Hermione slid uneasily through the grate of Fred and George’s joke shop, throwing out her arms to balance herself. Ron was already brushing off his jumper and jeans as the twins appeared from a back room, arms loaded with strangely shaped items.
“Here, Ron,” said George. “Take these and put them into your bag.”
Ron looked dubiously at his brother. “Those won’t all fit, you’ll have to find another bag.”
Fred rolled his eyes and asked, “Are you a wizard or not?” and produced his wand, muttering an expansion charm over the bag. He dumped his load into it, followed by George. “Now you two wait here while we get...” they paused and looked at each other seriously, finishing together, “...the bomb.”
Looking for a place to sit, Hermione walked over to the counter and pulled herself onto it. The dimly lit shop was filled with hundreds of jokes and pranks, in sections marked with titles like Treats, Transfiguration, and Explosives. “You’ve got to hand it to them,” she said. “They’ve really come a long way since they left school.”
“Yeah, they’re something alright,” Ron said sardonically. “I’m just glad they’re on our side.”
She smiled and patted the space next to her. He hopped up and put an arm around her. Leaning into his shoulder, she sighed and let her guard down for the first time since the attack began. “Thanks for taking care of me, Ron.”
“N-No problem,” he said haltingly. His hand was making awkward circles on her back and the grin on her face grew larger. He turned to face her and said, “I don’t think you should come with us, Hermione.”
“What?” she asked, barely stifling her anger. “Of course I’m coming with you!”
Ron looked at her sheepishly, but said, “I just don’t want you to get hurt. You should floo back to the Burrow and wait with Mum.”
“I will do no such thing, Ron!” Hermione pulled herself away from him and folded her arms across her chest. “You can’t lock me in a closet and keep me from helping Harry and Ginny!”
She expected him to lash back at her, but instead his eyes softened and he brought his arm around her back, pulling her close again. “I guess you’re right,” he said with a sigh as he continued to rub the small of her back. “I’m sorry.”
Hermione leaned into him with another small grin and said, “Just don’t try to protect me so much. I’m not fragile.”
“Maybe so,” he said, but Hermione could tell that he wasn’t entirely convinced. “Do you think they’ll be all right, Hermione?”
Her smile faltered and she said with a sigh, “Harry’ll take care of Ginny. As thick as he is...”
Ron’s hand stopped moving and he turned to look at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well,” she said trying not to talk down to him. “She’s terribly smitten with him and he’s starting to feel the same way.”
The blank look on his face gave way to restrained laughter. “You mean Harry fancies Ginny?”
“Who fancies Ginny?” asked Fred as he walked into the shop from the back.
“Harry!” said Ron, still laughing.
“It’s not funny, Ron.” Hermione was getting more aggravated by the second. “He and your sister have been captured by Death Eaters and all you can think to do is laugh at his attraction to her?”
He sobered a little and said, “Well, I guess it isn’t that funny.”
“Yes it is,” said Fred with a wicked gleam in his eye. “Just think of all the teasing we’ll get in at their expense.”
“You better not, Fred,” said Hermione sternly. “He’s thick enough to push Ginny away if you point it out to him.” Then with a glance at Ron, she added, “Sometimes you just have to let nature take its course.”
“Nature had better not ‘take its course’,” said Ron firmly. “Or Harry’ll have quite a lot to answer for.”
Hermione whacked Ron in the arm. “They’re not stupid, Ron.”
“I should think not,” said George who had now joined his brother. “Or mum will give them an in-person howler.”
Ron shuddered next to her and Hermione said, “I know that none of you think that poorly of your sister and Harry.”
They all exchanged looks and shook their heads Before Hermione added, “Good, then let’s forget about it and hope that they’ve at least snogged each other once before they meet some terrible fate.”
“That’s our Hermione,” said Fred, draping a hand over her shoulder, which Ron promptly pushed away.
“Always thinking positively,” chimed in George from her other side, earning a shove from Ron as well.
Two loud cracks reverberated off the store’s rafters, announcing the arrival of Bill, and Charlie. They didn’t hear the sound of Dumbledore’s entrance at all.
The Headmaster walked quickly to where Hermione and Ron were still seated on the counter. “Has your father arrived?”
“Not yet, Professor,” said Ron with a squeeze to Hermione’s middle.
“Very well,” he said turning to Fred and George. “I trust you’ve retrieved the prototypes?”
They nodded their heads and each removed a small package from their pocket.
“Excellent. Hopefully we won’t have to use them, but it’s best to be prepared.”
