Chapter 1: Insults
All summer Harry had been looking forward to the time when he would be allowed to leave Number 4 Privet Drive. It had nothing to do with how the Dursley's, his aunt, uncle and cousin, treated him. What could they possibly do that was any worse then what he had already done to himself? Nothing. No, it was the never ending solitude he wanted to escape. He was trapped in a vicious cycle of blame, guilt and self-deprecation.
He knew he shouldn't hold himself responsible for Sirius's death, so Ron, Hermione and Ginny reminded him in every letter they exchanged in the past weeks. But when left alone for hours on end Harry's mind replayed that torturous night over and over in his brain to the point where he feared he might go mad. Yes, he blamed himself, despite what the others said, and how could he not? It was because of him that Sirius left the safety of Grimmauld Place that night. If he hadn't tried to play the hero none of it would have happened. Sirius would still be alive.
And so the inner torture continued, driving Harry insane in the process. But just when he thought he couldn't stand a minute more of his solitude and guilt he received word from Ron that the Weasley's were coming for him. He had his trunk packed and Hedwig's cage set for travel minutes after receiving the owl and had passed the next few unbearable hours by pacing the length of his room. He had never been so glad to see the Weasley family in his life. They had his trunk stored in the boot of the Ministry car within minutes and were quickly on their way to the Number 12. Ironically enough, it wasn't until he arrived at Grimmauld Place that he realized that for perhaps the first time in his life he wished he were back at Privet Drive.
From the moment he stepped in the old and just slightly less musty smelling house, he could feel the air crackling with uncomfortable tension. According to Ginny the mood had been heavy at Grimmauld Place since Hermione had joined the Weaselys there three weeks after school ended. She and Ron, who seemed to have abandoned their rows the previous year, reinstituted them with an alarming vengeance. It seemed all that was needed for a row to ensue was for one of the two to enter a room where the other was already residing. Within minutes the two were at it and the other occupants of the house were ducking for cover.
When Harry had joined them four weeks before school was to begin he had at first welcomed the arguing. The constant bickering stopped him from focusing on Sirius's death. However the squabbling that had been over small things, like Ron's dislike for Kreature or Hermione's insistence that they all finish their homework before the summer was over, had digressed to a full out name calling war.
Harry kept his head ducked down as he stared at his eggs that had gone quiet cold while he pushed them uncomfortably around his plate with his fork. Like the others in the room he had lost his appetite quickly at the first sounds of Ron and Hermione's latest fight. They had started early this morning and the sounds of their angry shouts had grown with intensity as the minutes passed. From the tone of their voices, which were easily identifiable, though their owners were tucked away somewhere on the first floor, it sounded as if this battle would be one of their worst thus far. Harry couldn't make out distinct words, but by the tenor of their voices and the intensity of their disagreement Harry knew from experience that they had both dug in their heels for a long fight and neither would give in.
It wasn't until the first insult was thrown that the four people gathered in the kitchen could clearly here what the two teenagers were saying.
"Know-it-all!" Came Ron's infuriated voice.
There was a slight pause where Harry could clearly picture Hermione's face growing red. "Obtuse, Lazy, Prat!"
"Brown Nosed Teachers Pet!"
"Weasel!" She taunted back tight lipped with fury.
"Beaver!" He screamed in retaliation.
A shrill, indignant screech was followed by "Pauper!"
Harry and Ginny were instantly at their feet scampering for the door. They both knew they had let things digress too far. Harry scrunched up his brown in prayer that they would reach the two before anything to damning could be said. They were about to push open the heavy panel when the final insult was flung out.
The moment the word escaped his lips Ron wished he could snatch it back. Hermione flinched away from him as if he had physically struck her. Instantly her posture waned, shoulders sagging and chin dropping to her chest. The fight had gone completely out of her. Her chocolate brown eyes filled, glistening with the sheen of unshed tears.
Ron felt a plummeting sensation in his heart. Reaching a pleading hand towards her he tried to apologize but she would have none of it. Whirling around she fled the room leaving Ron to stare after her with a guilt heavy heart.
