Despite its interesting start, the rest of that night's meeting proved to be a rather dismal one. The dreary weather was not merely a seasonal irregularity, but an effect of increased dementor activity, as Remus explained.
"They're breeding. They thrive in the cold and damp, and when they're strong and well fed they can wrap themselves in cold and shadow. And they're multiplying - there's enough of them now that they're actually affecting the weather."
Most of those listening wore similar expressions of horror.
"Can't we stop them somehow?" asked Tonks. Remus shrugged and looked to Mad-eye, who shook his head.
"Don't have the manpower," he said. "If we had all the Aurors in the ministry, we might be able to round 'em up and drive them back to Azkaban or something. But if they've been breeding, there might be too many even for that."
"Can't they be killed?" Fleur wanted to know. Moody shook his head.
"I've never heard of it. I suppose they must die eventually."
Dumbledore looked thoughtful.
"There is no instance that I know of, of a wizard destroying a dementor. Theoretically it should be possible, as they are not immortal. They can die of starvation, in places where there is nothing for them to consume. Azkaban had enough food in the form of prisoners to sustain its limited number of guards, but only now with the stronger and more varied fare of England's population can they multiply. They die quicker in bright sunlight and heat - it weakens them, takes more of their energy."
He paused for a moment, as if recalling and considering long years of study on the subject, then went on. "I think they could be destroyed by a strong enough patronus, but it would have to be a remarkable wizard to conjure it. As long as he had even the slightest susceptibility to fear, dread, or despair the dementor could not be killed. I have yet to meet anyone who could do it."
"As I said," growled Moody, somewhat impatiently. "We can't destroy them, and we can't control them with the ministry in the state it's in, let alone all the trouble Voldemort's causing."
"That brings up my news," broke in Kingsley. "Voldemort has...made contact with the ministry. He's demanding that Fudge steps down and the ministry surrenders control to him." He paused, then continued steadily. "The message was found over the bodies of two dead muggles outside the visitor's entrance. It was written in their blood. He promises the death of muggles every day until his demands are met."
There was a moment of dismayed silence after Kingsley finished speaking.
"Has the ministry prepared a response yet?" Dumbledore asked at last.
"The official line is that Voldemort and all his supporters are to be apprehended or killed without negotiation or compromise - but as they're no closer to doing that than we are, all they can really do is try to guess where he will strike and have aurors ready to respond. They've posted me in the muggle Prime Minister's office."
"They've got you on guard duty for the muggle minister?" asked Arthur in surprise. "But you're one of the most senior aurors in the department, shouldn't you be in strategic planning?"
Kingsley sighed. "Usually I am. But I'm also the only available auror who can pass for a muggle in that kind of situation. There wasn't really another choice."
A quiet, middle aged witch whom Fleur had hardly noticed spoke up from one of the Weasley's larger armchairs.
"I can guard the Muggle Minister when he's not at work - he lives quite near me."
"Excellent, Emmaline," said Dumbledore. "But is Voldemort likely to attack the muggle minister? His strategy so far has been one of secrecy and careful maneuver rather than gratuitous destruction." His eyes rested on Snape.
"He might," the potions master said quietly. "The Dark Lord has been biding his time, but I believe he feels the moment for overt action is drawing near. He has more allies now than ever since the height of his power, and he has declared himself openly. Several giants have been secretly brought into Britain, and I think he plans to use them against muggles. He wanted to take over Gringotts as well, but the Goblins have been... uncooperative."
Snape glanced briefly at Bill, with an expression that might almost have been approval - at least, his ever-present expression of disgust and malcontent softened slightly. Kingsley Shacklebolt shifted in his seat.
"There may already have been an attempt on the muggle ministry," he said slowly. "One of the junior ministers was acting very strange today. The muggles think it's just stress, but…it could be the result of a malfunctioning or poorly performed imperius curse."
"If that's the case we'll need to get him into magical custody right away," put in Arthur. "Even if the curse isn't functioning properly, he could still be dangerous."
"The ministry aurors can take care of that, I'll see to it first thing tomorrow" Kingsley said. Dumbledore looked back at Snape.
"Severus, this will make your task even more difficult I'm afraid. You must do what you can to help us protect any innocents the death eaters may target, but you won't be able to tip us off too soon or obstruct Voldemort's plans. Your position in his camp is too valuable to lose. As for the rest of us," he looked around the room, "we must be ready for whatever comes next. We cannot know where or when he will strike, but our first priority must be the protection of innocents."
