When Ron first met Harry on the Hogwarts Express, he peppered him with questions about everything. And Harry answered all of them, even the ones about You Know Who.
“I heard you went to live with Muggles. What are they like?” he asked.
“Horrible,” Harry replied, and deftly turned the conversation to Ron’s own family.
Ron bemoaned his score of brothers, and felt incredibly grateful when Harry tried to make him feel better about not having much of anything. They ate piles of sweets, Harry stood up for him against Malfoy, they crossed the Lake, were Sorted into Gryffindor and gorged themselves at the Feast until they could barely move. At last, they ended up in their Dormitory.
Ron began to strip rather nonchalantly; he’d been naked or semi-naked in front of his brothers more times than he could count. Harry removed his robes, then hesitated, glancing about to see who else was in the room. Eventually, when Seamus and Dean were in the bathroom and Neville was already tucked up under the covers, facing away from them, Harry took a deep breath as if he were about to dive into a pool and tugged his t-shirt over his head.
Ron couldn’t stop the sound that had escaped his lips; an odd little gasp. Harry stood still for a long moment, staring at Ron, his eyes guilty and defiant. When Ron didn’t say anything, Harry continued to dress, although he kept his eyes downcast while he did so.
Ron’s throat hurt as though something was caught in it, and he kept trying to swallow it away. He looked down at his own white, freckled skin, feeling something akin to shame. Questions buzzed in his brain, but his mouth refused to ask them. He understood, somehow, that this was a topic that was out of bounds.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before Harry’s form was safely covered by his pyjamas, but for a long while afterwards, in his mind’s eye, Ron could see the too-prominent ribs dappled with a multicoloured patchwork of bruises, old and new.
Ron had thought until then that Harry was just being nice when he had talked about having no presents and wearing old clothes. The clothes Ron could see for himself and he understood, because Ron had always worn hand-me-downs. But everybody got presents, surely, even if they were just a pair of Charlie’s old Quidditch gauntlets, mended and polished, or a miniature broomstick made out of twigs and charmed to fly by Fred and George.
Horrible, Harry had said.
He hadn’t said they hit me or they starve me, sometimes or they lock me up for days. Those revelations came in the weeks and months that followed, in the dark, quiet hours after lights out, curled up together in the one bed, talking in whispers, holding hands for comfort. They never talked about it in daylight hours, though the understanding was always there, in looks and gestures.
Horrible didn’t even begin to cover it, in Ron’s opinion.
The days and weeks of the summer holidays ticked by, and Ron grew more and more nervous, and more frightened. He wrote letters, one after the other, in his usual, untidy scrawl, but no reply came. He even wrote to Hermione, only to find out that no, she hadn’t heard anything back either. He began having nightmares; the ones with the spider again, and he hadn’t had those for years.
Finally, Fred and George cornered him in the orchard one day. And as much as Ron wriggled and kicked, there wasn’t much he could do with Fred sitting on his belly and George pinning his hands to the ground with his knees.
“All right?” George asked.
“Little bugger bit me,” Fred said, examining the deep red crescent-shaped grooves in his forearm with something like respect.
“Gerroff me, you wankers! Lemme up!” Ron howled. “I’ll tell Mum!”
“Stronger than he used to be,” George said, as though commenting on the weather.
Fred grunted as one of Ron’s knees hit him squarely in the back. “That’ll bruise,” he said with a grimace.
It didn’t take long for Ron to exhaust himself and finally, he lay limp and gasping, offering only a whimper and a half-hearted twitch now and then.
“Excellent,” Fred said. “Now. We have a question, dearest Ickle Ronniekins.”
“About something that’s been bothering us,” George agreed.
“Troubling our hearts,” Fred elaborated.
“Mainly as to why you have turned into such a moody git the last few weeks.”
“You’ve not turned into a girl, have you?” George asked, with a mock-worried frown.
“Perhaps we should check,” Fred suggested, shuffling further down Ron’s body.
“Good idea. Make sure his bits are still there.”
To the twins’ surprise, this didn’t provoke renewed struggling. Instead, Ron burst into tears, and in between sobs, one secret after another came tumbling out of his mouth. The long weeks of silence with no letters. The bruises. The cupboard.
Rather than the taunts he expected, Fred and George looked alarmed, then slightly ill, then blank, with only their eyes showing cold anger, deep within. In unison, Fred slid off Ron and George released his arms. They helped him sit up, and George dusted his clothes off a little, while Fred offered him a slightly used handkerchief.
“Leave it to us,” Fred said finally.
When they went back to the house, Molly scolded the twins for bullying Ron, ignoring Ron’s protests that they hadn’t.
“Look at him!” she screeched. “He’s filthy, and his face is red from crying. Bed! The both of you! No dinner!”
