Title: Mortal, Guilty, But to Me
Author: Mad Maudlin Rating: PG Category: Angst Summary: Ron and Harry have more in common than they thought.

A/N: This was written for the 2005 HP/RW FQF on LiveJournal. Many thanks to Linnet for the beta.

Mortal, Guilty, But to Me
by Mad Maudlin
for the H/R FQF 2005

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

— "Lullaby," W.H. Auden

Ron bolted awake, clawing at the sweaty blankets that wound around his body until he realized they weren't slimy tentacles, weren't trying to choke him. The details of the dream were already fading into a half-remembered haze of rage and pain, an echo of the thoughts and feelings engraved in his skin. He rubbed his arms, in spite of the persistent itchburn in the scars there, and forced himself to take one slow calming breath. Just another bloody dream, Weasley, he told himself firmly. Dreams couldn't hurt him. No reason to freak out.

Not much reason to hurry back to sleep, though, either.

He kicked the blankets down and reached for his wand, but the candles on the nightstand burst into flame before he'd touched it. Ron jumped and yelped, but it was only Harry, sitting up and trying to get his glasses to sit properly on his face. "Sorry," Ron mumbled, looking away quickly. "Didn't mean to wake you."

Harry shook his head, and sorted out his glasses. "Are you okay?" he asked; they were just about the first words he'd spoken since his arrival that afternoon. Harry had shown up pale and pinched and withdrawn, sporting dark, puffy smudges under his eyes and jumping at small noises. From the moment he'd crossed the threshold of Grimmauld Place, Ron had wanted to—something. Reach out to him, grab him, haul him off somewhere away from the adults and Hermione and everyone else who seemed to want to badger him halfway to death. Find some kind of hiding place in this horrid old house where they could relax, where Harry could just relax, and...well. His mind skittered over the particulars of what he and Harry could do alone together, avoiding it like the squeaky board in the stairs. The important thing was that he get Harry away from these other people, get him somewhere private, somewhere safe, and...and things would sort of take care of themselves. He was sure of it.

But Ron had seen the sick expression that crossed Harry's face when he spotted the thick pink scars peeking out of the sleeves of Ron's jumper. Of course he couldn't rescue Harry in the real world; of course Harry wouldn't want anything to do with him, after Ron had let him down so miserably in the Department of Mysteries. He should've been at Harry's side every minute of the battle, he should've gone down fighting like the others—just thinking of his own pathetic performance made him want to crawl in a hole somewhere. He should've done better. Harry deserved better.

"I'm fine," Ron told him, and rubbed his stinging arms self-consciously. Of all the nights to sleep in just his pants and vest—he didn't have to look up to know that Harry was staring at the hideous, puffy scars, like fat worms under his skin. "Just a...a weird dream," he added quickly.

"About...?"

"Yeah."

Harry seemed to consider this for a moment; he scratched at his own bed-head and succeeded in making it worse. "Is it...um..."

"Is it what?"

"Hermione'd ask if you want to talk," Harry said, very quickly, then shrugged. "I'd listen. Um, if you did."

Hermione would ask a lot of things; Hermione had already been at Ron for three weeks about the headaches, and she was getting mighty inquisitive about his sleeping habits. But where Hermione badgered and demanded, Harry just offered, and to Ron that seemed to make a world of difference. He plucked at a raveled thread on his vest. "Um. It's really nothing important."

Harry shrugged again.

"I mean...the dreams, they aren't really bad, it's just..." He searched for words to explain. "Those brain things, they're...they can think, like people, but they can't see, and they can't hear, and they just swim around in the ruddy awful tank...they're not, I mean, I think they're a little bit mad, maybe. And really, really angry." He licked his lips and traced the fat pink welt down the inside of his forearm. "And that's all...inside me, now, y'know?"

"Yeah," Harry said, deathly earnest and with an odd hitch in his voice. "I know exactly."

Ron looked up sharply, and blinked at the scar that peeked pinkly through the strands of Harry's fringe. "Yeah," he said, feeling terribly foolish. "Yeah, I reckon you do."

