She was gone when he woke up. He had expected to feel her leaving - she'd slept on the inside of the bed - but she must have moved very slowly or else he'd just been too deeply unconscious to notice.

He yawned and stretched as he got up… freezing immediately.

Standing between the bunks and Hermione's camp bed, he was just tall enough to come face to face with Harry… where he was sitting in his upper bunk, very much awake.

"Uh, hey, mate."

Harry wasn't wearing his glasses, but he acknowledged Ron with a sort of half-hearted nod.

"What d'you want for breakfast?" Ron asked with exaggerated cheerfulness. There really was no way anyone could pretend Ron hadn't just climbed out of Hermione's bed. Sod it.

"Bacon, eggs, toast," Harry listed off, "and what about some of those chocolate croissants your mum makes?"

"You got it," Ron laughed, turning his uncomfortably warm face away to make an escape and rummage the kitchen for over-ripened berries and half a tin of stale oats.

On the one hand, this had been going on for weeks (bloody hell, really?!), and Ron had already both suspected and mentioned to Hermione that Harry probably knew about it. But, on the other hand, he hadn't actually faced Harry directly about it, and now he really couldn't hope to pretend like it was simply a comforting secret between them- oh, why did he even bother? They'd wanked in front of each other, twenty-four hours ago.

A strangled groan choked him for a second before he shook himself and set a saucepan of water to boil.

Hermione must have heard him moving about from outside. She walked through the tent entrance toward the kitchen, holding an empty tea cup and looking mildly dazed.

"What are you making?" she asked as she approached him.

"Porridge, again," he shrugged, "unless you've got a better idea."

"No, I haven't."

He thought of telling her about Harry, but then he recalled how unaffected she'd been the last time he'd mentioned, so he figured there wasn't any point. As if summoned by thought, Harry emerged and joined them, slumping down at the table.

"I'm bringing down the wards to go for a walk," he announced.

"Why?" Ron asked over his shoulder, as he stirred their breakfast. Hermione leaned against the counter beside him, looking displeased.

"Weather's still alright, miraculously, and I just need a change of scenery."

"We spent half the day yesterday outside," Ron reminded him, trying to softly dissuade him.

"And I want to spend half of today doing the same."

Hermione glanced sideways at Ron just before he suggested, "I'll go with you."

"You should stay here," Harry countered.

"Why?" He turned to fully face Harry then, loosely crossing his arms and leaning back against the edge of the stove.

Harry glanced oddly between Ron and Hermione, which prompted them to glance unconsciously at each other.

"Thought I'd leave you alone for a bit," Harry explained slowly, testing the waters.

Hermione softly cleared her throat.

"Mate," Ron started, "we're all together out here because it's safer, yeah?"

"Yes, Harry," Hermione agreed with a hint of shrillness to her voice. "You can't go wandering about on your own. We've never gone outside the wards alone."

"Ron did, when he went to the Muggle baker's," Harry reminded them with a teasing smile, but Hermione's tense stance seemed to make him think better of having brought it up.

"Yes, well," Hermione sniffed, "he shouldn't have."

"I won't go far," Harry countered. "Just down the hill a bit, along that stream-"

"I'm still going with you," Ron cut in, turning back to his cooking. He could feel both Harry and Hermione's eyes on him, but they said nothing else just then, and Hermione finally left the room with a soft sigh.

"I should go with him, shouldn't I?" Ron whispered to Hermione, after breakfast, whilst she was busying herself with folding clean clothes and making her bed.

"We can't let him go alone…"


He scratched the side of his face with a pang of guilty selfishness. If Harry had left them by themselves…

Whatever could have happened in that scenario wasn't worth thinking of for another second. He'd never let Harry risk his safety for an hour alone with Hermione.

"He's in the loo getting dressed. Reckon we'll leave when he comes out."

Hermione nodded, still folding. He blinked at her.

"What?" he asked her profile.

"I know he's just bored and irritated, but I don't like him thinking he should leave us."

"He doesn't, really. He… well, he saw me getting up from your bed this morning. But he didn't seem at all uncomfortable about it. Reckon it's just an excuse to get away for a bit."

