The idle conversations had cycled for what seemed to Ron like weeks, though it really must have only been a few days. Resolutions were far and few between, always edging away from being settled the moment the discussion neared closure. It seemed that the occupants of Shell Cottage were divided in two: Half of the assembled group wanted to charge right back into action, and half preferred to test the waters and regain their own footing first. And it seemed that neither party could reach an agreement on which way was the best to proceed.
How many days had it been since the battle? Ron wasn’t completely sure – the ensuing days were hard to count, and his brain was still a bit thick and hazy, as though some of the smoke of war still clung to the inside corners of his mind. And he had dreamed of the fire and smoke so often, too, reliving it in his sleeping hours, seeing Hermione’s terrified face one final time. He couldn’t be positive when the real event had occurred versus when he had woken up from it anew.
But it’s not the final time, he told himself sternly. He was sitting in a corner of Bill and Fleur’s sitting room, having at last managed to commandeer a chair for himself; standing room alone was hard to come by with so many people, much less unoccupied seats. There were no dim corners to be had in a home constantly filled with sand and sunshine, but he tried hard to find one; that was the atmosphere that best suited his mood. Professor Slughorn had made a brief appearance, staring out the window for some time, but eventually even he had turned to leave Ron to his own thoughts. Most everyone else was clustered into the dining room now anyway, listening to Ron’s dad and Kingsley talk in dizzying spirals again. Just now, Ron didn’t quite feel up to it.
There wasn’t any question as to which side of the argument Ron himself was on, of course. The sooner he could get back into the castle and start looking for Hermione, the sooner he knew he would feel like himself again.
It was strange; he wasn’t prone to sentimental feelings, and yet found himself thinking with increasing frequency that something very vital had been taken from him when Hermione was taken, as though a bit of him had stayed along with her there in Hogwarts. Since his first year at Hogwarts, he had never been away from her for more than, what, a few months? He hadn’t imagined she’d ever leave him; in a way, he had always known that, someday down the road, he would have asked her to be with him forever, because he couldn’t imagine how he’d ever got through life without her before.
Ron had always scoffed at the ideas his mum had spun with her bedtime stories, of the princes who’d had their hearts stolen away by their true loves, but he knew now what it was like. Part of him was missing; he would never get it back unless Hermione was with him, and she would always keep it with her. That was what love was.
He sucked in a deep breath and scrunched his fingers into his eyes, small lights popping into the darkness behind his eyelids, swallowing thickly against the lump that had cropped up in his throat in the midst of his sulking. This wasn’t doing her any good. Ron would know if something was terribly wrong; the part of him that rested within Hermione would have let him know it. Right now, he had to focus his energies on making sure things didn’t get worse until he found her.
There was a sound from the doorway leading into the small corridor that ran the length of the cottage. Ron lifted his head from his hands; George was standing there, both arms braced on the door frame, a funny expression twisting his face. “What?” Ron said dully, sitting back and letting his head fall against the chair.
There was a pause, and for a second, Ron had the idle thought that George might leave. He’d been very quiet since the battle, although he couldn’t be blamed for it. Nevertheless, it was unnerving; Fred and George had never been ones to keep silent, and even now, Ron might have at least expected a half-attempt at mischief. But his older brother only said, “You’re wanted in the other room.” He hitched a thumb behind him, in the direction of the dining room.
Ron’s stomach twisted slightly. “D’you know - ?” he started, but George cut him off with a terse shake of his head. Pressing his lips tightly together, Ron rose from the chair and padded silently after his brother in the direction of the dining room.
The first thing that he registered upon entering the room – and this, he felt, would be the most surprising part of whatever meeting he’d just been summoned into – was that Malfoy was sitting in a chair near the end of the table. He was wearing a poorly-concealed expression of disgust on his stupid pointed face, his hands convulsively clenching and unclenching his forearms uncomfortably. The veins were sticking out harshly under his pale skin, thin and blue and spidery. It couldn’t have been clearer that there were a thousand places Malfoy would like to be, and Shell Cottage was far from making that list.
“Sit down, Ron.” Ron shifted his gaze to look at his father, who was sitting across from Malfoy. To Arthur’s left was Percy, who was toying with his sleeve, and on the right was Bill, whose fingers had strayed to tapping the dangling fang on his earring. Fleur, Seamus Finnigan, Professor McGonagall, and Professor Slughorn had also taken places around the table, as well as George, who had evidently resumed the chair he’d left to fetch his younger brother. Ron slowly took the empty seat a couple of spots away from Malfoy, whose face had changed to indicate he smelled something rotten.
“What’s the matter, Dad?”
Mr. Weasley turned to look at Ron’s old Transfiguration professor; the woman gave a curt nod, pressing her lips into a thin line. “It would seem,” she said coldly, jerking her head in Malfoy’s direction, “that some useful information has come to light regarding the side Mr. Malfoy – ah – chose to abandon.”
Ron smirked; Malfoy looked very much as though he wanted to hit McGonagall. “What he has told us,” she continued on crisply, “is that the Death Eaters are planning, as far as we currently know, to extend their newfound ideas of power to regions outside the castle.” Ron must have looked rather blank at this statement, because she gave a sort of clucking noise and added, “They are looking to push into London.”
