Doubt

I shivered as conciousness washed over me. The chills of the nights fitful sleep still haunted me. I squeezed my eyes closed willing my mind to imagine that I was at home in the Burrow, that my family were down the hall crowded around the breakfast table.That we were all safe, I thought before opening them to the familiar sight of Harry Potter's top bunk. Suddenly, the worry and exhaustion were gone, replaced by a seed of discontentment growing in the pit of my stomach.

Swinging my feet over the side of the bed, I got up stretching before lumbering towards the kitchen. I scowled at my best friend, Harry, who was already seated at the small table pushing the poor excuse for a meal around on his plate. Some leader, I thought spitefully to myself.

Hermione Granger, our other companion on the pointless journey, plopped down next to me and placed a plate of slop in front of my seat. Catching my eye, her lips curled into a small and sly smile, as if she was speaking a secret just to me. My stomach twisted inside me and I wanted to return the gesture, but rolled my eyes instead before shoving the food in my face. Her delicate face fell and I thought I saw a tear spring to her sad brown eyes. I felt a quick pang of guilt, but dismissed it. Oh please…what's her problem. It's not my job to keep her happy – maybe if the wondrous Harry Potter could come up with something better to do than to go camping in the middle of a war she'd cheer up.

My mood didn't improve as the day wore on. Hermione and Harry kept busy by repeating the same conversations they'd been having for the past few weeks. I didn't feel the need to join in, and watching them chat away without me was certainly not improving things. What's the point – this is a wild goose chase. I'd rather be anywhere but here. No one seemed to notice the absence of lunch, and by the time supper came around I was in the worst mood I'd been in yet, and starving.

Hermione placed a plate in front of me, her tiny pale hands caught my eye. For a moment, my spirit lifted as my mind wondered to a time when those hands had busied themselves correcting my papers, punching Malfoy in third year, and showing off superior wand work in charms class. Before I could catch her eye, she was serving Harry – and my spirits sunk even lower. Picking a fight seemed to be the most productive option for me now. If I was going to be miserable, then everyone else was too.

"My mother" I stated, pausing to prod at the charred fish and glance at Hermione, making sure I had her attention, "can make good food appear out of thin air."

Hermione's eyes stayed down, studying her food and eating at a rhythmic pace as she retorted matter-of-factly.

"Your mother can't produce food out of thin air! No one can. Food is the first of the five principal exceptions to Gamp's…."

I was done listening. Here she goes again… I thought to myself. I implored her to speak English but her compliance with my request just made me more angry.

I interrupted her supplication – "Well don't bother increasing this, it's disgusting."

What could she say to that. It's the truth.It's a good thing she's cute because the girl can't cook a thing… I thought to myself before shaking my head and resuming my angry state.

"Harry caught the fish and I did my best with it! I notice I'm always the one who ends up sorting out the food because I'm a girl I suppose!"

Finally, her voice was elevating. I had gotten to her. Her brown eyes were beginning to blaze and bore into me as I continued.

"No, it's because you're SUPPOSED to be the best at magic!" I shot back.

She was on her feet, almost spilling her supper with the force she'd taken to rise. She was yelling at me – but I couldn't hear her. Her anger, her passion, it almost made me want to smile – even if she was being pathetic. But before I could think of the next way to lash out at her – Harry was yelling.

"Shut up, Shut up NOW!" He warned.

Now her anger was turned to him. Of course, he WOULD steal the attention the moment I had something to say...

But suddenly we realized Harry had discovered something beyond the arguments between the three of us…We were racing around the tent in half panic half excitement –

Voices. Other people.

I pressed the extendable ear Hermione distributed into my own lobe as hard as I could as I listened in on the two goblins, Ted Tonks, Dean Thomas and Dirk discuss a world that I felt I was no longer apart of.

The smell of their salmon dinner began to invade my nostrils, and I fantasized about walking out of our invisible tent and joining them for a chat and some supper.

No one would notice if I was gone. I thought maliciously as I glanced at Harry and Hermione huddled close together minding their extendible ears.

I should have been excited to hear from familiar voices. Happy to get some news. But their proximity haunted me. I could join them – be on the run. Maybe stop in to see my family, make sure everyone's safe. They seem to have a better handle on what's going on then we do…

Suddenly, my mind's wonderings were halted.

"…from Bill Weasley who works for the bank. One of the kids who tried to take the sword was Bill's younger sister," Dirk said.

Bill! Ginny! My mind was focused on their conversation again

"…punished severely…"

"...Weasley's don't need any more of their kids injured..."

"…we should be glad they're still alive"

Then, just as quickly as the conversation had caught my attention, it lost it. Back on about Harry the git Potter, Chosen No-one.

My mind was racing. What did he mean another Weasley injured. Who has been hurt? What's Ginny think she's doing messing with Snape that way? Was Bill still at the bank? What about mum and dad?

I dropped my extendible ear and flopped back down on my bunk – overcome with worry for my family. Worry quickly turned to blame, as I watched Harry and Hermione scamper about chasing yet another dead lead. Excited by the conversation that struck me with terror.

"What d'you reckon, Ron? Ron?" Harry said.

"Oh, remembered me, have you?" I spat. "You two carry on, don't let me spoil your fun"

I knew I already had, but couldn't care less.

"What's the problem?" asked Harry.

Like you care…git.

"Problem? There's no problem!" my voice dripping with sarcasm. "Not according to you, anyway"

"Well you've obviously got a problem – Spit it out, will you?" he said. His voice starting to show signs of frustration as well.

"Alright!" I conceded. "I'll spit it out. Don't expect me to skip up and down the tent because there's some other damn thing we've got to find. Just add it to the list of stuff YOU don't know"

I had done it now. I was voicing every anger, frustration and doubt that radiated in my body and I didn't care who I hurt in the process.

The argument continued.