"You mean he thought we might go for it better if he said it that way?"


She sat on the edge of her bed and looked up at him.

"At first, when he suggested it, I was a bit angry he'd be so careless," she said. "But then I started thinking how nice it would be if we really could be alone like that. Just for a bit. Oh, that's a terrible thing for me to think!"

"No, it's not. I thought it, too. But we can't, and it's fine. We've managed anyway, yeah?"

She nodded with a small smile, and he ruffled his hair before picking up a pair of jeans from the foot of his bed. He rested his shoulder against Harry's upper bunk, waiting.

"What are you doing?" she asked, quizzically.

"Waiting for Harry to finish with the loo so I can change."

"Oh. Well." She tucked a tangle of curls behind her ear. "You don't have to wait for him."

He scratched the back of his neck.

"I know what I said before, about… well, when you changed your clothes by my bed, but it's different now. We've… been in the bath together, and you've slept in only your pants." Her cheeks blazed a lovely shade of pink.

A soft laugh escaped through his nose.

"Oh!" she suddenly announced, looking sheepish. "I'm sorry. I should have suggested… I can leave."

"Nah, it's fine," he shrugged, wondering why something so normal seeming a few weeks ago was suddenly making him feel so ridiculously self-conscious. Not to mention that after what they'd done the previous morning, it should be literally nothing to strip off his pyjamas, with her watching.

So then he stripped off his pyjamas, with her watching.

If she'd wanted to seem casual at all about him doing this, she must have abandoned logic when he actually started doing it, because she wasn't just watching, really. She was staring.

He hastily kicked his pyjama trousers away, then reached over his shoulder to take off his shirt. He could have probably foregone that step since his shirt was still fairly clean, but - oh, God, did he like this attention?!

He tossed the shirt to the floor, then started working his jeans up his long legs, jumping to pull them up to his waist. Her gaze roamed from his belt, as he fastened it, to his bare chest, with a final flick up to his face.

"Have I got a clean shirt, on your bed?" he asked in a gruff sort of voice that didn't quite sound like him.

She twitched, as if he'd startled her out of some sort of trance, then quickly overcorrected and sorted through the folded laundry next to her.

"Here." She stood to hand it to him, which was somewhat unnecessary but brought her very, very close to his naked chest.

He really wanted to touch her… but, for some reason, they seemed to have reverted back just then to doing things that could have been marginally passed off as normal between friends, whilst both clearly realising it was actually just an excuse to cross a line.

He took the shirt from her and fucking drank in the way her fingers touched his for several seconds longer than was sensible.

He could hear Harry walking out of the bathroom, so he pulled his shirt on over his head, regrettably.

"D'you have to change, too?" he teased, raising a hopeful brow at Hermione.

She laughed and shook her head, but then she seemed to be preparing her next words, very carefully. "Not now, but I will, later tonight…"

She quickly looked away from him and busied herself with finishing her folding, leaving him to escape, dazed. And he had to correct himself… Hermione promising to strip in front of him later that night (and oh my God, what they'd done the precious morning, it kept reoccurring to him) was way over the old line they'd been pushing further and further out for years.

Their boots crunched leaves at clashing intervals as they trudged along the edge of the creek. They'd left the tent quite a ways behind, and Ron had automatically triple checked his pocket for his wand as soon as they'd passed the treeline.

"Did you actually just want to get away from us?" he asked Harry, but his tone was lighthearted. It wouldn't be surprising if he had.

"What? No. Sorry," Harry answered quickly. "Just starting to wonder if this is what the rest of our lives will be like - eating wild plants every day and staring off into the woods every night."

"Come on. We won't be here forever."

"Yeah…" Harry sounded dismissive enough that Ron let the topic go.

As they continued their walk, the sky dulled from a distant, mildly ominous gray to a sort of all-encompassing overcast, muting the sparse bits of colour that popped up here and there amongst the wintery plants and dead leaves. Slowly, Ron felt periodic sizzles of cold on his skin, eventually comprehending that it was snowing. But it wasn't the sort that had made them huddle inside before, desperate for warmth or the end of a cycle of weather that had reflected their collective mood too accurately. This was a silent, calming fall, flakes fluttering to the ground with increasing frequency, dusting the earth in soft, pure white.

