"Fear is a primal response — it's not considered, but reflexive. Our race is exempt from so many of the perils that plague baseline humans; regardless, we are just as subject to sharp, involuntary terror as those who have an even greater reason to heed it. The belief that runs deep in the military — and is often taken to extremes within the specialized branches — is that fear can be, and should be, controlled. The ability to remain calm in the face of travails is highly prized amongst all levels of field agents and eternally sought after by the Imperiarchy. When unable to find it, they create it. S.P.E.A.R¹ has always been intended to emphasize that no matter what the rank or individual experience, panic is an unacceptable reaction to any circumstance. They call it uneconomical, obstructive, and without use. The fundamental reason is far more dangerous: it is contagious." 1: Subsistence, Perception, Endurance and Agility Regimen
—The Tip of the SPEAR: Kharadjai Republic Special Forces and the Purview War
Ron shifted uncomfortably in his dress robes, pulling at the collar. About the only thing they had to recommend them was that they weren't old; they were new, clean and well-fitted, for a change. At least he didn't have to attend Bill's wedding wearing something that should have been binned a decade ago.
He tugged at the collar again. Nice robes were a scant comfort when he was expected to greet a thousand effing people whose names he couldn't remember and then find them on the seating chart.
"When is everyone supposed to arrive?" he asked Fred, who was standing closest to him.
Fred flipped out his pocket watch. "Well, let's have a look… As I thought, everything goes tits up in five, four, three…"
He was a bit off, but no more than a handful of seconds after he finished his count, guests began Apparating in just beyond the edge of the grounds.
Harry was studying the seating chart again, appearing very uncomfortable. Or at least Ron assumed he was uncomfortable. It was hard to tell since Harry had taken Polyjuice that morning and assumed the form of some red-haired Muggle from the village. Now he was 'Cousin Barny'. It was supposed to be a protective measure, though Ron didn't really see the point. Even the Death Eaters couldn't be stupid enough to think Harry would be somewhere else on a Weasley's wedding day, off by himself.
Nobody had asked his opinion, though, as usual.
As the guests approached, Ron turned slightly to give Scott's distant form an envious eye. The lucky git had been recruited by Lila to help her with the catering, and while he hadn't obviously stolen anything, his mouth always seemed to be full. The bastard was stuffing himself while Ron and Harry did the real work.
"We need a system for all the younger witches," George was saying. "I get first choice, I think that's fair."
"Hang on there, old man, nobody's picking through your leftovers," Fred protested. "We'll do this proper like: anyone have a coin on them?"
Ron didn't know why they were even bothering to discuss it. "Me and Harry are already taken, you sods. Do what you like."
George nodded. "Yes, that's right — you are, aren't you. That reminds me, Harry… Charlie was saying we should sit down and have a talk with you, at your earliest convenience…"
Straightening his collar one last time, Ron gave the seating chart another once over. "Shut it, they're here."
Seating all the newcomers was a bloody nightmare; he didn't know two-thirds of them and all the cousins from Fleur's side either had incomprehensible accents or didn't speak English at all. Ron and Harry did the best they could, and Fred and George spoke a few phrases in French, but it quickly became apparent they were going to need help.
"Oi, Ha—er, Barny. I just had an idea," Ron said, walking up to his friend. "Scott speaks French, let's foist these frogs off on him."
"They'll all keep bothering him if they know he understands," Harry pointed out.
Harry grinned. "I'll go get him."
A couple of minutes later and Harry reappeared with an obviously reluctant Scott. "—just ask them for a name, Barny, this isn't particle science! Quel est votre nom? There, you're set."
Harry just handed him the seating chart. "Look, the faster you do this, the faster we can be done."
With that, Ron and Harry each seized one of Scott's arms and practically threw him at the unseated Delacours who had gathered to converse.
"Uh… Bonjour et bienvenue. Puis-je vous aider à trouver vos chaises?" Scott said grudgingly.
With that problem taken care of, Ron found himself with a bit of time to mingle. He went looking for Hermione, with the vague thought that maybe if he spent time with her before the wedding proper she wouldn't ask him to dance afterwards. The more he thought about that, the less likely it seemed.
The weather was perfect for a wedding and while the decorations were a bit much for Ron's taste, he supposed it all fit together well enough. He might have paid a bit more attention to everything for use in the eventuality of his own wedding, but seeing as he might not survive the rest of the year, there wasn't much point in worrying about it. That was about as far as he was willing to go with the whole 'inevitable death' thing, though. Ron, along with Hermione, still tended to find Harry's fatalism annoying. At least Scott and Ginny were positive about the future (which probably should have been scant comfort: Scott was paid to keep their spirits up and Ginny usually just wanted Harry to stop brooding). And who knew what Lila was thinking.
Ron grinned as he thought of the uproar Lila had caused earlier. As she had requested the night before, Ginny went to see her before everyone filed out into the garden. Ron hadn't been present, showering at the time, but as Hermione told it, Lila had broken the Trace. Problem was, she had also broken a few other things.
Half the Weasleys in the household had rushed upstairs in a panic as Ginny's hand on the family clock spun around aimlessly, moving from 'Mortal Peril' to 'Lost' and eventually coming loose and falling off. They had found a very startled Ginny in her room, still alive and well.
