I don't own these characters.Author's Note:
Sorry it took so long between updates, research has been hell. On the plus side this after this chapter I'll be easing off on Ron's angst. It feels like he could use a break, maybe have some fun with his friends.
Ron's recovery took days. At first he lay on his hospital cot staring at absolutely nothing. His mind was clear; he could think, but he couldn't care. Each evening his parents visited and his mother would ask how he could do something so foolish.
He knew he should feel bad for putting her through this, but he didn't. He wondered how badly he would have felt even without the potion's effects. He could count on two hands the number of times he had spoken to her in the past decade. They had met briefly at the birth of Bill's youngest. That was three years ago.
Like his father, she had never been able to forgive him for Ginny. Ginny who had been strong enough to fight off the imperious curse, Ron who hadn't. Hermione managed to get them to visit at Harry's birth, though the reunion was tense. Ron dwelt on the memory, curious. Even thoughts of his daughter weren't enough to pull him from his calm.
The people around him called it a suicide attempt. That wasn't right, was it? Even with the clarity he now held he wasn't sure. It was true that he had wanted an escape; at the time he wouldn't have been picky about whether it came from a potion or death. Once again, his train of thought should have scared him rather than leave him empty.
One thing he could not deny was that he was more messed up than he had thought. There was no escaping the fact that he was going to be forced to deal with his issues once the potion wore off. He doubted Dumbledore would trust a complete nutter with the quest to kill Nagini.
This meant Ron confronting his demons, or at least getting his hands on a steady supply of the potion. A sliver of humour shot through his mind. He doubted that would be happening; Dumbledore and Snape would keep those draughts locked up tighter than their many secrets. At the moment this didn't bother him, but he knew the withdrawal would be bad.
Harry snuck in to see him late the second night. The boy slipped off his invisibility cloak when he was next to Ron's cot. The action was enough to rouse Ron. The only source of light was the glow of the moon filtering in through the hospital wing's windows, but it was enough for Ron to make out Harry's face. It was easy to tell that the boy had had a hard couple of days. The deep circles under Harry's eyes testified to a lack of sleep.
Harry didn't seem to notice Ron's attention. He talked without expecting an answer; he was like a man visiting a cemetery. "Hermione says you can understand me. I guess that means you're gonna be all right mate. She said that the potion will wear off and that you'll wake up soon."
The boy shook his head, "Why'd you do it? Is it because of the Triwizard Cup?" He ran his hand through his hair, making it stick on end. "You know I don't want to be famous. You know I just want to be normal."
Ron returned his stare to the ceiling. He already knew all this. His jealousy of Harry's fame had ended when Harry let Voldemort burn him to death. "Back when we weren't speaking, Hermione kept saying that you just wanted to feel special. That you were jealous of your brothers, jealous of me."
Harry leaned forward and whispered. "Is that why you went to Dumbledore with your plan? He wouldn't tell us what it was, but he said it was important."
Grabbing Ron's shoulder, Harry spoke urgently, "You don't need to do this alone. Hermione says the emotional maturation potion's side effects will wear off in a week if you stop taking it and then you won't be depressed any more. We can help you."
Ron wasn't sure what Harry was talking about. He and Hermione had probably taken his behaviour and pieced together some kind of theory about a nefarious plot. It sounded as though they were a safe distance from the truth. They had probably already found a way of blaming it on Snape or Death Eater conspiracies. If Ron remembered correctly, those were always popular scapegoats when something went wrong at Hogwarts.
Harry had lapsed into silence. He seemed to be struggling with his next words, "Look mate, I know you have five brothers and all, but you're the only one I've got. I don't want to lose you."
There was a hollowness in Ron's chest that felt suspiciously like guilt. Harry didn't stay long after his admission. Ron drifted off to sleep, his conscience clear; there was reason he had become addicted to this potion.
By the next morning he was already starting to recover. Emotions were muted, but he could sit up and talk. Popey had him drinking nutritional supplements meant to replace the meals he had skipped. His parents were going to visit again and he realized that it was probably a good thing the potion was still mostly in effect.
