THIS CHAPTER IS HARRY/RON. ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO HATE THE PAIRING. OR, BETTER YET, JUST GO BACK ONE TO THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER, WHICH IS HARRY/DRACO.
Pairing(s): Harry/Ron. Also Ron/Hermione, past Harry/Ginny in the background.
Summary: It all started with a stupid interrogation. Or: Don't ask a question if you're not prepared to hear the answer.
Word Count: 32,202
Warning(s): Can't think of any.
Epilogue compliant? EWE, baby :)
Author's Notes: Author's Notes are different in this section, because presumably you've already gone down to the end of Day 2 ;)
Thank you so much, taradiane, for the prompt, and thanks to scrtkpr, naatz, tree00faery, authoress_girl, and schemingreader for betanesses :) :) And thanks so much, hizeme-neko, thrnbrooke, purplerawr, AlineDaryen, Doni, harryhermionerw, Thalia Branwen, Julumie, elf warrior princess, Lulu1701, TearfullPixie for your lovely reviews :)
Well, so much for that idea, thought Harry about half an hour later. The walk hadn't made him feel any better - a combination of being unable to stop dwelling on his problem, the general angst of the day itself, and a rather nauseating performance from the Giant Squid that Harry devoutly hoped had been a spectacular display of its digestive functions, because otherwise it probably had to do with mating and Harry really didn't want to think about that right now.
He glanced over the small groups of people still gathered about the grounds, soon spotting Seamus, Dean, Neville and Ron. And it was curious, he thought as he made his way towards them, how people seemed to have finally decided how to react to him. Or, rather, how not to react. Barring a few half-hearted smiles and two ostentatious displays of hearty camaraderie from people he'd never met, most of the attendees were now steadfastly ignoring his existence. Which was a little disconcerting, coming from Lavender Brown and the Patil sisters; quite pleasant coming from Zacharias Smith. And a nice change from the murmurs and whispers, anyway.
"No, it was fucking rubbish," Seamus was saying, as Harry approached the Gryffindor boys. Neville and Dean gave him polite smiles and Seamus nodded at him and continued. "The situations were pretty well done. I got most of our facts out of our Suspects. I was investigating that idiot McLaggen and found out what he and his co were doing, but not that he'd actually committed the crime himself, instead of just letting it happen, like we thought the Auror Suspects had done. And my 'partner'" Seamus made a sour face, "didn't want to share the time of day with me, let alone any of the facts. He knew about it, but didn't see fit to tell me. Got in shit over it, though," he said with some satisfaction. Dean and Neville chuckled.
"So they were supposed to be learning how to share too?" asked Dean. "Thought the Aurors and Unspeakables didn't work together."
"We don't. In fact, we don't even know why they were in this exercise, either. They certainly didn't tell us. But they were supposed to be sharing, so Rousseau got in shit."
"I wasn't there for that part of the debrief," said Ron, "but Malfoy seemed to think you did all right."
"Apparently you did even better," said Seamus. "Ron's the only one who figured out that one of the suspects had got around Veritaserum," he told Neville and Dean.
Ron smirked at Harry. "I had Harry to thank for that."
"Well it's not like I could stop talking," said Harry, peeved.
"Yeah, I am not looking forward to being a Suspect next week," said Seamus. "Don't think I'll mind the cells, but the Veritaserum?"
"It's horrible," said Harry with feeling, and Seamus sniggered. "You can't keep anything secret."
"I think everyone gathered that," said Seamus, and Dean looked away with a nervous chuckle. Neville blushed.
"You managed to keep secret why you were working with Malfoy in the first place," pointed out Ron.
"But not the fact that I gave him the password to get in, or gave him my wand," said Harry. "Or that I'd put a tracing spell on him."
"So Malfoy wasn't on Veritaserum, then?" asked Neville.
"No, every group had one of the Suspects only faking it in the second interview," said Ron.
"And Ron's the only Interrogator who caught on to that," said Seamus.
"Is that what got your knickers in a twist?" said Dean. "That they faked dodging Veritaserum?"
"No, that was fine," said Seamus. "It was at the end of the debriefing, when they hit us with the clincher. Turns out the point of the exercise was not just Veritaserum detection and avoidance, or interdepartmental cooperation, or any of that rot. No, the point of it was to teach us to blindly follow orders, no matter what."
"What?" said Neville and Dean simultaneously.
Seamus nodded. "Turned out all of the Suspects had been fooled. Somehow, all of them thought they were doing something illegal but noble, but it turned out they were all being used by the real baddies. Mine thought they were stealing dodgy potion ingredients for their sick grandmum, but it turned out the Healer who'd told them about it was actually working for an illegal apothecary on the side. The ones who thought they were going to expose the Minister for Magic as a werewolf were being used by Death Eaters to destabilize the Ministry-"
"And Harry and Malfoy thought they were going to expose a rogue Unspeakable," said Ron, "but it turned out it was all part of an evil plot by Katie Bell."
"Every Suspect had been tricked into going against the Ministry but still believing they were doing the right thing," said Seamus. "So the moral of the story was-"
"The Ministry is always right?" Dean finished for him.
"Yeah. Follow orders, no matter what. The Ministry always knows what's best."
"Bloody hell," said Dean, disgusted.
"No shit," said Seamus, still steamed. "Today of all days, they're telling us we have to follow orders blindly." He grimaced at Harry and Ron. "And did you see the rest of them nodding along? And McLaggen sucking up to them? Miserable arse."
"What a surprise," said Dean.
"I keep wishing Seamus would make one of his famous explosions in Defensive Potions, and blow him up," said Ron.
"That's not a bad idea," said Seamus.
"And let me guess," said Dean. "That hypocrite Malfoy probably agreed with them all the way, right?"
Ron shook his head. "Actually, he didn't," he said. "Could've knocked me over with a feather. He stood up to the Trainers and everything."
"Really?" said Neville.
Dean snorted. "He's still a git, though - and who was actually surprised at what the radio said about him?" and a sudden silence splatted gracelessly down among them all.
"I was," said Harry evenly after a moment.
Dean swallowed hard, his face darkening alarmingly. "I... I didn't mean-"
"Don't worry about it," said Harry. Bloody hell, he could deal with whispers and stares and strangers and co-workers being outright rude to him, but unthinking comments from friends, followed by mortified apologies, were outside his area of expertise. He didn't know who was more embarrassed here: him, or Dean.
"So, erm, did you hear that Snape's portrait has actually had a lot of people visiting it already?" asked Neville, his voice determinedly casual.
"Really?" said Ron.