Mum had fixed Ginny's connection to the clock while Dad had taken the thing halfway apart in an attempt to find the problem before having to abandon it for his wedding duties. It was still mostly in pieces. Fred and George had harried Ginny for the secret of her 'prank' until she threatened to hex them both, Ministry rules or no.
Ron just hoped that Lila had done the job right. If Ginny could be tracked by the spells she cast, it would be a short Horcrux hunt.
"Weasley," a voice grunted from somewhere near Ron's left elbow. He turned to find the craggy visage of Mad-Eye Moody looking back at him. Ron braced himself.
"Hello," Ron said politely, trying hard not to stare at Moody's whirling false eye. It was moving so fast the pupil was just a blur.
"Lot of power here today," Moody said without preamble, not that Ron expected any small talk from him. "Nice to see you're all on guard, anyway… Those heavy wards are solid, but no replacement for constant vigilance."
It hadn't been so long ago that Ron would have found such comments amusing. Now… well, he understood that kind of paranoia a bit better. "Expecting trouble?"
"Always," Moody growled. His magical eye came to an abrupt stop. "There she is. Over by the bubbly."
Ron glanced towards the champagne table, but there was more than one woman there. "Who?"
"The Kharan girl. Lila, I think it was." Both of Moody's eyes now fixed on Ron, boring into him. "You watch that one, lad. She's got a look about her…"
Ron glanced that way again, this time spotting Lila. She was conversing amiably with several of Fleur's cousins while Charlie hovered nearby. "What kind of a look? Blonde, tall…?"
"Oh, she seems normal enough just now. Had a chat with her just a minute ago. Well-spoken, very polite. Pretty, if you like the type. Your brother obviously does." Moody's expression darkened. "But it's in the eyes. You can't hide what you've seen, who you are. Not to someone else who knows."
"Knows what?" Ron asked tensely.
"How to snatch the breath out of a man. How to scrape the fear from your insides and leave nothing but the scars. I'm not daft, Weasley, I know what I look like. You think any of the other pretty young things here can see me and not want to look away?" Moody's eyes narrowed. "Not her. She was taking me apart. You understand, lad? She had me sized."
Ron wished that Hermione, Harry or even Scott were present to smooth things over. Diverting Moody probably required a team effort. "At least you didn't duel, Mum would have been a bit shirty about that," he said, trying humour.
Moody snorted derisively. "She's got a knife strapped to her left thigh. At that range I'd have had it in my throat before I could get my wand out. Not as young as I used to be."
"Oh. Yeah, she's… good with pointy things. Mostly in the kitchen, though." Ron really needed to stop talking.
"You watch that one," Moody said again. "She's a different sort than the rest."
That was the absolute truth, even though Ron couldn't confirm it. He just nodded, not trusting himself to reply further. As soon as Moody walked off he let out a breath he hadn't know he'd been holding. "Blimey," he muttered to himself.
"Ron!" Hermione walked up and looped her arm through his. "Did Moody want something?"
She was so lovely in her dress that for a moment Ron forgot he should respond. He wanted to bury his face in the crook of her neck, or between her… "Um…"
Her eyes sparkled teasingly. "Yes?"
He tried to get hold of his hormones even as he moved his arm around her waist. "He was talking to Lila. I think he's on to her."
Hermione's playful expression switched to a frown. "Drat. How did that happen?"
"I dunno. She has some sort of 'I-can-kill-you-with-my-little-finger' aura that equally mad bastards like him can detect. He said she was dangerous and I should watch her."
"Well, she is dangerous… but not to us, at least."
Ron made a face of disbelief. "Were you there when she cornered Fred and George after they jinxed her toothbrush? She's scary, she is. I thought the twins were going to cry."
"Oh, she wouldn't have hurt them." Hermione stilled, then added, "Not permanently."
Ron wasn't willing to give her even that much credit. "Yeah, sure. Also, Harry never broods and Scott always tells the truth."
Hermione swatted his arm gently. "You! She's not that bad."
"She and Scott are both nutters, and heavily armed, at that."
Ron staggered awkwardly into Hermione when Scott came up behind him and unexpectedly threw a comradely arm over his shoulder. "Hey! This is the guy, this is my boy, right here! Hey, man—" Scott leaned in close to Ron's face and completely dropped the jovial act. "If you ever leave me alone with the full cast of Les Misérablesagain I will fucking end you."
Ron looked at Hermione. "See?"
Hermione only sighed. "Scott, if you can't watch your language at a wedding just because Ron left you with—"
"—a bunch of goddamn cheese-eating surrender monkeys—" Scott said over her.
"—our French guests, then there's really no hope for you. If you didn't want to be a translator, you shouldn't have let it slip that you speak the language in the first place."
"I regret that deeply, now," Scott said bitterly. "Whatever. Bye."
"I think you mean, 'whatever, au revoir'," Hermione said pointedly.
Scott's eyes filled with suppressed rage but he said nothing as he stomped off towards his assigned seat.
"That was brilliant," Ron said, trying not to laugh too loudly.
"That was mean," Hermione corrected. "But he had it coming for so many things." She put her arm around Ron's again. "Come on, looks like it's time for the ceremony."
"Bugger. And here I was beginning to think we got to just stand around, talk and eat."
"We get to do that afterwards."
