A/N: Many thanks to my lovely friend KN for the beta, and to Mysterious Muggle, who may not realize what a brilliant line he gave me one day. Also due for thanks is nundu, who provided in jest the interesting color of the Pygmy Puff, one that's so close to laven—well, Ron will tell you-- on the Sugar Quill Lavender Brown thread. Last, but definitely not least, loads of appreciation go to the amazingly talented artist Marta, whose depiction of Ron's and Harry's purported tattoos was sent to me by a friend and is supposedly posted on LiveJournal.
Obviously, I found it truly inspirational.
A Telling Tale of Tattoos and True Love
by Night Zephyr
A shower was just so invigorating. Of course, he could have used a spell to clean up magically after some of those more grueling Quidditch practices, but he simply never felt the same, during or after.
So Ron Weasley was taking a chance.
He'd waited until everyone was changed and gone, dallying about the locker room, cleaning off his shin guards and other equipment (which should have been a clue that something unusual was up for anyone paying attention), arranging his locker...He even dredged out those four or five pairs of crispy, smelly old socks that had lived on the locker bottom for so long and threw them in the laundry bin for the house-elves to deal with.
All for a shower.
And it was worth it. The hot water stinging his skin and his scalp was everything he'd been waiting for, and he intended to stay put as long as it felt this good.
A short time later, a loud echoing bang in the changing room and the sound of footsteps suddenly panicked Ron. He hadn't wanted to be conspicuous with his plans, so he'd committed himself to using one of the locker room towels – and they were tiny. If someone came in he might be able to cover it up, but he wouldn't be able to cover up anything else. But that's the best we can hope for. Why, oh why did I leave the towel way over there?
Three long strides toward his meager little towel, and Harry threw open the door.
"Harry!" "Ron!" they both cried in shocked surprise at once.
"I...er...sorry, Ron," Harry said, swinging his gaze to the floor and turning his back. "I forgot my Herbology book in my locker and when I came to get it I heard the water running -- figured someone had left it on by mistake. And here I thought you'd already left with Hermione when you weren't waiting outside—"
"No, she's tutoring second years until dinner," Ron said, trying to keep the conversation as far from his predicament as possible. He'd finally reached the towel and spent a few indecisive minutes whipping it back and forth, first to cover the front, then to cover an area low on his back right hip. Damn, Harry had a perfect shot at it when he came in. Please, oh please let him not have seen it!
"I, uh... I'll be out there." And with that, Harry disappeared from the room as if he'd Disapparated entirely.
Ron didn't even have time to tell his best friend that he didn't need to wait. In fact, what he really wanted to tell Harry was to go on back to the castle and he'd meet him there. But Ron thought that might be a little rude – not to mention it might seem kind of odd to make such a big deal of this. After all, they were both blokes, they'd known each other for years, and it wasn't like Ron had ever been very modest about many other things.
He sighed as he dried off a bit. In truth, though, modesty had nothing to do with it.
Positioning the towel over his hipbone so that one corner covered that part of his backside, and the opposite corner, diagonally, covered most everything else to the front, Ron quietly made his way into the changing room, trusting that Harry would tell him if anyone else had mysteriously arrived.
Harry was sitting on the far end of the bench, looking away from the row of lockers and still toward the ground.
Ron swung open the locker door and effectively hid behind it to begin dressing.
"I didn't even see it hit you," Harry said. "When did it happen?"
Ron was confused. "What?"
"The Bludger," Harry explained. "I didn't even see one hit you today, Or was it from last practice? But to make a bruise like that..."
Harry thought it was a bruise? Yes! The perfect excuse! "Oh, yeah...the bruise..."
"It looked pretty bad from what I could see, what with those dark spots in the middle of that great purplish part and all," Harry said, finally turning on the bench to look at Ron now that he was somewhat clothed. "Maybe you should have Madam Pomfrey take a look—"
"No, I think it'll be all right," Ron interrupted, realizing he was probably a bit too hasty with jumping in. "I mean, it doesn't hurt much."
Bugger. He hated lying to Harry. He could lie to most people – his parents, the teachers, the Muggle neighbors from Ottery St. Catchpole when they came to complain about odd noises and smells when the twins still lived at the Burrow... He could lie to them and not feel a thing. But there were some people he just couldn't lie to: Harry and Hermione, Dumbledore (as if it would do any good anyway), and a few others that he considered to be friends so close that it felt positively disloyal to lie to them. And disloyalty to his friends was something Ron just couldn't stomach.
