The Sugar Quill
Author: Azyne  Story: Priorities and Purposes  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Shell Cottage--the edge of Tinsworth--Shell Cottage--Hermione, Hermione--Shell Cottage--

Shell Cottage--the edge of Tinsworth--Shell Cottage--Hermione, Hermione--Shell Cottage--

 

Ron lands hard just outside a wooden fence, staggers forward with Hermione’s weight in his arms, half-sobbing, half-delusional, help, help, somebody help.

 

“Bill!  Where the hell are you, Bill?”  Kicks open the gate, forced to look down at Hermione to do so, this isn’t Hermione, it’s no longer Hermione--


“Ron!  What the--Hermio--Merlin, what--” Bill stands, blocking the doorway.

 

“Get her inside!” Ron bellows, and Bill rushes forward to take her, the Hermione that no longer feels like Hermione, the unconscious, near-dead Hermione.  He takes the stairs two at a time and Ron clambers up behind them, using the banister to drag himself up.  Exhaustion, pure, liquid exhaustion, has replaced his blood.  He barely sees Fleur as she stands in her dressing-gown, the horrified look on her face as Bill sets the non-Hermione down.

 

“Be careful, be careful!” Ron weeps, not caring, not understanding anything but Hermione, there, on the bed.  Grateful that she is no longer at the receiving end of Bellatrix’s wand, terrified of what might come next.

 

Moments pass, Ron kneels on the floor, stares into the face of the Hermione that isn’t Hermione.  He needs to touch her, make sure she’s there but more so, make sure she’s warm, that she isn’t as lifeless as she looks--

 

“Ron.”  Bill’s voice.  Audibly struggling to keep control of it.  Ron doesn’t turn around.  “Ron, what in the name of... ” Stops.  Ron feels his and Fleur’s eyes on him and wants to succumb to the exhaustion.  He won’t be able to put in much fight if Bill starts questioning him.  He needs a distraction, desperate for a distraction, and doesn’t have to look far.

 

“Harry.  Bill, Harry’s Apparating here.  You have to go find him.”  His words are abrupt.

 

A moment’s hesitation, then, with no further interrogation, the sound of retreating footsteps running back down the stairs.  Fleur pulls the door to a close and he is grateful, so grateful that she understands.  He curses under his breath when it creaks a few inches forward again on its own.  The outside sounds continue to penetrate this tension, the tension he feels for Hermione, but they are muffled now.

 

He looks at the lifeless Hermione.  Reaches out a shaky hand.  Inhales several times; steadies himself.  Slowly lowers his hand onto her arm.  Skin finds skin.  And warmth.  It finds Hermione... Hermione stirring... returning to life...

 

She emits a quiet moan and he is there in an instant, by her ear, whispering, “Hermione, Hermione, you’re okay, it’s all right, it’s over.”  She whimpers again and he wishes she would wake, but her eyelids remain closed, taking no heed of his urgency.  She is silent after that, but, he is relieved to see, somehow much more alive than in the past several minutes.  Steady, deep breathing.  Good, solid pulse.  She looks tired, famished, fragile, but somehow more peaceful now.  He sits back--for minutes, hours?--hand still resting over hers.

 

The noises from outside had quieted for a while, but now resume and are closer.  Through the crack of the door, Ron hears his name, and only now feels calm enough to pay attention to what is being said, what is going on around him.

 

“You must talk to ’im, find out what ’appened!  Zere must be somezing we can do to ’elp.”

 

“He’ll just tell me the same thing the three of them have been telling everybody.”  Bill, muttering.  “A mission from Dumbledore, or some bollocks like that.”

 

A sigh from Fleur.  “But we must try, non?  Zey are so jeunes, zey are practically children!”

 

Ron’s brow furrows.  She is only three years older than them.

 

“Yeah.  Yeah, of course.”  Out of the corner of his eye, Ron sees a hand move upward and imagines Bill rubbing his face.  “I’m just wondering what we’ll do now with seven more mouths to feed, now that we’re both out of work.  Maybe I should try to go back and--”

 

“Bill.  Mon cher.”  He hears something like the sound of someone patting their own stomach.  “If we ever plan to have our own--our own kids...”  Her voice becomes gentler.  Ze most important work you and I will ever do will be wizin ze walls of our own home.”

 

A short, pregnant silence, then, “You’re completely right.  Of course you’re right; what am I thinking?  We need to get our priorities sorted out.”  Ron hears what he knows is a kiss, and the door swings open again.  “Ron?  Could I speak to you out here for a second?”

