Twenty-four hours later, Harry hovered in the doorway of the Grangers' room with Ron, watching Ginny. He and Ron had slept in hallway chairs, and even Hermione, who was the only one Ginny had allowed into the room, had slept a little. But Ginny had stayed awake, and it was wearing on her; there were shadows on her face, and her eyes were glazed and bloodshot. Her mouth hung open as she moved between the Grangers' beds, massaging sections of air with her hands and stopping every so often to lay her palm on one of their foreheads.
"Come on." Ginny rested her thumbs between Mrs. Granger's eyebrows and rubbed her fingertips against her temples. "It's all right. There's nothing to be afraid of." Ginny lifted her hands, closed her eyes, and drew her hands away from Mrs. Granger as if she were pulling away an invisible skin. "They're gone. You're safe."
Mrs. Granger did not stir. Harry knew that Ginny was privy to feelings that the rest of them were not, but from the outside, the Grangers didn't seem any different. Ginny suddenly backed away from Mrs. Granger's bed and put her hands over her eyes. "Stop," she muttered. "Stop it."
"Ginny, are you all right?" Hermione whispered. She started to get out of her chair.
"I can't have the door open," Ginny said, rubbing her eyes. "I can't separate things anymore. I'm losing focus. Shut the door, Ron, and stay out in the hall. I'm sorry."
Ron did as he was told and sank into one of the hallway chairs. He looked ill and tired, and his freckles, like Ginny's, stood out on his skin. Harry sat next to him.
"My mum's going to want to know about this," Ron said after a minute, in a scratchy voice.
"Probably better to wait," Harry said.
"I know." Ron leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees and put his face in his hands. "I can't get that day out of my head. I can't get that look on her face out of my head, this has to work."
Harry couldn't stop remembering it either. Watching Hermione lose her parents had been hell.
"I hate being helpless." Ron shoved his fingers into his hair and looked at the floor. "You know I've been trying to find something on Malfoy, for this. And I can't - there's nothing."
"He might not have known about it."
"The hell he didn't!" Ron barked. "They'd never have targeted her family if it hadn't been for him and his father. There was no other reason."
Except that she's one of my closest friends. But Harry didn't say the words out loud. Ron would only have denied that it was true, and it didn't help anyone anyway.
"How can Ginny not tell me what she knows?" Ron sat up and his head thunked back against the wall. "It's Malfoy."
"Perhaps she doesn't know anything."
"Oh, she knows something. I know the look she gets when she's hiding something."
So did Harry. He remembered the first time he'd seen it, at the Gryffindor table. She'd been twelve, and pensive, and rocking in her seat. "She's doing what she thinks is right."
"Keeping her contract." Ron snorted in disgust. "Let me tell you, if their situations were reversed and I was the one about to be on trial, Malfoy would have thrown out his contract in a dirty great hurry."
Harry knew it was true, but that didn't change things. "That's because he's got no integrity," he snapped. "Do you really want Ginny to throw away her word for him? You can't ask her to compromise."
Ron turned a narrow look on him. "Made it up with her, have you?"
Harry clenched his jaw. "That is not the point," he said through gritted teeth.
"Yes or no?" Ron demanded.
"Forget it," Harry said. "Besides, you don't need Ginny's help - I thought you already had evidence on Malfoy."
The change of tack worked. Ron's face darkened and he slumped back. "I'm not supposed to talk about it," he said. "But as I've got nothing solid, I suppose it doesn't matter."
"Nothing?" said Harry, surprised.
"It's all indirect. It's all just suggested." Ron breathed hard through his nose. "There's nothing at all on his mother - she's going to go free, and that… doesn't bother me much. But I know that Malfoy told his dad to attack Hermione's parents. I know he gave his dad our hairs - or whatever he gave him to make those Polyjuice Potions, but I can't show my gut feelings to a jury, there's no witness, there's no proof." He brought a fist down on the arm of his chair. "And Mrs. Zabini's not talking - and neither's Mrs. Malfoy, of course. So all I can do is keep Malfoy detained until all the trials are finished - and that'll be another year at least - but if I haven't got anything on him by then…" He shook his head. "It's just not right, Harry. They threw twelve good years of Sirius's life away without blinking an eye, and now here's Sirius telling me that we don't have enough evidence to convict Malfoy? It's just not right." He paused. "I've just got one thing. One scrap of proof that might do it. I was talking to Sirius about the last day of the war and he says he remembers - " Ron stopped short and pressed his mouth shut.
Harry waited on edge, fairly sure that he wasn't supposed to ask and that Ron wasn't supposed to tell him.
"I want to tell you." Ron was red-eared and tight-lipped. "Damn stupid secrecy, I'm no good at it - how can I not tell you stuff? I'd rather go on a month-long fast or stop watching Quidditch, I swear -"
Ron stopped, mid-rant, and jumped to his feet. He strode around Harry's chair to the door of the Grangers' room.
"Hermione," he said urgently. "What is it?"
Harry hadn't even heard the door open, but he looked up to see Hermione closing it behind her with a very shaky hand. She stood against it, looking gaunt and shadowed, just as she'd looked on the night they'd first brought her parents here. "Ginny said she has to be alone," she said, leaning her hand on the doorknob. "She said I'm too anxious to stay in the room. I - I'm not supposed to go back in there."
Ron put an arm around her waist and guided her to sit between him and Harry. Hermione leaned against Ron and reached out for Harry's hand; he took it and held it in both his own. Hers was small, damp and cold.
For a long time, Hermione seemed to have fallen asleep between them. Ron stroked her hair and Harry kept hold of her hand. Orderlies passed and gave them sympathetic looks. The Head Cursologist approached to ask how the work was going inside, and Ron said very quietly that it wasn't finished and that they'd alert the appropriate mediwizards as soon as there was any development.
Harry had just leaned his neck against the back of the chair and shut his eyes when Hermione stirred.
"Do you… remember the troll?" she asked, very faintly.
"First year? In the toilet?" Ron laughed and ruffled her hair. "What made you think of that?"
"I don't know." Hermione sighed a little, sounding sleepy. "Just that the two of you are… still here with me. For everything. And I expect you always will be."
Both of them turned to look at her, then met each other's eyes over her head. Harry held Ron's gaze for a minute in which, somehow, time seemed to rush backwards.
"Remember the chess match?" Harry said, and his voice seemed distant in his ears.
Hermione sighed again. "Oh yes. And the potion bottles." She smiled a little. "I never told you, did I, how scared I was that I had got it wrong?"
"Remember the car?" Ron put in. "Flying to school? Brilliant."
"But the Whomping Willow wasn't."
"I remember riding all the way to school by myself," Hermione said, sounding wounded. She burrowed into Ron's shoulder.
Ron rolled his eyes at Harry over her head. "Aw, she's still sad, Harry."
"We were thinking of you all the time, Hermione."
She already looked happier. More awake. "Oh, oh, remember Fluffy?" Hermione giggled. "Fluffy. And Norbert. And Buckbeak - Hagrid was so mad."
Ron snorted. "Remember when Buckbeak gored Malfoy's arm?"
"And he whined like a sissy?" Harry added.
"And you tried to curse him?" Hermione elbowed Ron.
"And you slapped the hell out of him?" Ron returned.
"And Hermione beat him in all his subjects?"
"And Harry in all his matches."
Harry squeezed her hand, warming up to the memories. There were so many, and they came so fast, tumbling down from his brain and waking up his heart. "What about the wizard's duel we never got to have?"
"Yeah you did, in Lockhart's club." Ron tickled Hermione. "Oooh, Lockhart."
"Shush! I was about to remember how wonderful you were with Buckbeak's case, but just never mind."
"No, that's good, remember that! And I'll remember when you stole the cloak back from the tunnel." Ron sighed happily.
"Kind of like the time she stole from Snape."
"To brew an illegal Polyjuice Potion."
"She set Snape on fire, too, as I recall."
"Damn right she did." Ron gave Hermione a loud, smacking kiss on her forehead, and she made a pleased noise. "She's a maniac, this one. Just think of spew."