Another crack sounded and Arthur Weasley appeared, and then limped awkwardly to where they were all gathered. “Ah,” said Dumbledore. “What news from the Ministry?”
“They were taken with an unauthorized Portkey at 7:58pm to a spot just north of Taunton,” he reported.
“Excellent,” said Dumbledore as he checked his watch. “That gives them about an hour’s head start. We’d better get moving then.”
“Here are the exact coordinates, Albus,” said Ron’s father, handing him a slip of parchment.
The elderly wizard took the paper and with a flick of his wand, muttered “Portus.” It glowed in his hand briefly before returning to normal and he held it out for everyone to touch.
They all gathered around his extended hand and put a finger on the paper. Dumbledore counted off, “Three...two...one.” A tugging sensation pulled at Hermione’s navel and they were whisked away.
After arriving in the clearing, they immediately found Harry and Ginny’s trail. One of the benefits of being a curse-breaker, Hermione discovered, was that it made it easy to track people’s magical signature. They followed the trail until something broke Bill’s tracking spell. He cast it again, but the misty blue light from his wand floated away as soon as the incantation left his lips.
“Bugger!” he exclaimed. No one bothered to correct him. “There’s some kind of charm canceling their signature.”
“No doubt,” intoned Dumbledore who was taking up the rear. “Their captors are as well trained in the art of concealing their trail as you are in following it.”
“Just great,” muttered Ron.
“We know they’re here and traveled in this direction for the past thirty minutes,” offered Arthur. “So we just need to spread out a bit and comb the area. They can’t be too far off if they’re traveling by foot.”
In unspoken agreement, Ron and Hermione followed Bill, while Charlie and Arthur followed Dumbledore. The twins had been hanging back the entire time and continued to follow, sticking to the middle of the two groups.
After about fifteen minutes, Ron stopped and shook his head. “This isn’t right,” he said.
“What isn’t right?” asked Bill beside them.
Ron face was twisted in thought and he started to shake his head at odd intervals. Bill was about to give up and turn around, when Ron said, “They’re drawing us into an attack.”
“How do you know that?” asked his brother impatiently.
“Well,” said Ron tapping his chin with a finger. “They’ve let us follow their trail for half-an-hour, then cut it off.” He walked up the trail for a while and knelt down, squinting at the dirt in the dim moonlight. “And their tracks have been erased,” he motioned for them to come closer. “See how the dirt’s been moved recently. Like they’re trying to cover something up.”
“Excellent deduction, Mr. Weasley,” said Dumbledore as he approached from the side. “However, we have little choice but to continue if we are to find your friend and sister.”
Hermione came up behind him as Ron straightened up, grabbing his hand both for her own comfort as much as his. He nodded and they continued walking for a few more minutes, keeping their eyes equally focused on the trail and the surrounding bushes and rocks. The sound of a snapping branch came from their left.
Ron lit his wand and earned a sharp reprimand from Bill. “Turn that thing off!” he whispered harshly. Ron quickly extinguished the light. “You could have given away our position!”
It was clear that Bill was going to continue to lay into him, but he was cutoff by a blinding red flash that ripped the air between them, singeing their eyebrows. They instantly dropped to the ground and crawled behind a small group of rocks. More spells could be heard sizzling in the cool night air, bouncing off stone and wood, some inevitably connecting with their targets.
Dumbledore’s distinctive voice could be heard nearby, “You were never particularly adept at Defense Against the Dark Arts, Mr. Mulciber.” A few spells were heard and a scream before the man fell. “It’s no wonder then, that you make a poor Death Eater.”
Bill set up a complicated shield charm over their location and said, “Stay here and don’t use your wands unless you have to.” Then he ran over to where his father and brother were dueling four Death Eaters. Their duel was fascinating to watch and Hermione found herself analyzing their technique.
Dumbledore, however, was amazing. He was fighting half of the attacking force at once: Apparating around the battlefield, stunning or otherwise incapacitating his foes with precision and grace.
The twins stood back and seemed to be waiting for some kind of signal from Dumbledore. Every now and again, they would deflect a stray curse, but kept themselves out of the main battle.
Soon, there were twelve bodies lying in a row in front of them, all bound, gagged and stunned.
Not being conscious at the time of he and Voldemort’s duel at the Ministry last June, Hermione was in awe of the power her Headmaster held and found her respect for the old man deepen, if that were possible. “No wonder Voldemort fears him,” she said under her breath.
“Look at this one,” said Charlie, who had been inspecting their prisoners. “He’s got an old wound,” he jabbed into the man’s pockets with his wand. “And what looks like a Portkey.”
