Hermione once said that denial was the first stage of grief.
Ron couldn't imagine why he was remembering this now. He hadn't even been paying attention at the time it was said. But suddenly it was forcing its way to the forefront of his mind because it was just that Fred was – couldn't be – dead.
He couldn't be but he was. He was and it didn't make sense because he was just talking to Fred, just a few hours ago in the Room of Requirement and then in the corridor before –
Ron shook his head and sucked in a deep breath, clenching his eyes shut to restrain the tears beginning to gather there. Just a few hours ago Fred was there and he was breathing and he was alive and it didn't make even a lick of sense that he just wasn't there anymore. He was nineteen years old. Merlin! He was nineteen bloody years old and what was fair about that?
That pale, empty and hollow body obscured by his parents' and George's shaking forms simply couldn't be there. He saw it. He saw it happen and yet it just didn't make sense.
That one of his brothers was dead, and his heart was aching like someone had reached in and ripped it from his chest.
He started at the feeling of a warm hand touching his arm and he turned to see Hermione, eyes red and face smeared with dirt and dust from the debris. The streaks that ran down her cheeks let him know that she'd been crying. She'd probably been there the whole time but he'd been too wrapped up in his family and the way he felt like he was dying to take notice of anything else.
"Oh God Ron, I'm so-"
She stepped forward and he instinctively wrapped his arms around her.
"Sorry," she finished, breathing the word like a prayer against his chest. He buried his face in the tangle of her hair and tried not to fall apart right there. It just wasn't fair. Why, of all the people in the entire world, did it have to be Fred?
Hermione sniffed and her head bumped his chin as she tilted back to look up at him.
"Remus and Tonks are-"
Ron felt his stomach roll. "I know," he whispered.
"And Colin Creevey."
"He shouldn't have even been here in the first place. He's only," she stumbled, stuttering and choking on her words and his heart lurched as he caught onto her mistake. She swallowed and looked off to the side before continuing, "He was only sixteen."
Ron felt the sudden urge to take the brunette's face in his hands and did, using his thumbs to wipe gently at the tears marking her cheeks, noting absently that his own were just as damp. And Merlin was this an inappropriate time to be thinking about how beautiful she was, even like this. Covered head to toe in dirt, blood and dust. Hermione reached up her hands and placed them on top of his. They stayed like that for a few minutes before Ron sighed and pulled her against him again; pressing a kiss to her forehead and tucking her head under his chin.
He felt weak and shaky, like he could be knocked over by a stiff breeze. Like his bones were stones, pulling his arms to the ground.
"How can he be gone Hermione?" he asked, voice weak and rasping. Saying it aloud somehow made him feel better and worse at the same time.
"It doesn't – I don't."
The words lodged in his throat and he choked. So he turned his head to bury into her shoulder. One arm tightened around him, while she raised her other hand to cup the back of his neck, nails digging into his skin.
"I don't know," she whispered, sounding very much like she would like to know the answer herself.
People moved in a flurry around them, tending to the wounded and running to find and meet friends and loved ones. The Great Hall was filled with the sound of voices talking, shouting and crying for the dead that were lined up in rows on the floor. Some were simply collapsing from the shock of it all. Ron took no notice of it. He shut his eyes and clung to the living, breathing body in his arms; the only thing grounding him.
"Ron." He opened his eyes and lifted his head off of Hermione's to see his mother's tear-stained face staring back at him. George glanced up from where he was crouched over his twin for a moment, puffy eyes flicking between them, before looking away again. Percy, who was kneeling beside him, wrapped an arm around his shoulders and kept his head bowed.
Hermione retracted from him gently so he was able to turn his body to face his mother fully.
"Mum," he breathed.
She walked over to him on shaky legs and pulled him into a strong embrace. So familiar and definitely the thing he had missed the most over the last year.
"I am so glad," she said, squeezing him tighter, "that you're alright."
That you're alive she didn't say, but the words hung between them nonetheless.
He could feel himself shaking slightly, but that was okay. In his mother's arms, surrounded by his family, that was okay.
"Mum," he repeated, reverently.
She didn't loosen her hold for a second and Ron was a bit startled to realise that he didn't want her to let go of him. Maybe it was self-centred and childish, but he wanted to stay there forever; bracketed in his mother's arms.
It was the sound of running footsteps that pulled them a part.
He turned just as Ginny and Neville ran into the hall, faces stark white and eyes wide with panic. Looking at them, Ron felt something icy settle in his chest.
He felt his mother stiffen next to him. "What's wrong?" she demanded, "I thought you two were outside looking for survivors."
Ginny nodded weakly, bent over as she tried to catch her breath. She pulled her hair back from her eyes and straightened, Neville doing the same.
"We were," she agreed, "but then there was this moment when I felt like someone was watching me and at first I didn't think anything of it but then I felt like something was wrong. Really wrong. More wrong than everything that was already happening."
She was rambling, Ron noted bemusedly, the words spilling from her lips and piling on top of each other, barely clear enough to decipher. Rambling was only something Ginny did when she was particularly out of sorts, she generally tended towards brevity, preferring actions to express her emotions rather than words.
Which meant she was scared.
"So then," she continued, "then I ran into Neville who had apparently just seen Harry wearing his invisibility cloak. Which made sense and then he said…"
It was then that Ron noticed that Neville had been staring at Ron and Hermione the whole time, skin bloodless and jaw clenched. Like he needed to say something but didn't want to. Like he wanted to keep the words in - like he was terrified of what their reactions would be. Of what it would mean. Ron was gripped with a terrible realisation. Whatever Neville had to say applied to them. Just them. His pulse began to thrum in his ears and he knew then that whatever Neville was going to say, could only be about one person.
