A/N: When I went to the midnight premiere, I started sobbing when Hermione was being tortured. I love J.K. Rowling and will argue to the day I die that she's a goddess and a genius, but I think that in this rare case, the movie did a better job with that scene than the book did. David Yates made it so much more personal, so intense and heartwrenching. And when Ron screamed "Like hell!"...I nearly fell apart.

So this is my attempt to do justice to that scene. Thanks for reading and enjoy!

Title from song by Sara Bareilles. Please don't favorite without reviewing!

And this is the part where the curtain falls
And the day dream ends it all
Where the yellow brick road is much too far to go alone
- Unarmed by Mariah McManus

Her screams haunt his sleep for weeks.

When it happens, he is surprised to find he is not rooted to the ground, frozen with fear. He is surprised to find that he does not even hesitate. He is surprised to find that for once, he does not rely on The Chosen One (otherwise known as his best friend) to help him save the girl he can never quite figure out.

But then, it's Hermione.

He hears her pleading, that sweet, intuitive voice tinged with so much desperation that when Bellatrix cackles her sadistic laugh, such irrational rage floods his soul that he lets out a bloodcurdling growl. Harry glances warily at him, but Ron is so attuned to Hermione that he can almost feel how much pain she's in; nothing else matters.

"Stay strong, 'Mione," he whispers, and he hopes to God that she can hear him, that she'll listen to him for once in her life (normally it bothers him that she's so hotheaded and stubborn, but right now he's willing her fire to take over and keep her alive until he can get to her). "My God, stay strong."

He squeezes his eyes shut and cringes every time she shrieks.

He remembers when he first met her, how cocky and self-assured and undeniably socially awkward she was, how desperately she wanted – needed – friends. He remembers her bushy hair and her bright, curious eyes, the way she put her hands on her hips and told him he had dirt on his nose. He remembers how very much he hated her then.

Or, at least, how very much he wanted to hate her.

He also remembers fighting the troll with her, smirking with glee at the impossible fact that Hermione Granger of all people was scared out of her mind, that she had no idea what to do. He remembers watching her walk down those stairs, that rose-colored gown of the most delicate fabric draping the body he had never known was worth worshipping.

And he remembers the way she collapsed in his arms when he came back to her, to their quest, the dull thump of her small fists on his chest, the tears that flooded her eyes as his arms found their way around her, hot and welcome and entirely too fleeting. He remembers how beautiful she looked.

How beautiful she always looks.

He remembers all this as he crouches at the top of the stairs with Harry, his eyes glazing over slightly, his knees screaming in protest (he is spurred on by the quick flashes of her piercing cries reverberating in his ears). His gaze lingers on her concave body, slumped in a very un-Hermione-like manner on the cold, hard floor. For a moment, an agonizing, endless moment, he worries that she is not breathing.

But the gentle ringlets just above her forehead seem to hover, rise up and fall down, and he can't help the ache in his heart. She's alive. She's alive, my God, and she looks goddamn breathtaking. He unconsciously lets out a sigh of relief, deep-seated compassion welling in his throat as he begins to comprehend how very broken she must be.

He vows to fix her.

Harry's hand is on his arm, holding him in place. He recognizes that it's for the best, that it's the smart move to wait just a moment longer, to delay their ambush until Bellatrix is distracted. But all he can hear is that peculiar pitch being ripped from her precious mouth, high and shrill, and he has to close his eyes against this wave of pure anguish that engulfs him as surely as her hold on him always has.

Tears prick his eyes, blur his vision as he stares at the girl who's always frustrated him so. She just suffered so much, so intensely, and all for them. All for the world.

The realization that she is so inexplicably, determinedly selfless (not to mention brave) sends him reeling, and a sudden need to act out, to pull her away and into his arms and smother her with his affection until she is completely healed, calls upon him. He is helpless to resist, and it dawns on him that he cannot let this stand.

And he doesn't care if he dies right here, right now, if Bellatrix's trademark green arc hits him squarely in the chest. He doesn't care if she tortures him, if she takes him to Voldemort himself. He doesn't care if all this was in vain, if he ends this quest courtesy of this one stupid decision. He just doesn't care. As long as he gets to hold Hermione just one more time, he does not care.

(She's the only thing worth living for anymore anyways).

So when Bellatrix explicitly threatens Hermione's life, he doesn't think (he doesn't really hear exactly what she says, but it's impossible to mistake her meaning). He just feels, feels how much he cares about this girl, how much he needs to save her, no matter what else happens.

How empty his world would be if she weren't in it.

So he stands up.

"Like hell!" he yells, and maybe he's just imagining things, but as he races out he swears he sees a hint of that wonderful smile lighting up her tired face.

He throws several spells this way and that, stunning the various people in the room, knowing Harry's backing him up (he's forgotten how good that feels). But his eyes never leave the curve of Hermione's lips, the drops of moisture decorating the crest of her cheekbones.

He never looks away.