He spent several minute cursing himself roundly for a thick-headed idiot—because what's a couple of mad brains compared to You-Know...to Voldemort, really?—before Harry coughed a bit and pushed down his blankets. "D'you want to play chess?"

"Chess?"

"Yeah." Harry was wearing his vest, too, and pyjama bottoms that puddled over his feet and hung low in spite of the cinching. "Maybe it'll help you get back to sleep."

And you just happen to be awake, mate? Ron though, but he climbed out of bed anyway and pulled on a pair of jeans he'd left laying near his trunk. "White or black?"

"Whichever."

They played that night until they were both nodding over the board and pale grayish light seeped through the one small window between their beds. When they heard footsteps in the hall, Ron folded up the board and Harry helped him pack away the pieces; without a word, they put the game away and slipped back under their respective covers. Ron slept for maybe an hour before his mum came to wake them, but at least he didn't dream again.

-x-X-x-X-x-

The following day Ron's thoughts felt mired in treacle, and by early afternoon his eyelids were too heavily to lift. Maybe it was worth a few dreams to be able to think straight; he wasn't enjoying the looks Hermione was giving him over the pile of summer homework she'd organized. Even his mum seemed to notice his exhaustion, and at breakfast and lunch she'd fussed over him almost as much as Harry.

Harry being the only reason he wasn't napping already, and to hell with both homework and nightmares.

All day Harry had been looking at Ron—not weird, exactly, but differently. It was like they were in on some special secret, or maybe playing some kind of game against the rest of the house with rules that only they knew. Harry spent the morning kicking, pinching, poking, and prompting Ron away from the edge of sleep, intervening just when Ron felt he could doze off in his chair, trying to hide how exhausted they both were. Ron didn't catch on until during lunch but tried to catch up while they were studying with Hermione, checking Harry's eyes every few minutes for a telltale droop. They couldn't draw too much attention—that was a given. Nothing obvious. Just little ways of keeping each other awake while other people were there, little ways of keeping a secret.

Harry kicked him again, harder than before, and when Ron tried to kick back he hit Hermione's chair. "Will you two quit messing around?" Hermione asked.

"Sorry," Ron mumbled, and tried to remember which page he was meant to be reading. There was a growing pressure behind his eyeballs, a throb in time with his heart that was echoed down the marks on his arms. He tried to ignore it. The headaches had come and gone for weeks now; maybe this one wouldn't be too bad. He'd rather not embarrass himself in front of Harry twice in the space of a day. Ron ignored the ache and the burn, and when the little rainbows started forming in the corners of his eyes he ignored them, too, or tried. Harry kicked him again, but he was so busying ignoring things he didn't even notice.

"Ron? Are you all right?"

He tried to answer in the affirmative, but the moment he opened his mouth it felt like a knife stabbed him through the temples. His hands went weak as his scars flared with pain, and he dropped the book he was holding. The thump made Harry start. "Fine," Ron forced out, in a gasp.

"Are you sure?"

He swallowed. "Just have a bit of a headache."

Hermione frowned at him. "Maybe you should lie down a bit."

"Yeah," he said, because he thought it might kill him to nod. "Maybe."

He wasn't entirely sure how he got back to the room, but he managed to pull the curtains before he lay down. Grimy gray daylight still leaked in and seared through his eyes, so he covered his face with a pillow. He still needed to stay awake, though, he thought muzzily—Harry would be disappointed if he fell asleep—mustn't disappoint Harry, not again—

"Ron?"

Speaking of who. He peeked out from under the pillow; Harry was peering around the side of the door like a curious child. "Mmmm?"

"All right?"

He carefully swallowed. "I'll live."

Every soft footstep rattled his teeth as Harry came towards the bed. "Are you—I mean, do you—"

"Just a headache," Ron mumbled. "'Salright."

"You sure?"

"Yeah."

The mattress bobbed next to him; Harry was sitting. "I'll just, erm, I'll just...yeah."

"Okay."

Harry will make sure I stay awake, Ron thought, moments before pain faded into sleep.

The room was nearly full-dark when he jolted awake, flinging the pillow to the floor. He didn't catch on to what had woken him until Ginny cleared her throat again. "Mum says you're late for dinner," she said, looking around the room with odd wide eyes.

