The Sugar Quill
Author: Night Zephyr (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Points of No Return  Chapter: Chapter 30: Where There's a Will...
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Points 30.BR

~ Chapter 30 ~
Where There’s a Will...



The anger was helping. He knew what he had to do.

Ron leaned away from the three remaining dementor guards as they argued about who would be the first to suck his soul from his body, and who would get the leftovers. So now I know how the Christmas goose feels the day before... he thought. He’d nearly managed to back far enough away that he could have wandered off by himself.

But apparently the dementors were far too hungry to let their main course leave on its own. Just as he took another step back, the dementors noticed and circled around, hemming him in again.

No matter. Voldemort claimed he had murdered everyone in the first Portkey party--that must have had something to do with that horrible noise as they departed. Ron knew he could never face returning to his family without the twins. And life without Hermione? That was just--unthinkable. For some reason, he wasn’t even that emotional thinking about his own death--he realized it was probably the shock talking, and the horrible depression foisted upon him by the dementors. But to Ron--right now--it was simply something that had to be done. It made him wonder if perhaps he now understood Valeria’s resignation about killing herself the night that she had almost jumped off the cliff.

So it was perfectly clear. He, Ron Weasley, was about to give Harry Potter the chance to live and finish something for the wizarding world that had been started fourteen long years ago.

Ron shook out his shoulders and legs, feeling his wand still spell-stuck to his skin under his pant leg. He took one last look over the beautiful ocean and the clear sunny sky--those things he would miss...and his family...and Harry...and especially Hermione--but he would be missing her no matter what he did now, anyway. Better to take death into my own hands than stand here and wait for the dementors to do it. At least I’ll be dying my way, for something I believe in, for Harry...

Time to feel the rage, Weasley. It’s one of the things you’ve always done best...

He began by thinking about the way Voldemort had ruined Valeria’s life, that of an innocent Muggle child caught up by mistake in the Dark Lord’s evil scheme. Ron kept thinking--about his brothers and the fun, love, and laughter the world would be missing without them. And finally, he thought of Hermione--her brilliance, her courage, her love for life and his love for her--all of it taken, wasted, spent on the whim of some evil being who wasn’t worth even one day in the lifetimes he’d so nonchalantly taken.

Ron felt the heat rising in himself--felt it wiping away the despair of the dementors, felt himself gaining courage from the pressure of the anger building inside of him, felt it wash away any hope of thinking rationally to talk himself out of it...One more long deep breath...in...out...in--

Let it burn!!! Ron ripped his wrists away from each other behind him, the magical ropes flying in all directions. He shoved his hand down to his leg, grabbed his wand, raised it and turned, all in one swift move. Letting his anger and his body push the dementors violently apart, he burst through their circle--

*Harry! You can pull the ropes apart! Try it!* he thought to his friend as the sound of his Banshee-yell diversion echoed from the cliffs.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Harry groggily pull his hands free and start to retrieve his wand from his own pant leg.

But Ron didn’t have time to watch. He had a mission. Raising his wand, he thought of the only curse he knew that might render both Voldemort and Wormtail harmless long enough for Harry to take over.

Pointing his wand straight at Voldemort’s face as he charged, he shouted, “Petrificus To--!”

But the green blast he saw exploding toward him from the end of Voldemort’s wand stopped Ron’s spell midway.

Ron felt the enormous fireball hit him squarely in the chest, knocking the air from his lungs and his feet from the ground as it burned its way into his body. The force of the blast carried him backwards through the air, faster and farther than he would have thought possible. He felt the wind speeding past his ears, and vaguely heard screams and a familiar voice yell, “RONNNNN!!”

Expecting to be blown over the cliff and then feel himself falling, Ron felt himself hit something hard that didn’t stop his momentum but was carried along with him. In the split second he had to think, it felt vaguely like skeletons were all around him.

There was scrambling and grabbing and falling and burning and hurting and flying...

And then-- everything went black.

~~~***~~~

“Did you feel that, Moody?”

Sirius had followed the scent for a half day now, but what he’d smelled was not what caused him to transform from Snuffles into his wizard form.

“Feel what?” Moody grumbled.

“That--shaking. That vibration in the ground,” Sirius said impatiently. “Don’t tell me you didn’t feel that.”

“You’ve been sniffing up too many wild herbs here, Black. Time to take a break.”

“No--no, it was like an explosion was set off,” Sirius insisted. “But far away--and you already know how many people we haven’t seen out here. What are the chances some Muggle would be dynamiting to build a new suburb? Zero to maybe--none?”

“So what are you saying?” Moody asked, sitting down on a flat rock to rest his feet.

“I don’t know, exactly. I just know it’s damned peculiar. And I want to know what it was.”

“Maybe we’ll be able to see something when we get to the top of that ridge.” Moody had pulled off his shoe and was shaking tiny rocks from it. “That spire we can see up there might be part of an old tower or something--maybe you can climb it and see what your ‘vibration’ could have been from there.”

“Well, let’s go,” Sirius said anxiously. “How long are you going to rest this time?”

“I just sat down, Black. Don’t get your knickers all in a wad.” The old Auror was now replacing the shoe on his foot, only to start brushing away the rock bits stuck into the bottom of his wooden pegleg.

Sirius didn’t know whether it was a human or a canine sense that told him that vibration meant something. But he was damned sure going to find out what it did mean--and not after waiting for Moody’s rest break.

“I’ll meet you up there. That tower--right there,” Sirius said, pointing. “See it?”

Moody didn’t answer, just nodded his head and waved Sirius away.

