If there was one constant in the universe, Harry thought, it was that the Common Room would always be full of people whenever you most wanted it to be quiet. Tonight was no exception, but Harry couldn't put it off. Wouldn't.
He looked around; every available seat seemed to be taken, and a few groups were sitting on the floor. The noise was mind-boggling. Dean and Seamus were singing – if you could call it that – loudly to a small audience, harmonizing what seemed to be a cross between "Loch Lomond" and "Where Did You Get That 'At?" Angelina and Alicia, robes slung up over their shoulders to make room for a pair of ridiculous conjured hoop skirts in shocking pink and aquamarine, were being asked to dance by a top-hatted Katie Bell doing her best impression of an Edwardian gentleman. Neville and Ginny were holding each other up, they were laughing so hard.
He brightened at the sight of them; Hermione was studying in an armchair, Ron curled up at her feet. For a moment he stopped, just staring at them, remembering what Sirius said in his letter, trying to deny the warmth he felt when he saw them together. When they were there, even in the direst situations, he felt safe, protected, as though nothing could harm him; or at the very least, that whoever wanted to kill him would have to try a little harder. They always protected him, like—He clamped down on any further thought.
Something wasn't quite right, though. Ron's colour was off, and he was drooping a bit, like a plant somebody had forgotten to water. He was holding his book in his left hand, and Harry knew for a fact that Ron wasn't left-handed. And the book Hermione was reading… Under cover of the noisy crowd, he moved closer until he could read the title: Simple Healing Charms for Beginners.
He felt a chill go through him, but couldn't think of a way to approach him, approach them. Given what he'd done to Ron,it was Hermione he was afraid would bite his head off; Ron was actually far more likely to forgive him. He tried to remember how Ron had patched it up after their falling-out during the Triwizard Tournament fiasco; he'd just gone into his tent and said hello, hadn't he? That seemed like as good an opening as any.
Here goes. He walked over and plopped down on the floor next to Ron. Ron looked at him once, bewildered, then turned his attention resolutely to whatever he was pretending to study.
I see him come and sit next to me, to us. Does this mean I'm forgiven? It can't be that simple, surely. Then again, maybe it is.
Hermione didn't move a muscle. She sat still as a statue – unnaturally so.
After three days of not talking to us, Harry comes and sits next to Ron at my feet. Well, I'm not settling for anything less than a proper apology.
"Hi," Harry hazarded, wondering whether Ron was going to clock him one.
"Hi," Ron answered. His tone was tentative, but he ventured a shy smile. Harry smiled too, and for a moment it was as though nothing had happened, and Harry was tempted to just let things pass, to ask Ron how Quidditch practice was going and whether he'd managed to produce those three feet of parchment for Flitwick. He opened his mouth to do so, knowing that Ron would go along, and it would be as if the whole fight had never happened. Thank goodness for friends like Ron, who didn't expect you to produce elaborate apologies and long-winded explanations, with whom you could just be yourself—
"I'd say I was sorry, and try to make amends."
"I'm sorry," Harry blurted.
"What? I'm the one who sh—"
But whatever Ron might have been about to say was lost in Hermione's tirade. "And well you should be!" Hermione slammed her book shut with a snap. In deference to the people around them, she kept her voice low, but it had an undertone of sharpness. "Harry, you've got to control that temper of yours…"
Harry looked guilty while Ron tried to remonstrate. "Hermione, give it a—"
"You know perfectly well we were just trying to help! You were just plain unfair, not to mention violent. I found him in the Room of Requirement, practically a wreck! Did you know you broke his wrist?"
Harry's blood chilled. "What?" He'd broken a bone for Ron?
"Shut it, Hermione!" Ron muttered urgently.
"I will not. It's high time Harry faced the consequences of his actions. He wouldn't tell me, but I noticed when Ron couldn't use his hand at all the next day…"
Ron must have seen Harry's stricken expression, because he turned to Harry and started talking very quickly. "It was just a hairline fracture, mate, nothing to worry about. Contact with Dark objects sometimes does that, stresses the bone, or the—"
"Go on," Harry said to Hermione, cold all over.
