I another part of the castle, Ron Weasley sat in front of Dumbledore's massive desk, feeling slightly uncomfortable despite the luxurious chair he had been asked to sit in. He kept his eyes averted from the old wizard who had been watching him for a few long minutes without saying a word.
Taking a couple of deep breaths, he tried to calm himself before gazing indifferently at the insane amount of books that lined the office, and the many knick-knacks he had never seen before. His gaze finally fell onto the Sorting hat that moved slightly from time to time.
Ron knew very well why he had been ordered her, and he knew that his behaviour had turned positively ghastly and unnecessarily cruel, but he could not seem to help himself. He had become a bully of the worst sort, but he made no move to apologise or even try to explain himself to anyone, knowing that what he had done was unforgivable. There was no way back into the triangle of friends, and he knew he deserved no less for his abominable acts.
Not caring about his one-man audience, he got up and walked over to the old leather hat that straightened when he approached.
Ron stretched onto his toes, despite being rather tall, and pulled the unresisting hat from the shelf. Behind him, he heard the Headmaster turn in his chair.
The next second, he pulled the ugly thing over his head and waited with baited breath.
"Weasley, you already have been sorted," the unmistakable voice of the hat greeted him, none of the enthusiasm left that it had portrayed at first being placed upon Ron's head in his first year.
"I know," Ron whispered. "Maybe you made the wrong choice?" he asked the hat, feeling only slightly foolish for conversing with the thing.
The hat stayed silent for a moment. "No, Mister Weasley. My choice was correct. You did have the makings of a great Gryffindor: Brave, loyal, a keen mind that rears its head when it really wants to…" It grunted, and when it spoke, its voice had taken on a saddened tone that spoke of regret.
"But these are not your only character traits, as you well know, and it's those that brought about your current state. You have let your insecurities get the better of you. You have let your jealousy guide you. Your stubbornness hinders you from making a step into the right direction, boy."
"I know," Ron interrupted, his voice cracking slightly. "I feel like a… like a Slytherin," he admitted, waiting for the hat's reply.
"Because I feel… devious, utterly evil and loathsome. Like Malfoy," Ron spat, hearing a tired sigh from the hat.
"Slytherins are not notoriously evil, boy," the hat snapped, and Ron felt his anger rise like an unstoppable tidal wave. "Ah, I can feel your hatred," the hat continued. "You don't even try to control it anymore, do you?"
"Why should I?" Ron spat. "What good comes of restraining myself? It doesn't bring me respect, it doesn't bring me joy. My anger is all that makes people take me seriously. If I'm just plain me, people don't even look at me twice!"
"You are actually too undisciplined to be a Slytherin," the hat said blandly, refusing to be drawn into a shouting match with a mere wizard. It was too old to be acting so infantile.
Ron didn't know whether or not that has been a compliment or not. He was breathing hard, the hat still pulled tightly over his head as he waited for his anger to abate.
"You had two perfectly good friends who would have stood by your side through every hardship. It was you who drove them away with your inability to put away your prejudices, and your utter lack of being able to put yourself into someone else's shoes. What's most important to you is yourself - your wishes, your desires… When someone doesn't adhere to your wishes, you hate them for it."
"I know," Ron said, not surprised to hear himself described that way. "But if I don't look out for myself, I don't exist," he said sadly. Before the hat could make a reply, Ron took it off his head, putting it back on its shelf.
He returned to the Headmaster's desk and took a seat again, waiting the old man out.
"What did you mean by 'If you don't look out for yourself, you don't exist'?" Albus asked the young man in front of him, feeling a sudden awareness of how lost he must be feeling, and how deep his problems really lay.
"Just that, sir. Not even my family really notices me when my siblings are around. I'm just Ron – not too bright, no real talents, not the most handsome, not striving for anything great…" He laughed mirthlessly, his youthful face lined with resignation.
Dumbledore frowned heavily, already knowing that it was partly the truth. Ron Weasley seemed to be just average. Just another average student to pass these halls. Just to say that everyone is special was a lie, and both knew that.
"There are very few people who are actually born special," Dumbledore began slowly, the words forming slowly in his mind. "There are always a select few, who seem to have a… special air about themselves. Those who aren't blessed with that, can live happy lives, though, Mr. Weasley. How do you think the majority of people on this planet, whether they're magic or Muggle, live their lives, knowing that they might just be average?"
