Rating:
PG-13
House:
Schnoogle
Characters:
Hermione Granger Ron Weasley
Genres:
Romance Action
Era:
Multiple Eras
Spoilers:
Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire Order of the Phoenix Quidditch Through the Ages Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Stats:
Published: 06/06/2004
Updated: 01/06/2005
Words: 243,073
Chapters: 26
Hits: 84,040

Hermione Granger and the Beginning of the End

Ann Margaret

Story Summary:
This is the story of the beginning of the trio's last months at Hogwarts, the beginning of the end of their childhood and the end of the war. But will good prevail? Will they survive? And why the hell did Ron Weasley throw away his relationship with Hermione? Once again, a lot more action, darker, but perhaps this time we shall have a happy ending...or not...

Chapter 10

Chapter Summary:
A brief change of POV as we learn what Ginny has been up to. Hermione also makes some more revelations about Ron.
Posted:
08/01/2004
Hits:
2,994
Author's Note:
Sorry this took so long--I was on vacation and didn't have a computer. Hope you enjoy!


Hermione Granger, I am going to murder you when you get back here, Ginny Weasley thought furiously as she tried yet again to force open a window. She wanted desperately to get inside the Malfoy estate and finally find out what the hell was going on. She had slipped into the pantry that Hermione had entered through, but after eavesdropping and hearing Hermione leave for the dungeons with that house-elf, Ginny knew that she couldn't use the kitchen as a point of entry. It would be much too suspicious for two of these Muggle girls to escape the same night without an Invisibility Cloak or anything, so Ginny had no hope of getting down to the dungeons by that route. She had therefore climbed back out of the window and ever since had been trying every window and door she could reach. She had been around the entire manor with no luck, so now she had to find a way to get up to the first floor. However, Ginny had a sickening feeling that she was going to have little success. The only window that had been uncharmed was the one that had been so hidden behind the thick bramble that Ginny suspected that Lucius Malfoy had simply not seen it. She was now more than a little frustrated. She was tired, she was cold, and she was worried sick about her brother and his friends who were sneaking around inside in search of Riddle.

Riddle. Ginny swallowed hard at the mere thought of his name, as the all too familiar chill of dread passed through her. She hated so much that this man was still haunting her after all these years--she had recurring nightmares about him, she could barely say the word diary, and every now and then she would terrify herself by thinking she had seen his face in a crowd. In fact, when she had walked into the Potions classroom and Riddle had turned around to face her, she had thought she was hallucinating again. But then he had laughed and called her Ginevra, and it was all too, too real. Ginny shuddered at the memory of the first curse that had flown at her; she had been frozen in place by the sheer power of his eyes as they bored into her, and at the sound of his low, sinister voice as it caused icy fingers of dread to race up and down her spine. And now he was somewhere inside--waiting for her.

Ginny backed away from the window she had just tried to open, the heel of her hand against her head. She tried to will that voice to finally leave her mind forever so that she could finally get some peace after all of these years. I came back for you, Ginevra, Riddle had informed her that day. You aren't a child anymore, my dear, and...his eyes had raked her skimpy outfit with a relish that made Ginny wish she had the power to kill a man just by her glare...I plan on taking full advantage of that fact.

He had indeed tried to take advantage of her, but Ginny had managed to stop him. He had thrown her wand away from her, so she didn't know how she managed to twist away, but she did, and that was all that had mattered. It was quite reassuring to know that she still had the strength to ward off Tom Riddle even after he had used the Cruciatus curse on her over and over in rapid, pained succession in order to attempt to weaken her. She had been so weak near the end that she recalled thinking that she couldn't do it anymore. But then Riddle's hand had touched her in a manner that was so incredibly wrong--because it wasn't Harry Potter 's fingers grazing her skin--that she had let out an almighty scream and Riddle had sworn loudly. No one had known about his reincarnation and had hoped that it would stay that way, but now Ginny's scream would attract attention to him. His hand had turned on her again and that was the last thing Ginny remembered. She hadn't told anyone that, because she couldn't bear to see the shock, anger, and fright in the eyes of her family and friends when she revealed it. She would just deal with this on her own as she always did.

And that meant having to see him again. Ginny couldn't live with this burden of knowing what Riddle had done to her and Harry and Dean without seeing it through. In fact, Ginny knew that if she had the opportunity, she would have no qualms about killing him--Ginny had never told anyone that before either. It rather frightened her that she knew she had it in her to take a human life, but it would be the only way to make his voice stop ringing in her ears. The only way to make it stop was to see his cold dead body herself, and to see that bloody diary destroyed. She had known it was a bad idea to give that diary back to Lucius Malfoy even though everyone else had reassured her that there was no way Riddle could come back. But Ginny had known better--she had known the extent of Riddle's determination and power; he was a true Slytherin after all. If he wanted to come back, he could do it with the help of his allies. And this had just proven it to be true.

So it had to be ended; it had to be ended right now. Ginny kneeled back down to try another spell on the window she had been trying to open, but she never got that far. Satiny, flowing material brushed against the back of her neck as someone roughly wrapped his arms around her from behind in a slightly clumsy but heartfelt embrace. Normally, Ginny would have started struggling like mad, but there was no need.

