Ronnelle stared around herself, blinking, unable to quite make sense of what she was seeing. Something about where she found herself seemed... very odd.
Not that she'd never been here before; to the contrary, she had, and quite often. Hell, she practically lived down here during the season. Still, this was strange - for a number of reasons. First off, she was nearly positive that she had just - really only just - been someplace else entirely.
Secondly, it seemed that at the present moment in time she was the only person here, and that was decidedly unusual.
And then there was the glaringly obvious fact that -
"This isn't even my House." She spoke aloud, but absently, and to no one but herself. She leaned forward, out over a large quantity of festive scarlet and gold bunting; gazing across the deserted Quidditch pitch at the equally empty Ravenclaw stands opposite, all decked out in blue and bronze.
"I belong over there."
"Hermione's daughter, a Ravenclaw," came an amused voice at her elbow. "Imagine that."
Huh. Apparently she wasn't quite so alone as she'd thought, after all.
Startled, whirled to her left, the direction from which the voice had come.
To find someone she'd never met in her life - and yet recognized instantly, certainly, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Her pale eyes widened in surprise.
"About the Gryffindor stands," he said conversationally, "you'll have to forgive me but it's been a long time since I was last here, and... well, a lot of happy memories. I suppose I was feeling nostalgic."
"I know you," she said, her voice not much more than a whisper. "I know you, I was named for you. You're Ron - Matt's Uncle Ron."
"Matt's uncle," he echoed, then smiled - a smile that was very nearly a grin. "Yeah, I suppose that's right. I hadn't thought of it like that before... Harry and my baby sister, who'd have guessed? Blimey, we'd have been brothers. Harry and me. Brothers."
"You are brothers," Ronnelle said. "That's what Uncle Harry says - he always says you are."
"Does he." Ron smiled again, that forever-seventeen-year-old smile, a little wistful now around the edges. "I wish I'd had a bit more time to talk to him. Circumstances didn't really allow for a lot of conversation. But I've only a short time left, and I chose to spend it with you instead."
"Me? Why me? You don't even -"
"Because you've just done an extraordinarily foolish thing," Ron said with calm gravity, "and you're going to need some help to undo it before it's too late."
He'd been dozing sprawled in an armchair beside Hermione's bed, hair a worse mess than usual and glasses askew over the bridge of his nose, but the sound of her voice - for all that it was a bare whisper - brought him around with a start.
Hermione, he saw, after bringing his eyes back into focus, had turned onto her side at some point so that she was facing him. Her hair was fanned out over the pillow, her dark eyes haunted. Still, in spite of everything, she tried in that moment to crack a tiny smile.
"Hey," she said. The smile vanished. It had been a valiant effort, but doomed from the start. "What're you doing here?" Her eyes flicked past him, to the room's sole window, and then back again. "S'the middle of the night."
He leaned forward and took one of her hands in his. It was shockingly cold. "You'd be here if it were me," he said quietly.
Again that weak little ghost of a smile, there and gone. "I'm glad it isn't you."
"God, Hermione." That was all he said. It was all he could think of to say.
"Harry." She swallowed, seemed to be rallying herself. Speaking was obviously costing her some effort. "S'not your fault. You know that, right? You always think... that everything's your fault."
"I don't know. I don't know. But damn it, I should have -"
""I knew it. Don't. Do that. To yourself. Harry - I mean it."
"All right," he said softly, to mollify her. "All right, Hermione."
She closed her eyes and for a moment he thought she'd lapsed back into sleep, but then she spoke again, without opening them.
"She's gone, isn't she?"
"She? What are... oh. Oh." He paused for a moment, debating. It seemed so deeply, deeply wrong that he should be the one to deliver this news. Not his place. But then again, if not his, whose? At the moment, who else was there?
Plus, it was patently clear that all he'd be doing was confirming something that she already knew. He could hear it in her voice; see it written plainly across her pale, drawn, grief-ravaged face. Oh, she knew. She knew.
He took a deep breath. Squeezed her hand hard. Said, "yeah, Hermione. She's gone."
She sucked in a tiny, hitching, wounded breath at his words, and then the tears began to flow. She wasn't sobbing - she wasn't really even crying. They were just escaping, slowly, steadily, from beneath the closed lids of her eyes to seep through her hair and into her pillow, soaking it.