Ron snuck some food up to them later, which they thanked him heartily for, even though it was cold and had a bit of lint stuck to it from his pockets. Fred ruffled Ron’s hair and said he was ‘all right’, which was about as close to ‘I love you’ as he got. George gave him a Chocolate Frog card. It wasn’t Agrippa or Ptolemy, but it was a mint condition Uric the Oddball, and the last time he’d looked through his collection he’d noticed that one corner of his had a crease.
Late that night, he awoke with a start when a hand covered his mouth. The twins were in his room, fully dressed, and looking purposeful and determined. Ron felt a sudden surge of panic.
“We’re going to get him,” Fred whispered.
“Are you coming?” George asked.
It took Ron less than a minute to dress.
Though Ron knew it wasn’t possible without a Shrinking Solution or a Reducio, Harry looked smaller than he had before summer. It wasn’t because he’d lost weight; not after three weeks in London, eating the Leaky Cauldron’s hearty fare and Florean Fortescue’s sundaes. Harry looked almost as well as he did when he was at Hogwarts, though his Muggle clothes did fit him worse than ever; hanging off him in loose folds. Rather, Harry had an air of fragility about him, a kind of nervous tension that didn’t dissipate as the term went on.
Ron had laughed when he first heard about it, but he started to wonder what could have happened to provoke Harry to lose control like he had done, when things at Privet Drive were very bad as a matter of course.
“Why did you do it?” he blurted out one night, before he could stop himself.
Harry’s eyes glittered in the dark and his lips firmed into a thin line, and for a long moment, he said nothing. Ron wondered if he’d gone too far by asking so bluntly.
“She was saying things. About my Mum and Dad.” The words were forced out in a rush, through gritted teeth, and Ron felt a little gust of a breeze sweep through the room, although the window was shut.
Without knowing why he did it, Ron reached up and touched Harry’s hair, smoothing it down in slow, gentle strokes, as though he were petting a skittish, frightened animal, until the anger drained from Harry’s face and the room was calm and still once again.
“I hoped he’d get back to me quickly,” Harry said. Ron could hear the plaintive note in his voice; the disappointment, the thread of misery.
Hermione’s usual, thoughtless brand of logic crushed Harry that little bit further. “But we don’t know where Sirius is ... he could be in Africa or somewhere, couldn’t he? Hedwig’s not going to manage that journey in a few days.”
“Yeah, I know,” Harry murmured.
Ron knew she meant well, but she always had to say things in that voice that made him feel ten different kinds of stupid. By the way Harry slumped just that little further in on himself, and the light flush on his cheeks, he felt the same way. Harry stared out the window as though he was wishing as hard as he could for his owl to be just over the lip of the horizon.
“Come and have a game of Quidditch in the orchard, Harry. Come on – three on three, Bill and Charlie and Fred and George will play ... you can try out the Wronski Feint ...” Ron made his voice as casual as he could. It was a distraction, and Harry knew it was a distraction, but there was no point making a fuss about it. Harry would either say yes or no.
“Ron, Harry doesn’t want to play Quidditch right now,” Hermione said in her imperious voice, the one she used when she was deliberately trying to make Ron feel like a moron. “He’s worried, and he’s tired ... we all need to go to bed ...”
Why won’t she just shut up? Ron thought. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flicker of annoyance cross Harry’s face.
“Yeah, I want to play Quidditch. Hang on, I’ll get my Firebolt,” Harry said.
Hermione went off in a huff. Harry shot Ron a grateful smile.
The Quidditch game was everything a family match should be; brutal and bloody, with plenty of illegal fouls and good-natured sledging, and an absolute thirst to win. After some debate, it was decided that it should be ‘old’ vs ‘young’, with Bill, Charlie and Fred on one side, George, Ron and Harry on the other. Though they initially kept score, it disintegrated into a bit of a free-for all, with whoever held the makeshift Quaffle becoming an automatic target for the other five players.
Eventually, they all lay, out of breath and exhausted, on the soft grass under the apple trees as the light slowly disappeared. Bill was panting a little harder than the rest of them, and Charlie, who’d barely broken a sweat, was laughing and calling him an old man. Fred and George had stripped off their shirts and were counting bruises (most of which they’d given to each other).
Ron was aching here and there, but zinging with adrenalin. He looked at Harry, lying next to him. Harry’s eye was purpling up beautifully, right across the cheekbone, where George’s elbow had caught him squarely, but Ron hadn’t seen him look so joyous, so alive, in a long time.
“Thank you,” Harry said.
He was so honestly, deeply appreciative, so open, right at that moment that Ron felt almost shy. Ron just shrugged, shot him a grin, and felt ridiculously happy to get one in return.
Ron was settled, drifting pleasantly, when a soft sound brought him back to full alertness, his eyes open wide, staring into the dark. It wasn’t much; just an uneven hitch of breath from the bed across the room.
