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The Scholomance Series

The Seasonless World
by shalott

If in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness
and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your
laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears...

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

"'I understand.' Is that all you're going to say?"

Harry stared at her. "What else do you want me to say?"

She threw up her hands. "Tell me I'm wrong!" she yelled. "Tell me you actually care whether I stay or go! Tell me I haven't been beating my head against a wall for years for nothing, you idiot!"

"Ginny, of course I care," he said helplessly. "But you just said that wasn't enough—"

"It's not enough for you to just say the words! I'm not a stupid little girl anymore, Harry. I want more than just a pat on the head and a call once a week to go to the movies." Ginny's voice was tight, intense, and he felt himself floundering into even deeper waters.

"I thought we were having a good time together," he said.

"Oh yes, a smashing good time," she said. "We sit in a dark theater and don't say anything, move on to dinner someplace so noisy we have to shout to have any sort of conversation, then you bring me home straight afterwards, maybe kiss me on the cheek, and I don't hear a word from you again until as much time as you think you can possibly get away with has gone past."

He fell silent. Had he been doing that? Not always, surely—"We went to the museum a few weeks ago."

"And got the audio tours!"

He flushed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean—What else would you like to do?"

"Oh, for heaven's sake!" She dug her hands into her hair. "Will you understand? It's not what we do—it's the way you do it. As though I'm a chore to be gotten over with, not your girlfriend."

"That's absurd," he said defensively. "Ginny, why would I even bother if I felt that way?"

She said angrily, "Because you thought you ought to have a girlfriend, and I was convenient?"

He stood mute and guilty, trying to find something to say. He'd given her all he could, all he had left, and he'd just assumed that was enough. Instead, he'd made her miserable—Ginny, who'd gone through so much already thanks to him, who'd tried so hard to make him happy. Reaching out, he caught her hand in both of his. "I'm sorry," he said again, as forcefully as he could, hoping she'd believe him. "Honestly, that's not how it is at all. I wouldn't do that to you—I really do care about you."

"Then why can't you show it?" she said, trying to pull her hand loose. "You can save my life, twice even, but you can't so much as talk to me?"

Determined to make things right, he held on, and after a moment she let him. "I'm sorry," he said. "I thought you were happy. Just tell me what I need to do, and I'll do it, I promise."

She set her teeth and did yank her hand free this time. "I don't want to have to spell it out for you! I want you to want the same things. I don't think I'm so bloody demanding, I just want to see some ordinary affection from you."

He knew what she meant, of course, but it was just—But of course she had a right to expect—Tentatively, he reached out to cup her face, and she came in eagerly. Her lips were soft, and warm, and they opened welcomingly beneath his, and when she tried to deepen the kiss, he involuntarily leaned back.

She broke off the kiss. "Well, that answers that question," she said, more coldly than before, and she turned away and stalked towards the door.

"What?" He stared, then jumped to go after her, catching her shoulder with a hand. "Wait, Ginny—"

She whirled on him. "Why did you bother—why are you bothering to try now? I can't believe you let it go on this long. You don't want me at all, do you?"

And he closed his mouth and didn't say anything, because he couldn't lie, and in the silence he started to feel a little sick, because she was right, after all, and he'd even been thinking vaguely of a ring, that it might be the thing to do now, with Ron and Hermione getting married next month, and then they'd all be family. He felt a fresh rush of shame at the thought, because that he did care about, that was something he truly wanted, and he'd never really thought about what Ginny might have wanted that he would never be able to give her.

When he kept not saying anything, she took a deep hissed breath and pressed her lips shut tight. "You really are a bastard," she said. "I can't believe I wasted my time on you."

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

The slam of the door was her only answer, and he bent his head and pressed his palms against his eyelids.

"Why don't you just give it to them yourself?" Harry looked down at the vase Neville had just given him. "I know you've been invited."

Neville looked uncomfortable. "I just..." He trailed off, fidgeting a little on the couch.

"You haven't—Seen anything bad?" Harry asked, a little nervous of what the answer might be.

"No, nothing like that," Neville said. "I haven't looked at all." He stopped and blushed.

Harry eyed him, a little puzzled. "Am I missing something here?"

"I'm really happy for both of them," Neville said, ignoring the question. "I just can't be there." He stood and picked up his coat.

Harry sighed and put the vase on the coffee table and stood up too. "Look, Neville, this isn't anything to do with Colin always asking you to See for him, is it? I promise, if he even thinks of trying it at the wedding I'll seal his mouth up and kick him out." He grinned. "It's part of my job."

"Really, no," Neville said, putting on his coat and edging towards the door. "He hasn't asked lately, not since the last time I Saw for him—I think I told him something that got him upset. Anyway, I don't mind people asking, they're usually just curious."

"So why won't you come? Everyone from our year is going to be there, all the professors, too. Except Snape, so you don't even have that reason to give it a miss."

Neville sighed and looked away. After a moment, he said quietly, "Look, Harry, I don't want to watch Hermione get married."

Completely taken aback, Harry stared at him. "Hermione?" he said, faintly, after a minute.

"Please don't say anything?" Neville asked. "Just tell them I'm sick or something that day."

Still stunned, Harry said, "All right. Neville, I'm sorry, I didn't know—"

Neville shrugged a little, looking embarrassed. "No reason you would have—I'd never say anything. They belong together, they always have—we all knew that, even back in school."

After closing the door behind him, Harry came back to the living room and stared down at the vase. It really was beautiful, an exotic sweep of glass that bent the light into rainbows, with glowing sparks embedded around the rim. From the faint tingle he felt when holding it, he suspected there was a timeslow spell on it, to keep flowers alive longer. Hermione would love it.

He rubbed his forehead. Ron and Hermione did belong together, and the day they'd come over and asked him to stand as best man ranked as one of the best of his life. But... poor Neville. Now that he knew, of course he could see it. Neville had asked Hermione out at least a dozen times before she and Ron had started going together, and she'd even gone with him a few times, especially after he'd discovered his talent and people were suddenly nervous around him.

He sighed. Not everyone got to be with the right person. He supposed that was just the way life was. He put the vase into his closet. It would keep until the wedding, and then he'd do as Neville had asked. No reason Ron or Hermione needed to know about this.

Gladly taking some of the weight off his feet, Harry leaned back against the wall. Ron and Hermione had gotten safely back onto the dance floor, and the house elves were cutting the rest of the cake more professionally, and that meant all the little rituals were finally done. Maybe now he'd be able to sit down and actually eat something. He'd been running nonstop since the minute he'd walked in the door of the reception hall this morning; it was lucky he'd even had time to get into his dress robes before the ceremony.

