Title: Unforgivable Curse
Spoilers: post-Goblet of Fire
Summary: Harry was one of the kindest people she'd ever known, certainly the bravest, but to look at him now she wouldn't imagine a hidden hero. He was just an unloved boy, a reputation more than a person to most, and tired and lonely of being a scar and a story.
Disclaimer: In case this comes as a complete shock to all of you, brace yourselves to discover that I'm not JK Rowling. If I was, there wouldn't be any of this Ron/Hermione nonsense.
A/N: This is not really a new story; this fic has been sitting in my fanfic folder for years. It was one of several failed attempts at Vox Corporis before the 'right' beginning came to me. It was before I really hit my stride writing in the HP fandom, but may be one or two people who like it, so here it is. *brushes off dust*
Hermione Granger's searching steps carried her farther and farther from the sound of her classmates at Hogwarts. They were inside, congregated in the main hall, clustered together like frightened children. That's what they were. Everyone had gathered for Cedric Diggory's funeral. Never had so many within the castle walls cried. Never had fear been so great, for Dumbledore's words promised that the days of tears were only beginning.
Voldemort, back, alive. The terror of their parents' and grandparents' times, a horrifying story of the past for those attending Hogwarts. It had been, just barely, before their time. A childhood lived in regained peace proven to be an innocence begat on borrowed time. They were in danger now. No one was beyond Voldemort's power to reach. Death crept toward the edges of the grounds, loomed over families, came in slow and insidious like a low fog.
Most of the students cried as much for their fear and their terror at losing a loved one as much as they cried for Cedric.
Hermione had been comforting Ginny after the service; it was ten minutes before she actually looked up from Ron's little sister. People were milling and swaying and ebbing but not thinning. There was a monster out there, and no one was strong enough to brave being separated from the group. Tear-stained faced looked drawn and pale. These faces that had only days ago been smiling and laughing were tight-lipped in sick terror.
Hermione looked for a familiar head of dark, untamed hair and felt an unreasonable lurch of fear in her stomach when she couldn't find it. She swallowed and gently passed quiet, speechless Ginny to her older brother. Ron folded his sister in a hug and Hermione began to weave her way between bodies looking for Harry.
He'd been beside her during the ceremony; she'd been stealing glances at him between her dark lashes wet with tears. He'd been eerily still, his face a strange, stolid mask. She knew a little more than most what had happened. Harry had told her and Ron some, but not much. Not everything. Telling them as much as he had clearly cost him. Honestly, at the time, it was a little more than Hermione and Ron could handle, anyway. The thickness and catch in Harry's voice as he told of watching Cedric die, of seeing Voldemort born again from such vulgar means… Harry hadn't been able to carry on and Hermione and Ron were only to glad for him to stop. They'd gathered him into a group hug fiercer than any friends had ever clung and done so in front of professors and fellow students and damned their eyes. They clutched at Harry like a binding spell glued them together at the flesh. No one blamed them, no one tried to pull them apart. Eventually, they three were alone in the corridor, arms tangled, Professor Dumbledore pretending to converse with the paintings nearby as he kept an eye on them.
Harry had spoken so very little since his choked recount to his friends of the events of the final Triwizard Trial. He'd drawn into himself. Madame Pomfrey gave paltry words of comfort that he was physically okay, just wounded. Wounded in a sense that she could not mend with wand or potion. It hadn't been reassuring, but it had been honesty, and in a world of mortal danger children were no longer coddled with comforting lies.
Hermione and Ron had given Harry space without leaving him entirely alone. They stayed close… close enough to be there the second he thought he may need them, but they didn't crowd him.
At the funeral Hermione had silently reached over and slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. She'd needed to touch him, to have him be touched as Dumbledore told everyone about the Dark Lord. Harry hadn't looked in her direction, his unwavering, stony gaze directed forward, but he had slid his opposite hand to rest atop hers.
As Hermione trolled the main hall looking for him, she could not remember at what point she'd lost contact with him. She didn't know at what point in the wake he'd slipped from sight.
Hermione was beginning to worry, afraid something had happened, and was moments from tracking down a professor to mount a search when a familiar flash of ginger hair caught her eye. Near the door to the crowded room Crookshanks stood looking at her, tail tip swishing lazily. When Hermione caught his eye the cat turned and trotted off.
Hermione, trusting a gut instinct, hurried after her pet.
Crookshanks was the one to take her from the party, lead her down the halls to one of the entryways of Hogwarts leading to the grounds. It was disquietingly still outside. On a day so lovely the grounds would normally be full of students taking a break from studying to enjoy the weather. Now it was barren, deserted, everyone who may have lain in the grass inside mourning the dead.
Crookshanks rubbed against her leg and sat down, eyes locked on the lake's edge.
Hermione looked, too, and at last saw the object of her search.
With a grateful look toward Crookshanks (who merely blinked squinty eyes and proceeded to tongue-bathe his paw), Hermione headed down toward the lakeside.
Harry was alone by the water, sitting on the ground with his back to a tree trunk. Even from a distance she could see him leaning slightly away from the tree, back hunched and arms crossed before him. He looked a very bedraggled sight, black tousled hair and defeated curve to his form telegraphing so much of what he'd never managed to say.
