Chapter Eleven: Redemption and Salvation by EROD37
For as long as he could remember he had hated gardens. It was not the green grass, the beautiful plants and flowers, or even the fresh smell of the vegetation that he disliked. No, for him it was always the hard work it took to get a garden looking as beautiful as it did. The hours on your knees, the dirt under the fingernails, the bug bites, and the almost certain attacks by the occasional garden gnome that always happened when you stumbled upon them.
For years, he never understood why his mother would never use her magic to fix the Burrow's garden. Regardless of how her children had begged, she simply would not allow it. She was adamant that it be done the old fashion muggle way. That dirt, sweat and hard work made the end result that much more satisfying.
Ron had moments during his childhood when he thought his mother was completely mental.
But as an eighteen year old "of age" wizard, he realized that she had been right all along. In the two months since rejoining his family, he had spent many hours working on the large gardens that surrounded the safe house which the Weasley, Dursley and Granger families now shared.
Now, the long hours on his knees, the dirt under his fingernails and the pests helped to keep his mind occupied, to keep him from his dark moods when thoughts of Hermione no longer being in his life would threaten to depress him.
Ron was in the middle of planting some flowers, when his thoughts went back to the first weeks after he rejoined his family.
They had all done their best to be there for him, each family member spending time with him in their own way. He worked with Bill and Charlie, refortifying the safe house's magical defenses. His older brothers were at a loss to understand Ron's new ward casting abilities, it was as if all of Bill's years in Egypt counted for nothing, as neither of them could undo any of their younger brother's work.
The twins, always quick to poke fun at their little brother, were unnaturally civil towards him. Of course, that did not stop them from occasionally trying out any new Weasley's Wizard Wheezes products on him. Unfortunately for them, Ron would discover the true nature of the products and the joke would go to waste, much to their chagrin.
Fred mentioned to his twin that it was quite possible that Ron's training had taken all the fun out of him.
If Molly Weasley had heard her son's comment she would have agreed, as Ron would spend his evenings after dinner helping her wash dishes without being prompted to, or using magic to do them. She could see in her son's eyes how empty he was and her heart would go out to him. She made it a habit to come up behind him, when his hands were elbow deep in soapy water, and give him a warm hug.
Unlike a normal teenager might have, he never protested.
At night, when he could not sleep, which was often, he would patrol the grounds. Many times he would run across his father either watching muggle television or tinkering with a muggle device given to him by Mr. Granger.
Ron appreciated his father's company more than any other family member as he never pressed his son about what was bothering him. They would just sit on the porch of the safe house and talk about trivial things, or on some nights, just not speak at all. Arthur Weasley may not have exactly known what was going on in his son's mind, but he knew enough to know that only time and patience would heal the wounds on his boy's heart.
The sound of an automobile pulling up the driveway snapped Ron from his thoughts. He instantly recognized the vehicle that the Order of the Phoenix had loaned to the Grangers. While they were appreciative of the magical protection, every so often, the couple was willing to drive into town to buy groceries without being surrounded by witches and wizards.
Ron got to his feet and performed a cleaning charm to remove the dirt from his clothes. He then walked over to the car to see if the Grangers needed help with anything.
Mr. Granger stepped from the driver's side of the vehicle and greeted the young redhead, "Morning Ron. Working in the garden again I see. Could you be a good lad and help Mrs. Granger with her bags?"
Ron never met the older man's eyes as he nodded his head and carefully opened the passenger side door, gently taking the bags from Mrs. Granger's lap.
Mrs. Granger exited the vehicle, walked by Ron and made her way into the house. Ron kept his distance as he followed her inside and placed the bags he had taken from her on the kitchen table. He stood quietly, wanting to ask her if she needed help with anything else. But as had been the case for the last two months, he could not find his voice in either of the Granger's company. He could not even find the inner strength to look either of Hermione's parents in their eyes.
He had made a promise to them to keep their daughter safe. In his own mind he had failed to keep that promise. He would never be able to forgive himself for that failure.
For Mrs. Granger, Ron's presence was a reminder that her daughter was dead. While she knew that he was only trying to be nice, the grief she felt for her only child constantly ate at her. So it normally took everything she had to not break down in front of Ron. Most days her strength held up, but not today as her voice cracked as she thanked him for his assistance and left him standing alone in the small private kitchen.
Ron pulled his wand and charmed all the groceries away. He then made his way outside to get back to his gardening, when Mr. Granger's voice stopped him.
Ron stopped but made no attempt to look up from the ground.
Mr. Granger stepped forward and spoke again.
"Ron, look at me."
But Ron continued to look at the ground.
Mr. Granger gently gripped him by the shoulders, "Son, please look at me."
The caring in the man's voice was enough to make Ron look up. Until that moment, Mr. Granger had not realized how much the young man before him had aged due to all he had experienced.
Mr. Granger took a brief moment to compose himself before he began speaking, "When you told us the news of Hermione's passing, my wife and I were incredibly devastated. Hermione was our only child. It has been almost seven months since that night and we are both still mourning her loss."
"My wife's reaction to your news was harsh. She was hurting and needed to take it out on someone. Unfortunately, that someone was you."
"The promise you made to us was admirable, but in our minds, we both knew it to be unrealistic. You kids went to war! My wife and I may not have like it, but we understood the possible consequences of that decision."
"Now I need you to understand that I have no doubt that you did everything in your power to keep her alive. No one could convince me otherwise because I saw the love that you, Harry, Ginny and Hermione have for one another."
"I forgave that broken promise the same night you gave us the bad news and whether or not you believe it, I'm sure that Mrs. Granger forgave you as well."
"But son, if you cared even half as much for Hermione as I'm sure she cared for you, please forgive yourself. She would be heartbroken to see how your grief is eating you alive."
Mr. Granger knew his words had gotten through to Ron as his eyes went glassy. He gripped the redhead's shoulders a little tighter and gave them a small pat.
Ron gave Mr. Granger a nod of respect and made his way back to the garden.
"Hermione Granger is still alive."
The short but shocking sentence repeated in his mind, as Harry found he could not breathe. His normally feather light wand had suddenly felt as if it weighed 907 kilograms. He desperately wanted to speak, to yell at Draco Malfoy, to call him a liar and then blast him with a collection of his favorite hexes. But all Harry could find the strength to do was to seek out Ginny in hopes of confirmation that what was just said had been exactly what he had heard.
Harry turned; expecting to find Ginny wearing the same shocked expression he knew was on his face. What he discovered was an angry faced young woman who stormed passed him, grabbed Draco by the front of his robes and began slamming him into the brick wall behind him.
"YOU ARE NOT FUNNY! THAT IS NOT FUNNY!" screamed Ginny as she continued to slam Malfoy against the wall.
Harry could feel every bit of her fury and with that he was finally able to grab her by the shoulders. He pulled her back, allowing them a few moments to regain their composure. She turned to face Harry and looked into his eyes. Through their connection, he was able to both calm her down and convey to her what he wanted to do.
They both turned to face Draco, Harry standing directly behind Ginny, his hands on her shoulders. The pair's eyes staring into Malfoy's as Harry spoke two words.
Draco reached into his robes, a little faster than he may have intended to, as he found that both Harry and Ginny had their wands trained on him in the blink of an eye.
He deliberately moved slower, "Please, I'm just trying to provide evidence…I'm not trying to trick you."
Draco withdrew his hand and in his fingertips was a wand. He carefully passed it to Ginny, who snatched it from his hand. She held it so that both she and Harry could examine it properly. Ginny felt Harry's left hand grip her shoulder tighter as they both recognized whose wand they were looking at.
Both of them knew Hermione's wand as well as they each knew their own. When first purchased from Ollivander's, each wand was handcrafted perfection. Each made with a particular type of wood, surrounding a special core from any number of magical creatures. The wands looked so smooth and beautiful, that one almost felt awkward just touching it; much less casting spells with it.
But what young witches and wizards failed to realize was that the wand evolved along with the person who wielded it. One could say that the wand matured to match the soul of its owner. This was no different with Hermione's wand.
Her wand was Vine wood with a Dragon heartstring core, over the years it grew to match not only her intelligence but her inner and outer beauty as well, as it adorned itself in beautiful carvings of ivy vines.
Ginny slipped the wand into her own holster, "So you had her wand. That proves nothing."
Inwardly, both Ginny and Harry knew Draco was telling the truth as they were both using their Legilimency skills to read him like an open book. But after so many months of thinking their best friend dead, they had to convince themselves, in their hearts as well as their minds.
Harry spoke up next, "I personally witnessed Hermione get hit by no less than three Killing Curses."
"How do you know they were Killing Curses?" asked Draco.
Harry crossed his arms, "Other than Hermione's dead body? How about the fact that the spells were the color green? I've seen that spell used to many times in my life to not be able to recognize it."
A small flicker of the old Draco Malfoy rose to the surface as a tiny sneer came to his face, "Potter, were you able to check Granger's pulse? Did it ever occur to you that there are several spells other than the Killing Curse that are green in color when cast? Do you honestly believe that after going to so much trouble to capture you, that the Dark lord would kill the first G.S.F. member he finally got his hands on?"
Through their bond, Harry could feel Ginny's confidence. She was convinced as much as he was. But Harry needed to know one more thing before he would place any trust in anything Draco had said.
"Why? Why isn't Hermione dead yet? It's been months, why would Voldemort keep her alive all this time?"
Draco cringed at the sound of the Dark lord's name, "He had been trying to read her mind to gain as much information about the G.S.F. as he could. But her Occlumency skills were formidable. He eventually got so frustrated that he began using the Cruciatus Curse just to make himself feel better."
Harry felt his blood run cold at the thought of Hermione being tortured. He could feel Ginny keeping her anger just under wraps.
Draco continued, "But Professor Snape stepped in before the Dark lord could do any permanent damage. Snape convinced him that, given time, he would be able to get the information he wanted. Snape has been stalling him ever since."
Ginny turned to ask Harry a question as she felt his anger boiling up. But his eyes told her that, right then, was not the time to ask. She made a mental note to speak with him later.
Ginny walked to within arms reach of Draco, "So Snape is keeping Hermione alive, that doesn't explain why you'd risk your scrawny neck to contact us."
Draco took a deep breath, "I know what it must look like, but I only became a Death Eater to impress my father. All my life it seems as if I have been nothing but a disappointment to him. I've always had my doubts about joining, but I wasn't convinced I made a mistake until the night I watched Dumbledore die. I'm doing this to make amends and because I can't just stand by and watch another innocent person die."
Ginny shook her head, "You're only telling half of the truth. What aren't you telling us?"
Draco's eyes stared into Ginny's for just the briefest of moments before he looked away, his mouth saying nothing. But that brief moment was enough as she found the answer she was searching for and it came as a shock to her system. Harry felt Ginny's anger finally boil over, but before he could reach out to grab her, she reacted.
Ginny slammed a powerful uppercut into Draco's midsection, dropping him to his knees and leaving him struggling for breath. She pointed a finger in his face as she started screaming.
"You hypocritical git! You're in love with her? For years you've done nothing but put her down and call her a mudblood! You don't deserve her love! You will never deserve her love! I wish Ron was here right now so he could beat you until you were nothing but a greasy blonde smear on the ground!"