"I finally got the story out of him at breakfast – it was like pulling teeth – and then I tried to get him to go to Madam Pomfrey, but he was so intent on keeping your secrets that he wouldn't. So I skived off History of Magic and went to the library…"
"Answer to everything," Ron grinned. "If You-Know-Who ever attacked Hogwarts, Hermione'd probably run off to the library. 'The antidote for Dark Lords has got to be in here somewhere!'"
It was not one of his better efforts, and he wilted under Hermione's blazing stare. After cowing him into silence, she went on, "I found a few charms, and then had a try at healing the bone myself." She impaled Harry with a piercing stare. "It's a good job I managed it, or else I swear it'd have been your fault if he'd suffered permanent damage…"
"How is it now?" Harry turned to Ron urgently, his gaze encompassing Hermione.
"All right," Ron said shortly, avoiding Harry's eyes, keeping his right hand behind his back.
"No thanks to your temper, Harry. Honestly, you really have to…"
"Oh, give it a rest, Hermione," Ron cut in, then turned to Harry. "Harry, I'm sorry, I'm the one who should be sorry, you told us how you hate to be left out, and I just went and blundered all over—"
"Shut it, Ron!" Harry couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You meant well, and I..."
Ron cut in. "Yeah, but I didn't mean to make you feel left out or alone, or make you angry or whatever," Ron seemed unable to stop now. "And I know you want to be told the truth, but you'd never have let me do it if I had told you, would you? And I just couldn't take any more. I mean, I really was afraid she'd do something that would be permanent, and every day you looked worse than the last, and now I know what it feels li—" He broke off, and snaked his hand further behind his back.
"Ron. Shut. Up." He wanted to reach out and snatch Ron's hand to him, force him to show him the injury, but he knew he had no right. "Look, you went to Umbridge instead of me, you took my punishment and got carved up instead of me, and you're sorry?" Harry snapped. "You've got nothing to be sorry about. Just shut up, all right?"
"All right." There was a trace of hope in the voice. Hearing it, Harry ploughed on, trying to get it all said before he lost his nerve.
"I'm the one who shouted at you and shoved you, I'm the one who broke your wrist, I'm the one who didn't say so much as a thank-you. I'm the one who should be apologizing. Ron, I – I never meant it, any of it." He saw Ron relax. "I didn't mean it, you know I'd never hurt you on purpose, don't you?"
Hermione sniffed, but Ron said, "'Course," and gave Harry a tentative grin, forgiving him so completely it broke his heart. "Remember what you said during the First Task, when I was being such a git?" he smiled. "You said, "It's all right, I don't want to hear it." We're blokes, we don't waste time with sorries and all that, right?"
"Right," Harry forced himself to smile, and extended his hand. "Now can I have a look?" he asked. "Please?"
A slow, friendly smile spread over Ron's features; it warmed Harry's heart. The amiable blue eyes met his, with a trace of impishness. "Show you mine if you'll show me yours."
There was no room to protest – how dare he, after what Ron had done for him? – so he reluctantly held out his right hand for inspection. His friend took it in his left, and Harry mirrored the gesture as Ron apprehensively did the same.
Harry winced at the sight.
His own hand was healing even better than a few days ago; the swelling was gone, and all that was left were the raised purple scars, fast settling into something more permanent but less colourful. It hardly even hurt any more. But Ron's hand was still inflamed and tender; the cuts on the back were gaping in one or two places, as though—as though blood had been forced out of them explosively by an impact. Harry swallowed. As he turned it over, he felt Ron flinch, and he started; theswollen flesh was obviously still painful to the touch. The palm, too, was scraped raw, no doubt a result of breaking the fall against the flagstone. "Sorry."
"'S all right," Ron said gamely. Trying to be gentle, looking at the damage which he had caused, Harry was disgusted with himself. The wrist Hermione had healed seemed intact, but there was a telltale band of bruising encircling it, like a painful fetter.
