As he crept down the creaky stairs of the Burrow after midnight, Ron was surprised at the unnatural quiet pressing in on him from all sides. He was accustomed to a comfortable chatter coming from the kitchen, the sounds of his siblings moving around as he passed their respective rooms, and the occasional explosion from Fred and George's room
Just George's now, he thought with a rush of sadness. He still hadn't recovered from the aftermath of the battle. He kept forgetting that the people he had known weren't alive anymore. Whenever George entered a room, he automatically expected Fred to follow close behind; when he remembered Fred was gone, it was all he could to keep from crying. They were all barely getting by.
Hermione wasn't surprised by this; she kept telling him that it would take time. "You have to give yourself time to be sad," she had whispered to him just that morning over breakfast, when George had come down alone. "You can't keep trying to pretend that you're not hurting, Ron."
Even knowing Hermione as he did, Ron was still surprised at how well Hermione could read him. He thought he'd been so convincing, but she'd looked up at him for just a moment and known what he'd been trying so hard to hide.
He walked into the empty kitchen to pour himself a glass of pumpkin juice, but stopped short as he saw a light illuminated through the slightly ajar sitting room door. Who could be up at this time of night? wondered Ron, though he thought he already knew.
He pushed the door open a bit more, and smiled as he saw Hermione curled up in the corner of the sofa, a book open on her lap. The fire crackled merrily, although it was past midnight,
"Hermione?" he called softly, rapping on the door. She jumped, letting the book slip from her fingers.
"Ron, you scared me!" she said, bending over to pick up the book again. "What are you doing up?" She glanced at him searchingly.
"Couldn't sleep," Ron said as he collapsed into the armchair nearest the fire, letting his head rest against the back of the chair.
Hermione gazed at him for a long moment. Her eyes caught the subtle tension in his shoulders and the little frown at the corners of his mouth. Ron saw her face changing as she noticed these things about him. He lifted his head and looked back at her, his eyes pleading. Please don't ask me about it, he thought. I can't handle it anymore. Please let me keep it locked inside. He hoped Hermione would see that written in his face as well.
She smiled and shifted her weight slightly, shifting her gaze away from him for a moment, giving him a chance to relax once more.
"Nor could I," she said, looking back at him without the appraising glance of a moment before. She opened the book and nodded at him, indicating she didn't mind if he sat with her while she read.
Ron gave her a tiny smile, glad she was willing to sit in silence with him.
Hermione returned to her book, twisting a strand of hair around her finger absentmindedly. Ron watched her from out of the corner of his eye. She looked very pretty, he thought, even in her pajamas. Her hair was pulled back into a braid that had once been tidy, though Ron smiled to see that her unruly curls were beginning to come loose. He watched her lips move a bit, directly in time with her eyes, which darted back and forth across the page. Every once in a while, her brow would furrow in confusion, and her eyes would skip back up as she read the previous few lines over again; she would then smile slightly in understanding and continue reading. He loved her smile; her whole face lit up in a single instant, and he couldn't help but smile in return.
As he watched, Hermione glanced up at him. Seeing him gazing at her, she frowned slightly.
"Something the matter?" she asked.
Ron shook his head. Hermione rolled her eyes good-naturedly and returned to her book, tucking her bare feet under her and shivering slightly as he did so.
"Cold?" Ron asked in concern.
"A bit," said Hermione. "But I'm fine."
Ron frowned. "Blanket?" he asked, scooping up a knobby blanket from where it lay next to his chair.
"No, Ron," said Hermione, smiling. "I'm fine. Really."
"All right, then," said Ron, draping the blanket over himself. "I'll just be nice and warm, and you can freeze." He looked at her pointedly.
Hermione rolled her eyes and returned to her book; a few minutes later, Ron saw her shiver again.
She looked up guiltily. "I'm not cold, Ron."
Unsurprisingly, Ron ignored this last comment. "Come over here and get under the blanket. You'll be warmer."
"I'm fine, Ron!" Hermione said. "Besides, there's not room for two of us in that armchair anyway."
Ron smirked and threw off the blanket. Before Hermione quite knew what was happening, Ron had scooped her up in his arms and was carrying her across the room.
"What are you doing?" she asked, giggling at Ron's determined expression.
"I'm not stupid, Hermione," said Ron. "I can see you shivering."
He sat back down in the armchair, keeping his arms firmly around Hermione.
"Let me go," Hermione demanded. Ron responded by tightening his hold. "Oh, honestly, Ron, this is just silly..."
When it became clear that Ron wasn't going to release her, Hermione swung her legs over one arm of the chair and settled back against Ron, opening her book again. Ron looked down at here, eyebrow quirked, fighting back a smile.
"What?" asked Hermione playfully, tilting her head back to look at him. "Am I not allowed to keep reading now?" Her expression was indignant, but her eyes glinted with mischief.
Ron couldn't keep a straight face as she glared at him; he let himself laugh, pulling her closer to him. As he did so, he felt Hermione shiver slightly in his arms.
"Hey," he said, recapturing her attention. "You're still cold."
It wasn't a question, but she shook her head slightly in response; he felt her shiver again as she returned to her book.
Wordlessly, Ron stretched out one arm and retrieved the blanket from where it had fallen, spreading it over the two of them. Hermione made no further protest; she simply lifted her book to keep it out of the way. Ron tugged at the corner of the blanket, making sure Hermione was completely covered, and wrapped his arms around her once more. Gently, he rested his chin on the top of her head, staring at the book along with her, though not really reading.
After a few moments, Hermione realized she wasn't really reading anymore. Instead, she was listening: the fire crackled and hissed behind her, though with less enthusiasm than before; the walls of the Burrow creaked in a strangely comforting way, as if the house were settling down for sleep as well; Ron breathed slowly, in such an easy rhythm that Hermione found herself inhaling when he did, exhaling with him. As she continued listening, she heard his breathing slow gradually. His head rested heavily on hers and his arms loosened; she knew he was nearly asleep.
Smiling, she closed the book and snuggled in closer, resting her head against his chest. Her slight movement woke him, and he looked down at here dazedly, as though not quite sure where he was.
"Go back to sleep," she whispered, smiling up at him. "It's all right."She settled back against him, closing her eyes, and felt his arms tighten protectively around her.
Ron was now awake, and he looked down at the young woman curled up against him for a long moment. He was still surprised that Hermione had forgiven him for leaving them that winter; he hadn't been able to forgive himself. She didn't know that, tonight, she was the source of his insomnia; he'd woken up from a nightmare, remembering her screams in Malfoy Manor as she was tortured, and nearly screamed her name aloud before realizing where he was. She didn't know that her presence calmed him, comforted him, reminded him that she was still alive and with him. And she didn't know how much he loved her.
With some surprise, Ron realized Hermione had fallen asleep. Her chest rose and fell rhythmically; a strand of hair that had fallen into her face fluttered softly. He felt extremely protective of her - after everything she'd been through, he was all too aware that she was breakable, no matter how hard she tried to seem strong.
Ron pulled her closer to him, reaching one hand to her face and tucking the strand of hair behind her ear, cradling the back of her head gently. He ducked his head and pressed a kiss to her forehead, so softly he wasn't sure she'd feel it. Though she was still asleep, she smiled as he pulled away. He rested his head against hers once more, smiling as he closed his eyes. When Hermione smiled, he couldn't help but smile back.