Chapter Two / If I Only Could
And if I only could,
make a deal with God.
And get him to swap our places.
Come on, baby, come on, come on, darling,
let me steal this moment from you now.
Running Up That Hill, by Placebo
"Ron! Catch, and GO!"
At the sound of Harry's voice Ron turned, and caught the wand that was thrown towards him. For a short second their eyes met, and it crossed Ron's mind briefly that this may be the last time he see's his best mate. Ron pushed this thought aside and he pulled Hermione's limp body up into his arms, turning on the spot. Darkness and pressure closed in on him, and he tightened his hold on Hermione.
Shell Cottage... Shell Cottage on the edge of Tinworth- don't be dead please don't be dead- Shell Cottage... Bill-
Everything came to an abrupt halt and suddenly he was on his knees in sand, Hermione clutched against his chest. Ron's head spun and his mind reeled, thoughts still whirling. He couldn't focus on any one thought- Hermione was a dead- no, not dead- weight in his arms, Harry left back at the Manor- and had he even managed to get them to the right place? A thrill of fear consumed him and he blinked up at the faint light in the distance, and through his dizzy, distorted vision could barely make out a figure coming towards him at top speed. A figure with familiar red hair and a deep voice calling-
Ron sagged with relief as he recognized his oldest brother racing towards them. He pressed his forehead against the top of Hermione's head and allowed a broken half laugh, half sob to escape him.
They were safe.
Bill skidded to a stop before them, sending sand flying everywhere. His hair was free of its ponytail and his face was full of fright as he reached for Ron.
"Ron! Are you alright?"
Ron only clutched Hermione tighter and curled himself around her. Bill's hands ran across his shoulders and against the back of his skull, checking for injuries. His voice was panicked, but Ron heard him as if through a badly tuned radio, fading in and out…
"-answer me, Ron!"
Face still buried in Hermione's damp curls, Ron couldn't bring himself to speak anything but one word.
Bill, who had had eyes only for his youngest brother, seemed to have just realized the state of the third party lying limp between them.
"Ron, is she…?"
Ron felt Bill's hands between them, his fingers pressing against Hermione's neck, coming away sticky with blood. Ron knew what Bill must have been thinking, but he knew better, he could feel her irregular, whisper thin breaths against his own neck. She was still there- still alive- she had to be.
"She's alive- Bill, please-" Ron came back to his senses then, the magnitude of the situation weighing upon him and snapping him back to reality. Hermione needed help. He lifted his head, met Bill's eyes, afire with concern, and pleaded, "You've got to help her- She's been tortured- the Cruciatus-"
"Okay, okay, Ron, get up. Can you do that?" Bill wrapped a strong arm around Ron's shoulders, and coaxed him, voice firm. "I need you to stand up and we're going to get her inside, alright?"
With Bill's help, Ron managed to stumble to his feet unsteadily, Hermione in his arms. It scared him then, to realize how light she was. His legs shook beneath him, but he forced himself forward, towards the glowing light within the little cottage. Bill remained at his side, one arm around Ron's shoulder, another helping him keep a hold on Hermione, and muttered words of encouragement the entire way.
"You're safe, Ron, you're both safe, she'll be fine. Just a few more steps, ok?"
They crossed into the hallway and Bill guided them to the cozy little den off the kitchen. The fireplace was ablaze, casting warmth throughout the small room. Ron lay Hermione on the sofa at Bill's direction and felt a chair pushed under him. Ron sat, hunched forward with his knees pressed against the sofa, hands tangled in the edges of Hermione's mangled sweater. Bill lit a lamp beside them and light splashed across Hermione weak form, allowing the two brothers to get a good look at her. Bill swore and went to the staircase, calling for Fleur. As he looked down on Hermione, Ron felt a cold chill run down his spine, and he fought the urge to be sick. She was a mess. Her skin was paper white, in stark contrast with the dirt and dark blood that covered her; the only signs that she was still alive were her violent trembling and sharp, uneven breathing. Her hair was matted and scattered with shards of glass and blood ran freely from the shallow cut at her throat. Small cuts, some deeper then others scattered her body, blood smearing across most of her exposed skin. Ron reached for her hand and winced as he found shards of crystal stuck in her skin. Her forearm was cut up more badly then the rest of her and was covered with scarlet; blood dripped to the floor as Ron squeezed her hand. He began to panic then, as her blood spilt to the floor, and wrapped a hand around her arm, putting pressure against the worst of the bleeding.
