"There you are then," said Slughorn, handing Harry and Ron a glass of mead each before raising his own. "Well, a very happy birthday, Ralph –"
"Ron –" whispered Harry.
But Ron, who did not appear to be listening to the toast, had already thrown the mead into his mouth and swallowed it.
There was one second, hardly more than a heartbeat, in which Harry knew there was something terribly wrong and Slughorn, it seemed, did not.
"—and may you have many more –"
Ron had dropped his glass; he half-rose from his chair and then crumpled, his extremities jerking uncontrollably. Foam was dribbling from his mouth, and his eyes were bulging from their sockets.
"Professor!" Harry bellowed. "Do something!"
But Slughorn seemed paralyzed by shock. Ron twitched and choked: His skin was turning blue.
"What – but –" spluttered Slughorn.
Harry leapt over a low table and sprinted toward Slughorn's open potion kit, pulling out jars and pouches, while the terrible sound of Ron's gargling breath filed the room. Then he found it – the shriveled kidneylike stone Slughorn had taken from him in Potions.
He hurtled back to Ron's side, wrenched open his jaw, and thrust the bezoar into his mouth. Ron gave a great shudder, a rattling gasp, and his body became limp and still.
(except from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling, 2005)
Harry Potter sat alone on a rickety chair in the corner of the Hospital Wing under his Invisibility Cloak, oblivious to the happenings around him and unable to get any thought aside from one to coalesce in his mind.
Ron was gone.
Ronald Bilius Weasley, his best mate since his was 11, had died right in front of his eyes, unknowingly poisoned by Professor Slughorn. Harry felt the urge to vomit as he realized that Ron had died on his 17th birthday; the day he had become an adult in the eyes of the wizarding world. But Ron would see no more birthdays. He would see no more anything, for he lay in a bed nearby forever still and silent, and no amount of magic would make it not so.
The Headmaster had tried to tell Harry about how the mead bottle, which was supposed to be a gift from Slughorn to Dumbledore, had been tainted by a very potent toxin, far too strong for a bezoar to counteract. Harry had heard him but only vaguely, as if he had been listening to the man through a thick door. At the moment, however, the details didn't matter to Harry. All that mattered was that Ron was dead.
At first, Harry had blamed himself, thinking that if he'd just been a little bit faster that Ron might have made it. After Dumbledore had told him that the bezoar wouldn't have helped, he had started raging at everyone else. He'd started with Slughorn for not only poisoning his best friend but then standing there and doing nothing; Harry thought he had said something along the lines of he would have preferred a Niffler be in the room instead of the Potions Master since at least they were useful.
He had then screamed at Dumbledore for allowing yet another student to be murdered on his watch, the life of another of Harry's peers snuffed out right in front of him, and right under the nose of the Headmaster. This was so much worse than Cedric had been though. He and Cedric had been acquaintances, had maybe spoken 100 words in total to each other. In the last five and a half years, Harry had probably been in Ron's company for close to two-thirds of that in terms of raw time spent together. They'd had all the same classes. Did their homework together. Spent their leisure time together. Slept in the same dorm room. Harry was pretty sure that he had talked to Ron every day of his life since stepping onto the Hogwarts Express when he was 11, aside from the time spent at the Dursleys and the month during Fourth Year when Ron had thought Harry had put his own name in the Goblet of Fire and it had just been Harry and Hermione.
Thinking of his other best friend started to clear the clouds. He had to find her. He wasn't sure if she knew, but if she didn't he had to tell her. And, as he stood for the first time in what felt like hours and exited his self-imposed exile, he decided he had two missions in life. The first, and by far most important, was that he was going to do whatever he could to ensure Hermione was safe and protected and happy. He was going to tell her every day how special she was and how much she meant to him and how grateful he was for her; all of the things that had been swirling in his mind that he realized he had never told her or Ron. It was too late to tell him, but Harry was not going to make that same mistake with Hermione. She would know she was cared for and she would be safe, at the cost of his own life if necessary.