The ceremony was fine enough, not that Ron had a whole lot to compare it to. He didn't understand why all the women felt the need to get all teary. He spent most of the time alternating between resisting the urge to tap his foot and staring at the back of Xenophilius Lovegood's head, which was shaped a bit like one of the rocks in the front garden. Luna, at least, was dry-eyed. She moved up a notch in Ron's estimation for that.
Scott and Lila were side by side. Lila was ramrod straight in her seat, her full attention focused forward. Scott was slumped awkwardly in his chair and perpetually looked like he was a few seconds from falling asleep. Ron could sympathise. At least they, like Ron, were seated. Poor Charlie, Ginny, and Gabrielle had to stand for the entire thing, being the best man and bridesmaids, respectively. Hermione was tightly clutching Ron's sleeve, her eyes shiny with tears, and he just hoped she didn't decide that his sleeve made a good handkerchief.
Being able to observe most everyone did provide Ron with some vital information. He spotted Viktor Krum, the grouchy git, and resolved to keep Hermione away from him. And Great-Aunt Muriel was the last person on Earth he wanted to get stuck at a table with during the reception. Maybe he could talk Scott into staking out a private area, free from undesirables. The Kharadjai never seemed to have an issue being disagreeable, and nobody expected courtesy from an American anyway.
Then Bill and Fleur were man and wife and so on, and so forth… Ron had lost his patience about halfway through and wanted nothing more than to stand up. He was given the chance when everyone rose to applaud. Then the sides of the tent were opened, the chairs were removed, and the far more pleasant aspect of the wedding began.
Ron searched for a suitable table as the band struck up a tune. He'd lost track of Harry in the crowd (which was easy to do, with Harry no longer sporting his distinctive messy black hair), but Hermione and Ginny were with him. Scott had also been following; he'd made it a few steps before being accosted by Gabrielle, eager to dance.
"Danse avec moi, Scott!" she'd insisted, tugging at his hands.
"D'accord," Scott had said without much enthusiasm. "Vous pourriez avoir à m'aider, je ne sais pas cette chanson."
They left him to his dancing, picking up Neville and Luna along the way. The five friends took their places around the table.
"It's funny how he humours her; it seems so incongruous with the rest of his personality," Hermione mused, watching Scott twirl Gabrielle around. "I suppose he was the same way with Kylie."
"That's a lovely dress, Luna," Ginny said to her friend.
"Thank you." Luna seemed a bit more focused than usual, perhaps because all that focus was on Neville. "I wanted to match Daddy's outfit, but I also wanted Neville to see me and like it."
Neville bashfully slouched down in his seat. "I always like seeing you."
"Taking notes?" Hermione said to Ron after Neville's heartfelt declaration.
"Come off it," Ron grumbled. "It's easy to be lovey-dovey when you get an opening like that."
Ginny was searching the crowd. "Where's Harry?" she wondered, lowering her voice. "How am I supposed to spot him when all our cousins look the bloody same…"
Lila wandered over to their table. "Ah, this must be the party table. Is this seat taken?" Without bothering to find out if it was or not, she sat down. "I love weddings. Planning them, not so much."
"It has been a lovely wedding, but you may have a point," Hermione agreed.
Lila leaned forward on her elbows, addressing Ron and Ginny. "I know you guys will be taking off soon. I wanted you to be aware, if you weren't already, that I'll be staying here to keep an eye on things."
"Thank you, Lil. I'll feel a lot better with you here to watch the family," Ginny said softly.
Ron nodded shortly. "Yeah, me, too."
"Neville, Luna," Lila said, "you'll be at Hogwarts, which makes things more difficult. Scott will try to stay in contact with you. That said, if something comes up and he can't be reached, send me a letter or use the Floo or do whatever you can to reach me immediately."
"We'll try," Luna said, uncharacteristically grave.
"You might have the worst of it, all things considered. Be strong. And if things get too bad, leave." Lila pointed a finger at them. "I don't care about the laws or your parents or the stupid Trace or whatever — if things really go downhill at Hogwarts, you get hold of me or Scott and we will get you out of there. Full stop."
"But… how?" Neville asked.
"You let us worry about that."
Ron gripped Hermione's hand beneath the table, the relaxed mood of the wedding dispelled by Lila's words. Reality was fast approaching.
Having said her piece, Lila left them. Shortly after Neville and Luna also went to dance; or rather, Luna went to wriggle about abstractly and Neville went to stand awkwardly nearby. Ron felt a twinge of guilt as he watched them. They had been absent for some rather important events.
"Do you think they'd be better prepared if we'd told them everything?" he said to Hermione.
"There's no time, now," she said regretfully. "And that's just the way it worked out, they couldn't be around as often…"
"I'm just worried about them, going back to Hogwarts without us…" Ron said roughly. He blinked in surprise when Hermione pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth.
"I'm so proud of you, Ron," she told him, her eyes suspiciously shiny again. "I really am."
Ron coloured a bit, shifting gracelessly in his seat. "What's brought this on?"
"Oh, nothing," she sighed, placing her head on his shoulder. "Just you being yourself."
Ron rested his cheek on top of her soft hair. "Well… that's all right, then."
"Potter — a word…"
Before the interruption, Harry had been looking for his friends in the press of people. He desperately needed to sort out a few things, he needed their insight. He'd been speaking to Elphias Doge about Dumbledore, wanting to get the truth from the man who had known the Headmaster well enough to write his obituary. Doge had refuted the Skeeter article that had so infuriated Harry, but then Ron's Great-Aunt Muriel had broken into the conversation and contradicted Doge on every point.