“That’s him,” said Hermione. “From the Burrow. It’s the one who took Harry and Ginny.”
“Are you sure, Hermione?” asked Arthur. “I didn’t see him very well myself.”
“Ron and I were right there when he took that old shoe out,” she said confidently. “I’m sure.”
“Well,” said Dumbledore, who had surveyed the scene over their shoulders. “It appears that Harry and Ginny have escaped and are on their own.” He turned to Bill and Charlie and said, “Go back to headquarters and see if anyone else has arrived. We’ll need some more people to continue the search.”
They immediately Disapparated and Dumbledore turned to Ron’s dad. “It is becoming more and more crucial that we find them, Arthur, but I fear that we will have to delay an hour or two while we work out a better rescue plan.”
“Is there nothing that can be done?” asked Arthur.
He pulled his watch from his pocket and after looking at it for a second, said, “I’m afraid not. Their magical signature has been masked, either by the Death Eaters, or,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Perhaps Mr. Potter has unintentionally masked Ginny and himself to prevent their pursuers from finding them.”
“Can he do that?” asked Hermione before she could stop herself. “I mean, that’s not even covered at Hogwarts.”
“Correct, Miss Granger. However, Harry is very keen on picking things up and has been in the company of Aurors and Order members since last year. Besides,” he said twisting the tip of his beard thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t put it past him to have done it entirely without knowing that he was capable of it.”
Another second passed and he turned back to Arthur. “Take your family and Hermione home and get some rest. We’ll send other Order members to continue the search.”
“I trust Harry implicitly, Albus,” he said with a sigh, limping over to the Headmaster. “You know that. It’s just terribly difficult to leave her out here with Death Eaters on the loose.”
“I’m fairly confident that they are in no danger tonight, Arthur.” The look in the Professor’s face told them all just how deeply he believed it.
With a nod, Arthur relented. Dumbledore changed the Portkey they had used to travel to the clearing and with another whoosh, Ron and Hermione were taken back to the Burrow.
Waiting around and doing nothing proved to be the single most aggravating part of their entire involvement in the attack. Hermione was at her wits end, with only tidbits of information arriving with various Order members to keep her going. Tonks and Lupin arrived immediately after they had returned from the search and went with Arthur back to the Ministry to check for under-age magic use in the area. The twins went with Bill and Charlie back to the shop to pickup another prototype and then back to the trail where they had battled with the Death Eaters. Mrs. Weasley alternated between baking and cleaning, not seeming to know which was more important.
Just as Hermione was reading in a book on Magical Transportation about how to make her own Portkey, Arthur appeared in the living room where Ron and Hermione were seated, a piece of parchment waving in his hands. “Hestia’s found them!” he announced.
Mrs. Weasley came bustling through the door. “Are they safe? Where are they? Who has them?”
“Calm down, Molly,” he soothed. “We don’t have them yet, but Hestia’s sure that she detected a Confundus Charm around a stand of pine trees.” He held up the parchment triumphantly. “And ol’ Hopkirk’s finally come through for us for a change. A wandless Confundus Charm was cast in that area just an hour ago.”
“How do they know it was Harry or Ginny?” asked Mrs. Weasley, clearly still unsettled.
Two sets of popping noises could be heard in the kitchen. “We don’t know for sure, but the signature was blocked, so she couldn’t send off a proper letter; it was sitting in a stack on her desk, of all things.”
“I don’t follow, Arthur,” she said as Bill, Charlie and the twins came into the room.
“We heard you’d located them,” said Fred. “When do we leave?”
“Just a minute boys,” he said, gesticulating with his hands. “We’ve got to wait for Dumbledore first and your mother needs to know what’s happening.” They each looked around at the empty seats, but seemed too antsy to sit. “Now, Molly,” he continued. “Harry’s seemed to figure out how to block his magical signature and so we don’t know who cast the spell, or who’s in the pine trees. What we do know, is that there are more Death Eaters in the area looking for them as well.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from Hermione and Mrs. Weasley. Bill and Charlie looked like they wanted to feed someone to a dragon. “So we’ve got to be extra careful before we get caught in another trap.”
“Oh, we’ve got just the thing for that, dad,” said George proudly, extracting a long, thin, two pronged cylinder from his cloak, resembling two fat wands jammed together at the end.
“Dark Detecting Diviner,” explained Fred at the quizzical glances he was getting. “Just like the real thing, except this baby will fire an illuminating charm at the witch or wizard if they’ve done a dark spell in the past two days.”