But Draco said nothing as Harry once again grabbed Ginny's attention by taking her hands in his own. The gesture helped Ginny calm down as he spoke, "Ginny, you're right. He doesn't deserve her love. But this isn't the time or place to discuss it. We need to get him and Bellatrix someplace secure."
Ginny took a deep calming breath, "The most secure place is back at our tent, but I'll be honest when I say I don't like the thought of either of these two being there."
"I agree, but we are going to take them there anyway," replied Harry as he magically conjured a black hood and threw it to Draco.
Without being told to do so, Draco placed the vision obscuring hood over his head. The next thing he felt was a warm feeling as a Revealing spell was being performed on him. Draco could tell that Harry and Ginny were taking no chances with their prisoners.
Draco expected to feel the normal pull of either a Portkey or side by side Apparition, but all he felt was the disconnection of his brain from consciousness as he was hit with a Stunning spell.
The dawn's light was just beginning to fill the interior of Ron's bedroom as his eyes popped open. Months before he would have been able to sleep through a Lumos charm right in front of his face. But after the quartet's training, his body simply adapted to waking up instantaneously to any light in his sleeping area, hence the reasoning behind the blacked out bedrooms in the quartet's tent.
Laying on his side and facing the nearest wall, Ron grinned as he took in the orange paint. His mother was trying very hard to make the safe house as much a home as she could. Ron made a mental note to thank her because he remembered how much she hated the orange color of his room back at the Burrow.
He rolled over preparing to get out of bed, when he was greeted by a sight that caused his heart to flutter in his chest. Sitting on his bed was none other than Hermione herself! There was a look on her face that Ron recognized as how she looked when she was being shy with him. She looked like a little girl who had been caught doing something wrong and was waiting to be scolded.
He stared at her brown eyes and said nothing. This was not the first time she had visited him when he first awoke from sleep. But after the first few times, he made it a point to not take his eyes from her for fear that she would disappear too soon.
Ron had concluded that he had finally cracked and had gone off the deep end. But just seeing her every so often, even if she was not really there was good enough for him.
The two stared at one another for a minute or so when Hermione spoke first, "Aren't you going to speak to me?"
Ron shook his head, "I was afraid if I spoke you'd disappear again and I don't want you to leave."
Hermione's grin turned into a sad smile, "When was the first time you realized you were in love with me?"
He could not help but return her sad smile, "It was late in our first year. We were with Harry playing that game of Wizard's Chess on that giant chess board beneath Hogwarts. I had just made the decision to sacrifice myself in order for Harry to win the game."
"You had no idea what I was planning to do until Harry protested first. You pleaded to me that I couldn't sacrifice myself, that there had to be another way."
But there wasn't and I had no choice but to go through with it. The sound of your voice broke my heart. It took everything I had within me to not jump off that chess piece. I knew right at that moment, I was in love with you because I would give anything to never hear that level of fear in your voice ever again."
Ron lowered his gaze, "Over the next few years I ignored my feelings. I was such a foul git towards you. I'm sorry about everything Hermi…"
But when Ron looked up, she was gone. He reached up to touch the area where she was sitting to find it cool to the touch as if no one had been there at all.
He just let out a heavy sigh and rolled out of bed to face yet another day.
A large piece of parchment was laid out in front of Harry and Ginny as they stood in the tent's library. The parchment was covered in drawings, all done by Ginny, of the small estate in which Hermione was supposedly being held. She and Harry had worked through the night wringing as much information out of Draco as they could regarding the building's layout, opposing forces and any defenses they might face.
Draco sat across from them also looking over the drawings as he ate some leftovers provided to him by Ginny. He looked as if he had not eaten in quite a while. But Harry could tell that it was guilt for all of his misdeeds that kept him from having an appetite, and now that he was making amends, his body was finally allowing him sustenance.
Harry looked up from the table top, "Is there anything else you can remember? Something you might have missed?"
Draco rubbed his head, "Unless anything has changed in the last thirty-six hours, no. That's as much as I can remember."
Ginny looked at Draco and then back to Harry, "The one thing that I've regretted about having to leave for our quest so quickly is the fact that we have never had the chance to purchase a Pensieve. It would be so much easier to view his memories of the estate for the information we need. I say we take a set of memories and sneak over to the Burrow to use Mum and Dad's Pensieve."
Harry shook his head, "The thought of a trip to the Burrow occurred to me too. But the Burrow has most likely been locked down tighter than the twins' joke shop. Besides, think about what Draco just said, he and Bellatrix have been gone for just over thirty-six hours. The Death Eaters have got to be getting suspicious about their absence. Hermione may not have much more time."
A smirk came across Ginny's face as she nodded in agreement, "Speaking of these two, what were you planning to do with them?"
"Turn us in to the Ministry of Magic would be my best guess," answered Draco for Harry.
Harry and Ginny looked at one another, then back to Draco, and in unison said, "To hell…with the Ministry!"
Harry took a seat next to Draco and looked him directly in the eyes, "You, we are turning over to the Order of the Phoenix with a recommendation of leniency for your help."
Draco looked as if he were about to speak when Harry cut him off, "But understand this, if any of your information is false, if you're walking us into a trap, if any of my people get hurt, there won't be a place on this planet that you'll be safe from me. I don't care if they put you in the deepest, darkest, most heavily guarded room in either the Ministry or Azkaban. I'll come for you and I'll make you wish your parents had never met."
Anything Draco had wished to say only moments before was lost as his throat went dry. Harry never gave him the chance to recover, as he stunned him into unconsciousness once again.
Ginny laid a hand on Harry's shoulder, "I'm proud of you, Harry. I could feel how much anger you carried towards him. To recommend leniency shows just how much more a man you have always been compared to him."
"Don't think too highly of me just yet. I still haven't decided what to do with Bellatrix, and no we aren't turning her over to the Ministry. Scrimgeour is likely to let her slip through his fingers," answered Harry as he stood and placed his hand over hers.
Ginny's face turned serious, "Speaking of "slipping through your fingers"; we need to talk about something Draco mentioned earlier."
Harry performed a Full Body Bind on Draco as he spoke, "Now's not the time for that talk, Ginny. Every second of the clock is counting against Hermione's life."
Ginny bit her tongue to keep from starting an argument when their connection clicked into place again as she picked up on his train of thought.
Harry answered Ginny's unasked question, "I just figured out what to do about Bellatrix."
Ginny simply arched her eyebrows as if to ask, "Well, what have you decided?"
"You don't want to know. I need you to deliver Draco to the Order, while I take care of Bellatrix. I'll meet you at the family safe house," replied Harry.
Ginny shrugged her shoulders, "O.K., you just be careful."
The first thing that came to Bellatrix Lestrange's mind upon regaining consciousness was anger. She was angry at herself as she had allowed an underage blood traitor to get the better of her. Bellatrix vowed to herself it would not happen again. Oh yes, Potter's little girlfriend would pay a steep price for fighting against the Dark lord.
She slowly raised her head to discover three things.
The first, with the exception of her head, her body was sitting but she was still magically bound.
The second, she was seated in what looked to be a fairly large greenhouse.
The third, Harry Potter was sitting directly in front of her. His face was wearing the same emotionless expression that he wore the day he thought Hermione had been murdered.
Bellatrix tried to hold her angry gaze, but as had been the case those months ago, she looked away as a cold shiver ran down her spine.
Harry's voice grabbed her attention, "Bellatrix, look at me."
She refused to, concentrating on a spot on the floor.
"LOOK AT ME!"
The anger in Harry's voice made her head snap up and look the young wizard in the eyes. He was holding her wand in his fingertips.
"I'm glad you're awake. I wouldn't have wanted you to miss this," said Harry as he forcefully snapped her wand in two pieces.
Bellatrix opened her mouth to curse at him, when she realized that she could not speak. She could move her mouth and lips; she could even get her voice to generate sound. But her tongue would not move as it felt swollen in her mouth.
"No, I've listened to your insane babbling for far too long. I figured one of Fred and George's Ton-Tongue Toffees would get you to keep quiet," answered Harry as he could see the questions in her eyes.
Harry glanced around the room, "You're wondering where you are right now. Don't worry; we'll get to that soon enough. You see, when Ginny and I captured you, I instantly thought of taking revenge for both Sirius and Hermione. I couldn't help but think about how much I wanted to make you pay for all the hurt you've caused me. But after an entire night of thinking about it, I realized there was someone who wanted to get his hands on you more than I could ever want."
Harry calmly removed his glasses and began cleaning them on his shirt. He looked at an area just behind Bellatrix, "Wouldn't you agree?"
Bellatrix could hear the sound of footsteps as they walked up from behind her and another person stepped into her field of vision. The person Harry addressed said nothing as he took a seat next to him.
The cold shiver she had experienced only moments before paled in comparison to what she felt when she recognized the face of Neville Longbottom.
Neville's face was as emotionally stoic as Harry's was. She attempted to say something, but all that came out was a loud moan. Her protests came to an abrupt halt when Neville threw something in her face.
Bellatrix would never understand the meaning of the small pieces of wax paper that had just hit her. But Harry understood what each wrapper of Drooble's Best Blowing Gum stood for, and his heart went out to his friend.
Neville pointed his wand in Bellatrix's face, "Try and speak again and I'll magically seal your lips shut!"
He then turned to Harry, "Can we speak inside of the house?"
Harry nodded and the two walked through a set of doors, into a sitting room adjacent to the greenhouse.
As soon as the doors closed, Neville spoke, "You came here so quickly that I never had the chance to ask you how you found me in the first place."
Harry grinned, "I figured there were only two places you could go where you'd feel safe. Since Hogwarts is locked down, I had a strong feeling that you'd stay in hiding with Professor Sprout and since she's a member of the Order, I knew Moody would know her whereabouts."
Neville smiled, "It's good to see you, Harry. How's everyone else doing?"
It had never occurred to Harry that Neville might be a bit ignorant in regards to the well being of his friends and loved ones; including Hermione's "death". So he thought it best not to go into detail as Bellatrix's appearance on his doorstep seemed to be enough weight on his friend's shoulders.
"Everyone's safe. I'm sorry about your grandmother."
Neville's eyes went very sad, "Thanks, she would have been very happy to know that you're alive. When the first stories about the G.S.F. started showing up in the Prophet, she told me she had a feeling you had something to do with it. She was right, wasn't she?"
Harry could only nod in reply.
Neville smiled, "She always backed you and Professor Dumbledore. She would have been proud to know you're taking the fight to Voldemort."
Harry was about to answer when the sound of a door opening caught his attention. He looked to the rear of the room as someone he had not seen in quite a while entered.
Harry could not stop the smile from coming to his face.
"Hello, Harry Potter," said Luna Lovegood as she walked up to him.
Harry felt a mixture of both happiness and relief upon seeing his quirky friend. Luna was one of the few people that he could never get any news of. Harry was afraid she might have been killed long ago.
The two friends embraced as Harry spoke, "I'm very happy to see you, Luna. What are you doing here instead of with your father?"
Luna broke the embrace and faced Neville. They shared a look for several moments, and Harry had his answer.
