A/N: It's been a minute since I've read this part of DH (arrival at Shell Cottage following Malfoy Manor), and I didn't canon check for timeline issues before writing this. But, honestly, I always felt Hermione was in worse condition than described, after her torture in DH.
I've written this scene so many times before, but catching_smoke inspired me recently with her amazing art, Take Away the Pain. It's Bill clutching Ron as Hermione lies unconscious behind them. The description that goes with the art really made my heart ache, and I wanted to see if I could manage a fic with catching_smoke's awesome words in mind. I had originally intended to contain this to a short scene between Ron and Bill, but I just sort of kept on going from there. FYI, I haven't accented Fleur's dialogue, so use your imagination.
I hope I have done this incredible piece of art even a little bit of the justice it deserves. Thank you, catching_smoke, for your consistently amazing depictions of the best fictional couple ever.
Ron stumbled through the front door of Shell Cottage, shaking arms holding an unconscious Hermione to his chest, sweat and blood and dirt coating his clothing. Bill's shocked face looked them over, opening his mouth surely to ask what had to be a million questions, none of which Ron had any time for. Not now.
"Bill, help me!"
"Yeah," Bill breathed, actions becoming frantic as he moved suddenly forward to clutch Ron's elbow. "What's happened? What does she need, Ron? You have to at least tell me-"
"She's been t-tortured," Ron cried, white knuckles clutching her shoulder and too-thin legs.
Bill led them quickly to the stairs, looking back as Ron began climbing with no hesitation.
"Can you manage-"
"Yyess," Ron shivered, "just go."
They reached the first spare room, the one Ron had used when he'd stayed... when he'd left them. Remembering, for a moment, he felt his stomach flip sickeningly, another wave of fresh tears falling as he somehow held her even tighter. And he passed Bill to lay her gently out on top of the freshly made bed, the cleanliness of the room in stark contrast to her blood-stained body, gashes tearing her shirt thoroughly open down the front.
Reluctant to release her and end his contact with her, Ron brushed his fingers down her arm to her wrist, shaking from head to toe as Bill approached him from the left.
"Do something!" Ron suddenly shouted, fiercely wiping his face dry with the sleeve of his shirt. But the action was useless, as more tears instantly replaced the ones he'd brushed away.
He senselessly wanted Bill to be able to heal her miraculously, to solve everything with the knowledge of an older brother. He felt weak and small in the face of the possibility of losing her, of the terror that filled every part of him.
"Was she conscious, during-" Bill started.
"Yes," Ron interrupted, feeling so ill he thought he might actually throw up, "up until I had her…"
"She was probably holding on," Bill continued, voice low and rough, "until she thought she was safe."
The idea of her waiting for him was too much for him to think about, and he had to shove it away, to focus on anything else.
"Her chest…" he trailed off, swallowing as Bill nodded.
"There's a box of potions here," Bill said, quickly opening the top drawer of the dresser on the adjacent wall. Unlatching the box, Bill withdrew familiar items like dittany and dreamless sleep.
"I can't..." Ron started, staring painfully down at her. "Bill, I can't lose her."
Bill placed several bottles on the table beside the bed and leaned over Hermione's pale form, holding the back of his hand to her forehead, her neck...
"How bad-" he started.
"Bad," Ron choked, recalling with vivid detail her agonised screams, harsh curses from Bellatrix...
Bill inspected her closely, carefully examining the bruises and shimmering gashes down her chest, visible through the holes in her shirt.
"Is there anything else..." Bill started, "anything you can tell me that might be important?"
"I... I didn't see her, while it was h-happening," Ron forced out. "But I don't... I don't think there's anything we can't see."
"Her pulse is strong," Bill said, holding her wrist now. "There's not much we can do but wash and heal her wounds and wake her. I think she'll revive alright, but it looks like she'll be in a lot of pain."
Ron clutched the sheets underneath her in both fists, feeling so weak and insignificant. And, without realising it, he was slowly collapsing, his heart pounding a hole through his chest.
"Ron..." Bill tried, concerned.
A wrenching sob ripped from Ron's lungs, his throat... and his hands fell away from the bed to hover, shaking, as his vision blurred.
"Ron!" Bill repeated roughly, turning and clutching him tightly. "You found them! I don't know what happened, but you brought her here... and you're safe now!"
"It-it wasn't... I..." Ron sobbed, "they t-took her, and I c-couldn't..."
Bill encircled Ron with both arms, clutching the back of Ron's shirt, forcing him to remain standing as he leaned heavily against Bill, his tears soaking through Bill's shirt.
"She has to be alright..." Ron cried, eyes clenched tight. "She has to!"