"Harry," she breathed in infinite relief. She really wanted to hug him back, but remembering much too vividly what had happened before he had left her, she wasn't very sure just how to react. He had kissed her for Merlin's sake and then ran away. She wasn't sure if she should be furious and pull away, or if she should let him know just how much that kiss had meant to her. He very well could have done it just to shut her up so she'd do what he had requested, but Ginny knew in her heart that that wasn't true. Harry could hide his true feelings from loads of people, but not from her. Never from her. She had seen his eyes when he had grabbed her shoulders and covered his mouth with hers, and that glow, that fire, that passion that had been blazing from those eyes that were so green that Ginny sometimes got weak in the knees at the sight of them, proved more than any words could demonstrate; there was something much more going on between them, something she had been waiting for ages to happen, and now that they were at that threshold of revelation, she found herself quite frozen in place, unsure of how to act or what to say at the risk of being slammed off of the doorstep and shoved right back to where she and Harry were six years ago. "You're okay," she finally whispered, figuring that'd be a safe comment to make.

Harry stepped back and pulled the Invisibility Cloak away, his untidy hair mussed more than usual from being under the cloak for so long. Even in the moonlight, Ginny could see that there were a few tearstains tracing down his cheek all the way to his chin. She had seen Harry cry a few times before, once right after Sirius had died, and a few more times when they didn't know where Ron was, but nevertheless it always made Ginny want to throw her arms around him in a desperate attempt to shield him from all of the madness in his world. It wasn't fair that someone as brilliant as Harry Potter had to go through hell like this, and Ginny sometimes wished more than anything that she had the power to make all of this go away so that Harry could be the one thing he had always wanted to be--normal.

Too bad he was anything but normal, and he always would be even if he wasn't the Boy-who-Lived. In Ginny's eyes, he would always be the most extraordinary man she had ever met. "Are you okay?" Harry finally asked as he looked her up and down carefully. "I almost killed Hermione when she told me she had left you on your own."

"She didn't have much of a choice." Ginny defended her friend even though a few minutes earlier, she had been ready to kill Hermione. "And I can be left on my...." Ginny halted in mid-sentence. She and Harry had had this fight many times before, and he knew her arguments by heart, but she knew that he would still fight her every step of the way, like Ron did with Hermione. Besides, she had just thought of something much more important to ask. "So Hermione found you?"

"Yeah, she's fine. Ron, too." Harry swallowed hard and opened his mouth to tell her something else, but the words wouldn't come out. Ginny frowned and Harry knew that he had to say something, or else she would ask. He didn't want to tell her straight away. "Remus is here."

"Really!" Ginny's eyes brightened. "Is he all right? Where is he?" Ginny's smile faded slightly. "And while we're at it, where are Ron and Hermione?"

"We can't bring him out yet." Harry indicated the full moon and Ginny let out a soft 'oh!' of understanding. "So we're staying put until morning, and leaving at dawn." He glanced down toward the front gates. "Any sign of the Order?"

"No," Ginny narrowed her eyes slightly as she regarded Harry suspiciously. "Did you come out here to tell me to stay put again?"

"No!" Harry protested, his head whipping back to stare at her. "No--I-I actually wanted to show you something--I think there's something you need to see," he amended; he actually wanted nothing more than to protect Ginny from the sight of the dead body, but he knew she had to see it. It would be just like if someone came up to him and told him that Voldemort was dead--he would have to go see the dead body for himself. He had cleaned the chamber up as much as he could manage in the limited time they had; he and Ron had put Riddle in the broken bed and covered him with the sheet to make it appear that he was asleep, while Hermione had picked up some of the broken furniture. Harry had insisted that they do this so that everything appeared to be normal to anyone who happened to peek into the room, but he had also done it for another reason. He had immediately known that Ginny needed to see Riddle for herself, but he didn't want her to see the wrecked state of the room. Ginny would then know how awful and vicious the brief battle had been, and she would turn to Harry with the earnest concern that always made Harry have a slightly sick feeling at the pit of his stomach. He hated making anyone worry about him, but there was something about Ginny's anxious eyes that made him just want to do everything in his power to make the look go away. It was going to be bad enough to watch her examine Riddle's dead body, but Harry knew she had to do it. However, he would be damned if she did it alone. He hesitantly lifted his hand toward her. "Will you come with me?"

Ginny stared at his hand and smiled when she realized that she'd no longer have to wonder how Harry's hand would feel in hers. She looked up into his eyes and the smile grew even wider. Harry Potter was standing before her, having faced down Voldemort and countless other Death Eaters, yet still looking positively scared at the thought of her refusing him--not to mention that he still had an awkward timidity around girls that he had yet to grow out of. He may be able to save the world and all, but he still didn't know a lot about girls. It was one of the many things that Ginny loved so dearly about him.