Hermione burst into the kitchen moments later with tears streaming heavily down her paled face. "Harry." She caught sight of her friend and flung herself into his arms, burying her head in his shoulder.
"Shhh." He tried to sooth, tightening his arms around her. "He didn't mean it. You know he didn't."
"He…h…h…he did." She sobbed brokenly, "Or he wo…wouldn't h…have said it."
Hermione wrenched herself away from Harry simultaneously cutting him off and turned to Mrs. Weasley who was standing at the counter a stunned look still on her face. "Mrs. Weasley, I want to go home."
Snapping out of her stunned immobility, Molly set the pan of now over cooked eggs on the counter. She strode purposefully towards Hermione while she wiped her hands on her apron. "Hermione, dear," her voice was soft and soothing ,like she was speaking to a distraught child, "I understand. I really do. Why Arthur and I…" She faltered when she caught sight of Hermione's eyes. There was a wealth of pain and utter humiliation in the young girl's eyes. "I'm afraid that it's not possible."
Hermione sank despondently onto the nearest bench, her shoulders shaking violently with racking sobs. Molly crouched in front of the slight girl, taking her hands comfortingly in her own. "It's not safe for you to go home, dear." She cupped Hermione's cheek tenderly, her own heart breaking for the young girl.
"Mrs. Weasley, please."
Molly shook her head regretfully. "I can't dear. It's simply not safe." Hermione covered her face with her hands, attempting to hide the horrifying sight of her tears. And Molly's heart clenched a little tighter. "But I will talk to Albus." She promised, not knowing what else to say. She ran her fingers comfortingly through the young girls hair like she had done with her own children many times before. "We'll see what he can do, all right?" She squeezed Hermione's shaking hand when she didn't answer. "Is that all right, dear?"
Hermione nodded absently as she struggled to staunch the heavy flow of her tears. "I…if y…you'll ex…excuse me?"
She jumped to her feet and raced from the room leaving Molly, Arthur and Ginny to stare stricken after her.
"I'll go find her." Harry murmured before he too left the eerily quiet kitchen.
Molly sank slowly onto the bench closest to her husband and blindly groped for his hand. Her face was a mask of shock and horror. "I can not believe my son said that."
"Molly…" Mr. Weasley began tentatively, his voice quivering slightly. He was in a state of semi shock. Out of all of his children, Ron was the last one he expected to behave like this.
"Arthur." Molly cried, her fingers tightening painfully around his. "I don't understand. We raised him better then this. We've never used foul words like that in or home. Mudblood, Halfblood, Pureblood. It's disgusting." She spat. "You mark my word it's terminology like that that let You-Know-Who gain power in the first place."
"I know that, mum." Molly, Arthur and Ginny abruptly turned to face Ron standing in the portal of the swinging door. None of them had heard him come in. "I don't know why I said it." He lifted his head, which had been hanging so low it nearly touched his chest, to meet his parents with pleading eyes. "You know I don't think that way. I mean, I was the one who always tried and stop Malfoy from calling her that and stood up for her. It's just… mum, she called me a weasel and a pauper. The only person who ever does that is Draco Malfoy."
"That is not an excuse." Molly raged, rising angrily to her feet, dropping her husbands hand. "Hermione Granger is one of your best friends." She shouted, her face turning red with anger and shame.
"I know that!" He hollered back, pounding his fist painfully against the hard wood of the frame. "I know that." He reiterated, his voice quivering with emotion. "I'm sorry. You have no idea how sorry."
Molly looked pointedly at her youngest son. "I'm not the one you should be apologizing to."
In the top most reaches of the old house, tucked away in the far back corner of the attic, Harry and Hermione sat huddled together. Harry had his arms wrapped tight around Hermione in a comforting, brotherly hug. Hermione had her face pressed into his shoulder as she sobbed out her pain. Knowing that he just needed to give Hermione time and let her cry out her tears, he simply held her and rocked gently back and forth in a soothing motion. He knew there was no point reasoning with her until she calmed down and allowed herself to think rationally.