It was quiet until Ron finished tying his first trainer. He set his foot down on the floor and made a decision. Without looking at Harry, he said softly, "It's not a bruise."
Feeling Harry's curious eyes on him, as expected, he didn't turn, but reached down for his other trainer and busied himself with putting it on.
"It's not?" Harry asked. "Then – it's a...birthmark? I never noticed—at least, you never told me--"
"It's not a birthmark either, Harry," he said, closing his eyes an extra-long moment and wondering if he should have started into this. But it was too late now. "That is to say – I wasn't born with it. But it is pretty permanent. So far."
He'd known Harry for so long he could almost feel the gears churning away in his friend's brain. He'd never told anyone about this before and he couldn't bring himself to look just yet – and with a sinking feeling he knew Harry would come up with the real answer...any moment now...
"Not a birthmark?" There was a pause – and with the next words Harry spoke, Ron could hear the smirk in his voice. "Wait - it's not – no, it couldn't be –" Another great pause. "--Is it?"
Ron shook his head, still staring at the locker fronts before him. "Go ahead. Laugh. I know, it is pretty funny, as long as you're not the one stuck with it. Go on."
Harry coughed a bit, and may have given a little half-snort, but even Ron had to appreciate the fact that his best friend was doing his damnedest not to guffaw out loud.
"I'm – not laughing," Harry said. "So Ginny wasn't lying?"
"Not exactly," Ron said, feeling mortified, but finally turning on the bench to look at his best friend. "She said it was a tattoo – and it's not. It's a spell that acts like a tattoo. And it's a Puffskein, not a Pygmy Puff."
"Oh," Harry said, still struggling to hold down something that looked very anxious to burst out of him. "Sure. I see the difference. But how did a spell get – there?"
"It's kind of a long story," Ron said. "A Fred and George story, if that tells you anything. You remember I told you that I had a Puffskein named Killer once, when I was ten? And that the poor little bloke sort of met his maker when Fred and George used him for Beater practice?"
"Lucky for them the animal cruelty people weren't around just then," Harry said.
"Not lucky enough for my Puffskein, though – or me," Ron said. "I told Mum and Dad and got Fred and George in loads of trouble. Big mistake. Then they were on me ten times worse. It was summer and the two of them would follow me around all day, saying I was in love with Killer and how could I possibly live without my ickle Puffskein. It was damned near unbearable. One night it was really hot, the attic was like an oven, and I was trying to sleep. So I wasn't wearing much– and I woke up with...it.
"Of course, I knew who'd done it, and I tried all manner of things to get rid of it before anyone saw. In fact, I was really trying to get it off before Fred and George got to me – you know, hoping they'd think the spell hadn't worked or something. But it wouldn't wash off or scrub off no matter what I used, I couldn't do much magic at ten, and it was no use. Later that day, the twins cornered me in my room and told me it was a really powerful spell, which it must be because I can't get rid of the bloody thing even now. Their point, they said then, was that since Killer was my true love, the spell made it so that he could be with me always."
"So there's no way to get it off at all?" Harry asked, not as amused by the whole thing now.
"Just one, they told me – though who knows if it's true..." Ron said. "They said someone with a brilliant mind might be able to figure out the counter-spell – but the catch was that the someone also had to replace Killer as my true love. Then they laughed for a long time about what the chances of that happening were and how someone as stupid as me would never have someone fall in love with me, let alone someone smart. Actually, come to that, it's more of a curse than a spell – but the twins are probably right. It'll likely be there forever."
"But Ron, haven't you ever gone to St. Mungo's to see if you can have it off?" Harry asked, now concerned.
"And have to tell my parents why?" Ron asked. "Oh, no. No, no."
"You're of age now, you're old enough to go yourself," Harry said encouragingly.
"And have to tell that whole embarrassing story to a bunch of medi-wizards and witches? No thanks. I don't want anyone else to know about it." Ron laced his fingers together in his lap and stared at them, thinking.
It became quiet for a few minutes.
"So...did Lavender ever see it?" Harry asked timidly.
"What!" Ron answered, outraged. "Oh, hell no! And thank Merlin, because the idiot thing is periwinkle blue—"
"Isn't that color pretty close to laven—"
"Shut it, Harry," Ron interrupted, pointing a finger at his friend menacingly. "I said it was periwinkle blue – all right?" Suddenly Ron felt rather bad for being so threatening with Harry when none of this had anything to do with him. He'd just wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time and seen something he hadn't intended to.