Harry gave no indication that he heard Hermione coming, and as she drew closer she could see he was fidgeting. Swaying a little in an uneven rhythm, arms moving as though trying to rub himself warm on a perfect spring day, his raised knee ticking an inch from side to side and his leg flat on the ground ending in a twitching, restless foot.
Hermione slowed as she neared. She didn't want to startle him.
Harry flinched and turned quickly in her direction all the same, and for a moment Hermione saw an expression on his face that took her by surprise. It reminded her of the look her grandmother wore when her arthritis was really bothering her and one came upon her unawares. It was the unguarded look of one combating bone-deep pain.
Hermione noticed she wasn't breathing and told herself to inhale.
Harry's momentarily uncensored look fled as he mustered a brave front when he recognized her. "Her-hey," he croaked, then cleared his throat around the name that had been too long for him to manage.
Hermione drew up alongside him and sat down.
Harry sniffled and looked pointedly away. He continued to rock. His hands traveled his own arms, his shoulders looked stooped and old.
"Are you all right?" Hermione asked softly. She knew the answer already.
Harry nodded stiltedly and grimaced strangely. He frowned and kneaded his fingers into his forearms deeper.
"Everyone's going to worry about you going off alone." Hermione just stopped from confessing 'I worried'.
"I'm not alone; you're here."
"Now." Hermione settled closer beside him, almost enough to bump into his restless form. "What is it?"
Harry rolled his shoulders like they were sore but looked out over the still water and squinted. "Where's Ron?"
Hermione sighed at the diversion and looked over her shoulder. She almost expected Crookshanks to have fetched the red-head as well, but the cat was sitting where she'd left him, watching a butterfly flutter through the air with decidedly feline interest. Hermione decided she preferred Ron be with his family. She wanted to let Harry talk to just her.
"He's inside with the others. Why aren't you there?"
Harry shook his head and lowered his gaze. "Hermione… I can't. I just… I still feel him, dead in my hands. Cedric. I see his face, his eyes, and there's nothing in them, and he's not breathing, and it just…" Harry rubbed at his ribs with one hand and Hermione couldn't seem to stop herself from reaching out and trying to smooth down his unmanageable hair.
"Oh, Harry, try not to think about it. I'll stay."
The unexpected touch stilled Harry at first, then he closed his eyes and let her wage silent combat with his hair. He seemed eased a small degree by the attention, by being important enough for someone to touch. Hermione never thought about how little affectionate physical contact he was used to receiving until that moment. Watching him stiffen then relax into the sensation, like a feral animal feeling a gentle hand for the first time, made her think of her own parents. At home she was hugged and kissed and loved. Ron went home to similar conditions. Harry went home to an aunt and uncle who would just as soon he'd not survived his first encounter with Voldemort.
Harry was leaning very faintly toward her, probably unconscious of the fact that he was moving toward her, and Hermione felt fresh tears. Harry was one of the kindest people she'd ever known, certainly the bravest, but to look at him now she wouldn't imagine a hidden hero. He was just an unloved boy, a reputation more than a person to most, and tired and lonely of being a scar and a story.
Hermione's fingers moved toward his brow, brushed back the locks, and she unveiled the lightning scar. For an insane second she was overcome with the impulse to kiss it, half-clinging to the naïve girl inside her that remembered her own mother's kiss driving away aches and sadness with just a kiss. Muggle-magic. Hermione bit her lip; Harry wouldn't remember what a mother's healing kiss would feel like.
Harry pulled away when the gravity of their contact seemed to occur to him, too. He flinched, crossed his arms tighter and leaned forward further, curled deeper, and Hermione wiped at a tear on her cheek.
"Harry… what is it?"
Harry didn't answer, but he was kneading his sides with his hands.
"Are you hurt?"
Harry sighed and looked sideways at her. Hermione sat back slightly from the vulnerable, weak expression in his eyes. Weak was not Harry Potter. He looked broken already, and that sent a splinter of terror through Hermione.
Hermione could feel her heart begin to hammer.
Harry paled. "Hermione, I… I want to tell you, but promise me you won't tell anyone. Not even Ron."
"Why not Ron?" she whispered. If Ron couldn't know, she felt like she shouldn't know. It wasn't right to have secrets between them.
Harry shook his head. "It's not so much Ron as Mrs. Weasley. You know how bad he is keeping anything from her, and I don't want her to know. Not this. She'll just… she'll just take it badly, and I couldn't stand being the one to make her that sad. Not on my account. They've done so much for me, they don't deserve the bad that comes with me. I don't want to upset Mrs. Weasley."
"Ron might be able to hide it from his mother," Hermione offered.
Harry shook his head again. "Not this. If I told him she'd just look at Ron and know. I don't think I could handle Mrs. Weasley hovering over me like…"
'Like a mother,' Hermione understood. Harry Potter's weakness was the absence of his family, and anything even close to mimicking what he'd lost struck deep. He was trying to be strong, he needed to be strong, but being gathered to a maternal bosom and wept for like a son would crack him. In the face of the threat of Voldemort, Harry couldn't afford to lose that much control.