Harry's mind was spinning with this new information — Dumbledore had once had a sister, who'd died under mysterious circumstances. That, along with his friendship with the infamous Grindelwald, the imprisonment of his father, the falling out with his brother… Harry had known none of it! That wasn't even including Dumbledore's roots in Godric's Hollow, the very place Harry's parents had lived.
He didn't know what to think. He'd stopped for a moment and leaned against a tent pole; lessons flashed through his memory, trying to provide calm and context. Words spoken out in the darkened woods and snow — the intangibility of truth, the power of lies… Information was ammunition. Harry needed to speak with his friends, because he didn't know if what he'd been handed was explosive.
Mad-Eye Moody had just asked for a moment of his time that Harry wasn't especially willing to give. Still, he turned towards Moody, not bothering to ask how the Auror had known it was him. "Yes?"
Moody stepped closer, lowering his voice. "I just had an interesting conversation with the groom…"
Harry thought he knew where this was going; he'd seen Mad-Eye talking to Lila earlier. "I'm guessing it wasn't about married life."
Moody made a hacking sound that might have been a laugh. "What would I know about that? No, the subject was much more familiar, to me and you both — a battle at Hogwarts."
Harry wasn't sure how to approach this situation. Luckily, he had a minute to think about it as Moody continued talking.
"Peculiar thing, that battle… Lot of Death Eaters dead — and good riddance — but from Muggle weapons, not wands. Used by her," Moody jerked his head in Lila's direction, "as Bill tells it. Not a bad tactic, altogether. Most wizards won't see that coming. Still, it's… unusual. But maybe not as much as where she and her kid brother came from in the first place, eh, Potter?"
"America?" Harry hazarded. He found himself unexpectedly grateful that his Polyjuiced form made his emotions far less obvious.
"The accent's right, I'll grant you that," Moody grunted. "Look, Potter… In the end, I don't really care if you know something about this. Dumbledore trusted you. He let that Kharan lad into his school. Arthur's got good sense, and he let the tall blonde lass into The Burrow. So if you trust these Kharans, you have your reasons. But if you don't, I'm telling you now — they're dangerous. That girl might look like the latest model for Witch Weekly, but she killed more than a few men that night at the school. And from what I hear, her brother might have, too."
Harry nodded grimly. "I know."
"Then I'll quit wasting your time," Moody growled. "Just one thing, Potter — if I survive this round with the Dark bastards, I'd like an explanation. Unanswered questions are a bloody bad itch."
"I'll tell you, I swear. I… have a few questions like that right now, myself. About Dumbledore," Harry finished. He was almost afraid to bring it up, but if Moody knew something…
Moody's mouth thinned into a pale, lopsided slash. "Been reading that rubbish in the Prophet, have you?"
"Sort of. I just… he never said anything about having a sister, or Godric's Hollow, or… any of it." Harry tried to hide the hurt in his voice.
"Some things a man doesn't want to talk about. I should think you'd understand that, Potter," Moody said gruffly.
Harry felt a flash of anger. Dumbledore had known all those things about Harry, every last one. "I suppose."
Moody huffed out a short breath in apparent irritation. "I can't help you, not the way you want. It was before my time and I don't make it my business to pry or gossip. He was a strong man who always did right by me and wrong by the Dark, and that should be good enough for anybody."
It had been enough for Harry, once. "Yeah… Well, thanks anyway."
Moody nodded. "Constant vigilance, Potter. You watch your arse out there or you're liable to lose it."
And with that, Moody was gone. As he went back to searching for his friends, Harry was glad that it had been Mad-Eye who finally cornered him. The old Auror's practicality and discretion had saved Harry a real headache in trying to explain things. Moody was the type to worry about the 'why' after the fact and simply accept the hand that was offered in the face of unavoidable war. Harry could strongly relate.
He eventually found his friends; most of them were out on the dance floor. It was comforting to see that, even when dancing with Ron, Hermione still had her handbag with her. Back behind the crowd, Harry found Scott sitting by himself at one of the more out of the way tables.
"I expected you'd be at the centre of the party," Harry said, sitting next to Scott.
"I already did my time on the floor. I'm a free man for the moment — Gabby was distracted by pudding." Scott leaned back in his chair, stretching.
Harry lowered his voice. "I just had a talk with Doge and need some other opinions, I don't know what to make of this…"
"Can it wait?"
"Wait?" Harry looked more closely at Scott and noticed that his face was a bit strained. "What's wrong?"
"I'm not sure. I didn't expect things to accelerate so soon, but the shape is behaving—"
He was interrupted by cries and shouts of alarm from guests. A silvery blur darted through the crowd, stopping when it reached the middle of the tent. Harry's eyes widened as he recognised the Patronus spell, in the form of a lynx. The apparition froze for a long moment. When it moved again, it opened its mouth and spoke in the voice of Kingsley Shacklebolt.
"The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming."
Panic erupted. The guests of the wedding scattered, Disapparating or searching for friends and family. This alone proved there were already Death Eaters nearby — there had been wards that prevented Apparition. It was total chaos.
