“You ‘avn’t been sleeping well.”

Dean looked up at Fleur Delacour, or rather Fleur Weasley, in surprise. He sat in the pinewood chair at the matching desk in the cramped make-shift guest room. It was a study situated in the back of the cottage that Bill had flipped upon their arrival at Shell Cottage.

She was right. It was lucky if he managed to get more than a couple hours of sleep at a time. He could lie and blame the old camp bed he’d been sleeping on, but it was the best thing he’d slept on in months. The truth was every time he laid down, as he began to drift off into blissful nothingness, he heard her screams again, echoing down the dungeon steps of Malfoy Manor.

“I’m alright,” he said, turning back to the parchment he had scattered on the desk.

Glancing at her, he saw that she had pursed her pink lips, her delicate eyebrows knitting in concern as she tucked her silver hair behind her ear. These were things he hated that he noticed, but he knew that was her power as a Veela.

She glided toward him, away from the bed where she placed his freshly folded laundry, and he tensed. Quickly he gathered the parchment, shuffling them as casually as he could manage. Being in such close quarters with a bunch of strangers had left him unsure of how to act. He had nothing to hide, of course. These letters were old and of no consequence to the war. It was that they were private.

But he didn’t need to worry. She didn’t seem to notice, instead placing a sizable vial of a familiar potion in front of him.

“Eet iz a sleeping draught,” she raised her hand to him as he began to protest, “Just een case. One capful zhould do eet.”

“Erm, thank you. I will,” he said nodding.

Fleur smiled at him, “Keep zis one. I ‘ave more.” She looked back at the bottle, her eyes growing wistful, “Bill’s condition makes eet ‘ard for him to sleep sometimes.”

Behind her perfect white smile was something so melancholy that even Dean could feel her pain, even though he didn’t know entirely what she meant.

“Excuze me, I must take zee rest,” she said, indicating to a basket of linens on her hips.

When she shut the door, he sighed heavily. He may need the sleep but he had no intention of taking the potion. That he could tell, the memory would chase him for as long as he ran, so he might as well face it head on.

No, it wasn’t his white lie that was bothering him. It was seeing Fleur’s pain that made the guilt he’d been carrying since coming here swell. For the past few weeks, without complaint, Bill and Fleur Weasley had taken them in, offering to keep them hidden. Dean tried to broach the subject of leaving, after witnessing her exit Griphook’s room red-faced, but she had waived it off.

“You and Luna will go nowhere. Ze Order iz certain ‘e-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named haz sent orderz to ‘ave anyone involved with the Manor captured and killed and Bill’s Aunt Muriel haz no more room. It iz necessary zat you stay.”

She had smiled so warmly at him, he almost wanted to stay.

He did worry he was a burden. He was neither family nor too injured to keep moving forward. But what was worse was how adamant Hermione seemed in avoiding him. They hadn’t spoken once since arriving, beyond general conversation with the others. At first, he hadn’t expected to, as she spent the first few days following their arrival recovering from the events of the Manor. But as she got better, their communication didn’t, leaving him confused and lonely.

They were broken up. He knew that and didn’t expect that to change. Given everything that had happened, he wasn’t sure he even wanted it to. The war was still raging with no clear end in sight. But he still cared for her — for months he had thought of her, wondered how she was doing, worried about her. With her so close, yet so far, he felt the ache that much more strongly.

He told himself that she must have her reasons. She must. Dean was trying to understand, trying to give her space, trying not to let the distance hurt him, but he was struggling.

Shaking his head, he got up from his seat and grabbed his toiletry roll that Fleur had put together for him and the others.

A window, adjacent to his room, framed the picturesque scene of the ocean below, moonlight reflecting off of it’s waves. The hallway was filled with a soft luminescent glow. The cottage had an other-worldly beauty, not unlike its owners.

The towering comtoise clock at the end of the hall indicated that it was getting late. Moving quietly towards the bathroom, he came upon the door to Griphook’s room, where his former roommates and Hermione spent most of their time. He realized, as he paused in front of the room, that he was disappointed to find the door shut. Part of him hoped he might find Fleur in there bringing Griphook fresh linens, allowing him to peek in.

He stood, straining for any indication that Hermione might be in there with them. If they were back in the Gryffindor common room, he’d say “Hey gang!” and they’d invite him in. But of course, they weren’t in the Gryffindor common room, or even at Hogwarts at all. They spent all of their time plotting with Griphook. What, he didn’t know and he knew they’d never tell any of them.

But things had changed. The trio looked hardened—Harry was distant, always lost in thought, choosing the solitude of the garden over the company of others; Ron, who before was prone to easy laughter, laughed less and sobered more quickly; and then there was Hermione, who looked tired down to her very essence.

 “We have her wand shouldn’t that be enough—” Ron’s suddenly raised voice was cut off with an insistent “Shh!”

Dean flexed his wand hand to stave off the nervous unease that overcame him. Did they have an extra wand? Harry had specifically told him they didn’t have a wand for him to use. He felt so hollow without one. He’d spent so much of his life in the Muggle world as a Muggle. He didn’t realize how devastating losing his wand would be to him.