She reached out her hand, and a thrill raced up and down her arm as his strong, slightly sweaty but warm fingers finally wrapped around hers. Harry bent down to retrieve the cloak, stooping at an awkward angle to do so, since he really didn't want to lose contact with Ginny just yet. He risked a glance back down at her and found that she was very seriously looking into his eyes. No one ever looked at him like that--like she could see straight through him. Although that was terrifying, it was okay, because she liked every bit of him that she glimpsed. Harry could still catch sight of the shy girl who had flushed beet red and knocked things over whenever he was around, even though she was anything but a girl anymore. Even after all these years, she had just told him by that look that no matter how confident, self-assured, and outgoing she was, the part of her that she would only allow him to see was just as nervous and thrilled as he was about the way he had kissed her. With that look, she had just told him that she loved him.

Ginny looked away as Harry cleared his throat and tossed the glittering cloak over their shoulders. "I'd go anywhere in the world with you, Harry," she whispered with bashful sincerity, and they disappeared from sight to begin their trip back into the manor.

**

"So do you reckon he really likes her? Or did he just do it to shut her up?"

Hermione rolled her eyes. It really was amazing that here they were, sitting in a cell in the dungeons of the Malfoy Manor with their professor unconscious on the floor two feet away after just witnessing a reincarnation of Voldemort being brutally murdered, and all Ron could seem to do was crane his neck to peer out the window on the off-chance that he could see his sister and his best friend snogging. Harry had left about ten minutes ago to find Ginny, and had requested that they remain with Lupin in order to keep an eye on him. Lupin had managed to get back to his cell without too much trouble, but had passed out almost as soon as he sat down. Hermione was kneeling at their former professor's side to, as Moody would put it, keep constant vigilance over him, while Ron leaned against the opposite wall, sitting as straight as he could to peek out of the high window. The paranoid big brother act was rather annoying, but it was also incredibly endearing at the same time, so Hermione didn't know if it was because he was a being a generic prat, or because he was acting like her prat, that she didn't tell him that he wouldn't be able to see them. She had a suspicion that this was a special window; after all, these dungeons were underground, and this was the only cell with a window. Hermione suspected that they had created and charmed one somehow, so that Lupin could be kept at bay by the moonlight.

"What if he does?" Hermione asked somewhat impatiently. "I always thought you fancied the idea of the two of them together."

"No--it'd be great if he--I mean, it'd be weird as hell--it'd be Harry and my sister--and Mum'd throw a parade or something...." Ron let out a frustrated sigh, getting to his feet to step out of the open cell door to make sure that no one was coming, especially Harry and Ginny under the Invisibility Cloak. He waited until Hermione finished checking Lupin's pulse again before continuing on with their conversation. "What do you think?"

Hermione bit her lip as she carefully considered the thought of Harry and Ginny as a couple. "I think Harry needs someone like Ginny right now," Hermione answered thoughtfully. "And I know that no matter what she says, Ginny has always felt that way toward Harry--goodness, she even took that potion to...." Hermione trailed off as her cheeks turned pink with the realization that she had said too much.

"HA!" Ron pointed triumphantly at Hermione. "I knew it! She's always fancied him!"

"Shhh!" Hermione shushed anxiously. Even though the dungeons weren't being guarded, they couldn't take any chances. Ron quickly popped his head back out into the corridor to make sure that no one had heard his shout. He flashed her a thumbs-up sign to let her know that they were still alone, and Hermione continued speaking in a much lower voice, hoping that Ron would follow her example. "You can't tell her I said that, Ron, honestly--she told me that in confidence!"

"Yeah, yeah," Ron said dismissively with a self-satisfied smirk, but Hermione knew that despite his fa├žade of apathy to her worry, he wouldn't reveal to Ginny that she had let it slip. He would tease Ginny mercilessly about the matter, but he would never let Ginny know how he had found out she had always loved Harry.

"I wouldn't be so nonchalant if I were you," Hermione warned lightly, fighting to hide a smile. She just couldn't resist teasing him. "Honestly, I wouldn't focus on tormenting my sister about the matter; I would be more concerned about making sure I didn't walk in on her and my best friend snogging."

"Hermione!" Ron wailed as he grimaced in disgust and clapped both hands over his eyes. "I did not need to see that!"

"Try imagining Snape in his underwear," Hermione advised with a somewhat wicked grin. "That image never fails to drive out unwanted images from my mind."

"EUGH!" Ron moaned as he shook his head side to side in agony. "Hermione!" His face was contorted in a way that resembled the look he'd had when he was belching up slugs in second-year. "That's disgusting!" He rubbed his forehead. "Do you really do that to yourself?"

"Whatever works," Hermione replied with a shrug, shifting her attention back down to Lupin. Her amusement was fading as she realized that she had just given away how she often stopped herself from thinking unwanted hormone-instigated thoughts whenever she was alone with Ron. This of course only brought up a reminder that she and Ron really needed to have a talk about all that she had learned tonight, but she didn't want to have that conversation here.

Ron appeared to sense that a change of subject was definitely in order, so he just said the first thing that popped into his head. "Ginny took a potion to stop fancying Harry?" He paced back into the cell and leaned against the wall, moonlight playing with the copper colors in his wonderfully red hair. "What sort of potion?"

Ron's voice was much too casual, which instantly garnered Hermione's suspicion. Hermione gave him a fast sideways glance before replying, "An anti-love potion of some sort." Hermione also kept her voice deceptively light in hopes that she'd trick Ron into believing that she didn't realize that he was up to something. Honestly, Ron had the subtlety of an angry hippogriff--even a bowtruckle with a brain the size of a microscopic parasite could probably tell that he was trying to elicit some sort of information out of her. "Your mum actually gave it to her," Hermione added, wondering if she should reveal that bit of information.

