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The first thing he noticed was the sky. The greyish blue expanse was streaked with the gauzy pink that signals dawn, and from his vantage point he could see the soft pricks of light penetrating the horizon. He was standing on a hill, and the vast green countryside stretched unbroken on every side. There were no roads, no buildings. Just an unending green plain that seemed to vanish into the horizon. Dimly, he was aware of his bare feet on the dewy grass and the cool breeze that cut through his flimsy pajama bottoms. The strange detachment that comes with dreams made him unconcerned.
A loud flapping sound came from behind him, and he turned in time to see two large black ravens settle onto the branches of a gnarled tree that seemed to be growing out of the hill. They gazed at him and clicked black talons on the branch. Then the larger of the two snapped its beak at Ron, and he was struck with the notion that he was meant to answer back. He stayed silent, and the two birds moved suddenly, stretching enormous black wings and lifting into the air. They flew directly at him and he threw his arms up to protect his head from their razor sharp talons when…he realized that the birds had not attacked him. In fact, he wasn't even on the hill anymore.
He was standing in front of a large doorway, flanked on either side by columns. A soft yellow glow spilled over the top step, and his ears picked up the quiet murmuring of voices. He climbed the wide stone staircase and gazed up at the words Aquae Sulis carved into the grand archway as he passed through. An immense courtyard stretched before him. The long open corridors that ran along side the open area were lined with pillars and the walls were decorated with colorful scenes. Following the low murmuring, Ron made his way across the grassy expanse until he reached the very back of the yard. He could hear the voices more distinctly now, and entered an open doorway on his right. He found a passageway, dimly lit with torches and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The passageway had several twists and turns, the last being so unexpected that Ron stepped out of the passage without even knowing it. The bright sunlight was blinding and he blinked trying to clear the spots from his eyes. Slowly, his surroundings came into focus and he realized with a start that he wasn't alone.
It was a smaller version of the courtyard with the same decorated walls and columns, only this one had a large pool in the center of the room. And the pool was full of women. He blinked.
They were five or six of them, in cotton shifts, splashing in the water and laughing. Several of them were busy washing their hair and he watched a brunette dive under the water to rinse the suds free. No one had noticed him yet, and he wondered if he was visible to them. It didn't seem right to just stand there and stare and he was considering leaving when the brunette re-surfaced. Ron watched as her gleaming head broke the surface of the water and as she stood, she turned to look directly at him. She smiled and he realized with a start that it was Hermione. He blinked again.
She climbed the steps of the pool and walked toward him. He opened his mouth to speak, but she placed a wet finger against his lips and whispered, "Shhh…" She smiled again and reached down to take his hand. He followed mutely as she led him onto a balcony overlooking an open yard. She leaned over to him and her lips brushed his ear as she whispered, "Look." He followed the line of her pointed finger to a large statue with a gorgon's head. The carved mane seemed to glimmer in the sunlight, and as he watched, the stone tendrils began to blaze like fire. He was staring into the impassive stone eyes and felt himself begin to spin, as the fiery mane burned higher and higher. He threw out his hands to break his fall and felt not the stone of the railing but his tangled bedclothes.
The mattress released its hold on the coverlet and Ron fell out of his bed, landing hard on the floor with his sheets wrapped around his waist. Harry threw open his bed-curtains and looked over at Ron's bed.
"Ron?" he called. "Where are you?"
"I'm here." Ron muttered, "On the ruddy floor."
Harry looked down at him, and broke out laughing. "What…what are you doing down there?" he managed.
Ron grimaced. "I fell out of my bed, you git. What does it look like?" He untangled the twisted sheets and stood up. "Oh, think it's funny, do you?" Harry tried to speak, but was seized by another fit of giggles. Instead, he simply nodded. Ron snorted. "I…I was dreaming".
Still grinning, Harry said, "It must have been some dream."
Ron nodded. "Yeah." He climbed back into bed and said, "I'll tell you about it in the morning. G'night." He could still hear Harry chuckling to himself as he climbed back into his own bed.
By the time dawn broke through the window next to his four-poster, Ron had reconsidered telling Harry anything at all. He had tossed and turned all the rest of the night, unable to stop the images from his dream re-occurring every time he shut his eyes. It was-disturbing. He heaved himself out from under the duvet and into the morning chill, determined to put it out of his mind completely.