For once, Hermione didn't protest. "Remember when I dropped Divination?" she demanded.
Harry and Ron exchanged a grin.
"Never prouder," Ron said. "Except perhaps when you turned yourself into a cat."
She scowled, then brightened. "Remember the deathday party?"
"Well, who could forget the way Myrtle fancied Harry?"
"Oi, shut up." Harry smirked. "How about the way Viktor Krum fancied -"
"Potter, I'm warning you. Unless you want to be reminded of the fact that you used to date my girlfriend, according to the newspaper."
Hermione snickered. "Ah yes," she said, looking up at Harry and batting her eyelashes. "Those were the days, weren't they, Harry?"
Harry knew he was red, but he was snickering too. "Wish I could remember them. We must've been dating while you were Petrified."
"Well, that was the only time I was free."
Ron's ears went pink, and he grinned. "We all spent our share of time in the hospital wing, didn't we? Harry and I practically had to carry you up there after the last O.W.L. exam."
Hermione huffed. "You did not."
"Er, yeah, we did," said Harry, recalling what a wreck of nerves Hermione had been.
"I used to think Madam Pomfrey would give you a permanent bed in there, Harry," Ron continued. "The number of nights you spent in that place."
"Oh, I win easily on the number of nights," Hermione said. "First I turned into a cat, then I was Petrified… we all had to go in after we went through the trapdoor… and then again after the Dementors tried to kiss Sirius-"
"Right, when my leg was broken," said Ron. "The year before that, I had to get checked over after we came up from the Chamber of Secrets, and before that I had to go in for the dragon bite -"
"And I went in there for my teeth." Hermione smiled, showing them off. "I was so thrilled when Madam Pomfrey shrank them."
"Why? They were fine," Ron said.
Hermione looked at him as if he'd just said he enjoyed eating spiders.
"Well they were," he insisted. "You looked really eager all the time, and they just sort of… added to it."
"They made me look like a beaver, you mean."
Ron snorted loudly, apparently before he could stop himself, and Harry sat back to avoid Hermione's arm as she flailed to smack Ron.
"Hey! I think you're gorgeous, don't I?" He fended her off. "Who did I ask to the ball in fifth year? Who'd I get up the nerve to kiss?"
"Took you long enough!" Hermione said tartly, and then her eyes widened. "Ron, did you know that Harry saw our first kiss? He told me last night."
Ron reddened and looked at Harry over Hermione's head. "Did you really?" he asked.
Harry, who was just glad that they were no longer sharing memories of the hospital wing, was happy to tell the truth. "It was disgusting," he said, and leaned back again as Hermione whirled toward him in her chair. "Joking," he said quickly. "Just joking."
Hermione sighed, and the sound was half-annoyed and half-excited. "I love this," she said. "I love remembering these sorts of things, and we never do it. I remember so much, sometimes I think I need a Pensieve."
"You remember everything," Ron said. "You probably do need to get a Pensieve, before your head explodes."
"I don't remember everything," Hermione began modestly.
"Erm, Professor?" Ron's hand shot into the air and he spoke in a rapid, breathy voice, tossing his head as if he had a lot of bushy hair that was getting in his eyes. "Please, Professor, I know exactly how many times Devlin Whitehorn breathed in 1958, yes, of course I read that, hasn't everyone? I mean, it exists, so I've committed it to memory, isn't that the normal thing to do?"
It was such a remarkable impression that both Harry and Hermione gaped at him for a moment, and then Hermione said, rather weakly, "Who… is Devlin Whitehorn?"
"He designed the Nimbus," Harry and Ron said together.
Hermione laughed. "And I'm the know-it-all?" She tucked her arms into theirs and let out a long, happy sigh. "Remember our boat ride to Hogwarts?"
The three of them went quiet together, and Harry's heart beat hard and fast. He remembered it in detail. The way the spiraling towers had looked in the darkness - like something in a dream. And all of it theirs. He felt that it belonged to them more than it ever had to anyone. He almost wished he could go back to the beginning, no matter how hard some of it had been, and live it all over again.
"The first time we ever saw Gryffindor," Ron said quietly. "Remember that?"
Harry only nodded. He didn't trust his voice. He had never been home before that day, and he still felt he belonged there.
"I miss it," Hermione whispered.
"So do I."
Hermione looked from Ron to Harry with red-rimmed eyes and when she spoke her voice trembled. "I can get through anything as long as I've got the two of you," she said.
Ron looked down and sniffed.
Harry looked away and blinked hard.
"Thank you for being here." She tightened her arms around theirs.
"Not a question."
She sniffled. "I love you both."
Neither Harry nor Ron answered, but Harry knew that Hermione didn't really want them to. He felt a brief and unexpected kiss on his cheek, and kept his face turned away as Hermione gave Ron a very different kind of kiss. She relaxed after that, slipped her arm out of Harry's to take his hand once more, and went back to leaning against Ron.
"I really should tell Ginny to stop," she said quietly. "She's completely exhausted. And I know it's futile. I know that."
Ron kissed Hermione's head and didn't answer.
"At least they're peaceful." Hermione gave a half-smile. "That's something."
"That's huge." Ron smoothed her hair.
Harry was so absorbed in patting Hermione's hand and trying to decide how to help her that when Remus came down the hall with biscuits and water he thought he was an orderly. It took him awhile to focus on what was being offered to him.
"Eat. You're all starved."
But not even Ron took the food, and eventually Remus gave up, put the biscuits on another chair, and leaned against the wall in front of them. He yawned widely. "How is Ginny managing in there?"
Harry, Ron and Hermione exchanged looks.
"She's tired," Hermione finally said. "I know she doesn't want to give up, but…"
"But they don't look any different, to you. You think it's hopeless."
"Well, in any case, she's gone far too long without sleep. I doubt she'll be able to do them much good at this point." Remus yawned again and scratched his head. "But it doesn't mean she has to give up entirely, Hermione. In fact I'm sure that when she's rested she'll want to -"
Harry, Ron and Hermione sat bolt upright and stared at the door. They could hear Ginny's muffled shout through the thick hospital walls. She sounded urgent. Excited.
"No," Hermione whispered. "No, I won't jump to conclusions."
Hermione stayed between Harry and Ron for another moment, shaking her head and gripping their hands. "I can't get my hopes up. I can't," she repeated. "I can't, I can't."
But she obviously had. A second later, she tore her arms away from theirs, shot out of her chair and ran back into her parents' room. Harry and Ron shared a fearful, hopeful look and hurried back to their posts in the doorway, with Remus just behind them.
Ginny's hands were pressed to Mrs. Granger’s chest, just above her heart. She moved one palm to her patient’s brow and shut her eyes, clearly intent on sensing something. She leaned very close, almost as if listening to Mrs. Granger’s mind, then stepped away and motioned for Hermione. "Come and talk to her, she’s listening," she managed, and went around to the far side of Mr. Granger’s bed, where she repeated her actions.
Hermione hurried to her mother’s side and Ron followed. "Mum?" she began, her voice tight with anxiety. "Mum, can you hear me? It’s Hermione. It’s me. I love you so much. Can you hear me? I’m right here."
Ron followed close behind her and stood with a hand on the small of her back. Harry moved into the room a step, watching Mrs. Granger’s face. It was entirely still and slack, and her eyes were mercifully closed as they had been since the day that Hermione had performed the Weeping Spell.
"Mum, I’m right here." Hermione picked up her mother’s hand and caressed it with her thumb. With her other hand, she brushed the hair carefully away from Mrs. Granger’s temples.
"Tell her to open her eyes," Ginny said, almost absently. Harry turned his eyes to her; she was concentrating on Mr. Granger now, her hands lying flat on chest. "It’ll mean more, coming from you."
Hermione nodded. "Open your eyes, Mum," she implored. "Look at me. You’ve been in a.... an accident. A magical accident. You’ve been unconscious for a long time and I miss you - please wake up. Please open your eyes."
