Chapter 1

A/N: This one goes out to idearlylovealaugh on her birthday! Hope you have a spectacular day!

Ron was late. He knew it, Hermione knew it, even Crookshanks knew it. It wasn't completely unheard of for him to arrive home hours later than anticipated from a mission, but it still never failed to send Hermione into a worried frenzy, causing her to pace the floor, deep-clean the bathroom without magic, sit with Crookshanks in her lap and reread old, familiar books. And now, finally, after six extra hours on the job, he trudged slowly into their rented flat as though each step caused him deep physical pain.

Which they did. His muscles ached in a way he had never quite felt before, he hadn't slept in over a day, his skin was caked with dirt and his one saving grace was that he had at least eaten recently. He was just unlacing his boots when Hermione jumped up from the sofa, causing the cat to meow in annoyance and scurry down the hall to the bedroom.

"Finally you're home!" she exclaimed, flinging her arms around his neck in greeting. "I was really starting to worry."

He couldn't help it; the force of her contact made him whimper slightly in pain. "Sorry," he muttered, allowing his hands to fall onto her waist.

"Are you okay? What happened?"

"M'fine," he replied. "It was just… cold. And rainy. And I had to sit in a tree for the entire day - I reckon I just need a shower."

Ron laid a light kiss on her forehead and made his way down the hall to the bathroom. Even disrobing felt like a gargantuan effort, his clothing clinging to him despite his best attempts to peel it away. He found himself twisting awkwardly to try to yank off his vest when one sharp rotation of his waist had him howling in pain.

Hermione was at the door in an instant. "Ron? What's wrong?"

"I'm fine, love," he called back.

The door swung open - clearly he hadn't sounded convincing - and there she stood.

"You didn't sound fine just now."

"It's nothing, really - I just might've hurt my ribs, is all-"

"Then you need to go to St. Mungo's," she said, stepping into the bathroom. The running shower was already filling the small room with steam.

"Maybe later," he protested. "I'll be fine, I just need a shower."

"Let me help you," said Hermione, taking the hem of his vest and pulling the sodden, muddy garment over his head. He expected her to leave then, but instead she found the buckle of his belt and unhooked it, then unzipped his trousers and let them fall. It was, of course, hardly the first time she had undressed him, but this somehow felt like one of the most intimate things they had ever done.

"Thanks," he said when she had stripped him bare. "I'll be out in a minute, okay?" He dipped his head, intending to kiss her in gratitude, but even that subtle motion made him wince.

But rather than retreat, she removed her own t-shirt and pushed her shorts down to the floor to join his clothes. Of course, he thought with a pang of regret. Of course she would want shower sex when he was too exhausted and feeble to move.

"Don't take this the wrong way," he began tentatively as she took off her knickers, "but I'm not sure I have the energy right now - maybe after I have a nap-"

"I'm just going to help you wash up," she explained, dropping her bra onto the pile of clothing. "If that's all right."

"Oh. Yeah, course it is." Even in this state, Ron never minded a chance to see Hermione naked - and truthfully, he wasn't sure how much he would be able to do on his own.

The hot water pounded onto his strained, weary shoulders and soaked his dirty hair as he stepped under the spray. Hermione, all business, picked up her bottle of body wash and a flannel and squirted a liberal amount of the former onto the latter.

"Tell me if something hurts, okay?" Hermione requested.

She worked the soap into a thick lather and gently ran the flannel over his chest. Ron felt a great swell of affection for her as she spread the bubbles down his torso and up over his shoulders, her touch light and careful. He hadn't known how badly he needed her until she had taken it upon herself to come to his aid.

"I love you," he mumbled as she ran the flannel over his arm, causing soapy water tinged with dirt to swirl down the drain. His mouth angled toward hers, and she obliged him in a quick kiss before running her fingers up his back. Before he could stop himself, he hissed, his face screwing up in pain.