But he couldn't help smiling as the two of them went sailing by—well, more or less sailing. Hermione was telling Ron he wasn't following the traditional waltz step, and Ron kept telling her to just relax, but neither of them sounded too serious about it, and they were both glowing with happiness.

Then he realized that wasn't just a metaphorical statement and sighed. Back to work. He skirted the edge of the dance floor until he found Fred and George snickering behind a potted plant, filming the haloed couple with the Muggle video camera they had appropriated from Hermione's parents.

"We're immortalizing the moment," Fred protested when Harry glared at them.

"That doesn't involve making them look like they're escapees from an angelic choir," Harry said. "Now turn off the luminence spell and give the camera back."

"He's gotten stodgy, hasn't he?" George told Fred mournfully.

"Awfully," Fred agreed. He handed over the camera. "We got five minutes' worth on there, anyway."

Harry grinned and took the camera over to Hermione's parents, then headed for his own seat at the head table. Sitting down, he murmured hopefully into the floral arrangement, "Are there any leftovers?"

He barely saw the house elf who zoomed past and deposited portions of all four courses around his place setting, but he said a quiet thank you under the table anyway and picked up his spoon to dig into the soup, his stomach rumbling in happy anticipation. Then he made the mistake of looking around the room first.

Ginny was sitting at the Weasleys' table, looking straight at him, her eyes hard. Harry looked away, unable to meet her gaze. He'd offered to bow out after the breakup, but Ron and Hermione had both insisted. "She's my sister, but you're family too," Ron had said, bluntly. "You gave it a go, and it didn't work out. It's not your fault, and it's not going to ruin our wedding." Harry hadn't been able to bring himself to explain just how it had been his fault.

He stared down at the soup, savory and thick with cream and lobster, and suddenly he wasn't at all hungry. He put down his spoon and fled out of her line of sight.

Most people were out on the dance floor, but Dumbledore was sitting at the table reserved for the Hogwarts staff, beaming and waving a finger out of time with the music as he watched Professor Flitwick and Professor Sprout dancing together. "Ah, Harry," he said, smiling. "Everything seems to have gone off splendidly. Such a happy occasion."

Harry smiled back and took an empty chair. "Don't say that until we've gotten them packed off on the honeymoon," he joked. "You'll jinx it." He looked around the room with a sense of satisfaction. Everyone was smiling—well, everyone he could see at the moment—the dance floor was crowded, and the plates vanishing from the tables were almost licked-clean. And everyone was here. It felt almost like being back at school, seeing all the Gryffindors, all their friends from other Houses. Only a few faces were missing: Neville, Snape...

Harry firmly pulled his thoughts away from that direction. Today of all days he wasn't going to think about it. But when he looked back at Dumbledore, the old wizard's eyes were resting on him, wise and too perceptive. "Times of joy remind us of times of sorrow," Dumbledore said gently. "Being surrounded by those we love can remind us of those who are not with us."

Harry didn't say anything, the old pain still tight and hot and fresh in his chest.

Dumbledore sighed. "There is no shame in grief, or in remembrance," he said. "But I wish I did not think you still blamed yourself."

Harry dropped his eyes. Everyone always seemed to make excuses for him, and sometimes he wondered why. Who else was there to blame, after all?

"Don't give up hope," Dumbledore said. "None of the Seers have seen if he will come out or not, but that means it is not certain that he never will."

"It's been five years already." Harry picked up one of the crumpled napkins and toyed with it, folding and unfolding.

"There are legends of wizards remaining in the Scholomance for as many as thirty years before leaving."

Harry laughed, bitterly, and threw the napkin down on the table. "I think that would almost be worse than dying sooner. I asked Neville to See him for me once, you know."

Dumbledore frowned. "No, I didn't know," he said. "When was this?"

"A month after, something like that. I had some idea that maybe he was studying, comfortable, doing well." Remembering, he almost laughed again at his own stupidity. "You can't imagine—he was all alone in the dark, no one else there, only one book, and he just kept pacing, back and forth... He looked—" He stopped, his throat closing on the rest of the memory. "It's not a school," he said finally. "It's a dungeon. And I—"

Dumbledore shook his head. "You did not send him there," he said. "Despair did that. Blame that, if you will, and those who pushed him so far."

Harry shrugged. There was no point in thinking about it, much less arguing about it. "So how have things been at Hogwarts? Hagrid was telling me you've got dragons at the school these days," he said.

Dumbledore let him get away with the change of subject. "Yes, we haven't had any more attacks since they were brought in last month," he said. "It's been so quiet I am almost worried. Have you been seeing any trouble at the Ministry?"

"Only the flying toasters," Harry said with a mock groan, glad for the lighter topic.

"Flying toasters?"

"Some idiot saw that Muggle screen saver with the little toasters flying around and decided he wanted one as a pet," he said. "And not only did he put wings on them, he made them able to reproduce. Every time we think we've found the last one another nest hatches somewhere."

Dumbledore laughed. "Perhaps I could find one. It would be pleasant to have the toast come to me in the mornings instead of the reverse."

"Don't encourage them!" Harry said, forcing a grin and keeping it on his face until it started to feel natural again. "But no, there really hasn't been anything. A few reports here and there of one of the Death Eaters, but they've all turned out to be false alarms. Maybe he's decided to lay low for a while, since Hermione came up with that Evictus spell and we banished the dementors, back in April."

Dumbledore shook his head slowly. "Perhaps, but I am uneasy," he said. "Voldemort has never been one to take defeat lightly."

Harry nodded. "Do you suppose—" A sudden loud thump interrupted him. Turning to see, he blinked. "Neville? I thought you weren't coming—"

Dusty and disheveled from hitting the floor as he'd apparated in, Neville lunged forward and grabbed Harry's arm. "Harry, I Saw—" he stopped, trembling, and Harry felt his heart jump into his throat.

"What is it?" Dumbledore asked sharply, commandingly. "What have you Seen, Neville?"

Neville looked at him and went completely white, the pupils of his eyes widening until they swallowed the irises. "Death," he said, and his voice wasn't his own, deep and resonant, and loud enough that people nearby turned to look. "Blood rises against blood, the seed of evil has flowered. Beware, Dumbledore! You shall not leave this hall alive. The Dark Lord ascends tonight, and greater darkness holds our only hope." And he swayed and toppled over, his eyes rolling up into his head.