 

“I’m not leaving her.”  He is surprised he should have to voice this aloud.  Bill gets an odd expression on his face for a moment, then says, “Of course.”  He leans against the door, catching Fleur’s eye as he closes it, and pauses before starting, “I know you can’t really tell us--”

 

“So why are you asking?”  Ron doesn’t feel he should be having this conversation either.  Of everyone he ever felt understood him, out of all the people he looks up to, Bill now falters.  He looks positively frustrated, and then, something Ron has never seen on his older brother’s face: helplessness.  Suddenly realising his image of Bill would be changed forever, suddenly realising he feels terribly guilty, Ron opens his mouth to apologise but is cut off.

 

“Because you’re my family.”  Bill glares down at him.  “You’re blood.  Harry and Hermione--they’re family too.  No matter how many oaths of secrecy you’ve taken to anyone, dead or alive, no matter how many missions you’ve been handed, you’re family, and I’ll care about what happens to you and I’ll fight to do whatever I can to help you.”  Conviction rises off of him like steam.

 

Ron stares, mouth slightly agape.  It sounds like a speech he could give to Harry on one of his many outrageous attempts to get him and Hermione to forget the Horcruxes and leave the mission.  Feeling completely foolish, he wonders if he should try an apology.

 

“I... I’m so--I don’t know what to--”

 

Cut off by movement, by the stirring Hermione next to him.  He whips around.

 

“Ron? Ow--”

 

Shh, Hermione, it’s okay.  Don’t move, it’ll hurt.”

 

She blinks several times and rubs her tired eyes, groaning with effort.  Suddenly, as if remembering, “Harry--”

 

“He’s fine.”  Bill’s presence seems to startle her, but she is quick to focus on his words. 

 

“You’re at our place, Fleur’s and mine.  Shell Cottage.  Dean and Luna and Ollivander are okay, just shaken up.  Same with the goblin.  But the elf...”

 

Ron turns to him equally as fast.  He hadn’t even thought about the others while Hermione was out.  How could... Dobby... he’d just saved--

 

“I think Harry called him ‘Dobby’.  He--he had a dagger coming out of his chest.”

 

A strangled cry erupts from Ron.  Dobby... Dobby....  He turns to find Hermione’s eyes already welled up with tears.  He stands, feeling obliged to do something, to somehow repay the elf, and as if reading his mind, Bill says, “Harry’s digging him a grave.”

 

Ron nods.  He has to show some gratitude--something, anything--to the elf.  Turning back to Hermione, gripping her hand in both of his, knowing she understands, he murmurs, “That’s where I’ll be, okay?”

 

She nods as well, wiping her eyes with her free hand.  On his way out, Fleur brushes by him with potions in her arms, clearly miffed at having to wait so long to start Healing Hermione.  Her look of concern is remarkably like his mother’s and at that moment, he trusts that she’ll take care of her.

 

His footsteps on the stairs.  Thud, thud, thud.  Dull--like the beating of his heart.  Overused. Tired. Desensitised.

 

He finds Dean sitting on an armchair, looking pensive.  Luna stares serenely at the floor, lost in thought, and Ron is envious.  How does she do this at moments like these?

 

“Dean,” he says, and nods towards the door.  Dean gets up, looking a little concerned but mostly relieved.  Surely he feels indebted and restless as well.  They follow Bill out into the tiny shed where he hands them two rough metal spades, and Dean understands.

 

“How’s Hermione?” he asks as Bill leaves them and they walk toward the flower patch.  The night sky, dawn on the verge of breaking, the Muggle world quiet and isolated from this one.

 

“She’s okay.  Woke up just a while ago.  She looks better.”

 

They reach Harry and he too asks about his friend’s health.  Beyond this, there are no further questions.  There is no need for further questions.  Ron jumps down into the hole and drives his spade into the earth; desperation, anger, and exhaustion haunt him.

 

They are just three boys, working to repay a debt they would never be able to recompense.

 

Like his footsteps, like his heart, Ron’s shovel goes thud, thud, thud.  He changes this monotonous rhythm, though, to something less lifeless, something more purposeful.

 

Thud.  For Dobby.

 

Thud.  For Hermione.

 

Thud.  For Harry.

 

Thud.  For my family.

 

And so they work, steady sounds of digging on the outside, the reasons Ron wakes up every morning on the inside.