No more was said, that he could hear, behind the door. He continued on, leaving them behind. The light was still on in the bathroom. Fleur must have forgotten to turn it off as she deposited the clean linens and laundry to each room. Voices trailed up the stairs to the landing next to the bathroom. Mysterious people came and went in the cottage late at night, the same few people whispering news about the war and counter-attacks. At first they unnerved him, now he tried to ignore them.

They were still distracting enough, however, that he didn’t notice as he stepped into the fully lit bathroom, that Hermione stood before him. She was facing the mirror at an angle, her hands entwined in her curls, the color of roasted coffee beans.

A rush of excitement burned through him, but he tamped it down. Things are different now, he reminded himself. She blinked back at him in surprise, fingers paused at the end of her long braid. This wasn’t the first time he’d noticed how long her hair had gotten since they had last seen each other. But standing this close to her, alone, he appreciated how good it looked on her.

His body, finally catching up to him, made a move to leave, “I can come b—”

“Don’t be silly,” she said in a rush, turning back to the mirror, “I’m almost done braiding my hair.”

Her smile was meant to be reassuring but he could hear the slightly raised pitch in her voice.

He gave a brief nod, fearing his voice may give away the emotions coursing through him, making him shake. Moving toward the sink, he pulled out his toothbrush from the roll and jammed it under the faucet and began to brush his teeth.

“It’s a bit gross that, isn’t it?” She nodded toward the Sparklepaste he’d left uncapped on the counter, the wizard’s answer to toothpaste.

He grimaced from behind his toothbrush in agreement. It was gross. It was meant to take on a different flavor to fit your mood each time you brush. Today was cherry. It was usually cherry. He hated it. Even toothpaste couldn’t be simple with wizards.

Hermione was in deep concentration as she weaved the sections of hair at the back of her head, a particularly difficult place to reach, into a braid. A year ago, Dean would have offered to help do it for her. He had plenty of experience with his sisters.

She dropped her hands down, letting the partial braid fall and unfurl slightly. Massaging her wrists she asked, “How is your family? Are they alright?”

The sincerity sparkled in her eyes, worry lines marking her face. For a moment, the lump that formed in his throat anytime he thought of his family threatened to overtake him. Clearing his throat he tried to speak, willing the longing—for home, for his family, for her—away.

“Dey’re fon’.”

He sputtered. In his contemplation he had forgotten there were still suds in his mouth. What was wrong with him? Embarrassed, he spit into the sink, rinsing his mouth with water. He was keenly aware of her eyes on him. She didn’t laugh; she just waited patiently.

The bright pristine bathroom suddenly felt stuffy. She was too close. Seeing her like this, both of them in their pajamas, him brushing his teeth, her with a small section of unbraided hair sticking out from the side of her head so endearingly, felt too familiar. Memories of other intimate moments between them stuck out in his mind. He willed those away, too, though the hammering of his heart persisted.

“Uh, my family,” he finally said, turning to face her, leaning his back against the counter. “Yes. Well, I haven’t heard from them. They’re safe though.”

He didn’t expound further, not sure what was safe to say anymore. Although she didn’t ask for further clarification, he could tell as the lines in her face smoothed out that she was relieved.

So much hung in the air between them. He wondered if she felt it, too. There was a slight flush in her deep golden skin. It had been months since they had heard from each other, more since they saw each other. Had she thought of him, too? Of course they had broken up, but surely she still cared to know that he was alright. Why didn’t she ask where he’d been? Was it because then he’d ask her the same questions in turn, the things he was dying to know?

Instead of giving voice to these thoughts, he watched her. She was lost in thought as she eyed her hair, as if trying to reason with it. She was probably trying to convince herself she could fit the remaining handful of hair in one braid. But they both knew there was enough left for at least three. Curls were tricky that way.

Begrudgingly, she began to section the remaining hair, pulling a smile from him. He didn’t sketch much these days, but seeing her like this, right now, he wanted to.

“We saw you,” she said suddenly. Her voice sounded apprehensive. She glanced at him, gauging his reaction, but he stared back in confusion. “Or heard you, rather, when we were all on the run—you, Ted, Griphook, and the others.”

There was a rushing in his ears, his brain excited past the point of processing her words. They bounced around in his mind, none of them quite managing to stick. Hearing Ted’s name spoken with such familiarity sent a jolt through him, as if he were seeing the flash of green light hit his friend in the chest all over again. It made it hard to hear anything else she said.

“Did you know Ted?”

“Erm, sort of,” she said as she picked up a spray bottle, spritzing her remaining bit of hair. They were standing so closely, droplets of water hit Dean’s jaw. “I never knew him personally, but I’m friends with his daughter.”

“Dora,” he could hear Ted say, with equal notes pride and affection. Dora was an Auror, who had left Hogwarts before they had even started. They were friends?

Being at Shell Cottage was like this. It had been almost two weeks full of uncomfortable revelations. He thought he understood before, the life Hermione was living, but now he could see that she was truly ingrained in a world that was so much bigger, serving a purpose so much bigger than anything he had ever imagined.

