A/N: Hi. *waves* Guh. That is all.
OH! And I totally have to credit my wonderful napchic for a specific sort of dialogue styling about halfway through. Ron's text. You'll see :)
The Joy Formidable, "Cholla" -
www . youtube watch?v=-xsFhE9PzT8 [remove spaces]
Chapter Five - You Take Form With Ink and Blood, Part Ten
Sunday, January 3rd, 1999...
Icy cold seemed to penetrate through every crevice, every dimly lit fire, every bone. He was wrapped in a scarf now, jacket lopsidedly tucked over his slightly-too-large wool jumper. His mind could not help but wander to the desire he felt for another human's warmth… soft, hot skin… another heartbeat.
In a quiet, tucked away part of his mind, he felt the emptiness of forever being alone, of a life stretching out without another attempt at what he'd shared with only one other person before. It would have been slightly cynical, if it had been more than a softly drifting knowledge, not yet brought to the surface. A source, perhaps, for use as a joke, to lighten what was starting to weigh on him again, as the frosted glass panes of the library's tall windows froze solid with a thickly chilled wind.
They moved through the morning in near silence, caught up in their own thoughts and wonderings. Tomorrow, school would resume, and their time to research would be much more limited. Students would return in the morning, giving them less than twenty-four hours to solve something that was becoming more and more obviously impossible to solve without some outside source of information or assistance.
After lunch, he climbed the stairs to the boy's dormitory to add another scarf to his layered clothing, shivering as he ascended against increasingly lower temperatures, putting distance and height between his back and the common room fireplace. Harry entered the room behind him, stretching and shivering, all at once.
"You reckon it's worth going back through the restricted section tonight?" Harry asked, as Ron dug deep within his trunk at the foot of his bed for a clean second scarf.
"I've practically memorized the books, in order, on every shelf back there," Ron said as his fingers wrapped around what was hopefully a scarf, but turned out to be a very stretched out wool sock. He wrinkled his nose and tossed it back, grinning as Harry gave him a mock-disapproving look and sat on the edge of Ron's bed.
"Here," and Harry untwisted a scarf from around his own neck. "I'm wearing three layers underneath my cloak. I might suffocate," and he tossed the scarf to Ron as Ron joined Harry on the side of the bed, causing the mattress to bounce a bit with his casually thrown around weight, slouching back and yawning as he began wrapping scarf number two around his neck.
"Cheers," he said, sighing as they faced the dormitory door, falling silent.
"Are you alright?" Harry asked softly, after a moment. Ron was briefly puzzled by the question, glancing left, towards Harry's profile. "I mean, you know," Harry added.
And somehow, that cleared it up.
Ron swallowed and stared forward again.
"Sure, I am," he finally said, because knowing that he had to be sort of made it so. It had been working, and would go on working for as long as he wanted it to. From the corner of his eye, he could tell that Harry was nodding, in that sort of dismissive (yet not quite believable) way that he often did. Of course it took more than Ron's short sentence to prove it to his best mate. That he was fine.
He chuckled then, remembering his thoughts from earlier. The almost-blizzard outside now seemed to chill his whole nervous system, through his blood and bones.
"Anyway, at least I think I've figured out what I should be after Hogwarts," he teased.
"What's that?" Harry asked, turning to face Ron now, curious, and led by Ron's playful tone of voice.
"One of those monk blokes we read about in Muggle Studies," Ron grinned, and Harry raised an eyebrow.
"Aside from my alarm at your new choice of career, I have to say I can't believe you remember a damn thing from Muggle Studies," Harry laughed.
"Oy, something stuck every once in a while," Ron replied, shoving Harry with his shoulder.
And though the joke had not yet reached the core of truth that was buried in the centre, the idea of forever living his life without the hope or desire for love again…
Well, he didn't need to be so morbid, did he. Not today. There were far too many library books to read to spare the time.
She could feel her heart beating in her ears.
He'd sat himself on Harry's usual side of the settee tonight, which positioned his body close enough to hers for her to feel the comfort that she used to be so magnetized to, radiating off of him. The inches that separated the toes of her right foot from his left knee were a bit dangerous, and she dragged her eyes away from the minuscule space in between them to stare a hole through the centre of the book she appeared to be engrossed in but had actually not even been able to concentrate on for long enough to be sure that it wasn't currently upside down. She could feel Harry throwing consistent glances in their direction, no doubt concerned with Ron's casual approach to the evening... sitting on what had wordlessly become the 'wrong' side of the sofa.
