Ron lifted the heavy chandelier with one hand and dragged Hermione from beneath it by the front of her shirt with the other. Covered in glass and bleeding, she groaned but hadn't opened her eyes. He struggled to pull her to her feet by shifting his shoulder under hers and wrapping an arm around her waist, which is when he realized something was very wrong with the way her rib cage felt.
Harry shouted, "Go!"
Without thinking, Ron Apparated with Hermione to Shell Cottage. He'd never even attempted side-along before, so when they landed with a splash on the beach, he panicked. Laying her down, he ran his eyes all over her to make sure she wasn't Splinched. She wasn't, but in the bright morning light he could really see the cuts from the shattered glass of the chandelier as he knelt on the sand. Her shirt was in shreds. Her hair was full of glass. Her breathing was ragged. He had a moment of frozen panic. There so much blood everywhere. A wave rolled up the beach wetting his knees and the bottoms of his jeans and soaking her whole side. Then he remembered he was a wizard and they were at his brother's house. He glanced up where he saw Luna and Dean going inside the cottage.
"Bill!" Ron shouted.
Ron pulled Pettigrew's wand from his pocket. "Mobilicorpus," he said and Hermione's body floated up. He hurried with her to the house. Fleur opened the door as he approached. "What's happened?" Bill called from behind her.
"Help me," Ron said, he glanced back to the beach to see Harry and Dobby arrive, and felt some relief. At least Harry was safe.
"Bring her in here," Fleur said and he followed her into a small bedroom off the kitchen. When he settled Hermione on to the bed she groaned again.
"I think her ribs are broken," he told Fleur. He felt panicky and his heart was racing. "I need some Dittany for the cuts, so many cuts."
Fleur put a hand on his arm. "Take a breath, Ron." She pulled out her wand and cast Diffindo, but instead of flicking her wrist she moved her wand in long strokes all the way down Hermione's body."
"What are you doing?" Ron shouted.
"Cutting her clothes off," Fleur said. "Get her boots and socks off. How are we to know how hurt she is if we can't see?"
Ron kept his eyes on Hermione's feet as Fleur used her wand to whip away the remains of her clothes. They landed in a wet heap on the floor. On top was a torn pair of pale pink knickers with a tiny bow on the waistband. Something about that little bow made him desperately sad. "They used Crucio on her," Ron said to Fleur. "Over and over." He got her boots off, and then noticed that stuffed into one of her knee socks was her beaded handbag. He couldn't help smiling at her presence of mind in a crisis.
Bill shouted for Fleur. "We've got more wounded."
"I can't do anything about Crucio," she said to Ron, as she cast a mending charm on Hermione's ribs and pressed a bottle of Essense of Dittany into Ron's hand. "I have to go. Swab all the cuts. Cast Episkey on any bruising."
Ron nodded. As Fleur left the room, Ron finally allowed his eyes to move past Hermione's feet. Of all the times, he'd thought about what she might look like naked, he'd never wanted to see her like this. One of the arms of the chandelier had crushed her ribs, which were now deeply bruised, another had left welts on her shins but hadn't broken the bones. He cast Episkey on her shins and the bruises disappeared. He tried not to linger over the patch of hair at the juncture of her thighs as he assessed her. From her belly button down seemed to have been protected from the glass by her jeans and boots. He pulled the sheet up to her waist, trying to give her at least that much privacy. Most of the cuts seemed superficial but there was a prism embedded below her collarbone, and another above her left breast. The blood along the thin red line across her throat seemed to glow, so he knew that Bellatrix had used a cursed knife. There was a deep cut in her hairline that was bleeding profusely. He pulled out the stopper on the Dittany and let a drop fall into the cut on her forehead. It closed. He removed the two prisms embedded in her flesh and treated the gashes with Dittany and watched the skin close up immediately. Everywhere she was bleeding got a drop of Dittany. After a few minutes, all the cuts were gone accept the one on her throat, which stubbornly refused to close. He cast a cleaning charm to remove the blood. Her breasts were bruised, no doubt from Greyback's grip on her in the woods. He cast Episkey and the bruises faded. He did the same for the heavy bruising around her lower ribs. He sighed and took one last look to make sure he hadn't missed anything. She looked serene, beautiful, as if nothing had happened. Only the wound on her neck and the old scar, from the Department of Mysteries that ran between her breasts, marred her skin. He realized he was staring and pulled the sheet up to her neck and covered her with a blanket. Then he realized how much glass was in her hair. He plucked out a piece but there were dozens more. He sat on the edge of the bed, determined to get them all.
Fleur came back in. "Have you finished?"
"Yeah, but I can't get the cut on her neck to close."
