A/N: So, here are all the things I should share with you about this fic. It is rounding the corner on being completely finished, but I'm going to post one chapter at a time (once a week) so I can have a chance to go through each one again before I post it and see if it needs any editing. It is sitting at 10 chapters right now, unless I expand on something. I actually rarely edit, but I pretty much wrote this whole thing at a frantic pace after a crazy R/Hr smut dream I had while traveling abroad… and it's a scary fic for me to have even written at all, so I have major hang ups *bites nails*...
Now, here's the main thing, which is a huge warning before you proceed. This isn't a very original concept for a fic in that it is a trope (or two, actually) of sorts that has been done a lot before, I'm sure. I haven't actually read many stories that use this concept, but that's largely because I also feel uncomfortable about it in general, which is why I'm warning you now:
Hermione will be with other guys in this story.
Oh man, I said it. I typed that out. I am a bad person.
There is a good reason for it, but that is also kind of an obvious plot device, and I don't expect anyone to think I did any great thing with the concept here. This was basically written as a dump of what was swirling around in my head at the time, and, while I tried to write it well, I really don't expect that this is for everyone.
There will be lots of smut, there will be lots of Ron/Hermione, but you have been warned now.
I do hope you enjoy the angst and the smut, if you choose to proceed! x
6 Years, 1 Month, 12 Days
"Why don't you order something else?"
The tall man with sandy blond hair who sat across from Hermione gestured toward the bar, encouraging her with a grin. She looked down at her almost empty wine glass, swirling the contents around, eyes blurring out of focus for a second before she shook her head.
"I should go home soon, Duncan," she said, in a low voice, possibly making it difficult for him to hear her under the sounds of the music and loud conversations around them. The pub was busy for a Thursday night. But he must have figured her out enough to make a guess, even if it was the wrong one, because he took a long swig of his beer and reached for her hand.
"I'll take you back."
Her stomach gave a lurch, and she squeezed his hand out of reflex, the wrong response, she realised, because it only made him think she wanted him more.
"I think I should go alone," she said, chest clenching at his mildly frustrated expression.
"Why do you keep seeing me then?" he asked, possibly a bit more spitefully than intended. He wasn't a bad person, really. She should explain, only she couldn't. She'd probably never be able to.
"Don't do that," she sighed as she stood, tossing Muggle money to their table and taking his arm to lead him outside.
The still summer air was scorching and humid, even well past midnight, and she willed herself not to recall that night, that last night in his bed before-
"I really don't understand you," Duncan said, interrupting her thoughts, reminding her all too quickly of her present reality. The cool sheets of her bed were what she needed now… solitude and silence.
"I know, and I'm sorry. I wouldn't blame you if you were through-"
"Just think about what you want, Hermione."
God, if only he knew the weight of such a statement, the sinking feeling that consumed her. She couldn't trust her voice, so she let go of him and nodded, moving quickly to duck behind a row of trees, turning on the spot with a sharp crack.
Her dark room swam into focus as her feet touched the floor, and she released the breath she'd held from Apparating, toeing off her heels and reaching for the hem of her dress with shaking hands, pulling it off over her slender, mildly malnourished body and dropping it to the floor. In only her bra and knickers, she slid into bed, curling onto her side, legs tucked up, reaching for an extra pillow to clutch tightly to her chest and face, stifling her shaky breathing through cotton and feathers. That familiar, painful lump lodged deep in her throat, and she fought against tears as long as she could… until she no longer cared, gripping the top of her pillow like the shaggy ginger hair at the top of his head, digging her nails into the memory of his scalp.
It had been a month since he'd woken up. He knew, because after those first few days, he'd decided he ought to keep track. He'd lost six fucking years to darkness. The reality was as distant as the sound of his own name from the lips of the man who had found him, the one who had gripped his dirty ginger hair in a tight fist to raise his aching head from the stone slab they'd called his resting place.
"It really worked," the man had said. "It fucking worked!"