Eventually, they stopped moving forward, in unspoken agreement that they'd gone far enough. They stood looking out over the valley below, huddling just a little closer together from the cold. And when at last they turned to head back, the snow had stopped falling, thin patches already melting on the ground, leaving no trace.

Hermione was staring over at the tent entrance, from the sofa, as they stepped back inside. Evidently, she'd heard them approaching.

"Oh, good, you're back," she said, with badly concealed relief. "I wanted to take a bath but not while the wards were down."

"Go on. We'll work on food," Ron suggested. "We're nearly out of everything but bloody mushrooms…"

"I'll get the maps out later and see if we can come up with another plan…" Hermione nearly winced on the word as she stood and headed for the bathroom… as if arbitrarily selecting a location to move to could be considered a real plan.

"Hermione," Ron called after her retreating back, "have you got enough soap?"

She turned halfway to glance at him, and her briefly widened eyes met his as he gave her a wavering half-smile.

"Yes, I think I'll manage," she said, voice shaking just enough for him to pick up on it and for Harry to... not.

"Right," he concluded, and she disappeared.

"Why the sudden concern about soap?" Harry asked, somewhat distractedly.

"You wouldn't wanna take a bath without it, would you?" Ron answered, hiding a grin.

"Uh… no, guess not."

The maps were everywhere.

There was a cluster of Muggle villages in northern Scotland where they reckoned they'd pass undetected and potentially be able to purchase more food. Otherwise, there were private farms they could nick from, though Ron knew Hermione preferred they didn't do that. Either way, they'd be giving up moderately better weather if they traveled north again. It was a tough decision when nothing seemed strikingly better than anything else. But considering they had no immediate needs aside from replenishing supplies and potentially stumbling onto new information, it was as good a plan as any to relocate the next morning.

The brief snow from earlier had shifted to a light rain by nightfall, and their daily routine of waking, eating a meager portion of whatever they had left, foraging, then researching in relative silence was droning on, as if they somehow lived in a recurring dream.

"Anybody need the loo?" Harry asked with a stifled yawn. "I think I'll have a shower."

Hermione exchanged a curious look with Ron and he shook his head, so Harry left them alone at the kitchen table.

"I'd forgotten you have first watch," Hermione said quietly, staring down at the mess of books and parchment between them. "I should get ready for bed."

She glanced up at him, and he didn't need to recall what she'd said to him that morning, because he'd already been thinking about it, all day.

She got up, and he took a little bit too long to follow her, wondering, as he always did, if he'd misunderstood her. But the moment he crossed through the flap into their bedroom, she turned around to face him, hands shaking slightly as she reached for the hem of her jumper and vest, together… and pulled them off over her head.

She was wearing a simple blue bra, a lovely colour against her skin. A lantern was lit by her bed, and he could see her so much better than he'd been able to when she'd done this before, in bed with him. It wouldn't have mattered anyway, because he imagined he'd always feel this way when he saw her. Overwhelmed and mesmerised by how perfect she was to him.

"God, you're beautiful," he slurred, hardly realising what he was saying and certainly unable to stop himself.

A conflicted look of doubt, fear, and appreciation crossed her face. Surprisingly, he could read all three quite easily, and he supposed he understood. He wasn't really supposed to be so unguarded with his words when she wasn't prepared… when she hadn't asked him for them. But he couldn't watch her do this and stay completely calm and in control. It was hard enough to be next to her every day, almost all day long, and not-

She shivered and tensed slightly, gaze flicking up to meet his eyes and then away again, quickly. Her still-shaking hands went for the button of her jeans. He wanted to sit on her bed as she had done with him that morning, but he wasn't really sure he could move. So, he remained standing half a metre away from her as she unzipped her jeans and tugged them down her legs to the floor.

His eyes blazed a path from her shins, up her bare legs. More leg than he had ever seen. Past her white knickers to her belly button.

He attempted to swallow, his throat having gone quite dry.