 

Light peeks out from a horizon miles and miles away.  It is almost startling to see it.  How can there still be light?  How, after a night like this?  After the most loyal creature he had ever met had been murdered and his best friend tortured?  When the world not only reeks of evil, but is in the very hands of it?

 

It doesn’t seem right.  But Harry tucks the noble creature in more tightly, and the presence of Dobby’s body makes something in Ron snap.

 

No, it’s not right, he thinks as he kicks off his shoes and peels off his socks for him.  And it can’t stay this way.  It’s got to be corrected.  He watches Dean pull out a battered-looking hat and that too goes on the elf.  It’s got to get better than this.  Dobby deserves better than this.  We can’t let this happen to anyone else.

 

“We should close his eyes.”

 

Ron jerks his head up and is surprised to see Luna standing at the head of the grave, and Bill and Fleur hurrying towards it.  Instantly he thinks of Hermione in the bedroom by herself, alone in the house with a very suspicious goblin and only a deathly-ill Ollivander to protect her, and he is relieved to see her come through the gate as well, as terrible as she looks.

 

No.  Not terrible.  Heroic.  Powerful.  Inspiring.  Fleur’s silk dressing gown is wrapped around her, making her look elegant and almost aethereal, despite looking pale.  Her arms across her chest.  It is quite chilly this early in the morning, and chunks of snow still sit in the undisturbed parts of the hill, sinking into the soggy grass.

 

She walks straight towards him, looking as if the action requires much concentration.  How proud he is, to see her alive, to have her there for him to reach out and put his arm all the way around, a one-armed embrace.  Squeezes as hard as he dares given her current condition and his uncertainty in where they stand.  Something happened tonight, something that made him want to quit tiptoeing around, rationalising his feelings, and pushed him over the edge, pushed him to her and now pushes him to let her know that he’s there.

 

“There.  Now he could be sleeping.”

 

His respect for Luna grows and grows, and watching her now makes it grow a little more.  Dobby, on the few occasions that Ron had met him, had never let them down; tonight, he appeared from out of nowhere and saved all of them from what would have been an inevitable death.  He simply does not know what to feel.

 

“I think we should say something.”  Luna again.  She startles him as she speaks to Dobby, the empty body that is no longer Dobby, with how honest and composed she sounds.  She finishes and looks up at Ron with her enormous, round eyes.

 

He opens his mouth and no sound comes out.  Hermione presses into him slightly and he realises how important this must be to her.  Trying again, he clears his throat and manages, roughly, “Yeah... thanks, Dobby.”

 

The others go; Ron does not catch what anyone else says.  It doesn’t really matter, does it?  He has no idea where Dobby is now, or if and how he is listening... but that doesn’t matter either.

 

Dobby’s gone and he deserved so much better.

 

I don’t want to see this happen again.

 

He watches Bill direct the red dirt onto the grave and feels new resolve in him as strong and firm as the earth now packed onto and around the elf.

 

I won’t let this happen again.

 

Harry asks for some time along and Ron sees the lines of perpetual sadness in face.  He pats him on one shoulder, while Hermione rubs the other.  He hears himself say, “I’m so sorry, mate,” and is not even certain if it is he who says it.  He is just glad that someone says it.

 

They make their way back to the cottage, everyone choosing a spot in the cosy sitting room.  He guides Hermione to the softest-looking armchair and helps her into it; he sits on the arm.  Bill leans heavily against the mantle and speaks reassuring words.  Confidence seeps from him when he talks about his plan to get everyone to Auntie Muriel’s.  Ron wants so badly to believe him, it’s just so hard not to believe him.

 

He hears Harry firmly disagree with someone and finally notices him in the doorway.  He looks miserable, so miserable.  Arms covered in dirt and blood.  Hair plastered to his head.  Permanent worry on his brow.  And yet....

 

“I’m going to wash.  Then I’ll need to see them, straight away.”

 

And yet when he speaks, there is only purpose in his voice, no self-pity, no anger, not even sadness.  Only determination to get the job done, so who was Ron to feel bad for him?

 

Only when Bill questions him does Ron register what Harry’s plan is.  “Why does he need to talk to them, Ron?  What do Griphook and Ollivander have to do with this?”

 

And biting back all urges to share their burden, share all their worries and have it done with, he calmly responds, “Bill, I’m sorry, but you know I can’t tell you.”  A tickling feeling on his arm means that Hermione is leaning into him, appreciating his decision.

