Ron was certain of only two things about the path he and Hermione were on: he knew it was a long and twisty one, and he knew where it was going to end. Beyond that, he was pretty much lost, which is what they both were at the moment, though neither of them were particularly worried about that.
Not yet, anyway.
Actually though, he thought as he watched Bellatrix Lestrange’s wand jerk back and forth in the palm of Hermione’s hand, he wasn’t absolutely sure where following the path would take them either. A year ago he probably wouldn’t have been at all modest when it came to locating himself. He wasn’t smart, he knew, but at least he had a good sense of where he was and what direction he was facing and what was going on around him (he figured that if he was any kind of decent Quidditch Keeper at all it was surely for that reason, as he definitely couldn’t claim Cormac McLaggen’s muscles for himself). He was pretty certain they were still heading north, and he was almost sure the path they were on was the one which emerged from the forest near the back of the Three Broomsticks — the same one that he’d tried to convince Hermione to take back to Hogwarts when they’d gone on their own to Hogsmeade at the beginning of their third year.
But Hermione thought their path probably looped around to the other side of Hogsmeade, and merged with the rutted gravel road beyond the Shrieking Shack. Moreover, she was getting doubtful about their direction, hence the need for the Four-Point spell. And what Hermione thought… well, that mattered. For years, Ron had privately figured that if Hermione didn’t agree with him, well, the odds were that she was probably right — she was the smart one, after all — but now… now he realized that he was a lot more willing to admit that to her (even if it was true that her sense of direction in the outdoors was often shite). And that meant, he realized as he stood beside her, watching her annoyance with the wand in her hand mount, that he wasn’t so interested in insisting on what he thought he knew any longer.
But if that’s the way it is, we won’t row so much, Ron said to himself, and I really kind of like that. He shook his head. Another thing to try to figure out later; there was too much on his unsettled mind already.
Hermione’s brow furrowed as she said “Point Me!” over and over. She hadn’t noticed Ron’s gaze.
“Can I say that I just hate using this wand?” she announced to the forest around them, repeating a point she’d made several times over the past two and a half days. “I can feel the spell coming out of me the right way, but the wand doesn’t do what it’s supposed to with it.” She glanced about, then turned back to the wand, apparently wanting to stare it into obedience. “I wonder if there are walnut trees in the forest throwing it off. There’s a passage in Spellman’s Syllabary which suggested that the effectiveness of some types of wands can be compromised by the presence of magic amidst trees of the same type they were—”
“Hermione,” Ron said, with a hint of humor in his voice, “I’ve never seen walnuts in the forest, and even if there were some around, I don’t know how they could mess with any spell you’d cast.” She flushed slightly, and gave him an exasperated smile. Ron just shrugged. “And the wand worked well enough against the bitch herself, you think? So, I mean, the problem is probably just the way the castle’s enchantments have everything so wonky.”
“I guess you’re right,” she said, putting the walnut wand away. “But I thought if we got far enough from Hogwarts, it wouldn’t be so bad.”
“Who knows how far away we need to be?” Ron replied. “With the Floo network down all the news for the past day has come in by owl, I think, so that doesn’t tell us anything. Remember what McGonagall was saying about stuff from the castle walls being thrown all around the grounds by giants or being blasted by curses?”
“Yes, Ron, I remember!” Hermione huffed, taking off down the path again. But then she stopped and turned back, looking at Ron with another smile and holding out her hand. “It’s just, I don’t know — it’s good to wander a bit and get away from everything, but what time is it? We should probably get back.”
Ron leapt to catch up with her, then took her hand while taking out his watch and checking it. “Look, it’s not even lunchtime yet—”
“Oh I knew that; your stomach would have announced it,” she said, her smile widening.
“— and so I doubt we’ve missed anything important,” he said extravagantly, ignoring her interruption. Ron took a quick step or two ahead of her, pulling her along, his eyebrows waggling a bit. “McGonagall said Kingsley will be coming by sometime in the afternoon, so we won’t be called upon to wake the ‘savior of the wizarding world’ until then, right?”
Hermione fell in step alongside him, her smile turning to a small laugh. “Oh, I think Ginny will want to take over that responsibility, don’t you think?”
Suddenly Ron’s heart was flying (How the hell could I have gone all these years without feeling this way every time I saw her face?, he wondered) and he felt an urge to spin Hermione around as they walked and kiss her again. But thinking about Kingsley’s return reminded him of other things, and his heart just as suddenly turned a little cold. His steps faltered. “Mum and Dad will be coming back with Kingsley; that’s what he said to McGonagall when they got the Floo working this morning.” He had to get it out, though he really didn’t like thinking about it. “They’re going
to take Fred — Fred’s body on the Hogwarts Express, along with some others, I reckon. All of them, maybe. I don’t know where to. There’s just, you know, too much dust and, er, everything scattered around the castle to keep the — the bodies clean and…”
“I heard already,” Hermione whispered, pulling Ron’s hand closer to her, but keeping up their pace. They walked in silence for a while. Ron listened to Hermione’s breathing.
I don’t know what I want to say, and I don’t know if whatever comes out of my mouth will make me laugh or cry, Ron thought, stealing another glance at her, hoping that she wouldn’t pick up on his confusion and get the wrong idea. This is the best and worst time I’ve ever had. I’ll kill myself if I bollocks this up.