But then it was too easy to remind herself that it meant nothing. That she was nothing right now to him, floating in the void between used-to-be-friends and maybe-someday-acquaintances. They could be familiar again, in some ways. She was growing used to knowing that. But knowing she'd once had so much more... it honestly made her feel less and less like she would ever be completely capable of a life with him in it, subtracting everything she'd built up to and grown used to hoping for.
"It's g'damn cold," Ron slurred, slouching further down the back of the sofa, neck and chin retreating inside two scarves, one of which Hermione recognized as Harry's from earlier that same day.
She felt a wave of amusement mixed with playful chastisement pass through her at his horrid language. She nearly opened her mouth to reprimand him before giving up and shaking her head slightly, eyes darting back down towards her book. But that was when she saw it, out of focus, beyond the bottom edge of her book's binding.
If she breathed too heavily, her toes could easily press against the left side of his knee. After his readjustment, he was actually that close.
And he didn't seem to notice at all.
He ruffled his hair. And after a long moment, holding her breath, he sat up straight again, reaching for a book on the low table in front of him, at random.
He glanced at her. And everything shattered back down to dust.
The reminder that no matter how much she wished it, he would never look at her the way she wanted, ever again, pressed down against her chest, and she tried so desperately not to cry. Not here, with both of them just there beside her. With the only link now left to keep her with them simply hanging by a thread as it was. Surely, if they could read her mind, they would deem it all too risky and sever their unity, even for the sake of a mystery to solve.
But then, there it was. What she'd been pushing back further and further into her mind. What had come, all of a sudden, to no longer have any room left in which to push further.
The choice that now stood before her did not seem to have two equal options any longer.
"What d'you think?" Ron asked no one in particular. "I just know there's a load of made up shite floating around in my mind, so where the hell did it come from?"
"It's got to be Hermione's alteration theory. Someone doesn't want us to know something, and they've gone to great lengths to ensure that we don't figure it out," Harry replied.
"Right. So now we've just got to figure out who's buggering with our minds and-"
"And that leaves us exactly where we were yesterday, and the day before that," Harry sighed.
"We've got to go back to the Ministry, Harry..."
But their voices faded as she tried not to be sick. She closed her book with barely a sound and untwisted her legs from underneath her body.
"Well, we're not going to solve it tonight," she said, softly, drawing Ron and Harry's attention as she averted eye contact and packed up her bag. "I can ask Professor McGonagall about granting you both permission to leave school grounds if you want to poke around the Auror offices this week. I go back on Wednesday anyway for a review on my parents' case."
"Alright," Harry nodded, eyes on her as she allowed bits of tightly curled hair to fall forward, covering the sides of her face as she turned to head upstairs to bed.
"Goodnight," she called back, without a pause for their reply, surely leaving them confused by her abrupt departure...
And it was there, halfway up the lonely steps towards the girls' dormitory, that she lost what little hold she had left on her emotions. Tears streaked down her face, obscuring her vision for the last few stairs. And as she passed through the door into the empty seventh year dorm room, she whispered a wandless silencing charm, years of getting used to performing it aiding her now when she might not have had the strength. She dropped her bag, with a thump, to the floor. And she slipped down the inside of the door to pool at the foot of it, caved in and giving up.
She had somehow made up her mind, as much as every part of her screamed for the opposite.
She had to stop. She could no longer be with them. Not now. With Ron still tightly clutching onto every piece of her broken heart. Hope stirring within her at every innocent glance.
She could no longer be near him. She could not risk his recovery, or her own sanity. And she would tell them tomorrow. She'd make an excuse - school work getting to her. Exams and her parents' case taking up all the time she had. Something.
Something they might believe.
Something Ron wouldn't see through...
What could have been hours later, it took every ounce of strength she had left to pull herself off of the floor, wash up and dress for bed, and drag the curtains round her four-poster.
Ice racketed against the windows by each empty bed around her. And the hollow feeling that had taken up a rather permanent residence inside of her chest was echoed by the chill of the room... the inability of any amount of body heat, sheets and blankets to warm her.
Ron wasn't completely oblivious this time. He knew something had been done or said accidentally to hurt her. To send her rushing up to bed.
But honestly, he could not piece together what it might have been. And there was some small amount of sadness in knowing that it was neither smart of him nor his place now to confront her about it. And so, it was doomed to be added to the list of unsolved mistakes he might have made. And he sighed halfway as he followed Harry through the doorway into their dormitory.
Harry plopped on the side of his bed with a rolled up evening Prophet, and Ron stretched his neck side to side before digging into his trunk for clean pyjamas. Running a hand over his jaw, he raised an eyebrow at himself.