I yelled. Harry yelled.

Hermione's soft voice tried to interject. I ignore her.

I was on my feet.

I'm screaming.

She tries again and I begin to lash out against her. It's two against one. Everyone against me.What else is new.

"Go Home then!" bellowed Harry.

Now Harry's truth had come out. I knew it all along. I'm not wanted…not needed…here.

"Yeah, maybe I will" I shout back, stepping towards him. I am overcome with the urge to bring him down. Make him feel the anxiety and anger I am feeling and the best way to do it seems to be to get as close to his face as I can.

"- yeah, I get it, you don't care! And what about the rest of my family. "the Weasleys don't need another kid injured," did you hear that?" I shouted.

I didn't let him finish his reply.

"Not bothered what it meant?" I challenged him.

"Ron!" Hermione fights for my attention again. I see her eyes welling with tears, pleading with me as she spouts explanations and excuses but I don't care anymore.

"…I'm sure that's all he meant!" she finished.

"Oh, you're sure, are you? Right then, well I won't bother myself about them. It's all right for you two, isn't it, with your families out of the way –

The minute I said it, I regret it. I knew that Hermione was sick with worry for her spellbound parents. And Harry…

"My parents are DEAD" he shouted.

My mouth wasn't following my head. I was riding the currant of passionate anger. The beating of my heart that kept saying what about ME.

"And mine could be going the same way!"

"Then GO!" roared Harry. "Go back to them, pretend you've got over your spattergroit and Mummy'll be able to feed you up and –"

That was the last straw. His mocking tone pushed all rationality from my being and I was jolted into action. I was going to get him.

But Hermione was too quick, casting an invisible barrier between us.

I looked at Harry. My best mate. Supposedly…

"Leave the Horcrux," he demanded.

I yanked it from my neck and chucked it, turning away from him. I was done with Harry Potter.

But something kept me rooted to my spot. Unable to tear myself from the tent the way I had torn the stupid locket from my neck.

Hermione...I thought. I looked at her for a split second. The moment of truth. The tears that had been welling up in her eyes had began to spill over as she looked from me to Harry.

"What are you doing?" I challenged her.

"What do you mean?" a look of hopelessness spreading across her face.

"Are you staying, or what?" I posed the choice again.

"I…" she began. But before she could answer I knew. Ron, you idiot. Why would she come with you when she could stay with him.

"Yes – yes, I'm staying…"

I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. Like everything inside me was turning inside out. This is what dread felt like.

I tried to steady myself. Keep the level of my anger high. Keep any other feeling from my being.

"I get it. You choose him." I said, my voice more feable than I had hoped.

Saying out loud just made it hurt worse. The twisting sensation was traveling upwards to my heart. I couldn't look at her for one more second. I stormed out – and before I could think of anything else…

"RON! RON!" I heard her call just as I began to disapperate.

My body was being pulled in two directions.

She came after me.

She chose him.

She sounded upset.

She chose him.

I landed – somewhere.

Where the heck was I?

She really did look upset

She looked…

My thoughts were interrupted again by an unfriendly looking gang that were fast approaching me.

Before I had a moment to think, I was surrounded.

Shit! What the bloody hell have I gotten myself into.

Insecurity

The snow made a squeaky crunching sound as I trod around the forest – keeping a sharp eye for…something - anything alerting me to their presence.

You really did it this time Weasley. I taunted myself. What was I thinking – leaving them behind. Even if they don't need me…I need them. The realization had hit me like a tonne of bricks in the face of the reality that I would probably never be able to find them now that I had left.

I had been searching for three days with the help of Dumbledore's duluminator, hoping against all odds that I would be able to rejoin my friends.

It had been over a month since I had left. I had been well fed, well rested, well cared for and I knew my family were home and safe – but from the moment I heard her calling my name, none of that mattered.

My dreams were still haunted – but now instead of attending my siblings funerals, I was attending Harry's. I heard Hermione calling out to me – she needed me – but I couldn't get to her. The worst nightmares of all were the ones in which I envisioned Harry and Hermione laughing together, enjoying each other's company in the tent and not noticing my absence.

I shook the disturbing thoughts from my head and ignored the voices in the back of my mind…

She chose him.

They're fine without you. Leave them alone.

They won't take you back after what you did. You abandoned them!

You'll never find them anyway. Hermione is using her best defenses – you don't stand a chance.

I chuckled to myself at the last taunt – it was true. She was incredible and they wouldn't be taking any chances – but I had to keep looking. There was nothing else for me to do. I needed them – I needed to know she was safe. I needed to be there for my best mate.

Darkness was falling over the Forest of Dean but I kept walking – aimlessly wandering through the trees and over the rocks. I wanted to call out to them – but didn't want to risk their cover. I would wait. It was my punishment.

When my legs couldn't carry me any further I slid down against a tree, wincing as I plopped in the cold wet snow. The doubts began to wash over me again.

I really fucked up…I thought as I started to drift off to sleep.

Suddenly I was awoken by a bright slivery light. I felt warm all over despite my frost bitten toes and soaked bottom. Adjusting my eyes, I saw the source of the light.

A patronus. A silvery white stag gliding through the trees.

Harry! I thought – delighted. But I remained quiet, carefully rising from my spot and following after the animal.

I heard a yell and a splash coming from the direction of the patronus – picking up speed my heart began to race. What's going on – why was Harry casting a patronus? What was all that commotion about?

I came to a clearing where Harry's clothes were piled in a heap next to a small pond. The thick ice had been broken and I noticed a glint of red and silver beneath the rippling waters.

Harry's going for a swim? I was confused. What's he doing? That water must be freezing.

Too much time had passed and I knew what I had to do. Something wasn't right. Harry was in trouble. Without a second thought I jumped into the pond as well – sweater, jeans and all.