Harry jumped up from his seat, wand at the ready. He turned to tell Scott that they needed to find the others, only to find the other boy still sitting calmly in his chair. He looked like the Patronus had just informed them that the wedding might be gently rained on.
"Postrēmo," he muttered. "Well, now we know what the deal with the shape was."
And just like that, Harry felt his heart rate decrease. Scott's tranquillity in the face of an imminent attack was comforting (and Harry knew that was probably the point). He began to consider the situation more dispassionately.
"The Death Eaters are here," he said to Scott, shouting over the panicking guests. He pointed towards the indistinct shapes at the edges of the Weasley property. "They'll need a minute to drop the rest of the wards; where's Lila?"
"She'll be gathering everyone to get them into the house, it has protections the yard doesn't," Scott said, standing. "We can get out in the meantime."
"No. Not while they can still get surrounded," Harry said stubbornly. "We need to draw these bastards off."
Scott smiled approvingly. "I like it. Come on, let's find Ron and Hermione. They should be over this way."
They found Ron and Hermione a handful of seconds later; the pair had been searching for them in turn. Neville and Luna were close behind.
"Harry!" Hermione yelled, gripping him a fierce hug. "We didn't know where you went!"
"Afraid I might leave without you?" Harry said with a wry smile.
"Don't act like you wouldn't! Come on, we've got to Disapparate before they get through the wards!"
Harry ignored her insistence. "Where's Ginny?"
Neville pointed towards the other side of the tent. "I saw her over that way, just a second ago."
"Not a bad way to go, the enemy is thinnest on that side," Scott said, already moving in that direction.
"What? Harry, what's going on?" Hermione demanded, her eyes wide and frightened.
"I'm drawing them off so the family can get into the house — are you coming or not?" Harry wasn't offering again. He'd prefer to have his friends stay with Lila, anyway.
"Coming," Ron said firmly. His wand hand was steady despite his shaken demeanour.
Harry led the way through the rapidly thinning crowd, picking out the distant line of Death Eaters at the rim of the woods. Scott was correct; there were fewer this way than towards the path and The Burrow.
The air was beginning to fill with spells. A bright light ripped through the tent canopy over Harry's head and he heard Shield Charms being shouted. He glanced to his right as he ran; a dark blob of shapes were moving together towards the house. Spells were emanating from the gathering more thickly than anywhere else, and he knew that had to be the Weasleys. But if the Death Eaters weren't given good reason to leave, Ron's family would be trapped inside the house… Despite the heavy protections on the structure, a protracted siege was a dangerous possibility.
A Stunner rang loudly off a nearby tent pole, casting brief illumination in a flash of red. Harry stumbled and nearly fell when a slim form ran into him headlong.
"Harry!" Ginny gasped. She disentangled herself from his arms and grabbed his hand as they ran together. "Where are we going? Lila said I needed to find you!"
Harry gritted his teeth in response to the knowledge that Lila had willingly left Ginny behind. He'd have a few words for her when they next met. "We're going to break through the Death Eaters up ahead and draw them away from The Burrow," he panted.
The dark figures ringing the property were drawing closer. The last of the wards must have fallen. Harry increased his speed, hoping the cover of twilight would disguise his intent long enough to smash aside the few Death Eaters ahead and reach the cover of the trees.
Scott shot ahead of the group with unnatural velocity. Harry could hear the closest Death Eater shouting in alarm.
"HOLD IT RIGHT THERE! DROP YOUR WA—" the Death Eater roared, only to be silenced with an audible expulsion of air as Scott kicked him full force in the stones.
"Blimey!" Ron choked somewhere behind Harry.
The Death Eater's agony didn't last long. When he slumped forward, Scott grabbed the back of his hood and pushed him down further, proceeding to slam his knee into the man's face. There was a nasty crunching noise (probably the nose, Harry guessed) and the Death Eater went limp.
The other Death Eaters nearby were close enough to witness this; spells began hurtling in their direction.
"PROTEGO!" Harry shouted, deflecting two Stunners and what he thought was a Diffindo. He flinched but kept moving, extending his arm to block another spell from hitting Ginny. When this one rebounded, it left a small crater in the grass, apparently a weak Blasting Curse.
The group's training in Dumbledore's Army was proving its worth as everyone was furiously casting without pause: Stunning Spells and Disarming Charms flew out in all directions, striking unprotected Death Eaters and forcing the others to shield themselves or find cover. The bulk of the enemy force was still on the other side of the front garden but Harry knew they needed to reach the woods before they were overwhelmed.
Scott knew this too. He hadn't even bothered to draw his wand. Instead the Kharadjai teen had doubled back and was moving like a wraith, low to the ground. He curved out and then swept back in towards the Death Eaters to the left, flanking them.
Harry dropped his Shield Charm and raised his wand simultaneously with a Death Eater who had managed to deflect several spells from Luna and close the distance. "STUPEFY!" he shouted, ducking to the side just in time to avoid the masked man's answering Stunner.
He rolled across the ground as a spell cut through the grass where he had been a moment before. He deflected the next curse and the bright spark of the rebounding spell lit the night enough for Harry to see a second Death Eater — who had been sprinting up to reinforce the one duelling Harry — fall flailing to the earth as Scott slammed an elbow into his throat.
The nearer Death Eater heard his comrade's thick choking — he turned to look and Harry's Stunner slammed into the back of his head, throwing him violently forward. He didn't get back up.
