A/N: This came about from me trying to work on the second part of a pretty disturbing fic I wrote earlier this week called I (Don't) Need You. In the process of trying to get through the second half, I had to jump into a new doc and expel some hurt/comfort, during the same general era (DH tent days). This story will actually be in the neighbourhood of 5 chapters long, maybe a bit more... I have already written chapter 2 and will try to update this one once a week until it's done. It's flowing very easy for me right now.
In the midst of my frenzy, I have also been opening and closing documents for Thieves and two other WIPs, so... some small progress? Thank you for your patience, and I promise I haven't abandoned them! It just takes a fairly specific vibe to be able to write them well, and I don't want to wimp out of making them (at least close to) what they are inside my head!
Hope you enjoy this bit of talky fluff. I have written post-locket Ron quite a few times, but (realistically) they've (R/Hr) got to get a lot of the talk out before some of the fluffier, comforty bits in the next few chapters :)
There was a howling wind outside, brittle trees unbending in its wake. Inside, canvas blocked the brunt of the chill from them, but it didn't quite keep it from gently creeping in.
Tea was on, kettle hovering over the wood stove. Ron sat alone, flipping through notes Hermione had made while he'd been gone. He reckoned it might take weeks to finish reading them, but he was determined to catch up as soon as he could. After their near-miss at Lovegood's, they needed to regroup.
He heard Hermione's light coughing from the loo behind him, and he paused his reading, lifting bloodshot eyes to stare forward. His help had been generally unwanted, though it didn't stop him trying.
The kettle whistled, and he stood, pouring two steaming cups of weak Earl Grey. He sniffed, remembering how she'd once confessed she thought a bit of milk made tea more comforting, a luxury they didn't have. They'd not seen such extravagances in ages. Except he'd-
He recalled Bill offering plates of pies and some dish Fleur had made with hollandaise, as he'd sat with them, silent, on Christmas Eve. But he'd not felt up to it, in spite of his selfish, petty words before he'd left...
He suddenly heard Hermione shuffling around behind the flap that separated the loo from the rest of the tent, and she emerged, hair curled in long, wet ringlets, shirt sticking to her damp back. She ignored him as she approached the table, her notes sprawling to fill every available space.
"Here," and he took two steps toward her, offering one of his prepared cups of tea.
"Oh," she said, tucking a clump of hair behind her ear before taking the cup from him, oddly careful not to touch him.
She shivered, and his eyes darted down her body and back up again. He clobbered down his need to blush, clearing his throat as she took a small sip of tea. Her eyebrows shot up.
"Where did you get this?"
"Stole it from Bill."
Her eyes found his before lowering her awed gaze to her tea again.
"You stole my favourite tea from your brother."
She glanced back up at him, one more time, expression mostly unreadable. But her pupils shined a little more brightly in the lantern light.
"That's..." she started, but she shook her head, evidently set on saying nothing more about it.
She took another slow sip of tea, the fluttering of her eyelids his only indication of her emotions.
"I should sort these," she muttered, after another moment, gesturing toward the notes in uneven stacks littering the tabletop. She set down her cup and reached for a loose pile.
"I've got it," Ron said, abandoning his own cup. "Was gonna read through everything I missed anyway, while Harry's outside."
She sighed slowly.
"You're taking second watch again?" she asked, edgily.
"Thought I might."
Though he couldn't imagine her concern for his sleep schedule was genuine, he'd noticed her persisting in questioning him about it over the last few evenings, since they'd come back from Lovegood's.
"No point trying to stop you," she sighed, shivering again. "You'll do what you want anyway."
"Nevermind. I'm going to bed. Don't shuffle everything out of order..." and she picked up her tea, turning her back on him to retreat across the tent to her bunk.
He stood still for several long moments after she'd walked away, contemplating her words... remembering with a painful stab to his chest what she'd tried to do, the night he'd gone...
She'd tried to stop him. She'd screamed for him. He'd heard her. And he'd ignored her.
Gathering every stray bit of courage and determination he could find, he left his work and walked softly across the tent, into the shadowy bedroom space on the other side. She'd charmed her hair dry, but she was lying on her side, facing the canvas wall. Still shivering.
She jolted, startled by his presence.
"No... you're not."
She tucked her knees a bit higher up toward her chest, blankets bunched at her neck.
"Stop being perceptive and go away."
