had to have taken Cattie for a reason, to use her to draw me out most likely. If that's the case then he'll find some way to contact me and probably set me up for some kind of trap. I'm going to prepare the D.A. for when that happens. The only good bit out of all of that is that because he has a reason he'll have to keep her alive." He knew that he had started to sound almost desperate by the end but he didn't care, he was desperate. Luna's words were still ringing in his head and it was her words that now had his mind rebelling against any thought of his daughter being dead. But there were things that still didn't add up and didn't seem right and thinking about anything else made him want to fall into a panic.
What he really hated was the thought that all he would be able to do was wait for Voldemort to make his move. Harry had never been the type of person to just sit and wait for problems to solve themselves or for the fight to come to him. Sure, the majority of his encounters with Voldemort had come upon him when he was completely unprepared and mostly unsuspecting but never had he known something terrible was going to happen beforehand and did nothing. This was a thousand times worse than any time before because this was Cattie, his daughter, and there really seemed like there was nothing much he could do. He wouldn't stop trying though. He was going to spend his every moment searching out any hint or clue to where she was being held.
"Something about that reasoning sounds a bit off, don't you think?" Remus said, again bringing Harry's curious eyes back to him. "Why would Voldemort only take Cattie if this was all in an effort to get his hands on you? You were already right there, basically within his grasp. If anything he could have ordered the Death Eaters to take you and Cattie as you would be more likely to go with less of a fight if they also had Cattie."
Harry groaned and shook his head, wanting to glare at Remus but too tired to do anything more than frown. He had thought the same thing though. He'd thought that something was extra wrong when the Death Eaters had bypassed him for Cattie and his own reasoning was ringing strange to his ears. But he didn't want to think about it. Realistically he had very little hope to cling to and he didn't need Remus to remind him why. "I know it doesn't sound completely solid but it's all I have right now."
Remus seemed to want to say something else but instead he pressed his lips together and nodded. Once again silence reigned and this time, neither one of them broke it. For the next half an hour or so they sat without speaking; Remus kept his eyes on his wife and mother-in-law, reaching out to soothe Tonks whenever she would shift on the bed while Harry stayed at Hermione's side. After awhile he couldn't watch her face, the stillness there unnerved him too much and he ended up watching his own fingers pick at her blankets. Eventually he realized that dinner had more than likely ended and he slowly stood up.
The scraping of his chair on the stone drew Remus's eyes and the man watched him as he reached out a hesitant hand to stroke Hermione's cheek. He would see her again soon and when he came back, he would have a plan.
There were now students moving about the hallway by the time Harry left the hospital wing. Familiar faces were all around him, some he only half recognized from around school and others even from his own house. Well, what used to be his house anyway. The last thing Harry had wanted was to step right into a crowd of teenagers who would want to know where he had been, why he was back, and god knew what else but instead of the mobbing he expected, they only watched him. The talking and joking that usually went on between classes and after meals had dropped to whispering the moment he stepped into the hall. Over curious eyes stayed glued to him while he walked, the crowd parting in front of him as he made his way down the corridor. No one tried to stop him and not a word was spoken to him, all they did was stare. Some were looking at him with what he could only guess was awe while a select few others glared with open hostility. He had a vague idea of what the Prophet had been printing about him and he wondered if they were expecting him to have transformed into some glowing savior. Maybe he should have been strutting down the hall in full, shining armor and wielding a sword. That probably would've been better than the mess he was sure he looked. He was still wearing the torn muggle clothing from the attack; his eyes were heavy and red rimmed and he was walking stiffly, clearly on edge. He smirked. Some savior he was.
He kept his shoulders squared as he strode down the hall and the further he moved on, the more uncomfortable he felt. The feeling of being completely and utterly out of place just continued to grow. It was like he couldn't even relate himself to the people around him. Looking at the staring faces around him all he could think was that they all just seemed so young. Like nothing but little children who were so far separated from him that he couldn't even remember being just like them. By the time he passed the Great Hall, several people were trailing close to him and the irritation had him gritting his teeth. Didn't they have anything better to do than stare at him? If they were just going to whisper behind his back instead of actually saying something to him, they could back the hell off. Finally someone got so close that they managed to trod on the back of his shoes he officially had enough. Harry stopped short and whirled around, jaw set in aggravation and an irritated glare in his eyes.
"Back off." He said through clenched teeth. The one who had stepped on him looked to be either a first or second year; a sturdy looking boy whose eyes widened in fear at the dark anger in Harry's expression. He stumbled back, stammering apologies but Harry had already looked away from him, turning his glare to the students who were still loitering behind him. "All of you."
A few of the students immediately began moving away, either inching back into the surrounding students or doing their best to pretend they hadn't been breathing down his neck. A single, older Ravenclaw held his place and stared up at Harry. "Why are you back here, Potter?" he asked, voice full of bravado even as his thin hands were clenching his own robes. Harry almost chuckled. Just how angry did he look right then?
Students were crowding the corridor but instead of the whispering from before, everyone had dropped into a sort of anticipatory silence. All eyes were on Harry and the Ravenclaw boy.
"That's not any of your concern." The tone Harry took came out colder than even he had expected, his lips pulling into a sneer and distantly he wondered if he was beginning to channel Snape. He started to turn to continue down the hallway when the boy spoke again.
"Something happened didn't it? Did He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named attack?" The boy was quickly losing his confidence, his voice coming out louder than he intended and tight with panic. Harry wanted to ignore the kid but the moment he had asked that question, the air around them seemed to change. Harry's eyes flicked to those around them for a brief moment, noticing for the first time the fear in a lot of faces, before his eyes settled back on the Ravenclaw. His silence seemed to be making the boy uncomfortable because he started to fidget.
"There was an attack but it's nothing that's going to affect you." Harry did his best to soften his voice before he spoke again but the words still came out rather clipped. It was only a matter of time before what happened got into the Prophet anyway. The wards had dropped which meant the attack would have been in full view of not only the muggles around but also any witch, wizard, or reporter who couldn't keep their mouth shut.
Before anymore questions could be asked and his already strained nerves were irritated further, Harry turned on his heel and walked away. He didn't want to waste anymore time trying to appease the fears of these children. Every second he did nothing was another Cattie could be hurting. He needed to get to the D.A so he could prepare them for what was coming. The Ravenclaw was calling down the hall, asking him something else but Harry didn't care to listen or to answer, he was already halfway down the hall and this time no one was trailing him.
He strode up several flights of stairs, ignoring curious glances and people calling his name, intent only on getting to the Room of Requirement. The seventh floor was thankfully near empty when he reached it, save for a couple of seventh years heading down a second set of stairs just before they shifted and Neville Longbottom. The other boy was standing just a bit in front of the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy, tapping nervous fingers against his thighs as his eyes darted up and down the hallway. He spotted Harry rather quickly and his face brightened.
Harry tried for a smile, he was happy to see his friend but with everything that was on his mind he couldn't muster up enough brightness. Neville seemed to understand though because a look of sympathy settled in his eyes. "Ron told us what happened. I'm really sorry." That was one thing about Neville; Harry didn't have to wonder for a second if he was being genuine, the sadness was right there in his eyes.
Harry could only nod a response. He was thankful for Neville's obvious concern but now was not a moment where he could take hearing any words of sympathy. So his tone took on a firm note when he finally spoke. "It's not time for condolences. We're going to get her back."
Neville didn't say anything but he drew himself up in his new, taller height and nodded once. They didn't spend anymore time talking; Neville moved closer to that blank stretch of wall and made quick work of walking back and forth three times until a plain wooden door appeared. Both boys glanced around them to make sure no prying eyes were watching before Neville pushed open the door and gestured for Harry to go in first.
It was the second time in less than ten minutes that all conversation dropped at the sight of him. The D.A were all assembled in a spacious hall, some sitting on cushions similar to the ones in his own home while others were leaning against walls or standing in small groups. Usually their meetings started with a rush of conversation and joking but for a brief few seconds, they just kept expectant eyes on him. It was only after Neville had closed the door behind them that somebody moved and just as Harry had expected, it was Ron.
"I told everyone what happened." He said apologetically while coming to stand at Harry's right shoulder. After he had moved Harry caught sight of Ginny who had been behind her brother, fiddling with the end of her ponytail and obviously trying to make herself appear small. Her eyes met his in a flash before she was back staring at the ground, cheek flaring crimson. Harry didn't acknowledge her past that though, instead turning his attention to Ron. He really didn't care about what had happened between them right then, there were more important things to think about.
"That's okay. I was going to tell everyone anyway." He looked away from his friend and to the assembled students, noting the sad expressions and pitying eyes. Lavender and Cho were even looking at him through red rimmed eyes, Susan dabbing at her own eyes. But why wouldn't they be sad? In the time the D.A had been coming to train at their home they had gotten to know Cattie. The majority of the time she was heading to bed when they showed up but after she had gotten over her brief shyness, it had not taken her long to pull them in with her bright smiles and loud complaints of being left out. No one wanted anything to happen to that sweet little girl.
"I'm going to have to ask you all for a very big favor." Harry continued, voice grave.
"Before we get into all of that, could you sit down Harry?" Angelina spoke up from her seat on a cushion next to Seamus. She was already starting to stand, long legs eating up the space between her and Harry and she was by his side before he opened his mouth to object.
"You wouldn't be saying that if you took a look at yourself." She was tugging him by the arm towards the rest of the D.A. A chair had appeared in front of where the majority of them were sitting and Angelina pushed him to sit. "You look destroyed."
He wanted to protest again as Angelina stepped back but she was looking at him with her hands on her hips and a stern expression on her face. He had seen that exact stance from Hermione enough times to know that arguing would be useless. He just gave an exaggerated roll of his eyes and settled in the cushy chair, wincing as tense muscles started to relax. "Thanks, Angelina. So what I wanted to ask you al-"
"We already know what you're going to say and I'm all for it." Seamus said, slapping his hand on his thigh. There were murmurs of agreement throughout the room but Harry lifted a hand for silence. Wasn't anyone going to let him finish a sentence?
"Please…let me say this. You guys might not understand exactly what I'm asking you to do, how much danger it could put you in."
Ron scoffed and plopped himself down on a free cushion. "They have Cattie and we're going to rescue her, what else do we need to understand?"
Harry wanted to stress again how dangerous this could be and how they had no obligation to join him but looking around at their little army, he knew it wouldn't be of much use. Everyone looked determined; Ron and surprisingly Neville were looking downright impatient, even Ginny who hadn't had a chance to know Cattie had straightened out of her self-conscious hunch. There were a few people with obvious touches of fear in their faces but no one had run to the door. To be honest, Harry couldn't say anything else because he needed them. He was going to need all the help he could get to bring his daughter home and he wasn't going to argue with them if they were offering.
"Well…thank you then." He flashed a smile and rushed on to continue speaking, knowing that if he continued thinking about just how grateful he was, he'd might just end up turning into a tear filled mess again. "Right, I can't say I have a plan just yet because I'm not sure where they could have taken her but I do think we need to be prepared. I believe that Voldemort" –he ignored the flinches around the room- "is going to use Cattie as bait to get to me which means that he's going to try and draw me into a trap. Wherever it is that this will happen, Cattie will be there and so will the Death Eaters. Maybe even Voldemort himself. We're going to have to fight to get her and this won't be a few spells here and there, this will be life or death." He looked gravely around the room. Every eye was glued to his face and he met as many as he could. "That day is going to come and we sure as hell better be prepared for it. Nothing is going to stop me from getting my daughter back."
Harry spent over an hour with the D.A before they decided to call it quits. Their curfew was only a few minutes away and Harry wanted to get back to Hermione as soon as possible. It was getting quite late and even if she was still sleeping, he wanted to bring her home. Waking up back in Hogwarts couldn't do anything but make her feel worse.
During the meeting he and the D.A had managed to come up with at least a basic outline of a plan. Every day after dinner, the members of the D.A would floo over to his home for as many hours of intensive training as they could. Angelina would get in contact with her sister, the Auror, and have her report any kind of information she could get her hands on about Death Eater activity and whatever she could find out about suspected Death Eaters and where they lived. Harry was already planning to pour back over all the things he knew about Voldemort, searching for any clues on where he could be hiding out. The bastard had a love of symbolism and Harry could well imagine him hiding Cattie somewhere with a connection to his past.
After everyone had split up and started to head to their respective common rooms, Ron decided to risk breaking curfew to accompany Harry to the hospital wing. Harry had let him know what happened to her and thinking of her being so upset that she actually had to be sedated made Ron more than a little worried. He had never seen her like that. The two of them spent most of the trip from the Room of Requirement to the hospital wing without word; the quiet only ever disturbed in moments by Ron. He kept opening his mouth to say something, half formed words tumbling out before he clamped down on them, feeling more and more awkward with each failed attempt. He wasn't used to being uncomfortable with Harry but he could not think of anything to say that felt right. After everything that happened that day, there was just too much to say. Too much to ask and too many comforting words he wanted to speak but knew would fall short.
Harry on the other hand half wanted to snap at the redhead to come out and say something already but mostly, he really just didn't care. He was exhausted physically and emotionally and every minute that passed it was getting more difficult not to imagine what Cattie could be going through. He felt like he was fighting a losing battle to keep the despair at bay and the only thing that was keeping him together was knowing that Hermione was just a few steps away. He was glad Ron was keeping his mouth mostly shut.
When they reached the hospital wing he was cautious to peek inside first. It was past visiting hours and Madame Pomfrey wouldn't hesitate to chase them both out. After taking a second to make sure the witch wasn't going to pop out from somewhere and grab him by the ear, Harry opened the door and slipped inside with Ron right behind him. Remus and Tonks must have been asked to leave already because Andromeda was now alone on her bed, still curled on her side and continuing to shudder with tremors every other second. He felt so guilty every time he looked at her. He had brought the danger to her family and she had lost her husband because of a bounty on his head. Too guilty to look at her any longer, his eyes moved from the woman and to the bed next to hers, blinking in surprise to see Hermione wide awake.