~~~***~~~

The flames finally out, Harry grabbed at his forearm. The remaining sleeve of Ron’s Cannons shirt that he’d been wearing was black and smoldering; Harry’s skin was already blistering underneath. He stood in miserable, infuriated silence, his eyes finally traveling up slowly to the Dark Lord’s serpentine face.

“Potter, you’d better be thankful I still have need of you--or that would have been a deadly mistake,” Voldemort growled. “I told you you’d better not be lying about the wands. Stupid children--that’s all you are--unable to see the obvious, that there’s no hope of overcoming my power.”

It had all happened so fast.

Ron, bursting through the circle of dementors, shouting at the top of his lungs to create a diversion, his wand poised. At the same time, he sent Harry the thought that the wrist bindings were elastic, that he could get free and pull his wand.

That moment gave Harry the chance to throw off most of the grogginess the dementors caused in him and get his wand ready for action. But it had cost Ron precious time. In the same horrendous moment, Ron tried to cast a spell on Voldemort and the evil wizard had returned fire, but he hit Ron first... As Ron was blasted toward the cliffs, the huge spell fireball shot him over the ground, his hurtling body crashing into the three surprised dementors and taking them over the side of the cliff with him--over the side and--Harry was certain-- taking Ron to his death...

“RONNNNNN!!” Harry shouted from the depths of his being, but Harry could see nothing of his friend.

Then he turned on Voldemort. “YOU!!! You kill everyone that means something to me! EVERYONE!!! Kill ME this time!! KILL ME!!!” In a complete furor, Harry had snapped his wand up to point it at Voldemort, poised to strike. “MURDERER!!” He’d never uttered the words before nor tried to cast the spell, but this time he didn’t care and it didn’t matter. “CRUCI--!!!”

But Harry’s reactions, still affected by the dementor sickness, were just a millisecond too slow. Voldemort swung his wand around a moment after blasting Ron away, yelling, “Expelliarmus!”

The wand flew from Harry’s hand, and Harry leaped toward it, reaching to retrieve it if only he could have been fast enough. But he grasped at thin air.

“Inflamare!”
the Dark Lord said tersely.

Harry’s entire shirt sleeve burst into flame as his wand clattered to the ground.

Harry didn’t care at first. Why would he need a healthy, working arm when Voldemort was going to kill him anyway? The pain was intense, but it was nothing compared to the pain in his heart.

Yet something else was burning inside of him, too--the need for revenge. He wasn’t sure as he slapped at the flames whether they would burn the delicate wood of his wand before he cast the Killing Curse on Voldemort, or if Voldemort would simply get the better of him should he be able to get to his wand. Right now, surviving this was the worst possible ending Harry could think of. But Ron had told him to do it for him, do it for all of them--avenging their deaths was the least he could do for the very best friends he’d ever had, Harry thought. He’d have to wait for a chance again...

Voldemort’s wand was pointed straight between Harry’s eyes, the Orb glinting silently above his other hand. He leaned very close to Harry and began to speak quite softly, but intensely.

A few feet away, Harry noticed Valeria was moaning, recovering from her second faint. Wormtail was hanging over her like a mother hen over a chick, apparently trying to complete his appointed task of protecting her from harm for Nagini’s sake. He also appeared as if his own fears were making him wish he was invisible.

“Imbecile!” Voldemort screeched at Wormtail. “You can’t even bind children well enough to stop them from escaping?! Mere children?? Crucio!” Voldemort pointed his wand at his servant.

Wormtail fell to the ground near Valeria’s side, writhing and screaming. The little man, wracked with pain, rolled on the ground alongside the girl whose mind was so unstable from Voldemort’s meddling that she could no longer deal with the real world. It all sickened Harry.

Voldemort returned his attention to his own charge, seemingly unconcerned. “There’s only one thing I want from you, Harry,” Voldemort began. “No, it’s not even your life, unless I can’t get what else I want. It’s just one little thing--one little piece of you that has never ceased to drive me mad. It was part of your parents, too, and they refused to give up theirs. It was what led to their deaths. I hope you’re smart enough to learn from your parents, Harry, even after they’re gone.”

“If they didn’t give up, then neither will I--whatever it is you want!” Harry snarled.

“But it’s so simple,” the Dark Lord stated. “All I want is-- your will.”

Harry narrowed his eyes in slight confusion.

“A will can be a wonderful thing, Harry. It can push you to gain more from yourself and from others--or it can hinder you at every turn. I’ve seen the will in you, Harry.”

Harry stared into the deep redness of Voldemort’s eyes. It hurt like hell, but he was determined that Voldemort see the conviction in his soul.

“Your will is healthy and strong,” Voldemort continued. “I’ve actually admired it when I wasn’t hating you for using it against me. You managed to fend off even the Imperius Curse with its strength the last time we met. I know how a strong will works inside of you--just as you were succumbing to the Curse, that little voice inside of you fought back, telling you not to give in--that was your will. You even managed to make the joined power of our wands turn against me--against me!--its rightful owner!