"Getting scruffy," Harry said with a grin, eyes still cast down as he unrolled his Prophet, flopping over to stretch out along his bed, above the covers.
"Thanks, mate," Ron replied, sarcastically, as he crossed his arms and grasped the hem of his shirt, to remove it, yanking it up over his head, sending stray clumps of hair to point up and out at ridiculous angles. He dropped the shirt to the floor, as he usually saw fit to do with clothes that needed a wash, and he turned to head down the hall towards the loo.
But halfway through brushing his teeth, it came to his attention that he'd left his razor resting patiently atop his bedside table. He flexed his toes against the cool stone tile of the lavatory floor, finished with his teeth, and turned lazily to shuffle back down the hall and retrieve his razor.
But one glance towards Harry stopped him in his tracks, a metre away from his bed.
"What is it?" he asked, a bit nervously.
Harry was sitting up in bed again, evening Prophet opened across his lap, eyebrows stuck halfway up underneath his fringe, a look of disgust as his eyes darted across the page.
"Ron…" he said, glancing up to meet Ron's eyes as he approached. "Take a look at this," and he tossed the paper to Ron, who caught it fluidly, creasing it as he closed his hand around it. He took a seat on the edge of Harry's bed, clad only in his pyjama bottoms, still shirtless, still scruffy...
The story began with a moving photo, like most cover stories did. A girl, maybe twenty, twenty-one. Her hair was dark and sleek, yet very straight, rolling off her shoulders, longer strands straying down further than the rest… bathing her cheeks in dark shadow. Her eyes were large and light, eyebrows no more than thin, dark lines above heavy lids. She appeared slightly too narrow for her frame, bone outlines visible along her cheeks and jaw as she turned her face slightly to the right. Her skin was almost tanned, as if she'd been on holiday for an extended period of time but hadn't taken great care of herself, at the same time.
"Am I supposed to know her?" Ron asked, slowly.
"No," Harry said, "but look at what she did! She was caught just this afternoon-"
But Ron squinted as a spark of familiarity flared, and the rest of Harry's words were lost. The picture loop restarted, and the girl turned to her right again… There, Ron could see it, from the hollow of her neck, downward-
Tearing his eyes away, Ron scanned the article, suddenly feeling frantic…
Earlier this afternoon, Jen Moran (pictured) was arrested for illegal use of polyjuice potion, aiding in several crimes against Muggles, Muggleborns, and their families. Several extremely valuable artifacts have also been stolen from the Ministry of Magic over the past few months by Jen and her step brother, Fitz Moran, accomplice to all eleven crimes uncovered today.
Jen and Fitz Moran are currently imprisoned at Azkaban while awaiting their trial on Friday. Further details are being gathered against both Jen and Fitz in an effort to build a more solid case, though Senior Auror Lester Bailey is positive that fittingly harsh verdicts for both will be forthcoming, given the evidence gathered today.
Ron stopped reading, dizzy... and he returned his full attention to the picture at the top of the page.
His throat constricted as he allowed his eyes to fall along that mark - a thin, yet prominent… scar.
From her neck, down her chest, disappearing beneath her low-cut blouse. And the jagged pattern it cut up towards her collarbone…
It was like looking into the eyes of an old friend, viewing that scar again now.
So specific. So exact…
"Harry..." Ron breathed, unconsciously clutching the Prophet tightly in his fist, eyes glued to the picture as the loop restarted, once more.
"What?" Harry asked, eyebrows furrowed as he followed Ron's line of vision to the picture of the girl. "What is it?" And as Ron's hand began to shake against the paper, Harry sat up straighter, drawing in closer. "What is it, mate?"
"I know her..." Ron whispered, eyes wide and lips parted as visions flooded him, a series of memories that now made a different kind of sense.
"Really?" Harry asked, shocked as he grabbed ahold of the paper from the other side, leaning in closer to get a better look at Jen.
But memories were braiding together now... and Ron's eyes burned as his stomach flipped sickeningly.
"No..." he said slowly, hardly realizing he was speaking. "No. Oh my God..."
His heart was pounding against his ribs, and his ears rang as he trembled, abruptly frozen and chilled to the bone.
And his eyes darted to the next passage of the article, somehow almost knowing exactly what he'd find there...
Our Auror department is calling this the most well developed and pre-planned attack of identity theft that has ever been recorded. To date, the Auror department has uncovered eight different cases of forced impersonation, carried out by the Morans-
"What is it?!" Harry asked, frantically, clasping Ron's shoulder and shaking him gently.