"Yeah," said Dean, giving Neville a grateful glance. "He's rather disgusted, though."
"Why? Does he think the hero treatment's a bit hypocritical?"
"Not so much; only they've brought him loads of flowers," said Dean. "He looks like he's in the middle of a flower shop, and can't do a bloody thing about it."
Harry smiled, trying to imagine Snape near any flowers that didn't reek of potion-worthy substances ingredients, or throw poisonous spines at innocent passers-by.
"Not only that, but most of the flowers are, erm, lilies," said Neville.
Harry groaned. "Oh, very nice. Sentimental and romantic-"
"And guaranteed to turn his stomach," finished Ron.
"Although I suppose he might not mind so much, if his portrait has a sense of smell," said Neville. "His candle near the Memorial Wall was giving off a pretty lily-like smell."
Harry blinked. Trust Neville to recognize something like that. And also, ew.
"Actually I'm going to go down to see the portraits," said Dean. "I read a few of your Aunt Muriel's books on magical paintings while we were staying with her, and I wanted to see some of the techniques they mentioned. Anyone else going?"
"Yeah, it was a little crowded when I went before," said Neville. He looked at Harry, Ron and Dean questioningly.
"Not me, thanks," said Ron, and Harry shook his head as well. "I've got to get back to the family."
"I'm in," said Seamus. "If only to see Snape surrounded by lilies."
"It was, erm, good to see you, Harry. Really." Dean hesitated, then gave him an awkward clap on the back. "Keep in touch. You too, Ron."
"Yeah, do," said Neville.
"See you tomorrow," said Seamus. They set off, Ron and Harry headed towards Ron's parents by the lakeside and Neville, Dean and Seamus towards the school.
They had only gone a few paces when Harry heard a muffled, "Oh shit sorry-" and felt himself sharply yanked by the navel, then deposited in a room with a large assortment of chairs piled haphazardly in stacks.
"What the-" Ron muttered, stumbling a little as he landed next to Harry.
"I think we were hit with the spell the people are using to put the chairs used in the ceremony back into the castle," said Harry, and hastily ducked away as a pile of chairs appeared between him and Ron.
"From the maps of the London Underground I think we're in the new Muggle studies classroom," said Harry, recalling Ginny telling him about the place. A wave of regret passed through him at the thought of her, quickly abandoned as another pile of chairs landed nearby.
"Let's get out of here," said Ron.
They headed for the door, only to hear a trio of voices from the hallway.
"... the hell was that all about?" came Seamus' voice from outside.
"What?" said Dean.
"Your attitude just now," said Seamus. "D'you have a problem with Harry?"
There was a brief silence. "What, you don't? It's all normal and natural to you?"
"I don't give a damn whether Harry wants to shag boys or girls or consenting leprechauns, Dean," Seamus said. "It's his business. He's still the same Harry who taught us all to defend ourselves and who bloody well gave up everything to save us, and-"
"I didn't say he wasn't!" said Dean hotly. "I just think it's not... normal."
"I'll tell you something else," Seamus continued. "Malfoy's still the same git he was before, whether he wants to sleep with consenting leprechauns or not. It doesn't mean anything. I'm not gonna all of a sudden accept him, or reject Harry, just because of-"
"Seamus, shut it," said Neville. "Nobody's talking of rejecting Harry. Not here, anyway. Only... it's a bit weird, that's all." The voices went past the Muggle Studies room and grew fainter as the three of them entered the new Portrait Hall.
Ron eyed Harry cautiously as they finally left the classroom. "You know..." he trailed off.
"This is why nobody comes out, Harry."
Harry crossed his arms and stared at his friend.
Ron cleared his throat. "It's different in the wizarding world than in the Muggle world. It's a big deal here." It was like he was pleading for understanding, thought Harry. "You know how respected Dumbledore was. But then... I mean, you know what Rita Skeeter said about him in her second book. You saw how the public went mental over that."
"I thought it was just because the 'public' was Skeeter's public," said Harry. "Going on about the 'scandal' because it's fun to be scandalized."
"That's part of it, Skeeter's public," said Ron, with a slight smile. "But it's not just that. You know Dumbledore didn't give a toss what people thought about him. But even he didn't come out. Ever. There're some good reasons for that."
"Explain them to me, then," Harry said wearily.
"It's partly a pureblood thing, right? Population panic," said Ron. "How are we supposed to hold our own against the Muggle population and make little witches and wizards if we're all waxing each other's broomsticks?"
Harry laughed, startled, and Ron gave him a small smile.
God, this was so different from the near-obsession he'd had with Malfoy. This was friendship and love, whether he wanted to snog Ron or not. Though Ron would probably be horrified if he knew just how much Harry wanted to. His grin faded.
"Which, all right," Ron continued, "I know it doesn't really explain Dean, as he's Muggle-born, but-"
"Muggles aren't nearly as accepting as that stupid witch on the Wireless said," said Harry, remembering some of Dudley's favourite taunts. "I wonder if he really was. Dumbledore, I mean."
"Who knows," said Ron. "If he was, he took the secret with him to the grave."
"Took a lot of secrets with him to the grave," said Harry. "One thing Skeeter got right at least: that family had secrets aplenty."
"Aberforth might know," said Ron.
Harry shook his head. "They weren't close. Besides, if Dumbledore had never told anyone, he had his reasons. I wouldn't go against them now that he's dead just to satisfy my curiosity."
If Dumbledore had been gay, and never really told anyone... what had that been like for him? Harry wondered. To be so famous, to be so powerful, and yet still have to hide such a vital part of who and what he was? For an entire lifetime. More than one hundred and fifty years. Harry shuddered.
"You know what?" he said slowly. "I think Philips may have done me a favour."
"I can't imagine an entire lifetime of hiding."
Ron rubbed a spot between his eyebrows. "Harry, Dumbledore didn't even come out. You don't understand. This is going to make a lot of people hate you."
"I've experienced that once or twice, you know."
"You won't be able to advance in the Aurors," Ron continued doggedly. "They may even find reason to turf you out. That bit with diversity during the role-play was just a sop to all those people who've been saying we need to be more 'acceptant' and 'inclusive'; nobody actually believes in it."
"I didn't think so."
"This is bad, Harry," said Ron, frustrated.
Harry scowled at him. "Well it's too late now, isn't it? I've come out, haven't I? I can't go back."
"You could," said Ron.
Harry blew out his breath. "How? Say it was all a big misunderstanding? Come on, Ron."
"You could. It's not too late. How do you know you'll still feel like this ten years from now? How do you know you won't be able to make things work with some other girl? This could just be a... a phase."