“A will is not a magical thing, Harry, depending on how you use it. You had yours the day you set foot in Hogwarts, before you knew your first spell. I was there with our dear friend Professor Quirrell. It was your will that made certain you were Sorted into Gryffindor House instead of Slytherin. But what a foolish choice! Your will would have taken you to greatness in Slytherin, Harry. Had you used your will to join forces with those from Slytherin, you would be rising to greatness as we speak, for I would be taking you with me in my rise to greatness now. Thinkof what we could accomplish together...” Voldemort sighed wistfully before continuing.

“We stole the will idea from the dementors, actually. Even though it’s something that they’re endowed with through no fault of their own, they have the ability to take a person’s will from them. You already know how well that works, in daily life and in battle. And now that we have perfected the means to procure a person’s will, we can take it from anyone when they’re least expecting it. It’s taken some mistakes and miscalculations along the way. Some of those who are currently in St. Mungo’s are results of some of our--er, experiments-- with the new spell. But we believe we have now made taking a person’s will somewhat foolproof.”

“So good for you and all of your evil little Death Eaters,” Harry said sarcastically. “You’ve taken something evil and made it foolproof and even more evil--you should be very proud.”

“Oh, actually I am, Harry,” Voldemort agreed. “But there’s one very important reason I want your will, Harry.”

“Oh, I’m dying to find out,” Harry said sullenly.

“Yes, in the end you may have to. But actually, you need not die at all. If you give me your will freely, I can let you live. Of course, you would need to live with me to keep you from hurting yourself--there are still a few side effects we haven’t yet managed to counter. But once you’ve given your will to me, I would be glad to keep you on as a servant--and a perfect one you would be, too. A servant without a will is an excellent servant indeed. Do you know what started us on our little crusade for wills, Harry? This one thought: ‘If you possess the will of your enemy, the battle is already won.’ So, you see, to continue to resist is futile. We will prevail.”

“You can’t take people’s wills. They won’t let you,” Harry said defiantly. “That’s the reason they exist.”

“Oh, but we can,” Voldemort assured. “You can’t protect yourself all the time, Harry. You can’t be watchful and vigilant at every moment in your life. There will be that one moment where you let down your guard, then we will have you--or anyone else we want, for that matter. I’ve worked especially hard to get to your will, Harry, because you are my prize. I can hold you up to the entire wizarding world as the one who saw reason in turning your will over to me. That I have taken the great Harry Potter’s will shall alone show my greatness and send the people of the world cowering before me.”

“But you’ve made a big mistake, Voldemort--you’ve badly overestimated my will to live,” Harry said matter-of-factly. “You’ve already killed my parents, now some of the only family who ever cared about me, and my two best friends. Then you tell me I’d have to live with you. Who in their right mind would want to live at all?”

But there’s the world, Harry-- that little voice inside told him. All of those people--they’re depending on you. He never understood why he was destined to be a great wizard, much less the great wizard who was fated to save the entire wizarding world. The weight of it was daunting.

Voldemort had paused at Harry’s question, then turned momentarily to release Wormtail from his agony.

Harry glanced away for a moment toward the Portkey site and--

The thought hit Harry far harder than a Bludger to the stomach ever had. Not only had he lost Ron when he was thrown from the cliff’s edge, Harry’s only possible means of escape had gone with him. The Portkey had been in Ron’s pocket. It wasn’t that he’d really thought he would survive the battle with Voldemort anyway, but now he had only one real hope left. If he wasn’t going to survive this and escape, then neither was Voldemort.

Although he knew there was nothing in his stomach, the intensity of the pain from his scar and from the burns on his arm, and the idea of what Voldemort was describing caused him to gag nearly in the Dark Lord’s face. It gave him an idea. Harry tried to remember the feeling of the Golden Snitch as it fluttered in his mouth during his first-ever Quidditch game. He remembered the Snitch tickling at the back of his throat, then he grabbed at his middle and leaned over, pretending to retch.

Ha! It’s working!

Voldemort, startled as he turned back to face Harry, automatically took two steps back. He was careful not to take his eyes from the boy, but was apparently reluctant to wear the vomit of his sworn enemy as well.

All Harry had to do now was take three quick steps and lean over farther...reaching... reaching ... yes! The wand was in his hand, in spite of the searing pain the blisters in his arm were causing him. Whipping the wand up before his face, Harry then pointed it at Voldemort, only to discover that Voldemort was ready for him as well.

“Expelliarmus!” Voldemort tried once more.

But Harry was expecting that one the second time. He held on tight to his wand in spite of the pain it caused and the wand’s struggle to set itself free. “Stupefy!” Harry shot at the evil wizard, hoping it would give him a moment to think of what to do next.

But Voldemort darted quickly to the left and the spell missed its target.

Harry’s mind was beginning to clear since all of the dementors were now gone. Ron had even done that for him--unwittingly, true--but nevertheless, even in defeat, Ron had done all that he could to help Harry survive and win the battle.