She was leaning against the head of the bed in the usual hospital wing pajamas. Only her feet were covered by the blankets and her knees were pulled up to her chest, her forehead resting on them. The door had opened silently so she hadn't heard them enter but she did hear their footsteps when they moved fully into the room. She lifted her head and turned it towards the sound. Harry had only a glimpse of an ashen face and devastated eyes before Hermione was scrambling off the bed, her feet tangling in thin blankets as she sobbed his name. He crossed the room and caught her around the waist before she could tumble to the floor. She collapsed against his chest and he held her as tight as he could, feeling her body shake with sobs while her hands clawed at his shirt. Her nails were digging into his back through the fabric but it hurt more to have her falling apart in his arms.
Harry tried to murmur soothing words into her ear as he eased her back to sitting on the bed but his own voice was becoming choked and strained. Seeing Hermione like this was tearing down the already feeble wall holding back his own anguish. He didn't know how long they stayed in that position—him blinking back tears as her sobs faded into exhausted gasps for air—but eventually she calmed down enough for him to feel okay to pull back a bit. He cupped her wet, reddened face between his hands and pressed his lips against her forehead.
"We'll get her back." He murmured with every bit of conviction he could. Fresh tears rolled down her cheeks but she nodded shakily, eyes closing briefly when he brushed strands of tangled curls from her face.
Ron had been standing just inside the room though all of this, fidgeting and looking anywhere but at the couple a few steps away. It wasn't just because seeing his best friends so affectionate towards each other still made him uncomfortable; it was also because the two of them were practically radiating pain. His heart ached for Cattie but seeing the two of them right then let him know without a doubt that his hurt was nowhere near the agony they were feeling. He couldn't even imagine and he was starting to feel that maybe he shouldn't be there. He was trying to swallow past a rapidly tightening throat and blinking away the burning in his own eyes when Hermione finally noticed him.
Harry had dropped his hands from her face to rub at her arm and she turned her head towards Ron, reaching out a hand. Ron hesitated a second or so before he strode across the room and to her bedside, taking her hand and only glancing at Harry once before allowing her to pull him into a hug. Her arms were wrapped around his waist and she laid her head against his stomach, hugging him tight, thankful for having him there. This was a time when both she and Harry needed their best friend.
After a moment she released him and sat up. "Is there any news?" She directed the question at Harry, her voice more of a croak than anything. She was still sniffling. He shook his head in response and caught one of her hands in his when her bottom lip started to tremble.
"It's only been a few hours but there's been nothing. More than likely Voldemort wants to use her as bait. He won't hurt her." Harry wondered if he said it enough times, he would begin to be completely certain about that. If they both believed it maybe he wouldn't feel this knot of hopelessness. He could see in Hermione's eyes that she was working out the probability of that being true and the darkness he saw there did nothing to alleviate his fears.
"Don't worry Hermione." Ron spoke up. "The D.A will do anything to get Cattie back, even if I have to find those bastards and tear them apart myself." Hermione looked up at him with watery eyes and reached out her free hand to squeeze his arm. She knew he meant every word.
"How did we get here?" Was the next question she asked. She was looking around the hospital wing like it was some foreign place and eventually her eyes stopped on Andromeda. A brand new wave of pain crossed her features at the sight of the older woman, memories rushing back about what had happened to Ted. "Are Remus and Tonks okay? And Jack and Draco?" Her voice was starting to cross into desperate and Harry rushed to speak as calmly as he could. She was barely holding it together as it was. Even when Harry began to speak her gaze didn't move away from Andromeda.
"They are all alright. Remus, Tonks, and the baby were here when I came to look in on you earlier. I haven't seen Malfoy but Remus didn't say anything about him being hurt so I'm sure he's fine also. The Order showed up after everything happened and we were all brought back here. Dumbledore didn't want to miss out on the chance no doubt." His words seemed to have had the desired effect because the panic had started to seep from her eyes, replaced by that haunted darkness Harry was already beginning to hate. Those once sparkling brown eyes moved from his face and returned to staring at Andromeda's curled body.
Harry was expecting more questions but none came. Hermione was watching Andromeda but her expression was so distant that he felt her mind was a thousand miles away, most likely on their daughter and the mess they were in. The silence was making him anxious and Ron was fidgeting again. It was like she had frozen and the stiff set of her body was making him entirely too uneasy; it was Ron's hand on her shoulder that finally brought her back round. She flinched harshly at the touch and pushed herself off of the bed again, her head whirling around to stare at him with too wide eyes. Three or four seconds passed with all three of them frozen in place before the glazed look of fear was blinked from her face. She barely had peace of mind to offer Ron an apologetic smile at his wounded expression before her fingers were catching Harry's sleeve.
"I don't want to be here anymore." She breathed, her body suddenly trembling with a restless sort of energy. Slim digits were gripping his sleeve so tightly he could feel the tremor in them. Her chin slipped into an unsteady wobble and she caught a dry lip between her teeth, desperate to reign in the urge to collapse into tears again. Every inch of her was pleading to get away from this place and Harry wasn't going to deny her that. Being in this castle was just adding a surplus of stress to their already anguished minds; it was a place far separated from who they were and the life they lived. It felt wrong to be there. At least back at their own home they could be in a world where their daughter had existed.
"Let's go home."
Over Hermione's shoulder Harry caught Ron's stare just as the redhead's eyes widened in disbelief. Protest colored his face and he was taking in a breath to voice his objections but Harry gave him a terse shake of the head. Ron didn't like the idea of them disappearing back to their house when in his mind, all the help they needed was here at Hogwarts. He was at Hogwarts, along with the rest of the D.A. but the look in Harry's eyes told him to back off on this one and once again, he was biting back his words.
Harry gently pried Hermione's fingers from his shirt, looping an arm around her waist instead. He deliberated on what would be the best way to get them out of the castle unnoticed. Dumbledore probably had no intention of letting them leave Hogwarts and his watchful eye anytime soon so strolling up to his office and flooing home was out of the question. This was one of those times that he wished he had taken time to learn to apparate. He kept putting it off seeing as he wouldn't be able to apparate inside the wards of his own home but right about then, he realized that had been a really stupid idea. Could they try flying? No, he'd have to nick a school broom and he didn't trust those things to do anything but send them headfirst into a tree. Hermione was beginning to lean more heavily into his side, her body straining with the effort to stay upright. Whatever potion she was given—on top of the battering her body and magic had been put through only hours before—had been strong enough to keep her out for hours and the after affects were causing her to feel weak and unsteady. An increasingly painful pressure just at his temple was making it difficult for Harry to think which is probably why it took several seconds of rubbing at his head before he figured out a way to get out of the castle, hopefully unnoticed.
"Accio Hermione's shoes." He muttered the summoning spell quickly, not at all up to exerting the extra effort it took to do a spell silently. With a crook of his fingers the shoes came sliding out from underneath the bed Hermione had just occupied, stopping in front of her bare feet. Thankfully they were flats and she could slip them on without having to bend her already shaky body. Ron picked up the wand that had been placed at her bedside and handed it to her, continuing to frown even after the murmured thanks he received. Her clothes were nowhere to be found so the soft blue pajamas she wore were going to have to go home with them. Harry turned to Ron and gave him a weak smile.
"You should go on to the tower before it's too late. Thanks for everything, mate."
Ron's frown only deepened and he crossed his arms over his chest. "How are you getting out?"
"We'll have to go the Room of Requirement and take the floo from there." He answered. He had thought about taking the floo he knew was in Pomfrey's office but he didn't know if that one was any more secure from Dumbledore than the one in the old man's office. The D.A used the Room of Requirement every time they came for a meeting so he was pretty sure that was the safest route.
"I can at least walk you there."
Hermione shook her head. "No, you need to go or you'll get into trouble."
"Yeah well, I've gotten into trouble for less important stuff." The redhead snorted, rolling his eyes. Trust Hermione to be thinking about that at a time like this. She frowned at his easy dismissal though, not at all amused.
"No." She spoke the word firmly but then softened her tone when she continued to speak. "We'll be alright, Ron. I know you're worried but we can manage by ourselves and we don't want to see you caught by Snape. We can't trust him and if he catches you, he might notice something is up and we need to get out of here unnoticed." She was sagging further into Harry's arms by the time she finished her speaking, her little speech apparently taking a lot out of her.
Ron wanted to argue but he knew she was right. She always was. He sighed heavily and dropped his hands to his sides. As soon as his stubborn stance relaxed his shoulders drooped and an unsure, fearful look seeped into his eyes. "Fine but I'm coming over tomorrow."
"You have clas-"
"I'm coming. I-I need to."
Hermione didn't say anything else but a new glisten of tears pooled in her eyes, the brief hold she had on her composure already beginning to slip. Harry didn't know what to say either so he just nodded for them both. Ron hesitated for a second more before he drew in a breath and stepped around them, walking to the door. A sad glance over his shoulder and then he was slipping out into the hallway. Nothing was said between Harry and Hermione as they waited a minute or so before following after him.
Ron wasn't in sight while they inched their way down the hallway, in fact no one was. Curfew must have already begun which meant that no one should be roaming the halls but Filch and Mrs. Norris, and no doubt Snape was making his own rounds. Trying to sneak their way through echoing halls brought back memories of old times, though at least then they had the protection of the invisibility cloak. Now the cloak was folded away in his old school trunk and he couldn't even muster up the strength for a Notice-Me-Not spell. The fear of getting caught was much stronger tonight than it had been during any of their past late night adventures. If they were caught attempting to leave, Dumbledore would use every bit of pull he had to keep them 'safe' and imprisoned in Hogwarts. They were on his turf now and that had Harry feeling like a caged rat just waiting to be caught and devoured.
Both he and Hermione were worn to the core, their minds and thoughts fraying from the hours of not knowing what was happening to their little girl. Hermione was becoming heavier and heavier against him and Harry's own body was aching with the need to rest. With every heavy step they took Harry only felt more vulnerable.
It was slow going to the Room of Requirement. Several times they were forced to duck behind suits or armor and into shadowed alcoves, avoiding the sight of a darkly muttering Filtch and at one point, three people that Harry knew didn't belong in the school. The first two had been a witch and a wizard that he did not recognize while the third was someone Harry was sure was Mundungus Fletcher. Thieving bastard. The three had crossed paths right in front of an alcove where the couple was hiding, pressed against the wall with Hermione held against Harry's chest. The man and woman had been heading in the direction of the hospital wing—Harry hazard a guess that they were sent to guard he and Hermione there—and when they both inclined a head in familiar greeting to the lumbering form of Mundungus, he took it as a sign that they were a part of the Order. New recruits most likely. It would make sense that Dumbledore would keep a few members around the castle after the attack and Harry's subsequent 'return'.
They were extra careful spiriting their way down that hallways and up the several flights of stairs to the seventh floor. By the time they were walking down the deserted hall, steps more hurried now that the blank expanse of wall was in sight, sweat was beading on Hermione's forehead. Her breath was coming in straining gasps, her lungs heavy in her chest while the arms she had looped around Harry's middle—an effort to keep herself upright—were almost unbearably tight around his waist. Her grip was starting to hurt and he wanted to tell her to ease up a bit but she needed his strength right then, she barely had any left of her own. The circuit in front of the wall felt like it took much longer than ever before. Harry's heart was pounding in his chest and he kept glancing over his shoulder down the silent hallway, waiting for someone to come strolling down and see the two of them in their exposed position.
He fairly threw them both through the door the moment it appeared. His rush had him tripping over his own feet, almost losing his grip on Hermione whose legs were as weak as a newborn colt's, grunting as his shoulder slammed into the corner of a mantle place. Pain shot from his shoulder to the tip of his fingers.
"You okay?" Hermione asked haltingly, words hot against his ear. It took him a second of blinking past a rush of pained tears before he answered through clenched teeth.
Harry moved the arm that wasn't radiating pain from around Hermione and wiped moisture from his upper lip. While she leaned against the fireplace, he took a look around the room. There wasn't anything to see, just a narrow stone room and a simple fireplace with a shallow dish of floo powder on the mantle. He had been given just what he had been thinking of, a fireplace to escape with.
"You should go first." He said to Hermione. She was still trying to catch her breath, the sound of her breathing loud in the cramped space while sweat had her hair clinging to her pallid cheeks. His concern must have showed on his face because she made an effort to push herself away from the fireplace, waving him off with one hand when he reached out to steady her.
He was sure that was meant to come out much stronger than the croaked it was. She turned her back on him and his clear disbelief and grabbed a handful of floo powder from the dish, metallic green grains spilling over the edge. The hearth flared to life, startling them both. Harry was hovering just behind her, worried that she would pitch forward into the flames but she didn't turn around once before throwing in her handful. She moved forward the moment the fire turned brilliant green.
"Potter Family Cottage!" and then she was gone. Harry forced himself to count to five, being alone in the room making him more anxious than he already was, before he grabbed his own share of the powder and followed after her.
A few torturous seconds later and Harry found himself back home. He didn't have enough strength to attempt to keep his footing so he ended up sprawled in front of their fireplace. He groaned and pushed himself into a sitting position. At least he hadn't landed on his most recently injured arm, the pain having just started to fade into a dull throb. It was then, while he was rubbing at his arm, that he remembered Hermione. His back straightened and his head swiveled around as he looked for her, an irrational rush of fear sending his heart pounding in his chest when he didn't immediately catch sight of her. Then the sound of a barely suppressed sob reached his ears.