It had taken Ron Weasley three weeks to understand this statement and piece together the moments that had changed his life irreversibly.
Now, all he could do was replay that final day of freedom, six years ago, desperate to find a weakness or a clue, some way to orient himself to this place… this time. His desire was singular. He had to escape. No one was looking for him, not now. He would not be saved.
Harry and Hermione thought he was dead. His whole family, everyone… thought he was dead.
Some days he even thought so himself, steel walls and no way out, no windows, no time, no outside light, no wand. Other days, he thought he would make it, because it was the only thing he could think and still open his eyes all the way, still find strength.
It had been a peaceful spring afternoon, those six short years ago. They'd won a war, lost so many, but she was holding his hand and not letting go. The sky was bright and nearly cloudless as he'd told her some small version of how she made him feel. They'd left the Burrow in the middle of May, and he'd held a confidence he couldn't share just then, that she was bloody brilliant and would absolutely find her parents, set them straight. He'd be with her, every moment she'd let him, and, together, they would bring them home.
But, as they'd approached their Portkey, alone, her hand was trembling in his, and he hadn't wanted her to feel the boundless pressure he knew consumed her even more virally when she thought someone believed in her too strongly. Her confidence was built now by silence and presence, two things he'd been discovering he was actually bloody good at. At least that's what she'd told him, over and over, stroking his hair with small fingers, erupting gooseflesh across his shoulders, down his spine.
And so, as he'd squeezed her hand once more, he'd leaned down to press his lips to hers, drawing back just in time to reach forward, together, to touch the cracked vase that had been made into a Portkey to Sydney.
The world had swam out and back into focus. Too quickly. Her hand had loosened in his, and he'd lost her grip completely, immediately realising that something had gone terribly wrong. His chest had suddenly caved, as if he'd been kicked, and he'd recognised the feeling as a stunning spell as he'd helplessly watched her fall to her back, on the ground, in the middle of the dense woods where they had been wrongly transported. He'd tried to open his mouth to scream, but no sound had come out, and he'd been frozen… then roughly dragged backward, away from her, by someone he hadn't been able to see.
His limp hand had fallen so close to his back pocket, and he'd frantically willed his fingers to move, to reach for his wand. But he'd been forced down a slope and out of her sight, listening in paralysed fear to the sounds of her panicked coughing before-
Every curse he knew had flown through his brain, willing anything to wordlessly work. He'd heard the shuffling of several sets of feet behind him, and he'd become aware of an argument between two or three people before he'd tried to blur his vision, focused on forcing one word to the front of his mind, over and over.
The hand clutching the back of his jumper had fallen immediately slack, and Ron had felt his body go weightless as he'd no longer been supported.
"Graham!" another nearby voice had shouted.
It had worked.
But Ron had quickly been caught by two large men rushing forward, and he'd finally been able see their ruddy, filthy faces. They'd scowled at him, and he'd known he had to be quick as they searched him for his wand.
"Stop the girl," one of the men had demanded, just as Ron had regained the use of his left foot. He'd dug his heel into the dirt and strained against the effects of the stunner, finally forcing a hand into a fist.
And then, he'd seen it, lying on the forest floor… the body of a man who, at first glance, looked so much like him it was staggering. A man who had been burned to death, his face and skin black and charred. But, his hair… ginger and ashy and cut just like Ron's.
"Get his wand, Charlie. Now!"
But it had been too little too late. He'd felt his wand roughly yanked from his back pocket, and, before he'd braced himself, he'd watched as yet another man had rushed forward with a rock the size of his head... and he'd slammed it down, hard.
The world had gone instantly, terrifyingly, black.
He could remember nothing after that moment. Nothing… until that stark, hollow day, more than 6 years ago now, when he'd opened his eyes to the sight of a man he'd thought he'd almost recognised, watching him with wide eyes.
