Breakfast passed for Harry in a happy daze. Ron hadn't rejected him, or taken back his words. They were still friends, and from what Ron had said, there was a chance that they'd be more. Ron had to pull him along to the bathroom and remind him to do the littlest things. He'd worried that Ron would get cross about that, but his friend kept giving him a little grin. Harry realised why when he caught sight of himself in the mirror - he had the dopiest look on his face, a kind of soft expression. As happy as he was he didn't want to walk into McGonagal's study looking like that - she'd have him up to Madam Pomfrey in a flash.
Ron had laid out a new shaving kit. At fifteen he'd only needed to shave once a week, and last year he'd been using a safety razor and foam. The kit he balanced on the hand basin was obviously new. The leather bag was made of a maroon hide, giving Harry a clue as to who had given Ron the gift, and from it he drew soap, a shaving brush and a straight razor. From the glimpse Harry got inside the bag there was also a strop - a leather strip that Ron could sharpen the razor on.
"Birthday present from Dad," Ron answered his unspoken question, "He's given one to all of us boys when we turn sixteen - goodness knows what he'll get for Ginny."
"Unless she uses it for her legs," Harry said without thinking and Ron choked on his lather with laughter. Harry laughed too, relieved that he hadn't ruined things. He let Ron shoo him out of the bathroom and went to get dressed, discovering that he had only a few changes of clothes and that they were all in the Wizard styles.
Ron whistled in surprise when he caught sight of Harry in his robes and rather formal shirt, waistcoat and trousers. There was even a new pair of shoes that buttoned up along the sides. Harry actually liked the change of style, though he'd struggled with the unfamiliar fastenings on the shoes, trousers and robes. He was already planning to get some Muggle clothes as well, though he'd have to ask permission first.
"Mum," Ron shook his head, "Dumbledore only brought your school stuff along - he thought you mightn't want the reminders from your other clothes, though I think he's got the Weasley jumpers for you. Mum said she'd buy you some new stuff. You look very smart, Harry."
"Thanks," Harry blushed a little, unsure of accepting the compliment and relieved when Ron didn't push things. They tidied up hurriedly, despite knowing that Dobby would be more than willing to clean the room from top to bottom.
"How are you feeling today?" Ron asked as they hurried down the stairs, "You seem a bit livelier."
"I feel a lot better. I was just so tired when we got here…" Harry trailed off and Ron grunted.
"Yeah, I imagine that St Mungo's is a rotten place to sleep," he sympathised, "It was hard enough learning to sleep through Dean's snores in our first year."
Harry laughed, and reached out to knock on the study door. Professor McGonagal called permission to enter and Harry pushed the door open, going in first. McGonagal was wearing her usual robes and bun, her eyes sweeping Harry from head to toe in a very piercing look. She smiled at him quite kindly and waved them both to seats.
"I like the new robes, Mr Potter," she said gently, "You look quite smart."
Ron stifled a chuckle and Harry flushed a little. He had been dreading her first remarks, not wanting to have to deal with any memories of the past fortnight right now. She seemed to have realised that and he was grateful for her discretion.
"Thank you, Professor," he replied, wishing he could nudge his friend before they got into trouble. It may have been the summer holidays, but Harry knew that their Head of House would have as little patience for silly behaviour as she did during school hours. Thankfully Ron sat up properly and fixed a look of polite inquiry upon their teacher.
"I'll come straight to the point, Harry," she said quietly, "You're sixteen in two weeks time, and as you know that makes you of age in the Wizarding world. At that time you are eligible for your licence to Apparate. Normally, you'd go to the Ministry for your test, but Professor Dumbledore has arranged for me to test you on the theory and practical here."
"Thanks Professor!" Harry exclaimed. He had forgotten about that aspect of turning sixteen and glanced at Ron, realising he must have passed his test if he had been at the Dursley's.
"Once you have passed - and I expect you to work very hard Mr Potter, and pass on your first attempt - you will be allowed to visit Muggle London for a day to procure for yourself a few more personal items. I am aware that your… wardrobe is limited at the moment. Mr Weasley will accompany you, and you will of course take all the usual precautions. Your OWL results will be here in three weeks time, after which Professor Flitwick has agreed to take you to Diagon Alley to procure your school supplies for your sixth year. With the exception of those two excursions, you will remain on school property at all times, and you will not leave the castle after seven at night. Is that perfectly clear boys?"
"Yes Professor," Harry said, with Ron chorusing along. Harry was determined to be on his best behaviour for the rest of the holidays. He didn't want to risk being sent back to Privet Drive next year.
"Very well," McGonagal stood, "I have here the theory that you need to learn, Mr Potter. You will read it over very carefully today and I will test your understanding of it tomorrow at ten, here. We will have a lesson every morning until dinner and then you will be free for the rest of the day. Mr Weasley, you will report to Hagrid in the mornings, I am told he has a few chores he could use your assistance in."
"Yes, Professor," Ron said softly. Harry took the book that McGonagal was holding out and they left. Ron was giving Harry a dark look, and Harry managed to keep the chuckles under control until the door was closed.
"He'll have me mucking out blast ended skrewts or something," Ron groaned, playing it up, "At least you get to sit inside with McGonagal."
"Yeah, getting tutored for a test that I'm not allowed to fail," Harry reminded him and they grinned at each other.
They had asked Dobby where the teachers ate their meals, and upon being informed that they ate together in the Great Hall, both teens decided to join them, though they were going to sit at the Gryffindor table. Harry's conscience was still tweaking him about making Dobby do extra work, and Ron didn't care where they ate as long as they did. He was going through a 'bottomless pit' phase when it came to food, and as Harry was under strict orders to put on a few stone they found their end of the table well stocked.
They had spent most of yesterday in a complex dance around each other, testing the waters and reaffirming their friendship. Harry had also been studying 'A beginners guide to Apparating and Disapparating' and Ron had helped test him on it. Last night Harry had looked at Ron very shyly before getting into his own bed. Ron had grabbed his own pillow and climbed in with Harry matter-of-factly. Neither one had said anything beyond goodnight, and they'd woken the next morning spooned together, fingers tangled across Harry's stomach.
Ron had taken the time last night to send Pigwidgeon to the Daily Prophet with a subscription notice, and the owl arrived as the teens entered the Great Hall. Harry was wearing a different coloured shirt under the waistcoat today - a brilliant shimmering green that Ron secretly admired on his friend.