She was there, on her knees near the side of the couch with her back facing him, the soft light in the room casting her in shadow. Her head was lowered and through the veil of her hair he could see one of her hands was over her mouth. As he watched her a shudder of another sob shook her frame. He knew he should go over there and comfort her but his own mind was suddenly seized by grief. In her other hand was a book. Just that morning after they had finished playing around the house, Cattie had begged that book off of Hermione. Harry wasn't even all that sure what it was about, something to do with a history of witch trials or something like that but he remembered Hermione being wary of letting Cattie read it but of course, the little girl had gotten her way. She had a habit of leaving her books lying around and usually, Hermione would be scolding her for it but she couldn't. Cattie wasn't here. Cattie was gone.
Harry didn't know exactly what he had been expecting to happen when they finally got home but this wasn't it. It had been stupid of him but deep down a part of him had been thinking that Cattie would be here. As delusional as it was he had been fully expecting to see his little girl running down the stairs to meet him, bright smile on her face and curls streaming behind her like nothing had gone wrong. But the only thing that greeted him was a still house and the sound of Hermione struggling to keep her heartbreak inside.
"'Mione." He called with her name thick with unshed tears. His voice broke the dam and Hermione sagged forward, dropping the book as her sobs came harsh and loud. Harry crawled over to her and slumped at her side, reaching out to grab her hand in a fierce grip and a tear slipped down his cheek. He should have known, being in this house was so much more painful.
Cattie was gone four days. Four full days of pain, worry, and endless frustration. The D.A came by the house every day, spending as many hours as they could preparing for a confrontation with the Death Eaters while Ron made sure to be there as soon as his classes were finished. Whenever he wasn't working with the D.A, Harry wrote out everything he knew about Voldemort in meticulous order and spent his every waking moment pouring over each detail. He worked himself to the bone practicing every spell and curse he knew, he stayed up late into the night coming up with plans of attack, and he did his best to keep Hermione together.
In the few days without Cattie, she had changed into a completely different person. She was barely eating and she only slept when her body was too exhausted to keep her awake. She was so pale, bags heavy beneath anguish darkened eyes while her hands would shake and her hair stayed tangled around her face. Grief hung around her like a cloud and the hold she had on her emotions became more fragile with each passing day. She went through this continuous cycle of being depressed to the point where she wouldn't get out of bed to a furious anger that had her in the training room right next to him. For the first couple of days they had clung to one another, each trying in vain to offer the other comfort but by the second day Hermione had started to avoid him. She wouldn't talk to him, she didn't want him near her or to embrace her, and as guilty as it made him feel he couldn't help but be relieved.
Harry could barely keep on going under the weight of his own helplessness let alone deal with hers. He hated himself for it but he allowed her to draw into herself without a fight. The only thing that did keep him going and pushed his pain to the back of his mind was his own fury. It was with him every moment of the day, an endless burn that clawed at his skin and churned like acid in his stomach. He embraced it and used it to drive him through those unbearably long days until something finally happened. Thursday was when everything changed.
Something startled Harry awake. His eyes flew open of their own accord and he immediately closed them again when they burned with the dryness of not near enough sleep. There was a certain stillness in the air that told Harry that it was very early in the morning hours, despite the pitch darkness around him. He was on the bed in his and Hermione's room, slumped half-sideways against the headboard with a copy of the Daily Prophet spread out on his chest. From the pain in his neck and back he had been in that position for awhile. Wincing, he gingerly straightened until he was just leaning against the headboard and pushed the paper off his chest and over the side of the bed.
Ron had been bringing over copies of the Prophet every time he visited. Since the attack on Grimmauld, Voldemort and his minions seemed to be going on some celebratory massacre. Everyday there was at least one attack, usually more and the number of dead grew with each one. He was targeting places in both the wizarding and muggle worlds; homes and public places that were packed with people. The Ministry had even gone so far as to ban any public event or gathering for fear of an attack. Harry had taken to traveling to the sight of these attacks, taking in the aftermath and looking for any kind of clue or message. He had yet to find a thing.
The paper Harry had been reading before he'd been pulled into sleep had been reporting on an attack on a muggle Secondary school. It happened in the middle of the day; Death Eaters apparting onto every floor of the school and in the end, only a handful of students and one teacher had escaped with their lives. If it wasn't for the darkness Harry would only have to peek over the side of the bed to see the picture of the burning school, a dark mark floating above it. The picture had sent Hermione into a rage Harry was becoming all too familiar with.
Hermione. He reached out a searching hand to the other side of the bed, where Hermione had collapsed a few hours before. The sheets were cold. He clearly remembered coming into the room that night to see her laying on her side, eyes closed in what he had believed was an exhausted sleep. He had tiptoed around and climbed onto his side of the bed, careful not to let any part of him touch her, before he had dived back into his fifth reading of the Prophet. She had not moved a muscle the entire time he read but apparently she had left the moment he had dropped off to sleep because it was clear she hadn't been in bed for awhile.
Hermione was fragile these days, downright volatile and Harry didn't know what she was capable of lately. Thinking of her somewhere, doing something she would not be able to take back had him throwing his feet over the side of the bed and fairly running to the door. He didn't hear a sound once he stepped into the hallway and that only made him more scared. All he heard was his own breathing and the sound of his heart pounding with growing panic. He jogged down the hallway, thinking to check the library first because it and the family room had become her hideouts, but as he moved down the hall he saw that Cattie's bedroom door was open. He stopped in his tracks.
Neither one of them had entered the room since the day they returned home. In every room there was already a constant reminder of Cattie and the fact that she was no longer there but seeing her room only made it all the more real. Everything was just how she had left it that fateful morning; toys and books on the floor and another, open book on her bed. Everything was just waiting for her to come back. Neither one of them had wanted to disturb a single thing until she was home. It was the last place Harry would have expected to find Hermione but he inched his way into the doorway, hesitating twice before he looked inside. There she was.
She was on Cattie's bed, curled up on her side with her back to him. She was completely still and he couldn't tell if she was sleeping or what. He sighed, the breath flowing out of him slow and sad. He didn't want to step inside of the room, as a matter of fact he wanted to get as far away from it as he could, but Hermione needed him and he had been abandoning her for too long. He walked across the carpet like it was glass, feeling like the once bright and warm room was suffocating him, but eventually he made it to Hermione's side. Now that he was closer he could clearly hear her soft sniffles but she didn't move to face him. He was getting tired of seeing her back turned to him.
Continuing to move carefully he climbed onto Cattie's bed after her and lay down. He moved his body behind hers and reached an arm around her waist to pull her back against his chest. Hermione tensed immediately but he didn't allow her the chance to pull away, burying his face in her hair and holding her tight. The struggle was there in the taught tremble of her body but after several long seconds she gave in. She didn't sob or scream or cling to him, she just sagged back against him.
"We're going to bring her back." She said softly, words choked with tears.
Harry brought his cheek to rest against the top of her head, breathing in. "I know."
There was a new determination between Harry and Hermione that day. Hermione no longer avoided him and she began to help him try to sort out the details of Voldemort. They spent nearly the entire day in the training room together and by the time they headed downstairs to meet Ron, they were actually starting to feel like they were doing something. It was about four o'clock when the fireplace flared to life and Ron tumbled out.
"Bloody hell." He cursed, scowling as he rolled from his sprawled position of the floor to his back.
"Hey." Harry fought down a smile and helped the redhead to his feet. You would think by now he would have learned how to stick the landing. Before Hermione had her chance to say hello though, a second person was coming through the floo. It was the slim figure and the familiar, thick braid of dark hair that told him it was Angelina Johnson. She managed to only stumble a bit when she stepped out of the fireplace and brushed soot from her school robes. Harry stared at her in confusion before his eyes flashed to Ron, questioning. Before he could ask what she was doing in his living room so early, Hermione cut in.
"Angelina? What brings you here?" She asked as she stood up from the couch. "Did something happen?"
"I guess you could say that." Angelina exchanged a glance with Ron before looking between Harry and Hermione. There was obviously something she wanted to say but she seemed nervous, gnawing at her bottom lip and fiddling with something in the pocket of her robes. After a moment of hesitance, she sighed explosively and pulled a folded piece of parchment from the pocket, shoving it rather roughly into Harry's hands. "My sister said to give this to you." She said all in a rush, rubbing her hands on her robes as if to wipe away the touch of the letter. "I almost didn't want to. She could get in a shitload of trouble for this."
Harry held the piece of parchment a bit away from his body while his face showed just how confused he was. Why would Angelina's sister be giving him anything? He was thinking this could end up being the most inopportune delivery of a love letter ever. Hermione on the other hand caught on immediately. Surprise flashed across her features and she snatched the note from Harry's hands. She turned wide eyes to Angelina.
"Your sister the Auror?"
At the moment curiosity won over Harry's feeling of stupidity at not remembering Auror Camille; they had met after the attack on Diagon Alley. Anything that an Auror had to tell them was going to be some kind of important and right now they needed any kind of news they could get.
"Yeah, Cam. She took it from the attack on that muggle school yesterday, don't ask exactly where it was." Angelina winced. "She told me that she got her hands on it before any other Aurors saw it. It was a big risk, she's already sure that the Ministry is keeping an eye on her because of her 'questionable allegiance' to them."
Hermione was unfolding the note and Harry moved closer to her so he could peer over her shoulder. Ron took the other shoulder. Angelina must have already taken a look at it because instead of joining them, she stepped around their little huddle to sit on the couch. If Harry hadn't known better he wouldn't have been able to tell if the letter was newly written or some ancient scrap of parchment. It was a dusty sort of beige, torn at one side and covered in smudges of rusty brown, a large stain of it taking up nearly the entire bottom half. From Angelina's expression—and his own experiences—he could safely guess that stain was blood. Hermione's fingers were careful to avoid touching the stain.
The note had been folded several times and it took Hermione a while to open it up, the fact that she was being exceedingly careful while doing so only made her take longer. When she finally opened it she gasped, color seeping from her cheeks. Ron let out a single foul swear and on the couch, Angelina shivered as if trying to shake off a bad memory. Harry was the only one who didn't show an immediately reaction. His face was a blank mask as he stared at the letter. He didn't even have to look for a signature beneath the ornately written line of text to know that this was a letter from Voldemort. There was just something about it; on top of the blood stains and the strange way the letters tilted on the page, there was something distinctly wrong about that single piece of parchment that Harry could only equate with the Dark Lord.
Hermione regained her composure quickly. From his spot at her side Harry could see her jaw clench as she prepared herself for whatever horrors the letter could contain and then she began to read, eyes flying over the page. Seeing as she wasn't planning on reading it aloud both he and Ron leaned closer to read for themselves.
This was all for you, Harry Potter.
Return to this spot in two days time. Six o'clock. Retrieve what was taken from you.
There was nothing else. Just those few lines of text but this was what they had been waiting for since the day Cattie was taken. A rush of excitement came over Harry so quickly he barely he caught his breath. This was it. Finally Voldemort had made his move and they were that much closer to getting Cattie back. He was so tired of feel helpless and like a failure, now he was going to bring his daughter home. He was so awash with the feeling of anticipation that he could almost ignore the fact that this was almost certainly going to be a trap, or the way disgust curled in his stomach knowing Voldemort could have very well attacked that school just to get his attention. Well, that was harder to ignore. He had read the Prophet; he knew what a horrible scene it had been and how many lives were lost, some of them around Cattie's age. To think that it had happened just to get a message to him…he shook his head fiercely. He couldn't think about that now, if he did the guilt might just eat him alive.
A heavy hand on his shoulder brought Harry's attention back to the room he was in. He turned his head to see Ron smiling at him, almost grinning. The thought of the attack hadn't entered his mind, only the fact that they finally got the meeting time they were waiting for. Harry returned the smile though his was rather tight lipped. He turned and looked down at Hermione, having to tilt his head to try and catch sight of her expression. His and Ron's excitement wasn't reflected in her face. She was frowning with her eyes faraway and brows furrowed while she chewed on her thumbnail, holding the letter in a limp grip.
"Why do you think he picked two days instead of tomorrow or something?" Ron asked. "I'd have thought he'd want to get on with it as soon as possible."
"Probably just to make me wait." Harry shrugged, answering absentmindedly when Hermione moved away from them to sit next to Angelina, still deep in thought.
Angelina spoke up then. "Most likely it's because the place is still crawling with Aurors. My sister told me that they just obliviated the muggle poy- pat-whatever, law enforcement and told them some kind of big accident happened and that they didn't need to investigate it so there aren't many of them around the place. The Ministry is poking around now but they should be done in two days."
"Oh, that makes sense then."
"This is a trap." Hermione stated, not as if she was surprised or worried, just stating a fact they all knew. They all turned to her, waiting for her to finish whatever thought she was having. With Hermione there was always more to the story. Her eyes were still focused somewhere far off while she gathered her thoughts. "There weren't any demands listed so Voldemort obviously expects to get whatever he wants without a problem. That is what we really should be worried about because if he feels he has this situation completely under his control, he has everything planned down to the letter. There wasn't even a mention of you coming alone. This won't end well for us." Her face was grim with determination when she finally stopped staring past them and met Harry's eyes. He could see it in the set of her jaw and the hard way she looked at him that she was resolute. She was thinking the same thing he was. Trap or no, they had no other choice because they were going to get their daughter.
After Angelina brought the letter things progressed quickly. The D.A was informed of all the details at the meeting that night and now that they had a deadline, everyone was more determined than ever. Harry didn't try to sugar coat things one bit, he let them know in no uncertain term that they were going to be walking into a trap and there was a good chance that some may not come back alive. They would be dealing with Death Eaters and maybe even Voldemort himself and they did not play nice. Harry would not have held it against a single one of them to back out right then and there but this was the D.A. In the past few months they had come to think of themselves differently. They were no longer just some group of students trying to stick it to an unfair authority, they were an army now. They might be a small army but they were strong; strong enough to fight for their lives and the lives of the people they cared about, to stand against an incoming darkness that was slowly but surely destroying the world they knew. They weren't going to back out now.
