Here I am, squinting up at the light like a hibernating bear after The Longest Winter.
azaleablueme may have inspired me to get my shit together on this chapter today after a Tumblr ask. A 2 hour flight delay where we were strapped into our seats, sitting on the runway, may have sealed the deal.
This is a short-ish one, but I hope it is at least a morsel of something for those of you who have miraculously followed this story for a regrettable length of time. There is so much more I meant to do with this fic. Let's see if we can push on through. If you are reading this now, God bless you. You are a gd trooper. x
"We can probably take the wrapping off now," she said, pushing herself up off the floor and moving back to her chair.
"We've got to take Polyjuice again, haven't we," Harry realised, and Ron nodded.
"Just thought of the same thing."
"Yes, and we've got to try to cover the scars with charms as well, to see if that fails, as it should," Hermione added, attempting to untie the knots in her bloody dressing with one hand.
Ron scooted his chair closer and reached over to help her, but she winced as they began unwrapping the last few layers, squinting as he very slowly peeled the final blood-soaked piece away from her raw skin.
Her blood was caked thickly between her fingers and in the grooves of her hand, so it was hard to clearly make out the marks left by the curse. She reached for her wand and turned to hold her hand over the basin on the floor again.
"Aguamenti," and she sucked in a sharp breath between her teeth as jets of water sprouted from her wand to rinse her skin. The wound stung fresh, though much less unbearably than minutes ago, and she cleaned it once more before reaching for a cloth to pat it dry.
Ron and Harry each leaned over one of her shoulders to view the marks by gently flickering light as she held her hand out in front of her, palm up.
Rather than one or two twisted lines, as she had expected, her hand was marked by about a dozen cuts, curiously crossed and joined. In the centre was a straight, vertical line with a small triangle in the middle, pointing out to the right. To the right of that, there were two more small lines, forming two sides to another triangle, like an arrow, but disconnected from the big line in the centre and pointing left. A duplicate of this arrow was pointing toward the right, slightly lower down. At the bottom was an X, and on the far left, three more vertical lines of identical height ran up next to the longest mark.
"No wonder that bloody hurt," Ron said, his hair brushing against hers just before he sat back in his chair again. She'd not fully realised how close he had been to her until he was moving away. But then he reached out, took her wrist gently in his right hand, fingers wrapping around her, as he continued to study her cuts. She swallowed and was momentarily distracted from the pain by his hand on her.
"What's it mean, you reckon?"
"Are they supposed to mean something?" Harry asked, turning toward the table to unwrap his own blood-soaked cloths.
"Sometimes," Hermione said, "but it usually has to do with the caster. Since we know each other well, I'd guess they'll probably make sense as bind runes."
Ron blinked at her, and Harry paused his unwrapping.
"Skip to the part where you correctly assume we've got no bloody idea what the hell that means," Ron said, grinning slightly as he released her wrist.
She rolled her eyes but smiled back.
"They're a kind of glyph, where two or more runes are combined into a pattern, usually joined in some way by a centrepiece, often a vertical line like I've got here," and she indicated the tallest line in the middle of her scabbing wound. "Some of mine aren't actually joined, but the way they fit together reminds me of some I've seen before in Ancient Runes."
"So… you're saying you can figure out what they represent?" Ron asked.
Harry winced as he stripped off the last piece of cloth from his hand, scooting his chair closer to the basin again and rinsing his wound in several consecutive streams of water. Hermione handed him a dry cloth, and Ron leaned forward to look more closely at Harry's marks.
They were definitely very different from Hermione's. The centrepiece of his was a diamond, topped by three dots going across horizontally. To the right was a cross, but the crosspiece was leaning down further on the right side than the left. On the opposite side of the centre was a kind of sideways W, pointing left.
"Harry, I think I actually recognise the bent cross on the right," Hermione said, recalling it from one of her advanced runes books. "It's a symbol for survival, endurance and determination."
"Well, that fits," Ron said, leaning away to work on unraveling his own wrapping. But his fresher wound was less dry, and as he reached the final strip, a bit of blood oozed out to trickle around the side of his wrist, over darkly stained skin.
"Careful!" Hermione gasped, snatching a fresh cloth off the table and sliding to the floor again to crouch at Ron's knees, wadding and pressing the cotton to his palm.