“Serpensortia Quinentus!” Voldemort bellowed, pointing the wand to Harry’s side.

Not one, but five cobras slid from the end of Voldemort’s wand, landing scattered in a semi-circle around the surprised Harry. They moved independently, but all of them were already agitated. Their flanges spread in warning, the snakes bobbed and weaved, apparently trying to focus on what part of Harry’s body to attack first. The hissing, spitting sounds of Parseltongue escaped the Dark Lord’s lips as he tried to incite them to strike.

Harry could not catch all that was said--he just tried to stand very still and make sure the snakes didn’t feel threatened by him. He tried to speak to them in very soothing tones of Parseltongue, hoping that the snake-words escaping his mouth would calm them. Still, the snakes kept moving closer to him, sidling up to him with their posturing and threats until they were so close that one slight move in any direction would cause a strike simply from Harry stepping on them. He couldn’t afford to be bitten and pulled into some poison-induced trance before ridding the world of Voldemort for good.

“Your Parseltongue is quite good, Harry, though you’ve hardly had the years of practice I have,” Voldemort said to him in the eerie sounding snake-language. “It was kind of me to pass the language on to you at all, eh?”

“As if you had a choice,” Harry replied sullenly, still holding his wand at the ready.

Attempting to think of any advantage that remained at his disposal, Harry realized that Voldemort didn’t want him dead--yet. On the other hand, Harry saw no way out and was willing to die if he could take Voldemort, too. As reluctant as Harry was to use it, that meant there was only one thing left to do...

Terrified screaming broke into Harry’s concentration as Valeria came to full consciousness. Pettigrew, still recovering from the Cruciatus Curse, haltingly and painfully hovered over her as she struggled to stand.

Valeria suddenly squirmed sideways at the sight of the snakes surrounding Harry. Looking frantically around, most likely for Nagini, she stopped her shrieking and slowed her movements when she did not see the enormous snake. Her face took on a look of bewilderment at the circumstances surrounding her.

Harry could only imagine what was going on in her mind, but he had other things to concentrate on. The time had come. Knowing that he was making a decision of sound mind since the dementors were now gone, he decided it was the wizarding world’s only way out.

Harry took a deep breath and pointed his wand.

Avada Ke--”

“Finite Incantato!”

Harry felt his throat seize up as Voldemort stopped the Unforgivable Curse from being completed. He told himself he wasn’t done yet --he’d have to do it faster this time--point and fire! But before he could get it out of his mouth he heard:

“Accio Inclinatio!” The green sparks blazed toward him as he stared into the tip of the Dark Lord’s wand.

Something suddenly disoriented Harry for a moment. Slowly a small opalescent white cloud surrounded by deep blue sparks emerged from him, floating out in front of his body and toward the Dark Lord. His mind racing to decide what to do, Harry found that the farther the cloud moved, the less he cared what would happen with it.

My will! It must be my will!

“Immobulus!”
Harry knew he couldn’t finish the incantation in time to completely end Voldemort’s spell, but he could halt it in mid-stream. His own spell blocked his will from floating any farther away, but then his wand hand, still held rigid for the spell, began to feel something he hoped he’d never feel again.

Like some nightmarish case of déja vu, Harry felt his wand lock with its brother, Voldemort’s wand, vibrating and starting to become hot at once. They had been here before, Harry and Voldemort -- less than a year before, in the graveyard in Little Hangleton: wands locked, eyes locked, wills locked in battle. Only this time, Harry’s will was on the line as it floated between them. It had been Harry’s life that was in jeopardy the last time they’d met, but this time, the prospect of a will-less life with Voldemort was so much worse.

Harry wondered if they would be lifted up as they had been in Little Hangleton, but this time the two wizards stayed grounded. The spell had not been completed--the two of them were in limbo, with nothing but their own inner strength to win their battle for them. Harry desperately reached out, checking to see if he could still use his will, even if it had been removed from his body. It seemed to work all right--he was still very determined to get it back and overcome Voldemort-- but it certainly took more energy to use it from here.

“Very clever, Harry,” Voldemort said, concentrating on pulling the cloud towards him while still managing to keep the Orb spinning. “But surely you don’t think I’d let you win twice.”

“We’ll have to see about that, won’t we?” Harry replied, trying to sound much bolder than he felt.

“Fine, then,” Voldemort said. “I know how much harder it is to use your will outside of your body. You’ll tire soon, and I’m a patient wizard, Harry. You already know that. I’ll wait.” Voldemort adjusted his stance, as if he was settling in for a good long time.

Harry started to do the same, but a sudden warning hiss reminded him that he wouldn’t be moving at all, not even an inch. The snakes were still bobbing and weaving close around him, though they had calmed somewhat once Voldemort had stopped mumbling his incessant Parseltongue.

It had been several minutes when Harry felt himself start to tire. This whole thing reminded him of a bizarre arm-wrestling tournament he’d seen once from the hallway on Dudley’s TV. He glanced at the opalescent cloud in front of him and sensed it moving farther from him. One look at Voldemort told him it was true--the Dark Lord was beginning to smile evilly-- and Voldemort’s strength was beginning to overcome his own.