Everyone was silent. Only Ginny moved, pressing one palm to Mr. Granger’s brow as she continued to work. Hermione looked desperately into her mother’s unmoving face and continued to stroke her hand and her hair.
"Please, Mum." She leaned down and kissed Mrs. Granger’s cheek. "Don’t let any more time go by," she whispered fervently. She was barely audible, though the room was entirely quiet. "I finished school. I… studied with a Thinker. I've told you this before, but I don't know if you heard me. Can you hear me?" Hermione paused, waiting. When no response came, she tried again. "Ron’s here with me. Do you remember Ron Weasley? I want you to know him. You’ll love him. I love him."
Ron blushed and moved his hand a little on Hermione’s back, but Hermione, it seemed, was unaware of her surroundings. She continued to speak to her mother.
"Do you remember when I came home after my second year and you almost wouldn't let me go back to Hogwarts?" She laughed a little, though tears choked the sound. "Do you remember when you grounded me after my fourth year? After I let the school nurse shrink my teeth and you found out? You were so angry - but I haven’t obeyed that rule you gave me not to mix dentistry and magic. I’ve done magic on your teeth since you’ve been unconscious, and you’ll be happier for it, I promise you." Hermione drew a deep breath. She didn’t seem to be too conscious of what she was saying; she simply continued to speak. "Do you remember when I came home at Christmas in my first year, and I just wanted to show you everything?" Hermione knelt and laid her head next to her mother’s on the pillow. She nestled their faces as close as she could get them, and draped her arm protectively over Mrs. Granger’s body. "Do you remember when I first got my letter to Hogwarts?" she whispered. "How excited we were? And when I was made prefect? I was made Head Girl, too. I finished school at the top of my class. Mrs. Weasley was there to hug me for it and she’s been so wonderful to me, but it isn’t the same. Wake up. Wake up."
Harry felt a prickling sensation behind his eyes, and he screwed up his will against it. Ron’s tears, however, spilled down his face as he stood behind Hermione’s kneeling form, his hands on her hair. His eyes were closed, and so were Hermione’s, in stark contrast to Mrs. Granger’s, which were wide open. She stared at the ceiling, apparently oblivious to the daughter who was suffering beside her.
Except that her eyes were open.
Harry blinked, unable to register the enormity of what was happening. Mrs. Granger’s eyes had been shut only moments ago.
"Yes -" Ginny choked suddenly. "I knew it, I knew it - oh, Hermione - her eyes."
Hermione’s head snapped up and she stared at her mother’s face, at the brown eyes that had been sealed shut for two months. "Mum?" she whispered, her breath shaking. But Mrs. Granger gave no response at all. In fact, she appeared much as she had during the years she had lain maddened by the Cruciatus Curse, and Harry wondered if perhaps she had regressed into that state once more.
Hermione must have feared the same thing. "Mum?" she demanded, panic in her voice. "Please respond to me. Ginny, how do I know if she can -"
"Mrs. Granger," Ron said quietly, pulling Hermione to her feet so that they could bend over her together, "if you’re awake and you can hear us, blink now."
Harry had never heard a room so still. He couldn’t look away from Mrs. Granger’s face - from her eyes - as her lids slid slowly shut. They stayed closed for a long moment and then, with what seemed to be some effort, they opened again.
Hermione opened her mouth as if to speak, but no speech came. She took several shallow, useless breaths. Her chin trembled. She reached out shaking hands and touched them to her mother’s cheeks, still staring down into her eyes, and then she let out a cry of unmistakable, anguished relief. "Mum -" was all she managed before she dropped to her knees again and buried her face in Mrs. Granger’s shoulder, where she sobbed like a child, making unintelligible noises of mingled apology and helpless joy.
Clearly incapable of any other response, Mrs. Granger lay entirely still. She could only blink her eyes again, sending tears coursing down her temples. But she was awake. She was cognizant and crying. She knew Hermione again.
The sight of mother and daughter reunited was so powerful that Harry had to look away, both to give his friend her privacy and to fight down his own emotions. He looked at Ginny, whose eyes were trained on Mr. Granger. It was difficult to hear her through Hermione’s sobs, but she seemed to be talking to him now, trying to do for him what Hermione had done for her mother. It was not proving to be as successful, and Harry wondered if they would have to wait for Hermione’s first wave of shock to subside, so that she would be able to wake up her father as well.
But Ginny seemed to have other ideas. "Ron," she said softly, looking up from Mr. Granger for a moment. "Let Hermione stay where she is. Can you help me?"
Ron looked unwilling to leave Hermione, but he walked around to Mr. Granger’s bedside at his sister’s request. "What do you need me to do?"
Ginny kept her hands where they were. "Talk to him. Talk about Hermione."
Ron gulped and looked down at Hermione’s unconscious father, clearly not convinced that this was the best idea. But he glanced behind him at Hermione, who was too transported by relief to recognize what was happening, and the sight seemed to bolster his courage. "Okay..." he began slowly. "Mr. Granger, your daughter..." He hesitated. When he spoke again, his voice seemed to have dropped an octave - Harry could hardly hear him at all.
"Your daughter misses you," Ron said quietly. "She’s been coming here for two and a half years to take care of you. She’s done a fantastic job, too - she had to go on a crusade to get you admitted to St. Mungo’s, since you’re Muggles and all. But she knew this was where you’d get taken care of and you know how she is. Once she gets a mission in her head she turns into a raving lunatic until it ..." Ron trailed off and turned red. "Not that, you know, that’s a bad thing. Because I don’t think she’s mad, I just make fun of her a little - well, not make fun of her, exactly - oh, hell, never mind."
Harry marveled that even in a situation such as this, Ron could make him want to laugh out loud. But he didn’t. He had never seen his best friend quite so vulnerable as this, and something prevented him from laughing as Ron forced himself to continue.
"So... your daughter." Ron cleared his throat. "Well, she finished school, you know. Top of our class by a mile. Clever… is an understatement. She built the spell that brought down Voldemort. She built the spell that helped heal you. You’d be proud of her, I’m sure. I am. She’s an incredible..." Ron faltered and his ears went pink. He shook his head. "I can’t do this," he muttered to Ginny. "What am I supposed to say about her to her dad?"
"You’re doing it, he’s so close..." she whispered back. "Just a bit longer."
Ron looked pained, and cast around for something else to say. Finally, he settled on, "I don’t know how much you know about Quidditch, but the Chudley Cannons are having their first decent season in a hundred and six years, and if you’re going to wake up, sir, I’m telling you, now’s the time."
An odd, dry breath escaped Mr. Granger’s lips.
Ginny withdrew her hands from her patient’s head and heart, and looked down at him in awe. "He’s laughing," she breathed to Ron. "I think you’ve made him laugh. Mr. Granger, if you can hear me, respond to me now."
Hermione’s father moved his mouth, just barely. But it was enough.
"He can hear you," Ron said wonderingly, then whirled around to see that Hermione was still on the floor, eyes shut, breathing shallowly against her mother. She looked to have fallen asleep, or perhaps she was simply in shock, and she didn’t seem to hear Ron at all. "Hermione - it’s your dad. He's awake." Ron made a move as if to help her up, then turned back to Ginny. "Back up a minute," he ordered, raising his wand and backing away himself. Deftly he flew Mr. Granger’s bed sideways so that it aligned with his wife’s. Only then did Ron step around the bed to lift Hermione up. "Your dad's awake," he repeated, so that she could hear him. And then he reached across Mrs. Granger and settled Hermione in bed, between her parents. "So she can have them both," Ron said, more to himself than anyone else.
Harry watched as Hermione broke down in tears again, this time against her father’s shoulder, while she clutched her mother’s hand. Ron positioned himself by the bed like a guard, as if he would ward off any evil that might attempt to disrupt the Grangers.
Ginny watched them for a moment, and though her shoulders sagged, her eyes were bright. She dropped her head and rubbed her eyes again, wearily. "They’re going to need to be moved to another wing," she said, somewhat incoherently, and certainly to herself. "They’ll need their muscles exercised, and I don’t know how to do that." Her hand fell to her side and she walked past Harry into the hall, seeming unaware of her surroundings.