"But you said it's a Puffskein. Aren't Puffskeins kind of custard-colored?" Harry asked.
"Yeah," Ron said disgustedly. "Forgot to tell you that part. That night, when the twins first did the spell from the hallway, they told me they couldn't see the 'tattoo' well enough at first because the color of the thing was too close to my skin color. So that's when they looked at the color my mum had Spell-painted our hallway and chose periwinkle blue. Miraculously for the twins, they were smart enough to figure out how to change the color of the thing. Yes, that's one of the colors you can now order Pygmy Puffs in. Yes, it was me who inspired Fred's and George's sick, misguided minds to breed them into little, cute things in shades of pink and purple. Every time I see one of those little blighters it reminds me of this whole mess. Good of me to help make them richer, too, eh?"
Again it was quiet between them for a few minutes. Ron was preparing to stand to leave when Harry pushed him back down on the bench.
"You know, Ron," Harry started seriously and without looking at his best friend. "There is someone you know who has quite the brilliant mind...not that I'm suggesting there's anything like love between the two of you, so I'm not sure that would work either. But she might be willing to try..."
Ron smiled, his ears reddening at the suggestion. "I can see it now. I reach to the back of my trousers and say, 'Hermione, if I pull this down just here, would you mind...?' "
Both of them laughed at the thought.
"Sorry, Harry, but it's likely going to be some time before she wants to see the likes of that Puffskein, if ever – I mean, where it is...It's hard to imagine me and Hermione getting 'round to something like that."
"Although sometimes I can see what you mean, the way you two go at it—" Harry started.
"Though we're not always fighting any more—"
"Ron! Let me finish, mate," Harry insisted. "What I was going to say – besides the fact that you two are so slow at getting started – is that there've been a few passionate, heated arguments I've seen between you that looked like they could turn pretty quickly into passionate, heated something else – and no telling, once things actually get started, how it would go."
Ron started to speak, but just as quickly stopped. Bloody hell, was it that obvious to everyone else? He'd felt sparks for years when he and Hermione bickered and couldn't remember ever not feeling them. Earlier this year, he'd thought he understood, but he'd been half right and half wrong. He'd thought it was simple sexual attraction that caused the sparks and he'd fully expected to feel them when he'd been attracted to Lavender—but though what he felt with Lavender was nice, it most definitely wasn't sparks. Ron learned then that it wasn't just the attraction that mattered, but some deep, mystical, chemical, magical bond with the person one was attracted to – completely unexplainable and wondrous, yes, but also completely and forcefully there with Hermione—and only with Hermione. That doesn't mean what I think it means...does it?
"What?" Harry teased. "You with nothing to say?"
Ron's face went very hot and he could feel a sheepish grin creeping up on him. "She is brilliant, that we know. And sometimes things go all right with us– sometimes really all right." He shrugged, still grinning. "I don't know, maybe it could happen...someday..."
Closing her eyes to rest them from reading, she layed back on the blanket and felt the rays of the morning sun bathe her skin in glorious warmth. Lying near the Weasley's backyard pond, Hermione hadn't yet ventured in for a swim, but the thought that she could do so on a whim or simply lie about basking in her swimsuit took her far from the demands she knew she'd be facing soon. There would be precious few days like this in the coming months and she'd better make the best of them while she could. The calm before the storm couldn't even begin to describe their circumstances. The kind of journey she, Harry, and Ron would undertake in a matter of days to locate the remaining Horcruxes would not be just stormy, but more likely life-, if not world-threatening.
"Ron, what are you doing, mate?"
She might not have heard Charlie's voice from this distance had everything not been so still, and she was quite certain he didn't intend for her to hear.
"What?" Ron asked, sounding a bit irritable and as if he thought Charlie was mad. "I'm stacking all these chairs like Mum told me, so we can send them back to the rental shop. What does it look like I'm doing?"
Bill and Fleur's wedding had been two days ago, perfect and blissfully uninterrupted by the current stark, ugly realities of the wizarding world. Though it was the Dark thought in the back of everyone's minds, no one dared bring up the idea that Death Eaters or worse might see a gathering with a guest list comprised of Aurors, Order members, and blood traitors as a golden opportunity to commit mayhem or murder.
"Didn't you see Hermione over there?" Charlie asked.
"Yeah, she's reading --" Ron answered, obviously now turning her way, "–well, she was. So what's new?"
"Don't you see she looks –"
"Yeah, she does, doesn't she?" Ron interrupted Charlie with a snigger and a wolfish tone that Hermione suspected was reserved solely for female appreciation between brothers and close male friends.