“We tried to increase the time, but the signature becomes too weak after that,” added George. “And you have to be closer than a hundred yards for it to fire properly.”
“That will come in quite handy, George,” said a voice directly behind Hermione. She jumped a foot into the air and clutched her chest to still her rapidly beating heart.
“Professor Dumbledore,” said Ron, breathing heavily. “When did you get here?”
“I only just arrived, Mr. Weasley.” Then gesturing to the twins, said, “I believe a field test would be in order.”
“Right,” the twins chimed.
Again they touched the now worn slip of parchment in Dumbledore’s hand and were carried away to the trail.
The Dark Detecting Diviner didn’t lock onto any dark magical signatures when they first arrived, but George kept it out and ready while they walked toward their rendezvous with Hestia. Bill and Charlie were hanging close to Ron and Hermione, while Dumbledore and Arthur lead the way with the twins. They walked for ten minutes before they came over a slight hill that opened up to a valley. The eastern horizon was lightening with the impending dawn and Hermione had to concentrate to keep from tripping on the loose rocks on the path.
“Oi,” said George ahead of them. “I’m picking up something here.”
The adults gathered around him and he said, “It’s getting stronger.”
Following George, they trudged up a light slope until it peaked. What they saw caused several of them to gasp. “Look how many of them there are,” said Fred, eyes goggling at the sight before them.
Hermione made it up the slope last and peered from behind a tall tree. She too, gasped. Down the other side of the hill they’d just climbed were hundreds of black cloaked figures in various states of sleep, and what seemed to be several....
“Trolls?” asked Bill incredulously.
“I’m afraid so,” said Dumbledore and then grabbing Fred and George on the shoulder, gave them a significant look. They gulped audibly and nodded, a look of fear etched on their faces.
“We’ve got to distract them and send someone to get Harry and Ginny back to Hogwarts,” said Arthur who immediately turned to Dumbledore and began whispering fiercely with him. After a moment and several nods and shaken heads, they turned back to the group.
“Miss Granger and Mr. Weasley will meet up with Hestia and try to get Mr. Potter and Miss Weasley back to safety.” The headmaster produced a Muggle fountain pen and handed it to Ron. “This Portkey will take you to the Hogwarts Hospital Wing. Activate it when you’ve found them by saying the name of your Transfiguration professor.”
Ron nodded solemnly and took the pen, placing it in the pocket of his jeans.
“Fred, George,” said their father. “Take these two as far as you can and try to circle around their camp. We need you to take out as many of them as you can.” He clapped them each on the shoulder. “We’ll attack as soon as you set it off.”
“Right,” responded Fred.
“Let’s go, you two,” said George, who was still brandishing his Dark Diviner.
They followed the twins back down the small hill and marked its base as it wound around to the north. Ron was holding Hermione closely as they walked, his bag hanging loosely from his other shoulder. As they entered a small glade, the Diviner jerked George’s hands and nearly pulled him to the ground.
“Argh!” he yelled, trying to gain control of it. “It’s gone mad!”
Fred jumped to his brother’s rescue and grabbed the handles with his own hands. It seemed to calm down a bit, then shot off a series of white bolts into a nearby clump of bushes. Soon there were answering spells sizzling past their heads. Hermione pulled Ron behind a tree as Fred and George dropped the Diviner and brandished their wands.
From what Hermione could see, there were twelve Dark Wizards in front of them, as she could see twelve bright lights bobbing and weaving through the bushes. Using the lights as a guide, she sent off several stunners. Ron was yelling “Stupefy!” and “Expelliarmus!” in succession from the other side of the trunk. Fred and George were more exposed but seemed remarkably adept at dodging the hexes that were aimed their way.
Several of the lights were no longer moving, but then a series of curses flew over her head that were too many to have come from the dozen that they had originally spotted. Given that they had come from a slightly different angle, she gathered that they were about to be attacked by a second wave of Death Eaters.
“We’ve got to cut their numbers down,” yelled Hermione to the twins.
“You don’t say!” answered Fred as he sent two red bolts after a pair of Death Eaters that had tried to flank them. “You have something in mind?”
Blocking a blue beam with a shield spell, Hermione said, “Not really. I was hoping you had something up your sleeves.”
“What about the bomb?” asked Ron through gritted teeth as a spell ricocheted off the tree in front of him, sending bits of bark into his face.
“No,” answered George. “We have to save it for the main attack.”
A large crash announced the arrival of a snarling Mountain Troll, waving a large club threateningly over his head. Hermione squeaked and sent three stunning spells at the creature. They hit him squarely in the chest, but instead of falling down, he only became more agitated and angrily slammed the club into the ground in front of him.