"I'm sorry," he said raggedly. Without letting go of her hand, he slid from the chair to his knees beside her bed, bringing his face so close to hers that their foreheads clunked together and he could feel the feverish heat she was putting off. With his other hand he stroked the tangled hair out of her face, then wiped her tears away with his thumb. "I can't even imagine... I'm so sorry, Hermione. So sorry."
She managed a small, jerky sort of nod, never raising her head from the pillow. Squeezed his hand back, with a strength that surprised him. "I know," was all she said. "I know."
They stayed like that for several long moments, then she drew in a steadying breath and opened her eyes again. The awareness behind those dark eyes was fading, though - Harry could tell that this time, sleep really was reclaiming her.
"You need to rest now," he murmured, still absently stroking her hair. "Stop fighting it, all right?"
"...'Kay." She barely more than breathed the word. But then, with typical stubbornness, "First tell me... Seth and Ronnelle... are they -"
"Resting. Like you should be."
"And Draco? Where...?"
"Right there." Harry shifted position, allowing Hermione to see, for the first time, beyond him to the room's second bed, and its occupant. Snape was crashed out in a chair on the far side of Draco's bed, so physically and emotionally exhausted that he was closer, at this point, to unconsciousness than to sleep.
"They never took you out," Harry said. "Just magicked another bed into his room. They weren't too keen on it in the beginning, but Severus and Gin and I, we all insisted. Bad things seem to happen when the two of you are... separated in hospital."
Hermione managed to lift her head perhaps a whole inch off the pillow and narrowed her eyes, trying to bring her husband into focus, but to no avail. Though only a few feet separated them, to her Draco was no more than a silver-haired blur, and then her strength gave out and she let her head fall back. Her eyes were dragging themselves shut now, despite her best efforts to resist.
"So he's alive?" she whispered. "I was right, and he's alive?"
"He's... I..." Shit. Harry pressed his green eyes shut for a second, reached up to massage his temple with his fingertips. How the hell did he put this? There was no easy answer. The fact was, nobody knew. And he had too much respect for his lifelong friend to just feed her some placating lie. He hadn't lied about the miscarriage; he wouldn't lie about this.
Hermione was in no condition to advocate for herself right now, but he knew her well enough to know that given a choice, she would always want the truth.
And after everything she'd been through, she deserved the truth, as well.
He raked a hand through his hair; tried again.
"He's not dead. Exactly. But he doesn't exactly seem to be alive either, Hermione. It's... there have been mediwizards parading in and out of here for hours, one after another, they're... hospital staff must've put out some kind of bulletin because they're apparating in from all over the world. And not one of them has ever seen anything like it before. Nobody knows what to make of it. They're saying now that it must be related somehow to his... unique signature of magic. The things he can do that no one else can. They're saying that... that it's a first, it's a phenomenon. He seems to be in some kind of... of stasis, but... but no one knows." He sighed unhappily and shook his head. "The short answer is, no one knows."
She shook her head too, where it lay against the pillow; barely, but she did. Mirroring his gesture almost perfectly, for all that her eyes were well and truly closed by now.
"Not true," she whispered, and he had lean in close - very close - to make out her words, they were so faint. "I know. He's coming back. I know it, Harry. I know it."
He opened his mouth to answer, but almost immediately her breathing deepened, evened out, and he realized she was asleep again.
He stayed exactly as he was for a long moment, enough time for her slumber to really take hold, not wanting to wake her when he pulled away. Then, very carefully, very gently, he disengaged. Standing, he pulled her covers right up to her chin, and stroked his hand through her tumultuous hair one more time, smoothing it down as best he could. Dropped a brief kiss on her temple. Then he turned and crossed the room to where Draco lay.
"I don't know where you are, Malfoy," he said, staring down, hard, at the still, ashen form on the bed, "and I don't know whether you can hear me. But I do know this - she's been through enough already. Enough, by God. And still she believes in you. So you get your arse back here - don't you dare let her down." He bent, planting a hand on either side of Draco's head, bringing their faces so close together that his next words were spoken directly into the other man's ear.
"Do not let her down. Goddamnit, Malfoy. Come. Back."
Draco found it mildly, wryly ironic that the light should appear immediately after he'd decided, for good and all, to give himself over to the darkness.