The next few hours had blurred with words, disbelief predominating as they'd told him how long he'd been asleep. That everyone thought he was dead. And their plan had worked, somehow, even years later. The most important part of this information was the brief mention of Hermione, the perhaps accidentally revealed fact that she was alive and well. A deep relief flowed through him, even in his desperate situation. All that ever mattered was her, Harry, his family. He could do anything now, knowing they were alright. His captors had only meant for Hermione to witness the attack, see the body they'd planted, report it as Ron, spread the word. They had never expected the blow to his head to put him in a bloody six year long coma, but they'd waited… and, now, he was back. Awake. Alive.
He'd learned that the man who had hit him was dead, had been murdered for fucking up their scheme. It had taken another week to learn the reason for their elaborate method of kidnapping, faking his death… He was meant to belong to them now, a tool for their use. They'd touched his scars, the ones that ran in swirls over his forearms from his run-in with those bloody brains in the Department of Mysteries, so many years ago.
They'd told him he would "meet her soon," and he'd been waiting. Waiting and thinking and planning and memorising. Every movement they made, every word they said… he would find a way out. He would find a way home.
The vividness of her nightmares never ceased to surprise her.
Hermione was standing in front of her bathroom sink, brushing her teeth with a shaking hand, staring at her reflection and reciting her most recent presentation for work inside her head, on loop, as a furious distraction. The healers said she should be better than this by now, not still seeing such clear visions of his unrecognisably burned face and body, singed hair, charred wand in his hand… But they were wrong, she supposed. The guilt would sometimes bubble up inside, knowing that she simply wanted to stay here in sorrow, that forgetting him was far more painful than what she felt now… even worse than seeing him dead in her dreams.
At least he was still there with her. And she could never let that go.
For the first few months, she'd had a recurring dream that he was still alive… that they'd buried him alive… and, more than once, she'd rushed to his grave, pressed her ear to the ground, and held her breath.
Now, she didn't go there often at all. The healers had said it was for the best. But, it seemed to make no difference. Potions for depression, anxiety, dreamless sleep… Food tasted bland, her work felt unimportant more often than not, and her attempts at social events mostly ended in craving the solitude of her tiny flat, surrounded by books, blurring words on every page as her eyes watered, shifting out of focus.
A knock on her door shook her from her thoughts - she had been expecting Harry for breakfast - and she spit into the sink, watching water swirl down the drain, clearing her throat to call out.
Ginny sat across from her at dinner, that night, Hermione still in her work clothes and Ginny in her practice uniform for Quidditch, having just left the field. The restaurant was Friday night crowded, and Hermione was never quite sure at first if she'd rather be lost in noise or silence, so she let herself fade as someone came by to refill their drinks. But then she knew Ginny had a lot to talk about, and she felt a bit lost as her friend began to speak, trying to resurface.
It was an hour before his name came up.
"How's it going with Duncan?" Ginny asked around a large bite of warm bread.
"I don't know," Hermione answered truthfully, stabbing at a piece of tomato in her salad, finding it hard, as usual, to work up an appetite.
"Well, didn't you see him last night?"
"Yeah. But I went home alone and frustrated him."
Ginny scoffed and took another bite of her bread.
"That sounds bloody rude. You've been out, what, a couple of times?"
"At least a dozen…"
Ginny's eyes widened, and she stopped eating to stare across at Hermione.
"It's not that I don't like him…" Hermione's soft voice trailed off, and she sighed. "Ginny, I don't want to do this."
"What, go out with Duncan? So, just call it off-"
"No. Any of it. I don't want to pretend I'm fine and see other people…"
Ginny's face melted to an expression of thinly masked concern, and she took a few moments to finally speak again.
"I can't pretend to understand exactly how you feel."
Hermione closed her eyes, willing herself not to cry at dinner.
"But I care too much about you to see you just… stuck," Ginny went on, sniffing. "Harry, too. Sometimes he's okay. Sometimes he can't really cope with it. But he's… I mean it's different for him, innit? I know it doesn't help to tell you to try. Bloody healers don't understand what it's like."
Hermione opened her eyes again simply to stare down at the pattern of the tablecloth.