Harry reached out, irritated that he was letting Voldemort pull his will away. Before his will got so far from him that he would no longer care, Harry had to think of some way to stop him. He’d never managed it before, but perhaps after that time in the cottage...

Keeping his wand and his concentration strong on holding his will stationary, Harry then focused his thoughts elsewhere in his mind. He felt something building and forming, rolling itself into a larger and grander sphere of power. Harry felt the fingers of his free hand warming--he held his hand toward his shoulder to prepare, then flung his entire arm away from his body, fingers outstretched. From the center of his palm flew a Quaffle-sized fireball, deftly striking Voldemort in the shoulder.

Voldemort lost his concentration on Harry’s will at the same he time lost his balance. While he struggled to regain both, plus the Orb Spell, the opalescent cloud drifted back toward its owner. But before it could be absorbed back into Harry’s body, Voldemort used some of Harry’s own medicine against him.

“Immobulus!”

Harry’s will was suspended once more, no more than a decimeter from his chest.

Harry was pleased that he had technically gained some ground with his wandless spell. But now he had another problem. The fireball and Voldemort’s flailing about had irritated the snakes again--and they were all still focused on him. Harry decided he wouldn’t be able to try that again without inciting one of them to strike.

Soon Harry felt himself tiring again, plus the wandless fireball had tapped his energy, too. He felt himself slipping when --

What was that?

Something interrupted his train of thought momentarily. It felt oddly familiar, yet it was but a flicker--and it was just as quickly gone.

My mind’s still playing tricks from the dementor sickness...Harry shook his head a bit to clear it, trying to concentrate on using as little energy as possible and still maintain his position.

Again he heard it--but it couldn’t be! He glanced once more at Voldemort to make certain the Dark Lord wasn’t cruelly planting this feeling in his brain somehow. But Voldemort was still concentrating intensely on their standoff.

Something was happening in his mind; not since before Fred, George and Hermione had left for Hogwarts had Harry felt this optimistic. There was only one answer for this great feeling of relief and elation beginning to pour into him.

Engaged in what was most likely a suicidal duel with the most evil Dark Lord in centuries, one who had every intention of ripping out the very essence of his being, and surrounded by angry cobras that didn’t seem the least bit impressed with his Parseltongue, Harry surprised even himself.

He smiled.


~~~***~~~

“Miss Granger!” Madam Pomfrey fussed. “You get back into bed this instant! If you can’t manage to calm yourself and stay put until I’m finished with Mr. Weasley, I’ll be giving you a Sleeping Draught!”

Hermione let out a loud sigh of exasperation and threw herself back onto her bed in the hospital wing. The Doctors Granger were seated on chairs at their daughter’s bedside, looking immensely relieved to have their daughter back, but at the same time recognizing Hermione’s anguish and worry about her friends. Mrs. Granger covered her daughter’s hand on the bed with her own, apparently trying to comfort the inconsolable Hermione as best she could.

Ginny broke away from her conversation with George, who seemed nearly as anxious as Hermione, and walked to Hermione’s bedside.

“Are you all right?” Ginny asked.

Hermione shook her head impatiently. “Yes--no-- I don’t know! Where are they, Gin? Why haven’t they come? They were supposed to be right behind us and it’s been nearly two hours.”

The arrival of the first Portkey group at Hogwarts hadn’t created much of a stir--at least for their first five minutes there, which was how long it took everyone in the school to find out they had returned. Hermione, Fred, and George had come hurtling into view only a few feet above the Portkey site at the edge of the forest and it had been all that Dumbledore could do to slow them down enough to keep them from breaking bones on impact.

Though she would never know exactly how, Hermione knew that Dumbledore had somehow sensed that the group was on its way and was in trouble. He had gone to the Portkey site and worked with them at the end of their transport to even out the spell and allow them to arrive safely. The headmaster also had the foresight not to advise any of the families of the students’ impending arrival because he had no idea what kind of condition they might arrive in--especially if the Transport Spell had gone awry. Hagrid had been asked by Dumbledore to stand by--just in case.

As soon as Dumbledore found that the three Portkey travelers had indeed arrived in one piece, he and Hagrid had whisked them up to the hospital wing as quickly as possible. They had burst into the main hospital room, Dumbledore shouting orders for Madam Pomfrey to lock the doors behind them and allow only family members in to see the students who had gone missing for four days now.

Three minutes later, the hospital wing was filled with tears, hugs and Weasleys.

Of course, the medical treatment priority had gone to Fred, as both George and Hermione had hoped for and expected. But neither George nor Hermione was very pleased with the fact that Dumbledore had restricted them to the hospital wing when they didn’t feel that their minor cuts and scrapes should keep them from returning to the Portkey site with Dumbledore.

Once Dumbledore had convinced Hermione and George that they weren’t going back with him, they had imparted to Dumbledore only the most pertinent information regarding Harry, Ron and Valeria. If the Portkey had worked as planned and the second group of travelers was somewhere in transport after fifteen minutes or so, Dumbledore needed to be at that Portkey site right then, and would have to catch up on other information later. After all, the second group was likely in much greater danger with their limited knowledge of the Transport Spell and with dementors on their heels.

Hermione and George both looked at each other, held up crossed fingers (Hermione had explained the significance of that while she and George were repairing Portkeys), and returned to their beds to catch up with their families. But both of them were too worried and upset to stay motionless for long; they kept jumping up to pace the floor and had to be reminded repeatedly to stay put.

The Weasley children surrounded George after all except Molly and Arthur had been chased away from Fred’s bed. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley stood at the foot of their son’s bed, watching nervously as Madam Pomfrey performed spells to test the extent of Fred’s injuries and the resulting conditions. The rest of the Weasleys sat quietly, casting furtive glances toward Fred and trying not to be too demanding with questions about the previous four days--at least not yet. In the air one could feel everyone making a difficult but undeniable effort not to ask questions about Ron and Harry.

After an hour or so, Dumbledore had rushed back in to ask a few more questions, then left as quickly as he had come. Ignoring George and Hermione’s requests to join him once more, he tried to do what he could to ease their anxiety about where the second Portkey party was.

Another hour and Hermione was beginning to feel as if she would burst if she didn’t hear something soon. The Portkey--I must have done something wrong with the Portkey. What if it was a fatal error in the spell--what if the spell simply fell apart during their transport? What If Ron and Harry are...What if it was me who didn’t do the spell correctly and they-- She’d had to stop herself at that point, telling herself that she simply didn’t know--encouraging herself with the fact that they hadn’t yet heard anything negative about the two boys. But she also realized that was very little to go on.

Just as she was finally managing to calm herself about the Portkey, the image of the dementors descending the hillside returned to haunt her mind, and she began a renewed round of worrying. She wondered if her best friends had been able to hold them off long enough to transport at all, or if something worse had come with the dementors this time. Again, she simply didn’t know--and not knowing was eating her alive.

Hermione swung her head around to give a tight-lipped, appreciative smile to her parents. She knew they were doing all they could to understand the gravity of the situation and her causes for worry, but she also knew that the extent of their understanding in this field was limited. The Grangers were simply so relieved to have their daughter back that, even though they could feel for the Weasleys, it was hard for them not to feel happy and comforted. Hermione envied them that feeling, and was hoping she could share it just as soon as Harry and Ron came back. She squeezed her mother’s hand.

Resigning herself to the fact that she was restricted to her bed for the near future, Hermione went to lay her head back on the pillow. She was nearly halfway down when she gasped loudly and bolted to a full upright position instantly.

*Ron? Ron? Ron, is that you???!*

“Ron...” Hermione said softly under her breath. But it was loud enough for Ginny to hear.

Ginny’s eyes widened as she stared into Hermione’s face. She seemed to understand immediately what was going on, probably from her own experiences within the connection. “He’s in your mind?”

Hermione nodded furiously to Ginny, her eyes filling rapidly with tears.

“Is he coming by Portkey right now?” Ginny asked urgently.

Hermione shook her head ‘no’, just a moment before she burst into tears.

“I’m going for Dumbledore,” Ginny said tensely, and with that, she disappeared through the hospital wing door.