"Bill!" Ron yelled, unable to keep the panic out of his voice. Hermione was slipping away in front of him, her blood covering the both of them, and still in the back of Ron's mind was the thought of Harry, and how he was back at the mansion, possibly being tortured as well, or worse- He couldn't let her die, not here, not now. "BILL!"
Footsteps pounded down the stairs and then Bill was back with potion bottles clean linens, and his wife. Fleur went to work immediately, using her wand to remove Hermione's ripped sweater, revealing a white tank top that was also stained with blood. Ron sat, eyes frozen on Hermione's still face as they worked around him. Fleur removed crystal from the cuts and healed as many as she could. Bill handed her potions, which they forced down Hermione's throat. Ron shook violently as Bill asked the question he'd been too terrified to voice aloud.
"Fleur, has her mind been affected?"
"I cannot tell." Fleur whispered, her face pale, and lips pressed together in a thin line. "I 'ave not been able-"
Ron jumped as the shout cut through the quiet night. It took him half a second to put his mind in order before he could recognize the voice, but as he did, short relief flooded him. Harry had made it.
"That's Harry." Ron croaked.
"Here, Ron-" Bill's hands were on his, removing them from Hermione's bleeding arm and wrapping a clean towel around it, staunching the flow. Ron put his own shaking hands on the towel and pressed down at Bill's instruction. "Keep pressure on that until Fleur can get to it, we'll be back, alright?"
"Bill!" Ron called as the couple was leaving the room. Bill turned and met his brother's gaze. "Tell Harry-"
"Ron," Bill stepped back into the room, speaking carefully. "We don't know-"
"Lie to him?" Ron pleaded. He didn't know why he was doing this. Why after everything they'd been through together, he wanted to hide this from Harry. But he had to. Had to spare his best friend the pain he felt now as he looked down at Hermione. "Please, just- tell him that she's fine?"
"Alright." Bill nodded as he backed out of the room. "We'll be right back, just stay with her."
Ron didn't have to be told twice. He turned back to Hermione immediately, holding the towel to her arm with one hand, and with the other, he clutched her shaking fingers in his.
"Come on, Hermione, wake up." He muttered. He sat for what felt like forever, eyes never leaving her face. Her screams echoed through his mind and every moment she laid still was like a knife through his heart. He raised her arm and pressed her hand against his lips, closing his eyes and whispering the one thing he'd been meaning to tell her since he returned. "I should never have left you."
The commotion outside had grown quiet again and Ron barely registered the front door opening and closing. He jumped as a gentle hand touched his shoulder.
"Shush, mon frère," Fleur whispered as she pulled up a chair to sit next to him. She ran a tiny hair through his shaggy hair and kissed his temple as she sat. "Eet is alright, 'Arry 'as arrived safely."
Ron nodded and turned to face his sister-in-law.
"I- thank you, Fleur, I know showing up here like this… It puts you and Bill in danger, and I'm sorry-"
"Hush, you should not apologize." Fleur smiled kindly. She gently removed Ron's hands from Hermione's arm, and then set to work unwrapping the towel. "I only wish to 'elp, but I 'ave not practiced 'ealing since Beaxbatons..."
"You're brilliant." Ron said firmly, watching as she began to clean the dried blood from Hermione's injured arm. "I see why Bill married you."
"You are kind, Ronald." Fleur smiled a little. As she wiped most of the blood away, the cuts on Hermione's arm were revealed, and so was the rough word they spelled. "Oh, mon dieu, si cruelle."