He felt small again, a child afraid of a spider, his brother coming to rescue him from his nightmare. If only he could vanish, leave the coldness of the world to Bill, to the wisdom and knowledge he'd unknowingly attributed to the one who'd chased away his childhood fear as if it had been nothing to him, an easy task for the one who could protect him.
"I have to tell her..." Ron half-whispered, secured in his brother's embrace. His nonsensical words weren't meant to be understood, but it didn't seem to matter.
"She's going to be alright," Bill said gently.
Ron knew how illogical his pleading words really were. But he didn't care.
But before Bill could respond, the soft sounds of someone approaching behind him shattered a bit of the mental shield Ron had been desperately clinging to, and he opened his eyes.
Fleur stood in the open doorway, a look of alarm crossing her face as she took in the scene before her.
"Harry's outside," she added, softly.
Bill pulled back from Ron, only far enough to meet his eyes.
"We need to wash her wounds and change her clothes. Can you do that?"
Ron's heart was lodged somewhere high up in his throat, and his breathing came only in ragged, gasping cries. But he could do it. He could do anything, for her.
"Of course I can."
Bill nodded solidly, giving Ron's shoulders a squeeze before parting from him.
"She's going to be alright," Bill repeated. "Do you want me to stay with you?"
"No," Ron said, running a hand through his wild hair. "But you'll be close, if I need you?"
"Help Fleur with the others, and make sure Harry's okay," Ron said, unbuttoning his filthy shirt and stripping it off, tossing it over a nearby chair. "If- if she won't wake-"
"She will," Bill said, so assuredly that Ron couldn't help but believe him. It made him feel immensely stronger, lungs accepting more oxygen, heart slowing to a manageable pace.
"I'll mix a potion for her, for the pain," Fleur added. "You can help her take it, after you've revived her."
Gratitude washed over Ron, both for her words and her lack of questions, helping him without needing to know why. He nodded, somehow unable to speak as his eyes watered again. But he sensed she understood what he couldn't say as she quietly left him, following Bill out of the room, but leaving the door slightly ajar.
Ron moved quickly to a basin across the room, washing his hands and arms to the elbows. Sniffing, he turned to face Hermione again. Alone, his arms longed to hold her. He craved her comfort, even as she rested unconscious before him, needing him. But the rise and fall of her chest strengthened him as much as anything ever could have. And he lifted the basin and a clean cloth, carrying them to the table by the side of the bed, setting them down and barely noticing how much he was still shaking as he reached for her torn shirt. It was nearly ripped completely down the middle, revealing a bit of her blue cotton bra underneath. And though guilt gnawed gently in the back of his mind for what he was about to do, he could hardly focus on that now.
"I'm sssorry," he whispered to her, feather-gently grasping the collar of her shirt in his fingers, tearing until the rip met the already gaping, singed hole down the middle. He completed the tear at the bottom before using his wand to slash her sleeves, holding the material away from her skin, afraid to hurt her, even though he knew he could do the spell without making a mistake.
Sliding the ruined cotton out from under her, separating her completely from her shirt, he could fully see the dark, burned bruises forming between her breasts, red and raw at the edges and much too dark along her sternum. Angry tears welled hot in his eyes as he wet a clean cloth and smoothed it over her skin, revealing her slightly paler than normal colour as layers of dirt and dust were removed.
Unsure how much longer his legs could hold him up, he draped the cloth over the edge of the basin and pulled up a chair, so close to the edge of the bed that his knees were digging into the side of the mattress. He reached for the dittany and leaned slightly over her, inspecting her injuries. Uncorking the bottle, he squeezed out a drop, over the deepest, most vicious looking portion of her chest. With a slight sizzle, her skin faded slowly from a scary looking blackish red to a calm light pink, and he felt a section of his own chest unclench, unconsciously clutching her unmoving hand, lacing his fingers with hers. He sighed out a cry, pouring a bit more of the potion over her and carefully watching the result, hardly able to blink as she healed before his eyes.
"I'm s-so sorry," he whispered, suddenly thinking of everything, all at once. How could he even tell her, make right every time he should have said those words to her? And what was most important now, anyway? Could he choose?
He gasped, nearly dropping the dittany bottle as his eyes leapt up to her face, knuckles white again as he clutched her hand a bit too tight.
But though her eyes rolled behind closed lids, lips parting, she fell off still and silent again, and he let out the breath he'd begun to hold. He didn't want her to wake yet. Not until the potion was here, from Fleur, for the pain. She would surely be hurting when she woke, and he couldn't bear her pain for one more moment of his life...
