Sorry about the comparatively poor standard of the last chapter; I'll try to do better this time around. Thanks to everyone who were nice enough to leave their reviews, words cannot express my gratitude :).
Shell Cottage's beach was hardly the definition of a sandy paradise, a far cry from the hot, sandy and positively angelic coastlines described in the clichés. The wind was often an icy breath, chilly rather than the refreshing, warm breezes that people generally associated with beaches. We were on the British coastline, meaning that we were about as likely to see sunshine as we were to see a Loch Ness monster bathing in the waters. The sand was pale and coarse, the water bone-chilling and boringly calm, the dunes too steep for comfortable sitting. That didn't mean that it wasn't a pretty scene, a treat for the eyes; indeed, I was grateful to wake up to the view every single morning.
Somehow, it was a particularly calming environment, the perfect place for deep reflection and refuge from other human beings; somehow, the beach wasn't a primary visitor hotspot, even in a relatively secluded and limited place, although calm and pretty, like Tinworth. Maybe the uncomfortable sensation of sand rising from the floor to maliciously slap me in the face provided motivation to put my mind on other things, maybe it was the sound of waves crashing onto the shore, cheekily creeping closer to my feet with every wave, but whatever the reason, I could think much more clearly down on the shore.
Harry Potter was alive. Quickly, I had decided that this was surely the truth. My eyes never deceived me, my brain never let me down; if I had seen him, which I had, it had been him. What was I to do? What was I to think? What was I to go back and tell the rest of the Weasleys? There were too many decisions, too much to contemplate. Even my mind, the intelligence that consistently had scored me more than one hundred percent on my Arithmancy exams, was struggling to cope; I pitied Ron's brazil nut of a brain, knowing that it would not be able to register all of this information when the time, inevitably, would come. Part of me was desperately appealing to the brave side of me that I had to go back in there and face him, stare him right in the face and come to terms with the fact that my best friend was, in fact, alive. He needed my help; the poor man looked thinner than he had done on the first day that I'd ever met him, back on the Express, and had a skin coloured a sickly pale. His posture had been limp and weak, the position of a man on the edge of giving up.
Maybe, however, that was the reason that I could not force myself back in there. How could I stroll back into that bedroom and look at him in such a state? It was my fault... my doing that he had suffered so much. If only I had gone with my instincts and stuck by him on that fateful evening at Hogwarts; I could have stopped him from going out to his greatest enemy. How was I going to stare him in the eyes as he lay there, perhaps even dying in front of me?
It was terrible, but part of me selfishly wished that he had not returned. I had been so close, agonisingly near, to putting him behind me, moving on and leaving him a sanctuary in only my heart, not my mind as well. Now he had come back into my life, my insecurities would only continue to rise and my guilt would rocket.
There was only one solution if I wanted to live a life without that perpetual guilt; I had to overcome my fears and face him. Alone. For all I knew, judging by how he'd looked back in that bedroom, it could have been my last chance.
There was no time to run after Hermione. The young man on the double bed needed urgent attention; his pulse was a slow, funeral beat and his sickly skin was paler than bone. It would, of course, have been easier if he had let me take him to the Burrow. Mrs Weasley undoubtedly had more medical experience than me, as well as more contacts and now I found myself in the unfamiliar position of potentially having another person's life in my hands. From what I heard, this had been something that the very man in front of me had dealt with several times over his short life so far, and I couldn't help but marvel at how he had coped. The pressure was such a burden on my shoulders already.
Slowly, I peeled the ragged remains of the shirt that Harry wore from his torso, grimacing at the thin layer of sweat which stuck to the thin fabric. There had been a very good reason that I hadn't gone into medical sciences... a number of good reasons in fact.
His chest bore a network of angry looking scars, a testament to the violent life that he had been forced to live. Each one seemed to tell its own little story, a sickening tale of the hardships that this undeserving hero had suffered through. I didn't know what to think. The scars were all healed up, sealed and not bleeding or looking infected, yet there were just so many of them that it was difficult to imagine him not being in pain. A square inch of unblemished skin was a relief, a rarity on his slashed and cut body surface. How was I to know whether they were affecting him or not?
"Where does it 'urt, 'Arry?" I asked stupidly; it probably hurt everywhere!
Harry, who was in some sort of transitional state between unconsciousness and consciousness, let out a short grunt and in a movement which looked like it took a great deal of effort, waved his hand as if to gesture across his body.
Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I knew that I did have a good proficiency for healing spells. They came easily to me, and I found it relatively easy to wave my wand and seal up and disinfect normal wounds. But what I could do in this situation left me with only blanks; the wounds had already been closed up, but they seemed to still hurt and affect him. These were cursed slashes, caused by dark magic that I had always done my bets to avoid and unfortunately, I had to admit that they were way out of my league.
The cuts were only the first problem. There was also his scary lack of muscle and fat, both having wasted away in what must have been long, tedious and excruciatingly painful hours in captivity. His eyes were unfocused and empty, a certain spark of animation seeming to be missing. The mental problems that he was surely suffering from, well... I wouldn't even know where to start with those. He looked to me, as much as I hated to admit it, a lost cause; there was no evidence that he was trying to stay alive and healthy, as it death was not something that bothered him at all. That was definitely not the right state of mind to be in.