He ignored her - wasn't this the exact behaviour he was trying to quit? - and sat on the tent floor, next to her bunk.
"I should've listened to you, and I swear I regretted it the second I'd Disapparated, but I couldn't-"
"I know. You told me before."
"Okay. But..." She was right, really. What else could he do to prove it to her? How sorry he really was... "Hermione."
He knew the answer, if he was being honest. But could he be that bloody honest? He had to try.
"The locket told me you didn't want me here."
Silence engulfed them for a few seconds before she rustled under her blankets, turning her head slightly but not facing him fully.
"What do you mean it 'told you'?"
"It… wouldn't let me stop thinking it. Made it real."
She turned the rest of the way over, blankets falling away from her neck.
"It's still not an excuse," he added quickly, propping his forearms across his bent knees, "but I would never have ignored you like that if it hadn't... fucked with me. First night I got to Bill's, I had a nightmare I could hear you crying and begging me not to leave."
Her eyes narrowed a bit, and he felt sure she was about to snap something back, as she had been doing every time he'd tried to talk to her about what he'd experienced. But, to his surprise, she said nothing this time.
"I thought you needed to know," he continued, urged on by her silence, "even though it doesn't make it any better. I really convinced myself - with the damn Horcrux's help - that you'd rather be shot of me."
"That's ridiculous," she huffed, pushing up on her elbow to glare at him.
"Is it?" he asked, lifting a sceptical eyebrow.
"You can't still think that way now..."
"I don't. But... it didn't feel like much of a stretch, at the time."
"You keep saying it like you mean just me... I wanted you gone. Is that how you felt?"
"It's... complicated with us, innit. But no, it wasn't just you."
She sat up the rest of the way, palm pressed to her cot, and he could see the gooseflesh pimpling her skin, all the way up her bare arm.
"D'you want my sleeping bag?"
She averted her eyes from his, picking at a loose wool thread.
"Don't know why my heating charms aren't working..."
"Got a cold, maybe?" he asked, concerned. "Heard you coughing earlier."
She sniffed, and a fat tear splashed down her cheek. He'd maybe expected her to row with him again, maybe tell him once more to leave her alone, but not this. What was he doing to her?
"What'd I say?" he asked sadly, dropping his arms from his knees to lean in a bit closer.
"Nothing." She wiped her hand across her face. "But you don't... you don't know how it felt, for me. And now that you're back..."
She shook her head, and he shifted to sit up on his knees, scooting closer to the rusty metal frame of her bed.
"I can't tell you," she said quickly, as if fending off a question he hadn't asked. "I can't explain it to you."
This close, he could see a disconcerting tinge of cool blue in her parted lips. Without asking, he tugged his arms out of the jumper he was wearing, pulling it over his head and reaching out to hand it to her.
She met his sad eyes with her own before she finally moved, cold fingers wrapping partly around his as she took the offered jumper from him.
"Why are your hands so warm?"
She gathered his jumper in her lap as he watched her, speaking before he had the chance to think.
"Lemme see your arms."
She stared up at him, confused, but she complied, a bit to his surprise, and held her arms out toward him. Before he could stare too long, he reached up and wrapped both of his hands around her wrists, scooting closer and up onto his knees. Noticing her body tense slightly, he briefly questioned the wisdom of this gesture… but it was a little too late for that now.
Long fingers gripping her lightly, he slid his hands up her arms to her biceps, back down again. She closed her eyes and breathed through her mouth.
He did it again, watching her swallow.
"Better?" he asked hoarsely, but her only response was a heavy nod of approval.
He probably shouldn't even consider it, but if he just moved up a little further this time, over her shoulders…
He found both hands suddenly on the sides of her neck, feeling her rapid pulse against his left palm. He was so close to her face, inches apart, and with her eyes fluttering behind closed lids, he could stare.
Until two round pupils were suddenly fixated on his.
He dropped his hands from her neck straightaway, unable to avoid the blood rush to his face this time.
She cleared her throat, looking down at the large jumper in her lap.
"Thanks," she said softly, "for this." And, without looking at him again, she ducked her frizzy head and tugged wool over her neck, disappearing in way too much fabric. It billowed out from her chest and stomach, hands vanishing up the too-long sleeves.
"Any time," he managed in a raw voice.
