Ron Weasley was tired, and hungry, and cold. But none of that mattered at the moment because he had been, for the better part of the past six hours since their arrival at Shell Cottage, holding desperately to the hand of Hermione Granger, who was miraculously, blissfully, alive.
Ron had helped Hermione back to bed immediately after Dobby's burial. His sister-in-law had tried to convince him to come downstairs and eat with them, but he wasn't budging. She had finally succeeded in hitting him with a drying charm from the doorway after he had also refused to leave Hermione's side again even long enough to change clothes, but the chill of the ocean had already set in. And he'd be damned if he was going to sleep after everything they had been through today, as Harry had come in once to suggest, though he was worried that was a battle he was going to lose with himself eventually. Sod it. If he could stay up all night outside that tent keeping an eye out for dark wizards, he could stay up all night keeping an eye on her.
Hermione had been unconscious for some time after they had escaped from Malfoy Manor, though in a way Ron supposed that was for the best, as she had missed some of the more rigorous healing work Fleur had done on her, and she probably wouldn't even have tasted the Skele-Gro. Ron had been hovering in the far corner of the room, as far away from her as he could get while still being in the same room, when her eyes had finally fluttered open. She had looked panicked at first, not recognizing the unfamiliar room, but then her eyes landed on Ron and he saw her give a little sigh of relief.
His feet were rooted to the floor, as badly as he wanted to be close to her instead. But he had made a promise, back in the Forest of Dean, not to tell her how he felt about her until she was ready for it. And now that the distant, vague knowledge that they might die on this mission had been replaced by the very real and looming possibility, the idea that he had been mere seconds from losing her that very afternoon, he wasn't sure how much longer he could hold his tongue. He loved her, and he didn't want either of them to die before he had a chance to tell her. But if they had been on her timetable before, they certainly were now. He couldn't imagine that hours after she had been literally tortured would suddenly be the right time for his confessions.
She had reached for him, though, as soon as she woke again a little while later. Well, reached was maybe a strong word in her current state; it was more a subtle movement of her fingers across the bedspread in his direction, but he understood the sentiment. So he had rushed to her side, pulled up a chair, taken her hand, and hadn't moved since. She had mostly slept through the remainder of the afternoon and evening, which was understandable, and in the moments she was awake, neither of them spoke. He couldn't fathom what to say to her, other than all the things he wasn't supposed to say. So he sat. And she slept.
He hadn't realized he had dozed off until he jolted awake to the oddest sensation, the feeling of gentle fingers in his hair. But that couldn't be, because the only other person in the room was...
He glanced up to the head of the bed and found Hermione sitting up and looking back at him, her brown eyes wide, and the hand he'd been holding earlier hanging in the air between them, inches from his head. "Sorry," he blurted without thinking, not even sure what he was apologizing for. Not protecting her from that maniac witch earlier? Not asking her to the Yule Ball? Where to even begin, with her?
She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it just as abruptly. Then, seeming resolved, she tentatively wove her fingers back into his hair. He couldn't help himself leaning into her touch. He knew he shouldn't, but she had started it, and after what they had endured today, he didn't feel like fighting it.
"Tell me," Hermione whispered, her voice still slightly raspy.
She shrugged, just the slightest movement of one shoulder. "Whatever you were going to tell me before. In the Forest. I want to hear it."
He stared at her. She didn't, couldn't, know what she was asking. How deep it went. How very much there was to explain to her, tell her. There would be time for all that later, when she had recovered a bit.
But Merlin, if they had learned anything from today, wasn't it that time was a luxury they didn't have?
"You should rest," he whispered back, letting his fingertips trail down her forearm, hoping she would hear the unspoken words beyond his soft touch. The last thing he wanted was to burden her with anything more than she was already dealing with.
To his surprise, she cracked a tiny smile. "I thought we agreed you weren't to make decisions for me anymore." He didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She was so strong and beautiful and brilliant, and hell, maybe she did know what she was asking him for.
"Hermione, I..." But again, where to start?
