A/N: Sorry this has been a while, hope you're ready for a very long chapter. Warnings for the topic of suicide and gay slurs.
"So what did you do to get Potter to come to dance lessons the other night?" Draco asked.
"I don't think I will be telling you my son's motivations," Severus said. "Did you learn anything?"
"Well there weren't many Gryffindors who actually showed up," Draco said.
"And of those who did?" Severus asked.
"Well besides Potter and his lot, I guess I learned that people will overlook a lot if you have something they want."
"Explain," Severus said.
"Well none of them trusted me," Draco said. "But they came because they wanted to learn to dance. Of course I knew that already, I'm not an idiot, but I sort of thought the Gryffindors would be more stubborn about everything."
"They are full of surprises," his dad said. "There were comments from the staff. They appreciated how many students felt comfortable on the dance floor."
"Malfoys get stuff done," Draco said. "Speaking of getting stuff done, I did that weird assignment you gave me."
"Did you indeed?" Severus asked. "What did you learn?"
"Don't you want to know what I did?"
"I told you you were not doing something so that you could brag about it, what matters is that you did it, so what did you learn?"
"I was hoping you were going to tell me, because I don't see the point," Draco said. "I didn't gain anything, no one knows I did it, I got zero capital from it. What's this random act of kindness bull supposed to do?"
"That is for you to find out," Severus said. "You should try again."
"I waited two weeks to find out, and you won't tell me?"
"If it were a lesson learned by word of mouth I would not have assigned the exercise," Severus said.
"I can't just spend all of my time trying to figure out something nice to do," Draco said.
"Then don't," Severus said. "Wait for the opportunity to present itself. Just, be on the look out. This is supposed to be a low stress assignment."
"Can I get a hint?" Draco asked.
"You'll figure it out," Severus said.
"You're about as infuriating as that Gryffindor son of yours sometimes," Draco said.
"Am I really?" Severus asked.
"Almost," Draco said.
"You do seem to manage to bring up Harry every time you are here," Severus said.
"What? No I don't," Draco said. "I mean, not that much. I bet he talks about me all the time."
Severus smirked. "Don't worry about Harry. We've gotten off topic."
"I've been working on an approach for Morrison in Ravenclaw," Draco said. "If I play it right, I'll have another future family head as an ally."
"Good," Severus said. "Describe Morrison's archetype."
They talked for a while longer. Draco played the game well, but he was still only playing it among his schoolmates. There was a long way for him to go before Draco would be operating on his father's level.
Harry had gotten very little work done during the first week of vacation. Now that he was back in the castle and Christmas was over it was time to finish everything. Most of his time was spent in the library. Taking a break from homework basically meant cracking different books open to figure out how Ron was going to breathe under water. When he wasn't with his friends, he was with his dad. With no classes to occupy his time, his training had been increased. He was drilled over and over again on curses and shields and counters, dodging and lunging and for some reason, which still no one had actually explained to him, he practiced wielding a dagger.
He'd had a lot of worries when he had gone to confess everything to his Dad the day after Christmas. At the very least, he had thought that things would be awkward between him and his Dad, but the reality seemed to be, at least for just then, that Harry didn't have time for things to be awkward, because when he wasn't doing homework, or research, or training, he was working with his Dad on Occlumency again.
It wasn't really Occlumency though, not anymore. Occlumency was shielding you mind from intrusion. This was similar, it used a lot of the same mental disciplines, but this was something different. He had asked his dad if he could use the mental arts to change who he was. The answer had been no, but this was something that felt very similar in idea.
With Occlumency, Harry could control his thoughts, he could shield his memories or temporarily bury something he didn't want someone else to see. With this new discipline, he wasn't hiding anything. He was confronting it, facing his past, challenging his thoughts, digging up what was buried. It was painful, it was draining; he wasn't even sure it was helping, but it was a way forward.
His dad was there the whole time; sometimes he was there with him in his mind, others he was guiding him along by voice. But, he was there and even after everything, after every assurance, Harry was still surprised that the man wanted him around, that he wanted to help, that he wanted Harry in his life. He thought Legilimency was weird, but there were times he wished he could see into his Dad's mind just so he could know it wasn't all just something fleeting.
This new discipline was sort of like Occlumency, except it was also sort of cathartic, like late night talks with Ron; but one thing it wasn't was fast. Harry was surprised sometimes by how much work went into getting what you want from magic. Even so, he was moving forward. He was becoming the person he wanted to be. That wasn't the only thing moving forward though. Ron and Hermione might have said they weren't dating or boyfriend-girlfriend, but there was something there that even a clueless first year could probably see. Of course, you didn't really need to see anything. You just had to have Ron alone for a moment.
"That was really clever what Hermione said about Binn's assignment, wasn't it!" Ron exclaimed. This was the third time he had commented on it.
"Yep," Harry said. "Hearing it almost made up for having to work on History of Magic."
Ron seemed more and more fascinated by everything Hermione did these days. Harry wasn't sure what he was going to do with him.
"And did you see her after all the confetti went off?" Ron asked, having jumped the conversation to New Year's Eve. "It was all in her hair, it was the cutest thing I've ever seen."
"The confetti was in everyone's hair, Ron," Harry pointed out.
"Yeah, but it was different with her," Ron said. "Did you hear her New Year's resolution?"
"Ron, I was right there with you," Harry said. "I heard it just fine. Look, is it even crossing your mind right now that we're playing quidditch with Viktor Krum tomorrow?"
"Wait, that's tomorrow?" Ron asked. "I thought it was Saturday."
"Well it's technically Friday right now, so, yeah, Saturday's tomorrow." It was in fact past one o'clock in the morning on January first, and they really should have been asleep.
"Do you think Hermione will come?" Ron asked.
Harry was tempted to whack him with a pillow.
"I'm pretty sure she will if you ask her to," Harry said.
"Oh, Merlin," Ron said. "That's too much pressure. What if I mess up really bad in front of her? I don't have to play. I'm not even on the team."
"Gryffindor doesn't have a Keeper, Hermione won't care if you aren't perfect, and you'll get to tell your grand-kids you played quidditch with a quidditch star."
"Two quidditch stars," Ron said.
Harry rolled his eyes. Fat chance he'd ever get that far. Even if he lived that long…
"No one's going to want a gay quidditch star," Harry said.
"Does that mean you're going to tell people?" Ron asked.
"I sort of figure everyone's going to figure it out someday," Harry said. "I can't just pretend marry someone."
"Yeah, well, there's rumors about a few players; no one really cares. Besides, it's quidditch, the only thing that matters is if you can play, and you can play. Also, I'm pretty sure you could get through most of a quidditch career before anyone asked you why you were still a bachelor. Or! Or, screw being a bachelor. You just say, I'm the mother fucking Boy Who Lived, and I play quidditch better than all of you, and this is my boyfriend and if you don't like it you can go eat a toad after I catch the snitch."
"I might leave out the mother fucker part," Harry said. "Also, I'm still not really sure about the whole boyfriend thing. It's not like there's a lot of options."
"You'll find someone," Ron said. "And just you wait. You have no idea how, just, awesome it feels like to fall for someone. Horrifying too, but definitely awesome. Merlin, she kissed me on the cheek at midnight. I wish I could relive that over and over"
Harry had received a kiss on the cheek too, but he really doubted that Hermione had been blushing like she had when she had kissed Ron. It certainly hadn't done anything for Harry like it had for Ron. Ron was head over heels smitten for Hermione, and she might not have been gushing about it to Harry, but Harry could tell she felt the same way.
Harry couldn't tell Ron that he was wrong. It hadn't been awesome to fall for someone. It just hurt. Ron was awesome, but pining for him was torture.
"So how long are you going to wait for her?" Harry asked.
"As long as she'll wait with me," Ron said.
Harry stared off into the dark for a bit. "You never said what your New Year's resolution was," he said.
"Oh," Ron said. "Weird muggle thing, isn't it… Why not? My resolution is that I'm going to win the bloody tournament."
"That's no resolution," Harry said. "I already told you you can do it."
"Ugh, fine, I'll also get really good marks in Charms this term," Ron said. "What about yours, what does making yourself 'better' mean?"
Harry shrugged. "I'm working on things."
"With your dad?" Ron asked.
"Yeah," Harry said. "My dad says it's hard to lie to yourself when you're fully occluded, but with me it was other people doing the lying so I need to go back and restructure how I think about my past and myself. It's like we're going through everything bad and examining it and putting it in perspective and stuff."
"Is it working?" Ron asked.
Harry thought about it. "I think so?" he said. "It's like, going through a specific thing, like something my Aunt said to me, I can see it for what it was, and like, know it wasn't true, even believe it, but coming back into the moment I don't know that I feel all that different. It's not like we've had a lot of time to go through everything. It's like drops in a bucket, but I feel like we'll get there eventually… Assuming he doesn't get sick of dealing with me."
"I think at this point it's a safe bet he's not getting sick of you," Ron said.
Harry shrugged. "Back in first year I kept waiting for you to get tired of me."
"Wasn't ever going to happen," Ron said. "You don't get tired of your best mate."
"You should learn some Occlumency," Harry said. "It could help you out."
"I'm not letting your dad into my head," Ron said. "I still don't get how you do that."
"You can learn a lot from the books," Harry said. "Besides, he doesn't go rooting around. The only time he saw something I didn't want him to see was when we were trying a trickier technique and I was nervous. Of course, now I let him see everything that's up in here," he said tapping his temple.
"What?" Ron asked. "For real, everything?"
"Well I mean, not everything, everything," Harry said, blushing. Somethings were still just… private.
"Wouldn't that be mortifying," Ron said.
"Yep," Harry said. "But I could teach you, you know. Just a bit."
"I don't know, would that help?" Ron asked.
Harry shrugged. "I don't know, it's worth a shot isn't it?"
"Don't we have enough to worry about," Ron said. "I'm doing enough studying as it is."
"Something to think about," Harry said.
"So what are you hoping for in the new year?" Ron asked.
Harry thought about it for a moment. Ideally, there's hoping that Ron would survive the tournament, but as far as Ron should be concerned, Harry had every faith that he would win the thing. "How about, just, no one tries to kill me."
Though Harry suspected that Professor Dumbledore's plan involved someone trying to kill him before the end of the year.
"Well there's always hoping," Ron said.
"What about you?" Harry asked.
"I want Hermione to become my girlfriend," Ron said. "Also I hope no one tries to kill you, too. Also, I hope I don't drown in the lake."
"You can hold your breath, can't you?" Harry asked.
"Sure," Ron said, rolling his eyes. "Well enough. You're the one who can't even swim. Hey, since you never learned, I can teach you."
"Sure," Harry said. "Right after it warms up."
"Right," Ron said, with a yawn. "I think it's time to get to bed. I want to be well rested when I face Victor Krum."
"Which of us is facing Victor Krum?" Harry asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Well, I will in February," Ron said.
"Hmm, I guess it's not too early for that," Harry said.
Harry got off of Ron's bed and padded over to his own. He checked his watch, they probably shouldn't have stayed up until two.
"Okay, this is stupid," Ron said.
"This isn't stupid," Harry said. "This is Quidditch, and Quidditch isn't stupid."
"This is me about to look like a fool in front of the entire school," Ron said.
"It's not the whole school," Harry said.
"This many people don't usually show up to the pick up games," Ron said.
"So Krum has a few fans," Harry said.
"Krum has all the fans," Ron said, waving his arm at the crowd in the stands.
"Okay, yeah, there's a lot of people," Harry said, waving him off. "but there were a lot of people when you fought the dragon. You'd never fought a dragon before. You have played Quidditch before. You're going to be fine."
"Hey, who invited them?" Harry heard someone say. He turned around and saw Malfoy, Bletchley, and Montague approaching the pitch, all three were clearly there to play quidditch.
"Oh, great," Ron said.
Harry frowned. There wasn't exactly anyone in charge of the games. Harry started heading toward the three Slytherin players. He wasn't the only one.
"Fine weather for quidditch," Malfoy said when Harry approached.
"It's below freezing and we're supposed to get snow flurries," Harry said.
"We've all played in worse," Malfoy said. "I heard spots were open, sounded like fun."
Harry bit his lip. His first impulse was to tell Malfoy to get lost, but it wasn't exactly his place and Malfoy hadn't actually done anything terrible yet.
"We're not playing teams," Harry said.
"Good," Malfoy said. "We're a few short."
"No teams at all really," Harry said. "We just rotate through. Charm your robe red if you're playing red team, and blue if you're playing blue team. You go back and forth. We're playing for fun." He emphasized the word fun. They didn't need the Slytherins playing like Slytherins.
"Fun," Malfoy nodded. "Just like I said."
Malfoy was acting like this wasn't unusual, like it was normal for him and Harry to talk like this. Without hostility. Harry shifted uncomfortably.
"Hillcrest can tell you how the rotation works. I've got to get ready." He turned and left Malfoy with the other players who had gathered.
"I did not want to play in front of him," Ron said.
"I thought it was Hermione you were nervous to play in front of," Harry said casually.
"Different reasons," Ron said.
"You're going to play just fine," Harry told him.
"Krum's here," Ron said. Harry turned around to see the professional seeker approaching the pitch with a few of his Durmstrang schoolmates. Unlike with Malfoy though, no one seemed to want to approach him.
"You did invite him," Harry said.
"Yep," Ron said. "I should probably go talk to him."
Ron approached Krum and guided him over to where Cedric was talking to the Ravenclaw team captain. Krum had been what could have been called fashionably late and with his arrival the first fourteen players were randomly selected from their various pools of chasers, beaters, keepers, and seekers and the game started.
Fine, was about the best Harry could say for how Ron did when he played. He wasn't bad, not at all really, but he had a long way to go before he would be ready for the quidditch team next year. Harry, on the other hand, did very well for himself. He didn't win. There wasn't really any winning with players being rotated through both teams in an unending game that went on for hours. It wasn't really about the snitch either. They used the practice snitch, which, while still just as fast and maneuverable, emitted a faint glow and was a lot less difficult to find, so it was caught about a dozen times during the game.
Krum, of course caught the snitch the most, but Harry wasn't far behind. He just wished he could have played against Krum more than he got to. With the random swapping in and out, he was mostly pitted against his own Hogwarts competitors. Still though, it was a lot of fun, in spite of Malfoy's 'fine weather.' He couldn't even really say that he had fun in spite of Malfoy being there. Malfoy was just, for whatever reason, pretending like he was just any other player. His two Slytherin cronies didn't cause problems either. Harry didn't trust any of it.
There being five seekers and only two positions, Harry wound up sitting in the bleachers with Hermione for a lot of the game, sometimes with and sometimes without Ron. It was one of the times without Ron that things got awkward for a bit.
They had been chatting for a while about Harry's trip to Australia when she asked him rather suddenly, "Do you like Ron?"
Harry didn't need to ask for the distinction between like and like like. "What makes you ask that?" he asked, keeping his eyes on the pitch.
"Well you're avoiding the question, for one," Hermione said.
"Ron likes girls," Harry said. "Ron likes you, you like him. There isn't really anything to discuss."
Hermione frowned. "We've been best friends for years and now we both have feelings for the same boy," she said.
"Yeah, well, there's no contest, so you don't need to worry about anything," Harry said, keeping the bitterness out of his voice. He didn't want a boyfriend anyway.
"I'm worried you won't be happy," Hermione said.
Oh, of course. Hermione knew there was no contest. She wouldn't be worried about Harry being competition.
"I'll be fine," Harry said. "It's not like I can do anything about it."
"You can talk about it," Hermione said.
"You want me to talk about having a crush on your not-really-a-boyfriend?"
Hermione blushed at how Harry described Ron. "We're still figuring things out," she said.
Harry sighed. "It sucks," he said. "But it's all right. I'm in your camp. Dating can wait a bit longer. I'm sure when the time comes and my life isn't a mess I'll have someone else to crush on. Of course, they'll probably be straight too."
"Don't be so pessimistic," Hermione said.
Harry shrugged. Suddenly, he nudged Hermione and pointed at the pitch. The red team was approaching the blue teams goal posts where Ron was stationed as keeper. McLaughlin feinted for the right hoop before going for the left, Ron hadn't been fooled though, he'd kept his spot until McLaughlin was committed and zipped over to intercept.
"Oh," Hermione said with a smile. "He caught it!"
Ron did a celebratory barrel roll that he sort of fumbled, but he was still in high spirits, his face radiant. Harry grinned, feeling a swoop in his gut. Ron threw the quaffle back to one of the blue chasers, or rather, in the general vicinity of said blue chaser. They'd work on that.
"He'll be a great keeper next year," Harry said.
"That will make him happy," Hermione said, nodding.
"He's been pretty happy since the Yule Ball," Harry said.
"Has he?" Hermione asked.
"Mmhmm," Harry said.
"You boys must think I'm being silly," Hermione said.
Harry frowned. "I get it," Harry said. "Things are crazy, but we've got some nice things going on in our lives. Why throw a monkey wrench in it all?" He turned away from Hermione and focused his gaze on Ron. "You'd um- You'd be great together, I'm sure. But… there's no rush."
"Ron's in a rush," Hermione said.
Harry wasn't sure if he was supposed to defend that or deny it. "He doesn't want to rush you," he said. "And it looks like he's getting swapped out now." Ron was flying over to their little corner of the bleachers.
"Ugh," Ron said, pulling out his wand when he arrived. "You've let the heating charm dissipate. Aren't you two cold?"
"We haven't been dealing with wind chill," Hermione said as Ron delimited a new area for her to apply a heating charm to.
"Did you see that save?" Ron asked. "I saw right through McLaughlin's feint."
"It was great," Hermione said. "Harry tells me whenever I need to look up."
Ron gave Harry a grateful grin, and here Harry was playing wingman for the boy he had a crush on.
"You're doing really well," Harry said. "Can't wait to have you on the team next year."
"I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to try out," Ron said.
"We'll practice a lot," Harry said. "You'll be a shoe in."
"We can do our own quidditch summer camp," Ron said.
"Yeah." Harry didn't like making promises that far out. Who knew when the headmaster's plan was going to happen. He certainly wasn't telling Harry.
"Oh," Ron pointed. "Angelina's waving you over, I think you're on deck."
"I think I should be up against Malfoy." Harry grabbed his broom.
"Kick his butt," Ron said.
Harry did. Malfoy didn't look like he cared though. Harry told himself that that didn't matter. The game was fun. There wasn't any need to let Malfoy being there ruin anything. Really though, nothing was ruined, even with Malfoy there, the whole thing was just a lot of fun and Harry was disappointed when it was over.
"I was not expecting such challenge," Krum said to Harry when they landed. As luck would have it, they were the last two seekers to play, and Harry was the last to catch the snitch. Not that Krum hadn't bested him several times already during the day. "Of course I did not expect an opponent on a Firebolt either."
"I hope you had fun," Harry said.
"I did," Krum said. "It was nice to have such a… how do you say ah… casual, a casual game."
"When there's no score we can just focus on sport," Cedric said, coming upon the two of them. "I'm glad you could join us today."
"I would appreciate coming again," Krum said.
"Then we'll keep you in the loop," Cedric stuck his hand out and the two of them shook hands. He turned to Harry. "I was hoping I could have a word."
"Sure," Harry said, allowing himself to be pulled aside.
"So thanks for warning me about the dragons," Cedric said.
"You thanked me already," Harry said.
"Well, I'm thanking you more now," Cedric said. "The next task is under the lake."
"Oh," Harry said. "We know. Hermione did this weird sound modulation charm on the egg."
Cedric raised his eyebrows. "I just took a bath with mine."
"What?" Harry asked.
"I like to relax," Cedric said. "Helps me think. Figured out it sounded different under water."
"Huh. Well I don't suppose you know how to breathe under water?" Harry asked.
Cedric paused for a moment looking torn. Eventually though he shrugged. "I'm going to use the bubblehead charm," he said.
"That works underwater?" Harry asked. His dad had applied it to him while he was working on his potions project the year prior when he had been dealing with clouds of mercury.
"That's what it's for," Cedric said.
Harry hadn't even considered it for the lake; he couldn't envision it, the idea seemed ridiculous. "Wouldn't your head float though, with a big bubble of air?" he asked.
"It works," Cedric said. "I've already tested it, but… It's liable to be too advanced."
"Ron'll surprise you," Harry said. "We'll look into it."
Cedric shook his head. "Your skill applying it determines how long it lasts. If it doesn't hold, he won't be able to reapply it under water. Not unless he could do it nonverbally and he'd need a breath of air to fill it with."
Harry frowned. "He'll surprise you," he said firmly.
"He already has," Cedric said. "But still… Alright, well, good luck."
"Hey mate," Ron said, having come down from the bleachers. "I don't want to keep Hermione waiting so let's hit the showers and go."
"Oh," Harry said feeling his face redden. He'd always been body conscious and rather uncomfortable with the group showers that the quidditch changing rooms offered but since the start of term, Harry hadn't used them at all after their pick up quidditch games, opting instead to cart his sweaty self to the tower where the showers were separated from each other and had curtains. So far no one had commented on it. With so many players in their free-for-all games it was easy to slip away. He wasn't sure what he'd do next year.
Since becoming aware of his sexuality, he had been very careful not to do anything that could be seen as improprietous to anyone who might know that he was gay. Going into a room full of his naked classmates seemed exactly the thing to avoid. Especially since he wasn't exactly incurious about what some of his classmates might look like.
"Sure," Cedric said. "I've been meaning to ask you about some of the spells you used against the dragons."
"Oh," Harry said. "I forgot a change of clothes, I'll wait out here with Hermione."
"No worries," Cedric said. "I know a charm that'll freshen your robes. Just remind me when you get out of the shower."
Right, Harry thought, just go up to Cedric whilst the both of them were in various states of undress. They'd just have a chat, why not.
Cedric and Ron turned and started walking to the changing room, and… Harry followed them, his heart pounding in his chest. Facing another basilisk would feel less terrifying. It wasn't exactly like he could excuse himself. What was he supposed to say? 'Sorry Cedric, you don't want me in there 'cause I'm gay?' And what was with Ron? He knew. Sure, he always acted like it didn't change anything; but this? Though it wasn't like Ron had stopped changing out in the open dorm since Harry had told him he was gay.
Just don't look at anyone, he told himself. Think about quidditch, or potions. Harry had a sudden horrifying thought that he should have definitely had long before he actually started walking towards the changing rooms with his friends. What if he got an erection? He was going to be naked too, there wasn't going to be any hiding that. Shit, shit, shit. Should he fake an injury? What could he possibly do between here and the changing room? Everyone knew he'd prefer to walk off anything minor rather than go to Madam Pomfrey.
They walked through the communal team area towards the boys locker room. Harry felt like his entire body was blushing. He had been training to face Voldemort and Death Eaters for months, but he was going to be undone by a shower. His training though- of course, Occlumency. That would work perfectly, he hoped. Harry was in a hurry though and in a very rushed and hamfisted manner, he managed to clear his mind, for the most part. He focused on his breathing, and, oh, there was a butt… and there was a… well, he was in a locker room, but none of that mattered. Everything was all right. He was aware of his surroundings, he just wasn't thinking about them. He focused on the sounds around him and the task at hand. He tuned into Ron's conversation with Cedric, his body on autopilot. Everything was all right. They were just talking about charms and dragons. There might be changing guys all around him as Harry started getting out of his own clothes, but none of that mattered to Harry at the moment.
Using occlumency, Harry kept himself tangentially involved with the conversation about the first task. Using one of the more advanced techniques his dad had taught him, though, he created a walled off portion of his brain where he could think about everything. This process was difficult since he wasn't exactly in a calm environment and he hadn't exactly cleared his mind properly to begin with.