The second mission was not nearly as pure. Actually, it wasn't pure at all. It was vengeance. He was going to train. He was going to learn everything he could about the Dark Arts; not to use them but to know how to counter them. He would become an expert at defense and dueling. He would learn every spell, tool, trick, and tactic that could possibly be useful to his task. He would find who gave Slughorn the bottle. He would wring a confession out of them before he dosed them with their own medicine. More than likely, since the target had been Dumbledore, it was an agent of Voldemort. With that in mind, once he was done with the assassin, he was going to focus all of his attention that wasn't directed at his first mission toward removing the Dark Lord from existence.
His senses took in his surroundings, finally hearing the wails of who he assumed was Mrs. Weasley on the other side of a curtained off area toward the back of the Hospital Wing. On this side of it, he saw Dumbledore and McGonagall talking with Kingsley Shacklebolt and Tonks, both of whom were there at an official capacity to investigate Ron's death. He had answered their questions numbly before he had simply walked away, throwing the Invisibility Cloak over himself to avoid being disturbed further. An ashen-faced Bill Weasley sat in a chair nearby, holding a sobbing Ginny in his arms and rocking back and forth in a futile attempt to sooth her. He felt a momentary pang as he saw Ginny, but it was quickly crushed by the overriding desire to find and stay close to Hermione. Ginny had Dean, her brothers, and the rest her family to pull strength from; with Ron gone, Hermione had only him in the magical world, and Harry her.
Harry left the Wing under the cover of the Cloak; if anyone noticed the door open and shut of what appeared to be its own accord Harry didn't know. More to the point, he didn't care. He stopped at the first alcove he came to and drew the Marauder's Map. Whispering the incantation to activate it, he scanned the parchment for Hermione's dot. After a scan of the Library revealed nothing, he finally found her dot buried amongst many others in the Gryffindor Common Room, though there was a distinct separation between most of them and a small group that included Hermione. Harry surmised that the rest of Gryffindor House must have been told something happened, and their housemates were giving her space. Her dot paced back and forth in front of the map's representation of the fireplace; the dots of Neville and (surprisingly) Luna were near her, obviously keeping vigil as the witch waited for word. Harry swore he could almost feel her trepidation and worry, and it ignited an even greater urgency within him to get to her as quickly as possible.
Clearing the Map and stowing it and the Cloak within his robes, Harry dashed for the nearest stairwell that would take him to his destination. He took the steps of the first hidden passage three at a time before sprinting down the Transfiguration Hallway en route to the Grand Staircase, which would take him the rest of the way up to the Fat Lady, Gryffindor Tower, Hermione, and the next phase of the worst day of his life.
"What the fuck is going on?" Hermione Granger said exasperatedly as she stomped her feet in frustration, her anger and concern clearly evident by her choice of phrasing. "It's been over 2 hours since McGonagall locked us in here! Where the fuck are Ron and Harry?!" she asked for at least the 12th time that day and once again to know one in particular. Her friends sitting in a couple of armchairs nearby could only shrug and shake their heads, as they had the previous 11 or so times; they were just as in the dark as she was.
Hermione, who was still working on avoiding Ron, had gone to breakfast early and been in the Library with Luna helping the young Ravenclaw revise for her Arithmancy O.W.L. when Madam Pince had declared unceremoniously that all students were to return to their respective houses immediately. She answered no questions and pushed everyone out of the Library at great haste. The two young witches had made their way to the Grand Staircase, and when they reached the Fifth Floor Hermione assumed that Luna would bid her goodbye and head toward Ravenclaw Tower. However, the blond Pureblood had simply continued walking up the stairs. When asked about it, she had answered, "The Nargles are telling me that I should go with you. Are you coming or not?" Unable to find a satisfactory response and not wanting to delay long enough to argue with Luna that she would be expected in her own common room, the two had made their way up the remaining two flights of steps to Gryffindor Tower. Most of the house was milling about the Common Room, and none seemed to have any more of a clue as to what was going on than Hermione or Luna did. With no new information to go on, the pair had moved over toward the favorite spot of Harry, Hermione, and Ron: the cozy chairs on the far side of the room near the fireplace. Ginny and Dean were on the nearby couch, speaking quietly to each other and holding hands. Neville sat at a small table behind the armchairs; it appeared he was working on homework, but he placed it aside when he saw the blond and the brunette approach and the three sat together, trying to determine what could possibly be going on.