He glanced down at her, caught slightly off guard by her quick movements, and she felt her face flush lightly as she clutched his hand.
"Just wait a minute," she whispered, staring up at him.
"Should we go ahead and test mine?" Harry asked, standing behind Hermione.
"I've got this," Ron told her, moving to replace her hand on his wound with his own. Hermione nodded and stood, facing Harry, as Ron twisted his fresh cloth around his hand to secure it.
"Let's do the charms first," Hermione suggested, "then you can take the potion, turn back into Ron, and use the loo."
"Oi, Harry," Ron said from behind her now, "I know we're close and all, but how long will you have to avoid me after you grope my-"
"Alright, let's just get this done!" Hermione interrupted loudly, blushing slightly and trying not to laugh. "We can quarter the dose and it should only last a few minutes, so we can all wait it out here."
"Oh, I dunno, that's just long enough for me to get back to Myrtle's and get Ron's trousers off."
"Wanker," Ron laughed.
"I won't go that far…"
Hermione shook her head and couldn't help smiling, feeling a swell of lightness that had been missing from her life for so many months. This was where she was most comfortable, where she was herself. But she didn't want to cry again, so she focused on a list of spells and the burning sensation still throbbing from her injured hand.
She reached forward and waved her wand across Harry's wound. White light pulsed from her wand, but when she withdrew it, his hand looked exactly as it had done. She tried it again, this time sending a golden glow to flash across his skin. No change.
"Well, chameleons and disillusionment don't seem to alter it. You can take the potion now."
She reached across the table for her bag, pulling out the leftover Polyjuice and cups. She measured out a tiny amount and turned back to face Ron.
"Oh, right," he said, ducking his head forward and waiting. She smiled down at him and tugged a couple hairs free from his fringe, dropping them into the potion and swirling it around before handing it to Harry. Then, she reached up and plucked a few hairs from Harry's head.
She faced the table again to mix another batch of potion for herself, slicing off some of her own hairs to prepare Ron's as well.
"Ought to take your shirt and trousers off, Harry, unless you want my legs to stretch your jeans for you…" Ron said, a sentence that sounded so utterly absurd out of context that she might have laughed had she not been focusing on mixing potions.
But when she turned back around a minute later, she was glancing between two Rons, one now wearing only his pants. Harry's pants.
Harry-Ron held out his hand, reminding them of what was left to be done, and all three of them stared down at his fully intact and recognisable wound.
"Brilliant," he breathed, nodding approvingly up at Hermione.
"That's a bloody relief," Ron added, moving back to his chair, slowly removing the fresh cloth from his hand, and, satisfied that it was no longer actively bleeding, he rinsed his wound to examine his own cuts.
Harry and Hermione moved to stand on either side of him, curious.
And though Ron's wound was unique, two features were immediately recognisable from Hermione's. The centre section of his was a tall X with three identical vertical lines to the right of it. She had both of those markings on her own hand, though in different positions. The distinguishing features of Ron's, however, were the three lines surrounding the centre, which made up three sides of a square, with the top piece slanting down to the right. And, on the far left, there was a half-arrow, pointing up, missing its right side.
"Haven't you got an X like that?" Ron asked Hermione, noticing exactly what she had at first and reaching up for her left wrist with his good hand.
They glanced between the two, and it was only now, looking at them more closely, that Hermione recalled what it might represent.
"Actually," she started, "an X on its own probably symbolises partnership, balance, or… I think it can also be forgiveness."
"Hang on," Ron said. "Is that the same as a gebo?"
Hermione blinked down at him, lowering her hand, surprised.
"How do you know that?"
"My brother is a curse breaker," he reminded her, "and he told us about this ritual some small wizarding community in Egypt used when they thought a building had an old curse on it. They would carve or burn a big X on the front door before entering. Bill called it a gebo and said it was supposed to be a really powerful symbol for sacrifice or… a gift, sort of. He said they thought it balanced out the old curse so they could go inside."
"Should I feel cheated?" Harry teased. "Sounds like a good mark to have."
"Yes, but it…"
Hermione trailed off, recalling a passage of text on the gebo from her runes studies that she wasn't sure she wanted to say aloud. But it surely didn't matter anymore, she thought. Her angsty teenage feelings were only ghosts from not knowing how Ron really felt about her. She certainly couldn't claim to be confused about that anymore…
Colour rushed to her cheeks in spite of her dismissal as she recalled waking up to his naked chest pressed to her own bare back, just this morning...