Once they left the Headmaster’s Office, Harry set off towards Gryffindor Tower (or what was left of it; Ron was pretty certain he’d seen one of the tables from the common room laying broken on the grounds as they’d made their dash to the Whomping Willow the night before) to get some sleep. Though his adrenalin had carried him — carried them all, really — through the longest night Ron had ever experienced, Ron could tell Harry wasn’t just tired; he was exhausted, absolutely knackered, almost ready to collapse in their arms. They picked their way past smashed doors and broken walls, until they found the Fat Lady.
“I feel like every part of my body has been squeezed by Grawp,” Harry said as he leaned against the portrait hole. “Aren’t you beat?” He looked at Ron, then glanced at Hermione, his voice registering disbelief.
Ron shook his head. “Yeah mate, but I — I just gotta go downstairs and see about… things…” He’d trailed off, thinking of Fred’s body below, lying alongside all the others.
“You’re right; this is stupid, let’s go down—”
Of course he’d choose to go down, Ron thought with a bit of annoyance, no matter how much he really wants to be alone, he’d let everyone else nibble him to death if they asked for it. But before anything could come out of his mouth, Hermione interrupted.
“No, Harry, you just said you’re worn out, and, really, after this morning, what more is there to say?” She pushed him through the hole and into the room; there were some broken windows and some missing furniture, but it didn’t seem to be damaged much more than that. “Everyone will want you to explain it all again and again, and you need some time to yourself. I’m going to get some sleep myself—”
“Now?” Ron couldn’t help himself.
“Yes, and so are you, as soon as you let your parents know where you are,” Hermione said emphatically, giving him a look; Ron wasn’t sure what he saw in her eyes, but he hoped it meant she wasn’t being entirely honest with Harry. Quickly though, she turned back and started up again: “I mean, the castle is damaged all over the place, and Luna was saying something about spells not working right, and I don’t know if that’s so, but if there is some Dark Magic or cursed items or whatever else the Death Eaters were using still around, then no one should go off by themselves without someone at least knowing where they are and checking up on them, and we can do that for you, Harry, and so the Weasleys need to be able to do it for—”
“I get it, Hermione” Harry interrupted, though he smiled a little as he glanced back and forth between his two friends. He walked (staggered is more like it, thought Ron) toward the passageway to the boys’ dormitory. “Fine — as soon as my head hits the pillow, I’m dead to the world. Let everyone know, okay?” He stopped as he went through the door, started to say something, but faltered, and then just looked deeply at them both. “Thank you,” he finally got out.
“Get your arse up there, Harry,” Ron said, with a bit of a choke. He felt a rush of gratitude for Harry’s friendship, and his forgiveness. Dammit, he’s just such a good bloke. Such a good… man. “We won’t be going anywhere.” Then Harry was gone.
Hermione leaned against Ron quietly, resting her head in the crook of his shoulder. He reached his arm around her, and felt his heart begin to beat faster. Merlin, I could get used to this. He looked down at her, and ran his free hand through her hair. He noticed for the first time just how singed it was.
“I think you got more hair burned off by that berk Crabbe’s spell than Harry and I put together.”
“More hair to burn,” she said, almost sleepily, not moving. “Maybe I’ll get it cut short.”
Ron adjusted his position, and rubbed his facial growth, then looked at his hand. It was streaked with dried blood, dirt and ashes. His face must be a mess. But then, everyone’s was, and no one cared. “Maybe I’ll grow a beard,” he heard himself say aloud.
Hermione looked up at him. “Why?”
“I dunno. Maybe I liked Dragomir’s look.”
Hermione pulled away from him far enough to give him a soft punch on the arm. He responded by grabbing her hand as she attempted another punch, and drew her back close to him. Hermione took a step, her eyes bright, but then pulled away, back towards the portrait hole.
“Come on, you; let’s tell everyone where their hero has gone.”
They returned to the Great Hall, to find that Harry’s departure, not even a half-hour earlier, had been like a signal for everyone up to wake up from the victory party (more like half party, half funeral wake, Ron thought morosely). Now people were wandering about, carrying broken furniture and sculptures every which way, dragging tables, scrubbing floors, clambering about to inspect the windows. Hermione pointed at a far corner, where two house-elves talked with a Luna and a couple of older wizards Ron didn’t recognize. They seemed to be examining the masonry around a collapsed fireplace.
“Working together” she said, with a tone of satisfaction.
There were a dozen or more owls flying about the Hall, and dozens of separate conversations taking place, people discussing problems, arguing about plans. Surveying the scene, Ron heard McGonagall saying something about Kingsley and the Floo network, Seamus — who was soaking wet for some reason — regaling Jimmy Peakes with some story about Apparition, and saw his mother and father, standing and talking with Bill and Charlie, down by the side door into the antechamber where Fred’s body and those of many others lay. This is going to be rough.
He looked down at Hermione to find her already staring back at him, her face looking sad and kind. They were still holding hands; Ron clutched hers more tightly, and started to lean towards her… but then Madam Pomfrey called out Hermione’s name, and suddenly there she was, bustling towards them. Ron stared at her, frustrated. You’d think after all these years, she’d be tired of us by now.