My body was immediately numb, prickling from head to toe I began to dive deeper into the pond. Harry was struggling – drowning…or choking?

Then I saw what he had been after – the Sword of Grifindor was lying on the bottom of the pond! With a swift kick I catapulted myself forward and grabbed the sword. Clutching Harry around his chest with my other arm I swam with all my might to the surface.

Gasping for air I quickly threw Harry onto the shore face first and leapt out of the freezing water feeling like my lungs were going to burst with the combination of exhaustion and frigid air. I leaned up against a tree coughing and panting trying to push every molecule of freezing air and pond water from my lungs.

'Are – you – mental?' I barked between the wheezing.

Harry staggered to stand and stared at me.

'Why the hell didn't you take this thing OFF before you dived?" I half yelped dangling the locket Horcrux on my fingers.

Harry started to grin – but a look of confusion took over.

"Y-you cast that doe?" he asked.

"What? No, of course not! I thought it was you doing it!" I exclaimed – I had forgotten all about the patronus.

"My patronus is a stag." He said matter-of-factly.

"Oh yeah, I thought it looked different." I said now shifting from one side to the other, fascinated with my sopping wet boots. "No antlers."

How long could this conversation continue before the obvious question was raised?

"How come you're here?" he asked, looking both confused and suspicious.

Not long apparently.

"Well, I've – you know – I've come back. If –" I paused my stammering, trying to think of the best way to phrase it before blurting "you know, you still want me"

I looked up from my toes and studied Harry's expression – but he was unreadable. Did he look angry? Or is that just confused?

I couldn't take the silence any longer. Hoping to convince him of my worthiness I held out the sword and said "Oh yeah; I got this out" I said, holding it out towards Harry like a peace offering.

His contemplation seemed to be over and they discussed the oddness of the appearance of the sword.

He didn't say I was forgiven – but the way they were chatting like he'd never left made me feel more at ease.

After finding no leads on the caster of the patronus, we turned our attention back onto the sword.

"You reckon this is the real one?" I asked, hopefully.

"Only one way to find out," he replied.

He grabbed the Horcrux and started marching purposefully towards a nearby rock. I followed obediently after him – not quite understanding what he was up to, but wanting to seem as helpful as possible.

I held out the sword, but he shook his head.

"No, you should do it."

My mind flooded with understanding. Harry wanted me. Me?To destroy the locket.

"You got the sword out of the pool. It's supposed to be you," he said, as if they were discussing a cup of coffee or the weather.

I was torn between awe and terror as I looked at my friend. How could he be so calm and in control when my insides were shivering? I felt nauseous as Harry continued to review the plan.

"I'm going to open it, and you stab it. Straight away, okay? Because what ever is in there will put up a fight. The bit of Riddle's diary tried to kill me"

This was all happening too fast. Way too fast.

"How are you going to open it?" I said, hoping to stall him to his senses. Stop this plan from going into action.

I'm going to ask it to open using parseltongue" he stated.

Damn…He wasn't supposed to get that so quickly.

Suddenly Harry was looking at the locket and his lips began to part to speak.

Bloody hell Harry!

"No! Don't open it I'm serious" I warned.

I backed away from the locket – cowering before it. Every impulse I had to be helpful and obedient was fleeing from me and was quickly replaced with sheer stubborn terror. I looked at the locket, that horrible thing that made me believe I wasn't worth a sickle. The thing that had whispered doubt, fear, and insecurity into my sub-concious. I blamed it for my stupidity, for my rash anger, for the month I had just wasted, tortured, being away from my friends.

I had to explain to him. He didn't understand.

"That thing is bad for me – I can't handle it! I'm not making excuses Harry, for what I was like, but it affects me worse than it affected you and Hermione." Her name sounded sweet coming from my lips and shot courage through my veins – but it was short lived as I continued."It made me think stuff, stuff I was thinking anyway, but it made everything worse, I can't explain it…" My mind drifted off again thinking of the horrible dreams I had while wearing the locket, the way I had longed to physically hurt Harry and bully Hermione, the thoughts of self loathing that filled my mind while it dangled around my neck."I can't do it Harry"

"You can do it," said Harry. "You can! You've got the sword, I know it's supposed to be you who uses it. Please, just get rid of it Ron"

It felt like the best thing I had ever heard. Harry Potter believed in me. I knew what I had to do. I swallowed my insecurities and began to stare the Horcrux down. Thinking of my friends – of Harry, and Hermione, and how I had to do anything to help them - to protect them.

Harry was hissing at the locket and it slowly clicked open.

I raised my sword resolutely, ready to stab the piece of grime's eyes out when it began to whisper.

"I have seen your heart – and it is mine.." it began. It's eyes seemed to be looking into my soul. It was seeing straight through me. I felt embarrassed – naked - but I couldn't look away.

"Least loved, always" crooned the locket. I closed my eyes and saw my family. Everyone without me. Laughing, carrying on, happy. They all amount to something, they're all special. I'm nothing. "by the mother who craved a daughter" it continued. I saw my mother fawning over Ginny as a tiny girl, dressing her up in frills and bows while I was ignored. She always wanted a daughter. I wasn't enough.

"And now, by the girl who prefers your friend…second best, always, eternally overshadowed" Yes, Yes…I'm staying…I heard Hermione saying in my mind.

Anguish gripped me as the locket spoke the truths of my heart - as it voiced my every insecurity.

Suddenly the pictures weren't just in my mind – Harry and Hermione's smokey frames wavered before me. She was beautiful. She looked tall and her hair was tamed into perfect sausage ringlets. Harry spoke –

"Why return? We were better without you, happier without you, glad of your absence…we laughed at your stupidity, your cowardice, your presumption" he hissed.

His words cut my soul like a knife. I knew it…I allowed myself to think.