They did not have long to wait. Bill didn't bring lunch to work as usual but came home to the burrow in the early afternoon the next day, apparating into the back garden and coming in the kitchen door. He had been going over some security charms at work that morning, working quickly enough that he could justify taking most of the afternoon off. The work had given him some ideas about where to look for Sirius' will, and he planned to use his extra time at Grimmauld place. He meant to stop home just long enough to kiss Fleur and claim one of his mother's excellent sandwiches. His mother was standing at the counter just in front of the kitchen window, supervising with her wand as a knife cut slices off a juicy looking ham and a fresh baked loaf of bread floated out of the oven. She looked up as he stepped through the door, but before she could speak a silver lynx soared through the open window. Mrs Weasley gasped in surprise. The knife clattered to the floor, and the bread landed heavily on the counter. Kingsley Shacklebolt's deep voice filled the room.
"Attack! Attack at Brockdale bridge." The patronus turned tail and disappeared out the window. For a moment the kitchen was silent.
"Where's Fleur?" Bill asked quickly. "Are Ron and Ginny here?"
"Ron and Ginny went up to the field to play quiddich," Molly replied after a moment, picking up her knife. Her movements were steady, though her voice shook slightly. "I think Fleur is in the back garden…"
"I've got to go," said Bill. "I'll send them back to the house. Make sure they stay inside until dad or I get back and say it's safe." He moved quickly out the back door, looking for Fleur. She was already on her way back, a cluster of wildflowers in her hand.
"Bill! I saw ze patronus, what's -" Bill interrupted her.
"Death Eaters. Get inside the house, stay there until I get back." A jolt of fear flickered across her face.
"Death Eaters? Bill -"
"There's no time, I have to go. I love you." Bill wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close to him, pressing his lips to hers. For five seconds he held her tight and kissed her; kissed her like these were his last five seconds on earth. Then he stepped back, turned on the spot and disappeared.
Bill arrived to a scene of absolute chaos. The modern looking suspension bridge was in ruins. It looked as though the bridge had been somehow split right in the center, causing both sides to collapse. Shorn steel cables hung limp and the shore was a mess of shattered concrete. Cars were sinking and frantic muggles were flailing in the deep water. Some were still, floating face down near the surface. The air was full of screams, the crack of concrete, the blaring of car horns and the screech of tires. Suddenly an explosion rocked the far side, and an eruption of spellfire went up. The screams redoubled and he ran towards the shore. There, just on the far side of the river, was a knot of wizards in the robes of Ministry of Magic Aurors. He turned on the spot again, apparating just behind them. One turned with his wand raised - it was Kingsley.
"Bill!" He lowered his wand. "Glad to see you. We got here right after they blew the bridge, maybe five minutes ago. Snape sent a warning at the last minute. We're trying to pin down the death eaters, but they're retreating. We've got more from the ministry on the way to help the muggles."
Bill jogged up to the front of the group, his wand raised. He saw a black cloaked figure mount the bridge and start shooting curses at the muggles in the street. Cars had collided on the busy street behind what was left of the bridge and there was panic as drivers tried to get out of their stranded vehicles while pedestrians ran for cover or tried to get into the cars to escape. Bill and several other aurors fired off stunning spells at the death eater, but with a glance towards them the figure turned and disappeared. Other black clad figures likewise popped into view long enough to fire of some haphazard curses then vanished again.
"They're not fighting," he called to Kingsley. "They're just trying to cause chaos." Sure enough, as the Aurors advanced the death eaters retreated or disappeared. By the time they got to the top of the bridge there were none in sight, and no more curses or explosions could be seen. Kingsley shook his head, looking back at the scene of terror, chaos and death.
"You're right Bill. Looks like they're gone. What a mess." More Aurors were arriving, followed by other wizards from the ministry, to erase muggle memories and try to repair some of the damage - at least enough to make it look like more like an accident than a terrorist attack.
It took the rest of the day to sort out the disaster, even with the army of wizards arriving from the ministry to organize, rebuild, obliviate, rearrange, and heal as they could. By the time they were finished it was nearly midnight. By then the scene looked reasonably liked a structural failure had caused the bridge to collapse, and most of the muggle deaths due to car accidents, falling debris, and drowning. It pained Bill to leave bodies in the river, or worse, slumped over their steering wheels or under piles of concrete and steel. They ought to have been cleaned up as best they could be so their relatives could say goodbye. Of course he knew the muggles would handle that themselves, and it had to be done this way to preserve secrecy. The thought gnawed at him as he apparated back to the outside of the burrow and staggered up the stairs towards his bedroom.