At first, Ron assumed it was for the obvious reason a fifteen-year-old male breathes a bit heavily in bed. They’d spent enough time sleeping in Ron’s bedroom at the Burrow together after all, and there were those first few years before they all started using Privacy Charms in the Dormitory (which Seamus still hardly ever bothered about).
But after a minute or so, Ron heard that catch again, almost a hiccup, and it wasn’t part of that well-known pattern of sounds that meant Harry was wanking.
“Harry?” Ron whispered. “Are you awake?”
There was a long silence. “Yeah,” Harry replied.
Ron slipped from his bed as quietly as he could, knowing that his Mum still listened outside doors far too often than was healthy. Harry shuffled over, and Ron slid in beside him. There was a lot less room between them than there used to be, back when they were eleven and sharing dark secrets after the lights were out. The bed was narrow, and their legs pressed together from knee to upper thigh. There was nowhere for Ron’s arms to go, so in the end, he tucked one under his head, and draped the other across Harry’s waist. He didn’t say anything; just lay there, waiting, listening.
“What if they snap my wand?” Harry asked at length, sounding like nothing more than a frightened child, voicing the fear that he refused to let show in the light of day. “What if I’m not allowed to go back to school?”
“I don’t know,” Ron answered. “You could come and live at the Burrow.”
“Dumbledore wouldn’t let me,” Harry said resentfully. “He’d make me live with the Dursleys forever.”
Ron felt an overwhelming surge of protectiveness for Harry, whose hipbone jutted up sharply under his little finger.
“I’d come and rescue you,” Ron said, his voice coming out sounding thick and husky for some reason. Ron knew that Dumbledore, the Dursleys, and Lord Fucking Voldemort wouldn’t stop him from keeping that promise.
Harry gave an empty little laugh that was sadder than Ron knew was possible for a happy sound. “I know you would,” he murmured, his voice low and intense, his eyes flashing in the almost-black of the room.
Ron curled his arm around Harry’s back and pulled him close. Harry’s cheek was warm and dry against his own, and Ron pressed his lips to it, once; a gesture that felt very intimate for all it was chaste. They lay, entwined in a loose embrace for several minutes, Ron’s hand gently rubbing Harry’s back, Harry’s fingers curled around Ron’s upper arm, before Ron padded back to his own bed.
Although the twins’ bedroom was free, by the evening of the second night, Harry was back in Ron’s room, where he belonged. It was easy enough to convince Molly. Hermione’s indelible shiner was a wonderful example to use when they were arguing their case. It was true, though; you never did know what else they had stashed about in there.
“I found a Puking Pastille in my pillowcase last night,” Harry informed Ron, as they were getting ready for bed.
Ron snickered and tugged his long-sleeved shirt over his head. He was reaching for his pyjama shirt, when he realised that Harry was staring at him, his expression a mixture of shock, discomfort and guilt. It was like that first night in the Dormitory, all those years ago, but through a mirror.
“I ... I thought what Madam Pomfrey did would fix them. Make them go away,” Harry said faintly. He looked ill.
“They’re healed, Harry,” Ron said gently. “They’re just scars.” Ron took a step closer, and held out his arm. Harry’s eyes asked a silent question, and when Ron nodded encouragingly, Harry took Ron’s arm in both hands and bent his head down closer to examine it.
“Do they hurt?” he asked in a small voice, one fingertip gingerly tracing part of a line that curled from Ron’s wrist, around his forearm and up his bicep.
Ron shook his head. “They itch, sometimes. Well, not itch, so much, as ... you know when you forget something, or you’re trying to think of a word, and you just can’t remember it?” Harry nodded. “Yeah, it’s like that. It’s annoying, but if I think really hard about something else, like Quidditch statistics, it goes away, eventually.”
Harry was biting his lip, staring down at the scars.
“It’s not your fault, y’know?” Ron added softly.
“Isn’t it?” Harry asked, bitterly.
“No,” Ron said, firmly. “You didn’t drag me along. You didn’t Confund me. I went with you because it was the right thing to do.”
“But it wasn’t! I was wrong! People got hurt, and ... and ...” Under the words Ron heard and in Harry’s eyes Ron saw Sirius, Sirius, Sirius.
“I’d do the same again, tomorrow,” Ron said, turning his arm over and taking Harry’s hand in his. Harry didn’t hold Ron’s hand back; just let his fingers lie limp in Ron’s grasp.
“But why?” Harry asked, his voice almost a whisper.
“Because that’s what people do for each other,” Ron said simply.
Even after five years, Ron found it baffling that such a basic component of friendship, of family, required explanation, and could leave Harry looking so confused, so lost.