He reaches her at last, and he's sobbing as he pulls her into his arms (he whispers in her ear that he'll never let her go). She is weak, pliable, frighteningly so. But her hands find his, and she finds the strength to curl into him, her body shaking, trembling as silent tears trace her face, mar her skin. He holds her tenderly and prays with all his heart that he will find a way to make this better for her.

When they stagger onto the beach, wet and tired and hurt but very much alive, she is entwined with him, her legs wrapped around his and her body pressing against his and her heart beating erratically. She is still shaking, but she lifts her head, looks at him, manages the smallest, the sweetest of smiles.

He smiles back.

Her eyes are warm, even as water overflows from her glowing eyes and splashes onto her dirty, precious face. He leans his forehead against hers and cradles her in his arms, holds her as she heaves breaths that seem to cost her more energy than she possesses. He smoothes her hair and kisses the top of her head.

It feels like coming home.

It is only days later, after they have buried Dobby (she cries the saltiest, most aggressive tears he's ever seen her cry, and he knows they are for more than just the elf), after Harry suggests another tentative, possibly life-threatening and certainly doomed-to-fail plan (she doesn't try to talk him out of it, which surprises all of them), after they have bid farewell to their other beloved companions (he refuses to cry, but when she squeezes his arm sympathetically, he can't dam the floodgates anymore), that he realizes that she's been wearing long-sleeved shirts since…

He still can't talk about it.

But he begins to notice things as the days, the hours, the moments, slip by.

He notices her eyes darting about their surroundings rapidly at the strangest intervals, trying to take in as much information as they can as if she is terrified of more than the usual suspect intruders. He notices her wild sleeping patterns, or rather, how she doesn't sleep at all, tossing restlessly and moaning under her breath, a sound that lingers in his thoughts as they traipse from place to place, searching for those elusive Horcruxes.

And he notices the edge of a faint, faint, scar, peeking out from beneath the carefully arranged fabric of her carefully picked shirt.

They haven't talked about it. He doesn't know if they ever will. He tried to broach the subject once, not long after they arrived at Bill and Fleur's cottage. She didn't seem to hear him at first. She kept walking.

But then she turned. She turned, and her eyes were cold (only masking the vulnerability beneath, but still) as she told him she didn't want him to mention the subject ever again. She said it just like that, too: "Ronald, I don't want you to mention the subject ever again!" He nodded and let it go, because she was so clearly hurting, and he couldn't bear to see the ice beginning to cover her always warm heart.

But now he's worried. She's not the same. She's not the Hermione he remembers, and that scares him.

He doesn't expect her to be the same, of course, not after such a traumatic experience, and he doesn't even know if he wants her to be the same (they are all changing, have changed, and they can't deny it). But she is so far from happy that he spends every moment of every day conjuring ways to cheer up, or just to make her talk, babble like he she used to. Even if only for a moment.

But she never does.

It is only when he thinks he might be going mad with worry that he decides to confront her.

It is not a choice he makes lightly. It is not a conclusion he comes to on a spur-of-the-moment whim. It's not even something he mulls over on his own. (He talks to Harry, who just pats him on the back and wishes him luck. It's enough). It is something he thinks about, and thinks about, and thinks about.

And finally, there is only thought existing in his head, only one thought that propels him toward her (he's always traveling in her direction): the memory of that scream. He hears her everywhere he goes, hears her begging for mercy, hears her and feels her and dies with her, every single moment. It is a memory he cannot dispel no matter how hard he tries, and he has given up.

But therein lies the key: he will never give up on her. Never. Especially not when she is hurting like this. The light in her eyes has been snuffed out (he cannot believe that the damage might be permanent), and she is so much like a zombie that his concern for her has become consuming. He cannot go on like this. He cannot let her live like this.

He cares about her too much to allow that fire to die.

He finds her curled up on her cot in the tent, like she was in his arms back in the Malfoy Manor, before he lost her to this darkness (he hasn't held her since then, and he is aching to feel her near him again). Harry is out thinking about the Horcruxes, as always. They are alone.

He clears his throat uncomfortably, crossing his arms over his chest. He doesn't know how to deal with this weak version of the strongest person – male or female, really – he knows. He doesn't think he is equipped to cope with this lethargic girl (is she a woman now? Maybe he missed that inevitable transition). He doesn't really believe that he is even capable of comforting her.

But he has to try anyway.

"Hermione," he whispers, and it takes him a moment to realize how sad he sounds, how rough with emotion his voice is.

She doesn't say anything. She doesn't even move.

"Mione," he repeats, the word laced with more insistence than he's ever had cause to use with her. "Please."

She sits up suddenly, her unruly hair flying in all different directions. He notices with a wince that there are dark hollows beneath her eyes, belying her careful façade. She is not okay. She is not okay.

And God, he just can't stand to see her like this anymore.

"What?" She asks irritably, averting her gaze so she doesn't have to look at him.

He shakes his head, takes a step toward her. Somehow, it is comforting to know that she still has the energy to scold him and be all fussy with him. That's his girl. Right here. This is the Hermione he misses so much it keeps him up all night.

