The crowd in the Great Hall was starting to thin. Ron sat with Hermione leaning into him, her head finding rest on his shoulder. He noticed her hand still firmly encased by Ginny's. Ron reached one hand up to stroke her hair.
"We need rest," he murmured so that only Hermione could hear him. She nodded against his arm.
"Mum," Ron stood, tugging Hermione up with him. "We're going up to the dormitories. We need some sleep." Mrs. Weasley blinked up at Ron, her stare somewhat blank. Ginny stirred and turned to look up as well, her eyes fearful. Ron understood immediately. She didn't want to be
"Ginny's coming with us; we'll take care of her. You all should get some sleep too," Ron ended, sounding exhausted and drained, but the authority rang from his voice.
"I know dear," Mrs. Weasley responded, her eyes glassy and faraway. "But George…"
"They'll sleep, son," Mr. Weasley interrupted as Ron's jaw set. "I'll see to it. Go." Ron nodded tightly as he pulled Ginny to her feet, wrapping her underneath his arm and reaching for Hermione with his free hand.
They followed him without question and for that he was grateful.
The walk to the dorm was dreamlike. Hermione's hand was warm within his and Ginny trembled slightly as they passed through the broken castle. Distant creaks and cracks could be heard and whether it was the castle being repaired or falling further apart, Ron could not be sure. Ginny mumbled a password when they reached the Fat Lady, though Ron wasn't sure any was even needed. Hermione paused as they crossed the threshold, her eyes darting to the girl's stair but Ron tugged her forwards.
"Not tonight," he mumbled. "Tonight we all stay together."
His eyesight stayed forward so he couldn't see their responses, but they both followed behind him without protest. Ron didn't stop again until he was in front of the six-year dorms, looking back to Hermione in question.
"He'll be in there," Hermione answered his unasked question, "because that's what he left." Ginny nodded her agreement and Ron pushed open the door. The room was darkened save for one bluebell flame, which flickered lightly in the middle of the floor. Ginny pushed past Ron, her gaze flickering to each of the enclosed four-poster beds.
"That one Gin," Ron pointed, indicating the bed Harry had slept in last year. She nodded and then drew back the curtain.
Harry lay quite still, his glasses still in place, his blood and dirt spattered clothing askew, his trainers still clad to his feet. It was only the soft breathing that marked him as alive and for one horrid moment, Ron recalled with perfect clarity his best mate dead in Hagrid's arms, and then Tonks and Lupin, actually dead on the cold stone floor, laying not feet from his own brother. A muffled sob indicated that Ginny had made that same journey. Tears were streaking a clear track down her face but her eyes didn't move from the gentle rise and fall of Harry's chest.
"Fetch some pajamas for Harry and Ginny?" Ron asked Hermione, turning to her and finding her staring up at him, the only eyes in the room not trained on Harry. She nodded and stooped to search through her bag.
"Ginny," Ron started softly, coming up behind his sister and putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Hermione and I are going to use the loo. We have some pajamas here—"
"And some dittany," Hermione interrupted.
"It's for you and Harry. Are you alright?"
Ginny nodded slowly as she regarded her elder brother.
"If you need our help, let us know," Ron added as he tugged on Hermione's hand. She paused, ran to Ginny and engulfed her in a hug, whispering something unintelligible to Ron in her ear.
Ginny smiled. "Love you too, Hermione," she whispered, staring at the items Hermione had shoved into her hand. "Thanks Ron," she added as her eyes drifted back to Harry's prone body. Ron nodded stiffly and cleared his throat, uncomfortable with the intense look with which Ginny regarded Harry, but understanding of the emotions behind such a gaze. Harry loved her too; Ron knew that.
"C'mon," he whispered in Hermione's ear, and with one last look, he pulled Hermione through to the boy's loo.
He released her hand to shut the door, bolting it as he did so. "We don't need any interruptions," Ron grunted. Hermione's eyes were wide but she nodded. She stood in the middle of the loo and took in her surroundings.
It was clean at least, Ron noted. It was not touched from the battle; no debris was falling. Ron noticed Hermione's eyes widen as she took in the showers. There were stalls, but no curtains. It had never been a problem for the six blokes who shared the dorm.