"I'll go you halves on the subscription," Harry offered and Ron accepted readily enough, telling his friend that he could pay tomorrow. They pushed their plates to one side and put the paper on the table between them, taking it in turns to turn the page while the other snatched a hasty bite or commented on an article they'd just read. After almost a month, the hysteria about Voldemort had died down, and although a few rumours and speculative pieces were included in today's paper, there was nothing really alarming.
Ron folded the paper and shoved it into his robe as Harry finished the last sip of his tea. They got up and headed out of the Great Hall, splitting up to go to their respective tasks. Ron walked out of the front doors into the bright sunlight and walked quickly down the path that led to Hagrid's hut. The half giant was waiting by his hut, with Fang sitting at his feet. When the boarhound spotted Ron he leapt up, barking and ran to greet the red headed teen.
"Alrigh' then, Ron?" Hagrid called in greeting and Ron pushed the dog off his chest, walking over to the groundskeeper. He smiled up at the man and nodded.
"Yeah, you?" he asked and Hagrid nodded in reply. He hesitated and then asked in a positively diffident tone,
Ron beamed up at him, knowing that Harry held a special place in Hagrid's heart. Hagrid had rescued Harry as a baby, and then fetched him from the Dursley's when he was eleven. Hagrid had been Harry's first contact with the Wizarding world, and he seemed to have quite a soft spot for the dark haired teen.
"He's well enough. He had a lot more energy this morning, and he seemed happier," Ron assured the other man, and Hagrid's face cleared up a bit. He nodded, patted Ron on the shoulder hard enough to make him almost lose his balance and turned to grab a couple of tools from where they were leaning against his hut.
"Righ', well then, we'd better ge' to work," Hagrid rumbled, "We're workin' in th' vegetable patch today. I need yer to hoe the beans. I spoke to Professor Dumbledore, an' he's agreed yer should get paid a stipend fer yer work."
"Really? Brilliant!" Ron exclaimed, and followed Hagrid to the bean patch.
Their days took on a steady pattern. They would read the paper together over breakfast, split up to go to their respective assignments, meet again at dinner and then spend the afternoon flying around the castle grounds on their brooms, visiting with Hagrid, and - in Harry's case - studying the theory set by McGonagal. Evenings were spent in the common room, playing chess or cards or any other number of games that sat around the room. Ron would join Harry in bed each night and they would wake the next day spooned together and flushed with sleep. Beyond the touches they shared during the day - usually a finger hooking with a finger, and sometimes Ron would pull Harry into a hug - their relationship had progressed no further. Harry was still very skittish about being touched, and Ron knew better than to push him into an intimacy he wasn't ready for. That would kill their friendship for sure, and neither teen wanted that.
On the evening of Harry's sixteenth birthday, Ron sent Pigwidgeon to Gringotts with his holiday earnings and a request they be converted to Muggle money. Hedwig went as well, with a letter from Harry, asking the Goblins to make a withdrawal for him in Muggle currency. Both of them were looking forward to the day they would be allowed to go shopping in Muggle London, and Harry was planning a surprise for Ron.
Harry's sixteenth birthday started with a difference. He'd never been woken with a kiss before, but that was how Ron chose to start the day, dropping chaste kisses on Harry's face until he woke, then following with a very gentle kiss to the lips as well. He didn't try anything fancy; all too aware that Harry had described his first kisses with Cho Chang as 'wet'.
"Happy birthday, Harry," Ron smiled and relaxed when Harry's answering smile lit up his whole face. He craned his neck up and Ron obliged him with another warm press of lips before pulling back and squeezing the hand he held. Harry looked at their joined hands and smiled a little crookedly.
"We always seem to end up like this," he waved their hands in clarification and Ron raised his eyebrows.
"Does that bother you?" he asked curiously, and Harry shook his head, a slight flush creeping over his cheeks. He'd gained some colour during their broom flights over the last few weeks, though he wasn't as brown as Ron, who spent the majority of the day outside.
"It's nice," Harry said shyly and Ron nodded, kissing his friend on the cheek before letting go and rolling out of bed.
"It is," he agreed, "Kind of cosy."
Harry got up too, and they hurried through their morning baths, both teens shaving before getting dressed. Ron had put out the green shirt he liked Harry in so much, and Harry put it on without comment, pleased that his friend had chosen to tell him, albeit wordlessly, that he looked good in that. Neither boy was likely to win awards for their compliments and sentimental behaviour - they had worked hard to re-establish the easy friendship that they'd built for the last five years, and were not inclined to jeopardise that with atypical behaviours.
The usual owl arrived with the morning paper, and Ron paid it while Harry piled scrambled eggs and bacon onto slices of toast - food that could be eaten with one hand while they read the paper. They flicked through the main stories - Fudge was calling for support for some kind of reserve scheme to back up the Auror's and his main opponent was calling it an overt attempt to raise a private army - when an unfamiliar owl landed on the paper and hooted at Harry.
"What's this?" he asked Ron, and untied the cylinder that the owl had strapped on it's back. The brown wrapping clearly had his name on it, and Ron fished in the pockets of his robe for a moment before handing Harry an envelope. The owl took off without waiting for payment and Harry dropped the parcel on the table and opened the envelope.
There was a birthday card inside and Harry grinned at his friend.
"Is this my present, then?" he asked, pointing at the cylinder. Ron nodded, grinning back. Harry opened the parcel eagerly and stared at the glossy magazine.
"You've got a years subscription," Ron told his friend, "I thought you'd like it."
The 'World of Quidditch' magazine boasted a picture of the Peru Quidditch team posing with some school kids in various items of kit. Articles were also being touted on the front cover, including one about the Chuddley Cannons, and the latest controversy over the new guidelines for referees. Harry flipped through a few pages and then turned to grin at the now nervous friend beside him.
"It's brilliant," Harry told him, "Thanks, Ron. I'd never have thought of a present like this."
"Whew! I thought you were mad," Ron exaggerated his relief and Harry laughed, tucking the card inside the front cover, and the magazine inside his robes. They went back to the paper, and were discussing the latest Quidditch scores - the game was played year round - when Professor Sinistra left the staff table and wished Harry a happy birthday on her way out.
