A/N: Oh, my goodness, you have no idea how good it feels to be posting again! Camp NaNo completely kicked my butt, and that story will be much longer than I originally anticipated (51K words and I'm not close to being done), so it may not be starting in October after all. We shall see; I'm definitely still writing!

This fic is something I considered for chapter seven of "More Important Things" and then decided to post as a one-shot. Enjoy!

April 1998

Shell Cottage

I woke to total darkness and the sound of the sea. Being careful not to disturb Fleur, I got out of bed, pulled on my dressing gown against the early spring chill, slipped my wand in the pocket, and went downstairs. I had learned months ago that there was no point lying in bed; I never went back to sleep after dreaming of Greyback. The trouble now was, with seven house guests, there was nowhere to go.

This was the third night I'd found Ron and Hermione together.

They were in the wide armchair in the corner, Hermione sitting sideways on Ron's lap, her head on his shoulder, his arms around her. She looked to be asleep, but Ron turned his head as he heard me approach.

I stepped carefully over Dean and a faint buzzing filled my ears, then disappeared. Ron had cast some kind of privacy charm around them, but it allowed me to cross its boundary. I sat down on the hearth.

"How long have you two been down here?" I kept my tone mild, and Ron didn't take offense.

"A while."

"Your arm must be killing you." Hermione's head rested in the hollow of his shoulder. I knew from experience that was the worst place for a witch, but they all seemed to love it.

Ron flexed the fingers of his right hand experimentally. "Actually, it's been numb for a while now."

"She is out. Let me carry her upstairs."

He shook his head, tightening his grip as if he thought I would take her away from him.

"At least let me trade you places."

He hesitated, looking at Hermione, then back to me.

"Really, Ron, I'm not going to molest her."

"I know, it's just ... she would be embarrassed if she woke up with you holding her."

"If she wakes up, I'll dump her and leave," I promised.

Ron scowled, but he did lean forward, and I took that as agreement. With six younger siblings, I'd once been an expert at moving sleeping people without waking them. Some skills never leave you. I sat down carefully, shifting Hermione's weight so her bum was on the cushion beside me and turning her so her chest wasn't pressed against mine. I rearranged the blanket over her legs and, under Ron's watchful eye, deliberately placed each hand on the arm of the chair. Apparently satisfied, he began staggering up and down the length of the room, shaking out his arm. On his second pass, he accidentally kicked the table pushed against the wall and swore.

"Hurts, doesn't it?" I could tell by the way he was walking his legs had gone to sleep too.

"Like being jabbed with a thousand fiery needles." He looked at Hermione. "But it's not that bad."

I let him pace a couple of more lengths. "She was tortured, wasn't she?" Ron had resisted all my attempts to find out what happened the night they appeared on the beach, and I thought he was going to ignore me again. Then he nodded. My brothers and I used to play this game as kids: I won't tell, but you can guess.

"The Cruciatus?"

He nodded again, still flexing and stretching his arm.

"At Malfoy Manor?"

He didn't respond.

"What about you, or Harry?"


I don't think I had ever heard so much anguish in one word. I swallowed, all my fears about Fleur's involvement in the Order of the Phoenix rushing to the front of my mind. "They made you watch?"

Ron continued pacing even though he was walking normally now. "No, they—" He clamped his mouth shut.

"You couldn't get to her," I guessed.

He shook his head. "I tried, Bill, I swear I did, but we couldn't get out, and I didn't have a wand..."

Shit. "I know you tried, Ron. Hermione knows that too."

He sniffed and nodded. "She said she heard me calling for her."

Oh, Merlin. I had noticed Ron's hoarseness the night he arrived, attributing it to a too-tight chokehold since he'd obviously been in a fight. But Ron had gone hoarse yelling Hermione's name while she was tortured. How long—how long had it gone on? I looked down at the girl—woman—in my arms and wondered if she knew how much she was loved.

"You two made up, then."

"Yeah." His voice cracked.

"You must have done some fast talking. You said you thought she'd never forgive you."

"She didn't at first. Trade me places again."

"Why don't you let me—" I broke off at the look on Ron's face.

We made another successful handoff; although Hermione stirred this time, she immediately settled down when Ron spoke to her. I showed Ron how to shift her weight to the side, off his lap, and Hermione turned into him and began snoring softly.

Enough serious talk; time to inject a little brotherly harassment into this conversation. "You've been sitting up with her every night?"

"Most of them. Harry spelled me a couple of times. She'll fall asleep with him, but when the nightmares come, he can't calm her and ends up getting me anyway. It's easier on everyone if I just stay with her."

"Seems like it would be easier if you just slept with her."

"It's not like that."

"The hell it isn't," I said calmly.

"It's not!"

I raised one eyebrow, taking in Hermione's face nestled into Ron's neck, her body pressed against his, his hands resting not on her waist but low on her hip. "She cuddles with Harry like that, does she?"

He opened his mouth, realized he had no comeback, and closed it again.

"Fleur and I wouldn't care."

He jerked his eyes from the floor up to mine. "You wouldn't?"

"You're both of age, you fancy the pants off each other-pun intended-you're obviously competent at privacy charms or you wouldn't have been able to hide as long as you did, and I assume Hermione can do a decent contraceptive and disease charm."

As I intended, Ron glared at the implied insult. "I can too."

"There you go."

Ron stared at the sleeping Hermione with a look of such naked longing on his face that I began to feel uncomfortable. "Seriously, Ron, why aren't you just sleeping with her instead of sitting up in a chair all night?"

"Where? We can't kick Luna out—she hasn't had a bed in months."

