Ron woke up, taking his time about it. The room was quiet and the shadows on the floor had grown long.
He groped around for his watch, a bit battered and scratched now from the burning treasure in the Lestranges’ vault, but couldn’t find it. He remembered worrying about bashing it up completely on the sides of the dark, slimy pipe down to the Chamber of Secrets, and Hermione’s offer to put it in her bag for safe-keeping.
The bed next to his was rumpled but Harry was nowhere to be seen, and the other beds hadn’t been slept in. Ron went to have a shower.
Hermione sat up in bed, wrapping her arms around her knees and enjoying being in an empty room alone with her thoughts. Lavender had been moved to St. Mungo’s and Parvati had gone with her. The other two beds weren’t even made up. After a while, she went to have a shower.
Hermione combed her hair carefully and dried it with her wand, taking her time about it. She found clothes, freshly laundered by Fleur, and put them on. Then it occurred to her that Ron wouldn’t have anything clean to put on, only that filthy, torn top and those old jeans, no longer particularly tight on him.
She could take him pants and a t-shirt anyway. As she felt around in the Ron compartment of her beaded bag to locate them, her hand met something hard. His watch, of course. He’d miss that before anything else.
Ron sat on the side of his bed, trying to get the worst of the dirt and sweat out of his clothes. It was taking forever. He’d never been all that good at Tergeo. He had a feeling there was another spell he could be using. Hermione would know. So would his mum, but he couldn’t go and find either of them wrapped only in the towel he’d found in a pile of clean washing lying neatly folded on Neville’s bed .
Hermione climbed the stairs to the boys’ bedroom. If Neville, Seamus or Dean answered, she’d just say “I’m here to give Ron and Harry some clean clothes.” Easy.
There was a knock at the door. “Come in,” said Ron, hoping it wasn’t Neville.
It wasn’t Neville. “Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” Hermione replied. There was a new bruise on her cheek, in addition to all the burns, and the faint pink line crossing the hollow of her throat. The mark from the knife had faded loads, but he could still see it, clear as day. It made him shudder every time.
Hermione hovered by the door. “I brought your watch back, and some clean clothes.”
Now she was walking across the room towards him. Ron held up his manky old jeans in a pathetic attempt to hide himself. Idiot. She’d seen him without a shirt before, the time she patched him up after he got . It made no difference; the towel around his waist felt about as small as a facecloth.
“Can I help you with that?”
Sitting down next to him, Hermione gave no sign of noticing his near-nakedness. After months dancing around each other in the confined space of the tent, she was failing to spot that they were finally alone, thanks to the total absence of a specky git in one of the other beds. Ron felt a bit awkward at his state of undress, but not so much he wanted her to go anywhere he wasn’t.
Like she had the powers of a house elf or something, a couple of seconds rummaging in the depths of her sparkly bag brought forth a pristine white t-shirt. A few more produced … of course ... a pair of pants. He’d never get used to that.
“Fleur washed and ironed them.” There was some kind of point underlying that remark, but Ron didn’t get it, whatever it was.
“Thanks,” he said again. “For bringing them, I mean.”
Ron dropped the jeans, making a grab for the clean garments Hermione was holding out to him, but fumbled the save. He was left with nothing to cover his bare chest except a pair of balled-up socks. Leaning over to pick the t-shirt up off the floor, he began to pull it over his head, doing his best not to dislodge the towel. “Er—?”
“Oh, right! Sorry.” Finally.
Hermione snatched up the jeans from where they were lying at his feet, hurried over to the window, and stood with her back to him. She moved her wand soundlessly over the fabric, which quickly turned from greyish brown to faded blue. As his head emerged from the t-shirt, Ron noticed the deepening blush creeping up the back of Hermione’s neck. “Are you decent yet?” she called.
He must have heard her say that fifty times over the last few months. Maybe it was just in his imagination that she sounded different today.
“Um, yeah.” Well, he was, more or less, now he had his pants on, and Neville’s towel still in service round his waist. She’d seen his disgusting, pale, hairy, knobbly knees enough times—if she couldn’t cope with the sight of them by now, there was no hope. “Chuck those jeans over.” Hermione moved back across the room with hesitant steps.
“Here you go.” She held them out to him, then started talking very fast. “I think they’re as clean as they’re going to get, they need soap and hot water really, well, it’s not surprising is it…?”