Fleur leaned over and pulled the sheet back from Hermione's neck. "That's cursed. It's not going away. It will heal in time. At least it's not too deep." She put the sheet back.
Ron untangled another piece of glass from Hermione's hair.
"That will take forever." Fleur pulled out her wand and cast a charm to clean Hermione's hair. The glass all slid to the floor in a little pile.
"That's a good one," Ron said.
"Everyone with long hair knows that one," Fleur said. She ran her fingers over Hermione's scalp making sure Ron hadn't missed any cuts and then rolled her over to check her back. "All clear. Let her sleep now." Ron stood but it was hard to leave. He remained rooted to the spot. He felt as if he stopped watching she might slip away from him. Fleur seemed to understand that he couldn't leave on his own. She took his arm and tugged him toward the door. "She just needs to sleep now, Ron. Come on."
Reluctantly, Ron went outside to check on Harry and found him digging a grave for Dobby. Ron picked up a spade and helped. Dean joined them.
When they'd finished burying Dobby and had spoken over his grave, Ron went back inside, leaving Harry to express his grief alone at the graveside. Ron washed up and then went to check on Hermione. When she caught sight of him in the hallway, she called out to him, but his name came out as a hoarse croak.
She coughed as he came into the room. She held the linens to keep covered and tried to sit up.
"Hey, no," Ron said. "Lie back. You need to rest."
"I need to get up," she said, her voice wrecked from screaming so much. "Where are my clothes?"
Ron winced. "Gone."
Her eyes widened in panic.
"We had to cut them away because of the glass," he hastened to add. "I'm sure Fleur has something you can wear."
"Is everyone alright?" Hermione asked.
"Everyone but Dobby," Ron said. "We lost Dobby."
Hermione held a hand over her mouth. "No."
"Bellatrix threw her knife as they Disapparated. Caught him right in the heart."
Hermione shook her head. Tears started to fall.
"We buried him a little while ago," Ron said.
She looked at him, wiping the tears from her face. "How long have I been out?"
"A few hours."
"I need to get up."
"You should rest."
"I'm so stiff. I have to get up and move around. Could you get me some clothes, please?"
"Okay, let me go see what Fleur has." He left to go find Fleur and came back a few minutes later with a diaphanous blue silk dressing gown.
Hermione looked at him. "Are you serious?"
Ron sighed. "She's part Veela. I'm not sure she even knows what flannel is. Oh wait," he said. "I've got your bag." He pulled out his wand and pointed it at the opening of the small beaded bag. "Accio dressing gown." He handed her the flannel robe that came flying to the top of the bag.
"I need a nightgown too."
"Accio nightgown." He handed her a blue cotton V-neck gown.
"Thank you," she said. Ron turned around as she slipped the gown over her head.
"Could you help me up," she said, struggling to stand at the side of the bed.
"Maybe you should—"
"Please," she said and held out her hand. He took it and helped her to her feet. He held the dressing gown for her while she shrugged it on.
"Okay," she gasped. "Okay. I'm up. I'm okay."
He put a supportive arm around her waist and together they walked to the parlor where Harry was talking to Bill.
After they talked to Griphook and Ollivander, Ron could see Hermione was fading. She'd been very bold proclaiming her Mudblood status and arguing to Griphook that Harry was not like the wizards he'd dealt with in the past, that Harry believed in the equality of all magical beings. She'd been much quieter when they'd talked to Ollivander and now she'd gone quite pale. She stumbled as they left Ollivander's room and Ron caught her and then put a supportive arm around her waist.
"She needs to be in bed," he whispered to Harry.
Harry nodded. "Fine. I need to think."
By the time Ron got Hermione back to the small bedroom downstairs she was trembling all over and her teeth were clenched in obvious pain.
"Fleur," he called as he got her to the bed. As she set on the edge she collapsed and fainted.
Fleur appeared at the doorway. "What is it?"
Fleur walked in and handed him a glass of pumpkin juice. She took a look at Hermione who was still trembling. "It's an aftershock. Not uncommon with Crucio."
"Can you give her something?" Ron asked as Hermione let out an agonized groan.
"Nothing that would help," Fleur said sadly. "It's unforgivable for a reason. Nothing helps the pain but time."
"How long is she going to have aftershocks?"
"I don't know. How long was she tortured?" Fleur asked.
"Fifteen, twenty minutes, something like that," Ron said, pushing a stray lock off Hermione's forehead.
"Shouldn't be more than a few days then." Fleur sighed. "She's terribly thin. Harry too."