It was nearing lunch when his mother and father flooed into hospital wing. In the back of his mind, Ron noted that Moody would be with the sixth years' defence class. The constant awareness of Moody's schedule was another indication that the potions' effects were weakening.
His mother came through first; she was halfway across the hospital wing by the time his father fell out of the fireplace. Even in his emotionless haze, it was difficult to reconcile the two versions of his parents. While clearly upset, his mother's expression didn't hold the grief and accusation he had become accustomed to.
His father was an even greater contrast. After Ginny, the man hadn't even tried to hide his antipathy. The normally warm and enthusiastic man had constructed an aloof wall between himself and his son. Rather than crumbling over time, the barrier had only grown stronger, fortified by missed holidays and angry words. That was gone now. All Ron could see in the man's face was relief and concern.
Ron had even money on his mother berating him for his stupidity or overwhelming him with motherly concern. It was difficult for him to decide which he would find more awkward. He wished the years of resentment could be forgotten as though they had never been - but that just wasn't possible. Not for
Ron. To his great surprise, Molly did not choose one extreme or the other.
She wasn't angry, but she didn't bundle him into a stifling hug either. Instead she gently flattened out his sleep tussled hair and muttered, "Oh Ron, you silly silly boy."
Ron stared up at her, suddenly too weary, to sit himself up in bed. He cleared his throat and muttered, "Sorry."
By this time his father had joined them. Up close Ron could see how tired the man in front of him was. While Ron was used to a much older version of his parents, the man in front of him should not have looked quite so old quite so soon. He must have taken Ron's reported suicide attempt far harder than expected. Something like guilt wormed its way through the artificial calm.
Arthur shook his head. "Why would you do this?" He looked so lost, so hurt by Ron's actions that more guilt found a home in his damaged psyche. Along with the guilt came anger. Why were they so concerned now? Why not ten years from now when he had really needed them?
The emotions faded before he could speak and he was once again thankful for the clarity. It wouldn't do to start ranting about slights and arguments that would probably never happen. Instead he focused on repeating what he had told Madame Pomfrey. "I wasn't trying to hurt myself dad. I just wanted a little time to relax."
Arthur looked sceptical, but his mother seemed to accept the statement. Ron supposed it was easier than the alternative. With a small tap of her wand on his cot, the bed rearranged itself, forcing Ron to a sitting position. She then sat and took his hand tightly in her own. "Why didn't you tell us you were so unhappy? We could have helped."
Ron couldn't meet her eyes, instead he focused on his stocking-covered feet where they poked out at the end of his blanket. He studied his large toenail where it poked out through a hole in the material as though it were the most fascinating thing in the world. It took a while for Ron to find the words he needed to answer. "It's been a hard year, but Dumbledore has been helping me. When things get too bad I go and talk to him." It was a lie of course, he had rebuffed the headmaster's attempts at consolation again and again, but he wasn't about to tell his parents that.
"Please son, if something like this happens again, talk to him, or Percy, or your sister, even the twins."
His father looked at him with so much desperation that Ron could only nod.
His parents didn't stay much longer. Ron gradually lost what little motivation he had for speaking and only felt the smallest stirrings of guilt as his parents bid him a teary goodbye.
Returning to class was a strange affair; the potion had worn off a day ago and Ron was feeling more like himself (not that being himself was particularly pleasant). Dumbledore had set up a meeting for that very evening. If there was a silver lining to the entire debacle, it was that his meetings with the headmaster could be disguised as counselling sessions.
Harry and Hermione were both upset with him. He had tried to explain that he hadn't been trying to kill himself, only wanted a break, but he didn't think they believed him - not completely, anyway. Harry was by far the easier of the two to deal with. He was worried about Ron, and it was fairly obvious that he felt guilty about what had happened. Fortunately they both acted like the boys they were and ignored Harry's midnight visit as though it had never happened.
