Shell Cottage, Shell Cottage, Shell Cottage, Shell Cottage!

And suddenly his feet slammed onto the hard earth in his brother's garden. His knees buckled and he threw an arm down just in time to keep himself and Hermione from totally collapsing onto the ground. He still had an arm wrapped tightly around her body, and as soon as he had regained the slightest bit of breath in his lungs, he bellowed, "BILL! FLEUR!"

They came running outside almost immediately; no doubt Dean and Luna had warned them that Harry, Ron, and Hermione would soon be following them. A moment later he heard a loud Crack! and looked around: Harry, Dobby, and Griphook had appeared on the outskirts of the garden. Ron could see their shapes in the darkness.

"Ron! What happened?" Bill asked as he dropped to his knees beside his brother.

"I need to get Hermione inside—can you go help Harry?"

Bill's eyes widened as he took a look at Hermione. "What happened to her?"

"It doesn't matter," said Ron hastily, "just tell me where I can take her."

"Ze bedroom you stayed in last time should be fine, Ron," Fleur said as she too cast her eyes upon Hermione. "I'll come 'elp you in a moment—"

"Thanks," Ron panted as he got to his feet, still holding Hermione. He rushed past his brother and sister-in-law into the cottage, where Dean and Luna were sitting wide-eyed at the kitchen table. "Dean—Luna—do me a favor and go help Harry, will you?"

They nodded wordlessly and scampered out into the garden. Ron marched up the stairs and into the small bedroom where he had stayed at Christmas; it looked just as he had left it. He placed Hermione gently on the bed and finally stood back to examine her.

She had cuts all over her face and her hands, which were still bound together by rope behind her back; the thin cut across her throat was bright red and the blood looked like it was starting to dry on her skin; Ron could see a bruise already forming on her forehead, no doubt from Hermione hitting the floor as Bellatrix cast the Cruciatus Curse upon her. Seeing all of this scared him and overwhelmed him—he didn't know where to begin in order to help her. What would Mum do? What would Mum do? he thought in a kind of frenzied panic.

He settled on freeing her hands. The spell he used was a little clumsy, as he was not used to Pettigrew's wand, but it did the job: her hands broke apart and he moved them into a more comfortable position. Next he tore off part of his shirt, pointed his wand at it, and muttered, "Aguamenti." The cloth became wet and he used it to gently dab at her throat. It started to look cleaner.

Fleur entered the room carrying a bottle of Essence of Dittany and a Magical Medicine Kit. Bill came striding right behind her, looking grave but business-like.

"Ron," Bill said without preamble, "I know you don't want to give us any information, but this seems to be a very serious situation, and I need to know one thing."

"What is it?" Ron asked his older brother.

"Did Death Eaters do this?"

"I can't tell you that, Bill, I'm sorry."

Bill's chest heaved. "Ron," he said angrily, "I need you to answer the question. Hermione looks as if she's been tortured, that House-Elf Harry brought with him is dead, and if Death Eaters—or really anyone on You-Know-Who's side—saw you tonight, they'll know you aren't sick with Spattergroit at the Burrow, and that puts our whole family in danger!"

Ron's heart beat sped up; he couldn't even process the possibility of his family being in danger because of him, not to mention the fact that Dobby was dead. "Yes," he told Bill. "Yes, they'll know now that I've been with Harry and Hermione—"

"Okay, that's all I needed to know," said Bill, who quickly turned around and headed for the door.

"Wait! Where are you going?" Ron yelped.

"To the Burrow—I've got to get them all out of there. Fleur, will you be okay?"

"I'll be fine," Fleur told her husband. "Be careful, darling. I love you."

"Love you too," said Bill, and he hurried from the room.

Fleur looked worried but nonetheless turned away from the door to focus on Hermione.

"Fleur?" Ron asked her. "What happened to Dobby?"

Her tense eyes softened as she looked at Ron. "'E 'ad a knife in his chest," Fleur told him. "'E was already dead when we got out zere...'Arry seems to be very upset."

Ron turned away from her, feeling stricken and numb. Dobby. The elf who had saved all of them...Harry must be devastated.

"Where 'ave all zeeze cuts come from?"

"A chandelier," Ron muttered. And when Fleur looked confused, he added, "It fell on top of her."

"Mon Dieu," said Fleur as she opened her medical kit and started pulling things out of it. "Ron, can you tell me one theeng? Did zey use ze Cruciatus Curse upon 'er?"

Ron looked into Fleur's eyes, bit his lip, and nodded.

"C'est sordide," said Fleur, who tried not to look too shaken by this news. "I will need you to go get 'er some Dreamless Sleep Potion from ze bathroom cabinet. And per'aps a glass of water, also."

Ron did as he was told and returned within minutes. Fleur was alternating between siphoning blood off of Hermione's face, hands, and neck and dabbing Essence of Dittany onto her wounds. Hermione was already looking a little bit better.

Ron handed Fleur the Dreamless Sleep Potion and set the glass of water upon the bedside table. Fleur measured out some of the potion and gently touched Hermione's forehead.