"We both need a shower Hermione," Ron whispered, coming up behind her and taking the bag from her hand. "We haven't had one since Shell Cottage. And Ginny could use some time alone with Harry."
Hermione whipped around as Ron finished, her eyes alight with wonder, and was it possibly admiration? "Who are you and what have you done with my Ron?"
"Your Ron, eh?" Ron felt his lips quirk in a small, but genuine, smile. It was the first real smile since the battle ended.
Hermione flushed but nodded, turning to regard the showers once more before stepping closer and twisting the tap. Water, hot and steaming, issued from the wall and Hermione turned to look once more at Ron before sliding her feet out of her trainers and unfastening her cloak. Ron's heart froze at the sight.
She kept her back to him as she pulled her jumper over her head and peeled her socks off. She coughed lightly as she reached for the hem of her undershirt but she paused, looking over her shoulder at Ron.
Ron seemed to come back to himself.
What the hell am I doing?
His brain had short-circuited and his muscles had locked into place and it wasn't until her shy smile that Ron was jerked back into reality. This was not a replaying fantasy. This was Hermione, trusting him enough to shower next to him after a battle that had torn his life apart. His mother sat coma-like next to the body of his dead brother, his best mate had died and come back to life, his sister looked broken…
Ron shook his head and moved to the stall next to her, quickly shedding his clothing and turning the shower on full blast.
The hot water hit him forcefully and Ron leant into the wall, arms outstretched to support his weight, his head bent as water cascaded down his back. He took a deep breath.
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
They were supposed to be glorious in their triumph, drinking firewhiskey and toasting to their success, whooping and hollering as fireworks lit the sky.
And suddenly Ron knew, there would be no fireworks. Because who would set them off? Not George, and certainly not Fred…
He bit back a sob.
Hermione moaned. "Merlin Ron, this feels incredible."
And just like that an old fantasy, an early one of his involving Hermione accidentally finding her way into the boy's loo, imploded the scene in his mind's eye. He groaned.
"Yeah," he rasped in return, rolling his neck to loosen some stiffness. "It really does."
Hermione moaned again and Ron bit his lip.
Damn that woman!
His reaction to the simple noises she made while bathing was intense. He could hear her shift under the stream of water, hear her lather soap unto a washcloth, and his randy mind was imagining the path that washcloth must have to travel.
"Have you… have you washed your hair yet?" Ron asked, wincing slightly as his voice cracked.
"No, why?" she answered, her voice simple and direct and yet curious.
"No reason." But Ron was envisioning the moment, her head thrown back, her breasts thrust out, her hair heavy and wet as her fingers ran through it and water ran down her body leaving slick, wet trails. Ron shuddered and moaned, shaking his head in attempt to clear the thoughts. He heard Hermione chuckle softly but it turned quickly into a hiss.
"What? What's wrong?" Ron asked, having to restrain himself from going to her himself and raking his eyes over her body, proving to himself that she was okay.
"Nothing, nothing," Hermione gasped in reply. "It's just the burns, from the vault. The hot water doesn't feel too good on them."
Ron relaxed and noted with surprise that his own burns did, in fact, sting a little. He had been so consumed it had escaped his attention until now. "I'll rub some dittany on you after. That should help."
He heard a choked gasp from Hermione and chuckled.
"If you'd like, that is," he added, smiling slightly to himself, shaking his head.
"I would," Hermione muttered softly.
Ron grinned and reached for the soap.
Merlin, I love that witch.
He sighed as he scrubbed the dirt and blood off his arms and chest. He found several scrapes and cuts he could not remember receiving. Some of the blood seemed to lack a source, which Ron realized meant it wasn't his blood. He shuddered and then winced as the soap scrubbed over some fingerprint-shaped bruises on his biceps.
They were Hermione's fingerprints.
She had held him back, kept him from forsaking Harry once more and running, following Percy as he chased Death Eaters. Ron felt the sting of tears assault his eyes.
He would never see his brother laugh again, never hear Fred tease him, or be victim to the twins pranks.
He shook his head and cleared his throat. "Yeah?" Ron's voice was rougher than he hoped it'd be.