~~~***~~~


Bloody hell! He heard strangling coughs and choking--who was that? They needed help! They were struggling to breathe and he wondered why he couldn’t see them anywhere around him. Maybe they were at his side...

He laboriously opened his eyes, only to find that he couldn’t move his head. It was trapped somehow, immobilized and tethered and--

Gasp!!--He suddenly realized it had been some time since he’d taken a breath and he sucked in as much oxygen through his mouth as he could. But it was still pitifully meager. The coughing and choking continued and he realized it had been him all along, kicking and clawing from the depths of the blackness as he climbed his way to consciousness.

Ron rolled his eyes up toward the sky, then down past his shoes to the waves breaking and splashing on the rocks below. His feet were dangling loosely over thin air, his chest and right side hurt like hell, something pushed relentlessly at his Adam’s apple, he couldn’t breath-- and he had no idea how he got here.

It took him a moment to realize that it was not only his feet dangling in mid-air, but the rest of him as well. Before him was an unblocked view of the ocean. He could not see behind him, but slowly reached back with his left hand to feel something rough and solid. As he started to reach with his right hand, he realized there was already something in it and to his surprise, it was his wand. Though he wasn’t exactly gripping the wand, it was luckily stuck to the palm of his hand with the Adhesivus Spell.

Despite the blinding pain in his head, everything began to come back. Adhesivus--Harry and he had used that to safeguard and hide their wands. But why? ...Hiding them from Voldemort and Pettigrew! Now he remembered that far. But how did he get here?

Air--air was becoming a problem. Ron reached to his neck with his left hand to find the shirt he was wearing pulled up around his throat from the back. With a great effort, he pulled hard to wrench the material away from his throat enough to take a deep, gulping breath. Ah, that helped--a little oxygen to the brain can do wonders...

Something snapped above his head and suddenly dropped him several inches, bouncing him in space for a moment. Panicked, he looked back down to the rocks below to see three formless black mounds there. The dementors! That’s right! Like a Bludger to three oblivious Chasers in some evil game of Quidditch, he had been the ball that took them hurtling over the edge.