Hermione glanced towards the Healer, then turned her head back to Ron, her face still close to his. “I guess… I guess we need to get to work,” she said in almost a whisper. Her voice was husky.
“Yeah,” Ron said reluctantly. Then they parted, and found themselves with no time to be tired, with all the work that needed to be done.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. Ron went about, searching debris, looking for anyone wounded who might have been missed before (Daphne Greengrass — who, two days before the final battle, had rebelled against some of the excesses of the Carrows and many of her fellow Slytherins — was found half-starved down in the dungeons, where she’d been forgotten in all the ensuing chaos), listing all the damaged objects he could find, checking for cracks in the walls, clearing passageways — and all while doing it, brushing off questions about Harry, warning everyone to stay away from the Gryffindor dormitory. It was busy, frustrating work, and Ron felt torn between wanting to do his part, and just wanting to get out. But he didn’t know where to go. Everyone was involved, except for the wounded — and even some of them pitched in.
The job was huge; no sooner did one room begin to look repaired than some other part of the castle threatened to collapse. A wall in the room where those who had been killed in the battle had been placed started to split, as the weight of a couple of fallen ceilings strained the whole side of the castle, making quick repairs necessary. Ron, Charlie, Lee Jordan, and some others who happened to know a little about construction magic — Ernie Macmillan’s dad, who had shown up during the final stage of the battle; Hannah Abbot, who’d somehow learned some nifty wall-patching charms; and Adrian Pucey, a former Slytherin Chaser a couple of years older than Ron (whom he had to admit hadn’t ever annoyed him quite as much as most of their players always had) — managed to partly prop up the ceilings above and keep the wall from collapsing, but it was just a temporary solution.
“Most of the castle is probably going to have to be rebuilt,” McGonagall sighed at one point. “Just patching it won’t hold it together, not with the pressure of all these ancient moving staircases and walls.” Thanks to the intense use of magic of the battle, and the destruction wrought by curses and giants, there was misdirected and half-functional magic everywhere. While some parts of the castle were almost completely unaffected, others were a real danger zone.
Ron got up to the hospital wing only once all day, where he saw Hermione surrounded by patients and working through a pile of old and obscure medical books, trying out various counter-curses on those suffering from collateral damage from the battle. Sometimes she tried mixing together a couple on the spot, to see if it would help. More often than not it did, or at least reduced the pain. In the crowd of wounded and hurting, Ron recognized a few people. Alicia Spinnet was there, and Terry Boot, and Parvati Patil — who looked particularly bad, her skin ash grey, her eyes closed, her head twitching back and forth. Hermione was all business, asking questions about the color or feel of the curse her patients thought they were hit by, then efficiently flipping pages, moving from one book to another.
No wonder Pomfrey grabbed her; who wouldn’t want her help? Ron thought wistfully. She’s a genius.
Pomfrey herself, assisted by a Ravenclaw Ron wasn’t sure about — Lisa Turpin, perhaps? — were rushing back and forth between a couple of cauldrons that she’d set up right in the middle of the wing. From the smell of them, she was brewing some kind of Skele-Gro potion. He left the wing without saying anything to anyone, feeling trapped, though he wasn’t sure why.
The worst was when Andromeda Tonks appeared, carrying baby Teddy with her, allowing others to look at the child, but refusing to let him out of her grasp. She coddled him, brushing his ever-changing hair, as she sought out McGonagall, and told her in a barely contained voice, her regal bearing trembling, that she had heard in Hogsmeade that her daughter was dead; was it true? McGonagall shooed others out of antechamber where the bodies lay, then stood guard at the door, casting a quick Muffliato upon it when Mrs. Tonks suddenly began to wail, protecting her privacy. Dean rushed into the Great Hall when he heard she was there, but stood towards the back, saying nothing, looking intimidated and a little ashamed as Mrs. Tonks, her eyes wet but her face composed, finally left the chamber and castle.
Eventually those who hadn’t departed for Hogsmeade found places to settle down and get some sleep. Ron went to the Gryffindor dormitories and caught a few hours of dreamless slumber, but then Harry woke up with a fever, vomiting the food Kreacher had brought him hours before. Ron awoke, helped Harry to the bathroom, and rushed out of the portrait hole, meaning to head to the hospital wing and find Hermione, but bumping almost immediately instead into McGonagall and Bill, who was carrying the sleeping Ginny. When she heard about Harry, McGonagall rushed through the portrait hole and up the stairs, followed by the others. McGonagall surveyed the scene, muttered something about Pomfrey being too busy to be bothered, and cast a spell, putting Harry into a deep sleep.
Even asleep, he still looks awful, Ron had to confess, as they’d moved him back to his four-poster. Ginny sat on the edge of his bed, now fully awake. Ron could see her eyes were red from crying.
“There’s no telling how a body will respond to surviving a Killing Curse,” Bill said quietly. “I mean, it’s not like anyone has ever survived one before—”
“Harry did, you know that,” Ron corrected him sharply, cutting him off.
“But he can’t tell anyone what it felt like then; he was a baby,” Bill retorted.
“He’ll be fine.” Ginny’s voice had a quiet intensity. “He’ll be hurt, but he’ll be fine. He always has been.” Ron met Ginny’s gaze, and he had the oddest feeling, as if something was leaving him, going out of him, into his sister. He didn’t know if she felt it too. Maybe I’m delirious.