Harry was suddenly angry. "It's not, and I'm not going to say it is just so that ignorant people will stop talking about me! I've done enough living out other people's plans for me; I'm not going to do it again. Even if it's you asking me to!" He turned to go.
"Harry." Ron stopped him. "Look, I'm not - I'll stand with you, you know that," he said, his face beet-red. "I'm just trying to make you not blow this off without at least-"
"Yeah, thanks. I know." Harry pulled away. "I've got to get some air." He turned, thinking of possibly going to Dumbledore's graveside, noticed it was full of people, and headed away from it.
Dumbledore didn't even come out, Ron had said. Like that meant that nobody ever could or should, rather than serve as yet another indicator that Dumbledore had been just as fallible, as human, as anyone else.
Fallible, and human, and probably very lonely. And why had Harry never stopped to think about that? Dumbledore had never married, never had children, never seemed to have any kind of life outside of Hogwarts. He'd lived as a teacher, in relative obscurity, despite all the intellectual and personal promise he'd shown as a youth. And why? Because of Grindelwald? Because of one massive error in judgment, that had made him doubt himself forever more?
Or had Grindelwald been more than just an error in judgment for Dumbledore? Had the relationship between the two of them been more than an unwise friendship? Those letters between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, the ones Skeeter had found; had those been love letters? Had the passion in them, the excitement, the joy - was it mere mutual intellectual fascination, or love? It was hard to imagine Dumbledore young and in love, but maybe he had been. Maybe he'd been fascinated with Grindelwald for more than his mind. And had suffered horribly when the object of his fascination had proven hideously unworthy.
And so he'd withdrawn, not just from dreams of power and glory, but from anything that might lead him to risk his heart again. He'd become a sort of recluse. Denied that part of his life.
Fuck that. That was no way to live.
His steps had slowed down, and as he glanced over the thinning crowd, he spotted Malfoy near the Quidditch hut, taking to the air. He started as Ron cleared his throat right behind him.
"Harry," Ron said. "Look, I-"
"Save it, Ron, please," said Harry, irritated. "Whatever you're going to say, I appreciate it, but right now I just... I'm going to go practice."
"Haven't been on a broom in weeks," said Harry. "I probably should before the game."
Ron's gaze went to the Quidditch hut, and his eyes widened slightly. "You're going to practice? With Malfoy?"
"Sure, yeah," said Harry.
Ron's shoulders slumped, and his lips pressed together. "All right, then. Have fun. With Malfoy."
"I'm going to talk to Hermione," said Ron, and turned to leave. Harry watched him go, then trudged to the Quidditch hut.
"See you tomorrow," said Stebbins as he left the Quidditch hut - the last of Harry's team-mates to do so, except for Malfoy. Silence settled into the room as Harry finished packing his equipment and Malfoy frowned at the slightly frayed lacing of one of his elbow pads, then sat down to repair it. Not a bad game, Harry mused, though rather odd. He'd been dreading the reactions of the crowd, and it had been odd to hear an uncertain murmur along with ragged cheers as he took to the air, but overall, thanks to the conversation he'd had with Ron, he hadn't been all that surprised. And nobody had tried to hex him or Malfoy. Nobody had outright booed at him. True, the cheering hadn't been terribly strong, but maybe that was due to the game and the day, and not The Gay. Their team-mates had certainly been polite enough, though a little stiff. The post-game teasing - especially pointed in a game where nobody was playing their best position - had been fairly pleasant.
It had also been very nice to be able to spend time in Malfoy's presence without a mortifying urge to swoon, and to not have to think about Ron and the awkwardness between them. He'd been able to concentrate on the game, and on trying to act as Beater, and despite a few rather memorable fumbles he'd almost had fun.
Harry packed his shin pads into his bag, wondering if he would ever play again.
"So what d'you think of everyone leaving in such a bloody hurry?" asked Malfoy conversationally.
Harry turned to him. "Dunno. How've people been reacting to you today?"
Malfoy shrugged. "Hard to tell, what with everyone being a little off because of the anniversary. I was expecting to be booed and hissed. I do wonder if part of why I wasn't was that you were newly come out too, and they didn't want to anger the Gay Chosen One." Malfoy shook his head. "Never thought the day would come when I'd be grateful for your star status."
"D'you think Marlowe's sister was right?" asked Malfoy. "That Weasley's brothers were hauled off the stand for hexing someone who called you a shirt-lifter?"
Harry shrugged. "It does sound like something George and Charlie would do, especially if they'd also been drinking. Don't know if they'd do permanent damage..."
Malfoy nodded, tugging on his elbow pad's lacings.
"How did you find out the press outed you today too?" asked Harry.
"I was in the trainee library, actually, and the Wireless was on. What a joyous thing to hear."
"Happily, the library was almost empty. I still left fairly soon after that. I pretended to keep working for a bit, of course - you don't want to let anyone see you've been rattled by anything - but I didn't want to hang about in case anybody in there got any clever ideas about how to express their opinions."
Harry's brow creased. "Are you worried about... repercussions?"
Malfoy shrugged. "Not physical ones, not really. People tend to go more along the public shunning route. Besides, I've got pretty good protection against hexes because of my family. Another thing I never thought I'd be grateful for."
Harry smiled. It was so weird, still, to not have that undercurrent of hostility between them.
"I suppose I'll have to deal with it if I ever do end up dating anyone. I would imagine discretion is even more necessary then."
"Yeah, probably." Harry glanced at him. "Anyone you fancy?"
Malfoy shook his head. "Not really, not right now. Just getting through Unspeakable training is hard enough; no need to add any complications." He paused. "You?"
Harry rubbed his eyes under his eyeglasses. "Yeah."
"Have you done anything about it?"
"Are you going to?"
Harry gave a small laugh. "Merlin no. It would be... awkward doesn't even begin to describe it."
Malfoy nodded slowly, coiling the lacing of the elbow pad in his hand and conjuring a repair kit. "You do know that now the wizarding world is going to be asking itself whether Weasley and Granger are the real couple within the Golden Trio after all," he said conversationally.
Harry sighed and sat down. "Yeah."
"And the whole Goblet of Fire 'what you'd miss the most' story will no doubt be dug up again. And examined in minute detail."
Malfoy nodded, oiling his elbow pad, his gaze speculative.
Well, Malfoy had been discreet yesterday, and he supposed they had a reason to not stab each other in the back over this. "Ron and Hermione are a real couple," he said heavily. "Doesn't mean I don't wish..."
Malfoy's eyebrows went up. "How long?"