Harry pointed at both of them, "You two? That's fantastic, how long have you two been a couple?"
Neville wrapped his arms around Luna's waist, "We started exchanging letters via owls shortly after sixth year."
Luna continued, "We've been together for a few months now. When the Death Eaters started coming after Hogwarts students, I knew the two of us would end up targets. The Death Eaters must still be holding a grudge for what the D.A. did to them at the Ministry. So when my father suggested leaving the country, I knew Neville was all alone and I couldn't leave him."
"I'm just glad to see the two of you alive and safe," replied Harry.
"So tell us, what have you been up to?" asked Luna.
"I wish I could sit and tell you all about it, but there's something I have to do and time is against me. I only stopped by to drop off a "gift" for Neville," answered Harry.
Luna's blue eyes showed a hint of sadness, "I understand. Is it something that Neville and I could help you with?"
Harry shook his head, "I appreciate the offer, but what I have to do goes well beyond D.A. capabilities."
She gave Harry another quick hug and a peck on the cheek, "I hope we see you again soon. I miss you very much."
Luna then turned and walked back out of the same doors she had entered from. It was almost as if she knew he wanted to speak to Neville alone.
"I always thought you two would make a good couple," said Harry.
Neville smiled in thanks, "I've always said the same thing about you and Ginny."
Neville stuck out his hand, "Whatever it is you're planning to do, I just hope you get through it in one piece. Thanks for all you're doing, thanks for everything."
Harry grasped Neville's hand in his own, "Neville, it's you I should be thanking."
Neville seemed confused, "Thank me, whatever for?"
Harry placed his free hand on Neville's shoulder, "For showing me what true loyalty is. Out of all my friends, yes even Ginny, you were the only person who stayed by my side. Regardless of what was being said about me or how I was behaving, you were always there for me. Thank you, my friend."
He then pulled Neville into a hug. The two friends remained that way for the better part of a minute until Harry broke the embrace. Neville wiped away the tears in his eyes and smiled.
"So what are you planning to do with Bellatrix?" asked Harry.
Neville's face went surprisingly mature, "Turn her into the authorities…afterwards."
"Afterwards? " replied Harry.
Neville guided him to a door which led outside and away from the house. Harry turned as if to ask a question when Neville spoke first.
"You don't want to know."
Harry took the statement at face value and decided not to pry further. The way he saw it, he knew that when he brought Bellatrix to Neville, things were not going to end well for the evil witch.
Neville waited for Harry to disappear into the tree line near the house before closing the door. When he turned he almost ran into the small form of Luna.
"So what exactly are you planning to do with Bellatrix Lestrange before you turn her in?" asked Luna in her typical lighthearted, semi-detached voice.
Neville shook his head, "Maybe you should wait in the house, Luna. I don't want you to be witness to this."
Luna's normally unfocused eyes gained sudden clarity right in front of Neville's. He knew instantly he had said the wrong thing to her.
She pointed a finger in his face, "I will not wait in the house, Neville Longbottom. Whatever you go through, we go through together. I still remember the day you told me about what happened to your parents and the day you took me to see them at St. Mungo's. I know how hard it was for you to let someone into that part of your life. I vowed from that day that I'd share everything with you, good or bad. I love you, Neville."
Neville responded with a timid smile as he took her hand, "You're right and I apologize. I love you too, Luna."
They reentered the greenhouse to find Bellatrix trying in vain to break her Body Bind. Luna almost felt sympathy for the deranged woman…almost. She sat to the rear of the evil witch and removed her wand from her ear. While she knew the Body Bind was solid, she was taking no chances. Neville once again sat in front of Bellatrix. Her struggles ceased as she saw the young wizard.
"You seem worried, Bellatrix. Are you afraid I'm going to kill you? Well, rest assured that I'm not planning to take your life," said Neville.
Her eyes showed a flash of relief.
But the look in her eyes changed as Neville spoke again, "You see I believe my parents would not have appreciated their son becoming a murderer."
With a flick of his wand, he floated a large rectangular box which landed with a heavy thud between them. She noticed the box was almost filled to the top with rich brown soil.
"No, killing you in their names would make me no better than you because they aren't physically dead. Now, mentally dead is a totally different story, which is why I said, "I believe" they wouldn't appreciate me becoming a murderer."
Neville stood, "My grandmother, on the other hand, always believed in "an eye for an eye". I never really believed in that principal, that was until the night your Death Eater mates took her life."
"Now I'm sure the G.S.F. will eventually make sure the people who took her life pay for it. But you get to pay for what you did to my parents tonight."
Neville muttered a spell that Bellatrix could not hear; he then tapped the boxed soil with his wand. A faint blue green glow emanated from the soil for a few moments and a small layer of what looked like grass grew on the surface.
Neville looked from the box, "When I was forced into hiding, I began working on a hybrid plant which could mimic the "Dementor's Kiss". Since I didn't have access to a Dementor, I had to research everything I could find about the magical properties of the "Kiss". After months of cross breeding different plants, weeds and flowers, I believe I've finally come up with the right combination. But I believe I'm missing one thing. Can you guess what that one thing is?"
A look of extreme fear came to Bellatrix's eyes as Neville continued, "For the plant to actually perform its job, it needs to be bonded to the person in question. I figure a few drops of your blood should be enough."
Bellatrix felt her body being magically lifted from the chair; she tried again to struggle against her bonds, but to no avail. Moments later she was lying in the box as she could feel the grass moving under her body.
She watched helplessly as Neville conjured a large pin from thin air, "This is a pin from one of my grandmother's hats. I believe she would have approved of me using it for this occasion."
The Body Bind did nothing to mask the pain as Neville pricked her finger. She could only watch as drops of her own blood fell from her finger and out of her vision.
Neville took his seat again as Luna walked over and sat by his side, "As an amateur in Herbology, I almost completely forgot that any new species of plant life should be given a name. But at this point, I don't know if I should name this one because I've designed it as one of a kind. The plant will die as soon as it completes its task."
Luna stood up and walked behind him, wrapping her arms around his neck, "I think you should call it "Bella's Sunset""
One of the things that he loved about Luna was her ability to say the right thing at the right time. A small grin came to his face as this time was no exception, "I like that. What do you think of the name, Bellatrix?"
The question was rhetorical as he knew she could not answer. Besides, she had barely heard him as her attention was drawn to the newly named plant life, which after absorbing her blood, was now growing beneath her at an astounding rate. Her fear doubled as she felt vines wrapping themselves around her arms, legs and torso. A last set of vines secured her head when she felt the plant stop moving.
The short silence was broken by Neville's voice.
"Goodbye, Bellatrix Lestrange. May your stay at St. Mungo's be a long one."
Almost as if the plant heard him speak, it started moving again as she felt a sharp pain at the base of her skull. It felt as if the plant wanted to gain entrance to her brain, and it was with frightening comprehension that she realized that the plant had succeeded.
The human brain has no pain receptors. There is literally no way for a person to tell if something or someone is touching it. But Bellatrix could sense the plant as it wrapped itself around her brain. She half expected her thoughts to go fuzzy, but somehow her wits remained sharp.
She allowed herself a moment of joy as she thought Longbottom's experiment a complete failure. Suddenly, a jolt went through her that caused her entire body to go rigid. She wanted to scream but could not; it was as if pain was hitting every square centimeter of her body at the exact same time.
After several agonizing seconds, or was it minutes, or hours? She felt her body go limp and the pain subsided.
Then the true agony began.
Deep in the recesses of her mind, Bellatrix felt as if her body was a house full of lit candles and that an unwanted guest was visiting each room, starting with the basement, extinguishing every candle as it made its way to the top floor.
She could feel her body becoming detached from her brain. It began with her toes and spread upward. She tried with all mental strength to fight off the plant's effects, but she was fighting a losing battle. Longbottom had truly done his research.
The feeling of detachment spread above her neck and she knew her time had come. Had she the ability to plead for her life, like the coward she was, she would have done so. But all she could do physically was cry a solitary tear as the invading vegetation continued to draw the remaining consciousness from her mind.
For her, the remaining seconds were like being in a Pensieve and watching your own memories run in reverse. But unlike a Pensieve, there was no pulling yourself out. Bellatrix could only watch as her memories flew by and then simply faded to black.
The last thing to pass through her mind just before the plant finished draining her soul was the memory of one thing…
…Harry Potter's cold stare.
One last cold shiver rolled down her spine just as the last of her soul was sucked into oblivion.
For Ron it was an especially long day working in the garden. Having seen and spoken to Hermione that morning had hurt him far more than he was willing to admit to himself.
The garden itself was natural perfection. He had worked the soil until every space within it was alive with beautiful plants and flowers. Even so, he made it a point to prune the leaves or check for weeds though he knew he would not find any.
He finally decided to sit under the growing shade of a medium size oak tree and enjoy the sunset. He conjured a glass of water and then magically charmed it to almost freezing. He was about to take a long sip when Hermione's voice replayed in his mind.
"When was the first time you realized you were in love with me?"
Ron's heart ached at the memory.
Then he heard the voice again.
But when the voice called his name again, he realized that it was not Hermione's voice at all, but the sound of a male voice trying to get his attention, a voice Ron had not heard in two months. He answered without turning to face his best mate.
"What are you doing here, Harry?"
"I'm here because I need your help," replied Harry.
Ron got to his feet and started walking towards the house. He passed Harry without so much as looking at him as he spoke again, "I'm sorry, but the answer is no. I told you, I'm done with the G.S.F."
Harry allowed Ron a few more steps before speaking again.
Ron came to an abrupt halt but still did not turn to face his best friend. Harry could see him trying to keep still, but failing as his emotions were causing him to shiver involuntarily. The tense silence continued for a few seconds before Ron finally spoke, his voice just above a whisper.
"You know me better than that. You know that's something I would never joke about," replied Harry.
Harry could see Ron's fists clenching as the redhead spoke, "How do you know?"
"Ginny and I captured Draco and Bellatrix Lestrange. He gave us the information in agreement for leniency with the authorities."
Harry knew he was not telling the complete truth, that Draco had given up the information because he was in love with Hermione. But he knew that time was of the essence and he did not want Ron's mind focused on the wrong subject at that moment.
Ron finally turned and looked Harry in the face, "So what did you do with Bellatrix? Turn her over to the authorities as well?"
Harry shook his head, "I turned her over to Neville."
Ron's eyebrows sprang up in surprise, "Neville's alive? That's great news. Good choice giving her up to him, so what did he do with the crazy witch?"
Harry once again shook his head, "You don't want to know."
Ron almost smiled at the thought of Bellatrix finally getting her just desserts, when his face went serious again, "Where's Ginny?"
"I had her drop off Draco to the Order while I was making my run with the crazy witch. She's supposed to meet up with us here as soon as she was done."
Ron was about to ask another question when he noticed that Harry had closed his eyes, as if he were concentrating on something.
Harry's eyes open as he spoke, "She's already here and it feels like she's gathering up the twins."
Now it was Ron's turn to shake his head, "The bond you two share can be a bit unsettling sometimes."
"Is there a place we can talk without the rest of the families walking in on us?" asked Harry, totally ignoring Ron's comment.