He was down to the final quarter hour of Harry's watch. He knew he probably should have at least attempted a nap, but he'd focused his slightly burning eyes on pages and pages of Hermione's delicate handwriting, and it hadn't seemed worth moving. Now, he thought he'd take a moment to find another jumper and maybe his cloak, expecting the icy air outside to be too much for him in his t-shirt and jeans, hours on end.
Truthfully, he wasn't likely to wake Hermione for her shift in three hours, no matter how apprehensive he was about the near-hundred percent chance she'd shout at him about it over breakfast...
He quietly made his way toward his bunk, in search of his rucksack. A delicate wheeze broke the relative silence and he turned to glance at Hermione, twisted up in blankets and his jumper. He swallowed hard, a little dazed by the sight of her sleeping in his clothes. But her right leg was hanging out from under her covers, a bit of ankle exposed between her sock and pyjamas.
She stirred again, mumbling something, forehead creased.
Without really thinking about what he was doing, he knelt by her bed, reaching for her blanket to tuck it back over her leg. But his hand found her ice cold toes, thin sock almost feeling damp from the chill. And it might have been her position, in the dark, where he was unable to see her face. But he felt strangely calm as he squeezed his hand around her small foot, holding it still as he sat there, leaning against her bunk as sleet began to patter against the canvas walls...
He'd only dropped his head back for a second, surely…
Harry's voice might have been coming toward him through thick fog. But it registered somehow, and Ron's eyes cracked open.
He blinked up at a pair of spectacles, dark green eyes behind them. His hand had lost its grip, now resting lightly on Hermione's shin.
"Sorry," he mumbled, straightening up. "Don't think she's feeling well."
"Oh?" Harry's curious face morphed toward concerned.
Ron stood, forcing Harry to change the direction of his gaze to accommodate Ron's height.
"Not serious. Don't think so, anyway. I'm taking her shift."
"Did you sleep?" Harry asked, slowly blinking his own tired eyes.
"I'll just have a short kip and come join you-"
"Don't worry about it," Ron interrupted, reaching for his rucksack, tugging out a fresh jumper. And he made for the tent flap without waiting for an argument.
"Ron?" Harry called, and he paused, having almost escaped. "Wake me if you need a break."
But he waved Harry away and ducked outside.
He'd reached a state of lulled tranquility. Much further into pre-dawn, and he might start questioning his response time. As it was, he twitched a bit late at the sound of a pair of trainers crunching frozen leaves behind him.
Gazing up through pale eyelashes, he took in the sight of her silhouette, wrapped to her shoulders in a blanket as she crouched to sit next to him.
"Hey," he said, bracing for her attack about leaving her to sleep nearly two hours past the start of her watch...
"Hey." She settled a foot away from him, sniffing.
His ears were ringing, listening for her steady breathing as they stared forward into the barren woods, and no more words came. She wrapped the blanket tighter around her shoulders, finally turning to glance at his profile.
"What else did it tell you?" she asked, voice almost lost in the cold air between them.
He turned to meet her eyes, licking his lips, not quite following her question.
"What'd you mean?"
And he realised, immediately. He should have known his confession earlier would lead her to a million new considerations, curiosities.
"Doesn't really matter. S'over now."
A shudder ran through him, the way she'd said his name, echoing near exactly the tone of voice that had called out to him from his pocket, on Christmas morning.
"I knew it," she pressed on, not waiting for him to answer her. "After you left, I was wearing it late one night, and I felt this sort of… hopelessness. Is that what you felt?"
She wasn't going to leave this alone, and it was his fault, really, for starting a conversation he didn't want to finish. He knew he could push back, and she'd eventually drop it, but he somehow wanted to do that even less than he wanted to talk about it. He was standing on thin ice, with her even exchanging more than a few terse words with him.
"It wanted me to feel… isolated," he finally said. "It found thoughts I'd had that I sort of knew were rubbish, deep down, and it made me ask myself if maybe they were true, after all."
He'd barely paused to gather his next words when she questioned him.
He could skirt around the edges of this, he reckoned, and still tell her the truth.
"I'd be worried about something, and it would convince me you and Harry didn't care. Like when we found out about the sword… You and Harry thought it was such a bloody good breakthrough, and all I could think was how Ginny was in danger, and we couldn't help her."