Harry rose and resumed running, taking stock of the rest of his friends. Ron and Hermione had disabled their opponent while Neville and Luna had the last Death Eater pinned behind a tree, which shook and shed bark and leaves as spells pummelled it.
Realising his predicament, the hapless Death Eater decided to run. Stupidly, he did so in wrong direction. Blindly casting a Blasting Curse at the soil to cover his retreat, he sprinted out from behind the flora as Harry tried to lead properly through the dirt thrown in the air.
Then the Death Eater jerked with an odd motion. He stumbled forward a few more steps seemingly by momentum alone, then collapsed to his knees.
With the dust now clearing, Harry saw the hilt of a knife extending from his chest.
Scott ran up to the stricken man and, in one smooth motion, pulled the knife from his chest and kicked him onto his back. Reaching down, Scott grabbed the Death Eater by his hood and bent his head backwards, exposing his throat.
"Scott, no!" Hermione shrieked out in horror.
Scott froze. Harry couldn't make out the expression on his face, but after a half-second of pause he released the Death Eater and gifted the helpless man with a solid kick to the face.
"Everybody go, keep moving," Harry said, finding his voice. "Come on, it's not far now!"
A quick glance over his shoulder proved that the last of the wedding guests had either escaped or been captured. There were no lights on in The Burrow, but Harry didn't have time to worry about that. A row of Death Eaters were making their way towards him, though not quickly. There must have been some confusion in their ranks as to what was happening.
The group hurried into the trees, stopping once they were concealed to catch their breaths and ease the adrenaline shock. Harry could scarcely believe they'd actually made it this far; he'd been harbouring the fairly serious thought that he was just martyring himself so everyone else could get away.
Of course, they hadn't made it quite yet. Harry tried to plan as everyone huddled around him. "All right," he breathed, sweat running down the back of his robes. "They're going to see those bastards we just handled when they get close enough. With a little luck they'll follow us, but we need somewhere to go."
"Do you think everyone else got to the house?" Ron asked, subdued. "It's all dark…"
"Lila wouldn't let them turn on any lights. With a hostile force outside the windows the last thing you want to do is provide a silhouette," Scott explained.
Ron and Ginny both looked relieved at that, evidently having been extremely worried by the lack of life signs at The Burrow.
"What about your sister's flat? We could hide there; I doubt any of the Death Eaters know about it," Hermione said to Scott.
"Sure, if we can get there," Scott said.
Harry nodded. "It's a bit of a walk, but I think we can make it."
"Neville, Luna…" Hermione said hesitantly. "I hate to suggest it, but… the two of you absolutely cannot be seen, not if you're going back to Hogwarts. You should probably just Disapparate back home."
"No way!" Neville protested, looking outraged by the suggestion.
"It would be quite unseemly to leave you now," Luna said, her voice uncommonly serious.
"No, she's right. Those blokes we just fought never got close enough to see you well, but we don't know if it's going to stay that way," Harry said. "Just go, it's fine."
"But you need our help!" Neville said.
"I need you at Hogwarts!" Harry countered. "Luna's still got the Trace and without you there—"
"The Trace means fuck all with the Ministry gone!" Neville said stridently. Harry wasn't sure he'd ever heard the other boy swear before.
"Which is fine for tonight but that won't last," Scott cut in. "If you absolutely refuse to leave, then we can discuss this at the apartment, because these guys are starting to get their shit together and we need to go now."
"Right," Harry said decisively, standing from his crouch. "Wands out, eyes open."
They started moving along the tree line towards the back of The Burrow rather than going deeper into the woods. The town in the valley below was far enough away without taking a more roundabout route. Several minutes later they could hear the shouts as the Death Eaters found their defeated compatriots.
Ginny was next to Harry every step of the way, picking through the brush and trying to minimise the noise she made. It was easier for her with her light, slim body than the most of the rest of them (though somehow Scott made hardly a sound). Harry thought about the men chasing them and fought down the fierce surge of protectiveness that ensued. Now was not the time to think about how stupid he'd been to include Ginny in this madness. She should have been safe in The Burrow with the rest of her family.
"Any regrets, yet?" he asked her quietly as he pushed aside a branch so they could both pass.
"No. And if you ask me that again I'll hex you instead of those Dark wankers," she responded fiercely.
So much for that line of inquiry. Harry kept his mouth shut as they advanced further. The shouts from behind kept getting closer, an ominous sign. Unfettered by stealth, the Death Eaters were moving slightly faster.
"Hermione…" Scott began as they walked, using a conversational tone that was incredibly incongruous with the situation. "Do you know the incantation for the Entrail-Expelling Curse?"
"No, but I could find it easily enough," Hermione whispered. "Is this really important?"
"If it does what I think it does — and it really should, considering the name — it could be useful. A spell like that has utility in combat."
"It's not fatal. It was designed for medical purposes, the organs come out intact," Hermione told him.
"Don't underestimate the shock value. You could inspire terror with a curse like that. Besides, nothing says they have to stay intact." Scott stopped talking abruptly and swivelled his head to look backwards. "Tom's friends have just about caught up. No point in being quiet — they sure aren't."
The Death Eaters could be heard crashing through the woods, all rustling leaves and snapping twigs.
"Run!" Harry bit out.