After fifteen minutes had passed Hermione pulled away and rubbed roughly at her puffy eyes. "I'm sorry Harry. I just…"
"Don't even think on it, Hermione." He pulled her to him again and rested his head on top of hers. "Do you feel any better?" She nodded slightly. He waited a few more minutes before asking. "Are you really going to leave?"
Hermione pulled herself away from Harry, her body language that of a person who had had the fight taken out of her. "I have to, Harry. I can't stay here. Not anymore. Not after…" She pressed her eyes into the pads of her hands. "We've been fighting all summer, Harry, and it's just getting worse. God," she turned away from his wrapping her arms tight around her knees, "I never dreamed he thought that about me."
"He doesn't." Harry insisted, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"Then why did he say it?" She snapped, whirling around to glare at Harry. "He's a hypocrite. That's what he is." Her voice rose as her hurt began to diminish, replaced by a deep set anger. "All this time he's pretended to be my friend. He let us believe that he cares about equality for all witches and wizards when really…he just sees me as a Mudblood." She spat out the word as if merely saying it caused bile to gather in her mouth. "I even began to think…well," she turned away and resumed her hold on her knees, "it doesn't matter anymore what I thought." She sniffed despondently into her knees. "I should have known he didn't care about equality. You know how he feels about house elf slavery."
"Hermione," Harry tried tentatively, years of being her friend taught him that it was impossible to change her mind once she had made it up, "will you please talk to him before you go."
"Why should I?" She tilted her chin up in an all too familiar pose.
"Because," Harry said simply, "he's one of your best friends."
"Correction. He was one of my best friends." Hermione tossed her hair defiantly over her shoulder. "If I never saw him again it would be too soon."
Ron sat on the last step just inside the door at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the attic, body hunched over his legs, fingers thrust into the rich locks of his hair as he listened to every word spoken between the two friends, hating himself more and more as the seconds past. But with the last his heart gave a great lurch and he bound to his feet and bid a hasty retreat. He couldn't stand to listen to anymore. It felt as though his heart was breaking into a million pieces inside his chest. Out of all the stupid, mindless things he had done in his life, this topped them all. His family was ashamed of him, Hermione hated him and Harry was meagerly defending him.
"Ron." He cringed at the sound of Ginny's voice. Even his baby sister sounded like she would rather not speak to him. "Dumbledore's here. Where's Hermione?"
Ron numbly jabbed his thumb over his shoulder indicating the stairwell he had just exited. "In the attic. With Harry." He continued his solemn walk down the hallway his head hanging low and his shoulders hunched about his ears.
Seeing the look of absolute devastation on her brother's face she felt a lurch of sympathy for him in her heart. "Ron." Ginny called after him, stopping him with the genuine concern in her voice. "She'll forgive you. Just give her time."
"Yeah." He murmured, shrugging his shoulders, not really believing her. "Sure." And he continued to trudge along the corridor lost in his own guilt and shame.
Shaking her head sadly Ginny mounted the steps to the attic and found Harry once again holding Hermione protectively in his arms. "Harry. Hermione." The two looked up at her questioningly. "Dumbledore's arrived." She nodded at Hermione. "He wants to speak with you."
Harry let go of Hermione so that he could rise to his feet. He quickly brushed the dirt from his trousers before he reached down to offer Hermione a hand up. When she was on her feet and had composed herself he put his arms around her shoulder once again. Ginny took the place on Hermione's other side and slipped her arm through hers.
Harry glanced at Ginny over Hermione's head. Ginny gave a slight nod. They were in agreement. They would take care of Hermione first and Ron later.
"Miss Granger," the old wizard sighed heavily. "I fear leaving Grimmauld Place right now is out of the question. You are at much too high a risk of being attacked."
"I don't care. Anything would be better then this." Hermione caught her head in her hands. "All we do is fight, sir. And it's getting worse." She shook her head sadly. "I can't take it anymore. Living like this isn't good for me or Ron and mostly not for Harry."