"Thank you!" Harry was rather startled, but managed a smile and wave for the Astronomy teacher. Professor McGonagal finished her morning cup of tea and came down to where they were sitting as well.
"Happy birthday, Mr Potter," she offered a rare smile, "Are you ready to take your test this morning?"
"I thought I'd have to wait until tomorrow," Harry glanced at his friend, and Ron shook his head.
"You're sixteen today - I only waited until the day after because mum and dad insisted," he told his friend, "Good luck, mate."
"Thanks," Harry nodded and followed the Transfiguration mistress out of the Great Hall. Ron grinned and folded the newspaper back up, sticking it inside his robes and getting up from the table. Hagrid stuck his head around the door and Ron waved him in.
"The coast is clear, Hagrid," he called. The plates disappeared from the tables, and Dobby trotted in behind Hagrid, beaming over his part in the birthday surprise. He waved a shy hello to Ron who smiled kindly and waved back. He knew that Harry was Dobby's favourite and didn't mind it too much. The elf was a little more relaxed with him, and they were co-conspirators when it came to taking care of Harry.
"He's off for his test, then?" Hagrid asked and Ron nodded, looking around at the Hall. The usual house banners and so on had been taken down, presumably for cleaning, making it seem almost barren.
"Righ' then," Hagrid rubbed his hands together, "We'll start with one o' these tables."
"Tables?" Ron asked, "I thought we were having the party here?"
"Nonsense," Hagrid shook his head, "There's perfectly good weather outside, an' it's a sight more cheerful to boot! We'll set up in the courtyard by the greenhouses - the one with the fountain. It gets good sun and there's a nice breeze coming off th' lake. Grab an end, Ron."
"Uh," Ron eyed the large and undoubtedly heavy table and pulled his wand out. He was grateful that the house tables were not all one piece but several pieces put end to end. Hagrid rolled his eyes, but shifted to pick up one end while Ron stood at the other. That meant that Ron would be walking backwards, but seeing as he wasn't actually lifting anything he didn't mind too much.
Ron's end of the table lifted up gently and he backed away, coaxing the table to follow him out the doors and along the passages. Ron could see that Dobby had elevated a couple of the benches and was walking along behind them. Ten minutes later they had the table set up, and Hagrid had wrestled one of the staff chairs out for Harry to sit on at the head of the table. The half giant would sit opposite him at the other end - not being built for sitting on benches.
Dobby conjured up some bunting - flowers and vines twisted together to hang on the stonework - and Ron got started on that while Hagrid hung a banner that read 'happy birthday!' and shot off little fireworks at random intervals while the letters changed colour. Dobby laid the table carefully, spreading a cream tablecloth over its glossy surface and then adding the place settings with fancy folded cream napkins. Ron was relieved to see that the house elf had resisted the temptation to plaster Harry's face over everything. His friend had told him about the Christmas decorations last year in the Room of Requirement when Ron found an ornament in the corner of their practice room.
"When is everyone arriving?" Ron asked as Hagrid came to help him finish up the last of the bunting.
"They'll be here at twelve. Yer mum and dad had to pick up Hermione first," he grunted, "There, tha' ought to hold it. The twins are coming along too, and Ginny o' course. I think yer brother Bill will be droppin' by as well. Professor McGonagal, and Remus Lupin will be here too."
"Dinner for twelve, then," Ron stood back and admired their work. The normally plain courtyard had been transformed into a welcoming setting for a birthday party. He turned and looked over at the table before smiling at Dobby, who was polishing crystal glasses.
"That looks smashing, Dobby," he complimented the elf, "Harry will be really pleased."
Dobby positively beamed at him, and seemed to swell a size in happiness. Ron reflected that it took so little to make the elf happy - rather like Harry - and made a mental note to try and do it more often. He checked his watch - the decorations and such had taken only two hours - and nodded to Hagrid as he went to meet Harry outside Professor McGonagal's study. There were two hours to fill before he had to lure Harry out to the courtyard, and Ron had planned to spend them in Gryffindor's common room, playing chess.
"How did you go?" he asked the moment Harry stepped outside. He didn't really need to ask, the grin on Harry's face was enough of a clue to the results.
"I passed it," his friend replied, "And we have the go ahead to spend tomorrow in Muggle London."
"Excellent," Ron rubbed his hands together, "Come on - we should go and see if the owls are back from Gringotts. You can tell me where we're going."
"Oh, no," Harry chuckled, "That's a surprise. I've got it all planned out."
They were climbing the stairs now, and Ron eyed his friend with disfavour.
"Am I going to hate this?" he asked and Harry chuckled, glancing at him sideways. Ron shook his head and sighed the way a man who is being much put upon does. This earned him another chuckle and he followed in Harry's wake happily. Harry hadn't really laughed since he'd woken in the hospital, and Ron was relieved to see some sign of his friends spirit returning.
They stepped in through the portrait hole and Pigwidgeon immediately started fluttering around their heads, hooting wildly. It was flying a bit slower than usual, due to the pocket sized leather pouch tied firmly to its legs with the Gringotts seal stamped onto it. Hedwig was sitting more sedately on the back of an armchair, and while Ron leapt about, trying to catch his maniacal owl, Harry went to relieve her of her own burden. Ron peered inside at the strange paper notes the Goblins had provided and then shrugged. His friend would doubtless be able to guide him through the day. He took both pouches up and dropped them on the dresser in his dorm, returning to find Harry still standing by the armchair, stroking Hedwig with a pensive look on his face.
"What's up, mate?" Ron put a hand on Harry's arm and his friend half shrugged, not really meeting Ron's eye. Ron waited patiently, rubbing his thumb along Harry's arm, until his friend shifted, turned to face him and very slowly and hesitantly put his hands on Ron's hips.
Ron smiled, his arms coming up easily to wrap around Harry's waist. Harry leaned hesitantly into the hug, his head sheltering nervously on Ron's shoulder. This was a big step, and Ron was pleased that Harry had reached out to him. He stood quietly, feeling the tension in Harry's body slowly disappear as the pain he associated with being touched failed to appear. Ron moved one hand, rubbing it over the small of Harry's back as his friend inched closer, seeking the warmth of Ron's body. His hands crept timidly around Ron's waist and clutched the back of his faded blue robe, plucking at the material nervously, then stilling. Harry heaved a big sigh and sagged a little, leaning into Ron, feeling his friend lean back, shifting their weight so they were in balance together and comfortable. The closeness and warmth was a little soporific and Harry let his eyes close, relaxing completely as Ron rubbed his back and held him.
