Disclaimer: None of the people, places, or things surrounding Hogwarts the wizarding world are my creation; they belong to J.K. Rowling.
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me." -- Psalm 23
Ron had heard that when a person was inches away from dying, their entire lives flashed before their eyes, like a bright, Technicolor film showcasing the best and worst memories of their life. He wondered absently if that was what happened to Hermione as the Cruciatus Curse was repeatedly inflicted on her, then when she was nearly crushed to death by the falling chandelier. Because he was realizing now, as he carried Hermione's limp form into Bill and Fleur's little cottage, that it wasn't his entire life that was playing in his mind, but only certain aspects of it, the parts that had included Hermione.
What if she doesn't make it?
He gripped her body more tightly and tried to banish the thought from his mind, yet again. He'd thought of little else since the Malfoy manor, where he'd been trapped in the cellar, able to hear her screams but not being able to rescue her. It had been torture of the worst kind, and he would have much preferred the Curse to listening to Hermione being tortured. Quite simply, if it was him enduring the Curse, it meant that Hermione wasn't being hurt.
"Ron?" came Bill's surprised and concerned voice. Ron looked up to see his brother and Fleur running toward them, Fleur's skirts billowing in the wind. He dimly wondered if they'd been in the middle of a meal, as Bill carried what appeared to be a chicken leg in one hand.
"Is that—that...?" Bill trailed off, looking down at the bundle in Ron's arms.
"Yes," Ron said on a gasp that was paper-thin.
"Not yet," came Ron's grim reply. His arms were starting to cramp from the weight, and Bill immediately threw the chicken leg to the side, gently easing Hermione from Ron's arms to his own.
"Fleur—" Bill began, but she'd already turned back to the cottage, muttering something about potions and spells.
Ron followed Bill into the cottage, swallowing past the lump of bile in his throat. Not the time, he thought angrily, furious that he would try to put his own comfort before Hermione's. You can throw-up after you know she's going to be okay.
Bill brought Hermione to his and Fleur's bedroom, laying her down on the bed. He began to strip her shirt away from her chest.
"Oi!" Ron barked, coming out of his thoughts. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
His brother glanced up at him and raised his eyebrows, which covered blue eyes – so like Ron's – that were full of worry. His gaze seemed to say "you're going to worry if I'm taking advantage right now?" Ron blushed and looked away in chagrin.
Fleur returned, holding a basket of potions and a spell book in one arm, and blankets, towels, and what looked like a spare change of clothes in the other.
"All right, you two," she said, addressing Ron and Bill, "Out. Let me take care of zis—"
The word, quiet and emphatic, seemed to reach Bill and Fleur's ears better than if he'd screamed it. They looked at him, questions in their eyes.
"I'm staying with her." It was a statement, not a request, and all three of them knew it.
Fleur looked like she wanted to protest, but Bill held up a warning hand, telling his wife silently not to argue with Ron. She sighed and rolled her eyes, but Ron caught the hint of a smile on her face as she turned away and started preparing the bed for Hermione. Bill left the room, probably figuring that if Ron had shown up out of nowhere with an injured Hermione in his arms, it meant that others would soon be arriving.
Fleur peeled away Hermione's shirt, wincing as she found the scars, blood, and scratches that covered Hermione's body. Ron felt a pang, not only in his heart but all over his body, as he was forced to imagine the horror that Hermione had been through. If only I could have done something, he thought fiercely. Ruddy good friend I am, I can't even protect her. He swallowed hard as Fleur encountered something on Hermione's body that made her gasp and reach quickly for a potion. Ron recognized it as the Skelegrow potion that Madame Pomfrey used at Hogwarts.
"What—what happened?" he asked, his heart jumping into his throat.
"Er arm is broken," Fleur answered quietly. " 'Ow deed—"
"A chandelier fell on her."
Fleur's eyes widened and her hand shook as she poured the Skelegrow into a spoon.
"After she was hit with the Cruciatus. Multiple times," Ron finished in an emotionless voice, fighting the strong urge to either put his hand through the wall or burst into tears.
Fleur looked like she wanted to ask more questions, but the look on Ron's face told her that now was the time to be quiet. She turned back to work on Hermione. After a few moments, Ron couldn't stand to look at Hermione anymore and turned his head to look out the window. He'd known that agreeing to come with Harry on this quest for the Horcruxes was fraught with danger for all of them, and he'd always known that there was a chance that one (or more) of them might not come out alive, but before today it had never really sunk in. Sure, they'd "nearly" lost Harry so many times Ron had almost stopped counting, but he'd honestly never thought about what would happen if something truly terrible happened to Hermione. She was Hermione, after all, the brains of the operation. Without her quick wit and incredibly thorough research, he and Harry would surely have killed themselves years ago.