Ron listened carefully, but his face didn't hold much hope of actually hearing something that might help him, or make him feel better.
Dumbledore hadn't waited for an answer, but kept on talking.
"They make the best of what they have!" he told the young wizard strongly, leaning forward in his chair. He saw Ron close his eyes, as he gave a tiny resigned sigh. "Ronald!" Albus said loudly, forcing his student to bring his attention back to him. "I cannot change how you feel. I can only try to tell you, that there's nothing wrong with being average. And even average people seem to have something they're good at. You, for example, have a fierce loyalty to your friends, if you don't let your darker side win over."
Now Ron scowled at the floor, hating to hear it out loud that he actually had a dark side. He wasn't just mean and callous, oh no. No matter what the hat said, he felt like a Slytherin, and he hated what he had turned into.
"Mr. Weasley, you are a good strategist, you are able to put other's before you…" He raised a hand to stop the younger man from interrupting. "Maybe not at the moment, but you have displayed those traits before, and you are able to bring that side out again. The question is: do you want to?"
Ron still had the same forlorn expression on his face that he held before, and he ran a tired hand over his youthful face, that held so much sorrow that it made Albus' heart ache.
"If it were possible, I'd erase the last few months, and simply go back to how everything was before I turned into the arse I'm now," he snorted softly, and shook his head. "But it isn't possible, so I'm stuck. I can't take anything back, and I'm sure I can't make amends."
He swallowed dryly, and felt tears gather in his eyes. "But somehow it doesn't feel right to even wish I could take everything back… It wouldn't erase how I truly felt, and it doesn't erase what had made me to what I'm now."
"And what would that be?" The Headmaster asked in a soft voice.
"You've heard what I told the hat, didn't you?"
Albus nodded, but Ron elaborated anyway, wanting to get off his chest what had bothered his for ages.
"Well, I don't want to sound ungrateful, and I feel bad just to think that way… But I h-hate my parents sometimes for not n-noticing me. I mean, they only seem to notice me when I've done something stupid. I know they've done the best they could, and that I have to share their attention and love, but mostly I feel that they love all their other children, but not me!"
His voice had gone thinner and weaker with each word spoken, and by the end he was sobbing softly, hiding his face behind his hands.
Just when he was about to wish to just lie in his bed and hide his misery from the world, he felt himself in a sudden embrace. His eyes flew open, and he turned his head to the side, only to find himself in the arms of his mother.
"Mum?" he croaked miserably.
"I'm so sorry, my love," she said softly, holding him tight, glad that he wasn't pushing her away. "We do love you!"
"Then why can't I feel it?" her distraught son whispered with such emotional agony in his voice, that his mother broke into tears.
Dumbledore watched quietly for a long while, until both parties had exhausted themselves.
"Take a seat, Molly," he said kindly, and gestured to a chair next to her son, who was wiping his face with his sleeve.
The woman sat rather ungracefully, quickly dabbing her face with a hanky. Then she looked at her son, who was leaning forward in his chair, his elbows resting on his thighs, staring at the floor again.
"How long have you been here?" he suddenly asked suddenly, his voice raspy after the prolonged crying. He didn't look at her, though.
"I was already here when you entered Albus' office," she admitted softly. When he only hummed in response, she spoke again. "I'm sorry you feel… unloved," she began, her voice almost failing her just speaking aloud about her obvious falling as a mother. "We really do love you, Ronald," she earnestly said to him, somehow too scared to stroke his cheek. "What makes you feel unloved?" she asked, hardly daring to hear the answer. She was afraid of having to admit that she must have done something wrong her sixth child.
Ron looked at her from the corner of his eyes, before glancing at the floor again.
"What is my favourite food?" he asked, instead of giving a straight answer.
"Why, a pork roast," Molly answered quickly. "Isn't it?" she asked, when she saw his lips turn upward in a humourless way.
"That's Bill's and Charlie's favourite. I actually love chicken and ham pie," he told her without any apparent anger.
"But you said it tastes good," she countered with a frown, as she tried to recall dinner times at the Burrow.
"Yes," Ron admitted. "I love most foods, mum," he admitted with a soft laugh, "and I like everything you cook, but even I have an absolute favourite."
Molly knew that wasn't the only problem, and she waited him out. She wasn't disappointed.
"Mum, when you write Ginny a letter, you enquire about her school work, her friends. You ask about her current love-interest, and at the end you always tell her to stay the good girl she is, and that you are proud of her.