In the six years he'd been at Hogwarts, Ron reflected, there had been only one History of Magic class that he'd managed to stay awake all through, and that had been in his second year. His head was propped on the stack of textbooks in front of him, and he was no longer even making an effort to pretend that he was paying attention. The entire class, with the exception of Hermione, looked as though it had been hit with a stunning charm. Ron propped himself up on his elbow to get a better view of the curly head sitting in front of him. How could she pay attention to this stuff? Her quill was scratching rapidly across the surface of her parchment, and it looked like she was recording every word Professor Binns uttered. Unbelievable. He watched her hair fly about as she furiously scribbled. Her hair was kind of cool, he thought. It had a personality. He'd seen it get excited right along with her- it sort of flew around her face of its own accord when she got riled. In his dream, though, it had been wet from the pool and much more like it had been at the ball in fourth year, all sleek around her face. He reckoned he liked that, too.
Actually, he didn't know if "like" was the word for it at all. It made him feel strange, as though that Hermione was completely separate from the Hermione he knew. Maybe he preferred her like this, bushy-haired and caught in the throes of compulsive note-taking. It was a little bit… safer. He wondered what she thought about him. Did she think about him? As if she was aware of the direction his thoughts were heading, she turned around briefly and caught his eye.
Ron looked away quickly, but he could feel the heat rising in his cheeks. She'd caught him staring at her. Now she must think- Ron cringed mentally. This never would have happened if it hadn't been for that stupid dream.
Hermione was trying to concentrate on Binns' lecture on curse tablets, but she could feel Ron's eyes on the back of her head. Did she have something stuck in her hair? It was possible- her hair was a lot like velcro. She ran a hand over the back of her head. He'd been staring at her for ages, and it was distracting. Maybe he'd fallen asleep with his eyes open again. It was too much for her- she turned in her chair to check. His eyes met hers for a brief, shocked moment, and then darted away. She watched color wash his cheeks. Startled, she turned back to her notes. What did that mean? She turned her attention back to Professor Binns' reedy voice.
"…usually carved into pieces of lead, which Muggles used as a means to appeal to their gods. The tablets were then thrown into a series of pools believed to be sacred. This belief in the sanctity of the hot springs was not entirely incorrect, for the area was and still is one of strong magical energy. The region had once figured prominently in the mysticism of the Druidae, a culture of wizard-intelligentsia who practiced a unique form of tree-magic, finding particular importance in the oak, rowan, and hazel trees. From the Greek "drus", meaning "an oak" and "wid", or "to know", the name literally means "oak knowledge". The Druidae's magic was uniquely earth-related, and most settlements were specially aligned according to magical calculations. A place of great magical energy existed in areas where these lines crossed, and the area that the aforementioned Muggle temple and sacred bath rests on is just such a place."
The ancient wizard paused a moment, and shuffled through his notes. Hermione was surprisingly intrigued. He was talking about the ancient Roman Baths in Bath. It was a Muggle tourist attraction now, and she had been startled to learn of its magical history. This lecture was actually…interesting. She hated to admit it, but sometimes it was hard even for her to stay awake in History of Magic. Professor Binns was really knowledgeable, but he was just so boring! His lectures were usually filled with a mind-numbing list of dates and names about goblin rebellions and the like. Hermione wondered for a moment if Binns had a secret fancy for goblins, and she had to bite her tongue to keep from giggling. She turned to look at the table behind her, where Ron sat with Harry. It appeared that Harry had given up any pretense of actually listening and sat with his forehead resting on the table in front of him. Ron was grinning at her. He pointed at Harry and mouthed, "Lazy git." She grinned back at him, and righted herself in the chair. Binns had already started speaking again, and she'd missed a bit.
"…combining the four elements; earth, air, fire, and water." Apparently, she'd missed quite a lot because she had no idea what Binns was referring to. "The head itself was changed from a feminine depiction to a masculine form, but the inherent meaning remains the same." Hermione was about to raise her hand when the bell signaling the end of class rang through the halls. She would have to run to the library after supper to fill in the gaps in her notes. She was still gathering her parchment and quills into her bag when Ron and Harry approached her.
"Good lecture, eh Harry?" Ron said, punching him on the arm.
"Yeah. Brilliant." Harry replied, sleepily. His face brightened. " Supper, then, anyone?"
The flames were dancing solemnly in the grate, casting strange, licking shadows on the hearthrug. Ron stared at them sleepily, curled up in an overstuffed chair in the common room. The shadows on the hearthrug ebbed and crept, as if they were trying to reach him. It reminded him of the stone creature in his dream; if he sat still perhaps the tentacles of flame would send him to the vertigo the Gorgon had tried to suck him into. He started in his chair as the portrait hole opened with a tremendous bang.
Hermione was climbing through, her face excited and her cheeks pink. He regarded her through half open eyes. She was just coming back from the library, he deduced. She not only had her book bag, but that uplifted look she got from a good session in the book stacks. She was heading toward him, her expression changing to one of deep purpose. Uh-oh. He sat up straighter in his chair. That was the House-Elf look. That was the Polyjuice Potion, Invisibility Cloak fetching, Rita Skeeter look. He knew that flight was impossible, but he couldn't help glancing around for a means of escape. It was too late. Hermione was now standing right in front of him.