"Dad's workshop should be available. Mum doesn't let him spend time in there until after she's asleep. We had an early dinner today so everyone is most likely going about their own business," answered Ron.
"Sounds good, lead the way," said Harry.
Harry took a few steps forward, when Ron's voice stopped him in his tracks.
"Harry, you were right."
"Right about what?" asked a puzzled looking Harry.
"About your decision to leave Hermione behind, I've had a lot of time to think about it with my head instead of my heart. I had years to tell Hermione how I felt about her. I did nothing but ignore my feelings and made every attempt to push her away. Hell, maybe I never deserved her love. The Horcrux hunt is bigger than any of us."
"Ron, to hell…with the Horcrux hunt, this is about bringing home Hermione now."
Harry could see his best friend's moment of pity was over as his strategic mind came to the forefront, "How long have Draco and Bellatrix been away from the Death Eaters?"
"Just over forty-eight hours," answered Harry as he could see Ron moving the imaginary pieces on his mental chess board.
Ron's face went eerily calm, "You do realize that she may have already been killed in their absence."
Harry nodded his head, "Yes I have, but do you honestly believe that would stop me from going to get her anyway?"
"No, because it wouldn't stop me either," answered Ron as he led the way to the workshop.
The two male members of the G.S.F. entered the workshop to find that Ginny and the twins had already arrived and were waiting inside for them. Ron shut the door and magically locked it, following that spell with a Silencing charm in case anyone tried to listen from the outside.
Harry gave Ginny a quick hug, "How did things go with Malfoy?"
"I wasn't going to take the chance that he would tell anyone what are plans are, so I hit him with a Petrificus Totalus that should last at least two days," answered Ginny.
Harry nodded in agreement as Ginny continued, "So who did you deliver Bellatrix to?"
"Neville and Luna," answered Harry.
A smile quickly came and left Ginny face, "So what did he do with Bellatrix?"
Harry and Ron looked at one another, back to Ginny and then answered in unison, "You don't want to know."
A pair of identical voices broke up the conversation.
"Uh, hello! We haven't seen you two in six months," said Fred.
"Not that you'll tell us, but what the bloody hell have you two been up to?" asked George.
"Hey Fred. Hey George. Just G.S.F. work," answered Ginny.
"You mention not only capturing Draco Malfoy but also Bellatrix Lestrange as well, and you simply expect us to sit here and act as if it's no big deal, that its simply G.S.F. work?" said Fred.
"Yes we do, and now really isn't the time for a long chat," answered Ginny.
Harry spoke up, "We need supplies, and we need them now."
George smiled at his twin, "Typical of these three, my dear brother. The only time they need us is when they need supplies."
Ginny marched up to her brothers as she kept her voice calm, "Now is definitely not the time for your jokes either. We have something to accomplish and it's going to be hard enough to do with supplies much less with just our wands."
"I say this in extreme seriousness, if either of you makes light of anything we say in the next few minutes, I'll hex you so bad that experts from the Ministry won't be able to sort the two of you out."
The twins were taken aback. Since the second war had begun they had seen their sister angry, had seen her distraught, had even seen her on the better side of mental. But they had never seen her looking this dangerous.
The smiles came off of their faces.
George spoke up first, "What do you need from us?"
Ginny looked to Harry as he answered, "Explosive Gum Balls, as many as you can spare."
"Just gum balls? No Night Chocolate? No Liquid Light Licorice wands?" asked Fred.
"Just the gum balls, the more explosive the better," said Harry.
Fred ran his fingers through his hair, "Don't think me daft for saying this, but if you three are only taking explosives, it sounds like you are looking to destroy something."
"What are you three planning to do? Out with it!" added George.
Harry looked to Ron and Ginny, who both nodded in silent agreement.
Harry looked back at the twins, "There's a good possibility that Hermione is still alive and being held by Death Eaters. We mean to get her back."
A look of shock passed between the twins, but before either of them could speak, Harry pulled an envelope from his back pocket, "Take this, it contains all the information about what we've been up to. It's magically charmed to reveal the information only if we are all killed."
Fred waved his hand at the envelope, "I'm sure I speak for my brother when I say we don't want that letter. We would rather go with you."
Harry pushed the envelope into Fred chest, "The answer is definitely no. Both of you are not skilled enough for what we may face and we can't take the time to cover your backs."
Ron spoke next, "Take the letter; you've helped us get through a lot since we started this quest. You two stubborn gits are the only ones who cannot only keep that information safe, but also get it into the right hands."
"Now you two need to leave, so you can get together our supplies and we can plan the rescue," said Ginny as she magically unsealed the doors.
George walked out of the workshop without a word. Fred, on the other hand, shook the envelope in Harry's face as he placed his free hand on Harry's shoulder.
"O.K. mate, we may not like your decision, but we will respect it. Just be sure to get all four of yourselves back in one piece. This is one responsibility we don't want to fulfill."
"We'll try our best," answered Harry.
Fred gave Harry's shoulder a final firm squeeze and then left the room.
Ron magically sealed the doors again as Ginny charmed a worktable to the center of the room and unrolled the parchment containing the sketches she made during Draco's questioning.
Ron was about to start looking over the drawings when Ginny passed her wand over the parchment, causing the drawings to magically transform from two dimensional to a three dimensional rendering that not only floated above the table, but rotated three hundred and sixty degrees as well.
Ron was impressed, "Very nice improvement on the common mapping charm. You'll have to teach it to me sometime."
Ginny allowed herself a small amount of pride, "Thanks, too bad it's limited to whatever I've drawn and not on real time positioning like mapping charms are."
Over the next hour the trio went over every detail of information given to them by Draco. Harry and Ginny discussed various plans of entry and exit, total time for each operation, and back up plans in case the primary plan went bad. But during the entire planning process, Ron never took his eyes from the map and never did more than acknowledge either of his teammates with more than a nod.
Harry could feel Ginny's worry that maybe her brother's mind wasn't up to the mission. So Harry decided to pose a question that would require more than just a head nod.
"Ron, you're the team strategist. What do you think is our best course of action? How do you want to play this?"
As soon as Ron's eyes met his, he realized that both he and Ginny were wrong about where Ron's mind was.
His eyes had gone cold and calculating, his voice even toned with just a touch of anger within it.
"We play it straight on. They expecting us to be quiet, expecting us to use stealth, to be sneaky, to try and go in and steal her out."
Ron slammed his fist on the work table, "But I say the time for stealth is over! I say we go in fast and hard and hit them with everything we have! We go in and take her back from them! We go in and show anyone who gets in our way exactly what the Gryffindor Strike Force is made of! Up until today they've only experienced glimpses of what we were trained to do! But today we give it all to them! Let's make them regret the day they took Hermione from us!"
Harry and Ginny sat in stunned silence. Neither arguing against what Ron had just said because deep inside each of them, they totally agreed.
Ron looked to his best friend, "Harry, considering what we're going to have to face, we can't hold back, not on this one, and to be honest I really don't think I want to. We are all going to get our hands dirty on this one."
Harry finally spoke up, "I understand what you're saying. But please tell me that what you just said isn't about revenge."
"I'd be lying if I said that this isn't completely about revenge. I've been holding back a lot of hatred towards the Death Eaters. I want to make everyone involved with hurting Hermione pay. You can't sit there and tell me you don't feel the same way when you think about Snape and the night he killed Dumbledore," answered Ron.
Harry did not answer verbally, but to Ginny he might as well have yelled at the top of his lungs, as his emotions hit her full force. She could feel years of anger pouring from him, followed by hatred over Dumbledore's murder. But underneath it all she felt a small amount of something else. It felt like only one thing.
Ginny decided to test her theory, "Ron, according to Draco, Snape has been protecting Hermione from Voldemort."
Ron looked shocked, "Blimey! Are you serious?"
As soon as Harry nodded in affirmation of Ginny's statement she knew that confusion was exactly what she felt from him.
Ron pulled his wand and removed the charms he placed on the doors, "It's going to take a bit more time for the twins to gather up the supplies. There's something I need to do before we go."
Ginny seemed suspicious, "You're not planning on doing anything foolish, are you?"
Ron walked over to his sister and touched foreheads with her, "I swear to you, nothing foolish. I'll be back soon, I promise."
As soon as Ron left, Ginny charmed the doors shut again and then turned to Harry, "You and I need to talk."
She could sense his unwillingness, but she didn't give him the chance to express it, "Don't even think of trying to avoid this conversation, Potter! We talk now or this mission stops right here!"
They both sat on one of the workshop's wooden benches as Ginny placed his hand in hers and asked the question that had been eating at her since the capture of Malfoy.
"Harry, what are you planning to do about Snape, now that you know he isn't working for Voldemort?"
Once again she felt his confusion, "I just don't know, Ginny. Dumbledore told me over and over again that he trusted Snape totally. But when Snape killed him, I chalked it up to betrayal. Now we find out he's protecting Hermione. That man did nothing but make me despise him for years. Now I'm supposed to just trust him, to simply let go of all the ill feelings he helped develop in me towards him?"
Ginny reached up with her thumb and massaged the area between Harry's eyebrows, which were knotted together in anger and frustration. After a brief moment, the tension left him as his face relaxed.
She gave him a reassuring grin, "Yes, let it all go, if not for his sake, then for yours."
Harry returned her grin, "I can't promise anything, but I'll try my best."
He wrapped his arms around her, "I hate that you know me so well."
Ginny smiled, "I'm glad that you do, my husband. Just as long as that's the only reason you do."
As a man of the cloth, Father Ronald Kavanaugh thoroughly enjoyed his service to the church. He looked forward to his time with his congregation as he gave sermons, performed various ceremonies and gave advice to members of his church when they needed guidance.
But even a dedicated shepherd needed time away from his flock every so often. And even though he would never admit it to himself, he secretly relished the one night off during his busy week where he could take time for just himself.
His residence was roughly a half a kilometer from his church. It was not much to look at, but being the humble man he was; it was just how he liked it.
He had just poured himself a cup of tea and sat down in front of a small table on which laid an old chess board. Both sets of pieces were placed on various areas of the board as if in the middle of a game.
Now Father Kavanaugh did not consider himself a master at the game of chess. As a matter of fact, he had only taken up the game a year before when he noticed that the local muggle newspaper would publish a weekly chess puzzle, in which the reader was challenged to solve a particular set of moves in order to checkmate the article's author.
For months he had tried his best to come up with the answers to each puzzle, only to discover a week later that the simplest of moves was always one which just slipped his comprehension. Only his extreme patience had kept him from sweeping the pieces from the board in utter frustration.
Finally, after failing countless times, he knew he was on the verge of solving his first chess puzzle. He had the latest newspaper, which he knew had the answer to the previous week's puzzle. He simply refused to look up the solution until he knew he had it right.
He looked at the board again, not that he needed to, as he had mentally memorized the placement of each piece and had worked possible solutions over the last few days. He was about to write down his answer on a piece of parchment, when there was a knock at his door. He put down his quill and made his way over to answer it.
He opened the door to find a tall muscular redhead standing at his doorstep, "Ron, what are you doing here?"
"I apologize for disturbing you at your home. I just needed to speak with you," answered Ron.