"Leave me out of this." Harry murmured from the next couch over.
Hermione continued as if Harry hadn't spoken. "And he…"
Dumbledore held up a long hand to halt her. "I'm aware of what he called you, Miss Granger. I must say I am quiet surprise. I don't know what he could have been thinking." Dumbledore's eyes, which normally twinkled with an inner light, seemed sad and defeated today. "But the fact of the matter is returning home is not an option. The only place with nearly enough security is Hogwarts…"
"I'll go." Hermione jumped in immediately, cutting him off. "I'll go right now." She rose impatiently to her feet.
"Miss Granger, I didn't mean…" Dumbledore sighed heavily seeing the look of determination in the young witch's eye. She was bound and determined to leave and whether that was to return to her home in London or find accommodations elsewhere, nothing was going to stop her. "You do understand that besides myself and a few teachers, you would be quiet alone."
"I don't mind." She assured him immediately talking a hasty step forward. "Professor? Do you think I might have access to the library?" Her eyes glimmered with a faint hint of excitement at the prospect of having the entire Hogwarts library to herself.
The old wizard looked down at her, his lips twitching at the corners despite himself. "Of course you would be allowed access to the library." Dumbledore stared down at her intently a moment before his brow arched slightly. "Are you sure you don't wish to spend the remainder of your summer with your friends?"
Hermione looked over at Harry and Ginny, pleading them to understand. Almost hesitantly they nodded, Ginny first followed shortly after by Harry. She turned back to the old wizard and nodded her head once assertively. "I can always keep in touch with them by owl."
Sighing with defeat Dumbledore rose from the seat he was sitting in. "All right then, Miss Granger. Go collect your belongings." Hermione stopped long enough to smile her gratitude before she fled the room. Turning slowly to face the other two teenagers in the room, Dumbledore addressed Ginny first. "Miss Weasley, would you mind helping Miss Granger as I have a private word with Harry?"
"Of course not, sir." Ginny assured before she scurried after Hermione.
"Molly, Arthur." Wordlessly the two adults nodded and left the room giving Harry and Dumbledore privacy to talk.
Hermione had made quick work of packing her trunk. Most of her belongings were already stored inside. She was just placing her favorite book safely in her trunk when Ron stepped hesitantly into the room. He watched her a moment before he called her name softly. She stiffened immediately at the sound of his voice. "Don't turn around." He bade when she started to turn and face him. "I know you don't want to see me and I…" She heard his heavy sigh and she closed her eyes as her heart clenched slightly at the sound of it. "I know you're leaving and I… I just wanted to say how sorry I am before you left. You have no idea how much I regret loosing my temper. I just…I'm sorry."
Hermione waited calmly for him to continue but when no further words came she spun around. She wanted to give him a piece of her mind before she left, only when she turned it was to find that the doorway was empty. She rushed to it and poked her head into the hallway and turned it both ways looking for a sign of him but he was gone. He must have run like hell was nipping at his heels she decided. Coward. She thought angrily to her self as she turned back to the room. She watched as Ginny avoiding her eyes, slowly folded her last jumper and placed it neatly at the top of the pile in her trunk.
"Thank you, Ginny." Hermione strode assertively forward and lowered the lid so she could sit on top of it while Ginny latched it shut for her. When the lid was secure Hermione scampered off and pulled her robes off the end of the bed, slipping them quickly around her shoulders.
Ginny stood wordlessly of to the side and watched her friend with intent eyes. Growing more awkward under friends silent stare Hermione finally spun to face her. "What?" She demanded irritatedly.
"I don't think you should go." Ginny blurted out hastily.
"What? Of course I should."
Ginny sighed and sat down with a flop on the foot of her bed. "No Hermione, I don't think you should. I think you should stay and fix what ever is wrong between you and my brother."
Hermione sighed heavily. "Ginny. I'll see him in three weeks. We can fix it then."