Harry himself had always been fairly self conscious, a byproduct of a childhood where he was regularly made to feel ashamed of himself and how he looked, he could see that a bit clearly now in this state, but he knew different people had different levels of comfort in that department. Seamus and Ron were absolutely unabashed about anything in the dorm, Dean changed quickly, and Neville, like Harry, preferred to change behind his curtains. Everyone had their own level of comfort or discomfort and everyone respected that.
No one ever commented on how anyone else changed in the dorm, they just did their own thing, and Harry, Harry had always kept his eyes to himself. Even after he'd started being attracted to the other boys, it wasn't like he ogled anyone. They wouldn't like that whether they knew he was gay or not. It wasn't like Harry was going to do that here. He had no problem keeping his eyes to himself but in this setting it wasn't exactly something he could avoid.
He ruminated on these thoughts for a while as he showered quickly. The part of his brain that was controlling his body completely separated from his running thoughts. He liked guys. There wasn't any getting away from that. Objectively though, there wasn't anything he hadn't seen before. As deeply occluded as he was at the moment he could more closely analyze his own thoughts and feelings. If he wasn't occluding just then would he be able to keep himself from doing anything wrong? He analyzed his thoughts for a while. He stopped occluding.
His first thought was that he was naked and he felt exposed. He focused on drying himself off quickly so he could wrap himself up. He walked over to where he had left his robes, his robes that were still sweaty. He steeled himself and looked over to where Cedric was still drying himself off. Harry glanced back at his robes and waited for a moment. Glancing back, he saw that Cedric had started changing and was decent enough for Harry to approach. Holding his towel secure with one hand and his sodden clothes in the other he approached the older boy.
"Oh, right," Cedric said. He performed a few charms and Harry thanked him before walking back to where he had been. Ron came back a moment later, still dripping wet and gripping the towel around his neck. Harry just focused on getting dressed.
"See you outside," Harry said.
"Make sure Hermione's alright," Ron said, a hitch in his voice. Harry could have kicked himself. Ron wouldn't have wanted to leave Hermione alone outside, and Harry could have probably used that as an excuse to get out of the whole showering ordeal.
"Sure," Harry said.
All in all though, everything was all right. He was gay, there were a bunch of changing guys, but everything was all right. He walked towards the exit, eyes on the doorway. He'd been treating this like it was a big deal but, it just wasn't. He was fully capable of handling himself properly without being a creep. Being naked in front of everyone was awkward, seeing everyone naked was awkward, but awkward was all right. Everything was all right.
He spotted Hermione outside rather quickly. She was leaning up against the outer doorway and reading a book.
"Sorry we made you sit in the bleachers all day," Harry said.
"Oh, it was nice," Hermione said. "I had a nice book and occasionally interesting things happened that involved brooms. Did you have fun?"
Harry blushed scarlet thinking for a brief moment that she was talking about the locker room, but of course, she wasn't.
"Yeah," Harry said. "It was great playing against Krum."
"I suppose you like a challenge," Hermione said.
"Just because I almost always win doesn't mean I've never been challenged before," Harry said. "Though it was very nice to play against someone of his calibre."
"You never talk about your future," Hermione said. "Not past whatever is immediately in front of you."
Harry shrugged, not sure where she was going.
"Harry," Hermione said. "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
Alive, Harry thought. "A quidditch star," he said. Because that was an easy answer. It was also mostly true. That would probably be nice. It would probably be really nice. But he could think of a few things that would be nice and he'd never really given it much thought. He couldn't really say what he wanted to be. He shrugged again. "I'll think about it."
Ron came out then. He looked pale and his hair was still damp. Had he been pale when Harry had last seen him?
"Were you okay in there?" Hermione asked. "It must have been crowded."
Harry hadn't even thought of that. Shit. He was too busy thinking about his own problems to think about Ron's. He was such a bad friend and… He cut that thought off and reminded himself that it was all right to worry about himself and that he and Ron had a strong friendship.
"It was," Ron agreed. "I talked dragons with Diggory for a bit though and that kept my mind off of things for a bit. Sort of got a bit on edge and wound up rushing through changing; didn't really dry myself off."
"Well it's cold enough, don't you think," Hermione said. She pulled out her wand and Ron had dry clothes and hair a moment later. Ron looked at her like she was the most important person in the world.
"Lets go warm up in the tower," Harry said.
"The twins were going to get some hot chocolate from the kitchens," Hermione said.
"That'll be nice," Ron said.
They started walking back to the tower.
"So Cedric wanted to thank me for telling him about the dragons," Harry said. "Let's talk about the Bubblehead charm."
They discussed the pros and cons as they walked back, though until they could actually look it up, it was mostly speculation. They had time though, and Harry didn't let thoughts of the second task ruin his mood. It had been a good day, even with the changing room, and Harry was going to enjoy the rest of it with his friends.
The last day of the break was spent mostly on homework, though they found the time to look up the Bubble Head charm. Cedric was right, it was advanced. It was a charm that basically encased the head in a bubble and then continuously transfigured carbon dioxide into oxygen. If you did it wrong, you could asphyxiate and not even realize it, also apparently too much oxygen was a thing. It required strong capabilities in both charms and transfiguration. Ron was going to start trying to learn it, but they were still looking for a better alternative.
That night though, with both their Arithmancy and Transfiguration homework due the following day, they focused on making sure it was all ready to go. All in all, it had been a very eventful holiday and Harry was happy for all of it, even the really difficult conversations he'd had with his dad.
The resumption of classes wasn't the only eventful thing about Monday though. Once more, as he entered the great hall for breakfast, it seemed like all eyes turned upon him.
"Shit," Ron said. Hermione did not correct him for his language. Harry fought the urge to turn around and go back to bed.
The great hall was a buzz of animated whispering. Harry started walking down the aisle towards their usual spots at the Gryffindor table. Whatever it was, he would take it in stride. He wondered what the Prophet had now. There were only so many great secrets he had left. Loath as he was to do it, he took Malfoy's advice from long ago and held his head up high.
"We should get here earlier," Ron said. "This is always awkward."
"You boys are the ones taking forever to get ready," Hermione said.
"I'm not exactly a morning person," Ron commented.
"Its fine," Harry said, very unsure of his own proclamation. As long as it wasn't his lycanthropy, he could survive whatever might have come out. However he handled things just then was probably the most important. He seized rough control of his mind as panic tried to set in. It was the best he could do at the moment. Fear was necessary, panic was useless. He stamped it down until it was just an angry buzz beneath his skin.
"Is it?" Ron asked.
"Sure," Harry said, with some level of bravado.
"Faggot," the word came from somewhere behind him amidst the jumbled rumbling of the student body.
Harry almost froze at the word. Ron turned around but Harry grabbed his sleeve and kept walking. It wasn't as though he hadn't sort of expected this to happen at some point. He had thought he had had more time though. He made eye contact with his dad at the Head Table as he walked down the aisle. He tried to put on a face that said he did not need paternal intervention.
Harry sat down at the table. Ever since Greyback, Ron and Hermione had always sat side by side at the table, so Harry was surprised when they both sat on either side of him. Opposite him, Seamus had a copy of Witch Weekly that he must have borrowed from someone, though it was folded up with its headline hidden. He was also avoiding looking at the three of them.
"Anything interesting in the paper this morning?" Harry asked, not exactly as casually as he was going for. He supposed he knew now what it likely held. At least it wasn't his lycanthropy.
Seamus blushed. He looked at his plate. "Um…"
"Witch Weekly says you two are a couple," Parvati says. She had just scooted a couple spots down the table and was looking with interest at Harry and Ron.
"What?" Harry asked, looking at Ron in surprise. "We're not a couple."
"Well there's a picture, but it's okay," Parvati said, in a patronizingly reassuring tone. Lavender joined her. She also looked very interested.
"What picture could they possibly have?" Ron asked.
"The Quidditch World Cup," Seamus said. "Parvati's not explaining it well." He handed the magazine to Harry, still not really looking at him.
"Well I definitely wasn't dating anyone at the World Cup," Harry said. "Come to think of it, I'm not dating anyone right now." He nudged Ron with his elbow.
Ron hmmed. "Are you sure we didn't start dating?" he asked. "I mean, if it's in Witch Weekly…"
"Well I'm pretty sure," Harry said. "But then again, I'm sure… Oh, it's Rita Skeeter, I'm sure Skeeter knows what she's talking about."
"Are you going to read the article?" Lavender asked.
"Well I suppose," Harry said. "Lets find out if we're dating."
He picked up the magazine and groaned at the title: 'The Boy-Who-Lived in the Closet.' Ron and Hermione read over his shoulders. As to Harry being gay, the article had two main pieces of evidence. The first was an anonymous source who reported hearing Harry talk about being gay during the Yule Ball in the rose garden. Harry sort of remembered making a flippant comment back then.
"That's obviously made up," Hermione commented. "There wasn't anyone in the garden when we were out there."
The second piece was a photograph taken at the Quidditch World Cup. It looked like it had been blown up from a larger photo, but it clearly showed Harry in the top box. The problem was that Harry could tell exactly when it was taken. It was taken when all of the guys in the top box were looking like fools because they were staring at the Veela on the pitch. All of the males, with the notable exception of Harry, who was looking around in confusion. Unfortunately for Ron, with the angle of the photo, Harry was actually blocking him, so no one could actually see that he was just as entranced as everyone else. Oh, wait, there was Charlie, with a smug look as he took in the spectacle.
"Some boys start puberty later than other boys," Hermione defended. "Harry just wouldn't have been interested yet. That doesn't mean anything."
To support the romance angle with Ron the article only really had conjecture. Ron taking the tournament for Harry, Harry facing Greyback for Ron, ("and me," Hermione supplied), as well as how all three of them disappeared from the Yule Ball early on. The article hinted that Ron had taken Hermione as a cover and that they'd left early so that Harry and Ron could spend time together, mentioning that Harry had gone stag. Harry had the thought that it would be easier to deal with if it were all true. The article closed with comments from classmates about how close they were. It never actually said that they were boyfriends, but it came very close.
"Really," Hermione said. "This article's nothing but conjecture and one supposed overheard comment. I can't believe they printed this."
"But the picture," Lavender said.
"The picture doesn't mean anything," Hermione said, throwing up her hands.
"I'm gay," Harry said, more loudly than he really needed to, halting a lot of conversations around him.
"Oh," Ron said. "Good on you mate." He clapped Harry on the back like he'd just won Gryffindor a bunch of points.
"To be clear," Harry said. "I'm gay, Ron's not. We aren't dating."
"Oh, you think I don't know you two sneak behind each others curtains at night?" Seamus said.
Parvati and Lavender both gasped before they started giggling behind their hands.
Ron rolled his eyes. "You know I have trouble sleeping, it's not like that."
"So you two are sleeping together?" Lavender asked. Why the hell did she look hopeful?
"No," Ron said. "We chat for a bit before bed. That's all. And I don't seem to recall you having a problem with that before this article," Ron threw at Seamus.
"Yeah, well I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt," Seamus said indignantly.
"I don't need the benefit of your anything," Ron said. "It's no skin off my back if you think I'm gay or straight. What's the matter Finnigan, you got a problem with all of this?"
"Yeah, well a bloke should know, shouldn't he, if he's sharing a dorm with a couple of queers."
"That's strange," Ron said. "Because unless you want to fuck me I can't see how my sexuality has anything to do with you."
"Ronald!" Hermione said very indignantly while simultaneously a very angry Seamus called out, "it does when I'm sleeping next to you two."
"Yeah, well, I'm pretty sure you don't have to worry about anyone wanting to creep on you," Ron said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well I was trying to low key call you ugly, but if you need me to spell it out for you, I can also call you stupid," Ron said.
"Ron," Hermione chastised. "Lets talk about this."
"There's nothing to talk about," Seamus said. He pushed his plate away from himself as if he was too disgusted to eat and got up from the table to storm off. Harry might have hoped for there to be no drama in the dorm at least.
Dean, who'd been silent up until now, got up too. His face looked drawn and his eyes were upset. "I'll go talk to him," he said. "Um, he'll come around. So, ah, good to know…. Harry. Um, see you in class." He left hurriedly in the direction Seamus had gone.
"So tell us everything," Parvati said.
"I'm gay," Harry said. "That's everything."
"Is this going to be a thing?" Neville asked.
"A thing?" Harry asked.
"Like the werewolf thing, and the Slytherin thing, and the hundred fifty points in one night thing," Neville said.
"Yeah," Harry said. "It's probably going to be a thing."
Ron shrugged off his angry expression. "Nah," he said. "Everyone knows you're Snape's kid now. They know not to cross him. Well- The first and second years don't, but I'm not too worried about them hexing you in the halls."
"Did he already know?" Neville asked.
Harry nodded. "He's fine with it."
"All right, what've we missed?" It was the twins, a bit late for breakfast. They took the seats previously occupied by Dean and Seamus.
"Harry's out," Ron said.
"Oh, so we can tease him in public now?" Fred asked.
"I didn't realize you were restraining yourselves," Hermione said.
"You have no idea," George said.
"So judging by how many people are crowding around Witch Weekly I'm going to guess this wasn't something you planned out," said Fred.
Harry held up the magazine.
"Oh, front page," George said. "Is this one going in the scrapbook?"
"No scrapbook," Harry said.
"Are you really alright?" Hermione asked.
Harry hmmed. "I guess? I mean everyone I care about already knew and you're all fine with it. I can deal with everyone else. I'd sort of figured it wasn't something I could keep a secret forever. Seamus was a bit disappointing but not really a surprise."
"Finnegan?" Fred asked.
"Oh, don't you worry," George said.
"I'm not worried," Harry said. "You don't need to do anything."
"You've got honorary little brother status," Fred said.
"And that means we get to make certain people's lives interesting," said George.
"I mean we've got a number of products to test out," said Fred.
"No testing your products on other students," Hermione said firmly. "Now are the three of us going to get some peace so we can actually eat our breakfast?"
"Now honestly, who else are we going to test our products on if we can't test on students?" George asked.
"How about yourselves," Hermione said.
"How about the first years?" Fred asked.
"Absolutely not," Hermione said.
"Guess we'll just have to do it in secret," George said.
"Super secret," said Fred.
Hermione opened her mouth to reply but Ron cut in. "Did you want some pineapple, Hermione? It's almost all gone."
"We'll talk more about this later," Hermione told the twins, taking the tray of fruit that Ron had pulled over.
They focused on eating breakfast then. Harry did his best to tune out the gossip happening all around him. The twins talked about their business, which was actually starting to sound like an actual business, and Ron and Hermione seemed to be keeping an eye out for anyone who might approach.
"I'm really sorry you got dragged into the whole thing," Harry told Ron as they walked towards Transfiguration.
"I don't care about that," Ron said. "How would that be if I told you and Charlie that I don't care that you're gay but I freak out if someone thinks I am too." He turned to Hermione. "Besides, the only girl that matters knows how I feel about her."
Hermione reached out and grabbed Ron's hand and the both of them started blushing. Harry moved his eyes forward.
"Well still, you don't need to fight Seamus on my behalf."
"It's my behalf too," Ron said. "If he's got a problem with you he's got a problem with my family, so I definitely have a problem with him."
"Well he's not going to come around just because you yell at him," Hermione said.
"Really, what we should be doing is educating people," Hermione said. "I'm sure there are pamphlets we can get from somewhere."
"Nah," Ron said. "Harry, you just need to do the same thing you did when that article about the Dursleys came out. Just tell everyone, 'yeah, I'm gay, but you know what, that doesn't change anything else you knew about me.' You're still you. Just remind them that being gay doesn't mean anything besides you liking blokes."
"I think that might be the part some people are taking issue to," Harry said.
"Are you going to write a letter to the editor again?" Hermione asked.
"Maybe," Harry said. He didn't know what he'd write.
"You're not going to skip classes again are you?" Hermione asked.
"No," Harry said. "I think I'll be alright. Besides, I've got too much to do to fall behind."
"Just let us know if anyone gives you crap," Ron said.
"I'm pretty sure someone's going to give me crap and that I'm going to survive it," Harry said. "But I'm not the only one in that article, if you'll recall."
"I told you I don't care," Ron said.
"Yeah, well I do," Harry said.
"How about we just see how it goes," Hermione said.
"I think I can do that," Harry said.
"Good," Hermione said. "And we'll try not to get into any fights."
"No promises," Ron said.
They made their way to the classroom amidst stares and whispers, but so far no one seemed interested in making a scene.
Professor McGonagall, of course, did not tolerate gossiping or acting out in her classroom and Harry survived the class just fine. Ron and Hermione were back to sitting next to one another. Seamus seemed to go out of his way to sit as far from them as possible. He got a 'Keep your chin up, Potter,' from Professor McGonagall as he was leaving. It was in-between classes that Harry got some trouble.
"Hey, Potter, are you really gay?" some older Ravenclaw thought it was his business to ask loudly in the hallway.
"Yeah," Harry said, just as loudly, "but I'm not dating Ron."
Someone else took the opportunity of the suddenly hushed hall to make a rather crass suggestion of what Harry and Ron did in the dorms that got an indignant response from Hermione and a rather large blush from Harry. He wasn't even sure if that was a thing people did together.
"Oy," Ron said. "If you think you've got anything on basilisks, dragons, or mountain trolls, you can come up and say that to our faces."
"I don't need to get near your queer asses," was the reply from the crowd.
"So that's a no then?" Ron called back.
"No thanks," Ron said. "I've got better things to do." With that, he started walking down the hall again.
"So that was sort of badass," Harry said.
"That was a good way to start a fight," Hermione said.
"I wasn't starting anything," Ron said.
"You weren't stopping anything either," Hermione said.
Ron frowned at Hermione, and Harry could tell he was resisting an argument.
"None of the prefects even said anything," Hermione said.
Harry didn't have anything to say to that, but in his experience, authority figures had a way of not seeing problems they didn't want to deal with.
Herbology was nice, though fairly awkward. There was plenty of time to chat during class and the Hufflepuffs made overtures. Harry and Ron kept having to deny being a couple.
Fortunately, with Care of Magical Creatures following Herbology, Harry didn't have to brave the halls again, but he now had to face the Slytherins. Since his father's trial, Draco had stopped hanging out with many of his usual hangers on. Crabbe and Goyle seemed to have migrated towards Theodore Notte. The only people Draco seemed to hang out with now in his year was Daphne Greengrass, Tracy Davis, and Blaise Zabini.
Draco didn't seem to care about the loss of his old friends. He didn't seem much affected by anything these days. That was what bothered Harry the most, Draco had used to be so transparent, but now, he was an enigma. His father was locked up, his friends had left him; everything Harry had thought Draco cared about, Draco had lost. Yet now, and indeed it seems every day, Draco was smiling affably, leading whatever conversation he was in without looking like he was holding court. Harry didn't like not knowing what to expect from someone.
Trouble, though, didn't come from Draco today, it came from Nott and Pansy. It came in the form sneers and laughter behind hands. It came in the form of comments and crude hand gestures when Hagrid's back was turned.
Hagrid, for his part, didn't act as if anything were different, besides clapping Harry on the back when he first got to class. Harry wasn't sure what he had been expecting; Hagrid was one of the most accepting people he knew. Still though, he had been expecting some sort of scene. Harry stayed back after class ended, if only because he felt like he needed to confirm that Hagrid new.
"Hi Hagrid," Harry said, when it was just him and his friends left behind.
"Did you want to help me with the Occamys, Harry?" Hagrid asked.
"Sure," Harry said. He grabbed one of the cages and brought it over. "Say, Hagrid, I just wanted to check… you see what was in the paper this morning?"
"They had no business printing that," Hagrid said, gently putting the weird lizard bird in it's cage. "Weren't their business at all."
"I just didn't know what you thought about that," Harry said.
"Yer all right, Harry," Hagrid said. "Don't you worry about me. You just let me know if anyone's giving you trouble fer anything."
"Right, thanks Hagrid," Harry said.
"Though I have been wondering if you're ever going to tell me about the two of you."
"Oh, we're not," Harry said. "I mean I am, Ron's not."
"Oh, well alright then," Hagrid said. "Just don't you go paying too much mind to what other people say."
"I won't," Harry said.
"We should get to lunch" Hermione said. "We'll stop by for tea tomorrow after classes."
"Oh that would be great," Hagrid said. "I'll see you then."
Harry was tempted to skip lunch. Didn't want to deal with everything. He hadn't been ready to deal with all of this. He didn't like the stares, he didn't like the whispers, he just wanted to go out to the dorm and take a nap. But he wasn't allowed to skip meals and he at least knew that he couldn't act ashamed.
They went into their usual spot. Seamus, for his part, didn't say or do anything. The general atmosphere of the hall made it rather clear that there's one thing everyone was talking about. Harry tuned it all out and ate his lunch, letting Hermione quiz him for the pop quiz they were probably going to have in Arithmancy.
Arithmancy was a difficult enough class that it usually took all of Harry's concentration and with everything going on, he didn't mind the two hour class after lunch. He did mind Stephen Cornfoot getting up out of his seat when Harry sat down next to him just to move over one. Harry did his best not to dwell on it during class. It wasn't like the other boy was a friend or anything. Ron and Hermione were back to sitting side-by-side by Arithmancy, so Harry spent the two hour class with an empty desk next to him.
Harry was pretty relieved when the day was finally over.
"I was going to go see my dad," Harry said.
"Do you want us to walk with you?" Hermione asked.
Yes, Harry thought. Though he couldn't keep using his friends as a security blanket.
"No," Harry said. "Will you be in the library?"
"Where else would we be?" Ron asked.
"Well, I'll see you before dinner," Harry said.
"You're handling this pretty well," Hermione commented.
Harry shrugged. "I don't really have much of a choice, do I?"
"Stay safe," Ron said.
"You too," Harry said.
Harry threw on his invisibility cloak and made his way downstairs.
Harry walked into his dads office, standing by the door unsure of himself. His dad got up from his desk and crossed the room when he saw him.
"How are you holding up?" he asked, giving Harry a hug.
Harry actually stopped to think about it. He was supposed to be more introspective about his feelings, more honest too. "Sort of shitty," he said, returning the hug.
His dad held him out at arms length, looking him in the eye. "You are my son and I love you," he said very matter of factly.
Not a day had gone by since the Yule Ball that Harry hadn't heard that.
"Thanks," Harry said. He was never really sure what he was supposed to say after that. "I'm sorry if this has embarrassed you," he said.
A stern look crosses his dad's face.
"Harry," he said seriously. "Anyone who thinks less of me for having a gay son can go to hell."
"Oh," Harry said. "So, um, has there been any gossip?"
"There's always gossip," his dad said.
"Anything I should hear about? Harry asked.
His dad hesitated. "There may be some concern about you and Mr. Weasley sharing a dorm," his dad said. "But the staff knows well enough not to take articles by Miss Skeeter too seriously. I have heard that you are telling people that you are gay."
"I have been," Harry said. "I didn't see any point in fighting it."
"Has there been any trouble?" His dad asked.
Harry shook his head. "Just words," he said.
"Words matter," his dad said.
"Sure," Harry said. "But it could be worse."
"The Dark Lord could have been worse," his dad said. "Let us not measure things by how much worse they could have been. Come, let's not stand by the door all day."
They both went and sat down by his dad's desk.
"Have you been occluding at all today?" his dad asked.
"Not really," Harry said. "Just clearing my mind now and then. I'll run through some exercises before bed tonight."
"Well perhaps I can cheer you up a bit by telling you that Miss Skeeter has been banned from the school premises," his dad said.
"Oh, now she's banned?"
"Starting rumors about students love lives crossed the line," his dad said. "Of course she's crossed a line many times over the year."
"I still don't know how she heard us in the Rose Garden," Harry said. "I'm certain we were alone."
His dad gave him a look but didn't say anything.
"I know," Harry said. "You warned me."
"Even with her gone I will still urge caution," his dad said.
"Well," Harry said. "I think at this point I should just stop talking about things."