The two days were not spent just sitting around and waiting. On top of training with a new vigor Ron, Angelina, Harry, and to the shock of everyone Colin Creevey started to come up with attack maneuvers. They went about it like Quidditch plays—Angelina especially—working out hand signals and deciding who would watch whose back. Angelina had not been able to get any sort of floor plan from her sister so they were pretty much going to have to go in blind, that meant they had to plan whatever they could. Hermione spent the next two days with a stack of books, locked in the privacy of their potions lab creating three portkeys. She had never attempted it before but there was never a doubt that she was brilliant, especially when she focused her mind on something. Nothing before had ever deserved the focus she had now.
Harry didn't let anyone outside of the D.A know about Voldemort's letter, not even Remus and Tonks. He hadn't talked to them since the day he and Hermione had left Hogwarts, mostly because they were still staying at the castle. Ron had not seen any of the Lupin family, not even Malfoy and Harry didn't want to risk trying to owl them or anything and having any information leak out to Dumbledore.
Finally Saturday came. Neither Harry nor Hermione had slept through the night. There was just too much to think and worry about, too much nerves and anticipation. They were finally going to have their daughter back in their arms and there was no sleeping until they did. The couple sat side by side in Cattie's room—a place neither had returned to since Harry had found Hermione in her bed—and just waited for the sun to come up. Seeing as it was a weekend, Ron had flooed over first thing that morning. That was a shock within itself considering Ron and mornings didn't usually mix. Throughout the day various members of the D.A flooed into the Potter home, spacing trips apart to draw the least suspicions. DeeDi and Manny had made it their personal mission to keep their dining room table laden down with food for every new person who arrived. Some people like Ron, Fred, George, and Zacharias Smith were wolfing down everything they could get their hands on while others like Neville, Justin, and Katie were too nervous to even glance at the food without going green around the gills. Luna didn't eat either but she seemed content to sit next to Ron, stacking bits of fruits and bread on the table into an ever falling tower.
By the time it started to get late, there were members of the D.A all over the house. Cho, being one of the early arrivers had wandered into the library some hours ago with Anthony Goldstein and Susan Bones in tow. In the family room, Lavender and Parvati had settled into a semi-enthusiastic conversation about the Weird Sisters while Padma sat next to her sister reading a book. Dean and Seamus played a seeming endless game of chess while Lee Jordan gave a running commentary that was really nothing more than nervous chatter. Hannah Abbot had elected to sleep off her jitters in one of the guest rooms and the few other members of the D.A generally milled around the Potter home. Harry made restless rounds around the house, talking to people and glaring at every clock he saw. Hermione…Hermione kept to their bedroom and waited for time to pass.
The only person who was blatantly uncomfortable in the house was Ginny. She had run almost directly into Harry when she had come out of the floo an hour or so before and the two had immediately plunged into awkwardness. She froze, staring up at him with wide eyes before flushing red when he murmured a hello. She had been attending the past few D.A meetings so they had seen each other but they had also been able to keep at least two people between them at all times. Before he could say something, thank her for coming or whatever, she had darted away and she had been hovering around her brothers since then.
A little more than twenty minutes to six, everyone was assembled in the downstairs hallway. For once no one was admiring the opulence of the hall—now lit by soft golden light from the chandeliers above—every face was turned to Harry. He was standing at the door facing them, expression set with resolve and more than a touch of pride. Even though the air around them was practically rippling with anticipation, people shifting here and there in anxiousness, twenty-three faces looking back at him with complete determination. Battle ready.
Hermione was standing a bit apart from everyone else—Ron just behind he—and she gave him an encouraging smile. Any nervousness or fear he felt faded away. He didn't care what they might encounter, only that this was the night he would get his daughter back. He would never be able to thank her enough for being his strength. He inhaled silently, drew his spine straight and clasped his hands behind his back. Then he opened his mouth and spoke with as much authority as he could muster.
"Okay, everyone. We're going to portkey a bit away from the grounds of the school. As soon as we get there I want complete silence. We're going to rely on the hand signals Angelina came up with and nothing else because we don't want to risk giving away our position for a second. Find your partner and cast a disillusion spell immediately; then we'll make our way into the school. There's a bit of a chance that we'll get there before the Death Eaters so find a good position not only to lay low but that has a good vantage point. If they are there, take out whoever is in your way as silently as you can. We all know this is a trap so we need every advantage we can get. " He paused, rolling his next few words around in his mind before he spoke them. The stern, almost business-like expression he had been holding throughout his speech shifted into something else, somber and troubled.
"I know I've said something like this before so even if you're tired of hearing it, I'm going to say it again. This is not going to be a little duel. We're going to be walking into a trap set by a psychotic murderer and his equally psychotic followers. These are people who will maim, torture, and kill you for being in their way or just for the hell of it. There are some of you who have been in a situation like this with me before," here his eyes moved over Ron, Ginny who was standing just behind him, Luna and Neville, and resting just a second longer on Hermione. "But a lot of you haven't been in this kind of battle before. You need to be more careful than you've ever been in your life. You watch out for yourself and for those around you. Don't give yourself any room for mistakes because if you do, you will not come out of there alive. There is a chance that some of us might not make it back."
"Are you trying to scare the shit out of us, mate?" Seamus asked, releasing a strained chuckle as he broke that tense silence that followed Harry's words.
Harry cracked a thin smile. "Basically." The smile faded. "I just don't want to see any of you hurt or worse. I'm…so grateful that you're doing this. It means more than the world to me. To me and to Hermione." He ducked his head, truly thankful and hoping that the sudden prickle at his eyes hadn't made them all red.
"Don't get all mushy on us now, Harry." Fred said, sending laughter around the room and dispelling some of the heavy atmosphere.
Harry cleared his throat and looked up, smiling a wider smile than before. "Me? Never."
Without another word, he turned around and opened the door. Ron stepped forward to flank his left side while Hermione moved over to his right, slipping her cold fingers through his. He squeezed her hand and she squeezed back, then they stepped outside. The group filed out of the house and into the cool evening air (Lee Jordan letting out a whistle as everyone got their first look at the exterior of the Potter Cottage), splitting into three groups. Hermione had already handed out the three portkeys—empty potion vials—and everyone already knew their groups so it didn't take long for the students to assemble with a finger on their portkeys.
At exactly 5:40pm, the portkeys activated and in a blink of an eye, the D.A. was gone.
Harry landed hard on his knees, bracing a hand on the tightly compacted dirt below to steady his body. He pushed himself up into a crouch and behind him he heard several thumps and a half-hissed curse. He shot a glare over his shoulder, barely able to make out the face of Zacharias Smith beneath the hood of his robes as the boy picked himself out of a sprawl and mirrored the solid crouch of the rest of the D.A. Not even a full second and the silence rule had been broken. Great. Frowning, he looked away from Zacharias and took stock of their surroundings.
They had landed in an almost circular copse of trees, what was either a small forest of the outer edge of a park. Thin branches tangling high overhead created a dark shadow beneath the setting sun, completely concealing them. If he looked to their left Harry could make out an empty street beyond the line of trees, the street lamps just beginning to flicker to life. If he looked straight ahead he could see a tall, brick building. That would have to be the school.
It looked like an average if surprisingly large school. It was made up of what looked like three red brick buildings, all narrow and connecting in a staggering line, and heavily windowed. A large square area around the school was paved and trimmed in short beds of bright colored flowers and he could just catch a glimpse of a play yard around the back. The school might have been a rather cheery place just last week but now it was anything but.
The brick had been blackened by flames, the scorch marks flaring up from the blown out second floor windows all the way to the roof. Every window was broken, one of the double doors was hanging off its hinges and the set of stairs that led to the door has a single crack down the middle. There were more scorch marks on the pavement in front of the building but the most unsettling thing about the scene was a memorial that had been set up just at the sidewalk. There were teddy bears, cards, bouquets of flowers, and saddest of all pictures of smiling children and a few adults that were most likely teachers. From where they were Harry couldn't make out their features but that didn't stop the sick feeling twisting in his gut and the several seconds it took for him to swallow down a rush of nausea and anger.
Those people, those kids, died for no reason. They were killed just to send a message and when he got his hands on those Death Eaters, they would pay for not only taking his daughter but for every life taken.
It was a tap at his shoulder that drew his eyes away from the memorial and to Hermione who was crouched at his right. He ducked his head a bit to see beneath her hood, catching sharp brown eyes with his own, and when she was sure she had his attention she held up two fingers that were pressed tightly together and then separated them, jerking her head towards the rest of the D.A. She was reminding him that they needed to split up and get moving. Nodding tightly, he slowly stood with his back still bent and faced everyone, repeating Hermione's signal. Without a moment of hesitation everyone shuffled towards their partners and began casting disillusion charms.
There was no question that Harry, Hermione, and Ron were sticking together so as everyone began vanishing beneath their charms, the three stood next to each other while Hermione made quick work of disillusioning them. Harry shivered at the unsettling feeling of the spell spilling over his head and dripping down his body and in a few moments, he had faded from view. He could no longer see the rest of the group, including Hermione and Ron. There was already a plan in place as to what order they would proceed towards the building to avoid any of them tripping all over each other now that they were pretty much invisible. Hermione had even gone as far as to charm the Galleons they had used last year to warm whenever another member was close by.
Seeing as they were set to go before everyone else the trio were the first to step from the cover of the trees. The grounds sprawled around the school, open to view from all sides so the moment they stepped out of their hiding place, Harry felt exposed. The disillusionment spell might have hid them from sight but when he looked down, he could clearly see the grass bending beneath his feet, making clear outlines of his own footprints and the ones of Hermione in front of him and Ron at his side. Thankfully, the sun had been setting for awhile and if someone wasn't close, they wouldn't be obvious in the waning light.
Harry alternated between keeping an eye on Ron and Hermione's footprints and watching the school as they drew closer. There wasn't anyone in sight, not a mourner, not a police officer, not an Auror, and not one Death Eater. It wasn't like he had expected to see them strolling around the building waving white flags or anything like that but the place was completely still. He couldn't detect any movement inside or around the school at all. Did that mean that their approach was already known? Were the Death Eaters already inside just waiting for them to step inside so they could slaughter them one by one? He was already completely sure that this was a trap anyway so that scenario would fit.
He wasn't sure how long it took before they actually reached the stairs of the school but he did know that he was sweating bullets. His heart rate had increased to the point where he could hear it pounding in his ears yet, emotionally he felt almost calm. This was the moment they had been waiting for since Cattie was taken. He had a plan, he had backup, and he had the willing to do anything to get his daughter back. Harry couldn't see the rest of the D.A but the steadily increasing warmth from the coin in his pocket reminded him they were drawing closer, backing him up. Maybe Voldemort was even inside and this would be the place he would finally bring everything to an end. The thought sent a tremble through his body and Harry couldn't tell if it was from excitement or fear.
After stepping out of the grass and onto the pavement that led to the school, the ability to make out one another's footsteps disappeared. By the time the drew close to the school, Harry had run into Hermione's back at least twice and he was pretty sure he had trod quite firmly on Ron's foot, the redhead barely holding in a curse at the pain. The trio decided to enter the school right through the front door. There really was not much point in trying to find a covert entrance when they were pretty much invisible anyway, not to mention the doors were already open to welcome them in. Well, maybe 'welcome' was stretching it a bit. One door was hanging off its hinges while the other had been warped by some sort of impact to the point where it could not completely close. When Harry craned his neck to try and peer around the doors and inside of the school, all he saw was darkness. It was anything but inviting.
They reached the set of cement stairs and now that they were closer, Harry could see that the crack was actually a large hole. Right in the middle of the staircase, not incredibly wide but deep enough where he could see scorched earth down below. Small cracks fanned from the edges of the hole like spider webs, making it seem like if they took one step onto the cement it would crumble beneath their feet. Harry frown at the half destroyed stairs and reached blindly around him until the fingers of one hand brushed against someone's robes and his other tangled in thick hair, a hand coming up and slapping at his wrist and he quickly detangled his fingers from Hermione's hair. Now that he knew exactly where Ron and Hermione were, he felt around until he had a hold of both of their arms. He didn't want them to lose track of one another while trying to get around that giant hole.
Keeping a tight grip on them both, Harry bit his lip and cautiously extended a foot to the bottom step. When nothing happened he added a bit more pressure and the stepped stayed firm. He stepped up onto it, tugging Ron and Hermione behind him, and repeated the procedure with the next few steps. Despite their appearance, the stairs held up all the way to the point where they were carefully inching their way around the gaping hole. That's when things started to get worrisome. Every careful step they took had the almost hollow steps quaking, sending bits of broken cement cracking from the edges of the hole and falling inside. Harry could feel the sweat now trickling down the side of his face and he didn't release the breath he was holding, or his hold on Hermione and Ron, until they were off the stairs and slipping through the opened doors.
His first instinct was to step right back outside.
Even with the broken windows that opened into the entrance, the light of the setting sun was swallowed up by the near complete darkness. A few rays managed to cut through the gloom but they did nothing more than outline open doors and give glimpses of scorch marks and stained walls in what Harry guessed was the wide, long hallway they were standing in. Here and there the light would glint across shards of broken glass. There was a door laying flat on the ground right in front of them, the frame it once stood in to the left of them and through it Harry could just get the outline of a stairwell. Though the longer they stood there, he did begin to make out a bit more. Like the open door to a classroom a bit away from them and for some reason, a single chair pushed against a wall. Other than that, there was not a thing to see.
Harry had been expecting to see or feel a sign of Voldemort and his minions the moment they stepped inside, most likely waiting for them with an Unforgivable on their lips. Instead it was just as still as it had seemed from outside. There was not a sound or a movement in the air, there was absolutely nothing. It was more than a little unsettling. Something just felt off. Harry struggled to stand completely still, scared that any movement he made would disturb the air and alert someone to their presence, when all he wanted to do was back out the door.