"I'll have to research more details later, but… I believe it can have a sexual context… as in sexual desire or possibly love…"
"Ah, I'll leave you two with that one, then," Harry said, wrinkling his nose.
She couldn't be sure in the dim light, but she thought the back of Ron's neck might have flushed just a little…But then, he stood beside her, holding out his left hand again. She lifted her own, wordlessly, next to his, eyes darting between them.
"Got them memorised?" she asked softly.
"I'll do your charms."
He moved his hand closer to her, and she waved her wand over his wounds, twice, quickly satisfied with his unchanging marks. Silently, she did the same to herself, as Ron and Harry watched, smiling, relieved, when nothing happened.
"You really are bloody brilliant, you know," Ron said softly.
"Take your potion so we can get out of here," and she handed him his cup, but she couldn't completely avoid the pleased smile that crossed her face at his compliment.
"Wait, Ron, get your kit off," Harry smirked.
"Oh, damn." He placed his cup on the table and attempted to remove his shirt with his one good hand. "Well," he said after an unsuccessful few seconds, "who wants to give me a hand?"
Harry crossed over and tugged the back of Ron's shirt as he shimmied out of it, then moved on to his trousers. Once stripped down to only his pants, he ruffled his shirt-tousled hair with his good hand.
Hermione tried and failed to swallow. Her mouth had suddenly gone quite dry, and she kept forgetting to breathe. She was literally locked in a room, alone, with two almost naked Rons…
"No point getting dressed in each other's clothes if it doesn't last that long, yeah?" Ron asked, and Hermione had to avoid his eyes to nod back.
Thinking ahead, she moved their three chairs so they were positioned in a sort of triangle, back to back. While Harry seemed unphased standing around in his pants, in Ron's body, she didn't particularly fancy Ron in her own naked body, where she could see him...
"Polyjuice is complicated," Harry pointed out, as Ron picked up his cup.
"Cheers," and Ron glanced at Hermione over the top of his cup before he downed his potion, grimacing at the taste. "I'll never get used to that."
She swallowed her own potion, took Ron's cup back from him, cleaned them with a flick of her wand, and returned everything, including her notes, back to her bag.
"Turn around?" she asked, as she began to feel the potion taking effect.
"Oh, right," and Ron and Harry both turned their backs toward her.
She awkwardly stripped off her clothes with her good hand, heart hammering a bit.
"My eyes are closed," Ron said randomly, and she smiled at his back, watching as he started to shrink, his hair lengthening.
"You should check my hand," he pointed out, now fully transformed into Hermione's body, grasping his pants with his good hand to keep them up. She felt her vision unfocus, the final change in her own transformation into Harry.
"Can I borrow your glasses, Harry?"
He took them off and held them over his shoulder for her, back still facing her.
Ron held out his hand for her, his eyes still closed, and she examined the marks, which precisely resembled Ron's.
"Good," she said. "It worked."
"Of course it did."
"Harry, want to check mine?"
"Nah, we trust you. Does it look okay?"
It did, and she felt a final wave of relief rush through her.
"Yes," she said through her smile. "We can sit down and wait now."
They took their seats facing away from each other, silence stretching for a moment before Ron spoke first.
"Hermione," he said, in her own voice, after a few minutes had passed, "what happens now? I mean… I don't… God, I don't know what to say to you."
"What do you mean?"
"It's just… a lot."
She somehow understood, and she nodded, though she didn't want him to leave it there.
Silence filled the air for a few more minutes, until they slowly began transforming back into themselves, beginning with Harry. Once all three had confirmed the potion had worn off, she got up first to dress.
At last, they were themselves, and they knew it. Relief was there, deeply… but with it, a kind of poison, just a drop, enough to weigh on her heart and her chance for happiness. This wasn't over yet. Far from it.
They had to go now, to report what Ron had realised, to leave the castle as soon as they could.
Hermione cleared her throat, masking her fear in a falsely brave front, avoiding Ron's piercing, beautiful gaze.
"Ready?" she asked.
The trip to McGonagall's office was halted only by Harry's brief visit to the loo, leaving Ron and Hermione together in a crowded corridor, unable to speak openly. But he kept looking at her. He couldn't help himself.