Father Kavanaugh made a quick look around to be sure no one had seen the wanted G.S.F. member at his doorstep and then quickly ushered the boy inside, "No apologizes necessary, my son. I was just having a cup of tea, would you like some?"
"Yes, please," replied Ron as he followed the clergyman to his game table and took a seat opposite him.
Ron had just been handed his cup of tea, when he glanced down at the chess board.
"Looks like you'll have checkmate in four moves, after your queen takes your opponents knight."
Father Kavanaugh looked at Ron, then looked at the board, then opened up the newspaper to find the puzzle's solution, then looked back at the board, then looked back to Ron, and without ever taking his eyes from Ron's…
…forcefully swept the pieces from the board!
Ron's face looked suddenly guilty, "Or did you not already know that?"
The older Ronald took a calming breath, "Not to worry, Ron. I've officially given up chess as of right now. You said you needed to speak with me?"
"Actually, I wanted to ask a favor of you," replied Ron.
"If it is within my power to give, what is it?"
The younger Ron took a deep breath and looked at the now empty chess board, "Father, I can't sit here and honestly tell you that I've been the most religious bloke. That's not to say that even though my family is made up of wizards that my parents didn't try to instill in me a foundation of religion. But over the years I never really had enough faith to take it as seriously as I should have."
He took a small drink of tea and continued, "What I'm trying to say is that I want to try and square things with God before it's too late."
"That sounds like the thoughts of a man who has finally discovered his faith again. How can I help?"
Ron looked the Father in the eyes, "Could you please give me my Last Rites?"
The elder Ronald's face showed some confusion, "Last Rites? Ron, maybe you don't have a full grasp of the concept of those particular rites. Last Rites are normally given by clergymen to people who are gravely injured or terminally ill. In the most extreme situations they are given to someone who is relatively sure…
Father Kavanaugh's voice trailed off as he comprehended what Ron was asking of him.
"…they are going to die."
"Ron is there something you want to tell me?"
Ron looked at the chess board again, "Without going into too much detail; a friend, that I thought had died, is not in actuality, dead. But to go get this person may take more than I have within me. I'm pretty certain that I'm not going to live through this."
The clergyman could hear the resignation in the younger man's voice. He got to his feet and spoke, "Kneel, my son."
Ron did as he was told and bowed his head as Father Kavanaugh administered the Last Rites. When the Father was finished, he made the sign of the cross and then helped Ron to his feet.
Ron handed him silver sickle, "Thank you, Father. That's for the church's poor box."
He turned and began making his way to the front door, when the sound of Father Kavanaugh's voice stopped him.
"I hope you're wrong."
"I said I hope you're wrong about not surviving whatever it is you're going to do. Alastor Moody told me about Hermione's passing. If she is alive, I pray that you can get to her and bring her home. So again, I hope you're wrong, because it sounds as if her life would be very empty without you in it."
Ron's eyes went glassy, his only reply a nod of respect as he turned and walked out of the house.
"Not that I mind night patrol, Barnaby. But tell me; is there a reason we have to do it in full Death Eater garb?"
The Death Eater named Barnaby turned to his partner and removed his mask, a look of fear crossing his features.
"Damn your mouth, Pondemore. Keep your voice down. What if someone heard you complaining? I don't know about you but I'd rather stay out of the Dark lord's line of sight. So if he orders everyone outside of the estate to wear this stuff, then I'm going to do it."
The Death Eater named Pondemore suppressed a laugh, "Knowing you, if the Dark lord told us to patrol in the nude, you'd most likely do that too."
Pondemore expected another reprimand from his fellow Death Eater when he noticed that Barnaby's eyes had gone wide with fear, his face pale. He realized that Barnaby was no longer looking at him, but behind him.
"Blimey, the Dark lord is behind me, isn't he?"
But Barnaby never answered him as he attempted to reach for his wand and was blasted by a spell that hit him right between his eyes.
Pondemore pulled his wand and turned to face Barnaby's attacker, only to have his wand snatched from his hand. He came face to face with three teenagers all dressed in black. He recognized them as the wizards the Death Eaters had been after for the better part of a year. He was only able to speak one word before Ron's fist connected with his jaw.
He fell to the ground knocked cold. All together the trio had taken out the surrounding guards. Eight Death Eaters were now incapacitated in various parts of the woods. The G.S.F. continued to scan the area as they cautiously made their way to the front door of the small estate.
Ron stood in front of a set of wooden double doors and removed a pair of gumballs from his pocket. He was about to blow open the doors, when Harry's hand stopped him from doing so.
"I have a better idea. You two may want to stand behind me," said Harry.
Ron and Ginny did as they were told as Harry spoke again, "Ginny, Wingardium Leviosa, please."
The inside of the estate was relatively quiet with the exception of the three wizards guarding the front doors. One of the guards, a rather stocky man with sandy brown hair and teeth to match, spoke to his fellow guards.
"Seeing as we have another two hours until we are relieved, I hope you two won't mind if I take a second to use the loo."
He had walked about fifth-teen meters when suddenly the estate was hit by a shockwave that blew open the front doors. The sandy haired Death Eater found himself thrown into the nearest wall and covered in glass as all the nearby windows were smashed.
He got to his feet, trying to locate his fellow guards, but neither of them would be getting to their feet in the near future as both were buried under what was left of the wooden doors and the doorway s they were connected to.
The confused Death Eater was at a loss as to what may have cause the explosion, as he never heard an accompanying "boom". But the second the dust settled, he had his answer.
Pulling his wand from the ground in front of the building was none other than Harry Potter. The Death Eater could tell from the look on Harry's face that the teenage wizard was all business and not happy.
Harry marched through what was left of the doors and was greeted by the stocky Death Eater, who was charging right towards him. Harry ducked the spell the dark wizard launched at him, took a half step to his right and then drove the point of his elbow into the back of the man's skull.
As the Death Eater stumbled forward, Harry followed up his strike with a spell that struck his opponent in the back. But before the wizard could hit the floor, Ron smashed his forearm into the wizard's face.
Harry remembered how exhausted he felt the first time he performed his Shockwave spell during training. But after casting it right then, he did not feel tired at all, but rather rejuvenated, as if he was ready for more.
And ready for more he had to be, as surprised wizards began entering the room from two directions. The first sets of Death Eaters were instantly taken out of the fight as Ron and Ginny blasted them with spells before they could completely enter the room.
Harry rolled gumballs towards two sets of doors located on opposite sides of the room and then ordered his companions to his side. He then magically levitated every large piece of furniture towards them, creating a barrier between them and the impending explosions.
Ginny and Ron had just ducked behind Harry's barrier, when the gumballs exploded at both locations, causing wizards to go flying in different directions.
Ron took a quick look to assess the situation, "The door on the left is sealed off with debris, and it's going to take them a bit to get through there! The one to the right, the one we need to take, is clear for now! We need to get moving."
Harry was about to start running for the right door when several spells exploded against the barrier. He took a quick look to see who could have been firing them and instantly had his answer.
"The right door is still clear, but it looks like about six wizards have circled around and are coming in from the entrance we made! We have to move from here or we're going to get pinned down!" yelled Harry.
Ron came up with a plan, "Ginny, you stay here. Harry and I will come from both sides of the barrier and attack them before they can get too clo…"
But Ginny never let Ron finish his sentence.
"SOD ALL THAT!" yelled Ginny as she leapt over the barrier and sprinted directly at the six Death Eaters.
Two dark wizards went down as Ginny hit them with various spells. She closed the distance between herself and the remaining four, taking out another with a well placed heel strike to the side of the wizard's knee and a strong punch to his temple.
She then blocked several incoming spells and then performed a graceful spin which allowed her to cast a powerful wave of magical energy the swept the remaining wizards form their feet and onto the ground where she rendered them unconscious.
She did not have much time to recover as more Death Eaters were trying to come through the large hole in the front wall.
"GO, NOW!" yelled Ginny as two more wizards fell to her wand.
Harry was about to run to her aid, when Ron stopped him, "No mate, she's right! Ginny's covering us and can take care of herself! You know as well as I do that when she's like this, no one can stop her! Now come on!"
Ron and Harry sprinted for the door leading towards the second floor, when Harry emptied his pockets of gumballs and then tossed them through the air towards Ginny.
At least seven more dark wizards were coming through the gaping hole when Ginny, who had her back to Harry and never saw him toss the gumballs in her direc
ion, raised her wand straight up and magically caught the red and gold spheres in mid air. She then snapped her wand in a whipping motion causing all of the gumballs to launch towards the Death Eaters and the makeshift entryway.
Harry could feel the staircase shake as explosions went off below him. A moment of fear for Ginny's well being went through his mind, but quickly passed as he sensed her fury, towards her best friend's captors, burning brightly within him.
Harry could see Ron as he reached the top of the stairs first. Within seconds, Harry found himself having to avoid be tackled by an unconscious Death Eater that Ron had just tossed down the stairs.
According to Draco's descriptions the stairway would lead to a hallway with five doors along each side. At the end of the hallway would be a large living area, and to the rear of that area, another set of stairs leading to the top floor.
Ron was taking no chances as he held gumballs in each hand. Harry, with his wand at the ready, took the lead and kicked open the first door. Ron was right behind him, launching the candy explosives into the room a mere split second after the door was forced open.
The second floor rocked with each detonation as the two young wizards repeated the process with each door they came across. Ron and Harry lost count of how many wizards they took out after the fourth room.
They reached the end of the hallway as Ron pulled his last set of gumballs. He mentally counted down three seconds and then rolled the deadly spheres into the large living area. Harry could hear wizards scrambling for safety a split second before the gumballs went off.
They entered the room to find eleven dark wizards waiting for them. Thanks to the preemptive gumballs, three were already out of the fight, while the other eight looked scared to death.
The two male members of the G.S.F. were about to see to it that the Death Eaters' fears were not without substance.
Harry magically yanked the first wizard off of his feet and sent him flying directly into Ron's fist. There was a sickening crunch as the large redhead's strike met the wizard's nose.
But Ron would not allow the unconscious Death Eater to slump to the floor, as he magically electrified the wizard's body and then sent him flying back towards his best mate.
Harry, without seeing the speeding body headed his way, ducked and spun, sweeping the legs out from under another opponent, allowing him to stun the fallen wizard.
The electrically charged wizard slammed into two more Death Eaters, shocking them all senseless and removing them as a threat as well.
The last four dark wizards started firing spells to try and keep the teenage wizards at a distance. But neither would be denied as Harry threw up a Shield charm and began stepping forward.
Ron followed his best friend and started firing spells which, to the Death Eaters, looked as if they were passing through Harry's Shield. In actuality, it was a technique the G.S.F. had mastered months before as the shield caster would lower small portions of his shield, allowing his partner to fire through the open gaps.
Two of the wizards were blasted into a stupor within seconds. The last two were pinned against the wall as Harry pressed his shield into them, giving them no room to launch anymore spells. As soon as they dropped their wands, Harry dropped his shield, allowing both he and Ron to pummel the last two wizards to sleep.
They quickly looked to one another and then surveyed their surroundings. Harry looked to the next staircase for any signs of movement as Ron did the same with the rear staircase.
"Nice job with the Shield charm, Harry. It's been too long since we last tried it."