Ron looked around, too; Harry was still sitting on the bed next to him, back against the headboard, chin on chest. He was snoring a little. "Er...thanks, Gin. I'll just...um..."

"I'll tell her you're coming," she said, and slipped quickly out the door.

-x-X-x-X-x-

Harry trudged up the stairs long after midnight, surprised at how much concentration it took. Last year he'd railed at being excluded from the Order's meetings; now he'd gladly leave the stratagems and the worries to the adults. Plans of attacks and plans of defense, contingencies and rumors, spells and politics—he hadn't paid attention to most of this meeting, or to the reproving glares Snape and Moody sent him throughout it. He couldn't make sense of half of what was discussed anyway, and knowing what was going on without being able to do anything was almost worse than being in the dark. Instead he'd fought off sleep and thought of Ron, who would be in their room with the chessboard as he had for the past six nights. Ron, who'd become the only thing keeping Harry grounded. Ron, and his terrible scars.

Those scars made Harry sick to look at. They might as well have curled up into accusations written in flesh. This is what you do, he read in them. This is what happens to people around you. He didn't want to look at them, didn't want to think about them—wanted to linger a bit longer in the numb gray mental space he'd found during his brief stay with the Dursleys, where no guilt or worry could reach him. He wanted to forget. But now there were meetings and homework and people everywhere, all of the time, and he couldn't avoid looking at Ron any more than he could avoid looking in a mirror. He had to think now, and there was so much to think of he wasn't sure he could hold it all in his head at one time.

Ron understood, though, a little—it was really terrible, but Harry was almost grateful for his friend's nightmares. He himself had been too scared to sleep for a while now, too afraid to let his mental defenses lapse even that little, because Voldemort had just been too. Damned. Quiet since the end of term. Dumbledore had sent him a massive book on Occlumency care of Mrs. Figg, which had taught him more than six months of being knocked over by Snape, but Harry still didn't know whether he could stand up to a mental assault like the one in the Ministry in June. And he was terrified of finding out. Every time his scar twinged he braced himself for an attack, but sitting up with Ron—playing this strange game night after night—helped. In a really strange way, it helped a lot. And no matter how awful Harry felt about it, he didn't think he could stop, not now.

He stopped short when he finally entered their room, because Ron was laying down, with one arm flung over his face. The chessboard was set up on Harry's bed, untouched; he always let Harry play white. Stifling a yawn, Harry edged up to the bed to wake the other boy, unless he was really, really asleep, because that somehow violated the rules. Ron was very still, and his breathing was strangely shallow. Maybe it was something about the candlelight, but the scars on his arms looked darker somehow, more swollen. They were so, so raw, the wounds must have been so deep and painful...for one moment, reason abandoned Harry completely, and he reach out to run his fingers across Ron's arm.

The scars were smooth and soft and hot, and Ron hissed a little when Harry applied pressure. He traced a line from Ron's wrist to his elbow, and his eyes followed it further, up into his sleeve. How far did they go, anyway? His fingers trailed a little higher, through soft gingery hair and then to smooth skin that was softer than it looked, given all the freckles. He touched another scar and must've pressed too hard, because Ron jerked his arm back with another little hiss, and Harry recoiled.

"Sorry," he blurted, completely mortified.

"'Salright," Ron groaned. He didn't uncover his eyes.

"Headache again?"

"Yeah."

Damn. Harry looked forlornly at the yawning chess set. "D'you want the lights out?"

Ron sighed. "No, leave them on, or I'll..." fall asleep. Ron wriggled a bit, and Harry could see him flinching behind his arm. He put out the candles anyway, leaving the room black save for the dirty light of an urban night that seeped through their tiny window. "I said..."

"I'll, um, look, we can just talk tonight." After six straight nights of silence. "If you want to."

Heavy footsteps in the hallway were the answer; they seemed to take an age to pass their door. Ron spoke up in a tiny whisper. "We've got to keep quiet, though."