"I promise I won't tell anyone," Hermione finally whispered.
Harry was quiet a time, Hermione too afraid to prompt him further, then Harry moved his hands down his arms and kneaded at his forearms again like his muscles were bothering him. "It hurts."
"Everything. Under my skin, my bones, maybe. It aches." Harry darted a cautious look at her. "What… what do you know about any kind of after-effects of the Cruciatus Curse?"
Hermione's eyes widened and her hands flew to her mouth. Oh, no.
"Oh, Harry… he… didn't."
Harry hunched forward again and winced.
Hermione's fingers shook but she fought to control herself. Harry wanted her book knowledge, he needed her for what she knew best.
"It… it can leave muscle pain, soreness, aching like… like coming down with the flu." So the texts said, but that was just information. This was Harry in front of her, aching from the Cruciatus. There was no index page for that. That evil, damnable beast of a wizard had tortured her friend with an unforgivable curse.
Harry rubbed at his hands. "It's everywhere. I just… I just want to sleep, to forget for a little bit, for just a little while, but it's everywhere."
Harry thought. "Not too bad, I've had worse."
The sad part was that he had.
"Did you ask Madam Pomfrey about something to ease the pain?"
Harry shook his head slowly. "I didn't tell anyone about the Cruciatus. I think Dumbledore knows, anyway. If Pomfrey knew she would have kept me longer, and I just wanted…" and Harry rubbed at his forehead in annoyance and frustration.
"Has it gotten any better since…?"
Harry nodded feebly, without opening his eyes. "Some. My arms aren't as bad as they were, nor my hands… I think the rubbing helps. My spine's something awful. Maybe it's supposed to be, when I was under the curse I remembered by back hurting first and last."
Hermione scooted closer and tugged at the collar of Harry's light coat. His trust in her was so absolute that he didn't ask why, he just shrugged out of it as bade.
Hermione pulled up Harry's shirt and looked at his back. A few scratches from the brush of the maze, a little bruising in isolated patches, but otherwise his back was smooth and unmarred. There was no raw, red wound running the length of his spinal column. Hermione wasn't sure if she'd expected there to be.
Harry lowered his head and breathed tensely. He looked shattered.
Hermione reached out with one hand and her small, cool palm touched Harry's exposed back.
He jerked, startled, but didn't pull away.
Hermione ran her hand up the length of his back, up to between his shoulder blades, his skin almost fever-warm under her palm and fingers. His muscles were tensed and twitching beyond Harry's control.
"Lie down," she said softly, and Harry may have started to speak, or maybe whimpered in pain, maybe bit back a sob. There was only a small, strange noise then he shifted slowly and stiffly, moving like an old man to flatten himself against the ground. He lay on his stomach, removed and set aside his glasses in the grass, and Hermione shifted over to sit pressed beside him, his hips to hers. Both her hands found his back and she kneaded as she'd watched his hands do moments before.
Harry tensed and tightened, as though only hurt more or on the verge of bolting, but with a shuddering sound he balled his discarded coat up under his head and laid still.
Hermione rubbed and pressed. She was possessed by the wild hope that she might be able to drive the ache out of him. Out of his back, out of his skin, out of his mind, out of his heart. The Boy Who Lived was barely holding together. She'd fix him or end up in Saint Mungo's trying.
Harry's shirt was hiked up around his shoulders. Hermione sought better leverage and rose to her knees, threw one leg over his hips, and sat back on his rump. Harry grunted then went still again. Hermione pressed harder, commanded the hurt from him with her hands.
If a professor caught them like this it'd be detention for certain. If the other students saw them it'd be rumors and gossip the likes of which they couldn't hope to counteract, but right now it didn't matter. She didn't care. That sick freak had tortured Harry. Used an unforgivable curse on her friend. In fact, not the first he'd cast on Harry. Avada Kedavra and Crucatius both. Against Harry Potter, the kindest soul Hermione had ever known.
Voldemort was a pure monster.
Hermione was horror-struck to wonder, was it only those two curses? Why not Imperius, too? He'd been hiding the Cruciatus, suffering quietly a curse that was so horrible it was ranked with killing in degree of unimaginable darkness. How much would Harry be expected to endure?
Harry made a hissing sound, his shoulders flinched, and Hermione blinked out of her thoughts and stilled. "What… am I making it worse?"
Harry's torso trembled under her, his breathing broken, then a small, cracked voice. "No… don't stop. Please."
He was crying.
Hermione loved him. She'd sort out in what way later, but she did love him.
She bent down, leaned over him, and at last gave in to the impulse to kiss him. She pressed her lips softly to the cheek of his side-turned face, touched his hair with one tender hand, and Harry clenched his eyes shut and sobbed. Tears leaked from between his lashes. "Please…" he whimpered thinly, "please don't…"
"I won't. I won't stop until you tell me to," she whispered back earnestly, and then sat up again and resumed her massage work on his back.
Harry continued to cry. He turned his face into his jacket to hide the tears and muffle his cries, but Hermione felt them rack through his frame as she did everything she could to help him. She applied herself as never before to healing him.