"Thanks, glad to see we haven't lost our tou…"
Ron turned to see why Harry stopped his sentence and saw that the look on his friend's face had gone from vigilant concentration to a look he had seen only one time. The ominous look of calm fury had returned to Harry's face.
Ron could not help the chill that ran up his spine because the first time he saw that look, thirty Death Eaters attacking at the same time were not enough to stop his best mate.
He turned around to see what Harry was looking at and discovered his old Potions professor guarding the staircase. Snape stood silently with his arms crossed, as if he had watched the entire fight like one might have watched a quidditch match.
"Very impressive, had you two worked half as hard as that in my class, you might have gotten higher grades."
Harry, without ever taking his eyes from Snape's, spoke, "Ron, you go on ahead. The Professor and I need to have a little talk."
The redhead turned towards the staircase, when Harry's hand grabbed him by the shoulder. He broke eye contact with Snape and looked directly into Ron's eyes.
"Do whatever you need to do to get Hermione. Bring her home. You were wrong earlier; you more than deserve her love."
Ron lips set into a thin line of determination as he gave Harry hand a fast squeeze and turned towards the staircase. Just as he came up to his old professor, the former Potions master spoke.
"Be careful, Mister Weasley. There are guards up there that may be more than you can handle."
Ron looked at Harry and then back to Snape, "With all due respect, Professor. You're about to find out exactly what the term "more than you can handle" really means."
Harry watched Ron's feet disappear as the redhead made his way up the staircase. Snape then walked to the center of the room and saluted with his wand, "We haven't much time, Mr. Potter. There are bound to be more Death Eaters on the way here. We should make this encounter look as real as possible. But there is no reason for me to hurt you."
Harry returned his salute and then took a classic dueling stance, "Don't worry, you won't."
Snape was instantly put on the defensive as Harry cast the first spell. The former head of Slytherin house knew immediately that his opponent was pulling no punches, as the impact of the spell on his shield almost caused him to drop his wand.
Harry stutter stepped directly at Snape, firing spells with each move. But the older wizard blocked each attack as he matched Harry step for step.
Snape flicked his wand in a circle above his head and it became Harry's turn to go on the defensive as every picture from the surrounding walls went flying in Harry's direction.
The flying objects were within a second of smashing into Harry, when he dropped to one knee and cast a spell causing all the pictures to transfigure into feathers.
The spell kept Harry from being crushed but it also created a cloud of feathers that momentarily blinded him. So he was not ready for the next spell Snape threw in his direction. The purple colored hex split the air before Harry and nailed him in the face.
Only Harry's reflexes kept him from taking the full brunt of the spell, nevertheless, Harry's right eyeglass shattered, narrowly missing his eye but still leaving cuts on the areas around it.
Harry rolled to his feet and performed an "Oculus Reparo" to help regain his vision. But the spell ate up precious seconds as Snape attacked again, hitting him with a spell on his left shoulder and hip. Harry could feel the magic trying to paralyze his body, but he applied the counter charm before they could fully take effect.
When the feathers finally cleared, Snape appeared on the opposite side of the room. Harry found himself wondering how Snape had learned to move so fast. A split second later, he had his answer as Snape began Apparating all around the room, firing spells from every direction.
Snape could see the younger wizard's defenses faltering as Harry would block or dodge one spell, only to be hit by another. Harry tried to fire spells in return, but his attempts would miss his opponent as Snape would Disapparate a split second before the spell could strike.
Mustering his strength within him, Harry slammed the tip of his wand onto the floor, causing it to ripple similar to the effect of a pebble being thrown into calm water. The three hundred and sixty degree arc stretched out and found the Apparating Snape, just as Harry was hit by yet another spell.
Both Harry and the Potions master were knocked off their feet and onto the floor.
Both opponents returned to their feet and once again face each other. Snape looked at Harry and took his dueling stance again.
Harry grinned, placed his hands by his sides and bowed to his old professor. He then took a dueling stance that the older wizard had never seen before and did something Snape thought suicidal.
He had closed his eyes.
Snape fired a spell and started Apparating again.
But this time the tables had turned, while Harry could not see, he could feel the air disruption against his skin a moment before the spell would strike, allowing him to block or avoid each spell thrown in his direction.
Snape even found himself on the defensive as Harry would seemingly anticipate where he would Apparate and fire a spell a split second before he would appear. What Snape did not know was that all the members of the G.S.F. were trained to hear the faint noise the sound Apparition gave off just before the normal accompanying "Crack".
Snape gave up trying to Apparate and materialized directly in front of the young wizard, bombarding him with spells and forcing Harry to keep his Shield charm up.
The Potions master would never admit it to anyone, but he was impressed with the improvement in Harry's magical abilities. Even the young man's Occlumency skills had improved as he could feel the strength of Harry's mind. But Snape was a Legilimency master and he could still read Harry's mind like a roll of parchment, and that parchment was saying one thing.
"The only way to win this duel is to keep him at a distance. Don't let him get too close!"
Armed with this information, Snape began firing his most powerful spells as he stepped forward.
Harry could do nothing but block each spell as he kept mentally screaming.
"Don't let him get too close! Don't let him get too close!"
Snape was just within a step of arm's reach when two things happened.
First, it was Harry and not Snape who closed the remaining distance between them.
Second, and most important, the screaming in Harry's mind had stopped to be replaced by one word.
The first and only indication that Snape had been fooled by Harry's "Occlumency bait" was the overwhelming pain he experienced as Harry expertly performed a wrist lock, followed by an arm bar that caused the older man to drop his wand and scream as his shoulder dislocated.
Harry place the tip of his wand against the back of Snape's head as he continued to place pressure on his arm, "Is this real enough for you?"
But Harry would not give his old professor the opportunity to answer, "In case you're wondering, I'm not going to kill you. I know what you did to keep Hermione alive, for that I'm grateful and willing to forgive you for many things."
"I can forgive you for hating my father, or calling my mother a mudblood when she tried to be kind to you, or for treating me like dirt during all my years at Hogwarts. Hell, I can even forgive you for murdering Dumbledore."
"But I will never forgive you for betraying my parents to Voldemort. I don't care how much of a git my dad acted towards you. You should have known better. Your actions took them away from me and made the first eleven years of my life a living hell."
"So I spare your life in hope that you make it through this war and pay for your mistakes. Please stay alive, because I look forward to having this "talk" with you again."
Harry then stunned the older man into unconsciousness, and took great pleasure in snapping his wand, as it was the wand responsible for taking Dumbledore's life.
Harry thought it best to try and help out Ron, but when he attempted to climb up the stairs, he found they had magically vanished. Whether they had disappeared due to Snape or by some other magical means, he would never be certain.
The only thing he was certain of was that Ron was on his own.
Ron could hear the sound of Harry's wand launching spells as he reached the top the stairs. Unlike the other floor, this hallway had no doors. The hallway just led to an open entrance on the right. He was halfway to the entrance when he turned and noticed that the stairs had vanished.
"I guess I won't be going back down that way," thought Ron as he quietly moved forward.
He stood to the side of the entrance and made a fast check of his pockets hoping to run across a stray gumball he might have missed. But he came up empty.
He took a deep breath and prepared himself. He swept into the room expecting to be blasted with spells, jinxes and hexes from every direction. He instead found a room full of Death Eaters who were standing around with their wands drawn, as if expecting an army. They were so surprised to see one person that no one bothered to cast a single spell at him.
He did a fast survey of the candlelit room and came up with sixteen opponents between him and a large set of metal double doors.
A familiar voice grabbed his attention, "Ron Weasley?"
He turned to the voice and found two people he had not seen since Harry had beaten them into unconsciousness at Madam Malkin's shop.
Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle.
"Why do you sound surprised? If anyone was going to come after the mudblood, you had to believe it would be her tag-a-long boyfriend," said Crabbe.
"I'm not surprised, ya tosser. I'm disappointed; I was hoping it would be Potter. We still owe him for breaking my nose and for that knee brace you're still wearing," replied Goyle.
Well, we will just have to satisfy ourselves with Potter's sidekick," answered Crabbe.
Crabbe turned to Ron, "So were you planning to be Granger's "knight in shining armor" coming to her rescue? Too bad because we killed her as soon as the first explosions hit the building."
Ron clutched his wand tighter and said nothing.
Goyle spoke up next, "What, no snappy comeback? You should've heard how the little know-it-all begged for her life!"
Again, Ron said nothing.
"Maybe we can get him to talk if we tell him how she called his name when we put the Cruciatus on her," said Crabbe with a sickening smile on his face.
But Ron stayed silent.
"Forget it, Crabbe. Old Weasel-bee there is too thick to respond to the truth," said Goyle.
"Fair enough. Weasley, put down your wand and come quietly so that Goyle and the rest of us don't have to waste our energy hexing you," said Crabbe.
Ron could see every wand in the room pointed at him, but he still did not lower his wand.
"Come on now, Weasley. You have to see you're outnumbered. We've heard all the stories about what you G.S.F. blokes have done, but we don't believe a word of it. You don't have a chance in hell of beating us. Put down your wand…NOW!"
Ron finally dropped to one knee, looking to everyone in the room as if he were about to surrender and place his wand on the ground. But a moment before his right hand could touch the floor; he pulled another wand with his left hand.
A wand covered in ivy vine carvings.
His eyes went unsettlingly calm as he finally spoke.
"One minute, fifty-eight seconds."
Ron had played everyone in the room perfectly as he used the time Crabbe and Goyle spent taunting him to silently decipher the wards placed around the room, he knew he would only be able to do what he planned to do once, but one time was all he needed.
He disappeared right in front of his enemies eyes.
Crabbe's eyes went wide with fear, "NO!"
Ron did not have time to fine tune his counter charm to the Anti-Apparition spell, but for Hermione he would choose to die in the attempt, than choose to not try at all.
So when he Apparated at the rear of the room, he was not surprised to feel the pain and blood of multiple micro-splinches all over his body that he knew would take many Healing charms to fix.
So he put the pain to the back of his mind and attacked!
Within seconds he had the right side of the room covered in frost as he fired a Glacius charm from his wand. The left side of the room experienced the other end of the spectrum as he used Hermione's wand to ignite a variation of her infamous Bluebell flame.
Crabbe and Goyle were instantly flash-frozen in the standing position as Death Eaters scrambled to avoid both spells.
One dark wizard closed the distance between himself and Ron, thrusting his wand forward to launch a spell. He blocked away the opponent's wand, drop to one knee and then blasted the Death Eater with a spell before he knew what happened.
The next wizard sprang at him, but caught a front kick in his chest followed by two powerful hexes from both of the redhead's wands.
Ron was then hit in the rear right shoulder by a spell that knocked him off balance. But instead of falling, he allowed the force of the spell to control his momentum and spin him around to face his attacker. He found four Death Eaters with their backs to the two metal doors.
Without making an effort to stop his spin, he fired a Bombarda spell at the doors, causing both doors to blow off their hinges and slam into the four wizards.
He came out of his spin to face two more wizards and was just able to put up a Shield charm as both wizards fired on him at the same time. He then used his free wand to magically force the wand hand of the wizard on his right to accidentally cast a spell to the wizard on his left.