Harry jumped forward at the last minute and caught him, lowering him gently to the ground with hands that were far steadier than his heartbeat. People were crowding around, talking loudly, but he couldn't hear anything past the roaring terror of Neville's prophecy in his ears. He looked up at Dumbledore, hoping for a reprieve, but the old wizard's expression was frighteningly placid.

"Everyone back, please," Dumbledore said calmly, stepping to Harry's side. "Let Neville have some air. Could someone please bring us a glass of water?"

The crowd backed away a little, and Hermione pushed her way through with Ron right on her heels, her wand in her hand. "Is he hurt, Dumbledore?" she asked, disregarding her skirts as she sank to the ground next to Neville.

Neville opened his eyes and gasped for air like a fish on land, grabbing for Hermione's arm. "'Mione," he managed, thickly. "Please—so sorry—'m trying—" His eyes rolled back into his head, and he convulsed violently, head snapping back.

It took both Harry and Hermione to hold him still. "What's wrong with him?" she gasped, struggling to keep his head from cracking against the floor.

"He's trying to See a future where the threat is averted," Dumbledore said quietly, kneeling beside them. "A future that may not come to pass. It is far more difficult than Seeing what is certain."

Neville screamed suddenly, and the thin, painful sound cracked into the deeper prophetic voice, but it said only, inexplicably, "Seek Mugwort and Comfrey," and then Neville was sobbing, the tendons in his neck still straining and rigid, blood trickling out of his nose.

Hermione shook him a little. "Neville, stop it! You'll hurt yourself—"

Abruptly, his eyes snapped back to normal, and he looked at her hopelessly. "Too late. Should have looked b'fore," he said. "Should have—" He shuddered once and went limp in their arms.

No one said anything for a long moment. Hermione's face was white, but she carefully lay Neville down and got up, brushing her skirts straight briskly. "All right, everyone, let's not just stand here," she said, businesslike. "We'd better check all the protections on the hall—"

And then Lavender Brown screamed, and Harry turned in time to see one of Ron's great-uncles fall backwards through one of the tables, his face darkening to purple-black while the glass and china smashed to the floor around him. Harry jerked to his feet and took two steps towards him, and then suddenly there was another thud, and he looked over to see Professor McGonagall crumpling to the ground in the middle of the dance floor, and then two more people went down and everyone was screaming and people were running in twelve different directions at once.

His hands clenched, Harry looked around at Dumbledore. Hermione and Ron had drawn a little way off, their hands clasped tight and their foreheads pressed together, whispering too softly for him to overhear. "We've got to do something," he said.

Dumbledore nodded and pulled out his wand. "We must calm—" and then he stopped abruptly, and Harry watched in horror as the purplish flush began to creep over his face.

"No!" he screamed, lunging to catch him. Dumbledore went down gently, too light in his arms, and Harry sobbed as he pillowed the grey head in his lap. "No," he said desperately. "No! We can't lose you. Tell me what to do!"

Dumbledore drew a deep, rattling breath and looked at him out of eyes gone so bloodshot they were more red than white. "Have hope," he whispered, and there was blood, blood on his lips, and he coughed horribly twice and smiled up at Harry and said, "The next great adventure," and died.

Harry didn't move, just sat still and silent, stroking the white hair, folding the body closer and huddling over it so he didn't have to see the awful, bloody wreck of Dumbledore's face.

"Harry—Harry, let me see him—" Hermione was kneeling next to him, tugging gently at his arm.

"He's dead," he said numbly. "It's too late."

"It's not too late for everyone," she said with a brutal practicality that made him almost hate her for a moment. "If I can figure out what's causing it, we might be able to stop it."

Ron gripped his shoulder, and he gulped down a sob and let go of Dumbledore's body. Hermione pulled it down to the floor and waved her wand over it, whispering, and Dumbledore's lips began to glow faintly green.

"What does that mean?" Ron said urgently.

"It must have come from something he drank or ate," Hermione said, standing up. "It's poison, not a spell."

"How could that be possible? We protected the whole hall, and the elves are from Hogwarts," Ron said.

Hermione shook her head, her eyes bright with tears. "We didn't block everyone in the protection spells—maybe someone we let through did it."

"But we kept the spells tight—only people we knew were safe, family and Hogwarts people," Ron said. "That can't be it. You-Know-Who has got to be behind this."

"Well, we can figure out how he got past the protections later," Hermione said. "First we've got to find out what was poisoned, and how to cure it." She turned to the table and waved her wand from the glow on Dumbledore's lips back to the abandoned place setting, but nothing glowed in response. "It must have been cleared. That means it's not the cake, or the champagne. Did—did either of you eat anything else?"

"No," Ron said, looking relieved when Harry shook his head as well. "Right, so the three of us are safe. Hermione, you go to the kitchens and find out what this was, and Harry and I will try and get everybody calmed down. Right now Voldemort could walk in here and polish us all off without trying much, even if only a few of us are actually poisoned."

"I will," she said, "But first I'm going to send for Professor Snape. He knows loads more about poisons than I do—he should be able to Apparate here from Hogsmeade fairly quickly."

"Oh, god," Harry said. "The other professors—" he turned to look for them, but he couldn't see them in the frantically milling crowd. "What's going to happen to Hogwarts?"

"Worry about that later!" Ron said. "Come on, let's get up on that stage."

Harry nodded and pushed after Ron towards the small platform at the back of the room. They shoved aside the abandoned instruments and climbed up, looking around the room.

Ron looked at Harry. "Maybe you ought to—"

"Everyone here knows you and Hermione," Harry said. "I don't know all of your relatives or hers; better if someone they all recognize talks. I'll try and cast some Cheering Charms while you do."

Ron nodded and raised his wand, murmuring the words of the voice amplification charm. People turned to listen as he began speaking, and Harry started picking out the most frightened or panicked people out of the crowd, casting the charm on them. The effect spread quickly, but the growing calm only made it easy to see how many people were down. Slowly, he let his arm fall to his side, unable to focus enough to cast. He couldn't see Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, and Percy's wife Penelope was kneeling by a body at the Weasleys' table with tears streaming down her face—

Ron's voice faltered then, seeing the same thing, and Harry reached out and gripped his arm. Ron stopped briefly, then suddenly he burst out, "Whoever's done this, I swear to God they're going to pay for it!"

A slow mutter went around the room, and Harry saw anger replace fear on many faces. "Bloody damn straight!" Dean Thomas yelled, and a swell of agreement rose in many voices. In a moment, Ron was having to shout to make his voice heard, even with the spell, but at least people weren't milling around aimlessly anymore, and Harry saw wands in the hands of almost all the wizards.