Remus stopped her before she could go very far. "Sit down. I’ll find the mediwizards who need to be told. You rest." And before Ginny could protest, he had turned and disappeared down the long corridor.
Left standing in the hall, Ginny looked from side to side as if confused as to what she should be doing next. "I need to go home," she said to no one. "I need a Floo port." She swayed slightly, and steadied herself on the wall. "I'm knackered."
Harry thought she might fall to the floor, and he stepped forward quickly to sling an arm under her shoulders before it could happen. Ginny turned her head and stared at him. Her eyes were just inches away.
"Hi, Harry." She gave an exhausted laugh.
Harry looked at her. He wanted to tell her that she had done an incredible thing, but for some reason the words wouldn’t come.
Ginny's forehead fell softly forward onto his shoulder; she leaned on him, and suddenly the arm he was using to support her became extremely sensitive. When her breath touched his throat, the hairs stood up on the back of his neck. He pulled her close and held her up.
She spoke without lifting her head. "Help me home," she said, her voice low and muffled. "Please."
Harry supported her to the hospital's Floo portals and steered her into an empty one. "You have to keep your arms by your sides," he reminded her. "And you have to get out at Remus's grate. Can you do that?"
Ginny straightened slightly. "Yes." She was hardly audible.
"I'm right behind you," Harry told her, and threw a pinch of Floo powder into the flames. He guided her into the mouth of the fireplace and watched her disappear, anxiety clawing at his heart. He was quick to follow, and when he Apparated into the front room at Lupin Lodge he was both alarmed and relieved to see Ginny lying on the carpet in a heap. At least she had managed to get home. He knelt down and hefted her into his arms - not an easy task, as she was nearly his own weight.
"You don't have to." Her head lolled against his shoulder. "Don't carry me." He picked her up in spite of her protest and made slow progress towards the stairs. One of her hands played idly with his collar as he walked, and her breath came in long, slow pulls. Harry put his foot on the first step and shifted her body, to balance her better. "Thank you," Ginny sighed, into his robes. She let out a strange laugh. "I think I'd cry if I wasn't so tired," she said, and laughed again.
Harry studied her face - she was delirious - and continued to climb the steps, holding her close. He elbowed her bedroom door open, carried her to the bed, and gently put her down. Without pausing to wonder if he ought to do it, he reached for her feet and removed her shoes and socks, then unbuttoned her robes. Though she was wearing very little underneath them, he didn't pause to gape - much. He knew where her nightclothes were, and he got her into them. Ginny was limp and silent, though she did continue to laugh shortly at intervals as Harry dressed her. He did it as quickly and as gently as he could, then pulled her covers up and stroked her hair away from her face, his heart beating hard.
Ginny sighed and leaned into his hand. "Don't leave," she murmured. "Stay with me." Her eyes were closed, but her hands felt for his sleeves, and she tugged weakly at them.
"What…" Harry swallowed. "What about Hermione?"
"She never sleeps here anymore… please, Harry, I miss you."
It was as if they had never fought. Harry kicked off his shoes and crawled into her bed, curling behind her body as if it were the night they had first kissed. He put his arm around her waist to pull her close, took a deep breath and smelled the warmth and sweat of her.
"You woke them up," he muttered into her hair. "You were fantastic - what you gave Hermione is..." He stopped. He couldn't imagine what Hermione must feel upon having her parents restored to her, though he had imagined it a thousand times for himself. There was no way to know what that was like.
Ginny's breath hitched; she rolled towards him and, to his surprise, she awkwardly flung her arms around him and buried her face in his neck. "I wish you could have that," she said hotly, and Harry could hear the tears in her voice. "You're the one I want to do that for."
His chest burned, and he had to hold his breath for a moment to keep his emotions in check. "It's all right," he whispered, putting his arms around her and rocking her a little, shutting his eyes. He had lately felt hollow, and he knew it was her absence causing the trouble. He craved a wholeness that only came with having her close. Just like this.
Ginny's sniffling stopped after awhile, and her breath grew soft and shallow. Harry couldn't see her eyes, but he could tell, by the way she had relaxed, that she had fallen asleep. He waited several minutes, and then carefully rolled away from her - she winced, in her sleep. When Harry drew back from her, the line between her eyebrows deepened, as if she had a headache.
It was odd, Harry thought, that she should look ill now that he had let go of her. Usually it was his touch that caused the problem - she was especially sensitive when she was open to emotion, and she must have been very open after the work she had just done. But as he cautiously stood up, taking care not to disturb her sleep, Ginny grew pale and her frown lines became deep.
"It's all right," Harry whispered, and bent over her to stroke her face. To his amazement, as he ran his thumb back and forth across Ginny's cheekbone, the tension seemed to drain from her. Her brow relaxed a little, and she took a deep, sleepy breath that ended in a sigh.
He wasn't hurting her. In fact, he seemed to be having the opposite effect.
A thrill of hope ran through Harry. Needing to test his discovery and make sure that he was right, he immediately bent down and brought his lips to Ginny's forehead, then drew back to see the effects. She breathed out another sigh and her frown disappeared completely.
Harry felt a rush of nearly uncontainable happiness. Relief flooded him. He could hardly stand to let Ginny sleep; he wanted to show her what was possible, wanted her to see that she had done it - he could touch her without causing her any pain, even when she wasn't trying to block him. But he couldn't bear to shake her awake. She looked quiet and peaceful, and he knew she was exhausted.
Harry removed his glasses and put them on her bedside table along with his wand. Carefully, he got into Ginny's bed and curled up beside her. He gingerly laid his arm across her stomach, releasing the tension in his muscles slowly so that all of the weight in his arm wouldn't fall on her at once. She didn't wake up.
A minute later, he was fast asleep.
Ginny lay on her stomach on the rough, dark stones, her legs leaden, her eyes shutting against her will. Tired. She had never been so tired; she knew she had to fight, but there was nothing left. She reached down into the depths of her will, searching for any remaining scrap of strength, and she barely opened her eyes. She would not die. Not here. Not like this, not for him. He couldn't have her - but she was so cold and his voice was so strong, telling her what to think, what to write, making her know she had lost, forcing her fingers across the page to make words that were not her own.
Ginny began to cry. She slumped, and her nose and forehead touched the stones. Her breath wouldn't come - she was choking - panic rose up in her but she was paralyzed against it. She could not thrash or scream; there was no struggle left in her body. Her lungs were his. He'd stopped them, and she would suffocate here, in the darkness of herself, with no one to help her. The wet, gray stones blurred out and her eyelids slid irrevocably shut.
Then blackness - merciless blackness - darker than just shutting her eyes, darker than pitch dark castle rooms, darker than dungeon chambers. Shutting out life. Against it, images flickered like photographs. The Burrow. Her family. Harry. And all the while Riddle's body rose from her as if it had always been in her, pulling her consciousness away, splitting her apart, stealing her heartbeat for himself… there would be nothing else now… and she would never know if he hurt Harry… not Harry… please not Harry…
"Ginny. Ginny, you have to wake up."
Ginny gasped and jerked. Someone had her by the waist. She struggled, but the arm held fast and she moaned in terror.
"No, it's me, you're all right, it's a nightmare, you're safe - wake up. Come on, Ginny, it's me. It's Harry."
Harry. He was here, just as he'd been the first time. Only now he was wrapped around her, now his voice was just behind her ear, and Ginny rolled toward him without thinking, wanting rescue. She flung her arm over him and clutched him close, pressing her face into his robes and realizing that her cheeks were uncomfortably wet. She'd been crying. Probably talking. Begging for his life - she knew she did that. She had made Hermione repeat it to her once.
Harry very gently rubbed her back. It felt unreal. It couldn't be real. "Are you awake?" he murmured.