"Not that long. It's not like I've been hopelessly in love with him since we were kids or anything. We really have been just friends."
Malfoy tilted his head to the side. "And now?"
Harry sighed. "We're still just friends," and Merlin it felt odd to feel a surge of gratefulness to Malfoy, for not pouncing on the 'in love with' part of what he'd just said.
"No hope of returning the interest?"
Harry grimaced. "He's a Weasley male. It's like a badge of hyper-heterosexuality."
Malfoy shrugged. "Always thought the Head Boy one was a little light in the loafers, myself," he said as he started to do up the lacing again.
Harry chuckled. "Well, yeah, maybe Percy. Though he's such a stickler for all that's proper that even if he was, he'd never admit it to himself, let alone anyone else." Harry paused. "When did you admit it to yourself?"
Malfoy grimaced. "Do remember I lived with Blaise Zabini, Potter. Picture seeing that naked in your dorm room more than once without realizing you're gay."
"Did anybody else know?"
"Crabbe and Goyle. And Pansy. She was my convenient cover. I think she wanted to convert me." He grimaced. "So much for that."
Harry hesitated again. "Have you ever... dated anyone? Male, I mean?"
Malfoy shook his head. "Mutual hand-jobs with a dorm-mate a few times, at school. Doesn't count, I don't think."
Harry thought about asking with whom, then thought better of it. Not only was it none of his business, but if the boy in question had been Zabini he'd feel insanely jealous, and if he'd been Crabbe or Goyle or reedy, spotty Theo Nott, he'd feel nauseated.
Malfoy tested the elbow pad's firmness, then put it away, along with the repair kit. He pulled his equipment together, then got up to leave, hesitating at the door. "Potter?"
"Talk to Weasley, Potter." Malfoy smirked. "Don't be as pathetic in your love life as you are as a Beater."
Harry shook his head.
"Some Gryffindor you turned out to be," Malfoy sniggered. Harry chuckled but shook his head again. "I'll see you at work," said Malfoy, and headed for the door.
"See you," said Harry. Malfoy stepped out, closing the door behind him.
"Oh. Hello, Weasley," Harry heard him say.
"Hi Malfoy," said Ron, sounding distracted. "Is Harry still inside?"
"Yes, he is. We're the last ones out."
"Oh." There was a pause. "Erm, good game, by the way."
Malfoy snorted. "No it wasn't. It was dismal. That was the point of it."
"You're not that bad a Chaser, you know," said Ron.
"Better than Potter is a Beater, anyway," said Malfoy, and Harry was amused to hear Ron snigger in response.
"That's damning yourself with faint praise."
Malfoy laughed. "Thanks. I'll see you around, Weasley."
"Yeah, see you, Malfoy."
Footsteps moved off, and Ron came into the hut.
"What are you doing here?" asked Harry.
Ron's eyebrows went up. "Why? Where else should I be?"
"Look, you don't have to-" Harry stopped. You don't have to feel sorry for me, because I've got a huge doomed crush on my best mate. You don't have to show me your loyalty even though you're uncomfortable as hell, to make up for having 'betrayed' me twice before. You just have to let me deal with this on my own.
There probably wasn't any way of saying any of that without sounding utterly pathetic.
"Thought you'd be with Hermione," he said instead. "Or helping your dad bail out George and Charlie."
Ron shook his head. "No, Dad went with Percy. And I'm not with Hermione because..." he cleared his throat. "We sort of... broke up, mate."
"Not - not really broken up, but she was upset the last time we were here."
"It's different, without you," said Ron. "We don't... we've fought before, and we're not really fighting now, but we don't work as well without you right there," and he was red in the face, again.
"So you broke it off?"
"She did. Sort of. I didn't necessarily agree." Ron shrugged. "And like I said, we're not really broken up. We're... taking a bit of a break, that's all. We're going to work it out," said Ron, sounding like he was trying to convince himself. He paused. "Did you even try to work it out with Ginny?"
"I wanted to," said Harry. "I honestly did. I never meant to hurt her."
"I thought I wanted to spend my life with her. I didn't want to want anybody else. I didn't want to want... you. I thought you were just my best mate. I..." He trailed off, not knowing how to explain the agony of realization, knowing he wasn't just having odd dreams and urges, knowing he honestly wanted his best mate, knowing his best mate didn't and couldn't want him back.
"How did you know?" asked Ron. "That you didn't... didn't like girls, like that?"
Harry ran a hand through his hair, vaguely wondering if there was anything he wanted to do less than this right now, and coming up absolutely blank.
"How did you decide?" Ron asked, his face almost maroon now. "That you liked... me?"
Harry wanted the floor to swallow him up. "I dunno. How do you decide you want anyone?"
Ron blew out his breath impatiently.
"I don't know," Harry repeated, and he honestly didn't. When and how had their friendship and closeness turned into something else? Was it when they spent the better part of a year in a tent together? Was it when he'd realized that the joy he'd felt in the forest, when Ron came back to them - to him - went deeper than mere relief? Was it when he'd thought about how he couldn't wait to see Ron and Hermione again after the Battle, but had felt no special need to see Ginny?
Maybe it was it when he'd realized, finally, that he was going to grow up, he was going to get to live out a full lifespan. And that the little things he'd always been able to ignore before, the odd longings and strange desires, really weren't going to go away. When he'd realized that he could no longer tell himself that he was just having weird dreams that were 'perfectly natural and normal', and 'just a phase'.
There wasn't any one moment. There wasn't an answer he could give.
"I don't know," he repeated helplessly.
Ron took a deep breath. "Everybody has... everybody wonders about stuff, Harry. I mean, it's perfectly natural. You can't just throw away everything based on some... doubts."
"Just because maybe you had a few thoughts that were weird, that doesn't mean anything."
"No, come on. You - we're friends, you're going through training, you don't get to see your girlfriend often enough - it doesn't mean anything that you'd start, you know, erm, wondering." And Ron's voice was relatively steady, but from the shade of his cheeks he was quite possibly going to have a heart attack any moment now. He started to pace nervously.
"Yeah? How would you know, Ron?" said Harry.
Ron, if possible, reddened even further, and for a mad moment Harry considered suggesting he take his shirt off before he burst into flame.
"Everyone's had... weird thoughts. Occasionally."
Ron blew out his breath. "Everyone has. It doesn't mean anything."
"It does to me," said Harry firmly. "I'm not talking about occasional twinges, Ron. Fuck, d'you think I would've broken up with your sister over one or two stray thoughts?" He stood up. "And I'm not going to keep talking about this. Not with you."