"But… of course we cared about her-"
"I know, but the ruddy locket didn't want me to feel that way, did it. It's like… it took the words you would say and the little things you did and made me focus on the worst possible interpretation. On a normal day, I can just… get rid of those thoughts and realise I'm either overreacting or focusing on the wrong thing… or that it doesn't matter if it's not exactly what I want anyway."
"Doesn't matter?" Her eyes creased at the edges as she studied him, searching for more than he was explaining clearly. But he moved on, hoping to avoid getting too specific.
"Reckon it did the same to you, in a way, only your fears aren't the same as mine. Made you doubt your abilities and think we couldn't make it…"
"I didn't notice as much before you left… but, I see what you mean."
She avoided his eyes for a moment, and he suspected that she, too, hadn't quite said all that was on her mind.
"Anyway, I'm sorry-"
"I do know a bit about what you felt," she cut over him, ignoring his attempt at yet another apology. "It's not exactly… comfortable, out here. Quite miserable, actually."
"Not miserable now. And anyway, not as bad as I felt at Bill's, nowhere close. I mean… yeah a real bath'd be nice, Hogwarts food, chocolate frogs… Quidditch…"
He'd actually made her smile, as slight as it was. His heart flipped over a bit as he smiled back.
"-but, I'd rather be with you than anywhere else… and Harry, obviously…"
He cleared his throat, wondering just how many more times he could make a passable attempt at deflecting away from sharing a bit more than he'd planned… Her lips parted slightly as she stared at him, and he felt his face warm considerably, even as a gust of cold wind blew through their clearing.
"I didn't think you were coming back," she said in a tiny voice. "And… and that's why I felt so hopeless." She sniffed, turning her gaze out toward the tree line. "Ron… I didn't want to go on without you. Neither did Harry."
He considered her choice of words, judging how she could so easily have thought all the wrong things about how it had been, those weeks, away from her. And he'd tried to explain, but those had been the practical things and his dedication to the mission. He'd been waylaid, unable to return. But what about the rest?
"Why didn't you think I'd come back?"
She scoffed at him, tucking her blanket tighter around her shoulders.
"How could you have? After that first night, I knew that was it. And if… if you'd wanted to, straightaway… well, you'd had several hours to do it. But... you didn't. Then we moved the tent, and I delayed as long as I could, but… we had to go, and I knew you'd never find us."
"You thought, for weeks, that I was glad to be gone?"
"I don't know what I thought. Sometimes, I'd be so angry with you that I could hardly read. And other times… I'd calculate how long I could be gone, just to check… see if I could rationalise talking Harry into giving me the cloak and letting me have one night alone - an hour, even - to make sure you weren't… to know you were safe."
He took in a short breath, shaking his head.
"You were worried?"
"Of course I was bloody worried!"
Her eyes narrowed, flashing up at him.
"But I couldn't have done it, really," she continued, sighing. "I couldn't leave Harry on his own, couldn't risk us both being exposed if we left together, and neither of us ever discussed it. All I could do was focus on the anger instead and try to move us forward."
She paused, chewed her lip, staring out at the trees again.
"And I didn't even know if you wanted to come back."
"Every second, I-"
"I know that now," she breathed, cutting over him, much softer eyes turning back to face him. "Doesn't change the fact that I'm still so… Ron, why? Why did you listen to the bloody Horcrux, instead of me?"
And he found that he couldn't really answer her. It all seemed so muddy and distant and other, now. Why had he let the sodding locket take over? Why couldn't he have been stronger?
"Dunno," he said quietly, sending as many more apologies as he could manage through his tired eyes.
She studied him for a moment, finally nodding slowly and gathering her blanket around her shoulders again, trembling.
"I know it wasn't all your fault. I think I'd have admitted it sooner, if I didn't care so- if… if you weren't my f-friend." Her teeth chattered, the only thing distracting him from the pounding of his heart.
"Go back inside, Hermione. Only got about an hour left til dawn."
"Can't sleep," she explained, clearing her throat. "I'll start breakfast."
She stood, crunching icy leaves and twigs as she headed back toward the tent entrance. He rubbed his cold hands together, glancing forward into the inky dark pre-dawn.
"Oh, and Ron?"
He turned again to look up at her, over his shoulder. She was glaring fiercely down at him, but something made his heart jump pleasantly, a tiny, spirited spark in her expression that he'd missed so much.
"If you let me sleep through my shift again, I'll find a very creative new way to hex you."
But her threat fell pretty soft in contrast with his grin.