They started moving as quickly as they could, which wasn't very fast considering all the obstacles and their hindering dress clothes. They could travel more easily back on the open grass but Harry didn't dare leave the concealment of the forest. The fact that there was no open space was the only thing keeping the Death Eaters from bombarding them with spells.
"Laqueusi Crus!"Hermione chanted, jabbing her wand at the forest floor behind them. Harry had never heard of the spell before but trusted that she knew what she was doing; she repeated it several times as they went along.
Harry had been half expecting to be reinforced by the Order at some point, but the further they went along the forest's edge the more apparent it became that they had been scattered and were either long gone or in The Burrow itself. He just hoped his improvised distraction had allowed them to get away cleanly. The party had devolved into such a mess at the first sign of attack that he didn't know where anyone ended up who wasn't actually with him.
A few dozen yards of more progress and Harry heard a pained yelp from behind. Hermione nodded in grim satisfaction. "That will be the first of the traps. They'll be moving slower now if they know what's good for them."
"Brilliant," Ron panted, grinning at her. "I hope he lost a foot!"
"Nothing that dramatic, but it wasn't pleasant."
Scott, who was ahead of the group, hopped over a fallen log and reached underneath it, flipping it out of the way. "I was wondering what you were doing." He slammed his hands into another fallen tree that sat at an angle across the deer path they were on and grunted in frustration when it wasn't immediately removed. "Fucking teen form."
They were now past The Burrow and moving parallel with the back garden. The sounds of pursuit were growing fainter, Harry noted with relief. Hermione's traps had done their job.
A few seconds later he nearly jumped out of his skin when an acute, reverberant noise sounded out across the area.
It came from the direction of the house. Harry spun to face it and saw that Ron's window was open — from inside the room came the faintest flicker of light and a rapid SNAP-SNAP-SNAP that was sharp and clear, blended with a fuzzier echoing report. The staccato percussion beat against Harry's eardrum. The Death Eaters began yelling again, this time in fright.
It didn't take too long for the Death Eaters to start returning fire; the night was illuminated in multicolour once again as spells flew from the trees towards The Burrow. Some of them were dissipated by the wards but Harry could see others being countered, proving that Lila was not alone.
Ron winced when a luckily aimed spell flew through his open window and briefly lit his room with an orange glow, followed by a muffled thud that Harry felt in his chest. "Fuck," he grumbled. "There goes the furniture."
Property damage was the least of their concerns. The Death Eaters appeared to be falling further behind but Harry wasn't counting on that to last. The gunfire from The Burrow had stopped and he knew that Lila must have lost sight of her targets. This could be because they had gone further into the woods, where the dip in elevation and thicker foliage would conceal them, or they were much closer behind Harry than they seemed.
Either way, the clock was ticking. Harry knew they had to reach the river before the Death Eaters also emerged from the woods. There was no concealment between the end of the forest and the start of the town. He considered simply Apparating to Lila's flat. He'd been there before, and Ginny had as well.
"I think we're losing them!" Ginny remarked breathlessly. There were scratches on her face and hands, and her bridesmaid's dress was smudged and torn.
"Should we slow down a bit to save our energy?" Neville wondered.
"No! Keep moving," Harry said before anyone could start to relax. The entire point of their flight was to draw the bulk of the Death Eater force away from The Burrow, and that meant leading them to the town one way or the other. If they weren't distracted by the chase they might get clever.
"If they think they aren't right behind us anymore one of them is going to start using his brain and try to cut us off," Scott said, echoing Harry's thoughts. The clatter of gunfire started up again from the direction of the house, the sound bouncing off the trees. "Argh, not now, Lil! Let them run!"
"What is she doing? We're trying to get them away from house!" Harry said, frustrated.
"She doesn't know how incompetent they've been." Scott nimbly ran up along the trunk of another fallen tree, digging his phone out from somewhere in his dress robes. "Here, the slope is clearer to the right up ahead, go down that way."
Harry leaned backwards and slid down the hill where Scott had indicated, stopping at the bottom to catch Ginny. Hermione busied herself setting more magical traps along the incline while Scott dialled Lila. They didn't pause longer than half a minute before they resumed walking.
"It's me. Hold your fire, the OpFor is trailing. …Yeah, they're with us. We just hit the bottom of the hill back behind the house, how many Death Eaters are still up there? …Where? Yeah, just get back to me. …It's all in Hermione's bag, I'm set for now. We can link up if we have to. Okay. We're going to draw them to the end of the forest and then decide from there, just drop the wards when you can and get gone. Okay. You too, bye." Scott hung up.
"Is everyone all right?" Ron asked anxiously.
"Yeah, she's got the whole crop of redheads, minus two, inside the house. Once we pull the assholes following us down to the edge they're going to drop the emergency wards and Disapparate out," Scott explained.
Harry allowed his tension to ease a slight bit at that. "So they're still following us?"
Scott nodded. "Sounds like it. Lil is done shooting so I imagine they'll rediscover their balls any second now."
"Let's go, then," Harry said, increasing his pace to the one they had set before.
As they went, Hermione drew closer to Harry. "Harry, I had a thought," she said quietly. "We don't know if they've already put up a jinx on the area to stop us from Disapparating. They can't on The Burrow, not with the wards up, but we aren't protected…"
"They might be too busy to have bothered," Harry said, but he wasn't really that optimistic. "Look, if that's the case we'll ask Scott to get rid of it."