"Presumption!" Hermione laughed at me. "Who could look at you, who would ever look at you, beside Harry Potter? What have you ever done, compared with the Chosen One? What are you, compared with the boy who lived?"

I felt like I couldn't breathe. Emotion was swelling inside my chest as I stared into her beautiful face, her red eyes gleamed. I was entranced by her beauty, holding onto her every word, every dagger, and plunging it into my own heart as she spoke.

"Your mother confessed that she would have preferred me as a son, would be glad to exchange –" continued Harry before Hermione interjected again..

"Who wouldn't prefer him, what woman would take YOU? You are nothing, nothing, nothing to him!" she spat.

And then she turned, her arms wrapped around Harry and they began to kiss.

What WAS this? I wanted to scream. The pain gripped me like a tight embrace as I watched them cling to each other. My eyes filled with tears.

I was torn between the longings of my heart and the reality of what was before me. Passion burned inside me and I wanted to drop the sword and reach out for her beautiful figure in front of me. I wanted to rip her from Harry. I wanted to hold her like that. I wanted to kiss her, to put every feeling burning inside me onto her lips. She's better off with him…He's the better man. The best, and she deserves the best. The thought tortured me - I was breaking down. Merlin Hermione how can you do this to me?

Suddenly, my anguish was halted by Harry's shouting…

"Do it, Ron!" I heard him call.

My eyes left the steamy scene and I saw my best friend crouching in front of me. Holding the horcrux in place and waiting for me to do my part. For a moment, a wave of jealousy and rage swept over me – I could…NO! He's your best mate. She deserves the best. I don't deserve her. They're happy together, and she deserves the best...I told myself.

Forcing reality back into my brain I raised the sword higher and plunged it into the locket smashing both windows before stumbling back from the shattered soul.

I stood transfixed for a moment then allowed the sword to drop. It was done. I knew I had done it. But the images still played in my mind. I knew it, I knew it…

I dropped to my knees and buried my face in my hands – physically shaking with the sting of the truth, not wanting Harry to see my watering eyes.

Soon he was next to me. I felt his hand extend to touch my shoulder.

"After you left" he whispered cautiously, "she cried for a week. Probably longer, only she never wanted me to see. There were loads of nights when we never even spoke to each other. With you gone…"

His voice trailed off as his emotions began to rise. I knew he was sincere.

She missed me? It was bitter sweet. I wanted to feel elated at the fact that she missed me – but could only feel shame for hurting her. How could I have ever abandoned her? She missed me…She missed me.

The tears were welling up again. I clenched my jaw, willing them not to fall.

"She's like my sister," Harry went on. "I love her like a sister and I reckon she feels the same way about me. It's always been like that…I thought you knew"

I took a deep breathe and turned my face away from him - wiping away the tears and snot. I felt my ears getting hot – suddenly feeling embarrassed for my overly emotional display. I stood and gathered the sword then looked my best friend in the eye.

"I'm sorry," I poured out. "I'm sorry I left. I know I was a – a –"

But he didn't let me finish. "You've sort of made up for it tonight, getting the sword, finishing off the horcrux, saving my life…"

"That makes it sound a lot cooler than I was.." I mumbled insecurely.

"Stuff like that always sounds cooler than it really was." He said with a smirk "I've been trying to tell you that for years!"

I smiled back as he began to lead us back to the tent. The reality of my sopping wet clothes and the icy wind was dawning on me again and I shivered. I couldn't wait to get back to the tent…to Hermione…I thought.

Harry swooped into the tent first and began to wake Hermione as I stood awkwardly at the doorway dripping wet and holding the sword.

She slid out of bed and I couldn't help but notice how nicely her purple pajama pants clung to her body. She was wearing one of my old t-shirts and her bushy brown hair was escaping from her messy bun around her face. She looked even more beautiful than I remembered.

She slowly approached me, as if in a dream. Was she happy? Upset? Indifferent? I couldn't tell. Suddenly all I could think of was her chocolate brown eyes. She was so close to my face now I could have counted her eyelashes. Her intoxicating scent filled my nostrils and I wanted to scoop her up and kiss her right there and then. But I knew I was in no position to hold her now. You abanondoned her Weasley! Remember? Made her cry – she may not even forgive you! I reminded myself, but finding it hard not to be giddy at the sight of her.

I sheepishly held my arms out – half shrugging, half begging her to hold me. I couldn't suppress my grin any longer…she was so close…

Suddenly she was punching me…Ouch!.. hitting me all over.

Geez – she's stronger than she looks. Crazy little…I thought, smiling inwardly as I tried to push her off me.

"You complete ARSE Ronald Weasley!" She exclaimed. "You crawl back here after weeks and weeks!"

Crap.

"Oh…where is my wand." She screamed leaving me and stomping towards Harry. But he cast a shield between her and them and she fell backwards. More of her bushy hair was falling in her face. I had never seen her so angry…at least not since the Yule Ball. Her eyes were blazing. She was screaming and carrying on like an angry toddler who wanted a lollipop.

"I came running after you! I called you! I begged you to come back" she was screeching.

I felt like someone had poured acid down my throat – the last thing I wanted was to hurt her. Trying to muster up as much sincerity as possible in the face of her insanity I mumbled: "I know. I'm sorry, I'm really sorry…"

I tried to look into her eyes and convey what I was really feeling – that I would rather die than hurt her again, that I only wanted to protect her for the rest of my life, that she was the thing that brought me back - but she was off again…

"Oh you're sorry?" She cackled "You come back after weeks – WEEKS - and you think it's all going to be alright if you just say SORRY?"

"Well what else can I say?" I shouted back – begging her to understand the pain I had endured being apart from her.

"Oh I don't know! Rack your brains Ron - that should only take a couple of seconds!" She spat.

Harry tried to interject, but it was no good.