About 10 minutes after the arrival of Hermione and Luna, the former just then realized that she had not seen either Harry or Ron since her return. She had taken to steering clear of them on weekends when she could, the relationship between herself and Ron still precarious at best. She knew it was Ron's birthday, and thought that maybe they were upstairs going through his presents. However, when she inquired of their other dorm mates if her two best friends were upstairs they had all replied that, while that was the last place any of them had seen the two boys, they were not up there now. That statement caused worry to start nagging at the corner of Hermione's consciousness. Something had happened that had forced all of the students back to their houses, and that usually spelled trouble. And, more often than not, where there was trouble there was sure to be Harry Potter with Ron Weasley at his side. But this time Hermione Granger was not also there, and this caused her to begin to fret.
Her concern increased a thousand-fold when Professor McGonagall arrived after 45 minutes and asked Ginny to accompany her. When questioned by Hermione, the younger witch could have sworn that she saw a look of remorse briefly cross McGonagall's features before the stern visage returned to the formidable Scottish witch and she stated that there had been an incident and Hermione had to remain in the dorms with the rest of Gryffindor until she returned. To ensure the compliance of her Lions, she had instructed the Fat Lady not to open the door to any student trying to leave the Tower. Hermione had been a hair's breadth from yelling at her favorite professor: obviously something had happened to at least Ron and possibly Harry as well, and she was expected to just sit and wait to find out what? McGonagall had stood her ground, however, and that was when Hermione's pacing had begun, interspersed with her questions that had started to contain more curse words as time continued to pass and her fear had bloomed into borderline panic.
A serendipitous drop in volume in the room allowed all present to hear a muffled yell coming from the other side of the Portrait Hole. Though quieted by the thick walls, whoever it was must have been projecting quite a volume to be heard as well as they were on the other side of the Fat Lady's painting. "Open the fucking door right now you bloody slag or I swear I will blast a hole in you and walk in through your burning canvas!" At that the door swung open and revealed a red-faced and fuming Harry Potter, wand in hand and seemingly prepared to carry out his threat. Hermione, seeing her black-haired friend, felt relief start to wash over her until she realized that he was alone.
"Harry!" she cried out, and his eyes focused like a laser beam on her. "Where have you been!? Where's Ron?" Lavender Brown had perked up at the name of her boyfriend; she had been chuffed at his dismissal of her as he and Harry had left the Common Room earlier that day, so she was eager to give him a piece of her mind before offering him a very private birthday present.
Hermione looked at Harry, and as their eyes locked she saw it. Harry had been beaten, starved, tortured, and broken in numerous other ways, but until that moment she had never seen the depth of pain and defeat that she saw reflecting back at her. And in that instant as their eyes remained glued to each other's and he walked towards her, she knew. She knew, and the first piece of knowledge she had ever not wanted to know caused her breath to hitch and her heart to ache. "No," she said, shaking her head defiantly. Harry's eyes contradicted her statement, but Hermione's mind denied registering the information. "No no no no no NNNNNOOOOOOOO!" she finally screamed as her legs gave out from under her and she crashed down onto the floor. Harry rushed the rest of the distance to her, instantly falling to his knees beside her and wrapping her tightly in his arms. "Harry . . ." came her pleading sob against his chest, begging him to tell her that she was wrong, that she had misunderstood what she had seen in his eyes. He rocked her softly and continued to stubbornly fight back his own tears, which he had somehow managed to hold at bay throughout this ordeal, as their shared grief began to consume them.