"C-Could you hand me a vest, from my bed?" she asked hoarsely.

It didn't matter that she could have reached it as well as he could, and maybe this was how she'd felt this morning when he'd asked her for a shirt. He toppled a pile of folded clothes in his attempt to find what she needed, eventually locating a white vest and standing back up to hand it to her.

"Thank you," she whispered, then she turned around to face away from him. For a second, he had no idea what was happening. Until she looped her vest over Harry's upper bunk… and reached behind her back to unclasp her bra.

He was pretty sure he'd let out an involuntary, strangled sound, and he could acutely feel his heartbeat and the heat of his blood rising furiously up his neck to his ears.

"Hermione," he breathed out, as she dropped her bra to the floor.

"Come closer?" she whispered with an unmistakable waver to her voice, shocking him motionless for too long.

Finally, he took two small steps until his chest was so close to her naked back that he thought he could feel the heat of her body, even through his jumper. His fingers ached to touch her, and he moved his right hand so slowly toward her hip until his fingertips just barely came into contact with her skin. She gasped and flinched, surprised, and he was ready to pull away… but then she leaned back into him, her shoulders resting on his chest.

She was very noticeably shaking against him, and he moved faster this time, smoothing his hand over her hipbone and across her stomach, eyes nearly fluttering shut. Her skin was perfect, so bloody perfect. And he was trapped. He couldn't do all the things he wanted to do. Even if she wanted him to do them.

"Just… just hold me, for a minute," she requested in the tiniest, most beautifully faltering voice, understanding his conflict without the need to explain.

His left arm joined his right, wrapping around her waist as he laid his cheek on top of her head.

As they breathed, together, he felt her body relax into him and her head fall back a bit against his sternum. He closed his eyes, letting the muffled rushing sounds from Harry's shower reassure him that they were alone.

He could have stayed there all night, his heart beating against her back and his hands on her warm skin. But, much too soon, the shower shut off and they were surrounded by piercing silence. He let go of her and took a step backward.

She reached for her vest and quickly put it on, then turned toward her bed without looking at him to find her pyjama trousers, mechanically pulling them up her legs and combing her fingers through her hair, flipping it over her shoulders.

"I should go," he suggested, with an apologetic wince.

"You should," she agreed, looking up at him then with a sad smile. He nodded, ran a hand across his jaw, and left.

Hours later, he was wet and cold and exhausted, and the memory of holding her almost naked body was like a bittersweet beacon, pulling him through the night but giving him more reasons to despise their situation, at the same time. He'd been keeping himself together, determined to be a positive support for the other two after how he'd abandoned them. But sometimes, alone, discouragement caught up to him, and he just wanted to take them home.

But then they had never actually thought this would be easy. Had there been some small part of him that had suspected it would fall together as simply as it seemed to have done for them, before? Yet the days were so much longer here, full of nothing but monotony, hunger, and shivering cold. He should have known, as he'd thought he'd always done. He should have been stronger.

He could only do it right, now. No going back.

It was easier when she was with him, when he wasn't hours into the night with only his own thoughts and a howling, distant wind for company. He craved sleep, the kind he only got with her, and never enough of it.

He thought of Harry, burdened by his connection with You-Know-Who and just as tired, angry and frustrated. More so, he reckoned, but buried deeper. And as much as he wanted to fast forward, find the end of the journey and win, there was something in the waiting, too, something safe. As long as they were out there, together, they weren't fighting. They weren't facing it. These days were numbered, surely, and it was not as Harry had cynically said hours earlier - this pause was not forever. Take it in, breathe. Maybe these were the last real days they'd be together, and-

He roughly sniffed and killed his spiralling thoughts before they could grow.

Strangely, he actually missed her, metres away inside the tent and sleeping. He shook his head at himself, tucking up his knees and resting his forearms across them, willing his focus back on their surroundings and his vigil. Soon. This would all be over soon.

He was nearly a sleepwalker, shuffling through the tent flap toward bed, momentarily reluctant to leave Harry outside alone for some inexplicable reason but coaxed into logic by Harry's dismissal and his own lack of consciousness. Minutes more, and he'd have been useless.