"No, you dolt, though I'd have to say you are quite right, for once," Charlie responded.
Hermione knew she really ought to be annoyed at Ron for saying such a thing, but for some reason it made her feel just the slightest bit fluttery to know he felt that way. Besides, it couldn't be bad if a connoisseur of women like Charlie Weasley thought so, too. She had to work to keep the smile from her face, but she could feel it wriggling inside, all the way to her toes.
"But I was going to say she looks lonely," Charlie said. "Don't you know a cue when you see one?"
Hermione heard Charlie make an exasperated noise. "How did you ever become a Weasley male, little brother?" He sighed. "All right, I reckon you have a little more time to prove yourself. Here, I'll do this and head off Mum if she comes out. Someone that lovely – well, you don't waste the chance to go keep her company."
"Fine by me," she heard Ron say.
She heard no more talking, but soon heard chairs clattering again and the soft thud of footsteps on earth coming nearer. Just to irritate him, she didn't twitch a muscle when she felt Ron throw his long body down on the blanket less than a meter away from her. There was no chance she could ignore her senses telling her he was that close, but at least she'd had a lot of necessary practice at ignoring all they told her to do to him.
"Hermione," he singsonged very softly, apparently trying to wake her if she was sleeping and get her attention if she was awake.
Oh, Merlin, was he--? Something soft and a little ticklish slid down her forehead, off her nose, over her chin and down her neck towards her chest. Oooh, he'd better not go there... But she smiled inside again when he stopped before reaching the top of her swimsuit. Last year he might have been just too terrified to attempt something like that, but after several long months under the expert tutelage of Lavender Brown, she knew he was experienced enough that choice and propriety stayed his hand, not terror. Ron Weasley could definitely be a gentleman.
But it seemed he was a gentleman who, in drawing whatever that was down her face and now tickling at her cheek with it, at least pretended he had no clue what he was doing to her. She was certain he meant it to be annoying enough to wake her, but in truth, it was quite erotic enough to wake her in quite another fashion. Time to stop playing games with him and talk or he is definitely going to win by default here.
"Whatever that is, it had better disappear, magically or otherwise," Hermione said, still without opening her eyes.
"Why?" Ron said smugly. "Was it bothering you?"
Bugger. She could tell from his voice that if she did open her eyes, he'd be looking at her with that deliciously cocky grin and he'd be so close and she was so relaxed and tingly that it would be so easy to just roll full body length into him and...
"Seen Harry and Ginny?" he suddenly asked, startling her from her oncoming daydream.
"Yes, earlier," she answered, at once relieved and yet very disappointed that he was no longer focused entirely on her. "I think they went for a walk into town so they could, erm, 'not be together'."
"That 'not being together' stuff's not working out for them, is it?"
She finally turned her head and shielded her eyes from the sun. He'd been sitting up and gazing away at the pond when she first looked, giving her a moment to admire that jaw line that was becoming more manly and less boyish every day. He was holding the end of a half-meter-long, feather-shaped blade of grass between his teeth, expertly flicking the far end up and down by using his tongue behind his teeth – so that's what he'd been using to play with her...
Before she'd even said a word or made a sound, he swung his gaze her way. It made Hermione wonder if his senses were as amazingly aware of her as hers were of him. Seeing that her eyes were now open, he slid down and rolled on his side a little closer to her; he propped up his head with his elbow and, removing the grass blade from between his teeth, poked at her shoulder with the dry, wider end.
"No, I don't think it is," she agreed. "They just need each other too badly right now with everything else that's going on."
"That, and it's damned near impossible to get rid of a Weasley once we've made up our minds," Ron said smugly.
Oh, god. That grin. That positively wicked, dangerous grin. He was turning it on full voltage for her, as if it was necessary, because even a half-smile directed her way turned her instantly to mush. Once, she'd gone as far as to look in the library to find out if there was some sort of magic that pureblood wizards could perform through their expressions – like Veela magic, only male – because if there was, she would have certainly found Ron's true magical strength. She knew she ought to close her eyes or look away, but like a moth drawn to a flame, her willpower had simply ceased to exist. And he knew – the worst of it was that he knew what damage that smile could do to her. Her only defense was to turn the tables and use her own weapons to weaken his game.
"Is that so?' she said flirtatiously, wondering just how much longer they could keep their passion and feelings submerged for the good of Harry and wizardkind.
