Author's notes: And thus the story ends. I hope you liked it. I do have another thing or two up in my sleeve, though, so watch out!
rhmac12: I agree that the torture very likely had more of an impact on Hermione than the book let show. I think she tried to be strong for Harry and their mission. Also agree that Hermione had every right to be mad at Ron for walking out on both her and Harry but I suppose what happened at Malfoy Manor and the prospect of forever losing each other (again) put things into perspective for her - hence why I made her forgive him at this point. I do believe, though, that the abandonment might have some long-term effects on both of them, but that would be a different story (not one that I'm planning to write in the nearer future, though).
Eventually, Ron felt Hermione lose her body tension; she became heavy in his arms.
"Tired?" he whispered into her hair.
"Okay, then let's get out of here. Can think of nicer places to sleep than this bloody corridor where people walk through and all."
Ron scrambled to his feet and, taking hold of both her hands, helped Hermione stand up as well, thinking. Shell Cottage had three bedrooms, two of which were probably still occupied by Griphook and Ollivander respectively, and Bill and Fleur might claim the third room for themselves once they would call it a day. That left the living room and this was where Ron led Hermione to.
Despite the rising sun outside, the room appeared much darker than before as the formerly merrily burning fire was now dying. Ron drew the beaded bag out of his pocket, summoned three sleeping bags and unfurled them near the fireplace, next to Luna and Dean who were already fast asleep. A surge of affection for them overcame him when he realized that they had probably saved the couch and love seats for Harry and them.
Hermione had started to crawl into her sleeping bag, when Ron remembered something.
"Hang on," he said briskly. "You shouldn't be sleeping on the floor, not after... You better sleep on the couch tonight."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Ron," Hermione said irritably. "I feel pathetic enough as it is for being so damned emotional, okay? So don't you give me any special treatment. I'm fine with sleeping here."
"I wasn't going to," Ron replied quickly, raising his hands in defense. "But you've had a load of broken bones, so I thought you shouldn't give yourself more pain by kipping on the floor. Besides, there's nothing wrong with being emotional. On the contrary, you'd worry me if you weren't."
Was she really thinking that he, Ron, considered her pathetic, he wondered. He could, in fact, not think of a person who was less pathetic than Hermione, now less than ever. He remembered how she had tried to convince Griphook of their trustworthiness hours ago. In order to do so, she had not only relived the events at Malfoy Manor, she had even gone as far as talking about her low status under the current regime and referring to herself as a 'Mudblood'. Hearing her talk like that about herself had pained Ron almost as much as her screams back in the Manor and he had hoped with all his heart that she was not going to start believing in those horrid prejudices and seeing herself as inferior - she of all persons, who had least reason to do so, wonderful and brilliant and amazing as she was. But it had been quite the contrary - she had stated with unexpected fervor that she was proud of her Muggle heritage. At those words, he had been relieved beyond measure. And of course, she was right - she had every right to be proud of herself, as he was of her. And proud he was indeed. She was so strong, so much stronger than he felt he could ever hope to be, able to freely talk about all that had happened without as much as an indication of fear or self-pity in her voice. If he had been in Hermione's place, he thought, he would have broken down long ago. How can such a person ever think of herself as pathetic?
Hermione looked at him; her face was in the shadows so that her expression was unrecognizable. But then she slowly stood up.
"I guess you're right. Sorry," she said softly, and Ron had a strange feeling of déjà vu of Grimmauld Place as she carried her sleeping bag over to the couch, placed it there and climbed inside.
Ron hesitated for a moment, not wanting to appear creepy or intrusive, but then he decided to follow Hermione and laid out his sleeping bag on the floor near the feet of the couch. Crouching down, he insecurely looked up at her and he was relieved to see her smiling. He started to scramble into his sleeping bag, but he had barely covered his legs when Hermione spoke again.
"Would you mind... Could you please... sleep with me?"
Even in the semi-darkness, he could see that Hermione had blushed furiously at the double entendre of her words and he knew that he could not be looking much better.
"I mean... Just... You know... Sleep... Here... Next to me..." she spluttered awkwardly and blushed even more. "I... I don't want to be alone."
"Sure, no problem," Ron said, getting out of the gap between the coffee table and the couch and drawing Pettigrew's wand. His ears were still feeling uncomfortably warm. "Engorgio," he added, pointing the wand at the couch which doubled in size.
He stepped in front of the couch and lifted his sleeping bag next to Hermione, but then froze. He had never shared a bed - or couch for that matter - with her. This was going to be more intimate than anything that had been before and he did not know what to do. Was she expecting him to take her into his arms or would that be too obtrusive and all she wanted him to was really just lying next to her? Or would she consider it too cold and distant if he did just that? Was he supposed to say something? If he was, he was doomed, for he had no idea what to say.
"You don't have to if you don't want to," Hermione said quickly, completely misinterpreting his lack of action, and if Ron was not very much mistaken, he could have sworn that he had heard a hint of disappointment in her voice.
"I want that," he said through the lump in his throat. "If that makes you feel better, then I want that, too."
He awkwardly climbed into his sleeping bag and much to his relief, Hermione removed his worries as she put her arms around him and, through hands and words, gently positioned him so that he was lying on his side, his chest level to her head. She wrapped her arms around his middle and snuggled close to him and he returned her embrace, feeling even more nervous than before. He did not dare to breathe normally and his heart was beating like mad; he was painfully aware that Hermione must be feeling it with her head resting against his chest. But she did not react on it and slowly, he calmed down and found himself at ease. Lying here with Hermione felt like the most natural thing on the world, just like breathing or just being. Feeling protective like he never had before, he tucked her head under his chin and tightened his embrace, making her emit a contented sigh. As she was lying in his arms, she felt oddly fragile.
"Thank you," Hermione whispered after a few minutes.
Ron was confused. He could not think of anything he had done that deserved a thank, nothing that anyone else would not have done as well.
"But I haven't done any-"
Hermione leaned back to look at his face.
"When will you finally stop selling yourself so short, Ron?" she reprimanded him, mildly annoyed, to continue in a more gentle tone, "You've done so much tonight alone. You saved my life. You've stayed with me. You've given me strength."
"'S nothing," Ron replied softly as Hermione leant into his chest again. "You know I'd do anything for you."
"Yes, I know," Hermione sleepily whispered back, relaxing again, and slowly drifted into a slumber.
Warmth streaming through his body, Ron watched her in her sleep, half contented, half concerned, expecting her at any moment to start flailing around and screaming as she relived her torture in her dreams, but this never happened. Eventually, he realized how tired he was. He gently kissed the top of her head and whispered the words of which he hoped that one day, he would have the heart to say them directly to her face.
"I love you, Hermione."
He gently held her closer to himself and, burying his face into her hair, drifted off into a blissfully uneventful sleep.