Bill said something to himself which Ron didn’t hear, then turned and left. Ron watched him go, and turned back to Ginny, who, before he could say a word, defiantly insisted that she was going to stay and keep an eye on Harry. McGonagall lifted an eyebrow at that but didn’t say anything, which left Ron to shrug his shoulders, give Ginny a quick hug, and follow McGonagall back out the portrait hole.
After that, he felt too twisted up inside to sleep. He found himself wandering about, accompanied for a while by Dean, who looked moody and nervous and in about the same shape he was. Dean said he was envious of Luna (“That girl can be at peace anywhere, I swear.”), then started ranting and crying, letting everything out, about how Fenrir had murdered Ted Tonks and Dirk Cresswell and what he’d done to their bodies, and about how he’d seen Dolohov murder Lupin but hadn’t been able to stop it, and about how Parvati had run out into the open to save him with a Body-Bind spell and ended up being hit cross-wise by a half-dozen curses. Eventually Ron found and woke up Seamus, and told him to try to calm Dean down. He looked in on George, who had stayed dull-eyed and motionless beside Fred’s body for most of the day, even when the wall of the room had threatened to collapse. He asked McGonagall when he ran across her again (I guess she doesn’t need any sleep, he said to himself) if there was any news about his parents, who had left for Hogsmeade and the Ministry in London with Percy. There wasn’t.
Finally, near dawn, he laid down on a couch in a mostly undamaged classroom, surrounded by people he didn’t know, and tried to drift off. All those months, sleeping in earshot of her or even right beside her… and now, when it’s all over and maybe we could… could… Ron wouldn’t quite let himself finish that thought. We’re separated, because she’s bloody indispensable and I’m not. He hit his pillow. Bugger.
By the next morning, about half of those who had been part of the battle had left, and noises in the Great Hall were more subdued. The smell of sausages, courtesy of the house-elves, woke Ron up with a start. Feeling ravenous, he began on a large plate of them, sitting around a desk with some of his family, who were debating McGonagall’s announcement that she’d received a message from Kingsley, that Hogwarts’ connection to the Floo network was working again, and that the best count was that perhaps a half-dozen Death Eaters who’d participated in the battle were unaccounted for. I don’t want to think about this, Ron thought — and then he saw something he did want to think about, as Hermione suddenly appeared from around a corner. Her face was washed, and her hair had been cut short. It hung to just above her shoulders, though its bushiness was still visible. Nice. Ron knew he was staring and didn’t care one bit.
“‘ermione, what ‘ave you done?” said Fleur, who was sharing breakfast with the rest of the Weasleys.
“There were a few people who needed some of their hair removed as part of a counter-curse application,” she replied with a yawn. Then she looked directly at Ron, flushing slightly at his stare, but meeting it back. “I figured that with my hair all burned up, I might as well join them.”
Hair or no hair, she’s beautiful. He felt like every nerve in his body was turned towards her. Who needs breakfast?
“Wait — it wasn’t all burned up, was it?” Ginny said, jumping to her feet — but Ron beat her, setting his plate aside and walking quickly past Ginny, towards Hermione.
“You look great,” he said, and then, quickly (Don’t stop to think — just do it!), he kissed her, softly but firmly and slowly on the lips, amazed at his own bravery. The conversation between the tired, frazzled Weasleys suddenly stopped. Bill and Charlie looked nonplussed; Fleur had a knowing smile on her face; Ginny’s eyes widened in shock, and then her face broke out into a wicked grin.
“Hey, Seamus!” Ron heard Neville calling. Over his shoulder he saw Neville, sitting beside Luna and Dean, half-looking their way, while also gesturing at Seamus, who was eating beside a couple of people — Are those his parents? wondered Ron — at the next table over. “You owe me a some Galleons; I told you it wasn’t Harry.” Neville gave him and Hermione a huge grin, while Luna beamed in her usual strange way and Dean looked down, seeming to snigger into his breakfast.
Ron cleared his throat. “Should we go for a walk?” Ron asked. Cripes, I sound like a love-sick puppy. “I… I really need to get out of this castle.”
“How about that old path we used to talk about, the one that branches off from the back of Hagrid’s pumpkin patch?” Hermione suggested, blushing as Seamus began to hoot at them.
“So Seamus just Disapparated, right then and there?” Hermione asked.
“Yep,” Ron said, shaking his head. “I dunno who first figured the Anti-Disapparition Jinx was all messed up, but Dean said when they heard that, Seamus just looked at him, gave him a goofy grin, said ‘Gonna haf’ to test it, then’” (I do a halfway decent imitation, if I may say so myself, Ron thought to himself, a little smugly), “crossed himself, and disappeared. He reckons he ended up about forty feet above the lake. Good thing the barmy git knows how to dive and swim. I probably would’ve broken my back.”
Hermione tried to stifle a laugh, but failed. “Oh God, I mean, that’s terrible, I shouldn’t laugh, but it’s just… just—”
“I know — it’s Seamus.” Ron could help laughing too.
Hermione giggled again, then stopped herself with a deep breath and looked around as they continued walking. “Well, so much for just Apparating out of here,” she said.