"Pickings were slim on the run," Ron said. "I had time to fatten back up while I was staying here." He shook his head. "I never should have left them." He thought about Hermione lying naked as he healed her wounds. He'd been able to see the outline of all her ribs and her hip bones jutted out. He'd never seen her naked before, so he didn't have anything to compare it to, but he was sure he'd never known her to be that thin. He'd noticed too that Harry's belt was on the tightest hole and that the waistband of his pants was bunched beneath it.
Fleur patted his arm sympathetically. "I'll go start dinner."
Ron nodded, his eyes never leaving Hermione. A few minutes later, she stopped trembling and her eyes fluttered open.
"What happened?" she asked, looking around. She tried to sit up.
"You had an aftershock and fainted," Ron said, helping her. He handed her the glass of pumpkin juice. "Drink this."
"An aftershock?" Hermione said and took a sip of the drink.
"Yeah, Fleur says you'll likely have them for a few days. You need to rest and eat. You and Harry both need to eat."
Hermione dropped her eyes. "We've been in such remote places it was hard to find anything."
Ron nodded. "I know. I'm so sorry I left. I should have been there to help."
Hermione continued drinking her pumpkin juice and didn't say anything.
Ron got up. "I'm going to go see if Fleur has any biscuits."
As he stepped into the hall he could hear Bill and Fleur talking in the kitchen.
"We need more food," Fleur said. "We laid in supplies to feed the two of us with the occasional order member stopping by, not for eight people and a goblin.
"You're right," Bill said. "I'll go."
"No," Ron said. "I'll go. A glamour charm won't cover your scars. You're too recognizable. I'll take Dean. We'll go to a Muggle market. He knows how to use Muggle currency. His mum is a Muggle."
"I don't know, Ron," Bill said.
"I'm not a baby anymore," Ron said. "I'll be fine. Dean," he called.
Dean stuck his head into the kitchen, "Yeah?"
"Come with me to the market, will you? We need food."
"Sure thing," Dean said.
A few minutes later Ron had brown hair and a goatee. Dean hadn't shaved in days so he just filled in his existing beard to make it fuller and longer. "Let's go," Ron said.
When Ron didn't come back with biscuits, Hermione got up and went into the kitchen. Fleur was stirring a large pot of something that smelled delicious. She saw Hermione looking around.
"He went to the market with Dean," Fleur said.
Hermione's eyes widened. "He left?"
"It's alright," Fleur said. "They went to a Muggle market under glamour charms. They should be back soon."
Hermione nodded and went back to bed with a tight ball of fear knotted in her gut.
A half an hour later, she heard Ron and Dean come in, and she let out a sigh of relief. Ron tapped on the doorframe. "Hermione?"
She looked up.
"Hey, I'm sorry I took so long." He came in with a cup of tea and a pack of biscuits.
"Where did you go?" Hermione asked quietly.
"Just to a Muggle market with Dean. It's not like Bill and Fleur had planned on feeding all of us."
She opened her mouth as if to say something, but then closed it again.
"It's alright," Ron said sitting on the edge of the bed and handing her the cup of tea. "We did glamour charms and Dean was raised a Muggle. We made short work of it."
Hermione didn't look at him. "You didn't say anything. You just left."
"But only for a bit, to get food. You were meant to be resting. I…we needed food. You're so thin. Harry too. The both of you are just skin and bones." He opened the packet of biscuits and held it out to her. She looked up at him with hollow eyes. "I won't leave again without telling you," he said solemnly.
"Alright," she whispered and took a biscuit.
That night Ron, Harry, and Dean slept in the parlor, but Ron kept waking up thinking he heard Hermione screaming. She was sharing the tiny room off the kitchen with Luna. Finally, he gave up sleeping as a bad job and went outside to watch the sunrise. He was surprised when Luna joined him a few minutes later.
"I love the sunrise," she said simply and sat down next to him.
"Yeah," Ron said. "How'd you sleep?"
"Not so good," Luna said. "Hermione cries in her sleep."
Ron looked at her in alarm. "Why didn't you come get me?"
"To do what, Ron?"
"Well," he sputtered. "I don't know. Comfort her. Something." What could he do? Would she take any comfort at all in his presence anymore?
"I told her she was okay and that she was safe," Luna said. "That seemed to calm her. She didn't wake up."
Ron pushed his fingers back through his hair. "I guess that's good."
Luna nodded. "I think so."
When Ron went back into the house to put the kettle on, Fleur was already in the kitchen. He could hear Hermione moving around in her room. He went to the door to find her dressed and digging through her bag and pulling out clothes. "Hey," he said.
Hermione looked up. "Hi."
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Fine," she said tightly and resumed pulling things out of her bag.
"Really?" Ron said surprised.