"Ron, Harry—" Hermione was pushing out through the crowd. "It was the soup," she said urgently. "Snape's trying to find out what the poison was right now, but he says anyone who had any of it should be given a Nauseating Potion right away—he sent the elves out for some and they'll be serving it in a minute. It'll make people sick, and that should keep the poison from working long enough for him to find an antidote." She whirled and hurried back towards the kitchens quickly enough that she was halfway there before her skirts finished turning. Even as she went, glasses of bile-green liquid and large empty bowls were appearing at every place.

Ron yelled out, "All right, everyone listen! It was in the soup, so if you had any of that, drink the green stuff, it'll make you throw it up. If you didn't, come over here by the stage."

A frighteningly small group gathered around them: Parvati and Padma Patil, Dean Thomas, Hannah Abbott, a tear-stained Professor Flitwick. Ron looked around desperately. "Harry—" he said.

"Go find your parents," Harry said. "I'll get things organized here."

Ron nodded and dashed away.

"All right," Harry said. "We'd better put some shields around the room. Everyone's in here, I think, so we don't have to bother with the whole building."

"Right," Dean said. "I can put an Impermeable Shell on that back door if someone helps."

"I will," Hannah said, pulling her long brown hair back into a serviceable ponytail. At Harry's nod, the two of them hurried away.

Professor Flitwick wiped his face with a trembling hand and said, "I'll put a Prismatic Field on the windows, and an Anti-Apparating Charm on the whole ballroom. Harry, I would recommend a Major Locking Charm on the front door keyed to a Familius Charm based on Ron and Hermione. Then at least the Weasleys and Grangers will be able to go back and forth without breaking the seal."

Harry looked at Parvati and Padma. "Can the two of you help me with that?"

They nodded. "We can do the Familius Charm," Padma said. "We've worked on it a bit, it lets us link powers."

"All right, let's do it then," Harry said. The thin, sour stench of vomit and fear made his empty stomach heave as he led the way through the room, even though he was breathing through his mouth, and Parvati and Padma were coughing violently behind him. The rest of the guests were huddling around the tables, looking wilted and pale, but no one collapsed as they walked by, and Harry let himself hope that maybe the worst was over as they began to cast the complicated interlocking spells.

Harry slumped in the hard-backed chair, barely listening to Hermione and Snape argue over the next best remedy to try. Ron was in the chair next to him, head buried in his arms, nearly unconscious with misery and exhaustion. Percy was dead, and his mum, and Arthur Weasley was just barely hanging on, his heart strained by three doses of Nauseating Potion. Fred and George had been too busy playing pranks to eat much, and Ginny hadn't eaten the soup at all, but Bill and Charlie were both among the hundred or more people who still had the poison in their system.

There had been two attacks already; nothing serious, just a test of their strength. But it was enough to tell them all that worse was coming, and without Dumbledore they didn't stand a prayer of beating off a full-scale attack by Voldemort. If they didn't find an antidote soon, it would be too late to even escape.

"If we try the Funneling Infusion, we can't try anything else for an hour!" Hermione was saying. "We can't afford to waste that much time."

"Don't be stupid." Snape's eyes flashed. "The only waste of time would be trying any of the others. This is the only one that even has a hope of working."

"I still think the Panacea Brew might work," she said. "It's effective against a lot of poisons—"

"I know every poison the Panacea Brew can be used to treat, and this is not one of them," he snapped back. "It is rarely of any use against the most powerful poisons in any case, as you would know if you had paid more attention in class."

Hermione looked ready to hit Snape. "What about Neville's last prophecy?" Harry asked tiredly, hoping to forestall her.

"Oh!" said Hermione, "I'd forgotten—But I didn't recognize the names, did you, Harry?"

He shrugged a little. "If we could find them, maybe they could help?" he said listlessly.

"What are you talking about?" Snape said irritably.

"Just before Neville collapsed," Harry said. "He said to seek some people called Mugwort and Comfrey."

Snape jerked as if he'd been stung. "You idiots!" he screamed, and Harry nearly jumped out of his skin. "Mugwort and comfrey are herbs!" He snatched a thick book out of the air with a wave of his wand and slammed it down on the table, making Ron sit up and stare at him blearily.

Snape just scowled at him and pointed his wand at the book. "Referentio! Mugwort and comfrey, used against poison," he commanded, firing a bolt of light off at the book. It thumped open and pages started flipping by at a high rate, stopping at a point near the end.

Ron and Harry tried to read upside down while Hermione crowded close to peer over Snape's shoulder. "The Violet Death," she read aloud. "Almost never made, as it requires a large quantity of the venom of the deadly Tangiki asp, this poison kills by engorgement of the blood vessels. Age and amount ingested vary its effects, and it can be slowed by the application of purgatives, but the victim will certainly die within the span of a day unless treated with an infusion of mugwort and comfrey gathered at the new moon."

Ron was on his feet. "Where can we find those?" he demanded.

Snape frowned. "Frogmorton's Spell Supply in Knockturn Alley has herbs gathered under phases of the moon," he said. "They should have both."

"I'll go," Harry, Ron, and Hermione all said at the same time, and Snape glared at them.

"Don't act like fools," he snapped. "Voldemort must know all of you are here. He will be watching for your departure. I will have to go."

"Wait—you can't get out without breaking the Locking Charm," Harry said, remembering. "It's got to be one of the Weasleys or the Grangers."

"I'll go." Ginny was standing at the kitchen door, her face pale and set. "I'm nobody important; Voldemort won't bother with me."

"The hell he won't," Ron said. "You're not going, Ginny, and that's final!"

Her mouth tightened. "If I want to go, it's my affair."

"I'm not letting you go out there and get yourself killed," Ron said. "Mum would have my—" he stopped abruptly, and Harry felt him shudder.

"Oh, so now I'm incompetent?" Ginny asked furiously, her hands clenching into fists.

"What's all the noise about?" Fred asked tiredly, coming into the kitchen.

"We've found a cure, we just need to get the supplies," Ron said. "We need some stuff from Knockturn Alley—"

"And I already said I'd go get it," Ginny said, turning to leave.

Fred blocked her way. "You stay here with Dad," he said. "George and I will go."

"None of you are going, I am!" Ron yelled, losing his temper. "If You-Know-Who is waiting outside, I'm as safe as any of you."

Fred managed a brief smile. "Guess I've got to let it out of the bag," he said. "Would this be a good time to mention that George and I are Animagi?"

Ron stopped with his mouth open, and Ginny stared at him. "You're what?" she said incredulously.

"Animagi," Fred said. "We did it last year. We both turn into weasels, if you can believe it."