Obviously this was the bit of information Ron had been seeking, for he scowled immediately. "Oh, that stuff," he stated almost viciously.

Hermione's eyebrows shot up at his tone of voice; it was almost as though he had experience with that potion Ginny had given her. "You don't seem to be very fond of that potion," Hermione commented with a slight edge to her voice.

Ron twitched slightly, and he knew in an instant that she had figured it out. He started to babble nervously, his voice breaking every now and then as it did in second-year whenever he was really worried about something. "I-I just heard Mum talk about it, that's all, you know, when she used it that one time, did you ever hear that story, I'm sure you did, she likes to tell it although it's not a very good..."

"Ron," Hermione interrupted sharply, "you've never lied to me before, so don't start now--you know about that potion, don't you? You've used it, haven't you?" You've used it to get over me, she accused silently in her mind, but she didn't have the courage to voice that thought aloud. She stared at Ron's profile with her fists clenched to her side, holding her breath in anticipation for an answer. If he had used it because of her, then that added a whole new twist to their bumpy history, especially if he used it after the break-up. He could have used it before you got together, the voice of reason logically reminded her, but Hermione squelched that thought instantly when she saw Ron stutter with red ears.

"Well," Ron said under his breath, "yeah."

Hermione had expected this answer, however it still took her breath away. Her chest froze, and she had to look back down at Lupin's limp face to get a hold of herself. Oh. My. God. This was it. They were going to have the conversation right now. She was finally going to talk this out, here in the Malfoy's house of all places. He had broken up with her to protect her, and he had taken an anti-love potion to help get over her. This could only mean one thing. Ron still loved her.

Hermione was scarcely breathing at this point, and it was at this moment that she knew that she couldn't do this now. They couldn't have it out in the Malfoy Manor, because she would end up screaming at him in fury over what he'd done. She'd been teetering on the edge of either loving what Ron had done because he was protecting her, or hating him because he hadn't told her that her life was in danger. He had just protected her silently and quietly on his own, just like he had done with the Blast-Ended Skrewt in fourth-year. When she had learned about that, she had loved him for it, but not now.

Hermione's breath stopped completely. He should have told her. It shouldn't have been like this. He should have just flat out said "Hermione, your life is in danger because you're dating me. What do you think we should do about it?" She would have been scared, but she wouldn't have had her heart broken. There was nothing worse than a broken heart, and that's why she couldn't talk to him about this now--that's why she knew that even if by some miracle they managed work things out, she wouldn't be able to forgive him straight away. She was going to love that prat forever, but she couldn't forgive him. Not yet. Not when the wounds were still unbelievably raw and exposed.

Hermione's hand nervously went up to smooth her hair--this whole situation was just so confusing to begin with, but now her head was positively whirling with a dizzying array of conflicting thoughts. She had to sit down and think properly and sort this out, but she couldn't. There was no possible way that they could have this talk now.

Well, they could, if Ron opened his big mouth--as he was often known to do. His eyes were on her, and she knew that he was about to say something. Part of her was positively dying to know what he was about to say, but her rationale kicked in just in the nick of time. She had to stop him somehow with an abrupt but relevant change of subject. Think, Hermione, think, she ordered herself hastily. Let's see: love potions...Ginny...Ginny and Harry.... Hermione quickly rejected those options, because she didn't want to talk about anything having to do with love at the moment. Okay, there was your conversation with Ginny about the potion--that might be useful--suppressing emotions....

Another flash of anger rippled through her as she thought again about Ron using that potion. That was another reason why this whole thing was rapidly becoming utterly ridiculous. Did he actually think that some silly potion would solve all of his problems? Honestly, magic couldn't solve everything, but maybe there was something about being raised in a magical family that made both Ron and Ginny more susceptible to using potions to solve unsolvable problems. Hermione absently tucked some hair behind her ear--this was one of the times that she was glad she had been raised in a Muggle family--

Muggles. Hermione gasped as she abruptly jumped back to her feet. She had just found a new subject for them to focus on, but she was anything but relieved. "Ron!" She couldn't believe that she had completely forgotten about this, especially since she knew she had to be the one to help them. "Those girls!"

Ron had jumped violently when Hermione had leapt up like that, but his shock rapidly changed to confusion. "What girls?"

"The Muggle girls! They're down here--we have to help them!" Hermione quickly strode over to the window to tie Ron's jumper over the window and block the moonlight, in case Lupin rolled over in his sleep or something.

Ron was gaping at her as though she was actually making this up, because it seemed completely ludicrous to him that there would be a room full of Muggle and Muggle-born girls here. "What girls? Are you just trying to get me to go with you?" Ron demanded suspiciously. "We're not going to go liberate all of the house-elves here, are we?"

"No, I already did that," Hermione retorted cheekily before starting to the door.

"Whoa, hang on," Ron said edgily as he blocked her path. "What the bloody hell are you talking about?"