He found Fleur curled up on his bed, clutching his pillow. She looked up, bleary eyed, as the dimly lit hall cast its amber lights and shadows across the room. Bill eased himself onto the bed beside her and she pulled him close, nuzzling against his chest as he wrapped his arms around her.
"Mon amour, tu étais loin de moi depuis si longtemps j'avais peur - j'avais peur que tu - "
"I know, ma cherie…je sais…je suis ici maintenant."
- - - - - -
For Fleur, the unseasonably dreary days seemed to drag. Although she was now ostensibly living with Bill, she seemed to see less of him than ever. He left for work early in the morning, but Order business often kept him preoccupied into the evening. Between that and the constant bustle of a big family in a small house, she never seemed to get a moment alone with him. It was so bad she actually hoped to see more of him at work - but the day after the bridge incident he worked furiously all morning, then left at lunch to go to Grimmauld place and look for Sirius' will. Fleur understood how important Bill's role in the Order was, but it was hard. She began to understand why Bill had been so hesitant about the beginning of their relationship. She wasn't just marrying a man; with the war going on, she was marrying into a whole way of life that took a great deal of perseverance and sacrifice.
Part of this excited her. She was so proud of Bill, and glad to be a part of the secret world of the Order of the Phoenix. She was proud to know the wizards who fought instead of cowering in the shadows. But it was hard. She felt helpless here at the Burrow, and as proud as she was of Bill, every time he went out on "order business" she was terrified that he would not come back. This fear grew worse the very night after Sirius' will was found, when several Order members gathered to discuss it. Dumbledore was there, along with Mad-Eye, Snape, Remus and Tonks. They had all squeezed into the Weasley's sitting room, and she was sitting between Bill and Arthur as they read over the it.
"Good work Weasley," Mad-Eye growled at Bill. Tonks leaned forward eagerly.
"So it was at Grimmauld place after all? Where? How did you find it?"
"By thinking like a curse-breaker," Bill replied. "To find something someone else wants to keep hidden, you've got to get into their mind. We've been looking for strong magical protections, hidden rooms and compartments - the sort of thing a family like the Blacks would have used to protect their valuables. But Sirius hated his family - and he's spent most of his life either in prison or on the run. Escaped convicts don't use fancy hidden compartments, magic locks or secret rooms. They hide things in unexpected places, where they don't think people will look. It was in the attic, where Buckbeak used to live. We generally avoided it because it was dirty, smelly, dank, full of cobwebs and not much else. Not the sort of place the Blacks would hide a precious document. But exactly the sort of place Sirius would."
"But we did check there," countered Tonks. "We scanned the whole place for concealment and protection charms. There was no strong magical residue there at all. We even scanned inside the floorboards and the walls!"
"You're right. Sirius didn't perform any strong magic there. In fact, he didn't need to perform any magic there at all. The only magic he did was on the will itself, and that was more cleverness than anything. He didn't even make it un-summonable, which is a pretty strong charm that leaves a trace. All he did was shrink it."
The others looked at him in confusion. Suddenly Mad-Eye cracked a grin.
"Just how small did he shrink it?"
"About the size of a piece of dust. It's brilliant really. Shrinking is such a simple charm that it would hardly leave any magical residue. And you could walk into the room and summon it - the will could hit you right in the face - and you'd never notice. But if you knew it was there, you simply summon it then perform an engorgement charm, and there it is. I'm sure Sirius meant to tell us all about it, but I think he had only just finished it when…" his voice trailed off. Dumbledore nodded.
"In any case, he seems to have been most thorough; the will is very clear that everything should pass to Harry. But we cannot be quite sure yet. There is one last test, which I will perform with Harry when I bring him here next week. But where are Kingsley and Emmaline? I expected them to report on their interactions with the Muggle minister."
An awkward silence hung in the air. It was Snape who broke it.
His face was as expressionless as ever, but Fleur thought she could see a glimmer in those black eyes, of what she did not know. Dumbledore turned to Snape, but before he could speak there came a knock at the door. Arthur rose and moved into the hall, and they heard Kingsley's voice from outside. It was uncharacteristically strained.
"It's me, it's Kingsley." They heard the door open and the tall Auror came in, his face drawn and pale despite his dark complexion.
"Emmaline's dead," he said. "I was there, but too late. There was an attack on the muggle parliament. They came secretly, we wouldn't have noticed except we've been extra vigilant since Severus tipped us off…but I think it was mostly meant as a diversion - they came late, when most people had already gone home. A couple of junior Aurors were there, we ran them off, but then we saw Emmalines patronus. It soared into the ministry, but before it could speak…" he trailed off, looking stricken. "It…went out." He fell silent, and the members of the Order stared at one another in horror. Dumbledore had risen to his feet.