He still had a hold of Hermione and Ron so when Hermione started to walk down the hall he was tugged after her. He let go of Ron but he could hear his feet shuffling through the ash and bits of debris that littered the floor. The layer of ash on the floor was so thick it was like walking on sand and Harry tensed more with every step. He had no idea where the soot had come from; he couldn't make out any detail in the walls or the ceiling. The sound of their feet sliding on it was thundering to his ears and the fact that it was growing darker while they inched their way down the hallway did not help his growing anxiety. He could barely see what was in front of him and he was only just able to make out the interior of some of the classrooms that lined the corridor—overturned desks and scattered papers—while other doors opened into gaping darkness. Every door was wide open, not blown off their hinges but more like they had been flung open when the students and teachers tried to escape.
Worst of all he could feel a sort of dripping sensation coming from his head and going over his shoulders that told him the disillusion charm was beginning to fade. They needed to move quicker. Harry moved closer to the walls and tried to peer into those dark rooms to see if there was any sign of movement but there was none. After awhile he did start to hear signs of the D.A entering the school; moving in through windows and fire exits. The coin was a continuous warmth in his pocket and he was starting to catch glimpses of his friends around corners and inside classrooms. By the time the trio reached the end of the hallway—crunching glass underfoot when they came to stand in front of a second staircase and a blown out window—he was almost sure the Death Eaters had yet to arrive. The disillusion charm had faded away and with them standing in front of the open window he could now fully make out Hermione and Ron. Ron was leaning with his neck craned to stare intently out the window and when Harry leaned over a bit, he could see why. Two D.A members—their disillusion charm just starting to fade—were reaching the edge of the field and were heading towards a door to the left of them. He guessed they were the last group to arrive and as Fred and George were set to take up the rear, he could understand the intense way Ron was watching. They reached the side door in a few seconds and disappeared inside; tension seeped out of Ron's shoulders.
Hermione's eyes weren't focused on the window; instead she was looking around them with an expression of growing anxiety. Underneath the hood of her robe her face was drawn tight with worry. On one hand it worked in their favor that they had managed to arrive before the Death Eaters but on the other, there wasn't any sign of Cattie and that had Harry's own heart tightening in his chest.
One of Hermione's hands trembled at her side and she clenched it into a fist. Understanding exactly the kind of fear she was starting to feel, Harry reached over and brushed her shoulder, bringing her out of her blank stare as she turned to look at him with a questioning furrow of her brows. Keeping with their wordless rule he jerked his head toward the staircase and for a moment the anxiety faded from Hermione's face, the single-minded determination returning and before he could think to move she was already stepping around him and moving towards the stairs. Harry turned quickly to go after her, not even looking back to see if Ron was following. He got to the last stair—Hermione a couple ahead of him, —when she turned around and shook her head. Confusion had him opening his mouth to break the silence when she held up both hands and repeated the motion from before, this time with three fingers. She wanted them to split up.
Harry shook his head fiercely. Not only was it growing darker inside of the school but they had no idea when the Death Eaters were going to show up and the last thing he wanted was for them to be caught off guard and apart. Because no one was talking he could clearly hear the D.A moving around the building—finding spots to lay low as had been planned—but that didn't make him feel any better about the idea. He wanted to have Hermione in his sights at all times. That was the plan so why was she trying to change it now?
Impatience and annoyance had Hermione shaking her head again, the action sharper than before even as she was turning her body to continue up the stairs. He was all ready to follow after her when a series of loud cracks thundered through the building. Hermione's steps were cut short and she whirled back around, Harry turning himself only seconds behind her. The cracks had come from somewhere back down the darkened corridor and suddenly Harry's heart was kicked into overdrive. The Death Eaters were here.
There was only the barest moment of hesitation between the three of them before Harry, Hermione, and Ron moved into action. Hermione was down the stairs in an instant and all three of them backed away from the dim light coming from the broken windows, stepping silently back into the shadows. Harry wondered if they should cast another disillusion charm but quickly decided against it, there was no time. Plus for their plan to work he would need to be seen. He shifted a bit to the left, hunching his shoulders a bit to make sure he was still in shadow, and peered down the dark hall to see if he could catch a glimpse of any Death Eaters. Harry had clearly been able to make out about four cracks in the beginning and another seven just after that but a few cracks overlapped and made him unsure of exactly how many he heard. That meant that for sure at least eleven Death Eaters had apparted into the school but there could be more, maybe even some outside.
The Death Eaters weren't speaking and no one had cast a 'Lumos' but shortly after the cracks, they could hear the sound of feet sliding across the ash covered floor. Harry didn't have to see them to know that they were drawing close. The trio stood there silently while the footsteps continued to grow closer and Harry began to draw his awareness inside. Back when Remus was helping to train him he had taught Harry a particular skill; something to help him when faced with enemies in the dark and one he would need for this plan to work. With the three of them standing in their hiding places and the Death Eaters drawing nearer, Harry closed his eyes and pushed his awareness and the tendrils of magic that went with it outside of himself. It didn't take long before the view of dank darkness around him began to change.
It was just like the first time Remus had taught him. No longer was it simple darkness surrounding he was standing in; there were now these glowing outlines of figures around him. Remus had told him that every person had an aura, a part of them that floated around their body and with magical people, the aura was stronger. Though Harry had managed to learn how to use the tendrils of his own magic to reach out and touch another's aura—to see it—it was a skill which he was only somewhat proficient. Even with practice he could only hold onto the awareness for a few moments at a time and right now was going to be one of those moments. He could see Hermione, burning bright and violet at his shoulder and Ron pulsing a glowing yellow a couple steps away. There were faint glimmers of others in his peripheral vision—the members of the D.A hiding in the rooms around them—but most importantly he saw the three Death Eaters heading their way. Their colors were…indistinguishable. Whatever their auras were meant to be, they were tainted completely by this sick twisting of black and burning red that somehow managed to be even blacker than the darkness around them. That was dark magic; he knew it without a doubt.
Most importantly, Harry now knew for sure that there were only three Death Eaters in the hallway and no others were lurking in any corners. He spared a brief second to wonder why there were only three there before he cast a quick, silent shielding spell and stepped out of the shadows. The reaction from the Death Eaters was immediate; the corridor may have been dim but the bare hint of moonlight from the windows now directly behind him gave Harry just enough of a silhouette to draw their eyes. Harry stood very still, body slightly bent into a defensive posture but not making any sudden movements towards the darkly cloaked figures. He—and Hermione and Ron— had been expecting them to immediately launch an attack when they caught sight of any kind of movement but instead they hesitated, almost as if they hadn't been expecting to see anyone. A few seconds went by where neither the Death Eaters nor Harry moved; all of them tense and momentarily unsure of what move should be made next. The moment was not nearly as long as it felt and the second it was broken, things moved very quickly.
"Crucio!" Harry was already ducking down as the Death Eater in the very center roared out the Unforgivable. The shift in the man's aura had alerted Harry to the spell headed his way before it had even left the Death Eater's wand. It flew uselessly out the broken window, a streak of light rapidly disappearing into the darkness beyond. Harry straightened quickly and gave a disappointed sigh before speaking in a deceptively casual tone.
"Well that wasn't very nice, was it?" That casual tone didn't last long; in the next moment his voice was dropping into something darker, something dangerous. "And here I was thinking I was the guest of honor." It was about then that despite his still cloaked face, the Death Eaters realized exactly who he was (there was a small and clearly feminine gasp from the one of the left) and before any of them could think to curse him again, Harry was lifting his hand for an attack.
"Reducto!" The spell was aimed at the ground mere inches from the feet of the Death Eaters and all three of them were blown off their feet, dust and rubble flying up in their wake. The sound of the spell impacting with the ground was like thunder in the still mostly silent school. The Death Eater that had been in the center seemed to fly almost straight upwards before crashing back down; his cry of shock and pain being cut off abruptly when he landed back on the ground and half rolled into the small crater Harry had created. The one who had been on the right was blown so far backwards that he disappeared back into the pitch black corridor; Harry didn't see where he landed but there was the sound of a heavy thud and a sickening cracked that told him that one wasn't going to be moving anytime soon. The other Death Eater—the woman—was the only one who seemed to have somewhat seen the spell coming because she had begun to turn away to shield herself; the half step she had taken saved her from taking too much of the fallout. She was blown to the side and sent sliding across the debris and ash covered floor and straight into the nearest wall. She groaned with pain as the side of her body slammed into the brick.
Harry didn't waste any time to think if he should be feeling any kind of sympathy; the only thing that really entered his mind was how oddly easy that was. Death Eaters didn't usually hesitate like that; they should have been aiming to kill him the moment they recognized his voice, but then again he could have done the same and killed all three of them immediately. Luckily for them (or maybe just the woman and the guy in the hole, he wasn't too sure if the other one was alive) killing wasn't on Harry's mind just yet. He needed information more than he needed blood on his hands.
Before he moved towards the prone Death Eaters, Harry spared a brief moment to draw his awareness back inside. The darkness in the corridor seemed to deepen as the glow of the auras around him faded. It was a useful little trick to have on hand but he could feel the concentration he had to put into it beginning to drain him and that's the last thing he needed. Tonight was a night where he needed every bit of his energy. A wordless Lumos had a small orb of light glowing in his palm in seconds and he started to move towards the Death Eaters—without even looking back he could tell that Hermione and Ron were leaving their hiding spots to follow after him. He skirted around the jagged edge of the crater and a glance at the crumbled body inside (vaguely noting a young face and thinking the guy must be a new recruit) told him trying to interrogate whoever that was would be of no use. That particular Death Eater was not in any kind of speaking condition. Determined steps had him standing over the half curled form of the female Death Eater in no time. Her wand lay just a bit away from her booted feet and Ron bent down to scoop it up, tucking it into his back pocket. The mask covering her face was made further ghastly by the light cast from the small orb in Harry's hand and at the sight of a man towering over her, she let out a noise that sounded like something between a whimper and a growl and tried to inch away. She was attempting to push herself away from the brick with the arm that had been slammed into the wall first and she was immediately sent crashing down to the floor. A strangled cry was ripped from her mouth and as Harry crouched in front of her, she managed to use her feet to push her back against the wall until she was in a sort of sitting position. Her mask had gone crooked and he could see a glimpse of a pale and bloodied cheek.
He wasn't sure if she could completely see who he was so Harry brought his orb a little closer to illuminate his hooded face, leaving her no doubt of who now had her at their mercy. Her entire body flinched and she started to try and push herself even further backwards. Harry ignored her attempts at putting more space between them and instead reached out with his free hand and knocked the mask from her face. Wide gray eyes, skin too pale to be healthy, a face of all pinched angles stained by her own blood. A copious amount of it was streaming from a brutal looking gash on her brow and dripping over her eye and cheek. What struck him the most was that she was…young. Much too young and vaguely familiar.
"Hello again." He greeted, voice pitched low and smooth with the hint of a threat. "Aren't you a little young to be out playing at this time of night? It's a bit dangerous you know." The girl's teeth pulled back into a snarl.
"Fuck you, Potter." She spat out and her words shook with pain and rage. Those pale eyes were too wide and glaring at him with such loathing the girl looked downright mad. Her body was trembling and the hood of her torn robe slipped off, revealing a head of shortly cropped golden blond hair. Ah now he knew where he recognized her from. Hogwarts. He remembered the twitchy looking Slytherin third or fourth year—he never spoke to her but he had vague memories of seeing her lurking in corners glaring at him with intense dislike. Not exactly unusual behavior for a Slytherin.
Harry's expression remained impassive as he stared right back into her glaring eyes and one would think he was completely uninterested in their current situation if it wasn't for the cold fury in his gaze. Those once laughing emerald eyes were filled with revulsion and impatience and the girl was pinned by them, absolutely terrified. Her almost colorless eyes darted away from him and to Ron and Hermione behind him—she was looking for an escape that wasn't there—then she was baring her blunt little teeth at them. She snarled again and Harry could only think that she looked very much like some wild, cornered cat desperate to claw his face off. He was sure that if she wasn't busy cradling her injured arm to her chest her nails would be digging into his skin already. Quickly losing interest in any type of banter, he leaned into the girl's personal space, moving close enough that all she could see was his eyes. There was a loud boom coming from somewhere above their heads followed by the sound of spells being shouted. The Slytherin flinched but Harry seemed to take no notice of it, keeping his stare on her face.
"Where is Cattie?" He hissed. The girl regained enough of her bravado to pull her bloodied lips into a twisted smile. She cocked her head to the side.
"Who?" A mocking look of sudden remembrance came over her face and that smile widened. "Ah I know who you're talking about. The baby mudblood, right? That disgusting little offspring of you and the great mudblood bitc-"
She didn't have a chance to finish that sentence because a hand shot out from behind Harry and grabbed the girl by the front of the robes. Hermione pushed past the crouching Harry and yanked the girl away from the wall.
"Where is my daughter?" She jerked on the robes to emphasize the tightly controlled words, ignoring the girl's ragged gasp of pain. "If you do not tell me exactly where she is within the next three seconds I promise you I will rip the answer from you in the most painful way I can imagine." From the icy tone of Hermione's voice there was no doubt that she meant every single word. Harry saw terror ripple across the girl's face before she desperately tried to control her expression but it was too late, the affect Hermione's words had on her had been very clear. Fear weakened her glare.
"L-Look we weren't the ones who had her, okay? We were just supposed to scout around for you and your cronies and that's all. I don't have anything to do with that fucking kid-" a rough shake from Hermione had her yelping in pain and she rushed to continue. "All I know is that the ones who have her are supposed to stuff her somewhere out of sight and wait. I swear that's all I know!"