Ron didn’t want her frustration about the matter of directions to come back, and suddenly he had an idea. “The path will end somewhere, Hermione,” he said. “Look, I’ll prove it to you; I can give us a map. Tableau Displacium!” He flicked his chestnut wand (Pettigrew’s works just fine for me, he thought) from the ground to the air above them. All that appeared, though, was a luminescent miniature copy of their own path, beginning with the last turn behind them and ending with where the path disappeared into behind a large oak up ahead of them. Bollocks.
Hermione was smiling, and there was a twinkle in her eyes. “That’s a… a good spell, Ron. When did you learn it?”
“Ah, I’ve known it for years. It’s, er, well, it’s what all the chess pros use, you know?” He felt like an idiot, explaining something she surely already knew. “It lays out the chessboard and all the possible moves and counter-moves on the surface… don’t know why it isn’t showing the whole path. I mean, it’s really a pretty ordinary spell…”
“Well, Ron,” she said, her voice light, “I think that it can only show you the possibilities of what’s directly in front of you. Like players looking at the table? Right now, it’ll just show us the only option for moving, which is walking back and forth on this stretch of path.”
Fuck. I really am an idiot.
“Oh… yeah… I guess that would be right…” Ron trailed off, and wiped the glowing spell away with a quickly muttered Finite Incantatem. He hadn’t meant to look, but out of the corner of his eye he saw that her smile was still there, though she was also staring at him, a little wickedly.
“Were you showing off there, Ron?”
He couldn’t resist the sheepish look that came over his face, and decided he might as well own up to it. “A little, I guess. You’re not the only one who picks up extra spells here and there, right?”
“I am duly impressed.”
“Why, thank you, Miss Granger,” he said with ridiculous formality. He held his hand out to her again. “Come on, let’s keep walking.”
So they kept along the path, which they had realized soon after they’d started was a lot longer and a lot less direct that they’d supposed. But the sun was shining and, except for one time when a half-dozen shouting and laughing centaurs had suddenly raced through the edge of the forest and crossed the path about fifty feet in front of them, everything had been quiet.
To fill the time, they talked — mostly about old stuff, about Hogwarts and their teachers, about Seamus and Dean and Neville and Luna and the Patil twins and, eventually, even about Lavender. Ron couldn’t believe that they were talking about her, but suddenly he was telling her about how jealous he was of Krum, and about Ginny telling him how Hermione and Krum had snogged (Hermione looked a little angry at that, and had insisted Ron tell her every exact word that Ginny had said, but just waspishly answered, “Never mind!”, when Ron had asked why) and how suddenly Lavender had been… available. Available for him to make Hermione jealous, and, well, to prove to himself that he could have a girlfriend, if he wanted. (Which I did; just not her.) Ron cringed when he heard himself saying these things about a woman who had fought in the battle and nearly died, a woman who was lying with multiple broken bones upstairs in the hospital wing.
“We talked a bit, up there last night,” Hermione said, pointedly keeping her eyes on the path ahead of them. “She hadn’t known until she’d started hiding out in the Room of Requirement and talking to all the others that you were on the run with us. She thought it’d been me and Harry” — she paused here, started to say something, and then started over. “She thought you were sick at home.”
“Did everyone know we were together?” Ron asked. “I mean, you know, the three of us, out there?”
“Ginny kept quiet — about that much, at least” Hermione said, with what Ron thought was kind of an odd vehemence. “I guess the real rumors started flying after Ginny disappeared at Easter, and I think George and — and Fred may have said something on Potterwatch about you being with Harry.” She still wasn’t looking at him. “I don’t know if they ever mentioned me.”
Ron didn’t know what to say to that.
“She didn’t know that you and her being together bothered me. She still doesn’t, actually, though I’m sure Seamus or someone will probably tell her.” She stopped walking, clasped her hands together, then unclasped them, then let them hang at her side, while she leaned forward and back. “I don’t hold her any grudge.” She turned to look at him, finally.
Ron could hear distant birds singing in the quiet between them. For a moment he felt the full weight of all the wretchedness and guilt he kept bottled up inside him, and sighed.
“These past two years… I don’t know Hermione, it’s like… like I’ve just been cocking up on one damn thing after another, isn’t it?” He wasn’t sure if he wanted that question answered honestly. “You know how I feel about what happened with… with the locket and everything. I feel the same about Lavender. I just… it’s like, something that maybe I’ll never be able to wipe away, you know? Never.” That last word came out as barely a whisper; he knew it was true. His eyes were wet, and he brushed off the tears before they could fall. Oh Merlin, let’s get back to better things. “I don’t suppose you could convince McGonagall to let me use a Time-Turner, huh?”
Hermione snorted. “Do you really think you would have listened to yourself if you could go back?”
He couldn’t hold back a short laugh. “Nope. I probably wouldn’t have.”
Hermione smiled again, at last. “Typical Weasley stubbornness.” Her voice carried a note of satisfaction.
“That’s right,” he said, grabbing her hand and walking forward again, waggling his eyebrows again.
“Don’t you flirt with me, Mr. Weasley!” Hermione said, following him.
“Hermione, a man like myself with so little… sensitivity barely knows how.” And that’s the truth, he told himself. Damn, I should get that book back from Harry… maybe ask Hermione out on a proper date.
“That’s right Ron — a teaspoon.”