"Why would Harry ask me to kill the snake?"
Ron's stomach dropped.
He heard Hermione release a soft gasp and he didn't have to turn to know there was a look of horror dawning on her face.
Harry wouldn't. He promised he wouldn't.
Merlin when had he even left?
Ron scanned the hall frantically for a familiar head of messy black hair.
Harry wasn't here. How had he not noticed that Harry wasn't here?
He swiveled to Hermione; she too was twisting around, searching for a person in the crowd that he knew with a horrible certainty, she wasn't going to find.
"I don't understand," his dad frowned at him, "Ron, what does he mean 'Kill the snake?'"
"He didn't," Ron stated, shaking his head instead of answering his father, "he – he can't have."
But it was such a Harry thing to do. He always had to be the hero.
Hermione seemed to be realising the same thing as she bent over with her hands braced on her knees, breathing 'Oh God' over and over again.
"He's gone hasn't he," Neville's eyes glittered, tinged red with fatigue and the beginnings of tears. "He said he wasn't going to the forest but that's the only reason he would ask me to do that isn't it? Ron? Hermione?" he asked, noticing their lack of response, "What's so important about the snake? Nagini? He said its name was Nagini."
"Oh," his dad breathed. "Oh no Harry."
His family had finally caught on.
His mother released a choked sob and Ginny shut her eyes and started to shake.
George tore his eyes away from Fred and stood up, not even bothering to wipe away the tears that were still running down his face. Ron almost flinched back with the abrupt action, he hadn't thought George was even listening to the conversation. His brother's brow was pinched, his lips pursed and his eyes wide and wet. But his hands were clenched into fists and he seemed both bigger and smaller now than he had ever done. There was anger in his stance but Ron recognised desperation in his older sibling's eyes.
Breathing felt like it would be too loud in the silence between them.
"He wouldn't," he refused, eyes flicking between Ron and Hermione. "He wouldn't do that. He wouldn't surrender."
Hermione had stopped mumbling and was now looking up at him with the expression he was sure was on his own face. Grief. Grief because they already knew they'd lost.
George hesitated when he didn't respond, "Would he?"
"He promised he wouldn't," Ron said, evading the question.
But I think he has.
He didn't say it aloud but something in his expression must have given him away because George heard it anyway.
"Fuck!" he swore, raising his head sharply to the ceiling and covering his face with his hands.
Ron's eyes flicked to their Mum but she didn't reprimand him.
"Why would he do that?" he asked no one in particular, dragging his hands from his face. "Why? He has to know that his surrender won't stop Voldemort killing us! His death won't stop us continuing the fight, hell it'd probably fuel the bloody fire. Merlin!"
They were all quiet around him, no one daring to speak. George wasn't crying anymore but it didn't diminish any of the pain that radiated in his expression.
"Why would he-" he stopped, breathing out shakily, "Why would he leave us like that? Merlin Harry why would you..." he trailed off, pursing his lips and shaking his head at the ground.
Why would he leave us?
The question slammed into Ron like a brick wall as he understood what George was asking. Fred had been taken from them, forcefully, but in doing this, Harry had left of his own free will. George wasn't upset over losing the Chosen One, their only hope and their would-be saviour. He was upset because Harry was just one more of his brothers dead.
Because Harry was their brother, had been ever since they rescued him from a room with barred windows when he was twelve years old. He'd been so thin that summer, thinner than any of the other summers he'd spent with the Dursleys. Yet their mother hadn't believed them when they told her he'd been starved by his relatives. Of course they all sent him food packages after that, to keep him fed over the holidays.
It was all they could do after Dumbledore refused to let Harry live with them because of the stupid blood wards. He looked around at his family, crippled with renewed devastation and recalled the fight he'd rather forget.
You know you don't know how it feels! You're parents are dead! You have no family!
How could he say that? How could he say that to Harry after everything he'd been through, especially when it was so untrue? His chest constricted again.
He'd never told Harry how many times his parents had petitioned the headmaster to let them take Harry in.
Maybe he should have.
"Ron," Hermione was touching him again, shaking his shoulder, "we could be overreacting. We should go look for him."
He stared at her for a moment before releasing a shaky breath. He gave a short nod.
"Neville," he said, suddenly turning to face the other teen, "how close was he to the forest edge? Do you think we have time to stop him?"
Neville sucked his lower lip between his teeth and opened his mouth to reply when a cold voice cut through the noise of the hall, reverberated around the room and immediately silencing them.
"Harry Potter is dead. He was killed as he ran away, trying to save himself while you lay down your lives for him. We bring you his body as proof that your hero is gone. The battle is won. You have lost half your fighters…"
Harry was dead Harry was dead Harry was dead.
They were too late.
Voldemort continued to speak after that but the words were drowned out by the roar in his ears.
His best friend was gone.
Even after everything they'd been through and all the times they came close to losing him or losing each other, he never thought Harry would actually die. It didn't seem real. It couldn't be real.
Harry wasn't dead. He couldn't be.
A rumble of noise started to spread in waves across the hall as Voldemort finished talking, frightened whispers creating a buzz in the air. Ron thought, absently (painfully) that they were probably worried more about the loss of their saviour than about the loss of their friend.
Of his brother.
Why wasn't he moving? Why did taking one step from this position suddenly seem like the most impossible task ever laid upon him?
McGonagall broke away from the crowd and hurried to the great doors of the Great Hall, her footsteps loud and pronounced in the hushed atmosphere.
Oh, he remembered, Harry was out there.
He exchanged a look with Hermione and suddenly they were running, sprinting to the Hall's exit. And he prayed to whoever was listening, that he wouldn't be met with another brother's body on the other side of those doors.