The door opened, and a slightly rumpled George peered in. "Ron? You in here?"
"What are you doing here?" said Ron.
George stepped in, giving Harry a distracted nod. "Dad bailed us out," he said, glancing around. "Team's all gone, then?"
"They did," said Ron, a bit impatient. "I thought you'd both be in a lot longer."
"So did I," said George. "Ministry wasn't too eager to hold two heroes of the bleeding war the day of the memorial, though."
"I suppose not," said Ron, starting to pace again.
"Stop that," said George, annoyed. "Sit down, you're making me dizzy."
Ron scowled at him. "What's making you dizzy is that you're pissed."
"Yeah, and Angelina's already kindly pointed that out," said George. He rubbed his bloodshot eyes and sat down on the nearest bench. "And I'm not that pissed any more, in fact. Look... Ron... mate, this isn't right. You've both got to sort yourselves out here."
"Sort out what?"
George blew out his breath. "You saw what happened to Harry and Malfoy today. D'you think maybe it's time you asked yourself if you want the same thing to happen to you?"
Ron turned pale. "What?"
"I live with you, Ronnie. And I'm not blind."
Ron shook his head. "You-"
"You've got posters of all the fittest - male - Chudley Cannons players on your bedroom wall, and you're not twelve any more," said George. "You spend all your time with your best mate and haven't got past snogging with your girlfriend. Even your owl's gayer than a pink Pygmy Puff."
"And you've got to sort what's going on between the two of you," said George, and he wasn't slurring nearly as much as Harry would've expected.
"There's nothing's going on between us," said Ron, his voice louder than usual.
"Right," said George, and turned to Harry. "Just to check something: Harry, you are, then?"
"And is Ginny the only Weasley you've ever had your eye on?"
Harry's eyes widened, and he shared a startled look with Ron.
George chuckled. "Yeah, thought so. Ronniekins is still 'what you'd miss most', is he?"
"How did you..." Harry trailed off.
George smirked. "It's not exactly Legilimency, mate. Not to anyone with eyes."
"Doesn't matter, anyway," said Ron, arms crossed and jaw set. "I'm - I'm with Hermione."
"You've an interesting definition for 'with', Ronnie," George chuckled. "You snog her when you see her, you have awkward conversations with her over the Floo, and you don't talk about her otherwise. And she doesn't want to see you."
Ron glared at George. "This isn't any of your business," he said.
George rolled his eyes again. "Ron, you're more enthusiastic about Farting Foibles than talking to your girlfriend on the Floo."
"I sell Farting Foibles. I have to be enthusiastic."
"You're more enthusiastic about paperwork, then." George rubbed the back of his neck. "Plus, you're as good as split up." He narrowed his eyes. "And I couldn't help noticing you were nowhere near as broken up about that as you should've been."
"And I didn't know what the hell happened to you yesterday at work, but you were a bloody distracted mess when you came home; nearly disembowelled yourself with the biting scissors-"
"Those things are sharp!"
"You know you're supposed to threaten them with dental floss before every use, Ron. Then you signalled to Hermione to call you fifteen times with your little Galleon, and then when she finally answered, you talked to her for about five minutes-"
"You were in the room."
"I offered to leave."
"I only needed to tell her one thing."
"Yeah, to bring your black robe today. Which you were wearing."
"Shut up," muttered Ron.
"Didn't make sense to me last night. Started to make sense this morning. Though frankly I've been wondering about you and Hermione for ages."
Ron scowled at him. "I love her."
"Yeah, of course you love her," said George impatiently. "Nobody doubts that, least of all Hermione." He put a hand on Ron's shoulder. "But Ron... look, you're not the only Weasley brother to get loving a friend confused with being in love with them."
"Or the other way around. Confusing being in love with a friend, with just loving them as a friend."
Ron blinked, totally lost. "What?"
George sighed and rubbed between his eyebrows, obviously searching for the right words. "Look... it's. All right, I never thought I'd be telling anybody about this, but this situation's just..." he trailed off, then steadied himself and took a deep breath. "Angelina was... Fred and Lee flirted with her for years, you know that. She was... she was fit, she was sexy, she was sort of like the unattainable woman. And Lee, well, he was like the third twin, yeah? We both felt that way about him." He bit his lip. "But... but the thing is, that's not how it was. Not really, not at all." George regarded Ron seriously. "Look, you love a girl. You think about her, you wonder what it would be like to be with her, and you tell yourself you want her; you figure it's got to be love because what else could it be. And then you finally have her, and it's nothing at all like what you expected. And, then, you've got this best mate..." he trailed off, and shook his head sadly. "Like I said, you're not the first of us to go through that."
Ron was staring at his brother, and Harry covered his mouth, appalled. They all - all the Weasleys, and everyone who cared about George - had talked about his relationship with Angelina, worried about how quickly they'd fallen in together after Fred's death. And they'd all tried to not resent Lee too much for utterly buggering off on George, only weeks after Fred's death. But bloody hell, the idea of George realizing something like this, about both Angelina and Lee, and today, of all days...
Ron opened his mouth, then shut it. "George. God, I... you just... you're just realizing this now?"
"My powers of observation haven't been great this year," said George ruefully. "Yeah, I just figured it out now. Though I've suspected some of it for a while."
"I'm sorry, George. Merlin, what a mess." Ron ran a hand through his hair. "Are you going to break up with her now? I mean, obviously, not right now, today, but-"
"Wait, what?" George broke in, frowning at him. "What are you talking about?"
Ron and Harry blinked at him. "You mean... wait, you are going to break up with her, right?"
George blinked, totally lost. "What the bloody hell are you - oh!" His eyebrows shot up, he gaped at Ron for a moment, and then, to Harry and Ron's bewilderment, he threw back his head and burst out laughing. "Angelina? Me, and Angelina?" He guffawed at the utter confusion on their faces, and Harry suddenly realized it had been a long time since he'd seen George genuinely laugh, full-on, as he used to.
"George?" said Ron slowly, coming closer.
George aimed a swat at him, still laughing his arse off, and tried to bring himself back under control. "Me and Angelina breaking up? No, you git, we're fine." He caught his breath. "I wasn't the confused Weasley brother, you twit."
"Yeah, listen, I know you all think me and Angie together is kind of wrong and maybe a bit sick and all, what with her and Fred back in school. But it's really not. You've no idea." George took a deep breath, his mirth slowly subsiding. "Ron, wrong and sick would've been if I'd ended up with Lee."