"I'm still taking my potions."
"Are you? That's good. But they aren't helping?"
"I don't know. Maybe it'd be even worse without them…"
She saw, in her periphery, that Ginny's hand had extended halfway across the table in her direction, and she knew that Ginny was worried… probably more than she was letting on. She really needed to pull herself together, she thought. But she was at war with herself, wanting to swim deeper and deeper in memories, yet unable to surface long enough to live.
"The Harpies put me up at a nice place in Holyhead tonight," Ginny started, and Hermione finally looked back up at her friend, "you know, since we've got practice so early before that game tomorrow. Why don't you come stay with me. We can order champagne and charge it to the team…"
Ginny attempted a smirk, but it came across more as a pitying grimace.
"Thank you… but I think I just need some time alone," Hermione said softly. "I'll be okay."
"I'm not gonna be an arse and say it'll all be alright, because I know it won't. But I do think it'll get better."
She wouldn't argue, if only because she didn't really have it in her to bother. Instead, she'd try to make an effort to get lost in work again, something she could manage to do when she really focused. She almost regretted that she had two full days before Monday. At least she'd be able revise her latest report, maybe finally get around to cleaning her flat. And she was comforted by habits and routines, for now, a list of calculated distractions creating order from darkness.
They often left him alone for hours and hours at a time. And, when they did come by with small bits of food and water, it was never one or two of them alone, but at least three at once. He wondered if he'd actually scared them with wandless, nonverbal magic, but it wasn't as if he had any idea why it had worked… how he'd been able to stun someone without touching his wand or saying a word.
But now, without a wand, locked in a square room with metal walls and no windows, no visible seams… he was seeing no other way out. He'd done it once. Maybe… maybe he could do it again.
He started by thinking back, trying to recall those early charms lessons from first year. Simple ones, he thought, and he could learn how to control it... assuming he'd be successful at all. But all he really had to do, when he felt the desperate hollowness creep up, threatening to make him give up, was think of his past, of what he'd been ripped away from and left behind. He had to do it… He had to make it back.
Wingardium Leviosa! - You're saying it wrong.
The charm was in his head before he understood why… and then he was smiling. Her bossy little voice was all he could hear. He could still feel her wild hair brush his face as she'd sharply turned her head, and he remembered how he'd grimaced and rolled his eyes, back then.
Now, he actually laughed, a raspy, odd sound from his dry throat as he lay down on the rough, stone surface that was raised above the ground, the one on which he'd woken a month ago to find his whole life-
No. He wouldn't think of that. He closed his eyes and recalled her voice again. But, this time, much more recent, just minutes before that first kiss...
Wasn't it absolutely brilliant? - He was amazing!
He breathed deeply, lulled by his memories, and he could almost escape this place, run away in his mind to his bed at the Burrow, her small, cool hands on his skin. He let himself stay there, for just a little while… let himself remember.
She followed him up the stairs to his room, and he was so relieved he didn't have to ask. He wanted her to stay, but he had no idea how to say the words. She must have been as nervous as he was, because once he'd closed his door and they were alone, he could see her trembling in the moonlight that was softly flowing through his open curtains.
"I'm so sorry," she said. "So, so sorry."
They'd buried his brother that day. But he didn't want to talk about that now. He took a step closer, almost close enough to feel her breath on his face as she tilted her head back to look up at him.
"You're here," he whispered. "I'm okay."
Stray tears slipped silently free from her shining eyes, rolling down her cheeks almost as if she didn't notice them. Maybe they'd cried too much these last few days. He wanted to look forward, instead of feeling trapped in grief. He wanted to hold her. But he had to be sure.
"Can I… kiss you again?"
She nodded, giving no moment's hesitation between his question and her answer.
He reached out to hold her face in one, large hand, studying the perfect lines and curves he'd memorised long ago. But he'd never been able to look for this long. He felt heat rise up the back of his neck, but he didn't look away. She reached up to wrap thin fingers loosely around his wrist, eyes never leaving his. And he ducked, closing the final distance between them as he pressed his mouth to hers.