Why Harry felt so guilty, Ron had no idea. However, he had seen the emotion enough times in the mirror to identify it on Harry's face. Ron felt like shit for putting Harry through that, but Hermione made him feel a hundred times worse. She was just so cold; it was the same reaction she had had the first time he had taken too much of the stuff. It was almost funny how some things about a person just didn't change, even after twenty years.
That overdose had been a genuine accident, as had the last she had helped him deal with. Something must have distracted him while mixing his morning tea because one sip of a drink that should have numbed the edges of his guilt had left him barely conscious. One minute he was taking a sip of scalding tea, the next his head was spinning and he had lain down on the kitchen floor.
Hermione had made sure that he was alive. After a few diagnostic spell she realized what was wrong and managed to calm herself down. She knew that he would recover. She even called his boss and told him that Ron was sick. She had lied for him, knowing they would fire him if they knew the truth.
By the next day the draught passed through his system. The first clear emotion he felt was a growing sense of worry. Hermione hadn't come to bed the night before, and he had no clue where she was. His worry turned into panic when he was unable to find her. She wasn't at work, and she wasn't answering the cell phone she kept for her parents and muggle friends. In the end he had needed Dumbledore's deluminator to locate her. The tiny glowing flame of the device lead him down the street from their flat to a muggle park.
She was sitting on the ground at the base of a monument to some muggle general. She turned to face him as he came around the edge of the statue. After realizing it was him, her hand eased away from the wand hidden in her sleeve. They had been out of the fight for almost two years, but they hadn't let go of the paranoia. She smiled bitterly when she recognized the silver deluminator in his hand, "I should have remembered that you could use that to find me."
Ron felt his chest tighten. He didn't think she had ever sounded so disappointed to see him. "You know I didn't take that much on purpose," he answered defensively, referring to the potion.
Hermione shook her head and turned away from him. Her arms were wrapped around her midsection. This was all wrong. This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. She was supposed to call him a foolish prat, they would argue, and then they would make up. It was how they worked. It was why they worked: they challenged each other.
Instead he stood helplessly. When she looked back to him, he realized she was crying: "You're never here."
He knelt down in front of her. He knew things were different now. Life had changed so much since they had left England. Back when they were fighting with the Order they had spent almost all their time together, but now his job as an EMW had been keeping him busy. "If this is about the double shifts, I can cut back." Ron said desperately.
Hermione shook her head and stared past him. "It's not the work Ron, it's the potion. You're never here." She reached out and tapped him lightly on the chest.
Ron backed up, panic of a different sort rising. He was ashamed to admit that it came from fear of losing his crutch. "You know I need it."
Hermione just looked more upset, "It's been over a month since we've really talked or even had a row; weeks since we've had sex."
Something cold settled over Ron. "What are you saying?" He hadn't felt this kind of dread since the war.
"Do you even still love me, or are you just here because you can't leave?"
Ron shook his head. This couldn't be happening. Hermione was the one reason he wasn't on the potion all the time. "No Hermione, I love you. You have to know that." He reached out and took her hands, peeling them away from her midsection.
He tried reading her face. Normally he could figure out her mood just by the way she held her head. Other than looking utterly miserable, her face was shuttered, Occluded. He couldn't tell if she believed him. Ron was torn; he knew he was hurting her, knew that the potion he took to deal with the memories of the dead was causing him to lose touch with the living. Even now he was desperately craving it, and it's promise to take away the guilt of hurting her.
He could feel the weight of the flask in the pocket inside his jacket - a comforting promise to take the edge off. He shook off the desire; if he went back to the potion now, he knew he would be losing Hermione. "I'll stop, I promise I'll stop."
"You've said you were going to cut back before."
He leaned in and touched her cheek, "Please Hermione, give me a chance. I won't blow it, I can't afford to."
She leaned in and rested her forehead against his, her relief palpable. "Thank you." Even now he could hear the doubt in her tone. It hurt knowing that she didn't trust him anymore, but he knew he could win it back. They left the park together hand in hand. Ron noticed that she kept bringing her free hand to her stomach.