How did I come to this? Harry thought. Before he'd ever even heard of Hogwarts, years of 'Harry-hunting' had made him vow that he would never, ever be a bully - and he'd picked a fine time to start. Ron didn't even make a move towards me, and I hit him anyway. And it wasn't even the first time, he thought miserably – I chucked something at Ron during that stupid row over the Goblet, and it cut his forehead open, but he didn't even fight back, he just stood there and took it.
"Why don't you ever hit me back?" he blurted. Of all the things he wanted to say, this was definitely not on his list, but…
Ron stared at him, and to Harry's astonishment, he laughed. "Because I don't want to, you great git."
"Yeah, but you should. I'm so awful to you…."
"Oh, no, Harry, don't say that. You're awful to everyone, not just me." Ron's face was full of fiendish glee.
"Shut up, you great prat," Harry smiled half-heartedly. "No, I'm serious, Ron. Why don't you ever hit me back?"
Ron looked helplessly at Hermione. "I think I liked it better when he wasn't talking to us, at least then he wasn't asking impossible questions! How the hell should I know, Harry? I could no more hit you than I could hit Ginny back – you've seen her fly at me a few times, right? She knew she could get away with it because her big brother would never lay a fing…"
Harry stared at him open-mouthed, and Ron's ears turned red as he realized what he was implying. "'Sides," he added hurriedly, "it's not fair to hit a midget in glasses, is it."
Harry laughed explosively and pushed him in the shoulder, very, very gently.
Above them, Hermione snorted.
"What?" said Ron.
Harry looked up at her. "Hermione, I really am sorry I acted like such a prat. I just… I couldn't help it, there's no excuse, all right?" She looked at him mildly, expectantly, and he felt compelled to go on to satisfy that demanding gaze. "Um, I know you were doing it to protect me and I should have thanked you instead of being stupid…"
She closed the book in her lap, abandoning all pretense of reading. "You don't get it at all, do you?" she asked, mildly. "Harry, why did I help Ron make the potion?"
"Um." He felt as if she was quizzing him the night before a test, and had an irrational fear of failing. "Because he couldn't make it by himself."
She was looking at him as though he were a particularly stupid species of Flobberworm. "I'll accept that. And why did he want to take the potion?"
"…um… because he wanted to pass for me in detention."
"What for?" she asked in her I'll-keep-at-it-no-matter-how-stupid-you-are voice.
"Hermione, can't we just forget it?" Ron exclaimed. "It's turned out all right, and—"
"No," she retorted in a tone that brooked no argument. "Well, Harry?"
Harry knew the answer, well, sort of, as close as he could guess, but he didn't really want to admit it, not out loud. He settled for a half-truth. "Because …he didn't want me to get hurt any more."
Ron was looking away now, his face flaming. "Very good," Hermione said approvingly. "Why not?"
Harry fell silent, because this was something he could feel in his bones, but to say it out loud would be… He couldn't. Ron was resolutely watching the antics of Alisheena and Shalicia – that should be, Angelicia and Alina – er, Angelina and Alicia – calm, stay CALM -
She huffed exasperatedly. "Why do both of us not want you to get hurt any more, Harry?"
This was easier. "B-because we're friends."
She leant down towards them. "And we care what happens to each other. Don't we?"
Harry nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
"Ron?" She poked him in the shoulder. "Don't we?"
"Yeah," he muttered, staring at the laughing crowd at the end of the Common Room. Harry followed his gaze. Angelina and Alicia had Banished the hoop skirts; now they'd hoisted Neville onto their shoulders and were proclaiming him "Most Eligible Bachelor of the Year!" Katie had tried to charm a picture on the cover of Witch Weekly to look like him, but had only succeeded in adding horns to the man in the photograph, whose stream of invective had added to the din. Swaying on their shoulders, Neville looked slightly seasick; his face was redder than Ron's, well on the way to purple.
"Ron," Hermione prodded gently. "Why did you do it?"
He tore his eyes off the spectacle. "Oh, give it a rest, Hermione."