"I would not go that far," his dad said. "It is healthy to talk about certain things. If you feel the need, then I can ensure privacy."
"Let's talk safety," his dad said.
"I'm already going everywhere with an escort or under my visibility cloak," Harry said. "What more do you want?"
"I want to stay proactive," his dad said.
"Right, let's just give detention to the bullies before they bully me," Harry said.
"Perhaps not that proactive," his dad said. "But this time I want to identify problems before they arise."
"How do we do that?" Harry asked.
"How did your dorm mates handle the news," his dad asked.
"You're not going to do anything to punish him are you?" Harry asked
"Has he done anything worth punishing?" his dad asked.
"No," Harry said. "Just a disagreement."
"What sort of disagreement?"
"Well, maybe some guys don't want to share a dorm with a gay guy," Harry said.
"Have you done anything to make him uncomfortable?"
"Well I haven't done anything, but…"
"Then it should be no concern of his," his dad said.
"Ron and I talk at night," Harry said. "After lights out. With the curtains closed. He thinks we're doing something."
His dad sighed. "That is still not his concern."
Harry shrugged. "Dean said he'd talk to him."
"To Mr. Finnigan?"
"It would be best if rumors like that did not get around," his Dad said.
"Well he sort of made the accusation at the breakfast table this morning," Harry said. "While Parvati and Lavender were acting like I was the latest soap."
His dad raised an eyebrow.
"It's a sort of television program," Harry said dismissively. "It was weird, they were acting like they were very interested in everything."
His dad scowled. "Let us assume that that rumor has spread then."
"We really are just talking."
"I did not doubt you," his Dad said.
"Well that's the thing," Harry said."Everyone's going to doubt me."
"And if they do?" his Dad asked.
"Well, Ron shouldn't get dragged down in this."
"No," His Dad said. "He shouldn't. Neither of you should. Now, what else happened today?"
Harry told him about the nameless boys in the halls and about the whispers and stares.
"Nothing big has happened," Harry said. "I got a hug from Sammy Eldrich. A bunch of Hufflepuffs were extra nice to me. I know not everyone is going to make a big deal out of this."
"But some people will," his Dad said.
"So what are we going to do? Harry asked.
"The matter would be simpler if there were no rumors of about Mr. Weasley," his Dad said. "It would be best not to make this a big deal. We will have the prefects address the rest of the school body."
"I was thinking of writing in again," Harry said.
"To say what?" His Dad asked.
"To set the record straight," Harry said. "You know, that I'm not but Ron is."
"Perhaps you should ask Mr. Weasley before you write to the papers about him," his Dad said.
"Sure," Harry said. "Do you want me to mention the part where you already knew?"
"I would be happy for everyone to know that I support my son regardless of his sexuality."
"Thanks," Harry said. "Well, I don't want to fall behind on the first day of term. I should go get some homework done."
"Don't forget, we're back to your regular schedule. Come back after dinner for your lesson with Mrs. Nikiforov."
"I'll be here" Harry said heading for the door.
"Before you go," His Dad said. "I wanted to check with you. With everything that's going on, have you thought about hurting yourself?"
The question caught Harry off guard, though since telling his dad about the stupid idea he'd had when he had been eight his dad had checked in with him every time he felt that Harry was under a lot of stress. "No," Harry said. "I guess this has all been pretty sudden, but I've sort of been waiting for someone to figure it out and I've sort of gotten used to people getting into my life. And, um, you know, I haven't thought of that stuff in a long time."
"Okay," his dad said. "If things escalate, tell me."
Harry nodded. "I will. I'll see you after dinner."
"Stay safe," his dad said. "I love you."
Harry froze hearing the words outside of their usual mantra. Words Harry wasn't used to. Words he'd never used himself. He swallowed. "You too," he said. He didn't exactly flee the room, but he got out in a hurry, throwing his invisibility cloak around himself as he headed out into the halls.
No one bothered them while they did homework that afternoon, but there were still a lot of stares and whispers that followed them through the halls on the way to dinner. Harry did his best to not act as though anything were different. Fred and George and Ginny sat with them, the twins seeming to do their best to drown out the rest of the school body.
After dinner, Harry went back to the dungeons to practice with his dagger, a bit nonplussed about the activity. He still didn't know what the whole point of the exercise was. When his dad taught him dueling, that made obvious sense. Half of what he practiced with Benjamin involved freeing himself from another wizard so that he could use magic, even if that involved taking someone else's wand. Fighting with a dagger still seemed like it was useless. If he was going to keep a backup weapon then he might as well keep a backup wand.
It wasn't that he didn't enjoy lessons. They were challenging and somewhat fun, but Harry had a lot of other stuff on his plate and he just wished he knew what it was all for. Though tonight, Harry had other concerns. He didn't know if Victoria kept up with the news or if she would care if she did. People weren't exactly thrilled with everything, and Harry could deal with that, but regardless of how pointless he thought the lessons where, Dumbledore said he needed them so he didn't know what he would do if Victoria decided not to teach him anymore.
Victoria greeted him all the same when he walked in. Warm-ups too were just the same as usual. By the end of practice, Harry was certain she hadn't seen the news that morning. Yet it was all but a certainty that she would eventually come to find out, so Harry decided to come out on his own terms.
"Mrs. Nikiforov, I wanted to tell you something," Harry said while they were doing their cool-down stretches.
"Victoria, I have told you," she reminded him.
"Right, Victoria, um so I thought I should tell you that I was gay, and I just need to know if you'll still train me."
"You will not get out of training so easy," Victoria said.
"Oh," Harry rushed to say. "No, I wasn't trying to get out of training…"
"This is why I moved here with my Yuuri," Victoria said. We could not stay in Russia and to be together."
"Oh," Harry said. "So Yuuri's you're...?"
"My wife," Victoria said.
"Oh," Harry said. "And you moved here?"
"Compared to Russia…" Victoria said. "Here we are left alone. There are no laws to keep us apart. Perhaps there are places in the world that are better for us, but I already spoke some English and Yuuri had friends in Ireland. It was an easy choice."
"It doesn't feel like people leave you alone here," Harry said.
"Everyone knows," Harry said.
"Did they leave you alone before?" Victoria asked.
"No," Harry said. "But this doesn't seem like it's going to blow over like other things have."
"You are boy of destiny," Victoria said. "You have done great things, you will do great things, perhaps is good it does not blow over. It is not fair to you, but perhaps we need more people out front, and who better…"
"Right, no pressure," Harry said.
"Exactly," Victoria said. "No pressure, just to be yourself."
"Da," Victoria said. "Extra ordinary."
"If you hide who you are, people think you have something to hide, that something is wrong. Be yourself, be proud, show them who you are, show them that you are strong. Show them that being gay has not made you less."
"That isn't an option for everyone," Harry said, thinking of Sammy who's choice had been between being who she was or keeping her father happy. That hadn't been anyone's choice but her own.
"Da," Victoria said. "And yet everyone knows, so the only thing to hide now is yourself."
"Hmm," Harry said.
"Think on it," Victoria said. "You are strong young man, do not let them think otherwise."
"Are you out to everyone?" Harry asked.
"If it comes up," Victoria said. "I do not make thing of it, but I will not hide my Yuuri, nor will I call her anything but my wife."
"So you're married?"
"Legally? No, but we had beautiful ceremony. We are married in our hearts. It is not everything, but it is most important. So now tell me of your love life."
"Oh," Harry said, a bit flustered. "I don't have one."
"Do you wish for one?"
"Ummm, well, maybe some day," Harry said. "Maybe after everyone stops trying to kill me."
"Hmmm," Victoria said. "Then best we show world soon that you are not man to be trifled with."
Voldemort should take care of things soon, Harry thought, one way or another.
"Did you go to Durmstrang?" Harry asked to change the subject.
"Niet," Victoria said. "Russia has her own school. These three schools like to think that they are secretive, but I cannot even say the name of the school I went to."
That took Harry aback. "What was it like there?"
Victoria made the sealed lips gesture. "Best school in the world, of course."
"Hogwarts would still win if they were in the tournament," Harry said assuredly.
She smiled but did not comment.
After practice Harry returned to the library to work on his runic trigger ward project with Ron and Hermione working on their own projects. The biggest obstacle Harry had just then was actually scribing runes. His handwriting was atrocious enough and carving runes was a bit like trying to do calligraphy. It didn't help that Ron and Hermione kept distracting him with an odd sort of bickering. It was odd because they didn't go back and forth for too long, just quick little quips, and also neither one of them seemed put out by any of it. It took Harry a bit longer, perhaps, than it should have to realize that they were flirting. He blushed deep red when he realized and accidentally took a hunk of wood out of the block he was carving into.
"Light touch, Harry," Hermione absently chided across from him. They called it a night not too long after Ron fell asleep at the table. Hermione gently ruffled his hair to wake him up but in spite of that Ron woke with a start, looking around in alarm.
"You might be more comfortable not sleeping on top of chess pieces," Hermione said.
Ron grumbled a bit, trying to rub the impression of a rook out of his cheek. He looked adorable. They were heading back to the dorms a bit sooner than Harry had planned. He had wanted to return just before curfew and just go to bed as quickly as possible. He didn't want to deal with anyone but he also hadn't wanted to seem like he was avoiding anyone.
Harry cleared his mind before he walked into the common room. He got looks walking through that he ignored. He and Ron bade Hermione good night and went up to the dorm which was empty. They both got ready for bed but it was still early, so while Ron went to bed Harry stayed up with one of the mystery books from the series that he and Ron had been swapping back and forth. He purposefully left his curtains open; he wasn't hiding.
Neville came up to the dorm about an hour later to get ready for bed. A short while later he came back from the bathroom. "Night Harry," he said fairly awkwardly as he passed harry's bed.
"Night Neville," Harry replied. He paused for a moment before saying, "Are you all right with everything?" he asked.
"Yes," Neville said, turning back towards Harry, though he didn't sound very sure of himself.
"It's alright if you have questions or something," Harry said. "I mean, not that Seamus was right or anything, but we do share a dorm, so if you had any concerns I'd want to talk about that."
He didn't really want to talk about anything, but openness seemed to be the order of the day. Neville didn't say anything.
"I'm not going to hit on you or anything," Harry hazarded.
"Oh, yeah, I know," Neville said. "Um, I shouldn't… It's always been something we don't talk about, except we do. Whenever there's extended family over there's always these veiled comments about, um, about my Great Uncle. He's always been single, you know? Or, at least, if he ever wasn't single he never told anyone about it. I sort of figured out what everyone wasn't talking about a bit ago. I overheard one of my older cousins talking to my Gran about his place in the household; she wouldn't say that Gran should remove my Great Uncle from the family for being gay, but she sort of did say that, its all doublespeak, if that makes sense. Gran won't hear of it, of course, but…"
He paused, and there seemed to be a look in his eyes that seemed to want to understand something that he wasn't saying outright.
"Are you okay with him?" Harry asked.
"Yeah," Neville said. "I mean he's a bit weird, but so's everyone else in my family, so… It's just, we never talk about it, we ignore it, and now here you are and I don't know how I'm supposed to act about the whole thing when you're, um, out."
Harry thought about that. "Maybe act like you'd act if I wasn't gay."
"But you are," Neville said. "And you're telling everyone too, and everyone's talking about it."
"Yeah," Harry said. "But… the thing is, um, there's a lot more to people than if they like guys or girls. Me being gay doesn't change anything else you knew about me."
"I guess," Neville said. "Yeah. Well, um, good night Harry."
"Night," Harry said. He went back to his book.
Seamus and Dean were the next ones to come in. Harry didn't know whether or not Dean had ever talked to Seamus that day, but they weren't talking when they walked in. Seamus very deliberately stalked past Harry's bed without looking at him. He grabbed his shower stuff and stalked back towards the bathroom. Harry noticed he was carrying his night clothes. Seamus had always come back from the showers with a towel and changed by his bedside. The sudden modesty was very deliberately displayed.
"Hey Potter," Seamus said, turning back to Harry right before he walked into the bathroom. "I'm going to be showering in there so stay the fuck out."
"I don't have X-ray vision," Harry said. "I'm sure the curtain will protect your virtue."
"The hell is X-Ray vision?" Seamus asked.
"Muggle thing, never mind, I'm not going to peek on you."
"Yeah, well you better not," Seamus said. He turned back around and walked into the bathroom.
"Sorry about that," Dean said. He was gathering his shower things too.
"You don't need to apologize," Harry said.
"He just doesn't know what to think about the whole thing," Dean said.
"Hmm," was Harry's noncommittal response.
"Right, well, I'll just…" he gestured to the bathroom and walked off.
Harry tried to focus on reading but he was preoccupied by the fight he had just had. Seamus came back into the dormitory some fifteen minutes later followed shortly thereafter by Dean. Seamus stormed past his bed again, not looking at Harry. Harry wound up going through some mental exercises before going to sleep not long after that.
Ron woke him up a bit after midnight that night, the telltale signs of a nightmare written on his face. Whatever it was about, he didn't discuss it. They talked about Quidditch for a bit before Ron brought up the question of whether or not Harry would write a letter to the editor again. Harry shrugged and got out a bit of parchment and they bandied about things to write for a while, some of it serious but most of it things that definitely wouldn't get into any final draft. It was sometime around one o'clock at night that Ron headed back to his bed. Now, if that had been the only distraction of Harry's night, he would've been doing alright.
Unfortunately he was shaken awake at about five o'clock the following morning. He woke up to a face that didn't belong in his dorm. He had his wand out in a flash and pointed in the older boy's face.
"Merlin," the older boy stage whispered. "Put that away, we're not here to fight you."
"Who's we?" Harry asked, pushing himself up into an upright position with his non-wand hand.
"Me, Kevin Lancet, and Alonzo Wakefield," the boy said, pulling a bit to the sides so Harry could see to other boys behind him. "We just wanted to talk."
Hey recognize them all as seventh years. Harry thought the speaker's name was Devin Jeeter.
"What could you possibly want to talk about at five o'clock in the morning that couldn't have waited?" Harry asked.
"Just house stuff," Jeeter said.
"What house stuff? Harry asked.
"Can we talk about this in common room?" Jeeter asked.
"I'm not too keen on following strangers on my lonesome," Harry said.
"Merlin, seriously we just want to talk," Wakefield said.
"Yeah, well just remember I've fought Death Eaters, werewolves, and Voldemort and I'm pretty sure my dad has given you nightmares at some point in the past, so this had better just be a talk." He got out of bed opposite Jeeter and circled around, keeping a wary eye out. He gestured for the three boys to go first. He knew Ron would want him to wake him up but he went down to the common room alone.
"What's this about?" Harry asked.
"You need to stop telling everyone you're gay," Wakefield said. "Just tell everyone it was a joke."
"Excuse me?" Harry asked.
"Look," Lancet said. "I don't care what you and your boyfriend get up to, but you're sort of the face of our house."
"Ron's not my boyfriend," Harry said. "I'm gay, he's not."
"Great," Wakefield said. "We don't need a gay Champion too. Now listen…"
"No, you listen," Harry interrupted. "I didn't get to just come out to everybody. I got dragged out of the closet by a fucking magazine article. I was happy keeping things private; and that's what it was, it was private, but you know what? I'm not going to lie about it. I don't have anything to be ashamed of," he told them as much as he told himself. "So if everyone gives so much of a damn about my business then at the very least they can get the truth. I'm not hiding anymore. If you want to talk about the house, fine, courage and honor, that's great, my sexuality doesn't have anything to do with that. So the house can either be proud of my many accomplishments or you all can go suck it."
"Nobody want's their knight in shining armor to be a fucking fairy," Wakefield said.
"Or at the very least, he shouldn't brag about it," Lancet said.
"Then it's a good thing I never signed up to be anyone's knight," Harry said, bristling. "And I'm not bragging. I'm just telling the truth, since everyone's so damned interested. And I know I'm not the tallest kid in my year, but I'm pretty big to be a fairy so if you're going to talk about me being gay you can just say gay."
"Come on, lets bring it down a notch," Jeeter said, stepping forward. He was brought up short when Harry again pointed his wand at him.
"Would you calm down?" Jeeter said in exasperation.
"How the hell am I supposed to be calm?" Harry asked. "I've been beaten in this school, I've been kidnapped from these dorms, and people keep coming really close to murdering me here; students have. So you tell me why I shouldn't be on edge when a few upperclassmen who take issue with my sexuality drag me out of my bed in the middle of the night."
"We just want to manage this," Jeeter said. "It's as much for your benefit as everyone else's. I'm not saying it's your fault this article got printed, but we've got to get a handle on it. No one's saying you haven't done great things, but don't you see how in spite of that everyone's been giving you shite? You're confusing people, they don't associate that sort of thing with us."
"Oh, so what? You don't want people to think Gryffindors can be gay," Harry said. "Is that for other houses?"
"Yes, that's for other houses," Wakefield said. "Nancy boys in Hufflepuff, queers in Ravenclaw, deviants in Slytherin."
"Sammy's not a nancy boy," Harry said. "She's a girl, and that doesn't have anything to do with her being a Hufflepuff that's just who she is."
"Fine, that's great, whatever" Lancet said. "We're not talking about them, we're talking about you, in our house. This is about you getting turned on by other blokes."
"Well jeez, I'm pretty sure most of the girls in the school are into other blokes, can all the girls stay in Gryffindor if they get a boyfriend?" Harry asked scathingly.
"Of course," Wakefield said, throwing his hands up in the air. "They're not going against nature."
"Oh, why don't you start talking about Natures Nobility next," Harry said. "Isn't that what the Death Eaters talked about, going against nature?"
"Oh fuck you," Wakefield said. "Just because those blood bigots bastardize the old wisdom doesn't mean it doesn't hold. Everything in nature serves a purpose. Two guys porking doesn't beget anything. It's unnatural, it's unbalanced, and it's just about sex. You need to stop having fun in your dorm room, and remember that Gryffindors have a nobler purpose in our society."
"What purpose is that? Telling other people how to live their lives?" Harry asked. "And I will tell you again, nothing's going on between me and Ron, but even if there were, any fun we were having in the dorms wouldn't be any of your business."
"Of course it would be," Wakefield said. "It's disgusting. I don't need any of that gay shit anywhere around me."
"Dude, chill," Jeeter said.
The word disgusting hit Harry pretty hard. He'd heard it plenty of times at the Dursley's; heard it directed at him. It wasn't that Harry cared anything for what these boys had to say about him, but he had aimed the word at himself plenty of times before he had come to terms with his sexuality. Not that he really had fully come to terms. Maybe the word did still resonate with him.
"We agreed we would be civil about this," Jeeter said.
"No you agreed on it," Wakefield said. "But there's no need to be a bleeding heart about it. It's disgusting, and if he doesn't have the grace to be ashamed of it then someone should put him in his place." His hand went into the pocket of his robes
Harry's blood boiled. A flick of the wand and Harry sent Wakefield's feet out behind him. He landed face first on the floor.
"Like that?" Harry asked.
Lancit drew his wand but Harry disarmed him before he could bring it to bare. Harry leveled his wand at Jeeter who held his hands up placatingly.
"You sure you don't want to pull your wand too?" Harry said.
"You broke my nose," Wakefield said, pushing himself up off of the ground, a bloody hand clutching his face.
"Something to remember next time you think of threatening me," Harry said.
"Look," Lancit said. "Obviously you can see this is just going to get worse."
"Obviously you can see that I can deal with it. I've dealt with worse. Stay away for me if you don't want to see how much worse it can get."
"What's going on here?" It was Angelina, coming down from the girls dorm.
Wouldn't this just be a perfect time to find out where his teammates fell on the matter.
"Our former seeker broke my nose," Wakefield complained again.
Angelina look him over. "Former seeker? Harry's not going anywhere. And I'm pretty sure I just saw you trip and fall on your own face. Are you getting up early to go flying Harry? You can join me if you want."
"The house doesn't want a gay seeker," Lancit said.
"Why don't you take that up with the twins," Angelina said.
"We're not the only ones who feel this way," Jeeter said.
"I don't give a toad's spleen how everyone else feels," Angelina glared. "It's me who will be captain next year. Anyone who takes issue with Harry being on the team can go eat sand."
"It's irresponsible to put him in a position the first years will look up to," Lancit said. "Do you want more queers?"
"Pretty sure that's not how it works," Angelina said. "Pretty sure neither of us need to listen to you talk either. We were just on our way to have a fly, weren't we Harry."
Harry nodded. That actually sounded nice.
"Come on," Angelina said, motioning to the entryway. "And shouldn't you take your clumsy friend there to the Hospital Wing?"
She didn't wait for an answer, she just headed for the exit. Harry followed after.
"Hey, my wand," Lancit said.
Harry tossed it over his shoulder as he walked out.
"Thanks," Harry said. "Um, I don't have my broom on me though." He didn't have anything on him, really, besides his wand. He wasn't supposed to go anywhere without his potions, his cloak, and his broom. He felt exposed without it all. He didn't want to go back and get them though.
"We can get out a school broom," Angelina said. "That is, if you actually want to go flying."
"I always want to fly," Harry said. "You know, weather depending." He didn't know about using a school broom though, he hadn't ridden one since first year.
"Just you wait," Angelina said. "I'm going to outdo Ollie. We'll train even harder when it's raining."
"No one out Ollies Ollie," Harry said.
"Well I'm going to try," Angelina said. "We'll find a great Keeper and we'll win again for sure."
"Ron's going to try out," Harry said. "We're going to train him up and stuff."
"Tell him to bring his A-game then," Angelina said. "So did the twins give you The Talk?"
"What?!" Harry said. "No, my dad gave me the talk, and that is not something I need any more of."
"No," Angelina said. "Not that talk. The, 'if you break our little brother's heart, so help us…' talk."
Harry blushed. "Oh, no, Ron and I aren't… Ron's straight. Ignore all rumors."
"Oh," Angelina said. "Well I mean, I ship it."
"What?" Harry asked.
"Never mind," Angelina said. "Muggle thing. Well, you've got their protection too you know."
"Who?" Harry asked.
"The twins," Angelina said. "We'll all look out for you. The team's got your back."
"I was sort of wondering back there what Ollie would have thought," Harry said. There was a list of people who he still needed to figure out.
"Oh, I'm pretty sure he would have been all right with you," Angelina said without elaborating. "Besides, what did he ever care about besides quidditch? Do you ever write him?"
"No," Harry said. "I should though." He remembered his first year when he had just joined the team, when his biggest worry had been convincing Oliver Wood that a first year had what it took to be on the team.
"I'm sure he'd like to hear from you," Angelina said. "If he were here he'd be having the twins set the bludgers loose in the seventh year boy's dorm right about now."
"You don't mind, I take it," Harry said. "Me being gay."
"I think I know you well enough to know I shouldn't mind it at all," Angelina said.
"I wish everyone else felt that way," Harry said.
"I'm pretty sure most people aren't quite as, um, vitriolic as that one guy was back there," Angelina said. "Give it some time, most people will come around; and if they give you trouble, you tell us."
"I think this is a battle I need to fight," Harry said. If people were going to define him by his sexuality, then Harry supposed the boy-who-lived would have to be someone who Remus and Victoria wouldn't mind being the face of their sexuality. Which was no pressure whatsoever.
"Sure," Angelina said. "But you fight with your friends at your side. Don't forget we're a team off the pitch as much as we are on it."
"Thanks," Harry said. "Practicing to give pep talks?"
"I've got to work on it," Angelina said. "I'm not used to speaking in front of a crowd."
"The quidditch team's not a crowd," Harry said. "You'll do fine."
"Well, we'll see how you do with a school broom," Angelina said.
"Right," Harry said. "Tell me why I didn't just go back to bed at this ungodly hour?"
"Because you love to fly," Angelina said.