Not to mention the fact that if she – gulp – died, he never would have had the chance to properly apologize for every shitty thing he'd ever done to her, not to mention that he'd never get a chance to snog her. Not that he would ever say that last thought out loud, of course. Especially now. But he still couldn't help thinking it.
"All right," came Fleur's voice a few minutes later. Ron jumped and turned back towards the bed.
"She weel be fine. But she must rest." Fleur smiled gently at him as she collected her basket and prepared to leave the room. "You love 'er, non?"
Ron's tongue suddenly seemed glued to the top of his mouth, and all that emerged in response to Fleur's question was a mangled "ungh?" His palms immediately started sweating. For the first time since he'd Apparated to the cottage, he wished he wasn't near Hermione, because he'd recently begun to realize that every time he was near her, he did or said something to make people say things similar to what Fleur had just said. He opened his mouth to try speaking actual English but found that his voice seemed to be missing in action.
Fleur laughed softly, her momentary happiness tinkling in the silent room. She shook her head, mumbling something about "you emotionless British lot" and walked out. "I weel be back to check on 'er," she called with a wave of her hand.
And suddenly Ron was alone with Hermione. Again. Taking a deep breath, he approached the bed and looked down at her. Now that Fleur had cleaned her wounds, applied the Skelegrow and given her a bandage for her arm, it only appeared as if Hermione was sleeping. Ron dimly wondered if this is what he'd looked like in the hospital wing after being poisoned all those months ago. Had Hermione been having these very same thoughts while looking down at him? Were ideas like "what if I hadn't gotten to her in time?" or "what if I'd lost her?" running through her mind? A year ago, he would have laughed bitterly in the negative. But now...well, he wasn't so sure. A lot had changed about their relationship since Dumbledore's funeral. But at the same time, he didn't really know where they stood now, especially since his "break" from she and Harry, from which he'd only recently returned.
Suddenly, Hermione's still form moved slightly and a small gasp rose from her throat. Ron's chest tightened and he had to grab onto the bed for support. Hermione's eyes slowly opened, and she looked around, blinking and adjusting to the light. She didn't seem to see Ron at first, and just when he was about to open his mouth (to say what, though, remained a mystery), her eyes locked on his, and in that moment something inside Ron shifted. It was different from when he'd first acknowledged to himself that his feelings for Hermione were more than platonic. No, this was the sort of feeling he'd had when he first met Harry, or the first time he rode a broom; it was like something monumental had occurred, like a life-altering experience had taken place.
Before Hermione had a chance to speak, Ron's control broke. Seeing her look at him, recognition, relief, and a touch of something that Ron had a feeling was reflected in abundance in his own eyes, it did something to him. He reached over and pulled her into the tightest embrace he could remember occurring between the two of them. Hermione squeaked in what Ron fervently hoped wasn't pain, but she didn't pull away.
"You're all right," he muttered hoarsely, more to himself than to Hermione. "You're really all right." He lowered his head into her hair, not even flinching when he encountered more of a dirty smell than the usual Hermione smell. Her scent was still there, she was still there. That was all that mattered.
"You didn't I'd give up that easily, do you?" Hermione managed to say, though her voice was muffled, as Ron had inadvertently tucked her into his neck when he'd pulled her into his arms.
Hearing her make a joke only made Ron tighten his arms around her. "You—you don't understand," he said after taking a steadying breath. "You can't imagine...it was horrible, Hermione. You nearly—nearly died!"
Hermione pulled back so they were facing each other. She looked steadily into his eyes. "Yes, I can imagine, Ron," she said quietly. "You were poisoned only last year, or don't you remember?"
Ron rolled his eyes. "Yes, but that doesn't really count. I was never in danger of dying, Harry shoved the bezoar down my throat right away."
Hermione was already shaking her head before he'd finished his sentence. "But I didn't know that for awhile, Ron. None of us knew anything until Madame Pomfrey finally let us in to see you. I almost lost you then."
He opened his mouth to argue again, then, seeing the determined look in her eyes, wisely closed it. He shrugged sheepishly instead. "So, I guess that means that we were...um, equally worried for each other?" he tried again.