"It wasn't Hermione!" Ron cried, struck hard with the truth. "It was her, Harry! Oh my God!"
He knew. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt. It was. Just as he was Ron and Harry was Harry.
"What are you saying?!" Harry begged, squeezing Ron's shoulder tightly as Ron turned to stare into Harry's eyes, his own eyes wide and glassy.
"It was this girl, Harry! All of it was HER... She did EVERYTHING!"
Ron's hand was now shaking so badly that he could no longer hold onto the paper. Crumpling it, he let it fall to the floor as he stood on unsteady legs, overwhelmed as his burning eyes finally released a wave of tears amidst realisation and absolute horror. He let out a sob as Harry stood quickly in front of him, mouth hanging open.
"Shit!" Ron cried, covering his mouth and nose with both hands, shutting his eyes for long enough to drain them.
"SHE... was HERMIONE?!" Harry hissed, overwhelmed.
"YES!" Ron half-sobbed. "All of it... all summer, I saw that bloody scar..."
"Are you saying..." Harry continued, speaking at double speed, "that for nearly four months, while you were with Hermione - while we were with her - it was THIS GIRL all along?!"
Ron stared into Harry's eyes for a long moment, whites and pupils glowing in the light from the bedside lanterns scattered around their dormitory.
"Yes," Ron finally answered, voice oddly steady as he let his trembling arms fall to his sides. "I know it was her."
It wasn't just a solitary memory of this scar. It was days and weeks and fucking months. It was from that first day, that first morning after the final battle... waking up with Hermione who had been... who had been someone else entirely!
Their code word... they'd come up with it together, so they'd never lose each other. And whose idea had that been? It had been Hermione's! No. It had been Jen's! To keep him from finding out that the real Hermione was out there somewhere?! So no matter what, if she came for him, he'd think the real Hermione was actually an impostor. It was almost too perfect, too brilliant. It fit together too fucking well.
"You're positive?" Harry asked, though Ron knew that Harry had only voiced the question aloud for something else to say, as the shock and horror of this new discovery sunk in fully.
"Yes," Ron repeated. "SHIT! It makes so much sense. I can't believe… I… Oh, FUCK! She would leave the room in a hurry, and for no reason, make up some excuse that I fucking believed! She was taking polyjuice, Harry! She was starting to turn back into herself and she had to-"
But Ron's breath caught in his throat and he couldn't go on.
Harry swayed slightly, trembling a bit himself, as he stared up at Ron, unrelenting.
"All that time, and I never questioned..." Ron trailed off, raspy… finding it increasingly difficult to catch his breath, as flashbacks of Hermione continued to morph into something completely new and different and not at all something he was pleased to see.
And suddenly, beyond his control, he realized that he was actually going to be sick. Balling his hands into tight fists, he tore out of the room towards the loo, the sounds of Harry's pounding footsteps behind him fading past the ringing in his ears as it grew, impossibly loud. And as he rounded the corner into the first stall, he collapsed to the tile and clutched his stomach, vomiting as he clenched his eyes shut.
It was as if the whole world around him had caved in, and the pieces that remained were there purely to mock him.
Harry was behind him, his hand warm against Ron's back.
And there they sat, as Ron heaved breath after painful breath, eyes glued shut. He concentrated on the feeling of Harry's hand, absentmindedly running up his spine and back.
Slowly, he was able to calm down enough to lift his head, and he found that now… now that he'd discovered the missing puzzle piece, the one he hadn't known was lost, everything in his universe was pointing in one solid direction.
"Harry," he spoke hoarsely, towards the wall in front of him, "we have to tell her. I have to see her now."
"I know," came Harry's small voice from behind him. And Ron couldn't help himself. A tiny, almost-smile cracked at the corners of his lips.
"Useless brushing my teeth earlier…" he mumbled as he balanced and stood, brushing past Harry who still appeared completely shell shocked.
And so, he set to work, too much toothpaste, brushing furiously… "How d'we do it?" he managed around his toothbrush.
"We can't get into the girls' dormitory," Harry reasoned, eyes darting. "The stairs-"
"What if we fly?" Ron suggested, pausing only long enough to spit… still shaking on his feet. "We know she's here in Gryffindor tower, so we just circle until we find her room..."
And he took a massive swig of water, swishing it furiously around inside his mouth as he avoided eye contact with his own reflection, feeling completely drained, but somehow energized by one remaining purpose, by the final thing he had to do… before he could rest.
"What, we peek in through all the windows?" Harry asked, sceptically. "What if she's pulled the curtains across? How will we know which one-"
"I'll know," Ron said, matter of factly.