He opened his eyes, tears brimming. That was enough. More than enough for one day. Swiping his knuckles beneath his eyes to dry them, he recalled the words he had to focus on, to bring to the surface through a whirlpool of rage and love and wild magic.
He sat up, spotting a small pebble that had broken loose from the old, stone floor, and he stared, unblinking.
Wingardium Leviosa. Wingardium Leviosa.
There was no movement, not yet, but he hadn't expected there to be. It could take all he had, but he would give exactly that much. No less.
A noise outside the only door drew his attention across the room. Footfalls, voices. They were coming.
What if he could open that door? There were no locks he could see, no knobs or hinges visible. It was being opened with magic, alone, he assumed. What spell could it be, which lock, which shield, which wards were keeping him here? But he could start at the beginning, with another engraved memory… first year, as Filch had been coming down the corridor to find them, and he'd thought they'd be caught for sure.
Oh, move over. - Alohomora!
Hermione made her way through Saturday night's crowded pub, searching for familiar faces. The Harpies had won, and Ginny was out celebrating. As Hermione squeezed between a large group of wizards by the bar, she spotted the familiar back of Harry's head… and then, to her surprise, there was Duncan, sitting next to Ginny and in the midst of a conversation. They couldn't see her as she approached, and she began to overhear their words as she moved closer.
"But she's just so… distant when I'm with her, you know?" Duncan was saying. "She's your close friend, maybe you know what I mean."
"Yeah, I know-"
"It's just… one minute she seems interested and the next I can tell she wants to be as far away as she can from wherever we are. It's bloody confusing. She's unpredictable. "
"Well, wouldn't you be, after what she's been through?"
Ginny had stepped right up to that line, and Hermione pushed forward to reach them in one quick stride.
"Been through?" Duncan asked, perplexed.
Hermione's warning voice sounded out over Harry's conversation as well, and he turned to look at her as she stepped between Ginny's chair and Duncan's, staring down at Ginny, feeling her face heat up. Ginny studied her carefully, a bit surprised at Hermione's sudden appearance but clearly more confused by the specific tone of her interruption.
"Damn," Ginny said, reading her well. "You haven't told him?"
Hermione shook her head in a way that felt almost frantic, and she could sense Duncan standing up behind her.
"What's going on?" he asked, and Hermione shut her eyes with a swear beneath her breath.
"I won't tell him," Ginny insisted, but Hermione slowly opened her eyes again and shook her head.
"Go ahead. No point hiding it."
She moved around to take a seat on the other side of the table, wishing she could disappear through the floor but also knowing this was, on some level, for the best. As she stared down at the grain of the wood tabletop, she could feel Ginny's gaze on her for a long moment before she heard her voice again.
"My brother and Hermione were…"
Hermione swallowed, waiting for the words her friend would choose to describe something she had never been able to quite put into words herself.
"They grew up together, they were best friends with Harry... they were in love," Ginny finished, softly, "and he died, about six years ago now."
"Oh, God," Duncan said, sympathetically. "I didn't know."
"I know you didn't," Hermione answered, wishing she didn't sound so snappy. She'd never told him because she hadn't wanted him to know, maybe in part because it had felt like a confession, or because it had been too hard to face the words at all, and that wasn't his fault.
"Hermione," Ginny said, leaning across the table, "I'll get you a drink. What do you want?"
"Whatever you're having."
Ginny stood and left them, and Hermione tried not to move away as Duncan scooted his chair around the table, close enough to her that they could speak and not be overheard by Harry and the others who had returned to their own conversations on the opposite side.
"If you don't want me to be here, just say-"
"You aren't involved in this. It's my own problem."
There was a long pause during which she was sure he would just leave. But he didn't. He was studying her, and she looked over sadly to meet his eyes.
"I wish you'd told me," he said, quietly. "I might have been a git to you by mistake. I didn't know what you were going through."
"I'm sorry. I really am."