This time, Hermione giggled. "Oh, Ron, you always do get the point, eventually. Where would you be without me?"
The moment the words were out of her mouth, Ron tensed again and Hermione's face went slack. The memory of the past few hours came rushing back to Ron, followed gruesomely by the memory of the weeks he'd spent apart from Hermione and Harry after choosing to leave. He could feel the bile rushing up from his throat, his hands went clammy, and his eyes began to burn. Jerking out of Hermione's embrace, he rushed over to an empty bin and threw up. Though he knew it was insane, as he wiped his mouth and spat into the bin, he fervently hoped that the disgusting display had somehow been invisible to Hermione. The last thing she needed right now was to see one of her best friends being sick at the mere thought of her death. Her gasp of surprise, however, unfortunately reminded him that he was in fact visible.
"Ron?" she asked quietly. He stood over the bin and ignored her, trying to will his flaming cheeks and neck to return to their normal color.
"Ron – just – just come here, all right? I'm sorry."
Her tone, calm and reassuring sprinkled with a small amount of admonishment, forced his feet into action. Hermione was looking seriously at him as if she wanted to say something, but she remained silent. Not knowing where the moment was going, Ron also kept his mouth shut, partly to give Hermione a chance to speak and partly because he was afraid that if he opened it again, he might throw up (and this time, he might not be able to make it to the bin).
"Ron, I—I heard you, back at the manor. You were screaming my name, like hearing me undergo the—the Curse was also hurting you, too."
It was! Ron wanted to yell out loud, but instead he shrugged and looked away from her. In a surprising show of strength for someone in her present condition, Hermione reached up and took his face in her hands, forcing him to look eye-to-eye with her.
"That's kind of how I felt when you were poisoned," she continued seriously, in that same soft tone of voice. "Like it was tearing me up, as well. Knowing that there was nothing I could do about it, well, it was the most terrible feeling in the world. Then finally hearing that you were going to be all right...I—I don't think I can describe the way it—"
"Like you were so happy you wanted to jump around, laugh, cry, and be sick all at the same time."
She smiled widely, and a light that Ron couldn't remember seeing before came into her eyes. "Yes, exactly like that."
Her beautiful smile was contagious, and suddenly Ron couldn't fight it anymore. His serious face broke and soon he was grinning with her. She kept her hand on his cheek, caressing it gently, and without thinking Ron leaned his face into it. They'd never done this before, but Hermione seemed to welcome it, her eyes softening even further.
Then he was hugging her again, burying his face in her hair, and breathing in the simple essence of Hermione. He wanted to hold onto her for the rest of this dangerous journey, while also keeping her here, where she wasn't in danger. He wanted to just stare at her, watching as life lit up her eyes. He wanted to...kiss her. The thought had crossed his mind hundreds, if not thousands, of times before, of course, but there was something so special about that moment, seeing her face so close to his, feeling her in his arms as she held him as tightly as he held her.
The wetness he felt on his face stopped him from making that final move. He leaned back to look at her face, still so close to his own even though they were no longer pressed cheek-to-cheek. "Hermione, tears again? I should have known," he managed to tease her.
Her eyebrows drew together and her lips started to tremble, like she was fighting the urge to completely break down. Once again, Ron felt the rise of bile; he couldn't stand it when girls, let alone Hermione, cried.
"Oh, Ron," she said tremulously as tears did fill her eyes. "I'm not crying. Yet," she added.
His eyes widened and he took one hand out of her bushy hair to feel his own face. Sure enough, tears were running down his cheeks. So that was why his nose had suddenly stopped working, he noted absently. He shook his head in astonishment, not trusting his voice. Instead he grinned sheepishly and took a deep breath, clearing both his throat and his mind.
"Don't tell Harry," he said hoarsely a few moments later.
Hermione smiled through her tears. "I wouldn't dream of it," she promised.
Ron nodded, though deep down he knew that he could care less if Hermione told Harry that he'd cried at her bedside. At least she had another chance to tell him. Chances gotten them through so far, and Ron had a feeling that as long as they stuck with each other, they could beat all the evil that was out there.
Author's Note: I hate the ending of this story, but it was shaping up to be too long, and it was getting to the point where Ron had been with Hermione too long. He needed to get back down to help Harry bury Dobby, so I cut it off before I was really ready. It's also slightly emotional and not true (in my opinion, anyway) to canon, so I'm sorry if you all hate it.