He said nothing more, but kept grinning, his eyes locked with hers. She'd never believed much in Divination and had no illusions about the fact that she couldn't very well read minds. But she would have sworn, sworn, that just now through those eyes of his, she could read the thought that dared her: 'Just try me'.
Even through their silence and the intensity of their closeness at that moment they still managed to hear the firm, shrill voice of Molly Weasley when she wandered out to discover that her assigned chair stacker was away without leave.
Hermione watched Ron twist his neck to face toward the yard, presumably to see if Charlie would manage to convince his mum that he was perfectly willing and able to do it in Ron's place.
"She's walking back into the house," Ron said quietly. "Yes! Ah, Charlie's a good bloke." Turning his attention (and accompanying heat, she noticed) back on Hermione, he asked, "Want to go for a swim?"
Briefly, she considered it, even though the way the summer day was making both of them feel would definitely crank up the risk factor if they took a swim together.
"No, I don't think so," Hermione answered after hedging a bit. "I promised myself I'd finish that chapter before I moved from this blanket."
"All right," Ron said, though she could hear a little disappointment in his voice. He reached over and grabbed her book, plopping it onto her legs without losing her page. "Better get reading then. Otherwise you'll have to come night swimming with me." He watched her carefully for her reaction. "Hard to say how dangerous night swimming could be."
Trust me, I have no doubts how dangerous you – er, it – would be, Hermione thought, though to her dismay, her heart and her body were definitely intrigued by the idea.
She sat up and tried to ignore those stupid senses again. She crossed her legs in front of her and adjusted her book in her lap to read. Trying to be inconspicuous, she glanced a little in front of her as Ron hitched up his cut-off jeans shorts as always, then pulled off his t-shirt and, running, plunged himself into the pond.
Hermione had remembered this chapter of her book on elvish history to be much more interesting before Ron showed up. But now she kept getting distracted by his splashing, turning, and diving (and the wonderful way the sun glints on his wet hair and arms and shoulders whenever he comes up for air, she thought). At one point Ron's swim became very quiet. She looked up to find him only thigh-deep in water, his back turned toward her as he stared into the reeds at something, probably a frog or a dragonfly.
It was the first time she noticed it: something purplish peeked out over the top of his wet jeans shorts on the right side. She blushed when she noticed his shorts had ridden far down on his narrow hips, but that didn't keep her from looking. Whatever it was appeared to be shaped in a half-circle, but it had two darker marks right at his waistband, behind which it disappeared. A flower petal? she wondered and visually scanned the area for any sign of large bluish-purple flowers. But there were none to be found.
When she glanced back at Ron again, he had just turned and hitched up his shorts; he stared at her curiously, as if trying to tell if she'd been watching him.
Thank heavens she'd been looking for flowers when he wheeled around, she thought. Otherwise, she'd have a lot more explaining to do.
Either what he'd seen in the reeds, or what he was afraid she'd seen of him seemed to have dampened his enthusiasm for swimming. He rather expertly stroked his way back to the shore in front of her and emerged in a rather serious mood. Hitching his jeans shorts up the instant he got out, he was careful to swing his backside away from her before stretching out face up on the blanket.
Hermione waited for him to say something, but when he didn't she went back to her reading. After ten minutes or so, she noticed his eyes had closed, his breathing had become very even and a little deeper; she wondered if he'd fallen asleep.
Carefully leaning back to peer as far as she could under him at his lower back, she could see the very edge of a dark line that appeared stuck to him with only a narrow strip of light purple visible above his waistband. Cocking her head, she tried to make some sense of what it was.
"What?" he said, his voice a little edgy. Obviously those senses of his had foiled her again. "What are you looking at?" He squinted at her with only one eye open.
"How did you –" Hermione began, perplexed. "Never mind. But what is that? I think you have something stuck on you from the water—maybe a flower petal or something?"
"Oh, so you were looking," Ron said accusingly, both eyes open and glaring at her now. "It's nothing."
"Yes, it is," Hermione protested, starting to lean down to point. "It's right—"
"I know where it is," Ron said, his voice rising. "It's nothing, all right?"
Hermione shrank back a little; he was obviously rather sensitive about the subject. "Oh. All right then."
Ron closed his eyes again. She tried to keep hers to herself, but whatever it was just kept drawing her eyes toward it almost magnetically – especially now that Ron had told her it was nothing. If she scooted a little around this way and leaned back just so...
"You're still staring," Ron said dangerously, glaring at her again.