It wasn't until he saw her eyes tracking a woman crossing the park pushing a pram that he realized what was going on. He turned back to her and said, "Bloody hell. Really?"
Hermione nodded, eyes wide and frightened. Ron felt dizzy; he wasn't ready to be a father! Most days he could barely take care of himself, let alone a kid. Before he could help himself he blurted out, "Is it mine?"
Hermione's worry gave way to anger. "You-you prat! Of course it's yours." She shouted in disbelief.
What followed was one of their more spectacular rows. Despite the harsh words exchanged, they were at least communicating. While Ron hadn't enjoyed it at the time, he could look back at the fight fondly now. Going off the potion had been difficult, but he had managed it.
Ron spent a morning trying to get Hermione's attention in their care of magical creatures class only to be stoically rebuffed. At lunch she even sat at the Slytherin table, sharing her meal with Krum. Harry tried to wave her over to the seat next to him and Ron, but she seemed as oblivious to him as she was to the angry looks being shot at her from the female Slytherins.
Ron finally managed to catch up to her outside the DA classroom following lunch, Harry was at his side. Before he could say more than the first syllable of her name she caught Harry's arm and marched their friend into the room.
All hour Ron snuck glances across the classroom where Hermione and Harry were practising. For once Harry was having an easier time with a spell than Hermione. Her incantation was spot on, but she was gripping her wand so tightly it was amazing that the wood didn't snap.
Ron sighed and turned back to Neville. Ron couldn't blame Hermione for her coldness. They had both seen too many people have their lives stolen to condone someone throwing theirs away. Ron shook his head; no, that was his Hermione, not this one.
Most of the time Ron had no trouble keeping the two separate. Their bodies, minds, and personalities were drastically different. This Hermione had never used the Cruciatus curse; in fact, she probably couldn't. On rare occasions, despite the age difference, there were times that the two's behaviour was so similar Ron would get them confused. Just for a second. When she laughed at a joke, was passionately defending house elf rights, or in this case giving him a silent treatment for doing something incredibly stupid.
He chased the thoughts away and focused on Neville. The day's lesson was the conjunctivitus curse and its counter; it was the spell Krum had used in the first challenge to injure the dragon's eyes. Rather than practice on each other Moody had acquired a bucket full of sheep's eyeballs and had given one to each pair. One performed the curse, the other the counter.
As usual, Neville was unable to get his jet of sparks anywhere near the rotting organ. It was a sharp contrast to the man Ron remembered. Ron was no slouch when it came to duelling. Seven years on the front lines of a war and Hermione as a teacher did count for something. It wasn't just luck that had pulled him through alive.
Still, Neville was in another league. Ron may have been slightly jealous of the other man's skill, but he had to admit that Neville worked hard for it. The man trained every morning and evening until he was half dead from magical exhaustion. He and Ginny had been their top fighters. Ron couldn't count the number of times Neville had saved him or Hermione. Next to Harry, Neville was the bravest man Ron had ever met. It was strange watching him struggle with something as trivial as the conjunctivitus.
"You've got to ease up on your wand. If you hold on too tight you'll never be able to aim." Ron suggested before doing the spell himself, making sure to miss the eye by a couple of inches.
Neville nodded, "Thanks, I'll try it that way." He gave Ron a tentative smile. That was one thing Nev was good for, he didn't seem to hold Ron's 'accident' with the potion against him. He just seemed happy Ron had recovered. The next spell Neville tried was actually further from the test eye. Still the colour looked better.
Ron felt the back of his neck itch and quickly looked up. Crouch Jr was watching them from across the classroom. Ron turned back to the eye ball and tried to ignore the man. He forced a light conversation with Neville about Krum's performance on the first task. He felt Crouch's eyes on him several more times that class.