"How appropriate," Snape said dryly.

Fred made him a sarcastic bow before continuing. "We ought to be able to slip right past anyone lurking around the building and Apparate over to Knockturn Alley."

Snape nodded. "Agreed. Now, if we have wasted enough time with this stupid quarrel—"

Ginny whirled out of the room, her shoulders still hard and stiff. Fred tried to pat her shoulder as she left, and she jerked away from him. He shrugged, then looked at Ron. "By the way, Dad's doing better, and no one else has gotten sick again yet—that's what I came to tell you."

"Thank God," Ron said, and Hermione went to his side and put an arm around his waist, leaning her head on his shoulder.

Harry sank back into his seat as Snape started telling Fred what they needed and where to get the herbs. He thought he should go see Mr. Weasley, and Hagrid and Professor McGonagall, but he just couldn't seem to make himself move.

It was taking too long. Hermione and Ron were arguing in a corner about which of them should go and see what had happened. Slumped in a chair by the front door, Harry listened to them, wondering vaguely whether he might be able to draw Voldemort away by leaving and going in another direction.

He barely noticed the small thump against the door, but Snape, who had been pacing back and forth in front of it since Fred and George had left, sprang forward and pulled it open.

One small brown-furred weasel crept in, dragging the limp body of another by the scruff of its neck. Harry jumped up to close the door, and Hermione and Ron rushed over. A moment later, the first one shook itself and transformed, lengthening into a human form. It was Fred, his face cut and bruised, a long gash along his leg visible through his torn trousers. A small bundle was in his hand, and he dropped it to the floor and went to his knees, cradling the other weasel's body in his hands. "George, damn you, change back!" he said.

"Fred, put him down, let me see," Hermione said, pulling out her wand. "If we can—"

But the weasel shuddered in Fred's hands, and suddenly George was lying in Fred's lap, a horrible bloody slash carved through his chest and abdomen that made Hermione catch her breath and step back, turning into Ron's arms with a sob. George opened his eyes and looked up at Fred, his lips moving slightly, and then he sighed and relaxed, his eyes closing.

"George?" Fred said, sounding puzzled. "George?" He shook George's shoulders. "George, look at me. Look at me!" He shook him again, violently.

"Fred—" Ron said brokenly, reaching out to him. Hermione was crying noisily in his other arm, gulping down sobs.

"No," Fred said, shoving Ron's arm away and cradling George closer. "No."

Harry turned and pressed his forehead against the door, choking. A hand suddenly gripped his shoulder and pulled, and he staggered back a step, inhaling the tears that had almost come.

"Get hold of yourself," Snape said flatly, then turned and knelt by Fred, forcing his head up with a hand under his chin. Snape slapped him hard, two, three times, until Fred jerked his head back and took a swing at him with one arm.

"Get off me," he said furiously, pulling George closer protectively.

"He's dead," Snape said brutally. "If you want to join him, walk out the door. I'm sure Voldemort will be happy to send you on your way."

"You bastard!" Ron yelled, trying to lunge at him with Hermione holding him back.

Snape picked up the small bundle Fred had dropped and rose again. "Use your heads! Do you think Voldemort cares about your feelings? If any of us are alive this time tomorrow, you can mourn then." He turned and stalked back towards the kitchen entrance.

"That slimy son-of-a—" Ron started.

"Ron," Hermione said, squeezing his arm. She nodded at Fred, who was holding George's body close and crying, no longer trying to shake him awake. Ron swallowed and went to Fred's side, putting an arm around his shoulders.

"They were waiting for us on the way back," Fred said dully. "Wolves, and a half-dozen trolls. We ran right into them. He went for the leader, got his eyes. That's how we even got past them." He leaned into Ron, still crying.

A few steps away, Hermione and Harry looked at each other. "That means Voldemort must know we have the antidote now," she said softly. "We don't have much time."

The quiet was heavy like the calm before a storm, darkness outside the windows, their footsteps the only sound in the hall as they hurried back and forth from the kitchens to bring the antidote to everyone. Another bitter opportunity to count their losses. Professor Sprout, Madame Pomfrey, Madame Hooch—all of them gone. Hagrid's size had saved him, as he'd only eaten one normal-sized portion, but he was still ill and weak. Sirius had survived by changing into his animal form until the antidote was ready, but Lupin and Mundungus Fletcher had collapsed early on. Professor McGonagall had slipped away even as they were trying to force some of the infusion down her throat, never waking.

"Clever of him," Hermione said, wiping off her forehead on the back of her arm as she dipped another bowlful of the antidote. Her parents were still unconscious, her grandparents all dead, and her voice was perfectly calm and level. "He takes out all the older wizards, Dumbledore and the other professors, our older relatives, and leaves the rest of us to panic and try to save them without knowing how. If it wasn't for Snape, we'd still be floundering around, trying to find something."

Harry didn't have the energy to reply. He filled his bowl again and hurried back out, careful not to spill any. They were almost done—just a few of the youngest victims, who had held up the best. He passed Parvati helping Seamus drink, and knelt by Lavender. She was pale from the Nauseating Potion doses, but she managed to hold the bowl herself while she drained it.

He took it back and looked around. Hermione was helping Colin, and Ron was giving Hagrid another dose. Everyone had been taken care of. He went back to the kitchen and shoved the bowl into the sink, then let himself slump onto the floor in a corner. He was so tired he wasn't even hurting anymore, all emotion swallowed by a comforting numbness.

Ron and Hermione came in. They put away their bowls and wrapped their arms around each other and rocked in silence, never even seeing him there. He closed his eyes and didn't watch, unwilling to intrude, but a sharp lonely ache made it a little hard to breathe. Finally Hermione wiped her face with a sniffle, and they went back outside, never a word spoken, hands still tightly clasped.

Head tipped back against the wall, he dozed for a while, only vaguely registering when people came in and out. The activity picked up after a bit, but he didn't really notice it until Ron and Hermione were shaking him, and he sat up, blinking to clear his fuzzy vision.

"Have you seen Ginny?" Ron said urgently. Harry felt his stomach clench.

"No." He got to his feet, wobbling a little. "What happened? Where is she?"

Hermione scrubbed her face with her hands. Her beautiful white dress was stained and torn, ragged petticoats showing through where she'd torn off half the skirt, and her face was smudged. "We can't find her. No one's seen her since before Fred and—since before Fred got back."

"She wouldn't have done anything stupid," Harry said automatically.

"Wouldn't she?" Snape's voice cut in, icy and sarcastic. They turned to look at him. "She's gone out," Snape said. "The Locking Charm has been passed three times leaving, not twice, and only twice coming back."