But when you write me, you start off with admonishing me to keep out of trouble, to behave, to keep up with my school work. You don't believe in me being able to look after myself, and threaten me with dire consequences if I do anything wrong.
When you're done with belittling me, you ask about Harry. Whether he's happy, well fed, well rested, and how things are between him and Ginny! You never ask me about my love life, or anything. You hardly even ask how I actually am."
"But…" Molly began, but Ron wasn't done.
"Harry seems to be the son you wanted! Not me! He seems to be the one that needs your attention, your love, your constant supervision."
He was crying again, his vision swimming as he still kept his eyes on a spot on the floor.
"I've kept all the letters, reminding me again and again, that I'm no son you are proud of. Instead I get to hear what my big brothers are currently doing and how much you wish I'd somehow turn out like them. In one memorable letter you actually said: "I wish you'd apply yourself more to your schoolwork, because of you don't, you will not be anything special.""
Molly didn't even remember the letter or the words, but she knew he wouldn't make that up. She clapped her hands over her mouth, to stop herself from moaning desolately.
"I seem to be an errant mongrel, that was forced upon you. It's simply there, and you have arranged yourself with it's presence, and you've managed to only give it enough attention to keep it in line. You keep an eye on it, to make sure it doesn't dig up your rose bushes, but other than that, it's beneath your notice! It's more trouble than it's worth."
"Gods, no!" Molly's anguished cry rang through the room. "I… I…I do love you!" she said weakly, not knowing what else to say, and suddenly feeling as if her son's words had an actual truth to it.
Ron watched his mother's facial expression, and could see the moment she started doubting her own words and feelings for him. She seemed to actually be thinking about her behaviour towards him over the years. After a few long moments his mother raised guilty eyes meet his, and she clapped a hand over her mouth as her eyes welled up dangerously fast, while she shook her head repeatedly.
"Ronald, I'm so sorry," she wheezed out, her voice shaking with misery. "I don't know why, or when I started with… disparaging you so badly," finally admitting her grave mistakes. Her voice broke horribly, and gave her an intonation that Ron had never heard from her. She had always had such a strong, exasperated, bossy voice, so full of conviction. But this guilt and self-loathing was completely new.
"What have I done to you?" she asked rhetorically, stroking his cheek with a shaking thumb to rub a few tears away, surprised that he allowed her to touch him at all. She hated the numb and defeated look on her son's face, not able to remember when the typical Weasley-grin had faded into nonexistence. She, his own mother, had played a vital role on making his life miserable, and that was something she would never forgive herself. She couldn't put her regret and disgust with herself into words.
"You are my boy!" she croaked helplessly, wanting to pull him against her reassuringly, but not daring to. Images of his childhood raced past her inner eye, reminding her of happier days, when he had been a carefree and happy boy, where loving him had been the easiest thing in the world.
"Gods, forgive me!" she pleaded, feeling her heart break at the almost deadened expression on his face. Her remorse was too late…
Hermione's talk with Professor McGonagall had been quite nice, if a little stilted. Both women had tried to apologize at the same time, turning the whole talk into a remorse-filled, almost teary-eyed meeting. And the silences had been a tad embarrassing and uncomfortable.
It was unclear to Hermione if they had really got all their issues out of the way, but for the time-being their disagreements were buried, which seemed to be enough for both witches.
Instead of returning to the infirmary, Hermione made her way to the dungeons. Soon she was knocking on the door to Snape's quarters, and didn't have to wait long for him to open it.
Severus raised an eyebrow in enquiry, but she only gave him a soft smile before squeezing past him into his rooms.
He shook his head slightly with a tiny satisfied smirk on his lips, while he was once more confronted by the mixed feelings her presence always elicited. A feeling of contentedness, that was at the forefront. But there was always a gnawing feeling of unease that dampened his mood. Having a student here was not going be easier to bear anytime soon, he thought.
"You unfroze my owl then," he heard her say, and hummed in affirmation as he turned around. Her next words brought his ruminations to a sudden stop. "I'm glad Malfoy didn't hurt him."
With those telling words she sat down primly on his couch, and stretched out a hand to stroke her new owl, which had immediately toddled over to her.
His eyes snapped up to hers and he watched her with narrowed eyes, perusing her all too calm features for a long moment, before exhaling exasperatedly. She had lied to everyone.