By the time she finished speaking that bravado from before had all but disappeared and she was staring up at Hermione with huge, panicked eyes. Her uninjured hand was clutching at the wrist of the hand holding her robes as if she wanted to rip it away. Hermione held onto her for a moment more before she released the younger girl's robes and let her drop back against the wall, frustration clear on her face. They'd all been hoping she would tell them exactly where the little girl was being held. Harry stood from his crouch and looked down at the bloody girl curled back against the wall. That couldn't be all she knew.
"Who exactly are the Death Eaters who have her?"
The girl sagged against the wall and her eyes darted to the left for barest of seconds before she answered. "I told you already that's all I know-"
"Stop lying." Harry snapped out. "I saw you hesitate. You hesitated because you're lying. This is the last opportunity you have to tell the truth before Hermione makes good on that promise." All he could think was that they were wasting time. He wanted to grab this girl, ignore the hate and the fear on her too young face and shake her until she told him everything he needed to know. He was quickly losing patience and if he didn't get any information on where Cattie was soon, Hermione wouldn't have the chance to make good on that threat. There were sounds of fighting coming from further down the hallway and above their heads and it only made Harry feel more anxious to get moving. His waning control must have showed on his face because the girl swallowed hard and opened her mouth to speak. Harry and Hermione had to lean in to hear the whispered words.
"…It was Parkinson. With Crabbe and Goyle."
She was not looking at either of them as she spoke; she was peering over their shoulders, looking past Ron who had been silently standing guard the entire time to the bright flashes of spells being cast at the end of the corridor. She was most likely worrying someone was going to catch sight of her spilling information to the enemy. Harry couldn't even think of the duel going on at their backs when his mind was stuck on what she just said. Parkinson? Crabbe and Goyle? Those were not the names he had been expecting to hear. Why would Voldemort put schoolchildren in charge of such an important bargaining chip as Cattie? Harry had assumed that the people who would have her would be senior Death Eaters at the least or at the worst, the Dark Lord himself. Not a group of teenagers. He couldn't see why Hogwarts students would even be here at all when this entire situation would be the perfect setup for Voldemort to overwhelm and overpower them with the strongest of his forces. He could end Harry and everyone who supported him right here and now. It was an odd decision to say the least.
Now that they had gotten what they needed there was no point in continuing to interrogate the girl. Harry didn't know exactly what Voldemort's plan was but he knew they needed to get to Cattie as soon as possible. The main part of the D.A's plan was to find the little girl as quickly as they could and get out of there and Harry did not want to waste anymore time. The only thing keeping him from turning his back on the girl and immediately beginning their search for Parkinson and Cattie was the fact that there was no way they could leave her as she was. The moment their eyes weren't on her, this girl would get over her fear and either alert someone to their presence of she would attack. She was in pretty bad shape but Harry didn't doubt for a second that she would try to murder them all if given the chance.
He stood there silently eyeing the Slytherin while he tried to settle on exactly the way to…subdue her. Honestly the obvious solution was to kill her. It's not like she wouldn't be attempting to do the exact same thing if Ron didn't still have her wand. This was most definitely a kill or be killed situation but there was still a small part of him that recoiled at the idea of simply ending her right then and there without her attacking first. Killing the younger girl when she was curled defensively against the wall, the heavy flow of blood from the gash on her forehead congealing on her cheeks, and her limp arm clutched to her chest seemed like a weak move. He was rather frustrated with himself that he could only make his mind settle on the notion of stunning her and hiding her somewhere. If she was an older Death Eater, Harry was sure the decision would be easy. Huffing out a breath at his own lack of strength, Harry glanced over his shoulder at Ron.
"Snap her wand."
The moment the words left Harry's mouth Ron was pulling the wand out of his pocket and gripping it between his hands. The girl's eyes widened to a colossal size and she managed to lose what little color she had left—white in what could only be a mixture of shock and rage. She lurched from the wall but it was too late; Ron's grip tightened on the wand and with a grunt of effort it broke with a sharp 'crack' and a shower of sparks. The sound of that crack must have alternately been the sound of something breaking inside the girl. With a shriek that sounded as if it was coming from the mouth of some feral creature, the girl launched herself at Ron's back. Harry got a glimpse of crazed grey eyes as she rocketed past him and Hermione and seconds later was on Ron's back; she was still shrieking with her thin hands clawing over his shoulders and his face to get at the pieces of her wand. Hermione was right behind the girl with a hand lifted to stun her—before the shrieking could draw attention—but Ron had a faster reaction. He hissed out a vicious swear as she scratched at his face and reached back to grab a handful of the girl's robes to fling her bodily away from him. One second she was clinging to his back and the next she was flying to the side like a ragdoll. She hit the ground hard, the already injured side of her head hitting first and her body rolling into a sprawl. She lay still. Her eyes were closed with her face turned away from them. They all stared down at her; Harry's eyes especially were glued to her chest but no matter how hard he looked he couldn't tell if she was breathing or not. Despite the Lumos still glowing in his palm it was still dim in the corridor and he couldn't tell if the faint lift of her chest was real or just a flicker of shadow. He didn't hold out much hope that it was more than shadow.
Harry swallowed and looked over at Ron and was struck by the rigid look of horror on his friend's face. Ron had never used real violence against anyone—especially not a girl—and though all he had done was pull her off of him seeing the girl laying at his feet, looking very much dead because of his actions was hard for him to comprehend. It had all just happened so fast. Hermione was the first one to move; she reached out a hand and gripped one of Ron's arms.
"Come on, we need to find Cattie." She said in a quiet voice. The reminder of their mission seemed to snap Ron out of his momentary daze and get both of the boys moving but Ron's eyes strayed back to the girl more than once. Harry extinguished his Lumos and in a collective movement the trio began to step away from the scene.
The duel at the other end of the corridor seemed to have come to the end because Harry could no longer see the flashes of spells being cast. They could still hear the sounds of spells being shouted, of wood splintering and glass breaking both near and far from them so the fighting was definitely still going on. The distinct light of an Unforgivable being cast in a classroom a little behind them had him craning his head to see into the room. He could barely see anything but he heard a voice that sounded like Dean's casting a volley of spells. He wanted to go into that room and help his friend but that was not apart of the plan. Everyone had their own group to watch their back so there was little chance that Dean was alone; the plan was for Harry's group, The Trio, to focus only on finding Cattie. The rest of the D.A were there to be their support.
"Let's start on the upper floors and make our way back down." Hermione whispered over her shoulder. It seemed useless to keep up the wholly silent communication rule at this point.
"Wouldn't it be easier to start downstairs since we're already here?" Ron whispered back, frowning. Harry was inclined to agree but Hermione shook her head vehemently, already moving up the first few steps.
"No. She's not on the first floor."
"But how would you-"
"Look I just-I just know, alright?" Her words came out in an exasperated sort of hiss but she kept her eyes straight ahead. "Most of the doors down here are open and we didn't see anyone come out with her. The D.A members who are in some of those classrooms would've alerted us if someone apparted in with her and I know it sounds mad but I just feel that she's not down there. I would have known if she was and she absolutely is not." With the complete certainty of her tone neither Ron nor Harry thought to question her any further. Harry had learned long ago never to second guess Hermione's instincts, especially when it came to their daughter. Harry and Ron quickly made to catch up with the short distance Hermione had put between them.
It was still so dark they had to move cautiously up the stairs for fear of a misstep doing them in before a Death Eater could get a chance. Harry didn't want to risk casting another Lumos and giving anyone unwanted a clear shot at them so it took them a little longer than it should have for the trio to get about halfway up. By the time they were getting closer to the middle of the staircase Harry began to notice the sound of fighting becoming louder and louder and things getting less and less dark; when the landing came into sight he could actually make out what was ahead of them. There weren't any lights on the second floor but a section of the roof had been burned away and the entire floor was lit by bright moonlight. Hermione was the first one to reach the landing and immediately she was ducking down to avoid a spell. Harry and Ron were right behind her and only the fact that Harry was standing a bit too far to her left and Ron was on a lower step saved them from the bright red streak of light. The curse missed Ron's head by a hair and instead impacted with a stair not far below them and it exploded in a shower of splinters.
"Merlin's balls!" Ron swore, jumping up the last couple of steps and propelling Harry and Hermione forward to avoid the tiny darts of debris.
The trio stumbled onto the second floor and straight into a battleground. It seemed like the majority of the D.A had congregated there in the time the three of them were interrogating the Slytherin girl and with them were several Death Eaters. There was a full on battle happening with spells and curses flying from all directions; duels happening everywhere Harry looked and in the few moments he took to take everything in, it because abundantly clear that the D.A had the upper hand. The amount of D.A members in the area of scorched walls and debris strewn floors clearly outnumbered the amount of Death Eaters. From what Harry could see there were only about six Death Eaters in battle (not counting those already on the ground) to the twelve or so D.A members that were on the second floor.
To the far right of them Cho was battling a tall masked figure; he knew it was her because the hood of her robe had fallen from her head and raven black hair was flying in her wake as she twirled to avoid a Sectumsempra. The twins were unmistakable with a synchronized fighting style that Harry could recognize from countless D.A meetings. There was a hoodless Neville shooting spell after spell at a Death Eater that had apparently been unmasked sometime during the fight. He was clearly older than all of them with a face of growing panic as Neville kept up a steady barrage of spells he was floundering to deflect. The panic reached a peak when Neville cast a Flipendo with enough power to send the man flipping backwards into a blackened wall that crumbled at the impact, rubble falling on the man before he even had a chance to scream. Several D.A members were surrounding the few Death Eaters in groups—Lee, Katie, and Lavender for example had a squat person backed into a corner attempting to fight off all three students—and from all appearances it seemed like the group had the battle in hand. The only reason they had not already defeated the Death Eaters with their numbers alone was because the other wizards were mainly using Unforgivables. You couldn't throw up a shield against an Unforgivable so the D.A spent a good portion of the battle ducking and dodging death but still, the odds were in their favor.
Two more Death Eaters were taken out by the D.A as Harry, Hermione, and Ron moved out onto the battlefield. Adrenaline was pumping through Harry's veins at an alarming rate as he took in the battle going on around them. The battle was actually turning out to be in their favor when he—and everyone else really—had expected to be walking into a deadly trap but from what he could see of the D.A members upstairs, there were only some bloody scrapes here and there. They were coming out on top. It was unexpected to say the least and a voice in the back of his mind was whispering at Harry that something wasn't right about this situation but he couldn't bring himself to do anything other than ignore it for now. They were winning, they were surviving and all the three of them had to do was find Cattie and they all could get the hell out of there.
As Hermione moved forward to aim at spell at the back of the Death Eater Cho was battling and Ron jumped into the fray to help his friends, Harry looked over the few Death Eaters to see if he could spot a form that looked like Parkinson or her companions. Though he stood battle ready—shifting his feet into defensive position and keeping a hand lifted—Harry's main attention was focused on trying to find the three students that would have his daughter. The Death Eater that Cho had been dueling was taken down by Hermione's spell, his mask rolling away as he hit the ground and revealing a thin, pimply male face Harry didn't recognize. Definitely not Crabbe or Goyle. There were only four Death Eaters left standing; the squat one (who seemed rather powerful considering the fact that he was still putting up a fight), a hulking figure was being taken on by Angelina and Padma and quickly defeated, another of average build who was moving quickly and hissing out curses at Neville and Hannah, and another small looking Death Eater who seemed to be attempting to escape under a barrage of spells from Fred and George. One quick glance told Harry that none of them were the Death Eaters he was looking for. Within a few moments the only Death Eater still fighting was the small person dueling Fred and George. They had the person backed against a far wall with all hopes of escape cut off and it looked like the duel was moments from ending when the person seemed to draw in all their strength and point their wand at one of the twins.
"AVADA KEDAVRA!" The Death Eater's high, thin voice screamed at the top of his lungs and deadly green light shot out of their wand and straight for the twin on the left. The twin on the right barely gasped out 'George!' before he was reaching over and grabbing the back of his brother's robes, wrenching him bodily out the way of the killing curse. In those brief seconds every member of the D.A there had stopped breathing. That had been close, so close. Ron was only a few steps away from Harry at that point and he could see his friend's face looked absolutely bleached white in the moonlight.
Before the Death Eater could attempt another attack Angelina was the one to put a stop to him.
"Inruptio Intus!" Face a mask of fury, the girl shouted the spell with her wand pointed at the short Death Eater. The curse shot out bright and yellow and though the Death Eater attempted to turn away from it, there was nowhere to go and the spell hit him right in the back of the head. There were no blatant wounds from the spell's impact but the Death Eater's body convulsed once before he dropped to his knees, lingered for a moment, and then slumped forward onto the ash covered ground. Angelina exhaled sharply when the body lay still on the ground and her wand hand dropped to her side. She was gripping the wand tightly, trying to control the shaking of her hand. A belated expression of fear was on her face as her dark eyes flew to where George was still being gripped by his brother. Fred had a death grip on the back of George's robes and he didn't look like he had any intention of releasing him.
"You can let go now, Freddy." George's voice had a slight tremor when he spoke and he half turned to gently detangle his twin's fingers from his clothes. He grabbed hold of Fred's forearm and gave it a squeeze. "I'm alright now, okay? Thanks to you."
"Yeah…yeah you are." Fred rasped, grabbing hold of his twin's arm in turn. Ron strode over to his brothers and he reached for George, pushing back his hood to get a good look at his pale face and patting his hands over his shoulders and arms as if to assure himself that his older brother was really alright. When he was sure George was whole and well he took a step back and smiled with relief.
"That was really close, man."
George seemed to shake off the lingering shock of being that close to death because he grinned at his little brother. "That is was! Our little group almost lost half of the entertainment value in one fell swoop, thank Merlin Freddy wouldn't allow a thing like that. Or Angelina for that matter." His eyes moved to Angelina at that moment and though his voice was light, when their eyes met his gaze was meaningful. It was a thundering crash from downstairs that broke the moment. Every member of the D.A present turned towards the stairs at the exact same moment and seemed ready to move towards the disturbance but a low whistle from Harry had everyone's attention on him.