"I'm just trying to make sure it's not going to --"
Ron sighed, obviously running low on patience. "No, it's not a flower. It's not a bruise or a birthmark. It's nothing that's going to do me any physical harm. Now drop it!"
Hermione was getting just a bit annoyed herself with his nasty attitude. She was trying to be helpful. It could have been something harmful, she convinced herself. But if he was going to be that way about it, she'd just go for the truth. "It's that tattoo Ginny told us about last year, isn't it? It really is there."
"It's not a tattoo!" Ron said tersely, giving up on sunbathing and pulling himself into a sitting position. He grabbed his T-shirt only to roughly pull it on. "Think, Hermione. What bloke in their right mind would have anything that color tattoo-ed on them by choice? And there, of all places. It's a spell – all right? There are only a very few people who know. Now you're one of them -- happy?"
Now that was a surprise. "A spell?"
"Yes, a spell," Ron confirmed loudly. "One that includes Fred and George and a Puffskein and true love. Cheesy, eh? But of course we're talking about Fred and George at age twelve here – twelve going on six."
Hermione glanced behind her into the yard to see that now both Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, along with Charlie, were shooting odd looks their way. Apparently, their voices had risen
to the point that others were wondering what was going on.
"Do they know?" she asked, nodding her head in the direction of the yard.
Ron glanced back. "No."
"Then put your trainers on," she ordered. "We're going for a walk." Hermione stood and pulled shorts on over her swimsuit, then slipped on her sandals.
"A walk?"Ron asked, still sitting. "Why can't we just drop it?"
"Because I read about something once that was oddly similar," Hermione said. "But you'll need to tell me more about how it happened – and you don't seem relaxed enough to do it quietly. On the other hand, if you don't mind for all of your family and half the neighborhood to hear you shouting about it, that's fine by me."
"Just forget about it, Hermione," Ron said. "It's been there for a long time, it'll probably be there a lot longer, and there's probably nothing anyone can do about it."
"What if I can?" she asked stubbornly.
"Can what? Do something about it? Oh, I wouldn't count on it," Ron said, sounding uncomfortable and pulling at his ear a moment when it started to redden. "Besides, it's way too weird talking with you about something that's...there...It'd feel too, erm, strange, to have you do anything about it."
"Does it bother you or not?" Hermione said primly. "It certainly sounds like it does, and like it has for a long time."
Ron rolled his eyes. "Yeah, of course it bothers me."
"If someone had done a spell on me that was making me feel badly or hurt me somehow, wouldn't you do all you could to help me?" Hermione asked, feeling herself on the course to victory. "And you'd better say yes, because if you tell me otherwise, you're just lying to the both of us."
Ron seemed to realize, helplessly, that he was being led into a trap. "Yeah, I'd help you," he said sullenly. "You know I would."
"Exactly," she said triumphantly. "Would it matter where on my body the spell injured me? If it was really painful?"
Sighing, Ron said resignedly, "No. Well, it might matter...but I'd still try to help if it was hurting you."
"Thank you," Hermione said. "Let's go."
Ron grimaced and stood. He shoved his feet into his trainers and leaned down to stuff the laces inside without tying them. "So where are we walking?"
"That's your choice," she said. "I don't know my way around here."
"Oh, so I really do get a choice about something?" Ron looked down at her.
Hermione just stared at him for several minutes. Sometimes, he was just so ruddy exasperating! "Look. Are you going to be a real pain about all of this? Because we don't have to do this, you know. I'm certain I don't care because I'm not the one with a purple spell something stuck to my bum. I'm not the one who needs a friend who just might be able to help me get rid of it. Maybe you really do like it – maybe you're afraid someone would be able to do something about it and break the spell to get it off. It's entirely up to you whether we go or not."
Ron scowled and pulled his mouth taut. "All right. Come on. I think I know where we can go to talk."
On the far side of the pond there was a small wooded area that came nearly to the water's edge. Hermione followed Ron's lead around the pond and into the woods. Several dozen meters in, there was an enormous oak tree that had branches so long and thick that they nearly touched the ground. The foliage was so dense it was impossible to see beyond the tree. Ron knew exactly where there was a break in the branches that would allow access inside. Hermione followed him in and looked around in wonder at what was quite nearly a huge room under the boughs, protected from prying eyes by the foliage of the oak.
Several old stumps had been dragged inside and obviously served as seats, so Ron offered one to Hermione and took one himself.
"Wow," Hermione said. "What is this place?"
