A/N: A multitude of thanks goes to my amazing beta, padfootsgirl1981, for getting this back to me so quickly. I'd also like to thank my lone reviewer here, Gioia; your reviews made me feel honored and all warm and fuzzy inside. :)
Without further ado, the final chapter.
With a dramatic huff, Ron Weasley threw himself into the rickety, wooden chair next to the enormous bed, in which his best mate was still in a potion-induced sleep. He really did not want to sit down; that was all he had been doing all day, keeping vigil over Harry and waiting impatiently for Hermione to return. When she finally had, they had promptly had a blazing row, and now she was as far away from him as possible, flipping through the pages of a gigantic book near the opposite wall.
Heaving a sigh, Ron turned away and watched as the sun made its slow descent through the dusky purple sky. He was not going to admit it to Hermione, but he had been itching for an argument – something – all day. Anything to stop the horrible thoughts and fears threatening to overwhelm him, anything that would make him feel something other than the worry and concern that had consumed him these past two days – hell, the past six months – anything to shatter the horror of wondering whether or not your best friend would survive this damn war. Or even wake up.
Then, after hours of waiting and waiting, his distraction had arrived in the shape of a frazzled, blonde-haired Hermione. She had evidently run into trouble while out and about. Breathing heavily and obviously distracted, she had successfully deflected all of Ron's questions – until he saw the bloody, crescent-shaped marks on her forearm. She had then broken down and confessed that she had visited the apothecary in Knockturn Alley.
"Something happened, dammit. Now tell me what the hell happened, Hermione."
"Nothing, Ron. Everything's fine. Let's get started on this potion." Hermione pushed up her sleeves and Ron immediately noticed the drying blood on her right arm. Ignoring her squeals of protest, he reached forward and grabbed her wrist, pulling her arm up so he could see better.
"Who the hell did this to your arm?"
A brand new rush of anger flooded through Ron at the thought. The damn girl was the smartest, brightest witch he knew, and yet somehow she had found it acceptable to waltz unescorted into Knockturn Alley – which was extremely dangerous and sketchy during peacetime, let alone during a bloody war. Ron would even have felt better if Hermione had somehow found Percy and roped him into going with her. He felt like running into that shifty apothecary shop and hexing that old hag to Europa.
After their heated words, the two had gone their separate ways, each person letting the other stew in the silence, which was only broken by the sounds of pages being turned feverishly across the spacious barn.
Ron was contemplating what he wanted to heat up for supper, when a low moan dragged him out of his thoughts. He looked down at Harry hopefully, and sure enough, his best friend was shifting slightly, a look of intense pain on his unguarded face.
"Hermione, he's awake!" Ron called across the shelter, where Hermione was fiddling around with a cauldron and something that smelled rather rank. He looked back down at Harry, who still hadn't opened his eyes.
"Harry! You're just in time for supper," Ron said, chuckling awkwardly. He did not really know what to say to someone injured and in pain. "D'you need -" Ron broke off. What did his mother used to ask him when he was ill, so many years ago? Hermione was so much better at this kind of thing. "D'you need… water? Your glasses?"
He watched as Harry's eyes slowly fluttered open and then quickly closed. "Too bright," Harry mumbled.
Ron quickly doused the lamp and various lanterns that surrounded them, dimming the light in the expansive room considerably. Harry slowly reopened his eyes.
"Harry?" Hermione had whisked over out of nowhere, with a glass of water already in her hand. "How're you feeling?" she asked him worriedly, slipping his glasses on his face for him.
Ron watched in half amusement, half concern as Harry finally focused in on Hermione, yelped, and scrabbled for his wand on the make-shift bedside table.
"Harry! Sorry, it's me, Hermione," she squeaked. Brandishing her own wand, she wordlessly canceled the Concealing Charms. "Sorry," she repeated, blushing slightly.
"It's okay," Harry replied roughly. He laid his wand back down. "God, for a moment I thought you were Aunt Petunia." His hands were shaking slightly.
Moments later, Hermione was still apologizing profusely (until Harry told her to 'shut it'), and fussing with the bandages that covered a fair amount of Harry's body. She did not seem to need any help – or want it, so Ron decided to make dinner for everyone instead. After crossing the barn and fishing out some meat for sandwiches and a can of beef broth for Harry, he set to work.