"Oh god. Of all the stupid, thoughtless—" Hermione bit her lip, glancing at Ron, even though she looked as though she wanted to say more.

"We've got to go after her," Harry said. "She's going to get herself killed."

Snape stared at him as if he was a lunatic. "And you as well, if you're stupid enough to follow her," he snapped. "We have no time or people to spare now, not if anyone's to be left to fight Voldemort after this mess is over."

Harry clenched his fists. First he'd treated her like a dishrag, then Ron had sided with him, keeping him on as best man, and then they hadn't trusted her to go after the herbs, hadn't even asked her to help with anything. She had every right to be angry, every right to want to do something. If only he'd talked to her, apologized more—"We're not leaving her," he said flatly. "I'm going after her, even if no one else is."

"So am I," Ron said. "I'm not losing any more of my family tonight."

Hermione pressed her hands to her temples. "If you're going, so am I."

Snape exploded. "This is insanity!" he shouted at them. "Are none of you capable of thinking beyond your own trivial problems? This is war, do you understand me? People are lost during war, and fools are lost first."

Harry stepped towards him, his hands clenching into fists. "So you're saying Dumbledore was a fool?" he said, soft. "George was a fool?"

"George Weasley ran a desperate risk to accomplish a task necessary for our very survival," Snape said flatly. "He was not throwing his life away for no gain, as you are proposing to do. And as for Albus? Yes. He was a fool. I warned him a hundred times about exposing himself. I told him he should strike Voldemort before Voldemort struck at him. If he had listened to me, he would be alive today.

"You learned the wrong lessons from your years at Hogwarts," he continued, sweeping them all with his glare. "You had the greatest of good fortune, faced the Dark Lord in the flesh three times and lived to speak about it, and it gave you the stupid notion that all you need do is behave in an idiotically heroic fashion, and it will all come out right.

"Well, now you see the end of it—a hundred wizards dead tonight already, with more to fall in the battle to break out through his lines, and tomorrow he will purge the rest of his enemies who have not yet gone into hiding." He was breathing hard, color lurid on his cheekbones. "And still you intend to pursue this fool's course? For what? A halfwit girl who is almost certainly already dead?"

"I've had about enough of you and your comments, you filthy bastard," Ron snarled. "You're a bloody fine one to talk—you've never cared about anyone but yourself, easy for you to tell us to lose our families and never blink—what the hell have you lost?"

Snape had gone white and cold. "What have I lost?" he whispered, deadly soft, his eyes glittering black. "Weasley, when every one of your kin remaining to you has been killed hideously—when you have watched Granger slowly tortured to death in front of your eyes, unable to save her as much as a moment's worth of pain—when you have sworn the blackest oaths to the Dark Lord and covered your hands in blood in his service, and only then learned that he was their murderer—then, then you will have lost as much as I."

Only the dripping faucet spoke when he had finished, all their voices crushed into silence.

Then Hermione took a deep, shaky breath and said softly, "And if you had the slightest chance, even the barest hope, that you could somehow save her life, is there anything in the world that could keep you from trying? No matter what it cost?"

Snape flinched visibly, his lips folding into a thin, hard line. But after a moment, he spoke again. "Perhaps not. But if I had to buy that chance with the lives of a hundred others and the great chance of the Dark Lord's victory, could I expect anyone else to agree that it had been well done?"

Stalemated, they stared at each other across the room. Harry dropped his eyes to the ground. He knew Snape was right, and he knew that there was no way in hell he was going to run and leave Ginny to Voldemort's tender mercies.

"Wait," he said suddenly, lifting his head. They all turned towards him. "Look—we haven't got a prayer of all getting out of here if we try to fight our way out. More than a quarter of the people who drank the poison are still having trouble walking, much less fighting."

Snape said coldly, "If you're going to propose using yourself as bait, don't waste your breath. Voldemort wants you dead badly enough, but he'd hardly need to use enough of his servants to capture you to make a difference."

"Let me finish," Harry snapped. "Hermione, Ron, and I can set up an illusion—make it look like it's all of us making a break for it." He had to stop for a moment before he could force himself to go on. "And we can take Dumbledore's body along, covered in a blanket, so it looks as though there's even a chance he could make it."

Snape was silent, mulling it over. "It might work," he said slowly. "That of all things might alarm him to carelessness."

Harry nodded. "And when he pulls his people over to where we are, you can all run for it out the back. Even if it only gets you a little bit of a head start, that's better than nothing. Once you're out, we can drop the illusion, and in the confusion we ought to be able to hide from them."

"And then we can try and find Ginny," Ron finished. "With any luck, she'll have gotten under cover somewhere out there."

Snape shook his head. "If you intend to be stupid enough to try it, the only luck you should hope for is that you will stumble over her body quickly. If she was at liberty, she would have come back by now, and Voldemort would hardly bother to keep her alive if she had fallen into his hands."

"He might be keeping her to use as bait, the way he did before," Hermione said. "Remember? The year we graduated, he snatched her to try and lure Harry into a trap."

Harry didn't say what he was thinking. Ginny had been dating him then. Now, after their well-known breakup, would that still protect her? "Even more reason," was all he said. "If he is holding her, he might decide that she's no use as a hostage if we don't at least try to rescue her."

Snape heaved an irritated sigh. "Very well," he said. "I see you're all committed to this idiocy. If you do manage to make it out alive, get to London and be at the Knightsbridge Underground station at noon. We'll send someone there to look for you."

Hermione nodded soberly. "Better than telling us where you're going."

Snape looked at them, then reached into a pocket of his robes and brought out a small pouch, handing it to Harry. "It's atropine," he said shortly. "There should be enough for all three of you—or even four, if need be."

Harry took it gingerly and tucked it away into his robes. "Right," he said, keeping his voice steady with an act of will. "We should get moving, if everyone else is ready to go."

"The sooner, the better. Those who are still sick will not recover quickly enough to make any delay worthwhile," Snape agreed. "I will begin the preparations immediately." He turned and swept out of the room, leaving the three of them alone.

He turned and looked at Ron and Hermione. "Are you sure you two won't let me do this?" he asked. "Your families need you."

"Oh, and I suppose we don't need you?" Hermione said, with a flash of her usual fire. "Don't be silly. You couldn't put up a big enough illusion and carry Dumbledore all at once anyway."

Ron punched him lightly in the arm. "You're not ditching us this time," he said, and his smile even reached his eyes.