"There's nothing better," Harry said. He needed a good many warming spells over his pajamas, but the world didn't seem like it was pressing down on him when his feet were off the ground.
Harry made it back to the dorm in time to get ready for breakfast.
"How'd you two sleep," Hermione asked as they made their way into the great hall. She normally only asked Ron.
"I cleared my mind pretty well before bed," Harry said. "Didn't have any trouble there."
"I woke him up though," Ron said. "Small nightmare, couldn't get my brain to shut off afterwards."
Judging by the look of him, Harry wasn't sure that he'd gotten too much sleep after he'd gone back to bed. He must have been asleep when the seventh years had come to get Harry for their talk though. He hadn't told Ron or Hermione about that.
The rumor that he and Ron had been doing a lot more than just dating had had a full day to go around and seemed to be everywhere as they made their way towards breakfast. Harry did his best to ignore it.
Seamus was sitting in his normal spot, with the rest of the fourth years, and Harry wasn't sure if this was a hold-your-head-up-high moment where he should just go sit down like he normally would, or if he should go sit somewhere else. His feet took him to his seat and he pretended that Seamus wasn't there. Seamus seemed to have the same idea. Lavender and Parvati were still paying him an extra bit of mind though Harry felt that there were fewer stares from around the room.
A small bit of chaos erupted when the mail arrived in a small swarm that mostly got directed at Ron. It gathered the attention of the assembled student body who were left staring at Ron when the swarm departed.
"What?" Ron asked loudly. "Never seen an owl before?"
"You didn't get anything like this after the first task," Hermione said. "Not even when your name came out of the goblet."
"Well, I got some," Ron said, a bit defensively. "This can't be about the article yesterday can it?"
"Well, I don't have any letters," Harry said.
Hermione looked at him thoughtfully. "Have you ever gotten a letter from someone you don't know while you were at school?"
Harry shook his head. Was his mail being stopped? Did he want a bunch of mail from strangers?
"Well aren't you going to open it?" Lavender asked.
Ron shrugged, tearing open a random letter and scanning over it. "Huh," he said, pulling out his wand.
"Evanesco," Ron cleaned off a platter of bangers. "Sorry," he said, in response to Tricia Laurel's crestfallen face. He set the letter he'd just read on top of the empty tray and lit it on fire. "Pass some more bangers over here, please," Ron said.
"What did it say?" Harry asked, morbidly curious.
"Apparently I've corrupted the Boy-Who-Lived," Ron said, opening another letter.
"Well that's not fair," Harry said. "How do they know I'm not doing the corrupting?"
"Well surely you're not suggesting that the Boy Who Lived could have just been gay to start off with," Ron said.
"I might have been," Harry said. "Surely I should get some credit here."
Ron lit another letter on fire. "Nothing repeatable in there," he said.
"You shouldn't read those," Hermione said.
"It's not like I care what they have to say," Ron said, his eyes on Seamus. "I just need to know who has a problem with me and mine."
"Making a list?" Harry asked.
"Well sure," Ron said. "If anyone would just sign their letters. Oh, here we go, this one's signed. Oh, and it's nice too. Funny how that goes. Wishing us all the luck in our relationship. Thank you Mr. Dunkirk." This letter went into his book bag.
"What's this?" George asked coming up upon them.
"Fan mail," Ron said.
"Well, one so far," Hermione said, indicating the ashes.
Ron lit another one on fire.
"You should get rid of the lot of it," Fred said.
"You don't know what could be in there," George said.
"You can't send cursed letters through the wards," Ron said.
"We've gotten pretty creative," said Fred.
"There aren't even any Howlers," Ron said.
Harry was very glad for that.
"Might be set to go off only after you've touched it," Fred said.
"Yeah, well fine," Ron said. "I'll just yell louder."
"Maybe we should check these out first," George said.
"It's fine," Ron said. "Mrs. 'Concerned Witch' just needed to tell me that I'm a disgusting pervert. I'm pretty sure you've called me worse. Incendio."
"You can just burn the lot of it," Fred said.
"I will," Ron said. "One at a time."
"Well why don't you put them away for now and we can eat our breakfast," Hermione said.
"Sure," Ron said. "Just as soon as I discover what this guy had to say. He used the good paper here, he must have something important to say. Nice seal too. This guy's really going through some trouble to tell me off."
It wasn't a letter to tell Ron off though.
"Ow, shit," Ron said as from the envelope spilled a green goop that didn't look like it should have been able to come out of an envelope. It covered his hands which he held curled up in front of him.
"Evanesco," Hermione said, cleaning his hands, which were already starting to blister.
"My robes too," Ron said. "It's seeping through, it's seeping through!"
"Scourgify," George said.
"Damnit Ron, I told you to leave it," Fred said.
"Fine, yeah," Ron said, trying to get up from the table without touching anything, his face screwed up in pain. "What was that shit, bubotuber puss?"
Harry grabbed his elbow to help him up.
"It looked like it," Hermione said. "We should go to the Hospital Wing."
"I can get there on my own," Ron said. "I'll be fine. You'll miss class. I'll see you in a bit."
"Not up for discussion," Harry said, grabbing Ron's book bag. He saw Fred using his wand to stash the offending envelope in his own book bag. Hermione put an arm around Ron's back and started guiding him out of the Great Hall. There weren't anymore 'I told you sos,' as they walked.
"Does it hurt?" Hermione asked.
"I've had worse," Ron said.
"Oh, well, I suppose if Greyback's done worse to you this can't be at all bad," Hermione said testily.
"I've had worse falling off my training broom when I was five," Ron said, his flippancy sounding forced. "It's alright, it's like a bad sunburn. It's not a big deal."
"Some stranger just decided to hurt you because of some stupid article in the paper," Hermione said. "It is a big deal."
"Well, Harry's writing a letter to the editor again, that should clear things up," Ron said.
"It's going to be a very angry letter, now," Harry said.
"I'll help," Ron said.
"Does your mom read Witch Weekly?" Hermione asked.
"Just for the recipes in the back," Ron said.
"We made the front cover," Harry said.
"I should probably write her," Ron said. "You mind if I tell her everything? She won't mind."
"I'm pretty much just out, at this point," Harry said. "You can tell anyone you want."
"We should become official," Hermione told Ron.
Ron's eyebrows shot up. "What, like- as in…"
"As in boyfriend girlfriend," Hermione said.
"Right," Ron said. "Um, I thought you wanted to wait."
"We did wait," Hermione said.
"I'm not making you date me just so people will stop thinking I'm sleeping with Harry," Ron said.
"You're not making me do anything," Hermione said.
Ron frowned. "Maybe we should talk about this later," he said, glancing at Harry.
"Oh, don't mind me," Harry said. "This isn't awkward or anything."
Ron rolled his eyes.
"What's wrong with you now?" Madam Pomfrey asked when they walked in.
"Somebody sent me an envelope full of bubotuber puss," Ron said.
Madam Pomfrey looked cross for a moment before she went and got a jar of ointment which she started applying to his hands.
"Anywhere else?" she asked.
"Um, my lap, a little bit," Ron said, his ears going red.
Madam Pomfrey nodded and scooped a bit of the ointment onto a wooden tongue depressor and directed him behind a curtain.
"Are you alright?" Hermione asked when they left.
"As rain," Ron said. His flippancy sounding more and more strained. He was silent the rest of the way to class. They were only a little late, and Professor Binns didn't seem to notice them at all. He was silent between History and Transfiguration too and Harry thought he was just sulking. It wasn't until later in the hall as they were about to split up so Harry could go to defense and they could go to Potions when Ron disappeared from their side. They found him pressed up against the wall in a corner, he had started hyperventilating in the crowded hall. The press of the student body had always seemed to be Ron's worst trigger. Harry realized that he had likely been more affected by the mornings incident than his flippancy had indicated.
"Shh, it's all right," Hermione said. "I'm right here with you. We're both safe now."
Wherever Ron's mind was, he was present enough to know he was having an episode in front of a lot of other students.
"Shit, shit," he muttered as he tried to cover his face with one hand and grasped Hermione's arm with the other.
"Let's go somewhere quiet," Hermione said to Ron.
"The fuck is wrong with Weasley?" someone asked out loud.
"You two queers fucking break up or something?" someone else asked.
"That's enough of that," someone authoritative said.
"Go," Harry said. "I'll take care of everything."
Hermione took the hem of Ron's sleeve and guided him away, still murmuring reassurances to him. Harry turned around to see if anyone was going to start anything, but whomever had been speaking earlier seemed to have moved on. He frowned but made his way to defense on his own.
They saw each other again later at lunch where Ron was still rather quiet. Harry knew well enough not to make a thing of it. It didn't help matters when someone tripped Harry up with a jinx in the halls later. Harry, for his part had gotten good at not falling on his face in such situations, but Ron definitely noticed and seemed more stressed afterwards.
They ended the day with double Ancient Runes and then retired to a quiet corner of the castle to study. Harry and Ron wound up staying up late talking that night, they wrote out Harry's letter to Witch Weekly ('Dear Asshats,' started the first draft but didn't make it into the second) and Ron's letter to his parents ('I hope you won't be too disappointed mum,' Ron's letter started, 'but I'm not really dating Harry'). They ate chocolate, and talked about serious things and silly things; the whole while not caring what Seamus thought of them together behind closed curtains. They also talked about Hermione. Ron always brought her up in some fashion.
Ron and Hermione walked to breakfast the next morning holding hands and of course there were whispers and stares to accompany this. There were some more letters for Ron with their breakfast, which were all sorted through for anything from Ron's family, (he got a letter from his mum), before everything else was vanished. Thursday morning too, this time there was a letter from Charlie Weasley among everything else. With Astronomy the night prior, it was only the fourth years in the Great Hall for breakfast while everyone else was in their first period. Ron read the letter from Charlie while he ate.
Harry was a bit nervous for it being Thursday, since Thursday was when he normally sparred with Benjamin after the defense study group met. He was getting better, though, about putting off worrying about things. No point of thinking about it while he took notes in Runes. Defense was a different story, since Benjamin was in the room with him. After dinner that night, Harry went to the DADA classroom. He got an odd look from the girl he sat next to but the study session went by like normal. Harry tried to not act any different when he approached Benjamin afterwards. Benjamin was, as usual, next to Anna.
"Harry, hey," Benjamin said when Harry walked up. He sounded awkward but not unkind. "Um, so Anna was going to stay while we sparred tonight."
"Yes," Anna said, she looked slightly embarrassed but she smiled at Harry.
"Okay," Harry said, not sure what was going on. He and Benjamin moved out to the matted area."
"I thought we'd work on strikes," Benjamin said. "We've been focused on grappling for a while now. Why don't you show me if you can still make a proper fist."
Harry nodded, his arms moving into the appropriate position. He was nervous. Benjamin had always been nice to him, but he couldn't help but wonder if this was going to turn into some excuse for him to hit Harry.
"How's this?" Harry asked.
"Elbows in," Benjamin said. "You're leaving yourself open." He held up a couple of foam paddles.
Their practice went on as it usually would. They practiced some moves but didn't really spar. Benjamin wasn't using sparring as an excuse to hurt Harry and Harry couldn't figure out why things felt off. Had he not just recently been outed, he wouldn't have thought anything of it if Benjamin had decided to change up the routine, he wouldn't have given Anna staying to watch a second thought, but something just seemed off. Anna for her part gave little cheers or encouraging comments throughout.
"Good work," Benjamin said at the end, a smile on his face. He seemed genuine. "Um, I'm going to walk Anna back to Ravenclaw," he said. "You've got that cloak, right?"
"Yeah," Harry said. "I'll be fine walking by myself."
"Great," Benjamin said. "I'll see you later."
"Good night, Harry," Anna said.
"Good night," Harry said.
Harry told himself that he only felt lonely because he would normally be walking with Benjamin and not because he'd been generally feeling like the world was turning against him again. Walking around under his invisibility cloak as everyone else went about their business always had been an odd mix of security and the feeling that he didn't exist.
He ruminated on the walk back to the tower over the oddity of his interaction with Benjamin. He was fairly certain it had something to do with his being outed, but it didn't make sense. Benjamin had been friendly and nice. If he was disgusted by Harry's sexuality he didn't show it. Why suddenly move from grappling to striking? Of course, when he tried to think of things from Benjamin's perspective, the answer was obvious. What would he think of a gay boy who wanted to spend time together doing an activity that involved a lot of touching.
Harry had the thought that he would have felt better if Benjamin had just told him to get lost. This more than anything over the past few days seemed to get to Harry; or maybe he had been letting too much sit beneath the surface. Angry tears welled up in his eyes and he ducked into the nearest secret passageway so he could rip off his invisibility cloak and slam his fist into the wall.
"Fuck," he managed to bite out, feeling overwhelmed. He kicked the wall a couple of times. He thought that he should be clearing his mind but the anger felt so right just then that he didn't even try. He sat back on his heels and grasped his head and rode out the feeling. Eventually his breathing evened out and he leaned back to rest against the wall. He stayed like that for a while feeling numb, focusing on the pain in his wrist.
With time he began clearing his mind and wiping his face. He left the quiet little passage way and went back on his way towards the tower. A flight of stairs away from the portrait of the fat lady he stopped. He wished he had punched the wall with his other hand so that he could at least cast an imobilization charm on his arm which was really smarting.
About five minutes later Benjamin arrived, having come back from walking Anna to Ravenclaw. "Harry, what…. Did something happen?" He sounded concerned
Harry supposed he must look a bit of a mess.
"I never liked grappling," Harry said.
"It reminded me of times people have grabbed me, it reminded me of times people have hurt me," Harry said.
"Well, yeah," Benjamin said. "We can just do-"
"I did it because I wanted to make sure no one could ever hurt me like that again," Harry said. "I didn't care that some cute boy was touching me, I wasn't excited by it, I was tense, I just wanted to get out of every hold so I could feel safe. I wasn't trying to… to creep on you."
"Yeah," Benjamin said. "I know, I just… it looks bad."
"So you had Anna stay behind so she could say we weren't doing anything," Harry said.
"Yeah," Benjamin said.
"I wasn't trying anything with you," Harry said. "I really wasn't."
"I know," Benjamin said.
"Then why?" Harry asked.
"Look, you can… You can ride this out." Benjamin said. "I don't have your name. Don't have a world renowned potions master for a father. The only thing I have in the wizarding world is myself. What happens to me if rumors like that start? I don't have anything to fall back on, I need to be able to get a job someday. Look what happened to your friend. You say there's nothing there, fine, I believe you. But one little article in a magazine and he's visiting the hospital wing."
"You could've told me," Harry said.
"There's no nice way to tell someone you're scared to be affiliated with them," Benjamin said. "Not very Griffindor, I suppose."
Harry shrugged. "So you weren't, like, disgusted to be touching me and stuff?"
"That wasn't–" Benjamin said, he side rubbing his face with his hands. "Do you want a hug?"
Harry gave him an incredulous look. "Are you sure you don't want to go somewhere private first?"
Benjamin gave out a long exhale. "I wasn't disgusted harry."
"So do you want to stop practice?" Harry asked.
"No," Benjamin said. "I like practice. I like teaching you, but I have to be careful."
Harry got being careful, but that didn't mean this hadn't hurt.
"I'll see you later," Harry said. "I need to… I have homework to finish."
"Yeah," Benjamin said, awkwardly. "I'll see you."
And they did. The same time the following Thursday, they met again after defense and they both acted like nothing was different. Anna stayed to watch. She'd started cheering them on when they actually sparred. They started doing more of mock fights. Harry wished he could say that it was all water under the bridge or even that he'd had time to think about it, but with everything else, it was just one more thing on the back burner.
Ron was spending a lot of time trying to learn the bubblehead charm while Harry and Hermione worked on finding some other way for Ron to breathe under water while keeping a watchful eye on Ron. He'd gotten the bubble part right after a few days of practice but hadn't gotten the oxygen transfiguration part and it had taken him passing out for them to realize that he had slowly been asphyxiating.
The twins were on lake creature duty, figuring out what all was in the lake that could be dangerous. Ginny was working on spells that would be useful underwater. It was all a rather nice distraction on top of everything else. Word got around about what they were looking at and they got a few suggestions.
"What about scuba gear?" Dean asked.
"Thought about that," Harry said. "Apparently, with as deep as the great lake is, it'd be more likely Ron'd accidentally make some sort of mistake that'd get him killed than that any of the lake creatures are going to get him."
"Gee, thanks," Ron said, not quite awake and still struggling to get ready for the day ahead.
"He'd need proper training," Harry said.
"How're things with Seamus?" Ron asked, changing the subject. He sounded like he was asking after an ill relative.
Dean's face fell. "I've talked to him about it a couple of times," he said. "He's… I think he know's he's wrong, but you know how stubborn he is."
Ron gave him a sympathetic look.
Seamus had stopped being antagonistic, Harry supposed, but he was still upset and he was still distant, and the dorm was still awkward almost two weeks later.
"Anyway," Dean said. "Have fun in Hogsmeade."
"Thanks," Harry said. "You too." He turned to Ron. "You okay?"
"I've been worse," Ron said, rubbing a bit more sleep out of his eyes. "Rough knife."
"It must have been," Harry said. "You just said knife."
"Night," Ron amended.
"Did Dean seem off to you?" Harry asked.
"What do you mean?"
"I feel like he cares more about Seamus's reaction to this whole thing than I do," Harry said.
Ron paused. "Seamus is his best friend," he said. "I'd be pretty upset if I found out one of my friends was a shitty biggot."
Harry shrugged. Seamus wasn't the only one, of course, though it would be easier if he were. The prefects had been given their marching orders though and had addressed matters as they'd arisen to keep order. Harry getting jinxed or tripped up in the halls had only lasted a few days. The rumor mill was still active though, as were the weird looks, the whispers, and the sneers. Harry knew only a small part of the school was downright hostile, but more than enough people thought that it was something gross, something that made him less than he once was. It was something to joke about, something to feel superior over.
It wasn't all bad, that was for sure. It was something that Harry had to keep reminding himself of. It was really easy to think about everyone who was against him, his brain had a harder time remembering everyone who had shown support. His own house was split, not exactly in his favor, but enough that Harry didn't feel completely pressed within the security of the common room. Outside, things were different. Hufflepuff seemed pretty set behind him, though Harry wondered how many people were keeping their opposition silent there. Ravenclaw was a mixed bag but there was mostly an apathetic sense from the house on the matter. Slytherin mostly seemed to think of it as something to laugh at, if only because it was something to poke fun at Harry for.
Though outside of his friends and some ardent supporters from Hufflepuff it was a small group of Slytherins who seemed to be Harry's most ardent advocates. Or rather, not Harry's, but of people in general? They had a common thread between them; that wizards, and witches, should be judged by their impact on society and that their personal lives were personal. They weren't advocating for Harry, rather they were using his situation to bring up their platform.
There were about 20 of them, ranging from second to sixth years, and while most of them were Slytherin a few of them were from Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. If there was one thing in common with them, it was a phrase, 'Everyone Can Contribute,' as in, everyone could contribute to society, regardless of their differences. If there was one person behind them then it was definitely Malfoy, though Harry was at a loss for why Malfoy would want to do anything that benefited Harry.
It was the other two schools where there didn't seem to be any animosity at all, or at least, none expressed. Students from Durmstrang seemed perplexed that it should even be an issue, but also seemed largely indifferent to the whole affair. The students from Beauxbatons, on the other hand, seemed to take homophobia as an affront and Harry seemed to have attained some level of popularity among their students.
"You ready?" Harry asked.
"Yeah," Ron said, swinging his cloak around his shoulders.
They met up with Hermione downstairs and after breakfast they left the castle to go to Hogsmeade. A glance to the side on the way to horseless carriages showed a bit of a spectacle though. Out on the great lake, aboard his ship, Viktor Krum was dressed in shorts and a nicely formfitting T-shirt as he walked up to an honest to goodness gangplank. What happened next had Harry do a double take. Krum jumped off the plank and did a swan dive into the lake; the lake that had thin sheets of ice floating on it.
"Do you reckon they just do that for fun where he's from our do you think he's figured out the second task? Ron asked.
Harry was actually speechless, and a look over at Hermione's red cheeks made Harry wonder if she was blushing for the same reason he was. Ron coughed.
"Oh, ah, yes," Hermione said. "We should definitely assume he has figured out the second task."
As close as they were to the full moon, Harry wondered what emotions he would be smelling off of his two best friends in that moment if the wind weren't blowing in the wrong direction.
Ron took hold of her hand and they all continued walking towards the carriages. The entire morning they both seemed very coupley. They didn't act at all like Harry was the third wheel, but he definitely felt like he was in the way. It was more than just that they stayed close to each other. Or rather, there was more to them staying close to each other than them being coupley. Harry could smell how much the both of them were on edge in the hustle and bustle of the town. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, but there was definitely some anxiety in the mix. They did their best to stay out of crowded areas and bustling streets throughout the morning.
With noon approaching Harry was relieved that it was time for him to go. The full moon was approaching and Harry was going to be disappearing for the evening.
"Did you want to come back to the castle with me?" Harry offered. He would feel better knowing that they were safe in the castle and they would probably feel better than they were just then to get out of the crowded village where they had been kidnapped.
"We've actually got a date," Hermione said.
"Nothing but fine dining for my girl," Ron said. Hermione elbowed him in the side.
"We're going to Madame Pudifoot's," Hermione said.
"Oh," Harry said. "Well, have fun then." They were Gryffindors, a bit of anxiety wasn't going to keep them out of Hogsmeade.
"Wear your cloak," Ron said.
Harry patted his pocket where the invisibility cloak resided. They parted ways, Ron and Hermione heading off to lunch while Harry threw on his invisibility cloak and started walking back towards the castle.
He had to remind himself that there was no reason to worry about Ron and Hermione being alone in the town together but he felt his anxiety spike. He wondered if Ron was worried too.
With his transformation coming that night, his senses heightened, and his instincts, it would have been difficult for him not to realize someone was walking a bit behind him as he left the town. Turning around he saw Draco Malfoy walking a few paces behind him. He took a couple steps to the side and waited for Malfoy to pass him. A few paces in front of him now though, Malfoy paused. He looked around.
"I know you're there, Potter," Malfoy said. He was looking at the footprints Harry had left in the light dusting of snow on the ground.
Harry removed the silencing charm on his cloak. "What's up with your lackeys?" he asked, side stepping so he could walk in the tracks left by the carriages.
"I don't have lackeys," Malfoy said. "At least, not anymore. Are you going to take that off? I've gathered that you don't walk alone without it, but you're not alone right now are you."
"I wear it when I don't have anyone to watch my back," Harry said. He continued walking back up to the castle. Draco fell into step beside him.
"So what's up with the 'Everyone Can Contribute,' people?" Harry asked.
"I'm sure I have no idea," Draco said causing Harry to shift his glance to the side to look at him. That was the sort of thing his Dad would say. He rolled his eyes, a useless gesture. "I know you're behind it," he said.
"I'm flattered you think so," Malfoy said.
"I'm surprised you wanted me to take off my cloak," Harry said. "I wouldn't think you would want to be seen walking alone with me."
"You know how you always assume that every single thing I do is part of some plot?"
"Yes," Harry said. "I'm very familiar with that."
"Someone sees me talking to you and they'll just assume I'm up to something," Draco said. "People see what they expect to see."
"So why are you walking with me?" Harry asked. "Hogsmeade no fun today?"
"I'm a busy wizard," Malfoy said. "I stocked up and now I'm off; back to work. The question is, I suppose, why are you leaving your friends alone in Hogsmeade? Need to go mope alone in the castle?"
"I haven't been moping," Harry said.
"No," Malfoy agreed. "You've been good this time, haven't you."
Harry rolled his eyes and gave a long suffering sigh. "I don't need your approval," he said.
"So you're leaving Hogsmeade early because?"