"What do you remember?" Severus asked resignedly, and sighed deeply as he sat down next to her. Their thighs connected and without further prompting, he drew her into an one-armed hug that elicited a soft exhale out of her.
"Everything," she confessed. "Malfoy botched the Obliviate." She heard rather than saw Severus inhale sharply.
"What did he do?" Severus forced himself to ask.
"He didn't say much, really. Only asked me…" she paused to drag some air into her lungs. "He asked me to look up at him, and told me I was a good girl."
He could hear the confusion in her tone. "He didn't hurt you, then?" he asked gruffly, trying hard not to sound too soft and weak. Not because he felt less manly by showing concern, but he needed to be strong for her, he thought.
"Not really. But he… h-he… touched me and he…," she rushed out after a few stumbles, her voice dropping to an embarrassed whisper. "Oww," she told him, when he suddenly squeezed her shoulder rather tightly in reaction to her words.
"That little twerp," he hissed, finding it awfully difficult to loosen his tensed muscles.
"What else did he do?"
Hermione squirmed in discomfort at the memory. "He… It doesn't matter," she demurred, but Severus urged her to tell him.
"He sniffed me…" she said uncomfortably, but couldn't bring herself to tell him where.
Severus didn't need her to give any more details; he could very well imagine what Malfoy had sniffed. "I wish I could hex the bastard."
"I doubt Volde…, the Dark L…, Sir Hiss would be overly happy to have his followers fight over a Mudblood," she breathed, leaning her face against his shoulder. She was shivering, and touched his strong thigh to softly knead his flesh. The contact soothed her ruffled nerves.
"Sir what?" Severus asked with a disbelieving snort that seemed a little wrong in the situation, but he couldn't help himself.
"Well, I know that you always flinch when someone uses the V-word, and I can't bring myself to call him the Lord-Anything without feeling like one of his followers," she told him, sighing when his thumb ghosted over her neck.
"You can be extraordinarily weird," was all he came up with. Sir Hiss! Good God, if the Dark Lord should ever stumble over that moniker in his thoughts, he would surely be punished.
"What the hell did he want? I'm used to being hexed and taunted by him, but this… this was beyond weird," she said in growing puzzlement.
"I don't know," Severus said quietly, only to be pinched by her in his tummy. Hard. "What was that for?" he demanded.
"You forgot that I can tell when you lie," she said in a low voice that full of accusation.
He grumbled something under his breath that she didn't understand, and wasn't meant to. She did him the courtesy of not asking.
"I do know what it was all about, but please allow me to tell you another time," he pleaded.
"Is it that bad?"
"It is actually silly, and will not come to pass if Potter does what he was chosen to do, and kill the Dark Lord," he explained.
Hermione thought about that odd piece of information. "So it had something to do with me in a world that is ruled by… Sir Hiss," she clarified.
"Stop calling him that," Severus admonished her, feeling his lips twitch in amusement that he should definitely not feel. It was too dangerous. "But yes, that is the gist of it."
Hermione was trying her best to calm herself, which wasn't too hard with Severus by her side. She wasn't hurt, just freaked out by Malfoy's bizarre behaviour and the utterly helpless feelings he had conjured.
"What is it this year?" she muttered. "No one has ever wanted to touch me, and now I'm being accosted almost every other day by a male."
At her truly aggravated tone, Severus took the hint and tried to remove himself from her, being one of those males, in his estimation.
"Not you," she reassured him and pulled him closer again, wrapping an arms securely around his slender middle.
"Are you okay?" Severus asked softly.
Hermione nodded. "He just scared me. I'm glad you came, by the way," she said, and tightened her hold on him.
They simply sat like that for a long while, until Severus tried to lighten the mood by pointing out the forgotten present he had found in the corridor earlier.
Hermione untangled herself slowly from him, and blew her nose with a not so dainty "toot", which had Severus snort softly to himself, before Summoning the colourful wrapped item she saw on his coffee table.
"Who was it from?" he asked, a little revolted by the perversely colourful wrapping paper.
"Luna, if I remember correctly," she answered, knowing that the present was a book of sorts, just judging by the weight and feel of it.
Knowing Luna, it probably wasn't anything remotely normal though, and they exchanged sceptical expressions, before Hermione peeled the wrapping paper off.
Her reaction upon seeing the books cover and title, was to throw it back onto the coffee table with a startled and shocked squeak. A quick look at her companion told her that he was equally shocked an unnerved by Luna's choice of present, judging by the dull red that suffused his cheeks.