"'Arry. I 'ave no choice, I will 'ave to take you to zhe Burrow. Mrs Weasley is more, uh, qualified to 'elp you zhan me." I told him apologetically, internally cursing myself for ever bringing him back to the cottage in the first place. Such a waste of time could prove costly.
"Wait. I'll have a look at him."
Hermione had returned to conquer her fears; never had I been quite so relieved to hear the young witch's voice. With our combined intellects, we could just manage to turn this uphill battle in our favour. With time against us, however, I had to convey all of this information to the younger woman with just a flashing smile.
"Come and 'ave a look." I beckoned her over, gesturing to the crimson slashes over his chest. To her credit, Hermione did not blanch or wretch as she could have done; she was a battle hardened witch.
Shyly, she gently fingered one of the worst scars. "These wounds reek of dark magic."
"Yes, I agree zhat zhey are cursed. I think zhat zhey 'ave been closed up but zhey still 'urt, if you know what I mean?" I confirmed her fears.
She replied, "What would be the point of that, though? Why wouldn't a torturer just leave them to bleed if the pain would be the same? It just doesn't seem logical... unless..."
Clearly, she had just enjoyed a light bulb moment, the brilliant chemistry of two and two coming together. I, however, was left in the dark. Was there something that she knew that I didn't?
Seeing my blank expression, she spoke a little condescendingly, as if speaking to a child. "The torturer wanted to keep him alive!"
"Yes, I figured zhat out, but why would zhey do zhat? We know zhat You-Know-Who is arrogant, but 'e would have wanted to finish zhis once and for all, would he not?"
Hermione's face showed a conflict; she obviously knew the answer and wanted to show that off, but something was restraining her from saying what it was.
"Not," she told me as vaguely as possible, thus proving that she had the answer whilst still staying secretive, "if he needed Harry for something."
Not wanting to beg for Hermione to reveal her secrets, I did not press her and we continued our work in silence. Rolling the now unconscious Harry onto his back, I was relieved to see an expanse of mostly unaffected skin; at least he wasn't totally covered in scars.
Suddenly, Hermione exploded. "Well? Aren't you going to ask me about what You-Know-Who might have needed him for?"
"It know already." I said, purely to annoy her.
She glared at me sceptically. "Do you now? Why do you think that he needed Harry?"
"Umm... because... 'Arry being alive makes 'im stronger, in a way." I improvised.
Judging by the surprised expression on her face, I had obviously come pretty close. We went back to work but despite by clever ploy, still I hadn't managed to wheedle any information from her; whatever this was, it was obviously a massive secret.
Staring into the barren abyss of his eyes, I knew that our problem was just as much a psychological one as a physical one; it was clear that however brilliant our combined intellects were, we just didn't have the specialised knowledge needed to cure Harry.
"I think zhat we will 'ave to inform zhe Order now." I told Hermione, "'e did not want to go to zhem for some reason but I do not see any ozzer option."
Hermione looked at me, then at Harry, and then back at me again. "If he did not want to see them, then it would probably be wise to respect his wishes. I doubt that he didn't have a reason for saying so. If you have an owl then I can get a message to the healer at Hogwarts, Madam Pomfrey; she knows her stuff."
"You realise zhat we will 'ave to tell zhem eventually, you know." I said slowly. "We cannot keep zhis a secret."
"Of course." Hermione agreed. "We'll tell them when the time is right and when Harry is ready; he is more likely to get better if we respect his wishes."
And so, after agreeing that Harry should have the final say in when he wanted to reunite with the rest of his old friends, the younger witch went to find Henri, my beautiful grey owl. A more graceful creature would not be found in the entire of Europe; Henri had been a gift, and an expensive one, for my seventeenth birthday. Yes, perhaps I had been a little spoilt as a child.
Sitting down on the bed, I gazed at the young chosen one's face. "What are you and 'Ermione 'iding, I wonder?"
My Lord's normally calm demeanour slowly changed and his face contorted in an all - consuming anger; thin nostrils flaring, his snake eyes flashed and closed into slits, his mouth quivering, he looked like a volcano ready to erupt. We had failed him, betrayed his trust; the deepest shame ached deep within my body. I would take on the Order one-by-one to get his pet back if that was what it would take for him to forgive me.
His hands clenched into fists and he crouched forward in the cell, daring any of us to reiterate once more the words that had torn him from his usual calmness. Beside me, the other remaining Death Eaters looked at each other nervously; nobody wanted to get in the way of one of his rages, all of them remembering the aftermath of the Gringotts incident. The cowards. I would take whatever punishment my Lord threw at me because I deserved it. I had let him down.
"They took us by surprise, my Lord." Lucius tried to explain. "The wards-"
Interrupting the stuttering coward, my Lord let go with a furious spell. It hit him like a right uppercut to the head and sent him flying from one side of the room to the other at what seemed like the speed of light. His body made contact with the opposite wall and he slid to the floor like a sack of potatoes. The powerful incantation had been cast without a single word nor a flourish of his wand; we were quickly reminded of his power. Nobody whispered a word.