“To London?” said Ron stupidly. “What are they supposed to be doing in London?”
“The exact same stuff they’ve been doing elsewhere,” Bill spoke up bitterly. “Torturing Muggles like it’s a sport, making everybody dead terrified. The problem is that now there’s a heck of a lot less of us to stop them, especially since they’ve turned more and more of the Ministry into little better than serfs.”
“So what we’ve decided,” Arthur continued, leaning back in his chair and adjusting his glasses upon his nose, “is to head into London and see if we can pick up a bit more information. As quietly as we can, of course.” His eyes flicked to Draco.
A small bubble of hope welled within the center of Ron’s ribs. “Like a mission?” he said quickly. Bill and Percy nodded at the same time. “But that’s brilliant! That’s doing something, isn’t it? I want to go – I’ve –“
“We knew you’d want to go,” George interjected, and for the first time in almost a week, he smiled in a gesture that contained minute traces of his former self. That, Ron thought, was almost better than the announcement of a plan, however remote.
“You’ll be going with me,” said Arthur, “and Seamus, and Minerva.” Seamus gave Ron a thumbs-up gesture from down the table. “In a few days, mind, once we’ve had a bit more time to prepare. I know it’s not the plan you wanted…” Ron felt a bit guilty as Fleur looked at him sympathetically, and he wished she wouldn’t.
“You do realize that this is all a big waste of time, don’t you?” Ron turned his head so fast his neck cracked; Malfoy was still bent over his arms, staring down at the table, his mouth twisted sourly. “It’s not actually going to do anything.”
“If you’re going to be as big of a prat as you always are,” Ron said loudly, “then you can shut it, Malfoy.” Malfoy glared at him sideways, but said nothing further, picking at the skin near his elbow.
“Well, he’s right.” The entire room turned as one to look in the far corner; in surveying those assembled around the table, Ron had somehow completely missed the fact that his mother had been standing in the room the entire time. Her lips were pursed in a characteristic expression of displeasure, her arms folded tightly across her chest.
“You’ve no idea what you’re getting into, the lot of you,” she said heatedly, though she somehow managed to keep her tone even while she spoke – a feat Molly Weasley had always been accomplished at, though Ron had never heard anybody else able to do it. “There’s no guarantee you won’t all be murdered as soon as you set foot on the street.”
“Of course there’s no guarantee,” Arthur said evenly, his chair scratching a bit on the wooden floor as he turned it to look at his wife. “We’ll take precautions, of course. Molly, this is just something to keep us occupied, you understand –“
“No, I do not!” she snapped. “If you’re going to idle away the time by risking your lives, then I’ll give you something more worthwhile to do.”
“But even sitting here’s a risk!” Ron had risen angrily to his feet. “It’s not like they wouldn’t come and kill us all right now if they could, is it? We’ll be safe, Mum –“
“Safe!” Mrs. Weasley interrupted, half-laughing despite the fact that there was really nothing very funny about the present situation. “You could be killed, cursed, jinxed –“
“Molly.” To Ron’s mild surprise, it was Professor McGonagall who spoke this time. She had risen from her chair, her hands clasped in front of her, her brows low over her eyes in a stern expression. “If I may talk to you in the kitchen for a moment, please.” It was not a request, but an order, and Ron’s mother seemed to have enough tact to recognize that fact. Still looking unhappy, but with lines of resignation creasing the corners of her mouth, she allowed the older woman to lead her out of the room. After a brief pause, Fleur, encouraged by a nod from her husband, rose and followed.
Mr. Weasley gave a great sigh as soon as his wife had left, taking time to carefully rub his eyes over the top of his spectacles in a wearying fashion. Percy continued to fiddle with his sleeves; of all the Weasleys, he had been the only one to remain silent during the exchange. Ron idly wondered if perhaps he would have liked to head into London, too, but something stopped him from voicing it aloud. Instead he looked again at Malfoy, who looked, as weird as it was to think it, very much as Mrs. Weasley had moments ago.
“So, when are we starting, then?” Seamus spoke into the silence, with the air of one trying to clear away something awkwardly unpleasant. Bill glanced over at him and grinned a bit.
“Couple of days or so.” His eyes switched over to Ron. “That’s okay?”
Ron nodded, balling his hands into fists in his lap without even being aware of the gesture. “Excellent.”
A/N: So, I think first on the agenda in this author's note is that I owe all of you a massive thank-you, and perhaps a round of applause or two. Thank you so much for getting this story into the voting rounds of both the Best Novella & Short Story and Best Action/Adventure categories for the Dobby Awards! That's seriously so incredible; six chapters in, one hundred and twenty-three reviews, and I'm still blown away. You all are fantastic!
And now the plot is - hopefully - picking up a bit more pace, and all that. Rest assured, a little ragtag band of Order members will indeed be making its way into London in chapter nine (which I finished last week!). And with this chapter... I do believe we're nearly halfway done! I've got fifteen chapters outlined, and I don't see it changing anytime soon, so there you have it. But anyway. Thank you so much for reading, and if you've got the time, reviews are very much appreciated!