He was pleased to see she was actually asleep, tugging off his jeans and leaving them heaped on the floor, foregoing even a thought for pyjamas and collapsing next to her in his pants and shirt. He shimmied under her blanket, encountering wonderful warmth from hours of her radiating body heat. His nose brushed her thick hair as he closed his eyes, and he hadn't thought he'd wake her, but she moved backward, just enough to slide her legs fully against his, sighing.

"Alright?" she asked, in a sleep-drugged voice.

"Mm," he offered as his answer, dropping his hand to her hip.


"Yeah. He's outside," he mumbled, to the back of her head. "The rain's stopped."

"I was having a dream," she continued, in that barely conscious voice, "about revising for final exams, at Hogwarts."

He opened his eyes and laughed lightly, absentmindedly trailing his fingers up her side.

"Nightmare, was it?"

"No. But I couldn't convince you and Harry to take it seriously."

"Regular term at school, then," he teased, smiling.

He felt her laugh lightly, and a brief silence passed before she asked, "Do you think we're doing the right thing, moving tomorrow?"

"Sure." His hand stilled on her hip again. "If we can't find better food, we can always come back here for more of those bloody mushrooms."

"I don't like all this guessing," she sighed.

"Guessing did get Harry and I through those exams we wouldn't properly revise for…"

"You never give yourself enough credit," she scolded, running her toes briefly up his bare shin. "You passed because you're smarter than you think, and you have a good memory for little things."

He quirked an eyebrow she couldn't see. "I do?"

"You've remembered my birthday, every year, after I only told you it once."

"Well, yeah. I can remember the really important stuff…"

She rolled toward him, her shoulder pressing against his chest and his hand sliding to her stomach until she was on her back, turning her head to stare through the dark at his sleepy eyes. They were so dangerously close together, he could have kissed her nose by just lifting his chin an inch-

"I don't know why it's always been so hard for me to let you know I think you're…" Ironically, considering her half-finished statement, she seemed yet again choked by whatever word she'd wanted to say at the end. He vividly recalled what she had said, several weeks ago, how she thought he was worth quite a bit more than he thought of himself, how she didn't want him to change.

But then he considered, again, the years he'd spent hiding his own feelings and taking it out on her, instead.

"I wasn't any better," he reminded her, letting her off the hook from completing her sentence.

"Not too sure about that… I knew you didn't fancy Harry." She managed to keep a straight face til he laughed, and her lips wavered on a grin.

"Maybe I do," he countered, and she turned the rest of the way onto her side to fully face him, adorably trying to raise a brow and mostly failing.

"Have you been sleeping in Harry's bed, whilst I've been out on watch?" she whispered, with stifled laughter.

"What if I have?"

"I'd have to fight him."

"My two best mates, duelling over me."

Her expression softened for a second, and whatever she might have said next to continue their banter seemed to fade slowly away.

"What?" he pried.

"Mates," she said, so quietly, hardly even a whisper.

"I'll make it easier," he continued, in his own hushed voice, feeling his heart lodge in his throat at what he knew she was doing. "I'll tell Harry to sod off, 'cause I'm yours."

"Don't," she sighed, lowering her gaze from his face. "You don't… have to say that…"

He knew what she meant, that of course this wasn't just a joke about Harry. It was the rest, his confession that wasn't really a confession at all. How long had he belonged to her? Too long to bother reckoning.

"I know," she added, with the tiniest hint of a smile, and his thumb slid under the bottom edge of her vest.

It wasn't just reassurance, then, and maybe this was the first time he'd felt totally secure that she truly understood all those unspoken words and how much this meant to him. He wasn't quite sure if the soap was to blame or something else, but he smiled back, and she leaned closer into him, eyes fluttering shut.

He watched her breathing slow, felt her feet shuffle between his legs, a comfortably familiar thing, and his hand flattened to the bare skin of her side, fully under her vest. And somewhere between his heart pounding for more and the warring tug of exhaustion, he felt a surprising relief that they were still out there in the wilderness, still directionless for now, still lost with each other.