George's sniggered. "Fred and Angelina were over about a week after the Yule Ball. Only it took Fred a few months to realize it. When he finally got it sorted, he realized he'd really only wanted her because she was always around, and she was fun, and Lee was always going on about how fit she was. But it wasn't her he wanted." He shook his head. "There wasn't any 'her' he wanted. He wanted Lee, but didn't want to admit it to himself because he thought Lee was his best mate and what kind of sick bastard fancies his best mate?" George gave Harry a half-smile. "And Lee felt the same way. Dunno why I'm destined to be surrounded by clueless queers, but there it is. The difference was that Fred didn't string Angelina along for years."
Ron sat down, gobsmacked. "Fred and Lee were... together?"
George nodded sadly. "Three years. Why d'you think I didn't mind when Lee scarpered off right after Fred died? He had to. Fred was everything to Lee. He couldn't cope with losing him, let alone cope with being around me - especially after me and Ange started up. I bloody well told him to go."
Harry blinked rapidly, his mind reeling. "Erm, where's Lee now?" he said slowly.
George frowned. "Why?"
"Because I think we've both got to apologize to him," said Ron.
"Pretty much everything we've thought about him in the last year," said Harry ruefully.
"Well, trust me, he's thought a lot of crap about himself too. Ange and I have had a time trying to get him to stop torturing himself over what could've been, you know? Bloody hell, it's not like he forced Fred into a lifetime of living a lie or whatever the hell he's called it." George chuckled. "I asked Angelina if it would help to tell him Fred probably would've ditched his sorry arse once the war was over, if he was still doing his closet thing. For some reason she didn't think it would be comforting."
"Actually, that's one good thing that's come out of this mess," said George. "Lee's gone off to the new Portrait Hall. He's going to talk to Fred."
"Isn't everyone going to do that anyway?"
George shook his head. "He hadn't planned on it; too soon." He smiled. "Thanks to Harry, though, he's gone off to tell Fred he's sorry. And that he's going to come out."
"What?" said both Harry and Ron at the same time.
"Which he should've done a few years ago," George continued. "Angelina keeps saying it's not for me to judge how people live their lives, but hiding from everyone - including family - hasn't helped Lee one damn bit, I don't care what it's done for his career." He stared at Ron intently. "So. Now Harry and Malfoy've been outed, and Lee's going to come out of his own free will - which is going to out Fred, posthumously - it'll be raining high-profile shirt-lifters for the next little while."
"So?" asked Ron.
"Ever thought of adding your own little dribble to the shower?"
Ron grimaced. "God, listen to you. I'm not - I've just been telling Harry he should... in himself, if there's such a thing-"
"Which he can't do," said George.
"Which I won't do," said Harry at the same time.
"You know, Fred owned a joke shop and Lee was a radio personality," George pressed on. "Not exactly dangerous professions. And yet they didn't get to live their happily ever after. You two - the world may be a safer place now, but considered the career you've picked, d'you really want to wait forever to be honest with each other?"
Ron pressed his lips together.
"If nothing else, Hermione doesn't deserve you stringing her along like this."
"You haven't meant to, I know," said George. "But the fact is, you have. And that's awful, but she's your friend. All outing and Harry-issues aside, she's going to love you no matter what."
Ron crossed his arms, his jaw set.
George shook his head. "You've done a lot scarier things, mate. You've stood up to Snape, and murderous chess pieces, and infiltrated the Ministry, and shouted down You-Know-Who even after you thought Harry was dead and we were all done for." He reached out and gave Ron a light shove. "You've put up with me for a year, and I bloody well know how hard that's been. You're not a coward."
Ron glared at him.
George blew out his breath impatiently. "All right, don't, then. Live a lie, if you don't have the balls to face up to what you are."
Ron's eyes narrowed. "What, like Fred didn't live a lie? Out and proud, was he?"
"Fred would have come out in a heartbeat," George retorted. "Lee wouldn't. Didn't want to bring bad publicity to Wheezes, and didn't want to damage his own career. And how d'you think he felt after Fred was gone? Nobody even knew he'd lost the person he loved more than anybody else, and it was his own bloody fault because he'd never had the guts to tell anyone."
Ron's lips pressed together stubbornly.
"Don't live like that, Ronnie. It's not worth it." He stood up, and turned to Harry. "Harry. I'm sorry things didn't work out with Ginny, but I suppose it really wasn't your fault." He gave Harry a level stare. "You do know, if you'd hurt her deliberately, you wouldn't be walking right now, right? Weasleys are a little overprotective."
"Do better with Ron, all right?" Harry nodded, bemused. "Because I know he's thick as a plank and all, but I'd better warn you, if you ever hurt him, you'll regret it. And I don't mean in a sort of a 'I can hex you so you'll never see your next birthday' kind of way." George gave him a small smile. "Don't forget, I own a joke shop; I can make your life miserable with no risk to life and limb. Just ask the poor bastard Charlie and I hexed today."
"What happened to him anyway?"
George grinned. "It's a bad plan to say something like, 'Serves the arse bandit right' when a friend of mine nearly gets knocked off his broom. The git apparently forgot we all pretty much owe our lives to saids arse bandit; now he owes his permanent lack of front teeth to the brother of another one." He gave Ron a half-smile. "Or two."
"He can get himself prosthetics, but they won't grow back naturally or magically. And I went easy on him; Charlie turned his prick rainbow-coloured and his balls fluorescent fuchsia, though I dunno for how long. Now," he said, his hand on the door handle, "be Gryffindors, all right?" He shook his head. "God, the two of you, thinking you're in love with girls you only love like friends, because you can't accept being in love with each other. It's like watching Fred and Lee all over again." He grinned. "Only this time, if this does get sorted, at least I won't have to listen to you two shagging all night long, while I sit there, straight as a fucking arrow and single, and covering my ears."
He swung the door open, and left. The hut fell silent.
"Are you all right?" asked Harry finally.
Ron shook his head helplessly. "I love her, Harry," he said, his voice low.
Harry swallowed. "I know."
"I've thought about her for... years."
"She's thought about you for even longer."
Ron sighed miserably. "What am I supposed to do?"
"Is it really not working, with her?"
Ron hesitated, then slowly shook his head. "I still love her."
"Are you in love with her?" asked Harry.
"How should I know? I think about her all the time. I miss her."
"I miss her too. And Ginny, too."
Ron sighed. "Why didn't you tell me you'd broken up with her?"
Harry blinked. "What was I supposed to tell you? She's your sister, Ron." He stared at Ron. "And why didn't you tell me you were having problems with Hermione?"
Ron's mouth quirked slightly. "You said she was like a sister to you too, mate."