Ron reached above his head with his wand hand to touch the trunk of a scruffy little plant stuck through the inside of his shirt back. He was now aware enough to realize that the twig he now felt poking him behind his ear was part of the only thing keeping him from joining the dementors in their fate on the jagged rocks below. Crashing into the dementors as he went over the cliff must have deadened his momentum and pushed him back into the rock wall where the little plant had snagged him. But chances were, the plant had had enough trouble eking out a life in the cliffside without having to hold a sixteen-year-old boy aloft for very long.

Feeling for a handhold toward the root of the little plant (though his wand kept getting in the way) and holding the neck opening of his shirt away from his throat with the other hand, Ron gently kicked back with his heels and tried to find some way to dig them into the vertical face of the rocky cliff. Though it took a few minutes, he found two holds that were enough for him to push off and support a little of his own weight, at least enough to free his head a bit so he could look up and see how else to help himself.

Ron saw that he was dangling about fifteen feet from the top edge of the cliff. The little plant that was currently supporting him had grown from a shallow rock ledge about eight feet in length, but he could feel that the stem was already bent to its limit--and cracking. Somehow he had to get to that ledge.

He took a deep breath and held it since his air would be cut off completely for a minute or so as the shirt collar literally wrung his neck. With one swift move, he managed to swing his left side around and grab hold; a few minutes and several scrapes later, he heaved himself onto the twelve-inch deep ledge, gasping for air. Though he was far from being out of his predicament, he lay on his side and looked down at his chest, deeply inhaling the cool, sweet air and smiling in relief. He’d made it--he didn’t fall to his death on the rocks below--at least not yet. What he’d found so ironic was that in his effort to help save Harry’s life, it had been Harry’s shirt that had saved his.

Hmmm--where was Harry...? Ron listened very carefully as he lay there. He could hear nothing aside from the constant roar and pounding of the waves on the rocks below. He was anxious to find out if Harry was all right, but he knew that if he didn’t rest for a few minutes before trying to scale the rest of the cliff wall, he would very likely fall and be of no help to Harry at all.

If his diversion had worked, maybe Harry had already taken care of Voldemort. Perhaps he had used the Portkey to return to Hogwarts; because once Voldemort was gone there would be no Orb to stop him. He could just get the Portkey and--wait a minute--Ron reached his hand into his front jeans pocket and pulled out a very familiar piece of orange and white material.

“Oh no,” Ron groaned. But looking at the Portkey piece only rekindled his anger and renewed his determination, in spite of the fact that he felt like he’d been run over twice by the Hogwarts Express.

Voldemort claimed he had killed the first Portkey group. But that picture--the one he’d shown Harry on the smokescreen...Ron closed his eyes and tried to re-form it in his mind--at least he’d had a chance to stare at it long enough to ingrain it in his memory. There was something there in the background--something on the right. It was fuzzy in his mind’s eye, but as he thought about what it could be, he became more and more positive that his thought was correct.

That picture couldn’t have been taken just before he killed Hermione, Fred, and George! Because Ron now realized what he thought was so strange--what he saw in the dark, fuzzy background-- it’s us--Harry and me! Somehow the Dark Lord had gotten hold of an image from the cottage, when the five of them had been together. Valeria was right--that cursed bloody-looking picture on the wall was charmed after all.

But Ron had to be sure. Since he couldn’t yet physically help Harry, he decided to send his mind in search of Hermione. Yet he had to take a deep breath and rally his courage first. Ron was more terrified of finding out the truth about her than he had ever been of anything in his life. The dullness he’d felt before had been caused by the dementor sickness. But now, it was his own emotions he had to face--and if he found that the worst had happened...

Determined not to think about that, he withdrew into his mind and felt himself searching, reaching, having to push diligently through some barrier as if pushing his body through a wall of wet clay.

Bloody hell--the Orb Spell was still up! But Ron had managed to reach Ginny all the way at Hogwarts with it still functioning--he’d be damned if he was going to stop when the one he was searching for held his best reason for living deep in her heart. Though shoving his way through the Orb Spell was all but impossible, he finally burst through on the other side, only to find that his destination was easy to reach.

He was almost afraid to think her name--he found he had to take a deep breath and close his eyes before he could do so.

*Hermione?*

At once, a huge wave of relief and euphoria washed over his mind, but it wasn’t from his end of the connection.

*Ron? Ron? Ron, is that you???!*

At her words, Ron let out a sigh of relief so great that a sharp pain shot through his tender ribs.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you...” Ron whispered to himself as he lay on the ledge. But in his mind he was shouting to himself. Thank the heavens and the gods and the heirs of any kind of goodness in the entire world!! Hermione, you’re ALIVE!

*Gods, it’s so good to hear your voice!* Ron thought to her. *The connection’s pretty weak and hard to hold onto--but I had to know. Are you all right?*

*I thought I did something wrong with your Portkey...and then you and Harry would be...or--or I thought the dementors attacked you and then...is Harry with you?... oh...Ron... you’re still alive...*

Had she been there with him on the little ledge, he imagined that the shaking from her deep sobs of relief would have surely knocked them both from it. Her emotions were so strong just now that he could feel them overcoming her attempt to answer him, no matter how hard she was trying. He lay there silently for a few moments, not moving, not thinking, just feeling the warmth of her thoughts and the sense of her in his mind heal his soul as only she could.