"This is nice," Ron murmured, pleasure lacing his voice. He felt Harry nod and smiled into the unruly black hair pressed against his cheek. There was nothing erotic about this act for him - it was simple companionship and trust, being offered and shared equally between them. Harry trusted him not to hurt him, and Ron trusted Harry to know where his limits lay.
Ron estimated they'd stood there for ten minutes before Harry sighed and very slowly pulled back. Ron let him go, smiling when his friend glanced up at him. Harry flushed a little and cleared his throat, shuffling his feet.
"Chess?" Ron suggested as if they hadn't just taken a big step in trust together. Harry nodded, looking relieved that they weren't going to talk about the hug and Ron gave him his best grin, going to the table and setting up the chess set that they'd left out yesterday.
Harry couldn't describe - at least not without gibbering - how that hug with Ron had felt. He couldn't even explain adequately why he'd done it. He'd been standing with Hedwig, petting her lightly and thinking about how different this birthday was when Ron had returned with a grin on his face. Harry had felt such a strong rush of affection for his friend that he'd reached out without thinking, and then panicked. Thankfully, Ron had just stood there, holding him so lightly that a deep breath would have broken his grip. The simple gift of that hug was more significant to Harry than all the gifts anyone had ever given him in the last five years combined.
The chess was a welcome distraction, because Ron was a master at the game and Harry needed to concentrate fully on what he was doing if he didn't want to be slaughtered in the first five minutes. They were playing with Ron's ancient set, and the pieces had finally started to trust Harry a little, though they still shouted advice at him now and then. They played two games, one after the other, and at ten past twelve - just as Ron's rook was challenging Harry's king to surrender - his friend leapt up and grabbed for Harry's hand.
"We'll be late for dinner," Ron exclaimed, "Professor McGonagal will be after us!"
Harry let himself be pulled up and hurried along, glancing back as his king surrendered with a growl of defeat.
"You won again," he informed Ron, who shook his head, clucking under his breath.
"Harry, Harry, Harry, I always win," Ron told him, mock pity in his voice. Harry glared at him, almost digging his heels into the floor to slow them down.
"You don't! I won last Christmas!" he exclaimed. Ron started bickering with him, a familiar routine from their friendship that Harry was so relieved to participate in that he didn't notice his friend was steering him away from the Great Hall. In fact he didn't notice anything out of the ordinary until he stepped out into bright sunlight and a chorus of voices shouted,
Harry jumped, the faces of the people before him dancing before his eyes before settling and letting him identify who was there. Professor McGonagal beamed at him and reached out to tug him further into the courtyard, perhaps seeing the wish to run from this wholly unexpected encounter in his face. Then Ron patted his back, chuckling under his breath, and the world steadied for Harry.
Remus Lupin was closest, looking as worn and faded as ever, but Harry didn't care. Lupin was the last of the Marauders, and his last link to Sirius and his parents. That he was here meant a lot to Harry, and he'd flung his arms around the werewolf before he even thought about what he was doing. Thin, yet strong arms wrapped around him, squeezing lightly, and Harry pulled back after a moment, beaming.
"It's good to see you," he told Remus sincerely, and got a laugh in reply.
"Thanks, Harry. You're looking well," Remus looked him over very carefully, "A bit thin though."
"You can talk," Harry retorted, but there was no heat in his voice and the werewolf grinned at him, shrugging. They both knew why Remus was looking so worn - there was no point in raking open old wounds. Harry stepped back and Hermione touched his arm.
"Happy birthday, Harry," she looked a little uncertain, and he reached out to hug her too, a quick squeeze around her waist before letting go again. He'd never been in the habit of reaching out and touching someone unless there were exceptional circumstances, and he was all too aware that the events of the summer had made him even more hesitant.
"Thanks Hermione," he knew the words were inadequate, but she smiled as if she understood. Ginny tapped her shoulder, and Hermione stepped aside for the red head, who promptly hugged Harry then let go, her eyes searching his face anxiously. He smiled and tugged on her hair, the way he'd seen her brothers do it, and she sniffled suspiciously, managing a watery smile before turning to examine the nearest decoration with a kind of fixed attention.
"Harry!" Fred stepped into her place, George at his shoulder. They grabbed his hands and shook them vigorously, while Harry laughed in astonishment at their robes.
"What are you wearing?" he exclaimed. The twins were both dressed in rather luridly patterned robes, with wildly clashing colours. They'd always been the most flamboyant people in Gryffindor, but now they were out of school, the twins seemed to have let that trait have full rein.
"You like?" George beamed, "We think they'll be the latest craze!"
"They're very…colourful," Harry replied politely. The twins didn't seem to mind though, and they laughed, stepping back for the next person. Harry was starting to feel a little overwhelmed, but he grinned up at Bill and shook his hand, taking a deep breath to steady himself. He didn't know Bill that well, but it meant a lot to him that Ron's family had come to see him on his birthday.
Hagrid stepped up next, hugging Harry so lightly that he barely felt it. The few times they'd met over the last week or so, Hagrid had been very diffident, treating Harry as if he might break. Harry didn't know if his friend had realised how intimidated Harry felt by Hagrid's size and strength at the moment, but he was grateful that the half giant didn't seem to take his nerves personally.
Mrs Weasley stepped up and engulfed him in a very motherly hug, kissing his cheek and patting his shoulder fondly when she stepped back. Her eyes were rather bright, and Harry knew he was red in the face and rather shaky to boot. Molly Weasley had been his only source of maternal affection, and he'd do anything in the world for her. Her husband stepped in, just as they were looking like coming over all emotional and he pulled Harry in for a brief hug too, surprising him no end.
Before he could really embarrass himself, Ron's stomach rumbled loudly, and Harry's echoed it. Everyone laughed, and the emotional atmosphere vanished. Harry found himself seated at the head of the table, with Hermione on one side and Remus on the other. Plates appeared in the middle of the table and everyone started passing them around.
"Did you take your Apparate test today?" Lupin asked, slipping a few extra spoonfuls of potato salad onto Harry's plate. He grinned at the man and nodded, slipping a couple of slices of bread and butter onto Lupin's plate in return.