 

But Bill, Bill is angry.  He tugs on his long, red hair in frustration.  “What about Hermione, huh?  She looks like she’s been Crucio’d and you still won’t let me help you?”

 

Muscles tensing, defences rising, Hermione’s hand on his elbow to stop him just in case.  But he remembers the reason for temper and demanding questions and does not need Hermione’s hand. 

 

“I know you want to help, but you can’t.  I’m sorry but this just won’t work if anyone else knows.”

 

One enormous, fed-up sigh.  Sorry, Bill.  Dumbledore intended it this way, and this is the way it’s got to go.

 

Bill rubs his face again and makes towards Fleur, who is there to offer a quick shoulder rub.  On his arm, Ron feels Hermione’s hand slide down past his wrist and into his grip, and he squeezes.  It is awful keeping these secrets from everyone, angering everyone, making them feel as if they’re not worthy of knowing.  Sorry, Fleur.  Sorry, Dean, Luna.  Sorry, Mom, Dad, Ginny, everybody.

 

But Hermione is squeezing back and he is so grateful, so grateful, that he isn’t keeping any secrets from her.  He could never do it.  Never.  He wonders momentarily if he’ll ever be able to keep a secret from her long enough to surprise her for something, like her birthday.  Ron supposes he would have to keep track of these things now, wouldn’t he?  He tells himself he is annoyed at the idea, but is, in actuality, craving this sense of normalcy, craving the small details.  That is, when they finally... if they ever get the chance to....

 

He feels eyes on him and knows they are hers.  She always seems to know.  Pupils meet and a stormy sky blue crashes with her cloudy, earthy brown.  But the longer they hold each other’s gaze, it seems, the more the colours clear up, and the two essential elements in nature become harmonious.

 

Just over the crown of her head, Ron can make out a dazzling sunrise creeping over the cottage.  The sky comes alive in shades of soft pink and gold.  More gorgeous, though, is the effect it has on the world it overlooks.  The remaining snow glitters like diamonds.  The entire hill is lit up, glowing from the inside.  Most particularly, Ron notices the tree almost directly under which they buried Dobby.  The branches of the tree, now budding with new life, are silhouetted against the sun, eclipsed, outlined in a soft pear glow.  Determined to unfurl, beat the winter, beat the odds.  The tree is lit up with the help of the sun, looking not as if something dead lies under it but as if brimming with vitality, hope, a promise of tomorrow.  How can it promise anything?  But he can’t help but feel glad that it does.

 

“I need to speak to Griphook and Ollivander.”  It’s Harry.  His hands are scrubbed clean, but his face looks tired still, and about a thousand years older than it should.  Ron feels the new flicker of hope waver, almost extinguish.  He can’t believe how much he has let Harry down.  His abandonment from a few months ago, his uselessness when it came to the Horcruxes, and now this--they have only just survived Malfoy Manor, lost an incredible and irreplaceable friend, and have had Hermione tortured.  He hears Bill shout all these things to Harry, all these things they already know.

 

This is it, he thinks, and only realises he’s whispered aloud when he feels pressure on his hand again.  He looks to Hermione and her sad eyes, eyes that speak his same fear: Harry is finished.  He no longer wants anything to do with Horcruxes anymore and he definitely does not want himself and Hermione in the picture.  As Bill stares at Harry with the hard, conviction-filled look in his eyes, he hears Harry make some sort of decision involving Griphook and watches Bill lead him up the stairs.

 

Ron turns to her and tries not to show how disheartened he is.  Her face tells him she is thinking the same thing.  Sorry, Harry.  We let you down too.

 

He opens his mouth to attempt to console her when he hears Harry bark, “I need you two, as well!”

 

They stand up, releasing hands and feeling confused.  Surely Harry does not want to go on?  But he does, because he lightens when he sees them, and he praises Hermione, and Ron swells with pride.  They’ve done it, they’ll continue to do it, they’ll continue to fight.  He can’t help it: he squeezes her around the shoulders, and the flicker of hope is back.  That, along with anticipation, purpose, and a new motivation: for Dobby.

 

“What are we doing now, Harry?”

 

“You’ll see.  Come on.”

 

When they go up the stairs this time, Ron doesn’t hear just his own heartbeat in his head but Hermione’s; he doesn’t hear his shovel this time, but the reason behind it.

 

--

 

Thanks to Elanor for her beta.  I'm just trying to experiment with different styles, hope you all enjoyed!

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