Harry thought about this, because Ron couldn't play chess, and there was no way they were going to stay awake staring at each other in the dark. His scar was cool, but he didn't feel safe. "I can keep it down," he said, and knelt next to the bed, leaning against the side near Ron's shoulder. "If I sit here—"

Ron moved his arm then, and blinked a bit. Harry couldn't see colors in the darkness, but he thought he could feel heat radiating. "Erm. Okay."

They paused. The house settled around them, and somehow despite his exhaustion Harry suddenly felt more awake than he had in days. He had to clear his throat a couple of times. "Um. Our Hogwarts letters are supposed to come tomorrow."

"Brill."

"Your mum's going to Diagon Alley soon." That had occupied a large chunk of the meeting, in fact, and had been the only part Harry had payed much attention to.

"Any chance we'll get to go?" Ron asked, sounding a little wistful.

"Well, not me." Thank God.

"'Course not, "Ron said firmly, then cleared his throat. "Um—I reckon I can play a bit of chess now."

"You sure?"

Ron sat up slowly, and through the shadows Harry could see he was still cringing. "I can play," he said a little too faintly. "Get the lights."

"Wait till it's over."

"It's never going to be over, Harry," Ron said grumpily.

The words settled heavily on his chest, and he suddenly felt old. "No," he agreed softly. "It won't."

-x-X-x-X-x-

Two more sleepless nights and foggy days, and then Harry woke up one morning from a heap on his bed and Ron wasn't there. He didn't remember how late they'd stayed up, but his scar was suddenly burning like fury, and a sick feeling rose in his gut. Something was wrong, and Ron was missing. He shoved his feet in shoes and raced downstairs, his heart beating in time with the throbbing in his head.

Hermione was reading the paper at the kitchen table when he stumbled in. "Where's Ron?" he blurted.

"Good morning to you too," she said a bit warily.

"Where is he?"

"He went to Diagon Alley with his parents and Ginny early this morning," Hermione said. "Did you sleep in your clothes?"

Harry started to pace as the throbbing in his forehead intensified. "Something bad's happening," he insisted. "Something really bad. He's, I can feel—he's waiting for something—"

Hermione grabbed his arm, suddenly looked frightened. "Occlumency, Harry—"

"Something's happening right now—!"

The fireplace suddenly belched Floo-green, and Ginny stumbled through, sobbing and covered in dust. Harry caught her before she tumbled to the ground, but then Mrs. Weasley was coming through, and then—George? One of the twins, with a cut on his forehead—and then Bill, lugging a long, limp figure against his side—Ron. Harry wanted to leap forward, but Ginny was clinging to his neck and trembling so hard he feared she might fall over if he let go of her.

"What happened?" Hermione shrieked, loudly enough to lance through Harry's temples like needles and cut through the racket filling the kitchen.

Ginny hiccupped against Harry's chest. "Dementors."

"What?"

Mr. Weasley and the other twin burst through the Floo, just as dirty as the others, with their wands in hand. Harry's eyes were drawn back to the floor, where Bill knelt with Ron's head cradled in his lap. Ron was oh, so very white, except for a tiny spot of bright blood running from his nose. "He's breathing," Bill announced in a tone of voice that made Harry's heart skip a little. "Are the Dementors—?"

"Gone," Mr. Weasley said grimly. "Tonks went to report, and Alastor is having a look around before the Ministry moves in."

"What happened?" Hermione demanded again, as she pulled Ginny off of Harry and guided her into a chair. Harry immediately tried to elbow past Mr. Weasley to get at Ron, but he and the twins were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, blocking him completely.

The twin with the cut shook his head. "Dementors in Diagon Alley. Dunno how they got in, but when they started moving down the street—total pandemonium. People runing everywhere, trying to hex them, trying to hex each other, no sense at all..."

"We tried to lock up the shop until they went past," the other twin said, "but people were running in and out, and then Ron—he just passed out—"

The kitchen door slammed open, and suddenly Mrs. Weasley was dragging Madame Pomfrey in by the arm—who knew how she'd gotten here so suddenly. "He's right here, Poppy," Mrs. Weasley sobbed, "please, can you—?"