And so they kept talking, talking about anything that came to their minds, occasionally wondering if the path would ever end, since it seemed like they could have made it all the way to Hogsmeade and back again by now. It was fun. We’re not bad at this, Ron reflected, thinking about their rounds as prefects together, the things they discovered about the castle and the student body, the recitals of the student choir they’d listened in on until Umbridge had made the practices boring by insisting that Flitwick teach the students only those dreary Celestina Warbeck songs, the odd little chapel tucked away near the armor gallery with the services offered by a ghost (and who would have guessed that the Creeveys attended regularly?). And then there were the walks they took at Shell Cottage, during those first few days after Dobby’s death, when Harry had kept almost completely to himself.
“Do you suppose Harry even knew we were gone down by the seashore, all those times when he was moping?” Ron asked.
“Back at Shell Cottage?” Hermione thought for a moment. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t — he was so deep into his own plans. Who knows what he might have come up with if Griphook hadn’t agreed to help us?”
“Merlin knows,” said Ron, shaking his head. He loved Harry as much as any of his brothers, he knew, but he was just so blank sometimes.
“I liked those walks,” Hermione said quietly, holding his hand a little tighter. “I was so tired those first couple of days, and if you hadn’t have pulled me outside and dragged me on those walks, I don’t know if I ever would have left the cottage.” She went still for a moment, then spoke in a rush, increasing her gait. “I am grateful that you were thinking about me, and that you got me to get some exercise and to talk about my family and about all our time at school and the stuff we did in the summers, and laugh at your dumb jokes, because if I had just stayed cooped up and sleepy I might never have really healed, or might never have got… got Bellatrix out of my mind,” Hermione finished.
Ron’s mind cursed at the mention of the bitch’s name, but he kept silent, watching Hermione. They walked further, saying nothing for a while
“Even after the potions Fleur gave me, I just kept hearing her, seeing her, feeling her, and I know that doesn’t make any sense, but sometimes” — Hermione was rushing ahead again, like she didn’t want to linger too long on any of the words — “curses can leave an imprint on your mind or your body, and if you don’t get back to a normal rhythm of physical and mental activity, then their harms can fester and evolve in all sorts of ways, and you could be—”
“Hermione, please!” Ron didn’t want to relive this either. He pulled her hand up towards his chest and rubbed her palm and fingers with his other hand, as they kept walking. “I know. As much as we didn’t tell him, Bill could still figure out just by looking at you what kind of curses Bellatrix hit you with. Even, er, where she had cursed you. He was a Curse-Breaker, remember; he knows gobs of this stuff.” He paused, thinking that maybe what he’d said might be embarrassing to her, but then pressed on. “Harry was all clammed up, and I was always hovering around, so he told me to try to get you out of the house and, well, go walking and whatever.” He paused again, lifted his free hand away from hers, and scratched his head, feeling sheepish for some reason. “And I read some of it myself. In your books.”
Hermione looked at him, a little disbelieving. “When?”
“While you were asleep. You slept a lot, you know. I’d come in there, to check on you. To make sure you were all right.” That would have been a good moment to say something tender, he thought. I really need to get that book back.
Hermione seemed to be digesting this. While Ron thought about how she might be reacting to his revelation of having actually opened a book while they were at Shell Cottage, he realized he had another question to ask. Actually, he had a couple, but he knew the first, harder question would lead to the second. It had been on his mind ever since he’d read about the charms, late one evening by the light of his wand.
“Hermione, what exactly did you do to your parents?” He tried to ask it casually.
Hermione looked up at the bright sun, which was almost directly overhead. “You know what I did; we’ve talked about this before.”
“Well, you said you modified their memories, but remember at Tottenham Court? You said that you didn’t know how to do a memory charm. I mean, you did, you did great, saved our lives… but you said you’d never done one before.”
Hermione answered with an uncharacteristic slowness, “What I meant was that I’d never cast an Obliviate spell before.”
“Right… but, I mean, Obliviation isn’t the only memory charm. There are lots of false memory enchantments, and they’re really complicated to do, because the mind is so tricky, and stuff in the brain can get shuffled around or… or start working all screwy.” Ron waved his arm around them. “Like the castle’s magic right now, right? And, well, they’re pretty carefully restricted by the Ministry. At least,” — he spoke softly now, as if feeling cautious — “at least, that’s what it says in The Standard Book of Spells.”
“Volume 7, chapter 28,” said Hermione almost silently. She took her hand away from Ron, and clasped and unclasped her hands again, without stopping her walk. Then she looked at him, and reached out for his hand once more. “I went over the section on Advanced Memory Charms a dozen times last year, Ron. I went back and forth on what to do. Should I replace my parents’ memories with new ones, like with the Reterum Cognitio spell? And risk someone at the Ministry finding out, and maybe exposing Harry’s mission? Or, just… modify them, a little bit? That seemed the better option.”
“It was more than a little bit, Hermione.”
“I know!” She huffed again, but didn’t pull her hand away. She took a deep breath. “It was my fault. Right up until I came to the Burrow, I kept wondering, how much should I tell them? How much did they need to know? And I kept imagining ways to tell them, and never felt right about any of them, and then I was running out of time and it was too late, and there was so much I needed to get done before I left and… and well, it just seemed best to, to put a suggestion in their head. That would be easy enough to fix later… that is, whenever I saw them again.”