He could tell her what a stupid, jealous prat he'd been at school. Or how beautiful she had looked at his brother's wedding, and how it had taken every ounce of self-control he had not to snog her right there on the dance floor.
Or how much he had missed her when they were separated those horrible weeks, how he had cried himself to sleep more than once with the ache of being apart, same as she had. No, he should skip that last bit; she'd probably hex Harry if she knew he'd told Ron about that.
She was still looking at him expectantly, her fingers drifting down from his hair to rest lightly on his cheek. They had never been this close before—physically, or to the truth of how they really felt about each other. She must know. She had to. All he had to do was say it to confirm it for her. And rather than a multitude of long-winded explanations about the years of misdeeds between them, he settled for the one thing that summed it all up, the only thing that really probably mattered.
"I love you."
The words hung there between them, neither of them moving, eyes locked. Ron was horrified to see that Hermione's were starting to look teary. But suddenly he felt that he didn't want to apologize any more; he knew it was too much, too soon, and he had told her so. Although he had to admit, making her cry wasn't exactly the reaction he had hoped for to that long overdue declaration.
"You should sleep," he said, moving to stand. "I shouldn't have—" But Hermione's hand grasped at his wrist, and he lowered himself back to the chair.
"I thought—" She drew in a shaky breath. "I didn't—" It was rare to see Hermione lost for words. "Really?"
He pulled his hand away to rub at his neck, embarrassed. He was momentarily tempted to brush it off, say that of course he loved her as a friend, but that was so far from the truth he didn't think he could live with himself saying it, even if he managed to get the words out. "I thought maybe you knew already," he mumbled, the vague response neither a denial nor an affirmation.
"I thought...maybe..." She was still struggling to get her thoughts out, and her eyes were still watering. "You might...fancy me...a bit."
He chuckled in spite of himself. "I passed fancying a while ago," he admitted softly, not quite meeting her eyes.
"Me, too," she breathed. He looked up at her sharply. The tears were falling freely now, but she was smiling at him. It was surprisingly easy to reach out and brush his fingers against her cheek. She took his hand in both of hers, holding it to her face, looking at him with so much affection he thought his heart would pound right out of his chest.
He wanted, badly, to hear her say it back, but she kind of had, hadn't she? And he certainly wasn't going to ask her to say it. And what did three little words matter, anyway, when he could see it on her face, feel it in her touch?
They were frozen in the moment. Ron thought it would probably be safe to kiss her without worrying about getting hexed, as he would have before, but he didn't feel like the harrowing events of the day were the right prelude for that, either. Though he'd been wrong before, about the other bit of it.
He leaned closer to her, and Merlin's beard, she was actually leaning towards him too. They had gotten so close that his nose brushed hers when she sat back abruptly, drawing in a sharp hiss of a breath and clutching a hand to her side. "Shit, I'm sorry." He was out of the chair and sitting next to her on the bed before he even realized it. "Are you okay?"
"No," she groaned, but as she looked at him apologetically, he realized it wasn't entirely out of pain. "This stupid war. Can't we just have done with it so we could snog like normal bloody teenagers?"
He bit back a laugh at her words. The way she'd blurted it, so bluntly, after all this time spent burying their feelings, was humorous, but the overall sentiment was quite depressing.
"There'll be time for that later," he promised.
He sighed. He didn't know, of course. "You can't think like that. This just gives us more to fight for. Y'know?"
"Is this what you're fighting for, then?" she asked timidly, vaguely motioning between the two of them.
He had never really given that question the proper thought, but found that the answer came to him quite easily. "Yeah," he said. "I reckon it is." He very carefully took her hand in his, rubbing his thumb against the back of her knuckles. She looked down at their hands, watching the movement.
There was a long pause, then, "I love you, too."
The grin stretched wide across his face, and he realized how much difference hearing the words actually did make. She loved him. Hermione loved him.
"S'pose we could have that snog a bit later if you want. When you're feeling better," he said lightly, amazed that he could actually say these words to her without bursting into flames and perhaps even more amazed that she was just grinning back at him, entirely unopposed to the idea. "Just say when."