Harry blinked at him.
"Don't ask me how. I know it doesn't make any sense, and I have no justification. But I just think I'll know."
Unspoken trust flowed between them, and it was clear that Harry did not need to ask Ron to explain, no matter how absurd. It just was.
"I'm willing to bet the windows are charmed like the stairs so blokes can't get through," Harry added, finally.
"But it can't hurt to try," Ron said, shocked by his own poise. But he promptly wiped away the image of his clearheaded demeanor by practically pouncing on the door. "Come on!"
"Go the window by my bed!" Harry called as he ran after Ron. "Accio our brooms up from the Quidditch pitch?"
"Yeah!" Ron called back as they skidded through the doorway into their dormitory. "Yeah, that's brilliant!"
Before Harry could quite catch up, Ron had wrenched open the window, clattering the glass panes as the latch collided with the interior wall. A gust of frozen, wintry air attacked him, and Harry slid to a stop at Ron's left, leaning a few inches out the now-open window, pointing his wand down across the grounds.
"Accio broom!" he shouted, and Ron aimed his own wand over Harry's right shoulder to do the same.
As they awaited the arrival of their brooms, impatience dominated, and Ron could do nothing but play and replay his own fabricated images of seeing Hermione now, of telling her what he'd found and apologising until he could no longer speak, until he'd lost his voice from crying to her, begging her forgiveness...
The wait was agonizing, and he actually contemplated binding himself to his bed to restrict his own impulses to simply jump out the window and scale the tower in search of her... Completely mental and utterly irrational thoughts were warring for dominance as he waited…
But at last, two back to back whooshes sounded out, signifying the imminent arrival of their brooms. And they could just make them out, soaring through the night sky, finally stopping just short of the window, allowing Harry to catch his broom in a steady fist without missing a beat. Ron clutched at his own broom just as fluidly, and they pulled them through the opening, wood clanking noisily against iron.
"Go around to the left first," Ron said hoarsely, over his shoulder. "Follow me."
Harry nodded, and Ron pushed off the floor, ducking to miss hitting his head on the window frame. They were soon climbing higher and higher as they circled Gryffindor tower, frozen to the bone as their speed and their height whipped up a cocktail of icy air and bits of sleet, biting at their exposed skin. Of course a more rational approach would have been for Ron to at least invest in a jumper before dashing out the window, perhaps a pair of socks and trainers… But he really could not be bothered to give a damn.
"We have to be sure!" Harry shouted at Ron's back. "I believe you, but we trusted what we saw before, too!"
"I know!" Ron shouted in return, through a gust, squinting in the frozen wind and turning his head left, to scan the tower windows as they passed.
Moments ago, inside, he'd been convinced he could find her. But now, faced with window after dark window, it was feeling a bit less likely. Holding his wand high, elbow bent and covering part of his face from the weather, he aimed for the next window they approached, soaring a bit too fast-
With a swish, he sent a blast of heat to melt the ice that had frosted the glass, leaning left to curve inward, closer to the tower wall. But Harry beat him there, clasping onto rock to stop himself, hovering in the air and staring in.
"Nothing!" Harry called over his shoulder, as Ron wobbled to a stop behind him.
"Try the next one!"
And so they did, round and up the tower, catching pneumonia...
And finally, it happened. The feeling he'd been waiting for. Some kind of distant warmth, the lingering echo of a lantern recently put out.
Harry soared up behind him, close enough for Ron to feel Harry's hot breath against his neck.
He widened his eyes, straight into the darkness within.
He could barely cry his relief when he spotted her trunk... her cloak draped over it...
And it occurred to him, for the first time, as he aimed his wand at the latch, trembling too violently to get a good aim.
What if she didn't want him now?
What if it was too late to start?
What if she'd gotten over him?
But he couldn't think on it, window bursting open, clanging against the inside wall, almost breaking. He heard a gasp, mid-cry, and her curtains ripped back, revealing her wild eyes, exploding curls... her wand aimed across the room, directly at him.
"Hherrmmione," he breathed through a heavy shiver, clutching her window frame for support as he pulled himself through, Harry right behind him.
"What is it?!" she shouted, frantically, still sitting up perfectly straight in bed, feet tucked underneath her. "What's happened?!"
And he could see, as he dropped his broom to the floor with a careless clatter, how bloodshot and sore her eyes looked, cheeks still stained with sheets of fresh tears.
"I-I knoww it ddoesn't make ssense," he shuddered, squinting against his sobs as she stared up at him, wide-eyed, "bbut you've gggot to sshow us yyour sscar."