"I… I'm so sorry, Ron, I—"
"Don't Hermione," Ron interrupted, softness infusing his tone. He wasn't angry, but he couldn't talk about this now. Not now when he already felt he was about to fall apart.
"Sorry," she whispered and Ron heard her water shut off and saw a couple of towels float through the air towards her.
"S'alright," Ron muttered, twisting the knob shut and running his fingers through his hair to ring out the excess. Hermione's now clean hand reached into his shower stall, holding a towel out for him. "Thanks," he said, grabbing the towel from her while running his finger down the length of her hand. He could have been mistaken, but he thought he felt her hand tremble.
"I have clothes too," Hermione mumbled before clearing her throat. "And the dittany."
"Right," Ron said, wrapping the towel around his waist. "You decent?"
"Erm, sort of," Hermione answered, sounding vaguely distracted. "Come over."
She was bent over the small bag, a towel clutched to her chest, as her free hand brought pajama bottoms and a large tee shirt to the surface. She stood as Ron came closer, wavering slightly with her eyes downcast, and as the towel swung in front of her Ron caught a glimpse of her nearly nude hip and the inch or so of blue fabric that encased it.
"I, erm," she faltered, looking up at him at last and seeming mesmerized by his stare. "Sorry, I couldn't find the other sets." She held out the pajamas to him, the mismatched pair of stripy bottoms and an old, orange shirt. He grabbed the bottoms but shook his head when she offered the shirt.
"You take that part then," he said, his eyes betraying him as they traveled over her form. Her hair was still dripping and the rogue drops that found their way to her shoulders and neck were finding the most interesting paths to travel as gravity worked its' magic. "But turn around first and I'll use the dittany."
Hermione nodded and swallowed, it seemed with difficulty, as she handed him the small bottle. "That's all I have left and we'll need it for you too, so—"
"Hermione, turn around," Ron interrupted, his voice soft but demanding. She seemed to be breathing heavily as she complied.
With her back to him, and the towel almost completely out of sight, Ron only seeing it when she shifted and it swung by her side, she was almost completely nude. Her knickers were all blue, as Ron suspected from the glimpse he had already caught and they hugged her bum in a way Ron wished his hands could do. She seemed nervous and she shifted again so Ron moved closer, resting his hand on her hip, and breathed in her ear, "Relax, it's just me."
She sighed as he said it and stopped shifting.
Ron uncorked the bottle and poured a generous amount of dittany unto his fingertips. It was cool as he found the burns on her back and Hermione dipped her head as she moaned in relief.
Ron chuckled softly in her ear. "Better?" he whispered.
"Mhmm," Hermione hummed in response, relaxing completely as he continued his ministrations down her back.
Ron smiled in satisfaction as he watched Hermione's breathing relax, her shoulders slump slightly as her hurts were soothed away. He was glad he could do this for her, after all the hurt he had dealt her in the past.
Her skin was stretching tightly over the newly healed burns and the flat planes of her back looked nearly whole again. Ron's eyes drifted lower and found the edge of a particularly long burn peeking from the band of her knickers. His hand released the hip he had been holding in place and Hermione went to turn, but Ron dipped his fingers just under the waistband of her panties and tugged. She froze.
"Not yet," he whispered. "There's just one more."
Her back was straight again but she nodded.
Ron tugged the edge of her knickers down slightly. It was a rather large burn, considering its' location, the shaped of a large golden Galleon imprinted just along her upper curve. Ron soaked his fingers in dittany while his other hand kept her waistband lowered. He could see she was breathing heavily again.
"How did you get these burns all down your back?" he asked, leaning close so his voice was no more than a whisper and chuckling lightly.
"The robes—" Hermione started but the rest of her already shaky explanation was cut off by a moan. Ron's fingers had just begun caressing the dittany into her skin, sinking just a bit lower than was technically necessary and massaging gently. Hermione's head threw back and Ron found his lips just inches from the smooth column of her neck. He had to resist the temptation of burying his mouth there.
"What about the robes?" he prompted, continuing his massage though he was already quite sure the dittany had found every centimeter of that particular burn.
"They," Hermione swallowed heavily before continuing and Ron noticed her breathing had picked up again. "They were so big on me. Bellatrix… she was so much taller than…"
Hermione stopped talking, it seemed so that she could concentrate on her breathing. A blush had stole its' way up her neck and Ron knew if he turned her now, her chest and face would be flushed.