He sniffed roughly again, the recent sound of her broken voice across his name making him weak. And it occurred to him just how true his feelings were, how much he would give up to never see her hurt again. He would give up... everything. And it felt so ironic, that he'd often been the one to cause the pain he now cursed with every part of himself... regardless of the distinction he could make between the physical and emotional. He'd hurt her before. But he irrationally swore to himself that he would never, ever, do it again.
Before he could stop himself, the tips of his fingers were touching her ribs, lightly running down and curving along her side. She looked so small, so vulnerable, but he knew how strong she really was. And it occurred to him how little it really mattered if she hated him. Or, at least, how much more important it was that she made it through, lived... experienced the happiness she deserved in all her life. No matter whether he could ever be a part of that.
He saw Fleur return to the room, from his periphery, and he placed the dittany bottle back on the bedside table. The cuts on Hermione's arms could wait. Now, he needed to see her open her eyes.
"Ron..." Fleur said softly, holding out a slightly steaming cup of something. He cleared his scratchy throat as he reached up to take it from her. "For the pain. It will make her sleep again, after she drinks it, but that's good. She'll be able to rest easier."
"Thank you," Ron said so sincerely, placing the cup on the table by the bed.
Fleur nodded and met his eyes with her own empathetic ones, and he managed the smallest of grateful smiles in return, breathing shakily through his nose as Fleur glanced toward Hermione's motionless form.
"Can I help you with anything else?" Fleur asked, and Ron shook his head. "Then I'll leave her with you. I know how much you care for her. She will be alright," Fleur added, smiling softly at him before turning and leaving them again.
Ron exhaled deeply before reaching for the thin blanket folded at the foot of the bed. He laid it out very lightly, over Hermione, covering her to halfway up her chest, afraid for anything to touch the worst of her injuries, still healing and probably very sore, much deeper than the dittany could reach. Collecting his wand from the edge of her bed, he aimed it at her chest, clearing his throat again.
"Rennervate," he said quietly, holding his breath and watching as she twitched, eyes rolling behind closed lids once more. Fluttering gently, her eyes finally cracked open as her lips parted again, sucking in a small breath through her mouth.
He sat frozen, hardly able to blink as he watched her slowly focus, finding his eyes.
"Ron?" she breathed hoarsely, eyebrows quivering.
A strange sort of shock wave coursed through his whole body, as if his physical self was trying to decide between passing out from immediately released anxiety or tensing every muscle in a strangled flood of... everything.
"Hey," he managed to cry, stomach flipping, overwhelmed.
He could imagine what he must look like, endless tear tracks cutting through the filth coating his face, shirtless and probably bruised, only he couldn't feel it yet. And he watched her take in the sight of him, shaking her head in a tiny motion against her pillow.
"Are you okay?" she whispered, trembling.
And suddenly, he was laughing, reassurance at the sound of her voice filling him completely, mingling with the absolute absurdity of her asking if he was alright. After everything. After nearly losing her life while he could do nothing for her. He realised how mad he must sound, laughter and sobs mixing together as he squinted, wand clattering to the floor as he clutched her arm in both hands through the blanket.
She winced slightly, and he released her instantly, wiping his face fiercely with his bare forearm.
He pushed the chair he'd been slowly falling out of back a few feet, giving himself room to kneel on the floor by her side, sniffing noisily as he collapsed, as close to her as possible, body now pressed to the side of the mattress.
"Ron?" she questioned, turning her head slightly to meet his watery gaze, brow furrowed.
"Oh my god," he sighed. "I- I... You're g-gonna be okay."
She breathed tensely through her mouth and tried to nod, but she seemed quite overwhelmed. And could he blame her? He must look actually insane, crying over her, hardly able to catch his breath. And she was worried about him! After all she'd been through, she was worried... about him.
"You-" she started, her own eyes flooding with tears now.
"I'm fffine," he shivered, quickly, frantic to reassure her. "I'm bloody brilliant."
Unconvinced, she looked him over again, before glancing around the room.
"Where are we?" she rasped, blinking slowly.
"Bill's place," Ron sighed, "where I... This was the room I stayed in… when I left you."
Her gaze softened slightly.
And suddenly, he was rambling, making up for the silence, too many minutes of sheer panic stretching behind him.
"I th-thought I was gonna l-lose you, when she separated us... Bloody- …and then- then... when we got you... Shit, you weren't moving! And I didn't know if you were even breathing until we got to the beach, outside. Bill helped me... And Fleur's given me a potion for you, for the pain. You must really feel terrible. Does it hurt? Bloody hell, of course it does. And I'm sorry... I- I had to clean you up, and I tried to heal your chest, but I... I think it's better, only I dunno anything about fucking c-cruciatus, aside from the bollocks they taught us in school... which I'm finding out is not nearly enough to prepare-"
He paused to catch a shaky breath, her stunned eyes holding tight to his.