"Wh..." and she paused for a breath, "what do you mean? Ron, I... I don't underst-"
"Onn yyour cchest, rrright here," and he traced an unsteady finger down his own body, from collarbone to halfway down his ribs.
She visibly swallowed, eyes still perfectly wide and round.
He realised the crudeness of his request, and he felt his cheeks burn.
"She could have concealed it," Harry reasoned, voice low, eyes darting to meet Ron's. "We've got to make sure."
"Yeah, yeah," Ron panted. "You might have to help me with the charms, blimey." And they both glanced down at Ron's furiously trembling hands. He clutched his wand hand's wrist with his left hand, trying to hold it steady as his whole body shuddered in the rapidly increasing wind at his back, through the still-open window.
"How many charms do we know that can conceal something like this?" Harry asked, chewing his bottom lip in thought.
"We learned the list in Defense-"
"WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS GOING ON?!" Hermione suddenly shrieked, cutting right through Ron's thoughts and turning his full attention back towards her.
He couldn't help it. He grinned so widely his cheeks hurt.
He almost made so many mistakes, the thought of sodding all their doubts causing his heart triple its beat. But Harry cleared his throat and Ron's eyes burned with tears again. It was all too much.
"Wwe have tto see yyour scar, to know it wwasn't you," Ron stuttered through the ice in his lungs.
"Wasn't- wasn't me?!" she whispered, jaw dropping.
He looked at her, really. With a new lens, one that displayed an even more vibrant representation of what used to be.
"We hhave a ddamn good rreason to believe wwe ccocked up," he sighed out, already apologizing.
He watched her eyes fill halfway with tears as her lips parted to speak.
"I don't have a scar there," she barely said, nearly inaudible if he hadn't been reading her lips.
Her neck moved beautifully as she swallowed, bathed in his shadow. And he shivered again in yet another gust of blizzard-wind.
"I kknow iit's awkkward. I'm ssorry, I... Yyou ccan sh-show Harry if-"
"It's nothing you haven't seen before," she interrupted, in such a tiny voice. And he swallowed, feeling the sickness rise again, knowing he'd seen her... but had never truly seen her. "Is it?" she added, meeting his eyes so shortly, so shyly.
And he managed to sort through the dizzying events that had led them here... enough to know that all she needed was his confirmation, whether it was tied to a million complications or simple linear truths, from their recent past.
Skin. He'd seen a skin, hint of bones, and nights of sweat. He'd seen a body that had been fashioned to her specifics, prepared to end him. He'd seen nights of moonlight, lantern glow... her eyes as he'd held someone else. He'd felt the silk of her curves around the heart and soul and mind of an evil maniac.
And yet, frozen stiff, metres in front of her, moments from final truth, he shook his head.
"Nno," he whispered. "It isn't."
Breathing in heaves of nervousness, she placed her wand on her bedside table, pushed up on her mattress to sit on her knees, and reached for the bottom hem of her thin cotton shirt.
And after an agonizing moment, she closed her eyes, ripping her shirt off over her head in one fluid motion, trembling fiercely as Harry swore under his breath and turned his back on them.
Ron froze, her naked torso lit by the natural moonlight coming in through the window behind him. Everything now seemed to pulse with life, like all of his past with the person he'd thought was her had faded into tones of black and white and gray. And despite everything taking over his body, suddenly seeing her like this after so long, catching her terrified eyes as she opened them and she tried not to meet his gaze, combined with her obvious flush, even in the darkness... He was reminded, then, of his sole purpose... one more moment, and he'd know the truth.
Though he could feel it already. Yet he'd told her otherwise, in a way too complex to explain just now. But he knew. He'd never seen her like this before. This was the first time. He was sure of it.
"Harry," he whisper-cried. "I can't do it. Ppplease."
And Harry glanced left, at Ron's profile, before turning round, eyes raised slightly above Hermione's head.
Aiming his wand at her chest, he paused. Ron nodded.
A gentle, unmistakable glow of undone charms flashed across her skin. And there was nothing.
Ron was too impatient, knowing the truth – merely proving it. And he urged Harry onward with a nudge of his elbow.
"Revelio," Harry tried again, more firmly, and for good measure. "Finite incantatem. Aparecium."
Nothing. Her eyes darted, lips parted, hopeful.
And in that moment, Ron must have looked as overwhelmed as he felt, because she was suddenly so obviously concerned, completely forgetting her nudity in his presence for the sake of his wellbeing.
"Ron, are you alright?"
He loved her so fucking much.