“So you Confunded them, basically.”
“No!” she said sharply, but then quickly changed her tone of voice. “I mean, yes, I suppose — you’re right that the suggestion I placed does involve a kind of related spell, but, Ron, please, I would never have used a Confundus Charm on my parents.”
“No, you save that for gits like McLaggen,” Ron said, with a smile. Hermione’s eyes widened at Ron’s comment, but then, seeing the smile, flushed slightly and said nothing.
They walked in silence for a little while. Then Ron, knowing that he still hadn’t got through the first question he wanted to ask, plowed forward. “What do you mean, how much should you tell them? What didn’t they know?”
Hermione sighed. “Ron, Obliviate is fairly straightforward spell; if you know how to say it and target it right, it just takes a specific memory away, leaving the person the same. The Ministry’s Obliviators are experts at using it very specifically — or at least were, before Voldemort took over.” She started chewing her lip a little. “But spells like Reterum Cognitio or others require a pretty deep understanding of what a person knows in order to effectively replace that with some other belief, so that changing it doesn’t affect anything else they remember.”
Insight dawned on Ron. “And your parents didn’t know enough about what was going on for you to figure how to, er, close off those memories and replace them with others?”
“Hermione, did they know anything about what was going on? I mean, did you tell them you might be gone for a while or—”
“Ron, they hardly knew anything about what was going on!” Hermione almost shouted this. “I mean, they knew about you and Harry and Professor Dumbledore and life at Hogwarts and such, but I have never been able to talk to them about Voldemort’s threat to Harry, or about the Death Eaters, or really anything about how dangerous magic can be.”
Not anything? That can’t be. “But, Hermione, what about when we were all stuck in the hospital wing after the battle at the Ministry? Your parents knew about all that, right? And, hell, what about when you were Petrified and missed a couple of months of classes back in second year? I mean, your folks came to Hogwarts to check up on you then; I know it was supposed to be a secret visit or whatever, but Madam Pomfrey told me about it once. So, well, the danger and all wasn’t new to them or anything, was it?”
Hermione stared at the ground as she walked, saying nothing, still holding Ron’s hand. After a while, he heard her mutter something about “secrets and lies,” but when he pressed her she stayed silent.
Ron gave her a while… but then, decided he’d had enough.
“Hermione, talk to me, please,” he pleaded. He hadn’t known how this was going to go, though it’d been on his mind since Shell Cottage. Ever since he’d run across the old holiday brochures for Australia that Bill and Fleur had picked up, he’d been thinking about maybe taking a holiday… with her. To get her parents back, of course. And that meant knowing what it would all involve.
“Whatever the problem is, we’ll work it out. Maybe it’ll take some time, but you’ll — I mean, we…” He broke off as Hermione shot him a quizzical look. I just have to go for it, he thought. “What I mean is, well, everything is a mess here, er, like this path, and maybe… maybe putting things straight is going to take a long time, but however long it takes, I’ll help you.” Oh brilliantly direct, Ron. “I want to go to Australia with you. To help you find your parents, and fix them, and bring them home.”
Ron felt Hermione’s grasp tighten in his hand. Her head was turned towards the trees, and he could smell whatever shampoo she’d used on her nut brown hair. Merlin, I’d wait forever for her to say yes.
“Ron,” she said, her voice heavy with emotion, “thank you. I would love — really, really love to have you come with me.” She stopped and turned around and leaned towards him, and then they were embracing. She buried her face in his chest, and he could feel that she was crying.
When Hermione looked up, she wiped her tears with the back of her hand. “Dumbledore or other teachers would never have needed to tell you, because you’re from a family of wizards, or to tell Harry, because his folks didn’t care, and besides, he was a special case. But, you see, it’s actually pretty common at Hogwarts for teachers to sometimes Obliviate or do other memory charms on the memories of Muggle parents. Not always, but—”
“But we tended to get into a lot of trouble,” Ron said, happy she was talking about it.
“That’s it, exactly. And so… so that’s what they did with mine, just to cover for not writing letters or to make them forget about injuries that are pretty normal in wizarding families, but which my parents would have been horrified and angry — well, I mean, confused about. They did it to help cover my story fifth year, and second year they told them that I’d drunk an odd potion, and they believed I was better and up and around in a week. I could have told my mum and dad the truth afterward, and I’m sure Professor McGonagall or Dumbledore would have respected that choice and helped me tell them, but… oh, Ron, even then, I was… I was thinking that explaining magic was just too hard, and that my parents, I mean, I love them, but were bothered by me and, well, just by things enough already, and I felt, I don’t know… more like a — a grown-up witch, deciding for them what they needed to know and what they didn’t. It’s silly and it’s terrible, I know, but it’s true. And… and I didn’t want to have to change that when it came time to send them to send them away, so I didn’t tell them anything. I just stayed up all night one night, boxing my life away and changing their addresses and everything, and then cast the spell on them while they were asleep, so when they woke up they’d be confused and think they were somebody else, and follow the clues I left them all the way to Australia.” She stopped, and drew a deep breath. “I guess… I’m not that different from what Aberforth said about his brother, am I?” she said weakly. Her eyes were bright with tears. “Maybe none of us are.”