"All right," Harry said, his heart lifting. Despite all Snape had said, even with everything that had happened, he just couldn't feel that things were so horribly black as long as they were still together. They'd find a way to make things right—and to make Voldemort pay dearly for all he'd done. They always did, after all. "Let's get going."

Harry lay flat under a thick stand of low bushes, thorns digging through his robes, into his skin. His heart thumped so noisily he was sure the trolls peering into the bushes were going to overhear. But after poking the bushes and getting stuck with thorns for their trouble, the hulking monsters gave up and moved on. He smiled with grim satisfaction. Part one of the plan, gone off like clockwork.

After a few minutes, he squirmed out from under the bushes. Ron dropped down out of the tree he'd been hiding in, and Hermione appeared beside them, deactivating her Invisibility Spell. "I have an idea," she whispered, drawing them both back into the deeper shadows of the trees. "I think I should be able to use the Tracker Charm to find her."

"But we need something of hers for that, don't we?" Ron said. "A piece of hair or something."

"You're her brother," Hermione said. "I think that might work."

"It's worth a try," Harry said.

It took her a few minutes of muttering to cast the spell, but afterwards her wand glowed with a faint pinkish light. "All right, let's see if this works," she said, and turned in a slow circle with the wand held out in front of her. The glow turned redder when she faced north, back towards the reception hall.

"It's working!" Ron said jubilantly. "Let's go!"

They crept quietly through the trees with the wand growing steadily brighter, mostly retracing the path they'd taken away from the hall in the first place. They occasionally heard the howls of werewolves or the grunting of trolls coming from the darkness around them, but always in time to hide.

"Maybe she's trying to get back to the hall," Ron breathed while they huddled against the bole of a sprawling oak under cover of a Concealment Charm, waiting for a straggly band of ogres to march past.

Harry nodded, his spirits rising. If Ginny were going back to the hall, that meant she was free, at any rate. And once they'd found her, they'd be able to slip away pretty easily, judging by their success so far.

By the time they'd almost reached the door again, the wand was glowing so brightly Hermione had to stop the spell to keep them from having their eyes dazzled by the light. The doors stood open, the Locking Charm completely removed, but there was no sound of fighting.

"Think they got away?" Ron murmured.

"Let's hope," Harry said. "Ready to go back in?"

Hermione had her wand held ready, but she hesitated. "We shouldn't go in the front all together like this," she said softly. "If some of us get caught—"

Harry nodded. "I'll slip around to the back."

"And I'll go in first," Ron said. "Hermione, you can wait a bit and come in after me."

"All right," she said reluctantly. "Just be careful. Our luck's been a little too good so far."

Harry looked away, his jaw tight. "We're due some luck, the way the rest of this night has gone," he said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

Ron and Hermione reached out to him at the same time, and they all clasped hands for one silent moment. With a final squeeze, they broke apart, and Ron headed for the door while Hermione vanished back under the cover of an Invisibility Spell.

Harry stayed close to the side of the building as he went towards the back, squeezing between the neatly trimmed hedges and the building walls. The back door was standing open as well, and the ground all about was trampled with many footprints, but there were no signs of a fight. His heart soared in triumph. It had worked! Voldemort was in for a nasty surprise whenever he swept in here thinking he was going to finish them off.

He pulled out his wand and slowly went up the stairs, ducking inside the door cautiously. It was wasted—there was no one around. The hallway leading to the ballroom was dark. "Ginny?" he called softly. When no answer came, he started making his way further in, calling her name as quietly as he could every few steps.

Light spilled out from the slightly ajar ballroom door. Harry nudged it open a little further and peered around. Ron was there already, looking around the room with an exasperated look. He pushed open the door and went in, calling a soft, "It's me," so Ron wouldn't have a scare. "Have you seen her?" he asked as he joined Ron in the center of the room.

"Not a glimpse," Ron said unhappily. "I just checked the kitchens, too—no one there."

"Looking for me?" They jerked around. Ginny was standing on the band platform, holding the heavy stage curtain aside with one hand.

"Ginny!" Ron yelled with pure relief in his tone. He started across the floor towards her. "You had us worried sick—"

The laugh cut his voice off, high-pitched and sharper than a knife's edge, and paralyzingly familiar. Harry clenched his wand in his fist and raised it, looking around.

"How touching," came the cold, thin voice. "Such devotion to family!" And the stage curtain slid aside, metal rings scraping on the bar, to reveal Voldemort standing scarcely a foot away from Ginny, a half-dozen of the Death Eaters beside him. Voldemort's mouth curved in a lazy smile. "You would have been wiser to flee along with those few others who have evaded me for the moment. But no matter—your ship of state has sunk, and I will soon have leisure to track down the rats who have deserted it."

Ron had frozen in his tracks, but now he lifted his wand, even though it wavered a little in the air as his arm shook. "Let her go, Voldemort," Ron said defiantly.

Voldemort laughed again, cruelly, and all the Death Eaters laughed with him. And so, horrifyingly, did Ginny.

Harry stared at her, feeling sick. "Ginny?" he said, and his voice came out scared and weak in the cold, cold room.

"'Ginny?'" she repeated, mockingly. "What's the matter, Harry? Not quite what you were looking for?"

"Ginny, have you gone out of your head?" Ron said, horrified. "What did you do to her, you bastard?"

Voldemort smiled and glided across the stage to Ginny's side, reaching out to stroke her hair with proprietary long fingers. "Do to her?" he said. "Tell me, my dear, have I done anything to you?"

Ginny tilted her head back and actually smiled at him. "Nothing at all, my Lord," she said with almost caressing warmth, before looking back down at Harry and Ron. "I suppose the two of you just can't believe that I could have enough of a mind of my own to choose to join Lord Voldemort instead of just going on, tagging around after you like a stupid puppy."

"Ginny," Harry said, feeling sick, "Ginny, I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you. Please, you can't do this—"

She tossed her head. "You do fancy yourself, don't you, Harry? As if I would've put up with you for more than a month if I hadn't been trying to put you under the Corruptio Curse for my Lord. It was really a relief when I finally gave up on ever getting you into bed."

Voldemort laughed again and raised her hand to his lips with an exaggerated gesture, his red eyes watching their faces, drinking in their horror greedily. "Dear Ginny has been one of my most valuable servants these last three years."

Ron's arm wavered and dropped. "Three years?" he said slowly, dazed. "Three years?"

"It's been almost annoying, how stupid you all were about it," she said contemptuously. "All of you talking, talking, talking about how Lord Voldemort managed to keep eluding all the Aurors, and it never once occurred to you that someone in the know had to be telling him about your plans."