It just went to prove that nothing could ever be easy for him.
Not in life. Not in death. Not even in the void Between.
Not for him.
The light was no more than a pinprick at first, far, far off in the sea of darkness. Draco, who'd been lying spread-eagled on his back, but feeling as if he were floating in nothing, becoming nothing, turned his head slowly toward that distant spark. He blinked; blinked again; narrowed his eyes; managed to lift his head perhaps an entire inch off the ground before allowing it to thud back down again.
This was... an unexpected development.
And he wasn't at all sure how he felt about it.
He'd made a decision. He'd been at peace with that decision. And now...
Well, and now what?
That was the question.
But the light was getting closer, and since there was nothing else in the vicinity vying for his attention, and since he wasn't exactly in a position to be going anywhere himself, he simply lay where he was... and watched its approach.
It seemed to take a very long time... but then again, time itself seemed to be... flexible where he was.
Or... where he wasn't.
Or was, but was becoming wasn't.
Wait... what? His thoughts were scattering again; flying away.
And yet... this time his consciousness didn't go skittering after them.
Strange... why was that?
Oh, yeah; the light. It was... anchoring him, somehow. He wasn't sure how he knew that, but...
So that's what light looks like... yes, I remember now...
It was right around then that the spark resolved itself into a person.
A distinctly female person, even though the distance between them was still such that he couldn't make out her features as yet.
He still couldn't recall exactly who or what Hermione was, but he understood that she was deeply, fundamentally, profoundly important to him.
After all, her name had been running ceaselessly through his head since... well, since forever. Since the dawn of time. Because that's how long he'd been here, right?
Could it be Hermione walking toward him? And what if it was?
There was a part of him that longed to see her more than he thought he'd ever longed for anything in his life... and another part of him that absolutely dreaded it. That knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that meeting Hermione in this place would be a Very, Very Bad Thing.
A goddamn, bloody catastrophe.
He couldn't remember how he knew that, but he knew it all right. A cold, sick fear settled into him.
Don't be Hermione. Don't, please don't. She isn't meant to be here, this place is for me, not her, for God's sake, please don't...
He couldn't remember why he was so sure that he belonged here and Hermione didn't... but he thought it had to do with just desserts. He had earned this place, somehow.
Ridden with anxiety now, he tried to lever himself up onto his elbows... but it was a futile effort. Having begun the process of melting into the nothingness all around him, he no longer possessed the necessary strength or coordination.
There was nothing he could do except watch as the shining figure closed the distance between them... and pray to a God that he couldn't remember if he'd ever even believed in, that the person who was approaching was not, in fact, the one person in all of creation that he most desperately wanted to see.
Further irony could be found in the fact that, once the shining figure had drawn close enough for him to - theoretically, at rate - be able to recognize her, the radiance became too much for Draco and he had to slam his eyes shut, and turn his head the other way for good measure.
Already halfway merged with the black nothing all around him, he found that in this state, bright light was not his friend. Grimacing, he flung one arm over his face - a motion that required nearly Herculean effort - in order to further shield his eyes..
He sensed when she knelt beside him, and he spoke first.
"I'm sorry." His voice was a rusty croak. "I can't look. S'too bright."
"I don't think I can dim it." The voice that replied was warm, lilting, and absolutely beautiful. It was not Hermione's voice - he knew that instantly, on a bone-deep level, and would have been hard-pressed to say which he felt more strongly; disappointment or relief - and yet, it was a voice that he knew.
Or at least, that he knew he should know.
And it was a voice that he loved, loved from a place deep in his heart; felt as if he'd loved forever.
Couldn't place it, though, no matter how he tried.
She was speaking again.
"No, I can't dim it. But maybe... here, let me try something else."
The hand that caught his wrist then was small but sure. Strong, too, as evidenced by the fact that she had no difficulty whatsoever in prying his arm away from his face, despite the fact that he resisted to the best of his ability. The sheer magnitude of light that was flooding over him was simply too much for him to take. Teeth clenched, breathing in shallow bursts, he had his eyes shut as tightly as he could and it was still too much, too much, too much -
Did light always hurt like this? God, no more, no MORE -
Then there were fingertips, cool and steady, being pressed to his closed eyes one at a time as her other hand held his arm immobile, down against his side, and she was whispering something, words he couldn't make out...