Harry took a deep breath. "Am I part of why you two were having problems?"
Ron flushed, biting his lip.
Ron covered his eyes with his hand. "God, Harry, I can't do... this."
Harry nodded. Damn it, he knew Ron, he knew all of his moods, all of his issues, and knew that while Ron had bravery in spades when it came to putting himself in physical danger, this kind of thing was just not his forte...
George was wrong. Assuming he was right about Ron liking boys and even - Harry caught his breath - even feeling the same towards Harry as Harry felt for him, Ron was nowhere near ready to face all of that. Not right now. Maybe never.
"All right. Maybe we should go back to-"
Ron looked up at him, made a half-move to stop him, then snatched back his hand.
Harry hesitated. "D'you want me to go?"
Ron shook his head. "I... I don't know, mate."
"D'you want to... say anything?"
Ron swallowed hard. "I'm not you, all right?"
"Erm... I gathered that? said Harry.
"You get talked about in the papers and it doesn't bother you." Harry gaped at Ron and Ron's mouth twitched. "All right, it doesn't bother you as much as it should," he amended. "As much as it would bother me."
"You've been mentioned plenty of times."
"Yeah, see, I thought it would be cool, but it's a bloody pain in the arse. They get my name wrong half the time, say I have ten brothers, and one was bitten by a vampire-"
Harry found himself laughing unexpectedly, and Ron gave him a small smile.
"I don't... I don't want to get the kind of publicity you've been getting these last few days."
Harry swallowed hard, feeling like he was on a precipice. He hesitated. "So... was he right?"
Ron's forehead creased and his eyes closed, and he took a deep breath. "If... I don't want the whole world to know that I... that I fancy blokes too, all right?" Ron said, and Harry's heart skipped a beat. Ron covered his eyes with his hand. "Fuck, this is stupid," he groaned. "You're in the paper getting called a sick perv and I've got a girl I love who I don't want to be with, and I just found out my own brother was not just a raging queer but apparently an almost happily married raging queer, and I'm still worrying that the papers will call me Roonil Wazlib if they figure out I'm in - if they figure out I fancy... you."
Harry swallowed again, unable to do anything but keep his heart beating, and try to keep from going insane from the utter chaos of his thoughts and feelings. No, no, no no no, Ron was still - sort of - with Hermione, he didn't want to come out, Harry hadn't even wanted to come out, this wasn't a good thing - but all he could feel was a ridiculous urge to either whoop like an idiot or giggle like Lavender Brown at the amazing idea that at the very least, he wasn't alone in this. Ron felt at least a little about him as he felt about Ron.
Ron raised his eyes. "I love Hermione. I do."
Ron stepped closer to him, his hand reaching for Harry briefly before drawing back. He reached out again and touched Harry's shoulder. They gazed into each other's eyes for a moment, and Ron dropped his eyes to Harry's lips.
"Why didn't you want to tell me?" he asked Harry quietly.
"Erm... about me fancying you? While I was dating your sister?"
"No, about you liking boys."
"Why, would that have been less awkward?" said Harry, the warmth of Ron's hand on his shoulder making his stomach do a flip that made the swoops he'd felt with Ginny and Cho Chang seem positively sedate. "Why didn't you want to tell me? Even if you were just having doubts, why-"
"I thought you'd be uncomfortable. And I was with Hermione. Felt like if I was going to talk to anybody, it should be her, you know?" Ron sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. "God, I've no idea what I'm going to say to her."
"I was gonna ask her advice before saying anything to you," said Harry. "Might even have read some of the books she would've dumped into my lap."
Ron chuckled, then grew serious. He stepped closer, paused, then slowly leaned closer until they were centimetres apart, and Harry could feel Ron's warm breath on his lips. He shivered, his heart threatening to jump from his chest, frozen in place, wanting, more than he'd ever wanted anything in his life, to feel Ron's mouth on his.
Ron gently touched their lips together, and Harry drew in his breath. Please, don't pull away, he thought urgently, please please, don't pull away, don't don't don't, stay right there...
Ron's lips moved against his, softly, and he tentatively kissed back, his heart hammering rapidly at the idea that this, this was really happening-
Ron pulled away a bit, his breath soft against Harry's mouth. This wasn't right, Harry told himself, even as he waited in anguish for Ron to come back, his lips tingling from their interrupted kiss. They shouldn't be doing this, but it felt too good to stop, it didn't matter that Hermione was the closest thing he had to a sister - kissing Ron, like this, the way he'd been fantasizing about for what seemed like forever, was too good for Harry to do anything but give himself to it. Give himself to Ron.
As far as doing the right and responsible thing, he didn't stand a chance, he realized as Ron's lips touched his again. Not after wanting so much, needing so much, and being so afraid for so long.
Ron made a small noise in his throat, and slowly brought a hand up to Harry's face. Harry sighed, eyes closing of their own accord as he savoured the feel of Ron's lips, the gentleness of the fingers stroking the side of his face, Ron's scent, his warmth...
Harry's first kiss with Ginny had been excitement and triumph and joy. Ron's first kiss with Hermione had been passion and desperation and a sense of 'You only live once'. This was tentative, filled with guilt and confusion, and sweeter than anything Harry had ever experienced.
He brought a hand up to Ron's face, slowly, not quite believing that this wouldn't end if he made one wrong move, and moved from Ron's cheek to the nape of his neck, trembling as he ran wondering fingers through Ron's hair. It felt like every nerve in his body was sensitized to those few points of contact: Ron's lips against his, Ron's large hand cupping his cheek, Ron's hair through his fingers.
Ron drew his other hand up, and now he was cradling Harry's face between his hands, his lips parting, and Harry forced himself to not gasp out loud as their tongues barely touched before Ron withdrew briefly, then parted his lips once more and hesitantly moved to explore Harry's tongue with his own.
Oh God, oh fuck, Harry was shaking and his heart was racing and he was going to bloody well run out of air, and he wanted this to never end, wanted to never forget what it had felt like to do this with his best mate, how it had felt to get to know the taste of his mouth and the feel of his hair and the way his thumbs gently caressed Harry's cheeks as they kissed-
Ron moaned softly, stepping closer to Harry, and Harry's heart gave a thud as Ron moved his hands down his back and tugged them together. He felt a wave of dismay as his body completely overrode his mind's stern instructions to not do anything that might spook Ron away, and his arms came down to Ron's hips and pulled them together tightly.
"Oh God," he moaned at the thrill of Ron's long, firm body trembling in his arms, Ron hard as a rock against him, his own suddenly insistent erection pressed up against Ron.