Ron then turned his defensive shield into an offensive weapon as he slammed his shield onto the wizard three straight times.
He saw two more wizards running up to him, but so focused were they in putting the teenage wizard down, that they never noticed when he put both wands out by his sides and then brought them together in front of himself.
Two couches, one on fire, the other frozen, slammed into the unsuspecting pair.
A searing flame burnt Ron next as yet another spell from his rear just missed his neck.
He turned in time to find the spell's caster almost upon him.
Before the wizard could draw his wand back to cast another spell, Ron smashed a fist into the Death Eaters' wrist, causing him to drop his wand. But in the time it took the wand to hit the floor. Ron followed his first strike by smashing the wizard's knee with a powerful sidekick, an uppercut that crushed his nose, and finally a double strike to both ears with the heels of both hands.
Ron saw movement to both his sides again as another two wizards closed on him. He was forced to go defensive as both opponents tried to overwhelm him with spells.
He knew he had only seconds before they were completely on top of him, when he realized that they were firing spells without regard for one another's safety. So Ron did something absolutely crazy.
He dropped his Shield charm and dropped to his knees.
Only one of the myriad of spells hit him. All the others simply passed by him harmlessly, slamming into the wizards standing opposite of one another.
"Casting fields of fire, you prats," said Ron as he applied a quick counter-spell for the burning on his thigh where he was hit.
Ron got to his feet to find one last wizard standing before him. The Death Eaters' wand was shaking in his hand as he took in the destruction around him. He looked as if he was deciding to either run away or fight.
He chose the latter.
A broken jaw, collarbone, and three fingers would be the reward for his decision.
Ron wiped the blood from the micro-splinches on his face and walked towards the frozen forms of Crabbe and Goyle. He used his wand to unfreeze Goyle's face, to allow the young Death Eater to speak.
The angry redhead pointed his wand in Goyle's face and spoke, "I'm only going to ask you once…"
But just before Ron finished his sentence, he noticed that Goyle was looking behind him. Ron turned just as a flash of metal passed across his midsection. Only his quick reflexes saved him from catching the full swing of the executioner's axe. But there was still a deep gash across his hips.
Ron looked up from his injury to find the hooded man swinging his axe again. He dodged the swing and fired a spell with Hermione's wand. But the executioner blocked the spell with the blade of his axe and then countered with the long handle, knocking the wand from his hand.
The executioner attacked furiously as Ron avoided the next three swings of the axe. But on the fourth swing he caught the inside of Ron's forearm, causing him to drop his other wand.
The hooded executioner twirled his axe menacingly as he had Ron pinned to the wall both wandless and bleeding.
"So much for another member of the G.S.F.!" screamed the hooded man as he swung for Ron's head.
But Ron was a split second faster as he ducked, the intended axe sticking into the wall where his head was only moment before.
The teenage wizard sprung, driving a fierce elbow into the hooded man's face. He then turned, pulled the axe from the wall and with the momentum of a full spin…
…took the executioner's head.
"That was for Buckbeak," said Ron as he dropped the axe to the floor.
He retrieved his dropped wands, performing a quick set of Healing charms on his axe wounds. He then made his way back to Goyle, "Do I have to ask the question or are you just going to tell me what I want to know?"
Now it was Goyle turn to say nothing.
Ron remained calm, "Fine, don't speak, but I want you to see something. Just watch, O.K.?"
He walked over to the fully frozen Crabbe, and without ever taking his eyes from Goyle's, drove the point of his wand into Crabbe's frozen form, shattering him into a million pieces, killing him instantly.
Ron face went furious, "NOW WHERE'S HERMIONE GRANGER!"
"Down the hallway behind me, please don't kill me!"
"No worries mate," replied Ron as he kicked Goyle to the floor, sending him sliding away.
Ginny was exhausted both physically and magically.
She could feel every cut, bruise and burn from every attack she did not block, dodge or avoid. She had lost count of how many dark wizards fell to her wand while covering for Ron and Harry. But she knew that nothing short of death would stop her from defending them.
She had just finished clearing the debris from the entrance to the left staircase. She knew from her magical blueprints that the left staircase led downward to the rear entrance of the estate. There was no possible way to go back out the way they came in because she had blocked that way with all the explosives Harry had thrown her way.
She made her way down the staircase and turned right to find a long wide hallway made up of castle stones with a pristine hardwood floor. The entire hallway with lit with enchanted medieval torches. Ginny found herself giggling at the sheer silliness of the design.
But her laughter caught in her throat as two figures appeared at the other end of the hallway. Each of them creating sparks as they tapped their staffs onto the floor.
Ginny could only say one thing as she watched the two Durmstrang wizards blocking her path.
Suddenly a devilish grin came to her face as she took her fighting stance.
Harry turned the corner and stood at her side, "In need of assistance, my wife?"
"I wouldn't say no to some, my husband. Which one would you like?"
Harry took his fighting stance, "The taller one, of course."
The grin came off of Ginny's face, "Good!"
They both charged forward, firing spells every step of the way. The Durmstrangs twirled their staffs to block the spells as they stood their ground.
As they had agreed, Harry and Ginny focused on their chosen opponent. Harry blasting spells at the taller wizard, while Ginny attacked the other. Just as they closed the space between themselves and the guards, they switched opponents.
Both Durmstrangs were caught off guard as Ginny took advantage of the hardwood floor and slid into her opponent's leg feet first. The Durmstrang guard screamed as she pinned his leg painfully into the wall by both his knee and ankle. His scream did not last long as she stunned him senseless.
At the same time, Harry jumped over the sliding Ginny and slammed a strong front kick into his opponent's staff, causing the wizard's arms to buckle, the staff to smash into his face and the back of his head to smack into the stone wall.
Ginny got to her feet and then slapped Harry's arm, "I thought you said you wanted the taller one?"
Harry grinned, "You're the one who changed wizards."
Ginny finally saw Harry's face and changed subjects, "What happened to your eye?"
"Snape and I had a little talk."
She reached up and gently examined the area around his eye, "How are you feeling? Regarding Snape, I mean."
"To be honest, I've finally let it all go."
And through their bond, she could feel he really had.
Ron walked through his self-made destruction of ice and fire, making his way through the large doorway, finding another hallway lined with three doors along its right side.
He tucked Hermione's wand into the front of his belt and then kicked down the first door. The room was dimly lit by a solitary candle, but it was more than enough light to find what he was looking for.
In the center of the room, secured by a chain that was bolted to the floor and her ankle, was Hermione. Her long brown bushy hair looked matted and tangled. She was dressed in rags and her exposed body parts looked pale and sickly. She smiled as she watched Ron enter the room.
But that smile left her face as Ron pointed his wand directly at her.
"Ronald, what are you doing?"
"What's my greatest fear?" asked Ron.
Hermione looked confused, "I…don't understand?"
Ron stepped closer, "My greatest fear, what is it?"
"Snakes of course," answered Hermione.
The green colored wand sped from Ron's wand, killing the false Hermione instantly. He knew deep inside that Hermione would never approve of him using the Killing curse, but just the thought that someone would pretend to be Hermione, to try and infiltrate their families, to use her identity to do wrong, was enough to have Ron kill them on the spot. He was not just protecting Hermione, but all of her friends and loved ones as well. He could live with the fact that, in his mind, his wand was now forever tainted.
He went to the next door and kicked it down as well. Again he found Hermione chained in the center of the room.
"What color is the northern most wall of my room at the Burrow?" asked Ron.
Hermione looked terrified, "W-w-white, the wall is white."
"No!" screamed Ron as another Killing curse launched from his wand.
He stepped to the final door, a dark thought passing through his mind that maybe Hermione was truly dead and that all these rooms contained were Death Eaters wearing her face. He put the thought to the back of his mind and kicked the last door down.
He prepared to ask another question when something inside him clicked; he felt a sudden rush of feelings within him that he somehow knew did not emanate from himself, but from the young lady on the floor in front of him.
He looked at Hermione and saw that she looked nothing like the first two. She was malnourished; her hair had been cut away for what Ron knew was Polyjuice potion, she was clothed in what looked like something a house elf would wear, and there was not an inch of her body that did not look like it was tortured by someone with a wand. She looked as if she barely had the strength to stand.
A very weak grin came to her face as she spoke, "You've got dirt on your nose, again."
Ron was convinced of her identity when she said that. Only the real Hermione could be bossy during a rescue attempt.
He knelt down to magically break the chain around her ankle when she snatched the wand from the front of his belt. Ron inwardly cursed himself, he was fooled, this Hermione was another fake and his life was over.
The Killing curse sped past Ron's head and into the body of Goyle, who slammed into the wall and slumped to the floor, lifeless.
Ron could only guess that the small fires burning in the outer room had thawed Goyle out, and he came after Ron for having killed Crabbe.
"There, now both of our wands are tainted," said Hermione as she went limp and passed out. Her magical and physical energy spent.
Ron finally got the chain off of her ankle, scooped her up in his arms and made his way out of the room.
Harry and Ginny had discovered both good and bad news.
The good news was that they found the rear entrance.
The bad news was that it guarded by ten Death Eaters.
They were keeping the pair pinned down behind an overturned dining room table. Neither group of wizards could gain ground as the dark wizards attacked furiously enough to keep Harry and Ginny from trying to get closer, while at the same time, the pair would pop up every so often to keep the Death Eaters from trying to flank them.
"Where do you think Ron is?" asked Ginny over the sound of spells hitting the table.
Harry dropped back behind cover after firing some spells, "Your guess is as good as mine!"
"We need to get out of here soon! There's bound to be reinforcements here soon and if they get here before we can leave…" started Ginny.
"…we're done for, I know!" finished Harry.
But both of them knew that they weren't leaving until everyone was accounted for, even if it meant capture or worse.
Ginny eyes widened in surprise, "Oh my God, it's Ron and he has Hermione!"
Her brother, with Hermione cradled in his arms, came sprinting into the room to join them behind the table.
Ginny took over launching spells at the Death Eaters as Harry spoke, "We're pinned down, mate! What have you got left?"
Ron almost laughed, "I couldn't pull a rabbit out of a hat if I wanted to! What about you two?"
Harry shook his head, "I don't think any of us will be performing magic to the best of our abilities for a while!"
Ginny ducked back down, "Tired or not, we need to get through that door or else we won't be performing magic ever again!"
Harry agreed, "We have to charge the door. Do either of you have any gumballs left?"
Ron shook his head as Ginny produced a single orb.
"Ginny you lead; I'll bring up the rear to cover Ron. Whatever happens, I love you both." said Harry as prepared himself.
The trio mentally counted off three seconds and then came up firing. Harry was able to keep the wizards occupied as Ginny tossed the last gumball towards the doors.
The Death Eaters sprawled out of the way as the explosive detonated, blowing the doors open, but not off the hinges as a pair of gumballs would have. While the Death Eaters were momentarily stunned the G.S.F. ran through the doors.
They had gotten a few meters from the house when the Death Eaters appeared only a few seconds behind them. Harry tried to put up a Shield charm, but with ten wizards firing on them, the charm faltered quickly. Harry turned to run but was hit by spells in the back of the shoulder and calf.