But, no Ron. Not now. Not with Fred…
Ron replaced the waistband of her knickers gently, smoothing it out as it came back into contact with her skin. Hermione did not attempt to turn this time, but unlike before her shoulders were relaxed, her posture easy. She was not uncomfortable now. Ron dipped his head behind her as he shut his eyes, resting his forehead on her shoulder and willing himself the strength to keep from crying. He hadn't done that yet.
Oh, a few stray tears in the midst of the battle…
But he hadn't mourned for his brother, hadn't unleashed this torrent of grief that he had walled up inside.
Hermione stood quietly, allowing Ron his time to collect himself. He felt a single hand come to his hair and stroke it gently and a wave of affection and love and belonging swept him. He opened his eyes and was met with the sight of her perfectly healed, smooth back, the curve of her bum disappearing into those lovely blue knickers, and her long legs supporting herself, and in a way, supporting him. A rush of fierce devotion and lust tore through him and before he could think about it, his hand reached forward and cupped her bum, stroked it and clung to it the way he had, not so many minutes before, dreamed of doing.
The noise that escaped her, a mix somewhere between a whimper and a moan, was what undid him. He whirled her in his arms, crushed her to his chest, and pressed his mouth to hers. She was quick to respond.
Hermione threaded her fingers through his hair; the towel she had been clutching to her chest long forgotten as it fluttered to the floor between them. Ron could feel the soft fullness of her breasts pressed into his chest. He opened his lips and she copied him, pressing her tongue to his as he groaned into her mouth.
Ron's hands traveled from her naked back lower, tracing the boundaries of her knickers. She whimpered and writhed under his touch, pressing her body more fully into him. Ron felt a surge of joy and sheer recklessness at her responses and then a crushing guilt.
How could he do this to him, to his family? How could he stand here, nearly naked with the woman he loved and forget everything else; forget how George was hurting, refusing to leave Fred's side; how his father was attempting to keep his family together, despite his mother's glassy stare; forget his sister tending to his best mate, who for all intents and purposes had died today?
Ron broke off with a sob, burying his face into Hermione's neck as those long-awaited tears flowed from his eyes.
"'M sorry, Hermione," Ron mumbled against her neck, his tears moistening her skin.
Hermione just shushed him, her hands stroking his back as she held him tightly.
"It's not fair," he muttered, clutching her to him. "It wasn't supposed to be like this."
"I know, I know," she soothed, her voice slightly cracked as she smoothed his hair and traced the lines of his back. "But Harry's here, and Ginny. Your mum and dad are okay and lots of people made it and—"
"And you're here," Ron interrupted, choking slightly on the words.
"I'll always be here, Ron." Hermione's answer was soft yet nothing had ever rung so loudly in Ron's ears. He held her all the tighter for it.
It took several moments, and quite a few shuddering breaths before Ron was able to pull himself back together. He became intensely aware of their situation. Ron was still clad in only the towel, which hung loosely from his hips. Hermione was even less dressed and he felt responsible for her loss of towel in the first place. But Ron didn't want things to be so awkward between them. They had been that way for far too long. He loved her and he trusted her and he hoped she felt the same. Though his mind was in no place for any kind of sexual encounter, Ron felt the simple and innocent acts of showering and dressing together shouldn't embarrass either of them at this point. Hadn't they seen each other at their absolute worse and their absolute best? All he wanted now was to just take care of her.
He slowly moved his hands to her hips and pressed a kiss to her forehead.
"You know I love you, don't you?" he asked, his voice slightly hoarse from his moment of release. He heard a sharp intake of breath that indicated to him that Hermione had heard him.
"Oh Ron," Hermione whimpered, throwing her arms around his neck and rising to her tip-toes before breathing in his ear, "I love you too, you great prat!" He chuckled into her neck and bent to retrieve her shirt.
When he stood again, Hermione had stepped back, her arms crossed over her chest, her eyes downcast, her face flushed. He regarded her tenderly, wanting nothing more than to take care of her for the rest of her life.
"Raise your arms, Hermione."