"Cho and Lee, I want you to take your groups back down to the first floor." He said, keeping his voice almost at a whisper. "There are still Death Eaters down there and the other groups might be needing backup." There were nods all around and Cho and the Patil twins, then Lee, Zacharias, and Susan began making their way towards the staircase. Before they went down Harry spoke again. "There doesn't seem to be many Death Eaters left but still be on your guard. While you're down there, keep an eye out for any sign of Cattie. We're sure that she is being held on this floor but still, watch out for her."
"Don't worry Harry." Susan spoke up in that soft, sweet voice of hers. "We'll search for any sign of her."
Without another word the groups started making their way down to the first floor. Harry turned to the ones left behind. "Like I said, it looks like Cattie is hidden somewhere up here. We learned from one of the Death Eaters that the ones who have her are Parkinson, Crabbe, and Goyle." He didn't even have to look at everyone to feel their surprise. "We're going to sweep this entire floor until we find them." There was a clear order in Harry's voice but it wasn't really necessary; the D.A would search high and low for that little girl without Harry saying anything.
"Our group was hiding in the first classroom on the right when all the Death Eaters just apparted right into the middle of the corridor." Neville said quietly, jerking his head towards what had to be Lavender and Katie next to him; they were still hooded. "We didn't see anyone but these ones here but others might've apparted in somewhere else."
"Same from this end." Justin piped up from Harry's left.
"Most likely they're hiding somewhere further down the corridor then. Let's all split back into our groups and start the search; we don't have any time to waste." It was Hermione who gave the instruction this time and everyone immediately moved to follow.
The section of corridor that the Death Eaters had apparted into looked to be the widest part of the second floor and the only section that was completely without a roof. The area was shaped like a half moon, the roundest part being where the landing was and where the D.A members were currently making their way downstairs. There were two rooms on either side of the landing, only one had a door and Harry assumed those were the classrooms Neville and Justin's groups had been hiding in. Spanning from the center of the half moon were three hallways; one went straight ahead while the other two turned out to the right and the left. A good section of the entrance to the left corridor had crumbled away where Neville had flung the Death Eater from before. His legs still sticking out from beneath the rubble and not far from him, the smaller Death Eater Angelina had taken down was crumbled on the ground.
Harry, Hermione, and Ron joined back together and started heading down the corridor directly in front of them as the rest of the groups split towards the other two hallways. Angelina—who was in Justin's group—went towards the leftmost corridor but instead of immediately moving into it, she stepped over to the body of the Death Eater that had attacked George and crouched down. Harry was looking over his shoulder just as she reached out a slightly trembling hand and pulled the mask from the Death Eater's face. The gasp she released came out half choked as she looked down at the face with horror. Such a young face. Harry had thought the Death Eater was just someone on the short side but no, this boy looked like he could barely be a fourth year.
"H-He's a Ravenclaw." She murmured. Harry felt a pang at the absolute horror on her face, the guilt he could see dawning even from the entrance to middle corridor. It was one thing for them to theorize about killing evil adult Death Eaters but to actually take a life and then having that life being one of someone so young? A classmate? It was a hard thing to reconcile in your head and Harry hated himself a little for putting his friends in this position. He wavered at the entrance but he knew they didn't have the time for him to go and say something to her and…Cattie was more important. He turned his head and followed Ron and Hermione into the corridor, not seeing George leave his group to go and pull Angelina away from the body.
The second floor wasn't in any better shape than the first; if anything the missing patches of roof and the bright moonlight made it look even worse. As the trio moved further away from the 'battleground', the moonlight illuminated less but Harry could still make out the fact that most of the walls were blackened completely. It looked as if fire, most likely a magical one, had roared down the corridor and engulfed it from floor to ceiling, scorching everything in sight. There looked to be fewer rooms here than there had been on the first floor but the spaces were large and more open, the doors (or gaping holes in a couple places) of each room spaced farther apart. It made for less places to hide but it made Harry feel uncomfortably exposed. The three of them were still hooded and as they moved towards the first room in the corridor, they made sure to stay in as much shadow as they possible but Harry still felt ill at ease. Things were going relatively well for the D.A; there had not been any deaths or grievous injuries on their side so far and the situation was going even more to plan that he could have even imagined but this good luck was starting to nag at him. He felt like they were only moments away from the other shoe dropping. They needed to find his daughter before it did.
What was left of the door to the first room they passed seemed to have been blown inward, lying on the ground inside of the room partially burned. Ron stepped forward first and poked his head inside of the cramped room, wand at the ready. Harry and Hermione crept up behind him and peered into the dim room themselves but there wasn't a sign of any movement.
"Lumos." Ron whispered the spell and immediately a strong beam of light came from his wand and cut through the faint darkness of the room. The first thing Harry noticed was a shattered coffee pot just a couple steps away from where the three of them stood in the doorway. He didn't know why the coffee pot and the dark stain on the warped wood below drew his eye over the strewn papers and overturned furniture everywhere in the room. Maybe it was the idea of the person who had been holding it, what exactly had taken them so by surprise that they had dropped the pot and allowed it to shatter. The inside of the room—which appeared to be a teacher's lounge—looked completely untouched by the flames that must have roared down the hall beyond but it was clear something terrible had happened inside. A sweep from Ron's wand illuminated a large spatter of dried blood over a wall and a nearby couch. No, nothing good had happened here. Hermione took a step further into the room and lifted her hand.
The charm was cast with a sweep of her hand and what looked like a beam of misty looking blue light floated through the room. The spell was supposed to reveal if there was some kind of human presence in the area, settling over a person and marking them as present. The tell-tale marker of a body didn't appear; no one was in this room. Harry frowned and moved away from the doorway, already turning to move to the next room. There was no point in lingering when Cattie wasn't there. Ron and Hermione were quick to follow and over the next few minutes, the trio made quick but thorough work of searching the next three rooms in the corridor. There was not much to see; the hallway was short with only a few doors and two of those led to classrooms and another to a bathroom. The door to one of the classrooms must have been open when the fire had roared through because the inside was a blackened, unrecognizable mess while the second classroom was in a similar state as the teacher's lounge. The toilets were relatively untouched save for every stall having been blown open, some of them actually blown to bits. With every room they entered one of them would go inside and cast the Homenum Revelio but they had yet to get even the slightest hint of the three young Death Eaters and the little girl. Harry thought about using his awareness like before but using that particular skill was too draining to use just to search rooms; it was better used for tracking movements than finding people.
The trio moved silently as they left behind the bathroom and headed towards the last two doors in the corridor. Harry had been growing steadily more anxious as each room was searched and by the time they moved to the next room, he knew he wouldn't be able to take much more of this. The last two rooms in the corridor was positioned right across from one another; far enough back from the entrance of the hall the only the barest hint of moonlight touched anything. The door to the room on the right was ajar and because of a window inside, Harry only had to peer around the door to make out a desk with an overturned computer and a toppled bookcase. No doubt this had once been someone's office; he didn't want to think where that person might be now. Harry quickly cast the Homenum Revelio charm; he wasn't really expecting to find anyone there. It was such a tiny, cramped office he couldn't even imagine such massive blokes as Crabbe and Goyle even being able to fit inside without the place bursting at the seams. His guess was right, there wasn't a soul inside. That left only one more room to search. Unlike the door to the office, the double doors of the next room were closed and when Ron reached to pull on the handles, they were locked tight. The doors were burned and pockmarked and looked as if they should not even be holding up but when Ron pressed on the wood, they didn't budge at all. From beneath their hoods the trio exchanged a look and Harry swore he heard his heart speed up before he felt it. Hermione nodded once at Ron-a clear 'go on'-and he turned back to the door and cast an unlocking charm. There was the distant sound of a click and the doors swung open slowly, ash falling from overhead.
Standing at Ron's shoulder with Hermione on his right, Harry could barely make out anything inside but still, dank darkness. He tried to squint through the dimness to see if he could make out what was inside but from his spot in the doorway, he couldn't see much of anything. Hermione stepped forward and moved a bit further into the room, extending her hand to cast a Homenum Revelio. The now familiar mist floated out into the room but instead of flowing out and through the room as it had the past few times, the charm moved out a ways in front of Hermione before being swallowed up by the gloom. Hermione looked back at him and Ron and though Harry couldn't completely make out her features from underneath her hood but he could imagine the frown on her face. For a second Harry wondered if the darkness was something magical and that's why the spell could not completely penetrate it but when he moved further inside, coming to stand next to Hermione he realized what the problem was. This room wasn't like the others; it wasn't a classroom, it wasn't a bathroom, and it most definitely wasn't another cramped office. This room was much bigger than the others so instead of the spell being able to flow through the room with one sweep, it was only able to extend halfway inside. Even as his eyes were getting adjusted to the lack of light and he began to make out things here and there, Harry could feel the size of it pressing in on him. More accurately, he could feel the sheer amount of stuff in the room from all sides. The longer he stood there and let his eyes adjust the easier it was for Harry to figure out exactly what kind of place they were in. It was a storage room and probably one of the most disorganized storage rooms he had ever seen.
With his palm facing outwards in a defensive position, Harry stepped fully inside of the room with Ron and Hermione following after. Their feet moved silently over uneven wood floors as the trio took a few steps further inside and now that they were no longer in the doorway, Harry could see that the darkness wasn't quite as complete as it had seemed. Far back from where they stood he could catch a glimpse of small, dusty windows partially hidden by shelves absolutely overflowing with stuff. The moonlight through those windows provided a murky sort of illumination here and there and made it easier to see the mess around them. There were rows upon rows of shelving spaced out across the large room and every spare inch of them was crammed with things like office equipment and art supplies. A shelf closest to where they stood had bits and pieces of what looked like scenery from school productions or something; cardboard cutouts of trees and the like. Things on other shelves were cast in enough shadow that only the vaguest of shapes could be made out, the same for the odd pieces of larger things tucked into corners and leaning against walls. There was a tingling at the back of Harry's neck and a clench in his chest that told him they were onto something with this room; the worrying thing though was that with such size and clutter the room was way too good of a hiding place.
Hermione once again took the leading roll and she maneuvered herself to stand in front, moving deeper into the room. They inched further inside, moving slowly and carefully as not to brush against any of the junk around them and alert anyone to their presence. With the amount of stuff there was in the room Harry would have assumed that this must have been a well off school but as they moved along, he noticed a lot of the things were broken or in rather pitiful states. Harry's breath was coming out in silent, anxious puffs and his tongue darted out and licked at his dry lips. He tasted sweat on his upper lip and he flexed unusually tense fingers. The feeling of excitement itching at his skin grew with every careful step they took because he knew that this was it-Cattie was here. He felt it and he could tell from the way that Hermione's steps were beginning to quicken that she felt it too, the sense of urgency at being close.
They journeyed through the cluttered space noiselessly—falling back to the plan from earlier—and all three of them continuously scanned the area for even the slightest movements but not a single thing stirred. They peered through gaps in shelves and stared hard into shadowed corners but there wasn't the slightest hint of any other human presence. When they reached about midway into the room-which was at the end of a set of shelves-Hermione stopped them short to once again attempt the Homenum Revelio. They were standing in a narrow sort of pathway; a row of shelves behind them and another just in front. In the space between two shelves, there was a window ahead of them that was half obscured by several stacks of old plastic napping mats; one of the stacks had toppled over. Harry eyes were skimming over those mats just as Hermione cast the charm so he was the first to notice when the misty blue light flowed over and settled over what was undoubtedly the forms of three people. It was clear as day; the charm floated over a presence and outlined their form in that blue mist and Harry could make out two hulking figures pressed back against the window with a smaller one to their left, just in front of those fallen mats. They had found them.
Harry wasn't sure if the realization of who they found had even fully sunk in before he was moving. His wand hand was thrust forward and with a slicing motion of that hand he sent a Finite Incantatem hurling their way. The smaller figure—most likely Pansy—was standing too far away from the other two for them all to be under an invisibility cloak so it had to be a Disillusionment charm keeping them hidden. He was proved right when within seconds, the young Death Eaters were no longer just vague outlines and three Slytherins were clearly standing in front of them. There was Crabbe and Goyle; bigger than Harry last remembered and without their Death Eater masks so he could see their looks of dumb surprise when they were unveiled. There was Parkinson also without her mask, standing in front of the mats with her stance wide and defensive so the bottom of her robe half obscured the fallen section of mats. Her wand was pointed at them and clutched so tightly in her fist that her arm was shaking. There was none of her companion's shocked confusion in her expression, just loathing and a fervent sort of glee. Harry had a feeling she wanted to be found as much as they had wanted to find her.
Unexpectedly, spells didn't immediately start to fly between the two groups; Crabbe and Goyle still struck dumb by being found out and though Pansy looked desperate to start spitting out curses, she seemed to be waiting for them to make the first move. Harry wanted to just take them all out immediately—and he was sure Hermione and Ron next to him felt the same way—but there was no sign of Cattie and none of them were going to do anything until they knew where she was. Harry had to squash down a spike of sickening fear when his eyes darted away from the young Death Eaters and he didn't see his little girl near them. She was the hostage, she was the bait so they should have been putting her on display. Shouldn't one of them be dangling her in front of them and laughing at how helpless they all were or something? But he wasn't getting the vaguest hint that his little girl was even here. Maybe this was the trap. Maybe Cattie wasn't even here at all. They had such an easy time of it up to this point and maybe that had been the plan all along; allow them to get this far only to be lured into some kind of ambush. If a slew of Death Eaters were about to materialize from somewhere then this was going to be the end of him because there was no way he was going anywhere until he knew exactly where his daughter was.
Pansy's eyes tracked his movement as Harry reached up and pulled off his own hood; her face split into a full out grin when she caught sight of his face. Harry spoke before she could.