There was a polite tap at Ron’s bedroom door, and Ron hastily tucked away the latest letter from Hermione under his copy of Quidditch Monthly. It promised to be a rotten season. Half of the better players seemed to have been shunted back to reserves for no other reason than they were apparently of lesser Blood. Of course, it didn’t say that outright, but anyone with a decent knowledge of the players who’d been dropped, and those who had taken their places, could read the pattern for themselves.
“Yeah,” Ron said, when he was sure the incriminating document was well hidden. He’d burn it later.
“Hello, Ron,” Arthur said, slipping in and shutting the door behind him quietly.
“Er, hi,” Ron said, a little surprised. He’d been expecting Molly again, on one of her crusades. She’d become almost impossible to live with over the last few weeks.
“I think it’s time we had a bit of a talk,” Arthur said, conversationally.
“All right,” Ron said, already squirming. With his mum, you could dig your heels in, or deflect, or let her yell herself out. His dad was different. He’d approach you softly and then all of a sudden he’d come out with something right on the mark, and completely wrong-foot you.
“Am I correct in assuming you won’t be returning to school?” Arthur asked calmly.
Something like that.
Ron felt his face flush bright red, and knew there was no point in lying. He nodded.
“I’m presuming that Harry has some work he has to do, some task ... No, I’m not asking what it is,” Arthur reassured him, when Ron pressed his lips firmer closed on the secret that wasn’t his to tell. “I want to know if you’re sure about this,” Arthur asked, looking at Ron with that knowing, penetrating stare of his that made Ron feel transparent.
“Yes,” Ron said, his voice coming out sounding more frightened and fragile than he felt, by a mile. Ron cleared his throat. “Yes, I’m sure.”
“Because there’s no shame if you change your mind. It’s going to be incredibly dangerous, yes?”
Ron nodded again.
“Harry will understand if you tell him you’re not ready, if you choose to fight for the cause in other ways. He’s a good friend,” Arthur reassured him. Ron saw deep in Arthur’s eyes the hope that he was trying to hide, that Ron would agree to stay at home, return to Hogwarts in September, stay safe, or as safe as it was possible to be when every day more people went missing, went into hiding, or fled the British Isles altogether.
“I’m going with Harry. I belong with him,” Ron said. “He needs me, Dad,” Ron added, apologetically. I’m sorry.
Ron saw pride war with resignation on his father’s face, but Arthur didn’t look surprised. Rather, he didn’t appear to have expected any other answer. His response astonished Ron, though.
“How can I help?” Arthur asked.
It was an hour or so before dawn when Ron woke. A light breeze laden with the clean, earthy scent of rain caressed his skin, and he knew before he even opened his eyes what he would see when he did. Harry, sitting upright on the edge of the bed, staring out at the sky that was changing slowly from charcoal and indigo to soft, dove-grey with every passing moment.
“Couldn’t sleep again?” Ron asked.
“No,” Harry answered, his eyes fixed on the open window.
It was a ritual, a pattern, more than a real question and answer. None of them slept much, these days, save for George who seemed to do little else. Harry was the worst of all. He’d stay awake for days before finally giving in to Molly’s nagging, taking a double dose of Dreamless Sleep Potion and sleeping for a day and a half, only to wake again, groggy and disoriented, and repeat the cycle.
Ron sat up and stretched hugely, every pop and crack of his joints seeming loud as fireworks in the silent room. The next part of the pattern was familiar also, like part of a dance. They shifted without speaking, every movement choreographed, not by design but by habit. Ron climbed onto Harry’s bed, behind him, and shuffled forward, until Harry was seated in the V of Ron’s legs, and wrapped his arms around him. Harry leaned back, his head against Ron’s shoulder, his hands interlacing with Ron’s, and in unison they inhaled and exhaled a deep breath, as though they’d both been breathing far too shallowly up until that point.
There were no casual words spoken, no questions and answers, though sometimes there would be secrets told of fears, regrets, guilt and grief, and the response would be compassion; a gentle squeeze, a kiss planted on a brow. Most mornings, though, they were simply content to sit in companionable silence, and for many reasons, most of which Ron couldn’t comprehend, those mornings were his favourite.
This was such a morning. Harry relaxed fully against him, the tension seeping out of his body. Ron’s cheek pressed against Harry’s head, and Harry’s too-long hair fluttered with Ron’s breath, tickling Ron’s nose. Harry’s thumb rubbed back and forth against the delicate skin of Ron’s wrist, and Ron couldn’t help but sigh softly as the gentle caress untangled the knots of anxiety within him, one by one.
The sky outside lightened by degrees. The gloom lifted, birds began their morning carolling, and the raindrops on the apple trees glossed the leaves like varnish. The clouds were white and high, now, not grey, menacing or pregnant with further showers. And in the distance, far beyond the orchard, Ron could see a clear and dazzling patch of blue.