He really wanted to touch her, but he was fiercely holding back. So much had changed, so bloody fast.
The conversation with the Headmistress had been frantic and short, and she'd ushered them away, punctuated by a request for Hermione to return after supper, while she'd prepared an emergency floo call to the Ministry.
Several hours later, Ron felt completely out of touch with time, as he ascended to Gryffindor Tower with Harry, collapsing to the sofa as they waited for Hermione to return. All they needed was approval to leave the school for the trial. And they were quite sure to get it. In the meantime, Ron was left with swirling thoughts and darting memories, all moving through his mind like a shuffling deck of Exploding Snap.
"I want her to scream at me. I want her to hit me or something - I want her to hate me," he weakly admitted to Harry, once the Common Room had cleared, once the fire had died to a low glow.
Harry's eyes were warm with reflection, green and gold and black, and the room felt too warm, as if a blanket had been laid over them, willing them to suffocate beneath it.
"What good would it do? You'd only be wasting more time."
It was true, considering all the time before... and since, what he'd thought he'd had and lost. They'd wasted plenty of time with jealousy and misunderstanding before he'd wasted half a year thinking she'd done something she never could have.
But that was the real problem now, greater than all the rest. He'd done it. It was his fault. He recognised the downward spiraling circles he was in, but he really couldn't help it.
"I deserve that," he said simply.
"But she doesn't."
Yes. This was right, too, of course. So would he pay for it by not getting to pay at all? Or, had he paid enough already, in shame and sickness, shuddering at the thought of where she could have been instead, all those months he'd thought he'd been with her…
Despite knowing partial truth now, he felt a hollowness, realising he'd made some glaring mistakes along the way. What minute attributes or characteristics had he misunderstood in her? He'd been fooled, like someone who didn't really know her at all. It cut him to live with that incomplete picture, having taken so long to notice. He'd been so sure, so confident, in his vision of her, his vast knowledge of each tiny detail, down to the placement of hidden freckles, words she'd used more frequently, and her secret favourite books.
Creaking hinges startled him from thought, and he turned, in sync with Harry.
"We've got it," Hermione breathed, stepping through the portrait hole, "clearance to leave first thing in the morning."
His chest seized at the sight of her, the truth of his inherent fears striking him hard.
"Show me," he requested, voice scratchy and low and hardly his own.
She approached so cautiously that his heart broke again - she knew exactly what he meant - and he gripped the sofa on either side of his thighs as she lifted the sleeve of her jumper, revealing a deep, scabbed cut on the pad of her thumb. He licked his lips and nodded, remembering to breathe.
"Now you show me," she demanded, face hidden in shadow with her back toward the fire.
Relief was the only word he could use to describe it, the way his tense muscles relaxed at the sound of her command... the harsh edges round the words she spoke. And the corner of his mouth turned up as he released his hold on the sofa cushions and held up his left hand for her inspection.
She took his hand in both of hers, and he blatantly shut his eyes as her fingers ran over his palm, brushing a thumb very close to his still-fresh wound.
She let him go, sighed heavily, and dropped to the rug in front of him, on her knees. When he opened his eyes again, he caught hers, brimming with tears. Her shoulders slouched as she collapsed further down, legs bent and tucked to the side.
"We know it doesn't help to say it again," Harry began, startling Ron into remembering he was there at all, "but we're so, so sorry-"
"It doesn't help," she interrupted, "but I don't mind hearing you say it, anyway..."
She glanced up at Harry and smiled softly. Harry nodded in return and squeezed her arm as he stood, rubbing a hand across his tired face.
"Well, I'll leave you to it," he said. "I think Ron wants you to hit him, which sounds entertaining to watch, but..."
She caught Ron's eyes again then, lips parted slightly as Harry's footsteps receded.
"It might help," Ron shrugged, trying to smile as his eyes danced across her flushed face.
"Goodnight, Harry," she called hoarsely, ignoring him, and Ron heard Harry grunt a sleepy sort of reply as he ascended the stairs.
Silence engulfed them, save the gentle crackling of what remained of the fire behind her. And Ron watched, frozen and hunched forward, elbows on his knees, entranced as she cleared her throat.
"Now," she began, straightening up where she still sat on the rug... narrowing her eyes as she crossed her arms over her chest, "we do have a few things to get straight."