An hour later, only crumbs remained from Ron's and Hermione's sandwiches, and Harry was nodding off again after having drunk half of the broth Ron had prepared, as well as a Fever-Reducing Potion. Hermione was back in her corner, once again absorbed in the potion that was bubbling away in her cauldron. Ron was about to go join her (she seemed to have forgiven him for their argument, after he had made her a bologna sandwich just how she liked it: two slices of meat, and the crusts cut off) when Harry gasped and sat up quickly.
"Ron! The Horcrux, did I destroy it? Where's – do we still have it?"
Startled, Ron reached over and plucked Helga Hufflepuff's golden cup, which was split clean down the middle on one side, off of the nightstand. "It's right here, mate, and there's no way you could not have destroyed it. If you went through that hell without destroying the damn thing, then…"
A flash of relief flitted across Harry's face before he closed off again, his face betraying no emotion. "Good," he said tightly, lying back down. He was asleep in minutes.
Sighing, Ron fiddled with the cup, turning it over in his hands, minding the sharp edges. It was hard to believe that it was only yesterday they had Apparated to Little Hangleton – the Riddle house. It was clichéd, but he knew he would never forget last night.
They had gone there on a whim. After they had destroyed Slytherin's locket (with minimal injuries, luckily – apparently R.A.B. – Regulus Black – had removed the final devastating curse on it), it had been nothing but research, dead ends, and false clues. Even Christmas had been spent looking for the orphanage Tom Riddle had grown up in; it had been torn down three years ago, a seedy pub rebuilt in its place.
The previous evening – a Tuesday – Ron and Hermione had been researching in the candlelight, occasionally bringing up something new in their book, Hermione whispering her concerns about Harry as he brooded on his bed, paced around the shed, and went on spontaneous walks outside, all the while muttering to himself, a deep frown on his face. After another of his outdoor walks, Harry had suddenly burst through the door, shouting.
"The Riddle House! We have to go to Little Hangleton! One of the Horcruxes – Voldemort could've been desperate – left it there when Wormtail and him were there fourth year -"
"Harry," Hermione had interrupted calmly, "Voldemort wouldn't leave a Horcrux in the Riddle House, mere blocks from the Gaunts' place, where he had put the ring. He's not that stupid."
Harry had impatiently waved his arms. "Not if one of his planned locations hadn't worked out. Look, Voldemort had wanted to teach at Hogwarts, right? But both Dippet and Dumbledore had rejected him, and Hogwarts was the place where he learned he was special – the place he called home – not to mention his obsession with the founders, so naturally he would want to keep a Horcrux there, but he couldn't ensure it would be safe there, without being there to keep students away – so after Wormtail found him and they created a temporary body for him, he told Wormtail – someone – where he had kept it before, and they brought it to him, where he could make certain it would be okay," he said in a rush, ignoring Hermione's interjections, his voice getting louder and louder in his excitement.
"No, Hermione, I know this – this isn't like fifth year. I can't explain it, but I know one of them is there. A Horcrux." Harry had interrupted. "We have to go there, now."
"What?" Ron and Hermione had cried in unison.
"Now?" Hermione had asked in horror. "Harry, it's pitch black outside – the moon's not even out – and it's probably ten degrees outside. Besides, what if someone's already there? You've been to Little Hangleton, you know that even in daylight it would be hard to protect ourselves – no trees, hardly any buildings on the edge of town. Harry, Voldemort tortured you in that graveyard in front of a crowd of people. Maybe he had set up wards or Muggle Repelling Charms, but Harry, if they couldn't hear then, they won't now."
"This is perfect timing – no one's going to be around – not that they would be anyway – and if anyone's there guarding the place, then we can take them by surprise." Harry had replied, cheeks red and eyes downcast, apparently ignoring Hermione's mention of the cemetery.
Ron cleared his throat. He was not really sure who to side with – Harry was acting like he was off his rocker, but he could not help but feel that Harry could be trusted on this. "I – I reckon we should just go ahead and check it out. Maybe V-V-Voldemort left a Horcrux there, maybe he didn't. It won't hurt to make sure."
After Hermione had relented, the trio had tried to dress as warmly as possible with what they had, while still trying to make sure they could move freely, in case of a confrontation. Harry had then Side-Along Apparated Ron to Little Hangleton, then went back and followed with Hermione.
They were standing in the middle of an old cemetery, surrounded by crumbling gravestones and monuments. Looking over to their right, Ron saw the name 'Tom Riddle' engraved on a tall, ornate grave marker. Shivering slightly, he turned back around. Harry's face was pale and ghostly in the light from Hermione's wand as he stared numbly at the gravestone that represented the horrible night that had changed his life.
"Harry," Hermione had said quietly. "We should probably get going."