"I know you have her. Where is she?" Harry bit out, not bothering to try and disguise how little patience he had left. He wanted her to know how close to the edge he was and how little playing around he was going to take. Obviously Pansy didn't get the message—or most likely didn't care—because her grin only widened.
"Oh you don't actually think that's how it's going to work, do you Potter?" She asked mockingly. It was odd how even in this situation the taunting tone of her voice was exactly the same as it had been at Hogwarts. Like this was some childish faceoff in the halls and not a life or death situation. Harry had to wonder if she even understood what kind of position she had placed herself in and if she wasn't just seeing this all as some especially sick game.
"You can't get something for nothing."
"And what is it you expect us to give you?" The question came from Hermione, sharp and condescending. Pansy's grin faltered and she glared in the other girl's direction hatefully.
"Merlin you really are a bunch of idiots, aren't you? The Dark Lord wants Potter and then you can have the little mongrel."
Harry felt something settle over him at the words; an odd sort of relief and a healthy dose of anger. That was a confirmation that his daughter was most likely still alive and though he knew he could put up a hell of a fight if they attempted to take him forcefully, when it came down to it he would be more than happy to surrender himself to Voldemort for Cattie's safety. But what was making him angry was if this was all just a plan for Voldemort to get his hands on Harry, it was all completely unnecessary. He could have easily been captured during the attack on Grimmauld and Cattie wouldn't have even had to be involved. Voldemort himself could be here instead of Pansy and it could all be over. None of this made sense. He kept the swirl of growing confusion from his face and simply raised a single eyebrow.
"How do you think you're going to get me? Let you lot take me to Voldemort without a fight? I think we know who the real idiot is here, and why would I surrender," he took a step towards her, "when we could make you and the world's largest twats over there tell us exactly where you're hiding her? Three on one and a half…I think the odds are on our side."
Pansy let out a weirdly high-pitched scoff and tilted that pug nose of hers in the air. "You really think we're the only members of the Dark Lord's forces in this disgusting place? We're the scouting party Potty and soon all your little mudblood and blood traitor friends will be dead and you'll be captured before you can even think to put a hand on me."
Ron snorted loudly and spoke up for the first time. "I don't know if you've noticed or not but you've been scouting for a long time now and none of your 'forces' have turned up. Either your backup is total shit or you're completely full of shit."
Harry took a second to think about exactly what Ron just said. While it had not exactly been hours since the Death Eaters had apparted into the school, it had still been a relatively long time and there had yet to be a sign of any more of Voldemort's forces. If anything it seemed like the only Death Eaters around were the ones standing in front of them and the few being taken care of by the D.A downstairs. If Voldemort really wanted to attack and overwhelm them, to push them into an ambush they would have no hope of escaping, the rest of the Death Eaters should be here already. Voldemort himself should be here. Harry wasn't going to dismiss the idea of this all still being a trap but the fact that more Death Eaters had yet to show up felt rather telling. It was weird—and completely illogical from Voldemort's standpoint—but it didn't feel like a hundred or so Death Eaters were going to pop out from behind the shelves at any moment.
There was a brief flash on unease to Pansy's expression that told Harry she was getting the same feeling. The expression faded quickly though and she was back to sneering at them, eyes alight with hatred and wand steadily aimed in their direction. Crabbe and Goyle had yet to move but Harry could see that Crabbe was just beginning to lift his own wand. Ambush or no ambush, Harry wasn't going to waste anymore time thinking and talking when he could be finding his daughter. He didn't turn his head to look at Hermione next to him but the shift of his body must have told her all she needed to know because they moved at the same time; Ron only seconds behind.
A Petrificus Totalus from Harry's palm hit Crabbe hard in the chest and Ron took Goyle down with a Locomotor Mortis when he tried to scramble backwards, sending him hurdling face first to the ground. The crunch of his nose breaking was audible and Ron followed up with a stunner when the other teen shrieked at the pain. Hermione's Expelliarmus missed Pansy by the barest of inches when the girl dodged to the side at the last moment.
"Avada Kedavar!" Pansy yelled the Unforgivable shrilly and this time it was Hermione doing the dodging. The curse flew past the spot Hermione had been seconds before and collided with a shelf, sending shattered wood and flaming art supplies in every direction. Harry took note of the pale green color of the Unforgiveable as it flew past and the way it only half destroyed the shelf instead of completely decimating it; telling signs that the curse wasn't nearly as powerful as it should have been. Despite the things she spewed and the baleful look in her eyes, it looked like Pansy didn't have enough hate in her heart to truly cast an Avada Kedavar. That was the thing with Unforgiveables; there had to be a hate and a wrongness deep down inside for them to reach their full potential.
Whether Pansy was completely corrupt yet or not meant very little to Harry, not when it was abundantly clear that her intentions had been to kill Hermione. The rage on her face was nothing compared to what he was feeling as he took a step towards her—ignoring the way her wand moved to point right between his eyes and her lips began to shape another spell—more than ready to discard their need to keep her coherent and alive. Her eyes were so wide he could see nothing but the whites of them and her fury; spots of color on her pallid cheeks and her breath coming out in these enraged puffs. It was her sidestep as he moved closer that drew his eyes to something in the peripheral of his vision.
Harry had not seen it before because Pansy had kept herself in front of the section of fallen mats but now that she had been forced to move, he could see a single chocolate colored curl spilling out from under those sleeping mats. His heart stuttered and then sped up rapidly and they didn't need Pansy anymore. She barely got the first few syllables of another Avada Kedavar out before Harry was casting a Stupefy so severe her body gave a spasm with it before she stilled. A second flick of his wrist cast a Levicorpus that had her floating to the ceiling and hanging there, hair dangling down and her wand falling from her frozen grasp to the ground. Maybe someone would find her before too much blood rushed to her head, he didn't know and he sure as hell didn't care because she was nothing when his daughter was right there. He knew those curls anywhere, knew that was his little girl tucked right underneath his nose all this time he had been wasting on these idiot children.
"Cattie." The whisper of her name came out like a gasp of breath from his lips. It only took a single step to take him to the pile of mats and he dropped to his knees next to where he could see the lock of hair. His hands came up frantic and shaking and he was ripping away the plastic mats, noticing only in the most distant part of his mind that Hermione was next to him throwing mats over her shoulder. She was saying things like Please be okay, Oh my god Cattie, Please in an endless torrent of words he could only vaguely hear over the pounding of his heart and the pleading in his own mind. She had to be okay, she had to be.
There had to have only been maybe six or seven of the mats on top of her but it felt like they had to dig through a mountain of them before Harry's hand brushed against cold fingers. He reeled backwards as if he'd been burned and suddenly he was frozen, choking on a sick cloying fear. A second ago all he was thinking was that he was close to finally having her back but now his mind held a thought that shook him to the core. How long had she been here? Was she even alive when they brought her here? Did they dumped the body of his little girl on the ground, throwing these mats on top of her just to complete their rouse? A shudder wracked his body and Harry knew that he had stopped breathing. Someone on his left was saying something to him, voice pitched low and frantic but he couldn't hear and understand.
All but Cattie's small arm was obscured by the last mat on top of her and Hermione reached around Harry to grab it and pull it away. For a moment Harry had an irrational urge to tell her not to, to tell her to leave the mat where it was because he knew he wouldn't be able to handle seeing his little girl without that warm flush of life that made her who she was. He couldn't see her cold and lifeless like he had seen so many others because it would be the end of him. It would be the end of the world, the breaking point of his entire existence and he would be destroyed in every way. But the words didn't leave his mouth and in a moment the mat was gone and there was Cattie
She was still wearing the clothes she was wearing when she was taken, the fabrics darkened with dirt and grime. She was lying on her side and from the awkward position of her arms it looked like she had been laid there without any care. Harry couldn't see her face because her hair was falling over her cheeks and her forehead, obscuring his view and he just knew that she was dead.
"Ca-" He couldn't even say her name, couldn't form words past everything within him disintegrating into nothing. He fell forward onto his hands and knees. There were no words for the pain. There was no way to describe the feeling of his entire life disappearing in the blink of an eye and it was worse than anything he could imagine. Next to him Hermione released this choked, shattered sound that went through him like a knife. This was all his fault. He crumbled forward until he was hovering over Cattie and all he could think was that he wanted to scream, that he wanted to destroy everyone and everything until what little life he had left was gone. This wasn't supposed to happen. The darkness and the curse of his life was never supposed to touch Cattie, it was never supposed to taint the warmth and innocence that was his daughter. He reached over, needing to see the face he knew better than his own because this could be someone else. This could be a trick and his little girl could be miles away from here instead of further than he could ever go. His hands moved and he brushed soft curls from her face and yes, this was his little girl. He smoothed every strand from her face, from closed eyes and soft cheeks, and he cupped her face between his hands. There were smudges of dirt on her skin and he rubbed gently at one next to her nose and…there was the barest puff of air against his thumb.
A breath. Breath meant life. Breath meant…breath meant that there was still a reason for him to breathe. He stilled, not daring to make even the slightest movement until he could confirm what he desperately needed to be true and yes, there was another one. Oh god there was another one and his little girl was alive.
"Hermione." Her name came out as more of a gasp than anything and Harry reached over to grip her shoulder. He could feel her body shaking under his hand. "Hermione! Hermione she's breathing she's alive!" Just like that the world was moving again. Hermione jerked from beneath his hand and scrambled towards Cattie; despite her frantic movements Hermione's hands came up slow and gentle, one cupping the little girl's face and the other laying on her chest. Harry's eyes fixated on that hand and a grin almost split his face in half when he saw it lift with the rise of Cattie's chest. There was a choked off sound from behind them and Harry turned his head to look over his shoulder at Ron. The redhead was a couple of steps behind the crouched pair; he had one arm wrapped around his middle and he had the back of his other hand pressed against his mouth. Even in the dim light of the room Harry could see the glisten of relieved tears in his eyes and the brightness of his smile. Harry was struck with an intense, bone-deep feeling of gratefulness for his friend.
When he turned back to Hermione, she had her wand out and was hovering it over Cattie's body; moving it slowly from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet with a steady stream of a whispered incantation falling from her lips. There was a soft yellow light engulfing the little girl's body and as the last few words left Hermione's mouth, the light began to sink into her skin. Hermione let out a breath as it did then turned to look at Harry and Ron.
"She's alright. Mostly." She said with clear relief. So she had been doing a healing or diagnostic spell; that explained why she was using a wand. Healing spells were much more difficult to cast wandless and he was sure she was running on fumes by now. "It looks like she's just under a sleeping potion at the moment. She's dehydrated and…it looks like she hasn't eaten much but she's alright for us to move her."
Harry didn't know a person could feel simultaneously relieved and furious but that was the only way to describe the feeling of a heated breath in his chest. He nodded tightly. He shifted into a crouch and pressed a hand to Hermione's shoulder to gently nudge her aside and with all the care in the world, he slipped his arms underneath the small body of his daughter and gingerly began to lift her from the ground. It felt like she was lighter than he remembered, barely a weight in his arms and he had a sudden irrational fear of her slipping through his arms and away from him again. He brought her tight against his chest, tucking her curly head against his shoulder and pressing his forehead against her's. He could hear the tiny puffs of her breaths and feel the thump of her heart against his. Never again. Never ever again would he let her be taken away from them.
He stood to his feet with Cattie still held close to his chest and in one movement, turned and began picking his way through the debris and back towards the door. Ron fell into step on his left and Hermione drew close to his right side, walking so close she pressed against him with every step; her eyes never seemed to move from Cattie's face. None of them spared a glance to the young Death Eaters crumbled behind them.
After that everything was pretty much a blur to Harry. They met up with the rest of the DA on the first floor of the school to see the remaining Death Eaters thoroughly incapacitated. There was palpable joy and relief at seeing Cattie curled protectively in Harry's arms but celebrations were to be saved for another time, for when they were completely out of danger. There looked to be no more threats within the school but they were not going to risk anything. Within moments the DA were reactivating their portkeys with a couples taps of their wands (thanks to some clever spellwork on Hermione's part) and starting with Ron, Hermione, Harry, and Cattie they all began disappearing back to the Potter Cottage. After the now familiar feeling of a harsh pull from the inside, Harry landed firmly on the grounds of his own home. There was no describing the feeling of…release; the feeling of that final piece of the puzzle sliding into place with his daughter held tightly in his arms, the woman he loved at his side, and his most trusted friend close by. Home finally home. He ignored the buzzing of unease in the back of his mind, the countless question of why that was so easy, and the confusion on the reason of it all because right then and there none of it mattered. His daughter was home. He could look down into her little face and feel her breathing and no without a doubt she was alive.
Cattie was home and she was safe.
Finally an update! I'm sure the majority of you (myself included) thought I would never ever update again but alas here it is! I told myself I needed to update because it was absolutely ridiculous for me not to finish this chapter when I've just been stuck on the ending of it for oh the past…8 or 9 months? Ugh I'm terrible I know. I cringe every time I think about how long I've been writing this entire work of fanfiction but I'm determined to finish it because this is a fic that despite the issues I have with it (there's a Twilight reference lord help me), I truly do love what I've put into it. I sat in front of my laptop for a good twenty minutes being crazy nervous about updating.
I just had to find my voice for this story again. I started writing little Cattie themed short stories to get me back to both writing and Delicate. Finally the words came back and I was able to finish this chapter and even start on chapter 38. I should be posting those short stories soon! Most likely on my writing tumblr first. It's been so long since I've done author stuff on this site I didn't even know you could make book covers now (how cool is that?) and if I didn't fail at graphics I'd be all over that.
There are two (three?) chapters left until we finally get to the end and I just want to thank all those that have for sticking with me for such a long time. It constantly amazes me how I continue to receive reviews and messages from you wonderful people. It blows my mind that this fic-with all its errors and faults-has managed to gather the continuous interest and love that it has and that means so much to me. Really thank you thank you thank you.