In the silence, he turned back to stare at the emptiness of the dark cell. The dead and captured Death Eaters were obviously of secondary importance to the fact that the Potter boy had gone; they were replaceable, after all. When he turned around, his composure had reattained its staple equanimity and I knew that his great, brilliant, calculating mind had formulated a plan. Hopefully, it involved the Potter boy's blood; he would pay for making us look like fools.
"I am correct in thinking that you captured an auror, am I not, Bellatrix?" He asked me, already knowing the answer.
I stepped forwards and bowed down, relishing any opportunity to redeem myself in his eyes. "Yes, my Lord. Hestia Jones. She was alone on guard duty."
My Lord smiled with a delicious maliciousness. "Good. Bring her to me; she will tell us where the boy can be found."
I smiled; retribution had begun..
The burden of guilt was heavy on my shoulders. Hestia was gone, captured by the enemy which we had been supposed to fight against by her side. Only her wand, snapped unceremoniously in two, had remained where we had left her. If only I hadn't followed the two prettier women down into those dungeons, a mission which I didn't even know the outcome of yet. If only I had stayed and fought with her, listened to the orders which I had been expressly given. I had followed by lust rather than my head and as a result of my actions, a young, pretty, promising young auror was now another casualty of this terrible war, or even worse a prisoner of those evil souls. It was a sorry situation, I knew, to be having to hope that she was dead rather than a prisoner; the horrors that could be inflicted upon her in that ugly black castle were unimaginable to a person like me.
With a bowed head, I trudged up the drive to the Burrow. No matter what news I heard upon entering that room, nothing would make me feel better.
Pushing open the door, immediately I was hit with the force of a charging elephant. A sobbing elephant. Mentally, I made a note to stop comparing my mother to an elephant.
"What took you so long?" Mum asked, rather sternly for someone who was sobbing floods. "We thought that something had happened, you naughty boy!"
I ignored her question. "Hestia's been captured."
Silence settled uncomfortably over the room and my hopes for the young woman to step out and laugh "I'm not dead!" quickly dissipated.
"I suppose that it was too much to hope for that we could go through an entire night without a single loss." Dad said grimly, bowing his head in respect. "She died for a good cause and history will remember her for it, as Kingsley said."
I glared at him. "I said that she's been captured, not killed."
Dad nodded but didn't speak; it was clear that he feared the worst.
Looking around the room, I noticed the absence of my wife. "Where's Fleur?"
My family looked at each other, each of them shrugging their shoulders in turn as they sat in the warmth of our sitting room's permanently blazing fire. Blank face after blank face, I wondered if they had even noticed her absence.
"How could you not notice that she's not here!" I exclaimed.
George raised his arms defensively, sitting with Angelina's arm around him. "We never see her, mate! I mean, when does she ever come to the Order meetings? We just kind of go with it by now."
"I'm sure she's fine!" Mum reassured me with a surprising lack of concern for the person who was supposed to be her daughter-in-law. "Come and sit down, tell us about what happened that you got back so late."
Though my mother's apparent lack of affection for my wife shocked me, I simply did not have the energy to argue with her about it and I followed her to the comforting fire, sinking down into one of the battered armchairs with an almighty sigh. George was right; Fleur didn't like to spend time with them and it was therefore hardly inconceivable that she would head back to the cottage.
"Where's Ron?" I asked, for the first time noticing that he wasn't there. "And Hermione?"
"Ron was injured, Hermione went off looking for you." Percy replied a little snidely from the corner, as if berating me for making the young woman search.
George snorted. "Injured? The idiot only got hit by a stunner, nothing more. He'll blow it outta proportion of course."
I found myself laughing at my brother's humorous lack of sympathy for Ron; he hadn't made a whole lot of jokes since Fred had died, the previously eternal humour in his life subdued by the death of somebody closer to him than I could even comprehend, and this made hearing the occasional one all the more funny.
"George!" Mum berated him, making the situation only more comical, "Show a little more sympathy for your brother! It could have been very serious."
"What?" George protested, "I'm just saying, you don't see anyone else pass out for an hour after being hit by a mediocre stunner. And he will come down and hail himself as a war hero, don't even try to deny it."
Hestia, Fleur, Hermione, Voldemort; all were forgotten as we enjoyed the evening by the hearth.
Struggled a little with this chapter because not only did I have no ideas, I also had no time. A few of you will notice that you didn't get replies to your reviews and for that I am eternally apologetic. I have always maintained my desire to reply to every single one of your reviews as a way of showing my gratitude for the time that you invest in this story but unfortunately, it just wasn't possible this time around. I always do my best to do as many as possible but this time, I had to miss out a few because it was a basic choice between spending my free time on the actual chapter or on the reviews, and I figured that the former would be appropriate. So yeah, sorry. Those of you who didn't get a reply, it was nothing personal and it definitely doesn't mean that I am any less grateful for your time and efforts. Thank you so much for all of that.
I hope that you enjoyed this chapter, not a great deal happened but I feel that I covered a few important points.
Thank you so much for reading this, words cannot describe how much it means to me.