"I'm so glad you're still awake." Her face was alight with excitement. "Ron, I really need to talk with you. Where's Harry?" She scanned the common room for a glimpse of the black haired boy. "Is he already gone up to bed?"
"I think so," Ron said warily.
"Good." There was satisfaction in her voice. "I don't want him to overhear us."
Ron's stomach did a pitch and roll. She wanted a private conversation with him? About what? The several times she had caught him staring today flashed through his mind quickly, but would she look that excited about telling him off? She had pulled a nearby chair very close to his and settled herself in it before he could think of a response.
"Do you remember Professor Binns' lecture today?" Hermione's voice sounded urgent. Mouth dry, Ron nodded. She was going to tell him off for staring. Bloody Hell. "Do you remember when he was talking about the baths at Aquae Sulis?"
"What?" She was going on about the lesson?
"The baths at Aquae Sulis," she said, a bit impatiently. "I missed a bit of the lecture, so I went to the library to look it up, and you'll never guess what I found out." Ron was now looking at her blankly, unable to get a grasp on what was happening. "You weren't paying any attention at all, were you? It's a very powerful magical place and I've just figured out why!"
Hermione was completely off her rocker. It was the only explanation that made sense. Either that or she was torturing him in some esoteric female method he didn't understand.
"Er…okay." He ventured, hoping that it was a safe response. It wasn't.
"Ron! I'm trying to tell you something really important! This could really help Harry." Her brown eyes beseeched him to pay attention. He sighed.
"All right, all right. I'm listening."
Hermione lowered her voice and leaned closer. "There's a spell I just read about. Two or more people must perform it for another, and it renders the recipient of the spell untouchable to his enemies. I mean, his enemies won't be able to physically touch him. Spells and curses and things would still work, but it's better than nothing. Remember how painful it was for Quirrell to touch Harry back in first year? How his mother's sacrifice made him painful to touch or be close to?" Ron nodded. "Well, ever since the end of fourth year-" she stumbled a bit. Ron understood why- they rarely talked about what had happened at the end of the Triwizard tournament. Voldemort had used Harry's blood in a ritual that restored him to full power, and Harry had lost the natural protection from Voldemort that his mother's death had given him.
Ron's mouth fell open. "Well, why hasn't Dumbledore done that for Harry already?" he hissed, indignantly.
"Because it's not that easy, Ron!" Hermione's voice was earnest. "There are a whole lot of circumstances that make the spell nearly impossible to complete. It's all tied to the elemental magic at Aquae Sulis." She fumbled in her bag for a book, and thrust it into his hands. It was a tattered calfskin volume titled Advanced Proxy Spells: Theory and Criticism.
"They mentioned it in another book about magical places, so I looked it up in there." She stabbed her finger at the worn book. "The spell has to be performed in the inner courtyard at Aquae Sulis on Samhain, because the conjunction of the elements is most powerful on Halloween."
"We can do that," Ron whispered excitedly. He wasn't sure how they were going to get there, but if that was the only problem…
"That's the least of it," said Hermione, answering his unspoken question. "It's a very complicated spell and it's only been completed successfully a handful of times. Not just any two people can perform the spell for another- they have to be best friends. Not just casual chums, either. The people who execute the spell have to be willing to die for the person. It says," and she grabbed the book from him and opened it to a marked page, " 'Only those whose loyalty and love are absolute can successfully cast this complex and dangerous proxy spell.' "
"Dangerous?" said Ron. He should have known.
"Well…" said Hermione, reluctantly. "There have been some recorded deaths, but they aren't very specific about that. Can you imagine, though?" her voice was excited. "Voldemort won't be expecting it at all. It could really help Harry- it might be the difference between…" Again, her voice faltered. Ron felt a nearly overwhelming urge to touch her. He knew her fear all too well. Voldemort was coming for Harry. They both knew it was only a matter of time. Dumbledore couldn't protect him forever, and every day there were new sightings of the Dark Mark. Muggle killings had started again over the summer. Ron felt a cold clenching in his chest.
"What do we have to do?" He asked, firmly. Hermione smiled tremulously, and he couldn't resist any longer. He put his hand over hers and squeezed gently.
End of Part One
Authors' Notes: What will Hermione and Ron have to do to cast this powerful spell? How will they get to the crumbling temple of Aquae Sulis, located hundreds of miles away from Hogwarts in the south of England? And most importantly, how are they going to hide it from Harry? Stay tuned, dear readers...