Dread began to flood Ron's system. Had he accidentally tipped the death eater off? Had something he said aroused suspicion? The lesson dragged on and Ron felt his palms become sweaty. His nerves reached the point where he accidentally caused his sheep's eye to explode rather than become covered in blisters. Not the desired result, but it would still be effective in a fight.
When it was finally time to leave for divination, Ron gathered his things as quickly as he could. He was about to sprint for the door when Moody barked, "Weasley, stay after class."
Neville gave him a sympathetic smile. "Don't worry, he's not too bad."
Ron didn't respond; instead he focused on stacking his books while the class emptied. His heart was pounding in his ears, but he tried not to let his nerves show. Even if Crouch suspected something, he would almost certainly underestimate Ron when it came to a fight. That was Ron's one advantage, play the child card. To Crouch he was just a fourth year; he couldn't use the killing curse, and didn't know how to pull information from an unwilling captive.
If things came to spells, this would be no different than the missions he used to go on. A breath of calm blew through him.
This - this was familiar. The calm before a fight. Ron was still scared, terrified even, but it was more manageable. He forced himself to tuck his wand into his pocket. The walk to the front of the class was over all too soon. Crouch sized Ron up. Under Moody's deformed and wizened features there was one calculating beady eye.
He bent down and lifted the pail of sheep's eyes onto his desk. He flicked his wand and summoned those in the class to join their friends in the pail. For a moment the room was filled with a dozen bouncing balls ricocheting off the desks and ceiling as they returned to their bucket. Reaching in with his bare hand, Crouch fished one out and placed it on the desk. "Curse it."
What? Ron was confused, why would Crouch give him an excuse to pull his wand? Maybe the man didn't suspect anything. Ron took his wand out of his pocket and performed a halfhearted curse on the eye. It missed by a few inches.
Crouch was not fooled. "Potter's not here Weasley, do it right."
Ron was more confused than ever; why would he be hiding his ability from Harry? Still, not wanting to raise more suspicion, he did the spell correctly. The jet of red-purple light struck the eye and filled the retina with painful looking blisters.
Crouch nodded approvingly. "Again." Ron repeated the spell, compounding the blisters. "In my office now." He gestured for Ron to go first. Ron shuddered as he walked up the stairs at the rear of the class; he didn't like the feeling of the Death Eater at his back. This was the first time Ron had seen Crouch's office. It was filled with various dark wizard detectors. Standing near a desk was a large mirror, a foe glass. Ron doubted it was a coincidence that one of the blurry figures had a very distinctive shade of red hair. Crouch took a seat and indicated for Ron to do the same. "Tea?" Ron shook his head, who knew what could be in it. "You've been practising on your own."
Keeping his eyes down, Ron nodded. "Yer' also hiding it from your friends." It wasn't a question but Ron nodded anyway, not looking up. His mind was racing; how could he spin this? Crouch waited for a beat. When he didn't get the expected elaboration he pushed, "Why?"
Ron glanced up, before once again averting his eyes. He finally muttered the only thing he could think of: "Harry's better at everything else, I wanted something I could be best at."
Crouch's stare weighed heavily on him, "Why hide it?"
"Because I didn't want him to start practising. I want t' stay better than him." It was pathetic, it was selfish, and from the way his younger self had acted earlier in the term, it was completely in line with his character.
Crouch scoffed. "Not very Griffindor of you." Ron wasn't sure if he imagined the humour buried under the man's fake disapproval - of course a Death Eater would find something like that entertaining.
Ron shook his head. "No sir."
Clearing his throat Crouch continued, "Bit of ambition ain't a bad thing boy, but Harry's gonna need all the practice he can get in order to win. Looks like you and Granger can help him with that."
Ron stared at the floor. Nodding he said, "Yes sir, I'll help him." There was a pause and Ron asked, "May I go sir?" Moody waved him off and Ron scuttled out of the room. It wasn't until he made it to the corridor outside the divination class that he let himself collapse against the wall in relief. At least he would have something to talk to Albus about tonight, he thought as he calmed his breathing.
~~~~~ Thanks for reading, as always reviews appreciated.