"I don't care!" she continued. "I don't care what he's done! Weeks and weeks, we could have been dead for all he knew –"

Her words cut me deeply and I couldn't take it anymore. Didn't she know how much I cared for her? How could she doubt that I hadn't regretted every moment we were apart because of my stupidity. I knew I was wrong to leave, I felt awful, but I wasn't a complete git…

"I knew you weren't dead!" I bellowed back, walking towards her now that I was safe behind the shielding charm. I stood over her as close as I could get before continuing. "Harry's all over the Prophet, all over the radio, they're looking for you everywhere, all these rumours and mental stories, I knew I'd hear straight off if you were dead." I allowed my voice to soften, imploring her to understand what I was telling her. "You don't know what it's been like – "

"What it's been like for YOU?" she screeched – but the level of her anger seemed to impair her from continuing so I continued to explain…

"I wanted to come back the minute I'd disaperated, but I walked straight into a gang of snatchers, Hermione, and I couldn't go anywhere!"

"A gang of what?" interrupted Harry. When did he get here? I asked myself, reluctantly tearing my eyes from mine and Hermione's world to realize Harry was listening in.

Hermione threw herself down on an armchair and crossed her arms in disapproval as I explained what had happened after I left them. I couldn't help myself from glancing over at her every few seconds. Even in her anger, she glowed with beauty. I was hoping the worst of her anger had subsided. I hoped in vain…

"Imagine losing fingernails Harry! That really puts our suffering into perspective, doesn't it!" she mocked me after I finished my tale.

"Hermione," Harry was attempting to calm her down again. "Ron just saved my life."

She ignored him. "One thing I would like to know, though," she said, still not making eye contact with me, her petite porcelin nose stuck high in the air, "How exactly did you find us tonight? That's important. Once we know, we'll be able to make sure we're not visited by anyone else we don't want to see" she spat out the last few words stinging my heart.

I gave her a quick glare before telling them about the deluminator. It seemed for the moment her rage had fizzled as I nervously recounted my strange adventure to find them.

I fondly remembered the moment I had heard her say my name. It sounded like the equivalent of mint chocolate chip ice cream on a hot day. Then the sensation of the deluminators guiding light inside me – it had burned his insides like when she smiled at me.

Finally she seemed more engaged in the story than her anger. I explained how I had got the sword and saved Harry before pausing trying to decide how to best explain the Horcrux's terrifying taunts…

"Well, then, Harry see? He sort of, um, well, he opened the thing…and, and, I tried to tell him not to, but, erm, and then…." How could I tell her what had come out of the locket without letting her know how I felt. My ears were burning and I could feel the hot flash traveling to my cheeks. "Well it…it…"

"And Ron just stabbed it with the sword" Harry interjected, saving my bumbling arse.

"And it just went?" she asked, transfixed by the tale, "just like that?"

"Well it – it screamed" Harry lied.

Phew…I sighed inwardly, making a mental note to give Harry a proper hug and to thank him for not letting the rat out of the sack.

Harry tossed her the shattered locket and her tiny hands fingered it gingerly. Examining it as if it was buried treasure - her chocolaty eyes taking in the broken glass and stroking the stained black felt. She's so beautiful I thought, allowing a small smile to escape on my lips as I pridefully watched her take in my accomplishment.

"Did you say you got away from the snatchers with a spare wand?" Harry's question jolted me from my stupor.

"What?" I said not taking my eyes off her tiny frame. Shit mate, stop starring at her you bafoon. "Oh…Oh yeah…"

I handed it to him and we continued to chat…but I couldn't pay attention as I kept stealing glances at Hermione.

Finally she stood up and without a word, climbed into bed.

I was relieved she wasn't going to shout at me anymore and smiled to myself again.

"About the best you could hope for, I think," whispered Harry, mirroring my sentiments.

"Yeah…Could've been worse. Remember those birds she set on me?" I shuddered at the thought.

"I still haven't ruled it out" she said, her voice muffled under her covers and I couldn't help but smile.

It was good to be back.

Fear

We were surrounded. Damn it Harry, Why'd you say the name. I thought in frustration, how many times had I warned him…

I recognized the werewolf, Fenrir Greyback, and my blood began to boil in anger. This was the animal that had almost killed my brother, Bill.

My anger was interrupted as Greyback and the others began to corral us into a tight circle, confiscating our wands and jeering at us.

I turned to see Harry – or the swollen version of him, struggling and looking pained. I looked for Hermione – where was she…

I finally found her in the shuffle – trying to escape Greyback's grasp as he snatched her wand. He stroked her flushed cheek with the back of his dirty hands and whispered something to one of his friends with a smirk.

It was more than I could bare, I had to get to her – save her. "Get – Off – Her!" I shouted, struggling with my own snatcher. He punched me square in the eye and I grunted but kept struggling. She was screaming something.

"Leave him alone!" She cried.

"Your boyfriend's going to have worse than that done to him if he's on my list" said Greyback, looking her over hungrily. "Delicious girl…what a treat…I do enjoy the softness of the skin…" he murmered.

I would kill him. I didn't care that I didn't have a wand or that his possy outnumbered mine. I would strangle him with my bare hands. How dare he touch her. Even look at her that way. I felt sick to my stomach with rage.

They were tying us together now. Strapping our hands behind our backs and binding them together. I felt her trembling hand next to mine and attempted to clutch her fingers, trying to calm her down.

I had to protect her. I had to get her out of this.

"And what about you, ginger?"

I realized they were all looking at me and blurted the first thing that came to my mind…

"Stan Shunpike"

Crap – that's not going to get me out of this this time I thought as another blow came to my face. This time they'd got me in the mouth, I could feel the blood pouring from my lip. My whole face was throbbing from the blows.

"Bardy Weasley" I tried again, after having a moment to think of a more plausible allias.

That seemed to satisfy them…but now Greyback was back to Hermione.