And there was nothing he could say to answer her as he cried, dropping his wand to the floor and crossing over towards her in several long strides. And before he could think of what he was doing, he was climbing up onto her bed, startling her as he jostled her mattress... gathering her against his bare chest, throwing his arms securely around her, on his knees in front of her.
"I'm sso sorry!" he sobbed into her neck, her hair bunching to cover his face as she gave up on shocked-and-confused and clung back to him, pressing her own naked chest completely against his frozen skin.
His hands flattened to her back, holding her as tightly as he could without crushing her.
His body was attacking him from the inside, sobs cutting through his lungs and throat. And he could feel her own tears trickling down his neck and collarbone. Muscles tightened as he continuously re-gathered her body against his, attempting to hold her impossibly close.
She was so bloody warm, thawing every bit of him, through skin and veins. Though, as the scent and feel of her calmed him enough to breathe, he became rather acutely aware of his disregard for her nudity, and how she might feel, half naked in front of him for the first time...
"Oh, shit, sorry," he choked, aching in his reluctance to let her go. And what if he released her and she didn't come back to him?
But as his arms slackened their grip, she hiccupped and clawed at his back, cheek pressed so firmly to his shoulder that it felt nearly permanent.
"Why?!" she sobbed against him, muffled cries into his skin. "Why are you sorry? What's changed?"
And he realised, she didn't understand at all. He hadn't explained. And yet, she was clinging to him as if it might still be the last time. Taking what he gave her without question.
"Harry's got it," Ron said quickly, still holding her as he lifted his head towards the window, which Harry had now shut.
And Harry removed the evening Prophet from his back pocket, stepping up to hand it to Ron, who had to disentangle a hand from the hair at the base of Hermione's neck in order to take it.
"Look," he sniffed, softly, tilting his head down towards her face, which was still smooshed against his left shoulder and collarbone. He dropped his other hand from her back to brush hair away from her face, gazing down at her through the darkness.
She opened her eyes, so very slowly. And as she locked them onto his, he actually felt her heart, against his chest, beat faster.
The feeling of her warmth moving away from his, as she sat up straighter, reminded him of her current state once more, and he cocked an eyebrow up at Harry.
"Oy, turn around," but Harry was already halfway there.
Hermione's face was glowing with tears, framed by wild hair, and Ron felt his throat constrict, butterflies bubbling in the aftermath of such new proximity.
New. As it was and as it felt. The most incredible confirmation, to know that this was new. That all of it was as it started, back in May, with one kiss and shy glances and falling asleep together, fully clothed.
And then nothing.
Months and months of lies and hurt. Longing desperately for something he didn't think he could have, ever again.
To find out he'd never had it, all along.
Hermione's hand grasped onto his wrist to turn the paper in her direction, and he gasped as nerves sizzled delightfully.
Exhausted by emotion, she almost smiled up at him at his reaction, before her eyes fell solidly to the picture and paragraphs at the top of the front page. The article that was saving them.
As her eyes danced back and forth, reading the details, Ron watched her expression change from curiosity to understanding. She squinted against another wave of tears and looked up, directly into his eyes, her face mere inches from his.
"It was her? All along?" she whispered.
His jaw twitched as his vision blurred. His head was surely going to throb later, after so much crying. He could feel it already creeping up, his body's warning signs that it had had enough.
"I'm so... so sorry, Hermione."
Her mouth dropped open, reality sinking in.
"That... that bitch!" she hissed.
And the tense air between them was lightened instantly. Ron pressed his lips together, feeling a rumble of imminent laughter escalate. Towards his left, Harry's back shook with his own mirth.
And suddenly, nothing and everything was maddeningly delightful. Sod modesty. He threw his arms round her shoulders, pulling her in and clutching her against his own body once more, as laughter escaped with a burst from all three of them, filling the room.
He kissed her ear with a grin, feeling her tense up at his unexpected affection. Without pause to over analyze, he kissed the side of her head through her hair as well, running his fingers up her spine to tangle in her curls.
But as they calmed yet again, his heart pounded out a final fearful rhythm. He had to be sure. She had to understand how he craved her forgiveness.
He pulled back just far enough to press his forehead to hers, noting out of the corner of his eye that Harry was making a quiet escape, leaving them alone, together.
"Can you forgive me?" he breathed against her lips.
"I've got nothing to forgive," she sighed.
"The way I treated you... the way we left you alone. Fucking hell! I believed you could be so cruel! How could I?"
"Because you saw it, face to face," she reasoned. "I nearly believed it myself, when I couldn't find another explanation."