She nodded and clung tighter, not sure how old she was, or what was happening. For a long time they didn't speak, and Ginny slowly regained her breath and heartbeat as she catalogued her surroundings. It was very early; and the light in the room was dim and blue, but it was light from outside. This was not the Chamber. Riddle was long gone. His conqueror was right here, protecting her even from the dream of him. Harry was here. Harry was safe. Harry was tracing her back between her shoulder blades with tender fingertips. They were together and the world made sense and…
He must have stayed the night. Ginny couldn't remember how any of it had happened. She remembered Mrs. Granger's eyes opening… she remembered Hermione lying between her parents in their beds, and she remembered… nothing after that.
Ginny withdrew her arm, rolled onto her back, and stared up into Harry's face. He propped himself up and looked down at her. He wasn't wearing his glasses, and there was something small and frightened in his eyes.
"I'm okay," Ginny said. Her voice was croaky with sleep and tears and she wiped at her face. "I just haven't had one that bad in a while."
Harry looked grim, and somewhat disappointed. "Is it because I'm here?" he asked.
"No," Ginny said on reflex, not wanting him to leave her no matter how awful she felt. But slowly… very slowly… she realized that it was not a lie. "No, it's not you, I feel…" She frowned and searched herself. She felt exhausted and open. Very open. And she hadn't been awake long enough to think of separating his energy from hers. Harry's aura flowed into her and around her and she could have evaluated it if she wished to.
And it didn't hurt.
She gazed up at him, amazed. She knew she had to be wrong. Any moment now, the flood of Harry's real emotions would strike her and she would be unable to stay with him like this. She lay there for a long time, as open as she could be, and waited for his presence to make her ill.
"You're not hurting me," she whispered, when she was sure. The air was calm and workable. She wasn't trying to block him - she had simply become strong enough to withstand him. She had never expected it to happen so soon. "You're not hurting me at all."
Harry sighed out as if he'd been holding his breath for a long time. "Really?"
She nodded, and Harry squinted at her a little, obviously trying to make out her reaction. Ginny reached to the bedside cabinet without thinking, and fumbled for his glasses, which she knew would be there. When she found them, she unfolded them in her fingers and carefully fitted them to his face. She tucked them behind his ears, growing very warm when his eyes focused on her with all their green intensity. She pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose with an index finger, the way she had watched him do a million times, and then she dropped her hand to her throat.
He was so beautiful.
Harry gazed at her for a moment, then balanced on one elbow and dragged the pad of his thumb across her cheek, wiping away the last of the wetness beneath her eyes. Ginny lay still and breathed, letting him comfort her. It was hard to believe that it was happening. He opened his mouth - hesitated -
"I have something to tell you," he said abruptly.
Ginny blinked up at him, her heart already beating irregularly. She didn't dare hope. She still wasn't sure how he'd ended up here, or what they'd said, or whether they were fighting. She didn't think they were. She couldn't remember how she had gone so long without having him close like this, and she never wanted to try it again. "All right."
"I've been wanting to say it." He shifted awkwardly and looked at the pillow, instead of at her face. "It's hard," he said, very faintly. For a while it seemed that he wasn't going to manage anything else, and then he suddenly reached into his pocket and withdrew a crumpled bit of parchment, gripping it in his fingers.
"What's that?" Ginny whispered.
Harry was very red. "A letter I wrote."
He nodded again and his knuckles whitened. Apparently he was in no hurry to hand it over.
"Can I… see it?"
It all happened very fast. Harry shoved the note into Ginny's hand and collapsed onto his stomach, burying his face in her arm and breast. Ginny dropped the parchment onto the bed and stroked his messy hair, sifting it in her fingers. It was rather dirty. She didn't care.
"It's all right," she said quietly.
"Did you read it?" His voice was muffled and agonized.
He was so cute.
"Hold on a minute." Ginny took her hand out of his hair, picked up the parchment and worked to unfold it. It took a while, as Harry had her other hand pinned under his body, but she managed to get the letter open and hold it up.
Happy birthday. I got you a present, but it wasn't very good.
You're amazing. I miss you. I'm sorry I shouted at you. Don't give up on me.
I am here.
Ginny's eyes filled with tears. "Oh - Harry." The words were choked. She dropped the letter and pulled her other arm from underneath him, to lift his head in both her hands. He looked terrified and lost.
"Was that okay?" he asked. "I know it's short -"
"It's beautiful." Ginny shut her mouth and shook her head. "You wrote that on my birthday?" she said shakily. "Have you been carrying it around?"
"Yeah." Harry shifted up until his cheek was next to hers, and he wrapped his arms around her. She hugged him back, rolling over a bit so that they lay on their sides, holding onto each other for dear life, surrounded by energy that felt like radiant light. Ginny didn't know what to make of the aura, and at first she tried to block it - if it was Harry's then it was not her right to be inside it without permission, no matter how lovely it felt. But she couldn't separate herself from it. It wasn't his at all, she realized in surprise - and it wasn't hers either, but that didn't make sense. Ginny lay still and absorbed it until she understood.
It was theirs, this energy. It was what they made… together. It surged and intertwined, warm and cool, deep and endless, enveloping them. Ginny could feel it on her skin, a faint, perfect vibration that was not physical… and yet it was. It was magnetic; it hummed between their bodies, drawing them closer together. It was like… a climate. Their own weather, their own world. Ginny closed her eyes and tightened her arms around Harry, amazed - this was what they were to each other. This beautiful, unbearable sense of rightness belonged to them. Perhaps it had been there all along, and she had been too foolish to realize it.
"Are we all right now?" he asked, after a long time.
Ginny gave a strange, breathless laugh, and nodded. All right? She was beyond it. She was in love.
Harry rolled onto his back and brought her with him; she rested her forearms on his chest and gazed back down at him. His face was blurry.
"You're crying." He sounded worried.
Ginny lowered her face a fraction and touched her nose to his, reassuring him that the tears were only good. She didn't have a voice to tell him with. And then she had nothing at all - she had left the world - because Harry had lifted his chin and he was kissing her with such gentleness that she wasn't sure she could endure it; it was like coming up for air. For sunlight. His lips opened hers - her heart was breaking - his mouth was so familiar and so necessary that Ginny suddenly felt afraid. What had she been thinking, pulling away from him? She needed him. They belonged to each other. She wasn't sure what had made her doubt it.
"I can't lose you," she mumbled suddenly, breaking away. "I was lying when I said it was all right if you don't love me - it's not all right." She opened her eyes and looked into his - they were right there. And so green. So quiet and waiting. "I don't want to fight with you ever again," she whispered. "I've been so stupid. We've had enough problems. We should know… we should know we have each other, no matter what else is wrong in the world."
Harry lay motionless beneath her and held her gaze.
"And you do have me," she said, as a sob rose up in her chest. "I hope I didn't make you doubt it - you've always had me - always." She wanted to look away. It was hard to continue when his eyes went fierce like that. "I'll never give up on you, all right?" she finally managed. "I'm not going anywhere. Don't give up on me."
Harry had stayed completely still throughout her speech. But with her last words, and without warning, his chest hitched, and he pulled her down on top of him to hold her close, his face in her neck, the lenses of his glasses pressing her skin. And then he mumbled something almost incoherent that pierced her body and stopped her heart.
"I've - I've never said that before." He was shaking like mad.
Ginny couldn't imagine it. Never once…? In all the times she had thought about Harry, it hadn't occurred to her that he never would have said it… But of course he hadn't said it, of course there had been no person - perhaps Ron or Hermione, but he never would have said it.
He had given it to her.
"I love you," she whispered back, unable to think coherently. How brutal and empty his life had been - not in all ways, but in some of the fundamentals - and that deprivation had touched him more profoundly than even she had ever considered. But it would never be like that again. Never. She would see to that. She raised her head and leaned her forehead to his, determined to make him know it. "I love you so much, Harry."
She didn't know how many times she said it after that - enough times that it should have lost its meaning - but he seemed to need to hear it. Every time the words escaped her she felt his energy shiver. Ecstatic. So she said it to his neck and his shoulder and his temple; she said it into his hair and into his ear, and she said it to his beautiful eyes, lifting his glasses to kiss his eyelids with all the wonder she'd felt forever. She wanted to fill him with it, to make him believe it in every pore and every thought so that he wouldn't have to wonder. Love. It was all she could concentrate on. It burst out of her like light and it was all his, and it always had been, but she had been afraid of it. It was so total. It took up so much of her. She would never hold it back again.