“Right,” she said shakily. “It takes three simultaneous stunning spells to de-capacitate a fully-grown Troll.”
Before they could coordinate their attack however, the Troll charged their position and Ron barely pulled Hermione away from the tree before it was toppled from one solid swing from the Troll’s club. Now exposed to the attacking Death Eaters, it took all they had to dodge and deflect the hail of curses that were sent their way.
Just as Hermione turned to see what the Troll was doing, Fred yelled out over the sounds of firing spells, “Close your eyes!”
But the Troll was once again bearing down on them and the last thing she remembered was the urge to vomit as a putrescent smell invaded her nostrils, before a blinding light knocked her unconscious.
Hermione’s eyes fluttered open to see Ron’s legs running through leaves and grass. He was grunting heavily and she felt her body being held tightly to his shoulders. It took a moment to decide that she definitely felt lighter than normal.
Her voice didn’t want to work at first, but eventually she was able to croak out a shaky, “Ron?”
His legs halted suddenly and her head began to spin. “Hermione!” he said through panting breaths. “I’m so glad you’re all right.”
Ron hefted her body from off his shoulder and set her gently on soft grass. He seemed to inspect every inch of her before wiping the hair from her face. A feeling of warmth flooded through her as she basked in his care. “What happened?” she strained to ask.
“I don’t know,” he said with a furrowed brow. “The Troll was heading for you and Fred yelled to shut our eyes, so I did. The next thing I know, you’re knocked out and the Troll is hovering over you, trying to decide the best way to eat you, I guess.” He let out a soft chuckle that died on his lips. “I thought he’d hit you with his club or something, so I grabbed you and ran.”
Temporarily fighting down the love for Ron that was growing inside of her, she asked, “Did the Troll follow? What happened to Fred and George?”
“I don’t know,” he said with a sigh. “I don’t think the Troll followed, but I can’t be sure. Fred and George were dueling with two Death Eaters that didn’t get hit with the bomb.” Gently cupping her face, he said, “I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you, Hermione. It would...” He paused and swallowed heavily. “I don’t think I could stand it.”
“Oh, Ron,” she said and lifted her arms to pull him into a hug, but they didn’t seem to be working right. “Ron?” she said anxiously. “What’s wrong with my arms?”
“Huh?” he said, perplexed and then, “Oh! I forgot about the feather weight charm I put on you.” He produced his wand and made to wave it over her but hesitated. “What’s the counter charm again?” he asked sheepishly.
Hermione rolled her eyes, but smiled nonetheless. “Honestly.... It’s Finite Incantatum.”
“Right,” he said, blushing brightly in the morning sunlight. “Finite Incantatum.”
Her body instantly sagged against the ground and although everything seemed to move properly again, it wasn’t without some effort. As soon as she had tested her limbs, she launched herself at Ron and hugged him with all the strength she could muster, placing a wet kiss on his cheek. “You’re my hero, Ron.”
His blush, if it were possible, grew even deeper and crept down his neck to the top of his chest. “I just did what anyone would do, Hermione.”
She pulled away and propped herself up with her hands, still looking into his deep blue eyes. “You did exactly what I expected from someone who loves me.”
A look flashed across his face and he took several deep breaths. “You mean I.... That is to say.... I couldn’t.... But I do!” He was cute when he was perplexed, Hermione decided. She was therefore, quite shocked when he pinned her with a piercing gaze and said, “Oh, sod it all.” And she found herself being passionately kissed, effectively pushing all other thoughts out of her head as she sank into the feeling of Ron’s embrace.
Once again, she felt as if she was floating, but for an entirely different reason. Gradually however, she was forced to think about their situation and reluctantly broke the kiss. Ron had a goopy look on his face and she felt inexplicably powerful knowing she had done that to him.
“Ron,” she offered tentatively.
His eyes slowly returned to focus but his smile lingered.
“We need to find Harry and Ginny. They’re out here still and if Fred and George didn’t make it back, no one will know what’s happened.”
He rubbed her arms lightly with his hands and looked over her shoulder, his face growing serious again. “Yeah,” he said. “I think I saw someone moving around back towards the hill but with you knocked out, I didn’t want to risk investigating.”
“Well,” she said as they stood up and brushed off their robes. She felt a wave of dizziness come over her and had to grab Ron’s shoulder for support. “Let’s head back that way and see if we can spot their trail.”
He hefted his backpack on his shoulder again and together they trudged off through the trees.
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