Hermione stared at him angrily for a moment; did he really think that this innocent act was going to work on her? After all, he had broken up with her over these kidnappings, she was certain of it. The fact that he was playing dumb was making her even more furious at him. "Ron, I don't have time to explain!" Hermione shoved past him. "Besides, you know what I'm talking about." She stared at him defiantly as if to say that if he honestly didn't know what she was referring to, then she wasn't going to dignify him with a response. Complete and total idiots didn't deserve to have everything spelled out for them.

"Oh, don't pull that, 'if you don't know, I'm not going to tell you' load of crap," Ron moaned. He tried to grab her arm to stop her, but Hermione was too determined to be dissuaded by his touch. "Harry told us to stay put!" he added.

Hermione whirled back around in the doorway. "Fine," she said with a hint of triumph, knowing precisely what to say to get Ron to come with her. "You can stay put if you'd like, then, but I'm going." She spun on her heel and marched toward the small cross she had etched in the stone at the end of the hall to mark her way. She had only walked two steps before she heard Ron's heavy footfall behind her, muttering furiously under his breath about stubborn girls who don't know what's best for them.

They didn't speak as they made their way through the zigzag of corridors, until they returned to the stairwell that Binky had led Hermione down an hour earlier, which actually felt like a lifetime ago. There was only one more way to go from here, so Hermione charged down the corridor she had yet to travel down. Her stomach clenched as the first row of cells appeared, but they were all empty. Ron let out a low whistle as they passed the many, many cells--these dungeons were huge. The floor was now rather steeply slanted downward, indicating that they were traveling even lower under the ground. The layout was the mirror image of the wing of the prison that Lupin and Riddle were kept in, so Hermione was able to foresee, without an Inner Eye, that there would soon be another bank of cells, and then a window overlooking a huge chamber like the one Riddle's corpse was currently lying in. The second row of cells were also empty, but as they rounded the corner, a faint cry made them both stop dead before breaking out into a run to the small window.

This large chamber was architecturally identical to the one Riddle was in, but its contents were radically different. There was not a stick of furniture to be found, and the floor was covered with thin blankets, dirty plates, overturned cups, chamber pots, and horribly enough, girls. There had to be at least fifteen girls in there. They were in various states of unrest--some slept fitfully atop mounds of moldy blankets, some huddled against the wall with their knees drawn up to their chests while they rocked back and forth, some were comforting the sobbing younger girls, and some were sobbing away to their heart's content with their faces buried in their hands. All of them were dirty, haggard, thin, pale, confused, and very frightened. Hermione's fists clenched as a fire began to burn in her stomach at the gross injustice she was witnessing. How--could--they--do--this?

"Wh--wh--what?" Ron managed to get out after several tries.

"They haven't been killing Muggle girls--they've been bringing them here," Hermione said quietly. She didn't know why she was telling Ron this; he obviously already knew. "That's how I was able to sneak in. The housekeeper thought I was one of them and brought me here." She glanced over at Ron and tried to shield the bitterness threatening to leak out in her voice. "And don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about, Ron. The housekeeper talked to me about what sorts of girls they're taking, and I fit the bill. I know that you did what you did because you knew that they're taking girls who have boyfriends first." Her voice was starting to rise, so Hermione bit her lip somewhat sharply to stop herself. If she kept going, they were going to end up having it out right here, right now, and this was not the time or place to be having it out in. She trembled slightly as she fought to keep the words inside her; you should have told me, she couldn't help thinking viciously at him. I have a right to know after all--it is my life we're talking about.

Her chest tight, Hermione made herself not look at Ron, although she could see his chest clench tightly out of the corner of her eye. She stared down instead into the chamber. One of the girls who had been sleeping a moment ago was now twitching and moaning quite loudly; she must have been the one whose cry had attracted their attention. Some of the other girls were trying to comfort her while casting anxious glances toward the door. The sleeping girl moaned loudly as she flipped over on her side, arm wrapped around her stomach as she relived the agony she had experienced while being kidnapped. It was at this point that Hermione decided she'd seen enough. She brought her wand out from her pocket, gripping the mahogany handle tightly. "Come on." She started toward the end of the corridor, hoping there'd be a stairway to lead them down into the entrance.

Ron, however, didn't move. His muscles tightly frozen in place, he just gaped down into the chamber, eyes a swirl of horrified confusion. Hermione turned to snap impatiently at him to hop to it, but she froze as well when she saw his face.

It was gone. The mask Ron had been putting up for the past year had abruptly been stripped away, and there, right there, was the Ron she knew from the beginning of sixth-year, exposed right in front of her. She could plainly see every single thought that was racing through his head, even without the aid of empathic connection. She couldn't stop unwanted tears from stinging her eyes; it was so good to see him again. She tried to choke out his name, but he was already turning toward her. His eyes caused long, strong fingers of pure love and shock to twist around her vocal cords, cutting off her breath and preventing her from saying a word. He seemed to be quite unable to speak as well, but he didn't need to; everything he wanted to voice was in his eyes.

He hadn't known.

He hadn't known about these girls being kidnapped, but he had just made the connection that she had made earlier--that there was a very good possibility that she was one of the girls on the list and that was why Death Eaters were taking such an interest in the status of their relationship. Maybe he could read her eyes as well as she could read his because somehow he was coming to the same conclusions as she had without the aid of all that she had witnessed tonight. But now they were in the same place. Now both of them knew everything.