She wasn't sure how long it took for Harry to open his eyes and gaze up at her. As soon as he did, he rolled her onto her back, and Ginny lay pressed beneath him, trying to wrap one of her legs around his to pull him closer as he bent and brushed his lips across hers, making her whole body jump.
It was a moment before she realized that she couldn't use her legs at all - they were confined. She was wearing a nightdress that had got rather tangled up, what with all the rolling.
She couldn't remember putting it on.
"Harry?" she breathed against his mouth.
"Mm." He brushed another soft kiss along her top lip and Ginny nearly forgot her question.
"Did you put me in this nightdress?"
Harry went still. His mouth moved away and his very hot cheek slid alongside hers.
"Did you change my clothes?" she asked again, when he stayed silent.
"Are you angry?" he asked. His voice was very low.
Ginny shivered all over. He'd changed her - he'd seen her naked - or almost naked. She shifted a little, trying to feel if he had all of her underclothes in place. When she realized that he had, she smiled against his neck. He was so shy. So decent. And she was glad of it - she wouldn't have wanted to be unconscious for that, but… still. How very Harry.
"No, I'm not angry," she said, feeling a bit bashful. She kissed the spot just below his ear. "It was… really sweet of you."
"I -" his voice was dry. "I thought you'd be more comfortable if -"
"I am," she assured him. "I am." She rubbed the back of his neck; he was tense and embarrassed. She moved her fingers down between his shoulder blades and rubbed the muscles there, deepening her touch to find the spots where he ached the most. Harry let out a long, slow breath, and she began to use her other hand as well, feeling out the tension in his back and trying to ease it. He made a muffled sound of pleasure.
"Is that good?" Ginny asked quietly.
"I missed you so much," he blurted, and held her tighter.
She kept working. She loved him, and he wanted this, and she could do it now. The dragons had taken such a toll on him - he needed so much care and attention - and it wasn't just for him. Every fraction of the tension she released from Harry's body relieved her just as much.
"Do you have to work today?"
He nodded, and Ginny felt a pang of helpless anger.
"No. I wish you'd take a break."
Harry slumped closer to her with every movement of her hands. "I wish I could. I will soon - they're training more riders, and Charlie says it'll only be a week or two before we can start using them."
"And you'll really let someone take over your shift?"
"For a little while." Harry breathed out again, long and slow. "That feels so good," he mumbled, and his face went hot again, against her neck. "I have to give up riding for a little while. I can't keep up anymore, I can't even see all the Dementors that escape."
Ginny tried to block the thought that nagged her.
"It was so much easier before they all went mad and started trying to get out - I wouldn't complain if they'd just go back to how they used to be before…" He shook his head against her. "Never mind, I don't know. There's no way. There's no way to control them."
Ginny had a feeling she knew someone who could control them. But she was sworn to secrecy. Then again, Harry needed rest. He needed this. And all the dragon riders deserved relief. She just wasn't sure if there was any way to approach Malfoy that would make a difference - or if it was right to approach him at all.
"Harry?" She was surprised by how timid she sounded.
She blinked. He knew her better than she realized. "It's just I don't know how to… I can't really say anything… But I think…" She stopped moving her hands, and she knew he was listening. "If I knew something - if I thought I knew something, and a… prisoner in Culparrat might have some information but I'd… signed a contract…"
Harry lifted his head. He stared down at her. "I won't ask," he said seriously. "But if you're saying that Malfoy -" Harry stopped. He rolled off her and sat up, and Ginny sat up beside him.
"I don't know anything," she said honestly. "But I think he might. Do you think I could get in to see him?"
Harry glanced at her. "Do you really think he'd tell you anything?"
"I don't know." Ginny met his eyes. "But I know I had an effect on him, whether he liked it or not, so I've got a better chance than anyone else."
"Then you have to try." Harry shook his head and smacked a fist on the mattress. "Ron was right all along," he muttered. "But how were we supposed to know? It still doesn't make sense, I still don't see how..."
Ginny bit her tongue, though it was very difficult. "You don't think I could strike a bargain with him, do you?" she asked. "Because if I can't at least promise Malfoy a shorter sentence, then I can't imagine he'd be willing to… but no, I know how strict Sirius has been about all that."
Harry laughed shortly. "If Malfoy's information has to do with the Dementors, Sirius won't stand by any rules."
"Yes. Well." Ginny took a deep breath and let it out. "Ron won't want to give Malfoy a reprieve. Not for any reason."
"No. Ron won't. And it's Ron who's in charge at the moment."
They looked at each other, and Ginny clasped her hands in her lap. "Harry… no matter what a relief it would be to put things back to normal, do you think we should offer Malfoy any sort of bargain?"
Harry rubbed the bridge of his nose and hunched over to lean his forearms on his legs and stare at his feet. For a long time, he seemed to be deep in thought and then - "I don’t know," he said. "I…" He laughed a little. "I'm sitting here trying to think of what Dumbledore would say."
"I do that sometimes."
He glanced at her. "Well… he'd probably just say to do what's right, and then he'd sit back and let us work it out."
"You sound like him already."
Harry blushed. "He'd say… to try to see things clearly. To take it all into consideration."
"For the greater good."
"Right." Harry frowned. "So, if Malfoy could contain the Dementors, or calm them down, then…"
"People on shore wouldn't be in as much danger."
"The dragon budget could get cut in half, and the Ministry could use it for other things."
"The dragon riders could have a rest."
Harry gave her a look. "That's not important."
"Oh yes it is."
"One less thing for the Healer to deal with, then," he countered.
Ginny smiled. "All right - and the Minister, too. And the guards assigned to the shoreline could concentrate on something else."
Harry raised his eyebrows. "All that for one bargain."
"Well… but we haven't weighed the consequences."
Harry frowned in thought, and Ginny watched him, already feeling relieved. He knew just how to think about this with her - he understood the essence of things without needing explanations.
"Malfoy could cause a lot of damage if he was free in the world," Harry said finally, blowing out a breath. "A lot."
Ginny sighed. "I know. It's never going to stay peaceful forever -" She touched Harry's hand when he winced. "Well… it's not," she said quietly. "Years ago there was Grindelwald, and then Voldemort came to power twice, and before all that there was -"
"I know." Harry's eyes were dark and resolute. "I just… hope it's a long time."
"So do I."
They looked at each other for a moment that seemed to stretch forever, and in it Ginny felt the war and all that it had meant. The idea of fighting another one made her feel so weary that she shifted closer to Harry, let her head fall against his shoulder, and closed her eyes. A moment later she felt her hair pushed aside, and his hand was on the back of her neck, his fingers opening and closing on her skin.
"Malfoy could easily help another Dark wizard rise to power," Harry said quietly. "And he'd do it."
"Yes, he'd have all that money," Ginny agreed, though half her mind was concentrating on the way Harry was touching her. "He could use it to blackmail people. He could support any horrible thing he wanted - he could turn out just like his father."
"He will." Harry's fingers stopped for a moment. "He practically has, just look at him." He made a noise of disgust. "The whole time he was at Azkaban it was like he didn't feel a thing - how can you feel nothing around those Dementors? How can you be human if you don't feel them?"
Ginny swallowed the protest that rose in her. What she knew of Malfoy's emotions was privileged information.
Harry went on. "And his money's not the only worry - the Ministry would be acting inconsistently if they let him out. It wouldn't look good for your dad - or for Sirius and Ron."
"That's true," Ginny said. "Not just that, but all the other prisoners would want to work out bargains too, and there would be a lot of trouble - there might have to be new trials."
Harry's fingers began to move again. "Well…but not if it were all kept quiet."
Ginny half-smiled and settled closer to him. "Funny, you didn't sound quite as much like Dumbledore just then."