Now I was the one without a comeback. Hermione shared a room with Luna; Griphook and Mr. Ollivander were in the third bedroom; and Ron, Harry, and Dean were taking turns sleeping on the sofa or the sitting room floor.

"You should tell her," I said quietly. "Just in case."

Even in the dim light from the hall, I saw Ron's arms tighten. I knew how he felt. It was hell, being in love in wartime. Especially when the woman you loved refused to stay safely on the sidelines. But even the sidelines wouldn't be safe for Hermione; Muggle-born, best friends with Undesirable Number One and a blood traitor, she was being hunted as the Death Eaters' second most wanted. I still remembered the way my stomach had dropped the first time I saw those three familiar faces—including my youngest brother!—staring out of wanted posters all over Diagon Alley. "You should tell her," I repeated.

Ron raised one hand to stroke Hermione's hair, wrapping a curl around his finger. "I did. It doesn't change anything."

I didn't know what to say. Perhaps I didn't know how he felt, after all. When Fleur and I fell in love, we planned a wedding. It was only her relationship with me, which led to her membership in the Order, that put her in danger. We had discussed her going back to France (actually, I had only hinted at the idea, but she flatly refused) or the two of us moving to Egypt, where I could resume working as a curse breaker. But You-Know-Who had gone after my baby sister when she was only eleven years old, and I had promised myself I would fight against him at every opportunity. I didn't want to leave England, Fleur didn't want to leave me, and so we married at the Burrow.

Ron and Hermione didn't have those options. Even a blind man could see they loved each other, but they were setting aside their feelings to concentrate on Harry, on helping him defeat You-Know-Who. I was proud and terrified at the same time.

"I can talk to Fleur, see if we can come up with some privacy for Hermione." I had no idea what—or where—that might be, but...

Ron shook his head. "She won't take it. She doesn't want any special treatment."

"It's not about special treatment, Ron, it's—"

"I know that, but she's a bit sensitive about being a girl. You know, with me and Harry."

I nodded. "Why don't you go to sleep? I'll watch her."

He hesitated.

"She'll stir if she starts dreaming, and I'll wake you if you don't notice," I assured him. "Go to sleep, Ron." When he still looked skeptical, I smirked. "Does Ronnie want a thtowy?" Hermione had a copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard around here somewhere. Hell, I'd read to Percy, Fred, George, Ron, and Ginny so many times, I probably didn't even need the book.

Ron made a rude gesture but leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

I leaned back too, thinking of the people upstairs. Fleur, my beautiful wife, a member of the Order. Mr. Ollivander, held captive for nearly two years. Luna Lovegood, kidnapped off the Hogwarts Express at Christmas for her father's support of Harry Potter. Griphook, the injured goblin. And in this very room: Harry Potter, Undesirable Number One, asleep on my sofa; Dean Thomas, an assumed Muggle-born, listed as missing and presumed dead; Ron Weasley, blood traitor, best friend of Harry Potter, and the Death Eaters' third most wanted; and the most wanted witch in Britain, Muggle-born Hermione Granger.

I looked at the woman sleeping in my brother's arms. Such a different young woman than the girl I'd first met four years ago, when I came home from Egypt to attend the Quidditch World Cup. All arms and legs and awkward as hell in a house with seven wizards. Charlie and I had got a lot of entertainment taking the mickey out of Ron when Hermione wasn't around. Which wasn't often, as it turned out; they were attached at the hip even then. There had been more rivalry between Ron and Ginny than usual, competing for Hermione's attention. Ron usually won, though of course Hermione stayed in Ginny's room, and many nights that August I heard feminine giggles and shrieks of laughter well into the night.

She was good for my sister, Hermione was. I sighed, remembering Ginny's pale, strained face the night we moved my family to Auntie Muriel's. Poor Ginny; the Death Eaters' most wanted were her boyfriend, her best friend, and her closest brother (we all knew Ron and Ginny were tight). Hermione's friendship during Ginny's second year had been a bulwark for her; someone who knew what happened with the diary and still liked her.

Hermione was good for Ron too. She believed in him, she challenged him, she gave him a reason to try. Without someone like Hermione prodding him all the time, I think Ron might have been smothered in our shadows, mine and Charlie's and Fred's and George's and even Percy's. He had a lot to live up to, Ron did, and damned if he's not going to outstrip us all.

I watched them, quiet and still holding on to each other. This was even a different girl than the one I'd seen that year at Grimmauld Place, the blossoming young woman who had gossiped with Ginny and Tonks and flirted with Ron but been so flustered when anyone flirted with her. The serious, studious prefect who was already studying for O.W.L.s and tried desperately to find a plausible defense for Harry's trial. The loyal friend who gave up Christmas holidays with her parents because her best friend's dad was in hospital. The brave witch who fought Death Eaters at the Ministry of Magic.

Well, that hadn't changed.

I hadn't considered Hermione a particularly attractive witch at first, but I'd been wrong. The coltish awkwardness was gone, balanced by several inches in height and great legs. It was hard to tell now, with the obvious weight loss and woolen jumpers, but she had grown in more than height too. She didn't have Fleur's classic beauty, or the flash and sparkle of someone like Tonks or Ginny, but she had beautiful eyes and a great smile and would probably look much the same in another twenty or thirty years. Hermione had a quiet beauty. You didn't see it at first because it was deeper than the surface. It radiated out from her heart, not her face, and grew stronger under pressure. These last few months had proved that.

I took another look at Ron. His love for Hermione had given him the courage to return to her, to fight for her. I knew she loved Ron back; it was the source of her strength, her love for the two boys. One as a brother and best friend, and one as the love of her life. Ron and Hermione were going to make it; love never fails.