She looked back at him obviously irritated. "No, not really. My whole body hurts. Even my teeth hurt. Is that what you want to hear?"
"I'm sorry," he said holding up his palms. "I wasn't trying to upset you."
She dropped the bag and sighed. All the anger seemed to drain out of her. "No. I'm sorry. I just don't want to talk about it."
Ron nodded. "Okay. What are you doing?"
Hermione looked down at the piles of clothes on her bed. "I'm pulling out all our clothes for a wash. They haven't been properly cleaned in months, just done with charms, so I thought while I have the opportunity, I'd do some laundry."
"I can do that," Ron said, reaching for a pile, but she grabbed his hand.
"You can do yours and Harry's if you like, but I'll do mine."
He frowned at her. "I can do them all. I know how to do laundry, Hermione. It's not like I'll mess up your clothes."
"It's not that." She let out an exasperated sigh. "I can do my own wash." She started to tremble and dropped to her knees.
"Hermione!" Ron knelt beside her and felt helpless as she clenched the sheets and rested her forehead against the bed.
"It'll pass," she gasped.
He was worried she would faint again, so he stayed next to her, but didn't touch her for fear of making it worse. When the trembling finally stopped, she was exhausted. He helped her up so she could lie down on the bed amid the piles of laundry. She was already asleep when he pulled a throw over her. There was a laundry bag on the end of the bed. He put all the clothes into it and took it out to the kitchen.
"Hermione's had another episode," he told Fleur who was frying bacon.
She shook her head. "Poor girl." She looked at the bag in his hand. "The wash basin is in the back."
Ron nodded and took the clothes out to the large tub at the back of the house. He filled it with warm water from his wand and added soap. When the suds were ready he started adding clothes, separating lights and darks, which is when it suddenly dawned on him why Hermione didn't want him washing her clothes. Amid the shirts, jeans, jumpers, and socks were knickers and bras in lovely matching sets. He blew out a slow breath and tried unsuccessfully not to imagine her wearing them. Shaking his head to clear the imagine, he used his wand to agitate the clothes. He went back inside to eat breakfast while the clothes soaked in the tub. Half way through breakfast, Hermione appeared at the table. She didn't say anything about Ron taking all the clothes, so he didn't mention it either and just handed her the platter of bacon and eggs.
"After breakfast," Harry said. "I'd like you two to come upstairs and talk to Griphook with me."
"Alright," Hermione said.
"I can finish the laundry for you," Luna offered.
"Thanks," Ron said.
The conversation with Griphook was frustrating. Even though the goblin had agreed to help for the ridiculous price of the Sword of Gryffindor, there didn't seem any way to get into the Gringott's vaults without an owner present and since Bellatrix wasn't likely to show up and offer to escort them, it seemed an impossible task. After going round and round about it with the goblin, Harry finally threw up his hands and said they'd talk about it again tomorrow. The three of them trouped downstairs to find Fleur, Luna and Dean in the parlor with clothes all around them.
"Hey," Ron said. "What are you doing with our clothes?"
"Dean's been showing us mending spells," Luna said.
"Seamus' parents are tailors. They own their own shop," Dean explained. "I've learned a lot of spells about clothes from them."
"I got out most of the stains," Fleur said. "But I can't get this shirt clean." She held up one of Hermione's shirts with a brown stain covering the right side.
"Oh," Hermione said. "That's blood. I tried everything to get it out, but couldn't manage it and didn't have enough clothes that I could just toss the shirt. It's fine under a jumper." She didn't mention that the blood wouldn't come out because the bite that caused it came from Voldemort's snake, which they were sure was a Horcrux, which meant its bite was probably cursed.
"Blood?" Ron said, his eyes darting between Harry and Hermione.
"Don't worry," Harry said. "It's mine, not hers."
"How is that supposed to make it better?" Ron grumbled.
Harry rolled his eyes at him.
"You three have torn an awful lot of holes in your clothes," Luna said holding up a pair of jeans with ripped knees.
"It's hard to keep your clothes nice when you're living rough for months, Luna," Harry said.
"I suppose that's true," Luna said thoughtfully.
Hermione glanced around the room and Fleur seemed to understand what she was looking for. "The things that didn't need mending are folded on your bed."