Harry huffed. "I'm giving my friends some space."
"Are they really dating?" Draco asked. "Or is that just a ruse. Timing could have been better."
"They're really dating," Harry said. "What's it to you."
"Oh, it's nothing to me," Draco said. "But it's probably everything to you if people believe it or not. People, in general, are a bit slow to change. People might sooner come to terms with you being gay if they aren't also thinking you're canoodling with your best friend in the dorm."
"Who says canoodle anymore?" Harry asked. "And it's not anyone's business"
"Sure it's not anyone's business," Malfoy said. "But you can either stand on principal or you can bend a little bit and get a few more people on your side. There's a lot you could be doing differently right now."
"I don't need another pep talk from you," Harry said.
"You took my advice last time," Malfoy pointed out.
"You're acting like you don't care," Harry said.
"What?" Draco asked. "That you're gay? Don't see what it has to do with me."
"You didn't exactly grow up with a live and let live attitude, though, did you?"
"You didn't exactly grow up with a lot of magic, though, did you? You learned. Besides, homophobia doesn't have anything to do with blood purity, muggleborns brought it into the wizarding world centuries ago."
"Tell that to your friends in Slytherin," Harry said.
"Not my friends," Malfoy said. "Nott and Pansy just know it's a way under your skin. Like I said, It doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with blood purity. Of course there's the sort of person who likes to feel superior to others and they'll grasp at anything I suppose."
"Yeah, well the wizarding world didn't import bigotry," Harry said. "I'm pretty sure that's just everywhere."
"Oh, for sure," Malfoy said. "Interesting how the muggle world is changing now."
"Oh, you're an expert on the muggle world, are you?"
Malfoy shrugged. "I've been doing a lot of reading. Muggles have a lot more literature on personal identity, did you know that?"
"Mostly read story books when I was in the muggle world," Harry said. "But since when do you read muggle books?"
Malfoy smelled of caution and he rather pointlessly threw a searching glance in Harry's general direction. "They were recommended to me. But, you know, these muggle, um, scientists? Yeah, scientists, they think that being gay is just the way someone is. They used to think it was a choice, or something. They've done all sorts of studies on the way people are. It's really very interesting, and they've done all these other studies, you know, breaking down human behavior so it's predictable. Though, I doubt you'd be interested in that."
"Don't call me stupid."
"I'm calling you a Gryffindor," Malfoy said. "You all think understanding what makes people tick is machiavellian."
"Well if machi-whatever is another word for Slytherin, then yeah," Harry said. "Not that Slytherin's bad," he amended. "But you're talking about manipulating people."
"See, I knew you'd see it that way," Malfoy said. "Of course, you probably understand human behavior better than most of our classmates, don't you, growing up like that."
"What are you talking about?" Harry asked darkly.
"You know how to read a room," Draco said, and while he sounded like he was only a little interested in what he was talking about, he definitely smelled excited. "You lived with violent people, but you survived. You survived because you adapted and you learned what made them tick. I'm guessing you got good at managing them. What did you call that? Manipulation. Everyone does it. Getting good at it doesn't make you bad, it just makes you smart."
"So what, you're trying to convert me too now?" Harry asked.
Malfoy shook his head. "You have your role and I have mine. Besides isn't that what people accuse you of; converting people? Worry you'll turn the younger ones gay."
"That's not how it works, " Harry said.
"Sure," Malfoy said. "But it's all the same. You're not trying to convert anyone, I'm not trying to convert you. I don't need too many more of me running around."
"So why tell me all that?" Harry asked.
Malfoy shrugged. "Just making conversation," he said.
"And why are you making conversation with me?" Harry asked.
"You're interesting to talk to," Malfoy said.
"I don't understand you," Harry said, frustrated.
"That's because you keep trying to see what you expect to see," Malfoy said.
"I expect you're hiding something from me," Harry said.
"Ask me anything," Malfoy said.
"What's up with your lackeys," Harry asked.
"They're not lackeys," Malfoy said dismissively, though smelling deceptive. "I just have some like minded acquaintances; perhaps there're like-minded because I convinced them to be. I had a winning argument. Do you have a problem with more tolerance?"
"It's the first step to something bigger," Harry accused. "You're planning something."
"Oh, it's hardly the first step," Malfoy said.
"What's your end goal?" Harry asked.
"To become a leader of the wizarding world," Malfoy said.
"What? You want to be the minister of magic?"
"Merlin no," Malfoy said for the laugh. "I'd never get anything done."
"Oh, so minister's not powerful enough? I guess you'd be the Dark Lord of magic."
"I'm pretty sure that's the best way to have you come along and vanquish me someday," Malfoy said. "No, I'm not taking over the world Potter. I'm going to be the man people wish would."
"You think people wants to be ruled over?" Harry asked.
"I think people don't always want what's good for them."
"Oh, so you're being altruistic now?"
"No, I'm just being the best wizard I can be," Malfoy said. "Just like you. Greatness calls to us, but unlike you I'm willing to embrace it."
"Did you just compliment me?" Harry asked.
"Stranger things have happened," Malfoy said. "I never thanked you for the chance to play against Krum."
"I didn't invite you," Harry said.
"You could've made a fuss," Malfoy said.
"It was just another opportunity to kick your butt," Harry said.
"Well worth it to play the best Seeker in the world," Malfoy said.
"He kicked your butt too."
"He kicked both our butts," Malfoy said. "Was that your first time seeing him play? Only, I don't think you were paying much attention during the World Cup, not after your little gay crisis."
"What are you talking about?" Harry asked.
"The Veela came out, made everyone go bananas except you. You don't think I noticed you weren't really into the game? I've never seen you less interested in Quidditch. What? Was that the first time you really knew?"
"You never said anything," Harry said, ignoring the question.
"Well I had a bit much more on my mind after that night," Malfoy said.
"You're not angry with me for that night?" Harry asked, because Malfoy always blamed others for his misfortune.
"I was," Malfoy said, and Harry didn't need to smell the tension behind the words to know in that moment that the air of cool indifference that Draco effused was a thin mask. "But you weren't the one who put that mask on father's face. You're not even the one who caught him."
Harry didn't know what to say. It wasn't like he wasn't glad Lucius Malfoy was paying for his crimes. The man was a Death Eater. He'd beaten his house elf. He'd tried to kill Ginny when she was eleven.
"I'm sorry you're missing him," he said. It was the most truthful thing he could have politely said.
"We'll have him back," Malfoy said with certainty. "Malfoy's are made of sterner stuff. He'll make it through."
Harry stayed silent after that.
"How's the research coming?" Malfoy asked after the silence had stretched on long enough to be awkward.
"That's classified," Harry said.
Malfoy chuckled. "That propulsion spell Weasley used in the first task; he could use that under water for quick bursts. He might even manage it nonverbally." He sounded disinterested, like he was just making idle conversation.
Harry didn't say anything.
Malfoy shrugged. "Or maybe not. Whatever you all are coming up with I'm sure will be fine."
"Oh, you have faith in us now, do you?" Harry asked.
Malfoy grinned. "The past few years would seem to suggest…."
"Okay," Harry said. "Maybe I could believe that you don't have some horrible evil plot afoot, but why are you trying to make nice with me?"
Malfoy looked thoughtful. "Because you're important."
"The bloody Boy-Who-Lived thing?" Harry asked.
Malfoy shook his head. "Because you survived the Boy-Who-Lived thing?"
"Same difference," Harry said.
"No, you became the Boy-Who-Lived by a fluke of magic-"
"It wasn't a fluke. My mother died for me," Harry said seriously.
Malfoy looked taken aback. He cleared his throat. "Well that rather shows my point. Becoming the Boy-Who-Lived was not something you did, surviving since then as the Boy-Who-Lived is."
"That makes me important?" Harry asked.
"Perhaps," Malfoy said. "At the least, you're interesting."
"You mean entertaining," Harry said.
"I'm not a shiny toy for you," Harry said.
Malfoy seemed to think for a moment. "No, I suppose you're not."
"And I still think you're hiding something," Harry said.
"Aren't we all," Malfoy said. "I suppose you don't have any more skeletons in your closets then."
"Sure," Harry said. "But now I have to wonder if you have actual skeletons in your closets."
"You mean Malfoy Manor or the dorms? Because I'm actually not sure," Malfoy said.
"About which one?" Harry asked.
"Wouldn't you like to know," Malfoy said.
"Probably not, actually," Harry said.
"So what do you think of my lackeys who aren't lackeys?" Draco asked.
"Why? Do you do quarterly performance evaluations?"
"What do you think of what they have to say?"
"You mean, what you're saying through them?" Harry said.
"I don't like it," Harry said.
"Oh, you're just saying that," Malfoy said.
"I really don't," Harry said.
"Why not?" Malfoy said. "I'd think you'd like 'live and let live,' especially with how everyone's been treating you."
"But that's not the message," Harry said.
"Oh, so what's the message then?" Malfoy said challengingly. He smelled frustrated.
"The first part's nice," Harry said. "Don't judge people for being different, that's great and all, but you don't stop there. Because that's not really part of the message at all, is it? It's the second part that's really important. Judge people based on their worth. As If someone has to prove to you that they're worthy of being treated nicely."
"Don't you want people to benefit society?" Draco asked.
Harry shrugged. "I'll take people just not being a jerks. Besides, who's doing the judging? You?"
"Not everyone can invent another use for dragon's blood," Harry said.
"Sure," Malfoy said. "But just about everyone can be useful."
"You still sound like you want people to justify their existence," Harry said.
"It's not about justification," Malfoy said.
"What's it about then?" Harry asked.
"Its about forging a bright new future for the wizarding world, and everyone moving towards it together," Malfoy said.
"I thought you wanted everything to stay the same," Harry said. "Tradition and all that."
"Tradition is important," Malfoy said. "But so is progress. There's no reason we can't have both. Who better than me to guard the old ways while guiding us forwards."
Harry shook his head. "What are you going to do when people don't follow?" he asked.
"Lead the people they will follow," Malfoy said.
"And what are you going to do about people who you don't think have value?" Harry asked.
"It's not about them, it's about recognizing the people who do, it's about recognizing that there are a lot of ways for people to have value."
"Did I have value?" Harry asked. "Back when I was just a boy in a cupboard, back before Mountain Trolls and Basilisks, did I have value?"
"Well you sure showed that you did," Malfoy said.
"So you can't just decide that someone doesn't have value, you can't judge that, because I doubt anyone would have called me useful back then. You can't just use hindsight." It had taken him so much work and just to get to the point where he could look back on that boy and not feel some of the disgust his aunt had lavished him with. Knowing that his relatives had been wrong to treat him like they had had never stopped him from feeling like the worthless freak they had told him he was.
"So what do you suggest?" Malfoy asked.
Harry shrugged. "Just be nice? Don't treat people like shit?"
Malfoy was silent for a while. "You helped out that kid last year," he said.
"Yeah?" Harry said.
"Why?" Malfoy asked.
Harry looked at Malfoy askance. "Because she needed help," he said.
"Sure," Malfoy said. "But what did you get out of it?"
"I didn't get anything out of it," Harry said.
"So why take the time?" Malfoy asked.
"Cause she needed help," Harry said. "And I didn't think she needed to prove she had some worth before I could be nice to her."
Malfoy was clearly frustrated. With a bit of a non-sequitur, Malfoy started talking quidditch. Somehow, their conversation stayed mostly non-hostile for the rest of the walk back to the castle.
"See you in Creatures," Malfoy said as they arrived at the entryway.
"Mmhmm," was Harry's reply. 'Ron's never going to believe it,' he thought. He thought it terrible that he wasn't going to remember the conversation after he woke up the next day. He decided to stop thinking about Malfoy. He reapplied his silencing charm and headed down to his dad's quarters.
"How was Hogsmeade?" his dad asked, giving him a hug as he walked in.
"It's a different experience when you go this close to moonrise," Harry said. "The noise is a bit awful, but the smells are really something. I might have gone a bit crazy in Honeyduke's." He held up a rather full shopping bag.
"I hope you kept your appetite," his Dad said.
"Oh, I did," Harry said, he was actually starving.
"Then we shall make haste," his Dad said.
They flooed to their cottage; for once Harry's alibi for the month was actually going to be his actual location. January was the right month for planting a few different potions ingredients and the story for this full moon was that Harry was going to be helping plant his dad's potions garden.
Lunch was carpaccio for Harry, the blood red meat looked like something that would have ordinarily turned his stomach, but so close to moonrise, a primal part of him loved the dish. Professor Lupin arrived a bit later and they warded the cellar before it was time for Harry to relax. He wrote about as much of his conversation with Malfoy into his log book as he could remember.
After a long bath and a pre-transformation snack, Harry and Remus were locked up together downstairs. It was going to be a very long wait for them this month. As always, they were down in the cellar a half an hour before the moon rose, but this month, the moon wouldn't actually reach fullness until four hours after it had risen. Harry had come prepared though. Besides snacks, he had enough games and pre-thought out conversation starters written down to last for a while. He brought out some cards and they played for a while talking about Harry's classes.
"So this is the first time I've seen you since that article came out," Professor Lupin said.
"Aren't I supposed to be avoiding stressful topics?" Harry asked.
"You haven't seemed stressed out," Professor Lupin said.
"I guess I'm handling things alright," Harry said. "But I still wish that article hadn't come out."
"Did you write that response yourself?" Professor Lupin asked.
"Ron helped," Harry said.
"You showed a great deal of restraint," Professor Lupin said.
"There are a few versions of the letter we wrote just to vent a bit," Harry said. "I might have used a few words I won't repeat here."
Professor Lupin smiled. "I'm glad you have your friends behind you," he said.
"I have the best friends in the world," Harry said.
Professor Lupin's smile turned a bit sad and Harry was reminded that all of the man's closest friends were dead. Though that wasn't something to think about before the transformation.
"Do you date people?" Harry asked.
"Now and then," Professor Lupin said. "Looking for advice?"
Harry shook his head. "My friends keep saying that I'll find someone but there's only one other gay guy at school and he's older and not exactly friendly."
"There's only one other that you know of," Professor Lupin said. "Statistically, there are probably a lot more."
"Well statistics aren't really helping," Harry said before he frowned. "It's not like I'm all that interested in dating someone to begin with."
"Then why worry about it?" Professor Lupin asked.
"'Cause all of a sudden everyone's all interested in my love life, and what if I never have one," Harry said. "I mean, I'm supposed to want one someday, aren't I?"
"There's no 'supposed to's' here," Professor Lupin said. "Look, let's talk about this in the morning. There's not too much point in keeping you calm with the moon the way it is tonight, but let's at least keep things cheerful."
"You'll stay around tomorrow?" Harry asked.
"For a while," Professor Lupin said.
"I just don't really have anyone to talk to about this stuff," Harry said. "I mean, I talk to my friends but they're straight, and most of the time I ever spend with you I just forget the next day."
"I'll stick around tomorrow, Harry," Professor Lupin said. "I promise."
"I wasn't trying to guilt trip you or anything," Harry said. "You're already stuck chatting with me for the next four hours."
"I like chatting with you. Don't worry about tomorrow. You're a bit isolated," Professor Lupin said. "Merlin knows I get it."
"Do you know a lot of gay people?" Harry asked.
"A fair few," Professor Lupin said. "Mostly muggles though."
"Why muggles," Harry asked.
"It's a bit easier to blend in with the muggle world," Professor Lupin said. "Being a werewolf, they'll never suspect. Work too, I've had better employment in the muggle world than I have in the wizarding world."
"What do you do?" Harry asked.
"Well I'm working in a library right now," Professor Lupin said. "I'm saving up a bit for my next trip to the continent."
"Where are you going?"
"The Black Forrest," Professor Lupin said. "For a while anyway and then I'm off to the night markets of Istanbul, though the magical locals still call it Constantinople."
From there Professor Lupin regaled him with stories of his travels around the world and the creatures he came across, and the different magical arts, and libraries that contained books that couldn't be copied or transcribed. As transfixed as Harry was by these stories, he was aware instantly as the moon began to rise. He perked up and looked over his shoulder to where he knew he would see it if he were outside.
"How do you feel?" Professor Lupin asked.
"Twitchy," Harry said. He rose to his feet without really thinking about it. He felt a tingle between his shoulder blades and he started walking around. He felt like he was continually being pulled towards where the moon was. "How long will you be gone for?" he asked.
"A few weeks," Professor Lupin said. "I'm never out of the country during the full moon."
Harry nodded. He went over to the small bag of supplies he'd brought. Perhaps it was still early, but he was already feeling incredibly restless. He pulled out his practice snitch and set it off. It wasn't exactly catchable without a broom, but catching it wasn't really the point. He gave chase.
"You can play too," he told Professor Lupin who laughed.
"I think I'll just watch," he said.
Harry ran and leapt and pounced and stalked the snitch around the cellar as Professor Lupin kept up his tales.
"You could write a book," Harry said about a half an hour later as he lay on the floor a bit out of breath; watching the golden snitch hover in the corner.
"You've said that before," Professor Lupin said.
"Well it must be a good idea if I've had it twice," Harry said.
"I could be the next Lockheart," Professor Lupin said.
"Never," Harry said. "That guy was a bastard!" He slapped a hand over his mouth and looked at Professor Lupin.
"Oh, don't sensor yourself on my account," Professor Lupin said. "I am no longer your professor, remember?"
"You'll always be my professor," Harry said earnestly.
Professor Lupin smiled at him fondly. "Didn't get along with old Gilderoy did you?"
Harry shook his head. He didn't really want to talk about the man.
"You know, I met him a few times during my travels, we kept bumping into each other actually. I have to say, I don't want to speak ill of him, given the state he's in now, but I wasn't terribly surprised to hear about his accident. He never exactly seemed as competent as he portrayed himself in his books."
"It wasn't an accident," Harry said darkly. "What he did to himself he was trying to do to me and Ron with Ron's broken wand while we were trying to rescue Ginny from the Chamber of Secrets. We'd found out he was a fraud. He'd- he'd go around obliveating people of the cool stuff they'd done so he could take credit."
"Oh, Merlin. Um, okay, bad topic," Professor Lupin said. "Let's talk quidditch."
"He was going to do that to us and let Ginny die down there, she was all alone down there in the cold with Riddle. The prick also vanished all the bones in my arm after I broke it in quidditch," Harry said angrily. "He was so fucking awful." He knew he should stop talking about Lockhart, he wasn't supposed to get himself worked up, but he suddenly felt that he had a bubbling miasma of disgust for the man that wanted to spew forth.
"Harry," Professor Lupin said. "You're completely right, he's the worst, but we shouldn't be focusing on this right now."
"And then he'd be all like, 'ah, I simply have too much fan mail to be taking care of by myself, I'll take young Potter's detention if you don't mind, got to teach this young celebrity something,'" Harry said, putting on his best imitation of the fucking peacock with an angry sneer on his face. "He was so god damn full of himself. And then you know what he did?" Harry asked bitterly.
"I don't know Harry," Professor Lupin said. "But I know that if you don't calm down right now you're going to have a very dangerous transformation. You've been practicing occlumency haven't you. Why don't I conjure us some tea and we'll relax for a bit."
"I don't want any fucking tea," Harry yelled. "I don't want to relax. What if I want to be angry?! I'm so sick of everything."
Professor Lupin looked at his watch with a bit of frustration.
"What are you sick of Harry?"
"I don't have any control of my life," Harry said. And the pull of the moon that had felt so intoxicating moments before now seemed like a chain around his neck.
"I know," Professor Lupin said. "The transformation takes a lot from you…"
"No," Harry said. "I never had any control to begin with."
"What do you want control of right now?" Professor Lupin asked bringing Harry up short.
"I- I want some god damn privacy," he said. "And I want some sort of say in who I have a fucking crush on, and I want to be able to remember spending time with you, and I want to make out with my best friend, and you know what?"
"What?" Professor Lupin asked.
"I want to punch Lockhart in the fucking face," Harry said. "He's such an arrogant, smarmy, asshole, and oh, Malfoy, I haven't even told you about Malfoy-"
"Harry, I'm going to make a deal with you," Professor Lupin said.
"A deal so I can punch Lockhart?" Harry asked.
"You can be as angry as you want for another half an hour, you can yell and curse and scream and vent as much as you want, but after that we're going to have three hours for you to calm down and get ready for the transformation, okay? The moon's risen and you're basically high as a kite right now and if you aren't careful we are both going to have a very rough transformation tonight."
Harry found a moment to feel guilty. He remembered the last time he had had a rough transformation. He had ended up biting Professor Lupin. "I can curse as much as I want?" Harry asked.
"Well unless I'm mistaken, you already have," Professor Lupin said. "But if there's another level to it then by all means."
A half an hour later, a very antsy Harry sat down trying to clear his mind while he tried to play checkers with Professor Lupin. It was a very awkward game after everything he'd just yelled about. At least it was for him; Professor Lupin was acting like everything was normal and Harry somewhat admired his ability to resist the pull of the moon. Harry couldn't stop looking over his shoulder.
Professor Lupin let him win, Harry thought, and as he captured the last piece he gave a battle cry, leaping up to pounce on the snitch that was flying by. He spat it out a moment later, a bit more shocked that he'd actually caught it than that he had in fact shoved it in his mouth when he did.
"How do you feel?" Professor Lupin asked.
"I caught it," Harry said holding it up.
"I can see that," Professor Lupin said.
"Help me catch it again?" Harry asked.
"Maybe you'll be helping me catch it," Professor Lupin said.
Harry let go of the snitch.
A good while later, a thoroughly exhausted Harry sat down facing the wall. His robes shed and placed in the lockbox for the night, he was about as ready as he could be for the full moon.
"Are you going to tell me about everything I said tonight?" Harry asked.
"Do you want me to?" Professor Lupin asked.
"I don't like that I forget everything," Harry said.
"I will tell you then," Professor Lupin said. "Among other things."
"Like what?" Harry asked.
"Like that it's perfectly alright if you aren't ready for a boyfriend or even if you never want a boyfriend. That you don't need to let other people's definition of happy define your own."
"I think I will want a boyfriend someday," Harry said. "But I guess we can talk about that tomorrow." It was sort of a question.
"We will talk about it tomorrow then," Professor Lupin said.
Harry smiled briefly before the transformation drew a pained cry from his throat.
Harry was beyond hoarse as he screamed and bucked and cursed his way through the transformation. Flashes of rage and hunger ran through his mind. He was also beyond tired. He wasn't a very good judge, but it seemed to take so much longer for the transformation to finish. When it finally did, he was left gasping for air and trying not to cry. He slowly lost consciousness as he felt something being draped over him and a hand carded through his hair.
"Was there anything else unusual last night?" Severus asked.
"He did fine," Lupin said for the third time. "He ran around for a good bit, both before the transformation and after. He's just exhausted. Madam Pomfrey gave him a clean bill of health."
"He's never passed out before," Severus said.
"He's never spent four hours under the moon pre-transformation before," Lupin said. "It's exhausting."
Severus almost felt guilty for dragging the man off to interrogate him about the night prior. He'd done his bit giving him coffee but the man looked tired as hell.
Severus sighed. "Thank you for taking care of him," he said.
"You're welcome," Lupin said. "I need to stay and talk to Harry."
"You talked to him yesterday," Severus said. "For hours, I presume. He'll be sleeping for hours yet."
"I spoke to him for hours, but as far as he's concerned he hasn't seen me since the morning after last month's full moon," Lupin said. "I'm the only other gay wizard he ever talks to and he forgets most of our interactions. He has questions, I have advice. Besides which, I promised him I'd talk to him today."
It went without saying that Harry would have forgotten any promises from the night before, but he wasn't about to suggest that such a promise didn't matter.
"I suppose you want breakfast," Severus said, now resigned.
Lupin shrugged with an inclination of his head. "Somewhere to lie down wouldn't be horrible either."