Harry felt a guilty pleasure that Ron seemed to have replaced him in the hot seat for Hermione's oral exam, and pretended to be interested in the other Gryffindors. Ginny and a girl Harry knew vaguely as Demelza were playing lovestruck groupies now, shrieking and weeping dramatically and falling at Neville's feet, while three girls in Ginny's year were striking mock-seductive poses, vying for the attention of the 'eligible bachelor'. Neville's face was still scarlet, but he was laughing now and playing along. He raised an eyebrow and twirled an imaginary moustache, pretending to choose between the girls.
Hermione slipped off the chair to sit on Ron's other side, and gave him a look that would melt steel. "Why, Ron?" she said relentlessly.
"Oh, good one, Gin-Gin!" Ron pointed to the Gryffindor merriment with the air of one hurriedly changing the subject. "Look at that, will you?" Ginny had stopped weeping and wailing just long enough to pull out her wand and give Neville a long, shiny handlebar moustache, which he resumed twirling with renewed vigour.
"Ron!" Hermione snapped.
Ron made an impatient gesture, obviously at the end of his tether. "He'd been at it non-stop for three weeks, hadn't he!" he burst out. "Could you just give it a bloody rest, Hermione!"
"No, I couldn't!" Hermione snapped at Ron. "I can't give it a rest until Harry understands how much we love him!"
Harry and Ron turned to look at her as though she'd grown a third eye.
"Oh, honestly!" Hermione was undaunted. "Boys, you're impossible. Love, love, love! The word doesn't bite. Harry," - he started guiltily - "don't you see? Ron's so fond of you that he willingly let his hand be cut up so yours wouldn't have to! I'm so fond of you that I willingly made an illegal potion that could have got me expelled!"
He didn't need her telling him he didn't deserve it. "Well, maybe I'm not worth it!" Harry snapped, his face burning now.
"Don't be stupid," Ron finds his voice, "'course you are."
Hermione's eyes blazed. "That's not the point. You're worth it to me, and you're worth it to Ron, and that's what matters. You can't just act as if you're all alone any more." She had never sounded more earnest. "Whatever you get into, we're in it with you. So when you hurt yourself, you're hurting us." She turned to Ron. "He's got to understand that!" Ron's silence appeared to infuriate her. "Look, Ron, I know you've been to Egypt, but this is no time for an impression of the Sphinx!"
Ron sniggered. "Good one, Hermione." His eyes flickered to Harry. "You know, she's right."
"But I never wanted you to get hurt on my acc—"
"Harry, did you honestly think Ron – or I – would ever be able to stand by and watch you being hurt without doing something about it?" Hermione started in again. "Remember third year? The Shrieking Shack? Remember Ron saying that anyone who wanted to kill you would only do it over our dead bodies? Any of that ring a bell?" Her eyes locked onto him, seriously.
'Over our dead bodies'…
Please, no, not Harry.
Stand aside, silly girl.
A stunned silence followed, broken only by the Gryffindors' shouts of jollity. Count Longbottom was apparently having trouble selecting a bride. "I never wanted her to," Harry whispered, "I never wanted her to die because of—"
"Oh stop whining," Hermione said in a rush. "It's not because of you, it's because we love you. We'd rather get hurt than see you hurt, silly. We'd rather die than see you get killed."
"Hang on a mo," Ron interrupted. "Who's 'she', Harry?"'We'd rather die…'
"AVADA KEDAVRA!" High, cold laughter. Harry shook his head to clear it.
Ron turned to him, eyes wide, but his words were directed at Hermione. "His Mum!" he exclaimed.
Hermione's jaw dropped. "I see…"
He gripped Harry's forearm with his good hand, trying to shake him out of his glazed stupor. "Harry, I get it now," he said. "Your Mum…"
"Look, she died for me and I didn't ask her to, it was brilliant and brave and everything, all right," the torrent of words burst out of him and he couldn't stop them to save his life, "and Dad died to protect me and it was wonderful and brave, but that's enough! I don't want anyone else jumping in to protect me, thank you very much! I don't need any more deaths on my conscience! Mum, and Dad, and Cedric…"
Ron stared at him, flabbergasted.