"What?" Ron leaned over to squint at the wound, new concern flooding his chest. He froze as he saw the word carved into Hermione's pale skin.
Ron stood abruptly, releasing Hermione's hand. His chair fell over backwards, hitting the floor with a resounding crash.
Ron ignored Fleur, and staggered across hall and into the small kitchen, throwing out his hands to catch himself against the counter. Anger pounded through him, all he saw was red. How dare they? How dare they mark her in such a way? How could anyone treat her as if she wasn't the smartest, most beautiful, and talented witch there was? How could anyone dare cause harm to her? But that was exactly what he had done; he had left her, when she'd needed him most. And he had abandoned her, and caused her pain. He felt sick with himself, with the world. He clutched at the edge of the sink as his stomach violently emptied itself. There wasn't much to come up- he'd barely eaten anything in the past couple days, and he choked back a sob as he spit bile into the sink.
His head ached. The headache that had been with him since visiting Xenophilius Lovegood had gotten worse, and it was as if his skull was being pounded against a brick wall. And the noise- oh god, was it loud. The banging and the screaming, Hermione's screaming, his own voice yelling for her- they pounded in his head. In the next room he heard Fleur's hushed voice, but to him, she could have been screaming. And behind it all, a loud and familiar buzzing filled his ears. Growing up in a house with six siblings, he would have thought he'd grow accustomed to noise, but even as a child it had bothered him. In the more raucous hours of his childhood, when Fred and George got up to no good and set things ablaze, when his mother screamed, or Charlie and Percy fought, he would hide in Bill's room. On the top floor of the house, it was furthest from the kitchen and living area, where most of the noise originated, and curled in a ball under Bill's bed, Ron's six-year-old self could find some quiet. There, even the ghoul's banging seemed quieter, and the buzzing would go away. His mother seemed the only person to understand, and would send the others to play outside when it bothered him most. 'He's just sensitive,' Ron had heard her say to Bill one night, 'He feels the magic in the air; he can hear it and it bothers him… your Uncle Gideon was the same as a child…'
He mostly grew out of his 'sensitivity', but it still bothered him sometimes, like when Ginny entered adolescence, and was prone to the most violent of tantrums- her untamed magic breaking dishes every other night. At Hogwarts, he never told anyone, but after a couple years Harry seemed to pick up on the problem, and would make excuses to shoo the other boys from the dormitory, or get Hermione to stop lecturing, when Ron needed some quiet.
Crouched on the floor, with his head in his hands, Ron looked up to see Bill had returned to the house, and was lingering at the kitchen door, looking concerned but keeping a safe distance, giving his brother some space.
"'M'sorry." Ron croaked, not entirely what he was apologizing for.
"It's fine." Bill held out his hands in a completely unthreatening way. "Can I come closer?"
Ron nodded, and fully ashamed himself as he did, reached for his oldest brother. Bill came forward, and sat in front of Ron, and the brothers gripped each other's arms. Ron felt relief the second he touched Bill. Everything seemed quieter, the buzzing in his head grew softer, and the unsettling vibrations he felt within himself all but stopped.
Ron had become so in tune with people since the beginning of the war, something that sincerely frightened him. It was as if he could feel the magic swirling within people, the emotions behind it, and he had no idea what it meant. Mostly, it wasn't negative; sometimes it gave him a headache for a bit. Other times, he would touch someone and the feelings would completely overwhelm him. In the summer months, he'd discovered the driving force, the nature of the magic within his entire family…
His mother was shielded, but behind that outer shell he sensed fear and willingness to attack, to protect, and her magic pulsed and spun. It made him feel guilty.
When Ron went near the twins he could feel the bond between them, could feel the ideas and unspoken words that bounced constantly between the two, the magic that tethered them to each other, and how it tensed when the were apart. It made him nervous.