"Turn around," she commanded, and he did as told. "Oh, Ron, you've got a big cut! Maybe I should get the dittany-"

"Later," he said. "The hot water's helping. And so are you."

The bubbles trailed down over his legs as she exhausted the last of the soap on the flannel and turned to his shampoo. After squirting way too much into her palm - she must have been doling out the appropriate amount for her own wild mane - she stood on tiptoe to rub it into his hair. He tried to crouch to help her, but the arch of his back made his ribs protest angrily, and he bit back a grimace.

"What really happened?" Hermione asked softly, raking her fingers gently through his sudsy hair. "I know this isn't just from sitting in a tree."

"It's not," he admitted, finally kneeling down so she wouldn't injure herself trying to reach the top of his head. Face to face with her navel, he placed a kiss on her stomach. Under different circumstances, he'd probably keep kissing south…

"So what happened, then?"

"Just a duel," he told her truthfully. "It was nothing to worry about, but I did also sit in a tree for a really long time."

The light scratch of her nails massaging his scalp was brilliant, allowing stress to melt away from him in such a way that he was already planning to return this favor to her once he felt up to it.

"You're getting too old for this," she remarked.

"I'm twenty," Ron smiled as he stood up and rinsed away the shampoo.

"You know what I mean." Hermione stood on her toes again, this time wrapping her arms carefully around his neck. On instinct, Ron curled his own arms around her waist and held her to him, relishing in the closeness. "Is this still worth it?" she asked in a whisper as the water splashed down upon them.

The last vestiges of the shampoo slid down Ron's skin as he contemplated this. It was a thought he'd had a thousand times before, during early mornings filling out paperwork or late nights staking out a target. His work as an Auror was important - there was no doubt about that - but the young woman standing before him, with drops of water clinging to her eyelashes, mattered more to him than anything else. And though she'd always been supportive of his career as an Auror, he saw it in her eyes every time he came home late or had a mysterious injury: this terrified her. Every time he was gone, they both thought of the war and what they could have missed out on if something had gone wrong, and he hated that he made her relive some of the worst days of their lives.

"You know what?" he said, loosening his grip just enough to look her in the eye. "No. It's not."

"It's not?"

"Not anymore," he said thoughtfully. "Right after the war, yeah, I wanted to do it. I needed to do it. But things have changed so much, and… and sometimes I think I shouldn't've turned down George's offer."

"You're really serious," she said, dropping down to stand squarely on her feet again. "I didn't know you felt this way."

"I just reckoned it was mental to turn down a Ministry career to work in a joke shop, but… I don't think it makes sense to stay in a job I don't enjoy, either, when I could have one that I do."

"I don't care what your job is," Hermione said candidly. "I love you, I just need you to be safe."

"Yeah," he nodded, feeling a wild sense of clarity despite the ache and fatigue in his bones. "And not that this isn't nice, but I usually have different plans for you when we're in here together."

"Right," she smiled, tilting her face up to catch his lips with hers. "We've got to get out of here, then, because it's giving me ideas."

The water swirling at their feet ran clear, so they turned off the shower and fetched thick, fluffy towels from the hook on the door.

"Will you take a nap with me?" Ron requested as they dried off, Hermione using her wand to sap the excess water from her hair. "Or at least, lay with me until I fall asleep?"

"Of course," she agreed, rising up to kiss him again.

Once sufficiently dry, they walked, completely starkers, down the hall to their room (one of the things Ron had been most excited about when they had gotten their own flat) and slipped into the cool, clean sheets of their bed.

"You aren't going to get ideas in here, are you?" Hermione asked teasingly, resting her head on his shoulder.

"Nah, I'm going to need my energy for tomorrow," Ron said. "You know, for when I talk George into hiring me."

Kissing him softly on the lips, Hermione laced their fingers together on his chest and closed her eyes.

Somehow, despite the exhaustion and the twinge in his ribs and the weakness in his muscles, Ron felt better than he had in a long, long time.

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