"Harry…" Hermione said carefully. "You're not blaming yourself, are you?"
"No," Harry said. "But I'd rather take my chances from now on."
"Take your chances?" Ron looked at him like an interesting exhibit.
"Yes," Harry said. "I prefer only having myself to worry about."
"So you don't worry about us, then?" Hermione said mildly.
"Well, of course I do," Harry retorted, "but I don't want anyone protecting me!"
"Tough." Ron, who had been growing redder and redder as he listened to the exchange. "Harry, you went into the Chamber to protect Ginny. You'd save me if I was in danger, wouldn't you?"
"Well, of course I…"
"You'd protect Hermione? And Sirius? Even if it meant risking your life?"
"What kind of question is.."
"Well, it's a two-way Portkey, innit?" Ron snapped. "People you'd give your life for are generally people who'd give their lives for you. That's just the way it is."
"But I don't want you to get killed because of m—"
"Of course you don't." Hermione snapped, "but it doesn't make any difference. We won't stand by when you're in danger any more than you would if we were. If it's any consolation, we don't want to get killed either, but that's neither here nor there. Whether you like it or not, you're not going to be left to your own devices any more. It's not just you any more, it's us. Whatever happens." She seemed to calm down now that she'd said her piece, and smiled slightly. "Just accept it, why can't you?"
This time, Harry could find no answer. He sat there with his mouth open. His senses seemed heightened, and he was acutely aware of Ron's shoulder warm against his own, Hermione's knee against his head, the noises in the common room, and Ron's damaged hand, which had suffered pain for his sake, still lying in his lap. "I'm - I'm just not used to it," he confessed finally, "but I could try."
"Good... Oh, no!" Hermione looked to where Lee Jordan had tried to make the 'wedding' proceedings more realistic by Transfiguring himself to resemble a Rite-Performing Wizard, and had given himself a third eye. Ginny was trying to remove it now, to no avail, and as they watched, Neville made an attempt and set Lee's hair on fire.
Hermione leapt up from her place on the floor. "Aguamenti!" she yelled, and a stream of water shot out of her wand, putting Jordan's hair out.
"Oh, Hermione, thank goodness, help us get rid of this stupid eye…" someone said.
"Yeah, we can't go to Pomfrey with this, she'll kill us…"
With a long-suffering sigh, she walked over to try and undo the spell.
"Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'flaming hair', didn't it?" Ron deadpanned.
"Yeah, and I thought your family was bad…" Harry grinned. They watched Hermione interrogate Lee as a knot of Gryffindors formed around her.
When she had completely disappeared from view in the huddle, Ron exhaled gustily and leant back against the chair. He draped his arm across the vacant seat cushion so that it lay warmly against the back ofHarry's shoulders. "You know, I grew up with five older brothers," he said, "and when Mum was having Ginny I thought, great, a chance to be somebody's elder brother for once. I swore I wouldn't be like the twins, I'd show him the ropes and we'd be more like mates than brothers, and, you know, I'd look out for him and watch over him like Bill and Charlie always did for the rest of us, and protect him," he sighed, not heavily, and smiled, remembering, "and wouldn't you know it, it was a girl. Don't get me wrong, Ginny's smashing and all, but it means I never did get the chance to have a little brother…" his voice became almost inaudible as he mumbled something that could be, "until now." Or possibly "Pass the mustard," Harry thought. One of those, anyway.
He was probably imagining the tightening of Ron's arm round his shoulders, too.
A cheer went up from the assembled Gryffindors and Lee emerged from the knot of people, his face normal once more. Even his hair was unharmed.
Hermione stalked back to Ron and Harry without a backward glance. "I can't really stand to be around anyone but the DA now," she sat down on Ron's other side again, "at least until the rest of them come to their senses."
She leant back against the chair, silent for once, and it gave Harry the courage to say something, anything, to let these two know how much they meant to him; Heaven knew he'd been more than outspoken about everything he didn't like…
"Remember when I told you about the Dementors at Privet Drive?"
"Don't remind me," Hermione shuddered. Harry felt Ron pull him closer, and rub his hand against his shoulder as though to reassure himself that Harry was still there.