"Yeah, I passed," he told him, and glanced at Hermione. She would turn sixteen just after they returned to school, and her parents wouldn't be able to teach her this skill because they were Muggle dentists, "How will you practice for your test?"
"Professor Flitwick is going to teach me…he does a class for the Muggle-born after school, and then someone from the Ministry comes down to test us all," she smiled, "I can't wait to get started. I've already read all the theory, of course, but it's not the same as practice."
Harry grinned at her. Typical Hermione. Knowing her she'd have memorised several books by now, and would probably be able to pass the test right now.
"I wonder how Neville will go," Ron said from beside Lupin, and they all shared a slightly sympathetic grin. Neville Longbottom's primary problem with performing magic was his total lack of confidence in himself. His grandmother had raised him on stories of how brilliant his parents were, and his aunts and uncles had compounded the problem by trying to teach him all sorts of different things at once.
"He'll get there," Harry stated confidently, "Look how quickly he improved in the DA. All he needed was some confidence."
Ron grinned around a mouthful and would have spoken if his mother hadn't spotted him and told him off.
Dinner passed very pleasantly. Hermione and Ginny told Harry about their holidays - Ginny was going home with Hermione tonight for a couple of weeks - and Fred and George filled Harry in on the latest news from their joke shop. From their accounts it was doing quite well - they were able to afford an assistant now, who was minding the shop while they were out.
When the last of the food had disappeared, and the plates and cutlery as well, Hagrid stood up, his crystal glass held a little gingerly in one hand.
"I'd just like ter propose a toast," he waited until everyone had raised their own glasses, "Ter Harry. Hope yer birthday is a happy one, and many more to come."
"To Harry," the others chorused, and Harry flushed, sipping nervously at his drink. Hagrid sat down again and a small pile of parcels appeared on the table in front of Harry. He jumped badly, and then mopped hurriedly at the spilled pumpkin juice. Hermione joined her napkin with his and they managed to contain the mess.
"Well go on then," Ron urged impatiently when Harry put the balled up napkin to one side and hesitated, "Let's have a look!"
Harry sat on his bed and looked at his gifts. Remus had given him a wallet made from dragon hide. There was a photo of himself, Sirius and James in it, the three Marauders, taken by the fourth, Peter Pettigrew. Lupin had murmured something about it being a joint present from himself and Sirius, and Harry had smiled and thanked his father's friend quietly. George and Fred's present had distracted everyone by partially exploding at that point, and Mrs Weasley had told the twins off while Harry and Ron put out the banner Hagrid had hung up, which was smouldering slightly from some stray sparks. The slightly singed Skivers Snackbox smelled a bit smoky, but George had assured Harry that the present would still work. Hermione had given him a custom made bag to store his Firebolt in, made from a dark brown material that tingled slightly under Harry's fingers when he'd touched it. Hermione had explained that she'd had the store put several anti-hex charms on it, and he'd thanked her with a hug. Ron had received a similar bag for his birthday, in deep red.
Ginny and Bill had gone in together to buy Harry several manuals of defensive spells and potions. Ron had promptly annexed one to flip through, while Hermione browsed another. Their time in the DA - an underground group that had practiced defensive spells and duelling - had made all three of them interested in learning more than the curriculum provided. Harry spared a thought to wonder who would be teaching Defence Against the Dart Arts this coming school year, and then put the books aside.
Hagrid had given him a very thick pair of gloves, made from a hide that Harry couldn't identify. They were a strangely pale violet, and Harry wondered what they were studying in Care of Magical Creatures that he would need such thick gloves. Mrs Weasley's gift had also been spell books - 'Magical Recipes for Beginners', 'Hearty Meals With a Wave of the Wand', 'Better Household Management Through Magic', and 'Every Everyday Spell and Potion You'll Ever Need'.
"I think mum's giving you a hint, Harry," Fred had commented to laughter at that point. Harry had laughed too, but he'd given Mrs Weasley an extra smile. She was trying to ensure that he would be able to take care of himself in the future.
It was Mr Weasley's gift that had brought unexpected tears to Harry's eyes. It had been a dark green toiletry bag, containing a straight razor, strop, shaving brush and soap. Ron's words had come back to him with a rush, and Harry had to control himself very hard. Ron had seemed to understand this, because he distracted everyone by asking Hagrid where he'd gotten his gift.
"Still gloating over the loot, huh?" Ron asked from the doorway, carrying two mugs of steaming tea. Dobby was behind him with a tray of food, and Harry got up to give the elf the piece of birthday cake he'd saved especially. Dobby thanked him profusely, and eventually left the two of them alone. There was a plate of sandwiches on the tray, and a couple of pieces of fruit for afters. Ron sat opposite Harry while they ate, then took the tray away again. Harry cleared the presents off the bed, putting his broom in the bag, and transferring the money sent from Gringotts to his new wallet. He flicked through one of the cookbooks and then settled down with 'Every Everyday Spell and Potion You'll Ever Need', flipping through the sections of the book slowly. He looked up when Ron returned and put the book aside, getting up and walking to meet his friend.
He reached out a little hesitantly, hating that he felt so afraid of this simple act, knowing that Ron would never deliberately hurt him, had never hit him, but still unable to overcome the instinct that said solitude was best. Ron's arms circled him in a light hold that he could easily break and Harry sighed. He leaned forward again, putting his head on Ron's shoulder and sighing when his friend's hands pulled him slowly closer.
"Thank you for my party," Harry said quietly. Ron chuckled and rubbed the small of his back again. Warmth spread through Harry's body, relaxing his muscles, and soothing his nerves. He forced one hand to unclench from Ron's robes and move up to his friends shoulder where the fingers kneaded muscle without any direction from him. This small intimacy, initiated while they were both awake, felt like a huge step to the boy who'd never been touched often, or even with love.
"I'm not the one who organised it," Ron admitted, "I was just in charge of getting you there on time."
Harry rubbed his cheek on the shoulder he was hiding in and Ron shushed under his breath.
"Your dad gave me a shaving kit," Harry's voice was very small, and Ron tightened his grip. Harry knew that he'd never be able to explain how significant this gift felt to him. The Weasley's had always been very kind to him, and generous about including him in their holidays, but Harry had never dared imagine that they might really consider him a part of the family - Molly's words to Sirius aside.