"Thanks," Hermione said, her cheeks going warm. When she walked back into her room she found all her underwear folded by sets laid out on the bed. She put them all back into her bag and set it on the floor. She caught sight of the pile of clothes she'd been wearing at Malfoy Manor. She sat down on the floor and looked at them. The whole pile was stuck together with congealed blood that had gone brown. A pair of pale pink knickers were on top. She closed her eyes and let a wave of nausea pass, but then she had a thought and started going through the clothes, carefully separating them, and inspecting every inch. She ignored the implications of all the blood. What a state she must have been in. She was so grateful that Fleur was able to get her put right. Subconsciously she touched the cut on her neck which had just begun to scab over. Even though it was a thin cut, it was slow to heal and very tender. A shiver ran through her as she remembered the blade cutting into her flesh. She shook her head to clear the image and kept looking through the clothes. Finally, she found what she was looking for caught in the weave of her jumper, a long curling black hair. She held it to the light and compared it to her own hair just to be sure of what she was seeing.
Ron appeared at the door. "Hey. Oh, Hermione," he said sadly. "I think those might be beyond repair."
She glanced up at him. "What? Oh, the clothes, yes, I think it's too late for them too."
"Then what are you doing?"
She held up the hair. "I found our way into Gringotts."
Ron stepped into the room. "What do you mean?"
"It's Bellatrix's hair. I still have some Polyjuice potion."
Ron shook his head. "No. I know what you're thinking. No."
"Yes. It's the only way. How else are we going to get in?" Hermione insisted.
Ron knelt beside her. "You're still having aftershocks. You can't—"
"I'm not suggesting we go tomorrow. There's still loads of planning to do. But this is the key. This is how we get in."
Ron shook his head again. "She tortured you. You can't become her. That's…that's—"
"It's the only way," Hermione said again.
"I'll do it then," Ron said, grasping at straws.
Hermione shook her head. "You'd never pull it off. It's going to be hard enough for me and I'm already a woman. You don't know how to walk in heels. You've never spent any time with her. You don't know what she's like and she's a very specific sort of person."
He frowned at her. "Well it's not like you two are besties or anything."
Hermione grimaced. "You'd be surprised what you learn about someone who tortures you. It's horribly intimate."
Ron looked at her, aghast at the thought of it.
She blinked back tears.
"I don't want you to do this," he whispered.
"I have to," she whispered back.
Fleur shouted then for everyone to come to lunch.
Lunch was an awkward affair. Griphook and Ollivander were still taking their meals in their room, so that left seven people squeezed around the table. Harry flatly refused to discuss plans for the future, which left a gaping hole in the conversation. Even Luna was strangely silent. No one had much to say. Bill and Fleur attempted conversation but previous meals had been spent catching up on the news and there wasn't much left to say.
Ron cleared his throat. "This stew is delicious, Fleur."
"Yes," Hermione agreed.
Harry nodded. "Really good."
Everyone else agreed and the table fell silent again.
Finally, Bill said, "I'm glad to see you all eating. Harry, Hermione, and Luna you all look as though you haven't had a lot of decent meals lately."
Harry and Hermione nodded.
"Sometimes they would forget to feed me," Luna said quietly.
Everyone stopped eating and looked at her. She resumed eating.
"I had Muggle money," Dean said to break the awkward silence. "At least I could eat in relative safety until the Snatchers caught up to me."
"I cleared out my bank account so we would have Muggle money too," Hermione said. "Although, most of the time, we were in such remote areas there was nowhere to shop. We ended up foraging a lot."
"Unfortunately mushrooms and sorrel don't have much in the way of calories," Harry added.
"I did my best," Hermione said quietly.
"She makes a pretty good herb and mushroom soup," Ron hastily added.
Hermione and Harry gave him disbelieving looks and the table fell back into silence.
"Well," Bill said, "Ron and Dean have refilled our pantry so you'll eat well while you're here."
"We'll need to get plenty of tinned food before we leave," Hermione said.
"When do you think that will be?" Bill asked, looking at Harry.
Harry shrugged. "I'm not sure. Hermione is still recovering."
"Why would you leave at all?" Fleur asked. "You should stay here where it is safe."
"We have a mission to complete," Harry said stubbornly.
"Ah yes," Fleur said dismissively. "A mission from a dead man. Has it not occurred to you Harry that things might have changed since he assigned you this task."
Harry shook his head. "The task hasn't changed."
"But—" Fleur said.
"Fleur," Harry said sharply. "They call me the Chosen One for a reason. I have to do this."
"But do Ron and Hermione?" Fleur asked pointedly.
Before Harry could answer, Ron and Hermione both said a firm, "Yes." The three of them looked at each other.
"Yes," Harry repeated. He finished his last bite of stew and stood to put his bowl in the sink before walking outside, closing the cottage door quietly behind him.
"Bloody hell," Bill muttered and pushed his fingers back through his hair.
Ron and Hermione stood and put their own bowls in the sink.
"I need to lie down," Hermione said.
Ron nodded. "I'll go check on Harry."