A/N: Posting my "Christmas fic" early! Retaliation for a Harry/Hermione my eyes fell upon earlier tonight? Probably. Also, I had been working on some fic for aloemilk, for her birthday, but it is taking me much longer than it should, so I am dedicating this one to her! Happy belated, aloe! Hope you had a great one.

He'd always loved Christmas. It wasn't the gifts or the false feeling of joy that crept into everything, everyone. Though those things had drawn him in with hesitant excitement as a child, wondering if his family would buy him something special that they couldn't afford… But now, those shallow hopes were as trivial and insignificant as melting snow.

Now, it was silence interrupted by the crackling of a fire. It was four days without obligations, the pleasing scent of the slightly charred bread Hermione had baked filling the air.

It was the first Christmas after the war had ended. The first Christmas without Fred.

His eyes burned with recently shed tears, though they had ceased now, arms around him. They sat before the hearth, Hermione on his left and Harry on his right. She was holding his arm, her cheek against his shoulder. Harry's hand was round his wrist, and Ron wondered if he even realised he was still holding on.

Since the beginning, they had stood together to protect Harry. Now, with threats gone, they were here for him. A part of him felt oddly selfish, to be surrounded by a comfort he craved. But they'd always been the three of them. Even now - now that he had Hermione as everything

They'd shared every step. Harry had been there for their first row, their first kind words to each other… their first kiss.

He should be there for this, too...

"The locket showed me the two of you together," he suddenly said, in a scratchy voice, flinching as Hermione jolted her head from his shoulder and gasped, staring at his profile.


He turned and smiled at her, a sort of sleepy smile he'd gotten used to showing her. They'd lie in his bed late at night and talk about anything. And he'd smile at her, because they belonged together, as much as he'd cynically thought he'd never be so lucky.

"It's nothing now," he reassured her. "But I promised I'd tell you what it did to me, eventually... Why not now?"

Her wide eyes glistened, dancing firelight in chocolate brown.

"Why would it do that?" she whispered, disgusted.

"It wanted me to hate you… More than that, it wanted me to hate myself - which I reckon was pretty easy when I already-"

"Ron," she cried, tightening her grip on his arm.

"Everything Voldemort did was meant to keep people away from any happiness they could find," Harry said in a low, raspy voice. "It's much easier to control someone who has nothing to fight for, right?"

Ron met Harry's eyes, recalling the words that echoed so clearly in his mind, nearly a year after Harry had said them.

It's always been like that. I thought you knew.

And if the lies he'd let himself hear, over and over, had been as false as Harry had promised him, then what was the rest, really? If the very image of his fear - the manifestation of Harry and Hermione inside that locket, brought to him by a piece of a ruined soul - was as wrong and horrifying to them, as well... then, the rest…

Could the hatred for who he was, built in the background of his mind through years of second place, actually mean nothing? Could he have been wrong, the swirling circles of doubt clouding the truth from his own unreliable narrative?

There had been seeds to grow, but he had watered them.

"You said that I chose him," Hermione whispered shakily. "You actually thought…"

Ron reached down to take her hand, linking their fingers together.

"He told me," Ron clarified, "Voldemort. He told me I was worthless, and I decided to believe him."

"But you must have thought it before, for him to find it and use it against you," she reasoned, voice breaking sadly.

"Yeah, but I was wrong. I know that."

"Ron, I knew you felt overlooked. But I wasn't thinking! I didn't… God. It's my fault! I should have understood, when you wore the locket… what it would do to you."

Tears rolled down her cheeks as he squeezed her hand, sighing.

"It's absolutely not your fault," he said firmly. "I never talked to you. I should have done, many times, but-"

"Wait," Harry said softly, and they both turned to look at him. "Hermione, you did help. You told me, fourth year."

"What are you on about?" Ron arched an eyebrow as Harry shook his head.

"Hermione told me you felt overshadowed by everybody, and you hadn't said anything about it… Then, the tournament-"

"Oh, bloody hell, don't remind me," Ron scoffed, leaning his shoulder against Harry's.

They grinned at each other for a moment, remembering so long ago, times that felt so important in the moment but looked so trivial now.

"But honestly," Ron added, turning back to face Hermione, "how'd you figure that? I never said anything."

"I'd forgotten I said that to Harry… I just- I don't know. I knew."

She sucked her bottom lip between her teeth and held his gaze, apologetically.

"I think that makes it worse," she sniffed. "By the time we'd finished sixth year, I was too caught up trying to figure out how to tell you I loved you."

His puzzled expression turned slowly to a grin.

"That's a bloody good excuse."

She ducked, resting her forehead on his shoulder as she sighed.

"You honestly thought I might fancy Harry?" she mumbled disgustedly against his jumper sleeve.

"Hey, he's got a scar, and he's bloody famous! Everybody fancies Harry."

Harry snorted and lazily stretched his legs out toward the glowing hearth.

"Oi," he teased, "you fancy me, Ron?"

Ron laughed and shook his head.

Hermione lifted her head from Ron's shoulder to look up at him again.

"It's always been you."

Looking into her eyes, hearing the words he now knew… His body tingled brilliantly, warmth around him, snow falling faster outside.

"You, too," he said deeply, watching her parting lips and softening features as she pressed her chest to his arm and reached up to clutch the collar of his jumper, tugging his face down to meet hers, kissing him.

He closed his eyes and held her, wrapping his arms around her. She now felt, every time, like a part of himself, an extension of his soul when he'd given her everything.

And she gave everything back.

They parted so slowly, lips an inch apart as he cracked open his eyes to the dark room, firelight dying beside them.

There were days he couldn't breathe, days he felt an incredible weight of loss. But she was always there. Even when she was far away at Hogwarts, and he missed her like hell, her voice and her words would echo inside him. And it wasn't just her, anymore. It wasn't just memories of "I love you," that first night she'd spoken those words to him, so nervous, lying in moonlight beside him. It wasn't just Harry's arms around him, the night he'd returned to them, soaked and frozen from the pool and the sword and the locket and-

His own voice joined them, telling him to breathe. To live. That the lies were truly lies meant to harm him, to take him away from the truth they gave him.

They'd lost things that couldn't be replaced. But they had each other. They always would. He could trust them not only with his life, but with everything.