Ron took a deep breath, sighing softly, the air tickling through Harry's hair and he smiled in the comforting dark. Ron was family now. That was one hell of a wicked birthday present.
It felt like a slap in the face to be confronted the next morning with the clothes that he'd been wearing the day he'd been taken to St Mungo's. Someone had cleaned and repaired them, obviously, but still…
They were the only Muggle clothes that he had, and Harry swallowed hard, glad that Ron was still in the bathroom and not witnessing this particular little freak out. His hands shook as he touched the faded, oversized, ragged cloth on the bed, then he sighed and pulled the items on one at a time, doing it automatically, trying not to think about it. He did up his trainers and tucked his wand out of sight. His new wallet went into a pocket as well, and Harry took a book down to the common room to read until Ron was ready to go down to breakfast.
"Bloody hell, Harry," Ron exploded, and Harry sighed. His friend looked horrified at the sight of Dudley's old clothes, but pulled himself together. Harry guessed his thoughts were visible on his face because Ron sighed and shook his head.
"The minute we've got something to replace those things with they're going in the bin," Ron vowed. Harry felt his mood improve and Ron pulled him out of the armchair where he'd been brooding. Neither teen had much appetite, and they left breakfast early, walking quietly down to the town of Hogsmeade. Ron Apparated first, appearing in the cluttered walled courtyard behind the Leaky Cauldron. Harry Disapparated beside him, and they grinned at each other - spirits lifting for the first time.
"Come on," Harry felt a bit better, remembering where they were going to spend the day, and why. When he'd been eight years old it had become fashionable at school for the boys to wear a certain type of jacket, only available from one place in London. Dudley had thrown his biggest tantrum to date, and Aunt Petunia had been forced to take Harry with them the weekend they went to find Dudley's jacket. The eight-year-old Harry had been fascinated by the wide variety of people and styles of dress all gathered in one spot in a way he hadn't seen again until his first visit to Diagon Alley. Ron - Muggle lover that he was - would love this place, and Harry would love being able to wander at his own will through the fascinating streets and alleyways.
"Where are we going?" Ron asked as they finally managed to get a seat on the tube. Up until that point he'd been too interested in the ticket machines, escalators, various posters and the tunnels that the tube trains rushed through, commenting non-stop to Harry under his breath. The dark haired teen had been hard pressed to answer all the questions Ron had fired at him.
"Camden Town," Harry pointed to the correct station and Ron looked over the map of the Northern Line for a moment, fascinated by the way it split and looped around. Then he looked back at his friend and bounced his eyebrows at him.
"And what's there?" Ron pressed. Harry shrugged with feigned nonchalance.
"A couple of markets," he replied in an off hand tone. Ron fixed him with a considering look - too experienced with Fred and George's pranks to be taken in by that. He didn't say anything though, just settled back to tick off the stations as they passed, looking around at their fellow passengers. Harry led the way out of the station and hooked Ron's elbow, pulling him to stand against the station wall for a moment.
"Bloody hell! A couple of markets?" Ron gawked and Harry laughed. There were even more people than Harry remembered, but he didn't care. He felt like just being one of the throng after the intense scrutiny of yesterday. He glanced around and spotted a likely place to start looking. He was going to have to rebuild his entire wardrobe for all the seasons, so the bargain basement store was the perfect place to start. They walked past the more flashy shirts and formal trousers to the jeans and t-shirts. There were quite a few displays marked 'two for the price of one' or 'three for £12', and Harry started rummaging there. Ron watched him for a moment and then started helping, picking out shirts in a similar vein to the ones that Harry had started with - namely plain solid colours that weren't too bright. Once they both had an armful, Harry went to try on a pair of jeans for size, coupling it with a dull red t-shirt. The dark blue jeans fit well, but he thought the t-shirt was a bit tight, and opened the door for Ron's opinion. Harry had never been clothes shopping before, and was a little nervous about the whole process.
"Is the shirt too tight?" he asked, opening the door. He knew Ron was there because his friend had just found a pair of cargo pants and was laughing at all the pockets. Ron gaped at him, mouth open, and Harry shifted irritably.
"Come on, Ron," he frowned and Ron shook his head, sense coming back into the bright blue eyes.
"No, it's fine, Harry."
Ron's voice was oddly husky and Harry looked at him doubtfully for a moment before shrugging. His friend wouldn't lie to him, so whatever was bugging him wasn't the clothes. He took the cargo pants that Ron was holding out wordlessly and closed the door again, trying them on for fit before changing back into Dudley's clothes and stepping out of the changing room.
"Ok, let's pay for this stuff," Harry glanced over at what Ron was holding, and led the way to the register. They dumped their selection on the counter and the guy behind the till went into a whirl of motion, folding clothes and totalling up the purchase as he went. Harry paid over a fairly small amount of money for the pile and started picking up the bags.
"Wait," Ron grabbed his wrist. He watched as his friend dug through the bags to come up with the original jeans and shirt that Harry had tried on.
"Look, my friend here needs to change. You wouldn't mind if he went back there again and…" Ron fixed the multiply pierced young man with his best wide eyed look. Harry flushed a little at the comprehending look he got and the clerk grinned.
"I will even bin those for you!" the young man laughed, "Go get changed."
He cut the tags off and Harry stumbled back to the changing room to change. He rifled the pockets of Dudley's jeans to ensure he hadn't left anything behind and then took the offending items back out the front, where the clerk made a show of dumping them into the bin under his counter. Ron laughed, and Harry grinned, picking up his bags and climbing up out of the basement, feeling lighter than he had for a long time.
They walked up and down the markets, browsing through the stalls, and Harry found a wide range of clothes that suited his rather vague wants, and met with Ron's easy standards as well. Ron spent most of the time watching the punks and freaks and norms that were thronging through the market places too.
Ron bought them lunch, spending an hour and a half among the food stalls, sampling everything and discovering a fondness for lamb curries and sweet and sour pork. Harry wandered along with him, happy to share portions and sample new things. Once Ron had his fill they stopped by a few shoe stores, where Ron bought a pair of purple glitter Doc Marten boots that laced to his knees, and Harry bought a plain pair of black ankle length boots. They wandered through the antique stalls, then made the first 'find' of the day. In a back alley there were several stalls selling crystals, incense and rune stones. Ron examined a set of Tarot cards curiously, muttering to Harry that they didn't have the correct aura to be any use, which had Harry in stitches. One stall, however was selling 'alternate' clothing, and Ron discovered a rack of cloaks.