"And lastly, you're pretty little friend…"

"Easy, Greyback" said another. I felt a sudden rush of appreciation for the greasy haired captor, not caring that his fist had just caused my face to throb – but it didn't last.

"Oh, I'm not going to bite just yet. We'll see if she's a bit quicker at remembering her name than Barny. Who are you, girly?" he crooned.

"Penelope Clearwater" said Hermione shakily.

God she was brave. How can she think up this stuff so quick! She's absolutely amazing…

"Half blood" came her shaking voice again, interrupting my thoughts.

"Easy enough to check," said the one called Scabior. "The 'ol lot of 'em look like they could still be 'ogwarts age –" he began.

"We Lebt" I said, finally finding my voice again.

Maybe if I could keep them talking – keep them guessing like last time I can get us out of here…

"…And you thought, just for a laugh, you'd use the Dark Lord's name, Weasley?"

"Nod a laugh…Aggident" I answered. Merlin it hurt to talk. My lips were dry and cracked and the blood was still dripping from the corner of my mouth.

"Accident?" said one as the rest laughed and jeered. "You know who used to like using the Dark Lord's name, Weasley? The Order of the Phoenix. Mean anything to you?"

"Doh" I quickly replied, trying to suppress the urge to burst from pain.

"Well they don't show the Dark Lord proper respect…" Greyback went on but I wasn't listening. Trying to think up my next retort trying to fight the urge to look sideways at Hermione. I could tell she was still trembling from her fingers clasped tightly in mine.

But my time was lost. Suddenly we were being tied to two more prisoners.

Dean! And Griphook! Damn…I can't believe they were caught too.

The rest of the scene was a blur. None of us had wands. They searched the tent. They found the sword. We were dead meat. Damn it Damn it Damn it…I couldn't think straight. How was I going to get us out of this…

'Ermione Granger – the mudblood who is known to be traveling with 'Arry Potter." Said Scabior – awakening me from my thoughts again.

Oh now we're really in trouble…

They were examining Harry again. I tried to take in every word – looking for something, anything, to distract them. To get us out of here.

"It is – we've caught potter!"

"…the ministry…"

"summon him 'ere?"

I caught snitches of the conversation…

"…malfoy's.."

Shit. The Malfoys. All I could think of was Draco. He hated me, he hated Harry, and even more, he hated Hermione. We didn't stand a chance. There was no pleading, no reasoning to be done. This was it. Not to mention if You-Know-Who was there. Then it would be over for sure.

I felt utterly hopeless. There was nothing I could do to protect my friends. Nothing to bargain with to protect Hermione. I really was useless. Merlin I hope they kill me first…

Before I knew what was what we were inside some sort of sitting room at the Malfoy's.

Malfoy was studying Harry, his parents loomed over him looking like they are on the verge of bursting with excitement.

"I don't know" Draco offered his final verdict before backing away from Harry. I was confused. Was he helping us or just being a cowardly git like usual. I went with the cowardly git assumption, not wanting to get any hopes up.

"What about the mudblood, then" growled Greyback. I winced at the awful name. Hermione and I had been separated by Dean and Griphook when they shoved us all together. All I wanted was to squeeze her fingers. Let her know I was here. Oh Hermione…

The circle of prisoners was jerked sideways again so Hermione could be examined.

"…Look, Draco, isn't it the Granger girl?" said Narcissa.

Come on Malfoy. Lie. Please please please do one good thing with your pathetic excuse for a life and lie. You can mock me endlessly for the rest of my probably short life. Make a soundtrack of Weasley is our King and play it over and over everywhere I go, call me Weasel and Weaslebee and whatever other humiliating nickname you can think of, just please, lie!

"I…maybe…yeah" Draco replied, sounding defeated.

Bloody Git! I wanted to scream, attack him. He had truly made his choice. So what if he couldn't bring himself to kill Dumbledore, he had just sentenced his classmates. Ass…

Bellatrix had entered the room now and was examining Hermione.

They were fighting now – I couldn't tell you what about. I used the distraction to try to wriggle free. It was a long shot, but I had to try. I squirmed and writhed to no avail. I was trapped. I wanted to be next to Hermione more than anything. I attempted to turn my head over my shoulders to peer at the back of her neck. If I was going to die now I wanted to see her one last time. Even if it was just her bushy brown locks to gaze at.

I turned with some difficulty. To my surprise her head was turned as well. A single tear slipped down her cheek as she looked at me with a hopeless expression. Her white lips were turned down in a heartbreaking frown. I couldn't take this. Couldn't watch her be afraid, sad, or scared without doing SOMETHING. I had to get her out of here. Her chocolate eyes blurred with tears gave me a new strength, as I turned and wriggled some more, twisting my wrists and trying to free myself. Damn these enormas hands. I silently cursed myself for always praying for big hands – great for Quidditch.

"Stupefy!"

I ducked instinctively, but the curse wasn't aiming at me.

"Stupefy, Stupefy" Bellatrix was screaming knocking the snatchers down one by one in a high pitched and crazed manor.

"Take these prisoners down to the Cellar, Greyback" Narcissa ordered

"Wait" said Bellatrix. "All except…except for the mudblood."

"No!" I heard myself shout.

Not Hermione, anything but Hermione.

"You can have me, keep me!" I shouted again. Pleading.

She slapped my already bruised face, but I didn't feel it. All I could think of was Hermione.

"If she dies under questioning, I'll take you next – blood traitor is next to Mudblood in my book…" said the evil witch.

She dies? Dies? The words didn't make sense to me. My throat was closing up. I wanted to continue to protest but I couldn't get enough air.

Bellatrix cut her loose and dragged her by her hair to the centre of the room I wanted to run to her, hold her, protect her but I was stuck.

The rest of the prisoners and I were being forced out of the room.