"We used to make forts and stuff here when we were kids," Ron explained. "Later on. Bill and Charlie started to use it for, well, other things with the girls in the neighborhood. Probably the twins, too. So you might not want to mention I brought you out here. For your sake, o'course."
Hermione blushed. "So did you ever bring any of the neighborhood girls out here? Sounds almost like a Weasley tradition."
"No," Ron said, frowning. "I didn't, and it's not a tradition. In fact, I feel weird bringing you out here because...well, talking about this whole thing with you is weird, anyway."
"It's okay, Ron," Hermione said encouragingly. "We've been friends for a long time – and I don't mind. Now tell me how it happened, as much as you know."
Ron told Hermione the same story he'd told Harry months ago in the Gryffindor changing room. By the end she was so furious with the twins she could have hexed them to Siberia. But they got to the finish and Ron acted as if he was holding something back.
"So that's it?" she asked.
"Isn't that enough?" Ron replied.
"I thought you said something strange about true love being tied in with it," Hermione said.
Ron looked as if he was cursing himself for ever starting into this. "You have far too good a memory, Hermione. Yeah, there is a bit about that, too. Since bloody Fred and George did the spell supposedly because Killer was my true love," he stopped to almost gag at this point, "they said they made it so that the spell can only be broken by someone who would replace Killer as my true love. Talk about a sick friggin' fairy tale."
The true love bit threw Hermione off a bit, but she decided she was already in this far.
"You know, the whole thing does sound rather like something I read in Hogwarts, A History—"
Ron rolled his eyes and looked skyward. "Oh, here we go..."
"Just listen, please," Hermione said in exasperation. "Ron, this might be easy. I think this is from a very, very old spell. When the Founders were developing Hogwarts, they made a pact with one another to stick together, at least long enough to finish what they had started and create the best wizarding school in the world. There was no other way to make any kind of commitment, so they created this spell and each of them was to be Spell-tattoo-ed with their house crest. But wizards and witches live a long time and they wanted to make some provision for when the school was in working order that their pact could be somewhat relaxed and other parts of their lives could grow as well. Godric Gryffindor was a big believer in love as powerful magic, as were Helga Hufflepuff and Rowena Ravenclaw. They outnumbered and outvoted Slytherin, making it so that the only way any one of them could get out of their commitment to one another would be if they found their true love."
"Wow," Ron said. "That does sound rather like the same spell. But do you remember how it was done?"
Hermione just looked at him as if he was mad.
"I know, all right, stupid question," Ron said. "But do you think Fred and George would ever read Hogwarts, a History?"
"Who knows?" Hermione answered. "But they could have heard about it at Hogwarts somehow because they were going there by that time. Knowing them, they might have read only what they needed to know to do the spell. Has anyone ever tried to take it off before? Besides you, of course?"
"How many people do you think I've shown it to, Hermione?"
"I don't understand why you wouldn't even go to St. Mungo's," she said. "It can't be so bad you don't even want the mediwizards to see it."
"Yeah. It is."
"Why do you say that?" Hermione asked in exasperation. "Who could have told you it was that bad if no one's seen it? You never even showed Harry?"
"It's not the kind of thing blokes show other blokes," Ron said insistently. "Although Harry did see it once – by accident. He didn't say anything bad, but that's because I told him the story – and swore him to secrecy."
"There you go," Hermione said. "I'm sure Harry would have told you if it was that..." Hermione thought for a moment about their mutual best friend. "Hmmm...well, maybe not Harry."
"Yeah, see?" Ron said. "Harry's too nice – with stuff like that. He'd never say, no matter what."
But Hermione wouldn't give up. "Has anyone else seen it and told you it was horrible?"
"Just Ginny," Ron said, drawing his legs up onto the stump and crossing them in front of him. "She saw it once – by mistake – when I got out of the pond wearing Charlie's hand-me-down shorts. They were a little big and heavy because they were wet and they slipped down a little...kinda like you saw..." Ron's ears began to turn red at the tips.
"Well, never mind that now," she said, blushing that she'd been caught. "So what could she have possibly said that was that bad?"
Now Ron's face was turning red and he spoke very softly. "She said it was so ugly it made her want to claw her eyes out."
Hermione choked a little and covered her mouth with her hand.
"See?" Ron said accusingly. "See? You'll laugh. You're gonna laugh."
Hermione cleared her throat and tried to sound very clinical. "No, no I'm not going to laugh. Ginny said that? Well, that's sort of a little sister thing to say. I mean, look at some of the other things she's told you in anger. I'm certain it can't be that bad."