"Stand aside," the nurse ordered, and primly knelt on the kitchen floor. Harry seized the chance to get past the other Weasleys and knelt on Ron's other side. He grabbed Ron's hand; it was cold and clammy, and he didn't know how to check someone's pulse. Madame Pomfrey began to flick her wand over Ron's still body. "Dementors, you said?"

"He just fell," Ginny said weakly, "and they were so close...I don't know where they came from..."

"Voldemort," Harry said, loudly enough to make more that half the room flinch. "He knew about this, I could feel it—"

"Harry, get back, let Madame Pomfrey work—"

Hands pulled at Harry's shoulders, yanking him up and away. "No—gerroff—! he growled, struggling away—he couldn't leave, not Ron, he had to know he was all right. He had to shout at him for leaving like that, because how was Harry supposed to protect him if he wasn't there? He thrashed against the arms pulling against him, but he wasn't strong enough to break free. "Let me see him—"

"Let Madame Pomfrey—"

"—stand back—"

"—be all right—"

"—calm down—"

"NO!" Harry shouted, and for a moment thought he could get away—he twisted and got one arm free, and threw himself forward just in time to see the nurse pull Ron's jumper away, and see the scars—the horrible, swollen scars, inflamed blood-red, almost pulsing as they climbed Ron's arms nearly to his throat. No, he said, or thought, or screamed, no, it can't be, that can't be what hurt him—it can't be my fault—

And then the attack he'd been awaiting all summer suddenly, finally, hit.

Anger and agony flared through his brain, and everything—Ron, the room, the screaming Weasleys and the hands on his arm—everything faded to the shade of red closest to black. Voldemort was waiting in a howling void of pain, a foul and crushing serpent bound closer to Harry than his own burning skin. He was pushing at Harry's mind, searching, looking—the image of Ron limp on the floor floating across his thoughts, along with a flicker of a filthy sort of pleasure.

No!

Harry pushed back. He forget everything he'd learned about Occlumency and lashed out, all his pain, all his fear, all the worries of a dozen sleepless nights coalescing into one angry onslaught on the mind touching his. He felt Voldemort recoil ever so slightly, had one brief moment of clear thought to marshal his will—just long enough.

Get out! Get out, get out, getoutgetoutGET OUT—!

Pain vanished, sound roared back. Harry tried to blink his vision clear, but he couldn't focus, could only see gray and black and blurs. Then he saw a shoe, and blinked again; he was looking at the floor, and his glasses had gone. "I did it," he said, to no one in particular.

Somebody shrieked painfully close to his ear, and then he was being hauled up to face a confusion of people and voices. People were moving, talking to him, looking at him, but he couldn't see too well without his glasses and their voices just seemed to smear together into a roar. He heard the words chocolate and Headmaster and potion— "I don't need any ruddy potions," he declared to the blurs and smears, right before he passed out.

-x-X-x-X-x-

Ron bolted awake, the sharp aches in his arm and head pulling him all the way out of the dream. His bedroom at Grimmauld Place; the house around him silent, the window as dark as night ever got in London. He tried to rein in his breathing as looked around, searching for clues as to how he'd gotten back. Everyone else had to be okay, right, or he wouldn't have gotten away from the Dementors. Would he? If something was wrong, surely it'd be obvious. They'd changed him into his pyjamas. Would they have put him in pyjamas if someone had gotten hurt?

"Mmm?" The sleepy grunt caught his attention, and when his eyes finally finished adjusting he saw Harry emerging from a heap of blankets. Surely Harry wouldn't sleep if something was wrong. Harry didn't even sleep when things were right. "Whazzuhunh?"

"What happened?" Ron asked. "How—the Dementors—?"

Harry yawned and groped for his glasses. Ron noticed two large carafes of dark potions on the nightstand, one with each of their names on it. "Um...Dementors. " He sat up and flicked on the lights with his wand. "I don't really know. Your family all came in through the Floo, and they called Madame Pomfrey for you, and..."

"And?" Ron asked numbly.

Harry shrugged. "I, um, passed out."

"What?"

"Voldemort," Harry said quickly.

Oh. Ron rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "They were all right, weren't they? Ginny and everyone?"

"Oh, yeah. Everyone else was fine." Harry blinked around. "What time's it?"