Suddenly I felt Greybacks greasy nose against my cheek. His putrid odour of blood, sweat and dirt washed over me as he whispered.

"Reckon she'll let me have a bit of the girl when she's finished with her?"

ARG!

I'd say I'll get a bite or two, wouldn't you, Ginger?"

I was physically shaking with rage. I wanted to bite him, or spit on him, but I was suddenly very aware that angering our captors was not in my best interest. I would get to her. I would save her. Everything was going to be alright. I had always found a way to protect her before…

But the moment they shut the cellar door, my assurance evaporated. I heard something so chilling I felt like I was being plunged back into the frozen pond. She was screaming. I could hear it through the thick wooden door. Her high pitched and helpless screams.

HERMIONE!" I cried out, desperate. Squirming and writhing again trying to free myself from the ropes.

Harry tried to shut me up, but I couldn't hold back any longer.

HERMIONE, HERMIONE!" I shouted again. Willing her to hear me, to stay alive for me.

"Harry?"

I stopped. It wasn't Dean or Griphook. It was a woman. Her voice sounded so farmiliar…who else was down here. Could they help me get to Hermione…

"Luna!" said Harry.

My hope evaporated.

"Luna can you help us get these ropes off?" Harry was speaking again. Why did he sound so calm.

"Oh yes, I expect so…there's an old nail we use if we need to break anything…just a moment…" she said. Hm maybe she'll be of help after all. That's it. I'll get free of these ropes and then…

She screamed again.

HERMIONE HERMIONE! I screamed again jolting forwards towards the door and dragging the other three in tow. I wanted to run to her. I had to get to her.

I tried to hear what she was saying, connect with her voice.

"We found it – we found it –" she was sobbing. 'Please!" she screamed again.

Why was I still tied up. I needed to get to her. Get to Hermione, get to Hermione….

"I can't see what I'm doing" said Luna, her usually dreamy voice laced with frustration.

We need light. The duluminator!

"My pocket" I choked out. It felt odd to be speaking in a voice that wasn't a shout. "In my pocket there's a deluminator and it's full of light"

Finally we were getting somewhere. I strained to hear the conversation again as Luna worked on sawing us free.

She was screaming again

"HERMIONE!" I shouted.

"Tell me! Tell me! Or I shall run you through with this knife" taunted Bellatrix. I felt sick.

Suddenly I felt the ropes around my wrist fall. I was like a race horse being released from the starting gate, Blinders on. I had to get to Hermione. I bolted forward searching for any way out - feeling every wall and reaching for the ceiling. I had to get to her.

I tried disapperating. The Malfoy sitting room. The malfoy sitting room. The Malfoy sitting room.

Damn it.

"What else did you take, what else? ANSWER ME! CRUCIO!" Bellatrix was screaming.

I was being pushed over the edge. I couldn't take this anymore. I began pounding the walls with my fists. Putting every ounce of pain and helplessness into the action so the rough walls were splintering my forearms.

Her screams continued to cut through me like ice.

"HERMIONE, HERMIONE!" My voice was getting hoarse. Her name stuck in my throat.

"…we've never been inside your vault….it isn't the real sword! It's a copy! Just a copy" Hermione was crying desperately.

Hermione's clever story earned Griphook a trip upstairs.

Maybe there was hope. She was the cleverist witch of her age – right? Maybe she could get us out of this after all…

CRACK!

"DOB –" I started to exclaim before Harry elbowed me hard in the side.

Harry was now giving Dobby instructions to get Luna, Dean and Ollivander out. As much as I appreciated my friend being the hero sometimes, this was not one of them.

Oh hurry up Harry. Get us out of here so we can get to her. It's going to be too late. I pushed the thoughts of Neville's insane parents and the images of a bloodied and motionless Hermione to the back corners of my mind.

They were gone. Wormtail was coming now. I couldn't stand the inaction any longer.

"We're going to have to try to tackle him" Harry said.

Finally a plan I could get on board with.

It was easy to take Wormtail down. I grabbed his wand arm and held it at my mercy. Harry held his mouth closed.

Adreneline coursed through my entire body as we held the death eater down. Harry and I were a team. I heard my voice imitating Pettigrews weazy voice.

"Nothing! All fine!"

I wrenched his wand from his hand. The silver imitation hand advancing towards Harry's neck…

Then, something strange happened. Wormtail's own hand was choking himself. Taking a cue from Harry, I tried to stop the arm from killing him. It was no use. He was gone.

My mind jumped again to Hermione. Taking one look at Harry, we silently agreed before edging up the stairs and creeping outside the sitting room.

Griphook lied for us. Thank Merlin…

But they were summoning Voldemort. I kept looking at Harry for the cue to move. I figured he was of a more sane mind than I was at the moment – but something was off. Harry's jaw was clenched and his eyes squinted. He looked like he was in extreme pain.

Before I could reach out to him, Bellatrix's voice filled my ears again.

…We can dispose of the Mudblood. Greyback, take her if you want her."

Oh Hell no!

NOOO! I shouted, bursting into the room. All hopes for strategy and stealth were gone, all concern for Harry's mental fitness had vanished. There wasn't any more time. I had to get to Hermione.

"Expelliarmus!" I shouted at Bellatrix, successfully disarming her. I was a man possessed, brandishing my wand like a knights sword and blasting every enemy that got between me and Hermione.

When I thought the distraction was enough I began to beeline for Hermione, pale, still and lifeless on the floor. I willed myself not to experience the idea that we might have been too late. She was alive. I was going to get her out of here. But Bellatrix was too quick.

She scooped up Hermione's limp body and held her up with an arm around her neck.

Hermione!

The evil witches knife was threatening Hermione's pale and slender neck.

"Drop your wands" she whispered. "Drop them, or we'll see how filthy her blood really is."