"You were telling him—?" Harry stopped, an unwanted comprehension stealing up on him. "It was you," he whispered. "You poisoned everyone."

She smiled, cold and cruel. "A bit slow on the uptake, Harry. Of course it was me. What better opportunity for my Lord to crush his enemies once and for all then when they were so conveniently gathered together?"

"You—you—" Ron was shaking visibly. "Mum is dead!" he screamed at her, finally. "And Perce, and George—and you did it!"

A momentary blankness crossed her face, and then it hardened again. "Their lives were forfeit the moment they made the choice to oppose Lord Voldemort," she said. "It really doesn't matter how it happened."

Harry wanted to scream loud enough that he wouldn't have to hear her, wouldn't have to watch those hideous words coming out of her mouth. Ron made a sound half a cry, half a moan, and charged the stage, pointing his wand at Voldemort, tears streaming down his face.

"No!" Harry yelled, seeing Voldemort raising his wand, and the word stretched out in his mouth, the world slowing down as if to make sure he caught every detail, every instant. Taking a step felt as though he was uprooting himself from the ground, his arm coming up so slowly, and Ginny's voice sounded deep and slow as she opened her mouth and said,

"—avada kedavra—"

—and Ron stumbled just in front of the platform and fell over, sliding a little way along the ground before coming to a halt.

Hermione's scream from behind the stage seemed to go on forever, until he fought his way out of the paralysis just to make it stop. Voldemort and Ginny and the Death Eaters wheeled around, their wands coming up too late as Hermione shrieked out the twenty syllables of the Thermaen Curse in a single breath and the whole stage erupted into flames. Their hair, their robes went up like torches, and their screams mingled with the hungry, vicious roar of the fire until they managed to cry out the Apparating spell one after another and vanished.

Harry stumbled forward, choking on the smell of roasting flesh, and just caught Hermione when she would have flung herself on Ron's burning body, desperately holding her back from the spreading flames as she screamed and wept, beating on him with her fists. His own tears glittered in her hair, and he held her until she stopped struggling. And then they slid to the floor, clinging to each other while Ron's funeral pyre burned to the ground and grew black and cold and crumbled into ash.

The squat tenement building was sagging in disrepair, windows covered over with planks of wood, but it looked like heaven after the long, numb hours they'd spent waiting in the frantic noise of the Underground. Almost stumbling with fatigue, Harry followed Snape and Hermione down a half-flight of stairs and through the rusty back door into the cellar. The dark inside was cool and soothing, and after a moment's wait for their eyes to adjust, they continued down the corridor into a makeshift kitchen.

The concrete walls were beaded with moisture, only a single lightbulb hanging down over a small, rickety table. Harry pulled up a chair for Hermione and sank into one himself, then sat and watched water droplets chase each other down the wall while Snape filled a kettle and set it on the stove. After a moment, Snape joined them at the table and studied them both.

Harry knew they had to be a sight, their hair hopelessly tangled and their faces dirty. He'd stolen clothes for them out of a dry cleaning shop just outside London in the hours before morning, and he was wearing a lime green pullover three sizes too big for him, Hermione a shapeless bag of a dress and heavy boots. They had stood out in the station like a pair of sore thumbs, easy pickings if any of Voldemort's servants had come across the place.

But Snape said nothing about it and only asked, "What happened?"

Hermione gave a little broken gasp and looked away. Harry stared at the table surface, fighting past the lump in his throat. He had to be the one to talk. He couldn't make Hermione tell it.

Somehow he found the strength and the words came limping out, his eyes burning hot the whole time—no tears left to cool them. It took surprisingly little time to tell. He came up against the end too quickly, and the words that would have described Ron's death choked him into silence at last. Snape touched his shoulder and let him stop. They sat and said nothing for long moments, until the kettle whistled and floated over to the table, pouring itself into three cups.

"The Riddle diary must have laid the foundation," Snape said finally. "When she fell into his power again, at a time when she was already angry with you, the earlier possession made her vulnerable to his influence."

Harry picked up his cup, letting the heat soak through, painful against his fingers. "So it was my fault," he said softly. "If I hadn't been hurting her—even back then—"

"Stop it," Hermione said. "It wasn't your fault you weren't in love with her, and it wasn't wrong for you to go out with her. She's the one who kept asking you. Besides, you were only her crush, anyway—she'd have blown up at you in another week, dumped you on your rear, and started going out with someone else."

She dropped her head and stared down at her cup. "I couldn't understand why she kept going with you so long—anyone who knew you could tell you didn't really feel that way about her. Ron—Ron and I used to fight about it all the time," she said, her voice wavering. "He was just thrilled you were seeing her, and I kept telling him it was bad for both of you. But I never thought—I just assumed she'd gotten even more infatuated with you after you rescued her from Voldemort." She shrugged.

Snape nodded. "Blaming yourself is futile. The fault is Voldemort's, both for planting the first seed of evil and for bringing it to flower."

Harry stiffened. "That's what Neville said," he remembered, suddenly. "'Blood rises against blood, the seed of evil has flowered.' He was trying to warn us."

Snape's eyes narrowed. "Did he say anything more?" he asked.

"Yeah—" Harry shut his eyes, trying to remember the rhythm of the words. "'The Dark Lord ascends tonight, and greater darkness holds our only hope,'" he recited.

"Hm." Snape sat back. "Well, at any rate there is a hope," he said sourly, after a moment. "I was beginning to wonder."

Hermione pushed her hair back off her forehead and sat up straighter. "So what are we going to do?"

Snape said, "Longbottom is still recovering, but most of the others are out getting supplies or warning Voldemort's other enemies. We will be dividing into smaller groups and separating this evening, when they return."

"Where do you want us?" Harry asked.

"Black is going to Scotland, to try and get the willing Hogwarts students away to safety," Snape said. "Hagrid will go to the Continent and join the free Giants—he is too noticeable to stay under cover here. You could go with either."

Harry put down his cup. "That's not what I asked."

Snape studied him. "I will be leading the main resistance cell here in London," he said. "The city will provide the best cover for those of us whom Voldemort would most like to take, but it will also naturally be his first target."

Harry looked at Hermione, who nodded. "We're staying here, then," he said, turning back to Snape.

"Are you prepared to take my orders?" Snape said coolly.

"If you're prepared to give them," Hermione shot back.

"Well, then," Snape said, standing up. "Go and get some rest. We will be moving tonight. And then," he shrugged, "we begin again."

= End =

With many, many thanks to elynross and Rachel for beta-reading!

All feedback much appreciated!
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