"No, he kept things quiet." Harry's hand slid down to rest on her back, and Ginny raised her head to look at him; he had tilted up his face and was studying the ceiling, as if searching for Dumbledore there. "Believe me, he kept loads of stuff to himself."
They were silent together for a little while as the light turned from blue to gold around them. The sun was rising. Harry suddenly gasped, checked his watch and jumped up. "I'm late." He grabbed his wand from the bedside cabinet. "We'll talk more about this - tonight?"
Ginny looked up at him from her seat in the middle of the bed. "I'll try to be awake."
Harry paused before Disapparating. He lowered his wand and looked at her. "No," he said. "You get some sleep."
"Well, but I want to go and check on the Grangers anyway -"
"No," Harry repeated, more firmly. "You get some sleep. You can check on them tomorrow, and I'll talk to you tomorrow night, instead."
"But Harry -"
"No." He reached out and smoothed back some of Ginny's hair, sending a ribbon of lovely sensation into her head and straight down through her. She closed her eyes and sighed. She was tired. And his fingers were so gentle on her forehead… skimming across her temple…
"I love you." The words slipped out of her for the thousandth time as Harry brushed back the rest of her hair.
"Go on, get some rest," he said quietly. "Lie down."
Ginny didn't protest. Exhaustion and Harry were far too persuasive; she curled up on her side and heard him close the window shades. The room went dark.
"I'll see you tomorrow," he whispered. Ginny felt the soft weight of blankets on her body. She felt his hands tuck the covers around her, and then his mouth touched her cheek as the world began to ebb away.
"Be careful, please," she mumbled. "Be safe."
There was an almost inaudible sigh, followed by a soft pop! and a pang of loss… He was gone. She was in her bed alone without him. Sleep descended around her, heavy and black, and Ginny tensed, expecting nightmares.
But the nightmares didn't come. Instead of a dungeon chamber, there was a wide, moonlit sky and the crash of the sea at her feet, and Harry was on a dragon above her, soaring through her head - silhouetted against the moon on a dark spread of wings. Ginny lay back on the sand and watched him fly, and she knew with strange, comforting certainty that as long as he was nearby, no darkness could touch her.
She stretched out in the sand, feeling very safe, and she fell asleep again within her dream, lulled by the circles Harry made in the sky and endless thrum of the sea.
It was the most beautiful word in the English language. Better than alive, because it implied both life and awareness, and one was nothing without the other. Awake. Awake.
Hermione stepped out of a long, hot shower and wrapped up in Ron's bathrobe. She liked the feeling of it on her skin, and the way it engulfed her and made her feel warm all over. His touch, by proxy. He was so good. He had been there through all of it, and he had stood guard last night, and he had held her hand all morning, through the interviews and assessments run by the mediwizards at St. Mungo's.
"It's a miracle," they'd said. "Unprecedented. Impossible."
Hermione looked into her face in the mirror. She was small, and her hair would be frizzy again when it dried, and her Cortona color had long faded. But her eyes were fiercely bright. And she felt such incredible peace. She would write a long letter to Delia, today. A really good one, with no self-effacing in it.
"Hermione?" Ron knocked softly on the door. "Can I come in?"
He did, and he stepped up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. It was much better to be engulfed by him than by just his bathrobe, and Hermione relaxed against his chest. Ron rested his chin on her damp hair. "Tired?"
"No." She smiled a little at his reflection. She hadn't slept so well in a long, long time. "Are you?"
He searched her eyes in the mirror. "No," he said finally.
"Yes you are, you were up all night." She rubbed her thumbs over his hands. "You don't have to come back with me tonight, I'll be fine."
"I want to come." He kissed her head. "I have to get them… used to me. It must be a shock, you know, you're all grown up and there I am… I don't know." Ron's ears were pink. "I don't want your dad thinking I'm just some idiot."
Hermione reached over her head and took Ron's face in her hands. They made such a funny picture, in the mirror. "You made him laugh," she said quietly. "He's going to love you."
Her father would actually know Ron. And so would her mother. Not as a boy, but as the man she loved. Hermione was suddenly struck by such painful happiness that she turned and kissed Ron with all her heart, wrapping her arms around his neck.
"Get dressed," he said hoarsely, after a little while. "I have something for you, and we have to go and get it."
Hermione studied his face, intrigued. She had sort of expected him to push the bathrobe to the floor and carry her to his room. "Go where?"
"Just get some clothes on."
"I want to go back to hospital -"
"They said you could go back at six, it's only two. I'll have you back with time to spare."
Hermione agreed. She dressed quickly; it was still rather amusing to her that so many of her things had migrated to Ron's room and that she had half a wardrobe to choose from here. She pulled on her jeans.
"Here -" Ron tossed her a shirt. It was oversized and orange and long-sleeved, with a big black double C emblazoned across the front.
"You're taking me to a Quidditch match?" she asked, a bit dubiously.
"No, but all your stuff's in the laundry basket, and that's clean."
That was fair enough. Hermione pulled the shirt over her head and rolled the sleeves to a manageable length.
"Ready?" Ron asked and, when she nodded, he handed her a tiny slip of folded paper. "Meet me on the lawn at this address," he said, and touched her face. "Trust me."
Hermione unfolded the paper with curious fingers. 42 Old Crown Road, Gillingham.
Her hands trembled. Why… why did he want her to go to her house? He knew that she had only been there once since… And now that her parents were awake, now that she could try to forget all of it, she never wanted to see that place again. She wanted it gone - she should have sold it. She knew she should have sold it.
She did. But he was asking her to do something quite difficult and painful on a day that should have been pure joy, and she didn't understand his motives. If it had been anyone but Ron, Hermione would not have gone. But she Apparated into the driveway of her old house and gazed at the front steps where Ron already sat, looking strangely at home.
There were so many flowers in bloom. And the grass had all grown back, lush and shining green. It really had been a long time since she had been here… she didn't even remember all the trees that lined the yard, and she wondered if her memory was playing tricks on her. All in all, the house was more beautiful now than it had ever been - at least from the outside - the paint hadn't so much as chipped; it was perfect blue, and the white shutters gleamed.
Ron watched her walk up the drive, then stood and touched his wand to the door, making it swing open.
"Ron…" Hermione stood at the bottom of the steps and shook her head. "Please. Not today."
He looked down at her, and all the comfort in the world was in his blue eyes. "Haven't you ever thought about where your parents would go, when they woke up?"
Hermione winced. She couldn't let them come back here. They had loved this house - her father had done the interior woodwork himself, and her mother had taken such care with the gardens and the carpets and everything else. Hermione had loved this house too; she'd grown up here. Here she had discovered that she was different from other children, long before she had ever known that she was a witch. Here she had been loved and taught and nurtured. But the bad memories would make it very difficult to live here, in spite of all the good ones.
"I haven't thought about it much," she admitted. "I just concentrated on getting them awake. I… don't want to see in there."
Ron reached his hand out. "Come on," he said. "I promise it's all right."
She put her faith in Ron, and her hand in his, and let him lead her into her childhood home, steeling herself for ugly burns and rotten stench and the horrible, lingering shadows of Death Eaters.
But it smelled… clean. Last time she'd been here, it had smelled like burnt plastic and smoke, and something evil. But that was gone, and the house was silent and cool - almost sweet - as they walked through it. There wasn't even any dust. The curtains had been drawn and everything was beautifully organized - even her mother's china cabinet sparkled as if it had just been cleaned.
The china cabinet that had been smashed through.
Hermione stopped walking and stared at it. She had a sudden, dim suspicion. "Ron…"
"Shh." He pulled her towards the library and Hermione resisted a little, but followed behind him. She braced herself to see the worst of it. Here it had happened, here there had been wreckage and burns, shelves destroyed, books in torn disarray, fingernail marks in the arms of her mother's chair… She peered in, her heart throbbing painfully. It was a horror room, it was a nightmare place.
It had been rebuilt.