Severus rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "Come on then," he said. "Harry won't be eating his breakfast anytime soon." He gestured to the tray he had made up for Harry as he had waited for the moon to set. "Does he have concerns?" he asked.
"Of course he has concerns," Lupin said. "No, I'm not telling you what we talk about."
"Is he doing all right?" Severus asked.
Lupin hesitated. "He needs someone he can talk to about these things," he said. "What he really needs are gay peers but, as I understand it, there's only one and he's an upperclassman."
Severus frowned. "I'll move Harry to his room," he said. "You can take the couch. I'll get you when he wakes up."
"Thank you Severus," Lupin said.
Severus left to go get Harry tucked in, feeling a bit useless as a parent just then.
Harry was a bit perplexed to wake up in his own bed rather than the couch down stairs. His dad liked to keep an eye on him post transformation. Oddly enough, though, he didn't remember anything after he'd transformed back into a human, and that was pretty concerning. Had something gone wrong? He felt pretty dead to the world and was fairly certain that he would still be asleep if not for a very full bladder.
He got out of bed, wrapping his robes securely around himself and padded out of the room on very sore and wobbly legs. His bones feeling like they were rubbing together wrong. Moments later, staring at himself in the bathroom mirror, he shed his robe and looked himself all over for any injuries. Not finding any, he wasn't sure if that should be a relief or if he should be more concerned by the fact that he had apparently passed out after the transformation for no reason. He looked over his shoulder real quick, as if someone would be there before looking back in the mirror, trying to see if there was anything different since the last time he'd really looked, he usually felt too self conscious when he was in the bathroom in the dorm. He thought he had a bit more muscle. He tried flexing a bit. Were his shoulders broader, or was he imagining things. Besides a bit more hair, there wasn't anything that really looked different from the last time.
He wrapped himself up again and went back to his room to put on some underclothes and get a fresh set of robes on. Exiting back into the hall he was brought up short by his dad, who was waiting outside.
"Hey," Harry said.
"Good afternoon," his Dad said. "How do you feel?"
"Hungry," Harry said, knowing that his dad would be happy to hear it, and knowing also that saying that he was sore and woozy wouldn't exactly be news.
"Then lets get some lunch into you," his Dad said. "Do you need help getting down stairs?"
Harry shook his head. "The hand rail will do fine," he said, turning towards the stairs. "Did something happen last night?" he asked over his shoulder. "Um, I think I sort of passed out."
"You did," his dad said. "Everything went fine though, you were just exhausted."
"I didn't bite Professor Lupin again, did I?" Harry asked, keeping a firm hand on the handrail as he cautiously took the stairs down.
"You did not," his Dad said. "That was covered by my statement that everything went fine."
"Right," Harry said. "Professor Lupin's still here," he observed when he got downstairs. The man was asleep on the couch. That would explain why he had woken up in his bed.
"He wanted to talk to you," his dad said. He walked over to the couch and pulled out his wand. "Envervate."
Professor Lupin woke up with a small gasp, his eyes wide. "Oh," he said looking around. "Harry, good morning."
"It's the afternoon," his Dad corrected.
"Ah," Professor Lupin said.
"Come get your potions, Harry," his Dad said.
"I don't have to take the sleep one, do I?" Harry asked with trepidation.
"We'll save that for tonight," his Dad said, to which Harry frowned. He waved to Professor Lupin as he made his way into the kitchen.
Hungry as he was, his stomach curdled as he downed his potions. His Dad grabbed two plates of food off of the counter and walked with Harry back out into the sitting room. Once Harry was situated, his dad handed him a plate of fish and chips and removed the stasis charm that had been over it. The food promptly began steaming. Professor Lupin got a plate too.
"I'll be in my lab," his Dad said, leaving Harry and Professor Lupin to their meals.
"How do you feel?" Professor Lupin asked.
"Oh, you know," Harry said, trying to deal with a mouthful of slightly too hot fish. "Pretty good all things considered. How about you?"
"Tired," Professor Lupin said. "But I am still in one piece."
"I was worried I'd bite you again," Harry said.
"You didn't," Professor Lupin said. "The transformation went well."
"My Dad said you wanted to talk to me," Harry said.
"I did," Professor Lupin said. "We had a lot of time to talk last night, and I rather thought that you might like to talk about some things when you'd remember having the conversation. You don't really have any gay peers so I figured we'd just have a bit of a talk."
"What did we talk about last night?" Harry asked.
"A fair bit," Professor Lupin said. "You asked me about dating."
"Huh," Harry said. "People have been saying that I'll find someone, but I sort of feel like if there's anyone else in the school who's gay they've got enough sense to stay in the closet."
"Are you looking to find anyone?" Professor Lupin asked.
"No, but I sort of figure I'll want to someday," Harry said.
"I'll tell you that you did ask me to tell you everything we talked about last night," Professor Lupin said. "I hope you won't regret telling me that you wanted to make out with your best friend."
Harry covered his face. "Oh Merlin, full moon Harry has a big mouth."
Professor Lupin barked a laugh and busied himself with his food for a moment.
"That's all I said about that, right?" Harry said. "I didn't talk about anything, um, else…"
"You might have gone on about his freckles," Professor Lupin said very straight faced.
"Ugh," Harry said.
"It sort of made me wonder if maybe you did feel that you wanted a relationship but were holding out for someone who wasn't available; or if maybe you did feel that you wanted a relationship with someone but didn't feel comfortable with the fact that that someone would ultimately be another boy."
Harry had long ago figured out that having a mouthful of food was a good excuse not to talk. Eventually though he said, "Maybe it's a combination of things," while staring at his food.
"You look pretty unhappy saying that," Professor Lupin said.
"Well it's sort of an insult to everyone else who's gay if I say I feel guilty for having feelings like that for other boys," Harry said.
"Harry, with your upbringing it's okay for you to still have some hang-ups around your sexuality."
"How is that okay?" Harry asked.
"Because you're on a journey," Professor Lupin said. "You got dropped off in a bad spot and you're making your way to somewhere better. You don't need to feel guilty for being where you are."
Harry thought about that for a bit. "You mentioned my upbringing," Harry said. "I mean, you probably saw that article, but did I talk about that last night?"
"You did," Professor Lupin said. "And since I'm supposed to tell you everything, we'll go into that later, but for now I'll say that I know that they made homophobic comments about you and that they espoused homophobic views when you were growing up."
"Wasn't I supposed to be relaxing last night?" Harry asked, it didn't sound like he'd been relaxed while he'd waited for the full moon.
"I persuaded you to calm down after a while," Professor Lupin said. "I wanted to tell you though, Harry, that there's no hurry when it comes to dating. You're ready whenever you're ready, and if that never happens, that's okay too. Some people don't want relationships and there's nothing wrong with that."
"I don't really know what I want right now," Harry said. "Even if I did, I wouldn't know how to go about finding anyone."
"Most of my relationships have been with muggles," Professor Lupin said. "It's a lot easier to hide the fact that I'm a werewolf when my boyfriends don't believe werewolves exist."
"How about dating other werewolves?" Harry asked.
"I've dated a couple," Professor Lupin said. "Gay werewolves are a bit of a small dating pool though."
"So do you think I should date muggle boys?" Harry asked. "Some day."
"I'm not going to tell you who you should date," Professor Lupin said. "But something to think about is that under the Statute of Secrecy, the only time you can tell a muggle significant other about the wizarding world is when you marry, and gay marriage is not recognized by the Ministry of Magic. Big secrets can put a big hamper on any relationship."
"You're not really selling me on this whole thing," Harry said.
"I wasn't trying to sell you on anything," Professor Lupin said. "Though I should say that I've had some wonderful relationships in my life. I'm not going to tell you that you're going to find the one, but I will say that there's no reason you can't."
"Hmm," Harry said.
"And lastly," Professor Lupin said. "I said this last night, but if you ever feel like you're the only gay kid in school, well, statistically speaking there're a fair few more."
"Yeah, well they aren't all clamoring to introduce themselves," Harry said. "Of course, I didn't exactly have any plans to go and come out to Miller.
"Thomas Miller?" Professor Lupin asked.
"Yeah," Harry said. "He got outed at the end of last year. He just keeps to himself though."
"Have you talked to him since you were outed?" Professor Lupin asked.
Harry shook his head. "Maybe I should," he said. "It's just, the last time I talked to him he basically told me to brush off, so… I dunno. What else did we talk about? You said I brought up the Dursleys?"
"I should have made a list," Professor Lupin said. "All right, you said you wanted everything, so let's start at the beginning. We started talking about your classes."
"Oh," Harry said. "Well, maybe not everything."
"Add that one to the list," Hermione said.
"That's a sixth year spell," Ron said.
"You can learn it," Hermione said.
Ron seemed to preen a bit even as he quipped about not needing to be able to light a fire underwater. Harry tuned them out and went back to skimming through the scroll he was working on. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he noticed someone walk up from behind him.
"Ron," a voice greeted.
"Oh, hey Kevin," Ron said. Harry turned around.
"Potter," Kevin Erstwhile nodded at him before turning to Hermione. "Granger."
"Hello," Hermione said, seeming a bit wary.
"I've got something for you," Erstwhile said sitting down next to Harry. The Slytherin boy pulled an item out of his pocket that was wrapped in an oiled cloth, which he proffered towards Ron. Whatever it was it had a pungent earthy smell to it.
"What is it?" Ron asked, taking it into his hands and unwrapping it. He made a face at the sight of what looked like a balled up mass of writhing worms.
"Gillyweed," Erstwhile said. "You'll need it to breath under the lake."
"How do you know about that?" Hermione asked.
"You lot and Diggory have been the talk of the dungeons," Erstwhile said. "There's been speculation on what you all will use. There's a good many wagers going on right now."
"What are my odds?" Ron asked.
"Not the greatest," Erstwhile said unapologetically.
Ron shrugged. "And what exactly do I do with this stuff?" Ron asked.
"Shove it in your mouth," Erstwhile said. "You'll grow gills and your hands and feet'll grow webs. It lasts for a bit over an hour."
"How much do I owe you?" Ron asked. "I don't even know if I need it, I'm learning the Bubble-Head Charm."
"Greengrass saw you pass out practicing that charm," Erstwhile said. "Look, like I've said, people have been talking. Maybe you'll be able to cast the charm and it'll last you the entire time. Consider this a back-up. If the charm wears off underwater, you probably won't be able to reapply it. The only downside is you won't be able to talk while you use this stuff, so only silent spell casting."
"Huh," Ron said. "And, um…"
"You don't owe me anything," Erstwhile said. "Consider it a bit of a repayment."
"For what?" Ron asked. "Our happy days in hell together?"
"Not a repayment to you," Erstwhile said to Ron. He jerked his head towards Harry. "This one saved my life, and I figure he seems rather invested in you not drowning in February."
"When did that happen, exactly?" Harry asked, very confused.
"When you stunned me in the hall," Erstwhile said, turning towards Harry. "I never finished my instructions. He had me imperiused so I'd go give you that message, but the message wasn't complete. He wanted to impress upon you how serious he was by having me slit my own throat. I'd had the knife ready in my hand.
Harry hadn't even noticed. "Oh," was all he could think to say to that.
"Holy hell," Ron said.
Erstwhile shrugged. "Regardless," he said, getting up. "The gillyweed is yours. Store it like you would any undried plant based potions ingredient."
"Who are you rooting for?" Ron asked.
"Good luck," was all Erstwhile said before he left.
"Well," Ron said, looking at the writhing mass in his hands. "Let's hope I don't have to shove this thing in my mouth."
Ron continued working on the bubblehead charm. They all had things they were looking into in preparation for the second task which was a bit over a month away. A couple of weeks later saw them all at the lake with Ron's siblings. It was time for Ron to really start practicing the spells he would be using during the second task.
"Nope, still freezing," Ron said miserably, his teeth chattering as he stood naval deep in the water at the shore of the lake in sodden robes.
"All right, come on out," Ginny said. She dried Ron off while Hermione applied a heating charm.
"This whole thing is going to be over pretty quick if you turn into a popsicle," Fred said.
"It's all about your focus," Hermione said. "You need to focus on the heat radiating from your core."
"That would be a lot easier if I could cast it while I'm still on dry land," Ron said. "Why do I have to already be in the water? And what's up with all these guttural consonants, what's wrong with latin based spells."
"This is the only thing I've found that is strong enough to keep you warm in the lake," Hermione said. "We could look into custom charmed clothes for you to wear."
"That sounds expensive," Ron said.
"I could handle that," Harry said.
Ron shook his head. "I'll learn the spell."
"George, could you conjure some hot tea?" Harry asked.
The twins had succeeded in casting the spell on themselves and were standing in the lake. George pulled out his wand and sent a hot cup of tea over to Harry which he handed to Ron.
"Drink this as fast as you can and go stand back in the lake. Focus on the heat from the tea in your belly."
Ron gulped down the too hot tea with a grimace and then went and waded back out into the lake gasping from the cold of it as he went.
"Gerkushktkulgracht Ektkoro," Ron incanted over himself when he was once more submerged up to his naval. He took in a sharp inhale. "Oh, that's nice," he said. "Oh, that's so much better."
"Finally," George said.
"Well, now that the princess is comfortable we can get to work," said Fred.
"Come here," George said. Ron waded over to him. "Lumolilion," George said, placing a charm on Ron's skin causing him to glow.
"What's this for?" Ron asked.
"It's so if you drown we can find your body," Fred said.
"We're going to be with you," George said. "If something happens to your bubblehead charm or whatever, shoot out sparks and we'll come get you."
Ron nodded. "What've you got for me down there?"
"That's a surprise," said Fred.
Ron sighed, applied the bubblehead charm on himself and dove in.
They still had more than enough school and project work, but the following couple of weeks were filled with a number of trips out to a secluded part of the lake where Ron could dive in with the twins and face grindylows and hinkypunks and anything else the twins could catch to throw at him. Harry, Hermione, and Ginny were left on the shore for longer and longer periods of time. Ron was having trouble maintaining the bubblehead charm for long enough, but he was getting better.
Ron was going to bed fairly exhausted every night, and Harry was fairly certain it was the best thing for him. Keeping so busy seemed to keep him in a good state of mind. There were a few nights though were Harry would stay up with him or Ron would wake him up for a chat. If Seamus noticed or had any opinion on the matter, he kept it to himself.
February saw another full moon. It went about as routinely as it could go. Harry left right after classes let out on Monday and headed down to floo out from his dad's quarters. He was actually looking forward to missing History of Magic the following morning. His dad actually left him in Professor Lupin's care that day so he could take care of his classes while Ron faked sick and went about impersonating Harry under Polyjuice. Harry got to talk to Professor Lupin for a while before he was able to return to school that evening and had no problem impersonating a still slightly sick Ron. They both sat up late that night waiting for the Polyjuice to wear off as Ron caught Harry up on what he missed in his classes. Harry was caught in that limbo of being very tired but not feeling like he could sleep since he had been sleeping most of the day.
"So wait," Harry said. "Does that mean if you flip the diagram it becomes an eldritch pendant?"
Ron stared at his runes book for a bit before shutting it with a bit of a snap. "That sounds like a good question for Hermione tomorrow," he said, rubbing at his eyes.
"You don't need to keep me company," Harry said. "You look pretty tired."
"I'm just going to go over the second task in my head if I try to go to sleep right now," he said.
"You don't need to worry," Harry said. "You're doing great."
"Sure, as long as I can get out of the lake before my bubblehead charm wears off," Ron said.
"You've got a back up," Harry said.
Ron shook his head. "I can hardly do any spells nonverbally," he said. "I need to be finished before I need to worry about that."
"You're going to do fine," Harry said again. "I should have taught you how to clear your mind."
"I've got enough to learn," he said. "Come on now, we've done nothing but worry about me for a while. How are you doing?"
"A lot better than I might have thought I would have been now that I'm out," Harry said.
"Is that a lot better like you're doing good or a lot better as in things suck but it could be worse?"
Harry shrugged. "It's not like I'm not used to being a bit of an outcast," he said. "I've got the people who matter with me."
Ron smiled at him. "Well we're not going anywhere," he said. "I've been meaning to talk to you about something though." He looked nervous.
Harry frowned. "I haven't been giving you two enough time alone together," he said. "You're dating, I get it."
"No," Ron said. "That's not…" He bit his lip. "There's just something I should have told you a long while ago, but I wasn't sure, and I didn't want…. Um, it's not bad. At all. I just… Okay, so I really like Hermione, you know?"
"Yeah," Harry said.
"And I started noticing girls in a big way summer before third year, and um, I just sort of didn't really pay attention to other stuff."
"Other stuff?" Harry asked.
"Yeah, so," Ron said. "Like, I'd notice a good looking guy and I'd just, I'd sort of just think to myself that I was just, um, admiring someone who was older, like, you know, 'hope I look like that when I'm big,' and stuff. I mean, I knew that people were bi, but I just didn't really think that I was for a long time."
"Wait, so you're…" To say that Harry was shocked was an understatement.
"Bisexual," Ron said. "I don't know, I was just sort of used to passing off feelings like that as something else I just didn't really consider it and then when I sort of realized maybe I did like guys, you know, the same way I like girls, I just sort of wondered if I was mistaken or if I was confused, and after you came out to me I thought I should talk to you about it, but I was sort of worried about, like, what if I was wrong, and I came out to you and then I realized later that I was just straight, and- I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner."
Harry found himself speechless.
"I, um, I told Hermione a few days ago," Ron said, looking down at his hands in his lap. "I just wanted to make sure she knew that, um, I was happy with her, and just 'cause I also like blokes doesn't mean I'm going to cheat on her with one. Um, and I also wrote Charlie about it." He looked back up at Harry. "I just didn't feel like I was sure at first and then I felt guilty for not having talked to you about it sooner and then I just kept putting off telling you."
"Huh," was all Harry could manage.
"Are you mad at me?" Ron asked.
"What?" Harry asked. "No, I just, um, wasn't expecting this. Um, I get being nervous to tell someone."
"I shouldn't have been," Ron said.
Harry shrugged. The silence feeling awkward between them. "So does that mean we can talk boys with each other?"
"Viktor Krum jumping into the lake in that little swimming outfit," Ron said. "I almost outed myself right there. Those robes he wears do not do him justice."
Harry blushed furiously, hiding his face in his hands. "Oh my god, I know, right?"
Ron grinned at him.
The next day, Ron told the twins and Ginny about his sexuality while they went out to the lake for practice. The twins teased him, but not in a mean way. No one acted like it was shocking news. Harry thought that he himself had probably been the most surprised. He had to tell himself that it didn't change anything. Ron was just as unavailable, he was still madly head over heels for Hermione and even if he wasn't, it was one thing to want to be Harry's friend, it was quite another to want to be his boyfriend. Ron didn't need that much more mess in his life.
Over the next week, Ron spent most of his free time practicing in the lake. If any of the other champions were doing the same, they must have found their own secluded spots to do so, since they never saw any of them by the lake while they were out.
The evening before the second task a bit of a calm dogged them as they made their way back to the castle from the lake. They were calling it a bit earlier than they had over the past week, in part because Ron had learned about as much as he was going to learn and also because there was no point in Ron overworking himself the night before.
"Someone should stay up tonight and make sure Ron gets enough sleep," Hermione said matter of factly as they approached the castle.
"I'm doing a lot better," Ron said.
"I know," Hermione said. "We'll just make sure."
"I'll stay up," Harry volunteered.
"We'll drill you on spells tomorrow morning," Ginny said. "No more work tonight, let's do gobstones or something."
"Nothing's more relaxing than pranking the school," George said.
"What do you say, Ron? Want to turn the stairs into the entrance hall into a waterslide?"
Ron glanced at Hermione. "Gobstones should be fine," he said.
They all ate together that night, but they never got to play gobstones. They were stopped by Professor McGonagall as they were leaving the Great Hall.
"Mr. Potter, Miss Weasley, and Miss Granger, you are all needed in the headmaster's office." She looked grim.
"…Are we in trouble?" Harry asked.
"No," Professor McGonagall said. "But we will discuss the matter in the headmaster's office."
"Get back soon," Ron said. He looked anxious.
The three of them followed Professor McGonagall all the way up to the top of the tower that housed the headmaster. Professor McGonagall had said that they weren't in trouble, but Harry couldn't help but think that this had something to do with all the help they had been giving Ron against the rules. Though if that were the case, Ron and the twins would be with them, wouldn't they?
The office was very full when they arrived. Besides the headmaster, Karkaroff and Madame Maxime were stood looking fairly judgingly at the three arriving students from the right of the headmaster while to his left Ms. Cooper and Bagman stood looking a lot more pleasant. Additionally, seated around the room were Cho Chang, a Durmstrang student Harry was pretty sure had been Krum's date to the Yule Ball, and a young girl, younger than a first year, who bore a strong resemblance to Fleur Delacour,.
"Are we supposed to be what Ron's going to miss, professor?" Ginny asked.
"See?" Karkaroff said. "He has told them the clue."
"There was no stipulation that he keep the clue to himself," Ms. Cooper said. "He was welcome to shout it out in the Great Hall."
"But he told them so they could help him," Karkaroff accused. "He has been receiving help."
"Surely you are not concerned zat a fourth year will defeat your champion," Madame Maxime said a bit scornfully, though she had her shrewd eyes on the three of them.
"This is not what we have gathered everyone for," the Headmaster said. "Yes, Miss Weasley, we are here to decide which one of you will be participating in the second task."
Harry was instantly curious to know why there were three of them there for Ron but only one person for each of the other champions, and why did Professor McGonagall and the headmaster look worried.
"Your names were brought forward as students Mr. Weasley would miss the most," Bagman said.
"Though Professor McGonagall had concerns with the nature of your participation in the second task," Ms. Cooper said. "Which is why it was decided to consult with the three of you before making a decision."
Harry thought that was far more ominous and non-detailed than was necessary. For once though, it was the Headmaster who was handing out all of the answers.
"For the second task, each champion must swim to the bottom of the lake and retrieve the person that they will 'miss the most.' That person will be in a magically induced sleep and bound to a post in the middle of the merfolk village."
"He has to fight merfolk?" Hermione asked. They'd studied the magical humanoids, but had no way to really practice how to face one.
"No," the headmaster said. "He does not. Right now, however, we are not concerned with Mr. Weasley. All three of you are being considered, and yet, all three of you have a history of being rendered unconscious and abducted. There was concern that such a scenario might become distressing."
"I'll do it," Harry said.
"No," Hermione said. "Ron volunteered so you'd stay out of it."
"Which derailed any plans to off me," Harry said. "I'll be fine."
"No, I'll be fine," Hermione said. "I'll be in a magical sleep, I won't even notice that I'm being held captive."
"Well how's Ron going to do seeing you tied up like that?" Harry asked.
"Well what about you?" Hermione asked.
"Not quite as on the nose, don't you think?" Harry asked.
"You're both missing the obvious answer," Ginny said. "Which is that I should do it."
"Same reaction," Harry said. "He's very protective of you."
"Same as you," Ginny said.
"It's not the same," Harry said.
"Why?" Ginny asked. "Because I'm a girl?"
"Because you're his little… sibling," Harry said. "Look the sight of either of you tied up and dead to the world is going to freak him out, and he doesn't need to have a panic attack at the bottom of the lake." He sorely wished they weren't having this conversation in front of everyone.
"You're right," Hermione said. "But you can't swim."
That brought Harry up short. "Will I need to be able to swim, Sir?" He asked, turning towards the headmaster.
"It would be ideal, though not strictly necessary," Bagman said.
"I vote for Ginny," Hermione said.
"That's two for me," Ginny said.
Harry turned once more towards the Headmaster but he didn't look like he was about to overrule them.
"It is decided, no?" asked Madame Maxime.
"It is decided," the Headmaster nodded.