He was overwhelmed once again by regret, even with her words of comfort.
"You had no reason to doubt she was me."
"She hurt me so much, in a way you never would. I knew it. But I still believed it. I felt I had no choice. Nothing else made sense," he whispered back. Did he want her to see it his way, to chastise his behaviour and scream at him, what he felt he might deserve? But the one he wanted for his sweet revenge... she was lying in Azkaban.
"We'll file a report," Hermione whispered back. "We'll go to the trial and tell them what happened."
He nodded shortly, and he knew she could still see his anguish for the past...
"And you won't blame yourself. Not if we can be together now," she whispered through a tiny cry.
"You'd still want me?" His heart was flying from chest to throat. "Hermione, I-" and he had to wince before he could say the dreaded words. "I slept with her."
"Be fair," she nearly smiled. "You thought you were sleeping with me." And her blush radiated down from her cheeks to her neck.
"You don't mind?" he asked, nearly incredulous.
How was it possible that things were going to be fine? Earlier that very same day he'd renounced himself to the bleeding monks!
"Well, of course I mind," she smiled... "in a way that makes me want to throttle this girl at my earliest opportunity..."
He sighed, thoroughly happy for the first time in... well, he couldn't actually remember.
"Hey," he said, working up a grin, "I sort of lied before, when you asked if I'd seen your-" and he made a vague gesture towards her chest, clearing his throat.
Her cheeks burned crimson.
"Thanks for pointing that out..."
"It was a sort of... complicated lie..." he trailed off, still grinning.
She lifted her eyelashes as she gazed up at him, abandoning embarrassment. He swallowed hard, wanting more than anything just to kiss her.
His eyelids were heavy now, worn out completely from crying them senseless. And he knew that it would only take a couple of inches, and a breath or two, to allow his eyes to close in bliss.
There was just no choice to be made, as his fingers curled around her upper arm. And she slouched half the distance for him, his bottom lip brushing against hers, before they both shut their eyes, tilting into each other, warmth between them as her breasts collided with his goosebump-covered chest.
There was no describing this kiss. No words to express the vastness of being in the midst of nothing less than perfection.
Her lips were so soft, stacked between his. So gentle and somehow shy. Her palms spread along his shoulderblades as he tasted her bottom lip with his tongue. She parted her lips, and he felt her teeth cut gently into him before he pressed tighter against her and allowed her to lead, her tongue brushing his, sending a wave of sporadic shocks down his body... a moan escaping without his control.
She made a series of tiny little half-moans, half-squeaks, as she shivered out a breath.
He'd never thought he'd ever be the one to stop. In theory, at her smallest plea, he'd strip off the rest of their clothes and-
But the mere thought of it had his heart convulsing... his erection straining in protest, opposing his resistance, even against the loose-fitting fabric of cotton pyjamas.
But they were being repaired. And he wanted every moment to mean everything. He'd had these moments once. And they'd been the start of all that had gone wrong. This time, it was going to be fucking right.
Separating for a pause, before sliding his lips into hers once more for good measure, he pulled back, gasping in air.
"Ron..." she sighed, eyes still shut and flickering.
Her chest rose and fell against his as she took heaving breaths in and out. Her hardened nipples rubbed against him with each breath, and he couldn't stand it any longer - he was surely going to explode.
So he had been right, then. There was such a thing as too many emotions for one person to handle.
"Fuck," he sighed out shakily. "Got to lie down."
And as she opened her eyes, he collapsed beyond her left shoulder, against her pillow. He dragged her down to lie beside him, facing each other as their pyjama-clad legs tangled, shuffling underneath the sheet that had bunched up halfway down the mattress.
He could glimps,e over her body, through her window, outside the protection of a half-closed bed curtain, the snow that had rapidly begun to fall.
It was mesmerizing as he breathed against her cheek, her hand dragging his arm round her waist as she turned to face the window, too, the smooth skin of her back sliding along his chest like a sheet of pure silk.
"I love you so much," he rasped, dropping his head forward, into her thick hair as he closed his eyes. "You know that, don't you?"
"I know it now," he heard her whisper, feeling a tremble of relief wash through her body as he clutched her, left arm firmly secured around her stomach.
"Don't forget," he whispered back, feeling the haze of sleep creep up to claim him.
And the human touch he'd craved so fruitlessly before was now all he could feel. Every sense, every vital function of his body... his whole world.
And he could rest, at last.
You kept us away
We'll come back tomorrow
And give you one day
The talent of time
That thief that delays
We'll come back tomorrow
And tear down your ways
This is the way it has played
But these are our riches to take