When Hermione had realized that whatever they had planned for these girls was the reason that the Death Eaters had wanted her and Ron broken up, she had been torn between being utterly touched that Ron was protecting her once again with the highest sacrifice to himself and completely hacked off at him for lying to her and keeping this from her. But even though he wasn't telling her aloud, she knew precisely what had happened.

Yes, this was why it had happened, but Ron hadn't known about the real reason for the break-up, either. They must have lied to him, told him something different in order to convince him that he needed to break it off with her, because now that she thought about it, the concept of Ron breaking up with her because they wanted to kidnap her was ridiculous. They were taking the girls with boyfriends first for some reason that she couldn't comprehend, which would undoubtedly worry Ron to no end, but that wouldn't be enough for him to do something as drastic as end their relationship. Something else had happened, some lie had been told, and that's why it had happened. Ron had been just as manipulated as she had; Ron was as much of a victim as she was.

"I have--" Ron spoke in a barely audible, croaky voice. Hermione just gaped at him, voice still completely blocked. "--lied to you," he elaborated. "I have lied to you."

Hermione's eyebrows rose slightly, but she couldn't ask the much-anticipated question of how he had lied to her. After a few gulps, he satisfied her curiosity.

"I lied when I told you that I didn't love you."

The world stopped spinning.

Time stood still.

Ron still loved her.

She had been wishing and dreaming for ages that this would happen, and that glimmer of hope had never really died, but there was something about actually physically seeing it in Ron's eyes that made this situation all too surreal for her. He had given her semblances of the look whenever he was desperately worried about her, or when he thought she wasn't looking, but now he was staring at her dead on, chest heaving, with that look, that unbridled, unrestrained look of love that had always made Hermione feel thrilled and frightened all at the same time. He wasn't hiding anything from her anymore; he couldn't be--not when he was staring at her like that.

She didn't remember how long they stood there, staring at each other with ragged breath, bright eyes, and quivering stomachs, but the spell was soon broken by a loud bang echoing up from their right. "Quiet, you filthy Muggles!" a throaty voice barked. The girl who had been having the nightmare had been screaming this whole time, but Hermione and Ron hadn't been able to hear it. They were too lost in each other's eyes. "Don't make me come in there!" the voice shouted.

Hermione jerked as though she had been hit with a curse as she wrenched her eyes away from Ron. "We--we--we--we...." For some incomprehensible reason, Hermione couldn't seem to get beyond the first word of the sentence she was trying desperately to say; perhaps it was because after over a year, there may be a real possibility that the word we really and truly pertained to the two of them. She waved absently toward the stairwell, dazedly wondering why it was suddenly really cold, before realizing it was because his eyes weren't warming her insides any longer.

"Yeah." Ron's voice was a low, hoarse rasp, and he mirrored her gesture. They both knew they had to get down the stairs to help those girls, but in their hearts they really just wanted to stare into each other's eyes for the rest of their lives; as implausible and nauseatingly romantic as it was, it was honestly what both of them wanted at that exact moment. Hermione swallowed hard. Once again, Luna Lovegood was right; she had just found exactly what she had been looking for.

"Hey."

Hermione jumped again, her hand flying up to her still pounding heart. Ron went straight for his wand and jabbed it in the direction the voice had come from. He was obviously so shaken about what had just happened, because normally he would have recognized the voice.

"Ow!" There was a swirl of sparkling material before Ginny Weasley appeared, rubbing her head where Ron's wand tip had stabbed her forehead. "That hurt!"

"What the hell are you two playing at?" Harry hissed as he too emerged from under the cloak. "I told you to stay put!"

Hermione and Ron glanced at each other, and to Hermione's relief, Ron was the one who answered. He pointed over to the window. "They've taken Muggles." Harry and Ginny's heads both turned to Hermione in commiseration, and for confirmation. Hermione nodded mutely, and Harry and Ginny went to see the prisoners for themselves. "Hermione found out about it, and we were going to try to help them." Ron allowed his eyes to linger on Hermione, who had a hand over her still pounding heart. She didn't think it was ever going to stop, because she didn't think that she'd ever be able to recover from what had just happened.

Ginny backed away and looked ready to run down the stairs to help the girls herself, but Harry grabbed her sleeve before she could take a step. His eyes, however, went to Hermione, knowing that she'd be the one that would need convincing. "We can't help them now," he said with disappointment and fury, but with an earnest logic that irrationally made Hermione a bit angry. "We can let the Order know they're here when we get back, but we'll never get all of them out with attracting attention--we're going to have enough trouble as it is."

Hermione wanted to argue the point with Harry that if they were staying to help Lupin, why couldn't they help these girls at the same time, but something about the inflection of his voice and the clench of his jaw caught her attention. Hermione noticed for the first time that Ginny had tearstains all over her face, and Harry wore a determined look. "What happened?" she asked tersely.

Harry glanced over at Ginny before answering with a sigh. "He knows."

