(A/N) - The two rules of war are not mine. Hoo, I wish they were. No, I borrowed them, with some alteration, from an episode of M*A*S*H. They seemed to work.
Ron sat on his trunk, watching Tonks. She was transforming herself, watching the mirror to gauge the effectiveness of her disguise. He said to her, “I don’t understand.”
She finished lengthening her nose and looked at him in the mirror. “You don’t understand what?” she asked.
“You, I don’t understand you.” He put his chin in his hands. “A week ago, you were all broken up about your aunt. But you’re still doing this.”
“I have to,” she said.
“Even when you know what’ll happen eventually? What you might have to do?”
She said to the mirror, “Yes.”
Ron said, “But--”
“It’s war,” she said, still to the mirror. “You can’t say, ‘I don’t like this bit, so I believe I’ll just kip on the sidelines today.’ It doesn’t work like that.”
He let out his breath.
She looked over her shoulder at him, then turned around. “Moody told me something last week,” she said, leaning one shoulder against the wall. “Right after it happened.”
“Was it ‘CONSTANT VIGILENCE?’” Ron asked sourly.
“No. But that was mentioned.” She grimaced. “At top volume. No. He said something else, after he calmed down. He said, in war there are two rules, and only two. Rule one is that people die.”
“And what’s the second?”
She let her head fall sideways to rest against the wall. “Rule two is . . . nobody can change Rule One.”
They both looked up as his mum came clattering down the stairs. “There you are, Ron--have you got everything? Where’s your owl?”
“Dining room,” Ron said. He’d shut the fuzzy nutter in there in futile hopes that it might work off some of its hysterical energy.
“Just don’t forget him. And Tonks--” His mum stopped, as if she wanted to say something but couldn’t in front of Ron. “Be careful.”
Tonks smiled a little. “I’ll try.”
A few hours of confusion and noise later, the Weasleys, Harry, and Hermione snuck onto the platform. As usual, they were among the last, and the engine was already belching steam like a last-minute warning. Mrs. Weasley fluttered from child to honorary child, giving hurried orders as they tried to get themselves into the compartment.
Before climbing in, Ginny hugged their mum for longer than usual. Mum, holding her tightly, whispered something that Ron didn’t hear. Ginny nodded against her mother’s shoulder, then lifted her head and took a deep breath, following that with a brave smile.
“That’s my girl.”
Ginny clattered up the stairs, and Mum turned to Ron. "Keep yourself out of trouble," she ordered, standing on tiptoe to push his hair out of his eyes. "I've got enough things on my mind."
"S'all right," he said with forced lightness. "I still remember that Howler you sent me once."
She hugged him, holding him so tightly his ribs hurt. "Take care of yourself," she said.
"You too," he muttered, hanging on. He'd been taller than her for years, but she still meant security to him, this plump, soft woman with a temper that would send kings scurrying.
What if this is it?
What if this is the last time? Ever?
It could be.
She let go and gave him a little push. "Go on. You'll miss the train."
"Mum," he said.
She looked up.
"I love you, Mum."
The train whistle screeched, and he bolted to get on board.
It started up while he was closing the door behind him, and he held still a moment, trying to get used to the motion before he went lurching down the corridor like Frankenstein’s monster. It wasn’t far to the prefects’ compartment, but he still felt the need of a minute to himself.
Ron started along the passageway, timing his steps to the rocking of the train, and was almost to the prefect’s compartment when Malfoy came out. He’d shut the door behind him before he looked up and saw Ron.
His lip curled slightly, but it looked more automatic than anything else. “Weasley,” he said. “They let you back in this year?”
Ron didn’t say anything to that, but stared hard at him. Malfoy looked . . . tight, somehow. As if holding himself in one piece was a terrible, terrible effort.
Their eyes met.
In that moment, Ron forgot about a lot of things. He forgot that Malfoy was a horrible, bullying git whom he’d loathed practically since the moment they’d met. He forgot about taunts and sneers and “Weasley is Our King.” He forgot five years of a seething cold war that had periodically erupted into battles.
All he saw was pain.
Five impulsive words leapt out of his mouth.
Of course, he remembered everything again when Malfoy hit him.
In the end, it took the combined efforts of Hermione, Harry, Crabbe, and Goyle to separate them. Even with Crabbe and Goyle hanging on to one arm each, Malfoy almost got loose, screaming curses so foul that gaping people came out of compartments, all up and down the car.
When Malfoy drew his wand, the new Head Boy finally lost his patience, disarmed him, and hexed him into silence. Malfoy kept screaming, soundlessly, his eyes red and wild.
The Head Boy turned to Hermione and Harry, who were holding Ron up more than they were holding him back. “You’d better get him to another compartment,” he said, tucking Malfoy’s wand into his pocket. “Weasley, you’re off patrol today. So is Malfoy. Try not to run into him anymore.”
“It wasn’t my choice this time,” Ron said, exploring his mouth with his tongue. Luckily, all his teeth still seemed to be in their sockets. His eye throbbed madly, and one knee radiated pain all up and down his leg.
“Whatever happened, see it doesn’t again,” the Head Boy decreed. “You’re lucky you’re not a fruit-bat right now, or worse. Granger--”
“We’re going,” Hermione said coldly.
They waded through the still-gaping crowd to the first empty compartment they found. Although Hermione had resented the Head Boy’s tone, it didn’t stop her from launching into a scold of her own. Ron let her run on, but concentrated on making sure he was all in one piece. He was, but only by luck, it seemed.
“You’ll have some fantastic bruises, mate,” Harry told him. “That one cut on your chin might even scar. Something to show off.”
“Oh, my god, you are bleeding! Oh, Ron,” Hermione moaned, digging out her handkerchief. “What on earth did you say to him?”
He jerked away when she tried to dab some of the blood off his chin. “I’m sorry.”
“You should be sorry,” she said, scooting down the bench after him, “d’you know how much trouble you’re going to get in when we get there,” she trapped him in the corner, against the window, and went after the blood again, “for heaven’s sake you’re a prefect--”
“No,” Ron said. “That’s what I said to him. I said I was sorry. About his mum.”
Hermione’s hand paused. “You did?” The hand, and the handkerchief, dropped to her lap. “And then he hit you?”
“Yeah.” Ron looked out the window. “Don’t blame him, really. Daft thing to say. Considering.”
Harry’s reflection looked at him silently in the window glass. Ron looked through it, to the scenery rolling past. End-of-summer heat poured in through the window, even with the whipping wind of their speed. The sky was blue and cloudless. It was one of England’s rare, perfect days.
And Malfoy’s mum wasn’t seeing it.
Nobody can change Rule One.
Ron propped his head on his hand, feeling as if it weighed ten thousand pounds and might snap his neck without support.
Just like Narcissa Malfoy.
This was what Professor Lupin had meant when he’d said, “She was a human being.” It was all human beings on the other side, mums and dads, brothers, sisters, and friends. Just like on their side. They had houses and families and favorite foods. They bit their nails and left wet towels on the floor and snuck the steamed broccoli to the dog.
They might be the enemy, but they were still people.
Narcissa Malfoy had been a Death Eater. He knew that. She’d more than likely meant to kill Tonks. He knew that too. She hadn’t been much of a nice person, to be honest about it. But she’d been a person. Alive. And one person, at least, had loved her.
Now she wasn’t alive.
And one person loved her still.