Ron thought he’d lost the connection because she had paused so long before she could edge her way toward a coherent thought.

*Yes, we made it,* Hermione continued, finally able to pull herself together. *We’re all right--all of us. The Portkey transport was terrible, but Dumbledore helped when we got closer. How he found out we were on our way, I’ll never know, but they’re treating Fred and we’re all safe. Where are you? What happened with the Portkey--and the dementors? Is Harry all right?*

*It’s not over yet,* Ron thought to her. *At least, it wasn’t. I can’t explain it all right now, but I can’t see Harry yet. Voldemort blew me over the cliff with a spell--*

*Voldemort? Voldemort came? With just you and Harry there?* Hermione questioned, the panic rising in her voice. *And he sent you where?*

*Well--just Harry was left with him at the end. And he was fighting him when I was, erm, blasted away...* Ron realized he needed to get to Harry soon, no matter how awful he felt . *In a minute I’m going to climb the cliff to see what’s happened. But Voldemort--he told Harry you were dead--and that he killed Fred and George, too. I had to know...*

*Voldemort’s completely despicable. We never saw or heard anything from him,* Hermione thought. *Even if we did have to use the destroyed Portkey his stupid rat chewed up.*

*I’ll let you know what I find out, but I’d better get off and see what Harry’s up to.*

*It sounds like you’re cutting off the connection.*

*Well, it’s hard to hang onto and I don’t know if I--*

*You can’t climb and stay connected, too?*

Ron noticed that Hermione was getting that determined sort of tone even in her thoughts. *I don’t know--it’s not something I ever tried before.*

*All right then. If I lose you, I’ll know why. But until then--I’m going with you.*

Ron sighed. Hundreds of miles and a magical barrier between them made no difference--she was still Hermione. Good thing he loved her that way.

*I don’t know if you want to know what happens through me in case--*

*Ron! I’m going!*

There was no use arguing--he was too tired and it felt too good to have her with him for him to fight it any longer.

*Be careful,* she pleaded to him, changing moods at once.

The climb to the edge of the cliff was grueling and horribly slow, even if there wasn’t much distance to cover. His fingertips were bleeding and raw from clawing his way into the tiny handholds in the rock wall; his legs and feet cramped painfully from supporting his weight and holding himself on the wall with his toes.

Ron cautiously peered over the edge at the top, pulling himself up on his elbows and making one final push before rolling himself to hide behind a knee-high bank of grass not far from Valeria. Luckily, Pettigrew had his back turned. Ron looked toward the cottage to see Voldemort and Harry still facing off.

The good news was that Harry was alive, his wand in his hand; he looked even more aware and determined than he had earlier without the dementors to hinder him. The bad news was that it looked as if something dreadful had happened to Harry’s arm, and he was surrounded by five very irritated cobras. Suspended between Harry and the Dark Lord was some kind of sparkling blue-white cloud; though Ron had no idea what it was, he knew it was important if it was being fought over by these two.

*Okay, I’m at the top,* Ron thought to Hermione in response to her frequent questions about Harry’s welfare before Ron could even see him. *They’re still dueling. Harry looks--* he decided not to worry her more than necessary *--tired, but okay so far.*

*You’re telling me the truth, aren’t you?* Hermione asked.

Wouldn’t you know she’d ask me that? *Erm, the connection’s getting worse, Hermione, probably because I’m closer to the Orb. Can’t hear you very well. I’m going to try and connect with Harry.* Please let her buy that excuse...

There was certainly an emotional trail for Ron to follow to reach his best friend.

*Harry?* he thought to his best friend.

There was no response except the confusion and terrible tension he could feel in Harry’s mind.

*Harry!*

Still no response.

*Hey, Harry--you’re not planning on beating up on this guy without me, are you?* Ron thought. * You know what? That bloke is such a bloody liar! Claims he killed the twins and Hermione. Ha!! I should set Hermione loose on him for that; she’s right here in the connection with me. But they’re all safe at Hogwarts, no problem.* It took a lot of energy for Ron to rally any kind of good thought from beyond the depths of his exhaustion and pain, but he could tell Harry was in dire need of some good news.

*About time you showed up, Weasley!* Harry acted as if he’d wanted to think more to Ron, but Ron could tell from the feelings of relief coming his way that they were all Harry could muster and still give attention to his own predicament.

Squinting through the grass and across the clearing, Ron would have almost sworn he saw Harry smile.

*You’re smiling, Harry? Dueling with bloody Voldemort and you’re smiling? * Ron knew precisely why Harry was smiling--in spite of it all, he was grinning, too. *I reckon you’ve gone mental on me, mate--absolutely barking mad.*

Maybe things were looking up after all.

~~~***~~


A/N: Many, many thanks go out to Christina Teresa, my beta, who had little idea what she was in for when she volunteered to take on my story. Rumor has it she’s been much more careful as to what she agrees to since then... :)

I would also like to thank all of you who have managed to weather the longer waits between these most recent chapters, understanding that they are not only difficult to write, but come at avery hectic time near the end of the school year for both my beta and myself. I’ve always claimed that my readers are the best--you continue to prove to me that you still are! Keep reading and (hopefully!) enjoying!

~NZ~


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