"Who knows what?" Hermione demanded, but Harry didn't have to reply. His hand had flickered up to his forehead to massage his still aching scar. That could only mean one thing. Hermione gasped as her hand finally left her chest to cover her mouth, and the color drained out of Ron's face.

Harry appeared to be the only one who was somewhat calm about this. "He knows," he repeated quietly.

**

"Try in 'ere," a gravely, rasping voice suggested as he wrenched the doorknob to the right and shouldered his way into the drawing room. The two cloaked wizards lumbered around, kicking over furniture and peering behind curtains with close scrutiny, searching for any sign that Harry Potter and his friends had been in here. "What if--" A loud bang from out in the corridor alerted their attention. Without another word, both men darted out of the ornate room to inspect the source of the sound. The door slammed shut, and for several long moments the room remained still in darkened, tense silence.

The door opened again, but this time only halfway, and no one stood in the doorway. A sliver of torchlight dimly illuminated the room, but once again, no one was there. The heavy oak door closed soundlessly and quite startlingly, two figures appeared in the shadows. "Ron? Hermione?" Harry frowned as he slid the Invisibility Cloak into Ginny's fingers. "Ron? Her--?"

"We're here." What appeared to be a panel swung open to reveal a small closet and a tall redhead. "Are they gone?"

"Yeah, they spotted someone else on the grounds, so they ran to see who it was," Harry replied.

Ron's eyes widened. "An Order member?"

"Dunno," Harry shrugged. "Some guy just ran up to tell them, and all three of them took off." He glanced over his shoulder as though to assure himself that the knob wasn't turning and a Death Eater wasn't trying to barge his way in, but Ginny was already quelling all of their fears by magically locking the door to give them some more time. Harry nodded, but his frown deepened when he realized that only Ron had stepped out of the closet. "Where's Hermione?"

"She's right--" Ron jerked his hand toward the closet, but he stopped cold when he realized that she had yet to step out of their hiding place. "Hermione?"

He practically dove back for the closet when her voice didn't float out after a few moments, but Hermione was already emerging with a great deal of dust clinging to her hair. "There's another door in the back panel," she explained somewhat breathlessly. "The servants must use it to creep through the finer part of the manor and not be seen; it leads out into that corridor we were in earlier."

"The one with all the chandeliers?" Ginny asked as she crossed the room to inspect the secret passageway for herself.

"No, the other one," Hermione clarified. "With all the paintings on the wall."

"The murals or the portraits?" Harry asked.

"The murals."

"The stucco landscape one?" Ginny inquired.

"No, the other one," Hermione corrected, suddenly remembering that there were two hallways with murals that they had run down.

"Oh, that one," Ginny remembered. However, Harry still looked confused, and Ron groaned as he tried desperately to keep track of the many hallways they had run through within the past twenty minutes.

"We are so lost," he muttered.

Hermione sighed in agreement. "Harry, we can't just keep running around like this--at this rate, we're never going to get out of here."

"I know," Harry replied heavily as he raked a hand through his hair and tried to think of a plan. Voldemort wasn't the only one who was aware of their presence in the Malfoy Manor. While Hermione and Ron had been off trying to find the Muggle girls, and Harry and Ginny were who knows where, a couple of Death Eaters had wandered by Professor Lupin's cell to find the door wide open, the prisoner unconscious, and a suspicious Gryffindor jumper across the window. Of course, with their luck, they had picked the same night as a Death Eater meeting to break into the manor. All of them had jumped into action when they'd heard that Harry Potter and his friends had broken into the house and may still be around. Hermione and Ron, therefore, had to keep ducking into empty closets, doorways, corners, and other hiding places as the massive search went underway, while Harry and Ginny had caused distractions under the Invisibility Cloak to lure the Death Eaters in another direction. It had been slow, tedious going to get this far, and they still had a long way to go. They had only just managed to get out of the dungeons onto the main floor of the manor, and now needed to find a door or window. Apparently, however, the Malfoys didn't believe in constructing windows, because every room Hermione and Ron had ducked into thus far had been completely windowless. Hermione kept becoming utterly disoriented, and it didn't help that the manor was almost as large as Hogwarts. For all she knew, they were running around in circles.

"Let's go this way," Harry finally suggested as he followed Ginny into the closet, inspecting the hidden door Hermione had found. Ron glanced over at Hermione, and as always, his look spoke volumes. Even though he hadn't said it aloud, he was more than a bit hacked off that she hadn't called immediately when she had heard both Harry and Ron ask if she was all right. She exhaled slightly in lieu of an apology, although she wasn't that sorry--she had vaguely heard both of them call her name, but she had been so absorbed in trying to find the handle to the door that she hadn't bothered to answer straight away. Ron rolled his eyes to signify that her response was good enough for the time being. He seized Hermione's hand so they could follow Harry and Ginny. Hermione considered insisting that Ron not touch her in any way until they sorted out everything between them, but she had to admit it was rather necessary. Ron's legs were twice as long as hers, and she needed all the help she could get to keep up with him. And, his fingers did feel rather nice warmly wrapped around hers, even if his hands were slightly sweaty with nerves.