"Fuck," Ron choked, and captured Harry's lips again, a soft cry escaping him as Harry almost involuntarily rocked against him. "Merlin, Harry," Ron whispered, thrusting back. He clenched his eyes shut, then pushed Harry against the wall, rocking against him once more.
"Yeah, God yeah," Harry whispered back, surrendering himself to the sensation, and couldn't suppress a groan of disappointment as Ron suddenly stopped mid-thrust. "No, please, don't stop-"
Ron pushed a leg between Harry's thighs, and Harry groaned as the sweet friction returned, anything, he'd do anything, he thought feverishly; he'd be discreet, he'd wait for him, he'd help him face his family, he'd bloody well buy him a necklace and call him Won-Won if Ron wanted him to - just to feel him gasping like this, his body warm and slightly sweaty, nervous, awkward, no rhythm to his movements, just raw need and urgency and-
Ron abruptly pushed himself off the wall, separating their bodies. Harry's heart stopped and he opened his eyes, dreading seeing a look of regret and embarrassment - although how could Ron possibly regret this, it had felt so completely and utterly brilliant-
Ron's blue eyes were darker than Harry had ever seen them, his face flushed, lips still parted and wet from their kisses. And it wasn't regret in those eyes, not exactly, as he cradled Harry's face between his hands once more and poured all his passion into their kisses. Harry couldn't help thrusting against the strong thigh in between his own a few times, but Ron was so obviously holding himself back, that he soon forced himself to stop as well. Think of Hermione, he told himself. That'll kill off any hint of arousal. Which probably didn't sound terribly complimentary towards Hermione, but hey, whatever worked.
God, he was going to die of this. Either the blue balls would do him in, or he'd pass out, because he didn't want to take a break from those kisses, not even to take a breath, not even if his vision was starting to go dim and the world was spinning around.
Ron broke off their kiss with a groan.
"Don't," Harry whispered.
Ron shook his head quickly. "Have to," he panted. "There'll be a hell of a mess if I don't."
"There's spells for that," said Harry.
Ron's shoulders shook with unexpected laughter. His hands were still cupping Harry's face, and he leaned his forehead against Harry. "No, not that kind of mess. Well - not just that kind of mess." He took a deep breath. "I mean, a mess... in here," he said, tapping his chest. "And with Hermione. This... isn't right."
How could it not be right? Harry wanted to say, but there was no point in pretending he didn't understand.
"I've been a crap friend to Hermione," said Ron, closing his eyes in misery. "And a crap boyfriend."
"Yeah, good point," said Harry, too flustered to be tactful.
"And I'm going to have enough to feel bad about," Ron said, "without both of us-"
...coming in our pants, Harry wanted to finish for him, and although right now the distinction between that and snogging each other to almost that very point seemed painfully irrelevant to Harry, evidently it meant something to Ron.
He had a sudden brief image of Hermione's face when Ron had worried about Reg Cattermole and company, and wondered if his own face looked the same right now. Ron was generally such crap at thinking out the consequences of his actions on other people that when he did notice and worry, it was hard not to melt.
"We probably shouldn't have done this," Ron said slowly.
"Probably not," said Harry, his back against the wall and Ron's warmth like a tingling field against his body, though he couldn't help but fervently wish Ron had been anywhere near this reluctant with Lavender "Octopus Hands" Brown. He looked down at his hands, still holding Ron's hips, and didn't want to let go. Ever. "Is that the only time it'll happen?" he asked.
"I don't know what'll happen with Hermione, you know," Ron murmured.
"She said we had to talk, last time we were together."
"I thought things were going well."
"They are. When we talk on the Floo. Not so much when we're together."
Harry nodded again, and closed his eyes, concentrating on the feel of Ron's breath, his scent, committing all of this to memory.
"D'you think George is right?" asked Ron after a few more seconds.
"That you should come out too?" asked Harry.
Harry regarded Ron seriously. "Whether he is or not, you know he'll support you. So will the rest of your family. If they're still standing behind me, they'll stand behind you too."
Ron nodded, and absently drew his thumb down Harry's cheek and to his mouth, ghosting a soft caress against his swollen lips. "D'you think Fred would've come out eventually?"
Harry sniggered. "Could you honestly see him not doing it? Even if he and Lee broke up. Fred wasn't exactly subtle, was he?"
Ron snorted. "No."
"He would've eventually done something like snog his boyfriend in the stands in the middle of a Quidditch match, just to watch the reaction."
"Or asked him out by shouting across the shop in the middle of business."
Harry laughed. "Oi! Lee! Fancy a shag tonight?" he said, in a rough approximation of Fred's voice.
Ron laughed, then sobered. "Merlin. What am I going to do about Hermione?"
Harry spread his hands helplessly. "I... I don't know. She's going to get hurt, I know that much, even if she's the one who suggested you two take a break." He hesitated. "But... Ron, Hermione deserves honesty."
Ron closed his eyes and nodded slowly. He took a deep breath, then stepped back slightly and turned to the door. "All right. Coming out?"
"I already have," said Harry.
Ron rolled his eyes. "Ha ha, I meant out of the hut. He paused. "I can't promise anything, you know. I mean, I want... I'm going to talk to Hermione before anything else."
Harry nodded. "All right. Do you want me there?"
Ron shook his head. "Think I've got to be the one to talk to her first, on my own." He frowned, tilting his head to the side, and Harry realized that the quiet background babble of voices at the memorial outside had suddenly grown closer, as if a crowd of people were approaching the Quidditch hut. "Bloody hell," said Ron. "Think I hear Rita Skeeter. Let's get out of here before she has a chance to pounce on you." He stepped back, grabbing Harry's Quidditch bag.
Harry nodded and put a hand on Ron's shoulder. "You sure about this?"
"No," said Ron. "Have to do it anyway, though." And he turned to open the door, then stopped and abruptly took Harry into his arms again. "You know what? Sod Rita Skeeter," he murmured, kissing Harry deeply for long moments, leaving him breathless.
"Bloody hell," said Harry as they broke their kiss, and Ron laughed.
He gazed at Ron, seeing the best friend he'd grown up with, the one he'd fallen for when he'd least expected, the one he'd thought unattainable. Thought of his touch, his lips, the catch in his voice when they'd embraced. Thought how he'd be lucky if all the papers did was call him Roonil Wazlib, if they went public.
"Whatever happens... you know I'll be here, right?" he asked, and then blushed, because Merlin, what a trite thing to say. As if he could be anywhere else.
"I know," said Ron. And they shared a smile before opening the door and heading out together.