Ron shrugged and made fists, despite the needles that shot up to his elbows when he did. He could feel the scars through his sleeves, swollen, almost as sore as when they were fresh. How useless had he been, fainting like that? Everyone else had been fighting or helping or trying to cast a Patronus and he had just fallen, like a stupid...something that was stupid, because that's what he was, stupid and useless and—

"Hey." Harry leaned forward, elbows resting on crossed legs. "You all right?"

Ron opened his mouth to say yeah, fine, but somewhere between his brain and his mouth the words became "I dunno." He swallowed.

He heard Harry shift on the bed, almost as if he were getting up, only not quite. It was a while before he spoke, and then he blurted "I'm sorry" and then coughed a little. "I'm...god, Ron, I don't know. I don't know what to do."

Ron blinked at him. "You didn't do anything."

"Exactly."

He kicked the sheets down, untangling his legs. The adrenaline rush from the nightmare was passing and he felt sore and cranky. "You don't have to apologize. It was...I'm the big idiot who got hexed, all right, I brought all of this on myself."

"I brought you there."

"I should've...I should've been better." You deserve better.

Harry was silent for so long that Ron wondered if he had fallen back asleep, but when he looked up, Harry was staring at him. Watching him with a kind of quiet intensity that had always been there, really, since Ron had known him at all, just never so open and never directed at him. All of a sudden Ron had the feeling he understood why You-Kn—why Voldemort would think a skinny teenager was a threat to the most powerful dark wizard who ever lived.

"I fought him," Harry said quietly, eerily. "In my head. I think he found out you all were there, and he was angry—maybe it doesn't mean anything to anyone but me. But." He suddenly looked down and plucked at the sheets, sixteen all over again. "I fought him," he repeated. "And I won."

"That's...that's great."

"I...you helped. I mean, I thought of you, and...and it helped."

When Ron was sure he'd heard right, he swallowed hard. For years now he'd trod around a place in his thoughts like a squeaky board in the library, but suddenly Harry had jumped on it and made it sing arias. Too much—he hurt all over, he was exhausted beyond measure, and Harry, oh god, Harry...

...Harry was climbing back into bed. "Um—maybe you should get some more sleep." He sounded embarrassed; if the filthy moonlight hadn't leeched out colors, Ron thought maybe Harry would be blushing. "G'night."

"Harry."

He looked again, intense and hopeful and oh, god, Ron didn't think he could say this. But Harry, Harry knew, Harry understood—"I'm...I don't want to go back to sleep."

Ron looked away instantly, ready to make excuses to flee. He wasn't at all prepared for soft laughter. He raised his head the moment Harry got to his bed, putting one knee on the edge of the mattress. "I have an idea," Harry said, looking a bit relieved and a little bit crazy. "Budge up."

"What?"

"Just move."

Ron moved; Harry, seemingly in slow motion, slid himself under the covers. Giving Ron ample room to stop him—as if he would, or could. Or maybe would and could mean the same thing here, when Harry was laying down next to him, in defiance of rational thought and the size of the bed. "I'll be right here," he whispered, a little shakily, and Ron could feel his breath and the nervous drum of his fingers. "And you'll be here, so if—if you have a nightmare, I'll know and I can wake you. And you for me. See?"

"Yeah," Ron said dry-mouthed. "Yeah. I see."

Harry scooted, until their knees bumped together; it seemed perfectly rational to Ron that he should part his legs and let them weave with Harry's in a warm pile. Harry touched Ron's arm eversolightly, cool fingers soothing the raw wounds, and Ron discovered his arms would only fit if he slung the top one over Harry's hip and waist.

"This all right?"

"Yeah." Harry's breath puffed against his neck, and Ron sighed. He thought his heart should have been pounding, but maybe it was too tired; his brain certainly was, and overwhelmed with too many questions to answer any. There was no room for worries about Harry, or at least not these kinds of worries—not when the bed was so much more comfortable, when it felt so good just to touch. He thought maybe his headache was waning, too. This was loads better than chess.

"Don't leave me next time," Harry mumbled sleepily.

"I'll stay if you want me to."

A slow sigh, a soft wriggle. "Yeah. Stay."