The redhead pursed her lips angrily. "What if you don't see him in three weeks?" She rose angrily to her feet, her hands finding their way to her hips, perfecting a hostile pose. "What if something happens to one of you?"
"Nothing's going to happen."
"It could." The younger girl insisted emotionally. "Voldemort's back. Remember? Any one of us could die at any moment. It's only a mater of time until he attacks."
"Ginny," Hermione snapped. "Stop it. You're trying to guilt me into staying and it's not going to work." She turned to face her friend, her eyes misty with tears "You know why I can't stay." She looked away. "It's too hard."
Ginny lowered her eyes a moment as she fought an internal debate. "Why don't you tell him?" she asked hesitantly.
Hermione laughed with disbelief. "You're joking right? I should go tell him now? Now after he's called me a Mudblood? That's a smashing idea. Why didn't I think of it? Let me hop to it."
"Don't get short with me. I'm not the one who called you that. I don't know why he said that. But it's Ron, he says stupid things. You know that. Hermione," Ginny walked forward and placed a hand on her friends arm. "I know he regrets it."
Hermione turned away so that Ginny wouldn't see the emotions playing across her face. "Then he shouldn't…"
"have said it. I know." Her hand dropped away. "He shouldn't have. But you wouldn't be so hard on him if you saw his face when he left the attic."
Hermione's face scrunched in confusion "Ron wasn't in the attic."
"Yes," Ginny nodded. "He was. I saw him leave when I came to get you when Dumbledore arrived."
Hermione's heart twinged in her chest when she realized Ron must have heard everything she had said to Harry. But after a moment of feeling guilty she shook away her remorse reminding herself that she didn't want a friend who used words like Mudblood.
"I'm not ready to forgive him, Ginny." She shook her head sadly. "I don't know if I ever will be."
"Miss Granger," Dumbledore's voice called from the hallway. His familiar face appeared in the doorframe. "Are you ready to leave?"
Hermione gave her bushy head a firm nod. "Yes, Headmaster." She took hold of the handle to her trunk to drag it down the stairs but Dumbledore held up an impeding hand.
"Why don't I get that for you?" As soon as Hermione released the handle Dumbledore flicked his wand and the trunk shrunk down to pocket size. As soon as it ceased shrinking he summoned it and slipped it easily into his pocket. "Off we go then."
Hermione turned to Ginny and wrapped her in a lingering hug. "I'll see you in three weeks." She promised as she gave the young girl a final squeeze.
"Please try and forgive him." Ginny pleaded a she released Hermione. "For all of our sakes."
Ignoring Ginny's last request, Hermione turned back to the Headmaster. "Where's Harry?"
"He's waiting in the entrance hall with Molly and Arthur to say goodbye."
Hermione hurried down the stairs and flung her arms around Harry, hugging him tight. "Thank you, Harry."
"What are friends for." Harry squeezed her extra tight, holding her a bit longer when she first tried to pull away.
She laughed softly as she broke free of his hug, giving him a peculiar look when he finally let her go. "I'll see you in three weeks."
"Yeah." Harry patted her shoulder. "Three weeks."
Giving Harry a last puzzled look Hermione turned to say goodbye to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, thanking them for their kindness and hospitality which Molly immediately waved aside.
"Nonsense, dear." Molly wrapped the young girl in another tight embrace. "You know I think of you and Harry as one of my own." She patted Hermione's cheek affectionately. "You be a good girl and stay out of trouble."
"I will." Hermione promised giving the room one final heroic smile.
Ron watched through the crack in the sitting room door as Hermione turned without a backward glance and stepped out the front door. He was about to push the door closed when Dumbledore's head turned in his direction. Ron could see the regret and sympathy in the old man's eyes before he also turned and disappeared through the large portal.
Ron turned and leaned against the door forcing it closed with his weight. Slowly he sank to the floor, his back gliding against the heavy panel. When he reached the floor he let his head come to rest on his drawn up knees. Almost instantly his shoulders began to shake with silent tears.