I was frozen. This was it. This was the moment my life would end. I felt my muscles begin to collapse – following suit with my lungs and heart.

My mind flashed to the many times I had dreamt of wrapping my arms around her now lifeless body, how many nights I had awoken in a cold sweat from dreaming of kissing that beautiful neck. Oh Hermione – please don't leave me.

Two tiny beads of crimson blood dripped onto the blade as the knife broke the skin.

I cannot be here. I can't be here.

"All right!" Harry shouted, dropping his wand.

I released my grip on Wormtail's wand and the sound of it falling to the ground seemed to echo in my ears. There's no escape.

Suddenly there was a loud crack above our heads. The pretentious crystal chandelier was crashing from the ceiling right on top of…Hermione…

My muscles flew back into action and I ran to her - completely oblivious of everything else around me. Trying to be as careful as possible I extracted her from the wreckage. Her form still limp and unresponsive. I didn't dare attempt to say her name, to try to arouse her in any way lest I be devastated. My one focus was getting her out.

Get her out, save Hermione. Get her out, save Hermione. I kept repeating, again not allowing my mind to wander to the possibility that I was too late. She was so tiny, so delicate, could someone this delicate survive this much?

Of course she can. I told myself resolutely now wrapping my arms around her waist and supporting her head. Merlin there's blood everywhere…Hermione…

"Ron!" roared Harry and I was back to conciousness of the room of battling forces. "Catch and go!"

He tossed a wand and I knew what to do. Holding her firmly against my body I disaperated.

Bill and Fleurs, shell cottage. Bill and Fleurs, shell cottage.

Hope

We hit the solid earth with a thud and the salty ocean air immediately filled my nostrils. I was still gripping Hermione around her waste. We were here.

Finally, I took a moment to look down at her. I noticed a faint intake of breathe, her chest rose and then she shuddered with the pain of breathing. I felt my own chest fall as I let out the air I didn't know I'd been holding in and quickly scooped her up into my arms. She was so tiny and beautiful – even covered in blood and scrapes, she glowed.

"Ron?" Gasped my brother, Bill as I burst through the cottage door. "Ron! Ron, are you alright?"

I didn't answer. "Merlin, Ron, is that Hermione? What happened?" he continued.

Fleur came into the entry way, looking concerned and staring at Hermione's lifeless body in my arms.

I tried to explain, tried to speak, wanted to answer their questions but I choked on the words.

"Zhis way" Fleur stated, understanding my inability to explain and leading me up the stairs.

She led me into the room I had spent the month away from my friends in and I shuddered at my stupidity. How could I have left her. How could I have been away from her when time was so short…when I had almost lost…

I couldn't finish my thought. All that mattered was that she was safe now. All that mattered was getting her to wake up.

I carried her to the small twin sized bed and attempted to gently lay her down, but as I tried to release her, her tiny hand crumpled around my sweater – attempting to clutch the fabric, willing me to not let her go.

I wanted to cry at the feable attempt at movement, but clenched my jaw, willing myself to be strong for her.

I sat down at the head of the bed and placed her between my legs, leaning her against my chest and propping her up so Fleur could begin to clean her up.

Fleur returned to the room and began to wipe the blood and dirt from Hermione's wounded face as I held her, gently stroking her hair from her face and whispering that it would be okay.

"It's going to be alright, Hermione, we're safe now." I said in my most comforting tone, "Don't worry, just rest, you're going to be just fine, we're all just fine"

When she had finished cleaning her up and tending to the cuts and bruises, Fleur poured a steamy blue liquid down Hermione's throat.

"Zhis will 'elp 'er to rest, Ron" she whispered. "We should leave 'er now."

Leave her? Yeah, that's not going to happen. I shook my head resolutely, but began to shift and remove myself from underneath her.

Fleur stood, and I took over the wooden chair she had occupied, shuffling it closer to the bed and taking Hermione's hand in my own.

She drooped back onto the pillow and was completely still.

I shivered as my mind flashed back to her limp body lying on the Malfoy's carpet.

I sighed with relief as I realized that this stillness was not the terrifying sight I had witnessed before.

No, no this was different. She was peaceful, now breathing deeply in and out. Her face was without pain and she slept peacefully.

I imagined that she knew I was next to her. That she sensed my presence as I had sensed hers when I had been poisoned just a little over a year ago. That it was I who was providing her peace as I gently stroked her hand.

Everything is going to be okay now, right? She's safe now. I assured myself, trying not to think of the possibility that the Hermione I knew might be boggled from the experience, pushing the thoughts of Neville's parents from my mind. No Ron, this is Hermione we're talking about. She's going to be okay. She's going to wake up, and she's going to know who I am. She'll be fine...

About an hour and a half passed and I had barely moved, still holding her hand, still gazing over her sleeping body, watching over her as she rested. My eyes began to droop as the physical exhaustion threatened to overcome my mental determination to stay by her side. I allowed my eyes to close for a moment, when I felt something wake me up.

A jolt of electricity seemed to bolt through my hand when I felt a slight squeeze from the sleeping girl.

"Ron?" she whispered hoarsely. Her brown lashes fluttered revealing her sleepy chocolate brown eyes.

I fell from the chair and knelt beside her bed beginning to stroke her hair.

"Oh Hermione…" I choked out. Tears were threatening to emerge from my eyes again as I smiled down at her.

"Ron." She said, her frail lips curved into a smile.

Her smile melted away every inhibition that had been holding me back. I looked deeply into her eyes, trying to convey every ounce of love and passion that I had for her, and gently kissed her lips.

"I love you, Hermione"

She smiled.

Fireworks were shooting off inside me. She was okay. She was speaking. She was smiling…Smiling at me. Warmth radiated through my entire being and despite all we'd been through, despite the fact that a war raged on outside these walls and despite everything I knew was ahead of us, with Hermione's hand clutching mine, all was well.