Hermione stared for a moment at the bright, peaceful tidiness of the room where she had first become a reader. This… this was what it was supposed to look like. She walked in without Ron, her hands over her mouth. There was not one scar, not one trace, of the thing that had happened here. Her father's shelves were straight and polished. The wood of her mother's chair was smooth and unmarred. The books were in lovely rows, the carpet was no longer scorched, the whole place was right.
"Oh… oh, Ron…"
"Go and see your room."
Her heart beating like a bird's, Hermione raced out of the wonderful library where she had learned to think, and hurtled up the steps to the little room where she had learned to dream.
"My letter," she managed in a tiny, shaky voice. Her Hogwarts letter. They had burnt Mudblood across it.
It had been restored.
And everything else was in its place, just as she had left it when she had gone away to Hogwarts for her sixth year, before everything had gone so horribly, desperately wrong. It was normal. It was hers. It was serene and uninvaded. Hermione walked around in a daze, touching things and gazing out the window, and trying to contain the unbearable love that was swelling in her heart.
She turned to find Ron watching her from the doorway, tears standing in his eyes.
"You did this," she managed.
He nodded faintly.
"You… Ron. You paid for this."
He glanced down. Nodded again.
"The trees outside and the china and the shelves and - my mother's - my letter - Ron -" Hermione couldn't stand up under the kind of love she felt. She found herself sitting in the middle of her carpet, reaching up her arms, and Ron came to her at once.
He knelt and pulled her into a powerful hug. "It's all right?" he finally said, his voice scratchy. "I just thought if it were normal then they wouldn't mind living here."
"But when did you start?" she whispered, holding him tight. "How long ago?"
"With my first paycheck."
Hermione's throat clenched. She pulled back and stared up at him. "But you had no way of knowing they'd wake up."
His eyes were still swimming. He sat back cross-legged, so that their knees touched, and he pushed her hair behind her ears. "I thought there was a good enough chance," he said, and took her chin in one hand. He lifted it and looked at her. "You… I can't remember when you've put your mind to something and not managed it."
So much faith. Hermione crawled into his lap, twined her arms around him and buried her face in his shoulder. Ron kept playing with her hair. And they were in her room, where she had never, never expected to feel at home again - but he had made it safe and whole and clean. Like only he could.
"Thank you," she mumbled. It wasn't enough. But for once she was at a loss for words; she couldn't begin to say the things he deserved to hear, and she imagined he knew it all anyway.
He rocked her just as he always had when she had needed comfort after visits to St. Mungo's - but this time it was all happiness. So much happiness that it hurt.
"Ginny thinks my dad is permanently blind," she said, after a long time, "so until my mum's completely recovered, they'll need me here." She sat back and let go of Ron's neck, to look him in the face. "When they're rehabilitated enough to leave hospital, I'll want to live with them and help them. Until they can look after themselves."
Ron was quiet, and then he nodded. "Well, I thought you might want to do that, so I had my dad put this house on the Floo network." He shrugged. "And at least we can Apparate, right?"
Hermione stared at him. He was… he'd thought of everything. She smoothed his hair away from his face, and dragged her fingertips down his cheeks. "You're a wonderful man," she said softly, and loved how fully it made him blush. "Do you have any idea how much I love you, Ron Weasley?"
He glanced rather skittishly at her, and took an unsteady breath. "I love you too," he said, but his voice was jumpy. "I… want to…" He took another deep breath, looking suddenly pale and ill.
Hermione peered at him. "Are you all right?"
At once, he went bright pink again. "Look," he said, but then he pressed his mouth shut and shook his head.
"Hermione…" He licked his lips.
"Well, give me a minute!" He blew out a breath, sat totally still for several seconds, then suddenly plunged a hand into his pocket and came up gripping something small and black.
It was a very little box.
Hermione's stomach clenched. She felt her mouth go dry.
"You drive me insane," Ron said, and his voice cracked. "You have for… ever. And I know I'm not perfect."
She couldn't breathe. She couldn't even look at him. Her eyes were on the box, and she was terrified.
"But I'm useless without you, there's no point in -" Ron shook his head and displaced her from his lap with sudden ferocity.
Hermione sat startled on the floor as Ron got onto his knees to stare down into her face. She met his eyes - barely - afraid she was going to burst. Was this - was he really - here and now? Without warning?
"I want to be the one who looks after you," he said heatedly. "And I want you to look after me. There's no one else, Hermione, you're it, you always were. I want you for good."
He pushed the box into her shaking hands, and his were shaking too.
"Not soon, it doesn’t have to be now - I know we're too young and you've got your parents and perhaps you're not finished at Cortona - I don't know. But I don't care."
He helped her to open the box; he yanked the ring out of the cushion - they fumbled uselessly together, both of them too unstrung to manage it, and then the silvery circle was on her ring finger and Ron had gripped her hands and pulled her onto her knees to face him.
"Just promise me that someday… say that when we're old enough and when you're ready - Hermione -"
Her eyes were locked to his. She waited, listening, still too shocked to be sure.
"Marry me," he rasped.
She tried to work her mouth - she nodded - she pulled her hands out of his and held his face in trembling fingers -
"Yes. Yes -"
Ron sealed his mouth over Hermione's with a muffled cry of happiness and she pressed her hands to his face, feeling the ring between her finger and his skin. The promise that had always been there, the thing she'd always known, was spoken now. Forever now. This was a man who cared so much about her that he would restore her parents' home - this was a man who had never hesitated to stand up and fight for what he believed in - this was a man who loved his family and his friends - and this man would be her husband. Hermione knew it made no sense to cry.
"I don't - deserve you -"
He kissed her hungrily. "You've got that backwards," he muttered, and hugged her so hard that she gasped and threw her arms around him in reply.
Over his shoulder she saw the flash of her ring, and she held it up behind his back to stare uncomprehendingly at it as he kissed her neck. An engagement ring. She was… his fiancée. How strange. Hermione gazed at the delicate band and the two little diamonds - though they weren't that small; however had he managed… or were they diamonds? She brought her hand closer and squinted at them, surprised to see that they were really a figure eight of glass, built right into the band. An infinity symbol? But that wasn't it either…
"Ron!" she exclaimed, when she realized what it was. "Where did you find this?"
He pulled back and looked dazedly at her. "Huh?" He ran a thumb along her cheekbone.
Hermione held her hand flat between them, palm down, and stared at her ring, enchanted. Set into the silver band was a tiny, working hourglass, full of sparkling white sand. She tilted her hand from side to side and watched time slide back and forth.
"You like it?"
She looked up at him. She wasn't sure what to say; she never would have expected Ron to get something like this so very right.
"There were nicer ones," he said, and his ears were red again. "With diamonds and stuff. I could've - if you'd rather, we can go back, but this seemed more like you."
"I've never seen anything so pretty," Hermione managed. "It's perfect."
Ron looked profoundly relieved. "Oh." He sighed. "Good."
"It reminds me of my Time Turner," she said, still fascinated by the movement of the sand. She held up her hand and they both watched it flash.
"Yeah." Ron nodded. "Exactly. So every time you look at it, you can remember that you're insane, and I know it."
He shushed her and grabbed her waist. Swept his eyes over her and got a funny smirk on his face. "And… whenever you think about how you got engaged - for the entire rest of your life -" He kissed her quickly, grinning, and Hermione felt a stab of apprehension.
"What?" she demanded.
"Remember you were in a Cannons shirt."
He laughed like a maniac. "You fell for it, too - your clean clothes were right in the top drawer -"
"You put me in this on purpose to propose to me?" Hermione wasn't sure whether to laugh, hit him or kiss him. She knew she was going to spend the rest of her life torn between those options.
"Hell yes." Ron grabbed handfuls of the huge orange shirt, and pulled it tight around her back, flattening it to her body. "It was this or the white thing," he said, and leaned in to brush his nose against hers. "And the white thing would've made you get all suspicious."
"Aren't you clever," she huffed.
"I'm a genius." He laughed against her mouth and kissed her - but the kiss quickly shifted from playful to real, and Hermione didn't have long to worry about what she was wearing, because it was on the floor and she was in her childhood bed with Ron, who loved her and knew her.
And wanted to marry her.