"'Ermione?" she said softly. "If you can 'ear me, I want to give you some potion, so open your mouth if it is possible."

To Ron's surprise, Hermione stirred a little bit. She appeared to be only half-conscious, but she did as she was told and parted her lips slightly so that Fleur could administer the tonic.

"Zat is a good girl," said Fleur sweetly as Hermione swallowed. "You are safe now. Get some rest. I will leave Ron 'ere to sit by your bedside."

Fleur got up from the chair she had been sitting on, nodded encouragingly at Ron, and strode to the door. "Please call me if she needs anyzing, Ron," she said as she left the room.

Ron took a deep breath and settled himself in the chair next to Hermione's bed. He noticed that his heart was still throbbing in his chest and his cheeks felt hot; the distress from tonight was taking its toll upon him. Yet Ron felt calm and purposeful: Hermione was safe, and the only thing he needed to focus his attention on now was making sure she recovered.

For hours he sat there, drifting in and out of a restless sleep, various images playing themselves out in his mind: Dobby bleeding to death; a hollow and starved Luna; Bellatrix Lestrange's unmerciful eyes; and Hermione's final, frightened look at him as he was led away to the cellar...

Around dawn he woke up again. Faint rays of March sunlight were making their way through the red cotton curtains. Ron felt terrible. He was exhausted, sore, and hungry; his head hurt and he couldn't completely focus his eyes because they were bleary and glazed. He sat straight up in the chair and massaged the area around his eyes and forehead, then blinked several times and looked at Hermione. She was pale and had purple bruises in several places, but her chest was rising and falling and she looked like she was sleeping peacefully. Ron reached for her hand and clasped it: it felt cold. He grabbed the quilt at the end of the bed and secured it around her sleeping form. Then he placed his other hand on the back of her hand and began to rub her fingers gently, wishing warmth back into them.

Ron stared around the bedroom, which he could now see properly because of the light. It was so very familiar and he didn't like it one bit. It reminded him of those few awful weeks he had spent cooped up in there, hating himself and desperately wishing to join Hermione and Harry again.

A sudden movement from Hermione's hand made him redirect his vision again. He looked down at her small hand, encapsulated between his two larger ones, and saw that she was moving her fingers. This simple sight made his heart swell. Hermione began to stir: she pulled her legs up toward her and shifted her head on the pillow, sighing as she did so. Ron could not help himself: he spoke her name softly.

"Hermione?"

She did not respond.

"Hermione?" he said again, only slightly louder. It seemed to do the trick. Her eyelids fluttered and then she opened her eyes, blinked a few times, and stared at Ron.

"How are you feeling?" Ron asked eagerly, leaning forward and placing one of his hands upon her forehead.

She blinked again and sucked in a breath. "Somewhat—" her voice was raspy, so she cleared her throat and said again, "Somewhat sore."

Ron nodded seriously. "Would you like some water?"

"Please."

He took the glass from the bedside table as she sat up very gingerly. He handed the water to her and she took a sip, then several gulps, before she handed it back to him.

"Thanks," she said softly as she settled back down on the bed.

"No problem," said Ron.

Hermione smiled. "This is kind of a role reversal, isn't it?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, this time last year, you were the one lying on your sickbed, and I was the one sitting in the chair."

"You mean when I got poisoned?"

"Exactly," said Hermione.

"Yeah," said Ron, placing his hand on the side of her head and smoothing back her hair, "but I think you got the rawer deal. All I did was drink some bad wine."

Hermione smiled sadly, then said, "What happened? I mean, how did we escape? The last thing I remember is watching Griphook enter the room."

Ron told her everything that had transpired in the cellar and how he and Harry had run into the drawing room. Hermione looked startled when he told her that Bellatrix nearly slit her throat. She pressed her fingers to the spot and felt the long, thin cut.

"I suppose that's two Death Eater scars I'll have now," she said wryly. "One from Dolohov," she said, touching her chest, "and one from Bellatrix."

Ron watched her for a moment. She had sad eyes: she looked very pained. "Hermione, are you alright?" he asked her tenderly.

She bit her lip as tears welled in her eyes. She blinked to get rid of them and took a deep breath. "No," she said to Ron. "I feel...I feel..."

She began to cry in earnest now. She told Ron about how scared she had been that she would never see him or Harry or her parents again, how Bellatrix had made her feel like she was no more than a piece of filth, how much the Cruciatus Curse had really hurt, how she had felt so alone...

Ron felt a lump rise in his throat as he listened to her. The strangling fear which he had tried to keep at bay was making its way to the surface now, and he found himself getting choked up. Hot tears poured from his eyes but he didn't bother to wipe them away because he wanted to hold her hand and touch her face...

Without really even thinking about what he was doing, he rose from the chair and crawled over her so that he could lay down next to her. He buried his face in her hair and wrapped an arm around her tortured body. Hermione welcomed the embrace: she pulled his arm even tighter around her and squeezed his hand as she sobbed.