"Well, there's something I left out," Harry said, "nothing serious," he added hurriedly as both their heads snapped round to look apprehensively at him. "You know I cast a Patronus, but you didn't ask what my happy thought was."
"No, we didn't," said Hermione.
"We thought…" the tips of Ron's ears started to turn scarlet. "Maybe, er, Cho." He grinned and wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"It was like this." As Harry spoke, he was once again back in the dark and slimy Hell that had been Privet Drive that night. "The Dementors had me and Dudley surrounded. I couldn't think of a single happy thought. I tried to cast the Patronus a few times, but nothing came out." He burrowed into Ron's side, and Ron obliged by gripping him tightly. "I never told you how close they came, either. One of them…" He swallowed. "It got right up to my face. It was so cold and depressing, I kept trying to cast the Patronus, but I couldn't think of a happy thought to save my life."
"Literally," Ron joked nervously, while Hermione let out a little whimper.
"So how did you get away, Harry?" she asked.
"It was right on top of me and Dudley," Harry ignored the pounding of his heart, "and I thought, this is it. I'll never go back to Hogwarts, I'll never live to be seventeen, I'll never see Sirius or Dumbledore again…" He braced himself. "It opened its mouth to give me the Kiss. And I distinctly remember thinking "I'm never going to see Ron or Hermione again—"
Hermione cried out softly. Ron's arm was tense,wrapped so tightly around him now that it was as if he was trying to pull him right inside his body.
Harry took a shaky breath, drawing warmth from Ron's one-armed embrace. "The minute I thought of you two, it—it was like a door opening, and something rushing in – something warm. The Dementor was right in my face, but it was all right again, because suddenly, I had the strength to cast the Patronus Charm, yougavemethestrengthtocastit," he babbled self-consciously, "and, well, you know the rest. I–" He blurted it out before he could lose his nerve. "I thought you ought to know that - that youweremyhappythought."
Hermione turned shining eyes on him, tears spilling down her face. "Oh, Harry," she said. Then she lunged across Ron to envelop him in a hug. They fell, Harry blushing, Hermione sobbing, into Ron's lap.
"See, Hermione?" Ron's voice sounded from above them. "I always told you I was prettier than Cho!" Harry burst out laughing in spite of himself. Ron reached down to ruffle Harry's hair, and Harry was irresistibly reminded of the twins ruffling Ron's. Harry fidgeted so that he ended up lying on the carpet, head pillowed on Ron's bony knee. It was uncomfortable, but there was nowhere else he'd rather be. He looked up at Ron, noticing that his face was an interesting shade of vermillion.
There was so much more he wanted to say. He could say a hundred soppy things that would be not only embarrassing, but redundant. One thing, though, had to be said. "I've taken a lot of things out on you two this year," he said, staring at the leg of the sofa where Parvati and Padma were explaining the ancient magic of the fakirs to a girl with a quill in her hand and an inkblot on her cheek. "You never did anything to deserve it, any of it."
"Pure as the driven snow, that's us." The warmth in Ron's voice was palpable. "We know, idiot. Just please, don't shut us out, all right? Do let us help you, mate. Even if Hermione is a pain sometimes—"
"Excuse me!" Harry felt her head drop onto Ron's other knee. "Ow, your knees are bony."
"Well, so's your head, and you don't see me complaining."
"Oh, this is ridiculous." Harry felt, rather than saw, her fumble for her wand and cast a Cushioning Charm. All three of them sighed with relief. "Ah, that's better."
"She's useful," Ron said. "Reckon we should keep her around, right, Harry?"
"Well, I'll have to think about that…" Harry pretended to think about it, and was hit with a sofa cushion. He tossed it back in Hermione's general direction, and soon the three were involved in a free-for-all pillow fight.
Behind them, some of the Gyrffindors had launched into an impromptu rendering of "Happy Days Were Here Again."
As he rolled around on the floor with Ron and Hermione, Harry couldn't help thinking that whatever happened, it would be just a little bit better as long as he was with his friends.