He considers how to answer her question. He's afraid if he comes right out with why he's here, she'll get angry and yell that she doesn't need his help, and any progress he's made will be negated completely. But if he tiptoes around the subject, they may never get to the point at all.

So he closes the ever-widening distance between them, sitting beside her on the bed, gingerly reaching up a hand to smooth her hair off her face. "Let me help you," he whispers tenderly, sincerely.

She slowly raises her eyes to meet his, that beautiful hazel vulnerable and afraid. Her temper may very well flare up again, and truthfully, it wouldn't surprise him. But she must be tired of fighting this battle she cannot win, because she leans against him slightly, closing her eyes.

"I don't know how," she admits, and there's such helplessness in her voice that his arms go around her almost instinctively.

Because a vulnerable Hermione Granger is a rare sight. Rare, and infinitely precious.

He kisses her hair. "I know," he assures her, gliding his lips across the crest of her head, pulling her closer and breathing in her distinctive scent, a strange combination of vanilla and pine needles that has always captivated him. "Let me try anyways."

She nods. Small and frightened, she nods.

"Okay."

There is a long silence after she has reluctantly murmured her acquiescence. He doesn't want to take advantage of her moment of weakness, so he just sits there with her for several seconds, stroking her hair and resisting the urge to pull her shirt off her arm.

He will admit that it is killing him, not knowing what exactly Bellatrix did to her.

Finally, she buries her warm head in his chest, sending several shivers coursing throughout his taut, waiting body. Her words are muffled by his thin t-shirt, but they reach his ears nonetheless.

"She wrote something."

He immediately stiffens, gripping her maybe a little too tightly. He understands the implications of those words, considering what Umbridge did to Harry their fifth year. The hurt of that is almost too much to bear, and he clutches at her like it will erase the memories, the pain.

But when he opens his eyes and breathes her in again, breathes her in and holds her close, the memory still lingers.

He doesn't really think about what he's about to do next. He just pulls back gently, his eyes focused and intent, his fingers tracing soothing circles on her skin. His touch is almost flippant, unconcerned, as he traces down her arm and to the edge of what she's fought so hard to conceal. Without preamble, he tugs the rose-colored shirt (he remembers how much he loves her in pink) off her skin.

And, God help him, he can't stop the gasp that echoes in the enclosed space.

"'Mione," he exhales, and he feels like he might cry.

She only sniffles in response.

Because there on her perfect skin, harsh and angry and evoking such powerful wrath and cruelty that they both stagger with the weight of the reveal, is a word he never wanted her to have to hear ever again.

Mudblood.

(Tears well up in his eyes).

He snarls, trying in vain to control his anger. He knows wanting to bring revenge on Bellatrix doesn't help his fragile girl heal. But that hateful word hurts her so much. To have it etched into her skin?

He cannot believe she is still breathing.

But wait.

"Hermione," he whispers, and she holds his gaze for the first time in weeks, her eyes steady even as she wavers in his arms. "Why haven't you gotten rid of it?"

It would take a simple spell, an incantation she could mutter in her sleep (if she slept at all anymore, that is). It would be a flick of the wand, and then the word would be gone, gone forever. He is at a loss here. He doesn't understand why she wouldn't want to erase the evidence, especially since it is such a derisive insult that his very heart is fighting to redeem her.

But she shakes her head. "I –" She closes her eyes fretfully, reaching out and touching his cheek like she needs to make sure this moment is real. "I couldn't," she says finally, and he wishes she didn't sound so insecure, so unsure of herself.

He hesitates. "Do you –" He manages a weak smile. "Do you want me to?"

She nods quickly.

But he stares at the red scratchy letters, bile rising in her throat. He never imagined he would be involved in such a horrific war; he never planned on seeing the person he cares about most reduced to this shallow version of herself. He doesn't know if he's strong enough to perform this one simple spell.

And yet...this is Hermione he's talking about. He can do anything for her. He can find the courage to save her from this. He can do it.

So he gently takes her wrist in his hand, bringing it to his mouth. He peppers kisses on her raw skin, refusing to look away from her as his tongue traces the edges of her pain. He's trying to change things for her, trying to replace her cruel memories with new, cathartic ones. He's trying to do this for her so that when her eyes fall on the underside of her wrist, she will feel his mouth instead of Bellatrix's.

Finally, when her cheeks are wet with tears, he whispers the words that will set her free from the word that enslaved her in the first place.

And all she can do is whisper two other words. She has never meant them more.

"Thank you."

Hours later, she lies in his arms, crying quietly into the warm haven of his chest. He hasn't said anything for a long while, but he supposes that's the point. She needs to feel like she can just let go. Otherwise, she will never get over this.

"You're going to be okay," he whispers in her ear. He believes it with all his heart.

And maybe she doesn't believe him. Maybe she thinks she is permanently broken, forever damaged. Maybe she worries that she will never be herself again.

But he will make sure his words are true.

He loves her too much not to.

fin