"You came straight here?" he asked Kingsley quickly. Shacklebolt shook his head. "No. We went to Emmaline's house. We thought Voldemort was after the muggle minister, but he wasn't. He found a way through her protective charms, I don't know how…but we were too late. She's gone, Albus."
The mood was somber through the rest of the meeting, and the order disbanded quietly leaving through the front or back doors to disapparate outside the protective charms around the burrow. No-one seemed to have the heart to say much after Kingsleys news, but they shared looks of pain and fear. Bill and his father were talking quietly with Molly in the kitchen, comforting her as tears rolled down her face. Fleur felt she didn't belong. She looked at Bill, and imagined Kingsley coming through the door late to tell everyone that Bill had been killed fighting Voldemort. She imagined the same horror struck faces she had seen tonight. She suddenly felt like she was suffocating. She needed air. She stumbled out into the cool night of the back garden, almost gasping. The sweet, homely smell of flowers and fresh cut grass soothed her, and her breathing slowed. Only then did she realize her face was wet with tears.
"Stupid," she said to herself, shaking her head and wiping them away with frustration. Suddenly she heard voices at the back of the garden. Her curiosity had not yet turned to alarm when she recognized one of them as Dumbledore's. His voice was always so calm, warm and comforting. The other voice was familiar, but strained beyond recognition with anger and bitterness.
"No more. I won't…I can't…"
"You have to. Your information has been the only thing protecting the Order from certain destruction on more than one occasion. And without your position we have little hope of defeating Voldemort."
"Protecting the…She was in the order! And now she's dead! She's dead, and I killed her."
"You didn't kill her, Severus. You tried-"
"I told him where she was, how to find her. He was planning another mass killing, the death of the muggle minister… but I, I convinced him to kill her!"
"You just told me you expected to be sent yourself, that you thought you could warn her. You never intended her death."
"What does it matter what I intended…I sold her to Him!"
Dumbledore's voice grew suddenly sterner.
"And you were right to do so. You were right when you told him better to kill one member of the order than a thousand muggles. She volunteered to fight, knowing full well it could mean her death, for the sole purpose of protecting others. She would be proud to know that her death spared the lives of hundreds of innocents."
There was silence.
"Please…" the voice was still strained but now soft and pleading. "I can't go back…"
Fleur did not hear the end of the conversation. She felt she was listening in on something too private. She realized the second speaker was Snape, but she couldn't reconcile his cold, expressionless face and haughty demeanor with this remorseful, pleading voice. It seemed indecent, somehow, to listen, and she turned to go back inside. But she now felt that her own fears and suffering were small compared to what some of the other Order members had to do.
Fleur had thought that after the attack on brockdale bridge and the murder of Emmaline Vance that things could hardly get worse. She was wrong. The very next day, Bill burst into her office at work.
"Bill, you are early -" she started, glancing at the clock. She and Bill were planning to eat together in Diagon Alley at noon, but it was not yet eleven o'clock. But the rest of her sentence died on her lips when she saw his face.
"We have to go. Now."
"But I don't get off till-"
"Doesn't matter. I have to go now, and I want you safe at the Burrow."
Fleur didn't bother to ask any more questions, but took his hand and apparated with him back to the burrow, arriving in the field just outside the back garden and the protective enchantments. Other order members were arriving as they did, began talking quickly as soon as they crossed the threshold of the Burrow.
"The Death Eaters are making another attack," Bill told her quietly, striding to meet the growing throng. "Kingsley is at the ministry marshaling the official forces, but that'll take time. So the Order is going in first."
"I can help -" Fleur started, not wanting to be left behind. But Bill shook his head. "I want you here with Mum, Ron and Ginny. I'll be back, don't worry. I love you." He kissed her, then turned to join Remus and Mad-Eye. They spoke for a moment in hushed voices, then stepped outside the magical wards and disappeared.
Fleur felt her confusion turn to anger. 'Don't worry,' he said, then disappeared as if that made it all right. As if she could help but worry. It wasn't like she could do anything else, stuck here with the Weasley women, who were hardly much comfort to her. She hated being left behind like this, not knowing what was going on, not knowing when (or if) Bill would be coming back.
Fleur sat in the garden, watching as the order members disappeared. In a few minutes there was silence. She tried not to think about what might be happening to Bill and the others right now, but the more she tried not to think of it the more terrible ideas would come into her head. She finally forced herself to go inside and start making something for lunch. She took as much time and effort as she could, but when it was ready she couldn't bring herself to eat. Frustrated, she threw it away and went back outside.