Then the full meaning of what she said finally sunk in. That couldn’t be true. “Wait, but how could you have seen us? We’ve been camping in the countryside for months. We would have noticed you.”

“We were, too. It was by that river bank in Wales. We’ve been using layered enchantments to keep us concealed.”

His mind was searching his memory. He remembered that riverbank well. It hadn’t been that long after setting out with Ted. That was the night they’d first run into others on the road. Had there been any sign that anyone else had been there, anything he should have noticed?

Last year he couldn’t help but notice her. It was like as soon as she entered the room the energy shifted, and he’d find it hard to breathe and keep his cool. But of course this time was different. There hadn’t been a sign because she hadn’t intended for there to be one.

She chuckled softly, looking down. Pensively, she said, “I was so relieved to know you were alright.”

That he was alright? He wasn’t wanted for associations with Undesirable No. 1.  “If you saw us why didn’t you say anything? I understand not revealing yourselves to the others but, to me…surely you know.”

He was exasperated and breathless, his heart racing as if he were darting down the Quidditch pitch again. She looked taken aback at his abrupt tone, but he couldn’t stop his momentum now.

“I’ve been worried like hell for you.” He gritted his teeth, trying not to let the anxiety he’d been carrying with him since last summer overtake him. “Do you know what I had to convince myself that you were safe? Vague news and subtext that we could barely glean from stolen newspapers. Everyday, I wondered where you were. I wondered if you had been found. I wondered if you—” He stopped, taking a deep breath willing his voice to stop shaking. “It just would have helped to know that you were OK, too.”

She bit her lip, worry lines creasing her forehead, conflicted as her partially finished last braid hung across her face. Part of him wanted to take it back, to smooth it all away for her. Watching her struggle with his words caused the guilt he felt, the shame of expecting anything from her, flare inside of him.

Groaning, he relented. “I do understand. I know that this,” he gestured around them, “is bigger than me. It’s bigger than any one of us. You were right to protect yourselves.”

He turned around, rummaging amongst his toiletries, trying to get ahold of himself.

A long silence passed between them, things unsaid left hanging in the air. He silently gathered his things, unable to look at her.

“It wasn’t easy for me, you know. I have missed you, too.”

Her voice came out so delicate he thought she might break, and suddenly he could see her crouched in the sand in Ron’s arms, weak from the curses Bellatrix Lestrange had lashed her with again and again. It was he who was breaking.

Looking down at his toiletry roll, unable to even focus on his hands in front of him, he said, “Yeah.” And with that, he stalked out the door.

Was he always going to be this sensitive now? His hands were shaking. It was as if his nerves had been spliced open. He felt like a fool and it was his own fault. On the darkest nights, sleeping without so much as a tent for comfort, his hope had been her—everything she had come to mean to him. Thinking about her, he’d imagine getting back to a world where things were simple enough for them to be together.

But it was clear now. Hope was a long way away and right now she belonged with Harry and Ron. She had been able to see that better than he could at the end of their sixth year.

The clock behind him chimed, marking the half-hour. Pausing, he looked out the window at the end of the hall. The ocean waves rolled and crashed into each other, indifferent to that which happened on the shore. He thought about going back to his room and throwing open the shutters. The ocean air might soothe him. Perhaps he’d even be able to feel normal again, normal enough to not even need the sleeping draught.

Feeling steadier, he gripped his roll, ready to face another night alone. Before he could, Hermione brushed past him, her now completed braids flowing behind her. Her body was tense, her head low, and her hands pinned to her sides. She didn’t have anything in her hands, so agitated she must have left them behind.

He had been unfair. He knew that. This whole bloody war was unfair. That wasn’t her fault.  Without thought, he finally did what he’d longed to do since she had been tied to him by the Snatchers in those forest. He reached out to her, catching her wrist. She stopped, refusing to turn around. He imagined he might find tears in her eyes, frustrated with herself for being so worked up in the first place.

“Hermione, I’m—” He began to pull her to face him, wanting to apologize properly, but he realized his hand was clasped around something more than her wrist — a bracelet. Mouth open in slight surprise, he held up her hand in between them. The golden bolero bracelet glittered in the moonlight.

Any of his remaining bitterness drained away. “I hadn’t noticed you still…”

Her eyes stared back at him defiantly, brimming with unshed tears glistening in the soft light. Even with so much trauma and time between them, she was still breathtaking.

 “I take it off when I braid so it doesn’t get tangled in my hair.”

He looked down at the bracelet, with its little heart clasp, that his sister had spent the day helping him pick out. Hermione’s jaw was set, waiting for him to question her. How could he when his heart was in his throat? Not knowing what to say, he pulled her into him.

She sank into his arms, her hands clasping the back of his nightshirt. The scent of her freshly applied moisturizing hair potion, enveloped him—black currant and rose. And still, it smelled like her, this new, stronger version of her. He gently kissed the top of her head—once, twice, three times.

“I’m sorry,” he breathed. She only clutched him tighter.

They were lost in each other, but the world felt steady for the first time in months. In this moment things were OK, and that would have to be enough.