They were different to the Wizard style cloaks, in that there were no sleeves, plackets or cuffs, but that didn't matter when Ron pulled out two rather striking examples. The first was a smoky blue colour, dark and shot through with copper threads. He flung it around his shoulders with the practiced twist of the wrist that all Witches and Wizards came to have and Harry's breath caught at the sight. The hooded garment fell into perfect folds, emphasising Ron's lean height and broad shoulders. Ron tied it closed and rubbed his fingers over it, appreciating the copper lining and the heavy brocade of the outer material.
He grinned at Harry and flung the second cloak around his friend, a dusty green colour that was pale green at the top and darkened to black at the hem. They were unaware of the fascinated eye of the stallholder as they admired each other in the cloaks. The majority of Wizards loved unusual clothing and styles, and Harry could almost guarantee that there wouldn't be anything like this in Diagon Alley.
"It would be useless for flying," Harry pointed out under his breath, rubbing his fingers over Ron's arm, appreciating the texture of the material. His own cloak felt incredibly soft, and in the midday heat he was rapidly overheating, a good indication that the cloak would provide some warmth in winter.
"Doesn't matter," Ron replied, "Mum always has a few old clasps that we could sew on to replace these strings. You are not leaving here without that cloak."
"Same to you," Harry challenged and Ron grinned, digging out his money. The stall owner wrapped the cloaks for them, and they strolled away, pleased with themselves.
The second 'find' of the day was just around the corner from there. Wizards loved books - they didn't have the diversions of television and movies that Muggles preferred - and the Weasley's home had a bookcase in just about every room. The bookstalls were extensive and Ron had never really had a chance to look over Muggle fiction.
Harry had to sit down he was laughing so hard, when Ron started critiquing the fantasy novels on offer - refuting the errors and making fun of the pictures on the cover. Ron had to help him back up and check that Harry had all the bags he'd been carrying, as Harry was laughing much too hard to make sense. The science fiction was much more to Ron's liking, and he picked up half a dozen books there before finding the murder/mystery/crime section. As Harry was also interested in these books they came away with an astonishing number of books, their wallets empty.
Rather than taking the tube back with all their bags and parcels they found a public toilet and went in. After a quick check to see that the stalls were empty, they Apparated to Hogsmeade then used the levitation charm to get the packages back to Hogwarts.
Dobby appeared and took all the clothes away to be washed and returned the next day, and Ron had sent a message to his mother about the cloak clasps. When he returned, Harry was on the couch with a book, and Ron joined him, sitting close and taking his free hand. They had inched closer and closer over the next few hours until they were positively cuddling each other warmly, and their tangled fingers were talking to each other, directing their attention to each others books and interesting passages.
Over breakfast the next day they noticed that Professor McGonagal had left Hogwarts and Professors Flitwick and Sprout had arrived. They waved from the teachers' table, and Ron had offered them a cheerful smile while Harry continued to the table. There was a note next to their plates and Ron groaned when he read it.
"And the day started so well," he sighed, crumpling the note up and sticking it in his pocket. Mr Filch had chores for them to do inside the castle. Mr Filch was not known for his fondness for students and whatever he had in mind was sure to be tedious, difficult and possibly disgusting.
"Yeah, it did," Harry agreed, a very soft look in his eyes. Ron had kissed him awake again, and Harry had felt secure enough to put his arms around his bedmate, holding Ron close. Ron sighed and sat down, fishing for the knuts to pay the owl while Harry made a space for the paper, piling their plates in the middle of the table and slathering jam over a couple of pieces of toast.
Dumbledore was in the paper this morning, urging the Wizard world not to become complacent about their safety. They read the article carefully, flipped through the rest of the paper and noted that Rita Skeeter had published an article about the state of Muggle relations, raising the issue that Witches and Wizards born to Muggle families should be taken into the Wizarding community as soon as they were identified to ensure they were protected. Harry felt a little sick at that and glanced bleakly at Ron. Fingers squeezed his and he sighed, turning the page and concentrating fiercely on the latest Quidditch news while Ron fumed beside him.
Ron took a deep breath as they walked towards Filch's office. He'd have to hope that the caretaker had something sufficiently diverting for them to do, so Harry wouldn't brood. Mrs Norris was sitting outside the door, watching them through narrow red eyes. She had been a particular nuisance last year, patrolling the corridors and reporting to Filch almost constantly. The DA had all been in favour of jinxing her, but Harry had pointed out that Filch would be in an even worse mood if that happened, and had suggested they just say hello as they pass her. It had annoyed Filch no end to have students suddenly speaking to his cat, and the DA had been appeased.
"Hello Mrs Norris," Harry said out of habit, and knocked on the caretaker's door. Filch opened it and scowled out at them. He wore a very dirty smock and his lank hair seemed filthier than ever.
"Yer to polish the armour on the second floor," he said without preamble, "The cloths and polish are already there. Bring them back here when yer finished."
The door slammed shut and Harry gave Ron a little grin. The redhead merely rolled his eyes and followed his friend away from the caretaker's office.
"He was in fine form," Ron commented as they headed for the second floor. The main corridors there were lined with various suits of armour, which guarded the library, the hospital wing, several storage cupboards and a couple of classrooms.
There was a pile of rags and several bottles of polish sitting in the middle of the corridor, and Ron whipped his wand out. He picked up a cloth and a bottle and placed them at the feet of the first suit.
"Mobilus domesticus," he said firmly. The polish tipped itself onto the cloth and the cloth started polishing. Harry grinned and picked out a cloth and bottle himself. He added its efforts to the suit that Ron's cloth was already polishing, then grabbed a second.
"Uh, this will only work on one at a time," Ron warned and Harry shrugged. He moved to the suit opposite and started cleaning by hand, glancing back at his friend.
"This will go quicker if we work as well," he suggested. Ron heaved a sigh, but grabbed a cloth and went to help, keeping an eye on the animated cloths opposite them.
They soon established a routine, working in perfect rhythm to polish the suits comprehensively, before checking on the animated cloths and then moving to the next one. Ron found that their heads were close together when they worked on the legs of a suit and Harry would shoot him little glances, leaning in towards him and then backing off again. Ron thought his friend was working up to something, and was delighted three suits later when Harry leaned in and kissed him very briefly, before flushing bright red and rubbing at a knee guard so energetically the suit complained.