Eventually her weeping started to subside, though she was still sniffling and crying a little bit. She turned around to face him and he placed his hand in her hair again, running his fingers through the long strands, a motion which seemed to calm both of them down.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," Ron managed to tell her.

"You don't have anything to be sorry about, Ron, you saved me," Hermione replied softly.

"I'm just sorry that this happened to you," he explained. "And I'm sorry that I don't always treat you like the precious thing that you are. You're the most important person in my life, I shouldn't take you for granted."

Hermione smiled at him. "I suppose I can be annoying sometimes, though."

"You're not annoying," Ron said sincerely. "You're wonderful."

Some of the color came back into Hermione's face as he said this. Gazing at him tenderly, she leaned forward and kissed the lingering tears on his cheek, wishing them to go away. When she pulled back from him, Ron was smiling contentedly.

"Thought we agreed to hold off on that kind of thing until all of this is over," he said.

"We did," said Hermione, "but Ron, I am emotionally vulnerable right now, so I'm bound to disregard the rules."

They grinned at each other. "Yeah..." said Ron. "Yeah, I guess you're right. So in that case—"

He kissed her gently on the forehead. Hermione closed her eyes, smiled, and snuggled into his chest.

"Where's everyone else, Ron?" she asked after a minute.

He stiffened. Was now the time to tell her about Dobby?

She felt him tense and raised her head, her eyes alert. "What is it?" she asked worriedly.

Ron told her the bad news. Hermione's eyes widened and began to fill with tears once again, but she did not cry or say anything. She simply stared, lifelessly, at a spot on the wall.

"Are you okay?" Ron asked quietly.

She looked at him. "It's just so unfair—he saved us, and now he's dead."

Ron let the grief overwhelm him for a moment, too, and then Hermione said, "Harry's going to be a wreck."

"I know," said Ron.

"Have you seen him?"

"No, I've been up here with you this whole time."

Hermione sniffed and burrowed her head in his chest again.

There was a knock at the door and Fleur came in. Hermione raised her head to see who the visitor was; Fleur exclaimed, "You're awake! I am so glad! 'Ow do you feel?"

"Not bad," said Hermione, and then, upon seeing the Essence of Dittany in Fleur's apron, "Did you take care of me?"

"Of course," said Fleur, sitting on the side of the bed and feeling Hermione's forehead.

"Thank you," Hermione said to her. Fleur smiled.

"Fleur, where's Harry?" asked Ron.

"In the garden. 'E is still digging ze grave for ze elf."

"I should go help him," Ron told Hermione. "Will you be alright?"

"I'll be fine, don't worry."

"I brought you a dressing gown, 'Ermione, so you can change out of zose clothes," said Fleur.

Hermione peered down at the torn sweater she was wearing and said, "That's a good idea, Fleur, thanks."

"I'll get out of here, then," said Ron, sitting up in the bed. Fleur got off the end of it so he could crawl over Hermione's legs. "I'll come see you in a bit."

Hermione smiled as he left the room. She began pulling off her battle-worn sweater as Fleur removed her shoes.

"I really appreciate you taking care of me, Fleur," Hermione said as she removed her jeans beneath the covers.

"Don't be silly, 'Ermione!" said Fleur. "Anyzing for you. We will probably be family one day, anyway, and I have to take care of my family, do I not?"

Hermione turned scarlet and laughed noncommittally as she pulled the dressing gown on over her t-shirt.

"Oh, I did not mean to make you uncomfortable," said Fleur, "although it eez good that some color 'as returned your face. But Ron loves you! Do you not see it?"

Hermione smiled. "No, I see it," she admitted.

Fleur flashed her beautiful smile and winked. "Good. 'Ow about some breakfast?"

"That would be lovely," said Hermione as she carefully got to her feet. Fleur guided her out of the room and down the stairs into the kitchen, where Luna greeted Hermione joyfully.

Some time later Bill returned, and then Hermione, Luna, Fleur, and Bill headed out into the garden to pay their last respects to Dobby. Ron beamed when he saw Hermione, and as she reached him, he put his arm around her shoulders.

Dobby's interring was difficult to get through: Harry was obviously very choked up about it. After it was over, Harry requested to be left alone, so Ron and Hermione headed back toward the house with everyone else, Ron keeping his hand on the small of Hermione's back.

She stopped him right outside the back door after everyone else had already gone in. "You know," she told him, "you're acting incredibly sweet and affectionate, and it's not like you at all."

Ron grinned. "I could say the same thing to you. You're acting very damsel-in-distress like, and I'm more used to the independent and disdainful Hermione."

"Well," said Hermione, raising her eyebrows, "let me know when prat Ron returns, and I'll make sure that independent and disdainful Hermione makes an appearance."

"Deal," said Ron. "But until you fully recover, I'm afraid I'll have to continue acting sweet and affectionate. Please forgive me."

Hermione rolled her eyes at him as he placed his arm around her shoulders again and steered her to the back door.