Harry sighed in defeat. He turned to Ginny. "Are you going to be alright?" he asked.
Ginny ran a hand through her hair. "Sure," she said brazenly. "No problem. I'll just be asleep."
Harry remembered finding Ginny in the Chamber of Secrets, looking very dead while he told himself over and over that she was just asleep.
"I guess that's that, then," Bagman said, frowning at Ginny. "The two of you can get back to your dormitories."
"They cannot go," Karkaroff said indignantly. "They know too much now. They will tell your champion. They must stay under supervision until the task starts."
Harry looked to Hermione. He wasn't sure if they would be telling Ron. What would giving him more time to worry do for him.
"We can't just disappear, Sir," Hermione said to the headmaster. "Ron's going to think something horrible has happened."
"He is supposed to be worried," Madame Maxime said with a bit of scorn. "Ze point is to see 'ow ze champions do under pressure."
"This isn't pressure," Hermione said. "You're dealing with a boy who has post traumatic stress disorder after being kidnapped by two exceptionally violent people. The three of us disappearing without explanation is definitely going to cause him to panic. You would be putting him at an exceptional disadvantage."
"Surely he's seen a mind-healer," Bagman said.
Hermione hesitated. "He has chosen to receive alternative treatment," she said, delicately.
"That is not our problem," Karkaroff said.
"It's his choice if he wants someone else poking around in his head or not," Harry defended, though he did wish Ron could get better treatment. He felt guilty knowing that Ron wasn't seeing a mind healer because he was trying to protect Harry's secrets. "It also doesn't matter, the fact remains that hiding us from him the night before the task is going to unfairly sabotage his chances, and unless I'm missing something, it's still entirely possible that a mistake down there could easily lead to one of the champions drowning, so if you think I'm going to stand for that then you can-" he was cut off when Ginny elbowed him in the side.
"Perhaps if he is so delicate we can just memory charm the both of you so you can be on your way to tuck him into bed," Karkaroff said snidely.
Harry all but snarled as his hand dove for his wand in his pocket. He was brought up short by the Headmaster holding up his hand to forestall him. "Perhaps another solution can be found," he said. "Mr. Weasley will not have cause to worry over the three of you if he is the one who is isolated tonight."
Bagman shook her head. "We couldn't just segregate one champion," he said. "All of them would have to be pulled for the evening."
"Well the entire purpose of this tournament is to foster international relations," Ms. Cooper said. "How about the champions have a sleepover, it would be good for them all to interact with one another."
"Miss Delacour is a young lady," Bagman said, looking a bit upset.
"Chaperoned," Ms. Cooper said. "Of course. Professor McGonagall, I would hate to impose."
"I will see to it," Professor McGonagall said.
"If it means being done with zis nonsense, zen I agree," Madame Maxime said, though she had a very disapproving look to her.
"What do you say?" Bagman asked, looking at Karkaroff, he looked almost imploring.
Karkaroff scoffed and rolled his eyes. "Since we must coddle these Hogwarts students, it seems I have little choice."
"Then it's settled," Bagman said, though he looked disappointed. "Now if you'll excuse us, Diane and I will just escort our hostages to the lake."
They took a moment to collect everyone, Bagman acting, very charming towards the younger girl, as though she were one of his old fans. When they left, it seemed everyone turned to look at Harry and Hermione. Harry felt very self conscious as he stared back defiantly towards the two foreign school heads.
"Mr. Potter, Miss Granger, you can wait in here while we collect the champions," the Headmaster said.
"Will you tell him that we're alright?" Hermione asked.
"Of course," the Headmaster said.
Before long they were left alone in the Headmaster's office. Harry glanced around at the sleeping portraits of all of the previous school heads.
"Well this sucks," Harry said.
"It could be worse," Hermione said, though she looked worried.
Harry took a deep breath. Everything was out of their hands now. They couldn't go over spells with Ron, neither of them could stay up with him to make sure he got sleep. At this point, all they would be were spectators. "You got him ready," he said. "That's enough."
"We all did," Hermione said. "I'm just worried he's going to have an attack when he's down there."
"I still think I should have gone," Harry said.
"You're acting like he doesn't care about you as much as he cares about me and Ginny," Hermione said.
"Yeah, well, you're his girlfriend, and Ginny's his sister," Harry said.
"You're his best friend," Hermione said. "He worries about you a lot."
"He shouldn't worry about me," Harry said, the prophesy hanging over his head.
"That's quite something, coming from you," Hermione said.
Harry huffed and thought of a world without Voldemort or his Death Eaters where he didn't have to worry about his friends getting caught up in the madness of his life. He looked around the room. "Want to play 'guess what that is'?" he asked Hermione, gesturing to the plethora of strange magical devices littered around the room.
Hermione seemed to perk up. "No touching," she said sternly as she walked over to a spindly device that seemed to not be entirely corporeal.
Waking up in the Transfiguration classroom was very surreal. For a moment, Ron forgot that his night had been hijacked by Professor McGonagall so that 'no undue influence could befall any of the champions.' As anxious as he had been about the prospect of a sleepover with the older students, it had actually gone well. Diggory proved himself to be exceptionally personable and had made sure everyone had gotten on well enough. They had talked about their home countries and their schools. Diggory had wound up goading Ron into talking about some of his adventures at school and, with a couple of glances at Professor McGonagall, Ron had expounded to the lot of them on tales of rule breaking that he was pretty sure he couldn't get in trouble for anymore.
They chatted amicably while they ate breakfast, which had been provided for them in the room. Ron didn't actually eat very much, finding himself the unfortunate new owner of a nervous stomach. Ron was a bit perturbed that he wasn't being allowed to see his friends and dearly hoped that he would be able to see them before the event started. Just in case; he didn't want his last conversation with them to be something ordinary. He definitely wouldn't mind getting a kiss good luck from Hermione.
He didn't really think that he would die in the lake. Or rather, he didn't think it was more likely than unlikely. He thought he had decent odds. The possibility of not coming back though had been at the back of his mind since he had discovered that he would have to venture deep down to the bottom of the lake. Not for the first time he wondered what it was like to drown to death. It wasn't exactly difficult to imagine, since he'd had more than a few accidents while training over the past weeks. The biggest difference now was that he wasn't going to have anyone there to help him if something went wrong during the task.
He tried to think of other things, but more and more as they made their way out to the lake, the thought of being cold and alone in the dark depths of the lake as painfully cold water poured down his throat plagued his mind as he and the rest of the champions made their way to the shore. Whatever the other champions were thinking, they were silent too. Once there though, his eyes were drawn away from the murky waters to the crowd gathering to watch the spectacle.
It only took him a moment to spot the small gathering of redheads. There was mum and dad, Percy too, and next to them were Harry and Hermione. He waved at them, summoning as much enthusiasm as he could. His mum would want to see him looking confident. They all waved back. Mum looked worried. He hoped that wherever the twins and Ginny were that they'd get there soon. He wanted to at least see them before the start.
The champions were all gathered together at the shore of the lake where the three headmasters and the ministry big shots were clustered. He got an oddly guilty look from Ludo Bagman and wondered if the man thought there was no way that Ron was going to survive. Percy's boss smiled at him and he thought he got a disdainful look from the former Death Eater. A hand on his shoulder had him turning around to face a solemn looking Professor McGonagall.
"I'll do Gryffindor proud, Professor," Ron said.
"You already have," Professor McGonagall said. "All you need to do today is to come back."
Ron grinned, "Why professor, I still plan on coming back in first place." There was a bit more bravado there than was warranted, he thought, but this was definitely the time to fake it till he made it.
"See that you do," Professor McGonagall said, showing a hint of a smile.
From behind him, Ludo Bagman cleared his throat. "Time to get started, I dare say," he said.
Everyone gathered around.
Percy's boss took up the introduction. "I hope this doesn't come as a surprise to any of you, but your task is to go to the bottom of this lake and find a certain something that has been taken from each of you. I dare say, you will know it when you see it. To accomplish this task, you may use any item that you have brought with you today, or that you can transfigure, conjure, or summon, assuming that you do so have the right to summon it. You have one hour to complete this task, so it will be necessary to be able to breathe under water for an extended period of time. Another thing to keep in mind is the cold. If you do not have a means of dealing with the frigid waters, you will quickly find yourself lacking the dexterity to use your wand and you will most likely lose consciousness long before you complete the task."
"Now," she continued. "There are a multitude of magical creatures in the lake that may attempt to waylay you. This is a very dangerous task and you may take whatever measures necessary to protect yourself. However, take note that the merfolk who inhabit this lake will also be participating in this task. They will not attack you, so any attack on them will be a violation of the 1873 Statute for Sentient Creature Protection. Outside of obeying common law, there are no other rules. Mr. Bagman will now explain how you will be judged."
"Yes," Ludo Bagman said with a grin. "Here is where Magical Games and Sports comes in. You will be graded based on these factors weighted in this order: speed and efficiency, display of magical proficiency, and your demonstrated knowledge of the magical creatures that will most likely attack you. There is also room in there to judge for sportsmanship, bravery, and flashiness, so do be sure to put on a show. Now, speaking of a show, you may be wondering how we'll be keeping tabs on you while you're below the dark depths of the lake."
Ludo Bagman pulled a sleek dart like object, the size of his hand, out of his robes. "This is a scrying focus. Each one of you will be followed by one of these guys through the water. They connect to four scrying screens that you can see over there in front of our audience and the judges table. It would be most unfortunate if any stray spells knocked your focus out of commission. We want you to get all of the points you deserve. Any questions?"
"Will there be tea when we come back?" Ron asked.
"You may drink tea until you burst upon your return," Dumbledore said.
"Anything else?" Madame Maxime asked.
The four of them shook their heads.
"Then we'll be off," Ludo Bagman said. "We will start as soon as we're settled at the judges table. You can take the time until then to prepare anything you want, though you may not get into the water until the event starts."
That was good, Ron thought as the judges walked away. Transfiguration took him forever and if he could get a bit of a head start, that would be for the best.
"Accio wooden board," Ron hollered.
"And here's a picture from right before the ball," Hermione said, handing another picture to Mrs. Weasley.
"Oh, look at them Arthur," Mrs. Weasley said, showing the picture to her husband. "Our baby looks so grown up. And you look lovely dear. I don't suppose you have any pictures of you two dancing?"
"Oh," Hermione said a bit flushed. "They weren't any good."
"And where's Harry?" Mrs. Weasley asked. "I'm sure you looked very smart in your dress robes, dear."
"No pictures," Harry said, not at all sorry to be lacking any reminders of that awkward night. "Um, I guess my dad has some of the time we went back down to the Chamber of Secrets together."
"Why on Earth would you go there?" Mrs. Weasley asked, sounding strangled.
"Potions ingredients," Harry said, a bit shamefaced. The point had been to help Mrs. Weasley calm down, not to bring up places her children had almost died. She was resigned enough about Ron participating in the second task, she had been fairly upset to find out that Ginny would also be below the surface of the lake.
"They're doing something," Hermione said.
Down below on the lake shore, Ron and the other champions looked like they were getting ready to begin. Ron had summoned his plank of wood and had started transfiguring it. Meanwhile the four large blank screens had lit up, each one focused on one of the champions. The perspectives all looked like something was looking up at them from the water.
"What's he doing?" Mrs. Weasley asked.
"He'll need that for the task," Harry said.
"Everything's planned out," Hermione said. "You really don't need to worry. Ron will do very well."
"Well he's going to catch his death of cold if he has to go into that lake," Mrs. Weasley said.
"Well I've got my money on the kappas," said Fred.
"Oh, stop it," Mrs. Weasley said.
"He's going to be fine, mum," George said. "We made sure of it."
"Spent more time in that lake than I have on my homework," Fred added.
Suddenly, Bagman's booming voice swept over the crowd. "Ladies and Gentlemen," he cried out. "Are you ready to see a most excellent show of bravery and talent?"
There was a general roar from the crowd. Harry saw Mrs. Weasley clutch her husband's hand and he wondered if Hermione would use his arm like a squeeze toy again this time.
"Well here we are again, ready to watch as the finest students in Europe compete to bring glory and fame to their respective schools. To our listeners at home, I will be your eyes and ears today. Already during this tournament we have seen spectacular performances from all of our champions. Today, our champions will be venturing to the bottom of Hogwarts' lake to find something near and dear to them that has been taken. Our champions will have to face the cold and the dark while they dive deep underwater to face off against a host of magical creatures that haunt these murky depths.
"And now, without any more from me, I hereby start the second task of the Triwizard Tournament." A loud chime went off. "Yes, I can see already, two of our champions have already applied bubblehead charms. Mr. Diggory and Miss Delacour won't have any trouble breathing underwater. Oh, and Mr. Diggory has dived in already. I didn't see him apply any heating charms, so lets hope he's already done what he needed to to keep warm. Miss Delacour is charming her robes, time will tell if she's done her research. Oh, now that's not the look that will get you on the cover of Quidditch Weekly, Mr. Krum. Our Durmstrang champion has dived in after partially transfiguring himself. We have a shark headed champion everyone. And now Miss Delacour is in the water also. Our only champion still on the shore is Hogwarts second champion, Mr. Weasley. He has been transfiguring what appears to be a plank of wood since the beginning and whatever he's making, I think he's almost done. Oh, yes, he's getting into the water now. Our other champions dived in but Mr. Weasley is wading out with what appears to be some manner of floatation board. The objective is indeed to not float; I do hope he understood the instructions properly." He sounded a bit put off.
"What's he doing?" Mrs. Weasley asked.
"He's going to take a shortcut," Hermione said. "It was his idea too, most of the creatures down there won't go too near the surface."
"We were pretty sure he was going to have to go somewhere near the center of the lake," George said.
"So he'll go to the center above water and then dive down," said Fred.
"There's really no need to dive under right at the shore," Hermione said.
Ron was up to his naval in the water and looking distinctly cold. He cast his warming charm though and resolutely started walking out into the water. A few more steps in and he pushed himself forwards and started resting his torso against what was essentially a boogie board. With one arm wrapped around it, he pointed his wand to the opposite shore and cast a tether charm. A quick jab of his wand towards the board linked the board to the far shore and one more gesture contracted the tether, thereby pulling the board and Ron across the water.
"Well whatever our youngest champion is doing, he seems to have a plan," Bagman said. "Oh look, it seems Mr. Diggory has run into a Nagala, which is quite unlucky, considering that there is only one of them in the entirety of this lake."
Harry watched the screen where Cedric had been grabbed from behind by the oddly humanoid serpentine creature which quickly wrapped him up. There were gasps from the crowd. Out on the surface, Harry could see Ron staring back towards the screens. He wondered if Ron could make out what was happening from the other side. Hermione gasped as one of the Nagala's snakelike appendages wrapped around Cedric's chest.
It was over a moment later. Cedric's wand arm was just barely mobile enough for him to tap his wand to the lake creature's skin. The Nagala started thrashing and pushed Cedric away. Cedric turned towards it, brandishing his wand. A rather large blasting hex sent the creature away. Bagman was reporting all of it excitedly from the judges' booth.
The action over, Ron turned his head back towards where he was going. The spell he was using wasn't terribly quick, but it was faster than swimming. Ron would likely get to the bottom of the lake before anyone else did, Harry hoped. According to 'Hogwarts, a History,' Hermione had told them, the lake was roughly five kilometers across and ninety meters deep, and even the authority on all things Hogwarts wasn't confident that it knew each and every magical creature that inhabited it. Ron was actually a pretty good swimmer, but it was probably for the best that he wasn't going to be tiring himself out swimming all the way.
"And would you look at that Ladies and Gentlemen, that Hinkypunk took one look at Victor Krum and left in the opposite direction. We'll just have to see if our shark headed champion gets any action today. This may be why Mr. Krum is the only one who has felt he could get away with lighting his wand under water; he doesn't care what sees him."
Suddenly there was a flash of light in the water not far from where Ron was, and clearly drawing his attention.
"Well it seems our champions can't get a reprieve," Bagman said excitedly. Miss Delacour has been set upon by a grindylow. Looks like she took care of that one. Let's hope she remembers that they travel in pods."
Ron was back to looking at the screens behind him. Another two grindylows had snuck up from behind her and grabbed her by the hair and wrists. A third grabbed one of her legs.
"Things are not looking good for our Beauxbatons champion," Bagman said. "Though she's lucky they cannot pierce her bubblehead charm or else that one would likely be biting her neck instead of her shoulder."
Fleur Delacour was trying to get her wand pointed at any of the grindylows but she didn't have any range of movement, restrained as she was. She was casting as many spells as she could that didn't require wand movement, trying to chase off the creatures that had grabbed her. The flashes of light from her spell filtered up through the water and were visible on the surface.
"What's he doing?" Fred asked.
Ron had redirected his spell, he was heading straight for her.
Bagman was almost ecstatic in his description of the events. There was a small roar from the crowd as everyone watched the events unfold. Ron stopped above where everything was happening and cast the bubblehead charm on himself. He let go of his board and dove down into the water.
It was hard to tell but, by how long it took, Harry thought they were ten meters down below the surface. It was over pretty soon after Ron arrived. The grindylows weren't in a position to defend themselves and once Ron dispatched the two that had grabbed Fleur Delacour's wrists she blasted off the one that was on her leg. There was a brief moment where the two champions just looked at each other.
Harry was worried though, not because of the threat of another attack, but rather for how Ron looked. The subtle signs that Harry was used to looking for were there. The ones that said that Ron was getting closer to a panic. He seemed to steel himself though, taking a big breath in and out.
Ron flashed the thumbs up with a questioning look on his face. Delacour took a moment to assess herself, poking at the bite marks that were bleeding out into the water in a cloudy red. She pulled a couple of square patches out of her robes and slapped them on her shoulders before using a charm to sever a strip from the hem of her robes which she used to quickly bind her leg. She flashed Ron the thumbs up. Ron nodded and pointed his wand downwards. Casting the propulsion spell a few times he made his way back up to the surface where he shook himself off a bit. Ron had told Harry that using the propulsion charm under water was very disjointing, the high speed of the charm fighting proportionately with the resistance of the water. He couldn't go nearly as far as he could on dry land. He canceled the bubblehead charm and summoned his board back to him.
Gripping the board and floating on the surface, Ron took a moment to close his eyes and rest his head forward. Harry thought he might be holding his breath for a bit. Moments later, he was under way again.
Bagman was going on about sportsmanship and Gryffindors, sounding fairly disbelieving of what had just happened. There was a lot of cheering from the assembled students. Harry yelled out his adulations with Hermione and the Weasley's while he eyed the distance to the center of the lake and how much time Ron had before he would go down below again.
"Not a dull moment here, ladies and gentlemen, not a dull moment," Bagman said.
Of course, after that there was just a bunch of watching the four champions moving through the water. Bagman filled the time with commentary on the magical creatures in the lake and talking about some facts about the different champions.
Eventually, Ron got to the approximate center of the lake and he brought himself to a stop. The Weasley's senior seemed to draw in a collective breath that they held as Ron got ready to dive below. Ron cast another bubblehead charm on himself. Flipping himself around in the water, he placed his feet up on the board he'd been floating on and performed a charm on both of his shoes. Pulling himself off of his board he quickly slipped under the water and started to sink like a stone.
"Weight charm on his shoes," Hermione said. "The sooner he gets there the sooner he can come back."
It would be for the best. Ron had never consistently gotten the bubblehead charm to last for very long.
The darkness was all encroaching as Ron sunk down through the water. The deeper he went there was a mounting pressure all around him. He wanted to light his wand but he knew that would only draw unwanted attention. He kept thinking something in the darkness was moving, and the thought that something was swimming around him, following him, watching him started to cloud his mind. He started to breath in and out very deliberately. He wanted to calm down, but how could he? He needed to be alert. The urge to just go back up was strong. It suddenly seemed so stupid, everything he was doing. He didn't need to win. He didn't need to get back whatever stupid thing had been taken. They could keep his broom if they wanted. What was he even doing deep down below? He was just waiting for something to grab him, for a hand to cover his mouth, and even though he knew it was ridiculous, he kept waiting to hear Greyback's gruff chuckle before he cast the cruciatus curse, or for Steven to wrap his hands around his neck, or something worse.
His right hand, gripping his wand tight, was starting to hurt and his left was tugging at his collar. He started to turn around, again and again, looking for whatever was behind him, certain that something was there. He was so close to a panic and he had no idea what it was that was keeping him from just going back. He could do it. It would only take a moment; cancel the spells on his shoes, start his ascent.
It had only been moments. He knew that, really. With his weighted shoes, he knew it would only take so long to get to the bottom of the lake, but it felt like he had left the sky behind so long ago. He felt like he was looking for something. Not for the stupid task. He knew what he was looking for. He was looking for Hermione. There was some part of him that felt certain that she was in trouble. That he had to protect her, that she was down there with him. He knew she was with Harry and his parents and everyone else, but feelings were so much more powerful than knowledge. He kept sinking down.
When he saw the glow off to his side, he let himself focus on it. He hadn't been too far off of his mark. His feet touched the bottom of the lake soon after and he hastily bent down to remove the charm on his shoes. No need to let them get stuck in the muck. He turned towards the glow and saw off in the distance, about thirty meters ahead of him, was some something or other on the lakebed. He checked over his shoulder again, doing a full three-sixty before he looked back to what was most likely the merfolk village that he was supposed to be looking for. He started swimming.
As horrible a thought as it was, he wished that Harry was there with him. It felt wrong to be off doing something dangerous without Harry and Hermione with him to make sure he didn't bollocks it up. He focused on breathing in and out as he swam, regularly stopping to look behind him, always certain that some monster would be there. He was also regularly feeling the bubble around his head as if he needed to check to make sure it was still there. Of course, he couldn't be sure how much longer it would be there. The feeling that he wasn't getting enough air to breath was pervasive and he thought that things had been so much better when the twins had been with him in the water. He tried to focus on the glow ahead of him, imagining that it was the sun and that he was really approaching the surface.
When he got to the merfolk village it was almost surreal. It looked cheery. It looked like an actual village. There were homes, there were gardens of sorts, there was even a hinkypunk chained up in someone's yard like it was a pet dog. Of course there were also the merfolk. He kept reminding himself that they weren't there to attack him. He kept reminding himself that probably whatever other creatures lived in the lake, they probably knew better than to get too close to the village. He was probably safest here than anywhere else in the lake, but swimming into the village felt like walking into a trap and he felt shaky and he could feel his heart thudding in his chest as he made his way deeper and deeper into the village.
No one tried to stop him. Every one of them that he could see, though, were staring at him. Some waved, some smiled, and some looked at him as though he was as odd looking to them as they were to him. He wished he were invisible. He kept his distance and kept moving forward. Some part of him knew to keep swimming to the center of the village.
Disbelief was the first thing that occurred when he got to what amounted to a town square. Abject denial that what he was seeing was real. He was so certain that it was all a figment of his imagination in the creepy depths of the lake that for a moment he was calm when he saw his sister floating, lifeless, and tied to a post surrounded by three others in similar states. That was replaced by rage a moment later.
He gave an inarticulate cry and started swimming forward furiously, looking around for anyone who might try to stop him. The merfolk just watched. Coming up on his sister, he stopped, grasping her by the shoulders, feeling the reality of her being, and trying to shake her awake. She just hung there, held in place only by a rope around her middle. He cleared the floating tendrils of her hair away from her face, smoothing it back, looking for some sign of life. He tried to put his fingers against her throat, looking for a pulse, but he had no idea what he was doing. He needed the denial back. He needed this to all be unreal, because for all intents and purposes he was looking at his sisters corpse and he didn't know what to do.
He was shaking with quiet tears as he searched for any sign of life. She clearly wasn't breathing, there was nothing for her to breath, no bubblehead charm, no gills. She was dead, he knew, and a contracting pit of despair coiled in his gut as a mournful keening noise made it's way from his throat.