“Sit back down,” he said, pulling the jeans on and leaning back to do them up. She perched on the very edge of the bed, almost hugging the post at the far end. Not for the first time, Ron appreciated that an embarrassed Hermione was a subtly different shade to a yelling one. The sight was a treat, because rarer, and less predictable. This time, he hadn’t even made it happen on purpose. For a moment, he felt sorry for her, before being distracted by the fact that not only had her cheeks grown pinker but also her lips.
He realised he was staring and felt bad again. Come to think of it, maybe sitting on the bed was giving her the wrong idea. Hermione was really good at a lot of things. Getting the wrong idea, at least where he was concerned, was one of them. He got to his feet. “Shall we go downstairs and find the others?” he suggested, holding out his hand. “In a minute, I mean?”
She took the hand, playing along, as though she needed his help standing up. “In a minute, yes.”
It felt good to be holding Hermione’s hand, so Ron kept on doing it. Also, it was keeping his mind off the whole Fred being dead thing, and Percy looking like he wished it had been him instead, and Dad crying, which Ron hadn’t realised until last night was something he’d hoped he would never, ever see, and…
Ron looked at the really quite small hand in his and worked out he might be crushing it a little. He went to drop it but Hermione was moving closer, throwing her arms around him and hugging him tightly.
“Oh, Ron,” she said. “I wish there was something …” She stopped mid-sentence, mouth slightly open. He had a very good view because she was still holding onto him and looking up and around the room, as though she were searching for the right words in the dusty rafters of the Gryffindor dormitory.
“It’s OK,” he said, wriggling a bit to get her to loosen her grip. She seemed to realise what he meant, releasing her hold on his upper arms and lifting her own until they were hooked comfortably around his neck. She snuggled closer, with little sighs and murmurings, and he dropped his head and rested it, eyes shut, in her sweet-smelling hair. He could stay like this for a long time. He wouldn’t have to go downstairs into the noisy, choking dust, the splintered wood and rubble of the shattered castle.
He moved his hands up and down Hermione’s back, before sliding one of them into her hair, cradling the back of her head. She tilted it back, letting him take the weight, gazing upwards again, into his eyes this time. She was waiting, he realised. Waiting for him for once. Taking her time, not trying to read everything in advance and letting him lead, like she had all those months ago on the dance floor at Bill’s wedding. He’d nearly kissed her that night. Krum had been looking over and Ron had wanted him to see.
In that moment, everything he’d read in Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches—not treating a woman like a Quaffle to be passed back and forth between players, or like a Bludger to be batted into the face of an opponent, or like a Golden Snitch to be won or lost at the end of a game—flew out of his head.
He’d bottled it at the last possible second, backing off in recognition of the glare Hermione was shooting at him, the all-too-familiar one that said ‘I know what you’re up to, Ron Weasley’.
Later that night, at Grimmauld Place, Hermione had challenged him with it. Still shaken from the attack at the wedding and its aftermath, he hadn’t denied it. They’d had a row, hissing at each other in the darkness while Harry slept a few feet away. Then, into one of the taut silences, Hermione had whispered, “I do want you to kiss me one day, Ron.”
In the darkness and silence following her words, he actually felt a bolt go through him. Nothing he’d felt before even came close. Searching to identify it, to name it, at first he related it to the burn of lips against his cheek, to fleeting moments of shared body warmth, an arm around a shoulder, the whisper of wild and tumbled hair beneath his touch. After all, he had nothing else to compare it to.
Later that night, a hand in his, freely offered, a steady current sustaining them both, taught him otherwise. Soon, he came to associate it with bluebell flames, the healing warmth of dittany on his arm. Away from her at Christmas, the sound of her voice and the light from the Deluminator going into him was an echo of it. Last night, when she’d thrown down the Basilisk fangs and snogged him as though their lives depended on it, he’d let it blaze up, fill him, warm him through, drive out fear.
“When?” he’d asked her all those months ago.
“When it’s about you and me, and nothing else.”
She was so unbelievably smart. How could she always be so right about everything?
He lowered his head, and kissed her.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Arnel for the beta, and to Charlotte who demanded Weasleys and got me writing Ron and Hermione again. Thanks most of all to J K Rowling for writing a perfect book.