"Hermione," he whispered in a choked voice, though with the whole Common Room having gone silent at her scream he was heard by all. "Hermione, I'm so sorry. Ron's . . . Ron's gone, Hermione. He's gone. He's gone . . ." He then finally began to openly weep, his body heaving as heavily as Hermione's as they sat together in front of the fire in the Gryffindor Common Room. Neither heard the great gasps or saw the multitude of hands that came up to mouths in shocked disbelief at the stunning news. Neither heard the wail of Lavender Brown as she bolted up the stairs to the girls' dormitories, Parvati hot on the heels of her best friend. To Harry and Hermione there existed only each other and their communal pain, the tearing at both of their hearts that only the loss of a loved one can cause. Harry, through his tears, held onto the dearest person left in his life, and Hermione wept and screamed in primal agony as he allowed her to beat upon his chest in anger and torment. Harry looked around desperately and saw Neville and Luna on their feet a few feet away, tears in their own eyes and their arms around each other for support. He then turned toward the rest of his house. "Out. Now. To your dorms," Harry said in a tone that would broker no argument.
"And who made you Head Boy?" sneered Cormac McClaggen, seemingly unable to remove his head from his rectum long enough to realize that he was poking a dragon. An angry, heartbroken, emotionally wrung out dragon protecting the one thing in his life that he felt gave it meaning. A wave of magic pulsed from Harry, knocking everyone but Hermione and McClaggen back a step with its raw forcefulness. Hermione was, of course, unaffected. McClaggen sailed backward through the air and impacted a bookshelf on the far wall of the room with a loud crash. As he collapsed to the ground the shelf followed, landing unceremoniously on top of him. Harry stared hard at the rest of his house for a moment before turning to Neville. The other boy nodded his head in understanding of the unspoken request and turned toward the now extremely frightened residents of Gryffindor Tower, drawing his wand in the process. Luna stood by his side, wand also in hand and any sense of the normal breathy airiness gone from her gaze. Harry, knowing that his friends would see his wishes done, turned back toward Hermione, who was still giving wracking sobs while he cradled her. He ran his fingers through her hair and whispered softly in her ear, desperate to do whatever he could to ease her suffering.
Neville addressed the room. "Anyone else want to disagree?" He jerked his chin toward the staircases. "Upstairs. Someone take that piece of worthless shite with them," he added, pointing his wand at the unconscious McClaggen. Several other Seventh Year boys grabbed the knocked out Gryffindor under the armpits and dragged him up the stairs as everyone made to follow. When the room was empty save for the weeping couple on the floor and their two friends, Neville and Luna sat down on the couch, arms instinctively circling each other again in an attempt to find some sort of solace from the news Harry had brought.
It may not have seemed like it given her state, but Hermione was discovering a small glimmer of that sought-after solace in Harry's arms. She felt shattered inside, like a glass dropped on a hardwood floor, and only Harry's strong arms and soothing presence were keeping those shattered pieces together in any semblance of cohesiveness. She clung to her best friend desperately and buried her head in his chest, needing to feel his presence, to hear his heartbeat, in order to keep any notion of sanity as her wondrous mind worked furiously to process the information she had been given and the emotions washing through her about it. Ron, her other best friend, a man she desired, a man she was pretty sure she loved as more than a friend, was dead. She didn't know how and she didn't know why; at any other time not having seemingly critical pieces of information like that would have bothered her, but given the gravity of the situation that particular character quirk was quickly squashed by her heartbreak.
She knew Harry must be feeling his loss as keenly as she and yet there he was rocking her steadily, his arms around her, his hands petting her head, his soft voice in her ear. He kept repeating the same things over and over, not always in the same order but always with the same conviction. "It's okay, Hermione. Let it out. I'm here. It's okay to cry. I've got you. I'm not letting you go. I'll do everything I can to make it better. I'll keep you safe. I swear to God I will." As she continued to weep he started adding light kisses to her temple and hairline, all the while enveloping her in both his physical and emotional warmth. In that moment she thanked every deity there was for bringing Harry Potter into her life, because without him she was sure she would have collapsed under the weight of her grief. Like Atlas, he had held the world of Hermione Granger aloft on his already burdened shoulders long enough for her to begin to put herself back together. And she promised herself that, every day for the rest of their lives, she would make sure Harry knew how much she appreciated him, and how much she cared for him. She would repay him for not only this kindness but all of the ones before. He was the dearest person to her heart now and, if it came to it, she would battle all comers by his side.