While being held captive, his biggest fear every day was that he would watch his best friend die. That he would live long enough to fail her and see her lifeless body as he waited to die next to her. Floating there staring at his sister's lifeless body, her pale face, and limp limbs he was so certain that it was over. He stopped functioning. He felt locked away in his own hell. Memories of his time in captivity assailing him, memories of his dark fantasies as he had waited for the full moon and the ripping of flesh.
He couldn't imagine returning to the surface to face his family. He couldn't imagine going home without her. The coldness of reality seeped into his spirit and he lost sense of time as he hung there, staring at Ginny, and feeling utterly lost.
He was broken out of it by a rough shake of his shoulder. He turned, numb, not caring what he would face. It was Cedric Diggory, he had Cho Chang in his arms. Diggory pantomimed sleep and pointed to Ginny. Ron's head swung back and forth between looking at Diggory and Ginny. This was the second task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. He was at school. Ginny wasn't dead. It was just some stupid theatrics for a stupid competition, and he had been freaking out for the entire school to watch. Ginny was alright. Ginny was alright. Ginny was alright. He told himself over and over.
He found some semblance in himself to nod his head for Diggory's sake. He swam around to untie Ginny. His fingers were useless and he wound up just using a severing charm. He watched Cedric start his ascent, not really caring that the older boy was going to beat him.
He cast a glance at the two people still tied up. He hadn't even seen them when he'd gotten there. All he had seen was Ginny. There was an older girl who was probably there for Krum and a girl who looked a few years younger than a first year and who was definitely related to Delacour. It was just a game, he reminded himself. He started swimming up, kicking with his legs as he held on tight to Ginny.
It was as he was leaving the twilight of the luminescent dome that seemed to envelope the village that he noticed a change. Later he would be certain that a magical trigger had gone off, but in the moment all he knew was that some sort of pulse went out through the water from where the two of them were, and also, Ginny suddenly felt like she weighed a ton. Suddenly, they weren't slowly making their ascent, they were sinking back down. He started kicking harder but he knew it wasn't going to do any good.
He pointed his wand downward and cast the propulsion charm, Ginny becoming a great weight in his free arm as the water dragged at them. It didn't feel like they'd really gone far at all. He started casting the propulsion charm over and over, the arm carrying Ginny quickly starting to ache. He looked up, unable to see the light from above.
They kept sinking, why were they sinking? Why had Ginny become so heavy? Of course, it was obvious. How had Ron sunk to the bottom of the lake? He had used a weight charm. He cast the counter on Ginny and suddenly she was just floating there with him. He took a big sigh of relief. He let the two of them just float for a moment as he gathered himself. The panic was threatening to return. He needed to get out of there, but he had just exhausted himself fighting a useless battle. He took a few deep breaths. That was when the Nagala attacked, grabbing Ginny with it's snake like arms and trying to pull her out of his grasp.
Ron yelled, holding on tight. One of it's limbs shot out and struck him in the gut and he was very glad he hadn't had much of an appetite for breakfast because there wasn't anything to come up as he reeled from the blow. Ginny left his grasp. It was only a moment, because in the next he had scrambled forward and grabbed on with one hand while he sent a slashing hex at the Nagala. It flinched as a long wound appeared on it's torso. That was when the hinkypunk grabbed the hood of his robes. It pulled back and for a moment his collar pulled at his neck. He struggled to keep a hold on Ginny as he turned to blast the hinkypunk away. Then he saw four grindylows swimming towards them and he knew he was in trouble.
Ron pulled himself close to Ginny and also the Nagala and jabbed his wand into the long wound he had made. Nagala skin was resistant to some spells, so he hoped to bypass that, though he had to hope that the Nagala was humanoid enough to count for this spell. "Petrificus Totalus," he incanted. The Nagala suddenly went ramrod straight and Ron pointed his wand down, ready to propel them away when he was grabbed by one of the grindylows that immediately started biting his wand arm. He had to let go of Ginny to wrench it's hand off of him and kick it away. Another one grabbed Ginny and he snatched her back, sending a blasting hex at the little monster. Even as he blasted a second one away, he could see a kappa approaching and something else that he didn't even recognize.
It was then that Ron realized that he was surrounded and veritably screwed. He cast the propulsion spell, darting through the water, but they easily followed, gliding through the water like he couldn't. One of the kappas grabbed on to Ginny and bit into her leg. She didn't even flinch. Ron snarled and kicked at it, pulling Ginny away so he could blast it, wishing that he knew some nasty curse that would really teach it to stay away from his sister. More hands grabbed him, more hands grabbed Ginny. Something bit his shoulder. He screamed in frustration and fear. He knew he was going to watch Ginny die. He knew he couldn't save her. He held her close as he twisted and turned and tried to blast everything away, but they just kept coming. He was constantly moving, turning his head every which way to find the most immediate threat. There were more now, like everything in the lake had decided to come after them.
He couldn't protect Ginny, not when she was dead weight, not when he had to keep one arm around her. He blasted another hinkypunk, and kicked at something that was reaching for Ginny and reached into his robes even as the unknown lake creature tore into his leg. He let himself scream. He pulled out the gillyweed. He awkwardly forced Ginny's mouth open and shoved the mass inside.
"Enervate," he cast. Ginny's eyes flew open and she immediately started thrashing. With the arm he was keeping around her, he held his hand over her mouth as he returned to blasting the damned monsters that were swarming them, struggling to keep Ginny from breaking free and getting away from him or spitting out the gillyweed. Eventually she stopped thrashing about and he chanced a glance at her in between hexes. She had gills. He gave her perhaps the only smile he had made since the task had started. He let go of her and desperately hoped she had her wand, or that she'd have anything to cast without being able to speak. At the very least, he knew that she could throw a punch.
Ron was very surprised when a flash of red took out two grindylows, which started bleeding out instantly. He didn't question it. His free hand grasped the back of her robes and he turned his back to her back and just did his best to keep everything on his side at bay. He was definitely feeling the exhaustion starting to set in, both magical and physical. His chest burned as he struggled to breath fast enough to keep up. He knew that the red tint to the water was at least partly his own blood. He knew he couldn't last too much longer. He desperately wished Hermione were there with them, she'd know just what spell to use. Harry would know just what to do. He tried not to despair when off in the distance, he saw more dark shapes approaching.
Ron got no warning before the bubblehead charm wore of. One minute he was raggedly drawing in air, the next he was choking on water. It was only a moment and then he felt something constrict in his throat and then, as much as his chest spasmed, it seemed nothing could get in or out of his lungs. He started to flail, grasping uselessly at his throat with one hand while the other kept a desperate hold on Ginny. Hands started grasping him and something bit into his arm. He couldn't even scream now. The impulse to breath was mounting, it screamed in his chest and in his head. It overrode the need to fight whatever had grabbed him and in the last moments before his vision started darkening around the edges and his wild thrashing slowed, whatever had blocked up his throat relaxed and water poured in.
As horrifying as it was, she felt so free, suspended in the water, her wand in her hand, as she cast another concussive hex at the Helioshark that had tried to dart up on her from below. She hadn't used magic this freely in a long time, she never had. There always had to be restraint. The spells that always came to mind were inappropriate for a witch her age. They were horrifying to the girl that was still her. Down here though, there was no choice but to fight.
The hand gripping the back of her robes, the hand keeping them together went slack, and she blasted another Hinkypunk before turning around to look at her brother. The bubble of air around his head was gone.
'Of course he'd screwed it up.' The uncharitable thought was hers, though it came from someone else, thought in another voice, but it was just her in her own head these days, so it was her thought. She grabbed Ron's sleeve, and pulled him closer so she could more accurately aim at the Grindylow that was going for his now unprotected neck. The part of her that was furious at this creature, this creature that was trying to take from her what was hers, cast the Curse of Living Rot even as another part of her wanted to throw up as she held onto Ron and watched the creature start to decay and slough, even as it tried to swim away.
She needed to get Ron to the surface. He didn't have much time at all. There was an easy solution, but she couldn't do anything while she was dealing with these creatures. It would be easier if she could speak. As unchained as she was down here, she had limited options. Green flames shot out of her wand, a spell she'd never even heard of or seen, creating a lash that whipped out and struck two Kappas sending them reeling but not away. A thought occurred to her that she knew exactly what a Kappa looked like if you skinned it, even though she had never actually seen such a thing herself. 'Not now Tom,' she said to the voice that was no longer there. It was just her in her own head these days, and she reminded herself that that wasn't anything to feel lonely about. She had to deal with the problem at hand.
Nothing made sense; all of these creatures should have given up by now. They shouldn't have been swarming like this. Only the Grindylows hunted cooperatively. More were coming, she could see them in the distance. It was like everything in the lake was homing in on the two of them.
Suddenly, there was another person in the water with her, casting blasting hexes at the creatures. There was Fleur Delacour, somehow still looking pretty as you please, holding an unconscious girl in one arm as she took aim, keeping her distance from the two red heads who were obviously the focus of the frenzy. Ginny turned her back to the older girl and focused her attention on the creatures in front of her.
A Hinkypunk reached out to grab her, but suddenly, out of nowhere a monstrous shark headed man, which was most likely Viktor Krum, barreled into it, gnashing at it with rows of razor sharp teeth. Seeing a momentary lapse in the swarm, Ginny pointed her wand towards Ron and focused her will into a powerful banishing charm. They were being watched, she knew that, so she would just have to have faith that someone could get him at the surface. Ron's body shot upwards. Ron shot upwards, she reminded herself, he wasn't dead. 'You could bring him back if he were, the secrets are out there,' she thought. 'No I couldn't, Tom,' she thought to the voice that was her own.
She watched expectantly, ready to take out anything that tried to follow, but nothing did. Everything seemed to be focused on her, which was good. She had some time to kill with these gillls.
Everything felt dampened when he woke up. His vision was blurry, everything sounded far off, and his body even felt like nothing was actually working. This feeling lasted for only the briefest of moments before an intense pain started in his chest and Ron's mouth was forced open as way too much lake water was expelled from his chest. He started coughing, great hacking chest spasms that tore at his burning throat. He tried to curl over but hands held him down. Panic flared and a yell mixed into the coughing and he tried to wrench himself free.
"Ronnie, it's okay baby, I'm right here, you're all right."
He was still struggling, still coughing but he managed to croak out a "Mum?"
"It's all right," Mum said, and the hands holding him left and he found himself looking up at his mother. She'd been crying. What the fuck had happened.
"Ginny?" he gasped out.
Mum frowned and looked over her shoulder.
"She's kicking ass," one of the twins erupted besides him.
"They're probably going to make her the champion now," the other one said.
"Gotta get her," Ron slurred out as he tried to roll over to his side so he could push himself up. Unfortunately, his limbs were mostly useless.
"Dumbledore went down there," Hermione said, and Ron was suddenly reminded of the great need to hug her close.
"Mione," he said. It sounded like a wine, even to his own ears. One arm trying to uselessly reach out.
Hermione's hand grabbed his.
"I thought he'd taken you again," he mumbled out.
"I'm fine," Hermione said. "I'm right here."
"Make way," he heard, called out.
"Madam Pomfrey's back," Hermione said. "You've got potions."
Ron moaned and groaned through the ordeal. He threw up the first one, along with a good deal of lake water that he didn't remember swallowing. He really wished Hermione hadn't seen that. He held down take two and they really did make him feel better. He stood up with a bit of help when Madam Pomfrey was done with the potions. Mum held on to him as though she was worried he was going to disappear while Madam Pomfrey started taking care of a number of bites and scratches that had been temporarily sealed. His dad and Percy were hovering nervously by the shore, keeping an eye out on the lake with the occasional glance back towards Ron.
"What's Harry doing?" Ron asked.
"Waiting for Ginny," Fred commented.
Harry was on his broom, flying a pattern over the center of the lake.
"Dumbledore's down there?" Ron asked.
"Yep," said George.
Ron nodded. He looked over at the screens. Two of them were blank. One of them was following Delacour and the other was following Krum with his grotesque shark head. They both looked like they were swimming to the surface. He wished one of those doohickeys were following Ginny.
"Kicking ass you said?" Ron asked.
"She's been holding out on us," said George.
"And Miss Delacour has reached the surface," Ludo Bagman said, sounding much less enthusiastic than when Ron had last heard him.
"Diggory came back alright?" Ron asked.
"He tried to go back when he saw what was going on, but they were stopping people from going to the shore at that point. Harry had his broom of course," Hermione said. "He pulled you out when you got to the surface. I'm pretty sure he took one of his potions."
"Oh great, so he's going to fall off his broom and drown in the lake any moment now," Ron said.
"He has time," Hermione said.
"How did I get to the surface?" Ron asked.
"Gin-Gin banished you," George said.
"From the family, mind you," Fred added.
"Viktor Krum and Fleur Delacour were helping at that point," Hermione said.
"Bagman couldn't believe it," George said.
"There's Krum," Fred commented, quickly echoed by Ludo Bagman.
They all kept watch on the lake, waiting for Ginny, until suddenly there she was, rising out of the water next to Dumbledore. Ron let out a big sigh, feeling a lot of tension leaving him then. Dumbledore of course was one for theatrics and some fancy spell had him and Ginny walking back from the center of the lake on top of the water.
"Who's got a camera?" Fred asked. "This one's going on the icebox. Ginny's got gills."
"You leave your sister be when she comes back," mum said.
"Relax mum, we'll let her be," said George.
"Yeah, apparently she can kick our asses," Fred commented.
Harry landed next to them.
"You all right?" Harry asked, looking at Ron a bit wide eyed and clearly searching for some sign that Ron was on death's door.
Ron had no idea how to answer that. "Ask me again in a few minutes?"
"You know, you did really well down there," Harry said. "Even though everything got messed up, you did really well."
"Did the camera get a good angle of me having a break down down there?" Ron muttered.
"It got a good angle of you fighting a ton of lake monsters all at once," Harry said.
"It balances out," George said.
Madam Pomfrey tried to get him to go over to the healers tent that had been set up behind the stands, but Ron wasn't going anywhere until Ginny was back on dry land.
Fleur got back to shore first, and there was an older witch and wizard there to hug her and the younger girl she had had to rescue.
"Don't go anywhere," Madame Pomfrey said, slapping a salve onto one of the bites on his arm. "You're stable enough, but I'll have you back in the hospital wing when this is all over to run some tests." She went off to check over Fleur and her sister.
Viktor Krum came back to shore just a bit later, fully human. An older woman was there to dry him and his rescuee off with a flick of a wand before reaching up to give him a hug. Afterward it looked like he was introducing the girl he had rescued to the older woman.
Finally, Ginny made it back with Dumbledore and Ron was finally free of mum's protective arms as she joined Dad and Percy at the shore to check over Ginny. Ron tried to take a step forward but besides the fact that his legs didn't really feel up to walking, Hermione was keeping a tight grasp on him and he didn't think she'd let him disobey his orders to stay put. Ron decided to sit down.
Under the care of Madam Pomfrey, Ginny had her gills vanished and her wounds patched up while Dumbledore went and rejoined the rest of the judges.
"Are you going to be okay?" Ron asked Harry.
"Me?" Harry asked.
"What'd you take?"
"Oh, Hercules Blood," Harry said, his eyes still blown open wide. "I'm super strong now. You didn't weigh anything when I was carrying you back here." He was speaking a bit rapidly.
"How long will it last?" Hermione asked.
"Um, ah, how long has it been?" Harry asked.
"Almost half an hour," Hermione said.
"Huh," Harry said. "Not much longer, I guess."
"So are you going to be okay?" Ron asked.
"Yeah," Harry said. "I didn't exactly do much with it. It's not like I pushed a boulder up a hill or anything, I'll just be a bit sore when it wears off. This will not be a repeat of the Quidditch World Cup. That sucked."
"Good," Ron said.
Finally, Madam Pomfrey was done with Ginny, who came over with Mum, Dad, and Percy while Madam Pomfrey went over to finish taking care of Fleur.
Ginny didn't say anything, but she squeezed herself between Ron and Harry and threw an arm over his shoulder.
"Well we promised you a show, but I think that was a bit more excitement than we were all expecting," Ludo Bagman's booming voice echoed out over the crowd. "We have found ourselves debating just how to score our champions, all things considered."
Ron found himself not caring at all.
"You okay?" he asked Ginny over the din of Ludo Bagman's orating, speaking to her for the first time since the day before.
Ginny nodded her head, clutching him tighter. He heard a great cheer that he tuned out.
"You saved my butt down there," he said. "I'm pretty sure I was supposed to be saving you."
Ginny shook a bit and Ron realized she was crying.
"Hey," he said. "It's okay, I'm alright, you're alright, everyone's alright."
Ginny stayed silent.
"Well, I'm really glad we both came out of that in one piece," Ron said, feeling awkward having a one sided conversation.
Hermione started patting him on the back. "That's great, Ron," she said.
Ron looked around. They must have given his scores.
"Alright, Mister Weasley, off to the hospital wing with you," Madam Pomfrey said.
Percy was there to give him a hand up, and his dad was there to support him.
Harry started to get up and started groaning. "It's worn off," he said. "Okay, potion's worn off."
"Are you all right," Mrs. Weasley asked.
Harry nodded. "Just sore," he said.
"Time will take care of that, Mr. Potter," Madam Pomfrey said.
Ron turned to look at Ginny, who was still sitting on the grass.. "You coming Gin?"
Ginny shook her head.
"Right," Ron said. "Um, mate?" He said, looking at Harry.
"Oh, yeah, um, I think I'll stay here for now," Harry said.
A tall and thin man suddenly walked up to them. "Mr. Weasley, Dan Nellis with Witch Weekly, any comments you want to make about the second task?"
"Um," Ron said, feeling put on the spot. "I'm glad no one died?"
"Great, great," the reporter said. "Now Mr. Diggory and Mr. Krum both were tasked with retrieving their dates from the Yule Ball during this task while your date stayed on dry land. Any comment about the rumors that you're secretly seeing the Boy Who Lived?"
Ron felt a bit of a swoop in his stomach when he realized what his answer was going to be.
"That's really enough," Mum said. "Ronald needs to go to the hospital wing now. This isn't the time for your gossip column."
"It's okay, Mum," Ron said. He turned back to the reporter. "Um, I'm very happy to be dating my girlfriend, Hermione, who's super amazing," he said. "It's like, just 'cause I'm bisexual doesn't mean I'm going to cheat on her with a bloke. Harry and I are friends. Best friends, but you know, we're not together. Oh, um, Madam Pomfrey looks a little impatient so I'll do you a favor and stop her from taking your head off for waylaying a patient." He started walking with his arm around his Dad's shoulders to make sure he stayed upright.
"Hey, Mr. Nellis, we've got some comments for you," George said. Standing in the reporters path to make sure he didn't follow.
"Have you ever thought of doing a piece on entrepreneurship at Hogwarts?" Fred asked. "We've got some products you might find interesting."
Percy ruffled his hair. "Were you planning on coming out to the whole world today?" he asked.
"Spur of the moment thing," Ron said. "I was actually planning to tell the rest of the family first before I told the whole world about it."
"Well talk to a prefect if anyone gives you trouble," Percy said.
"Sure Perce," Ron said. "I mean, apparently I can just set my little sister on them."
Percy frowned at that, but didn't say anything.
"You worried me to death, today," Mum said.
"Sorry, Mum," Ron said.
"I was very proud of you," Mum said.
"Was?" Ron asked.
"Am," mum said. "You've made me so proud. Just be a good son and come home to me at the end of the school year."
"Well, Mum, now that you mention it, I have been thinking of running off to join the circus," Ron said.
"Are you going to be a griffin tamer?" Hermione asked.
"Maybe a clown," Dad said.
"Hey!" Ron said.
So the Weasley boy was queer, Rita Skeeter thought. She could probably get another article out of that. She could twist up the trio's relationship easily enough. She was tempted to follow the boy and see if he just spontaneously decided to reveal anything else, but Potter and the Weasley girl were staying by the lake shore and articles about Potter sold like belladonna had when Greyback had been on the loose. Plus there was definitely some dark secret behind the girl. Anyone could tell that she had been throwing around curses no third year witch should have known.
Rita carefully got closer to Potter. The tall grass around the lake shore was perfect for her animagus form. She waited in relative silence though as the two teens just sat there. She was rewarded for her patience, though, when the area was finally, for the most part, cleared of all of the students.
"I know your secret," Weasley said without preamble. "It's sort of obvious, when you think about it. I guess that's why no one else has figured it out."
The Potter boy froze and Rita knew there was some horrible secret behind that reaction. Her antennae twitched as she waited eagerly for whatever would be said next.
"Is that, um, okay?" Potter asked.
"Who am I to judge," Weasley said.
"You were amazing down there," Potter said.
"Do you ever feel like there's two of you in there?" Weasley asked, instead of reacting to the praise.
Potter frowned and shifted around a bit with a wince.
"Sometimes," Potter said. "Its mostly just flashes. Like vague memories of feelings and stuff…Do you?"
"He's gone," Weasley said. "But he left stuff behind."
Potter paused for a while. "Well, you saved Ron's life today. You saved your life today. That matters, doesn't it?"
Weasley shrugged. "How do you not think about it?" she asked.
"Occlumency," Potter said firmly. "Having people who know and don't treat me different helps too. That helps with all sorts of things."
"I feel like I won't ever be free of him," Weasley said, and Rita wished dearly the two of them would talk plainly. Were they speaking about possession? The Potter boy seemed to be struggling to find something to say.
"That's all right," Potter said. "It's okay to feel how you feel. Um…" he seemed to be trying to remember something. "Just because you are free of him doesn't mean you can't feel the way you do."
"Do you ever feel like that?" Weasley asked.
Potter shrugged. "Well, I can make things better for myself but I guess I'll never really be free of it."
She could sense footsteps approaching. Shit, just spit it out, she mentally urged the two teenagers.
"Is it messed up that…" Weasley froze up and looked over her shoulder. Damn.
"I hope you two are well," the damned Headmaster said.
"Oh, yeah, we're all right, Professor," Potter said.
"Excellent," the Headmaster said. "Well then, just know that the faculty will be in the area vanishing the arena should either of you need anything."
"Oh, thanks, Professor," Potter said.
"Of course," the Headmaster said. "Oh, would you look at that. I don't think that that species of beetle is native to this area."
Shit. She took flight, only to find herself inexorably drawn backwards. A hand caught her.
"Professor?" Potter asked.
"It's wonderful, of course, when we have visitors from all over, but we do need to be sure that we protect our local environment from any potentially invasive species. I have an entomologist friend on the continent. I shall have to put this in a stasis jar and remember to send it to her. Do be on the look out for any others."
"Er, all right Professor," Potter responded.
"You two enjoy the rest of your day," the headmaster said as he turned to walk away, and then to Rita, clutched in his fist, he said quietly, "I certainly do hope I remember to send you off. I have had so much on my mind of late, and it would be a shame if you spent the rest of term in a stasis jar."
A/N: Sorry this took so long. A lot of time has been going into making cosplay armor for ComicCon and also I've started grad school. I hope you enjoyed this extra long chapter, over 40K. I had all these plot ideas, and they were all following the theme of the chapter so I just kept writing. It's funny how some things develop as you're writing. Everything at the end with Ginny was unplanned and written on the fly. It all sort of came from a head cannon I've had about her that I've never really intended to put in the fic. Shouldn't be too much more before the end of this fic. While you wait, you might like reading Homesick at Spacecamp, a Klance fic by K0bot on AO3 and To the Bottom of the River by savrenim, a Yurri! On Ice fic best summed up by this tagline by the author, 'the slow but inexorable tale about how Yuri Plisetsky got adopted by pretty much everyone.' Also there are demons. Hope you enjoy them. If you enjoyed this chapter, please take a moment to leave a review.