And then it was over. The blinding, glaring, painful light subsiding, thank God, thank God, oh thank God.
"Wha... whadid you do?" he rasped out, not quite daring to open his eyes just yet.
"I can't control the amount of energy I'm putting off, but I can control your... receptiveness to it."
"I don't really know. I just felt as if I probably could, so I tried it. I seem to be able to do quite a lot here. I found you, after all. From what I understand about this place, it's no easy thing to find someone whose light has gone out. And yet... here we are. It really should be okay now - you can open your eyes."
Steeling himself against the potential for agonizing pain, he prised open first one eye, and then the other; struggled for a long moment to focus; narrowed them as the face above him blurred, shimmered, and then finally resolved itself into recognizability.
She was smiling down at him, looking more than a little pleased with herself... and then his heart was exploding inside of him with panic and grief because the fog that had been clouding his mind was gone, instantly and completely -
And comprehension slammed into him of just how wrong, how totally, heinously, appallingly wrong it was to see her here, worse even than if it had been Hermione, just completely unacceptable, he could not cope with this; and he was screaming, screaming, his voice cracked and raw and broken -
"No, God, NO, get out of here, go back, you have to go BACK, oh please no, Ronnelle, not you, not YOU, NO!"
Her silver brows drew together in consternation; a devastatingly Hermione-like expression. "I'm not Ronnelle -"
"Of course you're Ronnelle!" Draco was beside himself. "Go back, sweetheart, you have to go BACK!"
"No. No! Dad, stop, you don't -" She broke off, shook her head. "I've really messed this up." Then she leaned close over him, placing her hands on his shoulders and pressing him down because he'd been trying, frantically, to struggle into a sitting position.
"Don't waste your energy this way," she said urgently, "please don't, you've little enough left as it is, and you'll need it. Just listen to me - I'm not Ronnelle! I thought it would be easier for you if I appeared familiar, recognizable - apparently I misjudged. I'm sorry. I'm not Ronnelle, Dad. My name is Sophia."
"No." His voice was a hoarse rasp. "You're confused somehow. Oh my God, will you please just go back -"
"Ronnelle! Go back!"
"Oh, this is going all wrong." She looked completely at a loss. "Look, I am your daughter, but -"
"But nothing, I only have one daughter! Ronnelle, for -"
"Living." She spoke the word quietly, but still it halted him in his tracks.
"You only have one daughter, living. It was a mistake to take Ronnelle's appearance, I see that now. Here, wait a second..."
She furrowed her brow again, in concentration this time. Seemed for a moment to shimmer, as if he were looking up at her from underwater or through some massively intense sort of heat-haze. Then she resolved again, and now her similarity to Ronnelle, though still there, was far less pronounced. It lingered only in the angles of her face, the set of her eyes, her expressive mouth. Really, the girl he was looking at now was far closer to being a carbon copy of Hermione - closer even than Seth, who'd inherited his mother's coloring almost exactly.
She could very nearly have passed for the teenaged Hermione he'd previously encountered in this God-forsaken place. Almost, but not quite. There were traces of him in there, too.
And still he didn't quite understand.
"There," she said, with a trace of satisfaction. "I like this better anyway. Not that Ronnelle isn't pretty - she's beautiful. It's just that she's not... me."
The wheels in his head were turning now, and he found that he did not like the direction they were taking.
"I don't -"
"Yes, you do," she said matter-of-factly, and in that moment she sounded uncannily like Hermione too. She had never actually, he realized belatedly, sounded very much like Ronnelle at all. "You do, or at least, you're starting to. I can see it in your face. "I'm Sophia, dad. It's Greek for Wisdom. Mum named me - she's chosen it already, that's how I know."
And it was coming; full realization was coming, bearing down on him with all the speed and force of the Hogwarts Express at full throttle, and he was still trying to fight it off because it was too awful, to hideously cruel to accept, to even contemplate - but it was a losing battle.
"You can't be," he croaked, but she was. She was, and even as he spoke he was reaching for her, despite the fact that he was so weak his limbs would barely obey him - wanting to touch her, to feel the shape of her face that was so very like her mother's.
Because he was looking at the child that Hermione had lost - the child that would have been.