He fell to the ground and was quickly followed by Ron as a spell struck him in the back a moment later. Ginny ran back and threw up a Shield to protect her fallen teammates, but she knew they only had seconds before the Death Eaters had them.
Ginny could feel her Shield charm winking out.
Suddenly the Death Eaters were bombarded in a crossfire of spells. The dark wizards were completely caught off guard as they had no idea where the attacks were coming from.
The last two Death Eaters standing tried to make a run back to the estate, only to be cut down where they stood.
Harry's head was still spinning as Ginny applied countercharms to his wounds, "Who the hell just saved us?"
Ginny shook her head as she helped out her brother, "I don't know, but I'd sure like to thank him."
Ron slowly got to his feet, "So would…"
But his sentence stopped as a pair of familiar wizards appeared from out of the woods.
Harry smiled as he screamed, "WAY TO GO, FRED AND GEORGE!"
Ginny ran to her brothers and hugged them furiously, "How did you know where to find us?"
Fred walked over to Harry and removed a small black dot from the shoulder of Harry's shirt, "Something we've been working on, Magically Enhanced Tracking Spell or METS as we like to call them."
"Looks like the damn things work," exclaimed George.
Everyone's conversation stopped as Ron walked up with Hermione in his arms.
"Blimey, she's alive," said Fred.
"Harry, could we please take her back to the tent and clean her up? I don't want to her parents to see her like this," asked Ron his voice almost pleading.
Harry finally got a good look at Hermione's state and nodded, "Of course, let's get back to the Portkey site."
Ginny dropped a stack of G.S.F. cards as the six wizards rapidly left the area.
It was almost two hours after the sun had risen as the Grangers sat on the porch of the safe house they were currently calling home. They had decided to get an early start on the day as neither of them could get any sleep.
Mr. Granger looked over the garden as he drank his morning tea. He had to admit that Ron had done a tremendous job to get it looking as beautiful as it did.
At that last thought, Mr. Granger realized that Ron was nowhere to be seen. Normally the young man would have been outside working at the crack of dawn. Had he finally decided to sleep in today?
"At least someone can sleep," thought Mr. Granger.
The sound of the front door opening caught his attention as Molly and Arthur stepped outside. Both Weasleys shared worried looks.
"What's wrong?" asked Mrs. Granger
Molly answered, "Have either of you seen Ron? I went up to wake him this morning, but his bed hadn't been slept in."
Mr. Granger shook his head, "We haven't seen him, and I thought it was strange that he wasn't out here, tending the garden."
"It doesn't stop with just Ron. The twins are missing as well," replied Arthur.
Mr. Granger was about to suggest a search of the grounds when he noticed that his wife was standing at the rail of the porch, she was looking past the gardens and towards the distant front gate. Her eyes were wide and her right hand was covering her mouth.
Mr. Granger looked up, his heart beating faster in his chest, as he saw his only daughter running towards them; she was calling for her mother as her steps brought her closer.
Mrs. Granger ran to her daughter and grabbed her up in her arms. Tears were running down the cheeks of both mother and daughter as they cried into each other's shoulders. Mr. Granger wrapped his arms around both of the most important women in his life and kissed them as if he would never get the chance to ever do so again.
But the reunion and tears were not just limited to the Grangers as it had been the better part of a year since either Molly or Arthur had seen their daughter or surrogate son.
Mr. Granger broke away from his family and walked up to Harry, "All of you, thank you so much."
Harry shook his head and silently pointed to his best friend. There were tears in Mr. Granger's eyes as he walked up to Ron and held him by the shoulders, "Well done lad, well done."
Ron looked over to his father, who wore a smile on his face that showed nothing but pride in his youngest son.
Ron then felt a small hand touching his face. He turned, finding Mrs. Granger smiling at him. But Ron quickly looked at the ground, still unable to look Hermione's mum in the eyes.
A sad motherly look crossed her features as she used both hands to guide his face to look at hers. She would never be able to find the words to thank him, but the look on her face showed one thing.
And it was more than enough to make Ron smile back.
Ron held his smile for a few more seconds, when all of the color drained from his face and he collapsed to the ground.
Everyone witnessed what had just happened, but it was Hermione who was at his side first, "Ron, what's wrong?"
Ron tried to lift his shirt, but he did not have the strength. Molly magically caused the shirt to disappear and what everyone saw made everyone's heart stop. Ron's chest was still covered in micro-splinches, but those seemed to be healing. The focus of everyone's fear was the deep cuts on both his midsection and forearm, as both were greenish in color.
"Executioner's axe…must have been hexed…thought I had healed myself…was wrong."
Molly screamed, "Merlin! Arthur contact the Order! We need to get him medical attention, now!"
Arthur and the twins ran for the nearest floo before Molly finished screaming. The Grangers, who were the most medically qualified, ran into the house to find any medical supplies they could get their hands on.
Hermione cradled Ron's head in her lap as tears ran down her face.
He weakly held her hand, "I'm sorry, 'Mione."
Ron smiled as his eyes closed and his body went limp.
Hermione shook her head as she could feel his energy fading away through their bond, "No, you're not allowed to leave me."
Harry and Ginny could only watch helplessly as Hermione touched her face to his.
"No, please no."
Over the following fortnight, things were touch and go for Ron. The hex placed on the axe's blade was designed to suppress the immune system of whoever was cut by it, essentially making the poor soul cursed by it, susceptible to any and all germs.
The witches and wizards treating him knew that any attempt to transfer him to St. Mungo's would most likely kill him, so they were forced to quarantine him in one of the safe house's rooms. No one, not even his parents were allowed to see him.
Hermione was very malnourished and exhausted. The medics had prescribed bed rest and her parents were bound and determined to make sure that's what she received. So she spent her fortnight bedridden as well, with no visitors outside of, her parents, the medical staff and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley.
Towards the end of the two weeks both teens showed improvement. The medics had said that Ron needed two more days before they would lift the quarantine and allow him to join the outside world. His micro-splinches were fading away, and the deep cuts were now the proper color that healing wounds should actually be.
Hermione's skin color returned to normal as the magical wounds faded. She ate with a Ron-like abandon as she put on much needed weight. One of the medical staff had offered to perform a Hair-Thickening charm on her, so that it would return to its original length. But she politely refused, explaining that she actually liked the shorter length. But in truth, she knew there was a possibility that the Death Eaters had plenty of her hair for use in Polyjuice potion, and her short hair would make it easier for her loved ones to tell the difference between herself and a fake.
Hermione thought about Ron's actions two weeks prior and felt nothing but pity for any Death Eaters who were stupid enough to try and imitate her again.
That night she drifted off to sleep, secure in the knowledge that Ron would forever know her, regardless of what she looked like.
Later that evening she rolled over to get a bit more comfortable, when she discovered Ron sitting quietly on the edge of her bed. He was wearing jeans with his favorite Chudley Cannons t-shirt. His face looked melancholy as he stared at her.
"What are you doing out of your room? I was told you couldn't leave it for another two days. Aren't you afraid you'll get sick again?"
Ron just gave her a grin and shook his head.
"Well, I'm afraid, you almost died," replied Hermione.
She looked around the room for her robe with every intention of getting the insane Ronald Weasley back to bed for his own good, when she looked up to find that he had vanished.
A streak of fear ran through her, "Ron? Ronald? Where did you go?"
She rolled out of bed to try and find him, when she awoke from her dream, on the floor and tangled in her sheets.
Ron had looked so real in her dream, but he also looked so sad. He was looking at her as if it were the last time he would ever see her again.
Now she truly felt scared as she realized that she could not sense him through their bond. She snatched her wand off the nightstand and silently ran to the room she knew Ron was quarantined in.
She opened the door and took her first look around his room. The room itself had been emptied with the exception of necessities, with the bed in the center of the room, and a transparent material surrounding the bed and protecting Ron from the outside world.
But this did nothing to alleviate her fears, as the bed was empty; Ron was no place to be seen.
Panic tugged at her heart, "Ron? Oh please don't be…"
"Don't be what?" asked Ron as he appeared from behind the far side of the bed still wearing his pajamas. He walked up to the clear material to stand in front of her.
But Hermione forgot the question, "Have you left this room?"
"No, the doctor said not for another two days. Why do you ask?" asked Ron.
"You visited me in a dream, you looked so real," answered Hermione even though she knew how mental she sounded.
"So you decided to come down and check on me? Couldn't wait to start bossing me around again, could you?" replied Ron.
Ron instantly felt how his small joke had hurt her.
Hermione looked at the floor and turned to leave, "It's late, you should really get some rest."
"Wait, please don't go. I'm sorry. Please, there's something I need to say to you," pleaded Ron.
Hermione turned around to find him with his wand in his hand, pushing against the material that separated them. Her eyes grew wide as she realized that he was trying to magically cut the material open.
"Ron, please don't, you might get sick again," said Hermione, her eyes pleading with him to stop.
But he just shook his head, "No, for this I want to stand in front of you, with nothing between us."
The material finally gave way to Ron's magic and he stepped to within a few steps of her.
Hermione's eyes were just holding back tears, "Your father told me about how much you were hurting about my death."
"He also told me what you three went through to rescue me."
Again, he nodded.
"You got hurt, you almost died…for me."
Ron nodded as tears came to his eyes, "And I'd do it all over again, just to be able to stand in front of you and tell you that I love you, Hermione."
The small distance between them disappeared as they ran into each other's arms and shared a long kiss.
Hermione broke the kiss first and hugged him tighter, balling the material of his pajamas in her hands, "I love you. I love you. I love you."
Ron held her face so that he could see her eyes, "My life was so empty without you. I'm nothing without you."
She kissed his lips as her tears fell, "I never want to be without you again."
Ron wiped the tears from her eyes, "Never again…never again."
The knocking on the old wooden door started out light enough, but when there was no answer, it grew increasingly louder. Eventually, the door swung open and Father Kavanaugh showed himself, he looked as if he was prepared to say something very "unclergy-like", when he realized who the person pounding on his door was.
"Ron, what on earth are you doing here this late?"
But Father Kavanaugh found he did not care about the answer as he saw Hermione holding Ron's hand.
"Praise God, you're alive my child. I'm so happy to see you both," said the clergyman as he hugged them both at the same time.
He continued, "But it's so late, couldn't this reunion have waiting until the morning?"
Ron smiled, "We're sorry, Father. But we were wondering if you would marry us?"
"Right now?" asked the pajama wearing clergyman.
Ron and Hermione nodded.
The priest scratched his head, "I could perform the ceremony, but without the legal documentation, it wouldn't be a real marriage."
Ron and Hermione looked at one another and then back at the priest, "It would be real enough to us, Father."
"And to us as well."
Father Kavanaugh, Ron and Hermione turned to discover Harry and Ginny.
Ron smiled at his best friend, "How'd you follow us?"
Harry smiled back, "Silent alarm on your room, we followed the two of you after you left the house."
"Well, if you four would like to enter my house, so we can begin the ceremony."
So in the privacy of a small cottage, in the middle of the night, in a ceremony with no legal standing, and with their best friends as witnesses, Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger pledged their love for one another and became husband and wife. For whatever they would face in the future, they would face it together.
And they would have it no other way.