Author's note: HAPPY HO HO! My family's French Canadian so we just wrapped up our Réveillon festivities, meaning that Christmas has already started in my heart. I hope everyone who celebrates is safe and well, and I hope that all of you have a good day tomorrow and stay safe. Oh PS this story was my roommate's present, she always requests Weasley family fluff.

Disclaimer: J.K. Rowling owns the canon, world, and characters portrayed below and you can tell I'm not J.K. Rowling because #transrights

Warnings: NA

Come Time to Follow

I was following the pack

All swallowed in their coats

With scarves of red tied 'round their throats

To keep their little heads

From fallin' in the snow

And I turned 'round, and there you go

-White Winter Hymnal, Fleetwood Foxes

Even if he hadn't actively been on the run for some time now, Ron still startled when Shell Cottage's front door opened. It was just Bill, of course, coming out with two mugs of eggnog that smelled especially strong.

"Thanks," Ron said, taking the cup Bill handed him. He and Fleur had wrapped their house in strings of light and Fleur had used a few charms that were beyond Ron to make a Christmas wreath out of driftwood and shells she'd found along the beach. The cottage made Ron think of a tiny lighthouse, except it wasn't calling for anyone or anything except to be left alone until the war ended, with everyone in it intact. Bill didn't say anything when he sat down next to him, but Ron felt pressured to say something to fill the silence—his older brother had had that trick up his sleeve as long as Ron could remember.

"I didn't know Fleur could cook like that," Ron said. They had stayed up late on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day, to eat Christmas dinner—apparently it was a French thing. As was the meal of oysters, scallops, smoked salmon, roasted quail, glazed carrots, foie gras on warm toast, gratin… and as if that wasn't enough, an enormous chocolate cake covered in chocolate shavings with swirls in the icing to make it look like the ring of a very old tree. Ron could get behind such late suppers if they were all that good.

"I'm the one who cooked, actually," Bill said. "Don't know much about French cooking, but my mother-in-law sent me a few of her Réveillon recipes."

"You did a good job," Ron said. "Mum would've been proud."

He hated himself for mentioning Mum as soon as he did, even if Bill continued to look calm and cool in his old jeans and a plaid button-up whose sleeves were pushed to his elbows. His hair had grown out since his wedding haircut, pulled away from his face which continued to look impassive. Still, Ron had promised himself that he wouldn't talk about Mum, not on Christmas anyways. Maybe it had to be done, though. He'd learned his lesson about running away from difficult things: it was easy to regret and impossibly hard to take back.

"I'm sorry that you don't get Christmas at the Burrow," Ron said. "I appreciate you two staying here—hiding me, letting me stay here…"

"It's nothing, Ron," Bill said, blue eyes meeting Ron's so that he'd know how serious he was about this. "It's nothing. I'm just happy that you're safe. Besides; do you think I would really rather be arbitrating a Celestina-Warbeck-related battle right now instead of being here, listening to the ocean and quietly drinking?"

"I thought this was eggnog," Ron said.

Bill shrugged as if it didn't really matter and Ron snorted. Bill grinned and turned back to look at the waves, rolling in on the beach below.

"I'm sorry that you don't get Christmas with Harry and Hermione," Bill said instead. Ron turned back to him and Bill looked back and raised an eyebrow.

"I remember you, all four feet zero of you when you were eleven, writing to Mum in early November and telling her that you unfortunately wouldn't be coming home for Christmas because you had a friend who couldn't go home for the holidays and who you didn't want to be alone," Bill said. "And then you stayed the next year, and the year after that, until Harry started coming home too. Either Hermione would come with, or poor Erroll and Hedwig would be working overtime to keep the three of you connected."

"I'm thankful to be here with you," Ron said.

"And we're thankful that you're here to help eat all this food that we made and help Fleur meet her social needs when it's just about suicide to go outside," Bill promised. "Still, this is your first Christmas without them in years. That's something."

Ron swallowed and took a swig of what was definitely more brandy than eggnog, nearly draining his cup.

"I'm the one who left," he said. "It was stupid and I shouldn't have, but I'm the only one I can blame for that."

"Still," Bill said. "I'm sorry."

Ron nodded and looked out at the sea. Dumbledore's strange and mysterious last gift to him was in his pocket, where it nearly burned with how badly he wanted to use it.

"I need to go looking for them," Ron said. "I know it didn't work last time, but I… I have to try again. It's bad enough not being with them for Christmas. What if something happens to them and they're gone for good? I couldn't live with myself if I hadn't done everything I could to keep him safe, and I've got to be with them to do that haven't I?"

Bill nodded.

"My first Christmas in Egypt was brutal," Bill said. "Not much of a Christmas there, and I was so homesick. But that's when I really learned that you could always go home, no matter how long you'd been away. You'll find your way back to them if you go looking, I'm sure of it."

"If they'll take me back," Ron muttered. "I left, didn't I?"

He couldn't imagine facing Hermione, who might just hex him on sight and might have added an extra spell to their usual protective ring to specifically keep him away. How would he look at Harry, after failing him when he was holding the weight of the world on his shoulders? He'd felt better and regretted his decision as soon as the Horcrux had stopped hanging around his neck, yes. But Ron couldn't blame the Horcrux for the resentment and the fear and the anxiety it had only amplified; he'd done the brewing of those ill-thoughts all by himself, even with his friends within arm's reach.

"You did," Bill said. "But you'd also be the one who came back. That's something."

"I don't know," Ron said.

"Well, I suppose the only way to really know would be to go back and find out," Bill said. "Like that story Dad told us Christmas was about, with wise men following a star, not knowing where they'd go or what they'd find but knowing and believing to their very cores that they had to go. That's a good story; there's a reason it's so important to people. It's true. It's more important that you go and see than for you to know what you'll find. Believe in yourself—and in them, for the record. I love having you here, but they love you too."

Ron nodded and looked into his empty cup.

"Do you have more of this?" he asked.

Bill clamped a hand on Ron's shoulder before getting up, disappearing inside the house, and reemerging with a bottle of whiskey.