Harry faced them again. "No, you two aren't coming with me. I need to do this alone. Don't get too close to the house – I don't know what protections Voldemort's used here, and I don't want either of you getting hurt -"
"What about you, Harry?" Hermione had whispered furiously.
"- and if I'm not back in forty-five minutes, come looking for me. I'll send up red sparks if I need backup." Harry had continued.
After arguing with him for a good ten minutes, Ron and Hermione had finally acquiesced. Harry had stood there for a moment, gazing at them. Ron had not known what was going through his best friend's mind, but his eyes had betrayed his fear and worry.
"I – thank you," Harry had said quietly before turning around. He had been quickly swallowed by the surrounding darkness.
Ron and Hermione stood there, speechless. Suddenly the light from Hermione's wand went out.
"What happened?" Ron had whispered.
"We'll be able to see everything once our eyes have got used to the dark," Hermione had replied, her voice trembling slightly.
The two of them had stuck together, silently keeping watch for any red or green flashes in the distance. After minutes they vacated the cemetery; besides being eerie in and of itself, the knowledge that You-Know-Who (Lord Voldemort, Ron had reminded himself) had regained his body and tortured their best friend there brought back horrible memories – and they had not even been in the graveyard. Instead they followed the general direction that Harry had disappeared, wands out and eyes watchful for foe.
The minutes had dragged by with agonizing length; when a fiery cloud illuminated the old mansion at the top of the hill, then engulfed it, Ron had almost been glad of it; then he remembered that Harry had been in there. Ignoring the heat and rush of wind from the explosion, Ron had grabbed Hermione by the hand and ran for the Riddle house as fast as he could.
And here they were.
The rest of the evening and the next two days passed in a manner similar to that of the day before; Harry slept, with intermittent awakenings, while Hermione brewed the antidote – the book Hermione had nicked (which Ron still couldn't believe she had done) said that it was to take three days, and Ron did whatever was needed around the shelter: helped Hermione, tidied up, prepared meals, and watched over Harry. He felt absolutely useless.
Friday evening found Ron and Hermione eagerly completing the final instructions for the potion. Ron was perusing the book, ensuring that nothing had been missed or left out, while Hermione stirred the bubbling draught.
"I saw your mum the other day."
"What?" Ron asked, surprised that Hermione had not already shared this information. "Where?"
"In Diagon Alley, of course. She was with Fleur. They didn't see me; I watched them go into Gringotts. Don't worry, they're fine." Hermione added.
Ron was silent as he thought about his family. God, how he missed them. He had not seen them since summer. He missed everyone – his father and his calm, reassuring presence; his courage and unwillingness to back down and let others run over him. His mum, and her obvious love for them, shown through the small things, like folded laundry and made beds; and large things, like her hugs that squeezed the very breath from your lungs. His brothers – Bill, Charlie, Fred, and George, for their advice and camaraderie; he even missed Fred and George's teasing. Hell, he even missed Percy, the sodding know-it-all. He missed Ginny too; his best friend growing up, who stuck with him through their older brothers' teasing, who told it like it was, who left him a good luck card on his pillow the first day of O.W.L testing fifth year. He missed the Burrow, and everything it represented.
"You know, we should go home soon." Hermione's voice broke through his thoughts, voicing exactly what he had been thinking.
Ron nodded. "Yeah, we really should. We haven't been home since what, August? I can see my family, you can visit your parents, and Harry could probably use the break and visit with everyone, too. When were you thinking of going?"
Hermione bit her lip. "Actually, I was thinking tomorrow. I don't think we will be noticed by anyone, everyone's still trying to find the source of that explosion. I think a proper bed and seeing everyone will help Harry, too."
They completed the antidote in silence. When it was ready, Ron prodded Harry awake; he sleepily drank a cupful and promptly fell back asleep. Looking up, Ron caught Hermione's eye. Her warm brown eyes showed her worry and fear, but for the first time in months Ron saw a glimmer of real happiness in the depths.
They were going home.
A/N: It's finished! I'm so excited; I really enjoyed writing this story, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. I've just sent the sequel/epilogue to the beta; I'd look for it within the next week or so, she's amazingly quick. It will not be the fourth chapter of this story; it'll be separate, because I think it can be read on its own. Woot.
Oh yeah, and Tinturn Parva is a real town in Wales? Scotland? I've gotten my locations messed up, you'll have to forgive me. I have midterms this week before Spring Break. Eek!
You wouldn't even believe how happy reviews make me, good or bad. :-)