Suddenly she heard Ginny's voice from inside.
"Mum! Mum, listen to the wireless!" Desperate for anything to distract her, Fleur made her way into the Weasley's sitting room, where Ginny and Ron were tuning the wizarding wireless. Mrs Weasley bustled in behind her.
"What's all this then?"
"Listen!" She turned up the volume.
" - all wizards to keep to their homes, and protect themselves with defensive charms if you have not already. Try not to travel, especially if you are near the Bristol region! We go now to our daring reporter on the ground, where ministry forces are valiantly battling You-know-who and his followers!"
"Thank you Reginald! I'm Cassius Cleburne, and I'm here on the outskirts of Bristol, where Ministry forces are arriving in response to what can only be described as the most destructive Death Eater attack yet. According to Ministry Aurors, the situation in the city is catastrophic; although we can't be sure, they suspect that the Death Eaters somehow unleashed giants in the city center! There is a lot of spell fire going on - the Death Eaters seem to be trying to keep the Aurors out of the center of the carnage. But more and more forces are arriving from the Ministry, and they are confident that they will have the situation contained soon!"
Mrs Weasley suddenly let out something between a gasp and a sob, and hurried out of the room. Fleur saw her down the hall holding the family clock - but as all the hands were already on 'mortal danger' she didn't see how that could help. Unless there was a hand position for 'dead'… She pushed the thought out of her mind. She wanted to leave, to get away from any news that might make her think of awful things happening to Bill, but with each new piece of news she found herself listening hungrily.
The rest of the day seemed about a hundred hours long. It passed in a haze of fear, sometimes gathered by the wireless, envisioning the carnage wreaked by Death Eaters and Giants, trying desperately not to imagine Bill being cursed or crushed; sometimes trying to fruitlessly distract herself by helping Mrs Weasley with house-work or gardening. Afternoon faded into evening. Mrs Weasley made dinner, but most of it went uneaten. It started to grow late, but no-one showed any signs of going to bed. The wireless still on, they hovered nervously around the sitting room, unable to sit still but unwilling to leave the only source of news. By midnight, Mrs Weasley had dozed off in a chair by the wireless. Apparently the violence was over, but there was still no clue as to the death toll or whereabouts of all the ministry Aurors. Muggle deaths were estimated to be in the hundreds at least. Fleur went up to Bill's room and curled up on his bed, burying her face in his pillow, wishing desperately but in vain to fall asleep and wake up in his arms.
Bill and Arthur staggered into the burrow about one o'clock in the morning. They were exhausted, covered in sweat, blood, dirt and grime. It had been the tactic as the Brockdale bridge, only worse; the Death Eaters wouldn't stand and fight for long, but kept the Aurors and Order members busy in many different locations while wreaking havoc on the muggles. At last they had disappeared, allowing the Ministry Wizards into the city center and the carnage that was left. The trail of destruction led out of the city away south. Those who had seen Voldemort's use of giants in the last war said this looked like the same sort of thing, but there was no-sign of the giant. Whether it had escaped with the Death Eaters, or was now wondering in the hills of somerset they could not be sure. Fortunately none of the Order had been killed or seriously injured; they could not say the same of the Ministry's aurors.
Molly stirred and opened her eyes as they came in.
"Oh thank heaven!" she cried, bursting into tears as she wrapped her arms around them. After assuring her that everyone in the order was alright, Arthur took her upstairs to their bedroom. Bill looked into Percy's old room, finding it empty. Fleur was curled up on his bed again, but not asleep - she looked up as he entered the room. For a moment she just stared at him wordlessly. Then she was practically on top of him. She ripped open his shirt not bothering with the buttons, her hands running over his chest and back, her nails digging into his skin. Her kisses were fierce, desperate, and her hips were grinding against his. Unprepared for such an assault, Bill took a step back and Fleur stumbled forward into his arms. He lifted her chin to look into her eyes, seeing the mingled desire and fear there. Suddenly she seemed to go limp, collapsing against him, tears streaming down her face.
"Je n'en peux… je ne peux pas supporter de ne pas savoir si tu reviendras."
Bill sat on the bed, holding her, knowing how hard it must be to sit by while he was in danger. At last she calmed down, wiping the tears off her cheeks.
"Que vais-je faire…what will I do, when you don't come back to me?"
Bill stroked her hair, kissed her, and hoped desperately that he could keep the promise he was about to make.
"I'll always come back to you."