"Hermione," he pleaded with her, "say something. Anything. Just... I need to hear your voice again. You can hex me if you want, I just-"
But she interrupted his nonsensical words by sitting up and flinging her trembling arms around his neck, awkwardly squeezing his stomach to the edge of the bed as he reacted and threw his own arms around her waist, burying his face in her hair as she pressed her nose to the side of his neck.
"Thank you," she said, more solidly than he had heard her speak yet. His whole body suddenly felt lighter, spasming muscles relaxing as he sighed.
He breathed her in for as long as he could, closing his eyes. But the shivering he felt through her whole body simply wouldn't stop, no matter how gently his hands ran up and down her back.
"This has to be painful," he muttered, reluctant to part from her but knowing how much she still needed his help.
"...don't care…" he barely heard her mumble, unsure if she'd even intended for him to hear her at all. And he couldn't help the flutter in his heart at her words, the way she clung to him like she never wanted to let go.
"Will you take the potion Fleur gave me?" he whispered, flattening his palms to her mostly bare back as she nodded against his neck. She sniffed, releasing him. And as she pulled back, he noticed how flushed her cheeks were.
He dropped his hands from her and retrieved the cup from the side table, offering it to her.
"Thanks," she said, voice raspy again. And she clenched her eyes shut, downing the contents in one go.
When she opened her eyes again, he took the empty cup back from her, and she scrunched her face a bit, surely from the wretched taste of the potion. She sucked in a sharp breath and glanced down at her own half exposed chest, the scrapes along both of her arms. He averted his eyes from her injuries, opting instead to stare at her lovely face, punctuated now by puffy eyes and tear stains... a tiny cut on her bottom lip that he'd not paid much attention to before now.
"Want me to get Fleur?" he asked, trying to be reasonably modest, as much as he wanted to be the one to stay here with her, alone now. Selfishly, he wanted this time with her for himself... to be overwhelmed with her. To bathe in the relief of being alive. But, whatever she needed, that was the deal.
"No," she said, almost immediately. "Will you stay with me?"
"Of course I will," he answered, just as quickly.
Her whole body seemed to relax, though he could still see her shaking as she lowered herself to her pillow again, tugging the blanket halfway up her chest but leaving her arms exposed.
"Is Harry alright?" she asked, worried.
"Think so," Ron said, only mildly guilty for not being able to give a definite answer. "Bill's gone to help. Fleur came in and told us when he arrived, a few minutes after I got here with you."
She nodded, but reached up, clutching the blanket over her chest in a tight fist as she closed her eyes and breathed carefully.
"What do you need?" he asked gently, face softening with empathy as he watched her struggling. But she shook her head and opened her eyes again, releasing the blanket and allowing her hand to slip to her stomach.
"Just a bit sore," she explained.
Extending his hand, his fingers pointed toward her arm, not quite touching.
"You're all scratched up."
He licked his lips and met her eyes, asking silent permission, which she freely gave, with a nod and the smallest of smiles. He responded by lightly taking her hand, pulling her arm straight and allowing the very tips of his fingers to rest against her wrist, just long enough to sweep his eyes up her arm, locating every scrape. Sliding his hand away again, he reached for the dittany, dabbing a bit of the potion to a clean, dry section of the cloth he'd used earlier.
Very, very carefully, he touched the cloth to her skin, patting so gently he wasn't entirely sure he was making contact with her skin, each time. He felt her eyes on him, and when he looked up, she was smiling so softly, lips parting as she breathed more easily through her mouth now.
"What?" he asked.
"Nothing," she whispered, pressing her lips together, eyes watery and cheeks a lovely shade of pink again. "What happened to your shirt?"
For the first time, he felt mildly self-conscious about sitting so close to her, half naked.
"Got sort of ruined," he explained, returning his attention to her arm again as he continued to dab her skin with dittany, moving up toward her elbow. "Wasn't sure if we had anything else clean in your bag... and wasn't really thinking of it, at the time..."
"It's okay. Just wondering if you needed me to help, if you were hurt."
He looked up again and smiled at her.
"I'm fine, promise," he said again. "Don't believe me?"
"Well," she started, actually smirking at him, and his heart beat a little bit faster... before her left hand reached across her body to clutch two of his long fingers in a tight fist, clenching her eyes shut again.
"Hey..." He reached up with his free left hand to slide the dittany-coated cloth out from between his palm and her arm, flipping his right hand over to clutch her fingers back.