Ginny and Harry had already vanished under the cloak by the time Ron and Hermione reached the end of the passageway, but a whispered urging let them know that it was all clear. However, as usual, they only made a few steps before they heard voices, and Hermione and Ron dove into the nearest room--which happened to be a dim broom closet. Hermione quickly locked the door, knowing Harry would knock to let them know when it was safe to come out. She held her breath and pressed her ear against the door to listen. It sounded as though the Death Eaters were panicked about something.

"What do you think happened?" Ron whispered as he, too, bent toward the door. His hand had dropped unconsciously on her shoulder, and the heat was seeping right through her muscles and bones. It was becoming quite easy not to make any noise, because she was hardly breathing--he was standing really close to her.

"Ron, get back," she finally found the strength to request as she pushed him away slightly. She couldn't get distracted right now, even if being distracted by him was one of the best feelings in the world. She wouldn't bring herself to look at him while she grabbed his forearm to steer him farther away from her. If she knew anything about him, he would have that hurt little-boy look in his eyes and she wouldn't be able to take it.

Ron, however, had other plans. Using the arm that she wasn't holding, he pulled her hand away from him so he could spin her around and hold her by both of her elbows. She was practically standing on top of his feet, and her stomach, which had already been writhing nervously from sneaking about the Malfoys, took a sharp swan dive. She ducked her head away from him, so he bent his knees and moved his head to meet her eyes.

"Hermione," he whispered hoarsely. "You know now--you know what I did, and although you don't know everything, I just need to know--" His voice cracked, but his eyes were devoid of the lost-boy look. Rather, they were the sharp and determined eyes of a man in pursuit of an answer. "Do we have a chance?" One finger moved up and down her skin, and she swallowed hard under the intensity of the stare. His eyes could burn through anything. "After everything I've done to you--I know we need to talk things out and all, but--do we have a chance?"

He let out a breath and just looked at her pleadingly. Hermione felt herself begin to tremble, but she didn't back down from his eyes. She knew why he was doing this now; they were fighting for their lives at the moment, and although he had many wonderful things to fight for, he wanted to know if he could fight for the one thing he valued above all others--her. Hermione hadn't felt so treasured, and so cherished, in a long time. She fervently wished that the world would just go away, and that they could stay in this closet until everything was sorted out, so that when they emerged, something that had been horribly wrong could finally be made right.

For a brief moment, she wasn't sure exactly what to say, since she was still battling with being furious that he'd kept such a secret from her, and with her unconditional, undying, soul-churning love for him. She wasn't sure how things were going to progress with them after tonight, but she did know one thing.

"Ron," Hermione said quietly with a quivering lip. "We always have a chance." And despite all of the anger and issues between them, it was very true. It may take a hell of a long time to work through everything, and it wasn't as though they were going to start snogging each other right here and now, but there would always be a chance that they would get through this and end up together, because the whole world knew that this is how it was meant to be. There would always be hope, especially for two people who were as destined to be together as Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.

It was as though fireworks of joy exploded in Ron's eyes, and her heart flipped blissfully at the sight of it. His hand slid up to wrap his fingers around some of her curls, while the heel of his hand pressed warmly against the curve of her jaw. Despite the situation, Hermione couldn't help leaning into his touch and curling her lips up in a soft smile. Now this was what she had been looking for.

A quick, sharp knock to the door shattered the moment, and Hermione let out a disappointed sigh. Ron gave her hair one final playful twist before pulling her back as he cautiously opened the door with his wand ready. A swirl of glitter and sparkles revealed only a slightly panting and flustered Ginny Weasley.

Both Ron and Hermione froze. "Where's Harry?" Ron demanded much too loudly. Hermione stood on her tiptoes to slap a hand over Ron's mouth as she stared wide-eyed at Ginny. Ginny appeared to be unharmed, but her eyes were blazing about something and she was still a bit pale. It would be just like Harry to play the hero and run after some Death Eaters without the aid of the Invisibility Cloak, but Harry hadn't done anything that stupid in ages. What on earth was he thinking?

"If we take this hallway all the way down and make a right, we should find the front door," Ginny revealed with a point of a slightly shaking finger. "We have to go now before they start searching again."

"They stopped searching?" Hermione hissed in confusion. "And where's Harry?" Ron let out a muffled incoherent question of his own, but since Hermione's hand was still over his mouth, both girls ignored it.

"Harry said he'd meet us outside where he left us earlier," Ginny said quickly. It was obvious that she was absolutely furious about something, but she was doing her best not to go off into a rant about it so that they could quickly get the hell out of there. "He's fine, he just wants to listen. They called off the search when they realized that they had a guest in the manor."

"A guest?" Hermione repeated. "And Harry ran off to follow the Death Eaters, because he wants to hear what this person has to say?" Ginny nodded as she positioned herself to toss the Invisibility Cloak over Hermione and Ron, but Ron impatiently moved Hermione's hand away and stepped back, silently insisting that his sister and the love of his life be the ones safely under the cloak. Hermione waved her hand toward Ginny to indicate that she wait another minute. "Ginny, who's the guest?"

Ginny actually smiled, because she knew that the minute she said the wizard's name, both Ron and Hermione would know that they were saved. "Dumbledore."


Author notes: Thanks for reading and please leave a review or join the Yahoo group (see end of chapter 8 for address)--I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Next up: the morning after