After about 20 minutes Hermione finally started to pull herself together. She slowly lifted her head off of Harry's chest, cringing slightly at the mess her crying eyes and running nose had caused on the front of his robes. If Harry noticed at all he didn't acknowledge it, and he moved his hands up to cup her face gently in them, wiping the last of her tears away with his thumbs. He drew her forward and kissed her lightly on the forehead, before leaning back and looking her in the face, asking with his eyes if she was alright. Answering the unspoken question with a slight nod, Hermione managed a small smile of thanks.
The sound of light footsteps startled them both; for almost the last half hour their worlds had consisted only of each other. Luna knelt down beside them, a box of tissues in her hand, and she offered them to Hermione, who took them gratefully. It took her several to clear her nose and dry her face while Harry drew his wand and cast a quick Tergeo on his robes to clean up the majority of what Hermione's breakdown had left behind. As Hermione finally finished with the tissues, Neville took a knee on the other side of the pair from Luna and was the first to break the silence. "Harry, what happened?" And Harry told the story, from Ron accidentally eating the tainted Cauldron Cakes from Christmas right up until Dumbledore's explanation of the poison in the mead. As the story concluded, a dark look crossed Hermione's features, and the other three felt a marked rise in the ambient magic in the room as her anger started to get away from her.
"That conniving bitch!" she yelled as she jumped to her feet, her wand appearing in her hand faster than the other three could see. She turned toward the stairs to the girls' dorms and started stalking toward them. "Romilda Vane, I'm going to fucking kill you! You're the reason he's dead you worthless whore!" she screamed up them as she reached the bottom step. Thinking quickly, Harry drew his own wand and Disarmed Hermione, her wand flying into his hand. She turned toward him, and the look in her eyes promised pain and retribution. "Harry Potter you give me my wand this instant! If she hadn't laced those Cauldron Cakes none of this would have happened!" She stalked toward Harry, hands clenched into fists at her sides so tightly that her knuckles were white. Harry held his ground, and in defiance threw both his and Hermione's wands to the far side of the room as he held his arms out to the side.
"If you really think it's Romilda's fault then it's mine too," he said, and this stopped Hermione dead in her tracks. "She gave them to me at Christmas, and because of your warning I knew something was going to be wrong with them. But I didn't throw them in the bin, I just stuffed them in my trunk. If I had binned them, he never would have had them." He spoke with conviction, but the other three could see tears back in his eyes. "Do you think it's my fault, Hermione?" he asked quietly, and his voice broke as he reached the end of the question. "Do you blame me? Do you hate me, Hermione?" He barely got her name out as a whisper before he started breathing heavily, trying desperately to keep control of his emotions.
Hermione, her anger disappearing in the face of Harry's (what she felt were) absurd questions, quickly rushed back over and enveloped him in her arms, the same as his had been around her minutes before. As he struggled to keep breathing instead of crying, he continued his confession. "Because God knows I blame myself. Every speck of danger, every hurt and wound that you and Ron have suffered since you've met me, they've all been because of me. I hate myself for the pain I've caused the both of you. And now Ron's dead, and it's my fault." He lost his battle with his pain and his shoulders started shaking as he emitted fresh sobs. For her part, Hermione held him even tighter, shushing him gently as she held him to her. "I don't know if I can live if you hate me too, Hermione. Please don't hate me. Please, Hermione. Please . . ." he pleaded as he shook his head against her chest repeatedly and gripped tightly to the back of her robes with his hands.
"Harry, Harry, it's okay," Hermione cooed into his ear. "It's alright. Of course I don't hate you, you silly boy. And of course I don't blame you. Harry I lo—" she stopped herself momentarily, suddenly scared of what she had been about to say. Her Gryffindor courage kicked in, though, and taking Harry's head in her hands she forced him to look her in the eyes as she gave voice to feeling. "Harry, you are my best friend, and I love you. Nothing you could ever do will change that. Nothing could make me hate you. Do you understand me, Harry?" she asked as she felt him try to turn his head. Her grip held firm, though, and green eyes once again locked with brown. "I love you, Harry Potter. We will get through this the same way we've gotten through everything else so far. Together." She pulled his head forward and rested her forehead against his, and she felt his fists unclench from her robes as they pulled themselves closer to each other.