"Just... hurts... a bit... to breathe deep," she explained, shaky exhales flowing out between her words as she opened her eyes again. "The potion's helping."
He stared sceptically back at her, still holding her hand.
"Now who doesn't believe-" she started, interrupting herself with a wheezy cough.
It wasn't so hard to assume, with him clearly still working toward recovery from completely falling apart, that she'd spare him. But he didn't want to be sodding spared. He wanted her safe, trusting him...
"I need you to tell me the truth," he said quietly, "even if you know I won't like it. I can't-"
But he could no longer speak as she held his gaze, eyes glistening. He'd hardly noticed how dark it was before, night cloaking them from open windows on either side of the room. But now, he found himself lost in the shadows splashing across her features, the scabbed cut on her bottom lip drawing his attention again.
"I'll never do that to you," she promised, so quietly. "I'll always tell you the truth. You'll do that for me, too... won't you?"
He felt himself nodding his head, before he'd fully comprehended what she'd asked of him.
"Course I will," he sniffed, once he'd caught up, to make sure she understood.
Her lips began to tremble, eyes seemingly unable to look away from his.
"I... I thought I would never see you again," she cried in a tiny, terrified voice.
"I couldn't do it. I could lie to her, I could take the pain. But I... If I never saw you again..."
She sucked in a sharp breath and closed her eyes, trembling fiercely.
"I wish I could..." she continued, opening her eyes again.
And as he stared back at her, he wondered how much the potion and her experience were clouding her discretion, making it somehow easier to say the things she must have held back before now.
"I want to know that you'll always b-be here," she sniffed, speaking at an ounce above a whisper, both to mask her sobs and reduce her pain, he thought, "that you'll never l-leave, for the rest of m-my life, I..."
His chest clenched tight, overloaded by so many things as she struggled to say the words that were evidently so crucial to her, yet so difficult to confess.
"But I know I can't ask you that," she added, eyes darting as if she'd suddenly become fearful of his response, in case he couldn't handle the intensity of her words to him now. "I can't, Ron-"
But he couldn't allow her to continue, thinking she had to make an excuse, give him a way out that he'd never wanted in the first place.
"No, you can," he cut over her, voice solid and strong now. "Because I will. I'm not leaving again. Doesn't matter what happens... I'll be here... as long as you need me."
Half gasping her next breath, thin tracks of silent tears trickled free from her round eyes, trailing slowly down her blotchy cheeks.
"Always, then?" she whispered, voice a bit higher pitched, smaller than he recalled ever hearing it before.
"Okay," he answered, without hesitation, breaking a smile free as he held her hand even more tightly in his own.
He'd never promised anything more important in all his life. And he'd never meant anything he'd ever said more strongly than he meant the words he'd just spoken to her now.
For a while, they simply gazed back at each other, allowing the weight of everything they'd been carrying to fall from their shoulders. Through it all, he hadn't thought it possible to ever feel comforted again, safe enough to properly rest. Not before the end. But, suddenly, the end was no longer the only goal. He had now, her hand in his, her slightly choked breathing reminding him that she was still here.
They had each other, for however much time they had left. And death seemed far more insignificant an obstacle, in the face of what he felt for her.
He finally reached for the cloth of dittany again, after their stretched silence threatened to engulf him in another wave of emotion that he wasn't sure could be contained. And he let go of her hand, only long enough to stand and move to sit gingerly on the edge of her bed, his hip against her side. He swallowed as he clutched the cloth, searching her eyes before he glanced down at her cut lip again.
"You mind if-" he started, but she was shaking her head, trusting before she'd even heard his question.
The tightness in his chest redoubled, and he had to shut his eyes for a moment to calm the pounding of his heart.
"We're safe now..." he breathed, willing himself to fully believe it.
And as he opened his eyes again, she nodded, her soft gaze clearing any traces of remaining doubt completely from him. He reached up slowly, holding her face delicately with his left hand as his right moved to dab the cloth so softly against her lip. Her eyes fluttered shut, her breathing slowed.
When he'd finished, she was slipping off to sleep, and he considered leaving her to rest before he recalled the unending trust she'd put in him. The way she actually wanted him with her.
And so, with a steadying breath, he dropped the cloth to the bedside table, reached down to the floor for his wand, and slid his thin body along the bed next to hers. He propped up against the wall and clutched his wand to his heart, protectively lacing his fingers with hers again as he carefully watched the rise and fall of her chest, lulled by the reassuringly consistent rhythm of her breathing.
"Thank you... for everything," she whispered, past when he thought she'd fallen asleep. And she turned her head toward him, the tip of her nose pressing to his arm as she squeezed his hand firmly back.