Hermione appeared moderately reassured by that. "Try not to stand out in the open if there's another fight, Harry," she said with an odd mixture of resignation and fondness. "You're too recognisable of a target."
Startled, Harry reached up and touched his face. The Polyjuice had worn off and he hadn't even noticed in the confusion. "I can't believe I didn't feel that."
"Adrenaline," Scott said, apparently having been listening in despite Hermione's hushed tone and all the rustling the group was making. "You can get shot and not know it."
The woods had been thinning steadily since they had arrived at the lower ground. It wasn't much longer before they reached the scrub brush that marked the end of forest and the beginning of field. The lights of Ottery St. Catchpole glittered up ahead in the night, glinting off the rippling water of the river that lay between them and their destination. There was only one bridge nearby, part of the road that wound past The Burrow.
The night was still, save for the occasional Muggle car passing through the otherwise empty streets. Harry strained his ears but could hear nothing above the sussurating grass and the hushed rushing of water. He knew his group of friends needed to make some decisions. With the Death Eaters having fallen behind, they had a bit of time in which to think things over.
"We don't have a lot of time, so let's make this quick," he said hurriedly. "Nev, Luna — we've made it out, so you need to go. Scott, is there an Anti-Disapparation Jinx over us?"
Scott stilled for a moment, his eyes unfocused. "There's some kind of area-effect spell behind us. I couldn't tell you what it is, but we're out from under it right now. I think… I think they're moving it as they go."
"They'll have to recast it periodically, that's probably what's keeping them," Hermione said.
"If they find us they don't want us slipping away," Harry said darkly.
Neville looked indecisive, while Luna's expression was unreadable. "Are you sure?" Neville said uncertainly.
"Yes! You've done all you can and I appreciate it more than I can say, but you have to get out of here. We'll be leaving as well, it's not like you're just abandoning us," Harry insisted.
"It's fine, mate. Good on you for staying this long," Ron said to Neville.
Luna reached out and gripped Neville's hand. "Don't be long, Harry. We'll miss you."
Neville set his jaw. "We'll take care of things for you at Hogwarts, Harry."
"I know you will," Harry said, fighting back a horrible combination of pride, gratitude and desperate fear for his friends.
Neville and Luna vanished with the loud crack typical of Disapparition. Harry knew he would breathe a little easier with them out of harm's way. If only the rest of his friends were, too. Unfortunately, they were even harder to get rid of.
"Now what?" Ron asked. He was scanning the trees warily, his wand held tight.
Harry wasn't entirely certain. "I think going to Lila's flat is as good a plan as any, for now. Ginny and I know where it is, so that shouldn't be a problem."
Ginny nodded. "All right. I'll take Hermione and you take Ron and Scott. We'll Apparate into the living room, okay?"
"I don't suppose you've ever done Side-Along before?" Hermione asked a bit nervously.
"No… Would you rather Harry try to take all of us at once?" Ginny said tartly.
Harry was very much opposed to that. "Uh, no. I'm not doing that."
"Guys, you need to do this, like, now. Whatever that area spell is, it's getting closer," Scott interrupted them.
"Right. Come on, let's try it." Harry held out his hands to Ron and Scott, trying to look more confident than he felt.
"Go ahead. I'll be right behind you, same as the cave," Scott said, ignoring the offered appendage.
Harry was fine with that. Taking only Ron with him would be substantially easier. "Okay. Ginny, on the count of three. One… two… three!"
Harry squeezed his eyes shut and imagined the flat where he and Ginny had spent quality time on a couch covered with small pillows. The world condensed, pressed inwards until Harry felt as if he were riding the pressure front of a storm, a bullet spiralling out of a gun. The world roared, then twisted.
And he was gone.
Ah, another author's note. So much to say, and so little that I remember. Well, let's start this off one way or another. Time to ask for feedback of a more specific nature.
First off: Luna and Neville. Do you like seeing their relationship getting page time, or do you think they should be relegated to more secondary characters? They already are, arguably, but even more secondary. If I recall correctly the section earlier in this story in which they officially become attached at Neville's house was received with a deafening silence. I was thrown off guard, since I thought such a romantic interlude would garner more response than anything else in that chapter. Apparently no one cared. Hence my wondering.
Secondly: I remember doing a reader poll in the last story about the possible return of Sophie. She received a unanimous 'yes' vote but ultimately I was unable to find a place for her. Do you think she should make a reappearance in some capacity, or is she old news?
And finally (I think): Does anybody like the quotes I'm using now? Or do you just scroll past them? Nobody commented on the poem prefacing the last chapter, which I have to admit was a little disappointing. I thought at least one person might like it. I've been so consistently wrong in predicting what will be the focus of the reviews I receive that I'm starting to think I don't understand why people like this story, not even a little bit.
I would like take a minute to thank Sherry at PhoenixSong for continuing to beta this hunk of wordings. She voluntarily took on the responsibility for mysterious reasons and continues to do so each chapter despite the many other more important things she could be doing with that time (like looking out the window, or watching daytime television).
So get back to me on that junk. Or, you know, just give me a 'LOL GOOD JOB', whatever floats your boat. I'll take pretty much anything when it comes to reviews. Just think of how many I'd have if all the people who hated it took a second to let me know how much! I'd be rolling in them, like, baller style.