Her head shot up and she stared at him, blinking in confusion. Ron held up the shirt he had retrieved and nodded his affirmation. Her cheeks flushed even brighter.
"Lift up your arms, love," Ron interrupted, and he hoped his tone was gentle and reassuring, because that's what he meant it to be. Hermione gazed straight into his eyes, swallowed, and then did as she was told.
Ron stepped closer, keeping his eyes locked with hers as he slid her hands through the large armholes. Her breathing was incredibly distracting, reminding him with every sharp intake from where exactly she was drawing breath. His eyes left her face and took in the sight of her as his hands locked over her wrists, keeping the shirt bunched in place.
Ron sucked in a breath.
And he meant it, every syllable. And even his reverent, hushed tone couldn't justify how sincerely he felt his words to be the truth.
And then Ron's brow furrowed as he caught sight of something he had never seen before, something he had not known Hermione to possess, a faded scar that ran directly between her breasts, over her heart. One hand left her wrists, though Hermione kept her freed arm up, opening herself to him, and his fingertips traced its' length.
His eyes sought hers in question, and he found her whimpering slightly and looking completely out of breath. Somewhere, in the recesses of his mind he was thrilled at her response to his simple touch, but more insistently he needed to know when and how that had happened. She faltered a bit under his gaze, her throat bobbing as she fought to swallow.
"The Department of Mysteries," she whispered in answer to his unasked question. It must have been the curse Dolohov had hit her with. Ron had known it was bad, intended even to be fatal. But he had never before seen the evidence.
He dragged her shirt lower, covering her arms completely, but before he brought it over her head, he stooped low and pressed a kiss to that old scar. Hermione sucked in a breath.
Ron raised his head to hers, placed the shirt over her head, and lowered it completely, covering her from his eyes. He reached around her to free her hair, letting it fall on her shoulders before gathering her up in his arms. She was decidedly shaky, falling into him with a breathy shudder and clinging tightly.
"I do love you," he whispered into her hair.
"Ron, this may sound so terrible," she started off, her voice shaken, "but I'm so glad you didn't have to die, I'm so happy we have the chance to… to…"
"Shush, Hermione, I know," Ron soothed her, breaking in when she could no longer continue. "And we will, every day we'll have that chance." She nodded into his chest. "Let's get to bed."
Hermione stepped back from him and he turned to get the pajama bottoms that had been left forgotten on the floor. With his back to her, he dropped his towel and donned the clothing, smiling a bit at the gasp she issued when he did so.
He turned back around with a smirk and she swatted at him.
"You did that on purpose!"
"What?" he asked, fake innocence coloring his tone. "I thought we could act adult about all this, after all…" he trailed off, but his hand caught the hem of her shirt and tugged her closer, fingers trailing on her bare skin underneath the worn shirt. Hermione shuddered.
"Stop that," she protested lightly, eyes already closing. And Ron decided right then that in a few days time, when the guilt wouldn't threaten to overcome him at any moment, he was going to have a lot of fun discovering this new side to Hermione.
"C'mon you," he whispered, moving his fingers to her hand and tugging her towards the door. She followed with a sigh.
A washbowl and a small pile of used towels sat disregarded in the center of the room. Harry, with a set of clean pajamas, the parts of his body Ron could see clean and healed, lay snuggled into an equally clean Ginny. Both were sound asleep, wrapped in each other's arms.
"That was good of you, Ron," Hermione whispered, leaning into him as they watched the sleeping pair. Ron grunted.
"He needs her," he reasoned gruffly. "And Ginny could do worse."
Hermione beamed at him and pulled him to his bed. She turned down the covers and crawled between the sheets, looking up to him in invitation. He needed no further prompting. He curled up against her and fell promptly asleep, the smell of her shampoo assuaging his nightmares.
A/N This isn't completed and I'm breaking my own rules by publishing it, but it's being sitting on my laptop for over a year and I figured… why not? I do have seven chapters finished and that may end up being all that there is because there is really no defined end, just an overall feeling: healing. This is the story of the immediate aftermath of the Final Battle and the process of healing. Anyway, hope you enjoyed!
Next Chapter: Harry/Ginny. The story will rotate viewpoints between these four characters.