Scowling, Ron demanded, "What if it is? What if it makes you want to claw your eyes out? You might never want to see me or speak to me again and—"
"Ron!" she said loudly, trying to shock him into listening. "That's not going to happen. The fact is, if you don't trust me, and the twins told you the truth, you might never get rid of it. I don't know if I'm the brilliant mind they were talking about, and only you could say if I was the true--"
Both of them blushed and quickly looked down into their laps, shooting shy glances at one another when she couldn't finish her sentence. There was no doubt that both of them had immediately filled in the blank.
Ron looked as if he didn't know which was worse, the silence hanging over them about her last remark, or the decision to let her try and remove the spell.
"Well?" Ron said, looking at her.
"Well?" she replied, looking at him.
"All right," he said quietly. "It would be nice to be rid of it. If you think you can handle it."
Hermione tutted and sighed. "As if I haven't handled worse."
"But I'm leaving my shirt on, and loosening my shorts down just enough so you can—" He was blushing furiously all over again.
"Fine," Hermione interrupted, reaching for the wand in her back pocket. "Turn around, and maybe you can... lean against the trunk of the tree..."
They both took a few steps to position themselves, then Ron unbuttoned, unzipped, and wiggled his shorts down just enough for the Puffskein to show his little face. Once he appeared to be certain that the shorts were going no farther on their own, he pulled up that side of his shirt back so Hermione could work.
"Ron," Hermione started, trying hard to resist telling him it was cute, "why is it – that color?"
"It's not!" Ron said. "It's periwinkle blue! Now get on with it, please, I feel like a stupid git!"
Hermione went over the incantation in her mind and raised her wand. But just before she began, Ron stopped her.
"Wait -- Hermione?" he said, unable to face her and speaking much more softly now. "Uh, the true love thing? I'm not sure it's – it's true."
"Well, I mean, in case it doesn't work," he said. "That might not mean anything – even if it doesn't work."
"So..." Hermione said, thinking, "then if it doesn't, then that means I'm not—"
"But just because it doesn't work doesn't mean you might not be my --" Ron interrupted, then was unable to finish that thought himself. "Well - with the twins' stupid spell, it probably doesn't mean anything."
"Oh," Hermione said softly, wondering if, inside his heart, he knew some other reason it might not work. "But what if it does work?"
"Then..." Ron started, pausing before continuing and still faced toward the tree. "Then I'd say the Founders were pretty damned smart." His hand was twitching nervously where he leaned with his arm against the tree. "Just – do it, Hermione."
Hermione raised her wand and pointed, then intensely as she could, she incanted the spell.
That afternoon, Fred and George waited alone together in the back yard for Charlie, who hadn't yet seen some of their new designs at the shop. Before Charlie's vacation ended and he had to return to Romania, they intended to remedy that situation.
As they stood waiting, they noticed squealing and laughter coming from the direction of the pond. Ron and Hermione were splashing and laughing, chasing and playing in the deep waters.
"Hey, Fred," George said, "take a look at those two lovebirds, eh?"
"Yeah," Fred said. "But they'll never figure out that they are. Sad, I know, but true."
They talked and laughed about the unlikelihood of little Ronniekins ever understanding women enough to land a truly brilliant and good-looking girl like Hermione – at least for long.
Soon Hermione and Ron emerged from the pond, dripping, breathing hard from playing, and still laughing at what appeared to be some private joke. Ron walked to the side of the blanket closest to the place from where Fred and George watched. He leaned over and picked up the blanket, then stood straight again without bothering to hitch up his shorts. Ron then shook the blanket soundly, and snapped it out flat so it floated smoothly to the ground.
Hermione crawled on top of it, sat, and started wringing out her hair over the side, talking to Ron all the while. Strangely, Ron just stood for the longest time with his bare back to Fred and George, though he'd given no indication that he even knew they were there.
Suddenly Fred got a stricken expression on his face and, staring straight ahead, he grabbed George at his side roughly by the arm and held on.
"Ow!" George complained.
"Blimey, George!" Fred said in a strained voice. "Look at Ron's arse! Where's the bloody Pygmy Puff?"
George tried to focus on what Fred was gawping at, and when he did, his jaw dropped as well.
As if he had somehow heard them, their youngest brother looked back and waved, and flashed them an enormous and satisfied grin. Then Ron turned and sat down on the blanket next to Hermione – very close to Hermione – obviously entertaining a very special friend, and the promise of so much more.