Ten suits later the kisses were longer and Harry had stopped blushing, lingering with his forehead against Ron's instead. Ron was finding it increasingly difficult to crouch down to get to the feet of the suits, and from Harry's discreet squirms the other teen was having the same problem.
They finished in time for a late dinner, and then returned to the Gryffindor dorms. They grabbed a book each and went down to the kitchens to beg for some afternoon tea and a blanket. Harry led Ron to the secluded spot he'd found at the end of last term and they spread the blanket out before sprawling out on it. Ron lay on his back, his head propped on a fold of blanket, while Harry stretched out on his stomach.
Ten minutes later the books were cast aside in favour of kissing. Ron had his hand in the small of Harry's back again, rubbing in circles, liking the way Harry melted at the touch. Harry had tucked his fingers up inside Ron's t-shirt, stroking warm skin lightly as they kissed and kissed.
The morning paper arrived as usual, followed by two official looking owls with an envelope each for them.
"Our OWL results," Harry realised, staring at Ron, "I'd forgotten!"
Ron went a little pale and then accepted the envelope from the bird. He could remember the row when the twins' results arrived, and was at least grateful he'd be able to open this in private. Harry was staring at the envelope in his own hand, probably remembering the events that had been occurring all during their OWL testing. Ron took a deep breath and opened the envelope, Harry matching him move for move as they pulled the folded parchment out and opened it.
OWL results for: Ronald Weasley
Defence Against the Dark Arts O
Care of Magical Creatures O
History of Magic A
O - Outstanding A - Acceptable
E - Exceeds Expectations P - Poor
D - Dreadful
"I got four O's!" Ron blurted, "Harry! Look!"
He shoved the parchment at Harry, who took it and read it through, grinning broadly at his friend. Neither one of them was half as clever as Hermione, who had probably got O's in everything, but nor were they dunces. Ron leaned against the table, relieved that he'd be able to at least send a good report to his mother, who was doubtlessly waiting at home impatiently.
"Congratulations, Ron!" Harry wrapped an arm around his shoulders and squeezed without second thought, the contact as easy and natural as one of Ron's brothers would have. Ron grinned as he was jostled and then sat up.
"Hang on! What did you get?" he demanded and snatched Harry's letter off the table. They were making rather a lot of noise, but the teachers at the staff table didn't mind - if Ron or Harry had looked up they'd have seen some very indulgent looks headed their way.
OWL results for: Harry Potter
Defence Against the Dark Arts O
Care of Magical Creatures O
History of Magic A
O - Outstanding A - Acceptable
E - Exceeds Expectations P - Poor
D - Dreadful
"Congratulations," Ron beamed at his friend, and then frowned, "How did you get an E in Divination?"
Harry shook his head rather helplessly. He'd done well on the theory - that hadn't been too hard to pick up at all - and the Tarot readings were easy to accomplish. The crystal ball was much harder, and he hadn't seen anything in the final test that had been worth mentioning, and he'd totally misread the examiners palm at first, before correcting himself and trying again.
"Come on," Ron leapt up, "We'll send Pigwidgeon to mum with the results, and Hedwig to Honeydukes so we can celebrate!"
"Boys! Boys!" Flitwick called as Harry got up, laughing a little at his friends antics. They calmed down a bit and hurried over to the staff table.
"Good morning, Professor Flitwick," Ron grinned, "Do you think we can have a day off from helping Mr Filch? We got some very good results!"
"Of course, Mr Weasley," Flitwick beamed at them both, "May I see your results?"
They handed the slips of paper over, knowing that the school would get a full recounting of their marks from the Ministry anyway. Flitwick read them over and his smile got impossibly bigger.
"Excellent work boys! And 'Outstanding' for Charms! I am pleased! If you can be ready after dinner, Mr Potter, I will take you to Diagon Alley to purchase your school things for this year!" Flitwick handed the parchments back.
"Can Ron come too, Professor?" Harry asked, "We'll behave!"
Ron felt a warm glow at that. They'd only be apart for a few hours, but that was a rare thing nowadays. Flitwick's smile became very kind and he gave permission for Ron to come along too.
"Your mother will be purchasing your things, Mr Weasley, but you are welcome to come along," Flitwick dismissed them to the owlry, and Ron grabbed Harry's hand as they ran up the steps.
Ron slammed to a stop just inside the dorm door. Harry was standing by their bed - the bed that Ron would have to leave tonight because Dean, Seamus and Neville would be there, and they couldn't sleep together in front of the others. His partner - and Ron knew that they would be together for the rest of their lives, just like he knew they needed air to breathe and gravity to stay on the ground - was wearing the black school robes over his school uniform, the red and gold Gryffindor tie and house badge the only splashes of colour. Harry was taller than he had been last year, and had a bit of colour in his face. He was slender, though Ron knew all too well the strength and warmth of the body hidden beneath the uniform.
They had gone beyond the 'friendly kissing' stage - by accident at first, and then eagerly, hands searching out heat and hardness, bodies rubbing together sensuously. Only last night, Ron had tasted Harry for the first time, and Harry had returned the gift rather unexpectedly this morning in the shower - hence Ron's lateness now. Professor Dumbledore was waiting in his office for them with a port key to take them to the Hogwarts Express. As a Prefect, Ron's absence would be very noticeable, and Harry was too high profile among the student body to just not arrive at school the usual way - flying cars not withstanding.
Ron shrugged his robes on quickly, turning away to conceal the jealousy he was feeling. After having Harry to himself for the summer, and enjoying the freedom that came with their solitude, Ron was not looking forward to sharing his partner with other people - even their friends. When he had straightened his robe, Ron turned to tell Harry he was ready, only to bump into his partner. Harry slipped his arms around Ron and leaned into him, his head resting naturally on Ron's shoulder. Ron sighed and returned the hug, turning his head to whisper in Harry's ear,
"You're stuck with me Potter, no getting out of it now," Ron promised and Harry gave him a scorching kiss, pulling back only when they were both very breathless.
"Come on, Dumbledore's waiting," Harry peeled himself lose and Ron straightened his robes once more before following his partner out, their fingers tangled together and hidden in the folds of their robes.