But Bill was comforting. Bill was brave and caring and levelheaded, and his magic was pure and good; calm and still, and usually cancelled out everything else in Ron's head. It made sense, Ron guessed, that as a child it was Bill's room, and Bill's magic that he ran to for reassurance.
"It's the magic, isn't it? You can feel it?" Bill asked, ducking his head to meet Ron's gaze. Ron nodded and wound his hand nervously in the sleeve of Bill's jumper. "The Cruciatus Curse leaves residual dark magic, that's what's bothering you- it's coming off of Hermione… you should keep away from her for a little-"
"No, no. It's fine." Ron heaved a great breath to steady himself. "I just need a minute is all- I just need to-oh god-"
Ron yanked his hands away, leaving streaks of blood on Bill's folded sleeves. Shaking violently, Ron rubbed his hands together, and then against his jeans, watching the half dried blood- Hermione's blood- as it smeared across his skin, across dirty fabric.
"Ron, Ron, hey-"
"They tortured her!" Ron snapped, as Bill grabbed his wrists. "Bill, she was screaming, she was screaming so loud, and I couldn't get to her, I should have been able to get to her-"
"Look at me." Bill grabbed his chin, and roughly turned his face up. "Ron, listen to me. I know how you feel. I know. Because I know that you love her, and I know how I'd feel if anyone ever put their wand to Fleur."
"I didn't- I mean, I haven't told her-" Ron whispered, mind whirling. He felt dizzy, and it was hard to focus on Bill's face. "I know you said I should, but she's been cross with me since I went back- and now, what if she's gone mad? What if she's not alright and it's my fau-"
Bill actually shook him then, a serious look in his eyes, and when he spoke his voice was firm, but compassionate.
"Don't even start blaming yourself, because it isn't going to do you or her any good. Luna told me you lot were locked away; I know there was no way you could have gotten to Hermione any sooner than you did," Bill said. He still held Ron's face in his hands, forcing their eyes to meet. "I don't care how cross she's been with you, or how many times you've walked away from her- what happened tonight is not your fault, and she will never blame you for it. Do you understand me?"
Ron nodded, shakily, hauling in a gasping breath, trying to keep his emotions at bay. Bill patted his shoulder encouragingly and continued.
"I don't know all the details, I don't know how you did it, but you saved lives tonight, Ron. You sent those peoplehere, where you knew it was safe. You got Hermione out of an impossible situation. You did absolutely everything right, little brother, and I have never been more proud of you."
It all got the better of him then, and Ron couldn't contain the deep sobs that were starting to escape him. Bill yanked him forward so he was practically sitting in his lap, face pressed into his big brother's shoulder, but he didn't care. Bill was silent for a while, and just held him, and let him cry himself out. When the sobs became shuddering and Ron's breathing was less snotty and ragged, Bill spoke again.
"We're going to clean you up, get rid of all this blood, and go wake her up alright? You and me, we're going to make sure everything in the great big brain of hers it right where it should be. And if there's a single thing out of place, you'll find a way to put it right. You'll help her through this, I know you will, because I know you, and I know you'll never abandon her."
Ron took a few moments to digest that information. To allow himself to consider the possibility of Hermione being not-Hermione, and to feel the fear that came with such a thought. He shook it off then. Bill was right; he needed to be strong for her. He'd walked away from her once… he'd never do it again.
"Alright-" he pushed himself clumsily to him feet, allowing Bill to support him a little. Ron sniffed and wiped a sleeve across his teary eyes, willing himself to be strong. "Let's do this."
A/N: One thing that always peeved me about this series was Hermione and Ron's lack of back-story. Hermione's parents are dentists, and Ron's got a big family. Other than that, there isn't near as much information as we're given on Harry. Ron's fiery temper and compassion towards others has always led me to think of him as this extremely insightful person. He's not the most book-smart like Hermione, but when it comes to people he knows what makes them tick, and giving him this weird little quirk, this sensitivity to the magic around him is my way of exploring his insight and character. Next chapter, we bounce back to Hermione' POV! Thanks for reading.