Ron pulled her into another hug. There is nothing she has in common with all that, no matter what that old goat-stinker says, he thought with great certainty. So maybe he was absolutely sure about something — he was absolutely sure that no Wizengamot judge, not even the whole Wizengamot if it came to that, would possibly convict her. Not if they knew the whole story. Not if they knew the whole woman — Hermione Granger, a witch who was going to change things.
The hug lasted a while. Then Ron said to himself, right — so, it’s time to figure out where we are.
He pushed himself back from Hermione, but kept his hands on her shoulders. “So, let’s not assume the worst — I mean, you’re a brilliant witch, and you surely did whatever you did a hell of a lot better than Harry or I could have ever done, and plus, no one knows about it, right? So, what we’ve got is, your parents have been in kind of a fog—”
Hermione gave a sobbing laugh. “They’re not Confunded, Ron!”
“Right, right, but…”
She lowered her head. “But I suppose you’re correct that I’m worried as to what kind of condition they’re in — and that I don’t want to have to go to McGonagall or anyone to explain what I did. Not so long as I — as we can find them and get things straightened out.”
“You don’t know where they may be?” Ron asked
Hermione shook her head. “No, I… I just made them believe something.” She chewed on her lower lip again, thinking hard. “I couldn’t really change anything, because I didn’t want to have to explain and figure out all that I wanted to remove, so all I did was modify what seemed like most of the, well, relevant memories, and then just suggested some new ones they could follow.” She looked up at Ron a little defiantly. “And I know that they did; I checked that they took their flights, and that they arrived safely, and so forth.”
“Of course you did — you’re Hermione! And so now what we have to do is… well, to go get them. And Harry…”
I don’t want Harry to come, Ron thought selfishly, but then stopped himself, thinking of how much his friend cared for Hermione, thinking that he had more than enough reason by now to get all those stupid Rita-Skeeter-rumors about her and his best friend out of his head, thinking that by the time they got back to the castle, whether Harry was awake or not, that everyone will know anyway.
Know what? I reckon that’s really why I want to go to Australia, so I can know about us. For certain.
“Well, Harry will want to come, and he should, if he can — that is, if he’s healthy enough and” — he smiled broadly for a moment — “if Ginny will let him.”
“You’re assuming your mother will let you out of her sight,” Hermione said soberly. “Ron… you can’t just leave, not with… with Fred and everything…”
“I’m not going to forget about Fred or George or Mum or anyone, Hermione.” Ron started walking again, dragging Hermione along behind him. “I just… I just want to, you know, make sure things get figured out, make sure we — I mean all of us, you too–are going somewhere.”
He waved in what he thought was the direction of the castle… which he suddenly realized he could see the towers of, over the tops of the trees.
Bollocks — have we just walked in a big circle?
He ignored the thought, and instead spun around, facing Hermione. “Voldemort’s dead, and… and Fred’s dead, and a whole lot of others too, and you’ve got to get your parents back and Dean needs to go back to his parents and he’s completely messed up and Teddy doesn’t have any parents at all and some Death Eaters have escaped and there will be loads of funerals and… and look, we just spent a whole day stuck in there, trying to keep the castle from crashing down, damn it!” He heard his own voice echo amongst the trees as he paused for a breath, realizing that he was shouting, not even really knowing why.
He let his arms drop to his sides, then lifted them again with a shrug of his shoulders, and let out a long breath. He felt absurd all of a sudden, and another smile crossed his face.
“We can’t just wait on things, Hermione. I mean, yeah, a lot of things will take time, but, well, we’ll cry and feel terrible and then figure out what we need to do next, and then well… we’ll do it. We’ll get going.” Together. And if we get going places together… that’ll be all I need.
Hermione was smiling (almost smirking, maybe?) at him; from the way her eyes were raised, he realized that she could see the top of Hogwarts too. “Get going, huh? Along a big, circular path, maybe?” She pointed at the castle, shook her head, reached out for his hand one more time, this time with both of hers. “That… well, that could take a really long time, don’t you think?”
“I suppose.” Ron squeezed her hand tightly, and then they were both walking towards the castle. He could see the edge of Hagrid’s cabin through the trees. “Yeah, probably it will. But you know, Hermione, the company… the company, it’ll be great.” We’ll take all the time we need, he thought. “It’ll be… brilliant.”
Though I didn’t realize it while writing, this fic very much shares the same spirit as PigWithHair’s wonderful “Normal.” Go back and read it, if you haven’t.
I owe a great debt of thanks to many authors who have done so much, in their stories and on CM’s discussion boards, to flesh out the history and nature of Hermione’s relationship with her parents in my mind, as well as helping me with many other details.
The idea of Ron finding vacation brochures for Australia at Shell Cottage came from BlondeBouncingFerret’s “The Night that Followed.” Other elements I put into the story purposefully echo matters which are explored in SnorkackCatcher’s excellent “In the Bleak Midwinter” and PigWithHair’s equally excellent “Unexpected Influence.” My characterization of Dean was in part influenced by Akissinacrisis’s “Stranger Things.” My thoughts about Hermione’s and Ron’s future grooming choices is completely a result of NinnyTreetops wonderful fan art.
And a big shout out to my betas, MagikCat and RedSioda. Thank you so very much!
The title of the story and the opening quote come from an old hit song sung by Jack Wagner. What can I say? I have a weakness for 80s music.